‘Mr O'Connor, the Doctor's given you the all-clear. You're free to go,' she said in her usual, brisk tone.
Under her scrubs and face mask, Aman hardly recognised the blonde-haired woman who had nursed him back to health. She wasn't like the rest, especially in the way that her voice fluttered when she said,
'Hey, Aman. In the nicest way possible, I hope I never see you again.'
His cheeks had never flushed like that before.
He pondered what kind of person willingly bears the strain of healing, even those who care too little to heal themselves, only for it to be brushed aside and passed off as all in a day's work
Once Aman had clambered out of bed, he took in the rows of mummified figures, their exasperated grunts masking the silent screams inside them. The older ones lay flat on their backs with closed eyes and outstretched palms in blissful anticipation. The young gasped and writhed - trying desperately to claim as much life as they could before death and cruelty snatched it from them.
He pulled on the bile-ridden clothes in a heap on the chair next to his bed before giving his bag one final rummage in search of his phone charger and wallet. He checked his pockets too; no money either. There was only one place for it.
Mothers in smocks eyed him with disapproval as he stumbled into a bollard, his eyes still adjusting to the blanket of hazy daylight.
Even the skinheads dressed in overalls tutted as he walked past. The only person to have acknowledged him was a dishevelled beggar.
'Got any change?' he asked, following up with a sympathetic nod as though realising their shared plight.
Aman crossed the road. He still had a car. A house. A family. This was only a blip.
'Alright, Aman?' said a gaunt faced man sitting at the other end of the pub.
Aman stared at the scraggly-haired figure with bullet holes for eyes and hesitated.
'Oh, Bone, it's you. You've changed so much.'
Bone sniggered as though secretly smug about his new appearance.
'What you been up to, mate? Haven't seen you in ages,' Bone continued once they had sat down.
Amen shifted in his seat and inhaled.
'I haven't been well.'
Bone's eyes flickered at the door distractedly. It was only when he caught Aman’s gaze, that he replied.
'I thought as much. You look terrible. As it happens, I've been going through it too.'
Bone leaned in closer, lowering his voice.
'It's my wife. She keeps giving me jip.'
A hefty, bald man, who turned out to be their friend Minty, interrupted as he approached the table.
'Is he talking about that wife of his, again?'
Minty squeezed next to Bone, taking up the majority of the seat so that Bone was pressed against the wall.
'Aman. What have you been playing at?' Minty continued. 'Rose's been looking for you all over. If you want to jack it in, just tell her.'
Aman drummed his fingers on the table.
'It's not like that, alright. I'd rather not talk about it.'
Minty's countenance changed then, his eyes narrowing into a dead-eyed stare.
'Well, you have to, seeing as your Missus thinks you're dead.'
'Stay out of it, Minty,' Aman said again. 'She knows what I'm like.'
But Minty had taken more interest in his phone, which he held under the table before saying.
'Anyway, sod this. I've got to pick something up round your end, you coming?'
'Want some?' Minty said, waving a pre-rolled joint as he drove along. Aman snatched it from him and threw it out of the window.
'Oi, I would've smoked that. Anyway, you're one to talk, aren't you?' Minty said, elbowing Aman a little too hard before cranking up this stereo.
Aman looked at his feet to stifle his nausea, but the mountain of crisp packets and cigarette butts just made it worse. All that filled the remainder of their journey was the cacophonous thump of Minty's music.
Aman was pleased to see an empty driveway as they pulled up to Rose's cottage. He'd missed the place he'd called home for almost three years, with its immaculately kept shrubbery and thatched roof. Things were swept up and neatly tucked away.
He envisioned himself peeling off his foul-smelling clothes and soaking all the stress away. When Rose arrived from work, Aman would treat her to the customary dog-house spaghetti bolognese while performing his usual script.
'I wasn't well back then, love. I thought I was doing you a favour,' he would say, 'But being surrounded by people wheezing and spluttering as though they're at death's door is enough to set anyone straight.'
With her peach-coloured voice, Rose would spout her usual spiel about what a strain it had been, not just for her but her daughter, Mia. This was his last chance.
Then he would bundle up the tiny, flame-haired woman in his arms, and they would fall asleep to the soundtrack of Unsolved Mysteries, just like always.
Still high on the fantasy of domestic bliss, he barely noticed how he jabbed the key in an attempt to unlock the door - surely he had at least remembered the right key?
He tried the gate, but regardless of how much he pushed and pulled, it wouldn't open.
'Shit, not again.'
He caught the owlish eyes of his neighbour, gawking out the window as he strained to lift a large plant pot, his arms trembling under the weight of it.
The wave of nausea had returned with a vengeance, bringing a bout of cold sweat along with it. Aman trembled as he rooted in his pockets once more.
As he wretched in the right-hand corner of the porch, the sound of a rumbling engine drew near.
A woman driving a black Porsche Macan pulled into the driveway. As she switched off the engine, the door of the car swung open.
'Saw you on the security camera.'
Aman tried his best to croak a response, but standing next to the pool of vomit, the fragile fragments of his consciousness were laid bare for everyone to see.
'You're not doing so well, are you?' Rose continued, her voice thick with a false sense of pity.
Aman skulked to the other side of the porch and encroached the space between her and the door as she unlocked it.
'Come on, Rose, don't be like that. You know I'm sorry,' his quivering rasp almost inaudible.
Tears rolled down her face as she slowly unlocked the door.
'Come in, sort yourself out. But by tomorrow, you're out.'
Aman breathed a sigh of relief and opened his mouth to speak.
'Don't, Aman. Just don't,' she said as they made their way inside.
The house was tidier than he had remembered: absent of the rouge socks and underwear sprawled across the floor or stray pieces of paper lying limp on the dresser were gone.
He hauled himself into the shower and anticipated the warm flow of trickling water, but his lack of energy meant the steam stole his breath. He felt feeble and alone as he wallowed amid the stifling air.
Three cardboard boxes were lined up neatly at the foot of Rose's bed; two were sealed, with the remaining box packed to the brim with clothes. Noticing that the hot red of his Liverpool t-shirt, a quiet embarrassment washed over Aman as he tore the box open and grabbed the first garments he saw before kicking the box under the bed.
