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 its 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 Maike Kraus)
A solitary CCTV camera, aimed at a patch of overgrown nettles.
The hallway is empty and dark. The floor looks as though it might be real wood, as though it might once have been regularly polished. But it’s long past its prime and it seems a little mournful. Dust motes float in the air. It’s mid afternoon, but she doesn’t turn the lights on much.
After a while, a woman appears. Her bright hair reflects what little light there is. It curls perfectly under at the ends. Not a strand of it is out of place. She plods down the hallway, and opens a door at the end. She stands in the doorway for a moment, her face unreadable, then enters the room.
The room is as dark as the hallway, except for one wall which is filled, floor to ceiling, with TV monitors. They colour her face in fuzzy monotone. Four show different angles of a wide, gated driveway, several more, a neglected, weed lined patio, a heavily curtained sliding door. One appears to be the dark interior of the front doorway, inside the house at the foot of the stairs. At least five seem to be broken. They flicker busily, the visual embodiment of white noise. There are a few trained on other, equally heavily curtained windows and one shows only an overgrown mess, leaves and brambles partially obscuring the lens.
The woman stares at them impassively. She raises a wrist, checks her watch.
After a few minutes the top corner of one of the four driveway monitors registers the front of a white delivery van. Without taking her eyes off the screen, the women reaches mechanically to her right, and presses an entry button on the wall. The gates creak open and the van moves forward, occupies two, then three of the monitors before halting just outside the door. A boy in a grey baseball cap and sunglasses jumps out, swings his way round to the back of the van, and opens the doors. He bends to collect a box of groceries, almost losing his low waisted trousers in the process. A pair of black underpants with something written on the waistband are revealed, stretched tight over his skinny backside, exposed almost to the point where they reach the top of his thigh. The woman watches wordlessly. He places the box on the front doorstep, steps back, tilts his head to the most central camera, raises a hand. The peak of his cap makes his face impossible to read. He might be smiling, but the remainder of his body looks bored. He turns, gets back into the van and leaves.
The woman waits for a long time, staring hard at the monitors, until every trace of the boy and his van is gone. Then she leaves the room, and descends the stairs to the front door, pressing her face to the spy hole for some minutes, before checking the chain is attached and cracking the door. One edge of the grocery box is visible through the chink in the door, a leafy stalk of celery protruding from it. She opens the door quickly, and light floods in, before she pulls the box inside and shuts, locks and rechains the door. She stands there for some time afterward, peering expressionlessly through the spy hole.
The dim light of the hallway grows dimmer, then marginally brighter to announce the morning. The woman appears again, plodding down the hallway and out of sight. She returns later carrying a plate containing two dry rice cakes and some cucumber slices.
She enters the room at the end of the hall. The CCTV monitors display their monochrome vistas. The only movement on any of the cameras come from the flickering of the broken screens. The woman sits on a black leather desk chair. Aside from the monitors, it is the only furniture in the room. The emptiness coupled with the scenes on the screen give the room an odd feeling, between the house and the world outside of it, as though one of them might not be real. The woman stares at the monitors blankly. She eats her rice cakes slowly.
A little time passes. Perhaps a day. Or a couple of days.
The woman appears dressed in matching light pink yoga pants and top. Her hip bones make dark hollows in the dim light, as though channeling it past the insipid waistband and into the unknown darkness within. She enters a different room. This one has a high ceiling and is dotted with lounge furniture. Some of it is covered in dust sheets. She rolls out an exercise mat in the centre, lines it up carefully, taking time to smooth the corners on the unpolished wood. It is quite dark in this room. There are heavy curtains at the window. She hesitates for a moment, moves towards them. Tentatively she creates a tiny sliver of light between the curtains, then stands for a moment, very still. Then she returns to the mat and completes a long and meticulous pilates session.
Afterwards she stands at the window for a long time, peering out, before reclosing the curtains.
The hallway lightens, dims, lightens again. The woman comes into view as she climbs the stairs, carrying a mug of something dark and herbal. She enters the room at the end of the hall, a wall of grey light briefly illuminating the hallway before she closes the door behind her. She is always very careful to close the doors.
She sits in her black chair, and stares at the screens.
