Copyright © Kimberley Cooper, 2014
All rights reserved. These stories or any portions thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
These are works of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to anything in real life is entirely coincidental.
BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN
I’m unpacking cardboard shoeboxes. Their contents are wrapped in what used to be white tissue paper, brittle and cream coloured now with age. I know what I’m looking for. I’ve gone through six boxes already, and although I haven’t seen it for years, it’s got to be here somewhere.
I lift the lid off one box, and take the contents out. No, this isn’t the one but it squeezes my heart anyway and brings a tingle to my nose. They’re leather shoes that I bought for Jemma before she was born, little red ones with silver buckles on.
But she never wore them. Three weeks after Jemma was born, she developed meningitis. We were told to expect the worst, that even if she lived, she might lose all four limbs. But she was lucky, and so were we. She lived. My baby girl LIVED. Septicaemia took her feet, but her hands, those clever delicate hands that caress the violin she makes her living with, were left intact.
She always accepted things as they were and that made us do so too. Jemma taught us a lot about adversity and overcoming it.
‘Mum, what are you doing up there? We need to go soon’. Jemma’s voice is strong and confident as it bounds up the stairs like a puppy, and enters my heart via my ears.
‘Just a minute’. I need that time to wipe a tear away.
I open another box. Yes. Here it is. My wedding garter; something borrowed, something blue.
And downstairs my beautiful daughter is in her wedding gown, ready to wheel up the aisle to meet her handsome groom.
Shoes. Baby size or not. Hah. Who needs them.
THE FINAL STRAW
The blood didn’t look any different to cat blood. Don’t know why I thought it would. He lay on the ground in front of me, eyes closed, looking for all the world like he was taking an afternoon nap in the sun. Except for the blood under his head, running downhill on Old Shoreham Road toward the gutter.
I poked him with my toe, my shoe pressing into his body, by chance disappearing into his trouser pocket. Nice trousers, black, smart. Well, not so smart now. They were dusty from the pavement, and starting to soak up the blood. But they’d been nice when he put them on this morning. I knew that because I’d been there. Felt him leave the bed, the mattress dipping and recoiling as he moved. Offered my face for a kiss, watched him go into the bathroom and close the door so he could shower, shit and shave in privacy.
He’d dressed for work with care, black trousers as I said, white shirt, red tie, black jacket. It was pretty much what he was going to wear to our wedding next week. Oh, I’d better ring and cancel the caterer. I can use the flowers though, they’ll be handy for the funeral.
I straightened up and walked away, reaching underneath my jacket to tuck the crowbar into the back of my jeans.
He won’t leave the aviary door open again, so his bloody cat can get in to kill my finches.
Ten years ago …
On a world where everything was hot, far too hot, the cool kids were a marvel.
Foundlings they were, seemingly appearing from nowhere, with no parents to claim them. And they were cool, cold even, a balm to the overheated skin, bringing relief to those who cuddled them, who cared for them. Rumour had it that if you had one in your home, they kept the temperature down to a comfortable level, both night and day.
Where did they come from? No one knew. Or if they knew, they weren’t telling. And their temperature wasn’t the only strange thing about them. They never spoke, never laughed. Permanently silent.
The Sun was well into its red giant phase; its hydrogen all used up and it was now burning helium. It had expanded once already, burnt through the orbits of Mercury, Venus and the Earth before settling down, and was now pouring its heat onto us on Mars. We’d already seen warnings; before long it would expand again, setting Mars alight before vapourising the planet in a flash. And then humanity would be lost.
After all, where could we go? Humanity’s resources had mostly been used up in the exodus from Earth. And Mars was the final rocky planet in the solar system. Some of Jupiter’s or Saturn’s moons might have been options but with no breathable atmosphere, tidal locking and the immense gravitational presences of the two biggest planets, humans were never going to survive out there.
So we waited. Made a life the best we could, always knowing that it was futile, that soon intelligence would disappear from the solar system, and maybe from the universe itself. And every day we grew to despise the Sun a little more as unstoppable chemical processes brought us closer to our own end.
Escaping to Mars had been necessary but in the end a hopeless choice. Yes, there had been no option, but here the Sun’s radiation had affected our ability to reproduce. Mars’ thin atmosphere could not do enough to shield us. In recent years there had been no live births, and children had become non existent in our society. So the cool kids were gifts. Not only were they cold and refreshing, they served a need in us, to nurture, one which so few of our people had gotten to use.
I found one of them on the corner of the street. It was a she. I could tell because she had a dress on. Red, it was, just showing her chapped knees, blue with cold. Her eyes were shut, the lashes iced together, her lips pale and cracked.
I’d never been blessed with children myself, so when I saw her, I knew I had to have her. I knelt down and put my hand out to touch her skin. So refreshing. I wanted to take her in my arms and absorb all the cold that she radiated. She opened her eyes, pale blue, rimmed with frost. I gazed on her in wonder. How could ice survive in this heat? She looked at my hand and slipped her own, tiny one into it. It was cool, as I knew it was going to be, and I led her to my home.
Five people tried to take her from me before I got her home. Five. I killed them all. I had to. I saw her first. She was mine.
Five years ago …
Hot and getting hotter. That’s how it had been for the last five years. Every day a little hotter, drier, dustier. Except for the cool kids. They were permanently cold, refreshing, never changing, always remaining childlike.
