“Sketch in ‘D’ Minor” – a short story by Estelle Phillips

August 4th, 2022

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“Sketch in ‘D’ Minor,” a story by Estelle Phillips, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 60th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author

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photo via pixy.org

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Sketch In ‘D’ Minor 

by Estelle Phillips

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…..My mother used to take me here. It’s different in the dark; the metal frames lurk like gallows and the railings remind me of prison bars. I don’t remember her pushing me in the bucket seat, but I believe she did. I do remember the big girls’ swing: hours and hours we spent. She took the seat beside me; we leant and pulled together, stretched pointed toes, forwards and backwards, rising and falling, higher and higher, hands gripped on chains and our bottoms lifting as we peaked. I pick at the paint on a rusted spear and nick my finger. Blood trickles onto my palm. I lick it off and the taste is metallic, as if my flesh is made from city. Perhaps the city took over, where my mother left off.

…..  It’s Wednesday. This corner is where I start. The travelling, the hiding, and arriving are all right; it’s the afterwards I hate. I’m off to see Gran. Did she ever push my mother on swings? Thick, black flakes collect on my toes until my nail tears, and I stop. The binder flattening my chest digs under my armpit and I windmill my arm backward, elongating my breast. It’s time to go. I tuck my locket under my hoodie where its glint can’t give me away, double knot my laces, and jump; nothing rattles in my rucksack. Rank air wafts out from the tunnel – that’s the way to Granny’s, or “Gran” as she’s become.

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…..        The tarmac’s giving back a bounce. I splash through shallow puddles and spatter droplets that chime the notes of a triangle; music lessons in the assembly hall and Mum waiting at the school gates, holding an iced bun in a paper bag; the pang of disappointment, when it came out bald. It feels historic, but was only five years ago.

…..     I set off slow and warm to the groove; shadows tower and shrink; bricks become concrete, become tiles, become windows, lit from the inside and revealing lives, or reflecting buildings as changing shapes in dizzy arrays of colourful lights. Sometimes I glimpse myself, a hooded runner traversing the City. I’m dressed for the night, all in black except the soles of my treads, and they are oxblood red. This is my domain and I hum the Chili Peppers song, “the City is my friend.”  So long as you’re moving, you’re okay. You don’t stop where I’m going, especially if you took a shortcut.

…..        I’ve worked on being invisible, and I’m not scared of other frat kids; the older ones don’t bother with me, except for Sabre; he’s Gran’s right hand since his dad got canned. Sabre’s promotion has gone to his head and he takes satisfaction along with payment, however much they beg. I’ve noticed his lips part at the sight of me, but Gran won’t have told him who I am – her dough’s too precious for a bint to be handling it. The irony is her cakes were the best; her chocolate chip had rocks of chocolate, not measly bits. Word is, that’s how she began; took a cake to the chef before her, pleading for her daughter.

…..           Mum’s getting worse; her mattress springs squeak when she hugs her pillow at night, and sobs herself to sleep. I get out of bed and stroke her hair.

…..        “Mum, it’s alright, I’m here.”  In reply, she mumbles his name. On Sundays, we used to go to his grave, but even that’s stopped. Plus, I’ve noticed her orders are getting bigger and she’s careless with her dose. Something needs to change, or my Mum is going to kill herself.

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…..        Provided I don’t stray, it’s safe. I’m allowing myself to detour tonight, the first time for a month, and notes bunch in the back of my head anticipating their escape. I come off the designated route, jog down a corridor between patches, tack up the lane and enter Herne Hill station by the passage without cameras. It’s waiting for me at the further end, painted black and plastered in graffiti. Notes jostle as I stroke the curved lid, lift it and sit. The black and white keys are warm under my skin, and I play hood down, trying my piece; it’s written in D minor, and finding its way; mourning hangs in the dampness and wends up the stairs. Not ten minutes have passed and two girls approach; I see them out of the corner of my eye and one’s pulling out a phone. The screech of the stool ricochets from wall to wall, and I leave.

…..       Fast and hard, my feet beat the street. I concentrate, building speed and pain, and run the music out of my brain.

