Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Hearts of Stone


I’ve been sitting here on my marble backside for nearly 200 years. Watching, waiting, a witness to the history of man.

The Piazzo del Popola isn’t the best-known square in the city. It doesn’t draw crowds like the Colosseum or the saints looking down from the Vatican rooftops do. We don’t see people willingly throwing their money into our fountain like they do at Trevi. But it’s our own little corner of the eternal city of Rome. The ‘People’s Square’ has seen its fair share of humanity, and from where I sit solidly at the feet of the god of the seas, I’ve had a ringside view of it all.

The three of us – Neptune, me and the other Triton on top the Fontana del Nettuna – have seen everything. The beginnings and ends of hundreds of affairs. Countless bottles of wine drunk. Mountains of pasta eaten. Tourists snapping selfies as testament that, yes, they were here. They pass through, perhaps stopping for a cup of freshly brewed espresso, before heading for the next ‘must see’ attraction to tick off their lists and get the shot to prove it. It’s not enough to tread the flagstones, smell the coffee and nibble on the biscotti - if it’s not on social media, it doesn’t count, or so it seems. Heads down, thumbs busy. Do they even see what’s happening around them?

But today? Today is different. The Square is throbbing with kids. Children and teenagers who really should be in school – it is Friday, after all. But here they are. In their thousands. Chattering like a flocks of starlings, laughing like hyped-up hyenas, shouting like over-excited penguins. Selfies are shot, hand-made signs are waved, music blares out. Some pedal madly on the bank of bicycles behind us, going nowhere but generating enough young energy to power the sound system set up in front of our fountain.

The air really does smell of teen spirit. And outrage.

The babble lulls as a small, pigtailed girl in lilac jeans and a striped top steps up to the microphone. She’s tiny, insignificant, just a child. But there’s something about her – a certainty, a determination, the arrogance of youth perhaps? – that silences the crowd. They look up at her expectantly.

Her voice is small too, even through the microphone that bounces it off the buildings. She speaks in halting, timid, slightly awkward English.

“I speak on behalf of future generations.”

Cheers, hoots and applause explode into the spring air.

“I was born in a time and place where everyone told us to dream big, I could become whatever I wanted to, I could live wherever I wanted to. People like me had everything we needed and more…”

She is not speaking to the crowd. She is speaking for them, and for countless more not here. She is claiming the voice of those who are told they are too young, too inexperienced, too immature to have a say. She speaks to the powers that be, men in suits, decision-makers and those holding the purse strings. She’s showing them no mercy.

“You lied to us, you gave us false hope, you told us the future was something to look forward to.”

A scrape of stone next to me makes me look up. She’s caught my master’s attention. For the first time since 1823, Neptune has shifted his sculpted gaze. No longer looking regally out across the Square, he is now staring at a little girl from Sweden who looks like she’d rather be hiding at the back of a library than holding a crowd of thousands rapt with her words.

I flick a look across to my fellow Triton (I call him Luigi - you can call me Al). He raises his eyebrows in surprise. We’ve seen just about everything since we’ve been here, but nothing has ever moved Neptune. Until now.

But maybe that’s only right. After all, isn’t the very thing they’re protesting about destroying his realm too? Soon, they’ll be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Some waters are already too toxic for life. Where does that leave a messenger of the sea like me?

‘May you live in interesting times’. Isn’t that how the old curse goes? Well, I’ve seen my share of interesting times. Mussolini’s Camicie Nere marching through in shirts as black as their hearts. Violent retribution when Il Duce was toppled from power and ripped to pieces by an angry mob. Red Brigade bank robberies and kidnappings. Berlusconi’s belligerent buffoonery. The unbounded joy of winning the 2006 World Cup.

But perhaps these times are the most interesting of all. Maybe they’re even the end of the times.
Children behaving like adults, surveying the mess we’ve made, begging for action to stop it getting worse. Politicians acting like spoiled brats, fingers in their ears and singing ‘la la la la’.

“…Around the year 2030, 10 years, 257 days, 13 hours away from now we’ll be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it…  …unless in that time, permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society have taken place, including a reduction of CO2 emissions by at least 50 per cent…”

Greta is pulling no punches.

“The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced, the easiest because we know what we must do: we must stop the emission of greenhouse gas. The hardest because our current economics are totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create an everlasting economic growth… …we have to stop burning fossil fuels and restore nature and many other things we may not have quite figured out yet… “

There’s a gravelly creak to my right as Neptune shifts his left foot, preparing to move forward.

“… we must start today, we have no more excuses…  ...nothing is being done to halt or even slow climate breakdown. Despite all the beautiful words and promises…”

I flex my muscles and get ready to get to my feet for the first time in centuries. This is no time for sitting around.

“In the last six months millions of school children all around the world, not least in Italy, have been school striking for the climate. But nothing has changed, in fact the emissions are still rising…”

As Greta’s words ring around the Square, and around the world, no-one notices that the statues on the fountain behind her have changed. No longer sitting back watching the world go by, but standing up and lending our heft of history in the hope of saving the future.

“…We children are doing this to wake adults up, we children are doing this to get you to act, we children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back...”

Will the adults wake up? Or are the children’s urgent pleas about climate change lost in the bickering about banks and immigrant boats?

Their passion have woken hearts of stone in our little corner of Rome. But what will it take to stir those who can make the difference?

