Short Stories

*Just to put a small disclaimer on this, these stories aren't the newest, but the others I've got are searching for homes in places other than my blog, so I won't be posting them here. Let me know if you might be able to provide homes for them, and enjoy these stories too. Ta!* 

Saturday Afternoon, Odessa
The Spirits 


Saturday Afternoon, Odessa

I need to get out of here; I actually judge my parents for the fact that this gutter, this utter wasteland, is our home. Through the moulding window of my cell-like window as I sit (alone, thankfully; I think my poisonous sister’s gone out to play in the rubble) I can see one of the seething packs of stray dogs that linger around the houses, rolling over and around each other for scraps like a spinning, malevolent cloud, snapping and biting at each others’ flanks and faces over something that was probably once alive. I don’t much enjoy running to avoid them on the way to school each morning as I invariably arrive jangling and flushed with humiliated nerves and a school blouse damp with sweat. Who lives like this? Other than us, that is. Or more to the point, why must I live here in this dump, with a view of six weeks’ of rubbish that hasn’t been collected so the bags have burst like pimples and the rusty end of a disused rail track that once led away from here to anywhere else? How I’d have loved to be on that train when it was working, travelling away from here on the outskirts of Odessa towards Poltava and onwards to the land that was mine by birth but not mine by the time I entered pre-school. A great land was what I was born for, born in, and is obviously the reason I have this brain, these eyes, this wit; they are my weapons against suffocating mediocrity, but I feel as if before I’ve had any chance to use them the army has retreated and I’ve been left standing in a field with tools that are no use because there’s no success to be had. When there’s nowhere to go, who cares what means you might have to progress? To be a little poetic for a second, I guess that the moment I was proclaimed Ukrainian, by accident of timing and location, Russia became my Ithaca, but I can’t sit here and wait, hoping the road is long and boring and useful. Now is my time, and if I wait much longer to go and be a success in the place where things actually happen my time will be over and I might as well come back here to my parent’s house and raise a couple of kids. I’ve yet to find out what these Ithacans mean, I guess. Huh. Apologies, Cavafy probably isn’t on everyone’s reading list, but why cater to the lowest? My mind will be my fortune one day and they will clamour then for the diary I wrote when I was 15 and stuck on this infernal building site a few miles back from the sea.

Maybe, instead of heading for the Russia that rejected me and left me here and I should go west like the Poles and forget that Russia every existed for me in any tenuous way. If I speak Russian and look Russian and spend my evenings watching Russian television in a country that used to be Russian doesn’t that make me Russian? No, it doesn’t. Screw them. There are plenty of other countries waiting to welcome me with open arms. I quite fancy seeing America, with the sunshine and the cherries and the pie. There seems yellow and here seems dull rusty steel and cloudy dishcloth white. All I want to breathe proper air and have someone look me in the eye and see exactly what I’m worth. I’m not an idiot, but the constant cloud here cover cotton-wools my wit and sometime I can’t breathe for disgust and shame. Is this it, really? My mother says I’m a snob but why pretend I’m happy compromising my life to remain in the familiar? I only get to do this once and I won’t let my youth be wasted on my youth, or whatever that saying is. It’s in my English textbook; in a second I’ll go and check. Please correct me, by the way, if I make a mistake; rather I did it now than when I’m on that plane or at that reception, destined for more salubrious skies.

My mother’s a hypocrite, anyway: she’s knows what it’s like to be part of a great country and yet she’d keep me here to nurse her and feed her in her old age. If only they’d been on the other side of the border. I reckon she’d hand me over to some teenage gangster tomorrow if it meant I’d stay. No thanks Mum. You live your life, I’ll live mine. She must have some kind of pension so why does she need me? And I can’t imagine my sister will ever leave.

There’s a dust cloud drifting towards me on the breeze from the direction of the ‘highway’ meaning a car must be coming this way. Ugghh. The dirty air coming off the rubbish is faint corrosive yellow as it hits the window pane. I have absolutely no desire to gaze out the window to watch the ‘workers’ down tools (only figuratively, you understand) and look longingly at the person who has either enough influence or the right contacts to be able to put petrol in his car. We manage it occasionally, but then where do we drive to? My mother will put on a skirt and treat it like an occasion, but better the shithole you know I reckon. Odessa city centre is no better than here, just so you know; it’s just the extended version with more hip hop, graffiti and crumbling high rise, and the odd restoration thrown in to put the dilapidation in its rightful place. The Potemkin steps haven’t changed much though. I guess inside I’m screaming like the mother and the baby rolling down the hill. I’m not sure which one is me though. Ugghh. Who thinks that kind of thing at 15? Better that I was stupid and that kind of thing didn’t occur to me at all.

