Sympathy for the animal sidekick

A continuation of U A Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Not my best side’

It’s all very well, this

virgin saving, but I always end up questioning

what’s in it for me?

The girl gets saved, the dragon dies,

this guy on my back, wearing the entire armoury (not realising,

had the dragon breathed fire,

as is traditional dragon behaviour,

he would have been cooked alive

like a jacket potato in tin foil)

gets the girl and the fame,

and all I get is a scratch under the chin,

a carrot, and another painting to add

to my slowly growing collection

in the stables. Hardly seems fair

when without me, he wouldn’t have

got anywhere in the first place,

especially on those matchstick legs.

 

https://i2.wp.com/english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/uccello.jpg

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Blizzard

Drifting crystals shimmer under street-light,
boots pull through the grey white sand.
The hole, ignored in November,
leaves February’s toes unfeeling.
Red hot ice forms fingers in unravelling mittens,
wind attacks the hood, flake shards spiking behind plastic frames.
Time slows, quiets, before puddles form on doorsteps.

The Staircase

The edge of the carpet is fraying,

peeling up – it will soon be nothing.

it used to hold such fun,

bum slides down, crawls up

but now it only holds stains.

The house is no longer yours,

but the bannisters bear your fingerprints,

marks from a time when you were carried

on the shoulders of your father,

from back when your mother knew your name.

Boxes sit at the bottom of the staircase,

but you feel the need to sit here a while,

take it all in,

before you had this house over to new memory makers.

Installment in the Turbine Hall of the Tate

A single red ball

rolls to stop.

It sits alone for a while,

some people come and look at it

and slowly, it gains friends,

balls of all different colours joining it

piling up, spilling out,

each one filled with a secret to be learnt

only by inquisitive strangers,

secrets detached,

the weight released from their bearers,

left floating in the void.

A problem shared is a problem halved;

these secrets become millionths of the size

they used to embody to their bearers,

and minor curiosities for visitors.

 

Some of them come back to visit,

curious to see what the others have shared.

They never find their own secrets

and indeed, never remember them.

They are lost in a sea of regrets and things better left unsaid.

 

The balls are recycled, after it’s all over,

forming pens, bottles, all manner of things,

their secrets hidden forever.

 

The first red ball returns

to the pocket of its creator,

becoming a memento of when things so trivial

carried more significance.

The edge of the desert

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw a cube, large, reflective, hovering above the sand and stirring up dust. You told me not to touch the cube, that the cube was dangerous, that I would see the cube and would be tempted by the cube. I couldn’t resist its iridescent surface, I needed to know how cool it felt under my fingers. It was as if the cube called to me, silencing the yammering in my head, and I was at peace.

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw them, and I knew they would help me. You told me to ignore them, but I knew you just didn’t know, because you hadn’t touched the cube, even though you’d told me you had because no-one who had touched the cube would ignore them . I couldn’t ignore them. It was as if we existed in different dimensions.

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw their teeth, I saw their syringes and their body bags. You told me to run and never look back, pretend I couldn’t see them, until they gave up. I couldn’t leave you, you took my hand and ran with me, but I couldn’t shake them. It was as if I belonged to them now.

When I reached the edge of the desert, I saw them take me. You told me that you loved me, and that it would all be okay, but I could see you were crying. I couldn’t believe you, not when you handed me over to them. It was if this was what you wanted.

The Gallery

Footsteps pass in front of them first, the workers:

the milkmaid carrying two urns of milk under a glowing moon,

the farmer leading his cows down to the river, burning in the heat of the rising sun,

the watchful shepherd, shivering, hungering, and waiting.

Through the glass doors, the girl stares from under fifteen layers of petticoats,

curious as to the events taking place on the other side.

Her brother scorns her, young though he is, knowing that their role is in this room,

talking to the old man and woman whose powdered faces lead them to an early grave –

they all look down their nose at the glass doors.

The dog by the girl’s feet yaps, yearning to break free and paddle in the untamed stream

that passes through the workers, sick of the neatly trimmed grass

being the only outside beneath his paws.

These huge oil figures are immortalised apart,

destined for years of separate rooms, seperate lives,

no matter where their gazes may lead.

Angel Wings

‘Congratulations to the graduating class 203!’ The angel that had taught us everything we needed to know to be guardian angels stood in front of the waiting crowd, basking in their cheer. From where we stood at the side of the stage, I couldn’t see a single space for anyone else to cram themselves into.

Alicia grabbed my hand and squeezed it, and I smiled at them, trying to appear reassuring and naturally cringing away from the sweat pooling between our palms.

