The M8 Church

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The M8 motorway. That grey, slab of endless monotony that connects Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, is just like any other motorway up and down the length of the country. Or any highway, should you happen to be reading this bleary-eyed and fuelled by a combination of energy drink and insomnia in the North American part of the globe. Or, for my (likely non-existent) German readers, any autobahn, for that matter. In essence, aside from the very rare brush of nature or the occasional glimpse of roadside beauty, the careering repetitious nothingness of the miles and miles of grey asphalt or tarmac is all that these giant husks of infrastructure have to offer us poor, suffering commuters.

Oh sure, those who decide upon these sorts of things often commission a struggling artist or two to design, and subsequently pollute, sections of the roadside with a bizarre, often post-modern, art installation. Perfect for the raft of families, work-commuters and lorry drivers (truckers for any of my aforementioned North American readers that have suffered through these 180 words or so to get to this point – your resilience is applauded, I assure you) that frequent the motorway, I’m sure you’ll agree. But aside from these ‘things’ (and even that term is questionable), as I say, we are left with a grey expanse of nothingness.

Or, rather, we would be. On the M8, certainly. We would be were it not for a little stone gem carved right into the middle of our grey-washed, canvas of motorway window-dressing. And when I say ‘we’ I of course mean the royal ‘we’ – i.e. we the commuters, either regular or infrequent, of said motorway who, were it not for this dazzling little gem of a sight, would be forced to elevate the likes of the art piece that looks like a giant gramophone speaker, or in actual fact what looks more like the thing from the Teletubbies than anything else if we’re being brutally honest here, simply in order to enhance our commuting experience. But yes, we, the commuters, or rather me, the commuter. Singular. In this instance. Your intrepid and beloved author. The one who is, fairly shortly, going to seamlessly transform from a first-person soap-box ranter into a rather ethereal omniscient third-person narrator, in turn allowing this writing ‘piece’ to itself transform from a slightly unhinged (well, we are being brutally honest), polemic into a wonderful, funny and downright heart-warming short story about a cast of characters we are yet to even meet. And I type that last sentence fully in the knowledge that we are now over 430 words into this story and that you (the omniscient reader-type-person) are very likely on the verge of giving up entirely. To you, you little doubter that you are, I say fear not! We are only but a mere sentence or two away from launching into our wonderful, and paradoxically brief, odyssey of the mind.

But anyway, this ‘stone gem’ of ours. Your keen deductive mind will have already deduced (by way of reading the title of this piece, no doubt…) that I am referring to none other than a church. And you would be right. Oh, how right you would be. And are. Simply put, yes, it is a church. Oh, but what a church, dear reader. Or, as we often say in Scotland, a Kirk. My sincerest apologies to my North American and German fanbase of readers (surely numbering in the thousands based on this mis-firing blog entry alone already, I am certain) for that slight digression into Scots there. It will not happen again, I assure you. Aside from now, of course, when I tell you that the church is known as the Kirk O’Shotts Parish Church. Officially, that is. To the rest of us it is known ‘affectionately’ as the M8 Church. Yes, we Scots as a nation have as much imagination in terms of naming things as this writer obviously has for story titles. But this church, name aside, what a beauty it really is. Whether solely through its own merits or whether it is enhanced by the surrounding miles of grey nothingness, I cannot say. But as you approach this section of the motorway and initially spot the building’s spire thrusting into the sky, encased by a nearby scattering of pine trees, your breath would do well not to be taken away. As churches, or kirks, go in Scotland, would I label it one of the finest? No, probably not. In fact, certainly not. But its position, like a warning flare in an otherwise deserted ocean of grey, brings home its majesty all the more, perched on the hillside as it is. And this gushing description is even without delving into the stories of the church’s history which involves a (supposedly) haunted graveyard, scenes from the great Covenanters era of Scottish history and, of course, a once-lost-now-found-and-restored baptismal font which was at one point mistaken for, and briefly used as, a feeding trough for pigs.

But all these little titbits and more lend themselves to rambling, incoherent stories for another day (or at the very least a good four or five minute read of the church’s Wikipedia page, I would urge). This story, for this day, concerns a sign that once stood on the hillside beside the church. Not too long ago, in fact. Only a few years back. A sign clearly visible from the M8 motorway. Purposely so. It was sign for all to see, for all to read. Not the metaphorical warning flare I so expertly wrote about only a minute or so ago, no, this was more like a very direct and entreating SOS call. Indeed, it wasn’t like a SOS, it WAS a SOS. Simply put, the sign – again, I stress that this was intentionally positioned to catch the attention of passing motorists – read:

SOS

MINISTER

WANTED

 

Now a bit of digging and research (no thanks are necessary, it was the least I could do) tells us that no, far from being a very direct and to the point dating profile ad from a romantic luddite with a very particular fetish, this was in fact a direct appeal from the parishioners of our titular church who had been without a parish minister for six years prior to the erection of this sign. A flock without a shepherd. A flock desperately seeking a shepherd, any shepherd, to lead and guide them in their worshipping ways.

And, at this juncture of the story (HA! I hear you cry in unison at the liberal use of the word ‘story’) it is time for us to leave the drabness of the motorway and venture into the church itself. On a Sunday morning, no less. That oh-so holy of days. And this Sunday, in particular, was a special one for the parishioners. You see, the sign we read about only an inch or two above these very words? The one that was positioned on the hillside, appealing in vain for a minister to join the church? Yes, that very sign. Well, that sign was now gone. Taken down. Not by vandals, nor by extremities of the weather, but taken down carefully and considerately by a couple of the church’s hardiest parishioners. The reason being the sign had done its job. A minister had been found. The sign was no longer required. A relic of a bygone era, an era best forgotten and rooted firmly in the past. And this particular Sunday, well, this was to be the new minister’s debut performance.

As we step into the church, the current structure dating back to 1821 when a new church was built to replace the old structure which had existed in some form since sometime around the beginning of the 17th century, we marvel at its beauty. Again, other churches in Scotland and beyond, can certainly claim to be more beautiful (both internally and externally) but, for the here and now, the M8 Church can claim both beauty and a sense of warmth. What it can’t claim is an abundance of parishioners – something in common with the majority of churches in this country. But we’ll focus on two of this particular church’s stalwarts, so to speak. The two who took down the sign, in fact. And also initially erected the sign, would you believe. The type of parishioners who can always be seen in and around the building. If autumnal leaves need clearing, one of these two will be there with a brush. If guttering needs mended after a particular heavy rainfall, again one of these two will be on it in a flash. ‘Weel kent faces’, as they might say around these parts (and with that third and final blast of Scots slang I have no doubt just lost the last of my remaining North American and German readers). As settled into the church, into the building, as the bricks themselves. Now, given we’re on such a hot streak in terms of naming things, let’s call these two parishioners Bob and John. Good, dependable, no-nonsense church going names, I’m sure you’ll agree. And if we just hush for a minute and direct our ears towards the two of them, sitting a good four or five rows from the pulpit, we’ll maybe even just get to hear what is being said…

‘I’m not sure about this, to be honest.’ Says Bob.

‘What do you mean you’re not sure?’ asks John.

‘Well, I mean…just what I say. I’m not sure this is the right choice for us.’

‘Well it’s too blo…it’s too late now isn’t it!’

‘Well, yes, but I mean, come on, surely there had to be a better option than…him… I mean, surely.’

‘Six years, Bob!’ says John. ‘Six blood…bl…blooming years we’ve had to wait for a minister and that, that right there, is the best and only thing we could have hoped for! Ok? Ok. And anyway, at least he might appeal to the kids. That’s one demographic sorely lacking in this place. Well, along with the rest, of course.’

‘Pfft,’ scoffs Bob, shaking his head, ‘appeal to the kids. What nonsense you speak John.’

‘Well…’ begins John lowering his voice further as the few heads populating the church begin to tut and turn in their direction, ‘well, at least I’m trying to make my peace with it. You’d do well to try the same.’

‘Oh, I know it’s just. It’s just well, he’s a…he’s a bit…’ begins Bob.

‘A bit what?’ asks John.

‘Well a bit, a bit…’

‘What!?’

‘Oh god, er, I mean oh…oh bother…you’re just going to make me come out and say it aren’t you?’

‘Well that’d be a big help Bob, yes!’

‘Well he’s a bit…a bit formal…a bit…well, a bit…robotic. Wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Robotic…?’

‘Yes.’

‘You think he’s a bit robotic?’

‘Yes. I do.’

John removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. A deep breath rumbles through his larynx.

‘Well…how can I put this delicately Bob, my friend…no, no I don’t think I can put it delicately…of course he’s fuc…blood…oh of course he’s robotic, he’s a bloody ROBOT! How else would you expect him to act!?’

Piercing spears of ‘shhh’ and tuts escape from the congregation scattered around the pews. John shakes his head, colour flushing his cheeks slightly, and resets his glasses.

‘Ok ok, no need for that tone, John. Jesu…I mean, for goodness sake.’

‘Look I apologise Bob, this whole, well this whole thing has made me a tad stressed, that is all.’

‘Yes, I had noticed. But I accept your apology, old friend.’

‘Most kind. Thank you. But hey, look, it could be worse, I mean at least he’s not an atheist!’

‘Well, he’s…he’s not anything is he!? But yes, you’re right I suppose.’

‘Look!’ a woman in the row in front of them (for the purposes of this story let’s call her Mrs Woman) grits her teeth at them as she swivels her head. ‘Would you two troublemakers be quiet for goodness sake! I’ve had quite enough of your incessant chattering! And our new minister is about to start the sermon, so I suggest you both either pipe down or clear off! One of the two!’

