Milo and the Diva

by Joanne Richards

Milo and I are in the kitchen. We have our backs to one another. Neither of us speaks; we are communicating nonetheless. Milo sits in lamp-lit silence at the table; I am at my urban Aga stirring béchamel sauce. Dusk deepens outside. We must – the two of us - present a perfect diorama to the world behind these windows. I ought to close the blinds - but I do not. Deliberately, I slow my breath, relax the powerful muscles of my throat and concentrate upon the rhythm of the spoon. I try to conjure from this simple task the meditative calm that I am hoping to transmit.  

Beyond the limestone tiles and granite tops that mattered to me once, Milo’s wide shoulders beam a message of their own. I need not turn to understand that every sinew radiates frustration and his rage. Milo is trying to write an essay; he seems unlikely to succeed. I feel his tension resonating through my bones. The sauce is thick and glossy now. Complete. I cannot hold this moment any longer. Soon, Milo will explode.

 

Three years have passed since we brought Milo home from school. The housemaster’s first call went through to Gerald’s office; his people had arranged my flights before I even heard the news. The car met me at Inverness and we drove on together, knowing that underneath the reassuring tones they feared the worst. The hills were snow-covered and Milo had run away at night taking with him nothing warm. Then, thank God, they found him collapsed scarcely a mile beyond the grounds.  By the time we arrived, he was already swaddled in metallic blankets and an ambulance was on its way.

Gerald threatened to sue, hiding his confusion behind activity and anger with the school. I reacted differently: everything was instantly and absolutely clear as the relentless, sequinned treadmill of my life stopped dead. If you had told me that I would abandon without a backward glance everything I thought I held most dear, I would have laughed. Yet even as my assistant moved mountains to cancel all engagements for a month (a recital I expect; costume-fittings certainly; a long-anticipated master-class) I knew it wouldn’t matter if I never sang again.  When I set eyes on Milo I recaptured the ferocious mother-love that, with Gerald’s help, I had made such efforts to dilute, ring-fencing my career with nannies, housekeepers and boarding schools. Milo was my precious child again and this was no-one’s role but mine.

As I cradled Milo in my arms, appalled at the jutting bones beneath his baggy clothes, I promised I would never let him fall. I have kept my word. Milo remains alive and safe at home but I… I am diminished. All through the early crises of Milo’s efforts to destroy himself, I was unflinching. I held my poise each time we combed the London streets for him or confiscated knives and broken glass - even when sombre, courteous policemen searched the garages and attic. Then gradually, the urgency died down. Milo fell quiet. Gerald returned to work and soon continued at the pace that high office demands. Life went on.

At first I felt entirely alone for sound, co-ordinated help was hard to find. I learned some bitter lessons in the hostile, virgin, therapeutic jungle. How little you control no matter how you plead - or pay. No matter who you think you are. Thanks to well-timed brouhaha over a deviant MP, Milo’s moment on the Marylebone flyover escaped the press but afterwards, the State took charge: a tired-eyed psychiatrist; a tattooed ‘therapist’ whom Milo deigned to talk to; an on-call crisis team. And drugs; always drugs. But we kept him out of hospital - I’m proud of that – and I did all the rest. Milo began a slow return to health.

We spent all our days together. I absorbed myself in Milo’s every want and need with the attention of a mother to a new-born babe, tempting him with dainty morsels packed with secret goodness - the sort one takes for granted in hotels. And despite his monstrous mood-swings, sometimes there was humour, company and conversation in return. It was special for us both I think. As Milo grew stronger we began to venture out – first to the chichi cafes and private galleries near home, later to the cinema and theatre. Serious music, by unspoken understanding, was out of bounds. To hear - let alone to sing - was more than I could bear. I filled the gap with Radio 2, coming almost to enjoy its gentle innocence and cheer. Milo was unaffected by this loss; his indifference to my world has long been very clear. Against the odds we had some fun, rediscovering London as if through newly-opened eyes. We visited museums and rode the London Eye. I’d always wanted to do that - but there was never time. At the zoo, in the rain, we balanced like flamingos, whistled ‘Cruella de Vil’ to the leopards, laughed until we cried.  

Milo had always been a lovely child but it was still a shock to see how the etiolation of his illness elevated him to pale and modish beauty. Sometimes I found it hard to tear my eyes from him. The first modelling scout – a bird-boned creature with an outsize handbag and the most bizarre pink hair - approached us near the house when Milo was barely strong enough to walk. Gerald was aghast. Milo, who looks no-one in the eye, would drop their business cards as if they burnt. Secretly, I picked one up and kept it, daring to fantasise the future, until the day that Milo read my mind and searched my bag. The honeymoon was over.

Immediately, Milo began to eat. Literally, he filled his face, devouring anything and everything with the dogged hopelessness of one condemned to spend eternity in Hell’s third circle until, at last, his feline features came to rest among the pallid cushions of his neck and chin, and those exquisite zygomatic bones sank deep into dumpling cheeks.  Needless to say, the agencies troubled us no more.

