Short Story: Selkie

(A short story I wrote back in March, knee-deep in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, handfuls of Romanticism and longing for the sea. It’s about an oil spill, a young boy’s strange obsessions and his very indulgent Daedalian poetry)

Selkie

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He’s become obsessed with making lists of optical properties. Qualities of light quantified on a complex scale he devised at midnight, drunk on a month of insomnia.

His father is very concerned. He comes home and pours amber from the bottle, watching his son pore over homework. Sometimes a storm shatters the sky through the window and they are both oblivious; the father is a terrible farmer. He keeps just a small herd of cows. A local girl comes to do the milking because he is incapable sometimes, and he won lots of money on the races which pays for her wages. He’s grown sick of the jelly-pink udders.

The boy draws lines, draws a series of overlapping ellipses. This is his expression of despair in the face of algebraic equations. He has grown quite fond of receiving those sweet red Fs.

The community is idyllic as any island could be. The school is offshore, on the main island. Every morning, he gets the ferry with the rest of them. They move as one great shoal of fish. Sometimes he watches it happen from afar, the torrent of school uniforms dissolving through the mouth of the big white ship. On such mornings he turns away and walks further inland, hoping to find comfort in the hills.

He never does. It is only the sea he loves.

[…]

Once, the milking girl tried to make a move on him. She used to wear her hair in braids stitched together across her skull, but that day she came in with it long and loose and wavy.

“Will ye not get it in the muck?” the father asked, secretly admiring her golden tresses. She smiled at him. She waited for the boy to come down from his room, eking out time with every pull of the milk. He saw her bent over like that, the hair dripping over her shoulders. He was holding a tattered textbook.

“I love that you read,” she murmured, to no one. The sound was drowned by the cow’s impatient grunt.

“Easy girl,” she said, thwacking its flanks. The boy stood there watching and she mistook that for desire. She turned to look him in the eye, letting the left strap of her top slip down her arm. That one white breast would haunt him forever, like an immature moon. He averted his gaze.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. He sat in the straw, slumped to the floor, and wept. She had never seen someone so pathetic.

He would stand in the shallows of the sea and feel this ache that was deeper than any pain he had ever experienced. It wasn’t pain exactly, but it was a thing that gnawed at his chest, so much sometimes he could hardly breathe. The grey green waters would shlock around his ankles. In the distance they darkened to purple, to wine. His soul was scorched by sunsets. He picked up shells and held them to his ear, listening for the ocean’s distant, groaning radio.

The old woman in the village store told him she sensed his misaligned chakras. She had a bracelet for that, studded with seven power gems.

“You should wear it day and night,” she warned him.

“I have no money.” He studied the trinket with interest. The citrine and carnelian were pretty, but it was the clear quartz and amethyst he liked best. The tiny crackles inside reminded him of waves, preserved in time.

He hung it back up on the stand, alongside the crystal pendants and the celtic knots they sold to tourists.

“I’ll have a postcard instead.”

“A postcard? Who on earth do you have to write to?”

He sat on one of the picnic benches by the shore. The wind kept threatening to blow everything away so he had to pin the card down as he wrote. It was a picture of some white boats against a flaming sundown. Utterly cliché.

Dear mother, he began. What else was there to say?

Sometimes he would walk for an hour right round to the other side of the island. There was a cleft in the rocks you could find for safety at high tide; it was sufficiently above ground to protect one from the flailing salty waters. He would nestle in that cleft and compose lines:

The vitreous lustre of the sea turning starboard
in tidal cycles, an errant moon
throwing zephyrs across the still bright sound. 

Oh mariner, how you have travelled
so deep in the blood of the world! I miss
the sense of your stories, sharp as whisky

in bars where the girls did sing: how lovely
is the newborn day! There are precious
few elements as vast as you, I should

dream only of your strange motifs,
a darkening glass against turquoise air.
In the morning I plot 

my passage to the mainland, sullied
with the effluvia of island living,
drunk on the salt and the still bright rain. 

He would never show his words to a soul. He rolled the thick pages, torn from his father’s ledger, and stuffed them in the empty tubes that once held his teenage posters. The woman in the café served him strong black coffee, and never once asked him why he wasn’t at school. He left her a £1 tip, excess change gleaned from not eating lunch.

Sometimes he would stand on the edge of some cliff and let the wind buffet his body so hard it was perfectly possible that he’d be torn from his mount and hurled to the sea below, stirred up and strangled in its milky swirls.

A week after the milk girl quit, there was a terrible oil spill. Nobody was quite sure who was to blame. People skipped school and work to go down the shore and watch the slow undulations of the oil on the water. It reminded the boy of something oozing in his dreams, a black thick sweat that covered everything. He wrapped his father’s jacket tight around his shoulders. Flecks spattered the silt and shingle the way ink sprayed from a burst pen. They were waiting for experts to arrive.

Some of the islanders wore oilskins or workmen’s gear and went down the next morning to help clean up. The boy had spent half the night on the safety of his favourite rock, watching the oil thicken and coagulate in the shallows. A few birds washed up, unidentifiable. They looked like lumps of hematite, shining in the new full moon. Sometimes the sight of that black shining oil was so much that the boy could hardly breathe.

It was a job that went on for weeks. The oil just kept coming and coming. People from the news arrived with fancy cameras and started interviewing the locals. They said it was one of the worst offshore spillages in a generation. Old folks tutted and blamed the greed of the mainland.

“They might as well have fountains in shopping centres, spraying this stuff around, for all they abuse it.”

The boy kept a diary of the oil. He tried to write about it purely aesthetically. He wanted a thousand words for black, thick, inky, viscous.

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The words brought temporary distraction but deep down they sickened him. He longed to put his bare feet in the sea again. His father scorned him for not helping with the clean-up. He had to do double-shifts with the cows, now that the milk girl had quit.

“You lost your chance there my son.”

The boy started stealing his father whisky. He knew where the weak point was in the distillery warehouse. His father left him alone after that, asked no questions.

The boy noticed that the light on the island had changed with the coming of the oil. Before, it was all stained glass, watercolour: bright and airy. Greens and blues refracted through each other, sparkling. Now the oil cast strange shadows; there were colours on the beach that the boy could not name. He tried to make sense of them with numerical scales to measure the gradients and shades. He kept his notes in a new journal, whose edges were already curled with dried rain, spattered with sea oil.

The sea reveals its fleshly skin of jade,
the green that makes flickers of the water
shiver among those darkling fish, to fade
inexorably among its daughters,

the girls of the dawn with their wet sea fur.
Five generations have known such deep love
as to carve loud bones from the ocean’s whir,
still spinning the buoys at their broken hulls. 

We wait on the rocks for the siren’s call,
laying our bodies to waste on the sound
while the immature moon makes fools of all
who believe in the beautiful, who drowned

Easy as sailors on a summer’s day,
Bloated with salt, time’s lustful decay.

Sometimes his language was so cloying he literally fell violently ill. It was as if he were at sea on a ship, rocked back and forth by a bullying tide. His father found him curled over the toilet.

“Have you been at the whisky my boy?”

“No father. I’m sick at heart.”

“You’re in love?”

“No. It’s the oil.”

He could not eat. He could not sleep. Night melted into day, the hours sat atop one another with the stagnant sense of that oil on the water.

Once, walking along the shore at night, he fancied he saw the milk girl. She walked naked across the sand, her body waxen white, as if carved from the moon. He felt so dreadfully solid in her company. The gooseflesh prickled his neck. She was singing an old song they had learned at school.

From the old things to the new
Keep me traveling along with you

He’d once hated the song, finding it a trite and gooey hymn, but the way she sang it made his heart sting. He realised then that he was no longer a child, that he’d no longer have the innocent luxury of hating something the way he used to hate that song. He thought of the days when he played in the sea until the sun sank behind it, spilling its fiery peach light across the water. How he used to come home with jellyfish stings, salt in his pores, sunburn from the hottest June afternoons.

There was the flaking, turquoise paint on the hulls of abandoned ships. The colour of rust, the old iron chains that oxidised fast in the saline air. The abandoned, unravelled feel of the old yard where the dead ships waited to be repaired. The salt sped everything up, made objects fade eons before they should.

