from A Considerable Influence


It was three in the afternoon already. She’d disappeared days, vanished like smoke. Again: made coffee, fed the dog, and walked outside. George’s brown bag was still on the deck, she’d pick it up later. By the fence, three feathers lay like chicks nestled to the buzzing carcass. She pinched her nostrils, went closer. The bird had settled, it was flatter, like it was home. White maggots squirmed where its skin split and seeped onto the grass, wilting at its tarry edges. She should roll it into the jasmine tangle with her foot. Instead she turned and went inside. 

Her voice cracked when she tried to hum, it was disappearing too. Sophie had sent her a text telling her to get out of bed and have a shower. How did she know? She counted five texts from George and put the phone away. 

In the shower, she just stood. It hurt to do that – to do nothing – let the water needle her skin. It was too hot, then too cold so she stood in the cold and cried. 

After, her shirt wet with dripping hair, she pulled the biggest bowl from the cupboard, crumbled yeast into white flour, and the people she couldn’t think about were there, right there, in her mind, twisting in her stomach; she didn’t know if it was a huge sadness, godlessness or rage. Her hands were sticky, mixing in water, pummelling and punching dough; then she threw it down in a flour storm. When it was at its most silky and soft she heaved it into the plastic rubbish bin on top of the nest of hair from the brush. Morris paced, from her, to the back door, to her, to the front door. They needed to do something. 

George had checked to see if she was okay, three texts, and asked if she wanted him over, four more texts. Finally, she texted back, yes, he could come. Her face, in the mirror looked different, not the same, something alien – ugly. That was it, and if he was that eager to see her, he’d just have to deal with it. 

Then he was there, carrying roses up the hallway, putting them in the jar, two jars. His shoulders, rounded and soft next to hers, arms holding her. ‘I was worried about you,’ he said, kissed her tentatively. ‘Okay?’ he said. She wasn’t sure but nodded. His mouth was strange, his tongue – salted and slippery. She should spit him out. 

‘I don’t want to do this if you –’ he said, and pulled away. She leaned, kissed him but faltered. ‘We don’t have to do this –’ he said again, but softer. Alice felt reckless, sad and wild. She bruised her lips into his. His weight was just enough to hold her – but her mind slipped, suspended above them, and watched. It was all wrong; and then, she was just a girl, and he, an elder, and she couldn’t make it right, not the baptismal pool, nor meetings upon meetings or any amount of prayer, there was always going to be his coarse hands on her small raw skin. And how quiet, always, but for her smallest of sounds. 

George moved, a side step, just enough. ‘You’re crying,’ he said. His papery fingers wiped her tears. Of course she cried, because she was there, then and now. Her feet hurt, the long shinbone, the femur ball jagged in its socket, her sternum stung, her shoulders ached with pressure, she hated him, but she pulled him with her and they lay on the harsh couch. He was heavy on top of her like that. It was something. He moved one hand under her T-shirt, caressed the bumps of her ribs, the curve of her breast. She was heady, blood rushed under her sly skin. Maybe he trembled, but probably it was her. 

‘Are you sure?’ His voice, low, close to her ear. Ugly black hair spread like a lawn on his soft chest. She looked away. He pulled a condom from his pocket and put it on the coffee table. She went to take her T-shirt off, arms above her head, T-shirt over her eyes, when he leaned in and kissed her nipple. Surprised, she fell back, her arms above her head, trapped in the T-shirt, and George kissed her neck, the rise of her breasts, and between her startled ribs. Did she just cry out? Was that her? He hesitated, then pulled her T-shirt back down and covered her; she saw that look on his face. 

