A grey pigeon lands outside my kitchen window on the thin ledge and points its bottom at me, its tail feathers scratching the glass. It does that jerky thing pigeons do, as if keeping rhythm with all the other pigeons outside, but something’s wrong with this one. The bird starts jerking its head fast, and faster still, as if having some violent fit. I worry it’s going to shake that tiny head clean off, then worry what lies underneath those filthy feathers. Thankfully it freezes, completely and utterly freezes, with its black eyes blankly looking towards me. Although they aren’t exactly looking at me, just staring my way, they scare me. They remind me of sharks’ unholy eyes. Eyes that have seen the birth of time yet recognise nothing. The pigeon snaps out of its staring and starts fitting again, fitting and freezing, fitting and freezing, as if caught in some strange loop. I don’t think to look at the clock on the wall, to check the minute hand, or to look up at the clouds to see if they are still moving. Instead, I lean forward pushing my gut into the kitchen counter and search deeper into those dark birdy eyes. It’s hard to tell a pigeon’s age, this one looks as old as me. Poor thing. The pigeon flips into motion and jumps off the ledge, falling upwards. I watch it rise, convinced it will drop out the sky but it disappears.
I look back down at my steel sink; see the scratchproof sponge clenched in my rubber-gloved fingers and return to the job of cleaning it spotless. As I rub back and forth a lank of white hair sails down my nose so I blow it back, accidentally spitting on the window and catch sight of a bald fat man with kind dark eyes, looking in. But of course, it’s just my reflection. I twist and turn my head and look at it. I’m so old I don’t look like a woman any more. I don’t look like anyone. The window steams over and I return to the sink.
There’s something stuck in the thin groove around the plughole. I can’t get at it with the sponge so I roll off a rubber glove, peeling it back gently, worried if I tug too hard my skin will come clean off with it like tights under trousers. I almost remember wet rubbered sex, but instead dig my paled fingernail along the groove to scrape the thing out. It’s a grain of rice. Just one. As I hold it up to get a closer look, the sun strikes through a clear patch in the misted window hitting the grain so it glows all luminous. But where’d it come from? We don’t eat rice. And then, I remember Johnny.
This rice must be from when Johnny, our son, came visit last. I count back the weeks since. Is it four weeks? Is it forty? I get all panicky thinking about it, thinking about how many times I’ll have cleaned this sink and missed it. Clouds come and push the sun away, retracting its reflective glow from my laminate kitchen surfaces and I remember that last meal.
Johnny had come specifically to tell me he wasn’t coming round any more. And he hasn’t, good as his word. A quality my husband would have been proud of. I look at the bloated grain of rice placed in my pink wrinkled palm, open my mouth, and put it on my tongue. It tastes of bleach.
When I come round I feel warm summer breeze on my skin and hear the sound of bees, or maybe flies. I’m outside, sitting on the blue painted bench at the back of my garden, wearing my floral apron and one rubber glove. Pigeons coo around my feet. This has been happening a lot, finding myself somewhere different with no idea how I got there. I should try to figure out why, write it down, see if there is a pattern, like the doctor told me – but I just don’t want to. It’d be like pulling a hair at the back of your throat, there’s always more than you expect and you gag. Or worse.
I shoo the birds away and look around. I see the garden path but it has changed and instead of the old York Stone slabs, mossy and time weathered, laid down one by one, the path now appears as a long line of continuous concrete with tall bins standing guard, casting hot magnified shadows. I wonder why we’ve got so many bins and why they are overflowing like that? Foxes been at them, I guess. I put my rubber hand up to shield my eyes from the sun and start counting the bins – one, two, three, but the inner voice counting inside my head doesn’t sound like me. Doesn’t sound like my husband either. It’s a child’s voice, a young one. I’m not so ga-ga that I don’t know it’s not real. Course I do, but still, I can’t help turning to the right, to where that small voice feels like it should be.
