Category Archives: Short Stories

Tales of natural magic

The House-Sitters

For Samuel and I, buying our first house together was what you might call a Big Move; the last, as we saw it then, of the tentative steps we had taken in the years beforehand into adulthood, and into each other’s lives. When we returned from a weekend mini-break in Bucharest to find the house unaccountably occupied by the ghostly Mr and Mrs Grey therefore, we were very much confused.

The strangest thing about it, as we remarked in hushed whispers to each other during those first few minutes, shivering in the cold on our own doorstep, was that the surname ‘Grey’ was Samuel’s own. They were no relation of his, he said, and I had to agree that I couldn’t believe they were either. They seemed insubstantial as they stood there in the hallway, he bending low over his curious black cane and scowling at her back; she standing tall and defiantly staring. Not that they weren’t there exactly, not that you could exactly see through them… but they were…tenuous somehow, if you follow my meaning.

She slammed the door in our faces, as indeed she had opened it at our arrival. They were substantial enough for that, it seemed and, as we soon found, considerably more besides. We hadn’t been standing there long before an upstairs window flew open and the head of Mrs Grey emerged over the sill.
“Get lost or I’ll call the police!” She cried, her hair flying about her in the wind. “Go on! Off with you!” She waved a bony hand at us, as if she might be shooing away a fly. Samuel, normally a mild and placid sort of man lost his temper completely.

“It’s our bloody house!” He yelled upwards. I felt a rush of pride. The head of Mrs Grey disappeared and was replaced rather suddenly by a bucket on the end of a skinny arm -wearing, now I think about it, my own nightdress. The arm and the bucket which it held were swiftly inverted. A deluge of malodorous water poured down towards us and we were lucky, on account of our both looking that way at the time, to only narrowly avoid it. We retreated to the top of the driveway and, as if satisfied, the face and the body of Mrs Grey turned away from the window and receded into the darkness of the room behind it.

Huddled on the pavement in the gathering dark we tried to regroup, but already the cracks in our defences were beginning to show. It had not, if I’m honest, been an easy few weeks for us, nor had the museums and the palaces of Bucharest done anything whatsoever to help. I was all for risking another deluge (or worse) in a full frontal assault – after all, I reminded Samuel, dangling them in his face – we have the keys. He brushed them away. It was the neighbours he wanted. In the heat of it all I think I tossed my head and called him a coward which probably didn’t help, but in any case, when I stamped up to the door in my new brogues and rattled the door, the key no longer fitted the lock. Samuel crowed. There was no more sign of the Greys. The house stood gloomy and deserted.

It was all very mysterious. At length, we went over to the Greenes’ house next door. We could count on them said Samuel, surely. It was Mrs Greene who answered; the veteran of countless teas and coffees and cakes and biscuits in our kitchen already. We were becoming friends. But when she came to the door that day, peering about short-sighted in her usual fashion, she didn’t seem to know us at all. In fact I’m not sure she even saw us, but sank instead into a sort of trance on the threshold, staring blankly at the house across the road. No amount of shouting nor coaxing, no hand waved in her face, nor even the firm shove that Samuel gave (he was, after all, at his wit’s end) could rouse her. As we turned away to go, however, she shuffled back inside as if re-animated, and closed the door behind her.

The police arrived. We certainly hadn’t called them, the events we’d suffered already seemed too unreal in our minds to warrant their attention. But they came nonetheless. When I saw the panda car crawl slowly up alongside us with its strobes turning, instead of relief, I felt a strange and creeping sense of dread. Sam, however was effulgent.

“Thank God you’ve come!” He practically pulled the officer, a sweating, piggish man in bulging stab vest and tide-marked shirt, out of the car. Whatever pride I had in him evaporated like morning mist. He was hopping around on the pavement like a child. I stood some distance away from them with my arms folded in silence. The policeman looked him up and down.

“We’ve had reports of a break-in.” He sighed, looking away from us towards the house. They never introduce themselves do they? The police. Identities subsumed into a higher cause. This man was a bar-code. An agent only of the law.
“Yes yes!” Cried Samuel, pointing. “Two of them. Over there! It’s our bloody house!”
“Your house, is it? Right…” He narrowed his eyes. “So you called us then did you, Sir?”
“Err… no, actually.” His face fell.
“I see.” There was a pause while the officer flipped open his notebook and took out a pen. Although the pen remained poised over the page for the rest of the exchange between them, I noticed that he wrote nothing.
“And what’s your name then?”
“Samuel Grey.”
“And you?” He jerked his chin in my direction, turning black eyes squeezed by veined and ruddy cheeks towards me. I told him. “And you’re…married… are you?” He asked, with distaste. I shook my head, looked away across the street.

