Monday, 19 May 2008

 TESTAMENT

I, Joseph Ezekiel Green, am your humble servant, O Lord. It is with meekness and with reverence that I kneel here in supplication to ask you to receive this testament. Here at 23 Nelson Crescent, Brentwood, I am waiting by this telephone for your call. Outside I hear another thunder storm brewing. The trees are shaking dead leaves into the gathering wind. The earth is groaning and straining. The restless dead are stirring in their graves. The very sky aches with your wrath. Behold, the hour of your judgement is surely at hand. But I am calm now. I have no fear. I know I have won a great victory for you.

          Take me, Lord. Swallow me whole. Drink my essence. I am yours...          

          Before I came to you, Lord, I was the worst kind of sinner. Many were the times I poisoned my mind with alcohol and corrupted my body and soul by consorting with those who take money in exchange for giving up themselves to heinousÿsins of the flesh. Many were the lies I would tell to my wife Marjorie, and the more I lied, the deeper I sank into the fiery lake of mire and perversion. You know my darkest secret shame, Lord. Yea, I cannot hide from thy all-seeing eyes. Even now, when I think of the gross and unnatural practices I engaged in I shudder. I recall the vengeance and destruction you righteously brought down upon those two cities of Sodom and Gommorrah, and I marvel at the mercy you have shown to me. As I kneel here I can only give thanks to thee, for thy grace has surely saved me from the all-consuming fire.        

          O Lord, it has now been almost a year since I renounced my old life and accepted you fully into my heart. But it was only yesterday morning when the revelation came to me that I had been chosen as your sacred instrument. As usual I walked along Nelson Avenue, past Drake Crescent and down Hood Street to the railway station. I caught the usual 8.15 from Brentwood to Kings Cross. The train carriage was packed full of men and women with hard faces. Many were clearly in the grip of the Evil One. Some stared at the floor, others hid themselves behind newspapers. All were avoiding looking into each others' eyes, as if to do so would blind them. I could smell the fear and the corruption on their fetid breath.

          It was then that I saw The Beast himself. He was sitting directly across from me, looking smug as usual, polishing his shiny black leather shoes with a rag and studying his reflection. The surface of his skin was like unbaked clay, tight and ready to crack. Behind those deep crimson lips, which were moistened by a tiny film of white saliva, I knew that sharp black fangs were waiting to draw blood. He wore an immaculate single-breasted grey suit. Nothing but the best tailors for him, of course. His long silver-grey hair was slicked back with gel, held neatly in a pony-tail by a black leather thong. I buried my head in the Daily Telegraph but it was impossible to avoid those eyes. It was as if they were burning two black, smoking holes through the newspaper. They were huge and white, with no pupils, their edges defined in deepest red. Even as I joined the thronging crowds at Kings Cross they followed me. They glowed in the face of the shamelessly uncovered model on the Pepsi-Cola advert across the other side of the tracks. They winked in the face of the ticket collector as I emerged onto the street, and into the light. I breathed freely then, thinking they had no darkness to radiate in. But I was wrong.

          Minutes later, I was walking from Kings Cross to my office in Camden Town when I saw two young girls, no older than my daughter Angelica, displaying their pale white flesh, which was bound up in red leather and cheap black plastic. Then a blue Jaguar drew up. An automatic window slid down and the driver leaned out to negotiate. I recognised the man from the train. As the car door opened and the girls were carried away, I caught another flashing glimpse of those great white eyes. Caught by surprise, I was nearly transfixed. It was as if The Beast was calling me to join him. But my faith was strong and I looked away. As I walked I stared down at the paving stones, Lord, and prayed that you might hear me.

          As I turned into Caledonian Road the sky burst into a sudden downpour. As the other pedestrians ran to the shelter of the awnings outside the shops, I went down on my knees and raised up my arms. I knew you had given me a sign. I gave thanks to you, Lord, in your infinite mercy, for choosing me, a humble sinner, to begin the great process of enacting your judgement. I was filled by the Spirit, as water flows into an urn. And I began to overflow.

           Last night, I made my first move. Marjorie and Angelica were both asleep. I was alone, here in this living room, awaiting your instructions. I turned the television onto Channel Four. There was a man - at first it was hard to tell he was a man as his face was covered in thick make-up and he was dressed in women's clothing, sparkled in the sequins of perversion. He was laughing and clowning and telling obscene jokes. The studio audience, which the camera kept cutting to, looked at first like decent men and women but it was clear that they had been thoroughly corrupted because they were joining in with his laughter. In every one of their eyes I saw the whiteness, the red rims. As I stared closer I began to make out their horns and their hidden serpents' tails. They began to take on the shape of leopards, with bears' feet and lions' mouths. On each of their foreheads, beneath their wigs and their perms and their slicked-back hair, I could see the Beast's mark- the number 666 glowing for all to see. All, that is, who have eyes to see....

          Then I knew what I had to do. As the tears streamed down my face I heard your words, O Lord, booming clear and loud in my mind. It was clear what my mission was. From the kitchen, I chose a broad, sharp bread knife, perhaps not unlike the one you instructed your servant Abraham to use on Isaac to test his faith. And my faith was not lacking. I found a knife-sharpener in the draw and I began to prepare for my sacred task.

