• Vol. 05
  • Chapter 11
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The Translator

TRANSCRIPT

21st August 2039

Oona Prince – Radio Presenter
Belle Rigby – First Mermaid Translator

OP: With us today we have Belle Rigby, the first woman – sorry, the first human – to successfully make contact with the Marei and live to tell the tale.

So Belle, take us back to 2027 when the threat from the Marei was very real. No one had survived an encounter before you. How did you get involved? Were you a volunteer with the Communication Mission?

BR: No, I was just a jobbing musician. They wanted language specialists. I was busking at the emergency port where Kew Gardens used to be. Admiral Tenant was there at the summit for the protection of the new sea borders. He came over to listen but I didn’t know who he was. He just stood with his eyes closed. I like it when people do that. Then he said he had a job for me. He told me later he had no idea if it would work but he’d just lost the first cohort of translators. My harp had made him think of a story he’d heard at school, Orpheus. I knew it from my ex who was into the Sandman comics. I only remembered the bit about him being ripped to shreds and his head left singing.

OP: But music was the key wasn’t it? Tell me what was it like to – is ‘talk’ the right word – with a mermaid.

BR: The way I think of it is this – if it was a different time I’d have been burned as a witch. Consorting with demons (laughs). The first time was on my fourth scout performance. I’d been playing for maybe 45 minutes – Tam Lin – and I felt someone join the song. Read more >

1

Figurine

Kaolinite – it is a soft, earthy, usually white, mineral. In many parts of the world it is coloured pink-orange-red by iron-oxide, giving it a distinct rust hue. Lighter concentrations yield white, yellow, or light orange colours. Alternating layers are sometimes found.

Like you, I was once clay, malleable, moveable. Dense with hope, heavy with possibility.

An angel song played on a golden harp. White satin, flower garlands. You shaped me on an altar, love from both sides pouring in. In safe hands, they said. Your hands, I was willing to be moulded.

A review on the formation of kaolinite, raised the fundamental question… how could a disordered material ever be transformed into a corresponding ordered structure?

Heat, from a devil’s fingers, liquifying my body, molten lust. Leather. rubber. A mask drawn tight across my face. Breathless, I drip with sweat and shame.

Below 100°C (212°F), exposure to dry air will slowly remove liquid water from the kaolin. The end-state for this transformation is referred to as "leather dry". Between 100°C and about 550°C (1,022°F), any remaining liquid water is expelled from kaolinite.

The heat, it burns. My skin is scorched. The flesh peels, exposing white bone. You control the gauge, a quarter more to the right. I become impermeable. The mask tightens. Bubbles of truth float to the surface and ripple into lies. They hear an echo of me but no longer see.

The end state for this transformation is referred to as "bone dry". Subsequent transformations are not reversible and represent permanent chemical changes. Read more >

2

TEN NOTES FROM THE CONDUCTOR

Here are the instructions for this performance:

1. Breathe. Just breathe. Find your tempo, and play.

2. The performance should be as long as you can let it be. Try very hard not to stop.

3. Play it as best you can. Even when you think it won’t come can’t come will never come: breathe, and keep playing. Even when your throat tightens like a hand is around it, and the weight of the world presses heavy on your chest, and the blood sings in your ears and it sings a song of the end of everything: keep playing.

4. The performance will be complex and at times difficult. The notation will make no sense. The score will lead you towards a crescendo, then drop away, unresolved. You must continue.

5. At times as conductor I will be demanding, insistent, a tyrant.

6. At times I will walk out of the room, leave you with no instruction.

7. Some of the pages of the score will be blank. Some will be in the wrong order. Accept this, and play.

8. There will be times when you will lose all faith in the music; you will feel adrift, out of sight of land, sinking. The waves will close over your head and the sky will become just a lightness above the water. You will sink deeper and deeper until that lightness becomes just a stain and then that stain becomes nothing more than a memory of light.

Read more >
3

second-best room

Granny has a second-best room where all the second-best things live. The biscuits are left out long enough that their crunch is lost under the

tannined-tang of cut price tea.

The crockery doesn’t match, the porcelain is thick and ridgy and there are no serviettes to mop up the dribbles where lip clashes lip, just empty cardboard

kitchen roll innards lined up on spikes.