 

It has been a heavy trudge uphill since then. My voice remains silent; I am bone tired; I too have gained weight. Behind locked cupboard doors my concert gowns hang uselessly in their chameleon hues.  Recently, by chance, my agent bumped into Gerald at The Ledbury and began to call again. His insistence is unsettling for his plans make little sense to me. Euterpe is a jealous and demanding Muse: once forsaken, she will hardly welcome me again.

Milo, meanwhile, is doing rather well. Physically, he is much improved. His scars are fading. He runs in Regents Park and works out with a trainer at Gerald’s club.  Malnutrition at a crucial age has cost him a little height but he has muscle now and a powerful, sometimes intimidating presence. Women notice him. He has learnt to drive and he loves the little car that Gerald bought to celebrate.  Occasionally I hear him talking on the phone. Upstairs, metallic music blares behind closed doors.  

Gerald assures me that all this is good and healthy and encouraging but although I know he’s right, I struggle to believe. Milo still fills the space that used to be my own. I fret when he’s away and chafe when he is here. Increasingly, I wake at night filled with a sense of dread and accusation that I neither recognise nor can explain. It is as if Milo’s darkest thoughts and feelings have the Vampire’s power to penetrate my bedroom door in incorporeal form. An oppressive fog of loss and guilt has displaced my former clarity of thought and I find myself repeating our sad story from a mental witness box.

More even than his bodily suffering, I feel Milo’s isolation: the passing of those precious, fragile, irrecoverable years when a boy becomes a man among his peers. My own losses are best not dwelt upon and there are more to come. If Milo manages a ‘normal’ life, he will abandon me. If not…the image comes to mind unbidden of a motel cellar and a mother’s desiccated corpse.

Milo is studying again; he visits private tutors and a language school. There has been talk of Oxford. I refuse to join this fantasy when his mess pervades my once well-ordered home and every task he undertakes becomes a mountain that I must climb beside him, step by agonising step. This damned essay, which he is capable of writing in his sleep, is the latest in a long and tedious line. Why, with so many rooms to choose from in this house, must he write it in my kitchen? My own fist tightens on the wooden spoon as Milo thumps the table, sending books and papers crashing to the floor.

‘Fuck!’

He speaks! I stir faster, refusing to react.

‘Fuck! Idiots do this! Why can’t I?’

I keep my voice low. ‘Idiots can’t, Sweetheart. You can.’

‘Fucking can’t!’

A mug half full of coffee hits the tiles. He is about to storm away to God-knows-where.

‘Can I make you something? Would you like a drink?’

‘Fuck!’

‘Darling, please…’

‘For God’s sake, fuck off, mum. Leave me alone!’

Suddenly, it is too much! I feel my diaphragm draw down, my lungs open, and my palate and tongue prepare to articulate the vile, vulgar word that I have never once allowed to soil my lips!

‘No, Milo! Fuck off yourself!’

Then, mustering Tosca’s suicidal splendour, I sweep from the kitchen, leaving in my wake a saucepan dropped and Milo, open mouthed, aware that he has seen Elektra in my eyes.

I walk swiftly, as if summoned, straight to the music room and I unlock the door. It breaks my heart to see it like this: dark, forlorn and cold. I turn the heating up and switch on soft lights and the sound system. I pour whiskey into one of the Irish crystal glasses sparkling on their lacquered tray - a gift from Gerald who has always loved this room. I drink it down in one and pour some more. It is delicious - as dark and nuanced as the ebony curves and planes of my grand piano gleaming in the lamplight. There’s not a speck of dust. Someone has kept my sanctuary clean. I feel light-headed, disembodied, almost dreaming as I lift the lid and touch a note or two. It’s fractionally out of tune.

I seem to watch myself sink down into my favourite place on the longest sofa, pick up the remote control and press PLAY. So absorbed am I in this strange moment, and so certain that I will hear in my own forgotten voice the yearning wistfulness of Strauss’s Four Last Songs - exquisite elegies to loss, that minutes pass before I notice that technology cannot yet follow fantasy! Nobody is singing; I am listening to a string quartet. By the time I get my bearings and recognise the A minor opus 132, the greatest of Beethoven’s towering, mystic late quartets, the Allegro ma non tanto is already underway. Notes leap and swirl, hurting my head. I cannot catch their meaning. Then I remember what comes next, close my eyes and wait.

The Heiliger Dankgesang is a hymn of thanksgiving and redemption, composed during Beethoven’s convalescence from agonising, near-fatal illness. Reams have been written about it; it has inspired great poetry. Heretically perhaps, it makes me think of sex: transcendent, absorbing and prolonged, with a lover endlessly inventive and surpassingly tender, but to whose miraculous prowess one may yet, without fear or shame, aspire. It is sublime beyond words.

