Nocturnal Pilgrimage by Helen Harradine | THIRD PLACE Short Story Competition 2022

I tap Morrison’s hand. Dead to the world. That’s what you say about me when I’m in a deep sleep. I’ve watched Morrison do this over and over. I tap again — no movement. I stand back and look at his slumped form. I like Morrison. He is Tuesdays and Wednesdays. He used to be Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. I have been having big thumping headaches since the change of timetable. It’s not just headaches and everyone knows it — but they’re silent. I’m refusing to leave the house for anyone but Morrison and so Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays can be a bit rubbish. 

The cupboard is forbidden but nothing awful happens when I remove our jangly house keys from an inner hook. My handbag, neatly placed at the end of a row of belongings, slides out efficiently. Everything that isn’t mine, I leave untouched. The straps of both backpack and handbag dig into my shoulders making me feel unstable and weighed down. I never carry my own stuff anymore. There’s no point if other people will do it for you. My mum says it’s good to be independent, that independence leads to confidence, but the opposite has happened. It’s not that I can’t do these things. It’s simply that I don’t want to. I especially don’t want to do what my mum says. I get to make my own decisions, that’s what Morrison and the others say.

Morrison blinks and a sound comes out like a baby bird. I freeze and want to stand here in the same position for a long time. I can see the moon through the long window beside the door and a cloud shifts over making me look away and stumble sideways. I regain my footing and glance up. Morrison is 31. The same age as my sister Miranda. Miranda is a lot more beautiful and a good deal funnier than Morrison. When she visits me she gets the number X25 bus. It takes approximately 43–62 minutes depending on traffic. 25 stops. I haven’t seen her in 46 days. I want to ask Morrison what Miranda is doing right now. A disgusting gurgling noise exits his throat. I jump, but this is one of those moments where I must be brave.

Morrison is brave enough to step on the grass outside. Not me, I like to go the long way round. I follow the pavement and make sure I keep inside its borders. Morrison has another home, another family, and that’s where he disappears to. He has a dusty old banger that comes and goes, but he doesn’t get to decide when his shifts are. He gets told, so he says. I wonder what Miranda is doing right now. Morrison normally says he doesn’t know, or that you’re at work, or asleep, or that he doesn’t know. He sometimes mutters under his breath but I don’t get a bad feeling from him. I tend to know when someone doesn’t like me and I think, I know, Morrison is one of the good ones. Sometimes I feel my face turning hot when people are unkind and I can explode like a volcano. This happens when I’m not being listened to; when people don’t hear me.

I look back at the front door shut tight and up to my bedroom window with the curtains drawn. The other windows are mostly dark in the houses surrounding ours. A glow emits from Iain’s who always falls asleep at college. I take my time so I don’t step on any of the dead leaves. I keep glancing forward at where I’m going, the street lights guiding my way. I memorised the road names from Google Maps. It’s easy to do. Morrison wouldn’t though, he’d just look at his phone the whole time.

“55 Primrose Street, Edinburgh EH6 8DL. 07858 513219.” I say out loud from memory. I have this address written down and I can visualise the words right there in front of me. A cat meows back at me, flashing its green eyes. I don’t like cats or dogs. They are dirty, smelly, scary things.

It is quiet at the bus stop. The cat is long gone. I double check that this is the correct place by looking at the sign. I check 47 times just to be safe. The schedule is a straightforward grid that Miranda taught me to read. Morrison does this kind of stuff for me because he doesn’t believe I can do it. Even though he spends a lot of time with me, he doesn’t know me like Miranda or my old school friends. They all go to a different college now and no one wants to visit me here. I wipe my eyes with my coat sleeve and do a big sniff so that my lip doesn’t start quivering. I’ve remember I’ve forgotten my lip balm. My lips feel crunchy and cracked.

