Proving Human

The way home is long and narrow and the forest runs along either side of the road. It’s hard to keep both eyes on the road. I can never help but stare to the sides of passing trees, backdropped by the blanket pitch that collects them in gloom and secrecy. It reminds me of a zoetrope my father gave me for a birthday. When I was younger, I imagined a character, normally something I had seen from television, running between the trunks, fast and fleeting, as if they were printed on projector slides.

I approached the infamous corner before the bridge. It has quite the reputation for catching drivers off guard. The one-way road without dips or bumps, lit by moonlight, provokes one to be generous with their speed. A few times a month someone would find themselves at the end in the mud. It’s never claimed a life. Most of the time it’s a few bruises, a few cuts, a wrecked car and a lesson learnt.

The ground was icy so I stopped the car before the road took me further. I got out to see how much of the tarmac was covered, to save me drifting into the barrier. I always carry a torch on me, ever since the wife worried herself sick about me coming down this route in the later hours. What if you get stuck, she would say, what if you get stuck in the forest at night? What if you get lost or the car breaks down and you crash? So I take a torch to keep her happy.

The ice continued, thick and black, glistening in the torchlight, right up to the corner barrier ahead. Of course, it looked as if it had been knocked down and rebuilt a dozen times. The bridge, which spans across the lake, was quiet. An old thing, people call it, and only named by locals as The Bridge in their casual conversations.

There’s peace out in the forest; far from civilisation; no homes, no buildings, no factories or farms. There’s nothing, for miles. I savoured the silence and took a second to relish the absence of the city life.

Where the new metal of the barrier meets the old stone of the bridge, that part had gone. A huge chunk of the wall was knocked through and the metal was sharp and jagged as if it had been struck by lightning. A pair of tire tracks ran between them and when my mind clicked, I jogged forward and looked over the edge. The air was still and the night was calm and the water glowed with a set of hazard lights, warm and red beneath the skin, and my heart felt shot. I sprinted back to the car for my phone, sliding the way on the ice, and then raced back towards the bridge, dialling as I went.

“Hello – police, I need the police. And an ambulance.”

“What’s your emergency?”

“A car – a car has gone off the road. Into the water. The car’s in the water.”

“Where are-”

“I’m on the Adley Bridge. Just from Compton Village. It’s gone through the railings. The car’s in the water.”

“They’re already on their way, sir. Where’s the driver? Is the driver in the car?”

“I don’t know. I don’t – The car’s in the water.

“Sir -”

“I’ve got to save them.”

I dropped the phone and rushed myself down the bank, footing my way in the small shelves of dirt and mud. I didn’t hear the crash, nor did I recognise the back of the car from the journey. God knows how long it had been in there, submerged and silent.

I lost the ground beneath my feet and tumbled forward, somersaulting into the water. It was quick to seep through my clothes, to catch my skin, and the cold caught my breath, but I got myself up and waded through to the car. The lake wasn’t deep, only then did I realise, as the nose of the car was balanced a few metres below me, with its tail end on top of it near the surface. I held my breath, took my head under and swam toward the front door, aided by the weight of my jeans and boots.

I could only just make out the shadowy figure of an old woman inside. Her arms hung above her head. Her face calm, her eyes closed.

The door wouldn’t open. I tugged as hard as I could, and hit the window with my fist, only to sound a dull thud of weakness. My lungs depleted in flurries of bubbles and I resurfaced. I shouted for help. The odds of someone else being nearby were low, the nearest home was over ten miles away, but I shouted, and sent my voice as far as I could.

It couldn’t have been more than a second after when a splash erupted in front of me. The water threw itself up and showered quickly. A head emerged in the middle of it. Stern and strong eyes looked at me, the eyes of a man with a shaggy beard and long hair clamped to his head. He took a deep breath and went under.

I followed him down. In two broad strokes he was already at the car, his silhouette cast by the taillights. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small, hard object and pierced the window in a muted crack. It shattered peacefully. He bore his arms through, his elbow forcing out the corner panes that stuck together. The shards sailed and spun in every direction as he wrangled his arms inside and pulled the woman out, pushing his feet against the door and rising upwards.

I surfaced and crawled to the bank. The man hauled the woman up by her shoulders and when she was close, I pulled on her jacket and dragged her back onto land. I was sure she was dead, her body was limp and cold and pale. The man pressed his ear to her mouth and then pumped down on her chest with his hands, his fingers locked at the end of his pillar arms. Her body shuddered with each press, her head rocking as the man continued. Minutes passed, the man rhythmic. I watched, helpless and afraid. The woman rattled and coughed, water spewed from her mouth and ran down her chin and she let out an old, long groan.

Call it a miracle. A woman survives underwater for a ridiculous amount of time. Call it another miracle, that a man jumped from the bridge and brought her back from the grips of a watery grave. To this day, I still don’t believe how she made it.

The man collapsed backwards and the air filled with deep breaths from all of us. The woman with her head on my coat, the man sitting in the dirt.

