Category Archives: Creative Writing

The Cull, 2036

I don’t normally post short stories on my blog until they have found a home, but considering our current political landscape and the prospect of an environmental meltdown, I thought this story was relevant. Please feel free to share.

animal bee blur close up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

‘…on some secluded branch in a forest far and wide sits perched an owl, who, full of self-conceit and self-created wisdom, explains, comments, condemns, ordains and orders things not understood, yet full of importance still holds forth to stocks and stones around.’
Michael Faraday.

October 2036

The room was dark and reeked of damp. Ailith lit a candle on the mantelpiece and watched as the light cast her shadow onto the wall. She didn’t dare open the curtains, for fear of letting the heat out; plus, she didn’t want the neighbours knowing she was awake. They still thought she was the bloody community councillor. Fat lot of good she’d be if she was. She couldn’t deal with her own shit let alone anybody else’s. And it wasn’t that she didn’t like the neighbours, it was just the noise of them that riled her up, the noise and the desperation on their faces, like rabbits-staring-into-fucking-headlights, chapping on her door at all hours and pleading, ‘For Christ’s sake Ailith, what are we going to do?’ And she’d just stand there, shrugging her shoulders and thinking “Christ? What’s Christ got to do with it? Our so-called Lord and Savour has fucked off, shut up shop, and handed the keys to our new friend – drum roll – the OWL – Our One World Leader. It was only half six in the morning and her guts were heaving already.

She sat on the sofa and peeled the lid off a plastic container. She couldn’t eat this crap for much longer. She poked the spoon into the cream jelly; it squelched when she broke the surface and it let out a fart when she pulled it out. What exactly was she eating? She sucked the jelly through her teeth. It wasn’t food. It didn’t even smell like food. It didn’t even smell. The label said ‘nutritious’ but she didn’t believe it. She didn’t believe anything they had forced on her. No. None of their lies sat well in her stomach.
A muffled tune disturbed her thoughts. Recognising the OWL Corp. ringtone, she sat up straight and tidied her hair from her face.

‘Answer call.’ She said lifting the chat box from beneath a cushion. A balding man wearing a black suit stared poker-faced at her from behind the glass.

‘Ms McDonald? Is this correct?’

‘Yup.’

‘Can you confirm your date of birth?’

‘Twenty-fourth of May 2008.’

‘Please scan your identification into your box device.’

Ailith took her ID card from her wallet and placed it on the scanner. She waited for the beep.

‘Thank you, Ms McDonald. I am calling to remind you that you have not yet voted.’

‘I’m aware.’

‘And you are also aware Ms McDonald, that this is day three?’

‘Like I could forget.’ She bit a thread of skin from the side of her fingernail.

‘I’m sorry, Ms McDonald, can you clarify your last answer. Are you aware that this is day three?’

‘Yes.’

‘And do you understand that you are required by your One World Leader to vote by midnight tomorrow?’

‘Obviously.’ And the One World Leader could kiss her arse.

‘Sorry?’

‘Yes.’

‘And do you know the actions that will be taken should you fail to fulfil your requirement to vote?’

‘I understand.’

                                                                               ****

To be or not to be, that really was the fucking question. And she didn’t have an answer. She stood naked in the bathroom and shivered. Day three she didn’t have the balls to do what half the country had already had the balls to do. Filling the sink to the allocated water level, she dropped in two soap pellets. The clock was ticking, and if she did have balls, they’d be shrunk to the size of peanuts. The soap pellets fizzed for a couple of seconds then disappeared. Like the food, the soap didn’t smell of anything. If only her Mum was here to help with the big decision. But Ailith knew what she’d say. ‘Self-Elect. Human beings shouldn’t have the power to decide the fate of others.’ Or maybe that’s what Ailith wanted to believe. But her Mum didn’t have to make that choice, she’d died a year before they announced their plans. She plunged the sponge into the water and braced herself for the cold.

The door intercom buzzed then, Attention, Imogen A L Ahmed requires your attention. She wanted to ignore it but the buzzing set her nerves on edge, so she pulled her dressing gown around her and went to the door.

‘Oh Ailith, thank God you’re up.’ It was Imogen from next door. She squeezed past Ailith and walked into the living room.

