Thursday, 4 February 2016

A short story...

Hi all!

It's been a long time, I know.  It's been a really hectic 18 months or so, though thankfully I have finally reached a point where I have some time for myself - time to stop and reflect, and do some creative stuff - writing, sewing, drawing - and of course some baking too, as the body needs feeding as much as the spirit...

I am really looking forward to catching up with where you all are and reading your blogs again - I hope you are well and life has been good for you while I have been away.

The biggest news is that I am currently taking a little time out from work to do some writing. I am aiming to finish a novel that has been sitting on my computer for nearly a decade.  I have wanted to be a writer for almost as long as I can remember - probably something to do with the joy I get from reading, which I have enjoyed since I was really small.  I am finally in a position to take a few months away from work and I thought it would be good to grasp the opportunity with both hands before I get back to the 9-5.

I recently entered a short story competition (run by The Guardian) and, although I didn't get anywhere, I felt really positive about having at least submitted something.  So I thought I would share it here so you can let me know your thoughts.  The brief was for a horror story - not something I had ever done before.  I've not done a short story either, so this was a first for me on both counts.

I hope you enjoy! (Be warned - there is some moderately bad language, but nothing too dreadful). Feel free to provide some honest feedback! As I say, it's my first attempt so I know I have a lot to learn and improve on.


We were down at the lake. Everyone in our year called it The Lonely, but I'd felt more loneliness in the thrumming corridor at school than in its green depths.  We were water babies, you and I; we had just slithered in like a couple of newts in our ugly school bathers. 

'I'm going to swim the English channel,' I announced. 

'Oh yeah?' 

'Yes,' I said, the word skittling across the surface of the lake with more confidence than I felt. 

'I've been practicing every morning.' 

'Race you then!'  

'Where to?'

You laughed, flopped over like a fish and kicked.  Of course - we were racing to the island.  I lost myself in clean rhythm, you at my elbow. For the last stretch, I switched to butterfly, and hauled myself onto the shore, nose streaming, chest heaving like a bellows. 

'You cheated,' you gargled at me, spitting out a mouthful of water and giggling. 'You can't do the butterfly for twenty miles.' 

'Twenty one' I manage. 

'Twenty one then.' 

'Well obviously I'm not planning to sprint all the way! But I want to be the youngest.  So I’ve got five years to practice.' 

'Assuming we live that long,' you said casually, your words squashed down somehow by the damp in the summer air. 

That growl, for a moment quieted by the water, gnawed at my stomach again.  'We're not going to die.  Wendy's gone to get help and it's only half a day’s hike. 

'A hike that she wouldn’t have needed to go on if someone hadn't cut the phone line.' 

'Someone cut the phone line? I thought it was blown down?'  My insides shrank.

'I saw it. It was definitely cut – right outside the office.'  

'Well anyway, all of us are fine.  And Miss Hammond and Miss Travis aren't dead, they're just unconscious.' 

'Unconscious for two days isn't that far from being dead.  And why is it both of them and not any of us girls? Or Michael and Alim?' 

Michael and Alim.  Poor little sods.  We all detested being stuck at school all summer, but as the only two boys and the youngest of us by far, they really were on their own. I don’t know what was worse for them - that their own mothers couldn’t be bothered to fetch them, or that nine similarly rejected girls were attempting to stand substitute. With the teachers unwell - to use our comfortingly adult phrase - we were all they had.  Martha was so utterly terrified they would fall, or drown, or bang their heads, that she already had a babysitting rota cooked up for all of us.  Any seven year old's dream. 

'I'm more worried that we wasted a whole afternoon trying to break down the headmistress's door to get at the phone, only to find the line cut.  She's going to go nuts when she gets back.'

'That's what I mean.  That office key was the only one missing on the bunch. Something nasty is going on.' 

'Something nasty? What do you mean?’ I tried not to let my voice shake.  ‘Miss Hammond and Miss Travis both just collapsed in the corridor outside dinner hall.  It can't be poison, they wouldn’t both have dropped at exactly the same time like that and besides, they hadn't eaten.' 

'I mean something other than how they collapsed.  I went in there this morning, and there was Pam, bustling around trying to look busy -' 

'Playing nurse,' I rolled my eyes.

