Love Letters #15

Damon Ludwig was the love of Alex’s life.

Of course, she did not tell him that. She barely looked at him, barely glanced in his direction when he greeted her. Covertly she admired him, though.

Damon Ludwig was the boy next door. Of course he had to be; Alex snorted at the ironic cliche of it all.

She couldn’t help herself, though. Damon was a very handsome lad, but it wasn’t that, really. She knew as well as the next person that just because somebody was handsome doesn’t mean they were very nice.

He was full of energy, is how she would describe it. He was constantly on the move. Lifting and carrying and bringing in mysterious logs through the front of his house. She would hear his mother berating him for getting mud and splinters all along her newly washed floors. She knew he made things out in the back garden shed, which had been converted to a personalised workshop. He made chairs and carved ornaments, most of which his mother lovingly displayed around her house.

He was funny. And laughed a lot. His laugh was swelling, coming from deep within him, so you knew it was genuine.

When he wasn’t carving, Damon was reading. He read everywhere. In trees, behind bushes, on the garden wall, lying precariously with his solid edges spilling over the sides, in his carpentry shed, on the gentle slope of the roof of his house.

And when he wasn’t reading, he was mowing old Lady Redmond’s lawn down the road or clipping the hedge for Mr Mason whose fingers were riddled with arthritis. He always had time for everybody, and with a cheerful smile he would help them. Sure, sturdy and confident.

She watched their faces when he left them; always smiling. It was like he was the sun and he left his glowing rays wherever he went.

She loved him. But of course, she would never tell him that.

She would carry on in her silent Alex way. Watching when he wasn’t looking, burying herself in her studies, taking care of things as best she could. Her little sister Lem was always in and out of the house next door. She envied her her childish confidence. She would come back with tales about Damon and even though Alex pretended to be nonchalant and dismissive she wanted to hear every detail.

 

The Night Bus

Alex wasn’t known to travel the Night Bus. She had always been told it was for the likes of misguided sorcerers, and unsavoury beings. She had been brought up to be afraid of the Night Bus, namely because it operated at the Witching Hour and vanished when the faint glow of light in the far east appeared. People, or rather, her family, did not suppose she would ever associate herself with such darkness.

But Alex wasn’t afraid. Alex was not afraid of much anything. She felt contemptuous every time George warned her about waiting for a Night Bus. She thought he was being over-protective and altogether too controlling. When her mother died, and her family disintegrated like a dead, dried out insect, Alex found herself more and more prone to follow her feet towards the solitary black lamppost on the corner of Night street.

A small sign hung from the top, creaking as it swayed gently, even when there was no breeze. Scratchy black writing scrawled across it:

Night Bus. Ticket Holders Only

What did that mean? ‘Ticket holders only?’ Where did one acquire a ticket for the Night Bus? There certainly didn’t seem to be any ticket offices anywhere nearby. She’d even asked at the town bus depot. They all shook their heads and shrugged, equally baffled. And yet Alex had seen the bus trundle along the cobbled streets through town, swaying from side to side, filled with people.

What kind of people? They didn’t all look like vagabonds and destitute sorcerers. Why, she had even seen a little old woman with a flowery hat, nose pressed against the glass as the bus sailed past Alex’s window one dark night in November.

She’d waited sometimes at the black lamppost. She crept out just before the Witching Hour, when everybody at home were sound asleep, the dim glow from Father’s oil lamp glimmering under his study door, and made her way through the dewy grass and over the cold slabs of paving, to await the Night Bus.

It never came. She heard it rumbling in the distance, and sometimes caught a glimpse of a pair of large headlamps sweeping over darkened windows, but it never passed her and it certainly never stopped at the lamppost.

She knew it did for some people, though. If she leaned out far enough from her bedroom window on some nights, she saw it come round the corner and judder to a halt. She watched shadowy figures clamber on, and some hop off, waving canes, whispering, plodding along, scattering through the maze of cobbled roads that snaked through the city, vanishing into the nightly mist that clung to the sides of buildings and wafted across avenues.

How, thought Alex, am I to go about finding myself a ticket?

Thomas Bardwell

I shall begin with Thomas Bardwell.

He was a great friend of mine, this Thomas Bardwell.

I met him during my second year at Kings College in London. He was hurrying along a low stone wall covered in ivy. He was also covered in ivy.

It was rather odd, naturally, so I stopped for a moment (you see I was on my way back to my own dorm, as it happened so I was in no rush to be anywhere by any particular time and thus could afford to loiter about for a moment or two to observe the occurrences in the college, always a peculiar thing or two going on, I can assure you) and stuffed my hands in my pockets. It was then that he noticed me, and to my surprise, he beckoned to me to follow him, and started walking even faster than before. I followed him with interest.

