The Turtle Dove

Out on the rocks. The seagulls were calling ceaselessly. It was the same each day, they screamed and screamed, but I wondered why…why did they screech so, when they were free?

I had a little turtle dove, I had raised it from a chick. It perched upon my hand, so light and fragile. Each morning, I would let her out through the open window of my little tower room, overlooking the sea. She would wheel and wheel away, further and further, until she was lost in the mist. Then I would come for my daily walk, meander across the rocks, perch at the edge of the outcrop of the bay. Warmer days I would bathe my feet in the stinging salt sea, colder ones I curled up in the bay, wrapped in shawls. I spent hours each day watching the tide move in and out in its tireless dance. Back and forth. Out and in. Just like me it spent each day the same. I could no sooner change my rhythm than the tide could – not until the boat came in.

When I returned to my bedroom, I always found my little turtle dove, perching on the windowsill. No matter how far she flew, she always returned. I thought, my love must come back too, like my turtle dove. He will find me again. But at the same time, each time I let her fly free I thought, this time…this time she will not come home.

That is why each time I stayed a little longer on the rocks. I waited a little longer, because I was afraid to return to an empty room. And because my eyes were so trained upon the horizon, I sometimes froze there like a figurehead. Come back to me, come back…I willed it, I willed it so hard, wished so hard with my eyes tight shut, some days I was sure some spell would awaken inside me and I would open my eyes to see his boat coming in to the bay, shining a light, the bell ringing; he waves at me, he is all brown and his hair is a little grey…

It is so cold now on the rocks. Today I stayed an hour and ten minutes. I can’t feel my feet, and it’s starting to drizzle. I climb the stairs of the tower, I climb and climb and I open the door, and there’s nothing on the windowsill, and the cage is empty, in fact there is no cage at all! Where is my cage! Where is my turtle dove! Where is my lover!

“Mrs Perdew,” says the nurse. “Come and sit down. It’s cold, I’ll put some more coal on the fire, and I’ll get a pan to warm the bed. You mustn’t wonder off like that. You must eat something Mrs Perdew. My word, Mrs Perdew, you’re quite pale…”

By RN
(Prompts: crave, rock, [painting of woman with bird])

Little Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

(William Blake, ‘The Lamb’).

A cloudless morning with the glint of spring and smell of distant woodsmoke. Graham was shifting hay for the horse, the strain in his back wrenching every time he bent and lifted the pitchfork. The horse kicked and snorted in the stable opposite, impatiently awaiting her new abode. Jasmine was a haughty one, a retired racehorse whose bulging muscle helped drag the old carts over the field when the trailer broke down – which, these days, it often did. Every now and then, Graham stopped his work to give Jasmine a Polo mint and a hearty pat on the flank.

“Makes me sad to see you upset,” he cooed to her, “I’ll be finished soon.” Jasmine sniffed.

This was the last spring that Graham would spend on the farm. He was fifty five years old and had lived there all his life. The thought of leaving pained him more than the crick in his spine.

The task was to clean up the land and the barns and sort everything before summer. The architect kept ‘popping round’ to inspect the grounds and survey the house, but aside from dishing out cups of tea, Graham and his family did their best to ignore him. It was unbearable to be reminded of what was soon to happen.

Graham’s wife, Marjorie, had pulled down all the old junk from the loft. There were books with mouldy pages, miniature soldiers, a typewriter they had sold for twenty pounds in a local jumble sale. One of the few things they had kept was a toy lamb. Its label was frayed and it had lost some of its fluff, but was still soft and awfully sweet, with bright little marble eyes. Marjorie had hand-washed it in the sink, gently scrubbing the attic’s must and muck from its fur. Watching her in the kitchen through the twinkling dust particles, Graham felt he had never loved his wife more. Thirty two years and nothing came between them.

Graham decided to give the lamb to his grandchild, Ella. She needed something to remind her of her roots. When his son Andrew had told him he was going for a job in the city, Graham had tried not to show his disappointment.

“It’ll be a good life, Dad,” Andrew had said as they looked out over the wheat fields, “with good pay and security. Times are changing.”

Yes, times were changing. There was no denying that now.

There was the ever-plunging price of dairy; the endless inspections; the cost of upgrading machinery. People leaving the village because rural life simply wasn’t feasible these days.

Once, Graham had held visions of his daughter inheriting Jasmine, galloping across the fields with her glossy copper hair streaming behind her like reeds underwater. There would be homemade jam and Sunday breakfasts, early mornings of pearly dawn, showing his children how to milk and lamb and clean the cows. But his son was a lawyer, and his daughter had died, years ago now. Her ashes were scattered out in the hills, where the wind-turbines went on endlessly spinning. Soon, when they were forced to leave all they had ever known, there would be nothing left of her memory.

