The Glassy Blue of The Deep

The World According to Oak Creek, Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona - Photo by Ken Swearengen
The World According to Oak Creek, Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona – Photo by Ken Swearengen

The Diving Belle

– By Kirsty Fraser 

Knees slightly bent, head tucked in between outstretched arms, and hands clasped together. I shiver and take a breath; there’s no one else around but me in my polka dot bikini top and khaki shorts. The sun has only just glimpsed out from behind the Cuillin’s and the earth hasn’t yet warmed to the day ahead. As my toes curl round the edges of the rock I push off from my stance and inhale one last time before cool air becomes freezing water. I hear the thunder of falling streams hitting rock from further up the pools before the shape of noise changes in my ears and I hit the glassy blue of the deep well that only a moment before I looked down upon. If these hills could speak, surely they would remember me?

Cocooned within the icy spray, I kick further down into the well. Three hundred and sixteen days have passed since I was last here yet nothing about this ancient place seems to have changed. I touch the rocks as I swim around – testing to see if they’re really there – the rough edges confirm that I can’t be dreaming. Foam from the waterfall fills the surface of the water above me and I adjust my direction so I don’t break from the water directly in its path. If Cal were here he’d push me under, only to rescue me from the weight of the water a moment later.

I re-surface and catch my breath. The cool morning air descends and clings to my skin making it tingle. I hold onto the ledge beside me and get my bearings – the morning rays capture Skye, and the Glen in all their beauty. Coming back here could have been a mistake but the morning sun has lightened my head of the heavy thoughts that had washed their way in.

Following the path I’ve already made I plunge again; this time looking around, checking the ridges of the underwater rock to see if there’s something I missed the last time I made this swim. But there are no secret caves, or darkened corners to explore. The sun – climbing higher into the sky now – has made beams of light transcend the water and filter down into the well. Everything is lit anew. I don’t want to break for air but I never was as good as Cal at holding my breath and I can feel the beginnings of a burning sensation as my lungs cry out for oxygen. I rise again to the top and perch my goggles on my head. Blinking back the sunlight I am startled to see a man looking down upon me from the ridge. Cal standing, camera in hand, coaxes me as I lap around in the pool –

‘C’mon, look up at me. You never look into the camera’.

I ignore him and instead goad him to join me, ‘You won’t feel the cold once you’re in.’

‘Yeah but I’ll feel the cold the whole time I’m getting ready to go in! Do you think I’m as mental as you are?’

I laugh and splash about a bit, ‘You’re such a woose… I mean seriously, bringing me all the way up here under false pretences that you’re going to come in and have a romantic swim with me. I’m hurt.’ I do my best puppy-dog eyes and petted lip and for a second I can see on his face that I’ve got him but I ruin it by laughing again and he breaks into a smile…

‘Are you all right down there?’

The voice shakes me from the memory. I look up to see the man standing on the ledge.

‘What?’ I ask, not quite sure If I caught all he said.

‘Is everything OK? It’s a cold morning to be swimming in the Pools.’

His voice is deeper than Cal’s. I can’t quite make out his features from the way the morning sunshine is bouncing around the Glen. I adjust my position slightly to get a better look at him,

‘I’m fine thanks. It’s not cold in here.’

I can see now that he’s not very tall, probably about 5’6’’ at the most, greying slightly or is that just the light? I can’t tell if he’s carrying a little weight round the middle or if he just has multiple layers of clothing on to fend off what must be the beginning of a cold walk taking in the Cuillin’s.

‘We just caught sight of something in the water as we were passing and wondered what it was; we were a bit startled to find someone out swimming.’

He nods behind him as he says the word ‘we’ and a woman emerges from behind the bank. She smiles down at me, but her eyes tell me she’s as baffled as her husband over my morning dip. I smile back and turn my attention back to the man,

‘Oh, don’t worry about me… I always come up here for a swim.’

They look briefly at each other, assessing this new information. The man quips,

‘In November? We thought we were mad… ah well, good luck to you. You’re braver than me.’ And off they both walk, half-laughing, half-talking.

I pull myself out of the water and sit on the rocky ledge beside the heap of clothes I left minutes before. My teeth chatter as I wrap a towel around my body and squeeze the remnants of water from my hair. I stand but the platform is only high enough to see what’s immediately around me. I scoop up the clothes and slide on my flat pumps, the inside of my shoes become soaked and I squelch as I walk. I climb the shanty dirt steps that have been battered into the ground over the years. The man and woman come into view, heading towards Sgurr an Fheadain, probably just to take in the beauty of it than to climb. They are almost dots on the landscape now. Snow is scattered upon the tops of the hills and a cool wind makes its way down the valley.

I walk alongside the pools, further up the path – I know which pool I’m looking for but can never remember if it’s second or third last…

‘How far up are you going?’ Cal shouts between pictures.

