House-Partied

It isn’t the odour of burnt fabric that first strikes me as I stumble into consciousness- No, that distant stink is only a secondary sensation. The first thing I’m truly aware of is the fact that my guts feel like they’ve been packed into a small box and given a good kick. I make grogged motions towards standing, and then comes that horrible comprehension- Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, all giving me an idea of what death feels like.

I open a curtain and immediately regret my existence. Without so much as a note of the bugle, the daylight gallops in and puts a lance through my skull. Good morning, Glasgow; Here I am, standing fresh as the morgue among many friends and many strangers, some slumped half-ghouled on the furniture, others flat on the carpet.

I lean out the window for a quick smoke- I’m just about able to weather the Sun’s steady assault on my brainpan. The streets below run with life: Actual, real people, to-and-fro-ing on the pavement like little beetles. Not so for me- My lot is to hang over them all like a ragged ghost, trying not to vomit. I flick my cigarette into the abyss and turn back to the corpses.

The tortured souls are stirring from alcoholic doom, making odd, otherworldy sounds. One shifts and falls from the couch with a grunt, a slack golem slipping into animation. I look down at her, and her up at me. I have no idea who she is. This face may have passed mines a dozen times last night, or not.

There’s that burnt smell again- Who knows how it happened, but half the sofa is scorched. Furthermore a pair of chairs are shattered, and there’s a viscous puddle stretched across the coffee table. The carpet feels… sticky.

The hallway fares poorly- Smells like a trench, with a similar ambience of despair and rot. Mercifully, the light fixture’s been tore out the ceiling, so I don’t  have to look at what might be lurking in the gloom. My foot knocks down a few open bottles of beer as I limp into the kitchen.

There’s a friend of mines sitting at the table. He shoots me a worried look, nods to the fridge and begins to shake his head. Tentative steps towards the handle. Do I open? I know this won’t be a good idea, but…

I was correct.

Shutting the fridge door hastily, I shudder down to the table. There’s a number of half-empty drinks from last night cluttered about.

“I need a drink.”

I swig the first cup my friend offers me and retch.

“Christ- The fuck is this?”

He shrugs.

I look down at the swill I just let gloop down my throat. It has the colour and consistency of hot bitumen. Is this supposed to be a cocktail? My best guess is coke and melted tire, but I’ve only ever been a diletante when it comes to this sort of thing.

“Yikes, gimme something else. That’s fit for consumption.”

A glass of what I pray is just beer ends up in my hand.

It tastes better, a lot better. Infact-

I made it to the toilet (only just) and fell to my knees before the Goddess. My offering this morning is a shrill deluge, spat violently over some porcelain mouth. I made sure to flush a few times for good measure.

I’m not sure the shower railing is supposed to be lying on the floor like that. The curtain is draped over the edges of the bath, and seems to be- no, is blanketing something that happens to be snoring loudly. I feel a bit like Howard Carter as I pull back the veil.

No fallen Ozymandias sprawls the bath- Just another blootered stranger, dozing peacefully beside someone’s houseplant. The evil that resides somewhere in my chest cavity is telling me that it would be a great idea to turn on the shower and run for it, but I figure I’d feel bad for the plant. I slip out the door as quietly as I can and leave the couple to their business.

By now a sense of morbid curiosity is steering me down the dark expanse of the hall. I cannot turn back- Some terrible force is compelling me.

Given over to the sway of fiendish powers, my hand grips the handle of an unknown door without hesitation-

Oh God, what the hell is this- There’s this ghastly slimy stuff gunked all over the handle, and I just touched it-

For some reason, I went in anyway.

Clingfilm everywhere. The drawers, the shelves, the desk, the bed, the bedside table… All wrapped in clingfilm. Individual pens and books, too.

There’s even- I must be hallucinating- An entire cooked chicken (also wrapped) in here, just laid out on the floor like a cellophane mummy. No, it’s real- I’m able to put my hand down and touch it.

But as I do so, I hear growling from somewhere nearby. Could it be… Nah, I’m pretty sure that charred bird is very, very dead by now.

Still though… I don’t want to take any chances. I’m turning to go when something clamps my ankle and gives a vigourous tug.

I look down and worry for my bowels. There’s a hand protruding from under the bed, and it has my foot in its eager grip.

Okay. I’ve had more than enough of this for one day-

I would be lying to you, dear reader, if I told you that I didn’t scream and perhaps cry at least a little before shaking myself free. I didn’t bother looking back as I went bowling down the hallway, even when something decidedly cat-like yelped underfoot.

Tumbling out the door, I recognise the girl that fell off the couch, idling on the landing.

She glanced up from her phone.

“Some party, wasn’t it?”

We share a mutual grimace.

“Thank Christ it wasn’t my flat.”

I said goodbye and good to meet you, then hobbled down the stairs. Only two things mattered now: Breakfast and a long shower.

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The Path

I drag my feet through silt and sand. The water is ice cold, my skin has no heat left, no warmth from within. My blood has stopped flowing. Stopped dead. The shredded nightdress, weighed down with seawater, hangs from my shoulders, where the grey skin is torn and crumpled. My hair, much of it torn out in chunks from my scalp, hangs down my back and sticks to my face.

I know that I’m dead. I have to be. I came into contact with the rudder of a ship, I drowned, I was dragged for miles by the riptides.

The light is soft and blue, like the hour or so before dawn. I find myself walking along a beach. I can’t feel any pain, though I think my arm is broken. I can feel no sensations whatsoever. I cannot even feel the sand under my feet as I walk, and I leave no footprints. I don’t know this place. The island is dark and shapeless. There are no signs of houses, no boats, no harbour. Just dark hills and a solitary path. So I follow the path.

