by Paul Magrs
(First published in New Writing Four, Edited by AS Byatt and Alan Hollinghurst, March 1995. Also published in 'Playing Out', my first collection of short stories, by Vintage in 1997.)
I sent this story on spec to New Writing and luckily, they took it in a flash. It's my twentieth anniversary as a published writer this year, so I thought I'd bring some stuff out of the archive for you. Here's the first thing I ever had in print...
She has a friend called Patient Iris who lives at the top of the town by the Roman remains.
Irises take a good while to open. She thinks if you place them by the window they stand a better chance.
Iris is patient. She watches men reconstructing the Roman remains.
At the top of the town you can see all of South Shields, the grey flank of North Shields, the blue sash of sea.
The Romans must have built here for the view.
Their fort is vast. When they rebuild it, do they use the old stones or do they have all new, cut into shapes they have guessed at? She and Patient Iris watch them working and the stone certainly looks new. Newer and more yellow than even those private estates they’ve been putting up.
She feels bad about Patient Iris. Who has turned bright yellow and sits by the phone. Who is ready to ring out in case she has an emergency. Her bedsores are a sight to see. She has looked under Patient Iris’s nightgown, at Patient Iris’s bidding. She instructed Patient Iris to sit by her window, to get some air, watch the world outside. Lying down all day does you no good in the end.
Fat purple welts, all down the back of her. Succulent, like burst fruit.
Patient Iris can’t quite remember, but didn’t the coast here once freeze entirely?
It is so high up. The Roman soldiers, with the north wind shushing up their leather skirts, parading on those ramparts, must have had it hard.
And didn’t it once freeze over?
Patient Iris lived at the end of a street. When the coast froze up, surely it was before the time they bombed the row’s other end? The houses went down like dominoes, a trail of gunpowder, stopping just short of Iris’s door.
Patient Iris is a survivor. She survived the freezing-over that winter when, she realises now, she must still have been a child.
She talks on the phone with her friend. Her friend phones now more often than she visits. They both agree that visiting is not much use. There’s nothing new to see. Although the Roman remains, across the way, grow a little higher every day.
And these two women don’t need to see each other. They are so accustomed to the sight that the phone is all they need. And it saves Iris’s friend a trip out. Up the hill is arduous work, after all. Yet they used to walk it happily, to get to the Spiritualist church. When calling up your husband was the thing, before bingo.
Her friend phones to check up on Patient Iris’s back. Both know that her health can’t last this winter.
And winter is stealing in. When Patient Iris wakes in her chair each morning, the first thing she sees is the Roman remains blanched white with scabs of frost, their outlines etched in by an impossibly blue sky.
Winters like this, everything turns to jewels. Patient Iris runs her fingers over and round her tender sores as she speaks into the receiver to her oldest living friend. Will they turn to rubies, drop away, make her well again and rich?
‘Do you remember -’ she says, breaking into her friend’s flow. ‘Do you remember when the coast froze up?’
Her friend is thrown for a moment. Then she sees the orange cranes frozen in the docks, useless and wading on ice. The monstrous keels of half-completed ships, abandoned, like wedding dresses on dummies with the arms not on yet and pins sticking out.
‘I think so,’ she mumbles. She had been telling Patient Iris about the local women, bonded in a syndicate, who won a million pounds between them on the football pools. They were all supermarket cashiers and had their photos taken by the local press, sitting in shopping trolleys.
‘But do you remember the seals on the ice?’ They appeared from nowhere. Came thousands of miles south because it was so cold that winter.
Her friend doesn’t remember the seals.
Patient Iris recalls seeing grey sides of beef stranded on ice. She worked in a butchers, running errands. The butcher boys joked about serving up seal chops.
The seals grew bigger. From the top of the town Patient Iris could hear them bark at night. Not like dogs; grunting coughs like old men in the park. They were getting bigger because they were pregnant. The whiskered seals with large, inscrutable eyes, beached on the useless docks.
