Leilanie Stewart's fiction has appeared in Blood Moon Rising, Carillon, Monomyth, Wufniks, Stanley the Whale, The Pygmy Giant, The Crazy Oik, Sarasvati, Ariadne's Thread, Mad Swirl, The Neglected Ratio, Linguistic Erosion, Pure Slush and Weirdyear. More of her work is forthcoming in the Shattered Anthology 2016. Leilanie's fiction has also been selected for the 'Best of the Web' 2015 Storm Cycle Anthology, published by Kind of a Hurricane Press. Leilanie currently lives in Belfast with her writer and poet husband, Joseph Robert. More about her work can be found at: https://leilaniestewart.wordpress.com
Leah as the Artist’s Muse
Leah stood at the bus stop, without an umbrella in the pouring rain. I saw her shivering and walked over. She looked up as I approached and blinked sending a shower of raindrops falling from her long eyelashes.
‘You look freezing,’ I said.
‘I am,’ she replied with a sniff, her nose red.
‘Were you in church?’ I said, jerking my head towards the Presbyterian Church across the road. Leah shook her head.
‘Here, get under my umbrella until the bus comes,’ I said.
‘No, I’m fine, seriously,’ she said, her teeth chattering.
Leah. Always too polite. I rolled my eyes grinning.
‘Do you really think I’m gonna stand here and let you die of hypothermia?’ I said and she smiled. I held the umbrella over her head and a few minutes later, the 35 bus came. Leah climbed on first.
‘Thanks,’ she said, her summer dress clinging to her skin.
‘No problem,’ I said, smiling. ‘You might not be a good Christian, but I am.’
I spent the next day handing out flyers in the town centre. My church was planning a fete to raise money for a local hospice. The stalls of bric-a-brac usually drew in a few regulars who like bargain hunting, but the church wanted to draw in a younger crowd, so I volunteered to do some promotion.
As I talked about the fete to a couple of thirty-something women, Leah walked by. She didn’t see me, busy browsing the clothes in shop windows.
‘Hey, Leah!’ I called.
She spun round. ‘Oh! George!’
‘Wanna have one of these?’
Leah smirked. ‘More about church I see?’
‘Why don’t you come along some time? It’s really not that bad,’ I said.
‘No thanks, I’ll pass,’ she said.
‘Oh come on,’ I teased. ‘We’re having a fete and we could do with a few more young people around for the PR.’
She shook her head. ‘It’s not really my scene.’
‘Well, suit yourself,’ I said, smiling. ‘Doing some shopping?’
‘Yeah,’ she said, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. ‘I should get going actually. I’m meeting a friend.’
I nodded. ‘I’m glad to see you’re dressed in better clothes in case we get another shower.’
Leah fished a pocket-umbrella out of her bag. ‘I’m prepared this time.’
‘Alright then, catch you later,’ I said. Leah grinned and sauntered away down the street.
‘So why don’t you ask her out?’ said my friend, Stevie.
‘Ask who out?’
‘This girl you keep going on about. Leah.’
‘Oh- her.’ I shook my head. ‘No.’
‘Why not? Sounds your type. Early twenties, blonde. And the way you went on about her summer dress clinging to her.’
I screwed up my face. ‘It’s not like that, she’s a friend. I felt sorry for her, she was drenched. If you’d seen her in that dress, she was so pathetic...’
‘Yeah, that’s what you say,’ said Stevie, raising his eyebrows.
‘Believe what you want,’ I said. ‘I’m a man of church, I don’t take advantage of people. But still...’
‘Yeah, I knew it. Admit it-’
‘There’s something about her. Something I can’t work out.’
I shook my head. ‘This fragility about her. I just don’t know her that well and she keeps her distance.’
‘Sounds like she’s toying with you,’ said Stevie. ‘Playing hard to get. I tell you, she wants you to come and get her.’
