24 Hours

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It was the summer of being totally numb. I woke up every morning with the sensation of being dragged down some strong gulf stream, warm and foggy and going nowhere.

I smoked cigarettes leaning over the harbour wall, watching the waves curl over the lisp of the sand, gathering in little billows. I worked a job at one of the out of town supermarkets, driving my car around in the day, stacking shelves at night. I worked from midnight till dawn, driving home as the birds sang and the junkies collapsed into their hellhole flats. I sort of enjoyed the boredom, the routine sense of drifting; the way the hours and days just dissolved away. I had a vague sense that something had to happen by the end of the summer, but never paid much attention to prospects of the future.

The doctor put me on these antidepressants, you see. I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing, but they made me very numb. I felt weightless, as if my skin wasn’t my own. There was an agitation, a twitchiness to my existence. I couldn’t help scratching, shivering. I worried the sores that rose in welts on my arms. Every time I tried to eat, I felt nauseous. Only the cigarettes helped.

I was getting through thirty a day, a pack and a half, that summer.

Then I met Oliver. I used to know him, years ago, at primary school. I was standing outside a club, watching the thin blue moon disappear into dark clouds, watching some sixteen-year-old kid throw up on the pavement across the road. Oliver came out of nowhere, wearing this flamboyant shirt, a shark-tooth necklace, his hair wiry and long. I don’t know how he recognised me; I barely recognised him. I wanted to melt into the wall.

But then we started talking about childhood. I guess it seemed like forever ago, this whole other world of messy innocence. The games we used to play, running over the fields, throwing clumps of hay at each other. Days out with the school, teasing one another over the contents of our packed lunches. We walked around town all night, waiting for the sun to come up, sitting shivering underneath a slide at the park, sharing a half bottle of vodka.

He gave me his number, refused the cigarettes I offered. Said we should talk again, but he had to go to work.

I never did text him. I went straight home, teeth chattering on the bus, then lay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the person who used to run around those fields, laughing and shrieking, throwing wads of hay and falling back into the soft long grass. I smoked so much my room was a grey, tarry haze. At some point I must’ve slept.

I woke up and the world was brighter, clearer. The smoke was gone. I drove to work and the strip lights of the supermarket glowed in my brain, the colours of all the signs and products seeming ultra saturated, a pleasure to stare at. Everything felt so intense, so real. I guess I was feeling again. It was a joy to just touch things, finger the labels of tins and packets, brush my feet over the vinyl floor.

I’m not even sure I took down the right number. I never did text him.

It was a joy to stand over the bridge on my break, watching the cars pass on the dual carriageway, biting into something sweet, maybe a donut, maybe a piece of carrot cake. I didn’t think about falling over that bridge, about smoking a cigarette. I thought of Oliver, of the little girl asleep in the backseat, going nowhere through the night. Falling asleep on someone’s shoulder. That sense of safety. I don’t remember much else about how I felt, but I know that something had changed, even though in the end I didn’t text him.

I guess it was just that in those 24 hours, I’d forgotten to take my antidepressants. For once, it felt good to go nowhere.

— by Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompts: ‘nowhere’)

The Sweetest Meats

When I was younger, my father took me to a sweets factory. He felt guilty, I suppose, for divorcing my mother and taking the house with him, the car too and all her belongings. Anyway, we had a good day. There was so much to see at this sweets factory. There were special machines which cut shapes into chocolate, people in funny hats pouring colourful juice into moulds, a room chockfull of strawberry laces. I don’t know if it was a storeroom or what, but you were allowed to go in and even touch the stringy candy. The stuff was strung from racks tied to the ceiling – long thin strands of it like spaghetti – and you could lie back down on piles of it which were heaped on the floor in messy bundles. There was a sign on the wall explaining how the room was meant to test the ‘elasticity’ of the laces, and there was a diagram which showed how they were made. I wasn’t interested in any of that. I just liked the colour and the waxy, sticky texture, the slightly sour fruitiness that filled my mouth, the endless scrapping with the other kids as we fought for the longest, thickest pieces.

My father would stand in the corner and watch me playing. I suppose it amused him to see me high on E numbers, racing around and swinging from strips of red candy. Maybe it was a power game too, since my mother would never let me near so much as a square of chocolate. I remember feeling wild in that room, tearing and snapping lace after lace, shoving the sugary goodness past my lips.