‘I’m going to the deepest one, and you’re coming in too.’ I look over my shoulder and smile at him as he makes his way up the path behind me. The rush of falling water grows louder as I come to the place. The climb down is trickier here – the steps steeper, and less secure. I leave the clothes at the top and use my hands to steady me as I climb down.  Just as I reach the bottom Cal is above me.

‘You’re insane’, he says as he starts making his way down too.

‘No, we’re insane.’ I correct him, ‘C’mon just jump in. You’ll regret it if you don’t.’

He takes the last step down and reaches the platform closest to the pool. The spray from the waterfall hits the back of my bare legs and makes goose pimples appear on my skin. Cal looks around, assessing the pool – it’s deeper than the others – the water is clear, the underwater arch teases as it rises just slightly above the surface of the water, it whispers as water laps against the rock.

‘God… okay. But I’m telling you if I get hypothermia I’m holding you responsible.’

‘Yes!’ I do a little dance of victory as he kicks his shoes off.

I dive first – the coolness of the water flooding my senses and making my heart surge – the archway is ancient and stunning. I swim through touching the underside of the stone as I pass. How many others have done the same and felt the unexplained connection to this natural landscape?  I rise to the top and burst out from the water to wait for Cal.

‘C’mon, hurry up – we haven’t got all day!’

Cal stands, watching me.

‘What if I dive from higher up?’ he asks,

‘Why would you want to do that when you haven’t even been in yet?’ I reply, slightly confused but he’s an excited school boy now and I’m just one of the guys, egging him on in his head,

‘It’ll be fun. Look how deep it is! You do it too.’

Before I can say anything he’s darting back up the steps towards the higher ridge beside the waterfall.

‘Cal, I think that’s a stupid idea…’

But he’s not listening or he can’t hear me over the fall of water. The pool is deep but that’s a high jump. I try and work out the depth he’s likely to fall from such a height. I drop under for a second and check the bottom of the pool – it’s not smooth. Every surface is a point, a crag; rougher than the beauty of it lets you believe.

‘Cal…  Just come back down and dive from here.’

‘What? I can’t hear you.’ He’s at the top now, arms folded in front of him, shoulders hunched from the cold.

‘Come. Back. Down.’ I say louder, emphasising every word.

I don’t like the angle of the rocks below him, I don’t trust what lies directly beneath the waterfall, concealed by the froth and foam as the water sprays in all directions.

It’s too late, he leaps but in his haste the dive isn’t right – he’s overshot the angle, almost somersaulting but not even managing that. Instead his head is at an odd juxtaposition with his body, his arms splayed out to the sides as if he’s trying to correct himself mid-air but can’t manage it. He hits the water and he’s gone… seconds pass. I panic. I dive under the water and kick hard in his direction. I can see the shape of his body as it slowly floats to the surface and I know instantly that something isn’t right. I reach him just as his body reaches the surface but he’s limp and unconscious. I turn him onto his back so his head is above the water and pull him away from the harshness of the waterfall that’s only centimetres from him. There’s no blood, no clue as to what I’m trying to fix.

Even with his weightlessness I can’t get enough purchase to do much except shout for him to wake up. I edge him to the side of the pool and attempt to lift us out of the water but I can’t. Minutes pass, I can’t find a pulse on his neck but I’m not even sure if I’m checking the right place. I scream for help – there’s nothing but a heavy echo from the wide open space. As time passes I grow colder, shivering from my lack of movement. My arms grow tired from the effort of keeping Cal at my side while the rush of the water around us tries to pull him away.

He doesn’t move, doesn’t flinch. I hug him to me and pray; pray for help, pray he’ll be OK, pray that I won’t die here with him – the two of us becoming entwined by the pull of the water as it cascades from one pool to the other. Eventually a man and his wife come by, snapping holiday memento’s as they go…

At last the memory has surfaced, a tear runs down my cheek and I brush it away with my hand. The water will wash away the sadness but the echo of that morning will play out in the landscape for eternity. Knees slightly bent, head tucked in between outstretched arms, and hands clasped together. I shiver and take a breath; there’s no one else around but me. The cold, crisp November morning has kept the visitors away. If only these rocks could speak, the stories they’d tell. I dive again.

Kirsty Fraser currently resides in Glasgow with her cat Buttons. She studies Media & Communications by day and by night she blogs on New Hellfire Club and Sabotage Times about all things music. She writes short stories and poetry, that in the most part, only her bin gets to read. In an attempt to change that she’s currently writing her first collection of short stories – she hasn’t figured out how it ends yet. Check out Kirsty’s music blog.

Collapsed Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Photo by Ken Swearengen
Collapsed Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – Photo by Ken Swearengen
Torpor Corpse
– By Cal Ashton

He drew hard on his pint. Madeline frowned. The third sigh in ten minutes left him hunched over like an inflatable leaking air.

“What is it Tom?”

The sigh was heart-rending and lasted a full twenty seconds, rising and bursting from his pursed lips. His fingers crept around the pint glass again as if to lift it…but just stayed wrapped around it, unable or just not caring enough to lift it.

