June 2016 Competition winners are-
First Prize: Jess Snowdon of Burntwood for ‘Helatide’
Second Prize: P.J. Stephenson of Switzerland for ‘Writing Home’
Third Prize: Joanne Shaw of Derby for ‘Journey to the Window’
There are many things I’m uncertain of, sitting here on this platform, but of one thing I’m sure: Somebody doesn’t belong here.
I steal another glance at the blonde-haired teen sat on the floor in front of me as he strums a tune on his guitar. His head is down as he watches his own fingers produce a melody that none of the rest of us enjoy. And yet, for his sake, we say nothing. He’s not playing to pass the time; he’s not even playing to impress us. I suspect he plays because the silence of this unearthly platform makes him uncomfortable, and he knows why he’s here.
Beside me, curled up with her legs drawn into her chest, is a young woman. She rests her chin on her knees, keeping herself closed from everybody else. Her hijab is untidy. Strands of hair fall in front of her eyes as though she’d fixed her appearance in a hurry. Her expression is blank and I want to ask her how long she’ll stare at that crack in the floor tiles for. She knows why she’s here, but not the reason.
Alone, at the far end of the platform, sits a hunched figure in a black coat, turned away from the rest of us. He perches on a concrete block with his knees spread apart and his elbows rested upon them. I’ve been staring at him for a while now and he hasn’t moved. I’m not even sure he’s breathing. He’s been here the longest and now he grows exhausted. This man knows why he’s here, and he’s waiting for the train like an old dog awaits its master’s return.
The remaining two are a couple covered in blood. The man – in his early thirties and dressed in what was once a perfectly ironed suit – cradles his girlfriend. His fingers dig into the bruised skin on her arms, leaving pale circles whenever he readjusts his grip. The woman sobs under her breath; her grief is evident in the pink flush of her eyes and the way her hands fidget with the hem of her dress. She doesn’t want to cry in front of her partner, but she knows why she’s here and it’s consumed her. I sense her boyfriend also knows why he’s locked down here on this platform, but he’s only fooling himself if he thinks he can undo his fate before the train arrives.
Lastly, I gaze at the announcement board for the Helatide and heave a sigh. What did I expect would change? There are no departure times, no stops, no destinations written in those LED letters. The announcement board has been broken since I got here. Behind me is the track that the train runs on: a single blue beam of light pulsating like the screen on a heart-rate monitor. I’ve never seen a train run on a track like that before and I have to wonder how it works. And where does it go?
Over to my left, the boy begins to hum to his tune. He’s probably never heard himself sing before, or none of his friends and family ever had the kindness to tell him he’s tone deaf. But the silence is worse. Still, none of us chide him. The bedraggled soul beside me bores her gaze further into the cracked floor tile, the couple a little farther away turn a deaf ear to the world, and the mysterious man at the far end of the platform hunches still as a gargoyle.
How much longer will this wait continue? I shouldn’t complain; I only have myself to blame for being here. The whole adventure had been my stupid idea. I, too, know the reason I’ve wound up on this platform. I sense every one of us knows our situation even if we don’t understand it, and yet something isn’t right. One of us doesn’t belong here. Why can’t I get it out of my mind?
The man in the black coat gets to his feet and all heads in the room turn in his direction except for the teenager’s. The man stands for a moment, listens, and his fists curl.
“Cut it out,” he growls. I note his American accent.
The boy stops mid-strum and lifts his gaze. I make eye-contact with him and nod towards his guitar.
“About time,” the man says.
“Who, me?” asks the boy. He sounds too cheerful. Too annoying. “Something up with my playing?”
“If you knew what kind of place this is, you wouldn’t be doing anything at all. Just sit still, shut up, and wait for the train like the rest of us.”
The boy puts his guitar down on the tiles with deliberation. “I know what kind of place this is,” he replies. I have to commend his boldness. “I’ve known for two years I’d wind up here.”
I lift my chin. “Two years?”
He shrugs. “Cancer,” he says, and his gaze falls on the track behind me. His deep brown eyes flash with each pulse of blue light. Finally the man sits again, resuming his brooding.
