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Lying in bed last night I felt fingers reach in, grabbing. I opened in spite of myself as you clawed me with your fingernails, flattened, panicked. Split throat, iron tongue, white masks ranged overhead, the rings on their fingers scraping me as they reached in to take you.

I wanted to break my shoulder blades open with wings and fly off, but I couldn’t move, even though my bones were splintering as they clawed the life out of us, me and you. My mouth was full of metal, I saw a flood, not a red sea but a rush of sunflower yellow, washing around us all: blood on my tongue, eyes stinging with that hospital shade.

I woke up, and you rolled inside me.

But the dream I told Aunt about was the other one, where a stranger stole you. I was eating lemon cake in a restaurant, glanced out the window and saw a woman passing by with a pram, and by the time I got outside she’d disappeared. I ran to stop a group of people, and they said, “What did she look like?” but I couldn’t say. Time was running out to catch her, and I couldn’t say.

Aunt just said, “I can’t remember the last time I had a lemon cake. I don’t think I’ve had a lemon cake since before the war.”

We were on the veranda, and my cousin Nic came out to join us. As she stepped out, I saw Aunt’s eyes go to her; with the light behind her, Nic radiated blondness. She smelled faintly of sweat.

Aunt said, “Well, imagine letting someone steal a baby; but you were always absent-minded.”

“Me?” said Nic.

“No, darling; her.”

I drank the lemonade. When I took a sip, you kicked; I wondered if you liked the taste, or were pushing against the tartness.

Fallowmere is the scene of my childhood holidays. I’ve fallen out with Daddy, and, being an only daughter, had nowhere much else to go. It’s remote, but don’t we like it, just us three—four? Aunt, Nic, me and you. Well, don’t forget Iris, who comes in to keep house. A lovely, rambling stone house, thatched roof for starlings and skylight for stars.

Lovely gardens, too. The only trouble is the heat: unnaturally dry days without a drop of rain. We are worried about the harvest. Sometimes I wonder, too, if I’ve perhaps said something wrong without intending to. But sometimes I can be silly, so I suppose it’s my fault.

“Nic, has Iris finished making the picnic?”

“I shall go and tell her,” said Nic, turning on her heel.

And you enjoyed the picnic, didn’t you? Bread rolls, hard-boiled eggs, jam tarts with cream. I was still light enough on my feet that I chased Nic downhill, caught her, and we were both laughing … Aunt wasn’t happy! She was worried I’d take a tumble and do you in.

“Oh dear, Claire, you should go to bed, you’re frightfully hot. Caught the sun?”

“Too much rich food,” said Nic. “I’m lucky I don’t have to watch my figure.”

“You and me both, dear,” said Aunt.

I lay in bed and watched wasps pour in at the window: one, two, three, four, like soldiers marching in black and yellow uniform. They vanished. I rolled over, dreaming the day away.

But wasn’t it a funny coincidence, that was the afternoon Aunt and Nic found the ants in the pantry. I overheard them saying the ants were simply pouring in and how had they got there? They’d got all into the flour, the ham pie, the blancmange, the powdered milk, and had done themselves in on the stickiness around the edges of the jam jar.

Oh dear, poor Nic—crying again!

She ordered me to go away, so I returned to my bedroom. Aunt had gone out now. Presently, I heard footsteps down the hallway, the stairs, into the front parlour, and the metallic twinge of a finger on a dial. Nic was telephoning a friend.

“… Lecturing me about getting married again … And the ants … I can’t stand it, dear—”

Oh dear, poor Nic! And loud. I could hear her voice as if she was inside me: clear, dense and close.

“I just don’t see how a fat, ugly old dyke like that can get herself up the duff, and I can’t.” I sat up slowly. She began to laugh. “Well, she picked a chap who doesn’t care what his girls look like …” More laughter. “She doesn’t deserve a baby. I tell you she doesn’t.”

I lay down again. I laid my hand on you.

