Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The Empty Pool

Here's the story i wrote for my Art of Short Fiction assessment. please tell me what you think. I originally wanted it to be 10 pages long, so cutting it down meant that i didn't get in everything that i wanted, but i'm still pretty happy with it.

In the cold November noon the garden is almost monochrome. The events of the previous months are evident in only the smallest of details; an abandoned foam ball molding in the grass, a sun-bleached wood and fabric chair laying on its side, with the first green tinge of lichen spreading like embroidery. The changing rooms have been left to fend for themselves, the wood turned grey-black, the bare concrete shower evoking images of the increasingly distant trenches. All the hooks are empty save for one, still bearing the small pair of trunks no one could quite bear to remove. Their colour had faded also, and it now seemed as though they had always been there, and would remain. The walls around the garden are high red brick, held up in one place by iron scaffolding poles, rusted auburn to match. The overgrown trees block out all but the very top of the house, the bell tower, which never rings. One doubts it could any more. There is no way to see in to the place, and once in, no way to see out. The arches with their curlicued iron gates are now always locked.

On summer nights it was the place for the champagne soaked ends of parties, when women in elaborate dresses and their dishevelled escorts would sneak down for a moonlit swim, or to find a shadowed corner in the pavilion. The seclusion was ideal. The faded glamour of the place encouraging stolen kisses and whispered promises. During the day the children played in the smaller pool, whilst the adults sipped tea and nursed their well disguised hangovers. The garden then was full of life. It seemed to be the scene for every intrigue, every proposal, every joy and sorrow which passed through the house during those few warm months.

The hand on the sundial is missing; the metal turned a soft green, almost obscuring the name of “F Barker & Son, scientific instrument makers.” The weak light wouldn’t cast a shadow anyway, instead blanching everything to a dull off colour, like a faded photograph. The larger of the swimming pools turned a bright green, similar to the fashionable colour of that summer, after a young ingénue was seen wearing it to some obscure premier. No leaves floated on the surface, but some half drowned shadows could be seen lurking underneath. The smaller pool was conspicuously empty, and everyone silently acknowledged that it should remain that way, with an absence of sound that would make space seem cacophonous.

That summer had been unusually warm, and seemed to stretch on for eternity. The heat made activity during daylight hours seem almost vulgar, thus most of the action was saved for the evenings. For a week or two, right in the middle of the summer when the heat was at its most oppressive, the house and its inhabitants became almost nocturnal, with sunrise and sunset reversing their roles. It was then, in the distorted world of darkness and light, when everything seemed appropriate because none of it was truly acceptable, that Jessica first really noticed Theo. They had known each other since childhood, grown up together as close as siblings, but it was only in the summer of 1922, that queer and sultry sprawl of lazy days and active nights, that things started to change.

Jessica Ellis was seventeen, and considered herself a woman. The closeness of the summer air brought out some rebelliousness in her, and she used it as an excuse to dress as she desired, something expressly forbidden during the school year, when presided over by far stricter women than her own mother. During the first week of the summer she had ordered Theo to bob her hair with a pair of his scissors, and though the cut was uneven and crude, she thought it suited her very well. The freedom it provided from the heat, the feel of a cool breeze on the back of her neck, was almost too exhilarating to describe, and in a fit of uncharacteristic girlish excitement she had turned and kissed him on the cheek, before skipping off to horrify her mother. Theo stayed where he was, watching her as she sped away, feeling a sensation come over him, different to the stifling heat of the day, but just as intense, before putting away his scissors and retiring to his room.

Theo had known the Ellis family since birth, his father having been a friend of Mr. Ellis since his school days. The men had gone off to war together, from which neither had returned, and the wives decided it would be best for the families to merge, so as to soften the loss, and in the four years since they had merged very little had happened to cause any enmity between the two groups.

The close knit group of children had separated for the first time that year, with Theo and Frazer starting at university, and their return at the beginning of the summer was looked forward to for months. Jessica showed no outward excitement at the boy’s homecoming, but had been counting off the days in her head for weeks, eager for the company of friends nearer to her own age. She loved Tabitha and Edward, but had grown up with Theo and Frazer as playmates, and had no maternal instinct. When James was old enough to play with them, Jessica had handed over the role of damsel in distress to the younger boy, and demanded to be the villain, tying him up to be run over by trains or eaten by lions before being vanquished by the ever-victorious heroes. Her real skill was death scenes, occasionally shrieking and groaning for minutes before finally expiring with a dramatic sigh; sometimes the boys enjoyed whole days figuring out new ways to kill her.

Jessica had grown up as an honorary boy, and was respected by them for her bravery and commitment to their games. She was fearless in those early summers, and often vowed never to change, imagining that through sheer force of will she could remain suspended, Peter Pan-like, as she was in her early teens, without the pressures surrounding all the older women she knew. She came home battered and occasionally bloody from the wicked games of the boy’s imaginations, having suffered numerous horrific deaths, but she came home smiling, arm in arm with her brothers, satisfied that life would always remain so care free.

