There is something other worldy about the things you see from a train window. Blurred with movement, splintered by sunlight or refracted in raindrops, they are fleeting tableaus and uncertain images which you can never be quite sure you’ve actually seen. Travelling in the early mornings adds to this. The world is still hungover from the night before and there are no humans around yet to clear up the evidence. I take the same journey every week, and I rarely see the same thing twice.
Or perhaps I do. Perhaps I see the exact same thing every morning, interpreted differently by my sleepy brain…
Either way, this is a series of stories each based on one thing I saw from a train window. Sometimes it’s very literal, other times it will probably be hard to see how the story relates to the item at all, but I promise you, it’ll be in there somewhere.
(Chosen by Class 10bc E-2 in term 21/22)
A perfect blue house, standing all on its own, like a picture transported from a glossy magazine.
Stepping onto the cracked, weed littered concrete platform, I can’t help wondering whether it wasn’t the house at all, but the whole town that was never really there.
Commuter towns. Wastelands of stranded, splintered humans, working and sleeping in different places and eating and drinking on the way between. Clawstow is the place at the side of the road where you pause involuntarily, because you have to tie your shoe laces.
Jade, Seb, Steve and me. We were all just waiting to get out.
“I don’t know if it’s good for you hanging around with that Sebastian,” my Mother said to me, “His Mother has terrible trouble with him.”
“Seb’s alright,” I said shortly. It was true. He was just worse around his mum. It was as if he gave her what she expected of him. And what she expected wasn’t pretty.
“Anyway,” I said quickly, “Steve and Jade are there too.”
We used to hang around on the bit of empty land just behind the train tracks. There was a place there, a little ditch at the bottom of the bank, and the four of us used to sit inside it. It couldn’t be seen from the rest of the town, so we could drink there. It gave us a little bit of privacy. And Seb thought too much about those train tracks. I don’t know how we knew that exactly, it was just an instinct. We didn’t talk about it, but we stayed with him. Kept him facing away.
It’s been five years now. Since three of us, at least, finally got out of here. Just short enough for us still to remember. Just long enough for us to have become different people.
The cracked black car park behind the station is empty. This town is heaving with frustration and gossip and small, fretful minds. Big, barren, wasted dreams. And yet it always manages to feel abandoned.
Are we really here to see Seb? To visit his shiny new flat and his shiny new life, in this stagnant old town that he always hated?
Or is it something else? Something pulling us back?
I’ve been telling myself I’m not thinking about the house. But I am. I’m always thinking about it.
It appeared overnight. Or so it seemed. One minute we were gazing out from the ditch across a forgotten bit of wasteland, the next we were staring up at four perfect blue walls. It was Seb’s Mother who saw it first. Apparently, she’d seen it from the train, which initially surprised me more than the house itself did. I didn’t think Barbara ever left Clawstow. She made it her private kingdom, they called her the major behind her back. The adults were bitchier than the kids were.
“…so I don’t think you can hang around by that rail track much longer,” said my Mother, with ill disguised relief. “They’re building on it. Barbara went to check it out,”
Of course she did.
“…and apparently it’s lovely. Some sort of show home she thinks, so doubtless there’ll be a new housing development built around it soon. She came back raving. Polished floors and chrome fittings and a spiral staircase. Very posh. Clawstow’s going up in the world…”
We met that evening and we sat in the ditch and we looked at the blue house with sullen resignation. If anything, the building made us all the more hidden, at least for now, but it promised future occupation. Bustling busybody neighborhoods and disapproving posh new home-owners. It was as though the walls were closing in.
“We’re going up in the world apparently.” said Seb, glumly.
Steve was frowning up at the house. It looked strange just on its own like that. As though someone had just dumped it there temporarily and was meaning to come back for it.
“It looks a bit too…I don’t know…perfect.”
“It looks fake,” said Seb disgustedly.
“Well it might be mdf or something. You know, like a façade? To show what the rest would look like for real? I mean, they did put it up really fast.” Steve was always practical. He was a straight A student, all clean lines and clean shaves. He was a little bit overly perfect himself, come to think of it.