Granny has a second-best grandchild who hides in the second-best room.

Granny doesn’t know that the grandchild knows that Granny knows she’s second-best, but the grandchild

feels it, eats it, breathes it, lives it.

The grandchild has been

customising

in the absence of light and visits from the refined sorts whose mumblings dance down the corridor and trill at the door of the

second-best room.

The porcelain army is amassing. Little Bo-Peep no longer gives a fuck that she’s lost her sheep because the atomic bomb is ticking

TICK TICK TICK

under her cloak. Who made her second-best and wear the bonnet and hand over her earnings to the man in the suit?

(you did) Read more >

4

THE SECRET CONCERT, HAMBURG, 1942

First there was a trumpet discovered in the ticket office, behind cobwebbed glass and behind a furred velvet curtain that was drawn. The trumpet was just sitting on the cushioned seat all brassy and breathless and cold. Then a clarinet was found in the theatre stalls, and a cello outside casually leaning against the locked front door as though it had been waiting some time to be admitted and had grown tired and slumped. A tuba was abandoned in the men’s toilet.

How they came to be where they were was a mystery. It was as though a whole orchestra had made a secret visit to the empty Festspielhaus, delivered a quick and impromptu concert, and then fled in a mad and forgetful rush. This sometimes happened these dark damned days, when men in black shirts were liable to swoop down on anything considered degenerate or depraved: Mendelssohn and Schönberg.

A violin was uncovered in the costume cupboard, wrapped in a maid’s white petticoat, and the bow and rosin concealed the same. And the three parts of a flute appeared suddenly in the gleam of the cutlery drawer in the canteen, as though it was pretending to be a knife and a fork and a spoon. There was a conductor’s baton lying there, too.

The instruments were, over the course of a day, quietly gathered together in the back studio, and as the search widened, more and more were added to the collection. Word soon spread beyond the theatre and it was rumoured that a concert of Offenbach had been heard the night before by a group of music enthusiasts, or that Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky would be played one night later the next week, the musicians reading the notes by candlelight or touch and the rest of the theatre in darkness.

Nothing was certain.

Read more >
5

TRA LA LA to THE MONSTER

All I can play is dark she said

Play On Play On I know you can play pretty

All I can do is play my heart she said

Play On precious girly don’t be so silly

            I am a woman and blinded and airless

            Pluck those strings with your lovely white fingers

            Let me imagine you nubile-nymph-slippery-fish-hairless

            I ache when I play my mind weeps my back breaks

            I don’t want to know I couldn’t care less

            Play On for my pleasure fine china princess

I will play you music to grow your fat head to a pumpkin

You look so sweet-perfectly-mine in that white-frill dress

Then I will harp you asleep and gouge out your eyes and carve you a new mouth and hack at your flesh

Play On my angel you have seen enough of this world you belong deep down here in this well

I am no angel now you stole my wings when you bedded me upon sharp rocks and silt

Play On I’m tired of self-pity-misery O tiny flightless sightless suffocating drowned-object

Read more >
6

In every vibrating sound

In every vibrating sound There is
heart. I am playing for you,

heart. When you rise to my
              throat and find anguish to hear

                             in red, ruddy flesh

you’ll find the world is a pungent litany of distortions
              of ghoulish vectors. Melting

              superiorities. I like confusion when I’m not
                             confused. An old man told of the pendulum

                                                          swing away from the cleaner air.

How in dirty cultures we’re all poorer
              & corruption is made of many clouds,

clouds high where we can’t touch.

How can you call
that air to breathe?

7

Wallace Hartley

There is the story
of the band aboard
the Titanic
paying
Nearer My God to Thee
as the ship
slipped below the waves
and it feels
incomplete in
some way because
did they continue
as they slid off the deck?

Did they float awhile
in the frigid waters
and likewise play
something meaningful,
like Dreams of Home?

Did they somehow
continue to play
as they settled
toward the bottom
of the ocean,
watching the sawing
of the violin to
count time on
No Surrender as
sharp-toothed fishes
circled them eagerly.

