The Writing Quarter June 2019 Winner

Posted 4 months ago under Uncategorised,

Cerberus

by Colette Coen

Colette Coen has been published most recently in Postbox, Pushing out the Boat and Crannog. Her novel All the Places I’ve Ever Been and short story collections are available on Amazon. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland with her husband and their two teenagers. She is also Mum to a university student who has flown the nest and whose bedroom now doubles as Colette’s office where she writes and runs her proofreading business – Beech Editorial Services. Follow http://colettecoen.wordpress.com for posts of new fiction.

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Okay Mandy, we’re ready to start. Completely still please.

Whenever Mandy recalled scenes to fill the dark times, it was always indoor memories which took hold. It wasn’t as if she didn’t try to picture a loch or a hillside, but they remained as distant and two dimensional as photographs. Her mind instead returned to the legs of the old bottle-green chair and the stained carpet tiles under the kitchen table. She was right there, smelling the tobacco smoke, listening to the scuff of slippers, tasting the soor plooms as they drew in her cheeks. She could almost feel the little tufts of carpet between her fingers, the ones she would pull out when there was nothing better to do. Sense again, the anxiety that one day they would move the table and the bald patch would be revealed. But she needs to relax.

Try not to move your hands, Mandy.

Her mother’s voice rang through her thoughts. ‘Is there a monster under my table?’

She would squeal, shuffle her bum back, and watch the carpet sweeper lift the crumbs from breakfast, then she’d crawl back to her starting place while her mum went around to the other side. ‘Maybe I’ll get the monster from here.’

‘Is that wean greetin under the table again? It’s no good for her. She should be out in the fresh air.’

‘I’m no greetin Granny, I’m just sittin.’

‘Well, it’s no healthy — just sittin indeed.’

But then her granny would sneak her a crumbled paper bag with a quarter of sweeties, and she would sit there sooking away while her granny scrubbed the tatties and her mum wrestled with the twin tub.

They didn’t let her sit under the table at school, although they had shown them a film telling them to duck and cover, and it was all right when they were practicing. Miss Barclay pulled her out from under her desk and smacked her bum, when she took her book about the Cherry Tree Family down there. But then Fraser Harkins wet his pants and she was no longer the odd one. Playtime was the best though, when there were no adults about to mind if she was crouched on her hunkers under an umbrella with a couple of wee pals to coorie-in with and play jawries or swap scraps.

Lovely Mandy. You’re doing great. Next scan will last five minutes. Completely still.

When her kids couldn’t sleep, they’d blame the monster under their bed, but Mandy told them that Daddy didn’t allow monsters in the house. That they had tried to get in once, but Daddy scared them all away and they were too frightened ever to come back. They are at an age where Daddy is still invincible, when his armour has not been bashed and dented by teenage tantrums, when he can do and say no wrong.

 

The machine clunks and bangs, like bad electronic music fused with thrash metal, hard and loud and scary. She closes her eyes again and tries to zone out the sounds seeping through the noise-reduction headphones. Oh, dear me, when I was wee, I used to peel the tatties.

 

They pulled a man out of the ruins of his house four days after an earthquake in Japan. No room even to straighten his legs in the cramped conditions, but safe under his table. It was just that the collapsed building surrounded his refuge. He suckled water from a rag, and cried for his mother many long years dead.

 

She can feel tears gather in her eyes, but there is no gravity to help them fall. She is trapped in this tube, not able to move other than to blink her eyes, and her chest rising and falling in a slow easy rhythm. Noo I’m big, and I kin jig, and I kin kiss the lawdies. She becomes the earthquake man. Is death preferable to being entombed alive? Did he hear monsters scratching at rubble around him, or did angels call his name?

Last one of this section, five minutes, you’re doing really well, Mandy.

‘Some people panic,’ they told her before they started, ‘need to be sedated. It’s perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of.’

 

At Pompeii there was no time to hide, no place for protection. The warnings had thundered in the monster’s belly for weeks, but nothing happened, so the people began to forget the danger. Then the devastation erupted and trapped everything in its course. The contorted bodies from two thousand years ago, remain. They saw them on their honeymoon. Couples making love, old women sleeping. Destroyed and yet preserved. Dead, and yet immortal.

 

She shook her head, ‘I’ll be fine,’ but she didn’t question when they placed the red rubber puffer in her hand to squeeze if she couldn’t cope. She had prepared all her life for moments like this, but she hadn’t accounted for the way they would put padding round her head, pieces of foam in decreasing size, so that not one inch is left free. Then they place weights on her legs and arms, explaining all the time, that they are just going to be in the next room, watching and listening, and that really, there is nothing to be afraid of. They leave, and an unseen force pulls her body backwards. The scanner is narrower than she had imagined, closer to her face, the creamy circular walls constrict her shoulders and hips.

 

They passed food, water and messages of hope to the Chilean miners down a tiny bore hole, too deep and narrow to let the light through. They were a special breed who had endured, everyone said so, keeping themselves in the present, not allowing themselves to acknowledge the monsters who lurked in the caverns beside them.

How did it feel when they had to step into the lift which pulled them to safety one at a time, 69 days after their burial? How did it feel for the 18 minutes — a fraction of the time she would spend in this cylinder — it took to reach the surface? Did they inhale deeply and thank God for freedom, or did feel a moment of sadness for the loss of the underworld?

 

Mandy is being consumed from within. The periscopic mirror reflects the radiographers’ booth and shows the horror on their faces. They can clearly see the monster she knew had been lurking all this time. The monster who has taken to grabbing her arm, making her drop cups and plates and saucepans full of mince. The one who kicks the back of her knee, makes her stumble, and more recently, fall. It comes in the night too. Standing at her bedside, with its grotesque face so close she can feel the rancour in its breath. She screams, fights, thrashing her arms, throwing off the comfort of her duvet and leaping to her feet with a swiftness she cannot manage in her conscious waking. The monster roars, pulls itself to its full height, looms over, from without, from within, she has to escape. But she does not feel the duvet fall from her. She does not feel her feet on the floor.

The monster is coming for her.

It’s going to get her.

We’re bringing you out, Mandy. Slow, deep breaths. Just try to stay still. Slow breaths. Don’t fight it, Mandy, you’ll hurt yourself. Please, we’re coming for you.

 

The banging stops, but the pounding from within continues. They drag her out, remove the weights binding her legs. Faces crowd round her, blue clad sentinels speak softly. Arms hook under her, lift her with gentleness. The monster has stolen her eyes, replaced them with his own, so all she can see are enemies. It has stolen her voice, ‘Get off me. Get the fuck off me.’

More words are spoken, to her, to each other, but the monster will not listen. More faces, more people, then finally, as they plunge liquid through the catheter in her hand, she sees her hero — his handsome brow furrowed, his beautiful eyes downcast with sorrow.

 

The curtains are drawn around her bed, the blankets tucking her into a cocoon. The hero strokes her hair, listens to the experts for her.

‘As you know, we were unable to complete the scan when Mandy became agitated.’

‘Yes.’ His voice is like honey, gooey and sweet, with all the nourishment Mandy needs to sustain her.

‘But we were able to see enough to plan our next move.’

She doesn’t want to hear anymore. The hospital table sits tantalisingly close at her feet. She is too groggy to speak, the monster coshed by the chemicals swooshing around her veins. She wants them to roll the table up, looks at them, begging them to understand. If only they would push it so that it covers her head and she can block out the noise, the tumour size, the speed of its progression. She doesn’t want to see the look on her hero’s face when he understands that this monster cannot be fought, and that trying to duck and cover is futile.

 

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