When the news came of their fathers’ deaths, the households tried to salvage as much normality as they could, but something had fundamentally changed. Jessica stopped being the villain. Her death scenes were taken away. As Frazer was her brother, and James was too young to be wed, Theo and Jessica were married, sometimes as often as ten times in a single week. Their weddings were turbulent affairs, loaded with intrigue and deceit, but they always ended happily enough, the obstacles overcome, their love free to blossom for eternity. Jessica found these games less interesting, her role having reverted to the same damsel in distress role she had shrugged off years ago. Theo kept his opinion of the altered games secret, playing with characteristic earnestness, devoted to the accurate portrayal of his character, but offering neither criticism nor excess enthusiasm. He was content with his given situation as devoted groom to a rather more wayward bride.

The boys returned from university on a Tuesday afternoon more akin to the Riviera than the Home Counties, and caught the household unawares. Finding everyone occupied, they joined Jessica at the edge of the pool, and she slipped out of the water, hugged them both until she was almost dry, then fell into a deck chair and basked in the sun. Theo politely averted his eyes in such a way that it caused her to laugh and slap him on the wrist. False modesty had never been an issue between them, and she felt strangely hurt that he should look away.

Time passed as it does in summers when there is nothing much to do and even less energy to do it. Theo cut Jessica’s hair, secrets were shared, and within a week or two it was as though the boys had never left. In the middle of the summer a party was held. It was when the heat was at its most intense and so the whole thing didn’t get started until almost midnight and continued until dawn. Old family friends were invited and the whole thing had the surreal quality of a dream. Conversation was friendly and light, and mostly centred around what the past year had held for the new students. The question of girlfriends was raised and quickly dismissed by both with a shy smile, a low chuckle from Frazer and a blush from Theo. Glancing across, Jessica caught him looking at her for a split second, before pretending to look past her out onto the terrace, the pink not leaving his cheeks.

At around four, as dawn was approaching, the younger children requested a game, and the group scattered, searching for bad hiding places so that they could be found quickly and the children dispatched to bed. Jessica crept into the walled garden surrounding the pool, intending to hide in the archway under the pavilion. No one else chose to hide in this part of the grounds, and she stood for a long time listening to Tabitha and Edward’s laboured counting. No one found her. She waited longer. She sat on the dusty ground, relishing the look of horror that would surely pass over her mother’s face when she found out. She heard a movement and froze, knowing instinctively not to move if she wanted to remain hidden. The movement stopped. She held her breath.

A whispered “Jessica?” told her it wasn’t her searching siblings lurking in the darkness. “Jess, the game’s over, you won, you can come out now.”

Theo sounded sad, speaking into the darkness, and part of her old rebelliousness tempted her in to staying silent and hidden. She grinned into the dark.

“Jess, the guests are leaving, I’ve been sent to find you, your mother’ll be angry if you don’t come.” She could almost see him in the night, a dark shape in the gloom, one or two sparks reflecting off the buttons on his jacket, a shine in his hair reflecting the moon. She kept quiet.

There was a shuffling sound as he moved closer still, out of the moonlight and into the shadow of the pavilion. He was now only feet away, arms outstretched, feeling for the wall. She stood up. They were almost touching, but neither spoke. The heat of the night and the darkness of the shadow seemed to cast a spell of silence over them. Moments passed while neither moved until Jessica, always the more proactive, blew lightly onto Theo’s nose, causing him to blink and the spell to break. Before she could refill her lungs his mouth was on hers, kissing her with an intensity she hadn’t thought Theo capable of.

Kissing under the pavilion in the walled garden, as so many had done before them and so few would do after, they both felt a change come over them. They were no longer children, no longer innocent or detached from the world of adults. They both saw themselves for the first time as people, individual and alone, on the brink of the unknown. They held each other tighter, their kiss becoming more frantic, more desperate, as though they could banish the onset of their adulthood with the sheer energy of their emotion. So consumed were they both that neither saw the small face in the darkness next to them. Neither heard the gasp, the running of little feet. The quiet cry, the sharp crack of bone on stone and the splash softer than a whisper all went unnoticed by the couple in the dark.

They left the alcove a short time later, breathless and exhilarated, giggling and whispering like the children they were earlier in the evening, both knowing that they could never consider themselves children again. Arm in arm they raced back to the house, hoping they had not been missed, not looking anywhere but at each other’s faces or the dew damp grass beneath their feet.

Jessica discovered Edward a few hours later. Unable to sleep after the night’s events she crept out for a swim before the families awoke and there he was. Her five year old brother was floating; face down, in the smaller swimming pool. A ribbon of blood trailed from a gash on his head like a thought bubble in one of his picture books. He was still wearing the little suit her mother had put on him the night before, but had removed his shoes and socks, and Jessica could see a slight bluish tinge on his tiny toes.

She did not cry out. She felt a strange calm come over her, such as she had not felt in a long time. It was as though she had been moving very fast and suddenly stopped. All the changes of the recent past; her father’s death, the moves of the families, her ascent into womanhood, what had happened between her and Theo last night; the bubble of a life she had created for herself all unravelled in this one moment. Here, by the dead child in the pool, she could be still. Laying her face on the cool stone of the pools edge, she closed her eyes and waited for the dawn.

sorry i've been away for so long, expect more updates soon including film reviews and other cool randomness.

Happy New Decade.

2 comments:

Nicole said...

i love it.
'more akin to the riviera than the home counties' made me laugh.
also, d'awwwww, first kisses. i miss that feeling.

Lucy Jane said...

so kiss more people.
simple.
x