Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Elin Hjulström

Published Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Words by

The Kid

Darkness is falling on London, but for an hour at least, the city belongs to the birds. Alone in the naked land, Michael and the Cowboy follow the cracked line of the horizon down towards the river. The Cowboy is drawing ahead, forcing the boy to call out after him, “Cassidy! Oh Cassidy, wait for me!”

Darkness is falling on London, but for an hour at least, the city belongs to the birds. Alone in the naked land, Michael and the Cowboy follow the cracked line of the horizon down towards the river. The Cowboy is drawing ahead, forcing the boy to call out after him, “Cassidy! Oh Cassidy, wait for me!”
The Cowboy pauses a moment; lifts a hand to wipe his damp brow. As Michael draws up beside him he reaches out and claps the little boy around the shoulders, driving him forward. “Keep up kid; ain’t no place to hang around.”
“Are the bandits coming, Cassidy?” Michael asks, gazing up at that broad brown face with its lantern jaw full of cracked teeth. Cassidy is a Cowboy, but he hasn’t got a horse or a rope – only a small black revolver in the breast pocket of his overcoat.
“If only we had a horse,” Michael says thoughtfully. “Why haven’t you got a horse, Cassidy?”
The Cowboy remains silent, and Michael senses it might be best not to ask any more questions. Instead he hurries along in the wake of the Cowboy, his bony legs straining to keep pace. They have moved beyond the familiar brickdust tangle of factories and labourers’ cottages and find themselves instead among the skeleton remains of Kensington. Amongst these broad vistas and terraces they find a forest of stone and smoking timbers – a parade of vast, portico-ed beasts who howl in silence and warm themselves by the intermittent bursts of vermillion flame.
Michael finds a cracked artillery shell, still warm to the touch.
“The bandits have already been here, haven’t they Cassidy?” he says with a delicious shudder.
“I’d say so, kiddo,” replies the Cowboy. “Now what say you we have a look around?”
He pads off into the darkness, but Michael pauses a while in his canvas shoes, neck craned back, aching in his shadowy heart to see the bandits, bright and brave as they were against the velvet night.
He was both too old and too young to recall the ragged fear he had felt, crouched night after night with his parents in the shelter. Such things as sweat, or fear, or the beatings of his mothers’ heart – these belonged to Before; to his first life.
He had begun to live, he knew, when Cassidy had plucked him from the wreckage and brought him, coughing, to a land without fear, or baths, or arithmetic. Now the pop and whistle of the raids held no mysteries for him, and the aircraft were not enemies but thrilling bandits, setting sail on the vast tides of the sky.
Startled from his reveries, Michael follows the Cowboy towards the only standing house, very tall and white amidst the blitzed wilderness.
“Can we go inside?” Michael breathes – and the man nods.
The house is still and mighty. Cherubs dance above the parquet floors. At the end of one long corridor, a breathless Michael finds the kitchen, and beyond that the cavernous larder. He and the Cowboy gorge themselves on tins of peaches and pineapple, cramming as much of the sticky fruit as they can into their gaping mouths. Michael opens a can of condensed milk and drinks that, too. His stomach swells like a party balloon between his cage-like ribs and he chokes, swallowing vomit, drinking more carefully now.
Carrying the empty tin in both hands, he returns down the long corridor and settles himself at the grand piano. The keys are smooth as glass. Before, Michael took piano lessons twice a week, and played for his mother on rainy afternoons before supper. Michael stretches out his fingers and moves them over the keys, but does not touch the piano.
He turns shaky cartwheels down the marble halls. There are ghosts here – and a curious chill in the air, as if the nursery window had been left open. At the foot of the stairs there is a smell; faint, like the memory of something long forgotten.
Michael climbs the stairs two at a time, and gazes up from the shadows into the cracked face of a grandfather clock. Here in the shattered glass he glimpses the figure of a small boy; a peculiar fellow – grey, as though blown from the dust of the house itself. Michael gazes at this curious waif, then raises his hand in greeting. The creature waits a moment, then waves back.
