Published in Neutral Magazine 2020
Alice watched Frank struggle. His wrist was starting to turn a deep shade of delicious purple, the skin taut and bulging against the zip wires squeezing into his pudgy flesh. He had started filling out over the years. A full mop of hair had sat upon his head the day they’d met, and he’d possessed the kind of torso women lusted after. But now, as the years had rolled slowly by, the flesh around his belly had grown soft. The hair on his head becoming sparse.
‘Please, baby, let me go,’ he begged, looking up at her with watery blue eyes.
‘If you don’t shut the hell up, I’ll make you.’
‘Hunny,’ he whined, and she’d had enough. She picked up a haggard sock from the floor and shoved it forcefully into his mouth, making his eyes smart. That almost broke her resolve. The pathetic look of helplessness almost had her untying him and pulling him into her chest. She bit down on her lip before pulling his thin hair back and looking deep into haunted eyes. He was still good looking. He’d aged well despite the puppy fat and receding hairline. She traced the laughter lines by the corners of his mouth with a pointy red fingernail, her gaze lingered on the crinkles by his eyes.
She pulled out a roll of thick duct tape. The ripping sound that came as she pulled the first bit of tape from the roll was a deafening, bone-crunching sound that tore through the house, ricocheting off the walls. She covered his mouth with that first piece, wedging the fraying grey sock firmly in his mouth.
He whined and whinged in protest. Tears seeped from the corner of one eye and a dribble of snot ran down the tape.
She tore her vision away from his sad gaze, ravaging more from the roll, and began a slow wind around his head. She covered his eyes first, so she couldn’t become weakened again by them. She wrapped slowly and methodically, leaving a tiny gap for his nose. Eventually his whole face was wrapped in the shiny black stuff, like a snake poised and ready to squeeze the life from its victim.
‘Bye baby,’ she murmured into his exposed ear.
With a feeble whimper from Frank, barely audible through a wall of cotton and thick tape, she was out of the door, leaving her husband naked and bound.
In her car, Alice applied a fresh layer of lipstick. Bright and red, to match her nails. She ran fingers through satin straight black hair. She opened her phone and pressed the call button.
‘Hello,’ the voice answered, turning her stomach to liquid.
‘It’s done, I’m on my way.’
Her hands shook.
She knocked on the door and he opened it in seconds. He was Frank’s opposite. Tall and unsmiling with thick stubble across his chin. A full head of dark hair that fell across black penetrating eyes. Not one wrinkle.
He watched her, electric eyes boring into her. She fell into his arms.
Alice awoke with a start, bleary-eyed and dazed for a quick second before she jumped up.
‘That was amazing, babe,’ he breathed.
‘Yes, amazing,’ she agreed as she searched the floor for her clothes.
‘Do you have to go?’ he asked, dark eyes shooting into her like lasers. She looked away.
‘You know I do,’ she replied, pulling her trousers up.
Alice flew from his front door and into her car, dully aware of the uncomfortable damp patch in her knickers. She drove with hands that shook harder than before as she inhaled deeply on a cigarette, flicking ash onto the floor of the old Fiat.
What would she find when she walked through her door? And what would she do with him? Guilt abruptly gripped her in a vice, squeezing her lungs and clouding her vision. Her palms and forehead dripped with perspiration by the time she made it home.
She clutched her keys tightly, reaching out a trembling hand to unlock the front door.
Darkness and deafening silence.
‘Frank?’ she whispered. She pushed open the door to the living room to find him in the same position she’d left him in. Only, his head lolled forward, and the room felt deathly cold.
‘Can you tell us what really happened that day?’ a woman in an expensive light green trouser suit sat opposite Alice in a tiny wine bar. She tapped her red nails against her glass of cabernet sauvignon. It was the first thing she’d done when she’d got out from that dreadful place, treated herself to a manicure.
‘I can, but I’m sure you already have your own ideas about what happened.’ Alice looked over her glass at the journalist, who’d introduced herself as Jasmine.
The woman nodded. ‘All I’m interested in is what really happened that day.’
