Snippet Thirteen: Untouchable

The remainder of the now even tenser evening is passed with stilted, small-talk-style conversation and theatrical gagging on my part, following my discovery that mackerel pretty much tastes like those cod liver oil capsules that my mum used to give me. I end up just eating the rice and asparagus, all the while wishing that I’d just gone with my usual safe prawn dish. Thanks to my Latin heritage, I’ve grown up around a lot of seafood, but I guess I now know the reason why our parents never subjected us to such an atrocity as mackerel. Thomas’ regular old pizza is beginning to look extremely appealing.

Needless to say, he notices me shooting glances at the thick Hawaiian topping and makes a subtle gesture to the final slice.

I shake my head shyly. No, I couldn’t. Could I?

Our eyes lock in a silent battle, but eventually I figure that mine register defeat because he lifts it tentatively to my mouth, which has slipped open, lubricated by saliva.

Although my heart rate is rising steeply and my skin prickles like it wants to leap away from my internal organs, I fight the feeling. The isosceles triangle approaches, the tip of the cheese teasing my taste buds until I can no longer restrain myself and I bite down. And I chew. I let the flavours drip down my throat.

I am euphoric; I’ve overcome the anxiety – the virus is not stronger than me. Almost shivering, I allow a grin to spread across my jaw.

Thom’s expression is synonymous.

I try not to let that bother me. Maybe I should give this thing a chance.

Reaching out for my hand in slow motion, reality speeds up again as he clasps it; I give it a shake so that we end up swinging our arms back and forth, brushing the side of the table – a rope of skin. It is not love or even lust that I am feeling, but appreciation: deep, untainted, heady gratefulness for his simply being. For his bamboozling desire to make me his. Although he is hardly the counter-weight to my see-saw, the strength of his smile alone keeps me elevated, optimistic. Yet I need him to know the truth – tonight has proved to me that Thom is more delicate than he seems and I cannot take advantage of that.

“I’m so glad that you’re here.” I articulate, trying to let my sincerity shine through. It is difficult to fight against the physical urges to jump up and embrace him – to share the intense warmth that fills me, however I know that I mustn’t let anything spin out of control. If I cannot restrain the heart then I must restrain the head. Unfortunately, I am used to doing quite the opposite. “But I don’t love you.” I say explicitly, still cracking my widest smile.

Thom’s grin doesn’t falter either until, 30 seconds later, he sighs. “I am aware.”

With these four syllables, as if I have been on a sugar high my energy levels plummet and I beseech for him to explain.

He sighs again. “I asked Luca to watch you – how you behaved around me and your aura – so that I could decipher what you truly felt. It’s intrusive I know and I had no right, but I was desperate. All that he reported back was concern, sympathy, anxiety, terror. I guess that tonight was me trying my good fortune in the hope that your desire had somehow manifested itself into all of these.”

I wait for him to continue, but it seems that he’s done.

“I’m sorry.” I apologise pathetically and he cringes at the evident pity. “I’m sorry that I can’t be the one, though I wish you luck in finding her.”

I’ve never been particularly adept at consoling others but with the right mood to work with, the virus changes that. I’m still me, just – exaggerated. Involuntarily, I pick up both feet, one then the other, so that I am shuffling out from my side of the booth and padding over to Thomas’ side.

His irises jitter in a startled manner. He clearly wasn’t expecting this; neither was I.

I lean down to press my lips against the soft cartilage of his left ear. “I can’t bear for you to be upset; you’ve made such an effort and I’m so grateful; you can kiss me if you like.”

I hold my breath but he shakes his head vigorously enough for the light to catch the field of straw atop it, making the strands appear to be flaming – burning – smouldering. “How can I let myself get so close to something that I cannot have?” His tone is such that I am unable to tell whether this question is meant for himself or for me.

“Okay.” I agree softly, trying hard to direct my response towards that of relief rather than offense. “Okay.”

I refuse to muck things up any further.

We Won’t Make It

I’m scared that I won’t make it –

That my future will be crushed out of me

When the engine fails and the plane

Plummets

Down

Down

Down,

Metamorphosing into incandescent wreckage

 

And

 

I’m frightened that he won’t make it –

That he’ll miscalculate. And OVERDOSE.

And at midnight the call won’t be his –

No,

It’ll be from the ambulance crew that

Couldn’t

Save him

 

And

 

I’m terrified that they won’t make it –

That they’ll be run down or stabbed or bombed

Whilstouttogether

And that I’ll lose both my rocks

At once,

Leaving me no ground to

Stand on

 

And

 

I’m just scared that we won’t make it.