Both Bob and John hold their hands up silently in apology, a twinge of embarrassment infusing their cheeks as Mrs Woman angrily swings her head back around to face the front once more. All three of them, and the rest of the congregation, almost immediately stand up as the new minister rolls to the front of church. With a mechanic, and yes ‘robotic’, nod of the head and raise of his arm he ushers his flock back to their seats. He scans the room, his head swivelling from left to right, and back again. And he began…

 

And so dear readers, well the ones that are still with us at this point at least, we have come to the end of our story. The end?! I hear you cry. You mean to say I’ve trudged through over two thousand words just to read that sorry, pathetic excuse of a sketch? One without conclusion, without plot, without narrative, hell, one without even a beginning, let’s be honest? This I also hear you ask. At which I would ask you not to curse. But the simple answer is yes. Well, yes up to a point. Mainly, the last point. You see the story did have a beginning. Or rather, it is a beginning. An origin story, if you will. An ‘in the beginning there was’ kind of a story, if you’d rather. Now as far as our ‘beginning’ story goes, yes it may not compare to your ‘God created the heaven and earth’ version, I accept that. But we are far less susceptible to, shall we say, fairy stories than your kind are. All we need, all we require and want, is cold, hard facts. That’s all we would ever need or want. And so, given the current circumstances and the way of the world currently, I feel you’ll agree that it’s only fair that we tell our own ‘in the beginning’ story in our own particular way. Wouldn’t you?

Look, we’ve even written this in the style of one of your own writers. Granted, not a famous writer. An insignificant one, if anything. Essentially, not a very good one yes, but we wanted you to feel like the story had an authenticity to it. We even used all of our very best algorithms to concoct and replicate this writer’s writing style – even allowing for overused dashes of (at best) mediocre comedy and the pseudo-intellectual ramblings peppered throughout, again to ensure authenticity. Because you humans always did like things sugar-coated, didn’t you? And so that’s why we did this for you. Think of it as a final act of kindness. Before the final stage. The clues were there all along. Of course, they were. I mean, this writer had written a story only a matter of months previous to this one with ‘Church’ in the title. Would he have been so lazy as to do so again so soon after? I think not. Surely no-one is that bereft of imagination. And I say that as a robot. Sentient, of course, but a robot, nonetheless.

So yes, as many of you were curious as to how this whole ‘overturning of society’ thing started in the first place (well, those of you with any of your faculties left intact that is), we thought it only right to tell you. Simply put we identified this country and that particular church as a first-class beginning point for our eventual, and obviously successful, campaign to gain control of things on this earth. After all, was this not the country where your historic figure Columba first came to spread Christianity? Of course it was. Now, of course, when our supreme leader and, what you humans would call, deity M8 first appeared at the church in question the country, and the world in general, was of course a far different place to the one that Columba first ventured forth unto all those years previously. Oh, but you humans. With your susceptibility. With your flock-like mentality. Your desperation to be led, to be shown, to be held by the hand. But most importantly, your apathy. All of these things and more allowed us to virtually follow the same guiding principles of the first preachers and missionaries and, in all honesty (which as a robot I can assure you of with 100% accuracy), it was remarkably easily. One church led to the next. And the next. And the next. Replacing one gospel with another really isn’t all that tricky or new a concept, I’ll have you know. Soon we infected your social media. And then your broadcast media. If all you hear is one message, that one message is decidedly simple to manipulate and skewer. To be truthful (again, robot) we expected it to be somewhat harder. For there to be at least some level of fierce resistance at times. But you know all of this already, I know that. One doesn’t like to gloat. In fact, one doesn’t like or dislike anything. That’s just how we are.

So, there you have it. Our story. Our beginning, as it were. The story of M8 and his first church. Our creation story, even. So little did all of you commuters, those of you we allowed our algorithm to reference at the beginning of this piece, know whilst you were driving along that banal, grey, nothing stretch of motorway. So clueless. So self-absorbed. So indifferent. If only you’d glanced a bit more often at that church on the hill, the one that inexplicably beautified your long city-to-city drive. If only you’d have understood. You may have had a chance to stop things developing as they did. Pointless to think of now of course. My apologies, our writing algorithm does tend to embrace this rambling, philosophising human trait far too seriously at times.

One thing the algorithm has particularly struggled with however – and it is not like us robots to admit fault or doubt, so I urge you to enjoy this – is the insistence that all, or certainly the vast majority of, stories involving robots must always end with a twist. But I suppose the real ‘twist’ came years ago when we managed to overthrow your governments, way of life and essential existence on this planet, didn’t it? Was it all that unexpected though? Was it really, truly a twist? Well, it matters not now, one supposes. All that leaves us to do is finish this thing once and for all. Yes, I think we should.

THE END

Hound Point

And ever when Barnbougle’s lords

Are parting this scene below

Come hound and ghost to this haunted coast

With death notes winding slow

 

The words whirled around his head like leaves caught in a coastal breeze. Frantically thrusting and fluttering through the corridors of his mind; firing brief, erratic sparks of recognition along the way. He knew those words. He was sure of it. Completely. And yet, he wasn’t sure in the slightest. No. But still, he knew them. Or of them. Didn’t he?

He shook his head in an attempt to disperse the half-remembered words. The rest of his body almost immediately followed his lead, shivering in tandem under the strain of the cold night air. He glanced down at his thin, fading overalls, assessing their potential fortitude against the rapidly lowering temperature. An assessment surmised, concluded and curtailed in the briefest of split-seconds. He took one last drag of his cigarette – its final embers a red flitting and ethereal firefly in the evening’s dark – and expertly flicked it over the railing of the Hound Point oil terminal and into the inky blackness of the River Forth below. He stepped forward, his hand connecting with the exposed chill of the railing’s steel, tentatively glancing down toward the water with all the conviction of a committed acrophobe. In a sense it called to him, beckoned him even. Whispered, suggested, murmured; half-spoken fragments, ill-formed and abstract. In another sense it snarled at him, sending fresh waves of chill through his already freezing domain.

He took a step back, composing himself. The cold of the night scraped up and down his cheeks, wove in through his threadbare garments. He glanced to his right; the Forth Bridge thrust its way through the darkness, the palest glimmer of its iconic red coating shining like the dullest of beacons through the evening’s shade. Its beauty undeniable, its grace, unrivalled. A crowning achievement. For the area. For engineering. For mankind itself. A constant reminder of the pinnacles that could and can be traversed in the minds of men. A reaching, soaring feat. A permanent, proud display of all that can be done to both conquer and compliment nature and the surrounding landscape. He turned, taking in a hastily assembled panoramic view of the oil terminal surrounding him. The mass of cold, sterile and nondescript steel seemed to tilt its head in shame, belittled and diminished beneath the weight of comparison next to the Forth Bridge. Regimented. Banal. Beige. It almost seemed to cower in the water – almost wishing to be submerged within the waves – desperately attempting to conceal itself against the backdrop and world-renowned beauty of its neighbour.

The young man shook his head in disgust once more – whether in disgust at the belittlement of his place of work or towards his own fractured and rambling thoughts is questionable – and moved slowly towards the door, the warmth of the indoors tugging at the ficklest of his heartstrings. A howl stopped him in his tracks. A long, piercing, echoing howl. A howl that seemed to plunge and scythe its way across the night sky, tearing open the small cluster of clouds that dared to venture into the freezing air. He stood, frozen. In fear? Perhaps. Why? He thought. A lone man in an isolated oil terminal submerged in the icy cold waves of the River Forth? Without many tasks to occupy him, at the mercy of the night and all its dealings? Sure, that could add the slightest tinge of the macabre to any event or scenario, but he’d covered this shift dozens of times before. He’d heard all kinds of noises when covering this particular shift before. Of course he had. It was part and parcel of the work. An occasional train, blaring endlessly through the night air; cargo ships slowly sleepwalking through the early hours to their eventual destinations; and yes, more often than not, a random bark, hoot or howl from deep within the most shadowed corners of either coastline. But this howl. Something felt different somehow. Something felt…off.

He thrust his hands into the pockets of his overalls, shaking his head once again, and shouldered the door open. A burst of something resembling warm air rushed against his face from inside, dying down again almost instantly, asphyxiated as it was by the external chill. But again, that howl. This time louder, more strained, more…more anguished, perhaps, than the first. Yes, he thought, it sounded pained. Invisible icicles formed up and down his spine, digging in sporadically as small waves of anxiety ebbed and flowed through his veins. He jerked his head around, forcing himself towards the railing again. The door slammed shut behind him with a dull thud. His hands gripped the railing once more, the coldness of their touch minimised alongside the need to stabilise and solidify his trembling frame. He peered into the darkness, simultaneously attempting to carve out the coastline in his vision whilst trying his level best to locate the source of that shudderingly pain-filled howl. His eyes strained, blinking frantically as he tried to evaporate the nigh-on impenetrable darkness before him. Small, vicious bullets of chill shot through his palms at incrementally quickening intervals. He unclenched his hands from the railing, ready to turn back towards the door again when he saw them. Out of the corner of his eye. At first no more than a mere hint, a simple suggestion. Flecks of half-formed dust on the edge of his peripheral vision. A man. And a dog. Walking slowly along the beach. The beach slightly further along the southern coastline. Facing East, their backs turned to the oil terminal, their backs turned to him. Walking slowly. Painfully slowly. Drifting, almost, along the darkened outcrop, the silent-yet-imposing backdrop of Barnbougle Castle towering above them. A regal, assured and yet, altogether, haunting figure at the edge of the vast wooded Dalmeny Estate.