Suddenly there is a movement on the monitor trained at the patch of overgrown greenery. An old man steps into view, his hands battling with the brambles, catching at his linen trousers.
The women stiffens, leans forward, stares fixedly, eyes wide, like an frightened feline. The old man is still tangled with brambles and vines. His hand closes around a nettle and he pulls it away quickly, shakes it, as though he might be able to shake off the sting. His lips move.
The women is barely touching her seat, the mug of liquid forgotten, seeping quietly over the floor. She’s almost bent double, nose close to the screen. Her chest rises and falls very quickly.
The old man stamps down a few of the brambles, creating a little patch of conquered undergrowth. Then he straightens up carefully and looks straight into the camera lens.
The woman gasps and pushes her chair back very suddenly, backing away from the screen.
The man continues to gaze into the camera. Then he does a little shrug and a wave.
The woman is standing now, her back pressed against the wall of the room, fists tight, a spikey flood of adrenaline cramping her muscles. She doesn’t move. She doesn’t take her eyes off the monitor.
The man shrugs again, he seems to laugh at himself. Then he runs his hand through his patchy grey hair on the patchy grey monitor and looks around at the brambles and the trampled nettles as if he’s forgotten why he came. He pauses for a moment, and there is a flicker which might have been the camera, or which might have been sadness, across his grey white face. Then he turns and walks off the screen.
It is quite some time before the woman dares to sit back down in the chair, still more to return it to the centre of the room. She remains there, staring fixedly at the stamped down patch of nettles on the overgrown monitor, for even longer. The daylight and the camera light take turns to dim and brighten around her.
The next time the grocery van noses its way into the corner of the driveway she almost doesn’t hit the button, so focused is she on that empty patch of grey white greenery. She stands at the doorway of the flickering room for a long time, before tearing her gaze away to collect her vegetables. She returns immediately, breathless from the speed at which she has taken the stairs.
But there is no more movement on that monitor.
Some time later, the woman re-enters the hallway and moves to the room with the lounge furniture. She moves immediately to the window, to check the curtains. They are tightly closed. She pulls at them a little until she is satisfied that there is no sliver of space between them. Then she hesitates a little, before hitting the light switch. The room is bathed in unaccustomed yellow light. Blinking, she moves to stand in front of a bookshelf. She turns her face upward towards the uppermost shelf, but, bleached by the light, her expression is unreadable. She stands for a long time before reaching up and pulling at a large binder which might be a photo album or a scrapbook. She is only just able to reach it. She draws it out a little way, then something unclear passes over her face and she pushes it back violently until it slams against the wall, rocking the rather rickety free standing bookshelf. She leaves the room, thumping the lights off as she moves.
Briefly, she checks the monitor again. Nothing has changed. She waits for a while, then leaves the room and descends the stairs. Her steps are heavy and her shoulders slump.
In the kitchen she moves in darkness towards the white door of the refrigerator, the light inside casting a precise bright line across the dark tiles as she opens the door, illuminating only her feet as she bends to reach inside. They are bony, her toenails painted very precisely in the same pearly pink of her yoga pants previously, and her cardigan today. She selects a small tub of ultra low fat natural yogurt and deposits an even smaller amount into a bowl. As she opens the cutlery drawer for a teaspoon, the microwave registers a blurry reflection. Something angular and regal, a blur of blue, a hint of cheekbones. She catches it herself, startled by the movement in the light, stares for a while then reaches to the sink, squirts a large amount of what looks like washing up liquid onto the sponge and smears it deliberately across the microwave window. It looks like the window of a shop. As though her image is closed for refurbishment. The blur disappears behind the soap.
She nods to herself sharply, as if in grim satisfaction, but she seems angry. She disappears for a moment then returns holding a notepad and some sort of marker. She scribbles across the paper fiercely.
This time when the grocery delivery comes, she stands behind the door, opens it a chink with the chain firmly in place and says something to the confused looking boy. After some discussion in which he tries to peer around the doorway and she remains firmly behind it, she hands over the sheets of paper and what looks like a small handful of bank notes. The boy is without his cap today and his hair is dark and unruly. He has a smattering of acne on the top of his back, where his neck disappears inside his t shirt. There is a tattoo on the top of his arm, the tail of something retreating inside his sleeve. It is not clear whether the depiction is supposed to be a tail, or if there might be a whole creature connected to it, a serpent or a dragon, pressing itself against his chest beneath the cotton and polyester. He looks surprised and pleased when he sees the notes and his initial confusion transforms quickly into eager agreeability.