I stop the music as the shimmering climax fades. Only then do I realise that Milo too is in the room. He stands just inside the door, transfixed and weeping silently, open-eyed and unabashed. Neither of us has an ounce of anger left; we are washed clean.

Suddenly embarrassed, I fall back upon a platitude. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ I say, ‘Almost too much to bear.’

Milo is silent for long moments, deep in thought. ‘No, not that,’ he says at last. ‘Not that. He’s just… talking to God.’

Milo turns away. I let him go and close my eyes again. When I come to, Gerald is sitting quite at ease in his accustomed chair by the piano. He smiles across at me, raises an eyebrow – and his glass - and whispers, ‘Welcome home?’

Time stops. Blood surges fortissimo into my ears; I command it to be silent. I wonder, does this man - my husband - actually remember what I am? Does he not understand that I have power in my very breath to burst that heavy crystal into splinters in his hand? I search his face. Only if I am satisfied will I consent to take his cue.

Happy Hanukkah

Regina Freedman

Maxine Levy opened her bathroom cabinet and looked at the box sitting on the middle shelf; it was tucked between a tube of thrush cream and an empty bottle of bubble bath. She reached inside, checked the sell by date, removed the small white stick and threw the box into the bin. She crouched over the toilet; knickers and tights pulled under her knees, legs wobbling and placed the stick in the direction of the oncoming urine stream. As she waited for the first drops to fall the phone rang. “For fucks sake!” She let the test drop to the floor, straddled her way to the bedroom, under wear stretched across like a French skipping rope and picked up the phone.

“You sound out of breath,” said Corinne. “Have I interrupted something? Don’t forget to pop into Waitrose on your way, pick up some kosher wine and some macaroons and Ben wants those peanut butter biscuits.”

“I’m late.”  

“You should have left by now. It’ll be dark by the time you get here.”

“No I mean I’m late.”

“Can you get pretzels and pickled cucumbers while you’re at it?” She stopped. “What are you saying?”

Maxine could see through to the bathroom; the white stick lying like a corpse on the tiled floor. “I’m late…for my period.”

“Have you taken a test? Please God it’s not another false alarm.”  

“You interrupted me. I’ll have to do one later.” She looked at her watch. “David should be back any minute and then we’ll set off. And Corinne?”

“Yes?” 

“Don’t tell Mum.”

 

Light shone from the dining room of Sandra Levy’s gable fronted house. A nine branched candelabra sat illuminated at the window.

“We’re so late,” said Maxine, as she and David raced up the gravelled garden path. “She’s going to kill me.” 

The front door swung open.

“Happy Hanukkah. Glad you could make it,” said Sandra, hands on hips, “we nearly started without you.”

 Maxine held up the shopping bag and smiled. “Happy Hanukkah, Mummy.”

They stepped inside the hall, took off their coats and scarves and hung them on the stand. Maxine glimpsed at herself in the mirror and tried to flatten her thick brown hair before leading David into the dining room where Corinne, Ben and sons Oliver and Samuel waited at the candelabra. 

“Just in time,” said Corinne, “Samuel’s going to light the candles.”

“Hi darling,” said Maxine, placing her hand on Samuel’s shoulder and remembering for a moment his sweetness as a baby; his shock of curly brown hair and soft cheeks now splattered with acne. 

“Hi Auntie,” he said.

Sandra leant in towards David. “Did you know the candle stick is called the Menorah?”

“You told him that last year,” said Maxine.

“And you light the middle candle, the Shamash, first?”

Oliver, the elder of the two, groaned and moved his fringe away from his eyes. “And we’re supposed to light it the moment it gets dark.”  

 “Auntie was a bit busy,” said Corinne. “Give her a kiss, Oliver.”    

Maxine could feel Oliver’s fluffy damp skin on her cheek as he puckered his lips and opened them like a fish. He took a step back. “Can we light the bloody candle? Samuel’s taper’s dripping.”

“Yes, we’re ready, let’s light,” said Ben. He placed his copal on top of his head, conveniently hiding the loss of hair on his crown. “You got one, David?”

“Ah, no,” said David, his cheeks reddening slightly.

Sandra raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Oy vey. Will you make sure he has a copal next time, Maxine?” 

“Barukh atah Adonai…,” recited Ben.

Samuel held his wrist to keep his hand steady and lit the middle candle. He flicked the taper with a flourish, picked it up carefully and lit the first candle. 

“Amen,” they all said.

Sandra turned and swept her hand over the dinner table nodding with self-admiration at the napkins expertly folded into swans and the Star of David shaped mats that made an appearance each year. “Sit down everyone.”

“The table looks beautiful,” said Maxine.

“Now you know who you get your artistic slant from. Not your father, that’s for certain, I don’t think he ever laid a table in his life.”

“You sit down Mummy,” said Corinne. “I’ll get the nosh.” 

Maxine watched as Corinne pushed the western style swing doors open with her narrow hips and disappeared into the kitchen.

