Of All the Places to Die (extract)

Joe came out onto the porch. It was cold, the sky still poised with low grey clouds after a night of rain. He looked to the floor. His father hadn’t been fooling around. There were bees. He hunched down and counted them. Five. His father said they’d frozen to death. Joe knelt, tucked his hands under his arms and looked closer. The bees didn’t look dead to him. They weren’t twisted belly up like other dead bugs he’d seen. He was sure most beetles died of stomach ache the way they curled in on themselves, writhing in bug death. These bees weren’t like that. There was no death on them. Their fuzzy coats were still electric, their abdomens honed, their pairs of wings unshaken by his breath. These bees were drones, he’d learnt in school, like soldiers. In winter they didn’t get home. They died lonely deaths, brave soldiery deaths, he thought. His mother came out then.

‘Joe, leave them bees alone now. You’re not to be playing with them, remember?’

‘I’m just looking. And they’re dead besides.’

‘No matter, come in. You’ll catch your death out.’

His mother went back indoors. Joe didn’t go in straight away. Instead, he hunched over the bees like before, wondering about those five and of all the places to die.

When he came into the house it was quiet, the only sound that of the ticking clock hung in the hall. His mother had gone back to bed, now that she’d seen to his father. She had left the milk out again.

His father had woken him before going to work. He had come into the bedroom without turning on the light as he always did. Lately he’d stay a while, and just sit in the dark. Sometimes Joe would see him come in, the light straying in from the hall giving his father the figure of a lonesome giant. Other times he’d wake up to find his father already there, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring over at the window. Joe wouldn’t say anything when he saw him like that. He’d pretend not to be awake, before making just the right noises, turning over in his bed, letting him know that he was there. His father would then turn to him and ruffle his hair. ‘Morning champ,’ that’s what he’d say. Joe would look at his father then. He liked looking at his round face, his dark eyes, and his thick black hair. He knew they looked alike. Everybody said so, too. His father would then get up from the bed, go over to the window and open it, no matter how cold it might be outside.

‘Be a good boy. Help your mother.’ Then he’d be gone till dinner time.

Joe brought some milk in a pan to the stove. Milk was quick to heat, time enough to fetch the radio in the next room. He brought it into the kitchen and switched it on. He kept the volume low so as not disturb his mother. He turned the dial as far as it would go and back again without finding a single song. There was a lot of talk, interrupted by a constant buzz. He liked radio. It made good company. And he learnt new things from it, although there were times when it got stuck on the same topic. Last summer all they spoke about was the heat and how it was the hottest ever. People were even calling in to say they agreed it was hot. Joe didn’t see the point in them doing that.

Lately all the talk was about the end of the world. The same people were calling to say they’d seen it coming, said the summer had been that hot ‘cause it meant the end. Experts had predicted it. They’d studied the Mayan civilizations – people who were dead already. The planets were lined up like marbles. They even got a professor on the show one time. The host seemed to like saying the word professor whenever she could. ‘Professor,’ she said, ‘our listeners would like to know more.’ But that professor didn’t seem to care for radio much. He cleared his throat a lot and used words Jonah had never heard before. He put a lot of sound into some of these words like it were a syllable game he was playing.

‘Ex-ter-min-a-tion,’ he said many times. Joe knew what that meant. He just didn’t see it: Everybody dying at the same time like that. It was as believable as the radio serials he listened to, like The War of the Worlds or, his other favourite, Captain Mayhem. Joe knew all about dying. He knew. He just didn’t understand this death they were talking about. He switched the radio off only to find that the milk had frothed up over the pan, flooding the stove.

 

In Barn Light (extract)

The barn was filled with shoes. Old shoes mostly. Shoes that had been worn until they no longer served the purpose of shoes. They were nailed to the dark streaked wood of the barn. Nailed to the planked walls, to the solid beams that held up the hayloft, and even high up in the rafters, where they dangled like sleeping bats. Brown and black and white leather shoes, some with wooden heels and some with exposed spiked teeth where the sole had been torn away. Shards of sunlight broke in from the wooden slates above. Ruth pointed out her favourite pairs and told Jonah to whom in her family the shoes had once belonged. Grassy tufts poked out from some work shoes where a swallow had made its nest. A pair of her father’s army boots had been bolted into the barn door at the ankle. Jonah flinched, imagining the pain, and looked away. In a corner, tied to a beam, he noticed a pair of ballet shoes. They were a faded pink. The satin straps ran around the beam and fastened the shoes against it with a tight knot in the middle, causing the heels and the toes of the shoes to rise.