I wonder what he’s like now.
My Mother was always convinced Steve was ‘sweet’ on me. My Mother thought every male in the universe was ‘sweet’ on me. It was very unlikely. I had long, thin, greasy brown hair and a habit of hunching and hiding my face behind it. I don’t know what my Mother’s childhood was like, but presumably they must have all been massively oversexed.
Jade was looking dreamily up at the house. “It looks like a cake.”
Seb snorted, “What, like a Hansel and Gretel house?” he said mockingly, “gonna go in there and get cooked up by a witch? She gonna fatten you up and EAT you.” He licked his lips lasciviously, curled his hands into claws, gave a little high pitched witchy cackle, his voice breaking painfully at the top.
Steve laughed, but he had half a nervous eye on Jade. Jade snatched the cider bottle from Seb and tipped it back defiantly.
I looked at the house. It did look a little bit like it was made out of cake. It was the blue paint, sickly, like icing. If I thought about it too long it made my mouth water.
“I’m gonna lick it,” Jade announced, wiping her mouth with her sleeve, and jumping up. She sashayed towards the house, all of us whooping and cheering behind her. We’d gone a bit overboard, that day, on the cider.
“A brick, do a brick, LICK A BRICK!” Seb was beside himself with excitement.
Jade strolled up, hands in oversized cargo pockets, expertly casual. She leaned against the smooth blue wall, put her face close to the smooth blue pvc door. Then she put out her tongue tentatively, and touched it lightly to the door frame. She jumped back very quickly.
“Oooh,” she said, with a little, nervous giggle, “that actually is a bit sweet.”
“Do a brick! Do a fucking brick!” Seb was shouting.
You have to understand, we lived in a ghost town. There was one small supermarket, a row of takeaway shops and a hairdresser. There was literally nothing else to do. We went to school, came back, did homework. I used to play my guitar on my own in my room for hours at the weekends and into the night, headphones firmly plugged in. Even my music was silent.
I guess that was just what it was like to be a kid. Continuously watched but somehow always invisible.
Jade grinned, gave a little shrug, then touched her tongue to the house again, this time onto the smooth blue wall.
Seb half exploded. “She actually did it! She licked the bloody –“
But Jade was backing away now, confusion and even a little fear on her face. “OK. That’s really weird. I mean it actually does taste really sweet.”
“Jade, you’ve had a half bottle of cider and about fifty liquorice laces. Of course it tastes sweet.”
“No it’s not…it’s not that. It’s like…it just shouldn’t taste like that.” She hurried away from the house, plonked herself down beside us quickly, whirling round to face the building, as though she half expected to find it tiptoeing behind her. “It’s creepy.”
I looked at her in surprise because she was Jade. She was all dungarees and jeans and hoodies. Short hair and bravado and plans for getting lip piercings.
I wonder if she ever actually got one. I suppose we’ll find out.
The boys were standing up now, showing off. Steve was striding off towards the house, Seb pointing wildly at the corner, where the walls met. There was a rough part there, where the brick work was exposed beneath the blue paster. It looked unnaturally sharp. The odd thing was, I didn’t remember having seen that bit before. The house had looked perfect. I could have sworn it wasn’t originally there.
“I’m gonna lick that bit,” said Seb.
Seb. Always just a little too close to the train tracks.
Luckily for Seb’s tongue, it was at that moment that Steve, in the process of making a great performance about licking the wall, had leant on the door, and then nearly fallen through it when it swung open in front of him.
“Whoa. Um….hello? Is anyone there?”
“There’s not going to be anyone there, Steve, you idiot. They must have just left it open.”
“Maybe Seb’s mum left it open when she went snooping around.”
Seb snorted. Steve ignored him, “Well it must have been open before for her to get in, mustn’t it? Maybe they just don’t lock it.”
And there we were. All on our feet. Staring. And it would have been a watershed moment. A dividing line between one life and another. A fork in the tracks. Except that Clawstow was the end of the line. And it was obvious from the start we were going to go in.
We are all supposed to meet at the crossroads today at the end of Main Street. Seb will pick us up and walk us to his flat.
