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African Writing Archives


Elleke Boehmer

Elleke Boehmer

Boehmer was born in Durban, South Africa, to Dutch parents, but has since been settled in the UK, teaching in several of the universities. Her current position at the University of Oxford is a return of sorts to an academic environment she had an earlier experience of as an Oxford student. Her works of fiction include Screens against the Sky (1990), An Immaculate Figure (1993) and Bloodlines (2000). Boehmer has also published many articles, reviews and essays, and is editor or author of several texts, including Altered State (1994) and Colonial and Postcolonial Literatures: Migrant Metaphors (1995).

This excerpt  is from the forthcoming book and is published with permission. © Elleke Boehmer 2008 © Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd. 2008.Photo credit: University of Oxford.


 Nile Baby
Nile Baby Cover


The dead trail with the living still

Beyond amends

David Constantine: ‘At the time’.


The Soul: My place of hiding is opened,

My place of hiding is disclosed.

Light illuminates my dark ditch.

I have hidden myself with you, stars that never cease to burn.

My face is revealed, my heart sits upon its throne.

I am here and am not banished.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead




I know this for sure. When Alice Brass Khan saw the baby flop out of the glass jar that day, she saw in its eyes, nose, and mouth the shape of her own face. There they were, she spotted them that very minute, her own high African cheekbones.


The sunlight radiating through the branches of the weeping willow tree made a pattern of silver stars. In the middle of this galaxy stood Alice Brass Khan, my friend the Science Boffin, looking tall and disgusted. The drooping branches and the radiating light split her into strips of shining colour as if she were some person in a legend, a prophet, a healer from a different realm of life.

That was Alice with her bird-bright eyes, she was always more easily looked at in bits, in strips. The same as on the day we first spoke.

From the off, from the word go on that day we first spoke, it felt like those eyes looked straight into me, like she knew everything about me.

Which she couldn’t have done because it was only our second term at Woodpark Secondary and we’d arrived here from different primary schools at opposite ends of the city.

Which she might have done — looked straight into me, Quiet Arnie, I mean — because just the same as me she didn’t fit in here, she wasn’t a neat match. She saw like I saw that Woodpark Secondary crawled with people who were taller, fitter, faster, louder and cooler than we were, by far. And not half as interested in the folded, wormy insides of things, be they alive or dead.

Things like the cold, wet body lump lying here at our feet with its crumpled grey forehead and squashed-in nose. And those tufts of strange, coarse grown-up hair sprouting at the back of its head.

That first time we spoke — it was the middle of winter, a sunny day, the second Friday lunch-break after Christmas—was also the first time I helped carry out her plans.

I crept up that day on her and her friend Yaz Yarnton, Alice swinging inside the stripy green octopus of the willow tree the same as now, Yaz sitting cross-legged burying her sandwich crusts under dead willow leaves. I came along softly like a cat-burglar behind curtains but I could tell she’d noticed me by how she shifted the direction of her swinging and looked at me out of the dark corner of her left eye.

At the very same minute we spotted the crime. It was Justine Kitchen in her shiny pink puffa jacket. Good-at-everything-and-admired-by-everyone Justine taking a pencil-case off one of the little kids, Rahat maybe, or Saif, the kid jumping up and down like a poodle yelping on its hind-legs.

At the very same minute we broke sprinting out of our cave of willow branches. I snatched the pencil-case and put it back in the little kid’s hand. Alice grabbed the outstretched arm, pushed back the pink puffa, and gave the wrist a Chinese burn so sore Justine’s eyes filled right up with tears.

That was Alice. No one so much as committed something unfair, including calling her Science Freak, Brown Boffin, Frankenstein and the other cruel names kids called her, without reaping the consequences.

Another minute and we were back inside the willow tree catching our breath and grinning at one another. And then I knew like she knew but without saying a word that the person standing there in front of them was a friend-in-arms.

By then Yaz with a bored face on had picked herself up off the ground and wandered in the direction of the bike sheds, the place where the girls who talked strictly about girl things always gathered.

That first day was the day we discovered that Alice’s way home was pretty much the same as mine. Down School Road with the smelly ditch on the right, and into narrow Selvon Street. Then my street, Stratford Street, where the two-up yellow-brick terraces looked exactly like the houses in her street, Albion, three streets down and to the left, at a right angle to Stratford.

That first day was the day we also discovered that by walking slowly and in time and dawdling at corners we could cover the whole range of our most interesting topics. Like, the thinness of the best skimming stones. And where to buy the sharpest penknives. And what kind of sticks are softest for whittling (willow is good). Also the problem of growing up, or, better, how to avoid it for as long as possible (by ignoring it mainly, by skimming stones). As we got used to one another we now and then mentioned our sad and untidy families, but this was in short bursts and then on to the next thing. The topics we always returned to were knives, sticks and stones including the ammonite and salt crystal we stole off her classroom’s nature table and, best of all, the inner workings of living things (including the dog’s eye I found for her after several weeks’ searching).

