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.

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.

Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part III

2009

‘So, this is, like, from back in Native American times, is it?’ Madison skips up the rickety wooden stairs onto the porch of the Hawkeye Log Cabin, sitting slightly proudly, and yet equally as ill-at-ease, by the edge of Crapo Park.

The sky above the cabin hangs heavy. Full. More than a suggestion of rain to follow. The early June air, cloying and uncomfortable in its humidity, pertains as much.

‘Hmm, I’m not sure, I think so’ answers Emma almost indifferently. She paws briefly, and nervously, at her newly-shorn, ‘sober’ hairstyle. One that hangs, straight and conservatively, slightly above her shoulders.

‘No, don’t be silly’ says Chloe, glancing up from her cell phone. ‘You think they would have let something like that stand in amongst all of the killing and raping and pillaging of the Natives? No way.’ Hearing the supercilious vein coursing through her words, she attempts to dial it back a touch. ‘I mean, at least I doubt it anyway.’ The ghost of an apologetic smile added on for good measure.

‘Yeah, she’s right,’ says Hannah, ‘Jack took me here once. On a date. We star-crossed lovebirds get to all the romantic places, don’t ya know girls. We probably followed it up with a succulently passion-filled Seven Eleven gourmet meal afterwards.’ She smiles. ‘But yeah, I remember them saying then that it was built or reconstructed as a kind of monument, sometime in like the 1800s, I think.’

‘1910.’

The girls look round at Rosa as she slowly walks up the stairs to join them on the porch.

‘Say again, Rosie?’ says Emma with a smile, two parts genuine and only one part façade, appointing herself the spokesperson for the group. These being almost the first fully-formed syllables Rosa has uttered to them all afternoon.

‘It was built in 1910. I read up on it a while back’ says Rosa.

‘Well, there you go then.’ Hannah smiles. ‘I knew our local Amateur Historian would have the answer.’

Rosa smiles at Hannah faintly before averting her gaze.

‘Why is it closed anyway?’ says Madison, yanking fruitlessly at the door handle. ‘Pretty shitty tourist ‘attraction’ if it’s closed all the time.’ She withdraws her hand, wiping what she perceives, or at least imagines to be, dust and grime or some other source of germ from her neatly manicured fingers.

‘Opens at weekends only I think. And only in the summer.’ Emma scans the information board slightly to the left of the locked door.

‘Another jewel in the crown of Crap-O Park then!’ Madison places the emphasis on the ‘Crap’ as she slowly walks back down the stairs.

‘Talking of ‘crowns’ Madison, is that you making an audacious bid to steal my ‘funny one of the group’ crown? Shame on you.’

‘No, you’re welcome to it, Han. I’ll stick to being the film star of the group. M’kay?’ Madison flashes her an arrogant smile. Hannah laughs. ‘Ok, you do that.’

The girls begin to walk away from the Log Cabin. Emma, glancing up to the gathering clouds, decides to tighten her coat around her slim frame. Hannah looks back at the cabin and sees Chloe still standing on the porch, looking at her phone.

‘Coming, Chlo?’

‘Argh, this shitty phone. I swear, I’ve barely had a signal since coming back here! Might aswell just throw the fucking thing in the Missis…’ Chloe stops herself. As always, aware of her carelessly-uttered words just that split-second or so too late. She looks over at Rosa, trying to detect any reaction, negative or otherwise. Nothing of note. She continues. ‘I might aswell just throw the damn thing in the trash. Ugh.’ She harshly pushes the cell phone into her handbag and marches down the stairs, adjusting her glasses nervously as she walks over to the group, surveying whether the deflection tactic worked or whether it was DOA.

‘Right, let’s go and see how our once-feathered friend is doing, shall we?’ says Hannah with a mischievous smirk bending the corners of her mouth.

‘Fuck. Off.’ Madison’s face drops.

‘Well we never got the chance to last time did we, I’m sure he or she would like us to give him or her a visit after all this time, don’t you?’

‘Ugh. Grow up Han, you weirdo. We’re not little kids anymore. We’re 23, well Chloe’s old and grey and 24, but the rest of us are 23. We’re adults. Some of us are even married,’ she not-so-subtly flashes Hannah her ring finger. Hannah rolls her eyes.

‘Oh, live a little Maddie. I’m sure you can get back to your oh-so-mature Hollywood career when you fly back there in a few days. What was the last one you starred in, again, Killer Alligators vs Strippers, was that it?’ says Hannah.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Absolutely nothing, my dear, absolutely nothing.’

‘Now, now girls.’ Emma interjects.

‘Yeah, leave the fighting to me and Em’ says Chloe, catching up to them. She flashes a weak smile at Emma who returns it in kind.

‘Yeah, anyway let’s make it quick if that’s ok because Andy will be wondering where I’ve gotten to.’

Rosa looks up at Chloe. The latter’s face clenching in an obviously internal tussle between the act of her holding her tongue or saying what needs to be said. She sees Chloe’s chest expand and then retract, the sight of a deep, calming breath intended to force down the words vying for prominence on the tip of her tongue.

She’s getting better at that, thinks Rosa. She’s not perfect yet, as evidenced by that near slip about the Mississippi (Oh imagine the horror if she had finished that word…) but she is improving. The thing is, she’d be right to say something. We all know it, thinks Rosa. We all know Andy’s no good for Emma. We’ve always known it. He’s controlling. He’s jealous. And he’s violent. We all know that he’s hit her, at least once. Probably a lot more. That’s probably why she’s wearing that coat. I mean it’s not a glorious summer’s day or anything but it’s still far too warm for a coat. I think even Emma is starting to see it now. She doesn’t want to be stuck here in Burlington, Iowa for the rest of her life. She used to be infatuated with Andy. Worshipped the ground he walked on. She genuinely did love him. Maybe she still does, I don’t know. But that spark in her eyes, the one she used to have when she spoke about him, that’s gone. I mean, I know 10/11 years is a long time for any relationship but it’s more than that. Take Hannah for instance, she seems happy with Jack, still. Sure, she makes jokes, that’s just Han being Han, but she does seem genuinely content. But with Emma, with Emma it’s different. He’s broken her down. She used to have a smile for everyone but now…well. But we’re not here for Emma’s problems, are we. Oh no no. We’re here for little suicidal Rosa. I’m the focus of today’s reunion.

‘You okay Rosie?’ she feels Chloe’s hand touch her shoulder gently.