It was getting towards twilight now, and Graham had set off to bring the animals in. The sky was darkening with amethyst clouds as the crescent moon revealed herself, tired and wan. He too had never felt so weary. The collie dog was on her best behaviour and soon the sheep were under shelter, but he was having some trouble with the cows. He stood upon the hill shouting as if he were calling to the elements themselves. He shook and howled; he knew he was losing it. Droplets of rain began to fall on his face, mingling with his tears. Growing ever more violent, the crying sky splashed down on the soil and filled the holes in his boots.

Finally the cows were inside and Graham was trudging back towards the farmhouse, soaked to the skin. Just then, he saw a familiar car pull up in the drive. It was his son’s immaculate BMW, now apparently streaked with a line of mud. Graham heard the doors slam shut and the sound of voices. It was Ella, singing! Even with the cold rain dripping down his neck, the simple melody filled him with warmth. He rushed inside to join them.

“Bloody bushes caught the side of my car, you need to get them cut back Dad.” It was the first thing Andrew said to him. This time, however, Graham ignored his whiny voice.

“What’s the point when we’re leaving so soon?” He sighed.

They all sat down for Marjorie’s best steak pie, but when she looked at her plate, Ella protested that she’d become a vegetarian. Surprised but with a smile, Marjorie rustled up some pasta and ruffled the girl’s ginger hair as she served it to her.

“It’s just wrong to hurt animals,” Ella explained as she tucked into her dinner. And as Graham lifted a forkful of pie to his lips, he paused. He thought of the sorrow of market day, the poor beasts he’d had to sell because they were getting next to nothing for their milk. He thought of the chickens killed for their dinners, and the people that came in trailers to take away the lambs.

“You know, that reminds me of something.” Decisively, he put down his knife and fork and pushed away his plate. He left the room and Andrew and Marjorie exchanged confused glances, though nothing would keep them from their food.

A few moments later, Graham returned with the cuddly lamb. Something Ella had said struck a chord in his memory.

“I’ve got a little present for you,” he knelt by his granddaughter’s chair as he handed it to her, “I think you should have it, more than anyone else in the world.” Ella looked at him with shining eyes as she took the lamb and pressed its softness to her pink cheeks.

“Oh she’s lovely!”

“Lovely indeed,” Graham agreed. The toy had, of course, belonged to his own daughter. It was the missing piece; the only thing they could take away when they had to leave. And in Ella’s hands, Graham knew she would live on in the sweet innocence that had so suddenly been stolen from her.

Jasmine, now, would only live on as long as her legs weren’t lame, and the other animals would probably be taken away. The land might be tainted with steel and concrete. But at least Graham could leave behind the cruelties he now recognised. He could pass on the tiny piece of spirit that would never leave these hills. The spirit of sunlight and sadness, freedom and laughter; the spirit of his daughter.

(Prompts: rain, pitchfork)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Watercolours

He came here for the first time long ago. At least, long seems the correct word to use now: long rolling off the tongue in the way that time bites back, elastic. It had been so long since he had first sat on the dewy grass with his watercolours, filling the crisp blank pages with the scenes around him. Long, languid days with the pleasures of easy tranquillity. The quaint arrangement of herbaceous borders, trellises, lush tufts of beard-grass clumped by a pond of goldfish. Silken ripples of afternoon sunlight, passing its lustrous smile over neatly-cut lawns and the silhouettes of apple trees. With fine calligraphy, he had captioned each sketch with a mood or a month or a colour indicative of the season. People had a lust for the simple indulgence of words. Later, he had that early sketchbook bound in purple velvet, and now it waited in his study, collecting dust. His clients never wanted the old works; he was always grappling with their desire for the new.

*

The roses slithered from the flower beds, their speckled petals shrivelled and dying in memories of summer. The fountain, once a glory of sparkling granite, gushing forth its streams of silver, has frozen solid. A sheet of white ice is splintered with little cracks and fissures that pattern it in suspended rivulets. An old woman leans over the edge, muttering so quietly that she cannot be heard over the brisk chatters of the breeze. No such breeze should pass through these gardens. She draws her finger over the ice, gathering the frost crystals under her nails.

She remembers the first time she saw those magical watercolours. A time before, where glissades of daylight would pull her from her dreams and she would look in the mirror and have her little wish. But the world, of course, would have to corrupt her. There was no going back to this Eden; no matter the stacks of platinum she wore on her fingers, no matter, no matter…

You penetrate the ice: the water gushes forth, cold and sharp. It slushes round your nerves and bubbles like boiling blood, slushes around till you’ve forgotten what it was. Fire and ice; cold and hot. Stop.

The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by blending blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.

*

Icicles snap from the tips of the fountain; their glass cracks fragments over the pink paving stones. It is still too cold for them to melt. They will remain, like chips of colourless chrysoberyl. Each one indifferent; each one, alone.

