Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Buried

 

by Brian Heys

espresso, or possibly a dirty chai

 Some people have happy memories of school, forever wishing they could return to those carefree times.

Not me.

I hated school, especially sports. Each week I got Mum to write a note about a sprained ankle, sore back, or ingrowing toenail. The games teacher recognised the weak excuses, and made me watch in the cold, where I stood, wishing I could be normal, running after the ball like the others, without my belly jiggling under my shirt.

Hugging my trombone case brought comfort, knowing I was good at music. That, and chess. I would look at my watch every few minutes, worrying I might be late for computer club. When Sir blew his whistle, I hurried to the changing room to collect my school bag, which stood out among the smart Gola and Head ones, a cheap, nasty thing, like my Tommy Balls shoes.

I was a typical target for a bully.

It began on the bus. I had my trombone case between my legs, cradled in my arms. There was a thump next to me as the boy who was about to become my bully plonked down and dropped his bag on the floor. I had never noticed him before, and he didn’t speak. He had no reason, until the bus turned onto the main road out of town.

The driver was going too fast, hurrying into a gap in traffic. I had let go of my trombone to push up my glasses, and as we swung to the left, the case fell and struck the boy on the knee. He yelled in pain, then punched my arm.

I was practising with the Junior Band in the music room during lunch break when that same boy came in, looking uncomfortable. Our music teacher made him wait in the corner until we finished playing.

‘Sir, I’ve done them lines.’

‘Read the first one out.’

‘I must. I must not disturb. Disrupt. The class by talking in lessons.’

He handed over pieces of paper, then noticed me in the brass section by the window. Our eyes locked until Sir tore up the lines without checking them.

‘Get out, Barnes. Next time it’ll be four hundred.’

The boy looked back through the glass door and bunched a fist at me, his cheeks flushed and hot-looking. I glanced at Sir to see if he had noticed, but he was busy handing out the sheet music for the next piece we were going to play.

When he got on the bus a few days later, I knew this boy was going to make my life difficult. His eyes sought me out among the other pupils, and he walked past several available seats to sit with me.

‘You were laughing.’

I hadn’t been laughing, and told him, but he wouldn’t hear it, just as he refused to hear my initial apology when my trombone case fell onto his knee.

‘No bugger laughs at me.’

I could smell breakfast on his breath. To take my mind off it I wiped away a patch of condensation as the bus drove over the River Calder at Cock Bridge. I loved seeing the morning mist that floated along the shallow valley in winter.

When I stood to get off the bus at school, my trombone clattered out of its case. He must have flicked open the catches while I wasn’t looking. I had to crawl under the seat to retrieve the mouthpiece which had rolled into a discarded Monster Munch packet. Pickled onion flavour. I hated pickled onions. Still do.

The bullying continued.

Several times a week, he sat next to me on the bus and whispered how disgusting I was, how fat I was, how I was gay, worthless, and how he was going to batter me if he saw me outside school. I tried to ignore him, almost succeeding.

I heard him though.

Everything went in. Some days he invaded my space, squashing me against the side of the bus when it turned and the centrifugal force pushed him into me. Then he would whisper again, digging his elbow into my side.

‘You’re nowt but a fat turd.’

He got on the bus after me, so I couldn’t avoid him. If I wanted to board after him I had to walk halfway across town. Too far. I sometimes wondered what would happen if I stood up to him. I was bigger, and could probably overpower him by weight, but aggression wasn’t an ingredient in the ongoing formation of my young character. I was never a violent person.

Until I eventually did run into him outside school.

 


 

At the start of Summer holidays, my friends and I had discovered a small hole in the ground on the old town tip. It looked like a fox burrow or badger sett until we returned with a torch and shone it into the hole, realising it was the open sunroof of a buried Bedford camper van.

We widened the hole and climbed in. Most of the interior was stripped, including seats, beds, and units. The dashboard was intact, but the steering wheel had gone. I was afraid of rats, but we soon discovered nothing lived in there except spiders and beetles.