Right on cue, Rosa thinks to herself.

‘I’m good Chloe, don’t worry’ she half-turns her head and smiles as the group continue to walk through the park.

Don’t get me wrong, Rosa thinks, it’s coming from a good place. It’s coming from a place of love, I know that. And god I appreciate that. But they just don’t know. They can’t know. In the same way that I don’t or can’t know fully about their problems. About what they’re really going through. Can I? You can talk all you want, you can share all you need, but can anyone really understand entirely what is going on in someone else’s mind. We can view as spectators, yeah, we can read the plot outline, absolutely, but you can never quite know. I mean, how do we know what Emma’s really going through? Is he really hitting her? Does she feel trapped? Scared? Helpless? I don’t know. Is she actually happy? Probably not but who knows. Or Chloe, yeah she’s graduated from Harvard with a first, we all knew she would, but how do we know what kind of pressure she’s putting herself under? Being a Junior in a law firm in New York City can’t be the most relaxed of jobs can it? Plus we know she still hasn’t come out to her parents yet. I know she hasn’t. From this point of view we’ve always known she was gay. Hell, you could see by the way she looked at Emma all those years that she felt something far more than friendship for her. We’ve known, we’ve never even had to discuss it, it just seems natural. Because it is for her. So why not tell her parents? Do they know? Does she think they’ll be disappointed? I mean, they always seemed to push her and put her under so much pressure, in a school and law sense, but surely their daughter’s happiness is a different matter altogether? So, you just don’t know. You never can know.

‘Shit, this walk is bigger than I remember, how fucking big is this park, I don’t remember it being this big!?’ says Madison.

‘That’s because you’re wearing heels the size of tentpoles, Maddie. No wonder you’re struggling to walk. Still, they’re probably the perfect size to be able to kill a Killer Alligator aren’t they should we be so unlucky to stumble across one on the way…’ answers Hannah, wryly.

‘I’m warning you Hannah…’ Madison’s lips purse as she stumbles from one foot to the other.

Rosa smirks and lets out a quiet laugh. Hannah’s always just taken things in her stride, she thinks. Out of all of us she’s always been the one that seems to have it together. She never seems to let anything get to her. To let anything ruffle her feathers. She just seems…well, happy. Content. Satisfied. But then, again, how do we know that’s true? It might just be a cover, a face she’s putting on. Humour is often used as a defence mechanism after all. But is that just me being cynical and projecting my own failure to deflect misery onto her. She seems happy in that office job after getting her Business degree at University. But can anyone truly be happy in a 9-5 office job? Or again is that just how I think of things? I know I can’t but maybe Hannah can, maybe anyone can?

Or even Madison. On the face of it, you’d think she has everything. The film career, the husband, the money. The lifestyle. And all the rest of it. But I know she’s not happy. She said as much before. We know how dearly she’d love to ‘make it’ in the movie industry. And yet she’s plugging away doing these bit part roles in these trashy B Movies from time to time. I know Maddie, I know she can’t be happy with that. And that so-called producer husband of hers, Harry, they’re just using each other. What is he, like 54!? She could have anyone, look at her. Any man would give their right arm to be with her and yet is that all she’s seen as? A ditzy, peroxide blonde pinup? She’s not, she never has been. She’s so much more than that. So, is she happy? Can she be, really? She always gives off this selfish, arrogant vibe but we know the real Maddie. The one that shines through when needed. She was the first one to call me, the first one to come and see me at the hospital. I’ll never forget that. She never judged, she never second-guessed, she just showed up. She was just there for me. As a friend. She never asked me why. She never told me I was wrong or that there were other ways to go about things. She was just there. When I needed someone. You see, the other three, you can tell they’re struggling with how to deal with the situation. How do you reconcile yourself with the fact that one of your best or oldest friends walked into the Mississippi River and tried to drown herself only a few months ago? How do you talk to your 23 year old friend who is now, and always will be, by any definition an alcoholic? How do you tell your friend things will be alright when she knows that they can’t or won’t ever be? When she knows that nothing in this world can bring her true joy anymore? When everyone is tinged with a little bit of darkness, of disappointment? When nothing seems to soar much higher than average? Not without her Dad or brother in the world anymore? How do you do that? Even Chloe. I mean, she’s the smartest of the group by a long way. In fact, she’s smarter than most people on this planet I would bet. But she seems to be the one struggling most with this. Because you don’t know. You can’t know. Not truly. But Madison, somehow, beneath all that show, all that makeup and façade, she just knew. What to say, what not to say. And she was the one that managed to round up the others.

‘Oh,’ says Emma, ‘oh no. Look there’s fences up around it.’

The other girls step through the woods and notice the barrier of fencing skirting the ground around the disused rollercoaster segment.

‘Fantastic’ exclaims Madison.

‘About time they got rid of that thing,’ says Chloe, holding her cell phone up the air. Still no reception. ‘Shit.’

‘Yeah, we’ve truly had a rollercoaster of emotions in this spot over the years, haven’t we guys…’

Madison and Chloe look at Hannah and groan in unison.

‘Yep, my bad’ says Hannah, ‘that one was really bad, even for me.’

‘At least the wild roses are still going strong’ says Emma as she walks towards the flurry of pink but the edge of the clearing, now almost completely submerged by a ring of tall grass. ‘That’s something.’

‘Yeah,’ scoffs Madison, ‘I suppose that’s one in the ‘win’ column for good old Crap-O Park.’

‘Cray-Po Park, Madison,’ says Chloe in her best schoolteacher impersonation, ‘it is pronounced ‘cray’ Po Park.’

‘Oh god Chloe, I obviously know that, do you never switch off?’ Madison scowls playfully.

‘Nicolas always used to call it Crap-O Park aswell,’ Rosa smiles at Madison. ‘Anytime I mentioned I was coming here with you guys that’s what he would call it.’

Madison smiles, a hint of sadness within it, as Hannah moves over to Rosa, gently placing her hand on her friend’s wrist. Chloe quickly joins them, caressing Rosa’s back.

‘Guys…’

The four of them turn to look at Emma, apparently in a world of her own, kneeling down by the wild roses. Her back turned to her friends. She delicately runs a finger up and down one of the thorny stems. Almost distractedly. As if in a trance of some kind. She glances up to the skies, again noticing the greying demeanour, again pulling her coat tighter around her body.

‘I need to tell you something…’

‘What is it Em?’ Chloe slowly pulls her hand away from Rosa’s back.

