Violin For Some
Carried in the air of the school canteen, a perfume of salts and hydrogenated fats enticed most of Brynteg School’s Sixth Form pupils to forget the primary reason for their being at school. Instead of what their teachers would call academic progress, they played cards and ate Monster Munch: the privileges of the free and the truant. On a good day, they’d collect on the yellowed grass banks of upper school and look out onto the desolate bus stop or the adjacent rugby pitch. The margins of both were forever decorated with multi-coloured bits of plastic and cigarette butts that acted as the visual punctuation marks between one public space and another. However, a good day, that is to say a sunny day, would often be few and far between, leaving their imaginations to linger in the drier, more sheltered places that tended to avoid the teachers’ patrol.
‘Stop making me laugh!' Lindsay said with a smile that said otherwise. 'What’d you mean?' he replied. It was most certainly true to say that this adolescent boy, along with his friends, were trapped within the confines of adolescent rhetoric. The others on the table, who watched his cherubic grin expand, were not smiling along. 'I’m not doing anything,' he continued. 'Glad to hear it,’ his friend, Twig, added through an irritated sinus, 'it's your go Howells.' He brought back his attention to the playing cards in his hand, and after scouring the collection for a few similar values, he hurriedly placed a couple face down onto the large, scattered pile of cards in the middle of the table. 'Four threes.' The two other boys lifted their heads above their own tightly held hand of cards, displaying disappointed frowns.
'Cheat,' Twig said despondently.
‘Fuck sake Howells, I just put down three threes,' said Ferret.
Ferret had surprised not only his friends, but his parents and teachers as like when he recently grew into his own distinctive adaptation of adolescence, somehow having moved immediately through young adulthood to already appearing far beyond the point of repair. ‘You’re right Ferret.’ he replied, ‘I cheated.' Hoping that honesty might impress everyone, including Lindsay, on the table, he picked up the dense pile of playing cards. Lindsay, using an array of coloured pens, didn’t look up from her coursework book. The boys returned to their game. 'Two aces,' said Ferret. His friends reduced the number of cards in hand during a few rounds of concentrated silence, while he amassed everything they managed to give away. The four school students sat in their contented quiet.
'I’m cold,' said Lindsay, drawing out the first syllable of the second word. Ferret and Mike both sighed.
'Well, why did you take your jumper off then?' asked Twig.
'Just coz...' she said.
'Wanna have my scarf?' Ferret blurted.
‘Or you could have my scarf too,’ Hywel said.
‘Oh okay, thanks,’ Lindsay replied.
‘Here we go,’ Mike muttered.
‘Listen Mike,’ Ferret responded, ‘if her bodily temperature fluctuates over the course of the day, so what? That’s natural. Stop having a go at what’s natural.’
‘That’s very kind, Ferret. Thanks,’ Lindsay replied.
Mike responded with something under his breath as the two other boys vied for their scarf to be accepted. ‘I think I only need one,’ she said, reaching for Hywel’s present from his grandmother last Christmas. ‘Thanks though, Ferret.’ He realised as soon as the scarf had left his neck that he wasn't sure if he had meant what he had said. But having been the chosen one between himself and his scarf, and Ferret and his scarf, he felt, 'Cool,' he replied. 'Brrrrr!' mouthed Lindsay, wrapping her arms around her chest and shaking theatrically from side to side. He felt the cold air on his neck too. Will need that back, he thought to himself.
At the far end of the cafeteria hall, behind the kiosk shutters, an enormous mass of tomato sauce contained within an industrial scale cauldron had its meniscus seal surgically broken into by a dinner lady, designated as the load bearer for that day’s commencement of lunch, who wobbled precariously on top of a knee-high stepladder. With goggles, face mask, gloves and laboratory coat protecting her from rogue debris, she kept her distance as she stirred the semi-viscous potion. Sweat dripped from her brow. The whites of her eyes spoke of a primitive fear. Another dinner lady waved a metal rod into the air from which hung a small burning orb of herbs and spices: she spoke aloud a prayer from a forgotten religion in a forgotten tongue. The other dinner ladies formed a huddled mass on their knees, surrounding the hob on which the cauldron sat, and waved their hands up into the air in mechanical convulsions. Only God could save them, here. With immediate effect, a powerful nasal elixir of reheated chips and a vague sournesses emanated out of the heated cauldron through the sixth form canteen kitchen, through the brick walls, through glazed windows and locked doors and into the nostrils of hundreds of baying, hungry teenagers. The dinner ladies, having completed their daily ceremony, stood in line one after the other, thanking their god and kissing its golden statue. Peace be with you, they whispered to one another while holding hands in a daisy chain around the cauldron, before bracing themselves for another early afternoon of absolute attrition. They marched towards the buffett kiosk.
On hearing the kitchen shutters lift, Lindsay dropped her pen, jumped up from her seat and grabbed Hywel’s arm pulling him towards lunch. 'Let's go,' she said, taking one of her large padded gloves with her. 'My hands are cold,' she held up his hand and faced his palm up to the ceiling and then stretched out her fingers and placed her hand on top of his hand before wriggling the glove on top of them both. Her hands were in fact extremely cold, he noticed. What he noticed even more so was that she had now made them stuck together within her glove. Why was she wearing gloves that can easily fit another pair of hands in, he wondered. This train of thought didn’t last long, as the panic and excitement of touching her hand entirely confused his experience of queuing for lunch. His heartbeat rose to a new, unprecedented high. He looked around to see all the faces of his internal paranoia lock on immediately to their breaking of normal conduct. The queue edged forward as his hand cooled and hers warmed.
'What’ll it be, love?' asked the dinner lady.
'I’ll have the salad please,' he replied. A silence of smiling eyes was exchanged between himself and Lindsay.
`We don't have salad,’ the dinner lady fired in response, ‘burger chips or lasagne chips or pasta tomato sauce.'
'Oh. What if you wanna be healthy, like?' he said. Lindsay’s fingers pushed down onto his inside the glove.
