Mustard Sky

Isla is, apparently, supposed to have an over-riding desire for something - anything - to power this narrative. The problem is that Isla insists on being more complicated than that. She has many desires. None of them are as simple as a glass of water.


1. Mustard

If you told the story of Granddad’s death/ in the right way it could be/ a comedy/

Isla thought.

It was mid-summer and a speckled and cheerful man walked into a bar. He was laughing at a joke he’d told and maybe slightly drunk on bonfires, sunshine and Stella. He’d walked in with friends and was stretchered out barely half an hour later – all six feet and four inches of him – due to crashing headlong into a low beam which read Duck or Grouse. Granddad himself would have made a good job of the story, actually, if only he’d been around to tell it.
The version that the police recited in Isla’s kitchen shortly after was different. It described a frail and failing man, already over his daily alcohol quota, who tragically missed the warnings of a low beam and died from the fatal blow to the head that this gave him.

Granddad was a funny sort of man and it was fitting somehow that he’d been killed by a punchline. He’d also been the glue that held the family together, although they’d only realised it when the policemen stood in the kitchen and declared their purpose with crocodile tears.

Jesse hadn’t understood the joke at all.

“It’s a pun, you see,” Isla had been tasked with explaining. “Duck and grouse are both kinds of meat, it’s offering you them – like a menu – but it’s also a warning because ‘to grouse’ means to complain. It says if you don’t duck under the beam then you’ll moan about it later.”

“That’s not funny,” he said and folded his arms, his chin jutted imperiously. “Granddad’s not dead; he’s just hiding in the playhouse, waiting to surprise us. I took him a glass of water this morning but he hasn’t drunk it yet.”

“Jesse…” she’d begun to protest. She glanced into the garden, noting that there was indeed a glass of water perched on the window sill. If he hadn’t said anything, she might have assumed that it was there to catch drips as it was flooded with the grey of the sky.

“It’s not my fault,” he continued. “I know he doesn’t drink water but Mum doesn’t let me boil the kettle.”

“Jesse,” she appealed, “The playhouse is empty, and it’s always empty. I’ll show you.”

“You can’t. I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone – it’s meant to be a surprise – he’ll never forgive me.”

It had been those last words that troubled Isla the most over the three years since. Jesse had seemed to have mostly forgotten Granddad to the extent that there were no more questions about old jokes that had long since ceased to be funny. There were days however when Isla would catch him peering into the window of the otherwise deserted playhouse or putting pieces of gravel in his pockets or crushing them in his fingers, muttering to himself “he’ll never forgive me.”

Isla had no such mantra but she sometimes reflected that Granddad’s death might have been for the best. That way he could never grow old or wrinkle like he’d spent too long in the bath; he would forever be six foot four and lithe; a comedian and a story-teller. He could also never be subject to her ostentatious inverted snobbery – a trait, almost as visual as a deformity, which had been acquired in the time since his death – this, she feared, would have turned him inside out in the process of finding things to hate.

She didn’t want to over-do her posthumous excavation of his personality, distastefully plucking out each and every political viewpoint she’d decided to dislike. He was not, she concluded, an archaeological dig, he was Granddad and she wanted to remember him with her untarnished, pre-teen eyes.

She walked swiftly along the edge of the road and then crossed it on the underpass although there was not really enough traffic to merit such behaviour. The underpass had been subjected to a community project a few years back and now bore a mosaic of picnic food, all framed with bright blue sky.

Emerging at the other end she couldn’t help wondering at the pathetic perspective people had of the sky. Things were named as ‘sky-blue’ as if their suburban ceiling was only ever one colour. Today, in the west, it was mustardy; it was like blue-bitten muslin pinned up behind the houses. The sun had barely ventured a finger above their roofs all day and now it slipped away again like a guest that had stayed just long enough to see that it did not quite fit in. That was how Isla saw it anyway.