‘Imogen, I haven’t even opened my curtains yet.’ Ailith said following her.

‘I’m sorry. I’ve walked past four times, I couldn’t wait any longer.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘It’s Raza. He’s…’ Imogen sat on the couch and dropped her head into her hands.

‘Talk to me.’ Ailith sat beside her and put an arm over her shoulder.

‘He’s going to self-elect.’ She let out a roar.

Fuck!’ Ailith took a deep breath, held it for five then slowly released, five, four, three, two, one.

‘He. Told. Me. This. Morning.’ She said in little breaths.

‘What about you and the kids?’

‘He’s doing it for our future. That’s what he told me’

‘What the hell?’

Imogen blew her nose into a tissue. ‘He’s been reading those stupid e-flyers again.’

‘The deep ecology stuff?’

She nodded.

‘Fucks sake. It’s all brain washing, they don’t even stand by their principles.’

‘So why does he read it? Raza’s not easily sucked in.’

Ailith shrugged her shoulders. She couldn’t understand why anyone would believe the shit they sent out. Or anything on the news. It was all bullshit. It was all – fake.

‘I’m so angry at him. And this self-elect bullshit has gone too far.’

‘You’re right, and we can’t do a bloody thing about it. The protesters are getting five years in prison now, did you know that?’

‘I heard.’ She looked up at Ailith. ‘What am I going to do?’

‘I’ll talk to him, okay?’

‘You can try, but I doubt he’ll listen. He not been the same since the deportation program took his Mum.’

Ailith took her friend’s hand. ‘It must be difficult for him.’

‘It is. He misses her so much. And now he thinks that Pakistan is going to vote for the elderly. That would pretty much wipe out his whole family. It’s not right Ailith. It’s just not right.’

After Imogen left, Ailith blew out the candle and opened the curtains. It was grey and damp outside and drops of moisture ran down the windows. She looked across the street tried to remember the sound of the big old Scots Pine’s that used to swish back and forth in the gap between Peter and Elaine’s house. Or how pretty the pink cherry blossom tree would look in Marion’s front garden in the spring. But it seemed like all the colour in the world had been wrung out. And amongst all the grey – was nothing but empty space. Empty or decayed. Decayed and silent. Ailith wrapped her arms around herself to stop the trembling. She was cold to the touch.

                                                                       ****

‘Come in Jimmy, you just missed Imogen. Poor buggers at her wit’s end.’

Jimmy lived two doors away. He nodded his head and shuffled past her. He stopped half way down the hall and groaned. ‘My bloody knees are killing me.’

Ailith followed him into the living room and helped him into the armchair. She took his stick and balanced it against the wall.

‘Have you eaten Jimmy?’

‘I had something, not that bloody Nutri-what’s-it-called stuff that they gave us. I can’t swallow it without gagging. I had something though, best leave it that, you don’t know who’s listening.’

‘Fair enough. Just remember to keep your strength up.’ Ailith knelt on the floor beside him. ‘I’ve got the leaflet on the tablet if you’re ready to go through it.’

She opened the OWL web page and felt instantly tense. The screen was filled with children wearing yellow sweatshirts reading, ‘Vote for our future.’

‘Are you ready for this?’

‘Hold on.’ He flipped the switch on the side of his glasses. ‘Okay, ready.’

‘Do you want me to read the jargon at the beginning? It’s just a lot of bollocks about how they are going to end world poverty and provide housing for everyone, and yadda, yadda, yadda.’

‘Are they going to sort out the food? It’s not right. I need meat in my diet. Or fish. Did I tell you I was a fisherman when I was a lad?’

‘Yeah, many times.’

‘I miss fish. Not as much as I miss meat, but God. I miss proper hot food, don’t you? You can’t even get a bag of chips anymore. Do you remember the chippy?’

‘I try not to think about it. They’ve said that once they’ve controlled the population, meat might be re- introduced.’

‘I should think so too.’ Jimmy scratched his beard. ‘And what about the heating? One hour a day isn’t enough, and I’d kill for a hot shower.’

‘Is that a bad joke Jimmy?’

‘Sorry, I never meant it like that.’