Read more >
8

Once It Was The Smoke

Once it was the smoke
that made me cough and splutter
every time I played a gig.
Nicotine flavoured oxygen
which made me long
for a respirator.
Now the problem is unseen.
The air looks pure
but I need a respirator now.
Perhaps I should play
under water
a new version
of Water Music.
There may be more oxygen there,
but I'll take no chances.

9

There is a harp

old school,
sits at her harp playing,

strumming our notes
on a porcelain ground –

someone’s painted
the harp orange and
splashed it on the chair,

decked her in a gas mask
and oxygen tank

invoked Fukushima
on a Meissen figure –

it’s as if the whole
modern world came out of
some Grecian idyll,
some long-dressed susceptibility,
some classical-music figurine,

and then was added poison

10

Pure Drops

They put her on a pedestal and let her play
to audiences parched of music;
with her frenetic fingers and her porcelain skin,
the harpist was so delicate
she wore a gas mask for fear of something toxic.

But once the lights were dimmed,
the auditorium hushed,
the conductor’s baton raised
and the orchestra ready on the right page of the score,
she released into the concert hall the tinkling of rain
and the heady scent of petrichor,
a rush of negative ions in a world of drought,
where the city was deserted until the stars came out.

How they longed for pure drops instead of radioactive rain,
to drink, to bathe, to splash and swim
in lakes and oceans once again!

The harp dripped notes like sprays of spring
on the privileged and wealthy,
who’d sold the world and saved themselves,
the beautiful and healthy.

11

An Instrument of Salvation

We're still here because of the aquifer. Whoever wakes first sings to the water and waits for it to sing back. I woke first, just now, and as I was singing and holding up a palmful of water, as I dunked my head and drank and breathed in, as the water filled my belly and the oxygen filled my lungs, my forehead knocked against this.

My fingers recognised the mask and the tank (we used to have our own) but they had trouble identifying the rest. I thought there was a collar bone, a pair of breasts, an arm, a hand. But I thought I was inventing things. It’s been so long.

I took it back to the others and we passed it around. There were many suggestions (you’d think, having developed gills, we might have developed night-sight by now but we haven’t). Others agreed about the arm and the hand. Some talked about hats they remembered. Some about curtains. Things we knew before we lived down here, in the tunnel.

Milandra, who was the last to speak, said it was a sign. Said we should listen more. Said the time was coming when we’d hear what we’d been longing to hear ever since the disaster. Said it was an instrument of our salvation.

And we believed her. Because we had to.

12

Things You Never Forget

souvenirs of war
come in many forms
sometimes you leave one
sometimes you bring one home
memories of twisted faces crying out
in anger and in agony both asking for help
lost limbs and lost souls and things you never forget
all of us carry some form of souvenir from some form of war

13

The Masque of the Harpist’s Death

Never again say the symphony took your breath away.
No more joking! Not today. The cellists in the big city
fight their way through putrid smog to the auditorium.
Urban wildfires burn your house and squeeze your lungs,
you know this and still think you’ll hear the fire bird
make peace with a water moccasin, a resolution caught
in vague harp strings of your mind. You’ll still have to
emerge into the miasma. Watch babies gasp. Get used to
strains of compromised lungs. We live there now.

14

A Victorian Atmosphere

In the age of steam, the ambitious burned
miles of forests and mountains of coal
to facilitate ascendance. The fat of sheep
and whales lit ballrooms; heady gaslights
illuminated pages of self-authorizing
permits for industrial exploitation, laws
directing military terrorism. Fumes, filth
and ashes permeated the air; we can tell
to the year when any representative art
from that era was created by the models
of gas-masks and oxygen-tanks shown—
which replaced jewels as newly important
fashion accessories and status indicators.

15

Angel of the Apocalypse

They call me the angel of the apocalypse
My music taking wing
Singing its song of the end of days
In the choking, smoking smog

The notes singe my fingers
Fire the strings with a melody
Burn harp and heart
As the inferno embraces us
In its amber cloak
Swallowing us whole
Sucking oxygen from lungs
And hope from prayers

I played when each seal was broken
Softened the blow of what was to come
A gentleness of death
And I will play on
Until no one hears
This perpetual canon
This perpetual mourning
This last sung song

16

Ornamentalism

Her hand is delicate, porcelain, untouched by the silver curse that charged the rest of her body. The hand plucks all the strings it can reach: an octave. The islands—you know the ones I speak of—are the exotic fruit we smuggled through customs last year from a different place: colorful, strange, and delicious. I want to ask her if she has ever graced these places, ever plied her harp at the resorts where heads of silver hair are blown by the sea breeze. I want to say to her, “What’s your favorite fruit? Mine’s oranges.” She turns toward me, as though she can read my mind, her mask confronting me with its intransigence. Angrily, a raft of bubbles bursts forth from the mask. She turns back to her harp, bows her head, and plucks away.

