Magic Thing

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JBWB AUTUMN 2007 SHORT STORY COMPETITION FIRST PRIZE

Magic Thing

by Kerry Hood

hoodywrite@hotmail.co.uk

The old ferryman isn't looking at me as he takes me across the Dorset river to his island. I make a thing of trailing a hand in the water that smells of, well, I used to call it plop in my wifely days of plastic plaited napkin rings and heated Carmens. He still doesn't look as I wiggle my fingers like Tess of the Doobyvilles and flick a bit of reedy water at his oars. So I make do with staring at the pin-shiny flies sewing the surface and dipping their little legs into the deep cold.

This journey will only take a few minutes. I'm going to stay nice. Only, the ferryman won't look at me. 'All these little pecky birds, you'll know all the names?' I make myself say. He shrugs with his head. My water's rising. I carry on. 'It's all lovely and smells of toilets, is this making you happy?' Now he's looking. 'Does this make you romantic, Mr Shoemaker, Shoey? Rowing your lovely former wife over the river with all these crispy insects and other Attenborough close-ups?'

I mean David Attenborough, of course. Richard Attenborough was afraid of the water, at least in the film. He tells Noel Coward he's afraid. Noel Coward gives a speech about remembering he's English then says 'well done' to everyone and everyone cheers. Little Attenborough cheers then he dies.

'Here we are,' Shoey half-whispers, his accent half-southern. He hauls me in his precious wooden boat up the sludge slipway.

'And here you are,' I say. 'Still.' My wave is starting, far out beyond the estuary.

Shoey says, 'You know I came south to rescue my son.'

Our son. You took off in nineteen eighty-seven and here you are twenty years later dot dot dot.'

He holds out a hand to help me out of his precious boat. I ignore it. 'Shoey, I was thirty-eight. Today is my son's thirty-eighth birthday. The world's gone mad.' I'm skidding up to level ground.

He does the head shrug and says, 'He loved that holiday we had down here. I had to see if he'd perhaps come to remember his happy self. Someone had to find him.'

'And how do you find someone,' I say deliberate and slow, 'who's missing to start with?'

Panting quietly, Shoey drags the boat between the limed stilts that support his timber chalet. 'You didn't even know what A levels he was doing. Just so long as he had the nice sixth form uniform.'

'And you?' I say, trying to keep the wave down. 'When you were a hotel waiter? Coming back from split shifts, sitting in a Manchester terrace reading books about the sea and ignoring your son.'

Shoey turns, holding one oar like a tribesman with a blowpipe. 'Greer, he used to go straight to his bedroom because of you with your Tupperware parties with your Branston pickle serving dishes and your silverskin onions on little plastic swords.'

'You embarrassed him,' I say, the mud spreading into my sling-backs. 'Hiring that car to get him to university. Showing him off in the street like a pregnant bride.'

'It was a big occasion,' he mumbles. 'He was going off a year earlier than the other lads.' I let him have that one. He puts the oar over the seats on his precious boat and leans against the chalet, sanding the blistered paint with a yellow-brown hand. The light catches his giant thumbs, their spirally prints ageing him like tree rings. He looks ancient and sad. It catches me off-guard so I'd better bite quick.

'I'm moving.' A duck tests its wings behind me in the shallows. 'Yes, Shoey, I'm moving. I'm switching it off, the machine that keeps me attached to the end terrace, to the world of my son. I can't stay in that house for another twenty years.'

The ripe water flops and plocks. Shoey half-shrugs. I want to belt him. He runs his great thumb along his precious boat and goes into the stilty house. I turn to the river and slip. I'm on my knees on the sweet wet autumn grass wanting and hating the sight of home. The end terrace.

With next door there's no problem. Karina and Martin. She's in plumbing and he's a manicurist. The world's gone mad. I don't know what any of it means, what people are any more. At Marble, Magwitch and Vanish in nineteen sixty-two there was a shorthand for who you were. I was the junior legal secretary. I wore beige seersucker. The men wore stripes. I looked down when they walked through. They were wonderful men. I was allowed to seal the documents. Wax, a red ribbon. All the words, difficult words like 'pursuant' and 'respondent' sealed and waxed and red-ribboned, silk-beautiful. Sealed like lips, like secrets, red-dangerous, important words.

