Ruth Brandt’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in anthologies and magazines, including the Bridport Prize 2018, Neon, Litro, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017, Into the Void and The London Reader. She won the Kingston University MFA Creative Writing Prize 2017 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Write Well Award. She is Writer in Residence at the Surrey Wildlife Trust.
For a couple of days that winter it blew warm. Half our street, the south facing half, glinted with ochres and terracottas in the strobing sunlight, while the north facing side radiated arctic blue. Uphill, land warmed by the unexpected heat gave up its water and the river began to rise. None of us worried much about the river, after all for a brief while we had our street back to play in. Even Matt the Frost came out, loitering on his blue side of the street, posing spikey figures in its shadows, his bobble hat erect, his gloves pulled to the ends of his fingers, arms jittering, throat grunting.
“You kids, why don’t you dance too?” Mrs Gregory suggested, as though it was up to us to lure Matt the Frost from the dark side. “Go on.” She went as far as placing her radio on her doorstep.
Frizz, Sarah and I had no intention of dancing.
“He’s mental,” Frizz said.
If Sarah or I had said that, Mrs Gregory would have cuffed us. Instead she pulled her coat close.
“Go on, Bun,” she said to me.
I shrugged. What was the point?
It was Mr Drake who warned about the river. Nothing much, just a comment as he passed us by on the melted side of the street.
“Don’t go near the banks, kids,” he called.
The minute his door was shut we crossed the shadow’s stark line to investigate. From behind a dark bush came a shuffling and the flick of a knitted hat. I paused. Was that Matt hissing or river water scraping through reeds?
“Hey,” Sarah shouted, and I found I had been left behind in the shadow zone, alone with the scent of Matt the Frost.
“What?” I called, glancing behind.
A rug, a genuine green and blue patterned rug was rushing down the river.
“My granny’s,” Frizz said, but we all knew that Frizz had no granny. He had no dad either, just him and Matt and their mum, who never came out, not even with the sun.
“Matt most probably pissed on it,” Sarah said.
“Crapped,” I crouched to mimic.
They both laughed. See, Frizz didn’t mind the joke being on his brother.
“I’m not fishing it out,” Frizz said. “Not whoever’s it is.”
So we threw sticks and grass at it as it came near and then, when it did nothing but wallow in front of us in the current, Sarah and I turned to fart it on downstream.
“Better get home,” Frizz said.
Frizz always had to get home.
“Go on then,” Sarah said.
Over the next few days the weather stayed fine. We didn’t go back to the river, mostly because Frizz didn’t come out. Something or other about Matt, he told us through his window. All sorts of things Frizz told us, none of which ever seemed quite right.
Mrs Gregory said to leave Frizz and his mum be for a while. Stop pestering. That poor woman with that lad. Sarah and I skateboarded a bit. Did nothing mainly.
About the fifth day the air warmed till there was talk of it reaching season-change temperature. The sun rose earlier too, set later, and Matt the Frost reappeared, except his gloves were off, his hat nowhere to be seen. The sharp shapes he’d earlier pulled became curves and bends. Still the shade dominated their side of the street, still he remained in the grey glow of winter while on our side green blades sprouted in Mrs Gregory’s front lawn.
“You,” Sarah called. I don’t know what she wanted. I don’t suppose she did either. “You, frosty boy.”
Matt just stood there, then jumped into a star, then curved into an S, and a shape that could have been a C and could have been an O. And he dropped a shoulder and then a hip, lolloping like a puppet. No longer Matt the Frost, but Matt the Drip, curving and bending and melting.
“Mental,” Sarah shouted.
“Mental,” I copied.
“You two stop that!” Mrs Gregory called.
Sarah turned her back on Mrs Gregory’s front window and squeezed a sloppy fart through her teeth.
I swear that Sarah was making this noise to Mrs Gregory. I swear that she wasn’t pointing any of it at Matt, but for a moment he froze into angles and sparkles again, before wailing, like a child who’s had his nose pulled. And then he ran, all elbows and heels, like no part of his body belonged to any other part, like he had been built from donated limbs and organs.
Sarah pissed herself laughing. I did too. We went back to our skateboards and paid no attention to where Matt had gone, never even thought of him till about ten minutes later when Frizz’s door slammed and Frizz was out.
“Tosser,” Sarah shouted into the gloom.
“Tosser,” I copied.
“Got your skateboard?”
But Frizz paid no attention. He darted between the bushes and gates, peering over bins and rose twigs.
“Oi, tosser,” Sarah really yelled this time.
“Where’s Matt?” Frizz yelled back.
I was already beginning to feel a bit edgy, like frost was settling in my chest.
“Your guess,” Sarah called.
“Where’s Matt?” Frizz was on repeat. “Where’s Matt?”
Perhaps we all knew where Matt was, or perhaps we all took the hint of the direction given by one of us, because without saying anything we ran towards the river. Frizz kept calling for his brother as he ran. A snot bubble appeared out of his nose. He didn’t bother to wipe it away.
I was the first to see Matt. Right on the bank where the river flowed over the grass. In the shade behind the trees. The water was up to his ankles and in his hands he held that rug, the blue and green one. He swirled it up over his head and his body did this swaying thing like the reeds in the river, while his spare hand reached out to grab clean air, which he clutched into his chest. His dance seemed to go on for hours, and as he gyrated a plume of suspended droplets glistened above him in the air.
Then my mouth called, “Matt, hey Matt.”
He jarred and twisted to see who was calling. When he spotted me, he smiled for a whole forever – Matt the Frost, Matt the Drip, Matt – before a gust of chill wind shattered hail down on him.
Mrs Gregory got there fast. Crunched through the ice that was already reforming to drag him back from the edge. And as she pulled the sodden rug from his hand and dashed it to the ground, Matt’s face jerked the smile into sharp teeth and creases, and water cascaded out of his mouth down his chin.
Then Frizz did this thing. He grabbed his big brother round the waist, held his fingers interlocked until Mrs Gregory prised them apart and put an arm round each of them before leading them away.
I clamped my numb fingers under my armpits.
“Why didn’t we dance with him?” I asked Sarah.
At least I hope I did.