Struck into silence

Lawrence was in an art gallery when he first saw her, standing rather gloomily in front of a landscape of the English countryside, one by Constable he imagined. She looked for all the world like she’d rather be anywhere else but here, and it dawned on him that no woman, no person for that matter, ought to spend their day feeling such a way. In hindsight, he did wonder if maybe he ought to have left her alone; Lawrence, of all people, knew the value of a moment’s solitude on a particularly terrible Tuesday, or the antidote to gloom that only an hour’s silence and the absence of other people can be. But these things did not occur to him, as he stepped up confidently, keeping a metre or so of space between them, and said, Do you not like the painting?

The woman did not turn to face him, or make any sign that she had even heard him, for several moments. Lawrence almost wondered if he should simply walk away and try to forget the whole thing happened – although he knew it would almost certainly keep him up at night – but just as he was about to move off, she murmured a quiet hum of acknowledgement. He did not move any closer, but he studied her a little more. She looked young, but her eyes were tired. She wore a cream-coloured trouser suit, and her hair was long and wispy, as if it had been tied up in some elaborate manner earlier in the day, and she had grown exasperated with the style and pulled the pins out just moments ago. Lawrence felt an almost insatiable urge to smooth it down.

I wasn’t really looking at the painting, she said eventually. I do not even remember how I came to be here.

Lawrence was struck into silence at that. He did not know what he expected from her response, but he knew it was not that, not at all. The woman’s eyes flickered over to him, and he saw they were pale and grey, almost washed out. Her skin was pale too, though there was a smudge of pink above each cheekbone. It was poorly applied, even Lawrence could see that. While her suit was rather stylish, her face gave the impression of someone entirely detached from their physical self, tired with life and wanting to get out, somehow.

Well, I say, Lawrence stammered in response. He felt his cheeks were growing a little warm, and he had quite lost control over his words. His mind faded to blank, as he scrabbled desperately for something to say. In that moment, he felt that all the responsibility for this woman’s cheer, the task of reviving her from whatever depths of gloom and despair she had tunnelled her way into, was entirely on his shoulders.

I think it’s funny that these places no longer exist, you see, and the place that Constable once painted is now likely a street of council-owned terraced houses with dripping taps and a Londis where you can buy a bottle of white wine for £4 and likely some stale crisps, he said in one breath. As the words tumbled out of his mouth, he felt his entire body clench.

But to his surprise, it seemed to do the trick. Something about the woman loosened, her shoulders visibly dropped, and the skin of her face, which seemed to have been stretched tight as a drum, fell into softer lines, like ripples of sand. Her watery eyes turned bright and wide, and the corners of her sullen lips turned upright, just a little.

There was a coffee shop outside of the art gallery, and Lawrence stood at the counter facing the shop girl. He had draped his coat over a chair by a table in the window, to claim it – he never liked going into a café and ordering drinks before finding a place to sit – and now the woman sat there, waiting for him. In the pale November sun, her outline was silhouetted against the glass, her neck straight and her hands folded in her lap.

Two lattes please, he asked the girl behind the counter, who said she would bring them over. When the drinks came, the woman placed both hands around the mug. For the first time, Lawrence noticed an oddly faded black mark on the ring finger of her left hand. He knew those sorts of marks; his sister had them all over her hands, when she wore cheap jewellery for too long and the coatings rubbed off.

I don’t come to London very often, the woman said, all of a sudden. She lifted the cup of coffee to her lips as she spoke and took a rather frothy sip.

Lawrence nodded. I live just around the corner actually, he replied, and I’ve lived here most of my life. Always wanted to move away, what with the expensive cost of living and the extortionate rent, not to mention the terrible politics and the tourists, but I’ve never quite managed it. There’s always work to do here. As he spoke, the woman watched him. He was beginning to feel less self-conscious under her gaze. When they left the art gallery, she stared straight ahead until they reached the coffee shop, and only when he asked for her drink order did she look him in the eyes again. He tried not to think too much of it. He was sure there must be a reason. Perhaps he would find it out, perhaps he would not. Perhaps this would be the only few moments they spent together. She was a stranger, after all.

