Short story: Chalk Moon

Image by Matthew James and Matthew Hughes

Elaine Canning 

She ran. Down the stairs, dodging crushed cans strewn across the stained carpet, trying to block out the screams. Mum was having one of her ‘moments’, though it was much worse this time. Screeches more than screams, they were, scratch, scratching at Olwen’s ears until they bled. She knew she shouldn’t leave Mum on her own, not when she was in that state.

But Olwen couldn’t help herself. She slammed the front door, partly to momentarily mute Mum’s voice, and made her way down the steep hill towards Brynmill Park. Her walk was brisk, though not quite a run; it felt strangely alien, robotic even. The broad shadow of the Presbyterian Church on the corner blackened the pavement before she reached the first block of Rhyddings Terrace. The student houses, huddled together, looked strangely dark, despite their large white bay windows and slim white doors. Only a fortnight ago, those now abandoned residences had been teaming with exam-free, carefree students speckled with rainbow dots cast by flashing fairy lights. Their parties had gone on for weeks. They’d danced behind bare windows and out front on grey slab stones, chanting lyrics to songs Olwen recognised from the radio, indulging in group hugs. Olwen had never been part of a group hug. In fact, just one-on-one cwtches had stopped when Mum’s left arm turned to porcelain and became clamped to her side, giving her the disposition of a half-obedient soldier.


Olwen missed having the students around, especially Jason. She’d met him a few months ago – he lived in the second house in the second block of the Terrace, the one next to the green hardware store that welcomed pet lovers and key seekers. She’d been running towards the park when she caught him staring at her from his concrete garden: he stood motionless, arms outstretched, in black overalls dusted with what looked like talcum powder. He’d have passed for a neglected outdoor ornament had he not spoken.

‘Olwen, … come here, Olwen.’

She knew she wasn’t meant to talk to strangers, but decided he couldn’t be a stranger if he knew her name.

‘Who are you?’ she asked, crossing the road.

‘I’m Jason, nice to meet you.’

‘You’re not from here, are you?’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘The way you talk … your accent, it’s a bit funny.’

‘Funny? It’s never been called that before.’

‘What do you want?’

Olwen’s feet danced lightly on the pavement, tapping out every second he delayed her.

‘Looks like you’re running away from sadness. Or running off sadness. Do you understand?’

‘Maybe,’ said Olwen. Do I look sad to you?’

‘We can all be many things at once,’ said Jason. ‘We can even feel happy and sad at the same time. Love and sadness can crash into each other, like waves on a beach. We just have to make sure we don’t lose love.’

‘I’ll never stop loving my Mum,’ said Olwen, ‘even though she makes me sad sometimes.’ She paused. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Please, forget it. I have to go now.’

That’s okay,’ said Jason, kneeling down next to a small pile of luminous white stones. Olwen was sure they hadn’t been there before and felt an intense yearning to touch them. ‘See you soon.’

After that first encounter, Olwen would run past the house at least twice a week. She always found Jason in the same spot, carefully nudging the stones with a silver trowel, turning them into crescent-shaped chalk moons.

‘If you had your own moon, what would you call it?’ he asked, the last time she saw him. Olwen watched him trace a white heart at the very edge of the concrete slabs.

‘Home, of course,’ she said.

‘I see,’ said Jason, touching the edges of the heart with the trowel, making them glow a pale pink. ‘Do you know the story about the girl in the moon?’

‘You mean the man in the moon?’

‘No, not him,’ he replied, ‘this is a story about a girl.’

‘No, then,’ said Olwen. Is it an English folktale? Because I only know Welsh ones.’

‘Oh no, it belongs to everyone, I’ll tell you one day,’ Jason replied. ‘Until then, take care of your heart.’

***

Olwen was certain that what she was doing today was protecting her heart, even though guilt seemed to be scavenging like some ravenous rodent for a piece of her empty insides. Mum’s words had ricocheted off her chest, like tiny bullets; she hadn’t let them penetrate her. At least, she didn’t think she had. But the pain in her chest was worse this time and expanding rapidly. She pushed hard into the soles of her feet, trying to override whatever the thing was that seemed to be determining her speed. She had to get to the park as quickly as possible.

The faded sign for Brynmill, glistening after a sporadic summer downpour, was backlit by a feeble sun. Olwen rushed towards it, crossing the threshold into her safe space, allowing herself to be cemented to the nearest grass verge. A warm rush sneaked through her white trainers, up her legs and into her stomach, diverting itself away from the pain in the centre of her chest. Olwen folded her arms, then gently drew her hands inwards, attempting to redirect the heat to where she needed it most.