On the landing there is a stronger scent in the air, which Michael follows to a room at the end of the hall: a room of silk and mirrors. Here, a light wind ruffles the gauze at the windows and tugs the draped canopy of the bed. There is a hum in the air. At the dressing table Michael sits himself down and begins to rifle through the drawers.
“Michael,” says a voice behind him. “Michael, you will be careful, won’t you darling?”
“I will Mother,” says Michael, wreathing his arms with bangles and bracelets. In the looking glass he sees the soft, white face of his Mother gazing down on him with love. She is dressed for bed in a pink chemise. “Sorry, did I wake you?’
“Oh no my darling, I was lost in thought.”
“About what, Mother?”
“Just things. Now come along Michael, it’s time for bed.”
“But I’m not tired yet.”
“I know my sweet, but you must go all the same.”
Michael allows his mother to run a comb through his hair and dress him in his striped pajamas. She smothers his face with kisses and whispers in his ear of pirates and mermaids until his eyes begin to close.
“Mother,” he mumbles. “Mother, we shouldn’t be here. Don’t you know the bandits are coming?”
She is stroking his hair, soothing him. “Oh Michael”, she says fondly. “You are such a fanciful little boy.”
“Mother,” says Michael, suddenly gripping her hand. “Don’t leave me. I’m scared of falling asleep. I’m scared of the bandits. Won’t you stay with me?”
“Michael, you know I have to go.”
“I know.” He says softly, sadly. “I know. But please be with me just a little while longer.”
“Of course my love,” she says, and murmurs some more to her child in the darkness.
It is very cold when Michael awakes. Outside the window he can hear a little bird singing, its voice at once very sweet and very sad, and it seems to Michael that the bird and he are one, and this sad, sweet song is resting against the chords of his own small heart. He can feel the soft shape of his mother beside him, quiet as a dream, and nestles against her chiffon side.
Sleep weighs heavy upon him, and Michael remembers his dream. There had been a cowboy – the Cowboy from the film he had seen with Freddie and Martin and George. Michael smiles to himself – it had been a good dream. He remembers the bandits, and longs for them once more.
Suddenly there is a hand on his shoulder, rousing him from sleep.
“Come on now, time to get up.”
“No.” Michael mumbles. “No. I want to sleep some more. Oh why won’t you let me sleep?”
“Come on now.”
“I don’t want to.”
He is terribly weary all of a sudden.
“Come on now kid, don’t keep me waiting.”
The Cowboy is standing above him like some hateful figure of dread, ringed in filth, his pockets heavy with gold and pretty things.
Michael is suddenly angry.
I don’t want to go with you!” He shouts. “You go! I shall stay here with my mother. Please, I don’t want to play anymore.”
He is crying now, although he isn’t sure quite why. He hugs his mother to him.
“Mother, Mother! Please wake up, please! Tell him I shan’t go with him. Tell him I won’t!”
But his mother is sleeping still. There is a hum in the air, and a breeze swift becoming a gale. The canopy of the bed is flapping, snatching at him.
“No! No, no, no!”
“Michael,” says the Cowboy. “Michael, look at your mother.”
“No,” Michael says.
“Look at her, look at her face.”
The gale is becoming a storm, the hum, a roar.
“Cassidy,” Michael says. “Cassidy, please.”
And as Michael turns his head he sees that the woman is charred down one side of her body. The skin has burnt away to leave a moist, mottled mass of black and red from which one puckered eyeball rolls baldly in a lashless socket. A smell like roasting meat rises from her ruined flesh.
“It’s alright kid,” the Cowboy says as Michael screams and leaps away, tumbling backwards onto the floor where he lies shrieking and thrashing, tearing at his skin and hair. All about him clings the touch of the reeking, odious corpse who is not his mother.
His mother is dead. His mother is dead as all mothers are dead.
Michael looks past the Cowboy. There are no walls to this ruined house, only a short drop and a sudden stop. He sees the first fingers of dawn raking the ruins of the burning city, combing through its pockets and plucking at its fractured wrists. The last of the bandits – were they bandits? Had they not had another name? – is wheeling away, while another craft – this one of a different kind, a sheriff, perhaps, or some such other in a white cloth hat, follows close behind.
“Whose side are we on, Cassidy?” Michael whispers thickly through his tears.
“Neither kid,” says the Cowboy. “We’re just passing through.”

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