In for a Penny
He didn’t earn much, playing music in the square every
Saturday – but he wasn’t in it for the money.
He was in it for the people.
The children who danced like no-one was watching, all jerking limbs and wide grins as they tried to persuade their parents to join in; the tired, haggard-looking man with the cocker spaniel who stayed for three hours and left with a smile on his face; the elderly couple who threw caution to the wind and waltzed across the cobbles to “Singing in the Rain” as the heavens began to open.
They made it worthwhile.
She’s constantly worrying – patting at her waistline, turning this way and that in front of the mirror.
He remembers the days when she never stopped baking: sleeves rolled up to her elbows, dress smudged with flour. These days the cake tin is full of granola bars.
She’s stopped complaining out loud because she knows he can’t change her mind, but he still catches the forlorn look on her face when they’re out with other couples.
He thinks that it’s okay to be a little soft around the edges;
he’s grateful for that little bit more of her in his arms.
The ship had been destroyed on impact. Unfortunately, so had a curious farmer.
Smoke spilled from the large gash in the side of the ship as blood pooled and soaked into the earth around the farmer’s head; one arm stuck out at the same awkward angle as the ripped metal hull. The pilot exited the ship quickly, looking over the farmer’s glassy-eyed form with curiosity.
Yes, it decided. That’ll do nicely.
The farmer’s body straightened up, arm righting itself with an unpleasant cracking sound. It stumbled a bit, almost fell, and began to walk stiffly away from the crash site.
Karen’s first kiss tasted like cigarettes and liquorice from the newsagent’s on the corner.
He was in sixth year, two years her senior and oddly handsome beneath the hood of his baggy jumper. It was a dare, executed clumsily while their audience sat perched along the wall, sniggering amongst themselves and passing around a half-empty pack of Pall Mall.
She spent the next week sat on the back porch with a pack of cigarettes she stole from her brother, choking down burning lungfuls of smoke and eating liquorice until her tongue turned black.
The taste was never quite the same.
The family reunion had started out relatively well. Sarah had had such high hopes for this year as the hall filled up with assorted family members in black tie – with the exception of Roger, who’d gone for a spangly blue number stolen from his sister’s closet.
He was joined later on by Uncle Cecil who, having reached his customary state of inebriation in record time, had escaped the confines of the suit his wife had stuffed him into and was currently hiding naked under a table clutching a half-empty bottle of Talisker.
Sarah sighed; there was always next year.
The crimson scarf draped around Jaya’s neck came from her grandmother’s house out in Bhagalpur. There’s a border along each edge dotted with tiny little mirrors, each glittering in the artificial light of her London living room and reflecting the grey sky outside back at her a hundred times.
She’s never been to India. Never even met her grandmother. But when she curls up on the sofa in front of Britain’s Got Talent she finds that if she buries her nose in the fabric and breathes deep, inhales the scent woven into it, then she can pretend that she has.
The emperor sat forward in his chair as the lights dimmed, his wife yawning softly next to him. The toe of a dancing shoe poked out tentatively from behind the curtains, followed by the owner – her eyes searched the crowd until they found his, and her lips quirked up in a small smile as she launched into the dance. The emperor watched as she made shapes in the air, commanding her multi-coloured ribbons like they were an extension of her body.
After the performance, he went to find her dressing room and his wife travelled back to the palace alone.
The Easy Part
Murder was the easy part, Reggie concluded, but he’d somewhat underestimated the clean-up.
His wife’s lover had (rather inconsiderately, he thought) chosen white carpets for almost every room of his prim, upper-middle-class suburban home, and though he tried all the usual things – white wine, vinegar, lemon juice and so on – scrubbing out the bloodstains had taken almost as long as burying the body. Alan’s comfortable lifestyle had left him with some considerable pudge around the middle, which made lugging him down two flights of stairs rather difficult.
Reggie dusted off his hands, headed downstairs, and started on a self-congratulatory cuppa.
Johnny Tredici was not by any means superstitious. For the last thirteen months he’d lived at 13 Tretton Avenue with his thirteen tropical fish for company. His new-used car had no more than thirteen miles on the clock already, and was only bought thanks to the 1313 quid he’d won betting on horse #13 at the races.
It’s funny, really, that people can be so suspicious of one silly little number, he thought as he was driving to work at thirteen minutes past one in the afternoon, thirteen seconds before his body spontaneously combusted in the middle of the A13.
She was like nicotine, he thought, exhaling a grey cloud of smoke as he hesitated on the front step.
She left traces of herself on his breath, stained his skin and refused to be scrubbed out. He could tell himself he was quitting, and for a while he’d be fine – then the cravings
would start, that deep ache inside his chest like someone had excavated a hole right through it, the insistent nagging urge at the back of his mind.
He stubbed out his cigarette on the red brickwork, knocked on her door, and felt the cycle begin anew.
She only saw the angel twice.
She was six when he landed in the back garden with a crash and the splintering of apple tree branches – she rushed outside, barefoot in the dew-soaked grass, and saw him slumped there with a crooked wing. Before the sun rose she patched him up with a strip torn from the bottom of her nightgown and sent him on his way with a kiss to his cheek.
The better part of a century passed. When she saw him again he was by her deathbed, clutching a new white robe to replace her torn nightgown.
She was always up and out at the crack of dawn, so she left him morning greetings on post-its on the kitchen cupboard; he’d find them when he went to get his morning coffee.a
Try not to strangle Jeff. x
Sorry I shouted last night. x
I love you. x
They were comforting, familiar – especially these days, with the endless failed attempts to start a family hanging over their heads. She never failed to remind him that he was lucky to have her.
This morning’s entry was stuck to the empty coffee jar and read:
Decaf only for the next nine months. x
She used to sit him up on the kitchen counter when he came home from school, inspect the day’s damage. She’d murmur encouraging little nothings, dab at his tears with scraps of kitchen roll, and then there was always a kiss to his cheek as she pressed a small skin-tone plaster over each cut, patching up an ego torn to shreds by the older boys.
When her messy divorce left them with nothing but each other and a dingy one-bedroom flat, he sat with her on the sofa and pressed his hand over her broken heart to hold her together.
End of the Line
Death stood in the doorway, watching.
He shook snow from the shoulders of his calf-length coat, brushing his shoes off on the doormat and doffing his bowler hat respectfully. He didn’t really have to say anything, merely held out a hand; I took it and rose slowly out of my armchair, shedding my body like old snakeskin. I couldn’t help but glance down at my own still form, curiosity getting the better of me.
“It was quick,” he reassured me. “Like falling asleep.”
I nodded and followed him, clinging to his hand like a child.
“Where’re we going?”