I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what purpose a dead person could have. I think I am being led by nothing more than an instinct to move my limbs. I don’t even know if I could change my course if I tried. I don’t try. I just walk. Around me the fields of grass and reeds are moved by a swirling wind, the sound is muted and the sounds of the sea around are whisper soft. I feel scared, and yet I don’t understand what could be worse than dying. My greatest fear has happened: what is there left to be afraid of? And yet I am wondering, where is this place, and what is at the end of this path? I don’t understand how to think of this future, when I had thought my future had come to an end.

I realise that this must be the afterlife, but it makes me angry. If there is a life after death, it should be a destination, not another journey. Not another lonely walk through half-darkness, without purpose, propelled forward by the passage of time snapping at my heels. Where are the gates, where is the door, when will the clouds open? Or, where is the peace, and the dark and silence. Where is the end? And where are the rest of the dead? I’m not the only one. I’m not the only one.

The path goes on, the hills never change. The wind whistles and the sea whispers. The dawn never breaks, the sun never rises. Time is not passing. But still, my footsteps are carrying her somewhere, and now I see a convergence of paths. Ahead is a crossroads linking several other paths, they seem infinite. The landscape has no horizon, but the sky hangs above and the land stretches out below, and there are a hundred paths that meet in one great circle at the epicentre. I am terrified, even more afraid than I was when I saw my own death staring my in the face as I jumped from the bridge and plummeted into the cold, cold sea. I’m scared, but I keep walking. I walk toward the circle.

Now I see them. Now I see the other dead. They move slowly, and I can see that there is one traveller for every path. They all walk in the same manner, as though dragged down by some unseen weight. Some of them look alike – dressed the same, or wearing their hair the same, or they are of similar ages. Some are dressed in a white nightgown, white satin with a lace trim. It is the same gown I was wearing when I drowned. The one that is now clinging to me in tatters.

I turn to the nearest traveller as our paths grow closer. I am looking into my own face, I see my own eyes grow wide with fear, like a reflection. She, the other me, is just as pale and just as dead as I am but her skin is clear and tight, her hair, though wet, it smooth and intact. She has no wounds on her body but four small incisions. Two on the wrists, two further up, just below the crease of the elbow. There is no blood, but the white nightgown she wears – not satin, just cotton – is stained pink and red. She’s not a perfect reflection. She’s too young. She’s only seventeen or eighteen. But those are my eyes gazing back in numb confusion from her face. My face. I try to open my mouth to speak, to ask the question, but the words will not leave my throat, and the younger me turns away.

I look to the other side and see an old woman, limping along her path. She is tall and slim, but bent, and her limbs look twisted, it looks like one of her legs is broken. A large wound on her head has left her downy grey hair matted with dark blood, and her face is bruised. The old woman won’t turn to look at me, but I see something familiar in the woman’s profile. Something in the nose and the chin, it reminds me of my mother. But it isn’t my mother – she’s too tall, and her features are too angular. I’m glad that it’s not her. As she walks, a ring glints on her finger. No – two rings. I look down at my own hand. My own hand is unrecognisable, the skin blue, bloated and lacerated. But my wedding and engagement rings are still intact and in place. A gold band and a diamond that gleams in the half light. The same jewel glints on the hand of the old woman.

I begin to understand that all the walkers of all the paths are myself. We are not all alike, but it is the same body and the same soul, the same look in the eyes, a look of quiet pleading. I know the look, and I know what it means. It is the look that comes when I ask ‘what’s left for me’ and the answer won’t come. And so I plead with my reflection in the mirror, I ask myself to be kind, not to push me onwards despite the nothing that I face. I ask for it all to stop, and something changes in the face in the mirror. She nods back at me, she is determined. She begins to make a plan. Six years ago, she takes a pair of scissors and she cuts into the plastic part of a safety razor. At first, she just wants to see if it is possible, but now she knows. She knows she can remove the tiny little blades, and that they don’t hurt much, but that they’re sharp enough. She runs a hot bath.

Forty years from now, she has just climbed to the top of the stairs. It was hard, and took her longer than it ever had before. Her limbs ache. She doesn’t want to go to bed. She’s afraid of her dreams, and she’s even more afraid of the moment when she wakes up, forgets what her life is, and then, slowly, remembers. She stands at the top of the stairs. She doesn’t want to go to bed. She turns around, and lets go of the bannister. She closes her eyes.

Three days ago, she has just got married. She’s on her honeymoon. She isn’t truly happy, but she has her place in the world now. She has her purpose. She waits in the hotel room, she waits for her husband to return, but he doesn’t come back. He doesn’t answer the phone. He’s packed up all his things. He’s left her a pile of money on the dresser, and a note that says ‘I’m sorry’. She walks along the motorway all night. She sees the sea, she sees the outline of the huge bridge through the fog. She walks along the edge of the road, finds her way to the middle of the bridge, climbs up the huge metal beams along the side, climbs over the wire fencing, stands balanced on the very edge, holding on. The sea looks cold, but she’s already cold. She’s been walking all night in just her satin nightdress. She lets go.

But there is one thing I don’t understand. Why do I wake up again? Why do I emerge from the water, why do I come here and why must I meet myself, a hundred more of me, a hundred deaths, and none of them at peace? I reach the centre of the circle. I am surrounded by myself, and they are all looking at me with those eyes that ask for it all to end. I want to be off this island, I want to get away from all the eyes watching me, from all the sadness, from all the wasted lives. I wanted death to be peaceful, to be an ending, but here I find only more fear, I see even less purpose, even less sense to existence. But there is no peace, just chaos, a void, and I haven’t returned here for I never belonged here. And it isn’t an ending because there will always be a path that I never took. Some of the paths lead to the same place, they lead here. But I wonder if there if there are others, paths that lead away from this place. I turn around, and look behind me. It is the first time I have ever turned back, looked over my shoulder. I can see the horizon. I can see the sand, and I can see where the water meets the sky, and where, in between, the sun is beginning to rise.

I run, back along the path. Hands grasp at me from all sides, voices cry out, they beg me not to return there, they beg me not to leave them. But this isn’t the place for me, or for any of them. They have to see that. They have to see that none of us belong here.

