Other Echoes Inhabit the Suburbs

Other Echoes Inhabit the Suburbs

The soup tasted pretty gross, but April kept right on eating it. For one thing, she couldn’t bear letting her grandma know that the heap of sugar she’d added ‘to bring out the flavour of the carrots’ had rendered the whole dish a form of cloying mush, as opposed to subtle teatime cuisine. Her grandma wasn’t all that good at subtlety. You only had to glance around the dining room, where they were sitting right at that minute, to know that Ms. Grainger (a return to her maiden name after the divorce) had a taste that lent itself to the gaudy and nostalgic, far more than the graceful and subtle. Along the mantelpiece, ugly china ornaments cluttered the marble surface (long overdue a good dusting); the wallpaper, a lurid shade of magenta, bore the same floral pattern it had done 30 years ago. As a child, April enjoyed peeling the corner of wallpaper behind the headboard of her bed, leaving a gape where the plaster underneath revealed itself like a blank and secret canvas. On that surface of plaster, April had written something special, eight years ago, when she first moved into her grandma’s home. The day after her parents died. It had been a long while since she’d checked if it was still there.

Despite her constant culinary failures, Ms. Grainger loved to entertain. She ran a competitive bridge club, who every Thursday traipsed through her door and gambled their pensions away round the dinner table. She still took great pride in her swimming pool, the envy of neighbours for decades now, even though she rarely (if ever) used it herself. Once upon a time, April had splashed around in that pool with her brother and sister, falling off her father’s shoulders as he waded her through the water, laughing. She had advertised her thirteenth birthday as a pool party, gathering all the kids from school round the kidney-shaped turquoise surface, drinking lemonade in the springtime sun. April was named after the month she was born in; when the kids used to tease her and ask her if that was why, she would nod, glumly, complicit in their derision of her mother. Her grandma always said it was a lovely name, but April herself was indifferent to its supposed charms. She realised that probably it was another ornament, a quaint and pretty reminder of a golden, bucolic past, when girls would flock round Maypoles in their white dresses. Maybe it hadn’t been her parents’ choice at all, but another idea cooked up by her grandma.

“Don’t you think it’s marvellous, how Jacob is doing?” Grandma Grainger piped up, pausing to look around the room for dramatic effect, though her only audience was April, along with old Marjorie from down the road. Marjorie, who was half deaf, took a good long minute to process the question before answering.

“Oh, what? Jacob, how is he doing?” Marjorie slurped a spoonful of soup, piercing her lips in mild disdain.

“He’s sailed through his third year of law school, that’s how he’s doing!” Grandma exclaimed, making no attempt to suppress her glee. “They say he got As all through his exams.”

“You must be so proud,” Marjorie said.

“Not only that, but he’s landed quite the internship, out in the city with a big firm.”

“Isn’t that wonderful,” Marjorie said, even more mechanically this time. She, like everyone else, had grown used to Grandma’s bragging, and had developed her own form of automatism to deal with it. April sipped her soup. She fixed her eyes on Marjorie, intent on registering every hint of discomfort that showed on her face. She too would be tasting, right at that moment, the same watery sugary sludge, the faint aroma of sage that cut brutally through the blandness of broccoli, potato, carrot. There was a pleasure in the knowledge that they shared this painful experience, dragging their spoons through the viscous excreta that Grandma Grainger had poured so obliviously into bowls for them.

“And how is Grace doing?” Marjorie asked, clearing the last of her bowl with one triumphant swallow. The question seemed even more forced than the act of putting soup in her mouth.

“Oh Gracey,” Grandma smiled, “she’s doing just fine. Very sensible girl.”

“Is she still wanting to…what was it, design buildings?”

“Yes Marjorie, she’s actually apprenticing as an architect right this minute, though I have high hopes for her and this man she’s living with. He works for a bank and is quite the charmer. I can see them settling down very soon.”

“Children, at her age?” Marjorie seemed mildly alarmed. She had never had kids, and though the subject was once taboo in the neighbourhood, she was now quite proud of the fact that the freedom had allowed her time alone to tinker with her paints, with trips to the seaside – to spend the evening consumed by soap operas instead of her husband’s ironing. Besides, some of the art shops in town had once bought her watercolours.

“Goodness, but wasn’t I firing them out at eighteen? Grace is 22 now, perfectly capable of handling a couple of youngsters.”

“Of course,” Marjorie murmured.

“A year younger than April, in fact,” Grandma found the need to point out, unnecessarily, as April stared glumly into her soup. There was no way of finishing the last of it. Already she felt a little sick. She swirled it round until patterns appeared about the sides, patterns which soon sunk back down as gravity sucked at the sludge.

“May I be excused?” she asked, having long ago perfected the strategic politeness of an obedient grandchild.

“Yes dear, what have you planned for the evening? I was wondering if you’d let Marjorie and I teach you bridge. You could whirl up quite the storm, with those maths skills of yours. I’d like to show you off on our Thursdays. I could do with some more winnings too, now that I think of it. Ethel really swiped us last week, eh?”

“I’m not sure you need maths skills to play bridge,” April said quietly.

“Will you listen to this? The girl really cannot take a compliment,” Grandma retorted. “I’m just trying to involve you dear.”

“I work most Thursdays.”

“Oh well. You spend far too much time alone, it’s not healthy for a young woman. You ought to be more like your sister.” The cutting line. “She’s always telling me – on the phone you know – how much fun she’s having.”

“I’m going out, Gran, I’m going out.” She scraped back her chair and wandered upstairs to her bedroom.

“At this time of night? She must be crazy,” Grandma muttered, out of her granddaughter’s earshot.

“Indeed,” came Marjorie’s reply.

The house was so dark, mostly lit by old-fashioned oil lamps that were stuck to the walls. It was an ex-council house, which Grandma Grainger had spent most of her life trying to make look bourgeois. Most of the houses in the surrounding suburb had been knocked down, upgraded into gleaming new builds, replete with fresh pine surfaces and huge double-glazed windows. Grandma, along with a small handful of fellow residents, had refused this development and by some miracle they were allowed to go on living in their humble hovels. It was a good thing they did, because the new builds had driven the local house prices up considerably, pushing out many of her old friends. It was home now mostly to young families, who relished the picket-fence dreams sold to them in American movies, who wanted to cocoon their kids from the dangers of ‘town’.

It wasn’t just town that was dangerous though. April knew well enough that this house itself could be ‘dangerous’. Many times she had fallen up those creaking stairs in the darkness, had found herself privy to some sordid phone conversation between her grandma and a mysterious third party:

“Oh, a terrible thing indeed!”

“He’s quite the scoundrel!”

“You’ll never believe what she told me she found in his sock-drawer!”

“I heard they’re getting the police involved. A terrible mess, for certain.”

One thing April hated was her grandma’s tone of mock horror, her incantations of scandal. She had perfected it for all the local housewives, proving herself a key player in the steady circulation of gossip upon which the suburb depended. It was worse than Facebook, the way news got around, the way her grandma would dissect every last detail of her neighbours’ lives around the dinner table, while April stared into uneaten soup or peas or sometimes, on Sundays as a treat, ice cream. April deleted her Facebook a long time ago. It provided too many links to her past, reminders of times that were happier, sadder, or at least more complicated. It hurt, to get bound up in all that again. She couldn’t be bothered hurting anymore. She couldn’t help thinking it would be nice to delete real conversation  as easily as she’d gotten rid of Facebook.

“Well I heard he lost his job at the call centre. Shocking, isn’t it?”

April couldn’t help thinking: if only her grandma had employed that tone, to deft effect, when her parents had died. If only she had talked to the in-laws, to April’s father’s family; if only she had been more understanding, less impatient with the lawyers. Maybe then, April would still have another family. As it was, Grandma Grainger was all she had. Jacob and Grace, in all their seeming perfection, were always too busy – out of reach, ploughing headlong into their respective futures.

April’s bedroom, like the rest of the house, hadn’t changed an awful lot since she’d moved in. In fact, her grandma’s kitten obsession had crept its way even in here, in the form of a cross-stitch concocted from a palette of lurid pastels, tacked to the wall by the window. It was a very small window. The carpet was a foul kind of jungle green colour, supposedly a fashionable compliment to the orange walls, though its chic shabbiness was no detraction from the massive stain where Grace (who shared the room with April as a teenager – they slept top-and-tail in the bed) had once spilled half a bottle of red wine. Despite sharing a room for those years before university, Grace and April were never all that close. Grace seemed to find April strange, asking her all sorts of weird questions, as if she were the big sister and not April. Have you ever let a boy touch you? Ever done drugs? Why don’t you ever text anyone, I never see you with your phone. Are you gay? In truth, April had never really understood her younger sister. Her life had always revolved around a carnival of minor dramas – breakups and hook-ups and clandestine phone-calls, which April would eavesdrop on at night, while she pretended to sleep – and the whole wanting-to-be-an-architect thing seemed nothing more than just another design for life that took its place among the rest. Grace had always had plans, always rattled on about some boy she liked, a handbag she was saving for, a class she was intending to drop or take up. They were as sure in her head as the bottles of alcohol she stashed beneath the bed, and as certain to disappear or deplete by the end of the week.

As for April, the whole concept of a ‘design for life’ seemed drastically elusive. She couldn’t quite grasp how some people were able to think into their futures, then spin out a ten-step plan about how they were getting there. She liked lying in her bedroom, listening to obscure classical music, staring at the ceiling, letting the percussion and the elaborate orchestration of instruments and melodies weave themselves into her brain. She had been to university, stuck at it for nearly a whole year, but it just wasn’t for her. The equations and quadratics came easy to her, but everything else had gotten her down. Halls were a drag, seminars were a drag, and getting out of bed in the morning was the biggest drag of all. Making friends seemed to require some impossible formula that nobody had bothered to teach her, and April had made herself content with loneliness.

