4

The Eviction

The eye of an asian elephant at Elephant Natur...

In the near distance, destruction still sounded. I couldn’t unravel my arms from around my knees, frozen by the horror of what I had just witnessed, so I stayed there crouched in an abandoned doorway.  It all played over in my mind in jagged flashes with every crash from the neighbouring street. I had been outside the cafe that morning with some of the other boys from the town. We were kicking a football about despite Mr Raja coming outside several times waving a dish-cloth at us, telling us how our ‘loitering’ looked bad to his customers. I had just been about to complain about Paresh deliberately tripping me just as I was about to score a brilliant goal when suddenly, everyone seemed to have lost interest in the football game. All the boys were looking towards the road that led out of town where all the men went trading. Surely we hadn’t played so many games that they were back already? No. We never took notice of the working men coming back into town. Then I heard it. The commotion of screams and shouting, and something else that I couldn’t quite fathom. A sort of deep rumbling. People started emerging on the road out of town, arms flailing above them and their mouths wide open in  ‘O’s. The non-working men had emerged from the cafe, staring in confusion. ‘What the bloody hell is going…ohmigod’ Mr Raja muttered, almost to himself. Because just as he had started to ask the question we had all been thinking, the source of the deep rumbling emerged behind the running men.

Towering at eleven-foot, the charging elephant made the men look like little toy soldiers, tiny and incredibly vulnerable. It also made them look terribly slow. Somebody grabbed my shoulder and told me to ‘stop gawping and run for dear life’. My feet automatically started to run away from the advancing bedlam as my mind still reeled over what was happening. I had no sense of direction, no clue how to save myself from the path of an enraged elephant. I had only ever seen images on the news of wild animals running riot in towns that had spilled onto wildlife habitats due to the bustling population. It never occured to me that living in one of the largest towns meant that we had been in this great danger. Daring to look behind me, my fears were confirmed as I watched people still running for their lives as they were taken underneath the elephant’s feet. I would never outrun it. Whipping my head in all directions, frantically looking for some place to hide away from the current path of destruction, I found an open door to a block of apartments.

Hurtling into the doorway, I crouched and clung to myself. The elephant had been running with such speed, I was surprised by how much time seemed to pass before it appeared. A figure appeared from the block of flats across the street. I recognised it as Abu Bakul, the body guard of one of the big hotels in the town centre. He seemed pretty calm for someone whose home was about to be bulldozed. It wasn’t until his eyes suddenly bulged and his jaw dropped that I realised this was the first he had heard of the elephant. Almost as soon as he had become paralysed with fear, he was thrust on the floor by a four and a half ton weight. I also became paralysed with fear as my mind refused to watch what was going on in the street outside, yet my head would not, could not turn. What must have been half a minute seemed to last for half an hour as I watched someone I used to walk past several nights a week be trampled to nothing. Each thud of a tree-trunk leg on the ground sounded in my ears like the blasts of war bombs. I feared our town would look like a war-zone after today.

Several minutes later, I was still here. Just waiting. Listening to my town being pounded by an animal of the wild, confused and angry at the humans that had driven it out of its home and forced it into a smaller space to make room for the growing population. Just like the elephant, today was a day that I, along with the rest of my town would never forget.

2

Aftershock

Fake car accident. The vehicle on the picture ... Image via Wikipedia

I can’t sleep. Again. It’s 3 am and I’ll be going to work in the morning over tired as always because I can never sleep anymore. The worst thing about being awake in the unearthly hours of the morning is the restlessness. I become fidgety and often end up waking my wife Jenny next to me, creating two irritable adults at the breakfast table. Holding my breath, I roll over away from her to face the rest of the room. He’s there.

