fiction, photography

FESTER

Chris R-1-224 Image by Christine Renney

This story has been published previously in the journal ‘Yellow Mama’ – my thanks to Editor, Cindy Rosmus.

A chain link fence runs along the back of the terraced houses and the posts have been pulled across the path. Taking giant steps, the boy walks on the green plastic mesh. Avoiding garden refuse and a rusty bicycle frame, he reaches the gap between the garages on his right. He leaps clear of the web and stumbles onto the ground. Flies rise in his face but he stays down and, collecting himself, he crawls forward on all fours.
Keeping to the centre of the narrow cut, he pushes an old Coke can in front of him. A little of the drink spills onto the dirt. Flies buzz around the sweet and sticky droplets and he notices now the swarm, a little to his left, close to the wall. He stands and peers down but it is impossible to see through the flies. He unzips and urinates, clearing them with his stream. It is a finger. He steps back, splashing onto his trainers. A severed finger.
He sees how it was done. Where the hand was held against the wall and where the blade has scarred the bricks. He notices too the gouged area, where the flies are concentrated, and that the congealed blood tapers until it is just a stain on the wall where it has run.
He knows that he really should leave, get away. It seems like the sensible thing to do, the only thing to do. But he doesn’t move. He stays put. He is rooted to the spot. He looks down but the ground under his feet tells nothing of what has happened here. There are no footprints, no scuff marks and no trampled grass.
The flies are working on the blood, it won’t last long. It will soon be just a stain and then not even that. He glances again at the finger. It seems to him like something you could buy in a joke shop, like something he would buy.
Head down, he scans the rubbish gathered at the edges on either side of the cut but he doesn’t find what he is looking for. He needs a cigarette packet, an empty packet, a discarded packet and it seems to him unfeasible that there isn’t one.
He reaches the end but isn’t ready to step out into the open, not yet. And so he starts back, slowly now, kicking through the cans and the sweet wrappers. He must use something from here or try somewhere else.
He grasps a red and green shiny paper sheath and the stick from an ice lolly. He uses this to coax the finger into the bag, folds to seal and carefully tucks the package into his pocket.

He hasn’t looked at it yet, hasn’t even so much as taken a peek. It is still wrapped in the waxy paper and stowed in his pocket. Resisting the urge to run, he walks away from the cut and once clear wanders aimlessly. For hours he meanders back and forth, eventually making his way home where he slips unseen into the garage and then buries the package in the chest freezer under the pizzas and the pies.

He still hasn’t found the ideal container for the severed finger which is slightly shorter than a cigarette and certainly shorter than the brand his mum smokes and he scans the ground for empty king size packets, any of which will do. He will pull out the silver foil and it will easily slot into place, he is sure of this.

When he removed the finger from the freezer it had been almost perfect. He had been able to feel it through its tiny sheath, tracing with his own fingers, from the nail to the knuckle and a little lower where the knife had hacked its way through flesh and bone. Now he can feel it melting, the wet patch spreading and he can feel it pressing against his thigh. He doesn’t have much time – he needs to find a box, a container, something and make the transfer.

There is a bus stop ahead and he can see quite clearly that the bin beside the shelter is overstuffed. Reaching it he begins to rifle through it, the litter spilling over the sides. A woman who is waiting at the stop is about to say something but the boy glares at her and she changes her mind. Shaking her head she turns away. At last he has it, a king size packet and it is his mum’s brand. Chuckling, he kicks at the trash, spreading it all over the pavement. Head down he walks past the others standing in the shelter. He can hear them grumbling but he doesn’t look back. Thrusting his hand into his pocket he pokes at the finger and it feels weirdly soft and almost spongy. He now needs to find a place where, unhindered, he can peel away the paper and take a proper look at it.

Dragging his hand along the brick wall he studies the pavement but, at regular intervals, he jerks his head upward and glares at the sky. He sees some kids from his school up ahead and he hops up and over the wall on his right and slides down the bank. He runs on the level grass in front of the boarded windows to the ground floor flats and he wonders if the block is empty, uninhabited. He pulls at the entrance door but it doesn’t give. He tries the trade button but still no luck. Pressing his face against the wired glass he peers in – it is dark, a murky little scene. Someone has scrawled on the walls with a black marker but he can’t read it, not from where he is standing in the glaring sunlight.

Stepping back he hears the kids from school again on the road above. He ducks down at the side of the communal waste bin and sitting he leans back against the hot metal. He could do it here but the boy can’t help but crave for the cool of the foyer where he could huddle under the stairs and take his time. At last he hears the main door open and as he leaps up an old woman appears. She pushes the door and, taking hold of it, he waits for her. She stands on the threshold, uncertain and seemingly unaware that he is there. He could step around her but doesn’t. He leans back against the heavy aluminium door and at last she slowly makes her way up the steps, toward the road.
He fishes the finger from his pocket, peels away the soggy paper, dropping the cigarette packet, and there it is, in the palm of his hand. Like a metal cylinder, it is corroding. Already, it is much the worse for wear.
The old woman is stalled again, at the pavement’s edge. He watches her as she manages not to topple and closes his hand, holding decay in the hollow of his fist.