 

A.N. I’ve become painfully aware of the fragility of life over the past few weeks, in light of the bombings in Manchester and Afghanistan in addition to other tragedies that I’ve been hearing all over the news. I won’t pretend that it hasn’t affected me, because it has. It’s changed my whole outlook: I no longer see the days of myself and others as unlimited, but numbered; I no longer believe that these news stories won’t happen in my own world, because my Earth and that Earth are the same. In some way, it is good to be in touch with this reality as it means that I am a lot more appreciative of what I have. On the other hand, though, I recognise that I can’t let these happenings distract me from making the most out of my life. After all, if I can stay level-headed then perhaps I can make a change to even a fraction of this mess.

Snippet Twelve: Skater Boy

Getting onto Southbank at around mid-day, it is found that the cramped conditions of central London are ideal for us not to be discovered by Luca’s fellow children’s’-homers. Having agreed not to don our hoodies until we reach the skate arena, instead I nearly crick my neck gazing up at the fairy-lighted London Eye and a luminous Big Ben commanding a sturdy bridge arching the Thames. If there’s anything about my first taste of London that grabs me the most, it’s the sheer scale of things: the mammoth buildings, the crawling crowds, the cloud-shod expanses of sky; even the mingled fragrance of fast-food vans is potent enough to penetrate the nether-tunnels of my nostrils.

At our destination zone, the hum of multilingual chatter makes space for the echoing thud of previously-airborne wheels; in the dingiest corner is a stunted silhouette silently splattering an already rainbow-like wall with a small red spray can. They seem to be crafting an image in the shape of a horizontal almond: an eye. It’s got to be Luca.

He doesn’t turn around as the three of us dodge-saunter across the young lads riding stunt bikes, scooters and skateboards, dressed in our new apparel. It’s a miracle that we don’t get hit, or even falter in our ridiculous performance. I realise now that, to see his face, we’ll have to travel right round in front of him, possibly sacrificing ourselves to chemical burns. Thankfully though, Luca has heard us, putting down his can and stepping aside just as we reach a distance of inches.

“So here’s the plan.” He begins straight away, not even double-checking our identities first. We aren’t given the chance to do anything other than listen. “I’ve been checking out the property, and the owner’s daughter always leaves the back gate open when she leaves for school. Closed, just not locked.” He clarifies. “I figured if we find a way to get him out of the house, we can easily sneak in and sift through any suspicious documents or artefacts.” Luca sounds so eager and content with his achievements that it is difficult to imagine that he feels any remorse for having left home at all.

My thoughts flick to Thomas, but quickly return to the surreal reality of the skate park. Now is not the time, I admonish myself.

Luca is bundling a ball of black material into Ms Stapleton’s arms. “That’s your policewoman’s uniform.” He indicates to her with a nod.

“Uhh…what?” She responds, representing the confusion of the majority.

“You’re the diversion.” His explanation elicits the flash of genius that overcomes his pupils from beneath the hood. They are the roaring blue flame of a Bunsen burner: dangerous, enchanting. “You are going to pretend that you are going round the houses to take surveys about the effectiveness of the local police force. Meanwhile, Saffron and Sam -” His animated face darts towards us. “- will carry out the search, grab what we need, and run.”

“Wait, why aren’t you coming?” I put forth in an accusatory tone.

“They won’t let me go out on my own yet.” He mutters, uncharacteristically sour.

Well, it’s his own fault, I can’t help but surmise.

“Hey, how’s it going at the children’s home?” Sam whispers politely, putting my bitter reaction to shame.

“Mm, it’s okay.” Luca replies unenthusiastically, then admits “I don’t get a moment’s peace – not even at night: my roommate’s a snorer.” He says that last bit with his hand cupping the side of his mouth theatrically. “I’ve had to lock all my science equipment in a safe so that it doesn’t get destroyed by rampaging 11-year-olds.” The 10-year-old says. “Since it’s my first fortnight, I’m not even allowed out by myself. Today is a risk too – as soon as they realise I’ve been a half hour in the bookshop I said I wanted to look in, they’ll send out a search party.” He sounds mournful now. “I seriously do wish that I could come with everyone but I fear that, after this, I’ll be captive for yet another two weeks.”

