I look at you.
I see a wood. I don’t know if it’s a place I’ve been, but it feels like somewhere I’ve been. Yes, I think it must be a place I’ve been. The light is dappled, the trees form a sort of a canopy above, but the light makes it through. Small motes of dust sparkle and dance in the beams of light like fairies. A fairy grotto. It’s early evening or late afternoon, I think. The light through the trees is rippled. There is sand. Cool under my feet but little patches still warm from the sun where it breaks through the leaves. Small green plants, I used to know their Latin name, I recall, Maman grew them in the garden in the house up the coast. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe I made that bit up. Maybe all this is made up. I can see a gap in the trees. I can hear the sound of the sea. Not a wild sea, a calm sea, gently slooshing at the corner of my hearing. Now as I approach the edge of the wood I can see it. Blue, azure blue seems such a cliché but turquoise doesn’t quite cover it. Plunge deep off the cliffs. Local boys jump off the steep incline into the dark blueness to impress their sweethearts. Cerulean. Like that sculpture by Anish Kapoor. I love that sculpture. My first love was a painter. I knew all the names of all the pigments once. Like so many other things, I have forgotten them now. We are in Arcachon, I think we must be in Arcachon.
When I was fifteen, one summer holiday, I climbed the dune de Pilat. It seemed a big thing at the time. Largest sand dune in Europe, but nothing compared to the deserts of Morocco, where I went years after. I think Star Wars was filmed in the Moroccan desert or maybe it was Tunisia, we went there too. Not with you. With a friend. In one of my fallow patches. The fallow patches went on for longer and longer as I got older. When I was at college it was all a merry dance, so many potentials thrown away, the future was open for anything and then as I got older, it all seemed to narrow.
I didn’t like you very much when I met you. Those first few months you came around, I didn’t want to see you. You made me think of it. Why I think now of Arcachon when I look at you, I don’t know. Maybe it is because your eyes are blue. Or at least you say they are. I think they are darker than that, I’m not sure what colour they are. You love Star Wars. Particularly Princess Leia. I won’t wear my hair like that for you, or, maybe if you ask me very nicely I will…
None of the people in my life were quite right until I met her. Or maybe I wasn’t quite right until I met her. I feel like she changed something. She’s there, looking most lovely, but then she looks more lovely each time I see her. She was so hot when I first saw her in the mini-skirt and boots.
Sometimes I couldn’t look at her when we first met, I wanted her that much. She saw me grinning in classes and wondered why. I was grinning cos I couldn’t believe my luck to get a girl like that.
The eyeliner above one of her eyes has run a little. I can see the smudge mark where her sister’s tried to sort it out. Her sister must be holding her bag for her. The little antique silver mirror Mariel always carries will be in there. They told me it was antique anyway, but I’m not entirely sure it was. I bought it in Camden market for our first anniversary. Her sister’s lovely in a way too, looks a bit like a younger version, but something is unformed about her. Like the thing that happened has somehow matured Mariel, made her into more than she was, better than she was. Not that she wasn’t the most exquisite thing I ever saw when she walked into my life. All the exchange students used to hang out together. It was so obvious that we would come together, call it fate, or rather out of necessity?
You smile at me. Your eyes sparkle with your smile.
God Mariel, I love you so much, I will always love you so much. I reach out my little finger out towards yours.
Does anybody really know anybody anyway? I’m here doing this thing, this thing that I thought I would never do, this thing I always thought I didn’t really believe in, with someone I don’t know at all and yet from the moment he held out his hand to me, I knew him so well. It wasn’t just about that day, but thinking about it, still having nightmares about it, I know that we wouldn’t be together now if it wasn’t for that day.
He’s the hero of the hour.
It should be me up there.
It used to be me. And then that day happened, and that week, and that month, and it all just went to hell.
Her hair is so long now, it’s grown back, it got scorched, it smelt like burnt fur, so it was all cut off. Spiky, punky. And it was like after she had it cut off she was a different person. Not the person I had been with. And he kept coming round. It was like all that time together, all those wonderful times we had made were destroyed in the flash of an instant. The honey-coloured thick mass I used to wrap myself in when we laid in bed on Sunday mornings. Her skin smooth against mine, her green eyes sparking when she laughs irrepressibly because I can’t hold it in and I fart. God Mariel, I loved you so much.
We spent some time travelling round after our courses were over. She was going to teach when we got back. I hadn’t really got any plans beyond the travelling. My father had some idea that I might work in his brother’s restaurant. But I didn’t study economics to work in Uncle’s restaurant. When I was little I thought I would be an architect, but things didn’t pan out. There is something that feels so safe about stone. Ancient marble that feels so smooth under your hand, (my mother counselled that when you are in Great Britain, don’t mention Lord Elgin, whatever you do!) It’s not cold, you’d think it would be cold, but there is something almost living about stone.
I took her to Stonehenge for a holiday, but we were disappointed that we couldn’t get anywhere near. On the way back we climbed Glastonbury Tor. The rain was torrential. We didn’t know there was a path so we just climbed up the hill avoiding the sheep’s dung. She twisted her ankle, but didn’t say anything about it till after. Just like her. If something hurt her, she would never tell me until ages afterwards.