Not like now. Martin next door says 'hello yeah.' Not 'hello, how are you'. Yesterday he called me 'mate'. A fifty-eight-year-old woman! What a thing to teach people, to teach children. They don't have children. They've a widescreen and a fish pond. There are huge koi carp in the pond, blood-orange and ugly, poor things. It used to be a Jacuzzi and Karina wired the jets wrong. So the fish lurch up and over each other and don't jump of course like salmon, don't come out of the water of their own accord, but get projected into the air like synchronised swimmers. It's bad enough Nature making you blood-orange and ugly without Man making you leap out of a Jacuzzi saying, 'Ooh look at me, I'm peculiar.'

Better to be a grey fish in a brown river than in an end terrace where everyone knows you. Everyone knows why I'm living here still. I had to tell next door too when they moved in. I had to say, 'Hello, I'm Greer' - 'Oh are you?' Karina said and laughed - 'I'm Greer and if I'm out and a boy comes and asks for Greer Shoemaker' - she laughed again - 'will you tell him to wait?' Each time I need to go out I ring their doorbell that sounds like a bulldog.

'Yeah, babe.' Karina sighs. 'We're in for an hour if he comes.'

He doesn't come, my son. If I go out he'll come and won't find me and he'll go for good. I'll smell him where he put his mouth to the glass like a kitten on the nipple, where he scraped his boots on the lichen step. So now I'm in all the time. I shop on the Internet, I get my prescription delivered and I pay bills on my touch-tone telephone. Only lately, the walls he hasn't touched for twenty years start to come in at me. I remember Joanna Lumley in the New Avengers getting trapped in a room in footless tights with the walls coming in. She got out though. My walls push me into a corner of the street, of the house, of the front room, of my insides.

There's a new blue-black factory opposite. It blocks out the sky, so my eyes constantly catch this blue-black tidal wave at my window. I do watch the tsunami on video, over and over. Blurry people shouting, 'It's coming, the sea is here!' The reporter says there may be some British people in the water. I don't care. I want to fast-forward, but I wait. I'm enjoying craving the wave, needing more people to get caught in its height than my imagination could imagine. Knowing that I won't see the proper wave because it will be too close for the cameraman. I know the wave is coming. I know death is coming. I know the shame of feeling the aliveness of seeing the wave coming. I'm waiting to be overwhelmed by the dirty wall of chocolate water. Meanwhile in the corner of my eye, the tidal-wave factory rises dry, suspended and a big 'nothing' punches me hard in the stomach. The no-son.

I didn't kiss him, hug him, I never could. I wasn't a natural duck to water in the mother pond. I didn't make a big show on the last day as though he was off to war like my namesake Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver would have. Or crave a baby like in Penny Serenade. Cary Grant is the husband, the woman is Irene something. She's in their Japanese honeymoon home. There's an earthquake, she's pregnant, she loses the baby and has a hysterectomy. Back in America where dreams come true, they try to adopt a curly-haired boy with blue eyes and dimples. Instead they're given a beautiful little girl you want to slap. She plays an angel at school and dies but the adoption lady calls: 'We've got a curly-haired blue-eyed boy with dimples for you’ dot dot dot and we all know he'll be President and hug ethnic minorities. My son didn't play an angel. I didn't treat him like gold. So I stay punished, waiting.

Waiting. The dirty pain of it, the brown gut mudslide of every doorbell, every letter-box, every telephone ring. The noise of nothing, the no-son light. It isn't in the news. There's ten pages every day of Miss Nothing with Nothing to say sitting with Nothing on top and tiny pants and her legs stretched apart and she's plugging her TV show starring other Nothings who wiggle their tongues into the camera then pretend to be lesbians then vote each other off wherever they are on. The world's gone mad. No one says a word about my son because he just Went Missing.

He disappeared on his eighteenth birthday. I only had the boy-to-man for one day. He should have gone to university then got married, got a gas barbecue, made us normal. Nowhere does it say that you will lose your son to the atmosphere, that you won't get a ribbon to wrap your red-dangerous son, to seal him, to file him. That instead you will seal yourself, that instead you could bite through my arm and I wouldn't feel it.