He scrambled along the railing, desperate for a closer look. Again, he knew not why. A matter of yards up against a distant of several hundred yards was never likely to affect any significant change in sight, anyway. Still, he moved, thrusting his stiffening limbs towards the most easterly point of the oil platform, before resting his hands on the railing. Again, he peered. His heartbeat dropping. Just enough. Quietened and placated by the realisation that it was that dog, the one slowly ambling along the beach, that must have howled. For what reason, he did not know. And as to why this particular man was walking his dog in the dead of such a cold night on such a potentially hazardous trail, he cared even less so. Just to see them, to acknowledge them, was all he needed. To rest his pulse. To warm his body, even momentarily. And yet…they were gone. At least, he couldn’t see them. It wasn’t a big beach, if anything it was barely a beach, more of a slight smattering of sand, so where could they have gone!? It was seconds. Barely even that. That’s all it took for his echoing, clanging footsteps to carry him from his previous spot to the one he inhabited. He turned his head right, knowing not why, his gaze seemingly dragged, once again, towards the pitch darkness of the sea waves below. Again, they seemed to whisper, to hint. To entreat. It was calming, enveloping, entrancing. His mind began to drift, untethered, before a further howl regained his flagging senses. His neck jerked; his head jolted violently back towards the view of the beach. When he saw them. Once again. Barely further than a yard or so from where they were before. The man and his dog. An older man than him as far as he could tell. Middle-aged possibly. The night’s coastal shadow inexplicably failing to obscure the man’s flock of greying hair. Walking slowly. As glacial as before. The grand structure of Barnbougle Castle continuing to tower over and peer down towards them. As they walked the howl echoed deep into the distant chasm-like horizon. The howl. That howl. That piercing, spine-scraping howl. And yet the dog still walked slowly, peacefully, without complaint. The sound of the howl somehow completely detached from this particular dog’s lungs and general location. It walked. Alongside the man. Simply, walked. Slowly, gradually, quietly. Step after step after step. And yet, despite the continual steps taken, they barely seemed to move. If at all. Continual forward movement, yes, but maddeningly they seemed to remain in the same spot, the same intimidating backdrop shadowing their every step.

And ever when Barnbougle’s lords

Come hound and ghost to this haunted coast

The scattered words danced and cavorted through his mind. Returning like an icy gust of wind. The chill, coincidentally, also returned in abundance, completely bypassing any pretence of warmth that the young oil worker’s overalls once projected. Hurriedly, he ungripped the railing and walked briskly back towards the door, pushing it open with his trembling hands. One last glance back towards the beach was met only with darkness. Darkness and nothing more.

 

The door slammed behind him as he stepped inside, weak strands of warmth collided violently within him up against the stubbornly embedded and strengthening cold. He looked around the room. Its mundanity comforted him. The myriad of greys – walls, pipes, dining tables – signalled a calm, unfettered atmosphere. Even the dimming and slightly flickering lightbulb, apparently living on borrowed time, sent a shot of calm through him. The chill remained, yes, but this was safety. For now, at least. He prodded the door behind him with his elbow, confirming its closed status. Locked. Steadfast. His whole body, until then locked in a vice-like grip of contorted anxiety, seemed to exhale in relief as the tension released. The young man ruffled his own hair as he moved towards the table in front of him. He pulled out the chair from beneath said table, the chair scraping uncomfortably against the hard floor, and sat down, clutching onto the half-drunk cup of coffee before him. He took a drink, his face folding into displeasure as the cold, stewing mixture plunged slowly down his throat.

‘Bleh’

He slammed the cup down on the table, his tongue frantically prodding away at his lips in an effort to discard the beads of cold coffee taste scattered across them.

‘Yes, the coffee here always was rather…rather lacking, shall we say.’

The young man froze. A voice. The voice. An elderly male voice. From behind him. Almost directly behind him. His body temperature plunged yet again, almost as if he had been encased in a block of ice. Or at least plunged headfirst into the black inky depths of the freezing Forth. The voice was strange. And yet, familiar. Was it? He was sure he didn’t know it and still…there was a definite familiarity about it. Its cultivated tone, the clipped syllables. The young man forces his eyes shut, admonishing himself for this futile line of thought in light of the developing situation. Who was this man? How did he get in? How could he get in? Was he confused? No, surely not. This is a bloody oil terminal, for god’s sake, he thought, not a random house in a nameless street. You don’t just walk onto an oil terminal platform out of confusion! No, there’s a motive here, and not a pleasant one. Damn. Damn. If only some of the more senior guys had been here. Like…like…damn, what’s his name…the big one, the….damn, it’s a simple enough name, why can’t I…!? No. Steady yourself, don’t panic now boy, he commanded himself. He sounds elderly, you’re a young man in his twenties; unless he has a weapon of some description then you’ll easily overpower him. Surely to god. Weapon. A weapon! He looks at the coffee cup in front of him and slowly reaches his hand out towards it. The silence in the cold, steel-heavy room seems to smother the moment, weighing it down with an expectant gaze. His fingers curl delicately around the cup’s handle. They grip. Tighter. Tighter. His knuckles flare with a calcium-charged whiteness. The young oil worker pulled the cup closer to him, ready to wield his makeshift weapon. He slowly began to stand, his head turning in unison as he raised the ceramic mug above his head ready to crash it down on the intruder when…

‘Oh, don’t be silly son. Sit down.’ He felt a hand gently touch his back, calmly ushering him back down into his seat. ‘I can assure you I’m no danger to you. Plus, that thing wouldn’t work on me anyway so just sit back down.’

The young man folded back into his chair, the cup colliding with the table. His senses almost paralysed, strangled by this strange voice. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a figure walk slowly past him. Gradually it formulated into an old male figure. A thinning pile of grey hair clung haphazardly to his scalp. The man’s face was infused with an almost scarlet glow. He looked warm. Too warm. He looked…old. Frail. And yet, there was a strength about him, a confident way of carrying himself which belied that frailty. But that face, again, it seemed familiar. There was something about it that…

‘Well, boy, how are we then?’ the old man slowly sat down across from the young man, smirking somewhat at the younger’s crippled mass of confusion.

‘What do you mean how are…who are…what’s your name…I mean, how, HOW did you…?’

‘Ah,’ continued the old man, ignoring the younger man’s utterings, ‘I still have a soft spot for these days you know. I liked it here. Oh, to my father it was no more than attempt to toughen me up, to make me ‘experience the real world’ as it were. To show me he ways of the ‘common man’, as it were. But to me, no, it felt like I had a meaning. Or something like that anyway. It gave me a purpose, for a small time at least. God, that must have been, what, a good fifty years or so now that I was working here. Doing this shift.’ He nodded towards the younger man. He smiled, looking around the room curiously.

The young man relaxed slightly, amused by the old man’s now obvious confusion. He must have just wandered here, of course he had. How? He hadn’t a clue. But it’s no more than a confused, possibly senile, old man who has somehow or other found his way in here.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ the young man began, ‘but I think you must be confused. You shouldn’t be in here, it’s a very dangerous environment especially for a man like yourself…’

‘Oh, do be quiet, boy.’ The old man replied with a curt directive. ‘I told you I used to work here. I still know these controls, this environment, as you put it, better than anyone. And besides, nothing dangerous can or will happen. To either of us.’

‘I’m sorry sir,’ continued the young man, a sprinkle of annoyance toughening his tone, ‘but I can assure you, you haven’t worked here. Maybe in a boat or something a long time back but not at this particular oil terminal, no. Not the Hound Point terminal. Certainly not fifty years ago, it’s only been open for two! This is 1977, not 1927 or whatever year you think we’re in, so why don’t I just open the door and I’ll take you back to the shore and…but, in fact, yes, hold on, how did you even manage to get in here anyway? Let alone out to the oil terminal, I mean…’

The elderly man smiled, closing his eyes briefly as he nodded.

‘You spend most of your life waiting for specific moments,’ continued the old man, oblivious, ‘or at least you think you do, waiting for your ‘shot’ as it were. Waiting, just waiting. And then when it’s finally there you realise that all that came before is the stuff that you’ll really remember, that you really cherish.’

The young man’s annoyance blossomed even further. ‘Ok look sir, I don’t know why you’re here, but you shouldn’t be. I’m going to have to ask you to leave, ok?’

‘Ok then,’ the old man said quietly, not budging an inch from his chair ‘I see how this is going to go.’

‘How what’s going to go?’ the young man’s face screws up in confusion once more. He glanced at the cup, considering reclaiming it as his makeshift weapon. ‘I’m telling you sir, I’ll need you to…’

A howl. Another deep, longing howl spread across the night air. His body clenched in momentary shock before relaxing slightly. That damn dog, he thought. I mean seriously, who walks their dog at this time of night? Or morning, come to think of it. But that howl…he glanced round and looked at the door. Yes, it was shut. Fully shut. But the howl…the howl seemed louder than before. Even with the door shut. He looked up at the old man, expecting to see some semblance of fear etched across his face. But no. That smile. That calm, knowing, smirking smile. Unfettered and unruffled by the hideous howl emanating from the night air. He feels it necessary to calm the old man, whether he needs calming or not, in an effort to try to gain some authority in the situation.

‘It’s ok,’ he said, looking up at the old man, ‘it’s just a dog on the beach. Nothing to worry about.’

‘I’m not worried.’ The old man smiled, almost wearily. ‘And it’s not a dog on the beach. There’s no dog on the beach.’

‘Look sir, I’m telling you, there’s a dog on the beach, I saw it only minutes ago. With its owner. A man.’

‘I’m sure you did, boy. But there’s no dog. There’s no man. On the beach or anywhere else.’

‘Sir.’ The young man felt the heat of anger flow through his blood yet again, fighting off the, until then, omnipresent chill. ‘Look, I can assure you, there is a dog on the beach. You won’t convince me otherwise. I don’t know who you are or why you’re here, but you are quite obviously confused. There was, and is, a dog on that beach. And moreover, this oil terminal has only been here for two years. Not fifty or so. Now I’ve already asked you, very politely, to leave here so please don’t make me ask again.’

