Short stories

Heather Child’s short stories have appeared in a range of literary magazines.

Big Rock Candy Mountain

Climate Camp Anthology (2007) and Beyond the Bubble (2009).

Green concrete

All I remembered was the ice-cream van, its sickening music blaring high-low-high-low. Now I was in hospital, starchy sheets drawn up to my chin. Over by the door, a man with thick stubble examined his nails.

“Someone hasn’t been taking their beta blockers,” he said.

My body felt delicate, like the air must feel after a thunderstorm.

“I’m on the full dose, as you well know.”

His upper lip rose into an arch, a look of pure disdain.

“If that were so,” he drawled, “you wouldn’t be here wasting my precious Tuesday morning.”

I guessed he was a consultant, though he was not wearing a white coat and seemed fairly indifferent to me. Since living in America I’d been led to expect the kind of hospital cleanliness you only saw in Carry on Doctor back home. This man was an anomaly. However, at that moment I saw a gaggle of younger, more efficient-looking medics through the glass walls. The scruffy man ducked out to converse with them, before announcing:

“Angina, heart attack, decreased myoglobin levels, overactive t-cells, hypertension in the left ventricle…” he paused, “and one eye slightly higher than the other. What you have, my friend, is a case of Boyle’s Syndrome: an extremely rare form of common heart disease. You see, when you crossed the road, microscopic particles of drying asphalt entered your lungs and set off fireworks in your bloodstream. Ka-boom! I think I’ll check you in for a quintuple cardiac bypass. Nothing to worry about… it’ll either cure your condition instantly or leave you with minutes to live.” He paused, as though savouring the ring of his own voice, then added, “Heart surgeon can do Wednesday, Wednesday or Wednesday. When’s good for you?”

I had to interrupt.

“Look, thanks for the diagnosis and all that, but I know what caused my heart attack.”

His head slid back briefly, as though there were a short railroad across his neck. He pursed his lips, and my ECG machine blipped quietly in the silence.

Suddenly he lurched towards me and swung a thin leather chair into position between his legs.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, “years of diagnostic medicine have taught me nothing, compared to Joe heart-patient. Enlighten me.”

“My name is Lemmon, Arnold Lemmon.” I corrected him.

“So?”

“It was nothing to do with the roadworks.” I hesitated. “Do you really want to know?”

“If you ever want me to stop staring at you like this.”

I looked deep into his watery eyes, and saw the soul of a very determined, very annoying individual, someone who probably wouldn’t believe my story in any case. Yet it was a story I had to tell. Like the Ancient Mariner I hoped that a little bit of the memory might cling to someone else, as pebbledash sticks to a wall, if I heaved enough of it towards them. I began to mutter:

“Oh, the buzzin’ of the bees in the peppermint trees
round the soda water fountain
where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings
in the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

“You think that’s an American song,” I said, “but it actually refers to a small English commuter town. Ah the sixties! Do you know what happened in that swinging decade? Milton Keynes, that’s what. Stevenage and Craigavon couldn’t hold a candle to its concrete majesty. But with Mountsville we were determined to try. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Mountsville, the one we nicknamed Rock Candy Mountain?”

The man sneered.

“People sure love living in big gray boxes.”

“Well, that was the point,” I replied, “they hated living in big grey boxes. Everyone dreamed of a Land Rover, two dogs and a garden the size of Exmoor.” I stopped and tucked the sheet round my shoulders. “Unfortunately, they decided that it was all about the colour green. Green was good. It was only the greyness of urbanisation that was getting people down.”

My words hung in the air and I cringed. “A new committee was formed,” I said, “to advise the government on how to make planned towns more green. It was headed by a councillor, Gina Oloranger, a chemist, Dr Margaret Limer, and an architect… and what do you think they came up with?”

“Do tell.”

The cardiac monitor bleeped, accusingly.

“Green concrete.”

“Green concrete?”

“They came up with a way of mixing chlorophyll – the green pigment in plants – with cement, in such quantities that the concrete became a beautiful green colour while still being usable as a building material.” My eyes had come to rest on a dusty plant in the corner, taking me back to my first view of the skyscrapers of Mountsville. The green they had chosen was a mellow, garden-shed shade, gentle and inoffensive.

“It was built in record time, just up the M6 from Birmingham, and for a while it seemed like the simple step of turning concrete green was really making a difference…”

The grizzled man suddenly interrupted:

“What have you got to do with all of this?”

