THE SIGNS

Chris R-0050 Image by Christine Renney

The road signs were still standing and at first this had intrigued Davis. It didn’t make sense to him when everything else had been demolished and flattened, reduced to strewn rubble. The foundations of buildings remained but these were merely platforms of pitted concrete and rotting timbers, of faded linoleum and cracked tiles.
The names of places on the signs; the towns and cities that were now only memories. Over time Davis began to accept this irrelevance, reading and following them as he had before and lost in the distance between he would often forget.
Even the temporary signs had survived, those warning of congestion and road works. Davis followed these diversions although he could see quite clearly that there were no obstructions ahead but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how far he walked or for how long.

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RESTORATION

Chris R-0392-2 Image by Christine Renney

The sitting room at the nursing home is always bright, even on the dullest of days, and yet the air hangs heavy and stale. Breathing it in, I remember his workshop with its heady aroma; the wood shavings and sawdust, the varnish brushes soaking in old jam jars filled with turpentine.

I sit across from him and we begin to talk, and at first I am uncertain as to who he believes I am. I am convinced that he is speaking to himself and that I represent the younger man, still working, providing and caring for his family. Still married and still very much in love with his wife. But as he quizzes me and the questions come thick and fast I’m not so sure.

He hasn’t changed, not really, he is older, yes, and paler. He could do with a fresh coat of stain but, overall, his appearance isn’t so different. I look for the tip of the pencil in the breast pocket of his chequered shirt, but it isn’t there. However, it is the shaking hands I find the cruellest. He had been a joiner and furniture restorer and I picture him at work with the plane, his movements smooth and streamlined. Or with a chisel and the ‘tap tap’ of the mallet, and a bracket or a brass plate sliding into place, the satisfied expression on his face.
‘There you go,’ he would say, ‘how’s that?’

He is constantly preoccupied with his old job. Not surprising, I suppose, given that it had been his trade for more than fifty years. I am impressed by his questions, they are so very specific but I don’t know the answers. But what he is asking has long since passed and so I try to humour him.

I had worked for him a little during the school holidays and at weekends and such, but I hadn’t ever really been that interested. I attended to the sanding and polishing. The work had been monotonous but I had completed these tasks leaving the more interesting and rewarding work for him and his apprentice proper. I had no desire to progress, to move on, to be schooled. My head had been elsewhere, the workshop wasn’t for me. I didn’t belong there, at least that is what my mother had always said. It was an unspoken command that I would continue with my education, go to university.

I do remember the furniture that was brought into the workshop. All the tables and chairs, old and broken. The dressers, chests of drawers, wardrobes and desks; dilapidated and damaged. But when he and his apprentice had finished with them they had been restored, made new. And I had helped – my fetching and carrying, the sanding and polishing, had been a part of the process, although I hadn’t thought of it as such, not until he started with his questions.

He is confused and I believe I can convince, that I can reassure him. He asks how a particular piece is coming along, which hinges, handles and brackets, should we use? Should it be this or that stain, which is the right polish or wax? He talks about how different oak is from teak or mahogany, how to spot infestation, how to isolate and treat it. Despite my hazy recollections he might as well be speaking in code, one that I can’t crack. In the end I haven’t any choice and, shrugging my shoulders, I tell him, ’I don‘t remember.’

I glance down at his hands. They are yellow, the colour of beeswax. He is holding a plastic beaker, fumbling with it, the cold tea spilling into his lap.
‘Shall I take that from you?’ I ask, reaching out.
But he looks down and remembering he grips it a little tighter and will not let the beaker go.

GHOST LETTER 29

chris-r-1478-2 Image by Mark Renney

This street is steep, steeper than the others. I am climbing it and making my way toward somewhere or something. Suddenly it stops and I am at the top.
Wasteland stretches in front of me. It is rubble strewn and, looking down, I see that the earth at my feet is parched and cracked. I move away from the edge and the last of the houses look as though they have been sliced through with a giant cleaver.
Stepping out into the open I wonder what it was that once stood here. More of the same? Yet another street, terraced houses on either side and cars jammed tightly alongside the pavements?
But I now see that the foundations here are for something bigger and I am walking across a vast factory floor. The concrete is still stained with oil and, crouching, I inspect one of these dark pools. I touch it, my hand coming away, the fingers smeared with grit and grease.
Pushing myself up I am standing in the middle, but from up here I can see the other factories in the distance, those that are still standing in varying states of dis-repair with tracts of land, the spaces in-between the places like this.