“You?” the teen says to me.
“I guess I drowned,” I answer. “I totally thought I could make it ...”
The memory still brings me shame. I hope my friends don’t blame themselves for leaving me behind. I hope my parents still find some pride in me even though I’d always been a reckless idiot. “I was ... exploring. You know, some caves off the coasts of Sri Lanka. Thought it would be fun to get high there; make a cool story of it when I returned home. The tide came in and my friends and I got trapped, and I ... guess I didn’t get out in time.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
I sigh again. “Shit happens.”
“Careful what you say.” The young woman beside me wraps her arms around her legs.
“What happened to you?” the teen asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“And where else can you talk about it?” grunts the man in the black coat. “We’re all here for the same thing.”
I touch the girl’s arm. “You don’t have to tell anybody, if you’d rather not.”
“I never want to relive that moment,” she whimpers. “Never. There was nothing I could do ... I couldn’t save myself from them.”
“Shh. It’s okay.”
“Hey,” the teen says, turning to the distressed couple at the back. I cringe inside. How can he be so cheerful? “What happened to you two?”
The blood-covered man catches his girlfriend’s eye before answering. “RTA,” he mumbles in response, and hangs his head again.
“Road traffic accident,” the man in black interjects.
“I’m sorry,” he says to them with a sad smile. “I’m sorry for you all, actually. You’ve all had a pretty rough time. As for me I knew I’d end up here and, sure, it was scary from the word go, but I’ve made the last two years count. I’ve said my goodbyes, done everything I wanted to achieve, seen all the places I wanted to see. No regrets. I’m sorry you all couldn’t do the same.”
I speak up. “Is that why you’re so happy about being here?”
“I wouldn’t say I’m happy, but I’ve accepted boarding the Helatide.”
“So have I,” says the black-clad man. “Don’t mean I’m happy to be here.”
“What happened to you?”
The man finally turns towards us. His face is hard and harsh, his small brown eyes piercing in the gloom. He’s bald on top, though sports a grey beard and sideburns, and I spy the glint of a gold ring through his septum. “You wanna know what happened to me?” he half-chuckles. “Some guts you got, kid. Don’t you know who I am?”
“Nope,” the teen says. “You’re American. I’m Austrian. Should I know?”
The man snorts. “Mauricio Talamantes. Name ring any bells with ya, kid?”
I take a sharp breath. “The Rosemont shootings ...”
The corner of his mouth lifts. “Damn right. Kid asks me why I’m here. You gonna tell him, or do I gotta spell it out?”
“You were on death row,” I whisper.
“Yeah. Been on death row almost a decade. Still feel sorry for me, kid?” The boy shakes his head. “And so you shouldn’t. Last thing I saw’s that machine pump me with some lethal injection. Sure, I got some regrets outta it, too: regrets I got in too deep, regrets I’ve gotten myself caught. Regrets my little boy ain’t gonna know his papa and end up just as bad as I am. But” – he leans in and rests his elbows on his knees again – “what can I do about it now? Time slows down in here, kid, an’ when you’re waitin’ for that goddamn drug to kill you, days turn into weeks down here. You. Indiana Jones.” He thrusts his chin at me. “You got regrets?”
I have to think about it. Nothing immediately comes to me. I was a privileged only child, did well in school, lived the party-life at university, failed, and travelled the world ever since. What was I missing? “I disappointed my parents, I guess,” I tell him. “Drank too much, slept around, smoked stuff. Never made them proud; never got a chance to say I’m sorry for being an idiot.”
He addresses the woman in the hijab. “What about you? You got a name?”
“Sisi,” she mutters to the floor. “I just ... I wish I’d been able to see. I mean ... see the monster he was.”
“What about you two lovebirds?” Mauricio asks the couple. I sense his question is not welcome, as the pair let it hang in the air. “C’mon. Ain’t none of us gonna see each other again, and ain’t none of us gonna get a chance to confess like this. Any regrets? I sure as hell ain’t askin’ again.”
