:: Article

the shame fairy

By Mazin Saleem.

The first time Harriet was paid a visit by the Shame Fairy (had it been the first? she wondered, a lit broom sweeping her body at the thought of how many times in her yawn-and-stretch she must’ve pushed notes down the back of the bed to be found by landlords or hotel maids or by her mum and dad) was in the year of Marcus. In a band where he played lead ukulele, Marcus was a ‘good catch’, said her friends – corrected later to ‘match’. Marcus always slept on top of her like he’d fainted. She’d lift the clamp of his arm and slide out, then edge through to the bathroom, where she cleared the corners of her eyes, scraped her soup-yellow tongue and slowly, roundly brushed each tooth. She’d burrowed back under his arm by the time ‘they’ woke up.
He’d not said much for most of the visit, not said “cool” but “fine” when she said people were going back to a friend’s room for shisha after the bar closed. In her own room, she cajoled him into saying what was up. He wanted to talk: about trying new things in bed. Throughout the talk she kept pulling the covers over her red face, and he kept pulling them down saying he didn’t like when she did that.
“I want you to tell me I’m bad.”
“You’re bad.”
“Yeah – hold on… All right: more.”
“You’re naughty, really. You are a bad boy. You’re such a not good person.” Slopping to one side behind a duvet rumple as she whinged the Oh: “Oh I dunno Marc!”
“You said you’d give this a try. You wouldn’t even try the shisha.”
A sore, almost vindictive tone when he abruptly said to tell him his dick was small.
“Why ever would you want that?”
“I knew you didn’t have this in you.”
Is it small though?”
“Well. Well I suppose it’s rather average.”
“Yeah. Yeah: you have an average-sized dick, don’t you. Don’t you? Marc – don’t – or, should I try something a bit?”
He withdrew his arm when he woke up, and her back stayed cold after he returned from the bathroom. Propped on her elbows, she squinted at him smoking at her desk and pensively patting his beard. He’d said on one leg, trying to unhook a trainer, “You do have an absurd amount of pillows.” She selected one to cuddle as she snoozed then lay staring at the receipt or label that’d materialised. The writing on the paper was in a curly, wedding invitation hand:

What the hell did you call that?! YOU’RE the one who’s bad. Bad at not being a fuck-up.
All the best

He looked to her hand, and she crushed the note in her fist, on which she leaned back. “Marcus, where… d’you think this is going?” He focused away from her hand and onto the tobacco in his teeth or on his lip.
She hummed a question, which went unheard over the spelunk-and-drill of male wee, as she ran her fingers under the tiny pillow she’d shared with – not her boss, an equivalent head waiter of another dinner service, Big Colin. Though everyone knew she lived nearby, and she did have a free house, she told him it was being fumigated and suggested a top-floor room, with its pristine bed, on which they landed achingly full of leftover booze and cheese, and where she gave in to his move of, “Are you ticklish? You ticklish huh? Huh! Huh!”
He surprised her re-entering (he hadn’t flushed) and she dropped the note, onto the formica-effect carpet. It lay in the path of his hot-pink socks, which he’d kept on all night.
“I said: we’re outta time for more-” He slapped the air with one hand, tickled it with the other. Reading out a text from his pals on reception that housekeeping were on their way, he walked over the note, which dropped from his big damp foot at a more readable angle.

Did he fart when he came? Wait – did you? Dunno, thought I smelled something.
All the best

Before she excused herself to the en suite, she waited for Sam to secure his bedroom door behind them. He’d let her into the flat with a finger to his lips for the sake of his flatmates. ‘My place or yours?’ was all the same to her now. But she’d had to use the toilet at work, and hadn’t managed to get back to hers since. Rather than have a shower – her make-up might run, Sam might take it as an invitation to join – she dabbed herself cleaner with wet loo roll, a second dry sheet to brush off any bobbles, not that she ever planned for encroachments into that whole neck of the woods. She roared the tap to hide the flush, then six hours later did so again to hide her flush of the note.
At the sound, Sam groaned into his pillow before trying to push-up. Collapsing back: “…Hey.”
“What time’s it gone?”
Since she’d told herself she liked the look of urgent men, Sam rushing through the Zara stockroom being importantly angry, she couldn’t mind too much when he said he ought to be getting on with his day. Her too: she might get back in time for Sunday laundry. Pinching bobbled duvet flesh, she skipped and waved to throw off the cover and a white moth flew in the air. Far from a sign she’d not washed her bed in too long – most days the steeple-frame next door was draped in her sheets – the moth carried another message. Businesslike, she marched round the bed to pluck it from the carpet. Hand on her hip, she read the note again.