Nic’s father was blown up at Gallipoli. He was always unlucky, so I remember not being terribly surprised when it happened. Went out for a smoke and trod on a mine, they said. Her husband was an RAF captain, looked marvellous in his uniform. I know she was dreadfully cut up when he went down, somewhere over the Black Forest—a ball of flame, someone told me, not a speck of him left. But the subject has never come up between us. Just as I’ve never mentioned Joe to her.

No one has ever asked me about marriage or chaps or anything like that, which used to make me feel rather cross sometimes, as if I had some impediment that everyone was pretending not to notice. When I said I was up the duff, you should have seen everyone’s faces! “Her? No!”

But then they said I should have fought harder for Joe instead of letting him leave, and in a few moments I was back to being an improper woman again: hard lines, honestly.

Anyway, Nic … I saw Nic when she was engaged, May ’39, I think, and the next time we met she was a widow. Very odd. We were still so young then.

Anyhow, I was feeling better, so I went to the pantry to help Iris. She was kneeling on the floor with a white wrap on her head, like someone out of Vermeer. Poor Iris, with that birthmark. Aunt told me her relations gave her up because of it, cut her off without a penny. Sounds like a rotten lot. But then her younger sister came for her, and now they both live in a house in the village.

To remove ants, you must mix up a concoction of vinegar and water and wipe down the floor with it, and the shelves. By the time I’d finished helping her, we both stank of the stuff, but it settled my mind. I’d no concerns about Nic. Her words had been a dream, like the wasps. I exchanged a quick smile with Iris and went off to play Halma with Aunt, but she just wanted to ask about Mr Winscombe again.

Nic got into a bother because the ants came back. We couldn’t work out how it had happened, but they marched into the kitchen, flew up on the gridded window until it was black, and coated the floor. The joint of lamb was a charred lump, crawling off the bone-china plate.

The ants brought a funny sour smell, as if all the food had turned.

Mr Winscombe, the solicitor, arrived and gassed them with a special treatment: Secto DDT. “Better than your old vinegar,” said Nic, and she twisted Iris’s ear until I ordered her to stop.

The house has a mezzanine: walking out from my bedroom, I could see across the downstairs parlour to the front door. The smell of insecticide hung in the air, a pale mist. Nic and Aunt floated into the library, not seeing me; they often joked I moved about the house like a ghost. Nic says she can’t see how I’m so big yet so light on my feet. I could hear them as the library door was half open.

“Oh, Mummy, this heat … Look, what colour hat do you think I should knit? Blue or pink?”

“Well, how about this pink? Very soft. Won’t it be exciting, dear? Won’t it be fun?”

It was a bad idea to bring up the hat; I mentioned overhearing about it at breakfast, and Nic took offence. I said, “I tell you I’ve had enough of you, Nic.”

“Claire! Don’t snap at Nicola, it’s bad for the baby.”

I took myself out into the stable-yard. By the white chalk marks that had measured our heights, I leaned my head on the wall, imagining the ghosts of horses.

I’d forgotten how old I was for a moment.

It’s sometimes easy to do: if one goes to the doctor, for instance, one must be assertive, otherwise he speaks to you like an infant, but not so assertive as to make a scene. When had I last felt like a grown-up? With my Joe. And once his name got into my head, it banged about like a trapped wasp, and I began to feel stung.

Mr Winscombe’s car pulled up, and I greeted him as he hurried inside, like a shiny, two-legged black beetle. When Aunt called me in to the library, Mr Winscombe had spread out a piece of paper, and had a fountain pen in hand. We talked about the village; Winscombe said the tramp had been seen again walking across a cornfield, carrying a lump of raw meat in one hand.

“Do you remember we talked about wills, dear?”

My heart sank. Again?

“I’ve asked Mr Winscombe to help you draw up a will.”

“Aunt, I’m only twenty-six. I don’t want to draw up a will.”

