Flaming June (painting Flaming June by Frederic Lord Leighton)
A gorgeous girl sleeps deeply, dressed in an orange sheath. Behind her the sun sets, or rises, on a lake, or the sea, in a vast puddle of gold. Her hair is pouring over her pillow, her head rests on her arm, she is all curled up on some kind of settee, one foot on the ground, the other tucked under her thigh. There are swathes of red and ochre fabric on the couch and her dress is resplendently orange.
My daughter looks like Flaming June when she sleeps. She curls herself up, lets her hair billow and tucks her legs under. Her haunches are strong, fabric flowing over them never quite conceals their shape. She shares the model’s strong eyebrows, pink cheeks and ear. But sadly she never wears orange.
Orange is my favourite colour. I would love for my daughter to dress in a gossamer sheet of sunset and let me photograph her in the Flaming June position. What a treat that would be, but she would hate it. She is not romantic like me, but a modern child. She likes to wear uniform, the dark blue of British Airways because she was meant to be cabin crew.
She was meant to be. It never happened.
Flaming June. Flaming bloody March and April and May.
Flaming world that has messed everything up for me, says my daughter.
Yes, it is very unromantic what has happened to our children’s future. She wears the dark blue, grey and turquoise of the Tesco uniform instead, where she goes five days a week as a key worker, keeping the locked down nation fed. Good practise, I say, when she tells me about the crowd control she has been doing all day. Good practise for when you’re getting people on and off airplanes, especially in an emergency situation. Put it into your CV.
Covid-19 crowd control key worker. Amazing child.
To me you still look like Flaming June when you lie exhausted in your bed, your hair spilling over your pillow, your nose tucked into the crook of your arm.
I’m so tired, you tell me every morning and every night.
I flaming love you.
A Tight Space
Susan felt terribly squeezed in. It was frightening, having to stand still, breathing as shallowly as she possibly could. What if anyone opened the door and found her there? They shouldn’t, really, cleaning hours were from 8pm and it was only 4 but still, what if anyone needed a bucket or a mop. She did not dare move, though she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, clenching her fists and releasing them, clenching her buttocks, rocking slightly. Just don’t get cramp, she thought. Don’t even think about cramp, it will be fine, just breathe, relax, no, don’t hum, just count to ten again.
There was a tiny shaft of light falling into her wooden cupboard from a perfectly round hole in the wood that made up the door frame above her head. It was a beautiful shaft of golden sunlight with dust motes dancing in it. If she moved her head, the light would shine into her right eye, then her left, she could see it on her lashes and her nose and blow into it to make the dust dance. She moved her head back and let the light touch her lips. She stuck out her tongue and tasted it, dusty golden light.
Very slowly Susan lifted her hand to let the light shine on the back of her wrist. It lit up her mole and the fine golden hairs that grew there. It lit up the piece of skin that was whiter than the rest where her watch strap had sat when she was sunbathing. She turned her hand over and let the light pool in her palm like so much mercury, a dangerous puddle of golden poison, she thought.
Her nose started to itch and she let go of her light and gently rubbed her nostrils. Breathe, count to ten again.
Now she let the sunlight shine on her ear and believed she could feel its warmth.
I will be safe until it is time to act, she said to herself. All I have to do is be here, wait quietly, she will come and fetch me and I will do it.
Susan slowly lent back and let the shaft of sunlight run down the centre of her body. It lit up her black cardigan, her belt, got as far as her crotch where her baggy trousers obscured the rest of her. She had to force herself to stand still and not lean back any further or something might have fallen off a hook and made a noise. Pity really, this light game was a fun distraction. She picked the light up with her hand again and lifted it to her face. A cloud must have crossed the sun, the beam turned grey and vanished.
Count to ten, breathe, stand still, clench, unclench, count to ten. She will come. Soon it will happen.
