At the Border
Streetlights smudge the walls with amber. Through the bars, the window gives onto a view of open ground before a twenty-foot stone wall stretching out in both directions. A scabbed driveway leads towards a double gate. One might imagine a portcullis, or archers guarding ramparts – if we could only escape the stubborn terrain of our own century. And yet no cars here, no motorbikes, no late night traders, no curious passers-by, not even dogs pissing on the lampposts at this border between darkness and dawn.
The old man hears no noises coming from beyond the far walls. He is slumped in one corner, his body so emaciated now that it is bruised with shadows. His cell is furnished only with concrete walls, a locked door, and a barred window. The only thing the world permits escape between the window’s bars is air – it eases back and forward with the failing wind, as if to tease him with the thought: look how simple this is, consider how I move from place to place.
At first, Ben is cheered by a card arriving from an old friend. He hasn’t talked to Sarah for five years. The last time they spoke were those “hullos” in the High Street, talking like two window-cleaners clinging to the tops of separate ladders.
Sarah writes spare words: “Hello Ben. I heard news of you. I hope you are well, love Me”. How did she know to reach him at his family’s home? The card shows a drawing of the sky, teeming with hot air balloons that lift from a flood plain, and a lone retriever nearby, barking from the edge of a ridge.
The back of the card declares: “Hot Air Rises”. What the hell does it mean? He wants to grab the phone, and ask down the mouthpiece: “Whose hot air, Sarah? Yours? Mine? Everyone else’s? How am I meant to be figuring this out on my own!!! What on earth is this dog barking for? What is that damn dog doing in my drawing?!!”
Except he’s not sure any more that the drawing is chosen for him. Maybe Sarah chose it for herself. Or maybe it’s even more remote than that; say it belonged to the man who stood by her as she chose. Slumped in an armchair, head in his hands, he pictures himself: picking up the phone, dialling her number, talking to her softly. It’s only a matter of dialing a number; one simple action, and he knows it by heart.
We were hiding in a broom cupboard under the stairs, huddled together and giggling, as sisters do. Ken was humping Barbie, then Barbie was humping Ken. Elysia shone a torch on the dolls’ salmon-pink bodies. “It’s more like this,” she said, with the superior wisdom of a ten-year old, slapping Ken’s groin against Barbie’s. “It has to be really hard for Barbie to have a baby.”
Will Barbie really have a baby? I thought. Will she have to be taken back to the shop? Is there a special trick, where there’s a child already inside and someone breaks Barbie open and brings it out? I’d seen my mother’s crimson Russian dolls sitting plump on the window ledge. They hid new versions of themselves inside each other, like how you carry a secret within you.
“I kissed Antony on Saturday,” Elysia announced. Ken stopped humping Barbie to listen. “A proper kiss,” Elysia said. “A grown-up kiss. You know how grown-ups kiss, Georgie?”
“Of course,” I said, refusing to sound curious. I took Ken, Barbie and the torch out of Elysia’s hands and laid the dolls side by side in a pool of yellow light in my lap.
“They touch tongues,” Elysia continued. “Anthony showed me. It’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
“Ken and Barbie don’t use tongues.”
“They’re toys, der-brain.”
“If they were supposed to use tongues then they’d give them tongues, so it’s done properly.”
“Don’t be stupid, Georgie. It’s easy. You should learn, so you’ll be ready when it’s your first turn with a boy. I’ll show you.”
My sister grasped my shoulders and pushed her tongue between my lips. It wriggled a bit. It felt like a wet mouse in my mouth. I let the torch drop out of my hand. She leaned back. The mouse ran away.
“Now you know how to do it,” she said, “you won’t be nervous next time. Don’t tell anyone you practiced with me first.”
I went back to manipulating Barbie’s body, and looked down at her plastic limbs, nodding to myself. I sensed the walls of the cupboard around me in the dark. I was one of my mother’s Russian dolls now, carrying a secret.
During winter, if he saw snow on a car windscreen, Magnus drew a giant cock and balls in the snow with his index finger. The snow in Lund was particularly cold. The chill reddened his fingertip every time, leaving it numb. There was a satisfying pain, like an arthritis, before he let the warm blood course back through the finger slowly. In Lund, snow fell in plump, long drifts over the fields near his home where kids went sledging. At the weekends, Magnus liked to lean on the fence at the end of his garden, and listen to the boisterous yawps of children carrying over the fields. Winter seemed to make everyone believe in fairy tales, the muddy fields covered by that impeccable blankness.
Magnus was a maths lecturer. A good one. Every one of his students passed their exams – he made sure of it. But sometimes you got bored with equations and logarithms for company. Sometimes you needed to risk blowing up the whole cake in great-grandma’s face. So when no one was looking, he left giant cock and balls cartoons on his colleagues’ saloons in the college car park. He sketched cock and balls drawings on the windscreens of Volvos on trading estates, intricate illustrations with dotted lines of pee projecting from erect cocks in parabolas arcing over the windscreens onto the bonnets. He doodled miniature cocks and balls on passenger side mirrors, just to surprise people.
Magnus relished his game. He had played it ever since he was a schoolboy, when Goran Gunvaldsson had daubed a giant penis on the outside of Magnus’s locker one Christmas holiday, and never got caught. It had been difficult to scrub it all off quickly on his first day back, before Otto had seen it. He still remembered that shake of Otto’s head, almost imperceptible.
Magnus stood by an old Saab in a side street near his home. Today was going to be a good day. None of his neighbours was yet awake, and no passers-by were in view. He dipped his finger deep in the unsullied white, started tracing a shape, and felt the cold ache slowly along the bone.
Michael Loveday’s debut pamphlet collection “He Said / She Said” was published by HappenStance Press (2011). His short stories, poems and critical reviews have been published in The Rialto, The North, Magma, Ambit, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Iota, Stand and other UK magazines. His work was also included in the anthology Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam (Cinnamon Press, 2012). He lives in Hertfordshire and teaches in adult education.
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