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Game

She watched, fascinated, as the bead of red bloomed out of the cut in the soft flesh on the inside of her forearm. Glistening petals broke the surface tension and trickled down to the bend of her elbow, making patterns like naked trees against a winter sky. It surprised her how little it hurt - just a small drag followed by a clean metallic sting as the old-fashioned blade bit into her skin.

Holding her arm up to the cold electric light, she admired the liquid as it dripped and pooled onto the enamel of the washbasin, making bright circles of surprise on the white. A sly smile crept across her lips as she thought of what would go through her mum’s mind when she spotted the bloody splashes that she would ‘accidentally-on purpose’ miss.

Gripping the barber’s razor in her hand felt good - grown-up, powerful, in control, even glamourous. She was the romantic lead in her own movie, and surely the tragic heroine would get the attention of some tortured prince out there. Wouldn’t she?

The flow was starting to dry up, so she clutched the blade in her fingers and slashed lightly across the cut to revive it. She held the razor’s elegant V-shape like she’d seen in the movies, but a just little too tightly. Its sharp edge bit into the pad of her thumb, forcing her to drop it with a clatter into the sink, wincing in pain, trying to suck away the ache. She tracked the new trickle as it ran down, holding up her hand and twisting it to make the blood work its way around her wrist like a ruby amulet.

An angry banging on the door roused her. Her sister. Always her sister.

“Get out of there - I haven’t even cleaned my teeth yet.”
“All right, I’m coming!”
 She wrapped her bleeding forearm tissues, wiped down the porcelain and hid the blade in the back of the cupboard, for later. The door burst impatiently open the moment she turned the key, before she could pull the sleeve of her school shirt over the blood. Her sister rolled her eyes in exasperation and muttered “Idiot” as she grabbed her toothbrush.

“It doesn’t make you any more interesting,”
 she said, toothpaste frothing in her mouth making her look like a rabid doll. “It’s not clever, and it’s not cool. It’s just stupid.”

The younger girl sneered and tossed her hair in what she imagined was exactly the same move as the tortured heroine in her favourite teen vampire series.

Throughout the day, she obsessively examined the reddened welts, stroking them, picking at their edges, enjoying the frisson of pain when she prodded them. She relished the part she’d given herself to play. Her sleeves were left casually rolled up, but no-one noticed – until Annie grabbed her arm in the playground, stared intently at the skin and looked up with glittering eyes and a vulpine grin.

“We’re blood sisters now,” she whispered. “Your pain is my pain. We’re connected, and I’ll always know when you’re hurting. Next time, we do it together.”
At the dinner table, she waved off her mother’s enquiries about the spots of blood in the bathroom, saying she’d cut her legs shaving them in a hurry before school. Her sister’s muttered “Yeah, right” went unnoticed or ignored.

“Mum, can Annie come round this evening? I’ve done all my homework."
Her mother nodded as she loaded the dishwasher. It was a Friday, after all, and she had a week’s worth of housework to get through before Monday - having a friend over would keep her attention-hungry youngest out from under her feet.

Two hours later, behind the locked bathroom door, the game continued. Annie held the blade and slashed her own palm, then swiped at her friend’s before fiercely clasping their hands together until their mingled blood oozed out and trickled down their wrists.

“Do you trust me?” she demanded, looking intensely at her friend. A mute nod. “Hold out your other arm.”
Anna drew a long line from inner elbow to wrist, admiring the flowering scarlet that followed the blade’s progress. The girl winced, panic flashed in her eyes. It bit deeper than before, flashing hot fear through her as she saw the flow well up from the cut. Fat shining globules fell to the floor like hailstones in summer.

This wasn’t a game anymore. She didn’t want to play anymore.
Was it too late to stop?

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Passenger


Erin screwed the buds into her ears, scrolled through the screen on her phone and clicked on her favourite podcast.

There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t thank the gods, and especially Steve Jobs, for technology. The burble it delivered helped her zone out and get through the twice-daily ritual of strap hanging, personal space invasion and pungent reminders of what other people had for dinner the night before. The train was a necessary evil - a quicker, cheaper and less stressful commute than driving across the city and searching for a space to park that wouldn’t cost her an expensive fee or a fine. It was just a shame that so many other people had to be in the carriage with her.

She took a last gulp of fresh air and stepped onto the escalator that carried her down into the bowels of the earth. All around her, people scurried about like ants in a panic after a boot smashes their nest. Everyone had the same frantic zombie vibe. Some days – usually when she’d slept less than the average fruit fly – she could almost see a Hieronymus Bosch painting with her fellow commuters as the tortured damned in the Underworld. Whether they were suited and booted for business, made-up to the nines, fresh from the bed they’d dragged themselves from, or gym-ready in sweats and leggings, they all had the same air of weary urgency.

And, of course, eye contact was strictly taboo. Only crazy people look you in the eye when you’re underground.

One of the crazies was waiting for Erin as she reached the bottom of the escalator. Mad George was one of those uninvited reminders of the ever-widening holes in society’s safety net that pricked her conscience every time she saw him. She couldn’t remember when she’d first noticed his rambling, shambling presence. She guessed he’d always been there, part of the army of invisibles who reminded ‘ordinary’ folk like her of what might be if they strayed too far. Broken but harmless, he was enough of a jolt to her normality to make her feel uncomfortable. Guilty. Enough to prompt a mumbled “Morning, George” before handing over a few coins from her pocket, but not enough to look him in his red-rimmed eyes. She always focused her gaze somewhere just above the bridge of his broken nose.

