Laura struggled to cling on to the slimy wet parapet of the railway bridge. Wind buffeted her hair and hit the back of her throat every time she opened her mouth to draw breath. “I’m surprised you don’t get blown away,” as her mother would say every time there was anything more than a mischievous breeze that tumbled leaves across St. Benedict’s park and swirled round the three-storey Georgian townhouses with their toothy grin of sash windows.
A heavy shower of rain intermingled with the north easterly, creating blustery squalls which slapped and scratched at her cheeks and burnt their coldness into the marrow of her fingers before spiraling down into the darkness.
She stood on tiptoes and peered down onto the track below. The rails were clearly visible. She imagined lying on the sleepers broken, but alive – her bones snapped like so many dried out hog weed stems. To stand a chance of doing the job properly, she’d have to time her jump to coincide with the passing of an intercity train. But then she noticed the gloomy platforms running either side of the line. She was right next to the station, so either way the locomotives would be slowing down, or only just picking up speed. Stupid cow! Go and find yourself a motorway.
Laura slipped her hands off the coping stones and dove them between her thighs, crouching down with her back against the grey brick wall. In front of her a growling line of rush-hour traffic crept along the narrow road chugging exhaust fumes and vapor out into the navy blue afternoon.
Stretched out into the distance was an area that looked little more than a bomb site. Cordoned off by high fencing like a screen around a dying patient, only the facade of the old textile mill remained to be demolished; brickwork dropping away in jagged chunks from the top down. Glassless windows staring back at her like empty eye sockets. A couple of buildings to the left stood the tatty white shell of the workingmen’s club – all points of entry sealed with metal grills: gold lettering swinging loose and dropping off its crumbling frontage.
She coughed hard, expelling the poisoned air from her lungs and stood up straight, re-wrapping her coat and knotting the belt tight. Then, with her arms folded across her chest as if she were wearing some invisible straight jacket, she started to wander back up the hill. Her ballet pumps dragged through the water which glazed the pavement and congregated in the dark indentations of sunken slabs. Falling rain illuminated from behind by car headlights became fine steel needles which pricked and stung her forehead.
She made her way round the sweeping bend that led to the corner of Marks & Spencer. All she could hear was the aggressive thump and hiss of car stereos trapped in the centipede of vehicles gridlocked all the way up to the bypass. Her body lurched like a storm-battered ship in the unexpected blasts of wind. She stopped and swayed a little, looking up at the road sign which blurred for an instant, then split apart into two identical Howard Streets, one on top of the other.
Laura shook her head at the thought of taking the route through the shopping district. But every muscle ached and the way through the park was twice the distance – a foray into the Fairstead Estate, highly ill-advised. So she gradually started to weave her way along a pair of double yellow lines, leaving behind the hypnotic pull of countless rear lights bleeding into the city sky.
Her path was flooded with white and amber light gushing out of windows, or flickering overhead in garish signs. The air was filled with sizzling, the metallic squawk of knives on steels and the hurling of racist abuse. Drinks cans rolled and bounced past and empty takeaway boxes skidded along the ground only to flip up, fly a short distance and wedge themselves somewhere in the sheltered enclave of a dingy urine-soaked doorway.
Even with her gaze trained on her feet, she still glimpsed brightly lit pictures of synthetically coloured kebabs and salad, burgers in buns and two-for-one pizzas out the corner of her eye. They merged into a grotesque frieze of overflowing platefuls shifting in and out of focus and hemming her in on either side. Customers ordering at the counters left cruel snatches of gluttony ringing in her ears. She had to sidestep a huddle of noisy figures gorging on the aromatic contents of branded cardboard packaging.
To her immense relief the red brick tower of the City Hall clock eventually loomed ahead of her. Bent over with her hands on her knees, she let the funneled wind alternately tug and release her coat and the rain run down her hair which hung off her head in saturated clumps. To her left, a mass of chips spilled out of their soggy paper like bloated maggots bursting out of a wound. She wretched, then swallowed, then thought about the soft potato melting on her tongue; the waxy residue clinging to the backs of her teeth. She gripped her stomach and scrunched up her eyes… Four days without food. Good, but not good enough.
Laura passed the crooked alleyways of the old town feeling the pavement turn to slippery cobbles beneath her feet. Her legs trembled with every step and she cried out when her thin, tread-less soles sent her leg skidding forwards in front of her. The rain had by now downsized to an irritating drizzle and the wind molested her in ever more fitful gusts. She sniffed up a dribble of snot and reached for a segment of hair snaking across her forehead. Scraping it aside, she went to tuck it behind her ear, only for dozens of strands to come away at her touch, sticking to her fingers and billowing like the ragged edge of a flag.
