Some time ago, I was awarded a Writers' Bursary from the Arts Council to write a collection of short stories called Pain Sluts. Here's one of the stories. Enjoy.
GOD AND THE RUNT
Every night, without fail, Rhidian Reynolds prays for his mamgu*. He prays for a cure for her arthritis and diabetes; he prays she will be happy in the ensuite granny flat; he prays for her border terrier Libby, in the dogs home. But one night - when he is eleven and three quarters - he forgets.
His sister Iola finds the body the following morning. Rhidian is in his bedroom, memorizing the To-Do List in his Ledger of Achievements, when he hears her yelling. Something about her voice strikes him as being different; the vowels, usually long and sulky, have shriveled to form odd staccato syllables; everything sounds squeaky, chopped-up. He saves his page in the Ledger and goes downstairs.
The door to the granny flat is ajar, framing a side view of his mother, sitting on the bed. Mamgu's hand is bent awkwardly, abnormally, across his mother’s thigh, like the joke hands in The Party Shop.
“I’ve told her and told her”, says his mother. “I’m so sick of telling her.”
In her hand is a case full of tablets.
“You can’t stop Predsol”, she says. “I’ve told and told her.”
Iola is halfway between the bed and curtains, in some sunlit dust motes.
"I tried waking her", she says. "I made tea. She was freezing when I went to wake her … I think she’s….”
“Don’t be stupid”, says Rhidian, interrupting.
Mamgu had promised Rhidian a trip to Wilko's music shop the following Tuesday. His heart was set on a new Yamaha B55 electronic organ, which had reverb settings, an upper keyboard, and a tremolo sustain button. Afterwards, there would be banana long boats in the Wimpy on Craddock Street.
“You’re just so stupid Iola”, he says again.
But even as he is saying it, before she turns to look at him and he sees the lovebite on her collarbone – opposite her birthmark – the events of the previous day are in his head again. His mother, too, has turned to look at him - as if they both know something - as if they know it’s his fault.
“Go to your bedroom Rhidian”, says his mother.
It started when he was cycling home through the district cemetery at the top of the cul-de-sac. He was approaching his favourite part – the long slope where you could freewheel through the angels and monkey-puzzle trees towards the exit - when he heard a rustling sound behind the electricity junction box. At first he thought it might be kids from the council houses on the other side of the cemetery, so he cycled onwards. Twenty yards later, however, he found himself at a standstill, with his bike leaning against a nearby yew tree, as if his body knew something he didn’t. The sounds intensified, took on an animal quality, so he climbed the tree to get a view. Low branches looped down under their own weight, creating footholds, and by the fourth branch, he could see over the top of the junction box. At first he saw only the basic shape of things: a head propped on an elbow, the ridge of a shoulder, the horizontal projection of a pair of legs. But when the shapes assumed substance, he could see that the head belonged to the ginger boy from the crematorium, that the legs were a girl’s legs. The boy’s hand was moving up and down between the girl’s legs, with such mesmerizing intensity that it filled Rhidian’s mind, as though his brain stem was just an arm with a zombie hand on it, moving up and down, smashing his brain up. Much later, as he was trying to revise the Ledger, the scene came back to him; full of details he wasn't aware of having processed. The ‘Danger of Death’ sign on the junction box; the ginger boy’s hand, grey and bloated, like a tick; the girl’s neck, twisted sideways, revealing a birthmark, a small brown oval. The girl - he knew it now - he had always known it - was his sister Iola.
In his bedroom, he checks yesterday’s date in his Prayer Journal. Mamgu’s name, with her full name, Violet Morgan, in brackets, remains uncrossed. Last night he spent so long praying - trying to save Iola from The Unquenchable Fire - he forgot to pray for mamgu. Setting the Journal down on his bedside table, he strikes a deal with Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. He will give up his Top Trumps, his bubblegum horror photos, his drum set, his big toes, his eyelashes, one kidney, and his Raleigh Chopper, in return for mamgu. At the last minute he throws in Tiddles, the stray tabby, and Freddie, the school gerbil. When he has finished, he hears a bang, followed by a salvo of smaller bangs. God sounds, he is certain.
“I came as fast as I could”, a voice says.