Each breath left his body, but wasn’t replaced. He hadn’t breathed in now for an hour. All his air was leaving him.

His brain air left first, his mind had shut down three days ago. Neglect had left it numb and rusty. Seized up. The banality of an undemanding job, no challenge, even in conversation with his work colleagues, all too shallow to communicate and when he got to his own office he never talked to anyone anyway. Except Dave, the Doorman. But a “Hello” that had dissolved into a murmur, then a grunt, then a conciliatory nod of the head, then brief eye contact, had finally collapsed into a non-physical act whereby Tom would only react if Dave wasn’t there.

And Dave was always there.

Home was empty, a chair so long and so familiar there he couldn’t describe it to you if asked him, even if he did answer he would say it was just, y’know, a chair, kinduh greeny grey-blue red thing. Nice. There.

TV was on. Unless he fell asleep, woke up again , realized it was on, turned it off and went to sleep again.

One shop, never-changing for never-altering tinned food.

And now – a heart unused beat out the air, pushed smaller and smaller amounts of blood to the vital areas, even then, it forgot why. The heart had never raced since long ago. Not even reflexively. If Tom tripped, Tom fell. He didn’t stop himself. The adrenalin breathed out of him 3 days ago. There was only his self left. And he breathed it out now.

“Tom, what is it?”

Tom looked at Madeline through half opened eyes. 3 day stubble dotted his see-every-day-of-it lined 42 year old face. The curly hair, the thin grey lips. The hollow cheeks.

The next sigh blew out the light in his eyes.

His hands dropped to the table, still surrounding the glass of half drunk lager. The next sigh drained all the colour from his skin. He was pale to translucence, fish scale grey. He breathed out his lungs. The noise was a low rushing puncture now, like a gas ring hissing unlit. He breathed out his powdered bones and his body deflated into a skinsack, a bag, a film across the table. As his body dropped forward his face never touched the table surface. He breathed away his skin and left on the table, chair and floor were only his hair and clothes.

Tom had not-lived himself out of existence. No-one cared. He had made sure of it. Not deliberately, he just had. Death by torpor.

Cal Ashton is a redhead but accepts the term ginger. A Scot, he has wandered from Germany to Australia and is currently in Hong Kong. Cal has had work published many years ago in Shanghai Metrozine, That’s Beijing and Oxford University Student magazines and has performed in numerous plays in numerous dark basements and international schools throughout Europe and Asia. Check out Cal’s website.

Seeking God, Barcelona - Photo by Ken Swearengen
Seeking God, Barcelona – Photo by Ken Swearengen

Midnight Shadows, Passing

– By David McVey

Everybody hates me, thought Kyle, just because my hair sticks up in that funny way and I’m shy of girls and I haven’t had a job since I left college.

He had snaffled a good handful of his mum’s stash of sleeping pills; enough to do the job, anyway. But what about the mess, the scene? He’’d probably puke before dying and if it got on the carpet or bedclothes mum would be raging. And she’’d hate all the hassle – police, ambulance, undertakers. How much did a funeral cost nowadays? Even if nobody came?

And then Kyle thought about Derryburn Wood. Nobody went there except dog-walkers and daft wee boys who wanted to get drunk and there would be nobody there at night. He could slip out, find a hidden spot, pop the pills and die quietly. No one would be inconvenienced, no one would mind the mess.

It was nearly twelve and there was a bright moon. Kyle pulled on a capacious hoodie, transferred the sleeping pills to a pocket and took a bottle of spring water to wash them down. He was about to leave the bedroom for the last time when he noticed that the duvet, which he’d been lying on, was crinkled and untidy. Mum would go mental. He shook it smooth before creeping quietly downstairs in case he woke her, and then disappeared into the cooling night to die in Derryburn Wood.

*****

A ship of light swept over the horizon of the dark trailing a wake of silence. Jane had missed the last bus.

It had already been a hard evening, involving what Sally from work had called a ‘break-up date’. She had arranged to meet Scott in a charmless chain pub called the Goblet and Wishbone on an edge-of-town trading estate. While Scott fetched the drinks, Jane had reflected on the meanness of her reason for ending things: Scott was just too nice.

He held doors open for her. He bought her flowers (too many – some bunches went straight into the green bin). He was open about his feelings and considerate about hers. He loved children; before long there’d be a marriage proposal with a view to starting a family. He was generous, sharing, thoughtful, someone who wanted to share his life – fruitfully – with someone else.

Jane didn’’t. Not yet, anyway. Scott was 30, which explained a lot. She was still only 24 and wanted the free, fun-loving life a bit longer. And yet, even when she told Scott the cold truth, he had managed to be gracious.

‘I didn’’t see this coming,’ he said, with the puzzled facial expression of a gentle forest creature that had misplaced some nuts, ‘but I appreciate your honesty and courage in telling me.’

Get angry, Jane had thought. Why do you never get angry?

Scott left soon afterwards but Jane had remained behind, drinking. Only when the last bus was due to abandon this desolate urban periphery did she emerge, only to see it disappearing down the ring-road. Bus drivers just want to get home too, she thought. She’’d drunk a lot and it moved her to be reasonable. Like Scott.

