(Originally appeared in BFS Horizons Magazine.)
Mrs Berwick Paints.
Her Jonny used to draw ghosts, she thought anyway, sickly green ghosts creeping across pitted ground like moss creeps over years. Low lying sea frets the colour of mucus, hoarfrost that somehow reminded her of blood and between the sharp edged hillocks and dead earth mounds the skeletal trees; branches that looked uncannily like arms, rictus twisted, bent and black. Sometimes he would draw lines over his pictures, or dots and cracks.
‘What are they, Johnny?’
‘They’re on the lenses, my sweet,’ he would say and she would marvel at his imagination. Lenses! Wherever did he read that?’ But of course he would not say, and he never really was a reader. Then, after the pictures always came his dark moods and she would avoid him, or if she heard him sobbing, go to him.
She would always say she was drawing the sea, when Mt Altrincham asked. When he peered over his glasses and stared at her painting she would always say she was drawing the sea.
‘And what exactly is that, Mrs Berwick?’ Pencil jabbing at her canvas like a bayonet on the end of a rifle.
‘The sea, Mr Altrincham.’ and he would nod, the light from the incandescent bulbs shining from his scalp and showing how thin his sandy hair was, hardly masking the dull patches of scarred skin. One day, she was sure, Mr Altrincham would ask her to a tea dance and she would say no and watch him shift uncomfortably from foot to foot. She could see it happening, clear as anything.
He got the scars in some sort of industrial accident, she’d heard.
‘You’re so clever,’ she would say when Johnny lifted up one of his paintings to go on the wall. In this one was something monstrous: an ugly metal snail crawling across a ruined landscape while canvas dragonflies dropped fire.
‘You could do it, Flo,’ Johnny would say, ‘if you practised. You’ve got a good eye. If Crowley buys this one I’ll get you your own paints.’
‘I couldn’t do that,’ she said, pointing at his picture and the smile fell from his face. He ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up at wild angles.
‘Good,’ he said – not in a mean way. ‘I wouldn’t want you to have to – ‘
A knock on the door and she went into the back, she didn’t like Crowley, the buyer, didn’t like the way he looked at her or the way he was. The way he stared at the pictures as if they were more than simply paint on canvas and said, ‘Interesting.’ It sent shivers through her.
And now, too late of course, she painted. And it was always the same, no matter what she tried. Her brush strokes becoming more flowing. Her colours more languid. Her pallet gradually transforming from bright primaries through to deep secondary greens and blues, the landscapes she brought into being always subsumed by water. What would her mother think of her painting? Her mother who hated the idea of her being with an artist, so much that Johnny and her had been forced to run away to get married.
‘Now Ladies, portraiture. A real skill,’ said Mr Altrincham. And she painted the sea.
They listened to the news about Archduke Ferdinand on the radio. The announcer so serious as he told them about the assassination, what it could mean.
‘Bloody Kaiser,’ said Johnny, he needs a punch on the nose.’ Anger on his brow, he smoothed unruly hair using short sharp thrusts of his hands. ‘A bloody nose for the bloody Kaiser.’
She put a hand on his leg, thick with muscle from all the lifting at the factory, ‘Not you though, eh? You don’t have to do it.’
He didn’t answer.
‘Today, windmills, Ladies!’ said Mr Altrincham. And she painted the sea.
Sometimes, at night, she would push herself as tightly as she could against Johnny’s body. He was all plains of muscle and she could still smell his cologne and the faint scent of the factory, it would never leave the sheets, no matter how well she washed them.
‘You won’t go away, will you, Johnny,’ she would say, but he would not answer. He was far away in sleep, shifting and moaning as he dreamed of oil on canvas. When he had nightmares she’d hold him tighter until he woke: that was the only way to cope as she could never wake him from his dreams.
‘Me lungs are filling up, he’d say,’ eyes closed, fists punching out in panic at some invisible enemy. ‘Me lungs are filling up, Flo, and I’m drowning! I’m drowning!’
‘You daft thing,’ wrapping her softness around him, stroking his hair, his always wild and mad hair. ‘Just stay away from the sea and you’ll be fine.’
‘Mr Leckington will be guiding us through the process of landscapes,’ said Mr Altrincham. And she painted the sea.
She watched Johnny go, with his other ‘pals’ and she screamed and shouted and cheered as loud as every other girl there – and at the same time wondered if all the other girls felt like they were being split in two as well, their hearts ripped out.
‘Infantry not navy,’ Johnny had said, and she smiled. ‘No drowning for me, Flo.’
‘Yes, infantry not navy, and you’ll be back for Christmas.’
‘Always,’ he said.
Bunting across the houses, cheering women lining the street. Was their happiness a brittle front for a deep and freezing tide of terror ready to gush out of their mouths in a scream that would never stop until the boys were home safe and it was all over? Was it? Was it?