The mirror in her bedroom always showed you as fatter than you really were. Grace had first pointed this out, aged fourteen, preening her face and frowning as she noticed the curves that she hadn’t noticed before in the old mirror of their parents’ house.

“You haven’t put on weight,” April had assured her, with careful sincerity. Puberty had been the elephant in the room for a couple of months now: April had filled out and sprung up like a runner bean, her feet had grown to an impossible shoe size, while Grace stayed skinny and small as a boy, as her grandma. She became very touchy about it, worrying about every pound she might put on, pinching at her stomach.

“Oh,” she sighed in reply, “yes, it’s just the mirror I think. See the way it stretches out like that? The glass is damaged or something.”

After that observation, neither of the girls bothered much to look in the mirror. For April at least, it was difficult to be narcissistic in a house where every surface, every detail or ornament, sucked your attention away. It was all too lurid, too extreme; there was no place to retreat into the bubble of yourself. You found yourself trapped, submerged even, in the things around you, their perpetual assault on the senses. It wasn’t beauty, because there was no seduction, no entrancement caused between the eye and the objects that absorbed it; it was more like the constant bombardment of sheer stasis. Realising that time hadn’t really changed. Feeling as if time itself were that sticky thing that stopped you from leaving and growing. Grandma herself was as preserved, as perfected, as she was thirty years ago. The hair remained the same dyed silver; the face was as powdered and smoothed as ever. It was only when she frowned or smiled that the wrinkles cracked out around her mouth; otherwise she seemed not much of a breath over sixty. Yes, it was the sense of timelessness that drew April away from the mirror, away from thoughts of the future, of what she would do with her life. The stasis sucked you in, like some kind of chemical in the air.

She had gotten out for nearly a year, but something drew her back. The phrase ‘Boomerang Generation’ meant nothing to April, because coming back to her teenage home wasn’t like bouncing backwards – it was more like sinking into a deep and dirty swamp. The familiar, suburban smells of petrol, musty cars and marijuana. The Sonic Youth CDs she’d drowned herself in as a teenager, losing whole afternoons to that wall of gritty, reverberating sound.

Yes, Grandma’s house was the shrinking bedroom, the endless, empty summers, the grating noise of Kim Gordon’s cool and impassive voice, filling April’s ears through her Walkman headphones.

There were never any pets, no familiar animal presence. When she lived with her parents, there was always a budgie or a hamster or even a goldfish, whose daily needs and eventual deaths provided a healthy sense of normality and temporality and responsibility: they had to be tended to, their deaths were milestones in the family calendar. They had no garden, so it would be a ceremonial trip to the local park, a gathering by some innocent tree for the symbolic burial, followed by a treat – chocolate ice creams and tea. No such markers of time or presence existed in Grandma Grainger’s abode. There weren’t even any family photos; just the kitten pictures, the cross-stitches and faded placards declaring various slogans on love and housekeeping that Grandma herself forgot to live by: Home is Where the Heart Is (did she even have a heart?), A Clean House is a House Well Managed (the dust that covered the placard said enough), and, April’s favourite, Love is All (what was love? what was all?).

Thin as a rake, Grandma was always cold and perpetually had the thermostat turned up full, so that sometimes it seemed as if the walls themselves were sweating. Sometimes, just before dawn, when April would come home from a shift at the petrol station, she would sit in the kitchen eating toast and staring at the wall. As the butter oozed on her plate, greasy and gleaming on her fingers, so too did the floral wallpaper. It was as if the stems were bleeding, dragging themselves down over the other flowers, drowning each other out or else entangling themselves in a choking collective suicide. After a sleep she would check again, much to Grandma’s bemusement, but the wallpaper was the same – tastefully gross but admittedly flawless, unchanged, after all those years.

In her bedroom, April struggled to yank open her window, only managing to open it a crack. It always got stuck. She rummaged in her sock drawer and drew out the little tobacco tin (her grandfather’s, found at the back of a kitchen cupboard) and prised it open carefully, so’s not to spill any of the precious weed on the carpet. She sat on her bed, still sweating, and rolled a joint. It was perhaps the one thing that she wasn’t clumsy at. She bought her weed off a kid she’d known at school, a boy who met her in the carpark by the mall, who wore baseball caps and communicated mostly in grunts and ‘likes’ and ‘mans’. He had a nickname, Rattata, acquired during an epic Pokemon battle he’d won in his first year of high school. Somehow, it had stuck; such was the timelessness of the suburbs.

She left out the back door, trying to attract a minimal amount of attention. Through the window, she could see in the gap between the filthy velvet curtains her grandma and Marjorie sitting round the table still. They would not wash the bowls up, probably not until the morning. Nor would they do something normal, like sit together and watch telly (Grandma prided herself on having never owned a telly, which probably explained her absolute indifference to current affairs and anything which might tenuously be defined as ‘culture’). Grandma would bring out the bottle of sherry from the dust-filled drinks cabinet and they would sip it all night, mostly in silence, punctuated only by Grandma’s vague and inane observations. She saved her best gossip for the neighbourhood mums, not for little old Marjorie. April knew the routine well. That was why she was gasping to escape it.

The night air was cool and sweet. It was funny how you could literally taste it, it was so much nicer than inside. The sprinklers were on in the back garden and their spray lilted across the darkness and snagged a few rainbows from the street lights which poured their light upon the grass. April hung out by the bins and smoked her spliff. The smell rose up, warm and fragrant, curling around the drainpipes, hovering dangerously by Grandma’s bedroom window. April loved the smell of marijuana: the stuff she bought had a kind of spice to it, reminding her of far away locations, exotic places she had only imagined, the lifestyles of those who made a career out of slacking – or, at the very least, a perfected mysticism. She liked the way it numbed and slowed her brain, how it allowed her to focus on single things; how it dissolved, momentarily, the pressure of Grandma’s house, which always loomed, monstrously, at the back of her mind.

She stood for a while, watching a snail slide slowly over the patio, trailing its glimmeringly malignant ooze. Grandma left slug pellets all over her garden, but the little molluscs had grown clever and cunning: they knew their way around her property, how to crawl inside the skirting boards and leave their silvery traces over the carpets, walls and cabinets – even the stacks of housekeeping magazines.

April started smoking weed aged seventeen, two years after her parents died. It was the highlight of her day, lighting up behind the bus station in town, prolonging the return to the suburban hinterlands, watching the sun fold itself neatly behind the high rise buildings. Relishing that lovely oblivion on the bus home, giggling at nothing.

It was the perfect evening for a walk. The streets were pristine, gleaming from the shower of afternoon rain that had now cleared into a late spell of twilight sunshine, that bounced off the white gloss paint of the picket fences and semi-detached houses. Just a few yards from her grandma’s home, April felt lighter already, as if each step was somehow melting her material connection to the world. Often she was gripped with such wonder for things. It made her heart sore, to see the yellow roses in the neighbour’s garden, speckled with raindrops, swaying against the fading sky of pastel blue. Her body no longer mattered. She could not taste the gross sweetness of the soup, nor the earthy residues of the spliff. She felt the houses around her (of which her grandma’s was the sole, grotty anomaly) blur into a white haze, as if they were a chalky plume of cloud, following her, swaddling her. It was lovely. On nights like this, she kept walking.

When she was younger, she walked a lot; mostly to escape Grace (when she had a boyfriend over), or Jacob, who would always ask if she was okay. Grandma didn’t count. She was just there, and then when April crossed the threshold through the door, she just wasn’t. The whole while, she always wanted to get lost. She knew these streets so well, it seemed as if she were walking through a film set, a well-trodden stage which never changed.

Her footsteps echoed on the clean concrete. No chewing gum, no cans or crisp wrappers, as there were scattered around downtown. A man was out mowing his lawn, the grass cuttings billowing up in slow motion behind him.

The light was turning, darkening. April hardly noticed: she was so intent on her walking, that to a passing stranger she might seem possessed by her thoughts – though in truth she thought of nothing at all. She passed through the copse of woods where she had smoked her first spliff, where Katie Willoughby had pushed her into the nettles all those years ago, where Grace (as she had confided, breathlessly) lost her virginity. She passed by the pastel-coloured sheds where people stored cars and gardening equipment, the allotments which sparkled strangely with birdsong, the pile of slates stacked outside the Cherry Tree mansions, the road that led towards her old school. All detail floated by her. Until she heard the screeching.

At first, April thought it was someone being attacked, maybe even raped. The sound was so shrill, so gasping and sharp, that it seemed the definite screech of a tortured human. There was, however, no human voice, no desperate breathing. Just that screech, that terrible wheezing. She tried to identify its source, peering over the tall hedges into people’s gardens, but there seemed to be no person around at all. It was only when she crouched to the ground that the sound got louder, and suddenly April stumbled upon the poor creature who was making the awful noise.

It was a fox, its flesh bearing a graze of barbed wire across its back, gaping and bleeding out onto the grass and concrete. The fox was smaller than April had ever thought foxes were. From her picture book imagination, she had always imagined them larger, perhaps the size of collie dogs, whereas this one was no bigger than the average alley cat, worn scrawny by its scrappy suburban diet. April knelt on the pavement and tried to place her hand on its little head, expecting it to snap at her. Instead, the fox’s body was seized by a great spasm; it jerked violently as if to vomit, but only gasped instead – the kind of breathless gasp that seems to suck a lifetime of oxygen.