There were more questions. How long had we lived there, what did we do for a living, how long had we been away. Sam answered them all with a kind of anxious enthusiasm. I could see where it was going.
“So… Let’s look at the house then shall we?” He said in the end. My heart sank. “You’ll have the keys I imagine?”

He let us off with a caution. Wasting police time, hoax calls, whatever it was. No-one, of course, had answered the door. The house, our house, Samuel reminded me, remained a closed mouth, sealed up and dark. We checked into a hotel and spent the night there arguing over nothing.

Morning came, creeping in through curtains that I hadn’t hung. We had to go to work. I dressed as smartly as I could from my weekend bags and caught the train. Everything seemed normal. The carriage was eerie, wordless; full of the tinny whisper of headphones like the chirping of crickets, and the smashing of the wheels against the track. But I was nervous. I tried not to think that I had no home to go to, denied, in fact, that it was true.

Most days, as I exit through the barrier at the station I have a view of the revolving doors of the office across the road. When I did so that morning, as I almost knew I would, I saw her. She was hurrying upright, head bowed in an overcoat and black hat that I hadn’t worn in years. As she entered the building, the very building where I work, she turned and flashed a look so potent, so deliberate towards me with eyes that burned in triumph. The unmistakable Mrs Grey. Feeling that I had no other choice, I followed her inside.

It should, I suppose, have come as no surprise to me. My first thought, the one thing I had somehow known for certain when I saw them in the hallway of our house, and afterwards suppressed as brutally as I could, resurfaced then as I saw her from the other end of the office sitting blithely at my desk and chatting over the top of her computer my computer!- to Janice from accounts. That Mr and Mrs Grey shared the same name as Samuel seemed more than coincidence. That she was trying to replace me in the present, once so full of possibility, was abundantly clear. What I saw, though, when I looked at her, forty years my senior in the same clothes, the same shoes at the same desk at which I had sat so many times already, when I thought of her in the hallway with a man who despised her, who was weak and bitter with age, what I really saw, the thing that made my courage fail me, was a vision of my own torpid, stifled future.

Perhaps I should have stood my ground, but couldn’t. I ran out of the office into the street. It was Janice who scared me the most. Nowhere on her face had I seen a sign that anything was wrong. I tried to call my mother but she didn’t answer. In desperation I called Samuel.
“What do you mean you’re being replaced?” He snapped, irritated. “It’s US, Erin, We’re being replaced, TOGETHER! It’s our bloody house! What’s the matter with you?” I tried to tell him, but he couldn’t understand and got angry. I hung up. Mr Grey, he told me had been at his office too.

For the rest of the day I wandered the streets like a ghost, too angry with Samuel to meet him, though I saw him once, sitting dejected and alone at a bus-stop. At five o’clock I found myself crouched on the pavement outside the station, compulsively watching my erstwhile colleagues as they left the office. Already I felt like an outsider. It grew dark. At length, at the centre of a gaggle of my closest friends, she came out through the revolving door. They turned left, a clatter of heels, and shoaled their way, giggling, through the puddles of street-light towards the centre of town. Softly, it began to rain. Some hours later, numb with the cold, I stirred myself and followed in their wake, knowing exactly where they would be.

The restaurant was shimmering with golden light. It spilled out through the windows onto the pavement, wet with rain. There was music and laughter. Voices that I knew. I looked in. It was easy to see them, twelve or so, at a long table in the centre. To the right of Mrs Grey, raising a glass to drink with someone I didn’t know, was Samuel. He looked haggard, I saw, beneath the veneer of his smile. For a moment I pressed my right hand to the glass, as if willing it to open like a door; then I turned and walked away from them, back up the street towards the station.

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Animus

Four a.m. New Year’s Day and I am alone. In darkness I wait for the sun to rise. It isn’t even quiet. Twenty minutes earlier I left the raucous bars along the beachfront thinking sod this anyway and walked North to the tip of the island where, on a good day the mountains would have framed the dawn. I’d expected something peaceful, you know, magical, close to nature; but today isn’t a good day at all is it? Nosir. Not by any means.