            ‘I’m thinking about leaving Andy.’

Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part II

2004

‘Hey, do you guys think it’s still there?’

            ‘Do we think…ah fuck,’ Chloe looks down at the hem of her graduation gown, now and forever slightly ripped as she pulls it past an unknown snag on the ground, ‘well that’s me in for a world of pain when I get home. Nothing new there. Do we think what’s still there Em?’

            ‘The baby bird’ says Emma, removing her graduation cap. Her almost waist-length blonde hair falling from her head as she does so.

            ‘Well it was when we…shit, when was the last time we were all down here?’

            ‘Must be two/three years’ says Madison daintily advancing through the overlong grass, holding the hem of her own graduation gown delicately above ground.

            ‘Time flies when you’re living your best life, don’t it?’ says Hannah with that trademark hint of sarcasm, following closely behind Madison, struggling to conceal her mirth at her friend’s largely unsuccessful foray through the foliage.

            ‘Yeah, you’re probably right Maddie, must be going on three years or so now’ says Chloe. ‘In fact it was just before…’ she falls silent, censoring herself only just as the words dangle on the precipice. Shit, Chloe, she thinks to herself. Have some fucking decency. Three years. Almost three years to the day, in fact. It was May/June time, she was sure of it. That’s when Rosa’s Dad had committed suicide. Just like that. No note, no nothing. They all knew he’d be struggling for a while after the divorce but hell, no one saw that coming. A bottle of whisky and a bottle of pills. Gone. What could you say? What could anyone say? All we could do was hug Rosa, she thinks, tell her we were there for her. You could tell she knew it but, at the same time, you could tell she knew there was nothing we would be able to do, to quench the need for healing. Shit, that girl. How much can one girl have thrown at her, she thought. ‘In fact, yeah, where is Rosa? Rosa!’

            ‘She was just behind…ah there she is’ Hannah turns back before seeing Rosa advancing slowly out of the trees, her gown scuffed and scratched after the traipse through the foliage. ‘Hey Rosalita girl, we’re missing you, Emma wants us to get all Edgar Allan Poe and shit and see if that baby bird is still there. Such a nice, pretty blonde girl aswell, you wouldn’t think it would you…it always those ones you have to watch, mark my words Rosie.’

            ‘What…hmm, yeah’ says Rosa only half glancing up at Hannah, manufacturing a hint of a smile to go along with it. ‘Yeah’.

            ‘How’s that comedy career going Han?’ says Madison, sarcastically, slowly turning to Hannah before stumbling forward slightly as she turns back, scuffing the heels hidden beneath her gown. ‘Ah shit shit shit!’ A slight squeal of anguish escapes her.

            ‘About the same as your modelling career, Maddie darling’ Hannah flashes Madison an exaggerated, toothy grin.

            ‘Bitch’ mutters Madison.

            ‘Love you too babes’ says Hannah.

            Chloe stares past this miniature comedic farce towards Rosa as she slowly moves towards them. She was always the prettiest out of the group, thinks Chloe. Her skin, those curves, that smile. But recently, well, recently there’s a shadow following her around. Her face never lights up anymore. Ever. You can see the whole world weighing down on her. You can tell she doesn’t sleep. Never smiles. She’s aged about ten years in the last two. That must be just over a year now since her brother was killed. Fallujah. Just after the start of that fucking war. Sorry, fucking invasion. They were so close, Rosa and her brother. A team despite the split. I remember him beating the shit out of a couple of guys at school for bullying her. He always stood up for her. Latinas are a rare thing in this community, that’s why they singled her out at times no doubt but once her brother got involved that all stopped. Hell, they were shit scared of him. Strength in numbers or not. And then one month…one month into that fucking war and that’s all it took. Gone. No fucking wonder the light’s gone out of her eyes.

            ‘Yeah’ she says quietly, ‘almost three years.’

            ‘Hey Chloe,’ says Emma, smiling and gesture towards her friend’s feet ‘pass me that stick, that branch at your feet.’

            ‘Ugh, are you actually being serious here Em?’ says Madison.

            ‘Serious?’

            ‘You seriously want to dig out a dead bird? Honestly!? You’re a sick puppy, Emma. Hannah was right.’

            ‘Oh don’t be so precious Maddie, I’m not going to touch anything, I’m just curious.’

            ‘God.’ Madison scoffs. ‘Guys, come on, you can’t be on board with this?’ she looks to Hannah and Chloe in turn, glancing back at Rosa only to see her crouched down by the cluster of wild roses a dozen or so yards to the side of the clearing. The clusters’ mass of pink seems to reflect against Rosa’s face, briefly bringing colour to her tired features if only for a split second or so.

            ‘Meh’ Hannah shrugs.

            ‘I might have known you’d be like that’ says Madison, ‘Chloe, come on? If the racoons or whatever haven’t been at them then there’ll just be bones down there. It’s fucking gross!’

            ‘Why not’ shrugs Chloe slowly taking her gaze from Rosa and back towards Emma. ‘If nothing else it’ll give us something to remember this day by.’

            ‘Oh yeah that’s true Chloe, yeah you’re right there. Y’know besides our ACTUAL graduation!’

            ‘People graduate from High School all the time Maddie. At least this way some of the ‘Class of ‘04’ might actually be remembered for something a bit less mundane than the usual, trivial high school bullshit.’

            ‘Oh yeah, great. Let’s all meet up again in ten or fifteen years time and talk about that wonderful day we all become baby bird grave robbers. Yeah that’s not creepy at all.’

            ‘Come on Mad, it is pretty cool, admit it,’ says Hannah, ‘I mean this kind of shit is how horror movies start. You’re the one that wants the career in film.’

            ‘Always with the comment, that’s you Han isn’t it?’

            ‘You know you love me.’ Hannah smiles.

            ‘Besides,’ says Chloe, treading on her gown slightly as she hands the branch to Emma, ‘this could be the last time we see each for a long time. Nice to have a memory.’

            ‘Last time?’ Madison ends the struggle with her dress and heels combination, deciding to sit down on the grass a few yards from Emma, lifting her gown gently as she lowers herself to the ground.

            ‘Well yeah, you’ll be going to LA soon; I’ll have to travel to Massachusetts in the next few weeks to familiarise myself with the place before I start at Harvard in the Fall; Hannah’s moving up north to UOI soon; Ems is off to NYU; Rosa’s…’

            ‘I’m not Chloe…’

            ‘Rosa’s going to…what?’ Chloe looks down at Emma. Confusion cascading over her face.

