fiction, photography

THE BURDEN

Chris R-0329 Image by Christine Renney

As a boy I would daydream about having special powers. Super strength or x-ray vision, the ability to shift shape and form at will or to stretch my limbs and torso in order to reach far into the distance. Of them all it was the last that I would eventually find myself capable of. Not the coolest nor, as I discovered, the most practical and, over the years, I have contemplated long and hard as to why, of the special powers I conjured and pondered in my youth, this one was to be my gift, my burden.

I have always been tall and thin, freakishly so. I was bullied at school and had to endure a barrage of embarrassingly unoriginal taunts. Name calling mostly. Olive – that was the one that stuck – after Olive Oyl. I learned to live with it. I had to, but even after so long it still manages, on occasion, to cut me. Despite the fact that I excelled at all sports and was chosen for the football team and represented the school in the long jump and cross country, I dreaded Physical Education and having to undress in front of the others. They would gather around me, flicking with their towels, poking and prodding at my skinny frame, pinching and pulling at my skin.

In spite of my unnatural ability and incredible agility, after leaving school I never again participated in a team event or took part in competitive sport of any kind. I did continue to run, mostly keeping to the city. I pounded the pavements before and after work but at the weekends I would drive out into the countryside, taking to the footpaths and bridleways. I could push myself harder there, running for longer and further but I couldn’t counter the restlessness that, as a young man, I carried like an empty wallet.

When running I felt as if I were fleeing and I didn’t for a second feel that I was awkward and ungainly. In the city I held back, I had to, but at weekends I could let myself go although it wasn’t enough.

In hindsight I realise that something extraordinary was happening and that I had squandered my youth and all of my twenties. For more than a decade, clumsy and shy, I tried my best to hide away when in all probability I had been the fastest man on the planet. In middle age I brooded far too deeply on this but by then my life couldn’t have been more complicated and I had long since dispensed with any delusions as to whether running could ever be enough. But I am getting ahead of myself and need to backup a little.

After leaving school without the relevant qualifications to continue with a formal education I set out to find my way in the world. I didn’t have any trouble finding a job in the accounts department of a company which manufactured cardboard boxes. I had a propensity for numbers and became indispensable. I was a cog in their machine and best of all I was left alone. I found a corner in which to hide and I had a desk with a window above which looked out across the roof of the adjoining warehouse. I worked diligently with my back toward the world or at least to the rest of the office. I spoke when spoken to or not at all.

Then, miraculously, I was noticed by a woman, one of the many who over the years worked fleetingly in the office before moving on for pastures new. Remarkably, this young woman set out to ensnare me and happily I allowed myself to be snared. Suddenly my life turned around and I had it all. A loving wife and a happy home, the suburban dream, domestic bliss and then I started to stretch.

It happened without fanfare. We were having breakfast and I couldn’t reach something on the other side of the table. I don’t remember what it was but I didn’t ask my wife to pass it to me or push it closer. Instead I extended my arm the extra distance necessary and, after taking hold of it, let my arm slip back to its usual length, its normal length. My wife didn’t notice. I had been much too fast but I could have held my arm there or I could have extended it further still. I could have sent her screaming into the street in her nightgown.
I didn’t stretch again until I was alone. First one arm and then the other. Likewise my legs. I lay on my back, stretching both arms and legs together but when I felt my torso beginning to flex I restrained myself. The room wasn’t big enough. I needed more space.

Finding that space wasn’t ever an issue. There was the warehouse at work. I had the keys and it was deserted in the evenings and on Sundays and there was space aplenty but I delayed. Although I needed to stretch I was terrified of what I might find myself capable. At first I kept to the house and its cluttered rooms and for a while that was where I nursed my secret.

I did continue stretching in front of my wife in order to reach or kick something aside. As I have already explained I was fast and I was becoming ever more adept at cloaking it. Nevertheless, I limited myself to no more than doubling my arms’ length and it wasn’t long before I was stretching like this in front of my colleagues at the office, then the supermarket, in the streets, everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, in the end I hadn’t any choice and it was out of necessity that on a cold and blustery Sunday morning I let myself into the warehouse. The rain pelted against the roof, all encompassing and discordant it rang in the grimy half light as I stripped off my clothes and prepared to stretch myself fully for the first time.