I reach the sea, and I swim. I swim and I see the sun rise. I go under.  The water feels cold, it threatens to fill my lungs, but I am only underwater for a few moments. I am kicking my legs, I am feeling the blood rush to my limbs, life fighting in my veins. I emerge again, into fresh sunlight. I can still see the bridge, there above, looming. A boat is coming toward me, the driver blasts his horn. I swim sharply away as the boat turns, and comes to a halt. Hands pull me out of the water. I’m alive.

From Here to There

Vest, petticoat, stockings, handkerchiefs, slip, blouse, cardigan, comb, wellington boots, towel, soap, facecloth, toothbrush, shoes, plimsolls.  Mackintosh, yes of course.  Gas masks, gas masks, we mustn’t forget gas masks.  Something to eat – I’ll make up some sandwiches for them – my darlings, would you like an apple to eat?  I’ll pack away some biscuits too, they said the train journey would only last an hour and a half but goodness knows if the train will even be on time, I’ve heard they’re evacuating thousands of children today, the trains will surely be congested.  And  we don’t even know where they’ll be… Should we pack something warm for them- oh my goodness, I nearly forgot, Maisie, she can’t sleep without Maisie!  I can’t think if I’ve forgotten anything, I’ve added everything on the list but it’s all practical, everything, they don’t know our children- Frances, would you like to take a book or two?  Your choice, darling, whatever you wish.  It’ll most likely be a farmer’s house you’re living in and I imagine they won’t have much time for libraries… Should I pack a toy or two, Peter will be dreadfully bored if he’s left to himself- but then- but then he’ll be in the country, won’t he, and it’ll be the novelty of a new family and a new life-

She burst out into loud, ragged sobs; gasping with shuddering breath.  Sentences that were broken and stilted came from behind her hands and rivulets of salty tears quivered on her neck.  Her husband grasped her arm wearily, his face tired and his jaw unshaven; and her mother instinctually bustled the children into the kitchen, her scarlet lips pinched.

She cried for a minute or so, her eyes swollen and red, her sandy hair glued to her wet cheek.  But then she wiped her eyes hastily on her sleeve, because she was aware that her time was limited.  A noise that was almost a whimper came out: ‘It won’t be for long, will it?  Surely it cannot be for long?’

‘I only wish I knew.’

‘I could bear it if only I knew it would be for a short time.’

There was a pause they could not articulate.

A whisper, a plea: ‘Can’t we just- not take them?  Will they notice?  We can’t be the only ones.’

‘If the government advises evacuation to be the safest procedure then we must trust them.  They know the risks.’  It was a mechanical response, spoken grimly.  She caught the flicker of distress as it passed across his face.

‘But in the last war-‘

‘It’s different now.  We need only look at recent events to understand that.’

She nodded; gulped; suppressed her sense of impending desolation and smiled, a smile that was all teeth and no eyes and all pain. She turned to the mirror, meticulously efficient in removing the tell-tales stains of weepingthe blotchy smears, the puffed eyes.  Her hair was, as always, impeccably coiffed, its yellow waves expertly moulded, hat placed adroitly on top; her lipstick a becoming smudge of red; her peacock blue suit newly made to adorn her slim, graceful figure; her gloves a supple ivory leather.  Her husband, usually so polished, looked meagre next to his polished wife; somehow smaller, quieter.  Julia Williams – smart, successful literary editor from a smart, successful literary family – was nothing if not assiduous.

There were three children: Frances, Peter, little Elly.  In the kitchen, Frances helped her grandmother to smear thick, colourful jam on bread, to wash the shiny red apples and plump strawberries.  She tried to ignore the wriggling thought that there would be plenty of strawberries in the place where they were going, plenty of glossy blackberries and hairy raspberries and tiny blueberries with their inky dark juice, ripe and willing to be plucked.  She fed Elly an oozing slice of apple crumble when her grandmother wasn’t looking, although she didn’t think Grandmother would mind.  Not now.  Not in the circumstances.

Their mother called and, so docile in this new era of bewildering change, they dutifully filed after their grandmother into the sitting room – a beloved room in a beloved house.  The armchairs were podgy and welcoming, the mantelpiece littered with photographs of family jaunts to Cornwall and Wales.  A fringed lamp, decorated with chinoiserie, stood slightly askew, a testament to the boisterous nature of Peter.  The bookcases were stuffed: long-winded poems and exhilarating adventure stories jostled with eloquent novels and brightly coloured travel guides, documenting lands far away from the bustle and smoke of London.  Now their suitcases, battered and worn and impossibly small, were sitting on the tough old rug, and Frances felt a sudden heaviness at the notion that she might not see the pretty blue-and-white vase or the pale yellow wallpaper in ever such a long time.

They checked the suitcases again and again, fretting over their paltry items.  Elly clutched her threadbare doll, its hair newly brushed.   Peter looked bored, dragging his feet impatiently.  He complained loudly; Frances noticed her father’s face growing increasingly crumpled.  She tried to be pleasant, chattering away as they were bundled into the car, her mother swivelling round in the front seat to smile at them brightly.  Julia reached forward to tuck a loose chestnut strand of Elly’s hair behind her ear; Elly grinned in response, a lopsided smile that showed off her missing teeth.

They drove to the school, trundling along past endless rows of houses just like theirs, the gardens trimmed and manicured, the façades neat and orderly.

‘You wouldn’t even think there was a war on, to look at the streets!’ Julia tried to be blasé.  Frances noted dense bags of sand dumped next to lampposts and a gaggle of small boys, shouting gleefully as they kicked a gas-mask box along the street.  She decided not to mention such details.

