Jay Merill has fiction in forthcoming and recent issues of 3 AM Magazine, Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Literary Orphans, Night Train, Apeiron Review, Citron Review, Corium, Crannóg Magazine, The Legendary, Casket of Fictional Delights, Anomalous Press, Berfrois, Blue Lake Review , Eunoia Review, Crack the Spine, the Newer York and Vine Leaves Press. She is the author of two short story collections – God of the Pigeons (Salt, 2010) and Astral Bodies (Salt, 2007) and has been nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Her story ‘As Birds Fly’ won the Salt Short Story Prize and is included in the ‘Salt Anthology of New Writing, 2013’. Jay has an Award from Arts Council England and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing.
The Red and the Blue
By Jay Merill
Red is how the world is. Red is the wall. And lips. And at this moment, blood. It’s dripping, and there’s a smell. Adele can see the blood that’s trickling down from her mouth. There’s a line of it hanging in front of her. Not so dark here because it’s mixed in with a trail of saliva. As the wind rises up Adele watches the sway of the saliva line. There’s a break half way down and it falls. Falls, Adele thinks. Falls. And she pictures herself slumped down, feels the rough brick behind her back. It’s like a coming-to, this awareness of what she’s leaning against.
Slowly, achingly, Adele stands, sees her bag lying on the street in front of her, smashed open, make-up and other bits lying all around it, some in the road. Her mascara, a packet of mini biscuits she hadn’t had time to eat yet. She turns and looks behind her. The wall, yes. It’s the thing she’d been looking at when she was hit. The wall is still here, she herself, is still here too. That surprises her. Because when the guy had punched into her the words, this is the end for me had been what had come up to her lips. She hadn’t got them out before she fell. They are still circling about inside her. But as the moments pass she stands straighter, breathes deeper. So, not the end, after all. A beginning, if anything. Because from now on she will see things a bit differently from how she’d seen them before. Once, she’d been kind of careless and it had felt good and right that way. Now part of her will always be vigilant. Even if she forgets this experience itself she will.
Adele edges unevenly to the kerb and the trashed handbag, leans down painfully and picks it up, then slowly, laboriously, collects the strewn contents and puts them back inside, automatically popping everything into its proper place: makeup in the back, oddments, tissues, pen, in the front, or the middle pocket. The tidying process calms her. Not being careless any more, becoming from this moment someone whose lips will forever after have a tendency to go tight all of a sudden so that anyone looking closely at her at these times will think to themselves, What happened to her?
A loss in innocence is also a gain in knowledge. Being watchful is how you have to proceed. It’s the way you ought to be as you go out in the world. Adele thinks of Chicken Licken, a story which as a young child she’d always liked yet feared. Chicken Licken had had her mind focussed on what was happening in the sky. So much so she hadn’t seen what was going on in the world around her; what dangers lurked. For Chicken Licken there were no second chances. The fox had done for her. She Adele, has been lucky. The price of her escape is increased awareness of the here and now; a tendency to be on her guard. This street was too dark to be walking down at two in the morning, the houses too shut off, the district too scary. Luck. She could have been stabbed. There could have been a gang. But only one guy, no knife. Her money, her cards, her phone. But these were things. Just things that didn’t really matter. Adele straightens up again, the broken bag in one hand. After a minute or two she starts to move along the street again, carrying on with her journey home. The party she’d been to earlier in the evening seemed a long way off. She was not drunk now. No, all that kind of carelessness was finished with. The bleeding has stopped. Just two streets more. Not far to go.
The way she’d felt when she was attacked is receding. She’s already losing the heightened sense of red she’d had in that first moment or two: how red had seemed like some sort a reason for everything; seemed like the first principle of the universe. How red had been the only thing she’d pictured when her head was dashed against that wall, and when her eyes had opened again. That look of the brick, then of the dripping of her own blood. How her mind had been obsessed with red, had kind of hung onto the thought of it. Red like a raft to cling to, a log, something solid. She had attached herself to it, though it was only a colour. She’d held onto it in the worst seconds. The seconds that had seemed like a long time. She’d felt the mugger’s breath on her face as he hit her; the flecks of his spit on her cheek. Funny how quickly you can let go of something.
Adele looks around now at the mist-black, the shadowed blue. Doesn’t need to cling on to the one thing any more. Other stuff can be allowed back in. Already new images are showing up of their own accord. Distant houses behind sparse hedges, very occasional lights. Then she’s at her door, keys in hand, the keys which, for no reason of planning, had happened to be in her pocket rather than her bag. She goes in and heads for the bathroom, runs warm water, sponges her face without looking in the mirror. Water in the sink runs red then pink. At last she looks up, sees the image of her pale face, a bruise forming over her right eye, a scratch or two and a look of disorientation in the eyes. That’s me, Adele thinks. She hears the words swirling around inside her. Wants to let them out but can’t seem to. Then she walks to the kitchen. It’s a bit of a mess the same as usual. Water is trapped in the sink and fatty bits float on the surface. In an automatic kind of way she reaches under the pile of unwashed plates and lets it out. Afterwards she goes to her room, locks the door, falls onto the bed and sleeps.
In the sleep there are no dreams. Nothing to enlighten; nothing to disturb. She sleeps till late morning and when she wakes she’s stiff with aches, with darting pains from all parts of her body. Slowly she gets to her feet and goes and unlocks her door. The house is quiet. Barbara will have gone to work. Good. Being alone at this moment is better. She looks down, sees she’s still in the clothes she’d been wearing yesterday. Yesterday, that far off world, sharply severed from the new now by what had happened to her.
