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Aisling at sunset by Martin X

© Martin X

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Please don’t turn around. If you do, you would see a shade of crimson rise over my face. I want to observe you without you knowing. At first you were a dot in the distance, approaching from the far end of the shoreline, along the rim of the sweeping arc that is the White Strand. From above in these high dunes, I watched through my lens as your shape emerged. Riding your tall brown horse that ambled casually in this direction by the edge of the calm and smooth sea, you appeared lost, as if you existed somewhere else.

Just a few nights ago I arrived in McHugh’s Bar, down Gratten Street in Sligo town. I sensed you before I saw you. Then I saw you, your exquisite form in the shadow. There was a group of raucous students in the corner. You were standing at the fringe as if you didn’t want to be part of that crowd. You turned to look away, to see if there was anything better than that. There wasn’t. Because the first you saw was me, and our eyes made contact. You came over and started talking whilst you waited for your vodka and coke.

‘Not from these parts, are you? you said.

I said, ‘Just passing through.’

You told me your name is Aisling. I had never heard of that name before.

‘It means dream or vision,’ you said. I couldn’t imagine a more precise definition of the woman standing by my side at that moment. I asked where it came from.

‘Got it from me da,’ you replied and laughed.

I observed your long wavy auburn hair cascading over your shoulders, took in the curve of your slender figure. Your hazel eyes seemed to sparkle in mine. I don’t remember how long we talked, perhaps it was forever – too long. Then I left, hoping I would never see you again.

I’m enjoying it here, out in this open space, letting my lungs fill with the clean sea air. I can hear the lapping of the water on the sand, the mild wind brushing my scalp as I lay down hiding from you up here, watching you through my magnifier. I shouldn’t be so surreptitious. I should jump up and shout, ‘Hey, Aisling, it’s me, how are you?’
I am a mimic. Whenever I arrive in a new place, I imitate everything I hear, I speak in the way everyone else speaks. I'm a blotter, soaking up all the words, all the smiles, all the routine looks. I never stay long enough to become rooted, familiar. I pick up enough to know what I need. For that period of time I am yet another duplicate. I daren’t dig down into what's underneath. I rely on surface. Please don’t turn around.

The sunlight is golden. The rippled sand shimmers between the hollows. Before I began my travels I didn’t used to say things like that. I didn’t used to say anything most times. I thought I was too stupid to say anything at all. I tried to educate myself with words, tried to make sense to people so they could understand me. I learnt how to read books, found nice phrases and expressions. But whenever I was with anybody, I couldn’t find a way of saying the things in the books to fit in with the conversation. I always felt awkward, stilted. It was like I knew what people were saying, but couldn’t say anything back that would make any kind of sense to them. So I just accepted I should keep quiet and peripheral.

I don’t know why I’m thinking like this. I know I have to be here, I know I have to be with you. But I can’t be with you. You are there on the saddle of your horse, idling past along the sandy beach, and I am up here, a secret from you. I will always be your secret. I have a twinge. I’ve just shifted my leg. Did you hear me move? Please don’t turn around.
I wish you no harm. I was here yesterday, in the same position, just to see if you would come along, like you told me you do each day. You didn’t know I was here then, just like you don’t know that I’m here now. Aisling, I could never tell you. Yesterday evening the sky was fierce; brooding storm clouds threatening to whip up the sand into swirling whirls. You held your reins firm, dipped your head into the wind, barely hearing the hooves splashing. For brief moments, between the clouds, the sun dripped blood over the horizon, butcher-red.

Do you know I shot a dog once? I never told you that. He hung around our slum apartment, playful and mischievous, a scamp scurrying about in the dirt all day. One day he became scrawny and rabid, in some kind of frothing, salivating madness, both craving and fearful for water, desperate to attack anything in sight. Hydrophobic, I think they call it. Grey and matted, he snarled, leaping to snap my youngest sister’s arm that dangled over the edge of her cot. She was very little. I had a gun to hand, I don’t know why, and I took it in one go, the dog that is. There were always guns in the slums. My little sister bounced with the noise. To this day she has no idea, I never told her.

