Prologue to TWELVE DAYS
A pair of eyes gazed back from the mirror, dull and expressionless.
Jim had said that they were the windows to the soul. I don’t know where he got these sayings from. Poor, sad Jim. We’d have called him Billy-no-mates, except his name wasn’t Billy.
His parents had moved up from somewhere on the South coast. He joined mid-term, which was always difficult, but from that first day he entered Glaseby Comprehensive, it was as though he had “victim” tattooed on his forehead. Thick, glass-bottle spectacles, a physique that bore striking similarities to the skeleton hanging up in the biology lab, spots, and he wasn’t too keen on showering. And his hair? What was going on with that? I’d never seen such a mess, other than on the roof of an old barn.
I got to know a bit of his background, so I sort of understood. But it was inevitable that he was going to become a victim. The victim. My victim.
We’d struck up a friendship, of sorts. We would both hang around the football pitch, not playing, but just watching. For differing reasons. People accused Jim of being gay, or a queer, or a pooftah, or any number of similar pejorative names. Who knew? Who cared? They were only names. Couldn’t he take a joke?
The fun and games began when we started to hang around together during the summer holidays. His house wasn’t far from mine, and we’d often take the shortcut through an area of wilderness known locally as “no man’s land” on the way back from the town centre. Squashing ants, catching spiders and pulling their legs off, setting fire to them with the aid of the hot summer sun and a magnifying glass stolen from the newsagents. We had great fun. Well, I did. Jim was never too comfortable, but in desperation for my friendship, he reluctantly joined in.
One day, a game of ‘dare’ involving a stray dog he’d befriended got things interesting. The memory of the dog’s howls live with me to this day, as it was systematically mutilated, and then buried, still just about alive, in a hastily-dug hole behind some trees. My, how we laughed! Well, Jim didn’t laugh much. I did, though. Christ, it was only a dog.
A week later, and Jim was dead, there being no more stray dogs around at the time. There were quite a few similarities in their treatments, and Jim almost got a grave next to old Fido. But at the last minute, I tied his arms around a tree, and pulled his trousers and pants down around his ankles. There was no opportunity to find out if he really was a poof. But people drew their own conclusions from this little vignette I’d created.
The police came to interview me, but I denied all knowledge. I said we’d argued, and that he’d gone off on his own. They had already assumed that he was the victim of some pervert, waiting in the woods to prey on unsuspecting young children. There had been other pervert sightings, as always, and someone was arrested, briefly. When he was released, his house was burned down one night, although he escaped and left town. No great loss. One fewer suspected perv to clutter up the neighbourhood. It was fortunate that Dad always had a can of petrol in the garage, just in case it was needed.
And now it was time to start again. Those old feelings had returned, and with them a thrill and an anticipation. It had been a good few years, but my palms were moist, and my heart was beating just a little faster.
The eyes stared back from the mirror, and then wrinkled slightly. Let the fun begin.
© Gerald Hornsby 2010
Prologue to DEATH IN PRINT
The dark green jacket kept most of the rain off his body, but his hair was plastered, dark and slick, to the top of his head. To one side, a cracked downpipe allowed rainwater to drip, drip, drip onto the shiny pavements. It was late, and there were few cars, and even fewer pedestrians.
The gloomy interior of the bookshop showed little detail, save for those few items at the front illuminated by the streetlights. The interior was not his point of interest. A letter-sized promotional flyer was crudely stuck to the inside of the main window. It was not quite straight, and it amused him to tilt his head slightly, so the sign was orientated correctly in his eyes. An ungloved hand lifted, and an extended index finger first traced around the outline of the flyer, and then the outline of the photograph which held pride of place in the centre. Delicately, the finger traced hair, ear, cheek, and mouth. Oh, the sensual, full mouth. The beautifully-curved, Bactrian double hump of the top lip, the slight parting to show bright-white teeth beyond. The finger traced their outline, following the curves, around and around. Then the anger came, and the same careful finger jabbed into one eye of the man featured on the flyer, hard. The pain was good, satisfying, fulfilling. Jab. Jab. JAB.