'Of course.  And I noticed one of Miss Hammond's fingernails was missing.' 

'Maybe it tore when she fell.' 

'I don't think so. It was still bleeding a bit.  And a big clump of her hair was yanked out.  Right at the front.' 

'Gross.' I paused. 'I mean, I hate her as much as anyone, she's a witch and a half.  But that's a horrible thing to do when someone's unconscious.' 

'Exactly.  It's one thing to imagine pushing her down the stairs in the heat of the moment when she's grilling you on conjugations and making you feel this big' - you pinched your thumb and finger together till the skin was white - 'but it's another thing to actually bloody get stuck in.' 

'What did Pam say?' 

'That she'd been there all night.  I asked her if she'd noticed Miss's fingernail was gone.  She said no it wasn't.  Then when I showed her, she said the same as you; that it must have caught on the carpet when we were carrying her to the infirmary.  So I pointed out it was still bleeding. She went all red and asked if I was accusing her of something. Then she kicked me out before I could ask if she'd fallen asleep or whatever.' 

'Stroppy cow.' 

'Like it would be her anyway.  It would be way too obvious.  Besides, snap her in half and she'd have 'Prefect' through the middle like a stick of Brighton rock.' 

We managed a half laugh. 

'What about Miss Travis then?' I asked. 'Was she ok?' 

'Not a mark on her.  Hardly surprising though, since she is just about the nicest teacher in this dump.' 

'So what, you think that someone deliberately what, electrocuted them or something?'  

'No. My dad got electrocuted once rewiring the porch and he thrashed round for ages.  They just dropped.  I don't know what's wrong with them, but I think they're just ill. Or at least they were.' 

'So someone has just taken the opportunity to stick it to Miss Hammond?' 

'I guess so.  And the phone and the key and stuff was to slow us down so she could get in there while Pam wasn't there, to do her dirty work.  It must be one of us girls.  Michael and Alim have hardly been alone long enough to pee practically and besides, they’re tiny.' 

'Well, hopefully this is the end of it anyway.  Wendy's pretty outdoorsy and she is the oldest.  She'll get help here before long,' I said, with more conviction than I felt.  I sank my trembling hand into the mud to try and still it.

'Unless it was Wendy who did it,' you said. 

'Come on.  It wouldn't be Wendy. She's deputy head girl.' 

'So deputy head girls can't be evil? Remember Laura Winchester?'  

'No, but Wendy's deputy head girl because she's Miss Hammond's pet.  They’ve got a full on mutual fan club going.' 

'So it's not Pam and it's not Wendy or the boys – or you or me. That leaves five.' 

'Well... it could be you.' You wrinkled your nose at me and showed your front teeth like a rabbit.   

'You've found me out!' I laughed, jumped up and fled shrieking back into the safety of the lake.  After a moment you caught up with me and dunked my head under. I rose up, gasping, pushing a sheet of green water over your surprised face.  We were in anxious hysterics, full of fear but guiltily relishing this slice of freedom. You grabbed my head and kissed my temple, hard. 

'It's not you, you big wet.  But it could be me,' you whispered through the water in my ear. Pulling a face like a gargoyle, you dove under backwards and resurfaced a few metres away, swimming. I grinned over at you. Suddenly, a voice floated over the water, unwelcome as an oil slick. 

'COME HERE!' it yelled.  We both struck for shore. 

'Get your clothes on,' barked Samantha as we squelched up the bank a few moments later. 

'No time to dry off.  I've wasted half an hour looking for you two.' 

'But it's not time for breakfast yet,' I said, wrestling my shorts up cold, muddy legs.  The mosquitos crowded round me like an audience.  Samantha flung my blouse at my head and marched off on kitten heels, bottom waggling like a scratching hen.   Nature never was her forte. 

'Never mind you,' I muttered, 'my money's on bloody Samantha.'  We snickered as we pushed our way through the thin line of trees and back up the path to the school.  She turned, hands on hips, and pursed her squidgy lips.  My heart dropped.
'I'm glad you think it's funny,' she said.  'It's happened again.'             
* * *

Hannah had been laid out in the infirmary.  We pressed round her in awkward silence.  Her skin was winter white, blue veins showing like cobwebs.  Her waspish little mouth was bloodless; her blonde plait strung out like rope across the pillow; her breaths shallow.   

