SHORT STORY – Isabelle Weller

Lone terraced house Moss Side - Manchester
A rather sad lone survival of a Victorian Terrace in Moss Side, Manchester. The floral curtains seem to show that this building is still being occupied, although the open cellar window, lack of front door and broken glass suggest the fate of this building may already be set. Photograph by Shirley Baker Date: 1964

Isabelle Weller is a recent graduate from the University of Birmingham, where she studied BA English Literature with Creative Writing. She is now about to start a special needs teacher-training course / placement year. She is a keen reader. She wouldn’t say she has a favourite author, or book, but Franz Kafka’s writing never fails to intrigue her. She’s also a big fan of William Carlos Williams’ and his imagist poetry. 

Are You Home?

She didn’t look how Morris had remembered her. Cradling her handbag to her chest, she seemed slighter, more girlish-looking.

‘Where should I,’ she paused, scanning the space for a moment, ‘change?’

Morris drew the back of his hand across his mouth and tossed the remainder of his toast into the kitchen sink. He improvised. The man who had had the room before him left behind a wooden-weave folding screen. It wasn’t entirely opaque, but Morris nodded to it now and watched her as she disappeared behind.

He wasn’t much practised at nudes. Unlike sketching a clothed figure, a nude required a perfect mastery of the pencil as well as a knowledge of the anatomy of the naked body, skills Morris felt he had not quite learned yet.

When she had turned up at the door of his second floor flat four days ago and asked him to sketch her, he’d agreed, needing the money. He had pencilled her into his pocket notebook and then walked back into the flat, leaving her to hover at the threshold. As he had then bent over a small side table, she informed him from the doorway, that she’d seen his advertisement for pencil portraits in the window of the laundrette ten minutes from his flat. It was to be an engagement present for her fiancé she’d informed Morris, red creeping into her cheeks when he hadn’t reacted, only nodded whilst taking a drag from his cigarette and let the smoke form a temporary blind-spot between the two of them.  He ripped a piece of paper from the pad on the table and gave it to her.

Now, four days on, the girl peered round the side of the folding screen. Behind it she had disrobed and emerged, a grey dust sheet swathed over her body. Morris, cigarette dangling from his lips, ran his hand across the back of his hairline, scratched the nape of his neck, then began setting up his sketching space beside the only window, while she, still draped in cloth, waited by his bookshelf.

She watched him use one swift movement of the arm to sweep a collection of little glass paint jars from the window sill into a brown paper bag, the residue of milky watercolour water seeping through the paper, so that the paper became soggy, and went navy in colour. Dumping the bag, he clambered onto an armchair, dragging down a line of washing he had strung up across the window.

Morris watched as the girl clutched at her robe with one hand and used the other to trace the jackets of his books. Her hand fell upon the corners of a notecard that was sandwiched between The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare and Jude the Obscure, books he had read cover to cover but, as with most things he once took pleasure in, now found quite insufferable.

Morris looked on as she pulled the notecard from between the two books and then turned it over in her palm. He imagined her reading what was written, trying to make sense of it. She turned it over a couple of times again before replacing it.

‘Funny place to keep a card.’

Morris cleared his throat, ‘If you take a seat.’ He waved his hand in the direction of the chair directly opposite and sensed her looking to him for direction with regards to the sheet. Having already positioned himself at the easel, he had started hacking away at a pencil between his thighs with a blunted knife from his pocket, ‘When you’re ready.’

The girl flushed, and removed part of the covering.

Now he made eye contact with her. Her posture was fairly fluid, but something was not right, her body was off balance. A plum-coloured birthmark set below her left breast might have drawn attention to the slight curve surfacing at her waist, but instead it served only to accentuate the fact that none of her was really developed. He placed a piece of blackout card against the lower half of the window so that light fell on her hip and asked her to turn so that she was facing the kitchenette, but decided that he didn’t much like the way she looked there.  

‘Take your hair out.’ Morris closed one eye, squinted. She hesitated as he used his pencil to measure the dimensions of her chest, then mark them on the paper. ‘It will sit better if you do.’

She removed the grip that was holding her hair in a bun at the back of her head.

Her jawline was relaxed, but Morris decided she was uncomfortable so he then got her to stand while he did a series of rapid, two minute sketches of her naked form. He needed to get to know her body, the way it behaved. It felt unfamiliar.

He chewed on the end of his pencil in between sketches until some of the shavings came loose in his mouth and glanced out of the window. In the playing fields outside, small figures scrambled over structures made of other people’s junk: mouldy sofas, vehicles and big black tyres. Surrounded by dunes of rubble, wreckage from two years previous, groups of children bristled, swarming over each other and hanging like rag dolls from metal bars. A group made up of three boys and a younger girl dominated two large metal barrels, dictating the bomb-site playground below.   