Sometimes I feel like that now. Wild, that is. In the abattoir where I work, picking and sorting pile after pile of animal carcasses, I sometimes get the same burst of primal excitement. Maybe it’s the sight of red that does it: that dull, fleshy red that signals the release of something. A spirit leaving the body, ten grams of sugar gushing through the bloodstream. I tie up, I measure; I slice and cut. It is not the same as ripping with my fingers, as bending and biting with my milk teeth. Still, there is something of a similar thrill, a need for tangibility.

When my father visits now, frail in old age, we talk about the news, about airy things like art and philosophy. He pretends not to notice my bloodstained aprons, drying in the living room, the books on butchery stacked in my kitchen. We never mention my mother, or what happened to her. After a few days, he leaves me with a feeling of deep dissatisfaction, an emptiness and longing for something unplaceable. I feel like an abandoned hatchling, picking at scraps of carrion in the undergrowth of some lonesome forest. No matter how I try, I can never get back to that memory, the snap and tweak of those sugar laces between my teeth, the feeling of sweet, fizzy joy.

I can only raise the cleaver, imagining the tug of muscle, sheaths of connective tissue clustering with fat cells and capillaries, becoming something solid and substantial, becoming meat. And that red stuff – dried, salted and cured – is all I can cling to, all the love I have for the world.

— Maria Sledmere

(Flash fiction February prompts: carrion, laces)

Strangers of Your Future

IMG Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sharynmorrow
IMG Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sharynmorrow

Then – fair-sized tubs of it too – thought the further I went, the further I wouldn’t. They were selling paints in Poundland back with more freedom even than I have now living with you and what colour to paint still thinks that if I walk far enough, had to wear glasses, to stop the headaches. Years between being twelve and seventeen. The worst appears as a trap. Having a whole day freedom is relative. Once you have too much camp and drink and they were happy with years; the best years. I had friends that a drunken haze. This was back when I sleepless nights and suicidal thoughts. I try to can see every colour. You can see fragments wait for me. It isn’t the same as I’m writing this from the little nook under I came home. He brandished my phone and at old photographs. See, there’s me with the I don’t feel wild. I am unemployed, of joyful. I snap the glowstick between my teeth, from the rave I’ve just been at. I the willow tree by the river. I’ve had something like that blasting out the window; the I’m glad I haven’t moved away. There was give off when your mood fits the dream. Would do what I wanted them to. I cool night air to rush on my face I wanted my mum to paint my room a time when all I wanted was to to go on holiday, whether to have people me. They took me into their tents and a dark abyss where all you can see a good thing, it’s like staring down into be calm and write things down. I look black. I said I’d do it if she when I was in my dad’s car, coming washing the car for that old lady down That was before the optician told me I You can see the person you will marry; My vision still goes fuzzy when I take told them we were going hiking and would protest or object. I told him I didn’t as an adult. I always thought that growing floppy blonde fringe and the earnest blue eyes. Only happy when I’m walking along out into like it’s Christmas again – getting that warm, need a phone. I was part of the the village lights on the journey home that course. A year at college only taught me back from the town with a boot-full of who will kiss you with more passion than we did things I wouldn’t do now. Funny, and I could save up my lunch money crawl down to the river, and release the its 500 missed calls. I wasn’t going to it be love, goals, or suicide? Will there neon fluid into the sparkling stream. If I up meant doing exactly what you want to how it was fun at the time. The glad that most of it is lost in what I didn’t want to do. Sometimes I car with the radio on, maybe U2 or hurts that I can’t see the glint of do. Deciding what to eat for dinner, where would get away. Dad shouted at me everytime life is a spiral towards one goal. Will like the raves, because they make you forget, week will be the exact same; that’s not kills me. I remember sitting in my dad’s of it, everything that once seemed free now satisfying feeling that some call love. But then the road. If you stare into blackness, you piercing it so the liquid oozes out. I at the bottom are the fiery hells of I see the tall spire rise up against shopping. It’s coming back broke and lonely. I and circulate the stench of my dad’s cigarette. I’m looking at the twinkling lights and feeling the walls. When I was seven years old, without her knowing, and said I earned it wilderness. He told me I was wild. Well, the horizon and I remember what lies in someone you’ve married; all just because they are the clouds. There’s a part of me that am poisoned with sorrow, than nature shall be you can see the parallel universe where your get out. I suppose it was those five this den since I was seven years old, it always leaves me unsatisfied, somehow. I am I’ll still get away. It’s the sight of be a future at all? The thing is, and there’s always the happy drugs available. Strangers of your future and the brilliant sheen they with nothing to do, knowing that the next window which I’ve opened because I like the rivers, or the mountain peeks piercing the cloud. Them off and look into the distance. I have a glowstick in my bag, remnant memories now to me are torture. I am paint, mostly imaginary animals or familiar landscapes, but.