The high street is quiet at this time of day. The hair salon seems to have become a nail bar. The supermarket has swapped its brand. There’s a coffee shop where the newsagents used to be. Everything is different and at the same time everything is exactly the same. Clawstow has dressed up a bit, but it still lacks a soul. I wonder where people get their hair cut nowadays. Perhaps they commute to do that as well. This is a town designed to be left.
My memories of the house, that first time we entered, are fleeting and fragmented, overlaid with too many other images, cluttered with the strange and tangled stories we built on top of it afterwards, the ghostly world we created within its walls. I suspect, that time, we actually saw very little. It breathed with us, that house, and that day we were still all too nervous.
But I remember the guitar. That part of it has always been crystal clear for me. Right from the first time I saw it.
I will never forget that guitar.
It stood on a black stand in the middle of the floor, in the open plan entrance room of the house, and it shone so bright it made me blink and catch my breath with the sting of it. It was electric blue, so vibrant it fizzed in the atmosphere. It would have burned me to touch it. Its surface was split into random geometric squares and romboids and piercing sharp triangles, and each shape was a slightly different shade and every shade hurt my eyes and every hurt made me think I could never stop looking. It was scored with deep black lines between the blues and it had perfect black strings, not white, reaching up to a set of jet black keys and it must have been wireless, because it didn’t have a cord. And I wanted to pick it up and hug it close to me. Hold it low, in the place where my hipbones met my pelvis, and run my fingers across those taut black strings. But I couldn’t bring myself to touch it. It seemed so other-worldy beautiful and I so very stolid and inadequate.
I didn’t explore much else that day. I think I was vaguely aware of a spiral staircase, and I could hear the others, swarming about around me, and clattering on the floors upstairs, but everything was muted and bleary except for that guitar. I don’t know how long I stood there, before Seb broke the mood by screaming, and then everything became a little discombobulated, and we all spilled out of the smooth blue door in a mass of panic and limbs and angles, leaving it to slam itself shut behind us.
He was screaming about a witch. About the house being haunted and he’d seen a witch and he was so upset he was almost crying. And the fact was, all of us were a bit pale and uncomfortable and if it had been anyone else, we might have believed them. We might never have entered that house again. We would have gone back to school and Steve would have still been an angel and I would have hidden behind my hair and Jade would have…well. Still been Jade.
But Seb was always a loose cannon. We were never sure if he was on something other than the cider he drank with us, or if he was just naturally continuously wired. He never seemed to eat a whole meal and he bit his nails to the cuticle so that the ends of his fingers were always brown, crusted with dried blood. He was Seb. Of course he saw a witch.
“She was smiling at me,” he kept saying, “she was smiling.” That fact seemed to scare him more than anything else.
“It was probably just your reflection. Or maybe it was Jade’s,” said Steve with a sort of forced playfulness, nudging Jade, who looked annoyed, “What? Oh come on. You said yourself you didn’t look like you”.
“It’s those mirror tiles,” said Jade uncomfortably, “they were just a bit weird. Who puts mirror tiles on the floor?”
I didn’t think anything about that comment, though I was sure the tiles on the floor had been white, but I hadn’t been upstairs and Jade had, so I assumed the mirror tiles must have been up there. And Steve said nothing, though he told us all later that he could have sworn all the floors were made of wood.
“And what about that nursery eh?”
“What nursery?” Seb was calmer now, but embarrassment was turning him to anger, a flailing monster seeking to strike, “Steve you plonker, there was no nursery. That was a study.”
“What, with a cot in it? And a baby mobile? I was just thinking they’ve really gone to town if that’s a showhome.”
Seb punched him, light but still too hard, teeth gritted. “There wasn’t a fucking cot, OK?”
“OK. Fine. There wasn’t a cot.”
And then we were all silent. We drank the remaining cider quickly, and then we left. It was still early, but each of us was suddenly very keen to get back to the homes we had previously been so desperate to get out of.
