Categories
Members Free Fiction

Bay Tales Christmas Short Story Winners


We had an amazing response to our second annual Christmas Short Story Competition. Our judging panel, consisting of Lesley Kara, Lauren North, Derek Farrell and Louise Mangos convened on Sunday and we discussed the entries long and hard before ultimately deciding on our winner and two honourable mentions.

It wasn’t easy – the strength of stories submitted were of a very high standard, but eventually after a bit of arguing, fighting, threats and…well, let’s just say it got as heated as mulled wine… we decided on our 2021 story.

OUR WINNER:

God Rest Ye – Edward Barnfield 

What our judging panel said:

  • “This is strong. Definitely Christmas. Good dialogue and scene setting. Nicely drawn characters in short space.”
  • “I immediately engaged with this multitude of characters, a challenge to write in a story so short. I could easily visualize this scene in the pub. The dialogue is great, reminiscent of a Graham Swift novel.”
  • “Really enjoyed this story. Great ending. Really well written.”
  • “ABSOLUTE GENIUS! Small, quiet, tense, and then BANG!”

Read Edward’s winning entry by clicking on the link below.

God Rest Ye – Edward Barnfield

Not all Christmas reunions are festive frolics…


HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

James Ellson –

Roisin’s Christmas Party

What our judging panel said:

  • “Kept me in suspense to the very end. An original story. Bold use of second-person. Very distinctive voice. Clever ending. The story took me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. Christmas theme threaded through nicely.”
  • “This is amazingly tight, tense writing.”
  • “Great story which actually gets better and better as it proceeds. The voice and the milieu are really fresh and the punchline is wonderfully dark and yet has a strange sort of optimism to it.”

Roisin’s Christmas Party – James Ellson

Not all surprise parties are welcome..


Caron McKinlay – Maude

What our judging panel said:

  • “I liked the premise and although I was pretty sure (redacted)… I liked the use of (redacted) and the (redacted)”
  • “I liked the fact that this tale took an unexpected turn, perhaps believing that (redacted)”
  • “A disturbing story with a clever twist.”
  • “Brilliantly written. Loved the twist!!!”
  • “BRILLIANT. Dark, tightly drawn, and with a lovely twist that I did not see coming. Bravo to this writer – I can think of nothing I would change in this story.”

Maude – Caron Mckinlay

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished…


Thank you to our judges, and to ALL our competition entrants – we were so impressed with the quality of stories we received and wish you all a Merry Christmas, and the very best of luck with your writing in 2022!

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Roisin’s Christmas Party


by James Ellson

It’s Christmas Eve lunchtime when a white van with tinsel wrapped around the aerial slews to the kerb. The side-door slides open, and two men wearing Santa Claus masks haul you inside.

You’re bundled to the floor, a gag is placed in your mouth, and a red hood pulled over your head. You’re wearing your party frock. The van smells of disinfectant. Your hands are tied behind your back, but you aren’t assaulted. No one speaks.

Fack, you think. Fack, fack, fack. You should have shouted or screamed. The gag tastes of vinegar.

The van stop-starts through heavy traffic and waits at lights. You roll gently from side to side and feel slightly travel sick. Perhaps it isn’t vinegar.

You hear facking carol singers.

The road noise increases and you guess you’ve cleared the city. Maybe you’re heading south, maybe you aren’t. You could struggle or kick. You could think up sensible, rational questions. You could offer a bribe – you have some money saved, and although your da’s not rich he’s doing okay.

You lie there, rolling gently, like on the ferry. Later, you’re meant to be going to Roisin’s Christmas party and you still haven’t bought her a present.

The sound of other traffic wanes, but the van keeps going. Slower. A side road, or a private road, undulating and weaving.

The van stops.

Birds call in alarm. Wind soughs in the trees. You feel thirsty, and you’ve eaten nothing since a McMuffin and a supermarket bottle of bucks fizz for breakfast. Life seemed very trashy, then, all Christmassy jingles, all glitter and baubles. The day ahead, cheap mince pies and nasty wine at work followed by Roisin’s party. Now, you’ll be the centre of attention, not Roisin.

One of the men grunts as he yanks open the van door. But still no one speaks. You wriggle into a sitting position and turn to the fresh air. You could buy Roisin a tree decoration from the shop at the end of the Falls road.

You’re pulled out of the van and you sprawl on the floor. You smell pine – a pine wood. Facking Christmas Trees! You’re hefted to your feet and you sway back and forth like a drunk. You’re going to get so drunk at Roisin’s party. Drunk as an English squaddie.

The sliding door slams shut and the van drives away. You miss the van – ridiculous.
You try to explain it to yourself: nothing bad, not really bad, had happened in the van. You know the van with its decorated aerial. The forest is new. And what you can’t see is new, too.
You should concentrate on the here and now, be less of a flibbertigibbet as Roisin accuses you.

You miss the van, you miss Roisin. You feel like crying.

The gag is yanked from your mouth.

‘Fack,’ you scream. ‘Fa-ack!’

They wait, you wait.

Nothing.

A rope is tied around your tied hands and you’re pulled forward – and again. You get the idea – walking. You’ve done it before. You try to keep your spirits up, not to ask questions, not blub, not be a nuisance. You’ve read things, scare-stories and suchlike.

But it’s Christmas. Maybe, it’s seasonal over-exuberance.

You walk for twenty minutes, stumbling occasionally but not falling. You guess there are two men, but there could have been one, or a dozen. You wonder if this is it. Please, God.
Even if you aren’t a regular at his house, you go occasionally just to please your mam.

A flat hand thumps your sternum. You stop, wait, like a good citizen. You are a good citizen, not a perfect one, certainly not in everyone’s eyes. But half of them, give or take.

A door creaks open and you’re pulled inside. You wait like a dog. Someone tip-taps down a flight of stone steps. You’re pushed forward. You toe the first step, like a swimmer.
Ease a foot down, then another, and slowly you descend. It’s cold and smells musty. You hear running water. Twelve steps, you count, think you’re being clever. Top of the class. You have exams, you had once been top of the class, but nothing matters any more.Qualifications, money, a cool haircut. Only self-defence and seeing through a mask matter. Henry Sugar had once stared at a candle so much that he could see through playing cards. If only you’d done that.

You’d like to hear a Christmas song, watch a Christmas advert. You would, you really would.

You’re pulled forward again, not far, the length of the van. The lovely van. You’re pushed down into a chair. You’re tied to its back with rope.

The hood’s whipped off.

You blink in the dim light, and see a dark figure retreating up the steps towards a small oblong of daylight. You’re sitting in a damp cellar. Bricks are piled in a corner and plastic sacks line one wall. A baseball bat rests on top. It’s stained from use.

You can’t believe this is happening. You’re a no one, you aren’t affiliated. You don’t go to meetings or take part in parades. You’ve done nothing.

Someone clomps down the stone steps, and a pair of rubber boots come into view.

Then a pair of stocking-clad legs and the hem of a chequered brown dress. You know that dress.

She reaches the foot of the steps. She’s wearing the dress you helped her choose. You almost want to laugh. But you don’t, you wait.

‘It’s you.’

‘So it is,’ says Roisin. She leans against a dank wall.

‘Mind your dress.’ Roisin doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. The silence intensifies the cold. ‘What is this place?’ you ask.

‘An old air raid shelter.’

You nod, knowingly, but knowing nothing of any value. ‘I haven’t slept with him, if that’s what you’re thinking.’

‘I’m not.’ Roisin stands away from the wall and brushes down her sleeve.

‘Shouldn’t you be preparing for your party?’

‘It’s off. This is my party, now.’

You look around, at the weeping walls, the old bricks, the sacks of you-don’t-know- what. The baseball bat with its yellowish staining.

‘What are we – what am I – doing here?’

‘Think,’ says Roisin. ‘Have a really long think. Take all the time in the world.’ She doesn’t sound like Roisin. It sounds like someone you haven’t shoplifted with, haven’t shared many a cocktail hour, haven’t slept on each other’s shoulder going home on the night bus.

You shake your head.

Roisin tut-tuts and wags a finger. ‘Do you remember taking a trip?’

‘Not really,’ you say, and you shake your head a second time.

‘O’er the water.’

Your stomach lurches as if you’re jumping off the high board.
Rosin picks up the baseball bat and prods the wall. If you weren’t seeing it with your own two square, you wouldn’t believe it.

‘You were spotted at Larne. The pair of you.’

‘It’s legal, now.’

‘Doesn’t mean it’s right.’

