Operation

Fiction
Sophy Bristow


Photo Credit: Jenn Vargas/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Wishbone (1978, Age Five): My arm feels like the Christmas wishbone snapping as mum pulls my hand… ‘Leave it, Megan. It’s dirty’… ow, it hurts, and my knees are wet, marks on my tights, trying to reach the red circle, my favourite hairband… but mum snatches it and puts it in her pocket, I want to ask her for it, but she’s looking across the courtyard… I stare at the ground with shiny flecks to dance around, I want to go to that puddle, but her arm is yanking mine again… ‘It’s dirty here, Megan. What did I just say?’… she points at the spot by the wall with the coloured swirls where she always makes me stand, maybe they’ll let me in this time… ‘Stay here where I can see you, I won’t be long, I’m watching you’… but she’s still looking away as she says, ‘I’ll give it back later if you’re good, and we can play Operation’… wish-bone, funny-bone, knee-bone, round red nose… I can see a red circle on the coloured wall and I jiggle from side-to-side giggling because she always tickles me when the buzzer rings… but then she’s walking into the alleyway like last time, and that man is with her, his coat looks square and has shiny buttons… from the side his nose is the shape of my favourite green triangle chocolate… I’m not sure where he came from, but I don’t like him, and now I want to cry… I look at them, then back at the wall sploshed all over with swirls and blobs… I trace my finger along the bright lines, seeing if I can find a cat, a seagull or even her face among them… but it’s just circles, round buttons, red noses… I tap where my wishbone is… and every now and again I look over my shoulder, for her hand coming back towards me out of the dark.

 

[(1995, Age 22): Blinking through wind-whipped dust, I loop my arm through Tom Boyce’s and say through my smile—‘wait ‘til you see this.’ He pulls away and turns to look at the house perched in front of us on this north London street. It’s another in a line of angular Georgian buildings, with flat faces and multipaned windows making compound eyes. The stray crisp packets flitting around and unremedied cracks across the frontage mark it out as a student place. Number 26, where me, Katie and Natasha live. As I turn the key and open the front door, Tom and I can only make out a deep, green shade and the heavy smell of blossom.

I unhook my arm and pull on his hand. We go inside, but instead of a hallway cut by the angled light from a landing window, we step straight into the swaying layers of a garden. Instead of the sigh of pine floorboards, we feel newly dug soil underfoot, and a low branch creaks in the breeze. Reaching out, our hands brush, not plaster walls, but the tip-tops of leaves. Around us everything points upwards, hollyhocks stretching, peas and beans twisting around skinny poles…]

 

Butterflies in Stomach (1989, Age Sixteen): It’s pouring, and the salty taste of the sea runs down my face with the rain. I duck down a passageway to get away from cars spraying puddles and I shelter against a high wall. Shit, I shove all my shopping into one Topshop plastic bag because all the paper ones are soaking wet and falling apart. My fingers are numb and I flick at my pink plastic lighter trying to light a Camel Light, fuck, the wind keeps blowing it out, my hands are freezing. I really want that skirt I saw in H&M, did I get the right colour eyeliner, is Clearasil going to dry my skin out, should I get those Doc Martens, can anyone from school see me, did I go too far with Tom Boyce and will he call?

I peer up through the blur of rain and look around to see where I am. It’s like that place you always end up when you leave the cinema through the fire exit, blurry as you adjust to the light, broken glass crunching, graffiti yelling at you. I see the red circle painted on the wall opposite.

I’m here? I’m in the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it, the one where mum would make me wait by the wall while she disappeared off with that man in his buttoned-up uniform. Shit, my fringe is soaking, it’s in my eyes, it’s going to go frizzy, I can taste hair product on my lips, can anyone see me? I pull my hood up further over my head. Will Doc Martens go with a skirt, and how often did we used to play Operation anyway? I need to get out of here.

This alley is nothing, I say, nothing, just a thread in the web between home, school, and the playground where I sit on the swings with my friends Katie and Natasha, sipping MadDog 20/20, laughing so hard that we’ll still feel the cracks decades later. I’m spinning my web outwards, but it’s sticky, like the drink.

FROM THEN TO FOREVER in neon blue. DIRT CHEAP in dirty white. Big capitals on the wall like someone really-meant-business. Splattered red BUTTERFLIES IN MY STOMACH.

