Myriad is proud to be supporting Quick Fictions, a night of short fiction (every story under 300 words) organised at the University of Sussex by Professor Nicholas Royle, author of Quilt. This annual event features new writing by students and staff at Sussex. If you missed the night itself you can read all the stories here.
'Quick Fictions are the writing of our time. A quick fiction is brief, like Macbeth’s candle. It tells a story in no more than 300 words. Life will have been so short, as Jacques Derrida said. Quick fictions speed accordingly. Quick means: lively, vigorous, sharp, agile, perceptive, swift, even impatient, but also sensitive and vulnerable, like quick flesh. Quick fictions are funny, poignant, dark, sad, sexy, strange, but never trivial: they take us to the very quick of things.' NICHOLAS ROYLE
The pattering footsteps followed him but he walked as fast as the oversized shoes would allow. He recalled that, at Halloween, to look back meant certain death. Stupid to lock himself out of the car. Even more stupid to walk back from the party still made up as Bobo, the green curly wig peeking out of his pocket. There were more footsteps, closer. He felt a tug at his sleeve. “Hey, have you got sweets?” A tiny Dracula piped, “Look! A clown!” Quickly, there was a crowd of miniature witches, werewolves and ghosts. They had taken hold of his clothing and brought him to a standstill. “Sweets!” Dracula demanded, standing on the gigantic left shoe. Tiny fingers explored Bobo’s coat and he felt the wig snatched away. Frankenstein’s monster, suddenly hirsute and cackling, darted into darkness. “Where are your parents?” “I am hundreds of years old,” Dracula sneered, “My parents have been dead for AGES.” There was no adult to be seen. Sweat tickled his ribs. “Sweets!” Dracula kicked out and Bobo, with the weight of the child on his shoe, toppled to the floor. Suddenly, they were standing on him, pinning his arms. He felt sharp fingernails and another ghoul peeled away, whooping, with a fistful of flaccid balloons. He felt flurries of little blows but he didn’t scream. It’s just kids; they’ll go away in a minute... They didn’t go away. Dracula was kneeling on his chest, pounding scrawny fists into what was left of Bobo’s make-up. The witches had found a big rock and were struggling to hold it over his head. Something had gone terribly wrong. Finally: “HELP M..!” In the silence that followed, the little Dracula tore something from the mess at his feet and popped it whole into his mouth, like a soft gobstopper.
It was warm for September, too warm for the front porch and too warm for the house. Airless. Humid as a snake pit. I packed my bag for the beach. Not the sea beach - that would be miles away on the Jersey shore, overpopulated and noisy as a cobra’s hiss - no, the river beach. A beach of grass, where you’d think I’d be alone on a workday afternoon, and eventually I was, but it took some waiting. I sat, knees up, facing the water, with the lifeguard tower blocking my view of the opposite bank. There was a woman whose lover lived on that bank. Three days a week she would wait on the beach for him to swim across, watched him glide through the currents like a garter snake. What they did together was anybody’s guess, but as dusk fell he would wade out again into the blackening water and slap at the river’s surface to bring himself home. She would watch his strong white arms flash in the failing light and at the same time still feel them around her and wonder at the separation. At last everyone around me was gone and I could hear the river’s gentle ssshh. I picked my way across the stones at the water’s edge and wriggled my toes into the silky mud. My legs glowed like firesticks in the murk. I slid myself onto my back, swivelled this way and that in the currents, and in the end there was no separation.
The palimpsestual markings of a shrew scattered on your plump paunch. A rat tweaks a lash at the edge, half-remembered biological word for disease of the eye follicle, and your vision centred solely on the central fold you wish for some expansion. What to achieve? Rodents are hungry, just like the rest of you good upstanding folks, you upstand for the elderly, to the pavement and crunching snails gently in the negligible puddles of the barely undulating concrete, you are unaware of the skin on the soup, the mould gently festering behind the cupboard, the lentil lodged behind the drawer. You return for a cordial game against a playmate. Supporters gain no handicap, if anything are hospitalised by your apathetic forehand. A quiet mark behind the knee leaking inky bruises into skin stricken with raging vein. Incontinent return to the level of a drip brain, red is such a ghastly shade of magenta and she would advise that you remove the catheter before you make love. What sparks! Angel dark eyes penetrative to the point that the piss becomes no obstacle for the old dear. Carrot and flag post all in the same direction. But back to the binding. Flick. Pull apart the pages and a thread strains to remain, to break your concentration on the interstitial and instead to close the lids you try to see the scattered saturated streaks on the retinal wall, mycanthrope telescope, endometrial – oh and we Did wonder when your womb would make an entrance, sweetheart, does it still stretch to the cervical bruise? And what colour would that be, precisely, mother? You old hindsight jape mane. Lost it.
When I was a very small boy I sat at the window and in the glass felt a word I couldn’t say. I called it “the word”. My young body knew more than I knew. This was my body before the bible even though I’d read the bible. I prayed without thinking. The word said something like: don’t fuck up. Then I turned it, the word, into a dark wound, this missing wound. I felt love, intense craving. I called it love of love. I found different objects: x, y, z; sherbet dabs; a dumbo octopus; worst of all, the wound itself. Then I stopped believing. Then I got locked up, then in myself. I chose to live in a crack in the sky that really exists but is actually just an error. I more than killed myself. That’s what error is. But then, right here, dear Lion and Kat and everyone, the word came back. Or be precise: since it had never, or could never come back, because it had never gone away, simply it recalled itself in itself, as if remembering the unforgettable. Wild clarity, impossible to think, but various in precise thought forms. An incredible one thing, a single nutmeg thought that makes life worth living. The sky is still split, but it is in clarity. Like the man who invented ice cream.
When I get to work my boss is standing by an open window on the river side of the restaurant. I say good morning but he doesn’t answer; instead he beckons me over and shows me a foil package of raw bacon.