But the voice - small, abject - is his father’s voice; the banging noises nothing more than the contraction and expansion of heating pipes. Deflated, Rhidian sits on the bed. He didn’t pray hard enough; he didn’t pray long enough. He was distracted, too, by other noises; his mother’s voice, distant, echoey; like a voice trapped in orbit; the phone ringing endlessly.
“Doctor’s gone”, says Iola, in the hallway, some time later. “Mamgu’s dead.”
“Could be a coma”, he says. “You don’t know.”
“Double pneumonia”, she says. “Mr Edwards came.”
Rhidian pictures the ginger boy’s fingers, raking through dead people, touching his sister, spreading deadness. He wants to tell her it's her fault, for being common, for changing everything.
“You don’t know everything”, he says, instead.
Rhidian tries to remember a time when his sister wasn’t there. But he can't. He runs downstairs, two steps at a time, on to the plastic runner that keeps the carpet clean.
“You don’t know anything”, he adds, from the bottom. ”Just you wait.”
In the evening, Heidi, auntie Marian, and auntie Ivy visit.
“She forgot the Predsol ... she took warfarin. Two. I’m not sure ... I told her and told her … You can’t stop it”, he hears his mother say.
“Shoulda seen Dorothy”, says Heidi. “Frozen purple she was. Machines everywhere. Gotta be grateful see Fay.”
Rhidian looks at Auntie Marian, who has ear cancer. He spells the word dead in his head. D-e-a-d. D-e-a-d. Nobody was going anywhere. He wouldn’t let them.
“She hated it here”, says his mother. “Been better off staying put.”
Before she became ill, mamgu lived in a terrace house near Morriston Steel Works. There were always people passing, sticking their noses in, and there was no front garden. Rhidian thought the granny flat, overlooking the patio, was much nicer. He’d heard his mother say so, too.
“She’s somewhere better now” says auntie Marian.
Rhidian watches his mother’s lip, twitching upwards, creasing her nose, her nostrils flaring blackly, disbelievingly. Iola picks varnish from her fingernails, dropping blue flakes on the carpet, like bits of sky. Quite suddenly, he is disoriented. He is aware of his breathing: the movement of air around his body. A flake of varnish falls on his shoes, on the Velcro straps. He can’t breathe; he has to leave.
“I made veg”, says his father, from the kitchen. “I don’t know if anyone wants to eat… I can’t get answers.”
“I have to go to the toilet”, says Rhidian.
“She’s mad with me”, continues his father. “I was in traffic. She never believes me.”
‘I’m desperate”, says Rhidian. “I’ve got to go.”
In the downstairs cloakroom, Rhidian tries to make his eyes see behind the stars, behind the black air behind the stars, behind the big drop behind the black air behind the stars. More than anything he wants to see God face to face; plead with Him to make mamgu alive again. But his eyes won’t stretch that far - his mind can't hold it. A knock on the door interrupts him.
“Only me, boy”, says auntie Marian.
Rhidian tries to imagine what nothing forever might feel like - of total emptiness. But it's impossible. Blasphemous.
“I’m coming”, he says, splashing his face in cold water.
That night, Rhidian prays harder than he has ever prayed. He rearranges the Eisteddfod recitation trophies in size order on the bedroom shelf; he checks that the valance overhang is equal on either side of the bed; he checks that the Ledger of Achievements and Prayer Journal sit exactly on top of each other on the table. When he’s done, he kneels at the bedside, his head tilted so that he can feel the ping of his neck cords.
“Our Father, which art in Heaven”, he says.
Already he feels more confident: surprised by his own audacity. If God is his father, then surely anything is possible. The rhythms quicken, deepen, taking him somewhere else, to a world of miracles.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, he says.
He stops. He has remembered something. The junction box in the cemetery carries the picture of a skull and crossbones - and below it - a sign that reads ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.’
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, he says again.
It is as though God is giving him a clue, a way forward. Moments later, he is in his sister’s bedroom.
“I saw you in the cemetery”, he says. “With a boy.”
He can tell that she’s awake by the shallow, measured quality of her breathing.
“It’s your fault mamgu’s dead”, he blurts. “I forgot to pray for her cos I was praying for you not to go to hell … I forgive you anyway,” he says. “And for everything else.”
By everything else, he means the time she had her ears pierced and he put a curse on her. He was sorry he’d been harsh with her, but she was always causing trouble, drawing attention to herself, and it made him mad.
