Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

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Excerpt: Prologue

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Ten years earlier.

 

They climbed over the walls of the compound and left the smoking ruin behind. Over field and wasteland, scratched by bushes and barbed wire and with mud over their ankles, they walked all night to the nearest village. When the grey dawn rose and people began to appear on the streets around them, they knew they both looked a state. Jac covered his face with his collar to hide the dried blood around his mouth.

An old, brown hotel pub, smelling of beer and must and old men, welcomed them; it was the only place of refuge open at that time. Eitan collapsed on a seat while Jac gladly washed his face and hands. They wouldn’t notice splatters on your clothes, after all – not with all the mud and dirt and soot – but your skin was a different story. When Jac came back from the toilets, the two couldn’t look each other in the eye. They sat, silent, staring.

‘No use putting it off,’ Jac finally said, before he went to the bar and asked to use the phone, so he could call his family and ask to be picked up. His face was grim when he returned to his seat; Eitan didn’t need to know how they had taken the news that they were out.

His hands were shaking. The long walk in the cold had dulled him, but now he was sitting in the heat the euphoria, the horrific elation, returned as if it was new,; it buzzed throughout his veins, sparked in his muscles, and kept his breath shallow. As the memories of fire and gunshots flashed through his mind, he was unsure whether he felt more pleasure than pain. When he finally looked at Jac – brown curls plastered on his sweaty brow, cheeks flushed scarlet, his tiger eyes bloodshot – he knew that he must be feeling something similar.

The staff walked around setting up for the day; the two early regulars said little to each other; there was no rain or wind outside, only grey and cold. It was far too quiet after the noise they had left behind.

‘So,’ Jac said.

They looked at each other, at the mess they were, and they laughed at the absurdity of it: they were free. After an entire lifetime – free. Eitan could have laughed forever at the thought.

‘What do we do now?’

 

 

Written by G.J.

02/09/2012 at 5:07 pm

Posted in Excerpt, From the Vault

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The Weaver

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I wrote this for the first writing group I attended, a year and a half ago. I didn’t have the confidence to put in something close to my heart, so I took an existing idea of mine and ripped-off the story structure from the girl who had brought in a short story the week before. The word limit was 2000 words and I killed myself keeping under it, making the story near unintelligible in the process, so here is a fuller, more comprehensible version.

This is more representative of my usual, non-Savage writing, since it is full of violence, magic and horribleness.

***

Her Past

Plan for every eventuality. That was what any conqueror had to do – especially one as friendless as Dominique. She had more power than any man could understand; they raged at how she had stolen the country from under them, and made attempts on her life at every turn. Even now, as she sat in the carriage and looked at Ethan, she anticipated an attack. But he only stared out onto the colours of the countryside beyond: yellow, green, muddy brown, scorched black, blood red. This was the man. The man it had taken two years to find; the man who held all her hope for the future.

‘How much do you know about me?’ she asked.

‘Enough.’

Of course she should expect him to be morose. He was probably repeating the cries of his family in his head; how his mother shouted at him to go while his little brother begged him to stay; how his father cursed over his bleeding leg from where her soldier had stabbed him.

‘I doubt you know anything,’ she said.

‘You killed the king and all his men,’ Ethan said, and she smiled at the childish contempt in his voice. ‘You kill anyone who opposes you. You’re a witch, a sorceress – you’re in league with the devil, and you’re mad on power.’

She laughed.

‘The devil is nothing to me. I do not act on anyone else’s orders.’

‘You have witches’ powers,’ he said, turning to her. She could see the seal glowing at the base of his neck; the red ring she had placed on him, binding him to her for the rest of his life.

‘Yes,’ she said. The pattern on the seal was like a needle diving in and out of cloth, trailing loops of thread behind it. They could not understand. They could not see power beyond the metal they wielded.

‘My mother taught me,’ she said. ‘Magic runs in our female line.’

Ethan turned back to the window. After the dominance she had displayed earlier, any gentleness now must anger him. Nothing made men more furious than inconsistency. But that was how nature was: inconsistent, constantly flowing and renewing and changing its mind, deciding to freeze one day and boil the rest. They could not understand. No-one understood as she did.

 

Her Mother

She was born in this country but never felt part of the people. Her mother spoke to her in French, spoke of her homeland and the spirits there; and always ended, in a quiet voice, by saying how their father had moved them so he could serve the previous king when he took the throne, and that was good, and that was loyal, and that was as expected of a nobleman.

Dominique grew to hate her father and the dead old king and his son the new king.

The people may have been nothing, but the land was rich. Her mother would take her outside, and show her the trees and the mountains, and though she shrivelled in the cold, her smile was like one who had just found God.

‘Oh,’ she would cry, throwing her arms out to embrace the wind, ‘how full of life and magic this land is! Can’t you feel the thirst and energy under your feet? Dominique, feel it with me! This land is all yours!’

That’s what she always said: every patch of earth she stepped on was her own. She ran away from lessons and church, and lay by the stream, waiting for animals to walk by, feeling the spark and breath within them.

The other ladies of the court warned her mother that she would be eaten by wolves; her mother laughed at them.

‘My Dominique will eat them,’ she said.

Dominique hated her father. He talked eloquently in halls and corridors but shouted behind doors. Her mother crouched over the stream with her, plunging their hands into the icy water, water that balmed and healed any injuries.

‘You’re a good girl,’ her mother said. ‘Remember that. The earth will always love you. You can always count on nature: it is what birthed you, it is what will kill you in the end.’

But in the end, it was the executioner who killed her mother.

 

Her Thread

It was her father’s fault. Everyone said they were witches, going into the forest to speak with the devil. He commanded her mother to stop disgracing him, but she could not, and Dominique could not, resist the call of the wild when the hall held nothing but petty gossip and the brutal, boring tales of oppressing rebellions far away. What ecstasy then, when the wind sang in their ears as they felt the spark of each insect and bird swirl around them, and danced for joy at the rhythm of life. How insignificant it all seemed in comparison!