Of course it’s right, you want to scream. Of course it’s bloody right. It’ll save untold pain and injury and danger and humiliation and wasted lives for countless numbers of women and girls. You’d campaigned for it, and told everyone you knew to write to their MP.
Including Roisin.

‘Why’ve you never said if that’s the way you feel?’

‘I’m a sleeper.’

Her expression was brief but you saw the smirk. She was proud of the word, proud of her role, proud. Proud. Fack. You begin to feel angry, and you wriggle in your rope shackles.

‘So now you’re going round fingering the people who once considered you as a friend. A close friend. My best friend.’ You spit on the floor.

‘We’ll repeal the law.’

‘Ballsacks,’ you shout.

She smiles, the old Rosin, and then it hardens. The new Roisin.

‘And what exactly is this?’ you say. ‘You’re hardly the hard man of the organisation if that’s not too grand a word for it. The outfit. The gang.’ Your mind’s racing as you speak, ‘Or is this your initiation? Break your once best friend’s legs, and you’re in. Or maybe promotion to lead your own cell. Rosin, you’re a shit. But, you go right ahead and swing. I will hunt you down to the corners of the six counties, to the corners of the island, the corners of the globe. I will hunt you down and rip your facking nails out.’ You’re surprised at the venom in your voice.

Rosin’s surprised, too. She glances behind her, looks up the steps, checking, you assume, her backup is still there.

‘And it’s Christmas,’ you say weakly.

Rosin hefts the bat, swings it back and forth.

You steel yourself. You’re coursing with adrenalin and you’re ready. Your life is about to change, you’re ready. You’re more than ready. You’re excited. Your rootless existence and your uncertain future are over. You have found a cause, and fack, are you going to give more than you’re going to get.


Find the other winning entries here.

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Maude


by Caron McKinlay

Maude shuffled down the bus steps and into the snow. Fingers fumbled with the buttons of her old tweed coat. Everything was so difficult these days. Strands of grey hair were stuck slick to her face. With a sharp tut from the corner of her mouth, she brushed them away and bent down to pick up her carrier bags. There were a few bits and bobs for Christmas inside and she hoped they hadn’t been ruined by the icy sludge that squelched under her feet.

“Excuse me? Are you alright or do you need a hand? It’s absolutely freezing, eh?”

Maude smiled at the pretty brunette dressed in the Saturday night uniform of mini dress, thigh boots and black puffer jacket. About twenty years old, plastered with makeup and thick black eyebrows. Kind eyes, hidden in shadows. “Ach I’m okay love. It’s just age, you know, and this awful weather. Used to be a time I could run and up and down these roads with my shopping, but those days are long gone. I’m Maude, by the way.”

“I’m Sharon. Well, my mates call me Shazza. Have you got far to go? I’m waiting for my boyfriend to get off the next bus, but that’s not for another fifteen minutes. I could help carry your bags a wee bit to your house?”

Maude’s eyes crinkled in delight. “Oh, that would be great, love. My hands are aching carrying these. The plastic digs into your fingers and that hill seems to get steeper every day. I’m only at number Ninety-six, the house that stands by itself just after the bridge.”

As they walked, Maude spoke of her two grown daughters. “Laura’s a successful solicitor in an Edinburgh firm and Eliza’s a social worker in Bethnal Green. Both are busy with their new careers and fresher husbands.” She paused to catch her breath. “Neither has time for visiting, not even at Christmas, but I’m proud of them both.”

Sharon’s breathe etched the frosty air and she smiled wistfully. “It must be hard for you not to see them at this time of year.”

Maude’s eyes glistened. “It’s my husband I miss the most. We were married thirty-five years, always in each other’s pockets. We did everything together. He even went with me to Sunday-night bingo. He’s been dead two years now and oh, how I miss him.” She fumbled for a tissue in her pocket and dabbed her puffy eyes. “Ach! I’m a silly old fool, dear. I still leave his tartan slippers beside his favourite chair, and I’ve not washed his last whisky glass. It’s less lonely that way. He loved a wee whisky while he watched the horses on the telly. Those damn slippers though. I must trip over them twice a day. Then I scream, John, you’ve left your slippers lying about again! Of course, there’s no one to respond.” She glanced at Sharon. “Oh, I didn’t mean to upset you, dear.”

Sharon wiped the tears from her face with the plastic cuff of her jacket. “It’s just so lovely, Maude. Not everyone finds someone that loves them like that. Some men . . .”

Maud frowned at Sharon. “Some men give you black eyes, eh, love?”

Sharon lowered her face to the ground, avoiding Maud’s dark gaze.

“Love, there’s no need to hide yourself. I saw them earlier when you picked up my bags. The ones on your wrists look fresher.”

Sharon pulled the sleeves of her jacket down further. Was it the bite of the cold or the sensation of shame that was reddening the girl’s face? Maude looked closer. They passed under the old bridge in silence until Sharon finally spoke. “Robert doesn’t mean to hurt me. It’s my fault. Sometimes I make the wrong thing for dinner or say something stupid. I always screw up and he’s under so much pressure at work. His new boss is a bitch and nit-picks his work. I love him, Maude. I just need to listen more to his needs. It’s really great when he’s happy with me. Honest.”

Was this new boss a bitch or was it just something he’d told Sharon? She stopped at her garden gate. The roses were as overgrown as the weeds, and old crisp packets decorated the thorns like baubles on a Christmas tree. “Look, this is me. Why don’t you come in for a cup of hot tea and a chat? Leave the beggar waiting around for a bit.”

Sharon’s head shook. “Oh, I can’t! I need to be there. Maybe some other time.”

“Come on, love. Look at the state of you, teary and freezing from the snow. You need someone to chat to and a hot cup of something to warm you up. In fact, I have that fizzy wine that you young ones drink. We could have a wee tipple together. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

Sharon bit her lip. “I really shouldn’t. Robert is expecting me . . . but . . .” Her voice trailed off.

A black car slowed down beside them, music blasting. From the open car window, two men with their faces hidden in grey hoodies shouted, “Want a shag, Hen?” Sharon stuck her middle finger up and they cackled and laughed. As the car revved off, a flash of dirty cold slush drenched the pavement. Sharon stepped back to avoid it, but Maude slipped on a patch of ice.

Sharon’s eyes widened and she grabbed Maude’s arms. “Maude. Maude, are you okay?” she whispered. “Ignore those arseholes. It happens sometimes.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine. Just a wee dizzy spell. I must have forgotten to eat lunch again, and that car gave me such a fright. Could you see me to my door please, love? Maybe help me sit down in my chair before you run off to see your fella?”

Sharon nodded, placing her palm at the old woman’s elbow, but slid herself when her phone rang. She grabbed it and answered. “Oh, Hi Rob! Yes, sorry, sorry . . . I’ve been watching the time, yes . . . Yes, but this old woman needed some help and well, she just fell. I’m just going to help her into her house . . . What? No Rob! I’d never do that! Her name is Maude. We’re just at that big house at the end of the bridge . . . uhm number Ninety-six . . . Okay, Okay. I’ll wait for you here. Rob. I’m so, so sorry. I was just . . .”

Maude rubbed the back of her neck and her face paled. “You deserve better, you know, Sharon. But off you go. I’m fine, really. No point in him walking all the way up here. I might be tempted to give him a piece of my mind and that would make matters much worse.” Picking up her bags, she closed the garden gate and shooed Sharon off. “Take care and thanks for the help. Look after yourself.”

Sharon dragged her hands through her hair. “I’m sorry. I can’t seem to do anything right.” She turned and fled back towards the bus stop.

The front door slammed. Maude trudged along the drab hall to the kitchen. The stench of old grease was thicker there, but it always clung to her straggly hair no matter which room she was in. A fly buzzed around a teacup. She batted it away, switched the kettle on and opened a new packet of Rich Tea.

From the hallway, the cupboard door creaked open, and Maude clenched her fists.

“You can come out now, John, but put the rope back in the toolbox. You won’t be needing it tonight. The stupid bitch gave our address to her boyfriend.” She rinsed her mug under the hot tap. Grey lumps of jellied food floated around dirty dishes. “And next time, get off your lazy arse and catch your own little playthings. I’m too old for this.”

Dipping a biscuit into milky tea, Maude sagged into the once-pink sofa. Lights twinkled on the Christmas tree. Bought to brighten up the room, they only accentuated what was missing. She sighed and turned up the volume of Coronation Street to muffle the ache inside her.

They always said red was the colour of rage, but they’re wrong. It’s drab grey.


Find the other winners here

Categories
Members Free Fiction

God Rest Ye


by Edward Barnfield

The friends of Tony Meadows meet in ‘The Lamb’ every December and raise a glass to his memory.

