THE RESPITE by Barbara Kuessner Hughes (2nd place, Jan21)

We had no choice but to ram in the front door of Flat 27.  Our procedure is that one person enters first in case of an ambush.

I’m thankful it was my turn.  I saw a giant bubble, its silvery surface throwing colours around like a celestial disco ball.  At first, I thought it must be a trick, maybe people trying out a special effect for a movie.

Then I took in the person inside the bubble.  Pretty.  And naked.  I looked away and tried to think of something I can’t stand: corned beef.  Grease sticking to the top of your mouth.  It helped a little.

‘I’m Lenny Cranfield of the Critical Extraction Squad,’ I said.  We defuse secret crises, like removing anacondas from the sewers after a nine-month-long heatwave.  ‘What’s your name, miss?’

‘Bella McDonald.’

I tried to focus on the floor, but even her feet were nice: neat little toes and a chain on her ankle.  Why is it that wearing something can make people seem even sexier than wearing nothing at all?  She had a cute little mole near her mouth like those beauty spots ladies used to glue on their faces.  I don’t usually like facial growths, but this one was a kiss magnet.

I’d never rescued an amazingly-put-together woman my own age.  I wished I was wearing something better than my boiler suit, and that I’d styled my hair.

‘This is a one-person job,’ I shouted over my shoulder.  ‘Code 0F1.’

Then Miss McDonald and I were alone.

‘Your neighbour sounded the alarm,’ I told her.

‘That snoopy old voyeur from along the corridor?  I often see him staring up at my windows at night.’

I liked her feistiness.  ‘I’m going to get you out of here.  I just need you to keep calm.’

‘Oh, I’m perfectly calm.’

‘Any difficulties breathing?  Dizziness?  Pain?  Anything I can put in front of you for privacy?’

She pointed to the bedroom.  I found a Japanese screen with cherry blossoms painted on it and placed it in front of her.  ‘Now you won’t be seen by every passing Tom, Dick and Harry.’ The truth was, I wanted to keep her to myself, like a treasure.

I touched the bubble.  It was silky-smooth and surprisingly solid. I wanted to stroke it, but I didn’t want Miss McDonald to think I was a bubble fetishist.

#

I noticed his face was on the nice side of ordinary, but he had good hair.

Suddenly, I teetered.  If the bubble tries to carry me in an unexpected direction, and if I don’t want to be transported, I have to stand with my feet apart like the roots of a tree.  I’ve developed new muscles.  I’m in far better shape than when I sat on a chair in an office every day.

#

‘How long have you been in there?’

‘Since June 29th.’

‘Two months?!  What have you been eating?’

‘Nothing.  All bodily processes except sleep have been suspended.’

Then she ricocheted to and fro like the ball in a cosmic squash game.  I had to stand in a doorway, so I didn’t get flattened.  The bubble hovered at the top of the room.  I’ve always wanted to be able to levitate.

‘How does a woman end up in a bubble?  Sorry – don’t mean to be personal.’

#

I hadn’t really missed talking to people, but I did feel like talking to him.

As deteriorations of people’s lives go, mine was spectacularly swift.  On New Year’s Day my life seemed perfect.  I had a partner I loved and a nice flat.  I even liked my job.

Then my dad died unexpectedly.  I felt as if I’d been shot out into the universe and trapped in the orbit of a planet of misery.

‘Sorry to hear that.  What about your mum?’

‘Oh, I have a mother.’

#

There was something so flat about the way she said that.  The flappy valve thing in my chest constricted.

‘My mother lives in Greece.  And she’s never been very interested.’

And there’s my mum, always ready to pick up the phone.  Her love shines out and I still pop round there for Sunday lunch.  It’d leave a hole in the landscape if Mum left my life.

#

Lenny doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea how horrible some families are.  Lucky innocent!  It made me like him even more.