Erin started the pantomime of searching her pockets and grimacing an apology for having no spare change. But George held up his hand to stop her. He reached out his index finger, its chewed nails blackened with neglect, and poked her on the shoulder. The shock of the uninvited touch from a street bum who’d waved goodbye to sanity years ago gave her a physical jolt. Like being pushed aside in her own body.

“Tag,” said George in a voice like the rasp of a key turning in a rusty lock, stiff from lack of use. “You’re It.”

He smiled, nodded to himself, turned and walked away.

Erin stopped for a heartbeat, watching him, before being shoved along with an angry grunt by the lady behind her. They swept through the turnstile, swiped their tickets, and were washed up onto the platform.

Screwing her earbuds back in, Erin sighed and shook her head at George’s latest eccentricity. She tapped her phone’s screen and prepared to tune into the dulcet and oh-so-eloquent tones of Stephen Fry.

“Woah! What the…?” a voice that was most definitely not Stephen Fry’s rang through her head. “How the…? Where I am? What’s happening?”

Erin ripped the buds from her ears and looked at her phone. The screen was blank. No battery. Odd. She’d charged it overnight.

The voice continued even though her earbuds were now dangling from her hand: “And who the hell are you? Where’s George?”

She looked up and down the crowded platform. No-one else showed any sign of having heard the shout.

“Oi! You! Yes, you. Answer me. What happened to George?”

Erin looked around, started to stutter an answer…

“Not out loud, you ninny. You want people to think you’re a nutter?”

Erin clapped a hand over her mouth, twirling round and looking up and down the platform for whoever was talking to her.

“In your head. Answer in your head. I’m inside you.”

Omygod, thought Erin. It’s finally happened. I’ve flipped. All downhill from here. Before you know it, I’ll be wheeling a shopping trolley around filled with old shoes and shouting at passers-by about cats in space ships.

“Don’t be so daft. You’re as sane as I am,” said the voice.

Hardly the most reassuring thing I’ve heard this year, thought Erin.

“Oi, cheeky cow. Enough of that.”

With a whoosh of stale air, the train slid into the station. Its doors opened, a wave of people got out and Erin joined the wave that replaced them. She grabbed the pole, leant her forehead against its cool metal and willed the voice to shut up and go away.

“I’m not going anywhere, darlin’. Can’t. Not yet. You’ve gotta help me.”

Tentatively, and still worried about her grip on reality, she tried answering the voice – inside her head.

“Help you? How? If I’m not going mad, then what is all this?”

“Calm down. It’s nothing to worry about.”

Erin felt about as calm as a hedgehog in a tumble dryer. “Really? So, suddenly hearing random voices inside my head is perfectly normal, is it?”

“Well, not normal, I’ll admit that. But I’ve sussed out what’s happened. You’ve been tagged.”

“What?”

“Tagged. You know. You’re ‘It’. Like when we were kids in the school yard.”

“We?”

“Yes, we. I went to school too, you know. Probably round about the same time as you. George tagged you, so I’m inside you – for now. Hitching a ride, I suppose. And I really, really need your help. I gotta get home. Please. Help me.”

Erin wanted to run… or faint…  or scream…  anything to get away. But squashed between an old lady clutching a bag of meagre groceries and a 30-something bloke who thought it was a good idea to go straight from the gym to the office – without taking a shower – was hardly the best place for it. If she was lucky, she’d be ignored, the subject of stony-faced embarrassment. At worst, she’d been thrown off the train and collected by station security.

She shook her head, tried to clear the madness. Then she listened, carefully… Good. Nothing but the rocking of the train, beeps and nasal announcements from the speakers, and the chatter of the group of schoolkids in the corner. Seems she’d been imagining things after all.

She screwed her earbuds back in and checked her phone. Oh yeah, dead. Great. Oh well, just enjoy the silence.

“Well? You gonna help me? You’ve got to help me.”

The voice hadn’t gone anywhere. It had been biding its time. Maybe giving her time to recover from the shock. It hadn’t been enough.

“You’re just my imagination. What I get for eating too much cheese at night, or maybe that tuna I had was past its sell-by date. Or not enough coffee this morning. Or something. Anything that makes sense.”

“No. I’m real, alright.”

“… …?”

“Yeah, I know. I’m still trying to deal with it myself. It was only last night that…”

“…that what?”

“Well, not to make too fine a point of it, that I was walking around just like you. You know, in my body. Had a laugh with my mates. A few drinks, maybe a few too many. And on way home…  bham! One minute there I was…  and then…   Next thing I know, I’m inside this mad old geezer dossing in a doorway, looking through his eyes at blue flashing lights and an ambulance crew scooping me up off the road.

“Been walking around in George’s head ever since. Well, til he tagged you… Didn’t know he could do that, but I’m glad he did. Feels much better inside your head. His is a right mess, poor old bugger.”

Erin let out a sigh and shook her head. “All right, let’s say I’ll help you. How am I supposed to do that?”