The van made a great den until the novelty wore off and we discovered the excitement of sifting through the tip for old pots and bottles. We marked the entrance with a discarded red fire bucket so we could find it again, but that disappeared after a few days, and we forgot about our den.

Before we knew it, our mums were buying us new uniforms for the autumn term, and the end of the holidays approached like a speeding school bus.

It was early morning, and I was down at the tip for the last time that summer. Heavy drops of dew hung from the rosebay and cow parsley that grew in thick, tangled patches. My friends weren’t due for a couple of hours, and I was alone, far from home. Despite working solo, I had already found a few old poison bottles and laid them out on the bank where the rest of our day’s finds would collect until it was time to go home.

‘I said I were gonna do you if I saw you.’

My scalp tightened at his voice. I whipped round and lost my balance, tumbling down the slope, stopping short of a dense clump of nettles that swayed in anticipation.

He laughed. ‘Where’s your gay trombone today?’

I scrambled back up so he didn’t have the advantage of height. My hands clawed at the earth, and grainy soil compacted under my fingernails. My bleached jeans were stained with dirt that Mum would struggle to wash out, and my breath became gulps of air with the effort of climbing.

What I saw in his eyes changed everything.

Fear.

The only person who knew I was being bullied apart from Mum, was an old fellow who lived a few doors down our street. He once saw me crying at the bus stop, and tried to cheer me up, telling me all bullies were cowards. That was easy for him to say. Adults never got bullied. I hadn’t believed him at the time, but at that moment on the tip I wondered if he was right, and Ewan was a coward too.

That was my bully’s name. Ewan Barnes. He was older than me, but shorter, slighter, and possibly a little bit scared of me without anyone around to back him up, if he needed it.

My fringe stuck to my forehead and my glasses had slipped down my nose. I pushed them up but the sweat on my greasy skin made them slip back again.

‘I’ll count to ten. Start running. Or are you too fat?’

I faced him at the top of the bank, noticing his cheeks were full of freckles. Songbirds began issuing warning calls in the scrub that bordered the tip, joined by the cackle-laugh of a magpie. The sun slid under a cloud and Ewan glanced up, distracted.

‘Is there owt between them ears besides shite?’

‘My friends are coming in a minute.’

‘You’ve no friends. Except fat gaylords, like you.’

I never intended to kill him. Only teach him a lesson.

My heart thudded harder in my chest and my ears. Muscles in my arms went rigid and trembly, and my breath came faster. To my right, I spotted a steel fencing pin sticking up from the ground. The attached tape had snapped and fluttered loose like a red and white ribbon. I reached out and tried to haul the pin up, but it was stuck.

Ewan jumped on my back and locked his arms around my neck. I fell backwards but kept hold of the pin, and our combined weight freed it as I collapsed back on top of him. He gasped, winded by my weight.

The fence pin was lying next to us. I rolled and grabbed it, using it as a lever as I staggered to my feet. Ewan crouched like an athlete on invisible starting blocks. He rose in one slow movement and beckoned with his hands.

‘Have a go if you think yer hard enough!’

He stepped back, and I swung the heavy pin at him. It swished inches from his chest, and he swayed, wide-eyed, then stumbled over an old piece of rubber tubing. I swung the pin again, and he fell.

I stood above him, with the point to his stomach.

‘I were only joking…’

‘Get up!’

I noticed Ewan’s arm bleeding as he stood. I jabbed the pin towards him again.

‘Get lost! Don’t come back!’

He walked backwards, keeping his eye on me and the fence pin. At first, I didn’t notice it, but after about twenty feet I saw the hole that was the missing sunroof of the buried van. Ewan was heading straight for it.

I could have warned him. Should have warned him.

Instead, I let him step into it.