The fitful sounds of slammed cupboards and sporadic chopping came from the kitchen, so Aman sloped downstairs and sunk into the sofa.
'There's food here if you want it,' Rose called..
'Well, I've made it now.'
Aman watched the spindly woman as she placed a plate of sandwiches on his lap, not petite and perky as he had remembered.
Mia unlocked the front door and let herself in.
'Afternoon, love, how was school?' Rose said, the clarity of her voice undercut with a choking heaviness.
Mia threw down her bag on the carpet and wandered into the living room, her mop of brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses covering most of her face.
'Oh. What's he doing here?'
Aman stared blankly into the television.
'He's not very well, darling, so he's come to stay with us for a night or so until he figures things out.’
'That's what he said last time, Mum.'
Aman sat up and turned to face her.
'I mean it this time, Mia. I promise.'
'And I intend to run a marathon one day, but it doesn't mean I'll do it.'
'Look, your Mum says it's okay, and it'll only be for a few days.'
'Mum, I just don't get how you can't see it.'
Rose's face hardened.
'You're just a kid. We're not expecting you to understand it. It's my house, and what I say goes.'
'What? Even if your decision involves your daughter being forced to live with a diagnosed alcoholic while she has to study for her GCSEs?'
Mia’s voice cracked under the weight of her words as she left the room.
Aman resumed to his idol screen watching as he heard the back and forth of hissed voices in the kitchen.
Mia then thrust the door open, picked up her bag and thundered up the stairs shouting.
'If you're going to kill yourself, why don't you just hurry up and do it instead of making us watch.’
One night swiftly merged into two nights then three. Soon a week had passed and still, Aman was yet to leave.
Mia stayed for two nights, existing through one-word murmurs, sloping around in long-sleeved jumpers and spending most of that time locked away in her room, with only blaring rock music for company. But, during the days in which Aman preoccupied himself with odd jobs, like scrubbing the grout on the kitchen tiles, he would gather fag ends of phone calls and listened out for the sound of Mia’s tears muffled by pillows.
Aman attempted to broach the subject on the third day by wrapping his flailing arms around her.
Outraged, Mia wriggled away and said,
'I'm not a child, okay. I know you're not going to change,' before slamming the door.
And so, pulling a bulging suitcase along behind her, Mia left that night, swearing that she would never come back so long as he was still living there.
She claimed to be going to her friend Eli's house. Still, the only Eli that Rose could recall was a sickly looking boy, known for turning up to school in unwashed clothes and the occasional black eye, despite his mother cruising around town in a Mercedes with a toy boy in the front, that was never seen on the driveway.
Rose was also one for keeping herself busy. Each day after work, she would come armed with meat and spices to concoct an elaborate meal which they would eat to the tune of ticking clocks, chewing mouths and steel scraping against china.
On the seventh day, Aman showered, dressed early so that Rose would wake to the aroma of sweet, buttery pancakes and bacon - her favourite.
But as he clattered around and rummaged through draws, Aman realised that he didn't know where anything was. Soon enough, the batter curdled, and when he ladled the mixture onto the pan, it bubbled and spat, which was followed by floods of cascading smoke and the wailing alarm.
He wafted the air with a tea-towel and removed the batteries of the fire alarm before throwing the misshapen pancakes away and carefully spooning out a moderate amount of batter to make a new one.
'What's all this?' Rose asked, rubbing her eyes as she wandered into the kitchen.
'Bacon pancakes, your favourite.'
In the spotlights of the kitchen, Aman could see the extent of Rose's exhaustion in the colour of her eyes which looked pink and sunken, devoid of any emotion.
'But it smells like burning, and you woke me up.'
'I know, I know. Why don't you go back to bed, and I'll bring them up.'
Once Rose had gone back up the stairs, Aman set about rustling up an edible breakfast, even managing to salvage the less charred pieces of bacon.
'Look at that, thanks, hun,’ Rose said, leaning over and kissing him for the first time since his arrival as he placed the plate on her lap.
Aman watched her as she rolled up the pancake and started eating.
'You don't fancy helping me with this then?' Rose asked, pointing to the plate.
'Nope. I'm not a breakfast man. You eat it.'
'Alright, well, suit yourself.’
Once Rose had finished, she threw her arms around him, pushing him onto the bed.
'I really miss Mia. I want her back.'
Aman said nothing. His eyes closed as if savouring the glimpse of chaotic bliss they once revelled in.
Remembering herself, Rose pulled away and sat up straight, with glazed eyes that were deep in thought.
'How's the house-hunting going? Didn't Minty say that he's got a room?'
'No, not really. I don't think he wants me there,'
Rose raised her eyebrows.
'So, you haven't asked yet. That's what you mean.'
Aman scrambled to find words to form a reply in an attempt to sound surprised.
'You said I could stay here. This is my home, our home.'
'Yeah, but it's not if my daughter doesn't feel comfortable.'
'Rose, you know what kids are like. She'll get over it. I promise,' Aman interrupted.
'Oh, like how you promised all of the other times.'
Rose's phone vibrated. It was Mia.
'Morning, love. How are you?'
Amid the silence, Aman could make out the startled ramblings of a teenage boy, prompting her knowing, ‘I told you so' look.
'I think they've just broken something,' she mouthed, waving an arm dismissively.
Roses brow furrowed.
'Woah, slow down, kiddo. Is this Eli?'
But as the garbling continued, Rose's bemusement was replaced with an expression of profound horror.
'She's what?' She said, forcing a false sense of calm as she paced around the room.
Aman tried taking her hand in his, but she snatched it away as she tried to commandeer the conversation by asking questions like:
'What do you mean she hasn't woken up?’
‘Have you called the hospital?’ Is anyone else there? Can I speak to an adult?, before the resounding flood of no's grew unbearable.
Still, she tore downstairs in her pyjamas and was about to leave as she hung up the phone.
Aman rushed to the door and stared at Rose, her pupils bulging in a wild panic.
'What is it? What is it?'
'It's Mia,' Rose wheezed, 'she was at a party last night but.'
Rose's voice trailed off. Everything shook as she let out an agonising scream which reverberated around the house.