‘After a rigorous training program, these students have risen to the occasion, and have now earned their wings!’

Alicia looked at the wings on their back, red and black striped with ‘training’ plastered across them. ‘What if my wings look ridiculous?’ They chewed on her lower lip as they whispered, muffling everything they said.

‘I have been to every graduation since I could toddle around, and that has never happened. You’ll be fine.’

They screwed up their mouth and frowned. Before they had a chance to respond, our teacher began to call names.

Alicia was first, and their training wings disappeared with a flash. Left in their place were blinding white feathers that stretched from their neck to their lower back. Everyone cheered as they blushed, their innocence proudly on display. Nathaniel followed, and they roared as their wings flamed behind them. Nor’s strut was rewarded with glistening peacock feathers, Danni got peach pink wings that sparkled, and Greg got red racing stripes down black feathers.

My name was called, and I stepped on to the stage, ears ringing. I knelt down on cue and closed my eyes. I felt my training wings changing, morphing on my back. I waited a second before opening my eyes for the cheer that had followed everyone else’s transformations. The room remained silent.

I opened my eyes and looked around to see wide eyes and slackened jaws. I turned my head away from the mirror and reached up to feel the feathers, but the range of textures and sizes I felt only confused me more. Turning to the mirror, I saw an amalgamation of feathers; different sizes, colours, and designs sticking out at such different angles I couldn’t take it all in. I looked for Alicia, hoping for some reassurance, but they just stood with their hand over their mouth, eyes wide.

I looked up at my teacher, whose face was ashen. They made a motion with their hand for me to leave the stage, as they clapped and cheered. The audience half-heartedly joined in, and then began murmuring as soon as I was out of their sight.

Alicia had their arms outstretched for a hug. I walked straight up to them, wrapping my arms around them and putting my head on their shoulder.

‘It’s going to be okay,’ they said, squeezing me tight.

‘I look like an idiot,’ I said. The tears found their way free of my eyes and soaked into Alicia’s jumper.

‘Come on.’ Alicia broke the hug, took me by the hand and led me away from the stares and the whispers.

 

I couldn’t escape the weird looks no matter where I went. Word had got around about the disastrous ceremony, and the wings weren’t exactly easy to cover up. It wasn’t so much the looks or the muttering that I minded, it was what the wings said about me. Why were my wings, the things that were supposed to reflect my soul, so disgusting to look at?

Alicia was the best friend I could have asked for, staying by my side whenever they could, and helping to distract me. Whenever we had a spare moment, we sat in the library and tried to find out if there was any way that I could change my wings.

It was on one of these research sessions that I just gave up. ‘There’s no point anymore, Alicia. We’re going to get assigned to our protectees in two days, so I’m just going to have to get on with what I’ve been given.’ I gestured to my wings, but Alicia was ignoring me, their finger sliding over the pages of the book in their hand. ‘Alicia, I said give up.’

‘Hold on, I think I’ve found something.’

I sighed, preparing for some nonsense about wing transplants.

They closed the book, holding their finger inside it to bookmark the page. ‘Close your eyes. Put all of your energy and focus into your wings.’

I did as they said, muttering under my breath about how stupid and futile this all was. ‘Alright, now what?’

‘Think of doves, and only doves.’

I did as she said, thinking of flying doves and letting them cover my mind’s eye.

I heard Alicia squeal. ‘It worked!’

‘What worked?’ My eyes flew open and I tried to look at my wings. My hand stretched behind my back and instead of the mess that my fingers had found before, my hand was met with smooth, soft wings, all carefully arranged to point the same way. ‘How…’

Alicia opened the book and showed me the page. ‘You have chameleon wings! Pretty rare, super cool, you can change them into whatever you want them to look like.’

‘Anything?’

They looked back to the book. ‘Anything made of feathers, it seems. It’s weird, now that you have your proper wings it makes perfect sense. You do tend to blend with any situation you’re in.’

‘Um, thanks?’

‘It’s a good thing! Anyway, no-one realised because chameleons are super rare, and the wing granting ceremony usually gives them whatever wings they think they should have. Look, it explains it all right here.’ Alicia pointed to a paragraph about halfway down the page, and I took the book off them and started reading the passage.

‘What do I do now then? Do I have to tell anyone about this?’

‘I guess you would have to tell whoever is in charge of assignments – they assign you based on whatever place’s idea of angels, in case you’re seen.’ Alicia moved in front of me and gently closed the book over my hands. ‘But for now,’ they said, eyebrows wiggling with mischief, ‘I reckon we can just have some fun with it. After all, you need to know the limits of your power before you use it, right?’