The sea howled. Storms came in quicker than they usually did at this time of year. There was a brief shortage of food as the boats struggled to get offshore, beyond the oil. People were irritable and the cows yielded badly. The boy found a beautiful starfish washed up in a cove. It was jet black, encrusted with oil. It looked like some kind of exotic ornament, worn by a rich lady in a Bond film. He kept it on his windowsill, admired it as the minutes ticked long and slow on the clock.

When the seals started washing up, choked and black and dead as bin-bags, things got serious. Their mouths were bloodied and dry and choked, splayed open as if caught in a final howl. Did seals howl? Could they?

Specialists from the mainland arrived in helicopters to help with the cleanup. There was talk of the island receiving huge subsidies and pay-offs from the petrol company responsible for the spill. Teenagers snapped pictures on their phones and posted them online, tagging them with things like: #shocking #awful #evil #gross #capitalism #darkaesthetic.

The boy realised his peers were wiser than he thought. But they did not know the real damage, the agony he felt sloshing in his chest every time he lay down. There was the sea. It was always there, but once it had been a brilliant cerulean, mottled with orange and heather, grey and jade. Everything smelled of dull and stinking petrol. He wrote in his journal:

It is our world’s first beautiful disturbance. All disasters must entice the eye. 

He thought of 9/11, watching the replays on the television screen while his father drank steadily on the sofa beside him.

“There’s evil out there, my boy.”

“But what about the evil in here?” The boy pointed to his own chest. His father laughed.

“I don’t think you’re going to take down buildings any time soon.” Clumsily, he helped his son with his tie. “Now get yourself to school.”

That isn’t what I meant; it isn’t what I meant at all. 

Sometimes on the rocky plateaus the remnants of oil ghosted the overflow of water, left swirling patterns of rainbows. He checked the internet and saw that people at school were posting lots of photos again. A girl in his class said she was doing her art project on the oil spill. He wanted to tell her to stop, to tell her she knew nothing about the changing colours and the way time was caught in the turgid undulations.

“Father, when will you tell me about mother?”

“What is there to tell? She left when you were still a babe.”

“But—”

“There’s things you won’t understand til you’re older. Now go and play.”

He had not played for five years. He was old now, he was wiser than anyone thought.

He lugged empty bottles across the road to the dumpsters. He now knew the clinking was conspicuous; he could feel the eyes on his back as he smashed each one through the hole.

Once, he dreamt of the milk girl, lying on one of the hillside fields inland, her hair plaited with cowslips. She was humming a tune because it was his birthday. She drank from a bottle of cherryade, the miniature Barr ones you got from the island store. He saw how her tongue was staining red. He woke up feeling very ashamed.

The raven-dark sea made a fool of me,
those tides of black crashing waves in the night
against the harbour wall. I miss the green
abstracted aqua light, playing so bright

amid those blues, those waters clear as glass
who sheltered the glossy ribbons of fish
to swim in the shimmers, burnished with brass
by an old sun that loves life like a wish. 

And now, if I were but a lonesome child
making his way to the soar of the sound
would my young mind find soon such passions wild
inside lagoons, whirlpools, tide patterns bound?

Son to the slippy, cerulean sea,
I rise forward in time to what will be.

When he saw the oil-stained peat of the rocks, the blackened beach, he kept thinking of those towers collapsing. It was like someone had the bright idea of symbolising how everything was falling apart with one fell swoop of a global, terroristic stunt. He asked his teacher if the sea could go on fire, now that it was coated with oil.

“Some folks say that’s the best way to deal with it,” she told him.

“So why haven’t they?”

“I’m sure they have their reasons.” But the boy was sick of not having answers. There were so many creatures out there, wailing with pain beneath the surface, and no one was listening. The ships went out but all they seemed to do was swirl the oil round and round, gathering it thicker. Nothing disappeared. Nothing. 

One day, he came home from school to find his father rifling through his papers. While his files were normally organised, shut tight in a drawer, now they were scattered all over his bedroom floor. His father had let a glass of wine spill on the carpet and now a horrid red stain accompanied the places where cigarettes had been stubbed, where coffee had seeped into a forest of fibres.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“This stuff, son, what does it all mean?” his father looked at him with tears in his eyes, a sight which struck fear in the boy’s heart. His father only wept on Sabbath days, and even then, only in the early morning when he thought the boy was still asleep. But of course the boy heard him through the walls.

“It means nothing,” the boy said, furious, “absolutely nothing.” He swept up all the papers and slammed the door in his father’s face. That night he would burn the lot, then take a bath in the masses of ashes.

Dear mother, he wrote. He was in the island café and his tea had gone cold. It was three o’clock—the dead time—and the waitress hummed a lonesome song as she swept clean all the tables. He was writing on the back of another postcard. It showed the standing stones, the ones in the centre of the island. He’d only been there a few times.

I don’t know where you are or what happened to you. How many times is it now that I’ve written to you? I wonder if somehow your spirit catches these words from the ether, even as your body is absent from their possibility. I hate myself, I hate my words. 

He scribbled out the last line.

I want to get back to you. Father is worse. He drinks like a fish, a seasick sailor. I think he misses the sea more than I do. I think maybe he hates being a farmer, hates the land. Its demands. The sea demands nothing. It doesn’t need fed. But now we’ve fucked up so bad. We’ve poisoned the sea. And maybe you’re out there somewhere watching all of this on TV. The birds are so sticky with oil they lie down without flight and never get up. Some drown. Imagine that, drowning in the black black oil? The feel of it choking in your throat, sickly as molasses. I can’t help feeling it’s somehow my fault. My blood feels poisoned as the sea. Everything is slow and sluggish and heavy. I hardly want to get out of bed. I can hardly breathe. 

His handwriting grew increasingly minuscule, so that a passing glance would reveal more a black block of tiny, pressing shapes than actual words. There was something satisfying about seeing all that ink crushed together; it was a bit like the oil itself, taking over the whiteness of the page.

The boy left the café just as it was closing, as the dusk was settling into the sky over the sea. He took the winding path down to the beach, stones crunching beneath his feet. He took a detour to pass by the recycling bins at the end of the street. The café stood alone, its lonesome sign buffeted in high winds and often hurled across the beach, but it wasn’t far from houses. Each one painted a different shade of pastel, to hide the despair of the residents within. The bottle bank, as always, was overflowing. The boy chose a slender, clear bottle, labelled for gin. He picked up a lid from among the street rubble and luckily it fit. Down by the shoreline, he rolled his postcard tight into a tube and posted it through the bottle’s neck. Screwed the cap. Hurled it far out into the waves, where it bobbed for a moment, before the gathering night tides stole it from sight, swirling into darkness, distance.

Her milk-sweet cheeks…

He scratched that one.

 The open lungs of the still-breathing sea…

Trackings of light from west to east:
Time co-ordinates; forgotten detritus
Blended mermaid’s purses, lemoning
pale and lovely skeins of flesh
in the gloaming, a moon’s first milk
making cream of an evening,
the curdled settlements of a westerly tide. 

My mother, my mother.
Your presence vectoring the harsher
veins of the waves in clearer photons
which press their coastal scars on the canvased
skin of a virtual reality, electromagnetic
stirring of the heart. 

There is a scattering, a donut-shaped diagram
shedding the chintz of its skull off
in dullish flakes, blueish as fish food. 

(…What are you writing son?
Nothing.
It does pains to lie; come on, show me.
I can’t.
You’re always so far away when you write.
Like mother.
Yes, I suppose…)

I ask father, could the sea go on fire? Like,
if you struck a match to the black black oil?
He said the water was alcoholic, sloshing
with secret poisons, a formula
for ending its own incantatory eloquence
that spreads in the waves such messages
as to embrocate the flow of blood
diseased in the world’s great spleen.

He said nothing of the sort; he was cold
and mean. The tumorous lumps
puffed at the pores of his torso, unfurling
like chanterelles, yellowing the gorse
and scrub of a forest. I knew then
that his pain was utterly edible.

A molten pot of onyx, a knot
shaped like a pretzel, the twisted
wire that snarls in the dark
of his heart. Father,
he was a sailor once,
a man of the deep
black waves.

He remembered the milk girl used to sing to the cows. She cooed at them, sickly sweet, then struck up some old folk melody he recognised from the songs they sang in primary school. Songs about the changing seasons, the inevitable cycles of nature. She knew how to keep the animals still, to tame them to her softening will.