It’s cloudy for a start, so I’m going to see f-all anyway even when the bastard sun gets above the horizon, and second, even all the way out here, there are people everywhere. They’ve come over in swarms from the mainland. The boat costs basically nothing. I guess even the locals can afford it once a year. But I don’t really know what they earn or anything like that, I’m just passing through, I am. Me, the bastard son.

Sometimes I wish I could speak to them. The locals I mean. Not just so they don’t screw me over in the night market either: Here I am going on about being alone and everything, and hating my own kind for being drunk and boring as hell, when there are real people, different people, all around. I mean, I know enough to say hello and all that, but I mean like really talk to them you know? Find out what’s going on. Imagine if I made some proper friends right here this morning on the beach. What a start to the new year that would be! Probably they’d be able to help me get the inside track on some land or property deals or something like that. I could stay here forever, or somewhere like it. It would be pretty hard to learn though, I bet, the language. I’ve never been much good at that sort of thing. When you travel, though, it really opens your mind.

Saying they’re everywhere, I shouldn’t really exaggerate. I sound like my Mum. They’re not literally everywhere, you know, there’s maybe twenty of them, in groups of three or four. That’s enough, though right where I am now, to just about fuck everything up. It’s the noise mostly. There’s a few of them off to my right down by the waterline -I can’t see how many, it’s too dark- they’re starting up a fucking engine, shouting at their friends across the sand. “It’s four in the morning boys! Can’t you knock it off for a minute?!” They don’t understand me, obviously. They just laugh and wave, shout back. I don’t understand them. How can they bloody navigate at this time of night anyway?

It’s quieter once they’ve gone. The rest aren’t actually that loud. I start to notice the birdsong in the trees behind the beach. Strange little birds when you see them. A pair – like swallows – fly in overhead from the sea. As they pass above me they spiral once around each other twit twit twit. Away down the beach the water rolls over the beds of seagrass that the tide has uncovered and the sky grows lighter in patches where the cloud is broken into scraps like ragged clothes. My clothes are ragged. Or torn at least. It’s not a ‘look’ exactly. I hate that sort of thing, but it’s better than some of the travellers you see: dressed up to the nines or whatever. Flashing the cash. She was like that when I saw her. The girl of my dreams.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about. Like I’ve gone all misty eyed or something. You’re thinking how can she be the girl of my dreams if she looks and acts like something I hate? And how can I even know after seeing her for five minutes across a crowded bar, or something like that, whatever, you don’t understand. When I say she’s the girl of my dreams I mean literally of my dreams, as in, without ever seeing her before I’ve seen her maybe a hundred times already with my eyes closed. And suddenly now here she is (or there), right there in the flesh just down the beach in that godaweful bar with the cheap drinks and cheaper thrills and the local band wailing – and I mean really wailing – reggae classics, the words of which they can barely reproduce, let alone understand. No wonder I left the place. I needed some time to think.

How can one person dream about another? I mean, that’s a pretty big question isn’t it. I bet there’s some big old boffins trying to figure that one out. The Baroness, you know…whatever her name is. If you’ve seen someone before of course, it’s more obvious: The dreamwork or whatever, but if you haven’t… Well I reckon that’s anybody’s guess.

My Gran used to believe in stuff like this. Ghosts and whatnot. Said she had ‘the sight’, you know, but she was mental. I mean, she used to go on about how the Japs deserved what they got at Hiroshima. The war really fucked that generation up. Not to mention the one after. We’re the first ones in about a hundred years to be thinking clearly I reckon. Gran would have said it was a sign though, a dream like this. A message from the future or the past, something like that, she was a bit loose with time anyway. Loose with a lot of things in fact, by the end. But I’m starting to think she maybe had a point. About dreams, I mean, not so much about the Japs.

Thing is, though, I’ve seen Derren Brown make a guy dream about sheep in hospital beds wearing stocking caps and socks and stuff. Predicted it all. It’s great actually, he wakes the guy up and they’ve set up a studio exactly like the dream and the guy completely thinks he’s still dreaming. Trippy. Come to think of it, I think it was the bloke wearing the socks, not the sheep. Anyway, if all that’s possible, just by showing him a video and spinning him around a few times or whatever then it could be anything couldn’t it? Making me dream about her? My seeing her here could just be a massive coincidence. Still… I don’t mind telling you it’s got me a bit rattled. Quite a lot in fact.

