Sakura (Experiment series 2- part 3)

Late afternoon she wheels me to the tree. It is in full bloom and I look up at it in wonder. Eighty two years this tree has lasted.

Okasan was a careful gardener. She’d ensured it was watered and pruned and looked after well. It had been a wedding gift to her, and maybe in its yearly blossoms, she saw her own contentment grow. Otosan and she had been a happy couple. That rare couple that spoke through their eyes, finished each other’s sentences and seemed to live in their own enchanted bubble that not even three children could penetrate.

I inherited this tree, along with everything else.

The blossoms are a delicate pink. One falls on my lap, and I look at it laying there. She reaches for it, and brings it up to my nose. I inhale. They lie when they say that the sakura has no fragrance. To smell the sakura blossom, you have to close your eyes and open your heart.

It was on a bed of fallen blossoms that my heart had awakened to love, and to pain.

His kiss was like a brush of a petal against my lips. My eyes had met his, in longing and in confusion. He’d brushed the hair out of my eyes and leaned in again. My mouth had opened of its own volition, letting his tongue collide with mine, explore my mouth; probe, feel, arouse. His fingers had caressed my face, his touch setting off a thousand miniature explosions in my body. His arousal mirrored mine. We’d fumbled with each other’s clothes, scarcely pausing to think. Hoping that dusk would conceal our lust. Hoping that no wandering feet or prying eyes would find us, limbs entwined, gorging on one another with an insatiable, voracious, urgent desire.

What a strange thing!

to be alive

beneath cherry blossoms

He’d quoted Kobayashi Issa when he first saw our sakura tree. This peculiar guest from America. This boy-man with his blue eyes and his blonde hair, and his odd way of lisping our names. Okasan had taken him under her wing. He was her replacement son, the boy who would substitute for Masahiko whilst he was away being Americanised. This boy who spoke Japanese with a Californian drawl that made me snigger behind his back. My sister Noriko had followed him around like a lamb, fascinated by this strange entity who had invaded our closed but happy world. I had held back. Perhaps even then I had sensed how fatal he would be.

Our assignations were always under the tree. The only place we were unobserved from the house. Just a look from him was enough to send the blood rushing to my head. His gentle exploration of my body, limb by limb. His teaching me what my own body was capable of. His watching me climax, delaying his own gratification. His amusement at my greed, at my contrastingly frantic hunger for him. His placing a sakura bloom behind my ear, and his tongue inside my ear, making me come unexpectedly.

Forty years of living a lie.

How can it be that memories from an age ago are as fresh as this blossom? While everything else is dried like parchment. Dried, crumpled, forgotten.

Was it in those stolen moments that I had fallen in love? In those mysterious glances that passed between us, in the beading of the sweat that lined his upper lip, in his whispered promises? We were young, it was true, but I had never felt more alive than when he held me in his arms. Alive to the possibilities of life and love.

And yet.

I had planned to follow him to America. Convince the parents to let me do what Masahiko had done before me. Such plans we’d had. Such dreams. And the kami had laughed in their celestial abode.

Forty years of living a lie.

Why did I survive? If anyone had to perish that day, it should have been me. Okasan, Masahiko, Noriko – all gone in a boating accident. Otosan crumpling into himself. Losing the other half of him. And I. I, with my survivor’s guilt, watching my dreamt of future receding farther and farther away.

One never questioned duty. It was my duty to marry. To produce the heirs. To carry forward the lineage. I did what was expected of me.

Forty years of living a lie.

Every Wednesday, Midori, my granddaughter visits me. She is the only one out of six grandchildren that has the time for me. We used to talk when she was little. I would amuse her with my origami birds. We would lie under this tree, and I would recite the haiku of Basho, Buson, and yes, even Issa. She still retains an affection for me.

She humours me by bringing me to the tree every week. Even when it is not in bloom. She senses my need, and indulges it with a grace and a sensitivity that will no doubt lead to great pain in her own life.

As for mine; it is nearly over. This prison of a body is letting me down gradually. One day soon, I will be free of it. I let out a little grunt to tell her I am ready to return to the house.

*

She lowers me on to the bed, shooing the otetsudai away. My eyes thank her. She leans forward, and moves the hair out of them. Her touch is feather light.

“Rest well, Ojisan. I will come again next week.”

She slips out of the room silently, leaving her old grandfather to dream of blushing sakura and trysts with golden haired gods.

© Poornima Manco 2017

 

 

Umami (Experiment Series 2- Part 2)

MARY:

“So, tell me again, what does this Miss Elizabeth of yours do?”, Stuart, looked over at me, one hand on the steering wheel, his eyebrow raised in amusement.

“She’s a taxidermist”, I mumbled, choking slightly on my half eaten sandwich.

“A taxi driver? Like Uber? Is that safe to do, at her age?”

I play punched him on his arm, giggling.

“Shut up Stuart! You know what a taxidermist is. She stuffs dead animals. Preserves them for posterity. That sort of thing…”

“So, presumably, she has a lot of these dead animals about her house as well?”

“Yes. But it’s not creepy. It’s charming. Really, why are you being like this about her? You haven’t even met her yet!”

“Like what honey? I’m just curious about this batty old aunt of yours”

“She’s not my aunt. Not a blood relative. More like a substitute grandma. Anyway, concentrate on the road. It’s getting dark, and I don’t want to miss the slip road to her place.”

I was nervous, and I think Stuart sensed it. Not for the reasons that he believed though. Yes, Miss Elizabeth was the only ‘family’ I had left after Mam passed, and I hadn’t taken any man to her place before. She was bound to be judgemental. She always was. But it could cut both ways. What would Stuart think of me after meeting her? We had only been dating three short months, and I wanted to him to see the best of me at all times. I wanted him to see me as cool, collected, organised, in charge of my own life and destiny. Hadn’t he said he liked independent women?

Miss Elizabeth had seen all sides of me. She had seen me on my knees, and picked me up, and set me back on my feet. She had seen me at my rawest, most vulnerable state, and given me solace. I didn’t want Stuart to know about that. It was too early for any of that.

“So, why are we eating these sandwiches if we are going to hers for dinner, hey?”

“Stuart!”, I groaned, “I’ve told you. She’s not the best cook. She’s enthusiastic, but….”

He laughed then. “I’m only teasing, pumpkin. I don’t care what I eat, as long as I’m with you.”

I looked outside at the darkening skyline, and smiled at my reflection in the window. This was going so well. I hoped nothing would ruin it.

STUART:

She was just so goddamn beautiful. From the first time I spotted her in the coffee shop, to when I accidentally, on purpose, knocked her books out of her arms, I had been captivated. I played it cool. It was the only way, with girls like her. She thought she was the lucky one to have landed me. Little did she know.

I sneaked a quick peek at her. Her profile was like an ice blonde Grace Kelly. A glacial beauty. A touch-me-not. How different she was in reality. Warm, funny, unaware of her effect on men and unconcerned about her looks. I was taking it slowly. She had been skittish as a colt in the beginning. It had been a strange push and pull game, where I had to pull without making it obvious. Till I finally reeled her in.

Yet it was I who was left reeling. Falling in love had been a strange experience. Suddenly nothing mattered more than her. All thoughts of self preservation evaporated. All caution was thrown to the winds. Years of self discipline melted away. I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with her.

This Miss Elizabeth of hers worried me a bit. Most women succumbed to charm and flattery, but not if they were a bit off. A spinster in her 70’s, a taxidermist who lived in the middle of nowhere sounded a bit off. I’d really have to gauge how much charm to apply without coming over as too smooth.

“Tell me about Miss Elizabeth. How did you get to know her?”

She turned and smiled at me.

“She was our neighbour. She used to be a mid wife. She helped my mum when she was pregnant with me. They became really good friends after.”

“And what have you told her about me?”

“Just that I’m bringing a friend to dinner”, she chewed on her lip a bit. “It’s been a while since I saw her and I’d really rather she met you first before forming an opinion”

Her nervousness was palpable. I gave her hand a little squeeze.

“Hey, it’ll be okay. She’ll love me, I promise. You’ll be fighting her for me soon enough”, I grinned at her expression, as she punched me on the arm again. God, I loved this girl.
MARY:

When Miss Elizabeth sold her semi in our London suburb and bought the barn conversion in Dorset, I’d really thought she’d gone cuckoo. For a woman of her age to choose isolation wasn’t healthy. She needed people, community, a church where she could volunteer. She’d laughed at my concerns.

“My dear”, she’d explained wryly, “I’ve had my fill of people. Especially the ‘churchy’ types. Hypocrites all of them! There is not an ounce of goodness in them. I’d rather surround myself with nature and animals. What’s unhealthy about that?”