“You poor, poor thing,” April whispered, stroking its soft ears as it lay there, whimpering. She had never owned a cat or a dog; she had only watched the blonde labrador that used to skip about the street by Grandma’s house, chased playfully by the kids that lived opposite. The screeching subdued, the fox settled into a kind of stasis. April glanced at the wounds on its back. She couldn’t think where there was barbed wire round here (the allotments, perhaps?), though she had to admit that she wasn’t exactly sure where she was now. Had she really managed to wander far enough to get lost? It was an exciting thought. She found herself dipping a finger into the pool of blood that had gathered on the concrete. It glistened under the lamplight. As if by instinct, she raised the finger to her face and painted two streaks of warpaint on each of her cheeks. The blood thinned to a graininess, mixed in with the dust and dirt of the pavement. A solid feeling of invincibility formed in her stomach, like a knot.

She waited a while in the silence of the evening, alone on this street which she could not name, among houses whose windows were no longer bright and golden. A hundred chintz curtains shut her in darkness.

The day the police phoned, she had been alone in the house: Grace was at choir practice, Jacob at debates club. She remembered the cold feel of the kitchen tiles on her bare feet as she ran through to pick up the receiver, the smell of the toast that she had just burned. What chance of luck had made her pick up? April never answered the phone, but that evening she had. The way the words spilled through the line, clumsy almost, like chunks of food being forced through a pipe; had they made any sense at all? Had she slumped against the wall, the way they did in films? She had experienced that cold certainty, the tingling clarity that got her onto the phone with her grandma, that got her to school to tell her siblings. There’s been an accident. Mum and Dad.

What horror had torn this fox to such misery? Had it chanced its luck in the carpark of some warehouse, raiding the bins for food?

“Poor, poor creature,” she crooned. The thing was quivering, shaking with some savage pain which shook April to the pit of her stomach. Its black glossy eyes were shrunken, yellowed at the corners as if strained by some disease. Only once before had she spotted a fox around the suburbs, but it had sprung away into the shadows of an alley. Making eye contact with this injured thing before her, April felt something dissolve inside of her, the knot unravelling. She curled up beside it, trying to keep the fox warm with the mere heat of her body. The pavement felt cool; the fox smelt of damp fur and trash and blood.

“Hello?” How much time had passed since she had first lain down beside the creature? April sat up with a fright, to meet the gaze of the man standing over her.

“Is everything okay?” he knelt beside her. She could see he was wearing a navy cable-knit jumper, like the ones her father used to wear. He smelled faintly of soap, as if he had just had a shower, and of something else that seemed vaguely familiar.

“It’s-it’s a fox,” April stammered, “I found him on the ground and he’s really sick.”

“Oh.” She moved out the way a little so he could see the animal. “Jesus.”

“What should we do?” It was strange how easy it felt, talking to a stranger. She expected him to unleash a flood of genius upon the situation, to take control, to tell her she’d be safer leaving it in his hands. Instead, he took a seat on the ground. She watched him feel among the matted fur, which was beginning to clump and congeal with dried blood, though a steady stream of fresh stuff still made its way out onto the pavement. There was a deftness to his touch, a gentle, clinical sense of knowing.

“We should phone a vet. They’ll come out to sort it out.”

“Sort it out?”

“Well, put the damn thing out its misery I suppose.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that. You ever had a pet they put down?”

“Um, well, I guess they all just died naturally…”

“I’m a doctor,” he said, after a pause, “I guess I’m used to it.”

“What, death?”

“Mm.”

“It seems strange to say one is ‘used’ to death,” April pointed out. The doctor was surprised at the way she spoke: there was an old-fashioned, perhaps conscious naivety to her diction, reminiscent of some prim heroin of Jane Austen’s.

“Well, I wouldn’t say you ever get used to death,” the doctor replied. “Look, give me a sec, I’m just going to phone a vet. I have a number somewhere, a place that’s on-call 24 hours.”

Time itself suddenly occurred to April. 24 hours. Well, she supposed, it must be somewhere in the middle of the night by now; perhaps she had walked for hours. She listened to the doctor speak on the phone in a hushed yet urgent tone. She wanted to cling to the security of those words, whatever it was they were saying. She watched him click a button on his phone (a Blackberry, she noted), then slip it back into his pocket.

“They’ll be coming within the hour,” he said. “You don’t…you don’t have to wait.”

“It’s okay, I want to.”

“Better get comfy then eh?” a sudden boyish playfulness sprung into his face. “I have an idea. Be right back.”

“Oh, sure.” He hurried up the street again and disappeared round a corner. Those ten minutes while he was gone felt like an eternity. The fox seemed to be in even more pain now, slipping in and out of consciousness, its eyes flickering like the kid in math class who once took a seizure on the floor. April was increasingly feeling privy to some dark reality of the animal kingdom, a turn towards nature’s cruel lacerations. It was as if every minute she swallowed another gulp of the fox’s pain, the barbed wire gashing at her own throat.

The doctor returned, finally, with two bottles of beer. She realised that maybe she was just thirsty. He deftly opened the bottles with an opener attached to his keys. She took the first sip, murmuring thank you, tasting the sweetly bitter tang of the cheap hops. It was strange, the taste, because she had not drank alcohol since her months at university. It wasn’t really the drug of choice in the suburbs. Grandma liked her wine and sherry, but April had never been attracted to that sleepy retreat, the way it made you spill out truth after truth round dinner tables. She had seen enough people ravaged by alcohol, at teenage flat parties, where she stared at the walls while people around her pulled and played cards and were sick. She preferred marijuana, the way it scattered you into laughter, made you slink into sofas, soporific.

“Are you hungry?” she asked the doctor, after a brief pause. “I’ve got sweets.” She slipped a roll of fruit pastilles from her sleeve. Since starting her job at the petrol station several months ago, April had taken to sugar as a means of coping with the insomnia caused by the erratic night shifts, as a means of staying awake after ten hours staring catatonically at a cash desk.

“You’re getting fat,” Grandma told her, a few weeks in. Grandma, who didn’t own a car, had no concept of the world of the petrol station, its jelly-like liquefying of time. With her pinched appetite and terrible cooking, she could have no concept of the need to just gorge. She seemed quite surprised that April could put on weight so fast. She had no concept of coming home, drowsy and stoned at four in the morning, laden with packets of junk food. Of staring mindlessly at the flickers of a screen while stuffing all that salt and sugar in your face. No, she could have no concept of that at all; she was from a sensible generation, she knew the rules, the limits. She had dieted in the eighties, but only because it was fashionable.

April realised how rude it was to offer sweets to a doctor. Would he not warn her of the dangers of tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease? It astounded her that he simply took the first pastille of the roll (a black one) and slipped it between his lips. The alcohol had relaxed, almost instantly, the awkwardness between them.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had one of these,” he chuckled. April grew frustrated with his mildness. She decided to ask him about death again. It seemed so easy, pressing her questions upon the darkness, the distant sound of sirens that filled the streets. She wanted to fill that darkness with everything.

“You’re pretty morbid you are,” he replied to her query, chewing thoughtfully.

“Well isn’t death right here beside us?”

“I guess I can’t argue with that…”

“Have you ever killed a person? she asked brightly, after a pause.

“Of course not—have you?” The beer bottle was still partly wedged between his lips as he spoke, sending his voice into a strange consonance of echoes.

“Well no.” He took the bottle out his mouth.

“I’ve had a part to play. I’ve messed up enough times at work to know that sometimes I’m powerless against death. These dying patients, you realise that their whole lives are closing down. One by one they’re saying goodbye to their will, to their memory, to all those tangible things that kept them together. Personality blurs into a sort of serenity of acceptance, or else twists into violent denial. I’ve had folk scream at me at my practice, telling me I’m wrong. People are so sure that they’re fine sometimes. Then again, so am I. I’ve misdiagnosed before, of course. I thought a man in his mid-40s, non-smoker, vegetarian, track-runner, was fine. He came to me with stomach pains, problems with his digestion. I put it down to IBS, prescribed him some antacids and peppermint tea. A couple months later and he’d lost three stone and was passing blood. It was cancer of the bowels, and he only had three weeks to live. Hell, if I’d caught that sooner…he had a wife and two kids. It still haunts me, I’m telling you.”

“But doctors must make mistakes like that all the time,” April said carefully, “I mean, there are so many illnesses to choose from – it’s impossible to get it right for each person. You’re not a computer.”

“Man, human weakness is no excuse. I was lazy, I should’ve asked him more questions. Can I have another fruit pastille?”

“Sure.” She pushed out an orange one, the last of the packet – she’d wolfed the rest already. A residue of the sugar coating remained on her palm.

“Then there was this old lady,” he continued, after a while, “she had all these problems. Alzheimer’s, kidney problems, trouble breathing and eating – the lot. She just came to me constantly, every week, complaining about everything. Sometimes she collapsed and a neighbour would find her and rush her to A&E. There were never enough beds to keep her for long. She’d always come back to me, just her practice doctor, thinking I had the miracle of life or something. I should’ve referred her to a geriatric specialist. I thought I was being clever, taking on the challenge; I thought all she needed deep down was someone to talk to. These suburban types, sometimes they’ve been shut up all their life, silenced by housework and Vallies. It’s a wee cliche, but it’s kinda true – an army of hypochondriacs.”

“What happened to her?”

“One time she was at a coffee shop, you know the one by the park, Crow’s Cafe I think it’s called. She was just drinking tea and doing a crossword. Collapsed right there and then.”

“Wow.” For a sudden moment, the image of her own grandma flashed into April’s mind: she saw her standing over the sink, washing dishes, staring vacantly at the filthy windows. So transparent, she could be a ghost.