The anger subsided, and he breathed more easily. He stared at the face looking out at him from the cold and quiet bookshop window. Stared for many seconds, remembering the face well. All the memories returned, fresh and brightly-polished for a new time, and the man knew what he must do, why he was here in this strange town.
He looked around, and then wiped the glass with the sleeve of his coat. Thrusting hands deep into trouser pockets, and with shoulders hunched against the seeping coldness of the rain, he strode off towards town.
© Gerald Hornsby 2010
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
That’s what it reminds me of. Sparklers. The sun, not yet at its height, but high enough to burn the unprotected pale blubber of the day trippers (and it does); the sea, mid-tide, calm but ever changing in a liquid manifestation of chaos theory. Tiny pinpricks of light, never constant, being created in an microsecond, and dwelling for probably less, but just long enough to leave its impression on my eyes, hidden behind the dark, wrap-around sunglasses.
All of this I can see, as I sit up high – higher than the promenaders, some squealing excitedly at their first sight of the pier. I am higher than the cyclists, passing faster than bye-laws suggest, in a flurry of squeaks and tiny ‘tick-ticks’ of chain, and clothing swishing against clothing. I incline my head to the oldies on their mobility scooters, muted whines of electric motors, changing note to struggle up the small incline to my right. Gravel crackles under soft tyres.
A jogger struggles past, breathing hard, sweating no doubt, water in the drinks bottle sloshing in perfect rhythm with the slapping of running shoes on tarmac.
Two fishermen arrive in front of me, jovial conversation about football, beer, cars, women, and beer again. Two or three sentences a subject, and then they move on. They set up equipment, tackle boxes opening and closing with a thump, squeaking screws tightening on aluminium tripods. Someone else comes – a girl, wanting the keys to the car. She’s left her sunglasses behind. As she departs, she tosses back: “and catch some fish this time.” She doesn’t realise that catching fish is just an excuse for being here. The conversation drifts off, and the serious business begins.
Above all this, waves slap noisily against the sea wall. They don’t crash – the weather’s too good for that. Sometimes they caress, they ‘sloosh’, small knocking sounds as the sea explores small pockets in the concrete of the wall. Finding nothing to distract them, they recede, to view their next touching point.
“Corned beef and biscuits,” and then a laugh. Mature adults, I call them. Forties, something like that. Their voices have a tone, too old for their twenties, not deep and worried enough for middle age, and far too young for the frailties of old age. And a dog. A bull mastiff, or something, panting fast and hard in the heat.
High overhead, a plane passes through the clear, cloudless sky. Going East, I think, maybe Europe or beyond. People looking for experiences they can photgraph and bore their friends with, meanwhile flying at five hundred miles an hour over a hatful of them.
Two young boys, apparently Thomas and Josh, get shouted at for straying too close to me.
“It’s okay,” I say, harmless tones.
“No it’s not. They’ve got to learn.” Two muffled thumps, followed by two loud screams drown out everything else for a few seconds. The cries diminish as they are led away, their mother’s voice continually in their ears.
For a few seconds it is quiet – apart from the sea. Constant, yet changing. It’s an arrhythmic undertone to everything else that goes on. There are no voices now, just the occasional rattlesnake of a line being cast to sea, and then silence.
My signal to move is when an unnatural ring offends my ears, and I know what’s coming – banal, unintelligent, barely coherent ramblings about boys, pop music, school, punctuated by the utterances of the moment – “innit”, “yeah?” and even “you’re ‘avin’ a larf.” But even I get it wrong sometimes. This time it’s an older voice, retired, grey-haired probably, running over babysitting arrangements for grandchildren.
More often, the sea is being drowned out now by conversations, shouts, expletives, cries, and I conclude it’s time to go home. My companion – white, slender, steel-tipped, is always to hand, wrist strap on to stop pranksters, I stare out to sea one last time. Sparklers. I haven’t been able to see them for over fifty years, but I would imagine that’s how the sea looks today.
© Gerald Hornsby 2010
FIVE BY FIVE
From an idea by Angel Zapata
The idea is to write a story, a complete story, comprising five sentences, each of exactly five words. Not easy. These are some attempts I made. It’s certainly difficult keeping to five words a sentence, and actually more difficult making it exactly five sentences. I hope you enjoy them. They’re all different, but show similarities to my other short story writing.