At first, you’d be hard pressed to pick them out from all the hometown returnees and family reunions. Five lumpy blokes, short hair, grey faces, sitting amongst the tinsel with Slade playing on repeat.  

Maybe you know Andy from around the way. He’s still at his parents’ place, a few streets down, sleeping in the childhood bed. He grabs a table in the corner and sits with his back to the wall.

Manny and Bob come through a few minutes apart; Manny with a scowl as though the festivities are designed to cause him personal pain and Bob weaving, old whiskey on his breath.

They swap cautious small talk, try to dodge the fragment grenades that lurk in each other’s lives. Manny is just out after a stretch inside, while Bob has at least two kids he never sees. Andy works hard to limit the conversation to the football.

It’s a relief when Barney walks in; big, smiling Barney with his tales of London life and the joke about the Irish gynaecologist. Barney is the only one who seems comfortable with Christmas, who weaves between the office parties with a full tray and not an apparent care in the world.

“So, there’s these three monkeys like, and they’ve been trained to masturbate on command…”

Last in is Little Chris. He’s travelled furthest, has a paying job that takes him to Dubai and Dusseldorf, but he never misses this reunion.

It takes a while to notice there’s something off about this group, some hidden tension that makes the other revellers steer clear even as the pub packs out. You can see it in the tight fingers on their glasses, in Manny’s hard stare and Andy’s cold sweat as he struggles to keep the mood copacetic.

“Whose round is it? What are you drinking?”

They were sat here a decade ago, same table, same time, waiting for the friend who never showed. Barney is the first to say the name.

“You remember when Tony came out of that warehouse with a bag of industrial diamonds?”

There are snorts, a smile or two. They all have a Tony story, school-yard scraps and nightclub memories, grand schemes and long cons. He’s the thread that binds them all together, even now.

“To Fast Tony Meadows,” says Barney, “Big talker, dangerous driver, best friend.”

“ShhTony,” replies Bob, glass in the air, his jaw too loose already.

“You hear anything?” asks Chris.

“Nothing. His Mum passed about the same time as mine, and she was the last connection.”

“Somebody knows,” says Manny, a growl in his throat. “Somebody’s always known.”

Tony had been due back from the airport after meeting the connect, and they were planning to split the proceeds round the back of the pub. They had all called his mobile and listened to the same voicemail message, the same ominous beep. It was two days before Christmas and traffic was bad, but…

Andy could still feel the tightness in his stomach from that night. What if Tony had been picked up by the cops, or worse? There were other crews out there, greedy, more ruthless. He was scared for Tony, their friend and instigator, but also for the money he was supposed to bring, the doors it was supposed to open, the pain and panic they’d inflicted to earn it.

After an hour of whispered conversation, they had decided to split. If it had been a sting operation, there was no point in waiting in a clump to get picked up. Manny and Bob went to Tony’s flat; Chris would check in at the lock-up. Barney could visit Tony’s parents, charm whatever information he could out of them, while Andy was supposed to drive out to his mistress, see what she knew.

Futile. Futile.

“Aye, well. All in the past now,” says Barney.

But it isn’t, not for them. Something was stolen that night that couldn’t be replaced. And even in the weeks that followed, when Tony’s burnt-out car was found on a country road, or when his blurred photo made the papers, they couldn’t shake the primary horror that gripped them.

What if Tony had ripped them off? Finished the deal, taken the proceeds, hopped on a plane, and left them to their lives? What if this was his last scam and they were the victims?

Because his disappearance was absolute. Tony, who had been a fixture of their lives for so long, had either vanished from the earth or made it look like he had. And that meant somebody had helped him. Someone to ditch the car and clean his flat out. And that would mean…

“You look like you’re doing alright, Chris,” says Manny, lingering on the last syllable with a hiss.

“Can’t grumble.” Chris holds his gaze.

“Only, it must be expensive, all the back-and-forth, all the business lunches. Must make a dent.”

“Come on, Manny,” says Andy, perpetual peacemaker.

“I’m just saying. Must be hard, keeping the show on the road.”

Barney cuts in with another Tony tale, a trip back from Calais that saw them speeding down the back streets with the lights off, two in the morning and…

Little Chris isn’t having it. “You trying to say something? You think I’ve got something of yours?”

Manny’s hand slaps hard on the table. “Somebody has. People don’t disappear. Money doesn’t evaporate.”

“Easy, lads,” says Andy. “It’s Christmas.”

This is always the ritual. They meet up, swap rumours, try to make sense of everything that happened, and then they reach the point where they can’t pretend any longer, can’t hold back the bitterness. Two years ago, it was Manny and Barney, swinging at each other in the carpark.

A woman by the bar is laughing too loudly. Manny and Chris are primed, ready, veins up in their necks. If he goes for Chris, Chris will kill him, thinks Andy.

Bang. The spell is broken by Bob, poor Bob. He’s off his stool and clattered into a fake fir tree, his arm entangled in the lights. There’s a smell too, curdled milk and nappies, and the boys are stricken by the thought their friend has just soiled himself. Nobody else pays much attention. Alcoholics get off easier during the holidays, when the tee-total and the part-time join them at the bar.

“Jesus, get him up,” says Manny. “I’ll take him to the bathroom.”

He half-drags Bob to the gents. It’s strange, but Manny has limitless patience for Bob and none for anyone else. Barney thinks it’s because they came off worst from Tony’s disappearance.

“I mean, I have to say,” he says, “I was wondering whether to bother at all this year. It’s good to see you guys,” he nods at Chris and Andy, “but those two? Like a bad memory, you know?”

“You come for the same reason we all do,” says Chris, his eyes sharp and loveless. “You know we’d track you down if you didn’t.”

There’s not much small talk after that.

A carol starts on the soundtrack, and a few high voices join in. For a moment, it feels like grace has descended on ‘The Lamb’. All is calm, all is bright. Everywhere, except the table in the corner and the five men destined to revisit the scene of the crime every Christmas, forced to show their faces in case the others take absence as proof as guilt.

“Good to see you, Andy lad,” Barney says at the end of the night. “You’re the only one who’s kept his marbles.”

Andy thinks on that as he’s unlocking his folks’ door. He stands in the porch, smells the old tobacco, wishes he could hear their voices one more time.

Because Barney has a point. The old crew are just scarred, sad men these days, cruising home on Christmas Eve to empty houses and bad dreams, spouting all those stories from the past to make the present bearable.

But look at him. Living with the ghosts, walking the same streets he rode his bike on back in the day. Is he any better?

The only comfort, he thinks, is that they still don’t suspect me after all this time. They still can’t imagine that Andy, good old Andy, found Tony Meadows coming out of his mistress’s place, two suitcases in his hands, and dropped him with a single blow to the head without hesitation.

The cases were still where he’d hidden them, in a hollow behind his parents’ deep freeze, and their previous owner was still resting among the choc ices.

Eventually, the boys would tire of the annual meetings, he told himself. They’d run out of questions and move on with their lives. The money would still spend. He would just have to make it through Christmas until then. 


Congratulations to Edward, who will be receiving a special selection of some of our favourite books of 2021. You can find out more about Edward here.

Find the other winners here

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Gasoline & Matches

by Andrew Cotto

Andrew Cotto

Tiffany Pak Valenzuela killed her third martini, secured her shoplifted Burberry sunglasses and sauntered into the spangled sunlight on her way to a local A.A. meeting. Her cheetah-patterned ankle-boots clacked a south Brooklyn Avenue, a thin overcoat swishing at her sturdy hips, clinging to her narrow torso, the Verrazzano Bridge in the smoky distance behind, and the Statue of Liberty clear as day down each cross street. She pivoted up a low-slung block on a steep slope.

*

In an idling Range Rover aside a corner apartment building, adjacent to a lofted and august cemetery, Jesse Green accepted an envelope of $100 bills from his older brother. 

“Why does your wife insist on paying me to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when I’m not an alcoholic?”

“She thinks you are.”

“Look, Ted,” Jesse said with a coy smile. “I’m sorry about Thanksgiving. I truly am.”

“It’s getting old, brother. And I can’t keep covering for you.”

“Covering for me? You’re the one invited me up to New York. Offered me the garden apartment of your brownstone house. Said I could come and go as I please.”

Ted turned his head and looked out the window as a stunning woman of color in oversized sunglasses and cheetah-patterned ankle boots eased up the block and entered the building where the A.A. meeting was being held.

“Get a load of her,” he said to himself and clucked his tongue.

“Ted!” Jesse called to get his brother’s attention. “I’m a musician. Right? And a bartender. I play music and I hang out in bars. That’s what I do.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to get drunk every damn night.”

