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.”
“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.
“Who is he?”
“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.
She threw him the fob and went into the bedroom to pack.
“Anyplace in particular you’d like to go?” Jesse called.
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.
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.
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.
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?’
‘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.
‘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.
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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
My legs are leaden, unwilling to rise.
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.’
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
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.
I passed myself in the street yesterday, a strange experience to say the least.
You were pushing my bike and Timmy was in the basket with his tongue lolling out, as usual. That’s how I knew you were me, otherwise I would have thought you were just another woman dressed too young for her age and smiling in the sunshine.
To be honest, I don’t have much to smile about these days, but the ‘You’ me did. I almost stopped to say hello but I was scared.
Excited too, if I’m honest.
So I came back at the same time today to sneak a good, long look at you. Your make-up is immaculate. And your hair, it’s blonde! When did that happen? Oh, and you’re wearing that hat that makes you look like a French actress from the ‘60s. I’ve got the self same one at home; it doesn’t suit me.
You must have clocked me following you because you did a double take, I suppose you thought I was your doppelganger, or something.
They say there’s a perfect replica for everyone on earth and that God always makes a spare, one to use and one to lose, so to speak. But no doppelganger shares the same dog, and Timmy was there again, standing up in his little basket, slobbering stupidly and wagging his tail.
It was when you smiled at me, as if life was all cherries and chocolates, as our mother used to say, that I knew you were the one. I wanted to slap your face, you looked so pleased with yourself.
Instead I said, ‘Hello, do I know you?’
We talked for a bit and of course we had stuff in common. We had everything in common; the same school, the same class, the same first boyfriend, Ben Baker, and that childish scar on the back of our hands when we sliced ourselves with the vegetable peeler because he left us and we wanted to leave a mark, ‘For our pain!’
We both laughed out loud at that.
You have a lovely voice, I must say, much more refined than mine. No one would guess we came from Hull. I can’t imagine, ‘Hello ducks!’ leaving those prim lips. So you’ve done ok, wherever it is you’ve been hiding. Do you have a nice house, too? And a man? Mine ran off with Samantha six years ago. They still live here; whenever I see them they scamper away like gutter rats. I just smile.
All happy families are alike, they say, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Well, now I’m unhappy alone.
The look on your face when I said that! I think you’re starting to suspect. But you know me, always good at hiding malice behind a smile.
So I said, ‘Why don’t we swap for a day, so we can see what it’s like to be each other, wouldn’t that be fun?’
I could tell you weren’t keen.
‘I’ve really got to go,’ you said.
‘I’ve really got to go…’
I’m not being funny but that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about; Geoff, Samantha, you…
So now I’ve got a plan and I’m following you home; difficult of course because you know exactly what to look out for. But would your children, if I made myself up and got my hair done like yours? Would your husband? I know I’m better in bed than you… those perfect, prissy nails; I bet you wear Marigolds to blow him.
My point is, would any of them notice, or even care, if we did a little swap?
Of course I’d come and visit you in my house, (not so big, in fact positively pokey; watch out for the bottles on the stairs,) and perhaps I’d let you out for a bit, once a day, but only in the garden, where you can’t get up to any mischief. And even then I might have to gag you.
On second thoughts you could just have an accident and die. No one ever visits me, so who would know? And then I’d come to your funeral, when they get round to finding you, and watch Geoff and Samantha shed their crocodile tears, and laugh at them from behind your designer shades. Because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, laugh at a funeral.
You’re allowed to do that when it’s your own.
I’m talking too much. You’re at your door and you keep staring at me over your shoulder.
Nervous? Who cares, I’ve made a decision. You’re not going to like it but here it is: there’s room in the world for only one me, after all.
It’s freezing up here in the Glen. The wind is coming down from the North and forecasters predict a heavy dump of snow which will hit the Highlands sometime after midnight. It’s early in the season for snow, but I can imagine it. The clean air, painful to breathe in, out here.
I’m glad I packed extra layers and those Fair-isle socks that cost me a bloody fortune in the mountain shop in Glenshee on the way north. Scandi style is definitely in, but I draw the line at the £350 Fjallraven designer jumper. Maybe after though, I ponder. I’ll go back and buy the red one with the blue and yellow diamond patterns around the neck. If all goes according to plan, then I’ll deserve a special treat.
I’ve had a good feeling about this one. Innes’s profile indicated a Ben Fogle type. Someone who’d look as good in the flesh beneath his Goretex jacket, as he did in the photos. And when we meet up at the bothy, I’m genuinely impressed. He has those rugged model good looks, roll neck jumper that matches the blue of his eyes and a fair beard that is subtly trimmed into just the right shape. Neither effeminate hipster, nor smelly farmer type. Unfortunately, his good looks are just not enough though. They never would have been.
I’d given him the latest version of my story by email. As Heather, I needed someone strong and experienced to guide me in the mountains for a few days and he looked as though he was up to the job. It had always been Heather’s ambition to walk the Lairig Ghru. When I set out from the car park at Linn of Dee, following the trail through the ancient pine woods which dot the hillside, I know things will go well with this trip.
I take my time during the four mile hike up to derelict Derry Lodge. I didn’t realise just how much I’ve missed this view. More than a decade has passed since I’ve watched the weather change over this part of the Cairngorm Mountains. It’s such a treat. Sets the scene nicely for what’s to come later. A staggeringly beautiful, yet desolate landscape. Who’d have thought you could get this remote in Britain?
A stag roars on the hillside opposite and idiotic young grouse, eyes bulging with fright, scoot out across the path, running in all directions as I approach. It’s well after the glorious 12th though and hunting season in this part of the world is already in full swing. I never liked it. Not until I began to hunt myself. The thrill of my first kill still gives me a warm glow inside.