The school was full, its red-brick exterior bulging with mothers and children, suitcases and bags, people trying to be brave.  The gleaming black gates were crowded with incomers, the playground engulfed with queues and confusion, everything chaotic and disorderly.  The headmistress distractedly shoved her glasses further up her nose, barking out names and numbers.  There was a flurry, everywhere you looked.  Mothers, anxious lines etching their faces, shepherded their children across the grounds; boys and girls of all descriptions, glum and wailing and beaming, pigtails and scrubbed faces and pinched noses.  The noise was tumultuous, Frances thought, savouring the unfamiliar word.  She saw her favourite teacher, gentle Miss Johns, nearly trip over a lost suitcase

They were directed to a queue; the children saw their friends, and the parents tried not to talk.  Elly was oblivious, hugging her doll.  The older children milled around, wary; wondering aloud where they would stay and what the people would be like.  A continuous rumble of conversation, and the feeling, whether explicitly expressed or tacitly experienced, that surely, just surely, this could not last very long.  Julia fussed over her children, smoothing down their coats, kissing them on their pale foreheads.  There were a few husbands, in stylish suits, nodding to each other in their taciturn way.  One boy waddled, swathed in all his clothes, dragging his case behind him.

Elly cried when they had to leave.  She didn’t understand why – Julia grew frantic as she tried to explain, as she choked on her own inadequacy.  ‘It’s dangerous here, darling- but we’ll come to visit as soon as we know where you are and remember, we will think about you every day- I will miss you all so much…’

‘I’ll write straight away, Mother,’ Frances promised solemnly.  The sound of hysterical sobs pierced the muffled noise, a girl repeatedly protesting that she had not been naughty, she had not done anything wrong and so why were they sending her away?  Peter scuffed his shoes against the ground, for once yielding to his mother’s bustling.  One more kiss, and they were gone.

Snippets of a heated argument could be heard as they walked away – a mother loudly shrieking, refusing to part with her children.  ‘Let’s keep them home, please, please, please-‘  Her husband was pleading desperately, his voice cracking.  One child dragged her feet petulantly, refusing to move further.  Whispers everywhere of where they would end up and what would happen.  Turbulent emotion and continual strain and raised voices and sheer commotion, perpetual and palpable.  They walked fast, gulping tears and striding onwards.

They sat in the car for a few minutes, Julia and Arthur holding each other.

*

It was a station that they had traversed many times before – there had been second-class train journeys across the country, transporting them to frolics in the frothy blue waves, and languid picnics in the country; sweets purchased at the newsagents round the corner and cheap paperbacks from the station.  The vertiginous roof dwarfed the endless trains, painted a dull brown with grubby smudged windows and doors that jammed.  Vague wisps of smoke hung in the air as the platforms below were crowded with people, Frances clutching the hands of her brother and sister as they navigated the mass, continuously craning for the familiar sight of Miss Johns’ distinctive hat.  They reached the train, struggling.  They were told to wait.  She saw a woman, her belly big and round, and porters that ambled and a man, sleek in his official military uniform, and children aimlessly swinging pillowcases, their belongings clattering inside.  ‘East End,’ a schoolfriend hissed disdainfully, and proceeded to loudly point out the lice apparently hopping about on their heads.  A sea of people, jostling and sobbing and wondering.  Peter began to fiddle with his name tag, worrying away at the rope.  She scolded him unnecessarily.

‘I hope I get billeted in a manor house, Mother doesn’t want me to end up in some provincial village because she says it’ll taint my manners.’

‘I don’t mind, as long as they’re kind and don’t shout…’

‘I’ll be happy enough if they don’t get on at me to study arithmetic all day long!’

‘Or make me eat cabbage…’

‘Will we have school there?’

‘Of course we will, that’s why the teachers are coming with us too.’

‘Oh blast it, I rather thought we would get to run about fields all day!’

Frances asked quietly: ‘They will let brothers and sisters stay together, won’t they?’

Miss Johns smiled thinly, placing her hand carefully on Frances’ shoulder.  ‘I think so, my dear, but in any case I won’t let you get separated.  Mothers have enough worrying to do without their children staying in different houses.’

‘Do you know where we’re going?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t.  There were rumours about Somerset…’

The train left at about one o’clock.  Frances stared hard out of the windows, attempting to absorb every atom of the city she was leaving.  She saw only a generic city landscape, but she pictured to herself the smart houses, the glamorous theatres with her glitzy, gaudy lights, the palatial museums teeming with priceless artefacts, an entire city steeped in history.  She was wedged between Peter and Elly, oddly comforted by their warmth.  The rows of dismal houses and coal-black factories, shrouded in smoke, gave way to fresh countryside, glowing with an autumnal burnish.  Plumes of leaden smoke emanated from the train, streaming across the skyline, dissipating into the verdant fields and gurgling streams of southern England.  Frances glimpsed cottages, crowned with bluebells and violets, and grazing cows meandering in the pale sunlight.  One girl, who had never escaped the confines of the city, was visibly open-mouthed at the sheer expanse of green and yellow, a patchwork pattern hemmed in by leafy hedges.

The train grew uncomfortable after a time; the children grew hungry.  The teachers were alternately soothing and irritable as two hours stretched into three.  Elly fell asleep, her snuffled breathing rhythmic and hushed.  Frances continued to read, flicking the pages absently as she heard Miss Campbell explain softly about her fiancé who had just signed up.  She sounded fearful; she mentioned that her uncle had died in the last war, stabbed to death by a German.

They were glad to leave the train, when the time came.  The journey had been cramped, everyone packed in such close quarters.  The station was small, and the locals startled by the profusion of children that spilled out.  They swarmed like bees, filling every inch of the landscape until all you could see was the wan sky and the pale sliver of moon hat had emerged before its time.  Rustic, Frances would have called it.  A brick chimney perched on top of a slanted roof, pearly smoke billowing and two gentlemen sat in the waiting-room beneath a complex map of the country, knobbly canes in their aged hands.  The evacuees (for such as they now were) were greeted by a bespectacled woman, owlish and snappy, armed with an exhaustive list.

Elly yawned, tight little fists rubbing her eyes.

‘I can’t understand her accent,’ Peter said stoutly.

‘I know, it’s difficult to pick out the words.’

