fiction

STRANGERS

Chris R--10 Illustration by Christine Renney

Only a brief description of the Apartment Block will be necessary. How it is perceived by the Townspeople is far more interesting. By those who pass it each day to and from work and the shops, by those who walk in the park and feel they are imposing, trespassing even, within the grounds of some stately mansion. For it is here when they come to escape at lunchtime or on a summer’s evening; here when families gather at the weekend to picnic and play – this is when the Apartment Block antagonises them the most. From its vantage point at the edge of the park, with its black windows like hoodless eyes, it is all seeing and impossible to ignore.

The Townspeople are proud of their park and all have contributed to the restoration of its centrepiece, the Bandstand, now fully restored to its former glory, is a testament to their perseverance and dedication. To their hard work. But now, when they come here to bask in the sunshine, the Apartment Block casts its shadow from above, spoiling it for them. Its residents are constantly changing, an array of Young Professionals. It is rare that anyone stays here for more than a year but, to the Townspeople, they are indistinguishable in their fine clothes, with their impractical cars and well paid jobs in the City. Their lives are without commitment and seem, from afar, frivolous and their home is akin to the most modern of hotels. Its gardens, lovingly tended and painstakingly maintained are the Town’s parkland. The Bandstand is merely a trifle, a folly within the Apartment Block’s playground.

The Townspeople have not been colluding but all are moving in the same direction so of course it is inevitable they will converge. They gather in the bushes and watch the Apartment Block. Occasionally someone will emerge and each time the Townspeople become more agitated, moving involuntarily, eventually lurching forward, revealing themselves. An exiting couple, alarmed by the presence of the now all but motionless individuals littering the grass in front of them, move hastily along the path. They fail to notice the first of the Townspeople who, reaching the doors before they close behind them, slip into the building.

The Townspeople begin edging slowly forward and the couple, unaware of what has triggered this ungainly procession, are brought to an abrupt halt. Stranded on the path they cling to each other but are forgotten. The Townspeople, intent on the Apartment Block, keep on coming from out of the undergrowth, a veritable hoard moving toward and beyond the couple, who perhaps recklessly rush against the tide toward the exit.

Huddled beneath the Bandstand the young couple look back toward the Apartment Block. The crowd gathered, in front of the main entrance doors, appears as a leaden and lumpen mass. But it is thinning. Slowly the Townspeople are forcing their way through the doors and into the building.
‘Who are they?’ she asked.
Shaking his head he said nothing.
‘Where did they come from? What do they want?’ she shrieked.
Reaching out he placed his hands on her shoulders in an effort to still her.
‘I don’t know’ he said softly. ‘I have no idea.’

They began to pace, their footsteps beating against the shiny hardwood floor of the Bandstand. He began to wonder about their neighbours – how many of them were still at home, still in their apartments? Readying, as they had been just a few minutes before, for the day ahead?
They watched as the Strangers pushed across the threshold and the doors swung to behind them. Mesmerised, the young couple continued to watch and seemingly everything had returned to normal.
The Apartment Block glared back at them but the Park again was quiet, picture postcard perfect, until the faces began to appear at the windows. Everything then wasn’t so beautiful or quite so serene.

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fiction

VENDING

Chris R-2-30 Image by Christine Renney

Out of work for almost a year Patrick finally found a job at the local supermarket. He was a shelf-stacker and so, one at a time, he placed a particular item in its correct place. All the cans and cartons, the boxes and bottles.
Patrick found the work invigorating and that it was enough. After being idle for so long, after compiling so much, so many thoughts, he needed this and it felt like a break, like a good clean snap.
He threw himself into the job, arriving early, and was always the last to leave. Patrick wasn’t out to prove anything, certainly not to himself and so why was he so concerned about what others might think and worried about what they might say behind his back.
The work was tiring and Patrick wanted to be tired, to be numb. He had gotten soft from sitting at a desk in an office. His body ached, his legs and his back were stiff and after a shift his arms felt longer than they should. But this weariness helped and Patrick felt as if he were a computer with a hard drive and could wipe himself clean. Through repetition and graft he could forget his failures and his loneliness and yes, for now, it was enough.