Snippet Eleven: Never Too Late

When Miss Adams calls the register, I swear I am the only one to realise that Florence’s name is missing. I bolt upright and whip my head about the classroom – frantic.

“What’s up?” Kitty asks, confused; the violent flagellation of my hair causes her to have to dodge its attack.

“Florence…isn’t here.” I mumble distractedly.

“Who?” She queries, touching her chin.

“New girl. Tallish. Blonde.”

“Ah, right, the one that got beaten up. Come to think of it, I heard you packed a punch of your own. Was that…the virus?”

“I – yeah. You see – I got to know Floss, you know, while you were away.”

Kitty is silent.

In a tenth scan of the classroom I pick out a tuft of discoloured hair belonging to the one other being who might give a crap about what’s happened to Floss. The bell rings and I scoot in front of her before she can leave the room, Kitty trailing, bewildered, after me. “Hey. Adalyn.”

“Uh, Saffron? C-can I help?” She has every right to her degree of perplexity. I only newly exist in her world, as she in mine.

“Yes actually. I was just wondering if you know where Florence is.”

After a momentary hesitation, she confides in a whisper: “She’s not coming back here.”

“Oh.” Comes my deflated response. I don’t ask why; I think I can deduce that for myself.

“Uh.” Adalyn says, fiddling with her hands. “If you want to – you know – say farewell and stuff, I could give you her number?” Her voice goes all high-pitched at the end, as if she’s sure that I’ll say no.

But I am determined to prove her wrong. “You can?” I exclaim gently, appreciating her courageous geniality. “That’d be amazing, thanks. I’d be really grateful.”

While Adalyn mumbles Floss’s number, I punch the digits into my phone, thanking her again. I make a mental note to talk to her more often in future.

Turning back round, I am confronted with a tilt-headed Kitty, scrutinising as if she doesn’t quite recognise me.

“I didn’t know that you and Adalyn were on speaking terms.” She states, incredulous.

“Um, yeah, recently – not a lot though.” I instinctively feel embarrassed by my friend’s observation; it must show on my face because, straight away, Kitty reassures me.

“No, no – I’m proud of you. You’re branching out.” She says sincerely.

“Ah, OK then. Thank you.” I accept the backhanded compliment with an addled smile.

Snippet Ten: Break Down

My door is creaking open as I click off: it’s Erin. I consider shouting at her for breaking and entering but, seeing my deliberative expression, she holds out her hands in front of her face, a compromise between self-defence and surrender.

Whilst doing this, she quickly begins to speak. “Mum sent me up to check on you. She considers “blustering” through the door and “thundering” upstairs a cause for concern. Her words, not mine.”

When I won’t answer, my sister squints at me impatiently and asks, “So, are you okay?”

That’s it: the trigger. All thoughts of chucking my aluminium fireball at her head fly out of the window and instead I crumple to the carpet, sobbing softly.

Erin is evidently startled by this unorthodoxy, gawkily shuffling fully into the room. She doesn’t ask me what’s wrong – she knows that whatever the matter is, she won’t be adept at consoling me. That’s something we have in common, our inability to deal with shows of impassioned melancholy. Instead, Erin kneels crookedly down next to me, pencil skirt riding up in an unusual absence of decorum. Not used to sisterly contact, she simply places a hand on my right shoulder, as if about to begin a prayer for my sake.

At first I am conscious of trying not to fidget whilst fire and ice clash within my chest and head; I do not want to sabotage her attempts. Soon though, I relax into the scanty touch, a source of comfort like warm water licking my skin.

For a reasonable amount of time, we remain there, statuesque, before I nudge her away when I notice my body rising in temperature with a new emotion: love. Desiccated salt clings to my cheeks.

“Get some rest.” My sister sends out the feathery words before leaving me lonely.

I start to drag myself up the several miles onto my feet, realise that the miniature hot-water-bottle is missing from my clambering claws, and drop back down again. It is only a relief to abstain from using energy unnecessarily.

In painfully landing flat on the chest, my pursuance materialises from the fuzzy blackness under my bed. Simple-minded, I reach for it, then roll over onto my back like a dog cajoling a belly scratch. Holding the mobile vertically above my face, I unlock the screen. I have a message; it must have come whilst Erin was here. Seeing who it is from, all elements of forced calm evaporate.

Tell Thomas it was me.