“For the eels,” he explains, grinning. I ask if I should start cleaning the tables but he insists I watch; he plucks a slice of meat from the gleaming mass and flings it into the river. It fans out in the water, wavering like a pink handkerchief.
“Look!” He elbows me hard then points at a shadow weaving through the weeds. It snatches at the bacon, tearing it in half. Another eel emerges, its long body snaking, to grab the ripped piece. “Sometimes they fight,” my boss says, leaning forward through the window to see better. “Go on, eels, fight!”
I tell him I’m going to set up the bar and he nods, peeling off another meat slice. As I’m walking away he adds: “your shirt isn’t ironed, again.”
Automatically I smooth it down with my fingers but I’ll feel crumpled all day, and whenever I look my boss in the face I will see that fluttering flesh in the water, waiting to be ripped apart.
‘Daddy,’ Niamh whispered. ‘Is he meant to be blue?’ ‘No, love, he’s sick.’ ‘And what about mummy?’ His hand closed over hers, completely enveloping it so that she could feel the roughness of his fingertips against the skin at her wrist. Niamh looked up at him, but all she could see was the bottom of his stubbled chin. She settled for hugging at the tree-trunk of his leg and staring into the plastic cot that held her baby brother. He was a wee dote, her brother, with tiny arms and tiny legs that kept springing themselves free of the blankets. There was a faint bluish tint to his skin. She watched his chest rising and falling. ‘He looks like a smurf,’ Niamh whispered, expecting a shudder of laughter to shake the leg she clung to. Instead, there was only the steady inhale-exhale beep of the machine attached to the plastic cot. She looked up, wondering if he was looking down at her, with that smile that showed the yellow along his teeth. There was no smile, though, no laugh. ‘He’s sick,’ he repeated, his hand coming down to peel her from his leg. They stood separated, side-by-side, for a moment. Niamh swayed back-and-forth and struggled to keep a whimper from escaping her lips. Then he put his hand onto the curve of the back of her head and all was right with the world again. There was a tremble to his hand, like laughter, but it lasted only for a second and then his fingers began stroking gently at her hair. She could feel his wedding ring catch as it passed through the tangles of her curls.
There is a narrow glass display case. And in it, buttons. Hundreds of buttons; mostly very small and very pale. And amongst the buttons, a few gold teeth. And this feels much worse than the precision engineering of the incinerators with their proud manufacturers’ plaques, worse than the flickering images of thin men in striped rags, worse than the lists of the dead. I look out of the window at the golden beech trees, at the skeleton barracks. Somewhere below the tree line are the homes of Goethe and Schiller, Bach and Liszt. And perhaps the men who crafted the gleaming incinerators. Did Ilse Koch ride amongst those trees, her horse’s hooves kicking up the dry leaves, as she dreamed up new designs for her lampshades of tattooed human skin? Did the citizens of Weimar gaze up the hill and wonder, as they wiped the soot from their windows? It is time to leave this place. She is waiting for me at the station. She rummages in her bag for her ticket, but says nothing. She has been here before. In those woods lie her teeth, shattered by the butt of a gun. Buried beneath half a century of rotting leaves. Near those gates she watched the starving prisoners blink in the spring sunshine as they stumbled away from the camp. She is staring out of the train window, frowning slightly, and I understand now that I will never know about her war. There will never be anything other than these few fragments: the teeth, the gun and the whispering leaves.
It is dinner time in the nursing home. At a table towards the back of the dining hall sits an elderly lady elegantly dressed in a matching woollen twin set, a paper napkin round her neck. I perch on the chair opposite and plump the cushions behind her back. ‘Is that better Ruby?’ I ask. She grunts at me. ‘Now, let’s try feeding you.’ I start cutting up the sprouts into bit size pieces. ‘Silly hat’ she says pointing at the paper crown on my head. I pick up a spoon and bring it towards her mouth, she clamps her lips tightly. ‘ ‘Just a little.’ I say encouragingly pushing the spoon into her mouth. ‘Don’t want it’ she says spraying green bile over the front of my clean white overall. ‘Eat up, then you can go and play with your friends’, I tell her, pointing at patients watching television and playing cards. ‘Rushing me, you want to go home,’ she says. ‘It’s Christmas eve and I’ve got presents to wrap.’ The staff warden rushes in, breathing heavily and announces, ‘Nurse, this lady’s family are here to take her home for Christmas.’ Ruby looks up at me alarmed, ‘I don’t want to go’ she says. ‘It seems you don’t want to do anything today,’ I reply looking at my watch. ‘No, really, I don’t want to go,’ she continues. ‘I have a present for you’, I pass her the small box no bigger than a bar of soap. ‘Open it’ I tell her. She lifts the lid, peeps inside, her eyes meet mine then she smiles broadly. ‘I guess this will keep me going’ she sighs. I wheel her away from her dining table, towards the French doors and her daughter standing nervously on the other side.
When I got into this business we used all sorts of things to make the sounds. We were pioneers, you know. People can’t believe it now. My first film was a slasher, and we spent days cutting through bags of wet cement, gashing open melons and marrows, ambushing sheep guts, until we got just the right slice-slosh disembowel. We beat cardboard with cricket bats to make bodies hit the ground. We bothered these cockatiels in an aviary until they went completely radge, and then we played their shrieks over and over for weird screams.
Now, old-timer, they’re having me do the dullest noise. Sound for cash machines: the simulation of an inner whirling mechanism to cover the delay between the request for money and its silent enactment. Apparently customers don’t like the quiet. Makes them nervous about what’s happening with their funds. Me, I love that lull. In the studio, you can isolate yourself from all extraneous sound. And then, if you tune your ear in, you can hear the high-pitched whistle of the nervous system, and the low hum of the blood pumping round. “I don’t like getting old,” my mother used to say. “But it’s better than the alternative.” That’s how I feel about the body prattling on. I like to check the system’s still got a rattle to it.