‘Frank liked it rough,’ Alice began, taking a long sip from her wine. ‘We both did. I suppose it’s embarrassing. We’d planned that I’d tie him up, leave him for a few hours, and sleep with a lover. It was all a part of the game and I was supposed to come back and unbind him.’ An errant tear rolled down her cheek and she felt her lip quiver.
‘As you know, it all went wrong. I came home to find he’d suffocated while I was gone.’ Her hand began to tremble, and she gripped her glass. ‘I’d give anything to go back.’
Alice finished her wine, her high-heeled foot jiggling beneath the table.
‘What happened after that?’ Jasmine pushed.
‘I was arrested for his murder.’
‘But you only served eighteen months?’
‘The prosecution was negligent homicide. They changed it due to lack of evidence, because it wasn’t murder.’ Alice looked the journalist directly in the eye, her mouth set in a straight line. Amber with flecks of gold.
‘What is your response to the rumours that the death was intentional, and you had plans to run away with Frank’s money and your lover.’
‘I won’t sit here and listen to you sully my pain with your preposterous imaginings.’ Alice stood up angrily, slamming down her glass so hard it splintered in her hand. She let go and it toppled to the floor, smashing into a thousand tiny diamonds. More tears flowed and she looked at Jasmine’s unapologetic face before turning and leaving with a loud clip-clop of her heels.
She stood outside in the crisp spring sunshine. Rummaging in her bag she found a cigarette and lit it before exhaling a long plume of smoke that mingled with her breath in the cold air. She thought of him, her hands shaking. Remembered the way his eyes looked when he was impassioned, breathless, filled with lust. The cloud of smoke dissipated and there they were, penetrating black eyes that bore through her skin and pierced her heart.
‘I thought you’d never come,’ Alice smiled, with shaky hands.
STICKS AND STONES
Shortlisted for the Yorkshire Young Writers' Competition 2020
‘Don’t do anything else, I’ve got my camera on him.’
The words echo, reverberating as they bounce off every corner of her mind until she wants to cry and scream and vomit.
Beth leans forward and her throat hurts, it constricts and makes her neck feel like it might snap. Her eyes bulge and water, pushing her tongue out. A solitary tear slides down her cheek and a bleeding wound catches her eye. Crimson seeping from a half-hearted scratch on her wrist onto a faded pink rug.
‘Don’t do anything else, I’ve got my camera on him,’ Beth yelled at her boyfriend as he kicked the man in the head with his pristine Nike trainer. It glowed in the dark, the light of the camera reflecting off the silver lines stroked across the shoe.
‘Please, I don’t have any money,’ the man begged. They all started laughing.
She ran home after and fell onto her fluffy pink rug, the soft fabric enveloping her aching body.
You deserve death you dirty, diseased little rat.
She better get absolutely battered in jail the slag, she deserves to die.
Horrible feral dragged up vile slut.
The words play over and over in her head like a sickening reel of horror. It is rough against her throat, coarse and thick. Her body wracks with overwhelming sobs and she almost falls.
Not yet. You have to suffer first.
Remember it all so you don’t regret it when you’re falling.
Tears flow thick and fast, the pain palpable, a visceral thing that rips sharply through her body and threatens to topple her over.
‘I don’t want to do this,’ she howls.
You have no choice. They’re coming for you. What did they all tell you? You’ll be beaten in jail, or worse. They’ll hurt you, they’ll kill you.
‘You’re not going out like that, are you?’ Chase scowled at her.
‘I was going to, why? I’m only off to the shop.’
‘You look like a fat slag, you can’t wear skirts that short at your size. Your thighs look disgusting.’
They didn’t live together, they were too young, but he was always there. Her mother moved in with her boyfriend and came home occasionally, smelling of stale booze, to change her clothes or to sleep for hours in her own bed, the bruises on her face seeming to throb and pulse from where Beth peered around the door. She’d fill a glass with water to leave on her mother’s bedside table littered with empty cigarette packets and loose change. Often, her mum would wake up stinking of piss and Beth would put her in the shower and change the sheets, before she disappeared again, only to return weeks later in a worse state than last time. Beth made her little sister hide in her bedroom when that happened, wrapping Gemma tightly in her luscious pink rug.
