Cranes sweat in the windowsill, heat heavy on their backs. An old grease floats from the folds of their paper wings and trickles down their split beaks. It clings to the curtains, the walls, the child’s nose and cheeks.
Elaine is struggling with the first of the shutters for her origami house. Princess Aiko’s Final Move is open at the two-page illustration of the neatly-shuttered garden cottage. Dust rests in the ditch between the pages.
The book’s contained watercolour angles pull at her; fold her to their shape. For weeks she has worked to reconstruct this constraint in paper, but today the smaller folds hurt her fingers.
Between folds she takes stock of the bones of her paper home, spread on the low table like dealt cards.
An insect whine from the back of the house makes Elaine twitch and she fumbles a middle fold so that the white square springs from her hands. The clicks and thuds that follow, the ringing of the hinges, sear a line across her vision and the shutter lands unseen. As Jonah’s boots thud into the room and the floating grease takes on the stench of unwashed leather, Elaine pulls her stomach to the floor and lowers her head.
On the carpet, her breath a tired wind pushing dust through the loops, she listens for the man’s chair. She waits for it to scrape against the kitchen tile before turning her body and raising her front, steadily, imagining herself in the Princess’s day kimono, practising her bows, the deep, controlled folds of the body. A second louder scrape, and his dark shape grows behind the large brown sofa that separates her territory from theirs.
In a bow of diminished depth and respect, Elaine hugs her chest to the sofa. She lets the urge to sob grow stale, her cheek resting on the seat. The density of fabric and grime gives the man’s steps towards the microwave an underwater boom, and when he slams its door until it sticks and the machine lets out a final heartbroken ping, she barely feels it.
Before Jonah’s thuds disappear back down the tight passage Elaine hears his fingers move from his pocket, and the dice begin to roll.
The bony click of the stone dice - won in some luckier time - as he rolls them over each other fails to echo in the thick air. Instead, it reverberates in the coils and fibres of the soft brown wall and becomes to Elaine a polyrhythm with her pulse, quickening to the discordant gong of her mother’s name, the jawbone creak of the bedroom door, and the brush of lighter feet pulled up the passage.
Elaine does not lift herself to see her mother’s dress move behind the sofa, but digs her head into the padding and irons the slack upholstery with her palm, stopping to tuck the excess fabric between the seats. Her fingers brush against something papery in the lost space, and the feel of it stirs a longing for the dog ears in the back of her book. Beyond the border, an empty biscuit tin rolls off the counter.
Elaine closes her eyes and pulls the tab. With her eyes shut, she sees the sofa pull itself in and out from under her, collapse into a tiny brown box… her body left to dip and sway, the rolling biscuit tin come to settle against her knees.
“Caroline, don’t you tell me you didn’t know.” Jonah has a plate, a teapot, a vase, something in his hands, because the clicking has stopped. Elaine waits for the crash, and when it comes she straightens herself and places the pressed crane on the table in one dizzy movement.
“How could you not know, Caroline?”
Through the eye between her thumb and forefinger, Elaine inspects the bird. How long were you trapped there? The wounds list themselves as she traces the body with a finger: Collapsed folds spread like leaf-veins across its sides; beak bowed deeply into throat; one wing crumpled into a warped square, the other bent upwards, its end the dog-ear tab; legs shrunken. She pulls at its throat so that its breast lunges and caves, and swallows hard as she levels the hills of its wings.
The dust between the two pages of Princess Aiko’s garden cottage has not moved. Elaine turns to the book’s dog-eared addendum and the chain of haikus that introduce it. Their syllables are cool round pebbles for her to pack a short wall around her thoughts.
A stream of instructions follows, dammed by the short wall. The cool stones echo the resumed war-dance of the dice.
Elaine lifts the wrinkled paper square. The first instruction comes to her like the opening of a nursery rhyme.
Fold down the middle and unfold.
In the kitchen her mother begins and abandons a phrase, and is shoved against the counter. Loose drawers shake against her back.
Fold in half the opposite way.
“How long, how long, was it in there? Weeks? Come on, Caroline. Don’t play with me.”