'Rose. please talk to me,' Aman pleaded over and over again before pulling her to him. She writhed and resisted before succumbing to his sturdy grip, sobbing into his shoulder.
'Mia,' she gulped, unable to speak more than one or two words at a time,' Eli said they can't wake her up.'
'That fucking boy. I knew he wasn't good for her. I'm gonna kill him, I'll kill him,' he said as he pushed Rose aside and stood up in one violent motion.
'Is she dead, Rose. Is she dead?'
'No. She's still breathing. They just can't make any sense of her.'
Rose took a moment to compose herself, her voice calm and measured as though she had flicked a switch.
'She's at Queen Alexandra. Let's go.'
Aman failed to rid himself of the monstrous sense of foreboding as he stumbled through the hospital. As they emerged from the endless maze of corridors, the gormless expressions of patients slumped over chairs had morphed into the tear-stained faces of every person he had ever wronged. He envisioned the faces jeering and snarling as he lay limp on a hospital bed, with skin a jaundiced yellow and his distinct lack of hair giving him an alien-like quality.
Aman blinked hard as he tried to claw back his dwindling sense of reality as he saw Mia sprawled across the bed. Her porcelain face barely recognisable, surrounded by snaking wires.
His chest throbbed as he cast his mind back to when he would tease that bug-eyed
troublemaker for when her cheeks would flush crimson as they danced in the snow.
He locked eyes with the unkempt looking boy sitting on a chair in the left corner of the room. With clenched fists, Aman encroached the space around him, noticing his bruise covered face and drooping eyes.
'What did you do to her?' he asked, his voice no louder than a whisper.
'It's not my fault,' he said, cowering from the looming figure standing over him.
Rose's voice sturred from across the room,
'Aman, give it up already. You know what you need to do.'
Aman turned away from the boy, taking one of Mia's quivering hands and gently kissing it before closing the door.
As he left the hospital, he slipped a pound to a beggar clutching a plastic pot before realising it was the one from before.
'Things can get better.'
As Aman approached the pub, his phone buzzed as he saw Bone and Minty in the window.
'Fancy a swifty?' Bone asked once Aman had answered.
Aman ended the call and glowered at their reddened faces, bloated from a lifetime of abuse.
'No. You're not getting to me this time,' Aman said aloud as he walked on.
This is a section from a larger piece entitled, ‘The Age of Viaphin’ where our protagonist, Corrie lives in a world where the immortal Kolossian and mortal Viaphinian do not live harmoniously. With the threat of the world's first soul death rising amongst Kolossians despite there being more Viaphinians than ever, someone must discover their hidden secret to civilization before it’s too late. The question is, who?
Tuesday 15th January
The committee for Science and Devised Matter are investigating the world’s first Kolossi soul death after a man aged 31 sadly faded out at approximately 18:00 yesterday evening. His family have requested that their privacy is respected at this time.
Monday 14th January
Silent and alone; there is always tranquillity before the tempest.
She snuck into the conference room and slid into a booth that was out of sight of the door. Her father’s technological illiteracy meant that he probably hadn’t even noticed that all the cameras were disabled.
Out of the far window, she noticed a family playing in the snow - their complexion a golden hue - a far cry from her aryan features. They had to be Viaphinians. She’d spent weeks with her ear pressed against her bedroom wall, picking up the odds and ends of her father blabbering on the phone to her step-mother, Eliza.
‘We’re the immortal ones: why are we dying? While they’re wandering around, parading themselves in that stifling land of theirs. And now in our territory?’
Parading themselves? Corrie knew that more Viaphinians were crossing the border, but what was the harm in that?
‘Hey! Up here,’ Corried called from out the window, but the family had begun to walk away.
The murmur of hushed voices grew louder.
‘If Dr Lanister thinks I’m crossing the border just because that Eliza tells him so, then he can think again,’ said a twee man with perfectly aligned features similar to those of an elf’s in accented Kollossian.
‘There’s no way he’ll get any of us on side while she’s around.’
‘Yes, I think you’re right, but she’s his boss. I think he’ll have to wait until his daughter is a little older,’ the other man said with a contemptuous giggle.
‘She’ll have no choice.’ His daughter? They must be talking about my dad! She tilted her head, desperately trying to piece together the missing ends of their conversation, failing to notice the door opening until she felt an unwelcome hand placed upon her shoulder.
‘You shouldn’t be in here Miss. You need to leave,’ said the man with the accent, waving her out the room. She leapt off the seat and made a run for the door.
‘I thought this was a Maximum Security facility? Does this include disobedient children as well?’ Said the man next to him clutching a clipboard. His colleague frowned.
‘Wait, aren’t you Dr Lanister’s daughter?’ She tried to open the door, but he blocked her path, the colour draining from her cheeks.
‘He can’t know I was here,’ she stuttered.
‘...The building’s crawling with cameras so he probably already does and…’ said the man with the accent. She took a step forward.
‘He can’t know I was here! If you don’t let me out of now, you can say goodbye to whatever it is he’s got you doing here. I’ll make sure of that.’ The man with the clipboard gave a disconcerting glance.
‘This is way above my pay grade,’ and so, they let her pass.
Two Years Later
There was no first-class travel where she was heading so she made the trek to Viaphin on foot. The air smelt deliciously of lemons, nothing like where she was from; her world was full of the rise and fall of afluentes pontificating. She thought about the speech Eliza gave to her before she left.
‘Corrie, I’ve tasked you to discover the Southerner's secret. Why are they surviving when our immortal souls are dying? I know you’re scared, but don’t worry- you’ll get along with the free folk- you're just like them. ’ But there she was, three moons away from home, all because Eliza needed something, and what Eliza wanted, she got. Some, (including her father), pretended to admire her, but most feared her. Her father’s hatred for the Viaphinian farmers stemmed after her mother died, with his promotion to the head of operations at the Committee for Science and Devised Matter shortly after. He was hell bent on deciphering how a civilization with so little could be so happy. He used to say
‘My Corrie, the kindred spirit, just like your mother. Sometimes, I think she was secretly one of them.’
