Burning the Stubble (Stroud Short Stories – May 2019)
We both go down on one knee in the perimeter of the field that grills under the August sun. You take an oily rag from your trouser pocket and, in a single jerk, tear it in two. You press both halves of the rag into the inch of tractor diesel I’ve carried from the barn in an empty paint tin. Whilst the rags soak, you stand and slide a cigarette from behind your ear. I stand with you, take a lighter from my pocket, offer up a tooth of flame. You draw in deep lungfuls then exhale slowly upwards into the baked air. The blue smoke drifts over the velvet of cut straw. You’re feeling the wind direction on your face, watching the path of cigarette smoke. We’ve ploughed a firebreak on the east side. By the time the flames reach the break they’ll be at a gallop, white hot, licking out twelve feet horizontal to the ground like a stampede of dragons.
Without the break, the east hedge would be charred sticks in the time it takes to fry a rasher of bacon. You flick-arc your cigarette end into the stubble and nod. I pull the rags from the diesel, ball them up, spear them onto our pitchforks and light them. When our hands feel the heat we stride off in opposite directions, trailing a riptide of fire that submerses everything.
With the tsunami of flame already half a furlong down, we meet back in the middle. I look up at two giant white birds converging on the mirage of heat.
‘Glider pilots scan the sky for smoke’, you say. ‘Flying into it pushes them up a thousand feet. Like taking a lift to the top floor.’
Of course you’ve done that. Flown a glider. There’s nothing you haven’t done. You’ve told me the stories.
Skied in the Arctic Circle with your snot turned to ice, ballooned over pyramids drunk on champagne, sailed a yacht across the channel, basked in the winners enclosure with your own racehorse.
‘He’s not a bloody farmer, he’s a playboy,’ my father said when I told him I’d got a summer job on your farm.
‘He won’t teach you anything about the land. Drinking beer and chasing skirt more like,’ he says.
It’s true you’re not like any other farmer in the village. You demolished the old farmhouse and built an upside-down bachelor pad in its place; king-size waterbeds downstairs and floor to ceiling smoked glass east and west, upstairs. You say the rising and setting sun is the only clock a man needs.
Back at what you still call the farmhouse, you open beers and climb the open staircase to turn on the sauna.
You strip naked. Drop your smoky clothes on the carpet for the Filipino maid to launder. The crack of your arse spreads itself over the burgundy leather of your armchair. Apart from the leather suite, a television and the retro magazine rack over-stuffed with your horse-racing newspapers, there’s no other furniture.
I open sliding doors onto the balcony that overlooks your acres. The smoke from the torched field rises like a tornado into the early evening sky, funnelling into the amber clouds. I watch the black flecks of burnt, glowing straw massing like a swarm of fireflies, spiralling up the vortex of heat.
‘Why don’t you phone home and tell them that you’re staying here tonight,’ you call out. ‘We have to be up early tomorrow to burn the others. Rain forecast day after.’
I can hear horse racing commentary from the television. When the little red light goes out on the sauna’s thermostat, you’ll expect me to strip off and join you. I didn’t like being naked in the school changing rooms with boys my own age. I’m the type who puts my shirt on before pulling off my trunks. I re-enter the sitting room and pick the telephone off the floor.
‘I’m staying at Dave’s tonight. We have to be up early tomorrow…. Of course it’s alright, he asked me to.’
‘She worries now Dad’s gone,’ I say.
You open more beers and take yours towards the sauna room. ‘You need plenty of fluid inside you to sweat back out.’
I take off my clothes and put my jeans up to my nose, remember bonfires with my Dad. That was my job whilst he trimmed the hedges. I fold my clothes neatly on the sofa.
You’re hunched over a Dick Francis paperback in your usual spot by the burner. I step up to the higher level and lie on my back. When the sweat starts to run you’ll begin scraping your hands over your groin, flicking the wet onto the glowing coals. I’ll lie here listening to the spit and hiss.
After cool showers and more beer you drive us at reckless speed through the country lanes in your open topped car. The smoke from the field is all around us. Other cars have their headlights on. My mother will have taken the washing in, closed the bedroom windows, even locked the doors with me not coming home.
‘Farmers burning every damn thing in sight again,’ is what she says.