I was in pain, had been for months, my every muscle and sinew aching, my body screaming for mercy and so raising my arms I stretched toward the roof. Thereafter, I visited the warehouse once a week without fail. Although I was always stealthy and swift those fifteen minutes each week were unceasingly traumatic for me and I was constantly concerned that I might be discovered hanging from the rafters. But I survived. I made it through undiscovered and unscathed. In fact, I have outlived them all, everyone I once, knew including my wife. Of course I am alone again, have been for more years than I now care to contemplate.

Whatever my circumstances at any given time, somehow I have always succeeded in finding a way but it was never as simple as it is here, in this rest home. At this place for the elderly I need only to step outside the door to my room and into the narrow and lengthy corridor beyond.

I have taken to laying out here after dark. On the plush carpet I can lose myself at last. Although I am long since past my prime, I am sure if I live just a little longer I will manage to reach and touch the doors at either end.

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fiction

VANISHING ACT

chris-r-0906 Image by Christine Renney

In the early morning I cannot find myself. Stalled in front of the bathroom mirror I lean in close but I am not there. At first it was for seconds but now it is minutes. How many? I do not know. Twenty? Thirty? More? And when at last I do begin to reappear my reflection is blurred and hazy and, razor at the ready, I am forced to wait until once again I am clearly defined. I could of course dispense with the mirror but I am not yet prepared to do that.

In the beginning it really was not very elaborate. I would find myself on the edge of a group, nodding along because I wanted to fit in and it was so much easier and I always sided with the majority. Each morning before work I studied the newspaper, particularly the sports section and the previous night’s television reviews in preparation. It really was very subtle and I did not consider myself to be lying at all. Although I did not watch the reality shows and soap operas, I kept abreast of the latest exploits and was able to join in. And despite my disinterest in football I followed the sport vehemently from afar and managed, without watching, to convince. I feigned enthusiasm for a chosen side and impressed with insightful comment and impassioned opinion. But of course, it did not stop there. It was not long before I was unable to deny the lies. In fact, I had started to research in order to add gravitas to my tall tales. Gradually, it became very complicated and all consuming and had I wanted to watch the football and the soap operas I simply would not have had the time.

Determined to control the lies I worked diligently in my spare time. My chief preoccupation was travel; the places people visit, holiday destinations. I professed to have been everywhere or at least wherever my colleagues mentioned. The places where they had already been or intended and planned to go. I offered advice and suggested itineraries, even restaurants, painstakingly unearthing the tiniest detail to ensure that my lies appeared authentic and were infallible. When my colleagues returned, and having acted on my advice, they shared their experiences of a particular excursion, museum, art gallery I had recommended or simply commented on a local dish I had mentioned, it all seemed worthwhile and I would feel warm inside. I relished the elation and it was good. I was sharing, involving myself with others and how could that not be positive?

I am changing, beginning to look older but it is more than that. I first noticed this in the mornings whilst shaving. I struggled for an analogy, a way in which to define it. The best I could manage was watching a film and not recognising the actor but knowing I had seen him countless times before, although I did not fully realise this until midway through. I would lean in close and study my reflection until I became so tense my every muscle locked and I was unable to move. I was concerned that I was stretching the truth too much and too far and that I risked discovery. But I could not resist a new destination and I added constantly to my repertoire of the most frequently visited of places. I began to keep a ledger, a journal of sorts, a record of my bogus travels. I compiled a list of dates for each and every visit and their duration. This included nine months backpacking in Australia with a friend from university, plus four months on trains with a girlfriend, travelling across Europe. I have even allocated time slots and gathered information on places I have not yet had occasion to use. I read the guides and the literature and I scour the internet for photographs and anecdotes that I might use.

My determination and diligence is rewarded and the feedback from my colleagues continues. I have no reason to believe they suspect and yet each morning, in front of the mirror, I am forced to linger for longer and longer.

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