There had always been men, since Beth could remember. New men who came into their lives and wreaked havoc before leaving again. Each time one left, she’d have to find food for herself and her baby sister, while her mother locked herself in her dark bedroom, only emerging to find alcohol.
Never a father to speak of, but men who had come close. Simon, the man who stayed in their life the longest. Her mother fell for him before Beth was born, and Beth called him Dad for a short time. He’d pick her up from school and take her to the bustling park. He’d buy her ice cream and put her in the bath at night playing boats in the water with her. He did all the things a father does with his little girl. Until one day he didn’t. One day he did something a father should never do with his little girl. Once in the bath, another behind the closed door of her bedroom as she laid frozen and petrified beneath her duvet, his hands exploring, violating, pushing their way into places that made her feel icky and scared. In the morning she slid from her bed and folded herself into the creases of her pink rug and laid under her bed, dreaming of a world she’d never inhabit, imagining her rug flying her to a castle in the sky.
‘Fuck,’ she shouts, swallowing a sob and almost collapsing with the weight of her memories. You can’t succumb yet, then it will all be over.
She thinks of her boyfriend, hiding from the world like a coward. Holed up in his house, contending with not only the world’s anger now, but locked up with his dad. A dad who takes his anger out on him. A dad who has never been a dad to him. A dad who has taught him only violence.
She needs her fingers breaking one by one, FATTY.
You dirty little bitch, you fucking tramp, if I knew where you lived you’d be dead.
She squeezes her eyes shut as voices, insistent on being heard, push their way to the forefront. A tear slips down her face and mingles with the secrets hidden in the wilting fur of her pink rug.
Chase was kind to begin with. Charming. He’d meet her after school, and they’d sneak cigarettes out of his dad’s drawer and spend the evenings smoking them in the park. They’d imagine a world where they lived different lives, dreamed up in the plumes of ash and fog. She fell in love with him quickly, relishing the feeling of being wanted. They were both broken, but together they seemed mended enough to forgot. She was only fourteen.
‘I want to marry you,’ he’d murmur into her hair as he kissed her gently. But kissing turned into an urgent frenzy, and he’d push her against the pink rug until she said it was too much. He’d back off and she’d have to remind herself that Chase wasn’t him. But she wasn’t sure that she could handle those groping hands again, pawing at her as though they followed a path that had already been set out years before.
She’s ugly as fuck, be uglier once I’ve finished with her.
Come suck me off you whore.
I have your home address, the clock is ticking, we’re coming for you bitch.
They were kissing on her floor. The urgency came and she fought not to push him away but the familiar rising panic as his hands started to wander rose up within her.
‘Stop Chase,’ she finally whimpered.
‘Come on, baby,’ he whispered against her hair.
‘I’m not ready yet.’
‘When will you be ready?’ His tone hardened.
‘I don’t know, just not yet.’
‘If you’re not ready now then you’ll never be ready. You’re just a little girl. A slut who can’t even shag her own boyfriend. There’s not much point in you being my girlfriend, is there?’
‘No, Chase, I love you. I’ll be ready soon.’
‘Forget it.’ He pulled away from her, eyes cold, mouth set.
‘Come here,’ she whispered. ‘I don’t want to lose you.’ She reached for him and held her breath as hands roamed her body, staying silent and squeezing her eyes closed as the icky feeling rose like bile in her throat. Afterwards, they lay there on the rug, legs entwined, a wet patch pooling between her legs and soaking into her pink rug.
She thought he would love her more after that, but he didn’t. Constantly she fought to win back his affections. It seemed the harder she tried to do that, the more he pushed her away.
‘You’re too fat. Lose some weight,’ he’d tell her daily. ‘You look like a slag. I bet you’re out there shagging all my mates.’ He drank cans of cheap lager and sneered insults at her. But she loved him, in that unbridled way you do with your first love.