Once, he made eye contact with a seal. He was sitting on a rock on the island’s easterly side, hoping for shelter from the autumn wind. The black shape had rose, dark and smooth, from the choppy grey waves. Its eyes had flashed back at him, uncannily human, green as his own. Green as the sea in the sweetest shallows, made greener still by heaps of seaweed. His fingers brushed the briny rubber, popping the sacs of air. Is it time yet?

In the café again, he was listening to the old waitress as she stood by his table, hands beating powdery flour on her apron. Her accent had thickened over the years, congealing into the island’s broad dialect like salt crystals fattening in the cracks of a cliff.

“They say half the men on this island lost their hearts to the beasts of the sea. I could tell you many stories.”

“My father?”

“Torn asunder, you could say.”

“By whom? A childhood sweetheart?”

(and if the candied dawn brings tastes luxurious…)

“Yer mother, stupid.”

“He still loves her.”

“She found her skin elsewhere. A better fit.”

“Liquid.”

“Yes.” She rolled up her sleeve. He saw how her arms were covered with an elaborate craquelure of scars and burns and etched-in scratches, as if the flesh were readying itself for sloughing off, the mottled pattern of a snakeskin.

Of all the animals in the marble menagerie
I choose you, silvery moon wisps of limestone
streaking the fault-lines
of my sparkling heart, its sacred burial
beneath the midnight billows. Funereal,
sweetening the crumbling aura,
you see underwater, sharp as a seal’s
dilated vision. 

The love notes meant nothing, were for no one. Sometimes, he forgot the original purpose of everything. He kept quantitive records of the weather, the changing seasonal light, the pathways of the lighthouse beam as it cut across the bay, endlessly searching. He missed the special quality of innocence that the place had lost after the oil spill. Even with the cleanup, traces of the disaster remained. The sea birds had quit the agonised sea and even the crabs were shrivelled carcasses, washed up on litter-streaked beaches. The council had all but given up, now that corporate control was hardening its narratives of the wreckage.

What if the gin bottle remained, bobbing in one place, the current thickening around it, enriched by the stasis of oil?

the shadowy slosh of gelatinous babble /
like molasses i stretch long and sweet in your mouth /
i imagine the darkness inside you, a sable
annihilating the spill of me /
your gluey skin sticks to me with the tarry promise
of future absence / a terrible,
sickening lubricant

Sometimes, he wrote what he considered to be filthy, erotic poetry, forgetting to dot his i’s.

Everything he wrote brought him closer to the water. He felt his words surrounding him like cloying blots of oil, swimming in his sleep and spreading out through daily reality. His grades plummeted and his soul found solace only at twilight, bearing cold feet to the dusky waters.

He knew the milk girl came out sometimes to watch him. He saw her emanations from across the bay.

The cows were milking very badly. They grunted with inhuman fury whenever the boy’s father tried to draw from those shrunken teats. The boy ate very little and the father even less, chomping his way through stub after stub of cheap cigarettes.

“My gums are sore,” the boy complained.

“Lack of nutrition,” his father replied. He asked for a slice of lemon in his tea at the café. The waitress said fruit was scarce; she’d have to knock on 50p to his bill.

“That’s okay.”

A few nights later, he woke up to a pillow covered in crusted blood. His mouth was the same, darkened with black clots. A gap in his gums. The lost tooth reappeared beneath the sheets, a little white stump of ivory, knotted at its roots with a tangle of red, seaweed sinew.

“Goodness son,” the father said when he saw what had happened. “That’s one of your molars.”

Terrified he would lose the rest of his teeth, the boy ate only liquids, or else the slippery fish they served sometimes as specials at the café, depending on what the men could bring back from the boats, delicate in silver lamé. Sometimes the fish tasted of petrol, but nobody voiced this opinion.

The boy placed his tooth in an old spice jar and hurled it out to sea, an offering. Sometimes he felt the wind whistle through the gap it had left in his mouth.

The rock pools were finally back to a greener colour. Good healthy emerald sea lettuce, the tawny rust of cystaphora, tangles of Neptune’s necklace. Salt crusts formed round the edges. The boy dipped his fingers in to feel the warming water. Was spring coming?

There was the milk girl, ghostly in a tangle of cowslips.

“How are you, it’s been so long?”

I love the seals and the way their skin
is a rippling film of oil, the wrinkles
like sexy black outfits on tv
stretching and spreading for the flesh
of human hungriness. 

“These diagrams,” he told her, “chart the changing luminescence of the dying ocean. Tide patterns spread the moon to buttery swirls in different directions. See where this ellipsis meets the horizon’s curve?” But she had no interest in his geometries, his Venn, his equations. She wanted to talk about the people at school, the films you could see on the mainland cinema, the new dress she had made from an old white silk.

“Do you believe in mermaids?” she asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Women are not so callous.”

“If you come to the field I can show you my skin.”

“The strawberries will be out soon, a bed-sheet studded with dewdrops of blood.”

“My skin is white. I am white as the moon.”

“I believe sometimes people breathe underwater.”

“You’re so mysterious. You speak like somebody much older. I had an uncle once…”

“I’m not sure I love you.”

“That’s okay.”

He might have gone with her, might have watched as she shed the magnificent white dress, cast it into a crumple like the cape of an angel. He followed the trajectories of her limbs, watching the shadows move in rhythmic repetition against the pale grass, felt vaguely the rubbing of skin like the way it feels to walk barefoot through fresh, juicy mounds of seaweed.

“Do you miss her?”

“Well enough. I know she’s out there somewhere.”

“Is that really enough?”

“Sometimes it’s all there is.”

The island was gifted a grant as compensation for the oil spill. The village was cleaned up and the shopfronts repainted. The rusting boats in the old dock were going to be towed away to make room for new ones.

The boy and the milk girl started playing a game. They would jump off the harbour wall, hand in hand, utterly naked at the darkest point in the night. In the cold black water they would scrabble down as far as they could, holding their breath, waiting for the exhilaration to rush through their blood. They tried to prolong the time before resurfacing, scrabbling for weeds and stones to tug them downwards. Soon, however, the tide buoyed them upwards and they were gasping for air in the midst of pure darkness. A single light from someone’s cottage spilled gold on the water’s surface. The girl’s hair was blonde and the light was gold; everything else was blackness.

Our bodies slippery as bladderwrack
beating the tide in the stillborn black,
a bolt of cold struck deep in the veins
where poisons gather their listless death. 

Everything he wrote was terrible now. Soured by the thing that had come between him and the milk girl. He slept all day, wrote by twilight, cast his notes to the wind on his least favourite side of the island. The place with the graves, the place where the air was warmly rich with spirits. It unsettled him.

“You’re missing a tooth,” she said once, poking her fingers round his mouth, where the gums were soft and rubbery.

“Yes.” He clamped down hard on her fingers and she yelped, playfully, like a pup. They went back up to the farm and helped out with the milking, so that it was done in triple time and the three of them could have a meal together, big cups of cider and a shared loaf of bread. She sung into the twilight and the men listened in silence.

The boy took down all his diagrams because the milk girl told him they were freaking her out. He wanted her to sleep in his bed but every night she insisted on going down to the harbour. What with the daytime milking and the nighttime swimming, the boy was growing very exhausted.

“What are we trying to prove?” he asked, folding her shining body to his in the moonlight.

“I want to know, I mean, I need to know.”

“Know what?”

“Can we be creatures of the sea?” He thought then of the seal who had stared at him long and hard, like it had known him forever. He shivered.

“Maybe it’s better not to. Then we can just pretend.”

“You miss her, don’t you?”

“Who?”

“Your mother.”

There are different types of orphans. Some are split irrevocably from their origins, by death or neglect. Others are tied to this primal region of their life by a gossamer thread of dreams. The milk girl seemed to have hatched from the sky, on a pure and cloudless night.

One time, they were night-diving down by the harbour and she disappeared. One minute, they were together, tangled in the gruesome depths of the harbour; the next, he could not feel her body at all. All was rock and weed and jellyfish. The tide was high, it had come sloshing up the walls and with it all manner of ocean debris. As the elders always said, the sea hurls back what gets hurled into it.

After swimming around in the churning currents, trying to make out a slender white shape, the boy gave up. He climbed the rusted ladder and promptly vomited onto the concrete, mouthfuls of seawater and silt and evening coffee. Shaking a little, he stood on the edge of the wall, looking for the gold-blonde head of his little seal. Maybe she just swam away from him, following some milky highway of moonlight back to her beautiful origins. But he could not help but think of how she had just vanished, torn away by some invisible current, her body ensnared by terrible kelp.

