Julie Esther Fisher ~ Gargoyle

English, cock­ney at that, the squadron of chil­dren are killers with their for­eign tongues. A new school for the American… At sev­en, she under­stands scarce­ly a word of what they say.

The man in the black suit is her father. The taxi is black too, spin­ning away from the white-columned splen­dor of Belgravia to the dusty local school. The taxi door opens, and she is expelled. She looks back at her father—the rip­pling expanse of him press­ing into the seat springs. He says noth­ing, of course, no good­bye, mere­ly clicks the door shut and turns to the driver.

11 Cornhill,” he says.

The dri­ver gives a sharp nod. Slowly the cab begins to move off. She stands on the pave­ment, watch­ing her father’s impas­sive face fac­ing front. He is look­ing at the back of the driver’s capped head, notic­ing with dis­dain the tat­ti­ness of the her­ring­bone rim.


Three years lat­er, sporty in his tweed jack­et and black turtle­neck, the father takes the fam­i­ly out for a jaunt in Hyde Park, the white dog rasp­ing for breath as it drags the ten-year-old girl forth. She watch­es her father peruse his world—his street, his door­man at the Carlton Hotel, his Sketchley Cleaners, his greengrocer—watches him peruse all this and sees that he feels pret­ty good, pret­ty damn perky to be own­er, keep­er of all. The worst part, though, is what he has on his head… The adopt­ed garb of that first cab­bie. An idea bor­rowed, then tried, inspect­ed in front of a shop mir­ror, purchased—the hor­ror of it always how fast he makes a thing his.

He walks down Sloane Street, the cap on his head. Pulled forth by the white dog, the girl glances back every now and then to check his pace, to keep her moth­er in sight; to throw out a thread—her glance—that will attach her to her moth­er, while she, trai­tor­ous, is with him. Walking, the girl lis­tens to the sound of her own heels on the pave­ment. She smells this London she has come to love.

What does it smell like?” she asks the dog. “I couldn’t begin to tell you,” she answers for it. “Even though I have nos­trils the size of grapefruits!”

There seems to the girl so very much rank to smell in her own house, under­neath her very own nose, that when out in her London—her street, her Sketchley Cleaners, her door­man at the hotel, her green­gro­cer (you see, it is a war!), when out in her London, she wants only to smell the city in… Now she cross­es the road at the bale­sha bea­cons, her lit­tle black shoe per­mit­ted to land only on the white stripes of the zebra cross­ing. She cross­es so as to walk beside the Sketchley, to smell the clean airy laun­dry-moth­er­ing smell of what­ev­er they do inside—to look in at the plump­ish ladies, their com­fort­ing fore­arms sort­ing and sift­ing, tag­ging clothes, smil­ing a sad-hap­py smile at the busi­ness exec­u­tive, the per­son­al sec­re­tary, the house­wife… She cross­es the road to watch these ladies of Sketchley, even—especially—when they turn their backs, toss­ing the dirty, just-deliv­ered clothes into dif­fer­ent bins. There’s some­thing sad about the way they turn, their aprons knot­ted behind. Something sad about what they do that makes the girl watch, that makes her think they’ll be dif­fer­ent, altered, when they turn back. She always waits for the change, stands at the counter smelling in the steamy dry clean­ing fog, and always when a lady turns back she looks at the girl with the same sad-hap­py face, the same wry look, the same smile. She says the same thing as she said before: “Righto, dearie, Thursday after­noon then. Mind you don’t for­get your stubb…” And the world would have turned on its axis a degree or a half… Music would have been played, hands would have paused an inch above piano keys—a mother’s hands, white with clench­ing fear… A girl would have played with a dog in a park, flow­ers would have been bought, arranged in a vase, beau­ty made… And still, the world turn­ing a degree or a half on its axis would have caused that lady to change—barely—scarcely detectably—but the girl await­ed it, saw it, sensed it, and so was giv­en rea­son to know that this life changes by half degrees, sec­onds of pause, inter­vals between things: plump com­fort­ing clean­ing arms nev­er the same from one half degree to the next. Never the same, though in this she seems privy to some piece of knowl­edge she should not have. The Sketchley lady doesn’t know it; the hand­some top-hat­ted door­man either; but her mother—oh, when she looks into the girl’s green eyes (her own, deep brown, aching), she knows, her moth­er does know—a look fleets between them, liv­ing for an instant, then vanishes.