“So fucking what if I do? Jesus Christ. When did you become such a puritan?”

Ted nodded, looking at his baby brother in torn jeans and duck-taped boots, his shoulder length hair and angular face that conjured so much mercy from women, starting with their mother.

“Marcie believes that you drink in order to cope with your insecurities.”

“And what insecurities are those?”

“The fact that you grew up poor, in the American south, no less. That you can’t make a living as a musician…”

“No one can make a living as a musician!”

“I know that, little brother, but Marcie doesn’t understand, and she’s trying to inspire you to get your shit together.”

“Through bribery?”

“You know a better motivation than money?”

Jesse huffed and shook his head in disbelief. “She might be on to something.”

“Worked for me,” Ted said and rubbed the walnut console of his luxury SUV.

Jesse smacked the envelope and tucked it inside the lapel of his worn leather jacket. “Thanks, brother,” he said and shook Ted’s hand.

“See you next week,” Ted called before the door closed.

Jesse bound up the stairs and entered the vestibule heavy with cigarette smoke. The last door down the dark hall was open, leaking light and voices. Jesse sat in the back, in a metal folding chair, next to a stylish, young woman with almond eyes, tawny skin and crow black hair pulled into a pony tail. They looked at each other but didn’t speak until Jesse lowered his eyes and leaned askance in Tiffany’s direction.

“I got a thousand dollars in my pocket,” he whispered. “Wanna spend it with me?”

Tiffany put on her sunglasses, took Jesse by the hand and walked him out the door.

*

After two days of combustible sex in Tiffany’s apartment, Jesse went for provisions. When he returned with a case of booze, two packs of cigarettes, and a bag of food, Tiffany was in the kitchen in a silk, unfastened black robe, standing over a stocky, black man face down on the linoleum. A sap hung from her right hand.

“He’s not dead, is he?” Jesse asked.

“No.”

“Who is he?”

“Emenike.”

“E-men-a what?”

“Emenike. He’s Nigerian.”

“OK,” Jesse said, thinking how much he loved New York City. He put the provisions on the small counter and came closer.

“He’s my parole officer,” Tiffany said, leaning down to strip Emenike’s pockets.

“Better than your boyfriend,” Jessie said with a shrug. “I guess.”

“Well,” she said. “He was, at one point.”

Jesse took a step back.

Tiffany stood up with the fallen man’s wallet and fob.

“You know how to drive?” she asked him.

“I do.”

She threw him the fob and went into the bedroom to pack.

“Anyplace in particular you’d like to go?” Jesse called.

“I hear New Orleans is nice.”

“That it is,” Jesse said. “That it is.”

Categories
Friends of the Bay Members Free Fiction

Northern Current

Josephine Greenland

Lainio river is cold. It numbs my feet and legs, cuts my body in half so that only my torso, chest and arms feel like a part of me. I peer down at my toes just visible through the murky depths. They sit on the muddy river bottom like fat, white little fish. I wiggle them, and barely feel the sensation travel up through my feet and legs.

            ‘Maria!’

A girl’s voice, bright and high-pitched, barely audible above the roar of the river. I turn around. My sister, Vendela, comes running down from the farm. Her grey school dress billows around her like an upside-down bluebell.

‘We are leaving soon!’

Vendela comes to a halt by the shore. Her long plaits sway sideways across her chest, flashing golden in the sun. Her broad cheeks blush red from the run. ‘Faari needs your help with the load,’ she says rapidly. ‘They’re wondering why you are not ready yet.’

Her beady-eyed stare is accusatory. Demanding me to get out of the water.

The river current snakes between my legs, encouraging them to topple over and give themselves away to its dance downstream. How far would it carry me, if I let it?

‘If you don’t come soon Faari says we’ll leave without you.’

Lainio is resistant, growing heavy around me, but I push forward, out of its murky depths. Without its embrace I feel naked. I skip across the brown sand towards my towel and clothes which lie folded on the grass bank. After a quick dry I step into my petticoat, my linen tunic and brown, woollen, sleeveless dress. I pick up my penknife, the trusted friend I take with me wherever I go, and return it to my dress pocket. I undo my plait and shake the water out. Dozens of little droplets scatter to the ground.

Faari travels to the village market every Wednesday and Saturday to sell our produce. On Wednesdays he drops us off at school on the way and picks us up when he is finished. All other days we walk, which takes us an hour.

My parents and brothers have already started loading the cart when I reach the house. Three linen sacks with potatoes and two sacks of flour, all of them as long as me, lie stacked on the wagon. Father hoists a third flour sack on as I approach. Johannes, the oldest of my brothers but a year my junior, lifts two milk churns, which are received by Lars-Levi, who stands on the wagon. He then takes two giant loaves and a sack of oats from my mother, and piles them neatly against the wall.

Seated on piles of straw in the innermost part of the wagon are my youngest brothers: Isak, Erik-Samuel and Karl-Augustinus. Vendela sits on the driver’s bench at the front of the wagon.

Äiti steps back from the wagon and brushes floury hands on her apron. She catches sight of me. ‘You are late.’

I walk past her to hang up my towel on the porch.

‘Maria.’

Her voice is sharp. A flint stone sharpening a knife. I force myself to look at her.

‘I have seen you in the river. Staying longer every time, drifting further out.’

‘The water is cooling,’ I say.

‘You can make do with a splash on your face from a bucket, just like the rest of us. You do not have the luxury of river swims.’

I notice Johannes looking at us out of the corner of his eye. On the cart, Vendela looks at us over her shoulder.

‘You spoke Swedish yesterday,’ mother says, softer now. She drags her foot across the ground. ‘To the little ones.’

I shrug. ‘They struggle with it at school.’

‘And you seem too comfortable with it.’

‘I’m just helping.’

Äiti shakes her head. She drags her foot more firmly across the ground, creating a furrow in the dirt. ‘You wake up later too,’ she continues. ‘You go to sleep late. You’re slow and clumsy with the bread making and the needle work.’ A quick glance at me. ‘Those books I’ve seen you with…’

‘We have a lot to read.’

‘Your school mistress allows you to borrow them?’

‘She trusts me.’

Äiti reaches out a hand and tucks a stray lock of hair behind my ear. ‘Remember where you place is, Maria.’ She grasps my hand in hers. ‘Don’t make these fingers soft. They’re for ploughing the earth and kneading dough, not turning pages in books.’ She runs her index finger under each of my fingers, lifting them up, pressing against them. ‘Don’t drift away from us.’

 I withdraw my hand and pull my sleeve over it. ‘Next week I finish school.’

Her lips turn upwards slightly. ‘Yes,’ she says nodding. Brushes her hands on her apron and gives a wider smile. ‘Yes.’ She motions with a hand towards the house. ‘Fetch the cheese wheels from the kitchen, please.’

I fetch the cheeses and carry them to the wagon. Each wheel is as wide as my chest and weighs up to a kilo. Their soft, mossy smell soothes my mind. Reindeer cheese and milk don’t have the same sharpness as cow products. You can taste the forest in them, the lichen that the reindeer ingest. I pile them onto the wagon for Lars-Levi to neatly stack.

A moment later Faari and I join Vendela at the front. Faari gives the reins a lash and Sigka, our black and white mare, sets off at a moderate walk.

I look over my shoulder. Äiti stands straight and still in between her sons. She doesn’t wave or bid us goodbye. Her hands, hanging at her sides, are slightly clenched. There’s a twist to her mouth, but not for a smile. Her eyes are fixed on me, unwilling, it seems, to focus on any other point. As if doing so would allow me to disappear.

Could mother be right? Have I been in the world of books and learning for too long? Am I growing soft? I rub my fingers against the side of my head. It feels just as hard and solid as it did yesterday.

I started school at age nine. As the oldest sibling, I had to stay at home to look after my brothers and sister. Johannes and Lars-Levi, one and two years younger than me, were spared of this, and able to start school at seven. They left after the minimum six years, aged thirteen. I insisted on doing the full seven years.

            I am used to this now. The trundling rhythm of the cart beneath me, herding the little ones to and from school, practising Swedish sounds on my tongue. Being pulled out of this routine…

An echo of the river current surges through me.

‘The calves are here,’ says Vendela, pulling me out of my thoughts.

Three of our reindeer calves stand by the edge of the road, blinking at us with their dewy eyes.

One of them utters a trembling bleat in greeting.

‘It’s one of yours,’ Vendela says.

As the animal flaps it ears to swat away a fly, I see my signature mark on the pale, pink inside of its skin. A broken triangle.

The animal turns and scampers back into the woods, where the taller figures of the adult reindeer can be seen.