The woman returns to the room with the screens. At the very tip of the uppermost corner of one, the delivery boy is straining upwards, affixing something to a lamppost further up the road. His pale ankles are bare and oddly hairless inside his battered converse trainers. A little later he appears again on the overgrown monitor, this time looking rather sweaty and a little disgruntled, fighting the brambles. He pins a notice to a tree.
“Private Property”, the note says, “Keep Out” and beneath it, underlined several times and with a small hole at the end where the pen has punctured the paper, it adds, “Strictly Forbidden”.
This done, the boy obediently turns to the camera, and, with some difficulty, hacks with a pen knife at the leaf which has been partially obscuring the view. Then he disappears again, wiping his hands on the top of his jeans.
The woman has almost finished her rice cracker when the old man appears. She jumps, as if startled by some unheard noise, and stares at the camera. She doesn’t press herself against the wall this time, and she puts her plate down on the floor instead of dropping it. But she rolls her chair as far back as it will go. Then she leans forward.
The old man looks pointedly at the sign, then points at it, looks back at the camera, and grins. He holds up a hand as if to signal her to wait, then makes some performance of digging around in his battered old haversack, before pulling out what looks like a blackboard, or an old fashioned slate. He grins again, holds up a stick of chalk so white it seems to pull all the light from the surrounding grey white greenery of the monitor, and scribbles something. Then he holds it up.
Then he grins again, thrusts the slate at the camera a second time, as if to ensure she has read it, produces an old tea towel, and wipes the slate clean. He huddles over it. This time he is writing a longer message. His tongue pokes just a little way out of the side of his mouth in concentration. When it retreats it leaves a small bubble of spittle right at the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t wipe it away. His shaving is patchy. He is as black and white and grey as the monitors. She can’t imagine him in colour. His handwriting is very careful. It’s all in precise, right angled block capitals.
“DO YOU KNOW WHO OWNS THIS PROPERTY?”
She stares. Her mouth is hanging slightly open, but she realises and closes it. Checks the edges of her lips for spittle. He wipes the board, writes again.
“I WAS WONDERING IF I COULD GROW SOME POTATOES ON IT”
He gazes expectantly at the camera. She gazes back. She’s not quite sure what to do. He wipes the board again, puts it back into his bag, then absurdly, as though she might need further explanation, he performs a rather elaborate mime, digging in the ground and then eating.
He waits a little while longer, then, apparently realizing the futility of this, leaves.
She returns to the kitchen. Writes. Then she orders more groceries. The delivery boy skips the lamppost this time, as instructed, and appears dutifully in the overgrown monitor, his path a little easier now. When he disappears, in his place is a new note on the tree.
“This is private property” (Heavily underlined)
And then, as if an afterthought, “Why don’t you grow potatoes in your own back garden?”
The woman doesn’t leave the room with the monitors this time. She sleeps fitfully in the black chair, starting upright every so often as if either her body is unused to the position or her mind uncertain of its right to rest. When the monitors dim a little and the morning light brightens, the old man makes his way back onto the screen. He reads the note, turns back to the camera lens and shrugs. His bones seem too loose in their sockets when he does that. His skins hangs a little at his clavicles.
“CAN’T AFFORD AN ALLOTMENT”, he writes, “LIVE IN A FLAT”.
Then he grins, wipes the blackboard, “I GROW CACTUSES THOUGH.”
When the dawn light makes its way through the trees in the morning, it illuminates a new sign.
“It’s cacti. Go away.”
She watches. The old man arrives. He’s wearing some sort of peaked cap. Beneath it his ears stick out unnaturally, as though he’s purposely adjusted them that way. He reads. He shrugs again. Then he tips his hat at the camera and leaves.