'Could have just chips?' the dinner lady replied.
'Oh... um well, you don’t have a few bits of lettuce back there, like?'
'No,’ the dinner lady shouted. ‘Next.'
'Hang on, hang on.' he said, 'I’ll have burger and chips please.'
'Right then.' she replied, dishing out the plates.
And yet without ever correctly experiencing hunger, that being only ever a tertiary player in the narrative of his life, his central organ commanded him to eat a second cherry bakewell, moments before making contact with the first. Dreams were made of these, was the semantically empty phase he had consumed through the commercials that rang through his head. The first cherry bakewell entered his mouth and quickly it was gone. He pushed himself into a bent slouch, with the first cherry bakewell gone, and pressed his head into the innards of the cupboard of cakes and sugary things. He flailed his arms inside the cupboard, searching for what his trick brain told him to search for. He found an empty interior bakewell tart packet. The idea of someone eating the final bakewell tart, to then leave the packet and its plastic innards in the cupboard appalled him. Having reversed out of the cupboard, foot followed foot as his body trudged out of the kitchen, and briefly through a darkened hallway, to inspect his father’s mid-morning matters.
‘Let's have a look,’ he said. His index finger hovered an inch above his father’s head. ‘Have a look at what?’
‘Your plate,’ he replied.
The plate precariously balanced on the armrest of his Saturday morning seat.
‘Is there a bakewell tart there?’
‘Yes.’ It looked as though he was telling the truth, which frustrated the boy. Perhaps he had eaten the packet himself he thought in a moment of fleeting clarity.
‘Let me have a look.’
'No thanks,’ his father replied, ‘go and bother your mother please.’
‘Why are you eating burnt toast again?’
‘It’s not burnt.'
'It’s like charcoal, dad.'
'I like it,' his father quickly retorted.
'You like burnt toast?' Hywel said.
'Yes,' his father said.
'No you don’t, Anthony.'
'Yes I do.'
'You always say that.'
'Because…’ he said, not prepared for such a verbal interrogation, even though it had gradually become the norm for this man during his days off, ‘because I like it.'
'No you don't.'
'Yes I do.'
'You always eat burnt toast. Can’t you just work the toaster properly.'
'I like it well done.'
'It’s completely black on the other side.'
'No, not completely.'
'Show me the other side.'
'No, I’m eating it.'
'Turn it over, let's take a look. It’s completely ruined.'
‘Hywel, can you please leave me? I’m in the middle of eating it.'
'Burnt toast with a massive piece of cheese on top.'
'Yes, I like it.'
'No you don’t.'
Each Saturday morning for this parent had been designated as a modest antidote to the weekly grind. He pushed another piece of charcoaled toast into his mouth and his son understood this for what it was: a provocative political gesture and one that left the boy with no other option than to flip his remaining toast off the plate with a still protruding index finger. The boy knew his action for what it was, a point of no return. And it had the desired effect. His father responded by pulling the toast close to his chest and let out a deep growl as bits of cheddar and burnt toast exited his mouth. The father’s retaliatory move appeared to be a clear pronouncement for battle and so the son was left with little option than to push his finger into his father’s mid morning piece of toast: first through the slice of cheddar, then the slimey marmite layer and then to break for freedom through the other side of the dried bread. He spun his father’s toast around on his finger as though he was showing off a novel party trick to a friend. 'You fucker,' shouted his father. The plate dropped to the floor.
A middle aged man contained within the trappings of the suburbia stereotype, as a vessel to contain the rigmarole of the Monday to Friday: the weekend was his weekend. It was his time beyond existing simply to exist or to generate and accumulate enough income so that others may exist under his umbrella. At least, that was the unconscious narrative which focused his Saturday mornings, as he picked up the plate off the conservatory floor. Crumbs fell off the curve of his satiated stomach. His chin and cheeks, smooth from the weekend shave, carried small squares of toilet paper adhered to his face by little blots of dried blood. A constant patter from the clouds releasing their daily cargo continued to deliver itself onto all receiving window panes. The household cat was in the garden and visibly soaked through. She held a pose ready to pounce. While using the runner beans as cover, she stalked a group of unaware starlings that were shaking the extra load of water droplets from their plumage. His father having dusted off the piece of toast that came back to life from underneath his chair, avoided the hole in the middle his son created when taking another bite out of it. The sound of a crunch of teeth and a clicking jaw joined the patter of raindrops falling onto the corrugated plastic of the conservatory rooftop.
Having exhausted the entertainment available in the conservatory, the boy squeezed his face in the gap between the living room door and its frame. He watched the back of his mum’s head, as she sat on the sofa with a cup of tea warming her hands watching the television. Leaning heavily on the door, he tested it’s strength before it gave way forming a loud creak. His mother, without turning her head from the illuminating screen, lowered her hand close to the carpeted floor and clicked her fingers. “Marigold,’ she called. No wet nose pushed into her hand, so she called again. She sat watching David Dickenson’s golden face for another passing moment with no meow in reply. His face forced another creak out of the door. 'Hywel, what are you doing behind the door?' she questioned, 'and why aren’t you at school?' He leaned his full weight onto the door, allowing it to swing open to a stop on the cushioned edge of the cat scratched sofa, and stumbled into the living room. The rainfall outside cast a biblical scene of a midday void of daylight. 'It’s Saturday mum,' he replied.
'Right, well…’ she replied, ‘I’m sure you’ve got work to get on with, haven’t you?'
'Probably. Doesn’t look like you’re doing much though does it?'
'Don’t tell me what to do. I’m watching escape to the country; they’re setting up a b&b in Spain.'
‘So what?’ he said.
'Can you do something else if you’re going to be like this. I’m having a short break.’
'A break from what?' He asked through a barely masked condescension. He sensed the futility of his words. He sensed it each time it transpired, but never curtailed the mechanism, nor the loathing or the hollowed pain inside, rising into a desperate regret that trailed shortly behind. As was often the case when commotion struck, the feline member of the household ran into the room, calling out a few cries in question of what all the noise is about. She jumped up onto the sofa and shook the rain off her coat, lightly washing both the boy and his mother.