The Viaphin capital was eerily quiet as she crossed the border, if you can call it a capital; it was nothing like Kolossi country. There were trees that sprouted blue and pink fluff from their branches hung low. She’d read about them somewhere, apparently they were edible, but after years of their anti-Southerner propaganda, she thought better of it than to eat them. There was also a make-shift stall selling oranges, bananas and coconuts along with various other fruits, but not a soul was there to man it. Corrie took a bite from an apple, noticing a wasp fly off. As the day gently shifted into night, Corrie ventured across the rolling plains of Viaphin, following the map just as Eliza had instructed.
‘Now, once you cross the border and make your way through the greenlands, you must turn right at the blue hill and go straight to the lion’s keep.’ It would help if I could actually see the blue hill.
‘I bet you wish you remembered a torch now, huh?’ Said an ebullient voice from a distance. Corrie looked around but saw nothing.
‘Can’t you hear me? Are you deaf, woman?’ The voice said. Startled, she spun around.
‘Who’s there? Come on, show yourself.’
‘But, I’m here,’ the voice continued. Shortly followed by the sound of something whizzing past, nipping her ear.
‘Where, I can’t see you?’ she said, noticing something crawling down her neck and onto her shoulder. Her hand moved to flick the creature off…
‘Wait...sssss….stop. I know your secret, I can help.’ She let out a laugh that was a little too hearty.
‘Sure you can, you are a wasp and everything. I must be going mad!’ She brushed the creature off and began fiddling with her map.
Owls hooted and bats flashed past, but still she did not turn back. What was this place? When Eliza said Viaphinians were at one with nature, she wasn’t quite expecting to be pestered by talking insects.
‘Look, I know why Eliza sent you. I know what you’re looking for,’ said the voice, sounding a little more shrill this time. Corrie cursed the air.
‘Who are you? Who sent you? Was it Eliza? I bet it was...when I go back I’m going to find her and…’ The wasp jumped from one finger to another.
‘Yes, yes, okay, it was Eliza….b.b.but you can’t tell her. She was the one who did this to me, and if she finds out I told you...well…she’ll turn my brains into minced meat and then she’ll…’
‘Jesus! Okay, okay so, how do I know that I can trust you?’ She said,
‘As you can imagine, you’re not the only one with their ‘neck’ on the line here.’ They were silent for a while, Corrie wandering around, deep in thought with the wasp hovering above her.
‘I know about the CIPA codes...and I know where to find them,’ the voice said finally.. Those two words reverberated in her mind like an uproarious alarm. She’d never heard her father so much as utter those words without shivering.
‘Shh...you can’t say those words here! Not now. Not ever.’ As the sun rose, they approached the infamous hill, but it was worlds apart from the barran, desolate plains of Viaphin. The royal blue of the grass had a waxy quality, as though it had been coloured in with crayon. The heat made Corrie restless.
‘So, where next? I thought you were supposed to be helping me?’
‘Oh yes, because I have the capabilities to hold a map with my long, slender arms and all,’ the wasp said playfully.
‘You little...’ She paused, violently shaking the contents of her bag. The wasp flew off into the distance.
‘This was your plan all along,’ Corrie said, calling after it.
She heard a booming voice from a distance, heavy in truculence.
‘No one can find those codes, Corrie. You know that.’ The glorious blue of the sky had now transcended into a menacing red.
‘Who are you? W..what do you want?’ Corrie began to tremble.Clouds merged together in mass of charcoal grey and pink like spilt paint. The ground beneath her began to upsurge and shake, making way for purple rocks which thumped and tumbled.
‘If you turn back now, no one needs to get hurt,’ he said.
‘No one needs to get hurt? What are you hiding?’ she said, adopting a brave equanimity. A bolt of lightning flashed through the sky.
‘You Kolossi folk have chewed us up and spat us back out like we’re nothing. Why should we help you?’
‘Please…. Whoever you are, I’m not like them.’
‘Oh yeah, and why is that?’ The sky faded into a blood orange as he spoke.
‘My mother...she was a Southerner.’ This wasn’t a complete lie, but she didn’t know for certain.
‘So, why are you stealing from one of your own? Traitor!’ He spat back, throwing a rock in her direction.
‘Please! This isn’t just about you or me or about Kolossian self obsession,’ she lunged out of the way of an incoming boulder.
‘My people- the immortals- they’re dying.’ He breathed deeply, articulating his words carefully.
‘So, what’s in it for us? It doesn’t affect us if you die. It just means that we’ll finally be free!’
‘Ahh...that’s where you’re wrong. Think about it, you might be farmers but who supplies your equipment? Who buys your produce? You’d be nothing without us.’’ She was laughing now. The sky darkened as he came hurtling towards her.
‘How dare you speak to me that way. What do you know?’ Corrie remained where she was which surprised even herself.
‘That’s exactly it, friend. I do know.’ And with that she shoved him as hard as she could and ran off into the distance where she saw a rainbow forming. Now onto the lions keep.
As night fell, she thought of her father and Eliza, the only two people who were supposed to protect her. She thought of the wasp, and how they said they knew Eliza. Were they bluffing? Or was it really a trap? Either way, she hadn’t come this far to worry about that now. She approached a small, dilapidated hut. As she went inside, the musk of old candle wax wafted around the room, but to her surprise, there was nothing there. This can’t be it. But, as she made her way to leave she noticed a small painting propped against a far wall. Bingo.
‘So, you made it,’ she’d recognise that voice from anywhere. It was him.
‘I told you, you’re not getting out of this alive.’ ’And I told you, this isn’t just about you.’
‘You ponsey Northerners know nothing! Now, just give it to me.’
‘You’re going to have to fight me first.’ With that, Corrie summoned a power she never knew she had. She punched him hard in the gut and he fell backwards.
‘I wouldn’t waste your energy, kid. Just you wait.’, his voice wavering as she kicked him again.
‘You’re just making this too easy.’ She eyed the painting that was still in the corner behind him.
‘How about now?’ he said, raising his fist preparing to fire a bolt of lightning in her direction, but oddly, nothing happened. He stared at her in astonishment.
‘You really are one of us, aren’t you?’ he said, before passing out in complete exhaustion.