“Just get me home. To Jessie, my girl. Wife actually. We got married a month ago. I can’t bear the thought of life – or the afterlife, I s’pose – without her. Not quite yet. I know I can’t stay forever but just a little bit more…  that’s all. It all happened so quick. I’ve got to get to her. Be with her. Even if it’s just for a little while…”

The voice cracked a little. A sniff, and a heavy sigh. Almost as if it was crying. But can you cry without a body?

The train rattled into the station and the doors slid open. Erin stepped out and mounted the escalator.

“Hang on. How’d you know to get out here? I never told you.”

“I always get out here. It’s my stop.”

“Well, well. Seems like George knew what he was doing, after all.”

“I seriously doubt that.”

“Well, I dunno, the fates or something. This is exactly where I need to be. You know that little park by the station?”

Erin nodded. She walked past it every day on the way to work.

“Jess takes the dog for a walk there every morning, round about this time. Daft mongrel she got from the shelter. Called him Spike… stupid name for a dog… but she’s nuts about him. No matter what, even with me dead, she won’t miss taking Spike for his morning walk.”

“But what am I supposed to do?” asked Erin, trudging up the last steps to daylight.

“Tag her, of course.”

“Oh, so I just walk up to some poor woman who’s just lost her husband and poke her? I don’t think she’ll thank me, you know.”

“You’ll work out the way. I can tell from in here that you’ve got a way with people.”

The gate to the park creaked as Erin pushed it open and looked around. An ordinary inner city park. Kids dragging their feet on their way to school, a man in a high vis vest raking leaves into a pile, swings and a climbing frame sitting empty on a bouncy rubber floor, bins overflowing with plastic bottles and fast food wrappers…

A bag lady in a rainbow bobble hat waddled past, dragging a suitcase bulging with newspapers. The council worker had stopped his raking for a sneaky smoke. A woman in a business suit and running shoes was power-walking across the grass.

“There she is!”

“Where?”

“There. On the bench, over there. That’s my Jess. That’s my girl.”

Half hidden by the trunk of an oak tree, a young woman with dirty blonde hair scraped back into a messy ponytail was slumped on the seat. Her shoulders were heaving with soundless sobs and a scruffy grey dog was nuzzling her face, trying to lick the tears away.

“Go on. What are you waiting for? Go to her!” The voice was frantic.

“And do what?”

“I dunno, ask if she’s alright. Give her a hug or something.”

Erin shook her head. She may be a people person, but giving hugs to crying strangers was not her style. As she approached the bench, she heard Jess mumbling under her breath: “Oh Spike, what’m I gonna do? He’s gone. I’m all alone.”

The voice was urgent now. “Do it!”

Erin shyly approached the girl. “Um, are you alright, love? Do you need help?”

Jess took her hands from her face and raised red-rimmed eyes to look at Erin. She wiped her tears and sniffed back a bubble of snot, but there was no hiding her heart-ripped-to-shreds grief.

“Bet I look a sight,” she mumbled. “Thanks, but you can’t do anything. I’ve just got to carry on... …but  …but  …I don’t know how.”

Erin sat down next to her, saying nothing. What could she say? She just sat. And waited.

“Jon, my husband, was hit by a drunk driver last night. Died on the spot, even before the ambulance got there. The driver did a runner and of course his mates didn’t get the number…  I told him not to go out with Darren…  bloody idiot. He’s left me all alone, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

She flung her arms the dog and sobbed into its grey-specked fur.

“Now! Do it now,” hissed Jon. “You saw what George did. Just a touch. Put you hand on her shoulder or something. You’re a sympathetic stranger, it’s only natural.”

Tentatively, Erin reached out and patted the green wool of Jessie’s coat.

“Do you want go for a cup of tea or something?”

Jess looked up. “Tea? I’ve had enough tea to sink a battleship since the police knocked on my door last night. But thanks, anyway. You’re a good person. But I’ve just got to get used to him not being around anymore, haven’t I?”

Erin sat, awkwardly, unsure what to do next. Had she tagged Jess? Was Jon gone?

“Oh, for fu…  I don’t bloody believe it. I didn’t work.”

He was still there.

“You must have done it wrong. Tag her again, harder this time.”

Jess got to her feet and gave a small sad smile. Erin took a step towards her, wondering how to touch her again without seeming creepy.

“Thanks for asking, but I’ll be alright,” sniffed Jessie. “I’ve got to be, haven’t I?”

Erin reached out and touched her elbow, probably more forcefully than necessary. Jessie didn’t notice a thing.

“Shit,” cursed Jon. “Still nothing.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” Erin told him. “Try again.”

Jess picked up Spike’s lead, and beckoned the dog. But it backed away and jumped up at Erin, who ruffled the rough hairs on its head and held his muzzle with its slobbering tongue at arm’s length.

Whoosh…

Everything went quiet, no birds tweeting in the trees. Not even the roar of distant traffic. Then the moment was gone. Spike’s ears pricked up, he dropped to the ground and bounded to Jessie…

Jon didn’t know what had hit him. It was like he’d been shoved aside and sucked through a vacuum. He wasn’t in Erin anymore. He was somewhere else. It was warm, familiar… and slightly smelly.

He tried talking to his new host, but there were no words. Just feeling. Pure and simple. He looked up at Jessie’s tear-stained face and panted.

Erin watched, open-mouthed, not quite believing her eyes. Spike let out a series of yaps and happy whimpers, as Jess bent to his clip the lead onto his collar. She froze and looked deep into the mutt’s button bright eyes.