            ‘I said I’m not going’ replies Emma, quietly. ‘To NYU. I’m not going.’

            ‘But…’ Chloe raises an eyebrow in incredulity, ‘but you were accepted…you read us the letter?’

            ‘I know.’ Emma pokes lightly at the ground, scraping away tiny shards of dirt each time.

            ‘Then why…what…?’

            Madison and Hannah look at each other, both their faces sharing a fraction of the confusion currently adorning Chloe’s expression. Between them Rosa slowly appears, her expression muted. Hannah looks down and sees flecks of blood on one of Rosa’s fingers. Alarmed, she silently gestures towards it and looks at her friend. Rosa lifts her other hand which delicately and precisely holds onto a wild rose. She indicates the thorns of the stem. Hannah lifts her head slightly in acknowledgment.

            ‘We decided it was best if I stayed here. For a while anyway.’

            ‘We?!’ Chloe’s anger begins to rise.

            ‘Yes Chloe, ‘we’, please don’t start, you know I…’

            ‘You and Andy!? That’s ‘we’ is it!?’

            ‘Chloe, please, I said…

            ‘No Emma, no. Not ‘please’. This is your fucking life! Not his. He’s controlling you, why can’t you see it? It’s NY-friggin-U! If he’s insecure about it that’s his problem, this has been your dream for years! Emma, please listen to yourself…’

            ‘Chloe stop.’

            ‘No Emma… I mean…NYU…I mean…guys, come on, this time, please?’

            ‘Chloe, she’s asked you to stop’ says Hannah.

            ‘Han, come on, this isn’t right!’ says Chloe. ‘Maddie? Rosa?’

            ‘If this is what makes her happy, Chloe, I mean, I guess I don’t understand it but…Emma’s our friend so…’ says Madison, allowing her sentence to peter out.

            ‘But she’s not happy, how can she be!?’

            ‘But that’s not your decision to make Chloe, it’s Emma’s’ says Hannah, smiling weakly at the two in a poor effort to placate the situation.

            ‘Seriously Han!? Rosa, please, please Rosa, you can see this for what it is, surely?’

            Rosa looks up at Chloe, that same exhaustion etched upon her face. She looks at Emma, sensing the hurt and struggle in her gaze. She sighs sadly.

            ‘You just said it yourself Chloe, it’s her life, no-one else’s’ she says, looking down sadly at her feet, only just catching the merest flash of Emma’s sad smile of gratitude.

            ‘Look Chloe, Andy just thought it would be better for us if we stayed together. At least until he gets some money together and then we can both travel to New York together. And then maybe I can start my studies again. I mean…’

            ‘Maybe’ Chloe scoffs. ‘Maybe. That’s the word he used isn’t it? ‘Maybe’. He’s controlling you Emma, you know it, you recognise it, you just don’t want to see it.’ She takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes as the condensation of anger creeps along her eyelids.

            ‘No Chloe, stop it. Please. Look, Hannah’s staying in Iowa, she’s staying with Jack and you’re not shouting and screaming at her! So why just me?’

            ‘But Hannah’s always wanted to go to UOI! That’s always been her plan, she’s not changed it at the last minute because she’s been pressured into it by someone else! Oh, and as a little side note, Jack’s not a total scumbag! He’s a good guy and you’re fucking Andy is anything but!’

            ‘STOP IT!’ screams Emma. She collapses to the ground, tears falling from her eyes. Hannah and Madison move towards her, followed by Rosa. The former two comfort her, their arms around their friend as she convulses in grief. Rosa stands next to them, the wild rose still clutched in her hand. She looks on, a blankness in her eyes. She takes off her graduation cap, her black silky hair unravelling under the sweltering early-evening heat.

            Chloe looks at the four of them, cleaning the lenses of her glasses before placing them back on her face. ‘I can’t…’ she begins, ‘no, I can’t.’ She turns and begins to walk away, caring little for the hem of her gown dragging through the grass, dirt and thorny nettles.

            ‘Chloe wait…’ says Hannah, looking up.

            ‘Chloe, come on, look…’ echoes Madison.

            She stops suddenly. Begins to turn her head before halting it, choosing not to. Choosing instead to conceal her reddening eyes and cheeks.

            ‘No’ she shouts, ‘No, I won’t. I’m done. I can’t keep doing this. Everyone can see what’s happening here. You’re making it out like I’m being a shitty friend here. Well no! It’s not me that’s being the shitty friend. NO! I’m the one telling the truth, saying what should be said. I’m not doing this anymore. Not again. I’m done.’

            She strides off into the trees and through Crapo Park, sweat beginning to trickle from her forehead. In her wake the huddled mass of a consoling Hannah, Madison and a crouching, tearful Emma appear locked in a freeze frame, immovable, unable to react to the moment.

Beside them Rosa still stands, clutching the wild rose in her hand. The thorns digging into her skin, creating fresh puncture marks. Her face displays no acknowledgement of this fact. She feels the heat of the sun scraping down her body, pulsating uncomfortably against her flesh. Her gown, the foliage, the afternoon scratches at her bones. In the distance she hears the quiet benevolent whisper of the mighty Mississippi River.

The Fairy Glen

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‘Ooh’

Amy felt a twinge announce itself from within her kneecap as she crouched down. One of the many twinges, creaks and aches that seemed to be peppering her body as she edged closer towards the dreaded ‘old age’. She used her hands to steady herself against the ground. The grass was mostly dry now. Only the barest remnants of moisture survived from the morning’s thin blanket of frost. Drying out just in time for another night’s worth of chill, she thought as the light began to fade around her. She completed the manoeuvre, allowing her knees to connect with the earth.

She sighed – a sigh skirting on the outer rim of contentment – and took in the view around her. One that had become increasingly familiar, but no less beguiling, with each time she visited this place. The Fairy Glen in the village of Uig, one of the Isle Of Skye’s most well known, or lesser known (depending on which websites or travel guides one chose to peruse), attractions. Around her the almost-geometrically perfect hills rose and fell, weaving up and down the landscape. Trees, almost all shorn of their leaves, added a slightly macabre decoration. Some at the base of the hills, perched precariously on the edges of ponds, others seemingly stopping for a breath after clambering halfway up the very same hills. It was a strange place. One of beauty. One of peace. A place both bewitching and spiritual, depending on what angle your mind chose to approach it from. A thousand versions and distortions of the same image to a thousand different people. By day, throughout all seasons, even now in Winter, sporadic, isolated groups of – what she’d guessed were – tourists would make their way through the long, winding, single track road to arrive at this place. Abandoning their cars, buses, bikes and whatever else on one of many grassy verges to traipse around the sight. To breath in its wonder, its allure, its peace. But for now, it was just her. Amy. Her alone. It always was at this time of the evening. Everyone else likely curled up in the warmth and safety of their holiday accommodation or deep within the frothy firmament of their second or third drink of the evening in one of the island’s many local establishments.

