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THE BLUE WIDTH OF THE SKY

(I asked someone to give me a word or phrase to kick-start the writing muse. The phrase was “I had a farm in Africa”.)

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I had a farm in Africa.

Or to be more specific, we had a farm in Africa. My sister and me. My twin. My lost, dead twin.

The farm was spread across a shallow bowl of grassland and dust pans in the Karoo, a short distance north-west of the Gariep Dam. About nine hundred acres, as it said in our father’s will.

Ma got the big farm along the regional road, which will go to Marcus, our older brother after Ma dies. The problem was – and still is – that Ma is a bit like that queen of England. She won’t bloody die. Marcus has divided his time between the farm and being an accountant in Bloemfontein, waiting for Ma to fall over dead one day. But she just goes on, making jams and konfyt, and chasing spiders out the house with a lappie.

So, ja. The terrible twins got the farm along the road, seven kilometres away. We were supposed to take it on and make sure the sheep survived, and the blesbok herd didn’t get poached for biltong that would be sold, eventually, down in Cape Town.

At least that’s where Chris-Jan says it goes. Don’t ask me how he knows. It could be that his wife Betsie has a skelm cousin or three doing the poaching. Maybe Chris-Jan lets the cousins take only enough so that he doesn’t need to do a cull once a year. Chris-Jan is long on ideas, but short on energy. And Betsie is thin on brains but rather wide on the hips.

Oh, I can hear you asking who Chris-Jan and Betsie are? They’re what Ma calls ‘die kleurlinge‘, or what Marcus’s uptight wife calls ‘the helpers’. They make sure that Ma has enough to eat, that she doesn’t burn down the house making jam, and that the big farm is kept well enough for Maryna – Marcus’s wife – to say that they have a small place near the dam.

Not that she ever brings her fancy friends to the farm – that would mean she has to let them see that her mother-in-law is not one of the gentrified ladies from the NG Kerk, but rather someone who looks like she just fell off the back of the ox-wagon and just kept walking.

When Chris-Jan and Betsie go visiting their families down by Beaufort West, then Ma is watched by Spanjaard and Venster. Spanjaard is a completely crazy Border Collie that Ma swears was born with chronic insanity – something about his mother walking in rabid jackal piss when she was in pup – no really, that’s what Ma says. Venster is just a dog – a patchwork of whatever makes up a million mongrels in the world. Venster’s name comes from the fact that Ma was on the road from Bloem when she saw the pup thrown from the window of the car ahead of her.

By now you are probably thinking that I am the different one, the brother who is more normal than the rest. Haha, you would be so bloody wrong. I have a dead sister. She killed herself. We lived in the same womb for almost nine months. We shared an eccentric mother, a brother who is a snob, and a father whose favourite weapon was a sjambok, backed up by very expensive Scotch and the NG Kerk that his wife despised.

Yes, I had a farm in Africa, and I ran away from it. I had to because dragging the bloated body of your sister from the farm dam is not something you want to re-imagine every morning that you wake up on that same farm. She took an overdose of tablets then walked into the dam, one late evening five years ago. Passing into unconsciousness when you are fifty metres from the muddy banks, maybe it is a quiet way to go, but she didn’t think about those who would find her. There are things that a few barbel can do to a body that can make a sobbing-snot brother wish he was dead alongside her.

That filthy old rose-patterned dress…I hate seeing pink floral stuff now. When I was still friendly with Marcus – after “the accident” as Maryna calls it – he would laugh and tease me about being ‘a moffie who didn’t like flowers’. Stupid shit, he has me all wrong. Being quiet and not playing sport doesn’t make a boy a gay. I just preferred to hang around with my sister all the time. We had our own secret language and our own secret signs. But at the end, I failed to hear and to see the worst secret of all – that she would leave without telling me.

