Sacrifices

The woman I am obliged to call ‘Mum’ beckons me towards her friends. She pats the piano stool and tells me to play my competition piece. I want to go to my room but I play the piece anyway. I know what’ll happen if I don’t. I finish to a polite applause she reminds the other women how much she supports and encourages me. I smile and nod but avoid their eyes. They all have shoes with pointy heels, the type that ‘Mum’ says makes women look like prostitutes. I wait to be dismissed so I can leave the room as I get up she makes me tell them about my piano lessons at Guildhall. I hesitate. Her eyes glare a thick warning, hidden in her sweet face. I pull my shoulders back and recite the story we practiced earlier. Halfway though, I glance over to check I’m doing it right. She’s tilting her head forward and smiling on one side of her mouth, on the side her friends can see. Her eyes twitch as I look up and she quickly glances back at her friends with smiling eyes to reap the glory. She drinks the last of her purple wine, raising the glass up so her chin juts out underneath it. The empty glass clinks as she puts it on the glass table to her right. I finish the story and try to soak up some of the praise from the other women, however undeserved. The woman with the red shoes asks ‘Mum’ what I had to give up to make time for piano so well. ‘Oh nothing important,’ she says with a wave of her hand. No, I think, just friendship, spare time and unconditional love. They sound like important ‘nothings’ to me.

 

 

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Three Steps

I was eating a Rolo when it happened. I haven’t eaten one since and the sight of them makes me feel sick. Don’t bother leaving me your last one because I’ll throw it straight in the nearest bin.

I look more than twice when crossing the road now. Sometimes I don’t cross at all. I know the shops on the east side of Osmond Street really well.

Some people stare at me. They don’t realise they’re doing it. I can see the question in their mind, Why? People always clock my walking stick before they look me in the face. It’s the first thing they notice. In their mind it’s what defines me. It’s always what they remember.

It took three steps for me to not be able to walk unaided ever again. Simple, unimportant steps happily enjoying a mouthful of Rolos that could have led to nothing. Three hurried steps across what for one step was an empty street, for two steps was a road with a car speeding around the corner, and three for impact.

 

Mary’s weekly shop

 

Mary took four tins of tinned tomato soup, Heinz, from the shelf and lined them up in her trolley in a tidy line. She reached for the tin at the back of the shelf and brought it forward to fill the gap she’d made, turning the labels to the front. She checked ‘soup’ off the list, folded the paper twice, put it in her black leather handbag and strode towards the till.

She chose the queue nearest to the exit even though it was longer than the next one along so that she could get out quickly without having to maneuver her trolley around people on the way out. The tall large man in front of her was wearing a dirty grey tracksuit. She suspected that he wasn’t wearing it to do any exercise. Especially given the amount of soft drinks, beer and pizzas in his trolley. She noted a long brown stain on the outside of his right trouser leg.

Mary inspected the situation at the front of the queue with one delicate yet purposeful glance. She winced slightly at the sight of the conveyer belt, which was piled high with ready meals, toilet roll, fresh meat and vegetables. A cucumber was sticking out and advancing slowly with the conveyer belt, ready to very slowly joust an unsuspecting victim at any moment. A large melon had been precariously placed on top of a bag of potatoes. Mary imagined it falling to the floor and bursting like a water balloon. She shuddered slightly and took one step backwards.

Mary braced herself for a long wait, annoyed that the customer at the front had waited until the last moment to sort her items into categories at the bagging area. She checked that her own items were all arranged in their appropriate categories inside the trolley and vowed to never leave it that late, with everyone watching. She made that vow each time she reached the till for her weekly shop, every Friday afternoon. Completely disrespectful, she thought, straightening her freshly ironed white blouse.

A couple of minutes later, Mary was both alarmed and relieved to see that woman simply squeezing as many items into each bag as she could, with no regard of the household categories.          The man wearing the tracksuit leant his backside against the conveyer and folded his arms. He sighed noisily through bored lips then stared at the assorted chocolates by the till as if weighing up whether to throw one into his trolley. He made a ‘pff’ noise through the side of his mouth and lazily looked around. As he looked left, his gaze lowered into Mary’s trolley. His forehead creased as if he’d seen something quite peculiar and his eyes lifted to meet Mary’s. Despite the long wait she’s standing tall with perfect posture and both hands lightly rested on the trolley handle. His eyes widened slightly and darted away, fixing pointedly on something in the middle distance in front of him. After a moment he glanced right and noticed the conveyer had nearly emptied, so spun around and fumbled with his items.