‘I’m almost ready,’ she whispers, scrolling through a catalogue of memories that she wishes she could burn until there is nothing but a cloud of angry smoke. She tightens the coarse rope, lets it squeeze her windpipe.
Someone set her on fire.
‘Don’t do anything else. I’ve got my camera on him,’ she cried shakily, trying to keep the tremor from her voice. What the hell am I doing? I don’t want to do this.
The lads all jeered at the man lying on the floor as they kicked him and pulled his wallet from his pocket.
Ten minutes earlier Beth had been walking with a group of Chase’s friends, his arm draped around her shoulders. She didn’t like any of them, his group of thugs. Once she’d threatened to tell the police after they’d robbed an off licence and Chase had slapped her so hard, she’d fallen over. His mates laughed, calling her hysterical.
‘You’ll get my fist next time,’ he’d snarled in her ear as he’d pulled her up roughly.
The man was lying on the ground. ‘Please, I’m a carer, I don’t have any money,’ he whimpered, but they laughed.
‘Stop, this isn’t funny,’ Beth tried but Chase shot her that look.
‘What did I fucking say?’ he walked up to her and raised his fist.
He turned away and she held her phone up shakily and pressed the record button while the boys kicked the man in the head.
‘Don’t do anything else. I’ve got my camera on him,’ she warned.
Beth looks down at her stomach. Purple bruises dot her body, each one the size of a fist. Each one a reminder of what they’d done when the video had been leaked. Not one of those purple marks compared to the knives that sliced across her skin each time a troll called her a slag or used the easiest weapon in their inventory; her weight.
‘I’m sorry,’ she gurgles through fat tears that refuse to be stemmed. ‘I’m sorry.’
She tilts the stool and her balance wobbles.
She’d taken herself to the police and they were dealing with it. But the vigilantes would always be out there. She logged onto her Facebook page to find everything tainted. Nothing was safe. Anything that was public, had been vandalised with poison.
Fat obese lardy.
Imagine someone attacking your sister like you did that man.
Here’s the sket’s address, now we can do to her sister and mum what she did to that man.
Her sister. The little sister she had always tried to protect.
Every profile picture had the word slag or fat or obese written underneath. She’d set up a fundraiser months ago to raise money for a dog’s trust and even that they’d targeted, you should send yourself there, you ugly bitch.
Look at you trying to raise money for yourself.
They’ll murder you in prison.
So she does. The stool is on its side and she dangles, the jolt of the fall making her bite her tongue. Her toes skim the edge of a world she was never able to reach, brushing back and forth over her pink rug.
Shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize 2020
I wrap my threadbare dressing gown tightly around me. Its worn and grisly skin envelops me. Once upon a time it had a colour. Now it hangs limp and smudgy brown.
Birds sing outside my window and I wonder what they have to be happy about. What happened to make them sing with glee? There are two of them, red-chested and black-eyed. I admire their courage in this February chill to dance in the freezing air. It would be nice to have some company. Those two robins have each other at least.
I have perched on this sofa for years, it seems. I have slumped here, wrapped in this gown, through winters and summers and autumns and springs. I have laid here with colds and the flu and a migraine and searing knives cutting at my insides once a month. The dressing gown was purple then, before it faded. I still have the telling red splodge on the crotch. Faded now, but a reminder of my womanly youth. Long ago.
I pick at a loose string, so it unravels. I strike a match and light a cigarette, inhaling deeply. A rasping cough takes me; my lungs are old and rattling with a life lived. Perhaps an old friend from another time might come to my doorstep. They might take me for coffee. They might not. They probably won’t.
The sound of the door. Someone hammering on the stained-glass window. My heart ought to skip a beat. It doesn’t. It flutters minutely. I stand up, my old friend billowing pathetically around my ankles. Cigarette burns dot the material with angry charred edges. I walk the few steps across my lounge, over the dull microwaved bolognaise stain on the grey carpet. The cigarette hangs drably from my mouth, the smoke streaming up in dancing ribbons. My pudgy hand reaches out and grabs the cool metal of the handle and pushes down. I pull forth the door to reveal the mystery person standing on my doorstep in the cold Northern rain.