*

She feels herself glitter and fizz in this garden; she is a girl once again. She picks up a piece of ice and holds it tight until it melts. The water bleeds from between her fingers and she looks to the sky, gasping. There is no sky; no heaven in this garden. Everything liquid and melting. She feels herself falling upwards, upwards into that long, azure void. The water drips down and she smells it dissolve through the earth. She too will return to that earth.

The first time he showed her the sketchbook, she thought he was mad: mad to depict such a place of perfection, a place that could not exist. The others turned out their pockets and spent fortunes on the paradise he sold. Now, they were nothing but the spirit wisps of clouds in the sky. A sky she no longer knew.

For every time she awoke in the garden, old and wrinkled and frail as she was, she felt strange and new. She felt her own soul carried off in the milky rills of the river, carried beyond the borders of Paradise. She had no desire to leave the garden, not ever.

She plucked the dead head of a rose and sat it upon the fountain water. She felt the world drift away from her, growing evermore strange and remote. And then she knew that spring was coming, because the ice began to crack and the rose stayed afloat.

(Prompts: consumer, garden, time)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

This Skin

The sickness that I feel is very specific. It’s linked to the way I don’t want to wake up, though every fibre of life is tugging me away from this dream. There’s a certain way that I’ll remember the words you say to me, how they flourish and expand in the quickening air. For you cannot breathe in these spaces, not for too long. The dust and the dryness will flake the layers off of you, will leave you clean and unlovely as a littered shell. This place holds our pleasures, the memory of our perishing. You would do well to clear things, you would do well to forget them.

Is it your hands I see, pressed up against the glass? You would think that, having known you this long, I would have memorised exactly the motif of your fingerprints. The glossy whorls and swirls and the lifeline, fractured in the middle by uncanny premonitions. But I do not know your palms from a strangers; at least, I did not then. You are lost and longing to get in; you feel the warmth of this room where they have locked me up for eternity. It is a peculiar irony that in this attic, you are the ghost excluded, liquid and flimsy; and I impossibly solid, the mortal body within.

I close my eyes to the perilous sound of gushing water, the black streams around me, pulling and pulling; I feel my body tugged and twisted by the current, and the river bears me up as a mother births her child. Monstrous and unbecoming, evolving in its loss of power and being. The pain is the same; the breathless theft of consciousness. The hum and rush of everything happening. As I awake, I am on the stony ground, convulsing like a beached fish. You have pulled me out of the water and your arms are strong, white and goosefleshed, still quivering. I look up, dazed, into your eyes. I see the emerald green: the soul of a forgotten child. All time is quiet, the very leaves on the trees around us flutter in the breeze, mesmerised. I would let you kiss me, in the silver and chill of the river; I would let you kiss me, in this skin, dappled with hours of playful daylight.

I would let you kiss me. How strange to whisper it now.

(Prompts: attic window photo, longing, mesmerise)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Paradise Missing

Granny used to take us to this park, when we were children. She’d walk us halfway across the city, her little court shoes clacking on cobbles. Sometimes she’d dodge across the road, not bothering to wait for traffic. Things stopped for her; she didn’t stop for them. She’d have one of us on each hand: James on the left, me on the right, both giggling with delight.

“Children!” she’d boom, “this is a splendid day! A golden day among millions, and not to be wasted!” People would stare at her in the street, stare at the crackling fire of her eyes and smile. Her special park was tucked away behind a labyrinth of secret paths and alleyways. There’d often be beggars, crouched in the shadows. Granny always had a pinch of a penny or two, a flick of silver that she’d drop in their cups.

“That’s for your tea, love,” she’d say smartly. They’d smile up at her in amazement, with her nodding back primly and us children wide-eyed as alley cats.

This garden, this park, it was roughly a kind of hexagon. I worked this out as soon as I could count, could place it in my book of geometry, a photo stamped from mind to page. Vines and sweet peas sprawled up the walls, while tulips and sunflowers and marvellous roses sprung out at you in lovely clusters. It was all so pretty and full of peace, a sanctuary from the busy city. And James and I, well, we’d run around crazy – chasing each other, rolling in the soft lawn, smelling everything, naming every bird and plant and bee as if we were Adam bestowing language upon Eden. Granny, on the other hand, would sit on a wooden bench shaded by this old willow.

“Resting my bad legs,” she’d say. We thought she was pretending, that she never needed resting. She watched us dance and laugh in play, smiling away to herself. I could never tell what she was thinking; was she happy, sad, did she miss her youth? When I got bored of James I’d sit beside her on the bench, and she’d let me plait her beautiful hair. It had once been a princess’, long and golden; it was still long, but now streaked with ash and silver.

