December 10, 2017

Fiction by Alice Frances: "The Hungry Earth"


Alice Frances Wickham is from Ireland. She has lived in London since 1987 and has been writing on and off during that period.  In 2011 Alice completed her Masters in Writing and Literary Criticism at Birkbeck in London and she has embarked on a novel, which has morphed into a perpetual saga, and Alice hopes it will end before she does. Alice is also working on a satire about the Health Industry, which is nearing completion.  She runs the popular blog, newlondonwriters.com, and her work has appeared in Edge magazine, Litro magazine, New London Writers, Paradise Press, and other outlets. 











THE HUNGRY EARTH 

My world is the Black Cat Theatre in Hoxton and a two-bed high rise in Hackney. It takes willpower to cross the urban desert to reach the wrong side of the Thames.  This morning I'm going on an expedition to a place called Crystal Palace.  All I know about Crystal Palace is that it was built by the Victorians to show off stuff they stole from around the world.  

An image of a skinny tomboy summons me from the wardrobe mirror on the other side of the room.   Who is this thin girl with the short blonde hair, green eyes and ripped jeans?  Who is she, is she a bird? Is she a plane? My mother’s dress is inside that wardrobe.   I pull it out and press the soft navy fabric against my cheek.  The dress still holds her scent.  It's as though she never died.

The note is still in my hand.  The girl in the mirror raises it to her eyes. It reads like a telegram from the 1940s.  It says, 'Kate, meet me tomorrow. Crystal Palace train station.  Midday.  I'll be waiting.  Marion.'

***

‘Oh my God!‘ 
Lucy lowers her head discreetly. 
‘What?’
‘It’s her!’
‘Who?’
‘The voice of NBC.’
Not likely, I say.  Ours is a one-act play about Aids, low budget crap, which is what some jerk wrote about us in Hoxton Happenings.
‘No, Kate, I’m serious.’ 
I squash my cigarette in the ashtray. 
Lucy stabs me with her skinny elbow. ‘Kate, she's coming this way, and she's looking straight at you!' 
I brush ash from my jeans.  ‘She can look all she likes; I’m no lezzy.’ 
Beyond the faded chrome of the bar, a stranger catches the attention of the barman.  In the bar mirror, I see Lucy staring until a bloke knocks into her, spilling beer on her dress. 
She leaps from her stool. 'Wanker! You couldn't find the way to your dick in a bathtub!
Now that makes me laugh.  
'It’s not funny! This gown cost money!  I went on my hands and knees to get it.'
'What do you mean?'
'Think about it brainbox.'
She heads off to the ladies to stick her dress under the hand dryer and when I turn around an older woman is standing next to me at the bar, looking me up and down. 
She’s dressed all businesslike and speaks with a French accent. ‘I actually thought you were a boy when I saw you on stage.’ 
I consider giving her the brush-off, but as Lucy said, she could be press, and she might give us a write-up.
I take the crumpled cigarette pack from my jeans and offer her one, she declines. 
'I'm Kate.  Who are you?’ I ask. 
‘I’m Marion.’ 
The outstretched hand is cool, velvety soft, with short fingernails.  It lingers a fraction too long. 
I feel my cheeks glow, bright red.  'I'll be right back, just need the loo.' I tell her, slipping from the barstool.  
When I get to the toilets, Lucy is at the sink fixing a contact lens in place. She squints at me through the bathroom mirror. 
‘Well?’
‘Well, what?’
‘Don’t give me that, I saw you two, chatting. Is she press or what?'
‘How would I know?'
Lucy drops the lens on the floor. 'Bugger it!' 
She grabs me by the elbow.  'Find out! And get a write-up!  Do whatever it takes!’ 
I shake her hand away. ‘Like what?'
'Think about it, Einstein!'
'No, Lucy! I’m not going to sleep with some lesbo just for a fucken write-up!’ 
‘Who said anything about sleeping? Fucking will do.’ 
‘Forget it!’
Lucy plucks the lens out of her other eye and chucks it in the bin.   ‘The trouble with you is Kate, you have no imagination.’ 

When I return, the older woman is leaning against the bar counter staring at the exhibit on the wall; phalluses; nothing but phalluses. The bell rings for last orders, and a surge of flesh at the bar pushes us together.  Her body next to mine is warm and smells of French perfume, and before I know it, she is kissing me on the lips. Then she melts like smoke into the crowd, leaving me alone and bewildered. 
Was it a dream?  
The barman hands me a note.  'Oy, that French chick gave me this to give to you when you were in the bog.  I guess she wasn't expecting you to come back.'

***
The train out is pitifully slow, crawling along the tracks, and pausing for breath at each stop. At Crystal Palace the platform is empty.  In the ticket area, the railway clerk is putting tickets in the machine.  I ask if he’s seen a woman.  
He looks at me amused.  He says, ‘we get a lot of people coming through here miss.'
'What time is the next train back?' 
'Around an hour.  Engineering works.’
'Shit!'
It starts to rain, little drops at first, turning into a deluge and then back into little drops. I light a cigarette and wait.  Then I hear her, calling my name.  I turn around, she’s there, smiling like the night before.  She looks different somehow.  Some of her vitality has leaked out of a hole somewhere.  I see a bluish tint under her eyes. 
‘My car is outside.’   
We walk along the passageway toward the exit. The Mercedez is up on the curb, taking up much of the pavement. Today she is wearing a black leather jacket and tight-fitting jeans. 

