Longlisted in WordswithJAM’s 2014 First Page competition
The only person to see Rahul and Sweetie that night was an elderly lady who passed away before she could communicate what she’d witnessed. She saw them coming across the field at the back of her house on what looked like one of the old boy Farrell’s horses. Rahul was sitting on the horse’s back in the normal way, although, dressed as he was in office shoes, he didn’t look much like a horseman. And how many horsemen do you see with faces and arms covered in brick dust? But Rahul’s appearance would have struck the old lady as a lot stranger if it weren’t for the sight of Sweetie, whose appearance really was odd. The child was riding the horse, too, but upside down. Which is to say she was straddling the animal’s belly in the same way that Rahul was straddling its back. It did not seem to be any effort to hold herself in place like this, nor did the horse appear at all distressed or burdened by the small, rucksack-wearing girl hanging from its underside. The horse jogged across the scrub of Farrell’s field to the short picket fence at the back of the old lady’s house. There, it stopped and snorted in the sneezy way that horses do. Neither of the visitors attempted to dismount from the horse’s back-stroke-belly. The rain had been coming down all evening, but it’d let up for now. Walk straight ahead out the old lady’s front door and you’d reach London; the wide field at the back faced north-east, into the vast skies of Essex. A little strip of blue light still gave out at the base of that field-side horizon, as though there really were a god and It had lifted the carpet to peep at the scene unfolding.
The elderly lady’s name was Esther Brim. She’d been fussing at her kitchen sink when, through the window, she saw an Indian gentleman appear out of the gloaming on horseback, along with what she thought for the life of her looked like a little white child hanging off the horse’s stomach. This was obviously a shocking and fearful sight for Mrs Brim because, quite apart from the upside-down child, she’d only ever known two Indian people, the Prasads, and they’d moved out to Colchester years ago. Her first thought was to run to her bedroom, lock the door and call her son, Duncan. But something held her there at the window. The initial feeling of terror passed almost immediately, giving way to something that, if you could have asked her, she would have described as more like a terrible combination of pity and resignation. The feeling grew the longer she looked at the pair on the horse. Even from her kitchen window, Mrs Brim could see nothing threatening in the man’s face. Like the upside-down child, he just sat there dumbly on the horse, like they weren’t sure what to do now they were here. The horse seemed happy enough grazing at the fence stumps.
Still wary, but drawn by this nameless sympathy for the mysterious man and his little upside-down passenger, Mrs Brim opened the kitchen door and stood on the step. In her nervousness she clutched the collars of her blouse together with one hand. The rain was picking up again now, enough to darken the man’s dust-whitened arms with teardrop-sized spots. The horse snorted and stepped about impatiently under the worsening weather. As its legs shifted, Mrs Brim caught a better look at the little girl. On one of her cheeks was a bruise as dark as a wallet. Her left eye was a fat purple plum, and her wrist on the opposite side was twisted outwards at a horrible angle.
“Oh,” said Mrs Brim, horrified. “Oh, my dear.”
The little girl’s face changed as she suddenly laughed. “Her dear!” The girl spoke in a scratchy American voice that sounded like it belonged to a woman thirty years older than she was. “Seems like I ain’t been nobody’s dear for a while, don’t it?” The child was six or seven years old at most. “Hello, lady? Fucking raining out here?”
At any other time, what she was witnessing would have made Mrs Brim slam the door and scream till somebody came. But tonight she saw herself stepping back from the doorstep and beckoning them in. Whatever fear she still felt, whatever confusion, it couldn’t dam the terrible pity that flooded her when the foul-mouthed, battered little girl finished speaking and, with childishness restored to her face, she reached out with the unbroken hand to pat the horse’s belly.
Mrs Brim edged away into the furthest corners of the kitchen as the visitors dismounted and approached (the girl slid off the horse like a drop of water). The man, stumbling and apparently only half-conscious, got as far as the stoop before slumping down there to rest, rain be damned. Between horse and house he’d produced a whiskey bottle from somewhere, and now he swigged from it as he slouched in his misery. The girl was livelier. She threw down her little rucksack and started hopping from foot to foot near the Aga, as if trying to warm herself. Her useless broken arm wiggled obscenely at the wrist as she danced about.
Without taking her eyes from them, Mrs Brim scooped up her big old mobile and rang Duncan twice, three times. No answer. She scratched at the scabby cap of an insect bite on her elbow. Then she reached for her diabetes tablets and swallowed a couple. It was a pointless thing to do, but somehow the act of taking medicine was reassuring. She’d been doing it a lot lately.