“It’s not fair, Dad, why can’t we have a Christmas tree,” said Samuel plonking himself next to his father. “Everyone at school has a Christmas tree.”

Ben laughed and snorted at the same time. “Who has a Christmas tree?”

“Loads of people. Even Daniel Goldstein in my class is getting a tree.”    

Corinne swung through the doors with plates of potato latkes and sugary donuts balanced high. “So we’ll get a tree, maybe a small fake one you can put in your bedroom.”

“They’re pathetic. I want a real one.”

“You know what we say at Hanukkah, David?” said Ben, “they lost, we won, let’s eat!” He raised his glass. “Happy Hanukkah everyone.”    

“Happy Hanukkah,” they all replied.

Maxine took a sip of her wine, then a bite of the greasy latke and thought of all the years she’d been celebrating this day; as a child when her father was still there, the early days of Corinne’s relationship with Ben, after she’d met him on a blind date at Blooms in Golders Green, much to her mother’s delight, and now in the last four years with David, much to her Mother’s dismay.

“Maxine, he’s a nice man but think about your children. Do you want them to grow up in a mixed marriage?”

“I start the game of Dreidel tonight,” shouted Samuel, interrupting Maxine’s thoughts. He wiped his sugar covered mouth with his sleeve, reached under the chair and brought out a four sided wooden spinning top. A brightly coloured Hebrew letter was painted on each side. “The youngest one starts the game first.” 

“You may not be the youngest for very long,” said Corinne. “Isn’t that right Max?”

“You’re pregnant?” screeched Sandra. 

“Mazeltov!” said Ben, standing up with his glass held high.

“Stop,” said Maxine. She frowned at Corinne. “We don’t know …yet.” 

“Sorry,” said Ben, sitting back down with a thump.

“Sorry,” said Corinne. “I only meant you were trying, for a baby.”

“You’d better get a move on,” said Sandra. “It gets hard for a woman over 35.”

“Just got to keep practising, David, you lucky man,” said Ben. He took a large bite of latke then wiped a dribble of oily saliva from his chin.

David grinned and nodded his head.

Corinne waved her hands to gain attention. “Ok, everybody put some pennies on the table then we play Dreidel. Remember, whatever we win this year, we give to charity.”

“That’s so unfair,” said Oliver. “I don’t want to play this stupid game anymore.”

“Time for biscuits I think,” said Maxine. She stood and walked briskly to the kitchen. She opened the cupboard, took out a plate and put the peanut butter biscuits in a neat circle around its edge, aware of the chatter that continued in the dining room.

“I’ve been sent two Christmas cards,” she heard her mother say. “One from the Curry Cabin on the Finchley road and one from Saga home insurance. Please God they don’t expect one back.” There was a roar of laughter from Ben.    

Maxine continued to concentrate on making an inner circle of biscuits. As she laid the final one and chewed on a lone peanut, she felt a sharp pain in her groin and a warm, sticky, familiar wetness descend. She clung on to the side and took a deep disappointed breath. 

Me, Michael and Ben, and Janet and Sandra and Lee

by Lucie Britsch

The support group was for people that had been “upset” by Michael Jackson but not in the way you’d think. Mine wasn’t a phobia as such but it was the closest thing and you had to give things a name if you wanted to treat them. Most of us there had similar stories but a few had some very specific incidents that I didn’t think our assigned counsellor was really equipped to deal with. In the next room the people with Cher phobias were being encouraged to touch wigs and speak into a vocoder.

I just never got my monkey he said

It was a chimp I pointed out

What made you think you would get one Janet the counsellor asked

Because I got everything I wanted but not the monkey

It was a chimp I said again

I mean I got a pony but I wanted the chimp. He repeated chimp again in my direction just so I knew he wasn’t stupid. I had to do everything in my power not to start oohing and swinging my arms and lolloping over to him to pick a flea off his shoulder, just for kicks. But I had been warned by Janet before about inappropriate behaviour and how this was a safe place. I wasn’t allowed to pick any imagery fleas off anyway so I pretended a sprinkle on my stale donut was a flea and popped it in my mouth. Maybe I had bigger problems than the Michael Jackson thing. It wasn’t even that big a deal but my mum had seen the poster on the noticeboard when she was at her group for people scared of raisins. They just upset me she said. I was just glad it wasn’t me that upset her or dad. Poor old dad. Never was he allowed the simple pleasure of raisin bran or oatmeal raisin cookies or good old raisins and peanuts. He had to do his snacking in private mostly. Or outside the house. But this isn’t about my mother and her raisin issues. This is about me and my Michael Jackson thing but right now it’s about Lee and the Chimp he never got.

Every session was same. Lee would list all the things he got just to show us how he got everything he ever wanted, everything but the chimp. I was always surprised no one followed him home and robbed him. He had some pretty sweet stuff by the sound of it. And on the plus side he definitely didn’t have a crazy chimp on guard ready to bite your face off.