“It was fucking gruesome. Her spleen and all. Kidney failure. They never really told me what happened exactly, but I was heavily disciplined for not spotting the signs.” He added, bitterly: “I nearly took to drink, after that one.”

“You’re a little too young to talk like that, surely.” April sipped slowly on the last of her beer, savouring it, as though if she drank to the bottom of the bottle the conversation would end.

“How old do you think I am?”

“Um, maybe thirty…?” It occurred to April that she hadn’t the foggiest idea how old a doctor was supposed to be. All the ones she’d ever met were in their fifties – at the very least – and this man beside her wore a nice jumper and had nice skin and a smile you could fall for. He could be near enough fresh out of medical school.

He laughed, almost snorted at her suggestion.

“Put it this way…my fortieth birthday seems a long time ago now.” She was conscious that he didn’t ask for her age in return.

“Really?”

“Uh huh. Twenty years ago, near enough, that I told my first patient that she was pregnant, that I first prescribed a batch of sleeping pills, antidepressants. I don’t remember their faces. The woman sent me a card, after the baby was born. I think it was a boy.”

“That’s pretty cool. You have a hand in life and death.” He snorted.

“I wouldn’t say that. I just…notice things.” They were cut short by the sound of the fox wheezing again. Its body trembled, rustling the leaves of the hedge behind it.

“Come on now fella,” the doctor said, awkwardly, as if speaking to a person. April knelt close to it again, stroking it, making soft, soothing cooing noises.

“You have a way with animals,” he remarked, as the fox began to quieten again, “you’re like the fox whisperer.”

“Maybe it’s just cos I’m crap with humans,” April said.

“I guess we all think we’re crap with humans.”

“That’s probably true.” She scrunched the foil of the fruit pastilles wrapper in her hand.

“For some more than others, I can assure you. The benefits of hindsight and age.” She saw him wink at her in the darkness.

“The vet’s taking a long time,” she remarked.

“Oh, they have to come across town,” he said vaguely. “Anyway, what were you doing out this late, wandering around?” It was the unspoken mystery between them, the chance encounter, the dying fox beside them on the pavement, the press of the darkness like the sweet-smelling sheets of a stranger’s bed.

“I…I get sad. Sometimes I need to get out of my grandma’s house. I could feel the walls melting. It’s a nightmare. And you?”

“Believe it or not, I’m wearing pyjamas under this jumper.” He lifted the jumper to reveal a baggy, pinstripe shirt. She noticed a flash of his brownish belly underneath where the shirt rode up, the hint of a snail trail in wisps of hair that she could see even in the darkness. There was a slight paunch, perhaps the only suggestion of middle-age. “My…girlfriend, she’s a doctor too, at the hospital. Works crazy back shifts and nightshifts all the time. We catch each other for lunch, for dinner parties, in bed in the wee hours before dawn. I get lonely: sometimes I can’t sleep and I just get out of bed and walk. There’s never anyone around.” He put down his empty beer bottle, ran a hand through his hair, which was overdue a cut. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“It’s like,” April replied solemnly, “you sometimes just need the fresh air.”

“Yeah, that’s probably it.”

“I wasn’t even sure where I was, but I think I know now,” she said, “it’s not far from my old school.”

“Have you lived here all your life?”

“Well…since I was a teenager. Something happened to my parents and we had to move from our nice flat downtown to Grandma’s place in the ‘burbs.”

“I bet that was a shock and a half for you.”

“Yes, they died quite suddenly.”

“Oh, er, no I meant the move to the suburbs…I didn’t realise your parents had actually passed away. I’m so sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.” His sincerity made something physically ache inside of April. Who was this man, and what was he doing to her? She felt as if all the scrunched-up resentments of the past few years were slowly melting away, leaving her with a sense of going soft, of somehow opening. It was so easy to just…talk. She stroked the fox’s ears, following a comforting rhythm.

“Yeah, this street…I think I even walked down it to school sometimes. I used to buy sweets at some corner shop. It looks different at night.”

“Indeed.”

“It’s funny,” she said, “I think a boy tried to kiss me once, just over there on that corner.” She gestured to a spot where the pavement rose up to someone’s drive, drenched in amber lamplight. “I’m pretty sure he did it for a joke.”

“What makes you say that?”

She frowned. “Oh I dunno, the look in his eyes. He was popular and they all hated me. He literally asked me the question, stared at me, came up to me out of nowhere.”

“What did you do?” She was surprised to see he seemed genuinely curious. What business did a middle-aged man have caring about the (non)romantic history of a girl almost half his age?

“I told him no thanks.” He laughed.

“Brutal, truly brutal. I’m telling you, you probably broke his puny wee heart.”

“I sincerely doubt it.” There was something so uncanny in the way she said that, I sincerely doubt it: it seemed a thing an older woman would say, someone made weary with bitterness, cynicism; someone with experience under their belt. There was a sort of aged wisdom that sparkled in her eyes when she said it. In the darkness he could not see her blush; could not read in her face that at 24 years old, she had never kissed anyone before.

“Can I offer you a smoke?” he asked, after a pause.

“So you smoke too, do you? I’m beginning to lose my faith in doctors,” she replied wryly.

“Well, you must’ve had a shock, stumbling upon old Fantastic Mr Fox here.” She smiled at his Roald Dahl reference. “And a thing I like to prescribe to myself on such occasions is, well, what you might call the humble drug of the suburbs.” He slipped a tin from his pocket and prised the lid open. There was a baggie of what was unmistakably weed, some tobacco skins and filter tips, like tiny pieces of white candy. “Marijuana.” He winked once again his mischievous wink, and April felt a tingling in her stomach.

“Yes please,” she said without pause. She felt like a child at a restaurant, being offered some exotic food for the first time. She watched him deftly roll a joint, handling the paraphernalia with the ease and grace of someone who spends all day tinkering with syringes and stethoscopes and thermometers. He lit up and sucked in the first draw, his face alight in the orange glow. In that slight intensity of light, she noticed the tiny lines that crinkled in the corners of his eyes, the tiredness that cut shadows underneath them.

He passed her the spliff. It tasted very sweet, and she realised there were little strawberries printed all over the skin.

“Yeah…” the doctor said awkwardly, “I find it hard to deal with the feel of tobacco in my mouth, so I use flavoured skins, like some brazen wee hussy from an American high school movie.”

April drew a long deep lungful of smoke. The weed was very sharp and bitter, but the strawberry taste smoothed it out.

“You just used the word hussy,” she stated.

“I know, is that very awful?” the doctor lay back against the hedge and giggled like a schoolgirl.

“Probably,” April replied. She took a few more greedy draws then passed the spliff back to him. The stuff was evidently much better than what she procured from Rattata. Already she could feel something lifting in her stomach, her brain sort of crumpling, lightening, as if filling up with a strange, ascendant vapour.

“Do your colleagues know you smoke this?” she asked, in all sincerity.

“Oh, I suppose they have an inkling that I’m not quite…orthodox.”

“I always wondered how you were supposed to have fun, as a doctor. Like, golf and stuff. Red wine, because it has antioxidants?”

“Terribly boring, eh?” he smiled. She saw that his lips were quite dry and pale. “I guess there’re some teenage habits you just can’t give up. I only do it alone these days. My girlfriend would kill me if she knew.”

At this point, April was only half-listening. Her hand was on the belly of the fox, softly stroking the ruined fur, feeling the troubled rhythm of its breathing. A Sonic Youth song – one she hadn’t heard in years – was pulsing through her head:

Everybody’s talking bout the stormy weather

And what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?

Looking for a man with a focus and a temper

Who can open up a map and see between one and two

“I just realised something.” The doctor straightened himself up from his slumped position. “Is that blood caked in your cheeks?”

“What?” April had totally forgotten about the tribal marks she had smeared on her skin on some bizarre impulse. “Oh.”

“I thought it was just the shadows from the street lamp, but no, I can see it now.” Then he did something strange. He licked his finger and placed it on her cheek. He gently wiped away the marks. Then he put the finger in his mouth.

“Bitter,” he muttered.

April finished the last of the spliff, stubbing it out into the ground, well away from the fox. She remembered, then, what she had written, all those years ago, on the exposed plaster behind her bed: I Hate Everyone. 

It was only now that she experienced the vague realisation that maybe she didn’t.

“I think it’s so sad,” she began, “the way things can just die like this. Who knows what it went through? It’s like, why should an innocent creature be torn to shreds like that? For what? An accident? I don’t understand how easily death can just happen. It can just shake up the world for a second and then it goes on as normal. And so often we take for granted the difference – between life and death – like seeing death as this other realm, dressed up in old age and frailty and all this flowery symbolism, but actually, actually, it can happen at any time. It can be as part of your life as brushing your teeth in the morning. It hangs over you, as easily and constant as routine. You could die anywhere, you could stumble upon someone dying.” There was a pause of silence between them. April felt warm and content at her own eloquence. They listened to a trio of starlings in the tree behind them, presumably settling down to roost.

“I used to be suicidal,” he said suddenly, “as a teenager. I never told anyone. For six months of my life I thought about death everyday, and I never told anyone. I would write all my plans on scraps of my maths jotter: tonight I will take my mother’s pills; today I will hang myself. I won’t eat or drink anything, so that I can starve to death. It felt safe, having those notes on me all the time. Then one day – the day I decided to be a doctor I guess – I realised that what was the point in death? It wasn’t even giving up, it was making an effort for something that didn’t want you. Like unrequited love. I knew then that suicide required an act of will that I didn’t have. Since then, I’ve been a slave to anatomy. There’s something soothing about studying the body in this precise, objective way. You stop thinking about that abstract thing inside yourself that you want to kill. Eventually, it just sort of goes away.” He sighed deeply. “You don’t forget, but you can make it go away.”