So I left the farm, two days after my sister died. I hid the key in the special place, and I just went. Took the things that mattered to me, drove to Bloemfontein and caught a plane to Joburg. I hid away in a funny boarding house in a suburb called Kensington, changed my cell number, renewed my passport, and left the country six weeks later. I don’t know how they buried Doriet, or on what day. I was gone. Out of it. And I could tell my new friends in London that I’d had a farm in Africa.

London became my new farm. It was so easy to walk with my head down, not looking at anyone – as they do there – much like I had done on the farm. But in those old days, I had been looking at the small miracles beneath my feet – the vygies, the scuttling lizards, stealthy scorpions, and the succulents squeezed into impossible spaces on the stony tops of rock ridges. London’s only miracle was my anonymity and a willingness to do some filthy jobs.

I had a farm in Africa.

But I came back. I am here right now. The house is a mongrel mix of Cape Dutch affectation and Karoo practicality, small windows to keep out the heat, but gables facing to all points of the compass. The driveway seems to be maintained – Chris-Jan maybe? The grass is a bit yellow and crispy in parts, around to where the verandah faces the dam and the ridge. The peach trees are starting to hang low with still-green fruit. Ma must enjoy coming here to fetch the harvest when it’s jam time.

And I am now standing by the door of the thick-walled stone room in the farmyard where the old people used to store the milk for the day or the cream for Sunday’s lunch dessert. A cold room, they call it. When I was small I would creep in here with Doriet and we would lie on the cold, damp floor and tell stories and secrets. There is a shelf, low down on the wall, that we lay under so that we could draw with bits of old sandstone on the surface above us. Doriet always drew ladies with big boobs and bums. I always drew monsters.

I push the door open and walk in. The old box with the Johnnie Walker logo on it is still up on the left side. I reach up inside it and pick out the filthy tin that says Sharp’s Toffees. A rattle inside and I know the key is still there. The tin is sticky with old oil and dust, but it opens like I always remember it did.

There’s the key, I grab it and drop the tin on the floor and hasten to the kitchen door. And stop.

What is more important? The house or the land? I hesitate. No, I have to go around. To what everybody calls the front. Where Doriet and I would sit on the stoep and sip cheap, sweet hanepoot from the general dealer down by the dam.

The grass crunches beneath my feet, and I can feel the heat of the sun on my neck as I look down – careful for basking snakes or trailing strands of harsh grass that can trip up the unwary.

As I come around the corner, I feel the punch of memory. The old coke bottles are still lined up on the low wall of the verandah. They still contain Doriet’s collection of stones and precious findings. Some have fallen down onto the ground alongside the steps, but they are essentially undisturbed.

I turn my back to the house and look north, to the ridge. It shimmers in the heat haze, the horizon white, leached of colour in the midday sun. My city-blind eyes pick up a movement that would have been easy to define five years ago. Sheep? Or the blesbok that always haunt the dam surrounds?

I start walking along the track that leads to the old concrete reservoir that’s near the top of the ridge. I can see the windmill pump turn very slowly, a sentinel alongside the slime-coated trickle of water that has leaked from the reservoir since I was barely able to stumble upright. Sometimes Doriet and I would strip to our underwear and jump into the reservoir, picking up strings of algae to hurl at each other, or grasping handfuls of rotting vegetation that had been blown into the water on a thundery night.

Suddenly, a puff of dust, a snort of fright, and a commotion as I disturb a family of warthogs that rush up the slope, tails straight and upright like the aerials on police vans. No wonder Doriet and I called them police cars – she loved these belligerent bush pigs.

I start to laugh, and watch the group vanish over a dip in the slope. And then I carefully turn around and look back at my house. My farm in Africa. My vast sky – a dome of endless blue that spins slowly like an azure mirror above my head. There will be a storm later on, I know it – because this is my heart’s home. And I have brought back my heart’s desire to share it.

I look at the bakkie standing down in the farmyard. I know Alisha is still asleep inside, but she will wake very soon because the air-con is off and the heat comes quickly.

There’s going to be hell to pay for this, as sure as the dust beneath my feet tastes as red as it looks.

Why? I hear you ask.