'I can’t hear what they’re saying. Great, thank you,' his mother said, 'and I am having a break now so please go away.'
'Your life is one big break.'
'Oh fuck off. Go away and leave me in peace, will you?' She turned the sound up to full.
Dislodging any concentration given to his current work, he gave what would have been a fantastic level of classroom engagement to composing another text message. The morning had been set aside to a fleeting daydream of meadows, of rose tinted walking and of holding hands. Helllllo ;-) he tapped through his tiny number pad and immediately deleted it. This process was repeated several times over in an attempt of finding the perfect poetic verse.
Hey U :)
What U up to 2day?
Pushing down the send button and watching his words settle into a fuzzy ether somewhere between him and her, he got back to imitating class work. Looking through pages of pictures with circles with long titles meeting other circles with other equally long titles that explained the process of producing metal alloys for cars and other things the class needed to memorise. His text message had reached a precise location in outer space and travelled back again to another precise location on the planet’s surface, only a hundred or so meters away from where it had begun, before he had even begun to put pen to paper. He drew out a venn diagram, with one circle crossing over another and wrote me on the outline of the first circle and Linds on the outline of the second, before scribbling them out. The screen of his small Nokia mobile phone lit up an algaed green, followed by a repetitive beeping noise that he thought had been placed on silent. ‘Howells, what are you doing?’ asked the authority at the front of the classroom.
‘No phones allowed,’ said one particularly steadfast teenager in the room.
‘Yes, thank’s Alan. I know, it’s just…’ he said, stumbling on an adequate reason to be stated publicly.
‘Howells, get back to work, boy,’ replied the authority. In agreement to their demands, he pushed his head inside his text book and put the Nokia inside his pencil case. And as his attention returned to silent reading, he clicked a few buttons in his pencil case and glanced inside to see her reply.
Like you should be too ;)
He continued to copy out the sentences and paragraphs printed in the textbook in front of him. This approach, his teacher often reminded the class, was best practice towards achievement in life: read, copy and repeat. The students in this class sat squat in their chairs, copying out page after page of information regarding instabilities in alloys. Time moved slowly. The boy’s mind pulled him back to the memory of the last time they were together, the story playing out all too quickly as the mental image faded away into the oblique top corner of the classroom. His teacher watched on with bemusement as his head craned upwards to the ceiling, entirely vacant in expression. ‘Alright Howells, you can stay behind at the end of the lesson,’ the authority decided. His head bobbed out of its trance, and saw the disappointment in his teacher’s face. He returned to copying out the textbook into his exercise book. Time continued to pass as though the hands of the class room clock were taking a well earned break. Another green light came from inside his pencil case, to which, with the ball point end of his pen, he cautiously tapped out a reply.
I’m gonna head to da canteen
Meet me there? x
Gotta stay behind for a while :(
Save me a salad yeh?! ;) Xx
Having pushed through the monotony of another class, when he could have been somewhere that promised much more, and having written out the extra pages Mrs. Harries demanded of him, the authority figure through mouthfuls of a cheese and pickle sandwich allowed him to leave the classroom. He rolled his school bag over one shoulder and, leaving the building, headed towards the upper sixth form canteen. Along the meandering tarmacked path between the large comprehensive school’s department blocks and the grassed edges of this path, he passed the groundskeeper who drove a four-wheeled lawnmower with the task of removing any flowering daisy or dandelion in sight. A few years ago, Colin Parry the groundskeeper's stepson, fascinated by his find, presented to a group of boys during his birthday party sleepover his mum and step dad's collection of what he called ‘dildos’ that had been residing under their bed. 'Smell it,' Colin demanded of one boy. 'I dun wanna,' the boy replied, scrunching his face. 'Smell it!' he repeated, stuffing the strange pink object into the other’s face. It was beyond the groundskeeper's knowledge that all the students of the school had heard an ever-exaggerating story about the collection of giant dildos in the janitor’s closet.
'Oh Howells,' came a high pitched call from the rugby field opposite the lawnmower.
‘Howell-hiño!' heckled another.
'Oh Howells! Why you walking so fast?' shouted a third.
'Oh butt, what you got? Somewhere you gotta be is it?' said the second.
'Where you gotta be then, Howells?' said the first.
'Yeah, haitch-owl. Tuh wit. Tuh woo butt,' said the third. The three boys walked towards him firing a rugby ball with full force back and forth between themselves.
'Alright boys? Didn’t hear you there,’ he replied, ‘had my headphones in.'
‘You didn’t have headphones in,' said the first, 'think we’re stupid do you?'
'No,' he said. He swiftly mimicked the action of putting something into his pocket.
'Sure you do, owl boy. We knows where you’re heading,' said the second. The three boys, wearing fluorescent pink and orange rugby tops, had paused their game of rugby to enjoy a spot of interrogation leaning onto a wooden fence separating the tarmac path from the golden brown playing field.
'Howells got a girlfriend, now is it?' said the first.
'Yeah.' the other two hawked.
'Even Howells’s got a girlfriend!' said the second.
'What’s the world coming to,' replied the third.
He nodded his head knowing that that was a problematic statement to agree with, but knew the importance of not provoking the situation any more than it needed to be. Wild eyed, open mouthed and with white teeth bared, they watched on at him awaiting confirmation.
‘So Lindsay’s your girlfriend now is it?’ they asked in union.
Knowing it wasn’t quite the most truthful response, he nodded his head.
The Willis’ of forty-seven Brynteg Avenue considered themselves to be a convivial family: a wife, a husband, two daughters, one young son and a cat that kept to itself so as to avoid regular pressing and squeezing of its head. The two daughters, alternating their practice so that at least one was ever present in the living room between one school evening and the next, would stand gladly and attempt harmony with their head leaning into their prized violin. Framed photographs of the family, in their best positions, decorated the four walls. The members look into the camera lense, smiling and wide eyed. Each photograph was an acutely choreographed visual record with their youngest growing exponentially larger along the lineage from left to right.
