Posted in Stories

February

Some days bring sunshine. Some bring rain. And somewhere along the line life settles in hard as a February sky. Locks down your dreams tight against the iron earth and dares you to object. For such a short month it exacts a long toll.

A bunch of scientists did an experiment once with fleas. They took half a dozen of the brightest and bounciest, dropped them in a jar and screwed on the lid. For a couple of days those fleas launched themselves into almost continually. Eventually, through pain or weariness or both, they stopped jumping so high. They settled on a spot two thirds of the way up the sides of the jar and that was their limit. Even after the lid came off and they could have bounded their way to freedom those fleas kept right on jumping to a place well below the potential of possibility.

Maybe I’m being melodramatic but if that leaden February sky ever clears I wonder how high I can still jump.

This is the kind of stuff you think about when you’re lying in a strange bed next to a strange, familiar body listening to the sleet-scattered rain drumming on the sills of a hotel window.

Or at least that’s how it is for me.

“OK. I’m in.” That’s what she said. Written plain on the perfect retina display of a smartphone chat app. Even now I’m twisting it in my mind to convince myself it was her idea all along but I can’t make that leap. This was attrition. This was a well timed attack at a vulnerable moment. This was me at my calculating best.

We’ve been friends forever. Told each other secrets in confidence. Joked about our lives. Commiserated over the moments of mind-numbing tedium and apathy that fill up so many hours of any long term relationship. He takes me for granted. I think I bore her or disappoint her in some way. Got to go the kids are screaming. Mine too, talk soon. Advice occasionally. Laughter worn as a mask more often. Flirtation. Innuendo. Anything to break up the monotony.

“Let’s run away for a weekend. Or a random Wednesday. Yeah, Wednesday is better. We can pretend it’s a work conference or something. Makes it more believable. How about you phone in a bomb threat to my office and I’ll get in the car right now…”

All in fun. Always an undercurrent. A dull, silver thread of maybe.

She feels so good against my skin. I want her to open her eyes and smile. I want her to stay asleep. I’m terrified that if she wakes up our lips will meet and the frantic, shivering exploration of our tongues and bodies of last night will be replaced by something caged and cursory. Something regretful. So I lie there, paralysed and afraid and allow more minutes of my life to tick away unchecked.

A bunch of scientists worked out that over ninety percent of the things that we worry about never actually happen. So if you spend half an hour a day on average worrying about things and you live to your three score and ten you’ll have wasted a whole year worrying about things that never happened. One and a half percent of your life spent on wasted worry. I’m not sure if it’s the same bunch of scientists that worked on the fleas but I suppose that isn’t worth worrying about.

~~~

“I didn’t think you’d come.”

“I…”

“What?”

“I…never mind. I just thought I’d be the one saying that.” My face is burning but I can’t stop the words spilling out any more than I can stop the sweet, bitter taste of possibility and regret rising to flood my throat. “Actually I didn’t think I’d be saying anything to anyone. Unless you count the waiter and my attempts to get him to leave me to my lonely misery or the manager and my attempts to get a refund on the room or…”

She smiles. I’ll never know if it’s forced but it’s glorious regardless. “Don’t be silly. I said I’d be here.”

I put my arms around her because I don’t trust myself to speak. My fingers twitch against her back as adrenalin thrums through my veins. I hold her for too long. Try to let the awkwardness and doubt fall away from my bones. She breaks away and wraps her hands over mine. “Let’s get a drink.”

~~~

Her body shifts against me, burrowing in close. I wonder if she’s dreaming about somewhere else. Maybe her subconscious is convinced she’s in her regular bed next to her regular body in her regular life and is keeping her safely asleep. Whatever the reason I hope the illusion lasts for a while longer.

I don’t want to think about any more scientists, even though I’m sure they’d be able to tell me that seventy six percent of the time a person won’t be woken by someone else’s heartbeat and that no matter how hard I concentrate daylight is eventually going to creep its way into our room, burning away dreams like so much mist and vapour. So I keep on lying there, barely breathing, trying and failing to bend the course of time and reality through sheer will.

At some point my eyes close, and when they open again the day has found us. I run through a succession of words in my mind and find nothing of value. She’ll be awake soon and then she’ll be gone. This time for good. We’ll talk again but it’ll be different. Diluted. We’ll commiserate as we over-compensate with the significant others in our separate lives but it won’t be the same. The weight of impossibility will grind us down. Each day will be a little less than the one that preceded it and so it will go until there’s nothing left to bind us. Until eventually February crushes me in it’s grey palm.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Can we stay for a bit longer? It’s nice here.”

I say nothing. Draw up the covers. Hold her.

Maybe Spring has finally arrived.

***

This story was first published by Literally Stories. Visit Nik’s page at Literally Stories to learn more about him. You can also visit his personal blog to keep in touch!

NIKEVELEIGH.WORDPRESS.COM

Posted in Stories

The Old Man in the Park

“Of course you can talk to him, off you go.”

“Thanks daddy!”