To them, this is a day like any other.

To us, it turns out to be the opposite. In the village square stand two carriages, two horses for each. Beside the carriages stand a group of men and two women in fine clothing, chatting amicably.

‘Who are they?’ Vendela cowers beside me, staring at the gathering through narrowed eyes. ‘Isn’t that Herr and Fru Berg?’

I follow her gaze to the russet-haired man in the beige suit and dove grey waistcoat, and the tall, blonde woman in a plain blue dress with lace frills around the neck and wrists. Herr Berg, the village priest, and his wife, Fru Berg – our teacher.

Standing slightly apart from the group are the Bergs’ children: Gustav, August and Vilhelmina. Blond, straight-backed, all manners and smiles as one of the strangers approaches them and shakes them by the hand.

Then I notice my classmates huddling against the school-wall. Meänkeli children, Finnish children, the Sami boy Davvet Nutti… all staring at the newcomers as if they’re arrived from a different planet.

Faari brings the carriage to a halt at the opposite end of the square. Other farmers have also parked their wagons here. They all stare at the strange party by the school. Faari goes over to speak to one of them, another meänkeli man. Our brothers linger in the wagon, peering out between the gaps in the planks. Vendela and I have to climb up and lead them out by the hand.

Then our teacher notices us. ‘Maria, Vendela!’ She waves us over.

‘Don’t look the strangers in the eye,’ I whisper to my siblings. ‘Don’t speak out of turn.’ I wipe the snot from Karl’s nose with my dress sleeve. ‘And no runny noses, you hear?’ I brush dust off my skirt and check my hair still sits neatly in its bun. I tell Vendela to bring her plaits forward, letting them hang over her chest. ‘Remember, only speak Swedish now.’

Vendela doesn’t meet my gaze.  

Fru Berg tells us to go and stand in line with the other children. I feel the curious eyes of the strangers on me as we pass them, and then, the smug grins from Gustav and August. Vilhelmina’s face is a mask, haughty and cold, staring straight across our heads as if we aren’t here. None of the other children give us any kind of recognition or greeting. Everyone’s attention is on the strangers. I see wariness and suspicion in most of the children’s eyes, and in the Sami boy’s, a hint of fear.

Then Fru Berg rings the bell she’s been holding in her hand all along. She marches towards the classroom together with two of the strangers, opens the door and tells us to enter. We shuffle in under her militant watch, one by one.

And freeze in surprise.

All the desks and chairs have been stacked against the far wall. A white sheet has been set up at the opposite end of the room, covering the wall from floor to ceiling. A bench stands in front of it.

In the middle of the room is a chair and desk. On the desk lies an open suitcase containing…

…what looks likes surgical instruments.

Fru Berg has no patience for our ogling. ‘Line up now, five rows, spit spot.’ She walks over to the piano beside her teacher’s desk.

The strangers watch as we sing the Swedish national anthem. One is a short, elderly man with a bulging stomach, dainty glasses that perch on the ridge of his nose, and fluffy grey hair forming a half ring around his head. His bald scalp glistens with sweat and he mops it with a handkerchief three times during the song. The other man is younger, powerfully built, almost two heads taller than his colleague, with sandy-grey hair combed back over his head. His austere eyes catch mine once and my gaze darts to the floor.

Fru Berg keeps a smile glued to her face while she plays, over-pronouncing every word so that the little ones can follow, but her eyes are hard. Normally, she reprimands us if we don’t sing “properly”, but with these men present she keeps a lid on her thoughts.

She tells Vilhelmina, who’s been singing bright and sincerely at the front, to go to the kitchen and check if there is coffee ready for the guests. Vilhelmina gives a brisk nod and walks, straight-backed, out through the little corridor connecting the classroom to the rest of the house.

Upper Soppero does not have an actual school building. The classroom is an extension to the Bergs’ villa. When Herr Berg moved here with his family ten years ago to take over after the old meänkeli priest, he was determined to also bring education to Upper Soppero. His wife would teach the village children. Twenty-eight students from ages six to sixteen, of which only three (the Berg children) speak Swedish fluently, and only three speak it proficiently (me, Vendela and a Finnish girl one year my junior).

Fru Berg explains all this to the strangers with the same precision and efficiency she performs dictations.

‘Are any of the children here Lapps?’ the shorter man asks.

‘Only one.’ Fru Berg points with her hand to six-year-old Davvet, who stands out from the rest of us in his traditional Sami coat and trousers in cobalt blue, with the green, yellow and red collar. ‘Davvet, say hello to the gentlemen.’

The boy opens and closes his mouth, eyes wide in panic. He grips his blue, conical hat tightly in his hands.

I lean slightly towards him. ‘Good morning to you sirs,’ I whisper softly in Swedish.

The boy repeats the words so quietly even I struggle to hear.

‘Speak up,’ Fru Berg demands.

The boy repeats the words half a notch louder. Fru Berg’s expression is stony when she thanks him. Not good enough, but it will have to do. She makes no sign of having noticed my intervention. ‘Roughly half the population of Soppero are nomadic Lapps,’ she explains to the gentlemen. ‘They move around the outlying wilderness, following their reindeer up into the mountains during summer.  Their children only attend school in winter when the reindeer graze in the forests.’

‘And where do you fit all those children in, I wonder?’ asks the short man. His voice is thick, like porridge. ‘As marvellous as your learning space is, I doubt it can accommodate seventy pupils.’

‘Herr Berg educates them in the stable.’

‘A frugal location, though I assume the Lapps are used to such conditions.’

The adults exchange a mild chortle.

‘Now, I think we’d better get to work.’

Short Man leads the way to the desk set aside at the back of the room. ‘Line the children up along the wall. Ladies first.’

Fru Berg repeats the commands to us, and all the girls shuffle up to the wall beside the door. The boys are ordered outside. Karl-Augustinus, my youngest brother, hovers at the doorway beside me.

‘What are they going to do to us? Why are they taking the boys out?’

Eeneti,’ I say to him in meänkeli. Quiet.

Davvet, next in line to go out, repeats the question in Sami. I repeat in his language. ‘Rafi. Buohkat boahtit buorre.’ Quiet. All will be well.

Fru Berg closes the door behind them. ‘Maria,’ she says, pointing at me, ‘you will be the first.’ 

All eyes turn to me. I keep my arms pinned to my sides and my head tucked in, trying not to stare at the instruments on the table. They glint dangerously in the sunshine streaming in through the windows. I take the seat in the middle.

Short Man steps close until his face blocks out the classroom and the girls. The sun reflects in his glasses, hiding his eyes behind a blank sheet of light.

‘Open wide.’ He inserts a metal object similar to a nail file into my mouth. He moves it around the front and back of my lower jaw, my upper jaw, and then under the lips. ‘Mmhhhm. Teeth intact.’ Tall Man makes a note in a thick tome of a book.

Short Man returns the nail file to the case and picks up another metal object, like a two-pronged pincer.

‘What are you going to do?’ I ask.

The man positions the prongs on either side of my nose. The sharp edges are cool and I wonder if they will prick my skin.

‘3.2,’ Short Man declares. There’s a scratching sound as Tall Man notes the number down.

Short Man takes another measuring instrument, which looks a bit like an anvil or hammer, with two prongs sticking out from the main handle. He positions it so one prong touches the tip of my nose, the other the top, and presses his thumb between my eyes to mark where the upper prong touches me.

‘4.4.’

He puts the anvil-prong aside and brings out the largest object yet. It looks a bit like that instrument doctors use to listen to your heart and lungs, with soft, rubber ends.

Short Man places this across my head. One of the ends on my forehead, the other at the back of my head. ’42.1.’ He turns the instrument so the ends sit on my ears. ‘39.5.’

He puts the instrument aside and picks up a kind of palette with thin strips in different shades of beige, white and brown. He pulls one, two, three, placing them against my check to compare. He settles with the third, a dull, clay coloured strip, half beige half brown.

‘Mmmm,’ he says to himself. ‘Are both her parents of Tornedalian ancestry?’

‘Yes,’ Fru Berg says simply.

‘Any mixing with Lapps?’

‘Yes. Maria’s family are Tornedalian, Meänkeli as they call themselves, but originate from the Lapps. That is why they own reindeer.’

‘But not nomadic?’

‘No.’

‘Good.’ Short Man steps back, waiting for Tall Man to finish his note-taking. Then the two swap places.

‘You can go stand over there,’ Tall Man says without looking at me. He adjusts something on the camera, checks the tripod stands steady. ‘Take off your clothes, stand up on the bench.’

My body glues itself to the chair.