I listen to her voice sometimes. It's a bad answer-phone recording, on one of those small cassettes. I keep the old machine in my desk drawer. If we tried to recreate those crackles now, it’d be murder. Mp3, I’ve been thinking. But I won’t do it. I can’t compress her. She coughs. “It’s nothing to worry about,” she says. “I’m a creaking gate.”
Evangalista is wrapping the velvets. He pulls them tight about the fat of his neck, bunching it in thick fists across his chest. It stretches over the shoulders and falls in fat, syrupy ribbons over his great expanse. Once again over this period of dreaming he has become vast, and the carriage can barely contain him. The wrapping usually begins at this time when the first frosts of the morning become solid and I must go through the motions of checking each window is fastened, which they are. They will not have changed. He will be dreaming soon and I must be ready to record. I tell you, Martin, there is nothing I so despise as a chill, says Evangalista, jaw comfortable in its pillow of neck. He pokes a thumb out from his coverings and strokes the velvet that has become worn at the hem, a slow rasp of rough skin against the fabric that soothes him and soon he sleeps. Evangalista is dreaming now and I am ready to record, I have prepared my notes. It is a soft dream tonight, I have learnt to tell. I watch the eyes beneath the lids; they do not look trapped as they did last night, when the breath came fast and the hands that gripped the velvet shook Oh my dear Martin, I was there once more, my dear Martin do not let me go back. And so I wait, and watch the flat country fall past the window, soon to be replaced with flatter buildings, and all the time I watch his eyes, watching in case they become trapped and I must wake him.
One of the most memorable things about Sancho O’Reilly was the manner of his death. While it remains uncertain how many children he had in the course of a long and in many respects still mysterious life, we do know that he became a father again shortly before he died. Despite being a good many years younger, the birth had really taken it out of the beautiful Mrs O’Reilly, and it had become customary for the father to look after the newcomer for the first few hours of the day, while she caught up on much-needed sleep. O’Reilly’s fascination with infants is well-documented in his novels, and letters written shortly before his death clearly show that this new baby son was no exception. Just two months old, the tiny creature had been exchanging smiles with his father then come to rest, as was his wont, on the paternal shoulder. O’Reilly held him there, letting him nuzzle and root about like a huge blind mouse. He could see the baby’s face three inches from his own, with those astonishing lambent jewels of eyes too young as yet to say if blue or brown or some other hue staring from another world. The joy of having a baby son, safe and sound and in his arms, nuzzling, rooting, pulsing tiny legs, propelling himself with life over O’Reilly’s upper body as he sat there in his armchair transported him. Was this not how a great salmon took it, in the flourish of its last gasp and posthumous flap? Didn’t Keats mean just this in calling it easeful? Mozart’s String Quintet no. 3 in C Major was playing itself out on the record-player. The baby’s hand, softer than egg, had become wedged, blissfully, in O’Reilly’s neck, tightening the artist’s bandanna beyond recall.
The river made its way over the meadows to the sea. Afternoon sun cast light over the landscape, before vanishing into thick cloud. Cows, wreathed in wisps of fog, their coats like threadbare carpet, huddled around a trough: phantoms in the fading light. A small craft chugged past two swans. One man at the prow, another ghostly at the stern. “Weather’s worsening.” “Here.” The man at the stern handed over a flask. “Ta.” He took a slug and returned it. “Not long now,” yhe other remarked, slipping the flask back into his jacket. The boat merged with the grey mass, the throbbing motor sound diminishing to nothing. Water from its wake slapped the weed-strung stanchions beneath a bridge of geometric ironwork.
Christopher Williams had some way to go. Checking his watch, it read four o’ clock. Dusk was gathering and fog had settled on the path ahead, yet he didn’t worry: when he was jogging he believed himself invincible. Briefly the fog thinned; across the river he made out two figures beside the railings of a sewer outlet. One clasped the other’s throat, they struggled and then swirls of fog enveloped them. “Hey!” Christopher’s shout was lost. He blundered back along the river path, through the kissing gate, over the bridge to the other bank. The sewer outlet was deserted; its platform seemed to him like a gallows. He could not see or hear anyone. Something was ahead. Cautiously he stepped towards it. On a post was a white hard-hat. The chin strap swung although there was no breeze. He watched until it stopped moving. He heard scything, a rhythmic sweeping travelling towards him across the water. It was the sound of swans flying, he thought.
There was once a man who had lived in the same small town all his life. His acquaintances were few and intimate, for not many people came to this town, and even fewer left. One morning, this man awoke with a feeling that he had never before experienced. He woke up feeling like a stranger. He recalled his life in vivid detail, but everything seemed unfamiliar. He tried to summon up panic or anxiety, but felt only indifference. He got out of bed and went down to breakfast.
He kissed his wife and wished her a happy anniversary, for he recalled this fact. His scrambled eggs tasted of nothing, but he knew they were his favourite and adjusted his expression accordingly. He picked up his briefcase and went to work, humming to himself no tune in particular. He exchanged the appropriate salutational comments and gestures with passers-by.
At lunchtime, he sat at his usual table in the office canteen. He ordered a sandwich; food was mainly social now. He laughed and nodded when required and spoke with credibility on topics ranging from the new secretary’s slender legs to Christmas holiday plans.
Back home, he prepared dinner. He gave the evening its necessary romantic tinge through candles and soft music, and later made love to his wife. She noticed nothing unusual until the next morning, when she found a note on his pillowcase. My dear wife, it said, I’m very sorry. I have decided to leave. I wish you well. She looked at it perplexed. Then, with a snort of laughter she turned over and went back to sleep. Her husband would never compose anything so cold and impersonal. And besides, it was clearly the handwriting of someone else entirely.
Now, said the anaesthetist. I want you to count down from ten.
It is hard to tell what he looks like, in that green gown and hat. Scrubs, I think they’re called. The room is crowded with people in dim caricature - a surgeon limbering up, a team of nurses fussing over an array of barbed tools.