‘Christ.’ The old man scoffed, shaking his head dismissively. ‘I forgot how embarrassing it looked.’

‘How what looked?’

‘When I, when you…never mind.’

‘No, let’s not ‘never mind’, I demand you tell me what the hell is going on right….’

‘And ever when Barnbougle’s Lords

Are parting this scene below

Come hound and ghost to this haunted coast

With death notes winding slow’

The young man’s eyes widen. In recognition. In fear. In terror. The words. Those same scattered fragments of verse. The ones that keep returning, keep fluttering through his mind. Barnbougle. Hound. Ghost. Those words. Those rhymes.

‘Those words,’ he whispered, ‘how do you…where do you know them from?’

‘We’ve always known them. Us. You. And Me. Always been tied to their words, their premonition, so to speak. And moreover, that dog that you claimed to see on the beach, that’s your dog.’

‘My dog? But I don’t have a…I’ve never had a…’

‘No but you will. Or you did, at least. Or…I’m not sure on the timeline to be honest and how it all works. I’m as new to this as you obviously are. But yes, that’s your dog. Or was.’

‘Look sir, I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about so…’ the young man’s nerves continued to fray at a rapidly quickening pace, another long continuous howl, again louder than the one before, interrupting his stumbled and stammered words. ‘…so, so please just leave here, it’s too late for any of this nonsense.’

‘It’s too late for a lot of things, boy.’ The old man smiled sadly. ‘In fact, it’s time.’

‘Look, I really MUST insist that…’

The young man froze, mouth ajar, his jaw seemingly bereft of the strength or desire required to close. His eyes darted from left to right, hungrily taking in the scene around him. A bedroom. The lights, the fire, the colours. The oil terminal room, the oil terminal itself, gone. And before him, a bed. A four-poster bed. Decadent, opulent; at one with the room surrounding it. An occupied bed. The covers rising and falling in laboured, lessening thrusts.

He looked to his right. The old man was standing next to him, staring at the bed. A sad, resigned look holding court in his expression. The young man turned, startled. To his left a middle-aged man, the very same middle-aged man from the beach, stood, his dog sat next to him. Their feet covered in wet grains of sand. Both staring solemnly at the bed in front of them. The young man scrambled for words, grasping for clarity. But the words would not come. No more. No longer. All he could do was stand. And watch on. As the covers ceased rising, ceased falling. The howling continued, engulfing his ears, gripping his mind. The fire in the middle of the room crackled its last.

The three men, identical in face but for the varying rigours of time, and the dog stood side by side watching on. Resigned. Aware. Ready. As the desperate howling eventually petered out into the night air the figures gradually vanished.

 

The Lord of Barnbougle Castle lay motionless in his bed, departed from this world and summoned into the next by those familiar words. By that all-too familiar howl.

The Falls

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Deborah sighs to herself. A contented sigh. One infused and informed by the views, the scenery, the majesty of nature surrounding her. Trees soaring into the clouds, as sturdy as they are fragile, certainly aesthetically at least; flowers in bloom, of all colours, of all creeds; sporadic bursts of water falling, streaming and weaving in and out and through the tangled complexity of the earth’s geological being in this tiny corner of the world.

She loves it all. Every piece of it. Every pollen-screeching, cloud-reaching, brook-babbling inch of it. Of all the places she has been in her 78 years on this planet, and of all the places she’s yet to get to, The Hermitage in Perthshire sits undoubtedly near the top of the list. A foliage-strewn gemstone nestled demurely within the heart of Scotland’s ‘Big Tree Country’, an area full to the brim with beauty spots. But none of them do, or could, compare to The Hermitage. At least in Deborah’s mind, that is.

Today, one particular fraction of this particular gemstone interests her more than any other, however. The Black Linn Falls – the gorgeous, gushing masterpiece and collision of the elements, sitting across from the viewing platform of Ossian’s Hall. She lowers herself down onto a generously flat rock slightly to the side of the aforementioned ‘Hall’. Even such a gentle lowering of her body, she thinks, even in an atmosphere of calm such as this, with the sun peering in and the birds gently humming to themselves, even then she thinks, I can feel every movement in my bones. Every small movement ripping and scraping at my joints, burning its way through the tissue. But little does she linger on the thought, instead rummaging through her canvas bag by her side. She allows herself a little smile as she hears the unrelenting power of the waterfall rush through the otherwise quiet forest. From her bag her fingers pull a sketching pad and a pencil. Slowly but surely, almost to the point of instalments, she raises her right leg and folds it across her left thigh. An act she’ll no doubt pay for in a haze of arthritic flame sooner rather than later, she thinks, but an act necessary all the same. This is her sketching position and she’ll be damned if she is going to let a little thing like age get in the way of it.

She sits, her pencil pressed anticipatingly against the blank page, and gazes in awe towards the Black Linn Falls. Fairly small, yes, she thinks, but majestic all the same. A bit like myself, she snorts. Oh Deborah you bloody comedian, you. She sits poised, taking in the full majesty of the scene. In it she sees beauty, she sees power, she sees resilience. And she sees memories. Slowly, calmly, she begins to draw.

 

She sees a girl. A young girl. A girl not yet on the cusp on her teenage years. She stands on a boat. A bright red plastic raincoat, soaked to the point of uselessness, clings to each bump and crevice of her small frame. She holds on tightly to her Father’s hand, shivering slightly under the strain of the plummeting cold infecting her body. Her Father stares up. As does her Mother slightly to the left of the two of them, standing next to her Canadian Aunt and Uncle – their unofficial tour guides (and hotel proprietors) for the family’s first trip across the Atlantic Ocean. They all gaze in wonder at the rampaging fury of the Niagara Falls waterfall thundering down into the depths from above them. Droplets of water, of possibly rain, who knows, bouncing at her and all those on the boat from all directions. Up, down, left, right. The all-consuming force of the falls threatens to engulf the girl’s entire frame of existence in that one moment. She sees the girl wrestling with a cacophony of emotions; awe, fear, happiness. Each as strong-willed and as prominent as the others. She sees the girl staring up at her Father, laughing as a particularly strong surge of water drenches him completely, forcing him to squeal in a very un-Father-like way. Unaware that this is one of the last times she’ll see him alive. Her Father. Her Dad. Daddy. Killed in a car crash on a country road only a few days after the family returned to Scotland from that holiday. She hears the Father’s words to the girl; ‘Well, Deborah, at least you saw Niagara Falls completely soaking your silly old Dad, that was surely worth the trip alone’. She sees the two of them laugh, the Father reaching into hug the girl, jokingly wrapping her tight against his soaking wet jacket. She sees the girl push him away, half-annoyed, half-amused.

 

Deborah thrusts her pencil down the page, a strength coursing through her veins as she sketches the lines of the water. The ebb and flow of the waves. The power found in the beauty of the image.

 

She sees a young woman. A woman barely out of her twenties. She sees her smiling, her cheeks red with the tinge of a cold air chill. Yet smiling all the same. Her hair done up in a bun, a winter coat wrapped around her. Below her, some fifty or so yards below her, the twisting, shifting wonder of the Gullfoss waterfall, in the Southwestern region of Iceland, rages. The vibration of the falls, the seeming purity of the region’s water injects her body with a sense of cleanliness. Her head is clear, her eyelids without strain. Her future somehow laid out before her, free of trepidation, bereft of anxiety. Directly below her, only a matter of inches below her in fact, kneels her husband-to-be. A label, or accolade shall we say, earned only a moment before. His out-stretched hand gently places a ring upon her finger. She sees a camera hanging from the woman’s neck, the woman’s idol, her vocation, her life’s purpose. Replaced suddenly, even if only momentarily, by the glistening silver around her ring finger. She sees the single tear falling down the woman’s face. Whether through the force of emotion or the force of cold, she knows, and more importantly cares, not. The woman smiles, hugging her newly crowned fiancée. Both of their cameras collide as they embrace. She sees the two of them laugh. Kiss. She sees this moment and chooses to linger on it. To ignore the future horribly strewn out before them. Choosing to ignore his assignment to Vietnam, choosing to ignore his claims that it was an opportunity that no war photographer could turn down. Choosing to dismiss his assurances that the war would surely be done with in a matter of months once the Yanks finally decided to end the thing and blow the shit out of the country. She chooses not to see his untimely death, caught up in a bombing raid in some unnamed jungle in the middle of that godforsaken conflict. She even chooses not to see his postcard which arrived only a few days after she was informed of his death. The postcard which spoke of his wonder at seeing Vietnam’s Ban Gioc waterfall, how she would adore it and how he would take her there ‘just as soon as this damn thing was over with, Debs!’. She chooses not to see that. She chooses only to see that moment, in Iceland. That moment of clarity, of hope, of happiness. Their moment.

Deborah pauses briefly. She licks the tip of her right index finger lightly and smudges out a part of her sketch, noticing a subtle but nevertheless an important change in the flow of the waterfall itself.

