A Study of a Boy with an Aeroplane
(First published in Stories for Pictures)
|Painting by Andy Winter|
I’m not lover of art. I don’t know how to react to a splurge of colours on canvas. Or appreciate fine brush strokes on paper. And yet, this evening, I chance upon your painting.
It has started to rain, and I don’t have an umbrella. So I step inside the nearest door. As I brush off the raindrops from my coat, I look around. I’ve walked into an art gallery, and you are there, beaming at me. Urging me to come and look at your art. I hesitate. I don’t want to move around and make appropriate noises. Nor make eye contact with you. I have things to do. But you seem so alone in this space. So needy of appreciation that I walk around the room.
You paint local scenes. The farmers’ market. The Dover crossing. The white cliffs seem to be your favourite subject. I stop to look. This painting: The study of a boy with an aeroplane. I turn to look at you. Are you some kind of sorcerer who has drawn me in here?
Where did you do this painting? I ask.
By the Beachy Head lighthouse, you say.
I nod. I know that already. And this boy?
My son, you say. With his new toy plane. I paint his portrait every year, on his birthday.
The eighteenth of September, I say.
Your eyes widen. I shrug and point to the painting. You’ve painted me into your picture, I say. There in the distance, that’s us, Jim and I.
Your mouth drops open. Your eyes register shock. You smile at the incongruity it. I look away. I remember every minute of that day.
Our last happy day together, I whisper. I’ll never forget it. We had a picnic. We drank champagne and ate blackberries we picked from the hedges. We swam in the sea. We laughed without thinking about the future. I look straight into your sea-grey eyes. There was no future and we knew that. He died soon after. At least we said our goodbyes.
An uneasy shuffle as we try to avoid each other’s gaze.
But thank you, I say at last. You’ve unknowingly captured a beautiful moment. You’ve made us immortal.
I touch the coarse brush strokes on the canvas. I feel the paint blobs that define the love of my life. He feels alive, ready to hit the icy cold water. I feel a shiver go down my spine. I hear the wind in my hair and the crash of the waves. The gulls screaming and circling overhead. I taste the champagne and blackberries and his kisses in my mouth. I follow him and jump into the water myself.
You touch my shoulder and I turn. How typical of Jim. I say. To appear in the most unexpected of places and surprise me. I smile and head out into the rain.
She rushes out of her nightmare, into the silence of night. She gasps, as though fingers are closing around her throat. Breathe in. Breathe out. Feel the peace. Push away the images. She tries, like she tries every other night. But the dreams of her first husband trample her sleep. The bombs falling through the air. The rubble. The smell of gunpowder. The blood. Her mind always ricocheting between what was and what is. Breathe in. Breathe out. She wants to reach out for his hand. But she lets him sleep. He should not be drawn into the unbearable layers of her past.
He feels her breaking out of her dream. She is gasping. Moaning. Gagging. He knows that she had stood there, bathed in her husband’s blood, screaming like an animal. That was years ago, before he married her. And he wonders if he should have married her at all. He cannot take this anymore. They have escaped, but cannot escape the haunting of her husband. He feels her reach out for him and then her hesitation. He moves away. He cannot comfort her. His life too has been riddled with loss.
They resort to sleeping separately. First, he on the floor and she on the bed. Then to different rooms. He claims her dreams keep him awake and he cannot concentrate on the present. She agrees, and is relieved. It is time to move on, but she is fettered. She has nothing to offer him. Together they have memories of trying to forget their individual pains. Together they left their country and struggled to gain a new identity. But they have no identity. Only a past. Only a story. Only a dream.
Then one day, years later, he will dream. He will dream of paradise. The streets of Aleppo alive with celebration. The arghul filling his heart with the music of his childhood. Men dancing the dabka, swirling, kicking and clapping. Their energy thrusting into the air. The smells of sheesh kebabs and shawerma spilling out of cafes and driving him closer to ecstasy. Bakalava, like only his mother could have made, dropping bit by bit onto his hungry, greedy tongue. And he will see her in this dream. Gliding in swathes of cloth, her laughter tinkling and merging with the sweet giggles of his daughters, the husky guffaws of his mother, the laughter of his first wife. Her voice long forgotten. Their warm breath will caress his face and he will reach for her. But find emptiness. She is long gone. And he? His body will not be strong or young. It’ll be just like a pressed leaf. The memory of youth. Only the skeleton and veins will remain.
(First published in The Lampeter Review and then in Flash Flood Journal)
Steady on (250 words)
They reach the corner and stop. The filth is bobbing around their waist. A rat swims past. A sanitary pad floats up to her. She turns and retches. “Look what you’ve done,” he shouts. And now around them, bubbling like stew, her breakfast. They move on, slowly, dragging their feet. They mustn’t fall into an open manhole. She’s sobbing. The rain washes her salty tears away. Her eyes sting and she cannot see very far. She wants to throw these clothes away. She wants to peel her skin off. She holds on to his shoulder as he tests each footfall. There are others, like them, balancing in the water. Lurching. Slipping. Clutching to one another for support. The sharp pain hits the side of her belly. She screams. He holds her up and comforts her. They can do it. They must do it. There are helping hands along the way. She stays focussed. Ignore the pain and keep moving, is his mantra. Today of all days, she curses under her breath. Try to hold back, he urges her. But no, there is no way out. She shuts her eyes and immediately a picture of her Gods and Goddesses with garlands round their necks springs to mind. She wades, comforted by their image. The filthy floodwater swishes around like a whirlpool, threatening to swallow her whole. But she perseveres. They reach the fluorescent lobby of the hospital. A starched white nurse reaches out for her. Her waters break.
(Published in Flash - The International Short-Short Story magazine)
It’s Pizza night, Mum.
We scream and race around the room, throwing our schoolbags on the floor. But there’s no smell of pizza. No plates or forks or knives on the table. No Mum. Where is mum? Muuuuum! Robbie attacks us with a candlestick, his light sabre. Miah recoils, giggles and runs. Where is she? She had promised pepperoni and cheese. I’m desperate for the toilet. I rush in and Mum’s on the floor, her eyes all funny. I watch a line of red run down her mouth. It’s pizza night, Mum, I say, shaking her body hard. She remains still.