Change sides. Fold in half. Crease well, and open. Repeat fold in the other direction.
“What was it anyway? Did you even cook it?” Jonah’s voice cracks on the last syllable of every question. After every crack the dice click on the counter.
Follow the creases to collect the top three corners in the bottom corner. The paper is worn tissue thin with pressure and grease, and the veins are feint.
“Do you have any idea what I do while you lie around in this hole? Huh, Caroline? You know what I’m out doing while you’re here being useless?”
Fold the triangular flaps to the centre. Unfold. Make and unmake. Fold the top corner to the centre.
“I work, Caroline, I go out there, and I risk my skin-” His voice breaks on skin, and he repeats the word as if the first instance were only practise. Crease well and unfold.
“-skin! I work these men, big men, Caroline, with good cards, so I can come back a winner… but you know what I get? Dirt, an empty fridge, a sleeping sack, and a plate of mould in a microwave that won’t even open. Open. OP-EN-YOU-WORTH-LESS-PIECEOF-”
Open the uppermost flap of the model, bringing it upwards and pressing the sides inwards. Flatten and crease well. Turn model over and repeat.
The metal box crashes to the floor. Small orphaned parts whir into the recesses of the kitchen. Elaine turns her head to see a plastic screw, split down the middle, roll past the foot of the sofa.
When she returns to the crane, her hands have betrayed her. Uppermost flaps are not uppermost, veins cross and disappear. Bring top flaps to the centre. Repeat on the reverse. For a moment the paper model feels unmade; stillborn. She puts it to her face to peer through the web of creases.
“Oh now you care, Caroline! Now I broke it and it’s important!”
Two long, skinny triangles will have formed at the end of the sheet. Fold them up. Crease very well, and unfold.
Elaine knows the shape of the legs and neck. Before she started the house she made so many gentle cranes, from thick wax-paper kept but unsuitable for baking, one side glossy with fat; the other dull. Her fingers remember their grease, and she wipes them on her sleeve.
Pinch the new creases so that they rise on the other side of the sheet.
“And, Caroline, another thing,” he sieves words through his teeth like bitter leaves, “that smell, the rank air in here, have you noticed it?”
Pry open slightly, before pressing flat. Turn over.
“Come on now,” the click is the chatter of teeth, “tell me what that smell is.”
He thuds to the opposite wall, where wide curtains like those on Elaine’s side conceal an identical window. She hears the wooden rings knock on the rod, followed by an animal sniff.
“This smell, Caroline,” he’s close to whispering now, “this stink…” He kicks a chair. It scrapes along a row of tiles before toppling.
Press the existing crease out, fold over and pry open slightly before pressing flat.
“Why won’t you tell me? Is it you?” Elaine can hear her mother sob, and knock over the cutlery stand as she retreats into the corner.
“What about this? Is it in this ugly thing?” He’s got his hand on the sofa, his nails in the fabric. The other hand clicks.
All that remains is to fold down the wings. Elaine keeps the injured crane in her palm, only two moves from whole.
Jonah thuds around the sofa, crushing one half of the split screw. “Oh, look who’s here, Caroline! Obviously! So it’s her? What is she, eleven, and she can’t clean herself?” He hammers up to her. She watches the dice in his hand. They are shiny with sweat. “Where is it, girl? What stinks?”
Jonah turns to Elaine’s window, where the first cranes, the wax-paper ancestors, bake on the sill. With his free hand, he tugs at the curtain’s edge so that something snaps, and the fabric droops like a crippled wing. Light and heat rush in.
“What… what is this?” He turns to Elaine with three sweating cranes in his palm, wrinkled like spoiled fruit. Still upright, he brings the hand so close to her that she squints, and squeezes. The birds’ veins burst in his fist and grease runs between his fingers.
“Was this you? Did you stink up the whole place with your paper crap? Come on, you deaf mute, why did you do this?” The cranes stick to his palm. He struggles to shake them. With every shake of his open hand the dice dance in the other.
Jonah crouches in front of her. “What is it you’re keeping from me?”