I turned to you and saw the grim lines of your face. You gestured very slightly towards her right hand, half under the pillow.  Every single slender finger was out of joint.  
My face went hot and my guts went cold. My ears started ringing.  I couldn't get at the oxygen in the air.  The room lurched uncomfortably.  Oh god, I thought, it's my turn. 
You grabbed my wrist as I fell backwards.  Someone started screaming but you hung on, and as I was dropping into blackness you kept your bright brown eyes fixed on mine.
'Breathe,' you commanded.  I sucked in a big gulp of air.  

'Get a chair' you said in that same voice.  A chair appeared behind me, just as my knees gave.   

'A glass of water.'  Out of the corner of my eye I saw little Sophie Stephens take off at a run, her knees pumping.  

'Get a paper bag from the nurse's office.' Then I heard the distinctive drawl of Meredith Hancock, all-star hockey player, snaking through the air behind me. 

'I'm not fetching anything,' she drawled, unfurling herself like a flag.  'I'm off to get some breakfast.' She slouched out of the room like an affronted cowboy. 

'I'll fetch it,' said Alim earnestly, his eyes flashing with concern.  

'Good idea,' you said, and smiled over at him.  

'Take Michael with you!' said Martha sharply. No one argued, though the nurse's office was just outside the door. 

Someone choked on a sob.  'Calm down,' you soothed. Your voice suggested that this sort of thing was perfectly normal; that everything was going to be fine.  'Just sit down. We'll take five minutes, then we'll go and get some breakfast.'  I felt a little less sick.

'What if this is poison though?' shot back Martha, gesturing at the bed. 'I don't want to eat anything if it might be poison.  And Michael and Alim definitely can't! They’re so little, if it knocked Miss out, it could kill them.' 

'Well then, let’s assume it's a virus, but to be on the safe side, we can have eggs from the henhouse for breakfast. We'll open a new can of oil and a new pack of crackers and we can eat tinned fruit too.  That way we know none of the food has been tampered with.'  
'Someone could still tamper with something before we ate it.  And we can't open a tin each - that would just be stupid,' said Samantha. 

'Well then, we'll just have to prepare the food all together on the table in the kitchen, won't we. With everyone watching, no one will be able to mess with it.' 

Sophie puffed into the room like a steam train. 'Sorry I took so long' she gasped, 'I didn’t know where the glasses were.' 

'Don't worry, Sophie, you were really quick' I said, smiling weakly. 

'Definitely,' you told her. 'You should try out for the relay team next term when you go up to seniors.' Her freckled face beamed for a moment. 

I sipped my water.   

'Feeling a bit better?' 

'Definitely,' I said. 

Alim poked his head round the door and waved a paper bag. 'Here you are.' Michael's face slid into view behind him.  'Can we go for breakfast now?' 

'Wait a minute,' you replied. 'We're all going together.' 

Michael rolled his eyes and sighed.  Alim darted across the room and laid the brown paper bag carefully in my lap.  I huffed into it obligingly for a moment or two.   

'Actually, Pam,' you said, 'Can I have a quick word? Alone?' 

Pam strode over with the confident usefulness of a Newfoundland, and you jerked your head toward the door.  The two of you strolled, faux calm, down the length of the infirmary, and stood in the darkened doorway with half an eye out in case anyone came close. Everyone held their breath; even dopey little Michael's ears pricked up, but you couldn't be heard. 

You came back in. 

'Pam and I are going to try to make them all a bit more comfortable – but we don't want to make you wait to eat.  Why don’t all of you go and join Meredith in the kitchen and we'll join you in a couple of minutes.' 

'Michael and Alim can stay here' added Pam, 'since it's my turn to look after them.' You half froze, then inclined your head slightly in agreement. 

'We don't need telling twice,' said Sophie loudly.  'It's a bit creepy in here, and I'm starving.'
'Why don't you go via the hen house and fetch the eggs?' you suggested.  Michael giggled suddenly. 

'Sorry,' said Alim. 'I told him a joke.' 

'Good idea,' said Martha. 

The three of them trooped out in single file like condemned soldiers walking to the wall.   

‘Do you know who did it?’ asked Pam quietly.

‘Not yet,’ you replied.

