Tuesday Morning Visitors

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2012
A young woman goes to church to speak to God. Someone hears.

The ceiling is gorgeous. It’s not that it has some great artwork painted on it, or even that the wood is beautiful. It’s that it’s so high. I can barely see it and that makes all the difference somehow. It looks nearly black from here.

Swallow. Hm. It looks lovely.

Breathe. Nobody can hear. Breathe easier. God, why have I never come here before? I mean, ahh, ‘gosh’. Yeah. Sorry. If you’re, ah, listening. Ha.

Eva was unaware of her pupils expanding, didn’t realise how adorable it looked. Her hands were held together in an unconscious if right-spirited imitation of prayer, and the angle of her head made her straight mouth look like a perfectly innocent frown. She wore heels, a soft red overcoat and black tights. Had there been someone in the rafters to stare back at her, he would have smiled: she looked like a very sad cartoon puppy. Some footsteps from the street outside shook her concentration and made her notice the floor-tiles instead. They were good too.

She stood beneath the cathedral’s Lantern Window, although she never learned the name of it. To her mind it was ‘the big candelabra near the gift shop’, which was actually not a shop, but just a few leaflet-racks and a desk for conversation. Ahead of her lay twenty polished wooden pews leading to the Sanctuary.

It’s all very pretty.

To Eva’s right was the open doorway to Church Street. The city shopping district was the same as any in England, maybe a little greener and quieter than most, but here inside was a beautifully-made hall she had never gotten around to seeing. An older chap sat a few yards ahead, very still and reverent in a way that Eva felt her own generation were never quite able to replicate.

Something to do with attention spans.

It had nothing to do with attention spans. And although she would never realise, Eva was reverential enough, in her own way. She listened carefully when people spoke to her and she worried herself with it. In a roundabout way, she had learned this strength from her mother, who had been just the opposite. The standard rebellious stage people go through in their teens and early twenties had ended very neatly for Eva, leaving her strong and humble, and comfortable if a bit nervous. Her first dalliance with true love, via an excitable research student named Craig, had come to a more untidy end. This had all happened years ago, and Sheffield had grown on her, but often when annoyed she would think of Craig, sometimes without even noticing. She had a habit of giving the ‘silent treatment’ to her dog.

After a few minutes, just admiring the church hall didn’t entertain her anymore. She took a few steps forward and sat down, three rows behind the old man. Without noticing, she held one eye on the slab of sunlight laid by the door. Since stepping inside, she had carried herself like a newly-qualified teacher looking for a staff room, or someone proud asking for a bank loan. A little jumping nerve irritated the back of her neck very slightly, which she scratched absently, enjoying the satisfaction whilst thinking of other things.

I don’t want to be here after twelve and get caught up in the service. I have to cook today, and I’ll need to look around for bath towels. I need to do what I came here to do. Swallow.

Don’t breathe too loud. Don’t disturb that man.

And now I’m just looking at a stained-glass window. Jesus looks kinda weird here.

It was true. In the window the Messiah appeared silver-skinned, with his wavy hair and halo both dyed the same kind of off-yellow. The toga he wore was a bright, heavy red and he had a big sausage-hand stretching out to somebody invisible. To Eva, He looked grumpy, sick and alien. She was not alone, but a few people loved that window.

I don’t know what that facial expression is supposed to represent.

Ten minutes passed as Eva mused about ancient Rome, and then mentally replayed scenes from Ben Hur and Spartacus, confusing herself with the twisted plotlines. There was a weary kind of smile on her lips as she snapped out of it.

Okay. I want to talk to you. If you are there.

I haven’t prayed in years, and I’m not sure I believe in you. So, sorry. But for whatever it’s worth, I want to talk to you.

Ahead of Eva were three little altars. One was all but empty, just a pedestal. One was a mess of candles and the other held more stained glass. There was no need to light candles at this time of day.

The whole building is full of little bloody symbols I don’t understand. As if I’m visiting a little boy’s den. Ehhh…

The air feels cleaner in here, easier to breathe. Someone works hard to keep this place so austere.

