Unruly penguins dancing to the thunder of the sea, a skidding flapping chaos. Then they dive, the ultimate display of grace.
Sleeping Beauty wandered through the palace aimlessly, vodka in hand. Her prince would be back soon, he’d expect her to be dressed for dinner, her hair piled high with diamonds, her eyelashes curled, but she was already half-drunk and could not be arsed.
“Not that he ever really looks at me anymore,” she muttered to herself, taking a mouthful of her drink and letting out a bitter sigh, “not while I’m awake anyway.” His fetishes no longer disturbed her, they were just one more irritation out of many.
She wandered through the grand hall, kicking off her shoes and shimmying around the floor. It was years since she had properly danced, and the lack of music was no barrier, she could feel a song in her skin, waiting to break out. She had spent a hundred years frozen still, and now three more bored stiff. She knew there were lives out there ready to be lived, new princes, new challenges, new mythical beasts to ride.
“Whatever happened to happy ever after?” she asked to the elaborate painted ceiling as she spun around the hall in her best approximation of a pirouette. She wondered if it was possible to hire herself a wicked witch, and made a mental note to google it later.
He slammed down the book and relished the ripples of shock and irritation as they echoed around the library.
“Sorry, so sorry,” he said, meekly, his head held low and so that his floppy fringe hid his small grin. The room was fusty, with dust collecting on every surface, weighing people down. They’d be slow to react, he’d get to enjoy every frown and tut as it unfolded around him. He lifted the book high a second time.
Once again, he was the master of chaos.
Every morning Cat would wake in a panic and rush to the bathroom where her make up was gathered around her sink like a jury. She’d work through the routine, layer by layer she would remake her face into something acceptable. Concealer, foundation, foundation powder, blush, neutral eyeliner, defining eyeshadow, eyeliner. She saw her face as a collection of flaws to be patched up and buried. Each year the slap had grown thicker and thicker as new wrinkles and blemishes popped to the surface and her true face was lost.
Some days she’d try to imagine how it would be to be loved for all her flaws, to show herself to the world, could she really be so disgusting to look at? She’d make a deal with herself that tomorrow she’d walk down the street with her face naked, just to see what would happen. Would people shout? Laugh? Would strangers video this hideous creature to stick up on Youtube? She knew she’d never do it. Sometimes she’d dare herself to just step outside her flat and take the lift to the ground floor, say hello to Mrs Robey who liked to stand in the hall smoking a fag, maybe pop her head out the door to where Salman would be playing with his kids on the grass. The dare would quickly evaporate as she imagined their horrified reactions.
And then the fire happened. At three in the morning, the fire alarm rattled through the block with such a raucous demand for attention, she found herself standing on the grass outside before she remembered her face was empty of disguise. As the street filled up with scared occupants in dressing gowns and duvets, she tried to keep under trees in the shadows. She saw Mrs Robey, already lighting up a fag to calm her nerves, even in the panic she had thought to bring them with her. She saw Salman huddling his children to him, trying to keep them warm. As people from neighbouring blocks joined them, it became increasingly difficult to hide, all spaces were filled with people, both dazed and bustling, slowly filling up the spaces and edging her out into the light. And then she was in the middle of the noise and fuss, being offered cups of tea and wrapped up in blankets. And no one was recoiling from her ugliness, it was as if they didn’t notice any difference, as if they didn’t care. She slurped her tea and chuckled with her neighbours about how silly they all looked, about how scared they’d all been; and for once she didn’t need to think about her make up slipping or lipstick on her teeth. And it was quite nice.
She lost everything in the fire, old photographs, her wedding dress, pictures the children had drawn. Each thread that tied her to her life had snapped and there was nothing left. Feeling lighter than air she wandered to the station and planned who she was going to be from this day forth.
This flat is too big without her in it, the wind seems to rush right through me, the floor echoes my footsteps instead of her laughter. We never even argued. She snapped sometimes, I just assumed she was tired, and I’d give her a hug to cheer her up. Maybe if we’d had a proper screaming row, I could understand the pattern that led us to here, retrace my steps. There must have been steps, there must have been signs.
I walk past where she kept her coat, folded over the sofa. She always wanted a hook on the wall, but I explained I had just the right number of hooks for my coats, and I didn’t want to spoil the paintwork. We’d laugh about it of course, I’d say give it another year and you can have your own hook, and we’d laugh. Laughing is the backbone of a relationship, I always think.