Three years later, she was indeed thriving. Lily, her mini Schnauzer kept her company. They went for long walks together. They collected dead animals and birds. They listened to music, whilst Miss Elizabeth devoted her time to her life long passion for taxidermy. She was ruddy cheeked and strong of limb. The grey pallor of hospital lighting had long since faded from her face.

What would she make of Stuart? He was handsome of course, but she had never been one for outside packaging. He was charming and caring and made me laugh. I hoped she would see that, and wouldn’t be too harsh. Miss Elizabeth had never had time for men. She’d had her heart broken a long time ago, Mam had told me. Since then, the foolishness of love and romance held no appeal for her.

“There, there”, I indicated. “That’s the turn off”

My heart started beating unevenly. Why was I so nervous? Even if she didn’t like him, would it really matter? After all, I owed her nothing. Except my life and my sanity.
STUART:

We’d left the motorway and were cruising through a small village. The sunset bathed everything in a warm, orange glow. It was postcard pretty, with little curving lanes, wisteria covered houses, the usual pub filled with people enjoying their first drink after a hard day’s work. Friendly people, simple people, people who knew nothing of the cut and thrust of living and working in the city. It was idyllic. The sort of place you wanted your children to grow up in. It was beautiful, and it turned my stomach.

“Stuart?”, Mary looked at me enquiringly, “What are you thinking about? You were miles away….”

I smiled at her. It was too early to tell her. Maybe someday when I trusted her more, or maybe, when I trusted myself enough.

“Nothing much….just how lovely it all is”

“It is, isn’t it? I so envy people who live in places like these. I grew up in a semi detached, two bedder, with nothing but the planes that flew overhead to relieve the monotony”

“Your mum worked at the airport, right?”

“Yes, at Security. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, but it paid the bills”

“And your dad?”

She seemed to be willing to reveal a bit more about herself today, and I was eking out the details gently.

“My da..”, she sighed, “I only saw him twice. Once when he came to collect his football stuff from the house. I must’ve been five. And then, the second time…right at the very end….”

“The end of what?”

She clammed up suddenly. I knew not to push her. It wouldn’t work. Instead I concentrated on the road. Dusk had fallen, the village was long behind us, and now we were in uncharted territory.
MARY:

I knew I was being difficult. Stuart had tried, many times before, to ask about da. I just couldn’t talk about him. It wasn’t just the abandonment. I was scarcely alone in having been brought by a single mother and an absentee father. Scores of my school friends grew up in similar environments. No, it wasn’t that. How could I explain it all to Stuart? How would he view me after?

We hadn’t been entirely honest with each other. We were willing to share our thoughts and our bodies with one another. Yet so unwilling to share our histories. Why? What was he hiding?

“Stuart, look out for a sign on the right. It should say ‘Steeplechase Lane’. Any minute now”

I peered through the descending darkness. I had only ever driven here in the daytime. Everything seemed so much more mysterious in the dark, a landscape that was suddenly shorn of its innocence.

“I see it”, he remarked and swung into the lane that would lead us to Miss Elizabeth’s house.
STUART:
The lights were blazing in all the rooms as I pulled into the drive. How odd, it occurred to me, that a woman living on her own would have all the lights on. Pensioners were normally careful with their bills. Unless she had money to burn. Mary seemed to read my mind.

“It’s an old habit of hers. She keeps all the lights on”

“To chase the monsters away?”, I chuckled.

“Come on Stu, don’t be mean!”

I smiled at her, and gave her hand another squeeze. For this girl I could endure an evening with an eccentric granny.

I pulled the flowers and wine out of the boot, as she re applied her lipstick quickly. Her powder blue dress had baby pink geraniums on it. The lipstick matched the pink. Little details that had never registered with the women I’d dated before. She’d put her hair in a pouffy pony tail that looked terribly chic. I preferred her hair down, but couldn’t deny how beautiful she looked this evening. She caught me staring and blew me a kiss. Then she indicated with a tilt to her head that we’d better hurry.

I stood slightly behind her, balancing the wine and the flowers, as she rang the bell and then used the knocker to reinforce our arrival.

“Down Lily!”, a husky voice commanded from behind the door. Then it swung open to reveal a woman in her early 70’s, holding her dog down by its collar.

“Stuart….”, I heard Mary scream as the ground reached up to meet me.
MARY:

His skin was leached of all colour. Between Miss Elizabeth and I, we had managed to drag him into the hallway of the house. Lily kept circling him, whimpering. Miss Elizabeth was using a cold compress, and had elevated his feet on a little footstool.

“Has this happened before Mary?”

“No, never”, my voice trembled as I looked down at him, so pale and helpless.

“Then not to worry. It could be stress induced, or low blood pressure. He should get checked out, but he looks like a healthy young man. Oh, he’s coming around”

Stuart groaned a bit as he moved his head to the side. I stroked his forehead, and whispered, “It’s okay, I’m here. Don’t worry”

His eyelids flickered open. He looked confused, tried to sit up, and fell back again.

“Don’t let him get up yet Mary! I’m bringing a glass of juice for him. A sugar infusion till we get to the bottom of this”

I nodded, and watched her walk briskly to the kitchen.

“Stu, my darling, what happened to you?”

The colour was returning to his face. His eyes met mine in recognition. Embarrassment replaced the confusion.

“Did I just pass out Mary? Bloody Hell! How long was I gone for?”

“There is no need for such language young man! You were unconscious for just a couple of minutes, or else I would’ve been dialling 999. Here, drink this”

I noted his bemused expression as Miss Elizabeth held him up, forcing him to drink the whole glass of juice. Then we helped him to his feet, and into the living room, where he sank into the armchair with obvious relief.

“Well, that’s one way to make an entrance”, he looked over at me, and then sheepishly towards Miss Elizabeth.

“Darling, I’m just glad you’re alright”. He was looking more like himself now. I went over and gave him a quick hug. Then I turned and gave Miss Elizabeth a hug too. She hugged me back stiffly. That had always been her way.

“You had better retrieve the wine. I managed to get to the flowers before Lily”

I shot out of the room to the sound of Stuart laughing softly.
STUART:

What made me faint? That seemed to be the question of the evening. I had been given a wine spritzer to nurse when I could’ve done with something far stronger. I could hardly protest given I’d been eating dust a half hour ago. I looked around me while Mary and the martinet caught up. The high ceilings were the legacy of the barn, that much was evident. What surprised me was the choice of furnishings. Everything was minimalistic almost to the point of being spartan. Clean lines, Scandinavian furniture and a predominance of white was the background to what this woman considered art: Taxidermy.

There were birds, squirrels, foxes, owls and even a cat or two. Each one stuffed to look as though it were still alive, glassy eyes notwithstanding. Each one in a pose that signified motion. The bird about to take flight, the cat on the prowl, the squirrel nibbling on a nut. There was expertise here, and showmanship. I saw no charm however. It made my spine tingle to be surrounded by so much death.

“Has there been a lot of stress at work for you Stuart?”, Mary enquired gently.

“Not particularly. Nothing I haven’t dealt with before, and nothing I can’t handle sweetheart”

It hadn’t been stress or low blood sugar or any of the things the infernal woman was droning on about. Just for a moment I felt like I had a grasp on the reason, but it slipped away again. All I could feel was a sudden, irrational dislike of this Miss Elizabeth. Of her clinical home and all the dead fauna that inhabited it. A dislike I had to mask for the sake of Mary. A dislike that shook me more than my fainting spell had.

The woman had stopped talking and was looking at me, as though waiting for a response. Mary looked concerned.

“I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. Could you repeat that please?”

“I said”, she replied with exaggerated politeness, “would you care for some dinner?”
MARY:

Something was wrong. Horribly wrong. I could’ve cut the tension with a knife. Both Stuart and Miss Elizabeth were behaving normally, but I could detect the undercurrents. Was he concussed? Was she cross? What was going on?

Miss Elizabeth had set the table with her best china. I was touched that she had gone out of her way to impress my plus one. Then why did I suddenly feel that she didn’t want us there anymore?

“I remember this set from Wimple Close!”, I exclaimed delightedly. White with red poppies. It had brought back a rush of happy childhood memories, of dinners around at Miss Elizabeth’s when mam and she had chatted into the wee hours, and I had fallen asleep in front of the fireplace.

“I’ve had it a long time Mary. Much before Wimple Close too”

“I never did ask you, where did you live before Wimple Close? It feels like I’ve known you all my life”

“Well, you have. Remember I was there when you were born”

I kept up the chatter, hoping Stuart would join in. He stayed stubbornly silent. I could tell he was assessing her, and assessing me alongside. I looked at Miss Elizabeth anew. Her face seemed craggier than usual, the lines on her forehead deeper, but her eyes had lost none of their fire. They snapped and crackled as they always had. They could frighten you away, or frighten your demons away. In my case, it had been the latter. I was ever so grateful, and for the first time this evening, felt a prick of annoyance with Stuart.