‘And so it begins…’ she murmured to herself, leaning down to pick up a rock in the process. She lifted her head once again, this time taking in the sight spread out on the ground immediately in front of her.

Rocks. Hundreds of them. Scattered out in various poses. Some clustered in formations, others piled on top of each other, depicting, to all intents and purposes, figures – torsos, arms, heads. In the fading light, in this place of basic isolation, the formations, the figures, could trouble a more delicate soul, their gothic outlines and contorted features ready and willing to twist and turn their way into the darker corners of a mind. But not to Amy. She smiled. Pleased. Pleased at the sight. Pleased of her previous night’s work. Almost sorry that she would have to pick each formation, figure and message apart and begin again anew. But that she would. As she did every night. She shook her head, smiling, discarding the foolish thoughts.

‘At it again I see?’

The voice crept out of the evening air as Amy applied the final rock on a new, fragile, figure. She looked up, her hands slowly withdrawing from the rock in question, careful not to knock it from its perch. No-one. She squinted her eyes into the distance, afraid the light was combining with her own failing eyesight. No-one. A different tactic was required, she decided.

‘Hello? Sorry what?’ she announced to no one or direction in particular.

‘I said, at it again I see?’

A man, a tallish man with a full grey head of hair and thick-rimmed glasses, stepped out from behind a nearby ridge, holding on to the crooked branch of lonely tree as he slowly ushered himself down a slight gradient.

Amy smiled.

‘Oh, it’s only you Alasdair.’ She turned her face back down to the rocks at her feet and continued arranging them, physically formulating the vision in her head onto the soil in front of her.

‘Aye, it’s only me, dear. As always.’

His voice was soft. Calm. At one with the pervading atmosphere of the place. He approached her and stood above her, his hands on his hips.

‘Every night this is Amy, every night. Rain, shine or bloody freezing. Always at it.’

‘That I am, yes. You are correct.’

Her answer was solid but not without warmth. Sure but with no lack of kindness.

‘Well, I for one don’t understand it. But that’s just me.’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘you never did, did you?’ she let out a slight laugh as she continued to smile, arranging the rocks in what appeared to be an elongated curve.

‘You’ll spook some people you know that? Yeah, of course, some of the weirder folk will think its creepy in a ‘good’ way and some of the kids with the more vivid imaginations will genuinely think it’s the fairies that are up to this every night, but the others? You’ll be scaring them Amy, ever think about that?’

‘Oh be quiet Alasdair, you silly old man. It’s the same every night.’ Her smile remained etched on her face as she began to place rocks in a crooked V formation conjoined with the ones already in place.

Alasdair held his hands up.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘like I say, I don’t understand it, but that’s just me.’

‘Look,’ said Amy, beginning another long curved line of rocks, ‘I tell you this every night so I’ll tell you again. And whether you understand it this time or not matters not because I’ll just keep repeating it every night you ask, ok? Look, sometimes I think people like the idea that even though you can’t see them, it’s good to know that people or things are happening and going on without your knowledge. That the world is still ticking despite your own troubles.’ She took a slight intake of breath. ‘That even though you can’t see them you know someone is watching out for you. I know I like it. It’s a…well, it’s a nice feeling, ok? It’s comforting to feel.’

As her words fell silent Amy placed the last rock in place and lifted herself slowly from the ground. That twinge called out once again. This time she gritted her teeth, only slightly skewing that omnipresent smile. She looked down at the formation of rocks arranged on the ground in front of her. A love heart. Strong, solid, robust.

‘What do you think then Alasdair?’ she asked, slowly reaching out her hand behind, clutching for his.

But he was gone. She felt a slight sag in her chest but the smile, as always, remained. She glanced up at the horizon, the darkness further encroaching on the surroundings. She padded at her winter coat tamely as she felt the evening’s chill suddenly creep into her bones.

‘Until tomorrow then, my dear’ she whispered hoarsely as she turned and walked back down the uneven hill towards her small red car parked on the winding road below.

Her small red car that she and her late husband had driven up and down the island on mini adventures throughout their many years together.

Her small red car with the picture of a young Amy and a young Alasdair, fresh-faced and newly married, tucked away in the glove compartment, the two of them kneeling together beside a collection of rocks arranged into the shape of love heart at the very same Fairy Glen in the village of Uig thirty some years earlier.

The Castle Hunters

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‘Erm…Daddy…’

‘Hmm?’

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes, what is it darling?’

‘Erm Daddy…what is…what is that bit for?’

‘What bit?’

‘The big hole in the ground, Daddy? What’s that for, Daddy?’

He feels the sweat tickle his forehead under the heat of the summer sun and removes his flat-cap briefly. He looks down at his daughter. Her hand grasping tightly onto him, fully encased and protected by his own. He smiles. A thin, momentary smile. He rubs his forehead with the back of his hand before placing his hat back on his head.

‘Do you want a drink of water, sweetheart?’ he plucks a half-drunk bottle of water from the side pocket of his backpack.

‘No. Daddy, what is…’

‘You sure?’

‘No…’

‘No thank you!’

‘…what?’

‘If you don’t want something then you say ‘No thank you’’

‘…ok. Daddy…’

‘Yeah?’ he takes a swig of the bottle. The water is warm, devoid of any kind of refreshment.

‘Daddy…what is that hole there for?’

‘I don’t know m’darling. The people in the castle probably used it for something.’

‘Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years ago?’

‘That’s right, yeah. It might have been where the toilet water ran. Or it might have been a secret passageway or something.’

‘Yeah…or maybe…or maybe…’

‘Or maybe they kept something there.’

‘Or maybe…maybe a DRAGON stayed there!’ his daughter simultaneously gasps and nods at her own suggestion, both excited and terrified by the prospect.