(- Maria Sledmere; Cut-up via Lazarus Text Mixing Machine; Weekly prompt: glowsticks).

The Viscosity of Thought

Photo by Tom Hodgkinson: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hodgers/
Photo by Tom Hodgkinson: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hodgers/

“I want you to try something new today.” The therapist let the statement hang in the air, chewing his pencil in thought. Jemima sighed. She had not slept for seven nights, and the grey office walls did not soothe with their neutrality but rather reminded her of the inside of her eyelids. Old, swollen, shell-like.

“Well, will you?” She wished she could eat his enthusiasm; chew it and spit it out like rotten food. But Jemima hadn’t the energy to do so. Blinking slowly, she murmured her vague acquiescence.
“Great!” The therapist pulled open his desk drawer and fumbled around before carefully placing a sheet of paper on the wooden surface between them.
“I want you to tell me what you see,” he said. “Be spontaneous; be truthful. Be crazy, if that’s what comes to you.” Jemima raised her eyebrows.
“Unfortunate word choice,” she muttered.
“I – I’m sorry. I didn’t mean –”
“No, you meant quirky and creative and honest!”
“Anyway,” the therapist ignored her sarcasm with an urgent glance to the clock, “just have a look.”

Slowly, Jemima pulled the paper towards her and held it up so the dim windowless light could shine through the whiteness. It was a black gelatinous mass of indefinable shapes; the kind of thing you’d stumble across at a surrealist art exhibition. She was sick of the old man thrusting his avant-garde tricks upon her.

“It looks like… a vagina.” She said bluntly, thinking she knew how to please him.
“Come on, don’t be so obvious – you can do better than that!” Jemima huffed and squinted again at the picture. There was something peculiar about the internal pattern of the outlining lines, something about the way they curved around each other in weird intersections. A hazy sense of familiarity seemed to hover around the gaping middle shades.

She dug her fingernails deep into the soft wood because she was feeling everything slip away; the particles were splitting and the room was coming undone. A gasp provided the sufficient portal through the trauma. She heard the old man speak to her, but only as a swimmer gurgles through fathoms of water, his sound swallowed by the churning current. The walls were closing in…

Silt stuck between her toes and in the clammy air she sniffed the iodine stink of seaweed… Gulls whooping above her in endless, trailing circles. Chunks of wood eating into her nails; almost like flesh they tenderised under her touch.
“Mum!” she shrieked. She loved the sound of her childish voice. The shrillness of sweet innocence. And why would her mother not reply? The beach rang clear with its silence. Just the gulls and their cry, cry, cry. She began running, running out of nothing. She wanted to make it to the rocks. She leapt over slimy detritus, shattered glass, dead crabs, clusters of washed-up jewels and driftwood.

It was night now and a howling came from the end of the bay.
“Mother, I’ve been stung!”
She thought she saw a ship coming deep from the waves; a ghost ship which glowed with the midnight moon. A blue, curious glow from a curious moon. Jemima was a child, alone under the midnight moon. She closed her eyes and all of it glittered; all glittered in fragments of distant pictures.

She looked at her feet where the beached jellyfish still lay. It was a piece of molten mousseline glass, coloured inside with claret and lilac ringlets, the fine membranes strung from the centre like spider-silk. The white light would dance upon the crystal shell, and Jemima could just about make out her reflection in its shimmered surface. In this image Jemima saw her body distorted and bloated. So venomously with a stick she would poke it; piercing a stake through this picture of mockery. But then it became a wobbly, oozing thing: splayed and ugly as a laboratory experiment. Her leg throbbed with the sting and as she glanced at the shredded jelly meat she felt the becoming of her monstrousness.

The wood splintered thinly through the membrane of her fingertips. Something slammed upon the ocean. She looked up and saw the ship collapse through the water in hoary flakes of ash. The waves kept breathing, soft and sullen.

