Friday, 1 October 2010

LITTLE, by Raj Sisodia

The M25 seemed faceless, cars passing them in the night like lighted shells, silver needles of rain spiking the tarmac with a hiss. Daddy was up front. She was in the back seat, tracing her fingers across the lovely red hoodie he had stolen for her back in Manchester. It made her feel all grown-up, and she smiled to herself. She tried to think about the girl that had owned it previously.
“Do you think she’ll miss it?”
Daddy didn’t respond at first, but then she saw him shrug. “Probably owned lots of clothes. Most kids do.”
She nodded. That was true enough.
Daddy turned up the radio slightly. It was a station playing old jazz, music that was all riffs and mistakes and passion. She had recently been trying to teach Daddy about jazz. He glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. “Who is this again?”
“Thelonius Monk,” she told him.
She caught a rare smile on his face, there and then gone. “I love what he does here,” he muttered. “I remember you played me this song once. I didn’t like it so much then, didn’t get it.”
“You get it now?” she asked.
“No, but I love it.”
She laughed and felt warm in her belly. There was a comfortable silence for a while.
Eventually Daddy said, “So tell me about the wolf again.” It was one of his favourite subjects. She liked watching Daddy’s mind moving, all the planes and curves of his perception. He had such an abiding patience, but he was curious too – like she was.
She liked teaching Daddy.
“The wolf is chaos,” she told him, “with claws and teeth; the terrible joy that they all secretly desire. You think?”
He glanced at her in the rear-view again. “I think.”
She wondered if Daddy was ever awed by his strange little girl, or scared, enough to make him want to run away forever. She hoped not. She would miss him.

The Bed & Breakfast was a renovated Georgian house. The young man at the reception smiled at them both. She shook the rain from her hood. Daddy was all method; cheerful exhaustion at how they’d been driving all night, how much he was looking forward to seeing his wife the next afternoon. She was impressed.
“Daddy’s a musician,” she informed the clerk, and the pride in her voice wasn’t faked.
He held up his black guitar-case. “Thank you, no autographs.”
The young man laughed. Daddy signed some stuff, gave some money and they retreated upstairs.
Their room had pale blue walls and an en-suite bathroom. Daddy dumped his guitar-case and their bag on the bed. She went over to the television, switched it on and began skipping through the channels. She wrinkled her nose and touched it to the screen. Static tickled her face.
She turned and watched Daddy sit on the bed, remove his silver tin and begin rolling a joint. They had earned it. It was nice to be out of the car for a while. “Little,” he asked her, “do you want me to run you a shower?”
Little was Daddy’s name for her. “Maybe a bit later. I want some of what you’re making.”
They shared the joint, passing it between them, inhaling the spicy smoke, listening to the faint sounds of the motorway.
“Do you ever think you’d run away?” she asked him. It was a bold question. They never really talked about it. Maybe she was tired.
He peered uncomfortably at her. “No…why would I want to?”
She shrugged, pulled off the red hoodie and held it in her hands. She pressed it to her face and smelled the fabric. Daddy watched her, taking a long drag on the joint.
“This girl smells of boredom, and anger.” She rubbed the fabric against her cheek. “Thank you for giving me this. I’ll treasure it more than she did.”
He nodded, exhaled a thin stream of smoke and handed her the joint. He opened their bag and began laying the knives onto the bed.

Daddy was downstairs now. She stood alone in the en-suite bathroom, peering at herself in the mirror. She pulled up her vest and inspected herself, sighing at how girlish she was. Not even a hint of breasts. She puffed out her belly and held it. She looked like a swollen doll.
She thought of the fire-times, dark times, and remembered holding a newborn to her chest. As close as she would ever get.
She heard Daddy unlock the door to the room. She quickly pulled her vest back down. He came and stood in the bathroom doorway. The bloodied knife was still clutched in his fist. He smiled warmly at her. He’d managed to get some under his chin, a scarlet streak. She pulled a towel off the rail and tossed it to him, making a gesture at her neck. He began wiping absently and turned away. Through the doorway she saw him perch on the end of the bed.
“Only one guest,” he said. “Saw it in the logbook but had to be sure.”
She went into the room and lay down behind him, curling her arms around his waist. Three of the knives still glinted cleanly on the sheets.
“Where’s the other one?” she asked.
“I left it in her heart.”
She sat up and looked at him. He stared at her like he was concentrating.
“The guest was a woman?”
He nodded. “I told her I was the wolf.”
She grinned and saw a sheepish smile touch his face. She stood up on the bed and kissed the top of his head. “Another girlfriend,” she muttered. “Another claw-mark for the bedpost.”
He squirmed, “Little, don’t…”
“What?”
“Don’t be that way.” His voice had sadness in it now.
She felt a bit bad for mocking him.
“Anyway,” he said, “the clerk is still at reception. Go have some fun, I’ll wash up.”
She stepped off the bed and went to the door, glancing back at him. “Run me that shower then, please.”