I watch as Daniel sprints away. Head down. Arms pumping. Balance ready to fail him at any given moment. Adrenaline fires my heart as he skids on a pine cone at pitch-forward-and-split-head distance from the wooden bench. I breathe again as he thrusts his hands forward and climbs laughing onto the seat and gives the old man a hug who, in return, as usual, pats my son’s head and continues to stare at the trees lining the park.

“I got a book from the library today it’s about a dog and Charlie wanted it but I got it first and gave it to my teacher and…”

I smile at the faint stream of consciousness that fades from my ears as the breeze turns back to the south. It’ll be cloudy later. Probably rain overnight and then…

“Dad-EEE!”

My daughter looks at me with as much wrath as a two-year-old can muster. I start pushing the swing once more.

“Up Dadeeeee UP!”

“Into the clouds!” I laugh as she giggles and I push her higher. Such a daredevil. So different from her brother. Must be a second child thing.

My phone buzzes and I fish it out of my pocket while continuing to work the swing with one hand.

Can u pick up some milk on the way back?

Sure.

On the bench, Daniel has stopped talking and is sitting, staring at the trees with Dennis. Lily has had enough of the swing and fancies a crack at the Witch’s Hat which, for once, is empty. I try to get her to sit but she’s determined to climb up onto the handrail three years earlier than her brother so I give up and give in.

“Dad-EEE! Push!”

Listening to Lily convinces me there are too many words in the world. There’s something magical about the ability to break communication down into its base elements. Daddy, hand! Daddy, sit! Daddy, book! Maybe if two toddlers stood at opposite ends of an underground Swiss tunnel and yelled with all their might the resultant collision would uncover a literary Bosun-Higgs, and just imagine…

“Dad-EEE! PUSH!”

I push. My thoughts marble and scatter. The wind picks up. Lily shouts. Daniel sits. Dennis remains unmoved.

“Time to go my boy. It’s nearly bath time.”

I repeat this another three times before Daniel leans over and hugs Dennis. The old man pats his head and keeps on staring. I gather my protesting daughter into my arms and lower her into the pram. I bribe her into silence with dried apricots and a bottle of water. Daniel tries to steal some as he arrives at a sprint. Lily screams at him on reflex and then offers him some as we walk towards the gate. I wave to the old man.

“So how was Dennis?”

“Not Dennis. Denny.”

“So how was Denny?”

“Fine.” The default five-year-old assessment of the world.

“Did you tell him about the library?”

“Yes. And then we watched Dougie playing.”

“Who’s Dougie? Is he in your class?”

“No, daaaad. He’s Denny’s brother. He’s a big boy like me and he likes to play with trucks and when he talks bubbles come out and it makes Denny sad.”

I stop walking. “Where was he playing Daniel?”

“In the trees daddy.”

I turn to face the park.

“He’s gone away now daddy. It was time for swimming so he ran to his house.”

I watch as the old man shuffles towards the cricket fields. I want to call to him but there is no certainty in my thoughts and the unknown words choke in my throat. A dog bounds up to him and he pats its head and continues on.

“Can we have pasta tonight daddy?”

“Sauce!” says Lily in agreement.

I nod and stroke Daniel’s hair. “Of course. As much as you want.”

***

This story was first published by Literally Stories. Visit Nik’s page at Literally Stories to learn more about him. You can also visit his personal blog to keep in touch!

NIKEVELEIGH.WORDPRESS.COM

Posted in Stories

Mannequin Chic

One pair of trousers, that’s all June required. She repeated it over and over in her mind as she hurried down the high street: “One pair of trousers, one pair of trousers, one pair of trousers”. The mantra fell in time with her footsteps – “one pair” with the left foot, “of trousers” with the right. It looped so quickly, so incessantly, that it became white noise and nonsense and she disremembered altogether why she’d ever walked into town. Trousers? Forget about it. Not with so many other beautiful garments on display to entice and torment her.

The shop fronts were both beguiling and revolting with their six-foot tall, headless mannequins, each one draped with clothes two sizes too big. Even they – the grotesque characters with elongated necks and stick-like fingers – wore clothes better than June did. Pea green winter coats hung stylishly from their petite frames, while form-fitting, rust-coloured jumpers accentuated their petite waistlines. Plaid skirts, as small as napkins, grazed the tops of their slender legs which were wrapped in cosy, knitted tights and tucked into sleek, knee-high leather boots.

There was a plague of chic autumn style upon the high street that day, and June was desperate to become victim to it.

She found herself – as if by magic – inside a store in search of that precious pea green coat, “one pair of trousers” still running in her mind and still forgotten. Her skin tingled as she ran her fingers absentmindedly down the sleeve of a sumptuously soft, knitted jumper. Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed a tiny plaid skirt in just the right size. Her head swam as she stumbled upon the rail which held the hallowed coat.