I see you now in close-up, high on your saddle, lost and drifting on the shoreline, the failing sun’s last glow enveloping you. Please don’t turn around. Why didn’t you listen? Do you not know that it’s safer for you not to know? I shouldn’t have told you about the ‘accommodation’ where my handlers had placed me. I told you not to go, but you insisted. I told you not to go through the iron door and enter that deserted stinking place, the derelict leather works at the back end of the abandoned Finisklin Industrial Estate. You came the day after our first meeting in the bar, at evening time. There you inhaled the torrid air of stale piss and rancid puke left by dossers and vagrants. There remained the stench of rotten cattle skin and flesh. You searched around the dilapidated filthy walls, running your fingers over the give-away signs scratched into the decaying milky paint. I kept everything hidden away in there.

‘Hello?’ you called out, echoing all around.

I cowered behind the large rusted vat at the top end of the work-floor, kneeling fast on the mattress. I tried to hold my breath to silence in the hope that you would give up and go away. You called out again, and I had to stand up. You looked mildly astonished when you saw me.

‘Some place,’ you said sniffing the air. ‘Nice.’

I said, ‘What do you want?’

‘Last night, I never – , I meant to ask – though I told you mine – ’

I scoured deep, deep into your eyes, waiting.

‘ – so what’s your name, then?’ you said.

I said, ‘Lucas Langton.’

You said, ‘That’s a name I’ll remember.’

I hope you don’t. It is a name just for here, and it will soon be deleted until I find another for wherever I shift to next. The handlers tell me to source an identity from the telephone directory of the locality in which I’m sent to operate. ‘Lucas Langton’ does for now: the two ‘L’ surnames I blindly found adjacent in those pages and pasted together.
You began to walk around, inquisitive, looking all about you, trying to take in the detritus, the squalid mess. I could hear the question rising inside your head before you said it.

‘How can anyone stop in a place like this?’ you said.

‘That’s why I said for you not to come,’ I said, ‘It’s only for a couple of days.’

As you moved on you came to the mattress round the back of the vat. I knew the surprise on your face was because you realised that it was incongruous, standing out like a misplaced luxury, clean and new. Then you saw what you shouldn’t have, spilled out of my rucksack, lying on the floor – one of the bitter white powder stashes wrapped tightly in transparent cellophane. I thought your expression was more inquisitive than anxious.

‘What’s that?’

‘Salt.’

‘Salt?’

‘Salt. It’s a precious commodity where I come from.’

I was acting as if I was serious. I was sure you knew that I was acting. Your look of indifference told me that you were acting. In the pause I knew I had to distract you. Then I let myself look at you in that other way, as a woman alone in front of me, as someone I wanted. I looked up and down the outline of your whole figure, lingering on the shape of your breasts beneath your blouse. I imagined you naked before me. I didn’t disguise from you the way I was looking at you. I repeated that slow look up and down. Then, with lowered eyelids, I stared hard into your eyes for a few moments, before glancing across with obvious suggestion to the mattress. You raised your eyebrows in a frown, then turned and walked briskly to leave through the iron door.

‘I’ll be in McHugh’s tomorrow night,’ you called back, and the door crashed shut.

There I stood next to the vat whilst the crash reverberated to silence. I could not get the picture of your naked shape out of my head. I could have taken you there and then. You could have done nothing to stop me overpowering you as I ripped off your clothes and forced you down onto the mattress. I slammed my foot into the side of the vat. I’d had other girls just as I wanted before, anytime. I always got my way. None of them reached into me like you do. I hit my foot against the vat again. It could have been so easy to have you. Maybe that’s what you wanted. I pounded my foot again and again. Sweat broke out across my forehead. Again and again I pounded my foot. The leather works filled with the sound of booming. I bashed my foot harder and harder trying to force your picture away. I wanted to deafen myself. Then a sting shot from my heel to the back of my knee and I limped away in agony. I fell on the mattress grimacing and sweating as my leg seized with spasms. The silence came again.

Please don’t turn around. You are receding away from me now and I see your back view. The wind has dropped and there is a cool stillness other than the lapping of the ocean. I will not let you go too far. I went to McHugh’s the next night. That’s when you told me about riding here on your horse, before you began swigging doubles. Soon you were tossing your hair back and laughing. I didn’t laugh but things began to blur. I like the way you never remarked on the darkness of my skin, although I know it fascinates you. You had to stroke my arm with your finger, your curious finger, your curious eyes. I know I became your exotic.

