Monday, September 6, 2010

Lady of the Marshland

Teddy Keller had a friend. Her name was Alice Mason. He was eight, she was ten. She lived two doors down the shanty row by the tracks. When Teddy wondered why she played with him, that fact, being his neighbor, seemed as good a reason as any. She was, he thought, rather pretty for a girl, though she liked to dress rough and wear her hair under an old watch cap and run hard and be tough like the boys in their school. She even tried to be a bully when she first met Teddy. But he just laughed and refused to play and so she gave that up. It was only an experiment anyway, she told him.

They walked the sedge by the tracks on Saturdays, out toward the marsh opposite the yards, away from town, trading urban scruff for barren sandy flats with mud pits and the odd grove of poplars and willows, where their imagination could stretch and there was room to run. There, she quickly assumed the role of Queen Alice, Lady of the Marshland. This meant Teddy had to be her squire and run imaginary errands for her, which he tried until he tired of being told what to do. From then on, he was The Invader, bent on breaking through her defenses and crushing her armies. He liked doing this and however clever Alice thought she was being in countering his offensives, he always found a way to break through, which usually meant tackling her directly and throwing her into the gorse, which he declared her prison. She would scream in protest and giggle as he tried to pin her shoulders to the ground. Then he would insist she shout "Give!", which she refused to do until, finally, she did. Then the game seemed over and he would release her, with promises of peace in the land, to which she would agree. Then they would play castle, with he the prince and she the princess, with their father, the King, being off waging war on the Persians or perhaps visiting kings in surrounding countries. Alice would then declare her intention to hold grand tea parties for visiting grandees while Teddy spent his time nearby but not quite in the castle, jousting with his cavalry. Then dusk and their stomachs signaled time to walk back home. This too seemed a good time for Teddy, because they could be who they really were, and talk about school and other friends and how things might be when they grew up.

"Mum says I might work in Aunt Fergie's china shop in town next summer," said Alice. Spring was well on them with showers and sprinkles and mists. They sat in the doorway of Teddy's da's tool shed and looked out over the network of steel tracks in the switch yard beyond the rusted steel fence that bordered his parent's property.

"What would you do?"

"Dunno. Dust things probably. I don't want to go. Sounds boring to me," she said.

"We could still play, right?"

"Suppose," she said. Then, "I might just run away though."

Teddy thought about that. "Where to?"

"Dunno. Maybe up to Swansea. Da took me there with him once. There's lots of ships. I could go anywhere."

Teddy looked out over the noisy, smelly train yards. "Can I go too?"

"Do what you like," Alice said, sniffing a little. It was her Queen voice, dismissing the trivial thoughts of a vassal.

"Well I might do anyway," Teddy said, standing up suddenly. "I could take a train, be there before you are, you know."

"As you wish." Alice stood up too, rubbing her knees and brushing dust and cobwebs from her jeans, looking bored and restless. "But what can we do today?"

"We could go over the yard. Look in empty box cars," said Teddy.

"You know we aren't meant to go in the yard," said Alice, but there was a glint in her eyes.

* * *

A year later, plus a little, late spring when school was let out, Teddy and Alice met again at the fence by the train yard. They had played together less this last year. Teddy wondered why. "Mum is making me stay in and do things," Alice said. "She says I have to learn to work, to make money. I don't like it. I don't like it a bit." She said this with a tone Teddy couldn't remember hearing before. Something, a catch in her voice, the pitch a little different from what he was used to, made him feel strange.

"You're out now, right? We can have fun. It's almost summer."

"No. Mum arranged it with my aunt. I'm meant to go work in her shop this summer." Alice dropped to a crouch, arms wrapped around her knees, head on her arms. Teddy could see tears. He'd seen Alice cry before, but it had always been tears of pain from a scrape. This was something else. "I'll have to wear a dress and proper socks and shoes and everything. I'll have to scrub myself and be on time every morning. It's horrible! I don't want to do it!"

Teddy didn't know what to say, so he crouched by her side, silent as a sentinel, waiting for her mood to change. Finally Alice stood up, wiping her nose on her jacket sleeve. "I'm going. Don't follow me, okay? I just want to be by myself for a while."

To Ted's surprise, she didn't turn toward the narrow lane in front of their houses. She turned to the fence and slipped through the hidden gate they had made for themselves long ago. Ted watched her silently as she walked over tracks in the direction of the overpass, away from the switching house. She started to run. He watched, trembling with worry as she finally disappeared behind a line of box cars.

It was the last time he was ever to see Alice.

12 comments:

  1. Some wonderful sights and sounds in this one; the varied use of senses put me in this story.

    The dialogue surprised me. That showed a reality about Alice that her friend was too young to understand, yet "related" to the reader in a way that proved one of those hard, hard truths of being an adult; some people are born with certain burdens and handicaps, and have to be extra strong to break away from them.

    I hope Alice was able to overcome her heritage; I commend the writer for showing, not telling (even though the story was sort of a 'tell'). That was an incredible fine line to balance, and you succeeded.

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  2. I love this: 'Then he would insist she shout "Give!", which she refused to do until, finally, she did.' It's just so exactly this age, this kind of fight.

    Such a sad ending to childhood. I wish they'd found each other again. Well written.

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  3. pegjet and Jen: thanks much for the comments. The story is a bit of a tell, admittedly. Quite the challenge to play out enough of their childhood to show the relationship, create the bond and the sympathy, then get to the moment of Change, all in so short a story. I'm still struggling with this form. But, you know. How you get to Carnegie Hall. Cheers.

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  4. Monday is bright and early for #fridayflash!

    I thought her "Queen voice" was a Freddie Mercury impression for a moment. Shows where my head is.

    That was a sad end to the childhood.

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  5. Thanks for the comment John. Freddie Mercury by a ten year old. You're funny.

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  6. I don't think of it as a sad end to a childhood. It was just an end. The only end Alice could have, really.

    And yes, flash fiction is a very hard form in which to tell a story. Thing is, you don't have to tell it all. Much can be hinted at.

    There are places you could have tightened, but it's a good story that shows the bitter-sweetness of impending adulthood chasing away the carefree life of a "Queen."

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  7. Thanks much Marisa. Very encouraging.

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  8. Thanks Ablissa! This story, or some version of it, is a candidate for opening chapter of the novel.

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  9. I think it's a good opening chapter candidate.

    And also, I just wanted to follow up on Marisa's comment about how it's not a sad ending to childhood, and just... an end, of which I agree. Of course it only means there's a another beginning just around the corner.

    And friendships, but particularly childhood friendships can feel abrupt similar to your ending. I attribute it to the fact that it's because we didn't really have a hand in making those decisions.

    I think there is enough mystery there to leave it open to a lot of different scenarios.

    :)

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  10. Perceptive comment, Ablissa, and encouraging. I can tell already that this story, if it continues, will take me somewhere I had not anticipated. It is about endings (and beginnings) and hints at regret and maybe even guilt for Ted.

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  11. Growing up really is sh*t isn't it?

    Reading this brings home the transition from what we had, to what we are facing, as we learn the realities of adulthood.

    I think most people, looking back, can relate some of this story to their younger selves.

    Very well written.

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