New story I've got on the go. Don't know how regularly I'll be able to update it, as I'm super snowed-under with work, if not in real life (it only ever rains in the UK, and sadly rarely snows properly).
Its main characters are based on those of a short story I posted a while ago called 'A Flower in a Storm', so don't be surprised to find similarities. Hope you enjoy my first proper attempt at a first person narrative. As ever, let me know (gently, please). Also, it's been a while since I've posted, so bear with me if I make a formatting mistake!
Fitzgerald had it right when he described that famous party at West Egg. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there ... become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voice and colour under constantly changing light. I thought of Gatsby’s party, with its shimmering lights, its glittering dresses and its toxic cocktails, and looked around the scruffy room where I sat perched on the balding arm of an old sofa. Although we were all about the same age as those enchanted guests of Gatsby, that room had none of the twenties charm. I watched those modern-day ‘confident girls’ flitting around, laughing and joking, leaving perfume clouds and hazy memories in their wake as they drifted around, and then I found myself staring at my own reflection on the wall across the room. It was a big, ornate mirror that didn’t suit the cheaply-furnished apartment at all. A multitude of other faces floated past me as my own murky green eyes gazed back, and the bass from the cheep, booming speakers made my eardrums ring. I’d only been there an hour, I realised, but at the age of twenty seven, house-parties had definitely lost their appeal. The fact that it was December just made it seem worse. Various couples were snuggling up on sofas and perching romantically on each other's laps, but sat alone. I thought I didn't mind it, but that was always until someone waved a relationship in my face like a cheap souvenir from a sunny holiday, and it made my stomach fill with a small cloud of acid.
I tucked a strand of my long auburn hair behind my ear and spent the next five minutes untangling my sparkly, dangly earring from it. No one bothered me. They weren’t really my friends anyway. They were Emily’s.
God only knew where Emily was, most likely tightly entangled with her man in some dark corner of the house, still acting like they were ten years younger. No way I was disturbing that encounter. Best I just text my friend and leave. There would still be busses at this time of night.
I picked my way to the door past abandoned glasses and bits of food, dodging Tabitha, Emily’s friend from the office, who drunkenly lurched towards me, her beautiful red lipstick spreading ever so slightly beyond the lines of her lips.
“God, I am the fucking Grinch,” I muttered to myself as I closed the front door behind me. “And I am an old lady at the age of twenty-seven.”
The December night was freezing, the air rushing down to my lungs in slicing breaths that made my chest hurt, but it was a hundred times better than that stuffy front room. Perhaps I would walk home instead of waiting for a bus; it wasn’t too far after all, and I’d be warmer if I kept moving rather than hanging around the bus stop for a good half an hour. I walked alone with only the ‘clack’ of my knee-high, black swede boots for company, running my hand along the box hedge of a road-front garden, mulling over the hour or so of the party, and wondering vaguely where my life was going.
I had gone perhaps a mile and a half down the road when series of sharp, incongruous sounds suddenly disturbed the still night. A short, muffled shout, followed by the scuff of shoes on the pavement broke through my thoughts and made me frown, the rhythm of my feet halting as my heart began to race. The neighbourhood wasn’t exactly dangerous, but still, it never paid to be over-confident as a young woman. I slowed to a stop, trying hard not to make too much noise with those heels. They weren’t high, and I thought I could probably run, but not far, and I was beginning to regret not having renewed my gym membership when it had expired two months earlier. I thought of the incessant emails I’d had from them ever since, trying to intice me back. Something else to do in January, I thought. There was another dampened thud and a shout, followed by a short, sharp, howl of pain. Then a male voice panted loudly, “Nah, come on. Not worth it. Let’s get out of here.”
“Fuckin’ gimp hasn’t got anything anyway,” a second voice snarled, and, to my horror, the footsteps came running in my direction.
I shrank back, finding myself stumbling backwards through empty air, through the open gate of a front garden, teetering back into deserted blackness. I toppled dangerously close to landing on my arse, but steadied myself in time, those thick-heeled boots sinking into the soft mud of a flowerbed behind the hedge. Praying that the darkness would swallow me up, I held my breath, my heart pumping against the pressure like water against a dam as the sound of their approaching shoes rang in my ears. The men jogged right past the gate, footsteps fading behind the hoarse whisper of distant cars many streets away. I let free the air in my lungs. I just wanted to get home now, but somehow I felt compelled, as much by curiosity as compassion, to trace their movements back to that cry of pain.