One afternoon I went for a stroll and ended up behind a hippo-bottomed brunette and a slim man with mousy hair.  I’ve never been good at placing people out of context.  But when the man murmured something suggestive and planted his hand on the woman’s buttock, I knew.  Not many youngish men have lost their middle finger in a motorbike accident.

#

I liked Miss McDonald’s description: “His hand resembled a tarantula negotiating a tough climb towards an intriguing summit.”’  Chestnut hair, a way with the English language, and a superpower! That was the moment I fell.

#

The woman whose backside was being crawled around by Dan’s enormous arachnid was Joanne, my best friend since school.

Lenny whistled.  ‘Classy!’

‘I lost my two most important people in one fell swoop.’

‘He’s a moron!’

Lenny was helping to shore up my largely washed-away ego.  But I couldn’t begin to convey how disastrous everything had felt.  If I could have afforded it, I’d have fled the Northern Hemisphere, and never returned.

I felt exhausted.  ‘I need a nap.  Make yourself a cup of tea.’  My vessel elongates itself, and there’s a little pocket of cushioning air, so I lay back.

#

The bubble shrank around her like a glass coffin.  She looked like Sleeping Beauty.

I unpacked my mega-tweezers, pumps, suction cups.  It wasn’t just a matter of sticking a pin into the bubble.  What if a poisonous gas or explosive substance was released?

#

When I awoke, Lenny was sipping his tea. ‘What happened next?’

‘A redundancy notice, a rent increase, and my cat Tuxedo got run over by a lorry.’

Then, one afternoon which was even more depressing than average, I was wading through a pile of bills when my sister phoned.

Charlotte leads what people call a “charmed life”.  And she’ll never call me till I’m stuck in a snowstorm – just to let me hear the breeze wafting through the palm trees.

‘I saw Dan last night!’ she announced.  ‘With Joanne, celebrating their engagement.  They looked happy.  And Joanne’s pregnant.  It’s probably worked out for the best.’

I vowed never to speak to my sister again, but I won’t manage to stick to it.  She has a sneaky guerrilla warfare way about her.

‘I wish I could be more like my sister,’ I told Lenny.  ‘It must be wonderful never to be held back by the dragnet of emotion.’

‘I know what you mean.  But please promise me you’ll never change, Miss McDonald!’

‘Why? I don’t seem to be very good at this life business!’

‘It’s not your fault things have gone pear-shaped!’

A soppy look came over his face.  Surely, I thought, nobody could harbour romantic feelings in such a preposterous situation?

I continued. That fateful day when the change happened, I ran a bath.  I considered drowning myself, but then happened to look through the skylight.  I watched clouds drift by.  Clouds don’t care.  They waft, oblivious.  Bubbles float around and don’t care, either.  What a pity I can’t have a cloud or a bubble as my role model, I thought.

I meditated and felt a blurring.  When I got out of the bath, I wasn’t aware anything had happened.  I was covered in foam.  Only when my eyes cleared did I see it: a meniscus large enough to embrace every part of me.  The surface was strangely resilient.  I tried to pinch it, but it snapped back, perfectly spherical.

I was worried I’d suffocate, but the air in my bubble is always fresh.  I tried to walk, but it wouldn’t budge.  It took me a while to discover that it responds best to acrobatics.  Luckily, it never allows me to hurt myself.

‘Will you get into trouble if you don’t rescue me?’

‘Don’t you want to come out?’

‘No.  This bubble is like a beautifying lens.  It makes everything shimmer with promise, muffles jarring sounds, and it won’t last forever.’

‘Nobody needs to know, do they?’

#

Who hasn’t wished they could turn off their life for a while?  I was willing to take the risk if it was what she wanted.

I left my contact details on her kitchen noticeboard.  In case.

#

Lenny left so hurriedly, you’d have thought he was fleeing a beach before a tidal wave hit.

I might look for him one day.

#

I can’t stand goodbyes.

As our van sped away, the searing sun hitting my face through the window, the world seemed so crass and cruel. All I could think about was that bubble.  And her.  They’re never going to stop rainbowing in my mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s