It had been hot and fat and wet, his blood, first in her hands, then in her mouth. She squatted in the corner behind the reception, the lower half of her face slick with red. Her heart was a fist opening and closing rapidly in her chest. She could still taste his life on her tongue. She could feel it inside her, alive, like millions of tiny stars. She was breathing so fast.
She grabbed the corner of the reception desk and hauled herself upright, propping against the counter. The clerk lay broken and vivid at her feet.
She didn’t need knives.
She and Daddy were alone in the building now. She stumbled around the clerk and back into the hallway, bolting the front doors and switching off the reception lights. In the darkness she turned and staggered towards the stairs. She thought her heart might burst inside her chest. She was grinning so wide that her mouth might split. She nearly tripped at the first step. She should have asked the clerk if he had any children.

The shower was suitably cold and she let it cascade her with a thousand needle-points of water. The blood was only a reddish swirl at the bottom of the cubicle, sucking itself away. She bowed her head and pressed a hand to her belly, trying to imagine a new life growing there. The icy spray massaged the back of her neck.
Daddy had left her his grey woollen jumper on the handrail. She dried herself off with a towel and then pulled the jumper over her head. It reached halfway down her thighs. She liked wearing Daddy’s big, comforting clothes; a way to keep him close.
He had just finished rolling another joint for them when she returned.
“Good timing,” he said and handed her the finished product like a prize. She took it and snatched his chrome lighter from the sheets.
The smoke tasted sweet in her lungs now, instead of spicy. They sat side by side on the bed, while a newscaster murmured from the television set.
“We should stay in London for a while,” she told Daddy. “Watch the news, how they report this. All the salt and the sweat. At least it’ll give us something to do.”
“They always get it wrong,” he murmured, a note of distain in his voice.
“Don’t hate them. We have our fun. They’re just scared, that’s all.”
Daddy grimaced, and suddenly she felt sad for him. “I can’t ever remember being scared,” he said. “All I remember is you.”
She wondered if there was resentment in his words. “I’m really scared myself sometimes. Scared you’ll just disappear one day.”
Daddy didn’t like that she was mentioning this again. “I don’t know what else I can say to you, Little, except that I won’t leave you. I enjoy this too much.”
She grinned and nuzzled him, and waited for sleep to come. It was the most comforting thing he could have said.

The morning light was grey and refreshing. It had stopped raining but the roads hadn’t dried yet. They were driving again, passing through East London as people of all varieties began to throng the streets. The Bed & Breakfast was far behind them. She was sitting up front with Daddy this time. His black guitar-case lay across the back seat. She pulled the red hood over her head. “This city is beautiful,” she muttered.
“I like Manchester better, it felt darker.”
She chided him with a smile. “You don’t know this city yet. It’s as dark as they come.”
He nodded and kept his eyes on the road.
“Tell me about the woman last night,” she asked him.
She could sense his unease. “What do you want to know?”
“Do you love them as much as me?”
Daddy frowned. “I don’t love them. I just use them.”
“You know what I mean. Enjoy them. More than me.” She knew Daddy was curious about the life that was lost to him. He hated it, but he was curious. “Well, do you?”
“No, not more. Just different.”
She smiled and nodded. “Good. Different doesn’t frighten me as much.” And then coldly she added, “I would’ve eaten her.”
He glanced at her as if deciding something. Then he said, “I know what you want, Little. You want another child.”
“Yes.”
Daddy looked concerned now. “It’ll be so strange, not just the two of us anymore.”
Perhaps he was afraid that he wouldn’t mean as much to her. Poor, sweet man. She wanted to pepper the top of his head with kisses. “You’ll still be everything to me.”
“I know,” he murmured.
“A new life, Daddy. Imagine that? The streets are always full of babies. We can take one. I’ll just take one.”
“When?”
“Soon,” she said. “Today.”

