Ill Winds was published in Mslexia issue 78 Jun/Jul/Aug 2018, selected by author and judge Liz Jensen for short stories on the theme of weather…
|My lord, I do not know,
But truly I do fear it.
Storm Ophelia has blown Fatima’s knickers in a twist. We meet on our doorsteps most mornings after dropping the kids at school: our transition time from soporific to manic-with-a-hundred-things-to-do. We share a red-brick building with half-moon windows above adjacent front doors.
When Fats first moved in she bought me a plate of potato fritters. ‘We’re two halves of the same moon,’ she said, ‘only semi-detached.’ She announced this before she said her name or said my tiled hall floor would look better carpeted. Two hundred moons later we’re still two halves.
An empty crisp packet crackles against Fats’ gate. She’s blind to rubbish. Her front garden is an example of nature’s determination. Why weed when there are no prospective in-laws to impress? Her eldest are married and it’ll be years before preparations begin for the youngest. Then Fats will gouge between the paving slabs and polish the windows so shaking-kneed beaus can admire their reflections before they knock.
‘Did you see it?’ says Fats. ‘Yesterday’s sky?’
‘Kind of freaky,’ I say.
‘Did you think the world would end? I thought the world would end. Did you pray?’
‘I don’t pray, Fats. No god, remember?’
‘I don’t mind which god you get, but everybody needs one.’
The sun anoints her. I stand chilled in her shadow. Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam.
‘Allah’s punishing us for our sins,’ she says. Us and Our.
‘I wish I sinned more,’ I say. ‘Though I did eat a packet of chocolate brownies for breakfast last Thursday.’ I don’t say why. That my father is dying of emphysema. How he’s been estranged for fifteen years. That when I got the news I felt so empty I had to fill myself up.
Fats loves to chat but when it’s my turn to speak she doesn’t listen. It’s her moment to think of what she’ll say next. She says, ‘What you cooking tonight?’
‘I’d better go, Fats. I’ll be late for work.’
It starts to rain. I must unblock the gutter.
I clean for Mrs Pinkleton on the leafy side of town. The rain cascades in silver showers and while I shrivel Mercedes glisten beneath golden haloes.
‘Did you see it?’ says Mrs P. ‘Storm Ophelia.’
‘Why do freaks of nature always have to be female?’
I sound aggressive. Mrs P is gentle.
‘At least Ophelia has class, Alice. Shakespeare you know.’ She tells me things like I don’t know. Assumes Fritz her Chihuahua has a superior IQ. ‘Poor Fritz howled at the sun,’ she says. ‘I was afraid he’d turn into a werewolf.’
I wonder if she’s talking about the same Fritz. Fritz who wears spangled jackets possibly fashioned from Liberace’s hand-me-downs. Mrs P departs for yoga. Fritz howls. Not because the sun is red or he’s growing fangs, but because he misses his devoted owner.
‘Don’t worry, Fritzy, she’ll be back soon.’ I sit him like a teapot on the worktop. He sees how delicately I hand-wash the sequinned waistcoat he wore to Mimi-Poodle’s birthday. Fritz keeps howling. ‘Want me to scrub it so hard you never have to wear it again?’
‘Then he bit me,’ I say.
My kids, Joey and Charlie, look up from fishfingers and peas.
‘Maybe he mistook you for mutton,’ says Charlie.
‘I reckon Fritz was a croc in his last life,’ says Joey.
‘Or he just loves sequins,’ I say. ‘You reckon dogs can be gay, Joey?’
‘Mum!’ My innocent little Joey.
‘You’re s’posed to be giving him sex-ed,’ says Charlie. ‘Not him you. Though don’t waste your breath. I’ve told him everything.’
‘Charlie!’ Joey throws peas. Charlie ducks. The peas hit the floor. If I’d done that my father would have made me pick them up and eat them. He loved peas more than he loved me.
‘Grandad’s dying,’ I say.
‘I thought he was dead already,’ says Joey.
‘Your other grandad. My dad.’