          Not far from this house, on the corner of Cook Avenue and Hudson Walk, there is a notorious public convenience where men meet to perform unnatural acts in the darkness amid the smell of their own urine and defecation. I waited there for some minutes before a man appeared. He was young, perhaps only twenty, but his breath was foul from alcohol. I swear I could also pick up the tang of sulphur. The man recognised me from my former days, before I was Saved. Steeling myself, I allowed the man to presume I would be prepared to engage in unspeakable practices with him. As he pressed his swollen flesh into mine, I could feel the Beast stirring within him. Yea, The Beast is powerful, Lord, and my flesh began to respond. Yet I did not fully yield to temptation. Suddenly I felt your presence in my heart, like a bright shining light... Luring the poor corrupted man into one of the cubicles I went down on my knees in front of him, in mock supplication. I took courage. With the knife the stroke was swift and merciful. I left him bleeding, screaming, but cleansed...

           I crept away quickly, making sure I was not seen. I knew you had more sacred tasks for me to perform, O Lord. When I reached home I was careful to be quiet whilst climbing the stairs. To my dismay Marjorie was still awake.

          "Where've you been?" she enquired.

          I knew it would be impossible for me to reveal the truth to Marjorie. Unlike me, she has not been touched by your hand, O Lord. Many were the times when I implored her to accept you into her heart. But she was deaf to my appeals. I cried for her, Lord... I wanted only that she might be Saved like me.

          "...For a walk.", I said.

          "In this weather?" She narrowed her eyes at me. "You must be crazy."

          As I climbed into bed she moved closer to me. I felt her arms around me and her feet rubbing lasciviously against my legs.            

          "Joe, come on...." she breathed. "It's been so long. Must be over a year. I'm getting desperate, Joe..... Don't you love me?"

          Her voice sounded strange. But I knew it was not really hers. When I turned round I saw the whiteness of her eyes and those red, red rims. As I smelled the overpowering stench that came up from between her thighs, I looked once again into the depths of the burning lake. But then I heard your voice, O Lord. Your instructions were clear. Suddenly I felt calm. I knew your love was inside me, filling me.I reached over into my jacket for my instrument of mercy. And you steadied and guided my hand with Your love.

          I new there was one more sacred task to perform. Taking the knife, I crept downstairs into Angelica's room. I turned on the light so that she could watch me tear down that poster she had insisted, against all my prayers and pleading, on putting up on her wall. It was an image of a young man, unclothed to the waist, covered in sweat, thrusting his nether regions towards a microphone. As I ripped the poster down and sliced it in half with the knife she leapt out of bed, naked, and began to struggle with me.

          "Daddy, no.... daddy, no!" she screamed. But your strength had taken me over, O Lord. I gripped her by the arm. Her long red hair flew back. And I saw the whites of her eyes.

            And now I wait. I know that the hour is at hand. Soon the dead will emerge from their graves. Earthquake and thunder and brimstone and fire will pour down from on high. The Beast will be swept away and I will be carried up with all the other pure souls to join you. But there is still more work for me to do. I know you have chosen me to fight The Beast, to weaken his power before you wreak your final revenge. So I am sitting by this telephone, just waiting for your call.

          Ah, yes. It is ringing at last...

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Any comments to chris@chrisgregory.org
Monday, 19 May 2008 19:09:26 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [13]  | 
Sunday, 28 October 2007

SPECIAL ENGAGEMENT

 

As Sheena came into the living room, Jimmy Carlisle turned down the volume on the T.V. automatic and leaned back in his favourite armchair with a smirk on his face. "Tell me..." He smoothed down one of the long thin brown strands that covered up his bald patch, leaving an oily deposit on his right hand. "Why is it that every time you talk to your mother on the phone you turn into a seven year old?"

Sheena wrinkled up the end of her tiny nose, snorted and went back to her desk. As she bent her head to work, her luxuriant red curls fell over the piles of papers. She worked in a regular, mechanical, rhythm, ticking aparently endless boxes as one pile diminished and another grew. Jimmy smiled in approval at the photo on the wall above her head, a framed shot of one of his moments of triumph outside Dharan airport.

On the screen, blonde fresh-faced young Australians in check shirts mouthed pleasantries at each other.

"Well, I guess you never really grew up, did you, my honey? That's probably why you ended up as a teacher." He flicked the channel button onto Wildlife Special. "You do make me laugh though..." He adopted an exaggeratedly high-pitched Scots accent: "Aye, mammy darling, whatever you say, mammy darling..."

Sheena only muttered something deep and guttural. Without lifting her head, she continued applying the red biro.

Jimmy stared at a baboon displaying its bulbous red arse in a gesture of sexual dominance. "Of course, I don't suppose you can help it, can you, my honey? I suppose it all goes back to your potty training. Or maybe lack of it."

Sheena's breathing was getting tighter. She gritted her teeth and gripped the red pen hard.