I glance at her profile - attractive, but older than I thought, maybe forty rather than thirty.  I watch as she turns the key in the ignition, and sit back and enjoy the pungent smell of leather as we turn out onto a broad, tree-lined avenue.  
When we stop at the red light, she touches my knee lightly with her fingertips, sending a jolt through my body. ‘I'll show you, Kate.'
‘Show me what?’
She looks at me with raised eyebrows before moving on.  We arrive at a parade of shops and she parks up.  There’s another quick burst of rain as we step out of the car and walk to a cafe with yellow and pink lights shining in protest at the overcast sky.  Across the road, buses chug out of the terminal, and commuters stand around miserably. 
The cafe is decorated Parisian style, with vintage posters of fin-de-siecle prostitutes undressing. I stare at one or two of them removing their petticoats or stepping naked into a tub of water.  Marion chooses a table away from the Parisian tarts.  I hang my Parka on the back of the chair, while she places her jacket neatly on the coat rack next to the table. The waiter comes by with our coffee. 
I look down at the hot brown liquid.  'I don't normally drink coffee.'  
'Try it.' 
I take a sip.  It tastes bitter but pleasant.  
‘Zola lived in a room above this cafe.' Marion informs me. 
‘Who's he? An actor?’
She smiles.  Her blue eyes sparkle and I get a flashback to the bar and wonder what it would feel like to lean across the table and kiss her lips, just as she kissed mine the night before.
'Zola was a writer.' She tells me. ‘French, of course.’ 
'Oh, of course.' 
She looks at me sharply.  It makes me jump, a little. 
‘Tell me, did you like your time at school?’  She asks. ‘Or am I presuming too much.  Did you even go to school?’
'Not a lot.’ 
'Why not?'
What does she want, my life story?  No father, single mother, no money, etc.  Boring. ‘I didn’t feel like it. What about you?’ 
‘I went to a boarding school, just outside Paris.’ 
The waiter drops by.  We glance up at the distraction.  He places the menus on the table and slips away again.  I wait for her to continue. 
‘It was run by nuns.' She tells me.  'There was one particular nun...,’ she says. 
I'm on my elbows, leaning forward.  
‘At night, she would visit our rooms.’ 
‘What for?’
‘Not washing properly, that sort of thing.’ 
‘Really?’
She seems amused by the memory. ‘Yes, but we were happy to receive her punishment.’ 
She stares at me over the rim of her coffee cup, her blue eyes searching mine, reaching into my very soul. 
I try not to react.

***

After our Croque-monsieurs, Marion asks if I'd like to go for a walk.  I say sure, and we get back in the Merc and drive off again.  Passing a pub with mullioned windows, I figure it’s time to get things straight between us. ‘By the way, I’m strictly into men.'

 'That’ s nice for you Kate.’  She says, with a quick smile. 

About halfway along the hill, she parks the car and we get out and stroll along a pathway leading a woods.  At the entrance to the woods, there's a map in a glass case. We read the warning about a poisonous mushroom growing at the roots of some of the trees.  The soil feels soft like carpet.  Around us, a feast of orange, burgundy, chocolate, and gold.  Here and there I see branches twisted into weird anthropomorphic shapes.

Deeper and deeper into the enclosure we go, looking for the mushroom.  A woman wearing a red raincoat passes by with a black Labrador panting at her heels.  'She looks like she's swallowed that mushroom,’ I remark, causing my companion to laugh.  It's a glorious wild sound, like a choir bursting into song. Then she tells the story of an eccentric who lived in the woods.  He built a big house there in the last century.  ‘It's known locally as 'The Folly'.  All that's left are the walls.’ 
When we reach the ruin, I run my hand over the old stone walls, smooth like butter, and blue-veined, like skin. Marion caresses the nape of my neck with her fingertips. I feel the same sensation of shock, like before, but this time mixed with pleasure. 
‘Your eyes, they change color with the light,' she tells me.  'Did you know that?’ 
I move away and step inside the ruin, looking up at the remains of the ceiling. She follows, and we stand next to each other, absorbing the atmosphere and drinking in the silence of our surroundings. Outside the walls of the ruin, a holly bush grows, scattering red berries on the leaf-strewn ground.  Further along, a gnarled tree stump, blackened with age, grips the earth with monster feet. The woods are fecund, primeval, and as we sink deeper into the shadows of twilight, Marion places a hand on mine, bringing a warm thrill to my bones. All around me, everything feels alive, and the ruin turns from mauve to grey, to black. A leaf, like a snowflake, catches my cheek.  Marion brushes it away, and the touch of her fingers excites me yet more.  I turn, and we kiss hungrily, insistent; our lips smashing together. 

Gently, she opens her jacket and guides my hand to her breast.  We sink to our knees, next to the ruin.  Marion's eyes are lustrous in the dark, touching the root and branch of my desire,  and slowly, oh so slowly, her fingers begin parting my thighs. 


© Alice Frances
Editor, New London Writers





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