The Shadow Remedy

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She stopped at the crossing, pointlessly; the lights not turning, the still point of the evening inside her, even as deep as the scarlet pulp of her heart. On reflection, it had been quite a mistake to venture along so late at night, so far out into the dark avenue of tall trees and parked cars, silent as resting predators. The lamps here could hardly be called lamps at all, they were so dimly lit.

Still, the danger somewhat thrilled her. How easy it would be, for a stranger to slip out from behind that velvet curtain of black shadow! To come down on her from some awful place hidden within the trees, to reach out a cold hand round her ankles, her knees.

At first, she had left home on a mission. Her flatmate was ill, writhing on the sofa with spasms of nausea, a sickness that glowered in the greenish pallor of his face. He needed chamomile tea, some kind of medicine, a sheet full of special pills. It was three in the morning and her only hope was the giant Tesco’s over in Maryhill, which was 24 hours. Some part of her knew deep down that he could die if she didn’t pull through. All the while she walked, she could still hear his groaning.

Yet it no longer felt like being on a mission. She had given up the sense of direction; no longer cared whether she even made it to the strip-light temple of the superstore. All she wanted was to fade into the night, whatever that meant.

It was something about the darkness, the sense of disappearing.

Her mobile started ringing. Its bright blue flashing screen seemed obscene in the desolate silence.

“Hello?” The number was unknown, she did not want to give away her own name.

“Let me tell you a story,” came a rasping voice through the broken speakers (only last week, she had dropped her phone on the concrete).

“Who is this?” She stopped in her tracks, staring up and down the road, which now felt as long and wide as an infinite boulevard.

“There was once a girl who got lost in the night,” the voice continued, “who craved the full flesh of shadow, who let the spirits come to her, creep inside her skin.”

“Oh shut up,” she hissed, thinking it was a prank call; thinking perhaps it was her brother, turning a trick at her expense.

An ambulance passed, its shrieking music throwing her into blue and red disarray. Even when it was gone, she could still see the siren colours bleeding on the pavement.

“I need to go to Tesco,” she croaked, feeling the structure of her chest fall away into a tangle of limp muscle. “I need to get the medicine.”

“The girl went mad,” the voice said, “she was as thin and transparent as the air itself, all her thoughts just molecules, dancing and sick.” At this, she hung up the phone with a click. She dragged her limbs into action, starting to run, her feet clumping on the concrete, leaping over potholes and litter. She was not running towards Tesco; she had no idea where she was at all. Somehow it did not feel like her own body; she was dragging along some other corpse, its sinew shaking and spilling to the rhythm of an abstracted, pumping heart.

On the side of the road, Kelvingrove rose like the hypnotic turrets of Disneyland, its sandstone glowing blue and bloody pink. She was nothing but a smallness, running through the darkness, indistinct and misty as a smudge upon the glasses of a giant. Soon, the world would wipe her from existence.

She would be that tiny, writhing thing, her face green with sickness, her prom queen smile stretched out to a sinister grin.

The night would close upon her.

“I need to get the medicine,” she whispered, her voice merely a crackle on the other side of a phone line.

–Maria Sledmere

(Flash fiction February prompt: erase)

Upon the Granite Steps

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There are always people with backpacks, who enjoy running up and down flights of stairs. Their faces wobble like red jelly and their legs seem ready to snap from the movement and weight. You can see the bulging muscles, the eking curves of flesh. It would be fun to get one of them to sit still for long enough so that you could draw those muscles, the rather peculiar sculptures of those legs.

Lucas likes to come down to the steps sometimes, but not to run. He hasn’t run since college, when they made everyone do laps and tryouts for the football team, and he felt as awkward and gangly as an oversized pixie. No, Lucas just comes here to sit, to stretch his long limbs down the steps. He gets out a book maybe, but rarely does he read it. He likes being in Park Circus, surrounded by all the pretty houses and the vintage cars; he likes looking into the oval-shaped park in the middle, though it is always locked and closed to outsiders. Lucas tries to read, though the view is always so distracting.

From the top of these steps, you can see right out over the city. The Hydro, looking like a silver UFO, glittering in the chance appearance of sunlight. The SECC, like some ugly, metallic insect sent up from the Underworld. In the far distance, you see tiny windmills spinning invisible threads of energy. A handful of birds, bursting out of the skeletal trees. Lucas first came here in summer, when the trees were thick with leaves and you could hardly see anything past them, as if they were motherly, protective. Now, in winter, they are bare silhouettes. It would take hours and hours to draw their intricate, spindly branches.

Blue-grey clouds loom like plumes of industrial smoke. Lucas packs up his things. He has brought a sketchpad, and a few drops of rain have splashed onto the open page, blurring the ink. The skyline is a molten combination of black and blue, shallow water, spilt ink.