Daddy was hungry by midday. They parked the car on the edge of a housing-estate in Mile End, and walked for about ten minutes to a café on the high road. Daddy managed to smoke two cigarettes along the way.
He ordered himself a sweet black coffee and a full English breakfast. She ordered a Coke because she loved the shiny red cans, and thought it would match her new hoodie. She liked watching Daddy eat, but she couldn’t remember the last time she had actually finished a food-meal. She could keep down small amounts, otherwise she ended up wretching.
When the food came Daddy tucked right in. She sat in silence, smiling, content.
Near the end of Daddy’s meal an old fat woman in a floral-print dress gave him a lingering glance. The woman was working on her second plate of pie and mash, but paused to look Daddy up and down. The hag was probably getting moist at the thought of having him. Little imagined blinding her with hot black coffee. The shrieking and melting, like the horrible witch in the Wizard of Oz.
Little smiled and took a sip of her Coke. It was very fizzy.

For an hour or so they wandered the high road. People blustered and swore at the cold and talked on mobile phones. Daddy smoked. Little window-shopped. She saw sweaters and scarves and pretty gloves in those windows. They were all wonderful, and she wanted none of them. She took notice whenever a mother and child passed by. Her step slowed whenever she caught sight of a push-chair. Or a pram.
She thought about all the mother & child fairytales she had read. Mary and Jesus. Demeter and Persephone. Isis and Horus. In those stories the child was always a reborn version of its parents.
She glanced at Daddy peering into a jeweller’s window. Perhaps there was some truth to those stories. There were definitely secret patterns stitched into the world, patterns that most of the daytime people couldn’t see.
She was proof of that.
Wistfully she touched a hand to her belly again. “Daddy,” she said.
“What?”
“I get so angry sometimes.”
He turned away from the jeweller’s window and peered down at her. He kneeled and gave her a peck on each cheek. “You’re a very special girl.”
He took her hand and they continued to stroll down the busy high road.
“I still think about the other times, the fire-times, before I came to you. Before I found my lovely Daddy.”
“You don’t talk about the fire-times much anymore,” he said.
She didn’t know what to say, all of a sudden. It seemed like such a long time ago, but when she looked into a mirror and saw her girl-face, she imagined it must have been only yesterday.
“It feels like a dream to me now. It used to feel so real.”
In the fire-times, Little was sure that she had stolen a baby from its crib and set a farmhouse ablaze. She remembered blood on her hands, the baby whimpering. A man and woman lying broken and messy on the hallway floor. Flames that were orange and yellow and red.
Daddy looked down at her again, still holding her hand. “Little, I think the fire-times were real. I think, in a way, you were born from it. That was the night my Little was truly born.”
“Feels like a long time ago,” she said.
“Maybe it was. But you came to me. You chose me, and I love you. Especially when you challenge me.”
She couldn’t help it. She stopped there in the street and hugged him fiercely.

She and Daddy would often go to the cinema together. They loved to watch all the huge moving images. Sometimes they even bought popcorn just for fun. There was a kind of magic in those images, even Daddy agreed. Something about being able to frame an event, to see it outside itself, like a ghost in the world.
This time the story was full of action and orchestra. Daddy sat wide-eyed like a boy and drank in the exploding police cars, the collapsing bridges and breathless chases. She enjoyed it too, but it was a movie for Daddy really. He loved the violence, the thunder.
She saw a half-smile touch his lips when a pretty secretary was knifed to death in a dark hallway by the hooded terrorist. Little had already guessed that the terrorist was actually the Detective’s son. Daddy gripped her hand and actually grinned.
“I love this thing,” he whispered.
Little couldn’t help but laugh. It was a joy to see him excited and happy. She loved sitting there in the dark with him, watching people’s dreams.