‘Can’t you feel the power we have?’ her mother whispered into her face, hair straggled between her shining eyes. ‘Can’t you feel it?’

Of course she could. The power to move. The power to control the spark of life, mould the glow at your fingertips. Dominique learnt it. Her skin crawled the first time she snuffed it away from a fainting faun by the riverside; then the ease of it fascinated her. With only a thought, she could make a bird drop from the sky, could quell a snarling wolf. So simple; so elegant; so powerful.

Her mother knew that power, but had buried it inside her heart for years. Now, she saw her daughter learning the magical ways, so smiling and beautiful, and remembered what she could do. The pressure built upon them both from all sides, and when Dominique’s father demanded that they not go out again, that she not give her daughter to witchcraft, she could not agree to it. She broke. She lay on the floor sobbing, raging, touching Dominique’s bruises, and told her that she had had enough.

‘Remember how strong you are, darling,’ she said, eyes red and cheeks purple. ‘You are stronger, and smarter, than I am. I know you will do well. I know you will not be as helpless as I am.’

How was she helpless? Dominique didn’t understand until she saw the axe come down on her mother’s head a week later. She had only been able to end one worthless life before being crushed in the cogs.

The king stood there and, as they carried the body away, lamented the loss of one of his best noblemen. Dominique wished her eyes could cut through him. It was good for all, he said, that such a witch should be executed, and only her status as a noblewoman had saved her from hanging as she should have done. That, and that she confessed immediately to murder by witchcraft, which of course was the only way a healthy man could appear dead one morning with no wounds or signs of poison.

Dominique did not believe in witchcraft. No demons commanded her. No devils spoke to her. Only the whispering of the people at court plagued her ears.

She ran into the fields at dusk, blinded with tears, and she cursed the world for not knowing justice; for leaving her helpless and alone. She stopped to breathe, and the breeze caught her, and tickled her face in comfort, like gentle hands. A nightingale sang, the trees rustled, the grass waved – and then she knew her mother was all around her, returned to nature, and – at last – happy. She laughed. Her spirit soared, expanding to the sky, and she felt every speck of life within her reach, from the shifting earth to the rushing heavens, as if they were hairs on her skin. She called on it, called on it to come to her, and she turned, and the energy twisted towards her, wound round her spinning figure, tighter and tighter, down her arm and to the tip of her finger, until it snapped apart, and fell to lie, glowing, on her outstretched palm.

She had created her first thread.

 

Her Patience

She waited years, spinning more threads into her hands – from trees, from wolves, from fish in streams. To her the threads glowed and sparked, more beautiful than any gold or jewels, but she learnt, over time, that others could not see them. She knew power; she knew how to drain the life from a creature without a sound, how to harness it from far away by spinning a simple line. It was the last lesson her mother had taught her.

‘You should marry,’ her aunt said as she grew older.

‘Never,’ Dominique said. The old lady only wanted this wild girl off of her hands, she knew. The gossip never stopped, the judgements and questions; the hands pulling at her hair, prodding at her body, telling her what to do, what to be. She only wanted Dominique away, kept at heel under a rich nobleman, someone strong, someone ‘just’, someone like her father. So she said Never, and she meant Never.

She spun a thread of her aunt’s life, but left the end still trailing in her body. She pulled it, stretched it, wound it over tables and through doors, into her own room, where she cupped it and whispered tales into it.

Her aunt no longer spoke, no longer moved, unless she commanded it. No-one knew what had happened. Dominique started on the others.

 

Her Triumph

They were too late by the time they caught her; she pinched all their lives away the second they raised swords to her. She, the terminal of each thread, covered in a haze of light, hundreds of lives attached to her skin, to her will. A thought, and they died; a twitch, and they were her puppets for the rest of their days. But she killed the king with her own hands. She wanted to have it visceral, screaming, attempting to be noble until the last breath, gushing blood and guts under her hands. The puff of his life as he was extinguished – it made her sing with joy.

But moments after he lay dead at her feet, she straightened, and despair washed over her. She was done. Her revenge was complete. What now? Wait for other nobles to take the king’s place? Wait for her own execution? But the guards lay dead in the hall, and they had been powerless to take her. The memory of how easy it had been surged through her, igniting her – the recognition of her power hit her in full force and took her breath away, inflaming all her ambitions.

She had dismantled the cogs. They could not execute her; they could not harm her. She had killed the king, so she was the new queen – and, she thought, thinking over all the gossip over the years, all the news, and – she had a whole rotten kingdom to invigorate.

She spun threads at every moment, until it was unthinking: she whirred inside, searching out spirits wherever she stepped. She never seemed to have enough; she never reached her limit, for each time she took on more, ever more perished under her, like sand through her fingers. She kept the soldiers, because it was more entertaining to watch them fight for her; killing was too easy. No guilt. It was only nature that killed them: the ending of life was natural, after all.

And what followed was also natural. Poisoned food, a thrown knife, a pounding heart and gasping breath as she realised how close she had come. The unexpected attacks threw her, shook her, so she sharpened her wits, holding each thread in mind, vibrating the ones closest to her, sending messages down the wires. Always searching for energy nearby, always trying to control whatever she found, so no attack would happen again, so no attack would succeed. But she knew better than to flinch from facing her mortality, knew better than to think she was an exception to the rules of nature. She thought a great deal about her life, and her future, and what was inevitable – and she knew what she must do.

The birds loved her – of all the animals, she treasured them the most, and for that they worked hard for her. They sent messages back down the wires, images of villages and towns, images she scanned for hours and hours without sleep, until frustration would overcome her and she’d give up – until the next night, when the new images would be there. She strengthened her magic; she wove spells in her mind, mixing each thread together, and each spell she made was more powerful than the last, until it occurred to her that only one thing in life was impossible: avoiding death.

She searched ever harder.

 

Her Slave

She burned his village to the ground because it rebelled. He took up his sword against her, but she stopped each muscle in his body, and left him hanging, frozen, as if caught in a spider’s web. Her soldiers pressed in on his family.

‘I have a proposition,’ she said.

‘I won’t listen to anything you say!’ he spat. ‘You’re a monster!’