The smallest boy, wearing a policeman’s helmet, and dressed in a coat that draped almost to his ankles with sleeves that came down well below his wrists and whom Morris identified as front-runner of this small battalion, was rallying a small assembly around him. Perching himself on the front half of the bonnet of a wrecked Ford motor, he heralded his troops.

From out of one of his inside pockets, he produced something. Morris couldn’t quite make out what the thing was, he paused again to exhale smoke from his lips, and then ran his tongue along his top set of teeth.

Climbing down from the bonnet, the boy clambered up onto an overturned shopping basket and presented his find. Suspended by its claw between the thumb and forefinger of the small boy, the bird shuddered, its neck quivering. There was a beating of wings and then shuffling amongst the group.

‘What is it you’re looking at?’

Morris became aware of the sketching pencil that sat loose between his forefingers, ‘Sorry.’ He signalled with his free hand to his cigarettes. She declined, but yawned, then stretched, to which he pretended not to notice, and rose instead to lift the sash window.

‘Can you go and re-apply your makeup?’

She frowned, but rose and reached out for the robe, ‘Where’s the toilet?’

Morris sniggered, smoke escaping his cheeks. Rolling the cigarette between his lips, he led her towards the kitchenette and with some flamboyance, drew back a makeshift curtain that he had fashioned from a dark cloth-like material, which happened to also double as the curtain for his bedroom window. Behind it he revealed a stand-alone toilet with a small rectangular mirror placed above a basin bowl, adjacent to the toilet.

Morris studied her reaction, the way she creased her nose as she navigated her way over a large pile of newspapers amidst which was a paper manuscript: a play that he’d begun writing during last summer, but had never finished. Much of his writing turned out like this.

Amused, he turned, letting the curtain drape back, then resumed his position at the window, palm flat against the pane. A pot of daffodils he’d picked and positioned on the window sill two Thursdays past, were beginning to crisp, and so now the room was starting to smell of them, of slightly stale urine. He squashed the butt of his cigarette into the soil and reached for another from his back pocket.

Turning his attention to the little assembly, it was no longer obvious where the small boy was. A boy with thick-rimmed spectacles who earlier had been urging on his small friend, firing an imaginary pistol into the sky, then recoiling as he did so, his comrades receiving invisible gun wounds, was now lingering at the back of the gathering, hands stuffed under his armpits and his firearm stowed away. Morris saw the head of the small boy re-emerging amongst the assembly, motioning to the boy with the thick-rimmed spectacles. The crowd parted ways for them.

The small boy took hold of the almost-bird by its neck, let it spasm like this for a minute, and then positioned it upon what Morris assumed was a lump of brick. The boy with the spectacles re-stuffed his hands under the armpits of his coat.

The small boy then raised his left knee high into the air, and brought his shoe down hard upon the brick. Morris imagined the bird’s frame cracking, the body squelching, soft beneath the sole. Again the small boy made an imprint, then once more, until he was pounding his foot, over and over. Morris pictured it, innards smeared across the brick like rhubarb marmalade.

It was completed, and the little assembly was already beginning to disperse back into the junk playground. Morris squinted for the boy with the thick-rimmed spectacles. Hunched, he was crouching beside an upturned trolley. Morris exhaled, smoke on the glass. The boy heaved, and then vomited into his hands.

Morris looked away. His model had now returned, her cheeks rosier, more garish if anything, and had taken up her position upon the stool opposite. He closed the window, stubbing out his cigarette into a palette of dried beige acrylic paint as he did so, and put pencil back to paper.

With portraits, in the beginning, when it had felt new, Morris practised sketching his own naked figure with a mirror in front of him, but now it felt languid. He focussed his gaze on the movement of the girl’s hips, but they were static, her whole body was, and it made him want to squash the graphite tip of his pencil into the paper, let it crack and come loose from the stem.

She shifted in her seat and Morris noticed her drawing her knees a little closer to one another. Her figure was beginning to irritate him. Morris watched her eyes charting his movements: when he used the end of his pencil to scratch the inside of his thigh, when he adjusted the cuff on his shirt, and now, when glanced toward the small clock on the skirting board in the kitchen.

Only fifty minutes or so had passed since she entered the flat.

‘I think it might be best if we call it today.’ Morris reached behind himself to scratch his lower back.

‘A day. You mean call it a day.’

Morris grunted in agreement, ‘Yeah sure. Can you do the same time next week?’

She paused, nodded and pencilled her into his pocket notebook.

‘Actually,’ the girl bit down into her thumb nail, ‘I think my fiancé is seeing an old school friend that day.’

Morris drew a neat line through his hand writing. ‘Okay.’