As often as was possible, Patrick worked the early shift. Increasingly he was becoming more and more anxious about working when the store was open. He dreaded running into someone he knew and in this small town, where he had lived for all his life, this was inevitable.
He was becoming accustomed to the work, to the bending and the lifting, and didn’t tire so easily. He tried to work harder and needed to work for longer and as the weeks progressed he was forced to enter the busy store more and more often. Keeping his head down he avoided interaction and contact with the townsfolk.
Scanning the aisles, whenever he noticed someone he knew, from school or a colleague from his old office, reeling around with their trolleys, he would scurry off in the opposite direction. Patrick was convinced that they were laughing at him behind his back and as he scuttled away he was ashamed of himself for not turning around to see if it was in fact true. And if they really were smirking and pointing at him then of course he should confront them, and if not then why couldn’t he simply say hello and pass the time of day.

Despite his erratic behaviour Patrick was left to his own devices and somehow he managed to get the products and the produce onto the shelves. He was able to tire himself, enough that he could sleep but he wasn’t able to achieve that former weariness and he couldn’t forget.
He was losing something. It hadn’t ever been more than an idea of who he was. And as he attempted to burrow unseen through the bright and busy store, Patrick was deeply and profoundly disappointed in himself.

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fiction

EDIFICE

chris-r-0922 Image by Christine Renney

Dalton was not the first to arrive and if he hadn’t noticed the others (a handful of men standing at the edge of the road gazing out across the field) he wouldn’t have slowed, wouldn’t have pulled off and up onto the verge. Only then did he turn and see the smoke rising in the distance, a grey and dense column.
Dalton climbed from his car and, as he walked across to where the others stood, he looked toward the burning building. A mansion in flames, it was most certainly something that he wanted to see.
Joining the group he asked, ‘What happened?’
He regretted this instantly, wished that he could take the question back, realised just how inane it must have sounded but at last one of the men mumbled, ‘Don’t know.’
And Dalton was able to breathe again and along with these men he stood in silence watching the house burn and watching the fire fighters who from so far away appeared small and inadequate. They scurried about in front of the blaze and quite clearly weren’t up to the task at hand. They couldn’t get close enough, couldn’t touch it and attempting to contain it they set up cannons and fired water into the air. But it couldn’t be controlled and they hadn’t any choice but to let it run its course. All they could really do was stand back and wait for the fire to burn itself out.
Dalton was pleased by this, excited even, and furtively he glanced at the men standing beside him. They were all of them quietly engrossed and he quickly turned his attention back toward the burning edifice.
Behind him others had begun to arrive, he listened to them talk. They were questioning and speculative and Dalton realised that if he had arrived just a little later he would be in this group. But now he was part of something else entirely, something much more intense.
The man in front of him, the ‘don’t know’ man, stepped onto the grass verge and pushed through a gap in the hedge. Dalton followed and so did one of the others. Together all three of them then moved out onto the open field and away from the noisy, gathering rabble.
Dalton glanced back and was surprised to find the rest of the original group were still standing on the other side of the hedge, had decided not to follow and were already turning and, gesticulating, they joined the throng.
Dalton tried to concentrate on the fire but couldn’t, the moment was getting away from him. Awkward and uncomfortable, he wondered if they were talking about him, if they, the three who had foolishly and pointlessly ventured a little closer, were now a topic of conversation.
It struck Dalton, but just momentarily, that it was like watching a scene from a film but it was far too real and much too big and the camera didn’t cut away in order to reveal something else.
He looked up and watched the smoke spiralling into the sky. Looking down Dalton noticed, for the first time, the ambulances parked off to the far right. It was an enclave of activity, the paramedics moving purposefully back and forth and the dazed survivors wandering aimlessly.
Dalton realised that they couldn’t see, not from the road and he suddenly felt less self-conscious, was in fact decidedly buoyant and able to watch again.