Because Alisha is a distant relative of Chris-Jan and Betsie, and I love her. I found her in London, miserable as hell and pining for this centrepiece of Africa. She was a shampooist in a fancy hair salon, earning pounds for sure, but as out of place as a crocodile on an ice floe. Having grown up in Lesotho, with an Indian father and Chris-Jan or Betsie’s cousin as her mom, she was hating every minute of that city, but determined to go back home all polished and sophisticated.

I spent more money than I should have, getting my hair cut ever shorter and shorter, regaling her with stories of the farm. Until one day she threatened to cut off my ear if I didn’t shut up, then she threw the scissors at the mirror, called me a string of obscene things – not understood by the Brits around us – and stormed off to the toilets at the back.

That’s when I realised, I had a farm in Africa, and I still loved it. And I still wanted it. But I couldn’t go back to it unless Alisha came with me.

She has the same coal-black hair as Doriet, but a beautiful coffee cast to her skin. Her eyes are like the pools at the bottom of a kloof that opens up when you are wandering aimlessly in this almost-Karoo.

And this Karoo, with all its mense is going to throw a huge scandal right at the feet of my brother up in Bloemfontein. Never mind his wife. But I didn’t come back here to exact revenge, I came back here to resurrect my lesson in how to live and love once more. Only this time I have Alisha to laugh with, and to lie on the ground under the night sky and paint pictures with our fingers amongst the stars.

As for Ma? I reckon Alisha is going to be told how to make jam and koeksusters faster than you can say “Venster just stole the biltong from the drying frame!” The problem is that Alisha takes orders from no one, so this going to be a battle of wills between the “ou miesies” and this tiny stubborn woman who bewitches me.

I am back on the farm I have in Africa, beneath the blue width of the sky, and the magnificence of mile-high cloudbursts falling to the parched earth below.

* * * * * *

Copyright © October 2012 FIONA TIPPING. All rights reserved.

Reproduction or use of any portion thereof is a direct violation of US and International copyright law.

MY MOTHER’S HANDBAG

There it sprawled, like a malevolent old cat. Ragged, the 70’s designer fluff clumped into mucky grey blobs. Ma always called it by some fancy French name, but I simply dubbed it “the monster”.

It lived up to its name by consuming everything she tucked into its cavernous maw. I don’t think I ever saw anything escape from it. Not even once. Thankfully, my sister and I were not allowed to touch its holiness, and for that we were grateful.

I glanced over to where Ma lay, still and silent, her liver-spotted hands no longer clutching at the faded candlewick bedspread. For a moment I wondered if I should call the nurse to tell her that Ma was gone, but something told me to wait.

Hands shaking, I reached out for the bag at the end of the bed. My fingers brushed the blobs and recoiled from their greasy greyness. My heart pounded and I could see spots dancing at the edge of my vision. I held my breath for a moment, and then I lifted the ugly tortoiseshell handles.

The bag flopped off the edge of the bed and I took it on my lap. I could see the brown of my trousers looking fresh against the ugly old bag. My fingers fumbled at the scratched gilt clasp and with a dull click the bag opened.

A smell of old age, used tissues, ancient face powder, and copper coins wafted up my nose, triggering a thousand memories of childhood.

I reached down into the dimness and my fingers brushed against the old leather wallet that mother favoured. It was an oddity, a contrast to every other ladylike thing she owned. A man’s ostrich-skin wallet. One Christmas she had given me an identical wallet, saying how I was now no longer a boy and needed a man’s things about me. I lost it as quickly as I could. Somehow, in my young mind, it seemed wrong that I owned something the same as hers.

I tugged at the fastening and the wallet fell open. Faded slips from the ATM poked out of one sleeve. Two wrinkled twenty-rand notes lurked in the banknotes flap. Her ID book was wedged tightly to one side. I flipped open the coins pocket and found ma’s “tip” money — the largesse she dished out to car-guards and supermarket packers. I always hated how she handed them the money… as if she was distributing vast sums of wealth and they should bow and scrape their eternal thanks.