He thinks the clouds are like titans, the old gods who preceded the Olympians.

The rain comes down, thick and fast. It’s funny how sometimes rain can seem apocalyptic: it’s all in the pelting, diagonal motion. You could easily imagine those droplets as fireballs or bullets.

A random man comes round the corner, starts running up the stairs. He’s heaving the weight of a massive backpack, a grimace stuck to his face. Lucas, skinny in his jeans and impractical hoodie, watches with interest.

That is when the man slips. Face first, he collides with the concrete steps. Rain keeps pouring on top of him, its rushing filling the crushing space. He scrambles at the granite like a fallen child. Lucas, light as the wind, leaps down the steps to help the runner to his feet.

No man is a titan, he thinks, but maybe I can be Ariel.

— Maria Sledmere

(Flash fiction February prompts: Titan, diversity)

Bittersweet

Remember the day we went for pancakes, on that place on Byres Road? One of our long afternoons, those drops in the ocean that ripple out towards the edge of the world. I’m here at Granny’s thinking about it, like I always do. But today it feels different; sharper, somehow.

You know, Granny is sick; she won’t say it but I know she is. Whenever I’m round her house she always asks about you, and I haven’t the heart to tell her. I’m watching her knit by the fire right now, and we’re listening to the dulcet tones of a Radio 4 presenter talk about some conflict abroad.

“You know, you should have some more biscuits,” is all she says, “you’re getting thin as a rake!”

I remember it so clearly, sitting across from you as you poured syrup over your pancake, watching it ooze over the mushed banana and sprinkled cinnamon. You took so long to eat it, neatly cutting the tiniest forkfuls. There was no reason why it shouldn’t have been the perfect day. We even agreed to split the bill. After the food we walked along the river, all dappled by the afternoon sun, the green water dripping in the bridges we passed under. I liked the way our voices echoed in that close darkness; the way that down here where the Kelvin flows alongside bracken and trees you could be anywhere, anywhere but the city.

You were working yourself up to something, I could see it in your face.

I wonder now if I was worried; before it happened, I mean. Sometimes, sure, there were things you did that I couldn’t make sense of. A way that you used your silences. It was as if you wanted to erase yourself when I spoke to you, but it wasn’t like this all the time. We were great in the starry nights back home where we could walk around the village and sit on benches in the graveyard pretending we were old folks, nattering all sorts of nonsense and talking of war and ghost stories.

We were great, too, in the rare days out in the city; days like this. I swear.

You waited till dark to do it. It must have been a comfort to you. We were in Botanic Gardens, and all the children had been driven home, the dogs gone, the air itself seeming a stranger. I didn’t recognise such quietness in the city; even the busy road outside was oddly depleted. You were still talking to me when the man was driving about in his van trying to get people to leave so he could lock the gates. I don’t know why you did it but you held my hand the whole way through, telling me what I suppose I should have already knew.

But I didn’t and I didn’t want to and I still don’t.

You got the clockwork orange to take you back to the station and I watched you descend the escalator as if I wouldn’t see you again, not ever. I sat at the bar in The Curler’s Rest and drank whisky for the first time, not noticing the way it scalded my throat. I slept in a hostel that night in a room with a bunch of teenagers discussing their sex lives; when I woke up my pillow was sodden with tears and I felt purged and hollow as a weather-beaten dream.

I suppose you remember that day differently.

Granny always said you were lovely, and I wish that loveliness would stop haunting me.

“Johnny, would you like me to make you some pancakes?” she asks. She is a darling, the only person in the world that would remember that it’s Shrove Tuesday.

Together by the fireside we sit and eat. I bite through the crunch of sugared lemon, feel the slipperiness on my tongue. Bittersweet.

(Prompts: pancake, sun, knitting)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Love and Other Visions

Christmas time and the fair had come to George Square again. Alisha went with her friends and watched as they whizzed around on the waltzers and queued for the chairoplane.

“Why aren’t you joining in?” they asked her. She told them she was afraid of heights.

The colours and lights were giving her a headache. Nicki Minaj blasting on a sound system that was illegally concealed in a carousel. The smell of hot chips and donuts and the slobbery breath of too much drinking. Alisha was almost thirty; she was too old for this.

The more she stood staring, the more her head started pounding. A flush spread over her cheeks and the tingling stung the surface of her skin.

