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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Helena

HELENA
by
Jo Derrick
This story was first published in Issue 3 (Winter 1997/8) of Slipstream, which was edited by Helen Knibb and Cathy Cullis. I have edited the story slightly since it was first published. I do have a copy of the original illustration commissioned to accompany the story, but can I find it?
Helena is melting dark chocolate in a copper pan. The hem of her moth-eaten dress, once black, now faded to gun-metal grey, is haphazardly curtseying to the dirty floor. She gazes with longing at the smooth, shiny surface of the chocolate, deciding to throw in a handful of gritty currants she has found at the back of a forgotten cupboard.
The kitchen is full of cupboards, most of which Helen has never opened. Their black secrets are closed to her. Helena is untroubled by unfamiliar corners of her house. She enjoys obscurity and otherness.
She dips a leathery forefinger into the pan and tastes the harsh sweetness which cloys in the back of her throat. She smiles and remembers the salty oyster-like substance she’d swallowed just hours before.
Her mouth is full again; tasting him, surrounding him, willing herself not to choke.
Helena sees his wild-dog face, his bared teeth and bristly chin seeking out her marshmallow thighs. A savage cat-like tongues probes her depths. Helena shudders, then pours the dark-studded liquid into a mould and waits.
Apple blossom flutters across the pavement in the May-time breeze and Helena quickens her pace to escape the fresh white pictures which come unbeckoned into her head. It’s no use. Shy brides bow beneath a shower of confetti and dainty bridesmaids skip about, pointing their satin-toed slippers in time to peals of laughter. 
Helena winces and begins to run. The house is within reach. Its grimy windows leer at her. She smiles and pushes open the heavy wooden door, brushing aside old withered creeper and foraging brambles. 
Helena retreats into a back room and tugs at the heavy velvet drapes to block out the intrusive May sun.
Every day Helena completes the same ritual. She searches the streets, but can no longer find the merest trace of his sour breath and matted hair.
She listens for his deep-throated whistle or his brittle laugh, but no sound reaches her jet-studded ears.
She longs to feel the sweet stickiness between her thighs to prove that she is alive. 
Where is he?
Every night Helena lights candles whose rich scent once lured him inside. Burnt out joss sticks litter the hearth. The music is always the same. Deep, resonant, funereal. He can be reached, she just needs to remember the right combination. The pattern must be complete.
Chocolate, its bitter-sweet smell colliding with musky Eastern scents and the music.
What else? 
Red wine, ash-trays spilling their contents onto faded gold sofas and crumbs littering the threadbare carpet.
Helena scatters torn satin cushions over the floor, lies back, pulling strands of thick dark hair over her ample breasts and she waits.
A dog barks out in the street. Someone is kicking a can and a woman’s laughter, rich and throaty, cuts through the empty night air.
A door creaks open, and he is there.
Helena lifts his hand to her cheek and licks the salty surface. She wonders how those harsh, grainy hands could have handled such delicate confections to display in her father’s shop window.
His words are like worms, slithering and squirming in Helena’s head. She raises her arms and clasps her silver-ringed hands over her ears. That’s it; she can spew them out now, biting their fat bodies in two and letting them wriggle to the floor.
Broken words.
Helena urges him on and on. This time it is different. His mad-dog face is expressionless and mute. Without words he is powerless. His tongue remains locked inside his head. 
She gazes into his clear, blue eyes; then steps into their unfathomable depths... and beyond... striving to piece together the broken fragments of his mind.
It is hopeless.
The fragments have become shards of glass, razor sharp and untouchable. Blood begins to seep out into the filthy carpet. Helena gasps and starts to shake his skinny frame until he rolls over and away from her. He can never desert her again.
It is late autumn. Helena walks slowly. One...two. She must get it right; for this is her wedding march. One...two. One...two. She hears the music in her head, and clasps the posy of cornflowers closer to her silk clad bodice. One...two.
The train of her wedding dress is leaving a trail of sand. The shoreline is the altar, but it continues to recede. He is not there. Helena gasps and clutches her posy tighter still, urging herself on. One...two. One...two. No, she’s walking too quickly. She should have waited. Brides are always late, aren’t they? And bridegrooms?
Helena reaches the shore and bends down to pick up a coral pink shell. Its interior has been washed clean by the waves and she strokes it with a ringless finger, then casts it into the foam. An angry sea. Clear blue, like his eyes. Or cornflower blue? 
Helena tosses her posy to the wind and shakes the wispy veil from her head. Her black hair struggles out of the carefully placed pins and whips away the tears from her thread-veined cheeks.
Helena picks up the dead slug shape from the grubby pink cushion and places it on a bone china plate with cornflower blue edges; an engagement present from a crochety old aunt who is now dead.
There is a furious buzzing in Helena’s gloomy kitchen, as a crazed bluebottle finally lands on a length of grubby white satin, which hangs from the airer. Helena turns to watch it stumble over a loose pearl button and smiles.
She wrenches the dress from its hanger and tugs it over her head. More pearls escape the worn stitching.
Helena takes the dirty copper pan from the kitchen table and begins to snap off large pieces of chocolate, hurling them onto the caked-on surface. She pulls the shiny fabric further over her lumpy thighs, grasping the singed wooden spoon tighter as she stirs the melting chocolate.
It’s a nice day for a white wedding.... There is music in her head once more.
A viscous lump of dark mixture splashes onto her breasts. Helena looks down, swipes it away with a plump finger and, on seeing the stained fabric, begins to sob. 
© Jo Derrick, 1997

4 comments:

  1. This is beautiful, so rich, earthy and poetic...the way you described his words like worms, and how she can spew them out, "biting their fat bodies in two and letting them wriggle to the floor." I really enjoyed it. Its so visceral.

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  2. Thank you, Niamh. It's very good of you to take time to comment.

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  3. This was very descriptive but I struggled to find the message in it. Is Helena a jilted bride or is there something more to it. Sorry for being an emotional retard but poetic stuff like this doesn't do it for me.

    Having said that, it's well written and flows okay.

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  4. I enjoyed this story, and particularly loved the many vivid word-pictures that worked on all five senses.

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