Alice had it in her to be a True Young Scientist, at least that was what our biology teacher Mr Brocklebank said, and as long as I could tag by her side I was happy to help her make her discoveries. He said she had the steady hands and cool heart of a scientist, and, above all, the sharp eye of the pioneer investigator, the one who goes in front. To encourage her he lent her books—The Human Anatomy Picture Book, Paige’s Essential Physiology, The Pocket Atlas of the Moving Body—but I lent her a hand, and watched how her lips moved like water around the difficult words. Diverticulated. Mitochondrion. Squamous. Epithelium.

For whole long weeks Alice and I were a team-of-two, operating in tandem, with Yaz Yarnton and everyone else well out of the picture. To me Alice was Energy and Ideas and Amazingness and all I wanted was to stick to her. I wanted to be her channel, her antenna, whatever it took to give shape to her schemes. I was the kid at school who hardly spoke, who didn’t draw attention. Sticking close to Alice I felt different than myself somehow, woken-up and wide-awake, both at once.

Which is why today was so strange. It was strange even counting the day last month with the dog’s eye. Today, I thought to myself squinting up at her standing against the light, feeling the grey specimen pressing its wetness into my leg, today was the very first time some thing, some body, had properly come between us. Today Alice inside her nest of willow branches looked like she had seen a ghost. A ghost she knew well.




Alice and Arnie


Alice Brass Khan watches the head poke into the open air, then drag its body after, its shrivelled chest and grasshopper legs. She wiggles the Kerr jar to work it free. Formalin pours over her fingers. The body flumps to the ground, curled on its side. Fallen leaves and sand stick to a wet, pasty cheek that’s not really cheek, just surface, rubber surface, like a key-ring doll.

The thing, tiny person, is now facing her. She can see a flattish nose, a small, bunched chin. The face, if you’d call that crush of nose, eyes and cheek face, is human and not human, both at the same time. It frowns darkly at her.

She sits back on her haunches, leans against the rough bark of the weeping willow tree. She wipes her hands on her trousers.

‘Oh shit, Alice. Shit-shit-shit. What do we do now?’

Shut up, Arnie Binns.’

‘We can’t get it back in now, ever.’

Alice aims a sharp kick at her friend’s shin. He lurches back. Scuffed dirt powders the small creature’s head.

‘Now you’ve gone and done it,’ he mutters. ‘What’ll you do now? It’s messed now, it’s dirty. You can’t put it back in.’

He huddles into his oversized fleece.

‘You’re no help, are you Barmy Arnie? ’Course we can put it back in. It came out of the jar, it can go back in. But first I want a closer look.’

‘I’m not touching it whatever you say. No way.’

‘No one was asking you to. I was always going to be the one to touch it.’

Alice stretches out her skinny, brown arm but can’t make the contact. Her hand hovers over the body. She pulls the hand back, she sticks it out again. A new idea hits her. She tests the breeze on a wetted finger. Outside its usual watery environment, the thing, the body, could dry out fast.

She hears Quiet Arnie murmur, ‘So what’re you waiting for?’

Her fingers rush at it. The surface of the baby—she should say foetus, she’s read up on foetuses in the library’s The Body: An Amazing Tour—the foetus surface is moist and oddly hard. It’s awful. Awful. It doesn’t give to her prod.

She rubs at a grain of sand that has stuck to the wasted dolly arm. The skin wrinkles as if it might strip back like a shirtsleeve, even peel right off. The grain of sand doesn’t budge.

She hears Arnie sniff. She guesses he’s probably crying.

‘Time to get a move on,’ she says. She won’t look at him. She might want to slap him if she did. ‘So what happened to everything you were saying about wanting a go? Helping me get the jar no problem? Even this morning. Let’s rescue the little creature, you said.’

She rummages inside her schoolbag for her special black velvet pouch and shakes from the drawstring opening a silvery-bright razor blade, the last in a plastic tray of four. Gillette Mach 1. Guaranteed Surgical Sharpness. She removed the tray of blades from Mum’s ex-boyfriend B-J’s overnight bag one early morning some months back. All this time the blade has lain in readiness in the pouch beside the other knives, waiting for just this moment.

‘Shit!’ Alice yelps as if winded.

Arnie has thrown himself down in front of her. ‘Don’t, Alice. Don’t cut, not yet.’ He is bunched into a ball and his arms are tented around the jar of yellowed formalin and the small, dead body lying in its patch of wet sand.