She’d been suffering from some form of chest pain for a long time, even though it hadn’t always been there. She hadn’t had it when her favourite photographs with Mum were taken, the ones in the only album they owned. They were always together in the earliest pictures, their smiles full and frozen by an unknown photographer.

‘Did Dad take those photos of us?’ she’d ask.

‘No, sweetie, just some random stranger,’ Mum would say.

According to Mum, Dad had disappeared as soon as he knew some little person had taken up residence in her womb. Olwen liked to imagine that he’d been present when she arrived into the world; that he’d cuddled her candyfloss flesh close to his chest; that he’d been there when those photographs were taken. That he was their silent, protective witness. And that perhaps if she could find him, she – or he – could make Mum better.

Mum had lost her smile when she lost her job – the good one in the law firm in the city centre. Olwen couldn’t remember the name of the company, but she knew Mum had been the office manager there. Mum would take her to school every morning wearing one of her trouser suits that made her look important and made Olwen feel proud. She had five of them, one for each work day, and three pairs of court shoes which she mixed and matched. On the weekends, they’d always do something together – sometimes they’d stay in the city and pop down to a family event at Swansea Museum or the National Waterfront; on others, especially when the weather was nice, they’d catch a train to Tenby or drive to Rhossili Bay.

The days out stopped when the law firm closed down. Mum tried to get a new office job, but couldn’t. There were lots of interviews, but never any offers. Eventually, she took the bar job in Wind Street which she didn’t want; when her left arm became useless, they had to let her go.

Olwen’s chest continued to throb and her eyes filled with tears as she made for the lake. She kept her head down to avoid eye contact with potential passing acquaintances. None of her neighbours ever frequented Brynmill, but there was a first for everything and Olwen didn’t want to be spotted. She had to ensure she kept the park a Mum-free zone. That was the only way she could expel the screeching, stop it from consuming her.

It had been mild at first; not so much a screech, more a gentle raising of the voice. Olwen could tolerate that, especially when she didn’t try her best at school. But before long, it came at random, unprovoked moments, transformed into a relentless torrent of foreign words punctuated by a click clacking of the tongue. Olwen ached more with every outpouring; Mum withered a little more each time. That was the part Olwen detested most. It was her face first, drained of the hint of rose that had frolicked about her cheeks and the golden glow that the sun had smoothed across her brow and jawline. Then her eyes, sliding around in gloopy pools, abandoned in sockets that had become too big to hold them in place. And then her arm, stripped of flesh, of blood, of life.

Olwen knew Mum would now be wailing in desperation for her to return so she could take her hand and beg for forgiveness. She’d promise that she’d get her bar job back once her arm was better and they’d move out of their poky Uplands flat. She’d save up and buy them their dream house on the edge of Swansea Bay, a big white one with a balcony where Olwen would be able to observe the blinking lighthouse stationed at Bracelet Bay. Olwen knew Mum would make the dream come true if she could. She also knew that she didn’t mean any of her strange words, including the one she’d called her today which she’d never used before.

That word. Why did Olwen allow herself to see it again in large white capitals in the blackness of her mind? She shook her head vigorously, trying to empty it out, concentrating on the slither of blue water up ahead fringed with Water Lily and Canadian Pondweed. But it was no good. The letters began to reappear in a random scrawl across the purple flower beds at her feet and along the heavy branches overhead. Something smashed into her chest, the bullet she’d been avoiding since she ran away from Mum. Olwen screamed and collapsed into a soft spread of Begonias.

‘Olwen, look up.’

Jason was gliding towards her with his arms outstretched, his feet leaving delicate track marks in their wake.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I’ve come to tell you the story about the girl in the moon. Take my hand.’

‘Where are we going?’ asked Olwen, touching his warm palm that was as white as the chalk moon stones she’d seen at his house.

‘To the beach. Isn’t that your favourite place?’

‘Yes, but I can’t go with you. That’s my place, and Mum’s. And besides, it’s too far away.’

‘Your Mum sent me, Olwen. Now, are you ready?’

Olwen wasn’t sure she was but didn’t let go of his hand. Her entire body was racked with pain and she didn’t think her legs could hold her up.

‘Maybe.’

She felt herself rise off the flowerbed and positioned herself next to Jason, her feet hovering just above ground level. Jason squeezed her hand and smiled, then gave her arm a slight tug upwards. Her feet skimmed the surface of the lake while Jason’s pushed downwards into the water to propel them forward, tracing the same track marks he’d left on the main path. Down the gentle hill they went, over blankets of pink, yellow and red wildflowers, past the traffic lights next to Brynmill coffee shop and into Singleton Park. They glided silently across the grassy slopes leading onto Mumbles Road, then up and over the bridge towards Blackpill. Olwen felt like someone else, as if she’d been slotted into the frame of some weightless creature, perhaps even an angel. The pain had dissipated and her body fizzed with heat. She turned her thoughts to her favourite photograph – her and Mum, flanked by a parade of sail boats that lined an aqua-coloured sea. Mum’s long, thin arms were wrapped around her like gold ribbons. Olwen touched her waist, reimagining, longing for their gentle touch.