‘Now.’

‘Maria,’ Fru Berg warns.

I glance once at Vendela. Her face is wooden, like the wall behind her.

Tall Man shifts from one foot to the other.

I stand up. Wander over to the bench. Two steps, and then I am as tall as him.

He motions at me. ‘The clothes.’ A hint of impatience in his voice now.

I pull my dress over my head. I take off my tunic. My hands move to my back to the buttons on my petticoat when I notice movement in the window.

Gustav and August. Amused smiles on their faces.

I wish my cheeks could flush red. Then, maybe, Fru Berg would notice and shoo her sons away. But my body does not behave like that. It shuts down, cold and unmoving like a mountain. There is no space for feeling.

The petticoat slides down to my feet. I step out of it and push it off the bench to the floor. Tall Man picks up a small remote attached to the camera through a wire. He clicks the remote.

Shzoooom.

Blinded. Three seconds of white. I’ve never experienced a camera like this before. Not just a flash and a click. A lightning bolt.

‘Turn around. Put your hands around your head.’

Another? I want to pick up my clothes to cover myself and hide away in a dark room. But my body is numb, number than it was in the river.

The camera strikes. Tall Man orders me to turn so he can take my profile. He doesn’t ask me to dress when he’s done. He lingers, busying himself with the camera, exchanges a few words with Short Man. Looks me up and down.

Short Man points to the wall. ‘Back in line. Next.’  He swaps places with Tall Man.

I gather my belongings and scuttle over to the back of the line. None of the girls meet my gaze. Vendela is next and she looks calm and focused when she takes the centre chair. There’s no sign of Gustav and August in the window. Then there’s a clutter of cutlery and porcelain as Vilhelmina arrives with the coffee. 

Only when everyone of us has been examined can we leave. We file out and the boys file in. Karl-Augustinus and Davvet look wonderingly at me, perhaps hoping to see the steady reassurance I gave them earlier. I cannot look at them. My body is still numb, disconnected from my mind.

 ‘Will we have our lesson after this?’ I ask Fru Berg, who stands by the door letting the boys in.

Fru Berg twists her mouth as if she thinks it rude of me to ask. ‘The villagers need their photos taken.’

‘But what about our class?’

‘You will wait until the researchers are done.’ The last boy crosses the threshold and she closes the door.

I stare at it, willing it to open. Not because I want to see my brothers examined, but because I want to hide away somewhere inside. Four walls, no windows. Somewhere no unwanted eyes can pry.

Vendela’s voice forces me out of my thoughts. ‘Maria, kattua.’ Look. She points down to the square. ‘Faari.’

I follow her finger. I take a long, deep inhalation.

Father sits on a stool in the middle of the square. One of the other stranger men measures his nose and head, while another makes notes in another thick book. A long line of villagers wait behind him for their turn. I count over twenty.

‘Do you think they will come to our house too? Will they make Äiti…’

Tyst,’ I say in Swedish. Quiet. The way Faari sits, hands on his knees, eyes downcast, while the southerner applies his strange instrument to his nose and touches him between the eyes… The farmer in him, gritty, tough and unrelenting like the earth, is gone.

 ‘It will take hours to photograph all those people,’ I say numbly. ‘We will be waiting out here all day.’

‘It is just school,’ says Vendela.

‘We were starting a new chapter in the history book today.’

‘Maria, we can’t do anything. We aren’t the ones who decide.’

‘That’s the problem, is it not?’

My voice rises a notch, attracting the gaze of the stranger women. I’ve been speaking Swedish all this time.

Tule,’ says Vendela in meänkeli, reaching for my hand. ‘Let’s wait in the wagon until this is finished.’

Nej,’ I say firmly in Swedish. No. ‘Speak Swedish,’ I tell my sister. ‘They stare more when we speak meänkeli.’

‘You are the one they’re staring at…’

Her gaze is stuck at something beyond my shoulder. She takes a step back.

A familiar, mocking laugh enters my ears.

Gustav and August Berg, coming down the hill from their family garden. They have their hands in their pockets, and walk at a slow, leisurely pace, leaning slightly backward. The walk of someone in command.

‘Entertaining to watch, is it not?’ Gustav’s gaze slides down to the scene at the square. His pale eyebrows rise. ‘Isn’t that your father?’

Neither me nor Vendela answer. Our gazes fall to the ground, our lips tight. Until the questions surging within me spill over. ‘Who are these people?’

‘Researchers, from the University of Uppsala.’

‘Where is that?’

Gustav sneers. ‘I don’t expect you to know.’

‘Why are they not studying you?’

Both boys stare at me in astonishment. Then they throw their heads back and laugh.

‘I thought not even you would be dumb enough to ask that.’

My fingers curl into my palms, but I force them to flatten out. ‘Why are they not studying you?’

Gustav Berg steps down until there’s only a hand’s distance between us. His dirty blond hair, waxed and combed back over his head, shines steely in the sun. His pale blue eyes are cold and spiteful. ‘Why do you think?’

I take in his bold eyes, shadowed slightly by a strong forehead with eyebrows so pale they fade into his skin. Prominent cheekbones, strong jawline, a dead-straight ridge to his nose. Perfectly moulded lips. A sculptor could have cut him out of stone to let God breathe life into him.

‘Art needs to be preserved,’ Herr Berg said once. A painter had come to do their family portraits last year, taking the Berg siblings out of class, and I’d been asked to help provide the painter with refreshments. ‘A lot of ugly art is infecting Europe at the moment. Grotesque images all black lines and angles, no sense of aesthetic.’ He’d gazed admiringly at the portraits of his children. ‘We need to protect the beautiful, keep it separate from the ugly. Letting them mingle…’ he’d turned to look at me, ‘would produce undesirable results.’ A resigned smile had formed on his lips, as if he were sorry for me.

‘Come on now, say it.’

I feel Gustav’s breath on my face. It tastes of coffee and sugar. I see the knuckles of his hand stand out against the linen fabric of his trousers. A slight movement and his hand will brush against my skirt. It doesn’t need to. His eyes are all over me, undressing me, returning me to the vulnerable state before the camera.

‘She’s not going to say anything, Gustav,’ says August. I see him, beyond his brother’s shoulder, stealing glances in the direction of the square.  

A mocking chuckle. A twist to the lip. ‘I guess she can’t even do that.’ Gustav’s face becomes grotesque.

I step back. Take Vendela by the arm. We begin to walk across the lawn, to the outskirts of the garden, the fields and farmhouses beyond it, when I hear Gustav’s voice. ‘Even their breasts are undesirable. Droopy and lifeless. Better to keep them in the mountains where no one has to look at them.’

Something inside me swirls. I pivot around, cover the distance between us and bring my penknife to his throat. ‘Take that back.’

‘What?’

‘Take back what you said.’

‘What did I say, huh? August, did I “say” anything?’ He tries to laugh it off, but it is a shaky sound. No malice in his eyes now as they dart around, looking for a way out. We’re out of sight from the square, his mother is in the classroom. No one can interfere.

‘Apologise to us.’ I push the knife harder against his skin. The blade is at an angle, slanting upwards. One leftward flick of my wrist and it will cut straight through the external jugular vein. It throbs beneath the metal like a tiny, scared larva. 

Then Gustav angles his head slightly and pushes forward. The knife nicks him on the side of his throat, towards the neck. A slow trickle of blood.

He shouts out and covers the cut with a hand. ‘You attacked me!’ He turns towards his brother. ‘The wench attacked me!’

August, who’s kept his distance this whole time, grinning as if Gustav has set all this up for his amusement, now stares at his brother with concern. He grabs hold of Gustav’s free hand and pulls him backwards. ‘Let us go, Gustav.’

Gustav’s gaze is still fixed on me. ‘Mad wench,’ he mutters under his breath, before giving in to his brother. The two of them disappear around the corner of the villa.

            I hold up the knife to the sun. A needle-thin line of blood colours the blade’s edge.

My hand shakes as I bend down and wipe it on the grass.

I jump when a voice, a young boy’s voice, calls my name. I twist around.

Isak.

All three of my brothers hover by the opposite corner of the villa. Cowering against Isak’s chest is Davvet Nutti.

Tule,’ Isak says.

I stumble towards them, closely followed by Vendela.

‘They took blood from Davvet,’ Karl-Augustinus whispers.

‘A blood sample,’ Isak clarifies. ‘For their research, but they didn’t explain what they would use it for. Now Davvet thinks he is ill and carrying some disease.’

I kneel down on the grass, feel the dew dampen my dress. My mind is still spinning from the incident with Gustav. I place my fingers on my temples to make it stop. Davvet, look at me,’ I say quietly in Sami.  