He rubs his teary face inexpertly against a shrugged-forward shoulder.

‘What are we here for then, Quiet Arnie? Our plan was to take a closer look.’

‘At least let’s look at the outside of it a bit longer.’

‘We’ve got till only five, when football practice ends.’

His forehead to the ground, his head upside down, Arnie Binns is suddenly eyeball to eyeball with the creature’s face. The scratchy smell of the formalin catches the back of his throat. He gives a soggy sneeze. He sees that the thing has a neck, a kind of a mouth, nose, even tiny crumpled ears, all the bits that he has, too. He puts his fingers to his own face to make sure of this—this amazing likeness. The pinched join between his nose and mouth. The bony bulge of his forehead. Exactly the same.

He’d never have expected it. The wrung-out, meant-to-be-unborn dead thing is built exactly like they are, him, Alice, anyone else.

‘Its eyes are wide open, did you see?’

‘They would be, Stupid.’

Alice is busy telling herself body not baby. Body, body. Not human, not face. Body.

‘Eyelids grow in later,’ she says. Has she read this, or is she making it up? She can’t decide. ‘The Human Anatomy Mr Brocklebank lent me has photos, colour photos. But this one must be older than five months, so maybe its eyelids were about to grow in. Or maybe it died with its eyes open and they’ve, like, frozen. The calf foetus that sits on the shelf near it is younger, I’d say, younger for a calf, and its eyes are open.’

‘You mean that before we’re born, the first thing is that we’re awake? Later on we learn to close our eyes, sleep?’

‘Shit, I don’t know, Arnie. You really are wasting time. Move over. I want to get started.’

She poises the blade between index finger and thumb.

‘You’re sick, Alice.’

‘If I’m sick you’re sick too. You’ve been in on this all the way.’

‘Maybe you’re right,’ Arnie ducks his chin. ‘Maybe I’m sick too.’

His shaved head laid on the ground beside the foetus reminds Alice of something uncomfortable. A silky globed thing, blue-veined, glossy … the sight queases her stomach. The other week when they were at work in her back garden, examining the beautiful dog’s eye, she saw it then, his ball, yes, that was it, and it gave the same feeling, her stomach turning right over. How it squeezed out between his leg and his short shorts, the stretched skin shining in the sunlight like some growth.

She has to look away.

Overhead she sees the milky-bright sky spin through the willow leaves. On the main playing field beside the school are the moving shapes of the footballers. It’s a Thursday afternoon and if they chose to, she and Arnie might be hanging out there, watching the practice. But she and Arnie don’t choose to. They don’t do football. They don’t do sport. She does Science, especially dissection. She does The Body: The Complete and Amazing Tour. And Arnie does whatever she does and gets in the way like now, his shiny skull lying in her path.

A few minutes more and she could take this sharp razor and nick that shininess ever so slightly, draw the thinnest line, a warning only, nothing so as to hurt.

Arnie is whispering, ‘Thought it’d be like a small monster or gnome, a baby orc. But it looks more like us than like a monster. It’s like a human, sort of, a baby human.’

Alice fixes on the foetus’s bluish unseeing eyes just over the hillock of Arnie’s cheek. Its deep-sea fish-eyes that never saw much if anything of the airy world.

‘It is a baby human, Barmy Arnie, what else? You must’ve looked like that once. I looked like that once. Where d’you think we grow from otherwise? A shark pod maybe? A mongoose?’

‘You know what I mean.’ Arnie lifts his head a few inches. He blinks at the sight of the blade aloft. A squelching wheeze enters his breathing, as though he has suddenly developed a cold. He says, ‘Please don’t let’s rush, Alice. Don’t let’s waste our chances. Look, the thing is perfect, so perfect. It could have become a person, think of that.’

‘Could’ve become a person but didn’t. It died. You have to remember. It was got rid of, left it in some kidney bowl in the hospital, dumped by the side of the road.’

Puffing her lips she places the blade on the black velvet pouch and folds her arms.

‘Dumped and then popped in a glass jar and put on a shelf,’ she persists. ‘They obviously weren’t too squeamish about bottling humans back in those days. I mean half-humans. Mr Brocklebank says the lab storeroom was built as part of the early school buildings, around the First World War. The specimen collection will be from that time. Just the same as then, I think we shouldn’t be squeamish. Life didn’t work out for this thing. It became a specimen instead.’

But her hunger to handle the creature won’t go away, blade or no blade. She must touch it. This time she chooses a length of dry willow twig and, stretching over the top of Arnie’s head, rolls the thing on to its sharply spined back. It won’t stay put. No matter how hard she prods, it keeps flopping over, thickening its coating of sand and leaves. Eventually she shoves it up against the four-pint Kerr self-sealing jar it came in, crouched on its side, grubbing in the dirt. Upright would be too human. The arms clenched to its chest are altogether too human.