This injured child, this sorrowful man – they’d turned up here broken and lost, but apparently neither of them wanted anything from her. They seemed to perform one action at a time, with no ambition for its consequence. The man sat on the stoop, sighing and swigging. The girl hopped at the cooker. Events only progressed as Mrs Brim thought of them. The child’s broken wrist made horrible juicy clicking noises whenever she lifted it.
Mrs Brim bent down near to the girl, but not too near. “What are your names?” she said.
“Our names?” the girl replied, in the woman’s voice. “This feller here’s Rahul. He’s experiencing some severe psychological complications due to a wife in a collapsed building situation. As for me – Freddie said her name’s Sweetie. Least, that’s the name he heard them call her by in the mall. Sweetie. I am that, right?”
What did that mean? Whose voice was this? Was she possessed?
“Oh,” said Mrs Brim. “Oh.” She was old and spooked, but she was no fool. She thought she knew what was happening here. She knew what this meant. It was time.
“Are you here to – take me?” she said. “Am I – am I passing on?”
The girl doubled up and endured a minute of smoker’s cough. “What?” she said, when it was over.
“Am I dead?”
The girl turned her head and spat, but nothing came out. “Doubt it. You’re here talking to me, ain’t you?”
“Are you dead?”
“Fuck should I know? I just stepped out of a horse’s ass in a place I don’t know.”
None of this convinced Mrs Brim that this wasn’t the moment of her passing. She looked at the child. When she wasn’t speaking, she was beautiful. The awfulness of her condition – her torn dress, her crushed wrist, her bruised face. It was unbearable.
“Listen, my dear,” said Mrs Brim, not caring now who or what she was speaking to. “Did someone take you?”
The girl, or maybe it was her demon, shrugged off the question.
“Who hurt you? Talk to me. Who hurt you?”
The child lifted its tender face. In this light the bruise looked more green than black. “You asking who hurt me?” she said. “Or the kid?”
Mrs Brim left a message after the fourth call. She didn’t want to worry Duncan, she said, but she was feeling a bit funny so she wondered if he could call in. There was nothing to worry about, she said, but if he could call in, if he had time, that might be nice. Then, without actually laying a finger on the man, she gently encouraged Rahul to the sofa, where he sat and stared at his dust-sleeved hands. He’d do that for a while, then bring his hands to his face, choke back a single sob, pick up the bottle, take a glug, and then go back to staring at his hands. There was a pattern to it. If Mrs Brim’s attention hadn’t been so consumed by the child, she might have noticed that it was one of absolute repetition, with the sob-and-swig occurring exactly once per minute, as if his behaviour were running on a loop. Sweetie sat dangling her feet girlishly on an armchair. Mrs Brim had given her a cup of juice, which she sipped but which never appeared to deplete for it. When the girl looked over at Mrs Brim she smiled as politely as a child in church; whatever jaded adult spirit had occupied her earlier lay dormant now. Cars passed the house at a suburban rate. Each time one approached, Mrs Brim got up and went to the porch. All she knew to do now was to hope Duncan was on his way. But he never did pull in. Eventually Mrs Brim got tired of the hoping, and the scuttling to and from the porch, so she settled on the armchair next to Sweetie. The fattened eye above the horrible bruise had been forced closed, so at first Mrs Brim, on Sweetie’s far side, couldn’t tell when the other eye closed too as the little girl fell asleep. When she did understand that she’d drifted off, Mrs Brim moved to look at the child from the front. Were these ghosts? What else could they be? Was any of this actually happening? She’d seen dementia do its awful work on Tom, but where the disease had picked apart her late husband’s consciousness, age had frozen her own mind into clear and depthless body of water. She did not believe she would hallucinate. So who were these people? The questions refreshed and repeated themselves in her mind again and again, until fatigue grew too large and the words lost their meaning. Sweetie’s snoring sounded like somebody blowing through a straw. Mrs Brim slowly, slowly went down on her knees before the child. That the girl had been abused was obvious. But what brought the old lady finally to tears wasn’t the evidence of evil done to her but the innocence that remained just as plain in the face despite that evil. This girl, whoever she was – she was marked by hurt, but hurt couldn’t define her.
Mrs Brim stared at Sweetie’s happy sleeping face; behind her came the clockwork sniff and sob of Rahul’s repetitive mourning. There was nothing for the old woman to do now but wait for whatever would come next. Her knees ached, but it didn’t matter. She doubted Duncan would come tonight. He could have turned out better. That didn’t matter much either. Still on her knees, Mrs Brim closed her eyes, and the world told her its sad and endless name. She’d be found in exactly that position the next afternoon, alone, an hour after Duncan finally checked his messages. The back door was still open. Rain spattered the kitchen floor. Farrell’s horse bucking around in the field out back.
(C) Martin Cornwell 2013