I don’t know what it was that seduced the others. As far as I know we all avoided the ditch and the house in front of it for the next few days, though it’s possible Seb might have gone there alone. But it was something unfinished. A dangling thread. We needed to go back, if only to check that ‘they’, whoever they were, had now locked the door. As for me, I was seeing that guitar in my dreams. I was painting electric blue in my mind over the old brown instrument I played in my room. And I was playing continuously. Night and day. Not covers, new tunes. My own music. Something bold and brash and daring. Something entirely separate to me.
We met, without really planning to, at the ditch.
“What guitar?” said Jade, when I mentioned it.
I immediately wished I hadn’t. “Never mind.” I said dismissively, but Jade was genuinely confused. “You mean your guitar? It was here? You brought it to the ditch?”
“You have a guitar?” Seb was suddenly interested. He’d been restless until then, flicking stones and bits of ash from his foul smelling, stolen cigarettes in the general direction of the perfect blue house. They had all fallen just a little shy of hitting it. Maybe his aim was bad, or he was too scared to touch it. Or maybe the house had some sort of invisible shield around it. I don’t know. Any of those things might have been possible.
“She has a guitar in her room,” said Jade with a sort of misplaced pride in me, “she’s really good.”
“Shut up Jade” I hissed so fiercely she actually winced. I saw Steve’s mouth fall open, in my peripheral vision and ducked my head, hiding my furious burning face beneath my hair. I never spoke like that. I never really spoke that much at all.
“Wow,” said Steve, “that’s really cool.” He sounded a little wistful.
“I don’t get it though.” Jade was frowning at me, “If you didn’t bring your guitar, what guitar are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” I said quickly, “there was no guitar.”
But there was. We all knew it. I could see it in their faces. There was a guitar for me just like there was a cot for Steve. There was a mirrored floor for Jade. And a witch for Seb.
We should have run away. That would have been the most normal reaction. But we’d already run away once, and something dragged us all back.
We didn’t speak to each other. We just moved to the door. And when Steve pushed it and it swung open wide, as though it had been waiting for us, and we walked inside, we all avoided each other’s eyes.
I don’t know how long it was. Three months, six. We went every night to that house. We didn’t drink in the ditch anymore, though I think Seb might have brought the cider in with him sometimes. I’m not sure. I wasn’t really paying attention to Seb anymore. None of us were. We met in silence, entered the house, and then we didn’t speak again until we made our way out again dreamy and wordless, into the night. We didn’t set an alarm, we just knew, somehow, when we needed to leave. At the last possible moment before our parents would have objected, the last minute we could still creep back into our homes and avoid any questions about what we’d been doing. They assumed, I suppose, we were still in the ditch.
I remember the first day I was brave enough to walk up to the guitar and actually touch it. It was solid, real, smooth and cool beneath my fingers and I was so surprised it was like a shock through my palms. When I finally picked it up, looped the strap over my shoulder, felt its smooth lines resting, anticipatory, across my pelvis, it was so exhilarating it was almost painful. I was dizzy with it. And I played like I’d never played before. That guitar made sounds I had never heard in this world.
I went home and I played my guitar in my room until my fingers bled. I scrabbled my way, impatient, though my school work, and sometimes I didn’t do it at all. I was sleep walking. I went to the house and I played new melodies, strange new moods and sounds so sharp and so penetrating it was as though they had a scent and a colour of their own. I could see the bright blue notes around me, jagged and stunning, colouring the white floor tiles with new hues, shades I had never seen before and have not seen since. When I wasn’t in the house I plucked and strummed and caressed my second hand brown guitar, trapped within its silent headphones in my bedroom, for long hours into the night, until my eyes were so dry I thought they might bleed with my fingers. Even at home I was making music I’d never heard the like of before. Sometimes I didn’t sleep at all.
I went to school and I sat in class and I stared, wordless and blank, at the teacher while in my head the blue guitar weaved its otherworldly melodies. And so I didn’t really look at the others. I didn’t see that Steve’s grades were dropping, that Jade had shaved her head. I didn’t see my own eyes, hollow and bloodshot, because I didn’t really bother to look in mirrors. And I didn’t see Seb. None of us really saw Seb until it was nearly too late. And by that point, there were other things to see. Things that we could never unsee. That played on a loop inside our heads.