And the five globules of fingers on each of the miniature boxing-glove hands, them too. And the ghostly but staring eyes. And how, when she pushes, the arms claw at the willow stick like a human thing.

She follows the corded string—umbilicus, she reminds herself—that worms from the middle of the thing’s stomach. As if a snake had burrowed clean into the body. What it has of privates is tucked away between its spindle shanks. She prods the stick some more but the folds and creases of the rubbery skin don’t give way. With Arnie looming she doesn’t exactly want to dig in.

She gives one last push to make sure it’ll stay put, propped against its wall of glass, and it’s like something cold knocks into her, something jolts her. Sliding her eyes up from the chest where her stick still pokes to the—the almost face, she sees as clear as clear that the thing could be a kid like her, almost like her, Alice. Her, that is, not just any kid but a kid like her, not wholly from here, England, but African, half. Yes, she could make-believe the thing was nearly African, demi-semi-African. Look at its sharp nostrils and tall, wide forehead and cheekbones, like her own face in the bathroom mirror, brushing her teeth in the morning. She could be staring into a face she belonged to.

Maybe. Or maybe not.

Maybe not. She rocks back on her heels. That grey skin covering the cheeks, the forehead, is so deeply wrinkled she’s probably seeing things. Mad to think the specimen could be joined to her somehow and to Africa. How could it? It was a scary ghost that walked through her brain just then and tripped her up. The thing down there is spooking her. Arnie with his cheek in the dirt eyeballing the thing is definitely spooking her. The major obstacle to today’s project, it turns out, is her helper. His creepy scalp still sits in front of her face. His stupid wuss tears still shine on his cheeks. He’s the one who’s happy being close to the thing, poring over it like some desert explorer studying a newly unwrapped mummy.

Stupid Barmy Arnie Binns is still properly in the way.

She’s suddenly aware of how fleshy he is, all body-body-body, thick with flesh; flesh, gristle and bone and shiny skin, taking up room. He’s a fleshy, weaselly animal blocking her view of their prize. She looks down at the thin ledge of dark hair growing across his top lip, and his narrow, skewed chin, a spade with a twist in it. How pitifully he can tuck that chin into his chest and beg. Some days when he comes over on the playground and wheedles—What can we do today, Alice, what can we open up and look at, what can we cut?—she wants to push him over and squash him like an ant.

Today was set to be a cutting day but now Alice is not so sure. Arnie has sat up and tucked the foetus against his crossed legs. To touch it he uses his fleece sleeves folded into mitten shapes around his fingers. The foetus body is not much longer than his foot. He is stroking it, almost. His hands are cupped over it, kind of making its shape in the air.

She stands up and stretches. She needs a break. She walks a short way off and wraps herself in willow branches. Dry willow leaves descend in drifts. By holding on to the branches with stretched-up arms she can sway in an arc while keeping her feet on the ground. She can twang from side to side like a rubber strap. It’s fun to do. It makes her think of the Bandar-log, the monkeys in The Jungle Book, their special world up in the trees.

From where she’s standing Arnie’s hands, thank god, screen the baby-thing from view. Just this minute she doesn’t want the sight of it in her face. The thing with its funny, wonky foetus mouth and tiny, pointy nostrils. And its eyes, those especially: its unblinking, empty eyes.



A silence encircles Alice Brass Khan and Quiet Arnie under the weeping willow tree. The creature lying between them with its staring eyes insists on this silence. It is not after all a baby warbling up and down the octaves. It doesn’t raise its hands to the light and watch the movement of its fingers. It is a pale thing, an earthworm-pale almost baby that has never made a sound.

The creature has a horizontal, inch-and-a-half-long incision across its middle, under where its ribs would be, or are. Alice made this cut. She made it a minute or so ago with her bright razor blade. She already wishes that she hadn’t made it; stooped down and grasped the razor tight, reached around Arnie’s arms and made the cut, all in one quick flash. It didn’t feel good to make the cut, however small it is. It didn’t feel very good at all.

A minute or so ago she brought her blade close to the roof of the creature’s belly. She balanced and levelled the blade like a javelin thrower about to deliver the strike of her career. She knew she should give herself time. The cut was made, the cut suddenly happened, even before she realised how close to the body her blade was.

It didn’t feel good. When the creature’s squashed but dignified face stayed so rigid. When its confused frown did not deepen or fade. Its eyes never once flinched.

Though, if it had flinched, how bad wouldn’t that have felt?

She has looked at the face so long she is sure as can be. The thing in some odd way reminds her of herself.