She climbed over his body and carefully picked up the painting. It was of women in wrappers sitting around a campfire, their children asleep on their laps, their faces golden from the reflection of its burning embers. There was a small section of text in the left corner of the painting, some of it had faded. However, there was a poem which read:
“The answers that you seek, are in the treasures that we keep here in this sacred land,
the secret to our civilisation is not your creation,
but in the benevolence of the fellow man,
you looked down on our immortality and laughed at our simplicity from your ivory tower,
but what you failed to realise is that mother earth has all seeing eyes,
she gives to those who perpetuate eternal power.”She pondered over the words for a long time before striking up a match and watching the artwork burn, it’s embers dancing around the room like fireflies being set free from a jar. She knew what it all meant now. The mortals weren’t the savages, they loved their planet- basking in her fruits and then feeding her when they died. The inevitability of death was a price she was happy to pay. Who wants to live forever anyway? The free folk had a zest for life, and oh how sweet it tasted. The man awoke, gasping for air as Corrie dragged him out the door and then followed the signs to the next village, she wasn’t going back. These were her people, home, at last.
Are the wayward plants,
With stalks misshapen,
Tangled roots and
Wilting leaves -
Ostracised by the Sun?
Are they terrified or
Our disabilities have entrapped us.
In stain-glass windows but -
We are the trinkets
Who shine at the street bazaar.
Far from infallible,
We are not the soaring superheroes,
Or locked within our wheelchair’s embrace;
We are human.
Rising to great heights by a
Banishing The Toy Soldier
Amid the carousel of pushchairs
And ticket wardens …
Your peach-coloured voice
Plucked me out,
Amid a sea of swarming beige.
You spoke to me.
Unphased by the man shielded by
The nameless, blindy’s mask.
Your insightful eyes saw through
Invisible distances -
Far-reaching what mine fail to see.
You asked me:
What’s the best way to Waterloo?
Engulfed in your enigmatic flutter,
My second sight took hold.
I became an equal -
Eye-to-eye in a field full of lions.
She saw me as a man.
Just as capable of being
The monkey of all cunning…
As I am at making mistakes
Indifferent to the cracks they leave behind
Amid a blink - I wore the crown in my jungle.
Proud to be who I am,
Proud to be blind.
Fixated on the ceiling's sour glare
With visions bleaker than
Watch me as I scorch the blackened sky,
I say to the empty room.
Let me sink the clouds,
Flood the earth -
All in vain, merely a whisper
In a chasm thick with petrified screams.
Afraid of the world ahead,
Catharsis found in hibernation.
As cacophonous thoughts chastise,
The remnants of rumbling thunder
Fuel taunts of phantom pain.
The idea of being trapped in titanium stilts
Far worse than that of the one-legged man,
Liberation hidden among the twisted depths
Of the closed minds of gatekeepers.
How I dream of hopeful worlds
Awash with chamomile -
Freedom found by bursting
Through each hollow cocoon.
So, I will my wilting legs
To morph into the trunk of sturdy oak.
I wonder - did the soldiers sobbing shrapnel,
Sheltering from bullet rain
Ever get to choose?
One foot dangling -
I try it on for size.
Butterflies pave the way -
Bullet holes wrapped in
Unseen Figures Villanelle
I creep on cobbled streets, illuminated by the lamp’s evening glow,
Revealed by the click-clack of heels. I am betrayed,
As prying eyes rise from down below.
That terrible down below
Where majestic beasts lay,
Where those who live to devour girls’ supple skin go.
His spotted coat emerges… my senses slow.
Soon to be social carrion; I say,
Fogged eyes fail. I hear him crow,
Stoic face etched, I stay,
While ridiculing laughter bellows.
A brief hiatus. Then, the approach.
Like a rag-doll, I lay,
With nowhere to go
The prowling hyena smirks, grateful for the show.
Bone-crushing jaws sink as I lay,
He takes his time, not slow;
Added to the casualty list…his inventory of prey.
Clinical lights set a blinding ambience,
For absent-faced nurses,
Who absentmindedly process people…
From waiting room to ward -
I sit with wobbling eyes closed,
In search of stillness -
But, realisation strikes;
Despite my squinting eyes
Pressed against the telescope,
I missed the lighthouse.
So, I’m clamped down…
And with my saucer-shaped pupils
Prized open, he cracks stinging droplets.
Then he says: all done!
As though bandaging a child.
As I’m carted to the consultant’s office,
I clamber for calm.
While they poke and probe,
Are they no longer within orbit's reach?
I watch them scrupulously scowl at the scans.
Rancid. A concoction of fear
And symptom -
I slip up. Blurt my truth.
And in search of confirmation
Of a job well done
She hijacks my hypothesis…
The words hang heavy like sodden clothes.
And the sound of hushed voices implode
As I'm passed from opinion to opinion -
So that she can marvel at her work.
It backfires when,
the condition is stable,
Fills the room.
I was seventeen when the pain struck once more.
But, with a mind absorbed by the clink of newly cut car keys,
I could ignore the fingers
That snaked around my spine.
When I cast my mind back,
Sweet, nicotine-infused smoke from Geek Bars
And the musk of Paco Ruban still invade my senses -
In the hope that dousing myself in a whimsical dream
Would transform me from a boy into a man.
But as agony took hold.
I sought refuge in pills and positions,
Trying to outrun the thief you cannot banish,
By dwindling coins before he got the chance.
All the while, I wove a patchwork of kind untruths
Into the lives of all of those who cared.
In the hope that the idealist thread
Would sew my broken body back together.
All too aware that those coiling reptilian hands,
Constricting around my vertebrae
Were forewarning the silent screams from a brain
That oozed blood-stained tears.
Stretches and cigarettes became my weapons,
Hospital, a defeat I wasn’t ready to admit.
Then the seizures and flickers of swirling shadows came,
Like a preamble to the blackened world
I would soon endure.
But the fading lights of my residual vision,
Allowed for surging determination.
The Words I conquered
Here are some pointless facts about me:
I love chocolate.
I dream of verandas and straw sun-hats,
Absorbed by the sound of stray granite dragged
By the outstretched arms of open water.
As a child, I loved the dark.
That mass of velvet sheltering me from
The acrid odour of cigarette smoke,
Muffling unfamiliar rasps from the
Mouths of men who I didn’t know.