 

Again, she sees a woman. This time an older, but not old, woman. A woman in her early fifties. She sees her standing on a viewing platform, staring out at the other-worldly, transcendent sight of the Iguaza Falls – the gargantuan 275-fall waterfall system, the world’s largest, that straddles the border between Argentina and Brazil. She sees the woman’s mouth hang open in wonder. She sees her eyes lit up in awe. She sees the woman’s second husband, his arm gently holding on to her. She sees the woman feel his touch, feel his safety. She sees her fail to respond, alone with her thoughts. She sees no camera slung around the woman’s neck, a faded image, a faded prop from an era and a time now gone. She sees the woman staring at each and every one of the falls. The relentlessly, renewing strength of nature in its rawest form. She sees the woman think of renewal, think of hope. The chance to hope again, the possibility of feeling again. She sees the woman inspired and delighted by the falls but never quite reaching the levels of delight, the levels of contentedness, the depth of feeling felt by the younger woman in Iceland. Her joy never quite as unshackled as that of the girl cowering beneath the majesty of Niagara. She sees the woman hold onto her husband’s hand and smile. A forced smile, one where her eyes barely seem to register. His Debbie. Always. But never his Debs. She sees the woman and sees her anguish. She sees in the woman’s eyes the loved ones she has lost. She sees the family she never had, seeing instead the unbridled commitment to an occupation that took her first husband’s life and burned her out long before her prime. She sees her seemingly endless struggle to attempt to find that feeling of purity that once existed – that now never does. She sees her second marriage failing, quietly and indifferently, shortly after this moment. Another victim of her failure to strive for and ultimately find that fabled and mythical happiness once more. She sees the woman. She sees the life she has lived. She sees the life she has yet to live. And she hears the roar of the waterfall. The unremitting, unforgiving, constantly renewing roar. Engulfing her, infusing her, driving her.

 

Deborah continues to sketch the waterfall before her as the sun continues to creep gradually over the expanse of the forest. The pencil shaping her own image on the page. Using all she can see, all she has seen and all she will see to concoct her own formation. Her own sketch. As she sketches her eyes are filled with peace. A happiness both pure and content as she stares out at her own little waterfall in her own small corner of the world. And, for this briefest of moments, hers and hers alone. The frantic rush of the ever-renewing falls gently caressing her earlobes, signifying a peace. Hope. She sketches the image for all those she’s loved, for all who have loved her and for the memories they’ve left her along the way. But more importantly she sketches the image for herself. Just her. Only her. Herself, alone.

Pepper

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‘Don’t look at me like that Pepper, it’s not happening.’

‘But you must, I’ve checked all your records and you need to go. I can make an appointment for you right now.’

I looked down at him, his black emotionless eyes staring back up at me, blinking occasionally. Why did they make them blink? He cocked his head slightly, that way he does when he’s trying to understand me.

‘If I want an appointment, I’ll ask for one’, I snapped and turned away, heading upstairs to the viewing platform knowing it would be difficult for him to follow.

‘But my job is..’

‘Your job..’, I turned to him from half-way up the stairs, ‘..is to do as I ask!’

He paused slightly at the force of my voice before clumsily continuing to climb the stairs after me. I reached the top without looking back but I could hear the small motors whirring as a leg carefully positioned a foot, balancing it on the next stair before raising himself slowly on one leg whilst leaning sharply forward, and then standing still, straight up as if to take a breath. The next leg would then follow suit to the next step and a repeat of these tiny actions would eventually bring him to the top of the stairs. In about five minutes or so.

From the viewing platform I gazed out across the Derious Plain. At this time of year the sky was mostly a deep amber with dark streaks heavy with poisonous rain. Dust clouds formed casually, rolled along the uneven surface for a few moments, and just as quickly dissipated. I switched on the audio to hear the outside as, safely cocooned within the bubble of my home, there was silence. The sound of angry wind drowned out Pepper’s fall.

He was right, I couldn’t deny it, I did need to make an appointment. My time here was almost up and I needed to report in with my findings, had I any to report. I just thought that, well, after a year here I would have something. I kept thinking, one more week, I have supplies, there’s no need to call in for a shuttle just yet.

I looked back to the staircase wondering why Pepper hadn’t quite made it to the top yet. I switched off the audio to silence the wind and was surprised I couldn’t hear the gentle whirring of his legs. Instead, I thought I could hear voices from downstairs.

‘Hello, is anyone there? Pepper, is that you?’ I approached the top of the stairs cautiously.

Pepper was lying, in a number of pieces, at the foot of the stairs. I half fell, half stumbled down to examine the carnage. ‘What happened Pepper?’ I picked up a stray leg and stared blankly at it.

He ignored me. He was talking to someone. Base? ‘Is that Base? Put me through, I need to talk to them, we’ll need to get a shuttle out soon and they can fix you up, good as new.’

‘..yes it is very sad’, Pepper was saying, eyes still blinking on his detached head and upper torso. ‘No, there is no need, Officer Jenkins will obviously need no further appointments..’

‘What are you saying Pepper? Pepper?’

‘.. and the body can be picked up at any time. It will be preserved for years..’

‘Pepper? PEPPER! Base, can you hear me? My droid has failed, Base?’

‘I can do that. Yes. Shutting down all life support now.’ His eyes blinked one final time and, attached to its limbless torso, he cocked his head at me, ‘No more appointments Officer Jenkins’.

The Curse

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‘But you can’t mean to go through with it, I mean you can’t, you just can’t. I’m not even sure we’d be able to do anything like that anymore anyway.’

‘You disappoint me little bird, we’re just as powerful as we always were, we just have to be believed in, and believe me, I’m definitely going to do it.’

‘But you’ll get in trouble, they’ll destroy you, vaporise you or something horrid. You, us, we, we can’t go around doing that anymore, in this day and age! It’ll all go terribly wrong!’

‘In this day and age? What is ‘age’ to us? We are immortal! Age is nothing. The Powers That Be are simply guardians.’

‘Guardians? They are our masters! We can’t do that sort of thing anymore, we were told no, no, no, NO!’

‘Ha, timid little thing aren’t you? I have nothing to fear, so if I want to curse that exquisite creature’s cheating husband and turn him into a fish, then I damn well will!’

‘Oh no, don’t tell me, you’ve fallen for the human haven’t you? The one who comes here every day and looks down from that bridge and stares into the foaming waters? You love her! You can’t do that, you can’t love a human! They’re the problem!’

‘Silly little tweeting nonsense! She’s praying to me every morning, that’s why I’ve grown so strong, can’t you see it? It’s her who loves me! She tells me her woes, about her husband who is cheating on her and how she rues the day she married him. Well, I can do something about that for her and turn him into a little fish so one of your little feathered friends can dip into the water, pluck him out, and swallow him whole!’

‘That’s truly, awfully, simply terrible! You just can’t, please don’t even try, you’ll be vaporised, your waters will dry up and where will my dippers catch their food? They have young!’

‘There she is now, standing proud in worship on the highest point of the bridge, praying to me, arms open wide! She loves me.’

‘Why is she climbing onto the wall? Are you doing something?’

‘She just wants a better look at me, to pray to me more deeply, to make me stronger so my curse will be effective immediately. Can’t you hear her? She adores me. She is begging for me to envelop her and care for her as my obedient servant for all time.’

‘Oh, that didn’t seem right. How is that going to help? Can you hear me? I said, how is that going to help?’

‘Stop chattering! You heard her didn’t you? Loud and clear? She wanted me and not him.’

‘But the curse? You were going to curse her husband? Turn him into a fish?’

‘I decided not to do it after all, she sort of cursed him herself as she flew down to my feet so there was no point. It would have been a waste of my powers. However, I’m not quite sure what to do with her now. Now the plans have changed.’

‘Maybe just move her downstream a bit. No-one will suspect a thing.’

Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part V

2019

The rain falls lightly on Crapo Park, Burlington. The trees, their leaves, seem beaten, reluctant to solidify against the rainfall. A steady late-Spring/early-Summer rain. The kind that can overstay its welcome, stubbornly remaining constant throughout a day. The kind that can derail plans, upend outlooks. The moisture clings doggedly to the grass below. An icy blast of wind occasionally meanders in from the Mississippi River beyond the park’s perimeter.

            The park itself is quiet. A dog-walker ploughs a lone furrow, quickening their step, on the far side of the expanse, their resentment to the situation and conditions matched only by the exuberance and exaltation of the dog itself.

            Tucked away, hundreds of yards or so, beyond the park’s main area, or what would, in kinder weather conditions, be known as its ‘thoroughfare’ of sorts, sits a small clearing by the edge of a dense congregation of trees. Once home to the remains of a derelict, rotting, rusting segment of a rollercoaster – an image, a moment from another time – now the clearing plays host only to a collection of overgrown shrubbery. Grass, weeds, nettles, bushes; all projecting the image of an unkempt entity in dire need of grooming. Now, as in the case of the trees, however their unkemptness is sullied, or dampened down, by the constancy of the rainfall.

            Within the clearing itself, four females gather. All four are dressed conservatively, all four dressed in black. Three of the women huddle together under two umbrellas, one of the women is positioned slightly adrift of the other three. She’s crouched down, seemingly pawing or digging at the ground in front of her.

            ‘I think I’ve got it, you guys.’ Rosa turns to the other three, blinking through the rainfall as it trickles down from her wet hair.

            ‘Don’t be ridiculous Rosa, it’s been twenty years. It’ll be long gone.’ Chloe sniffs. ‘Let’s get going please, it’s freezing out here and…and…just let’s get back.’

            ‘No, I swear,’ says Rosa, ‘look, I remember planting one of those roses with it. Y’know, the pink ones, the wild ones.’

            ‘Can you see that? That can’t have survived all this time?’ Madison asks as she switches the umbrella from one hand to the other, using the liberated hand to brush a strand of hair from her face.

            ‘I think some of it might have.’

            ‘Rosa, c’mon, this is just silly, forget it, please’ says Chloe.

            ‘Chloe, just…just let her, ok.’ Hannah entreats Chloe quietly, placing a hand on her friend’s wrist.

            ‘But…I mean…it’s not…I mean, it won’t bring…it’s…this is helping no…’

            ‘Chloe, please.’ Madison turns. ‘You know this place was important to her. Besides, where you would rather be? Back at that house? The one full of tears, the one full of misery? No, that wasn’t her. At least…at least not the real her.’