Ailith swiped the screen. ‘Right, here we go,’ she flicked past the introduction, ‘Population control is imperative for our survival, not only as a species but for all living creatures. Our ecosystem is depleting rapidly, the extinction of bees sped up this process far more rapidly than originally predicted.

‘The bees, who’d have thought.’

‘To protect the existence of our planet,’ she continued, ‘we must now realise our place on this earth, and that is as equals to our fellow creatures and to our land. Therefore, we must all play our role in the reduction of humans.’ Ailith gripped her hair in her hand. ‘Each country is required by OWL to reduce its population significantly. Your One World Leader has YOUR future in mind. After much consideration, we have decided that the groups nominated for the cull in your country are as follows.’ She looked to Jimmy who was biting his thumbnail.

‘Go on.’

‘Right.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Number one, All citizens above pensionable age as of October 2028. Number two, all prisoners with a sentence of five years or more. Number three, all citizens with a disability that prevents them from partaking in paid employment. Number four, all citizens who have been unemployed for five years or more and who have been proven to not be actively seeking work.’

‘Harsh,’ Jimmy said after the last one.

‘And obviously, there is the box for self-election.’

‘That’s a tough one eh lass?’ he shook his head, ‘And if we don’t vote?’

‘Enforced termination of life.’

                                                                   ****

‘World pollution is now being deemed as critical. In a not so distant future, the situation will become increasingly intolerable. It can be controlled, and perhaps even reversed; but we, at OWL, demand cooperation on a scale and intensity beyond anything achieved so far.’

Ailith turned off the T.V and gulped the last of her cup of tea. Such a waste. She preferred her tea ration in the morning, it kept the headaches at bay, especially on work days. Grabbing her coat and hat, she ran out the house.

The bus was full, and she had to stand. Her eyes were streaming from the cold and she felt a hand on her shoulder.

‘We’re all feeling it today dear.’

She turned around to see an elderly woman gripping onto the side of an empty seat.

‘Sit down lass; you look like you need it more than I do.’

‘No,’ she felt her face redden, ‘Honestly, I’m fine.’

‘Are you sure?’ she was already lowering herself back into the chair.

‘Check out the old dear trying to play the sympathy card.’ A voice shouted from the rear of the bus.

‘Fucking pensioners, I know who I’ll be voting for.’

‘Keep your opinions to yourself, idiot.’ Ailith took the woman’s hand. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s okay dear,’ she squeezed Ailith’s hand, ‘I’ve had a lovely life. Five Grandchildren you know. I’ve voted already, you know, for the old ones.’

‘Grannie lover!’

The car park at the front of her work was full. Fucking customers, she thought, they never stop, they’re relentless. She stood outside the Amazon Superstore and watched the cars circling the car park. Customers were rushing to the front displays like flies on shit, for a special multi-pack of Nutri-fill with beef flavour, and this season’s plastic flowers. Ailith despised them all and their acceptance of everything fake. She shook her head and walked over to a small crowd, mostly men, gathered in front of the gazebo she had seen being erected a few days ago. Soldiers were handing out leaflets and chatting to the attentive audience. The gazebo was plastered in posters like, Be the Best. Self-Elect and Your Country Needs YOU. Self-Elect.

‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ she stared at a picture of a man in a wheelchair wearing a big smile and two thumbs up.

‘Are you going to do it?’ It was Taylor, one of her work colleagues.

‘I… I don’t know, I haven’t voted yet.’

‘I just did. I did it Ailith,’ he actually looks pleased. ‘They’re going to put my name in the book man. I’ll be a fucking hero.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Too right. Look at me, I’ve done absolutely fuck all with my life. I’m thirty-five years old and I’m nothing. I arrange plastic flowers for a living. At least this way I’ll be remembered. Taylor Smith. My name’s going down in history in that Big Red Book. I’ll be fucking celebrated. Taylor Smith saved the world.’

                                                                            ****
The lines at the checkouts were long. Ailith kept her head down and concentrated on the beep, beep of the scanner. It was hard to ignore the conversations at her checkout line though.

Broccoli flavoured curd. Beep.

‘Where are all these people coming from? You’d think it was the end of the world.’

Soap fizzers. Beep.

‘Probably dole scroungers. Gas the lot of them I say. I’m sick of paying for those lazy bastards.’

Nutri-fill. Beep.