She considered phoning for a taxi, but it was a dry, breezy night in May – the sun had barely gone down – and while it was a long way by road to her home on the Glenturlie Estate it was just a mile or so through countryside. A footpath ran from the ring-road between fields to Derryburn Wood; soon after the path re-emerged from the wood, you saw the first houses of the estate. There was a moon riding high in the sky and surely on a Tuesday night there would be no feral fourteen-year-olds giggling round a bottle of tonic wine in some dark corner? She clicked across the ring-road in her heels and crunched onto the gravel farm track that marked the beginning of the path.

*****

Reverend Rab Soutar needed to pray. He needed God to hear him, and to know that he had been heard. There was always something unsatisfying about praying in the manse; nothing to do with Carol or the children, just the sense of being enclosed. A ceiling wouldn’’t prevent words reaching an omnipotent God but it could inhibit the person doing the praying.

Glenturlie Parish Church was a pleasing modern building of plain harling with some pinewood panels; large windows in the ceiling brought the sun into the morning service. The estate it served was large, sprawling and rich. The church was rich, too; Rab ministered to lawyers and GPs and lecturers and high-powered IT execs, their wives, husbands and children. There were always funds for repairs to the church building or crèche equipment. But Rab tried to open the congregation’s hearts and minds to mission, to bringing Christ to the lost, to serving the poor and despairing and hungry. There were many needy folk, locally, albeit on the other side of town. His sermons were met with nods and smiles but little else. The church was determined to keep its hands clean.

Rab craved prayer. He would go to a quiet spot in Derryburn Wood and pour out his soul to the Lord, seeking His will for Reverend Rab Soutar and for Glenturlie Parish Church. He would pray also that God would lead him, personally, to troubled souls that he could help.

The moon blinked between trees as Rab entered the wood. Away from the sodium-bathed streets, darkness embraced him and stars upon stars gleamed from the velvety sky, an infinity of tiny lights that spoke to him of the limitless, unimaginable reach of God. He decided to pray where a small patch of grass bounded the path. He took off his Craghopper cagoule, laid it on the ground, and knelt on it.

*****

‘This is SHITE!’ yelled Jason, hurling a newly-emptied lager can into the unseen undergrowth. ‘It’s dark. We cannae see anything. What are we doing here, man?’

‘Chill, man, I just thought it would be cool,’ said Connor, ‘all spooky and that. I didnae think it would be so cold and dark.’

Jason softened when Connor admitted his error. ‘It’’ll be a magic place to come when we plunk off school, though. Naebody from the council will find us here.’

Connor detached the plastic carrier bag of drink from the branch on which he’’d hung it and they began to pick their way along the path using the faint light from their mobiles. Then Jason stopped. ‘That’s weird, man. Do you hear that?’

‘What?’

‘Somebody. Talking.’

‘Naw. No at this time of night, surely…’

The path led past some pine trees to an open glade wanly lit by the moon. Just off the path they sensed a dark, stooping figure – no, a kneeling figure – muttering away to himself. ‘Show me your will… lead me in your ways… soften our hearts towards the weak…’

‘He’’s mental,’ whispered Connor.

‘It’’s pure scary, man, let’s go.’

They ignored the path and clattered off through the trees. Dimly, they saw the lights of the Glenturlie Estate and ran towards them, the branches clawing as they went. They only stopped running when they reached a scruffy field bordering the estate.

‘I left the bag,’ said Connor.

‘What?’

‘The bag with the drink. I dropped it when we saw the mad guy.’

‘This was a great idea.’ Jason trudged away towards the lights of town.

*****

This is life, Jane thought as she entered the wood. She was warm from the gentle climb through the fields but it felt good. Pity about her shoes; they were ruined. She switched on her mobile to light the path a little.

*****

Kyle inhaled the mouldy breath of the wood. There was peace, here, quietness. And then, just ahead of him, he heard a muffled tattoo of running feet on the soft woodland floor. Two shadows fled past through sparely-filtered moonlight.

Not far along, on the same path, he saw something bright that shifted and crinkled gently in the breeze; a plastic bag. He picked it up and peered inside; a half-full bottle of Buckfast and a few cans of multipack lager. Well, they’’ll help, Kyle thought, they’’ll deaden the pain.

More footsteps, behind him this time. They stopped.

He turned to see a young woman, wearing a light raincoat over a short dress, and smart, high-heeled shoes. He edged closer to get a clearer view.

‘Don’’t hurt me,’ said Jane.

‘It’’s all right,’ said Kyle, ‘I won’t.’ He nodded at the plastic bag. ‘This isn’’t mine. I found it.’

He sounded nice, thought Jane, well-spoken. What a shame he was out on his own, drinking. ‘I’d better be getting along,’ she said.

‘Yes. Midnight walk?’

‘Yes. Just going home.’