She finally shook them free and watched them float off into the darkness and disappear behind a waste bin. Then a loud crash and cackle rang out from somewhere up in front.
Laura glanced at the twisted pitch-black tunnel of a side street, then back at the approaching gang of youths. Fanning out like beaters hunting an otter down a river, she instantly recognized the tall skinny girl in the denim mini striding in their midst. She was the image of her little sister Claire.
Laura remembered that morning in the bathroom the day before her fourteenth birthday; her face hot and temples throbbing as the scrawny brat sneered at the almost imperceptible belly she’d developed over the summer; prodded the slightly thickened thighs she’d spotted despite Laura’s unwavering devotion black leggings. Well, you had started to let yourself go…
She crept forward, her knees like rusty hinges in the freezing calipers of her jeans. Her shoulders twitching violently as she tried to pull her collar up round her ears. The line of hooded figures split in two and passed by either side. She turned and saw the formation regroup behind her. A long, deep sigh rushed past her lips. She fixed her eyes on the curve of a set of wooden benches silhouetted against the encroaching darkness and reflecting the feeble light from a street lamp on their slick surfaces. Save for the scrape of her shoes and the panting of her breath, the near silence was punctuated only by the patter from a broken gutter; or the gurgling river of water in the drains below. Or the sound of heavy footsteps scuffing sharply from behind.
She could hear the splashes growing louder, accompanied by shrieks and roars which chased towards her through the moist evening air. Laura stopped; a mattress of stone rising up towards her face then moving back down again. Her legs began to buckle and she felt her upper body weaken and sag.
Laura’s scream echoed round cavernous department stores and rows of shuttered shops stood like witnesses with their eyes deliberately closed. She rolled over and sat up in the wetness, moaning and cradling her left arm. The diminutive figure with jeans halfway down his groin chuckled, then started bouncing backwards on the balls of his feet.
“Got you, bitch.”
Laura flopped onto the bench, letting out a little shout as her bones pushed through the skin and ground against the wooden slats. Dabbing away tears with the damp cuff of her coat, she darted a look back down the street. It was empty. After several deep breaths she wriggled her arm out of her Mac and began to push up her sleeve, stopping for a few seconds after every few inches. Her elbow was covered with a series of fine lacerations welling with blood from where the skin was grazed away. She eyed the building opposite: light spilled out of the doorway as if someone had tipped over a goblet of liquid gold.
Fumbling in her pocket for her purse she shuffled up the steps, wincing as she stumbled into the door fame and cursing as she heard something drop to the ground behind her. It was a small rectangular box open at one end. She bent down to pick it up, pushing her thumb and forefinger inside and pulling out a foil-backed strip containing rows of little white tablets. They would take some swallowing. Unlike the capsules her fifteen-year-old self had meticulously split apart in the school toilets and stirred into her lunch break hot chocolate.
A much better idea than stripping to her underwear in that field last winter. You complete loser. Couldn’t even pull off sitting still and freezing…
Laura looked up at the high ceiling of the bar. Decorations of voluptuous fruit twined above her and mahogany paneling lined the walls into which were inserted several tall mirrors. A woman sitting in the corner with short blonde hair feathered round her face was staring.
Laura brushed grit from the wet patch running down the whole left hand side of her coat. She could feel the muddy water soaking through to her knickers and her elbow begin to swell inside the tight sleeve of her grey cotton top. Slipping off her coat she examined her arm again. It sported a massive bruise: an inky stain spreading under the surface of her skin from her wrist to her Celtic band tattoo. Laura shuddered at the thought of the hospital visit to be weighed in two days’ time; the consultant’s warnings about end-stage cirrhosis revolving round her head. She approached the bar and hauled herself up onto a chunky wooden chair.
“Vodka and coke, please. Double. Oh and can you make the coke diet?”
Laura sat with her fingers interlocked around the tumbler as if pinning it into position. A good ten minutes ticked by on the Guinness clock. Tensing her wrists, she eventually managed to raise it slopping to her mouth and gulp the contents. The barman held her gaze as he carefully stacked glasses into the washer.
Pulling another note out of her purse, she frowned and started counting on her fingers. Then she slumped against the back of the chair with her jaw hanging loose and watched the old woman peering back at her from behind the rows of bottled drinks.
A hot flush had highlighted the clusters of tiny veins breaking on her cheeks and spreading their hairline fractures across the top of her chest. She gazed at the white patches between the strips of mousey hair plastered to her scalp. The grooves either side of her mouth as if someone had carved rows of vertical smiles into the skin. The defined plateau of her shoulder blades: the hollows below her cheekbones: the tendons bursting out of her scrawny, jaundiced neck.