At first it was so subtle we almost didn’t notice. Just a shadow, briefly, passing through, splitting the pool of blue I had played onto the white floor. Just a hint of movement in an empty cot. A moment when Jade suddenly jolted, and stared at me, as if I had said something, though the only noise I had made was the wordless music of the blue guitar, deafening, all consuming to me, but before that, always silent to the others. But then one day I could have sworn that I saw someone I didn’t recognise, reflected in the white tiles near the place where Jade was habitually standing, staring. Or I thought I heard the cry of a child from the nursery.
They were just ghosts to us then, less than ghosts. Flickers of movement, the suggestion of something, gone before we could properly focus on them. We noticed them faintly, but we never discussed it. We never talked outside the house about what we saw and what we did there. When I look back on it now, I realise that by then, we didn’t actually talk at all. We didn’t need to.
And as time went on, it grew more obvious. Things began to take an actual shape. Once, floating on a wave of blue notes which swooped and soared in the air, I happened to glance down and I saw a young man with Jade’s features, staring up at her from a silver floor. I didn’t get it straight away. I think I theorized briefly that she longed for a brother, or that she had lost a twin at birth. Wild thoughts, gone in a flash because I was weaving a path of electric blue, ducking and diving around the spiral staircase, charging it with electric music, ready to stun anybody who touched it. We were much too absorbed in our own visions at first, to care too much about the encroaching ghosts of the others. Or to consider the fact that they were growing clearer.
It was around that time that our parents began to take notice. I think the season had changed and there was talk about snow, and so it was far less believable that we might have been sitting all that time in the ditch. There was still no sign of any new housing development, only the solitary blue house, and I suppose they put two and two together. I think they were worried. We were withdrawn and distracted, even more so than usual, and I had not really slept in so long I was beginning to look ill. Then Seb’s mum went to see the house for herself and came back in hysterics.
A squat, she said. That lovely staircase, strewn with old drinks bottles and blister packs and half smoked cigarette butts. There were needles, she said, hypodermics and metal spoons and matches and packets of strange white power, or black ash. It was a drug den, she said. We had gone off the rails. Their children! Under their noses!
My parents did not immediately respond, perhaps because Barbara was prone to histrionics. They were worried, of course, but then Jade’s mum, who had always been pretty easy going, went to see for herself and came back breezy. It wasn’t a drug den, she said, those were incense burners. The kids had just made it their hang out. It would be fine. There were candles and a couple of music speakers, and they’d brought some old throws in, and a few tatty rugs. A show home it was not. But it wasn’t a drug den. Let the kids have their harmless fun.
We were smug because we knew. They saw what they dreamed, and if they couldn’t access their dreams, they saw what they expected to see there. We didn’t judge them for it. But we enjoyed it. The fact that they didn’t understand how the house worked, and we did. It reinforced the idea we had that the house was somehow built for us. It was ours.
If we were beginning to feel uneasy ourselves, if the shadows of each other’s dreams were becoming a little more solid each evening, and the house becoming a little more crowded with them, if Seb felt anything at all about the fact that his mother’s experience of the house had been so damning, we didn’t discuss it. We couldn’t do much by that time, except go to the house. It was like a compulsion. We thought about the house from the moment we woke up until the time we went to bed. Jade brought some throws in, inspired by her mother, and we lit candles. Steve brought in a couple of speakers to play what I scornfully considered to be substandard music. I drowned it out with the blue guitar.
“Lydia,” Steve said, “I mean it’s really good….but can you, like…turn it down?”
His voice in the house was like a slap in the face. My music faltered. The blue guitar grew muted, apologetic. The melody grew subtler, more bland. It blushed and hid behind its hair. I was furious with him. I replaced the guitar and slammed my way around the house, exploring the rest of it for the first time.
And in that temporary silence I could see us all properly. Jade, her hair a stubbly wasteland, standing motionless and staring, with a painful, wordless longing, into the floor. Steve cradling something, his handsome young face wrinkled with love and worry, and I could see it now – I could actually see the baby, restless and squalling in his arms. And Seb, hunched and skinny on his haunches, muttering to something in the corner, his words undiscernible and punctuated by odd, little high pitched, unhinged laughs. Sometimes he would pause, as if listening, then nod his head compulsively. As far as I could see it was just a dark corner. The house was overpopulated by dreams. But Seb’s witch never materialized.