“Let me help you bring the food in. Stuart can keep Lily company”

He started at my tone, and looked at me askance. I swept out behind Miss Elizabeth, hoping that he would regain his good manners in our absence.
STUART:

A headache was starting up at the base of my skull. I rubbed it gently, noticing the tender spot behind my ear. Was it my earlier fall, or was it something else? The same spot hurt every time I remembered. I tried not to. I had pushed it as far back as I could. Sometimes though, something would trigger the memory.

I closed my eyes with a sigh. I could hear them bustling about in the kitchen, Mary’s sweet murmur interspersed with the woman’s hoarser voice.

A voice I had heard before! A lifetime ago. I sat up with a start, my heart pounding, my head threatening to explode. I looked at the white plates with the poppies on them. These too I had seen. My head was swimming with the memories it could no longer contain. I felt hot and cold alternately. Mary had just entered the room with a dish in her hand. She rushed towards me, throwing the dish on the table.

“Stu….you look awful! What’s the matter?”

“I…I need to throw up…”

I could hear them speaking outside the bathroom, low worried tones. I had retched into the toilet, bits of lunch and sandwich heaved out of me, till all that remained was the stomach acids that had accompanied them. I rinsed my mouth and washed my face, then took a good long look at myself in the mirror. I was a thirty five year old man who looked like he’d seen a ghost. Which I suppose I had.

I took several deep breaths. I could not afford to fall apart. Not here. Not now. The day of reckoning had arrived. I was damned if I was going to mess it up.
MARY:

Stuart had insisted we stay. I wanted to drive him to the nearest A&E. He wasn’t having any of it. In truth, he looked better. He was laughing at something Miss Elizabeth had said, and all that previous tension had dissipated. Had I imagined it?

“Here let me help you”, he took the salad out of her hands and set it on the table. “Everything smells delicious. I am absolutely ravenous”

Miss Elizabeth was still wary. I couldn’t blame her. He was an unknown quantity. What with his fainting, strange behaviour and throwing up, anyone would think he was an odd bod. Thankfully, hardly anything rattled her composure.

I had to admit, whatever she’d cooked up did smell delicious. She was ladling some meat dish into my plate.

“What is it?”

“Pigeon”, she added potatoes and salad, and handed me the plate.

I eyed it warily. I’d never eaten pigeon before.

“Mary, try it. It’s really quite gamey. Very nice indeed”, Stuart enthused tucking into his dish with relish.

“Thank you Stuart”, said Miss Elizabeth, “I try and eat as much local produce and meats as possible. There is a company that specialises in game, wild birds etc. I ordered this off them. I’m glad you like it”

“What do you do with the meat of all these?” He nodded at the various exhibits on her side board.

“Well, sometimes they are fresh enough for me to use, but mostly I do have to get rid of the meat. I may come upon these animals or birds a few days after their death, so quite often the meat’s gone bad”

“What about roadkill?”

At this, Miss Elizabeth stiffened.

Stuart didn’t seem to notice. “I mean, that must happen around here a fair bit? Animals run over by careless drivers. What a waste of good meat. Surely someone like you would find good use for it?”

“I don’t use roadkill”

Stuart had already moved on to another topic. I took a bite of the pigeon, but found it tasted like sawdust.
STUART:

Tread carefully, I had to keep reminding myself. I had no proof except vague memories and sensory cues. I had to establish the veracity of my own recollection. Time had eroded many details, but some remained fresh to this day. I had to pepper the evening with those clues and watch her reactions. The first one had hit bulls eye.

“Umami- that is the elusive fifth taste, a sort of meaty, savoury flavour. I’d say this dish has it in spades. May I have some more?”

I forced myself to eat more. I wanted this woman confused and wrong footed. I felt sorry that Mary would have to witness this, but I had no choice.

“So, Miss Elizabeth, may I call you Elizabeth, Liz or Lizzie? Miss Elizabeth is such a mouthful”

“Elizabeth is fine Stuart. I don’t force Mary to prefix my name. It’s habit for her”

“Ah yes, habits are such curious things aren’t they? So difficult to break. For instance, I really do believe we come full circle in life”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Well, you are obviously a country girl, born and bred. Look how well you’ve acclimatised to living out here. I’m a country boy too, and I wonder if I’d want to retire to the village I was born in. I love the city though. I love the pace, the excitement, the honesty of it”

“Honesty? What a strange word to use for city living”

“Well, I meant it in the sense that there is no pretence. No hiding behind masks of civility. No communities gathering together to protect criminals in their midst”

“What are you on about?”, Mary interjected with a laugh. “You never told me you grew up in the country. Where?”

I looked straight into Miss Elizabeth’s eyes as I said softly, “A small village in Wiltshire called Chiseldene”

An involuntary gasp escaped her. Bingo!
MARY:

I wasn’t sure what Stuart was playing at, but he almost seemed to be toying with Miss Elizabeth. I couldn’t understand any of it, and was starting to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps the quicker this dinner was over, the better.

He was leaning towards Miss Elizabeth now. “Know it? Chiseldene?”

“Can’t say I do”, she responded with difficulty. Two spots of colour were burning high on her cheeks.

“Oh but I think you do Lizzie. After all, that’s where you grew up too. Orchard Grove wasn’t it?”

I looked from him to her and back again. What was this?

All pretence of eating had been abandoned. We sat at the table, an uneasy threesome. Stuart, tense as a cat, ready to pounce. Miss Elizabeth cowering. Cowering? And I, uncomprehending, but knowing something terrible was unfolding here.

“Did you really think all your crimes would go unpunished? Did you think your past would never catch up with you Lizzie? Lizzie. That’s what my mum called you. Lizzie, her mentor. Her best friend”

“Stuart!”, I cried out, “Please…..I don’t understand. What is this? Do you know Miss Elizabeth? How?”

“Haven’t you been listening, my love? We are from the same part of the world. In fact, she was a very big part of my world then”

He gave me a wry smile.

“I’ve eaten in these very same plates. I’ve been rocked to sleep by her. I’ve even been on walks with her, to pick up roadkill. Remember Lizzie? Remember the meat we would salvage off them? You’d say ‘waste not, want not’ ”

That was something Miss Elizabeth said often. Open mouthed, I watched her shrink further into herself.

“But this is wonderful! Surely it is? This world is a small place after all”, I tried injecting some humour. Anything to lighten the atmosphere.

“Oh yes, the world is very small indeed. Unfortunately for some, eh Lizzie?”
STUART:

There was a part of me that understood Mary’s confusion, a part that wanted to reassure her, to take her in my arms and say it had nothing to do with her, that everything would be okay. But the other part of me was too focussed on the woman sitting in front of me, too focussed on finally confronting my past. This other part wanted to reach into Miss Elizabeth’s and rip her heart out, the way she’d done mine all those years ago. And no, I had no way of knowing that everything would be okay.

I could see her mind trying to piece things together. I waited.

“You are Emma’s son?”, she finally whispered.

“The penny drops”, I leaned back in my chair. “Tell me Lizzie, when you fled from the village after all the chaos you had caused, did you ever stop to think about that nine year old boy you were leaving behind? That boy who had so suddenly and brutally been orphaned? Did you? Thought not”

Mary had gone white from the strain of trying to understand.She stood up suddenly.

“I am sick of this! Can someone please explain what is going on?”

“I will. I can”, the woman said calmly. It was quite startling to see her regain her composure so quickly. She looked over at me, as though to check if it was okay. I nodded. This would be interesting. Her version of events.

“I did know Stuart many years ago. He is right in saying I was his mother’s best friend, even though Emma was many years younger than me. There was a terrible tragedy in that village and I left for my midwifery course shortly after. I think Stuart, as a young boy, having gone through all that trauma, had to blame someone. And I see now that he blamed me”

She turned towards me. Her eyes had regained their gleam. She spoke softly, sincerely. “Please believe me Stuart, I would have done anything to help. I even wanted to take you in as my ward. Social services didn’t allow it. I am so so sorry. I wish I could have done something, anything to change what happened”

I started to clap, slowly. “Bravo! What a performance. No doubt you convinced everyone you spoke to back then as well”

“What was the tragedy?”, asked Mary. She looked at me for an explanation.

“Well, my mother stabbed my father to death. She was arrested, and shortly after, she committed suicide”
MARY:

I stood dumbfounded for what seemed like an eternity. I could hear the clock ticking in the background, or was it my heart setting up its own tattoo?

Miss Elizabeth was looking down at her plate. Stuart was staring at her and if looks could kill…

“Why”, I finally whispered, “why do you blame Miss Elizabeth?”

He looked at me, and for the first time ever, I saw the desolation in his eyes.