He was strong, so he would fight well for her. He was righteous, so it was all the more poignant that he was forced into her servitude. And he was beautiful. Of course he was beautiful. He had to be beautiful.

‘Come with me,’ she said, ‘and I will let them live.’

‘I’m a knight,’ he said. ‘I would rather die than – ‘

She blinked and a soldier stabbed through his father’s thigh – the family cried out but the swords stayed at their throats and no-one could move – and when she saw the anguish on Ethan’s face, she knew that she had won.

‘Kiss my ring,’ she said, holding out her hand.

‘No, Ethan –!’

He knelt at her feet, and he held her fingers as lightly as possible. She vibrated at the touch, suspending the woven threads above his head. His eyes were half lidded as he brought his face closer, and she saw the most touching moment: a flicker of his gaze to the floor, a hesitation, a small death within him.

He closed his eyes and his lips brushed her ring.

She sealed the spell. A beam of light closed around him, red and burning, and he shouted out and slumped over his knee, clutching his throat. When the light subsided it was there – the pattern, the red mark around his lower neck. His collar.

The family all cried for each other as she took him away, and the melodrama sickened her. People were nothing to the cry of the wind, to the everlasting pace of death and birth – a pace she knew she must desperately fight against.

‘You understand,’ she said to him in the carriage, ‘what I want of you.’

He did not say a word. She had pulled on his line, back then, sent messages down the wire into his mind.

‘You will be the father to my children – your blood will be passed down in royalty. Are you not proud?’

He did not reply, but she could feel, from the trembling of his thread, how scared he truly was. She did not care. It was all part of the unstoppable rhythm, a tide that washed over her and him and everyone else – and that never stopped for justice.

Written by G.J.

04/07/2012 at 6:54 pm

Riverboats Part 1: Laneham

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In summer 2010, while I was working back home on Arran, this story entered my brain from approximately nowhere, and I started writing it with the idea that it would be a short story. It promptly bloomed to 44,000 words, as my stories tend to do. It would have been more if summer had not ended, because when I was back in Glasgow in the autumn, the will to finish it left me (which is a pain because it was quite near the end).

It’s some silly Victorian-era story that was meant to be in a fictional river but then bucked my decision and centred itself round London and the Thames. I did approximately ten seconds of research halfway through and realised this story is so far from any Victorian British reality it might as well be set on the Moon. So just pretend you’re in a parallel universe where all the names are the same but the geography and society are different; where everything cleaves precisely to how my mind’s eye sees it.

It’s not a tale I would like to get published, but I would like to finish it one day. So I’m going to post it here in parts, lightly edited, and otherwise unchanged, and then end it when the time comes. Enjoy.

***

I grew up on those boats. The boats along the river, carrying cargo from one end to the other, through towns and villages, through London and beyond to the coast. The river was too narrow, too shallow, they said, for the big ships coming from the continent with their spices and silk, and the big cruisers taking more and more people from the cold to the heat. That’s where our boats were, hundreds of them on the river that to me, at five years old, wasn’t narrow or shallow at all.

Mrs Hunter came to our boat with something by her arm.

‘I would like you to take care of this one. My niece found him skulking round outside Laneham station, took pity, and then naturally dumped him onto someone else for care.’

No-one contradicted Mrs Hunter. People had laughed and talked back to her when her husband died and she said she’d keep hold of the river fleet he had had instead of letting her son take it. No woman was strong enough, smart enough for such work, they said. Those men had clearly never met Mrs Hunter. After only two weeks with all her husbands money and power in her sure hands, she had taken over five boats and made the captains of three more bend their knees to her, and everyone quickly stopped laughing.  Now, with near half the fleet directly under her family control and others, like my parent’s boat, in association with her, no-one ever talked back.

‘But,’ my father said, hand opening and clenching to hold his loose trouser legs, showing how he didn’t dare say no, ‘but, why us?’

Mrs Hunter smiled and turned to me.

‘I figured he’d be a nice companion for that lonely little lass of yours.’

I would have laughed because I was never alone in my eyes, but I could only stare at the boy of about seven half-hidden behind her arm, so small he almost disappeared behind its substantial womanly mass. He was staring at the ground so I could only see the dirty light hair that looked almost grey. It matched: pale dirty hair, pale dirty shirt, pale dirty skin.

‘Well – that is very kind of you – ‘

‘Good,’ she said, pushing him forward. Her bustle was wider than he was; her hat better cared for. He raised his head and looked at us all, eyes wide and fearful, darting from mother to father to me. He didn’t dare move, and my parents and I didn’t dare touch him, as Mrs Hunter made to leave.

She then turned and called over her shoulder with an audible smirk.

‘Oh, and he can’t speak either. Can hear, but not speak. I thought you would need to know.’

‘What’s his name?’ my mother called out.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, waving her hand as she walked away. ‘Give him one.’

And that is how Laneham came to be on our boat.

It took me a while to learn what mute meant.

‘Where are you from?’ That was the first question I asked every other kid I met when on the boat. He shook his head. My mother had given him some clothes of my father’s that were far too big for him, so the shirt he sat in was more of a dress. Already it was stained from the food – soup, bread, meat – which we had given him earlier. (He had forced the meal down his throat with such vigour that I’d been amazed that he hadn’t thrown up.) White, blotchy legs stretched out from under the cloth, and I noticed that there were multiple bruises, some new and some faded, dotted all over them like a badly-made painting.

‘Why do you have those? How did you get them?’

I pointed and when he didn’t answer, prodded them. He batted away my hand and shuffled back.

‘Edie, be kind to him,’ my mother called from where she was looking through documents, lists of goods and letters and insurance.

‘He won’t answer.’

‘That’s because he can’t talk.’

‘Why can’t he talk?’

‘Who knows? All that matters is that Mrs Hunter told us to look after him.’

‘Why couldn’t she do it?’

‘Because she’s busy.’

‘But so are we.’

‘Quiet, girl,’ my father said as he came from the back where the crates were kept. ‘Don’t talk back to your mother.’