"That was it..." Jimmy yawned. "Never really got through the Anal Stage of development, did you?"

There was a crack as the biro snapped in half. Sheena stood up, turned round and kicked her chair away. Deep red flush marks stood out on her pale cheeks. She reached up, took the picture down off the wall and held it above her raised knee."One more word. Just one more. I swear to God I'll smash this fucker!"

Jimmy raised an eyebrow in mock-astonishment. "C'mon, my honey, don't let's get so excited now. You know it brings on your eczema."

Sheena raised the frame violently, then the red fire in her eyes turned to grey steel. She laid it carefully down on her desk. "You know, Jimmy, I never understood what kind of sick pleasure you get from winding me up. Right now I don't care. I've got sixty more National Curriculum Assessment Sheets to do before tomorrow morning. If you want something to eat stick a Pot Noodle in the microwave." She glanced over at the antique grandfather clock in the corner of the room. A present from the Aga Khan, or so Jimmy always told his fat journalist friends when he invited them round to eat. "It's ten to six. You'll be on in ten minutes. You can lie back and glory in how bloody heroic you are. To tell you the truth, I wish you'd stayed in bloody Somalia. At least then you could patronise somebody else instead of me!"

He raised both hands. "Now, Sheena, my honey. You know what Dr. Singh said about your blood pressure. I was merely commenting on your tendency to express yourself in a somewhat juvenile manner when talking to members of the older generation." He parted his thin lips, revealing three sparkling front crowns. "But I'm sure you can't help it. Anyway, what did dear little mammy have to say to you? A recipe for cockaleekie soup, was it?" He curled his lip. "Tips on how to keep your legs frozen together?" 

She gripped the edge of the picture with her sharp red fingernails. "So that's it. You arrive back at three in the morning and expect me to perform for you at your bloody will. Anyway, I don't know why you bother to ask. I'm sure you were eavesdropping on every word."

"Oh, my honey, what do you take me for?"

"Cut the crap, Jimmy. You know very well what was said. As far as I'm concerned I've a perfect right to make the arrangements for Christmas this year. If you think I'm going to book into another hotel with you like last year so you can hobnob with your bloody media pals, you've got another thing coming. For all I know, you'll get called away at the last moment and leave me stranded again. -"

He shook his head slowly. "There's no pleasing you. A four-star hotel in Tenerife. Room service, a swimming pool-"

"Jimmy, have you any idea at all how lonely she's been the last two years? Or how lonely I've been? Most of the time, all I ever see of you is that face on The News, gloating over some disaster or other."

He smoothed his hair down. "Now, my honey, let's get this straight. You mean to tell me that, despite what we agreed, you've arranged for us both to spend Christmas in Dumfries with your dear little deranged mother. You mean we have to travel four hundred miles to spend three days being forced to pull crackers and wear party hats and watch the Queen's message and listen to the old girl's senile dribblings-"

Jimmy ducked just in time. The framed photo smashed against the thick polished glass of the drinks cabinet behind him. Sheena stepped forward, grabbed his chin in one hand and pointed murderously at his right eye with the forefinger of her other. "I dinnae want to hear one more word from you about my mam. Not now, not ever. Got that?"

Panting, she picked up the framed photo from where it had landed next to his chair. The glass was completely cracked. As she did so a piece of yellow, folded, paper fell from from behind the picture into his lap. He tried to grab it, but he was too late. She had already unfolded the letter and had begun to read aloud: "... oh my darling Jimmy... that last night in Kuala Lumpur... your hands so soft... your hard body thrusting into me... I never came like that before... come back soon..."

She let the note drop onto the thick piled blue carpet.

"I knew it," she said. That letter you wrote me last year: ...so sorry my honey, but I have to spend another week in Kuala Lumpur. Special Engagement... Don't expect me to be surprised about the tarts and whores you go with when you're off on your trips. But this is a little blatant, isn't it?"

Jimmy began to laugh. At first it was his usual chuckle but then his mouth widened and a thin trickle of saliva began to drip down onto his collar, accompanied by a loud guffaw. "But Sheena, my honey, you're hardly in a position to lecture me about this kind of thing."

"What d'you mean? You think I have time for affairs with a job like mine? D'you suppose I'm having it off with the milkman or what?"

"Ah well, my honey, we journalists have a way of knowing everything that goes on." He smoothed a stray greasy wisp down. "It just so happens that a friend of mine gave me certain information regarding your..." He suppressed a giggle. "...your, erm... movements... during my assignment in Sarajevo."

She took a step back. "You don't mean Jack. he didn't..."

"Jack will tell you anything once you've got a few whiskies down him. Anyway, apparently you 'go like the clappers'. Told me how he'd got you pissed on sherry." He laughed. "Australian sherry. Even I never thought you were that cheap."

Sheena crumpled and uncrumpled the yellow sheet in her fists. "You mean you actually knew? And you didn't even care?" The colour had now drained entirely out of her face.

He shrugged. "Probably been happening every time I go away."

"No, Jimmy, it's not true, that was the only time, I-"

"Shush now. I'm on."