I was born and raised in a sloping two-storey tenement that stood on the corner of a wide shambolic street in one of the seedier districts of Panama City. The building lurched to one side, as if about to trip up. It had a warped corrugated steel roof, blocks of faded terra cotta red and purple were painted along the end wall. A tattered canvas awning hung out below our room to give a little shade from the sweltering sun. Trash and toppled bins littered the walkway beneath. We lived on the first floor, which had a rickety balcony running along its side. One morning, from one of the other rooms further on, an unshaven man with bulging watery eyes, wearing shorts and a grubby vest, staggered out clutching a bottle of cloudy spirit heading for our apartment. I was sat on the wooden walkway and, as he passed, I flicked out my foot catching the back of his ankle. Even though I hurt myself, it was comical how his leg instantly crossed against the back of the other making him career sideways
and lunge onto the wooden rail. It cracked with his weight and he plummeted, smashing his skull. Somebody came and lashed a metal pole across the gap the man had left in the railing.

We existed with our sour mother, me the middle of nine children, six brothers and three sisters. I don’t remember their names. I don’t think I can remember my own name from that time. I don’t remember a father, although I recall my mother having many men come to visit her, usually late at night. Odd muffled cries and shouts would filter through the paper thin wall. Whenever she rose from her bed – it could be late afternoon – she would beat us before ejecting us outside to go scavenging. The rest of them would go picking over the mountainous rubbish tips for things to sell. My job was to raid the rear-entries of eateries and restaurants to provide for food. When we had done our scavenging and stealing, we would join the other spindly kids, with filthy faces and filthy legs, tearing about the streets. Then, when I was older, there were the knife fights after dark, down the alleyways. And then there were the guns.

In the bar, you laughed so loud and long, at times I couldn’t tell through my haze whether you were laughing with me, or at me. I couldn’t laugh myself, because I was convinced you were beginning to attract attention. At one point it occurred to me that you could have sneaked back to my place unknown, and indulged some of the stash.

‘Ate all your salt then, Lucas Langton?’ you shouted.

Though I have learned this language well, I could never understand jokes, how they are supposed to work, why they are funny. I think you had begun telling me some earlier, but you were unable to complete any as your laughter became more uncontrolled. I was so disoriented that I didn’t know if what you said then was a joke, but it sent a jolt through me as the bar fell silent. At that moment I thought everyone’s eyes were locked on me. And at that moment, despite my fuzziness, I concluded that you knew too much. Then you burst with laughter and the noise in the bar began to pick up. I can’t remember how the night ended, how I got back to the leather works. All I know is, the next morning awakening thick-headed and shivering, you were not with me.

I have done what I was supposed to do. Almost. Normally, a regular job like this I could conclude in a couple of hours, three at the most. I would be gone before anyone in the vicinity could have sensed my breath. This time there was a holdup, because the handlers didn’t arrange transport for me quickly enough, so they told me to lay low for these few days. This morning I pulled away the mattress and lifted out the loose bricks the handlers had marked out. The cavity they left was just about big enough to fit in the dozen bags of cocaine. They were all intact. I replaced the bricks and covered them over with loose gravel. I dragged the mattress outside, doused it with petrol, and set it alight. I fished out my notebook and checked the dates and times for when I should be at my next destination. I collected my few clothes together along with the collapsible rifle. They all fitted in the rucksack, leaving no evidence that I had ever been in the leather works, or that I had ever been near Sligo town. When I’m done here, I’ll hitch a lift up to the airfield at Carrickfin where the light plane will be waiting.

Aisling, I can barely say your name. Please don’t turn around. My leg is beginning to sting. The evening sun is polished copper in its descent, flooding the placid ocean, flooding the soaked sand, flooding my skin. I wish I could tell you that this is me, me in my element, me as you have never seen me. I know you can never appreciate me for what I am. This is how I am: me at what I do best. I can hear your laughter echoing loud, echoing soft. I wish you could understand the depth of concentration I have found now. My body is tightening, straightening along the line of the telescopic sight. Though you are further away, your picture is bigger. I have caught the rhythm of your slight swaying. Through the cross-hairs focused on the nape of your neck, I need to lift about an inch and a half. My leg is throbbing now. High above our heads there are two white swans gliding gracefully, parallel with each other – way above – soaring out into the diminishing blue, out beyond our reach. I wish you could see them. Please don’t turn around.

I let my finger squeeze the metal curve.

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