by Sandra Arnold
Mohammed’s thick black curls against the dry summer grass. His black eyes, burning. ‘My mother’s coming all the way to Paris from Jeddah to see her new grand-daughter.’
‘What! In this tiny flat?’
‘Don’t worry, she can speak French fluently. She’ll love you as much as I do, I promise.’
‘Marrying a…a…. native in the first place!’
‘He’s an Arab, mum.’
‘They’re all the same those… coloured people. Why couldn’t you pick someone normal. Even a Frenchman would have done, if it had to be a foreigner.’
‘I thought he was exciting.’
‘Exciting? Oh yes, a midnight escape from Paris with a nine month old baby must have been exhilarating.’
‘I was terrified…when we stopped at the border I breastfed Mirimar to embarrass the guard into letting us pass.’
‘I’m not saying you didn’t show initiative under the circumstances.’
‘It was his mother’s fault. She hated me. If I hadn’t found out what the old bag was up to they’d have had Mirimar back in Saudi faster than you could say magic carpet.’
‘Yes, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
‘What you need now is a proper job. That video shop! Your poor father would turn in his grave… and you need a proper husband. By the way, did I tell you Kevin’s coming down from Palmerston next weekend? He finally came to his senses and divorced that little trollope.’
Muriel shifted onto her knees and peered over the edge at the miniature figures streaming across the fairground. Her stomach flipped and she squeezed her eyes shut again. For the first time in months she cried for her beautiful home – her own rooms transported to and fitted neatly inside Mohammed’s flat. ‘A house within a house!’ her friends had cried in amazement. Shortly afterwards her home had begun an erratic pattern of spontaneous combustion. It was safe enough to live in during its quiet moments though visitors stayed outside in Mohammed’s area once they’d had the disquieting experience of seeing little tongues of fire lick the sides of the chairs in which they sat. After each outbreak a small part of the interior was destroyed, though the outside structure remained untouched. Then the fires broke out more frequently and the quiet periods became fewer and fewer. She learned to detect the faint rumblings that gave warning another incineration was about to occur and she stayed away until things settled down. But Mohammed wouldn’t be told. He insisted on entering the room even when all the furniture was ablaze, so it didn’t surprise her when the room reacted by hurling missiles at him. After that, though the ash was cold, the malevolence in the room was unmistakable. Next time it burned she knew the whole structure would collapse. When it was all over she crept back to look and wept at the heap of black ash. All that remained was to sweep it up.
She stopped weeping, dried her eyes with her hair and looked around for a phone box. It wobbled in the corner as though she were squinting through a heat haze. So, even Flanilla? Now that was a revelation. Off to Otago before Muriel had left school, then it was Europe for a couple of years before Bruce came on the scene. She tried to remember Flanilla as a schoolgirl. Captain of the hockey team. President of the Debating Society. Every essay handed in on time. How on earth had she been able to hide it? Had Mum known? She almost choked at the thought. Dad? A thought so impossible that it had never even occurred to her before began to take shape. Those weekend fishing trips. The flowers, the chocolates, the perfume. Her head was beginning to hurt. She looked at the white card Flanilla had given her. There was a number scribbled on it in black felt pen. She pulled herself up and staggered over to the phone box. She rang the number and Flanilla’s voice chirped, ‘Hi!’
‘I made it!’
The voice at the other end was business-like. ‘I knew you would! Right. Now behind the phone box you’ll find a lift. Take the lift down to the ground floor. There’ll be a train waiting.’
She followed Flanilla’s instructions and when the lift door opened onto the ground floor there was a little red train with a smiling face painted on the front of the engine. Flanilla and the two children were already seated in an open carriage. Muriel climbed in and the little red engine slowly moved off up the hill, piping, ‘I think I can, I think I can…’
‘I don’t believe this!’ Muriel said.
Flanilla’s face was serene.
‘Did Dad… I mean was he…?’
Flanilla nodded. ‘Oh yes. Very much so. He and Mum played this game. She knew and he knew she knew etc. Nothing was ever said, but she found out soon after they were married. She encouraged him to take up fishing so he’d have an excuse to go away every now and then. After those weekends he’d come home and shower her with gifts, he was so grateful. And of course it meant the subject never actually had to be brought out into the open, the neighbours never got to know and so forth. He’d seen signs of it in me fairly early on. It was never that strong in me though. Apparently it often skips a generation – like he inherited it from his grandmother. When he first found out about me he cried and said things like he should never have had children, it wasn’t fair that they should have to suffer the way he had and so on. But then he realized it wasn’t compulsive for me the way it was for him. He told me never to have children then it would die out. It never occurred to him that you could be like that too, so he didn’t notice the signs. I did though. And anyway I thought differently about it, that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of, even though I still believe it shouldn’t be public knowledge.’
She paused. ‘I used to fantasise about the three of us going off together, into the night sky, looking down on a miniature world.’ She laughed. ‘That would never have happened of course and I was glad that he died before he found out about you. He hated himself for being the way he was even though there was no way he could give it up. It was the way he was brought up, to regard it as a curse, not a gift. His mother used to tell him he’d end up in the loony bin like his grandmother, kept in a straitjacket and tied to the ground.’