“Well, you don’t want to be landed in hot water like my mother.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

Aunt drew me to one side. “Your grandmother didn’t leave a will before she topped herself, and look what happened. Well, I mean to say, we grew up without a mother. Now, it was different in those days, but Grandmother simply didn’t take precautions beforehand, that’s all, and you don’t want to do that, do you?”

As I hadn’t been told about any of this before, including the topping herself, I said nothing.

Mr Winscombe chuckled. “Come, dearie, it won’t take long at all. It’s simply in case anything goes wrong, as you wouldn’t want to leave the baby with nothing, would you?”

“I suppose not,” I said, sitting down at the other side of the desk, folding my hands over my stomach. “But since I won’t die, it’s immaterial.”

I was rather pleased that both of them winced at the word “die,” and surprised at myself for saying it. Aunt usually says “shuffle off.”

Aunt said, “You never know what will happen, do you? Your uncle, for instance. He—”

Mr Winscombe cut her off. “Well, have a look at this example, dear, then I shall dictate to you.”

Aunt went to make tea, and I read the example will, and Winscombe was so businesslike, so reasonable that in my mind, I began to tell you what was happening: I’m reading a will. I’m making a will. It’s simply in case anything goes wrong. My eyes fell on the windowsill, noticing a black mark. But it wasn’t black: it was a wasp, upside down in its handsome yellow jacket. I noted its wispy little legs. I remembered the strength in my own legs, in my spine, in my arms. I pictured myself supine like the wasp, drying out in the sun, frizzed to brown. I looked down at the paper.

“Well, dear, shall we make a start? ‘I, Claire Sands, being of sound mind and body.’”

I wrote the words as if automatically. The sun fell behind him. “I …” The pen blotted. “Bother—must get you a new sheet of paper.”

As soon as he’d turned his back, I glided out of the library without closing the door.

I’ve stopped confiding my dreams to Aunt. I can only tell them to my diary, in shorthand.

A swarm of wasps down there, stinging in floods of shock and pain.

Me—split down the middle by a twitching black thing, dripping, a leg, child size, the fine hairs on it twitching.

You, sliding out of me, a block of meat covered in flies.

Between sleep and waking, I begin to wonder if you are human. But then I feel the kick inside again, and know that you are, you are.

It’s said about Aunt in the village that she’s an old Victorian, perfectly nice until crossed. I seemed to have crossed her even before the will business, but now she barely speaks to me, and when she does it’s through Nic. Through her sulks, complaints, and tears, I have simply made my face stony: refused to make a will.

It’s my birthday soon, and I don’t relish the idea of spending it practically alone, but at least there will be Iris. We’ve been talking about leaving, going somewhere. Honolulu, I joke. Canada, she suggests. The last time, I began to laugh so hard that I couldn’t stand up straight … Then I pointed out the window at the long road, the silent fields. “My money’s all tied up in the account, and Daddy controls that now. How could we go to Canada? There’s nowhere to go,” I said, gasping for breath, then floods of laughter.

I told Iris more than I meant to; at first I thought it was your usual play, back of the school gymnasium sort of thing, but now I don’t know because things seem to be changing quickly. And I’m surprised because I didn’t think I was one of those people, but I suppose I am, so perhaps Nic was right.

Yesterday afternoon the heat snapped and torrents of rain fell. Aunt and Nic had gone to see Winscombe, so we went to my bedroom, sat against the wall, my head in the crook of her shoulder. I began to say some foolish things and start to explain about my dreams and Aunt and Nic, and I was surprised because she listened rather tenderly. I said, “You know how they lock the door when they go out. It all feels rather hopeless, doesn’t it?”

Iris’s fingers in mine; she helped me up on my bed, she comforted me. Silently we began to kiss. We invented a new language. Slow, fast, over and over, I tasted the sweet softness of her, I tasted the heat of a midsummer sun, and she kissed me because words are not enough, not at all.

But after that I remember she said, hesitantly, how she likes the size and shape of me. And I began to laugh, because I can’t imagine the honourable Joe ever saying that. Your father was a socialist, high-minded, you see—told me he judged women on their minds, not their looks.