I knew the woman. I recognised her when I shone the torch on her face for signs of life. Her name was Martha Andrews. She used to be a gardener for the rugby grounds. Rumours told she turned to alcohol after she was sacked, and I didn’t refute them after her rich, whiskey breath travelled upwards and hit my nostrils.

The man’s breathing slowed and became silent. He cleared his hair and looked me straight in the eyes, holding a blank stare that spoke fatigue and tiredness. His face, worn and leathered. And then, he quietly got himself up, and made his way into the forest, his coat dripping as he went. His footsteps softened and soon dissolved with the crunch of sticks and leaves as the sirens began to fill the night.

“Thank you,” Martha said, staring up at me with a trembling lip. “Thank you.”

And I said nothing.

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Our Shaun

“Our Shaun came over. His girlfriend has moved out so I let him stay. God, he can be a lazy boy sometimes, I tell you. Our Shaun will be sat up playing his games or whatever. I told him no friends and he brings three people over. I told him no, you can’t, get them out. They all went but he put up a fight.”

“You guys fight?” I asked.

“Do we fight? Yeah, I had to hit him with the broom and he threw a plate at me. He kicked down my door last week, had to have Joe come around and sort that one out. That’s what this is. I told him to go somewhere else, you know, get him out. He still works down by the quadrant bit. You know, next to the park? Right. He has bad luck with jobs, our Shaun, he does. He was in iron for a while.”

“Iron?”

“Prison, prison. Mop in zig zags, otherwise you’re just spinning around. Yeah, he was for a couple of weeks, he can be trouble, he can. Mind you, now I didn’t see it, but our Ella said she was out her flat watching. Shaun had four policemen chasing him. He tried to hide with Ella but our Ella, she’s smart, she says you can’t otherwise she’ll get done, you know. So he legs it. Our Ella tells us she saw him go up some steps and them police followed. Fifteen minutes later, it’s just Shaun. He’s blood on his face, his clothes are torn, he’s a state. No police though. Our Shaun can do that. Get himself out. Managed to do it pretty well when he shoved that pipe down that dogs throat. Dog was fine and he got nothing for doing it. He’s a big name, our Shaun, he’s big. I get lucky having him as my boy. I tell people I’m Daly or they see my name somewhere and they know that’s Shaun’s mum.”

She placed both her hands on top of the broom and rested it beneath our chin. “It’s safety most of the time. People knows me and people knows our Shaun. You don’t get on his bad side. You’re alright, he knows you and I do, too. That’s our Shaun.”

Grand Grandparents

Knowing I had a few weeks of summer left, before the new semester started, I took a week to visit both of my grandparents. My Grandpa, Old Tin Boot (that’s what we call him – it’s a long story) lives far up north whilst my Grandma, dear Milly, lives on the south coast. Since I had spent two weeks on the surf and sand, it made sense to visit Grandma first. It had been quite some time.

Grandma is one tough granny. I don’t think she’s a malicious bone in her body but she’s notorious for her temper. She throws horrendous threats to the squirrels that help themselves to the grains in the bird feeder and she conjures horrific insults to the postman who wedges her parcels through the letterbox, crumpling every order into a misshaped cardboard polygon. But it never went more than that, and her slurs were never within an earshot of another person. Except for us, of course, but we’re family.

I asked her a question. I asked why her and Grandpa split, back in 1943.

“I’ll tell you, but only once,” she said. Her cigarette flapped on her bottom lip with each syllable like a tiny, glowing maggot. “Your grandfather and I weren’t made for each other. We never should have been together. I’m not sure why we ever married. Now, we shall never speak of it again.” That was that, apparently. It was rather the taboo subject, to talk about their past relationship. Mother told me never to mention it. Grandma never spoke of it before, and any questions were quickly shut off. However, I had caught her on a good day, for she told me that much, and that’s the most I ever knew.

Grandma’s a great cook, and she’s aggressive with her preparation. When she dices, the blade hits the cutting board fast and hard. That poor onion, it shrunk so fast and seemed to melt under the metal. After she scooped the lot into the pan, she began rapidly slicing the bell peppers. The knife, held tight in her old hand, went through the orange and red flesh with ease, producing sharp slithers that rocked on the wood when freed from the body. The rib shavings and seeds flew out either side as if they were spewed from a combine-harvester, some hitting the floor in tiny tings. Her cuisine never met her hygiene, as the food was garnished with her tobacco smoke; I didn’t look forward to tasting it later.

While I wasn’t entirely sure what she was preparing us both in terms of food, she made herself very clear in her words, repeating three times “We were too different.”

She hadn’t seen Grandpa for fifty years, never heard from him, never spoke to him. They met, they married, they gave birth to my mother, and split. Some relationships aren’t meant to be, and I’ve grown quite content with that fact. Better to have two happy people, separated, than argument-fuelled, polar opposite parents who can’t stand to be in the same room as each other.

