Keeley Mansfield

Cruelty

 

You’re still under the covers when I fetch my runners from the bedroom. I wonder if you’re sick, but I won’t ask in case you tell me. I imagine you folded beneath the sheets, a salt-stained origami bird. I lift my runners out of their box and replace the lid. There’s a dark brown stain on the lid. Blood from a long time ago, but from what, I can’t remember. It would have to be mine; you move too carefully for mishaps. Two months ago, my whole toe turned black after I ran into the doorframe, in a hurry for a piss and misjudging. You’re good at misjudging, you said, applying a bag of frozen peas to my foot with an uncharacteristic ferocity.

 

I close the front door with a bang, and start walking. I walk with a straight back and I pump my arms to get the blood going. As I turn onto the main road, a child chasing a pigeon almost collides with me, swerving at the last moment and brushing against my arm. I can feel her presence on my skin like the start of a bruise. You would enjoy hearing about it, this feeling. I will keep it to myself.

 

I stop at the level crossing next to a line of cars. A boy was found in the old signal box here last month. The Guards were sure he’d been swept away by the tide, and said so. Then a railway worker noticed a smell, and saw something through the blocked-up window of the cabin half-obscured by a drooping oak. The door was stuck so that they needed a machine to cut it open, like taking scissors to a faulty milk carton. They took the whole thing away and the space was filled with bouquets and bears, still there now, limp with rain. You were angry about all those cars and trains passing by. How long had he sat there, still alive, hoping that someone would hear him and let him out? I reasoned that perhaps he hadn’t made any noise, and you became incredulous – of course he’d have made a noise, he was trapped inside a tiny box, alone and frightened and hungry. Imagine how hungry he must’ve been. He was still clutching his toy rabbit when they found him, and the media mentioned it repeatedly. Your eyes were wet and I had to turn away. I laced up my runners. I walked and walked. I got as far as Dun Laoghaire that day, and sat on the East Pier facing into a strong, exfoliating wind until I couldn’t feel anything. You had your hands in the sink when I returned, and you looked ashamed when I noticed how many plates and bowls you’d used. You’d left me a morsel of everything, a kindness, and I almost gave in, raising a piece of quiche to my lips. I caught myself. I threw it away. I heard you digging through the bin as I lay in the bath.

 

The barrier rises shakily and I cross the tracks. I follow the road until I reach a small park full of languid bodies, young men and women tossing food into their mouths with sticky fingers, swigging from oversized coffee cups, unaware of how graciously the grass yields to them. Some are gathered around a swan as it preens and cleans its feathers beside the pond. They gaze upon it as though it’s a holy relic and not just a big fucking bird. You would enjoy the scene. I will not tell you about it.

 

Last night, you spoke to me, hoping I’d hear the poetry in you.

 

“I felt the breath of a pedestrian on my cheek as I cycled through a crossing. It felt like a warning.”

 

“I felt an awareness of my own body, my soft flesh rippling against my clothes as I moved.”

 

“The bells of the cathedral rang in time with the flashing shadows from the railings as I passed.” You exclaimed this, breathlessly, and watched my face for a reaction.

 

Later, you spoke about your dreams as you spooned sugar into your coffee, about the rooms full of lavender, the lion in the swimming pool. None of these things were to do with me. I felt jealous, and went to bed alone. You joined me later, curled yourself into a ball and dampened the duvet.

 

On my way through the town, I glance into a vacant unit at the end of a row of shops. Through the front picture window I see a matching window at the back of the shop, which in turn faces out to the sea. Business after business must have launched and folded here, its staff and customers unable to concentrate, torn from their tasks, drawn to the sea. Hairstylists burning their clients with tongs, shoppers dropping boxes of eggs, florists tearing through rose petals. I focus upon the waves lapping at the horizon and my reflection is licked and mollified and smoothed away. I watch it disappear and then I walk on. Soon I’ll reach the end and then I’ll have to stop and turn around, but perhaps I won’t and perhaps I’ll just keep going until my runners flood, until I am submerged and swept away. I think of you, dry and quiet, waiting for news, waiting for the day when you can finally rub the stress from your shoulders. I think of you turning your face up to the sun. I keep walking.

 

 

 

Keeley Mansfield has lived and worked in Dublin for ten years. She holds an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University and was recently longlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize and the Bath Short Story Award; most recently she was shortlisted for The Bristol Short Story Prize. She likes heavy metal, red ale and cats.