‘Maybe, darling. Maybe…’ he laughs to himself, allowing it to spread into a smile as he looks down at his three year old daughter. She stares transfixed at the hole in the ground, occasionally swatting away the long hair from her face.

He pulls the Historic Scotland castle guide from his pocket and has a quick skim through, looking for any clue as to what the hole could represent. Nothing. He glances up at the castle ruin to his right. Much of the castle perimeter remains intact. The years, and invading armies through the annals of history, have of course played their part in damaging it somewhat but the ruin remains an impressive sight. His eyes follow the trail of the castle, over the damaged front wall, through the restored portcullis, across the dry moat and eventually to the hole in the ground. Who knows, he thinks. Sometimes things don’t require an explanation. He looks down at the wide-eyed wonder currently consuming his daughter.

‘You know what darling…’

‘Yeah?’ she looks up. A gust of wind straddles hair across her eyes.

‘I think it was for a dragon.’

‘A long, long time ago?!’ she asks exalted.

‘I think so, yeah. That must be why they built the castle.’

‘Yeah. Yeah. And. And. Aaaand. And maybe that’s why the castle is broken eh? Because the dragon burned it down?’

‘Ohh maybe, sweetheart! I think you’re right. Here, sweetpea, let’s go and have a look at the castle itself.’

He takes her hand as she skips across the grass towards the ruin, all the images and visions of a fearsome dragon attacking the castle hundreds of years before playing over and over in her mind. He smiles to himself again. They walk over the bridge, each of their footsteps echoing around the surrounding landscape. As they enter the castle ruin he looks up and sees another couple of visitors towards the far right corner of the structure. A middle-aged woman and an elderly man. The former seemed to be supporting the latter as he steadied himself with a walking stick.

‘Daddy…’

‘…hmm?’ he asks, slightly distracted. He drags his gaze away from the other visitors and looks down at this daughter. ‘What is it darling?’

‘Can we maybe go up to the top, Daddy? Up the top of the castle?

He glances up towards the top of the structure. Three levels. All no doubt traversed by the narrowest and darkest of spiral staircases. With no bannister to speak of. And a small child to carry up. He looks back down at the inveigling smile staring back up at him. He sighs slightly; the sigh infused with a laugh.

‘Of course m’girl. Of course we can.’

 

‘I’m ok…I’ll be fine.’

‘Dad, stop being so bloody stubborn. Here, just take me my hand.’

‘No! I told you, I’ll be fine!! I’m not a bloody invalid!’

The old man, slightly hunched and gaunt in appearance, mutters to himself under his breath as he nudges his daughter’s hand away from his side, his own hand trembling slightly as its clings to a walking stick. His daughter rolls her eyes slightly and pushes the long strands of straightened black hair from her face. He’s so bloody stubborn, she thinks to herself. He’s always been the same. She nervously looks at the spiral stairs a foot or so away from them and instinctively, and somewhat covertly, holds her hand out behind her Dad’s back as extra security. He’s far from an invalid, she agrees, but he is in his seventies. You can’t be too careful.

The old man slowly shuffles his feet along the polished stone floor, halting at the foot at the stairs. He rests both hands on the handle of the walking stick. ‘You know…’ he begins.

‘Yes?’

‘You know…’

‘What is it Dad?’

‘…you know I know your hand is behind me don’t you? You’re far from a world-class sleuth my girl.’

They both shared a laugh. And a smile. Both their faces contorting in the same way as the old man turned to his daughter, placing one hand affectionately on her arm.

‘I’m fine darling, seriously. I know I’m an old bugger, and I know I’m a grumpy bugger at times, but I’m fine. I’m not a fossil yet. I promise.’

‘I know Dad,’ she returns the affection, placing her own hand gently over his, ‘I know. But I’m your daughter. I’m allowed to worry about you sometimes.’

His smile widens as he looks at her. A knowing smile. A proud smile. His girl. His daughter. Now this beautiful, accomplished, confident woman standing before him. When the hell did that happen. One day a toddler, finding her way in the world with a smile, a giggle and a tantrum. And the next, a fully realised grown up. In her forties for christ sake!? That was the thing about life, he thought. It was, and is, so fleeting when all is said and done. And the times truly worth living for seem to pass by quicker than the rest. It wasn’t a thought that would break new philosophical ground but it was true.

‘Come on’ he says, clutching her arm tightly for a brief moment before pulling it away. ‘Let’s head on up.’

He smiles at her and turns, grasping hold of his walking stick once again before beginning the slow ascent.

 

‘Ok, ok…let’s just go in here a second, darling…’ the man lowers his daughter to the wooden floor as they step away from the spiral staircase. Sweat trickles down his forehead once more. He feels his clothes starting to flatten against his skin.

‘Why we are not going up the top, Daddy?

‘We will darling…we…we will…’ he gasps through staggered breaths and further gulps of warm water. ‘Daddy just needs a minute, that’s all.’

‘I wanna go up the top though’ she replies, a look of annoyance creeping over her face.

‘Look!’ he begins in a burst of mini temper – inspired in large part due to the strain and exhaustion creeping up and down his spine –before reeling it back in again. ‘Look sweetheart, we will go up the top. Let’s just see this room first. Look this used to be a bedroom a long time ago. And see that over there…’

He nods towards a large, deep hole carved into the wall. His daughter looks across.

‘…that used to be the fireplace. Imagine having a fireplace in your bedroom eh…’ he takes another gulp of water.

‘Yeah’ she smiles. ‘Can I go and see it?’

‘Of course you can.’ he arches his back slightly as shards of strain continue to cascade down it. He follows his daughter’s route as she scampers towards the long-since-derelict fireplace. She bursts into laughter as she stands in the indent, perfectly fitting in the space with room to spare.

‘Look Daddy’ she laughs. He smiles.

‘Here, darling, stay there for a second. Let me get a picture’ he says as he reaches into his pocket for his phone.

 

‘Here Dad, let’s stop here for a bit.’

‘Well, if you insist…’ the old man mumbles barely audibly, as he limps into what was once the castle’s ‘Grand Hall’. He can feel the cramp suffocating each leg, gripping hold like a vice. His back burning, agony searing through its lower regions. ‘Bloody hell’ he exclaims.

‘What is it?’ his daughter places a hand on her Dad’s back.

‘It’s a lot…it’s a lot bloody harder to climb than I remember anyway. That’s…for sure.’

‘We don’t need to go to the top Dad, you know that right. Even this far is damn impressive.’

‘No! We need to go to the top. I want to go the top.’