17

Sweet notes of Freedom

My fingers incessantly
plucking the strings
as they draw the blood from my soul
and play on and on
like a long-lost symphony,
with truth lodged within my throat
as I clutch my teeth together
shredding it
Oh! so gently

I move my fecund fingertips fervently
to bring out the music of the divine
those seraphic fingers
playing the melody
move gently
Oh! so sublime

But nothing comes out from this
choked and vapid soul
everything gets
lost in the cacophony
this voiceless din,
this succumbed uproar

I'm taking in thin strips of the air
or whatever is left of it
as my encumbered heart is
dying and rotting slowly

Read more >
18

For their sport

In a mood as usual, Jove spat. A comet
of divine expectorate exploded
in the green, just off some coast. Euterpe
tugged his selfish sleeve; glancing back, he
noted how the whole island shuddered.
A klaxon howled, and mortals hid from it.

“Never apologise,” he said. The Muse,
astounded, remonstrated soundly. Fool,
to think that she could move her master’s mind!
He turned on her. “High time you tried your hand
at divine intervention. Make merciful
overtures, if you must. It’ll be no use...”

How right he was. Euterpe went and tuned
her hopeful harp. The heart of the inferno
set raging on the fatal shore, a mass-
murdering mess, was where her masterclass
took place. Before her harp-strings could turn to
ash – all froze. “I told you so!” Jove grinned.

Now metamorphosed, here she sits.
She smoothly breathes; there’s plenty in the tank.
Her thumb and fingers seem poised to reclaim
their pure notes – but no one lives to hear them.
The population, after all, has shrunk.
And the gods save their yarns for the ex-pats.

19

angels’ harps

submerged in a haze of nuclear waves
I am tossed and tumbled into plutonium’s
cavernous maw, a diver into our wreck and ruins
draped in lead lamé, a fall of pewter folds
encases me as I hold my breath, hold
my breath, hold, until my lungs suck
the air, this burning, caustic blast

I exhale a Darth Vader rattle—
what harmonies we have unleashed—
angels’ harps and broken ribs, crushed
bodies, tissues perforated by
a thousand arrows, shards of atomic waste—
flesh melts and resolves itself into a dew—
can the whole world be placed on a respirator?

air ignites
oceans catch fire
we drown in the contrail
of last century’s delusions
our treasures—music, art, poetry
and breath itself, the zephyr of the soul—
tossed onto the tempest pyre

20

Take a Deep Breath

Even the air we breathe is processed,
has to be now that the fires in the north
and west have flung particulate matter
across the continent. So we carry on,
don our masks and our oxygen tanks
before we sit down to play the harp
or piano—no trumpets or trombones
since we cannot inhale enough to "blow,
Gabriel, blow" any more—and pretend
life is good, still pretty good, as my friend
Bob likes to say, just as the gauge on the tank
veers toward empty and the lightning cracks
and the floodgates open and we become
curios and knick-knacks in nature’s wild parlor.

21

Anxiety

Mix 2ml Ventolin
and 4ml saline –
Breathe through mist.

Voice of Machine
drowns your own.
Breathe in Breathe out

In Out
In Out
In Out

Rhythm brings calm.
Results will show up
soon.

I breathe in,
they’re inside me.
I breathe out,

the three-headed baby crowns.
Mist disappears, Machine makes
choking sounds.

22

Poppets

We had to grow up overnight,
Let go of our favourite things.
The dolls went first, battalions of
Pink into the incinerator...
Black tarry smoke poured from
The chimneys, made us cough
And gag and cry at our losses.
There were two hundred girls
Screaming as if it were their skin on fire.

