The Hands of Time

[The following was my entry to a short story competition hosted by Leeds Trinity University. I’m delighted to say I received third prize, and some very lovely feedback from the author Martyn Bedford.]

 

The heavens burn like they’re going down in a blaze of glory- a battle waging above the clouds of an Autumn Munich sky. Lotte stares out, past the curve of the earth, glassy-eyed with her lips parted like she’s whispering secrets that get whisked away by the wind before they reach me. I say her name softly and she tilts her head to face mine. There remains an emptiness behind her eyes that stays just long enough to scare me.

“Lotte,” I say again, hoping my concern keeps out of my mouth.

She says my name back to me, smiling weakly. My worries don’t meet my lips, as she’d want, and instead they fester in the bottom of my throat like honey, spoiling like old fruit.

A gust of wind forces its way through the city streets, leaving a symphony of rattling cans and whistling windows in its wake. Up on the rooftops we get the worst of it. My short, lemon coloured bird’s nest of a hairstyle does little to protect me from the chill. Not for the first time I find myself wishing I’d brought a hat. A lock of dark hair sticks to Lotte’s face and I grace my fingertips to her cheek as I brush it off. Her eyes flicker down as if I’d left fingerprints there and she brushes her hair behind her ears, looking back at me with an expression that feels almost like mischief.

“Out here?” She says playfully.

Relishing in rare light heartedness, I shush her and we giggle. I remember the times we went to the cinema, back before everything escalated and we found ourselves having to resort to rooftops and alleyways. I wish I had a camera- a big one with reels of frames and film. I wish I could record her laughter, capturing the crinkle of her eyes and the pull of her lips and the flash of Hollywood glamour, right here in our little corner of Germany. I’d replay it forever – a looping reminder that there’s still joy to be had- in her, in me, in all of this.

I don’t like the films they show anymore. Lotte isn’t allowed in there anyway.

“Your face is so cold,” I say.

“Almost as if it’s October.”

“You can come back to mine, you know – anytime you want to.”

Her face falls and I curse myself.

“I can’t…”

“My family like you, always have. They won’t mind, promise.”

“And my family worry about me…” She looks down. “And I them. You know how it is now.”

There it is again – the caveat to all our plans. The head of the waterfall that she tells me about. The new rules and the new words and Anton Weber clad in a pressed uniform and a superiority complex acting as if he spent a day between 35 and 38 sober, telling my mother to keep her daughter away from Lotte. She’s never referred to by her name, of course. They call her all manner of things I know she isn’t. They call her a thing she is as if it’s an insult. As if her being a Jude, spat with whatever level of venom the hurensohn feels like expressing, negates everything else about her.

Lotte is a better person than I could ever hope to be. If she hadn’t spent every day of school having her hair pulled and her clothes torn and her skin scratched until she stopped going she’d have got the grades to go to Heidelberg and she’d be out of here. She’d have left everyone who cursed at her in the dust. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht and the legislation that came after, she told me it was a good thing she had left. Imagine, she’d said, if I had got the grades and found out I was banned from going anyway.

I couldn’t even look her in the eye on the day the news came out. The headlines stained the paper with a terrible permanence that felt like it was written in more than just ink. It’s only a month ago now and it feels like everything’s has gotten worlds worse since.

“It’ll get better,” I tell her. “It’ll be okay, in the end.”

She takes a second to register it. Then her eyes light up with anger and frustration, lips pursing, eyebrows upturning. I startle.

“No, it won’t,” she spits. “You’re so stupid.”

She draws her knees up to her face and hugs herself close, making herself as little as possible and she looks out to the horizon with a fierceness that rivals the spilled reds and oranges of sunset.

“You’re so stupid,” she repeats, quieter this time. “You’re so stupid and hopeful and wrong and I wish you were right but you’re not.”

She lets go of herself and she slumps, barely keeping herself propped up on her forearms.

“I’m sorry,” I say quietly.

“Don’t be,” she says softly as she looks down.

A pregnant pause fills the air between us.

“I should get going. My family worry so much about me now.”

“I understand.”

“Really,” she says earnestly, an unwarranted apology flooding her face. “I wish I could stay.”

“No, no, Lotte it’s fine. When I say I understand I don’t mean it like… passive aggressively. I mean it as in… y’know, I understand.”

She laughs, “you do.”

“Understand?”

“Like no one else,” she says, taking in my expression. “C’mon, you think I’d be on rooftops in October if I didn’t think you were pretty special?”

I blush at the tone of her voice, letting my eyes flicker away to stare intently at the edge of a tile and hope she’s looking away when I look back. She isn’t, a flirtatious smile drawing her full lips wide and her sooty lashes narrow slightly. For a second, I can’t take my eyes off those lips, drawn in by cupid’s bow and vermillion. Then she moves closer and I close my eyes and she’s kissing me.

She tastes like sugar and she feels like home. Cold but delicate hands cup my face. A finger traces my jaw. It’s been months since we’ve done this. It feels like years ago and yesterday and I’ve thought about it every night and now it’s happening and it’s here and God, it’s better than I remembered.

Eventually, she pulls away, pressing one last, quick peck to the corner of my mouth before joining me in gasping. I feel a smile creep on my face and she grins back at me before looking back to the sky and taking her own turn blushing.