ADJOINING ROOMS

Chris R-0772.jpg Image by Christine Renney

‘If, in the First Act, you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there’ – Anton Chekhov

Since the disappearance Carter hadn’t ventured into his son’s room, not properly. He had stepped across the threshold, yes, but mostly when he opened the door he simply peered in at the son’s things, at all he had left behind.
His son had outgrown the room, both he and it had been at odds for years. He hadn’t even bothered to take down or replace the posters on the wall and Carter realised he was sick of the sight of them. Tired of looking up at them, at the outdated Superheroes and forgotten pop stars.
Turning, Carter closed the door, shutting himself in – the first time he had done this. He began to rip them down, scrunching the posters into unruly balls. He threw them to the floor where they promptly began to unravel and Carter kicked at them angrily.
There wasn’t anything in this room that was representative of the man who had deserted it; the one who had deserted it, the one who had turned his back on Carter and who had walked away. And because of this Carter wanted to dismantle it, to pull this room apart and he wanted to do this methodically and calmly. But already he was lashing out, sweeping the boyish things from the shelves, the old Airfix models and dog-eared paperbacks.
Opening the closet he began taking the clothes from the hangers, flinging them out into the room. His intention it seemed was to make a mess. To pile everything up in the centre and later he would bag it all up and get rid of it.
And then he spotted the sports holdall on the top shelf. Reaching for it Carter knew instinctively that there was something hidden inside. That it would be another question at least but possibly, just possibly, it would also be an answer.
He dropped the holdall onto the bed and, without hesitating, he unzipped it. It held a gun – nothing else just the gun, gleaming and immaculate. Carter was shocked and also surprised that it hadn’t been wrapped in something. An old sweatshirt perhaps or a towel. It seemed incomprehensible to him that anyone would place a gun in a bag without sufficient packing, without some sort of insulation, a bed sheet at least, better still a heavy blanket.
Carter tipped the holdall onto its side and, using his index finger, he coaxed the gun out and onto the bed. He lifted the bag, looking inside again, but it was empty. There were no bullets or a clip and no holster. Casting the bag aside, Carter knelt down beside the bed and studied it. It was the first time he had seen a gun other than in films or on television. In photographs and comics and such. Of course, it could be a replica but how would he know? Was his son the type of person who would purchase a fake gun, who would stand in front of the mirror and pretend?
Carter was wary of touching it, because he didn’t know it, didn’t understand it. He wasn’t able to take it apart and put it together again. He and the gun weren’t intimate.
But when he did lift the gun it slipped easily into his hand and it felt comfortable, natural even. And gripping it his finger found the trigger and was readying to squeeze as he pointed it at the wall. And beyond the wall was his own room, the room where he slept.

THE LAST TOURISTS

Chris R-0779.jpg Image by Christine Renney

Despite the continual warnings, all the official advice, they continued to travel. Despite the very real threat of a bomb or poisonous gas or a man in the middle of the night coming into your room and holding a hand over your mouth whilst plunging a knife into your side. Despite all of this, they continued to visit and explore.
It was easy enough to get a flight, find your way to anywhere. Still possible to climb part of the Eiffel Tower or gaze at the site where the Parthenon once stood. For the most part they set off alone but were easily identifiable in their raggedy uniforms of jeans, a sweatshirt and sensible shoes. And so, with their backpacks, they banded together. There was safety in numbers or so they hoped.

‘Why do we do it?’ Joe asked.
‘Because we can,’ Eve replied, without missing a beat, ‘because it’s all out there and we want to see it and experience it for ourselves.’
‘But at what risk?’ Joe mused, ‘is it really worth putting ourselves in danger?’
‘I don’t think about it,’ Eve said, ‘I really don’t and after so long I’m not even sure if I believe.’
‘But the terrorists are real,’ Joe declared. ‘The bombs, the murders, it’s all real.’
‘I suppose so,’ she said, ‘but I just want to look at the world.’
Joe realised then that he was falling for her.
‘The girl who wanted to look at the world,’ he said. ‘It would make a good title for a story.’
‘But it would be a sad story, one full of regret,’ she said.
‘Is that how it’s been for you?’
‘No, no, of course not.’
‘Well then it’s your story,’ he said.
‘But I don’t write.’
‘Yes, you do. You’re writing it now.’
‘Describe those men,’ Joe demanded, a little too forcefully. ‘The ones sitting behind you at the table closest to the door.’
She laughed. ‘Ok. They are young, in their early or mid-twenties. They are dressed smartly, are a little dandyish. They have dark hair and olive skin. They are from here, I think, and they keep glancing across at us. They know why we are here and they have polished, shiny shoes and they despise us.’
‘Are they terrorists?’ Joe asked.
‘It’s possible, it’s always possible.’
‘But you don’t care?’
‘Of course I care, but I won’t not do what I want to do.’
‘You really are impressive,’ Joe said.
Eve blushed. ‘Why didn’t we do this in Paris?’ she asked.
‘Do what?’
‘Talk. Why didn’t we talk, it would have helped pass the time.’
‘It was pretty grim, wasn’t it?’
‘I’m serious. Why didn’t we do this?’ she repeated.
‘We were all too desperate,’ Joe replied, ‘we weren’t capable of talking in anything other than clichés and platitudes.’
‘It sounds as though you dislike us as much as our friends at the table over there,’ Eve said.
‘Sometimes,’ Joe sighed, ‘I think that I do.’