The daughters would keenly rap the horsehairs of the bow against those of the violin body, forcing friction in attempting musical harmony. During their weekday activities, both the Willis adults were as they described to others, professionals. They each had their own L-shaped corner desks that allowed them to say, ‘welcome to my office,’ within an open plan workspace shared with others. Proud pen pushers, their necks were adorned with straps with dangling security cards and official badges on jackets and lived their weekday lives somewhere deep within the county council civil service department. Mr and Mrs Willis considered themselves and their offspring to be a unit of aspiration. 'We should aspire to a better this,' he’d say. 'Or a better that,' she’d say. Their collective head would make a large, pronounced nod of satisfaction when agreeing with each other on political discourse involving the legacy of Churchill and others. As they did so, they enjoyed bottles of low-to-mid range Bordeaux and roast chicken with roasties: the fruits of their endeavours made into material form with the help of the big Tesco, whilst encouraging their children to partake in their after dinner debates. Entertainment came in the form of a violin duet from their daughters or for the youngest to recite his most recently memorized Welsh poem that won him five points at the school’s Eisteddfod. Once home, after each school day, the girls would take a sip of watered down orange cordial and a bite of a digestive biscuit. Then it would be straight into the living room, pick up the wood & string and try their very best for the next three hours of each day until their parents came home from work.
'Right,' Sophie blazed into the living room, 'that’s it.' David Dickenson continued his bronzen theatre without so much as a blink of an eye as she screamed out those words. She pushed the audio plus button down until the volume would go no louder. The high pitched sound that emanated through the breezeblock and wallpaper didn't blink either, and so Sophie began banging her clenched fist onto the partition wall. David Dickenson continued his spectacle by inspecting the inner cavity of a ceramic chicken. 'Do you hear me?' she shouted, 'shut up.' Sophie opened the door and moved into the kitchen. The sound of the television filtered through the house.
Sophie hadn’t quite appreciated the gravity of housewifery until it was the only career choice left offered upon her imagination. Without conscious decision, her adult life became devoted to the upbringing of her one child, and that her hope of attending to this life she created would be the enrichment and meaning she sought for. However, the container she made of herself quickly shrank upon his arrival, leaving room only for her son. The other man didn’t fit the vessel, with his object form too large and too cumbersome. The young boy tried with all his might to get out of that very container, but the mug was well glazed and each time he gave a running jump, he would find no grip, nothing to hold up his weight and slid back inside.
Isolation from others, from human interaction, from simple moments of sharing between friends and family members, from those you trust or at least are familiar enough with to be oneself and unedited in their company: all aspects of a life in reasonable balance were removed by following the breadwinner to a nondescript town far away from home or family for reasons of financial reward. Confidence ekes away, normality runs a tangent to something other. Depression and the habitual pattern therein roots itself into the arid ground, becoming ever more difficult to prise out. You can pinch it between your forefinger and thumb. You might even think you got the horrible brute this time, but the roots remain fervent and alive and soon enough, sooner than you or I ever genuinely anticipate, the plant rears its poisonous shots out of the sand once again: stronger in purpose, thicker in stem and all the more abundant, all the more resilient to attack. And it takes hold. It took hold here. And without much attempt to weed it out, it became so familiar that no alternative could possibly be fathomed. The Willis girls continued their daily serenade.
'I’ve had enough of their fucking noise,' snapped Sophie, having moved into the hallway. She was looking up at her son, who was now standing at the top of the stairs. David Dickenson could still be heard continuing his imposition into another weekday afternoon. 'Mum, calm down.’ he replied, ‘Just go watch TV in the front room instead.' He noticed the knife in her right hand. 'I can’t take it anymore,' she waved the knife in the direction of the neighbour’s living room. As the end credit theme tune of Cash In The Attic afforded a momentary quiet, the unfortunate discord of a violinist-in-learning entered the hallway.
With her slippers on, his mother opened the Chubb lock, swung the door open and walked out onto the front garden path. He shouted at her to not to go any further. Overhead, breaking between clouds, the sun shone down. As he followed his mother into the front garden neither looked up. She pushed through the flowering peonies and lower lying geraniums and knocked the neighbours’ front door with an aggression that seemed entirely departed from the usual empty threat hyperbole his parents tended to perform. The smooth edge of the meat knife in Sophie’s right hand reflected the image of passing clouds. This inanimate object was more familiar with potatoes and lamb chops than what this moment promised. She continued to hammer onto the door. His socks were wet, having trodden on the earth of the flowering side borders frantically following his mother.
'Mum!’ he pleaded, ‘stop!'
'Go away Hywel.'
'Stop it, mum.'
'Let me do what I want,' his mother shouted. She then screamed once again into the letterbox, demanding the girls come outside. As she did so, Hywel leaned forward and grabbed her right hand that held the knife. 'Hywel get off me,' she demanded. 'Get the fuck off me.' He held onto his mother and to the knife as she attempted, with her full weight, to pull free once again. ‘Put the knife down, mum.' The sharp edge of the knife pressed firmly into his trouser leg, slowly scraping across the denim on top of his thigh. Wrapping his arm around her chest, he dragged her back through the patch of flowers into their front garden. He slowly pulled the knife out of his mother’s hand: his body trembling with tension. 'Give me that back Hywel,' she demanded. He walked back over the boundary of their front garden, with his mother following and demanding that he return the knife to her.
'Okay, mum.' His body began to shiver.
‘I am not worth anything, am I?’ she asked her son, ‘why would I want to do this?’
'I don’t know what you want.' His shoulders convulsed against the rhythm of his heartbeat.
'I’ve had enough,' she sighed, ' Hywel, we shouldn’t be having this conversation.'
'You just ran out with a fucking knife, mum,' he shouted.
'I can’t do this anymore.'
'I don’t know what you mean, mum.'
'I’ve had enough of you and your father telling me what to do.'
'Okay, fine yes. We’ll listen to whatever you need.'
