Marlene awoke to the hot breath of summer on her face. The flowers on her curtains danced in front of the rising spotlight of the sun, swaying back and forth. She rolled over, rubbing her eyes – the gritty remnants of yesterday’s mascara dragged across her knuckles – and lay blinking up at the ceiling. The alarm clock radio clicked on.
“It’s Seven-Thirty AM and a day for celebration here on Wake up with Wogan! While we have been unable to have the show renamed ‘Arise with Wogan’ in light of the New Year’s honours list, yesterday London was confirmed as the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games. So, to start us off we’ve got the campaign’s wonderful theme song ‘Proud’, by Heather Small.”
Marlene aimed a swipe at Terry Wogan, but caught a bottle of Tesco’s finest Everyday Vodka instead – it exploded as it landed on the floor. She lay static, her eyes closed and her mind drifted back to sleep.
“Not today, Terry,” Marlene said, allowing her flailing arm to rest on her chest. The looming threat of vomit grew with each movement, like a time bomb ticking closer to detonation.
POP. POP. POP.
It sounded like someone jumping on a juice carton full of air.
There was yelling outside.
“Jacob?” She shouted.
Leaping out of bed she approached the window. Crouching, she poked her head through the curtains and peeked out. Outlines formed like an emerging Polaroid. Mrs Tilly was yanking Freddie, her English springer spaniel’s chain. Freddie had stayed with them earlier in the summer whilst Mrs Tilly went on her annual cruise. It convinced her that this was the year they would get their own for Christmas.
Freddie was doing his best to piss on the graffiti covered broadband box. The Dixon sisters dueled each other in the garden behind it, waving their wands at each other as they ran around the swing. Marlene squinted – the sound started again – and then rolled her eyes. Of course. It was Steve next door.
“That fucking car. Piss on it, go on Freddie, piss on it,” she whispered.
Steve waved up at her and she crumpled back behind the flimsy protection the curtain offered.
The door creaked and Marlene watched her son’s button nose poke out as he edged the door open. He stood in his Arsenal academy tracksuit with his foot on a ball, fixing an Alice band over his shoulder-length black hair. Marlene gazed up at him, remembering how he had clung to his first player of the tournament award in the under 6s, trying to take it to bed with him. The way he stood now, nearly ten years later, resembled the trophy.
“Are you giving me a lift to training today? Or-“ Jacob asked.
“Sorry love, you’ll need to get the bus. Mum’s not feeling too well. Give me a minute and I’ll come make you breakfast.”
“It’s fine. I’ve already had it,” he said, “I’ve left you out a bowl.”
“What time is it?” She asked, looking round at her alarm clock.
“And we’re coming up for 8.30…” Terry answered.
Jacob flipped open his mobile phone.
“Oh shit. I’m sorry,” Marlene said.
“It’s fine, I’ll hop on the bus. It’s a nice day anyway,” Jacob answered, not looking up from his phone.
He lingered in the doorway, snorting at a text message he received before looking up from his phone, “Just remember the tournament tomorrow.”
“Of course. July the 8th. I’ll be there.” She said with a smile.
She gave him a thumbs up and stretched her smile wider.
He returned to his phone, pulling the door closed behind him.
“Just leave the door Jacob, I’ll be two minutes,” Marlene said.
It was another ten minutes before she peeled herself from the muggy room and staggered her way towards the kitchen. Jacob was filling his water bottle. He brushed past her before she could enter. The little jobs she used to do for him now reminded her how hopeless she was at the bigger ones.
“That’s me heading off,” he said.
“Be careful,” she replied, half raising her arms for a hug.
“Always am,” he said, opening the door.
“Go score some worldies!” She said.
“Muuuum,” he replied, leaping out of the door.
“Bye love.” She called after him as his outline melted into the light, her hand hovering over her brow as she squinted.
Back in the kitchen, Marlene pulled down the blind, squeezing out the daylight. Her attention turned to the bottle of vodka perched above the biscuit cupboard. She dragged a chair over and leaned her foot on it. Spread across the back of the chair was one of Jacob’s football tops.
“You are killing me, Jacob,” she said, stepping down off the chair and picking up the jersey. She glanced at the vodka again then held the jersey closer – inhaling the scent of lavender – before sighing and returning it to the chair.
She replaced the chair under the table and turned on the TV. Red bled into the screen as the darkness lifted, revealing the words “Breaking News”.
“It’s thought though, that the incident was caused by a collision between two trains, a power cut or a power cable exploding,” the anchor said.
“Liverpool station is of course one of the busiest hubs, especially during rush hour,” his co-anchor added.
“We’ll let you know more as soon as we get it on this developing story.”
The rest of the report was drowned out by the tap water as she filled a kettle to boil. She grabbed her mug from the drier and rubbed her thumb over the worn print which read ‘Mum in a million’. She dumped the instant coffee in with five teaspoons of sugar. One new message flashed on the answering machine, Marlene listened while she waited for the kettle to boil.
