A Picnic (latest draft)

July 22, 2009 at 10:08 pm (Skrifa)

A Picnic

Marcel’s eyes flew to the top of the stairs, where her wing-tips were still just in view.

“Marcel!” she cried. “Run!”

He ran, and when he could finally see her, she called to him again. “Marcel! The train!”

Her woollen poncho billowing out behind her, as though she were a bat. The train, smirking with half-lidded eyes at him, like a giant snake. Marcel could not reach her in time, and the train lurched, as though it were gagging.

“Oh,” she said, “now we won’t have our picnic.” She combed her hair back with her fingers.

But the train had stopped. The conductor opened a door on the end and called to them.

“Come,” she said. She took his hand.

On the train, she sat facing the window, her fingers drumming on the windowsill. “Marcel,” she said, “have you ever seen a lamb without ears?”

“No,” he replied.

“I have,” she said. “On the coast of Scotland, far north, where the rocks are black and jut out into the sky. The farmer who took care of him had a cruel sense of humour, because he had a bell on his neck. It was so his mother knew he was coming, because he did not bleat. He never knew why, when he jumped, other lambs bleated at him. They must have thought his bell was his voice, and so although he could have had a voice, he never knew how to use it, because he didn’t know what the bell was for. The farmer’s wife told me all this.”

“Didn’t he give away the flock to wolves?”

“No,” she said. “When they weren’t out with the flock, they kept him pastured. His mother would wait outside the gate before it was time to come in for the night.”

She wagged her wing-tip at him, swinging her right leg. The picnic basket was becoming uncomfortable, and so he put it on the floor. She glanced at it for a very long time before looking up at him.

“Is there lemonade?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he said. He opened the basket and found a bottle of lemonade for her.

“I am sorry I’m drinking it so early,” she said. “It’s not at all warm today, but I’m so thirsty.”

An old woman sitting across the aisle from Marcel leaned in and said, “There are no wolves in Scotland.”

“Really?” he said.

“Oh, it’s true,” said the old woman. “There haven’t been wolves in Scotland for hundreds of years.” Her back was curved, but her eyes were bright, and they smiled. “May I have some of that lemonade?” she asked. But before Marcel or his companion could answer her, she saw the drinks trolley coming down the aisle.

“Never mind,” she said to Marcel, and patted his hand. “I can buy something of my own.”

“Do you have ginger beer?” she asked the man behind the trolley.

Marcel’s companion was drinking her lemonade very slowly. She did this, Marcel had noticed, when she had tired of a drink but did not want to put it away, in case she would want it again. When she saw him looking at her, she gave him the lemonade. He put it in the basket.

The train was passing over water.

“Look over there,” she said to Marcel.

He looked, but could only see trees and bulrushes.

“I saw a house,” she said. “It was nothing but a ruin of wood and roof tiles. It was very pretty.”

“Ruined houses are dangerous,” he said.

She looked at him with hurt in her eyes. He looked away.

“How long is it until our stop?” he asked her.

She did not answer at first, twining her fingers in and out of each other.

“How far are you going, dear?” asked the old woman.

“To Lewes,” he told her. “To the end of the line.”

“Not long,” she said. “Perhaps twenty minutes.”

Marcel’s companion asked, “Do you know how long the bus takes? From Lewes to Cuckmere Haven?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, dear.”

“Don’t worry about us,” said Marcel. “We’ll be fine.” His companion looked at him worriedly, but she said nothing.

Five minutes before the train pulled into the station, Marcel picked up the picnic basket from the floor, checked that nothing would spill or be crushed, and walked to the door of the train. His companion followed him, after she noticed that he had gone.

“You got up without telling me,” she said.

“I thought you would notice,” he replied.

She patted his arm, although her eyes were sad, and walked to the door, bringing her face very close to the window glass. She fogged it with her breath. This irritated Marcel.

“You shouldn’t do that,” he said. “You might catch a cough from other people having done that.”

“I’m sorry, Marcel,” she said. “I don’t want you to worry about me.”

“I’m not worried,” he said, even though he was.

She smiled at him again, and again, there was hurt, but she wiped it away clean, and her smile brightened. He smiled back at her, genuinely pleased.

The conductor pushed past both of them, apologizing. “Sorry sir, miss. I have to unlock the door.”

“Thank you,” said Marcel’s companion. The conductor tipped his hat to her.