 


 

The fencing pin had been one of many marking out sections of the tip, and a couple of weeks later, bulldozers and excavators appeared, accompanied by big yellow tipper trucks with wheels as high as grown men. The area was landscaped by Christmas, and a gentle hill buried the old pots and bottles, and of course, the van.

Apart from the nightmares, I had shut away what happened. The report in yesterday’s Evening Telegraph brought everything back. The remains of a body had been found by surveyors taking ground samples for a new business park being built where I played when I was twelve. The remains were identified as those of a teenage boy. After a brief inquest, Lancashire Constabulary issued a statement saying they were closing the case relating to the disappearance of Ewan Andrew Barnes who was reported missing thirty years ago, aged fourteen. The final verdict was death by misadventure.

I woke in the early hours of this morning for the first time in months, my chest soaked with sweat, the bottom sheet stuck to my back. In my dreams, the sequence of events is always the same. Ewan, stepping backwards in the direction of the hole. I advance with the fence pin. He falls in, his jaw hits the edge as he goes down.

I hear something snap.

After long seconds, I approach. My eyes adjust to the light, and I see him lying inside, his neck bent at an angle. Blood comes out of his mouth. A lot. I wonder if he has bitten through his tongue.

Then I notice his eyes, shining but unseeing.

Staring up at the open sunroof.

About the author 

Brian Heys grew up in Lancashire, in Northern England, during the 1970s and 1980s. His first short story was published in a local newspaper when he was eleven, which was a proud moment for him. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel, A Different Path. Website: brianheys.com.

 


Monday, 1 March 2021

What’s Normal?

 

by Paula R C Readman

camomile tea 

 “I mustn’t be late?” The girl muttered, while pacing up and down the platform.

 I was sure she wasn’t talking to me. I’d been sitting watching her. No, not stalking her, I knew that was against the law. “Not a nice thing to do, George.”

She got off the bus when Mum dropped me off at the station. Like the girl, I’m capable of getting myself from the station to my place of work. I enjoy working. Being around other people makes me feel normal. I wasn’t sure what normal meant, but normal people say the word a lot.

“It’s not normal.”

“That doesn’t normally happen.”

My favourite one is “On a normal day, the trains run on time.”

I asked Mum while eating our breakfast, “Is it a normal day, today?”

“Yes, George it is,” she said.

I was pleased to hear it was and went to get ready for work.

 

The girl looked worried. I think her name is Kathy. I’ve seen her every day for the last two years as she works at the same company as I do.  We catch the same train, at the same time every working day.   She doesn’t normally speak to me.

There’s that word again. Sometimes the word makes me sad.  “You’re not normal, George!”

I’ve tried talking to her at work, but she gets a funny look on her face, and then glances around as though unsure that I’m speaking to her. I just smile, and let it go.

I want to speak to Kathy now, to reassure her that the train will arrive, though a bit late. Mum and I always check before leaving home that the trains are running on time. I rang my place of work to let them know what has happened.

“Okay, George, thanks for letting us know. Other people aren’t normally as thoughtful as you, but remember it’s out of your control, if they’re running late.”

I checked my watch again.  The train is five minutes late.

“You’re George, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” Kathy stands before me with her blue eyes sparkling.

 “Can I sit with you?”

“Please do. You’re Kathy.”

“Yes, that’s right. You know my name?”

“Of course. I like to know everyone’s name at work,” I can’t stop smiling. She’s even more beautiful close up. She has fresh skin, and wears hardly any make up.

“I hate being late for work,” she says, plonking herself down beside me.

“Me too. It’s okay I’ve phoned ahead. It’s the train’s fault, not ours.”

“Oh, so we won’t lose our jobs.”

“No, silly.” I took her hand in mine, and she doesn’t pull away. “Why would you think that?”

“Because we’re not seen as being normal people, it’s hard for us to get a job.”

So that’s the reason, she didn’t speak to me. Too frightened of being seen talking, instead of working.

“Kathy, your job is safe.” I say, just as the train pulled into the station.