Elaine covers the crane with her other palm. Her fingers spasm, and it takes strength not to ball them up. With a concealed finger she bends the first wing, slowly, not too deeply; the subtle royal bow. The man in front of her is unsteady on his haunches. The compulsive roll and click cripples the hand he holds in front of him, renders it a masterless claw.
“Listen, if you don’t open your hand this second…” His threats are drowned by the thunder of the dice; washed over by the slow air forced out beneath the final fold.
Elaine opens her hands to reveal the crane whole, a stone guardian against the approaching fist, the escalating clicks. She shuts her eyes and sees herself place the bird on Aiko’s sill, in the pruned shade of a bonsai.
The clicks stop. When Elaine opens her eyes, she sees sunlight burst through the stains of her mother’s dress, then Jonah’s crippled fist slam into the low table behind her. She watches, everything slow in a trickfold of space, the broken man heave the table upwards and over, so that her shallow bowl of day-old Rooibos shatters against the wall. Walls and stepping stones float in the shifting grease before settling in the carpet dust.
“Go.” Caroline’s voice clicks in her throat, unused to air.
The new light shoves the drooping curtain aside, fills the creases of Caroline’s dress. Elaine watches Caroline take Jonah’s hand and release it so that it flops, an empty claw, to his side. “Jonah, leave.”
The stench of unwashed leather thunders down the narrow passage. Caroline’s fingers unfold and the stone dice drop and roll away, mute, under the sofa. The hinges whine, and the crane nods its head in the breeze.
My record is ninety-two items, in the correct order, with no hesitation. Of course some people who have an aptitude for these things can stretch into the hundreds easily, no sweat. My record is ninety-two items.
I try to use association, build myself a little story. For instance, if I had to memorise toddler – lasagna – baseball cap – Heimlich manoeuvre – Greece, I’d imagine Babe Ruth carbo-loading before the World Series and choking on a rogue olive pit. It’s pretty easy; it’s just about building relationships between seemingly unassociated words. It’s like life, really – you have to build a story from the pieces or else it’s all just…things.
I’m pretty competitive with it, in my way. Nothing world class, but give me a mid-size memory meet and I’ve got a pretty good shot. Gambling’s out, though – the casino blackballed me without my ever stepping foot inside. I guess I wouldn’t take myself on at cards either, though I’ve yet to try applied skills like that.
Aside from the memory thing, I’m quite unexceptional. I live in an average Chicago suburb. I take multivitamins and my annual leave in a timeshare. I don’t take milk in my coffee. Job-wise, I’m an accountant.
I also have a pretty nice little situation for myself with the local radio station – a weekend call-in slot on the 90.2 FM breakfast show. ‘Store-All Stan’ – you might have heard of it? Well, no matter. Viewers call in with words and then try to catch me out when I recite them all at the end of the show. No one’s done it yet. You build a bit of a reputation that way. Good for queue jumping and extra pastrami at the deli counter. My mother likes it. She gets to boast about birthing the elephant man of the Midwest; not, I think, a label that improves either of our dating odds.
Yes, I’m single. Not a surprise, really – I’m more Woody Allen than Woody Harrelson. You’d probably never give me a second glance if we were to pass each other in the street; women don’t tend to. Looking at it objectively, I’m not surprised. One thing on my side, though: I’d never forget your birthday.
I like it when people call in with their words. They always pick something meaningful to them, something they’ll get a kick out of hearing on the air. Sometimes the link is obvious – Dan the optician from Minnesota picked rifle telescope, Wandita the hairdresser from Queens, doublemint gum. Often, though, you get callers – I like to call them the romantics – they’re reaching out. The link takes over without any help from me; you get a city of lonely hearts, calling in over their solo servings of poptarts and cornflakes, summoned by the pull of early morning radio. I mean, radio’s a pretty romantic thing. Well, I think so.
So you’re going to think I’m crazy – one of those highly excitable types. My mother always said that people with exceptional skills always come with exceptional neuroses. Made her marry an artist. A bad one. She divorced him last year because she was bored as hell.
Look, it’s this girl. No, not a real girl. A voice-girl – a call-in. She’s been calling the show every week. Always seems to get put on; I think she’s become one of those regulars they let through screening. Adds a family feel, our production manager says.