“My dad was in the RAF. He was often posted abroad, and couldn’t always take his family with him. During one of his postings, my mum befriended a lady she met at Church. Your Miss Elizabeth. I must have been around eight then. I remember them becoming fast friends, very quickly. They started spending a lot of time together. My mum confided in her, trusted her”

Miss Elizabeth looked up then. “She was a lovely girl, Emma was”

“Do not speak!”, Stuart said, “It’s my turn to talk”

“Anyway, my mum seemed happy, and as a young boy, I was happy that she had found a friend. Little did I know what a poisonous viper this friend would turn out to be”

“How?”, I asked.

“It wasn’t her first rodeo. She had done this before. We didn’t know, as we had been in and out of the country while she had been up to her shenanigans. People tried warning my mum. She even received an anonymous letter in the post. She disregarded them all”

“What shenanigans? What had she done? You are not making yourself clear”

Miss Elizabeth stood up and started gathering all the dishes. “I don’t have to sit here and listen to all this. Wild accusations that have no substance to them. You are in MY house, and I don’t have to put up with this. Mary, take your friend and leave. We will talk another time”

Stuart carried on, as though he’d heard none of this.

“She made it a habit to befriend young women. Vulnerable women. Lonely women. Troubled women. Then she slowly manipulated them. Drip, drip, drip, she poured poison into their ears. She twisted the truth till they couldn’t differentiate between fact and fiction. Then she made them do her bidding. She made them commit the crime, while she stood on the sidelines, enjoying her handiwork. Nothing could ever be proved, as she never dirtied her own hands. But boy, did she enjoy the spectacle”

“No! No, that can’t be true. You are making this up Stu! Why would you do such a thing? Miss Elizabeth has been nothing but kind to me and my mother. If it weren’t for her, I would have been on the streets. How could you?” I started to sob. This was wrong. All wrong.
STUART:

It was finally out in the open. The dreadful secret that I had carried like an albatross around my neck. I had been seen as the victim, the poor child of a criminally insane mother and an adulterous father. Even those who had suspected the truth could do nothing. There had been whispers of course, but Elizabeth’s family and friends had formed a protective circle around her. Then she had fled, and I had been nearly swallowed up by the system. If dad’s brother hadn’t taken on my responsibility, I would have become yet another statistic.

Nick tried to give me as normal an upbringing as possible. His wife and children welcomed and absorbed me into the heart of the family. They were my salvation. The only condition he ever applied was to never speak of the past. I didn’t. But I thought of it. Constantly.

As I grew, I started to make my own little enquiries. I went through my mother’s effects, and found the letter. I returned to Chiseldene, and asked around. Some people were kind enough to supply me with information. Some people were angry enough at the injustice of what had blighted my life, and the lives of others. Yet no one could provide me with the one thing I craved. The whereabouts of Lizzie.

Now, Fate had conspired to put me in the same room as the evil that had nearly finished me off. But as with everything, there was a price to pay.

“Every word of what I say is true Mary. If you don’t believe me, look at her face. The guilt is written all over it”
MARY:

I looked at her face. A vein throbbed in her temple. Her eyes looked a bit manic. But she smiled at me, and shrugged as if to say, Poor boy. Pity him. Give him this moment.

I looked at him, and saw pure hatred writ large. How could he loathe the one constant in my life? Was he unhinged or was she guilty?

“Mary, listen to me!”, Miss Elizabeth willed me to look at her. “You’ve known me all your life. Do you think I am capable of any of these things? This man, this poor young man, has suffered because of the tragedy that befell him. But I am not to blame! It was his mother who decided she’d had enough of her cheating husband. What did I have to do with it? Emma was always a fragile sort. How was I to know she would end up killing her husband?”

“My mam killed my da”, I said slowly, thoughtfully. “You weren’t there then either. But you were – before and after”

She started to stutter, “H..h..he… attacked her. It was self defence. He had always been a wife beater. You know that”

“No, I don’t. All I know is what you told me. Mam died from her injuries”

“Yes, because her attacked her, don’t you see?”

Some of her irritation penetrated my reverie.

“But what if she attacked him first?”

“Mary! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Are you really falling for this charlatan’s story?”
STUART:

White as a sheet, Mary faced Lizzie. It was a strange square off. One so stolid, so earthy, so substantial. The other so slight, so evanescent, so brittle.

My mind was racing to comprehend what had just happened. Was Mary a victim of this woman’s machinations too? If she was, and had only just realised it, I could just about grasp the magnitude of her shock. I had lived with my tragedy all my life. I had known the perpetrator and the consequences. Mary had lived with a lie. She had relied upon and been raised by the very same wickedness that had destroyed her home.

“What were you filling in my mam’s ears, day in and day out? Were you telling her that her husband was a layabout? A good for nothing, hopeless wife beater? Were you telling her what to do, and how to do it? Were you vomiting the same lies to her that you vomited to me after they were gone?”

Lizzie’s face had a hunted quality to it. She took a step backwards, shaking her head.

“No, no, no. All I ever tried to do was help. Mary, you have to believe me. I raised you like the daughter I never had. I loved you”

“Love?”, Mary laughed. “Not love. You fed off fear and misery and calamity . You came in shortly after I walked in on them, didn’t you? I saw him on the floor, his head bashed in. I saw her sitting next to him, wounded and bloody, trying to say something to me. You grabbed me and took me out of the room. Why didn’t you let me stay? Why didn’t you let me hear what she was trying to say?”

“I was trying to protect you! You were sixteen. I could not allow you to stay on in the midst of that dreadful scene”

“Yet, you did. You stayed till the police arrived”

“I stayed to keep your mother company”

Mary shook her head, as if to clear it.

“You do have an answer for everything. What do you call a person like her Stu?”
MARY:

How had I gone from believing in her to this? Had I always, sub consciously, doubted her? All those little details that hadn’t added up, her constant regurgitating of my father’s flaws, her ghoulish fascination with his death, her unwillingness to let me forget, had signalled something else, something beyond the simple guardianship she’d provided. But how could I have put a name on something so ambiguous?

“She’s a psychopath”, Stuart supplied, “But an extremely dangerous one, because you will never be able to pin anything on her”

Miss Elizabeth’s face had turned puce.

“Get out”, she spat at us. “Get out, both of you!”

The veins in her neck bulged as she moved towards us, her fist raised. Lily bared her teeth at us, growling, sensing her mistress’ anger.

“You come into my house, eat my food, then take the liberty of calling me names! Psychopath, am I? Very well, I AM. Yes, I enjoyed wreaking havoc in your pathetic little lives. Yes, your mother was a gutless cry baby Stuart, and yours Mary, was nothing but a whinging loser. Their husbands were no better. I did the world a service by getting rid of them”

She kept moving towards us, till her face was nearly touching mine. Her breath smelled rank, and her arm pits emanated a sour odour, like yogurt gone off. I could see bits of the pigeon meat stuck between her teeth. I recoiled, and she gave a short sharp laugh.

“Try proving it. Any of it. Your boyfriend’s got it right, my dear. Nothing will stick”

Stuart unfolded himself from the chair. He was beside me in a trice. He put his palm on her chest and pushed her. She staggered back.

“Don’t you dare touch Mary, you evil witch!”

He took my arm.

“Let’s go honey. I can’t abide being in this house another minute”

I gathered up my things quickly. We were nearly at the door when she called out.

“Wait!”

STUART:

“Don’t”, I said to Mary, “She’ll only play more games with your mind”

But Mary stopped and turned around, as did I.

She stood in front of us, deflated, all the fight gone out of her.

“What are you going to do?”

“We can’t prove anything, you know that Lizzie. Its our word against yours. Besides, what is the point? You’ve done enough damage as it is. You have to live with that on your conscience, if you have one. What we can do is walk away from you. Leave you to your own devices. Leave you to spend the rest of your days surrounded by all this necrosis. It has defined all your life, hasn’t it, this fascination with death and destruction?”

She shrank back, then looked towards Mary.

“You cannot leave me, Mary. You are the only family I have left”

“Watch me”, replied Mary glacially.

Lizzie’s face seemed to sag, and then she slumped to the floor. An incoherent burble escaped her. Her arm twitched, and she let out a low moan.

I rushed towards her. Lily was circling her, whining. I turned her over. The left side of her face had distorted into a twisted facsimile of her right.

“I think she’s had a stroke Mary. We need to ring 999”

Mary stood silently, watching me try to sit her up, while searching for my phone. I felt her hand on my shoulder.

“Let’s go Stuart”

“What? No! We can’t leave her like this”

“Let’s go”

She dragged me up. I looked at Lizzie’s beseeching eyes. I looked at that white house, at the birds and animals perpetually frozen in a twilight dance between life and death. I looked at Lily, her bitch, licking her face. I looked till I could look no more.

We walked out of the house in silence.

As I drove away, I saw all the lights blazing in my rear view mirror. I glanced at Mary’s silhouette, then looked back at the road in front of me.

Umami lingered on my tongue. Only, now it tasted a lot like revenge.

