The Appointment (published with Shift Zine)

The waiting room wasn’t as unpleasant or scary as I thought it would be. No one in straitjackets, nobody muttering to themselves, no crazed screaming. Just a lot of bored faces, flicking through a newspaper or texting on their phones. I couldn’t stop fidgeting. I picked absentmindedly at my nail polish and flicked the folded over corner of the questionnaire I’d filled out. I tried to be calm. And I did feel calm. Overall. Along with sick and dizzy and panicky.

The radio was on, playing the hits from last year. It took me back to summer, just turning fifteen, spending almost entire days in the park with Michaela and listening to music and watching funny videos on our phones. I’d felt happy then. I didn’t know yet how bad I would feel in just a few months.

Continue reading on Shift Zine

Advertisements

Red #4

They were red because we believe that red brings good fortune. The first car my parents bought in the UK was red. The front door of the house I grew up in was red. I’d always wondered if that was why my parents had chosen it. They kept the house full at all times, it seemed, with aunts and uncles and cousins, especially on holidays and birthdays. Chinese New Year was my favourite: all those red envelopes… 
When I was little, I loved wearing silk dresses and, for a time, refused to wear anything else. I particularly envied my mother’s wedding dress; she kept it safe in the attic but she showed me once, when I was nine. It was made of beautiful, shimmering, red silk. 

My wedding dress was white. The bodice was sparkling white, the white lace skirt swept the floor, and my thin white veil floated so delicately over my face that I worried I would sneeze while exchanging vows with my white, English husband.

I still hadn’t found the right shoes. My friends had come with me to every store in the area, scoured every website available, begged their mothers for a loan. “Just choose any pair!” they insisted, a week before the wedding. “They all look great with the dress!”

“But none of them feel right,” I said. I was being difficult, I knew it, but every pair I tried on had pinched or slipped or were otherwise excruciatingly uncomfortable. 

It had been a few months since we’d moved into our new house but we were still living out of half-unpacked boxes. A couple of days before the wedding, we decided to tackle them properly. “I know you,” said my fiancé. “And I know you don’t want to be coming home from our honeymoon to a house filled with cardboard boxes.”

“Very true,” I said. “It might be a bit of a shock after the glitz and glamour of the Scottish highlands.” 

I found them in a sealed box, marked ‘University’ in my eighteen year-old self’s handwriting. I noticed them immediately amongst all the stilettos and platform heels. Not that vivid red silk shoes were hard to miss. My mother’s wedding shoes were embroidered with peonies and had a low heel. 

It was on the day that I would be leaving for university. I was fairly sure that up until that day, they were intent on me staying at home, even though I’d spent the entire summer buying new bath mats and bed sheets. 

But it all came to a head when I started loading boxes into my car. It was a green Ford Fiesta.

“Don’t come with me then!” I shouted angrily, after they’d started on the guilt trip again. Just the sight of them standing by the stairs, standing in my way as I heaved my suitcase down, infuriated me. 

“Well if you don’t want us to come with you, fine…” my mother sighed.

“That’s not what I said – but you don’t seem to want to see me off, so don’t come.”

“You are so ungrateful,” said my father. “I offered to drive you, I told you I would take a day off work to help you leave your family home – ”

“If you say it like that, no wonder I don’t want you to come!” 

“So I was right!” said my mother. “You don’t want us to come!”

I ran back up the stairs for another box. I was exhausted; I’d spent the entire night packing and enduring snippy comments from both my parents. There were no excuses for what I did but I really wasn’t thinking straight. I wasn’t thinking at all. But it was vindictively soothing, climbing up to the attic, grabbing my mother’s wedding shoes, and stuffing them into a box. 

By the time I arrived at university, alone, I felt horrible. I didn’t want the shoes but I didn’t want to admit what I’d done. So the shoes stayed in the box.  

I never told them about the shoes and neither of them noticed they were gone. I came home at Christmas, Easter, and the summer holidays each year. The accident happened a month before graduation. 