Sand dropped from his boots.
He remembers when they were new.
And he was new, green.
Then they shipped him here.
To be anxious and afraid.
Photos in a frame, memories.
The child in white lace.
Smiles and soft, milky skin.
Third birthday party with cake.
And then, no more photos.
He stares at the hands.
Splayed, muddy, bloody and lifeless.
The camera flashes, once, twice.
Men and women wearing white.
No wedding – soon, a funeral.
Smiles, happy faces, and flowers.
Happiest day of her life.
That’s what Uncle Ron said.
But Jim’s been gone ages.
And where was bridesmaid Sarah?
© Gerald Hornsby 2010
Billy sat on the rickety side deck, legs folded awkwardly underneath him, brushing a small pile of dirt back and forth across the worn wooden boards. A sudden breeze blew the tiny motes around, and he patiently brushed them together again.
Since he was six, and dad had left with a crescendo of bad language and a bang of the door which shook the whole mobile home on its wheels, he’d had few friends. Ostracised at school, his only communication with his classmates was conducted with his fists, usually responding to one of the disgusting names they called his mum.
One ‘uncle’ had stayed longer than the others, and after Sammy-Jo had been born, Uncle Connor moved in with them. Billy didn’t like him. It wasn’t just the drinking, nor the shouting, nor the whacks he got if he wasn’t quick enough to move out of the way. Billy was scared of him, scared of what Connor would do to him if he ever told his mum what went on when she was working at the store.
Billy thought for a moment, and made up his mind. Mum wouldn’t be back for a couple of hours, and he was home early from school. He could hear Sammy-Jo crying over the noise of the television and Connor shouting at her. He’d overheard someone a few homes away telling Connor about fire alarms. Connor had said something like “mind your own fucking business”. But Billy had remembered what the other man had said. About how easy the mobile homes caught fire.
Billy played with the box of matches in his trouser pocket, and looked at the small pile of dry twigs he’d left under the deck. The key, which would lock the door to the trailer, was in his other pocket.
Some time later, when the screams from inside had subsided, and the people gathered around were engulfed in blue-black smoke and peculiar burning smells, his thoughts strayed to the Sunday roast dinners they had when he was much younger. He wondered if pork crackling was named after the sound he could hear from inside the burning home.
GOING THROUGH MY DRAWERS
Michael and I had returned early. We’d been to a fundraiser, for the local hospital, but Michael had felt ill, so we came home early. I drove. Michael had drunk a few cocktails.
When we got home, the first thing I noticed was that the alarm was off. Michael normally sets it as we go out. He swears he did so last night.
So we go into our house, and there’s no noise. A few security lights had been left on – Michael’s idea – to deter burglars. So Michael says to me: “Stay here, darling. I’ll search the house.” So I did. For a while, anyway.
The door to the basement was still locked, like it normally is. He checked the kitchen, the diner and the family room, and everything was okay.
So he starts to go upstairs. I say to him: “Michael, let me go. You’re drunk.”
But he said: “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. I feel okay now.”
So he climbed up the stairs, very slowly, and very quietly. And then – nothing. No sound at all. So naturally, I got worried. So I went upstairs too. Slowly and quietly just like he did.
When I get to the first floor landing, I hear this sound in our bedroom. Sort of moving around sounds, if you know what I mean. So I head in that direction. When I open the door, there’s this guy, going through my drawers, one by one. And Michael, he’s creeping up on the guy, like on tiptoe.
Well, I tried to keep quiet, but the sight of that guy, looking through my underwear, I just sort of made a sound. And he turned around, saw Michael, and shot him with this gun he was holding. Just like that.
Well, I was so upset, I just broke down, and the guy pushed past me, and ran out of the house, And there was my husband, lying there, dead. And that’s when I phoned you guys.
Whaddya mean, he’s not dead? Talking? Oh shit.
© Gerald Hornsby 2010
I should have known she would do it. Despite all of my best efforts to put her off, and make her see sense, she still went ahead and did it.