I find it interesting he doesn’t stay over at yours any more. Remember when Magda used to do yoga in the living room in the morning? Then he’d stay over. And you’d pretend to yourself it was because he liked the omelettes you made him for breakfast! Those greasy chubby omelettes!
All the best

There was a time she’d burn the notes in the ceramic canoe of Magda’s incense holder. Then the next morning, turning her pillow, like you’d turn over a rock or a crumbly log in the woods… She looked online for a jewellery box that’d be big enough and had a lock and key. Today’s note went to the front of a Filofax column; the notes at the back crackled to the touch. (Harriet’s nonetheless prolific output could be explained by her unspoken sexual ethic of ‘It’d be rude not to’.) One midway was legible through a network of softened crumples: ‘Seen from behind, your bum has a little ginger goatee’ – wedding, groomsman, B&B with a mirror wardrobe. Come Micah, with the family estate and stripper ex, she braved asking if she was too vanilla in bed, and his only reply was to laugh, the ear-splitting laugh of the never-shushed. The next time he’d summoned her over, she thought he might find it hot if she called him ‘daddy’. He probably found it less hot when she fumbled and called him ‘dad’. She slotted back into place the list she’d found of the ways her dad would’ve reacted had he walked in on them. Between that list and the next batch of notes, a millimetre and a year, to Cliff, her college ex, who’d rung in tears, having been dumped for the first time in his life. She agreed to meet up – who cares if he was on a rebound? – and during sex she cried out to him in a moment of genuine physical joy, but used his old pet name: “Oh fuck me cuddle-monster.” Her pillow was inches taller that night, and in the morning she found a whole sheaf, page after page just of the word ‘lol’. Down about Cliff, and because Micah had a way of looking attractively nonchalant while talking about serious things – “The guys at the Treasury are gonna shit a brick,” this said while scratching the back of his head with his palm – she agreed to Micah’s on-the-day invite to his and his sister’s birthday drinks. Micah’s burry murmur came from the living room, next door to the bedroom, in the sunny morning whose note she’d found before he did. As she read it, a laughing voice groaned out its words at the very same moment: “Oh Mikey. Not again. Mrs Magoo?” Harriet swung across the hardwood floors, ready to nab the Shame Fairy. But at the first sight of Claudette’s oily smile and pageboy fringe, she knew she was just Claudette, and though the tips of Claudette’s ears rosied above the beige tone she and Micah shared, the three of them went out together for hangover brunch.
Harriet picked Zaff for her turn to try something: to see what the fuss was about. Zaff – always so grateful! – had one night as they clutched each other’s decelerating, sweaty chests blurted out, “I love you,” then apologised, again and again, like it was the worst thing you could say to a person. He’d emailed to say he was back in town for a few weeks, and she’d drafted her reply, unable to spell it out, and settled on the excuse of a joke: ‘I’m thinking of giving you my backstage pass.’ On the promised night, they showered together and he was tender and careful, used scented oils and a Jill Scott album, and she came intensely, more than in years. Spooning afterwards, he said how glad he was they’d reconnected after his silly, stupid, silly outburst, which had been a heat of the moment thing, literally, come to think of it, and, with no hope of prevention, out before she’d grasped what was going on, she did a long airy fart. That night she thought she actually saw the Shame Fairy.
Even at breakfast Zaff was drifting off to retell her the story, eyes unfocussed, like it was a heavy story from a long time ago. “You know when you’re a kid and your mum blows a raspberry on your tummy? Like that. But on my balls.”
She tried to focus on her whirlpool stir of his coffee, on recalling what she’d seen up in the corner of his room. A tensely fidgeting darkness, like the lamp-thrown shadow of an agitated moth, within which had glimmered a toucan’s beak for a nose, a pair of impractically small but thick and white bird-wings, a hairy chin, knobbly knees, elbows old as rocks…
Unbowed, Harriet still would stand with guys outside of last-order pubs, dancing around their plans for where to go next, get up in the middle of the night to shave her legs, switch between Micah and Sam, draft messages to Cliff but reply to Colin, leaf through her jewellery box at 2AM, regretful, hopeful. Regretful: after she and her friend Tim got drunk and slept together and so began sleeping together, she’d woken from a dream about lying on a yacht to see the M of Tim’s hair as he quietly picked up his trousers in search of more clothes – the end was here, and just as things were getting started. She fell back to her dreaming, though the yacht was long gone, only to rock awake at the head. He’d pulled up the pillow at one side and was trying the other. She forced her head back, giving off a