Mary’s face stayed unchanged, as it had been for the past 10 years since Derek died. No reason for emotion, just keep calm and carry on. She took her attention off the man in front and advanced wordlessly to places forward as he started unloading his own trolley. She looked down sharply as a brown glass bottle of beer rolled off the conveyer, crashed into her trolley and landing on her grapes.

‘Sorry love,’ said tracksuit man, swinging his arm in to reach for the bottle.

‘I’ll get it,’ she said quickly, scurrying around the outside of the trolley and gently lifting it out. She paused momentarily before placing it on the conveyor belt to check for an appropriate place and ended up with placing it gently on its side, parallel to the belt so that it wouldn’t roll around.

‘No harm done,’ she said, thinking otherwise.

Crash

The drive of our new house was taken up by a rusty skip and bags of cement, so I parked in the cul-de-sac over the road and made my way over. From the pavement opposite I took in the great structure of the house, naked without its old roof and felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I took a deep breath and smiled all the same. New beginnings.

I looked right to cross the road and saw a blue car further down the road. Instinct told me there was plenty of time so I made to cross, my mind on our renovation project, our new home. A few steps away from the pelican crossing island, there was a bang from the direction of the car and sudden distinct revving noise that didn’t belong on a residential street. Cars were supposed to slow down not speed up, yet the noise sounded like a drag racing car acceleration furiously ahead. I instinctively sped up, turning my head to locate the source of the sound that was suddenly upon me, but all I caught was a flash of blue and a hard whoosh of air just centimetres from my back. I grabbed the central railing and whipped my head round to follow the car. It was hurtling impossibly fast towards an equally impossible scene. Time slowed and a cold rush of powerless dread swept over me as I could only witness the inevitable. The narrow road ahead was lined on both sides with parked cars, making only enough room for one car to pass. Had this been clear, the blue car could have continued straight ahead, but the gap it needed was filled with a slowly approaching car about 50 feet away. 
Red lights shone out from the rear of the blue car, pointlessly warning of the danger left behind. Tyres screamed as they skidded on tarmac. The car swerved maniacally but its back end slammed into the corner of the first parked car, leaving the back wheel of the parked car perfectly perpendicular to its original position. The blue car then ricocheted from the impact and still screeching, veered straight towards the front of the oncoming car which had stopped completely. It swerved once more, heading for the tiny gap between the parked and oncoming car, and like a drunk devoid of all balance, slammed into a another car on the left and skimmed three more and spun anticlockwise, its far side slamming into the oncoming car. Then it simply stopped. 

The bursts of metal on metal, breaking glass and skidding tyres was replaced by silence. All of the cars were static. The smell of rubber filled the air and parallel lines decorated the road like calligraphy, showing the trail of fury and panic. 
In a flash, people were appearing out of houses, running towards the scene of impact, running straight past me, completely unaware that they could have been running to me. Visions flashed in my mind. My body thrown into the air like a rag doll, landing contorted on the black and bloodied road outside our new, roofless house. My limbs no longer felt like my own, numbed with possibility. One second had separated me from where I stood and where I could have been lying motionless. One second between my new life and no life at all. 
But people were running past me. 

Unaware of what could have been. 

With no reason why.

Image: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-6886168-stock-footage-bucharest-romania-july-cars-parked-on-both-sides-of-causeway-cubic-stones-street-car.html

The Unnecessary truth

Geoff leant forward in his chair, coffee untouched. Sheila put spooned two sugars into her Cappuccino, stirred it slowly, tapped the spoon twice on the edge of the cup and placed it down on the saucer. Then she sat upright, inhaled sharply through her nostrils, clasped her hands on her lap and surveyed the clientele in the coffee shop. They usually went to Marco’s Coffee every Saturday morning, but Geoff had insisted they try somewhere else today, ‘just for a change’. Geoff elant over the rim of the table and traced his eyes across the lines etched into Sheila’s face. One for each year of marriage, he thought with a heavy blanket of guilt settling over him. He took a deep breath.
 ‘Sheila, there’s something I think we should talk about. I -‘

 ‘Look how young their staff are,’ she said, seeming not to notice Geoff’s words, ‘They look young enough to still be in school.’ 