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…..          There’s a new guy. Sabre’s brought him in and the minute I eyeball him, I sense he’s pagan. He sees Sabre notice me, and follows his leer. Swaggering close to smell his breath, I’m reading what his body lets, unease, or worse, excitement. There’s a creak at the back, and Gran shuffles in; muscles tense in the newbie’s neck and his fists ball, ever so slightly. I butt in,

…..       “Has he done his rites?” and Sabre swings on his heels to smack me. Gran hisses,

…..        “Red, this is Beech.” A faint lisp smoothens her voice with menace.

…..           I stare straight at him, insolent. He returns my look, and his soul breaks out: he’s told me too much and I’m sure; he’s not real.

…..      “Eager brat, Red is.” Sabre jabs deliberately; violence comes easier to me than it does any guy. Willingness to fight is the best disguise.

…..      Gran takes Mum’s dough between crooked digits; the tip of her thumbnail is yellow and ridged; it smothers the queen and blinds her eyes and only the regal chin is seen. Without counting the wad, Gran hands over the load; plastic crinkles reflect dim light, and Gran dismisses me early. In her sick way, she’s keeping me out of it.

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…..         Mum’s waiting, agitating. She watches the bag emerge from my rucksack. She doesn’t notice me, or ask after Gran, her own Mum. Not that I blame her for that. Gran lost the right to be asked about over decades of sidelining my Mum for her denigrate son – that’s Sabre’s Dad, and he was always bad, but Gran indulged him. They say him and Gran started in business by accident, but the more I think about it, the more it seems strange, that Sabre’s Dad was there with a strap, when the chef rejected my Gran’s home baked cake. It suits them to keep my Mum doped up.

…..         As I go to the kitchen, the belt cinches the skin of Mum’s arm, and her veins rise in protest against the needle. Scummy water sits in the sink, its surface gummed with congealed fat, which clings to the sides as the water runs out. I wash a mug and plates, make some tea and two sandwiches of bread and margarine, and go back to Mum. The syringe and packet are on the coffee table; its glass top is cracked and smeared by Mum’s tongue. She was proud when she bought that table. I must have been seven or eight and we sat cross-legged in front of it, eating fish fingers, and bumping elbows. Afterwards, we watched cartoons, I rested my cheek on her shoulder and she kissed my head; she smelt of soap and the flat was clean. Now, she’s sprawled on the sofa, head rolled back. I enter the room and she looks through a haze; being high numbs her misery. I leave her a sandwich. The clink of china touching glass quivers the sound of loss.

…..      “It’s for you, Mum.”

…..      “Are you going to school?” Mum’s gone.

…..    “Tomorrow, Mum, it’s the middle of the night.”

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…..             The piece is going round and round my head. It’s got to play out to finish itself. The last two Wednesdays, I’ve come earlier and hunched over the piano, searching for the ending while people scurried by.

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…..            At Gran’s, I steer away from Sabre and Beech, and stand deeper in the dinge. Beech acts like I’ve not come in. Sabre’s getting cocky, and the tip of his tongue darts between his parted lips; his instincts are spot on. Rumours are he’s got a new girl; as Sabre ages, they’re getting younger. I’ve not got bum fluff, and my voice is too high, if I get near him, bile fills my stomache, and my breasts ache in their binding. I can’t let Sabre scent my fear, and practice talking falsely low, shut my mouth, and build a rep for fists being my speech. Last week, just out of the corridor, and into Gran’s patch, another frat kid came at me; he was off, and I went in quick, left him out. If he’d got my hood down, it would have been over. The swelling in my hand took all week to go and scabs joined across my knucklebones. A crust opened up and red dripped, bright and beautiful; my fingers skidded on the ivory and I couldn’t mold the notes. It’s important not to leak.

…..            “You been slippin’, Red.” Someone’s reported me and Sabre lopes towards me but stalls the second Gran comes in. Something’s in the oven and I’m excluded, but Sabre and Beech are all over it.

