artwork for Christopher James's short story

Christopher James

We’d been drinking and were still drinking and we met them on the night bus and they also had been and still were too, and in that moment it felt like a meeting of like minds. They were four. One was setting fire to the curly hair of the girl in front of them and we didn’t like that and we had words but then we understood it was just a joke and we laughed and loved them and invited them back to ours to continue drinking. Plus they said they had coke and we’d run out and we had some bottles of something and they didn’t fancy finding an off-license open at that hour.

You know, I told them, because I’d only found out myself that night and I was telling everyone, ostriches don’t really stick their heads in the sand when they’re scared. But they didn’t talk to me that much. Mostly they chatted with my boyfriend. Outside, it rained, and thundered, and lightninged. A half-drowned cat ran in front of the bus and almost got whacked, then darted under a fence and disappeared. Which reminded me of something.

Before I moved London-ways I lived with Bobby and Zara in Fort William near Aonach Beag (the mountain), and Water of Nevis (the river). Mountains let rivers, like skies let lightning, like I let other people, go wherever they want. I followed the river to its source, past several false starts. I put my mouth to the spring and drank freely, and urged Bobby to do the same, knowing Zara would hate me for it when she found out, knowing exactly what it meant. That was ages ago.

The guys on the bus came to our house. It was fun for a while. They told us our music was shit and we played something different and they said “Stones?! Love that!” and we were happy to find more things we shared with each other. Three of them were skinhead boys, mid-20s. One a girl, 18, and she had a tattoo of six balloons on her neck, which she said her uncle had given her to teach her a lesson after she’d fallen asleep drunk in a party full of men.

If it looks like they’ve got their heads in the sand, I tried to explain, they’re probably looking for food or turning eggs around.

I could argue Bobby was the one to suggest it. He was the one to start undressing, to fold his clothes neatly on a rock, his back red with cold, stripping to his bare bottom before he turned to invite me to do the same. And I could argue I didn’t even do that. I left my sweater on, left my black jeans on, rolled down to my thighs. A helicopter flew above us, meaning someone had gotten themselves lost, and the pilots must have seen Bobby’s thrusting bottom.

“What lesson was he teaching you?” I asked the girl, touching her neck.

“Shit,” she said. “You know. I love my uncle.”

Later, when we wanted to go to bed because we had work the next day, they wanted to keep partying. We stayed up a little longer, to be polite, but they wouldn’t leave.

“Shall we just go to bed?” I asked my boyfriend, hoping he would kick them out.

“I don’t want to leave them here unsupervised,” he said.

“Can I just go to bed?” I asked.

“Ten more minutes,” he said. “Please?”

I’d told Bobby to tell Zara what we’d done, regardless of whether he wanted to do it again or not, but we didn’t expect her to run out crying, into the freezing night, wearing nothing but her nightie. Not even socks or shoes.

We followed her out, holding torches, where it was pitch black. Only one road, which we followed. Since she was looking not to be found, we didn’t call her name, except for occasionally when the silence was too loud. We swung the torch beams over the sides of the road in case she was hiding.

This is your fault, Bobby said, which was not right, but which I believed. Zara! I shouted.

Twice I tripped and fell, drawing blood. Once Bobby picked me up, and once he didn’t. She’s not here, he complained. I didn’t say anything, but kept going.

Several miles later we reached the Water of Nevis and Bobby saw something in his pathetic torch light. She’s in the water, he said. It could’ve been anything, though, really. The water was moving over it, around it, disturbed but not stopped by it. The sound of the river stayed the same. She’s not moving, he said. We stood there for a minute, then Bobby switched off his torch and walked towards the water. I switched off my own torch, and ran to London.

The girl with balloons tattooed on her neck ended up falling asleep on our table, her skirt hiked up around her hips and an empty bottle of wine crushed between her thighs. I lie on the table sometimes, too. The wood picks up my heartbeat and it feels like I’m with someone. Though I doubt that’s what the girl was about. The boys she was with wanted to draw pins pricking the balloons on her neck and my boyfriend was searching for a pen.

“We’ll do this and then they’ll leave,” he promised me.

I never learned what happened to Zara, and I don’t know what happened to the girl because I went to bed alone, but a few minutes later I heard six loud bangs, like the whole world was ending. I’ve lived in the Scottish empty-lands and I’ve lived in London. I already know the world ending.

Before passing out, the girl had wanted to know, What do they do when they’re scared, then? Ostriches.

Probably attack, my boyfriend said.

Either that, I said, or they run away.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 48 | The Shame Issue | Spring/Summer 2016