Casey Otremba + Rosie Phenix-Walker

The Past Remains

Steve had attended the school twenty years before. A quiet boy, he avoided the boisterous football games in favour of the breathless giggling of stuck-in-the-mud or hide-and-seek. Memories haunted him every night: the corner where an apple wrenched out his loose tooth; the step where Robert Atkinson fell, cracking open his skull; the bench where Paula asked him to be her boyfriend. His keys jangled against his thigh as he walked, punctuating the memories.

After the school closed, vandals started breaking in: lighting fires in desks, throwing stones, climbing on the roof. They stayed away now, but sometimes a group gathered by the fence. When they saw Steve’s torchlight they ran off.

Dark windows gaped like the open mouth of a drowned man. The wallpaper streamed with damp, paint beginning to bubble and flake. His torch beam flickered over abandoned decorations: tinsel hung lopsided from one old drawing pin, a scrap-paper snowflake discarded under a desk. In a corner of the playground lay a small shoe, moss creeping over the laces.

Steve thought of the day they rushed to close the windows: the wind was blowing from the east. Mrs Johnson told them about Chernobyl: those living near the power plant abandoning their whole lives, the children deserting contaminated toys. Tonight the empty school felt as if pupils and teachers had fled in the middle of a lesson, just like the school in Prypiat.

Hands in his pockets, he paced the darkened corridors to keep awake. In the old assembly hall, a huge wooden climbing frame loomed against one wall and the end of a vaulting horse emerged from the darkness in the far corner, its suede skin ripped open like a fresh wound. The library, bare shelves coated in dust. One forgotten book lay face down on a shelf, cover torn from its spine.

The twinkle of shattering glass from the other side of the building. Steve tensed, straining his ears against the heavy silence. A scrape, coming from one of the classrooms. Holding his keys to muffle their sound, he strode into the corridor.

An explosion. Smashing glass ruptured the quiet. Steve pounded down the corridor and wrenched open a classroom door.

The room quivered with the memory of intruders. Two overturned desks lay like discarded dominoes, surrounded by shards of the broken window. The smoky smell of the autumn night already filled the room. Cold prickled Steve’s skin. He suppressed a shudder. He ran to the empty window frame and stared out over the playground. Two hooded forms pushed through a hole in the fence, darting out of sight. He nudged some glass with the toe of his boot, skittering it across the floor. Picking up a brick, he shook broken glass from its surface and carried it back to the office. Its weight in his hand was calming.

The sky started to lighten, promising a beautiful crisp day. Steve paid no attention: when he finally woke, the sky would be dark again.

Writer: Rosie Phenix-Walker

Illustrator: Casey Otremba

To The Sea

When she woke up that morning, Tess felt fine. The dusty sun streamed through a gap in her bedroom curtains, leaving a brilliant stripe across the carpet. She rolled over and threw back the bedcovers. Then she remembered. Her shoulders tensed.

As she raised the kitchen blinds, daylight settled over the cluttered surfaces. A curled vol-au-vent, half-eaten, rested on the saucer of a rented teacup. The caterers would be back later on to collect the crockery. For now, the clean-up could wait. It was time to face the day.

Tess was drinking coffee and looking out at the garden when her sister padded into the kitchen, bleary eyes and rumpled hair.

‘Morning,’ said Allie, stifling a yawn. ‘Let’s go out today.’

‘Where?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t care. But if we don’t, I’ll go mad.’

Tess nodded. ‘I know exactly what you mean.’

So they found Allie’s bicycle and rode towards the sea. Tess perched on the parcel rack, her arms wrapped around Allie’s waist. Sometimes her eyes filled with tears, and she wasn’t sure whether it was the cold salty wind or just sadness. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead on her sister’s back, trusting her to get them there – anywhere – unharmed.

Halfway up the hill Tess took over, peddling until her leg muscles burned and her lungs felt like they would explode. She stopped when they reached the edge of the clifftop and left the bike lying on its side, partially hidden in a gorse bush dotted with yellow flowers.

Tess walked to the cliff edge, gazing out over the North Sea. The wind blew from Norway and smelled of salt and seaweed.

‘See that?’ she asked, pointing down to the shore. ‘You can see where the wind touches the water in little gusts. Dad called it cat’s paw wind.’

And it did look like a giant cat was walking on the surface of the sea.

‘It’s just us two now,’ mumbled Allie.

Tess turned to look inland over the barren moor and undulating farmland. She could see for miles. ‘We’ll be alright. We have to be.’ She filled her lungs with fresh air, feeling stronger than she had in days. ‘This is the place, Allie.’

‘The place?’

‘Remember what Dad used to say about benches?’

Allie shook her head.

Tess began to smile as she spoke. ‘He thought that benches are the places where people really live. Where people sit when they feel sad or happy, where people go when they want to think, or just look at a nice view and eat their sandwiches.’

Now Allie smiled too. ‘We’ll put a bench here, looking out from the cliffs. With a little plaque. Mum would have liked that too.’

They retrieved the bicycle and pedalled back into town. When they got home, their hair smelt of the sea.

 

Writer: Rosie Phenix-Walker

Illustrator: Casey Otremba