After work, I took a shortcut through the university campus on my way to the bus-stop. The green lawn smelled fresh after the past few days' rain. I inhaled, enjoying life as I weaved among the students leaving their last classes of the day.
As I walked by the university cafeteria, I glanced in and saw Leah sitting with a friend. She was busy talking over soup and a bread roll. The café was open for another half hour, and as the last couple of stragglers left, I ducked in to say hello.
‘Leah,’ I said and pulled up a chair.
‘George,’ she said with a surprised smile.
‘Who’s this?’ I said, looking at the brunette with her.
‘Ashley, this is George. George, Ashley.’
I shook hands with Ashley.
‘Are they still serving?’ I asked. ‘Might as well get dinner while I’m here.’
‘No, café’s nearly closing. Actually, we’d better be off,’ said Leah.
‘There’s no rush,’ said Ashley, flicking her hair off her shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t mind grabbing a drink.’
‘You’re old enough to drink?’ I joked, ‘Drinking’s bad for you.’
Leah squeezed her friend’s hand. ‘He’s Christian, he doesn’t drink.’
‘Oh you’re Christian?’ said Ashley. ‘What church do you go to? I used to go to St Mark’s near-’
I heard a thump as the table rattled. Leah looked red. ‘Ow!’ she said. ‘I banged my knee.’
‘Well, that’ll stop you from running off then,’ I teased.
‘No really, we’d better go,’ said Leah, dropping the rest of her bread roll in her soup. ‘We have a lot of research to do, right Ashley?’
‘What do you study?’ I asked.
‘Byzantine studies,’ said Ashley, with a flirtatious grin. I looked at Leah. She looked tired, probably with all the coursework.
‘Well, good luck with all the research,’ I said. Leah smiled and gave me a wave as they left.
My car was finally fixed: my beat-up little old Ford Fiesta. The insurance covered the damage, but the accident bumped my premium another £300 to £1500 a year. I didn’t care that much. It was nice not to have to take the bus.
Lunchtime traffic was bad. I felt as though I’d been stuck at the zebra crossing for hours as streams of students passed by. One of the faces caught my eye. Like Leah, but maybe a few years younger.
I rolled down my window. ‘Hello there,’ I said.
The girl turned. Definitely like Leah, only she had to be sixteen, or seventeen.
‘Do you have a sister called Leah?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ she said smiling, ‘Do I know you?’
‘No. I’m a friend of your sister’s.’
She walked over. ‘Oh, you must be George. She talks about you.’
‘Where are you off to?’ I asked, noting her green blazer and skirt. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’
‘Lunch break,’ she said, in a sing-song voice. ‘Technically I’m not meant to as only sixth-formers are allowed off school grounds, but hey, I’m nearly sixteen.’
I tutted in a teasing way. ‘I won’t tell your sister.’
‘Thanks. She didn’t tell me how nice you are.’
‘What’s your name anyway?’
‘Carli,’ she said. ‘Well goodbye.’
I parked in a narrow back street close to the shopping mall. I had just enough time on my lunch break to pick up a present for my mother’s eightieth birthday. Her birthday fell on the Sunday of that week, so I planned to give it to her after church.
In front of the shopping mall’s huge glass doors, three promotion girls wearing hot-pants and caps, gave out flyers for a mobile phone offer. I shook my head at the scantily-clad women, irritated by the distraction, until one of them caught my eye. Leah.
She looked different to how she usually appeared with make-up heavy on her face. Her demeanor seemed more extroverted too, which didn’t suit her. Her legs were thinner than I had imagined and she seemed fragile underneath the facade, like a china-doll.
‘Hi. Do you know you have a phone sticking out of your head?’ I joked.
Leah’s kohl-lined eyes were wide with surprise. ‘Oh yeah, this?’ she said, tapping the plastic phone attached to her cap. ‘Part of the job. Fancy meeting you here anyway George.’
‘Gotta get a gift for my mum. What about you? Do you work for this phone company?’