I turned the wallet over, pondering its miserly contents. Suddenly, it slipped from my fingers and fell to the floor. I bent over and picked it up, then noticed a white flash as a corner caught the sunlight filtering through the dusty net curtains. Something was tucked into the broken seam at the edge of the wallet.

Puzzled, I tugged at the whiteness and it slid partway out and then got stuck. I recognised it as a smaller version of an old sepia photograph Ma had on top of the piano at home. My sister’s white shoes were visible and I knew I would see Ma’s neatly crossed ankles in her Sunday-best court shoes. Stern-faced, I would be seated on Ma’s lap, my white sailor suit announcing to the world that I was Ma’s best baby boy.

I didn’t stop to think; I just pulled at the photograph. It came out suddenly and I felt the blood drain from my face. Who was that? Who was the man standing behind Ma smiling so cheerfully? He wasn’t in our picture on the piano at home. My puzzled brain vaguely registered that this picture had a background, while the one at home was artfully cut out and pasted on wheat-patterned paper.

I stared at the man, trying to figure out who he was. There could only be one conclusion, but I was getting there very slowly. My father.

But Ma had always said she had no photos of him; that he’d been so camera shy he refused to pose for any. And how sad it had been that he’d died in the fire that gutted half of our house. Only some of our possessions had remained after that fire. Ma always said he had died trying to save the house, and I remember how bitter she’d become, ranting on about how he’d left us all to fend for ourselves. It seemed as if she’d almost hated him and his memory.

I peered at the man, trying to see an image or reflection of myself. He looked familiar, and I could see a trace of my sister’s eyes, so piercing and sincere. The monotone of the picture didn’t disguise the fact that he had thick wavy dark hair, much like mine, and like me, he seemed rather tall and angular.

I jumped as the door behind me opened, and a nurse’s aide came in. “Ag, meneer! Shame, man. You should have called us! Now look at you, sitting all alone like this with no shoulder to cry on. Ag shame, meneer! I’ll just go call the matron quickly.” She patted my mother’s hand on the covers and then peered at the photo I held in my hand. “Ooh, meneer, I didn’t know he was your father. You must be so proud! A great man, a truly great man. He’s done so much for this country. Yes, yes, very proud…” And she bustled out as the door closed behind her once more.

I turned the picture over. On the back, a stranger’s faded handwriting and the words “Our Family, Lusaka 1962”. Underneath, the same handwriting, but more hastily penned, “Come back to me, my love.”

*****

Copyright © October 2003 FIONA TIPPING.

THE REMOVAL MAN

This was once an entry in a writing competition. Post-apocalyptic stuff.

Dust and bright, unrelenting light. Burning sky. Confusion. Hoarse voices shouting. Panic and lost souls milling around.

Time to go. But there is so much to leave behind.

Going through the buildings, seeing familiar yet empty staircases. Finding frantic people gathering their last possessions. Rediscovering places and rooms long remembered. How it will hurt to leave this place. It is the same, but somehow it is not.

Like a hammer on my heart, I miss everyone dear to me. But they are already gone. I tend to forget that at moments like this. I have an awful yearning for one last look. A final embrace. Why did they have to go? Why not me? Who chooses? Who really dares to choose? What right do they have?

Early this morning I discovered that I was one of the chosen. It seems random. Why take strangers who have no connection to each other? Why not take all those who had binding relationships? Connections.

I realise that I am the only family I have. Well, at least I can greet a face that I know in the bathroom mirror.

In a corner by the stairs, as the last goods are taken down to the waiting vehicles, I find the dog. I know about him, of course. Who didn’t? The pampered, beloved pet of the man once in charge of this place. Too bad that he had such abundantly selfish bones in his body he never thought of his dog. Now the man has gone away because he was not one of the chosen. The dog whines, his bravado and fighting stance reduced to this pathetic heap of bewildered, shuddering flesh.