sweet, girlish smile while deciding what to say had she been too late: a joke, they’re just jokes! Using hands as dustpan and brush, he knelt to sweep tumble-hair out of the way from under the bed, saying in a constricted voice that he wasn’t giving her a hint or anything, and she could totally hang around, and they could watch some telly maybe. The underside of the bed bulged from her moving around on top, and when he got off his hands and knees he saw her twisted around with a hand running down the side of the mattress. He pointed out her phone: it’d fallen behind the stack of his exam marking on the bedside desk; with her checking her messages, he might have enough time. She narrowed her shoulders under the duvet: “I know this is odd, considering, but can you turn round as I get dressed?” He would’ve turned had he not seen her shrunken but wide eyes (last night she’d remembered she had to take out her contacts, though for some reason this required a shower). He gently pulled the duvet, and once he had it down to her hips, he saw the square she held like a name sign at Arrivals – always square, who the hell writes on square paper? To ease the way he made to grab it, he laughed first. Why was he so cruelly pleased with the note? She pressed it to her breasts. His held-out hand wavered then dropped; if someone had to see it, there were worse people than Harriet. After a card-player’s glance, she passed it over.
“Mine don’t have pictures.”
A charcoal sketch of Tim from hours before, arms like stilts on the mattress, bony shoulders dotted with pink crayon to suggest his back acne.
‘Bacne,’ read the caption below.
Tim sniffed and shrugged, relieved to be let off so lightly. Had he not been able to get it up, he might’ve found another set of Victorian naturalist’s watercolours, two to a side, elegantly numbered or lettered different perspectives on the lipped sea-creature moue of his flaccid penis. Those always restarted the cycle, set in motion following a first and last date with a woman he’d spent months stalking online before their drink then after jolted at the mere sight of her in his contacts book (though never to the point of deletion), the note under the pillow captioned, ‘Feeling cockadroop’.
Harriet put it back with the rest of them into his hollowed-out Bible. “Then I guess I ought to feel flattered.”
“Yeah it won’t make any difference.”
When, for no reason he could figure, a date never messaged back after their meal, he consoled himself he’d at least avoided humiliation later. He found a note anyway of a dopily smiling version of him at the restaurant, the grid of packaging creases still visible on his shirt. He gave up dating, relying instead on getting drunk around other single people. But the notes he’d find those mornings-after – pictures of his dead relatives watching, Nanna, grandpa – so many they were like a flip book of aghast facial expressions. He gave up altogether and settled for being a looker. He’d never thought of himself as a looker, though he’d assumed he would eventually become one. He looked at them from afar in gyms and cafes, looked down at them walking alongside the bus. That shirt reappeared, in a note he found about his work commute, when he’d had to stand while a pretty woman sat in the seat below and in front, and she looked up and smiled, and he looked down and smiled, and they kept swapping smiles for the whole journey, the sprints of the train blowing air through the carriage that made her hair separate and wisp around her face, him hanging one-armed from a strap and flexing the bicep in his rolled-up sleeve – see, he still had it! But too soon, too late: she stood up to get off and caught his eyes with hers then pulled his downwards, towards his crotch, where all this time his fly had been open. He switched from looking at real women to unreal, and the notes appeared less, particularly if he’d wanked over a memory or even a fantasy. The only times he was guaranteed a note after wanking is when he looked at porn for longer than five hours-
Five hours?”
Heat pulsed through Tim’s face, but Harriet, not appearing to notice, trotted on.
“Don’t think outside of sleep I ever do anything for that long.”
Tim became spitefully frank: “It’s for that long coz there’s times I sorta wanna find a note again? Like I’m doing it for the note. The edging’s the vehicle.”
She didn’t smirk at her pun – she reddened at her mistake, as far as he could tell: she was hiding. In surprise, he laughed, and from under the covers she laughed back.
To hear her laugh again, he explained how his ‘drought’ had come to an end when he gave in to his mum setting him up with a nice woman from their village, with whom he reached a base per date, till the night of the fourth, when the memory of those watercolours, the thought of more to come, “It gave my willy the willies.” No, no watercolours: a one-panel cartoon that used brackets to animate the shake of his bum in its last, frantic, hopeless efforts. Caption: ‘So that’s the sound of one hand clapping.’
“See, whether I’m settling into a relationship, or I’ve been single for so long I feel like a ghost, there they are. Why are they so sunk in? What’s fucked me up?”