He watched as she disappeared into the gloom. Even struggling with those heels, there was a grace about her. If she was the last person he’’d ever see, he hadn’’t chosen badly.

He crawled into the midst of a cluster of rhododendrons and felt in his pockets for the tablets. He sat on a dry stump of wood, remembering that mum always said you could catch something from sitting on something damp. He reached into the carrier bag for a can and wished he hadn’’t brought the water. It seemed a waste, now.

*****

Rab stood up and retrieved his cagoule. A night of victorious prayer. Now and then he had heard voices, whisperings, the sound of passing feet. Distractions sent by the Enemy? If so, they had failed. Rab glanced at his watch; quarter to one. The night would soon be compromised by the first dirty grey light. He set off for the manse.

*****

Connor followed Jason into the Glenturlie estate, where all the poshies lived, but then turned towards the path that led back into Derryburn Wood. He couldn’’t leave that drink behind.

Just as he entered the wood he met an attractive young woman who was coming the other way. Ignoring his ‘Hi, doll!’ she continued speaking into her mobile; ‘I’’m sorry to phone so late, Scott, and I’’m sorry about tonight. Can I see you tomorrow?’ Lucky Scott, whoever he was; she had nice legs and that, though she shouldnae have walked through the wood in those heels.

He hadn’’t gone much further when he met a middle-aged man wearing a cagoule and a tweed bunnet. They both stopped.

‘Can I help you, young man? I’m Reverend Soutar of Glenturlie Parish Church.’

‘Aye. Have ye seen a plastic bag somebody might have dropped?’

*****

Kyle lay down; the damp didn’’t worry him, now. He just felt warmth and peace and silence as the faint smell of rhododendron blossom fought with the mouldiness. He was hidden from sight in this lonely woodland place. Would anyone ever find him?

*****

The minister guy had tried to convert Connor so he had pulled away and scampered into the wood. When he got back to the place there was no sign of the carry-out but at least the mad guy had gone. A strong gust of wind blew in from somewhere, penetrating even the sheltered places, the kind of wind you got at scary bits in horror films. Behind those big bushes, something rustled. A plastic bag?

There were steely bars of light in the sky now but it was still deep-dark among the bushes. There was his carry-out, though. Someone had definitely been at it, just two cans left and no sign of the Buckie.

Connor turned and saw something dark and still on the ground. He looked at the silent shape for a long time and wondered what it was. The light seemed a long way away.

David McVey worked for many years at the University of Paisley, but he has also been a grouse beater, a tax officer and spent one miserable Saturday night stocktaking at a B&Q. He has published nearly 100 short stories and hundreds of non-fiction articles. David enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, telly, and watching football, especially his hometown team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC and the Scotland national side. Check out David’s website

The Last Place To Lose Its Snow

Dawn Galway Bay Susan Prediger
The Prom in Salthill, Galway – Photo by Susan Prediger

Susan Prediger was born and raised in the USA, and has lived in Berlin, Germany, and, for the last 14 years,  Galway, Ireland. Her award-winning photography has been exhibited by the Galway Arts Service, at the Botanical Gardens, and other venues around Ireland.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Short Story: Black Snow

– By Michael Crossan

Ruth breathed on her bedroom window. Scratched boo with a fingertip.

‘Keep us,’ she whispered, scanning the Jericho Centre’s gardens. Snow dusted the bare oak. Gravel paths led to the gate. Eastward, far streetlamps twinkled. A fairy troop, thought Ruth. To the north, amber lights on high bridge cables blinked in a dull sky.

Grace joined her at the window. Fidgeted with her zipper collar. ‘I had a bad dream.’

Ruth studied the bridge. Stark iron like a goliath mantis over the river. ‘Tell me.’

‘It was spooky.’ Arms folded, Grace rested her cheek on Ruth’s shoulder. ‘You were in hospital. I wanted to visit. A stairway led up to the building. I was stuck on the steps. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. People stared from the windows. They looked scared. Like they knew I could never reach them. Then I saw it was you and me. Every window. I woke crying.’

‘Dreams suck.’

‘It creeped me.’

‘Poor babes.’ Ruth cuddled her friend. ‘Let’s go. While it’s quiet.’

A portal cabin at the gate, a bald watchman opened the door. ‘Jackets, ladies.’

‘Hat, mister’ said Grace.

‘My head is immune to the cold.’

‘Doubt it. Looks like mince,’ said Ruth.

‘Cheeky witch.’

‘We’re ok.’ Grace stamped a heel. ‘Booted up.’

‘Cars are buried in Kent,’ said the watchman. ‘Six foot drifts.’

‘Grandpa said a snowdrift is Satan’s cloak,’ said Grace.

The watchman pointed at a field. ‘There’s His pup.’ A fox bounded stubborn, robust fur deep in snow, a zigzag channel up a slope. ‘Vermin,’ he said, and shut the door.

Saturday nights, boy racers parked near the gate revving souped Fords. Funland cabs. Prize seats for hug famished girls. Tonight was Tuesday. The road was white and mute and barren. Ruth and Grace linked arms and headed toward the river.