At first I though she was my Anima, you know. That feminine part of yourself that you can’t express any other way? That sounds pretty lame I know but you have to understand that I was a massive fan of Freud and Jung and all that at school. And it made sense to me that she would be. It felt right, like I knew her already you know? But now she’s appeared hasn’t she. Right here in the real flesh-and-blood world drinking a vodka and fucking coke! I know it was her, by the way in case that’s what you’re thinking. I’d know her with my eyes, haha, shut. Don’t remember reading about that anywhere in ‘the interpretation of sodding dreams’, do you?

Sorry. I’m getting wound up aren’t I. Really need to watch that. Maybe you’re wondering what the dreams are like? Actually you probably don’t give a rat’s ass about my dreams at all but I’ll be honest: I actually need to talk about this now. I’m hoping that if I can talk about it, that’ll make everything seem more normal. Maybe even make it normal. You know? Or am I being…?

There’s not a lot to say about the dreams actually. Usually she’s just there, you know? I’m in a crowded street and she walks by, I’m in a library, I look up from the book I’m reading and there she is on the other side of the room, staring at me. That sort of thing. Always staring. Sometimes, though, she comes right up to me and talks. I say ‘talks’. Most of the time she actually goes ballistic. Shouting and cursing at me, lashing out. Screaming right into my face. Once she even stabbed me, boom like that in the ribs. God knows where she got the knife from, it’s a bloody dream isn’t it? Anything can happen. Admittedly that time I woke up and the cat was on my chest, claws in, so maybe that one can be sort of explained away but even so, I was on edge for a week. Kept seeing her face everywhere I went. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why… but no. You’d have to be some kind of MI5 agent to pull that one off wouldn’t you? State I’m in, I’m even prepared to believe that’s the explanation. Tailed by em eye bloody five. Fuck. That stare though! Proper manic…

It’s definitely getting lighter now. The sky is a luminous grey like gunmetal. At the base of the mountain where it meets the horizon and the sea there’s a tiny sliver of red showing through the clouds like a gash. Shepherd’s warning. Thank fuck I’m not… but no. Come on. That’s stupid. Nothing’s going to happen. This isn’t exactly Iraq is it? There are shops selling Nutella for fuck’s sake. Fucking cornflakes! It’s practically home. I need to pull myself together.

She’s hot, in case you were wondering. The girl of my dreams. Really fucking hot in fact. Long legs, tight body, perfect ass, you know…tits, the lot. Long brown hair, full lips, sort of Italian-looking maybe, but always dressed down, you know, in a woollen dress or whatever, except tonight. Tonight she was dressed up. Phewee! My type anyway. That’s why I didn’t mind at first. Even the shouting. It was… sort of a turn on to be honest, you know? But then I started to notice her eyes. I don’t know if they got worse or something, maybe I was just paying more attention. They’re this crazy sort of black colour anyway. They go on forever, like there’s…nothing inside them you know. Like they’re…dead. And always fucking staring

It was her eyes that gave her away tonight. I was watching her from behind, as you do, thinking fuck yes, this night’s just got a lot better, when she turned around. She didn’t see me I don’t think. Just as well because I near enough shat myself. Downed my drink and ran out. Honestly, if you’ve seen the exorcist you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Ho. Lee. Fuck. Isn’t that…? Through the half-light. Yes! It’s her! Coming this way! No I’m serious. She (it?!) is literally now walking up the beach towards me! Fuck! What the fuck am I going to do?!

Before I can do anything, she’s there, actually there in front of me. I’m sort of crouching on the sand and she stands there, legs apart, hands on her hips looking down at me. She is really fucking hot, even despite those eyes, but I’m pretty terrified, I don’t mind telling you. My heart’s going like a road drill. A little bit of piss dribbles out into my pants. It doesn’t show through, fortunately, but I’m so busy worrying about it that I hardly realise she’s speaking.

“Ugly word isn’t it?”
“What?” I think my mouth is hanging open.
“Tits.” As she says this she grabs them. Literally grabs them through her top and lifts them up. Despite how dolled up she is, in a little black dress and everything, she isn’t even wearing a bra. I’m so fucking confused at this point that I’ve got a semi-on just looking at her, even though I’ve literally just… well I told you didn’t I? No need to bang on about it.