I pouted and ran over to him, ignoring the boy completely.

‘But pappy, if he can’t talk then he’s not much company, is he?’

‘Quiet and go play with him. We’re busy.’

I looked at my mother to see how she took this confirmation of what I had said, but she just ignored me. I sighed and went over to the boy Laneham.

‘Can you read?’

He shook his head.

‘Me neither, but mammy’s teaching me.’

I grabbed his arm and tried to pull him to standing, but he shivered away.

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll be the queen then, and you will be my loyal servant. Now, I have to get ready for the ball where the prince will be coming. Go and order the carriage and tell my maids to get me my dresses.’

He stared and I stared back.

‘….mammy! He doesn’t know how to play!’

He hung his head.

‘Then teach him.’

I turned and scowled at this boy, before flopping down in front of him and saying.

‘We’re playing that I’m the queen. Queens get to do whatever they want and they live in castles full of gold and tell everyone what to do and they have to do what the queen says. They have ponies and ballgowns and meet handsome princes which they can marry if they wish to, or not, like Queen Elizabeth did.’

He sat and his face was so attentive that I felt pleased and kept talking.

‘You know what princes are?’

He shook his head.

‘They’re like queens, but men, and they rule, but they don’t do very much apart from attend balls hoping a queen will be there to marry them. Knights are better – they have swords and lances and walk in armour and fight evil men who would kill the queen. And they have horses and fight in battles, but mammy says that there aren’t knights anymore because we have guns and armour is too heavy….oh, a gun is something that pappy has, here, let me show you..’

“Then teach him.” That was the refrain of every protest to my parents over the coming weeks: if he can’t do it, teach him, and I quickly took it upon myself as my duty to teach this boy, during the long, long days between stops, to tell him the tales I knew, to play so I could invent my own, to show him the letters I was learning and how to join them together. It was hard to communicate: he could only nod and shake his head and point, and couldn’t even make noises like my mother said others who couldn’t speak – even those who couldn’t hear – could do. I asked him why and he shook his head to show he didn’t know why either.

It had to give. We were so young and learning to read was too slow, so we started to make gestures for our own sign language. We began with names.

‘You’re Laneham,’ I said, ‘so let’s make an L shape.’ And I did so with my hand. He frowned and pulled up my other hand until I realised that from his view the L was backwards.

‘Ah! Oh, I forgot. So, have an L like this-‘

And he pushed my hand so it pressed against my chest, above my heart, sat back and nodded with a smile.

‘You want this to be your name?’

Nod.

‘Then  we’ll do that. Now, Edie will be – ‘

And I pointed at myself and he scowled something horrible and made me laugh.

‘Fine, fine, Edie will be…be…’

And he curled his hand into a loose fist and held it at a side view, so it looked like a lower-case E. I smiled.

‘Did you already think of this?’

And he looked away in embarrassment. I laughed and hugged him. He had only been on the boat a week and had shied away from every brush of the arm and attempted pat on the head and shivered every time my mother helped him to put on clothes. But I caught him off guard. I hugged him and it wasn’t the warm substantial embrace of my mother or the oily-smelling one of my father – it was like trying to hold a bundle of mismatched sticks. It was the most uncomfortable hug I ever had in my life, and I tried to release him quickly and go on with making our language, but when I let go of him, I found that his arms were tight around my back; they had fixed there after the initial shock, and he wouldn’t let go. I was surprised, then scared, then finally, I put my arms around him again. After a few more seconds he finally let go. I laughed, this time in embarrassment, and didn’t know what to say while he looked away.

‘…have you never been hugged before?’

He nodded emphatically, and I realised I didn’t know whether he responded in the negative or positive.

‘You have?’

Nod. I smiled.

‘Good. I couldn’t live without hugs. Who hugged you? Your mother?’

He shook his head and shuffled and fidgeted in the way – I would learn – that he did when he wanted to say something, explain something, but didn’t know how.

‘Why don’t you have a mother?’

He shrugged.

‘Where were you before you came here?’

He looked around and pointed at a picture of Mary and Baby Jesus on the wall. I laughed at him. He scowled and tried to find paper to draw on, but there was none around as my mother had found us drawing on them the day before and gasped that we would waste scarce paper – ‘None to get until we’re at the next stop, and it’s expensive you know!’ – on something so impractical. He slumped back against the chest behind him and glared at the ground. I prodded him.

‘Let’s play pretend!’

I quickly learnt to read him very well. He would scowl when frustrated or humiliated, frown in concentration while trying to read, look uninterested and to the right side when bored or discontented, and rarely – so rarely – so rarely I didn’t see it until months had gone by – he would smile. He could make no noise, so every smile was worth far more than the hundreds I doled out every day. As you would expect of two children growing up with only the other for company, we became very close, so that at each port he would hide behind me even though I was younger and smaller, would grab my arm when unsure or afraid (feelings I knew very little and didn’t understand). Large sailors and merchants would peer at us and I would smile and introduce myself, and he would hide and wilt under their stares.

I remember one such stop where the men had been rough, and their blackened hands had scratched my cheek and they pushed Laneham and laughed at him for being the charity mute that Mrs Hunter had foisted on These Poor Folks, and I stuck my tongue out at them and got scolded by my parents. I was angry all the rest of the day, and Laneham only sat and stared. For two days he refused to communicate, even though I wanted to make new gestures for “cruel, ignorant men”, before we arrived at our next stop and I brightened. This was Annie’s stop.

Annie was one of the many friends I had at various stops on the route, all the more prized because she was my age and a girl. She had been ill last time we had been there, so this time, a month or two after Laneham had been on our boat, was her first meeting with him. I introduced them and she stared and he tried to hide behind me, so I began talking to her, to save him from having to do anything. After a short while – the talk of six year olds to others often lacks the vigour of more adult conversations – we grew bored and I suggested we play pretend, and that the boxes and crates of the shipyard would be a great ball-room, except Annie wanted it to be a ball-room under the sea so the crates were old shipwrecks and giant clams as well as the palace. And I turned and said to Laneham, who was standing there, that he would be my servant, and to fetch me some pearls from the sea-bed, and he shook his head.