‘I wish we could vote for two. Get rid of the scroungers and the rapists.’

‘Yeah, and put the old folk into the jails. They’ll get three meals a day, 3D T.V, top quality health care, they’ll be better looked after than they are in those old folk’s homes.’

Condoms. Beep.

Plastic roses. Beep.

Really? She looked up at a teenage lad who smiled and raised his eyebrows. She placed the items into the bag. Ribbed for her pleasure, bloody hell, how can he even get it up at a time like this?

‘Thirty-two credits please.’

He handed Ailith his ID card. She scanned it. Beep.

‘Thank you, Mr Douglas. Have a nice day and thank you for shopping at Amazon.’

                                                                        ****
Jessica was sitting on the doorstep when Ailith arrived home. She felt a lightness in her step, seeing her best friend. Jessica stood up and pulled Ailith in for a hug. They rocked back and forth.

Ailith held her at arm’s length, ‘It’s so good to see you.’ Although she did look tired.

‘Same. Sorry, I haven’t been around for a while, Mum’s not been keeping too well.’

‘Is it getting worse?’

‘Yeah, doctors have told her she’ll need a wheelchair soon.’

‘I’m sorry, Jessica.’

‘I’m glad you came around though, come on, let’s get inside, it’s freezing out here.’

‘Couldn’t let my bestie make the big decision on her own, could I?’

They went indoors and Ailith lit all the candles. Why not? Jessica kept her coat and hat on.

‘It’s cold in here,’ she breathed into her gloves, ‘I’m shaking.’

‘It’ll heat up soon. I saved the hours heating for tonight. Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah, before I left. Go ahead and have yours though.’

‘I’m not hungry.’ Ailith said but her stomach groaned. ‘I’d rather just get this over and done with.’

‘How was work?’

‘Busy. People are buying in bulk.’

‘Pretty normal under the circumstances, don’t you think?’

‘Absolutely not! This is the problem. Everybody’s going about like this shit is normal. It’s not. It’s fucking lunacy. But somehow they’ve managed to dumb down even the most rational of folk.’

‘People aren’t stupid Ailith, they’re scared.’

‘Yeah but rather than turning against the suits, they’re turning on each other. You want to have heard the shit an old wife had to take on the bus this morning.’

‘Yeah, it’s going on all over the place. There’s an autistic lass in our street. Got a brick through her window two nights ago.’

Ailith sighed.

‘Tensions are high. Probably something to do with all the Population Control Centre’s that have sprung up in the last year.’

‘But don’t you think it’s all a big fucking lie, Jessica? I mean, why not spend more money educating folk? Like, teach people how to live responsibly?’

‘They tried that though, then the bees happened.’

‘I reckon someone’s gaining from this shit.’

‘A conspiracy?’

‘And these population control centres though. It’s sick. It’s like the Nazis all over again. At least the self-elects get the dignity of euthanasia.’

‘Did you hear about Ronnie Coldwell?’ Jessica asked, taking her tablet from her bag.

Ailith noticed her hands trembling. ‘The actor?’

She nodded. ‘Self-elected, it was all over the news today.’

‘But he’s safe surely. He’s got enough credit to feed a small country.’

‘As safe as the fucking Royals, but said he can’t live in a world where people choose to murder other people.’

‘Jesus.’ Ailith felt like she was going to vomit. She turned on her tablet and felt like she was hovering just outside of her own consciousness. ‘Are you ready?’

‘Hold on.’ Jessica loaded the web page. ‘Yes.’ She held Ailith’s hand and tears run down her cheeks.

Ailith closed her eyes for a moment and just breathed. She let go of Jessica’s hand. ‘I’m scared.’

They both loaded the voting page.

‘Please scan your identification card into your device.’

Beep.

Beep.

Please scan your left index finger on the box provided. If you are unable to do so, please scan your left eye.

Beep.

Beep.

‘Please enter your passcode and answer the five security questions.’

‘Thank you. Please enter your vote now.’

Ailith let out a roar. ‘FUCKERS!’

