© Susan Howe
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Held in Trust
“Trust me,” you said, as you guided me through the school gates. “You’ll love it. They’re the best years of your life.”
You hugged me and I could smell your aftershave on my skin for hours afterwards. Whenever I felt afraid, it reminded me of home.
“Trust me,” you said, one hand under my chest and the other under my belly. “I won’t let you drown.”
You didn’t believe in water wings. That isn’t real swimming, you said, as I watched the other children splashing about in the deep end.
“Trust me,” you said, when Mum went into hospital. “We’ll get through this together, like we always do.”
You were right. My life didn’t change that much. You took me to school and out for Friday treats, the same as ever. My uniform looked a bit scruffy and the fridge was empty, but Mum came home and seemed okay, except that she got tired and couldn’t eat much.
“Trust me,” you said, when the other kids laughed at me for getting fat. “They’re only jealous. Men like something to get hold of. You’re beautiful just as you are.”
You handed me a bag of crisps and had one yourself. We sat and watched telly and got a takeaway. We often had them because Mum needed special meals and you said it wasn’t worth cooking for two.
“Trust me,” you said, after my only proper friend said you were creepy and she didn’t want to come round any more. “You don’t need her. We can have plenty of fun on our own.”
You took me to the cinema, bought me popcorn, and sat with your arm around my shoulders. I wished Mum could have been there too, so we looked like a proper family.
“Trust me,” you said, when Mum died. “She’s in a better place. We’ll be fine, you and me.”
I tried to be brave, and daytimes weren’t too bad, but at night I heard you crying and that made me cry too.
“Trust me,” you said, as you got into bed beside me. “Mum would have wanted us to comfort each other.”
You said my bed was too small and made me sleep in yours, but it never felt right. I began to hate the feel of your hands and the smell of your aftershave. I lost weight and you started looking at me as if I frightened you. My teacher noticed how skinny I’d got and took me to the school nurse. That night you said we were better now and I could go back to my own room. The Friday treats stopped, too.
“Trust me,” I say, as you lie in your hospital bed, shocked and bruised from an attack outside your own front door. “You’re not going to die just yet.”
Your eyes snap open, still betraying your fear after all this time. Now you’re the one who’s small and vulnerable, and you don’t know if I’ve forgiven you.
I keep wondering about that myself.
Fashion Victim: A Cautionary Tale for Thoughtless Shoppers
She spots them from across the road and they hold her gaze while she winds between the cars. Standing in front of the shop window, she can barely breathe as she touches the glass.
She steps inside and an assistant glides towards her.
She points, her mouth dry. “Those.”
“They’re fives, Madam.”
She sinks into a velvet chair with the sense of being on the brink of a unique experience. With exaggerated reverence, the assistant lifts the shoes from their Perspex tree and hands them over.
Their beauty brings tears to her eyes as she runs a fingernail down the spiked heel, strokes the scales and the smooth, red sole.
“Sensational, aren’t they?” the assistant says. “Handstitched python. Each pair as individual as the animal itself.”
A faint gasp escapes her lips as she notes the price, but she kicks off her own shoes and forgets she ever liked them. The assistant kneels to guide her feet into softly upholstered interiors that feel welcoming and alive.
A thrill shivers up her spine as she hands over her credit card. Already inseparable from her purchase, she wears them out of the shop, carrying her old shoes in a chic paper bag.
She has a powerful urge to go dancing that night and calls her friends. They meet in the bar of her favourite club, where she is already seated on a high stool, her legs crossed, inviting attention.
“Oooh,” one of them says. “New shoes. Can I try them on?”
She looks down, hesitates, then smiles and shakes her head. “Maybe later. Let’s dance.”
And how she dances! The crowd becomes an audience as she shimmies across the floor, her feet weaving intricate patterns with confidence and grace. She is the last to leave, exhausted but exhilarated beyond anything she has ever known.
She collapses into bed fully clothed. The shoes resist her half-hearted attempt to remove them and she falls asleep feeling desired.
Held in a crushing embrace, she dreams of being tasted and consumed. Her thighs tremble beneath the touch of an unseen lover and sweat trickles between her breasts as she writhes and twists in ecstasy.
She wakes, fighting for air, sweltering darkness all around, cocooned in padded walls, she can’t move anything except her toes, wavelike motions squeezing the breath from her chest as she slides towards oblivion.
Snapshots of her life flicker past with unforgiving clarity and, for the first time, doubt pricks her conscience. Gathering the last of her strength, she prays for redemption.
A memory emerges from the blackness; a few words on a chic paper carrier. This bag is biodegradable.
Guilt assuaged, she leaves her careless life, and the objects of her desire slide back to their tree to await the next consumer.