And to my surprise, I see him. I see my Johnny hiding behind an overflowing bin, popping his pale face out. He must be three, maybe four years old. He’s wearing his blue school uniform and yellow sandals. I don’t remember yellow sandals? He disappears and jolts his head out from the other side of the bin, looking at me from under that mop of golden curls and he smiles that sweet lopsided smile of his. His baby teeth jut out. I’d forgotten how goofy they were, pushed out from all that relentless thumb sucking. His father hated it, the sucking, but the more his father pulled his hand away, slapped it back, the more Johnny needed those wet thumbs. He looks so cute hiding there, behind those bins, with those buckteeth, his sweet freckles and that little button nose. I want to see his eyes, but they are hidden under all that floppy hair. As if he hears my thoughts, Johnny raises a chubby arm and pushes his hair back.
But his eyes are wrong, all wrong.
They are set way too wide, like a horses’. I stare at them one at a time, unable to grasp both. I wonder if he has a blindspot, whether he can see me at all. I lift my hand to wave but then, his eyes start moving. He’d had Nystagmus as a child, but this isn’t that gentle, familiar vibrating. No. His eyes are crashing into their sides, ramming their corneas like dodgem cars. They ram so hard his cheeks wobble. I worry his eyeballs will burst clean out his head and come spinning across the floor, towards me, covered in summer grass. I look at my feet and lift them, quick.
When I return my gaze, Johnny is gone. I hunt from bin to bin, searching for him. I find him climbing out of dark bin shadows, hoisting himself up as though emerging out of a deep well. He stands up straight and smiles that triumphant smile of childhood success and skips off singing.
‘One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, knock on the door.’ He stops, standing with his feet tight together, holding his hand up in front.
‘Knock, knock, knock,’ he says as he taps the air in front of him. I feel I should get up and pretend to let him in. But before I put my feet on the floor he starts jumping, up and down, on the spot, fast, hyper fast and then faster still, till he blasts into blurs of motion. He’s moving so fast he appears frozen, mid jump, with his knees pulled to his chest. I feel sick and slap my eyes shut.
When I come round I’m standing up against a window with my nose pressed on glass. My gaze rolls down my nose like a bowling ball, through the glass, and lands in the centre of the room, my eyes converging on a dark-haired man. My husband? He’s stamping at something on the floor. I stand on my toes and reach my hands onto the window to get a better look inside. My nostrils breathe moist air misting the glass. I know what he is kicking. It’s that rug. I see it.
From the moment he brought it home and rolled it gently out, he hated that rug. All swirls of loopy green and brown. He bought it when our Johnny moved out, that very day. Some people might get a puppy or start a new hobby but him, he bought that ugly rug. When he comes home from work, he walks straight over to check on it, to check it’s flat. He doesn’t like no lumps and bumps. And that rug is a reliable enemy, it’s always got an edge curled back, snarling at him like a dog. Guess some might wonder why he bought that rug if he hates it so much, but that’d be a silly question. Most nice men I’ve known need a household enemy, something simple, that doesn’t work properly, that gets inside and explodes them. Cleans them out. Better the rug than me.
And there he goes, up and down, like a yo-yo, jumping on that rug. I laugh till his jumping speeds up, till it gets too fast. Then it blurs and he hangs suspended. I feel myself blink slowly, my silver eyelashes crosshatching my view and I look at him, unsure whether he is jumping that fast, faster than light, or I am seeing too slow, slower than time. I close my heavy eyes.
It takes me a long, long time to open them again.
When I do, I’m standing in a flowerbed, ripe with weeds, cans and crinkled crisp packets. I stumble through it, catching my warm wool skirt on thorns and head towards the bench, but little Johnny is there. Sitting up straight, swinging his legs, and beside him sits another Johnny, a teenage one, all nose and jaw and acne, both wearing smart navy school uniforms and those yellow sandals. They look up, their strange wide set eyes hidden by their golden curls and smile, not at me, but over my shoulder.
I turn around to find the lawn behind me full of Johnnys – Johnnys of all ages – teenagers to toddlers – my son is everywhere, with those golden curls and that lopsided grin. As I stumble backwards, I trip over a baby Johnny crawling across the floor. I fall down and keep falling, I worry I will squash the baby, then worry I’ll never hit the ground. The floor punches up into my hips.