We arrive at the pub you part own. You order us rare steaks and red wine.
‘You’ve done a good job today,’ you say.
It doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything apart from light rags and fags. You know everyone. Everyone wants to know you. I feel the reflected glory. You take the piss out of the lads at the bar.
‘Propping it up all day have we? Make room for the workers,’ you say. They lap it up.
‘Dave’s in. Dave’s buying. He’s the man’
‘Are you going to the races tomorrow, Dave?’
‘Got any winners for us losers, Dave?’
You let me drive home. You say I haven’t got a license to lose. Above the balcony, bats flit through the smoke of the joint we pass between us. A fox yelps in the spinney, hunts its prey. A breeze ripples embered lines over the ashen field, forks of red lightning flattened into the soil, shallow orange wavelets lapping over footprints.
We drink whiskey until the carpet starts to sway. I’m in an armchair boat on a choppy sea. I can see your lips moving but can’t hear. I run for the toilet. Later, from the balcony I see the black heart of the land. Wisps of smoke rise ghostlike from six feet under, meld with the dawn mist that sulks in the ditches. The fertile soil is scorched, cremated, rendered down for a different crop.
I wake when I feel your rough hands under the duvet, exploring me. You’re naked again, kneeling next to the bed you dropped me into. You look down at what you want me to see. Our eyes lock, wondering who will be the first to speak and what will be said.
FASHION IN MEN’S FOOTWEAR: LATE 20th CENTURY
(Stroud Short Stories Anthology 2018 and To Hull and Back, highly recommended 2018)
The 1960s. With a shilling I can buy a stripy paper bag of lemon and lime chews. I watch the fat lady tip the sugary lipped jar over the pan on the scales. I scrutinise whilst she adds and subtracts sweets with her Liquorice Allsorts spade, until the big-hand points to four ounces-o-clock.
Outside, on her bicycle leant on the shop window, Pamela Blackwell has been holding my bike upright, her bare legs resting on her handlebars. I’d seen her red knickers as she pulled up her knees, so I squat down and re-tie the laces on my new black baseball boots.
On the path that leads to the woods I can’t keep up with her. I breathe only the dust from her sherbet hair in the peppermint light that ripples through the leaves.
“If you give me all the red ones you can kiss me,” she laughs out of sight.
I think for a shilling I could have bought a ton of strawberry hearts.
“There aren’t any red ones,” I yell through tears, and wish that she’d notice my new black baseball boots.
I should be in the lead. I should be the one who decides what colour kisses are.
The 1970s. If I slide the driver’s seat back as far as it can go, I can depress the clutch in my brown and cream, six-inch stacked platform shoes, although I can’t feel if my right foot is on the miniscule brake or accelerator pedal.
Linda Osborne will be finishing her shift in the hotel restaurant at two-o-clock, just enough time for a pint in the bar. In her staff accommodation attic bedroom I unzip her out of her black waitress’s skirt and unbutton her ironed white shirt. Her underwear smells of Sunday lunches.
“You’re quite a bit shorter out of your shoes,” she says on her narrow bed.
Linda knows where there’s a party. I double de-clutch the car through the lanes whilst I stroke the inside of her thigh. The right hand bend is thirty degrees too many. My stacked right foot presses on the accelerator rather than the brake. A ditch and a dry-stone wall come between us and the party.
“You fucking idiot, you nearly killed me,” she says before pulling down her denim skirt and climbing up the ditch to the road.
“Well I’ve broken a heel,” I tell her. “And they cost thirty quid.”
The hotel chef arrives on his motorbike and helps Linda onto the pillion. I stand on my one good shoe so I’m as tall as he is.
The 1980s. In the gentlemen’s outfitters in Oxford, where university students of philosophy purchase their English mustard corduroy trousers, I buy black Oxford shoes with loops of perforations around the shiny toe-caps. I’ve got a diploma in business studies from the polytechnic, but in London’s square mile we’re all high flyers.
In the gentlemen’s club in Soho we’re measured up for girls and taxis hailed back to the company flat off Marble Arch. The fridge is stocked only with champagne. The boys take glasses and a bottle each, then peel off to the bedrooms where the girls peel off for their share of the bonuses.