Those who could play instruments
Formed an orchestra,
Used breathing apparatus
Like fire fighters,
Crushed the cries with symphonies
And bits of opera,
Hid behind masks to save
Themselves.

23

Air of Belonging

"Mum, they'll stare."

"Didn't I tell you it's impolite to stare? In polite society they won't stare."

"They'll notice though."

"Not if you play the way you played this morning."

Coral clutches at her dress, scrabbling for excuses.

"Go," says her mum. "You don't want to be late."

Twelve years leading to this night, this performance.

"But," says Coral, not sure what came next.

"Save your breath." Her mum tucks a stray wisp back under the band around Coral's finely-made wig. Real hair. "You will dazzle them."

Backstage, Coral waits alone, letting the soothing shush of her breath through the tube lull her. A hairless girl rushes into the room.

"Great, you're here," she says. "Hall's filling up nicely. Do you have everything you need?"

Coral nods without thinking. Fade into the background, cause no fuss. Be noticed only for the music.

"Love that mask," says the girl. "Very Under. You don't have to wear it yet though, there's another ten minutes until curtain-up. Don't want you overheating."

She smiles and darts back into the corridor. She has tell-tale ridges beneath the skin of her nose and throat. Even backstage assistants have filters in this dizzying world. Coral clings to her harp as the enormity of the evening threatens to overwhelm her. If she wins…

Read more >
24

Siren

Silver silver lining ripped noted manuscripted, inked rock edge dangerous calling

Plucking sucking draining space retaining, placated soft ledge amorous falling

Fearful tearful nowhere featureless, bare, excavated Gentle defenceless all in

fearful tearful nowhere plucking sucking draining silver silver lining ripped

featureless, bare, excavated space retaining, placated noted manuscripted, inked

Gentle defenceless all in soft ledge amorous falling rock edge dangerous calling

Siren statue lyred

25

god has left

god has left the building,
all flowers aspire to eat flesh
the gnarly spiky worm
is a caterpillar
that forgot its fate

all breath now is
last gasps of mighty air
in a metal tube
that fits on my
back
so curved
so bent –

this music will not be heard

if anything
against this storm
where there is no wind
no noise
no rubble
the only sound
is
a
beating heart
about
to
go

26

The Court At Sea

The girl I love made a harp of fish bones. She caught the oldest, wiliest pike and as it thrashed for breath on the ground she studied the bend of the spine. When it lay still she plucked its eyes and stripped its flesh and chewed them as she trimmed and softened the shards of its bones, ordering them longest to shortest and fitting them in place as unwilling strings. She boiled the skin to glue and used it to bind the harp’s shape.

I asked what she would do with the fish scales that had scattered like sharp mirrored petals, and she gave them to me and said, 'Do as you please.' No string player, me, but I could keep a beat, so I threaded the scales onto long grass to make bells, and I followed her where she played and rang her into every town.

Her renown grew. When she played she could bring to the listener the sound of a snow-melt swollen torrent washing spring into the fields, or it the light trickle of a summer stream. A single hanging plucked note could cause a listener to forget the drought.

A letter arrived one day from the Court At Sea. ,

'We understand a distant cousin contributed to the harp,' said the invitation, 'and we would like to hear you play.' My harpist, tone deaf to anything but music, agreed to go. I chimed her into the Coral Crown Room, where a shimmer of gills and fins shimmer watched us enter unblinkingly. My bells faltered to silence but they had eyes only for the harp.

‘Play,’ commanded the Royals, all rainbow colours.

Read more >
27

Breathe

Oh how I love you hear me play,
Despite you treating me so ill.
Your passion takes my breath away

I tread like feathers, day by day,
And set aside my childlike will –
Oh how I love you hear me play

You’ve moulded me like china clay,
Yet keep me at arm's length, until
Your passion takes my breath away

An ingénue, your protégé,
You bully, cause me to doubt my skill
Oh how I love you hear me play

I recognise I hold no sway,
My dreams unable to fulfil:
Your passion takes my breath away

And should I ever find a way
To leave, I know you’d haunt me still.
Oh how I love you hear me play,
Your passion takes my breath away

28

Harpist

So, has Banksy turned his hand
To postmodern ceramics?
'Apocalypse Now' with a twist –
Oxygen mask handmaiden figurine;
*In ironic Wedgewood style*.
A gloved hand plucking
Outsized terracotta red harp;
White Grecian dress enrobed,
Atop gold leaf decorated plinth.
"Air quality critical" *radio crackles*
...Life imitates art, art imitates life...