With a cautionary peek out from the gateway to make sure they had really gone, I reluctantly began my search. There was nothing visible along the main road that stretched away ahead of me, but a few yards down the first side-street on my left I saw a shadow on the ground at the darkest point between the first two street lamps. I was nearly home, but the thought crossed my mind as to whether the Good Samaritan had wondered if it would be worth the effort, but I found my feet already heading towards the figure before I’d finished the thought.
Lying on his side on the semi-frozen pavement, curled over, winded, breathing raggedly, facing away from me, was a young man. “Fuck,” he hissed in a great shuddering breath, his hands reaching down his body to his right knee.
“Hey,” I called gently, feeling a bit stupid. “I heard shouts – I was just round the corner – can I help?”
He turned his head, and I was surprised to see that he wore dark glasses, even though it was eleven o’clock at night. Some hipster getting what he deserved? I wondered.
Another step forward and my foot rolled on something, sending adrenaline rushing through my body with a little squeak as I fought inelegantly to stay upright. As I regained balance, I looked down and discovered a black-shafted walking stick.
“My c-cane,” the man croaked, either as an explanation or a question, his head turning and catching the light a little more.
As his cheekbones flashed in the lamplight, I saw a small cut and a slight welling of blood oozing down his face. “It’s here,” I said, stooping to pick it up. It was an expensive cane, a permanent cane, the cane of a man with something more seriously wrong with him than just a sprained ankle. I walked round so that I wasn’t facing his back any more, and placed the black cane into his open palm.
“Thanks,” he grunted. “And… the other one?”
“The other one?” I repeated stupidly. “What other one?”
“The w-w-white o-one,” he stammered.
Did he have a head injury? Why wasn’t he talking properly? “Er,” I said looking for the brother of the black cane.
“Y-you know,” the man said sourly, as though I were very dense, and in truth, I must have been, “A bl-blind g-guy’s w-white stick…?”
“Oh!” I chirped, embarrassed. Eventually, the needle-like form of a thin white stick emerged out of the shadows, nestled in the gutter of the road not far away. “Got it.”
The man was sitting up when I returned to him, his thick woollen jacket covered in shards of gravel and leaves and bits of leylandii tree that were lying scattered on the pavement like Christmas tree needles. He held out his hand in front of him and said, “G-g-g-give me a hand up?”
I noticed how his chest contracted to force the sound out. Was it a speech thing or did I need to call an ambulance? Deciding I was never going to see him again so it didn’t matter if I made a fool of either of them, I asked, “Are you alright? Should I call 999?”
He shook his head, grimacing as he shuffled his weight, bending his left leg but keeping his right dead straight. “Just help me up.”
“You’ve cut your cheek,” I said, taking his hand which was frozen but incredibly strong. “On three… one, two, three,” and we pushed and pulled together on the final count to get him upright.
He staggered slightly, catching himself by jabbing the black cane out like the third leg of a tripod, driving it into the ground. He stood there, breathing hard for a sixty long seconds. “Is it bad?” he asked, gesturing to his face.
“No, I think it’s stopped bleeding, but it has run down your cheek a bit, and you’ve got some on your shirt.”
“Gr-great, now Amy w-will w-w-worry…”
“Where are you headed?” I asked, desperately wanting to offer to clean him up. Was he completely blind? I mused as I watched him slide his left wrist through the loop at the top of his cane.
“Home,” he replied, his head tilted downwards, moving side to side slightly as though he were listening really hard for movements on either side of him. There was something deeply attractive in the fierce independence he radiated, but behind it lurked a vulnerability that tugged at me on a different level.
“Is it far? You can tell me to bugger off if I’m overstepping the mark, but do you want some company?”
Finally his face seemed to soften and he sighed, and I saw for the first time that he was quite handsome. In the pale light from the streetlamp overhead, I could see that he had generically dark brown hair, cut in a clean, attractive style, and he was slightly taller than average, maybe just shy of six foot, and aside from the weirdly stiff right leg and the fact that he couldn’t see, he seemed in pretty good shape – lean, but not skinny. He sighed a second time, running his left hand over his stomach, perhaps where he’d been kicked by one of his attackers. His fingers were long, with large, almost pugnacious looking knuckles which were countered by the delicacy of his touch against the wool of his jacket.