The foetus’s opened flesh makes a mouth shape, slightly pouting. It doesn’t bleed, that’s the strangest thing. Inside the cut is a knot of noodle-coloured string. Vermicelli guts. The string is littered with tiny black speckles as if the creature was digesting when it died. Or is now rotting away.

Alice feels a prickly heat under her eyes, the same she gets from eating too much chocolate.

She is aware of her right hand still holding the razor, her palm pressed over the drawstring pouch of blades and knives lying on the ground. She feels how the knives’ familiar, reassuring hafts open and separate the small bones at the base of her fingers. She is proud of her knife collection. The Santos pocket penknife. The Victorinox solo knife. The sheathed but blunt Stanley knife taken from B-J’s discarded toolbox. The short metal nail file. And the razor blades, the Gillette the newest and the shiniest. Mr Brocklebank has said that for small dissections a razor will do nicely in place of a scalpel. But Mr Brocklebank probably wasn’t thinking of do-it-yourself jobs in the swampy area at the back of the playing field, here in the den by the weeping willow tree. He probably wasn’t thinking of the Year 7 kids getting stuck into specimens from his very own lab.

She pushes the pouch to one side and picks up her willow stick, prods Arnie with it. He looks up and she hands it to him. She mimes widening, pulling.

She wants him to prise the incision open? He shakes his head.

‘You wanted to help, didn’t you?’ she says, ‘Be part of the team? You wanted to do something. To it.’

His shaking head becomes a blur.

Out of the corner of her eye she catches by accident the creature’s creased and level stare. This foetus face gazing up at her is so small and detailed, so exact in its plain, everyday details—eyes, cheeks, pointy chin, those dented nostrils like her own—that she feels stupid, scolded and stupid. A coward and a bully could have done no worse than she has done.

A foetus in a jar of formalin is a specimen. A spade is a spade. This is what Alice knows. An abandoned newborn baby is a naked, doll-like object wrapped in a bit of a newspaper. She must keep telling herself this. It is a thing left on a doorstep that is stained with chewing gum and piss. What kind of a life is that? What kind of beginning? Far better then to end up as a foetus in a jar; or, better yet, dissolve into a shot of pills. Better to be unborn than miserable, isn’t that so? She knows about Morning After pills, the ones that bring off babies. Her big sister Laura has an unused pack in her knickers drawer. Several times Alice has handled the pack, read the instructions on the back, picked at the bit of sellotape sealing it closed.

A spade is a spade. A foetus in a jar, however bulky, is a specimen. But something has shaken her, something about this weird, growing silence surrounding them is rattling her. If it weren’t for Arnie sitting there staring, bug-eyed as the creature itself, she might like to lie down on the ground and cry. Drop her black velvet pouch and all her blades in the streambed there at the corner of the school fence, and go home to have a good, long cry.

Instead she wipes her razor blade on her sock.



At that instant, pushing away Alice’s willow twig, I understood. At that instant it dawned on me that this baby who had flopped so unbothered out of its jar on to the ground in front of us was a miracle thing, like a visit from an angel.

That was the main difference between Alice and me. If Alice could see the wood for the trees, I liked to see only trees. If for her the world was all matter, for me there was magic—magic and mystery everywhere; in clouds that take the shape of dragon’s wings, in unexplained cold spots in old houses, in uncanny coincidences. I puzzled about water dousing and strangers’ eyes meeting in recognition across crowded rooms, about the dead appearing to the living and all mysterious apparitions. I believed in Elves, silver-skinned Elves. I knew that shooting stars were signs from other planets. I was sure that I’d one day be lucky enough to see the auras that I’d found pictures of in books, rays bursting from people’s heads like living crowns. I felt that Alice’s halo was purple, spiky and very intense.

Even this body here might have an aura, I thought, the thinnest of auras still clinging from the time when it was a living thing.

‘Arnie loves Alice, Arnie loves Alice,’ our classmates often teased. A love-heart A. Alice’s answer was to knock in their knees from behind with her fists, the same as when they called her Brown Boffin. But for me this claim was true in a way. What I loved about Alice was the glittering plans I could see forming in her eyes. How her face turned gleamy when she was thinking, like now, leaning against the willow trunk with her eyes shut. How her big-knuckled hands were always in motion, testing the textures and temperatures of things, tapping the knives in her pocket.

I so loved her plans that I’d had no idea, I couldn’t have thought, how today’s project would turn out this—this ugly. This messed-up.

When she’d put the blade to the creature’s flesh it was like a stitch, a bad one, in my ribs. I’d never felt a shame like this before, like a sickness, a physical pain. How could we have ended up hurting something so neat and small? So young yet so old, so perfectly made? Definitely we hadn’t meant to, and yet that’s what had happened and I’d done nothing to prevent it. At the last minute I’d not lifted a finger. I’d helped do harm and now—would harm now follow us? How far would we have to run to escape?