Snippet Nine: Little Boy Lost

“Wait, what?” I exclaim, Thomas’ rapidly-fired demand a word search. “Who’s “they”?” I don’t know which part to concentrate my concern onto: Luca being gone or that someone else is involved in his vanishing.

“The Social!” Thomas shouts, ire mingled with genuine distress. “They turned up at about 8:30 this morning and told me that I’m not fit to look after him! I’m 17!” He spits on the ground and it’s all I can do not to shuffle my feet in disgust.

“But -” I start. “That arrangement was only temporary, right? Your mum won’t be in hospital forever.” I am amazingly calm in my surety of the situation’s eventual resolution. Perhaps I am missing something; my psyche is sluggish from minimal rest.

Thomas suddenly draws back from his assault of my personal space. He grips a frontal tuft of blond and tells me quietly: “Mum’s dead.”

My stomach plummets as though I have just descended from the climax of a rollercoaster, then is stabbed with a pang of panic. “What?” I utter hoarsely. “And – and you – you haven’t told Luca that?” My head and chest are smouldering so fiercely that I wish I could take off my coat.

“Are you insane? That kid’s already fucked up. But never mind that. I want to know who called them.” His tone is scarily bitter. “Luca says he’s going out with you for the day to work on whatever crackpot project you’re doing, and the next thing I know, the S-workers come knocking!”

I now realise where he’s going with this – but he’s wrong. I didn’t call them. It must have been Sam or Ms Stapleton – no, not Sam: he’s too innocent. Stapleton though, she’s a teacher… I don’t quite manage to defend myself at this moment in time; I am still caught up in the concept of Ms Amello’s death. “When did she die?” I put forward bluntly.

“Look. Don’t bullshit me.” He scowls. “You called them, didn’t you?”

“No. No. There were others. More people with us. “

“Like who?” Thomas taps his feet impatiently.

“Uh, a boy, Samuel. And – and Ms Stapleton.”

“Ms Stapleton? The teacher?” He pales.

I nod. He must have friends at Rosenham High.

“Well. She probably did it then.” He squeezes out, toothpaste from a near-empty tube. “What did you say to her?”

Now recovered from my initial internal paralysis, I am overcome with irritation at Thomas’ recurring accusations. “Who said I said anything?” I say indignantly, although I wrack my brains in the pause that Thomas uses to raise his well-shaped eyebrows, awaiting a conclusive explanation. “If you must know,” I come up with, “your oh-so-victimised “alien” brother happened to mention that you were his 17-year-old guardian.”

He looks somewhat sulky at my retort and manages to suppress any shock that he might be experiencing with expertise. “I don’t see why she would have snaked us out based on just that.”

“Nope, neither do I.” I snap, thoroughly ruffled. “Where have they taken Luca?”

He tells me the address of the children’s home, a couple of miles up north somewhere. “Bye then.” He says, shrugging helplessly.

“Still can’t believe you lied to your little brother.” I provoke hotly as his shoulders slant to leave. “Was she ever actually in hospital?”

He stares at me – hard. “Fuck off.” He commands, briskly completing the turn. But by the time he reaches the end of the road he yells something else. “They switched her off the day before yesterday.”

Oh. My heart plummets like an arrow that’s missed its target. What have I done? I think, switching with amazing speed from incredulity to self-disgust. The candle in my throat is only an invisible reminder that I cannot be held fully accountable.

Aside

Body Hair: An Endangered Species

Sharp blades of silky obsidian grass

Poking up from pinches of ochre soil;

Luxuriant undergrowth – twisting coils

That of undesirables block. The. Path.

 

Wispy, transparent dandelion seeds

Strewn across a rough and earthy terrain;

Dark mossy barks that grow slick in the rain

And glint like stars in the sun’s lucent beam.

 

Tell me. Why would you ever desire to

Burn or scythe or mow or pluck out any

Of the shrubs that bore this charming garden?

 

Perhaps it had never occurred to you

That it was not there to please the many;

Only those who can fathom its allure.

 

A.N. This sonnet was inspired by Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey as well as my own experiences of the way in which body hair, especially female body hair, is perceived by society. I can’t help but notice that, despite the increasing acceptance of things that were previously considered disgusting and abnormal like being a member of the LGBT+ community or someone who is larger than usual, hirsutism and even common patterns of body hair remain neglected by the liberal-minded. As part of my own journey to self-love, I believe that it is important to accept my body in its natural state, and realising the beauty of that which society deems unbeautiful is one change of mind-set that will help me on my way.