“Perfect tits.” She says. Couldn’t have put it better myself, I’m thinking, whilst at the same time hoping she isn’t going to pull a knife out from somewhere. Fortunately I manage not to say this out loud. I don’t think it would have helped. “Perfect, tits, ass, tight body, wasn’t it? That’s what you were thinking?” As she names each part of herself she touches it quite roughly. It’s pretty confusing.
“Erm… yeah.” I manage. Nice one Casanova. I’m trying to work out how to tell her I’ve been dreaming about her for years without sounding like a weirdo. Her eyes have a bit more light in them than I remember, nothing like the exorcist that’s for sure.

“Ugly isn’t it?” She says again. “When you hear it out loud.” I nod. It’s all I can think of to do.

Then she’s introducing herself. Offering her hand for me to shake with this sort of half-smile on her face. For a second I wonder if she’s drunk, but she isn’t. When I look closer I can tell. “Name’s Ali.” She says. “Short for Alessandra.” Her accent’s completely the same as mine. Like we grew up in the same street almost. But when she says her name, all that Latino fire comes out of her like it’s suppressed, you know? And she rolls her R’s. “Alessssaandrra.” Super hot.

“Pleased to meet you.” I say, stupid. I have to lean a bit forward as I shake her hand on account of she’s still standing over me like the colossus of Rhodes so the words come out in a sort of wheeze. Not very attractive. “I’m Seb.” I say, squatting back down in the sand. “Short for Sebastian.”
“I know.” That half smile again. I don’t ask her how. Probably she knows what it’s short for, right? She hasn’t blinked once since she got here. “Sebastian, I want to help you.” She says, sitting down next to me, so close that her shoulder brushes mine. It’s a sudden sort of thing really. My heart’s still beating pretty hard. I can smell her shampoo. And that’s when I realise, right at that moment when I’m catching a whiff of her hair in the breeze, that she’s going to kill me.

Ha ha! Waitwaitwait! Not literally! God no! I think I’d have been off already if I’d caught wind of that. No she seems really nice actually, now I’m talking to her. I meant that I know she’s going to tear me apart, verbally speaking, for thinking ugly stuff about her. You know, objectifying her and all that. Girls hate that sort of thing I know. I’ve seen it all before.

“You seem a bit lost.” She goes on. I think that’s a bit rich really. She barely knows me after all. “It’s a sort of bravado isn’t it? Talking about women like that.” ‘Brravaado’, she says. Proper Italian. Like I said…super hot.

“Sebastian!” It’s like she’s hearing my thoughts or something I swear. She turns to face me. There’s something about those eyes… For a second I feel…but no, that’s stupid… she looks away and it passes.

“Look, I’m sorry ok?” I’ve got a bit wound up again. “Can we just leave it, please?”
“Of course.”
There’s this silence then. Actually worse than before. I try to pretend that I’m listening to the sea or something but it doesn’t work. She can definitely tell I feel awkward. She, on the other hand, is serene.
“So…” I start. “Where are you from?”
“Italia.”
“Oh. Right.” A wave rolls onto the beach. Obvious really.
“You want to know…”
“Yes!” Damn. Too eager. We laugh. Me nervous she… sort of… bold.
“You want to know why I talk like you?”
“Yes.”

So then she’s talking. Telling me about her family, how they travelled a lot when she was young, how she went to school in England when she was older so she got the chance to settle down and make some friends and everything. As she’s talking, I start to lose track of it a bit, only not really. It’s like I’m drinking her in, disappearing inside her or something. She fills my vision, getting larger and larger while I shrink. In the end it’s like she’s a film star, or a character on stage – she’s so beautiful – I’m in such a dream-world that I almost don’t register that she’s stopped.

“Now it’s your turn, Sebastian.” She says.

Suddenly I’m frightened. She’s so amazing, so magical almost, so large you know, in my world, and I’m so… piss-stained and tiny, I don’t want to open my mouth. What if she laughs? What if she doesn’t laugh?! What if, worst of all, she just acts polite when really she thinks I’m disgusting?

“Don’t worry.” She murmurs. “Whatever you say is fine.”