‘Watch yourself lady!’ I look up from the ground to see a hand held out. I can’t tell who it is or what they are doing in my garden. They stand in silhouette, casting their shadow over me. I refuse the stranger’s hand. Like a turtle righting itself I flip to my front and, one knee at a time, I rise. Teenagers sit together at the back, smoking and flicking cigarettes into my borders. Wary of these people gathered in my garden, I walk quietly towards my back door, only I can’t see it. I don’t recognize where I am. I don’t recognize anything. A perfect little Johnny skips past, with golden curls bouncing. I reach out to touch him, to touch something familiar.
He was such a beautiful boy at that age – strangers used to stop me in the street. I’d have him dressed up in clothes I’d carefully selected. Then ‘that day’ appears in my head and the garden freezes, sharing my thought.
All motion stops. Everything. Absolute silence. The birds hang in the air like insects drowning in surface water, rippling the sky. All the Johnnys from all the ages turn slowly round to look at me. They all stand, even the babies, and with their arms hanging down by their sides they sway slowly together, to and fro, left then right, like long summer grass. And as if some strong gust of wind moves through them, like delicate dandelions being blown, their golden hair falls out into the air and rises like sticky dense pollen. When the air clears, I see them standing there, all completely bald, with their strange eyes slipped so far apart they are hidden under the shadow of their ears.
‘Get away!’ I shout and scrabble towards the side gate. My legs tangle in golden tendrils. Baby hair gets in my mouth. Reaching the gate, I put my rubber hand out and twist.
I come round to see I’m standing out front in the middle of a busy road. A man leans his head out of a car whose path I am blocking. He seems to know me.
‘How are you?’ I reply. He is getting out of his car and a woman is leaning out the passenger window. Tarty face. He walks towards me in loose cotton bottoms, the outline of his privates humping up and down with each step. I look at his face. Stare at it. As he gets closer his name lands on his face with a smack. It’s my next-door neighbour of course, Tom, that stupid man who can’t cut a hedge straight and his drunken wife. ‘How are you, Tom?’ I turn and wave at his wife, with my yellow-gloved hand. He looks back at her shaking his head, and she shrugs. ‘I’m spring cleaning,’ I add, jangling my yellow rubber hand high in the air. I stretch my old face to reveal my cracked dentures hoping it looks like a smile.
‘Is everything alright?’ He asks. ‘Do you live nearby?’ He walks towards me, holding his hands out in front of him.
‘Lovely day isn’t it?’ I say as I turn and walk away fast before he says anything else, before he touches me. It’s then I realize I’ve lost a shoe. I hobble back the way I came but see yellow curls flooding out from under the gate. I can feel Tom and his drunken tarty wife watching me. I turn and walk the other way, the ground uneven beneath me. There’s a door ahead. Leaning on it with all my weight, I push it open and slip inside. The heavy door closes behind me with a hard metal click.
I am underground inside a cavernous grotto, inky dark and ghostly silent. Regular drip-drip-drips keep time. My eyes won’t adapt to the dark so I move forward with outstretched arms, every other footstep landing in oily pools. I can feel sand between my toes. Ahead, the outline of a car appears. Our car? I wobble over and reach out to touch it half expecting it to collapse like sand. But it’s solid. I drag back the heavy canvas cover, open the door and slip inside.
Sliding down into its thick leather seats, I breathe in a musty smell. It smells of the past. I’ve found a preserved pocket of old smelling time. I breathe it in, all of it, into my lungs, wishing the world still smelt this good. I slowly take off my rubber glove and put my bare hands on the tortoiseshell wheel. And before I know it, I’m deep remembering. Deep remembering ‘that day’.
Everybody got a ‘that day’ in their lives. I’ll try and explain. ‘That day’ is a specific day, hour, minute, moment, when something changes completely, flips over onto its back, like a camouflage fish. You think you’re looking at a stone on the bottom of the ocean and then suddenly it flips over, opens its mouth and wiggles its fins. It turns from stone to animal and is never turning back. Chances are you’re going to start hallucinating stones into fish for the rest of your life. That’s the sort of thing I mean.
‘That day’ happened when little Johnny was about four and his hair was all curly and cute and bouncy. It was a hot day, like today. Johnny was going out with his dad, the day before he started school. I’d got up extra early to iron their clothes and pack a hamper. Johnny was so excited he skipped down the front garden and into the car. I waved them off, shaking with fear. His daddy never took him out. Never.