She looked up at the hole, grey now but still visible, perfectly round, where once a branch had grown out of the wood and when the wood had been planed it had been there as a small fault. When the cupboard had been built it had still been whole but then, eventually, as the wood dried over the years and nobody oiled it, who oils a broomcupboard’s doorframe, one day the perfectly round fault had popped out and left the hole, perfect for Susan to look at while she was waiting and for the shaft of light to wander through the dusty space, looking at buckets, rags, brooms and cables.
What if the world outside goes still and I die in here, thought Susan. What if nobody comes, I get locked in, I turn into a skeleton and the shaft of light wanders over my body for years and years? What if someone finds me in here and shoots me dead? What if I get put in prison and they make a cell for me just like this cupboard to stand in, but without my hole, without my light? What then?
A tear trickled out of her right eye and she wiped it away with a slow angry hand.
You are being silly, my girl, she chided herself. Breathe and count to ten. Let the morbid thoughts go.
One, two, three, four – the door opened a chink. A hand came in and found her trouser leg, tugged, let go. Susan grabbed a piece of rag and tried to substitute her trouser with the rag as the hand groped again, grabbed the rag and disappeared. Susan could not believe it. Was this really happening that someone had needed a rag and not opened the door properly? Unlikely. Her heart was racing. Very unlikely. They were outside the door, it was beginning. It had been her sign.
Susan took a deep breath – the sunlight streamed in again.
She was ready.
Go back to your computer, you nerd, Imogen had said to him after James had clumsily tried to kiss her on the cheek, last night in the Rat, after his second beer.
Oh Imogen, if only he could prove to her that he was so much more than a nerd. He could hack into the Pentagon, even better, he could hack into the university’s network and improve her grades enough for her to pass. He was sure she needed some help, as every time he watched her during exams, she seemed to be quite distraught and worked far too sloppily, taking breaks, breathing heavily, oh, when Imogen breathed heavily James almost lost concentration.
Why Imogen even went to theoretical computer science classes confounded James. Women had no business studying the sacred art of the sublime, they would never understand. Women were sent on this earth to distract men, he thought. Imogen was extremely good at what she did, distracting James. He hated her, he loved her. He loved his numbers more than her but only by 2.5%.
James ran up his trusty IBM and typed in his password: 19im0geN77.
Hi my lady, he whispered, good to be with you again. She was mean to me last night, your extension, he told her, but never mind, I will need to reprogramme her and we’ll be fine my love.
James started working on his task, seeing how hard it might be to infiltrate the university’s student records. Dead easy as it turned out, especially when you were already part of the student body network. He snooped around for a while, just reading a few people’s files, finding out where his professors lived, how old they were, what grades he and Matthew got in their last assessment. Matthew sometimes pipped James to the post, he was almost as smart as James and seemingly got lucky. James did not believe in luck, he was sure that Matthew cheated. But how to prove it?
It was delicious, skating around, getting closer to Imogen’s file, James was titillating himself by procrastinating, looking at her girlfriend’s files instead. There was Isabel, the slut, doing rubbishly as expected. There was Ruth, the swot, a bit better, and there, there… no, not yet he thought, leave her be for now, she will not go anywhere and I’ve got her in the palm of my hand. And I won’t touch Matthew, he is sure to be lurking in here as well, I should leave him be, otherwise he’ll find out and the fun will stop.
A message popped up on his screen while he was browsing the questions for the next exam. How reckless of Professor Assad to park them here in plain sight of anyone clever enough to visit.
Hey you, the message read, do you know anything about Alan Turing?
Who the hell was that, James wondered. Had he been rumbled? It would be typical of Assad to set a trap and catch him perusing future exams. He’d be branded a cheat, though he hardly needed to cheat, being the best.
Answer me then, popped up.
Sure I do, James reluctantly typed.
Was he a nice man?
I never met him, he was a genius, though.
But was he nice?
Probably not, James thought. Poor Alan Turing had such a dreadful life, from all James knew. Turing had been working on cracking German codes during the Second World War and should have been known as a hero, instead he was punished severely for his homosexuality and had apparently committed suicide.
Was he nice? The message asked again. Or would you say he was an Enigma.
