Reading Room    Memoir    Interview    Poetry
Kirsten McDougall

The moment before light disappears

Lying on the sofa, he likes to peer into the gaps between the cushions. There it’s dark and smells of dusty polyester. The inside is lined with black cotton quilting. Sometimes he finds lint, handkerchiefs. On a lucky day, a silver coin. Sometimes the sofa is a small deserted island where he must eke out an existence with a knuckle bone and a fishing rod. Between the middle cushions the lining is torn. He looks into the sofa’s inner workings, springs and plywood boards, crumbs from the cheese-on-toast he and Sylvia eat on Sunday nights.

Sylvia puts her plate down on the coffee table.
Eat your crusts, she says, eyes fixed on That’s Country. She takes a smoke out of its box. He has rolled those cigarettes under his nose, sniffed their sharp minty smell.
I don’t eat crusts, he says, looks her in the eye. He watches her breathe in deep through her nose, nostrils white and twitchy.
Fine then. She takes his plate off his lap and walks out to the kitchen.

He does not run after her or cry. That woman is not his real mother. His real mother is luminous with mystery and power, knows that crusts are not for consumption, howls through the pylons at night calling for her lost son. That woman stomping round the kitchen is a temporary measure, soon to be destroyed by dark forces.

He picks Sylvia’s pink lighter up off the table, flicks the steel round and ignites the gas. Flame rises to a peak, orange with a blue centre. He moves slowly to his stomach on the couch, carries the flame delicate as bone china. Switches the flame low and high, low and high. The metal heats up, hurts his finger. He releases the gas, the flame disappears.

On TV Ray Columbus introduces Miss Suzanne Prentice, she winks at the camera. Federico thinks she is beautiful, her shiny gold top ruffles round her neck, her hair blow-waved into voluminous parts. Miss Prentice holds the mic loose and thumps her fist in the air. She sings Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle, thank god I’m a country girl.
She could be my real mother he thinks and flicks the pink lighter.

He puts his fingers down the side of the cushions and touches a coin, large as a fifty cent piece. He edges his hand and the lighter inside the gap, flicks the steel for a better look. For an instant, cotton, springs and plywood are brightly lit – a silver coin glitters, there’s a sound like wind channelling a tunnel and flame leaps up the back of the sofa. Federico jumps up, drops the lighter at his feet and watches fire spill over the cushions and arms.

Never has he witnessed such perfect lack of hesitation. Inside the boy, time slows down, halts. Grey-black smoke lowers. The room, sofa and fire become distilled as an image, loose brush strokes in an oil painting. This is the moment before light disappears. At the centre of this – a boy, not clearly seen if you look too quickly, almost transparent, the colour of smoke.

Flames rise up to the ceiling, dance under the plastic light shade round the light bulb. Above Federico the bulb shifts and cracks, an explosion of glass and electrical sparks fall on his head. Flame moves down the sofa legs, foam starts to drip onto the floorboards. From what seems to be outside the house he can hear Sylvia screaming, then her hand wraps tight around his wrist, time twists and rushes. A fiery tap at his woollen socks. Sylvia wraps her arms round him, carries him from the room slamming the door shut on the hungry flame.

Siân Daly
Stephanie de Montalk
Melissa Firth
Julie Hill
Wes Lee
Natasha Leitch
Mary McCallum
Kirsten McDougall  
Susannah Poole
Ben Sparks

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