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fiction, photography

THE LAST STATION

Chris R-1-206 Image by Christine Renney

The Station was small and tidy. This is what struck Carter as he stepped onto the platform; how incredibly neat and tidy it was. The Ticket Booth and Waiting Room were painted a muted purple that shone in the sunlight. There were window boxes and the flowers were unseasonably fresh and fragrant. Strangely, there were no signs and Carter had no idea where he was.
He realised that the train he had only just departed was already pulling away and he could so easily have jumped back on board and made his way back but he didn’t.
He moved toward the Ticket Booth and the middle-aged woman behind the glass smiled broadly. But as he drew closer Carter realised that it wasn’t a woman at all but a cardboard cut-out, faded and creased. And the smile he had found so welcoming at a distance was in fact a little grotesque.
Turning from the booth Carter looked around and he could see quite clearly that it was the end of the line. He was unsettled by this but he was unsure exactly why. He also noticed that the section of platform where he stood was separated from the rest of the Station by a chain link fence on his left. Carter walked across and moved close to it. He could see a concrete staircase at the far end that led up to the road above. Carter stepped back and studied the signs attached to the fence, instructing him to ‘KEEP OUT’ and warning him of the ‘DANGER OF DEATH‘. But it didn’t look so very different over there. It was dirtier, yes, grimier and dustier. Most of the floor tiles were cracked and an old rusty ticket machine lay on its back. But it seemed much more familiar over there and Carter realised that it was on the other side of the fence he longed to be.
The fence was split here, there and everywhere. Carter chose a gap close to one of the posts. He pulled and it came away easily. He clambered through and, once clear of the fence, he could hear the traffic from the road above. Carter looked up at the ceiling but it didn’t come down around his ears and although of course no-one was watching he moved stealthily across the station. He was less than halfway up the staircase and he could tell that the entrance had been blocked. He climbed to the top and pushed at the boards but he could see in the gaps around the edge how they had been bolted into the brickwork from outside and there was no way he was going to be able to shift it and break through, at least not without tools. Ideally, a drill and a saw but at the very least a hammer and a sharp chisel but even with tools he would make too much noise and draw attention to himself. No, he couldn’t break his way through.
Turning, Carter heard the train and rushing down he almost slipped more than once on the dusty concrete steps. But he hadn’t even reached the gap in the fence and the train was already pulling away. It couldn’t have stopped for more than a few seconds and Carter had missed it again, his chance to jump on and make his way back.

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fiction, photography

THE THICKET

Chris R-1-201 Image by Christine Renney

There was a wood directly behind the house and although Joseph had been living on the outskirts for almost a month he still had not ventured into this small but dense thicket. When he needed to make his way down into the village for supplies he would walk around it. There was a beaten track that began just beyond his garden and led straight into the trees but each time Joseph reached the edge and peered in he would find himself stalled and unable to take the next couple of steps. He could see that the path was very narrow and overgrown with bramble and gorse encroaching on either side and it seemed to him that it became even narrower as it disappeared into the darkness.

The others living on the outskirts were making use of the path. Joseph often noticed one of them pushing through the tangled branches and disappearing into them, or someone emerging head down and hunched over, laden with supplies. But once clear they would stretch and yawn, readjusting to the light and reacquainting themselves with the sky.
Just a few days ago one of these men had spotted Joseph watching from the window and, putting down his heavy bags, he had glared back. Looking down Joseph pretended to busy himself at the sink and when he raised his head again, the man was gone.

Following this incident Joseph began to imagine that the others were talking about him, that he was a topic of their discussion. He was sure they were perplexed as to why he continued to walk around, trudging in the wet grass of the meadow, rather than making use of the more direct path leading through the wood. Joseph was convinced they considered him a fool and were laughing at him. He began to keep his distance even more, as far as it was possible. But he continued with his chores, working in the gardens and chopping firewood and hauling supplies from the village. It took him a little longer but Joseph was working hard and doing his share and the others had no reason to complain.

Joseph has hardly slept in days. He creeps from the house and moves stealthily across the garden in the moonlight. Reaching the trees, he stands at the edge of the footpath. The others don’t use it after dark and certainly not at this late hour. Joseph is determined that tonight he will be able to do it, and steeling himself, he takes first one step and then another and suddenly he is walking through the wood. In fact, he is moving quite quickly, almost running and he can’t see but he can feel the brambles and the gorse brushing against his legs and pulling at his coat. And just as suddenly Joseph stumbles and he is down, flat on the ground. There are scratches on his hands and blood on his face and dirt in his mouth. But he isn’t hurt, not really, a little bruised maybe but no more than that and yet he can’t move. Joseph is now frozen to this spot and he wonders how far has he managed to come? Half way perhaps? But he suspects that it is considerably less than that.

