Today I am giving you a story. Well, no, that’s not quite true. Today I am giving you the bones of a story. Or, possibly, just its tassles. You choose.
When I was little I adored this book by Dick Bruna. It has the ultimate plot line for a me. Orderly person in hat goes for a walk and finds a sad clown crying. Person takes sad clown home and shares life, including thorough tooth-cleaning, with sad clown. Sad clown is sad no more.
But it has no words. So you could put in the words. Oooh. Now, I loved words. I used to ask for one bedtime story repeatedly just because I liked to hear my mum say, ‘crunchy cereal in blue and white bowls.’ But this story was particularly good because the lack of words made a space. Ambiguity made space for the story, for any number of stories, in fact. And back stories. And sequels. Excellent.
So, here’s a story for you to tell. It’s too odd to enter in a competition so you’re getting it for free and gratis. xx
A Story to Tell (with a nod to Dick Bruna)
I’m going to lift you. I’m not going to hurt you.
Head jerk from tarmac and the world falls in the river.
Voice coming out from under a hat. Humphrey Bogart hat. Raincoat and shiny buckle. Tortoiseshell buckle. Strong arms scoop me and the lights on the bridge go smeary.
Ride in the arms past embassies and galleries. Say hello to Mr Nelson up his pole. Door opens. Door closes. All gone black.
Tugging. Tugging at me. Jeans down my legs. I have to kick. That’s what. Have to kick.
You’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you. These are wet and you’re cold so it’s best we get them off.
Fire beside me. Scorch-burn like when I was little. Very hurts. Best turn away.
But look! Its face is madness! Look, it’s come, madness! I’ve gone. Proper mad. Best shut my eyes.
Daylight. My head is screaming. Each blink is a tug of my brain against my skull.
I don’t know where I am, apart from on a hard wood floor. And there’s something new to be scared of, I just can’t remember what. Until I do. And then the pain in my head gets all drenched in adrenaline. And terror is excellent analgesia. Sometimes.
It knows where I am, of course. There’s light through the curtains so it left me here all night. Apart from the headache and the rolling, gut-cramp nausea, I am basically unharmed. Ha ha.
It seems to have covered me with a patchwork quilt. In lilacs and pinks. Hollyhocks and lavender. And there’s a sheet of folded paper propped against the skirting board.
There’s a glass of water and some painkillers on the table in the bay. And a bucket underneath.
I really hope you’ll feel well enough to use the bathroom, which is the second door on the right-hand side of the passage. There’s a clean towel on the rail for you, along with your clothes. I only took them off to wash them, so don’t worry about that.
I look down at my body and there’s just underwear. Foul stink of alcohol sweated through pores and swilling in my belly still. Damp pants. Hum of old piss. I can smell vomit too, inside my own nostrils, I think.
Help yourself to anything you need in the bathroom. When you’re dressed then just leave, honey, if you like. Or come and have a coffee and some food with me. You choose. I’m in the kitchen – the last door on the left.
It has left me a letter. But that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. Just because madness calls me honey, doesn’t mean it won’t kill me, does it?
I stand. It’s hard because my stomach muscles are sore. I remember retching, draped over the wall on the Embankment, city lights reflected in a pendulum of phlegm. Like I was trying to purge myself of every organ in my body.
Something’s pulsing on my temple. I touch with my finger-tips and it feels like an egg. The egg of something big as a duck. Or bigger, even. Sea Eagle.
Bile keeps burning in the back of my throat so I spend a bit of time crouching with my head in the galvanised bucket. It feels quite safe and I might just stay that way. Except I can’t. Because it could come back. And a bucket on my head won’t protect me. So I take it out.
It might be 1890. There’s a grandfather clock, occasional tables with crushed velvet cloths, a fern in a pot. Dark blue chairs and chaise with a fringe. Greek key running round the edge of the rug. And the back of the room is books, all books up to the moulded ceiling and a dangling ladder to reach them. Attwood to Winterson. I want to stay. Which is surely insanity. Because it could come back.
The passageway has a parquet floor and a door marked ‘Bathroom’. Inside it’s 1975.
There’s shiny vinyl flooring, an avocado bathroom suite. Pine-scented Radox and a crinoline lady with a loo roll up her skirt.
Sitting on the loo, pissing hot lager, I inspect my body and tot up marks. Red and angry, corner-bumps and scratches. There are finger bruises on my upper arms but they’re definitely human so I can’t blame it.
There’s no shower in 1975 so I have to run a bath, lie in the white towers, rub my hair with foam. Wash the head lump with shaking hands and feel a sting like it’s threatening to hatch. Fuck knows what might come out, so I leave it alone.
My clothes are on the towel rail, like it said. Clean, crisp, orderly. And new underwear. My size. Did it look at my labels or does it just take in a lot with a glance?
There isn’t a mirror.
It’s left my boots beside the front door. An empty sentry with my phone and wallet beside. So I can go now. If I like.
But curiosity. But courage. But utter, rank stupidity. But being, probably, human.
Say, if someone said to you,
Insanity’s in the kitchen.
Would you look?
I do. I look at the kitchen table first. It’s the source of the noise from the radio – 1950s, Bakelite set with a glowing green dial.
But beside it are her paws. Around a coffee cup. White coffee cup. Black geometric design around the rim.
Bright copper paws.
She is at least as tall as me. Sitting upright on a kitchen chair. A voice classically feline, like Eartha Kitt being Catwoman.
Please sit down.
She glows like she’s lit from inside. But I know it’s all reflection.
I’m just gonna buzz around a little and make us some fresh coffee, yes? Eggs? Don’t fret about staring.’
She rises from the chair onto her hind legs. Like a picture book illustration. Long, long back that tapers to a tail.
She cracks four eggs into a bowl, twists a pepper mill. Her paws shape and give like flesh. But they’re not. Not flesh.
She lifts the sash of the window, takes a wide-necked milk bottle from the outside sill. Easiwork cabinets in red Formica, a squat gas stove. Percolator bubbling on the ring.
I like a spot of milk but I think you’ll want yours black this morning.
She places a cup beside me.
I cleaned your head with some iodine.
Her whiskers are wire, long and straight. Close to her face there are shorter ones, curling like birthday ribbon. Each filament emerges from a tiny dark pit.
I’m mesmerised by the movement of her speaking mouth.
Try to eat a little egg, honey.
As I fork up the lightly buttered egg, taking a sip of coffee between each bite, she cuts her toast with gusto. Inserts a chunk in her living-metal mouth.
You’re gonna have to talk, A.Schmidt. There’s no getting away from that. Let’s start with your full name.
That’s the story. Yes, all the story you’re getting.
What? You’re not satisfied? What, actually, is it all about? I told you.
- Cu. Malleable, ductile.
- Felis catus. A large specimen.
- A spectrum of behaviours characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioural patterns.
Those are the constituent parts. Look at those parts carefully. Look from all angles. Hold them in your hands. Listen. Sniff. Run your tongue over them if you want. Right, now put them all together. I’m sure you can.
© Allie Rogers. 2015.