Looking up to the dark open sky, sheltered from the wind in that ruined church on the top. Hair like a dripping curtain over her shoulder. Water soaking through her navy blue waterproof onto her favourite t-shirt with the peacock on. Pushing her back against the stone, kissing her. We both felt it. The impressions and memories of the people who had placed their hands on the stone for many years before.
Tourists that we were, that we are, we did the whole United Kingdom. I still can’t believe that I have British friends, living in London, who have never been to Scotland. The Scottish loved Mariel’s accent. I found Edinburgh was a picturesque city. It was the first time I saw senseless violence. Not that anything could compare to what came later.
We had the weekend at the Edinburgh Festival…
I didn’t ever have a proper girlfriend till I met you. Not like I was inexperienced or anything, but I don’t think any of it counted. I don’t think any of them counted, which is a harsh thing to say, but when these things happen to you, you really appreciate what you’ve got, or what you haven’t got and you start to look at the whole thing differently.
I suppose when I chose to do what I wanted to do, I should have thought more about it. I should have thought more about life. And death. But to be honest it doesn’t really come up on a day-to-day basis. I just get on with the job, we all just get on with the job. As soon as you put the uniform on that’s it. You don’t think about the personal. Because if you did, you wouldn’t be able to do it.
The man was running down the road. We were waiting for a bus, we thought at first he had seen the bus coming and was running for it. Last bus of the night. Don’t want to miss it. Then they turned the corner. A group of men. A pack of men. Chasing the lone runner. Gaining on the lone runner. They caught up with him at the stop, there must have been a dozen of them, they fell on him, kicking and shouting. I will never forget the crunch when the first man kicked him. He screamed like a pig that’s had its throat cut.
At home we went to an abattoir as a school trip. Why they thought this was a suitable outing for twelve-year-olds I do not know, all I do know is that I could not eat the meat my mother put on the table for the next six months. She still calls me ‘the vegetarian’.
I was frozen with fear. And me against a group of them, what could I do to help the man? And perhaps he had deserved the beating he was getting. And everyone else stood back stunned. Only Mariel screamed at them to stop, and I had to hold her back. Little Mariel in long flowing skirt and tank top, eyes glowing furiously under the black eyeliner, screaming obscenities in French.
My parents have been married for nearly thirty years. I had always thought they had been married for some time before I came along, but I learned a few years ago that I had been giving them the wrong anniversary card for the most of my life. I believe Maman must have been quite pregnant when they married. They told me their wedding photos were destroyed in a house fire, but I wonder now if that was true. I wonder what else she has lied to me about over the years.
She didn’t think I would ever do it. But none of my friends did it until very recently, and to be honest, I never before was with a man that I wanted to do it with. I don’t know. I always said to people that I didn’t believe in chemistry, that when I have been intimate with a man in the past, we have always had a friendship that grew into something deeper. I have had two long-term boyfriends and I would not have wanted to marry either of them. I would be divorced now, if I had married either of them. So what was I doing with them? I suppose you embark upon each new relationship with a sense of hope. Or maybe like me, you embark upon each relationship in a cloud of red wine. Maybe that’s where I was going wrong. Maybe a bottle of merlot is not the way to start a happy relationship.
When he holds my hand it feels right and I am sure I feel the warmth, and when he brushes his little finger up against mine, I almost feel the shudder go down my spine and I feel it is right.
I don’t know if my parents love each other. They are comfortable together. They talk about little daily mundanities over and over. The re-created and repeated shared histories that make me want to scream ‘shut up’ at them. I don’t think it would have occurred to them to divorce. Divorce is a thing of my generation and the generations that come after me. How depressing that is. Ma soeur, Nina, she has a daughter old enough to be married herself. A dear daughter who could make her a grandmother, but who has determined to be a doctor after that day.
Not that my parents didn’t ever argue, I remember one evening, he came back so drunk that he couldn’t make it up the big dark wood stairs and she made him sleep on the sofa. Nina and Eric and I all thought it was very funny. He pledged on the old family bible that he would never again raise a glass. That was one pledge he did not keep. I suppose they are happy. I hope they are happy. I hope I am happy.
I wasn’t even due to be at work the day it happened, just decided to visit a friend.
I wonder if you want children, we haven’t even talked about if you want children. And I don’t know if…
Why did we argue that day, why did I let you go out on your own?
I never really thought about it before. I just thought… no, I didn’t really think about life and living at all, it was just all so day-to-day, going from one argument to the next…
I don’t think I can take this anymore.
Two weeks off after the wedding, and Majorca. I suppose I’m lucky to have got any leave, considering how much sick time I’ve had the past few years. It was the smoke inhalation, got right down on my lungs and since then, off and on, I’ve had chesty stuff, asthma, bronchitis, quite bad some days.
I go now to the Careers things, talk to the kids, I never was much cop at public speaking before this, but now, well, even been on the local news a few times. Especially when the anniversary comes up.