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fiction

BED-SIT

Chris R-0692 Image by Christine Renney

Following the separation, my very existence seemed to implode, and I had been forced to move into this tiny bed-sit and, for almost six months, I have survived its squalor. I quickly established a routine, determined that my life would at least have the veneer of normality and I hadn’t realised until now just how regimented my life has become.

At night, as I lay in my bed, I listen to the house, the walls closing in around me. I need to kick back and, when I do, discipline will be the key. I share the house with four students and when I leave for work in the mornings they are still asleep. In the evening when I return the house is heaving, a veritable hive.
After pushing through the throng to my room and as I prepare my meal I listen to their laughter, to their music. Occasionally a door is flung open and greetings ring from across the hall. The directness and the clarity always causes me to shudder. But then the door will close and I am able to breath again.
When I have eaten my meal and completed my nightly chores I watch television. I favour the American crime shows and am enthralled by the startling cityscapes and computer graphics. I am easily caught up in the analytical pursuit by the obligatory twosome and their investigative team as they trammel doggedly against the deadline in order to free the truth from the tangled web of little lives.

Summer has reared its head and the party has moved outside. I can now close the door and muffle their voices. I lay on my bed, resisting the urge to rise and glance out at the languorous scene below my window; students sprawled on blankets spread across the patchy lawn.
The air is thin, the scorching sun has drawn most of the moisture out of it and has also taken much of their laughter. To hoot and holler requires too much energy. Their conversation now is consistent, a comfortable murmur. I can tune in and listen or not.
I am reminded of home, of my old home; Clara, in the kitchen, on a Sunday morning listening to Radio 4. Slumped on the sofa with a book I would realise that I had been staring blankly at the pages, not reading but listening, caught up in the broadcast.

An enquiring female voice rises in the still and lifeless air.
‘But what does he do up there in his room for so long?’ she asks.
‘I don’t know,’ after a lengthy pause someone replies. I can hear them shuffling on the blankets, attempting to settle, to get more comfortable on the baked earth.
‘He seems okay. Maybe we should ask him down for a drink sometime, what do you think?’
I roll over and, pressing my face into the pillow, I wait. I can’t be sure if anyone bothers to respond. I try not to hear. I am not sure how long I lay like this but at last I realise the house is now deathly quiet and it has an abandoned air. I cross to the window and they are gone.
In the bathroom I turn on the taps and watch the water spool in the tub and drain away and I wait until it runs cold. In the kitchen, although it isn’t yet dark, I switch on the light. A moth flutters noisily as the fluorescent tube stutters and then bursts into life. The linoleum is split and the pattern and colours are almost worn away.

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fiction

DIVISION

Chris R-0793 Image by Christine Renney

It smells of urine in the lobby. I grimace and step from the main entrance and out, onto the scuffed tarmac. I gaze across at the tower block opposite.
‘Jordan, get back here NOW,’ a woman‘s voice. I hear but can’t find her, but I spot Jordan striding swiftly and full of purpose. She keeps close to the building and her head below the windows. She reaches a column jutting out from the main block and she stops but doesn’t turn.
Her mum is standing in the doorway of their flat. They have copper coloured hair and are both deathly pale behind the freckles.
‘DON’T make me come out there,’ mum shrieks into the falling dark. ‘Don’t you fucking DARE.’
Jordan moves around the column and stands for all she is worth with her back to the wall.
Mum, in her bare feet, is clearly unprepared and so determined not to move. Nevertheless she leans forward and craning peers first one way and then the other. But to find her daughter she needs to move onto the expanse of patchy grass which separates her block from where I am standing. And this she now does, treading carefully in her bare feet on the hard dirt.
I step forward and onto the pavement so that she will see me and not be startled.
‘Come back Jordan, please,’ she pleads but softly, unaware her daughter and I are there and that we both hear her.

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