‘What do you mean no? You’re my servant!’

And he straightened and I realised that he was older than me and taller than me and probably stronger than me, which was a surprise to my arrogant child-mind. He held an imaginary sword and swung it diagonally. It was a sign we had made up the night before: “knight.”

I smiled.

‘What? What? Oh,I don’t understand!’ Annie cried.

‘Laneham will be my knight,’ I said, smiling. ‘And when the pirates ride in on giant squid he will save us all.’

And he smiled and spent the rest of the play hacking at the giant squid and duelling with pirates, while we danced and occasionally stopped to cheer him on. Annie declared it the end of the ball and I commanded Laneham to kneel as a good knight.

‘For your bravery, I hereby promote you to a prince. Arise, Prince Laneham.’

Annie said ‘My pappy says that’s not how princes work,’ but I didn’t hear her, because Laneham stood, and a smile spread wide across his face, and I could only stare in wonder at how he looked when he was happy.

‘Annie! Edie! We’re going!’ someone called, and we had to run back to where the adults were. My parents started at the sight of Laneham, still smiling.

‘My,’ Annie’s mother said, ‘isn’t that something. He looks almost handsome like that.’

And I thought yes, yes, he does, and I felt proud because he was my Laneham and I had made him that way.

He stopped smiling by the time we went back onboard, but because they had seen it, my parents paid more attention to him. You see, the smile proved he was human, and loveable, and so they began to treat him more as one of their own instead of an encumbrance. My father began to take him up to the bridge and show him the controls, and explain how the motor worked, and my mother began to adjust the clothes that she had begged from her friends for him, so that they fit instead of  hanging off his skeleton.

He stayed with us for years. He became my father’s surrogate son, and taught him everything he could about our boat and trade, while my mother fretted and tutted about having another handful though she sometimes admitted that the mute was often less work than her own flesh and blood. We eventually learnt to read, but our sign language was prized for how fast and – preciously – how secretive it was. He still gripped my arm when we met the other sailors and men at the docks, but when we were alone in the boat again he’d sign what he thought of them and would do such hilarious impressions – standing up straight with his meagre chest puffed out and swaggering, or hunching up and squinting and pointing his finger in elderly anger, and more – that mother would come through and wonder at me lying there on the floor screaming in laughter and Laneham smiling, smiling hard at making me so happy.

I asked him once.

‘Why are you so afraid of the men at the docks?’

He shook his head the way he did when he didn’t want to answer, but I persisted.

‘You’ve met most of them before – why are you still afraid? They’ve stopped teasing you as well.’

He shook his head again and frowned at the ground. I moaned and moaned and eventually he gave one sign that mimicked a sword going through the heart. It could mean murder; he meant danger.

‘They’re not dangerous! What are you talking about?’ I didn’t comprehend this fear that he sometimes said, about being afraid of strangers. Strangers were just friends I hadn’t made yet; danger was storms and lightning and holes in the hull and diseases that passed along the filthier parts of the river. That’s how I was so friendly to everyone I met, and so cavalier with danger. Often Laneham would pull me down from walking on walls at the dock edge, or the sides of the boat when river traffic was heavy, though I never believed that the other boats would kill me if I fell in.

He looked at me. As he grew older I had noticed that sometimes he would give me a look that was almost adult in its sternness and I hated it, hated how he looked down on me then.

Every man is dangerous, he signed. I laughed.

You’re silly.

I never understood his fears. I was so trapped in my own happy world that I never even tried to understand what might have caused them. Was that my downfall? It doesn’t matter; what happened next would have occurred no matter how understanding I was of him.

It was unexpected. I wasn’t quite eleven years old when we were docked at town that time. We played outside until the street lamps were on and reflecting in the fog. We had been playing hide and seek and I realised, after a long time of hiding behind a small outhouse, that the smog was low and thick and that I was a far way from the boat. As more time went on and Laneham didn’t find me, I began to panic. Being lost was one of the things I did fear – the boat leaving without me as my parents give me up for dead, as I knew they could. I decided that just once I could forfeit a game and decided to walk back home. It was hard since I could barely see more than five feet in front of me and after some time of walking I banged into a tall man with a fine moustache.

‘Edie? The Heinlein girl?’ he exclaimed as we both blinked in recognition. He was the owner of one of the nearby factories who sometimes asked us to transport his wares – matches or paper, I can’t remember which. I explained that I was trying to get home and he sighed at me, and walked me to the dock.

‘Edie!’ my mother cried, hugging me. ‘Where have you been?’

‘I found her wandering by my factory’ – had I really been that far away? – ‘ and she said she was lost.’

‘Oh you silly goose,’ mother said to me, relief adding warmth to her scold. ‘You know you shouldn’t stay out in the fog like that. Thank you so much, Mr Craven.’

‘Glad to help, ma’am.’

And he tipped his hat and walked away.

‘Oh, to think that he of all people should have found you! What will he think we are, letting our daughter run wild on a night –’

‘Mammy,’ I whispered. I never whispered. She stopped and looked around and realised what was wrong. My father came out from inside and looked between us, both silent.

‘Where’s Laneham?’

‘I lost him,’ I whispered, staring at the ground, so sure they would scold and perhaps even spank me for being so careless. Instead there was silence.

‘Oh Lord,’ mother finally said.

‘He’ll come home,’ father said. ‘He’s a nearly-grown boy, he’ll find his way back.’

The hours went by and he didn’t come back. My parents put me to bed but I sat and stared into the darkness and heard them speaking to each other in quiet, solemn tones. I couldn’t sleep. Though he was a boy, and older, I still felt so protective of him – I had taken him so far away from the dock, I had wanted to play hide and seek, and I was responsible for him, because he was my Laneham, my responsibility. I thought of some of the stories I had heard of bodies turning up in the water, or boys being kidnapped and forced into the navy or army and never seen again, and I felt every second pass by with a flinch, because I knew that we had to leave first thing in the morning, no matter what. They had said to me ever since I could remember: if you’re not on the ship, you must be left behind. Looking back, I don’t think they would have left their only child alone to take care of a job, but I always felt as if the jobs were this immovable thing that had to be done Or Else, and not anything, not even a daughter being left behind to homelessness and death or worse, would stop it. The boat would move on tomorrow, and Laneham would be left behind and I would be alone again, and every minute passed by and I could not sleep.