“Do you think everything happens for a reason?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, “I think everything just…happens. We make the reasons, maybe.”

“My parents were killed in a car crash when I was fifteen. It was no-one’s fault. Just two sets of people clashing on bad luck.”

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated the phrase from before, when she had first told him of her parents’ passing. His sincerity seemed genuine, and not the perfected sympathetic stare of the medical professionals April was used to dealing with in the immediate aftermath of their deaths.

“It’s okay,” she said, “it was a long time ago now. Nearly ten years…”

“Do you ever wonder about the future? I suppose you have a glittering career ahead of you, smart girl like you from the suburbs, living faithfully and chastely with her grandmother…”

“No, I can’t,” she said bluntly. She was struggling for the words, waiting to snatch them out of the air; she was so high now that she seemed to be speaking through fog, the words churning and swirling in her brain.

“The world is just day after day after day and will anything change or happen? I feel like I’ve been preserved in jelly, destined to play out the rest of my days in this stasis…but it seems impossible to imagine time not happening anymore, the world going on without you, consciousness itself dissolving. I can’t see what it’s like, not existing. It’s kind of exciting, more tangible maybe than any real change you could have in life. I feel like the death of my parents was the one shock, the thing that would decide the rest of my future. But what future? Nothing changes in the suburbs.”

She pictured the ripples of her years, spreading out from that central, dramatic node: the stone thrown in the water, the shrapnel left by two cars crashing.

“Things do happen,” the doctor whispered. And then she felt him lean in towards her, over the dying fox, his warm marijuana breath suddenly so close to hers. His hand slid into her hair and he pulled her close to him and kissed her on the mouth, softly at first, and she felt the press of his lips which were so light and almost papery dry and she was conscious of how wet her own felt, tasting of cannabis and fruit pastilles. She felt his tongue push through and dance around her own, slippery and not at all awkward as he led the way, their heads moving together just so. His stubble left a faint, grazing feeling on her cheeks. He pulled away, after what seemed a long, long time – this interlude in reality, strange and sweet.

April leant back against the hedge and looked up at the cherry tree in the garden opposite. She knew it would be bearing fruit now, little glossy cherries that would shrivel and fall off in autumn. She felt a lightness inside of her burst open, a kind of pale fire in her chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Just then, a flurry of lights cascaded down the road as the vet’s van pulled round the corner. A single man got out the van. April noticed the pale toothpaste blue of his coat, the Converses he wore on his feet.

“Over here,” the doctor called out. The vet slammed his door and strode over to them with nothing in his hands.

“Oh dear,” he said, “what happened to it?”

“We don’t know,” the doctor replied firmly, “he was just here.” The vet knelt down and gently turned the fox over slightly.

“He’s a she,” he said.

“I found her,” April piped up, glancing at the doctor. “I think she got caught in barbed wire.”

“Well, the thing’s lost a lot of blood,” the vet observed blankly. He would never get used to these calls in the wee hours; his head was still swimming from the evening operation he’d performed on someone’s cat, back in the surgery.

“Are you going to…?” the doctor looked at the vet uncomfortably.

“Yes,” he replied. “I see no other way. Nobody owns foxes as pets so there’ll be no bother with that. There’s nothing else we can do for it I’m afraid.” April thought then what a sad thing to say, that in the end they could do what they wanted to the creature, because nobody owned it. She herself felt a strange propriety over the animal, as if she wanted to shelter it from its cruelly inevitable fate.

“I’ll foot the bill,” the doctor said quickly, “I don’t mind.” There was such gravity in those three words, I don’t mind, that he could be talking about paying the medical bills for his own child, never mind some stray fox who’d stumbled into a roadside accident. The vet seemed impatient.

“No, no, there are council fees I can claim for this…duty. Don’t worry.” He went back to his van and returned with a plastic box that matched the blue of his tunic. April noticed his fingers were shaking slightly as he fixed up two syringes with the solutions contained in little glass phials. The doctor held his phone out as a torch, while the vet fiddled around with his drugs. April stroked the fox’s ears. Its wheezing was growing more intense, more laboured. The blood had seeped right out onto the road.

“It’s okay,” she whispered, to no-one or nothing in particular. Somehow, saying it felt like taking control of the situation. She could feel the adrenaline start to rush round her stomach.

The vet searched the fox’s neck for a vein. April was told to step back as the doctor held its head and legs still. Sure enough, the fox mustered enough strength to snap at the vet’s arm, but the bite narrowly missed. The first injection, the vet explained, was a strong muscle relaxant. The second was the anaesthetic overdose. It took just a couple of minutes to shut the life out of this animal, this russet-coloured beauty of the streets who had once roamed and scoured and hunted for fun. What was left was this bloodied toy of a creature, which the vet so effortlessly scooped into his arms and took back to the van.

“What are you going to do with her?” April asked urgently. She noticed that the doctor was distracted by his phone.

“We can take the animal back to the surgery to be properly destroyed,” the vet explained, regaining the strength of his clinical tone, the relief that soon he could be home and in bed again. “You did the right thing. We put it out its misery.”

Once upon a time, Jacob had brought in a dying bird from the park where they used to play near their parents’ old flat. It was such a small thing, cradled in his palms.

“Probably got by a fox, or more likely a cat,” their father had said, laying the creature out on a paper towel on the kitchen table.

“Can we save it?” Jacob had asked, eyes wide in earnest. He was nine years old at the time, eager to exact a place for everything in the universe. He would not let his sisters anywhere near the bird, which had to be, irrevocably, his personal discovery.

“Best to put it out its misery.”

Had her father said it as coldly and triumphantly as that? April pictured him now, gaining power over the situation as he instructed the children to leave the room, then bent over the thing to wring its tiny neck. End the pain. The following evening they all traipsed down to the park to bury it in a shoebox, along with the hoards of other dead pets whose shallow graves had amassed over the years. Perhaps there was some law against burying your animals in a public place, but April’s parents seemed never to care a fig what anyone else thought, digging out their makeshift animal tombs with gardening trowels while the other parents looked on with a kind of supernatural horror.

“Well thanks.” The doctor shook the vet’s hand. The hand that had killed.

“It’s no problem. Er, do either of you need a lift home?”

“I live just up the road,” the doctor explained.

“I’m fine,” April said quickly. The last thing she wanted was a ride with that dispassionate harbinger of death. Already she could see hints of the sun coming up and a walk home through the pastel glow of dawn seemed the perfect way to gain some catharsis from this incident. She suddenly felt very numb.

“You’d better clean yourselves up when you get in, you look like you’ve been at the scene of a murder!” the vet joked as he opened the door of his van, where the fox’s body was already loaded. April glanced down and realised that sure enough, there were great bloodstains caked in her bare knees, all up her calves and along her arms. The van drove off. She looked at the doctor and he looked back at her and they both laughed. Maybe they were still high; maybe it was the adrenaline; maybe it was just the relief.

“Well,” he said, after they had regained control over their breath.

“I guess I better split,” April murmured. The doctor glanced at his phone.

“Yeah, Amy—er, my girlfriend’s— finished her shift. She’ll be back soon. I’m supposed to do the right thing and go home and make her grilled cheese.” He smiled wryly.

“It was nice meeting you.” She thrust out her hand, an awkward reaction to the ensuing silence. “I’m April.” Laughing again, he took it and shook it firmly.

“I’m Jonathan. April’s a lovely name.”

“T-thanks.”

“It was nice meeting you too,” he said, playing along with the sudden formality, “and I’m sorry, well, sorry for…”

“No,” she interrupted, “it’s totally cool, really. Thank you.”

“Right, well.” He noticed with a shock that her eyes were shining with unspilled tears. She kept looking down at her feet. In an awkward, fatherly gesture, he sort of rubbed and patted her shoulder, then drew away again. In that moment, she seemed as vulnerable and defeated as the fox that had lain at their feet.

“Um, maybe see you again sometime?”

“Y-yeah,” she said. She couldn’t hold in the sigh that then escaped her lips.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, I just…” she paused. “I just wished we could’ve done something to save it. The fox.” As soon as she said the word ‘fox’ she realised she meant something else also: the moment, perhaps, that handful of hours they had shared, alone in the suburban gloaming, with the orange lamplight and the greenish shadows of the hedges and cherry trees, the spray of sprinklers intermittently twinkling in the neighbouring gardens. All the words they had said: hardly any, but so precious to her now as she saw it all disappearing, as she clasped at this silence between them, trying to preserve it in memory. The taste of the doctor’s mouth, clean and dry with the faintest tartness of marijuana, the blackcurrant fruit pastilles.

“If there’s one thing you’ll learn in life kiddo,” the doctor said, “it’s that there’re some things you can’t control, you can’t save or change.” And then he added, mysteriously: “you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Everything else is just…nature. The course of life.”

“S-sure…yes, I guess so.”

“Don’t worry about it, it’ll be okay. Take care.”

He watched as she turned away, denying him the twinge of her smile – as she began to amble back up the street. He watched her until the sliver of her silhouette – the swollen thighs squeezed into denim shorts – had turned the corner, then he made his way across the road, back into his own house, where the door closed tight on the last of the evening.