The village hall was draughty and spacious, decorated with lawn furniture and an outdated banner that announced the village flower show in pastel lettering.  They stood, unobtrusively, in the corner, watching as the Thomson twins, ruddy and strong, were chosen first.  Little Sarah Edgware, her tufty blonde hair an angelic halo, was selected by a discerning couple with a cherub-faced daughter; and Hannah Walton, the oldest at thirteen, was led away with a triumphant air to the house of a gentleman-farmer.  They watched as the youngest, adorable and pliant, were preferred, and the poorer, with their shabby clothing, were shunned.

‘Will we ever get chosen?’ Frances asked, panicked.

A matronly woman, enveloped in a hesitant air, approached.  She eyed them judiciously, taking in their fastidiously ironed clothes and delicately brushed hair.

‘My mother is a literary editor, and my father is a lawyer,’ Frances offered.

The woman was surprisingly polite.  ‘My father was a lawyer too.  I did always want three children…’ she said wistfully, glancing briefly at her husband.

‘We’ll be very clean, and we’ll help with whatever we can.’ Frances said.

The woman laughed, a merry, warming laugh.  ‘I’m sure you will.  My name is Mrs Nicholson.  Would you like to come home with us?’

Elly nodded keenly, and they followed the woman across the hall, their heels clicking loudly.  The path outside was cluttered with violently coloured flowers and haphazard weeds, startlingly vivid.  As she glanced back, Frances saw the forlorn faces of those left, frightened and timid.  Some were shy, darting back from the gaze of strangers, and others suggested themselves as investments, eager children who would assist the household with anything possible.  The prospective foster parents circled the children, assessing them shrewdly.  What would happen to those who were left?  Frances didn’t know, and remembered to ask for her new address.  She would write home as soon as she could.

What can Follow Death, but Chaos

Chaos isn’t found in death. Death releases us from the eternal chaos of our mortal coil. Little to do or think about, other than debate the quality of the soil one is interred in or converse with the worms. No, chaos is left for the living in the wake of death. With its dark cloak, Death may cover lands swiftly. It’s the living, the great unfortunates of the earth, who are left to trail behind it, picking up the pieces as if Death was a child, throwing all its toys out the pram. We are left as some morbid magpie, garbed in black and white, holding these remains, treasures of an icy nature rather than the gleam of the magpie’s hoard.

Papers piled up like corpses on the battlefield, on the desk facing the open French doors; the scent of wisteria sweet yet heavy in the air as these thoughts passed through Emily Murray’s head. For so refined and socially elevated a lady, her hair stuck out at odd ends like a ruffled bird. Her clothes were scarce, neglecting wearing any most days, and her pearls at odd angles, the noose of a fool. Emily had fallen from her high seat, just as her father had fallen from the top of the stairs.

Wrapped around her body, not un-shroud like, Emily’s robe felt close to her skin as even the mental mention of her father’s passing twisted her stomach.

‘Why do they even call it a passing? Where on earth are they passing to?’ Emily thought before realising she had answered her own musings. The earth, that’s exactly where they pass to. And the smell of wisteria became her father’s aftershave.

‘Enough’, she affirmed to herself. ‘I have years to muse and mourn’. Stubbing out her cigarette, Emily turned to the papers. It’d been three days of labour to sort the documents of death, and only a mole hill’s worth of a mountain had been seen to. The whole process thus far had been chaotic. As soon as one set had been done, Sara would uncover another box, squeezed between heirlooms and baby clothes in the attic, throwing Emily’s order out of balance.

Some were fairly new, a light covering of dust obscuring the scrawling script of a label. Others were years old, hidden under dunes of dirt. Emily was reminded of the tales her uncle would come back with from his digs, the discovery of some relic, buried in its own grave. She was less careful with these artefacts, mostly old bills rather than priceless gold. How long would it take for these to become valuable, she thought. 10 years? 100 years? Uncle Artie had shown her old tablets, etched tallies, a dead culture billing, he had joked. But it had transcended beyond what it was in the material, an anchor of the past, a history that lives in echoes and whispers, but fog horned by academia.

The final box was brushed off and Emily considered her father’s- her late father’s- legacy. How many years ’til his name became a valuable object like the latrine seat of William the Conqueror? First, it’ll be a memorial service, an anniversary plaque, a hospital wing, a portrait in the Professor’s Hall. Until, one day, his name will be half mentioned on a tour of the university. Such chaotic existential thoughts made her shudder, body to name to nothing, when she felt a metallic coolness.

It was a tin, a commemorative tin, the bust of George VI marked out. This was new to Emily who had spent years trying to get permission to clean out the attic, her father always refusing: ‘an attic is supposed to be messy as a garden is supposed to be dirty’, he’d pontificate. Every now and again, she’d rummage around, the bills on the top of this box appealed to some memory but this tin…

Inside was a stack of letters, bound by a scarlet ribbon, knotted tightly like a corset. It didn’t take long for Emily to divine the pile as love letters, a typical feminine hand, curved and looped, crossed each page. But it wasn’t a type that she recognised. Her mother’s- her late mother’s- was always slightly diagonal. Many an empty afternoon was spent watching balls of refused ‘thank you’ notes thrown across the room because of this typographical fault, sending her mother into a near fit.

The first letter seemed to be the most recent correspondence of this secret woman, perhaps life that Emily’s father had kept at the bottom of a box for nearly thirty years. ’24th September 1988′, she read aloud. There was no shaking tear choking voice, no hereditary curiosity, just facts, another bill, another academic book just to check a date. ‘Dearest Connor’, Emily already hated this woman, this female shade of ink and paper, with her faux Austen voice, and her siren demeanour.

‘No, there’s no point getting emotional, what help would that do?’ Each word Emily spoke shed light until there was no more shadow. The secret had been unearthed, a profane reliquary containing now flesh and blood, not words. Every letter was slightly reflective, like the mirrors you view yourself in when at the fair; sometimes you’re smaller, sometimes taller, thinner, or larger.