'I want to kill myself, Hywel,' she let out through a long sigh, 'I want to die.' His mother began to sob as she spoke those words aloud. Her son watched back in shock. His mind felt stuck in a loop, replaying the previous two seconds. Blood travelled close to his eardrum, providing an enveloping thud. 'I want to end it all,' she continued. Her body folded into a crumpled form on top of the third step of the carpeted stairs. 'I’ve been thinking about it for ages.'
'No mum,' he said, despairing.
'Just slit my wrists and be done with this shit. I don’t deserve this shit. This life.' She continued to heavily breathe in and out. The knife slipped out of his grip, meeting the parquetted floor. 'Mum,' his speech struggled through drawn out sobs, 'we’ll help you, me and Dad. We’ll help you.' As though she had vacated her physical form, Sophie observed herself in the moment as though she were watching the soap operas on telly. ‘I’m sorry,' his mother said, 'I shouldn’t have told you.' He continued to sob as she stood soberly in the hallway, reflecting on the past few minutes.
'Do not tell your father about this, okay?' she continued.
‘Don’t tell him, okay?'
'But,’ he said, ‘you won’t kill yourself, will you?'
'No. No,’ she replied. ‘I’m fine. I didn’t mean it.' Neither did she nor her son find her answer to his question convincing, both wanting to believe in much more than it could be held to be true.
'Don’t tell him, okay?'
'Guess what I did last night?' Lindsay said with a smile. What normally would have been Maths class for him and psychology class for her became an orderly queue inside the out-of-town McDonalds restaurant. 'What?' he replied. 'I read a book on anti-gravity,' she said looking up at the choice of meal deals on offer. 'I couldn’t put it down,' she said with a smirk. She stood watching him, awaiting his response. 'Oh, okay. Why not?' he asked. He was struggling to concentrate. He understood he was with her, that he should be talking to Lindsay or making a decision for lunch, but a dense fog lay within him, obscuring his path. ‘No,' she laughed, 'gravity. Anti-gravity?... Putting it down?' He looked at her vacantly. Why was she looking so expectantly at him, he wondered: she had dropped science classes two years ago. ‘It’s a joke,’ she said. An immediate attempt at shifting from misunderstanding to casual indifference fooled neither himself nor her. 'Oh right, yeah... yeah,' he replied, 'I was joking too.'
‘Oh yeah, sure,’ she said.
‘I’m telling the truth,’ he replied, spinning his yarn further.
‘I tell you what.’
‘Buy me a McFlurry and I’ll believe you,’ she said.
‘Oh right,’ he replied, ‘so you're threatening me now?’
Lindsay laughed loud enough for the people in front of them in the queue, those not willing to miss out on a good joke made in public, to turn around. ‘Yeah, I’m threatening you,’ she said, ‘so what’s it going to be?’
‘Alright, you win.’
‘Thought so,’ she replied. In the queue in front of them, three men lit brightly by their high-vis jackets picked up brown bags, grease already saturating the bottom corners, and hurried out the double doors with intent to consume their spoils within the comfort of a transit van’s front seats. 'I’m gonna get a chicken wrap,' Lindsay said, 'without mayonnaise.'
'Happy meal,' Hywel confirmed, 'always.' He began tensing his arms, wondering whether they were good enough or pronounced enough for her to like him. The line of internal questioning continued with the accusation that he was overweight, which in turn led to his stroking of the skin under his chin and tugging at it hard. Lindsay put her hand in his fleece pocket, and he dropped his hands and untensed the muscles in his arms. He checked his mobile phone for fear of new, particular messages.
‘Alright guys, what'll it be then?’ asked a young man behind the till.
‘Alright Matt?’ Lindsay said, ‘didn’t know you worked here now.’
‘Hey Linds,’ the cashier replied, ‘nice to see you.’
‘Since when have you worked here?’
‘Just the last few months,’ Matt replied, ‘wasn’t feeling it at college.’
‘Yeah, well that’s fair enough,’ she said. ‘Shame though, I always got annoyed with you having all the right answers in English last year,’ Lindsay said cheerfully.
They laughed together, enjoying the opportunity to reminisce on the recent past. Hywel looked on, wondering if Matt recognised him.
‘Yeah, well I am thinking of going back,’ Matt continued, ‘just need to be earning for a while, see?’
'Chicken nugget happy Meal for me please,' Hywel interjected brusquely.
‘Uh, yeah… right,’ replied Matt, ‘sorry butt.’
‘Hywel,’ Lindsay said, ‘chill out, mon. We’re just talking for a second.’ Hywel had known Matt since he started school. Matt had always been a few inches taller than him. Hywel had often tried to befriend him, ever since his first encounter with him lining up for lunch one distant school day, without Matt never noticing him. They had been in statistics classes together, on Thursday lunch breaks, for the extra GCSE. Matt had seemed set for university and essays and whatever else that would entail. As soon as the school secretaries stopped calling his parents to find out why he wasn’t there, he never returned.
‘Yeah, I know,’ Hywel replied defensively, ‘I’m keen to eat though. Got things to do.’
'I’ll have a chicken wrap, without mayonnaise, please Matt,' said Lindsay, ‘actually, forget that. I’ll have a chicken nugget happy meal too.’
The lunchtime rush grew in intensity, with a queue for burgers and chips now slinking outside the main door. Matt, behind the counter, gathered together their food, and moved on to the next customer. For a short while, the malaise between Lindsay and Hywel lingered: he couldn’t quite articulate his dissatisfaction in any meaningful way, and she found his earlier imposition in cutting her conversation short cause for irritability. A new action growing became a habit, became an involuntary tic, where anxiety rose with expectation and he’d check his phone for a message from his mother, or from someone else about her. His concentration would come and go, sometimes he’d happily be in conversation with Lindsay, sometimes his mind wandered far away, unable to hear what he or she was saying.