 

THE END

 

©Poornima Manco 2017

Veritas (Experiment Series 2- Part 1)

I drew the gauzy covering aside and stared into the mirror. At first it’s aged surface revealed nothing but the mist that swirled around me. As I leaned in, however, the mist parted to reveal her heart shaped face. Her copper tresses flowed down her shoulders, covering nearly half her body. Her wide spaced green eyes stared right into mine. There was but one question in them. I shook my head quickly, ashamedly. A flash of scorn and she turned away.

“No!”, I cried, “Please don’t….”

She turned back and looked at me again. She was beautiful, powerful, and all knowing. She stretched her arm out, beckoning me towards her. Wonderingly, I stepped into her world. All at once I was in a verdant netherworld, a vetiver land of moss, grass and lichens, trees that stood tall, but with branches that reached down to caress, retreating shyly at a glance. Bushes that grew in a tangle that moved and swayed to invisible chords. Wildflowers that grew in thickets, roses that ambushed the senses with their heady perfume. She stood amongst them, a tiny figure that held me in her thrall. Her body was ivory, the skin translucent enough for me to see her network of blue veins. It was I who felt naked under her gaze.

“Tell me”, she whispered, her voice sending a ripple through the leaves of her Kingdom, “tell me why you return with the task undone?”

“I…I…it is too hard. It would break his heart.”

Something coiled around my ankle. I looked down in horror at the serpent that wrapped itself on my left leg. A serpent that looked like a chain. Serpent. Chain. Serpent.

“That is for your cowardice”

She turned and walked away. I limped behind her, dragging my chained leg.

“No…please….your Majesty….I need time….”

“You have had time. Enough time.”

“Yes, you have been kind and patient. It is I who is unable…”

“Unable, or unwilling?”

She stood near enough for me to touch her. Her beauty was cruel, and mocking of my weakness. Her eyes blazed with a fury that set me trembling. A rose branch reached out towards my arms, and suddenly, brutally wrapped itself around my wrists, imprisoning them, the thorns piercing my skin, drawing blood. Tighter and tighter, while I swayed and moaned with pain.

“This is for your betrayal”

Still I followed her, into the darkness, as the mist dipped and swelled and eddied around my slight form.

“I promise…I promise….”

She laughed then. Her laugh echoed around me, carried upon the waves of droplets that laughed along with her. A thousand laughters. A million.

“You promise! What of your promise to him? The one you took when you wedded him? What of that?”

Her face was near mine. I could smell hyacinths on her breath. I could see my reflection in the irises of her merciless eyes.

She had a dagger in her hand. I fell to my knees, no longer capable of any further supplication. The dagger hovered above me, as though waiting for one last admission of guilt.

I looked up at her, and murmured, “Yes, it is what I deserve. My infidelity cost me the most precious thing in the world: my peace of mind. I carry the burden of my guilt and betrayal like a rock around my heart. What I hide from him, eats me up from the inside, daily. What I am unable to confess, poisons every act of love and repentance. I am a sinner. I have fallen in the court of my own judgement. Your punishments are nothing but the manifestations of my own castigations. Do with me what you will. It cannot be any worse than what I do to myself every day”

Head bowed, I waited for the dagger to plunge into my cheating heart. A lifetime passed. A moment elapsed.

I raised my eyes to the hem of her blue dress. The dagger had been replaced with an olive branch. Veritas by Clementia. She reached down to me, gently pulling me up. My shackles fell away as I stared into her pools of mercy.

“There is no sin, my child, that cannot be atoned for. Veritas demands truth and honesty. However, she does not take into account the damage that such truth may do. I offer clemency and salvation. It is a path that is paved with humility, kindness and compassion. It is not for the faint hearted. Upon this path, you will have to discard your ego, and enter upon a contract of devotion and fidelity. You will never forget your transgression, yet, as days pass by, you will view it as a distant memory. Something that happened once upon a time.”

“Now, are you willing to journey back to your land?”

I nodded, still incredulous of the benevolence I was receiving.

We walked, arm in arm, through carpets of bluebells, an orange glow, precursor to dawn, suffusing the air with warmth and life. Hummingbirds and butterflies and sweet lavender soothed my bruised soul till I reached the doorway of my Purgatory.

Clementia took my face in her hands. Her lips brushed my forehead softly.

“Be kind to yourself child. You will only begin to heal once you forgive yourself ”

I stepped back through the looking glass into my world. The portal to my conscience was already disappearing. Yet I knew that I carried that world within me. Truth, honesty, mercy, forgiveness and salvation were all inside of me. I was both Goddess and supplicant. I was both judge and criminal.

Slowly, I got into bed with my sleeping husband, wrapping my arm around his torso. As my eyelids welcomed sleep, the night whispered its last message to me, Dilectio Sanat Omnia.

Love Heals Everything.

©Poornima Manco 2017

Stalker

Hello?Katja it’s me. Please answer.Why do you persist in ignoring me?

The bins are heavy as I pull them outside. It’s a blustery day, and my scarf is struggling to escape off my head. The sunglasses keep sliding forward on my nose. I push them back impatiently. The disguise must remain. Even if it’s only 6 am, and no one is on the street yet. The disguise must remain. I place the bins, side by side, like two upright soldiers called to attention, one black and one blue. Rubbish and Recycling. I have gone through everything painstakingly. Shredded all the documents so that no trace of me remains in there.

I hobble back indoors. My back has been playing up again. Maybe it’s time to go back to physio. Except that I can’t bear to be touched or examined. Even by that gentle Indian doctor. So I will take the painkillers and soldier on. Ah! I smile to myself. The girl can leave the army, the army can never leave the girl.

After I eat my Weetabix in the conservatory, surrounded by my wonderful green garden, with it’s apple trees and flowering wisteria, I pull out the laptop.

Facebook. This nameless, faceless existence I have chosen for myself is at once obliterated.

There I am. In full technicolour. Blonde hair flying. Lips in a red pout. Gold lycra clinging to every curve. In my heyday, the most famous woman on the planet, and they will not let me forget it. Why did I agree to get hooked up to this infernal thing? Gert had thought it would be a distraction. Did he want to remind me of the good old days? Well, if anything, it makes my present course seem like the most sensible thing I have ever done. Yet I compulsively check it everyday. I read the good things and the bad. I look at all the pictures, and chuckle over the comments my many fans put on the site.

That life seems like a million years ago, and I am happy to leave it like that. I want to be a bystander to the circus now.

I scroll down the page to see what else has been added – old songs, photos, memories of people who saw me in concerts, messages pleadingly asking me to make a comeback. Then I see it. It’s him again.

Hello?Katja it’s me. Please answer.Why do you persist in ignoring me?
***
Looking back, the ascent to the top was really easy. Too easy. I got recognition before I even knew what to do with it.

As a child I was an inveterate performer. It did not take much persuasion from my parents to stand in front of a room full of guests and belt out a number. I basked in the glow of being admired, the compliments that I took as my due. Then teenage hood happened, and I retreated. In the sanctuary that was my room, I hid from the world and the incessant arguments between my soon to be divorced parents.

In the wilderness of those years, music was my only companion. Even when I signed up to the army as a direct rebellion to my mother’s party lifestyle, seeking order and discipline, I never abandoned my first love.

It was while I strummed and hummed that an army mate suggested that perhaps I was better suited to being on stage rather than on the frontline. I agreed, as the daily grind of military life had long lost its allure. She put me in touch with an uncle who knew a record producer, and before I knew it, my amateurish tape of home produced songs was winging its way to him.

The rest was a blur of performances, awards and fame. Too much fame.
***
You know I will find you. I always do. You are my one true love. If only you would give us a chance.

My hand shakes as I pour myself a cup of tea. How could he possibly know that I check the site? Is he hazarding a guess? My account is a fake one, and my profile picture is a cat. This is the third house I have moved to in the last five years. Each time looking over my shoulder, his shadowy presence threatening my every move. Gert thinks I am being paranoid. I have never actually encountered the man. But I feel him there- his eyes upon me, watching, watching, waiting to strike.

I punch in the number quickly. It rings for a while before Gert answers.

“Katja”

“I’m afraid Gert”

“What now?”, he sounds sleepy, and exasperated.

“He’s found me again”

“Who has?”

“The stalker”

“That’s impossible Katja. You know we’ve taken every precaution. There is no way on earth he could have found you. I am the only one who knows where you are.”

“He’s sending me messages on Facebook”

“On your private account?”

“No, on the public one. The fan page one.”

I can hear him breathe deeply before he responds. “Listen Katja, there are a lot of weirdos and nutters out there. Any number of people can write any sorts of things on Facebook. It’s an open forum. It doesn’t mean he’s targeting you. Hell, it may not even be him!”

“I know it’s him”, I insist.

“Like the time you were certain he was hiding in the rose bush, or when you thought he was pretending to be the postman?”