A young man stands before me. I don’t know this man. He is dishevelled, with a frame so thin I think he mustn’t have eaten since Christmas. Stubble like the shadow of misfortune. The distinct smell of urine and stale beer. Desperation fills his eyes before he comes at me, lunging like a cat pouncing on her prey. My hand goes out to stop him. I clamp down hard on the cigarette between my teeth.
The sweet smoke fills my nostrils, stinging like acid. Everything is still as my filthy hands come out to defend.
The man is enraged. He has a crazed look in his bloodshot eyes. He is furious and I am nothing. I am disinterested. I am neutral. I am impartial, a spectator looking on from outside.
I remember men from before. Men I once knew. How long had it been since a man had adorned my doorstep?
I inhale deeply. The smoke catches in my throat and I splutter in the man’s face. He froths with rage, dehydrated spittle forming at the corners of his mouth, his face scrunched up with fury. His eyes connect with mine, what does he want? Money? Does he wish to get between my legs? Maybe he thinks I have prescription drugs. A hot meal? He’s come to the wrong house if that’s what he wants. I don’t remember how to cook a hot meal without a microwave.
But now I do remember.
Toad-in-the-hole sat steaming on the table, the aroma of seasoned sausage and rich batter curling up from the dish. I smiled proudly at the glistening meal as I heard footsteps at the door.
‘Well done, Lass. It smells bloody delicious.’ He placed a giant hand on my head and ruffled my hair. I hated it when he did that. The bow would come loose in my hair and I would have to go to the bathroom and set it straight again.
He ate hungrily, smacking his lips and rubbing his belly. ‘Mmmmm, always fantastic, Little Lady,’ he beamed at me with loving eyes, and I glowed with pride. I was his little girl and he was my kind and gentle hero.
And then he was gone. Disappeared from my life before my fourteenth birthday. He taught me how to strum a guitar and to make fire with nothing but two pieces of wood. He’d bought me a purple dressing gown for my thirteenth birthday. The fabric was so soft I felt as though I was floating on a candy floss cloud. It had been the most luxurious thing I’d owned. I refused to shower for a week after he passed, instead lying in a ball tightly wrapped up in the purple material. What I would have given to have him rub my hair again and loosen my bow.
The man’s eyes are bloodshot. I wonder when he last slept. There is a red stain on the left collar bone of his hoodie. It might be blood. It might be ketchup. His t-shirt was once white but now is stained and blackened. He has as many cigarette burns in his clothes as I have on my frayed dressing gown.
The last of the smoke exits my mouth in a putrid cloud. The man might once have been handsome. I wonder idly whether he has a lady friend. Is he alone? Does he have a companion to take home his stolen goods to? Is there a skinny thing with sunken eyes and grey skin waiting greedily for him to bring her home a prize? If not perhaps he is here to rape me. Entirely implausible, I decide upon remembering the beauty I’d lost and the mottled figure I’d become. Day after day I lie here on my sofa in my drab cloak, lost in a plume of toxic smoke.
He sucked seductively on the end of a cigarette as he looked at me with shining blue eyes and a boyish grin. Freckles dotted his cheeks self-consciously and I reached out a hand to caress his jaw.
‘Forever we will be, My Darling,’ he whispered softly into my ear, a curl of my bouncing hair falling playfully in front of my face. Plans made. Plans lost.
Stolen kisses in a car as we gazed up at the stars decorating the inky sky. Cigarettes shared over a glass of red wine that stained our lips purple and slurred our words. The kisses and the wine accompanied by giggles escaping our mouths and giddy talk of weddings and babies and growing old together. Afternoons spent by the iridescent sea as we laid in the powdery sand with our heads pressed together, our future laid out like a blank canvas in front of us.