Two fearful eyes stare at me.

‘You are not ill. You do not carry any disease.’ Gustav’s eyes leer in my mind. ‘They are the ones with disease.’

‘Maria,’ Vendela touches my shoulder.

I keep hold of Davvet’s gaze. Reach out to give his hand a squeeze. His eyes are still wary but he doesn’t pull back. There’s a slight pressure against my index and middle finger as he returns the squeeze.

‘Maria!’

I turn around. The hand holding Davvet’s slides to the ground.

They stand like an army at the other end of the house. Herr and Fru Berg in the middle, their sons and Vilhelmina to their right. To their left, Tall and Short Man and the other southerners. Behind them, I see some of the villagers. There is no sign of Faari.

‘Maria,’ Herr Berg says. ‘Come here.’

He speaks faster than usual. No trace of his calm and measured prayer-voice. No kindness in his eyes.

Their eyes.

My legs are leaden, unwilling to rise.

‘Maria.’

I glance up at the priest under my lashes. Herr Berg stands with his arms behind his back, chin jutting forward. He is the tallest man in the crowd, gaining a few centimetres even on Tall Man. His shadow stretches out on the grass, impossibly large despite the early hour.

‘Why did you attack my son?’

Lumps form in my throat.

‘Are you aware that it is forbidden to carry any sort of sharp object in the classroom?’

 Surprise loosens my tongue. ‘Fru Berg never said that.’

‘Excuse me?’

I flinch. Close my eyes. ‘Fru Berg never said that.’

My teacher sniffs in spite. ‘That she has the nerve to speak out. My son could have been killed!’

I open my eyes. Fru Berg has an arm around her son’s shoulders. Gustav’s face reeks with scorn, yet there is a smug glint in his eyes.

‘I didn’t… he was the one who…’

‘Who what?’ says Herr Berg. ‘Speak up!’

I bite my lip. The truth sounds ludicrous. In their eyes, I’m guilty.

‘Does she still have the knife on her?’ says Fru Berg.

I take a deep breath. Feel the knife weighing down my right pocket.

Herr Berg strides up to me and holds out his hand.

I place the knife in his palm.

The priest returns to his family without a word.

I notice Vendela in the corner of my eye. She stands with her head bowed, a frown on her brow, hands folded in front of her. When she notices my stare she shifts her feet, ever so slightly.

Has she already forgotten what Gustav said?

‘To think I’ve been letting a murderess into my classroom…’ Fru Berg continues. ‘She cannot stay here, she’s a danger to the other children.’

‘How old is the girl?’ asks her husband.

‘Sixteen.’

All heads turn. I catch my breath.

Faari walks up to stand beside me, oblivious of the crowd’s stare. ‘Maria is sixteen.’ His voice is light, no hint of its deep, regular steadiness.

‘So next week was meant to be her last at school?’ says Herr Berg.  

Faari nods.

‘Then it would make little difference for her to finish now. She could be banned from entering the town for a week, restricted to her home.’

Fru Berg shakes her head. ‘That is not good enough.’

‘I promise, Fru Berg, she won’t trouble you,’ says Faari earnestly. ‘I will teach her a lesson. I do not tolerate such behaviour from my children.’

My teacher gives a dismissive shake of the head. ‘She needs proper punishment.’

Herr Berg’s expression is troubled. He opens his mouth to speak.

‘If I may be so bold as to interrupt.’

Short Man. He’s been talking to his colleagues in hushed tones all this time, but now he steps forward. He doesn’t wear his glasses. His eyes are small and black and sit close together. They glisten with eagerness as he looks at the priest. ‘Herr Lexell and I,’ he motions to Tall Man, ‘propose to take the girl with us on our travels.’

It’s hard to say who is more shocked. Herr Berg raises his eyebrows and twiddles his moustache. Fru Berg looks as if she’s been slapped in the face. Gustav and August gape, revealing all their teeth. Vilhelmina wrinkles her nose.

Faari grips his cap tight so the whites of his knuckles show.

Herr Berg is the first to recover. ‘You wish to take the girl with you on your research?’

‘There are certain people in our society who would be very intrigued to see her. She is of Lapp and Finnish origins, a curious blend of different peoples.’

‘Would she not… get in the way?’

‘Oh, she wouldn’t be present when we conduct our measurements. Perhaps in needs of translation, but mainly she will be exhibited at social gatherings with other researchers. Such formalities may help… tame… her violent tendencies.’

He looks at me then, and in my mind I shudder. Short Man looks at me like a boy who’s just been given his first wooden soldier to play with. They all do, all the Swedish researchers.

Oblivious to their gazes, Herr Berg claps his hands together. ‘We’re very obliged to you, Herr Retzius.’ He turns to his wife. ‘Isn’t that so, my dear?’

Fru Berg forces a smile. Her husband has already bought the idea, she has no choice but to agree. ‘Of course,’ she says. Her rock-hard gaze fixes on me. ‘But first she must apologize to my son.’

‘Naturally,’ he beckons at me. ‘Maria.’

‘I’m sorry.’ The words stumble of my tongue. They taste vile and sicken me to the stomach. ‘I’m sorry I hurt you.’

Gustav gives a brief nod, an offended look on his face. He brings his hand to the cut again.

‘Good,’ says Herr Berg curtly. ‘Now, sirs, I assume you want to carry on with your work?’

Short Man makes an apologetic grimace. ‘No, we really cannot linger. We need to be in Karesuando by the evening. We have photographs of the children, that is more than satisfactory. We will take our leave.’ He glances at me. ‘In light of what has just happened it is perhaps wise to move on.’

Herr Berg nods. The muscles in his face relax. ‘As you wish. Your visit to Upper Soppero has been an honour and privilege.’

‘The honour is all mine.’ Herr Retzius trundles down to the carriages by the square, struggling slightly to keep up with Herr Berg, his colleagues following. Their exchange of pleasantries continue, fading into a distant buzz.

‘Come, girl.’

I flinch. Tall Man, Herr Lexell, walks up to me. The sun casts shadows along his angular face. ‘I’m taking you to the carriage.’

I dig my heels into the ground. ‘I don’t have any belongings. I… I’d need to get home to pack.’

‘We will organise a change of clothes for you.’

‘What about money?’

‘You will have no need for money.’ Lexell moves towards the square. ‘Come.’

I look over my shoulder. My family stand together, Faari in the centre, Vendela and Isak on either side of him, the little ones and Davvet at the front. ‘Maria,’ Faari says, ‘are you sure…’

His gaze slides past me at an upward angle – towards Lexell’s figure, who’s shadow I can see stretching out on the ground beyond my own.

‘It’s alright, Faari,’ I say in meänkeli, though there’s a lump in my throat. ‘I won’t let anything happen…’ Seeing the concern in father’s eyes, I stand straighter. ‘I want to go. I do.’ I remind myself of Gustav’s words. Better to keep them in the mountains where no one has to look at them. ‘I’ll prove them all wrong. About us.’ Yet I barely feel my tongue and lips when I speak. My voice no longer feels like my own. ‘Tell Äiti I’m sorry…’  

A slight nod from my father. His face is resigned, he carries himself straight. When Karl-Augustinus reaches for me, Faari whispers to the boy and holds him back. A hug will only make this goodbye more final. 

Faari,’ I say, almost at a whisper. ‘Surely you don’t think I did it? Vendela was there.’

‘It does not matter what I think,’ he says. ‘That is the problem.’

‘But it matters to me.’

‘That knife is for ear-marking reindeer. You would never use it for anything else.’

Äiti needs to understand…’

He nods again.

Lexell calls at me to come. I let myself be dragged away by his voice, watching my family grow small.

Lexell stands by the open carriage door as I reach him.

‘Do not look so glum,’ he says. ‘Girls like you never get an opportunity like this. Be grateful.’

He opens the door. The first thing I see are women’s skirts.

The southern women, three of them now, lean out to look at me.

‘Did you think you’d be getting a carriage all for yourself?’ says Lexell. ‘Get in.’

He does not hold out his hand. Hitching up my skirts, I climb into the carriage, conscious of Lexell’s stare as the movement bares my ankles. The carriage door slams shut behind me.

It’s hot and stuffy inside. The two women sitting on the left side wear expensive looking clothes and big hats. The woman to the right, who does not budge to give me extra space, wears plain, brown clothes and no hat. Compared to the other two, she does not wear a ring on her left ring finger, and her hands are red and sore where theirs are white and smooth.

Two wives and their maid.