Anyway, she calls in. I first noticed her because her words were really random; I couldn’t crack her personal pattern. Like, that first week it was 'crystals' and, just when you think she’s a hippy health nut, the next week it’d be ‘pepperoni’. They didn’t seem to fit her location – Pleasant Springs, Wisconsin – or her voice. She has a nice voice – not that shrill kind of insistence you get in some callers. It’s lower, still really feminine, though.
So at first I thought it was coincidence. The things that happened after, I mean. I guess 99% of normal people with regular brain functioning patterns would think it was coincidence. Look, despite what my mother says, I have normal brain functioning patterns. I totally do. I just remember things really well. And I remembered Sandy from Pleasant Springs. It’s not easy to kick the words out your head when the jingle plays us out, you know. So when I went to Walgreens to grab some detergent that first Saturday and came face-to-face with a checkout girl whose nametag read Krystal, I just had to kind of smile, you know? Like Sandy sent me a wave from Pleasant Springs. Anyway, I totally forgot about it. Until she called back the next week.
Her word was ‘tornado’. As in giant natural disaster. As in Midwest Fall special. An epic kind of word. Ok fine, I recall it, along with other peoples’ ‘trucker cap’ and ‘Budweiser’ and ‘skillet’. And then I go home. So that night I head to this party with a few folk from back in the day and then Bob says ‘hey, remember Twister? Wanna play Twister with me, just for a laugh?’ And the accountant in me goes 'there's no way I'm getting limber over a multicoloured plastic mat’ but all of a sudden, I’m thinking connection, I’m thinking Twister’s another name for tornado and something tells me, yeah, sure, let’s try it. And then I’m bent double right hand red and left leg yellow face against Lee-Anne’s smooth right leg green and wondering just how awesome my life had become.
What it had become was a Thing. I waited for Sandy’s word, each word she gave was some kind of puzzle, a clue, a hint of things that – by magic, fate, careful orchestration? – ended up in my life. Sometimes it needed a bit of interpretation, I mean like the jump between tornado and twister, it’s not obvious immediately, you know? But, like I say, sometimes you’ve just got to find the link between stuff that happens to you for something to happen that's worth remembering.
My thing, the thing that’s indisputable, is that it is happening. No doubt about that. Is it just my own mind, clocking the connection, jumping the queue at Walgreens and pushing my seven-dollar selection bang in front of Krystal's laminated name badge? Maybe. But maybe doesn’t make for good stories. Maybe doesn’t get the girl. Maybe sits at home with reruns of ‘Friends’ and Youtube videos of cute cats because he’s allergic. Maybe sucks.
I’m not maybe anymore. I’m definitely.
I guess I know what you’re thinking. It’s not like I’m one of those people who think the voices in the radio are talking to them. It’s totally not like that. I mean, you’ve got to realise that nothing like this happens in my life. I don’t go looking for drama. This just found me. I don’t know how or why it works, but it does. Sandy from Pleasant Springs and me, Stan from nowhere special, we’ve got something. It’s the best part of my week. And I can’t wait to see how it'll play out after our closing jingle.
You know, some of them have been pretty amazing. Like the time Sandy said 'horseshoe' and the next Tuesday I walked to the lake – I wouldn't normally go to the lake, but you can't expect things to happen if you don't put yourself in the way of happenings – and this kid, he had one of those big helium Disney balloons with Eeyore on it. It was red and, as I looked, he let it go. It floated up and, just as it was about to disappear behind the boathouse, it twisted and I saw the big white letters spell out ’I heart U‘ right there, red and white against the blue sky. Now if that's not a sign, I don't know what is.
After ‘horseshoe‘ was ‘subway’. I remember the exact order, like some kind of extended radio play set. I mean, we’d gone weeks with this but I was right there in the game. The real clincher, though, came with ‘garland’. I mean, who’d pick garland? It’s not even a regular word that people use. That’s how I knew it had to mean something really special. So walking through town one evening (something I never did before Sandy came along), I went past an old movie theatre. It must have been a classic movie festival because ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ was on. When I made the connection, it was like that final piece of the puzzle just slotted in; my ninety-second item in the correct order just completed the story. I had no hesitation.