Poised, her hand pressed to her complaining stomach, because it has really been quite some time since she ate, the woman stays motionless, watching. Waiting. For hours she does not leave her post. But the old man does not reappear. Even the nettles do not move in the breeze. The screen is absolutely silent. Though of course, it has never been wired for sound.
She gives a sad little satisfied nod to herself, and makes her way, slowly, down the stairs.
A few days pass. The woman stands in front of the photo album again. She stays there for a long time but she doesn’t touch it.
Suddenly, one morning, when she’s back in the monitor room, and staring blankly, (though her eyes travel often to the overgrown screen), and halfway through her second cucumber slice, he’s there again.
This time he’s prepared an act. He grins at the camera, waggles his eyebrow, and performs a little dance. It involves a bit of awkward side stepping on the uneven thornery, a couple of stiff turns, and even an element of simple magic involving finding an orange beneath his hat. She watches, mouth open, and forgets this time to check for spittle. The old man completes his performance with a flourish, and gallantly lays the orange on the ground in view of the camera. Then he tips his hat and leaves, still grinning.
The woman does not move until she’s certain that he’s really gone. She orders more groceries.
In the morning the orange is stubbornly still there. She doesn’t take gifts from men. In her experience they have always come wrapped up tightly in ominously unwritten expectations.
Besides, her kitchen is already overflowing.
The orange is now accompanied by a note.
“What are you doing?” it says, “Get off my property” and “Why do you want to plant potatoes?”
The man, when he comes, looks disappointed. He picks up the orange, puts it into his bag.
“DIDN’T YOU LIKE THE DANCE?”
In her chair the woman makes a slight movement, like a little jerk of outrage, but she leans in close to the screen now, and the wheels of the chair are back in the middle of the floor. The man wipes the blackboard, writes again.
“IT’S YOUR PROPERTY? I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE SECURITY MAN.”
He’s writing rapidly now, barely waiting to check she’s had time to read the last note before wiping the slate and replacing it.
“BECAUSE I LIKE POTATOES”
“POTATOES ARE VERY NUTRITIOUS”
Potatoes are made of carbohydrate and starch. They are stodgy and very high in calories. She hasn’t eaten a potato since school.
The woman wipes at her mouth. As if to remove the very idea of a potato. Or as if her mouth is watering. Then she wipes at her eyes, a little angrily. So the dance wasn’t for her. He doesn’t know who she is. She bangs her fist suddenly on the arm of the black chair, making the monitors judder and dance. Of course. That’s fine. He isn’t supposed to know. Nobody is. That is the point.
“SHALL I COME ROUND?”
She leaps from her chair in panic. Flailing she crashes her way out of the room and down the stairs to the door make sure of the lock. She pulls at the chain. She checks the windows, secures the curtains. She drags a chair underneath the door handle, only to have to move it later when the grocery boy comes.
She doesn’t sleep at all tonight. She watches the monitor, but the old man has gone. She stays in the chair, her eyes on the driveway, but once the grocery van leaves there is no other movement, and nobody knocks on her front door. She gets up every half an hour and rechecks every door and window.
The note on the tree is in large capital letters, like his, but without the precision and laced with much more desperation.
When he sees it, he turns, enquiring, to the camera, looking into the lens and out of the screen into her wide, dry, sleepless eyes.
But there is something polite in his expression, something gentle in the way he tips his hat as he leaves.
The woman makes her way tiredly down the stairs and sits down heavily at the kitchen table. The back of her neck is thin and pale as she leans over the paper.
“I don’t like to be looked at”, she writes. And then, “My face.”
She pauses. The tendons of her hand with their pale blue veins are tensed on the table.
She writes, “I’ve had enough of”– Then she scribbles it out.
She writes, “I don’t want”– and then she scribbles that out as well.
The grocery boy no longer simply brings her groceries. He turns up every evening by arrangement. He has a new job now and it’s rather more lucrative.
The old man looks sympathetic in the morning, as he turns back to the camera.
“I WON’T MIND”, he writes, “I’M AN UGLY OLD BUGGER”.
He pulls an ugly face, wrenching his mouth down into a gurn and rolling his eyes. For skin so old it is remarkably expressive. Rubbery. The woman puts her hand briefly to her own face. Then removes the hand. Sits on it.
