Intervals

This all must follow a pattern, don’t you know?

My eyes follow the Siberia of semibreves, stretching out across eighteen bars at least. I can tell they don’t trust me with this piece.

“Why’ve I only got the long notes?” I go straight to the conductor, holding back my French horn, cradling it defensively against my chest.

“Oh, it’s just the part we need you to play,” he says idly. I’m telling you though, it’s a pattern. First they start ignoring you, stop commenting on your pitch and tuning, your tonguing and rhythm. It’s nice for awhile, not getting the abuse, but soon you find yourself suspicious. The saxes and trumpets are getting hounded for their dodgy rendition of melodies while I’m sitting at the side, content and stupid. No, it’s not right. The pattern’s coming out.

“Do you even want me here at all?” I find myself asking, against my better judgment.

“Oh, it’s not a case of wanting, darling, it’s needing. We absolutely need you to blast out those long clean notes for us.”

“Oh for f—”

“Now now, go do your warm up.” I hate the way he shuts you down like that. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I feel nauseous; the thought of blowing lungfuls of warm air into that piece of metal doesn’t exactly appeal right now. Everyone around me is getting boisterous, laughing and kidding around, knocking sheets off their music stands, the trombonists playing loud and silly glissandos.

I have a theory that they start like this, then kick you out. When you start to feel like the one sane person, silent and still amongst the hurricane, that’s when you know it’s time to leave. No need for dead weight in a band like this, as he’d say. Everyone must communicate, must work together. The rests and breaks mean something too. It’s probably bullshit.

“You know, it’s a shame you’re standing around doing nothing, cos that French horn looks so damn pretty against your skin when it’s played.” Oh god. I turn, trying to source the location of this sudden bout of shitty banter. Melanie. The flute player, the little elfin embodiment of musical perfection. She once did an impromptu solo from the balcony of Kings Theatre, during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I heard she lured a guy into bed with renditions of the ‘In Dreams’ melody from Lord of the Rings. I also heard the guy cried afterwards. You can fill in the blanks there.

Talk about blanks. Just look at this bloody part! It’s literally all rests and semibreves, not even a cheeky quaver or two to liven things up a bit.

“What d’you want me to do?” I retort to Melanie, who’s now standing over me, eyeing my sheet music. “I mean, it’s not like a lot of practice is needed or anything. Think I can nail those silences easy enough.”

“Oh, I see.” She brushes her pinkie finger over the staves. “Gosh, he really hates you.”

“Right?”

“Wanna take some time out?” I look at her in earnest.

“I think I’ve got enough time out in this, don’t you think?”

“I meant—”

“Oh I know, come on then.” She leads me down a corridor or two until we’re outside, standing on a wet and windy street. There’s nobody about, it being Thursday evening, long after the closing hour for late night shopping. Musicians work at ungodly times.

To my surprise, she draws a fat joint from her pocket, rolling it round her fingers as if pondering whether or not to light it.

“Oh Melanie,” I say, grinning. She lights it and I watch her cheeks compress to little dimpled hollows as she sucks in the first draw. We pass it round and don’t talk.

“He’s a bastard anyway,” she says, after a pause.

“He means well. Talented guy.”

“I don’t know.” I’m thinking about how interesting her mouth is, the faint pink stain on the end of the spliff. How is it possible for her to play so well when she fills her lungs with this shit? The weed swirls round my empty stomach.

She must’ve heard it rumbling.

“I’ve got an orange,” she says, drawing one out from another pocket. I swear she must’ve been a pilgrim in a past life. Carries her life around with her, as if waiting to arrive somewhere.

I watch her dainty fingers peel the orange. As her nails claw into its skin, a sharp sweet smell lifts my senses. My head is swimming. I can hear every scrape and pull as she pares away the rind. Takes the first piece and pushes it between my lips. Nothing ever tasted so good.

So nothing happened. So we stood around outside the practice hall, finishing the spliff, sharing the orange. I watched her lick the juice from her lips as she watched the passing traffic. The lamplights stretched out into the distance, down the road towards the shop buildings, whose windows were closed up for the night, the bright city sinking into its disappearance. After a while, I felt better. We went back inside. We played through the song, and I guess it went well.

I’m getting better at intervals.

by Maria Sledmere

(Flash fiction February prompts: orange, theory, picture of sheet music).