I frowned, concerned. “Are you sure you’re alright? Maybe we should report this to the police…”
“And tell them what?” he half grunted and half laughed. “Two men attacked a bl-blind cr-cripple with a stammer in a qu-quiet street and didn’t t-take anything?” He gave another empty laugh. “They’ll thank me for my c-c-call, ask me if I w-w-w-want to put my statement on r-r-r-record, t-tell me they’ll l-l-let me know if they get any l-l-l-leads, and that’ll be the l-last I hear. Trust me: b-been there, d-done that, g-got nowhere.”
“Wow, ok,” I said, taking half a step back. “Your call.”
“Sorry,” he muttered without really apologising. “L-look, I don’t w-w-want to t-t-t… to t-t-take up any m-more of y-your evening. If y-y-you c-c-could j-j-just point me towards Birchwood Dr-Drive, I’d be m-more than gr-gr-grateful.”
Whether it was that stammer or that cute face I couldn’t be certain, but found I didn’t begrudge him a small moment of my time, even if he had been short with me. “Lucky I know the area. This way,” I said taking a couple of decisive steps forward in the opposite direction from which I’d come. Then I stopped a few feet ahead of him and added, “And it’s no trouble. I was on my way back from a really naff party. You know, the kind where you’re grateful to be out in the fresh air again after all the loud music and rowdy ‘late-twenty-somethings’ trying to prove they can still drink like they could at university…”
He barked a laugh and regretted it instantly, clutching an arm to his ribcage, pausing his odd, step-shuffle-step-shuffle gait until the pain passed. “Y-you know, I’d have pegged you at around that age, until y-you said that,” he smiled, resuming his slow pace.
I walked beside him, heels marking out the way with their clear ‘clack-clack’ like the white lines in the centre of a road. With a little snort of my own, I said, “The sad thing is, I am…”
“Well, I’m certainly gr-gr-grateful y-you decided to l-l-leave…” he smiled shyly. If I had known him better, I might have said he’d blushed, but I wasn’t certain.
We walked in silence for fifty yards or so until we came to a T-junction with Birchwood Drive. “Road splits left and right here…” I said, hoping he’d direct us.
“The l-left one is mine,” he said. He swung his cane in a wide confident arc, judging the angle of the turn by following the fence on our left. “My house is forty-seven paces or so from the c-c-corner…”
He seemed almost embarrassed to admit the exact distance, but I couldn’t help but be impressed. Keen to avoid gushing, I nibbled my lip, but then found myself saying, “The bedroom in the house where I grew up was seven paces wide and nine paces long…” The fact that I still remembered it surprised me, and I chuckled. “I didn’t know I still knew that…”
He smirked. “Not m-many sighted people measure things in paces.”
“I can’t walk up or down stairs without counting them in my head…” I slammed on the verbal brakes before I said something really inane and embarrassing. Shut up, girl, I chided, mumbling, “Just a weird habit I guess.”
He smiled enigmatically but said nothing. He was clearly in a lot of pain, trying to hide it from me, and the trickle of blood looked frighteningly dramatic, almost like Halloween makeup as it trickled down his face.
Just shy of the gatepost of number two, he began to shuffle the cane’s tip up along the wall, clearly searching for an opening.
“Number two?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he muttered in response, dragging his right leg with a scrape along the pavement in a way that made me worry for this total stranger.
“About another foot to the gatepost.”
“Cheers.” The straight garden path took us right to the front door, and he drew a lanyard from round his neck, a bunch of house keys making a bright jangling as they moved free of his jacket. Without error, he found the keyhole and as he pushed the door open, he called to someone inside, “It’s me, Amy.”
There was a muffled exclamation from upstairs and he smiled. He turned on the spot, not turning quite far enough to face me, and said, “Thanks for y-your help tonight. I might seem l-like a grumpy old bastard, but I r-really am gr-grateful.”
“Not at all,” I smiled, wondering if Amy was his partner. “And get your face cleaned up before she sees it. It looks rather dramatic.”
“I will,” he said.
I turned to go, those solid heels loud on the quiet, cold path, when he called after me.
“I don’t even know your name! I’m C-C-Caleb, by the way.” His head dipped and nodded as the hard consonant repeated in his throat. I’d always had a soft spot for accents, and this funny way of talking was like his accent, and it did just the same thing to my insides.
I looked back over my shoulder to see him outlined in the doorway, a light from upstairs casting a dim, shimmering light behind his black silhouette. “It’s Alyssa,” I said with a smile.
To be continued...