Here you go then people, our first prose piece is live, to be followed shortly by some new poetry. Enjoy! And remember, we encourage comments and feedback.
There were no streetlamps, and the cobbles were wet and black. Two people were walking up the hill towards the only light. The one in front made little steps, his head bowed and retracted into the hood of his coat. The other, a girl, lingered at the lift of each foot and looked around her at the shops and flats above. He kept looking over his shoulder at her, as if to check.
Green vapour smoked out from underneath a door at the end of the street. A man stood on the corner in an open-collared suit, balancing a tower of pound coins on the palm of his hand. A cat sat framed in a window to the right.
‘This must be it,’ the boy said to the girl. The doorman waved them through and told them to have a good night. It was empty inside, but an abandoned party was evident all over the tabletops in scattered nuts and puddles.
‘What can I get you?’ The woman behind the bar smiled at them. She squeaked a dishcloth around a pint glass, before putting it down to hand them a menu.
The girl ordered a Bloody Mary without the ice. The boy ordered a pint of something. There was music on the jukebox, but neither of them knew what played. The boy sipped from his glass, raising it minimally off the surface of the bar and bringing his lips to the beer rather than the beer to his lips. She watched him for a second, and then turned away to inspect a local newspaper. Her boots tapped a rhythm on the stool.
‘You have a cat?’ the boy said to the barmaid. ‘I saw it when I walked past.’
‘You’re a cat man?’
‘Yes, the cat comes and goes.’
‘Any idea where it might be now?’
‘Oh no. You should never go searching,’ the barmaid said.
The boy swivelled his stool around to face the girl. Her legs in pale tights were crossed at the knee, and her ankles rotated in slow, ponderous circles. Her hair was cropped, and the green light illuminated a slight fuzz on the back of her neck. The bulb was just above her head. She licked a bubble of tomato juice from the corner of her mouth, and he reached out to touch her arm. She stepped down from the stool and said she needed to go to the ladies.
The barmaid directed the girl to the stairwell which led into the next room, but she paused for a second to trace the outline of a photograph on the wall.
‘You two live nearby?’ the barmaid said, once the girl had left the room.
‘No, I’m from London. She’s from here I think. I’m not sure. She never mentioned it.’ He laughed and blinked. His every movement was fragmented, as if seen through strobe lighting.
‘It’s the end here isn’t it?’ he said. ‘There’s nowhere beyond this city to get to. You sort of have to want to come.’
‘Yes, everyone says that.’
‘But I like it.
‘I like her, anyhow. And I think that makes me like a lot of things I might not like otherwise.’
The barmaid paused, and bent down below the bar to retrieve a teaspoon. ‘You might want to watch that,’ she said.
In the silence that followed, he became aware of the cat. It was sitting inside the dumb waiter, dragging its foot from the top of its ear to the tip of its nose, over and over again. The barmaid made no attempt to remove it. It was white, with tabby patches on its back and tail. Its eyes dilated to black when it noticed the boy, and its whiskers flickered like fibre optic tubes.
‘You’re okay with it being there?’ he asked the barmaid.
The girl re-emerged from the stairwell, filing her nails as she walked. Once at the bar, she drank the rest of her Bloody Mary and ordered another. Her nail file moved back and forth in flashes of white as she alternated the rhythm, syncopating it with the music in the juke box. ‘I think I’m going to go and sit next door,’ she said at last. ‘They have a piano.’ She pocketed the nail file and moved towards the stairwell for a second time. The boy went after her, extending a hand to the cat on his way past. It waved its tail and licked a paw, arching its neck away from his fingers.
‘Hello!’ he said, peering over the bar, ‘I used to have a cat that looked like you.’
‘But it died?’ the barmaid said, polishing another beer glass.
‘No – ran away.’
‘I’ve wanted another one ever since. My girlfriend, my old girlfriend, said that I wasn’t allowed to have a cat as well as having her. A concession too far, she thought.’
‘Cats are never had, as such.’ the barmaid said.
The noise of a piano could be heard in the other room. The playing was amateur, but not tentative. At a wrong note, the pianist segued into a different key, stepping from song to song in an unpredictable trail.
‘I better go,’ the boy said, nodding towards the sound of the piano. He took a final glance at the cat.
The girl’s fingernails tapped on the ivory as she moved up and down the length of the piano. The boy stood behind her, hesitating with a hand above her left shoulder, the space between them compressed beneath the weight of his arm. But his hand remained suspended. He could hear her breathing. A group of people passed by outside, sweeping through drifts of leaves, and their voices muffled against the window pane.
The girl reached a suitable cadence, ended, and slammed the lid shut. She stood up, and her shoulder hit the boy’s hand. He jumped backwards as she pivoted around and banged into his chest.
‘God – what do you think you’re doing?’ she said. Her cheeks were turning a light pink.
He apologised and tried to lead her into one of the nearby chairs, holding her by the wrist.
‘And let go of my wrist!’
‘Sorry, sorry. I’m really sorry. I was just watching you play.’
‘You play very well.’
‘I enjoy it, but I know that I don’t play well.’
‘I meant it.’
‘People say things.’ She checked the time on her wristwatch. ‘I should go soon.’
‘Look!’ the boy said, pointing at one of the birdcages hanging from the ceiling, ‘I hadn’t noticed.’
‘Yes, I saw them.’
‘I think they’re nice.’
‘Stay for a bit longer.’
She stayed, but chose to sit on the floor instead of next to him. She curled her toes and produced the nail file again. The cat appeared from the other room, dragging the velvet curtain behind it as it passed through the intersection. It jumped onto the ledge behind the seating, against the wall, and came to within an inch of the boy’s head, and he turned to face it. He grinned, rolled up his sleeves, and leant forward. He clasped the cat around its waist, and the distance between his thumb and forefinger spanned the distance from the cat’s spine to the bottom of its stomach. He pulled it onto his lap.
‘Hey, no.’ he said. ‘Stay put.’
The barmaid appeared at the curtain just as the cat wriggled free and went to sit on top of the piano. The boy was in a hurry to roll his sleeve back into place.
But the girl saw. ‘It scratched you! Let’s see!’ she said, crawling on her knees to where he sat.
It was tiny like a paper cut, but a dash of red was becoming visible from beneath his forearm hair. The barmaid came over and apologised, saying how the cat was quite particular, and that it never meant to hurt anyone. The cat began to clean its nose.
‘I’ll get some anti-septic,’ the barmaid said. ‘Just in case.’
While she was gone, the girl held his forearm up to her face and looked deep into the cut. They didn’t say anything to each other. After five minutes of waiting, the girl took her wallet out of her bag and laid it on the table.
‘I promise, this will be a much quicker way.’
‘What?’ he said.
She was searching for something.
‘Here.’ She held a sewing needle up to the candle. ‘My mother taught me this.’
‘Wait. I’m sure she’ll be back.’
‘No, she left a long time ago.’ Her eyelashes caused a shadow of tiger stripes to flicker on her cheek. She injected the needle into the centre of the candle flame. ‘This will make it clean.’
She removed the needle from the flame and bent close over his arm.
‘No,’ he said, and then: “Actually, that hurts.”
She lifted her face to his face and saw that his eyes were watering.
‘Stop it,’ he said.
Her green eyes creased into a smile.
Isabel Lockhart Smith studies American Literature with Creative Writing at UEA. Sometimes her writing tries too hard to sound Pacific Northwest. She is actually from Somerset.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
1 month ago