Oh god, you can’t be serious, someone has got a window open and is playing “Sunday Girl” really loud. I try to swallow but my throat feels like I’ve grown an Adam’s Apple and it’s choking me. I play the words of the song in my head; I can’t help it—dad used to listen to it all the time. I told him, of course I did, about what mum did here—he and I were sat in the living room one evening, the rain outside so hard it sounded like it would kill spiders, Parallel Lines on the record player, and I said that she used to meet someone, and she might have had an affair. Cold as ice-cream but still as sweet. After dad had left to stay with his brother Jimmy, I screamed at mum that I’d told him and she sat with a fixed stare, as hard as the sky and the sea fused together.

I need a lipstick, should I get Revlon Lustrous Paint the Town Pink, like Lauren in the year above? I like her red chenille jumper, she smells of Impulse and Camel Lights, I want to be like her. Can anyone see me?

The rain is lessening off, so I light another cigarette and cross the courtyard into the alley. The walls are too high for how wide it is, like one of those shipping canals in our Geography Today book, full of new horizons and boats loaded with cargo. Mum used to stand with that man right here in front of this bricked-up arch. I run the tips of my fingers over the brick with the Camel Light still in my hand, where does it end up? I take a long drag and the taste of tobacco mixes with salt and L’Oréal Freestyle hair mousse. Where will I end up?

Maybe I’ll get Katie and Natasha to play Operation later—please take out my butterflies first, sip of MadDog every time you get the buzzer. A few last drops of rain drip off the end of my nose and I blow out circles in short puffs. I can feel the geometry of the alley in my grasp, but I can’t see past the walls yet, because I’m still spun on the inside. Should I get a diffuser attachment for my hairdryer?

Can anyone see me?

 

[(1995, Age 22): …with the slam of the front door behind us, I see Tom search through the sweet haze, panicking to make out a landmark linking him back to the London street we’ve stepped off. But it seems like the walls of the house have folded down flat, and this garden we find ourselves in is expanding out on all sides. Its blanket of leaves covers us, and he takes a breath…]

 

Water on the Knee (1995, Age 22): …there’s no point stopping now. As I march forward, calling for Tom to follow, the garden rolls out in front, and beyond that a valley and a billowing tarpaulin of hills. Silent, we follow a path which keeps to the valley floor, clinging to the right of a river. The further along the valley we go, the hills close in on both sides, until the path turns abruptly, becoming a narrow sheep-track that cuts up the right-hand slope in slow, careful zigzags. We scramble up, running out of breath, until we come out ‘on the top.’ Satisfied, we turn back to look at the house, which is a crumb now on a vast green plate. I plonk myself on the ground, pulling him down and looping my arm through his again, more decisively this time. We rest our heads on the deep-sprung heather and look up through bored clouds. The city streets are spread out in the sky over our heads—the curved concrete of London Zoo’s penguin pool swoops like vapour-trails, the dome of St Paul’s is the white circle of an impatient moon, and buses buzz around like bees.

‘Does this ever stop?’ he asks, gesturing around by flicking his eyes, ‘how far could we walk for?’

—‘I’m not sure, I haven’t got to the edge.’

‘Does anyone else know about it?’ The twitch moves over his face, like a bird crossing the sky.

—‘I don’t think so. Katie and Natasha haven’t said anything.’

‘What… Well, I suppose… Where are we?…’

—‘The garden behind Uncle Jimmy’s cottage, it opens onto the valley. I used to come here all the time with mum and dad, before he found out about her meeting that man in the alleyway…’

His eyes flicker again, and he opens his mouth to speak.

‘But we’re in London, Megan, we’re in Finsbury Park…’

I turn on my side, rest my head on my left hand and put the fingers of my right hand gently over his lips.

—‘Shush,’ I say, smiling, ‘or I’ll smother you up, and if I do it out here, no one will ever find you.’

He laughs, but his eyes are still darting.

*

On the way back we pause at a small stream that crosses our path, running off the hill and feeding into the river. ‘Hang on, let’s stay for a bit, make sure the stream is running OK,’ I say. I bend down, but Tom Boyce, who doesn’t know the boggy ground, kneels at the stream’s edge and wrinkles his nose as damp seeps into his jeans in cold patches. Working together, we dip our hands into the nippy waters, pulling out any large rocks that block the flow, and patting at the silty borders to mould them into firmer walls. Once we’re satisfied, we brush down our hands on our trousers, jump over the stream and make for home.

—‘You seem like you know the stream well,’ he says. ‘You didn’t get your knees wet.’

‘Dad used to say that if we helped it run strong, it would hold our family together in the valley, whatever happened. That made mum smile, like when we played Operation…’

 

Spare Ribs (2010, Age 37): The air’s been knocked out of me, the stuffing is long gone. The courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it sits in the centre of the wide view from my open kitchen window, with the sea behind it. I flip myself up and fold myself over to look at it. From this height and distance, and with the weight of all my stares, I have managed to level the alleyway’s high walls and drain their sour filling into the salty puddle of the ocean. The courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it is now nothing more than a flat page that I gaze down on, and this morning the next chapter of its story dropped through my letterbox—a planning consultation to tear the courtyard down and build a carpark.