He turned up the volume:

 

    ...in tonight's extended News at Six, the third of

     our reports on the famine in war-torn Somalia.

     We must warn viewers that certain scenes may be

     distressing. This special report was put together by   

     Jimmy Carlisle...

 

The camera pans along a row of tents in the desert and there is Jimmy, with his best concerned face, the breeze blowing his hair, holding a sick, emaciated child in his arms. The shot moves into focus and we see the flies feeding on the corners of the child's eyes.

"Tomorrow..." Jimmy intones dramatically, "this child will be dead."      

 

 

Sunday, 28 October 2007 10:41:40 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [22]  | 
Friday, 09 February 2007

CINDERELLA UNBOUND

            

 

            As she took the double scotch-on-the-rocks, Diane tried to steady her right hand. The ragged chunks of ice Joe the barman had spooned in from the pineapple cooler rattled around the thick glass. She fumbled for two quid with her left hand. Opening her purse and finding the right change wasn't too easy in such a confined space, especially under these dim overhead lights. Behind her, the Saturday nighters pressed ever closer to the bar. They smelled of sweaty armpits and aftershave, swaying forward together as they attempted to keep time to the karoake machine:

 

                        "Maybe I...didn't love you...

                        Half as good as I should,

                        Maybe I...didn't love you

                        Half as often as I could..."

 

 

       She undid the catch. The big man to her left swung a heavy bare elbow back. The purse was knocked to the floor, along with half the whisky. The big man wheeled around, his bloated pink excited face only inches from hers.

       "S'alright, darlin'..." The big man swayed towards her. He steadied himself on her shoulder with a pudgy hand. His eyes rolled. "Don't you worry, love. I'll get it..."

       He picked up the purse, then turned and nudged his mate. "What a cracker, eh, Phil? A real cracker. Heh heh. Lissen..." He burped up a great cloud of stale beery breath into her face. "...lemme buy ya nuther drink." He pulled a fiver from his back pocket and folded it in half lengthways. "Joe, ma boy, get the lady nuther scotch..."

        Behind the bar, Joe fingered his black silk bow tie uncertainly.

       "No thank you very much!" Diane's voice was firm. She took care to pronounce each syllable carefully, soberly. She handed over the two coins, held the glass up over her head, and squeezed her way through towards a corner of the pub where there was an empty table.

 

                   "You were always on my mind,

                   You were ALWAYS....on my mind..."                         

 

       She knocked back the rest of the whisky. It tasted warm, and beautifully bitter. But her hands were still shaking. Pretty worn-out hands for a woman of only thirty three, Patrick used to say. Wouldn't exactly make a fairy snow commercial if you know what I mean, haw haw haw. Once upon a time she would spend half an hour at the end of her regular Friday evening class at the Adult Ed Centre carefully scraping the clay from under her fingernails. In those days the fingernails had shone. They'd been painted black, purple, sometimes bright green. Now they were yellowed from cigarettes, cracked, bitten, with a layer of hardened clay under the nails. Around the bottom of the nails, another permanent black layer. From there, downwards, a series of thick intersecting lines and cracks. It was good, Diane thought, to have the clay inside you, always inside you.

       "Hey... Diane! Is it really you?"

       The voice was high-pitched in surprise. It was somehow familiar. Diane looked up. She tried hard to focus. A youngish woman, eyes heavily made up, face whitened, hair in a neat, even perm. A sharp red two piece business suit, short matching skirt and jacket. Black stockings. Pointed black patent leather high heels. Behind her the figures of the revellers were a blur, swaying soundlessly.

       "Diane! It's Julia! Don't you recognise me?"

       Diane struggled. She focused again. For a moment she saw the shock of pink fringe falling over the eyes, the sides of the head shaved, the ripped blue jeans, the sloppy pink sweater. Then the old Julia faded. At the same time, the noise and smell and smoke of the pub crowded back in.

       "Diane! It must be... what... ten years?" Julia bent over and kissed her on the cheek. "Let me buy you a drink." She sighed. "After all, I can afford it..."

      

 

       At Julia's insistence, they moved on to a wine bar off Picadilly. It was cool, quiet, brightly lit with striplights and mostly deserted. They found a white plastic table next to a potted palm. Diane offered to get the drinks, but Julia insisted again.

       "I must admit..." Julia sipped clear white wine from the thin glass. "I did get a pretty generous settlement. Not that I didn't deserve it after enduring six years with Barry Clarke." She grimaced slightly as she waved away a cloud of smoke from Diane's cigarette.  

       "You know, Diane, the last time he roughed me up I swore I'd screw him for every penny he'd got. God, he thought he was so fucking sophisticated. Just because he'd been to that public school where they'd brainwashed him into thinking he was some kind of superior being. Just because his old man was some kind of fatcat in the City . The final straw was when he came back from that so-called business trip to Bangkok about four o'clock one morning. "She leaned in closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. 'Don't you try to lay a finger on me', I told him. 'Last time you only brought back a minor infection. I might not be so lucky this time.' That was when he ... listen, by the look on your face you really don't want to hear this, do you?"