‘Enjoy your shopping trip?’ asked Grace.

‘It was good to be out. Shops were mobbed. There were two Santas in John Lewis.’

‘How was aunt Flo?’

‘Quiet.’

‘Did she invite you to Christmas dinner?’

‘No. Dad’s going. But aunt Flo said she has a surprise for me in the New Year.’

‘Maybe planning a party for your sixteenth.’

‘Do you know something I don’t?’

‘Guessing.’

‘I had a party once,’ said Ruth, sniffing.

‘Nice.’

‘I was four or five. Cousins were there. I had balloons.’

‘Nutter doesn’t remember my birthdays. Not one.’

‘She’s sick. Schizophrenia is a disease. I think.’

‘She’s the disease.’

‘At least you met her.’

‘Wish I hadn’t.’ Grace blew into cupped hands. ‘I liked the thought of her.’

‘You needed to meet.’

‘She didn’t know me. Her own daughter. I don’t belong to anyone.’

Town centre, an empty car park, four juvenile boys, hooded in tracksuits, played hockey with a cola can. The girls passed and play stalled. A lank hoodie sat on a graffiti carved bench.

‘They’re from the home,’ he said.

‘Taking your fleas for a walk?’ bawled a beak face.

Ruth squeezed Grace and hurried. ‘Ignore him, babes.’

A chin scarred beanpole stalked them. ‘Brollies, crawlies. It might rain. You’ll get a wash.’ He high fived the beak.

‘Remember soap?’ Beak bent, choked in hilarity. ‘Muck necks.’

The girls jogged, slipping. ‘Inbreeds,’ shouted Grace, vapour breath, shiny hair wild in a gust.

Up a cobble lane they halted outside a kebab shop. Pungent aromas hurt thin bellies. Ruth foraged a cigarette from her zipper pocket. Flicked a Bic lighter. She inhaled; face flared orange, smoke drizzling thin from her nose.

‘Last one?’ asked Grace.

Ruth nodded. ‘Share it.’

They smoked in turns. Keen drags, passing the fag. Grace took a last pull and tossed the butt. ‘Wish we had money for a kebab,’ she said, stomping, December devouring worn soles.

‘A large donner.’ Ruth smacked her lips. ‘Tons of onions.’

‘Mushroom pakora.’

‘Chicken wings.’

‘Stop it, Ruth.’

A man exited the shop carrying a family meal box. Gloved and parka’d like an Inuit. He dragged his eyes and loped to a sleek four by four. The fat wheeled guzzler pulled away, Eskimo man, bloat with revulsion.

Steamy flue heat had thawed a clearing. Grace sat on the warm cobbles. ‘He’s a stink.’

‘Pigs arse shite.’ Ruth kicked the slush curb. ‘Fuck hole.’

‘Wonder if he has a daughter?’

‘Daddy’s girl.’

‘I was a baby once,’ said Grace, hands cosy under her bum. ‘Funny that.’

On the main road a church service had ended, congregation flooding the square. The girls fused in the flock, pink and lime zippers loud in a beige and brown spill.

‘Excuse me, lass.’ The old lady poked Ruth’s arm. ‘Have you seen my Malcolm?’ she asked, her eyes wet and glad.

‘I don’t know him.’

Pencilled eyebrows rose to her woollen hat. Plum cheeks puffed. ‘He’s an inspector.’

‘Sorry.’ Ruth shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s in the church.’

‘Don’t be a fruit. Malcolm hates church.’

‘Are you all right, Mrs?’ asked Grace. ‘Shall I get the priest?’

‘Mother.’ A neat man, coat and scarf, cut between the girls. ‘Can’t leave you for a second.’

‘She’s looking for Malcolm,’ said Ruth.

‘Hmm.’

‘They’re angels, Malcolm.’

The man led his mother to a car. He turned and saluted the girls, a stiff middle finger.’

Elbows looped, they weaved out of the crowd. ‘Merry fucking Christmas,’ said Ruth.

‘His mum was nice.’

‘Ditty.’

‘Ditty sweet.’

‘He reeked.’

‘Turd.’

‘Pigs arse shite.’

Shivery, Grace nestled into Ruth. A road sign read half a mile to the dual carriageway. Traffic picked up. Cars, vans, trucks moaned past. Exhausts spewed black breath, rising sour and noxious in the dusk. On the embankment, Ruth squat and retched.

‘Holy pish.’ Grace spanked her spine. ‘You should have eaten something.’

Folded on her knees, Ruth vomited bile.

Grace massaged her neck. ‘Dump it up, babes.’

She heaved and puked a fizzy pool.

‘Chuck it out.’

Another sore retch, yellow slime strings swung from her mouth.

‘All up?’

Ruth spat on the snow. ‘I’m done.’ She rested sucking and blowing.

‘Take your time.’

‘That was grotty.’

Grace touched her hair. ‘Feel better.’