None of us knew how to help him least of all Janet whose job it was to help him or at least fob him of with some breathing technique he could use when he wasn’t there so he wasn’t always thinking about that chimp. Short of getting him a god damn chimp we were all at a loss as what to do. I thought that maybe we should tell him how bubbles spent his final years cooped up in some cage and maybe that would make him sad but Sandra, the girl with the white glove fetish, pointed out that he seemed a little dead inside and it probably wouldn’t have the desired effect. Touché Sandra, I will forgive you for confusing your fetish for a phobia and wasting all our time. I’d give anything to just have a cute glove thing rather than the burning eyes of hell inside my head every time I shut my eyes.

I suggested that maybe we could get his parents in and ask them why he never got the chimp but I suspected they would just say that they didn’t want their sons face bitten off and who could argue with that, even though he was a brat and deserved his face bitten off a little, an ear at least. I also half suspected his parents had been killed in a suspicious boating or skiing accident, he gave off that vibe.

With no solution in sight I almost suggested we had a whip round and got him the chimp, just to shut him up. Give someone else the floor. If he wasn’t coming to meetings anymore it didn’t matter if he was having his face bitten off somewhere. But I held my tongue. I already had a warning from Janet.

I had my own reasons for being there anyway and tried to focus my attention back to myself. It was hard with people like Lee though who emulating Verruca Salt.

Hi, I’m Laura, and I’ve seen Michael Jacksons eyes from Thriller every time I shut my eyes when I go to sleep since I was 7.

Hi Laura they said in unison

Tell us how it happened Janet asked

I had the floor so I did my act

I was 7. 7! I don’t know why no one was watching me. I just walked in on them and there they all were my brother and my cousins, all watching it. It was that bit, you know, when he transforms. I didn’t know what I was watching till it was too late. Those eyes! I ran out of there as fast as I could but it was too late. I never forgot those eyes. Every night when I went to sleep there they were. I tried sleeping with the lights on but it didn’t help.

Another girl was crying now and nodding

Same exact thing she said through the tears, only it was my dad

More people came forward after that. It seemed Thriller was the reason most of us were there. Why wasn’t this video banned I wanted to yell. Maybe Lee had John Landis’s number and I could demand answers.

Thankfully Janet was schooled in the art of undoing the damage Thriller had done. It was her specialist subject. Us she could help. Chimp boy and glove girl would prove more difficult but she was up for the challenge. When I was particularly upset one session I accused her of being insensitive having the name Janet and suggested she consider changing it if she wanted to be truly successful in her chosen profession.

That summer we learnt the Thriller dance. That summer she introduced us to Ben. How could we be scared of Michael Jackson after that? That boy and his rat man, it was powerful stuff. 

By the end of the 6 weeks we were cured.

Janet wanted to commemorate our achievements and arranged a field trip to the nearest wax works museum where we would all have out photos taken with a statue of the man himself. I secretly thought she just wanted to creep us out and give herself more work but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. And in her defence it wasn’t as crummy as some of the wax work places I had to endure as a child with my deluded parents.

How was poor Janet to know that on that very day the museum had switched the statues with real people? Well I can tell you that Janet should have known and that Janet was incompetent and it later emerged that she was in fact unqualified and had gotten the gig when no one was else wanted it. Turns out no one wants to spend their Thursday evenings with a bunch of weirdos who are scared of other weirdos. She had wanted the Cher gig because that phobia she understood after a childhood of having her parents dress up as Sonny and Cher every Halloween and insisting on making out in front of her friends. It was for the horror she told herself. They were being festive.

So it didn’t go well. Her little outing idea. If we didn’t have genuine phobias before we did now. Not just of wax works but people in general. 

So we get there and we’re all in good spirits, even chimp boy, who just got a new car he wanted. The Michael Jackson they have is really good. It’s when he was really white and wore a lot of gold. There is no sign of Bubble’s so Lee is fine. No unwanted memories are stirred. He’s too busy twiddling his car keys and telling everyone about his alloy wheels to really notice anyway.

So there I am having my photo taken with the statue when the statue moves. Instead of just screaming and shitting myself I start beating him with my backpack. Janet has to pull me off him and the whole group are hysterical at this point.

You guys are messed up Chimp boy says and speeds off in his new wheels leaving us to explain ourselves. What a dick.

Poor Janet is beside herself. She really had no idea what was going on and doesn’t know how she’ll get over fucking up so royally. Me and Sandra have calmed down by now and tell her it’s ok. That it’s normal to be scared of both wax works and creepy people pretending to be wax works and we’ll be ok. Janet on the other hand isn’t sure if she will be ok. We take her for coffee across the road because I think its better her heart is beating for a more normal reason like caffeine rather than whatever just happened.

I was afraid that Janet would become afraid of people that were afraid of Michael Jackson so decided it would be better if I could get her to be afraid of something more typical. Not being good with normal though I remembered by mother.

