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Welcome to SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY

Vol.3. No. 3. April - June 2010

 


CONTRIBUTORS

FICTION

SECTIONS

Barrie Darke
Bruce J. Berger
Chad Norman
Christian Ward
Chuma Nwokolo Jr
Claire Askew
Colin Gallant
Davide Trame
Gary Beck
Ivor W. Hartmann
Katie Metcalfe
M C Hardwick
Michael Conley
Minna Salami
Pete Court
Roger Elkin
Warren Paul Glover
George Freek
 

A Bit of a Thing

By Barrie Darke

 

THE FIRST THING revolved around a smashed cassette lying on the edge of the path. Not a video cassette, an old-style C90 tape for the hi-fi; Marie passed it while walking the kids up to school, and she passed it again on the way back. It was all fractured plastic that made a dental association somewhere in her mind, and a loosening spool that would take over the whole road before long. It was there for a few days, dirty, blasted and saddened (one night it rained, and she could only begin to imagine how slick and dripping it would be), then it was gone, sucked up by the council’s funny little van with the hoover and the brushes.

            She wished she’d picked it up, however compulsively she’d have been washing her hands for the rest of the day. Even in that hopeless condition there might have been a way to dry it out, rig it up, listen to pieces of it. She spent far too much time flicking through the options of what could have been on it: it was the first words of a now grown-up child, left in a CD-cassette player that had been stolen, the tape discarded with a sneer at its antiquity, or it was a recording of a Ouija board session, thrown out of a window for fear something awful had been captured on it.

            But the most likely answer, she knew, was a compilation tape made by a middle-aged man who didn’t know how to burn CDs. It had been given to a middle-aged or younger woman he was pursuing. She got rid of it after an early, disastrous date, or even just when she heard the terrible musical taste on display: 80s soft metal ballads, with a token nod towards the blander fringes of soul music. Something that deserved to be thrown away. That sounded about right to Marie.

* * *

The second thing had arrived while she was watching a murder-mystery programme on Sunday evening TV. Someone had just been killed, with a modicum of blood in a pretty location, and Marie wondered what in God’s name was going on: it was like snapping awake to something undeniable, and she was amazed that no-one else had said anything, that they hadn’t tried to put a stop to it. Since when was murder, the absolute worst crime on the books, a fit subject for snoozy light entertainment – how could death be reduced to a slightly taxing parlour game?

            Marie asked these questions of her husband, Charles, who was also watching the programme, or who at least had his eyes in that direction. He shrugged when she was finished speaking. He supposed he could see her point, but then again, what did she expect from the TV – art and responsibility?

            Marie fell silent, which didn’t mean the matter was closed. The next day, she wrote the letter to the TV channel that she’d spent most of the night composing in her head; a phone call, even a long email, wouldn’t have transmitted her feelings robustly enough. She messed around with it endlessly on the word processor until it had the world-altering storminess she had hit on in the dark, and then she wrote it out in her neat, readable longhand.

            Once it was posted she thought of a few more things to say, and worked on those over the next couple of days. She sent three handwritten letters in all, each one more afire than the last. In the last one, she made – as she later came to acknowledge – an intemperate suggestion. Instead of a decorous murder each week, why not a crossbow through the face? That could be the programme’s selling point. A guest actor of reasonable standing (someone whose name was on the tip of the tongue for only a few minutes) could have a crossbow fired through their face by a guest actor of similar standing. Then investigate that, if you wanted.

            A few days later, a standard note came saying her comments had been logged and appreciated. She sent one or two further letters on the subject before leaving it there.

 

One chilly spring morning, Marie let their fat old black Labrador, FancyDan, out into the back garden for his morning messes. She usually waited at the patio doors for him to finish, but that morning it was there again. When FancyDan lumbered over to sniff at the almost invisible intruder, she followed him.

            They’d moved house the previous summer, for school catchment purposes, and Marie hadn’t been particularly bothered that there was a cemetery nearby; but then it averaged out that perhaps once a month she’d find cellophane in the garden. It had blown over the wall from flowers left on the graves. She’d felt ill, the first time she realised, wavery as she stood holding it, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. Most of the neighbours faced the same ordeal, though Marie had no doubt her garden was on the most unlucky flightpath.

