Short story: Nowhere Else I Need to Be by Katrina Moinet
Katrina Moinet is a Creative Writing MA student at Bangor University. Her short story Nowhere Else I Need to Be won the 2021 Globe Soup Short Story prize, and she has been double-shortlisted for the international Staunch Book Prize, in the Flash Fiction and Short Story categories.
I eat memories. Gorge on them, I’m ashamed to say.
I’ll step into the kitchen under some pretence of clearing the evening’s dishes, wiping down sides, filling a glass of water to take through. All those things happen. Then I linger, letting my mind scan cupboards for some tiny bite of temptation, often a broken-off square of chocolate, a slice of cake – but never just one – cold sausages, buttered crackers, snatched nuts. Lucky dipping, finger-licking, fistfuls slipping past my lips. Finally, the saliva rush tells me that’s enough, and with a flick of the light switch I shuffle out of the kitchen, fully aware I’ll be back in ten minutes or so, to feed this feeling.
And it’s beginning to show.
I wasn’t always this big, this overgrown. I recall being slight, as a child, bird-like frame, spindly legs, feather-light curls that bounced. My green eyes grinned with freckle-faced cheek at every factory worker heading down our street. That smattering of freckles is now lost under reddened, swollen skin. The sociable dimple poked into my chin risks disappearing if I end up any rounder faced. Squished eyes hide their emerald under cavernous creases, far beyond my forty years. I’d slap a little makeup on, but what’s the point? Can’t paint a turd, my brother always said.
I shuffle back to the kitchen for more tongue-tingling morsels to slide into my obliging mouth. Grabbing at boxes and packets, piling them against my chest, they tumble onto the kitchen counter. ‘It’s my fridge, I’ll eat what I like’, I retort loudly, though there isn’t a soul present to hear my outburst.
The whole house breathes dusty silence. Even the cracks between polished floorboards that were once stuffed with the bright musical notes I played, now take shallow empty breaths, and return none of those echoes that used to ring in my ears.
My hands, I loved them, dexterous fingers floating up and down the piano. Never thought I could lose that feeling. I played eyes shut, fingers feeling their way, letting the notes come to me. Can’t trust them anymore, thick knuckles, clipping down false keys. The pleasure’s gone, and with it the practice. Now I just forget to mention I played well, once.
Granny loved to hear me play. ‘Annie,’ she’d call, ‘c’mon over, our girl, give us a tune. Have a tinkle on the old ivories—’ which made me giggle every time, since it sounded more like a trip to the lavatory, than performing a movement from Mahler. But I’d gladly oblige, as a way to please her. She’d hum along, and for that short time demand nothing else from me.
‘Where would we be without thy talent, our girl?’
She meant; how can we make the rent if you start needing proper lessons. Anything proper cost a bob, and if it was more than ten shillings’ worth, it didn’t come out of the jar on the mantelpiece; instead, she’d unclip a dark leather pouch from the stiff belt that cinched her waist like cheese wire, digging into the flesh underneath her cotton pinny. She’d negotiate fiercely with the baker or grocer shaving down any price to her choosing and afterwards carefully peel off each note from the wad, as if it were gold-leaf. Early on, there was no question about paying for anything as frivolous as music lessons, and barely time to practice, what with keeping the whole house scrubbed whilst Granny managed her shifts on the assembly line, so we just had to make do. Talent is ninety-nine percent perspiration – people say – so I learned to perspire and Harry for his part knuckled down, and by the time we left that little, red-bricked terrace we were polished brass, the both of us, but by then our lives had already begun to fork, him kept North to earn a living, me South, to make the family proud. We became bookends rarely drawn together, except for funerals.
‘Harry… it’s Annie.’
‘I heard, Granny’s gone, ‘I said. ‘It’s terribly sad.’
‘Is it?’ he answered.
He remembered our past differently.
We paid our respects to the woman who’d raised us, as best she could.
Harry didn’t stay beyond the service, heading straight back to work that afternoon. During the service I’d tried to whisper missing parts of my life across to Harry, our heads bent in prayer, the embroidered pew cushion irritating my bare knees. The conversation went almost exactly as I’d feared, which strangely, I wasn’t prepared for. Barely audible confessions dropped from my mouth, small and uncertain murmurings, cowering before his silence.
