Ruth breathed on her bedroom window and scratched boo with a fingertip.
‘Keep us,’ she whispered, scanning the Good Shepherd Centre’s gardens.
Mist dusted the tulip beds. Gravel paths led to the gate. Eastward, streetlamps twinkled small. A fairy migration, thought Ruth. To the north, amber lights on high bridge cables blinked in a dull sky.
Grace joined her at the window. Fidgeted with her zipper collar. ‘I had a bad dream.’
Ruth studied the bridge, a goliath steel mantis over the river. ‘Tell me.’
‘It was spooky.’ Arms folded, Grace rested her cheek on Ruth’s shoulder. ‘You were in hospital and I went to visit you. A stairway led up to the building. I was stuck on the steps. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. People stared from the windows. They looked scared. Like they knew I could never reach them. Then I saw it was you and me. Every window. I woke crying.’
‘It shat me.’
‘Poor babes.’ Ruth cuddled her. ‘Let’s go. While it’s quiet.’
A portal cabin at the gate, a bald watchman opened the door. ‘Jackets, ladies.’
‘Hat, mister,’ Grace said.
‘My head’s immune to the cold.’
‘Doubt it. It’s red as a prick,’ Ruth said.
‘Cheeky witch. Hope it pours.’
‘Wicked man.’ Grace wagged a finger. ‘You’ll fry in hell.’
The watchman swiped and caught a moth. He crushed it. Dropped it powdery. ‘Vermin.’ He scuffed his thighs and went into the cabin and slammed the door.
Saturday nights, boy racers parked near the gate revving souped Fords. Funland cabs. Prize seats for hug famished girls. Today was Sunday. The road was grey and cracked and barren. Ruth and Grace linked arms and strolled toward the river.
‘How was Millport?’ Grace asked.
‘Good. We hired bikes. Stayed overnight at a hotel. Aunt Flo was quiet.’
‘She’s a worrier.’
‘I’m her worry.’
‘Might be planning a party for your sixteenth.’
‘Do you know something I don’t?’
‘I had a party once,’ Ruth said, sniffing.
‘I was four or five. Cousins were there. I had balloons.’
‘Nutter doesn’t remember my birthdays. Not one.’
‘She’s sick. Schizophrenia is a disease. I think.’
‘She’s the disease.’
‘At least you met her.’
‘Wish I hadn’t. I liked the thought of her.’
‘You needed to meet.’
‘She didn’t know me. Her own daughter. I don’t belong to anyone.’
Town centre, a tarmac piazza, four teenage boys, hooded in tracksuits, played footie with a cola can. The girls passed and play stalled. A lank hoodie sat on a graffiti carved bench. ‘They’re from the home,’ he said.
‘Taking your fleas for a walk?’ yelled a beak face.
Ruth squeezed Grace and hurried. ‘Ignore him, babes.’
A chin scarred beanpole stalked them. ‘Brollies, crawlies. It might rain. You’ll get a wash.’ He high fived the beak.
‘Remember soap?’ Beak bent, wheezed his hilarity.
The girls jogged. Grace lashed round, shouted, ‘Inbreeds,’ and her hair leapt wild.
Up a cobbled lane they rested outside a kebab shop. Pungent aromas flung their empty bellies. Ruth foraged a cigarette from her zipper pocket. Flicked a Bic lighter. She inhaled and her face wore orange and smoke came thin from her nose.
‘Last one?’ Grace asked.
Ruth nodded. ‘Share it.’
They smoked in turns, keen drags, passing the cig. Grace took a last puff and tossed the butt. ‘Wish we had money for a kebab,’ she said.
‘A large donner. Tons of onions.’
‘Stop it, Ruth.’
A man exited the shop carrying a family meal box. He dragged his eyes and loped into a four by four. The fat wheeled guzzler pulled away, the man bloat with revulsion.
Grace kicked the curb. ‘He’s a stink.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
‘Wonder if he has a daughter?’