‘No, a modelling agency. Most of the jobs are fun, but sometimes I have to wear silly stuff like this.’
I looked down at the hot-pants. ‘Well, not sure it suits you entirely.’
Leah managed a grin. ‘It pays the university fees, that’s all that matters.’
‘I’ll take a leaflet for your trouble. Maybe you can take one for my church fete in exchange,’ I said, grinning, and walked into the shopping mall.
I slowed my car down as I approached the green-clad girls. The one in the middle of the trio was definitely Carli, and it definitely looked like there was going to be rain.
I tooted my horn and wound down the window. ‘Hi Carli.’
‘Er- George, isn’t it?’
‘That’s right. I saw your sister yesterday out doing her stuff on the town.’
‘Yeah, she said she saw you.’
‘Wanna lift home? I can drop all you girls off.’
Carli and her girl-friends leaned their heads close together. ‘...He’s religious. Guess it’s a Christian thing to do...’
‘No thanks,’ said one of Carli’s friends. ‘We’ll walk.’
‘Where do you live? Near here?’ I asked.
The girls linked arms and stood staring at me, chewing their gum.
‘Kind of. Not far. We can walk,’ said Carli. ‘But thanks.’
The rain drummed against the windows. A fleeting thought of those poor girls crossed my mind as I emptied my groceries onto the kitchen counter. None of them had their blazers, nor seemed to be carrying jackets, or umbrellas of any kind. I pictured them running soaked to the skin, their uniforms clinging to them and their hair matted. I wondered if I should have went back to pick them up, but I let the thought go. I had to call my mum to check if her electricity was holding up alright through the storm. On a night like this, she would be frightened in her house alone. Noise, even loud rain made her think burglars might take advantage of the distraction and come.
I dialled the number and waited. There was no answer. I hung up.
Strange. Mum usually sat close to the phone. I tried again, punching in the familiar keys.
A young woman’s voice answered. ‘Hello?’
Who could that be? Did my mum have a home-help? ‘Hello?’ said the young woman, impatience clear in her tone.
I hung up a second time. A house-keeper; that had to be it. I dialled again.
‘Hello? Who is this? If this is someone playing a joke, it’s not funny,’ said the young woman, sounding breathless.
I put the receiver down, my heart thudding in my chest. Was mum ok? Once again, I dialled.
‘Who is this?’ said the young woman, her voice panicked. ‘I’m calling the police, this isn’t funny.’
I slammed the receiver down, making a gust of wind blow the leaflets from my printer next to the phone onto the floor. I picked up the print-outs and shuffled them into a pile, ready to hand out tomorrow. That would get my mind off my worries; my mum, the girls in the rain, and fearful voice of the young woman on the phone.
I ran my finger along the spines of the books. The university bookstore had the best Christian-science section in town, and for the best prices. I pulled a thin volume off a shelf and leafed through it. The illustrations were pleasant to look at, and reminded me of the oil-paintings that I had dabbled in during my youth. I often thought that I would like to get back into art.
From the corner of my eye, a flash of long, golden hair caught my eye. I turned and saw Leah browsing the titles in the classical studies section nearby. Her chin jutted upwards giving her long neck a graceful line as she looked at the books on the highest shelf. Her cream-coloured skirt had a thigh-high split and I couldn’t help but admire the gentle asymetrical outline that her legs made against the linear books. From the curve of her calf upwards past the rounded rump of her bottom to the inward dip of her back and onwards to the S-shaped slope that her shoulder and neck made, I couldn’t help but see before me an artist’s dream, a faint halo around her from the back-drop of afternoon sun.
I slid up beside her. ‘Small world. We keep bumping into each other.’
She turned her head, wrecking the perfect pose. ‘Oh, hi. Yes, quite the coincidence. So, eh- are you buying books?’
‘More church studies,’ I said. ‘They have the most elegant artwork, churches.’
Leah tucked her hair behind her ear, looking down at the open book in my hand.