‘You got out, Annie. Made it. Why chuck it all on the slag heap? You need to sort your shit out. Keep it, get rid of it. Not my problem, not anymore.’
He rose and he left.
I waddle across the sitting room, bed socks sliding along the waxed wood, my big toe dipping where the worn tread of the castors have left their mark. That was before I got those fancy cups, I remember, a long time back, when I had money to splurge on frivolities. Where my baby grand stood is an airy space, like an empty concert hall with the seating ripped out.
Into the kitchen, one last time. Supper. Two perfectly round digestive biscuits nestle on the plate next to a glass of milk – the colder, the better – just like at recitals. I’d see it out of the corner of my eye. Drops of condensation clinging to the glass, sustained, to the end of the music piece. Awaiting the nod, I’d rush to grab that glass two-handed, wet-fingered. Then sip long draughts, careful not to let any drops fall on the varnished mahogany side table. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand I’d rub it down my leg, lest the moisture touch the keys.
That’s all Granny permitted, even before the grand concerts – no dinner – just plain biscuits and milk. Filling without being overfull, she’d insist, as if she’d ever skipped a meal in her life. Wouldn’t do to excite the senses before a performance now, would it? Years later I could never go on empty-stomached, all that dry-retching, so I had a little something soothing, always the same. Practical needs.
But needs come in all shapes and sizes.
Memories fill me.
Playing a summer Proms at the Albert Hall meant so much to me; not the acoustics, they’re deplorable. Rather, this sense of arrival. And that evening’s piece was no exception; it had resolved perfectly. My performance over, I was left ravenous and satiated in successive waves. The music reverberated in my mind, brimming with sweeping crescendos, hanging sustains and staccato question marks.
I skipped down the steps, sheet music hugged to my chest, needle-threading through the crowds at South Ken, keeping left as I headed down the escalator, drowning in the din and drone of Friday night chatter.
The Piccadilly line was crammed to the hilt. I slid into an end seat for the long journey home and slipped in earphones to muffle surrounding sounds. Keeping my gaze downwards I replayed my own concert on loop inside my head, as the undulation of the carriage rocked rhythmically.
I must have been smiling without realising, since my brief glance down the carriage snagged on a stranger’s full-on gaze, his bright blue eyes set against dark skin. A grin burst from him. I jerked my head back down to my lap as heat flushed my cheeks. I tugged open the silk scarf at my neck.
Had he heard my humming? He was at least four seats further down, on the opposite bank. Given I’d held my composure before an audience of 8,000 tonight, I wasn’t about to let any random commuter embarrass me, no matter how smartly dressed.
Daring another peek, I caught him nodding foolishly at the music sheets pressed to my chest. I swivelled firmly away from him and trained my focus on the black glass and power cables rushing past, wind whistling in through the gaps.
A shadow blocked the carriage lighting. Standing square in front, his left knee brushed against my right knee as the carriage sung around a sharp bend, sending electricity darting up my inner thigh. His arms stretched overhead to grip the bar, and his light jacket hung open, almost touching my nose. I was penned in. Warmth emanated from his torso. I held my breath as he leaned down to speak.
‘Almost at my stop.’
I pretended not to hear but noticed a soft accent tripping over the words.
Closer, hushed, he continued,
‘I’d like to get off with you.’
My stomach flipped. I sharply re-crossed my legs away from his.
‘C’est à dire… Would you like to descendre ici, with me?’ Fumbling with his jacket button he gave a tentative, lopsided smile and my fears dissolved. I could conceivably walk between the two, I thought, should the matter get out of hand.
Though my body language still said no, I was startled by a rising impulse. I considered my empty flat. No one was waiting up for me, there was nowhere else I needed to be.
They announce Finsbury Park overhead. My stop was next.
Doors slid open, the loudspeaker blaring as passengers filed out. More filed in. The crowd swallowed him as he stepped onto the platform leaving me a millisecond to consider what next. I sprang to my feet, gripped the sidebar, swung under an arm, and spilled from the carriage on the last warning bleep.
And there I found myself, to my own surprise, feet planted firmly on the platform, straddling the yellow warning line. The tube doors shut. There was a whirring, then a whoosh of wind that swept the train out of the station behind me.
And the rest of that night? History.
Memories eat me. Devour me, if I let them.