Charlie scrapes his chair over the bare boards so they wheeze.
‘Are you sad, Mum?’ says Joey.
‘I am.’ Sad that my father has no time to say he’s sorry.
‘You know that weird sky yesterday,’ says Joey. ‘Kids at school say we’re all doomed.’
‘It was only sand, Joe.’ I take his hand. ‘Sand blowing in from the Sahara. Scooping up ash from Portuguese wild fires.’
‘Caused by global warming,’ says Charlie. ‘And you’re adding to it, Mum. Feeding us fish from an ever-depleting ocean. Don’t you read the news?’ He swirls from the kitchen; storms the stairs; slams his door.
Storm Charlie keeps me awake at night. Some days I do what I know I shouldn’t —check his laptop history. It’s how I know he’s a sinner. Single-handedly Charlie could have turned the sun red. Who wouldn’t blush at what he’s ogling? He no longer comes straight home from school. Maybe he has his own sweet Ophelia waiting for him, reclining in the woods, reciting riddles about a maiden’s lost virginity.
Before I go to his room to make amends I count to fifteen—one for every year since he came screaming into my arms. He was protesting even then. One for every year I’ve not spoken to my father. Joey and I creep up the stairs like snowflakes, ready to melt at Charlie’s hot breath. Behind his door I hear my tormented first-born blowing a gale. There’s a new sign above the handle. Charlie has a flair for revolution. Mostly the signs say: ‘LEAVE ME ALONE’, ‘WHAT DO YOU KNOW?’, ‘WHAT DO YOU CARE?’
‘This one,’ I whisper to Joe, ‘should read TEMPEST WITHIN.’ Up close I see it’s a drawing.
‘Hey, Charlie,’ I say. ‘The guy on your sign looks like Dale. You know—Dale that fitted my tyres. You’d like him. He’s a vegan. Drinks almond milk. Asked me to fetch him some while he was spinning rubber.’
Charlie flings the door wide; thunders down the stairs and out the front door in a deluge of swear words. I hope Fatima doesn’t hear him. Our interconnecting walls are thin.
‘It’s an orc, Mum,’ says Joey pointing to the sign.
‘Dale’s an orc,’ I say. I look closer. The orc-could-be-Dale is vomiting bile or possibly turmeric almond milk and in it is a message written minutely in orange pen like tiny diced-up carrots. ‘Fetch my glasses, Joey, will you?’
‘They’re on your head, Mum.’
I lean in close.
‘Charlie knew you’d do that,’ says Joey. ‘He thinks you don’t respect his space.’
I read, Mum, if you’re reading this you’re intruding. 2 words: ‘PRIVACY AND RESPECT’. Out of respect, I do not say that’s three.
The next morning it pours. Fats and I chat, half-cradled by our doorways beneath our singular half-moons. Together but apart.
‘Taza hates the rain,’ she says. ‘It makes her hair frizz.’
Taza is seven, Fats’ youngest. When I was seven I loved the rain. I’d sit in my father’s vegetable patch and extend my tongue like a chameleon. Catch raindrops like diamond flies. When I felt invisible I’d eat my father’s peas straight from their pods.
‘Fats,’ I say, ‘when I was a girl my father said there was a blackbird eating all the peas. So I got in there first—stole those little beads of sweetness before that blackbird had a chance. I stole them in the rain. I stole them in the sun. I arched my back beneath un-potted rainbows and tossed them into my composting mouth. I stole them even when nettles stung my legs. But I never did see that thieving bird. Maybe it was me: black hair, black knees, black encrusted fingernails, black hole mouth. Father only liked birds when they were drowned in gravy.’
‘I’m flapping like a bird every night,’ says Fats. ‘For eight years Allah’s scalded my sins. Flushes so hot you could fry poppadoms between my breasts.’
It’s unusual for Fatima to say anything vaguely sexual. When she fell pregnant with Taza age forty-three she said, ‘I’m mortified, Alice. Now everyone will know… you know.’
‘That you had sex, Fats?’
‘I knew I shouldn’t have told you.’