Not like those amateurs who take an annual bloody pilgrimage. Teams of shooters, paying tens of thousands for the privilege, pile into Braemar, to stay at the newly renovated Fife Arms, where after a day sweating on the hills, taking pot shots at the wildlife, they retire to the bar after a gamey dinner and reminisce on their hunting prowess over a few fine malts. They’ll spend a few days gathering anecdotes and patronising the locals, before piling back into their metallic Land Rovers and Porsche Cayenne’s to head back to the central belt, their arses toasted by heated leather seats. Then the Barbour jackets are put away and guns locked up, their blood lust satisfied again for this year.
As I sit now, back in my old car, enjoying hot coffee with a dash of brandy to warm me through, I recall a similar party all those years ago, when I was a young waitress at the restaurant in the Fife. When I’d been Ellie. I don’t often let myself remember. It’s too painful. But that was where my character was made. That night, when the crowd of young hunting bucks had offered me a drink after the bar closed and despite my protests had bundled me into the back of an old Defender and driven me out to Derry Lodge. I shift in my seat.
I couldn’t scream with that scarf tied around my mouth, or scratch with my hands tied behind my back. But I remember the pain and the shame of it. Six of them, one after another. Drunk, but still able to make use of me and then leave me shocked and hurt, to make my way back home along the dark track through the storm. I vowed that night that they would pay. The hunters would become prey, no matter how long it took me. When I look into Innes’ eyes today and tell him who I was, I can tell he can’t even remember. He denies it, of course. Says he’s never been up here before. That I am wrong, as he pleads for his life. Liar. His mistake was underestimating me. I’ve learned how to play my part. Said it would be so exciting to break into the old lodge and see what was inside, pretending I was frightened so he could protect me. He didn’t know I’d hidden the axe there weeks before. That I let him go first, to make sure it was safe. The first blow knocks him to the ground. He wasn’t expecting it. He turns, confused.
‘It’s Ellie,’ I say. ‘Remember me?’
It was only when I list their names. Rory, Dominic, Fraser, Jonny, Rupert and finally Innes, that I see a flash of recognition cross his face. The last expression he will ever make. I glance across into the dark, where I know the others are buried. It is hard dragging his body over to the pit I dug weeks ago, but this is the last one and the thought gives me strength.
Back at the car, I take off my boots, and put my hat and gloves on the dashboard. I’ll burn everything later. But for now, I sit and enjoy the view.
I know now I’ll never come here again.
Find out more about author Suzy Aspley in her author profile here.
When it happened, I was exhausted. That’s been the justification for my inaction over the years. It wasn’t a lie, either. It’s just that I can’t honestly say I’d have done anything differently had I not been so very tired that particular hot, heavy, Friday afternoon. Images from that journey return unbidden every time I board a train, no matter the circumstances or scenery, however cheery and amusing the company. The years should have taken the sting from the tale, but my conscience is one of those crawling insects that seem never to die, no matter how hard I swat at it. I climb aboard, coffee in hand, determined to work, read or plan, and there I am again, many years earlier, at Bristol Templemeads Station.
The courtroom, the setting for my chosen career, is no more than a laundromat. Lawyers take the tragedy and depravity from behind closed doors, and present it to a judge on sheets of white paper in neat bundles, and for reasons best consigned to centuries-old obscurity we even wrap the whole thing in pretty pink ribbon. Gone is the reek and rubbish of real life. In its place is a carefully worded description of events and an analysis of how one should apply the law. There follows cunningly couched arguments, designed not to accentuate emotions but, rather smugly, to rise above those pesky things. Where we must, advocates quote expletives in our best received pronunciation, as if such words only ever infiltrate the court building uninvited. We present and respond to cases regarding children whose parents have failed them, about the steps social workers have taken to prevent further damage, and how the best interests of each child are better served by taking this route or that. Clients win or lose. The names changed, but the circumstances rarely did. Bundle after bundle of white paper wrapped in pink ribbon, occasionally frayed at the ends.
At the end of every train journey since then, I have reminded myself that I wrote a note. The words thereon read as follows. “My name is Sarah Blakelock. My phone number is below. I am a lawyer. I will try to help you. If you feel scared, call me. No one else ever needs to know.” Those words, so often revisited, have become a mantra.
So why tell this story now? It’s a fair question. Am I seeking absolution or understanding? Forgiveness? Perhaps I want you to tell me that anyone would have done exactly what I did. We live in a society that imposes certain norms. It’s hard to break with the traditions of established public behaviour. Except that I don’t think that is what I want. Not at all.
As I await my present day train, where I assume there will be no burning moral hole waiting to consume me – You see the problem? Even now, as I write this, I sound self-pitying and self-obsessed – As I wait for my train, I know this story won’t remain unwritten. It dislikes being held only in the pages of my memory and placed neatly on a shelf for my later consideration and professional opinion. It wants to be told in all its nasty, honesty, real glory.
As I always do when I step into a train carriage, I also step back in time, boarding that train from Bristol that will wind its way east to Portsmouth. That’s not my destination. I will disembark at Romsey. It’s a sweet little Hampshire town with a sleepy station. The month is August. I’m pregnant. Did I tell you that already? Not now, but then. Pregnant and large with it. The weight of the eagerly anticipated baby in my belly is making me irritable and joyful in equal measure. I am a little oversensitive and fiercely protective. Determined to keep working, to allow no one to say that I’ve slowed down during the gestation. I am, I suppose, too proud in lots of tiny, stupid ways.