“I’m not alone,” she half-cried, half-laughed. “I’ve got you, haven’t I, boy? I’ll always have you.”

Silence reigned inside Erin’s head. “Jon has left the building,” she thought to herself with an inner smile.

He was back where he belonged. He was home.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Athens Interlude


Blue skies. White steps. The peevish ‘preet! of a traffic cop’s whistle. Horns honking like angry geese. Fumes creep into my nostrils and curl around the fresh-baked smell of koulouria from across the square. The babble of people swarm in and out of the Metro station. I lean back against the cardboard I’m lying on, close my eyes and let the thin winter sun tickle my face. Its warmth feels so familiar. If I try hard, I can almost imagine I’m back home. Back to the ‘old me’.

I open my eyes and watch the feet going past, each on their way somewhere else. Rushing to work, late for a date, going to a lesson, meeting friends for coffee.

Two small sneakers with the laces half undone stop in front of me. Their new-shoe shine has been scuffed off, and they dance awkwardly on the spot like they’re trying to find the courage to do something. A little kid, maybe five years old, bends down and nervously hands me a crumpled paper bag, then looks to his mum for approval. I look inside, then up into his face, and nod my thanks for the half-eaten cheese pie.

Sometimes, people give me food or some spare coins. Even a smile before going on their way. Other times, it’s just angry words I only half understand.

But most don’t even look at me. I’m no more important to them than the empty coffee cups, unwanted flyers and dead leaves swept into the gutter. Just another part of the landscape that they filter out in this dirty, noisy city that’s as old as history. They feel safer that way, I suppose, more ‘comfortable’.

I’m not the boy I used to be. That boy, and the life he had, seem like a dream now.

++++++


That boy had a family, a home, a good life, hopes and dreams despite the troubles beyond our walls. He had an Xbox, home cooked meals, friends, homework, a mobile phone, football boots, piano lessons...

Maama was so proud when I was offered a place at the Damascus High Institute for Music and Theatre. Made all those hours practicing scales and plonking my way through the Arabic and Western classics worthwhile. Her own ambitions, stopped in their tracks when she married, were born again through me. The first time I played ‘Für Elise’ without a single mistake, she’d burst into tears. Imagine how happy she was when her boy had got into the country’s top music school.

It closed down just a few months after I enrolled. The chords and harmonies that echoed in its practice rooms silenced by the crescendo of gunfire and explosions that got louder, closer, more deadly every day.

++++++

The music still lives inside me. Even this ‘new me’ that hasn’t showered in months, gets as much compassion as a stray dog and has to beg or rummage through the garbage for food. Music is the one thing that reminds me that I’m still human. Just about.

I cram the rest of the cheese pie into my mouth and wipe my fingers on my jeans. I reach into my pocket, pull out a grubby piece of paper. It’s marked where it’s been folded and refolded a thousand times. Notes and time signatures dance along the lines on the page. I lay it on the ground and carefully smooth it out.

My fingers mimic familiar movements on the keys and, just for a moment, I’m back in our living room. Practicing while Maama stirs a pot of thick, sweet coffee, her head nodding with the tempo and a quiet smile dancing on her lips.  

I can almost smell the cardamom cookies she bakes to serve with the coffee.
++++++

My older brother Sameer left one night and never came home. He’d gone to Europe, Maama said. He’d send for us. But her eyes were red, and the shadows under them got darker with every day we heard no news.

One day, Baba came home smudged with dust and blood. A bomb had exploded in Rawda Square, he said. Things would only get worse, he said. I had to leave. Now.

Maama’s face crumpled. “No! Not my baby. He’s only 17. He’s just a boy.” A sudden staccato of gunfire a few streets away silenced her. My father looked at us, empty-eyed, a once proud man broken by his inability to protect his family.

Two days later, I said goodbye to the only home I’d ever known. Bundled into a truck in the middle of the night, clutching a bundle of pastries Maama had spent a tearful afternoon baking, trying to soak every ounce of her mother’s love into the dough. Baba hung his head as he handed the driver a bulging envelope. He wouldn’t – or couldn’t – look at me.

The journey was a blur. We travelled by night, often with no lights, through places I’d never heard of. After days (or was it weeks?) on the road, we reached the coast. I spilled my guts in the open boat crossing the sea. Then, we were vomited onto the beach of an island where people looked like me but spoke a different language. Some brought us day-old bread, olives, bean stew and dry clothes. Others spat at us as we walked into town.

An overwhelmed policeman with a nicotine-yellowed moustache demanded our papers. I had none, except the music in my pocket.  

++++++

Athens is my home, for now. No camp or shelter for me. Officially, I don’t exist. I sleep in the wreck of an abandoned school. Fifty of us to a room with rows of filthy mattresses covering every inch of the concrete floor. No running water or electricity. We make what we can with the rice, lentils, oil and bottles of water kind-faced volunteers bring us, cooking our meals over a flickering camping stove.

It’s better than sleeping on the streets. Or selling ourselves to perverts in the park.

++++++

Back at the squat, I have to escape. Too many people. Too much noise. Too many smells.

I climb the stairs, picking my way past the junkies lying dead-eyed on the landing. I’ve never come this far before, fearing they’d infect me with their poison. Huh, needn’t have worried. They don’t know I’m there. All they know is the temporary escape running like sludge through their veins.

