“Donnacha” from MINUS ONE

Four Aprils old

His heart knows

Only joy

Proud and brave

He stands up straight

In uniform

My girl intent

Upon his lunchbox

Putting in

Taking out

Balancing . . .

Her eyelids not quite dry

I look at her

She looks at him

He waves at me

We spin in a ring of love

And recognise the day

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Part 2 of “Myrtle” from We All Die in the End.

“Cat . . .   “

            The word popped out of Myrtle’s mouth.

            “Wonderful. How nice – “

            “No! I . . . No, I – I’m getting a cat . . . soon.”

            “A new arrival then! How exciting! Now let me see . . .  “

            He rummaged in the case.

            “I don’t seem . . .   “

            He shook his head.

            “I have a lot of toys for dogs you know. I find these days most people have dogs, for the company – they like the company when they get on a bit – of course you’re not . . . “

            Myrtle stared at the top of his shining head as he lifted plastic bones and leather dog-leads.

            “Very little for cats with me. They’re so independent, as you know I’m sure, no interest in toys. What’s this? Ah no, worm and flea powders – Madam won’t be needing those.”

            He laughed and Myrtle shook her head. He moved his left foot forward.

            “There’s a new catalogue in the office – I could call tomorrow if that would suit – you could have a look. I’m sure there’s cat-baskets, yes, and bells, door-flaps, all that. Would it be convenient?”

            He whipped a business-card from his pocket.

            “There you are.”

            He flourished it at Myrtle.

            “That’s my name there at the top –   Silas Bell. Mr Silas Bell, that’s me.”

            He smiled and made a little bow.

            “Until tomorrow, Madam. Same time suit you? It’ll be a pleasure to see you again.”

            ” . . . Yes,” Myrtle said.

            She clutched the card to her side, watched Silas Bell get into the shiny car, and then slowly closed the door. For long seconds she stood in the hall, staring at the letter-box. Minutes passed; her feet began to get cold. She lifted the card to read it again and breathed out noisily. She had talked, she had made a friend! Didn’t he want to come back the next day? He had almost begged her to let him come back.

            Myrtle ate a huge lunch and cut the apple-tart after. She was conscious of her new position as someone’s friend and she felt virtuous, holy almost. She licked cream from a spoon and eased the waistband of her tracksuit, trying to think of names for cats and wondering what would be in the catalogue. Her fingers were sticky and she wiped them on a tissue.

            She’d have a bath instead of a shower, she thought, a lovely, long hot bath. On the window-sill she found an old bath bomb. There was a smell of violets when she dropped it into the steaming water but it wouldn’t dissolve. She poked at it with a toothbrush until it broke apart. Gingerly she sat down; such an expanse of skin. Her long, pale hair hung wet and straight, and then she remembered the rollers.

            She dried quickly and tied her dressing-gown, but she couldn’t find the rollers! Where were they? Where! Drawer after drawer was tumbled. Myrtle breathed with quick, loud, anxious gasps and spit ran across her chin. There! She had them! She divided her hair carefully into ten sections, rolled it around the curlers and snapped the elastic into place.

            In the morning she was up early. Her head ached in ten places. She stared at the ringlets, pulled them down and watched them shoot back up again. She drew a hairbrush through them, gently over the sore spots. The tracksuit was dropped to the floor – it wouldn’t do – wouldn’t match the curls. There must be something – there’d be something in the spare-room – there was a box . . .

            The black dress fitted very neatly; Myrtle held her breath to get the zip up. It was all right only she was cold. She put on her old lilac fleece – she could take it off when he arrived. The face in the mirror looked odd, not like her own face at all, and too pale against the dark dress. Lipstick! She should have lipstick, but . . . wasn’t there a book with a hard, red cover . . . yes. She wet her finger and rubbed until the colour began to run, then pressed the colour to her lips. Well . . . it would do only she couldn’t have a cup of tea now.

            What time was it? He said, at the same time. She stood in front of the fire, trying not to lick her lips or bite them.  Eleven, half-eleven, nearly twelve – and there he was, the shiny, black car coming to a stop outside her door. Silas Bell pushed his hair flat behind his ears, lifted his case from the back seat, and smiled.

            “Well, here I am again as promised,” he began when she opened the door.

            He gaped at her, his mouth open; there was a glitter of teeth and then he went on:      

            “I’ve brought the catalogue.”

            He waved it in the air, smiling and sliding his right foot forward.

            “Yes, Myrtle said.”

            He shivered suddenly and hunched his shoulder against the breeze.

            “Maybe . . .  “

            Myrtle opened the door wider.

            “Maybe, would . . . ?”