Advertisements

Rowan Berry

Rowan Berry
Maria Sledmere

That moment was young love and cocaine.
On the sofa the afternoon was stirring around us
And you were passing over in glazed irises
Through which I saw the other world.
School took us from 9 till 2 but still we knew
That time had frozen.

The sofa where we lay is full of moth holes.
You used to come over and pull them apart,
Like you were searching for something:
Your fingers flaking the flaps of fabric;
You tugged till your nails bled.
We lay there, day after day
On the sofa in my daddy’s shed.

There was your smile and your cigarette burns.
I thought my mother would kill me
When she saw the scorches on my neck. Instead
She said you were a bastard, that I
Was forbidden to see you.

She didn’t know about the shed and the sofa,
Our afternoons with the dust motes
And the steady clunk of the lawnmower. The rowan tree
Whose branches poked through the broken glass.
You climbed in the window and it was cold – autumn
Almost. The blanket barely covered the whiteness of our legs.

By winter my freedom was still forbidden.
I loved the frost on the lawn, even when you stopped calling.
My mother wrote letters to the school
That were never answered
And I helped her cook supper while she read the Ten Commandments.
Your burns left a tiny scar on my neck.

One day in December I went
Down to the shed again, looking for something
Though not sure what. Just slightly, I thought I could smell you;
The skin of you masked in the musk of the sofa,
That smell of mothballs in the attic.
I plunged my fingers deep into the fabric
And pulled out a tiny object, hard as the stone of a peach.

In the candlelight I saw it was a rowan berry,
Its swollenness complete.
Here it is: this memory. In pain
I thought of you again, holding the rowan berry:
Plucked from nothing, raw red, rolled on my palm,
Coating itself in a snow of cocaine.

(prompts: berries, forbidden)

The Legend of Maurelle

They say that all that was left to recognise her was a strawberry birthmark on her wrist. 

Maurelle was running through the woods. All was disintegration; all was the feeling that she had no choice. The spirits were upon her and she had no sense of what right she had to be. To be, to be; to be was nothing but the hum of the bees and the dull pain of a distant infinity.  There was only the voice of her father, thundering in her ear; the voice of her mother, small and far away. As she flew through the greenish gloom, she felt the years shed away. All was renewed; all was soon renewing.

All the creatures kissing in the rain and yes she’s heard that somewhere before. She’s kicked her shoes off, running bare feet and leaping over thick roots and clumps of nettles. There’s an energy she’s found from nowhere. A bramble lashes out and catches her, but the blood is only wine on her fire. She trails her finger over the jagged wound and brings it to her lips. It tastes metallic and rich. She looks around and there they are, all those creatures kissing in the rain. They are ghosts.

Lost now in darkness; not quite darkness but the kind of twilight stasis that falls upon a forest. Birds returning to nest with fragile song and somewhere above an eagle swooping but only its shadow touching the ground. Maurelle comes to a clearing, where the sense of space is startling. Look around again: crisps, fag packets, an empty bottle of whiskey. The earth sighs beneath her feet. She runs on, following the river and its silver trickle, ignoring the hot pounding of her heart. There is a place she longs for, she can smell it almost; and yet still she is lost, still just following the river.

Somebody or something calls her name, though it is more a distortion – a susurration – caught up in the gush of the river flowing. A foxglove ugly in crimson sings to her as she passes. It opens one eye and releases a bee.

Once upon a time she was starving; now she craves only cigarettes. The world churns out its rot and rubbish. She moves on, the smoke filling up in her head.

She comes upon rows of bluebells, purple blue and beautiful; so startling a sight that momentarily she stops. The sun pours molten gold through the silhouetted trees, bringing light to the swaying bluebells. So many of them, so serene they seemed. There was something hazy about them, a mystical quality. Maurelle wanted nothing more but to crawl up among them, fade back into the soil and become a child again, endlessly sleeping and wandering. As she trod carefully among them, they seemed to speak to her; only their voice was a sparkle of a whisper, and who could hear? Who could possibly hear them? The breeze was upon them, and that was all.

Something was shifting as the sun set in the west and a cloud of violet light came down from the canopy; a kind of filtered moonlight made strange by the sinuous shapes of plants and flowers. What are these trees here? Maurelle cannot recognise the trees here. They are not native trees, but perhaps imports from foreign lands. She rubs her fingers over their coarse trunks, feeling the etching patterns of bark and enjoying the solidity. A secret unfolds inside every leaf. She would come here again in another life. These are not the trees she thought would grow here.