I bend without thinking to pat the animal. For a second, that old flash of belligerence and menace glints in the depths of his red-tinged eyes. My reactions are dulled by my exhausted state, and I don’t pull back. My hand makes contact and the dog relaxes his body while he pushes his head against my fingers, begging for some sort of assurance. I stand and walk away. He follows. I wonder for a moment why, but I will chance it – I question if they allow him onto the departing transport.

As I walk, no one pays any attention to me. I wasn’t really noticeable in their little worlds. I wasn’t one of the workers, but rather one of the creators, and it has given me an odd invisibility – a division. Those who think, and those who do. There are always more who do and fewer of those who think. Those-Who-Decide have paid heed to the universal law of the Governing Council. I am a thinker amongst an army of doers.

The last boarding calls echo along the empty corridors. I speed up, not wanting to miss my connection. As much as it hurts I will not destroy this chance. I will lose even more if I stay. There is a faint clicking of claws on the tiles behind me as the dog follows. He has found someone to love for a moment, even if that moment is fleeting.

Across one of the vast empty assembly halls I see a familiar shape. The kind of familiarity that is almost lost in the back of your mind, but which returns in unbidden moments, much like a lift of a shoulder activates a long-buried memory. And this memory surely is old. One from my youth.

Who is it? The thought nags like a stubborn headache. Who can it be? Where do I know that posture? I look again. Gone. I want to turn back and shout, “Who are you? Where did you come from?” but I know my time is running out fast. I race for the stairs and leap down, two at a time, my backpack banging against my hips.

Out in the street, there are marshals yelling and gesturing as they see my orange transportation sticker, and I pound along the pavement, the dog a panting wraith of white-furred muscle following on my heels. I think he knows it is also his last chance. I throw myself onto the last truck and sit down, feet dangling over the back. The dog leaps too and as he lands the people gathered on the truck shrink in fear. It seems his reputation precedes him. I pull him closer and he settles with reluctance, his head on my lap. The truck groans into life. We are on the move.

•••

Later, I stand at the window and look down at the last few mechanics fiddling about below. Their protective suits and oversized headgear are a sharp reminder of our collective fate. Dust and debris blowing around them in random eddies.

Still, I think about why I am here, worrying at the idea like a rat at a carcass. Behind me on the scratched and dented steel floor the dog snores in a deep slumber. I can feel the various engines of the craft beginning to thunder, warming up. And I think how I’d always pictured departures like this as such sterile, beautiful, clean affairs. Perfect music, perfect people, and perfect plot, perfect setting. Not this horrendous scramble for survival. Oh, the ache I feel inside! It hurts so much, it hurts like a lost a limb. Precious people are gone forever. Once again I want to scream and shout, “Who chooses?”

Out of the corner of my eyes, I see someone moving some baggage that blocks an aisle in the middle of the craft. Again, that gut-wrenching sensation of a familiar profile. This memory is starting to hurt almost as much as my feeling of loss. The dog behind me whines and twitches, dreaming. Maybe he is picking up on my distress? I lean my grubby forehead against the glass. It leaves a sweaty mark but it cools me, and I can just make out my reflection against the backdrop of the dusty landscape I am about to leave.

A commotion behind interrupts my sorrow. Two of the workers dispute their rights to a space in the racks of bunks. The journey is going to be very long, it is better that hierarchies and power struggles manifest now. Only the bravest and loudest get the best spots.

I hear footsteps scuffing towards where I am standing. “It is you.” I freeze. Hold my breath. “I thought it was, but it has been so many years since I saw you.” I don’t dare turn to look at him. “Funny, back then I always thought you were so ugly. Bloody ugly.” I can feel my lungs ache as I wait, immobile. I stare at the glass, but I can still see him reflected behind me. A vague outline of a once-white t-shirt and low-slung jeans. Dusty boots. About as untidy and messed-up as I am. But still, it is him, making me fear, hate, and love at the same time. Even after so long.