***

She was standing over the swimming pool in her grandma’s back garden, near-naked in the pallid morning light. It was that queer interlude between dawn and night, where the sky acquires a nacreous frailty, burst intermittently with the blue and yellow watercolours of a morning. The pool was variously still and rippled, buffeted occasionally by the slight blasts of wind which were picking up in the trees, shaking some of the leaves off their branches and onto the water. There was a slight coolness to the air that was almost autumnal, but something inside April felt warm and fiery. She realised she had sweated through all her clothes, and so took them off. Just like that: she pulled off her t-shirt and unzipped her skirt, thrust aside her shoes and socks. In the light she saw more clearly how they were covered in blood. It had seeped through to her skin, so that her feet too bore the dying essence of that fox. She didn’t spare a thought for the neighbours, who, if they had been awake, would most certainly have had full view of her bare white body through their windows. There were no secrets, not even in the gardens or the back lanes of this neighbourhood.

She found herself slipping into the water. The pool had been utterly disused for at least a year now, though the man still came twice a month to clean it of leaves and dead insects, to pump it with fresh water and scrub the grime that gathered around the sides, to pinch out the weeds that grew in the tile cracks. April had forgotten that feeling of absolute submersion. She tugged her hair out of its braids and dunked her head under the water. It was her brother who had first taught her how to swim. She saw now the ghost of those flexing muscles, the firm tanned arms scooping the water as easily as knives being drawn through butter.

She was seven years old, the holiday they took on the coast. The sea spray licked her neck; the cries of the gulls were a sadness her childish heart could not bear. She preferred the anxious, argumentative coos of the pigeons in the city. The jackdaws she could hear at night, nestling and rustling for fruit in the cherry trees.

She liked the look of her limbs in the water, fish-like and shimmering.

She started to swim in laps, gathering momentum to the breaststroke she had first learned all those years ago. There was a slightness of violence to each bending kick.

Sometimes she rolled over onto her back, letting the water, the slipstreams of her movement, buoy her body up for awhile. From above, her body would seem a pale sliver; from as high as an airplane, she could be just a piece of plastic litter.

She plunged through the water, again and again, her arms sluicing little currents around her. She felt the steadiness of the world slowing down, the sense that there could be nothing else except for the perfect emerald of the water, the white of the porch lights turned on like clockwork by her grandma’s timer, the soft ebullience of an uncertain sun. It seemed there could be nothing in the world so pure as the pool water. She felt light and clean and free, just swimming and swimming.

For a moment, she pictured the doctor in bed with his girlfriend. Would their bodies fold over each other, like koi fish caught up in the quivering swirls of their chiffony fins?

She thought of his tongue in her mouth, its lubricious, hungry press against her own.

It ached a little, to think of that. She plunged deep to the bottom of the pool, brushing the tiles with her hands. She pulled herself into contorted positions: front rolls and twists and hand stands. Underwater she felt lithe and elastic as a ballerina; her body was just this flexing and yielding of muscle. It was as if she didn’t even need to breathe.

She pictured the fox, tangled in barbed wire, making its final, bloodied struggle along the pavement. Had it tried to cross some boundary line, a manmade defence against that which would penetrate some inward purity? A children’s playground, a walled garden, a hospital?

She pictured the fox down some suburban back alley, skulking around for trash. She saw it murdering the starlings from the cherry trees, tearing them up in a scattering of cries and feathers. Not even bothering to finish them off.

Her mother and father in a car crash, all metal and flesh and seatbelt leather, the eerie screeching of brakes. The trailer clip of their deaths she had played over again and again, sleepless each night in the terror of waking dreams, until the weed had abated the awful addictiveness of that fantasy. Its hazy shroud, smoked daily, was the only escape. It was like inhaling the detritus of the earth, entering into a polluted communion with waste itself, rebelling against the aseptic surfaces of the suburbs, clawing deeper with every toke.

She climbed out of the water, finally exhausted.

In the glazed, cerulean surface, she saw herself: milk chocolate eyes wide as marbles. Its fluid reflection was as mercurial as the mirror in her bedroom, the shimmering, distorting wallpaper, the surfaces of wood, metal, plastic, glass and carpet which seemed to ooze and blend into one another. Inside the house, everything flowed and churned in static repetitions of temporality, of reality itself, whereas here there was a possibility of solidity. The tiles around the pool clung to her pale cold skin. It was so easy to just fold inwards, to just lie down, right there, in the sweet gold light…how easy to be that sliver of a thing, which the world would burn through in its indifference.

“April? April dear, is that you?” It was Grandma Grainger, leaning out the bathroom window which overlooked the back garden. Her voice echoed around the surrounding houses. She repeated herself when she saw no movement of registration from her granddaughter, who lay by the pool on her side, like a beached seal.

Grandma came running out into the garden, cradling a huge white towel that she’d grabbed from the linen cupboard, neatly folded.

“Oh darling!” she knelt over April’s wet body, her underwear soaked through and the skin of her fingers wrinkled slightly from the water, like long thin prunes. She realised that the skinny, teenage girl she had watched since her own daughter’s death had filled out with fleshy, swollen curves. She was there in front of her; she was substantial. As if in pain, April groaned a little, and her grandma breathed a sigh of relief, to see she was alive at least.

“You look so very pale,” she said, tutting with disapproval. “Sit up.” Unconsciously, April obeyed this instruction. She hugged her knees and let her grandmother wrap the towel around her shoulders, feeling like a child again, small and vulnerable. It was soft and almost warm. Another kind of shroud.

For a while, they sat like that in the quiet suburban garden, the only sound being the soft calls and song of awakening birds. So close they seemed, yet distant. The two women did not appear to be speaking to one another. They just sat together, as if they were static ornaments in the mise en scene of a film set: April enveloped in her white angelic veil, shuddering in the cold, Grandma Grainger folded in the cream-coloured silk of her nightgown. The garden was bathed in a queer blue glow that seemed to emanate from the pool.

Grandma did not comment on the bloodstained clothes, nor the fat, silvery tears which were suddenly pouring from April’s eyes, uncontrollable as the rain that came in a storm. There was something elemental and strange in that unexpected display of emotion. She did not think she’d ever seen her granddaughter weep, not even after her parents died, or when she came back from university, defeated.

“I wondered where you’d gone off to for so long,” she said quietly, picking at a tiny chip in her vermillion nail polish. In the ensuing silence, Grandma knew that she would never get an answer, not properly: April really was this unknown entity, an absolute other who she could do nothing for but care for unconditionally. It was a sorrowful burden, the love of this shivering thing beside her, an adult and yet a girl, almost an alien.

Fighting the paralysis that had overcome her in the cold, April dipped her toe back into the pool water. The ripples undulated outwards, as if she had just pierced some huge and molten jewel. All you had to do was find the weak point.

“Oh, what are we going to do with you?” Grandma sighed deeply, her voice a fragile croak, almost lost in the rustling roar of the poolside trees. The breeze would come and go; would rattle the branches then leave them in silence again.

“What are we going to do with you indeed,” Grandma repeated, as if for good measure. She was surprised when April opened her mouth to reply.

“I don’t know,” she said, teeth chattering, “but maybe we’ll figure it out tomorrow.” She wrapped the towel tighter round her shoulders, then stared back out at the water, at the spot where she had just dipped her blueish toe, the ripples spreading outwards still, stiller and still.

True Love Waits

***

It’s in this track that you finally slip under the surface, that you actually look back at the world through the gauze of this mysterious, ethereal substance that has formed in the wake of all this…music. A Moon Shaped Pool. Ripple of piano riffs flower out around you, the steady yet slightly quivering polyrhythms that shimmer around a fragile croon. Sadness in silver, the wisps of cloud that lick the moon; as the long hair of a girl, floating alone on her boat in the ocean, flicks her face in the wind. The pool is gelatinous, oozing its tendrils and trickles of this sonic sweetness; the listener is stuck, drifting, as paralysed inside this song as the love itself which frames it. How old is this tune? Somehow it feels ageless, plucked out of time as if nobody wrote it – as if it materialised in the ether, adrift on some westward, melancholy breeze. The child plucked from a fairytale, waiting for her saviour, frailly nourished on lollipops and crisps. The way Thom Yorke’s voice licks the soft consonants, the lilting drag over the vowels…that simple, subdued beauty. I’m not living / I’m just killing time. How easily captured is that sorrow, that shrinking of the world as you long for the lost object, the presence so elusive whose existence, you truly believe, is the single thing that will save you. There is always that waiting, that painful, half-lived interlude. Will it happen? When will it happen? Here, that place where the fingers slip effortlessly over ivory keys; where notes swirl around one another, like the rings on the surface of water, pale-hazed and iridescent. A mercurial thirst for the things that kill and sustain you. Tiny tattoos that etch the moon. There, the promise of sacrificing all, of baring oneself to the other: the exchange of absolute translucency. Not quite transparent: the mystery still glazes, if only thinly. I’d drown my beliefs / to have your babies. Maybe gender, maybe identity itself, become futile in this feeling. The body is just a possibility. In memory, it is always the detail that remains: Your tiny hands / Your crazy-kitten smile. Desire is the endless chain of such details, their sense of ephemerality – you cannot pin down the tiny hands or crazy-kitten smile, which inexorably close or blink or fade, a little like the grin of the Cheshire cat. We can only collect the images, those photos which clot the haunted attics: love too is an archive of sorts. But the liquid metaphors prevail: you can drown in the archive, you can drown in your love. Don’t leave, don’t leave – it’s the imperative of one who is starved of oxygen, breathless and maybe a little desperate, reaching out for that lovely soul who would save it. And could all this strange passion, this warbling sadness, really be contained in what Wikipedia calls ‘a minimal piano ballad’? Written over twenty years ago and finally that melody is pressed onto vinyl, into the modernist glint of a compact disc, spread like smoke around the internet. Yet somehow it still eludes us. It is that moment of clarity – epiphany, even – amidst the futurist nightmares of much of the band’s back catalogue. Love, love, love: what is it good for? The song doesn’t answer the question, rather draws us into the aching feeling, again and again with that refrain – don’t leave – highlighting the desire that draws us through life, even if it stings us, bramble-like, with pain. We try to make it tangible, pin it to myriad images; but like the soft fading closure of the version on A Moon Shaped Pool, love itself offers no solid, defining life-raft. Maybe it’s the idea, the trembling imagination, that sustains us. After all, ‘True Love Waits’ falls in and out of arrangements with the ease of osmosis. Guitar or piano, brighter or sadder, it stays protean somehow; its capacity to plasmolyse with such simple, touching lyrics leaves you feeling weak – as fragmented, perhaps, as all those sweetly delivered images. So easy it would be, at the close of the album, to float forever in the orbit of that pool and its silvery spirits – the pieces that I loved, the pieces that were you.