'Right, now they’re gone, let's get this over with,' Pam said coolly. You nodded and gripped Hannah's arm. Pam picked up her right hand and suddenly jerked the index finger back into place with an obscene crunch.  I could have sworn for a second I saw her foot twitch. My head spun again and I retched into the bag. 

'What are you doing?' asked Alim, his small face wreathed in worry. Michael was over in the corner being a Spitfire, lost to the world. 

'Hannah's fingers must have got a bit hurt when she fell,' you explained. 'We have to fix it straight away, or she won't be able to play the piano next term.'  Or ever, I added silently. 
'Why don't the three of you go outside for some fresh air and we’ll be there in a minute.' 

'Good idea,' I managed.  

Somehow, I stumbled down the infirmary, past the nurse's office, and through the porch, boys in tow. As we stepped into muggy air, Mr Timmins, the school's resident feral tom, sauntered toward us. Michael turned his face up to me. 'Want to know a secret?' 

'Don't tell her,' said Alim. 'Look what happened last time you told. And she said not to tell!' 

'What is it?' I asked. 

'You mustn't tell anyone.  Promise?' 


'Watch. It's a game' Michael crouched down, calling the cat. 'Mr Timmins, here boy!' 

The cat fixed him with a predatory stare and picked up a forepaw – then crumpled into a boneless heap of fur.  

'It's called Sleeping Beauty,' he said as my legs went weak beneath me. 'Don't worry, he'll come round in a minute or two. I only winked at him a tiny bit.' 

* * *

We somehow made it through to the evening, huddled in the common room, taking shifts to drag blankets down from our dorms. The oppressive damp of the humid August afternoon sucked up our energy. With no adults around to stay angry hands, I hugged Michael's secret to me. He was so little.  And it wasn't him wrecking people's fingers. 

I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't get you alone even for a minute.  Pam, as you'd suggested, stayed locked in the infirmary to keep watch – doubtless loving every moment.  You'd gone to get some tea brewed before taking over from her for the evening. 

No one dared walk down that long dark corridor alone - the corridor where they'd all collapsed.  And although I didn't fear sweet little Michael, I couldn't afford to stand out.  The air was sweaty with suspicion. We were a breath from mob rule. Trying to be grown up, and younger than ever. 

About five to nine, with the radio chuntering in the corner and all of us trapped between terror and exhaustion, Meredith flung herself out of her chair. 'I'm going for a ciggie.' 

'I'll come with you, if you like,' Samantha piped up. 

'You don't smoke,' sneered Meredith.  Samantha shrunk back into the sofa like a woodlouse curling into a ball. 

'You have to take Michael and Alim, Meredith, it's your turn,' said Martha officiously.  

Meredith rolled her eyes at the two boys. Michael giggled.
'Fine! But I'm buggered if any of you losers are coming outside to watch me smoke.' 

'Mind if I walk with you as far as the loos?' I asked. 

'Suit yourself.'   

We walked along the dim corridor, in the least companionable silence in the history of the world. Meredith was edgy, though she would have stared down a rabid bear before admitting any fear.  I peeled off as we reached the toilets, relieved, squeezing Michael's shoulder companionably as I left. 

As I came out a few moments later, wiping shaking hands on my jeans, I heard the boys laughing outside. I looked towards the porch.  

The infirmary door was ajar. It should have been locked. An arm was flopped out through the open doorway.  

My chest squeezed. I started running.  

Pam lay bleeding on the threshold, unconscious. Her pretty nose broken.  As I reached her, I heard a hiss. 

'Fix your fingers will she, clever little minx?'   

Rounding the doorway, I saw a fall of dark hair. For a horrible moment, I thought it was you.  The scissors glinted in her hand.  That awful voice came forth again. 

'Let's see them fix this. No music prize for you this year.'  

She turned to get a better grip on Hannah's hand as she closed the blades on her little finger.  Suddenly, I saw her face.  She saw mine.   

'Michael!' she yelled, dropping the scissors with a clatter. Michael came running in.  'She hurt Pamela!' 

In confusion, I turned towards the door. 

'Wink!' she screeched. 

As I caught sight of him, he hesitantly dropped his eyelid.  In a split second of agonising slowness, I fell with it.  It was not as I imagined. I wasn't asleep.  There was no merciful darkness as I painfully hit the floor.   