She cannot read the carvings in their trunks nor the words they seem to be saying, saying in the quiet moan of the night-born wind. Saying incantations.

A distant roar strikes up in the distance. Maurelle grows closer.

Running again, her skin flakes off as she sees the trees swell up around her. She notices that one has the same shape as the birthmark on her wrist, a dull pink strawberry. It is a wounded tree, its branches shattered and black as if recently struck by lightning.

The roar is louder now, becoming a kind of glistering cry, prolonged by the spray of sharp sound echoing out along the darkening space. Maurelle runs as if something were chasing her, as if she were running towards the thing that was calling her –

Waterfall. It smashes its liquid silver in spattering torrents down to the clear bright pool which shimmers with moonlight. The spray is cool and splashes upon her face as she stands there, absorbing herself in the ambient shout of water hitting upon rock and water hitting upon water. But not for long could she stop. Maurelle plunged deep into that enticing pool, the icy water enveloping her entirely, sucking in her body. All above was white, melting opal. Pulses of it like sound waves and she felt it dark and deep in her brain. The water is hungry and clear and pulling, and she feels her body pressing down, down; feels the gorgeous descent of the rushing currents and the roar in her freezing ears. The world is wiped out and she is a silky fish. Her cries are little giggles upon the water’s surface, and who would know her but the trees that watch the verdant scene like thirsty voyeurs. Who would know her? She is but a spirit of the forest, a distant ripple of some other mystery.

Prompts: strawberry, waterfall

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Grapes

A bowl of grapes sits on the windowsill. Forgotten for days, a layer of dust clusters on the waxy skins of the grapes. Once, the skins were iridescent, their purple a pure Cadbury sheen, bunched behind plastic in the supermarket. A colour, indeed, that seemed a little unnatural.

Once, they had been swollen and fat grapes, ripe for the plucking. Grown, the label said, in the south of France, by a man named Giuseppe. Their colour was rich enough to drool over; the kind of colour that feels sickly in your mouth, too vivid for your vision.

Now the grapes had collapsed a little, their skins shrivelled like a blister popped by a pin. You could imagine the cellophane surface of those grapes: sinking, the juice inside slowly moulding. A clammy wine flavour caught in your throat. Earthy, somehow; but still so acid sweet, leaving that languid aftertaste.

They caught the sunlight that spilled in shafts through the kitchen window. Late February and the light was still winter white, making the grapes gleam a little. From a distance, if you saw the world in impressionist brushstrokes, they could be a collection of amethysts – dull, unpolished crystals. There was the black shadow between them that semi-precious gemstones have, a kind of darker, other self, that took the edge off their luminescence.

How lovely they are, somebody thinks as they enter the kitchen. How lovely and sad, these grapes that we have all forgotten about. These grapes that would quench nobody’s thirst or hunger. Their musk left a cloying, fruity aroma in the air, like red wine left out in the heat uncorked. In a way, they were disgusting. And yet there was a purity to them, a rot or sombreness personified in their fleshly pulp. It was, perhaps, the trueness of their purple.

by Maria Sledmere

Crusoe’s Ghost

How strange to find myself here at last! Many months I have waited, through my dreams of turquoise shores to the pineapple sands and the shells that cut into your feet. In my sleep I opened myself like a clam to the possibilities. I would be anything – animal, even – to be here. And now I am.

What a wonder to be the only one, to own some place of my own. To have the luxury of knowing I cannot go back.

I do everything by the book. I erect my shelter, sow crops on the inland pastures, throw stones in the ocean and kill all the feral cats. I am never homesick; not for one minute.

Sometimes I find myself whispering, though what I say and to whom it cannot be said.

People do not appreciate the loveliness of loneliness until they have fully experienced it. There is an inexplicable beauty to be able to plot out one’s day, one’s hour, one’s life with absolute sovereignty. To reign free over every thought and feeling, to tread upon soil that can only be your own, with nobody to challenge it, nobody to challenge you at all. To have no worry of intrusion or offence; to have no worry of the soliciting of difference. I climb high for the coconuts and crack their skulls against the sandstone. Their pulpy juice is exquisite.