‘Ok, ok, but look there’s no point if…’

‘No! Listen, here, pass me that water…’

‘Charming.’

‘Please…’

She hands him the water from her backpack. He drinks. Thoroughly. A handful of drops of water spill down his chin as he almost drains the bottle.

‘Christ, I needed that.’

‘Yeah, I can tell. Thanks for leaving plenty of water for me aswell by the way’ replies his daughter as she takes the bottle from his outstretched hand. She wiggles it slightly, allowing the miniscule amount of liquid to splash about at the base of the bottle for dramatic emphasis.

‘Cheeky bugger. You always were’ he smiles in return.

‘So this is the Grand Hall then’ she says, wandering across the room towards an information board, the sound of her footsteps reverberating around the vast, hollow space.

‘It would appear to be, aye’ the old man casts his eye around as he wipes his forehead with his handkerchief, soaking the material with beads of sweat. He walks slowly toward the centre of the room.

‘Some size of a table that. And those chairs, they’re much bigger than I remember.’

‘They will be aye, given you were about a third of the size you are now when you were last here.’

‘Here Dad, take a seat here, I’ll get a photo of you.’

He sighs, shaking his head. Bloody daft, he thinks, as he wanders over towards his daughter and the chairs in question. Always wanting a photo, that one.

 

‘Jesus…christ’ gasps the man, each step now requiring a herculean effort to conquer. The daughter in his arms, the bag on his back, the steepness of the dark, ancient spiral staircase all contributing to the near-insurmountable task thrust upon him. ‘You’re…you’re…some…some size these days. Darling.’

‘Jesus christ!’ she declares, before adding rather more timidly, ‘…can I say that…..?’

‘Say…what…?’

‘Jesus Christ. Can I say that Daddy?’

‘Well…you…you just have.’ The heat, the strain now threatening to cripple his back. How many more bloody stairs are there!?

‘But can I say that? It’s not a bad word?’

‘No darling….no…that’s ok…it’s not that bad a word no…’

‘Oh.Ok.’ she smiles down at him from her makeshift perch only inches from his face.

‘I mean…it’s…not as if…as if you said the other…bad…words…’

‘Like what, Daddy?’

‘No…it doesn’t matter…forget it…sweetheart….’

‘Oh. Ok.’

‘Ok…’

‘And Daddy. Daddy?’

‘Yes…my darling…’

‘Can I say fuc…

 

‘Dad! Seriously! We can go back down. You’ll have a bloody heart attack at this rate!’

‘Don’t…be…don’t be…bloody…och just shut up’ the old man grumbles from the stair above his daughter.

‘Dad, stop being so bloody stubborn! It’s steep, it’s dark, and it’s treacherous even for a young person! I’m struggling as it is…’ she felt a twinge in her lower back as the gradient started to exert its influence over proceedings, ‘…just, turn back around…’

‘Stubborn!? Coming from you? That’s…that’s rich….that is’ his walking stick wobbled slightly as he felt his legs twinge beneath him. No. No giving up now. Not a chance.

‘Jesus christ…’

‘Eh?’

‘Nothing…’

‘What…was that…you muttered there?’

‘Nothing Dad…’

‘Oh…ok…because it sounded…sounded a lot like…jesus christ…to me…’

‘Well your hearing must be playing tricks on you then’ the flash of sarcasm serving as a perfect indicator to her own level of struggle as no end appeared to be in sight for this eternally spiralling staircase.

‘No, that’s…about….the only…thing…the only thing I’ve still…got that…that works.’

‘Well then let’s just turn back and go back down! We can do this another time!!’

‘No!’

‘Why not?’

‘Because…because there won’t be…there won’t be another time…will there? There’s…never…never enough time. You’ve got your own…your own life. And I’ve got mine. It’s natural. But time. There’s barely ever…barely ever time. So I’m…making time.’

‘Ok.’

‘Eh?’

‘I said ok…Dad.’ her head dropped slightly, the words of her father burrowing into her veins.

‘Will this…ah!…will this…bloody staircase never bloody end…’

She heard voices approaching, slowly edging down the stairs above them. Brilliant. That was all they needed. Too far to back up down the stairs and no idea how far they still had left to climb. ‘Hold on Dad…there’s folk coming down the stairs…’

‘Eh? What’s that you’re saying?’

‘I said…I said there’s people coming DOWN THE STAIRS…’

‘Oh for fu…’

 

‘Finally! Deary me…’ the man gasps as he steps out from the staircase and onto the rooftop.

‘Jesus christ…’

‘Darling! Stop that now…’

‘Ok Daddy…’ a cheeky grin spreads across her face as the man lowers her down from his arms.

The man looks up, feeling the heat prickle against his face. The blue skies, now completely devoid of cloud cover. The slightest of breezes gently caresses his face, efficiently arriving in a blissful cascade. He surveys the rooftop. No one there but the two of them. Bliss.

‘Daddy, Daddy, look…’

She reaches out for his hand and points across to, what was likely once used as, a spyhole in the wall along the rooftop’s perimeter. He takes her hand, grasping it tightly, and slowly walks over to the wall. His daughter crouches down and looks through the small spyhole, the base of the castle and the grounds surrounding it neatly condensing into her vision.

‘Look Daddy, look. The dragon’s house. Down there. The dragon’s house.’

‘That’s right darling yeah’ he crouches down alongside her and gazes through the spyhole. Or the hole used for arches. Or whatever it was, he wasn’t entirely sure. The hole in the ground stares back at him from several dozen feet below. The grass covering it glistens in the sun, a slight mirage of heat waves back and forth close to it. ‘That’s really cool, seeing it from up here eh?’

‘Yeahhh. Really cool.’

He turns his head only fractionally to stare at his daughter. He sees the wonder, the inspiration, the happiness filling each pore of her skin, each portion of her gaze. He feels pride. Love. Even his own portion of happiness. Something even resembling contentment. He gently runs his hand down her hair.

‘And Daddy…’

‘Yeah darling?’

‘Daddy? What can we do now?’

‘Sorry darling?’

‘What can we do now Daddy?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean what can we do now Daddy?’

‘Now? We’ve only just got up here! Just stay up here for a bit and then we can…’

‘No, I want to do something else now Daddy.’

‘Listen…’

‘Want to do something else now…’

‘Listen. We will do, ok. Just wait a minute. There’s no need to rush all the time, sweetheart. It’s not bad to slow down every now and again ok? We don’t always have to be constantly doing something else. We have plenty of time. I’ll be old soon enough, we all will be, so let’s just enjoy just now for a bit longer and take our time. Ok?’