‘You do have a point.’ I grinned, put the book down, and focused on transforming my wings into the most ridiculous things I could for the next three hours, having the most fun I could remember having for a long time, happy to finally be able to celebrate who I was.

Mistletoe

‘And a reminder of this morning’s top story – there are reports across the globe of people waking up with what can only be described as super powers. The official notice at this present time is not to be concerned, and to visit your local authorities if you or someone you know is showing signs of something out of the ordinary.’

I yawned, covering my mouth with one hand as I grabbed a bowl and a box of shreddies with the other. The final week of uni was hitting me like a rubber mallet, and I was so happy that I only had to get through two more days before I was free for Christmas. My housemate Jo was sprawled over the sofa, still in her pyjamas, and had the news turned up at full volume.

‘Can you believe this? I want to have super powers!’

‘Ah, but with great power comes great responsibility,’ came the voice of my other housemate, Freddie, from the stairs. She was already dressed, had her backpack on and was wearing bright yellow gloves and a bright yellow scarf to match. ‘Anyway, I’m off, keep me updated if you guys get super powers!’

‘Freddie, it’s 9am. You’re not going to the library already are you?’ I asked through a mouthful of shreddies, incredulous.

‘Yup, gotta get some work done, bye!’

‘You make me sick!’ Jo called after her before flopping over and screaming into the sofa cushions. She lifted her head an inch and turned to me. ‘How come it’s Christmas time and all I can think about is uni work?’

‘Because lecturers are sadistic.’ As I spoke, a tiny drop of milk dribbled out of my mouth and hit my t-shirt. I swore and put my bowl on the countertop, looking around for a cloth. I froze as I noticed a blue and white striped jay-cloth hanging in mid-air next to me. I reached out and poked it, and it span in place. ‘Jo…’

‘What?’ she groaned as she turned over. I could tell that I wasn’t hallucinating by the way she screamed, ‘Holy shit!’ and jumped up to stand next to me. She stared at the jay cloth, and poked it herself. It span more.

I reached out and grabbed it out of mid-air – it was slightly damp. I sponged away the milk on my t-shirt. As soon as all evidence of my disgusting dribble was gone, the cloth vanished.

‘What. The. Fuck,’ Jo whispered, ‘you have super powers.’

‘Alright, let’s not get too over-excited, for all we know I could be Cloth Woman.’

Jo thought for a moment. ‘Well, what happened before the cloth appeared?’

‘I dribbled milk on myself.’

Jo narrowed her eyes, grabbed the spoon out of my bowl and flicked shreddies on to me.

‘What the hell?’ I went to grab the dishcloth off of the side when I noticed another cloth hanging in the air. I grabbed it and started sponging myself down again. ‘Quite a useful super power to be honest.’

Jo’s eyes glinted with mischief. ‘We need to test the limits of it though.’ As soon as the second cloth vanished, she tipped some of the now very soggy cereal onto the floor in front of me. This time, a mop appeared in front of me. She tried to grab it, but as soon as she tried to pull it from the air, she shrieked and pulled away. ‘It shocked me!’

I grabbed it and pulled it towards me. ‘It feels like a normal mop to me.’ I offered it to her, and she warily poked it before taking the handle again. Just like before, as soon as she moved it, she yelped and dropped it.

‘Guess it’s only for you to use.’

I shrugged and mopped up the milk, and just like the cloth, the mop disappeared. ‘So I’m now Cleaning Lady.’

‘It would appear so.’ Jo shrugged. ‘Still pretty cool though.’ She picked up her phone.

‘You better not tell anyone until I have this figured out.’

‘Relax, I’m just telling Freddie. And anyway, if Twitter is to be believed, there’s no point “going to the authorities” or whatever that newsreader was saying. They’re swamped.’ She turned round the screen to show me the pictures of the police stations, a queue that looped right around the building filling most of the screen.

‘Fuck that, I have a seminar to go to.’ I handed Jo back her phone and took mine out of my pocket to check the time. As I unlocked the screen, the ‘low battery’ notice appeared and my phone turned off. ‘Great.’ I walked towards the stairs, and heard a thunk behind me.

A charging pack with a cable to charge my phone floated in the air behind the bannister. It was slightly dented, presumably where it had hit the bannister, but as soon as I plugged in my phone it came back to life.

‘Maybe it’s just anything that I need, it provides me with?’ I wondered aloud.

‘Whatever it is, I’m very jealous,’ Jo replied, scrolling through Twitter.