So that’s how I wound up here, at a table for two in a grimy St Louis Subway chain restaurant, the remains of my one way ticket in one hand and a double order of pepperoni subs on its way. Outside, the steel of the Gateway Arch stretches above like our very own lucky charm. And something’s bothering me, nagging like a missing piece, but it’s not worry about if she’ll come. It’s not that. It’s 8:59 and I know in three minutes, Sandy from Pleasant Springs, Sandy who ripped a tornado-sized hole through my regular life, she’ll walk in that door and slip in beside me on this faded plastic booth.
At about the same time as the familiar jingle cuts in on the Subway’s crackly 90.2 FM-tuned radio, I realise what it was that I’d forgotten. But it’s time. And I realise that it's now, right now that my life's about to change.
The ground was hard. A lot harder than I thought it would be after the rain. And it was quiet. But for the unrelenting roar of the highway below I could have been in the middle of the bushveld. I could see my house from where I stood, here in the middle of nowhere.
My spade zinged and vibrated up my arms as I hit a rock embedded in the rich red soil. I loved the smell of wet soil. I needed to make the hole just a little bit deeper. And wider. Six foot or so should do it.
I could hear Fiona’s critical whine in my head, “no point in doing half a job. Idiot. You never do anything right!” Painful memories echoed around the quietness of my head dragging my headache back between my temples. “Go-way,” begged the grey loeries watching me dig. “Go- Away!”
The day was getting hotter as midday approached. In the still air my perspiration was pooling into a cloying miasma with my cologne. Expensive cologne. I stopped to take my shirt off and the loeries complained loudly. Damn! I thought that I had been more careful. A jagged smear of blood contrasted accusingly red with the pale grey logo of my tracksuit. I hated blood. I hated the sticky sweet smell of it. At least it was dry.
“Go-away” accused the grey loeries flopping about eating the ripe yellow syringa berries above me. “ Go-away.” For a moment I rested, watching the careless loeries drop berries that trickled with the dry soil into the deep red hole. Six foot under and here on top of the hill it was peaceful. No worries.
I shaded my eyes and imagined I could see vultures, graceful dark shadows spiraling towards the sun. I shook my head and continued digging. “You love her more than you love me,” Fiona’s shrill voice interrupted my thoughts again. So much for peace and quiet. Damn woman.
We used to come up here often before they built the highway. Before I married Fiona…seven long years ago.
I took a deep breath and pulled the soft blanketed lump closer to the hole. Fiona spent a fortune on these mohair blankets. Another fight another day. That’s what it was like with Fiona and me. My mother was right, I should’ve left her when the going was good. The hole was ready, not quite six feet under but close enough. “No point in doing half a job” admonished Fiona in the silence. Automatically I scooped out a few more handfuls of soil to appease her. The soil was cool down here and it’s silence was almost comforting. Strangely I could no longer hear the ocean of traffic. It was the absence of sound that I rarely heard. I patted my pocket and was comforted. The 9mil. Weighed my pocket down but these days one couldn’t be too careful.
I dragged her closer. The tracksuit snagged on a thornbush. Dammit! For a moment I had to cradle her body while I disentangled it. The ‘haak and steek’ clawed me and ripped a curved brown thorn deep into my wrist. The fabric pulled free and I tripped, tipping her into her grave.
“Dammit!” I wanted to do it gently, she deserved that at the least. I knew she was dead but I still loved her. She was my best girl. My favourite. I didn’t want to look but I had too. Her slender brown legs were sticking partly out of the blanket. I grabbed the spade and began shoveling. It is hard to bury what you love.
“Go-AWAY!” shouted the loeries.
I worked quickly now. Sorry that I had seen her again and at the same time absurdly thinking that she might get cold in the cool dark ground. I was sure that I could smell death now. Her death smell. Almost sweet. I didn’t dare look down as I filled the hole. I hesitated, again imagining that she had moved … I waited, reasoned, remembering the living warmth of her body. Then I shoved more earth into the hole, thinking that perhaps I should have wrapped her in something more than a blanket. Maybe plastic. I tipped the contents of Fiona’s jewelry box near her head. The diamond tennis bracelet that I hadn’t bought her glinted for the last time at the sun.