On the second floor, a breeze ruffles my hair and bangs a classroom door. All the windows are broken. Graffiti I can’t read covers the walls. I shiver and pull my jacket closer around me against the chill.

My footsteps crunch over the broken glass that lines the corridor. I open a door and look inside. Almost empty. Just a battered piano stool. No piano. A space waiting to be filled.

I pull the stool to the windowsill, sit down and take out my sheet of music. My fingers find their place and start to move. ‘Für Elise’ fills my mind, and I swear I can smell cardamom cookies.

The old me still lives, bound by hope and the music in my head to my home. A place where I am safe and loved. A place which probably no longer exists.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Black Rose


Holding her breath, she swept the fine brush across her half-shut lids. First one, then the other. A steady hand and patience were key if she wanted to avoid that all-too-familiar ‘panda after a rough night on the town’ look.

She closed her eyes and counted to twenty under her breath, waiting for the eyeliner to dry and praying it would form a perfectly even kitten flick on both sides, making her look irresistible rather than someone with a slight squint.

Susie opened her eyes and examined the result. Not bad, not bad at all.

With the tip of her tongue protruding ever so slightly from the corner of her mouth just below the tender spot where her lips met and laughter lines should have been, she made the final adjustment.

“There,” she said to herself, not daring to smile with satisfaction for fear of spoiling her handiwork. The wide-eyed stare of South London’s answer to the 1950s Hollywood starlets that Lee admired so blinked back at her from the speckled bathroom mirror.

“So far, so good.”

Her expertly applied make-up hid most of the bruise blossoming on her temple. What it couldn’t conceal would be artfully covered by a ‘random’ tendril of her usually drab brown hair, which tonight shone like a polished chestnut.

Now for the finishing touch. A red pencil carefully outlined her lips, giving her a perfect Cupid’s bow, then she filled it in with ‘Drop Dead Red’ to produce a full pout. She’d have to take care how she ate and drank tonight - she didn’t want anything to spoil her lipstick, as least not before Lee did with his ardent kisses.

The dress he’d picked out for her clung to her body in a delicious, unfamiliar way. So different to the modest, unassuming clothes he usually liked to see her in. She didn’t have to dress like a slut to be beautiful, he always said.

He was right, of course. He always was.

But tonight he’d surprised her with the little black dress, and she’d surprised herself at how good it made her feel. It was Audrey Hepburn classy-sexy, rather than in-your-face Jane Russell tussle in the hay. The neckline gave a fleeting glimpse of her burgeoning bosoms, without resorting to the sluttish heaving that enraged him so. The fabric embraced her figure gently without betraying the small bump in her belly. A double strand of pearls finished the look, and helpfully covered the scratch on the side of her throat.

She looked sweet, vulnerable, in need of protection. Just the way Lee wanted her.

The door handle rattled angrily, impatiently.

“What the hell are you doing in there?” came a voice tinged with annoyance from the other side. “Why’ve you locked the door? I’ve told you about that, haven’t I?”

“Just a minute, sweetheart,” she replied. “I want to surprise you.”

“Well, get a move on. We haven’t got all night.”

Susie slipped on her brand new peep-toe stilettoes, smoothed her skirt, and patted her hair. Turning, she smiled to herself at the thought of Lee’s reaction, turned the key and opened the door with a flourish. “Ta da!”

She was met with a stony glare.

“We’re not going to a Vicars and Tarts party, you know.”

Susie’s face fell.

“When I bought you that dress, I thought you had the class to carry it off without looking like some kind of street walker. You think I want to be seen out in public with…  with… that?” he gestured angrily at her torso.

“But, but…   I thought you’d like it,” Susie stuttered, fighting the tears that threatened to ruin her carefully constructed face.

“Like it? Thought I’d like being seen in public with a whore, putting it all out there, advertising herself as anyone’s for the couple of drinks?”

Lee, small but wiry and strong, grabbed her wrist and pulled her close.

“If that’s what you think I’d like, let’s see how you like being treated like a whore,” he snarled. Spinning her round and pushing her forward over the sofa, he roughly yanked her skirt up past her stocking tops and fumbled with her panties.

“Lee, please don’t!” she cried, her eyeliner now seeping down the creases in her frightened face.

“Shut up, bitch.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you angry. I just… just…  aaaah!”

He wasn’t listening. He was lost in a frenzy of lust and fury, grunting like an animal.

“Is that what you like, you dirty whore? I treat you like a queen, give you everything you need, but it’s wasted on you. You’re nothing but a common tart. Is that how you want me to see you? Fine, let’s see how you like it. Maybe we can put you on the street corner when I’m done with you, as you like it so much?”

His fingers dug painfully into the soft flesh at the front of her thighs. Susie tried to raise her head to protest, but was shoved back down roughly, leaving her to softly weep and wait for it to be over.

It didn’t take long.

Re-buckling his belt and wiping the sweat from his top lip, Lee pulled her up.

“Now, for God’s sake, go and clean yourself up. Wipe that muck off your face, change your shoes and put your coat on. It’s Valentine’s night and we’ve got dinner reservations.”

****

From his bedroom window, Jake watched as Lee frog-marched Susie through the cold night to their car. She seemed smaller, somehow, perhaps because of the big coat swamping her figure, and her steps were hesitant, like a nervous bird.