“I ...” the bloodied man begins, “I was driving too fast. We were having an argument. I wasn’t looking where I was going and ... ”
The woman in his arms speaks for the first time. “I don’t hate you, sweetie. I didn’t mean what I said.”
“Well,” says Mauricio, “ain’t that cute.”
“There’s still something on my mind,” I say.
“More regrets?” asks the teen.
“No.” I run my fingers through my hair. How do I put this without sounding nuts? “We all know why we’re boarding the Helatid: illness, murder, lethal injection, three accidental deaths. But one of us doesn’t belong here and I don’t know why I know it.”
“I feel it too,” says the boy, “as though something’s wrong. Anybody else feel it?”
The woman beside me nods and Mauricio sighs with a heavy heart. The man in the bloodied shirt gives me a sad smile and nods, too. The only one on the platform who doesn’t respond is his girlfriend.
“Is it you?” Mauricio asks her. His voice is not tender, though I can tell he tried. “You don’t belong here do you?”
She sniffs and her eyes brim with tears again. “No,” she says. “I shouldn’t be here. I need to be at home –”
“I’m so sorry,” her boyfriend whispers, burying his face in her hair. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“You think you should be the one who escapes the one-way train?” Mauricio spits. “Like hell. You might be here by accident, but as Indiana Jones over there says: shit happens. Accept it. You’re stuck down here until the train rolls in. Might as well make the most of what time we’ve got left in limbo.”
“Not me,” the woman sobs. Finally, after all this time, her partner lets loose his feelings and sobs.
And then I understand.
“Not me,” she repeats.
I watch in horror as she rests her hand on the bump in her abdomen.
P. J. Stephenson
I don’t find it easy to write - even at the best of times.
My mother hasn’t heard from me for weeks; my sister never got a reply to her last letter. What can I say to them beyond the usual trite banalities and the repeated expressions of love and devotion, however sincere?
A breeze ripples the canvas of the tent and the candle flickers at my bedside. I grip my pencil tighter but words won’t come. My eyelids droop.
We’re close to the road here and the noise makes it hard to sleep. Yet I am so exhausted after all my exertions of the last week that I could drop off at any moment. My mother always said an outdoor life makes for a sound sleeper.
My head nods.
I wake with a start.
Was I dreaming? What’s that noise?
I lift my head from the pillow.
Birds are singing.
I can’t believe my own ears; all I can hear is birdsong. Everything else is still and calm. It can’t be.
Nightingales! I know their song from the woods at home, and it’s flowing through the crisp night air: melodious, beautiful, magical. And it’s not just a faint sound; it’s loud. Five or six birds sing at once close by, and even more are singing in the distance.
I sit up in bed. I went to sleep fully clothed and wrapped in a blanket but I am cold. In the half-light I see the candle has burnt down to a pool of yellowy wax. What a waste. My paper and pencil are caught up in the bedding; I retrieve them and put them in my shirt pocket.
I get up slowly and quietly so as not to wake the others. I slip on my coat and boots, lift the tent flap, and step outside.
Moonbeams stream down on our campsite, illuminating the surrounding bushes and trees in a glow that is at once both so natural yet so unnatural. The birds seem to be celebrating this glorious moonlit night; their singing fills the air - a burst of life when I least expected it.
I creep slowly down the path into the woods. As I pass by bushes and thicket the birdsong is louder, building as if to a crescendo, echoing around the small copse of beech, oak and birch. There are several groups of birds singing at once; I’ve never heard anything like it.
I love nightingales; their song is so varied and melodic. And my spirits rise with every trilling note, every fluted whistle. The music ripples and gurgles through my soul.
The moon casts shadows out of the ancient, gnarled branches; some look eerily like arms reaching for the sky. I shiver and wrap my coat tighter around me.
I stand still and close my eyes, listening.
I dare to take a deep breath through my nose. The cold air fills my nostrils. And with it comes the damp smell of wood and moss and leaf litter.