They took it in turns to dip their chips in a large dollop of sugary tomato sauce that sat on the paper base that accompanied their food trays. 'Oh cool, a toy story alien.’ he said, ‘I wanted one of these when I was younger.' Hywel lifted up the small plastic figurine out of his happy meal box and began contorting its form. ‘You have saved our lives,’ the little lime green, three eyed figurine spoke, ‘we are eternally grateful.’ Lindsay sighed, discontent with the view inside her happy meal box. She lifted out a small figurine of a man in a beige suit. 'I don’t want that,' she said. She spun it around and held it at arms length as though the miniature suited man would at any moment threaten her with additional homework. 'Who’s it supposed to be?' she questioned. She dangled the figurine by its feet over the tomato sauce. 'My fiscal policy is the best, dude!' the toy replied. The miniature man spoke through a few air holes in the back of his head, and as he did so his eyes lit up red.
Lindsay picked up his happy meal toy, looking more content with it. She waddled the little alien toy around, one foot following the next, ‘I like this one.' Hywel picked up the small plastic man and dusted off the salt that had collected on its grey suit. 'It’s Tony Blair, Linds.’ he said, ‘the prime minister.' Tony Blair™ was imprinted on the backside of the small plastic man. Having found the button that activated little Tony Blair’s speech, Hywel pushed the little tie into its body. 'New labour means new time for delicious happy meal!' the prime ministerial toy said. 'Yeah, this is pretty shit,' Hywel sighed.
They both sat with quiet concentration, working their way through the remaining chips and nuggets. The toy looked remarkably similar to the Prime Minister, the adolescent boy thought while swinging it from side to side, clipping the figurine's head on the corner of the table. 'That’s correct. I’m an advocate for home ownership, family values and having a good time!' little Tony pronounced. The clang of plastic abruptly hitting harder plastic continued as the toy knocked into the table. 'I promise I’m not a career politician,’ continued the toy, ‘that said, I do promise that I’m here to make your life better, starting with a happy meal!'
'I may come from an elite background, but honestly I just feel like one of you guys!' the toy continued. Hywel dropped his toy into his coat pocket and looked over at Lindsay’s meal. She was a slower eater than he was, but this was often the case. He ate at a pace that suggested each meal was a latest delivery of illegal contraband that had to disappear as quickly as humanly possible. As usual, Lindsay took her time between mouthfuls: she still had three nuggets and most of her chips. He slowed his masication. Having been granted ownership of the little green alien toy, Lindsay put it into her bag and, having picked up a second plastic spoon from the condiments section, they began sharing the McFlurry after meal treat.
'My parents have been arguing a lot lately,' said Lindsay.
‘Shit,’ Hywel replied, ‘that’s not good.'
'I know. Dad’s been sleeping in the living room for the last few weeks,' she said.
'Sorry to hear that.'
‘Must be quite stressful being with the same person forever,' Lindsay considered.
'I guess,' he replied.
‘I reckon it’s hard being with the same person forever, don’t you?’
'Oh yeah... Can’t imagine being with one person for the rest of my life,' he said, ‘not right now.’ He judged the effectiveness of those words, hoping they were the right ones to say.
'They’ll work it out.' Lindsay decided.
'Yeah, s’pose so,' he believed the opposite, 'Lindsay, do you? ...'
'Do I what?'
'Nothing,' he said, retracting any urge to talk.
'Nah, it's…’ he mumbled. He put his hands into his pockets.
'Nah.' His hand fiddled nervously with the figurine. 'Huh! War! What is it good for?' A muffled tinny voice came out of his coat pocket. 'Well actually, it provides support for eliminating dangerous peoples and allows our own cultural values to be maintained. So it’s good in many ways. It’s good for business! Happy days man!' He forced his hand over tiny Tony’s plastic face.
'You’re quiet today,' Lindsay told him.
'Yeah you are. What’s up?'
'Nothing’s up.' he replied.
'Mum, please... Let me book someone in to see you.'
'I can’t…’ she sobbed, ‘I just don’t think I can go on any more,'
'Mum. Please don’t do this, there are people out there who can help you get through it.'
'I miss him so much,’ she continued with heightened release, ‘I’m dead without him.'
'Mum, please. I know. It’s been really difficult for me too, but we can’t let it take over us.'
'Oh Soph, I just want to be done with. I can’t go on any longer. I just want to go to sleep and...'
'Mum, please don’t say that.'
A shared silence took hold between the coiled cables between the daughter and the mother’s ear. 'Soph. Karen is here.’ her mother said, ‘she’s just opened the front gate. I can see her in the window, she’s so good to me. She’s taking me to the shops.'
'That’s good mum.'
‘I’ll call you later.'
'Okay mum,’ she said.
Sophie placed the phone back into its base, and warmed her hand on the furry cat’s sleeping body. The alchemy of Cash In The Attic reached its crescendo of an eleven-pound profit and a gentle trundle into another upbeat final credit melody. Sophie, pressing the mute button on the remote control button, stared at the moving image at the other end of the carpeted room as it ran through a list of words rolling upwards too quickly to register meaning. The cat on her lap twitched, deep in its current state of dream. A careful hand on the cat’s head ran across its body. The cat purred, and after a moment, stretched out her front and back legs to imitate a hairy feline crustacean and extended a large, satisfied yawn.
Time passing felt like a trap: a cruel fate of waiting for meaning to appear, day after day, wishing night to come as quickly as it could, for the belief that tomorrow will bring the more that had prevented today from being enough. This was opportunity in its living. Marigold, having got a bit too hot after an immeasurable amount of time on her guardian’s legs, jumped off and cantered away to find another place to be. Sophie rose from the sofa, the indentation revealing years of time given up to day time television, and moved into the kitchen. She began to wash up the dishes left from the family’s dinner the night before. A plastic bowl in the sink was filled with luke-warm water: she squeezed a small amount of washing up liquid into the channel of water coming out of the tap. An aching, ubiquitous solitude resonated in the air around her. She had a deep longing for some kind of kinship, though the demonic form that was her sense of duty perched impishly on her shoulder and repeatedly reminded her otherwise. It told her of her need to stay and describe her daily worth. With sponge in hand, she cleaned each object, washing away the suds before placing them in neat organisation on the drying rack. The pile of clothes strewn around her son’s room were folded and placed away in their respective cupboards. Her husband's dirty clothing was placed in the washing machine and later hung outside on the line to dry. She hoovered the carpeted downstairs floors and cleaned the upstairs bathroom, pouring bleach down the toilet and scrubbing away the residual green algae from the sealant between the bath and the tiled wall. She washed her hands until they were clean.
