The following piece was produced during the Creative Future Museum Tales course in the summer of 2014. The course, run in partnership with Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and funded by the Arts Council, enables marginalised writers to be inspired to write by museum artefacts and its surroundings.
The People She Carries by Fee Jay
Jess pushed her hand deep into her coat pocket, caressing the spoon that lay there between her fingers, cold stainless steel on skin. Her thumb, connected to the curve in its oval head, rested in the dip, comforting her.
Many years ago Jess’s mother had sat stirring her tea, the click clack of the spoon ricketing round its china edge Morse-coded messages within its rim. She’d lift the warmed spoon to her mouth, suck on it absent mindedly, leaving a greasy half heart-shaped ruby lipstick stain on it, the tiny lines of her lips now imprinted upon it. She’d stare at it for a second then run her tongue through the centre of the smudged red heart, breaking it in two before plunging the spoon back into the cup. Tap tap.
Jess now held the spoon in her pocket a little tighter. Jess’s father always sat in the same chair across from her mother. He’d hold his Zippo lighter in his hand. It was solid and weighty, as was he. He’d feel the reassuring sturdiness of it in his palm then expertly twist and flip it over and around his fingers, clicking every time it passed over his wedding finger before flicking the flame on and up to the roll-up that constantly hung from his lips. Jess often wondered if he had been born with a roll-up hanging from his pursed lips and if the chunk of the lighter against his wedding ring was somehow trying to communicate to his wife’s tip-tapping spoon. Click clack tip tap, a constant misunderstood cry for help bouncing between the two of them.
Jess squeezed her lighter that lay in her other pocket against her palm, the tight grip of pain reminding her she was still here.
Her father collected bottles, tiny doll’s house-like miniature whisky bottles that he stole dozens at a time from his job as a porter at a hotel. Jess often wondered how he got away with his constant petty theft. He had come home with them spilling out of his pockets, cascading across the sitting room floor trying to escape his grip, but there was no escape. He’d sit every night drinking them one after another till he’d fall into an angry slumber. Jess couldn’t remember a time his breath had not stunk of rollies and whisky, or maybe once when she was a baby he’d held her close, smiled down at her, but she thought that was probably a false memory that her brain had concocted to bear him.
Thousands of tiny whisky bottles now lined one wall of their house, arrayed in stripes of stacked patterns almost sculptural, almost beautiful when the light hit them. Almost but not quite. Jess dreamed of smashing them to the floor, watching them scatter and shatter, but she never dared do it. Instead she’d take refuge in her room so the bottles could not stare back at her, screaming loudly from their wall.
Jess held her tiny whisky bottle in her hand, clicking it against the lighter that was next to it in her pocket. They lay side by side. Click clack.
Her brother Sam was three years younger than her, but smart, so smart he would lie quietly on the floor, always quiet, always reading some book or other. The only time he had made a noise was when he’d cough, hacking up his lung fluid, mother rushing for a bowl for him to spit it in. He had many health problems, many medicines all lined up. Her mother called them his little soldiers. And he had diabetes so a constant round of sugar checks and insulin needles, his little, sharp, shiny soldiers. He’d smirk at Jess, confront her: it’s OK, Sis, soldiers help me. Don’t be sad.
But it didn’t last. Jess woke up one morning to hear her mother screaming. Not your usual scream but a dark, guttural howl of pain that filled the hallway and shattered the home forever.
Jess wasn’t allowed to go into Sam’s room after that. They kept it as some weird shrine to her brother. Locked in time at eight years old, never to grow up, locked forever in that room. But sometimes when her parents were out she’d creep in and sit on Sam’s bed and cry big fat childish tears that filled her up and threatened to flood her face. She’d try to comfort herself, sit there with Sam’s favourite chocolate to share with him. A Kit Kat, she’d unwrap the crinkly silver foil and snap the bar into two sticks, one for her and one for Sam. She never ate Sam’s half but stored it in his bedside table. There were 50 rotting sticks of sweetness in the drawer by the time Jess left home.
Jess now crunched the Kit Kat wrapper in her pocket that lay huddling below the spoon in her pocket.
All those years ago the house had become still and stagnant, Mother and Father bitterer by the day, the whisky sculpture growing, Jess lost. Her mother became clumsy, oh so very clumsy she’d often walk into doors. Massive bruises covered her face, swollen panda blue black eyes, split, pale lips. She didn’t wear her ruby lipstick anymore.
And then it came. Jess’s last day at home forever, her father, spitting regrets, drunk and mean, walked into a door too that day: one black eye, one split lip, one broken nose, three broken fingers on her right hand, one on her left, her fingers still hurt in winter to this day. Jess clenched her fists together tightly in her pickets.
Jess stood now in front of the toilet cubicle, went in and clicked the lock shut, then rummaged through her pockets and precisely placed on top of the toilet cistern one spoon, a Zippo lighter, a miniature whisky bottle now filled with sterile water, a tiny Kit Kat foil wrapper and a crisp, clear syringe in a neat row. Her little soldiers.
Then she cooked up to go down.
Just another medical disaster in an overpopulated town.
Her pockets were now empty.