What a way to meet a girl, but I guess when that click happens, it happens and you just never know when or how. I guess it must be awkward for her ex. I see him glowering at me, but it’s like, dude, it was over before, it was over years before, like so many bad relationships, they were just dragging it on, not daring to say goodbye to each other, because they were all they had known for so long.
It’s what we do. People are optimistic. My own parents stayed together well past their sell-by date. They’ve both got other partners here today. A little awkward maybe, but I know this is a one-time thing and they wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.
I moved out when I was seventeen. Kids these days don’t move out do they? Can’t afford to. I had no choice. Kicked out. Rowing with him. He hit her, she said she fell over, I don’t think it was the first time. He moved out not much later. At least she saw sense. I didn’t speak to the old man for years. He got back in touch after though. Saw me on TV I suppose. The local hero. We had coffee. He cried. I never saw the old man cry before that. He said it was a terrible thing to see your kids die before you, and I said, but I’m not dead, dad, I’m not dead, and he just started crying and all the people in the coffee place were staring at us. But I’m not dead, dad. Am I? After that we started talking again. It’s funny when good things come out of bad, and I don’t want to jinx stuff, of course I don’t, but I met Mariel and now I’m talking to dad, and I didn’t think anything like this would have happened to me a couple of years ago.
I brush her hand lightly like I did that time we first met, in the dark, lights flickering, smoke everywhere. I touch her hand and I feel the little flutter, and I know I’m not dead and she’s not dead.
She’ll come back to me.
To me she is and will always be the most beautiful person in the world. She is an angel.
You pulled me out of hell.
It was summer. It wasn’t a particularly balmy day. I was due to go shopping with her in the next town.
He had been picking at me the way he does all evening before. I was really, really angry at him.
I had been to my mate Ronnie’s. I had to fetch a couple of books he’d borrowed, then take them round Mum’s. I don’t know why I got the train. I could have walked, it’s not far.
I wanted to make it nice for her. I just wanted everything to be perfect. That dress looked tarty. That was all I was saying. And she took it the wrong way. As usual. I just want, wanted her to wear the things that I bought her. I know what she looks good in. She the purple coat that I bought her over the dress, but I’ve seen that look in her eye. I knew she would take it off as soon as she got round the corner.
I was sick of arguing with him. I met Lorna for cake and a drink and I had told her I made up my mind to leave him. I knew he would take it badly and Lorna said I could come and stay with her if he got violent. I only just made the train. Lorna dropped me off at the station and waved. I was thinking about it all the way, but I knew I could do it. We were nearly home. Then it happened. The bright light.
Halfway out-halfway in the tunnel. A flash of white light, a roar, then everything stopped sharp. People fell. I thought it must have been some sort of equipment failure. The sound stopped. Or it was still there in the background, but coming from under water. I was in a carriage near the back of the train. It went so dark, after the bright light. Then people started screaming. I had fallen down and I was trying to get up, and then it started. The guard walked through from the front of the train and was telling people to calm down, I suppose that he was telling people to calm down but my ears were just filled with this hiss.
Then people started walking over me. And I couldn’t get up, and I was trying to call out to tell them to stop standing on me. But they didn’t hear me.
I dropped the books somewhere. Mum really wanted to read The Da Vinci Code, that’s the only one I can remember I was carrying. They were in a green bag. I couldn’t see it anywhere, not that you could see much. Then the training kicked in. Assess the situation, take control, do what you can, get out of there, help get everybody out of there. A man was beckoning people out through the driver’s cab at the back. They had to climb over a bundle of clothes to get out. Then I saw that the bundle of clothes was a woman. A woman with long hair, and a dark coat.
We had to walk past things. Bits. We had to walk out of there, or at least, you carried me out of there. I wasn’t looking. It was dark and then it was too bright. You carried me out of the dark into the bright. I think I fainted at some point. But in my head, I still see it all.
One year in France, where we lived when I was a little girl, people started doing things to birds, bad things. Papa didn’t want us to go into the woods at the back of the house. Birds would be lying dead on the ground, bits missing so you didn’t know at first they were birds. We thought it must be cats but it was too neatly done. Feathers stripped off and placed in piles. After some months it stopped. We never found out who did these things to the birds and the next year we were allowed back into the woods and we forgot that it was ever a bad place to play.
If it had just been me with her, I would have known to be more careful…
I like my sport, I like a sporty girl… None of my family said anything, say anything, but I know they don’t really believe I can love her. They think it’s some sort of sympathy thing. We were together in that place, for that time, and when we got out of there, I knew I had to stay with her forever. I should have gone back in and helped others, that’s what my training was telling me, but I just had this urge, something drawing me to her.
I think the damage was done before I lifted her.
I want to kill him for what he’s done to her.
I look at you. I love you. I love you so much Jer. Your fingers entwine around mine. I can feel it, I know the damage is bad, but I swear I can feel your warmth, your hand. I am sure I am healing, this is not my imagination, I know that sometimes miracles happen. You are my miracle. You put the ring on my finger and the space between us closes up and we are one.
Sam Hall writes stories that lean towards magical realism. She also teaches writing and makes community literature projects. www.wordsmithery.info