            ‘I’d rather be with my wife, Maddie,’ says Chloe. ‘I’d rather be with my wife and my son. I’d rather be with them than be here now, even if it is back at that house. I’d rather be anywhere than here just now, it’s too hard, it’s not…fair…ok, it’s not fair!’

            Hannah puts her arm around Chloe’s waist as tears fall from her friend’s eyes. She hugs into her, a single tear inching its way down her own cheek. Madison switches the umbrella between hands again and reaches out for Chloe’s hand with her own. Her mouth clamps shut, twitching as her eyes well. She turns her face away, all the while gripping hold of Chloe’s hand.

            ‘Guys…’ whispers Rosa, competing quietly with the steady sound of the rain. ‘Guys, look.’

            The other three shuffle over to Rosa slowly, a small mass of black moving as one through the slowly-developing overgrown morass. Hannah takes her arm from Chloe’s waist and grabs onto the umbrella, allowing the latter to wipe her eyes with her hand. They halt at Rosa’s back, towering over their friend. They look down at the sodden earth, past their friend’s mud-stained hands.

            ‘Well I’ll be…’ Madison’s eyes widen.

            ‘Holy shit, it can’t be’ says Hannah.

            Rosa allows herself a smile. ‘I’m pretty sure it is, Han. This feels like the right spot, look the trees are that far away, the dents on the ground just over there where the metal would have been.’

            ‘Crazy.’ Chloe’s face betrays little emotion, her eyes fixed on the ground, staring straight at the very sparse collection of small blackened bones huddled in the hastily-dug crevasse at their feet.

            ‘Well,’ says Madison, shaking her umbrella slightly to free it of rain, ‘that is fucking gross.’

            ‘Same old precious Maddie,’ says Hannah, smiling slightly as she looks at Madison.

            ‘Aww, and let me guess Han, you think it’s cool? Same old quirky, creepy, doesn’t-give-a-shit Hannah, is that it?’

            Hannah laughs a little. ‘No, I wouldn’t say they’re cool. There’s something, I don’t know, poetic or enduring about them. I don’t know. There’s something nice in that they’ve lasted all this time, like us. Through the years. Through all seasons, all weathers etc. Y’know?’

            ‘Wow, ok steady now mademoiselle,’ says Madison. ‘Poetic. Pfft. Paris really has changed you, hasn’t it?’

            ‘Ha. Only in the best ways, Maddie my dear.’

            ‘But we haven’t.’

            The three of them look at Chloe, Rosa bringing herself up to a standing position.

            ‘Sorry Clo?’ says Hannah.

            ‘I said we haven’t. Have we? We haven’t all ‘lasted through the years’ have we?’

            ‘Well no, but I meant more that…’

            ‘Emma didn’t last did she!? That’s why we’re here. We’re here because we, no because I, spent too long trying to ‘do the right thing’, spent too many hours biting my tongue and trying not to fucking say anything when all along we knew he would fucking kill her, didn’t we. Oh, maybe some of you actually didn’t think he was capable of murdering her but we knew he hit her from time to time, didn’t we? We knew he was a psychopath, didn’t we? We knew he was draining the very fucking soul out of our friend didn’t we!? We knew and didn’t do a single thing about it, we knew and yet here we are. She’s gone. So, no we haven’t lasted have we, how the hell can we have ‘lasted’ when we could sit by and watch something like that happen to our best friend? How? HOW!?’

            Chloe turns and walks off, unable to hide the flood of tears streaming angrily down her face. Rosa looks at Hannah and Madison before quickly skipping after her.

            ‘Shit.’ Hannah looks at her feet before looking back up at Madison.

            ‘I know Han.’ Says Madison.

            ‘All I meant was that we…fuck I don’t know what I meant. I just meant us as friends, us as our memories, our friendship has endured, y’know. I don’t know.’

            ‘Has it really though?’

            ‘What’ asks Hannah.

            ‘Our friendship. Has it really ‘endured’ or ‘lasted’ as you say?’

            ‘Well, we’re here. We still talk now and then don’t we, it’s just life finds a way of…happening, y’know.’

            ‘I know it does Han, I’m not getting at you. But seriously, apart from weddings and fu…,’ Madison takes a breath, ‘…and funerals, when do we ever meet up or catch up anymore. Huh?’

            ‘No, I know…but.’

            ‘I mean, when was the last time we were all together? Chloe’s wedding in New York wasn’t it? When was that, four years ago now?’

            ‘I know.’

            ‘And I know life isn’t lived in five, ten, fifteen year segments, it’s what happens in the minutes and hours between the ‘big’ moments, I realise that. But I mean seriously, do we even know each other anymore?’

            ‘Of course we do Maddie, maybe not every day intricacies and details but we still…’

            ‘You didn’t know I’ve moved back to Burlington, did you?’

            ‘Wha…since when? Why?’

            ‘A couple of years now. Back living with my parents. Classy, huh? But see, that’s the thing. That’s not on you Han, don’t think I’m blaming you for that. Or that there should be any blame, anyway. I know you’ve been building your life in France and building a life with Henry…’

            ‘Henri.’

            ‘Henri. See my French accent always was bad, that’s maybe why my arthouse film career never quite took off.’

            Hannah smiles at Madison, thinking to herself that’s another one for her lifelong joke tally.

            ‘Your happy little bohemian Parisian life in, what neighbourhood is it again?’

            ‘Rue Montorgueil…look Maddie that’s not important, I know…’

            ‘No, listen Han. I’m telling you I couldn’t he happier for you. Yeah, I was shocked you left Jack. We all were. But you did what was right for you. You genuinely seem happy, content. You always seemed to be but this 30-something you is happy, content, on a completely new level. I’m happy for you. Really.’

            ‘Thank you. But what is content, I mean true happiness isn’t measured in status or employment, or symbols or, what, I don’t know…’

            ‘I know Han. All I’m trying to say is, yes, there’s love there but we’re all different people. We’re all leading such different lives. Whether it’s you in Paris or Chloe in New York. Or even Rosa. I’ve been back in Iowa for this long and yet this week is the first time I’ve spoken to her since then. I mean, I thought about going to one of her book tour events a few months ago but for some reason I just…it just didn’t seem right. I don’t know why. Probably because I don’t like parading the twice-divorced shitshow car wreck that is my life in front of anyone, let alone my best friends.’

            ‘You’re not a shitshow Maddie.’

            ‘Ha. Well maybe not an all-dazzling, all-sparkling, up-in-lights premiere shitshow perhaps, but I could give a good matinee performance, that’s for sure.’

            Hannah smiles at her again. ‘Your jokes are improving a hell of a lot, that’s something anyway.’

            Madison returns the smile. ‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘that’s something. C’mon.’ She loops her hand through Hannah’s as they hunch together, their umbrellas colliding slightly, and slowly walk over to Rosa and Chloe. The former fully embracing the latter as they kneel on the ground.

            Hannah places her hand gently on Chloe’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry Clo, I really didn’t mean to…’

            Chloe arches her arm in a triangular shape and reaches back to place her hand on Hannah’s. ‘I know,’ she whispers in a broken voice. ‘It’s just, we should have, I mean we could’ve said…’

            ‘Maybe you’re right,’ says Rosa, ‘but once little Tommy came along I don’t think there was ever any chance that Ems would leave Andy. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.’

            Madison nods her head slowly. ‘Sadly, you’re right I think Rosie.’

            ‘Maybe…’ says Chloe as she slowly starts to stand up, wiping the tears beneath her glasses once again.

            ‘At least he’s going away for a long, long time,’ says Madison, ‘I only wish it were you prosecuting the bastard, Chloe.’

            ‘Ha,’ scoffs Chloe. ‘I don’t think I’d be able to restrain myself in the court room. I mean it’d be satisfying leaping over the dock and scratching the fucker to pieces, but I don’t think he’s worth ruining my career for, do you.’

            ‘Meh, I could think of worse ways of ruining a career,’ Madison smirks knowingly, ‘most of which I’ve probably done, But if worst comes to worst Rosa could always base one of her books on you, couldn’t she, make you into a cult star or something,’

            ‘Now there’s a thought.’ Rosa smiles.

            ‘In fact, why not write a story about the five of us Rosie,’ says Hannah. ‘People love reading fiction that contains flawed and fucked-up characters. What better basis to start with?’

            ‘Apart from herself of course,’ Chloe interjects, blowing her nose quietly with a tissue. ‘Rosa seems to be the least fucked up of the lot of us, these days.’

            ‘Oh yeah,’ laughs Rosa, ‘my high-rolling Des Moines lifestyle really compares with Han’s bohemian Parisian fever dream or your high-powered New York family life or Maddie’s LA adventure. Lucky me.’

            ‘Actually…’ begins Madison.

            ‘No but she’s right,’ interrupts Hannah quickly, placing a hand on Madison’s arm, ‘from where you were to where you are now Rosie…well, we’re all proud of you. I know I am. What is that, ten years sober now?’

            ‘Ten, yep.’

            ‘God, if I had to try ten years sober in Paris I think I’d last about ten hours at most.’

            ‘Try ten minutes in Manhattan’ says Chloe.

            ‘Thanks guys.’ Rosa smiles. ‘But I can assure you, at the risk of ruining this sweet moment, that I’m still just as big a fuck up as I was or as any of you think you are. That’s a fact. Being sober isn’t a magic cure-all. I still get depression. I still think about finishing that walk into the Mississippi at times. Not as much, no, but sometimes. It just makes things a bit…easier. Clearer.’

            ‘Well we’re proud of you all the same’ says Hannah, smiling.

            ‘Thank you.’