As a matter of fact, the upkeep of the Cathedral was divided into three fairly simple shifts and shared gamely by friends of the building. It was a self-perpetuating thing: such was the cold beauty of the hall that visitors tended not to bring much dirt in, and were careful to leave no mess.

I want to ask what I have to live for.

Every morning I force myself to get up early…

Eva worked in the evenings, at the restaurant attached to a small theatre that used to be a cotton mill. There were no real demands, from engagements, conscience or social life: nothing to justify her getting up early.

…and I feel like I should take pride in it, in having some control, but I hate the mornings.

I don’t like my job anymore. I don’t exactly like the flat, but I don’t want to move. I’m not happy being single but I do not want to go on dates with strangers. I don’t enjoy myself anymore.

There was silence, as always, and unfortunately the Reverend Cowling, some way away by the Hunter’s room, chose this moment to cough. The sound immediately shamed Eva. She felt as if she ought to blush, but did not.

That’s all. I sound like a spoiled child who has to finish her homework. ‘I don’t enjoy myself any more’.

For a second she wished someone she knew had died. That she were grieving. She would have been more comfortable that way, for this moment at least.

Her mother used to say that God is everywhere and time and culture have no meaning for Him, but if you’re going to ask Him favours then you should go to His own house and dress up a bit.

This is a terrible prayer. I’m not used to begging. I don’t know how to do this.

I want to know if life is worth living, and if it is then why I don’t agree. It’s not that I’m complaining about my life… exactly. I feel as if I just don’t know how to use it.

I have a dry throat now. I should have had some coffee, but I didn’t know if there was a toilet near here. Swallow. Again.

And I hate what I’m doing here. These gaudy window-pictures of Christ don’t show him being crucified, but they remind me of it anyway.

‘A man who let himself be tortured to save strangers, and then spent two thousand years making them feel guilty and having them surround themselves with pictures of it.’ This is the description of Christ she would think of later that day and tell an atheist co-worker the next morning. When she did, she would think of this picture and get lost in thought.

I’m sorry. If you’re actually hearing this, I’m sorry. I just don’t feel like I should be here. I don’t really have anything specific to ask.

Ah… How is my brother?

He was fine. Lately he had reconsidered joining the military to ‘make something of himself’, and though their mother had neglected to mention this to Eva during Skype calls or email correspondence, her concern showed through. He still felt bad about the last argument he and Eva had before she left home. He was interested in a girl who he thought was too good for him, and this had made him spend more time alone.

Or… I guess… or how are, ah… I don’t know. I can’t concentrate. It’s one thing to walk into a church and start demanding answers, but another thing to walk out in a huff.

How’s Craig?

Craig was, exactly as she suspected, very happy with another woman. He was working a small office job which left him dissatisfied but he was able to delude himself very well, and when this didn’t work found joy in other things. He occasionally thought of Eva, but did not truly miss her anymore.

What am I supposed to live for?

The old man is leaving. He looks exactly like the people who sit in front of me on the bus. I think he just noticed me looking and smiled at me, and I missed it. Never mind. He looked happy. Probably got whatever he came here for. Whatever it is that people do come for.

It took a while, but the man (Bill)’s footsteps got quieter. She found his footsteps heavy, awkwardly-placed, careless, and didn’t know whether to be slightly annoyed or feel a little sorry for him. When she lost patience thinking about that, Eva trotted over to the candles in the right-hand chapel. This, more than any area of the Cathedral, looked untidy. There were rows of lit candles, some at slight angles and some straight but melted-down, all supported by a short wooden test-tube rack and all made into funny shapes by the way the wax had slid down and cooled at the bottom. There was a row of fresh ones, separated from the others. One was upside down, for reasons no-one knew.

And what’s the point of this? What do they mean?

They were a way to make visitors feel at home. As well, the light was symbolic of God’s presence. It was that simple.

I’m going to light one of the candles. Good.

She picked one of average length from the left and held it against the brightest flame, centre-second row. The look on her face and the slow breath through her nose challenged the act to mean something, to change something. As if she were threatening it not to.