I’d long for days when I woke
To the sound of feet encased in sandals,
As Grandma clattered in the kitchen and
Grandad mowed the lawn.
Aas I grew older,
The mass of velvet dissipated -
As I clutched onto fag-ends of candid conversation
Where Grandma uttered the words…
She’ll be blind by the time she’s 16
As carelessly as a magpie burrowing in a cuckoo’s nest.
My adolescent mind guided by a goading mantra;
Nights spent with lights switched on,
Cowering behind closed doors,
During the day, nausea swallowed my will to eat.
Fear etched like invisible ink,
Obsessed with a disfigurement only I could see.
But, like an eclipse blocking the sun,
I wallowed in my created darkness.
Peace found as thoughts transcend into feathers
Wavering in the wind.
Bound By Ignorance
Cheeks flushed with
Skin the shade of raw meat,
I heave myself up the
Boundless flights of winding stairs…
Like an otter navigating this domestic mill race,
A paradox burdens me
Incited by the nimble minds of the able-bodied
Their privileged lives unphased by obstacles.
With legs akimbo,
I picture sweet smiles and unsavoury voices,
As they watch me trip up
The sixth step for the third time.
Marooned. I gasp at a handful of promises -
Like a basking shark washed up on dry land,
While they gawk at the decomposing mass
Beached among the rocks.
Impaired by my legs’ inability to bear my weight,
Disabled by the shackles, they refuse to loosen.
The Byzantine Princess
As she swept within the fortress’ walls,
With ice-blonde hair flowing…
Her reddened eyes the colour of beating hearts
Fixated on what lay within the stone labyrinth.
Hiding from the callus Shaman -
Who lives to flay porcelain skin
For the promise of good fortune;
Who drains goblets of purified blood,
And binds locks of platinum hair
To yield auspicious gain
Among those who bargain for prosperity,
Unwilling to pay the price of greed.
As time went by, the walls began to falter.
With her narrowing eyes transcending into slits of fury
His sallow face emerged among trembling rubble.
And soon, that eggshell form.
Encroached the space around her.
As the ramparts crumbled
The Princess rose from a place unknown…
Towering over the decrepit man
And waved as he clawed at her wavering feet.
The Madness in the Masquerade
There’s madness in this masquerade.
For years, I couldn’t tare myself away,
Like the sweeping miracle of magnetism -
Grappling with two unlike identities:
Me, with my disability trailing alongside,
Verses an outline of a woman.
Invisible. Disembodied by
A preordained path …
Aghast by this absurd facade
You appeared. Your friendship ike sand,
A treasure the ocean shyly left ashore,
And in your kindness, we built temporary castles.
But, for now…
The drawbridge and spirals we leave behind are
Impervious to the sea’s icy grasp.
Each grain, a fragment
Of quiet understanding.
Under the gaze of a blood-orange sky, we wandered onto the cobbled streets of Zadar, Croatia. The square was filled with tourist-friendly bars: groups of young people surrounded by brightly coloured drinks sat in the middle, with men sucking on cigars tutting in far corners. Further along, families were huddled around dainty glass tables, bursting with the hearty laughs and slurred voices of happy holidaymakers.
I was not well-versed in the sighted guiding department as a visually impaired person, so I approached assisting Grace with some trepidation. I had just got the hang of navigating the winding walkways when we came across a narrow alleyway, which caused our canes to snag along cobblestone edges. As a result, the line formed ground to a halt.
Some tripped over in all of the confusion, including Grace and me.
'Wait for us,' I called out in a breathless panic as I scooped Grace up from the ground.
Some men lent up against a post office gawked at us as we walked by - its gleaming red door tinted a shade of burgundy in the evening glow. One man, in particular, stood poised, his thin-lipped mouth opening and closing as though the words were trapped.
'You want me to lift?' he hollered in broken English. This resembled a small act of kindness, which I later realised was typical of the Croatian people, although the loitering outline in the distance made it difficult to tell.
'No. We're okay,' I said as we brushed past, concerned not to lose the group.
At last, Zadar University - we had made it. The building was a grand, gothic affair, but the contrast of the fiery brick roofs against its buttery walls gave the impression that it was precious and largely untouched. And, absent of billboards plastered with fresh-faced students, it was worlds away from universities in the UK.
Once inside, we traipsed through a series of mosaic floors until we emerged in a small courtyard, with only a few wooden benches dotted around, which prompted the staff to greet us with the kind of exuberance saved for dear friends.
Grace was whisked away by an auburn-haired woman in round glasses, so I was left to work the room alone, feeling like a vampire during the daytime.
I checked my phone to see if my boyfriend, Ollie, had texted after a day of no contact, but he hadn't. I knew that it was only a short trip, although the reality of being thousands of miles from someone I truly cared about had begun to set in.
What started as a debilitating back pain had transcended into a series of black dots that terrorised him everywhere, and at that point, it was unclear whether he would lose his sight completely.
I put my phone away and tried my best to set my nerves aside.
A man with sparse, silver hair and weather-worn skin welcomed the group, with his rotund voice cutting through the chatter.
'Lots of new faces I see,' he said, making an effort to smile at me. 'There's plenty of wine and water,' he added before listing three or four names to call upon if assistance was needed.
Once he had finished, I noticed that clusters of new faces clutched their canes as they stared vaguely into the distance. Unlike most situations I had encountered, the camp was a place full of faces that none of us could see and voices we didn't recognise. I was determined to be bold enough to delve into the unknown, with the excitement of befriending like-minded strangers spurring me on.
I tried to stick with Naqib, a chatty, hefty man with an impressive beard and a thick Birmingham accent, and Eddy, who was slight, with steel-rimmed glasses and a beard almost as remarkable as Naqibs', because I'd spent the day with them, but they were engulfed in laddish banter. I needed to make my own friends.
'Hi, I'm Alice.'
I tottered over to a group of girls huddled by the drinks trolley. We exchanged pleasantries, and I soon learnt that, unlike me, they were volunteers despite being visually impaired. I mainly spoke to Lizbeth, who, with pixie-like features and head to toe in men's sportswear, had an androgynous look.