‘I love you’, ‘Why are you so far’, ‘They keep coming between us’, and the pinnacle of every affair correspondence, ‘When will we be together?’

Having read five in quick succession, Emily stopped, she couldn’t read anymore. No tears had been shed for her father’s death, the chaos stormed around her had preoccupied head and heart, but now this, these letters, she wept for. This was the real loss, the man and father she had known lay in ribbons. What the obituary had created and cemented, augmenting all goodness, as obituaries tend to do, the letters had torn apart and built over the remains like a church over a pagan temple: decimated and deconsecrated and desecrated. All had been thrown into chaos, a flurry of doubt and deception. And as is the prerogative of chaos, as is destroyed so is created. What stood now in her father’s place was a figure Emily did not recognise, a dark man the colour of ink and dressed in lettered paper. A husband who thought of another woman when he kissed his wife; a professor who claimed academic seminar but meant lecherous rendezvous.

All of this enveloped Emily’s mind, her tears quickly run their course. And she was alone. Matthew was on a plane homeward bound. She had no sibling to pull down to view the remains of what her father had been.

The letters were still in her hands. She didn’t know what to do with them. The fire before her was tempting. Burn the letters to ash, join her father in mutual cremation, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But for some reason, a divine yet sadistic hand would not allow her to do so. She could throw them in the rubbish bin. Inevitably, she pondered, it would keep her up ‘til the early morning when the same driving force would force her to wipe away leftovers to salvage them.

It’d been hours since Emily had finished with the boxes, she was too entranced by the letters to notice time slipping past her. The more she thought about it, the further her father fell into disgrace, the memory of him tarred and feathered like a war time coward. It wasn’t anger that she felt, she couldn’t rouse herself to the heat under her collar and the clenched whitening fists that accompanied her rare moments of fury. It would be wrong to be angry now; her rage usually lasted a couple days, whatever the irritation, and she wouldn’t be seen as such in church. She couldn’t do much now, her mind couldn’t focus on sorting, her mind was too chaotic. Wiping her dusted hands on herself, Emily fell into bed, the clean feel of the sheets was a welcome relief. A few deep breaths with her eyes closed to clear her mind and her consciousness melted away, studded with the day’s revelations.

It wasn’t long before Emily began to dream, everything she’d found today filtered down, resting on her mind like dark silt on the river bed. She dreamt of her father like all those recently bereaved. He stood, arms outstretched, her mother coming to embrace him. As they hugged, locked tight, Emily fell at peace. Previously, Emily had been removed from religion, too many rules and too many contradictions to move her soul as religion should. But nigh on two years as a mythology and folklore professor, some myth had rubbed off of on her. Wherever she was dreaming of, it wasn’t Heaven, but some otherworldly afterlife or Elysium. Her dream parents drew away and Emily saw it was only her father there, the woman someone other. She stood a head shy of her father, dark hair mildly greying stroked by her father’s hand. Rested on her waist and held her close was her father’s other hand. It was the woman from the letters, the other woman he’d loved. Her name escaped Emily, it had blurred in her mind like ink in the wake of spilled water, the word hardly visible, its essence drained away.

They turned away from Emily, walking away from her. She felt nothing but the ache of unsuccessful movement, her futility the boiling point of her interwoven wrath and grief. A light woke her; Matthew stood in the doorway of their bedroom. Seeing Emily, he sighed, with relief she knew, relieved that she was finally crying. His arms were warm and comforting, something solid to anchor herself. They fell asleep like that, Matthew’s free hand stroking Emily’s hair, soothing her. Their own dialogue in movements and shifts of bodies.

‘Don’t worry I’m here for you,’ said Matthew’s hand as it squeezed her shoulder.

‘Thank you,’ was felt from Emily’s kiss on his hand, soft with lips and wet with tears.

Emily slept dreamless for the remainder of the night, her crying a long awaited exorcism of pain. The shower purged her of what was left of it. Despite her weeping being over, a tick next to a list of conventions her mother would’ve truly passed, Emily was haunted by a reality born from loss and harshly rewarded curiosity and the fragility of all that surrounded her. Not the crystal glasses her parents had presented her as a wedding gift or the mirror the held her reflection as she brushed her teeth. It was the fragility of life, of marriage that occupied her mind.

From the corner of her eye, she watched Matthew shave. Too much pressure in the wrong place, a murderous or suicidal intent, and blood would pour from his open throat. Emily reached for her vitamins; a wrong prescription, a bad reaction and she would join her husband in the earth. All in a matter of seconds and she would be the same as her father, her existence reduced to an urn of ashes and piles of paper to be sorted through. But no child would find clandestine correspondence tucked away; the university building in her name would stand, no chance of crumbling under a tarnished reputation.

‘Here, let me.’ Matthew finished her zip and placed his hands on Emily’s shoulders, watching her in the mirror. ‘Are you okay?’

She nodded. Her feelings were cluttered and chaotic like her dressing table. The sparkle of a diamond full of grief stood out; tears emptied like overturned perfume, and the rest frustratingly knotted like her grandmother’s pearls.

‘When we get back, remind me to phone the bank to check the money has been transferred to the funeral home.’

‘Are you sure you want to do that today Em? I’m sure you can wait…’

‘No! It has to be today! I want it done today!’ Stupid fucking clasp, she thought, slamming the bracelet down. Her reflection was drawn to Matthew’s hand rummaging in his pocket and depositing the contents in the bin. Receipts, she could see, from seedy motels? Emily deluded herself with marital cracks.

The bell rang.

‘That’ll be Pauline.’

‘I’ll get it and meet you downstairs.’ Matthew laid a kiss on her forehead and went to attend to Emily’s cousin.