Oranges for Marmalade

So delighted to have been picked as a runner-up in the 2016 GUCW Summer Short Story Competition. The theme was ‘journeys’ and you can read the other winners HERE.  Here’s my wee story, about an elderly lady trying to get to the end of the road…

Oranges for Marmalade

oranges marmalade.jpg

“No, no, no, must get to the shop, can’t stop, can’t stop…”

You could only hear her if you were very close to her. From afar, there was only the distant rustle of her words, softly murmuring like an insect.

“Must get to the shop, must…”

You could see her fuss with the door of her bungalow, shuffling along the path out of the front garden and onto the pavement, never forgetting to close the gate. She was always careful with these details. Sometimes the cat was out, draped over the stump of wood where once there was a lilac tree, prowling around the unkempt lawn, or else sitting at the window, watching carefully as her mistress slowly made her way down the road.

It was a beautiful street, even by the city’s standards: a long, broad avenue of horse chestnuts, which shadowed the pavements and when the sun shone they cast dapples of green light on the concrete, clear and pretty as stained glass windows. In the autumn, conkers would gather in the ground, brown and gleaming amidst the fallen leaves, and the neighbourhood children came out in their droves to pilfer them. She had lived on this street for a very long time. Whole families had come and gone, homes were split into rented apartments, townhouses halved into bungalows. Only the corner shop remained at the end of the road, though it had changed hands a few times.

If you watched her for long enough, you would see the rhythm of her walking was most unusual. She stopped in fits and starts. She would halt in her step, standing as if suddenly finding herself tied to the ground, looking around her with a bewildered expression. If you were close enough, you could hear her tutting under her breath.

“Can’t stop, can’t stop.”

She attempted her stilted, aborted journey almost every day. So sad, she always seemed, picking her footsteps over the same old concrete. There was a frown on her face, etched deep into her skin. Her eyes, a watery green, always glazed over, or else were sharp and jolted and fearful.

This is the tree, the special tree which she stops at halfway on her journey. She knows there is something significant about the tree. Her fingers, sometimes, escape the cloak of their gloves and feel along the trunk; dry, brittle skin brushing upon the gnarled wood, whose bark came apart in dusty flakes. Somewhere on the tree two letters are carved: E + J. She winds her pointy finger up the J to where it stops. Sometimes, the sticky sap clings to her nail and later, in the shower perhaps, she will notice it and worry about where it came from.

Was this it? No. She is not here for the tree. She is never travelling towards the tree; it just so happens that she finds herself here again.

She always gets to a certain point in the walk where suddenly everything loses its clarity. She can no longer make sense of the shapes and colours. She does not recognise this street at all. Where am I? Where am I? The windows of buildings seem to stare down at her in mockery, circle-shaped and evil. She is running back through her memory, names and faces, names and faces and places. The East End street where her grandmother lived. Was it just like this? She remembers the ochre and gold of the bricks and the white window frames and the old men that would stand on street corners, at all hours of the day, staring aimlessly and smoking cigarettes.

Pull your stockings up, her mother used to scold. She would run around the streets, shooting marbles and playing with the boys, her stockings always half up, half down. She remembers them fondly, those stockings, the colour of a lilac sky, as her father used to joke. He was a secret poet, and he liked to mix words like his wife would mix the oranges and sugar for marmalade. Marmalade, her speciality, the milk of summer nourishment. The fruit comes all the way from Spain, as her father would say, slathering it over his toast. She remembers him reading the newspaper, stealing mischievous glances with butter-smeared lips as she mended the holes in her school blouses.

The sky was greying now, the weather turning. An umbrella: she should have brought an umbrella. The door to her bungalow was so far away now; there could be no turning back. She felt the panic rise like a sickness in her chest. Nobody could know how much she needed to urinate. There was a new desperation to her journey, as if somehow it was now life-threatening.

“Are you okay ma’am?” the woman in the business suit stops her car, rolls down the window. The woman leans her head out but she is already walking away, pacing in circles of confusion. “Are you lost?”

“What? What?”

“I said, are you lost?”

“No, no, mustn’t stop, got to get to the shop.”

“Can I give you a lift?”

“No, no, it’s not far – the end of the road.”

“Are you sure? It’s no bother for me.”

“I must – must get to the end of the road. Good day to you.” She clutches her handbag tight to her chest, thinking how nosy people were, even these days. The car trundles reluctantly away and the street is quiet again. Very few commuters pass through here. It was only the locals who brought their cars to reside in the sleepy parking spots, draped with the luxuriant leaves of the chestnut trees.

There was something she had to get from the shop. What was it? She had lost it again, the slip of paper that she was supposed to carry around to help her remember.

“Something to get from the shop,” she mutters. A handful of kids, skiving from school, burst round the corner, their skateboards cracking loudly on the concrete like fireworks. She shivers with fright, looking up to the sky for an explanation. The kids whirl past her, laughing. They went from one end of the street and onto the next in less than a minute.

Her own children–how old were they now?

“Oh, hello Rosie,” she said once, greeting the little boy who was dragged into the living room by his harassed mother.

“Mum, it’s Robert. Robbie. Your grandson.”

“Robert? Oh, yes, a boy! Hello Robbie.” It happened every time. Every time it was like she was meeting them anew.

“Yes, this is Robbie, Mum,” she repeated, “Rosie’s…dead. Your daughter Rosie, she died out in Israel. Five years ago. Remember?”

“Rosie? Rosie what?” The same thing, every time. She died, she died. “What was she doing in, in Israel?” Sometimes the words would come back to her: It’s just something I have to do Mum, I have to find myself. What was it they had told her? Something about the desert, the collapsed sand dunes, all those foreign-sounding names that had swirled around in her head, loose and dead as the leaves picked up in an autumn breeze. The young folk, why was it they had to go away, what was it they thought they would find elsewhere?

There were always funerals. Funerals were as sure as the passing seasons. People were always dying; that was true enough. You put on a good spread and said your good will and life went on just the same.

“But my Rosie? How…my Rosie?”

“She was stranded, Mum, stranded. My sister and they flew her home in a box.” And her own daughter then, choking up in the living room, white knuckles rubbing her knees.

Stranded, stranded…

Stranded, like she was now, stuck on a traffic island in the middle of this suburban avenue where she had lived for twenty years, and the traffic coming and going so slow and intermittent, and still the thought of crossing terrified her and she was suddenly frozen and her hands were quivering like, like birds’ wings and she knew, she just knew there was someone in the window opposite watching her…

They had given her a necklace with a plastic button, an alarm that she was supposed to press when she needed help. She could picture it, hanging by the door, clicking against the glass as the draft blew in.

She could hear the buzz of a telephone.

The cry of the magpies outside her window.

The sound of her girls, laughing in the garden.

The thrum of the music from next-door.

The skateboards smashing the concrete.

It was all this deep, dark, churning cacophony. She knew she needed to keep moving, but her legs were stiffening, her joints seizing up, her bladder trembling. The rain was coming down now in cold speckles on her face.

Nobody in the street could know the secret strain of her journey. Each time she tried to cross the road, she saw her feet step off over a cliff and the car like a gush of coastal wind, ready to sweep her down to her death. All around her, this sea of sound, lashing and stirring.

She’d always thought of death as a kind of quiet, a restful transition from life into sleep. This was not death at all, this turmoil. The huge green chestnut leaves which bore upon her like so many hands, glinting wickedly with unforgiving light. The clouds clearing, then closing in again.

Her own daughter, and all the things she would have shown her. The special rules that kept families together, the various arts of living and loving and housekeeping. The things that you were supposed to be proud of. The little efforts to make everyday life somehow tangible, meaningful.

She’s left the stove on again. 

Often, these days, she thought of herself in that anonymous third person.

She lost her glasses. Lost the handset for the telephone. 

That anonymous third person, disorientated, mocking.

Life seemed more and more a journey in which you found yourself lost. You were not supposed to reach a destination, but merely immerse yourself in further confusion. The thought of it was almost a comfort.

She is less distressed. She is breathing properly and her hands stop shaking as she stuffs them in her pockets. As always, it is at this point in the road that she turns back, heads towards the house with the gate and the cat and the alarm by the window and the bathroom with the toilet and the living room where they told her that Rosie had died. It is always at this point that she gives up.

It is only later, at some unfixed time in the middle of the night, that she will wake up and remember the purpose of her journey. Maybe she is dreaming of her mother, sad and milky swollen dreams. Maybe she is dreaming of the quiet suburban street itself: the swaying leaves of the horse-chestnut trees, the conkers in autumn gleaming, the children on the green and the thrash of the skateboards and the way the world looked ten, twenty years ago, before she started forgetting…

Maybe she dreams of her own daughters, golden on the front lawn, singing and playing.

Always she awakes to that singular purpose, a child again, the glitch in her memory that always sticks like a scratch on a record: Oranges. I must buy oranges, to make marmalade. Oranges for marmalade.