In this way, dai­ly, the girl makes the world hers. She walks the dog. Hans Crescent, Pavilion Road, walk­ing the cob­bled cir­cuit, the white dog rasp­ing at the col­lar, ready, always ready—sniffing, dig­ging, lick­ing, look­ing even out of blind impos­si­ble eyes. Daily, the girl takes deep pos­ses­sion of this world. She knows the fit of the key in the park gate lock. Knows the can­dle tree, the green cab rank, the smell of sausage and egg, the talk of dif­fer­ent men com­ing through smells of food; knows each dog who walks its mas­ter in the park, the crack in the pave­ment beside the gate; knows the bus stop there, the shel­ter, the queues, the tired eyes peer­ing at her with musty inter­est as she approach­es; knows the few smiles at the dog, the sniffs of the dog at unfa­mil­iar legs.

So why does her father, on a Sunday, in his cap—with his wife, his tweed jack­et, his black turtleneck—with his full tum­my, his child, his dog—why does he walk the road as though it were his? As though he knows Doctor Lawson and the west­ie Pippa; knows C.E. Leete, the pur­vey­or of meat; as though he has touched the greengrocer’s deformed hand: five healthy fin­gers and a bud that nev­er grew?


Later, the father sits in his plaid bathrobe in the liv­ing room, against the plush red cush­ions of a vel­vet sofa. Facing into the room, he is framed against win­dows look­ing on to the park. Outside: kind London. Inside: a kind of seep­ing, suf­fus­ing death. The large Chubb key clicks in the lock down­stairs, and the lift cables groan—even the lift reluc­tant to take a child Up There. Third floor. Maisonette. The par­ents always tell it this way: “We have a third floor maisonette. That’s two sto­ries, you under­stand. Two floors. A beau­ti­ful wind­ing stair­case. Our own Victorian gar­goyles too. For pro­tec­tion,” they always joke.

The girl her­self prefers what lies beneath. “On the sec­ond floor,” she says to strangers at bus stops, bank queues, etc., “we have Lord and Lady Gordon. Lord Adam is trea­sur­er to the Queen Mother… Then on the first floor are the Kingsbury’s. Their son Ramsey’s rather a sis­sy. There’s no-one on the ground floor, but in the dun­geon is Sir William. Not a real Sir,” she con­cedes. “The care­tak­er. From Yorkshire.”

Inside the flat (“the maisonette,” she mim­icks), rich Chinese car­pets abound, woven of silk, fringed at the ends. During the past three years in London, the moth­er and father have acquired impec­ca­ble taste.

The father sits and smokes. A cup of cof­fee. Hairy ankle and calf. His face: a faint dis­gust hov­er­ing about—exactly which fea­ture is it? Mouth? Eyes? Not quite bul­bous nose? The girl can­not quite tell.

Trying to avoid her father’s gaze as she walks past the liv­ing room, she stings with a revul­sion she takes to be nor­mal. A nor­mal evil of life. No one ever seems inter­est­ed in what she could tell about him.

They’ve a bath­room down­stairs which she must pass as she walks through the hall­way. The crim­son bath­room is a friend. Sink, toi­let, pull chain—all are red. In a dream she has, some­one chucks a buck­et of blood at the wall. It is her job to scrub it, but the stain will not dis­ap­pear. Stubborn, it stays: a room that tells the truth. The house she lives in is a shud­der­ing place. Inside this house the truth gets slain. So, for relief, she goes to the crim­son place, locks the door. She slides her back down the wall and rests. It is tir­ing to live in a fam­i­ly such as this, a fam­i­ly in which so much she sees and feels, so much she knows must go unsaid. Exhausting, the effort to con­ceal… It often dri­ves her to a habit she deplores. Spells of cry­ing leave her eyes as red as the room.

Eventually, though, she must get up; she can­not take refuge in here for too long, or her father will come pound­ing on the door. For her father every­thing must be open: his mouth; the doors; his access to her. So even­tu­al­ly she has to unlock the door. Walk through the hall­way. She knows she will see him as she pass­es the liv­ing room door. She will have to say “Hi, Dad,” and shiv­er with the pain of forc­ing up these words.

Sofa-bound, her father expos­es his hairy calf through a part in the plaid robe. He looks at her.

Hi, Dad.” She smiles.

He doesn’t answer. Expels smoke through his nose and mouth. Frills sur­round his head.


Upstairs, there are two bath­rooms. The girl’s is green, but it has no pigeons out­side, and the tow­el bars yield noth­ing but whistling air when bled. Only the blue bath­room, her par­ents’, has pigeons. And tow­el bars that actu­al­ly get hot. You have to use a key to bleed them. You turn this key and the rack starts clang­ing, splut­ter­ing, belch­ing, then spurts forth a spray of water, a per­fect lit­tle spec­i­men that arcs into the air, to be caught by the girl in the bath­room cup, white with London lime. It takes time, but even­tu­al­ly the bars get warm.