I see the X25 coming but it doesn’t slow down and whizzes past. A cold wind whips me in the face. At the bus stop opposite a man holds out his arm. I feel silly because I know that’s what I was supposed to do. How could I have forgotten? Miranda would be disappointed. It’s a while before the next bus so I walk around the plastic shelter. I count 9 cigarette butts, 11 flattened pieces of chewing gum, and 15 pieces of litter. Once I’ve walked around the shelter 52 times I see the two bright headlights of the bus approaching. This time I remember to hold my arm out.

The door opens and the driver looks at me like I’m stupid. He might think I’m a little girl but I’m not — I’m an adult. I’m a little smaller than Miranda. I can show him my ID if he really stinks up a fuss. I am an adult so I deserve to be treated as such — that’s what Miranda says. He’s stopped gawking and is now avoiding my eyes and ushering me on, allowing me to put my rucksack in the luggage compartment. It’s rude to have a big backpack on the seat next to you on a bus. The rubber on my trainers make a suction noise with each footstep. There are mumbles and groans from the people dotted around. I choose an empty seat near the back but not at the very back. That’s where the naughty kids sit usually.

I don’t smile at the man who sits next to me as it’s important not to be too open with strangers. I can be far too trusting. I catch myself smiling in the dark window because I am thinking friendly thoughts and quickly turn my smile upside down. I don’t dare move my eyes from my feet until I count to ten.

When I look up a group of boys stagger and sway onto the bus. They take over: low loud shouts and a lot of swearwords like in age-18 movies. My heart swells as I think I fancy one of them. He lights up a cigarette or something and opens a window to let the smoke out which is considerate. He doesn’t look at me in that way though.

They appear to be making a mistake. I raise my hand and ask them to stop but they can’t have heard me. I shout louder and shoulder on my handbag following them off the bus. There is confusion as they see me coming and they scatter and run. They must be embarrassed that they accidentally took my backpack. It lays strewn across the pavement. Two ironed blouses, three ironed tank tops, one black pair of ironed jeans, one blue pair of ironed jeans, three pairs of knickers, three pairs of socks, trainers with two times £20 note — one from Morrison’s pocket the time before and the other from the purse in my handbag. I feel inside the trainers and the money is still there. They must have realised their mistake but I’m surprised they didn’t stick around to apologise.

It’s only a short walk to Miranda’s flat from here but because I had to get off the bus early I have to climb up a lot of steps. This wasn’t in my plan but I have to do it. I’m almost there and I know how many steps there are. I begin to count, thumping my broken rucksack on each step. There is a dull ache in my back and I’m beginning to get frightened. I can hear deep voices in the streets below and hope it’s the boys coming to apologise for their mistake. My arms are now starting to feel tired. I miss Morrison and want to ask him about what Miranda is doing. The concrete wobbles and I hear my glasses smash before I feel the ground take me. It’s a good job I can do this next bit with my eyes closed as without my glasses I am legally blind. The wind whips up rustling leaves and debris. I try and move as quickly as possible walking through the map in my mind. Something doesn’t add up. I wish I had someone here to help me.

A fluffy thing brushes up against my legs meowing and an involuntary noise jumps out of my mouth. The cat doesn’t get frightened away and I know I don’t like cats but I think it might be a friend. As it starts to purr, I slow and think, slipping into reverse mode. Right. Left. Two. One. Back at the steps. There aren’t any voices, only the dark empty street.

She opens the door and folds me into a bear hug.

“What are you doing here?! It’s not safe for you to be gallivanting on your own.”

“I forget,” I say, still on her doorstep. I look up and see an aeroplane travelling to its destination lit by strobes and navigation lights: red and green wingtips, a white beacon, and a flashing strobe. 

There is a loud rhythmic buzzing noise.

Miranda holds her phone to her ear and says: “Morrison? Yes, she’s here. Thank god. There needs to be a report into how this was allowed to happen. You’re supposed to be safeguarding her, for Christ’s sake. I’ll bring her back in the morning.”

You can follow Helen on Twitter @helenharradine and on Instagram @helenjharradine 

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