Ten, I said, although no one appeared to be listening.
I had been putting the Christmas tree decorations back in the loft. My wife has a collection of antique glass baubles. Our ladder is quite rickety. Perhaps broken is not too strong a word. The children were squabbling happily. The ladder bows at that point where the two aluminium sections slide into one another. I could feel it flexing and clicking beneath me, as I lifted the cardboard box above my head, into the attic chill. If you look down, you can see right to the bottom of the stairs. Nine, I said. I have been in rooms like this before. You feel sure you can count all the way to one. But then there’s a swooping lapse, a tumbling blink, and you’re in a recovery room with a tube in your arm. People you don’t know have done unthinkable things to you. No time has passed, but everything is different. Before has folded into after, then into now. An annihilated extension. Eight, I said. My body feels smashed beyond repair. It is no longer connected, either to itself or to me. There’s something that I feel I should say. I think of a bridge. I think of a rainbow. I think of a week. I try to think of a number.
At Moxy’s she laughs at his robot hips and he thinks she’s flirting because you can’t hear anything over the pinch and wail of the music in there. Later he says he loves her and she thinks it’s the intoxicants talking and when he says it isn’t the intoxicants she thinks that’s them too.
On Tuesday he visits, but the house has steamed up so he can’t see inside. She must recognise the beige blur of his face or the blue of his hat because she comes to the window and polishes a hole in the glass.
“I want to talk to you,” he shouts, “But first let’s go ice skating.”
They loop the indoor rink and privately enjoy the bad music. She thinks she sees something under the ice. It looks like an ear. She tries to believe it’s a key or a glove but it looks so much like an ear – the pinkish whorl of it. By the fourth lap she’s shaken and convinced.
They sit on smooth plastic seats that are bolted down. He says something and tries to kiss her but she can’t forget about the ear and bursts into tears. It is only on the way home that she thinks back over the last few months: the proposal in the kebab shop, the drunken confessions. Suddenly his feelings seem obvious, obvious as those big nests in winter when the trees are naked.
Harry Clay floated through the night sky one chilly October evening.
Beneath him was rough, wild grass; large, gnarled trees; and brittle leaves scattered everywhere. He saw moonlight, everything was blue, and he was moving fast.
Ah, yes. The thudding ache in his shoulder and neck from hitting the windshield and rolling out of the driver’s side door. Somewhere far away glass shattered.
The moment before that: bright lights, an angry insistent horn. A truck, a bus? He wasn’t sure. His hands were on a steering wheel, turning away from the lights.
And before that: Meg in the front seat singing to the boys. They’d finally calmed down after a day of hiking up to a cold mountain lake where they’d celebrated Harry’s 40thth. Meg’s lullaby was more sound than sense, but even at 8 and 5, the boys were lulled to sleep as surely as when they were infants. Harry was drinking a beer. Just one. To relax.
He flew through the night — near him in the air a shattered van, a half drunk bottle of beer. He wondered where his wife and children were.
And then the ground reached up and grabbed him. And all was wet red darkness.
When he wasn’t working – and listening to strange noises through his stethoscope – Father liked nothing better than to relax in his garden amid the rustling of the poplars. Sometimes I would find him sitting in the partial shade of an apple tree. At the time I wondered what he was doing out there. In retrospect, I decided he enjoyed the sensation of dappled light on the top of his head as well as the susurration of the wind in the trees. ‘Can you hear them?’ he would say to me in a dreamy voice quite unlike the one I heard in his consulting room. ‘What?’ I would ask. ‘The voices of all the people who have lived here before us carried on the wind. Listen!’ ‘Father, it’s just the wind in the trees,’ I insisted. ‘Nothing is just anything. Everything is something,’ he said with profound seriousness, but then he took his glasses off and put them on upside down to make me laugh. ‘Do you know there’s almost nowhere in this garden, despite its size and number of trees, where you can be unobserved?’ ‘Really?’ ‘There’s one spot. One single, solitary spot.’ ‘Here?’ I said. ‘Look!’ One of our own windows peeped between the trees. ‘Where, then?’ ‘I’m not telling you. You have to find it.’ I spent an hour that morning and many hours on subsequent days looking in vain for this elusive secluded spot. Years later, to mark my marriage, Father planted a stand of birches in a corner of the garden. We crossed the lawn in a group for the unveiling and I looked at Father with raised eyebrows. He smiled and shook his head, looking to his right, where a neighbour’s gable window overlooked us.
'I love you'
His hair is sticking up in one place, sleep in his eyes. I thought it would take him longer. The graffiti on the table under my fingers says 'follow your heart,' my coffee says 'have it your way.' I don't think Sinatra belongs on a coffee cup, but then what do I know. I liked the Sid Vicious version.
There's a tautness to the air, pulled, skin of a drum. I feel the pressure on my temples. It's not been too long yet. We are both eating, and if I take another mouthful... He doesn't seem fussed, and perhaps that's the most irritating thing. He never worried, never for a moment thought... The world is pressing in, throbbing at intervals. I gain some respite, then the bands press in again and I'm forced back into my mind, the tiny box of my mind in this box of a restaurant in the right-angled roads of the streets in a city that stands like a great storage space for the boxes of boxes of people who, themselves, are becoming boxes.
The silence is no longer a pulled, white thing. It's darkened, thickened like tar and I can't get it off. His eyes connect with mine and I'm stuck. My skin is hot.
'I love you too,' I say.
It was the day after the first moon-landing and, portable radio to hand, the famous German philosopher listens to the news, standing the radio on a shelf in the hut usually reserved for silent study and the welcoming of friends and followers.
His thoughts turn again to his uncomfortably high table and how when he sits to read, it reaches his chest, his arms awkward, and this in contrast to the ease of visitors when they sit conversing and questioning. He attempts to lower the table by shortening the legs and, sawing, his saw gets stuck. Flimsy, more toy than work-thing, it stretches gravity-less into the open centre of the room, to be seen and wondered at.