“Rapunzel,” I’d sing to her.

It was only when the church bells chimed that we realised the real world. Granny would exclaim, “Oh gosh! The time!” and she’d rush along, as if terrified of worrying our mother. As soon as we left that park, we were never quite sure if we’d really been there; its verdant beauty seemed to melt into unwashed windows, bleak streets, the coarse grey of concrete.

On the way home, she’d stop at a fudge shop and buy us anything we liked. I always chose hazelnut praline; James scoffed white chocolate and Granny would take a rum and raisin and wrap it in paper for later. We always ate ours straightaway, our cocoa-smeared faces giving the game away, while Granny would wait until after supper. While we did our homework, I watched her out of the corner of my eye, nibbling the fudge and sneaking whisky into her tea. When she died, Mother found the empty stash in the old dog’s kennel, an array of oaky smells and bottles that glittered in brilliant green. It was just like Granny, the silly maid, Mother said. Always up to no good.

After work on Fridays, I still go back to that fudge shop, though the man that owns it doesn’t know me. Why would he recognise me, after all these years? Sometimes though, I feel like he senses something in me; a spark, something of Granny’s, maybe. Mother said she was always getting into trouble, having fun behind everyone’s back – even in her seventies.  The old man at the fudge shop – he must be ninety-odd now – always gives me free samples, throws them in gift bags, glints a yellow smile. But all that sugar is a hollow kind of sweetness, a brief comfort. Rain or shine, storm or snow, every Friday I’m always looking for that garden, wandering the city from road to road. When I find it, I’ll get back to her heart, get back to my youth. Until then, I can only remember and look, lost in my trapping gratitude – the memory of how lovely it all seemed. Yet as time goes by, I begin to think that the garden didn’t exist at all; that maybe it was one of Granny’s perfect dreams.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: gratitude, generation, bench [picture]

Redolence

I hold the bottle, close to my nose. Its smooth glass fits perfect in my hand. Lift the stopper, relish the pop. Silky notes of mandarin and bergamot; and as I breathe in deep I can almost taste the jasmine, the middle notes.
“It’s perfect,” I say to the woman who drifts behind the counter, drumming her fingers on its surface.
“Quite a rare one, not the most popular,” she replies tartly, “but yes, unique, perfect for a young girl like you…with nothing to lose.” I have no idea if she is being complimentary, or cold. She takes a fresh bottle from a draw and wraps it in tissue paper, slips it in a box and ties it with a little bow. I slide her a hundred pound note. She almost snorts.
“Well, I haven’t seen one of these in a few years.”
“I’ve been keeping it.” I’m worried then that she might not accept it. “Saving up. Waiting.”
“Oh, it can go through our tills, rest assured,” she says dismissively, sensing my concern. She gives me a handful of shiny coins in change, and I thank her from the depths of my heart. I’m imagining that swirling explosion of orange blossom, musk and vanilla; the mingling of fruit and flower, as I spray it on, later. As I leave the store, the eye contact we exchange is filled with the gratitude of religious rapture; she – this shop-woman – is my wonderful priestess, handing me the key to happiness.

Five years later.
The police are still continuing their investigation, although the general consensus is that hope is pointless, that she’s lost forever. They found her car, with an empty bottle of whisky and packet of pills by the cliffs, where the sea roars an eternity at the land. A popular spot, they said. But then there was other evidence: credit card usage in foreign countries, a strange letter left in her mother’s kitchen, dated a few days after her disappearance. A scarf they found at a service station, still smelling of her perfume.

Sometimes I sit on the edge of our bed, because I can’t bear to sleep in it (can’t bear to sleep at all) and our room has become a kind of tomb; or at least, a lost space, a limbo – a place neither here nor there. I pick up bits of her possessions (old possessions, I suppose) and think about their existence. Why are they still here, when she’s gone?

Then I find her perfume. It feels profane to spray it, to release that aroma that conjures sickening waves of nostalgia. It’s a scent that clings to all her clothes, that I remember emanating from her hair, her neck when she spoke, when we moved close.

But I can’t help but spray it. It’s like there she is, inside the bottle, all her words simmering in its potent matter. I squeeze the atomiser and it hits my senses, fills the room and waters my eyes. Mandarin, bergamot, vanilla, jasmine. The luxury of love; some Eastern garden.

In every droplet of scent there’s the late nights of Amaretto coffees, flickering tv shows playing out the white noise to our kisses; words dissolving in the pale dawns. I suddenly know, suddenly live in her fury; there’s that tearing, where the world is scorched by our sense of an ending, by the abyss inevitably impending. I put the bottle down, stand over by the window. I see the silhouette of the old willow tree, the sweeping shadows of birds, of things alive. There’s another sunrise, again, another faithful dawn.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: new perfume, memory, worry