By the time I got to uni and realised that I had forgotten my pencil case, I almost expected a pen to be floating next to me. I grabbed it before anyone could notice and got my paper out ready for the seminar to begin, tapping my newly acquired pen on my paper. All that anyone was talking about was the super powers news, and I noticed a few people absent from the seminar. I began wondering what super powers they’d woken up with, whether we were all the same or whether they were sending tornadoes tearing through campus as we sat there.

My seminar tutor, Rachel, had just begun speaking when Claire, my only friend in my seminar, and the girl I had had a crush on since the day I met her, squeezed through the door, mumbling apologies about her tardiness. She sat down next to me and I smiled and said hi, trying to appear calm whilst I focused all my energy on not making anything appear. I’d been trying to find away to tell her that I liked her for weeks, so god only knows what this newfound power was going to make me do.

‘As you all should know, there’s a pair presentation next semester, in which you have to analyse one of the texts we’ve studied using one of the theorists’ essays that we’ve looked at so far. I thought I would put you all in your pairs now so you can start researching over Christmas. So if you could all find a pair… ’ Rachel looked around at all of us, looking ready to leap in and force any stragglers together at a moment’s notice.

‘You want to be partners?’ Claire turned to me, beaming, and raising an eyebrow.

‘Sure – what shall we do our presentation on?’

‘I think we’re assigned topics.’

I made a face. ‘Hopefully we get a good one. I’ve got enough work I don’t want to do over Christmas already, I don’t want something else to add to that.’ I leant back in my chair to scoop my hair into a ponytail, and it was then that I noticed it, growing from the ceiling.

Mistletoe.

I didn’t have time to wonder why this wasn’t floating like everything else had, I just willed it to go away with all my might. It stayed there. I risked a glance around; it appeared that no-one else had noticed it. I was just going to have to pretend it wasn’t there.

‘So, got any plans for the Christmas holidays?’ I asked Claire, trying to look as nonchalant as possible.

‘After all this news this morning, I’m going to try and see if I have super powers.’ She wiggled her eyebrows at me. ‘Want to help in my experiments?’

‘I would have to travel for like an hour and a half.’ I tried to pretend that I hadn’t already worked it out in the hope that she would ask me to visit her.

‘I hope you’re more dedicated to our presentation than that – besides, I could come to you. Or we could meet in the middle.’

‘Right, are you all in pairs? Good. So I’ll go round and assign you each a topic – Claire and Stevie, you have the Judith Butler essay…’ I tuned out of what Rachel was saying as I scanned over the handout with the task on it again.

‘This is going to be interesting,’ Claire said, reading through the list of texts we had to choose from.

No-one seemed to notice the mistletoe in the rest of the seminar, everyone too busy brainstorming with their partners. As I was packing up, I looked up and was relieved to see it was gone. I started to walk out of the room, but Claire caught my arm as we stood in the doorway. ‘Hey, I just wanted to ask you something.’

I bit my lip as the mistletoe respawned in the doorway just above our heads. ‘Mmm-hmm.’

‘I was wondering if – sorry, let’s move out of the doorway.’ As she turned, I took the opportunity to leave before she noticed the mistletoe.

‘I have to run, actually, I have to meet my friend, but message me, okay?’ I took off down the corridor, moving as fast as I could without it being suspicious.

 

‘Hey super girl, how’s it going?’ Freddie asked me as I walked through the front door.

‘The worst. You know I told you about Claire? Well, my super powers decided to give me a helping hand today.’

I heard Jo’s voice as she stampeded down the stairs. ‘Oh my god, what happened?’

‘Mistletoe happened.’

‘How festive, I love it.’ Freddie smiled wistfully.

‘You wouldn’t if you were me. At least she didn’t notice it on the ceiling, but in the doorway was almost an entirely different story.’

‘I think you should just tell her,’ Jo said, folding her arms, ‘I, at least, have listened to you whine on about this girl for months. Just tell her you like her.’

‘A little late now, don’t you think? “Oh, don’t mind this mistletoe floating between us, it’s just because I suddenly have super powers and I really want to kiss you” doesn’t sound weird at all.’

‘You said it was on the ceiling and in the doorway, so it won’t float.’

‘She has a point.’ Freddie smiled.

I groaned. ‘Fine. I’ll talk to her. But not under the mistletoe – only somewhere with a high ceiling.’

 

The next day, Claire messaged me.