It was beginning to get dark. But it was almost over now. My back ached and my shoulders were sore. I was grateful for Fiona’s gardening gloves. Pastel pink paisley and rubber. A fly settled excitedly on my hand oozing contentment as it found the dried blood. I swatted at it and missed. I know should have wrapped her in plastic. I forced my mind away from the reality of maggots and worms and decomposition.I took the safety off my 9 mil and felt better. These days it just wasn’t safe up here anymore after dark. The loerie’s had finally given up and gone away themselves. It was time to go home.
The fly stubbornly returned to my hand and watched me as I dragged a few rocks into place and camouflaged the grave. I most definitely didn’t want anything to find her grave or dig her up. I bowed my head and said goodbye.
I was late back. Ironically late for our last bloody anniversary dinner. I could almost hear Fiona whining to her guests, “ typical he is always late. He never cares about anything I want.” But manners are manners and we have guests. Her friends. Her family. Her guests…her lover. Tonight Fiona’s pretentious guests will finally have something interesting to say.
The fly, or one of his friends hitched a ride home in the Merc and got out with me at the side entrance.
I should have known better. Sexy, young secretary marries recently divorced much older boss. The oldest cliché in the book of old clichés and old fools and I fall for it.. Stupid me. They say that dogs are a good judge of character. I should have heeded Beth’s warning. The old bitch never did like Fiona.
I put Beth’s bloody collar and the Merc’s keys on top of her empty jewelry box and the bank repossession notices and bankruptcy papers inside. Then I let myself out the side door with my bag. I could have, would have, still forgiven her everything. Even the affair. But she knew! Fiona knew Beth, my old dog always slept in the driveway stretched out in the sun. Careless bitch! Her damn tennis pro was more important than being a few seconds late to check for Beth. It would have been a damn lot easier to give the vet the go-ahead for her than for Beth. Put me out of my misery.
I phoned my bookie from the car. All my moneys on ‘Roll of the Dice’ in the sixth.
I spun my wheels shooting gravel at the arriving guests as I accelerated out the driveway. Good luck to them all. Fiona and her bloodsucking lawyers are in for a treasure hunt. She was lucky I am a gambling man. Heads she would have joined Beth.
“What did you do?”
I don’t turn to look or listen, just sit, looking at the mess on the plate before me.
“Hey. HEY. What mistake did you make?”
I look up now, unsure if I am being addressed.
“Oh good, you are alive, somewhere in there. I asked what got you here.”
I look around me, then into the watery blue eyes of the woman sitting across from me. ‘How did she get here?’ I wonder.
“I told them.” I look back down, acknowledging my failure to maintain control of my basic existence.
“That never ends well. What did you tell them?” Her name tag reads ‘Marion’, she is large and comfortable looking. Her eyes that belie the smile on her lips. She is trustworthy.
“I told them about it.”
“It? I’ve got an ‘it’ too: I want to die and no one here will let me. Still, I keep trying.” Marion smiles at me, a hint of mania in her eyes as she glances at the nurses speaking in hushed voices across the room. She nods her head at them and smiles ruefully, indicating the nurses’ culpability in her continued existence.
“What ‘it’ do you have? Depression? OCD? Anxiety? Sociopathic tendencies? We’ve all got something; I keep trying to gather more broken birds so that I feel more whole than the rest of you.” She nods again and smiles, as if this is a good idea, one I would be well advised to implement myself.
“There’s someone else here. Inside,” I mumble as much to myself as to Marion.
“Well, that’s one I haven’t met yet. A schizo. How’s that going for you?”
“Can we talk, Laura? I’m Tracy Craig, your psychologist,” she says, resting her hand lightly on my forearm. I jump at her touch, my hair falling away from my face, revealing a little more of the spectre I saw in the mirror to this healthy, happy, confident young doctor. Her eyes widen and she retreats to her seat, keeping some distance between myself and her, watching my eyes as I glance at the door.
“I’m going to help you. You need to let me help you. Simon and Dylan need you back, Laura.”