‘I used to do some painting. I’ve been meaning to get back into it,’ I said.
‘That’s nice,’ said Leah, a faint smile curling the corners of her mouth.
‘Yes I think life painting is best. The way they paint the Madonna and child. I don’t know how they mix the paint so white for their skin,’ I said.
‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ she said.
‘You have such nice skin. Has anyone ever painted you?’ I asked.
‘Oh no, not me,’ said Leah, a blush coming to her cheeks. She shook her head, dislodging the blonde strand that was tucked behind her ear.
‘You have a statuesque grace even though you’re so petite. I’d be interested in painting you sometime, if you’d like-’
Leah pressed her lips into a tight smile. ‘That’s ok. I’m not interested,’ she said.
‘Well, the offer’s there if you change your mind. It would be like your other modelling jobs only it would take a bit longer. You could bring your sister along too, I think she’d look good on canvas as well.’
‘Carli has too much work at the minute with her GCSE’s,’ said Leah, taking a few steps backwards. ‘And I’m quite busy with my coursework too to be honest George.’
She turned away from me. I watched her leave the shop, hugging her folder close to her chest. With her head hanging and her stooped walk, she no longer had the poise of a deity.
The drive to the Tesco superstore took forty minutes. The main road leading into Birchfield was choc-a-block at rush hour. Still, it was worth the wait. Large Tesco had the best selection of birthday cakes and I wanted to get a good one for mum.
I got myself a trolley and walked in through the crowded entrance. A small, middle-aged woman with blonde-hair, about my age struggled out laden with bags.
‘Are you ok there?’ I asked her.
She stopped puffing and looked up. ‘I’m getting my exercise for the year,’ she said with a smile.
‘Can I give you a hand at all?’
‘Thank you, that’s very kind,’ she said.
I took half of her load out of her burdened hands. ‘Do you live far?’ I asked.
‘About a ten minute walk,’ she said.
I looked out at the main road, still heavy with traffic. Either a ten minute walk or a twenty minute wait in a heated car; it was the coldest summer on record.
‘My car’s parked over there,’ I said pointing.
‘Why, that’s very kind of you,’ she said.
‘We have a motto at Whitewell Church to do at least one good deed a day.’
‘Whitewell? But that’s on the other side of the town,’ said the woman. ‘I hope I’m not making you go out of your way too much?’
I shook my head. ‘It’s no bother to me, no trouble at all.’
Briar Court was a quiet cul-de-sac. After I helped the woman with her shopping, I turned my car at the end of the street. She waved from the doorstep of the brown-brick semi-detached house and I tooted and waved back. Before I pulled out of the street, three green-clad girls rounded the corner. I saw the blonde-girl in the middle gape as she looked at my car and then the nearest one, a thin, black-haired creature banged the hood of my little fiesta. Hooligans.
Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Shaving cream. Check. I placed the items in my basket and made my way to the counter. Ahead of me in the queue was a familiar head of long, blonde hair.
I leaned close. ‘Hello,’ I whispered.
Leah jumped. ‘George!’ she said, her eyes watery. She looked down at my basket. ‘You shop here?’
I shrugged. ‘I was in the area, so I thought I’d pick up a few things. What are you getting?’
I saw the package in her hands; tampons. She fumbled as she tried to hide it, but not quickly enough.
‘Why are you doing this?’ she asked.
‘Doing what? Asking about what you’re getting? I know it’s tampons, but you shouldn’t be ashamed about your time of the month. Friends don’t care about those things.’
‘We aren’t friends,’ said Leah. She hurried out of the shop, dropping the tampons on the aisle floor.
I watched her rush into the crowded mall. I set down my basket and tried to follow, but she had gone. Then, from somewhere among the stream of shoppers, I heard her voice.
‘There he is. That’s him with the grey moustache.’
I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. ‘Excuse me mate,’ said a deep male voice.