                                                                           ****

October 2041

‘Welcome to One World Tonight, my name is Shannon McCallaghan, it’s the 30th of October 2041. Later in the show, we’ll be live at the opening of Cornton Vale Care – previously Cornton Vale prison – as 76 elderly residents move into the 50th G4S facility of its kind. This follows the outcome of the 2036 population control vote, that saw our population reduced by 15%. The One World Leader has today announced that the next stage of voting will commence early next year. How will you vote?’

Three Breaths

empty road with fog

Photo by Aleks Magnusson on Pexels.com

Three Breaths 

She breathed deep,
Jaggy at first,
And at her feet a pigeon pecked at pickings
While a bus shuddered close by –
Its doors folded open to the street.

She breathed out.

Her second breath was smoother,
And as people sped by
Hunkered under raincoats, rain tap tapping
In stereo around their ears,
The walking school bus
Marched hand in hand in high vis vests,
And she sat with cold bus-stop-feet.

She blew out an shivering  ‘oh.’

Her third breath was quiet
As still as the gap
Between the ‘Caw’ of the rook
And the flap of a pigeon’s wings.
Behind her a shop bell tinkled,
And the smell of baked bread
Hung as heavy as coffee in the air,
Warm and steady
Like her out breath.

She paused a while longer.
Watching a line of charcoal cloud
Make a bridge between two tenements blocks
While a buddleia swayed left and right
In an unused chimney pot.

Dedicated to Susie, from PauseandBreathe

A Letter To My Body Hair

To My Inner Bountiful Beast is a spoken word piece, an ode to my body hair. If you click on this LINK , you can watch/listen to me reading it.

close up photo of flowers on a person s left foot

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

To My Inner Bountiful Beast,
It’s been a while since we spoke, since I stroked the tips of my fingers over the waxy wires that poked through a hole in my ankle socks. Remember that time I accidentally paraded you around town, all frizzy and brown like twisted hazel on plump pink toes. Nobody saw my toe-nails, newly manicured and emerald green, or the obscene diamante studs that gleamed in the sunshine. No, my friend, they saw you, my bountiful beast. Oh, and how they laughed at you, they pointed and jeered, and I realised, I had become the woman I’d feared, half blind through middle age and apparently unkempt. Oh, how I wish I could have saved you, but (with my newly purchased reading glasses perched on the end of my nose) I chose the shave you as I bathed in the embarrassment of my day.
Well, as it turns out you’d been a follicle bursting bonanza, and not just in my socks, I found you creeping into crevice’s beneath my frock where even a yoga master might suggest that ‘before you rock into such places, consult a GP’. And little did I know, that the more I looked, the more I’d see. I found you in clumps on my knees, tiny little trees growing wild and free, I worried about overthrowing an entire eco system when you fell. And my beast, you did fall.
But I’m writing to say I’m sorry. I knew you’d be upset, and I didn’t bet on the permeance of the bald love heart shaved accidentally into my pubic parts. I didn’t bet on red raw arm pits, or the purple zits where a chin hair should be, I didn’t bet on the shame of fingers pointing at toes, or the woes of being caught wearing you, my bountiful beast. You see, it isn’t you, it’s me. Everything was fine when I couldn’t see, when you were free to be part of me. And you are part of me.
My inner bountiful beast. I wrote to tell you, I miss you.
Yours
E

Mother of Pearl

I am delighted that my short story, ‘Mother of Pearl,’ is now published in the Autumn edition of Capsule books. I have included an excerpt below and, if you like it, here is the link to purchase the full 106 page autumn edition – CapsuleBooksAutumnEdition.

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Picture credit capsulebooks.com autumn-gloom

 

Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway was not supposed to die first.
Margo pulled the front door shut and hobbled out onto the veranda. She put her mug of hot tea onto the table then pulled out one of the plastic chairs. Fastening her fingers around the handles, she began to lower her fragile body on to the seat. She held her breath, knuckles white under the patio light, arms trembling, but her elbows buckled and gave way. She gasped. Her bottom hit the seat with a thud. The chair skidded backwards – with Margo holding on for dear life – and its four legs scraped the concrete, ripping a roar into the night. She sat rigid, her heart thumping hard in her chest. She blew out a long whistling sigh. Clumsy old fool. A large brown moth tapped the light above her head. She watched as it hovered and tapped and hovered then dived, down towards her face. Unfastening her fingers from the chair, she swiped the air. The moth darted back into the light. Shug would have scolded her for swiping the moth, “God created this world for all living creatures, not just the pretty ones.”
“Oh Shug,” she wrapped her arms around her chest. Her shoulders shook and tears welled in her eyes. She coughed out her sorrow in a whisper.
“Stanley Harrison Unwin Galloway, you were not supposed to die first.”
She wiped her tears on the sleeve of her dressing gown and inhaled the night. Autumn had begun to creep into the corners of the garden in little cold curls, and the air smelled of damp foliage and chimney soot. Margo looked out into the darkness and saw the moon, a white eyelash resting on a purple blanket.
The tea was hot. Margo held the mug to her chest and twirls of steam rose into the air, dampening her face. She turned away and caught her reflection in the patio window. How time had altered her face, it used to be so soft and smooth but now it hung in folds of sagging flesh. And those lips – sucked dry into a shrivelled line. She swept a strand of hair that had blown onto her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. How she missed her long fiery curls, her most defining feature back in the day. Now her hair was as grey as the chimney smoke chugging the air. Shug had barely noticed her changing though. “You’re bonnier than the sunset o’er the Forth of Firth,” he’d say, “as bonny now, as the day we met.” Shug had gone grey first. He was only twenty-three when it happened. In a single year, Shug’s hair transformed from bold black into fading grey. It was the year after Pearl died.

 

A Moment

I am delighted to announce that my poem ‘A Moment,’ has been selected to be part of this years Renfrewshire Mental Health Arts Festival, ‘Passing Time.’  This is an exhibition of Poetry on the station platforms of Renfrewshire. This particular poem will be displayed in Johnstone station.  For more information about the exhibition, click here.

timelapse and greyscale photography of woman

Photo by Luanna Cabral on Pexels.com

A Moment

I remember her sitting there,
Long amber hair, and a chair with wheels
The colour of the sea.

I remember sitting there,
Daring her to care, wishing her eyes
Would fall from the sky into mine.

But we just sat there,
I paid my fair, while she looked for mermaid
Shapes in the clouds.

But as I sat there,
and listened to the whistle tear a note
Into the station
She looked, she smiled, and we shared,
A moment.

And I sat there, and she sat there,
A pair, connected.
Then the train rumbled out of the station
To somewhere.

Message in a Bottle

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Photograph by Bipolar Scotland

It’s been a few days since I was awarded 2nd place at the SMHAF writing awards and I’ve received so many kind words since. I promised you a link to my prize winning story, but I have something better, a link to all of the short listed pieces here.

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Photograph by Bipolar Scotland

I think you will agree that the judges must have had a difficult time deciding the three winning pieces because all twelve entries were excellent. I feel proud to have my work showcased with such talent and diversity.

There has been some excellent write up’s about the event, as well as photographs and even live streaming. If you are interested in any of the above, please visit SMHAF and BipolarScotland and like their pages, both organisations do fantastic work.

Thank you if you were able to come along and hear us read from our work, and thank you for your lovely comments about my story.

Finally, thank you to SMHAF and Bipolar Scotland for an amazing event, to Emma Pollock for performing on the night, to Ian Rankin for hosting the event and being an inspiration to us all, to the judges whose job it was to read through hundreds of pieces of work, to those brave enough to submit their work, to the short listed writers who were brave enough to have their work heard by an audience -regardless of who was reading -and finally to the readers who make the job of writing worthwhile.

Message in a Bottle

Alistair stands in a doorway on the corner of Admiralty Lane. The streets are quiet today. A cold air has swept up from the Forth keeping the locals indoors. He shivers and pulls his scarf up over his nose and his woollen hat over his ears. It’s four o’clock and there’s Claire sneaking out of the office again, that’ll be the third time this week. She walks briskly on the opposite side of the road. Alistair follows, keeping close to the old sandstone buildings. He ducks behind parked cars and stops briefly behind a white Winnebago when she slows. The wind whips her coat tails and they splay out behind her, allowing him the briefest moment to catch the slender silhouette of her body. She continues past the Ship Inn. He imagines, just for a second, that she’ll go in, sit by the log fire, order a glass of red, then call him to join her. But the thought passes as quickly as she does, and she doesn’t give the place where they first met a second glance. He falls back, watching her hurry along the coastal path then up toward the cliffs that overlook Ruby Bay. She crests the hill and disappears.
He runs to the beach. The boat is still banked in the sand where he left it. Untying the rope from the cleat, he steps in. The sea is calm, and his oars cut through the water leaving a trail of ripples. Bowing his head, he rows beyond the bay. He sees a fisherman cast his line, but it’s unlikely that anyone will know him out here.
He sees her standing on the cliff high above the sea. Her face, though partly shadowed, looks void of emotion. He feels a sickness in his stomach. There she is, one hundred feet above him, tall and solid, and morbidly unashamed. He hates her, hates what she’s trying to do to them. Just then, she pulls a bottle from the inside pocket of her coat and throws it over the cliff. His eyes follow the bottle until it hits the water with a short splash. He waits until she’s gone, then rows towards it.