Swallow. And put it back. In her grip the candle rattled against the wood, but the frictionless wax made it silent. She felt it.

What’s the point, here?

The point was very hard to explain.

I suppose there are just some things that people want to know.

Even when you won’t tell them.

 

Eva lost her interest in the display quickly but glanced at the top of the chapel archway before she left. Now that she had a good view of the old stonework, she lingered for a moment, frowning. And just like that, she was done thinking.

It took her a minute to reach the street again, during which she distracted herself by frowning until it hurt just a little and pushing her thumbs against her palms. Once she was off Church street and in a quiet spot outside a bar, she spat at the floor.

Michael, a nineteen-year-old boy with a large camera around his neck, briefly admired her figure before stepping into the cathedral himself. For a minute he stood and nodded, wondering if he would be allowed to take pictures, and then simply wondering if anyone would stop him.

The camera was expensive and new. At the time, Michael had an idea about pursuing photography as a career, and had already livened-up a few of his days wandering the city and finding unusual shots. He lacked skill but was at least serious enough to recognise that fact, and understood that he had a knack. In his way, he wondered if he might finally be able to impress his dad if one of his little hobbies turned out to be a bit more serious, and maybe even made him some money down the line.

Reverend Cowling shooed him out five minutes before time so that he could prepare for the afternoon service. Michael didn’t manage to take any photographs, but the fresh air was nice.

Stars

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2010

Dan welcomes his ex-wife to the horoscope segment of the BBC Radio Merseyside afternoon show. He does not care for horoscopes.

I was the funny host at Radio Merseyside. DJ’s there were divided into three distinct groups, as per BBC local broadcast policy. There were young lads who tried to be funny, old men who tried not to be, and me. That’s why I got the afternoon show so quickly, and how I kept it.

Don’t get me wrong, now: I was never anything special. I was never national quality, although I always suspected that if I was, then the accent would have held me back. Don’t hear too many Scousers in the top presenting jobs. But I didn’t belong up there by rights. I was right where I deserved, in the crumbly, understaffed halls of mediocrity, Paradise Street.

On the day of my last show, I remember staring at the clock until ten minutes before the end.

Jessica Jones finally mooched into the studio without anyone letting her in. She just hung up her very silly furry coat, sat down, pressed her knees together and made that stupid smile where it’s not really a smile so much as a deliberately bad impression of one. She thought it made her look innocent and sweet. It made her look like a liar, I had always thought. I smiled back. ‘Just in time,’ I mouthed. She pursed her lips in exaggerated confusion, then pretended to figure it out when I abandoned the charade and signalled to put her headphones on.

Simon and Garfunkel were faded-out prematurely and replaced by what was labelled ‘astrology ambiance medley’, but known in the building as ‘new age shite tape’. Pan pipes and chimes.

‘We say farewell to the wonderful Sound of Silence, there,’ I announced happily to the mic, ‘and welcome back to Miss Jessica Jones! Astrologer…’ and I paused there because she had written-in requesting me to, ‘to the stars.’

She hadn’t bothered with the make-up today, I noticed when she looked-up. It made a nice change. The milky, still glance she shot me was either to thank me for including her pun, or admonishing me for the little ‘silence’ gag, it was impossible to tell which. Even without them painted, I couldn’t read her eyes.

Come to think of it, she looked just about normal. No big ear-rings, no ten-years-too-young corset or anything. It was a black jumper and almost not-shiny trousers. She’d never been in the studio, not for the astrology anyway, looking like that. She looked nice. I did notice that.

‘Good afternoon, Daniel,’ she replied. Daniel. I didn’t know if I’d annoyed her or if we’d just become so formal that ‘Daniel’ seemed right to her. I suppose I wasn’t exactly calling her ‘Jess’ these days, so fair enough, but…

‘So what have you got for us this month?’

‘Well, it’s going to be a very busy time, at least for the next couple of weeks, for all of us. There are some very interesting… shifts, which I shall get to later.’ She sounded robotic when she recited her reports, as if she took no joy in the work. Like even she didn’t believe in what she was saying. I had to wonder about that. Shifts.

