Angela Slatter writes dark fantasy and horror. She is the author of the Aurealis Award-winning The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, the WFA-shortlisted Sourdough and Other Stories, and the new collection/mosaic novel (with Lisa L Hannett), Midnight and Moonshine. Her work has appeared in such writerly venues as The Mammoth Book of New Horror #22, Australian and US Best Of anthologies, Fantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Dreaming Again, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. She was awarded one of the inaugural Queensland Writers Fellowships in 2013. She has a British Fantasy Award for "The Coffin-Maker's Daughter" (from A Book of Horrors, Stephen Jones, ed.), a PhD in Creative Writing and blogs at www.angelaslatter.com.
They found a child last winter, frozen on a bench outside the community centre.
His mother, who was inside playing bingo and drinking tea, had left him to wait on the bench in spite of the freezing temperatures. It was her habit, to let him sit outside whichever venue she was patronising at the time, be it community centre, pub, Indian takeaway. She, I understand, lamented the loss of the social security income he had brought her; she’d have to find another way of financing her fags and lager.
The bench faces the sea, which at that time of year is grey and glassy – although not quite frozen. I think it a pretty sad view for someone to die with; cold grey water being the last image etched on your eyeballs. It doesn’t strike me as a gentle death; nor even a hard death … just a depressing one, a slipping away into a grey nothingness kind of death. It seems unfair for a young one to die so.
I used to sit on that bench quite a lot, before winter came and it got too cold. It’s nice in summer but I didn’t think I’d be able to feel the same way about it after the child. People lose their kids in all sorts of ways; it’s the careless ones that make me angry.
It was a lovely summery day; I wasn’t planning on going there that afternoon but my feet had a mind of their own, or my mind was out-to-lunch; any road, I found myself on the boardwalk, rocking from my toes to my heels and back again on the planking, which is fractured and split like earth that’s gone too long without water. Being there was better than going home.
The bench seemed different. It took me a while but eventually I worked out that it was because it looked kind of blurred; maybe not so much blurred as – well, you know when you look into a mirror that’s cracked and you get two broken images? Like that – like the air had cracked and someone had done a really crap job of papering over the split; as if there was a thin gap that you could see through if you stared really, really hard. I walked around the bench, rubbed my eyes and squinted, but it stayed the same. Then I asked a passer-by if he could see it, and that was a bad idea because didn’t I get a look and a half?
From under the boardwalk I could hear the slap and wash of the sea, rubbing itself up against the pylons like some cheap tart. I walked away and didn’t look behind me, didn’t give that bench and its broken space a second glance.
But I went back the next day.
I could only see a quarter of him the second day, like a sliver of moon as it passes through its cycle. I sat across from the bench, perched on the railings of the boardwalk, feeling the sun lightly toasting the exposed skin of my legs and arms, so white and pasty from winter hibernation. I bought a purple icy-pole from the man with the little ice-cream wagon who stands at the entrance to the boardwalk and watches all the young girls when he thinks their parents aren’t looking.
On the bench was a section of a child: just an arm, shoulder, slice of torso and then the leg; as if someone had left part of a display room dummy sitting there for a joke, only no one else could see it. The bit wore a winter school uniform, that dark navy wool that gets faded back when you’re poor. And the little limbs shivered but I couldn’t tell if it was from cold, or fear brought on by a lack of understanding, or just because of the cracked mirror effect of the air around the bench. Maybe it was all three.
I guessed he was coming back, but he didn’t know it; didn’t know why. Bits of him were creeping back and maybe he was afraid coz he thought he’d gone somewhere for good, but now – now he was coming back here. It’s hard on kids: they go back to places where they’ve been happy or because they’ve got nowhere else to go; they don’t understand that sometimes you have to go back to places to fix things, even if you don’t know how.
I sat for the rest of the afternoon and watched but no more of him came through. I guess some of that has to happen at night, moonlight being so powerful and all. I thought about staying but didn’t fancy missing dinner for something that might not be visible. Anyway, I had something else to do.
The pub was full that night.
There was a little group in the corner, mostly men, rough hewn, clustered around a woman. She was the one I was interested in; shiny in a frayed kind of way, hair the colour of a too-new coin; everything about her was kind of frantic: loud laugh, sweeping gestures, but her eyes were dead. Maybe they were like that when she got them.
She seemed to be having a good time, this woman who’d let her child freeze, this woman who laughed up into the faces of the men around her, promising everything and nothing. Or she was trying to convince herself and everyone else that she was having a good time. I wondered how heavily he weighed on her soul, that frozen little child. Would she see him if she went to the bench on the boardwalk? Just that poor sliver of him?
I followed her home. She took one of the men, the biggest of them. He held her upright as she staggered in her white patent heels along the cobbled streets. I didn’t approach – didn’t like my chances with that bearded monolith. I could smell his sweat and testosterone halfway down the street. I only wanted to observe. I wondered if she was hollow inside – if I tapped on her chest would I hear an echo? Would the sound travel across an empty space? When they stumbled into her shabby little cottage I turned for home.
In my shabby little cottage there was a room with a crib.
When I got home, I started to clean it out. Brushed the cobwebs from the corners, chased the spiders from their homes, wiped down the walls and found that, yes, you really could wipe just about anything off gloss paint with a damp cloth.
We had painted the walls blue, Swoozie and me, and the crib white. There was a rocking chair, too, white with an embroidered cushion my mum sent. I stencilled toy soldiers and trains on one wall, a feature wall just like my sister suggested. The curtains were blue, too, with little bears on the fabric floating against the window. It wasn’t much but we did it with love.
Pity Swoozie lost the baby. Pity I lost Swoozie.
By the fourth day, he’d come through.
It was dusk when I got there but I could see him quite clearly. Hear him, too, as he cried, such a sad little noise. People walked past but no one saw him, apart from me.
I walked up to him and smiled. There was a beat while he considered me, then smiled back. I think he saw in my face that I’d been waiting for him for a long time. I held out my hand and he took it, only all I could feel was cold, icy cold, no real flesh, nothing solid.
Where are we going?
Going to see your mummy, first off. Then we’ll go home.
I don’t want to go to her.
I know, but there’s something you’ve got to do.
You’ll know when you get there.
It didn’t take very long.
I led him to the cottage and he pushed open the door. I didn’t go in, just sat outside on the step, massaging my hand to try to get some warmth back into it. The woman was pretty quiet, only a couple of screams, nothing to bother the neighbours – in that area, people are so used to yelling and screaming that no one raises an eyebrow anymore.
When he came out he sat down beside me, not quite touching but close enough that I could feel the heat radiating off him, like a small furnace – the way kids are after they’ve run around the playground. And he was solid now, he was flesh. We sat for a bit, until I thought we should move along in case one of his mother’s boyfriends should happen by and find the mess.
I like having him around. I might take him to see Swoozie some time soon, when they tell me she can have visitors. When she starts to recognise the people who love her. When she forgets what she’s done.
* * *
(C) Angela Slatter 2014
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.