‘Today our theme is red, Ladies,’ said Mr Altrincham. And she painted the sea.
‘Don’t they look handsome in their uniforms!’ She supposed they did, handsome and happy. Off to give the bloody Kaiser a bloody nose. Be back before Christmas.
When they were gone the streets seemed empty and strange – all women, children and old people. Like some sudden disease had fallen on the town and taken all the men.
She supposed it had.
In her little house on its quiet street, next to all the other little houses that looked exactly the same – stone fronts black with soot, front doors tied to each other by a spiderweb of clotheslines – she avoided looking at his paintings. Couldn’t bear to look at them; couldn’t bear to get rid of them. So each time, when she came home from her lessons, she would put her canvas up over one of his. Until, eventually, her rooms felt like fishbowls, water everywhere. The same details repeated again and again and again.
‘Impressionism, ladies,’ said Mr Altrincham. And she painted the sea.
In her watery bedroom. In a drawer by the bed which smelled of the factory he had worked in. Was the telegram. She didn’t read it any more, had only read it the once and that was enough. First day on the front…mustard gas shells…faulty gas mask. He died choking as his lungs filled with fluid, leaving her in a town she didn’t know, surrounded by people who were strangers. Everyone gradually sinking into their own grief and with no time for hers.
Mr Altrincham stared at her picture, his thin face screwing up, his eyes as green as the sea which rose to sharp points. An unseen wind beat a giant wave into white foam that arced and teetered, a sheer cliff of water a moment away from crashing down – as if there was not a moment to lose in engulfing the small figure that waited below, arms held aloft in either panic or welcome.
‘And that figure there,’ said Mr Altrincham – jab, jab jab – ‘what is he doing?’
She fought down the sob that had taken residence in her chest, right between her breasts.
‘Drowning, Mr Altrincham. She is drowning.’
He stared harder, bringing his sharp featured face in near to the paint, pointed nose wrinkling at the choking smell of the oils.
‘There’s a tea dance on, Mrs Berwick,’ he said. ‘I wondered if – ‘
‘No,’ she said, and he shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot and moved on, leaving her alone.
(Originally appeared on the Gollancz Blog.
I – Lift.
I used to hear foxes screaming and dream it was people.
Now I hear people and wish it was foxes.
Only occasionally now, screams drift across the heather carpeted moors and into my hayloft prison, carried here on freakish, warm winds. The first time I heard them had me pacing up and down the barn loft, desperate to do something.
Hob nailed boots drummed out my impotence on the wooden floor. Pacing doesn’t feel safe now.
This old building creaks like a ship under sail.
I only have one shotgun cartridge.
My world is green and purple, brown and white and red.
Yan, Tam and Tethera rule here.
II – Fetch.
Yan is eight. Purebreed border collie and the best sheepdog I ever had. Tam is ten, Yan’s mother and always the calmest of the three. Tethera is one and a half, only just out of puppyhood. He’s rotting away the fastest. I don’t know why.
Tam sits well back, ready to return any of the flock that try to make a break. Tethera runs tireless circles around the herd, his legs trailing strips of filthy skin and fur.
Yan drives them forward. He sits, staring up at me from empty eyesockets, for hours on end. Then he hunkers down his forequarters, raises his tailless rump into the air and runs forward, frightening the flock. Pushing them against the barn.
It moans under the stress of so many bodies.
Sour rot and the stink of sheep fills the air. The dogs don’t kill members of the flock but they won’t let them eat or rest either. A ewe burst from the pressure of a thousand of its fellows this morning. Spraying red over the dirty, white, bawling mass around it.
They never bark, the dogs.
I’m so hungry.
I used to love lamb.
My legs wont work.
My shotgun miss-fired, leaving a nasty burn and a huge bruise under my chin. It did something to my neck and in last night’s rain something went. Something structural. The whole barn heeled over by about forty five degrees. Cold water poured in through the roof.
The dogs can almost jump into the hayloft. Every so often Tethera makes an attempt to get in and I have to fend scuttering claws away from the hatch in the floor with my shotgun. The weapon’s useless for anything else. So am I.
Tam sits patiently at the edge of the flock. Her tongue lolls from her mouth, lifeless and dead without her animating pant.
The pressure of the flock forces, rhythmic, groaning breaths from the old building’s timbers: a splinter, long as my arm, vibrates at stomach height. The only sharp thing I can reach.
I’m not scared of dying.
Yan hunkers down his forequarters, raises his tailless rump into the air and runs forward, frightening the sheep, pushing them against the heeling barn. With a whip-crack report something else breaks and the barn moves another inch.
Sightless eye sockets stare up at me as a sea of sheep wash against the building.
Not long now, Lad.
Not long now.
Best sheepdog I ever had.