He knew why, of course. He’d heard it all. Hard not to, through the walls of the old Victorian terrace that held their flat, his, and three more neighbours he never saw. The raised voice, pleading tears, grunts, the angry banging of the sofa against the wall.

It didn’t take a writer’s imagination to work out what had happened.

What he couldn’t fathom was why. Why she stayed. Why she didn’t just walk away. Seek refuge somewhere. Perhaps with him.

He sighed. He knew Lee’s game. The daily wearing away of her self-esteem. Convincing her that she was worth nothing in her own right. That he was the only one that could possibly see anything in her. That everything bad that happened to her, she brought upon herself.

He knew it only too well. He’d seen it up close and personal. How it had worn away at his mother’s sense of self, until there was nothing but a shell left, limp of emotion like a rag doll, ready to jump or flinch at the smallest criticism. To cow-tow to his father’s quixotic whims and to hang on his every word for a hint of approval, like an over-eager puppy dog.

Until one day, she was no more. Nothing left of her but a sad red stain spreading over the white bathroom tiles. Then, the sympathy of neighbours for the poor bereaved husband. The same neighbours who’d turned a blind eye to the bruises, a deaf ear to the night-time accusations, incriminations, smashes and thuds.

The platitudes came in floods at the funeral: “You did everything you could”, “She wasn’t a well woman”, “She didn’t have the strength”. Only he, sitting in the corner in a stiff collared shirt bought for the occasion, knew that his mum had once had the strength, but it had been drained from her by the years. Years with Him.

He was just a kid back then. Powerless. Now, he was older, stronger, smarter. He would not let the same fate claim Susie.

****

Susie didn’t say much at dinner. She didn’t need to. Lee ordered for her, as always. She didn’t dare tell him she didn’t fancy steak.

She chewed diligently at the meat, trying to ignore the twinge of her bruised jaw, just as she had tried to avoid Lee’s critical glare as she picked at her prawn cocktail starter. The lemon juice in the dressing had made her lip smart, and she really didn’t like prawns all that much. She looked up to see Lee staring pointedly at her.

“Eat up, princess. I’m spending good money on that sirloin. For you. You need the iron. Got to look after yourself, and my boy.”

“It might be a girl,” she murmured under her breath, careful not to be heard above the tinkling piano in the corner of the restaurant packed with couples dressed up to the nines, desperate to convince themselves that they were all madly in love.

The thought flitted across her mind that Lee’s treatment earlier that evening probably did more harm to the child inside her than a slight iron deficiency that would be easily corrected with a prescription from the family doctor. She dismissed the it before she could acknowledge it, fearful that he could read her conscious thoughts and take revenge for her imaginary betrayal. Again.

Her eyes strayed down to the single red rose laying on the linen tablecloth next to her dessert fork. It had come with a card, obviously dictated to the florist, in a curling baroque script that bore no resemblance to Lee’s practical, heavy hand:

Forever mine.
Lee.

Susie shuddered inwardly as she read it again. Others would probably find it romantic in its simplicity.

To her, it felt like a life sentence.

****

Jake opened his bedside table drawer and pulled out a schoolboy’s exercise book, a pen, and a door key. He scribbled a note on the lined page, ripped it out and folded it carefully. On the windowsill sat a vase of deep red roses, the colour of blood that’s delivered its load of oxygen, standing in water tinged with ink to make the petals even darker. He rose to his feet, took one, and tapped the droplets from its stem. Wrapping it in a napkin, he left his apartment and headed down the hall to Lee and Susie’s =front door.

He slipped the key easily into the lock.

Averting his eyes from the mess by the coffee table, embarrassed by the evidence of Susie’s humiliation, he headed for the bedroom. She always went to bed long before Lee, to catch some peace before he switched off the TV and woke her with his nightly demands, whether she was in the mood or not.

Jake gently laid the rose on her pillow. Beneath it, the page from his exercise book with the simple message: “You’re not alone”.

****

“You’re a lucky girl,” crowed Lee. “A new outfit, flowers, dinner at a fancy restaurant. Who else would do all that for you? No-one can say Lee Lawrence doesn’t deliver on the romance front.”

Satisfied that he was indeed God’s gift to womankind, Lee threw his jacket onto the back of the coach, loosened his tie and slumped down onto the cushions.

The TV screen blossomed with a click of the remote and he settled down for a well-deserved couple of hours soaking up sports scores, action movies and maybe a little porn if he could find anything tasty. He’d earned it, after all.

He refused to let Susie’s moronic clattering in the kitchen break his mellow mood. All was right in his world. He had a good job, a nice flat, and a son on the way. Everything was going according to plan.

Well, almost everything. Susie was where things fell short. Every now and then, she needed a little reminder of her rightful place. If he was honest it was those little reminders that kept him interested, kept the spice in their relationship. The surge of testosterone that fueled their fun and games before dinner made him feel powerful, invincible. Just thinking idly about it now awoke a stirring in his groin, even after a big meal and a bottle of wine. Maybe he’d be back for a replay a bit later.

She loved it, he was sure of that. All women fantasised about being ‘taken roughly’, didn’t they? Just look at the sales figures of “Fifty Shades of Grey”. All women have a little whore in them, a bit that loves to be dominated.