****

She stands in the shadow of an old oak tree. Over the cliff the grey sky has melted and spread like oil over the sea, with no end and no beginning. She watches his boat glide quickly through the water and feels pleased, she’s played him well. He’s a fast rower though.
She’d only found out recently that he could row. He’d spun her a yarn one day about almost drowning in a river when he was a boy, right after her best friend Craig and his husband Terry suggested they all go on a weekend cruise together. ‘But you’ll be safe on a cruise ship.’ She’d told him. ‘I don’t like boats.’ He snapped. ‘No, you mean you don’t like Craig.’ She’d always known it, but they’d never actually spoken about it. ‘You’re right. I don’t like the way he touches your arm when you’re having a conversation,’ Alistair told her, ‘and all the “in” jokes that you have with him. He should have married you.’ She tried to reason with her husband. ‘Craig’s gay,’ she laughed, ‘and we’ve been best friends since we were five.’ But Alistair shook his head. ‘I don’t like him, and I don’t like how close you are to him.’ So, she’d declined Craig’s offer, telling him that she’d catch up with him soon.
She hasn’t seen Craig since, he won’t come to the house when Alistair is there, and Alistair is always there. That was eight months ago.

She steps closer to the edge of the cliff to watch. Alistair reaches the bottle quickly. He pulls it from the water, holds it under his arm and pulls out the cork. The sky is darkening. He’ll struggle to read the gibberish she’d written anyway, besides, he isn’t wearing his glasses. He hadn’t worn them in over a year.
‘I can’t see a thing when I wear them, so what’s the point.’ He’d said and thrown them across the floor. It was a month after he’d been sacked from the gas board following an accusation of an affair between himself and a customer’s wife. Of course, he denied it. ‘I can’t afford a new pair, so I’ll do without.’ He folded his arms like a child. She offered to save to get him a new prescription, but he shook his head. ‘Keep your money,’ he said, ‘Besides, you’ll need it to pay the bills. Personally, with the lack of money coming in, I’d make cut backs. But seeing as you can’t live without your beloved Facebook, you’ll have to pay for the internet too.’ She ignored his snide comments for as long as she could. Then one day after work, she’d come home to find Alistair on her laptop looking through her online messages. ‘How dare you.’ She pulled the laptop from him. ‘Those are private messages between me and my friends.’ Alistair stood up and walked out of the room, not uttering a word. She’d spent the rest of the evening looking through all her messages to see if there was anything that he might misconstrue. About a week later, he called the phoneline provider and had the line cut off. ‘Because it’s a luxury we can’t afford.’