“NEVER MIND. THIS IS QUITE FUN. LIKE WRITING LETTERS”
He grins, wipes the board, writes again,
“LIKE THE OLD DAYS”.
The old days. For a moment the room the woman is in becomes flooded with them. Hands and bodies and cameras and the flash and pop of lights like miniature explosions. Voices shouting, calling, urging. Alternatively wheedling and whispering. Pleas and flattery and threats. The whiskey shaved scent of Important Sponsors. Clothing pasted and strapped and digging into her skin, the wobble of heels and the crack of her ankles. The crack of her smile. Flesh and hairspray and the taste of sick.
The room swims, crowding her out of it, until she is barely visible beneath the hot white dazzle and the fumes of memory.
When she breathes again, he’s holding the blackboard.
“TOMORROW I’LL BRING MY SPADE.”
It almost sounds like a threat.
He wipes the board. There is a thin white coating of chalk dust on the ground by now, scattered across the flattened nettles.
“WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE VEGETABLE?”
The last ghost of the old days dissolves into the dust motes. But the woman’s skin still gleams with remembered heat, her eyes water with the lingering light.
But the old man cannot see her and he doesn’t know. He only smiles again and tips his hat.
When she’s strong enough the woman prises herself from the black leather chair and makes her way, unevenly, down the stairs to the kitchen. She sits at the table, pen in hand, for a very long time before she finally writes,
And then almost immediately crosses it out.
When the old man returns in the morning there is a new note on the tree.
“Celery,” it reads, and then “Carrots.” Both are crossed out.
Beneath them it says, “You can grow potatoes if you want. I don’t care.”
He makes a little salute to the camera. Then he spends a while digging. It’s not long before he tires, a hand to his back, but he grins into the lens and tips his hat all the same. The ground looks vulnerable and very dark without its covering of thorns and chalk dust.
The woman goes to the kitchen and gets out the rice cakes. She smears a tiny amount of low fat cream cheese on each one, before she adds the cucumber slices.
Then she returns to the lounge and exercises until she sweats.
She sits for a long time on the yoga mat in the darkness, her taut skin tightening further as she dries. Then, as if on some terrible impulse, she jumps up suddenly, and rushes to the note pad in the kitchen.
“DON’T come round”.
It’s the first time she’s seen him look serious.
He puts his age spotted hand on his rickety old heart as though to emphasize his sincerity.
“I WON’T. DON’T WORRY.”
He reaches into his fraying haversack and holds out a sandwich bag full of sprouting lumps.
“POTATOES IT IS!”
She watches him plant them. It seems less physical than the previous day’s work, and he’s using a small trowel instead of a heavy spade. He bends over the ground, scooping and smoothing and carefully placing. There is a movement to his wobbling neck which suggests he might be humming. Sometimes she thinks she can almost hear it, but the camera is not wired for sound. His hands on the ground are very dirty. He’s not wearing gloves. There are dark crescents of black beneath his nails. Watching him makes her feel tired, but the tiredness is nice. She almost drifts off in her chair.
He stands up, pulls out a watering can and a plastic bottle of water from his limitless bag and douses the ground carefully, with much concentration, like an artist creating his latest masterpiece. His tongue pokes out at the corner of his mouth.
When he finally tips his hat to her, she nearly raises her hand to do the same. Absurd. She stops abruptly. He can’t see her. She isn’t wearing a hat.
She moves, with a sort of angry confusion, into the lounge. She pulls the photo album or scrapbook off the shelf and slaps it down on the unpolished floor. She flicks the pages, roughly, tearing them a little at some of the more brittle edges.
The pages are crowded with pictures of a beautiful girl, gradually morphing, like some exotic creature, into a glamorous women. She is smooth and shining, in sharp monochrome and in gleaming colour. Her hair is swept up, tousled, ironed, curled. It is so bright the lights reflect within it. She wears fur, cotton, silk. She wears plastic. She reclines on the sand, she stands on the cliff edge, she sits, head thrown back, legs curved around bar stools. She smoulders into the camera from black rimmed eyes, astride a gleaming motorcycle. Gasps with a subtle hint of arousal as she holds perfume bottles to her milky neck, her blue eyes flashing with the suggestion of passion.