I gave some of my music into school, the compositions I’d made on the blue guitar, but transcribed and performed on the second hand brown one. I handed it to the music teacher as part of my coursework and I entered it into a competition. It was a sort of nihilistic impulse, jerked into being perhaps by a lingering hurt at Steve’s comment, and because I cared less and less about my life outside of the house. But perhaps also because I knew it was good.
Seb was in trouble a lot, by then. The school kept calling his Mother in, and she was grounding him and lecturing him and worrying about him, but he still managed to sneak out each night to join us. He was erratic, odd. He wasn’t outrightly rude or disobedient, he was just a kind of chaos. The teachers weren’t sure what to do with him. He didn’t really respond to anybody, or at least anybody that anyone could see. Once I saw him walk into one of the school buildings, very quickly as though he was very busy. There was silence and then suddenly I heard a girl inside scream, and Seb bolted back out of there and disappeared around the corner. I never did quite work out what happened inside.
After that I tried not to go to the house. Or not so often. I even suggested it to the others. But I only managed one night. I felt itchy and angry. I played my guitar into my headphones and the music soothed me, but I couldn’t face a second night. When I went back to the house, I found the others there already.
“Wow!” Jade said, a few days later, looking up suddenly, “You look different in here.”
“What?” I was floating in a swelling sea of music.
“You look…kind of…cool…” she faltered, “I don’t mean…oh I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the blue.”
I was flooding everything with blue. The house was filled with blue music. The young man in Jade’s reflection, even the baby, was tinged with blue. Steve had told me off about it. But not Seb’s dark corner. That remained exactly as it was.
“What does she say to you?” Jade asked him.
He laughed that strange little one note laugh, his eyes swiveling furtively to the side. It unnerved me, that laugh, that look on him. Seb had always been a little crazy. But this was something else.
“She tells me what to do.”
“Seriously?” I said with impatience because the baby’s screaming was getting to me, and I had only come upstairs to tell Steve to keep it down. It was fouling my notes. “How can you hear anything up here?”
He laughed again, scornful.
“She doesn’t speak with your voice.”
Then he turned his back on us and resumed his undiscernible whispering.
I felt deeply uncomfortable. There was something wrong with Seb’s version of the house. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of it. And in that moment I thought I saw a shadow of something on the floor by his feet, like a packet of pills.
But you could never be sure of what you saw in that house.
I won a prize for the music and applied for a place in a prestigious modern music school. I celebrated by dying my hair. Electric blue. I bought an oversized earring in the shape of a treble clef and I wore it in one ear. Jade styled her hair, once it started to grow back, into the same short, smart style as the man in her reflection. Seb was suspended twice from school, and failed to show up for his mock exams. His skin was yellow, tinged with white, stretched too hard across his skull.
Steve just looked a little harried. He was rushing his school work and biting his pens until they split at the lids, looking worriedly out of the window in the direction of the house. His grades were good but they weren’t incredible. He was averaging B’s. He was bolting his meals, dashing to the house as soon as school was over.
“I’m worried about the baby,” he confessed one day, as we waited outside the exam hall.
“But Steve, the baby’s fine.” It cries all the time anyway, I wanted to add. I had never been keen on that baby. “The baby’s only there when you’re there. It’s not there when you’re not in the house.”
“I know but…anyway.” He turned to Jade, trying to deflect attention. “How come yours is always a reflection? How come he never comes out to join us?”
I rolled my eyes and locked gazes with Jade, who gave me a small smile, and shrugged. Steve was a nice guy. But he just didn’t get it. He was the world’s definition of Vanilla. His fantasy was a baby, for heavens sake.
“How come we never see Seb’s?” said Jade, unwilling to embark on an explanation.