I’m touching her slender arms, translucent skin. Light blanket of bones barely formed. Fingers stretched, fine wrinkles soft and malleable. Nails perfect petals, shiny slithers of skin; I bend my own nail across her soft button fingernail, it compresses and slides under the weight of life. I gasp. I hadn’t expected her skin to move. Nor her lips to be flooded purple.
I stare hard, willing her back to life. I touch her brow and gently stroke her furry cap. Skull concaved, soft dimple pressed in, too far. Plump tears gather, then stream down each cheek. Her sodden blanket preoccupies me for no good reason. I rearrange the folds, so dampness doesn’t touch her skin. We can change the blanket once the nurse returns.
No one disturbs us.
Take all the time you want, they said. No rush, they said. Rush? There’s no damn place else on earth I need to be. Anger blooms, then dies off just as quickly. I glance at the door, not knowing who I’m expecting; no one has any notion I’m here. Not even Sebastien. What could I ever say to him? You had a daughter, once.
She no longer exists. I carried her all day not knowing she was already gone. My protruding abdomen lied to me, denying me, taunting me sotto voce with its fullness whilst quietly transposing her into non-existence.
The room stays silent.
Presently, they’ll come to ask about the plaster cast – hands or feet – as if some pathetic gift-shop memento could ever be consolation for not carrying a sleeping baby home in my arms. It’s not her hands I want, but her perfect, tiny body back inside, this hollow refilled, not some sack belly. My uterus contracts, its empty laments seep into the blood-soaked patch between my legs. This wasted chest. Where does my milk go now?
It’s sudden. Too soon. My legs wobble, I can’t stand. Don’t pick her up. Don’t touch her, she’s…
What follows is a blur, like peering through the window of a fast-moving car. I remember very little of people’s features, faceless questions asked, a nod or shake of head, a scrawled signature. Something happens, far off in the distance. I find myself in a different room, down a corridor, and outside. To continue life, alone.
‘Anne, it’s Trish. I haven’t heard back from you in over a fortnight. We need to reconfirm next season’s booking for the Cadogan Hall. Please call me urgently.’
Fresh air blasts her face. A glance either side confirms she’s alone, standing on her doorstep, keys in hand, and a metallic taste in her mouth. Coming or going, she can’t be sure? Looking down, to her hands, she’s wearing rings: she must be heading out, so she turns and continues down the path with no notion where to. She trudges towards the tube blocking out the deafening traffic. It’ll come back to her at some point. Must be an appointment, but she can’t recall what for.
She hasn’t seen a soul since she lost her baby. Her body feels flayed, flipped inside out like an overripe kiwi, with all its sour flesh on show. She tugs her coat around her for comfort, even though it’s too warm for the season.
When she reaches the station entrance – at a busy intersection of two roads – bustling commuters bump into her front, she holds a protective hand over her belly. Faces rush by, passing close to her, eyes boring into her. A group of teens shoves past, cursing and cackling in their summertime bubble.
‘Hey, lady, if you ain’t goin’ through, move over, innit!’
Shaking, she turns back home.
Key in, she shoves the door, it jams. Piles of letters, brown and white, dull sand dunes shifting across the hallway. Stepping over, she’s inside. Safe.
‘This is another message for Ms Anne Petit. We notice you failed to make your last three appointments. Please call the clinic at your earliest convenience, thank you.’
Shortly after, the follow-ups cease. Always the same refrain, ‘we can’t help you, Ms Petit, unless you help yourself’. She winces. What use is their help? Her little bird’s already flown; her womb failed to nurture.
Daytimes drag, wading through treacle. Repeatedly, she tries sitting at the piano, sinking onto the stool and managing to lay a single finger on a key. It sounds long and low disappearing into nothing, then fingers fist together and slam the keys, crushing notes in repeated spasms, till all energy is drained and her ears are ringing. Attacking her own sense gives her a strange comfort. The last time she tried this, she came to, hours later, upright in the darkness with the traffic beams tracing silent lines across the ebony lid.
Night times get worse. She wakes bolt upright in sweats, screaming:
‘Get her OUT!’
Dawns are spent hunched over, hugging her knees, turning these words over and over. They did get her out. They got her out, but it was already too late. Her perfect, tiny form had failed to thrive. Had died, inside her. But every night she sinks into a dream and dragged back to that moment, to endlessly save her.