Joe and Eve had met the previous year, had been part of a larger group, fifteen of them holed up in a grotty hotel in Paris, waiting around on the off-chance that they might be able to visit the Louvre.
In Paris they had indeed been desperate. They were reduced by it, lessened. It wasn’t that they hadn’t been disappointed in their travels before. They had all journeyed hard only to come up against a locked door or a barred entrance. To find a ruin, fenced off and hidden, a once fine building dilapidated and in disrepair. To discover that something had disappeared entirely, had been moved or stolen, possibly even destroyed. But they had believed Paris would be different. It had been announced in the newspapers that the once world famous gallery would be open, just for one day from nine in the morning until five in the evening. Although it was an advertisement and not a news report it had the stamp of authority, the air of officialdom and so they had gathered, only to have their hopes dashed.
Before their disappointment had been able to sink in the rumours had begun to circulate. The day had been changed and there was still a good chance that the gallery would open. Those that could afford to do so stayed. Joe and Eve were amongst the very last to leave.

‘Would you do it again?’ she asked.
‘Of course,’ he replied.
Satisfied by this response Eve settled back into her chair and grinned.
‘Tell me something good,’ she urged. ‘Tell me about somewhere you’ve visited, something you’ve seen, something that amazed you.’
‘Ok,’ Joe said, ‘but let’s go back to the hotel. We can get a drink there.’
‘Yes,’ excited, Eve stood. ‘And we can compare notes,’ she enthused.

The table closest to the door was now deserted. Eve took Joe’s hand and in their sensible and soundless shoes they began to make their way.
Stepping from the restaurant and gathering themselves on the pavement, they didn’t notice the two men standing deep in the shadows beneath the awning directly opposite.

THE CATS

Chris R-0095

They were the kind of couple that, after twenty years of marriage, had settled wholeheartedly into the rituals and routines that now comprised their life together. They didn’t want for more than they had or for what they wouldn’t be able to obtain. They worked diligently for their employers, if objectively, but were reliable and didn’t doubt in their future. They trusted each other implicitly.
Were they smug? No, I don’t believe anyone would ever have described them as such. They were satisfied and comfortable, certainly, and among their circle of friends there were those whose lives seemed to them unnecessarily complicated. The couple couldn’t understand the yearnings, the desires. Contentment seemed so much simpler and it was right there, waiting to be grasped. But they didn’t offer advice and they didn’t judge and so they weren’t considered to be smug. Ordinary, yes, dull, perhaps, but not smug.
Their house was cluttered and untidy and comfy. Back in the old days, during the early years of their marriage, it had always been the chosen venue for the gatherings. But the impromptu dinner parties and drinking sessions were now few and far between. In truth, the circle had all but broken and if it hadn’t been for the couple’s persistence the group of friends would have parted long ago. They had all moved on and had added responsibilities – children, bigger houses and demanding jobs. There were now newer and sleeker circles to infiltrate.
When their friends visited now, unannounced, it was always one at a time and, usually, they were stressed, wanting to talk or needing simply to sit quietly. It was one of the couple’s oldest friends, recently divorced, who brought the cat into the house.
She had been distraught and the cat was symbolic of happier times. She and her ex-husband had chosen him together, had nurtured and cherished him. But she couldn’t possibly keep him, not now. She had work and a new life to build. Sadly the cat couldn’t be part of it. She had been on the way to the Shelter and had broken down. Sobbing in their kitchen she dropped the cat onto the quarry tiles and it immediately set off to explore.