'Quickly boys! Run! Get the other girls!'  

I heard the door bang. I couldn't turn my head.  

As their feet thudded down the corridor, she hauled me onto her strong back like a sack of flour. She set off awkwardly down the infirmary, out of the door, through the porch, down the hill toward the trees. With every jolting step I felt my terror rise.  My blood thundered in my ears like dreadful music. Still my useless limbs flopped like meat. 

'Well, you nosy bitch, you can join precious Wendy in hell,' said that disjointed voice. 'I bashed her smug face in and left her in the woods.  She deserved it. Trying to be top of the tree.' 

She tore a breath and stopped. My fingers bashed and scraped the stony ground as she turned.  She dropped me. My head cracked on a rock. I felt stickiness trickle down my neck and pool in my collar.    

'They all deserved it. I'm the special one, not them.  I should be Head Girl! I should have the sports prize! I couldn’t believe my luck when I found out what Michael could do.  Finally a chance to get my own back, and make sure there would be no more music scholarship and no more teacher’s bloody pet. I didn’t count on you going all Nancy Drew on me. Pathetic,’ she spat. She crouched down and shoved her face into mine.

‘No infirmary for you!’ she whispered gleefully. ‘No one will find you.’ I saw the whites of her eyes, felt the moist hiss of her breath on my cheek.

‘I'm going to chuck you in the Lonely. You love it so much, it seems kind of fitting.  It's not like anyone will miss you. Not even your new best friend.  Especially not when I tell them I saw you breaking Hannah’s fingers with my own two eyes.' 

A distant voice sounded in the evening air. I felt her body twang like a cornered rat’s.  The wheeling stars above suddenly went dark as she covered my face with sodden leaves. They clung to my skin like unwanted kisses.

'She ran away!' I heard her yell. 'Didn't want to face the bloody music I expect!' That hissing voice had gone; she sounded normal again. Impossibly normal.  I heard her footsteps squelching away from me. 

I lay there, awake and unmoving.  I was glued, helpless, to the clammy ground, my weight pressing agonisingly on my bent leg.  Creatures rustled in the loam beneath me. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. 

Slowly, the ants and grubs and beetles made their way into my clothes and then my ears; my mouth; my nose.  After a lifetime, I heard you. You came searching. You called my name again and again.  You were so close - but try as I might, I couldn't call out. And all the while, I felt the sick thudding of my rabbit heart.

I was conscious when she crept out again at the gloaming.  Conscious as she silently filled my pockets with stones.  Conscious as cold water flooded round my unresisting limbs and into every crevice of my lungs; as the lake eased into the gaps between my cells; as it washed away my body to bones until I was the fish and the weeds and the water. I felt every cell, every molecule, every atom of myself slowly becoming one with The Lonely.   

That is, until tonight. The night you came back. 

* * *
You sit at the edge. You speak to me.   

'You never ran away, did you?' asks that old familiar voice, deepened slightly by the years. 'I know it wasn't you that did those things to Hannah and Wendy and Miss Travis.  You never could stomach violence.' 

I want to reach out to you, to say yes. To scream it. All I can do is brush the shore at your feet, silently. 

'I'm a police detective now, you know. Homicide.' Of course you are.  What else would you be? 

'It was easy for them to blame the scholarship girl with no parents.  Though they still had to shut the school. It's a hostel now.  I'm here with my daughter.  I named her for you.' 
I swell and break.  I long to thank you for not forgetting me – but I can't. I'm just water with the memory of a long-dead girl. 

'Remember that day we swam here? And you threw your head back and announced you were swimming the channel one day? That was the last day we had.  And I didn't see it coming.'  

A glint of light slides down your shadowed face. You look out at the island, then at me.  You turn to walk away.  

Suddenly, you pause and cock your head. I feel like you’ve seen me at last, dancing in flashes of moonlight. A small half smile crooks the corner of your once familiar mouth. You strip down to your underwear.  You wade in. You wade right in. 

As you slide under my deep and silent waters, your long warm body blossoms. You always have been a beautiful swimmer.  I rush darkly into your mouth like a lover’s eager kiss; I slip between your fingers; and with the last of myself, I whisper through the water in your ear - 


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