I have a herd of goats now, and a dog and a parrot, though they are not my companions. I keep them only because I am following the story. I do not speak and so the parrot learns no words, the dog obeys no orders and the goats do nothing but eat and sleep and secrete my milk. The whole island flourishes as the mother of my desires and yet still I owe her nothing but my company.

In the midday sun, I dig my toes into the sand and kill the little slimy things – the ones that crawl towards the shoreline, ugly and green.

I eat fleshy roots and summer berries, and from the tops of palms I watch the watery paradise that surrounds my island. All society has melted into the sweet sweet sea.

A year; two, three perhaps, have passed. I am no longer a name; I am no longer a human nor even an animal. I am the island itself.

This is perfect.

But everything changes one day. I wake from my goatskin sheets for my morning walk, and what do I see? I see a human footprint. A human footprint. And the terror bubbles up inside of me because I know that this footprint cannot belong to cannibals or savages or Spaniards, because that has already happened in the story. I try to erase the footprint with my boot, kicking sand over and over it, but it keeps reforming before me. And so I am no longer the whole; now I am a fractured reality, a host. For I realise this footprint can only be Crusoe’s ghost.

(Prompts: footprints photo, introvert, curiosity)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Segments

A blot of ink, a cough blurted over coffee. Beads of tarrish black gleam on a white page. No sunlight, not for days. The woman that owns the house thinks I’m crazy, coming in every two hours trying to feed me. Hot buttered muffins and crumpets. Flung out the window for the cats to pick at.

I keep a kettle in the room and drink only coffee. I use my shirt sleeve to blot the ink spill, grateful for the containing safety of my margins. I blow upon the paper. I hold it to the window to catch the soft breeze. Later, I will shut the window and close the curtains. I can hear the wheels of the milk van trundle on the cobbles, the commuters clacking to work in well-polished brogues, wielding unnecessary umbrellas.

The numbers unfold before me, aligning and realigning in perfect exactitude, moving in tweaks of nerves and synapses. It’s as if they anticipate me, as if each figure waits in a state of becoming; in the ever-near sense of the next line, the next scrawl added to an equation. The mistakes aren’t a frustration. I allow their implications to form for me, like geometric shapes that can be lifted and refitted into a new pattern. I fill up page after page, while downstairs the woman hums and clatters, sends food-smells up through the floorboards.

This kind of work doesn’t make you hungry. It’s a kind of permanent suspension, a voracious anticipation that propels fulfilment. For every knock on the door, I grunt at the distraction, sink back into the pool of numbers. A cycle, an eddy of sums shifting through infinities of figures.

You can go back, but once again you will be swept up in the forward logic, the oceanic pull of rationality that comes in waves.

Amber streetlight now glows through the closed curtains, as if waiting for me. I hear the murmurs and the swish of furs, the little clicks of heels. The kettle whistles from the grate, its steam rising thin and twisting from the charcoal smoke of the flames.

The problems continue to open for me, slowly, like a flower blossoming for a patient god.

Thumbing my notebook I flick through previous leaves, fingertips tracing pages filled with equations. Occasionally I pick out particulars, circling them with confident ink. They raise themselves from the paper, luminesce in the air, blend together. I follow them through an axis of logic, of physical pattern. My soul seeps into the beauty of these hieroglyphics, as they melt from meaning and back into atoms. It is a sign of tiredness.

More coffee, and the sounds of drunks spilling out of pubs. Those days at the university, sodden days of mildewed books and dank libraries; but ah, the ale in the evenings! The kind small barmaid with her look of curious pity. How strange, that one cannot forget the peculiar emerald of her eyes, the arch of her eyebrows a pleasing violation of my rectilinear vision. I saw almost everything else in boxes and parallels, blank space and straight lines. And how strange, that I never really spoke to her, and yet she knew me entirely. Ale on week-days, whisky on Friday. I knew the way she used to watch how I changed when I drank with my peers and professors. Our hands touched, brushed, as I handed over change. She disappeared into the shadows, polishing glasses and crushing mint for cocktails. Queer, how now I cannot recall her face, nor her hair. Only those jewel-eyes, those brows, the lingering scent of mint.

The ale in the evenings. Soothing. But numbers too have their pleasant effect, their mollifying smile of symbol and clarity. As good as any narcotic depressant. Now I’m slurping my supper from a tin of peaches. I like the combination of circle and straightness, and the ruptured disorder of the jagged edges. The fruit slices are syrupy, plastic, sliding off the taste of metallic.