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fiction, photography

FRAGILE

Chris R-1-181 Image by Christine Renney

I still intend to keep walking but the road now is a distraction. It has become too much, the noise and the lights at night.
There is a bridge up ahead and I wonder about all the others just like it that I must have passed. But I haven’t noticed and I haven’t looked until now and I am walking towards this bridge rather than alongside the road.
It looks fragile, like something I might have built as a boy with Lego or Meccano or perhaps even both. Forcing the pieces together and making them fit.
It is thin and narrow, a walkway linking the footpath on either side of the carriageway. And from where I am standing I can see this path snaking away from the bridge on the other side.
Moving closer I gaze up at the underside. The paint is peeling on the girders. Each time a car thunders past the whole thing shakes a little and flakes fall. Stepping back I watch this confetti of rusty scabs.
The bank here is concrete and steep and if I am going to get up there I will need to double back. And turning myself around I feel giddy and disorientated.

I am walking away from the road at last. The footpath is leading me across a field and through waist high corn or is it wheat? Anyhow, it is a sea of something and in this dull light it isn’t golden but brown.
I resist the urge to stop and turn. I don’t want to know how far I have managed to stray from the road, and whether or not I can still make out the signpost at the edge of the path. Instead, I focus on the field, on the corn or the wheat or the barley or whatever it is. I am aggravated by the fact that I don’t know. It is a little thing and yet it feels important, something that not only I but everyone should know.
Reaching out I trail my hand through the crop as I walk. Just a few months ago I could have unearthed the answer, quickly and easily, the means to do so at no more than an arms length. Tapping a few keys I would have gathered up the information, conjured the facts and figures, photographs and statistics onto a screen.
Stopping I realise that I am delving into my empty pockets. First my jeans and now my coat. I am searching for my phone. It is futile, I know, a pointless act because I remember quite clearly destroying it, the pulling apart and rendering it useless. Yet I can’t stop myself from looking and, using the palms of my hands, I start to pat myself down.
In my confusion, I turn and in order to stop this, to still myself, I start to move again and I am walking back. Toward the road.

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fiction, photography

THE LAST DRIVE

Chris R-1-177 Image by Christine Renney

Watching the petrol gauge I wait and miraculously the tank is almost full. The motor turns and the radio comes to life; the disc jockey’s voice is loud and instantly familiar. I reach to switch it off but I fumble, making it louder and in order to deaden the banter I kill the engine.
Still a little flustered, I tug at the key but it won’t shift. It is jammed in the lock. I pull my hands away from the wheel and push back in the seat, convinced it is broken and that it won’t start again. I squint through the windscreen at the car parked in front and turning I check behind and find that the car, like the key, is stuck and I am trapped. I can’t move and I haven’t any choice but to sit and wait.
I could abandon the car and walk and of course eventually I will be forced to do just that. I don’t have any money and I have left my wallet in the house with the cash and credit cards, that for a spell at least would still work, but I won’t go back inside, not again.
Anyhow, I have fuel, granted it will only last for so long and take me just so far but it feels like enough and I want to make this last long drive and so I stay put.

I ease my foot off the accelerator and begin to slow down. The driver behind sounds his horn and I watch in the mirror as, gesticulating wildly, he pulls back. But locking his headlights onto high beam he edges closer and closer still until I can’t see. Squinting I lean close to the screen and I focus on a spot of light, the size and shape of a rugby ball that somehow, despite the glare, is managing to find its way and I follow.
I suspect that the road ahead is clear and he could easily pass, let me be, leave me to draw to a stop and abandon the car which, I suddenly realise, is what I intend to do but I don’t want him watching.
Slowly, ever so, ever so slowly, I come to a halt and still blinded I turn and peer through the rear screen. I suppose he can see me, my silhouette at least. I must be clearly defined in the bright and harsh blaze, like a convict exposed whilst attempting to escape, caught in that half crouch, uncertain as to whether he should still try for the wall or make his way back toward the cell block.
I shuffle around again and now all he can see is the back of the seat and the top of my head. I sit still, determined not to move, at least not before he does.