I waited all day for that car to return.
I’d hoped they’d be back for afternoon tea but they didn’t so I threw the ruined cakes in the bin. Then I thought they’d come back for tea proper. All I could do was wait. Wait and wait. Every time I heard a car rumbling down the road, I raced to the window.
Late in the evening, too late for a small child to be out, our car returned. I couldn’t see Johnny in the back because the windows were all steamed up. As it pulled into the drive I ran alongside the passenger seat, my smile at odd angles. Johnny wiped the misty window clear and I screamed. There, sitting on the back seat was a different boy. His head shaved and all those beautiful baby curls gone.
But the worst shock of all, worse than the loss of his golden curls, was his ears. They were enormous and deformed. They were absolutely disgusting. I’d never noticed Johnny’s ears before. After that day, when I looked at Johnny, that’s all I saw – his ugly ears. Johnny wouldn’t let his hair grow back – he loved his violent short haircut. He never had curls again; guess he’s like his father, hating lumps and bumps, like then nice men.
The musty car starts to move. I hear giggles and turn around to see the back jam packed with shaven headed Johnnys, all with them ugly ears and those strange slippy eyes. They are rocking the car from right to left. I reach out for the door handle and click it open. I scrabble out of the car but my foot gets stuck under the pedals and I pour out onto the hard, wet floor, leaving my other shoe behind, under the gas pedal. I pull myself away, across the oily sandy floor and watch as the car rocks, from one side to the other, ready to tip over onto me. I get up, scraping my knees and run, with ripped tights spider-webbing my toes, looking for the exit. In the distance, I see a small light and limp towards it. It’s another door. I push and burst out into the light, falling forwards. I feel the grain of rice under my tongue.
Brought it with him, brought the whole meal. I listened all nice to Johnny. Said he’d been unhappy as a child. And now, with a family of his own he understood the full depth of his fathers’ shallowness. I smarted a bit when he said that. Always giving his father the credit. You’d think, seeing as his dad died all those years ago, he’d drop it. Stop going on about him. I explained to Johnny how hard it was for his father seeing as he was brought up by men’s men who don’t cry. Johnny shook his head at me, interrupting. But I carried on and told him those men were brought up only understanding straight lines and rearing kids is all about never ending circles. Johnny shook his head again, in a way that made me want to hit him. Clip him again, round those ugly ears. If I’m really honest, a bit of me was annoyed by Johnny and what he had been saying, annoyed that Johnny couldn’t keep a lid on it, like a real man, like his father. I felt like I’d failed him. I waited till he’d finished blabbing and then walked him to his car. He said I was welcome to visit. But I knew I wouldn’t.
I feel the rice under my tongue and spit it out, on the floor. My big toe pokes out of my ripped, ruined tights. I place my toe over the rice and grind it into the ground.
I open my eyes and find myself back in the garden on my blue painted bench. A man with a lopsided smile approaches. This man looks like Johnny, but older. He’s got wrinkles, a head as bald as mine and those ugly ears. He is talking fast. I can’t hear what he is saying. Don’t want to. He picks up my hands, which are covered in dirt and looks at me. I look, not at him, but over his shoulder.
The garden is finally matured after years of tending and exactly how I want it to look. The flowers burst in colour at exactly the right time – purples, reds, and whites. Summer blooms follow spring. Birds dive and shift fat bees aside, which in turn belly flop onto delicate blossoms. And in the flowerbeds lay planted all those Johnnys; babies, teenagers, the lot, all buried up to their necks with their eyes closed. Bugs scuttle across their bald shiny heads and butterflies flap their transparent wings over where their eyes should be.
The man guides me by my elbow and walks me towards an ugly tower block which looks like a white piece of paper someone scribbled windows on. He leads me along the concrete path. We step past a pigeon, lying on its side, jerking, still keeping rhythm.
Lou Kramskoy is a London-based animation screenwriter. A recent graduate of the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck, she is working towards completing her first novel alongside a collection of short stories. Her story “Glassblower’s Lung” won the 2018 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. In 2017 Lou also had stories longlisted for the Mslexia Short Story and Bristol Short Story prizes. Her story “The Front Line” will appear in The Mechanics’ Institute Review 15, published this September 2018.