She’d make breakfast, not omelettes but toast, which they’d eat sitting on her sofa next to each other but apart. They knew what each other’s genitals tasted like but felt weird if their shoulders touched. When Magda yelled bye, Tim muttered, “At last,” and Harriet fetched her jewellery box. Acknowledging her point, that when you first found notes might not be the same as when you first got them, he asked where all of it had started. As quickly as a prepared answer, she said she assumed it was the first time she’d kissed with tongues: another boy called Sam from when she’d had a Saturday job at the local marina, feeling through her tights and his jeans the awkward cartilaginous ‘Hello, excuse me!’ of his erection – Sam, who’d told her ‘best’ friend Leah she’d been gross. For Tim, shame didn’t start at thirteen, he had to go further back. Whenever he and his family watched TV together, and the man and woman on screen ignored his mental pleas and closed eyes, closed in their faces, and joined the rings of their lips, Tim’s dad would cough and clear his throat, and keep doing so for the length of the kiss or godforbid the sex scene, but he’d never change channels, because to change it was to acknowledge it. When his sister Clara was home from her first term at uni, she’d spotted in the TV guide one of the foreign films she’d discovered out there, within the first ten minutes of which a couple had sent their hands under clothes, slowly at first, then, with a sudden up-surge, faster and harder, and Dad’s cough was duly summoned. But the scene wouldn’t cut, it kept on going, following the couple as they staggered from kitchen counter to hallway, from hallway to stairs, relentless, thorough, breathing apparently by using each other’s lungs. Dad had to resort to stabbing through the remote control, which revealed itself not to be dustily padded with a raft of pointless buttons, but full of traps: he changed the contrast, boosted the audio, put on tracking, set the video to record (his face rubber-red from coughing, the couple swinging from a chandelier like trapeze-artists fused at the hips) getting the TV to do all manner of format changes except change the channel, so that by the time Mum returned from checking on Nanna, assuming it was safe, Tim, dad and sisters (minus traitor Clara, who’d snuck off) were glumly transfixed before a TV that showed a lurid CAT-scan of a sex scene, the couple coagulating then separating like red-green-blue meniscus, the sound and dialogue EQ’d to monstrous muffled demon talk, which would’ve been indecipherable had Dad in his fumble not managed to switch on the captions for the Hard of Hearing. Mum took out the primary remote from the sofa ravine and switched over, to a nature doc: tigers embraced in war and not love.
Mind-blown, Tim had waited in his pyjamas, clinging his door-frame. Only last week Greg Almond in the playground had jadedly shared the story: that the Adult Channel holding-card magically dissolved after midnight into fifteen minutes of preview content. Muttering, rocking, Tim watched through the banisters for Dad to finish with his programmes. Having lurked back a step into the dark when lights turned off and Dad walked past, Tim snuck down barefoot, glancing to where in the hall the clock stood. Making sure to use the right remote, he switched on satellite TV, and the first channel to appear was the Adult Network. A blond old woman was showing off her a thigh in suds, on a loop, while the ticker promised more preview content tomorrow. Tim skipped a few channels before he turned Sky off and shamefacedly, oddly heartbroken, went back up the stairs.
(But something further than that, murkier, pushed way down: something about standing in the warm gust of a caged fan behind the swimming baths, while they stared up at the sudden adult among them, who was bent nearly double to slap Fiona Jen on her pale thighs, telling her, “Pull them up! Pull them up! Hide your shame!” when she wasn’t telling Tim and a vague other, he could never picture whom, presumably another of Fiona’s invitees who’d said yes they did want to see something – or had they invited her? – “And you boys ought to be ashamed.”)
“Exposure…” Harriet drummed her lips, before picking up Tim’s mug with a lean to offer a fourth tea.
The grim suspense as each of them built up to their confessions, the jaw-clenched thrill of release after. He took both mugs from her and pulled her back, and she shuffled to him with a smile as though admitting to some minor wrong. The sex was more often sober than not, better than not. But at his front door, him in a dressing gown, her in a jacket, neither knew if they were meant to kiss goodbye, and settled for a hug.
Unsure what else to say as he held the door: “So, there’s a hand that draws the pictures.” Now they’d swapped notes, he knew she’d seen the Shame Fairy. Not wishing to tell him how or when, she transposed her shame onto him: “So, you found a way to summon it at will.
His voice quivered, but with a different emotion: “Then I want to see it too. Catch the bastard who’s been… been saying those things about us.”