She never returned, and he realised that nobody noticed that she was gone. When he asked his father about the milk girl’s parents, he said something vaguely ominous and strange about how she was an outsider, “an immigrant to the island’s soil, born from luminous loins.”

Enough of the hoary midnight mist
that tricks me into feeling.
I am old as the sand, a grain
of the past, and I
am willing to die for that.

He found the dead starfish in his room, still crusted black with oil, as if it were a strange piece of jet or coral. He took it down to the beach one evening, when his bones were aching from all the walking he had done lately, scouring the cliffs for signs of the girl. The starfish looked so vulnerable, but in its black outfit seemed completely strange, a being from another world, resplendent in PVC. He returned it to the dark waters, slipping it under the shallow waves, waiting for it to be pulled asunder. He realised then what a fool he had been, to think he could take something from the deep of the sea, even to hold it and love it. The oil had gone and so had the sea’s suspension, now released into a churning, awful hunger, the cycling time and crazy waves that kept the boy awake—night after night, day after day.

The Bog Girl’s Dark Ecology

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Red Desert ~ Source

My body was braille

for the creeping influences:

Seamus Heaney, ‘The Bog Queen’ (1975)

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.

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The mariner shoots the albatross, plate by Gustave Doré

 

This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.

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glitched landscape ~ Source

Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident (2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.

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Source

We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired  and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.

Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).

Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.

Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates  (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.

What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).

Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:

Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.

(Derrida 1998: 61)

This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.

The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:

I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy

(Haraway 2008: 16).

It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.

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Source

In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.

Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:

“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”

(Russell 2016a)

My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…

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I looked upon the rotting sea, and drew my eyes away ~ Gustave Doré.

Bibliography

Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 2015. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Available at: <http://www.bartleby.com/101/549.html> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (London: Routledge).

Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou le prothèse d’origine (Paris: Galilée). [The translations I use from this text are Geoffrey Bennington, cited in Bennington, 2004.

Haraway, Donna J., 2008. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).

Menkman, Rosa, 2011. The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures).

Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought (London: Harvard University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2013. ‘Thinking the Charnel Ground (The Charnel Ground Thinking): Auto-Commentary and Death in Esoteric Buddhism’, Glossator, Vol. 7, pp. 73-94.

Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).

Red Desert, 1963. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni [Film] (Milan: Rizzoli).

Russell, Karen, 2016a. ‘The Bog Girl, The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/bog-girl-by-karen-russell> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Russell, Karen, 2016b. ‘This Week in Fiction: Karen Russell on Balancing Humour and Horror’, Interview by Willing Davidson in The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-karen-russell-2016-06-20> [Accessed 1/3/17].

Woolf, Virginia, 2004. Mrs Dalloway (London: Vintage).

Siamese

[…This is a story that has undergone many drafts in the past 6 years. It originated as the first piece I wrote (after not writing anything creative for over two years) for my Advanced Higher English Creative Writing Portfolio, which was (to the great frustration of my English teacher), altered about 500 times and in the end we decided it wasn’t quite suitable for submitting. So yeah, it was left alone on some dusty corner of an old harddrive until 2013 when I tried on a whim to redraft it again. What started as a gothic, emo-inflected horror story about the loathing of one’s body was fleshed out with some more character development, an unnecessary amount of diegesis and detail. When the opportunity came to submit a ghost story for GUCW’s Halloween Short Story Competition, I decided to revisit this strange tale again. This time, I didn’t just add or cut, I wrote the whole thing out from scratch. In a way it’s completely different, but the plot is mostly the same, and it takes place over the course of one day. I like when stories do that, because time is quite a stressful thing. Let me know what you think…]

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Siamese

Every morning, the sunrise grew stranger; sometimes it was difficult to tell it apart from sunset, the distinction between day and night dissolving altogether. Recently, whole hours had been disappearing, afternoons and mornings lost like cells melting in the bloodstream heat of a vein under pressure. Before getting dressed for school, Maya got up very early and stood at her bedroom window to watch the sunrise. There was something about the queer, flesh-like light, pink clouds streaked with red, which made her skin tingle weirdly. While she watched the colours change, the clouds pull apart as if exposing a wound, she sometimes forgot that she inhabited a body at all.

Often she wondered if she was actually alive; if there wasn’t some other reason for her walking across the cold tile floor at six in the morning, looking over her shoulder, pulling the scratchy woollen socks above her knees, flipping open the lid of her laptop to check her emails. Such a pointless task, the checking of one’s emails, and yet…

There it was again. The email from herself. MAYA. No surname given. At first, she had found one in the depths of her Spam folder, but now it had bounced back to her inbox. She had received one of these emails every day for the past week. It was foolish to open such a message, which she knew could be nothing but some cheap, automatised attempt at tricking her into activating a virus…And yet. The house was still dark, her mother asleep. Only flickers of yellow gold from the sunrise oozed on the floor of the kitchen where Maya sat with her laptop, the shiny varnished floor which seemed to guzzle the light, crave it. It wouldn’t bounce back its heat. Shivering, she opened the email.

***

At school, the people who were and were not her friends called her Mad Maya. Mad Maya, Mad Maya. Leaving her house, she took the familiar route through the ancient copse of fir trees and across the village green, every morning rehearsing the childish chorus, rucksack thumping heavy against her back. Sometimes she heard her classmates’ whispers in the rustlings of the trees, as if the world itself regarded her with equal harshness. Today, the voices were louder than ever. It was impossible to draw sense from that chaos of lashing language. There was a familiar tone beneath the rasping exterior, a familiar tone that jarred unpleasantly with Maya’s attempts to forget the words that swirled up around her in flurry after violent flurry. By the time she had pushed open the school gates, bumped cigarettes off Dodgy John with her lunch money and followed the ring of the school bell, she was physically shaking.

In science class, the teacher was trying to explain how blood gets pumped around the body. The girl sat beside Maya was mindlessly scribbling love hearts all over her jotter. The teacher mouthed the words at them, but no sound seemed to come out; everything had slowed down, as if underwater. Words materialised on the board: atrium, Vena cava, tricuspid, ventricle, pulmonary artery, semilunar, aorta…Lush, intangible, otherworldly words. Every time Maya tried to write them down, her hands shook uncontrollably and the pencil fell from her fingers, clattering conspicuously on the floor. The more she learned about human biology, the more foreign she felt in her own body, as if she were discovering some hideous secret from all those diagrams and lists of words.

If she lifted her book off the desk at the end—which she must have done, because somehow she got out that class with her things—she would have seen the graffiti underneath, a kind of ancient inscription in jagged letters: M A D  M A Y A. She did not recognise the handwriting, but it sent a jolt through her. It was possible that she had seen this before.

***

She found herself home early. The house was silent and her mother was still out at work. There was no car in the drive, not a single dish piled in the sink. Sometimes Maya worried that her mother would disappear. How little she ate! Then there were the useless prayers she still eked out before bed, kneeling by the living room window, where on clear winter nights you could see the moon, flooding the carpet with silvery light.

O, wash me, cleanse me from this guilt. Let me be pure again…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.  

Sometimes, the susurrations and mutters of her mother’s prayers haunted Maya’s dreams. There was a time when she stayed out later and later, wandering the streets, just to avoid them. If only she knew what single guilty thing her pious mother had done in her life; that central act of transgression that seemed to define her, irrevocably, as this fragile, selfless being. Often the act pressed itself so heavily on Maya’s mind, massive and burning like some elaborate tapestry set fire to by Satan, that she could almost unpick its outline and form. But it was possible that she would never discover the truth as to why her father left soon after she was born, why on a daily basis her mother clutched God’s cross so tight around her neck.

She tried to sit down and do her maths homework, focusing slowly on the sums, as if each one were a special code she needed to disentangle, to find the kernel of meaning, the way they did with poems in English, scanning words on a page and picking at them, as if each one was a stitch. The problem was, each time she held a few figures in her head, they were snatched away—it literally seemed as if some force were wrenching the numbers and crushing them into some dark part of her unconscious. Some day in the future, perhaps, she would again encounter those fractions, sets of ones and twos, sixes and sevens, come to divide and splice her mind. The lines and figures appeared shakily on the page. Suddenly, the phone rang.

“H-hello?”

“Yes dear, it’s me!”

“Oh, Gran. Hi.”

“I’m just checking up on you dearie, it’s been so long.”