            “Yes indeed, thank you. I would indeed.”

            Silas Bell followed Myrtle into the sitting-room; he opened his case and handed her the catalogue and set a laptop on the table.

End of the story tomorrow.

Part 1 of “Myrtle” from We All Die in the End.

Myrtle studied the label on the tin. She didn’t particularly like the cat’s face only it was a nice, mustardy colour.

            “Same as my coat.”

            A child stared at her when she spoke – a small girl with badges on her jacket. She stared at Myrtle and Myrtle stared back, leaning forward and making her eyes bigger until the child turned away, reaching for her father’s hand.

            “Recipe de Luxe,” Myrtle read in a whisper. “Trout and Tuna.”

            That was a new one and it didn’t say Trout and Tuna flavour – it said Trout and Tuna. She lifted two tins and went to the check-out. The man in front of her turned around and the child with the badges on her jacket was beside him.

            “Not very quick are they? They must think we have all day to stand here.”

            Myrtle blinked away from his busy eyes.

            “Yes,” she said.

            She clamped her teeth and lips together and looked at the man’s feet, the thin legs in tight jeans.

            “Da, what’s wrong with that lady?” the child asked.

            Someone moved in behind her and her shoulders twitched. She held the tins tightly, willing the queue forward.

            Outside the sun shone, the sea so bright Myrtle had to squint. She walked home, stopping sometimes to lean against the railings, to watch the tide rushing in, to follow with her eyes the black mass of seaweed beneath the waves. She looked across to Carrickfergus. One of these days she would go – she would! She’d go on the bus and have a look round, and a cup of tea maybe, and she would talk to people, make friends . . .

            “I wish I was,” she sang, “in Carrick-fer-er-gus . . . “

            And then she stopped; that was all she knew.

            She went into the house, dropped the tins on the kitchen table and put the kettle on. It was a long time since breakfast. She adjusted the waistband of her tracksuit, rubbing at the red marks on her skin. She read the labels on the tins of cat food and wondered where to put them. There was hardly room to put them anywhere.

            She had every flavour – Chicken, Rabbit, Veal, Beef, Veal and Beef, Chicken and Rabbit, Salmon with Crab. The tins covered the worktops; there were rows of them on the floor. She balanced the Trout and Tuna near the front because they were new. She stared at them until the kettle boiled.

            In the sitting-room she sat with her feet to the radiator, warming them and drinking her tea. She stretched, leaning back in the chair, and wondered would she eat the doughnut or keep it for lunch. Ah . . . she’d have it. There was a frozen tart – she could have that for lunch. She bit into the doughnut with her eyes closed; her tongue poked at the jam and she grunted softly.

            The car door slamming in the street made her climb slowly out of the chair. She gripped the edge of the curtain and stared at the sleek, black car, shiny with polish. A man with sleek, black, shiny hair stood beside it holding a small suitcase. Myrtle watched as he went to a door across the street, knocked and waited. May’s house, May Toal she was called. She always wanted to chat and Myrtle had tried to chat back but all she could manage was yes and no and it might rain. May spoke so fast, jumping from one thing to the next . . . ah, there she was, holding the door half-open.

            The man set down his case and opened it, then closed it as May shook her head. He went to the next house and the next, the drove to the top of the street and turned the car.

            Myrtle watched him get out again. He would come here – knock on her door – expect her to talk. Well, she wouldn’t – she wouldn’t even answer the door. Just let him . . . no . . . wait! This was a chance – she could try at least. She could say hello, make friends with him.

            She went in and out of the hall, waiting, listening . . . anyway, she wouldn’t have to say much; he would do the talking: he was selling things. Myrtle looked into the mirror on the hall stand; when she smiled there were bumps on her cheeks. She lifted a hand to her hair; the long ponytail was untidy. Vaguely she patted the loose bits then went back to stand at the window. The car door banged again and there he was.  He straightened the edges of his jacket, pushed the shiny hair down behind his ears, and then he smiled and walked up the steps.

            The knock made her jump all the same. She wavered in the hall, wondering if he would knock again if she didn’t answer, and then she moved quickly.

            “Good morning, Madam, good morning. Isn’t the day great?”

            He lifted his head and sniffed deeply at the salty wind and smiled at Myrtle. His hair shone in the sunlight; his teeth glistened, shining at her. He seemed to have teeth everywhere. Myrtle stared, motionless.

            “Could I interest you, Madam?”

            He moved his right foot forward.

            “Something for your pet?”

            Swiftly he bent, set down the case and opened it.

            “Does Madam have a pet? A little dog maybe, or a cat?”

            “Cat . . .   “

PART 2 TOMORROW . . .