Our inhibitions, somewhat subdued by red wine's warming confidence, allowed the tightening elastic bands of conversation to loosen. I knew that everyone in the camp highly regarded Lizbeth, so I was keen to make a good impression.
She was halfway through recalling a story of a train conductor mistaking her for a small boy when she asked,
'Well, do you think I look like a girl or boy?'
The honesty in her abruptness told me that she wasn't intentionally trying to catch me out.
'I. Uh. I think you look like a girl,' I said, unable to mask the ambivalence in my voice. 'You just have short hair, that's all.'
Lizbeth gave a reassuring smile. ‘Yeah, I think so, too!'
Relieved that I hadn't ruffled feathers on the first day, I tried to lighten the mood.
'Not many girls can pull off short hair the way you can.' My voice trailed off as I tried to think of something funny.
We spoke for a while longer, with the new ease of our conversation attracting the attention of the Dutch participants. A particular character named Dean, tall and boyish with floppy brown hair, had an indifferent scowl which signalled that he was someone I was better off avoiding.
The next morning, I woke up early and spent a long time on the phone with Ollie, with the promenade's sea organ wailing in the background. Despite his weary voice, he reassured me that he felt better, but I wasn't convinced.
'You okay?' Lizbeth asked as I sloped into the breakfast hall just as everyone had finished.
'Yeah, just tired,' I replied, hoping that she wouldn't pry.
Lizbeth smiled politely, but I'm sure that she could sense that something was off even if she couldn't see my reddened cheeks.
After attending a talk on the Erasmus programme, we visited Krka National Park, known for its world-famous waterfalls. As we embarked on our tour around the river, the air felt sticky and acrid, perpetuated by the crowds. As a result, it made sense to continue in twos with all those with reasonable sight being asked to guide.
I was paired with Irina, cheerful and petite with sculpted cheekbones and silky charcoal coloured hair.
I had started to wonder whether the exertion was a complete waste of time when I noticed a cluster of tourists crane their necks at something up ahead. I decided to make the most of the space they had created and led Irina straight to the gap, conveniently positioned by the water's edge.
'Wow,' I said. 'Can you feel the force of the water?'
Cascades of Caribbean blue, coupled with the hallucinatory shimmer of foaming bubbles, shot down into the serene stillness of a turquoise bath. Glossy leaves of the deepest greens hung lazily on either side amid a backdrop of the glistening sun. So, with our swimming costumes on under our clothes, we waded into the water.
'Incredible,' Irina said with closed eyes and outstretched palms. 'I've never been this close before.'
Marvelling at the all-consuming whoosh of the flowing water, we were finally awakened to the healing power of mother nature.
I knew that Ollie was trying to be brave, but that hadn't stopped me from spending most nights agonising over what was yet to come; however, something switched that evening. The pitter-patter of trickling water put my mind at ease, making the experience just a touch more bearable.
The following five days were filled with workshops, late lunches on the promenade, and evenings spent drinking beer and watching the sun tuck itself in on the beach with Lizbeth, Eddy and Naqib.
One evening, we travelled to the region of Dalmatia to visit the Salt Mines in the popular city of Dubrovnik. Thanks to its geographical position, the Ston Salt Pans were initially known to the Romans as Stanum or Stagnum, meaning fertile fields with abundant water and salinity. The sacred mines were once responsible for a third of the city's income, so they are hidden among a fortress of rolling hills designed to protect Dubrovnik's set of crown jewels. Nevertheless, there was something ominous about the endless sea of crumpled grey, which reminded me of the shards of a shattered stone giant. In reality, the salt mines have a long and illustrious history, known as the oldest natural salt mines in Europe and the largest preserved in the history of the Mediterranean.
I sat on a bench as the guided tour came to a close, in quiet admiration for how helpful the locals appeared; no one was that considerate back home.
As a naive eighteen-year-old, I'd chosen to embark on this journey because I had been too concerned about slotting in seamlessly with the sighted world to care about how badly I had neglected my true identity.
A tall, platinum-haired woman was being guided by a broad-shouldered man who I later realised was her boyfriend. I swooned as I watched her face nuzzled into his shoulder as she hung on every adjective.
'I think it's so sweet how he describes things for her,' I said aloud, unsure if anyone was really listening.
'Not really,' Naqib replied. 'Your boyfriend should just want to help you. Does yours not do that for you?'
Damp and heavy, the words hung in the air like hanging washing. A tear gently rolled down my cheek. 'I guess not.'
I could no longer withstand the wall of anxiety that had barricaded my insecurities for weeks, which caused me to blurt out the truth. Since our phone call, Ollie had deteriorated dramatically, and it pained me to know that I was benefiting from an experience when I should have been by his side.
Luckily the rest of the group had moved on, so I took refuge in Naqib's sturdy arm as I sobbed into his shoulder. Once I'd finished sharing my story, there was a long pause. They didn't try to comfort me with thinly veiled optimism, and instead, they listened and understood: I was grateful for the comfortable silence.
After a while, Lizbeth did a great job cheering me up by explaining Belgium's long and confusing history. Did you know that they have six governments? Because I didn't.
'Guys, have you ever heard of the term non-binary?' Lizbeth asked.
It was a concept I was familiar with, but have never met anyone with that identity.
'Uhh, not really, I don't get it,' I admitted.
This was met with awkward silence. As someone with a disability, I truly understand how it feels to be marginalised and try to do everything to understand and advocate for underrepresented groups. A pang of regret sunk to the pit of my stomach because, as a cis-gendered person, I really didn't want to cause any offence.
'Uhh, well, I kinda am,' Lizbeth's voice began to crack under the weight of their words. 'And, I don't know what to do.'
We had come a long way since our meeting in the courtyard, where Lizbeth later mentioned that they felt unsure about how accepting I would be because of my feminine appearance - I guess no one is exempt from the ugly taunts of misconception. But all that remained was mutual respect and trust for one another. We spoke for a long time, and I learnt that Lizbeth had been grappling with this entirely on their own.
'When I close my eyes, I picture myself as an old man, not a woman: that's who I want to be. But then, I really don't mind who I am on other days. It's just so confusing, you know?'
As they had done for me, I didn't try to be the voice of reason. Instead, I listened with an open mind which proved to be enough.