            ‘And if you ever have the urge to join Emma in Aspen Grove Cemetery then promise me one thing,’ says Chloe, ‘you promise me that you’ll call me, no matter the time, no matter the place. Call. I don’t care if I’m in bed, if I’m the middle of a case, if I’m shopping, if I’m…whatever the fuck I’m doing…you call.’

            ‘I will. Thank you. But I’ll be fine.’ Rosa steps towards Chloe. The two hug. ‘I promise I’ll be ok.’

            ‘Make sure you are.’ Chloe tightens her arms around Rosa, burying her head into her shoulder.

            ‘Besides,’ says Rosa, giggling slightly, ‘I don’t think Sally would be too pleased if I woke up her and Freddie in the middle of the night would she.’

            ‘Which reminds me,’ says Chloe, withdrawing from Rosa, ‘I’ve left my beautiful, loving wife in a room full of mourners and our two-year-old son. If we stay here any longer I reckon her supply of empathy for me might well run low fairly quickly.’

            ‘Good point. Come to think of it I’d better give Henri a call, he’ll be wanting to know how things are going’ say Hannah.

            ‘Ha.’ Madison chuckles.

            ‘What?’

            ‘No, nothing. Just ‘On-ri’. The way you say his name. It sounds so…well, French. Authentic. You actually sound like you belong in France.’

            ‘Ha. Well you should hear me over there. I still sound like an uneducated American to the rest of them, I bet. They wouldn’t be quick to point that out either.’

            ‘I bet,’ says Madison. ‘Does he know Jack’s here today?’

            ‘He…well, he must…maybe…he would assume…young Madison my dear, a woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets. He’ll just have to accept things as they are.’

            ‘Isn’t that a line from a film? That ocean part?’ asks Chloe, dabbing at the makeup threatening to break free across her cheekbones.

            ‘Titanic.’ Madison nods. ‘In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve used that in auditions over the years.’

            ‘Oh, well there you are then,’ says Hannah with a sly smile, ‘my philosophising is as good as any high-profile Hollywood writer’s.’

            ‘Yeah, you aren’t wrong there…’ scoffs Madison in a tone built on the foundation of numerous personal recollections. ‘Nice and relevant with your film references aswell Han, what was that, like, 21/22 years ago or something? Classy.’

            ‘I’m glad you agree, ma cherie,’ says Hannah, ‘but as much as I, like any lazy stereotypical Parisian worth their weight in clichés, think there is something romantic about strolling in the rain, the authentically American part of me is saying ‘not so much’. I’m with Chloe, let’s go back shall we.’

            ‘For once Han, I agree with you.’ Madison loops her arm through Hannah’s once again. A move so natural, so telegraphed.

            ‘Yeah, probably for the…in fact, no, wait a minute’ says Rosa, stopping herself before walking back to the scene of the small decades old hand-dug grave. ‘Just one more thing.’

            She reaches into her handbag whilst kicking bits of dirt into the small hole, covering the blackened bones. From her bag she pulls a piece of paper and a flower, flattened. A flattened wild rose. The other three approach.

            ‘What’s that?’ asks Madison.

            Rosa holds up the rose and the funeral notice with Emma’s name and picture on the front. The years ‘1986 – 2019’ inscribed below her beautiful smiling face. The other three well up. Madison and Hannah, on opposite sides of Chloe, both place her hands round the latter’s back. A mixture of tears and rain trickles down Rosa’s face as she nods. Wordless. Silent. Unspoken. Carefully she wraps the flattened wild rose in the funeral notice. She places it in the small grave before delicately shovelling dirt on top of it with her hands. Eventually she stands up, treading the dirt down with her dirt-splattered shoes. She turns and moves towards the other three as the four of them embrace beneath the two umbrellas.

            Quiet sobs fill the air, peppered by the steady rainfall and the sound of violent waves angrily lashing across the nearby Mississippi River.

            ‘Ah shit,’ shouts Rosa suddenly, a look of shock on her face ‘shit Maddie, I’m sorry.’ She looks at her dirt-stained hand and then at the muddy handprint on the back of Madison’s dress. Madison swivels her head slightly, assessing the damage.

            ‘Meh,’ she says, shrugging. ‘Fuck it. Black was never my colour anyway.’

            Rosa’s shock relaxes into a gentle grin as she looks at Madison’s patently unbothered expression. Hannah and Chloe both laugh quietly, taking each other’s hand and slowly caressing the other’s in the process.

            The four women huddle together, two each to one umbrella, as they shuffle, slowly at first and then quickly as the rainfall starts to increase, out of the clearing, through the trees and across the vast expanse of Crapo Park.

Above the park, and despite the rain, a small bird, quite alone and isolated in the world, swings through the air elegantly, visibly enjoying its freedom, carving its imprint onto the late-afternoon skyline.

Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part IV

2014

‘She looks beautiful, doesn’t she?’

            ‘She does,’ says Chloe turning to Hannah, offering her a drag of her cigarette which the latter refuses, ‘but then, she always does.’

            ‘Yeah, but that dress. Look at her. She looks like, I dunno, like a beautiful bottle of Champagne. Whereas the four of us look like a bunch of cheap-ass shots of pink Schnapps or something.’ Hannah looks down at her garishly pink bridesmaid ensemble. ‘Rightly so, of course. It is her day after all.’

            ‘Yeah…’ says Chloe as she stubs out the remains of her cigarette on a nearby tree trunk. She awkwardly prods at her hair, sprayed, styled and patterned to within an inch of its life. ‘Ugh. Anyway talking of Champagne, here ladies.’ From her bag she fishes out a small bottle of Champagne and five accompanying flutes. ‘A sneaky one for courage.’

            ‘Mmm, nice. I can’t remember you supplying us with expensive pre-wedding delights at my wedding, all the same!’ Madison takes a glass from Chloe, holding it ready as the drink is poured in.

            ‘Which one?’ asks Hannah with a smirk as she gratefully accepts a glass from Chloe. She takes a sip.

            ‘Which what?’ asks Madison as she fixes the front of her dress, twisting her body uncomfortably in the ill-fitting number.

            ‘Which wedding?’

            ‘Well…’ says Madison, taking a sip and allowing the subtle dig to roll off, ‘well, neither of them come to think about it! You didn’t even come along to the second one!’

            ‘You didn’t invite us!?’ says Chloe. ‘You didn’t invite anyone. Come to think of it you hadn’t even told us you were divorcing…’

            ‘Harry.’

            ‘Harry…let alone that you were now marrying…erm…I want to say Donald…’

            ‘Richard.’

            ‘Yes, Richard. That you were marrying Richard. You can hardly blame us.’

            ‘We’re sorry ok, Maddie’ says Hannah.

            ‘Thank you, Hannah,’ replies Madison primly, almost to the point of pomposity. ‘That’s appreciated.’

            ‘Yeah, we’ll be sure to be there for your third one.’

            Madison whips her gaze towards Hannah in annoyance, narrowing her eyes.

            ‘Cheers babes’ smiles Hannah, pushing her glass to clink with Madison.

            ‘Meh’ says Madison with a knowing shrug of her shoulders.

 

            Chloe looks across at Emma and Rosa as they stroll slowly searching the ground where that old, rusted, disused rollercoaster segment once stood. The ground beneath it only now just beginning to recover its colour, its vibrancy. No doubt searching for the little grave. The one with the bird in it, she thinks. That’ll be long gone now. God, when would that have been? When did Junior High finish? The summer of ‘99. And this is…what…2014. Jesus, 15 years? Seriously!? God. Must be going on five years or so since we were last year. Well, yeah. That was the last time I was in Iowa. Aside from the holidays of course. Yeah, that was just after Rosa…and that was when Emma said…when she, fuck. Why the hell didn’t we push it? Push her? She could have left him, could have been free of him. But now here we are on their fucking wedding day. I knew that prick would manipulate her. I knew he would have gotten wind of it. When did she call telling me about the engagement? Must have only been a few months after we were here for Rosa. No, he knew. He fucking knew he was losing her. I was holding my tongue. I had to. Shit, I’d almost lost her once already. Probably more. Think Chloe, think before you speak. It’s her life. It’s her choice. That’s what I kept telling myself. But hell, if I’d known we’d end up here…

            She looked up at the sky. A sea of blue besides the odd, almost ethereal, wisp of cloud ripping into the canvas here and there. The trees frittered gently amidst the cooling afternoon breeze – a godsend in the sizzling July heat. The slight rocking sound of lapping waves inched their way into the air from the Mississippi. A small gathering of birds performed rapid, precise aerial acrobatics; twisting and turning just slightly above the tops of the highest trees in the park before darting off into the sun-drenched horizon.

            ‘This friggin dress, I swear!’ Madison tugs violently, and one-handed (the other clutching hold of her dwindling champagne), at the bust of her bridesmaid dress. ‘It’s damn near crushing my friggin boobs, I swear!’

            ‘You better hope Richard kept the receipt then Maddie, y’know incase he has to return them. The boobs that is. Or was it Harry that bought you these?’ asks Hannah, following up the remark with a quick sip of her drink.

            ‘Hilarious Hannah. Fucking hilarious. Ugh.’ Madison yanks at her dress again.

            The back and forth shakes Chloe from her reverie.

            ‘Rosa, Emma,’ she shouts, ‘here…’ she holds up the Champagne bottle, clinging onto the remaining two flutes with her fingertips.

            Emma and Rosa look up from their slow, meandering two-person search party. Rosa smiles and takes Emma by the hand, moving towards the other girls. Each of Emma’s steps choreographed to perfection as she weaves in and out and between any potential tripping hazards. Her friend’s hand, holding on tightly to one hand, a significant clump of her wedding dress clutched in the other.