“I know you think I am a silly old woman. But he’s pursued me for so many years, and I can tell it’s him again. He calls himself KL. Just that. He’s using an old photo of mine as his profile picture, and it has a heart with a dagger superimposed on it. ”

“Ok, fine. What do you want to do? Move again? That can be arranged.”
***

The thing is that I have grown to love this house. I feel like I’m finally putting down roots. I am not a part of the community yet. It is too early for that. But this bungalow feels like home, and I don’t want to move. So I’ve decided to ignore this nagging feeling, and stay off Facebook for a while.

There are some beautiful nature walks near where I live, and I intend to make full use of them. The late onset of Summer weather means that I can cover up, and with my hat and sunglasses on, I look no different from the multitude of middle aged women walking around the lake in the morning.

The lake is like a placid sheet of glass, and I watch the few ripples that a lonely swan creates behind him. The dog walkers, the yummy mummies, the serious joggers and the semi- serious cyclists are all out in full force. It’s turning into a glorious day, and loath as I am to, I pull off my hat and scarf. It’s just too warm to keep them on, and no one has displayed an iota of curiosity in the middle aged woman ambling slowly amongst them. I feel buoyant in the anonymity. Perhaps there is hope after all.
***

Your hair is like spun gold, did you know? Even with the few streaks of grey in there. You looked beautiful this morning, my love. Fresh air and exercise are doing you good.

I slam the laptop shut, my heart thudding. He’s found me. How? HOW??

It takes a while for my shaking to subside. Then I retrieve the shoe box from under the bed, and slowly remove the lid. In there lies twenty-five years of obsession. Letters written in blood, photos taken when I was unaware, Valentine cards that spelt out in gory detail all that he would do to me once I was his. Everything signed KL. Katja’s Love.

Gert had always wanted to turn it over to the police. I hadn’t. At first because I laughed it off. And then because it was a constant reminder of why I’d had to leave that life behind.

Once again I ring Gert.

“I think it’s time to tell the police.”
***

My case officer is a pleasant young woman called Hillary. She is too young to register quite how big a star I was. She peers at me uncertainly.

“Miss Nilsson, why have you never spoken of this before?”

“I felt that if I somehow melted away….disappeared….he would too.”

“But he didn’t. I find it curious that he locates you each time. Do you think your manager, this Gert Peeters, could be letting things slip?”

“Gert isn’t just my manager, he is also my nephew. My cousin’s son. He’s family, and he knows how much I value my privacy.”

She looks doubtful but nods her head, and shuts the file in front of her.

“There is not a lot we can do till he contacts you again. We’ll be monitoring the Facebook site for any further messages. As and when that happens, it is fairly easy to trace the IP address, and through that get a fix on his location. Please take your usual precautions, but live your life normally.”

I nearly laugh at that. Normality was never an option.
***

Weeks have gone by without any messages. I can tell that Hillary is disinterested now, putting it down to an over fertile imagination.

I am, in part relieved, but anxious too. I know that as soon as the surveillance is removed, he will be back. I hope he gets impatient before then. I need someone to believe in me, and right now the chances of that are looking grim. I go about my daily business, which really amounts to a morning walk, watching some daytime television, making myself lunch, trawling Facebook, and then cooking myself dinner. It is a lonely existence, and the spare room full of my music memorabilia is a testament to how far I have wandered off my original path.

Sometimes I sit and strum the guitar, sing a few lines and then collapse into sobs. There is no way back. None at all.

***

The neighbour’s cat is a mangled mess on my doorstep. The blood smeared message says BITCH.

Hillary keeps making cups of tea for me, while the other officers take samples and clean up.

“Has he ever gotten this close before?”

“No…never…I’ve suspected that he’s nearby…but this….this….”

I can’t stop the trembling. This kind of violence is new. He is getting desperate, and I am desperately scared.

“We’ve posted an officer to watch over you. Don’t worry Miss Nilsson. We’ll be around. He won’t be able to come anywhere near you.”
***
The Press is swarming out there. All those years of hiding, and now they have found me.

RECLUSIVE KATJA DISCOVERED IN SURREY HIDE HOLE scream the headlines.

Gert is doing damage control from New York. I feel suffocated, claustrophobic, paranoid. I cannot even sit out in my garden for fear the long lens cameras will post more candid shots.

FAT AND UGLY- WHAT HAPPENED TO KATJA?

I examine myself in the mirror. Am I really that fat and ugly? A frumpish woman scowls back at me, lending credence to the screeching tabloids. When did this happen?

“You need to give an interview”, Gert commands.

“No…I can’t. Don’t ask this of me Gert. You know how much I hate all this.”

“Katja, satisfy their curiosity and they’ll back off. But if you keep up the Garbo act, they will hound you to your grave!”

“What about him?”

“Who?”, asks Gert impatiently.

“The stalker. KL. I don’t want him to know anymore about me. Anymore than he’s already found out.”

“Oh Auntie!”

Gert only calls me Auntie when he feels sorry for me.

“The police is on it. And with the Press around, he won’t be able to get a look see. They’ll nab him soon enough. I told you, you should’ve gone to them ages ago.”

Suddenly I am exhausted from the hiding, the running, the fending off of people.

“Okay, I’ll do it.”
***
He sits across from me, the young reporter with the piercing blue eyes. I’ve already forgotten his name, and am too embarrassed to ask again.

“So, Miss Nilsson, may I call you Katja?” I nod in assent. “I must say at the outset, what a huge fan I am.” He seems too young to know my music. “I had a big poster of you in my bedroom as a teenager. I think you might have been every red blooded male’s fantasy back then.”

I flush. I should be flattered, but instead I feel uncomfortable. This was the sort of attention I had sought to escape. I’m old enough to be his mother. I don’t want to be spawning fantasies.

“Why did you, at the peak of your career, decide to retire?”

The well rehearsed answer sits on the tip of my tongue. The change of musical tastes, the evolution of the industry, the mass produced pop stars- everything Gert has made me practice over and over.

“I was tired”, I say.

“Tired of what? The music?”

“The fame game.”

“It was voluntary- this withdrawal from the public eye?”

“Yes. Yes it was.”

He leans back on the chair, and smiles. His teeth are white and even, and I think then that he looks like a shark.

“So, nothing to do with the nodules that were discovered on your vocal chords then?”

I stiffen. Sensing my unease, he leans in for the kill.

“That must’ve been so difficult for you. Discovering that you wouldn’t be able to sing those high notes anymore?”

When I don’t answer, he abruptly switches tack.

“I hear you are being stalked?”

Nowhere in the brief that Gert did with this particular newspaper were any of these points mentioned. This was meant to be a gentle reintroduction to the world, not a public mauling.

Twenty years ago I would have stood up and walked out, imperious and Diva like. Now I sit here like a deer caught in the headlights. For one thing, I have nowhere to go to. This is my home. Secondly, I am unused to throwing my weight about. I size him up, and then give him a tremulous smile.

“Yes, it’s true that I cannot sing the way I once did, but that does not mean I can’t write either. As you know, I wrote all my own songs. I could have still had a career had I wanted one. I just chose not to. As for being stalked, there are any number of strange people who fixate on celebrities for the lack of something in their own lives. Giving them undue importance is just that.”

Satisfied, I take a sip of my tea, a slight smile playing around my lips.

“Yet this is not just a run-of-the-mill obsessive fan, is it? He’s a long term stalker. Someone who’s been leaving you little presents lately.”

I exhale sharply. This man is too well informed, and his source must lie within the force.

“I really do not wish to speak about it. This is a police matter now, and I suggest we leave it with them.”
***

I am not surprised to read a less than flattering piece on me. He describes me as an ageing prima donna with delusions of grandeur. I laugh and throw it aside. So much for speaking aloud. Now perhaps they will leave me in peace.

They do, and they don’t. The press has had its fill. The public aren’t that interested to discover that behind all those mysterious years there lies another spent talent. It’s the music producers that start sending the feelers.

“Katja, I’ve been receiving so many phone calls from people who thought you’d fallen off the face of the planet!”, Gert shouts excitedly down the phone. “They want you to write for them, for the new singers. Come on, isn’t it time? Why are you burying yourself in some Godforsaken village? You have more talent in that little finger of yours than most of these young ones do in their entire bodies!”

I grimace at that. Gert is prone to hyperbole when he gets fired up. Although it does get me thinking. What’s stopping me now?
***
My second career is going so well that I have forgotten all about KL. Till he resurfaces.

This time it’s a bunch of roses outside the front door. All white except one crimson one. I start shaking immediately. I look around me furtively, and then pick up the bouquet. A note drops out.

My girl is writing again. Such lovely songs. Are they for me?

Hillary comes three hours later, by which time I’ve worked myself into a state. I’m pacing up and down. My hair is a mess, and she takes a step back at the crazed look in my eyes.