It’s the penultimate day of a care case that I will lose. The mother who has left her fate in my hands will be disappointed. Not my fault, I can report with certainty. When a family has been investigated by Social Services for a year and a half and still fails to cooperate, comply or change, there’s not a huge amount to be saved from the ashes. I’d fought hard, done my best and put up a serious fight. Still, failure was inevitable. And that’s where my journey began, nearing the end of a difficult few days, where I’d travelled, concentrated, worked, been on my feet too many hours, rubbed my swollen belly over and over so that it should have been gleaming beneath my black maternity dress. Truly, I was exhausted. It’s still no excuse.
My first mistake was trying too hard to be helpful, and failing to see the signs that should have been as obvious to me as neon cartoon writing with a flashing arrow. But I’m talking about what happened as if I were looking back, and that’s never how it feels when I board a train. Every second is as fresh and contemporaneous as a time slip novel. So we’ll do it exactly as the devious snake of my memory wants me to. Let’s relive it up a little.
I had entered the train in good time, and thus was fortunate enough to locate a space at a table, two seats facing one way, two facing the other. Only one seat of the four was occupied, and I squeezed my belly in and got comfortable. I’d decided to treat myself to reading fiction that day rather than opening a new brief, although I cannot recall the title of the novel. I suspect I never finished it. Associations are powerful things. Another professional from the court case had boarded with me and chosen to sit a few rows along. We’d only met at the start of the week, and long journeys with relative strangers are tedious things. He was the guardian ad litem in the case, meaning he’d been appointed by the court to represent the interests of the children. As he’d taken the stance that the children would be better off removed from my client’s care, he and I were on opposing sides, even if we were not supposed to regard ourselves so, and I was rather relieved he’d sat elsewhere, as I’m sure he was.
It was with only two or three minutes to go that a boy, a girl and a woman entered our carriage. The boy, who was perhaps 10 years old, took the seat opposite me, next to an elderly woman who’d been at the table before I’d arrived. The woman with him I assumed to be his mother, who together with the girl had been forced to take a seat across the aisle.
‘Here, I’ll move,’ I told him, fiercely aware of how uncomfortable travelling could be for children separated from their family by lack of seats, and thereby forced next to strangers for long periods.
‘No, that’s all right,’ he said with a shake of his head.
This, I mistakenly took for politeness. Not that he wasn’t polite. He was nothing other than quiet and respectful for the part of the journey I shared with him. His manners only made me the more determined to move and allow him to be with his family.
‘Oh, it’s fine, really,’ I insisted. ‘Then there’ll be three seats together.’
He shook his head at me, but by then I was already moving. The look in his eyes should have stopped me. The shake of his head that was directed at me, but the movement restricted to the window side, where his mother couldn’t see. I was caught mid-movement. I’d slipped my book into my bag and was already on my feet. But the look in his eyes.
I told myself, as you do sometimes when strange events catch you unawares, that I was seeing something that was not there. I suspect also that having made a thing of moving, I felt unable to backtrack. My image of him, the one stuck in my memory, is of a pale child, brown hair, brown eyes opened wide, unable to say some words to me that he most definitely wanted to say. In my mind, his mouth is open to speak. That little mouth has never closed in my recollection.
I smiled at him, and he must have thought me the most stupid adult he ever came across in his life. For a child to reach out, to be bold enough to send a secret signal, only to be smiled at then ignored, is an awful thing.
‘Here, you can sit with your son,’ I told the woman, only by then my heart wasn’t in it. The boy’s eyes had sent their message just seconds too late. I wanted to change my mind and go back. What I felt then was a curdling cocktail of curiosity and panic.
What had I missed?
The boy, I realised, was not just scared. He was terrified.
I took the seat next to the guardian ad litem whose name I cannot recall. I never came across him in a courtroom afterwards and that, I must tell you, was something of a relief. My new position left me facing the mother who’d taken the window seat and the daughter who had filled the chair I’d vacated. My first clear view of the mother’s face told me all I needed to know.
She was young, certainly still in her twenties, and because avoiding being judgmental requires an almost super-human self-discipline, I found myself immediately calculating how old she must have been when she’d had her daughter. Fifteen, maybe? Her hair was a dull blonde, raggedly cut, and matted at the back. Her face was a clench of anger. But her right ear, the only one I had a clear view of, was a mangled mess. It looked to me to have been burned. That sanitises my diagnosis too much. My initial thought was that she had been held to something hot, and that the ear had been deliberately disfigured by burning. It does me no credit that my mind works so violently, nor am I proud that aspects of my career gave me sufficient insights into the methods people find of torturing one another that I felt qualified to make such a deduction. Being a barrister was a mixed blessing. You can do real good, represent people who would otherwise have no hope of successfully negotiating complex and wordy proceedings. You can ensure that the innocent are not convicted, or prosecute the guilty and keep the public safe from them. Then there are days when you do nothing but study photographs that no one should ever have to see, reading details of post mortems, listening to recordings of…it doesn’t do to dwell too much on it. That’s the job. You do it warts and all. No barrister is entitled to pick and choose their cases, but they are never thrust upon you. There were opportunities, after all, in tax law or corporate litigation for those with an eye on the money and a high boredom threshold.
I tried not to stare, although it was hard. Made harder by that fact that even before the train had pulled out of the station she was cursing at her children, eyes like fury, lips curled back over her teeth.
Let me engage in some light self-defence, not intended as an attack, but as I endeavour to accurately portray what happened that day, this is a part of it. It’s not a criticism. Well, it is, but it makes no difference to my own culpability, so I won’t edit it out.
‘There’s something wrong. That boy is really scared. He didn’t want to sit opposite his mother,’ I told the guardian ad litem.