We learned over time that they didn’t eat, didn’t drink. Didn’t use up any scarce resources. So of course, everyone wanted to have one to cool their homes, to love and hold. And more appeared all the time, from who knows where. They just suddenly appeared. Chandra, as I named my cool kid, stayed in my home, radiating cold, cooling the temperature down, and tolerating my attempts to love her. She never asked for anything, did as she was told, went where I took her, absorbed everything, all without complaint or comment.
It won’t be long now. The Sun has expanded a little further, and the final expansion is likely to be in the next few days. Already, Mars’ underground water has leached out into space and very little remains, certainly not enough to sustain even the rapidly diminishing population.
Chandra has finally spoken to me. I know where her home is. She evolved underneath the ice on Europa; beneath frozen methane lakes. Initially we hoped that she and her brothers and sisters had come to save us, but no. They say that humanity has had its day and it’s time for them now. What they want is our resources.
They know that eventually the Sun will engulf Europa too, and not even living under the surface will be enough. They need our technology to get out of the solar system, to save themselves. Their time amongst us has been a period of learning, a way of getting what they need. They needed us, but to be fair we gained much physical and emotional comfort from them.
In the end, there was no decision to be made. Gifting what we will soon no longer have a use for, so that others may live, seems the humanitarian thing to do.
I am tired now, as is the human race, and we are ready to rest. So we gave them everything that we had on Mars, and wished them good luck. Now, we are just awaiting the final pulse of the Sun. We had our time, and it was a good time. Nothing remains now except to wish our cousins God Speed.
AGAINST THE NATURAL ORDER
Marj threw her bag on the floor and burst into tears.
She’d walked into town to get some …, some …, what the heck was it that she’d wanted? That was the problem. Sylvie hadn’t wanted her to go on her own; she knew that Marj didn’t always remember what she went out for.
Marj had put her coat and shoes on, picked up her bag, the grey one with the brown leather on it, with the matching purse. Sylvie had counted the money out for her before she left. Marj wasn’t always good at remembering that she ought to be getting change. It was normally ok in town; people knew about Marj and were patient with her. And they wouldn’t deliberately diddle her; Sylvie would have had something to say about that. Marj smiled, despite her tears and feelings of frustration. Sylvie could be fierce, and she had a sharp tongue which she didn’t hesitate to use in support of Marj.
Normally, Marj was happy to stroll down the hill into town and get her bits and bobs. But there was that time she’d forgotten how to get home again after she’d been to the library. Marj had been scared at being lost, too ashamed to approach anyone and say that she’d forgotten where she lived. But Mr Archer had walked her home. Such a nice man, he lived at number …, number … No, she couldn’t remember what number it was. He’d come around to the house later when Sylvie had been out, and made a fuss of her. Although she hadn’t really liked it when he’d squeezed her chest and put his tongue in her mouth.
Wiping her tears away, Marj picked up her bag from the kitchen floor, and opened it. Nothing in it except her purse, so whatever she was going to buy, she hadn’t. She didn’t want to tell Sylvie that she’d forgotten to get what she’d gone out for, so she went to the pantry and put a tin of beans in the bag.
Stepping only on the black tiles in the black and white tiled hall, Marj paused by the doorway to the living room. Sylvie looked up and smiled tiredly at her daughter. ‘Hello Marjorie love, did you get what you wanted?’ Marj held the bag out towards Sylvie, showing her the tin of beans.
‘That’s nice love. Come and sit down, I’ll put the kettle on in a minute’.
Crossing the threadbare rug towards the seat she always sat in, Marj asked ‘What day is it, Mum?’
‘Tuesday’, replied Sylvie firmly, ‘we always watch Countdown on Tuesdays’.
Marj settled into the settee, putting her feet up and getting comfy. She and Sylvie watched TV in companionable silence for a while.
What day is it, Mum?’ Marj asked.
‘Tuesday. Look, Countdown is on. We always watch Countdown on Tuesdays’. A sob escaped quietly from Sylvie’s throat, where she’d been holding on to it ever since Marj had gone out, 2 hours ago, for the 10 minute walk to the newsagent.
Marj looked at Sylvie and could see that she was crying, tears leaving silvery trails down her lined cheeks. ‘Why are you crying, Mum?’
Sylvie rose from her chair and joined Marj on the settee. She smoothed Marj’s hair back from her face, a face blooming with physical health and unlined. A face which should have so many possibilities in front of it. It’s a terrible thing for a mother to see her daughter with dementia. It’s not the way things should be’.
Marj had heard that word before but couldn’t remember what it meant. It didn’t feel important enough to ask and she picked her book up. ‘I hope it’s Tuesday today. We watch Countdown on Tuesdays, don’t we, Mum?’
Sylvie squeezed Marj’s hand, love for her daughter building up in her throat and tingling in her nose, threatening to spill down her cheeks again. It had been three years since the first signs that all was not well with Marj. Three years of watching her daughter lose all the skills and knowledge that she had worked so hard to gain. There was no trace now of the Oxford graduate who had taught mathematics at secondary school level. And she was glad Ken hadn’t lived long enough to see his precious girl descend into dependence upon others.
Yes, these years had been bittersweet, but not for the first time, she thanked God for her daughter, now reliant on her again as she had been when she was a child. Sylvie took a deep breath. ‘Yes we do, Marjorie love. Let’s have a nice cup of tea shall we?’
Kimberley’s note to this story: So often, we think of dementia as being a disease which affects older people. This story is to illustrate that it affects younger people too, making them vulnerable to all sorts of abuse including sexual and emotional abuse. For support, please contact one of the organisations which exist to help those with the disease and their families, such as Alzheimers Society.