“Yes.”

“Are you busy just now, fancy a chat?”

“Doing my homework.” It was such an effort to talk at all; the words felt garbled in Maya’s mouth, like hieroglyphs.

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry—I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll let you get on then, I—”

“It’s fine.”

“You sound sad my child. You go and get yourself a wee biscuit or something. The sugar will help. I hope it’s not too difficult, what you’re doing, I—”

“Bye, Gran.” Maya clicked off the phone before her grandmother could finish speaking. She did not replace it properly on its hook and the cord dangled obscenely from the wall.

With mechanical obedience, she opened the cupboard and pulled out a packet of digestives, holding them in her hand as if they were some foreign food and she did not know what to do with them. Her hands were shaking again. Slowly she took out a biscuit, and tentatively bit it. She could not hold it in her mouth, and she ran to the sink, gagging. Some alien sensation seized her and she knew she could not eat, though something like hunger ached vaguely in her stomach, spreading up to her chest, settling in the centre as some unwelcome glow of pain.

Perhaps it was heartburn. She poured herself a glass of milk from the fridge, remembering an old trick of her mother’s to cure it. She lifted the glass to her lips but suddenly stopped. On the surface of the milk was a thin, quivering skin. Bile rose in Maya’s throat. She thought of jellylike scabs, wobbling with pus and blood underneath. The smell was gross yet oddly familiar, primordial somehow, like the smell of a womb. The glass dropped from her hand and shattered on the tiles, the milk bursting everywhere, sour and white, spraying itself on Maya’s clothes and skin, where it clung like some viral, viscous substance.

She slumped to the floor, momentarily paralysed. The sound of the phone off the hook resounded throughout the house, a pulsing, crackling sound that came from somewhere else: please check and try again.

***

As usual, she had met him at lunch, by the neck of the woods where the sycamores draped over the river, the river that wound round the whole village like an elaborate, snaking artery. Every Wednesday and Friday they would skive class together and nobody had ever noticed. He was two years older. They walked into the woods together, not clasping hands until they were shrouded in darkness, and even then, it was not clear how it happened, who made the first move. At this time of year, the mid-afternoon light was very white, shining down in strange beams through the thick canopy of trees. They would find their secret place. Each time it felt new to Maya, though she suspected that the boy hardly cared. If she came here alone, she would never be able to find the place.

Gently, he unravelled her from her school clothes, her hair coming loose in his fingers, her tights scrunched to a ball on the forest floor, crumpled like a shed skin. Her body was lily-white in the cool forest light, her shoulders exposed to the shivers of the trees and the tear-like glimmers that clung to the needles. Each time, he would run his hand automatically up her stomach; he would trace the long scar that ran up her left side. He would trace it slowly, lovingly, as if he were following the seam of a secret. The mark of ruined flesh. They never spoke of it, but each time he would reach down to trace it, to read it like braille, even as they kissed. Once, the sensation had given her delicious shivers, but now it meant nothing at all. Before, it had even been slightly painful, the scar so tender under his touch. Now, she could hardly feel it at all.

“I had a transplant,” she told him, the first time he asked. That was all she knew. She had never bothered to learn more of her own body; the boy had taught her all she wanted to know.

His flesh was pale and silver, a latticework of pulsing, blueish veins, but even as he pulled her over his body, she could not feel him. He was light as air and her body was not her body.

It was as if she were watching herself from afar, a child crouching behind a tree, stricken with terror and curiosity. She felt sick afterwards, and in fact even retched a little. He passed her a cigarette. She could hear the trees whispering again, and this time it sounded as if they were calling her name. Mad Maya, Mad Maya.

***

Possibly it was nightfall, sunset, the house so quiet, her mother asleep. The email lay open on the screen, its contents splayed out and glaring their strange incandescence across Maya’s bedroom. A chorus of acid colours spilled liltingly, tauntingly through the window. The ache had deepened in her chest, so deep it felt like her own veins were strangling her heart. It was difficult to breathe, with the dust of the room and the air that filled her lungs like spider webs mushed to molasses.

There was the collage of her entire life: comically vicious stick-figure drawings from her primary school jotters, school reports, doctor reports, notes to friends, reams and reams of texts, the carefully-typed emails she had sent to the nurse, impassioned diary entries scrawled in that distinct thirteen-year-old hand. Traces of the white powder devoured at weekends, the imprints of the boy’s kisses on her shoulders and neck, captured uncannily, impossibly, as polaroid photos, the bruises glowing through the skin like ghosts. Nothing felt real anymore. Maya hitched the laptop closer on her lap and peered at the pictures. Each one was a palimpsest, layered below streams of lurid red typewritten print: Mad Maya; parasite; murderer; the wrong child; sinner and sinner and sinful and sin. She shivered and gasped. She felt the screen start to shimmer, the pixels elasticating, blurring, the LCD surface beginning to compress and open, like a portal.

For a moment, the power cut off. A reflection appeared in the darkness of the screen: there were two Mayas, conjoined at the waist and the chest, struggling for breath. As the light flickered back on, the bodies flashed negative as if under x-ray, and in that second it was possible to glimpse the single aorta, throbbing like a terrible eel, tangled between the two bodies.

The laptop’s screen had cracked, but it didn’t matter. A silver moon beamed its single slice of light, guillotine thin, upon the glass.

***

How beautiful the world is! In the mirror the girl ran her hands through her hair, she felt the lovely inky glossiness of it, the way her skin was so soft and milky. A finger ran up the length of the scar on the right side of her body; in its crosslinks of knotted collagen she could read a virginal history. She picked up a notebook from the bed and felt its pages skim beneath her fingertips, delicate and full of possibility. A whole life to be written on those lines. The girl found herself at the window, yanking open the glass with fresh young limbs. The night air was cool and ambrosial; the air smelled of wild pines and the coming snow. The heat around her heart started to liquefy, spreading a pleasant warmth through her blood. Yes.

On the desk, a phone buzzed with a text: Where are you, why can’t I reach you?

So Long, Marianne

So Long, Marianne

(a story I wrote back in April, after a friend gave me two prompts: ‘railcard’ and ‘lonely’).

She found the railcard lying in a puddle. It was the case that caught her eye: its plastic glitter coating blinded her momentarily as she waited to cross the road. A single beam of sunlight had caught that glitter and Amanda knew it was for a reason. She knelt down to pick it up, wiping it clean on her jeans. The man standing next to her on the pavement eyed her warily as she examined it. The name on the card was Marianne Holbrook, and the picture, slightly blurred, showed a girl of Amanda’s age, with cropped brown hair and eyes rimmed thick with kohl and shadow, lips a deep rich red. On the flip side of the case was another card: a student ID, whose expiry date was last year.

“You should hand that in you know,” the man beside her said, interrupting her reverie.

“Yes,” she replied.

Amanda did not hand it in. She took it home with her and tried to go about her evening as normal. She put it up high on her bookshelf, next to the little cat ornaments her grandmother had given her as a child. She put the radio on, to make the flat seem less quiet. She boiled the kettle. She stood in front of the mirror, brushing her long thick hair. The jangly pop music seemed only to ricochet off the silence, intensifying instead of subduing it. Amanda tugged and tugged at her hair but she could not get the knots out. Tears of frustration sprung to her eyes.

She felt pathetic for crying. Her arms crumbled to her sides and she threw down the brush. The kettle began to whistle. Amanda burnt her tongue on the first sip of tea. She checked her phone but there were no texts; there had been nothing, now, for three days.

The following morning, she went out on her lunch break and got a standby appointment with a hairdresser near her work.

“I want it very short,” she said carefully, fingering the long strands of hair that framed her face.

“How short?” The stylist asked, lifting clumps from the lengths of Amanda’s hair and letting them fall again, as if she were trying to gauge how much her tresses weighed.

“Oh, a crop. A pixie cut.”

“Bold, huh?”

“Like Laura Marling. Very short.”

“I don’t know who that is honey. You sure you have the features for something that short? I’m not saying you have a big nose or anything but wouldn’t you like to look at—”

“No,” Amanda said firmly, “I want a crop. Please. I don’t care about dainty features.”

“Okay, whatever you want.”

It took an hour. Great wads of hair fell away past her shoulders as the stylist attacked Amanda’s locks with her scissors. She cut away in steady, hungry snips until all that was left was a ruffled mess, short as a boy’s.