‘Much.’ Ruth rose and sleeved her chin. ‘I nearly fainted.’

‘Maybe we should wait.’

‘It’s nothing to do with that. You were right. We should have had lunch.’

‘I couldn’t. I felt weird all day. Hungry now though.’

‘Me too. I’d kiss dog shit for a fish supper.’

‘Freak. You spew your guts, now you could eat a whale.’

‘Mental, isn’t it.’

Zippers shut at the throat; fisted pockets, they walked on, teary cold. Sleet hit and died. A crow squealed. They glanced at each other. Shied away. Fixed on the path. A mutual trance.

Close to the bridge a van slowed and parked on a bank. The girls saw a gloved hand adjust the side mirror. ‘Here we go.’ Ruth nudged and tugged. ‘Paedo patrol.’

The door window rolled down. ‘You hitching?’ asked a man, silver beard, glasses.

‘No thanks,’ said Grace.

‘Anywhere you want.’

‘We’re out for a walk on the bridge,’ said Ruth.

‘I can run you.’

‘It’s right there.’ Grace pointed, blueish face crunched.

‘I can run you.’

Arms locked, they mushed up the embankment, boots slippy sliding. Ruth glanced back. ‘Wonder if it has a daughter.’

Gritted stairs led to the bridge’s paved walkway. ‘Last one up is a fart.’ Grace ran the steps nimble as a foal. ‘I can taste the sea,’ she yelled.

A truck grumped past. Ruth wagged a red numb hand at her red numb ear. ‘What?’

‘The sea. Taste it.’

‘I love that.’

They dallied along the footpath. Leaned on the chest high railing. Below, broad waters lifted and fell and clapped. ‘Choppy isn’t it?’ Ruth gobbed a frothy blob. ‘It’s not the sea. It’s a river.’

‘Smells like shells.’

‘Maybe it is the sea.’ Ruth watched purple hills. ‘Grace.’

‘What.’

‘Do you really believe aunt Flo is planning a party?’

‘Probably sorted it weeks ago.’

‘Thanks, babes.’ Ruth climbed the rail.

Grace scrambled over and stood beside her, boots sunk in a snow shelved girder. Vehicles’ horns blared. The girls held hands and stared down at the syrupy blackness.

‘Do you think God is real?’ asked Grace, chilled and lost.

‘There’s a Devil. We know that.’

‘Mr stink.’

‘Old turdster.’

‘Pigs arse shite.’

They stepped off the bridge, into slappy icy air, and Ruth shouted, ‘So there must be a God.’

Michael Crossan was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize 2011. And shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award 2011. In January 2012, the Atlantic Wire published an interview piece about his Cormac McCarthy Twitter parody. His novel – Morningplace – is written. Three years work. The story combines naturalism – the way people talk and behave – and big unnatural, dehumanising situations. Think esoteric Twin Peaks. London editor, Gillian Stern, said Michael is her next big novelist. He is researching agents. Born in Scotland to Irish parents, he plans to settle in his forefathers Donegal and write a dozen novels. Check out Michael’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @MichaelCrossan

Olafia10-turning circle by old fish factory (1)
Turning Circle By The Old Fish Factory – Photo by Ólafía Lárusdóttir

Ólafía Lárusdóttir was born and raised in Iceland. She is an Arctic Biologist. Her interest in photography first started when she lived in Venezuela. Turning Circle By The Old Fish Factory was taken in Skagaströnd, in north Iceland.

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Short Story: Petrol Horizons

– By Lane Ashfeldt

You drive into the village, make a right by the church, and you come to the beach. No one is swimming. The beach is the end of the road. You drive along it to the turning circle where the fish factory used to be, and you circle back again on the same road.

Ahead of you is the one shop and the bank that doubles as a post office. You pull up at the petrol station. Here is where you work. You keep the older folks’ cars ticking over, and you sell sweets, soft drinks, and cigarettes to schoolchildren whose lives are just like yours used to be a few years ago.

The children who come by the petrol station are never alone. They walk in small groups to school and home again, always surrounded by friends. When they reach school they pull off their boots and leave them in the cloakroom to dry along with the herds of other shoes and boots, then pad around the corridors in knitted socks, as comfy as if still at home. Many walk further to school than the short way you drive every day from your parents’ house to the petrol station, but you never walk it, not even in high summer. It’s safer to drive, easier to pull a car round you than it is to pull on a coat and gloves. In the car you can just press play, and the music surrounds you and keeps you warm.

The village is not far off the Arctic Circle and it can snow here even in May, although nothing like the snow in winter. Then it’s so cold your face hurts, so dark that if it blizzards as you switch off the petrol station lights all sense of direction goes, everything shrinks to dark points of ice that needle your face. Once you were so lost you fell into the sea while trying to find your car. That night the water was colder than snow, although scientifically you know that’s impossible. The sea was not properly frozen, only caked in a layer of ice that crunched as your foot sank into the inky liquid below. Lucky for you it was only knee deep.