Eventually my parents came to bed. I lay there for perhaps another hour before I couldn’t stand it and got up, feeling my way in the dark until I got outside. The street lights were still on and I could hear the noise of town far away. The smog was still thick on the river so I heard it before I saw it.

Tap tap tap – it was the sound of feet. Tap tap tap, very quickly, with an irregular rhythm from the person stumbling while they ran. I straightened and strained my eyes to look, and saw a shadow appear over one part of the smog mere seconds before Laneham burst out of it and ran onto the boat, falling just beside me with a crash into the outside wall.

‘Laneham!’ I cried, and I had one moment of happiness. Then he looked up at me and I dropped to my knees, and instinctively raised a hand to touch him.

‘Lan-‘

He batted my hand away. He was gulping in air after running, wheezing, and every muscle in him was shaking. In the faint street light that reflected off the fog, what worried me most – what destroyed any relief I felt in having him back – was the look on his face.

Complete terror.

‘What happened?!’ I cried. He shook his head, turning away, curling up and clutching his knees, still shaking though he was regaining his breath. I pushed him gently and – for the first time since he first came aboard our boat – he flinched at my touch.

‘Laneham! Please – what’s wrong? Where were you?’

He didn’t even bother to shake his head in refusal; ignoring me, he stared out at the buildings, shivering. I pulled at his arm enough to finally dislodge his grip on his knees.

‘Come on, let’s go inside.’

I lit a candle though I knew my parents would scold me for such extravagance. He looked even worse in that light, with the shadows collecting under his eyes and in his cheeks.

‘Oh Lanny, Lanny, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have left you, I got us lost, I’m so sorry…’

I kept nudging him, prodding him, hoping for some response, hoping he would turn and reassure me it wasn’t my fault, but he didn’t do a thing. He just shook, and refused to look at me.

‘Lanny…’

Even trying to physically turn his head only caused him to shy away without even a glance.

I couldn’t help it. It was after midnight and I’d been worrying for hours and he wasn’t even looking at me, so I sat down and cried, right in front of him. That made him finally acknowledge that I was there, but he didn’t act, didn’t move, didn’t do anything but look at me blankly, before lowering his head into his arms and shaking. I cried myself out, and sat with him, hoping he would stop, he would sit up and reply to me, but he didn’t. I was exhausted, and soon petulant anger rose in me as my conscience battled with my animal desire for comfort and sleep.

‘Laneham,’ I finally said, in a softer tone. ‘Come to bed.’

And he stood up suddenly and walked through to the beds. I barely remembered to blow out the wick before following, hoping that this was a good sign before I remembered: we couldn’t communicate in the dark. It was another way of running from my questions. And because of that I wanted to cry again as I lay my head down, but worry had taken all my energy, and  – despite the emotions and questions that crowded my mind  – I soon fell into uneasy dreams.

My parents were happy that he came back; my father even cracked a smile upon seeing him. All relief turned, like mine, into concern very quickly upon seeing how he shrunk back into the small boy we had taken five years ago: silent, unhappy, afraid.

‘What happened?’ mother asked.

‘I don’t know!’

I regretted letting the despair enter my voice as it only made her worry more.

He didn’t communicate as we sailed the next few days. I wrote messages and signed in front of his eyes and talked loudly to him constantly, but I never got a response. He looked as if something was haunting him, something terrible, for his eyes were purple with lack of sleep and fear and he would curl and shake when we let him be, as if the air was attacking him. And I had never known a stress like those days, days of constant worry and self-blame and reproach, spending every second I could trying to coax out what had happened until my parents would drag me away to work.

We reached our next stopping point three days later: London. I was sure he would refuse to go outside, would want to hold onto me while we met others, but instead we stepped outside together and he looked at the sun, deep in thought. We took the crates out the boat and my parents were talking to those come to collect it and I was going to join in when something made me turn – I like to think it was a whisper of fate, telling me to look at Laneham. He was on the dock, and he walked around the crates and packages but didn’t seem to see them. Finally he looked again at the sun and turned towards the buildings nearby, and walked away, steadily, walking with purpose. I watched and took in every detail about him as he walked further and further out of sight.

He didn’t come back and we had to conclude that he had done it out of choice. I cried bitter tears and spent weeks wondering if it was somehow my fault, that somehow I had made him leave, and wishing and praying futilely for God or someone to bring him back, or at least let me know what made him leave. I received no answers and after weeks and then months and then finally years, I gave up and realised that I would never see him again.


Written by G.J.

01/07/2012 at 6:11 pm

Savage Writing: A Girl Can Make Mistakes, Can’t She?

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Theme for this night was “Games.”  I decided to stretch myself and take a ‘Love Games’ approach (what with playing games and doing a dissertation on games, I’m a bit gamed-out!), and took one scene idea from a longer story and expanded it into this.

 

The streetlight outside flared orange along the gun barrel as the masked man pointed it at Tony’s face. They had kicked down the door and dragged him out of bed before he had fully opened his eyes; now two men hovered over him while the third rifled through the organised piles of clutter next door. He crossed his eyes looking at the gun, and wished he hadn’t slept in his scabbiest pair of boxers. He didn’t want them to be the clothes he died in.

‘Whoever you are, whatever you want, I’ll give it,’ he said. Since he had no idea why they had invaded his flat at one in the morning, there wasn’t much point in being brave.

‘We’re only here for one thing, mate,’ the man with the gun said. ‘You friendly with a girl named Laura Harrington?’

The horror Tony felt upon hearing her name eclipsed any he would have felt had they threatened him, and the gunman smiled as he saw it.

‘Can’t find the bloody thing!’ came a shout from the next room. The gunman sighed and turned back to Tony.