After the movie Daddy bought himself another sweet black coffee and sipped it as they walked back towards the car. It wasn’t dark yet but it was getting very cold. Daddy only had a t-shirt beneath his leather jacket. He looked grateful for the hot drink in his hands.
She didn’t feel the cold anymore. She’d forgotten what it must be like, but she loved how it gave everything an icy, unnatural sheen. She liked it best when it was so cold that she could see the breath in front of people’s faces, like dancing spirits.
In the car Daddy started the engine and turned on the heater. He offered her some of his coffee, and she took it just to try. She’d only tried coffee once before. She had the tiniest sip, tasted it for a moment and then swallowed. It tasted quite nice really, rich and mysterious, like it had secrets in it. Sort of like blood, but thinner and much less potent. She handed it back to him.
“I see why you like it,” she said. “It tastes like it’s smiling. A terrible smile.”
“I love your words, Little.”
She closed her eyes and imagined holding a tiny life in her arms. “I want to go driving,” she said. “It’s time.”

She sat alone in the car, parked behind a Mercedes with a pink baby-seat in the back. She had caught a glimpse of that vivid pink and knew this was the house. She’d known instinctively that a child waited for her somewhere inside, like their hearts were already beating in rhythm.
Daddy had gone in first.
She had to stop herself from squirming in the seat. Her smile was starting to hurt. Eventually she couldn’t wait any longer and got out of the car, glancing up at the big semi-detatched house. Night had taken the sky. She hurried to the front door and knocked. She tugged at the hem of her red hoodie while she waited.
Eventually Daddy quietly opened the door and pressed a finger to his lips. She was inside in an instant. He closed the door behind her. The hallway lights were on. She didn’t see a knife in Daddy’s hand, but there was a jagged ribbon of blood arcing up the wall. She could smell it. She noticed a few flecks of it on his t-shirt.
“You were right,” he said. He pointed up the stairs. “Second door on the right.”
She couldn’t conceal her excitement. She felt like jumping up and down.
Daddy glanced into the next room. “The wife is still breathing. I want to go howl at the moon.” He glanced at her, as if for permission.
“I’ll be upstairs.”
She climbed the staircase, feeling like a fairytale princess. The baby’s room was white and pale blue, with splashes of colour from stuffed toys dotted around. The crib was dressed with a golden sun, a silver moon, and dozens of tiny stars. She lunged forward and peered into the crib. The baby was awake, blinking and staring at her.
“Oh, beautiful, beautiful baby…”
Her hands were trembling slightly as she picked it up. She thought horribly that it might start to cry, that it would somehow sense the wrongness in her and be disgusted. But it only looked at her and made baby sounds. She remembered the fire-times, when she had first held a newborn in her arms. She rembered the house burning behind her, the car outside, and the man with the shotgun. Terror was in his eyes. He knew what she’d done. She remembered the gunshot seemed to last forever. She felt the baby come apart in her arms. The force tore her ribs open and hurled her to the ground.
Fire and blood. She had woken up with a hole in her heart.
She blinked the images away and held this new baby to her chest. She sent it the deepest tenderness she could muster. She tried to feel its tiny heart beating. It was not afraid of her. She loved it already.

In the car she held it close. It was sleeping now. She could feel its soft breath. As Daddy drove he glanced at the baby in her arms. She didn’t care where they were going.
“That woman begged for her child’s life,” Daddy said plainly, almost sadly. “Not for her own. I could feel her love. She kept saying ‘my baby, my baby, please don’t hurt my Emma…’ But I told her it wasn’t hers anymore.”
Little looked down at the thing she was holding. “A girl,” she whispered. “Emma.”
She hadn’t expected a girl.
“What do we do with it?” Daddy asked.
She chuckled. “We take care of it, silly. We love it, with all our hearts.”
“I know, Little. I’m teasing you.”
She grinned at him. “Tease all you want. I’m going to have a big smile on my face all night.”
Daddy gave her a po-faced wink that thrilled her. She closed her eyes and whispered into the baby’s ear, “I’ve missed you.”