“No you aren’t. And they don’t need me right now. Not until…”
I look down at my hands, white with tension, the skin stretched across my bones, as if at the point of tearing.
I’m going to leave my body to science, for medical students to slice open on and learn from. Perhaps they will cut into my body, opening me up to the air and find that I have two hearts. I would not be surprised, though I won’t be in a position to find out. We fight, constantly, my consciousness slipping to the pull, the ease with which I am replaced. Sometimes I win, but not for long. At least they can keep an eye on me here, look after me so that the damage is limited. I wonder if, when I go, I will leave behind energy. Good energy, energy that is only me, nothing else. I hope to survive but I do not expect to. I think of my child, my son Dylan, so quiet, so innocent. He doesn’t know and I’ve told Simon that he must wait. Dylan doesn’t need to fear me, not when I need him so much. I try not to touch him when they visit; I know it will do anything to take my weapons, the love I feel and use it against me. This is what sustains me, what brings me back. If only it were enough to keep me here.
Waking up in this itchy nightdress in this skinny, metal bed is not desirable. ‘I would complain to management, except she’s on holiday,’ I mutter to myself, pleased to be here despite the conditions. She’s gone for a while and I can stretch my legs, get out of bed and get some work done. The body isn’t so bad. The inanity that passes through can be trying but beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. I swing my feet out of bed and walk across the ward to the door, trying it. Locked. What a hazard, people could be dying in here and they wouldn’t be able to get inside in time. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing I reflect, walking back and leaning over the presumptuous nosy bitch from lunch. Her eyelids are scrunched closed as if she is enduring pain in her sleep, cringing away from whatever horrors her subconscious imposes upon her. Perhaps I should put her out of her misery.
“What were you doing last night?”
I say nothing, not sure. I am so tired, my skin repulsive and too hot, my eyes scratchy and unfocussed as if I haven’t slept. Maybe I haven’t. I want to get out of my skin and go for a swim, just arteries and muscles and bones floating, with no need of a cover to hold it all together.
“Marion is recovering, but you are clearly not. We need to discuss what’s happening to you.”
‘What’s happening to me,’ as if I am growing up and what I’m experiencing are simply growing pains. She isn’t working fast enough to help me. I know that I will have to do it alone.
“The woman you tried to strangle last night. Was that you? Were you there?”
I stare at her, this news a shock to me. I am not that person. ‘It wasn’t me!’ I want to cry out, scream and shake the words out of her mind and the minds of the people around me. Out of Simon and Dylan’s minds. They will not believe me. It was my hands. I look down, the long fingers, soft palms and short, clean nails resting in my lap. The hands of a thousand vengeances.
“I’m so sorry.”
“You need to tell me what happened, Laura.”
“You will be moving to another institution, after your trial. Aggravated assault with an insanity plea. You’ll be put somewhere more secure.”
“That will be better,” I whisper, unheard and unseen. I am a child now, to be kept away from the civility of the adults, from the clean, calm, collected halls of society as they mix their good intentions and claim their honest result; destruction.
I feel as if I am tearing myself apart. There is a wrenching, cracking breakage occurring, just like I’ve seen on television, when the ice-shelves break off at the North Pole and kilometres of solid sections of ice separate, whole islands or continents, torn from one another’s grip by the stupidity of man. I am the ice-shelf, shearing off, separating. It hurts, as I knew it would, but I feel calm, safe in the knowledge that no more harm can be wrought. My son and husband are safe from me.
She’s killing us and I have no idea how. Surely she does not have the strength of will to do it? I am being killed before my time and not by my own volition. I am furious, raging, and fight, fight for the right to live. I will damage her here, inside where we wrestle for space; I will hurt her and create for her only immobility. She will be paralysed, locked into the depths of the space from which I come and I will be free. I will survive. I want to live.
I want to die. I know it now, nothing I do will pardon the terrible actions of my body. I must die and take with me the evil so as to save others, from myself, from it.
She is delirious, swirling in her own self-righteousness at my destruction but it will not happen, I will not surrender. No! NO!