I forced myself to look down at the crumpled grey body lying on the ground between us. A picture of who it might have been, something I caught one of mum’s beauty studio clients once saying, crying into the scented pillow in the treatment room.

Why did we have to go and dirty the creature’s small face with sand?

I thought of a First World War mother looking like the Scottish widow in the ad but with her big cape bloodstained. I imagined this lady stooping to pick up the little corpse that had just this minute dropped from her body and tenderly placing it in a jar. Stroking its head before screwing on the lid, bottling it like jam.

Unless I spoke I’d choke on the silence.

‘Alice, couldn’t you have said a prayer, a few words, before you did that? Cut it? Some surgeons do, my mum says. Say a prayer. To make sure the person’s soul doesn’t escape through the opening.’

‘Flipping heck, you still here, Arnie? I thought you’d’ve disappeared by now. Got lost. What do you know about what I did or didn’t say? I could’ve been madly praying all that time I was swinging off the branches, waiting to cut. All that time you were in my way.’

‘But you weren’t praying. I watched you.’

‘Look, what’s eating you? In case you weren’t listening, this foetus here died a long time ago. 1914, 1918, remember? It hasn’t got a bloody soul to lose.’

‘Not now it hasn’t.’

‘Not ever. It never had a soul.’

‘The soul could’ve stayed drifting around it. Bits of it hanging about, from when it was waiting to be born. There they were, the bits, hovering down the years, dazed and confused, and just then you chased them away, the last bits. You zapped its soul. You made this hole here. You’ll never close it now. We’ll never be able to sew the soul back on.’

Arnie!’ Alice was yelling, obviously not caring who could hear. ‘Just shut it! Lay off me. I feel bad enough as it is, OK? I really do feel bad. There are plenty of reasons for feeling bad. So shut-up! Shut-up-shut-up! Or get lost!’

Her lips snarling at me, her eyes staring so hard I couldn’t hold her gaze. I looked down again at the cut in the thing’s middle. I saw that nothing was happening to that dark space. It was an open-mouthed, clay-grey cut she had carved, neither expanding nor closing. It wouldn’t go away, that was for sure. Together we had committed a deed we couldn’t undo.

‘I can’t get lost.’ Speaking to the foetus. ‘Remember? The football people would notice we’d been hanging around down here on our own.’

‘If I say get lost you get lost.’

She brought her face up close to mine, the heels of her hands resting on the ground, the razor blade still in her fingers, pointing upwards. Then the blade seemed to slip in my direction. It seemed to move of its own accord to where my arms were folded on my legs. It touched the tip of one of my fingers. It shouldn’t have been touching me but it was. There was nothing between the cutting edge and the pink whorls of my fingertip than the narrowest line of shadow. Dark red shadow reflecting off the blood on my fingers.

Not since the day we worked on the dog’s eye had we had a stand-off like this, and that day was one-of-a-kind, the icky eye bits lying scrambled on the melamine breadboard. At heart Alice knew like I knew that conflict between us was unwinnable. Her will drove into my vague dreams and got nowhere. I might look all give but it was only to a point. Beyond that point she could not crack me. Silently I now whispered this to myself. You cannot break me, Alice, you will not cut me.



Holding her silver blade to Arnie Binns’ finger, Alice is caught by a memory of herself and Laura when they were little. The two of them making x-ray patterns under their duvets by shining Mum’s big torch through their hands and making them glow like Chinese lanterns. Laura saying, whatever colour we are, dark brown like me, light brown like you, we’re all of us red inside.

It would be so easy, Alice knows, for the blade to edge itself cleanly, experimentally, into the outer layer of Arnie’s skin, to the point where he grows redder, darker and redder. For the blade to make a small but definite graze: a single droplet of scarlet blood welling.

And then Arnie is snatching back his finger, his face looking bloated and feverish. For a moment he teeters off-balance. Then as he braces himself his elbow strikes the Kerr jar standing beside him. It wobbles, topples. Alice, blade in hand, catches hold of it, but not before a gush of the remaining formalin has hit him on the leg.

He grabs his cheeks as if he’s been slapped.

‘It touched me, Alice. It was like—it touched me. The thing touched me.’

Alice ignores the sympathetic shiver that runs down her spine.

‘The thing didn’t touch you though, Arnie. You knocked the jar.’

They’re in this together, she reminds herself, they need each other, two brains working as one.

That’s it. She rests her blade on the drawstring pouch.

‘But it’s been sitting in that jar for ages. The formalin’s been all over it. It was so cold.’