Do you like raisins I asked her

She is still a bit weepy but manages to say no, she doesn’t really like raisins, why are there raisins in my coffee? She looks panicked and starts swirling her mug around.

Yes, yes Janet I had them put raisins in your coffee because that’s a thing now and I really wanted to screw with you I wanted to say but didn’t

Could you get to hating them I said

She looked confused, rightly, and Sandra was also now confused and had put a napkin over her half eaten oatmeal raisin cookie in case it caused any more upset

So I told them about my mother and her group and Janet seemed to understand where I was going with this and said she would give it a go.

She took to hating raisins like a duck to water and was soon teaching the class. It later emerged she had a secret passion for baking and she decided to combine her two loves to help those in recovery from a raisin phobia fall back in love with the dried fruit through the power and healing of baked goods. It was ground breaking in the therapy world. She even baked us cookies in the shape of Michael Jackson with little raisin eyes. Because we kept in touch. We met up once a month to talk about what a dick Lee was and scoured the papers hoping to hear he did finally get his chimp and get his face bitten off like he deserved.

We’re still waiting because people like that rarely get what they deserved. I don’t see those eyes anymore though, when I go so sleep, I instead see Lee getting his face bitten off by a chimp but it’s oddly comforting. I hear “I got you babe” as it’s happening.

Hogmanay

by Emily Selencky

“Don’t you dare go near that bridge, missy.”

My da was a right pain in the arse. Always on at me. The other kids in the village got up to all sorts but he had his eye on me like one of the buzzards that circled around every time Smoky caught another mouse, one paw jammed down on its tail while the other batted it back and forth. Cruel buggers, cats. The poor thing would squeal its tiny lungs out until Smoky got bored and trotted off to find a warm car bonnet to curl up on. That’s when the buzzards swooped in to collect the leftovers. Either that or it would freeze to death on the grass overnight and the foxes got a mouse lollipop.

He was on about the bridge. The one that everyone turned to look at when they drove through our village because it looked like something from The Three Billygoats Gruff, except the troll would think it might fall in on him as soon as the first goat trip-trapped onto its stones. It was an old packhorse bridge. A narrow, humpy unstable strip - eighteenth century Miss McArdle said. I did a project on the village in Year 7 and the bridge was about the most interesting thing I could find to write about. That and the World Porridge Championship. Golden bloody spurtle! It was a sliver of bridge, a grey rocky arch across the peaty water that poured over the rocks like iced tea. The thin layer of furry moss and lichen-covered stones could hold a man’s weight – enough idiots had tried it – but as kids growing up in the village we were used to being warned off. Children at school told stories about Josh McInern, the boy who had ignored his parents’ warnings. He lost his footing and came to a sticky end larking about on the bridge. His name meant rebellion when I was growing up. Secretly we were all a bit in awe.

It was Hogmanay. The village Ceilidh was in full swing. Outwith the hall it was eight below but inside we were sticky with sweat as we whirled and galloped, swinging around and around until our heads spun. Micky Stewart had his eye on me. Every time the band played a reel he would find his way up to my end of the hall, grinning and offering his hand like something out of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I didn’t mind except there was a Rice Krispie wart on the side of his little finger that brushed against my hand. I’d never taken notice before but when I looked at his face close up I could see he was bonny. His dark hair was crusty with gel and he reeked of Lynx so he had obviously made an effort. Josie and me had snuck in a bottle of vodka she’d nicked from her da’s booze cupboard. Topped up with cola from the garage shop it wasn’t too bad and every so often we would sneak off to the toilets for a dram or two. Squeezed together in the cubicle, her on the bog seat and me with my back to the side partition, my feet wedged against the side of the bowl, we took turns drinking from the small curved glass bottle.

“Micky’s no’ bad you know,” Josie said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Have you heard what that Granton High girl said about him though?” I shook my head. “Just watch where he’s puttin’ his hands later,” she said.

I told her not to be such a dafty. I wasn’t interested anyway. That was a lie though. Luckily Josie didn’t get chance to say anything else because just then Mrs Prior’s brown leather courts clip clopped into the next cubicle and we had to be quiet until she left.

It was nearly half eleven by the time Micky built up the courage to ask me outside for a smoke. He spoke softly and said something about his pal nicking a pack of fags from his ma’s handbag. When we got outside his mates, Tommy and Scott, were already there, leaning on the wall next to the river, their boots sunk into the thick snow. Their hoodies were pulled up around their faces and when Micky introduced me they just nodded, the black holes of their eyes narrowing. I shoved on my grey bobbly gloves and pulled my scarf up under my chin. Even with the booze inside me I could feel the wind was Baltic, pinching at my face.

The fags turned out to be menthols but Micky and me shared one anyway, leaning against the frosty wall together. The cigarette was wet from his spit and I did my best not to cough when the smoke hit the back of my throat. My eyes watered as I handed the glowing fag back to him and he smiled, reaching out and putting his arm around my shoulders.

“You got any booze?” he asked.