I looked at the clothes-peg on my finger. It was probably meant to be monitoring my blood pressure or something. Talk about being pinned down. This hospital was beginning to get on my nerves. I had a sudden craving for real ale, in a pint glass with a nice frothy head. Or at least some castor oil, like in the old days, something bitter. The man’s eyes had not left my face, and suddenly he gave up waiting for an answer.

“You’ve changed my original prognosis. Nurse!” His voice bounced back at us from the perspex walls. “Anti-psychotic drugs, prontissimo!”

I felt my heart rate surge.

“I’m not raving,” I gulped. “It’s all true.”

“Well I don’t hear it adding up to a medical condition.”

“I’m getting there.”

I forced my mind back to Mountsville, all those years ago. A head swirled with ginger hair like hot fudge sauce.

“Gina Oloranger,” I sighed. “We used to meet – just to go over figures, you understand – in a penthouse apartment. After our meetings I’d wander over to the window for a smoke and look out on the green high-rise flats, car-parks and shopping malls. I fancied I could hear laughter. Everyone seemed overjoyed with their new town. But later that summer I noticed something strange. It was the biggest heatwave for decades, yet the whole city seemed to be covered in frost. All the office blocks and the roofs of garages.” I smiled grimly, “the apposite term being frosted.”

The doctor shifted impatiently, releasing a whiff of sour aftershave. A sigh rocked my body. “How could we not have foreseen that the chlorophyll in the concrete would start to photosynthesise? The whole city gleamed with a sugar coating, and the sunnier the weather, the sweeter it got.

“I remember one bright day, exactly two weeks after the first news headline, walking to work and seeing a coach-load of people. The exodus has begun, I thought sadly. But then the passengers started pouring out and behind them stepped a woman with a clipboard, dressed in marshmallow pink. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Candyland!” It was a tour, an organised tour! I had to unstick my feet before I could walk on – the streets had become very sticky. But it was dreadful. Children could be seen picking sugar icicles off window ledges or even licking the walls. The council’s response was to distribute free lollipops, purely to get the kids off the concrete. Were they all blind? We could never go on like this, with ever-thickening white crusts on south facing walls, the smell in the air, the strange exhaustion at the end of a working day…”

I paused to catch my breath, inhaling through the savoury fibres of the sheet.

“Most of the children became either hyperactive or very sick, and families eventually did begin to leave. I remember staring out of our penthouse window, seeing strange patterns in the sugar. I pinned Gina against the boiler by the scruff of her arms.

The whole place is disintegrating! It’s our fault and they know it. Darling! We can’t kid ourselves – they know it’s our fault. Think of the money!

But she told me I was overreacting, that it was just a fluctuation in the property market, or some such guff. I suspected she’d snapped up a bargain flat or two and thought she’d make a packet. But the city was photosynthesising like crazy and would soon be completely uninhabitable. I gave her my last sane blink, then flew into the bedroom to pack. Some years later I heard she had stayed till the very end, long after the doors of the town hall boarded themselves up with a sheet of syrup.”

I fixed the doctor with an exhausted glare.

“So that’s your story. Now will you stop looking at me like that? God I could use a pint of bitter. That’s the problem with America – no good ales.”

“No warm ones anyway,” he retorted, “and what has this got to do with your little heart-tantrum?”

Closing my eyes, I scrunched up the sheet and used it to massage my temples.

“I was responsible. Can’t you see that? It’s not just the lollipops children threw at me, or the giant sticks of rock they used to stave in the windows of my Mercedes-Benz… it’s what I carried with me when I ran. Even the smell of sugar – or ice-cream – hurls me into cardiac arrest. When I think about the ghost town that was left, the green streets fetid and crumbling… It was all so stupid. Why were we only thinking about the here-and-now? I came up with a term for it, you know, the kind of dangerous discussions we got into. It’s called magnolia talk. Like the paint I use when I’m in a hurry. It covers everything and it always looks good. Damn the Big Rock Candy Mountain, damn our artificial, e-numbered, sweet-wrapper green…”

The machine to my left was beeping. The man stood up.

“Might want to start calming down about now,” he said. I was already out of it. My vision held long enough to see the younger medics crowd in and start fiddling with tubes and syringes. “Green food colouring” I tried to wheeze, “why not chuck some in the drip? Be green!” I sniggered and wafted away for a second.

“Clear,” someone was shouting. “Clear!”

It was all very clear, now that I could smell the fresh, minty smell. I could hear the humming. The buzzin’ of the bees in the peppermint trees.