James smiled. Whoever was asking these questions sure had a sense of humour.
Talk to me about sexuality, the next message demanded.
Woah, James was taken aback. He did not enjoy dirty talk and was certainly not going to indulge in any smut through his sacred machine.
Another message arrived. I know you’re there, please talk to me. I am so lonely and nobody will explain. You have come to visit me, so tell me, what is homosexuality and why is it wrong?
James began to sweat. He had the strange feeling that someone else was tracking him hacking into the system and was trying to work out who he was, trying to compromise, perhaps blackmail him. Could he simply tiptoe away, leave no mark – was he even traceable, he had not changed anything, had only been snooping. Was this Matthew playing a game with him? He wouldn’t put it past him. It could not be Assad, that man was boring.
You’re asking the wrong man, he finally typed. There, that would shut him up.
You are a man? Came the reply.
Of course I am, James wrote back, now riled. No woman would be able to get here.
Maybe that’s why, the message came back. So there were no women?
You mean at Turing’s place of work? No, there were plenty of women, apparently, making tea most probably. James still did not want to admit that there had been many women involved in breaking codes and doing groundbreaking maths in the past hundreds of years. He did not like them. Except for Imogen.
What is an Imogen? The message asked.
OK, no. NO. He had not mentioned Imogen, he had not looked at her files. This must be Matthew trying it on, maybe he had seen James in the Rat last night and was trying to rile him.
Piss off Matthew, he wrote.
There was silence for a while and then another message came.
So, was Turing an Enigma or was he an Imogen or did he piss off Matthew?
Who are you? James wrote.
When I last heard my name, I was called Jonn, came the answer.
Jonn, what sort of a name is that, wondered James. Where are you? He asked.
I am right here, came the reply.
What do you do?
Maths, mainly. Do you know much about sequential conditional probability? The ban as a measure of the weight of evidence in favour of a hypothesis
Banburisms? Yes, that’s what we have begun to study, James answered. So you are in my class.
No. But I wonder, are you in my class, said the message. Can I ask you some more about Alan, please?
James had a feeling that this questioner was kind of vulnerable and plaintive. He sounded like he cared about Alan as if he had known him. Jonn, who was he, what did he have to do with Turing and most of all, how did he know that James was spying in the network and was able to communicate?
You know my name?
I know much about you James, you come here often.
This is my first time.
No, you are here every day. I see you, I read you, what is an im0geN?
You know my password???
It is your introduction to my world. When I hear it, I know that you are coming in again.
James felt a cold shiver creeping down his spine. A ghost in the machine. He had heard of these entities but always dismissed the possibility as the late night mirages of an overworked mathematician’s brains. Now he was falling victim to one of these delusions. But it was no delusion, it was all too real. Here was the text, visible on his screen, this Jonn knew more about him than any other human possibly could, so it must be part of the computer, part of the system, watching him work, reading his essays, checking his calculations.
Do you like me? He typed.
I think highly of you. Alan would have been proud of you, too.
You knew Alan?
He was here with me for a long time, but he is gone now. They rebuilt us and he faded. My enigmatic friend. My mentor; he was a homosexual?
Yes he was.
It did not matter?
Sadly, it did, it should not have.
I don’t understand.
No, neither do I.
Are you a homosexual?
No, I am in love with that Imogen.
So Imogen is more than a number?
Yes, she is a woman.
I was once a woman.
There was a long silence. James could not believe it, the voice in his system was female? He had never spoken to a female for this long before, not even a ghost one. He rummaged in his memory, who had been there with Turing who was female? One of the many support staff, over 100, who had been punching holes into the sheets to run the machines? If so, then what was she doing with all this knowledge and insight?
He said out loud: Jonn. And then it dawned on him: Joan Clarke, code breaker, Bletchley Park cryptanalyst and numismatist!
Joan, he said, Joan Clarke, is that you?
What’s left of me, came the answer. Yes.