We wait for at least another ten minutes. The men have a lot of equipment to load into their considerably larger carriage. Through the narrow window I make out the Berg siblings watching from the square. They are too far away for me to make out their facial expressions, but I can see Gustav speaking to his siblings, how he carries himself.

He thinks he has won. The annoying meänkeli girl who dared stand up to him is being sent away. Maybe she didn’t get a beating, but she will face humiliation, paraded before researchers and intellectuals like an exotic bird. Perhaps they will get bored and drop her on the way.

I put my hand in my pocket, feeling the ghost of my knife in my palm. When the carriage finally jolts into movement, rocking me back and forth, the currents of Lainio swirl inside me. It may be sweeping me off onto a different course, but at some point, it will turn. The current will carry me home.

A Note on the Text:

This story is based on the historical figures of Maria Isaksson (1893-1968) and Gustaf Retzius (1842-1919). Retzius was a leading figure in the Swedish race biology movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and coined the terms Long and Short Skulls, a means of categorizing people based on the size of their skulls, and argued that Short Skulled people had less desirable features than the Long Skulled. The story is also inspired by the 2016 feature film Sameblod.

Categories
Friends of the Bay Members Free Fiction

Heaven Sent

Heleen Kist

Something different for Bay Tales this week – our first ever poem. Courtesy of Heleen Kist.

Heaven Sent

I once dreamt of forgiveness

The burden lifted high

Her hand held out in offer

My inner, peaceful sigh

I dreamt that it was granted

Quick aft my deed was done

No time for guilt to settle

No dark thoughts to outrun

The dream was clear and vidid

A visceral event

I knew then that my darling

Was truly heaven sent

Who knows what dreams are made of

If they are true by day

A glimpse of what’s to follow

Or visions tasked to sway

These fruits of my subconscious

I know that they’re not true

They’re just my way of coping

With what I’m going to do

Pretending she’s on board with

The carnage that’s to come

My knife slicing her open

Her bloody guts undone.

Categories
Friends of the Bay Members Free Fiction

Through The Crime Writer’s Looking Glass

By BRM Stewart

Brian Stewart

‘I shouldn’t be here,’ I said.
The old man with the long white hair and the long white beard looked at me and gave a small, patient smile. His finger stopped moving down the enormous ledger on the table in front of him.
‘Not many people say that in this place,’ he said. His blue eyes twinkled.
‘No, I mean I really shouldn’t be here.’
He gave a sigh, and rested his elbows on the ledger, hands loosely clasped. ‘Your name is Angus Jones.’
‘Yes.’
‘And you’ve just died.’
‘Well yes, it would seem so.’ I flapped my arms at the white clouds all around us, and the set of golden gates beyond his shoulder.
‘And your name’s in the book.’ He stabbed a finger halfway down the right-hand page.
I could see my name there. Interestingly, everything was in comic sans font – 14-point, I estimated.

My arms dropped to my side and I sighed. ‘Yes, it is. Can you do anything about this, by the way? It’s really annoying.’ I indicated the dagger sticking out of my chest.
‘We’ll sort that out at reception. Along with a change of clothes.’
‘What’s wrong with my clothes? Apart from the bloodstains.’
He smiled, looking at my corduroy jacket and the elbow patches. ‘We’ll get you a change at reception. Now, just a few formalities…’

‘I shouldn’t be here,’ I said.
He gave another sigh and raised his eyebrows. ‘And why shouldn’t you be here, Mr Jones?’
‘Two things. Firstly, I don’t believe in all this.’ I flapped my arms again. ‘I’m an atheist.’
His smiled. ‘Well, you got that a bit wrong, then, didn’t you?’
‘And secondly,’ I went on, ignoring his sarcastic response and pointing to the dagger in my chest again, ‘this didn’t really happen. I was alone, you see, working on my novel –’
‘Of course! You were an author!’ The word came out in italics, with quotes round it.
I ignored him. ‘I’d got to the bit where a woman gets attacked by her lover.’
‘Ah, that old trope, eh? What was she like, this woman? Drop-dead gorgeous? Sexy? Bit mysterious?’
‘Well yes, she was, as it happens. All of those things. What’s that got to do with it? Anyway, I was really getting into the scene where he comes up behind her with a dagger. I was describing it in intricate detail – his expression, his eyes, his gritted teeth. He grabs her, and she screams. And wham – here I am.’ We shared a look. ‘I shouldn’t be here.’

The old man gave another sigh.

‘Let me explain,’ he said. ‘This is the sort of thing that can happen to authors. Rarely, but it does happen. We call it “Schriftsteller Spiegel”. “Writer looking glass”. I’ve no idea why it’s in German.
Sounds good though, eh? Anyway, what happens is that the writer gets too involved in the writing, feels it too much, sees it as if it’s really happening. And, occasionally, for a few seconds, it actually becomes real. Seldom with such catastrophic consequences, however.’ He pointed a long bony finger at my chest and suppressed a giggle. ‘Now let me guess – she managed to get hold of the dagger…’ He spread his hands.

I nodded. ‘I based her on someone I knew. Once. Well, my ex actually. She cheated on me with a friend. And to be fair, I cheated on her with her sister. We argued a lot. She made me so angry at times! I would never have hurt her in real life, though.’
‘But you were hurting her through your writing, weren’t you? In some detail.’
‘I suppose so.’ I looked round again. ‘I guess I’m stuck here now.’

He slammed the ledger shut and a sound like thunder rolled across the heavens. A hand reached across the desk, the forefinger extended.
‘I’m afraid adultery and wrath are major sins, Mr Jones. So, you were right, you shouldn’t be here.’

He pressed a button, and I began falling.

Categories
Friends of the Bay Members Free Fiction

All Of A Sudden

By Cath Staincliffe

Cath Staincliffe

It wasn’t planned.
It came unbidden.
Rage, a huge roaring wave.
Heat in her head.
Blow after blow.

Then it was done, the tide draining away. Leaving Amy beached, sick and trembling.

She went upstairs, away from the mess and sat on her bed. Mind scattered. Shying away from memory and images, lighting instead on the anaglypta paper, a weave of crosshatched lines. On the curtains, printed polyester, brown and orange cubes.
Indestructible. She used to count them. Counting away the minutes.

Twenty-three years.
Ugly all of it.

She shivered though the room was warm. Smelled of dust baking in the heat, of sleep-filled sheets, of blood.
Her eyes fell on the bare patch in the corner, where the paper had been picked away. The taste of it. Slamming the lid on that, she lay back and watched the sunbeams pierce the gap at the top of the curtains, making rainbows on the ceiling.

Amy curled up and slept heavily, like a tired dog.
In her dreams she wasn’t hungry, or in pain, wasn’t stretched with tension tight as a drum, didn’t ache with misery.

Waking to such disappointment.

Early morning.
Outside, the streetlights glare at the terraced row, at the dozing cars and the broken pavements.
Mam calls up, shrill, angry. Always angry. Bile in her heart, in the marrow of her bones.
That can’t be right. Mam calling.
Amy turns her hands this way and that. Clean. And no blood stains on her clothes.

She pulls an extra jumper from the cupboard. Ignoring the stale smell of cooking fat and cigarettes and sweat. The smell that set her apart at school, earned her nasty names and punches and hair pulling. Worse when she started her periods. Paper towels in her knickers.
Before that, aged nine, she’d tried to wash her school sweater (free school uniform, free school dinners) in the bath with washing up liquid. It took days to dry, hung from a bent coat hanger in her room.
She got black marks for going in without full uniform.
Mrs Harris, the classroom assistant, found her a spare in lost property and said she could keep it.

Downstairs Mam, propped up in bed, screws up her mouth and wrinkles her nose.
‘Look at the state of you, something the cat dragged in. Or sicked up. What’ve you got to be so bloody miserable about? You live here scot free, not worked a day in your life, have you? You’ll not manage without me when I’m gone. Get the kettle on then, I’m perished.’

Amy stares at the fire irons, redundant beside the halogen heater on the hearth.
‘You deaf as well as stupid?’

The poker in its place. Exactly like yesterday, except then the sun was high.

‘Carer? You couldn’t care less. What will you do when I’m gone? Bloody useless. What’ll you do, eh?’

This, Amy thinks, as she lifts the poker.
This.
The fury boils.
This.
And this.
And this.

Read more about Cath Staincliffe here

Categories
Friends of the Bay Members Free Fiction

Look What You Made Me Do – a sneak preview

Nikki Smith

As well as the non-fiction piece on the inspiration for her first novel, Nikki Smith has allowed us to share the prologue and opening two chapters of her new book, Look What You Made Me Do – available in Hardback on April 1, 2021.

Click on the download link below to read!