‘Hey, don’t know if you’re free but wondered if you wanted to go through some of the presentation some time today? x’

I looked up to check the ceilings at my spot in the library – they were certainly high enough. I’d managed to avoid suspicion thus far, snatching the sandwich out of the air before anyone could notice after my stomach grumbled. The only use of my newfound super power other than that had been performing the same demonstration for Freddie that Jo and I had used as an experiment the previous morning. I was taking advantage of people randomly developing super powers and everyone else being scared of people with super powers by spreading out in the library, so I already had a double desk space. I typed a response to Claire and hit send:

‘Sure, I’m in the library and was going to be here all afternoon. Second floor, let me know when you get here x’

A minute passed and the chair beside me scraped back. I was about to tell whoever it was that it was occupied when I saw Claire’s dark curls and stopped myself. ‘I was about to yell at you for taking that seat.’

Claire laughed as she pulled out her notes. I glanced upwards and there it was, on the ceiling a floor up, the mistletoe. I had a sudden rush of gratitude for the weird open-plan design of the library, and turned back to Claire.

We spent the next hour working on our presentation, interspersed with many tangents and a lot of chatting. The topic of super powers came up again, and I changed the subject by shrugging and saying that I didn’t think that it was that much of a big deal. Claire looked at me like I was crazy, but I stopped her from saying anything by going back to talking about the presentation.

‘I’m getting kind of thirsty, you want to go get some coffee?’

I looked at my water bottle on the table, which I didn’t even bring with me, that had refilled every time I felt thirsty. ‘Sure, I could do with a coffee.’

We packed everything up and headed down to the café in the library. I swore under my breath as I noticed that all of the tables had low hanging lights above them. I ordered a coffee and realised I’d forgotten my purse. I held my hand in the air next to me and the exact change fell into it. I made a mental note never to take money out with me again, picked up my coffee and followed Claire to a table.

Claire was talking about the super powers that she’d heard that people had got, and how amazing it all was, and I tried to focus on what she was saying, but my eyes kept returning to the mistletoe growing from the lamp between us.

‘Are you alright?’ Claire asked, putting her hand on my wrist on the table.

‘Yeah, sorry, just-’

‘Oh, I hadn’t even noticed that, sorry…’ Claire didn’t meet my eyes, pulling her hand back and folding both her hands in her lap. ‘Now it looks like I picked the table with the mistletoe and I didn’t, I’m sorry, I find mistletoe really weirdly pressuring, I didn’t mean to-’

‘Sorry, it’s my fault, and anyway, just because it’s there I don’t think we have to-’

‘What do you mean, it’s your fault?’ Claire looked up at me, eyes narrowing, frowning.

I sighed, my heart thudding. ‘Um, I meant… I-’

‘You don’t have weird powers that make mistletoe appear, do you?’ she said, laughing.

‘Not… specifically mistletoe.’

‘Wait, what? You have super powers?’

‘I think so.’ I bit my lip, now taking my turn to avoid eye contact. ‘I seem to be able to make things appear when I need them.’

‘Why would you need mistletoe?’ Claire’s voice wavered as she spoke.

I wished in that moment for a time machine so that I could avoid this situation and say no to coffee, but I couldn’t avoid telling her at that moment. Besides, she already knew, I could tell as it hung in the air between us, unsaid and unrecognised. ‘Because I like you. And I guess my subconscious, or whatever force controls this dumb power, thinks that this is the way to acknowledge that, I guess. Sorry, I didn’t mean to make things awkward, I just…’

I looked up, fearing the worst. Claire was smiling. ‘So you didn’t run away from me earlier because you were scared I was going to ask you out?’

‘You were going to ask me out?’ My voice squeaked with surprise.

‘Yeah, but you ran away so I thought you just were too polite to say no.’

I laughed. ‘No, I ran away because this happened.’ I pointed at the mistletoe, and she laughed too.

‘I must be the most unobservant girl ever.’ She picked up my hand that still rested on the table, holding it with hers. She leant across the table, so she was directly under the mistletoe ‘So, Stevie, did you want to go out with me?’

‘I would love to.’ I leant forward just far enough to close the space between us.

When we broke apart, I looked up to see that the mistletoe had disappeared.

 

The Ringing

I thought it was normal

The ringing

So when the doctor asked me

‘When did it start?’

I had to tell him that I couldn’t remember not hearing it.

It used to be just in the quiet of the night,

When everyone was in bed,

That my ears would fill with the high pitched hum

But the volume has been turned up over the years

Now it persists constantly,

Only ever drowned out by noise that turns my ears

into three hundred pound weights in the morning.

When I strain to hear something, the ringing becomes offended,

And rings ever louder to grab my attention.

The ringing is not only a noise,

It is a constant distraction,

It is an ache through my skull,

And it almost seemed to mock me in the doctor’s office

When I was told there was no way of stopping it.

 

© Alyx Hurst 2017