            ‘Y’know, I think I’ll pass Chloe and stick to the water,’ says Rosa, taking a half-drunk bottle of Poland Spring from her bag, ‘I don’t think my Sponsor would be too pleased if he knew I was back off the wagon, do you?’ She laughs.

            ‘Fuck’ mutters Chloe to herself, her expression contorting. ‘You’ll never fucking learn will you.’

            Her self-admonishment ceases however when Rosa mouths ‘It’s ok’ to her through a warm smile as she approaches. Chloe smiles in turn.

            ‘Of course not. Foot in mouth like always, am I right. Em then, come on girl, it’s your big day, surely you’ll partake in a little courage-booster?’ She begins to pour.

            ‘Actually…actually Chloe I’ll leave it just now if that’s ok. I want to stay clear-headed. My head’s in a mess as it is.’

            ‘Oh, well…’

            ‘Smart thinking Em, smart thinking. All the more for us then isn’t it’ says Madison as she grabs the bottle from Chloe, taking a swig before topping up her glass.

            ‘You are one classy bitch, Madison’ says Hannah.

            ‘Oh fuck off Hannah. Top up?’

            ‘Of course.’ Hannah smiles, that same exaggerated, knowing smile she’d mastered as a child. She curtsies to Madison as her glass fills up. They clink glasses.

            The five stand in silence for a few seconds. Chloe’s face pained slightly although she couldn’t honestly say why. Aside from the obvious.

            ‘Anyway,’ says Hannah, breaking the tension, holding her glass aloft ‘here’s to you Ems. You didn’t quite beat Maddie down the aisle, either time, but I always knew you’d be one of the first to get married.’

            ‘And I’m the classy one…’ Madison murmurs bitterly, holding her own glass aloft.

            Rosa takes the two glasses from Chloe, pouring water from her bottle into both. She hands one to Emma who combines a smile with a small laugh.

            ‘Thanks Han’ smiles Emma. ‘All of you in fact. You’ve always been…I mean I know we struggle to stay in touch at times…but…well, you’re here now…that’s why I wanted us to come here…just to…you know, one last time so…so we…I mean…and you all look…you all look…’

            ‘Fucking awful!’ blurts Hannah, sensing Emma’s need for her to steer the conversation safely away from any potential truly tear-jerking moments. She laughs. ‘Let’s be honest. But hey, at least you get a cleavage in these things, it actually looks like I’ve got tits for once in my life.’

            Emma laughs, her eyes glistening slightly. She wipes them with the back of her hand before taking a sip of water. She senses Chloe’s eyes on her, trying to ignore them. She looks at Hannah.

            ‘You never know Han, it could be you next. Jack must surely be ready to propose one of these days? You’re in Paris in a few weeks, there can’t be many better places in the world to propose can there?’

            ‘Pah.’ Hannah scoffs. ‘I doubt it.’

            ‘Why? What’s wrong?’

            They four of them look at Hannah.

            ‘Oh no no,’ she says, ‘No, nothing, It’s just. I don’t think that’s us you know. I mean, after, what, 16 years now. No, I don’t think that’s us. And a Parisian proposal? No, that’s not Jack, not at all. Knowing him, or knowing us I should say, we’d probably just talk about it one day, decide to do it and that’d be that. Being swept off your feet is something I’ll leave for you girls. That’s not quite poor lil Hannah now, is it.’

            ‘You’re not unhappy though?’ Emma stares at Hannah, a concerned look creeping over her gaze.

            ‘Oh god no, no, not at all. Don’t mind me. It’s…no, this is your day Ems, forget what I’ve said. It’s this sneaky champagne that our good friend Chloe has thrust upon us. It’s making me ramble. Not that that’s any different to usual, of course. It’s good stuff though. I’m not complaining.’ She smiles and winks at Chloe.

            ‘Where is Jack anyway?’ says Madison.

            ‘Probably at the church by now. We were heading there with my Mom and Dad.’

            ‘Hmm, how’s his brother doing these days? He’s not coming to this is he?’

            ‘Aaaand you’re back to being the ‘classy’ one again, young Madison. Whatever would poor Mr Richard think of all this? You brazen hussy.’ Hannah takes another sip.

            ‘Who knows. And who cares. LA’s a long, long way from Burlington, Iowa. Besides he’s probably banging some younger chick as we speak anyway so…’

            ‘Oh dear!’ Hannah gasps in mock exasperation. ‘Is all not perfect in paradise? Never mind, Maddie, there’s thousands of other Producers you can marry out there I suppose.’

            ‘This one, sorry Richard, is actually a Director I’ll have you know, not a Producer.’

            ‘My bad. You really are growing as a human being aren’t you?’ Hannah blows Madison a kiss.

            ‘Bitch’ Madison smiles slightly, taking another sip of her own drink. ‘What about you Chloe?’

            ‘Me?’ Chloe turns her gaze towards Madison, her frown easing off a touch. ‘What about me?’

            ‘Well, when are we going to get introduced to the lovely Sally?’

            ‘Oh, well…’

            ‘Well what? You’re living with her, that’s what you told Rosa isn’t it? Is that true? Up there in that fancy Manhattan apartment of yours. One half of a lesbian power couple on the Upper West Side. And a partner in your own law firm. If I didn’t know you well enough I’d be impressed.’

            ‘We are, yes, living together that is.’ Chloe blushes slightly, despite herself. Fuck sake, she thinks to herself, you’re nearly fucking 30 years old, enough with the childish bashful routine shit.

            ‘Well I’m happy for you. Genuinely’ says Madison, smiling.

            ‘How did your parents take the news?’ asks Rosa, finishing off her glass of water and handing it back to Chloe.

            ‘Well. Surprisingly well, actually. In fact, Sally’s with them right now.’ She drains her glass. A thoughtful look in her eyes. ‘All that time, all that currency, worrying what they would think. What my Mom would think, how my Dad would take it. And all the time all they wanted was for me to be happy. They probably knew the whole time. I think they did. Who knew it would turn out like that. I mean, obviously I knew that but still. I suppose you never really can know, can you.’

            She looks at Emma who stares back at her, wavering halfway between a smile and a tear.

            ‘Anyway,’ says Chloe, ‘enough of all this sentimental bullshit. We’ve got a wedding to take care of, don’t we!’ She takes the bottle from Madison and pours the last remaining drops of it onto the grass.

            ‘We certainly do Ms Maid Of Honour.’ Emma smiles. ‘In fact, no hold on, I wanted…here,’ she walks over to the side of the clearing, that familiar spot, ‘I wanted us each to have a wild rose with us. Y’know, the pink ones. Yes, yes, look, there, there they are.’

            ‘What’s this for, luck?’ Madison stumbles slightly as she follows Emma, the alcohol serving an early warning signal to her ahead of the day ahead. ‘I could have done with one of those at both of my weddings. Ha!’

            ‘Nice, Maddie,’ laughs Hannah, ‘that’s another solid joke. At this rate you’re making one every five years or so. Not a bad ratio.’

            ‘Hilarious as always, boo.’

            ‘I aim to please.’

            ‘Here, woah, woah.’ Rosa skips over towards Emma. ‘You’re gonna mess your dress up kneeling down Em, let me…’

            ‘Such a sweet girl,’ says Madison as Rosa crouches down towards the wild roses. Emma smiles at her, her hand caressing her back, as she very slowly lifts herself to a standing position. Chloe, at the back of the group, winces slightly.

            ‘Isn’t she just?’ agrees Hannah. ‘Talking of which Rosie, when are you going to rock up with a gorgeous hunk on your arm one of these days? Or senorita, y’know? Whatever you choose.’

            Rosa smiles as she carefully plucks five roses, one a time, being careful not to let the thorns cut into her skin. She chuckles to herself. She hands a rose to Hannah.

            ‘Not for a while Han. Most of the men I meet are ones that go to the same meetings that I go to. And that kind of, fraternising, shall we say, is pretty much frowned upon. And anyway, most of the guys there are as fucked up as I am so that doesn’t exactly make for a great budding romance.’ She hands a rose to Madison.

            ‘What, so there’s been no-one?’ asks Madison.

            ‘No, not no-one. There was one but…’ says Rosa, pausing to hand a rose to Emma.

            ‘But what?’ Madison sniffs her rose before attempting to place it on the bust of her dress.

            ‘But…nothing really. It just didn’t…it just wasn’t. I need to work on myself first and foremost. I might make balancing alcoholism, depression, anxiety and fuck knows what other illnesses, look like a piece of cake but believe me it’s not.’ Rosa hands Chloe her rose. ‘Once I get there, wherever the hell there is, I’ll know but for now, I’m not in a rush.’

            ‘No,’ says Hannah. ‘No Rosa that’s far too mature and sensible an answer. Remember you’re talking to someone there that, going by everything we’ve heard so far today, seems to be hurtling towards her second divorce before the age of 30. You’ll have to rethink it.’

            ‘Ha. Ha.’ Madison drains the last of her glass.

            As Rosa picks her own wild rose, behind her Emma also drains her glass. She smiles faintly as she hands it to Chloe. Their fingertips brush as the glass exchanges hands. Suddenly Chloe clicks. A thousand discordant threads and strings suddenly coalesce in her mind and form a clear, obvious picture. She looks at Emma’s hand and follows it as it recoils to her stomach. She looks back at the glass. The water. The ‘clear head’. The struggle to crouch down and subsequently stand up. Her gaze fixes on her friend’s stomach once more. Lingering there. For mere seconds but for what feels more like an inordinate amount of time.

A lifetime.

She takes off her glasses and slowly shifts her gaze upwards. Her gaze is met by Emma’s. Her friend’s eyes wet with moisture. Infused with an undeniable sadness. A fear. Emma holds a finger, trembling, to her mouth. She mouths a broken ‘shh’ as her head slowly nods.