I have some bad memories here, the woman said, once Lawrence had finished talking. I am not planning to return, once I leave again.

Lawrence’s curiosity was piqued to such a high extent that he could barely contain himself. His mind was ready to implode with the pressure; he wanted to make the woman feel at ease, but he also didn’t want to be nosy, and he didn’t want to contribute further to that terrible gloom that was now finally beginning to lift, and he also didn’t want to let her go without finding out whatever was going on within her.

There was a moment of silence, and Lawrence perhaps did not realise how long he was contemplating these things before she was beginning to speak again. Your face looks a bit familiar, she said. I feel that I have seen you somewhere, perhaps on television or something. Am I correct?

Lawrence smiled; it had been a long time since someone had recognised him, and there was still rather a thrill to the feeling. His television show had been cancelled several years ago; all he knew of it now was the sporadic royalty checks in the post, and occasional glimmers of recognition from strangers on the Tube or those who passed him in the street. He had no desire to go back on television, and had quietly kept to himself since, doing consulting work for the BBC in the meantime to pay the bills. It was a calm, quiet life. There was nothing that was too badly missing, he thought.

You are, he said at last. But that was a long time ago. The woman looked at him closely, and he felt that he had suddenly become entirely naked, and she was studying every inch of his skin, every wrinkle, sag, mole, scratch and scar. But oddly, he did not feel that it was at all unpleasant. I knew I recognised your face, the woman said. I wonder if that was why I was willing to come with you. Perhaps I thought you were from my past, somehow. I don’t know.

If not the past, then the present, Lawrence said. Did you enjoy the gallery, anyway?

Oh, don’t let’s talk about these things, the woman said, suddenly sharp. Her eyes flashed a little, and her brows narrowed together. Lawrence was taken aback. She picked up a spoon from the table, and began to stir her coffee angrily; it sloshed onto the saucer and then onto the table, splashing the woman’s suit, the brown marks standing out like terrible sores on the beautiful cream material.

Oh, dear, I am sorry, Lawrence said, trying frantically to mop up the spilt coffee, although it was of course her fault for stirring it so carelessly.

Let me just pay for the pissing coffee, she said, in a husky whisper. I shouldn’t even be here. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Lawrence babbled and protested as the woman pulled her bag from the floor, and rooted around inside. You really don’t need to, he said in a panic, it was my treat, I just wanted to make you feel a bit better, you looked so sad in the gallery, it’s just a treat, please don’t feel you need to. She rooted a little more, the objects in her bag cluttering and clanking against each other as she did so. Lawrence heard something else rattling around, like a bag of coins or beads. Eventually, she gave up with a sharp, exasperated sigh. As much as I would like to pay for the coffee, I can’t find my purse, she said. Her eyes had become sad again.

Please, don’t worry. It was on me, Lawrence said.

They sat there for a moment. It turned into a few more moments, and then a few more, as the woman stared out of the window. People walked by. Lawrence saw a frazzled mother pushing a double pushchair, one child fast asleep and the other wailing and waving an empty plastic bottle. He saw a group of students carrying piles of books and talking awkwardly, one girl trailing behind the rest. He saw an older couple walking slowly, hand-in-hand, the woman in a long green coat and the man in a flat cap with a grey beard and round glasses. He saw two men walk by with brown paper bags, swaying as they went. He saw a younger couple with a small toddler, who walking very much like the men with brown paper bags.

All these people, the woman said, in a voice barely above a whisper. And all these lives.

Yes, isn’t it, Lawrence said, not quite sure what he was responding to.

