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The Gates

by Nick Norton

Teresa’s fits were arriving on a regular basis. Sof was assisting her on the walk. It would not be a long walk. The city grey smear of sun was a terrible affliction and yet, with peaked cap and dark glasses, Teresa was willing to challenge this glare.

Every morning this week she had called on a friend to assist in this ritual. If they could manage it when the sun not too high, the noises of the neighbourhood not too great, then Teresa may be able to rebuild her strength.

  Her front door key was stored beneath the rosemary bush so that a friend thumping on the door did not reduce Teresa to spasms. Sof gently peeled her friend out of the dim recesses. Teresa wore a pair of sunglasses over her already tinted glasses. She wrapped silk scarves around her face and muffled her quivering body in an ancient Crombie. At the door she halted, as if struck. Her tiny garden was filled with rosemary and lavender and drifts of rubbish. Sof snapped off a spray of lavender which Teresa thankfully crushed and secreted in her scarves.

‘Okay?’

‘Yes, let’s go.’

The street was mostly terraced social housing. At one end of the street there was a squatted factory. In a previous existence it had made reproduction furniture. The plane trees had grown huge so their roots rippled beneath the paving slabs in serpentine fists.

  The first few steps were always painful and tentative. Teresa hooked herself onto Sof’s proffered arm. Sof smelt the accumulated waves of lavender and incensed candles, the stale residue of steamed fish, and the greasy dust of unwashed hair. She struggled with her friend’s aroma, the sadness of it made her stomach revolt, yet she fought this revulsion and steadied the frail body against her own. This was not Teresa as she had always been. She trusted that this was not Teresa as she always would be.

  They crossed the road and made small talk about The Institute. Teresa had been unable to continue and now lived the syllabus in a visceral fashion. She had not given up on the hope of making art.

‘Look at the gates,’ Teresa tugged Sof. ‘I want to make drawings of these. The Rising Sun is the most common traditional design. See, here’s one.’

  The badly painted gate, black peeling to reveal rust, was a schematic half circle with radiating lines. Sof sensed the tremors flushing up and down Teresa’s badly linked skeleton. Her flesh had been ravaged by numerous vaguely described conditions, a mysterious sequence of body blows which stretched out medical invigilation over numerous departments. She sighed, in her mind hearing the words I want to make some drawings. This meant Teresa had not yet done the drawings.

‘Don’t get too excited,’ Sof patted Teresa’s gloved hand.

‘O come on now, Sofia love, don’t deny me the thrill of peering into my neighbours’ gardens!’

  They laughed, which was good, and the street remained calm. They were just ahead of the commuters.

  A few steps further on, they paused to scrutinise another gate. This one, Teresa thought, was a Tree of Life. The bars all radiated out from a central point, three on either side, the ends curling over themselves as crudely shaped fronds.

‘I have dug out some old wax crayons. You know? Kids things, chunky, but bright.’

‘To draw gates with?’

‘Yes.’

  They moved on. It felt to Sof as if her friend were drifting beside her, as light as a paper bag or kite. Or a ghost. Sof determinedly stepped onto pavement, making sure they were both there.

  In the next gate design, similar to the previous, they observed a heart shape nested in the radiating branch motif.

‘The heart motif is definitely life.’

‘The thing is,’ said Teresa, ‘pencils have become too complicated for me. Their lines are guilty, wavering, vanishing. That is my young adulthood.’

‘T, hon, you are not a pencil.’

‘Wax crayons are childish. This is good. I want the child to draw.’

  They stopped at another gate. It was a brute portcullis, a blank face with gritted teeth. Sof admitted she had never really given gates much attention. Her friend said that most people do not, the gate was a part of the household’s unconscious.

  ‘Once we built against physical ingress. Ditches and gates dictated any approach. There was a controlled way in and then castellation, battlements, slots for shooting out arrows, gruesome drains down which boiling oils might gush. You know, all of that. But physical attack is secondary to psychic attack. As an enforced anchorite I can ponder these things at length.’

‘So this garden topiary is shaped like the top of a castle.’

‘That’s what it is saying. In a lovely British polite way.’

‘Next up; concrete cast blocks with petal shapes.’

  They peeped in on the radiant ovals, four loops pressed into a square. Teresa said that she believed people, without allowing themselves anything as obvious as believing in this, were always trying to negotiate on what got in and what would not be allowed in.

‘I know all about refuge nowadays, Sof. Refuge is never as safe as you want it to be. We set up our borders and by this alone it seems an attack is invited. Let’s cross here and go back.’

Sof hesitated. She was concerned.

‘Are you saying that the house is a body?’

‘Of course.’

‘So you suggest that the manner of dress invites attack? Like She was asking for it when wearing a short skirt?’

  They had made it to the opposite pavement, returning to the flat. Teresa was having difficulty catching her breath. She said white wings were flicking around her head, bars and dots filled her eyes.

‘Sorry, I…’ Sof hesitated. ‘Was I getting worked up about the wrong thing there?’

‘For me, now, everything is attack. But look at the shapes, here.’ Vertical ovals with petal shapes in the wooden fence. ‘We try to allow angels in.’

  The garden was neglected, full of litter. They hobbled on. Wood pigeons rustled around and cooed loudly in the tree branches. A boy was swinging on his garden gate, waiting for his family. The door of his house was open, the mum was shouting upstairs for one or another of her tribe to Shift it!

‘Hiya!’ called the boy to the two women.

‘Morning,’ waved Sof.

‘What’s up with the miss?’ Teresa could now barely lift her head; Sof sensed the papery quality being replaced by the thick weight of a dizzying and terribly private oblivion. Sof sensed the raging in Teresa’s skull and could barely manage a smile for the boy. Yet the boy’s smile was wholly delightful and Sof wanted to match it. She gripped her scarecrow friend and shaped a smile to send back to the boy. The effort to do this made her tearful. The mum glanced warily, trying to look in all directions at once; up at the still locked bathroom door and out toward her son, who was flirting again.

‘Don’t you disturb the ladies now, George!’

  Teresa lifted her blind square glassed–over eyes and weakly said she was not disturbed. No one really heard this but Teresa’s gesture concerned the woman enough for her to take five steps down her pathway and pick up George.

‘Honey,’ she said to her child, ‘you remember how I have asked you not to swing on the gate.’

  George nodded and, as he was turned and carried back to the house, he waved for Teresa and Sof. Teresa waved back. Beneath their feet the rooted swells became mountains. Sof hauled her friend over the pavement’s wilderness and tucked her in, behind lavender and rosemary, in the obscure rest of her seclusion.

Nick Norton is a writer whose previous prose can be found in Shooter, The Happy Hypocrite, Fictive Dream, The Honest Ulsterman, Brittle Star, Vignette Review, and elsewhere.