I can’t… I can’t… I can’t look at his eyes. I can’t… Eyes that remind me of glacial ice. Eyes that cut through me. Eyes that I once hungered to notice me. I know it will hurt as much now as back then when he said all those agonising things. I hear the echoes in my mind. “Stupid kid! Child! Baby! Does your mom know you are out? Does the zoo?” followed by gales of laughter as his assembled acolytes erupted in sycophantic mirth. While I stared at my shoes and wished for the ground to open up and swallow me – hopefully swallowing my tormentors too and injuring them fatally in the process. How painful to yearn from afar, and yet to know that they think you are less than a worm in a jar.

Still, I cannot look at his eyes. I let my breath out just as the engines begin their final take-off whine. The craft shudders and I feel my legs pushed down hard to the floor. The dog lifts his head, growls at my companion, and then collapses again in an exhausted sleep.

“Sit down, please, it will be much safer. I can strap your belt for you,” says my one-time tormentor. I shake my head in denial. He says, “OK, your choice. I will just stand here and watch too.” I chance a look out the corner of my eye. He’s still there, fingers hooked on his jeans pockets.

I look down at myself. Such a change from the chubby unformed child I was the last time I saw him. Although as I now appear I must be quite a shock. Resembling a discarded rag doll, wearing a too-small shirt and grimy fatigue pants finished off with clumpy borrowed boots. Never mind that my brain is now wired to explode.

“My mom always had one of those hymns for times like this,” he says. I am jolted. Who dares talk religion these days? My dismay communicates to him because he says, “I will never forget the words. You wanna hear?”

I nod, silently.

” ‘Oh God, I rock and ages pass’ ” he proclaims. And I feel the bubble welling up in me as his misquoted words clang like giant hammers on a devilish anvil. My shoulders heave as hysterical laughter fizzes and crackles in my chest and erupts in my throat. I slump down, leaning against the window ledge, arms crossed over my stomach with tears pouring down my face. He bends low and looks me in the face. “What? What did I say? Is that outlawed still? I didn’t know! Tell me! Come on! Tell me! NOW!”

How do I explain that his misquoted lines could quite possibly become a new mantra for my as-yet undiscovered future? And then I look up and am lost. I did the wrong thing. I looked in those eyes. They are a steel trap. Always were.

Suddenly I leap up to avoid… what? Myself? Him? My feelings? Or, most likely, not to let him see that I still carry the old wounds. He stands with me looking out, almost shoulder to shoulder.

While I was having my little fit, we had taken off. Far below, the dusty dried-out Earth recedes. Many times I had dreamt of travelling like this, watched the TV shots, envied the travellers. Now my wish has been granted.

But what wish do I really mean? That I am standing next to the one person who has lived inside my head all my life? Or that I am inside a metal pod, soaring upwards at a startling speed, soon to leave Earth’s sullied atmosphere and journey as the chosen ones to start afresh on a newly-populated world?

I look down at the ledge that my hands rest on. Aluminium against the inner glass, and similar to so many places I have been, none too clean. Dust and dead flies. Spacecraft are maintained much like any other work vehicle, it seems.

For the first time I speak, “What are you doing here?” It comes out as a criticism, as if he’s not worthy of being chosen.

“Somebody has to move all this,” he says, gesturing to the piles of cargo behind us, “I am a removal man.”

“Oh,” I say, tongue-tied.

I look down again at my hands, fingers outspread on the windowsill. Alongside me, he leans forward and puts his hands on the sill too. Two pairs of hands. His show the scars of what he does, and mine show the stains of what I create.

And then he moves closer so that his shoulder touches mine. Not roughly, but not tentatively either. Just a feeling of solid comfort. He reaches over and covers my hand with his. So warm and solid. I feel the icy block in my chest crack with a rush. I feel my cloak of invulnerability and isolation fade away.

“I’m with you, you know,” he says. “Why don’t we stick together? I’ll be by your side all the way.”

THE END.

Copyright © June 2003 FIONA TIPPING.