       Diane jolted. "Sorry, I was miles away." She sipped her whisky. "You can leave out the grisly details."

       "With pleasure..." Julia sighed. "The upshot of it all was I got the house and the car and the kids. Except for every third Saturday from now on when I have to bring them up here and leave them with him till Monday morning. He'll spend the whole weekend spoiling them stupid and telling them what a fucking wicked old witch I am. All this despite the fact he's moved up here and I'm still living down in Basingstoke. It stinks, I know, but the solicitor said I had to make some kind of concession."

       "If you're short of a place to stay..." Diane began.

       "He offered me his floor. Can you believe it? His floor. I told him you've got to be joking, I wouldn't trust you. So I book myself into The Carlton. What the hell, I think. He's paying for it. So there I am, Saturday night, Manchester in the rain. What else is there to do but to take a look over some old haunts." Her bright blue eyes opened wide. There was a spark in them, or something that at least still flickered from the old days. "And who do I find but you, sitting in the same chair you sat in ten years ago. Still on the scotch. Though you never used to drink it neat. And you're so... slim. How the hell do you manage it? When I was with Barry Clarke we had to go to all these expense account lunches. I keep trying these crash diets, but... you know how it is... "

       Diane sighed. "Here you see me in all my glory. Alone on a Saturday night slumming it in noisy pubs, pretending I'm having a good time. See these grey streaks in my hair- they're for real. I wear these jeans and this old sweatshirt all the time. And look at my hands. I look about fifty. But to tell you the truth I don't really give a shit anymore. Since my last attempt at taking Patrick in-"

       Julia screwed up her eyes. "Not Patrick Spence? You're not telling me you-"

       "Yeah, I know what you're going to say. When we were at college together you used to tell me I was off my head getting interested in such a pathetic creature. It must be your mother complex, you told me. And you were right, of course. Only it took me eight years to find that out." Diane grimaced as she drained the rest of the whisky in one go. "Meanwhile, I'm still working at that same college . I used to have a proper job until the cuts came. They offered me a temporary contract. Now all I get is two evening classes a week. Something has to go, Diane my dear, Craven said. You must remember Craven- he's head of department now.  Always calls me 'my dear', the creep. Committee decided women's sculpture frankly peripheral, my dear. Just can't be helped, my dear..."

       Julia nodded. "Craven always did see our ideas as a threat. Remember those rows we used to have with him about Frieda Kahlo? A minor talent, he used to say. One time I very nearly hit him-"    

       Diane leaned forward. Her eyes, dulled from the whisky, now brightened. "You always said that when you left you'd get yourself a proper studio, and-"

       "Sorry to disillusion you..." Julia shook her head. "After College I went travelling, then I came back and met Barry Clarke, and, well... I always meant to get started. But one thing kind of led to another. Specifically, I got pregnant. There's Carmel, she's six. And Abigail, she's four. But what about you? You must have done a lot of goodÿwork. At least you've stayed committed."

       Perspiration began to form on Diane's forehead. "The trouble is, since Patrick's been gone, my hands.....I can't feel anything..."

       Diane was vaguely aware that she was slumping forward onto the table, that everything was in slow motion and that it was taking such a long, long time for her to fall.

 

 

       Diane is sweating. She is in a white room with no walls. Thick heavy hands press down on her head. Cold clammy, slimy hands slide up along her back and over her breasts. Then the hands turn to tentacles and they wrap themselves around her and squeeze. She screams and screams but nobody comes.

 

 

       Diane sat up, still sweating. At first all she could see was a bright, blindingly white light, swinging towards her. She shielded her eyes. A sharp pain penetrated her forehead. She raised herself on one elbow and squinted. Above her the bare lightbulb was swinging slowly back and forth in a gentle breeze from the skylight window above her head. Her mind was a blank. Only when she picked up a note by her pillow did the previous night began to flood back:

 

Dear Diane,   

          Really had one over the odds last night, didn't you? Must admit, I didn't expect you to collapse on me. I had to get two men to help me carry you into the taxi. I don't know how I managed to get you up those stairs. Still, I expect you've slept it off by now.

             So great to see you again. I took a look round your studio before I left. Some amazing pieces. You've inspired me! Maybe I could come round next time and do some work. I copied your phone number down. Will give you a ring in two weeks when I'll be back to bring Carmel and Abigail up again.

                                     See you then

                                          Love Julia

 

       In the kitchen, Diane located a glass in a pile of dirty dishes by the  sink and filled it from the tap. She winced. 'It's a well-known fact,' Patrick used to say, 'that the water that comes out of that tap has been recycled at least four times. Imagine all those bodies it must have been through. Why d'you think it tastes like shit?' Patrick may not have been right about much but he had a point. Or maybe the taste was in her own mouth. She ran the top of her tongue against her teeth, and splashed more of the shit-water on her face.

 

 

       Julia stared down at The Independent. Trying to read on train journeys always gave her headaches, but Abigail, who leaned against her arm, had just dropped off, and she was hoping that Carmel, in the seat opposite, would follow suit.