Thomas Bardwell was infamous at the university. Everybody who was anybody knew about him. He was well established and was known to have a vast fortune waiting for him the minute his father topped it, so to speak. It wasn’t all very fascinating to somebody such as I, who plodded through life coming across so many advantaged folk that they slid right off the count of my ten forlorn fingers. He was a tall lad, and so this cut a very fine figure among the ladies, as one could very well imagine. He was not very handsome, not more than most, however he held himself in such a fashion that people found themselves coerced, subconsciously, to submit their respect and reverence to him. It was astonishing, really. I pride myself on being the sort of fellow who has a keen eye for traits and personalities, and I am exorbitantly stubborn. I will not respect a man based on how he holds himself and yet, whenever I happen to come across Mr Bardwell I find myself tipping my hat at him and nodding, as though he were royalty, or some high duke.

He was neither of those things, however. He was born to an affluent family who, it was disdainfully rumoured, had made their money solely through trade (as though that were something to frown upon). His father had retired at the ripe age of fifty three with enough funds to allow his four children to live comfortably for the rest of their days.

I met Thomas on the day, as it happens, that he met with his fate. Neither of us knew that he was to meet with his fate, of course. One never knows when one is about to meet their fate. There is no premonition, no deep breath, no warning sign, as it were. He was, as I mentioned previously, covered in ivy. People turned to stare as he dashed past them, trails of ivy sailing behind his shock of chestnut hair. He scattered dark green leaves as he ran, and I found myself following suit, our polished shoes clacking on the cobbles.

He swerved into an alleyway and I swerved also at the last minute, scraping my shoulder against the sharp corner of the stone wall. I clutched at the area of sharp pain, but Thomas was getting further and further away so I swallowed my pain and sped on after him. Something inside me told me not to call out to him, I am not sure why.

 

Carrot Cake

For breakfast, he ordered a slab of carrot cake, coated in thick, creamy icing, and a small mug filled to the brim with a fresh, well made latte. He ate it with a plastic fork, off a ceramic plate, and glanced around at the slowly filling cafe.

‘Hello.’

‘Hi, hi. Yes, hi, Arianna.’

‘Peter?’

‘Pete, but yes, hi.’

‘Pete. You look different.’

His hair was bleached in places from the sun, and the tops of his cheeks and his nose were red, browning. He seemed thinner. His face was sharper, his arms almost scrawny. He wore a bright green polo shirt, and on his wrist was a ring of pasty white against the browny red of his forearms, where he must have worn a watch. Why did he take it off, then?

She sat down in front of him, her clothes pristine, sharp edged, and her hair cut short and straight, not a wisp out of place, despite it being loose around her face.

Her face was clear, symmetrical. She was neither pretty nor ugly, nor was she plain. She just was.

‘Arianna. You don’t.’

Neither of them smiled.

‘Right.’ Arianna pulled a small black folder from her neat bag. It looked as though it fit inside perfectly, neither too big nor too small. He eyed the folder and the bag, then scratched his neck irritably.

‘Let’s get cracking.’ Pete said, and he shoved the last mouthful of oozing carrot cake into his wide mouth, his cold, blue eyes on the folder that Arianna was now sifting through. He swigged at his latte, and then pushed his plate and cup away, folding his arms on the table and leaning forward as though he were at a social gathering, and about to enjoy himself.

Arianna glanced up at him, then quickly down when she realised he was looking at her.

‘Right,’ she said again, ‘right.’

‘Right.’

Arianna pulled out some documents. She leant over, her straight brown hair falling over her face, and pulled a pen out of her bag, which nestled by her gleaming high heels.

‘You will need to sign here,’ she pointed with the end of the pen, ‘and here.’

‘Right, yep.’ Pete pulled the papers towards him, and as he did the bottom part of the paper rubbed against a glop of carrot cake icing on the table, smearing the underside of the crisp paper.

‘Right.’ Arianna said, noticing, and she made the slightest of grimaces. Pete did not notice, as he signed his life away.

‘Right,’ and he slid the papers over to Arianna again, leaving a trail of smeared cream across the table as he did so.

‘Ok.’

‘You okay?’ Pete took another swig of his latte, eyebrows raised in question over the rim of his mug.

‘Yes, I’m fine.’

‘Going to Spain?’

‘No.’

‘Oh.’ he paused, then raised his eyebrows again at her, when she didn’t fill the silence between them.

‘It fell through.’

‘Why?’

‘Company decided to send someone else.’

‘Well. Too bad. I’m great. Had a court hearing last week, for punching a man in the face.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yeah. Punched him because he was abusing his girlfriend.’

‘Okay.’

‘He deserved it. Right twit. I don’t regret it. And I was feeling terrible because I’d lost mine.  And there he was shouting at his, while he still had her. Fuckin’ prick. Mind you, I wasn’t that great to you myself, was I… so.. What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You’re peaky as fuck.’

‘I fainted. At work.’

Pete sat back, and swallowed.

‘Good.’