 ‘Sheila, there’s something you should know. I -‘ Geoff tried again.

 ‘And half of them can hardly speak English.’

 ‘Sheila. I think it’s about time I told you that -‘

 ‘Oh for goodness sake,’ hissed Sheila, still scanning the staff members behind the counter, ‘Can’t we just have a quiet coffee without the need for forced conversation.’

 ‘I don’t think you understand Sheila. I-‘

She spun her head round to directly face Geoff.

 ‘I know what you’re going to say and I understand perfectly thank you. Let’s not speak of the matter.’

She sniffed sharply and returned her attention to the counter display. Geoff froze.

 ‘Look at the vast array of teas they have,’ she said, staring fixedly at the four columns of herbal and spiced teas, ‘People are never satisfied with the ordinary these days. To have so many extraneous flavours thrown in only complicates matters.’ She tutted loudly and added, ‘Completely unnecessary.’ 

Geoff noted that her narrowed eyes seemed to be fixed on one spot and that she was wringing her hands on her lap. He sat back in his seat. The sound of the coffee grinder reverberated inside his head. She was still staring at the same spot, her complexion turning sallow. He sat up and sipped his coffee, his gaze fixed on her.

 ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Completely unnecessary.’

The Witches

 

The two witches cackled in front of their fiery cauldron. The Witch of the West held the ancient wooden spoon with both hands and carefully stirred the mighty concoction, muttering incantations under her breath. The Witch of the East danced alongside her, summoning spirits. Her limbs flowed in a circular motion as though she had no bones in her body and she rocked her head back, chanting mythical words. The Witch of the West joined in the chant and the two met in harmony. The Witch of the West tapped the cauldron with the spoon and smelled the mixture with her long crooked nose.

‘Hmmmm…’ she said.

The Witch of the East froze for a second and awaited the verdict.

‘Needs more blood,’ hailed the Witch of the East, ‘and the teeth of a mammoth.’

The Witch of the West, still stiff in her contorted posture, abruptly started moving again, time jerking and jutting out her arms and legs at impossible angles to a rhythmic beat which she mirrored with ancient sounds.

‘Ha… Hi….Hoo…’ came the noises from her throat as she picked up a drum from the floor of their cave and started banging it with her palm. The Witch of the East proclaimed the full set of mammoth teeth with both hands and threw several into the cauldron, one by one.

‘These pearly whites will purify the souls of the dead,’ she murmered, swaying with the beat of the drum.

‘Ra-Ha-Ha-Ha,’ cackled the Witch of the West, for no reason other than because that’s what witches do. She joined in the chant for a moment before raising a crooked finger importantly.

‘Just two more ingredients we need,’ she croaked, swilling her finger in mid-air.

‘Ho – Ha – what are they Me Hearty… Ho – He…’ replied the witch of the East, deep in trance.

The Witch of the West turned and frowned.

‘You can’t call me that, I’m a witch not a pirate’

The Witch of the East continued banging and chanting but opened her eyes.

‘Ho-Ha, Oh-Ar.’ She smirked slightly and held the spoon in the air for a moment, ‘All the best witches have many guises.’ Her drumming resumed.

The Witch of the West shook her head and searched around the cave for the vital missing ingredients.

‘Here,’ she held up a bundle of thick black hair, ‘The hair of an Arabian prince.’ She tossed it into the pot and the Witch of the East stirred it in.

‘All we need now is the blood of a vampire bat and the hex will be complete.’

‘More blood,’ echoed the Witch of the East. They cackled in unison.

The Witch of the West rummaged in the cave and returned with a bottle.

‘The blood of the vampire,’ she whispered, making her vowels as long and slow as possible.

She squeezed the contents into the cauldron. It was the mahogany red of dried blood and spilled over the sides of the pot. Both witches leant forward and their eyes narrowed. This was the moment of truth.

Bang, Bang, Bang.

The witches looked at each other with a momentary sense of alarm. The cauldron bubbled and some of its contents overflowed into the floor.

Bang, Bang, Bang.

‘Girls, what are you doing in there?’ The Witch of the West put her finger to her mouth.

‘Tara. Lilly. Open this door.’ The door suddenly opened. ‘Oh, you didn’t lock it, good girl.