‘Gonna tell us where your phone is, mate?’

Before he could refuse to answer, a loud saxophone riff, distorted and accompanied with a buzz of vibration, interrupted them, making everyone jump. The second intruder followed the noise, fighting with the duvet while trying to get to the phone. Finally, he straightened in triumph – and the phone stopped ringing.

‘Gone to answerphone,’ he said. ‘Let’s have a listen.’

He pressed the button and a sultry female voice filled up the room, beginning: ‘Hey hot stuff…’ Tony sighed and closed his eyes.

 

Twelve hours earlier, she had been waiting for him outside the coffee shop, brown hair artfully tumbling over her shoulder, arms folded in a way that accentuated her breasts.

‘Hey hot stuff,’ she said, as always.

He knew he shouldn’t meet up with her, knew that it’d be better for his health if he stopped seeing her, but she had whined so piteously down the phone about how “We’re still friends, aren’t we?” that he couldn’t say no.

‘How’s work?’ he asked, after a few minutes of listless conversation.

She stirred her coffee thirty times before touching it, as always, then glanced up at him from behind her eyelashes.

‘Boring, now I don’t have you to do on my desk.’

He gave an embarrassed laugh and looked away.

‘There’s guys queuing up, I’m sure.’

‘None like you,’ she purred. ‘But I’m sure you’ve plenty of office girls swooning over you in your fancy new job.’

She raised her eyebrows as she spoke, and apart from the stress she put on the words “plenty” and “fancy”, that was the only way to tell she was being sarcastic. He had always liked how stupid people never caught onto it. It was her blatant inside-joke.

‘Not exactly.’

And she was very good at catching on to every hint of his intonation, every breathy terminal and creaky laugh, and decoding it perfectly to guess his problems.

‘Have you got a crush, Tony?’ she said with a smile absent of envy. ‘I’m jealous. Who is she? What’s she like?’

They had always liked laughing at the absurdity of the world. She used to go on her laptop and find strange news stories when they lay around in bed on weekend afternoons, laughing as the golden light highlighted all the dust in her room and the freckles on her back. Hammock recalled because the wooden stand breaks if left outdoors, that kind of thing. Well, she would enjoy this.

‘She’s entirely inappropriate for me,’ he said.

‘Go on.’

‘She’s seventeen,’ he confessed.

‘That’ll never work, Tone. You need someone to boss you around.’

Trust her to make such an obtuse objection.

‘That’s not the worst part.’

‘Then what is?’ she asked, eyes gleaming. He breathed in, picturing again the blonde bundle of shyness and pink cheeks that had caught his heart’s imagination at the last company dinner.

‘She’s my new boss’s daughter. Laura Harrington.’

Gina burst out laughing, a piercing, high-pitched giggle that made half the cafe turn and look at them both.

‘You’re such a fuck-up, Tony,’ she said.

‘I know.’

She kept laughing. ‘Well, I’m always here, sunshine. If it all fucks up, I can fuck you up again.’

‘That implies you’ve stopped,’ he said. ‘Most exes at least pretend to be crazy before calling you in the middle of the night.’

‘It helps me get to sleep,’ she said. ‘Knowing you’re a phone call away, when I’m all alone in my bed.’ She finished her mug of coffee, before adding:

‘Makes me think that you’ll come round and alleviate my lonely loneliness.’

He didn’t know whether her redundancy was a joke or not, whether she was serious or not. And he had no chance to ask because she stood up and belted her coat, and he had to rush to finish his own drink. As they exited the cafe, she walked far too close to him for a non-girlfriend, arm nearly in his, her flowery perfume drifting over and settling on his body. Once outside, they hovered, waiting for the other to say something.

‘So…’ Gina said, swaying her shoulders backwards and forth, hands in her pockets. She was anticipating his next move already.

‘U-uhm,’ he said, ‘if you like, I can take a half day. If…you wanna do anything else.’

They had had sex at least five times since they broke up. He never intended to, but somehow whenever they met he always heard himself making this offer, new crush or none.

‘Can’t!’ she said abruptly. ‘I’ve got lots of work to do. Not to mention I’ve a date tonight. But I’ll see you soon, okay? Take care!’

With that she turned and walked away, springing on her heels. He felt as if he’d been dumped – not romantically dumped, but physically dumped into the sea. She was always like that. Every time, she swayed and smiled and made him think she wanted him, and nine times out of ten she snubbed him at the end. He scratched the back of his head and turned back towards the office.

‘Fucking Gina…’

 

When the voicemail had finished, the three criminals looked at each other and laughed, turning to leave.

‘That’s not her,’ Tony said, ‘I don’t have Laura’s number, that’s –’

‘Well, it says GF,’ the one with the gun said as he looked at the phone. ‘And it’s understandable why you wouldn’t want to put her name with her number, when her dad has such dodgy dealings…good thing we can get an address from this…’

‘Gina Foreman! It’s not her – I don’t have a girlfriend – listen to me!’

But the three men were making their way towards the door, laughing at his vain attempts to deceive them.

‘You just sit tight, “hot stuff”,’ one sneered. ‘Don’t touch the phone, and when her dad ponies up, we’ll bring her back in one piece…mostly…’

The door slammed behind them and Tony was left, still kneeling on the floor in his boxers, with the voicemail message running round and round his head:

‘Hey hot stuff. Just sitting here in my cold empty bed, thinking about you. I know I might have said some mean things yesterday, but a girl can make mistakes, can’t she? So I’m taking up your offer. Come on round…I’ll be waiting.’

—–

At the end of the cafe scene, after I said ‘Fffucking Gina,’ Greg burst out ‘I hate the bitch,’ and I thought he was joking until afterwards when he said he actually hated her. I’m so proud I managed to provoke such a response! Matt also called this ‘Psychotic Mills and Boon’ which sounds like something I could get into to make money, ha ha ha…

The larger story is more about Tony and Laura and is a little different, but there are kidnappings and at one point Gina very nearly gets in trouble by calling Tony like she does here. The next day he turns up at her work and bitches her out and that’s her comeuppance, I guess. She has a shred of sympathy in the long run, Greg~!