“Calm down Miss Nilsson. This has arrived how many months later? Four, five? We’ll send the note to the lab for analysis, but I really think he might be losing steam.”

I look at her incredulously. “Losing steam? The note is written in blood! This man will never let go of me. What are you doing about it? When are you going to catch him?”

“We don’t have a lot to go on. I posted a few plainclothes men here a few times, and they spotted no suspicious characters. The Facebook messages disappeared soon after you reported them. He’s a phantom Miss Nilsson.”

“One you’re supposed to find! How will I ever feel safe while he’s out there?”

I break down then. Sobs racking my body while she pats me on the shoulder and mutters something soothing.
***

There is a cool breeze and I pull the covers up to my chin, trying to remember if I’ve left the window open. My feet feel cold, and half asleep, I rub them together to warm them. There is a distant sound of music and laughter. A party, I think sleepily.

Suddenly I’m wide awake, my heart thumping. He’s in the room. I can sense him. I reach for the steak knife I keep under the pillow but it isn’t there. I panic, and squeeze my eyes shut, hoping he hasn’t noticed my laboured breathing. His hand reaches under the covers and touches my leg.

I wake up screaming.

I look around the room frantically. There is no one there. It’s the nightmare. The same one I’ve had since I was fourteen. Since Mama’s first boyfriend after the divorce, decided he wanted to play with me instead of her.

He was the first of many. Till I finally escaped to the army. Yet the ghost of him lingers in every nook and cranny of my life.
***

I start looking for houses. Somewhere even more remote and rural. If I have to run my entire life, I’m going to make it as difficult as possible for him to follow me.

Gert rings me on a Sunday morning.

“Katja, there is a favour I have to ask of you.”

“What is it?”, I am wary. I don’t like giving or receiving favours.

“It’s Papa’s 70th Birthday. We’re having a big party. The whole family will be there. I’d like you to come.”

The whole family. I haven’t seen them in years. Not since that spectacular falling out after which I severed ties with all except Gert.

“It’s time to make your peace Auntie. This is the perfect occasion to do it. Everyone will be there. It can be like the old times again. Please say you’ll come. I’ll book the flights and the hotel immediately if you do.”

I find myself agreeing reluctantly.
***

Five days later I am boarding a flight to New York. It’s been years since I was surrounded by as many impatient people, pushing and shoving, and getting irritated with my slow moving ways. I’m confused at the airport, with the new regulations of having to put liquids in plastic bags, and walk through metal detectors shoe less. I’m confused with the flight numbers, and the gates, and the Duty Free shops filled with perfumes and alcohol. I am confused and I am scared. The world has changed a lot since I became a hermit.

The flight is uneventful, and the overweight American man I sit next to snores the entire way. I try to concentrate on the film on my personal monitor, but my thoughts flit here and there, a jumble of memories and conversations, of accusations and anger.

A flight attendant walks by me, then stops. She kneels in front and I brace myself for the usual gushing.

“Are you ok? You look rather pale. Would you like some water?”

I nod gratefully. I needn’t have bothered with all that camouflage over the years. My body is its own disguise.
***
The car whisks me to a Manhattan hotel. Gert has spared no expense. He’s done well out of my royalties. I snooze on the King size bed, dreading the evening get together. The party is scheduled for tomorrow, but tonight is about getting re acquainted.

I dress carefully in the black dress I bought online. Even at size 18, it clings to every lump and bump of my misshapen figure. I apply some red lipstick that must at least be a few decades old. It smells off, just like I do. The phone rings just as I am spritzing on some perfume. It’s Gert. He’s waiting in the lobby.

We walk into his Penthouse apartment, arm in arm. Gert is tall and handsome with his salt and pepper hair, and I am short and stout, and visibly nervous.

They all come and greet me silently, a kiss on each cheek. Mama sits proudly in her wheelchair, ever the Matriarch, waiting for me to go to her. I do. I kneel down and kiss her proffered cheek.

“The prodigal daughter returns,” she notes dryly, her voice a mix of whiskey and cigarettes.

I smile and move towards Gert’s father. He greets me stiffly, still not forgiving the last fracas. Families. I sigh inwardly, and keep smiling.

Wine loosens tongues, and over time the awkwardness dissipates. I stick to soda water, and don’t add much to the conversation. I have nothing to add anyhow. Talk is about the extended family who I haven’t been in touch with, current affairs that I have no clue of, and people who have died, whose funerals I did not attend.

“Katja, are you taking your medicines?” I turn around, startled. Mama is smirking up at me. “Are you? You know it’s the only way to control your condition.”

Gert comes and lays a hand on her shoulder to hush her up. I turn and stumble out of the room. This was a very bad idea indeed.
***
I wake up with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach and a thumping headache. Last night I got very, very drunk after a very long time. I’m not sure what I said or did but I do remember the look of horror on Gert’s face. I remember him dragging me out and putting me to bed. I sit up, and the room spins around me. With a groan I fall back upon the pillow. Mama’s face swims into my mind, shock and disgust writ large on it.

Nausea hits me suddenly, and I stagger to the bathroom, and throw up in the toilet. Shaking, I move towards the basin to wash my face.

You naughty naughty girl.

My red lipstick lies abandoned on the side, the script on the mirror screaming its message out to me silently. Aghast, I back away.

I walk the streets of Manhattan for hours. At one point I find myself on a bench in Central Park, as a horse drawn carriage with a young couple goes by. There is a surreal quality to this morning. I feel everything is too vivid, the colours too loud, the sunshine too bright. The cacophony of the traffic is assaulting my ear drums, but I walk on, uncaring, unseeing.

The sun is setting as I wander back into the hotel lobby. The manager approaches me.

“Miss Nilsson, there have been several messages for you. Mr Peeters came to pick you up around noon, but there was no response from your room. We, uh, had to enter to check that you were okay. The room has been cleaned. Is there anything I can get you?”

I walk past him blindly.

There is a note on the dresser. It’s from Gert.

‘Come if you can.’

But I can’t. I flick through the Television channels, unable to comprehend anything. Finally, succumbing to the gnawing in my stomach I order dinner. And a double vodka.
***
KATJA NILSSON FOUND DEAD IN NEW YORK HOTEL ROOM

In what appears to be a suicide, Miss Nilsson, yesteryear superstar was found dead in the bathtub of her Manhattan hotel room. She had recently emerged from a self imposed exile. However, reports indicate that her mental state was extremely fragile. It appears that whilst Miss Nilsson claimed that she was the victim of a stalker, she was in fact suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Her family had long urged for medical and psychiatric intervention that she had refused, choosing instead to barricade herself from the world. Her nephew and manager had this official statement to make:

‘It is with great sadness that we bid Katja goodbye. She lives on in our hearts through her extraordinary music, the legacy of a tragic, troubled life. Kindly leave us to mourn her in peace.’
***

A bouquet of white roses with a solitary crimson one in the midst, sits on the graveside of Katja Nilsson. The note reads: Dearly departed, Rest in Peace.x

 

©PoornimaManco 2017

 

Experiment 2

An idea has been bubbling in my sub conscious mind for a while. It has been two years since I did my last experiment series, and I think that, perhaps it is time for another one. Not only because it forces me to explore genres I wouldn’t ordinarily, but also because it keeps things interesting. Anything that does not push the boundaries of creativity often leads to stagnation.

This time, however, my series has a little challenge for my regular readers. The challenge being, to find the common thread that links these stories. Wait till I have completed the series, and then, by all means, send me your guesses, your ideas and your thoughts.

This experiment might take me a while to complete. I will carry on blogging about other things in the meantime, alongside. Each time I have a story that belongs to the series, I will preface it with Experiment 2. So you will know that this is one part of the whole.

Happy reading and happy guessing!

The Black Dog

I heard him first. It was just a low growl that starts at the back of the throat, and then develops into a full bark. Only it didn’t. I slipped out of bed, and peeked out from behind the curtain. In the dim light of the moon, I saw his silhouette. He sat outside the house, growling. Minnie slept undisturbed, oblivious; her chest rising and falling in a gentle rhythm. I watched her for a minute, and then turned back to the window. He was gone.

*

“How’s it going darling?”, her citrus perfume enveloped me, making me gag. I leaned away.

“I don’t like that scent. I wish you’d stop wearing it.”

Minnie giggled. “Adam, you bought it for me”

Did I?

“Anyway, I just wondered if you’d finished writing your article. It’s nearly noon. We should be making tracks.”

My heart sank at the prospect of another Sunday afternoon in the company of her parents. Her father’s bombastic views, her mother’s saccharine simpering.

“No, darling I can’t. I haven’t made much headway, and you know what the boss is like about his deadlines.”

Her face fell, and instead of feeling sorry, I felt like smacking her. Spoilt bitch.

“Okay. I guess I’ll just have to make our excuses.”

