It starts with static, a roar to drown out death tolls and financial cuts. Lying in bed, I pull the duvet around me and listen to the radio presenter’s voice crackle out. I’ve long forgotten what sleep felt like before this. Now night means a light-slumber and endless house insurance adverts droning around my titty-bitty bedroom, like bluebottles about to fall down dead. I hear the distant breathing of the sea, the hiss as it rolls off the shingle beach and somehow this comforts me. I still don’t know why. The static goes on for ten minutes and I dare not sleep through it, it has become natural to listen. At one in the morning, I wake up to the chaotic jumble of noise. Every morning.
I keep the bedroom door locked – two bolts and one key – but that doesn’t stop me listening, especially once the static cuts out. Sometimes the creaky back-door opens or I hear the shunt of the kitchen window. Tonight, it is the front door. We both know this is unusual, out-of-habit and I strain to pick up the movements below. What will happen now? I’ve changed the setup and unlocked the front door. I’ve rewired the way we’ve always done this and that means something.
Outside the wind batters the tin shacks and old, converted train carriages of Dungeness. I first came here as a little girl, all frizzy hair and boys’ clothes, I forget how old I actually was. All I knew was this: Dungeness felt like Mars. Or how I expected some distant alien planet to feel: obscure, wordless and enormous. So big it felt, so much bigger than Granny’s attic or Mum’s van, both I felt were pretty large. No one told me if you took a little steam train over the marshlands and wildflower fields of Hythe, New Romney and all the other little towns - places where you slipped behind the back-gardens of folk who waved and smiled at tourists all day long – you would find yourself somewhere new. Nothing is new these days or maybe nothing was ever really new, but this place always feels like someone just pulled off the plastic and went ta-dah! And you wonder how long it was suffocating before they gave it that air again.
It is a mass of shingle and sea-cabbages, of shanty shacks, cockle-shell gardens and twisted gorse bushes. The wind is too strong for any tree, so for miles all you can see is yellow and green flatland, dotted with abandoned sheds and rotting boats like some artistic birthday cake. No frosting though, living here is hard; there is very little in the way of employment unless you can get in with the tourist crowd or work at the power plant. Many of the older gents line the beach all day fishing, leaving the little fish to die on the beach rather than encourage the oily-black seals to haunt the coast. But those seal are feisty sorts and they know better than the retired, arthritic bones pitched up on shore. One pub is all the community needs. If I sit out on the porch in the evening, all I can smell is seaweed and bacon butties.
Tonight is different. I didn’t stay on the porch. I packed my bags, double checked my Will was safely stashed in my desk drawer and ate three boxes of luxury chocolate. Hell if this is going to be my last day on Earth, then I’m going to eat what I want and give every Weight Watchers advert in my magazines a big, chocolate-lipped grin. My Will leaves everything to a charity that saves rainforests. I have no family that would care for my meagre bank-balance but I know charities are always willing. I have two brothers, both decided to get jobs they don’t care about in order to get enough money to buy houses, wives and children they never see because they have to work so bloody hard. And Daddy thought this lifestyle was a good choice, but Mum wanted something different for her little girl though. Adventure? I sure had that and what happened broke her heart. I’d ask her now, but bones tend not to talk to you unless you are into some witchy voodoo stuff.
The front door closes with a bang and I bolt upright. I hear the fridge open and close in the kitchen, the rattle of mayonnaise jars and half-used pasta sauces shuddering through the floorboards. The same thing is always missing the morning: the honey pot. It’s local stuff, pure, gold and gooey. Until I learnt to set up a little camera in the kitchen, I thought Winnie-the-Pooh had been raiding my fridge. The jar would be nestled in the roots of my tree – the only tree in the whole of Dungeness - and it would always be empty. She had a sweet tooth.
I roll back the duvet and put my slippers on, the last present from Erl. I wonder what he would have thought of my own isolated castle, the rooms I have used to hide from the world. They aren’t as grand as his, but they feel more homely. Erl had used his rooms as a prison, protecting the world from him rather than himself from the world. I wish we had continued to write to each other, it was my fault we stopped. I couldn’t shake the idea that he wanted more. We never knew what the ‘more’ could be, but it was certainly more than we had or got.
I hear feet pattering on the kitchen’s warped, wooden floor as I reach the stairs. Everything is polished, even the bannisters and photo-frames. I had an estate agent round yesterday, showing people the place. They liked all the sea-wood furniture I had made, the smell of paprika in the kitchen as I slow roasted tomatoes; the low piano solo on the gramophone, one of Erl’s earlier presents. I told them they could have it all, even the tomatoes. I wouldn’t need any of this soon.
I stop at the bottom of the stairs. We are both straining to listen, waiting for the other to make a move. We don’t have to see each other to know that. I wish this could be a happy reunion, my darling, my daughter.
I pick up the axe I had tucked behind the umbrella stand, hold it behind my back and walk into the kitchen.