I don’t see the attraction of the city, I really don’t. The kids in my class dream of the day they can live in their own little box of post-Soviet slum and either date or be one of the guys who managed to bring his weapon back after completing his National Service. It’s disgusting. The guys who run the place (the bratva, if you’ll excuse the use of my native tongue) are usually Ukrainian-Ukrainians, rather than Russians like me, who wield their state-issued firearms around like they’re something to be proud of. If I was ever in charge, ensuring the proper return of military kit post-conscription would be the first thing I’d do, as for years now it’s been a fucking joke. Give a kid a weapon, teach him how to use it, scramble his brain with hideous sights and then set him free, telling him he’ll never get a job. Government-enabled mafia boys under the steely grey sky. Forgive my slight lyrical turn there again; I have words running through my head in a way that people here don’t understand. I rarely get the chance to flaunt my mind.

As I think I said before, I plan to educate my ass out of this dump as fast as humanly possible, and then I’ll be on the first flight, full scholarship, one way. There might be an obligatory year in Odessa whilst I find the right course, but then I will be on my way, leaving a welcome trail of jealous looks and snide put-downs in my wake. Who cares? It’s not like I’ll write. My teachers think I could do it. They told my parents so at a school visit last year and they just scoffed and laughed and looked at each other with pathetic sad eyes. It must be hard to hear that your daughter is desperate to leave, but that’s not my fault: if they wanted me to stay so badly they should have lived somewhere worth living in the first place.

I can see now that that vehicle I saw approaching is one of Simeon’s vans and can (from my bed) hear it hurtling up the road and hand-braking into our yard. I hope one of the dogs get whichever base-level thug he sent to collect the money this time; although when you consider how the wild dogs round here have thrived and multiplied perhaps I should give them more credit than to go for minion shit like him. Or not; they do live on rats and the anything else that wanders down from Chernobyl. Maybe the dogs succeed so successfully because they don’t buy their protection from the same people that pose the threat? Huh. Anyway, there’s not much money in the jar to give today’s hooligan so he should be gone as soon as he’s scared my mother witless. Maybe if we didn’t pay and had to flee in the night, bags in hand and possessions on our backs, then we could go somewhere better? Well, perhaps not. That hardly seems like an honourable way to progress and I’d hate for someone to dig that little fact up once I’m well-known and in my proper place. Mud sticks, you know, so I’m gonna keep myself rosy clean and sparkly fresh and in fight stance so I’m ready when my moment arrives.

I can’t wait for it. I know that there’s got to be air above this level, but with a leather jacket in my kitchen and a single thought inside his head even I can admit aspiration seems foolish. I guess I can’t blame my parents for not wanting to take the chance.

Maybe I’ll just lock my bedroom door until he’s gone. Click. There. Me on one side, them on the other. Maybe I should escape in a box of oranges like Cheburashka? I can be cute when necessary too.
 


The Spirits

Cassius Hoytenberry threw open a window one hazy August morning on his family’s Hamptons estate, driven by a new urge for some fresh air. He’d secreted himself away at the beginning of the season, his wan appetite for summer parties and club tennis tournaments entirely extinguished by the wounding brutality of his first parental snub in nearly a year.

“Cassius, darling, how are you?” his mother had asked, her heels sinking into perfect green as she brushed down his pastel lapels with her expensive manicure. A plaque on a nearby tree commemorating a lost patriarch flashed absent-mindedly in the sun. “It’s been too long, we missed you so. You simply must come back with us to Vienna once September comes around.”

“Thank you mother,” Cassius replied, taking a step back, “but in September I’m expected back at St. Jude’s…”

“Oh yes darling, of course. So, one more year is it? After that, then. ”

After suffering a few days of excruciating pain at the dinner table and over gin on the western patio, Cassius began to refuse all invitations in favour of staying on the terrace to smoke. The fragrant parents had grumbled, and then carried on with their lives – how could one possibly stay in when there were deals to be done and lovers to be had? He’d spent July smoking and drinking alone, calling up purchasable company and using his trust fund to tip them with dismissive aplomb. August had brought with it only heat.

Amongst the deciduous trees that encircled the Hoytenberry estate, two pairs of fringed eyes observed him with interest. Since the last death, siblings had socialised, visits had been fleeting and loners had found company with the Chucks, Muffins and Bitsys of the world. To some, Cassius’ isolation made him tantalizing, solitary prey.

Cassius ventured towards the trees that same morning, squinting in the summer glare, Nabokov simmering in the pocket above his deck shoes (no socks). It was cooler amongst the trees. He found a bench and languorously crossed his right leg over his left. He wished he’d brought some cigarettes.