“Oh fuck,” she whispered. It was returning. The screams shrilled louder, merging into white lines of terror in the air. They fired light into her eyes that burned and burned, and she could not stop shaking with the sensation that her brain was swelling, swelling, her skull tightening and the throbbing not stopping. She tried to close her eyes but then the visions came to her: she saw the amoeba dance with all the shimmer shapes coming off of it in trails of hail, needles stuck through bullet holes tattooed along a body…her boyfriend’s body. The boy she had not seen in years…and his mouth was a jagged hole punched in glass; she reached for his cheek but her fingers went through it, felt the silvery liquid pixelate against her skin. People flying through the sky, screaming, falling – the chaos of things colliding. A metallic taste on her tongue and she felt herself falling backwards, her body involuntarily shuddering, slipping down, down to that gaping space below her – a chasm of fiery stars, insects dripping horrid oil  and the putrid smell of cordite that she could not place – not quite – she looked at her arms, trying to find something solid, but they opened up to her – she saw the red flesh of muscle as in a medical textbook, veins oozing and wriggling with the heads of snakes. The ache, the ache, the ache.

“No!” she cried out, but no-one was listening…

Children’s laughter, echoing out, morphing into banshee shrieks. The veins criss-crossed to form a colossal knot that pulsed and juddered like a human heart. She wanted to touch it, to untangle it, but the black slime stuck to her fingers like molasses and now there were shadows coming towards her and her tongue was – she could not feel her tongue! – she felt the clammy swallow of absence in her throat and sank back against the railings. A luminous sun was upon her, bright rays raging over her face. Love, love, love it sang. Love, love – then there was distortion, radio-crackle and harshness…she thought how all she wanted to do was fall back into that starry space…that blackness…

Something strong hauled her up and she felt the world reassemble again. Patches of reality: a pram, a carousel, a string of Christmas lights blinking in her vision. Some terrible pain lurched in her chest and still she could not speak. She waited and waited, struggling to breathe.

“Alisha, what’s wrong?” She recognised, finally, the face of her friend Sarah standing with a security guard in a high-vis jacket. Alisha could not help it; she turned round and vomited over the railings. She felt the disapproving stare of mothers; she was too old for this to be happening.

“Was it the donuts?” Sarah asked, looking concerned. The security guard disappeared to deal with a bunch of teenagers drunkenly trying to kick in the ice sculptures. The sound of glass shattering burst in Alisha’s head.

“N-no,” she stuttered, “it’s just…I…something bad happened here once.” She stared down at the smooth surface of her wrists and felt a swell of relief; the sight of solidity, of her own milky skin – even the gurning of her jaw and gums – that was real, that was love.

(Prompts: fairground photo, accident, flashback)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

He Sees Them Now

People say you will see hearses all over the place after you had a death in your family or among your friends.
In his life, it has not only been the hearses. When he trained to drive a car, he spotted the big red L on every second car and when he and his wife tried to have a child, the whole town seemed to be flooded by pregnant women and parents with prams. Now he sees drunken persons everywhere. It is weird to see how what seems to be a natural law also applies in this context.

Admitting that he has a problem has been a big step for him. Over all these years he hasn’t allowed himself that his newly found friend might not be a friend at all. The alcohol helped him to forget the hearse he kept seeing even years after Susan’s and Patrick’s fatal car crash. It also helped him to cope with the loss of his job (which he only lost because of his drinking). It made him feel numb, shutting out all those unpleasant emotions and thoughts that would have troubled his sober mind. Of course, he was not emotion-free but his latent aggression did not bother him at all just as he did not care for his shivering hands and absent-mindedness.

Until last Christmas. He was at his sister’s house, one of the few persons who still bore spending time with him. His sister and her husband had to leave the house for less than half an hour to give their parents a lift home. Only a short period of time but long enough for his niece to fell off the stairs and on her head. He could not make the emergency call. His fingers trembled and could not push the buttons of the phone. In the end, he made his eight-year-old nephew call the ambulance. When his sister came back, she found him sitting in an armchair shivering and sobbing worse than usual. He whispered: “I think I have a problem!”

Three months have passed since then. Once a week he attends the self-help group meetings. It is far from easy. Sometimes he catches himself buying a bottle of whisky but most of the time he manages to bring it back before he opens it.

On his way to the group he passes a bus stop and a park. At least one man or woman smelling of alcohol lingers there every day. He used to protest against the stereotype of the Glaswegians as perpetual drinkers, he felt insulted when his brother-in-law or a colleague made a comment on that and assured them that this might have been a problem of the past but not anymore and that modern Glasgow was so much more then drunken people. He is still convinced that Glasgow does not have more or less alcoholics than any other big city but he sees them now.

(Prompts: Stereotype map – Glasgow)

by Rut Neuschäfer

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

42! Life, the Universe and everything on then Cathcart circle.