            Sometimes it was even worse: on more than enough occasions there were small cards still attached to the cellophane. That morning she could see it, the pale rectangle in the struggling light, and she stared down at it for a while, till FancyDan was making pitiable notes at the patio doors. It was his right and privilege to be lying in front of the big radiator by now.

            Marie took the bundle inside. The cellophane was pressed down into the kitchen bin without a second thought, though the card went with the others at the back of a drawer in the work unit. The house then lurched with the usual hour of crowded commotion as breakfasts, uniforms and mouthwashes were dealt with. Charles left for work. She took the kids to school. FancyDan lifted his head briefly at each leaving.

            He was up on his feet, tail on the wag, when Marie came back. He usually received some attention at this time, but she made straight for the drawer. She didn’t even put the kettle on. She took the cards out – there were three of them – and sat down on the couch. FancyDan heaved himself up, tried to give the cards a sniff and a lucky lick, but she absently held them out of his reach.

            She read them through a couple of times, then put them back. She hadn’t hung her coat up, had just left it over the back of the chair near the window, as though she’d known she’d be needing it. FancyDan followed her to the door, and she could hear him complaining as she walked up the path.

            The day had warmed up a little, but not for standing around in. There weren’t many people about: a young mother with a toddler, showing the toddler where to put something, though it couldn’t stoop very well without unbalancing; a hawkish old man with a raw, red face and a painfully straight back, trying to smooth down strands of hair in the breeze; a young man of about student age and scruffiness, the scruffiness being something to disagree with, she thought, in such a place. Marie moved around the rows, no-one taking any notice of her. She didn’t need to be there much longer than half an hour.

 

She couldn’t wait to collect the kids from school, and had even, during the longest part of the afternoon, considered ringing the headmaster with the news that the kids’ grandfather was on his deathbed, asking to see them. (Both grandfathers, in fact, showed no ill-health whatsoever, and she wouldn’t have been able to decide which one to lie about – though that was only one reason why she didn’t go ahead with the plan.) She paced the floor, told herself to stop looking at the cards, took FancyDan for a long and pensive walk that did nothing to smooth a runway in her mind. She was the first mother at the gates.

            It was hard to keep from talking about it on the way home; there was always someone catching them up or passing them by, and she was still clear-thinking enough to know that being overheard wouldn’t be good. At home, all the kids wanted to do was get changed and play in their rooms, have a mad half hour, but Marie sat them down at the dining room table almost before they’d gotten their coats off. She slid over a pad of paper each, handed out pens. Their faces were hollow at the sight.

            Marie thought a big smile from her might make the whole thing easier, but the only one she could manage didn’t reach her eyes; it barely reached her lips. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘listen to what we’re going to do.’

            ‘Can we do it later?’ Francesca asked.

            ‘You don’t even know what it is yet.’

            ‘I know, but can we do it later anyway?’

            ‘It won’t take long. Not too long, anyway.’

            Nicholas was already doodling a pair of goalposts, and she asked him to stop. He did so without looking her in the face.

            ‘I just want you to imagine,’ she said, ‘that Mrs Cathcart and Mr Stacy had died.’ These were their moderately popular teachers. ‘And you have to write a card to … you know how they put cards on flowers, to put on the, on the grave? To say, you know the sort of thing, to say goodbye and thank you, and what you think of them. So – what would you put on the card?’

            Francesca was looking at her like she was proffering the worst possible Christmas present. Nicholas was looking down.

            ‘If you just put down, you know, what you would say on a card.’

            ‘What’ve they died of?’ Nicholas wanted to know.

            ‘That doesn’t really – car crash then, okay, we’ll say it was a car crash.’

            Nicholas pulled a face. ‘Both of them, in a car crash?’

            ‘Yes, both of them. Mr Stacy was giving Mrs Cathcart a lift home. It was a terrible tragedy. Now, come on. The quicker it’s done.’

            ‘Do we really have to do this?’ Francesca asked.

            ‘I’d like you to, Francesca, yes.’