Harriet didn’t watch porn unless she had to. The pushily extreme close-ups always made her think of the mass production of sausages, and she’d straddle Marcus to block the laptop from view. But thinking of Tim’s fuller lips, his drowsy baby eyes, more sadly about his widow’s peak, she recalled how his forehead had sprouted an instant birthmark, then she messaged him and brought up his porn nights-in, his porn weekenders, his pornodysseys. He admitted he’d be more uncomfortable playing away than at home; she logged him onto her computer, and squeezed his shoulder from behind as though he was about to email in his notice. After a long time scrolling, and his eventual, slightly implausible choice of a considerate, tender, female-centred clip, he didn’t seem to mind her watch him go at it; and he definitely wasn’t hindered by that problem of his.
Not even a draught bothered the dusty web-strands hanging from her ceiling. Her pillow revealed nothing, nor his, as he reported back when once again he didn’t stay over.
If not beds, they continued to share: computer log-ins, secrets, fantasies, the key to the jewellery box. He squinted to consult her notebook with its secretly polysemic title ‘Notes’, housed in a former diary (Tim: “Well Victorian). “I wasn’t hostile enough an audience,” she explained. “We need more a court. Jury. Like the opposite of giving a speech and imagining everyone naked.”
She texted him that she had an idea, but would only tell him a time and location. Carrying a ukulele case, she met him outside the White Duck, where he’d already seen the chalkboard listings: the Open Mic Night. He resisted thinking in advance of what he might be able to sing well. Under their table she unbuckled her case and pulled out a short rod. It telescoped longer and finished in a net. At ankle level she passed across the butterfly net or pool skimmer as the bearded-and-bald compère read out: “Harriet Ali!”
“This is my first time reading ever,” she said off-mike, checking the tripwire at her shoes, going unheard till she put mike to her lips at, “so sorry about that.”
Her high, already childlike voice wobbled, the sheet of paper fluttered in her hands. Whether from the hot lights or her lack of glasses, she looked in vain across the crowd.
“The poem is called ‘My Boyfriend’s Porn History.’”
A few people laughed in that raggedy, poetry-reading way, till she added, “Ah. There he is.”
You could hear clothes crunch as people turned to look where she was looking with her hand-shaded eyes: Tim, middle-to-the-front, agleam with immediate sweat. The laughter didn’t stop at the sight, it just refined, sorted the social laughers from the experts, those older men and one old woman back at the bar who laughed even louder now the subject had been identified, alone at his stepladder of a table looking nowhere but at Harriet. She wiped forehead with forearm then repeated her poem title before jumping in with, “‘Facial.’”
All his blood lurched back from his body a step.
“‘Bukkake facial.’ ‘Latina’”
Heads in the audience turned in profile to him then face-on to her then back, like wedding guests during the Best Man’s speech. None of them noticed Tim was holding upright a net as tall as the rafters.
“‘Latina facial.’ ‘Latina facial compilation.’”
The merry laughter gave way to tuts of disappointment, even some er-huh’s of disgust. One solitary moustached man who dared unhunch off the bar to glance at Tim sent over a smile of appalled sympathy. Tim returned the beam of his hot eyes to Harriet.
“‘Facial with gargle.’ ‘Anal to facial’. But then – and this one’s kinda tragic – simply, ‘Beautiful woman’.”
All laughter had ceased. But what looked like a face-off between her avenging smirk and his humiliated grin was more the staring smiles of mutual support. For her for saying words in public she’d hardly dare in private, for him for being the test subject, and in pleased embarrassment as well, though what she’d said hadn’t strictly been true, her calling him her boyfriend. They only detached to glance above, where speakers and spotlights were all that leaned in for a look at the mess.
The compère patted Tim on the back on his way out, like a bouncer pats the back of a drunk before he’s kicked off the stoop. The doors hadn’t shut behind them when they heard the man add: “I would love to be a fly on their wall tonight.”
As they walked to hers, he swung her hand to soften his feedback: “My local does an Open Night, silly. Our mates go there. My sisters go there. We don’t know anyone at the White Duck.”
She didn’t text him for a full two days, let him chase her with whatever further pointers he’d condescended to give. Checking her phone, she flushed rather than blushed, then smiled at the picture he’d sent: him in glasses, with the caption, ‘I’ve joined the Four-Eye High Club. You and me can look nerdy together.’