I stared at the shoes now, sitting in the box. I no longer felt guilty, just sad. It had been a stupid childish mistake but the fact remained that I had them, here in my house, with my wedding just a few days away. 

My fiancé saw me put them on, but he didn’t say a word. My friends, on the other hand, had a lot to say. They thought I’d gone crazy. They thought it was nerves. They thought that a mental breakdown could be the only explanation for the reason why I wanted to wear them. 

Personally I thought the shoes looked great. They definitely stood out, almost looking garish with the white, but I liked them even more for it. They were comfortable, fitting perfectly since my mother had been the same shoe size as me. I was set on the idea now, oddly feeling the same level of adrenaline as that eighteen year-old in the attic, except with no sense that it was a bad idea. It felt completely, completely right.

My dress was so long that it didn’t really matter in the end, only the toes of the shoes poking out from the hemline as I walked down the aisle. I doubted that the wedding hall was staring at me for my shoes. I doubted even more that my fiancé was bothered by the shoes, judging by the smile on his face.

He waited until after the reception to comment on them, when we were in the car to the hotel and I was taking them off.

“They were your mother’s weren’t they?” 

I nodded. “She wore them at her wedding as well,” I said.

“I think she would have been very touched if she’d seen you wearing them today,” he said, squeezing my hand.

I rolled my eyes. “She probably would have told me off for wearing old shoes on such a special day.”

I hadn’t meant for it to come out so sharply, intended to make a joke, but I instantly regretted the stinging, bitter tone. And suddenly, I missed her. So, so much. She should’ve been here. They both should have been with me today. Tears welled up in my eyes. 

Then I felt him brush my hair back, so gently. So I looked at him and managed a smile. 

I bought a shoebox for them when I came back from the honeymoon and packed them away neatly. I decided they should stay in there. I wouldn’t be wearing them again. 

Good Morning

The bus driver does a double take as you board the bus. You smile. He doesn’t smile back. “One day ticket, please,” you say, polite and perfectly enunciated as if trying to prove your native knowledge of English. He counts out the change and drops it in the tray. 10p short but you think better of making a fuss. It’s an easy mistake and it’s so early in the morning, he’s probably still tired.

Probably.

You pick up the coins and quickly take your ticket.

They stare for a split second too long here, fascinated by how ‘different’ you look, and you always catch them. In the few seconds it takes for you to find a seat, you catch two, three, four pairs of eyes staring then glancing quickly back to their phones or books or out the window at the oh-so-fascinating row of houses that the bus passes every single day. But then, you are wearing a bright turquoise coat, you’ve just come onto the bus, you’re probably going to get a few casually curious glances.

Probably.

You sit down, hoping that your coat won’t offend anyone else.

Two children get onto the bus, on their way to school. The children don’t look away, and stare at you unabashedly like they’re on a trip at the zoo. You keep your gaze looking out the window. It’s not their fault, you tell yourself. And they’ll grow out of it. They’ll grow up and meet all kinds of people and probably be better people than their parents.

Probably.

They get off the bus a few stops later. You haven’t got far to go either.

It hasn’t been a minute since you get off the bus that a group of men, still in last night’s clothes, still hungover or drunk, notice you. They nudge each other and giggle, less mature than the school children on the bus. One of them lunges towards you and you take a step back. “Nee-how!” he says, screwing up his face grotesquely. You swerve out of his way and hurry down the road. You try to stay calm. You reason that it’s nothing to be scared of, just a stupid drunk. It could have been anyone. It just happened to be you. And it probably won’t happen again.

Probably.

Julia St. Clair

“Do you know why it’s called the Julia St. Clair house?”

I hadn’t expected to be living in upstate New York when I was first accepted onto my university’s summer school program abroad. All I knew about New York was the city I had seen in my favourite films and television programmes. I soon realised that yellow taxis, hot-dog stands, and Times Square would be far away from my bedroom window as the cab drove from JFK airport over Queensboro bridge, past skyscrapers, and onto the evergreen landscape of Port Chester, where the college was located.