       "Mummy... do you like my Barbie?"

       "Sssh, Carmel.. you'll wake Abi up."

       A small hand pulled the newspaper down. "Daddy gave me Barbie. Isn't she lovely?"

       "Yes Carmel dear. Very nice. Mummy's reading just now."

       "Mummy, daddy said this Barbie cost him lots of money. He said it was the most expensive Barbie in the shop."

       For one second Julia had a terrible urge to grab Barbie by the neck, throttle her and throw her out of the window of the train carriage.

       "Yes dear. Mummy already said your Barbie was lovely. You tell Barbie a story."

       "Mummy, you do it. I don't know any stories."

       "You know 'Cinderella'. Remember, I taught you it. Quietly now."

       Carmel cradled the doll and began to whisper. "Once upon a time..."

       Julia folded the paper and watched the clouds gathering over the Pennines. She yawned. Finally, a moment to think. Only two days ago her student days had been a blurred picture in her mind, like the countryside whizzing by outside. Now the memories all came flooding back...

       There was the time Diane, Julia and Crazy Jane had sat up all night writing their proposal (or The Ugly Sisters' Manifesto, as they called it) for a joint exhibition as part of their degree show. Of course they knew there wasn't a hope in hell of it being accepted by Craven and that committee he controlled. But at least it was guaranteed to stir some shit.

       "...and the prince and he was really handsome and he took cinderella in his arms and they danced and they kissed under the moonlight and all the people clapped and cheered and..."

       The idea was to take over the whole of the main hall of the College for the exhibition. Crazy Jane's piece was going to be an abstract made of papier-mached copies of The Sun, with knives sticking into the breasts of page three girls. Thick red paint would do nicely for blood. Julia was going to provide 'The Feminist Adonis', a huge naked hunchback grasping at a tiny, shrivelled member. And as the centrepiece, Diane had promised them Cinderella Unbound.

       Julia had seen all the pieces in Diane's flat. They were good, very good. But there was no Cinderella.

       Diane's description of Cinderella in the Manifesto had been vague: The princess in rags... throwing off her chains. 'This is hardly an adequate outline, my dear', Craven had sniffed as he rejected the proposal.

       Nobody really ever knew what Cinderella would look like apart from Diane. 'Whenever I close my eyes', she would say, 'she's there..."

       The clouds were breaking as the train pulled into Crewe. Julia smiled to herself as Carmel told Barbie the end of the story:

       "...and in the end the prince decided that being a prince was dead boring so he gave up being a prince and he and cinderella shacked up together in a little house by the river and they lived happily ever after..."

      

      

       The morning sun streamed in through the studio window. Diane's head throbbed. No way had she been able to stomach breakfast. Hair of the dog would get her going. She opened a new bottle of Bells and half-filled a tumbler. She climbed into the dungarees, once light blue, now encrusted in old grey clay dust. She adjusted the blinds hanging from the attic room window until the light was just right. She filled a bowl of water from the sink and placed it on the large round wooden table in the middle of the room. She dipped her hands in the water, closed her eyes and began to work the shapeless mass of clay. Every morning she would repeat this ritual. Her hands would shape and mould, knead and gouge. Shape and mould, knead and gouge.

       It was the way she'd always worked. The way she always told her students to work. She had to admit it was the only way she knew how to work. First Empathize... feel the clay warming to the heat of your body. Then Energize... listen to the sound of your own heart beating faster. Then Visualize...

       Maybe today would be the day. The clay felt warm and sticky. Maybe today she'd open her eyes and the sculpture would be there, revealed, shimmering transparent illuminated. Then her hands would only have to smooth the clay into that shape. As if the sculpture was already there, as if her hands were merely stroking and shaping the air around it.

       Her heart was pounding. She took a deep breath. Slowly, agonizingly, she opened her eyes. But like every morning since Patrick had left, there was nothing. Only the grey wet mass of hateful clay, and her cold, cold hands.

      

 

       In the ladies loo at The Crown, Diane examined her face in a pink-bordered mirror. She grimaced, raised the soft black brush and applied another layer of mascara. But it was no use. She still looked like death. The skin on her pale cheek bones face was stretched tight. Her eyes were surrounded by sunken hollows. She adjusted a black velcro shoulder strap, which kept falling down to her shoulder. The dress was her shortest and tightest but it still hung loose. Patrick had bought it for her birthday once. She'd always dreaded him suggesting that she wear it. But he'd probably only done it to wind her up. He knew she hated tarty gear like that.

       At the bar, she ordered another double and knocked it back in one go. That was better. Then she leaned against the bar, and lit up a B and H. She knew this wouldn't take long.

       In the event, it took about thirty seconds.

       "On yer own, love? Don't I know you from somewhere?"

       God, men were so predictable. She turned and looked this one up and down. It was overweight, red faced, breathing lager. But at least not as old as some of the others. Its beer belly wasn't yet totally grotesque. And there was certainly a lot of flesh on it. That was all that mattered. Flesh to feel, flesh to mould, flesh to shape, flesh to warm her hands on, to bring her hands back to life with. It would do.