There was silence. Seb wasn’t even looking at us, he was still muttering under his breath. He was doing that all the time now, even when we weren’t in the house. He’d done it all through the last exam. I’m surprised they didn’t throw him out, but perhaps they were pleased he was in there at all. Besides, his Mother had quite a reputation. And desperate as she was now, the school were definitely not willing to make her their enemy.
“Seb? Your witch? We never see her. Is she…good now?”
He looked at us aghast.
“No.” he said incredulously. “No. She’s a witch.”
I guess a dream can also be a nightmare.
The house wasn’t good for Seb. I like to tell myself that’s why we stopped going. In the end. That it was loyalty to him. That it was because his Mother approached us, calling us together one day after school, lying in wait for us in her car, when Seb was off doing whatever Seb was off doing. We often couldn’t find him by then. And I tried not to think of that time with the girl.
“Please,” she said, “Please. I know you’re his friends. And I know you all go to that house to…” she struggled, “…to hang out…”
The words were odd on her tongue but it was her emotion which was shocking. She was Barbara Wilkinson, the major, and she was fighting back tears. Shit, I thought, she loves him. Ridiculous as it sounds, I’d never really considered that she did. I think I assumed she sort of hated him. I glanced quickly at the others. We were all hanging our heads, looking awkwardly at the floor. I thought I saw something glint in Steve’s eyes, but he wiped it away angrily, glaring at the back seat of the car.
“Please. Could you maybe…encourage him…not to? Only I think…” she swallowed, “I think he’s sick and he needs help and I don’t think he can if he…if he…” She took a breath. When she spoke again her voice was unnaturally cheerful, like the voice you might use in a care home, or if you were talking to very young children. “Maybe you could come round to Seb’s house instead. You would all be welcome. I’ll supply the…orange juice or…whatever.”
We didn’t go to Seb’s to drink orange juice or to find out what ‘whatever’ might have turned out to be. We never talked about the encounter with Barbara, and I knew that all three of us felt bad about it. And we did stop going to the house. But in the end I think what really stopped us going was that it all just got a bit too weird.
I marched upstairs in a huff one day because the baby had been screaming. And I rounded the corner to find Steve on the floor with Jade. He was stark naked on top of her, and she was throwing her head back and calling his name. He was pounding his hips in and out above her and he was more muscular than I’d thought, she more curvaceous than I had previously noticed. I had never considered this in Steve. He always seemed all about the baby. I gave a cry of surprise and shock, and he froze. His back all muscles and nerves and tension and Jade beneath him, already growing fainter.
“Steve, what the hell?”
I don’t know why I yelled for the others. Maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe if he hadn’t told me to turn down my music…
In the end everyone was there, looking, Jade pale with embarrassment and indignation, watching the naked version of herself fade into the floorboards, Seb sniggering darkly to himself and muttering asides to the corner, and Steve was standing up, clutching at himself for coverage, blushing hot red, stammering apologies and half distinguishable explanations, while his clothes gradually reappeared.
It was too awkward to countenance. We never spoke of it again. Some fantasies should not be shared. And by that time everything was so blue you could barely look at it without blinking, the baby was constantly howling for attention, and the man Jade saw in the tiles appeared in every reflective surface, from the mirrors, to the window, to a metal spoon we found on the floor in the corner. It was like being watched by a hundred silent faces. It was just too crowded.
We congregated in the ditch outside.
“Guys,” said Jade slowly, “I think we need to stop.”
Even then we might not have. It was uncomfortable in the house but it was also compelling. I sat in the ditch and stared up at the blue walls and I tried to imagine walking away from that guitar. I was saving up to replace my brown one, and I’d won a lot of money from competitions. I’d be able to get a new guitar. But it wouldn’t be the same. Steve was silent beside me, still quivering with shame, but I knew he was thinking about that baby. About the nursery and the cot and the zoo animal mobile.
When Seb burst into tears it was so sudden and so violent that it made us all jump.
“Don’t…” he said in a strangled voice, the words bubbling wetly in his throat, “don’t…don’t make me…”
It was the first time in a while he had been this lucid.
“Don’t what, Seb?” said Steve gently. Steve was OK. A bit dim. A bit dull. But he cared.