I know divorced husbands no longer have the same stigma associated with them as they used to, but there was always something about him that I didn’t take to. When I was young, if you were the product of a failed marriage, a “broken home” we used to call it, you stood out from the crowd. These days, a family with two parents still together is the exception rather than the rule.
Simon, he’s called. I suppose I could see what attracted her to him – smart, always well turned out, clean-shaven, nicely groomed. “Very presentable”, my mom would have said about him. He was a little taller than Suzy, and fairly trim. The slight limp he had, favouring his left leg, was caused by a bad tackle in a football game. He still goes to his club, watches the matches, has a drink with his mates after the match. Suzy sometimes goes, too. She used to go every week, nowadays she uses the time to catch up on the the washing, or the cleaning.
I can still remember the first time Suzy went on a date with him. I could tell something was on Suzy’s mind – mother’s intuition, they used to call it.
“So, Suzy, what are you up to tonight?”
“Tonight, mum? Nothing special. Well ….”
“You’re going out somewhere. I can tell. Where are you going?” I tried to make the question non-threatening.
“Just to the pictures. With Mandy.”
I knew it was a lie, but I thought I’d let it go. I suppose she had to take an interest in men eventually. It was, after all, her life.
“What’s his name?” So much for good intentions.
She let out a sigh. “It’s Simon.”
“You will be careful, won’t you?”
She smiled at me. “Of course mum. I’m off now. I’m meeting him outside the pictures. I won’t be late.” She gave me a kiss, and looked into my eyes. “I’ll be careful, mum. He’s a really nice bloke. You’ll meet him soon.”
She skipped out, relaxed now that her little secret was out. I loved to see her happy, but I can’t help being a mother and trying to protect her, can I? I waited up, but not so she’d see me. I didn’t want to frighten her off.
A few more dates, and he came round to the house. Sponge cake, tea and polite conversation. I suppose he was charming, in a way. Very deferential, and careful not to sit too close to my Suzy. When she saw him off, I made lots of noise in the sink, drowning out any possibility of overheard sweetheart talk.
“Do you like him, mum?”
“I suppose he’s quite nice. I’m not sure about his tea drinking, though. ‘A man who takes two sugars is trying to sweeten down some bitter character’ – my mom used to say that.”
“Oh mum! He’s really nice. You’ll see, once you get to know him. Maybe next time he visits, he can bring his daughter.”
It took only a few moments to pick up the pieces of the plate, but the shock of what she had said couldn’t be fixed that quickly. From then, things went from bad to worse.
I tried talking to her, pleading with her, forbidding her. She called me overprotective, interfering – and worse. Nothing made any difference at all. Even when I became ill, I tried to use it as an excuse for her to stay close to me, and not see so much of Simon. Bless her, she did stay with me, helped me, held my hand. But I could tell she wasn’t listening to me at all. Nothing I said had any effect whatsoever.
And now, she’s done it. She’s married him, willingly taken responsibility for his daughter. Simon’s obviously happy his precious daughter has a new mother. Everything I tried to do, every note of caution I sounded, he was there, whispering in her ear, turning her against me.
My reminiscences were interrupted by the front door banging, and I called out. She ignored me, as she always did nowadays. She came breezing into the kitchen, looking around at the empty spaces where the appliances used to be. I felt it was time to try to make up, and put our differences to one side.
“Darling. Suzy. I think we need to talk.”
Nothing. No reply, no recognition even that I’d spoken. Just Suzy, moving around the kitchen, touching work surfaces, mind elsewhere. Eventually, she spoke.
“Mum. I really wished you could have liked Simon. It could have been so perfect to have you there at the wedding, giving us your blessing. It’s all too late now”. Tears formed in her eyes.
My heart melted, and I moved towards her, my arms wide open, ready to hug her for her forgiveness. My arms passed through her. I’d never get used to it. As I watched, she wiped a tear from her cheek, picked up her handbag, and stepped quickly towards the front door. I called out, so desperate to have her stay here with me. I was the only one to hear my voice. She could go wherever she wanted now, with or without Simon. She had the choices. I had none. I was stuck here, forever, on my own, with my regrets.
© Gerald Hornsby 2010