Later, Lawrence would not remember quite when the woman decided to go to the restroom, or when he had a little nosy through her bag and found the velvet drawstring pouch full of buttons. He would remember the feeling of satisfaction as he slid his hand through the soft, smooth pieces, rubbing together in such a lovely, pleasing manner that he quite forgot himself. The thrill of looking through someone else’s belongings, the electric of the unknown – he would remember that. He would remember the confusion, when she did not return to her seat but instead walked out into oncoming traffic, leaving her bag and the buttons behind, and never knowing what it all meant.

rana on mull


The Mull ferry is busy; swarms of foot passengers head straight to the top deck, armed with a binoculars, raincoats, walking boots, walking sticks and bird-watching gear. Rana feels out of place here. Ted knows these sorts of people, and starts up conversations easily as she shivers by his side, nodding and smiling. The nature lovers describe their most recent and most impressive observations and sightings. They feel comfortable with Ted, swept effortlessly into conversation like old friends, or an old marriage. Rana frowns at that. If her mother’s marriage and subsequent complaints was anything to go off of, the silent killer was not children or money or affairs, but merely boredom. Thick, heavy, impenetrable boredom.

Ted is chuckling with an older couple. They wear matching shiny rain caps and chunky grey walking boots. Rana doesn’t listen to the conversation, she nods and smiles when they direct a comment at her, letting Ted do the talking. It has begun to drizzle, and the huge green slab of island is hidden beneath a thickening layer of haze. She peers through the fog, squinting upwards into the rain – she is looking for birds. That’s why they’ve come here – the Isle of Mull is one of the only places in the UK where it is possible to spot golden eagles in their natural habitat, and it was Ted’s idea that they came here together for that purpose. She wonders if she’ll spot one now, her heart leaping as she sees the familiar silhouette cut out across the murky sky, shouting to Ted and slapping his arm, pointing to it excitedly. All the Mullers would turn their heads to where her finger directed, the buzz of bird-fuelled excitement juddering across the top deck of a ferry like ripples across a calm, unsubstantial sea.

She doesn’t see anything. The sky is bare, dry, cold, and the people continue to murmur in their groups, munching on cold damp sandwiches and sipping tea or soup from their Thermos flasks, dabbing thick swathes of sun-cream across their noses and cheeks although the weather doesn’t show any signs of brightening. These are Ted’s sort of people.

Rana hadn’t noticed it at first, when they met seven years ago at a bar in student Nottingham. Ted looked sheepish and sick, clutching a bottle of something bright and obnoxious as he stood to the side of the dance floor, his eyes darting anxiously from girls’ bottoms to the ceiling, to open blouses and skin-tight skirts to the dance floor and his feet, both protesting his male innocence and desperate to break out of his sweaty ball of self-conscious sexually-frustrated self-loathing. It was Rana’s favourite place; she liked the music, she fancied the bar tenders, they had a three-hour happy hour, and she could see the window of her flat from the doorway.

Her flatmate Teresa had pointed him out –

‘Ran, look. I have to take that pale little baby boy home with me. I bet he’s never even seen a pair of tits, let alone a pussy.’

Rana slapped Teresa’s arm. ‘Don’t be horrible.’

Her desire to protect poor Ted from Teresa’s egotistical dominatrix advances had felt like a good idea at the time; for many years, she had considered it a blessing that Teresa was quite as terrible and aggressive as she was, for she never would have seen that sweet, weedy smile and the way he relaxed as they walked further and further from the bar, the way his demeanour changed as he chucked his alcopop in a rubbish bin, how he had looked at her so thankfully when she pulled up her shirt, the panic that slid from his face as he unhooked her bra on the first try. From then, Rana lived in a constant state of Ted anxiety.

‘Rana?’ Ted was poking her arm. The older couple had been replaced by a younger one – two women, one with long thin braids and the other with a short boy cut.

‘You remember Alice and Mel? From Bentons?’ Rana nodded without recognition.

*

Ted drove, and Rana watched out. ‘You didn’t remember them? They were part of the nature walk at Emmetts, don’t you remember? We talked to them the whole way. Maybe four hours. They’re raising money to build a forest school on an estate in North London – are you sure you don’t remember? I think we even volunteered to help fundraise.’