The changing rooms were enticingly cosy with their dim lighting and luxe velvet curtains. June noted this as she found herself inside one such room, arms overflowing with garments, not quite remembering how she got there. She’d operated on autopilot, entranced by the clothes, desperate to become autumn itself in slick new garbs. She lined the hangers up methodically on the rail provided and peeled off her clothes, taking care not to peek in the mirror until she was safely covered with the new apparel that was bound to make her beautiful.

Each item enveloped June in a reassuringly cosy hug as soon as it touched her body. She looked down and saw the epitome of fall style. Then she looked up into the mirror, and the spell was broken.

Her heart broke with it. The plaid skirt strained at her thighs. The jumper sagged at her bust. The coat hung like a sack from her shoulders. She’d been fooled again by the svelte mannequins and she could almost hear them mocking her for ever believing she’d be as lithe or sophisticated as their plastic forms.

“You look fine.”

The voice was soft and gentle, but it startled June nonetheless. She carefully pulled back the velvet curtain and peered out from her cubicle. The changing rooms were empty.

“In the mirror, idiot.”

June’s focus snapped back to the mirror and, disappointingly, back to herself.

“I don’t look fine,” she whispered.

“Sure you do. Not great, but fine. You’ll do.”

“I don’t want to just do.”

“What you need is a world where everyone looks just fine. A world without mannequins.”

June nodded. If only.

She stared at the mirror a while longer and her eyes began to swim. Her image blurred, then slowly swirled into a whirlpool.

“Come on in,” the voice commanded.

June reached out to the mirror and her fingertips passed seamlessly through its surface and into the whirlpool. She took a deep breath, then climbed right in, leaving her old clothes strewn on the floor behind her.

She never did buy that one pair of trousers.

Posted in Stories

Bliss

It was midnight. Suddenly Mitia Kuldaroff burst into his parents’ house, dishevelled and excited, and went flying through all the rooms. His father and mother had already gone to rest; his sister was in bed finishing the last pages of a novel, and his school-boy brothers were fast asleep.

“What brings you here?” cried his astonished parents. “What is the matter?”

“Oh, don’t ask me! I never expected anything like this! No, no, I never expected it! It is — it is absolutely incredible!”

Mitia burst out laughing and dropped into a chair, unable to stand on his feet from happiness.

“It is incredible! You can’t imagine what it is! Look here!”

His sister jumped out of bed, threw a blanket over her shoulders, and went to her brother. The schoolboys woke up.

“What’s the matter with you? You look like a ghost.”

“It’s because I’m so happy, mother. I am known all over Russia now. Until to-day, you were the only people who knew that such a person as Dimitri Kuldaroff existed, but now all Russia knows it! Oh, mother! Oh, heavens!”

Mitia jumped up, ran through all the rooms, and dropped back into a chair.

“But what has happened? Talk sense!”

“You live like wild animals, you don’t read the news, the press is nothing to you, and yet there are so many wonderful things in the papers! Everything that happens becomes known at once, nothing remains hidden! Oh, how happy I am! Oh, heavens! The newspapers only write about famous people, and now there is something in them about me!”

“What do you mean? Where is it?”

Papa turned pale. Mamma glanced at the icon and crossed herself. The schoolboys jumped out of bed and ran to their brother in their short night-shirts.

“Yes, sir! There is something about me in the paper! The whole of Russia knows it now. Oh, mother, keep this number as a souvenir; we can read it from time to time. Look!”

Mitia pulled a newspaper out of his pocket and handed it to his father, pointing to an item marked with a blue pencil.

“Read that!”

His father put on his glasses.

“Come on, read it!”

Mamma glanced at the icon once more, and crossed herself. Papa cleared his throat, and began:

“At 11 p. M., on December 27, a young man by the name of Dimitri Kuldaroff — ”

“See? See? Go on!”

“A young man by the name of Dimitri Kuldaroff, coming out of a tavern on Little Armourer Street, and being in an intoxicated condition — ”

“That’s it, I was with Simion Petrovitch! Every detail is correct. Go on! Listen!”

“ — being in an intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under the feet of a horse belonging to the cabman Ivan Drotoff, a peasant from the village of Durinka in the province of Yuknofski. The frightened horse jumped across Kuldaroff’s prostrate body, pulling the sleigh after him. In the sleigh sat Stepan Lukoff, a merchant of the Second Moscow Guild of Merchants. The horse galloped down the street, but was finally stopped by some house porters. For a few moments Kuldaroff was stunned. He was conveyed to the police station and examined by a doctor. The blow which he had sustained on the back of the neck — ”

“That was from the shaft, papa. Go on! Read the rest!”

“ — the blow which he had sustained on the back of the neck was pronounced to be slight. The victim was given medical assistance.”

“They put cold-water bandages round my neck. Do you believe me now ? What do you think ? Isn’t it great ? It has gone all over Russia by now! Give me the paper!”

Mitia seized the paper, folded it, and put it into his pocket, exclaiming:

“I must run to the Makaroffs, and show it to them! And the Ivanoffs must see it, too, and Natalia, and Anasim — I must run there at once! Good-bye! ”

Mitia crammed on his cap and ran blissfully and triumphantly out into the street.