THE WORD IS…

Dry stalks of grass crunched underfoot, and thorn bush pulled at her clothing. The air was hot and humid from a light rain earlier. Soon the birds would be winging their way back to their night roosts, but until then it was just another afternoon on the hillside.

Not too far below, a line of attached houses strung its way along a neat narrow road. The fronts of the houses faced the hillside, a pleasant prospect for hawkish estate agents who would sell an outhouse for a fortune. Soon, very soon, they would have another prospect.

But not yet. There was work to be done.

She walked on some more, picking a way through the tangled scrub, to a little shelter that carved its way naturally out of a clump of low-branched young acacias. She twisted her left shoulder and lowered the long beige bag to the ground. A deep breath and a curl of her neck to undo the knots, then she knelt down.

The leather straps with their elegant buckles unfolded like little serpents, and the beige cloth fell open.

Cool, hard steel barrel. Burnished. A patina of oil, the linseed fragrance competing with the smell of the vegetation.

Long, chocolate brown, wooden stock. Cherished. Beautifully kept. As yet untouched by the hands that would mar its surface.

She reached into her pocket and pulled out the little plastic bag. It had once contained pastel pink knitting wool. Now its cargo was no less delicate but so much more threatening. Six cartridges, .22 calibre. Not the subsonic rounds which Christopher had used when he showed her how it worked, shooting doves down by the quarry. These would definitely be heard when fired. No pathetic little splat now.

She looked up. Focussed her eyes on the row of houses and counted from left to right. So what if she knew she could pick out the house instinctively? She needed the ritual.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Neat privet hedge. White wrought iron gate. Rose bushes nodding in the sunlight. Perfectly painted brickwork and trim.

A glance back at the fourth house. Tangled creepers and twisted weeds. A lone hollyhock bobbing in the breeze. The walls peeling with pale yellow paint and the window frames dried out from a year of neglect. The swing frame showing rust from disuse.

Back to the fifth house. The glossy white door opened. Bang on time. Four p.m.

A man paused on the top step, surveyed his domain and walked sedately down the three red-painted steps. A wicker basket dangled from his arm and a thermos flask was clutched in his other hand. He walked along the path towards the iron gate and stopped near a low bench.

She watched, muttering under her breath, “Put the basket down. Now put the flask down.” Her faced creased in a mirthless smile as his actions echoed her words. “Find the little cutters. Thank you.”

She knelt down and hefted the slim rifle across the crook of her right arm. Digging in the left pocket of her old waistcoat, she found the empty clip. Six slots awaiting.

“Come on, Albert, come on,” she whispered, watching the man putter around the rose bushes. “Get to the pink ones at the front.” She sighed as he paused, but she used the moment to flick six rounds into the clip. It felt heavier and somehow more reassuring.

She shifted the rifle to her left arm, wedging the stock against her hipbone as the barrel laid a cool path across her inner elbow. The loaded clip slid into place with a solid snick.

“Where’s your mom, Albert?” she sighed, “Gone shopping? I hope so. I would hate her to see exactly how you died. That would not be right, really. Same as I don’t know exactly how Evie died. The only difference is that they will probably know who did it to you. Pity they didn’t believe me when I said it was you who did that to Evie. No evidence, they said. Searched you and your house and found nothing. Months and months, I waited, but they could not find the culprit.”

She spat harshly onto the dusty ground. “Hah! No reason to suspect it was you, they said. Didn’t even believe me when I told them how you would spy at Evie on the swing, peering through the hedge. Looking at a little girl like that. But I saw you. And I kept Evie close to me, even when she was playing outside.”

At this point, her jaw tightened and the words burst from her like short explosions.

“How… how you… how you… got her. How did you get… her to go outside the house? You must have known… must have heard that I was… in the bath, listening to the news on the radio, like I always do. Listening to the posturing and posing of politicians prattling about disarmament. But the threat was nearby and I never knew…”

Her words faded into the sunlit air, and she gasped for breath, her throat aching as if it was on fire.

“But her daddy is looking after her now. He took care of her. He was there to welcome her so that she would not be lost and alone.”