He glanced up once, briefly, in their direction.
‘I’m sure it’s fine,’ he said, returning his gaze to nothing of importance outside the window.
‘Actually I’m a bit concerned. The mother looks disturbed and the boy was trying to motion me not to give up my seat. I think we may need to do something.’
He shrugged and ignored my suggestion.
There were a few factors at play, most of them perfectly understandable. The first was that the guardian hadn’t seen what I’d seen. Witnessing a child that scared is a rare thing. The second is that he was off duty. The third is, frankly, what on earth did I expect him to do? I don’t have an answer to that. Perhaps to have really discussed it with me. Perhaps just to have listened. With a subtext less palatable, that in my twenties and thirties, men in their forties or fifties were incredibly dismissive of me. There’s a sense that no matter how well qualified or experienced you are, you must still be prone to melodrama or exaggeration. Because you’re female. If I sound angry and bitter, it’s because I am. Being underestimated and misrepresented for years will do that to a woman.
The carriage was full by the time we set off, the only available seat was the one next to the boy, whose previous inhabitant had – for reasons I was trying not to speculate about – decided to move to a different carriage.
Early on in the journey I made eye contact with the daughter. She was pretty. Really pretty. Long straight hair, from nutty tones to gold highlights, hazel eyes, clear skin and a sweet smile. She’d said thank you when I’d given up my seat to allow them the table. If the boy had looked scared, then the best adjective for the daughter was resigned and that made me sad. Fear speaks to a lack of certainty. It sparked with unpredictability and therefore, to some extent, the possibility that the awaited outcome might still be avoided. Resignation in a child is simply depressing. It is a scenario played out too often. It’s the death of hope. I think when I looked in her eyes, I knew how it was going to end that day. She certainly did. I should have done something there and then, but even now I cannot tell you what that could or should have been.
I tried not to look at the girl, but that became harder as her mother grew louder. It’s a funny thing in a packed train carriage, but even in an age where swearing has lost much of its taboo, there are still some words than can quieten conversation and even stop those awful speaker-phone mobile calls that the unashamed and lacking in self-awareness insist on making in public areas.
The train was too hot. Not just warm and sticky, but sweltering. It wasn’t helping anyone’s mood, least of all the mother of two very quiet children who was caught somewhere between muttering to herself and cursing at them each time they moved a muscle. The more she swore, the quieter the carriage became. Every now and then someone would attempt to spark up a conversation, but each brave effort succumbed too soon in the thickening atmosphere.
Stations passed, and I hoped both that they would disembark the train and remain on board, eager to be relieved of the burden of the feeling that I should never have given up my original seat, whilst knowing that as long as those children were in my sight, they were safe.
Tension is a hard thing to define in the emotional sense. Physically, it means to put under strain. That certainly applies to our journey, but it insufficiently defines the escalation of suspense. When you combine the qualities of tension with a sense of inevitability, you end up with a sort of quicksand. Slow burn, incremental, with the certain knowledge of a horrific ending. Trees passed, towns passed, the greenery of southern England was tantalisingly close and yet an untouchable illusion. Real life was happening inside our train, and as one, the collective body of passengers was holding its stale, sour breath.
It was a weekday, of course, as the courts had been sitting. The children weren’t in school uniform and had no bags with them. I was speculating how their day had been passed, when the mother became increasingly incensed over nothing obvious.
‘Just both of you shut up and sit still!’ she yelled, peppering the phrase with expletives.
If the carriage had been subdued until that point, the vacuum left by the verbal abuse rendered me breathless.
The guardian glanced up then, slid his gaze to his watch.
The children looked into their laps. The fact was that neither had been speaking above a whisper to one another, and most certainly hadn’t been moving.
Drugs, mental illness, stress – quite possibly a combination of all those things, I decided. My skin felt tight on my body. Even the baby in my womb, who frequently chose that point in the afternoon to perform endless somersaults, had decided that it would be an inopportune moment to make the day about him.
A whispered conversation began at the back of the carriage. People cleared their throats or coughed, rattled newspapers and studied their paperwork. No one said a word.
The girl looked up at me. I held her gaze and she held mine. That tiny, irrelevant kindness I had shown in giving up my seat had not been lost on her. I was a different type of adult to the one she was used to, or so she must have thought. Keeping her face carefully neutral, she and I stared at one another down the aisle. This is my life, her face said. This is what happens from time to time. It’s not the biggest deal.
The train kept travelling. The normal business and noise of a commute recommenced. I think everyone assumed that would be the worst of it. The mother had been reduced to huffing and muttering. The daughter looked at her brother and gave him a knowing look followed by a reassuring smile, and I remember thanking god that there were two of them. That when they got home they had each other for protection and deflection and as witnesses. The thought was both premature and far too late.
The train maintained its pace, and we continued to journey away from the sun through the countryside. The seat was that itchy, coarse material, and my black dress was sticking to me. The summer nuisance of public transport body odour was gaining traction, with too few open windows and no air conditioning.
The children, always faster to recover than adults ever give them credit for, had begun making silly faces at one another across the table. This marked a peculiar moment. I felt relieved. These were normal kids. I’d been over-sensitive. Their mother was rough and foul-mouthed, but not the monster I had imagined her to be, or the children wouldn’t have been able to move on from their humiliation so quickly.
At which point, the mother picked up the glass bottle from which she had been drinking, swung it wide, and smacked it hard into her daughter’s cheek.