In every single one of those photos there is a myriad of grabbing, grasping hands in the part of the backdrop that cannot be seen.
The woman’s face is obscured as she looks at them. But her body is dark with memories.
Time passes. The hallway grows light and dark and light again. The line of grey-green shoots in the patch of cleared earth, in the monitor she still thinks of as overgrown, grow taller and leafier. The top leaves are coated with chalk dust, like settled snow.
“LOOKS A BIT NEATER NOW, DOESN’T IT?”
“It’s quite tidy. You’ve done a reasonable job for a trespasser who is breaking the law.”
Darkness descends and is slowly chased through the hallway by light.
“OOH. I NEVER BROKE THE LAW BEFORE.”
“THIS MUST BE MY MISPENT YOUTH”
“A bit late for that. Anyway, youth is overrated.”
“I WOULDN’T SAY THAT.
“AND WHY? DID YOU WASTE YOURS?”
She pauses, pen over the paper. She writes in the chair now, as she watches. She has a small pile of fresh notepads beside her in the monitor room, on a small new side table, an addition to her usual grocery order. The boy who delivers it, and who returns each evening as her postman, has grown a pair of fluffy sideburns. She leaves the notes on the doorstep, weighted down by a stone. She doesn’t need to interact with him. She doesn’t want to hear that his voice has deepened. She hasn’t wired her life for sound.
Did you waste yours?
The pictures in the album, still open in the lounge, end rather abruptly. There are some surprised and speculative articles, which eventually fizzle out. Because it seems only right that a face that beautiful should not be allowed to grow old. That a girl that perfect must remain so eternally. Anything else would seem unnatural.
The woman sits for a long time, very still, her pen hanging like a dagger above the paper. Then she writes,
“It broke me.”
He looks for a long time at that one and when he turns back to the camera he puts his hand on his heart, inclines his head solemnly. He stays like that for so long she begins to wonder if the picture has frozen. It’s only the second time she’s seen him look serious. He puts his other hand over the first and presses, gazing earnestly out at her through the monitor. He doesn’t write anything that day, and when he waters the vegetables his throat is still and she knows he isn’t humming.
That night seems darker than the others. But perhaps it is only an aspect of the season.
There had been stalkers and shouters and people who serenaded her, drunkenly in the night. There were letters and descriptions of what they would do to her and how she would like it. There were gossip columns and sightings and articles and noise.
But the silence that came after it had been just as damning.
“I see you don’t bother to dance for me anymore.”
He gives a little skip when he sees it.
“YOU WANT A DANCE?!”
He’s almost always grinning, but she’s never seen him look quite this pleased. He’s clumsy with excitement, wiping off his blackboard.
“HOLD ON. I DON’T WANT TO TREAD ON THE POTATOES.”
He starts to clear some of the overgrown nettles at the edge of the patch. To move his bag out of the way, stamp hurriedly on any remaining, unplanted earth. He bends down, so that he’s almost out of shot. She moves closer, peers into the monitor. He stands up again with a handful of greenery which he leans sideways to toss off screen. He busies himself around the base of the camera, trying to expand his stage.
Abruptly the screen goes fuzzy. It pelts her with grey and white snow.
She gives a little shriek. She panics.
The camera flickers back to life.
“SORRY. PULLED THE CABLE OUT!”
She leans into the screen. He’s reaching slightly out of shot, grabbing at something, breaking something. Then he reappears grinning, pleased with himself, brandishing a long twig, a makeshift cane.
The dance is elaborate and involves a lot of twirling of the stick, which sometimes becomes stuck in the tree growth overhead, so that the choreography has to be improvised around its disentanglement. It’s very energetic, full of enthusiasm and not actually very good.
When he’s finished, he bows extravagantly and she actually brings her hands together to clap. It makes a single, joyous, embarrassed sound.
“I WAS CONSIDERED A BIT OF A MOVER. IN MY YOUTH.”
She wants to laugh but it’s been a while, so she isn’t quite sure of it and instead she simply clasps her hands together at her chest. If only to stop them from clapping again.
Days pass, each marked by a different dance, sometimes a magic trick, once even a rather bizarre bit of mime. Always terrible. Always unashamed.