When they got up or home, neither found a note. “We’ll soon be farting in front of each other.” (“We will not.”) Before the Shame Fairy stopped visiting altogether, he told his parents he wanted to introduce them to his new girlfriend. As much as him, she had to shame herself, or so went the plan. While he rang the cottage door, she whooshed her breath like she was about to dive in cold water. It was bad enough that her nipples showed through her t-shirt; let alone that the slogan on it was, ‘Girth junkie’.
When Tim’s dad opened the door on her t-shirt, he cleared his throat like a chainsaw pull.
“Hi, so lovely to meet you, Mr Travers.”
“Sir. Sorry, dad.”
Mrs Travers – Sandra – was still roaring the extractor fan and sizzling pans for this first visit of a ladyfriend since her son was at college. Tim’s dad hovered between kitchen and living room, back of one hand on his hip, glasses slipped to the end of his nose, sceptical face lit by the phone he held at the end of his low-slung belly. Waiting to see if he’d sit down, Harriet and Tim sat with their hands held deep in Tim’s lap. Since the front door, the longest she’d detached from Tim was to shake his dad’s hand, lingering her grip of his palm to the point of clamminess. He’d dropped it grumbling the moment she traced his palm with her little finger – dropped it like a shell that still contained a crab.
Tim’s mum came in with a tray of glasses, a curly-haired, almost mulleted woman with a drawn, serious face, who told her son to sit up. He dropped his shoulders to reveal a scarf of bruises. Harriet had spent a grisly morning methodically giving him hickies, saying ‘yeck’ after each one, as if he tasted of envelope. Mr Travers stared at them, coughing, then at his wife as she passed him his wine. Although both parents had demanded on the phone a full brief, they repeated the interrogation. When Mr Travers asked how they’d met, Harriet grimaced before looking to Tim for permission.
“Afraid it was in a sauna.”
“A health spa or…?”
His mum didn’t say much else, even throughout dinner, though she was yet to slip him one of her glares. Harriet praised her cooking – learnt, Mrs Travers explained, either from her late mother or on the hippy trail to Kabul – only so she could warn Mr Travers that such food was an aphrodisiac. She nodded fast, smiling at him, while breezily knocking back her glass, but this gave her vampire teeth of wine dribble.
“I didn’t know that about lentils,” said Mrs Travers, mistaking Harriet’s colour for drunkenness.
By dessert, Mr Travers had retreated behind his iPad with a wary peer over the top. Tim stared hard at Harriet, and she stared and shrugged back, before scrambling eyes around the kitchen. They fell on a photo of father and son with the same sewn-on badge of a shield.
“Yes, from when I was headmaster at Tim’s school.”
At the sight of a mini-Tim – edges softened, eyes bigger – Harriet suppressed saying ‘aw’.
“Wow I can totally see where Tim got his good looks from.”
She winked at Mr Travers, with both eyes. She’d never been able to fully wink except by doing a staggered blink. She tried more slowly.
“If you’re tired, I can make you a coffee.’
Rallying when he asked his next question, she loosened at the shoulders and hips, narrowed her eyes.
“And how do you like your coffee?”
“Like I like my coffee. White, and strong. Men! I mean men!”
Tim reassured himself the fiasco of an evening might end up doing the job anyway. When his dad didn’t sit after delivering the mug and left with only a nod there came the delicate part of the plan. Tim had warned his mum would stay up as long as they did. They needed to get to his room, next to his parents’ room, ideally before either parent had fallen asleep. So the moment a door upstairs softly clicked, Harriet switched from vampy to shrugs and yawns. Tim said they ought to be heading up too, the first words anyone had said for minutes, and his mum gave an extraordinary smile, contained entirely in her flaring nose.
Having sex in his old bedroom, Tim and Harriet didn’t fake sex noise – to do so would’ve been to embarrass his parents more than shame themselves. They let go and made noises they wouldn’t have done with each other in private, and so ended up half as loud as usual. But they compensated with the amount of headboardbanging on the wall. It sounded like someone continually hammering and giving up on a hammering a nail. Should they falter, the mattress egged them on with its idiotic heehaw.
The morning found no notes under their pillows, as desired. When Harriet led Tim into the kitchen by hand, his parents stared puffy-eyed down their noses at their respective iPads. Tim felt an almost nostalgic seizure at his dad’s words: “We need to talk.”
His dad cocked an arm out of his dressing gown sleeve; his mum’s purple bud of a lower lip bobbed at the ready. Harriet looked at the kitchen ceiling, ready too, the net like a knife behind her back.
“Do you believe,” Mrs Travers said, “in other beings? Spirits?”
Tim in a trance of expectation: “Beings how?”
“Your mother and I are coming to terms with your nanna’s cottage being haunted. By nanna.”
“She came through!”
Tim’s dad held out his hand across the table to rub mum’s knuckles and wedding band as she related the dream.
“I know you’ll say this is like the homeopathy for the dog or another of mummy’s blue spells. But it was so vivid. There were some – what are they called, dear?”
“Theosophists doing a round-table.
“Séance. But I had to wait for my turn.”
The ones ahead of her – the mother of a soldier missing on Flanders field, a Hungarian count with a twin who’d died in utero (“such sad, sad people”) took so long with the moled, head-scarfed psychic (“like a gypsy”) that by the time Tim’s mum asked to contact her own mum, she’d begun to wake –
“And the regret, Timmy, I felt when I turned up lying in bed. The missed chance of it all. But then, staring at the ceiling, tears just rolling down my temples, as I was drifting off: your nanna’s message!”
She rapped the crumb-sticky depression next to her iPad.
“The séance table knock. And it kept going, like she was so desperate to get her message across. Maybe I’d fallen back asleep but it followed me there, nanna knocking, knocking, knocking, asking me to forgive her, and – I do forgive you.”
Harriet needed to laugh and needed not to laugh. She went pink to a point Tim assumed was shame till he joined her upstairs, following her spluttered “Excuse me” and departure from the kitchen (Tim’s dad, seeing her cry like his wife: “A sensitive girl after all.”)
“Sorry sorry sorry!” Harriet spoke between her grimaced, sweaty, pillow-smothered laughter.
“Did you feel something?” Tim talked in a rush before his parents heard any screams that managed to slip past her hand. When she shook her head, he told her he hadn’t felt it either. “Something like shame though…”
She said really she’d been more embarrassed. “No offence.”
“No worries. I was embarrassed. But something more.”
To steady herself, Harriet focused on the satisfying scratchy noise Tim’s stubble made as he rubbed his chin: “Confession isn’t exposure, Harry. We can’t summon it expecting it. Even if you’ve been dreading exposure, it’s gotta blindside you. Look.”
Suddenly he glared at her; the pace and weight of the creaks always warned which parent was coming upstairs. Harriet’s hooting expression looked hysterically tense.
“Harriet?… Harriet!”
Followed by his dad’s voice: “Perhaps a change of t-shirt for the pub?”
Before shoving it back under the pillow when the door opened, he let Harriet see the note: him wiping his nose, her with her face scrunched-up, with subtitles:

