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ruby cowling

New Fiction


by Ruby Cowling

      Fran is sitting at the dining room table of her maths tutor Merryck Wright, the late spring sun reddening her face through the window. She has been staring at the same pair of equations for over a minute.
      "Leave it for now," says Wright, "let’s have a tea break". He puts down his pen, sits back and runs a square hand through one side of his beard. His sudden movement releases a waft of cologne and underarm in Fran’s direction; a sweet, peppery mixture of his public and private scents. She tries to suck in as much as she can by pretending to stifle a yawn, opening her mouth a little way and inhaling sharply. Oh, God. A dark pink mist descends. It's only ten o’clock in the morning and she's gone, gone, and she only has him for another hour and then it'll still only be eleven o’clock with the whole of the rest of the day to go, and then the boredom pit of Sunday and Monday and nearly the whole of Tuesday before she will be back.
      Wright goes to his small kitchen and Fran hears him fill the kettle. He is making tea for them both. For the two of them. The pair of them. She pictures him placing two mugs conjugally on the kitchen worktop, pleased and anxious at the thought he has to hold her in his mind throughout the whole tea-making process. Has he chosen a particular mug for her? (All of his are different; no twee matching set for him.) Is there some kind of message in his choice? Does he think she is feminine, delicate, fun, sophisticated? Plain, clumsy, ordinary? She doesn’t like tea that much; doesn’t drink tea anywhere else except occasionally at home when she's desperate for any reminder of him, and even then when she does, the solitude of the single cup depresses her and the tea's a thin substitute for his actual presence.

      It has been this way for months. Maths sessions on Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings had sounded like a punishment. She is due to take A-level maths next year, significantly younger than most of the candidates: a source of pride but also some resentment, since it meant extra tutoring outside school. Julia didn’t have to have anything like that, did she? She was free to do what she liked on Saturday mornings and Fran would have to drag herself up and out to this Wright person’s house across the river. Friday nights wouldn’t feel like Friday nights, and never mind that she’d been doing homework every evening; no, she couldn’t be allowed her Saturday mornings any more.
      At least it was maths, which she found thrilling: the way it described the world in an utterly different language. And it was more than a language, it was like a set of tools for doing things in three or more dimensions, which was much better than some language which just layered itself amongst all the other languages and gave you alternative-but-equivalent words for things you already knew existed. Which, what was the point, really. Maths was a dream world in which doors opened in the ceiling that you could walk through and out and down stairs which must have been going up beforehand and you turned around and saw yourself walking back the other way twenty seconds in the future. She had loved it since she first learned about magic squares; and she still wasn’t sure whether they were actually magic or whether they were simply a fact of concrete existence, or indeed whether those things weren’t the same thing anyway.
      But even though it was maths she’d be doing more of, first and foremost it was school she’d be doing more of, just because she was clever at something, which was deeply unfair. And she had turned up at Wright’s house putting on a slouch and refusing to make nice conversation as he seemed to want to, making it clear that it hadn’t at all been her idea to come to these sessions.
      He turned out to be all right, though. Quite young, and good at explaining things, and careful not to patronise her. He could even be funny sometimes. One day as he pointed at a diagram in front of her she noticed he had nice hands. And he did always smell nice. During her seventh lesson, she caught herself thinking idly that what he smelt of was a combination of freshness and some kind of raw unapologetic masculinity — and as soon as she realised that, she fell: straight down the whirling well; was sucked round this bend and thrown round that, was saturated and suffocated and topsy-turvied and her heart swollen to twice its size so that it hurt like a fresh bruise, rammed up against her ribcage.
       The dream world of mathematics, already interesting, took on a new shine. She high-kicked like a showgirl down sparkling staircases of prime numbers; succumbed with a sigh to geometry and all its eye-opening angles; ran trembling fingers along the demonstrative curves of graphs; and most of all solved problems, produced answers — correct answers — with him alongside her encouraging every new and tentative attempt she made. They were a winning team, he told her once, and she felt herself blush so hard she had to excuse herself and go to the bathroom to splash her face with cold water.
      Fran couldn’t say whether life was better or worse since this lightning strike. The days between her lessons were cavernous: dull museums of dusty air, far too long to be adequately filled by the scraps of memory and fantasy she gathered up during lessons. The agony of having to not be, so much of the time, in the place she desperately wanted to be, was something she knew she couldn’t live with for long. But if she considered the alternative, of climbing out of the rollercoaster car and walking away on solid ground as if he meant nothing to her, she might as well have tried to unscrew her own head.