They stopped at a petrol station becuase Little realised that Emma would need baby food and nappies and wet-wipes. The child was their responsibility now, and they should start as they meant to go on.
“Maybe I should hold her when we go in there,” said Daddy.
“No.”
He didn’t argue. They got out of the car and she waited while Daddy filled the tank. She whispered kind words to the life in her arms.
Little enjoyed the unearthly fluorescent glow of petrol stations at night. She had been in so many of them. She liked to imagine that one day astronauts would discover petrol stations on the dark side of the moon. The attendant was a tall Indian man with very dark eyes. His gaze followed them around the store, moving from Daddy to her to the baby. The man definitely looked troubled by something. Little felt her grip on Emma tighten. Sometimes she and Daddy would encounter individuals who seemed to sense a strangeness about them. Normally these people couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but occasionally there were individuals who seemed to sense far more.
The man behind the glass counter peered at her and nodded respectfully, but his eyes were on fire. She hoped Daddy didn’t notice, because Daddy was more cruel than she was. There were no nappies in the store, and she suddenly wanted to get out of there, but Daddy was already approaching the counter.
“Hey,” said Daddy to the man, “You got any wet-wipes, or baby food? We’ve been driving for a while.”
“Sorry, no.” The man glanced at Little holding the baby in her arms.
Daddy shrugged amicably. “Ok then, can I get fifteen quid on number three and a pack of twenty Marlboros?”
The tall Indian started ringing up their order. He looked angry, not afraid. If Emma hadn’t been there, Little might have considered frightening him a bit. Or even let Daddy take it further. She didn’t like it when people thought they were better than her. She knew the man was thinking it. She approached the counter, next to Daddy, rocking the baby gently.
“Hello,” she said.
The man didn’t respond, but then Daddy glanced at her. A vague smile appeared on Daddy’s lips. “She’s talking to you, mate,” he said, without looking at the man.
“Hello,” the Indian said immediately.
“What’s your name?” Little asked him.
“Jarresh.”
“That’s a lovely name. My name’s Little. Jarresh...do you see things? Things that most people don’t see?”
His eyes flitted from her to Daddy and back again. “I...I don’t know what it is you mean, young lady.” He handed Daddy his change and tried a disarming smile.
Little said, “I think you know exactly what I mean.”
Now the man looked frightened, and his quickening anger seemed to retreat like it had never been there at all. “S-Sometimes I can see,” he stammered. “But I’m nothing, nothing really.”
She glanced at Daddy and felt his intrigue and rage both at once. “What do you see here, Jarresh?” she asked.
He took a long time before responding. “I see darkness,” he said tentatively. “Darkness and...love.”
She felt Daddy’s presence soften unexpectedly. He looked almost flattered at what the Indian had said.
Little decided then that Jarresh was quite sweet.
“Have a nice night,” she said. “And thank you for talking to me.”
Daddy winked at the man. They turned away and walked out of the petrol station. Little could feel the Indian’s relief like a powerful wave that carried them back to their car. She was still holding Emma very close.

They were on the move again, and Little couldn’t help but think about Jarresh. She didn’t want people to hate her. She didn’t hate them. Sometimes she hurt them, or drank from them, but she never hated them. She liked people. People were beautiful. But the man in the petrol station had reminded her just how different she was.
Daddy looked at her as he drove. “You ok, my lovely?”
“Yeah. We didn’t get any food for Emma.”
“She’ll be all right till tomorrow morning. Then we’ll stop at a supermarket and get everything we need.”
“Ok. Thank you, Daddy.”
“Don’t worry about the petrol station guy. I bet he doesn’t see half as much as he thinks he does.”
Little stroked Emma’s tiny cheek. “He thought I was a monster.”
Daddy frowned. “We could go back.”
“No, it’s ok.”
There was silence in the car for a while. Little didn’t want to think about people hating what she was. She had Emma now. She would never let anything take her away. She should be happy.
“Where do you think we should sleep tonight?” asked Daddy. “Another Bed & Breakfast?”
She shook her head. “No. I want to take Emma somewhere special. I want to make her an official part of our family.”
It wasn’t difficult to detect the mixed emotions in Daddy’s face. “Family,” he said, frowning like the word was alien to him.