            That was enough to get them started. She wanted to sit opposite them, scrutinising their efforts, but she thought that might be off-putting. She would be able to see any crossings-out anyway. She went through to the kitchen to give FancyDan his dinner. Between the rattles of the dry food and his scrabbling paws, she could hear the kids muttering to each other, and it seemed an important point to shout through: ‘No conferring!’

            They were ready to show her what they’d done long before the five minutes was up, and when she read them, she sat them back down for another five minutes. Francesca had written: To Mrs Cathcart, you were my favuourite teacher. Marie knew this to be an exaggeration at best, and a lie at worst. Nicholas had written: To Mister Stacy, I will miss youre football leson. Neither had any previous efforts scratched out.

            ‘Okay, right,’ Marie said. ‘Right. Now I want you to do it again – just listen, listen – I want you to do it again, and this time I want you to think of someone you care about a little more.’ Grandfathers came to mind again, but the same difficult choice made her move on. ‘One of your friends. Make it your best friend, that’ll be better. And think carefully about it this time.’

            ‘Why do we have to do this?’ Francesca asked.

            ‘I’m just asking you to, that’s all,’ Marie said, after a longer pause than she liked.

            ‘I actually don’t like thinking about this kind of thing?’

            ‘This ‘sort’ of thing,’ Marie said.

            ‘This sort of thing?’

            ‘She’ll have nightmares,’ Nicholas said, laughing.

            ‘No I won’t, Nicholas, what are you saying that for, shut up.’

            ‘Okay, okay,’ Marie said. ‘No talking now. Five more minutes.’

            They put their heads down and got on with it. They were good kids that way. Marie stood at the window, joined there by FancyDan, still licking his chops and belching. She could hear scribbling, but lots of silent gaps as well, which seemed a little more encouraging. Neighbours were round and about outside, busy but not cripplingly so, and for a brief moment she felt envy shoot through her spine. But she knew, or at least fully expected, that when she was on her deathbed she would be able to say she’d gotten a lot more out of life because of these things.

            After five minutes, her count this time, she sat back down at the dining table and took in their pads. Nicholas was looking vastly bored now, but Francesca was reddening, a mix of anger and upset that would lead to a tantrum before much longer.

            Nicholas had written a single sentence: To Mark, I liked playng football with you. It was all Marie could do to refrain from tutting and rolling her eyes; maybe this wasn’t a boy’s area.

            Francesca had taken a few swings at it, but her earlier versions had been coloured over in blocks of ink that had gone through the paper. Marie saw this as a spiteful act. She had finally settled on: To Carly, I will remember you forever and ever. You were an Angel.

            Marie shook her head, and felt the onrush of a depression that was as severe as any she’d felt in her 35 years; they were a strictly non-religious household, so why Francesca was thinking in those terms, she didn’t know. ‘It’s going to have to be one more,’ she said. ‘You can both do a lot better than this.’

            Francesca got redder, her body less settled on her chair. Nicholas had sunk into himself, just planning on getting through it; it would end eventually. Neither of these postures did anything to soften Marie.

            ‘This time, to really get you thinking, do one for me,’ she told them. ‘Pretend I died. Just pretend, it’s all right.’

            There was a gap. Outside, a car lock chirped a couple of times. Francesca was already crying when she fled the room. ‘I don’t really want to do that one either,’ Nicholas said carefully, sliding slowly off his chair. Marie sat without speaking.

 

She was out in the garden when Charles came home. It was no use telling herself she wasn’t looking for more cellophane and cards, because she was. They were only ever there in the mornings, though; statistically, that had to be unlikely, but there it was. FancyDan was bumping about in one of the other corners, and she heard his strangled excitement before she heard the patio doors opening. He didn’t get much attention then either. It wasn’t his day.

            There were hesitations in Charles’ movements, she could feel the air behind her stuttering with them, but he eventually did as he usually did: squeezed her shoulders and kissed the back of her neck. She knew that was how he told whether or not she was relaxed. He had his answer right away.

            He stood next to her, looking down at the borders. The garden wasn’t particularly his domain. ‘Francesca’s upset,’ he said.

            ‘Still?’

            He cleared his throat, a nervous tic that annoyed her. ‘Not so much ‘still’ as ‘again’. When she told me.’

            ‘That’s silly,’ Marie said.

            ‘Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure it was a good idea, whatever it was you did. What was it?’

