A new short story by Anna Lawrence, project writer in residence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Gav twisted the button on the telly until the picture settled, laid out two sheets of newspaper on the settee and flopped down.
Bub looked up from her homework at the dinner table. She limited herself to one wafer biscuit per piece of homework completed, eating it carefully over a plate. She dabbed up the pink crumbs with a wet finger.
‘Not this, Gav, please. Turn it over. What’s on the other side?’
It was that daft advert with Death done up like a hooded monk, stalking round those stupid kids trying to get their ball out of the water. Bub usually pretended she needed a wee when these things came on, and usually never went, peering round the doorframe, holding her breath, watching through her fingers.
It unsettled her; it might make her do something reckless and compulsive, like climbing into an abandoned fridge and shutting the door behind her while playing hide and seek, or trying to catch a firework, or smuggling a rabid dog into the country (although she wasn’t sure when she’d get the opportunity). Mum had taught her how to cross a road, but still, she’d memorised every frame of Tufty the stop-motion squirrel, with his dead black saucer eyes, twitching along the pavement for an ice cream, and when she heard the soft thud, the yelp of brakes when Willy Weasel dashed out behind the van, she always said, ‘Serves him right,’ under her breath. There was something shifty and unwashed about that weasel. But she worried that she, too, would be gripped by the compulsion to run out behind a van, and whenever Auntie Stel gave her coins to get herself a lolly, she refused.
‘I need a wee.’
‘No, you don’t. It’s your favourite.’
‘Adverts are boring. Turn it over.’
‘It’s not an advert. It’s state-funded horror. I am the spirit of dark and lonely water…’ Gav actually rubbed his hands together when these things came on, like a cartoon villain. He saw these stupid films as dares, instructions. Things to try.
“It’s the perfect place for an accident.” He knew all the words and made his voice go deep and creepy.
Auntie Stel had offered to buy her a kite last summer – everyone wanted to buy them things last summer – but she’d said no in case she flew it into a power line. Children who did that – stupid children – deserved to fry like those lardy strips Gav peeled off the wodge of bacon each morning and slapped, sizzling, into the pan. Bub would track what her brother touched with his unwashed hands, and when he’d pulled on his overalls and slammed out, sucking ketchup off his fingers, she crept round the house, wiping raw meat fingerprints from door handles with a bit of Dettol on a hankie. There’d been a film in Biology about microbes. You couldn’t be too careful. Auntie Stel had actually spooned mould out of a jar this morning before spreading damson jam on Bub’s toast. Bub had said thank you and folded the bread into a bit of kitchen paper, saying, with her fingers crossed behind her back, that she’d eat it on the way.
She’d been relieved, at first, to bring her suitcase and her box of books to Auntie Stel’s. In their old house, the absence had pressed on her like great slabs of stone; the place felt hard and hollowed, heavy with a ringing, pressured silence. Auntie Stel’s was full of life. Radio 2 was always chirping in the background. The air thrummed with Woodbine and Glade, the surfaces thronged with porcelain owls in mortar boards and otters smoking pipes and after her shift on Friday nights, Auntie Stel would bring a brick of pink wafers from the factory.
‘Listen!’ Gav cackled. ‘I’ll be back.’
Bub packed away her colouring pencils and her geography book. A letter fluttered out.
‘Shut up, Gav. I hate that stupid Death voice.’
She grabbed the letter and crumpled it up before Gav could see, not that he was watching. She didn’t want permission for the stupid trip anyway. She couldn’t see why the other kids were so excited about a big hole full of rocks. There wouldn’t even be a gift shop, and the coach ride was only ten minutes. She’d dreamed of the quarry after glimpsing it through barbed wire and thicket when Gav took her blackberrying last August, trying to keep her mind off things: the land dropping away, suddenly sheer; the vast sprawling wound of a canyon yawning at the sky; tarry pools and slurry tips and blackened trees and rocks snatched out of earth by machines with claws the size of houses, scraping, crushing, scalping.There was something chilling and thrilling about the scale of it, something alien and removed, like the bleak landscape at the top of the beanstalk. She worried that she would not be able to keep from jumping.
‘Chuck us the biccies, if you’ve left me any, greedy piggy.’ Gav twisted and held his hands out, ready to catch.
‘I’m not chucking it. They’ll go to dust.’ She placed the tin on the coffee table with exaggerated precision. She pushed Gav’s feet off the table. His corderoys were thick with drying mud and the left leg was torn. He levered the lid off the tin and crammed a wafer in his mouth.
‘What happened to you, Gav?’
A thick track of blood all up his shin.
‘Come off in a ditch.’ He spat crumbs. ‘Chain slipped.’
‘I’ll get the TCP.’
‘Don’t bother. Only a graze.’ He picked something off his leg and held it up to inspect it, then wiped it on his t-shirt.
‘It looks like a cut.’
‘Bike’s ok. That’s the main thing.’
‘You need to clean it up.’
‘Nah. It’s just a bit scratched.’
‘You weren’t up the quarry, were you?’ She stood with her hands on her hips, looking down at him.