Mull is quiet and still; the watery wash of grey and green passed the car window without change, endless miles of hill and mountain and cloud. Rana brushes her fingers against the cold of the window, barely acknowledging Ted’s voice as he continues to reminisce over Alice and Mel, who to Rana’s sudden recollection were an incredibly boring, monotonous, same-same, surface-level couple who smelled of dirt and Earl Grey teabags. She remembers them now; the walk through Emmetts was four hours of daydreaming, misquoting television shows and singing along to The Cure in her head. Ted was in his element – lesbians were non-threatening, and the interests of these women were so lukewarm and diluted that there was no pressure on him to make clever remarks or pretend to understand complexities of government.

Ted’s sudden bellow jolts her awake, and he is swerving the car into a road-side ditch, slamming on the brakes and yanking the door open, wrenching his binoculars from around his neck and running into the road. And there it is –

It soars, quiet, magnificent, peaceful – wide, strong wings beating against the breeze propelled by the mountains, a limp white deer dangling from its talons. Ten meters above them, a hundred meters, two hundred. And the thrill, the shiver of electric excitement and momentary wonder that rushes through Rana’s blood, prickling the hairs on her arms and numbing her legs, shooting through her, static, alive.

Another car parks at the side of the road, and another, and another. Excited birdwatchers leap out, gathering together with cameras and travel telescopes. Ted chats eagerly, pointing upwards, telling the fellow ornothologists that it was just metres above us, it almost brushed the top of the car, he felt the air from its wing across his face, he caught the glare of its beady eye directly staring at him. Ted is alight, and Rana stands behind. The nervous man from the bar is long gone, drifted from the quiet days, and the golden bird beats the air above her in knowing. If its golden eyes had caught hers, it would have seen what she already knew to be true.

non

Cruel neon man. How you sit,

A lighthouse crooning, a red crow

With thbthb feather

On a waving post. Stretch away

Stretcher,

‘A dropping stomach, sir, a stomach that’s dropped.’

disappoint

I will forget the bitterness of you.

The cold, whistling space

And leave my think trace.

 

Poetic authority.. pearl poet bubble

Burst here, oxygen peace oxygen

 

In bedroom comfort, bedroom kind.

Tuck your private mind

 

The clouds look kind, but choke.

The Good girl

The Good girl sung

And prayed in church

On every Sunday morn.

She closed her eyes

And thanked the Lord

For letting Christ be born.

 

And all was well

From week to week.

Her heart was full and calm.

That was, until,

The New girl came

And offered Good her palm.

 

Her eyes were clear,

Her cheeks were soft.

Her lips were red as blood.

The Good girl cursed

Her wicked heart

For falling fast in love.

 

From then, the church

Was ne’er the same.

It welcomed her no more.

The walls dripped black

And with a smack

They thrust her from its door.

Green Comfort

The green comfort, long deserted me,

Shrivelled ditch-ward. No young tree

Grows: I am old, squeezing out of time

And mud and heart.

I have played my part,

Shared my skin,

Pressed myself within. My dear adult bird,

The wand’ring mind,

Is never heard, and left behind.

Queenie- Lois Linkens

My piece ‘Queenie’ on SD:

Sudden Denouement Collective

White slip of night at the shore,

And the fox-eyed pebbles wink at

The cold pearl moon. The freshwater stream,

Like silver silk

Heralds the flush of the waves, the bubbling spits

Of the shallows, stones like eyes, stones like saucers,

Like griddle cakes. There comes a woman,

Without a coat, silver-wax shoulders studded

With gooseflesh. She walks,

Toward the black water and the night-worms

Hear her singing, overhead her socked feet damp

And bottoms gritty,

A soft knitted invasion.

There is a country, far beyond the stars

 

Her red hat

Like a herring on a line sways with her

Narrow peg shoulders

And the sea

Is tar on her woollen toes.

Lois is a poet and student from England. She is studying the literature of the Romantics and hopes their values and innovations will filter through into her own work. She is working on longer projects at present…

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