“Don’t…” Seb spluttered, wiped his mouth on his skinny, blue-black wrists, “don’t make me go back there. I don’t want to go in again.”
“Here?” said Jade carefully, “or home?”
Seb only increased his sobs, he was half howling in pain. “I don’t want to go in.”
And so we stopped. It wasn’t easy. I longed for the feel of that guitar but as time went on, and I got my new blue electric guitar from London, which wasn’t the same, but I found my music had already transcended it. Seb’s mum took him to see a clinical psychologist and a doctor, and I think then he actually was on something but I assumed it was something that would do him good. He became quiet and a little bit sad, but less manic. We didn’t go back to the ditch. I’m sure that each of us, on several occasions, went back to the house on our own. We hung around wistfully outside, or we went in, just for a little while. But we were close to finishing school by then anyway, and we all left town to work or to study apart from Seb, whose grades were awful, and who was repeating his final school year with the help of a home tutor.
And it must have done him good. Because here we are, five years later, invited by Seb to his swanky new flat in his swanky new development in this mouldy old town.
I meet them at the cross roads.
“Jade!” Steve shouts. She blushes.
“It’s um…It’s Jude now.”
Steve looks confused and then blushes hotly. Steve was always a bit slow.
“Jude,” I say, “it’s lovely to see you.” He smiles with relief.
Is it lovely though? Because within a few minutes we have nothing to say.
Seb arrives, and he’s suited and smart and bright. His skin glows as though he’s just downed a glass of pure orange juice and stepped out of a eucalyptus shower. He never looked like this in his dreams. There is something of his mum about him.
“Well,” he says, “aren’t we lucky? A visit from the famous Dia.”
I look at him sharply for traces of sneer, but he seems sincere. Dia is my stage name. The others make similar noises. I know they don’t listen to my stuff. They’ve heard too much of it before.
We go to Seb’s flat. Jude tells us about his girlfriend. Steve overcompensates by asking to see pictures then doesn’t quite know where to look when Jude shows him a picture of them together. He tells us all about his children. He has two of them. Already. When he talks about them, he finally stops blushing.
Seb’s flat is on a posh new housing development. It’s very clean. It’s very grey. Inside it has polished floors and chrome fittings. A minimalist style which makes me want to throw things over it.
It faces away from the train tracks.
I realise I’m pushing it when I mention it twice.
“Remember that place we used to hang? Down by the ditch?” I am ultra casual. ““Might be fun to go back there. You know, go for a walk. Memory lane and all that.”
“Oh that.” Seb matches my nonchalance, but it’s laced with something dark. “That’s not there now. They’ve built a housing estate there.” He shrugs, “It’s not all that interesting. This one’s nicer.”
“Oh right.” I say.
There is a pause. We drink a glass of wine. It tastes like sharp water.
Eventually they give in.
“Oh well,” says Jude, “I guess it’s good to get a bit of exercise.” But he’s looking at me sideways and I know he’s uncomfortable. I feel bad but I can’t bring myself to let it drop. I don’t owe these people. I barely know them anymore.
We head out of Seb’s flat and we walk to the place by the train tracks. It’s covered in identical brick houses with little porches and driveways and oblong windows with dark brown trims. I stand and stare at it. The more I look the more I feel that there’s something I’m not seeing.
“So they finally built it.” Says Steve, “Weird how it’s nothing like the show home.”
I turn to him in surprise. We know that house was never a show home. But they are nodding, with a sort of mild disinterest. For all the world like a group of people looking at a housing estate.
I turn back to the houses.
“Shall we go back and get pizza?” Seb suggests.
Everyone makes happy noises.
I’m still standing, staring. Because just at the corner of one brown house and the beginning of another, I can see the barest hint of blue. At the end of a cream driveway, and across a grey roof. I can see a line, a frame. The ghostly shape of a perfect blue house.
And I know, I’m coming back tonight.
This series of short stories is inspired by an idea suggested by Harry Smith, who alongside his lovely fiancé and my friece (niece who is very much also my friend), are among my favourite people to spend time with. I promised him commission if I ever make any money from these stories…I’ll make good on it, but he may be waiting a while…