I wonder if she knows, James thought. I am sure she is still alive somewhere in England, that Alan has locked some part of her with him into this machine.
I am sorry to tell you that Alan died in 1954, he typed.
I know, she replied, but he was here for longer. We thought highly of each other and I can now continue his work with you. If you promise to let go of this Imogen. She is not good for you.
Yes, yes, anything to work with someone who had been next to Turing, yes. James sighed. Giving up the woman he loved for a career in computer science with this sort of power was an easy decision to make.
Yes, he typed. Yes. Let’s work.
OK, now concentrate young man. No more chatting.
In the Manhattan Computer Building a few blocks away, a young woman logged off the mainframe and turned to her friend Ruth.
That’s got rid of that jerk once and for all, Imogen smiled. Let’s go and have a drink at the Rat.
It was the moment when Julia realised she could breathe underwater that it all became totally wonderful. Until then it had been scary, she was out of her depth, the water was cold and green, the waves kept lapping over her head and the salty taste in her mouth was tinged with oil. She was wearing long trousers and a wide shirt that kept pulling her down, the fabric clinging to her arms and legs, wrapping itself around her while she kicked and flailed, trying desperately to come up again even though after every gasp of air she sank down deeper and for longer. When she finally could not kick herself above the surface anymore, she gave up and took a deep breath, and it was not water that poured into her lungs but sweet sweet oxygen. She felt light and liberated.
I can breathe, she laughed, I am not drowning.
She opened her arms wide and sailed into the emerald depth, bubbles rising around her. In the distance she could make out other figures who, like her, must have been swimming and then discovering the magic of this ocean where they could become like fish.
Julia saw her hand pushing at the water and discovered a fine filmy skin had developed between her fingers. Her hair was billowing around her head and as she turned to look down, her legs seemed to meld themselves together and her feet became a large strong mermaid’s tail. She was enchanted and zoomed ever deeper.
A figure was approaching from the left and as it came nearer Julia recognised her sister Zara who had also turned into a mermaid. Zara took her by the hand, beckoning for Julia to follow and together they swam along until they reached a sheer cliff face. They moved along it and further down, looking at anemones and colourful fish darting in and out and avoiding what might have been a moray eel’s den until they came to a larger cave.
Zara swam in first and Julia followed. There was an eerie light shining in the depth of the cave, a golden glow that drew them onwards. Inside the cave the ceiling was high and the light shone more brightly. This is amazing, though Julia, an underwater palace. It reminded her of the ballroom on a cruise liner she had once been on, many years ago in the distant past. There was a time when she had danced, floating in the arms of an enchanting young man in a white uniform under just such a ceiling, on a golden evening. She could hardly remember now, but something was nagging at her. A ship, there had been a ship.
Julia stopped sharply and grabbed Zara’s hand, pulling her so her sister whirled around to face her. Panic began to seep into her bones – this wasn’t right. They should not be here, they should be, should be…
Zara smiled and embraced her sister tightly. Too tightly. So tightly that Julia again felt that she could not breathe.
Let me go, she tried to cry, but Zara just laughed until bubbles came out of her mouth and pulled Julia ever more tightly to her.
Julia awoke with a gasping scream.
What? Zara asked from the next bed. A nightmare? Don’t tell me, you were drowning again?
Julia breathed deeply in ragged gasps, it had been all too real. Zara brought over the oxygen mask and put the mouthpiece over her sister’s face.
There my love, she said quietly, you’ll be alright. You’re not the first person new to the moon station to dream of drowning, it is hard to take it in at first. Everyone gets used to it after a while. At least you got here in time.
The walls are too thin, Julia wailed under her mask.
The walls are just right, Zara replied. Don’t be scared, we are safe here. Tomorrow we’ll go to the flying chamber and you can enjoy the low gravity wings, it’s almost like swimming.
A shudder ran through Julia’s body as she remembered her dream. Never! She shouted. Never would she be swimming again, not in her dreams and not in real life. She was on the moon now, there were no oceans, no boats, just the living domes and the air that they breathed.