On the edge of the bed, Emily sat, giving herself a final meditative minute before facing the ensuing madness of the funeral. Retrieving her diary, she did a once over of the day: church, flowers paid for, extra cutlery for the caterers, clean towels for overnight guests. All was in order, yet the mere sight of the stack of letters was enough to throw her off. They felt the same in her hand as the others had, the folders, the papers, the lecture notes, yet it dragged deep on her heart. What she was to do with the letters still eluded her, wanting to do anything but keep them. But it would sting, to lose another bit of her father.

With the cars arriving, thinking herself in a rush, the letters were jammed into her inside pocket, joining the others and mystified by her actions. The hearse rolled away. To herself she secretly smiled, wearing the letters as a badge of bizarre honour, binding her and her father in a voiceless covenant, breached not by death,

No comfort was found in the cold stone church. White lilies decorated the place, even on the already sealed coffin, prepared for its fiery end.

‘Who put flowers on the coffin?’ Emily tugged on Matthew’s sleeve to pull him into earshot. ‘We said no flowers on the coffin. Who…’

The acoustics of the church answered Emily as a cacophony of wailing. Edna strode down the aisle like some tardy banshee, to lay her head upon the coffin.

‘Why? Why?’

Such spectacle drew all away from their grieving, looking up from tissues, becoming ardent spectators instead of mourners.

‘For Pete’s sake,’ Emily heard Pauline race from behind, trying to be discreet which was difficult at the best of times in a church; even more so when one’s mother decides her brother’s funeral is the appropriate time for her primadonna audition.

‘Come away Mum. Come on, let’s find you a seat.’ Pauline mouthed a silent apology to Emily as she escorted her mother from her stage.

‘Always a flair for the theatrics.’ Matt spoke in her ear. ‘Remember that Christmas your dad burned the turkey and she locked herself in the bathroom for hours?’

She remembered and she wanted to laugh, but it wasn’t the time or the place.

The service began and Emily took her seat. Her father’s letters crumbled against her breast and she felt them on her skin. She saw Matt’s open hand rest on his thigh, awaiting her need to clutch something living in this place of death. Instead, she held the wooden railing before her, her knuckles whitening.

Hypnotised by her own memories, Emily was woken by the returned wailing of her aunt, wailing in response to the call of the priest. Emily moved further away from her grief. Since he had died, she had been lost in a chaotic mass of emotions, her own sadness a teardrop in her heart. Even now, a temple hallowed by the idea of death, and consecrated by tears and holy water, Emily’s grief would not show itself. Each wave was anger towards her aunt, taking the lion’s share of tears.

‘May God be with you.’

‘And also with…’

‘Ahhhhh,’ Edna cried.

It was almost an hour before Emily left the church, her hand ached from shaking, her jaw tense from frowning. Still she was far from her grief. Each kiss she received held the taste of a love letter’s stamp that made her cringe in silent disgust. The returning hearse was quieter than the church, each passenger absorbed in their own reflections. Edna, without so grand a stage, was resigned to the odd silent sniffle. Through streets they passed, Emily watching the world continue. Every grey haired man was followed by her gaze until they fell from view. Seeing a resemblance of her father’s face out of the window began to draw Emily to her mourning.

The house was crammed with the morning’s congregation, many wanting to repeat their condolences. Emily made sure her glass was never empty, the vodka and ice tart in her mouth. The more she drank, the more her vision swam. Following her seventh glass, Emily had the good nature to excuse herself to bed, before she pinned every older woman to the wall to scream, ‘did you fuck my father?’

With only one shoe off, Emily fell face first into her pillow. She neither dreamt nor felt as she slumbered.

It was morning when she woke, but still dark, the dying fire giving the room a warm glow. She sat before it, looking deep into its flames. Soon her cheeks were wet. She desperately wanted to blame the pricking light and heat of the fire; as the tears ran, she could no longer deny it. Her sleep had sailed her to her grief, through all the chaos. Emily had found her buoy, clung to it like a new born, desiring it and protecting it. Her whole body sobbed.

The letters were withdrawn from her pocket, slightly dog-eared, but still the same. Nothing could change that, just as nothing could bring her father back to explain himself. She wanted it all gone, having no desire to reread them, to berate his spectre and flog his memory. She would not induce any more chaos, not out of empathy but her own selfish desire for release. Release from the letters that held back Emily’s grieving: how could she mourn for such a man?

She threw the letters into the fire, instantly catching alight. Burnt and gone, her father could be mourned and missed and honoured like all fathers. Her tears were sad yet welcome. The letters were ash and so was her father.

The Fun We Had

It was the best of times, it was the worse of times. When I finally made my escape from the communications department at Buchannan house and became one of the first females to ‘train’ as a driver. Once i had completed my training and had passed out and gained the relevant seniority, I was sent where all green hands (Technically known as ‘mugs’) were invariably sent. Glasgow Central Electric Depot. Grand as that name sounds it was actually a grubby messroom and scheduling clerk’s office up a flight of stairs ajacent to platform one. strange to think now that in them days, we were regarded as a bunch of cowboys! (And of course, female drivers were an accident waiting to happen, wern’t they.)

Central worked the cathcart circle and out to Motherwell as well as the cathcart circle. In those days, the ‘Trans-clyde’ lines, AKA the Glasgow central Railway was still light years in the future and were no more than a derelict set of tunnels haunted by the ghosts of the past. Similarly the Ayr lines were still operated by ancient (To our eyes) Diesel units which were always late and invariably breaking down. The other lines we worked were the coast lines to Gourock and Wemyss Bay.

In them days trains still had guards who opened and shut the doors, took care of platform duties and told you when to start by ringing two bells.All you did was watch the signals and stop the train in the correct spot. Seemed simple enough. The controls of a ‘Blue train’ (AM3 or 303 units) were simple enough Controller which included a dead mans handle, which had four ‘notches’ (Shunt, series, parrallel full field, parrallel weak field.) A forward, reverse and ‘off’ switch. and an air brake. (Mind thae brakes hen, they’re awfully fierce.’) A row of buttons for various things (Pan up pand down and one that I never did find out what it was) A big cromium plated button right in the middle of the desk, the AWS cancell button. On the panel was from left. AWS visual indicator, speedo Ammeter, Air pressure gauge indicationg pressures in the pipe and in the reservoir.) simples!