He’s always there and yet I’m never ready for it. I have to cover my mouth with my hand as I gasp and all the air is taken out of me. I enter a state of paralysis, unable to look away. There he is, curled up and pale on the rug in front of the door. For someone who didn’t know he could be sleeping comfortably. But I know. I know because I see him everywhere; in the mirror on the bathroom cabinet while I’m brushing my teeth, at the kitchen table when I’m eating my porridge and Jenny’s still doing her make-up in the bedroom. He dips in and out of all my day to day scenarios and there’s one place I can always be certain he’ll be waiting without fail. The very same place he was the first time. At the end of the drive at 8 am on a Monday morning when the shutters are still pulled down over my eyes and the coffee’s only just starting to kick in. I roll down the drive slowly and start to turn. There he is. Running into the road just as I pull out, we see each other too late. He looks directly into my eyes the moment he collides with the bonnet and he opens his mouth to scream. It only rings in my ears after he’s been knocked down, a piercing, haunting scream. Every Monday morning he runs into the road and I have to stop the car, get out and check even though I know he won’t be there. That was only the first time. Now it’s just my brain playing tricks and taunting me, a prisoner of my own guilt. So I get back behind the wheel and cry into my hands, shoulders shaking with the sobs and wondering whether it will ever end. All my life consists of is him unexpectedly appearing, reminding me of what I did whether he’s at the coffee machine in the office or on the opposite escalator at the mall and I don’t know how much more of it I can take. Then I think of Jenny and I know I have to pull myself together and drive, act like nothing is wrong or I’ll be late for work. I have to clear my head of the little boy I killed with my car bonnet three months ago on his way to school as always, carefree and not looking where he was going.

5

The Empty Cot

English: Walter Wood's House, Hoosick

'A silence hung over the table for a few moments as we remembered not just the house but the feeling of discomfort brought with it'

The door groaned and complained but with a couple more groans and heaves from us, we finally managed to prize it open. And then we stood there, simply staring into the pitch black space beyond the door with our jaws suspended. We’d been talking about this for weeks. It had been a November breaktime when the weather was too damp and miserable to go outside and we’d been forced to cram inside school again. Squished around a tiny round table in the Dining Hall clutching hot chocolates, we reminised about our childhood back to the sun-filled summers where our biggest fear was getting a scrape on our knees. Sarah was the first to mention it. “Do you remember the house?” A silence hung over the table for a few moments as we remembered not just the house but the feeling of discomfort brought with it.

When we were younger and the world was a much bigger place full of wonder the three of us would go exploring in the woods at the bottom of Liv’s garden, picking blackberries and pretending to be Tarzan. It was our magical place differing from one day to the next – sometimes the trees were the skyscrapers of New York and other times a bush was a penguin we’d made friends with during our expedition to the North Pole. I still remember the day Mum dropped me off at Liv’s house and her expression of concern when I went into the kitchen for our usual glass of juice. We watched through the conservatory window in horror as council workers erected a fence at the bottom of the garden, concealing the realm in which we had let our imagination run free. We soon became used to playing on Liv’s quiet street and only remembered the woods at times like that rainy breaktime in November.

But that day was different. We had remembered the house. It went back to a day when we had been naughty and wandered further away from the house than Liv’s mother would allow. We discovered something quite unusual. A house, decrepit and derelict standing alone in the middle of the woods as though someone had placed it there by accident. Looming over us with its brown wooden boards and black windows, it was clear life had not walked within its walls for years. We didn’t go within ten meters of it, far too cautious. We had suddenly felt very aware of how far we must have wandered from the house and quickly paced back to a distance near to Liv’s garden constantly checking over our shoulders back to the house although for what we weren’t sure. We never wandered that far into the woods again, nor did we speak of the house.

“Lets go back”, Sarah said. I looked up from my hot chocolate, sure she was joking but her eyes were filled with mischief as they often were and a grin was stretching its way across her face. This prompted the usual host of worried and logical questions from Liv such as, “What if the council had found the house and razed it to the ground when they erected the fence?” Our sixteen year old selves knew these questions and scenarios were all perfectly plausible and the chances of us finding the house were low, yet our ten year old selves wouldn’t let it rest. Our curiosity had been aroused and we had to return to the house in the woods even if all we did was peek in at a window or find an empty space between trees. So it was decided. As soon as the holidays started we would go beyond the gate.

Here we were, standing in front of the untouched house with its black, black windows. “Come on then” breathed Sarah. “We’re not going back now are we?” She spoke in such a way it was as though she was trying not to be heard, as if we were still hiding from Liv’s Mum. We couldn’t be heard anyway, we were far from any houses in a part of the woods rarely visited by dog walkers. “No” I heard myself say more convincingly than I felt and then I was stepping forward into the black. I was completely blind, only able to sense Liv and Sarah no more than an inch away on either side. We stood rooted to the spot, plunged in darkness with nothing but the sound of our breathing. Suddenly Sarah broke the silence as she started to move further into the darkness. A moment later my eyes were readjusting to the light streaming in from a shafty looking window opposite us. “I knew it was a curtain” Sarah said as she found another window and uncovered it. I looked around to Liv standing with her arms firmly crossed and eyes darting into every corner. We were in a vast, bare room filled only with an old wooden cot. The floorboards creaked underneath Sarah’s feet as she returned to my side, still the only one of the three of us who had defeated our apparent state of physical paralysis. And then the cot began to cry…

For a moment, no-one moved as we stared at the cot. Then we edged forward as though we were approaching a tank of sharks rather than a crying infant. Peering over the edge of the wicker cot, a ripple of gasps escaped each of us. It wasn’t possible. How could the sound of crying come from a cot without a baby inside?