After a bath and a coffee she feels almost human again. She supposes she ought to call the police but doesn’t till Barbra comes home. Then it’s Barbra who phones them, says the mugging should be reported even if nothing can be done. Says you never know. Barbra has swung quickly into her taking charge mode. Even if muggings happened all the time maybe this time, this mugger will be apprehended. Does Adele know what he looked like? No? Surely she must have some inkling? No? How comes? Didn’t see his face because her eyes were closed? How can that be? Surely you must have seen him.
‘If you just try to concentrate,’ Barbra goes, lighting yet another cigarette, ‘I’m sure you’ll find you do remember.’
‘I smelt his breath,’ Adele remarks, building resentment, taking in the two empty cigarette packs lying on the floor, the already half empty bottle of whisky Barbra had bought only the day before yesterday.
‘Oh how disgusting,’ says Barbra. ‘I need another drink. What did it smell like?’
‘Sour and bloody. I don’t know. It was red coloured.’
‘How could it have been? That doesn’t make sense.’
‘Everything in the world was red. If I’d seen the mugger’s face that would have been red too. Red is the only thing I could picture.’
‘You mean you saw red?’
Adele and Barbra stop talking. There is a shared thought though. That it was the only red missing. The anger that should have been there. Sorrow and disgust and fear and reason, and the noticing of the brick wall. But the anger. Where was it?
‘People don’t like to say they feel anger nowadays,’ says Adele, staring in front of her, not at Barbra. ‘People get offended if they hear someone say they’re angry. Especially if it’s a woman who is saying it.’
‘Well they’re hypocrites,’ Barbra pronounces hotly. Then: ‘Let’s go out somewhere. Go for a drink, where there are people. It’ll be good for you to hear people talking, people nearby at other tables.’ She puts her hand on Adele’s arm. And strokes.
‘You’re just saying it because you wanna go out and get drunk,’ Adele accuses. There’s a twist of bitterness inside her because she’s embarrassed. She feels mouse-like. Too pc to even find anger in herself after being mugged. She glares at Barbra, bringing up the drink thing as a retaliation. One weakness displayed for another. To have seen herself as soft and mousy – it makes her shudder. So she lashes out.
‘Yes, and actually we could start to think about the reasons,’ Barbra says quietly, looking away
from Adele. ‘It’s good that this has come up I guess. Well, important, anyway.’
And now Adele is feeling uneasy. What’s Barbra saying? Is another accusation about to be flung at her? In one curt gesture Barbara leans forward and snatches at the whisky bottle which is standing close by on the table. She opens it with a sharp harsh tug and pours. Pouring quickly and far too much. The funny thing is Adele feels angry now, angry against her partner. Is that because she’d expected more of Barbra, expected her loyalty. But of the mugger on the street she’d expected nothing except the worst. Expected no mercy?
Adele gets up very abruptly and slams out of the room thinking as she goes how misplaced all of this is. To be angry here in this moment with someone she loves. How crazy is that? But she can’t help herself. In that moment of slamming the door behind her she hates. Yes, love is bound up in strong feeling, even negative feeling. The mugger left her cold. In a way he did. He was nothing. Barbra was everything. Adele and Barbra had met on a hiking holiday in the Isle of Wight. Ten years ago. But endings were coming. There was this pattern to things. A pattern that had started off bright and bold and was now fading down to nothing. Adele stops in the hallway after slamming out through the door and what she says to herself as she stands still reflecting is, The colours. They’re not what they were.
Because blue is how the world had been. The exact hue and depth of Barbra’s eyes, miraculously. Blue had overpowered Adele’s senses, made her gasp. She was enamoured; had never experienced anything so rich, or powerful, or beautiful. A flower growing by the roadside was the first thing Adele had been touched by. Speedwell. They’re not usually as bright as all that, she’d thought. And then she’d looked around and seen this same deep sparkling blue everywhere.
The two of them had left the other hikers behind and walked out across rough terrain. They’d lain on a hillside facing a lake. The lake had the same rich tone to it as everything else. Every year they go back to the Isle of Wight and take the same walk. Each time the water has changed colour. Got murkier, got greyer, the original blue obscured. Had it ever existed, that vibrant cerulean or had she imagined it, Adele wonders.
Standing in the hall leaning against the little table there, Adele hears the sound of Barbra moving about in the living room. She doesn’t come to the door. Once she would have followed Adele out and charmed her back to reasonableness with a twinkle. But most likely this row wouldn’t even have happened. Yes a rift. Adele senses there’s no stopping it now. This is the end for me, she says out loud, clearly and boldly, staring straight ahead of her. Then she reproaches herself for being too dramatic, too irresponsible. Maybe they can stop the rot. After all they do still love one another, don’t they? Somewhere, underneath, the love is still there, even if it isn’t always visible. The words the end pass away out of her mind. She feels lighter, less troubled once they’re gone and thinks of the past.
Adele and Barbra had been lying on this slope of ground, looking down at a lake. All at once there was a swarm of blue butterflies, rising, falling, wheeling through the air like a cloud. Adele had felt she was being swept up and away by the fluttering wings. The two of them were lifted and borne along as though they had no weight. Up they went higher and higher into the sky. She can still catch the ripple of their laughter.