I am transported back to my childhood, playing in the countryside in rural Oxfordshire. My brother and I used to do so much outdoors: fishing for trout in the crystal clear streams and cooking our catch over an open fire; collecting frog spawn from murky green ponds and watching each day as the semolina-like eggs turned miraculously into tadpoles; and, of course, collecting birds’ eggs.
The shame comes back to me as if it were yesterday. I had been so proud of myself at first. My older brother, Matthew, struggled to reach the higher branches of the tree but, slim and lithe and acrobatic, I succeeded where he had failed and I reached the goshawk nest.
I hadn’t expected the hen to be there; she must have returned while I was climbing. As I hauled myself up onto the last branch the huge bird of prey let out a loud, piercing screech. I saw its face: its curved yellow beak gaping open, red eyes burning into my skull from under bright white eyebrows. Then I felt the back draft as it thumped into the sky in a wash of feathers.
I was so surprised I nearly lost my grip. But as the bird arched up out of the canopy I managed to steady myself. Taking a deep breath, I leant into the nest and saw three, bluish-white, two-inch long eggs. I snatched one quickly, put it in my shirt pocket and scrambled back to earth.
I raced my brother home to tell my father of my daring feat. He hunted - crows, rabbits, foxes, pheasants; I knew he’d be happy for me.
He was angry. He told me I probably scared the birds off for good. All the eggs would go cold and the chicks inside would die. Didn’t I know that goshawks kept the vermin down? We needed them.
I pleaded my defence: I took only one egg. But I felt ashamed – I hadn’t meant to ruin the whole clutch.
I never went egg collecting again.
My father gave me an old pair of army binoculars and I became a birdwatcher instead of a bird killer. I used to love walking in the woods, spotting different species flitting in the canopy or skulking in the undergrowth. Matthew often joined me and we would hide near nests just to watch the parents bring food to their chicks. From chaffinches to woodpeckers, we marvelled at the innate parental instincts of these beautiful creatures, working tirelessly to keep their offspring alive and growing. How could I have ever taken eggs and killed the babies?
A tear rolls down my cheek. It’s just the first...
Weeks of pent up stress and grief are finally released and I find myself crying out loud, salty drops streaming down my face, moistening and warming my cold cheeks.
I stifle my sobs. I can’t disturb the birds. I mustn’t disturb the birds. Not again.
I know there is no hope of seeing the nightingales tonight – they are deep in the undergrowth. Like sun coming through clouds on a rainy day, I smile through my torrent of tears as I realize I’m not killing birds now, I’m not even watching them; I’m just listening to them.
And I have never heard anything like it. Usually nightingales sing alone; tonight they have all come together like an avian choir. And what a chorus. It’s incredible that such a small, brown, plain-looking bird can produce such beautiful sounds. No wonder Shakespeare waxed lyrically about nightingale song. I want the moment to go on for hours.
Which, of course, it can’t.
An ear-splitting blast shatters the peaceful night like a pebble through glass. It is one of our big guns, an eighteen pounder. The earth trembles. The birds fall silent.
Suddenly the smell of death and decay overwhelms the odour of wet logs and leaves. Then the whole battery opens up from alongside the road. Huge shells go whistling over my head through the clear night sky.
I shiver uncontrollably; my whole body shakes. The birdsong has gone. The wood is no longer a place of magic and beauty.
The smell has changed again; I now feel the tingle of cordite in my nostrils. I know it’s my imagination - I am too far from the guns. But it is real to me, and it makes me gag.
I need to get away from the shadows and the smells, to find light and warmth. I turn and hurry back to camp, wiping my damp face on the back of my hand.
I am fagged out but don’t want to go back into the officers’ tent as I know I won’t be able to sleep again. Coming out of the woods, I wind my way hastily through the rows of marquees to the edge of camp.
A brazier is roaring, flames licking at the coke, a beacon of hot light in the night. A sentry is standing there, warming his hands. He raises dark, shadowed eyes at my approach, salutes me wearily, then resumes his posture – arms straight out in front of him like a sleep walker.
I put my hands to the fire too and try to chase the chill from my bones; it is so very deep in my bones. I never used to shake with cold yet I shiver so often these days.