‘Ok Daddy…’

‘Thank you.’

‘Daddy…’

‘What darling?’

‘Can we go now?’

He sighs.

‘Ok. Fine. Let’s go back down then sweetheart.’

He raises himself up from the ground, feeling the muscles flex in his legs. This is swiftly followed by a dart of pain stabbing into his spine. Well at least it was worth it, he thinks, all 30 seconds or so we’ve spent up here. At least I managed to keep her interested for that long at least. That’s an achievement I suppose.

He takes one last look at the calm, sun-kissed surrounding landscape, soaking in the weather, before scooping her into his arms once more. As they approach the top of the narrow staircase again he steels himself for the steep descent into the darkness.

‘Daddy…’

‘Yep darling, what is it…’ the words sound grated, slightly annoyed even, as he struggles to readjust her position against his shoulder.

‘I love seeing castles with you Daddy.’

He halts suddenly, drawing his foot back from the first step down. The impact of the words, their unexpected arrival, staying his movement briefly. He feels a small surge of emotion. His eyelids tingle with the threat of tears. He sniffs before moving his head slightly and kissing his daughter on her forehead.

‘I love it too, sweetheart.’

She smiles.

‘Um Daddy…’

‘Yes darling?’ he tightens his grip of her.

‘What are we going to do now?

He laughs to himself and kisses his daughter on the forehead again.

‘I don’t know, my girl’ he says as he takes his first cautious step into the darkness of the stairwell, ‘let’s see when we get to the bottom of these stairs eh. We can anything you want, darling. We’ve got plenty of time.’

 

‘Finally! Deary me…’

The woman looks over at her Dad as they struggle out onto the rooftop. He tries to straighten himself, clearly suffering after the monumental hike up the stairs.

‘You ok, Dad?’

He raises an arm in acknowledgement, words or the ability to vocalise evading him for the time being.

‘Sure?’

He nods, leaning his arm against the wall.

Because I’m bloody well not, she thinks, feeling the heat envelope her flesh. She looks up at the sky clouding over. A gloom hangs over the castle and the surrounding area. Jesus, what a climb that was.

‘Any water left?’ she looks at her Dad as he reaches out.

‘Barely. Someone drank it all remember.’

‘Wheesht you.’ He accepts the water from her and guzzles the last few droplets from the bottle.

‘Happy now?’ she asks.

‘With the water? No, there was hardly any bloody left.’

‘Jesus christ. Not the water. Happy that you’ve made it to the top. That we’ve made it up here.’

‘Eh? Aye. Yes. I am. Yes.’

‘Good.’

‘Just give me a minute, that’s all. I can’t remember there being that many stairs the last time we were here. They must have added some more in.’

‘Yeah Dad, that sounds plausible. Adding in stairs to an eight hundred year old ruin of a castle sounds exactly right.’

‘Cheeky bugger’ he smiles before breaking into a cough.

‘Yeah yeah, of course.’ She looks around at the fairly narrow rooftop. Just the two of them. In fact she hadn’t seen anyone else at the castle all day. The weather might have something to do with that, she thinks. Her gaze rests on a section of the wall to the far side of the roof, close to the entrance to the opposite stairwell. She slowly walks over, almost in a trance. Feeling strangely halfway between knowing what she was walking towards and not knowing. A spyhole. Or a hole for archers to utilise against the enemy. Whatever it was. She remembers it. Or at least she thinks she does.

‘Dad…’

‘Aye?’

‘This thing…this spyhole…’

‘Eh?’ he slowly walks towards her.

‘I said this spyhole thing here, in the wall…’

‘Ah.’

‘Do you remember it? Something about it just…’

‘Dragons.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Dragons.’

‘Yeah I thought that’s what you said but I thought you’d taken a funny turn or something.’

‘Look through it. You cheeky bugger.’

‘Through what?’

‘Through the spyhole. Look through it.’

‘Well…’

‘Trust me. Have a look.’

She shrugs and lowers herself down. She feels her ankles tense slightly as she lowers herself further. She closes one eye and stares through the slit in the stone. The base of the castle emerges before her. And the grassy knolls surrounding the castle. And…yes, dragons, yes. Dragons. The hole. The…what was it…the dragon’s lair. No, house. Yes. The dragon’s house. She turns to look up at her Dad, by now standing next to her.

‘Dragons’ she said quietly.

‘That’s right’

‘The dragon’s house.’

‘Yep.’ His expression resting somewhere between smugness and sentimentality. She turns back to look through the gap in the stone. ‘You used to love going to see castles.’

‘Yeah?’

‘You did. Discovering them, making up stories, running around them.’

‘Well, I still do Dad, I…’

‘Don’t be silly’ he laughs, ‘there’s no point in fibbing. I knew you would get bored of it eventually. It’s not exactly a widespread hobby or interest is it. But you did like doing it, once. Like I say, I always knew you would get bored of it eventually, sooner rather than later. But, while it lasted, it was fun. It was…well, it was our thing. Me and you. With everything else that was going on in both our lives, and as busy and hectic as they always were, it was always our thing. It always was. You know?’

She feels her Dad’s hand gently caress her shoulder. Despite a slight tremble, there’s strength there, a protection. She feels her eyes begin to well slightly. She continues to stare out through the spyhole in the castle wall. Staring down at the ‘dragon’s house’, unable to turn and face her Dad for fear of allowing nostalgia or sentiment to take an irrational hold of events.

‘I know…’ she croaks, her voice quivering slightly. ‘I know.’

She hears an array of sniffs and throat clearings from behind her. She raises her own hand and grasps her Dad’s as it begins to rise from her shoulder. She holds it, firmly, struggling to contain her emotions.

‘Anyway,’ the old man says from behind her, his voice fragile, ‘we’d better make a move. It looks like it’s going to come on a pelt of rain anytime soon.’

‘No, Dad. It’s fine. Let’s just stay for a bit. It’s fine.’

She smiles and turns, looking up at him. His withered, wrinkled face shining with the sting of tears. His mouth clenched shut in a desperate bid to stem the flow. A smile forces its way through the struggle.

But for the two of them, father and daughter, the castle sits silent. Ancient. Impenetrable. Its shadow expanding ever-so gradually as the day begins its long, slow fade into the dark of evening.