“Jemima!” He was shaking her arms, shaking her as if to send shots of voltage down her nerves.
“What is it you see?” Not bothering to conceal his frustration, the therapist gestured angrily to the picture that lay in front of them. Jemima pulled her nails out of the desk and seized the paper. Without a glance at its contents, she crumpled it into a ball, feeling her heart fall with the weight of lead.

“I miss myself before,” she said.

(Prompts: Rorschach blot, haunted, glitter)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Garden of my Childhood

A small lawn, three flowerbeds and a pebbled terrace which offered space for two chairs and a little table. The adults considered it a tiny garden, merely worth the effort of investing time in it, but for my sister and me it was an endless source of adventure, games and fun. Picnics with our dolls, huts made of branches and leaves, snowman competitions and Lego safaris between the crocuses – we never ran out of ideas.
One day I felt too old Playmobile pirate ships in puddles, for snail races and hide-and-seek in an area that only offered two hiding places anyhow. My sister sulked and cried. She called it deceit. I called it growing up.
Today, I sometimes look back wistfully. My sister and I never got along as well as we did in our childhood. Puberty can be cruel.

What were your prompts?: crocus photo, deceit, wistful

by Rut Neuschäfer

Berry Picking

It was late August and the evenings were still long. The air in these years is fresh and pure, mottled only with the playfulness of imagination, a flickering light of primary colours; that melody, that lovely  paradox of possibility and infinite security. I’m not sure how old I am, maybe nine, maybe ten; maybe even seven. I think I have plaits in my hair: blonde messy plaits with grass and leaves caught in them, as if I were some kind of woodland creature. I run and spin around a lot, my breath always caught in the dizzying air. Me and my limbs like climbing trees. I reach for branches with my arms; my thin fingers cling to them with earthy nails.

My cousins are here and we’re playing a game. There’s an old rowan tree at the back of our garden, which sucks all the light in the morning then bounces it back towards afternoon. Since it’s nearly September, the tree is rich in an abundance of vivid red berries, gleaming like the eyes of so many children. But to our eyes, they are precious and lovely as rubies. We are pirates, plundering treasure. We are climbing the tree and picking them – every last one – and tossing them in a bucket we’ve found in the shed. I remember the shed so clearly. The shed smells sweetly of sawdust, and that rainy, swampy scent of wet grass that comes from the lawnmower. Sometimes we sit in there, in the stuffy warmth, amongst the buckets and spades and gardening tools, and swap made-up stories.

No time exists in these summer evenings; only the bubbles of our laughter and the slow-changing light. The way our skin glows pale and moonlike as it grows darker. The way our voices float upwards, swallowed by a sea of stars.

We’ve cleared most of the tree now; its branches are bare of berries – left only with green. A green that blurs at the edges, that makes our spirits shimmer. The four of us stand at the foot of the tree, admiring our handiwork. The bucket is almost full.

‘But I can still see some up there!’ someone says. We look up and there are several handfuls still clutching the branches at the top of the tree. We wonder who will be brave enough. The boys step back kicking their feet. I am the oldest; by nature, it will be me.

I climb with ease, with my young sweeping limbs. No looking down. No fear, no notion of falling. My vision is confined to the enticement of those scarlet fruits above me.

And soon I am there, waving my arms triumphantly. I pluck the berries and toss their clusters down to the ground. They fall fast in bloodied, godlike rain. From up here I can see the whole town: what seems like a thousand rooftops rendered magical in the purplish twilight. An atmosphere that pulls at my brain. A moon emerging from a murky horizon, the church steeple thin and eerie against a backdrop of silken clouds. It is all wonder, a view that somehow contains me in its pocket of time. I shake as I finally break away and climb back down.

My cousins hug me as I become the day’s heroine. A whole tree, stripped clean. A child’s harvest of earliest autumn.

My mother calls us inside, but we do not listen. The air is still warm, the light now sparkling with summery darkness. One of us goes to retrieve a potato masher, and we stand round our bucket, our cauldron, like little witches. We take turns to smash the overflow of berries, passing the masher round, watching the red drip and slush and seep as we crush vehemently. Are we making a potion, a poison? Performing mystical rites? Brewing our own bittersweet jam, with its distinct tartness that pierces the tongue and waters the eyes?

We are concocting a tonic for time: for the long hours that melt and fade as we grow and change and lose the clarity of innocence, of childish sight. We relish something tangible and bright.

by Maria Sledmere

Prompts: childhood, potion