I turned around. A security guard glowered at me. Leah stood in front of a shop with another security guard. She wiped her mascara-stained cheeks. Her face looked blotchy.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked. The security guard led me over to Leah and stood on her other side. She was tiny in the middle of the two men, cradling her arms.
‘He’s been following me for weeks. He won’t leave me alone,’ said Leah, hiccoughing.
‘Following you?’ I said, feeling heat rise in my face. ‘You’ve got me wrong. We’re friends.’
‘He followed me onto the bus one evening. He wasn’t even getting the thirty five, he got on just to corner me to find out stuff. It was all just a ploy to talk to me. He even got off at the next stop!’ Leah babbled.
I looked at each of their faces in turn, shocked at Leah’s words. ‘You don’t believe this, do you? I’m a Christian! I was being a good friend - she was soaked when I met her!’
‘Oh yeah?’ said Leah, sniffing back tears. ‘Coming into the student canteen at my university when it’s not for the public? I had to kick my friend Ashley under the table because she was giving away too much information about herself!’
‘You harassed this girl at her university?’ said one of the security men. ‘I know Leah - she did promotions with my wife. She wouldn’t lie.’
‘He found out who my sister was and even tried to get her to come into his car. She’s only fifteen!’ Leah gasped.
‘I only wanted to give her a lift home since you and I are friends.’
‘We aren’t friends! I don’t even know you. Why would I be friends with a man old enough to be my dad? I’m only nineteen.’
‘If Leah says she doesn’t know you, then why would you want to be friends?’ asked the other security man.
‘I don’t know - she’s upset,’ I said.
‘He even tricked my mum into getting into his car and drove her home, so now he knows where I live!’ she said, wiping fluid from her nose. I wrinkled my face in disgust. Leah looked better when she was immaculate, not a red-faced blubbering liar.
‘And what’s more - I’ve been getting crank calls,’ said Leah. ‘All I can hear is a man breathing down the phone when I answer. I dialled one four seven one and got a number from the Whitewell area, and that’s where he lives. I’m pretty sure it’s him.’
‘Is this true?’ asked one of the security men. ‘Have you been calling her up too?’
I shrugged. ‘I’ve dialled a few wrong numbers by mistake once or twice. It only takes one wrong key when I’m calling my mum and I ring someone else.’
‘It’s on purpose!’ Leah sobbed, her voice shaking. ‘He followed me here today - he wasn’t even shopping. Look - he’s got nothing.’
The security men were tight-lipped. ‘We could easily review the CCTV footage and have you arrested. Do you realise this, mate?’
‘Arrested?’ I said, clenching my fists. ‘I haven’t even touched this girl!’
‘But you would have if you got the chance!’ Leah shouted, causing a few shoppers to stare. ‘He even asked me to pose for him so he could paint me. What he meant was naked!’
‘I never said that!’ I yelled back.
‘You implied it!’ she screamed. ‘You said I had nice skin and talked about statuesque grace or something creepy like that!’
‘You live in Whitewell?’ asked one of the guards.
‘Then what business brings you to Birchfield?’
‘Nothing. I like it here.’
‘He doesn’t even work - and he’s not Christian either. Whitewell Church hasn’t even heard of a George. I rang them!’ said Leah, tears streaking down her face.
The security men looked serious. ‘Do you know what you’ve done? You don’t have to touch someone to harass them. This is called psychological abuse. You’re stalking this girl.’
I gritted my teeth, letting the words sink in. ‘Ok, fine. I don’t have a job, so what? I spend my time looking for new friends. That’s my business. And maybe I don’t go to church, but the sentiment is there - I’m a good Christian who helps other people and befriends the needy. And this is how I get repaid? I don’t stalk this girl - but I know everything about her if I wanted to; where she works, lives, goes to university and goes out with friends. And I think the world has come to be an ugly place, if this is what happens to charitable people. What would God think of how you’ve treated me? I can rest easy in that knowledge.’