Some winter mornings – but this happens less often now than it did when you were a child – you wake to that special thick silence that comes when the town is awash with snowdrifts. On those mornings you don’t open the petrol station. It doesn’t matter. Nobody is going far, those days. You and your uncle take out the diggers and work to clear the town of drifts. This might take one day or three, all depends on the whim of the skies. Until you’re done, people hole up indoors and eat dried food, waiting for the freeze to end. Waiting for the light that can seem as if it will never return. Your brother disappeared one of those dark hushed nights, any clue that might have led to him blanketed in pure fresh snow. The police have a word for this, you heard them say it when they stood outside your house. ‘Snowdrop’. They saw you watching, and they hushed and turned away. But the word echoed silently.

Snowdrop. A body hidden under fresh snow. And the killer chose their snowstorm well. It was months before they found your brother. Twelve weeks, three days and three nights. Short days and long nights that stretched pointlessly, each like the last. All that time your mother stayed in her bedroom alone. Neighbours brought hot meals for the family and sat with her. My son, you heard her cry out to them, when is my son coming home? No one had an answer. You were her son too, but she never spoke about you.

You examined old family photos, convinced she had always loved him more than you, ever since he was born. Just one photograph showed all seven of you together, in height order. Your mother stood next to him; he was the only child taller than her. So alike. Blond, happy, smiling at your father who took the picture. In the next photo he and your mother were singing. They often sang together. Old songs, from the island long ago. Campfire songs.

The church was crowded out for the service, and part of you wondered if the killer had chosen the wrong son: he could so easily have taken one who would have been missed less. One who was less alive. He could have taken you.

Your father was quiet as always, and strong. A month after the funeral he cleared your brother’s bedroom and began to sleep there. You found your brother’s hi-fi and record collection in the garage, and his guitar. One day you put on a record in a half-hearted effort to teach yourself to play. After maybe an hour, your mother stormed out of her bedroom and raked the needle hard across the record, scratching a deep line in the vinyl. You stared at her. Then she hugged you to her and shook with tears. Afterwards she began to cook dinners again for you and the other children. This made you think of how, in winter when there are just a few hours of slanted sunlight to see by, a fishermen will make do with moonlight to get some fishing done. Yes your mother cooked hot meals for you and your siblings, yes she cleaned the house, but you never again heard her sing.

Winter is long and dark, that’s true. Each time it comes and sits on the mountains, it seems as if it will never leave. But when finally the sun swings up over the mountains and melts the snow, everything burns brighter and for two or three months the whole village lives twice as much. Lawns outside bright-painted houses are crowded with bicycles, boats and trampolines. Children bounce skywards in slow motion, freed for once of their heavy coats, wearing fleeces or hand-knitted jumpers. And everyone has things to do – summer feasts to sing at, hills to climb, fish they must hang out to dry.

You sell a lot of petrol those months. Sweets, too. And high-energy drinks. People nod and greet you by name yet you seldom find two words to say back. Locked out of their sped-up world, you take their money and watch them leave.

The hours of your shift pass slowly. You wonder sometimes – rarely now, but still it happens – if the polite neighbour you just served was the one who killed your brother. How they met. Were they friends, or not? It never came out in the end who killed him and the police put the death down to a passing stranger, but you don’t believe this. It had to have been a local. Only a local would have timed it so well. His walk home after singing practice, alone because he’d stayed behind to rehearse his solo part for the Christmas midnight mass. Was it a grown-up, a teacher maybe? Or one of the kids from school? Many of them went away to study and never came back. You wonder, did your brother’s killer run away to forget, and keep on running until he was off the edge of the map? Far beyond this island and this language, to other islands and languages that you do not know.

As you finish at the petrol station tonight, the light is strong. It pulls you. Instead of going home you fill the tank and drive. Past your parents’ house, past the school, past the disused farmhouse on the edge of town where even now streaks of brown snowmelt cling to the barren hill. Here is where they found your brother: it’s always the last place to lose its’ snow. Only a local would have known that. You speed on. Past the farmhouse and its snowmelt, and over this mountain to the next town and the one after that. It’s late, and the road is empty save for an occasional silver truck all lit up like a fishing boat luring squid. You turn up the sound and sing along to the radio: these are new songs, songs that have a fast insistent beat. If one of the old songs comes on that he and your mother once sang, you punch the dash and change stations. It’s not that you don’t care. But… His time is over now. And you need the kind of music that keeps you warm and alive.

On this bright bright night the light slants endlessly so that you feel the world spin under you, the sun a crazy ball bouncing on this round horizon, a ping-pong tied to a bat with elastic string. The clouds deepen in colour until they’re like petrol floating on dark oily puddles of sky, then lighten again as the sunset segues into dawn.

You know then that your chance to sleep is gone. But why waste a sunny night sleeping? You can sleep when you’re dead.

Lane Ashfeldt grew up in Dublin. Her stories have won the Fish Short Histories prize and the Global Short Stories prize. You can read more stories by Lane in her début collection of short fiction, SaltWater