She was here three years. They were beautiful years, but I had to rearrange my life around her, I don’t think she saw how difficult that was. I’d find her hair in the plug hole, or she’d want to watch the Apprentice; it was tough, but I kept altering my world to fit her in. She wanted somewhere to put her stuff, so I cleared a shelf in the cupboard under the stairs. She kept her shower gel there, a change of clothes.
When the lack of her gets too much, I open the cupboard and stare at the empty shelf. I thought she’d be pleased with it, I had to clear away my motoring magazines to make space and I thought she’d fling her arms around me joyfully and be so happy, but she just nodded. Nobody else in my life ever had a shelf, she was special. I wanted her to know that, but it was like she couldn’t feel it, like she blocked all my efforts.
When she left it only took five minutes to up and out of my life. She cleared the shelf, picked up her coat and was gone, as if she’d never been here. Apart from the mug ring on the coffee table, she erased herself from my home. She hasn’t called. Why hasn’t she called? She must be regretting her decision by now.
We were happy, weren’t we? I was happy. She was special.
As she folded and smoothed the bedsheets over and over, minutes edged into hours. As she perfected one corner, another would rumple, but she kept on trying.
“If I can just get this one thing right, it will be the start of a perfect life,” she thought.
Living in a house converted to three flats, Jacky was only slightly surprised to see on the hall table, post for a name she didn’t recognise. It was a package the size of a bag of sugar, and the name on the front said Stenny Johansson. She checked beneath it for her own post, found none, and went on her way.
The package had been there for three days when the doorbell rang early on Sunday morning. A cheerful blonde-haired, ruddy-faced Swedish man stood on the doorstep, and Jacky peered at him through her hangover,
“Hello! Hello! I am so pleased to see you here. I was hoping that you had a parcel for me, Stenny Johansson?”
“You’re Stenny Johansson?”
“Yes, I’m over here from Sweden and my wife sent my parcel to the wrong house. Do you have it?”
“Oh, sure,” said Jackie, blurrily and confused, she handed over the package.
“Oh what a relief. It is parts for my vacuum cleaner and I’m leaving in a few days, so I need those parts before I leave the country.”
“Ah,” said Jacky, wondering vaguely why anyone would have vacuum cleaner parts sent over from Sweden if they were about to leave the country, but instead she nodded sagely.
“Oh you are a doll! You’re a lifesaver!” said Stenny, exuberantly, in a noisy way that hurt her head, and Jacky was relived to shut the door.
Three days later, on Wednesday morning when Jacky was still on her first coffee,the door bell rang and Jacky trudged down the stairs to open it. In the doorway stood another blonde, cheerful man.
“Ah yes! Hello! My name is Stenny Johansson, I’m hoping that you have a package for me,” said the man.
“No, someone called Stenny Johansson picked it up a few days ago,” said Jacky, feeling befuddlement flush her face red.
“No, no. I am Stenny Johansson, that is my package. Do you have it?”
“No, I just told you, someone picked it up.”
“But it’s mine,” said the man, sweaty indignation furrowing his face. “It’s vacuum cleaner parts, I need them to fix my vacuum cleaner. Did you check he was the real Stenny Johansson?”
“No, why would I check that?” asked Jackie, she was feeling indignant now. The second Johansson stormed off, shouting,
“Well you shouldn’t have given my post away! That’s illegal, you know?”
When the third Stenny Johansson appeared at the door, Jacky knew instantly. He had the same ruddy face, tousled blonde hair and look of optimism. Before she could speak, he tried to force his way in. Jacky put her foot against the door, but it took all her strength to keep the new Stenny outside.
“But those are the parts for my vacuum cleaner!” he shouted through the letterbox. “How will I clean my house now?”
The fourth Stenny Johansson didn’t bother announcing his name as he shoved the door aside with such force that Jacky went flying against the wall and knocked her head. With her thoughts still spinning, she was only dimly aware of Stenny Johansson stomping up the stairs to her flat, and then stomping back down a few minutes later. She didn’t really register the bright red object in his hands, and it was only later when she found her Henry hoover missing that she understood that he’d taken it.
Mrs Wrench nearly tripped over her own Jimmy Choo’s in her hurry to get outside.