Then all at once I’m spilling the beans. Telling her everything. All the bastard son stuff, you know, how I never knew my Father – or rather, how I know him, but he doesn’t know me. How my mum’s an architect and a bit highly strung. Ali smiles at this which makes me smile too. Then there’s the boring stuff: school, friends where I’ve been travelling, where I’m going next… The usual hostel chat. To be honest I lose track of it, babbling on. God I think I even mention Jung a couple of times. I’m just so happy that she’s listening, you know, asking the odd question. In the end I tail off. What she says next, though, completely blows me away.

“Do you want to come back to my place, Sebastian?” She asks, and I swear she gives me a sidelong look. Well I wasn’t exactly going to say no was I.

We walk through the village. There’s a long dirt road leading away from the beach towards the interior of the island. Ali says she lives in a house at the end of it and takes my hand. It’s light now, and starting to get warm. In those pine trees that they have along the beach, birds are singing everywhere and in the yards, in the alleyways and even from the corrugated roofs of the houses the roosters are crowing. In one little shop like this, where the shelves are crammed with pots of Pringles, nuts and boxes of juice, an old woman is sweeping the floor with a long broom. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look up, but I get the weirdest feeling that she’s watching me in the cool of that morning, you know? Planning something. As if she’s staring too intently at the floor. I don’t say anything. Ali leads me on.

I realise I don’t know how long she’s been here. Ali, I mean. A house in the interior is a pretty permanent sort of thing you know. I try to ask her but she just smiles, a little way ahead of me on the track.
“A while.” She says.

The palm trees close in around us. There are no more houses now. No more noise. The trunks of the trees shut out the village and the canopy dapples the light. We reach Ali’s house. There’s a wall around it. A tall wooden gate with a roof of red tile. The garden, though small, is lush with papaya trees and bushes full of orange and white flowers whose smell is intense. In one corner, though I hardly notice it at the time, is a mound of earth about six feet long with a spade stuck in it.

I’m pretty excited by now. At the porch we take off our shoes. The tile floor is beautifully cool against our feet. She’s still holding my hand. We open the door. Inside is a simple living room and kitchen, dim in the light from the small curtained windows and the air bricks near the roof. In the kitchen part, behind the counter – and this is a bit of a shock to be honest – is another old woman, bent over the worktop with her back to us, her grey hair swept back into a bun. She’s chopping beans but stops as soon as we come in and turns to look at me with a toothy grin. She must be eighty at least. I can’t help but feel a bit crushed… I thought we’d be alone.

“Sebastian, this is Ibu.” Alessandra says, with a half-smile, and then some words to the old woman which, of course, I can’t understand. She speaks the language! I’m in love, I think. I try to smile back at Ibu but she turns away from me.

“I’ll be back in a minute.” Says Ali, and kisses me on the cheek. “Don’t run away now will you?” I laugh, but she’s looking concerned, as if she thinks I really might. As if! I’m in heaven right now. Or somewhere close to it. She disappears into the bedroom and I hear the sound of running water. Ibu goes methodically back to her vegetables… chop chop chop.

I look around. Turn a full 360 slowly on the spot. There’s not a lot to see really. It’s a simple sort of place – couple of chairs, wicker sofa, low table, some stools up by the counter. The roof-space is open. Big solid beams across the apex. In one of them there’s a big iron hook for hanging meat or something I guess. In the cracks between the tiles beneath it there’s a bit of a stain.

I get back round to Ibu. For a minute or two I’m mesmerised by the knife she’s holding. It’s massive. Sharp, too, judging by the way it’s getting through those beans. The rhythm of it… chop chop chop. Perhaps I try to say something to her. Oh Grand-mama, what big teeth you have. But she doesn’t reply. Even though there’s no awkwardness- I’ve noticed that silence is usually ok with the locals – I still have that sense that she’s judging me somehow. That I’m some kind of alien to her. I suppose I probably am. I start worrying about the dribble of piss in my pants…you know… just in case.

The door to the bedroom opens slowly. Ali is standing there naked as a goddess. She doesn’t move. It’s her eyes I notice first because they’re black as night. Empty, just like in my dreams. Just like I was sure they were when I saw her in the bar. I panic a bit then. Turn to look at Ibu but she’s just standing there too. Holding the knife. Without the chopping there’s complete silence all around. You could hear a pin drop.

“You shouldn’t have come here, Sebastian.” Says the girl of my dreams.