Was that a car door?
Although laudable for a philosopher to be discovered restoring a table or sawing logs, what of sawing the table itself? If making table-logs (but why?), he is doing so ineptly, the saw protruding inches above the floor.
Far better to close the curtains. He rushes to the window, and trips. The saw cuts again now deep into his leg as before into the table's. Socks seep blood. He crawls to the wall beneath the shelf, out of view. Still bleeding, the saw still vibrating, still stuck.
There are people on the path.
Oh God! The radio. Could it be heard from outside? He imagines the anecdote – the philosopher sawing and bleeding, and all the while Neil Armstrong, a small step, and the Stars and Stripes – the volume increasing with each remembering. No ambiguous Heraclitus by the stove. Simply preposterous.
Too late for the curtains, grip the broom, bristle-end, pushed up against the shelf. The radio slides and falls, hitting the back of the philosopher's neck. Silence. Then voices, American, French: ‘Anyone there?'
She pitched towards the bathroom sink and waited there, neck bent.
He would be coming back in the morning to collect his things in whats-her-name's car. Just promise you won't make another scene. That was the last thing he'd said.
Turning over the words, her stomach jerked sharply, forcing up a thin stream of bile. She watched the brown liquid spin and disappear…
Then she heard it. A ghostly tinkling coming from the bedroom, accompanied by a shrill voice.
Oh what. Uhhh. Terriblemess. The broken voice screeched.
It was the mynah bird speaking. Of course. How could his beloved little pet have slipped her mind?
Within seconds she was by the cage, fumbling at the rusty latch. The bird was leaping about in fits. At first she moved carefully, trying to coax the animal between two flat palms. It kept sidestepping her, head cocked brightly, coughing up syllables.
Good. Boy. Uhh. Gooooodbwwoooy.
‘Come here you little shit,' she growled. Teeth clamped. Her hands began to scramble around the cage, clumsy and heavy. Fingers everywhere. The mynah was batting against the bars like some giant black-and-yellow moth. Soon she managed to jam the bird into a corner, locking her fingers about its smooth body.
She drew it slowly out. The thing made as if to struggle, twisting itself this way and that.
Then, it became oddly still and its tiny heartbeat steady beneath her thumbs. It turned its pale gaze on her and a feeling like cold moss crawled over her skin.
Oopsy. Duhhaisy. The mynah jeered.
She stared back at the creature, her body suddenly shaking with laughter. Everything seemed so sharp and white! Her red lips were stretched apart. Just like being at the dentist's, she thought, as she brought the bird calmly, deliberately, towards her open mouth.
How unlike her to wear red. How to climb trees. How I lost my virginity and found it again. How to make omelette. How the sound of the neighbor's TV coming in through my window from across the street where dog-lady-cat-lady lives makes me know I'm in America. How I am in New York and how I am not.
How swimming is a kind of silence. How I can't sleep at night anymore. How it gets harder to guess people's age. How I suddenly felt older at thirty-two. How Psycho Bill bumping around above me drives me nuts. How I've started muttering. How food lodges between my two back teeth each time I eat and I have to leave it there til I can stick my hand in my mouth to get it out. How useful ‘maybe' is.
How I take things with me I won't ever use. How to be lonely. How to make a good cup of coffee. How to put your Best Foot Forward. How difficult it is to teach your own language. How much love can hurt. How milk tastes different in every country. How I never quite recovered from the events of 1995. How I love to drive so much I won't sell the second-hand car I bought in another country. How frightened I am when I feel tired and in pain. How sometimes I don't like the feeling of water. How no-one believes I am shy. How underrated accuracy is.
How nothing lasts. How hard we tried. How easily I gave up. How he never let go. How easily I give up. How I like a good walk.
The hearse is sticky and hot and thrums in the summer heat as we idle at the red lights. My sister is endlessly checking her make-up in the mirror. She says she wishes this would be our mother's last funeral because she cannot keep buying new outfits.
Miles had cause for concern. He didn't exactly know why he was running, just that he knew he should. This was, in fact, the cause of his concern. How did he know that he had to run? He certainly had a stomach that felt like it had been filled with mud; it was heavy. Wobbly and unwieldy. He knew that this was one of the reasons he ran; but he just couldn't get hold of the specifics. Maybe he was in some sort of race... No, that seemed unlikely from the complete lack of track or stadium around him. He was running down some sort of dark red corridor. Good. What was his destination though? He knew where he was running but not where he was running to. Was it good or bad? The corridor was sticky on both the walls and the floor, and as he raised his foot he felt a slight resistance and heard a definite schlup. He must be running somewhere better though or he wouldn't be running at all. That thought made him feel slightly more at ease. It was probably a good idea to look around and see if there was anything behind him because, by this point, he was beginning to feel rather tired. If there wasn't anything there then he could relax his pace a bit. Plus, even if there was something there, he'd know what it was. It may be horrible but at least he'd be less confused. He looked round and, his foot sliding on a slimy patch of the red floor, he fell over. Unfortunately there was something chasing him. As he looked back he though: 'Well, at least now I know why.'
November 1958. After two years' National Service (Royal Navy), I was in my first term at Cambridge.
I'd just met Anne at a jazz dance at the Rex Ballroom. Jiving and cider accelerated friendship and desire. She agreed to come back to my room in college for the night. The rear wall of the college was being rebuilt, and I could easily prise the temporary fencing of wire and palings so that we could squeeze through, giggling. No sign of the porter. Every night he patrolled the grounds.
We lurched up the draughty stone staircase and into my room.
It was dankly cold in there. I had no shilling for the gas meter: so, no heating.
I rapidly became sober and fearful.
