by Allie Rogers
Second Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2014
Church bells tumble-chasing each other through an October morning. Michael Chalmers opens his green eyes. Above him, the shriek of the bathroom door. Feet on the landing like tiger paws. The bells have woken him too. Church bells, ice-cream vans, milk floats. These things wake Scrase. There isn’t much time.
Shirt isn’t clean. Grey grime on the white collar. Man-marks in the arm pits, yellow clumped against the seam. Years old. Years old this shirt. But a new sweat silvering his neck. New-born sweat where the skin has turned to bristled, sagging crepe.
Good Morning, Michael. Lathe-turned voice. Lathe turned, Cambridge modulated. Come up here for a moment.
No. Bare feet into tan brogues. Run through the house to the garden. To the shed. Mackintosh flapping, belt buckle against ankle bone. Fine rain from a solid white sky. Dust of rain against his balding pate. Frosting Michael Chalmers, balling into silver, snaking across the shiny skin into the rim of hair. Jerk the swollen door into its frame. Slide the bolt.
Dim. Creosote. Safety. Crouch below the window. Peep above the sill. Watch the house.
Looped nets. They jerk. They jerk and Michael blinks. But he is hidden here. His window is a mirror to Scrase. His window is a mirror in the bright white light. It will blind the roving eye.
Michael has his marbles in a Hayward’s pickled onion jar. Michael has his rocking horse and the rusting tins of magnolia paint. Michael makes a circle of them and sits inside. In the centre, cross-legged, Michael Chalmers sits. Mum won’t come though. Mum can’t come today because of the rain.
On sunny days he can magic her to the lawn. The sheets billowing sails. White line of ric-rac braiding on her navy pinny. Peg in her pursed lips. Then pinched on the line. If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy. She knocks on the door. Bournvita, Michael! And then Scrase stops trying. Stops trying for that day. And the house is safe again. But not today. Not today with the jerking, jerking curtains and the soft, whisper rain.
Sounds come. He can send sounds. Click of the gramophone lid, held up by a rigid hinge. Hiss of the needle on the thick, black disc. Music. Let me introduce you to Schubert, Michael. Zip. Drag of his own, brown sandal against the satinette counterpane as he’s pulled up. Up here, Michael. Listen to the beautiful music. Trout Quintet. Leaping trout. Splashing in his eye.
In the shed, Michael tips his jar, fills his palm with cat’s eyes. Yellow is better than red. Blue is best. Blue ribbon. Bubbles in the glass. But this body is old for crouching on the floor. There’s a cramp in his left calf. Fierce like a gunshot. Kicking off his un-laced shoe in the spasm. Dropping the handful of marbles. He rubs with his corded hands. Spotted hands now with finger joints that hint at going the wrong way. Heading off at angles. Shut your eyes, Michael.
Pictures come. The needle is coasting, in and out, dancing at the blank centre of the record. Beyond, on the dressing table, Friar’s Balsam. The green glass boy with his trumpet to his lips. Further still, far away, the Sputnik is circling in space. Dan Dare is battling The Mekon. There’s a good boy. Good boy, Michael. Tizer from the sideboard. Afterwards. Cherry cake.
Michael gathers his marbles into the glass jar. Stacks the paint tins up next to horse. Horse was always dead. Horse was no good for getaways. Yet he loves him. Strokes a finger in his flared nostril. The curtains are still now. If he risks it, though? If he goes to his house and fries a rasher of back bacon, breaks one egg, what then? If he washes his cold, spider-leg, body in the white, white bathroom? Will the china handle turn? Will he turn as he pisses, in panic? Mess on the floor. Wet on the floor. Mopping with his thin, green flannel.
Breathe, Michael Chalmers. Stand in the doorway of the old cedar shed. The rain has stopped. The bricks of the house are dark with the marks of a wet crow wing. The privet is a mass of decorated web. Step onto the grass and wait there. Watch the house again. Gone man is gone for today. Is he? On the tram to town, Michael, Mr Scrase has reeds to buy for his bassoon. Mr Scrase must buy manuscript paper. Scratching and dotting at the five bar fence. Hours in the evening when Mum invites him down.
Then, Michael, on his belly by the Parkray, sending his plastic soldiers closer, closer, risks their little moulded hands on the hot metal. Valiant, tiny. They look through the door into the orange pits of Phurnacite hell. In hell there might be dragons. There will be Satan. Scrase will have red hot nails hammered through his palms.
Now, Michael reaches the kitchen door. The tap is dripping into the sink. There is his cafetiere. There is his digital radio. There, plugged in next to the kettle, the wide eye of his phone that has charged overnight. Michael pushes one shoulder against the door and steps inside. Bodie and Doyle drag him through the decades, to now, to this twenty-first century. Michael rinses a mug. Michael drinks coffee, hot and heavy. He eats toast and marmalade in defiance of it all. Lumps of gelatinous light. Michael recovers himself in the moment that the blue tit lands on his window sill. He irons his favourite, practical beige trousers.
Michael Chalmers walks the four miles across the town. From one covered hill to the next he strides. Long-limbed old man with shoulders slightly skewed. Coins in his trouser pocket chime on his thigh. He buys Cadbury Whole Nut and breaks it into strips. Sniffing, pink nose, numbing face and watering eyes now, Michael Chalmers eats it at the top of the biggest hill. There is a sharp dart of pain through a molar as he chews.
Alive, Michael Chalmers blows his nose, stuffs the tissue into his pocket. Light failing, he slides through the gap in the fencing. Broken pillars to signify the end of a dynasty. Angels to signify, what? Salvation? No, only through Christ. They told him, only through Christ. Angels announce. The chips of green glass. One in his pocket today. Stealing from the dead. A special sin, Michael.
A palm on the marble. There’s a woman three rows away with the very last chrysanthemums, surely? Bronze and ragged. She makes Michael kneel too, with her bowed head and attentive stroking and tweaking of the blooms. She is talking but those are words he can’t here. He speaks in a soft monotone. Damns the bones in the grave. Damns the crumbling vertebrae and softened discs of the patellae. Curses the zig-zagged lines of the settled skull, the teeth lying in the nibbled satin lining.
The bells begin again as Michael walks up the curve of the steps that short-cut his hill. In the morning he will wake to his alarm and make a cheese sandwich. He will chair the meeting for the project group, even though they think him far too old now. He will buy Rioja and drink it beside his new wood burner.
Upstairs in Michael Chalmer’s house, the clock will tick in the back-bedroom. The yellow counterpane will slide, suddenly, untouched, from the pillow. The gramophone lid will be shut and yet, inside, slowly, the Trout Quintet will spin.
Trout Quintet was placed second in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2014 and first appeared in Issue 5 of Bare Fiction Magazine in March 2015.