“I don’t like this” Liv started moving away from the cot, still looking at it like a bomb about to cause destruction at any second. I felt equally uncomfortable. “I think we should leave. Now”. Just as I started to follow Liv back towards the door, the ceiling above us creaked so quickly, I almost wondered whether I had really heard it. We were all staring at the ceiling.

“What the hell are you doing?” hissed Liv as she watched Sarah moving towards the stairs. It was madness but I was following suit and travelling towards the uneven staircase. “Em?…Em, where are you going? Are you insane?” Clearly I was, as I carried on walking until the creaking, hollow stairs were under my feet. Liv huffed behind me and then there was only the sound of three sets of overlapping creaks. Sarah discovered more curtains and a landing started to emerge as plain as the room now below us. It was only when I reached the top of the staircase and the first floor came into view that I realised once again, we were in one large room stripped of any furniture. The hairs on the back of my neck were on end. We had all spotted the heap in the corner.

Just like climbing the stairs, we treaded towards it in order; Sarah, me, Liv. It stirred like a child in a bad dream. Stopping in our tracks, I squinted trying to comprehend what the heap was. Covered by a dense, black blanket, it could have been anything; an animal, maybe even somebody our age. It started to moan and wail, now thrashing about inside the blanket like a distressed creature trapped inside a cage. Something tugged inside me and I was advancing towards whatever it was underneath the shroud of the blanket before I even thought about what I was doing. The heap at my feet stopped crying, still and silent. “Em…” Sarah’s voice trailed off as my hand reached outstretched down to a fold in the blanket. For a moment, I concentrated simply on my breathing and my fingers wrapped around the worn, heavy material. Nothing. So I pulled and stumbled backwards as the hiding heap was revealed…

Drip white arms, lank black hair splayed over its body, a dirty, yellowing rag as a dress. What I could only assume to be a human girl was hunched over on her knees with her head pressed to the floor. Her posture was almost like someone praying, only she looked as though she was in despair. Worship and asking the heavens for help were the last things on her mind. She moved. Her shoulders jerked once up and down and her fingers dragged slowly backwards across the floorboards to either side of her head, resting on her hair. Slowly, she started to push herself upwards on the palms of her hands, face still covered by her raven black bonnet. Her head was turning to face us, again so slowly it was as though she had not moved for years, getting used to using her limbs and joints in unison. I made out the face of a young woman under the cloak of hair. Complexion matching the pale in her arms, the eyes that locked with mine were even more paralyzing. Little, black stone pupils were surrounded by burning, crimson irises ablaze with hot fury…

She was muttering something inaudible, resembling a person waking in a confused state from an interrupted sleep to begin with, before she began to sound increasingly hysterical and cried out piercing screams. Her eyes never left mine. She paused, breathing heavily. And then she was standing, picking her left leg from underneath her and then her right. Her shoulders remained hunched with her hands balled into fists and she glared unwaveringly at me through black strands. She shook with each enraged breath she took. And then she spoke.

“Baby” she said almost inaudibly. “Baby” she repeated, this time louder and less of a question. “Taken” she spat as she spoke this word. “Taken…baby…taken.” Not once did she break eye contact as she raised her arm, reaching out to me, beckoning me. I was immobile. “You…you bring…” Something had shifted in her expression, it was less harsh. Was she asking me to do something for her? “Bring…back…baby” I opened my mouth to reply, but it seemed my ability to speak as well as move had been temporarily ceased. “Baby…taken…must…bring back” her tone was urgent and strained. When I again failed to speak, her eyes returned to a blazing frenzy, hostile and merciless. Her cupped, outstretched hand turned into an accusational, pointing finger. “You…no…help” she was snarling now, “baby…taken…you…taken…baby…must…pay” Oh god, I thought as she started to walk towards me her joints suddenly seeming to loosen. Still, her eyes locked with mine, fixated with no intention of letting go of my gaze.