‘I was a baby once. Funny that.’
On the main road a church service had ended. The congregation mobbed the square. The girls fused with the flock, red and lime zippers loud in a beige spill.
‘Excuse me, lass.’ The old lady poked Ruth’s arm, her face flush and damp. ‘Have you seen my Malcolm?’
‘I don’t know him.’
‘Pencilled eyebrows jigged. ‘He’s an inspector.’
‘Sorry.’ Ruth shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s in the church.’
‘Don’t be a plum. Malcolm hates church.’
‘Are you all right, Mrs?’ Grace asked. ‘Shall I get the priest?’
‘Mother.’ A neat man cut between the girls. ‘Can’t leave you for a second.’
‘She’s looking for Malcolm,’ Ruth said.
‘They’re angels, Malcolm.’
The man led his mother to a car and turned and saluted the girls. Stiff middle finger.
Elbows looped, they weaved out of the crowd. ‘She was sweet,’ Ruth said.
‘Oldies are always nice.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
Shivery, Grace nestled into Ruth. A road sign read half a mile to the dual carriageway. Cars and vans and trucks moaned past. On the grass embankment, Ruth folded and retched.
‘Fuck.’ Grace massaged her friend’s spine. ‘You should have eaten something.’
On her knees, Ruth vomited bile.
‘Dump it up, babes.’
She heaved and puked a fizz pool.
‘Chuck it out.’
Another retch, slime strings swung from her mouth.
‘I’m done.’ She sleeved her cheek.
‘Take your time.’
‘That was grotty.’
Grace touched her hair. ‘Feel better?’
‘Much. I nearly fainted.’
‘Maybe we should wait.’
‘It’s nothing to do with that. You were right. We should have had lunch.’
‘I couldn’t. I felt weird all day. Hungry now though.’
‘Me too. I’d kiss a shit for a fish supper.’
‘Freak. You spew guts, now you could eat a whale.’
‘Mental, isn’t it.’
Zippers shut to the throat, they walked on, teary cold. Rain hit and died. A crow squealed. They glanced at each other and shied away. Fixed on the path.
Close to the bridge a van slowed and parked on a moss bank. The girls saw a man adjust his side mirror. ‘Here we go.’ Ruth nudged and tugged. ‘Paedo patrol.’
The door window rolled down. ‘You hitching?’
‘No thanks,’ Grace said.
‘Anywhere you want.’
‘We’re out for a walk on the bridge.’ Ruth crunched her face.
‘I can run you.’
‘It’s right there.’ Grace pointed.
‘I can run you.’
Arms locked, they rushed up the embankment. Ruth glanced back. ‘Wonder if it has a daughter.’
Stairs led to the bridge’s paved walkway. ‘Last one up is a fart.’ Grace ran the steps nimble as a foal. ‘I can taste the sea.’
A truck grumped past. Ruth flagged a hand at her ear. ‘What?’
‘The sea. Taste it.’
‘I love that.’
They dallied along the footpath. Midway over, they leaned on the chest-high railing. Below, big water lifted and clapped and fell. ‘Choppy isn’t it?’ Ruth spat and watched the froth drop. ‘It’s not the sea. It’s a river.’
‘Smells like shells.’
‘Maybe it is the sea.’ Ruth saw far hills. Peaks dark in the dark sky. Her watch kept there. The ancient earthrise. ‘Grace.’
‘Do you honestly believe aunt Flo is planning a party?’
‘Swear I do. Probably sorted it weeks ago.’
‘Thanks, babes.’ She climbed the rail.
Grace scrambled over with her. Stood beside her, tiptoed on the girder.
Vehicle’s horns blared. The girls held hands and bowed to the syrup black waters.
‘Do you think God is real?’ Grace said.
‘There’s a Devil. We know that.’
‘Pigs arse shite.’
They stepped into slappy air and Ruth shouted, ‘So there must be a God.’
Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1
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