On The Front

This is the first part of a short series.

As each foot slapped the pavement, Lily watched the rolling waves devour each other, chucking up rocks. She turned to face the front, the sandpapered buildings, looking anemically out to sea. She felt the city metabolizing in her stomach as shooting pains jumped about in her gut. Slap, Slap, Slap. Listening to her gasps, dry and shallow, they sounded like a stranger. Who would they be?

A shrunken, beaten old man, bent double like a half-axed oak. Chest caving with each gasp. She felt his beard and long, crisp, hair, like something you would find growing out of a vegetable when it’s past its prime, growing around her, as each breath hit her chest. Lily didn’t recognize much of where she was now. But turning around would be a defeat, not now, not while she was still going. Each stern, staring face she passed was blurred as she masticated and digested them all, sucking up their anxieties, their laughter, frowns, blank faces, into her rapidly beating heart.

A woman, she was maybe 80, sat on one of the faded regal balconies protruding from the buildings on the front. A dainty black railing cut up her uncertain form, a mass of pale blue and green patterned fabrics, some graying skin showing under a cloud of white curls. The old woman must have been at least 4 floors up, Lily worked out, after the woman was already gone. But they had met each others eyes. Lily slowed down. Slap.    Slap.

Slap. The woman’s expression had caught in her throat, like when she gorged on bread and it expanded in her airways. The blur she had originated from formed itself in Lily’s mind, each wrinkle of face and fabric falling into place. A pang hit her heart, which the other blank faces, with their normal range of emotion, from gleefully happy, to self conscious, to indulgently sad, had never done. Don’t haunt me here.

She felt the bile rise in her stomach, and looked about. She was now only slowly walking. Her head felt light, but the weight of the elderly lady’s eyes held it back from the blind endorphin rush she’d wanted. The vapours of her thoughts wanted to draw back towards the weight, to think on it, wonder why it was there, if they could dislodge it, was it here to stay? But they were now just vapours, high and bloated on the fat of the city, and with each dive they made towards the weight, they blew back further, rising like heat.

Lily turned on her heel, and began to run again. She almost stopped short, feeling her body waking up to its aches and pains, and feeling it necessary to alert her to them. Lily, who did not think that this was necessary, and with her head swimming and muscles screaming, ran back towards the balcony.

Their eyes were the same colour, the same shape too. Lily remembered the delicate silver chain that had hung from her glasses. Did the old woman have glasses too, or had she imagined it?

Her eyes scanned the balconies. It now appeared to Lily that every house on the front had balconies, even many of the hotels, and many were the same dainty black ones the old lady had been perched behind. She couldn’t remember what shop. (Even if she could recall if it had been a fish and chips place, or a rock shop, that wouldn’t have narrowed the options by any significant amount.)

It was her great aunt who had inspired the running. Not by example; Peggy had sat all day, avoiding visitors, listening to the most grisly or romantic novels on audiobook. Or watching thrillers and Hitchcock-era horrors on the little, beaten up set crouched in the corner. Lily had often thought it looked as if all the furniture, even the ornaments, in her great aunts house, looked to be crouching away from her. Cowering in some corner, or mounted precariously high on a shelf, cautiously looking down.

Washing up in the kitchen, or hiding to read in the downstairs toilet, Lily felt a conspiratorial closeness to the cowering objects. She did love her aunt. She was an intelligent, cutting, woman, with a wicked edge which could be thrilling, if one was on the right side of it. She was very like Lily in many ways, and had been more so when she was younger, but, as she often liked to point out, more confident.

‘You had to be sure of yourself then, or no one else would be!’

Lily had often wondered whether her aunt, who she did regard as remarkably astute, realized quite how counter productive her mocking of Lily’s nerves was turning out to be. She saw Lily as a retiring shadow of herself, not making the most out of her youth, as she should be. She seemed not to consider the fact that Lily had been placed by the family into, (and diligently accepted, but not by her own design), the position of Peggy’s carer. This prevented her from gallivanting about in the manner Peggy deemed suitable for a girl of her age. This presented a problem. The problem manifested itself in a cycle of light abuse and resigned acceptance. As Peggy grew more ill, and irritable, she drew herself out of her feeble body, into the wicked and mocking body of her youthful self. This self teased and bullied Lily with its exploits, and as it pushed out of the old woman’s body, Lily pushed backwards, inwards.

She was breaking into a more comfortable stride now, her muscles quietened down, and she looked over the balconies as they bounced along in her vision. Her stomach had started spasming again now, hard. She felt the bile ripping away at the walls. Comforting and familiar. Like when she would press her nails into her wrist when her grandmother asked if there were any ‘boys’ she liked. She’d never liked boys.

Lily remembered watching her aunt when she could still just about doodle, before her hand became too shakey for even initials. She loved to draw birds, but, with the limited movement left to her, contented herself with drawing the bent line which is the widely accepted symbol for ‘seagull’. Lily would imagine them like little raised eyebrows. Littering the edges of her grandmothers letters, bills, notebooks, newspapers, anything within reach. The markings would rise up the paper to the heavens, as, Lily thought, her grandmothers penciled eyebrows would rise up, up, up into her cloud of hair. That was how she knew it was near the end, though it had been near the end the whole time, she supposed. When Lily had arrived, dressed up more than usual, even wearing make up, Peggy hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t asked why she didn’t dress like that more often, or if she was seeing a ‘boy’. Lily watched her eyebrows closely. The left maybe twitched slightly. It may have been Lily blinking. Other than that they stayed where they were. Peggy had died 4 days later, sitting in her morning chair (that had become her every day and night chair), being watched by ‘Marnie & Me’ on the shrunken T.V.

Part 2 to come soon