It was a church in Whitechapel. Daddy was very good at getting into places where he wasn’t supposed to go. She waited in the shadow of the building, holding the baby, hoping she was concealed from the few cars passing out on the road. Daddy unbolted the big wooden doors from the inside and ushered them in.
She and Daddy had broken into churches many times before, usually just to wander around in them or to sleep somewhere different. They would always leave the place more or less how they’d found it. Daddy certainly wasn’t religious, and neither was she, but both of them enjoyed being in such potent places.
Places that the daytime people believed were very special.
Daddy peered around in the darkness, staring up at the stained-glass windows backlit by the street lamps from outside. He moved around the church, lighting the candles that he came upon. Within a minute the space was washed in a faint candlelight that was dim enough to be undetectable from the street. She grinned. She felt like the whole church belonged not to God, but to the three of them.
“Should we say a prayer or something?” asked Daddy.
She wanted to laugh. “No, no prayers. We don’t need them.” She glanced up at an image of the Virgin Mother. The Madonna’s eyes had mercy and tenderness in them.
Little took Emma over to the baptismal font. The baby was awake now. It blinked and stared at her. It smiled when she smiled. Daddy stood away to one side. She could sense his unease about Emma. He didn’t love the child yet. But he would, in time.
She dabbed a drop of water from the font onto Emma’s forehead. The baby gurgled like it was amused.
“Emma, there was a whole other life that you were going to lead, with a different family. But that wasn’t your destiny. I’m different to most mummies, but I promise you I will love you more than anyone could ever love you. And if I have to, I’ll give my life to protect you.”
She thought of the fire-times yet again, holding a newborn to her chest – the burning house, the gunshot, the hole that was left in her heart.
She remembered lying dead in a thin lake of her own blood, her chest open and steaming in the cold night air, her broken ribs jutting at the stars.
She remembered waking up.
“Daddy will love you too,” she told Emma. Daddy stared at the floor, unable to look at either of them.
She took the baby to the altar and sat down, rocking it gently and patting its back. When she looked at Daddy she saw he was still standing in the same place, still peering at the stone floor.
“Do you have something to say, Dad?” She was surprised at the anger in her tone.
He seemed to think about how to respond, but he didn’t look at her. “I don’t know how I feel about this. I don’t want you to be mad at me.”
“Can’t you just be happy for me?”
Daddy looked genuinely hurt now. “I am. Of course I am, but...I love you, and I want to be honest with you. That’s all.”
She cradled the child. She didn’t like being mad at Daddy, but she couldn’t help it. She felt aggression welling in her throat even as she tried to speak. “Well, thank you for your honesty, Daddy.”
There was that heaviness that sometimes came between them. It was all the more frightening because it was so rare. She’d only had Emma for a few hours and already the child was unsettling things. She held it close and listened to its baby sounds.
Eventually Daddy came and sat beside her on the altar. She knew he wanted to break the tension, and she loved him for it.
“She hasn’t cried yet,” he said.
“You’re right.”
“Babies cry all the time, don’t they? So, she must really like you.”
“I hope so,” said Little. “I love her.”
He nodded and frowned, peering into Emma’s wide eyes. “Such a fragile thing.”
The two of them sat in the faint candlelight of the church, staring down at the young life in Little’s arms.
“Tell you what,” Daddy said quietly, “I’m going to go grab my guitar.”
He was only gone a few minutes, and she sat with the baby in silence. The faint sound of cars out on the road kept them company. When he returned he sat back down beside her and began unlocking his case.
“Maybe we should write her a song. We’ll call it ‘Emma’s Song’, but you’ll have to help me with the lyrics.”
Little smiled at him. “Ok.”
For the next hour or so Daddy worked on chords and melodies, making mistakes and false starts, while Little rocked the child and thought of special words to say. Even though Daddy was a wolf, and unsettled by the strange new child, Little was certain that their music was drawing down tiny pieces of magic from the night itself.

********

2 comments:

  1. Raj this story truly fucking creeps me out. I have read it several times and each time I get the same eerie vibe. I get the fact that Daddy and Little love and need each other. As a matter of fact I get the sense that they have a love that is way more normal and earthly than they are. But both of them make me feel nervous and threatened.
    You are really doing a great job with your writing Raj. It's really really moving.
    P.S. You should add a link to your blog when you leave comments on other blogs. Your work certainly deserves more recognition and I think adding a link to your blogs in your comments would be a quick way to get it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So dark and beautiful, Raj.


    ReplyDelete