 

*

As he travelled the circumference of the room, toothbrush wedged inside his right cheek, Morris replayed the afternoon his head. Since closing the door to her, he had poured himself half a glass of milk and filled the kitchen sink with soap and water. He stopped next to his unfinished work. Where the face would be, still blank, Morris pencilled in two caricature eyes, bulbous and dull.   

On his third lap of the flat he paused next to the book shelf, touched the corner of the watercolour notecard in the same way his model had done earlier and then pulled it out. He turned it over with his spare hand, skimming the lettering on the reverse that he had read, and re-read without fail for the past two weeks:

 

‘You fell asleep so I turned the radio off.’

A gap, then:

‘gone to get milk.’

 

Toothpaste leaked from Morris’ mouth, reaching his chin. He was weary of labouring over it, partly because he couldn’t, didn’t want to make sense of it, but mainly because her excuse was poorly formulated and so, like he always did, he left it, her writing face up on the mantelpiece, and returned to the bathroom.

Some of the bristles in his toothbrush had begun to clump and now they came loose in his mouth. He thought about the dead bird as he leant over the basin to spit. And then again about the notecard. He rinsed the taste of toothpaste from his mouth. When Morris had first read the notecard he had struggled to accept that she had even written it. The handwriting didn’t look like hers, it was too rushed and she hadn’t bothered to dot any of her i’s.

He placed his toothbrush on the edge of the basin and slumped into the armchair next to the window taking a cigarette out of the tin and lighting it. The familiar face of the smoking sailor grinned up at him as he drew from it but the muscles in his jaw began to stiffen, the same way they always did when he reached the end of the tin. When he was new to smoking, it was like letting ash settle on his tongue. Now it was more bitter-sweet, like strong coffee in the morning.

He stretched, rose without much purpose, and found himself back beside the mantelpiece and beside the notecard. Placing the cigarette between his teeth, he picked the notecard up and let it hang at his side between thumb and middle finger while he drifted over to the kitchen and thought about getting himself some of those flint kitchen tools that he’d seen last Tuesday in the hardware shop. He dumped a couple of paintbrushes in the sink, then returned to the armchair, wedged himself in. He stared at the cigarette between his fingers. It was almost short enough to burn him. Letting the cigarette exhaust itself, he leaned forward to crush it on the windowsill.

Beyond his own reflection was the now empty expanse, children evacuated, but still it was littered with entities that Morris could scarcely make out in the dusk. He rose, took hold of his overcoat, but didn’t put it on, and left through the front door without bothering to flick the switch on the main light.

Outside the housing block everything was doused in shadow. Morris clambered over a mass of rubble strewn across the pathway: part of next door was being reconstructed. An oil bomb hit two years back and the shrapnel had smashed through one of the downstairs windows where it ignited a pack of matches and set the house alight. The red bricks had turned black from the soot.

Overnight whole streets had been disappearing. The slums were steadily being replaced with low-rise flats laid out in multi-storey crescents and clusters of prefabs put in place of gardens that had quietly morphed into allotments, but the side of the chapel, and its detached gateway a couple of streets away, still rose gauntly from the wreckage.

Morris scoffed at them for trying to reconstruct a town from its cellars. Radical plans that would sweep away entire neighbourhoods and replace them with high-rise towers that nobody wanted to live in.

He continued to make his way through the playground of other people’s junk. Swings in place of the cast iron arms of lampposts. On his left was a block made up of two privies, male and female. In the centre of the brickwork someone had chalked the words ‘SHIT’ in large capitalised letters and as a post-script, somebody had added in the word ‘city’ under it.

Morris now arrived at the upturned trolley. He stared at the dead bird. Its raw-boned, grey-feathered frame flattened into a spongy matter on the mud. He thought about weaving back together the fibres of its wings, now frayed, like the hairs of a broken violin bow. The wings, quite sticky, somehow complemented the insides of the bird which were squashed against last Sunday’s tag line for the Evening News: Get a life. Only 10p.

Morris bit on the flesh inside of his cheek. His mouth had begun to feel sort of gluey, as though there was wet clay lumped under his tongue. He blamed his most recent cigarette and turned from the bird.

She hadn’t gone for milk, she only drank black tea.

He thought back to a conversation they’d had a couple of weekends before he had found the note.

‘Seven letters.’ Morris paused. ‘Dresden.’

‘Huh?’

‘Dresden, it’s the answer to four down.’

‘Oh.’ She glanced up from the kitchen table. ‘Do you remember how we used to share cigarettes?’

Morris nodded but continued looking down at the paper.

‘Why don’t we do that anymore?’

He shrugged, ‘I suppose we just grow out of things.’

 

Morris watched the dead bird, how its neck was round the wrong way. He watched his boot kick it into the thicket, and he continued watching it until it no longer really looked like a bird at all. She didn’t even like milk.

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