The flames crackle. We don’t speak, don’t move; all our concentration is focused on being as relaxed and as warm as possible, and trying to shut out the noise of the guns.
After a few minutes, the sentry stirs and shifts his rifle to the other shoulder.
“Tea’ll be along soon, sir,” he says, as much to comfort himself as to announce the impending breakfast to me. “It’s good ‘ere. Do you remember that place where it always tasted of petrol?”
It’s a rhetorical question. We all remember.
As my hands begin to warm up and steam starts to rise from the arms of my eternally damp coat, I stop shaking. I sit down on a log and take out my pencil and paper. In the light of the fire I finally scratch the words that have been so difficult to find.
A British Army Camp
30 April 1918.
I heard the most amazing thing tonight.
You know how much I like bird watching. I haven’t seen a bird since I can remember. That’s hardly surprising: in the Somme and at Ypres there were no trees – all I ever saw were blackened, charred stumps. But here, in the part of France where I find myself now, there are proper hedges and woods – not yet destroyed by artillery.
My company and I are in reserve, a few miles back from the front line. Our gunners have been giving the German trenches a serious pounding, and it’s been hard to sleep. It must be even harder for Fritz - they’re getting a dose of it tonight and must be in for a fairly thin time. Nothing less than they deserve, of course.
But tonight, for five minutes, our guns stopped. And, in that pause, in that small chink of peace, nature tried to claim back this little area of forgotten countryside.
Nightingales sang! I couldn’t believe it.
It made me think immediately of Matthew – he’d have loved it. It even got me thinking of our egg collecting days.
I miss him so much – I’m sure you do too. I can’t believe he’s gone. I met one of the officers from his regiment recently – he confirmed Matthew wouldn’t have felt a thing. The trench mortar landed right in the middle of his machine gun nest.
I was remembering...
“Writing home, sir?”
I look up at the sentry and nod.
“I envy you,” he says. “I never know what to write; I have a dickens of a time of it. How do you explain to someone back in England what we’ve been through and the life we lead? I mean, where do you start, sir?” He gazes wistfully into the fire.
“It’s hard,” I say, though whether I’m referring to letter writing or the life we lead, I am not sure.
And as the guns pound, and the heavy shells go whistling through the air, I write to my mother.
Journey to the Window
She needs to go. She has been lying in this darkness for long enough with the moon’s steady light on the curtains calling her out. That first part, to the window, will take all her effort but she can do it; her willpower is strong though her body is not. She has made the journey to the window many times in her imagination, now it has to be done in reality.
She moves her quilt to one side and places her feet firmly onto the floor. There is no pain but there is weakness and a worry that her legs will not bear her body’s weight – though, she thinks ruefully, there is not so much weight to bear. She moves slowly, holding onto the bed, then onto the leather chair (seen dimly outlined in white), then leaning her weight against the wardrobe doors and then onto the window sill. The sill is broad so she half-sits on this a while, looking out. The grasses below must be waist-high – they are growing rampantly, healthily, and shine with the moon’s reflected light. If she could reach them, their softness would support her while she rested, until she could go onwards, through the gate and out into the world. With a huge effort, she undoes the latch, pushes up the window and leans out, feeling below the ledge for the ladder she knows will be there.
As Tom opens the bedroom door, a cold draught hits him in the face. Through the chill and the blackness (there is no moon tonight) he notices Alice, quite still, over by the window, hanging half-in, half-out. He does not know what she is doing – he never has known what is in her mind but never more so than in the past few months – but he knows enough to be careful of her and so, putting down the cup of cocoa he has brought for her on the table by the bed, he moves as stealthily as a big man can towards her.
He reaches her, pulls her to him, away from the open window, and holds her in his arms. With one arm, he untangles the nightdress that has wound itself round her legs, then he carries her back to their bed. Putting her in gently, supporting her back and head with the plumped-up pillow and covering her with the quilt, he turns on the lamp.
‘What was all that about, Alice?’ he asks.
She feels too tired to answer, just looks at him with her dark eyes. She has beautiful eyes Tom has always thought, though he has never told her so. He waits. She speaks at last, though not expecting him to understand.