She laughs. “What makes you so sure?”

“Because I own the company.”

“Do you George. That’s not normal for people like us.”

I laugh and step back, allowing her to sit by the window. “What is normal, Kathy?” I say as I sit down beside her. I know it’s going to be an extraordinary day.  

About the author 

Paula R C Readman lives in England, with her husband and has many short stories published by Bridge House, Black Hare Press, Kandisha Press and CafeLit. She has three books published too, Days Pass Like a Shadow, The Funeral Birds and Stone Angels.

 

 

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Caro Russo

 

by  Mari Phillips

 black Arabica

 

Caro Russo stretched out a hand to hit the snooze button and she registered the pips on the early morning news. Something stirred in her subconscious.

‘Shit’ she mumbled and heaved herself out of the cocoon of the fourteen tog duvet. Must adjust the heating, she thought, as an icy chill hit her body on her way to the bathroom. At least the shower was hot; she’d insisted on a decent one when they moved in. She lingered a moment longer than usual and took a few deep breaths as she considered the day ahead, the usual mix of meetings and admin. She brushed her teeth and applied her favourite face cream; makeup could wait, she preferred to beat the traffic. She dressed quickly, everything laid out the night before to expedite her morning departure. Black trousers, silk shirt and a peacock-blue scarf to soften the effect.

‘Have a good day Caro, love,’ said Ben as he put fixed the lid on a travel mug of black Arabica, her favourite. He pushed it into her hand and leaned forward to give her a peck on the cheek. ‘Good luck!’ He said the same every morning since they instigated their role swap.

Caro breathed a sigh of relief as the meeting finished. Managing the team on Monday mornings was akin to herding cats. Docile enough when you stroked them and pleading eyes when they wanted something, but feral when arguments started, claws and trouble in quick succession. She poured another coffee, kicked off her shoes, and closed her eyes for a few minutes’ mindfulness. She wasn't sure if it helped, but she tried, anyway. Her mobile buzzed and shattered her calm.

‘Hi Maggie, how are you?’

‘Caro, I need your help.’

‘Of course, anytime…’

‘No, now, it’s urgent.’

Caro glanced upwards at the clock, ‘well I suppose it’s nearly lunchtime’.

‘There’s a new coffee place on East Street, I’ll be at the back...’

‘Yes, but...’ Caro didn’t finish the sentence. The line went dead, and she stared at her phone, eyebrows furrowed. Maggie was her closest friend and not prone to dramatic outbursts. She picked up her jacket and purse and headed for the exit. ‘Just taking an early lunch, folks,’ she said as she passed through the team office.

Caro found the coffee shop without too much difficulty. She wished she had swapped her heels for trainers, though. She scanned the tables and spotted Maggie at the rear, as promised. Maggie caught her eye and beckoned. Two coffees already in front of her. As Caro approached, she saw Maggie’s blotchy face and the beginning of a bruise over her right eye.

‘My God, Maggie, what’s happened to you?’ The words were out before she could stop herself.

‘We had a fight,’ she sobbed, ‘a bloody awful fight.’

Caro moved a chair to sit alongside her friend and stretched out an arm to embrace her.

‘He hit you. Matt? But you never even argue.’

Caro leaned forward, gently touched Maggie’s face, and lifted the fringe she had pulled forward to cover the marks. She traced the outline of the bruise and the vague imprint of knuckles.

‘Didn’t use to,’ she continued sobbing. ‘But then he lost his job and money’s been tight.’

‘Maggie, why didn't you say something?’

‘He said it didn’t matter, it wouldn't be long, and he’d been looking around, anyway. I believed him. Didn't want to trouble you.’

‘But?’

‘Things got worse. Late nights and sleeping all day; he looks dreadful.’ Maggie’s voice trailed off.

‘And then?’

‘Then I discovered he’s been dipping into our savings, my savings. And there’s nothing left. So, I asked him, confronted him I suppose, and he flipped.’