Written by G.J.

14/06/2012 at 8:30 pm

Savage Writing: A New Start

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I write my own fanfic sometimes. This is a piece I modified from one which is meant to take place after the events of one novel, because it fit the theme of “A New Start.” I edited all the spec. fic elements away because it wasn’t exactly necessary in a domestic scene, and changed a few names. Second piece I presented to the Leeds Savages.

 

This was the house. On a normal street with a grey sky above the roofs, it was a narrow semi-detached house, with a tidy front garden and a blue front door. As the taxi pulled away from the kerb behind him, he suddenly wanted to run. He didn’t belong here. This was the world of birdhouses and school runs and taking the dog for a walk, not the world of flips and parallel bars; not the world of screaming fits and crushed beer cans; not even the world of champagne and opera that he’d so recently stumbled into. The wind rustled the bushes, cars hummed by in the distance, and here he was, outside a normal house in a normal street in a normal area, and he was so alien to it all.

The front door opened, and she appeared.

‘Ty? What are you standing there for? Come in, come in!’

It still surprised him, how much his mother looked like his older sister – or rather, how much his sister looked like her. They shared the curly red-brown hair, the button nose, the eyes that crinkled when they smiled – even their haircuts were similar, though that must have been coincidence. Only the grey in her locks and the tired look in her eyes distinguished the older woman from her daughter.

But of course that similarity should still surprise him. He had only met her for the first time the other night, when they all went out for dinner. God, what a mess that had been.

He walked down the stone-slab path and when he came to her she stepped aside to let him in, her lips pressed tight as she tried to repress a smile.

The first thing that hit him was the most delicious smell. He couldn’t quite place what it was, but it was warm and sweet and enticing. She apologised for the messiness of her perfectly normal, not-very-messy home, and led him through the narrow hallway to the living room at the back. Everywhere had pale walls, white, yellow blue, and oaky varnished floorboards. In the lounge there were old mismatched armchairs of differing back heights and cushion depth, including a rocking chair, and one couch with cracked leather on the arms. There were framed quotes on the walls and a picture of the Virgin Mary over the mantlepiece. Rugs! Scuffed rugs, not like the perfection he’d seen at Chris’s holiday home when he visited, rugs that were stepped on in a house that was lived in. It was as imperfect and homely as he could have wanted. He was even surprised when a blur in the corner stood up and came over to sniff at his legs.

‘Oh, don’t mind Jasper. You’re not allergic, are you? Have a seat, have a seat. Everywhere’s bit of a mess at the moment – I’m baking for a cake sale at the church this weekend and what with work and meeting you and Cathy, I’ve barely had the time. I hope you’re okay with tasting some for me!’

He almost cried at the idea of not being okay with it. Of course the smell had been home baking. Cathy had tried baking a cake for his birthday a few years ago and it had failed hilariously, and he hadn’t had anything like it since. Chris probably would have ordered him all the cake and sweets he desired, hand-moulded by French chefs, if he had mentioned it, but he didn’t like to ask too much of him. It was early days, after all.

‘Th-that would be amazing,’ he managed to choke out.

She beamed at him and went into the kitchen. He sat on the couch and held his hand out for the terrier to sniff, and scratched its neck, only sensible to the sound of Diane moving tins and cups in the kitchen, the dirty fur under his fingers, and that mind-altering smell. He was glad Cathy had refused to come today. He had just wanted to talk to his mother for the first time in his memory, but instead their dinner had devolved into a court scene where his mum was the defendant and his sister the prosecutor. We find the defendant guilty of abandoning her two children to a father not worth the ground he was buried in. Her sentence is to continue to never see her two children, on pain of verbal abuse from a twenty-two year old. Fuck that. Cathy might be right a lot of the time, but she couldn’t stop his curiosity about the woman that had given birth to him, and she couldn’t stop Diane from wanting to see her baby boy.

She came back through with a plate of assorted biscuits, with crumbling bases and icing dripping off the sides. The first bite exploded sweetness into his mouth.

‘Is it okay?’ Diane asked. He nodded, violently stuffed two more into his mouth before he had finished swallowing the first.

‘My, is it that good? If everyone responds like this, we should do well!’

He finished his mouthful, had a few swigs of water, and proceeded to cough for five minutes.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked after he had finally finished.

‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ he said. ‘Sorry, um, if I was rude or anything – ’

‘Oh, no, no, they’re there to be eaten –’

‘It’s just, well, I’ve never really had home baking before.’

You’d think he had said he’d never worn shoes before, such was the mortification on her face. She hugged him tightly, and like with Cathy, her hair tickled his face.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘I…you know what I said to Cathy the other night. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I know what your father was like, and you…well, you know what he was like.’

The best thing the vindictive bastard had ever done was die. Diane forced herself to smile.

‘Anyway, enough of that – we had too much of it the other night. I feel I barely got to speak to you then! Tell me about yourself. I couldn’t believe it when I found out you were a gymnast – but of course you are. Look at those arms!’

She pinched his biceps and he smiled. Sinking back into the cushions, she gave him a knowing look.

‘I’m sure you get all the girls with those. Tell me, is there anyone special in your life?’

Only a boy with blonde hair and more money than could fit in this house. Only a boy who played piano and covered his mouth when he laughed. Only a boy who listened to him when he talked about his father. But even Cathy didn’t know about him yet.

He shook his head modestly and she teased him, and as he patted the dog and reached for another biscuit, he thought about what he would tell Chris when he phoned tonight. He had been so happy yesterday, when told that Ty had arranged to meet her alone today.

‘It’s only right,’ he had said. ‘She’s your only mother after all. And this is a chance for a new start with her, after everything.’

He blissed out of the conversation on the first bite again, and merely watched as his mother talked at him, surprised at how content he felt. A new start. He had always laughed at the idea, but maybe his boyfriend was right. Maybe it could be all it was said to be.

Written by G.J.

14/06/2012 at 7:20 pm