‘I need to escape.’
She does not answer.
‘Where did you want to go to?’ he persists.
‘Somewhere different from here, somewhere out of the ordinary, somewhere strange, somewhere – other.’
‘Isn’t our own place enough for you, then? We’ve worked together to make it nice – good furniture, wooden floors, a new kitchen – and what about the extension? You said that made it special.’
She puts her hand on his. ‘It did … it does,’ but her eyes did not look into his – they were turned sideways towards the window. ‘Our house is lovely – but I want something more.’
‘You’ve got to be practical,’ he tells her, ‘particularly now. And anyway,’ he continues, ‘really, Alice, did you think you could climb out of the window and reach the ground?’ He smiled at her ruefully. ‘There’s not even a tree for you to clamber down.’
‘There’s the ladder,’ she says.
‘What ladder? We don’t have a ladder.’
He hands her the cup of cocoa. It is cold now but she sips it anyway.
Downstairs, he rinses her cup under the tap and places it upside down on the drainer. He worries that she will try something similar, something silly, tomorrow. She is too tired to do anything tonight. Perhaps he should have taken her on an exotic holiday while he could, to America – Florida, say, or New York, even South America; she would have loved to trek to that place in the jungle, Machu Picchu. He had always been the one to hold back. He liked to be surrounded by the type of people he knew, places he knew how to behave in, places where he knew what was likely to come next.
At exactly half past ten, as usual, he makes his way upstairs. Alice is still awake and seemingly logical as she at least has her eyes on a book rather than on an escape route. He goes through his routine of getting ready for bed – wash, teeth brushed, pyjamas taken from underneath the pillow and put on – then slides carefully into bed beside her.
‘Right. Talk to me,’ he says.
‘I’ll try.’ She puts down her book. ‘I want to go where I’ve always wanted to go – somewhere glamorous, on a cruise perhaps, where you have to dress for dinner. I’d like to wear a special dress. I’d like to lie on a sun lounger while I watch the other passengers enjoying themselves, and then I’d look past them over the waves to see ships like dashes on the horizon.’
He doesn’t state the obvious – that the best way to do that would be to book a place with a travel agent and go by car or train to the port – not drop through the window in your nightie without any luggage, passport or money. Neither does he state the other obvious – that she is not well enough to make that journey, or any journey.
Instead he says, ‘All right. I’ll see what we can do. I’ll arrange something tomorrow. Go to sleep now.’ She looks at him – is it in wonder or disbelief? He is not sure but then she turns onto her side. He turns off the light.
The next morning, Tom is already awake as the light seeps around the edges of the curtains. Alice is mumbling in her sleep but he cannot tell what she is saying. When he puts his hand on her forehead it is damp and, at eight when the alarm goes and she wakes up, her gaze is abstracted though she still smiles at him. However, Tom has had an idea and he is determined to realise it. He brings her some breakfast: fruit and yoghurt, toast and tea, and puts the radio on. She likes music; she says she cannot concentrate on the news.
‘Back soon,’ he promises.
Two hours later and he has brought back two black bin-liners. Out of one, he pulls, triumphantly, a long white linen dress; a shawl, soft and patterned with yellow flowers and with a green fringe, and a pair of green, strapped shoes.
‘For your cruise, my lady,’ he explains.
She pulls herself up and strokes the shawl’s fringe.
‘From the charity shop’, he says. ‘The woman there helped me to look for what I wanted. I couldn’t find you a sun-lounger. Well, there was only a plastic one with wipe-clean covers and that didn’t seem enough. But, and you’ll never credit this, I’ve found a photograph of your ship, the Clipper Adventurer. And for the cocktail hour and the Captain’s Dinner …’
He upturns the second bin-liner. Alice leans over and takes the item that is uppermost. Shaking it out, she sees it is a red cocktail dress. Beneath that, there is a tiny hat with a net with dots on it.
‘To cover your eyes so that you can watch the other passengers without them noticing you’re looking!’
‘You’ve thought of everything,’ she says softly.