“Don’t worry,” the stylist assured her, “it’ll look weird until I’ve wetted it and done the layers.” Another half hour and it was done. The blow-dry took minutes. Amanda blinked in the mirror and tried to imagine what she would look like with heavier eye makeup. Marianne Holbrook. The girl in the railcard photo, blankly staring, mysterious.

“Thanks.”

“It does look rather amazing,” the stylist admitted, surprised.

Amanda went back to work and everyone was so shocked at what she had done that they all forgot to reprimand her for being late.

“Very sexy,” her boss said, biting his pencil. Amanda felt hollow inside as she sat down at her desk. The afternoon stretched before her, empty and dark as an elevator shaft. She couldn’t wait to get home; there were things to be done.

That night, she took the glitter wallet off the shelf and carefully pulled out the two cards inside. She took the student ID and held it over the bin as she snipped it into pieces. The girl in the photo looked very young: she had shoulder-length hair, blonde, a shock of fringe and a lurid shade of lipstick. It hardly seemed the same Marianne as the one in the railcard photo. Amanda turned the railcard over in her fingers. She had looked it up online and discovered that it granted the user unlimited free travel to any UK rail destination. It was a mystery as to how this girl obtained such a privilege, but Amanda realised that it had fallen into her hands for a reason. Without the obstruction of fares, the whole of Britain opened up for her like some elaborate flower, ready to ooze its precious nectar. She googled train routes across the rest of England, Wales and even, with some timidity, Scotland. The red patterns spiralled outwards, running their veins lusciously across the green countryside, alongside rivers, canals, forests and coastline. She looked up towns and cities, high speed connections and leisurely scenic routes. There was so much to see that soon enough, Amanda could hardly contain her excitement.

She would take time off work to live on  Britain’s trains. How difficult could it be? She would give herself up to the whims of timetables and route planners, to vague and uncertain destinations and journeys. There were some trains that ran through the night. There were stations with shelters that didn’t kick you out. If worst came to worst, she would tap into her savings and stay in hostels and cheap B&Bs. The whole while she would assume her new identity. She would be Marianne Holbrook. She would never be lonely.

She phoned up her work the following morning.

“Hello Gina,” she said, “can you tell Mr. Raymond that I’ll be gone for a few weeks?” Gina, the manager’s personal assistant, raised her voice to a shrill pitch.

“What do you mean, gone a few weeks?”

“Oh, I’m going away for awhile. My circumstances have…changed.”

“‘Manda—” She cleared her throat loudly. “I’m going to need a better explanation to give him…do you have a doctor’s note? Are you leaving? You’ll have to hand in your notice, there’s procedure—”

“Tell him I’ll just be gone awhile. He won’t mind. Have a nice day, Gina.” Amanda hung up. For once, she realised she did not care about procedure. She stuffed her phone back into the side pocket of her rucksack, and turned back to the window. It was partially open and a cool breeze rustled the bare skin of her neck, which felt deliciously naked without her long hair to cover it. April hadn’t brought many showers since it turned its first few leaves; in fact, the weather had been glorious. Outside the carriage window, the sky was a bright bright blue and the crumbling buildings that skirted the city gave way to fields which rolled over and over in verdant, romantic green. It took forty minutes before they were properly out of the city. Once the ticket inspector had checked her railcard, Amanda plugged in her headphones and listened to an old Cat Power album.

She had to change trains a few hours in. The whole process was far less stressful now that she had no fixed destination, no time constraints. Every hour was her own, and time itself did not matter. She sat on the cold station seats, trying to read a leaflet about a local whisky distillery that she had picked up by the ticket gates. People looked at her differently with her new hair. Girls glanced at her with lingering intrigue. Boys rarely noticed her, or else they had to do a double-take. Amanda wasn’t sure if these were good double-takes, or bad ones. She wasn’t even sure what the difference was.

As the station clock clicked to ten o’clock, Amanda checked her phone. Still no texts. And yet, why did she care? She had already told him it was over. 

She travelled up and down the whole of the UK. She spent a day in sunny Brighton, looking out to the limit points of this country she called home, at the sparkling lights at the end of the ocean. In the nightclub that evening, she found herself dancing to Eurotech, face gleaming with metallic makeup and sweat. A stranger slid his hand to the back of her neck and she let him kiss her amidst the flashing lights and thumping music. His mouth tasted chemical sweet. Outside, gasping for breath on the beach pebbles, she wondered whether this was something Marianne would do. Take things on impulse. Treat people like shadows, passing through your day, swelling, shrinking, disappearing. Somewhere in the darkness, the sea whispered its history of secrets. The city withheld its judgment.

Back up the country she travelled. She skirted round London, past the rolling hills of the South Downs; past Basingstoke, Luton, Milton Keynes. The changing accents haunted her with their shrill cacophony. She slept in a Travel Inn that night, washing her hair with the complimentary lemon shampoo that smelled good enough to eat. It was a very lonely motel: all the corridors were empty. Even the cleaners drifted along like ghosts, never looking up or smiling. She caught herself checking work emails on the WiFi and had to force herself to stop. She took a small vodka from the minibar.

What would Ruaridh say to all this?

Night after night, the meaningless names drifted through her mind. She had seen so many towns and cities now that she had lost her sense of what made each one distinct. England became unreal, this vast, impenetrable stretch of motorways, train tracks, telephone wires and suburbs. The crowds and the people and the buildings were different, but each time she felt the same. She did not feel real, floating aimlessly down street after street with no direction or purpose, nestling into the armchair of yet another Starbucks. Amanda told herself she was just exploring.

Sometimes she found herself wondering what Marianne had studied at uni, what she now did for a living. She imagined her, all cropped hair and smoky eyes, leaning over a desk at some sleek fashion magazine office. She pictured her in a court of law, sharp in a suit, scrawling notes. She saw her lifting weights at a gym after a hard day at the bank. She saw her serving tables at a classy restaurant, drinking martinis at some downtown bar. These were all possibilities. Marianne was made of possibilities.

On the train from Birmingham, disillusioned with cities and their grey array of indifferent buildings, Amanda managed to bump her way onto the first class carriage. This was something Marianne would do, sleek and easy like her hair. It was simple enough to turn tricks when you were less self-conscious. She brushed her fingers over the plush seats and nestled into her headrest. A skinny man dressed as a waiter came round with a trolley bar and every time he passed, Amanda ordered another Bloody Mary. She licked her lips as he stirred in the celery, the other passengers impatiently waiting.

Three drinks in and she kept dialling his number on her phone.

“Come on Ruaridh, pick up,” she hissed. People around her were staring. She was an odd sight on their carriage, with her little white belly poking out of her cut-out dress. She dialled again and again and of course he did not pick up. It was three months since they had last spoken, since she told him they could no longer be together; three months since the silence started, since she cut herself off from the world. And yet, a fortnight was all it took. Two weeks since her first outing as Marianne Holbrook.

“You never tell me what you want, how I can make things better for you.” Is that what he said to her, or did she say it to him? It hurt that now she could hardly remember; there was a time when she thought she had the words they exchanged engraved in her soul. Now it seemed, they slipped away, easy as the faces left melting on the platform as the train pulled out of the station…

She was in Leicester, Nottingham, Coventry. She found herself addicted to all the stations, their absolute sense of space devoid of place. In the stations, everyone could be anyone. She liked the dull parquet floors and the green painted railings and the matching uniforms, the logos and slogans, the slow and constant stream of announcements. People coming and going, bags and suitcases rolling along, teenagers moping around by the Burger Kings, waiting to be asked to move on. In so many ways, each station was the same. Aside from the stacks of leaflets advertising local attractions, it was easy to forget where you were. Each one was a kind of anywhere. Accents blended and clashed and Amanda felt like she was in some way everywhere in Britain at once: the stations were just another node in the network of cities, people and identities. The same chain stores brightened her view as she stepped off the train. She started buying the exact same things every time: the superfood salad from M&S, the Wrigley’s gum and magazines from WHSmith, the treat bag from Millie’s Cookies, the almond butter hand cream from The Body Shop that depleted so fast, what with the air conditioner on the trains drying out Amanda’s skin. It was so satisfying to follow a pattern.

“What’s your name?”

It was the day that somebody broke the pattern. She was hovering by the ticket gates at Preston station, clutching her railcard and hoping to catch the northbound train.

“Am-Marianne,” she found herself saying in reply. The stranger was an old man, laden with a heavy-looking rucksack.