The win­dows in here are frost­ed, and out­side is a dark court­yard, a mys­te­ri­ous enclo­sure behind a clus­ter of build­ings whose exact loca­tion she can nev­er fig­ure out. The pigeons own this space. She stands wash­ing her face, cut­ting a nail, clean­ing her ear, when sud­den­ly a misty form appears at the window—a pigeon look­ing in at her. A wing flaps, a beak touch­es glass. The girl press­es her nose to the pane, at beak lev­el. It is even worse up close though: all she sees are shad­owy beads of frost­ed glass. Turning to the mir­ror, she stares at her own face: white skin, freck­les, marine-green eyes.


Her father still sits in the liv­ing room. Sits in the red vel­vet cor­ner with London framed behind him: a man’s bald­ing head against a back­ground of impris­on­ing screen.

Her moth­er wash­es laun­dry, her back to the kitchen, the world, her daugh­ter. Her arms are busy, her not yet jub­bly arms doing a sad thing always, the sad­ness of laun­dry on a Sunday: the rhyth­mic churn­ing of water and soap, the dry­ing, sort­ing, fold­ing. The back of a moth­er whose arms move to some mourn­ful inner melody. Today she wears trousers and a large shirt for com­fort. Her hair is short, dark. Folding the family’s clothes, her arms move up and down, back and forth in this place called wash­ing clothes.

The girl pass­es by the liv­ing room door. It’s after­noon, a Sunday. She’s already forced up two greet­ings to her father, the last of which just half an hour ear­li­er, so she has a cer­tain license now to walk past the door with­out a word, seek­ing out her mother.

Mama?” she says, peer­ing into the nar­row space. “Come to the park with me. I want to show you some­thing. The can­dle tree is blooming.”

Her moth­er turns, casts her a weary look.

I have work,” she says. “You see this pile? Who will do these clothes if I leave them?”

Outside the cramped laun­dry space the pigeons are present too. It’s not true, the girl thinks, what they say about pigeons being filthy, spread­ing dis­ease. They eat orange lentils out of your hand; you give them names like Teddy Roosevelt and Marie Antoinette. They are always out­side the clean­est rooms.


In the late after­noon, her father strays from the sofa into the kitchen. Putting his arms into the fridge, he clangs around until he comes out with tongue, great lash­es of tongue that he slaps between bread and car­ries off to his bed­room. Belly full, he naps. It starts soft­ly enough, the sound that comes from his mouth, yet the “cack-cack” swift­ly becomes a man’s snore. His door is open. There he lies, his robe fall­en open, a straw­ber­ry red birth­mark peep­ing from his Y‑fronts.


Her moth­er turns around in the nar­row laun­dry space. Looking at her child, she says: “Where’s your father?” Her face is a sag of sad­ness and fear.


They are for­ev­er wait­ing for the sleep of the father.

Her moth­er looks relieved now, yet some­how bewil­dered, marooned.

When did he go up?” she asks.

There is so much vig­i­lance necessary!

Her moth­er says: “Has he been asleep for long?”

The girl under­stands the real ques­tion. How much time do we have? How much before he wakes, grog­gy, iras­ci­ble, and we must all take cover?

Rooms will be entered then, doors closed.

For the moment though, the girl keeps her moth­er com­pa­ny in the cramped space of the laun­dry. She makes the best of it. Because not very long from now, she will be wait­ing inside a room with pussy cats and stripes on the wall. A gar­ret room with a sin­gle twin bed. Lying on it, the white dog breath­ing by her side, she will stare out a nar­row win­dow. Her eyes will sweep beyond the gar­goyle post­ed there—beyond the scales and wings and open-mouthed snarl—to where the London sky sits more light­ly on oth­er roofs, oth­er lives.


Julie Esther Fisher’s sto­ries have appeared and are forth­com­ing in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Prime Number Magazine, William and Mary Review, Other Voices, etc. She is the 2022 win­ner of the Sunspot Lit Rigel Award. Her final­ist entry in their Summer Short Story Prize appears in Bridge Eight. Recently, one of her sto­ries, adapt­ed from a chap­ter in her debut nov­el, was select­ed as a final­ist in Boulevard’s Short Fiction for Emerging Writers con­test. It sub­se­quent­ly appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review. Another piece was select­ed as a final­ist in Arts and Letters Unclassifiables Contest. An expat, she grew up in London, and now makes her home on sev­er­al hun­dred acres of con­served land in Massachusetts.