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…..          The ending is teasing, and I stayed too long. Just out of the station, I trip and go flying. My tracksuit rips, my knees grate on road, and grit shreds my palms. I scrabble up to take off, but a hand grabs my shoulder, throws me back and yanks down my hood. A face appears. It’s Beech.

…..      “Hello, Ria.” Fuck.

…..      My lips dry, and eyelids freeze wide. The rounded spheres of Beech’s eyes fix over me; I see the glossy surface of his retina. “Give next week a miss.” I nod, not breathing. “Call this number for your Mum, say you got it off Beech.” He stuffs a tear of paper in my pocket, and leaves me winded on the pavement. Wall looms above, straight and strong and my hands crawl up its weathered bricks, reaching for the City.

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…..         I slide into the room, acting nonchalant. Sabre turns and sneers at me. There’s a new set of scales and the bulge of a strap in Sabre’s belt; maybe it’s his Dad’s. Gran comes in, and the atmosphere sharpens with a secret between them. Beech just stands, ignoring me; our earlier chat could have been a dream. Straight after Gran and I exchange, she signals I’m dismissed.

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…..          At the weekend, I go to a phone box. It smells of sex, and cards are pinned, advertising bodies. My feet trample greasy take away boxes, nudge between sticky tissues, and avoid a discarded condom. I fondle my locket and trace the reverse engraving.

…..      After, my hands are shaking, and the receiver drops, straining for the floor. I wrap both hands around its neck and carefully replace it. The door shuts heavily.

Instead of going home, I detour. Notes weave through the air and extend to an ending; I’m chained to the piano by melody, and my locket twists shards of shine on the ceiling as the music climbs to a crescendo.

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…..         Foreboding creeps in the dreary hallway. Suddenly frightened, my hands jitter the key. I step inside.

…..    Nothing stops the quiet.

…..     “Mum?”

…..    My voice cuts through air choked with burnt out flame.

…..     The flat is too still.

…..    My fingers trail the wall to the sitting room. She’s there, akimbo on the sofa, one foot embedded in the elephant cushion, and the other propped on the floor. Her right arm is slung behind her back, and her face turned away from the door; her left harm hangs out, stiff and elegant, and the tightened tourniquet digs in.

…..      “Mum?” I shout, kneeling.

…..        The weight of the needle jags its tip through a pinch of translucent skin. Her veins have flattened, surrendered their objection. I grab her face; it slumps towards me. Her eyes are partially open, but my mother does not see. I slap her face repeatedly, but my mother does not feel. I scream and pummel her chest; the needle jerks, and I rip it out. My mother does not bleed.

…..           I yank off the tourniquet and fling it to the floor. It lands under her hand, beside the receipt for bread and milk. The cost has been defaced; my mother’s writing loops over prices, curling her apology.

 

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Key

bint ……………………….female drugs mule

canned…………………..imprisoned

chef………………………..head of a gang

dough……………………..money, cash

frat kid……………………junior fraternity (gang) member

load…………………………drugs

pagan………………………an outsider (of a gang)

take satisfaction……..rape

strap………………………..gun

treads………………………trainers

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Estelle Phillips’ publications include the BBC (“Reaper”, “The Trapped Doe”, “Dragon Child” and “The Hand of Hazard”), Mslexia, A Rock And A Hard Place, Anti-Heroin Chic, The International Times, and Cult of Clio as well as The Financial Times, TLS, The Independent, 7 Days and Verge. Estelle’s debut poetry chapbook “Motherhoodlum” is forthcoming with Jawbone (August 2022). Estelle was long listed for the Yeovil Literary Prize and the Fish and Strands flash fiction prizes, shortlisted for the Ukraine Institute’s Writers Lab and is a slam winner. Her performances include the Royal Albert Hall (Hammer & Tongue national finalist ’21), the Nuffield Theatre, the John Hansard Gallery, Russell Cotes Museum, Anthroplay Theatre, and Salisbury Fringe.

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Click here  to read “Thrush” by Owen Duffy, the winning story in the 60th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

Click here  to read “His Second Instrument,” by Dave Wakely, the winning story in the 59th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

Click here  for information about the upcoming Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

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