The signet’s neck was broken in two places. I had no training or veterinary knowledge, but when my fingers massaged the bones, I felt two little vertebras pressing awkwardly up against the grey-fluff of the skin. The dull black eyes stared up into the thunder clouds. I shushed Pansy – our five-year old Irish Wolfhound – away from the dead bird. Dad had already fed Pansy three left-over pieces of garlic bread, no need to add bones and a beak on top of that.
I put one foot on the lead and rolled the signet into my baggy jumper, another hand-me-down from Ben, my eldest brother by six years. I looked around us, worried someone might be watching. A swan sanctuary lake had been built between the council estate and the grey-green Carter’s Wood, where I walked Pansy twice a day because no one else would walk her. If someone had shot a swan or it had been poisoned from ‘road runoff’ into the rivers or something else, it would live in one of the recovery lakes. One of these recovery areas had been built right there by the tower blocks, full of squawking, horse swans that swum and shat all day long.
Some had babies while staying there, or some flew in and roosted. It wasn’t uncommon for some of the local kids to find a way in there and try to steal a baby. I had found a few signets before, but mostly that was the foxes’ work and I considered it none of my business to take away a foxes’ supper. It had cubs of its own most likely. But this one had been tortured with a cigarette lighter and some Daddy’s pincers, the signet’s feet were blistered and its wings bloody from snipping. I found the empty lighter near the trash bin.
Pansy whined at my heels as we walked further into the woods, which stretched on and up over the hills for a good many miles. I never counted them. I had a treehouse further up the hill. I had learnt early on you didn’t built any of those big treehouses all the posh kids had or anything so obvious that the graffiti gangs could find it. There were too many trees with stunted yellow cocks painted onto them already. No you had to be subtle, hide things in the boughs so no one could see anything from below. The local kids soon found out that Yew berries made you sick too, so I choose my tree on purpose.
When we got there, the rain had started to fall and I tied Pansy up under the Yew Tree so she could shelter under the biggest branch. I cradled the signet with one hand and sprung myself up into the tree with the other. I had always been a lanky, long-limbed girl, my hair cut so short that I could pass myself off as a boy without any trouble at all. I had none of that girly glamor Mum had so wanted me to have. I despised make-up, which pissed her off even more. At sixteen, unless some miracle growth spurt popped breasts out of my chest, I was stuck – and happy – looking like a boy.
I snuggled down into the tree, a great, crooked gnarly thing that reminded me of the arthritic grandma in The Godfather up the road from us, all wrinkles and stiff limbs. I placed the signet in the crook of the tree and started going through the dustbin bags I had hooked inside the boughs. I kept them small and tough, so the birds wouldn’t get themselves into mischief. One month a while back I had spent all my pocket-money on those industrial-strength dustbin bags from B&Q, which also meant I could hide bigger things if I wanted to. I found the bag I wanted and pulled out a shovel, getting a whiff of earth and damp.
I took the signet and I back to the ground and started digging, which had to be done some way from the Yew due to the roots. Three stick-crosses rose out of the ground next to a rogue rhododendron bush, where I had ‘planted’ three previous animals into the ground. I wasn’t a religious girl, but crosses were the only thing that kept the youths from digging things back up. They weren’t ever sure if it was some serial-killers burial site or a cursed part of the wood and were too silly to know better. You had to dig a deep grave, otherwise a dog or fox would just undo your work. The badger had been the hardest one, as it had been a very big sort so needed a big hole. But the car that had struck it had opened up its belly, which was full of unborn pups. I had to shovel the mother in, then place her babies one by one in her paws, before burying them.
The signet would be easy. It must have been only a few weeks old, so it took me about thirty minute to dig to the right kind of level. Pansy watched on, giving me the evil eye, asking me why I liked to put good food in the ground. Dad had bought Pansy as a pup, hoping to train it up as a guard dog. But Pansy turned out to be such a bloody coward that Dad made her into a garbage disposal instead, which I groaned quietly about. You didn’t argue with Dad if you wanted your pocket-money and Mum didn’t care about the dog. I took a shine to her and liked our walked, especially as she came up to my ribs and could scare any randy boy away. That would be the only time she got fierce, when someone wanted to scare me. She sensed it and I hoped the boy could bloody well run. I liked girls anyway, not that I told my family that. Another reason I think Mum wanted to feminize me, maybe she suspected something wasn’t quite as straight as she wanted. I can’t even dig a straight, square grave.
Haley Jenkins holds a Creative Writing Master's Degree from The University of Surrey and a Creative Writing Bachelor's Degree from The University of Roehampton. In 2016, Haley was awarded First Prize in the Elmbridge Literary Competition for her short story 'Talisman' and in 2014 won 3rd Prize in the Hopkins Poetry Prize. She has been published in two anthologies by Fincham Press - The Trouble with Parallel Universes (2014) and Screams & Silences (2015), as well as publications such as, Guttural Magazine, Tears in the Fence, painted spoken and The Journal of British & Irish Innovative Poetry. Her work has also appeared in online zines such as datableedzine, epizootics and ez.Pzine (Pyre Publishing). Haley's first poetry chapbook was published by Veer Books (August 2017). She also runs Selcouth Station Press.