“Freakshow”, she says, under her breath.
Back in his bedroom, Rhidian imagines mamgu’s body, defrosting. He pictures her raising herself to a sitting position, her size-four feet dangling over the side of the slab, hair sticking out crazily, because of the Holy Spirit. All around her, work surfaces in the funeral parlour sparkle starrily; a pool of pink fluids on the floor tiles ebbs away. Rhidian imagines the depth of his sister’s admiration for him when – after mamgu is back living with them - he explains things. It is not until later, when he falls asleep, that the nightmares come. At dawn, he is woken by the horrible jerky sound of sobbing coming from his mother’s room, and the beeps of the bin lorry, like someone flat-lining.
The following weekend, Rhidian returns to the district cemetery at the top of the cul-de-sac. The Ledger of Achievements and Prayer Journal are in a carrier bag hanging from one of the handlebars, overbalancing the bike, and he almost collides with a man restraining a bull terrier by the railings.
“For Chrissakes”, shouts the man.
All week, ever since the funeral, something black and prickly has been surging up in Rhidian’s groin, in his belly. He imagines kicking a hole in the man’s face, stamping on the terrier’s head until its tongue and eyes pop. He cycles onwards, through the new part of the cemetery, trying to contain the feeling. He has reached the Scattering Garden of Remembrance when he sees the ginger boy, sitting on a memorial bench, eating a Ginsters pasty.
“Sign says keep off,” says the boy.
The prickly feeling has reached the root of Rhidian’s lungs. He inhales it, feels its power. There is no one in the world except him and the ginger boy, nothing in the sky except crows. He leans his bike against the neat privet hedge that surrounds the garden. The carrier bag hits the ground.
“Whatever”, he says.
The ginger boy rises in slow motion from the bench.
“What d’you say?” he says.
“Why don’t you keep off?” says Rhidian.
“Fuck’s your problem? Fuckin runt.”
The fuck comes at Rhidian like a fist, a word of thrilling, infinite density, like the black hole in the Dorling Kindersley encyclopedia. He steps forwards, towards the ginger boy.
When Iola finds him, a little later, he is lying on the gravel path that leads to the garden.
“Oh my God”, she screams. “You allright?”
Fake fur trimmings on her bolero jacket give her a blurry, ghost-like outline. Rhidian remembers the shape mamgu made behind the beveled safety glass of the front door, whenever she visited. He remembers jumping into the folds of her best coat - into the smell of peppermint creams and Kerrygold. He pulls himself slowly to his feet, grabs his bike.
“Something’s wrong with the brakes,” he says.
Everything had happened really fast, and at a slight remote, as if it was happening to someone else. The ginger boy had shoved him, hard, towards the pathway, with the butt of his palm against his breastbone, and held him down, against the gravel. Rhidian had jerked a knee into the ginger boy’s groin, and seen him bounce backwards, as if electrocuted. He’d seen him swerving around the entrance to the garden, groaning, shouting fuck and God and Jesus Christ. Then, out of nowhere, there were dull blows falling on either side of Rhidian’s head, he felt his skull cracking against a hard surface. At the same time, all he could think was that he’d made something happen. At last, he’d made something happen.
“You dropped something”, says Iola, brushing gravel off him.
Rhidian glances in the direction of the carrier bag. He had considered burying it in one of the fresh mounds at the top of the cemetery.
“I don’t need it,” he says. “It’s just rubbish.”
He takes it to one of the over-sized wheelie bins outside the crematorium, lifts the lid. Iola is watching him as he does so.
“It’s old homework from when I was little”, he says. “I don’t need it.”
A clear rain sluices off the yew trees down their backs as they pass the electricity junction box, the broken angels, and the twisted trees.
“It’s nobody’s fault. About mamgu”, says Iola, suddenly turning to him.
The love bite on her collarbone is fading now, and speckled with magenta, like stars in negative. Rhidian is aware of his wrists, tingling queasily where he was held down, and the imprint of the ginger boy’s hand on his breastbone. They are the same now, he thinks, she and him. As they turn into the cul-de-sac, they see their mother, staring out of the window, looking for them.
“I know that”, he says. “She just died.”
*Mamgu is Welsh for Grandma