“Er, Matthew!” she said, voice shrill with delighted indignation.
“Yes, Mrs Wrench,” said Matthew looking up from the box hedge he was pruning, his back creaking with effort.
“I believe I told you I didn’t want any purple in the garden!”
“Purple? There isn’t any purple,” said Matthew, looking about confused.
Mrs Wrench pointed to the Agapanthus that Matthew had recently picked up from the garden centre and potted into a huge urn.
“And what do you call that?” said Mrs Wrench, triumphantly.
“Blue?” said Matthew.
“I don’t think so! Get rid of it immediately, I won’t have purple in this garden.” Without another word she turned and marched back into the house.
“Well, that told him!” she announced to her husband as she walked past where he was reading the paper, he didn’t look up. “I mean, really!” she said to no interest whatsoever. Mrs Wrench stood glaring at the back of her husband’s head for a few moments and then went to the kitchen to look out to where Matthew was throwing the Agapanthus on the compost. She looked searchingly around the garden for issues. Then, she marched outside again,
“Matthew! Matthew!” she called, Matthew ambled over, a nervous look on his face that gave her a glow of contentment. “These daffodils,” she barked.
“Yes,” said Matthew, “I thought you liked yellow.”
“I do, I do like yellow, but they’re all facing the wrong way. When I look out of the window, all the flowers are facing into the garden, and I can’t see them properly.”
“Well, yes,” said Matthew, “they’re facing towards the sun.”
“It’s simply not good enough. I want you to dig them up and turn them around, so I can see them from the window. Understand?” The look of befuddlement on Matthew’s face was a joy to behold, and Mrs Wrench walked back inside with a spring in her step. She sat in her favourite armchair, took her phone out of her pocket and set the alarm for twenty minutes. Plenty of time for Matthew to do something wrong. She leaned back in her chair and smiled.
Wade had a blister that had started out as three separate blisters but had grown into one. He’d run out of energy bars. He was sick of breath-taking views of endless skies above endless valleys. His knees hurt. But he was finally here, outside the guru’s cave, waiting to have the meaning of life explained to him.
He’d first read about the guru Alodu on the Internet. People would write gushing posts about how he had freed them from the nagging doubts, given them a lasting sense of peace. For years now, Wade had been dragging himself through life feeling each moment as itchy with guilt and insecurity. He had visited therapists, taken medication, listened to CDs, but these things only ever felt like a temporary solution, a hiding of his problems, not fixing them. When he heard about Alodu he decided the chance to free himself was worth the price of a flight and a hike. He hadn’t expected the route up the mountain and to the cave to be quite so well signposted. Luckily, since he’d run out of food, there was a fast food kiosk selling burgers, but it felt a little tacky.
He ducked under the cave’s low roof, and was surprised to see a small speccy white man sitting on the floor in a cardigan. He was unimpressive, and Wade felt his hopes deflate as his blisters throbbed.
“So, I’m Alodu,” said the guru, “what’s up?”
This felt all wrong to Wade, but he had rehearsed this speech a hundred times and he wasn’t going to waste the effort.
“I’m plagued,” he said dramatically. Dramatic had seemed right when he planned this conversation on the walk up. However, sharing with this librarian of a man, his head cocked to one side politely, it seemed inappropriate to be dramatic. “I feel like I’ve done and said too much that’s wrong. I want to forget, stop caring and get on with my life, but I can’t stop thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made.”
“That’s unfortunate, “ said Alodu as if he was commenting on something mundane like a traffic jam, rather than Wade’s plagued soul. “Have you tried collecting stamps? I find that soothing.”
Wade shifted awkwardly on his rock, hoping this would convey his lack of satisfaction with this answer.
“Stamps?” he said.
“Yes or perhaps watch some Bob Ross videos about learning to paint, I do like a bit of Bob Ross.”
“Now look here!” snapped Wade, causing the guru to flinch inside his cardigan. “I’ve climbed a bloody mountain, I want better advice than my gran would come up with.”
Alodu looked at him thoughtfully, with infinite patience and calm. Then in hushed tones, whispered,
“You want meaning in your life? Serenity?”
“Have you tried eating steamed broccoli?”
Wade stormed out on his blistered feet. As Alodu watched him go, he said sadly,
“Some people just don’t want to be enlightened.”