“Hi Marlene, it’s Jenna here from the job centre. Just a quick call about your job seekers meeting we had scheduled for yesterday. If you could give me a call back on-“
As she emptied the contents of the kettle into a mug her attention returned to the report.
“If you’re just joining us, terror has come to London,” the announcer said. “We have reports of three explosions on Underground trains.”
The kettle slipped from her hand as her throat tightened, spilling the remains across the counter and crashing into the sink. Her hand shot to her mouth. Her eyes nipped as tears threatened to well, the nauseous lump that had lingered in her chest climbed into her throat. Marlene rushed to the kitchen phone hanging on the wall, the handset slipped in her clammy hands. She dialed Jacob, her throat growing drier with each number pressed.
Marlene thrashed the handset against the dock, leaving it to swing and strain against the wall. She charged off in search of her mobile, ready to erupt. Cushions rained down on last night’s dinner plates, abandoned on the floor, as she attacked the living room couch. She seized her mobile from the void down the side of the couch. Sweat trickled down her back, as she cycled through the numbers, finding the right letters to text.
“I need you home NOW. Phone me”
Marlene returned to the kitchen and replaced the now lifeless hanging handset on the dock.
The steam from her coffee was absent, sitting on the kitchen table. Marlene draped the sleeves of Jacob’s jersey over her shoulders from the back of the chair. Tapping her foot on the floor, grasping her phone, she willed a response. Her phone trembled, vibrations rippling against her tightening grip.
‘Message failed to send: The message to Jacob failed to send.’
She tossed it across the table.
Pulling the ashtray closer, she plucked a charred cigarette from the ashes and sparked her lighter. Her hand quivered as she drew the last sign of life from the remains. Smoke slivered from her nostrils and the cigarette extinguished.
She laid the cigarette to rest and snatched her mobile, resending the text. The same response:
‘Message failed to send: The message to Jacob failed to send.’
Fumbling through her phonebook, she selected Jacob. She dialled. She waited.
“This is Jake. You know the drill.”
An extended beep followed.
Marlene awoke wrapped in red Arsenal bed covers, clutching a bottle of Everyday Vodka. Her head pounded. Each swallow felt like dragging bare feet on the old hall carpet they had replaced a couple of years before.
Her spare arm broke free from her cocoon – glancing the breakfast bowl of cigarette butts – and grabbed her phone. The battery was dead. She watched the clock which hung below a match magazine poster of Thierry Henry. The second hand was stuck, unable to pass fifteen.
“I kept telling him to replace those batteries.”
Her stomach gargled on a cocktail of vodka and hunger. Peeling off the covers, she staggered out of bed, kicking over her ‘Mum in a million’ mug as her feet touched the floor. She heard the hiss of rain behind the undrawn curtains.
The rain followed Marlene as she draped the duvet over her shoulders, rattling along the ceiling as she descended the stairs. She lingered for a moment a few steps from the bottom, remembering how she used to tell Jacob off for jumping onto the new carpet. It felt like a routine the two of them had, an activity they could share with each other. He would apologise and she would scold him; she had almost looked forward to doing it again.
Envelopes were gathering at the door to pay their respects; friends, neighbours and well-wishers. She walked past the fifteen voicemails that looked to do the same in the kitchen. Each cupboard was barren. Inside the fridge lay the remains of a tray bake. Mrs Tilly had brought it over with a cluster of white carnations that now lay discarded, still in their packaging and shrivelling on the counter.
Marlene froze at a chap on the door. She pulled the duvet tighter. Another chap. Her head peeked around the corner. The letter box was held open, she hoicked her neck back behind the wall.
“Mrs Ramsey?” The voice asked. “Mrs Ramsey, my name’s David. I’m a volunteer from the Victim Support organisation. I saw you through the kitchen window, do you mind if I come in and have a quick chat?”
She pulled the door as far as the security chain would let her. He produced identification with a smile and she considered closing the door again.
“Just a second,” Marlene replied. She collected the envelopes and placed them on the kitchen counter.
She returned to the door and removed the security chain. She let the draft ease the door open to invite him in.
He followed the trailing duvet into the living room and presented his hand as she sat, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said. She dangled her hand out in response and he shook it. He picked up Jacob’s football jersey before placing his satchel on the couch across from her.
“Was this his?” He asked, sitting down.
Marlene nodded as he held it out. She broke free of the duvet and snatched it. The straggling sleeve dragged a half-eaten Tesco cottage pie container from the table which separated them. He cleared his throat.
“We left you several voice messages but I understand this must be a difficult time for you.”
“There’s some tray bake in the kitchen,” she said as her stomach groaned.
“I-I’m fine, thank you. Mrs Rams-“
He cleared his throat again.