Every time they argued about the quarry he’d tell her she was daft. It wasn’t just him who went up there, he’d say. He’d seen swimmers, bird watchers, climbers. Some old hippies looking for hornblende to heal their root chakras, whatever they were. Even his old geography teacher scratching at the rocks for fossils.
She’d told him there were chemicals there. What they all called ‘the blue lagoon’ would strip his skin, she said. Dissolve him like a tooth in Coca Cola. He’d said that there were chemicals in the water at the local baths, otherwise they’d all be one big verruca. And what did she think her precious Jif was? Fairy puke?
(Years later, after yet another young man has drowned on a hot afternoon, she wants to ring Gav to tell him she was right and that the Council’s dyed the waters black in warning. But she can’t. The quarry, mourning).
She’d told him how the ground slips. The slopes are too sleep. You can’t get out. The water is too cold, too deep.She’d read about it. She’d seen it on the News. Dead things in there. Livestock. Rusty metal. The bodies of old cars. She’d threatened him with tetanus and drowning, but nothing seemed to work.
‘I said, were you up the quarry again?’ She folded her arms and glared down, trying to be commanding.
He grinned up at her. ‘No, Mum.’
They both reeled, just a fraction, and shock washed through his face. He looked suddenly limp. Bub bit her lip. She wasn’t going to cry. She hadn’t cried since the accident and she wasn’t going to start now. She hadn’t even cried at the funeral. She tried to think of nothing, of the curiously blank limbo of the Play Schoolset, with its soft-lit curved studio walls, the opaque tissue-paper dreaminess of the arched window and the staring rigid blandness of that fat doll, Hamble. She had never liked Hamble.
‘Have it.’ Gav held out a biscuit. ‘Go on. It’s the last one.’ His hands were mottled with dark patches of oil and mud. His fingernails were black.
‘Don’t want it. Your hands are piggin’ filthy.’
‘I don’t want anything from you.’
He waved the biscuit in front of her nose. ‘Good clean muck can’t hurt.’
‘Muck’s not clean. That’s the whole point.’
‘You’ll catch something.’
She wanted to tie Gav to a kitchen chair and scrub his whole face with hard green soap until he was all foam; his eyes, his mouth, his ears, his nose. She wanted to smash the Dettol bottle over his head and pour it down his throat. Make him bath in it and burn off the sticky filth on his shin. She wanted him clean and safe. What was it Mum used to threaten?
‘You’ll get botulism.’
‘I’ll give you botulism!’ Gav sprang up and, before she could get away, he’d pinned her to the settee and crushed the biscuit against her mouth. She pressed her lips tight.
‘You’re chicken. Scared of a bit of muck. Just eat the bloody biscuit.’
She shook her head and tried to bat his arms away, but his full weight was on her. He squeezed her nostrils together until she opened her mouth, coughing. He laughed and squashed the wafer in. Oil and muck and sugar on her tongue.
‘I’m not chicken,’ she said, thickly.
‘Suck my thumb. It’s still got crumbs on it.’
She bit him, and he pulled his thumb out, laughing.
‘I’m not chicken, Gav.’
‘What are you then?’
Mum had always said she could trust her to do the sensible thing. Old head on young shoulders. ‘I’m sensible.’
And this is what made her sob, at last, until she couldn’t catch her breath and snot came out in bubbles. Gav put his arm around her. ‘Nah, you’re not chicken. You’re sensibubble.’
And that was what he called her, until ‘sensibubble’ eroded into ‘Bub’ and stuck, as if that had always been her name, and when she remembered the Night of The Pink Wafer, it was Bub who had been there, not the girl she was before.
Bub knows to look both ways and to keep looking, but she isn’t quite sure how to becross safely. She is facing her fears. She has driven on the motorway and petted large dogs. She has watched the opening credits of Tom Baker’s Doctor Whoon YouTube without covering her ears and eyes. And now she’s got to ‘Quarries’ on her list. She searches for the quarries she remembers in the books that frightened her – Annerton Pitand Stig of the Dumpand The Yonderley Boy– but can’t find quarries here, just mines and chalk pits and ordinary hills. Her memories slip like grit under her feet. The land slips and crumbles; she is in free-fall, like the old man who wouldn’t say his prayers, goose-flung over the bannister, face contorted in shock and fear. Mum taped up that page in the Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes when Bub was little, but then Bub got frightened of Cock Robin, not because it was inherently scary but because it signalled the approach of Goosey Goosey Gander, and then the pages before and after, until she had to hide the whole book under her bed where it lurked and hummed. She finds it in a box in the loft, with Gav’s jacket and Auntie Stel’s owl graduate. She peels off the browned and brittle tape and makes herself stare at the face of the old man, falling. She finds a ranger to take her and says it’s for a project. He points out the artificial osprey nests, the newt habitat, the rewilding, and while he’s not looking, Bub puts her hand into her pocket, pulls out a handful of pink crumbs, and scatters.
2 thoughts on “Quarry”
Thank you for this evocative story, Anna Lawrence and Ruth Livesey. May I share it with a class? Are you publishing with a Creative Commons License? It’s simple and free: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/
Thanks Bev. Anna and I are happy for you to share it with your class and thanks for the reminder about CC licensing – we shall set that up for our content. R