‘Look', I said. ‘I'm sorry. Women aren't allowed in the college after 9.30 p.m. If anyone finds you in bed with me, I could get sent down. Thrown out. It took me a lot of time and exams to get into this place. I can't take the risk. So: you have my bed, I'll sleep in the arm-chair, and if the porter bangs on the door to check on me, just say you missed the last bus home and I'm being a Good Samaritan. Say the same if the bedder sees you in the morning – she's the woman who comes round tidying.'
Anne yawned, peeled off her rustling clothes, and, naked, slid into bed.
In the arm-chair, I tried to sleep.
The room became colder.
By midnight, as the chimes of the Catholic Church sounded, I was shivering.
I went across, and nudged her, tentatively.
‘Mmm?' she asked.
‘Do you mind moving over?' I whispered. ‘I'm freezing.'
I recalled that, last night (in May 2012), while cautiously filling my hot-water bottle.
Mr Spitface has the longest tongue you've ever seen. Around about his lizard mouth there's always the navy whistle. Sometimes he puts it in his lips, not to blow but to make a threat. You can hear it now: That raspy, phlegmy rattle of the small ball getting flung about in its coffin. Sometimes, when Mr Spitface blows it, I imagine the tiny ball escaping from the whistle in one awesome blast and flying around the room for, like, a year, ricocheting off the corners and never coming to rest. We couldn't use the sports hall ever again because the ball would be flying around in there and Spitface's whistle would be shut up for good. Amen.
After P.E. I wait by the gate to get picked up. At first there are hoards of us talking about nothing and jostling. In the end it's just me. The air that escapes from my body is cloudy and massive. It acts like it could keep on growing and growing and growing but then it just stops. Dad isn't coming and that's a factoid.
The sky is packed down cloud. It makes me think of snow compressed with the back of a shovel. It's flat and white all the way over, except in this one bit where there's a rip. You can see the light coming in through that tear. Suddenly it hits me: the sun could be breaking out of the sky. It'd fall through the gash and start lumbering down the street. It'd keep on rolling all the way to the sea, and then it'd just sit in the water fizzing. It'd take eight whole days for the sound to stop. That sun - near dead, but at least it got free of the sky.
He sits all day, trapped in his glass prison. Sometimes he taps against that glass, drawing the museum visitors closer, so they can hear what he says. Pinocchio's nose is not large now. He has learned his lesson and long since given up lying. Instead he tells the truth.
Life is short. Hunger always returns. Everyone dies.
The museum's guides sometimes cover the case with a cloth in the hope that will quieten him. It doesn't help.
You are growing apart from your son.
The cat isn't coming back.
It is cancer.
Always the truth, whether you want it or not.
I was born, as if through an error of destiny, into a family of clerks. And so were my sons.
Press ‘call': pause—and the ringing begins, the interminable stretch of an aural waiting room. Enough to make you lose the power of speech. I always feel as though the ringing you hear is the same ring that is striking the air in the house that you're calling, as if you could shout over it, ‘hey, it's me, pick up!', but this is just a fantasy, a trick on the part of the service provider, the charade of pre-connection connection. I am calling my grandparents' house, where, in the neatness of the hall, on a telephone table, I know the big white phone is breaking the almost silence, and I wait: I wait here, in my house, and I wait there, in that neat hall. And then: panic. For half a second, perhaps just the time between two rings, I forget which of my grandparents died last year. I don't know who I am calling. As memory returns, I am hit with a double grief, as if I had just killed both.
Connection. The lifting of the receiver cuts in mid-ring.
At the chapel of rest Father David tells us to think of a moment we shared with her. But it came later, and not when Father David asked, what she told me when I was eighteen about aborting herself using a long handled comb. Only hairdressers use them now and every time I see one I think of it. Came out a pink thing at the end, she said, so she knew she was pregnant. Little thing it was like a prawn. A would-have-been your aunt and younger and it wasn't menopause, like your mum thinks, after all. None of it made sense and she couldn't have a baby the same age as me, so she dipped the handle in Dettol and sorted herself out.
Father David prays and tells us 'she was no stranger to hardship.'
At night she heard the frogs splashing about. They had laid their spawn in sloppy clusters around the table legs and under the armchair, which had sprouted ferns from cushion crevices.
While the frogs were still (or sleeping, who knew?) she heard only the bottoms of the curtains drip with clock tick rhythm, and was able to sleep. It was as waterlogged here as his grave; it was raining the day they buried him and the coffin was lowered into an inch of tea-coloured water. By now green films would have grown over his eyes and lips, waterworms threading through what was left of his hair and the buttonholes of his only suit. And was he rocked by subterranean waters, like the upturned fish she once saw bobbing on Canoe Lake? A duck had paddled by and given it a beak-nudge, rolling it over several times.
Yes, he was floating beneath the earth, she was convinced; she pictured him as she lay in bed, arms crossed over her chest to keep her compact, closed off from the invading damp.
My cousin puts his hand inside his mother's skirt. He draws out the note from her knickers. She sees me, in the wardrobe, through the slats.
I knew from the scampering and thwacking on the laminate floor inside that it was my six year old nephew coming to let me in. That worked for me as I adore him and it was his birthday after all. It took him the usual little while to tackle the door handle and I took the opportunity to check my hair in the brass letter box and admire the new shirt I had bought, to look nice for my Mother and just in case my sister had invited Erica Pullman. This was no thirty quid shirt from G*p, this was one hundred and twenty pounds worth of Paul Smith from Selfridges that set me back eighty five pounds more than any other shirt I ever bought. But if you saw Erica Pullman you'd know it was money well spent, and I love my nephew and want to look good for the little man of course, but if you knew how unconfident with women I was and how easily rattled I get then you'd see it as a hundred and twenty pounds invested. The shirt was blue, different shades of blue, with pale lines and some swirls. It was soft to touch (take note Erica) and had marble blue buttons. My nephew stared at my shirt and then he pointed at it and said; ‘Do you work at Tesco now?' I looked down at the blues, at the swirls, and I could see what he meant. I didn't see it when Marco from Menswear Casuals was telling me how great I looked, but I saw it now. ‘No,' I said. ‘Its from Selfridges. (you little bastard – which he is, technically, by the way). Did you know there's no Father Christmas?'