I know I know, she nods, waits for his gasping to calm down. But now his wide eyes are stretching even wider open, and she, too, wakes up to it. The space of silence in which they’ve been sitting has suddenly expanded. The quiet is everywhere. The playing field is deserted. The football players long ago packed up and headed home. The spectators and other stragglers have disappeared. By now the school gates will be locked.

They will have to find their own way out, and the foetus with them.

Alice can’t remember if her original idea was to take the jar back to the lab storeroom and slide it onto its high shelf just as if it had never been tampered with. Match the jar’s bottom to the dust-free circle marked on the wood. Maybe she never quite thought through this stage of her scheme. The prize she wanted filled her brain and left no extra space.

What’s clear now is that an attempt to return the body today would be crazy. The lab will be locked tight, even the cleaners will have gone home. And the thing’s outer surface—skin—is already leathering from exposure. Before making plans to return it she will have somehow to get hold of the formalin they keep for frog dissections. She will have to refill the jar.

As for the cut, she knows she will have to pay for that cut. The cut she has made purses darkly open.

Arnie follows her train of thought, so it seems. He breathes in hard, making his nose noises, and brings both his hands towards the creature, ever so gingerly. It has touched him through its formalin, he will have to touch it back. He takes another breath and lifts it, begins to gentle it into the Kerr jar. Easier said than done. Some of its knobbly bits have to be angled and squeezed to fit back through the jar’s mouth. The cord thing is surprisingly stiff, almost a spike. He has to push.

Alice watches a moment, then joins in. With her right palm she forces down a jut of elbow, then ankle, knee. Her hands are bare and Arnie’s hands are bare but they are past caring about contact. She tries even so to avoid the touch of the cat’s-paw fingers.

The skull goes in last and must be pressed down. Arnie’s hand this time. The skull pops back up, round like a big, ripe apple. He forces it down once more.

But in spite of their best efforts the thing looks uncomfortable in its half-empty jar, slumped against the glass, the skin plastered to the dry, inner surfaces, puckering. To replace the spilt formalin they fill the jar from the football ground water-fountain. Then Arnie screws the copper lid on tight. Alice can tell it takes a lot for him to do this but they don’t stop to speak.

They make their way to the back corner of the slatted school fence, to where the boggy streambed in the waste ground behind the playing field runs along the wooden slats on its way to the river. There’s a loose slat here they’ve noticed before, in case it might one day, like today, come in handy. Using Alice’s Victorinox handle as a lever they yank at the slat and create a space wide enough for Arnie to slither through, belly to the ground, cheek by jowl with the stream. Alice passes the Kerr jar through to him, then follows on her back, so she can brace her knee against the slat. She works her feet free of the fence but can’t lift her head. The spiky edge of the chicken wire that covers the streambed for the length of the fence has caught her hair in a snarl. Arnie puts down the jar to help her. He has to twist her head from side to side to get her free.

They cross the swampy area beyond the stream by balancing on the overturned supermarket trolley lying partly submerged in the sludgy green mud.

By now the light is fading. The afternoon is over. Hundreds of invisible, cawing birds are roosting in the chestnut trees down by the river. The tops of the trees, visible over the roofs of the nearby houses, make a froth of bright new leaves and moving birds.

And so a new test begins. How to lay to rest their prize, their antique but unborn dead.

They begin to prowl the neighbourhood of the school. They know they must find a safe place to deposit the small body, even if just for the night, but their movements are aimless. It could take a day and more to tidy away this problem, thinks Alice. Squeezing the thing back into its jar could be easy compared to this. They can’t leave the foetus exposed, is Arnie’s feeling, not on a wet night like tonight. It would be terrible to put it out in the cold, dark, open air.

Like in new housing developments all over England, Woodpark, the southern residential extension of the city is located on a pie-sliced sliver of flood plain. It is bordered by the curve of the Chartwell River on its northern side, and, to the south, by the angle formed between the railway line and the main road leading out of town to Reading and the southern coast. Once, before the smart, new town houses were built, this wet, flat area of the city was simply called the Plain.

The name Woodpark, Alice scoffed when she first heard it, must be straight out of Enid Blyton. There are no woods anywhere close to Woodpark, nor even, come to think of it, bar the horse-chestnuts by the river, any mature trees at all.

Arnie and Alice now make their way down School Road, along the smelly ditch, past the community centre with its barred, high-up windows, and into Selvon Street. At the Londis on the corner of Selvon Street and the main road out of town they turn on their heels, strike out right, and, at the end of Latvia Wharf they meet the river. They keep bouncing off these neighbourhood borders. Each time they change direction they exchange the jar between them and pull their fleeces and coats tight around it. Neither wants to be in long-term possession.