29

Archeological Digs

Porcelain, painted and gilt,
with plastic pieces carefully placed,
implies air filled with silt
so thick that sunshine’s been defaced—
yet music still carried its lilt.

Ears uncovered could hear
a beauty once well-loved and known
before that fateful year
was presaged by many a spying drone—
the heralds of dreadful fear.

What creatures had they been,
such able creators of fragile beauty,
to start what they could not win,
unaware that survival’s their primal duty?
We sift through the dust they’re in.

30

Open-Air

Today’s the day:
We fire up the lifevest harp
For a concert,
A modest recital
Of the lives
Of the drowned.

Today’s the day:
We do it open-air,
Old-school style.
Dangerous, I know.
But I am covered neck to foot
In ultralight Sun-U-Block™.
Both demure
And so efficient.
My hands and neck, décolleté:
Factor four hundred.

I’m breathing a flask
From Daddy’s cellars:
Finest mountain morning.
A twenty-six, a vintage year,
With notes of pine and meadow,
Silky woodlands on the palate,
A long dewy finish
With just a hint of ash in the aftertaste.

Read more >
31

Mournful melodies

Porcelain fingers
pluck china strings
the ceramic harp sings
a requiem of
treble disaster
in a world out of key
nature’s jarring orchestra
discordant melody
of old catastrophe
balm of music
on scars of history
clogged lungs respire
a dirge of death
triggering
tremors of recollection
flood of memory
horrors of oblivion

32

Automaton with Minerva

It’s a brittle day to start the brittle season,
when everything gets dark and we are told
this is a good thing, like the sun isn’t our

best friend. But this is what we have to look
forward to now, prepping for the age when
all we do is die, constantly, over and over,

reborn with a black aqualung, a microprocessor
and a Minerva complex, as evolution moves
even quicker if you’re rich with a spanner

in your coffin. And in all these reincarnations
maybe you will be fortunate enough to have
a moment where you meet the augmented

projection of the one you loved the most; they
take a wing off their back and give it to you,
a momento viviere to try and hold on to in the

roiling anthropocenic smog. Say, what was that
tune you played in Florence? ‘Rosebud’, wasn’t
it? Didn’t that world survive too, after the notes

broke on to the floor, into the fire? Play it again,
play it again, play it again, play it again, play it
again again again again again again again again.

33

TODAY AND TOMORROW

Porcelain perhaps,
But it could just as well be plastic.
The naked eye
Is not what it used to be.

A music box possibly,
Enclosed within the base
Of this dainty statuette—
A harpist, dressed in a white gown,
Hand hovering near the strings
Without spaces between them,
Fused together, unending orange
Of porcelain, or plastic,
Or something one has not dreamed.

Don’t talk about the black
Gas mask she wears,
Or the black tank clinging to her back
Like a witch’s familiar.
Don’t even go there.

If there is music in her ensemble,
One suspects a key hidden underneath
The base, waiting to be twisted;
And if there is music,
Do we really want to hear the bombs,
Shrieks, wailing ululations,
Crash of buildings, dripping of blood,
Inhalation of poison vapors—
Accompanied by delicate notes
Of sublimated terror?

Read more >
34

Edith, Corrupted

This is me. Edith. And this is my vision. My dry lungs are corrupted with gas. The moment I stop playing and remove this foul rubber mask, my soul and air will be all gas and I will extinguish. I have nothing left to breathe, I am shorn of dignity but can still escape to the one corner of my mind the hunger hasn't eviscerated yet. There, my vision sits waiting for me.

In it, I have a beautiful dress with Belgian lace at the collar, my hair is high and knotted, I look like a china doll or a porcelain figurine that you might see on a mantel-piece or at a low window of a house near the canal. This porcelain tells you I am fragile, I will shatter soon but for now I am whole and beautiful and with my daughters. I think of them as Dutch now and so orange in this vision. Margot behind me, supporting, dependable, taking the weight of my oxygen and Anne, my harp. With my own hands I made her, such a precocious talent, eloquent cadences flowing from her strings and sinews. That unmistakeable timbre which will resonate for generations comes from her beechwood. Her music can easily turn into a weapon, my beautiful harp can also be a bow, the quavers and semiquavers bolts that will fly far into the future and will not leave the flesh easily. They will tug and pull some of your flesh out should you try to remove. Best leave them in and let them travel to your heart.