      Wright comes back in carrying the two mugs in one hand and a packet of biscuits in the other. He's wearing a white shirt today with braces over it, and where it doesn’t cling it billows out like a clean sail, which makes her think of a ship carrying spices and then of bare-chested pirates, bronzed and shining — oh God. His sleeves are rolled to the elbow. She has to swallow hard every time she catches sight of the dark hair on his forearms and the involuntary personal movements of the muscles just beneath his skin.
      He is saying something.
      "Sorry?" she says, feeling a please don't look at me smile on her face.
      "I was just saying. Biscuits. Go on." He pushes the packet towards her as he sits down.
      No way is she going to risk the indignity of actually eating something in front of him. The peril of crumbs, the possibility of dribbling, of choking, of seeming greedy: all of these blow into balloons of worry filling the space around her head.
      She refuses a biscuit.
      "Too bad," says Wright, taking one himself. "A girl shouldn’t get too thin, you know."
      The comment lands in her lap like a hand grenade. He thinks she's too skinny. He thinks she's boyish and bony and of course, it's obvious, he likes more voluptuous women, and yet she can hardly change her mind now and take a biscuit after all, like some kind of dolt.
      She concentrates on the pair of equations again. Thank God, she can see where to go with them now. She starts to mark her notebook when suddenly every feeling part of her body notices Wright’s left hand touch lightly, so lightly, her right hand and the pencil in it, stopping her from writing.
      "Hey!" he says, "I thought we were having a tea break. Come on. Relax for five minutes."
      Then his hand is gone and he's already getting up with his mug of tea and going through the other door, into the living room. Something in her is yanked. He's going to leave her to do nothing for five whole minutes while he goes away to get a break. A break from her.
      "Fran, are you coming? I can’t tear you away from those damn things."
      She leaps to her feet and joins him in his living room. She is surprised to see it's untidy and decorated rather brownly, in contrast with the uncluttered, well-lit dining room where he takes lessons. "This is nice," she says.
      He has his back to her, half-bending over a bookcase and pointing one finger to help him find something in it, and she deliberately avoids looking at his backside. She can hardly handle this series of privileged moments: first, he touched her hand, and now he’s invited her into the private part of his house. She wishes she could go out and walk around the block. Whatever she does now, it will be utterly uncool.
      "Sit down, sit down," says Wright without turning round. Then he finds and pulls out the book he has been looking for. She perches on the sofa, which seems to be leather, and clings to her cup of tea.
      Wright has an expression Fran hasn’t seen before as he stands leafing through the small book he has chosen. He is animated by something that isn’t maths. Finally he stops, bends the wings of the book back a couple of times to help keep it open, and starts reading aloud.
            "For she, who haunts me,
            She, whose hand is on me ’til I wake
            And find no hand;
            I make a prayer, I beg,
            I ask her why she tortures her servant so,
            Why still, so long after the last of her sweet hairs
            Was swept from the floor of his room;
            When the moon she left under
            Has waned and waxed and waned and waxed again..."

      It goes on and on. As he gets into the reading, Wright holds the book with one hand and begins to make rich gestures with the other: scooping air upwards with the pleas, posting air downwards with the self-pity, and sweeping air from side to side during the transition from one to the other. Fran doesn’t think much of the poetry, though she’s never been a fan of poetry anyway, and she is still bewildered by the sudden shift in this situation. She concentrates on the sound of his voice.
      After a few minutes the poem comes to an end. Fran can’t tell what's happened narratively as the last section consisted of an extended metaphor about a lady hunter pursuing a stag in the forest, but the way he reads the last few words suggests it was, indeed, the end. He puts the book back on the shelf, stuffs his fists in his pockets and stands leaning against the wall with just his shoulder blades and the back of his head. Like Marlon Brando.
      Apart from the slow ticking of a carriage clock on the mantelpiece over the electric fire, silence settles in. Fran is desperate to hear either him or herself speak. She is about to tell him what she'd realised about the equations just now when Wright straightens up.
      "Come here."
      He looks at her under heavy eyelids: a sort of treacly look. The look is like a hot wind blowing so hard in her direction that it's impossible to move. Whatever is going to happen next, whether it's going to be more or less intense than this moment, she doesn’t want it to come.
      Then he stretches out a hand and raises an eyebrow at the same time and she feels herself putting her mug down and her legs pushing her up from the sofa, and then his hands are on her waist and his mouth is trying to kiss hers only it's off a bit to the side, mushing into her lips a bit too wetly, and she adjusts and moves the tip of her tongue into his mouth and he rushes his into hers, and it feels a lot bigger than her own tongue, and sort of rough. His fingers dig into her hips so that one of the metal studs on her jeans presses into a hipbone, and the pain of it guillotines into what's happening and makes her say "Ow" into his mouth as she squirms away. For a second she looks directly at him, and it's she who has scored a point against him, she who has stolen something from him, she who has the diamond-like triumph in her eyes.
      But she can’t hold his gaze, which still has that treacle coating. He has insinuated a knee between hers and now she feels him withdraw it, and he takes hold of her wrists and puts his face down into the curve of her neck. He exhales heat onto her skin.
      There is a knock at the front door. He drops Fran’s wrists, untucks himself from between her and the wall in a second and heads out of the room. Cold rushes in to where he had stood and Fran almost staggers. She turns about, looking for a clue as to what she should do. Unconsciously she wipes her mouth on the back of her hand, and then she notices that her palms are damp so she wipes them on her jeans. She hears him open the front door and say something in a normal-sounding voice. Next to her on the mantelpiece is a sepia picture of a bride and groom, upright with formality, and next to the groom’s feet is a little Scottie dog, looking like a tiny, white, second bride.
       Wright says goodbye to whoever is at the door, and closes it again. He goes straight through into the dining room.
      "Postman. Shall we get on then?" he calls through to her. He sounds just like a teacher.
      She feels indignation rising like a cobra in her throat. These days, though, she's practised at pushing the danger back into its hole. So all she allows herself is a certain boisterousness in her short march from the living room to the dining room table. And in those few steps, a ten-foot-high fan of flames sprouts from her like a peacock’s tail; sparks of all colours flow from each hip as she rolls them one after the other in double-slow motion; the sparks set fires burning where they land; she grows six blue arms and drags and tears at the flaming scraps of carpet, curtain, book, as she scorches past.

Ruby Cowling ( is a London-based writer whose recent publication credits include The View From Here, Punchnel’s and 4’33”. A story was Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize 2012 and another recently took first prize in the Words With Jam Short Story Competition. She is currently working on a short story collection; The Fire Was Thought... is an extract from her unpublished novel. When not making up stories, she works as an editor for other writers and non-profits.

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