Stratford Street, Woodpark’s long axial road, forms a cul-de-sac at its southern end. A play park for toddlers fronts the raised curve of the railway line. Alongside the play park, separated from it by a stream, is the Council Recreation Ground with its obstacle course and concrete skateboard rink and, against the railway line, a strip of reedbed where, on most weekends, used condoms like white squiggles criss-cross the ground.

Trailing down Stratford Street for a second time the two arrive at the gate to the Recreation Ground and glance at one another. Alice points her chin in the general direction of the reeds.

‘Where we brought the ammonite?’

The ammonite stolen from the nature table in her classroom and split here on the Recreation Ground using her metal nail file. Like the salt crystal and the human kidney stone, the second and third pieces of loot from the nature table, the ammonite when sliced fell for an instant into two clean halves, then collapsed into dust. It laid bare none of the mysteries they had hoped for, not a single inner whorl or mazy passageway. It took hundreds of millions of years to form but when it fragmented it left no more than a pile of rough dust behind.

‘Not in here, no.’ Arnie grasps the jar closer to his chest, deeper inside his fleece.

‘The reedy area makes a good hiding place,’ Alice hesitates.

Too cold, he indicates with a shudder, too damp.

She nods and takes over the jar. They walk on.

A steady but drenching rain begins with a wind behind it. They keep their heads bent, their coats beating like mainsails. For the third or fourth time, they find themselves on the main road out of town the evening traffic grinding by, stirring up the puddles and spouting water into their trainers. They pass the Cote Dazur chip shop, the Angling Emporium, the City Council Waste and Recycling Centre. At the Fox and Flagstaff pub their feet slow down. Past here they’re not sure of the area, especially in this rain. Who might they bump into, what off-duty policemen, teachers walking dogs? Where might they run and hide if they had to bolt? Alice has zipped her coat over the specimen jar but it makes an awkward bulge.

They have no choice but to turn yet again, retrace their steps. The pub, the bus stop just beyond the pub, the Recycling Centre. The Recycling Centre. They have passed it several times already, each time without a second glance. It’s not the right place for their World War One scrap with its scrunched-up face. But the daylight has almost completely melted away. Arnie is shivering badly, worse than Alice has seen anyone shiver and shake before. The notice on the gate says the place closes at seven. They have a moment, a tiny opportunity.

They walk through the tall gates. The Recycling Centre is an orderly waste ground stacked with broken-down kitchen goods and out-of-date machines with screens. Apart from the two of them pressing on down an avenue of abandoned televisions, there is no one about.

They find a spot shielded by a blackberry thicket, behind a tall wall of fridges. Blinded by the rain Alice passes the jar to Arnie. She begins to hack at the ground with a stone, then with the lid of a vegetable crisper from one of the fridges, then a clattering ice-tray. She remembers their work on the human kidney stone, how it broke up into resiny blobs under the blows of her file. A preserved foetus probably requires just the shallowest of graves, she thinks, but the ground though wet is hard as stone. She can’t seem to make even a scraping in the ground.

Arnie stands by with his arms folded around the jar.

In disgust Alice throws the ice-tray into the blackberry bushes. They walk on. Behind the fridge wall they encounter a skip piled high with pruned tree branches and hedge clippings. Alice takes the jar off Arnie and gestures with it. They might unscrew the jar lid and jolt the thing out, chute it into that large, spiky nest? Pitch the jar after and hear it crash?

He fiercely grabs their burden back off her, clutches it to his chest. As if they could! After what they’ve already done to it—fly-tip the creature like a bit of scrap! Suddenly he knows he can’t go through with it, not here, today, dump the body in this place where stale rubbish-bin smells smear the air. They dragged it off its safe high shelf. They took charge of it and then they turned on it, hurt it, dirtied its face. How, in this recycling wasteland, could they now leave it behind?

Alice gives up the jar without a fight. Never before has she felt such force in Arnie’s fingers.

Nothing for it. The place is closing, a siren somewhere in the direction of the main gates is wailing wee-wah, wee-wah, a sound of broken crying. They must go home, think again, take the jar along. It’s Arnie who’ll take it. ‘I’ll look after it, no problem,’ he says mumbling, ‘There’s one less person to hide from at home than for you.’

But that’s not the real reason, he can tell, though he can’t say it out loud. The real reason is that the small body has laid hold of him. The scrumpled face has marked him somehow. The way it has survived all today, as if with courage, with spirit. For years and years it sat on its high shelf, quietly roosting. And then it descended. It came and tapped him on the arm and stepped into his life. And its ordinariness—its puzzled frown, its clutching hands and folded ears and cheekbones like Alice’s—its overwhelming ordinariness has gripped his heart.

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