‘That’s not nice.’

‘You deserve it.’

‘Okay.’

‘Yeah, you deserve it.’ Pete pursed his thin lips, nodding a little, and his eyes were full of anger when he looked at her.

Arianna stood up.

‘Okay, then.’

‘Call me soon.’ Pete looked up at her, and despite his cold, cold face full of hostility, she could see the desperation in his ocean blue eyes.

‘Yup.’ Arianna walked away quickly, her sharp, pointy heels clicking on the wooden floors of the cafe, the sound swallowed into the loud babble of voices that took over the cafe as she got further away from him.

Pete watched her go, picking absently at the crumbs on his plate. She exited the cafe, then stood outside for a second. He frowned as she put her face up to the sky, her shoulders rising deeply then falling, before walking across the road. She didn’t glance back once.

His shaky fingers, the nail beds black and grimy, pulled a cigarette and a lighter from his pockets, and he stood up to walk jerkily outside the cafe, where he lit up and took a deep drag, closing his eyes against the bright sun of summer on his face.

 

 

The Girl Who Stopped Growing

The moment when Lem Pringle realised that she was no longer growing took it’s fine old time to reach her, clambering like a rheumatic old man to lodge itself in a firm nook in Lem’s vivacious brain.  By then she had not been growing for a fair amount of time. Months, even. Her hair hung silky and chestnutty as ever, in limp ringlets just below her shoulder blades, stark against her brown, bony back. She measured it with a ruler. It hadn’t grown an inch! She was particular about her hair. She washed it in honey every other week, as her mama taught her, and she liked to lie on the grass sometimes, her hair cool as it fell over her face, breathing in the soft, sweet scent of honey and grass, a faint lemony fragrance that hung about her wherever she went.

Lem, Alex certified, was a very lemony child. Alex was Lem’s older, oldest and only sister.

But Lem really was not growing. Her nails had been trimmed four months ago, and they remained neatly trimmed. This, Lem mused, was not a terrible thing. At least she didn’t have to go through the hassle of cutting her nails every week. She looked at them often, under the table at school, when her hands twisted forwards and backwards over the handlebars of her bike as she whizzed through streets and up hills, thighs burning. She watched her nails very carefully when she ironed the family’s clothes on Sunday mornings. She glanced at them when she wrote her compositions for school, when she buttoned up her dress, when her small brown paws caressed her bows as she mused over which one she would choose that day.

They stayed the same.

Once she showed them to Finn.

“Look at my nails,” she said, walking into his shed one rainy day. Finn glanced, not really looking. He was carving something pretty. Later Lem saw the pretty thing on Alex’s chest of drawers. Alex never put anything on her chest of drawers.

Lem wondered if Finn thought they looked the same as four months ago. “Have my nails changed, Finn?”

He didn’t notice how big and brown her eyes were, how they were brimming with invisible tears.

“They’re very pretty,” he said. He smiled at her. Lem liked Finn’s smile. It rarely showed itself in full glory. It was a slow smile, and took it’s time to appear. Lem thought that you had to really like Finn to be patient enough to wait for his smile to get ready to present itself. It began as a small twitch of the corners of his mouth, and then small dimples appeared in his cheeks, they took their time to deepen as his mouth stretched from side to side, his teeth peeking out, the joy spreading from his lips to his eyes, dancing, merry, like the stars glittering in jubilant festivity.

She liked waiting for smiles. Too many people gave up too quickly. They didn’t look at other people, really look, long enough. They retreated quickly into themselves. They were afraid. Of what, though? Lem decided that they were missing out. She was glad she waited for Finn’s smile. She decided to always wait for people’s smiles. If they didn’t arrive. she hurried them on by giving them some of her own. That always made smiles travel faster. Smiles are attracted to smiles.

Lem didn’t care if her nails were pretty, of course. Lem wasn’t worried about such things. She just wanted them to grow. She wanted them to scratch her involuntarily when she clambered up a tree, or pulled on a pair of comfy woolly socks. She wanted to say, “Oh. Hallo. I need a nail cutter.” or “ouch. My nails are getting quite long now. I must give them a small chop”

She even wanted to trawl all over the house hunting for a nail cutter, eventually finding it somewhere ridiculous like under George’s bed, or in the fridge. Or in the sugar bowl. That was a grimy state of affairs, Lem remembered fondly.

Alas, she wasn’t growing at all. The height chart on George’s doorframe grew faded. Nobody raced to be taller anymore. Nobody glugged their milk down with ferocious determination.

When Lem Pringle looked down at her feet, they were the exact same distance that they were the last time she looked. They certainly weren’t getting nearer. But they weren’t getting further either.

****

If you have managed to make it this far, dear reader, could you let me know what you think? Only if you are inclined to, of course. This is an excerpt from a longer novel that I am currently writing. I have been working on this particular story for about three years now. My heroine is mentioned in this blog post.