“Ammarianne, it sounds Greek or something.” Amanda bit her lip.

“I’m Jim,” the man added. He wore an old tweed cap and had a vaguely Scottish accent. She did not know what to say, what he wanted from her. She thought about what Marianne would do, the possibilities that the interchange offered for experimenting.

“It’s actually Marianne,” she said.

“Hm?” he was checking the screens, squinting to see his train time.

“My name. Not Ammarianne.” She forced a smile.

“Where are you heading then?” He gestured towards the board of departures and arrivals.

“Well, somewhere up north I think,” she replied vaguely.

“Glad to hear it,” he said, “me too. I’m a fish out of water here. Scotland is a good place to go for the lonely.”

“Yes.” She hadn’t planned on heading that far north. Carlisle had been her limit point.

“Oh. Well,” he hauled his bag from the ground. “That’s my train. Better hurry.”

“Bye,” Amanda whispered, watching him stumble through the ticket gates. Just before disappearing around the corner of the platform, he turned and shouted out to her.

“So long, Marianne.” She could see that he was grinning and she did not understand the joke. What would come upon a person to make them approach a stranger like that, for no reason other than to say hello? It was so foreign to her, that kind of politeness, that pointless brand of interaction. Stepping on her own train, the thought of the man lingered in her mind. So easily he had broken the silent contract of anonymity which seemed to govern the stations. Was this something she could do too?

The thought of talking to strangers made Amanda feel powerful. She knew, then, that Marianne was the kind of girl who had no problem letting her guard down.

They had thrown her off the train where she sat in first class. She had drunk one too many Bloody Marys and was slurring nonsense at her fellow passengers, bits of celery still stuck in her teeth, tomato juice stinging her lips. It was difficult for her to recall now, but she had more than once broken the silent contract herself. She had not so subtlety propositioned a businessman, declared to everyone an undying love for her ex-boyfriend, blithely told a woman that she should eat less of those chocolate bars because they were making her fat.

“But don’t worry,” she had droned on, “look at the state of me too,” she pinched a roll of flesh that clung to the skin of her dress, “I’m gonna lay off the cookies too once I get off this ride, once all this stops…” She had promptly vomited all over the polished floor and the conductor had to clear it up while the train was still moving and his mop bucket sloshed and then at the next station he escorted her to the exit, while everyone eyed her with disdain. She threw up again on the platform and knew that night she could not stay at the station. The world had clocked her for who she truly was.

The thing was to keep moving. She got herself to Blackpool on the bus and won some money on the slots. There was such a pure satisfaction in the click and spin of the fruit symbols, turning and turning. The leap in her chest when they matched up: three bright sets of cherries. That night she watched the boats twinkle over the bay, the carnival music blaring wickedly from the Pleasure Beach. There were couples everywhere, locking lips as the blue lights shone down from the rides, as the waves slushed gently on the sand, as the breeze whistled in the cold dark air. Leaning over the pier, Amanda ate fish and chips drowned in vinegar, hoping to cure her hangover. Her phone bleeped with a message from her mother: Hope you’re OK honey. Guess who I bumped into in town today? xxxx

Amanda hardly wanted to know. It was probably an old school teacher, or some pal that Amanda hung out with in primary school.

Who? x The grease from the fish supper made thumb prints on her phone.

Ruaridh, of all people! and we thought he had gone away! 

Ruaridh?

I don’t know how long he’ll be here for. He was asking after you.

Not that he ever texted her back. Not that he ever really tried to touch base anymore. She flicked through her messages to him:

I’m sorry. Can we talk? 

Please can you answer the phone. I want to explain. 

I miss you. I’m faraway from home and I still miss you. 

Call me back. 

Please Ruaridh, call me back.

It had been so long since they had talked that he had started to appear to her only in the abstract, the name on her phone a source code that might unlock some pattern from the shards of memory resting useless in her brain.

And yet he had asked after her; he had spoken to her mother. Had he perhaps changed his number? Was his old phone lying, battery dead, at the bottom of the desk drawer where he kept his protein shakes, his condoms and badges and passport?

She thought of those texts, drifting on through the ether, directionless as she was. Town names and station signs blurred into one. Even the old-fashioned stations seemed the same, with their pretty red brickwork, their giant clocks and gleaming phone boxes. The whole journey she had been going nowhere, but all the while she longed for one destination. Was it him? Could it possibly just be him? The city she had lived in all these years seemed so distant. It felt impossible, the prospect of just going home. In the carriage with the tables, the ragged newspapers, the empty bottles and coffee cups, she was leaving her old life behind.

The train was so quiet. A little girl was licking crisp crumbs from her fingers, staring at Amanda across the table, eyes wide and oddly fearful.

What does she want, what does she want?

She was in Scotland now at last, passing by sparkling lochs and pine-covered mountains. She hadn’t planned on coming here. The train just kept going, rolling on slower and slower, and Amanda had lacked the energy to change her route at Carlisle. Scotland seemed like the end of the universe. It was easier to stay on the same train, easier to let the world direct her like this. This was the land of accents she could hardly understand. Silvery land of wilderness and silence. Everything enveloped in mist. Everything cold, mysterious, romantic. The train tracks wound dramatically round mountains, farmland, fields pregnant with the summer harvest. Sometimes the mist cleared and Amanda would glimpse patches of bright sky. In the past few weeks, the evenings had grown longer, so that now at half past eight the carriage was bathed in a soft yellow light. The grass that Amanda could see from the windows was a kind of supernatural green, so vivid it was difficult to look away. The fields stretched out into endless hills, lush with ferns and trees, fluffy white sheep and even the odd telephone line. Often they passed little cottages and farms, or villages speckled with lights that twinkled through chimney smoke. There were very few houses in the mountains; the train was disappearing into somewhere very remote. Surely by now they should be in Glasgow, or maybe Edinburgh? She couldn’t remember which one came first. All that surrounded her now were the mountains, snow-capped, rust-coloured, rocky, sometimes a deep and sinister green.

It struck Amanda that the mountains reminded her of her father, who used to take her up to the Lakes sometimes when she was young, forcing her to learn the maps even though the sight of all those squiggly lines and symbols made her dizzy, more disorientated than she was before. He made her traipse across acres of countryside, reciting his favourite segments from the guidebook, stretching out the hours with his constant narration. Reviving himself with cider at some farmer’s pub, where the locals would stare at them suspiciously as Amanda sipped her lemonade and the whole while her father never noticed. It was in the summertime, two years ago now, that he died.

Nobody talked about it. Amanda’s parents were halfway through a messy divorce when he discovered he had cancer. It had all happened so fast. The appointments, the vomiting, the weight loss – the transition into anonymity and sickness.

At rockbottom. Please call me, even just for a minute. 

She hated herself even as she typed the message. All I want is to hear your voice. The thought of all those pathetic unanswered texts piling up on his phone made her physically sick. The train churned on, its sluggish rhythm another source of her nausea. The only messages she’d been receiving were voicemails from work, telling her she’d missed deadlines, meetings; telling her they were disappointed, telling her not to bother coming back.

In the cracked glass mirror of the carriage toilet, her reflection looked strange somehow. There were new shadows etched under her eyes, greenish as some disease. Little flecks of red that veined the whiteness round her irises. She realised she hadn’t slept more than three hours a night for weeks.

She thought of her father, emaciated, pushing a supermarket trolley, his fingers gripping the bar so hard you could see the tendons round his knuckles. The smile he forced as she shoved bottles in the trolley was grotesque and strange: a Cheshire cat grin smeared upon those hollow cheeks. He was buying her vodka because she was going to a birthday party, because she was not yet eighteen – a clandestine mission concealed from her mother. She thought how he would appear then to a stranger, vodka rattling in the trolley, this gaunt figure swathed in scarf and overcoat, incongruous against the mildness of that May.

There were secrets in these hills, Amanda thought, that nobody knew. Such endless stretches of greenery, pure as the wool on a lamb’s back; stretches which no man had touched with his brick or chisel. In the hills, there was a sense of possibility; in the hills, you could be free.

This freedom was quite terrifying.

