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Jacquelyn Shreeves-Lee
Jacquelyn Shreeves-Lee

Jacquelyn Shreeves-Lee is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck and feels the course has transformed her understanding of the art of writing. In her stories she tries to unzip human universes and connect with the reader in a way that makes reading an active, visceral experience. When she’s not writing, Jacqueline works as a clinical psychologist and is very fortunate to work with two outstanding community charities, Face Front and Kids Inspire. Currently working on a collection of short stories, Jacqueline is never more herself that when she’s writing. It gets her every time, the way squiggles on a page can cause someone to laugh, shudder or cry; she calls short stories small miracles. Jacqueline lives with her two sons in North London.

Balance


'Look at me, no hands,' Uncle Martin calls, jollying along and everyone falls in behind but Ruthie watches. Uncle Martin's great, square head surfaces up from the plastic basin of water, a green apple held in his teeth, a Dunn's Seedling. Ruthie knows this because the apple is doughnut-flat, very green and hard. Her father bought a bag of them from the greengrocers, fresh in, only yesterday. Uncle Martin wags his wet head like a shaggy dog, flecks of water like sparks shoot off from his hair and beard. The children splattered by the water laugh, and their laughter spreads along their row of shiny faces like a running lick of paint. Ruthie watches. Uncle Martin spits the Dunn’s Seedling out, 'See no hands.'

He waves his hands on either side and the children squeal because Uncle Martin is the best apple bobber in North London, the best apple bobber in the world and Ruthie turns away.

Years later, she wonders if she killed Uncle Martin with her thoughts and fears her thoughts have spun around. Thoughts do that, she believes, balance the sheets, give chase and catch you when you're not looking.

 

The car, a dark green Volvo, pulls up at the edge of a cliff. One hundred and twenty miles from London. Removing both hands from the steering wheel, Doug says, 'Look at that sky.' Sitting beside him, Ruth looks through the windscreen at the big sky; an unanswering sweep of blue.

'Isn't that the bluest sky you've ever seen ? It's the bluest sky I've ever seen. God, it's blue.'

Ruth says nothing. He turns to her.

'Isn't it the bluest sky you've ever seen?'

'I’m not sure.'

'Are you kidding? They don't come much bluer than that.'

She unwraps the greaseproof paper that contains the bundle of cheddar cheese and dark pickle sandwiches.

'When?' he asks.

'When what?'

'When did you see a bluer sky than this one?'

She shakes her head, ' I don't know.'

'So how can you be sure?'

She hands him a sandwich.

'I can't remember when I saw a bluer sky but I think I have.' 

'Ha ! That doesn't make any sense', like he's caught her out, ' You know that you don't make sense, don't you, Ruth ?'

She bites into the bread, staring straight ahead at a blue pretender sky.

'God, it's hot in here,' Doug removes his coat and lowers his window. Beneath Ruth's rough, camel-hair coat, a forgotten hour-glass.

Like an ice sprite the cold air rushes in. Turning, one knee digging into his seat, Doug reaches over to a back seat window and lowers this, until a cold blast of air enters.

'You do your side,' he instructs Ruth.

Ruth places her sandwich on the dashboard. Unwinding the window on her side takes time, the handle is unwieldy and moves in stops and starts.

'Here, let me do it,' Doug moves across her and forces the lever down, his face strained and buckled like worn leather. Wind whistles through the car and the road map on the dashboard flies off and lands flat, quivering against the steering wheel.

'That's better,' Doug announces, folding the map into a sensible square, 'Good. The sea air gets the juices flowing.  Getting away from it all, doc says it'll do us the world of good.'

Ruth pulls her coat tightly around her.

'You cold ?' he asks.

She shakes her head and eats a mouthful of pickle. Doug holds his sandwich in mid-air.

'When did you make these?' he asks.

'Last night.'

'I told you to make them first thing in the morning. The bread's hard.'

Ruth continues eating.

 

'Maybe yours isn't stale but mine is,' he says.