The developer’s brochure sits on my desk, and I glance up from its glossy pictures to look at the sea, flat, fused with the sky, and it’s like mum’s stare is back on me, saying never ask me about it. Sparkles on the water’s surface tempt me back to the shiny tarmac I danced over as I waited in the courtyard for her to return… But I focus back on the brochure’s open pages. ‘Go ahead,’ I mutter. ‘Raze it, build whatever you like on it. I’m just going to sit here and watch.’

Copies of Herizons, Bitch, and Bust, the ones with my flat articles about mothers and daughters, are fanned out on the kitchen sideboard, with some old Spare Ribs of mum’s that she’s let me take. On top I can see January’s edition of Ms. with a big red circle on the cover—hanging off the white bar in the middle is the silhouette of a young woman. My name is written in the bottom right corner, No Entry: Megan Bold on closed doorways, and I feel mum smile at me with the pleasure that she used to reserve for when we played Operation. My heart and stomach leap into 3D in my chest, threatening to pump me with air.

Stop, fold myself down, put myself away.

The spare rib she gifted me won’t collapse, it’s sticking out of my chest and holding open the lid of the big oak trunk that I store myself in, the one from her living room that I persuaded her to give me when she moved to the bungalow. All the old games are still inside, apart from Operation, which I think she must have taken with her and put up in the loft.

 

[(1995, Age 22): …me and Tom get back to number 26 as the sun sets in a red circle and sit on the back step eating peas straight from the pod. Tom Boyce fidgets and looks around and then tries to see how far he can throw the empty shells. He’s not saying anything now, just letting out long green breaths, and after a few restless minutes he gets up and strides off. As I hear the front door close the walls of the house pop back up, the valley disappears, and I am back in the living room with Katie and Natasha…]

 

Funny Bone (2016, Age 43): Blown like a kite towards the church, I fly over the floral arrangement that spells out ‘Linda’ in pink and red and land in my pew to sit alone in the front row at mum’s funeral, craning over my shoulder to see who else turns up. The stiff faces are backlit by a winter sun sieved through stained glass.

I gasp.

It’s the nose; he looks like the man who used to meet mum in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, the man who was always wearing his uniform with shiny, round buttons. Blinking, I see a woman, just behind, with the same profile, unmistakeable, like my favourite green triangle in Quality Street. I breathe faster and, as I do, I begin to re-inflate, greedy to suck in new air… I can see at least five people who have the profile—they must be part of a family… am I finally going to find out who it was?

Eyelid twitching, I stand up and start to walk around the church greeting people on my newly puffed-up legs. I want to know who this family is. Right now. ‘Second Cousin,’ says one of the faces, ‘Great Uncle,’ says another. What? This is mum’s family; these are relatives I’ve never met who have crawled out to say their goodbyes or atone themselves for years of staying away. I run my finger along the bridge of my nose, tracing the shape, I don’t have it, mum didn’t have it either. I take in rapid puffs of air. Why didn’t mum just say she was meeting a cousin or an uncle or whatever? Come on mum, why?

It’s so stupid that I start to laugh as though the tiny tweezers from Operation are reaching inside and tickling my funny bone. Come on mum, you’re killing me. My head expands like a soufflé as I gasp in huge lungfuls, and slowly, my fixed expression splits and then my body cracks down the middle through my heart to the ground underneath.

I gasp, tears roll down my cheeks. Can people tell I’m laughing? My hair is falling in my face, but I laugh harder, so hard the ground breaks open, and the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it bursts through, sending tons of concrete flying as it slots back in; I imagine its blocked archway opening up and mum rolling through, towards the red circle. The buzzer sounds. I’m practically on the floor laughing by now, like I used to with Natasha and Katie, laughing so hard I can’t stop. Come on mum, stop it, stop tickling me!

*

At the wake, people eye me as I stalk around studying them, so familiar although we have never met before. So, which of them was she meeting in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard then? ‘Not me,’ they say. ‘Courtyard?’ They raise their brows, innocent-like. ‘Uniform, no never, but you know who?… No, that’s…’ Their glance turns sideways.