In the east the clouds were indigo and the air smelt not of Christmas but of clarity. The road was empty and the pavements had been frozen dry. The wind had dropped and the world it left behind was clear-cut and surgical.
There was room outside for thinking and Isla trailed her hands along the top of a garden fence wondering why she still thought it was November. She considered jumping the cracked paving slabs for old-times’ sake but knew that, in truth, she was too old to do so without Feeling Watched.

Feeling Watched had been the tipping point of her fall into Teenagedom; she fell reluctantly. It had been the point when she suddenly stopped being able to play pretend games with Jesse. She began to notice just how stupid they must look to whatever watchful presence happened to stumble upon them; fighting the invisible and speaking words that weren’t theirs. She supposed that Feeling Watched was a result of her watching herself for the first time and this had led to an aura of self-consciousness which had been tailing her like a dog ever since. Regardless of whether her clothes were the same as those of the popular girls at school she could never shake off the shy, self-awareness which prevented her from looking like them. 

She couldn’t carry off their greetings either. If they ever stooped low enough to notice her they’d jerk their heads up by way of saying hello. This uncomfortable but commonly accepted gesticulation set her on edge and she never knew how to respond. Was she supposed to smile blandly giving an illusionary aura of calm and sophistication or simply copy and attempt to infiltrate their ranks by speaking their language? She couldn’t help thinking that, were she to do so, she’d only look the way she did when she bought herself bras. Reaching for things that were out-of-reach and unobtainable; not for the lowly or for the freaks who, at fifteen, were too young to wear things that most wore at eleven.

“They look like they’re trying to get something out of their faces,” Isla wondered whether these words she assigned to Granddad could ever be realistic. She had forgotten so much of him that these days she would simply put the words that she wanted to say into his mouth and imagine them carrying more weight in his gravitational baritone.
She turned right at a junction and let the wind tousle her. She was not the kind to fret about the way her hair tangled – it simply did and she couldn’t stop it. Neither did she care that you could count the hours she’d sat up at the computer last night in the rings beneath her eyes.

“When you grow up, you’ll start to care about your appearance more,” Mum seemed to be constantly reassuring her. Like a buffering video. They’d lost all points of communication in this post-Granddad period and so Mum couldn’t possibly know that Isla felt like she was already older than Granddad had ever been or that she already did care about her appearance but was worried that to attend to it would be a betrayal of herself and her resolute childishness. She often thought that her Microsoft Word processor knew her better than her own mother did and that the things she wrote were beyond recognition as belonging to the girl with thin arms and a thin face and a thin personality. If anyone were to look closely then they’d realise that she was an iceberg and that 95% of her was permanently out of sight to all who supposedly mattered most.

She rarely managed to look older than twelve and she could not decide if that saddened or comforted her. She liked to think that she could carry on her charade of pretending to be young and thus cement herself as the girl she’d been before that unfortunate mid-summer but equally she was set apart by it like a river that tried to run uphill.

Her friends said that it didn’t matter but Isla noticed that they bitched about each other when their backs were turned and so indulged herself imagining what distasteful aspects of her they discussed when she couldn’t hear them. She wasn’t really interesting enough for gossip but they probably bemoaned her staleness and her frequent yet reserved apologies. She was too boring to make a good teenager; never old enough or big enough or sensational enough.
She was nearly home and she crossed under the broken fountain in town which had cost the council more in repairs than a new one possibly could have.

If you want to know about my town/ she thought, Then I’ll tell you/ There’s an advert in a multi-story carpark/ For a radio station/ That got disconnected six years ago/ I revisited recently and saw/ RIP, July 2008 marker-penned on it/ And when McDonalds got evicted/ A group of kids laid flowers of mourning/ Down on the demolition site./ That’s my town/ Forgetting itself and mourning its own death/ While it tries to continue living/ My town died a long time ago/ Although the council still thinks it’s growing/ And I wonder if we’ll be too busy planning our own funerals/ To notice when our lives get/ Cut off mid-

She reached her front door, still swimming in her attempt at poetry and lyricism, and observed with cool detachment that Mum was ironing a skirt that was supposed to be crinkled. 

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