They delighted in the cat’s discovering of their home and followed him from room to room. They marvelled at his agility as he climbed over their furniture and moved gracefully amid the clutter, leaving all in his wake just as it was. Eventually he settled on the window sill in their bedroom. Reluctant to leave, they lingered, watching over him as he slept.

They never did tire of watching him as the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months. Maybe before he began to change each night, before he began to metamorphose, if those months had stretched on until they amounted to a year or more, maybe then their enchantment would have begun to wane. But they remained firmly enthralled and from the beginning he fascinated them most when asleep, when he curled, softly purring, into a tiny golden ball, and they wondered how he managed to make himself so small.
They charted the cat’s progress as he moved about their house, settling here, there and everywhere. They would seek him out, reassuring themselves he was okay. Alert to his every move, they listened attentively, each taking it in turn to check on him, one informing the other of his whereabouts and whether he was asleep or washing himself or simply staring into space.
They heard him first and it was enough, they knew that he had changed, was different. They moved to the foot of the stairs and above them, on the landing, he prowled back and forth. Cautiously they edged their way up and, when he revealed himself, clung to each other.
He was ablaze; mustard and orange and big, the size of a jungle cat but he hadn’t transformed into a tiger or a leopard. This was their cat, the cat their friend had abandoned here just a few short months ago, but fiercer, stronger, bigger.
Pushing between them he forced them apart and made his way down – just as agile, just as graceful whilst they, for some moments at least, were unable to move at all. But then he began to whine and it seemed that they hadn’t any option other than to rally and attend to the needs of their pet.
He wanted to be let out and sat before the kitchen door, loudly pining. They tried to distract him, first with food, but he wouldn’t eat. Next they tried him with his toys be he refused to be placated. He wanted them to perform just one simple task; to open the door and of course they relented. How could they not, after catering to his each and every whim.
He was a pitiful sight, whimpering and desperately clawing at the door. He needed space, to be outside and so reluctantly they set him free, followed him into the garden, where he promptly bolted, swallowed up by the dark.
They left the door open and waited, sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over mug after mug of scalding tea. Reaching across she took his hand and in the harsh fluorescent light they studied each other. They were growing older but together and it really didn’t matter.

The cat returned just before dawn in a wild and excitable flurry, skidding to a halt on the tiles. He was small again, back to normal. They heaved an audible sigh and it wasn’t until they moved closer to the door that they saw the dead cat. He had brought it in, dropped it on the mat, mauled and bloody. A misshapen and unwanted gift, still wet, still warm. Flinching, they backed away, very aware that he was watching them.

In that early morning, they buried the first of the dead cats and a pattern was then set. After each of his nightly jaunts he ate heartily and would settle down to sleep. They didn’t ever see him turn and didn’t wish to do so. The transformation occurred just after dark and he then sought them out and began to beg.
After letting him loose they trudged wearily up to bed and tried, for a few hours at least, to forget. It was beginning to take its toll and they were exhausted, but the urgency to rise early was so great that their rest could be described at best as fitful.
When they opened the door he was there, as fresh as the wintry air and eager for the warmth within. Each morning he seemed a little smaller beside the spoils from the night’s hunt. The dead cats he had brought and piled throughout the night, from all over the town, from close and from afar.

At the break of day they will find yet another spot and strike with the shovel, dig a hole and hide all trace. Wrap them in newspaper, cover them with earth, and tramp on and around them.

Image by Christine Renney

GETTING OUT

Number 2-0986

Owen wanted to remember the time before he and Daniel had begun to talk about getting out. The period without that central theme disrupting their lives, but it was difficult not to dwell there, especially now. They had been young and of course it was inevitable that they had become obsessed with the world beyond the valleys and the desire to escape this town that, after the mine had closed, was left to fend for itself and yet had somehow managed to cling on.
How old had they been when it started? Owen tried to delve way back and dredge up memories from an earlier time, before the dreams and all the big talk about what they would do, and where they would go. Thirteen, twelve, or possibly even younger, ten maybe, but he couldn’t be sure, not now.
They had started off small or at least relatively so. A motorbike, a fast car, a pretty girl. But nothing they could invent was too elaborate and no prediction they could make for the future seemed impossible. And before long, in their imaginary world, they were jetting across the globe, staying in state of the art apartments in big city after big city. They each had a country mansion with a helipad and a swimming pool and a gym in the basement.
The girls in their school weren’t interested in them and so they populated this other world with the beautiful women they saw on television – pop singers, film stars and models.
Inevitably, the constraints of growing up in a small town (particularly one like this without any purpose) were unavoidable. Gradually reality began to seep in and it invaded their thoughts. By the time they were seventeen, they still talked the talk but their hearts weren’t really in it. They continued to frequent the old haunts but they no longer climbed up into the hills above the town anymore.
It was up there they had played before and most probably where they had first sat and hatched their grand schemes and dreams. But it was down here on the streets that, like a fish thrashing on the riverbank, they had been left to flounder.