“Won’t be long now,” he said to them. “You’d best step back, sir, miss. You don’t know how tricky these trains are if you haven’t worked on them all day.”

“Have you ever fallen off?” asked Marcel’s companion.

“No,” he told her, “but I saw a man fall. They’d polished the brass on the handle and not wiped it after with a rag. His fingers slipped off and he fell with hardly any fuss, right under the wheels of the train.”

“Oh, oh my goodness, how horrible!”

“It weren’t as bad as you think, miss. He only crushed his leg. Happily working, hopping about like a frog. The passengers love him. Excuse me now, miss.” The conductor unlocked the door and, after testing his grip on the brass bar, swung out over the gap between the train and the platform, calling, “Eleven-thirty morning Wealden Line to Tunbridge Wells, all-aboard!”

“Don’t you take a break for lunch?” asked Marcel’s companion.

“Not today miss, no,” said the conductor. “The train don’t stop long enough at this hour. We just turn right around again.”

As they passed, he said, “Good day sir, miss,” and smiled at her. “Eleven-thirty morning Wealden Line to Tunbridge Wells, all-aboard! One minute to departure, all-aboard!”

An unpleasant-looking man pushed past Marcel, and tore the picnic basket out of his fingers. It hit the ground with a crash, and a sound of breaking, and the man turned around irritably, as though the noise of the picnic basket had been an unexpected inconvenience for him.

Marcel wanted to punch him, over and over, until his face was raw and bruised. His hands shook. But he crouched, and attended to the picnic basket. His companion had already righted it and was searching to find out what had broken.

“It’s only the fig preserves,” she said. “They haven’t gone far. We’re only going to have to wash one napkin and the wrapper on the ration chocolate, and there’s plenty left in the jar for the cheese sandwiches.” When he said nothing, she looked up. “Marcel?”

He was staring into the distance, the green hills and beyond, the sky over the ocean, which he could not see. He knew the ocean was there, but he could only know it because beyond the hills, there was nothing but sky. He was clenching and unclenching his hands.

“Marcel,” she said, “it’ll be all right. Help me wrap the preserves.”

He helped her, but she cut her palm on the glass. He didn’t know how; one second he was helping her guide the thick damask napkin around the broken jar, the next she had drawn back and there was blood on her palm.

“Marcel!” she said. Her eyes held alarm, and not quite fear.

He stood, and put his hand on her shoulder, turning around to see if he could find a conductor, or the stationmaster. “It’ll be all right,” he told her.

She had wrapped her hand in a napkin, and was sitting with her legs folded under her, nothing escaping her woollen poncho save her wounded hand. She looked very small.

He spotted a man in uniform, who was in fact the stationmaster, and asked him to fetch bandages, and some rubbing alcohol.

The stationmaster brought them at a run, along with some water for her to drink. She sipped it while Marcel tended her hand and the stationmaster hovered worriedly about their heads, wanting to ring the local doctor on the station phone.

“Are you sure I don’t need to telephone a doctor?” he asked. “I’m sorry miss, I don’t want to worry you, but that does look quite deep.”

“I am a doctor,” said Marcel. His companion nodded at the stationmaster in confirmation.

“Oh,” said the stationmaster. “Is the young miss all right?”

“Her hand will heal nicely,” said Marcel. “As long as she keeps it clean.”


He looked at her professionally. “Yes?”

“It’s nothing.”

He looked back down at what he was doing.

“Very proud to have met you, in that case, sir,” said the stationmaster. He nodded towards Marcel’s blue peaked cap, lying on the ground because Marcel had removed it to tend to the wound. “You’ve done us all a wonderful thing. Shall I hold your cap for you, sir?”

“Thank you,” said Marcel, but without looking up. The stationmaster rubbed his thumb over the red lacquer crown, the eagle in gold.

He said, “An honour, sir.”

“Where’s the bus stop for Cuckmere Haven, please?” asked Marcel’s companion.

“It’s only down the High Street and to the left, miss. I’ll take you there.”

“We’ll be fine,” said Marcel.

“It’s no trouble,” said the stationmaster. “The bus stop is only a sign and a bench; you might miss it otherwise.” He handed the cap back to Marcel, who held it but did not immediately replace it.