“I came to chat about the support centre we’ve set up in Westminster. It’s at the Royal Horticultural Hall.”
“Do you know when I can bury him?” She asked.
“I-I’m not really privy to that info, but if you come down to Victim Support-“
“I’m not a victim.”
He bowed his head. Marlene cradled the jersey, weeping as he placed a contact card on the table. His hand lowered towards her shoulder but she dismissed it.
“This… clearly isn’t- I’m sorry, Marlene. We’ll be in touch again, but please, don’t hesitate to contact us. Our details are on that card. Come and visit us. We’re here to help.” He got to his feet. “Goodbye Marlene, please take care,” he said, stepping on the cottage pie container as he left.
She waited for the front door to close before lifting the jersey to her nose, inhaling. The smell of stale smoke slithered into her nostrils – forcing her to pull it away. Sniffing, she laid Jacob’s jersey to rest on the couch.
Tears dripped from her chin onto the container as she collected it – carrying it through to the kitchen – and placing it at the top of the bin, overflowing with flowers and food. Her attention turned to the letters lying above the bin on the counter. The seal of the envelope on top was flimsily clinging to the back, begging her to tear it open. Inside was a condolence card from Jacob’s coach with the new team photo, signed by the rest of the team. Tears trickled onto the photo, she wiped them away with her thumb, resting it over Jacob’s face.
Discarding the card and envelope, she clutched the photo and opened the cleaning cupboard under the sink. Marlene stretched back behind a mountain of cloths and unused Mr Muscle to grab a bottle of Everyday Vodka. She placed the photo on the counter and tried to unscrew the bottle. There was a knock on the door. The lid grated against her palm as she twisted. Another knock at the door, she tightened her grip. The ribbing burned her skin and she sent the bottle crashing across the kitchen. The front door opened as she sunk to the floor, holding her knees and burying her stinging eyes between her legs.
“Marlene?!” It was Steve. “Marlene are you alright?!”
Glass crunched at the kitchen door and she raised her head.
“What happened?” He asked.
She sniffed in response.
He stepped around the debris and sat next to Marlene, wrapping an arm around her. Her tears formed a dark patch on his sleeve. Finally, she raised her head, the tears plugged by her constant sniffs.
“Sorry,” she said, as he removed his arm.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “What happened?”
“I was… I was trying to read some of the cards and I just… I don’t deserve this sympathy.”
“Of course you do.”
“But it’s my fault.”
“How can it be your fault?” He asked.
Her eyes followed the creeping sunlight, unfolding across the floor and lingered on the remains of the vodka, “Because.”
“Marlene, I’m not here to preach at you or tell you it’ll get better. I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through, but you’ve got to give yourself the best chance to get better. Blaming yourself, isn’t the way.”
“That sounded a little preachy, Steve.” She spluttered.
“Fine, but give it a shot. Your neighbours are here for you, whatever you need.”
“I chased a guy from Victim Support ten minutes ago,” she said.
“I know, he came knocking on my door asking me to see you.”
“Give them a chance. Give us a chance.”
She got to her feet, collecting the team photo, “Can I ask you a favour then?”
“Of course.” He answered, standing.
“Do you mind, getting that awful car of yours and taking me to their centre in Westminster?”
Steam rose as the sun baked the road ahead. The exhaust popped and spluttered as Marlene dragged her fingers along her jeans, clawed at her pockets and chewed her fingers nails. She felt a cold sweat emerge across her forehead. They passed a group of boys kicking the ball around in a park. Her attention lingered on the rear view mirror, on the park and the empty back seat it reflected, before resting her head against the window and closing her eyes.
This short story falls into the genre of historiographic fiction, existing on the fringes of history. I was interested in how ‘The Dark Room’ tackled the war and considered how I might be able to do something similar in a more contemporary setting. I chose to expand upon a homework exercise on the London bombings on July 7th 2005 because I felt there was scope to explore something on the periphery of that event.
I transcribed and adapted an intro to the ‘Wake up to Wogan’ radio show from June 2005. Wogan had been named in the New Year’s honours list and the Olympics had been awarded to London the previous day, this gives a hint at the time-frame without being explicit. It also enabled me to insert some foreshadowing into the story. I adopted segments from the actual Sky News broadcast coverage, where the initial incidents had been reported as an electrical fault, a collision or a power failure. This allowed a small window where the reader will likely know what is going to happen, creating some tension as Marlene carries out some simple tasks and reveals a little more about her life which is going to be changed dramatically.
I wanted the initial focus to be on a mother and son whose relationship was straining. Jacob was growing up and becoming more independent, Marlene was slipping deeper into alcoholism and becoming less reliable. Her awareness of this only serves to hasten her decline. When writing Marlene I felt that she would find some hope. It felt unrealistic that she would conquer her alcoholism, and by extension the guilt from her failure to her son by the conclusion. However, I felt she would find the desire to battle those demons in the face of the tragic event.