There were four cottage-style houses on the north side of the campus that we were assigned to and about five or six people in each house. Two houses, Cedar and Rowan, were next to each other and closest to the centre of campus. My house, Thomas, was further away, situated on the edge of the woods that surrounded this part of the campus. I lived with four other girls. Then there was Julia St. Clair, or just St. Clair, the house that was the furthest away, right in the middle of the woods. These cottages had been transformed into student houses in the past ten years or so.

The campus was huge; it took around twenty minutes just to walk from the house to my lectures every day. I was usually distracted on the way by fire hydrants dotted along the path or one of the many black squirrels that roamed the campus. I liked trying to find shortcuts which weren’t really shortcuts but just an excuse to explore. That was how, about two weeks after I arrived, I stumbled on the music department.

The one downside to studying in New York for the summer was that I didn’t have my piano with me. I loved playing piano and not being able to play while I was away from home felt incredibly bizarre, like not brushing my teeth in the morning. It was a relief to have found the music department which had a long corridor of small rooms, each with a piano in. I spent the rest of my day thinking about it, because finally, I could play again! I couldn’t concentrate on my lectures and the rain that started later that afternoon barely registered with me. After I’d had dinner with my housemates, I left to go to the music building again. It was still raining.

In London, it drizzled most days, occasionally getting heavier but then returning to a drizzle. In New York, on the days that it rained, there would be an unyielding downpour that wouldn’t stop until a full twenty-four hours had passed. I hadn’t taken an umbrella with me when I left the house but I was happier than ever that I lived in Thomas, not St. Clair, where I would have to trudge through the muddy woods before reaching the safe tarmac path. Even so, I wish I’d thought to wear shoes other than Converses.

I arrived at the music rooms, soaking wet and dripping rain all over the floor, but classes had finished long ago and no-one would see me.

I hadn’t meant to stay as long as I did but after being away from the piano for two weeks, I lost track of time. The windows were high up and I hadn’t noticed it getting dark. When my housemate texted asking when I was getting back, I was surprised to see that it was already ten o’clock. I closed the fall board and picked up my jacket. The door opened.

A man, a security guard judging by his uniform, appeared in the doorway. I stood up quickly, worried that I would get in trouble for being in the building after hours or using the music room without permission or daring to spell the word ‘colour’ with a ‘u’. But his expression was kind without smiling and his grey hair reminded me of my grandfather.

“Hey, sorry, I’m locking up the building so you’ll have to leave now,” he said, looking genuinely apologetic.

“That’s fine,” I said. “I was on my way out anyway. I didn’t realise how late it was.”

“Yep, and it’s still raining pretty badly,” he said. “I could drive you back to Thomas house if you’d like.”

I knew that the security guards often drove people around campus. Ariana, my housemate, was dropped off by the lecture hall the other morning. Warnings of stranger danger flashed through my mind but disappeared quickly at the feeling that my Converses would never be dry again.

“That would be fantastic,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

I shivered a little once we were out of the building but to my relief, the car was warm. “Thanks again,” I said.

“No problem,” he said, starting the car. “So how are you liking New York?”

“It’s great,” I smiled. “It’s my first time here and it’s been incredible. I’ll be sad to leave.”

“I’m sure,” he chuckled. “How’s your house?”

I shrugged. “It’s fine. A bit far to walk to lectures but it’s not as bad as St. Clair, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he chuckled. He fell silent for a moment, then: “Do you know why it’s called the Julia St. Clair house?” he said.

It was something that I hadn’t thought about before. I frowned. “No, why?” I asked,

He slowed the car down, the engine quietening, making the rain against the window louder. I turned to look at him, curious, but he was staring straight at the road.

“About seven years ago, there was a family of three that lived in that cottage. The parents worked on campus; the mother was a lecturer. Their daughter, Julia, was a student here.” he explained. I nodded. “One night, the father came home and found his daughter strangled with a belt, dead on the floor. Then he went to the bathroom and saw the mother trying to do the same to herself.