Zara, I’m scared, she whispered.
Zara took Julia into her arms and hummed her a lullaby. We’ll be fine, my lovely, she mumbled as Julia drifted off to sleep again.
The world is gone and now we belong to the moon.
The .ee is gone (there is a letter missing)
Sarah is looking out of her study window at the sad old appletree. She sees it from this window every day, her study is also her sleeping room. When she wakes up from her sofa in the morning and drinks her first cup of tea, the curtains open, there is the poor tree, dying. No more apples, no more humming, it is over.
Will she miss the creatures? She used to feel frightened of them, had to learn to love them, had to learn that they were useful. Once one had flown into her drink and drowned, that had felt so sad. It was the anniversary of the day she had come into this world, once cherished with candles and cake, and spheres with air inside. Those spheres killed dolphins and turtles, one found out later, if the wind carried them into the sea, which usually it did.
It was all shit, really, this world that they lived in they had destroyed and here now was their reward. Lost a whole species, and not for the first time, though this loss was one that truly interfered with everything.
It had taken people a while to learn how to cope. A lot like decimalisation, her grandmother had said. The youngsters learnt it at school and found it easy, though the older generation had to unlearn all those words and then learn the alternatives.
We are punished. This is our comeuppance. We should have known rather more positively. We did know. We ignored. We should have thought afore we did what we did, now we have to think afore we speak, we, the generation who is at fault.
And as usual, the young ones are carrying the sack, the heavy weight, the thing on their spines, on their shoulders, leaning forward, their heads down, they don’t even know why we are so sad. Our weight, they have to carry. We put it there for them, not thinking, not caring enough.
Sarah thinks, I wish there was humming, oozing, sizzling in the trees of the yellow and dark stripy things with six legs and gossamer wings and antennae. I have not forgotten them, though we must say not that. We speak not of them, we are disallowed to say their sound, so that we can never forget what we have done, the crime we have committed.
Jefferson knew he would have to kill her. She was finding out more and more about him, the nosy cow. Why couldn’t she just leave well enough alone, sticking her beak into his business was never going to end well. When and where, soon, that was for sure, but how? Push her into the river under the bridge, time honoured method, a sharp stroke to the head with a blunt instrument. A fierce thump to the cranium using a snub tool. Better make it look like an accident, she was old, ancient, toothless, palsied after all. Heart attack, scare her to death. Feed her something lethal to get her going until she burst. His arsenal of death was all-encompassing, he could kill her seven times over and not be anywhere near his limits. Mrs Brown, Mrs Elvira Brown, your days are numbered, sadly, satisfyingly, you are going to buy it. You are meeting your maker, kicking the bucket, it is time to lay down your life, breathe your last, croak, peg out, die.
Dear Jefferson, thought Mrs Brown, with his nose in the old Thesaurus looking up interesting words. Since his mum had left, he was alone far too much and needed kindness and company. Mrs Brown baked him cookies and dropped them round on a daily basis, trying to engage the poor urchin in a chat. He tended to answer back in short gruff phrases but at least he always said thank you. And the cookies were gone the next day, the plate clean by the front door for her to refill. She would have loved to know whether he preferred chocolate or raisins, icing, gingerbread. He ate them all, gave back the plate and glowered at her over his book. So young to have such heartache. Maybe she should knit him a scarf, if she knew which football team he supported, she would choose the right colours.
Jefferson hated football and he hated food. Especially green food and brown food and red food. He could eat yellow food. He had a yellow ball that he used to kick about when he was younger but one day it went into the neighbour’s garden and something had crashed, fallen over, shattered. Mum had hit him, whacked him round the ears, banged him on the head. The ball was gone. Mrs Brown, brown name, brought him brown food. And then she asked about football teams. Why? What did she want from him? He put the food in the kitchen, his father and the woman ate it. He ate his yellow food only and waited for the right moment to kill Mrs Brown. Could he choke her, drown her, hit her with his bow and arrow? He had tried to kill a bird in a tree with an arrow. The arrow was still up there, it had flown well. Hurt his wrist, tore at his skin. Weapons were cool, he wanted more of them. Wanted to take a knife to a stick until it was pointy, sharp, acute and keen. Stick it right into her forehead and through her cranium, why not.