I nodded with the best dopiness I could muster. ‘Right,’ I said, ‘what kind of shifts are we talking about?’

‘Well we have a full moon starting tonight…’

Yes, much like every month. ‘Yikes. Is that unusual, Jessica?’ I grinned.

Boldly, she ignored it. ‘Now, you’re a Cancerian, of course.’

‘You remembered!’

‘I did. And the moon is your ruler, obviously.’ On the recording you can hear my chuckling at that point. It’s not me being spiteful; it was purely by accident. What I said afterwards was spite, but I thought I might as well after laughing at her.

‘Well, obviously, yeah. I never leave the house without consulting the moon. You can tell by looking at me. Funny thing is, whatever I ask, it always just gives me this sad face.’

‘Right…’

‘It’s depressing.’

‘The moon is your ruler, Cancer, and it will be full tonight and it will be in Taurus. Taurus is the part of your sign that deals with group activities, which seems lovely, but remember that the full moon is all about letting go. So, that’s maybe something you should think about now.’

Well how bloody specific. How nice of whoever created the universe to leave a complex system of stars and planets around the Earth in order to tell people born in June that they should maybe think about letting go around October.

Now before you start taking her side, thinking I was being a bit harsh, let me remind you that her last book was called The Venus Code, and that she bought a BMW with the profits. All right?

All right. ‘It could be anything,’ Jessica followed, still in her bored computer-voice, ‘a gathering of friends you no longer have time for, a work thing, or who knows, even your family. But you should say goodbye to whatever it is before it’s too late.’

Thoughts of gullible fools at home flitted through my mind. There must have been people at home who actually took her on, who sat at home with a pen and paper and based their lives around these random, vague platitudes she had strung together while waiting for a roast to cook.

She was vegetarian by then, actually, so no.

Some ‘Cancerian’ might just go and throw his family away, or something, because of this. Because the bloody moon was in bloody Taurus.

I stopped listening. My guest continued reading her fortunes as if they were shipping forecasts, while I slowly closed my eyes and smiled, tried to rise above the scene. Her droning and twittering dulled, leaving only the panpipes audible. The ill-fated listener in my thoughts was replaced by an image of stars against black. Five stars that apparently someone once thought looked a bit like a crab. They don’t. They look like the tips of great, shimmering mountains. Every one of those five is all we can see of a system of planets, like our own, or maybe different. We don’t know. Couldn’t possibly. Every one is unique, gorgeous, alone, except for that glassy, emotionless white dot that made it to our eyes. After all that time and space. Five of them.

‘Now, the Sun is changing signs now, moving to Mercury. This is veryexciting for Cancerians because…’

‘Awww, Jessica Jones, will you shut the fuck up?’

The astrologer frowned and creased her face at me, helplessly registering a mixture of caring and disgust. Honestly, it was wonderful for me to see that face again. That was Jessica Jones’ face. I’d missed it badly. I almost didn’t mind when I realised what I’d said on air.

‘Do you actually–’ I was sputtering now, but no plan of action came to me no matter how much time I bought myself. ‘Do you believe this stuff? That’s what I want to know. Are you in on the con, or did you somehow get sucked into this? Because the last time I knew you well enough, you were much, much smarter than this!’

I had known her well for seven years. I like to think I knew her better than anyone else ever did, but she’s changed so much that I suppose it doesn’t matter. And I understand she found a new fella the week after the divorce, anyway, so maybe I am just second-fiddle now. They’re still together, at time of writing. I certainly don’t know what the astrology was all about. We never talked about it, anyway. She wasn’t the type, back then.

I knew her well. Seven years. It was my fault she got interested in fame, and I’ll take the blame for that. I let her help on the show, made up the occasional comedy character for her to play. She loved it when I introduced her by her full name on the radio. It made her feel like a celebrity, I think. But I just haven’t got a clue why she went the way she did. Whether she believed in the horoscopes, or she just liked the celebrity. In our day she was brilliant. She used to wonder at everything she saw. Used to forgive too easily.