Upon this thought, acrid smoke drifted towards him from the idle trees. Who else would be out here, he wondered; perhaps I could borrow one. He straightened himself to find out where it was coming from, but was halted by the timorous high notes of a lute and a harp playing in perfect accord. Chilled by its incongruity, Cassius moved hesitantly to find the source of the smoke and the heavenly, ethereal music. After a time of getting neither closer to or farther from the sound, Cassius stepped into an opening and saw them there, high in a tree.

Two creatures, women in form, perched high above him, glowing like angels with the lute and the harp in their delicate fingers, and fragrant flowers scattered through their long, blonde hair. They gazed down at Cassius with such come-hither intensity that a hot, white flame of desire ran through his body, scorching his skin and stealing his breath. Beguiling smiles shone on their lovely faces as one of them rose silently and stepped down, twisting her instrument and continuing to play. The other followed, turning her hips and hands to grip the branches as the lute reverberated across the silence. No-one spoke. As they disappeared amongst the trees they glanced back with such a wordless entreaty that Cassius felt compelled to follow; but there was no sign of them beyond the clearing, and no music.

The next day he sought them again and found them further in, further from the house, playing with the sunlight incandescent on their faces. Cassius felt the sweet, strange music weave its way under his skin, into his fibres, and he missed the moment when their playing stopped and they disappeared from view. With a jolt he realised that it was sunset, and that he’d been out all day.

The days that followed echoed the first, but all he could ever recall of them was a flood of incoherent colour. Their music was lost to him the instant it finished, but the sensation quivered on within him like an empty bow. Once or twice the maid found him drunk, calling entreaties and obscenities into the stygian night.

Talk eventually reached his father’s ears, causing him to propose the only remedy he knew: inviting his son with him and his associates on a jaunty 9-hole round. Cassius agreed, but confirmed his father’s expectations by over-sleeping, so had to borrow his mother’s classic Jag to drive up to the course. Speeding past the ice cream parlours and Italian eateries that hosted the socialite flock, Cassius suddenly saw the girls, resplendent and half-naked, standing with their instruments in the middle of the road. Their eyes bore into his and their mouths curved intimately upward as if relishing Cassius’ surprise. The pedestrians remained oblivious as Cassius sped towards them, too distracted to check his increasing speed. At the last instance, Cassius realised what was happening and swung the wheel wildly sideways until he was over the pavement and had made alarming contact with a tree. Dramatic smoke hissed from the bonnet as he slumped back from the wheel; he asked of the girls but no-one had seen them, so flagrantly there in the middle of the road. The police took him and the totalled car home, and Cassius received a weary remonstration for being late and drunk at the wheel. It felt too much of an effort to protest. His mother ordered the staff to keep an eye on him, and to keep him in the house until he was feeling better.

Cassius remained in his room for several days, sleeping with the depth of the drugged. He didn’t wake for meals, for water, for alcohol, for air. He dreamt of them relentlessly: their music, their skin and their eyes occupied his mind until there was little left to salvage; they serenaded him so sweetly that he had not will or ability to wake. When he finally stumbled from his room, starving and sallow, with a bleariness to challenge the heaviest hangover, he found that no-one had realised he was still there. Over-privilege and under-parenting made easy targets of the wasted rich.

“I thought he’d been with you, darling,” said his mother to his father on finding Cassius swaying in the hallway. “What have you been doing all this time Cassius? Nothing productive, I presume. Have you been taking your pills?” Cassius neglected to answer. At the next possible opportunity he was outside, following the now ever present siren call. To the woods, we will be there. Cassius was powerless to resist and lacked any draw to stay. This time they lead him to the estate’s western edge, through thickets and thorns, until the trees separated and the deep, glistening lake appeared. There they were, on the island, sweet and seductive as ice tea on a hot day. He tasted the danger on the back of his throat, and swallowed it. The girls were naked now, concealed only by long, long braids and flowering lilies that could be smelled across the lake. Their eyes met his, and he obeyed. Off came his clothes, and shaking hands undid his shoes. The music was heavier, more intoxicating than before, and shimmered across the water like a heat haze. Come to us, this time we are yours they said, wordlessly, and he entered the water without pause. The sunshine beamed off them, through them, even, and Cassius was blinded as their beauty intensified to the celestial, filling the air with light. It shone through the darkness to the bottom of the lake, illuminating Cassius’ last breath as it floated, unwanted, from his lips.

His elegant mother only noticed his absence when he was unavailable to confirm an anecdote at a party.

The nymphs wait for the next. 

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