Once he makes her prepare a specific piece of music ready to play when he tells her to start it and she spends a rather panicky night trying to download it from an internet she doesn’t use. Afraid of her presence on it. Afraid of her absence. She doesn’t search for herself because she’s already lost.
She finds the piece. The dance is ridiculous.
She begins to score him. She writes jokey parodies of popular talent shows. (She draws also on half remembered judgements, comments and critics and jealous admirers.) She tells him his performance displayed good core strength but lacked passion. Was overly poised but made up for it in style. Entertained her but did not contain enough pirouettes. She weaves her darkness into the words until it feels lighter. Like dappled shade.
One day he writes,
She’s just delivered him a particularly blistering mock review. She writes,
She waits impatiently for the morning. She is always impatient, now, for the mornings. There was a time when they were as dark as the nights.
Then he frowns, wipes the blackboard, wipes and writes, wipes and writes in quick, earnest succession,
“I’M JUST AN OLD MAN.”
“NOBODY REALLY SEES OLD MEN.”
“I WANTED TO BE SEEN”
The woman in the black chair seems to swell a little. When she breathes out, the room becomes pink with emotion. She knows that feeling. Even now. She knows it still. She hates herself because she knows it.
But she presses her lips together tightly, and writes, in a firm, decisive hand which shakes only a little at the edges,
“I don’t want to be seen.”
He looks at it. He grins. Perhaps the grin is just a shade too knowing.
“WELL THEN,” he writes, “THIS IS THE PERFECT ARRANGEMENT.”
And the woman in the chair is light. She is lighter than air. She might float away if she didn’t hold herself down.
Not long after that he reaches down, digs about in the earth with his trowel and pulls out a black lump.
“THE POTATOES ARE READY!”
The next day, the woman stands in the room with the monitors, poised and waiting. She stares fixedly at the camera focused on the driveway. It seems to take a very long time before the top corner of one of them registers a pair of dirty trouser legs above scrawny, sock encrusted ankles. Without taking her eyes off the screen, the women reaches to her right, and presses an entry button on the wall. The gates creak open and she watches, short breathed as the legs move forward, limping a little, perhaps from an overenthusiastic pirouette. Soon a torso is revealed above the legs and a familiar, loose skinned, wobbly neck, until the whole figure is there, just outside in her driveway, inching tentatively forward, and then bending to place a basket of something on the steps. The waistband of his trousers is very high, and the fabric of his cords pull tight around his rear. Briefly she wonders if it keeps him trim, all this dancing, before she blushes hotly into the darkness of the room and has to resist the urge to cover her face. The old man steps back, tilts his head to the most central camera, raises a hand. His entire face seems to be wholly overtaken by grin. There has never been a man so proud of a potato. She tenses then, but it’s alright. He tips his hat, turns, and duly leaves.
The woman waits for a long time, staring hard at the monitors, until every trace of the old man is gone. Then she rushes down the stairs, flings open the door and retrieves, with more care than is strictly required, the basket of carefully scrubbed potatoes. She carries it into the kitchen, places it in the centre of the kitchen table like a fruit basket or a flower display. Remembers the front door. Panics. Locks it. Pushes the chair back underneath it just for good measure.
When she’s calmer she returns to the kitchen. He’s missed some bits, and dirt still clings to a few of the roots. The potatoes are smaller than in the supermarket, they have eyes and dents and little greying gone-off bits. But they smell amazing. The whole room smells of them. Dirt and soil and bright green newness and wood and space and grass and food.
Several times that night she gets up and walks to the kitchen, or stands at the top of the stairs. Just to breathe it.
“SO WHAT ARE YOU MAKING WITH YOURS?” he asks the next morning, toasting the camera with his fork.
He’s eating some sort of potato salad with boiled eggs and lettuce. The white insides of the potatoes are shiny with creamy mayonnaise. His lips glisten with olive oil dressing. He has herbs in his teeth.
She thinks of cobb salad, no fat niçoise, egg white omelets.
She holds her pen for a while.
And then, with a little self-conscious huff of laughter and a swell of joy all infused with the scent of potatoes she writes,
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…