She took a deep breath. And another. The heat faded from her face. Another breath. The pulse in her throat slowed.

She knelt down, then crouched into a comfortable seated position, the rifle lying easily along her arm, its barrel resting perfectly along the carved-out soil of the ant-hill. Always be prepared, Christopher had said. Always know that you can take the shot. Do not guess.

No guesses now. Only certainty.

With a flick of her right thumb, she released the safety. Tilted her hand and grasped the bolt. Twisted it up a quarter turn anti-clockwise. Slid the bolt forward. Heard the round click into the chamber. Slid the bolt back and lowered the bolt back down a quarter turn. Smooth action. Perfect engineering.

She lowered her right eye to the sight, pulled the wooden stock into her shoulder and peered into the black tube. Colours danced crazily in her vision and then she steadied her wrist and found the perfect white door. A slight shift to the left and she could see the top of the bench. Another move to the right and Albert’s face swam into view.

His red cheeks, shiny skin and balding head caused a rush of bile into her throat, and she felt her resolve waver. Then he lifted a hand to his mouth and licked wetly at a fingertip, and that was all she needed to see. The pendulous lips, and pale eyes. The deliberate, nauseating actions. Enough.

She exhaled. Breathed in very slightly, and hooked her index finger around the cold trigger. At first, she thought something was stuck, but then she realised it was the pad of flesh under her finger that was being pressed against the metal. It had its own thickness to travel before it could make an impression on the trigger. There. Contact. Albert framed by crosshairs and pink roses, licking his lips as he muttered to his precious subjects.

Now.

Albert, gone. A bloom of red in the sights.

They would come, but now she had limitless patience. She sat back and raised her eyes to the sky.

 

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© FIONA TIPPING. January 2003.

CREEPING SEPTEMBER

Where did it go, that lovely September?
A month that I love, as I clearly remember
The skies high and wide with a promise of Spring
Such anticipation of what summer should bring

But my joy in this blossoming green season
Was brought down so low for no earthly reason.
My child with hot brow and flaming red cheek
So limp and listless she would no longer speak

That Saturday afternoon spent pacing the ward
Her liveliness still, where once it had soared
Questioned, examined, x-rayed and then scanned
Usually so healthy, for this I’d not planned.

Along came a doctor to examine her chest
And see what to do, to say what was best.
A diagnosis, pneumonia, the medicine prescribed
My anger at my failure is best not described.

For I am her mother, should have seen all this coming
Berating myself so that depression was drumming
But who in the world can foresee such sad things
We love our happiness and avoid all the bad things

And then Tuesday I was talking with my mother
About issues and racists, just this, that, and other
She dropped a small bombshell about her own health
How these things creep on us with such great stealth?

Abruptly a phone call broke our conversation
My brother was calling in great agitation:
“Turn on the TV, there’s murder unfolding!”
Our mood so shattered at what we were beholding.

And there in New York a man turned to stare
As the wing of a plane appeared from thin air
What went through his mind as he drew a shocked breath?
This winged silver missile that presaged his death…

Copyright © October 2001 FIONA TIPPING. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or use of any portion thereof is a direct violation of US and
International copyright law.

SHOES IN THE MIDDAY SUN

 

A pile of shoes. Hundreds of them. The bizarre aftermath of a protest march gone wrong.

Did you know that when a crowd panics and then turns as one and flees, the first casualties are shoes? When people run their shoes always come off.

I stand there next to the photographer and the journalist, staring at boots, sandals, and shoes, and I wonder why it looks so very pathetic. The only evidence that a volatile, outraged crowd had ever been there is a sad pile of shoes.

The sun beats down from a noonday sky, the pavement around is glittering stone, the fountains in front of the steps are splashing, and we three stare at a neat, gathered pile of shoes.

Finally, the photographer adjusts his paisley headscarf, kicks at a beige sandal, and says, “Shit happens” and we walk on, tracing the path taken by an impi the day before.

© FIONA TIPPING. August 2001.