“Em!-” Liv’s voice was high with panic. I stumbled backwards to where she and Sophie were stood and they clung to either arm. “You…baby…taken…pay…must…pay” the young woman came to a stop. I nearly jumped three feet when the crying resumed downstairs. This triggered something even stronger in the woman, who now started to shriek, “MY BABY…THEY TOOK MY BABY…GONE…BABY!!!” she howled on like a mourning animal confirming it would find its revenge. Horrified, I watched her pant through the effort of her crazed screaming before the wicked smile gradually spread across her face and her eyes widened. “You…keep…here…you…pay…for…baby” she was walking again and I would have stayed rooted to the spot, helpless had Sarah and Liv not dragged me backwards. “Run, Em! Come on!” and we were pounding down the stairs, the ceiling banging with each step she took behind us. It wasn’t until we were flying past the cot that it hit me. They had taken her baby and we had discovered her in a place where she had been left grieving to grow bitter against humanity.

We couldn’t get the door open fast enough, bustling back into the woods towards the safety of Liv’s back garden. I constantly looked back over my shoulder, terrified she would follow. We were safe.

Scarred by the experience, we broke down into hysterical tears in Liv’s bedroom. I couldn’t tell them. No, they’d suffered enough shock and upset. I would have to deal with the truth on my own. I knew I was adopted, Mum and Dad had always been open to talking about it. I’d never really been concerned with who my biological mother was. Now I knew. She had finally seen her daughter grown up, her baby once taken had involuntarily returned for a fleeting instance. She had left again, leaving her mother alone once more. Forgotten in the woods.

5

Saving Face

I stared up at the billboard. Behind me a bus went past, no doubt with the same poster stretched across its side. The advert was all over the city. The same girl smiled out to the commoners below, beautiful and radiant. She smiled from billboards, buses, the underground, the TV. Looking up at her on that street in that part of town as I had done since the advert was first plastered there for all to see, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was  empty and hollow. A laugh at the irony of how different the two of us were. One beautiful and air brushed to perfection, smiling as though at that very moment, her life was flawless. The other was stood in her thinning hoodie, the hood over her eyes to hide the fatigue and her lank, greasy hair.

Someone stopped next to me and followed my gaze.

“She’s hot”, he stated matter of factly.

“She’s not real” I replied, my voice matching the hollow, empty laugh of before.

“Not round here she’s not. People don’t look like that ’round here. Nah, she’s at the heart of the city that girl. She’s gone somewhere. Folk round here don’t go anywhere but the local for a pint or ten before staggering home to throw up all over the peeling wallpaper.” With that, the man continued walking and it was just me and her again. It was true what he’d said. We were the forgotten outskirts of the city. Billboards were the closest we got to a glamorous life. People here really didn’t look like the girl on the billboard. Neither did I. Companies always smoothed you over before they released the final product they wanted the world to see.

I tried to remember what I’d been thinking whilst the picture was being taken. Did I even know which company I was shooting for or what they were promoting? I don’t think so. No, by that point the drugs had taken over. I didn’t care which commercial I was shooting so long as I got the money for my next fix. That’s why I’m still here, a nobody going nowhere but the co-op for milk and Three-Footed Jimmy’s for a bag of stuff.

I really thought I was going places. The offers started to pour in, more people wanted me in their next advert, I was a rising star. I quit my part-time job at the local Travelodge. I tried my first little white line. I was on top of the world, the girl on the billboard. But the rising star took a tumble and plummeted back down to Earth with a bang. And a constant headache. After turning up to photoshoots with little or no sleep and glazed over eyes, my pictures rarely made it past the editing desk. The offers ran dry.

When the depression of being a jobless girl in a hopeless urban city outskirt hit, I turned to the drugs for comfort. For days I mooched around my flat, completely numb and senseless. Then the bag ran out but I still had enough sense to know leaving the flat stoned was a bad idea. I had to wait to go and get my next fix.

There I was on the way to get a new stash, staring up at the girl I could have been. I could have broken the mould, change what that man had said to make it untrue. Not everybody around here had to stay put. Instead, I was now just a shade of grey, unrecognisable. A different person entirely to the one looking down at me from the billboard. She had chosen not to eat to look good, I rarely ate because I had no money left.

Three-Legged Jimmy was probably wondering where I was. I’d called to say I’d stop by and pick up a bag. He didn’t like to wait and standing here did me no good.

As I left, a van pulled up and a man got out. He started to paint over the billboard. There she was, disappearing. Like a distant memory or a fading star. Erased.