It won't be long before hunger strikes again.
I looked for you again today. Deep beneath the bustle of Victoria station, I retraced our steps along tunnels and platforms, following the route we took together every day for a year. I searched for fingerprints on the wall you leaned against while you told me it was over, that you loved somebody else. I scanned the crowds, waiting for a glimpse of denim, a familiar shirt sleeve, or the notes of a tune you hummed without realising.
This is where we met; on the eastbound platform of the Circle Line. I noticed you months before we spoke and I sensed you also noticed me. I began to tell people about the man on the train, as if our future had been predetermined. And I was calm, possibly for the first time in my life. At last I understood where I was going and who would be travelling with me.
One morning you were late and I panicked. I almost got off the train but suddenly you were there, squeezing in beside me. You stepped on my foot and apologised. I smiled and you smiled back.
The rest was easy. We discovered we were in the same business and worked a hundred yards from each other. Emerging into the bright sunshine at Blackfriars, we turned into the same street and you left me, trembling, at the door to my office.
I hared up the stairs.
“Guess who spoke to me this morning,” I gasped.
My boss, Jane, rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me it was the man on the train?”
My phone rang as I nodded.
Jane winked. “That’ll be him now.”
I picked up the receiver and it was.
“Hello,” you said. “It’s the man on the train.”
Everything fitted. You met my family and friends and they loved you too. We talked about sharing a flat and I had no doubts because you had been there all my life, waiting for the perfect moment.
I never realised that anything had changed until you told me so. I believed there was no one else for either of us and ignored the signs that only half of this was true.
You had to spell it out for me in the end, my back against the tiles, your eyes kind but distant. You were moving away, you said. Out of town. With her. Even then, I didn’t really believe it.
That was the last time I saw you until today. You walked straight past me, here, on the eastbound platform of the Circle Line. You hadn’t changed a bit. Not the way I had.
I sat on the bench nearest the tunnel as I have every day since you left me, staring at a curved advert for insurance on the opposite wall. A loose corner flapped in a rush of stale air as the rails sang the approach of the next train. And, without hesitation, I rose and jumped onto the line.
Just as I did before.
She strolls in as cool as you like and says, “Hello, Joan”, as if we’re old friends. She hands me a bunch of flowers. I hate lilies. So funereal.
Daniel’s bobbing about behind her. I see she’s already got him where she wants him.
“Come through,” I say. “Dinner’s waiting.”
I can’t imagine what’s made them so late. They obviously haven’t spent any time deciding what to wear. Shorts and open sandals on a Sunday!
She offers to help but Jim and I can manage when he’s finished fawning. He wouldn’t think she was so wonderful if he'd slaved over two dinners just because she’s a vegetarian. Attention-seeking, that’s all it is. Daniel won’t be able to keep it up. One sniff of a bacon sandwich and that’ll be it. I've got some rashers in the fridge.
I wish Jim would take that silly smile off his face. She’s only talking about her job for goodness’ sake. Anyone would think she was a brain surgeon, not a nurse.
She seems to like her broccoli bake, but Daniel keeps looking over at the joint then shutting his eyes. Poor love, he must be starving. I’ll try and slip him some later, while Jim shows Her Highness round the garden. Listen to him! Who on earth wants to know about his stupid dahlias?
I’ll clear the plates while they’re yapping.
“That was delicious, Joan,” she says.
Daniel smiles and nods but I can see he isn’t happy.
I’ll show her I know my boy. He’ll love the pudding. It looks smashing even if I say it myself. Watch his face when I set it down.
Now what’s the matter with her? Come on, missy. Spit it out.
“I’m sorry, Joan, but does it contain gelatine?” she says.
Well of course it contains gelatine! How else would you get it to stand up like that?
“Sorry, Mum. We can’t eat it,” Daniel says.
“What do you mean?” I say. I’m struggling to keep my voice down. “It’s your favourite.”
“I wish you’d listen, Mum —”
She puts her hand on his arm like she owns him.
“What Dan means is gelatine’s made from animal bones.”
I feel my blood pressure rising. If I’d wanted him called Dan I’d have christened him that myself! She’s ruining him with her ridiculous ideas. I’m trying my best to make it a nice day and this is the thanks I get.
“It looks lovely, dear. I’ll have some,” Jim says, as if that’s any damned use.
“How long have you been vegetarian?” he asks her.
“Only since I met Dan,” she says. “He’s really committed and I’m trying to support him.”
Daniel leans over and plants a kiss on her cheek.
“Isn’t she great?” he says.
Jim nods. He always was a rotten judge of character but she doesn’t fool me.
I look her straight in the eye. She flinches. Her head tilts. Lips tighten. Now I think we understand each other.
“Coffee?” I say.
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