What I'm feeling right this second is a pair of yellow-brown hands pulling me up. My legs have gone to sleep. Shoey puts me on a wet seat in his precious boat and makes me put my head between my knees. I lift my head, dizzy. I'm about to flow. He sees it and ebbs. I say, 'You ran from your missing son.'

'No, Greer, I'm waiting for him. That's why I stay.'

'You're irrelevant', I tell him, standing and swaying on the boat. 'Slithering about here like sludge. Inside Man I called you when you were Head Waiter. In your penguin suit and your gloves. I thought it was all going on inside as you wiped a spatter of sauce off the dish before you served the Manchester elite. You would do that for strangers. You would shield their eyes from the terrible sight of undisciplined white gravy on a plate. Inside Man. I don't call you anything now.'

He's tugging at my coat as I go towards the bank. 'Greer, every day I fear for him. I am his father.'

'I won't have it, Shoey, that he is in this same exact world and I can't get to him. Every day I hold myself up like a placard: Stop Torture. Give Peace A Chance.'

Shoey's pulling me from the edge by my collar. 'Don't you think,' he says, 'that I don't wonder about the unknown crime I committed against my son? That I don't ask what did I do to make him run, to make him hate me?'

'Us,' I say. My mouth is dry but there's something coming into my throat. 'What happened to our son, Shoey?'

I know we don't know what has happened to our son and I don't know why I'm asking my ex-husband. Only, suddenly he's not looking at me again and it's not anger I've got in my throat now, but the beginnings of fear. He sighs across the river. 'He might just have amnesia,' he says. 'He might just not know what's happening, he might just be working as a...a waiter, yes.' Shoey warms up, his voice wheezy, his eyes wide, as though seeing our son in a dream life. 'He's overdone it with his studying, yes that's it...He's come down south because he remembers our lovely holiday...Then the government kidnaps him. They alter his DNA and send him undercover into whatever place is having a war twenty years ago...' He turns quickly, stupid hope etched in his knife-sharp frown, and walks to me, arms out in a waking sleepwalk. I don't tell him my own everyday pictures because I see in Shoey the same etches I see in my mirror at home and I can't do it to him, I can't show him my pictures of my twenty-years-missing boy. They look like this...

My son has gone, his mind's gone. He's living in a ditch he's in Sing Sing he's got addicted to some liquid he's got addled by the Church of the Headscarf Scientists he's got set on fire by kids who think he's a tramp he's fallen off the world onto rocks he's hit his head and got eaten by foxes he's got Aids off a needle he's got chased up a railway line by a gang of boys he's been pushed off a multi-storey he's got raped and cut up and deep frozen he's got drowned in tiny inches he's got run over and buried by a drunk driver he's hanging from a tree because of a girl he's lying all murdered he's a pile of grey chalk and maggots...

'Remember when Jason was five?' Shoey's whispering now, close to my hair. 'We brought him south for that holiday. He would talk to anyone on the sand. I can see him rising out of the waves, his little trunks pulled right off. Jason rising from the waves like a magic thing! Then he ran up, you swaddled him, his teeth were shivering and he was laughing and I looked at you and I knew then. I knew then we had made a magic thing.'

My own teeth are shivering now. I do remember that day, how the sun dried on us, how the day tide-lined our skins forever. 'I'm sorry I'm moving,' I say. 'I'll leave an address. For when he comes.'

Shoey holds my head with his hands. One balloon of a heart-full tear falls from his sunspot cheek, and suddenly I'm very afraid. He's biting his flaky lips and I know, I know, I know. I vomit onto the reeds. I escape from my coat. He's shouting.

'The police came, Greer. Day after he ran. You were upstairs lying down. The policeman whispered, “This letter has been left at the station. Your son does not want to be found.” I never told you because... I'm so very sorry...'

He's a ferryman but I know he can't swim. I'm up to my underarms in the river. My toes lose their hold on the syrupy mud, my ears fill with my new green-black home. I hear something like a prayer. 'Dear God, Greer! We still made it, didn't we? We still made a magic thing.'

©2007 Kerry Hood

Kerry would love to hear what you think of her writing - email her now

And if you enjoyed this story, see Kerry's earlier winning entry from 2005:

The Man Who Turned a Stone Bridge into a Hammock

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