But I can’t go to the bedroom. I’ve fallen in love with Mandy who kisses me on the ear so softly, her hair as sheer and as black as her stockings. She tells me she’s from Jamaica, and only does this work because her banker husband left her with two young kids, and there’s the mortgage and the private school fees to pay, and the nanny when they’re not boarding away. I start to make plans for when she and her children move in with me, and I help her find a proper job, and we have two sweet, light brown kids of our own.
“Lover, are we going to do it or not?” she asks in the kitchen, after the champagne and the talk has dried up.
“No,” I say. “I respect you too much for that,” and “can we meet outside of work any time soon, somewhere non-business related, as it were?”
“After work next Monday,” she says. “But I need something to make up for lost income tonight.”
I give her a hundred and open the cab door for her in the sober London dawn.
“You’re a proper gentleman,” she says and kisses me.
I look down at my black Oxfords. “Yes,” I think, “I am.”
“We haven’t got any Jamaican Mandys here. Never had,” says the doorman of the gentlemen’s club on the Monday night.
I tip the shoeshine boy a fiver and buy new laces I don’t need.
The 1990’s. The sun boils into the beach buggy my fiancée Alison and I have hired for the day. I drive in bare feet even though the foot pedals are too hot to touch.
We drive through villages where children’s faces watch our passing from glassless windows and baking stoops. Down a track that leads through breadfruit and banyan trees, the children run after us, shoeless over the sharp road-stone. White sand arcs round the green water and black shadows of coral. We leave the buggy in the shade of eucalyptus and take beach bags.
We lay our hotel towels under coconut trees and walk the length of the beach, hand in hand. I stop and throw fallen coconuts into the waves. We watch them bobbing like swimmers’ heads and wait for them to roll back up the sand. We’ve brought a picnic of wine and pink melons. I cut the melons with a knife borrowed from the hotel’s buffet. I try to stab drinking holes in a coconut but miss and stab a hole in her towel.
“I hope I don’t get stranded on a desert island with you,” Alison says.
“We should go for a swim now we’re here,” I say. “Skinny dipping. We’re the only ones on the beach.”
“No way,” she says, and asks me to hold her towel whilst she pulls on a one-piece.
“Reminds me of family holidays in Newquay,” I say.
She won’t go into the sea.
“It’s too coral-ly and I didn’t bring shoes.”
Alison goes back into the shade and rubs in more high-factor. I do breaststroke over the warm swell. Two local girls come onto the beach and strip off at the water’s edge. Under dirty dresses they’re wearing bikinis but they toss the tops aside then high step over the waves. In the deeper water they arch their bodies then disappear under, their bottoms floating momentarily on the surface. I go back to the towels and stretch out. She’s pretending to be asleep behind sunglasses. I close my eyes and listen to the two girls chattering like the frantic little birds in the papaya trees.
Then there’s a heavy wet slap on my stomach. I don’t look up.
“Ouch, what the hell was that for?”
“What was what for?” Alison says.
I look up. There’s a lizard on me, rat-sized, but with a longer tail. It’s fallen, or jumped, from the coconut tree leaning over us. It turns its head to one side and winks at me.
“Fucking Hell!” I jump to my feet, flaying at my stomach. The back of my hand touches the lizard’s mouth.
“Arrgh, I felt its flicky tongue.”
Alison starts to laugh. I haven’t seen her laugh since we arrived. I’m not sure I have ever seen Alison laugh like she is now.
“Serves you right. Those girls felt your ‘flicky tongue’ when you swam up close.”
The lizard slinks into the undergrowth. I watch the girls skip out of the water and dress. They don’t have towels but the water evaporates from their brown skin. When they walk past us, they’re dry as pebbles.
“We should make love now we’re here,” I say to Alison. “Deserted tropical beach, coconut trees…”
“And have a reptile crawl over me? No thanks.”
We don’t speak on the walk back to the buggy. Alison strides in front of me with her towel wrapped from her chest down. The top of the dashboard, behind the steering wheel, has been adorned with red and pink seashells and blooms of wild hibiscus.
“Gifts from the children,” I say, and pull my camera from the beach bag.
“Put a flower behind your ear. Take the towel off. Let me take a photo.”
She picks a compact mirror from her bag and smears sun block on her nose.
“Save it for the local fauna.” she says.