She sees him strike a match, can almost hear the hiss of the flame. He lights the corner of the paper and lets it float into the air. She winces at the sight of it burning and looks down at the scar on her right hand.
She’d been out for a drink with Kelly and Omar from work one Saturday afternoon. It was Omar’s fortieth birthday. Alistair had been invited along but he said he’d rather watch paint dry than go out with a bunch of accountants. An hour after she’d left, the texting began. ‘Is Omar your new best friend?’ and worse, ‘Will you be giving him a ‘SPECIAL’ present for his birthday.’ She tried to ignore the messages, but they kept coming. Embarrassed, she excused herself and went home. Music was blaring from the stereo when she arrived, and she could smell burning. Panicked, she ran into the living-room. The rug under her desk was on fire. An ashtray had fallen from the arm of the sofa and scattered on the floor. ‘Alistair. Fire!’ She screamed then ran into the kitchen and filled a basin of water. When she returned, her desk was on fire. Flames ripped through the wood, catching books and paper and all sorts. She threw the water. It barely touched the flames. She reached out to grab her precious memory box, but it was so hot it burned her hand and she dropped it. Suddenly, Alistair ran into the living-room. ‘Give me your phone,’ he yelled and grabbed it from her coat pocket. He dialled 999. The fire brigade saved most of the house, but she never saw her phone again. ‘Lost in the fire,’ Alistair said. ‘But you’ll have a note of your contacts anyway.’ Yes, in her diary, on her desk!
She watches him throw the empty bottle into the sea, then slips back into the shadows. She takes the quick route home. She’d discovered it about a month ago. That was the first time she’d realised that Alistair was following her. In her panic, she’d ran down the cliff and climbed a fence that lead into someone’s back garden. Luckily, when she reached the other side, she realised she was just a street away from her own. Since then she’d purposefully let him follow her to the cliff, just long enough to be one-hundred percent sure that it took him twelve minutes to get home. It only took her three. And with that certainty, she planned her escape.
She hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten at home, until one morning about three months ago. Alistair had begun insisting that she went home for lunch, and that morning was no exception. But he was in a particularly foul mood and she did something out of character, she lied. ‘The secretary is sick, so I’ll have to cover the phones.’ She needed space. So, that afternoon, she left the office, picked up a sandwich, and walked toward Ruby Bay. She used to come here with Alistair when they first started dating, when life was happy, when life wasn’t suffocating. She climbed the gravel slope to the cliff and sat. In the distance, the beach was busy with dog walkers and joggers. Seagulls swooped to the sand hoping for scraps. She sat on the grass, unwrapped her sandwich and opened her mouth to take a bite when she realised that she was crying. She put the sandwich back in its wrapper and went into her bag for a tissue. She pulled out a notebook too. That’s when she saw the empty bottle lying in the grass. I’m lonely. She wrote.

She pulls the backpack from the corner of her wardrobe, it was tucked under some winter clothes.

It was two weeks after she’d written the first note, rolled it into a tube and stuffed it into a bottle that she received her first letter at work. She really hadn’t expected it, and at first, she felt panicked. The sender, however, turned out to be a six-year-old girl who had found the bottle on the beach in Burnt Island. She’d drawn a picture of the beach with a big yellow sun in the sky and a red boat on the water. Attached to the picture was a note. You’re not alone, keep reaching, scrawled in adult handwriting. So, she did. She wrote note after note, rolled them up and tied pretty ribbon around them and popped each one into a glass bottle and sealed it with a cork. Then at lunch time, or if she could slip away early from work, she’d head to Ruby Bay to throw the bottles from the cliff. She felt free in those moments.

She checks her watch, Sheila should be here in fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven.
Shelia was the fifth person to reply to her message in a bottle. Up until then, she’d received some encouraging words, not to mention a fridge magnet, a leaflet for the Samaritans, and a postcard, but there was never a return address. Still, it was wonderful to feel connected. But with Sheila, it was different. I can help. She wrote in a letter. Please write back. It turned out Sheila was an elderly widow who ran a small B&B in Broughty Ferry. Her dog Millie had found the bottle on the beach one morning and dropped it at Sheila’s feet. They began writing to each other regularly and soon became friends. Then one day, during work hours, they met face to face. That’s when they began to make plans.

She pulls back the blinds. Two car headlights flash. From her rucksack, she takes out a glass bottle and places it on the coffee table. Then she pulls on her backpack and walks out the door. She only looks back once at the house that was once her home.

****

‘She’s slipped away again.’ Alistair moans. The last three times he’d rowed the boat as fast as he could, then ran all the way home, but he never caught up with her. By the time he’d reached home, she’d be in a change of clothes and with a mug of tea in her hand. ‘Were you at the library again?’ She’d ask. He would nod then go into the bathroom to calm down. But tonight, the sofa’s empty, the kettle’s cold and although the lights are on, she isn’t home. Then he notices it.
He pulls the cork out and tips the bottle. A thin roll of paper, held together by a gold wedding band, drops onto his lap. He unrolls the note.
‘Disconnected.’