There’s the muffled thrum of music from the pub across the road. Drips of juice trickle onto the desk, leave sticky marks on my notebook. This is why it’s easier not to eat; to be fleshless.

I’m closer now, closer than ever. I taste the equation on my tongue before it comes to me. As I write, I consume its ravishing sweetness. The drunks are sniggering outside, smashing glasses like they were fireworks. My hands move fast, etching out figures, graphs, shapes and lines. I feel the points arrange themselves, a constellation, a diamond cut of sharp numbers, sparkling to perfection. The problem bursts from me, through me, a sequence of eloquent letters on the page. And I look up to the dark, all-encompassing ceiling.

Tears spill on the paper, and mingle with the still-drying ink. In my ecstasy I remember her name.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: physics, sublime, tinned food

Flash

Cold polished concrete, hard on my feet. Walk in rain, diseased July. Imagine the pallor of the children’s faces, shivering waiting at the station.

The sign repainted: deep bottle green. Colour of restful indulgence, forests, rebirth. Gold letters, not a single one missing. Must be for the tourists.

That girl’s skirt all silk and egg-shell blue, the soft white of feathered thighs. Not cold, not now in July. A scarf round her neck. Follow her to the station, maybe. Not today.

Clock chimes. We’re not in Edinburgh; I don’t know the clock. Is there a clock? No guns to go off every hour. I think of what she’s thinking. Shiny plastic bag in her hand; full of what? Clothes or shoes or…apples, perhaps? Sweeps the hair back, contains it in an alice band. Isn’t that what they call it? Satin, red. Gleams. A gift from a lover? No, too young. Her father. See how it catches the greyish light.

Train’s not due in for another half hour. Go sit at the station, get out of the rain. Could do with an umbrella; never pleasant having that melted wet on your face. What soul, what soul is out there? People bumping into one another, huffing. Will follow her to the station; no. I’m going to the station. Pick up my ticket. Anyway.

Busy here, people coming shopping I suppose. All in bad mood from the weather. They’re not dressed for it. Sit on the stiff seats, made of rusted metal. Could do with having them painted over. Still, it’s the shell that counts. Feel like I’m hungry; maybe I’ll go to Marks. It’s green on their sign, like always. Green.

So awfully busy in there! The old women with their baskets. Shrivelled eyes like devils. Buying tissues and mints and bread in thin slices. A young man helps me at the checkout, poor lad with scarlet acne spotting his face. I go back to my seat, take the orange out of my carrier bag. It’s thick-skinned. The nail penetrates and releases sweet oil. I listen to the rustling voices. Skim back slips of tough peel, drop them to the dirty floor, for the pigeons. Biodegradable, the grandson once said.

Bells chime again. I bite into an orange slice. Bitter – very bitter! Another fifteen minutes till the train. Wonder about that thing in the newspaper this morning, the piece about the poor dead –

that her?! The girl again! I watch her walk in. So she was going to the station. Slip of silk, blue skirt against the white-walled background. Always right; uncanny powers of prediction. Clueless little thing, looking all about. Quite doll-like. Watch her as she floats about. Fruit juice sticky round the lips, sour scent stuck to fingertips. Wonder where she’s off to. Going home, I suspect. With that bag of hers. The pigeon comes and nibbles round my feet; hope it won’t shit on my shoes. Margaret only polished them the other day, when she came to take the old blood pressure…

She disappears for a bit, probably in to get her ticket. Maybe the toilet. White face smooth as a shell looking in the mirror to put on her lipstick. When I catch that flash of blue again she’s in the middle, staring up at the screen. All flickering; can’t focus it for my eyes. Two minutes till the next clock chime. Must get ready for my train. What platform?

The bell tolls and suddenly she’s jumping up and down – curious child. Recognises someone, I bet. Must get to my train. Yes. What platform? Sure enough, some man…yes, coming towards her. A lover, perhaps? wearing a suit? never know… I go through the barrier, turn around. About to see them together, in contact; one story in hold, one first embrace. Time, time’s like that; leaves you alone. Bite the last orange slice in my mouth, that sting in my throat. Turn round. They’re gone.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: Glasgow Central Station, a meeting of strangers, solitude

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