It ought to sound more dramatic than that. I should be able to find better words. But that’s all there was. One simple movement. The bottle did not break. The girl’s cheekbone didn’t break. Her skin was not split. Yet I can hear the sound of glass hitting bone as clearly now as I could then. A dull thud combined with a high pitched ringing. Inside my head, I was screaming. Because the girl just sat there. I just sat there. The guardian ad litem sat there. Not one person inside that train carriage moved, or spoke, or remembered to breathe.
The mother put the bottle down as calmly and carelessly as if she’d just assaulted her daughter in her living room, with no spectators whatsoever.
The girl neither rubbed her face nor complained. But she did look at me again.
She stared at the useless woman with tears forming in her eyes, one hand over her mouth and the other across her belly, sick with seeing another mother treating a child so violently and cruelly.
I dealt with it every day, that was the irony. I read reports, cross-examined doctors, met with the alleged perpetrators of exactly such violence and worse, but that blow was a real eye-opener, as the saying goes. The guardian spoke before anyone else said anything. Only to me, in the lowest voice I would be able to hear.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you,’ he said.
I didn’t trust myself to respond politely, and my silence provided sufficient excuse for him to turn his attention back to the outside world.
Then a man stood up. Older than twenty-five, probably not yet thirty, he did what none of the rest of us managed. He acknowledged what had happened.
In casual clothes, thin framed, his hair long enough to make clear that he was no corporate robot and soft of voice, he set himself next to their table.
I don’t know what I was wishing for. A miracle, I think. For him to be a police officer or a social worker, or to have a magic wand that he could wave and set the world to rights. The girl turned her gaze toward him. The mother saw him but looked away, picking at her fingernails. The boy was twitching, wondering whether or not to simply bolt before anything worse could happen, I suspected.
More tears were escaping down my cheeks.
‘I want you to know…’ the man began, ‘…I want you to know that I’m sorry for whatever you’re going through.’ He addressed the mother.
The boy’s mouth fell open. He turned his head to look up and down the carriage at the people staring before returning his incredulous gaze to his sister. Neither dared glance in their mother’s direction.
‘I know things can be hard sometimes,’ the man continued, undaunted by the lack of response from the mother or support from his fellow passengers. ‘But people care more than you think. I care. I believe lots of people would care if you’d let them.’
The mother took hold of the bottle again, and the boy and girl shrank backwards into their seats. The man stood his ground, hands drooping loosely into his pockets, shoulders down. I wanted to applaud. I’d never seen another human so consciously non-confrontational.
‘Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. Just reach out if you need help. We’re not all against you. I hope you have people to show you love. I wanted to let you know, that’s all.’
The mother played with the bottle, banging it against the edge of the table, making noise, creating a distraction. I was reminded of a toddler.
‘That’s all,’ he said again, giving a small shrug and a half-smile. He took the few steps required to reach his seat and there were murmurings. Some, I like to think, were of agreement or support, others were people rousing themselves from the shock.
The mother began muttering again, swearing beneath her breath, keeping the line of her eyes away from other passengers. Not from embarrassment. She was too far gone for that. Not from a dawning realisation that what she had done was a terrible thing, and that her daughter was hurt, scared and humiliated. Just anger. She was holding it in. But it was right there. Neither child spoke or moved.
I waited until the girl looked at me again.
‘Are you okay?’ I mouthed.
She gave a single nod, and a faint smile. Then she shrugged too. That tiny up and down movement of her shoulders was confirmation of everything.
It had happened before. It would happen again. Better not to make a fuss. Best not to cry. This was her mother’s temper. They had learned to live with it.
So I cried the tears she couldn’t, struck with self-loathing at letting emotions get the better of me that a young woman who’d just suffered an assault could not afford to show. Hating myself for sitting quietly and letting a stranger take responsibility without backing him up. For not having the courage to move when action was required. Still, she stared into my eyes and did not judge me. I wish she had. I wish she’d screamed “coward”, and pointed her finger. I was screaming it inside my own head, even as I tried to decide what I should do.
Calling the police was the obvious answer. I could have them meet the train at my stop, hold everyone there while they removed the woman and the children from the train, and took statements from the witnesses in the carriage. Of course, that would involve me making the decision to keep a trainload of people waiting. Some would miss connections. Others would miss social engagements or meetings. More still would not get home in time to say goodnight to their kids or get elderly parents their medication on time.
Surely, I told myself, someone else would be making that call right now. If it needed to be made, I couldn’t be the only considering it.
There was a more pressing question. If I called the police, where would those children spend the night? In all likelihood, not with their mother. Social Services would have to be called. A public assault on a child would be taken seriously. The mother might not be bailed immediately. So where was the children’s father?
In the depths of my mind, I’d already wondered if they’d been on a prison visit to see their incarcerated father. Her Majesty’s Prison Bristol, was home to a number of violent and dangerous male prisoners, as well as the usual ragtag bunch of petty criminals and small-timers. I’d visited clients there often enough to know. I stole another glance at the woman’s ear. Had some drug-crazed lover inflicted that upon her? Was that the last time the children had seen their dad?
Checking around, desperate to catch someone else whispering on their mobile in the act of alerting the authorities, I found all to be quiet.
The best I could hope for was that the children might have grandparents or members of a loving, extended family who would take them in – aunts, uncles, cousins. But if not…if not then I was making a choice for them. They would, quite conceivably, be removed from their mother’s care. They would have to leave the home they knew. Foster carers might look after them, possibly a children’s home would be the only choice. And worse than that – much, much worse given the fact that I’d seen them interacting, witnessed their bond first hand – there was a very real prospect that they would be separately housed. As hard as Social Services tried not to do so, sometimes with teenagers it was the only option.