‘Imagine,’ says Patient Iris suddenly. ‘Imagine giving birth on sheer ice. Imagine being born on sheer ice. You come out of blubbery safety, straight into snow. The seals try to cover each other, but…’
Her friend decides Iris’s mind is wandering. Tomorrow she will visit her in person. She begins to end the phone call. She wants Iris to put down the phone in case she needs to phone herself an ambulance. She knows Patient Iris all too well and how she likes to do things for herself.
Patient Iris has been kneading the bedsores as she talks. Down the side of her leg, through stiff white cotton, fresh stains of primrose and carmine bloom.
Patient Iris puts down the phone and thinks.
One night when the seals were barking out their birth pangs, she left the house in her nightie and slippers and walked down to the docks.
The dark, slumped shapes, dividing and reproducing, unabashed on the exposed span of gleaming ice. The high pig squeals of baby seals. The mothers rolling over, moist with their own cooling gels, careful not to slip and crush their children.
Patient Iris met a woman, a hag, really, with great hooped skirts and a basket of herring on her back. She said her name was Dolly. She was a lunatic, screaming the odds at the clock face when it struck the hour. In her basket the fish slipped and goggled their frozen eyes as Dolly jogged about to keep warm.
‘I keep sailors inside my skirts. That’s why I wear them so big. So they can hide inside and dodge the draft. They needn’t have to go to sea. Or do what they don’t want.’
Dolly’s face was like a coconut, the hairs growing thick inside the grooves so she’d never be able to shave them if she tried.
Tonight Iris’s oldest living friend dreams of Iris turning yellow and sitting by the phone. The moonlight shines off stark Roman walls and drops into her room.
Patient Iris is still, asleep sitting up, looking dead already. Apart from the slight hiss of breath, which issues as smoke from her open mouth. She is awkward in her chair, doubled up with her precious jumble of ruined organs preserved in that clatter of limbs. She looks just as uncomfortable as those cashiers posing in their shopping trolleys, arms and legs akimbo and waving their champagne glasses and oversized cheques as photographers’ bulbs go off.
Patient Iris’s friend of many years dreams that this winter will be cold. Colder even than that winter before the town was bombed and Tyne Dock was sheeted over in ice.
Colder still and the men decide to down tools and abandon the Roman remains till spring. It is so cold that it frightens them. This kind of weather will crystallise fragments of lost souls in the air. They rekindle themselves and brighten jewellike when it comes in dark. Centurions gather on the ramparts in their leather skirts with the wind whistling through them, their eyes dead quartz.
In the cold imagined by Iris’s friend, the Roman remains can complete themselves.
Old outlines glisten silver on the air, tugging at each other like a big top going up. They stir the air to recall what once stood there. Moisture freezes, clicks into place and recreates a fabulous ice palace on the reconstructed site at the top of the town above the docks.
Patient Iris’s window is open and the time is right for irises to open. Unseasonably, perhaps, even dangerously, in midwinter. But what does Patient Iris care for danger now?
She is open to the elements. Her sores expose her to the harshest that the north can offer.
The cold of the north heals up Patient Iris forever. Her gasping, fishlike internal organs stop collapsing and freeze. Her bedsores harden. Iris reaches with one arthritic hand to splash a little scent behind each ear before she allows the cold to come over her entirely.
Scent catches at each earlobe and dangles there, perfect crystal earrings. And now Patient Iris is sealed forever. The fate of those at extremes, like here, at the top of the hill.
She decides to pop out for a walk. It is the first time she has fancied walking in ages. Perhaps Dolly is still out there somewhere, saving sailors, or Roman centurions, under her voluminous skirts.
Patient Iris stops by the docks to see the seal mothers return and, sure enough, she is rewarded by the sight of their stolid hard-working, bodies.
She is much braver now that her phone is left off the hook and she can wear her bedsores as jewellery. She will skate over the ice to see how the burgeoning families are doing. She will talk the snorting, whiskered mothers through a difficult night, as their children are slapped out like old shoes onto the bloodied glass.