“Not out here,” I said. “Do you want me to go back and get it? We’ve got voddy and coke.”

“Dinnae worry. Scott’s got beers.”

Scott pulled a bottle of lager out of his rucksack and we passed it along the line, drinking in silence. Everyone else wiped the top of the bottle when it came to them but I looked at Micky and smiled then took a swig. The lager was cold and sharp and I shivered.

 Tommy stood up and walked over towards the bridge. Underneath the arch was lit up for the tourists and he had just stepped into the light. The river was full from the last dump of snow and it was fast and noisy, drowning out the music from the party in the hall. Tommy stood with his feet at the water’s edge and flung his arms around like a windmill as though he was about to fall in. We all stood up from the wall and the boys laughed and began to wander in his direction, their feet crunching. Scott whooped and ran towards Tommy, then Micky dropped my hand and followed too. Laughing, he stopped half way and bent down to pick up some of the soft snow, squeezing it into a tight ball and hurling it at his mates. He missed them both, making a splodge of white on the stones of the bridge.

“Come on!” shouted Tommy, “Last one on the bridge is a jessie!”

The others howled back at him and I ran behind, hearing my own voice laughing along.

It was Scott who first put his boot onto the stones. When we got closer I could see they were icy - sparkling where the light hit them on the side but covered with a thick layer of white on top. Scott didn’t stop to check his footing, he just went for it as though he were walking up stairs. When he reached the top Micky got out his mobile and took a photo with Scotty grinning like an eejit. He was pretending to be one of the pipers with a kilt and sporran who would soon be bringing in the New Year back at the hall. It was Micky’s turn next. He turned around to wink at me then grinned as he followed his friend.

“Tommy, get a video. We should put this on Youtube,” he shouted. And Tommy held up his phone while Micky whooped and high-fived Scott at the top. Their black shapes blocked out the light from the stars behind.

“Sarah, you coming up?”

I shook my head.

“Come on, Micky’ll look after you, won’t you?”

Scott gave Micky a shove and laughed.

Micky picked his way down the arch and held his hand out to me when he was nearly at the bottom. I took it, putting my trainer onto the first layer of stones and feeling it crunch into the snow then slide before I managed to wedge my foot in sideways against the rock, the stones squeezing my toes. As I followed Micky up I wondered if he could see my knees shaking under my jeans or hear my breathing, shallow and unsteady. The sound of it filled my head. I kept my eyes fixed on my feet, looking for little dimples in the stones where I could push them to keep them steady. For the last bit I went down on all fours and crawled like a toddler. Scott snorted.

At the top of the arch, Micky helped me onto my feet and held my right fist in the air.

“Get a video of this, Tommy,” he shouted, while Tommy let out a whoop which shot across the fields around us.

I stood still for a few moments listening to the rapids rushing below our feet, concentrating on the pin prick lights of the stars to stop myself wobbling. The Plough. Orion’s Belt. Da used to make up bedtime stories about them for me. I remembered kneeling at my bedroom window with him. He would test me on their names as I traced them with my finger on the glass. When Tommy slipped his phone back into his pocket I lowered myself gingerly onto my backside and slid back along the arch and down to the ground. At the bottom I patted off the snow that had collected on the back of my jeans and turned to look up at the boys, my breath shaky.

On the top of the bridge, Scott was trying to get Micky to play silly buggers and soon the pair were jumping around like bloody boxers, playing up to Tommy who had his phone out again. All three of the boys were laughing and I joined in, clapping my gloved hands silently. It was then that Tommy came towards me, sliding his phone back into his pocket and putting his hand around my waist. He said nothing, but the pressure of his hand on my back, sliding down towards my bum, made me move with him, turning my back on Micky and walking towards the hall, our feet falling into the holes they had made in the snow on the way out.

“What you doin’?”

The shout from the bridge was strangled and panicked, echoing around the emptiness.

Tommy pulled me closer to him but I turned my head just in time to see Micky lose his balance at the edge of the stones. Scott stood behind him; Micky tipped over the edge. He fell silently towards the river and plunged into the roaring water which carried him out of the circle of light and into the darkness beyond in seconds. Scott was left standing at the top as though Micky had never been there.

Tommy loosened his grip around my waist and turned towards the river. I broke away from him, running breathless with panic towards the stone-built village hall.

“Where’ve you been? You snogged Micky?” Josie asked, slurring her words from all the vodka. It seemed as though she’d drunk the lot since I had been outside. I pushed past her without speaking just as the countdown to New Year’s began - the contents of the hall began to spill outside for the fireworks.

I ran towards my Da.

“Hey missy, you look pale. You have nae been drinking have you?”

The scream of the New Year’s rockets drowned out my answer and my da was carried along by the crowd away from me. Through watery eyes I watched the lights in the sky pop and fizz and I wondered what would happen when they ended.