Carefully, I undo my hair ribbon and tie it around the exposed skin of her neck. My hands are frozen with cold, but I manage a wonky, pink bow.

“How do I look?”

“Pretty,” I say. “As always.”

She leans into me and of all the horrible four-letter words flitting about the country she whispers to me the prettiest one. Then with one last squeeze of my shoulder she’s gone, footsteps disappearing behind me until they meet the clatter of the metal stairwell. I think over the words we exchanged, trying to find between them the ones we didn’t.

It’ll be okay, in the end.

She hasn’t been gone for more than a minute, my stomach already aching in her absence, and I realise the only thing I want more than her is to be right.

 

A Meeting With Myself

The following is a piece of work that I wrote in a Journalism subject taster day at Leeds Trinity University. While an edited version was posted to the LT Journalism website, which you can read here, but I wanted to upload the unedited version as well:

Her naturally blonde roots showing through her dark hair, long due for a retouch, Madeleine Atkinson looks tired and frazzled. She’s eighteen years old. If she were like most people her age, she would be on the last few A Level exams but Madeleine is not like most people. Madeleine is a sixth form drop out, and the memory of walking home from college in the bitter January cold for what she thought was the last time sticks with her. ‘Not forever, I’m sure,’ she clarifies, catching herself on what she confesses is a habitual determinism. ‘But for now at least.’

Madeleine is animated, with almost comically exaggerated facial expressions and intonation patterns that resemble hills and valleys. She maintains eye contact slightly too long or not at all. She takes in the rooms she walks into, and after a short time of clarifying the impending self-aware weirdness of what she’s about to say, she admits a strange ability. She can remember every room she’s walked into for long enough for her to get a cautious, eagle-eyed look-around. ‘I can see the streets outside my house and walk down them in my head.’ She can walk for miles until she’s at the sea. She can’t hear the cars or taste the salt but can see it vividly enough. ‘I can walk around my primary school, going down every corridor I walked through before I was ten, when I had already left.’

When I ask if she meant she’d skipped a year group she laughs, ever so slightly too hard. Her eyes flicker away and widen, the sound of laughter continues from her but her well drawn smile falls. She tells me no, and a second of silence passes and she takes another bite of the vegan sweet chilli chicken wrap she brought with her. She tells me about how it’s the only wrap she can eat they sell at the college dinner hall we’re sat in, tells me about her allergies and gestures to her bag vaguely when she references her Epipen. After a second of very apparent deliberation she recalls that January day when she left college.

‘I was upset, obviously I was upset. I thought that’s why it was so hard to breathe, why my heart felt like it was going to explode out of my ribcage. I just wanted to get home. I thought everything would be better when I could just sit somewhere familiar and pretend the entire thing didn’t happen so I was walking as fast as I could. The fastest I had ever walked in my life, I thought, which was why I thought the world was spinning. Then I realised I genuinely couldn’t breathe anymore, and I stopped. And the world kept spinning.’

Compared with how she was when she recalled the fact that she left college, and the red flush of still hot embarrassment when she admitted she was upset after leaving, she’s almost theatrical as she recalls the symptoms. She moves her hands and pauses in all the right places, building to up what I, or the wider audience I wonder if she sees inside her head, know is the Chekov’s Gun – her Epipen.

‘Then, just as I realised the severity of what was happening my legs gave out. My face was on grass as I watched the cars go past and I just felt so separate from everything. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I didn’t exist anymore.’

She recalls a woman’s face appearing above her head, asking if she was okay. ‘You can tell I really was out of it, that I wasn’t sarcastic’ she laughs. I can’t say I saw her sarcasm on the day I met her as much as I saw self-deprecation. Maybe if I got to know her better, I would. After taking the longest slug of water I’ve seen outside of an athletic event she confessed she imagined she’d be a weird person to get to know.

‘When I returned to college I was sat in classes where I didn’t know anyone,’ she says and her eyes go wide again as she looks me dead in the eye. I realised a little while after we parted ways that every time she had spoken about feeling bad it’d been accompanied by embarrassment, and I wonder if her wide eyed stare was some kind of appeal to me to understand the subtext of what she was saying, that she struggled in those classes.

‘But I have another weird thing I can do,’ she admits, laughing in again that strange disjointed way when I make a comment about how she seems to have a lot of these weird abilities. ‘When I’m in a room of people I don’t know, within about ten minutes I can tell who I have the likelihood of befriending and who I don’t.’ She clarifies, very quickly, that she’s not attaching a value judgement to those people. ‘Everyone is different, and people communicate in different ways and that’s okay. I feel like most people are good people, and just because I don’t think it’s likely we’d be friends it doesn’t mean I don’t think they’d be great friends to others.’

Another thing she clarifies is that it’s very much not that she doesn’t want to be friends with them, but more that she doesn’t imagine they’d want to be friends with her. She admits that between her radical politics (communism) and the degree to which they incense her (greatly), to the obscure interest she hopes will define her future career in academia (Jewish Studies) she admits she’s an unusual person. I reassure her that’s perfectly okay, and she fixates me with that wide eyed stare, as if no one had ever told her that before, and earnestly, she thanks me.