Muriel could hardly take all this in. ‘Mum knew?’
‘She’s not stupid! But she hoped that if we went off to Europe for a year or two… she thought that’d worked for me and I couldn’t bear to tell her that was nothing to do with it and in any case it was different for you.’
The train slowed down at the next station where more queues were waiting. ‘This bit’ll just last a second or two,’ whispered Flanilla, dislodging a piece of toffee apple from Mirimar’s hair. ‘Stay calm.’ Muriel lifted Blair onto her knee to disguise the fact that she had no clothes on, but he was wet and she hastily dumped him back on his mother. A few businessmen in grey striped suits at the front of the queue narrowed their eyes and nudged each other.
She couldn’t stand it. Ignoring Flanilla’s warning to stick it out she slid off the train before it gathered speed and bolted to the nearest loo. She didn’t see the sign until she almost bowled over a man peeing. Apologising profusely she ran out and found the Ladies.
She couldn’t believe her luck! A pink floral dress was hanging on a peg with a pair of white sandals tucked neatly underneath. ‘Not my style, but beggars can’t be choosers!’ She pulled the dress over her head and slipped the sandals on her feet. There were no knickers with the outfit, but no one would be any the wiser. There was one loo vacant, but when she pushed open the door she found only a rusty can inside. She shrugged her shoulders and hoisted her dress up. There was no lock on the door, so she tried to hold it closed with one hand as she lowered herself over the can. The door burst open and the man she had surprised in the Gents leaned inside. ‘The name’s Trev.’ He sucked the end of his cigarette and blew a smoke ring towards her.
‘Bugger off!’ she shouted, urine spraying her foot.
‘I’m paying you back for spying on me.’
‘That was an accident! I didn’t know you were there.’
‘You look better without your clothes on.’
‘Fuck off!’ she yelled, ‘go tie a knot in it!’
His smirk went limp. ‘You’re no lady!’ and he threw his cigarette in her face before sloping off.
She mopped her foot with a paper towel before running out to the washbasins. Scrabbling in the rubbish bin she found a discarded comb and an old tube of lipstick. ‘Pink Lady,’ she read aloud and slashed the lipstick across her mouth. She checked her reflection from all angles in the cracked mirror on the wall and satisfied that now she could blend into the crowd, she ventured out into the sunlight to look for her family.
She searched the rifle ranges and toffee apple stalls and peered into the Big Dipper and Dodgem Cars. The crowds of laughing, jostling people were so dense now that she didn’t know where to start. At least it was gratifying that no one stared at her. She must look exactly like everybody else, she reflected, pleased. She wandered over to the farmyard section and watched the little girls with long black hair patting the calves and lambs, but not one of them was Mirimar. She told herself that Mirimar would be perfectly safe with Flanilla then leaned her head on the fence and closed her eyes.
When she looked up again she saw that the sky was darkening. On the edge of the park, under the willow trees by the river stood a row of caravans where the fairground folk lived. The vehicles were all in darkness except for one, a dilapidated campervan with peeling green paint. She floated off the ground and drifted over to the window. A little boy peeing behind a tree saw her pass by and stood staring, open-mouthed, but she was too tired to worry about it. She landed outside the campervan window and stood on tiptoe to peer inside. A man with thick black hair and big sad eyes was standing by the window, weeping. Muriel tapped on the window. He jumped in surprise and stared out into the night until his eyes focused on her face. He opened the window.
Muriel’s breath caught in her chest. ‘I’m afraid I’m lost.’
The man blew his nose on his hanky. ‘The fairground folk are having a feast,’ he said. ‘The women have been preparing food all day long. You’re welcome to join us if you wish.’ He vanished from the window and re‑appeared at the top of the caravan steps. ‘I’m Ismael and you’re…?’
They shook hands and Muriel gazed into his coal-black eyes and realized she could do with something to eat.
Her mother’s voice: ‘Never take food from a stranger!’
‘A feast is exactly what I need!’ said Muriel.
Ismael grasped her elbow and led her across the dark paddock. At the far end she could just make out an enormous marquee.
‘There are potholes,’ he warned. ‘Be careful.’
She stumbled and a sharp pain seared through her ankle. He caught her in his arms. He smelled of soap and dry summer grass. Muriel felt nauseous with the pain in her foot, but decided this was not the moment to let him know she could fly. She hobbled the rest of the way with Ismael supporting her in his strong arms.
As they approached the marquee she heard laughter and the clinking of wine glasses and the clatter of cutlery on china. Someone threw back the tent flap and yellow light splashed into the night. Ismael stood back to let her go first. Perfect manners, she thought, staring at the long trestle tables piled high with plates of food. Her mouth watered.
‘Help yourself to anything you fancy,’ Ismael whispered.
Muriel looked closely at the rows of plates and realised they were all filled with slices of bread and marmalade. Ismael turned away to talk to someone else and she hobbled up to the top of the marquee to find a plate, but there were none left and the food was rapidly running out.
She slipped out of a side door into the dark paddock. The fairground was silent now and the only light came from the cracks around the door of the marquee. The night air was cool on her face and without even thinking, she jumped high and flew the length of the park, parallel to the city street, making sure she kept well away from the street lamps.