One by one, my fiancée drops the seashells and hibiscus flowers into our slipstream. I stop at a roadside shack that has beach things for sale on a wooden trestle.
“I’m going to buy a pair of jelly shoes,” I say. “I’m getting cold feet.”
She raises her sunglasses. “Jelly shoes?”
“Jelly shoes,” she says, “are for wankers.”
SCULPTED BONES – Stroud Short Stories Anthology 2018
Robert put his two-seater through its paces on the empty roads. Wedged and low slung, it wasn’t bad for someone not yet thirty. A switch on the dashboard raised up the concealed headlights, slow and disdainful, like the eyes of a waking cat. They were hungover from the night before. They’d rinsed the wine; white then red. They’d ordered large brandies over coffee then slept badly after clumsy, lazy sex. She’d wanted to sleep but let him. Both of them on their sides, drowsy, his knees inside hers, like spoons.
Mid Wales; agricultural villages and fallow towns. Pebble-dash chapels with pegboard noticeboards straddling plain memorial stones. Battered family farms; fowl scratching amongst cabbages. Edgy sheepdogs patrolling gateways. Working men’s clubs with shit-spattered neon signs missing jigsaw pieces of glass. Pubs in palliative care advertising a quiz night or televised football. Nicotined windows with ‘Saloon’ or ‘Lounge’ etched in curling letters. Battened down takeaways – The Bengal Tiger, Peking House.
Robert told Naomi of the evening he’d spent in a similar country pub in Wales. The locals had broken into song – Welsh hymns. He’d tasted the strong brew of Welsh hills and valleys, coalmines, chapels and rugby clubs fermented in that pub, but then some boozed up locals had balanced a metal bucket on top of the toilet door which had booby-trapped him, cutting the bridge of his nose. The heady liquor of song had been watered down with a feeling of ‘what was he doing in this shithole?’
“Sounds like you felt the falling bucket part of Welsh heritage,” Naomi said.
Naomi told Robert of her days as a trainee solicitor in a Valleys town. A mining community falling apart. Of living in a bedsit above a fish and chip shop. No heating. A square of cardboard taped over a hole in the bedroom window. So cold in the winter there were ice-crystals on the bedding where she’d exhaled during the night. The chip shop owner had an unerring sense of when she was going to dash from the bathroom back to her bedroom wrapped only in a towel. He’d be at the foot of the stairs, looking up.
“Didn’t you give him a quick flash?” asked Robert. “He might have reduced the rent.”
The only businesses that appeared to be open now were corner shop newsagents with meagre tokens of Christmas in the windows. Locals exiting with a newspaper and tobacco. The lottery checked for another week. The dog walked and its bowels moved.
On past visits they’d mooched in the small town antique shops that would have been called junk shops in the city; dusty mixtures of second hand tat and an occasional find. They’d taken home a half-decent oil painting last time.
“That was an antique shop back there, wasn’t it?” Robert pulled the car over.
“I’d rather find coffee,” Naomi said.
“More chance of finding a Picasso.” Robert got out of the car into the drizzle.
The painting on the earthenware statuette was crude, but the modelling of the peasant boy was lifelike. Long, sensual legs in maroon leggings. A blue ballet dancer’s tunic covered a muscular torso. The blond-haired head turned arrogantly over its right shoulder and a tied bag on a stick over its left.
“He looks like a statue of a Greek God,” Naomi said. “Adonis.”
“He’s got sculpted bones, sure enough,” the antique dealer said.
The statuette stood on the floor in the back of the car like a child, wedged in with coats.
“That was a steal,” Robert said.
“Now can we find coffee?”
“Shout if you see a hotel,” said Robert. “I don’t fancy Taff’s Caff.”
“Fucking English snob.” Naomi sunk down in her seat with her scarf pulled up to her nose. Closed her eyes.
Robert always felt horny after a heavy night. He looked down at Naomi’s outstretched legs. He wanted to touch their litheness, like the tactile limbs of the statuette. He wanted to slide his hand up her short skirt, but he knew it wouldn’t travel far. For her it was in bed only. She tended towards the straight-laced. Something he’d have to work on.
“It’s not a hotel, but it’ll have to do.” Robert pulled up outside a stone built cottage that had been converted to a catch-all gift shop, restaurant, ice-cream parlour, B&B.