‘Do something pretty while you can’: The Magic of Belle & Sebastian

aa037da0-a17c-47f3-9e82-4639aeba279e-620x372
image source: The Guardian

Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful). Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.

For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.

DearCatastropheWaistress

Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.

In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.

For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).

Belle-And-Sebastian-Tigermilk

ANYWAY,  back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.

Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.

One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.

Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.

He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.

It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?

They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.

Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.

Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.

Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.

You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.

‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915[17]) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’.  Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.

A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:

Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor

And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay

In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt

We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.

Tigermilk, then, isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:

A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.

This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.

god-help7
The protagonists of GHTG: James, Eve, Cassie

Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.

Trip to Berlin

I haven’t been ‘abroad’ since Dublin in June 2014, so the prospect of Berlin was pretty exciting. I thought it was about time I spent my birthday somewhere different and I’ve never heard a bad word said about Berlin. We stayed in the Heart of Gold hostel, which is in Berlin Mitte, about ten minutes from Friedrichstrasse train station and a short walk away from Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Museum Island. This was my first time in a hostel and it felt a bit like going on a residential school trip combined with student halls; only unlike a school trip you had total freedom over your time, and unlike student halls people actually respected the place. The decor was kinda cool and space-themed, plus there was a pool table and unlimited free hot drinks and super cheap beer. The slightly rickety bunk beds were worth it in terms of price and location. Also, not many budget hotels will bless you with music ranging from Radiohead to German techno to obscure Cure albums to enjoy over your breakfast. I loved it.

I always forget how funny a place airports are. Their sense of spatial and temporal dislocation. Everyone just waiting; not exactly lounging around, but waiting all the same. Checking their phones, browsing the duty free, trying not to lose each other. If you’re like me and don’t go away much, you forget that whole other culture – that of the British holidaymaker. Screaming families and the endless churning crowds making their way to Spain, their unprotected, pasty skin volcanically craving the crack-over burn of continental sunshine. Groups of lads with Nike snapbacks making their way out to Zante or Magaluf for their sixth year holidays, my brother beside me tearing their outfits to shreds with his devastating fashion analysis.

Berlin kinda has it all. There are vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes everywhere. We came across a place with hammocks that allowed you to concoct your own tea and watch the traffic go by as you swayed from side to side. Cool riverside cafes with bars embedded inside cabana-style sheds. Supermarkets which sell hummus and play Lana Del Rey on their speakers (what more do you need?!). A frankly mesmerising selection of Ritter and Lindt chocolates (the best). Parks where all sorts of people hang out, drinking beer and wine and throwing frisbee for dogs. It’s legal to drink in the street in Berlin and the vibe is always pretty chilled. The streets weren’t covered with litter, and generally the abundance of graffiti gave off the impression that to remove it would be to strip something pure from the city. It’s a colourful place, a dusty place (lots of construction going on), a green place. There’re parks everywhere, not to mention the massive Tiergarten, where you can lay around for hours, make friends at an outdoor bar, go rowing along the pond, check out a statue dedicated to good old Rousseau. There were little stands outside train stations which sold nothing but punnet after punnet of fresh strawberries. Beautiful Brutalism. Boutique coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, fruit and veg stalls everywhere. It’s super hipster, yes, but not in the kind of wanky obsessed-with-‘taste’ Shoreditch way, just in this laid-back, established way of cool. Plus, all the spirits seemed to be served as doubles, which was fun.

We walked around for hours and hours in the heat, sometimes catching a train, sometimes just walking some more. We walked more than 60km in three days, according to my phone! We saw the main shopping precinct, the parks, the lovely laid-back bar areas, the touristy stuff, the artwork at the East Side Gallery. I already want to go back, preferably with a group of pals who are brave enough to explore all the crazy warehouse raves, speakeasies, weird bars (especially The Black Lodge – think this might’ve freaked my brother out too much!)and clubs in the depths of Kreuzberg…

Some of my favourite Berlin things:

  • The place which used a gym bench as a bar top and sold my favourite whisky (Talisker)
  • The riverside cafe with a hairdresser inside a treehouse
  • Double gin & sofa after walking for hours in the sun
  • The laid-back cafe vibe around Mitte
  • The crazy hotchpotch of people at Mauerpark
  • Ritte ‘Nougat’ chocolate, which is like those Guylian seashells only in a block of chocolate, yummmm
  • The African festival at Alexanderplatz (everyone looked cheerful)
  • All the lovely Americans we met at the hostel
  • Vodka bottles for like €1 at the supermarket
  • Seeing posters for loads of cool festivals, even though I won’t be going to them
  • The fact that cigarette machines still exist here!
  • All the bright yellow buildings
  • The solitary man with long black greasy hair playing lovely sad dissonant songs on his cello, sitting under a bridge
  • Not having WiFi for a few days then coming home to lovely birthday messages!

The Wisdom of 18-year-old Sylvia

On a relatively unfrequented, stony beach there is a great rock which juts out over the sea. After a climb, an ascent from one jagged foothold to another, a natural shelf is reached where one person can stretch at length, and stare down into the tide rising and falling below, or beyond to the bay, where sails catch light, then shadow, then light, as they tack far out near the horizon. The sun has burned these rocks, and the great continuous ebb and flow of the tide has crumbled the boulders, battered them, worn them down to the smooth sun-scalded stones on the beach which rattle and shift underfoot as one walks over them. A serene sense of the slow inevitability of the gradual changes in the earth’s crust comes over me; a consuming love, not of a god, but of the clean unbroken sense that the rocks, which are nameless, the waves which are nameless, the ragged grass, which is nameless, are all defined momentarily through the consciousness of the being who observes them. With the sun burning into rock and flesh, and the wind ruffling grass and hair, there is an awareness that the blind immense unconscious impersonal and neutral forces will endure, and that the fragile, miraculously knit organism which interprets them, endows them with meaning, will move about for a little, then falter, fail, and decompose at last into the anonymous soil, voiceless, faceless, without identity.

From this experience I emerged whole and clean, bitten to the bone by sun, washed pure by the icy sharpness of salt water, dried and bleached to the smooth tranquillity that comes from dwelling among primal things.

From this experience also, a faith arises to carry back to a human world of small lusts and deceitful pettiness. A faith, naïve and child like perhaps, born as it is from the infinite simplicity of nature. It is a feeling that no matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.

This is taken from Sylvia Plath’s journals. She wrote this just before she turned 19. I love the way she transitions from natural details out into meditations on time and life and love,  the way her words have a flow or rhythm which sort of mirrors that rippling wind, the clean and constant wash of tidal water, and then the serenity of the standstill moment.

24 Hours

IMG_35076

It was the summer of being totally numb. I woke up every morning with the sensation of being dragged down some strong gulf stream, warm and foggy and going nowhere.

I smoked cigarettes leaning over the harbour wall, watching the waves curl over the lisp of the sand, gathering in little billows. I worked a job at one of the out of town supermarkets, driving my car around in the day, stacking shelves at night. I worked from midnight till dawn, driving home as the birds sang and the junkies collapsed into their hellhole flats. I sort of enjoyed the boredom, the routine sense of drifting; the way the hours and days just dissolved away. I had a vague sense that something had to happen by the end of the summer, but never paid much attention to prospects of the future.

The doctor put me on these antidepressants, you see. I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing, but they made me very numb. I felt weightless, as if my skin wasn’t my own. There was an agitation, a twitchiness to my existence. I couldn’t help scratching, shivering. I worried the sores that rose in welts on my arms. Every time I tried to eat, I felt nauseous. Only the cigarettes helped.

I was getting through thirty a day, a pack and a half, that summer.

Then I met Oliver. I used to know him, years ago, at primary school. I was standing outside a club, watching the thin blue moon disappear into dark clouds, watching some sixteen-year-old kid throw up on the pavement across the road. Oliver came out of nowhere, wearing this flamboyant shirt, a shark-tooth necklace, his hair wiry and long. I don’t know how he recognised me; I barely recognised him. I wanted to melt into the wall.

But then we started talking about childhood. I guess it seemed like forever ago, this whole other world of messy innocence. The games we used to play, running over the fields, throwing clumps of hay at each other. Days out with the school, teasing one another over the contents of our packed lunches. We walked around town all night, waiting for the sun to come up, sitting shivering underneath a slide at the park, sharing a half bottle of vodka.

He gave me his number, refused the cigarettes I offered. Said we should talk again, but he had to go to work.

I never did text him. I went straight home, teeth chattering on the bus, then lay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the person who used to run around those fields, laughing and shrieking, throwing wads of hay and falling back into the soft long grass. I smoked so much my room was a grey, tarry haze. At some point I must’ve slept.

I woke up and the world was brighter, clearer. The smoke was gone. I drove to work and the strip lights of the supermarket glowed in my brain, the colours of all the signs and products seeming ultra saturated, a pleasure to stare at. Everything felt so intense, so real. I guess I was feeling again. It was a joy to just touch things, finger the labels of tins and packets, brush my feet over the vinyl floor.

I’m not even sure I took down the right number. I never did text him.

It was a joy to stand over the bridge on my break, watching the cars pass on the dual carriageway, biting into something sweet, maybe a donut, maybe a piece of carrot cake. I didn’t think about falling over that bridge, about smoking a cigarette. I thought of Oliver, of the little girl asleep in the backseat, going nowhere through the night. Falling asleep on someone’s shoulder. That sense of safety. I don’t remember much else about how I felt, but I know that something had changed, even though in the end I didn’t text him.

I guess it was just that in those 24 hours, I’d forgotten to take my antidepressants. For once, it felt good to go nowhere.

***

(Flash Fiction February prompts: ‘nowhere’)