This short story by Deborah Mulhearn appeared in Issue 2 of The Merseysider magazine.
A short story by Deborah Mulhearn
Do you have your shoes? Do you have your shoes? It was the last thing his father had said to him, his stricken face framed in the glassless window. He looked almost funny, squawking at him like that.
Now he held them, one in each hand, as he sat on his narrow bed, in his narrow room. He couldn’t wear them any more. The stitching was gone, the tongues and laces missing, the spikes worn almost smooth. He had new ones – the English woman had given him a pair. But he’d just shoved them under the bed. He didn’t want to run any more. He doubted he could run far or fast now anyway. And what was there to run for – or from – in this cold, arms-length country. He had everything he needed; the English woman had said so.
He was used to it here now, at the Centre. He didn’t know why it was called a centre, because it wasn’t at the centre of anything. It was on the edge. The edge of the city, the edge of the country, the edge of the continent, and for all he knew, the edge of the world. The others hated the grey skies and relentless rain, but he didn’t mind it. The rain washed everything clean. At home the trees were always dusty until the rains came, which wasn’t often. Later it washed away the blood.
Hey, ’fugees, the kids shouted. Sometimes they threw things. Not bricks or stones, just chip papers, coins (they really hurt), fizzy drinks cans. And snowballs last week when it snowed. He didn’t feel like fighting back. And they weren’t really that bad. Back home these kids would be, well, he didn’t want to think about what they’d be.
He hated the sleep-dredged nights, punctuated by mobile phones and bursts of languages he didn’t even recognise, never mind understand. It was then that he saw them, those he least wanted to see, forcing their way up into his memory, like diamonds pushing their way up over millenia into the muddy orange pools. Or was it him, gasping and struggling for what felt like centuries until he surfaced? Didn’t they rain from the sky? he asked his father, but no, they came up from the ground. You used to see them in the street sometimes after the rains, he said, but not nowadays.
Where his father worked in the diamond mine they were treated no better than slaves, and watched so they forgot they were being watched and became careless. If someone stole a diamond, stuck one under their tongue or between the stitches of a hem, they were always caught. There were endless stories about the terrible punishments. His father was never even tempted. They are worthless to me, he said, and laughed at their gaping mouths. You are my diamonds, he told them. My seven precious diamonds.
Himself, he had never seen a single diamond. Until he came here, that is, and saw them cut and polished in shop windows. At first he went into the town centre most days and wandered about or sat on a bench. He liked Saturdays best, when it was full of shoppers and market traders and football fans. Loud and brash and full of life and colour, even in the rain. Then one day he offered a child a sweet and its mother had slapped his hand away with such ferocity it made him reel. He learned not to look at the girls or smile at the children. Before that happened he hadn’t noticed how people edged away, didn’t sit next to him on the bus, never asked him the time or directions.
No one asked him about home either, and he was glad. He tried not to remember. He’d meant to go for a practice run that day; he remembered that. But he’d felt hot and bored and couldn’t rouse himself. Instead he lay on the ridge above the river and watched the girls washing clothes. He dozed in the sun and when he woke it was late afternoon. He could hear his mother calling him sharply. He closed his eyes and brushed away the buzz of guilt. Then everything darkened. He looked up, but the sky was still blue, a few creamy clouds hanging over the port. It wasn’t dark, he realised, but silent. The chatter and giggles had stopped. Then the girls were screaming, running in all directions. He sprang down the ridge and sprinted for home, but skidded to a stop when he saw his father’s face. He turned and jumped over the chicken coop, catching it with his heel and sending the birds flapping and squawking. He bolted towards the thick line of trees.
He ran from his home, from his mother, from everyone, not daring to look back. He would never have believed himself possible of such a betrayal, but he didn’t stop, not even for his beloved brother. All he could think was how lucky he’d put on his running shoes that late lazy morning.
He turned over the shoes one more time and ran his thumb over what was left of the spikes. Was that one loose? He must be imagining it. But no, it gave a fraction. Slowly, carefully, he coaxed it until it fell onto the duvet. Bit by bit, one by one, he dislodged the rest. There was still something there. Stones? No wonder they had hurt so much. But how could stones get under the spikes like that?
He took a small penknife from the bedside drawer and started to gouge. This time he caught what fell. At first it looked like gravel. He counted seven pieces. Seven tiny stones. Barely breathing, he held one up to the streetlight that shone remorselessly through the small square window. Not gravel, he could see now. He sat for a long time, staring at his reflection. He stared until the face in the window receded into the grey light and the first drops began to fall.
© Deborah Mulhearn