“As long as they sell coffee,” said Naomi.
A cow-bell chimed as Robert opened the door and ducked under a low lintel armoured with horse brasses. On every surface there were toby jugs, commemorative plates with 1980s faces of the Prince of Wales and Diana, Welsh dragons made in China, dolls in black hats and tea-towel maps.
“Textbook,” Robert said.
A waitress came from behind a chest freezer of ice-creams.
“We’ll have two double-shot expressos, with hot skimmed milk on the side,” Robert ordered.
“Sorry, but we only do black or white normal coffee,” the waitress said.
“Two white normals it is then.”
The waitress exited through a rainfall of strung beads.
“Do you have to take the piss?” Naomi said.
“We’ll both be drinking it soon.”
Robert paced the room, lifting plates and toby jugs, scanning the underside. Naomi took a compact from her bag and re-lipsticked. There was a rack of leaflets advertising things to do, places of interest. The coffees arrived. Robert took a leaflet to the table.
“Apparently the village church has the ‘oldest Celtic stone font in Wales’, and there are Celtic carvings on the stone alter. Shall we go and say our prayers? ” Robert blew on his drink.
“Will they be answered?”
“Only if you’re a good girl.”
“Unlikely then.” Naomi put the compact back into her bag.
Robert waved at the waitress as though he was holding a pen, writing the tab. Naomi hated it when he did that. One down from clicking fingers.
The churchyard was semi-derelict, drowning in vegetation. Bracken, nettles and ivy had consumed all but the tallest of headstones. Many had toppled or been knocked down. Saturday night sport for bored teenagers. The cobbles in the path leading to the church door, prized apart by dock weed.
“There’s something about decomposing buildings. I try to see ghosts,” Robert said. “Not ghosts exactly, but photographs of the past. Black and white pictures of people, buried under the nettles now.”
Inside, the church had been tended to like a grave. Birthdays and sad days. Flowers in mildewed jars, weeded and dusted pews, the grass of disuse mown by the dwindling few. They ran their fingers over the stone font.
“The stonemason who carved this is buried outside. I can feel it,” Robert said. “Gives me vertigo.”
“You might be standing on his bones.” Naomi was reading the moulded handwritten requests for prayer, pinned on a cork board. “They planted the chosen few inside.”
Robert was climbing a stone spiral staircase that went up from the nave. Narrow and unlit, his shoulders brushed both sides.
“Come and see this.”
At the top, a wooden floored platform overlooking a pit full of nothing but bird-shit and pigeon feathers. Some winged carcasses. Ribcages rising from scraps of putrefying meat. Two vertical arched slits letting in chilled winter light onto a rotting wooden frame. The bells gone.
In the dark space Robert turned, held Naomi’s arms, and kissed her. She responded. Their mouths and tongues working each other’s. Robert again felt the urge to put his hand up between her legs. To have sex, there, against the damp wall.
Naomi ended the kiss. “Can we get out of this bird’s graveyard? It stinks.”
Back outside she led the way around the back of the church. There was a shed-sized stone vault with a gothic, scrolled iron gate just visible among the yew and holly. Blood red berries dropping on the emerald mossed slate roof. Robert pushed open the unlocked gate. On either side of the inner walls were thick stone shelves. On the shelves, decomposed wooden casks.
“Jesus, they’re coffins.” Naomi backed out.
From the mire inside one of the coffins, its wooden side rotted away, the arm of a skeleton hung down. Robert viewed the arm like he’d viewed the statuette. His eyes close, moving up and down its anatomy. In the bell loft he’d felt a sexual urgency which hadn’t dissipated. He felt it now, in his chest, in his shallow breathing. He felt a need to do something illicit, something carnal, to go all the way. To pull the bones into the ordure that pasted the inscribed floor.
He found Naomi back in the car. “Can we go home now?” she said.
Robert opened a bottle of red. He put a glass into Naomi’s hand and filled it. He sat on the floor next to her legs. The statuette stood in the fireplace without a grate, its head turned languidly across one shoulder, looking out into the room.
“It’s Dick Whittington,” Naomi said. “Streets paved with gold.”
Robert moved his hands up Naomi’s thighs. “I’ll stick with sculpted bones.”