As soon as they reached the coastline at Blackpill, Jason tugged Olwen’s arm gently and they ascended towards a band of wispy clouds.

‘Tell me what you see,’ said Jason, looking down at the golden carpet of beach.

‘I see sandcastles and seagulls. I can also see a Mr Whippy van over there,’ said Olwen, pointing in the direction of Mumbles.

‘Look a little closer. What else can you see?’

‘Well, I can see that boy down there with his blue bucket and red spade. And there, right next to him, is a yellow dog that looks just like my neighbour’s.’

‘Can you see the moon?’ asked Jason.

‘Don’t be silly, how can I see the moon on the beach?’

‘Let me tell you the story of the girl in the moon,’ he said, letting go of Olwen’s hand.

‘Don’t! I’ll fall!’ Olwen grabbed onto his bony, transparent wrist.

‘You can’t fall,’ said Jason, unlocking her fingers. ‘Trust me.’ He rummaged through the overall pocket at his chest, removed seven white stones and handed them to Olwen. ‘Make your own moon, right here.’

Olwen reached into the warm air in front of her, attaching the stones to the smooth blue canvas of the sky.

‘That’s the way; now close your eyes.’

Olwen traced the outline of her moon with her fingertips, just in case it disappeared, and shut her eyes tight.

‘Now then. Once upon a time,’ said Jason, ‘there was a young girl who wished she could live on the moon. She was tired of the constant quarrels with her older brother and began praying to the man in the moon to rescue her. One night, as she was staring up at the moon from her bedroom window, it hurtled towards her, encircled by a chain of twinkling yellow stars. It halted just outside her window and the low voice of the faceless moon man spoke to her.

“I will grant your wish on one condition,” he said. Know that you will never be able to return to Earth once you leave. Do you understand?”

“I understand. Please make my dream come true.”

“Very well,” replied the faceless man.

At first, the young girl enjoyed her time up on the moon. She skipped through fire fountains and played her own version of ‘guess who?’ with strangers who passed through illuminated villages and towns below her. But she soon became lonely. What saddened her most was that she was becoming devoid of love. She could neither give nor receive it and feared that the last surviving remnants attached to her soul were coming undone.

“Please may I return to Earth?” she asked.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” said the moon man, “but there’s a way for us to save love. You shall become the custodian and distributor of love in its purest form.”

And so, the young girl was granted special powers to appoint moon makers on earth. The chosen ones would create moons, large and small, and coat them with tiny love-filled crystals. Whomever was selected by the moon makers to touch or enter those creations would automatically become the Earth’s guardians and deliverers of pure love.’

‘Is that a true story?’ asked Olwen, opening her eyes.

‘Look down now … tell me what you see.’

Olwen lowered her eyes and saw a white crescent moon hugging the coastline; it shimmered and shivered as the pale sunlight and soft waves competed to caress its curves.

‘I thought you were a student. Are you an actual moon maker?’

Jason smiled. ‘We can all be many things, you know. Now, take my hand. Let’s go and have a closer look.’

As they descended towards the sand, Olwen didn’t take her eyes off the moon. She was afraid it would vanish, even though she wasn’t sure if it was really meant for her. She was uncertain if she qualified as a guardian and deliverer of love, especially when she had abandoned Mum.

Mum. The thought of her made Olwen lose her breath momentarily. She longed to run to her, care for her, protect her. Fix her.

The closer they got to the beach, the more Olwen realised that what she was seeing wasn’t a moon at all. The large crescent-shaped house was covered in little crystal-coated windows with a side balcony leaning across the sea towards Bracelet Bay.

‘Our dream house! Did you make this?’

‘No, you did, Olwen. The moon makers can only build if there’s enough love on Earth to supplement that of the girl in the moon. Are you ready to enter?’

‘Yes! Wait, no! I can’t do this, not without Mum.’

‘But I’m right here, sweetie.’

Mum’s silken voice drifted through the calmness of the air towards the moon house, lightly kissing its walls. Olwen turned and there she was, smiling, the rose tint in her cheeks frolicking, her thin arms outstretched like gold ribbons.

‘I’m back. I promised.’

Originally from Belfast, Elaine Canning is currently working on her first short story collection and a novel and completing an MA in Creative Writing at Swansea University. She is also Executive Officer of Swansea University’s International Dylan Thomas Prize, one of the largest literary prizes in the world for young writers. Elaine lives in Swansea with her son.

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