Elemental Changes

by Sarah Midkiff

Cast upon the shoreline

Pushed and pulled from the sea

Is a myriad of baubles

And tangled up debris

Janet walks slowly along the beach, kicking through the accumulation of crushed shell and marine discards. She watches the foam-edged wave roll up to tickle over her feet as her mind washes over memories of her mother swiping her bare toes. The old broom bristles always made her squeal but the softness of the wave feels more like her mother’s hands, gently smoothing across her forehead to move the bangs. She always wanted to look into my eyes, even during the teenage years when the makeup made her cringe.

Over the white-capped horizon, familiar shrimp boats float along with a crowd of seagulls calling and circling the lowered booms. They look like a press conference of feathered reporters, an unwelcome mess of noise and agitation. Janet recalls an afternoon on a nearby fishing pier, years ago, with her newly arrived baby cuddled into a carrier sitting beside her. Laughing with her young husband as another hook comes up empty, she’d turned, distracted for a moment. She remembers her disgust as she looked back over to see the puddle of white and grey discard settling into her baby’s ear. Her immediate ferocious anger and outraged helplessness makes her stop and smile now, years later.

She drops down and begins to sift through the beach’s sandy mixture, trying to picture the sea creatures that made these shells. She can recognize bits of coral and broken angel-wing mollusks. The one world man has never fully explored, and its clues and mysteries appear with each wave offering a carpet of dredged oceanic tailings she sinks her bare knees into.

Spiraled shells whisper their tales

Of deep, dark, ocean floors

And aqua currents that move like air

Through skies of algae hair

She finds a piece of opaque sea glass. It’s an old piece of bottle, its intention unrecognizable now. Her father’s passing this week has brought her here today. She needs to explore the long stretch of empty beach just as she tries to wander through her years of memories and process the death of this man.  She gazes at the glass lying in her palm. Its edges are gone, eroded by sand and the grinding pull of many tides. The soft glass reminds her of her father’s graying face over the last several weeks, its familiar edges disappearing into an old man she didn’t even recognize. 

She remembers his hands working in the soil as a steaming cup of coffee always sat close by. It had never occurred to her as a young girl that coffee would be an inappropriate choice in the sweltering sun. She’d never recognized either, as a child, the need for ice and coke with her Daddy’s cup always tasting different during the long trips back and forth between parents. She had realized, years back, why she’d sat on the porch with her suitcase tucked in close beside her and watched the sun go down. She remembers her mother’s frustration calling her and her sister into bed.

He wasn’t ever a very good father; I wonder why he’s always meant so much to me?

Driftwood, porous and weather beaten

Is scattered among the dunes

Bewildered by the elements

Captured by sand, too soon

Janet figures the fact that she knew her father, and his history and stories, is some consolation to a person in life. At least the searching for an outline of where or who she came from has never been unresolved. She tucks the piece of softened glass into her pocket that makes three found so far for the day. She lifts her head and lets a salty spray merge with the distilled grief of her tears into nature’s always present arms. 

Her heart is joined with the waves’ steady rhythm as her mind settles on the image of her father’s face that is sharp in her mind. Not the man in the hospital bed, but the laughing face turned up into the sun as they turned soil into a magical place. It was a world where things grew and produced nutritious meals and kept life moving forward.  Where coffee grew cold even in the hot sun, and she shared a piece of that sunshine, tucked into her heart for a darker day, such as today. It would be enough.

This place, where foam and sand collide

Reminds me of my life

A treasure here, a story there

Lays tossed upon my mind

She shuffles along her lonely shore watching the pelicans rise and fall along the skyline. They dive like torpedoes into the bay, catching the mullet no one else wants except for bait. She discarded her shoes moments after arriving and the cool sand and salty breeze are a comfort she knew would be here. She’s grown up, wrapped in this particular elemental table, and it’s a part of her very fiber. She knows someday she’ll join it and become the mixture beneath her feet, or local soil adding to the diets of people joined in community here. 

I better get to the grocery store for Mom. Janet needs to pick up butter and eggs and whipping cream to replace items used by the groups of grieving friends and relatives still needing to be fed. Her mother will want at least one of those items to fix dinner in a few hours. She’s glad she came today. It would’ve probably been strange if she hadn’t. She smiles picturing her anxious little beach looking for her, sitting with a sandy suitcase as the sun sets without her arrival. She could never disappoint the one friend who always soothes and readjusts her life lenses to see the importance of who she is.  And, who always welcomes her, as she is.

Janet decides to stay a moment…or two…longer. She’s in her own prayer closet of wide blue worlds above and circling around her. She sits among the shells, as her own broken soul is softened and comforted by the grinding of grief, and saline tears wash and cleanse with the tide going out. It moves this way, along with time, constant and changing, like life. And, like death. 

The breeze blows a warm, briny tune

Begging of me, “Come and dance!”

I sit, embedded into the sand

Refusing my partner,

I refuse the chance

And simply bide my time

Knowing what glory is to come

At peace with what I cannot see

 I stay because I am, for now

Merely mortal and merely me