Although he didn’t suspect that anything was afoot, Owen was more than a little taken aback when Daniel said,
‘Come on, let’s climb the hill.’
‘No way,’ Owen drawled.
They were sitting on the steps in front of the town hall. Pushing himself up, Daniel moved out into the square and stood beside the old water trough.
‘Come on,’ he repeated, ‘let’s go up.’
‘Why?’ Owen asked.
‘I need to talk to you.’
‘Talk then.’
‘There’s something I need to tell you.’
‘Then tell it.’
Turning, Daniel started toward the road.
‘Come on,’ he shouted, ‘I feel like walking.’
‘We can walk down here,’ Owen mumbled to himself but, standing, he followed.
The path began at the end of the street, just beyond the last row of cottages. The town’s children had always tramped along it, ensuring that it survived down the generations. Owen felt that he and Daniel had already done more than their fair share of tramping.
‘Wait up,’ he yelled. But Daniel, storming ahead, didn’t hear or he had chosen to ignore him. Owen kicked at the path and walked a little slower, if that were possible.
‘Okay,’ he grumbled, ‘wait up there, you’re not going anywhere.’
As Owen reached the top it suddenly struck him that the rolling countryside that greeted them had barely registered in the past, that they had always turned toward the town and looked down at the familiar. Daniel was still out of breath, standing in a half crouch, hands on his knees, gasping for air.
‘You’re out of shape,’ Owen laughed, ‘you need to get some exercise.’
‘I intend to.’
‘Yeah, right.’
‘No, seriously. I have to.’
‘Why?’
‘I’m joining up,’ Daniel straightened up but as he spoke he looked down at his feet. ‘The Army. I’m signing up.’
‘You’re joking.’
‘No, I’m not.’
Owen stepped back and studied him, incredulous. Daniel stared blankly.
‘I have to do something,’ he said at last, ‘and it feels right for me.’
‘Don’t tell me you are really going to do this, Dan. Don’t be an idiot.’
‘I’ve already done it. I’ve enlisted – is that the right word? I don’t know. Anyhow, I’m in, signed up. I leave for basic training in a couple of months and so, like you say, I need to get fit. You could help me with that.’
‘I won’t help you,’ Owen turned to leave, ‘I’m going back down.’

Although after this things between them were stilted they continued to be close. How could they not be after so long? Their fantasising had been brought to an abrupt halt and they had forgotten how to communicate but Owen did ask just one more time.
‘Why?’
‘Because I’m not like you.’ Dan said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m not smart.’
‘Yes you are.’
‘No, I’m not. This is right for me.’
Owen remembered he had said this before, up on the hill and he rolled his eyes.
‘No, Owen, I’m serious. This is an opportunity for me and I’m determined.’
‘Okay,’ Owen sighed, ‘then I hope it works out for you.’
‘Thanks,’ Daniel reached out and clapped him on the back, ‘that means a lot,’ he said.

He adopted a strict exercise regime and, as Owen watched him from afar running up and down that hill he thought to himself, why are you bothering? It really won’t matter. After the training, if you still want in, then they’ll take you.
And he still believed this, that it wouldn’t have made any difference if Dan had been a little less fit and not quite so determined. They still would have sent him out there. He wouldn’t have been denied his moment in the Sun and the Daily Mail. They had published his photograph in the national press along with all the others who had been killed up until that point.
He had come home, after boot camp, and he was different, had grown up and seemed so much more self-assured as if he were prepared for whatever the Army might throw at him. Everyone commented on this, his family and friends, most of the town in fact. They were impressed and proud. He even found time for a special chat with Owen who knew his mother was behind this little pep-talk and that though the advice he gave sounded good Owen couldn’t help but think that Daniel sounded pompous, a bit of a prat.
He hadn’t listened, hadn’t gone back to school and finished his A-levels but after Daniel died nobody bothered him or tried to push him. He had been left alone.
It had been almost a year now and he wondered how much longer it would be before they began again, to nudge and coax and shove him out into the world.

Image by Christine Renney