Mohammed’s mother hiding in the garden in the shadows of the cypress tree: ‘…oohhh my poor son!’
She looked down and saw Ismael standing in the doorway of the video shop. Pleased, she floated down behind a wall and walked towards him to apologise for leaving so abruptly. Before she could speak he handed her a brown paper packet. ‘I’m going upstairs to hire a video,’ he said. ‘I’ve brought you something to eat while you wait for me.’ She opened the packet and found a marmalade sandwich. As soon as Ismael went upstairs she dropped the packet in a nearby rubbish bin and huddled in a corner of the shop doorway to keep warm. It stank of stale urine. The shop window was crammed with fluorescent masks, false teeth and wigs. Boxes of plastic eyeballs goggled sightlessly.
Muriel turned away, trembling, only just in time to see an iron grid slowly descending over the doorway. She ducked under it and stood on the outside watching it silently slide to the ground. The shop window flashed a couple of times and then the lights went out and the glass partition slid back. The masks began to glow. A small crowd appeared out of nowhere, arguing and jabbering as hands reached out to snatch up the masks. Muriel turned her head to familiarise herself with escape routes and saw a young woman standing behind her. She was holding a whimpering baby. ‘My milk has dried up,’ she said.
Muriel looked back at the crowd. People were trying on the masks and skipping about. Fear seeped out of her pores and lay cold and wet on the surface of her skin. When she turned round again the woman had vanished as though someone had switched off a light. In her place stood Ismael holding out a video. ‘I have to review it, you see,’ he said.
‘Oh, you do reviews?’ Muriel whispered, craning her neck to watch the masked merry-makers building an enormous pile of dried twigs and branches. ‘I bet you get lots of fan mail!’
‘Nope,’ said Ismael. ‘The opposite.’
‘Fart mail?’ she ventured.
Ismael frowned. ‘That’s not ladylike!’ He touched her cheek. ‘We could have an affair. We could do everything together.’
‘Such as?’ asked Muriel, her attention fixed on a man in an ass’s mask approaching the pile with a blazing branch. He hurled it into the centre. As the tinder-dry wood ignited the dancers roared their approval. The flames burst into the night scattering showers of hot sparks over those who stood too close. Muriel shrank back against the iron grid.
Ismael coughed politely. ‘Well, we could donate blood together, for example. That’s really intimate.’
The shrieking revellers parted for an instant and Muriel saw the woman with the baby standing alone at the edge of the fire. She was trying to push her nipple into the infant’ mouth. It twisted its head from side to side.
‘Have you got children?’ Muriel shouted above the din.
‘I had a son,’ said Ismael.
‘What happened to him?’
Ismael reached behind the iron bar and clicked a lock. The grid rose up again and he gently pushed her back into the doorway. He covered his eyes with his hands and shuddered. ‘I can hardly say the words… even now. I found out he used to…’ He poked his head out the doorway and looked both ways to make sure no one was near enough to hear. ‘…fly.’ He paused to let Muriel absorb the impact of his words. ‘I’d suspected it for a long time, but I had to see it with my own eyes before I would believe it. So I followed him into the mountains one day. He was dressed in emerald green silk. I hung on to his feet as he soared into the sky,’ his voice cracked with grief. ‘But I wasn’t strong enough to hold him back.’
Razor-sharp spasms ripped through Muriel’s stomach. She doubled over, groaning and squatted down in a corner of the doorway.
‘Birth pangs?’ Ismael asked, mopping his eyes with his hanky.
‘Feels like it!’ said Muriel, panting.
He hastily shoved a newspaper beneath her flanks. She strained until she felt her body split in two. Then something warm and wet began to emerge. Tentatively she put a hand between her thighs and eased the newborn gently onto the newspaper. She looked down to see the fruit of her labour and saw she had given birth to… a duck egg.
As the afterbirth plopped out and she severed the umbilical cord with her teeth, Ismael crouched behind her, brushing his erect penis against her bare buttocks. She twisted her head backwards so she could see his face and saw dangling above her, just out of reach, the tip of a hangman’s noose. She sprang up, toppling Ismael arse over tip, gathered the egg in the folds of her dress, and flew away, high enough above the fire to avoid being singed, and away away away into the night.
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She is the author of A Distraction of Opposites, Tomorrow’s Empire and Sing no Sad Songs. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand, published in literary journals including Landfall, Sport and Takahe and anthologised in Social Alternatives, Dreadlocks and The Best New Zealand Fiction, amongst others. Her awards include the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency and the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. Her flash fiction won second place in the July 2016 The Short Story Flash500 Competition and the September 2016 Zero Flash Competition. She was long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier Competition, Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Competition and was a Notable Contender in the 2016 Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Flash Frontier, The Linnet’s Wings, Flashflood Journal, The Story Shack, Fewer than 500, Fictive Dream, Olentangy Review, Zero Fiction, We are a Website, North & South, Spontaneity, Spelk, The Baby Shoes Project, The Incubator, Firefly and The Airgonaut. She has been nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2017. Learn more about Sandra at http://authors.org.nz/author/sandraarnold.