Two of my recent stories will be published in the upcoming Stroud Short Stories Anthology (out in September). Here is one of them…
The smell of detergent in the launderette almost makes him feel high. Molly’s watching the TV in the corner, taking off her hoodie; Alfie looks at her, then the machines. He only invited her to his house last night, because she was crying on the phone – something to do with her mum. She was amazed by his house. Kept staring at everything. They sat on the pink sofa, their arms nearly touching. She took off her coat and dropped it on the floor, then he saw them.
Now he has to see them again: tiny painful scars criss-crossing the delicate skin above her elbow. He closes his eyes.
The little boy with a jammy face runs past their bench, shouting ‘piaaaom’, pretending to shoot, aiming at Alfie. Alfie dies into her arms, so she has to catch him and hold him for a second or two: to prevent him from sliding to the floor. He sees flakes of dry snot inside her nose; wants to leave the launderette; go outside somewhere together in the sun. She told him she had to go home. But maybe there’s some way he can stop her.
She pushes him away. He has to put an arm out to stop himself from falling; they straighten themselves and stare through the concave glass at his turning bedsheets. The noise of dryers means they can talk without being overheard.
‘Will there be stains?’ He feels stupid, like she’s suddenly his mum or something.
‘We’ll have to bin them.’
‘Bin the sheets?’
The sheets drop. The door clicks.
Standing opposite him folding, inspecting a pale brown stain, she frowns; closes her eyes; bites her bottom lip hard.
He stuffs a folded sheet into the bag, ‘It looks like Australia… Seriously Molly, my mum doesn’t care.’
‘You clearly don’t.’
‘The cleaner does all our washing anyway. Mum would only ever say anything if she’s been drinking, then she’d forget it in the morning.’
‘Must be nice to have a servant. And, now it’s all over, it’ll be fun to tell all your friends you’ve been to the launderette with a real girl from the estate. They’re going to be impressed Alfred.’
‘I won’t tell anyone. I swear.’
They take a bus with the warm folded sheets to the park opposite Alfie’s big empty house. The sun’s hot on their faces, though it’s no longer summer. The air feels heavy – motionless – and tastes of fumes. The grass has the parched yellow look of a place well-trampled. There’ve only been a few days of drizzle since school started back. They step over a dry dog poo. Pause for a moment, speechless, watching ants in their thousands parade from the cracks of a dry wall to swarm a brown apple core. Sparrows evaporate from the path before them. The noise of birds is louder than Alfie ever realised. Children scream in the playground. Adults outside the café talk all at once – raise their voices to be heard. Alfie looks over at them with their big greedy coffees and pastries. They seem to be shouting only to themselves.
He can feel the warmth of Molly’s hand close to his, but can’t touch her. He’s carrying the laundry bag. It would be too obvious to swap hands now. He can’t speak: doesn’t want to make her think he’s an idiot.
He doesn’t want her to remember she needs to get home. They have to be going somewhere. As they pass the animal enclosure, he manages to make himself ask her if she wants to sit on a bench. Offers to buy some kind of drink. He moves coins awkwardly in his pocket through the denim, noticing the weight of them: left over from the twenty he had to change for the launderette. Hating the way they make his jeans bulge; not wanting to get his money out and flash it. She sits down and squints up at him through transparent blue eyes. He can’t make himself leave her. Looking away, he sits next to her; takes her hand. His own hand feels sweaty and too big; hers is dry and light.
They’re opposite the deer enclosure. He’s never thought about it before. But it’s so weird! Massive deer – with antlers and everything – just standing there in the middle of a London park. Bored. Lost. Longing for a life they’ve never even experienced. The colours of them! Dappled browns that would make them almost disappear inside a forest. The speckles of white make Alfie think of sunlight. He wants to tell Molly, without sounding like he’s trying to impress her: make her think he’s poetic, or something stupid like that.
Molly turns towards him, shielding her eyes with one hand. She’s smiling slightly, just at the corners of her mouth.
‘I thought you were going to buy me a drink?’
‘Sorry. What do you want?’
He’s looking at her sharp jaw, wondering if she’d accept an ice-cream too. ‘Anything else?’
‘Will you. Wait here?’
‘Yes. What do you think I’m going to do? Run away just because you’re not looking? If I wanted to leave I’d just leave. OK?’
‘I’ll stay here with the deers. Alright dear?’
She said the last bit with a thick put-on cockney accent. Her own accent made ridiculous, like the voice of a pantomime dame. He almost smiles, but doesn’t want to look like he’s laughing at her. He thinks of his own voice with disgust.
A deer approaches them from the centre of the enclosure: a tall strong male with heavy antlers. As if the deer heard what Molly said and is strolling across to keep an eye on her.
Alfie mutters, ‘Alright.’ Making sure not to drop his T, in case she thinks he’s pretending to be less posh than he really is; glancing across at the queue. Wishing it was shorter.
When he returns, she’s taken off her hoodie again and is sunning herself: arms stretched out, eyes closed, head back, black hair dangling behind the bench, the bag of sheets underneath her. His fingers hurt from the cold of the cans. He sits down and drops one in her lap, wishing right away he hadn’t – in case it fizzes. Before he has time to move his eyes, she’s noticed him looking at her scars.
‘I know. They’re ugly.’
‘No. I don’t mean that. I just. They look like. They must have hurt.’
‘Not that bad actually. Well yeah. But better than the alternative.’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ Her face looks closed. Possibly angry. He moves away. He can feel his cheeks going hot.
‘I don’t know.’
‘We don’t have to talk about it.’
It’s a mystery to Alfie. Whether she wants to or not. A terrible riddle. Too important to get wrong. He looks over at the enclosure. The big stag’s standing there eyeballing them: serious, like he’s planning what to do next.
Molly pulls the ring pull of her can, throws back her head and drinks, like she’s never tasted anything so sweet in her life. Alfie has an urge to put his arm around her. But can’t, till he thinks of what he’s going to say next. Somewhere to the right, a black dog lifts his leg on a lamppost; from the pond a duck makes a noise like something from another planet.
Alfie opens his mouth to speak. But his words are drowned out. The stag has lifted its head and is roaring. So loudly! A wild sound: full of lust and frustration. Alfie and Molly start, then stare. As the long strange wail subsides, the deer begins smashing his antlers hard against the railings. A tiny girl with fat bare legs in her pushchair starts crying.
Alfie looks at Molly and smiles. There’s an expression on her face of pure delight. He moves closer and puts an arm round her, confident it’s alright now. She rests her head – just for a few seconds – on his shoulder, kicks the bag under the bench with her heel and says, ‘I’ve got to go home.’
Alfie feels as if he’s been hit. ‘OK.’
‘But we can meet again. Yeah?’ She punches him gently on the arm.
He can’t speak. She can see that.
‘But please, Alfie. Chuck the sheets. Your mummy can buy you some more.’
‘That deer’s making weird noises isn’t he?’
‘Don’t we all sometimes?’ She looks at him – smirking rudely.
She’s means he’s like the deer! And it’s funny. Hilarious. She’s not saying he’s an idiot, or weird or anything. Just laughing. Because he did make some funny sounds last night. She likes him anyway. He could almost cry.
The deer’s moaning – grunting with despair.
They walk through the park, finishing their drinks to the sound of tormented roaring. Alfie tips the sheets into a bin by the gate. And walks her to the entrance of her flats, knowing she’ll come back.