Glasgow must be the only place in the world where they have built two railways that go nowhere. There’s the dinky wee subway that has been chasing its own tail under the streets of the Second City for years.
Then there’s the Cathcart Circle, or to give it its Sunday name, the Cathcart District Railway where the trains begin and end their journey in the cavernous interior of Glasgow Central station. The Circle was built to cater for the affluent parts of the ‘Sooth Seid’ (Anglice:- South Side) There were no stations in the Gorbals or Hutchiesontown. In steam days before the age of the automobile dawned, special stock was built with a higher proportion of first class than usual. The ‘circle’ was a very special railway.

When I planned my escape from the hell of the ‘Communications department’ at what was then called ‘Buccanan house’ I found myself as what was then termed a ‘Traction Trainee’ Appointed to initially the Glasgow south Electrics. As I waited for my seniority to build, I found myself on the spare links, during which time I worked mostly on the ‘Magic Roundabout’ The Shift controller was a guy who will remain nameless but was always known as Gorgeous George. He had an attitude problem, serious B.O. and a pair of moobs that Dolly Parton would be proud of. About the kindest thing one could say about Gorgeous George was that he was an unconscious arsehole. Given that he resembled a pregnant elephant, some have wondered if he was the inspiration for W.H. Awdrey’s ‘Fat controller’ Not that Gorgeous George had the sartorial elegance of sit Topham Hatt, usually he looked like an explosion in a rag store.

It was once said that on the occasion of an old firm football match at Ibrox, a much higher than usual percentage of SPTE staff would call in sick. Anyone who has worked a Circle train when there’s a big match at Hampden will know the feeling. To drive a 303 unit with a full load of Rangers supporters giving a lusty rendition of ‘The Sash My Father wore’ accompanied by full percussion accompaniment on the bulkhead behind you is quite an experience. Same goes for when those loveable louts from the East End were singing about Ireland’s favourite sons. At least if it was Partick Thistle’s travelling support, there was a chance that all seven of them would travel in the back coach.
Naturally one could get somewhat pissed off by this spectacle but there were ways to strike back. You could fail the train somewhere that would guarantee that you would not only detain a train of idiots but ensure that no other train would ever make it to Mount Florida much before the final whistle.  Naturally that didn’t make you flavour of the month with Gorgeous George but got you extra brownie points among your fellow drivers.

On one other occasion, I found myself on a late night train headed not for the circle but for Gourock. On that particular evening, the Scottish
National team had been playing another ‘Vital’ match against some country that amounted to little more than a speck in the North Atlantic or a hill in Italy. I know not, or care less exactly who they were playing that night only that the result was ‘Disappointing’ (I.E, they were comprehensively taken apart)but according to the (Then)National Coach Andy Roxburgh, It was  ‘always going to be a difficult fixture’.
Anyway, to the action. This particular working was full of kilted idiot with tartan scarves and crates of beer. (This before the alcohol ban) They were noisy but no real trouble, unlike the Old Firm yobbos who were prone to sundry acts of naughtieness. The only problem was that as the 303’s had no toilets, they had a habit of peeing in empty beer cans and throwing them out of the window which could be unpleasant for the guard.
Anyway, all went well until, pulling away from Port Glasgow, the train came to a shuddering halt. Someone had pulled the ‘chain’ the communication device for use in an emergency. I took the appropriate action and wound the handbrake on as it was necessary in those days to reset the thing manually. Now the train was stopped on the bridge at the end of Port Glasgow station and a slip on leaving the cab here could mean a potentially fatal fall to Balflour street below. Gingerly, I climbed to the ballast and walked along with my lamp. I identified by the ‘flag’ that the alarm had been pulled in the front coach. Using the manual door actuating valve I opened the doors of the rear door. Inside ther was silence. The kilted ones were muted.
‘WHO PULLED THE CHAIN?’ I demanded in my most authoritarian voice. I was just ever so pissed off. No answer. The guard, Gordon ‘the Greek’ Graham was making his way forward from his van.
‘Right Gordon!’ I shouted. ‘Call the polis!’
‘RIGHT!’ Gordon replied.
‘Excuse me?’ came a timorous voice from ones of the kilted ones.
‘It was me, by the way!’
‘WHY?’ I snapped.
‘Er, My scarf was hanging over it and I pulled it by mistake.’ He said sheepishly.
‘Well, DON’T hang your scarf over it!’ I growled. ‘That’s not what its for!’ I closed the doors again, and reset the mechanism. We continued on our way to Gourock without any further incident but most of the kilties had alighted and sidled off into the night by then.

Many years have elapsed since the 303’s went to the big depot in the sky and even more since I ceased my wanderings on the ‘circle’ but I will never forget my days on the ‘Magic roundabout’

by Jane Helen Jones
What were your prompts?: Spectacles, Gorgeous, Automobile.