‘I’m lonely,’ says Fats now. ‘Taza goes to Saaf’s every day after school.’
Saaf is Fats’ eldest. She lives in the street parallel to ours.
Fats says, ‘If there’s one thing I remember from maths it’s that parallel lines never meet.’
Saaf has two small kids. The devout little family visits Fats daily.
‘I’m still lonely,’ says Fats. ‘Saaf’s like her dad. Not really a talker. The kids just wanna watch telly.’
‘Maybe you should pray,’ I say. I do not say what to pray for in the hope that she might pray for me. Pray my father will say he’s sorry. Or that I’ll be able to forgive him.
‘I’ll pray to make it stop raining,’ she says.
We wait for a miracle.
The clouds remind me of my father, barricaded in his chair behind stinking smoke that belched from his pipe. Even then I knew it was his way of separating himself from me.
‘The only time I ever touched my father, Fats,’ I say, ‘is when I combed his hair. Not every day, just after his accident.’
‘Your father’s had an accident?’ Fats is keen on stories of doom.
‘Not now,’ I say. ‘When I was a kid.’ Fats loses interest. ‘He banged his head on the rusting chassis of our Triumph Herald. It was my fault. I saw his Clarkes’ slip-ons sticking out from under the car and while he couldn’t see me I dared to tell him that the odour from the car’s leather seats made me want to vomit. He was tying the exhaust back on with wire. I startled him and he whacked his head—grew a lump that bled if he snagged it when he was combing his hair. It was my duty to balance on a bucket and de-dandruff him with care.’
Fats is texting. I’ll save the rest of the story for Mrs P. She’ll understand when I say Father’s lump was exactly where the imaginary string is that holds up our crowns when we stand in tadasana. I once told Chloe my yoga teacher this and she said it was unhealthy to make such connections. Too late. It’s welded better than a Triumphant Herald exhaust.
The post lady arrives. Hands me an envelope and I know from the postmark, from the wavering script, what news is locked inside. It’s like having a secret forced upon me. I want to give it back. The rain stops and just for a flicker I’m bathed in sunlight. Fats’ prayer has worked. Maybe I do need a god. A god to grant me a thousand wishes. I’d wish I was a chameleon; a fairytale princess on a hundred silken mattresses; a bird in a cloak of black feathers. I’d wish I was naked in a patch of nettles. I’d wish I never picked peas.’
Fats says, ‘Saaf only visits cos she’s nowhere else to go.’
‘She loves you,’ I say.
Fats is frightened like me. The weight of her loneliness sits heavy on her shoulders, weighing her down so that every day she grows wider and shorter, sagging in her fake-silk salwar kameez, her backbone crumbling.
Maybe she sees I am far away.
‘I must go,’ she says. ‘Go and repent for the red sky.’
‘I’ll pray too,’ I say.
‘You’ve found a god?!’
The sitting-room curtains are closed from last night, keeping me invisible. I offer the unopened letter to the outstretched hands of a stone Buddha and light a ring of candles. I sit cross-legged on my yoga mat, nauseated by the sickly vanilla-scented glow. Mala beads tremble in my fingers. I shut the world out and pray.
I pray my father will find his peace.
I pray Storm Ophelia was just a storm: a whirl of red sand blown from the Sahara on ill-fated winds. That the winds were just winds and not the wrath of god. That Ophelia wasn’t sent as a punishment for mine, Fatima’s or Charlie’s sins; for the sins of the world and eating fishfingers.
Tucked next to me is a bottle of Merlot. I watch the red sky decant in my glass. It smells like the leaves my father and I tossed on to bonfires—smouldering between us so even though we were close we could not see each other.
Privacy and respect.
I open the letter. My father is dead. No apology. Just gone.
In the kitchen the peas from last night are still on the floor. On the back of the letter, with invisible fingers, I trace Bye, Dad. Then I set it alight, open the window and watch the black-ash feathers fly. I lie among the peas, close my eyes and imagine I am flying with him. Father and daughter—together but apart.