Marcel wanted to tell him to leave, but the man was very kind, and so he did not. On the way to the bus station, his companion acted like there was nothing wrong with her at all. She was bright and lovely, in her silly men’s shoes and her heavy poncho, and the stationmaster was obviously very taken with her.

“You remind me of my own youngest, miss,” he said. “Cheeky little bird, she is. Eats nothing but fruit from our apple trees when it’s ripe; the missus has to force-feed her with cold ham otherwise she’ll turn into a bird, I shouldn’t wonder.”

When they arrived at the bus stop, the stationmaster waited with them for a few minutes, to be polite.

“Are you French, sir, by family? That makes it so much more difficult.”

“My grandfather,” said Marcel.

“Me, I love the French,” said the stationmaster. “My wife is from Calais. Her whole family, gone, just like that.”

“How awful!” said Marcel’s companion.

“It was hard,” said the stationmaster. “It was hard, miss. It was hard for all of us. But we’re all right now, aren’t we miss?”

“Yes,” she said.

Marcel asked, “How often does the bus come?”

“Did you check it before you left?” asked the stationmaster.

“Yes,” said Marcel’s companion. “It said the bus was due every day at 12 o’clock.”

“Sometimes it runs a bit late,” said the stationmaster. “You’d best wait a few minutes more.”

“Thank you,” said Marcel.

“Well sir, miss, I must be off.”

“You’ve been very kind,” said Marcel’s companion.

“Not at all, miss. Sir,” said the stationmaster, and left them.

“Marcel,” said his companion, “would you fetch me some water? I’m a bit dizzy.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Marcel. “Wait for me here.”

When he returned with a glass of water, she was sitting on the ground.

“Don’t do that!” exclaimed Marcel. “The ground is filthy and you’ve an open wound!”

He helped her up, careful to avoid her hand. He gave her the water glass. “Not to mention, you look common when you do that.”

I’m sorry, Marcel,” she said. But she looked shocked when he said the word common.

The bus came, and they sat on the top, because she wanted to see far ahead.

“You know the chalk in the cliffs is falling into the ocean,” she said. “The land is shortened by almost a foot per annum. It makes the cliffs look like a rumpled carpet.”

“I did know that, actually.”

“Really?” she exclaimed. “Where did you learn it?”

“In school, you goose,” he said, and ruffled her hair.

He was standing up before the bus came to a stop, anxious that the bus might not stop for them.

“Don’t be so worried,” she said. “We’re nearly the only ones on the bus. Besides, you pulled the bell.”

He stood anyway, and lurched down the stairs, with the picnic basket hitting the walls. She followed, but half-way down the stairs the bus turned a corner and she grabbed the railing with her wounded hand. She fainted.

Marcel caught her, and brought her to the ground level of the bus, and then went back to fetch the picnic basket.

“Is she all right?” asked the conductor.

“She’s fine,” said Marcel, and carried her off the bus with the picnic basket before the conductor could ask any more questions. He laid her in the grass near the bus stop, and rolled a cigarette.

“Marcel,” she said. He ignored her. “Marcel.”

He knelt beside her and lifted her up. “Where should we eat?”

“I don’t know, Marcel,” she said. “Perhaps we should just eat here, and not bother with seeing the cliffs today.”

“Everything’s all right!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, but I should dress my hand again properly,” she said.

“I did dress it properly!” said Marcel.

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. You did. But it does need dressing again.”

“Please,” he said. “Let’s walk to the cliffs.”

“I can’t, Marcel,” she said. “We should take the next bus going in the opposite direction.”

“You stay here, then,” he said. “I’m walking to the cliffs.” He picked up the picnic basket.

She called after him, “Marcel!”

He kept walking.

“Marcel! Please!”

Her voice got quieter as he walked. The smoke from the cigarette was getting in his eyes.

“Come back!” She was trying to run to him. “I’m sorry, Marcel, I’m not like you, I’m not strong like you.”

“No,” he said, “you’re not. That’s not a wound, that’s a scratch. On a good day, that’s a scratch. On a bad day, that’s not even worth bandaging.”

But Marcel,” she said, and her voice was breaking. Her face was tinged with grey. She did not look well, even to him. “I’m not one of them. I’m your sister, Marcel. Your baby sister. The one you used to look after and sneak ha’penny sweets to when mum and dad weren’t looking.”

“I remember you,” he said.

Yes,” she said. “You just don’t remember you.”


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