Ruth stops eating and offers her sandwich.

'No. I've lost my appetite.'

Doug returns his sandwich to its greaseproof paper and slowly with tight fingers folds it away. The wind rattles the car. Sighing, Doug winds his window up a little and looks out to the horizon.

'Do you think she was cold?' he asks.

Lowering her head, Ruth stops and stares into her lap.

'In the morning, that morning when I went in there, the room was like a fridge.'

Doug looks out at the cloudless sky, ‘I did ask the doctor......Only I wouldn't have wanted her to have been cold. She was so small.'

 

Folding away the hard, leftover crusts of her sandwich, Ruth makes a rough package. She drops this into a blue, saliva-skin carrier bag, the cheap corner- shop kind that collapse when you reach the front door.

'The doctor says it was like she fell asleep. She wouldn't have felt anything,' Doug continues.

Ruth blows her nose and wipes her eyes. On certain days familiar, local roads with level surfaces suddenly develop gradients and hills, and the sky strains and tilts backwards as it does now and Ruth searches for somewhere safe to fix her eyes.

'You catching a cold?' he asks and fully winds up the window on his side. He swings around and kneeling, reaches out to a lowered window in the back, hoisting up the glass.

He gives Ruth a rattling can of WD-40 that he fishes out from under his car seat and says, ‘You do your side.’ Despite her efforts Ruth struggles with the stubborn lever. Doug quickly leans over, pressing Ruth back into her seat as he turns the handle. The wind and cold air have gone; it is very still and very quiet.

 

'Better now?'

Ruth nods.

'Good.'

A wavy line of flapping, winged movement cuts shapes into the blue.

Doug says, ‘There they go.... even come into the cities now....'

'Do you think they have accidents?' he asks.

'I don't know.'

'Do you think things go very wrong on Planet Seagull ?'

'I suppose so.'

'I suppose so .......but you don't know do you, Ruth? .....Like the bluest sky, you don't really know?'

They stare out at the blue, blank-faced sky. Ruth searches for clouds. Doug rummages in a carrier bag by his feet and removes a handful of newspapers. He draws out several sheets; front pages, centre pages, back covers.

The randomly selected pages show a crossword puzzle, toothpaste teeth from an advertisement, a footballer's winning leg, a woman's page three breasts, the daily horoscope readings for Libra and Scorpio, Obama at the mike, the oldest mother in the world and details of an imminent tube strike. Doug hands Ruth one of the sheets and keeps the others.

'You do your side and I'll do the rest.' He hands her a small roll of sellotape and Ruth sets about placing a page of newspaper against the window nearest to her seat.

'I'll do the back,' Doug offers and after covering the window nearest to the driver's seat, climbs into the back. He covers all the windows with newspaper, tearing the sellotape with his teeth; he seals the newspaper down. The last panel of glass to be covered is the windscreen and as he does this, Ruth avoids the flurry of his hands and the steeled focus in his eyes.

‘There,’ he says, ‘All done.’

 

She can't ask what the point is and tell him that love can only ever hurtle towards its own end. She calls these her cudgel thoughts because they fall like killing blows, having the unwelcome power to render all moving images still.

Without the sun, sky, seagulls and sea; their sights, sounds and filling of everything, Ruth and Doug are bolted in. The newspaper pages tell of a world outside intent on turning though mute and pinioned against glass. Settling into his seat, Doug's hands unbuckle his belt and undo his flies. He wriggles and pulls his grey trousers down below his waist. Releasing the lever by the side of his seat , he lays flat on his back.

‘The doctor says we have to keep trying.'

Blowing her nose, she nods, ' Yes, I know.'

Ruth prises something open and is surprised that her mind works and ordered thoughts form her words. The phantom cot hovers on the back seat and Uncle Martin performs terrible tricks with his hands. Soon the car will shudder, some kind of love will hit the sky and the hurtful weight of it all will be fantastically horrible, beyond measure.


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