‘What about those, up there?’ Jonah asked.

Ruth turned her head in the direction of the shoes.

‘Those belonged to my mother,’ she said.

They had closed the doors and climbed up onto the bundles of hay, golden brown and warm she said because it had the sun still in it. And then they undid each other’s buttons, taking off their clothes. Her dresses were old and threadbare and she was happy to be rid of them. They looked at each other, and touched where the sun hadn’t yet, where the skin was soft and white, and then he dressed her in straw. He told her to stay still – said she mustn’t laugh, because when she did her whole body was taken up with it and the straw wouldn’t stay.

Afterwards he thought about why they never spoke much in the barn. It did not bother him though. He liked the little noises she made as she lay back on the hay, her eyes taking him in, and the rustle of the dry grass moving under her like it was still growing out in the field. He had given her his shirt as a gift because it was her name day. She said it felt soft on her skin and that it smelt of him.

The Theatre

The final curtain fell and the public, some still applauding, others already discussing where they’d go next, left the theatre. I took up my flashlight and began to make my rounds, collecting forgotten things and tidying up. When I came to the second floor there stood before me a startled girl, with long, dark hair and pleading doe eyes: is there any way we can stay behind? I understood that she had mistaken me for another stowaway.  I told her we could, if she wished, but we’d have to hide. I lit my flashlight and led her up towards the chambers where the prime minister, royals or other notables sat when visiting. The room was embellished with gold laden candlestick holders and a low ceiling adorned with fine frescoes depicting wars from medieval times. Once inside, I drew the curtain on our hiding-place, lit all the candles and showed her to an armchair, where she sat looking out over the dark theatre. The empty seats were visible in the shadow and our human forms created silhouettes on the distant stage curtain: two awkward giants, made giddy by the dancing candle flames. The balcony was lined with soft red velvet cushion; and it was here that she rested her head upon her arms. Her eyes began to close, fluttering, like a butterfly’s wings when it comes to rest – once, twice and then they shut: she’d fallen asleep. I sat beside her, quietly – listening to her breathing. I could feel her tiny breathes escape – her deep sighs – come rushing up against my skin where they’d break like waves. In the silence of the empty theatre, the dreams of a sleeping girl played themselves out before dying candle light, and I – my giant form diminishing, ever fading, into sleep, and a dream – just like her.

Tokyo Diamond

You put your hand into your coat pocket, and then slowly slide it out. You give your head a quick turn towards the bar just to your left. You look almost surprised to see it there. Had it been there all this while? You place both hands on your lap together in tight fists, and then in a well-timed choreographed dance, they open like two fans, move apart and flutter, down to your sides where they rest an instant before folding; your palms press against the bench’s edge, your fingers curl, take hold. A triad of elegantly dressed Japanese ladies cross your path laughing amongst themselves. You smile and swing on the edge of the bench like it was a swing in a playground, legs out straight for the flight into the air… and folded beneath you again for the return. Your shoes are white leather, with a low heel. The top of your foot is bare. They’re dancing shoes. When raised they catch the light and shine. You follow the Japanese ladies with your eyes as they enter the bar through its revolving glass doors, laughing all the while. Again, you slide your hand into your pocket, only this time it waits for you there, till you stand up. The movement is so sudden, caused by some outward force, a desperate shout for help, a call to retreat or attack, the due arrival of your train. Only there is silence: no more trains will come this afternoon and the laughter of the Japanese ladies has taken a seat inside the bar. You stand before me, as straight backed as a hard sounding capital letter, a ballerina – on the tips of your toes. I wait for you to see me. Let me see what you have in your pocket. Is it a coin? Will it be enough to pay for that soul saving cup of coffee, enough to make a call? Have you forgotten to say goodbye? You look away from where I am and you stare hard and long down the tracks, in both directions, to the end, and then to the beginning. Somehow, with nobody going in or out, the doors of the bar begin to swing and out slips the distinct, inviting sound of a spoon being place beside a ceramic cup, which is sent out to you, greets you personally. You rise, walk fast, your dancing shoes beating out sonnets on the stone platform beneath you, and you vanish into the laughter and warmth, while the glass doors still spin.

 

Undinélé

Time drifted for Undinélé like a sailor at sea. In school she was often in trouble. ‘Undinélé, stop dreaming,’ the teacher would say. Geography was the worst: the continents, heavy as enormous ships, floating across maps. How did they not fall down to the darkest depths? She carried this question home with her and, in the evening as she played chess with her father, she wondered if the power that held the world together was not something as simple as thought itself.  A smile would surface then, like a wave come to shore. And she would move a piece forward.