‘Gosh, Maggie, I am so sorry.’ Caro felt a tightness in her chest and struggled to find words to comfort her friend. She knew Matt, liked him, and knew some of his friends. He’d been at university with Ben. There had been rumours, but she had dismissed them. Maybe they had been true.

‘Did he say where the money’s gone?’

‘Not in so many words. Booze for sure, but I think it may be worse.’ Maggie paused. ‘Caro, I need a bed for a few nights, can I…?’

‘Course, you can.’ Caro didn’t let her friend finish the sentence. ‘I’ll call Ben and get him to sort the spare room for you.’

‘Thanks, Caro, you’re a mate.’

‘Do you want to go straight there? I’ll call Ben now if you like.’

‘No, it’s ok. I’ll wait till you finish work. I’ve stuff to do.’

They finished their drinks in silence. Caro wanted to ask more questions, but Maggie averted her eyes, dabbing them intermittently.

‘Maggie, I’d better get back, meet you at 5 o’clock? Reception?’

Maggie nodded; her body slumped over the empty mugs.

Caro called Ben as soon as she left the café. Unusually, it went straight to voice mail.

‘Hi love, bit of a crisis with Maggie. She needs a bed for a few nights. Can you fix the spare room?’ She stuck to the key points. She hated voice mail. The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. Caro’s thoughts kept returning to her friend and their conversation. It all sounded so unlike Matt; he was so reliable.

She left her office at 5 o’clock precisely and took the lift to reception. She squeezed amongst all the other hamsters stepping off their wheels and escaping to their homes. There was no sign of Maggie. She checked with the staff at the desk.

‘No, Ms Russo, no messages.’

She checked her mobile - nothing. She tried to call Maggie. No answer.

‘Shit’ she mumbled under her breath. Her thumbs worked rapidly over the letters. Maggie, where are you? Call me ASAP.

‘Ben, I’m really worried,’ she said as she threw her bag down on the kitchen table. ‘Have you heard from Maggie?’

‘Yeah, she called, said she would text you. She decided to get some stuff from her place and come over later.’ Ben continued to stir something on the hob.

‘Well, she hasn't and I’m worried. Did she tell you about their fight?’

‘No, she didn’t, but I’m sure it’ll blow over.’

‘I’m not so sure. I think there’s something else going on.’ She recounted her lunchtime conversation.

Caro picked at her meal. She was in no mood to eat. Still no message from Maggie.

‘I’m going to find her,’ she said to Ben, ‘something’s not right.’

‘Shall I come too?’

‘No, best you stay here in case we miss each other. I’ll call you.’

Maggie and Matt lived on the other side of the city. It was a twenty minute drive, sometimes forty in traffic. She made it in fifteen and checked her phone repeatedly for messages, praying that she wouldn’t get stopped by the police.

The house was in darkness apart from one light from an upstairs window. Caro felt her stomach tighten, and she wiped her hands on her trousers. The front door was ajar, and she pushed it further with her foot.

‘Maggie, are you there? It’s me, Caro.’

She jumped as something furry brushed passed her legs and shot out of the door. She stood in the hallway and called again and then listened to the silence.

‘Maggie?’

‘Here, I’m up here.’ The voice was faint.

Caro fumbled with a light switch and took the stairs two at a time.

‘I just wanted to talk,’ said Maggie. She was sitting on the floor, tears streaming down her face and cradling Matt’s limp body. They were both covered in blood.

Caro stretched out two fingers and tried to find a pulse in his neck.

‘Ok Maggie, just let him go now. Let’s get some help.’

She reached for her phone.

‘Police and ambulance please.’

About the author

Mari lives in Leeds, writes mostly flash fiction, with several published in Café Lit, and is working on a couple of ‘longer’ short stories. She also occasionally dabbles in poetry. She is a keen singer and traveller, both activities severely curtailed under lockdown.