There's a certain Icelandic number you can call to hear the glaciers melting. In the darkly-lit, cottonmouth hours, those over-spent midways when your toes are in your stomach, open the phone quick: find the contact listed “Icebergs”. Hands press the phone against your sticky head. If you need to, put the handset down on the tiles and lie on top of it. Shielded by a foot of ceramic from the hunting thoughts loose in the rooms, you place your call to the end of the world.
It sounds like a mountain eating an orchestra. Beneath that, the witless tickle of thaw music and plunking moraines. Let go your jaw. Let it slide out beneath you. These songs of dying water. Cold, mercurial. Rapids in the canals of your ears.
Hear how a boulder sometimes
The rattle of stones in the outwash. Rocks going so slowly, impossibly slowly, through the glaciers. There is no word to describe their velocity. Each oval stone is birthed wet onto a bed of other oval stones.
Let your brain bathe in meltwater. Your thoughts drop through the phone into the frozen ocean. Sleep there. Sleep now in your jaw. Beyond, the sun blisters the lips of the blind.
A more-than-dear friend died while I was sleeping. When I awoke this morning, I was as usual on the ground in my bedroom, the cats were jumping on me, at least so I thought, I am going to turn on the radio, the country has just changed presidents, finally I can breathe I say to myself. I exited my tomb, I turned on the radio without straightening up, desire to have a cup of air after five years of holding my tongue, finally a healed day, at least so I thought, that's when destiny passed on an encrypted message, the automaton's voice distilled a rapid poison, 'the celebrated writer the famous writer is dead', he was already dead, or else I was already dead, it had happened while I was sleeping, indeed I had noticed while I slept that I was not dreaming, it was a lifeless night, but I thought I dreamt that I had missed the night. Yet once up, I see that life is no longer where I had left it 'the night before'. I grope around. Where are my heart's glasses? And the earth? The planet? This is what happens to us when we are expecting nothing at all, we lie down on the bed, the cats are sleeping in front of us. That's when, without witness, without warning, we are robbed of ourselves. Unbelievable hold-up: everything is fiction, illusion, syncope of the subject. There is no one.
My hair is thinning rapidly on top, the hairline receding. It's like the shrinking of an ice cap, with as heavy a sense of incremental and irreversible death. Day by day, I study my scalp in the mirror, from in front and behind, using a tricksy array of mirrors. I see myself often, fading, multiplied, into infinity.
Today, though, I make a discovery, see something that the depilation has only now, magically revealed. A thin white scar, above my left temple, forming an irresolute v.
It was 1974, a snowy winter. We had taken a delivery of uncut logs, and my father and I were stacking them in our wood shed, a little lean-to on the side of the garage. What we need, my father had said, as we bashed our hands together for warmth, is a system. You stand in front, he said, and I'll stand behind. While you bend to pick up a log, I will throw my log, over your head, into the shed. Then, while I am bending down to pick up a log, you can stand, and throw your log in. A great system, I said. What could possibly go wrong.
Minutes later I awoke lying on the bloody snow, my head ringing. The feel of the thump as the heavy log clubbed me, still carrying my father's strength, is echoing in me now. My father remembered the date – the anniversary, he used to say, of the day I killed my son.
The thing I remember most clearly about the whole episode is the odd thing he said to me. He could perhaps have said Watch out, or Duck. But what he said to me, as my eyes opened to see his looking into mine, was this. He said You're just like me.
Today the dentist's. Tist's. Say, tist's. My dentist frightens me. Marathon Man meets Wittgenstein. The silent type. Ent, ist. He arrived a year ago, the latest act at my local NHS pay-as-you-go circus. My dentist is not young. He has big glasses like a snooker player. His hands tremble and he has a speech impediment. Ment. He hails from up north. I am convinced he was struck off and has been rehabilitated, incomprehensibly. Hensibly, he ticulates erely its of words, when he does peak. Alcohol-illum, Parkinshun, ental break done? I can't help imagining he killed someone. Man's law. Accidentist. I have never had any treatment from him, only check-ups, till today. But now two cavities: both upper right. No mask. He operates as if there is no tomorrow. In goes the injection, like a knife in the street. Blue rubber gloves. I don't know whether to open or shut my eyes. Out of the picture, the indifferent young assistant listens to the radio, looks at her nails. I car peak any more, anaesthetic impacts, in pax, hunting in, fingers crossing, tighten, tightest, impacted, im-prac-tist. And he says nothing, no falsely reassuring that-should-be-numbing-up-nicely-by-now, no time for words, he is in like a feeding frenzy in reverse. I keep feeling, as in a dream. Perhaps hallucinatory his halitosis. Tosis. Fingers shaking, perspiration beading inside the aquarium spectacles, he lunges, invades, retreats, returns, wielding who knows what, a drill then something else, eels, feels, files, patient eyes closed now for business, long pause as if in exhaustion. Then assault recommences, flailing, thrashing, splay in my mouth, then falls back abruptly with a single word, strangularly tittled out: done, he says. He turns as from a scene of a crime and puts down his instruments, like a car mechanic, on the side, still juddering.
Fraulein Hilda had been feeling under the weather for some time. Her usual medications had failed. Then she read a small advertisement in the Hersfelder Zeitung that offered some hope. She hurried down to the haberdashery and bought seven handkerchiefs of various colours, requesting them to be monogrammed. When she got home she found a letter from Uncle Dolfi to advise her that there was a vacancy for her as governess at the Schloss. She was already feeling better.
The handkerchiefs were ready the next afternoon. She took the smallest of them and laid it on the floor by the window. The white linen sparkled in the late sunlight. A host of angels hovered outside. To each she presented a handkerchief and requested that they should intercede for her. They agreed and vanished into the early dusk. But then, just after supper, Uncle Dolfi rang to say the Schloss had burned down and could she please return immediately.