‘Is that a sigh’, he wonders aloud, ‘of content or of sadness?’
‘What’s this?’ She finds a kind of long furry animal.
‘It’s a stole, to put around your shoulders, to keep you from getting chilled in the evening. Look. You clip its tail into its mouth to fasten it. Don’t worry, it’s not real fur, it’s nylon, the woman said.’
Alice leans back against the pillow. Tom can tell by her expression that she is pleased.
The next morning, Alice wants to be ready. Tom helps her into her white dress, uncovering her long, similarly white, feet to strap on her green shoes.
‘They are beautiful but I don’t think I can walk in them.’ She considers the heels. ‘They are very slender.’
‘No matter,’ he responds.
He wraps the shawl around her. It covers the fine bones of her shoulders. He puts Britten’s Sea Interludes on the CD player and, as he goes downstairs, leaves her watching the sunlight as it glints against her glass and water jug. When he brings her lunch, she is asleep with the sun now shining full on her face. He opens the window slightly to let in a sea breeze.
By early evening, the light fading, it is the hour for cocktails. Alice manages to wriggle into the red dress; together they smooth it down till it falls loosely just below her knees. Tom fastens the fur stole across the top of her arms and a sequinned necklace across her throat. She reaches for her hat.
‘First, can you put my hair up?’ she asks him.
Having watched her do this many times, he gathers her hair into a band, twirls it and pins it with the long pins that always look so sharp and cruel. He brings her the mirror so that she can place the hat precisely on her head. It looks – right. She laughs. Together they have done well. He brings her a cocktail – pale green with a cherry.
‘I didn’t know you could do that,’ she says admiringly.
‘Only one of my hidden talents,’ he replies, grinning.
She does not want the canapés he has made (another of his talents, unknown till now), as she is not hungry.
‘But they look wonderful’, she admits. ‘Perhaps later.’
When night arrives and whilst she is resting, he brings in candles, lots of them, slender and cream, in tall bottles. He puts them all around the room. They illuminate his face, and hers, as he places each one. He thinks, just for a moment that, surrounded by candles, she is like Juliet lying on her bier. Then the flickering lights suggest movement and, indeed, she is moving and she appears, as she used to and as he hopes she will be soon, lively and sparkling.
She watches as the candlelight accentuates the lines on his forehead and the dark circles under his eyes and thinks, nevertheless, he has never looked so handsome and so dear.
‘And now’, he says, ‘for some music.’
He puts on a slow waltz and, holding her firmly to him and supporting her almost fully, they dance around the room. The little flames catch on her sequins as they pass by.
The morning after, when he brings her tea and toast, she is unexpectedly already awake.
‘Today,’ he says, ‘is the day we reach our destination. Prepare yourself.’
She laughs in anticipation. ‘What on earth can be coming next?’
‘I’ve just to pop out for an hour. I’m taking the van.’
He returns later than expected and somewhat out of breath. He jams open the bedroom door. She is asleep again but looks better, untroubled. He struggles in with the shrubs and flowering plants he has brought from the Garden Centre: a hairy tree-fern with massive fronds; a kiwi vine with its green leaves turning pink and white; a palm tree with outstretched fingers; Himalayan honeysuckle, white and red with reddish-purple flowers; trumpet vine, bromeliads, orchids and passion flower, a guava – more and more until he has made a tropical paradise in their room.
The first thing she notices before she even opens her eyes is the smell - sap and greenness, heavy and potent, just as in a jungle, and overcoming all, jasmine, drenched with the sweetness of pineapple. Peering through her lashes, she notes the plants are there – it is not a delusion or a fantasy, the growing things are real and as green, fruity and flowery as they smell. The bedroom walls are no longer visible. All is luxuriant growth – emerald and jade, lime and olive with flowers hidden amongst.
And there is Tom, having to push through leaves to reach her. He is grinning of course. He knows he has done well. He breaks off a flower with purple petals and dark pink stamens and threads it through her hair.
‘Still want to go down the ladder?’ he asks.
‘What ladder?’ she replies.