In 2008 Alice’s Bones won the fourth, First Writer International Short Story Competition and was discussed and commended by the British Council World Communities. On their forum one contributer, Tanguene, said this about the author. ‘…I suspect, the author of this is [both] a lunatic and a talented being who reveals what can lie behind a simple relantionship like a marriage.’ Enjoy!
When I was a young girl, we had a garden and in that grotty part between the garage and the fence was a flower. There by itself, it was fragile, out of place, but surviving. Can you believe I use to talk to it? Tell it the goings-on, things I couldn’t tell anyone. Do you know what I mean? Do you really? because that was me then.
I’ve got two kids, Tom and Ellie, or I did have until the Social took them away. I’ve had two other kids, but they were never here, not in the way that you imagine. They were like actors, who peeped through the curtain, saw the audience and thought no, not this time and they disappeared back into the ether, waiting for the next show.
All my children have different fathers and my husband, Michael, isn’t one of them, but my father is, in a way. He gave them his smile and through me it’s vicariously stamped on their faces – poor things, so I’m complicit in that crime, don’t you think? Now I wander around Michael’s house, trying to leave these thoughts behind. As I move forward, the breeze washes thoughts out through the holes in my head, but when I stop those same holes just let them back in.
Words are my friend at the moment, I look for them in books and they smile at me when I find them; I smile back. And they sit comfortably inside me, warm and reassuring, speaking the same language as I do. I take them and sit them on the page side by side and they try to make sense of me; telling about the bones of Alice. And I cry for her and my tears make the letters swim and take on incongruous poses.
Michael works with computers, everything to him is black or white, this or that, I love him so much that it hurts not to be the person he wants or needs but he doesn’t know that, he hasn’t got the vigilance I have, or like me, the dishonesty of the insecure. We don’t sleep together anymore so I’ve become detached, floating and nocturnal. I peep around the bedroom door and see him in the foetal position, snoring gently and dreaming his digital dreams.
I know I appear to be independent but I want to tell people that I’m a wreck at twenty five, but I fear if they know, someone will come and eat me up, crunching impassively on my bones, and no one will ever know who Alice was, not even me. Anyway I think I want my children back before then to shout, ‘Mummy, please don’t go.’
I met Michael in a club the year after the kids had been taken. We were both there because we had to be. Him on a Christmas night out and me on the worst date ever. When a dance version of Jingle Bells came on he rolled up his jacket sleeves and danced like someone in the seventies and I fell in love with his vulnerability; it made me feel strong, safe. I was wearing a little black dress for this divvy I was with. Awkward though after trackies and trainers, but I think I looked good. Had the figure for it; my best friend crack was looking after that. Just one dance, then we escaped, got married and I don’t let him dance now.
I hope he waits for me, until I’m okay. I need to tell him I’m working on it like crazy. Michael, we will make love again one day, honestly, it’s just with my dad and all that stuff, you know how it is.
Michael pops his head around the door of the study, ‘Good night darling, don’t stay up too late.’ And then, all too soon, he reappears. ‘Good morning darling, I didn’t hear you come to bed or get up.’ Bless, that to him is being married.
Oh and by the way, Michael, don’t call me darling, I do have a name. Darling makes me feel amorphous. That word just smiled at me, another piece of Alice.
Yes I have a study now. Michael’s provided a four bedroom house but all I can see are two rooms empty. I call my study Wonderland. Get it? I have a sign on the door, ‘Alice’s in Wonderland.’
Michael says. ‘Do you think that’s a good idea darling?’
‘The Wonderland thing, you know, on your door, just in case the social comes. They might think…’
‘I’ve lost it? Suppose you’re right. But I just put it back when he’s gone to bed.’
The Social won’t say when they’re coming, they say they’re busy – I don’t know about that. So I wait, look at pictures of the kids smiling in their foster-parent-bought school uniforms. They did live with me, when I had the bed-sit. I went to the DHS one day for some money.
‘Would you send your kids to school without a uniform, love?’ She just looked, I said. ‘No I thought not.’ And I sat them on the counter. ‘Well you look after them, because I as sure as fuck can’t.’ They did and I cried all the way home; I get access, every two weeks now.
Christ, don’t put them up for adoption, I’m getting my act together – look, and I take down the sign from the study door.
Now I can’t smell their pillows or hold their unwashed pyjamas to my cheek. The parts of them I had were lost in bin bags along the way, precious memories on a tip somewhere. Maggots eating Ellie’s name tags, worms nibbling the crusts in Tom’s lunch box.
It’s Saturday and Michael takes me to the road where they live. I haven’t told them about Michael, don’t want them thinking there’ll be strangers for breakfast, like there used to be. Back then they’d stare into their cereal, worried, giggling nervously while the man’s hand crept up their mother’s dressing gown, still horny from the night before, wanting another morsel of my body before disappearing, never to ring. But I don’t care, it paid the rent.