Suspecting that she had been the subject of a fake visitation she considered ringing the police if only to recover the handkerchiefs. There was no time for that now. She rushed to the station. The advertisement had been placed by a reputable manufacturer or so she had been led to believe. Something was afoot. Nevertheless she continued to feel better.
The Schloss was a black, burned-out husk. Nobody could have survived in there. Ash-coloured rabbits were hopping around on the charred lawn. Uncle Dolfi was distraught. Surely this was the devil's doing. But then, when all around was darkness and tragedy, seven coloured handkerchiefs fluttered around her, each with her monogram. She had never felt better.
The day was later commemorated as the Miracle of St Hilda of Plön, also known as The Plön Cure.
What takes place next happened after that season of hill fires, of minor quakes and the multiple deaths of nightshift bike riders - killed by falling branches as crippled eucalypts retracted back into their green wicks. When it was possible to see into the raw of cracked things: skin beneath skin and the trees ingrown. Good neighbours slept badly. In the north three cemeteries rose up out of the earth. The dead bore their gaze through coffinwood, until hooded youths stole their skulls to kick in the underpasses.
Do you remember how apprehension first gave way to hysteria? The high whine of those drained pool evenings, the dark car parks and overlit aisles. School mothers bought tinned asparagus, boxes of carbonated water and pink paraffin. They built displays in their bay-windows, while the television ran to selling hatchets and the long term storage of critical documents.
But later, in defiance to their pyramid-set supplies, that season passed. Cracks in the asphalt were tarred over. People begun riding at night once more, and the pock of ghoul's soccer no longer echoed from the low zones. What was left over became only the unremarkable stories of the things that were gone. Names like bee-eater and osprey sheared from their dainty corpses and drifted just beyond recognition, like the logos of products discontinued since childhood. No useful nostalgia was had.
In the falling gardens that year people noted how asparagus, even when it was wrapped in white napkins of bread, made them think of murdered baby fir trees. People did not fear embarrassing, arboreal deaths. Everyone was mean and luminous until those words consumed each other.
Paraffin burned down the hours. Come back, they screamed in their beds and their cars, into cupped palms, the backs of heads. The End, you rival. We're ready.
A man who has lived alone for years, and who isn't really paying attention, gets a melanoma on the unreachable, invisible middle of his back, and doesn't find out until the cancer has spread to his brain, bones and liver. He buys a large canister of helium from a party supplies wholesaler, a transparent plastic oven bag and a length of rubber tubing. He checks into a local hotel and has time to sing only the first eleven seconds of 'Staying Alive' in a Pinky and Perky voice before losing consciousness. As the canister continues to empty into the poorly-ventilated hotel room, the first moments of the hotel staff's panicked discovery of the body are also played out in Pinky and Perky voices.
The cow jumped over the moon. The cow jumped under the moon. The cow went around and around the moon. The cow, altering its course fractionally, spiralled in and landed upon the moon. The cow docked. The cow vented four hundred thousand litres of milk into the lunar refectory reservoir. The cow was made of a mixture of metal and plastic. The cow refuelled. The cow decoupled. The cow was piloted by an AI with an equivalent 30% more-than-bovine mental capacity. The cow jumped to orbit again.
Dawg, watching from Alpha's main observatory, sucked on a stimulant delivery package. The stimulant filled him with pleasurable thoughts.
She had taken a stool a few feet away from his own in the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar - in the early hours of the morning, the only other diner in the cavernous restaurant studded with arcing ropes of fairy lights. Her face was pale, he noted, and possibly tear-stained. The barman, who appeared to know her, poured her a glass of wine. Neither spoke. He had assigned six hours to catch up on Foucault before the interview, between trains. But instead, at just after 3am, he'd found himself watching the young woman stare for a full eight and a half minutes at the blue chalk menu board above the bar, her forehead furrowed as she read through the list of names of oysters dredged from the coastlines of America: Bras d'Or from Nova Scotia, Squaxin from Washington, Sunken Meadow from Massachussets., Moonstone from Rhode Island. Now freight trains rolled though the night through empty mid-West cities; on a map of North America train lines forked and branched like veins from harbours to cities; in rock pools in a smoky half light, oysters spawned fathoms deep under a full moon. But, when he'd leaned as far towards her as he had dared so as to hear her name her choice, he had missed the words and failed to read the notes the waiter had taken down. There is, he wrote in the margins of his Foucault, just no way of knowing. Never was, he added, never was. Four months later, returning to his copy, he had already entirely forgotten the context of those words.
And that was it. Who could predict it would manifest itself like this – on a dark night, on a quiet city street, in the form of a gigantic bicycle? A double-decker monster cruelly welded together in a steam-punk laboratory from dismembered body parts of rusted bike corpses. It was at least two frames high and the saddle was at least six feet off the ground. And not only was the crazy machine not locked up, but it also had a tatty piece of A4 taped to its lower cross bar which announced in felt tip writing:
'Free – please take.'
It was like a crazed inventor had plundered my unconscious! How could I resist?
But a strange thing occurred as I wheeled the bike to the nearest wall or bin or tree – anything tall enough to use as a mounting block. And the strange thing was this: I began to remember my drunken crash last year which had hurtled me into a parking meter and smashed my shoulder to pieces. I relived the strange smells and machines of the operating theatre and how badly my body had reacted to the anaesthetic, and the numb patch on my left shoulder tingled at the thought of how warped my post-op posture had become.
More bizarrely still, I envisaged my unprotected skull swaying like a drunken pendulum ten foot from the tarmac and the contact crack of it echoing down this lonely street as I fell.
I thought of how cross my girlfriend would be.
And there and then, in that simple act of propping the Frankenstein Bike back against the wall, un-ridden, and continuing to walk home for my tea, youth ended.