This plagued me. My watch was counting down the minutes until we arrived in Romsey. If I called the police, as dreadful at it seemed to me that their young lives were, involving the authorities might leave them even less happy and more adrift. Intervention might just be worse than living with a known enemy. That wasn’t some distant, fanciful notion. I can give myself credit for that. I’d dealt with plenty of families, many kids, who did not want to be taken from their failing parents when the alternative was a system that would shift them from pillar to post, then dump them unceremoniously at the age of deemed independence, family ties beyond repair.
When I looked up again, the girl was staring at me again. I had nothing to offer. No solution, no answers. I longed to take her aside and ask what I could do, but the mother was unstable and my unborn baby was vulnerable. Overt, physical interference was unthinkable. I knew perfectly well how much harm a blow to my belly could do. Then I imagined explaining such an injury to my husband. Not that he wouldn’t have understood the need to act to protect another child, but why not, he would have asked me, just do the sensible thing and telephone the police?
I willed the guardian to disengage from whatever was so fascinating beyond the glass pane, and talk to me. He did not. His arms were folded across his chest and the rear of his head was as good a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign as I’ve seen on any hotel room door. Instead, I scanned my fellow travellers for allies. Shifting in my seat, I searched for the brave, extraordinary man who’d had the courage and decency to express his concern for the woman and her children. My heart sank. Either he’d disembarked at the last station or decided that his speech had done no good, and moved out of our carriage into more morally accomplished company. If it were the latter, I could not blame him one iota.
Five minutes from my stop and it was make or break. Call the police, split up a family or do nothing, offering only watery eyes and a sad smile. My fingers hovered over the keypad, my mobile heavy in my hands, as if it had absorbed the weight of my decision. The guard announced the next station and I wanted to freeze time. Surely, some fortuitous event would make the decision for me. A sign, if I’d been the sort of person who believed in signs.
Three minutes to go and I knew I couldn’t telephone the police. If I was going to do that, I’d have done it by then. That was the first time it occurred to me that there was a compromise option. I could leave a note. Slip it into the girl’s hand as I walked past. Pretend to drop something, thereby creating an excuse to get her attention and bend to the floor. I had a pen in my bag and plenty of paper in my notebook. In handwriting whose shaky form was in no part due to the motion of the train, I wrote, “My name is Sarah Blakelock. My phone number is below. I am a lawyer. I will try to help you. If you feel scared, call me. No one else ever needs to know.’
Those were the words. A lifeline. A positive act. Maybe not all I could have done, but not nothing either.
Finally my train slowed to a halt at Romsey station. I climbed off slowly. The girl’s eyes had not left my face as I’d walked past her, making sure I smiled reassuringly, my tears fully dried, playing the grown up again. The guardian ad litem left too, taking the door at the opposite end of the carriage to mine. He did not wish me any sort of farewell, nor I him. I think I hated him a little for doing nothing. Even so, I did not dislike him as much as I detested myself.
Upon exiting the station, I looked down and to my right as I always did. Below the elevated tracks and hill slope of the carpark was a terrace of shabby housing. The end house on the left was divided into two flats. The ground floor accommodation, I’d visited often as a young child. My grandparents had lived there for the duration of their 50 year marriage, and though they were long-since dead, in my heart they would forever inhabit that tiny space. My father had been born into real poverty – four children, my grandfather a pilot in the war, my grandmother hit by a car and losing a leg not long after my father’s sixteenth birthday. During the war, they’d made beds out of blankets on their floors, and shared already sparse food rations with no fewer than eight inner city evacuee children. Fourteen people in a two bedroomed flat. They had never flinched in their duty to do what they considered to be right. With nothing except four walls and each other, they still had a moral compass stronger and less yielding than mine.
Was strength of character formed when you were born and augmented through adversity? Did it weaken with every generation? Had I been blessed with too easy a life for my backbone to be as straight as my forebears’?
I climbed into my car and bent my head until it rested on the wheel.
For my dead grandparents whose disappointment was too tangible and near for comfort. I cried for the man who’d stood out from the crowd, done the right thing, and who’d received nothing more in support from his fellow travellers than silence. I sobbed for the woman whose ear had been burned to a mangled clot. I shed tears for the boy who had pleaded with terrified eyes for me not to move seats. And for the girl, the sweet, beautiful girl with the badly bruised cheek, who had smiled when I had cried.
And I ached with love for the baby inside me, who would grow up safe and adored, and never know the pain and terror of a parent deliberately hitting him in the face with a glass bottle.
Lastly for me. I cried as I stared at the crumpled note in my hand, that I had not found a way to pass to the girl. Because I was too weak, too unsure, too pathetic to pass it over. I couldn’t comprehend why.
I know that I do not want your forgiveness. This tale requires outrage and judgment. It will only be complete when you tell me that you would have done better, found a solution, made the wrongs right. I stand in the dock of my own memory and await sentence.
She is still there waiting for my help, that lovely, wistful girl. I climb on a train and she sits a few seats from me, facing in my direction. The shimmering outline of her smiles at me constantly and does not judge.
Find out more about Helen Fields and her work here where you can also watch the launch of her new book The Shadow Man.
You ever held a heart in your hands, Detective Brogan? I ain’t speakin’ about no pig or cow, some beast reared for slaughtering that your pretty wife buys paper-wrapped at the butcher shop over on Kennedy to serve with creamed potatoes an’ gravy at your table after church on Sunday.
No, Detective, I mean a real, beating, human heart. Ever felt the heft of it while it pumps out on you? Cradled that cooling heart with slick fingers as Death calmly waits to lay claim? I don’t reckon you have, Detective. Not a fine, upstanding po-lice officer like you. I’m guessing there ain’t many folks had that most singular of experiences.