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fiction, photography

SHRUNKEN

Chris R-1-172 Image by Christine Renney

I am stopping more often, and for longer, and I have places where I take cover and can hide. I have fallen into a routine of sorts and I know when it is most likely these places will be deserted and when it is least likely I will be noticed.
I shelter in the doorway of an abandoned shop and watch the rain. The storm is raging overhead and, looking up, I step out into it. In just a few seconds I am soaked through and my clothes are sodden and heavy.
The street is busy. I have misjudged this particular place at this time and shoppers caught in the downpour are rushing to and fro.
I turn back to the empty shop but someone brushes past me and a woman is now standing where moments before I had been. She is smiling, apologising, ‘sorry’, and moving to one side she motions for me to join her. ‘no’ I shake my head, ‘no’ but reaching she takes my arm and pulls me back and together we stand in the doorway watching the busy street.
Suddenly I am tired, exhausted and I feel overwhelmed. But it is more than the fatigue; I am also elated. I hadn’t realised I could still need this, that I could feel it again.
I move back and leaning against the glass I sit. The woman is looking down at me and delving into her bag she pulls out a ten pound note ‘here, go on, take it’.

I open my eyes. It is still raining. The street is busy and shoppers still rush this way and that. Have I been sleeping? If so, for how long? Has it been just minutes or hours? Is it possible I have slept right through, around the clock or thereabouts?
I glance at my wrist, pointlessly because I no longer have my watch but it is an old, old habit and remembering it now I feel odd.
The woman has gone but I still have the ten pound note she gave me balled in my fist. Standing, I thrust my hands deep into my pockets.
The jeans are too big and my t-shirt is too loose and ragged. I feel shrunken inside them and I sense that it has been more than minutes, that I have been in this dank doorway for too long and I should move on.
I step onto the street and walk calmly amongst the shoppers. Everything is wet out here and my clothes, the t-shirt and my heavy sodden jeans cling to my skin. At least until I can get dry they have taken on my shape again and carefully I make my way. Although I don’t know to where I keep walking.

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CATHEDRAL

Chris R-1-166 Image by Christine Renney

They say that familiarity breeds contempt. I’m not quite there yet but this place has begun to grate a little, to nag and gnaw at me. Feels as if I have conjured it up from out of nowhere and I’m not sure why or how.
A tiny square in a sprawling city, a city that can’t be contained. It is spreading and thriving despite the degradation, all the empty and dilapidated buildings.
I have settled here and I stay until I have the cash, enough for what I need. And in order to get it, I walk elsewhere, a little farther each time. And yet still I keep making my way back.

I awake in the grounds of the Cathedral. Hands in the short and wiry grass, I push myself up and gaze down at the City. I try to pick out the place from which I set out, the one to which I keep on making my way back. But it is so vast, a dense and cubist scrawl. For months now I have been walking further and further from this particular part of the City in order to find an off-licence with an unfamiliar face across the counter. Someone who won’t recognise me as I purchase the bottles and the cans I need. And this time I didn’t turn myself around. I kept on walking for longer than was necessary and eventually I settled down.

Glancing up at the Cathedral I shudder to think that I have slept here in the grass; in this carefully tended, this perfectly and painstakingly manicured graveyard and, that as I did, someone tidied around me, removing the strewn cans, even prizing the almost empty bottle from my hand. Taking it and the last few drops I hadn’t quite managed to drain.

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MORE

Chris R-1-135 Image by Christine Renney

I have money now, just a few coins, and gripping them tightly, I delve deep into the lining of my coat as I walk. I work a coin between my thumb and forefinger. I take them out and move them from hand to hand. I thrust the coins deep into the pocket of my jeans only to take them out again and again. I can’t stop doing this, looking at them, checking.
I drop one of the coins and it rolls out into the road. I run after it, suddenly worried that someone will take it. I stamp down on it with my boot and, crouching down at the kerbside, I quickly snatch it back. I have wandered away from the centre and there is no-one around.
Rising I place the coin with the others in my pocket. I have an odd feeling inside. It is something like purpose and yet I haven’t any idea what it is I intend to do.
I reach a parade of shops and, stopping in front of the plate glass windows of the off-licence, I peer in at the bottles, at the wine and the spirits. I don’t have enough but then I see cans of lager in the cooler at the back of the shop.
Although I am still unsure that this is what I want or what I need, I am already pushing through the doors and I know how it works; I spend what I have and then I get more.

Can alcohol still take hold? Get inside and make its demands? Or am I too full of holes and will it seep through the scars?
I have separated the can from its companions, freed it from the plastic ring and set it down in front of where I am sitting. Leaning back I stretch my legs out across the pavement and I can’t reach the can between my feet.
The others, the passers by, are forced to step over me and many of them glare angrily and I am glad of it. I don’t want some good Samaritan crouching down beside me. But if I sit here for long enough and drink myself into a stupor I know, of course, that this will happen.
What I want is for one of them to knock the can over and I don’t care if it is intentional or not, as long as I can watch the lager pool onto the pavement, the damp patch spreading between my legs and soaking into my trousers.
But despite their impatience and the scowls, the passers by are graceful, balletic even, and they don’t touch me and they don’t knock the can.
If I were to draw in my legs and reach out, snatch the can and drink from it would I feel it? Can I still know it? Can a ghost carry that conflict and walk with it?

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