It is trying to keep me alive. I will not. We must die. This must end, this struggle for dominance, for control. The cold wraps it’s fingers around my heart like a frigid lover, and I am a Shakespearean character, acknowledging and welcoming the end, welcoming the abyss, the silence, the peace.
I wait with the sweat of my back against the wall. A cold wind moves through the room. My body shivers but I keep sweating; my skin is trying to purge me of shame. My hands are bound behind my back. I stare at the four heads of my enemies.
Three are strangers; one is my closest friend.
I stare at the curve of his ear, his jaw, the straight bridge of his nose. These men are playing a game, and I am the prize. My heart beats out the words. I didn’t see this coming.
Brian had been dangerous. He had a sense of standing on the edge of something steep. One day, I asked him for a lift home. We both rolled down our windows and my hair blew in every direction. It felt like blindness. He took me to his house. He lit a cigarette right there in the living room and poured whiskey into a glass. He saw something in me that wasn’t there: some kind of excitement; though I knew deep down I was hopelessly dull. I suppose that’s why I liked him so much: he told me a lie about myself that I wanted to believe.
We became friends. We became lovers.
We walked along the streets of Johannesburg. I felt untouchable with him. He called me baby. I knew my mother would hate that. Which made me love it. I hated my parents for being just as dull as I believed myself to be. In fact, I blamed them for it. I felt Brian re-making me. When he touched me with his hands, it was as if he were sculpting me into being. He took me to an old warehouse. It was completely abandoned, as empty as silence.
My wrists are aching from the tight knot of the rope. I keep looking down to my feet, closing my eyes tightly, and then opening them, hoping that I will wake up in my bed. Hoping that this is just a horrible, horrible dream.
It isn’t a dream.
Brian turns his head to look at me. He sniggers. Apparently this is his idea of a joke.
Three other men had met us at the warehouse. Brian didn’t tell me why we were there. I thought maybe he was buying drugs from them. When I shook the hand of the first man, he looked into my eyes with a kind of approval. The others shifted their feet. They looked like they were plotting something.
When the second man shook my hand, he didn’t let go. He grabbed my arm and twisted me around so that his lips touched the back of my ear. ‘Nice to meet you, Sarah.’
Laughter. My hands crossed at the wrists and bound. My back pressed against that cold wall; my forehead moist with fear. Then the succinct explanation, proffered by Brian, who places his mouth so close to my face that my cheek is warmed by his breath. We’re gonna have a little fun, darling. We roll the dice. Whoever rolls the highest, wins.
I watch Brian’s hands. Hands that have held mine, that have touched my hair, stroked the back of neck, slid beneath my shirt. He moves one into his pocket and pulls out the dice. He tosses them onto the floor. The men sit in a circle. The first man picks up the dice. He flicks his wrist and sends them rolling. Their momentum breaks and they rock into position.
Four and four. Eight.
The second man rolls. I close my eyes. Shame hangs on me like wet clothes.
‘Six!’ Brian laughs.
The second man swears, says something about getting a drink, and walks off. His footsteps echo in the hollow space of concrete and steel. I wait.
They have a conversation about something. Football, sex, one of them is hungry. I ache. I decide I would rather be dull. I would give anything to be dull right now.
Brian picks up the dice. He takes a while, rolling them slowly back and forth in his palm, and then from hand to hand. He is a master of torture. He likes to have me scared. I think about a time he was driving us to a party in his car. He sped up so that the inside of the car felt like a hurricane, filling my ears with empty noise. He let go of the steering wheel for a few seconds; the car swerved. At the last minute, he grabbed the wheel and the car curved back into position. The sky was black above us. I felt so close to death; so alive.
He spreads his fingers out so that the dice are poised on his palm. He curls his fingers back over them and throws them across the concrete floor of the warehouse like he’s throwing a grenade. They run like eager dogs to see the result. I hang my head.
The third man walks up to me. He smells of petrol and booze. My forehead aligns with his collarbone. I am tired. My body is limp from standing for two hours against a wall, awaiting fate. I let my forehead rest against his chest. Evening falls.
The third man unbuttons his pants.
He chuckles. I’d prefer to keep your hands bound.