       "My name's Marsha", said Diane. "You can buy me a drink if you like."

       "Terry..." The man leaned in close to her. "Seen you before in here", he slurred. "Sitting over in that corner reading one of the posh papers. I sez to me mate, I sez, who's that gorgeous piece, I sez." He placed a clammy hand on her bare shoulder. "S'true. Y'really are gorgeous, y'know..."

       Terry was pressing against her now, and she could feel the bristles of his chin against her neck. She tried to disguise her shudder as she shook him off.

       "Listen, Terry, cut out the groping, OK?  Just get me a double scotch. Or even better, a small bottle of Johnny Walker to take away. My place is just around the corner..."

 

 

This wasn't working. It just wasn't working. Diane lay spreadeagled across the bed, with the fat white body on top of her, pumping sluggishly. She ran her hands down Terry's back and legs. She held one fat buttock in each hand and pressed him down onto her. But it still wasn't working. Her hands were still cold, lifeless. Terry started to grunt. Oh god, this would be over any second now. She closed her eyes and tried to go through the process. She repeated the words over and over to herself, aloud, like a mantra:

       " Empathize.... energize... visualize...

       Empathize... energize... visualize...

       Empathize..."

 

       "Fucking bitch..." Terry was already climbing back into his Y-fronts. "Fucking you is like...." He spat. "...like fucking a corpse. You're a fucking weirdo, you are. Chanting all that shit. Fucking weirdo..."

       Diane lay back on the bed. She stared up at the white ceiling. Now the numbness had spread from her hands to her whole body. Terry's voice sounded far, far away.

       "You hear what I say?" Terry came closer. "What's wrong with you? Chanting all that shit. You some kind of fucking witch?"

       No reaction.

       "Listen, you fucking well listen to me or I'll-"

       Diane saw the high heeled shoe descending as if it were in slow motion. As it crashed into her jaw she was only dimly aware of the cracking bone. She felt nothing. She didn't feel the next blow, or the next.

       Or the next...

 

 

 

       Julia stared out through the grey rain at the rush hour traffic as the taxi lumbered across Piccadilly. A beat-up black Sierra swung in ahead of them as they changed lanes, missing them by inches. The taxi driver honked on his horn and shouted a curse in Greek.

       "I tell you, lady..." He inclined his head back slightly. "Ees real crazy here now. Ees worse than Athens. Everybody want to go somewhere. Nobody got no fuckin' patience. What they in so much of a hurry for, I want to know."

       "Good question..." Julia said. She noticed that the Sierra was stuck in the traffic just ahead.

       The driver was still in a stew. "Eees crazy. The man risk his life and ours to make up ten metres..."

       Julia gripped the black leather handrest. Barry Clarke been so smarmy when she'd dropped the kids off earlier. 'Do make yourself comfortable, Julia darling' he'd said in that smooth, sickly voice. 'There's no need to rush off. We can all be together for a while, like a real happy family.' He'd pronounced the last two words with such heavy irony he'd practically spat them out. Of course the kids took it literally. 'Mummy, mummy, daddy, daddy,' said Carmel, clinging to Julia's skirt with one hand and Barry Clarke's trouser crease with another. 'Mummy mummy daddy daddy...'

       Julia had to look away from Carmel's pleading eyes. Of course Barry Clarke knew full well she couldn't stand to be with him for more than the time it took to hand the kids over. As she left the kids began to sob. Barry Clarke smirked at Julia, cradling Carmel's head with one hand and Abigail's with the other. Another little victory.

       The taxi finally turned into Meredith Street. She sighed. At least without the kids she could devote the weekend to trying to get some real work done. Over the last three weeks, she'd been practising visualization. So much had come up, as if all the images she had suppressed over the last ten years had been spewed out in one long outpouring. She'd made some sketches, but mostly she'd kept the visions stored in her head. Diane had always said that was the best way. It would be so good to feel the clay again, slowly warming in her hands..

       The taxi driver slammed on the brakes."This it, lady?"

       Julia handed over a tenner. "Forget the change... somebody else is paying."

       She sidestepped a puddle just inside the gate, and almost toppled over. Bloody high heels. In a vain attempt to take shelter, she leaned up against the front door and scrutinised the writing on a set of tiny yellowing cards, each one above an illuminated square plastic buzzer. She located the one marked 'TOP FLAT', and pressed. She put her ear up against the door and waited for a noise on the stairs. She pressed the buzzer again, this time for several seconds. The rain was bucketing down now and the water was already seeping down the back of her dress. Maybe the postcard she'd sent Diane telling her what time she'd be arriving had got lost in the post. When she'd tried to ring all she'd got was a weird bleeping noise. Maybe Diane's phone was offline, or maybe Telecom had cut her off.

       Julia shivered. This was ridiculous. She would have to try to get into the flat somehow or she'd catch her death. She stood back and peered up through the rain. It was hard to tell, but there did appear to be a light on in Diane's bedroom. And what's more, there was another way up. A black wrought-iron fire escape wound its way up to the top flat. Shielding her head from the rain, she began to climb. The higher she got, the heavier the rain seemed to beat down. The door at the top of the staircase, which led directly into Diane's studio was open. Julia breathed a sigh of relief.