I have, Brogan. But you knew that already. You saw me behind the Red Rooster, my shirt and pants blood-soaked, her beside me in the alley. It’s why we’re all in this goddam room; you and your sidekick, that streak-o’-piss buttoned-up lawyer and whoever else you got behind that mirrored glass.
You all want to know what happened, don’cha? How something so terrible, something so truly heinous, could come to be. You could try asking Maisie-Rae. Only Maisie-Rae ain’t saying nothing to no-one no more. Guess that leaves the telling of it to me. You all able to hear my tale, Brogan? Think you have the spirits for it? You reckon so? Well, boys, settle down into those hard- backed, ass-numbing chairs and listen hard. You might wanna hit record on that machine too, be sure to capture each single word ‘cos I only got the one chance of telling my story.
Do I start at the beginning or the end? Likely makes no difference, seems to me the starting was the end of everything anyways.
Did you know I loved her, Detective Brogan? Course you didn’t. Sounds plain dumb, don’t it? Especially after what went down in the filth behind Red’s. Well, I did, Detective. I loved Maisie-Rae with every atom of my being, thought about her all my waking moments. Sleeping too, I dreamed of her. Oh, Brogan, I fell deep. Deep I’m telling you. She consumed me, I was crazy about her. My heart was all hers, given freely, just waiting on Maisie-Rae to take hold o’ it.
You’ll think this even dumber but, believe me, it’s true. Maisie-Rae even said she loved me. I know, Brogan, I fuckin’ know! Hardly believed it myself when she came out with that bombshell. I mean, how could a fine woman like Maisie-Rae Laurens – beautiful, accomplished, intelligent, adored by all who knew her – love a deadbeat loser such as me? There she was, youngest daughter from one of the finest families around these parts; her family grown prosperous down the generations, their wealth coming straight outta the land her granddaddy’s granddaddy had the foresight to claim as his own. It was good land too, plentiful in its riches. Benevolent with its shelter. The Laurens grew strong on that land. They are fine folks, Brogan, everyone in these parts knows it. And everyone knows Maisie-Rae was just about the finest of them all.
Couldn’t say that o’ my family, we never did amount to much. We settled ‘round the same time Old Man Laurens did, only my forebears failed to make good choices. The land my kin staked proved little more than dirt. Dirt that came to define all o’ us.
My Daddy liked to say the Laurens and us grew outta the same ground. ‘Cepting they were healthy crops, good and strong, reachin’ upwards to blue skies, faces basking in sunshine and light. Not us, we crawled among the dirt, scavenging through the manure and shit that so greatly enriched those magnificent Laurens. “Faces basking in sunlight while we scrabbled in dirt.”
Those were Daddy’s own words, he could be a real poet when sober. Though I don’t often recall him being poetic. Was my Daddy poetic those times you hauled him in, Detective?
My folks spent years working that stoney, tainted land, busting our asses to grow anything from it. All we grew was poorer. Meaner, too. I don’t recall a generation didn’t see one of us sent up to the big house. Daddy did a stretch or two there. You remember don’cha, Brogan? Yeah, course you do, ‘cos you made damn sure my Daddy had no place else he could go.
Don’t get me wrong, Detective, I ain’t looking to rile you and attach you no blame. I know it was Daddy’s fault every time. Him doing what he did and you simply doing what was required of you. It’s how it works, ain’t it? Still, meant I didn’t see much of my Daddy while I was growin’. Nor my brothers, neither.
And that ain’t right, a boy oughta have his Daddy and his siblings around him.
Happen it was best they weren’t around. Gave me a chance of making something outta the little I had. I was the best of a rotten bunch, even taking my own brief liaison with juvie into consideration. That was right before Daddy passed and he’s been dead how long now, Brogan? Nine, going on ten years? My brothers are gone too. Joe’s buried right beside Daddy. As for Paulie, the youngest o’us, I have no fuckin’ idea where he is. Paulie rose one morning, filled a holdall, took a quart of milk from the refrigerator and set off walkin’. Ain’t seen my little brother to this day. Daddy sure was pissed at Paulie leaving! Went on the biggest bender this town did ever see. Three days and nights of drinking, whoring and generally fuckin’ things up. Until time came for you to throw him into a cell. Weren’t the last time neither was it, Brogan?
It’s only me now. An’ I ain’t been in trouble with you boys since my juvie days. Keep myself honest, working hard at whatever shitty job I can get. I go to work, collect my pay-check, go home. It’s dull but don’t lead me to trouble. Not that folks round here see that. To them I’m simply my Daddy’s middle son; just another o’ those wild Willard boys. But folks are wrong, it was only two boys born bad. Well, two plus Daddy o’ course.
Hey, I gone off down a side road, ain’t I? I can see you all gettin’ bored. You even takin’ notes anymore, Brogan? Your pen’s moving awful slow over that notebook. Guess, I better get to tellin’ what you all wanna know.
It weren’t long after meeting her, must have been right around Halloween, that Maisie-Rae said she loved me. She took me to meet her folks, wanted them to know about us. Man, they were frightened half to death when we walked in holding hands. Thought it was some trick-or-treat shit Maisie-Rae was pulling. Maisie-Rae told me to forget what her folks spoke ‘bout me, said she weren’t gonna let nobody, no matter who, come between the both of us. Said the only thing she wanted was my heart ‘cos she loved me with all o’ hers. All. Her. Fuckin’. Heart. Just let that settle on you for a moment, Detective Brogan, Maisie-Rae Laurens declaring she loved a deadbeat like me. My Daddy, drunk or sober, woulda laughed hearin’ that.