Then down on one knee he was, as we ambled by the frothy sea, the very sea we’d cast our dreams of a future across. A modest Spring wedding with the sun peeking shyly through the clouds, followed by a honeymoon climbing the grand Scottish mountains.
And then my stomach swelled with a baby on the way. Everything we’d planned unfurled before our very eyes with ease. We couldn’t believe our luck, to be so happy on such simple terms. To have everything that we’d dreamed of during those days lying by the turbulent sea.
He was gone by Autumn. Fallen from a cliff into the icy depths of the sea we’d once laid beside, images of our future captured between us. Taken back by the plans we’d given to the roiling waves.
I laid there in my bed, the grief so much I thought I couldn’t bear it, with that purple dressing gown strained around the bulge of my belly. It was old now and the colour no longer shone with the vibrancy it once had. I cradled my stomach as the tears fell from my face and doused the garment in stale sorrow.
The man’s eyes turn from anger to fear. The look is pleading as my nicotine-stained hand comes up in defence and he sees that he has underestimated me. For I am filled with as much rage and loss as he. The space between us is palpable and thick with possibilities. I have seen that look before. I feel as though I know this man. I do not. I think I do because the brain plays tricks. I inhale nicotine. A sharp ache stabs at my lung.
Pain ripped through my body in unrelenting, torturous waves. I felt as though my skin was being torn in half and split open like a coconut. I laid in that hospital bed alone, with no-one by my side to comfort me. No-one holding my hand and whispering encouraging words into my ear. No-one stroked my head and dabbed the sweat from my brow while I writhed in the clinical room.
I had never felt anything so fierce. The physical pain was loud and persistent, but the lonely suffering of loss was just as unspeakable. The taste was bitter-sweet as a baby slipped out from between my slick thighs. He was placed gently in my arms and suddenly I was no longer alone. I had purpose again.
I went home from the hospital and spent days wrapped in the murky, mauve dressing gown. Sweet milk fell from my breasts, spattering the material with the warm fluid as I held my child protectively to my chest.
Before I knew it, he was a man. A man in need. Something went wrong along the way, during the lighting quick years. He needed more from me as a man that he’d ever needed as a child.
Debts I had to pay off to frightening looking thugs in the back alleys of the city. Irrational and scorching anger at the slightest questioning from me. My boy had changed overnight, disappeared from the world just as my sleeping pills disappeared every time he came to visit. And then I noticed the marks on his arms, blackened marks pinching at paper-thin skin. Hollow cheeks and red-rimmed eyes are the telling language of a life stolen. This very sofa he slept on while I sat in my brown gown dabbing at his forehead with a damp cloth while he fought the scratchy cold sweats of forced abstinence.
Things never got better. His bloodshot eyes are imprinted on my memory, stuck there like an incessant record that refuses to be silenced. Desperate eyes cushioned by black bags that refused to shift. Petty crimes and short stints in a dank jailcell.
And then he was gone just like all the others. Here one moment and gone the next. Hung from the ceiling of a dingy, stinking flat with a filthy electrical cord.
And I sat and I sobbed using the rough and ragged cloth of my dressing gown to mop up more tears. I wrapped myself so tightly in the mottled material that I thought I might disappear altogether. I hoped I would.
My hands come down to envelop him, to bring him close to me. To hold a boy one more time, the size he was when he left this world. The fury in his eyes relents as he sees something inside of me softening. I see his pain, his longing to be seen as something other.
And then the anger returns and something glints in the hand by his side. I look down to see a blade. A shiny knife thirsty for flesh to puncture. His hand comes up to waist height, the blade pointing like an accusatory finger at my fleshy abdomen. I reach out an arm. I hook my hand benevolently around his neck. I pull him to me. To hold, to embrace, to shroud his pain in tenderness. He is pulled by my wretched force. As his torso reaches mine the blade pierces my stomach. Skin rips. Flesh is torn and shredded. Arteries severed. Warm fluid douses the haggard old gown. I look down and it is red. Red, the colour of anger and passion and fear. The colour of fire and desire and rage. The colour of love.