       "Diane! Are you in?" Julia grabbed an old towel that lay over a chair and began to rub her hair. For a moment she thought she heard a noise, a slight creak, from the bedroom. Probably her imagination. No doubt Diane had taken off for a few days. She certainly hadn't worked in here for a while. Everything in the studio was covered with a thin layer of dust. In the middle of the round low table, a large lump of clay lay under wraps.

       There was another slight creak. She dropped the towel, and began to take faltering steps in the direction of the bedroom.

       The moment she saw Diane, Julia felt a wave of intense nausea rush over her. She steadied herself against a wall, then reached out. Diane's naked body was cold, rigid, blank white eyes staring upwards. The whole of the bottom half of her face was a mass of dried, congealed blood. Julia grabbed a mirror from the bedside table and held it in front of her nose. A tiny, thin spot of breath settled on the glass.

      

 

       Julia stood up as Dr.Kumar came out of the operating theatre. His head was covered by a white turban, his face by a white face mask. Before he'd even unbuttoned the mask, she could tell what he was about to say by the resigned look in his eyes.  

       "I'm afraid there was really nothing we could do, Mrs. Clarke. There was widespread internal bleeding, compounded by evidence of malnutrition and alcoholic poisoning. After the attack she went into shock. Must have been like that for a week..."

       Julia nodded. The doctor continued his explanation but she heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. Later she gave a statement to the police about how long she'd known Diane and answered their questions coldly, numbly, as if the words she was saying meant nothing. They gave her hot black tea, with three sugars.

 

 

       In the back of the taxi, Julia looked down at her watch. It was only two thirty. At this rate she'd arrive at Barry Clarke's place half an hour too early. She rested her head back on the seat and closed her eyes. Right now, even that didn't seem to matter. She still felt no pain, no remorse, no sadness. Only numbness. Despite spending the night on a hard plastic hospital chair, she didn't even feel tired.

       If she concentrated hard, she could see Diane, thumbs hooked into the straps of her blue dungarees, leaning over the polished wooden table in the ornate boardroom, surrounded by men in grey suits. There is a beautiful, triumphant gleam in her eyes as she demolishes Craven's arguments, one by one. And she is still sneering, still triumphant, even as the chairman of the Academic Board announces they have taken Craven's side. Of course, she'd been drunk, but when drunk she was usually at her most inspired.

       Julia opened her eyes, just as the taxi turned into Meredith Street. For a moment she thought she saw a figure shaped out of air, transparent, illuminated, outside Diane's house. She blinked.

       She leaned forward and tapped the back of the driver's seat. "Stop here, please. I won't be long. You can keep the meter running..."

 

 

 

       The door at the top of the fire escape still swung open. Julia stepped into the studio. She pulled the wet cloth off the lump of clay on the table, and fetched a bowl of water from the kitchen. She dipped her hands into the bowl, and began to work the clay. After a few moments she began to feel its warmth working its way through her body, from the tips of her fingers, along her arms, up to her breasts and her arms and her neck, down to her stomach and her groin and her feet. Then, finally, she began to cry, and the hot, salty tears ran down her face.

       As she closed her eyes, she felt the warm clay penetrating her, sliding under her fingernails. She began to mould and shape, knead and gouge, pummel and pound, squash and roll, roll and mould. Then she began to repeat the words to herself, at first in a whisper, then rising and rising until she was shouting at the top of her voice:

       "EMPATHIZE!"

       "ENERGIZE!"

       "VISUALIZE!"

       Everything turns black. Julia can hear and feel each beat of her racing heart, as if her body is a huge iron bell being vigorously rung. The darkness dispels into mist. Out of the darkness steps a towering figure, flaming eyes narrowed in triumph. She is magnificent, proud, beautiful, enraged... a princess in rags, her right hand grasping the ankle chain she had broken and waving it defiantly, a woman in chains, shimmering, transparent,  alive at last... Cinderella Unbound.

       Julia closed her eyes again, and locked away the vision. She took a deep breath, looked at her watch and brushed away the tears. Her meeting with Barry Clarke to pick up the kids was only minutes away. Hands still covered in clay, she ran back down the fire escape and told the driver to step on it. As the taxi turned out of Meredith Road she lay back in the seat, and began to make plans in her head. Instead of frittering away her settlement from Barry Clarke she would make positive use of it. Already she could see what the studio extension to the house in Basingstoke would look like. A high, arched roof; all the best modern tools arranged around the walls. And plenty of windows, to let in the light.

       She closed her eyes again and repeated the words softly to herself, just to check...

       "Empathize... energize... visualize..."

       It was O.K. Cinderella was still there, perfect in every detail, just waiting, waiting patiently, to be born.

 

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Any comments, please email me at chris@chrisgregory.org

 

Friday, 09 February 2007 00:33:59 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #    Comments [13]  | 

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