I look back towards her. See the rope she’s holding in her hands, and wonder what she means.

Thanks to =Má¾±rco= for the featured image obtained under creative commons license

I Love You, But

Afterwards, when the whole sorry business was over, Maria remembered that the monkey had not been her idea. Not as such, she told herself. He had just sort of… happened. She called him Simeon. A cruel joke really that served only to enhance his ape-ishness in her mind and diminish the human qualities in him that she had once found so attractive. Although, to say it was his humanity that she had loved would be inaccurate as well. In truth it was the animal in him, his brutishness that set her heart on fire.

She saw him first one Tuesday lunchtime, as anyone might have done, propping up the bar at the Firestation on Waterloo Road. He was holding a newspaper, The Times as she recalled, such that it completely obscured all of him but his fingers and toes, and the tip of his tail as it curled in prehensile fashion around the lower rung of the stool. He stared at the newspaper intently, with the eyes of a scholar, not perturbed in the least by the fact of its being upside down since, of course, he was a monkey, and could not read at all.

After a preliminary conversation in which they introduced themselves and enquired in the usual fashion as to the other’s preference for wine over beer, opinion of the weather and so forth and during which she, being a keen observer of everyone she met, had covertly established his likely credentials, she took him home.

It by no means behoves us, tempting though it may be, to speculate about what happened between them on that first sultry Tuesday afternoon at Maria’s modest apartment in Pimlico. Afterwards she vehemently maintained to her friends that they did nothing but talk, drank a little wine perhaps, and indulged somewhat in a passion for the music of Phil Collins which they found to their delight that they shared. After all, she reminded them, he’s an animal! It can only be assumed (such is our information at this time) that she was referring to the Monkey, and not to Phil Collins, about whom so much has already been said.

Regardless of the true nature of the events that unfolded behind that apartment door, identical, as it was to all the others that surrounded it for miles about; regardless of the origin of a certain new spring in the step of Maria as she made her way to her office on the Strand the next day, one fact we do know is that the monkey very soon moved in. He had his own room of course; it wasn’t the sixties after all.

To begin with it was all sunshine and roses. She brought home from work every evening the fruit that he loved and he in return spent the day preparing extravagant feasts of what he called ‘human food’ in the kitchen. He ate none of it, preferring instead a platter of unripe banana which he cut, nevertheless, so as not to seem brutish, with a knife and fork. In the time remaining to him during her absences he wrote poetry, or swung disconsolately from the lampshade in a manner that quite unsettled Mrs Wachowsky, the rotund and otherwise indomitable lady from, Maria thought, ‘Eastern Europe’ (they’re so hardworking you know!), who came every day to clean.

It was with Mrs Wachowsky, in fact, that the trouble began. She left. Suddenly one Saturday afternoon in a hail of invective, the meaning of which was clear enough, although the words themselves came out like so much saliva. And it was true what she said: the apartment, once a place of clean lines, of chrome and glass and sumptuous-though-reasonably-priced upholstery had begun, in a creeping sort of way, to resemble the aftermath of the battle of the Somme. It wasn’t so much the books that Simeon had pulled from the shelves in the course of his clambering about, and strewn around the floor. It wasn’t the half-chewed pages of the magazines studiously removed from their hideaways in innovative Swedish storage units and balled up in the corners. It wasn’t the broken ornaments, the stuffing pulled out of the sofa and the pillows of his bed nor the earth from the broken pots of the yucca plant, peace lilies and the like that was trodden into the carpet. It wasn’t even the nest that he’d made in the bathtub. No. Of all things it was the kitchen.

Simeon’s culinary endeavours were, as Maria’s friends were fond of telling her, acts of purest love and as such were undertaken with the kind of reckless abandon typical of, for example, the exploits of Don Quixote. No dish was left unused, no implement unsoiled, no surface spared a covering of flour, vegetable matter or crème anglais. It was a bombsite; completely unusable, and Simeon, the culprit, in the midst of it all that Saturday afternoon, wearing an apron with a look of pure rapture on his wrinkled face, caught sidelong the full force of Mrs Wachowsky’s Slavonic wrath.

There were no more cleaners to be had. Maria suspected conspiracy and became angry. Simeon sulked.