She peered at the dark brown bags below a pair of bloodshot eyes and wondered where the haggard creature was sitting because there was no-one behind her either. Apart from the strange barman with shiny black hair flopping across his face as he quietly cleared tables and slipped the stiff plastic menu cards back into their racks.
When Laura looked up at the clock again, nearly an hour had passed. She was surrounded by empty packets of crisps scattered across the marble-effect bar like a fallen platoon. And peanuts. And Peperami tubes. She jumped, knocking a couple of crumpled wrappers onto the floor, then gasped as she realised that the sharpness tingling her taste buds was salt and vinegar. Little fragments of nut were stuck in her teeth. There was an horrendous bloated feeling in her stomach.
She staggered out of the pub sobbing and banging into tables before emptying her change into her hand – half of it tinkling onto the pavement.
Laura’s mother slipped into the pink-walled bedroom bearing a large mug of tea. Her face showed nothing but a small smile and the faintest sparkle in her eyes like the glint of a jewel being slowly covered by drifting desert sands. She moved as if she were tending the grave of someone dear. Laura rolled over and sipped the drink, immediately spitting it back into the cup. Her mother lowered her eyes.
“Sorry, I forgot you don’t take sugar anymore.”
She peered at the angular bulges pushing up the sheets like a relief map of some lethal mountain pass. The radio alarm on the bedside table clicked and crackled. Laura lay back and put her hand to her head. She peeled a sticky clump of hair off the side of her face, sniffed it tentatively and gagged.
The area below her bare bottom and legs was cold and wet. Tossing back the covers revealed a patch of foul-smelling yellow covering half the bed and countless streaks of orangey red staining the crisp white cotton. She twisted the sole of her foot towards her and spotted a tiny puncture wound. A fragment of glass near her ankle winked in the morning light.
Dragging herself across the saturated sheet, Laura swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She stopped still with her head hanging and rolled her eyes. Peanuts. She thought she remembered peanuts. Crisps, maybe. Doubled over, she charged to the bathroom and flung herself down in front of the porcelain bowl– the long nails on her index and middle fingers soon gouging the flesh at the top of her mouth.
Waddling back into the bedroom with a towel scrunched up between her legs, Laura yanked open the drawer of her dresser, taking out several boxes of tablets and emptying their contents on the top so that they formed interlocking stacks like a crude funeral pyre. Empty plastic pockets in the strips looked like burst blisters. She looked up at a photograph on the wall showing her twelve-year-old self with her arms crossed and her head tilted to the side. Laura Bevan: “Legs Eleven,” with her washboard stomach, hipbones protruding proudly from the waste-band of her skirt and virtually no-existent breasts. The picture seemed to smirk as with each gulp of nearly-cold tea, at least ten pills were sent hurtling down her gullet.
Laura became aware of the scent of cleaning products and food and a steady high-pitched bleeping beside her. She could feel stiff material tight across her chest and legs – an object in her mouth forcing it open and what felt like a tube in her nostril running down the back of her throat. Laura opened her eyes. It took some time for them to adjust to the bright light.
The blurred scene before her melted away and square beige ceiling tiles and the top of a curtain rail presented themselves like a ship emerging from fog. The sound of a door squeaking and a soft, slow mumbling reached her from some distance away.
Her immediate instinct was to lift a hand and tear the apparatus from her face. To call out. But nothing would move; her arms, her legs; not even one finger. She wanted desperately to toss her head from side to side and scream, but all remained still. The link between her body and brain was like the link between a brain and a mouth with no tongue. No matter how hard she willed it so, a physical manifestation of her misery simply wouldn’t happen. Her eyelids fluttered. A short grunt emitted from her throat. A tear slipped out of the corner of her eye.
A heavy-set woman in blue scrubs approached, looked at her, then turned and called out across the ward. Rolling her eyes up and to her left Laura could see a clear plastic bag filled with some kind of viscous liquid. It’s a drip-feed you silly bitch. Pumping God knows how many calories into you minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day…
After working as a freelance writer and photographer, Serena Shores became interested in creative writing as a challenge to herself, having never attempted a story before. Her naivety about genre fiction embarrassed her into immersing herself in the stories being written today and she eventually began to have work accepted.
Adrian Gauci is a graphic designer, illustrator, collector, and an avid list-maker from Malta inspired by science, history, and technical drawing. He is currently reading for an MA in Sequential Design and Illustration at the University of Brighton, UK and is the creator for the weekly edition of The Impossible Cheese.