You couldn’t get Joe on the subject of the body; he never spoke about being drunk, hungry, tired, or wanting it. With his lack of weaknesses, he might as well have been a head in a jar.

If pushed to return to earth and comment on my appearance, he’d laugh briefly and say I had a vivacious face, pretty eyes, and no man worth his salt minded a bit of meat on the bones—that sort of thing. I can’t picture him and Iris in the same room.

But Iris was in an earnest mood and wanted to know what we should do. So we lay for a long time trying to plan, earnestly, but it was impossible. We were lost at every hurdle: money, food, a car, the matter of her sister. But she planned harder than I did with nothing to play for, whilst I, I must admit, froze up rather and ended up trying to make light of it all.

Impossible to plan because I was thinking of you, only. Yes, I’d rather die here than starve somewhere else. But it’s more than that: looking into the future and seeing what might happen, I simply freeze. Impossible to run, now, mind fogged, hard to pick away at the layers of what was said when in order to deduce their plan. I see faint images: Aunt, fitting a hat on my baby’s head as Winscombe watches. Nic, my baby in her arms. The three of them—no, no, no—posing for a photograph … But so difficult now to think not just beyond today, but beyond this moment. I need help.

“I will think of something,” I said, to please her. “I will try.”

Goodness, at lunchtime I came downstairs to a feast. A great cream and jam cake dominated the table, dusted with white flour. Around it were ranged plates of seed-cake, scones, fairy cakes, Chelsea buns and cinnamon rolls. In amongst them stood the jam-pot and the teapot. The cups and plates jostled for space. Above it all presided Aunt and Winscombe, smiling. I could smell his pint of beer across the room.

“Happy birthday!”

I sat down with a bump.

“Don’t you like your surprise? Eat something.”

“Yes, eat up. Isn’t this fun?” Nic cut me a piece of seed-cake and placed it on a blue and white plate, and she leaned over to place it in front of me. Her necklaces tumbled in my face, and I closed my eyes, imagining being blinded by a bead.

“Happy birthday. Twenty-nine, isn’t it? How exciting!”

As I pushed the fork into the cake, something moved. It exploded into a sea of legs and wings, turning, buzzing, hard and shiny, black and yellow, vile dots, a swarm.

“Nic—Nic. Ants and wasps, all through this seed-cake!”

Nic jumped back, turned pale, hand to throat, then began to laugh. “Ugh, oh dear, they must have come in again—hard luck.”

“Look at that, crawling with the little buggers.”

Aunt said, “Is that your birthday surprise?”

We all laughed at Aunt’s joke, and they tried to force me to eat it. I said, “No, no,” then kept my mouth shut, even though Nic pushed the willow-patterned plate against my teeth.

But they grew bored. Aunt said I couldn’t join in a joke, that I was manipulating them and spoiling my party. Winscombe said, “A bit of protein never hurt anybody.” And as if I had dared them, acting as one without consulting each other, they crammed the ants and wasps into their cakeholes, Aunt and Nic and Mr Winscombe, scooping up spoonfuls and handfuls of cake, spraying crumbs, cheeks bulging, bent double, cracking up, going to pieces. They began to cough, to choke, to spit out pieces of wing and leg. Shards of seeds flew, tears ran, skin blushed to blue until their heads fell down, one by one, side by side, with the insects trickling in and flying out of their mouths and noses.

It was really rather funny.

And I remember that sour smell as the beer dripped down to the floor, the clock striking twelve in the hall as Iris came in, and how she stood there in her white apron, clenching and unclenching her fists as she promised she wouldn’t say a word, not a word to anyone. And all the time, darling, you kicked and kicked … !

Jay is a writer from the UK, currently undertaking a Master’s degree in Victorian Studies with focus on the queer Welsh Victorian writer Amy Dillwyn. Interested in individuality, death, queerness, neurodivergence, automatons, animals, places, and others.
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