“Don’t be silly. You go. It’s the only afternoon you get with them in an entire week. I insist. Go.”

She left soon after, taking the sunshine with her.

As the clouds gathered ominously in the afternoon sky, I knuckled down to research. I was elbow deep in numbers when I sensed I was being watched. My breath caught in my throat as I looked into the brown eyes at the window. His head was cocked, and he seemed to be eying me quizzically.

“Shoo”, I whispered weakly. “Shoo”

He didn’t move. His gaze was unwavering. Beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. Whose dog was this? Where was its Master? Why didn’t he wear a collar? Why was he hounding me?

I looked around me for something I could frighten him with. The Miriam-Webster dictionary was large and thick enough. Even as I approached the window with it, he got up and sauntered off, of his own volition, as though bored of the watching game.

*

“There is a black dog on the loose”, I spooned the soup in as I casually inserted it into our dinner table conversation.

“A black dog?”, asked Minnie, perplexed.

“I’ve seen it a few times. Just be careful. It could be dangerous, and the owners seem to let it run around.”

“Okay, but are you sure? I mean, there aren’t that many houses around here, and I know most of our neighbours. No one owns a black dog. What breed is it?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake woman! What do I know what breed it is?! It’s big, it’s black and it’s an ugly motherfucker!!!”

“Adam please! There is no need for such language. Just calm down. I’ll watch out for it, okay! Okay?”

*

There were pumpkins everywhere, and ghouls and ghosts that came knocking. Trick or Treat they lisped, and Minnie handed out handfuls of sweets gleefully. She was dressed as a witch, and had insisted I put on a Count Dracula costume.

I hated it. The collar itched and the false fangs made my gaunt face resemble Christopher Lee more than I wished.

“It’s Halloween darling. Get into the spirit of things, come on.”

The only spirit I wished to get into was the Jack Daniels in the liquor cabinet.

That night, the witch undressed for me. She had a pumpkin in her belly. Her long green hair swung over me as she bucked and moaned. Flesh slapped against flesh, and it was all I could do to not dig my fangs into her neck.

*

Autumn leaves crunched under my feet. My walk was leading me to the stream that ran a few miles behind the house. I remembered doing a similar walk with my old man.

“Why is Mama so sad, Dad?”

“She lost the baby. You know that, son.”

“Yes, but that was two years ago. Why is she still sad?”

“Sometimes, people take a long time to recover. Sometimes an entire lifetime.”

Mama didn’t last that long.

A solitary tear rolled down my cheek. I stopped to wipe it, and the footsteps behind me stopped too. I turned around to face him. Of course it was him. How long had he been following me?

He stood there, watching me with that same quizzical expression.

I don’t like dogs. Never have. But perhaps this was a friendly one? I held out my hand hesitantly. He looked at me and at my hand, and then bared his teeth. No. Not friendly. Definitely not friendly.

I backed away slowly, keeping one eye on him, and another on anything I could use as a weapon, to attack or defend.

I picked up the branch quickly, ready to swing, but he had already disappeared.

*

“Such foolishness! Who’s ever heard of being stalked by a dog? Moreover, no one else has seen this animal. Minnie says the police checked the neighbourhood, and found no evidence of it. What have you been smoking Adam?”, Jim guffawed loudly.

“Oh dad! Don’t be mean. Maybe it’s a wild dog that’s taken a shine to Adam?”

“Darling, didn’t you say it growled and bared it’s teeth?”, asked Sheila helpfully.

“Look, let’s just put all this dog business aside and enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner. Lots to be thankful for!”, said Minnie,smiling and rubbing her pregnant belly.

I put on an act that evening. I laughed and joked, and ate Turkey. I drank brandy with Jim and discussed business. I kissed Sheila on both cheeks before escorting her to the car. Then I went inside and threw up in the bathroom.

*

My head was pounding as I made my way in the dark to the kitchen. A couple of Tylenols would take care of it. I’d forgotten to drink a gallon of water before bedtime. That would have preempted a hangover. Anyhow.

I leaned on the sink, drinking my water, and watching the first orange fingers of dawn reach up to lick the cerulean sky. Through the dull throbbing of my head I heard another sound. Panting. Near the kitchen door. I could make out his dark shape behind the pane of glass that separated us.

“Why?”, I asked him. “Why?”

I leaned against the door, and it was as if his hot breath was on my face.

*

The tree was too big for the living room, but Minnie insisted on having it there. She handed me all the baubles, and I placed them carefully as per her instructions. That was still not good enough.

“Oh Adam! What a mess! Get off the ladder. Let me do it.”

“Minnie, I don’t think that’s a good idea in your state.”

“Oh hush! You men are useless. It’s a woman that makes a home.”

I watched her balance the star on top of the tree, her pregnant belly distended beyond belief, and felt a wave of revulsion wash over me. How could I have ever made love to her? Her ankles were thick, her neck an unpleasant shade of grey, her hair wild and unruly. She was snappish and irritable. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as her.

So I left.

She was weeping when I returned. I cradled her, and apologised, and said all the right things at the right times. All the while I felt nothing. Nothing at all.

*

“I hear you’ve been promoted Adam?”, said Tina, leaning into me.

“Yes, that’s right”, I smiled and tried to move away.

She slid closer, her body rubbing up against mine.

“So, what does a gal have to do to get a cigarette off a fella?”

We stood on the fire escape, smoking our Marlboro’s in silence. Jazz music wafted out of the open windows, and sequins and glitter competed with satin and silk indoors.

“When is the baby due?”

“Another four weeks”

“Hmmm. Minnie looks well.”

“She’s tired a lot”, I paused, “A lot”

The tip of her cigarette glowed, and then she stubbed it under her heel.

I pushed her up against the wall, my tongue snaking into her mouth. She tasted sour, like a cheap Chardonnay. In her I went, up and down, pushing, pushing, and our grunts were masked by the tinkle of the glasses.

*

He was waiting for me that night. Outside the front door.

“There he is Minnie”, I whispered urgently, trying to shake her awake.

“Who? Whaaa….?”, she looked around, confused, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

I opened the car door carefully. No sudden movements.

“You wait. I’ll tackle this.”

“Adam….where are you going? I can’t see anything. Where are my glasses?”

I grabbed the garden hoe and walked quickly towards him. I was going to be rid of him tonight come what may! I swung the hoe towards his head, and felt his jaw clamp over my ankle. The pain…the pain…..I screamed and lost consciousness…….

*

My ankle was in a cast when I woke.

“You’ve broken it”, Minnie informed me flatly.

“The dog..?”

“There was no dog. You were swinging the hoe like a madman. Then you tripped and twisted your ankle. I had to call 911.”

She looked at me with distaste. Like I was a foul smell that she couldn’t get rid of. I shrunk back into the hospital bed. “I’m sorry”

She had already left.

*

Minnie’s waters broke in the evening. Sheila came and collected her. She was frosty with me. But Minnie hugged me before she left.

“We’ll ring as soon as we have some news”, said Sheila.

I nodded gratefully, and hobbled to the door to see them off. Minnie gave me a watery smile, and then doubled over in pain. Sheila drove off, her tires screeching.

I hobbled back indoors, feeling sad and spent.

There was an old black and white rerun on the Television that I watched with little concentration. With every passing minute my anxiety increased till each nerve felt like it was stretched to breaking point. I poured myself a drink. Then another. And another.

The shadows grew long, and the clock ticked loudly in the corner. One movie melded into another. Dorothy’s house blew from Kansas and landed on a scooter in Rome. A Princess kissed a pauper, and a Tin Man found his heart.

A black dog waited at the door. Crouching low, growling deep. It asked to be let in. Pant. Knock. Pant. Knock.

I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I opened the door.

He went straight for the jugular.

THE END.

 

Love and Loss

I trace the network of lines on my stomach. A grid of loss. The lives this womb has held and squandered. Each time, unable to fulfil its biological vocation. Layers upon layers of hope and despair that show up on my face, in my hair, in my eyes… The first one came unbidden, unwanted, and was rid off just as quickly. Youth and drugs and unprotected mating. Then, years of trying and failing, and trying again. Too old to try now. Yet. An instinct to love, to cherish, to protect and to nourish finds no outlet. I swim in a morass of anguish and melancholy.

Till, like a sliver of sunshine, you enter my life.You are not of my womb. You are not of my culture. You are not of my colour. Yet. My life is coloured with the joy of your dimples and my heart overflows with the milk of love that my bosom could not offer.

You are you. And you are mine.

 

***

20160418_181601

Description of the work:

Untitled
Oil on canvas
30″ x 40″
2015
Copyright – Preeti Varma.

This painting is an original work of art by Preeti Varma who is a New York based visual artist. Preeti explores inter-disciplinary genres like painting, mixed-media, photography and installations in her art practice. To see more of her works, please visit her website at
http://www.Preetivarma.com