As Michael’s car pulls up, I try to remember who those men were; but there’s a hundred faces on as many mornings. I flip through an identikit putting all the wrong features together, and then I remember that I’m trying to forget.
I kiss Michael or he kisses me or we kiss this thing we call a marriage.
‘I’ll make my own way home.’
‘Okay darling.’ And the low hum of the engine takes him away.
The house where they are is not as nice as Michael’s, but it somehow feel better – there’s something about it that ours will never have.
I want to see Ellie and Tom, noses pressed against the glass, wanting mummy so badly that it hurts them in a raw, childlike way. But the net curtains hang perfectly undisturbed and I find myself wanting curtains exactly like them, even though I hate them.
Mrs Thompson appears, before I knock. ‘Hello Mrs Thompson.’ I hate myself for calling her Mrs; she’s not much older than me. I’m like my grandmother calling everybody Mr and Mrs because she thought they were all better than her, even the clubman was Mr Barton.
‘Hello Alice.’ She never invites me in; the kids are always ready. ‘See you in three hours then.’ This is allocation, not a minute more. The price of getting to hold my kids’ unwashed pyjamas again is to be happy with all of this.
They look at each other with shy colluding glances, as though they’re going out with a strange Auntie; they feel safe but can’t quite communicate with me. I reach down to hold their hands which seem lower and stiffer as the weeks go by, and I feel like crying. But I smile at Mrs Thompson, who I know is reporting all of this back. May you rot in hell Mrs T. And I smile again.
Ellie and Tom wave and smile at her, relaxed and willing and I wonder which side they are on. I now have three hours to kill. Poor kids, I’m holding their hands too tight, compensating for the limpness of theirs and their scrunched fingers are now out of sequence.
There’s an old lady at the Pier Head, I bet she has a really old fashioned name like Rose or something. She looks kind. If she undid her hair, I think it would go down to her waist. Her husband probably hopes that only he has ever seen it that way, but is frightened to ask. I imagine she has a piano in her front room and an aspidistra plant which stands by the window in a pot decorated in pinks and greens.
We’re sitting on a bench, the Pier Head is salty. Ellie looks around me to attract her brother’s attention, but Tom is elsewhere. I pretend not to notice, pretend I’m watching the ferry go back and forth between Liverpool and New Brighton.
The old lady, Rose, loves pigeons, and they love her too, like I do. I want her to be my nana and show me her special aspidistra room (I bet she wouldn’t call clubman, Mr Barton).
Tom, who’s eleven, has caught the eye of three girls sitting on the grass pretending to talk, but furtively looking at him. Their short skirts show grubby knickers and they wear bras which cover pimples on their chests – my son is hooked. Ellie leans forward again tugging at Tom’s trousers, but he isn’t registering.
When I was young they said you could get to America across this water, I tried once I only got as far as Seacombe before they brought me back. Hi dad, business as usual?
My kids’ clothes are old fashioned. They’re what Mrs Thompson thinks children should look like. She’s like my husband; he dresses our marriage in what he thinks it should look like. I’d call them both inappropriately clothed.
Ellie tries again, and I feel the soft skin of her arm on my bare leg, and I want Tom to be preoccupied forever, so I can luxuriate in it.
Rose’s hair is in a bun, renegade strands move slightly behind the motion of her body. The sea breeze carries the smell of Lavender from her old black coat, she also wears forty denier stockings and leather shoes with straps across her still dainty ankles. She’s theatrical, throwing grain to the pigeons in a well practiced arc.
Tom, grumpy from being woken from his daydreams, snaps at his sister. ‘What do you want?’ then smiles reassuringly at the grubby knickered girls. But they soon realise that they’ve relaxed, and look at me as if there’s a price to pay for normality. There was something simple about my moment of anonymity, and I hope they noticed it. I think I just glimpsed what love really is. But as quickly as I do, it’s gone, and I am again the self conscious uncomfortable woman sitting between two children who don’t feel like hers. Ellie smiles at Tom and Tom smiles at the girls and I quickly look away.
My dad’s dead now, thank God, but I can still feel him inside me.
The old lady pulls a plastic bag from her pocket and reaches down to the feasting birds. I think her and the birds are so familiar and trusting that they’ll allow her to stroke them. She reaches out her still beautiful hand, but instead of stroking them it snaps tight around the bird’s neck. The action is nimble and well practiced; she’s done it many times before. The pigeon looks around shocked as she puts it into the plastic bag, her index finger and thumb forming a ring which slides up the bag tightening it on the fluttering bird.
She looks at her audience and smiles angelically, then walks on.
Just like my dad.