My final day in Zadar was spent attending various workshops designed to help us discover more about helpful technology and effective communication. I had signed up for a Jaws workshop that had nothing to do with sharks, unbeknown to me. In fact, Jaws is a speech software designed for users who are totally blind, so this wasn't much use.
Ten minutes later, I was in the Effective Communication workshop.
Once settled, we were greeted by our smiley Volunteer Coordinator Claire who asked us to form a circle.
Dean pulled up a chair beside me and edged it uncomfortably close, which was heightened by the fact that he had made no effort to talk to me aside from the occasional sour remark.
'This is stupid, don't you think?' he said.
I clenched my teeth and looked straight ahead.
'So, what makes good verbal communication?' Claire asked with encouragement.
Dean exaggerated a yawn, and some of the younger participants sniggered.
'Facing the direction of the person speaking?' I suggested whilst trying to mask the screech of my chair legs as I moved away. Claire continued until she grew tired of the disinterested shrugs and murmurs.
We got into small groups to practise a body language exercise. I gripped my chair and spotted a table by the window where Eddy was sitting.
'Sorry. I don't mean to disturb, it's just that Dean's starting to creep me out.'
'It's okay, mate. I know,' Eddy agreed, clearing a space.
Although he was reserved and a little awkward, Eddy had a calming presence that helped me forget about what was on my mind. We sat and discussed universities for a while.
'What uni are you going to?' Eddy asked.
I stretched casually, exposing my stomach.
‘You have a really molely stomach,' Dean said as he and his friends came to sit opposite us.
I opened my mouth to speak, but the fragile fragments of my voice were swallowed up by their exploding laughter.
With Claire out of the room, I saw no reason to stay.
'Why do you dress like that? Dirty girl,' Dean called out in an elongated drawl as I reached the door.
I turned around, unable to hold my tongue any longer. 'What was that, Dean?'
Dean stood up and kicked his chair behind him - grunting, 'Why don't you go back to church and learn not to be such a slut?'
His words echoed around the room: some said nothing, others gasped, but his loyal followers sitting at our table were the only ones who laughed. I wanted to cause a scene. I wanted to humiliate him, but all that remained was a quiet embarrassment that felt as intrusive as though a thousand scorpions were crawling all over, invading the parts I didn't want anyone to see.
Then I heard a familiar voice. It was Eddy.
'What did you just say?'
Dean let out a guffaw of a man wanting to be challenged.
'Oh chill, man, we're only messing around.'
'Do you think that's funny?' Eddy said in defiance as he lunged toward Dean. 'You can't treat girls like that.'
The entire room sat with pricked ears as I dragged Eddy away.
'Eddy…Eddy, come on. It's not worth it. He's not worth it.'
'What an ass!' Eddy said once we were in the hallway.
I forced a girlish giggle, 'Well, he's ruined his chances. No one will want to talk to him after this.'
I turned in the direction of the bathroom, conscious that the ever-tightening lump in my throat wouldn't have kept my tears at bay for much longer. I felt naked and alone as I trailed to the bathroom, my hands covering my sluttish arms. I pulled out my phone to tell Ollie but thought better of it; he didn't need the burden of my trivia.
With the morning's altercation still at the forefront of my mind, I struggled up five flights of stairs in search of the visual aids workshop with some reluctance. However, I was relieved to learn that Kat, the Volunteer Coordinator, was the only person in the pokey classroom.
An obscure assortment of gadgets were sprawled across a table, with a giant TV, complete with a tray underneath, being the piece of resistance. I pulled up a chair beside it which prompted Kat to notice that one of my acrylic nails was missing.
'Did you do those?' she asked.
'No,' I replied as I snatched my hand out of view. 'I can't do them myself so I get them done professionally.'
I considered myself a fashionista back then so, sensing my embarrassment, Kat handed me a pot of hot pink nail polish and some clippers.
'Well, you can now.'
'Oh, I like this idea, but how?' I replied, curious about her whimsical plan.
She switched on the TV and pulled out the tray,
It soon emerged that it was a giant magnifier complete with a series of dials. I placed my hand underneath and zoomed in.
'Wow, look at that,' I said. 'I can see my nails clearly.'
I marvelled at my precision, fantasising about how easy life would be if I could zoom in every now and then. But, at that moment, Kat had captured one of femininity's precious fragments that my sight had stolen and delivered it back to me.
'Wanna go outside?' Kat asked, waving a pair of jam-jar style goggles in my direction.
I placed the glasses on slowly and opened my eyes to a magnified world. The smudged strip of blue transformed into the floating outlines of families playing volleyball, their golden tans glistening in the afternoon sun. And, for the first time, I glimpsed the shapes of boats bobbing steadily on the gentle stream of sapphire. In the distance, mossy peaks winked at me, a sight I wasn't aware anyone could see.
'Can I keep them forever?' I asked, still in awe of the secret stories within the sighted world.
I took them off and met Kat's Gaze, and with tear-filled eyes, she pulled me to her.
'Amazing,' I whispered. 'Thank you, Kat.'
Still basking in the afterglow, I sat on the steps and squinted into the distance, willing my eyes to interpret the blur I could see clearly just moments before. Dean sat down beside me and lit a cigarette and gestured to me.
'You want some?'
I shook my head.
'Haven't you got anything you'd like to say?'
His face was expressionless, and it was only when I met his gaze with an intense stare that the cogs began to turn.
'You know that was only a joke, right?'
As I walked back to the university's main entrance, I was reminded of a quote from the Chimp Paradox that will stay with me forever: the way to approach narcissists is to accept them for who they are or walk away. I wasn't going to let someone like him drag me down.
During my short stay in Zadar, I glimpsed what the kindness of strangers can look like. I experienced nature at its most beautiful and understood how it is intrinsically linked to healing. Flecks of burnt ember and gold coursed through my veins, elated that, after eighteen long years in hiding, a week surrounded by other visually impaired people allowed me to finally see the beauty in being authentically yourself. I was ready for the descent into adulthood - a long and turbulent voyage.
Congrats, you've uncovered my (not so) secret stories. I'm Alice, a partially sighted writer passionate about depicting worlds that reach beyond what my eyes fail to see.