Out of the upstairs bedroom windows, she observed the green of the trees fade into golden brown, red and amber. She observed as they dropped to reveal the gnarly nakedness of their branches and trunks as the bend of the earth offered shorter and shorter opportunities to use the sun’s light. She observed through the safety of the frame. She observed as light grew lengthened once again and the green tips on twigs and branches celebrated the presence of additional daylight all over. She observed. She observed, wishing and dreaming for limitless bounds: for a simple, satisfying life that existed in the safety of a fantasy; for warmth and pleasant, empathetic people and for a reality to exist that let her in, which she felt confident in and accepted enough to be bold and brave and do what had always been a wish or a dream too far from reach. She observed as the dream came and once again disappeared through her fears. She let time pass. She let it slip through her fingers. She wasn’t alone in this world with these experiences of isolation, but such is the experience itself, there was no plausible way to ever find out how crowded it was with the masses of others just like herself. A tear dropped from her face and disappeared between the radiator and wall paper peeling off from the inner breezeblock wall. The phone rang downstairs, so she hurriedly went to answer it. As she stood over the plastic object in the living room, it continued to ring and she continued to stand above watching. The call stopped and drifted to answer machine.
Sophie stood in her own silence for another unrecorded moment, lifted her palms and studied her wrists. They were white, and for this moment at least, unfamiliar to her. She placed one hand on the door handle and, as though something inside of her snapped, slammed the door into its frame with as much force and she could muster. The partition walls shook and she repeated the act, ramming the door into the doorframe. 'Who do you think I am?' she screamed. The side table next to the sofa wobbled with more vigour after each occasion the door met its frame. On it, the phone bounced off its base and dangled off the table’s edge. A pad of post-its decorated with doodles fell to the floor, and with the last door slam, a recently brewed mug of tea fell off the table and broke into several jagged pieces. She watched the fabric absorb the liquid and spread out across the carpet. Kitchen towels soaked up the tea and on her hands and knees, she collected the pieces of the broken mug and placed them into an old ice cream container with a small bottle of super glue awaiting its use already inside. She lay on the carpeted floor as the sun entered the room, breaking through the window as it gently rolled over the unbroken, blue sky. A wet nose came to greet her, meowing and requesting calm after the loud noises from a moment earlier. She placed her hand on the cat's back, who fell to the floor and rolled around purring until, realising there was warmth to borrow, took rest in a similar foetal position as her larger friend. Sophie smiled and the cat purred. Time passed. She lifted the phone from its base, pressed in a sequence of numbers and placed the phone to her left ear. Her body braced itself for the sound of a violin, though it soon turned out to be the murmurings of the living room radiator pipes.
'Hi Jan,’ she said, ‘it’s Soph.'
'Hiya love,’ replied Jan, ‘nice to hear from you.'
'You alright Jan?'
'Aye, I’m alright.’
'You sound well, Jan.'
'Aye, mustn’t grumble. How are you, love?'
'Do you feel up for a walk down the sea at all?'
'Well, I’m not sure Soph, tell the truth.’ Jan continued, ‘I’ve got sailors legs the past week or so see.'
'Oh, okay,' she said.
'I could come pick you up and we could go for a cuppa, couldn’t we?'
'Well, yes. That would be nice,' Jan said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t walk for too long at the moment.’
'Do you want me to get you anything from the shops?'
'Milk and bread wouldn't miss Soph.'
'Alright, I’ll head over now, so be with you in twenty minutes or so.'
'Aye, alright then Soph. Looking forward to it love.'
'And me Jan.'
‘See you soon.'
'Well, I’m not entirely sure that’s the most appropriate use of the budget, particularly when we haven't even signed off the final option for mock-up production,' Anthony replied. He re-tucked the loose left side of his lilac collar shirt in. 'I disagree with you Tony,' Steve replied brusquely, 'Mike, what’s your opinion here?'
The room, often used for meetings such as these, whereby a few managers from departments in towns or cities closer to airports and work opportunities and networking events than Pencoed was would come to inform the design production teams of 'new developments' and 'restructuring opportunities' and the like. They would come bearing gifts of their managers’ managers' concerns, which typically meant fewer staff, longer hours in the office, the kind of extra hours that never officially get clocked, and families at home watching the evening and weekend television privileged to forget the role their father used to play in the household.
'I’m with you, Steve. Tony, you’re being over cautious again,' replied Mike.
'Guys, I really don’t think I’m suggesting we go too slowly. We need to be certain that the team here is ready at each stage of the production line.' Anthony removed a layer of sweat from his brow, massaging the moisture from his palm into his trouser leg side.
'And we can do that here, just like you said, while we finalise the design work back at our base. We’ll make sure everything is ready by next Thursday to go to production on the first batch.'
'I’m just not sure that the staff here are going to be able to take on that amount of work with the first production deadline being the week after. Can I suggest that we move it back by two weeks? So that we can get a prototype that will really be of use to us.'
'I disagree Tony.'
'Yes, so do I, Tony. You’re wrong. We need to be positive here.'
Anthony projected his best attempt at a genuine smile, knowing a need to present oneself as considered and unphased when subjected to heightened white collar pressure. This was key to good management.
'It’s not a question of positivity, it really isn't. It’s a question of whether your branch is taking our design work and changing it last minute, to then give it back to us at the last second. Then, after that, our line men need to work through the new design in less than a week. It won't happen, there’ll be too many mistakes.'
'Tony, we’ll ask you again to be positive.'