The train had slowed as it finally approached a new destination. Nervously, Amanda fingered the plastic coating of the railcard with Marianne’s face on it. She was tired of always playing a role. It drained you, the whole process of never revealing your true name, spinning webs of lies to perfect your anonymity. Brushing past strangers and missing out on meaningful conversation. Out of a picture she had fashioned an entire existence, but now this identity felt crude and shallow. She was tired of staring out of windows, tired of flirting with strangers. She found herself missing her mother, the 24-hour shop down the road, the memories that haunted her home in Bristol.

She disembarked from the train in some small town, the name of which she couldn’t even pronounce. Everything was tiny, shrunken somehow, like a toy sized version of reality. Standing outside the town’s single newsagent, Amanda checked her phone. There was no signal whatsoever. She walked round and round the village, but to no avail. She knew then that she had completely left civilisation behind.

This was probably the loneliest place she had ever visited. Her father had never taken her somewhere like this: his favourite destinations in the Lakes were the comparatively bustling towns of Ambleside and Windermere. Tourist hotspots with ferries and buses and trains. Here, all the pretty streets, with their flower baskets, their plant pots and cobbles, were empty. Only the humming bees provided company. It was, perhaps, a town that time had forgotten.

Amanda realised she was starving, that the pains in her stomach meant something. She came across a tiny shop which seemed to be the only amenity in the village. The sign in the window said: “No More Than Two Children At Any One Time”. She stepped inside and a bell tinkled. The woman behind the counter greeted her in a thick accent. It was not like the Scottish voices on the radio or telly. The shop was so small that Amanda had to duck her head the whole time as she looked around. There were only a handful of aisles, shelves half stocked with off-looking bread and chocolate bars and tin after tin after tin of beans. At the counter there were a few fresh rolls and some fruit. Amanda bought what she could and thanked the woman.

“What brings you to these parts?” she asked, noticing Amanda’s conspicuous Englishness, the Queen’s face on the £5 note she handed over.

“I don’t know,” Amanda admitted. “I guess I’m looking for something.”

“Well, you might find it here. Folk have found worse in this village.” She smiled wryly and the wrinkles of her face creased up like the sand folding in patterns left by the tide.

“Oh?” The woman handed Amanda her change but her lips remained shut tight. Outside the shop, the weather had changed ever so slightly. There was a faint breeze stirring in the surrounding trees. The village seemed to be in a valley, protected from the harsher elements. It was a miracle there was a train station at all here – probably it was some relic from the Victorian era. Maybe there was a coal mine here once, or maybe the roads were in such bad condition that even the buses couldn’t get out this far into the wilderness. Amanda had the vague sense that she was in the Highlands, but she couldn’t be sure. The air had a thick moisture to it, a soothing texture to every breath she took, to the smoke that rose from cottage chimneys, the clouds that curled round the snowy tops of mountains.

She wasn’t quite ready to eat yet, though she was very hungry. She wanted to explore every inch of the village first. There were a handful of tiny winding streets, windows in miniature, house after house with Gaelic names etched on the door. Wild cherry trees flowered with late blossom round a square, in the centre of which was a war monument. Amanda stood and read all the names of the deceased carefully. Everyone seemed to have the same names: John and William and James. She touched the thick grey stone and its coldness seemed to spread through her bones. All those people, whose minds and bodies were lost in the turmoil of something far larger than themselves. The memorial seemed the only thing, apart from the ancient railway line, that connected this place to the outside world.

Ruaridh was a soldier. His job was to fight in whatever war they sent him to, to follow commands with cold precision, to give himself up to the mechanisms of higher forces. He had been in Iraq when Amanda was still at school and Afghanistan when she took night classes in college, serving coffees in Starbucks during the day. This whole other life had washed over him, while she remained at home, slowly growing, mostly staying the same. He had seen things he could never explain to her.

I miss you. I’m far away from home and I still miss you. 

Perhaps his reticence was worse than hers. Perhaps he was the one who was truly unreachable, the one who could never match her in their silent exchanges beneath the sheets. She remembered the way he used to shake with nightmares, though denying them upon waking. It could’ve been his name, up there on a monument like this. Only no, because soldiers these days didn’t fight for glory, not like the old ways of valour and poetry and bravery. These days, even more they did not know what cause they were fighting for. They were just sent away, hardened with protein bars, coldly dished therapy and standardised training. She thought of the muscles in his neck, quivering as he spoke. Despite the strength of his body, it seemed all the time like it might snap, like the stem of a rose.

A photograph from the news: skinny, doe-eyed children, the reverberating dust of explosions, debris flying through a colourless sky. Soldiers in their khaki uniforms, praying for this world that they had not yet had time to properly love. For this world they might lose.

She remembered kissing him for the first time, in his mother’s living room, while they watched a black and white movie. The sound turned down, the whisper of their voices rustling the air. The walls would still contain those voices. Her fingers brushed the cold marble setting of the monument. Youth and innocence. Was that all that love was worth? And what about war?

Was loneliness the reward for all she had taken the guts to sever?

She thought of the scarring on his arms, the swellings of all those magenta welts which flowered outwards in jagged patterns, not unlike the etched textures of tree bark, both coarse and strangely smooth. The burns he had suffered were some price he had paid, his dues to the people he lived and fought for. Sometimes he would lie awake at night in pain while Amanda rubbed them with expensive oils and honey. She would watch his eyes close before the tears could leave them.

She turned away and the wind picked up and stirred the trees, shaking fistfuls of cherry blossoms from the branches, swirling them in the path with the shrivelled daffodils and the silver gravel. Some of the blossoms settled in Amanda’s hair. She walked away, past the church, following the tinkling sound of a river. She sat on its mossy bank and ate her apple, watching the midges rise above the water, spiralling in the gold light playing in the reflections of the pines in the river. Afterwards, her mouth felt sour as her soul. She wished she had cigarettes. She looked through her texts.

At rockbottom. 

At rockbottom. 

At rockbottom.

Three times she had sent it. Three times, and no reply.

She pictured herself, tied to the stir of the riverbed, pulled along by an unseen current. She would let it drag her where it willed, battering her on the sharp stones.

Somethings you just have to let go. Her father, whose ashes they scattered from Friar’s Crag, looking out upon a brilliant body of water, the light in the sky the colour of indigo as she watched her mother tearfully smile her final goodbye. The wind in the pines, the light on the lake.

Somewhere, Ruaridh would have stood among dust and chaos, a gun in his belt and his heart encased in a golden cage. In sparse Internet cafes, he would have written all those emails to her, sent her pictures of the crumbled houses and the desert. From this lush valley of greenery and quiet, it seemed another planet. She realised, then, that she was so many people. She wasn’t just the Amanda that maybe he had loved and grieved over and then ignored. She was the girl who would always mourn her father, who would long for summer afternoons in the Lakes; for the taste of ice lollies, for the breeze on her face. She was the lonely employee, biding her hours in her stuffy office. She was all these Amandas. But she was also Marianne: this monster who had burgeoned from a picture, larger than life, a figure of surface and depth, past her expiry date, readymade to inhabit. She had built this person from nothing but a picture, its plastic gloss the surface foundations. She knew, then, that she had the power to put herself back together.

I want to explain. 

The midges danced on the water. The clouds moved overhead, the gloaming settled its purple shadows around the pines.

She no longer needed him to remember. Probably he was broken too, broken beyond her control. He would be back for awhile, but the call to leave would always drag him along again. War was, in a way, another kind of travelling. She did not crave the same excitement, the same desperate thrills of horror and danger that lay in the army; but still it was the impulse for movement that drove them both. She saw that now. They were both trying to escape the same lonely feeling, the hollowness that gnawed out from the bones that once held them up, that once fused their connection to the land and earth. To each other.

She caught the last train out of the village, finishing the last of her picnic. She watched the river’s silent starlit glitter stretch along the valleys, turning round the hillsides. She waited for her phone to regain its signal. She knew when it did, she would text her mother back at last: Tell him I’m fine. 

And then she would delete his number from her phone.

And later, when she fell into sleep, she finally realised what the old man at Preston station had meant when he bade her goodbye. What it was he was quoting. The rich deep baritone of Leonard Cohen drifted into her mind and she remembered, she remembered. A song her father used to play on Sunday afternoons, smoking illicit cigarettes from the bedroom window while her mother was out getting the shopping.

I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
is fastening my ankle to a stone. 

And the chorus came to her, easily as sleep did, easy as the loneliness that now she embraced, languid and happy; as easy as the slow tug of the train that would take her who knows where, that would link this life and this self to the next one and bring her always some fresh memory that was better than home:

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began…

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.

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.