35

Six-five-six

Today it was Orange.

The name of the colour came easy to her. As soon as she opened her eyes, she was assaulted by the memory of her mother in their kitchen, handing her a segment of the fruit she had just peeled. She could taste the sweetness of it in her mouth, beating out the rank taste of the night before.

She licked her lips and held up her hand in front of her. Her life line stood out in contrast to the rest of her palm, and the veins under the skin of her wrist looked fluorescent, pumping something contagious through her body.

She swung her feet off her bed. The sheets underneath her creased in violent shades of Orange. The lamp in the corner – her only source of light, that lit up every morning at 7am on the dot and turned off at 9pm sharply – cast a horrible glow over her, like a gross substance had leaked out of a tube.

The sweetness wasn’t in her mouth anymore. She could tell this was going to be a painful colour. She would have a headache in a few hours, and her appetite wouldn’t last after breakfast. She felt bile rise up in her throat at the thought of an Orange plate, with Orange eggs and Orange bread and Orange salt cascading from her fingers as she tried to overpower the look of it with the rough flavour.

Obscene. The word was one she didn’t think she had heard in years, probably not since she enjoyed reading on pages that were black on white. She tested it out, her vocal chords scratching the inside of her throat. Obscene, she said, and the word matched everything around her. Orange was Obscene. The conclusion made her uncomfortable. She folded her arms across her chest and hugged herself tight enough to feel the soft flesh hurt against her ribcage.

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36

CALLOUSNESS OF INGRATES

James picked up the post in the hall and spun the wheelchair precipitously for the turn.
“I’d’ve got that. You know how those stunts put my heart in my mouth.”
Envelopes in his lap, the veteran mock-pouted. “Got to entertain myself somehow. Can’t just wait to die.”
Tanya laughed and tilted her head quizzically, momentarily distracted by the new guise of a hall ornament. She lifted the delicate piece.

It seemed their nine-year-old had decided to co-opt an expensive figurine despite the garish harp – wedding present from James’s squaddie pals – into his own battalion of action figures. Face-mask and aqualung … marines.
“James, do the navy have–”
A grin snapped her train of thought as he opened the brown envelope with exaggerated aplomb. Then he froze.
“Uh.”
“What’s wrong?”
He tried to recapture the smile. “Heh, remember the reappraisal due to Disability Benefit rehash?”
“Ye-aah?” She didn’t like the colour of his face.
“Seems the kidney impact syndrome doesn’t… Shit!”
The letter hit the floor.
Then the harpist.
“James?”
“They wiped–”
“JAMES!!”

37

The Gift

It would be impossible to deny that she had some unusual friends. The presents she’d received for her birthday were a mismatched assortment of items bought from charity shops; books with notes attached saying ‘you must read this’ and the wine and chocolate people had won as prizes and didn’t like. She didn’t like them either but was far too polite to say so.

The statue of a harpist with a diving mask and air tanks had to be one of the strangest she had ever been given. When she’d arrived at work it had been on her desk in a box. The label on the box said ‘Precious - Handle with care’ and there was a card inside that was barely legible with the word ‘Breathe’ on it.

She decided that someone was trying to send her a subliminal message to help her cope with her stressful job and so she closed her eyes and tried deep breathing. After a few minutes she gave up and went to get a coffee.
Returning she found that one of her colleague’s children was trying to take off the diving mask with a glint of mischievous determination in their eyes.
“Would you like it?” The child nodded in reply and marched off clutching the statue.

“One gift gotten rid off, another ten to go,” she mumbled and by the end of the day she’d managed to pass on most of them, except the coffee cream chocolates that no one wanted. Just as she about to leave work, a red-faced executive from the art gallery opposite dashed in and asked if a parcel had been delivered by mistake.

“It’s got a statue in it by a really well-known artist and it’s worth a small fortune. It isn’t here is it?”

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