'Yes that’s right Tony. It’s you here who’s not playing ball. Everyone else is playing ball,' said Steve.
'I am playing ball, Steve.’
'Tony, you’re not playing ball. We really do need you to play ball with us.'
'Sorry Mark, I am trying to play ball, but…'
'No buts, Tony. Play ball,' said Mike.
With the meeting complete, the two Basingstoke branch managers took down the minutes of the meeting, nodding at one another in contractual satisfaction. The men placed their notepads, pens and newspapers in their briefcases; tightened their ties and wiped the dusty remains of a packet of crisps off their navy blue suit jackets. Together they walked out of the double swing doors, through the factory canteen for a pit stop of coffee, mash potato and sausages, before getting back into their day rental BMW 7-series. Almost as soon as they arrived, they drove over the bridge back onto English land. The members of the design team, having left the meeting with the external managers, returned to their desks. The project team refused to speak to Anthony after his meek attempt at arguing for their working conditions to be improved and this increasing their already overloaded project deliverables. Disgruntlement filled the air, rising out of the factory’s many out-vent exhausts and into the local atmosphere.
Anthony headed out through multiple sets of double doors until finding himself far away from the people he had just spent most of the morning and early afternoon with, finding himself at the edge of the company’s private car park. He unwrapped his cheese and pickle sandwich and stared at two moorhens bobbing in the water of a sewage overflow that provided an array of natural life to flourish and coexist. Various pieces of coloured plastic and an enveloping orange scud captured the imagination of the water breaking onto the thick clay mud of the pond’s bank. He ate his sandwich and stared out into the passing time.
Placing a bath towel on the kitchen floor, the adolescent boy gathered up the knives, sharp ended utensils, forks, cocktail sticks and scissors and tightly wrapped them up before placing them onto a second towel, binding that up and wrapped full lengths of sticky tape around the thick towel roll. He pushed and pulled at various boxes filled with things he once argued were of life changing benefit that now sit forgotten under his bed. Having placed the bundle of sharp metal things in an Ikea bag, he slotted it between a plastic container of lego and a cardboard box containing dinosaur toys. He looked out of the bedroom window, a pitchfork stuck deep in the earth where the potato plants had recently been dug up. Should that go under the bed too? he wondered.
His imagination began to cycle through a series of options again: the ways he would find his mum at her end. His breathing tightened, his chest felt heavy and immobile. The bottom of the well grew deeper and further away from the light. Freedom becoming increasingly further out of reach. He swiped his hands wildly towards the opening, his arms flapping without friction keeping them in place, and they slid back down before reaching the ground. He felt a faint and a strangely satisfying cold sweat, a tingly and prickly sensation, passing over him. A mist covered his eyes. Water rose: there was a leak in the well and the water level quickly lifted past his ankles. Then his knees. Then his waist. He was being taken over. As he screamed, he forced both fists into the carpet. Eyes watched on, laughing as they usually do, at his apologetic form. The water rose up to his chin, he lifted his head fighting for breath. A burn sensation formed on the side of his face, as he forced his head further into the carpet. The cat came in to inspect the noise and exertion. Submerged, he let the water in. It filled his lungs. He lay, emptied. An exhausted nervousness absorbed him as his arms and legs twitched. The cat pushed her head against his, with the following waft of her backside in his face. She purred, continuing her generosity for his benefit. He wiped his wet cheeks with the cat’s nose.
Making minimal physical effort, staring into the backlit screen, and with the dial tone making its usual chorus, he opened internet explorer. Typing out his question to ask jeeves, thousands of apparent answers appeared as to how to stop people from ending their lives. He continued his search, occasionally checking his phone for a reply that didn’t arrive, as the lights went off in his house and his profile became a silhouette in front of the backlit white screen. He continued clicking and reading. Street lamps flickered on, illuminating the horse chestnuts lining the avenue, and all the other lights in all the other houses along the street turned off.
She was still wearing his scarf. He noticed the skin of her neck, how soft it looked to touch but not wanting to stare he averted his gaze, and responded to her smile by picking up her coat and placing it around her shoulders. She put her hand inside his coat pocket and directed them outside the school grounds to her car. Lindsay had passed her driving test with consummate ease, and drove through Bridgend as though she always needed to be somewhere at least five minutes ago, which at times scared the older residents and made the friends in her car smile. She owned her own car, which impressed everyone else he knew. She had a small and reliable purple Corsa filled with fluffy pink and green things that adorned the back and front windows. The heating didn’t really work, which he was looking forward to. Leaving his redundant equations of differentiation and integration behind and her essay on the drama triangle for another time, she unlocked the doors and they climbed inside.
'Where shall we go?' she asked.
'Wherever you wanna go.'
And so, 'the sea,' Lindsay said. 'Down at Ogmore-by-Sea,' was where she’d like to go, 'to watch the waves come crashing in.' Both remained quiet during their shared time together as she drove them towards their destination. The car was, as predicted, quite cold and inside her large glove both of their hands went. His hand cooled and her’s warmed inside the glove that hovered over the gear stick as she made sharp changes from second to forth and back to third.
In front of a cliff face that seemingly rose up into the clouds, they sat in her car in an empty car park and, as Lindsay turned off the engine they watched the sea’s meeting with the land. Waves crashed in honorable fashion onto the pebbled beach: each hit washing away the effect of the one before. Rain started to drift in towards them from further out and the sea’s hum surrounding them gave them what they wanted: something present, something always there. She looked towards him. He smiled, and as the pain set in he returned to an observation of one particular wave moving closer to the shore before it came crashing onto the rocks below the cliff. He wondered how it was that it looked so separate from the rest of the ocean, that one wave. It looked like such a final, permanent act of an individual giving up what it had to lose and dispersing into the ground, when in fact, looking a bit further outward, it became clear that each individual wave was a part of everything else. They were together and not alone. They shared one glove, keeping their hands warmed together over the gear stick, and looked out towards the sea as a haze of rain gradually obscured their view.
'It’s nice, isn’t it?' she said.
'Yeah,' he said.