Grandpa, on the other hand, was calm. I don’t think he’s ever raised his voice, let alone shown any signs of anger. The Thompson boys threw a brick through his window and he only mustered a shrug. It’s not healthy to be so calm all the time. Frustration builds in anyone, it must. I found it hard to believe, how he was. When I saw him two days later, he spoke the same words. We were down at his allotment, picking green beans and courgettes, spring onions and beetroot, when he told be about his past. “Your grandmother and I, it was a mistake for us to be together. We are grateful for your mother, of course, but that’s that. No more questions, youth.”

Not either of them wanted to talk about it. Looking back, I know it’s only fair. It ruptures my gut thinking about my past partners. No good came from it, and I regret I let curiosity find its way to asking them both the same question. I should have listened to mother. Nothing came from it. It didn’t matter.

Despite their differences they so adamantly proclaimed, I loved the small similarities. They both had this ruthless nature with food. Grandpa was tossing the beetroot into the wheelbarrow. The bulbs bounced in and around the metal with harsh thuds. He ripped the spring onions straight out of the ground with full fists of dirt and slung them over his head, not caring where they landed. Whichever green beans weren’t ready, he picked them anyway and dropped them into a pile on the woodchip path. Just like Grandma with her slicing and dicing, commanding the vegetables to uniform and submit to the blade, telling them where to go. When they rolled, she clawed them back, held them down, and split them into halves, into quarters, into eighths.

After spending a lovely day with them, they both had this gentle side that bloomed, just once, in our short time together. Grandma was extremely delicate with the parsley. She gently chopped it with kind, soft, silent strokes as she grouped it with her fingertips and thumb. She lightly lifted the pieces, cupping them in the palm of her hand, and sprinkled them onto supper. Grandpa, on his hands and knees, nimbly picked his spinach leaves as if they were egg shells, and placed them into the hand basket. After, he neatly nourished the naked stems with cool water whilst singing an old blues song, one I can’t now remember. They turned to me, and despite not having seen each other for half a century, they shared the same advice. It’s as if they both said it at the same time. “Be careful with the greens, they easily bruise.”

Her and I

We’re astronauts, us both.
Our helmets on, they’re round and tight,
We wear them every day and night,
Together locked in mutual oath.
We’re astronauts, us both.

We’re astronauts, her and I.
Standing between the sun and Mars
Contained inside cosy bell jars
As gentle galaxies collide,
We’re astronauts, her and I.

Her and I, we’re astronauts.
Our joining hands, new hearts beating,
As life escapes, fast and fleeting,
Just us, our fears and oddly thoughts,
Us both, her and I,
Astronauts.

Bowling

There’s a man by himself, “bowling alone.”
It’s just his name on the screen, cut in half at the first vowel,
Followed by thatched crosses for his rolling strikes
Punctuated with lemonade sips through a bendy straw.

He’s unfazed by the cheers from other lanes,
A high-fiving family of four on one side,
Six teenagers, laughing at every gutter throw
And seven-ten split on the other.

To him, without his watch, his credit card, his mobile phone,
It’s not “bowling alone.”
It’s just bowling.

Proclamation

Another soul staggers up the road, wearing his fitted evening suit with matching waistcoat, buttoned to his bulging naval,
holding a bottle of pinot gris in one hand and a thick cigar in the other.
His heart, wrapped in sharp barbed wire, beats 
to the flickering streetlights, hammers for the licking fire that runs through his body, his flaming ambition, his searing desire,
he takes in a breath of city air, 
to shout in poetry, proclaim in prose,
to shed his drink and fancy clothes,
to speak his mind, arrange and compose his wild thoughts, swirled with wine and tobacco, to let the weight drop, fall and go,
to let her hear, to let her know
that he loves her.

She’s over a thousands mile away but he shouts it,
for the sleeping families and stray, alley cats that slink
the still, silent night,
just to see if it sounded right.

Mr Watanabe

We always did our best to stage the math teacher
For the hour that we had him.
Little, like-minded menaces managing to meddle in
The five minute breathers Mr Watanabe took
Outside the room
To turn our desks around and fold our notes
Into paper planes, to glide them toward
The chalk and black board.

I saw him pace past the classroom window
With a sunken, red face and a glazed, sweaty brow.
His glasses slid down his nose and his fingers
Pushed them back up as my peers leaped
To bat the light-shade with their pencils
And their rulers.

I saw him pinch a pill from a tiny, plastic bottle,
Chuck it down his gullet with a slug of water
Not knowing it his was aid,
As the bottle rockets were to calm the boys
In our morning science lessons.

Ours mind were like our paper planes.
So quick to fold, so quick to fly,
Ignoring the consequences of the crashes.

I don’t think he knew it was me,
Who served his caramel shortcake and black coffee
But I knew it was him,
And I should have had the strength to say it before
He walked away with his suitcase and passport.
“Mr Watanabe. I’m sorry.”