You: [unprepared man on his tenth flight of stairs]. You: [the whimper in the gaps of a crying fit].
All the best

“So does this one go with yours or mine?”
He wasn’t sure she could hear him through her bathroom wall. She’d reciprocated his stomach stroking by reaching back to stroke his leg, but then gotten up for a shower first. His toothbrush was in there with her; in her wardrobe were some of his ties and shirts for work – the more often he stayed at hers, the more likely they were to catch the Shame Fairy. After spending a polite enough five minutes cuddled naked, she slipped out, and again he heard the drum of the shower. He listened to its unbroken sound. Using his fingernail, he turned the button-lock of the door. As he silently entered, the flanks of her white legs stood out most, leaning away as she was to get toilet paper with the hand her phone was in. His phone was to hand as well; the star of camera light was the first thing she saw coming. Her face made three Os, but not faltering, he grabbed her by the arm then shoved her to the tiles, before straddling the toilet to video the contents. Screaming, she slapped at the flush paddle, slammed the lid like the front cover of a diary, then smothered the toilet bowl in her arms.
A cloud passed across the bathroom light so that standing Tim and knelt Harriet looked more leaden and flatter to each other.
The empty shower roared but not so loud she didn’t hear the cheerful ping. When she saw the video in their friends’ group message thread, she howled Tim’s name; but he didn’t turn to look, stamping his one foot here, there, explosively clapping his cupped hands.
“After we’d swapped log-ins,” he said, the chalky toothbrush glass over his heart, “I noticed way down in your history these patches of searches for articles on IBS.” He hurried to her dresser where he tipped out a clear plastic tub of Roses chocolates. With a silent cartwheel tumble, the Shame Fairy sluiced from the glass into the tub. “Then I read the quote you’d copied out in your notes on Notes. ‘Only because the skin gets irritated will a baby mind its own shit. To potty-train, to teach a baby not to want to sit in shit, you have to teach it something it wouldn’t know otherwise.’”
She warily completed his paraphrase: “That shit shame is the first shame.”
Her face hadn’t cooled down yet though. She rode out her rage by looking at the sort of bell jar display Tim handed across
“But – it’s so much smaller.”
The size of a hornet, this humanoid figure with little feather wings. Three dark triangles either acted as pubic merkins for groin and armpits, or were a felt bikini to hide the same. She sealed doors and windows and Tim reopened the lid, and with a pencil he peeled the felt: the Shame Fairy was doll-smooth. It did a little jig at them. At all times the Shame Fairy was in a deep ruby blush.
They yelled down to ask whether it had anything clever to say. Then they laughed at it. They took turns using the pencil to poke at it, rubber-end first then with the spike of lead. Curving in at a hip to avoid their pokes, finally it responded, by putting up a finger, once, twice, wait no wait. Very fast and seriously it scribbled on a notepad held close to the waist, then it looked up at them with the note held in the air: a picture of Tim’s genitals. Tim replaced the lid and shook the tub as if it contained lottery balls. Each time the Shame Fairy hit the plastic it let off a mini gasp.
After their celebratory night-out and fuck at his – they’d wanted to do it in front of the Shame Fairy but got so drunk they missed the last train – she had to find her bag and so leave past his housemates: the one in his dressing gown who always looked surprised over his cereal, dribbling milk as he made serious conversation, the one in her trouser suit eating toast on her feet to keep any conversation short – why in a suit? – shit, it was Monday.