She should have had an abortion, like Harry said. It would have never worked, concert pianist single mother. Like Sebastien never worked out. He would have almost certainly said the same – get rid of it – had she ever told him. Then other thoughts drop and slice: he wasn’t right, for her, anyone could see that. Nor her for him. Damaged goods, left with a failed womb. What had she been hoping for… his return? Maybe her agent was right. She needs to play again, find solace. But each time she steps near the piano, memories crush notes, crowded thoughts make her forget fingers placement. She pulls the covers up around her face: tomorrow’s another day, can’t stomach another new day.
‘Memory escapes me.’ Exhaustion punctuates her thought.
She tugs at the front door. It struggles against thick carpet, opening a little further. Squinting hard, she says, ‘Apologies. Which one are you, again?’
‘Hi Mrs P., it’s Adele.’
Sudden lightness smooths her wrinkled face.
‘Ah, Adele, that’s right! Do come in. Such a pretty girl, and lovely slender hands. Make yourself at home. Pop the kettle on, why don’t you! If you don’t mind? I’m gasping for a cuppa, as Granny used to say.’
Annie shuffles back down the narrow hall towards the sitting room.
‘Make yourself at home,’ she calls brightly, words trailing behind her. ‘Frightful weather! Hang your coat over that chair, so you’ll feel the benefit when you go back outside.’
The young girl stamps wet leaves off her shoes and removes her jacket, folding it over the chair. She smooths off raindrops caught on the hem of her green uniform, then heads into the kitchen. There’s a click of the kettle and the clink of teacups being laid out.
‘Hardly step over the threshold myself, these days. Manage perfectly fine here in my cosy flat. Snug. No errands to run since you lovely ladies visit me. Bring us that cuppa and we’ll have a good natter.’
The clatter of dishes and rush of running water ebbs to quiet.
‘Oomph, that’s better,’ she sighs, heaving herself back into her cushioned armchair. ‘Make yourself at home!’ she calls through brightly, then hesitates, ‘Have I said that already? Having forty winks when the doorbell rang. Can’t get through my morning these days without a little, you know… what do you call that little sleep in the daytime?’
‘Siesta,’ adds Adele, coming in with the tea and placing three pills next to the coaster.
‘That’s right. Easily done, nowhere else I need to be. Slice us some fruitcake, if you wouldn’t mind? A little pick-me-up.’ She offers an exaggerated wink at Adele, who eyes her midriff. ‘Oi! Cheeky!’
They both laugh.
Adele collects crumpled tissues and strewn empty packets from the coffee table, removing discarded half-drunk mugs of tea. Some minutes later she comes back carrying two plates hunkered with cake.
‘Here you go, Mrs P.’
Annie doesn’t answer, her eyes glazed, her fists closed tightly around something. The silence snaps and suddenly she’s back.
‘Ooh crumbs – visitors! Does Granny know? Best not let her catch you using her fine china. In for it, you are!’ She giggles, hand clasped to mouth, eyes twinkling. Then she frowns. ‘Livid, she’ll be, if it gets chipped. Mustn’t let Harry see, neither. Ever since that time, locked in the attic room. No supper, not even milk and biscuits. Handle was chipped on her best tea cup. Took him three days to say sorry. Came down beetroot-faced, just one side, mind. He never told anyone the truth. I owe him one. He won’t forget.’
Bending forwards Adele gestures, ‘Annie, here’s your cake’.
‘Me? I’m not Annie. Don’t be daft!’
She pushes away the plate.
‘That Annie lives down the road. Poor girl. Baby, purple when it came out. Born still. Mistake in the womb. That’s where the baby grows, don’t you know? Mother’s fault, they all said. Never smoked. Nor took what Granny calls “a tipple”, neither. Either way, must ‘ave been her fault. Didn’t have enough love for it. Too busy with her career. No one told me, just figured it out by m’self. Played all the great music halls, don’t you know? Can’t bear going on stage anymore. All those eyes staring at her broken body. Poor Annie.’
The room drops into silence once more.
Adele deftly slides the palm-sized plaster cast of tiny handprints from Annie’s grip, returning the item to the bookshelf, out of sight. She fondly pats the hand resting on the armchair. Annie looks up, smiling brightly.
‘Me? I’m perfectly happy here, in my cosy flat. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.’