            She told him, as blankly as she could. His knowing wasn’t going to change anything in any direction, but she supposed he had a right to know what was going on. ‘I had a look at the graves,’ she ended. ‘At the cards there. Some of them are beautiful, but some of them are … ordinary.’

            ‘Well,’ he said, not placatingly, but letting her know that a different viewpoint was on the way. ‘Not everyone’s so good at expressing themselves in words.’

            ‘At a time like that, though …’

            ‘That might be the hardest time.’    

            ‘Not for everyone, obviously. Some were beautiful, as I said.’

            ‘Okay, okay.’ The throat clearing again. ‘So …?’

            ‘So I thought I’d see which way it would be for me.’

            He sighed, softly. ‘I wish … Marie, I really wish you’d talked to me about it first.’

            ‘It couldn’t wait.’ She nodded to herself. ‘It just couldn’t.’

            ‘You could’ve – anything like that, in the future, ring me at work. Don’t let it build up.’

            She looked up at him, with another smile that didn’t work too well. ‘What would your advice have been if I’d rung?’

            ‘I think you can guess. Don’t put the kids through anything like that. Wait till they’re in their thirties at least.’ He nudged her shoulder, as he did when he made a subtle joke.

            She didn’t respond to that. ‘It’s important to me now. You think I would do that lightly?’

            He stiffened a little. ‘So were you satisfied with what they said about you?’

            ‘We didn’t get that far.’

            ‘Well, okay, but would you’ve been satisfied, do you think?’

            She had to swallow before she could speak. ‘It’s something to work on in the future.’

            He shook his head. ‘No, come on, it isn’t. Drop it. Not unless you’re planning on dying soon?’ Another nudge.

            ‘No, I’m not.’

            ‘That’s what I wanted to hear,’ he said. ‘Can we go in? I’m cold.’

            He turned and walked inside, loosening his tie. FancyDan followed, and finally got some attention, though not as much as he wanted or thought he deserved. Marie came in a few seconds behind. Charles was sitting on the couch, FancyDan standing up on his back legs, having his neck and stomach rubbed. Marie stood in the middle of the room.

            ‘What if I’d asked you to write a card for me?’ she asked.

            ‘I’d tell you not to be so bloody morbid.’

            ‘No, come on. What would you write?’

            ‘I wouldn’t write anything, Marie. I’d refuse outright. Out. Right.’

            Marie nodded. ‘That’d be for the best, I’m sure.’

            He stopped patting FancyDan. ‘And … what does that mean?’

            ‘It means I wouldn’t want to know what you said.’

            ‘You wouldn’t?’

            ‘No.’

            He frowned, always a theatrical experience. ‘Why would that be?’

            She shrugged, looking at the window, the streetlights.

            ‘Because you’d be disappointed, you mean?’

            She shrugged again. ‘I’d just rather not … risk it.’

            ‘Right. I see.’ Charles took a pen and notebook from his jacket pocket.

            Marie gave him five minutes. It didn’t seem long to wait, though there were sapping nerves this time, and she had to fold her arms to know what to do with them. She took her position by the window again. Not many people out there now.

            When she turned round, his frown was gone. If anything, he looked like a man who’d just given himself a shock. This came as scant surprise to her. He ripped the sheet out of the book, screwed it into a ball, and put it in his pocket. The urge to wrestle it off him was there, but she stayed where she was, somehow. He went upstairs for an hour or so, and when he came back the subject wasn’t mentioned.

 

Not too long after, Marie hit on a new idea for plastic surgery: eye transplants. In her opinion, there were far too many people, on the TV and not just on the TV, who had dead, blank eyes. They weren’t nice to look at, and were even worse to think about; the state of their souls could only be parlous.

            What she thought they needed were eye transplants: give them the eyes of jungle voyagers, of 60 year old tramps, of those who’d conducted prolonged experiments with LSD. It would be a start, at least.

 

CURRENT COMPETITIONS

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Barrie Darke is a scriptwriter and fiction writer. He has been published in the UK by Byker Books and New Writing North, and in the USA by Menda City Review, Nossa Morte, Demon Minds, Infinite Windows, Underground Voices, Big Pulp, and Pseudopod.

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