I swore some more while she watched, blank and empty. When I had clearly run out of steam Jessica walked out, very dignified. A few minutes later, Joe – Joe McCoy that is, producer at the time – politely asked me to do the same. Next time I saw her was on a street corner. She was shopping, I was looking for work. The conversation was awkward. We both kept our hands in our pockets.

But Jessica smiled a bit as we talked, a nice smile, like she used to, and even laughed at a few of my jokes. She always said she thought I was funny.

Amber’s Ward

by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2010

The stockroom is faded and blurred at the edges, like her. I don’t exactly know if it’s too dark in here or if I just need to blink. I don’t want to close my eyes so I try not to think about it.

She’s just sat here, barely glancing at me but holding me still with her silent shuffling. If I could concentrate I might be able to identify the specks across her cheek. It’s either mud or blood. It’s dark and it’s dry, so I can’t say, even at this distance. She keeps scraping off the spots, usually cracking or crumbling them when her nail hits their edges. Now she has gotten better at lifting them off in one piece. Whenever she successfully pries one away, she flicks it at me and mimes chuckling. They’re on my face now, too, but I don’t mind.

I had decided the stories about the A&E at night must be an outlet for the stress the doctors go through. They call it ‘the grey lady’s ward’ sometimes. I didn’t want to think that Preston Royal was staffed by crazy people, so I made excuses for them. In some jobs, maybe you just need to believe in an afterlife. Only the doctors and nurses ever claim to see her. Never the hired help, even those who have been here longer than me. Just those people who come to work each day knowing that they might fail to save someone’s life.

But now she’s right here, with me, next to an aluminium cabinet, smiling with her head cocked. How have I never noticed her? When she smiles at me like that, I don’t know what she means by it and my feet feel light. Sometimes I twitch and she turns her face as if to laugh. Maybe she just finds me funny.

She would have caught my attention even in life. Her hair is blonde, I suppose. I might be able to tell if I could just rub the sleep from my eyes or splash some water across them. I have to wonder what all this ‘grey lady’ stuff is about; she’s wearing a football shirt and I never heard of any Newcastle player named ‘Amber’. Has nobody spent enough time in her presence to look at her back?

They’re too busy, eh. I would have made a terrible doctor. I took the time to learn her name. And I’m staying with her. They’ll just have to run their own errands tonight. This is important. I wonder what happens to her during the daytime. I’ll stay and watch. I think she wants me to stay with her.

Another dot of mud-or-blood hits me, on the nose this time, but I don’t react. She stares at me and I try to read her expression.

The dots are on her shirt, too, only visible on the white stripes. They merge into a black splash on her legs, beneath the shorts. Finally I work it out; she’s been playing football. It’s just mud. With relief I move to cradle my head in my hands. There is more of the mud on my sleeves.

Of course it’s mud. She snapped the bones playing football. That’s why she came in. That’s why they needed me to hurry down here and fetch Doctor Hay. It was an emergency. She wasn’t here and I looked in the stockroom. But I never left. I couldn’t find her and I panicked.

After a while, I relaxed. It didn’t matter. She was with me. I was too careful, too nervous to save her, but she’s here with me now. Smiling.

There is a harshness to that smile now. The more I remember, the closer her face seems to come to mine. I am reminded of how small the room is. I think I hear the studs of her boots squeak a little against the floor.

The door opens above us, momentarily stealing my attention. When I glance back, she’s gone. A nurse is here and she looks frightened by something. She must have seen Amber vanish. I hate myself for missing it and I hate the nurse for disturbing me. She has to drag me out as I scrabble and try to flick the mud onto her. I feel myself grappling against her, determined to stay here and wait. She gets me out and I am still.

I have never seen Casualty this busy. As the night ends, the corridor is full of patients, each one’s image as colourless and undefined as the girl I have been watching. Each one grey in their own way. When the nurse finally sees them she loosens her grip and stares into the corridor, unblinking. Maybe she recognises somebody too.

The ghosts are everywhere, silently shifting into the rooms and into reception. Amber is by the vending machine, giggling. I run.