There was a gasp. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Muuum’

‘What is that? Is that… Is that my Jo Malone, my Chanel, my Ralph Lauren? You’ve emptied everything. And… And… Oh lord. Are those my antique pearls? Is that hair my dye?’

Lilly looked at the floor. Tara groaned.

‘No Mum, we’re witches’ said Tara.

‘Get out of this bathroom at once young ladies. Lilly, you’ll have to be sent home. Tara, straight to your room. Where did you get that bucket from?’ Mum’s hands her on her hips and she had that special look she saved for when you were really in trouble. Lilly shuffled towards the door and Tara bent down to pick up her spoon.

‘Leave it there, its covered in goodness knows what. I can’t believe this’ Mum had steam coming out of her ears.

But before Tara could reach the door, she stepped on something soft and slimy, stumbled backwards slightly and instinctively reached out her hand to steady herself, grabbing what she at first thought was the sink. She caught her balance and let go quickly, turning just in time to see a waterfall of thick mahogany red, pour onto the brand new white bathroom floor.

 

Image: http://evil.wikia.com/wiki/Witch’s_Cauldron

Watched II

As soon as my feet crunch on the pebbles, my mind floods with visions of each step shattering a layer of human bones. Bile rises in my throat. I try to replace it with heavy footsteps walking through snow, but fire burns all around me and the snow turns to a thick sheet of human ash. The sweet sticky smell of smoldering flesh fills my nostrils and settles in my lungs like heavy tar. The weight of it suffocates me. I cough my lungs back open and wipe the cold sweat from my brow. My legs give way and I collapse onto the pebbles.

 

The wind carries voices to me. I jerk my head up to find their course, desperately searching. I turn my face into the bitter wind and clock a group of people huddled around a fire further down the beach, laughing. I turn back the other way before they stare, my minds playing tricks on me again.  I can’t help what is real imagine. I can’t tell what’s real or what’s imagined. Strangers recognise me, familiar faces don’t. There are too many gaps to make sense of it all.

 

I sit up and shuffle my hips from side to side like I used to when I was little, so the pebbles mould around me. This quiet stony beach used to be my sanctuary., I used to come here to settle my thoughts. How can somewhere so familiar feel so disconnected? Everything I have ever known or thought I knew, I have never seen it so what it truly is. I don’t belong here anymore.

 

It’s as if all my memories have been replaced with the sight of her. What I’ve witnessed cannot be unseen. I resist the impulse to claw at my eyes, to desperately get rid of the images store inside. I push my hands deep into the pebbles instead, clenching my hands around the box and to my palms are empty, balled into fists.

 

Time has always seemed irrelevant here, ticking clocks replaced by lapping waves. Either side me they crash into the wooden groynes, pummelling them towards destruction. The seaweed thrashes against the shore, assaulting the pebbles. The sea beyond looks black and molten, ready to swallow and consume any who dare across it. I’m overcome with the urge to walk straight in.

 

I think back to the conversation with Sophie. Why would she keep accusing me? Am I right suspect her of lying? She knows I keep losing time, but I can’t rely on my own memory. It’d be easy for her to lie. I keep connecting the dots and finding her in the centre of it all, but every time I confront her she melts my suspicions away and replaces them with accusation. It doesn’t add up. I can’t trust her any more. But I don’t know if I can trust myself either. Unanswered questions way down on the last parts of my sanity. Not even the ocean clears my head.

Suddenly I’m back there, alone with their woman with no name. Her screams ring in my ears, replacing replaced with a deafening silence. I look at my hands, but they don’t belong to me. My hands couldn’t do this. Her glassy eyes burn into mine, frozen in time. I step back but I can’t get away. I shake my body to detached from the grotesque visions before they take over again. The deep roar of the sea takes over my senses like white noise, bringing me back. I find myself standing close to the surf, the waves spraying my face. The dark sky looms overhead, with graphite clouds ready to burst. Seagulls echo her screams ahead overhead, sleeping and circling like vultures. The bellowing wind gains momentum and costs icy warnings across my cheeks. I can’t ask anyone if the flashbacks are real, the risks are too great. If they knew, that need to be silenced. I purge my lungs with a deep sigh, but the back Bay hairs on the back of my head stand up, sending a shiver down my spine. I’m being watched.