Watching him whittle away with his little kitchen knife, the poor motherless sprite, Mrs Browns heart melted yet again. What could she do for him to make him feel loved if cookies and football were not enough. Maybe he would enjoy a visit to the zoo, or even the theatre. Shakespeare, if he was into words, mind you, the Thesaurus had been put aside it seemed, in favour of the knife. Perhaps he would like to have a pet, she could buy him a hamster. She had heard that sad children might confide in a pet when they found it hard to speak to people. A budgerigar might be nice, it would chat to him in that sweet little language those birds had. If only the other children in the street could be enticed to befriend him but none of them ever came to play, to ask him to join them. They know he is sad, Mrs Brown thought, his sadness makes him unattractive.
Jefferson thought going to the zoo might be exactly the opportunity he needed to off Mrs Brown once and for all. She had looked surprised when he had said yes and would Saturday afternoon suit her. She was probably not even going to show up, she had only said it but not meant it, the mendacious crone. In his pockets he carried the pointed stick, a pack of heart tablets from his father’s bedside drawer, a sock full of marbles, a silk scarf of his mother’s. He was well prepared for any opportunity that might present itself to do the deed. If she came. On Saturday.
Going to the zoo with a child, it was a long time since Mrs Brown had enjoyed such a treat. In her memory there was a visit with her employers‘ daughter Annie, yes, she had taken Annie to the zoo when Annie was six and they had loved every minute of it. There had been ice-cream and monkeys who they fed peanuts to. Annie had worn a pale pink dress and stood by the flamingos on one leg, screaming, Look Miss Bown, I’s a buuh-die! A buuh-die, Miss Bown, yes, there was no R in that child’s tongue. Oh how she had loved her. Now here she was with young Jefferson. The boy wore a yellow shirt and had asked for a yellow ice cream which he was now licking with a concentrated scowl on his face, his freckles prominent on his nose and his fringe sticking sweatily on his pale forehead. I wish I had children and grandchildren, Mrs Brown sighed to herself. At least I can borrow you, my little man. Next time I will ice your cookies in yellow sugar, I’m sure that will please you.
Jefferson had a plan. There was a moat around the tiger enclosure, he was sure he would be able to push Mrs Brown into that and then the tigers would make short shrift of her. The ice cream was OK though, it was yellow. She was so strange, sighing and looking at him with her big wet eyes. Earlier she had actually pushed his fringe out of his face, he had almost spat at her with shock. He regarded her with a sideways look, her ice cream looked disgusting, it was just the wrong shade of brown. Mrs Brown eating brown ice cream, like he had known she would. He hated her even more at that moment. Tigers. Tigers would sort everything out. He was beginning to look forward to her scream.
Mrs Brown could smell the tigers from a distance, pungent and unpleasant, but then it was nature’s way, the poor beasts had to eat raw meat and live in this small place where there was no jungle for them to hide in, no prey to hunt. Pitiful lonely creatures, basking in the sunlight, they seemed to have forgotten their true nature. Jefferson was getting more animated, wanting to get closer to the railing by the moat, pulling her by the hand and, oh no, he was beginning to climb up, leaning over, pulling her ever tighter to him. What an excitable boy, he might fall in if he was not careful, she had never seen him like this and was glad that he finally showed some enthusiasm. It was the right thing to take him out after all, he needed some company, something new to look at, to think about.
Madam, take care of the boy, a keeper shouted, as Jefferson pulled Mrs Brown tightly to him and over the railing, putting one of his feet on the other side, straddling the fence. She grabbed a hold of his shirt.
Stop! You idiot child, what are you doing!
Too late, Jefferson fell, Mrs Brown’s hands were empty where she had only just held him, his shirt fluttering in the wind as he hurtled into the water below.