Yes, he’d definitely be giving her another seeing-to in an hour or two. It was Valentine’s Day, a special occasion, after all.

He smiled benevolently as Susie placed a steaming cup of coffee topped with cream on the table next to him.

“Irish?” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.

She nodded mutely and showed him the hip flask in her other hand.

“Good girl,” he cheered, slapping her behind as she turned to go. Limping slightly, she crossed the room and put the pewter flask back in its place.

Silly cow, thought Lee affectionly. So clumsy. Must have tripped over something in the kitchen. She was always doing stuff like that. Walking into doors, falling downstairs, burning herself on the stove.

“Off to bed with you now, darling,” he chirruped. “You need your beauty sleep. Just do me a favour. Keep those stockings on.”

****

Already nauseous, Susie almost choked on the thought of further violation and fear for the child growing in her belly. She was sure Lee’s nightly assaults would eventually make her miscarry – and then she’d in for more punishment for not taking care of ‘his’ baby.

There was no escape. Just the promise of a few snatched hours of sleep before his fumbling woke her and the nightmare continued.

Murmuring a meek “goodnight” she went straight to bed without bothering to wash off what was left of her make-up. All she wanted was to sleep, escape, if only for a little while.

She flopped onto the bed with its freshly laid crimson sheets without turning on the light. Kicked her shoes into the corner, shrugged her date dress onto the floor, lifted the quilt and slid between the sheets.

As she lay her head on the pillow, something tickled her cheek. Something that smelled green, fresh, like the park after a summer shower. Puzzled, she switched on the bedside light. A rose, not perfect but exquisite in its imperfection, lay on her pillow. Deep red, almost black, it would not have been visible against the dark pillowcase if it hadn’t been for the scrap of paper beneath it.

A wave of realisation crashed over her, bringing with it shock, fear, disbelief, guilt, and… yes…  a small thrill of excitement.

She knew who had left it there.

Jake, their wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly nerd of a next-door neighbour. The one who could be trusted to water the plants and accept deliveries when they were away, but who had never once looked either of them directly in the eye.

Jake, who kept himself to himself, made no unreasonable demands and could always be relied on for a cup of sugar or handful of teabags when she ran out.

Jake, the ultimate Beta Male whose name Lee could never remember.

Jake, who’d gone on about the language of flowers when she called round with a hastily-scribbled Christmas card a couple of months back.

With trembling fingers, she took the piece of folded paper and opened it. Inside, a simple message, an expected one even, but one which gave her hope.

Lee mustn’t see the rose. A flower from another man – even if it was “just Jake” – would be enough to send her to the Accident & Emergency Department at St Swithun’s. That was the last thing she needed.

She scrunched the note into a ball and stuffed it under the mattress. Then, taking the bloom by its long stem, and carefully avoiding its sharp thorns, she placed it like a sleeping child under her pillow. Right next to the elegant filleting knife Jake had ordered from the Chef’s Shop after taking those online cookery classes.

Its blade gleamed as Susie lightly ran her index finger along its sharp edge. The soft flesh opened cleanly and beads of blood welled up. She smiled, put the pillow back and lay down, sucking at the pad of her finger and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long.

****

7.30am: Jake was already up, teacup in hand, peering at his computer screen. A soft knock roused him and he went to the door and peered through the spy-hole.

Susie stood there, without a scrap of make-up to hide the fresh bruise on her cheek or the older one at her temple. With her hair gathered in a messy ponytail, clad in sweats and with an unfamiliar twinkle in her eye, she looked like a tomboy who’d been in a schoolyard brawl - and won. There was an energy about her, an air of triumph, radiating off her like he’d never seen before.

She grinned shyly as he opened the door, then thrust a red rose still in its florist’s wrapper at him.

“Thought you’d like another one for your collection,” she announced. “Put it in ink with your other ones. You never know who’s going to need a bit of revenge next.”

Jake took the flower and nearly dropped it in surprise at its unexpected weight. Inside its plastic wrapper nestled a sleek, sharp knife – one that matched the empty hole in the butcher’s block on his kitchen counter. Its blade was dull and sticky, stained almost black, like the roses on his windowsill.

He looked a question at Susie.

“Thank you,” she whispered, then patted her stomach and nodded. “Rose says thank you, too.”

****

It was a week before anyone noticed something was amiss. The Lawrences were a quiet couple, not given much to socialising. None of the neighbours paid much attention to their disappearance, not even the solitary writer who lived next door.

Eventually, the smell oozing from their apartment raised the alarm. Next door no longer had the spare key – or so he said. They had to break the door down.

Everything seemed normal. A tidy kitchen, a forgotten coffee cup on the table next to the coach, towels neatly folded in the bathroom. Even the sheets were laid on the bed… until closer inspection revealed they were pulled over the butchered body of Lee Lawrence. Their deep red hue was the colour of his death. The colour of black roses.

****

Four hundred miles away, a young woman sat in a Glasgow tattoo parlour grimacing through the sting of the artist’s pen as it bit into the distended flesh above her belly button.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” asked the pierced and painted girl with a Rockabilly hairdo, looking up from her work. “Maybe we should wait until… you know… after?”

“It’s OK,” replied the woman in the chair as she craned her neck to seen the outline etched on her stomach. “I can take the pain – I’ve had plenty of practice.

“Anyway, what’s a rose without a few thorns?”