“The court case ruled that the mother was guilty. She went to jail and the father continued to work on campus for a few years. But grief or depression or something got to him. It must’ve been the same year they were renovating the cottages for student housing. He committed suicide and that brought everything back, so when the board of trustees came to naming the house, they decided to commemorate his daughter.

“And that’s why it’s called Julia St. Clair house,” he finished, driving normally now.

“Oh,” I said, for the sake of having something to say. There was an odd ringing in my ears.

“Here’s Thomas.” He said, pulling up to the door. He stopped the car.

A question occurred to me. “You didn’t say what the father did on campus.”

He hesitated before answering. “He was a security guard.”

“Oh,” I said again.

He turned to me, looking concerned. “Are you ok?”

“Yep, I’m fine. Thanks. Bye,” I muttered, getting out of the car and fumbling in my pockets for the key.

My housemates were still sitting around the kitchen table when I got in. They stared at me; I suppose I was a sight, standing frozen in the doorway, shivering, damp, and horrified.

“Are you ok?” Ariana asked. I opened my mouth, about to tell them everything, when yet another question occurred to me. How did he know that I lived in Thomas house?

Here and There

You’re there
Not here, no
Not at the Elephant House
Not scartching a quote on the bathroom wall. You
Won’t be wandering along the cobblestoned Royal Mile
Nor the alleys that lead off it. You’re
Nowhere near the top of the Scot Monument
Not looking over the spired city.
You’re not here
You’re there
And I don’t always know
Where I am
But I hope you’ll
Be there.

Test Results

It’s dark outside but the lights are on. She sits on the kitchen counter, reading her book and waiting for her food in the microwave. She should probably eat healthier, it’s what her flatmate keeps telling her: “How can you have a meal without any vegetables?” her flatmate would always ask, to which she’d reply with a silent hand gesture. It’s not her fault, she does try, but whenever she buys fruits or vegetables she always forgets to use them before their expiry date.

She’s reading Ned Vizzini’s ‘It’s Kind Of A Funny Story’ which she’s enjoying but she can’t concentrate on it and it’s actually not a funny story, not even kind of, and the film is even worse because Emma Roberts is far too pretty to play the love interest and she’s not a very good actress anyway. Ned Vizzini died recently, committed suicide, jumped off a building in New York, and that’s not a funny story either, not even kind of.

She’s still got to do her dishes from this morning, they’re piled up in the sink, and she knows that if she doesn’t get them done tonight it will start to smell and her flatmate will be on her case again because why can’t she just do the dishes straight after she’s eaten and why does she never clean the kitchen and also could she keep it down when her boyfriend stays over because their rooms are right next to each other and it’s a very small flat.

Her phone is in her room, she can hear it ringing, her ringtone is ‘Stacy’s Mom’ by Fountains of Wayne and has been for almost two years, and it’s been going all day, truth be told it’s been ringing like this every evening for almost a week. Her mother keeps calling to ask why she hasn’t called, it’s been ages, doesn’t she love her, family is the most important thing in the world, how could she turn her back on them?

She can’t tell her mother, she knows she should but she can’t, just like she can’t eat healthily or concentrate on her book or do her dishes, except those are all much easier tasks to deal with than telling her. She hasn’t even told her flatmate yet even though she had asked what the doctor had said as soon as she’d come back from her appointment last week.

All she could say in response was “fine” before retreating to her room, because she knows what will happen if she tells her flatmate, she’ll get hugs and tears and questions like “what are you going to do?” and “does he know?” and she doesn’t want to answer those questions, she doesn’t even want to think about those questions, those questions aren’t meant to be answered for another twenty, thirty, maybe forty years, not now, not when she is supposed to be young and happy.

She doesn’t want to think about it. She sits on the kitchen counter, reading her book and waiting for her food in the microwave.