I leave early because I want to go to mum’s bungalow and get to the bottom of this. Right now. I take the spare key from under the loose brick in the driveway, open the door, and climb up the ladder into the loft, digging through piles of Ruth Rendell thrillers, old letters, and beaten-up maths textbooks with names like Hess and Fletcher that sound more like spy stories. Finally, I find a Laura Ashley carrier bag wedged under the eaves. Inside, along with mum’s old copy of Operation, is a photo album wrapped up in some paisley curtains. I start to flick through it.

 

[1995, Age 22: …‘What happened?’ Katie asks, offering me her last Camel Light while running her other hand through curly auburn hair, which she dries every morning with a diffuser. ‘Where has Tom gone?’

I shrug.

‘I’ll go to the corner shop.’ She’s looking at Natasha with a frown and motioning at the cream telephone on the sideboard. ‘I need to get another pack of cigarettes, and I’ll get us some wine.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Natasha, standing up and pulling her dead-straight blonde hair into a knot with such determination she winces. She mumbles something to Katie and they nod at each other. ‘Everyone OK with white?’—but it isn’t a question. And they look at me, still frowning, but trying to smile…

By the time they get back, I am laid out on the floor, as flat as paper…]

 

Broken Heart (2056, Age 83): Maycroft Manor care home and I’m playing Operation on my own in my unit, like I do most days.

I am neither flat-packed, nor blowing up. I no longer use hair mousse and I only go out in the rain when someone is on hand to help me back inside if my mobility device malfunctions. Most importantly, I know, I am absolutely certain, that the MM-Assistants (I still call them nurses) can see me. They can see me in front of them, and they can see me on all the little screens that are in the Maycroft Manor control room, where they monitor my ‘machine’ that administers drugs and shocks as and when I need them. I know they can see me because they flash ‘yes’ when I ask them if today is Wednesday and ‘no’ when I say that I’d like to go down to the seafront. They look at me blankly when I pick up the little pincers and so I turn to them and explain, ‘the red nose lights up so you know when you make a mistake; you should understand.’ They’re renderings, of course, with identical bobbed hairstyles, and they communicate in binary—red circle for no, or ‘incorrect,’ white circle for yes; it’s all in the pupils. The manager explained that he programs them this way because policy states that healthcare contexts should seek to eliminate grey areas, but I know that the more advanced software is too expensive.

Looking at memories from above, replaying stories, making connections so there’s never an ending, isn’t that what people do when they get older? Testing the steadiness of my hand, I remove Adam’s Apple first, and then, still dialling in my touch, the Ankle Bone’s Connected to the Knee Bone next. It’s the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it that I’m looking down on under harsh spotlights because I’m sure that’s where the illness has always lain. My memories are scattered around it—Wishbone, Butterflies in Stomach, Water-on-the-Knee, Spare Ribs, and Funny Bone. I extract them one-by-one, to be reviewed, restored, reconnected, and rebooted. They are alive and pulsing.

A dog-eared photo, out of place and eerie in this world of emojis, screens, and invisible waves, watches the procedure alongside me, propped up like the other crumpling residents in the neighbouring units here at Maycroft Manor. I found this photo in the loft, after the wake. Written on the back, it says: Mr J Lawley & Linda Lawley, Eastbourne, 1942. It’s a photo of mum, just a little girl, with her father, Jack. The scene is unmistakeable—they are standing in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, in front of the bricked-up arch. The camera catches his profile—family nose, Quality Street green triangle. He’s wearing his policeman’s uniform with shiny brass buttons, just like I remember.

According to the Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Jack died two years later when mum was only seven, driven off the road by a speeding ambulance in the middle of a blackout.

I reach to retrieve the Broken Heart but my hand twitches and the buzzer sounds.

Bzzzzz. She kept going back there for a shadow. Like I kept going back to the stream in the valley, stuck, Age 22. Play again.

Bzzzzz. The alleyway-off-the-courtyard was a misconnection. A point where the wrong cargoes were spliced with the wrong horizons, a bad join where carefully packed memories and wishes leaked out.

Pass me the tweezers again please, Nurse, I’ve got to get this out.

Bzzzz. Bzzzz.

The Broken Heart is stubborn. Alarms going off, red circles flashing.

 

[1995, Age 22: …so, Katie and Natasha decide to fold me into an airplane and launch me back to my mother by the sea, flying high above the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, which cuts like the stream in the valley, but keeping everything apart instead of together. I dive down and then level off and drift in gently through the window of my mother’s living room, landing on top of the large oak trunk.

A love letter sent to the wrong address.]

pencil

Sophy Bristow is a writer living in Cambridgeshire in the UK. She has been shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize and has published flash and poetry in a few places including Lighthouse Literary Journal, From Glasgow to Saturn and Fenacular. She is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Email: sophy.bristow[at]gmail.com

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