‘Not tonight,’ he said. It made her angry, he couldn’t know her. She wasn’t like that, not her, she was bigger than all of them. What was he doing? He was a worldly man. ‘We can take it slow.’ His voice, raspy, but she barely heard, just a rush in her ears as she pulled at his belt buckle, bunched his jeans down his legs, but not his boxers, she just couldn’t do that. She sat astride him, on his boxers, his hard penis bumped partly into her and then he pulled her down, so their torsos were together, she bit the saltiness of his chin so he groaned and she knew she couldn’t take it back. It made her cry. Done things were permanent. Adam knew. God knew too – and she was known. And now this. They watched from their corners while she let him slip her pants off, then she was under him, she arched her shivering back; flesh, goose pimpling and reaching, he kissed her belly button, her jutting hip bone, then the other, and kissed her belly slung between, he cupped her bum and lifted her to his mouth, her legs opened and he kissed her groin, licked her softly between, exquisite – she, astonished – couldn’t breathe – had to stop, she couldn’t go on, her body bristled, his mouth on her – She twisted from him, shaking, and sat up. 

‘What?’ His eyes were wide.

Tears, she couldn’t stop them, and pulled her knees to her chin, hid her face. 

‘Did I hurt you?’ His hand on her knee. 

‘It’s not you.’ He didn’t know. He was gazing at her when she lifted her head. She was breaking. His hand on her skin; his surprising lips on her neck; then, a lift in her flesh, blindsided and falling. He was whispering as she pulled his boxers down. Now he was on top of her, holding his weight on one hand, the other managed the condom, and she wrapped her legs around him and he pushed inside her – and again. She pulled him deeper, she didn’t care, she wanted it done; she’d be destroyed and gone. He shuddered and the hardness of his body gave, he wiped hair from her eyes, her hot cheeks. 

‘Did you come?’ he said.

‘What?’ There was roaring in her ears.

‘Did you orgasm?’

That question again. She wasn’t sure, she didn’t know, but she didn’t want him to know she didn’t know. He rolled off her, his hand on the quick rise and fall of her ribs. He ran his fingers down her belly, kissed her breasts, then his fingers moved in her, heat rushed to her face and she thrust up, expanding and receding, expanding till she was powerful, more than she’d ever been, biting his lip, startled and shaking. 

‘You’re beautiful.’ He kissed her again – she breathed him in.

So this was what the Brothers had said she’d done.

He held her for a while, she felt awkward, she twitched. He said quiet words in French to her, t’as de beaux yeux, tu sais. She didn’t do French, she said, and turned on her stomach, buried her face in the cushion. She wanted to scream. He stroked her back and said he’d been learning for less than a year, he knew how to say phrases, but had forgotten what they meant. Something to do with eyes and love he said. They sounded strange, like a movie. J’ai faim, he muttered in her ear, nipping her lobe. Her skin bristled. That’s what to say if you were hungry, it meant, I have hunger. He liked that better than English, because a person doesn’t become hunger, they just have it till they haven’t, like a visitor; his voice floated, and when she woke, she was on the couch alone, cold, and it was morning. The thought of him scooping his clothes off the floor in the dark, and tiptoeing down the hall guiltily made her sick. His text said he had to work and that he’d call, but she knew he wouldn’t. The couch scratched her back, her legs ached, it was as she deserved. If it was Sunday, she’d go to a meeting, slink in and sit in the back row, but the days were jumbled. The Thursday meeting would do; maybe it was Thursday. If only shame was a visitor. She pulled her T-shirt over her head, put her undies on. She stunk of him, not trees or books, but the animal slick part. And they were back too. They laughed, in that sort of whispered staccato way, so close to her ears the tiny hairs pricked. When she was with George, the demons had fallen from the corners. They’d gone in the end, and left only George, goose bumping her skin, whispering to her. 

She splashed cold water to her face, spat blue mouthwash and asked forgiveness. The water from the showerhead dripped weakly, it slid away, soap slipped from her hands, the shampoo hurt her eyes, made her cry. 

There was another book on the bench near the coffee jar. She let Morris out and picked up the first book from the deck. It was still in the paper bag and a little damp from dew. She pulled it out, The Brothers Karamazov. She read the back, flipped to a middle page, read a sentence and closed it quickly. She hoped he wouldn’t ask her about it. And anyway, the writer was dead. He’d left another by the fruit bowl, by Faulkner, who George thought she had read already. As I Lay Dying. George didn’t know her at all. She threw the books in the bin.



Catherine English lives in Wellington with five kids, a cat, two quail, a laptop, books, pencils and a bounty of paintbrushes.