Harriet’s bronze tights and askew halterneck and day-old mascara felt stickier and all the more out of place among the anoraks and brollies at street level. Smellably a bit drunk still, juddering in her walk from one high-heel and one low-heel, she was protected from the rain only by an outsized, clearly a man’s zippy hoodie – Tim’s favourite. A fluffily white-haired woman in army-green gilet sitting opposite on the train nudged her husband, then mouthed, “Look”, for Harriet’s sake as much as him. With a bright delighted face, he fixed his tie and fisherman’s hat and sat up straight, adding a wink as his wife pretended to bosh him on the head with a rolled-up Readers’ Digest. Up ahead, in Harriet’s flat, the Shame Fairy swooned. Off the train, then off her feet, hoisted on the shoulders of further men and women, who, when they weren’t carrying her at a march with forward stares, softly backhanded passersby on their phones or newspapers – check her out, our girl, the chants building from the station all the way to hers via Boots for paracetamol and cranberry juice: “Harriet! Harriet! Harriet!” She mumbled at the counter to ask for the morning-after pill as well, and streamers fell from the ceiling, a brass-band leapt to their feet and played, and she graciously accepted the pill from a top-hatted, ceramic-cheeked mayor, who, in his deep bow, swung towards her the boxing medallion of his ceremonial chain, so that their handshake for the cameras got tangled up, with much swapping and re-swapping of hands, to the press’s delight. The Shame Fairy coughed and hacked. The top trending hashtags became #HarrietGotSome, #GoHarriet!, #PrincessHarry. Beyond texting her girlfriends, she gave a speech, with all the juicy details, to her parents, her former teachers, their eyes watering above clasped and kissed old hands. The Shame Fairy staggered as if the tub were yawing like a ship, but it never quite perished.
If they let it be for long enough, they’d hear again the faint buzz, as of a moth passing by, see it idling in aerial circles, arms folded behinds its back, glancing its forehead off the panelled sides, and not really idling: from its flat bum came a strand as thin as fish poo to drape on the Roses lid in a mosquito coil. This one Harriet took personally.

Tim stared at the tub from their bed with voluptuous rage. “I get the same urge – you ever get that urge? To kick a pigeon when you’ve had an incredibly shitty week.”
He and Harriet debated into the early hours on how to avenge their pride: filling the tub with water, boiling water, joining their glasses to create a laser death-ray with the sun, when suddenly Tim, the plastic tub clunking to the floorboards, dehoused the Shame Fairy then slapped from above. The first slap had been thoughtless and imprecise, but he slapped again, then Harriet joined in, the two alternating, like smiths at an anvil, biting lips and goggling eyes as they slapped down onto the fairy’s crunchy body. Though they already towered over it, they grew as big as their shadows and had to crouch because of the ceiling at their backs. Harriet felt a thin voice drawing out of her: “How do you like it? How do you like it? Not so big now.”
Tim pulled her hand down while she was still yelling. “It’s dead. It’s over. Shame is over.”

Shop windows filled with hypertrophied hearts stuck with arrows or clutched by bears, or the hearts themselves with their own eyes and mouths in a toothy smile.
“Seeing as we’ve playacted the rest – meeting the parents, you moving in, calling what we are by name… Thought we may as well follow through.”
She passed over the envelope with a kiss – her present to him was the house key she’d gotten cut, then she smacked her lips, pulling a face before fetching the chocolate ice cream. As for Tim’s present, he was just going to come out and tell her he loved her. When he said it over the streaked bowls it felt awkward and false, as inevitable. To make up for that, he sat up a little to kiss her across the table then detached, his nostrils high.
“What the hell was that?”
Collapsed on the sofa, they moved hands under clothes, faster and harder. The more frantically each searched the more the other recoiled from the invasive touch. With her lying on top of him painfully, they kissed: it was like gumming rubber Halloween masks. Touching tongues felt as inappropriate and probably unsanitary as touching eyeballs. Rushed to the bedroom, they tried to ignore the genteel shock of seeing each other naked, like boarding a train to find a passenger topless. The sight of each other’s genitals wasn’t gross exactly – each set looked placid, quiet, like things you might stare at in a rockpool as you wondered in a sun-trance how they lived their lives.
Tim rolled off Harriet with grumpy relief. “Shall we see what’s on?”
“Yes yes. Let’s see what’s on.”
Ignoring the news, both on their phones, they lay back-to-back like a closed bracket and an open bracket.

Mazin Saleem is an author from Manchester currently living in London. He has written short fiction for Litro Magazine, The Literateur, Pornokitsch, Open Pen, and more, and is a regular reviewer at Strange Horizons. His first book ‘The Prick’ was published by Open Pen in 2019

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 2nd, 2019.