You know that peculiar way of talking o’ hers, those goofy phrases she got from her grandmammy? “Billy”, Maisie-Rae would say, “I got a whole barrel’s worth of love and affection all squished into my half-pint pitcher of a heart. An’ dang, Billy, I’m saving every cherry-red drop for you.” Man, I couldn’t help but love her more every time something like that tumbled outta her mouth.
You know another thing made Maisie-Rae so sweet? She never cussed, leastways, not like you or I do. Dang was about the worst I recall hearin’ her say. Oh, she’d switch around profanities every once in a while, sometimes letting loose with a darn or a heck, just to keep you guessin’. She was peculiar that way, kinda old-fashioned like a school mistress. No sir, Detective Brogan, I never heard one cuss word cross her lips. But, boy, what lips! Maisie-Rae had the prettiest, sweetest, tenderest lips I ever kissed. And we did a lot o’ kissing. Did other stuff, too. Stuff that Maisie-Rae’s ol’ grandmammy didn’t teach her but I was sure glad Maisie-Rae knew.
Like when we first hooked-up. I was at the Red Rooster havin’ a couple of beers. Just a couple mind, Brogan, I don’t drink heavy, not like my Daddy. Anyways, Maisie-Rae came in, sat right next to me. Told me to buy her a glass of what I was drinking. Told me! That girl had some sass! We drank and talked, mostly shit mostly about nothing. Then a Jason Aldean song comes on an’ Maisie-Rae gives a little holler, says she just has to dance. She slides off her stool, skirt riding up her thighs as she does, and pulls me away from the bar. We danced for a while, her holding tight to me as the jukebox played. Then, Maisie-Rae leads me out back and tells me to make love to her. Make love to me, she says. Hell, I never been told that before! Girls have wanted me to fuck ‘em, not make love to them. But I was more than happy to do whatever Maisie-Rae asked! Afterwards, we went to my place and loved some more. That’s where it all started, Brogan, at Red’s over beers and Aldean’s “Night Train”.
We didn’t return to Red’s after that first night. Things mighta ended sooner if we had. I told Maisie-Rae there weren’t any sense in courting trouble, so we kept kinda low, mainly staying at my place. Every once in a while we’d head to a bar outside town. Until, last night. Maisie-Rae was hell-bent on Red’s. I didn’t wanna go but she pulled that look that drives me crazy, kissed with me those sweet lips and, hell, Brogan, what’s a boy to do?
So we go to Red’s, have us a few beers an’ a plate of their ribs. You ever had Red’s ribs, Brogan? Just about the best, ain’t they? Then Maisie-Rae heads to the bathroom, says she’s gotta powder her nose. Powder her nose! Who even says that Doris Day shit these days?
Maisie-Rae, that’s who.
When she comes back, she’s different, kinda edgy, all buzzed up. Maisie-Rae starts dragging me out back. We get outside and it’s rainin’ real cold. Maisie-Rae tells me to fuck her right there in the alley, just like I did before. I say I’m not gonna, tell her that first time behind Red’s was because I thought nothing else would happen between us. I tell her we oughta go back to my place so we can take our time, you know, Brogan, seeing how we was in love.
She starts laughin’ at me, cussin’ real bad. You heard me, Brogan, cussin’! Maisie-Rae tells me to stop whining like a love-struck pup and to get to fuckin’ on her. The rain’s whippin’ into us and she’s going crazy, screamin’ an’ shouting’ at me. That’s when I see it, right there on her shiny lipgloss. Man, she sure got her nose powdered in the bathroom. All those months an’ I never suspected sweet, goofy, beautiful Maisie-Rae got herself a habit. She was in Red’s that first time looking to score, it’s why she wanted to go there last night.
Maisie-Rae gets louder, wilder. She’s pushing, grabbing at me, scratching with those perfectly manicured nails. Tellin’ me I’m not a man ‘cos I won’t fuck her. I say I’m happy to fuck her, just not there in that dirty alley. She’s rilin’ me bad an’ I don’t feel the knife slide in. I don’t feel as it cuts, peeling back flesh. But I see everything so clearly an’ I watch her pretty smile fade as the cherry- red starts to pump.
Then I hear the scream. One o’ the waitresses, you know that tall blonde with the heavy eyeliner and the nose stud? Well, she’s steppin’ out the door, going on her break. Blondie drops the cigarette she’s lightin’, turns back inside the bar, still screaming. Her Marlboro spins through the dark an’ lands beside me, its orange tip cracklin’ as it dies in the wet dirt.
It didn’t take long for the lights to appear. I always loved the way those reds and blues shine so pretty. You think they’re pretty, Brogan? Or you been around them too long to still appreciate their beauty? Well, I see it, the way they bounce pretty patterns off everythin’. I watched them bouncin’ off you, Detective, as you took in that alley. You stood there, shinin’ red an’ blue, the rain drippin’ from your hat as you slowly shook your head. ‘Cos you always knew, didn’t you Brogan? You knew that’s how it’d end for me.
Maisie-Rae’s in front of you now, Brogan, so go on, quiz her all you want. Only she ain’t talkin’. Not to you, not to no-one. Her oh-so-pretty lips are slack, ain’t nothing behind those eyes. Maisie-Rae ain’t saying what went down an’ I’ve said all I’m gonna, so I sure hope you got everythin’ on tape. Like I told you at the outset, Detective, sweet Maisie-Rae grabbed hold o’ my heart that first time at Red’s. An’ last night, in the filth and rain, she held it tight in both hands. Time came for her to give it me back, I was just about gone the way o’ Blondie’s cigarette.
Anyways, Detective, I’d sure love to stay a little longer but Joe an’ my Daddy are waitin’ on me. Damn it, Brogan, even little Paulie’s come for me!