The impasse continued for several weeks, during which time, the apartment festered. Simeon, feeling injured because, as he saw it, the grandeur of his gestures had been eclipsed by concerns of a merely practical sort, remained balled up on the sofa refusing all contact. Maria, to whom sulking was the very worst kind of juvenile behaviour, and typical, as she saw it, of male animals of all kinds, cultivated an air of quiet and superior disdain. Above all else she wanted him to be strong, his wildness barely contained, but in the cold atmosphere of her scorn he wilted, becoming ever more childlike before her eyes.

The end came only when some acquaintance of Maria’s, a Miss Sophia Pinkus, arrived by chance one Sunday morning, unannounced and, seeing the depths to which the pair had sunk, and the squalor of the place, took Maria firmly in hand.

At Carluccio’s, over Frappucino, Sophia talked in earnest tones, reminding Maria of her status as a professional and independent woman, immune to the whiles of men (she waved away objections relating to Simeon’s status as, well, a simian, and not a man) and advised, nay demanded that something must be done. Maria was tied, Sophia argued, to that apartment, because of the monkey. It was during this meeting, while Simeon, back at the apartment, flicked idly through the channels on the TV, and read Voltaire, that Sophia first conceived the idea of the cage.

That evening there was a meeting. The cage sat between them on the coffee table; cleared, for the purpose, of debris. Sophia, self appointed mediator, sat in an armchair to one side with her lips pursed in what she hoped was a manner of professional distaste. Or was it distance? Maria did most of the talking.

“Of course I love you, Simeon,” she said, her eyebrows creasing with the emotion of it all, “but…you see, I can’t live like this. You understand, don’t you?” The monkey nodded. Stared at the floor. “I must have my freedom.” She said. “You can see that, can’t you Simeon?” He could, she thought, although he said nothing. “I couldn’t bear to cage you against your will.” She went on. “And that’s why I’m asking if you’ll consider doing this on your own. For me…” She was pleading, she realised, with something like disgust.

Simeon, who loved her truly enough even for this said nothing, but slowly, meekly, with his eyes downcast, climbed into the cage that she had brought, and closed the door behind him.

Sophia breathed a sigh of relief. Maria cried. “You can stay in my room.” She promised, between sobs. “It’ll be just like old times. You’ll see.” And for a while, it was. He couldn’t cook, of course, but she fed him unripe bananas through the bars, just the way he liked them, and supplied him with books and paper and pens. He composed sonnets. Joked that he was the simian Oscar Wilde. They laughed, and listened again to the music of Phil Collins. Then Maria began to bring home human men. Jocose, sporting, military types. Great hulks of manly flesh, and everything unravelled.

Simeon growled at them of course. Bared his teeth and rattled the bars of his cage. If they came close enough, pushing their mocking faces up towards him, he lunged at them and once caught a handful of immaculate blonde hair in his fist. His triumph was boundless but short-lived and the man sent the cage and Simeon inside it sprawling across the room. It was only when he came to, and saw Maria trying to hide her mirth behind a façade of horror, that the monkey knew his fate was sealed.

She moved him into the spare room. His howling during the act of love, she said, was putting her boyfriends off their game. She forgot to feed him. The first time she was appalled and made amends with lavish gifts of melon, soft mango and caresses. Then it happened again, then more often than not, and before long she forgot about him completely. In the darkness, pressed against the bars each night, Simeon heard her laughter, her muted cries from the room next door through the wall, and huddled closer into the corners of his cage. He tried to be proud of himself, happy for the freedom he had given her. Tried to see himself even, in his delirium, as Kafka’s hunger artist: excelling, glorious in his suffering, but he could not. He was left, in the end, alone, with only the knowledge that no-one would come, and was too proud, even then, to cry out.

Two weeks later, one Autumn morning at daybreak, Maria woke and with a gasp, remembered Simeon. Rushing through to his room, guilty as sin and throwing open the door of the cage she saw, with a cry his still-warm body huddled in the corner, shrunk, somehow much smaller than she remembered. She wept. Perhaps, at least, she thought, he had seen the dawn. A shaft of weakling sunlight broke cover and filtered into the room through a window translucent with dust. Dust coated everything. Motes hung suspended in the air. Not far away at Hyde Park, behind the iron railings on Bayswater road is a cemetery for pets. She buried him there.

Thanks to Alex Fraser for the featured photo, obtained under creative commons license No changes were made to the original image