‘After the initial nerves were conquered I settled down to the job. As a ‘mug’ I got all the minging turns that the old timers didn’t want. One of the worse being saturday duties when there were big fit’ba games on at Hampden. It was on one such occasion that I thought my time had come!

‘They say that when Rangers play Celtic, and ‘Auld firm’ match, absenteeism triples among the transport staff in Glasgow. (Especially if its on the telly) Anyway, one day I was on 14man spare and right away was dispatched to the circle. No alarm bells rung in my mind.I was still too naive to realise what was going on.

‘Platform six.’ the clerk told me as I was signing for the road. ‘Due aff in five.’

Off I went to platform six and found a train packed to the gunnels with Rangers supporters. There were two flute bands (With full percussion) and at least one accordion band, all in full flow. The gentle strains of ‘The Sash my father wore.’ were coming out of the coaches at full pelt.

‘Get it to FUCK!’ the platform chargehand said grimly as I came up to the cab and unlocked the door.

‘But I’ve still to prep… ‘I began

‘GET IT TO FUCK NOW!’ The man, usually the most mild of manner, said.’

‘RIGHT!’ I said, getting in and placing my key for the master controller into the socket beside the brake handle. Turning it, the AWS horn squaked as I threw the brake handle over and depressed the reset button. The ‘Sunflower’ pattern came up in the visual indicator.’ I restored the brake and watched the air build up in the pipe. Quick check and I looked out to see the chargehand plead with the guard to get the hell out of here before anything happened.

‘In those days, the 303’s had not yet been rebuilt and there was no access between the drivers cab and the train. There WAS three large windows which gave passengers a magnificent view forward.Blinds were fitted to prevent glare at night. Most drivers pulled the

blind behind the seat down anyway but someone had pulled all three blinds down today. I decided to leave them like that. Then two bells from the guard, two in reply, check the platform starter and away we go.

The train was a special and non stopping until Kings Park Off we went at a spanking rate, coasting through the stations to the musical accompaniment from the train. By Queens Park, they were on to ‘Derry’s Walls’ having already murdered the ‘Orange and Blue’ and ‘Dolly’s Braes’ THEN… it happened. ‘BANG’ the purple ‘Line’ indicator goes out. We’re just into cathcart junction. ‘OH HELP!’ Frantically press ‘Pan up’ nothing! By now the musicians, those without drums, started using the windows behind the chair as a makeshift drum. Buzz from the guard.

‘Whats up?’

‘Lost line.!’

‘Have ye tried tae reset it?’

‘Naw! Why wid I dae that? OF COURSE I’ve tried tae reset it.’

‘Whit happened?’

‘NOTHING!’

By now the loveable louts in the train are getting restless and feet are being stamped the train is begaining to rock alarmingly.

‘If we don’t get moving soon this team will wreck the bloody train’

‘Shouldn’t we protect the train?’ I ask innocently.

‘You are SPOOFING ME!’ We don’t have time! and where we’re sitting, we don’t have enough detonators anyway! We need assistance. Rule 55, you better find a phone.’

Down I get and look for a signal. I have them memorised but out of the cab abd standing on the ballast everything looks different. I walk along in the direction of travel to the Catcart east Junction starter,

‘Please God, make the phone work!’ I silently pray. My prayers are answered.

‘Train number 2X35 satnding at bsignal numberG… ‘I begin

‘WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?’ The Controller screams.

‘Er… whe’ve broken down.’

‘WHERE?’

‘Cathcart East junction.’

‘Are you on the junction?

‘Yes.’

‘AAAGH! FOR FUCK’S SAKE! WHY ME!’

‘We’ve lost line power.’ I explain.

‘Have you protected your train?’

‘Guard’s doing it now.’ I lie. ‘He suggested that it would be better to report in and get assistance.’

‘AND WHERE THE FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO GET ASSISTANCE?’

‘Not my department.’ I say, getting just a little pissed off by the mans attitude. Not to say his language. So I put three detonators down the regulation ten yards apart and head back to thge train where things are getting desparate. But, being Rangers supporters, the Pope was getting the blame.

‘Eventually a diesel loco came along, heralded by the bangs of the detonators. I wave my red flag as if the revolution has broken out. I know the driver, I’d been his ‘assistant’ for a while. Nonchalantly, his current mate gets down and the buffer up having first dropped the buckey coupling to expose the drawhook and extended the buffers. Ten minutes and we’re away.’

I expected the shit to hit the fan big time over this one but nobody seems to care. Just another saturday on the magic roundabout although the Teddy Bear supporters missed most of the first half of the game and if I recall they got cuffed into the bargain.

It was another football match that gave me a scare some years later by which time I’d transferred to Gourock. Scotland were playing a totally meaningless international against a hill in Italy. a game that was, according to the national coach ‘Always going to be a difficult match.’

I was on a late shift Gourock, my last turn, The train was not crowded but there was a contingent of the ‘Tartan Army’ Kilted tartan scarfed. but compared to the old firm yobs who were prone to sundry naughtiness, the were relatively peaceable.

All went well until we were leaving Port Glasgow. AS i mpassed the starter signal, it became apparent that someone had pulled the communication chord. The train was grinding to a halt on the viaduct. I took over and stopped the train.

‘SHIT!’ I got my hand lamp and opened the door. In the dark I could see nothing. One false step and it was a twenty foot drop to Balflour Street below. gingerly, i got down nonto the ballast and looked along the train. The flag on the first coach indicated that it was there that the cord had been pulled. I opened the doors with the valve at the side. Inside all was silent.

‘Who pulled the cord?’ I demanded in my best authoritarian voice. Silence.

‘Who pulled the cord?’ I demanded again. Still silence from the kilties. AS i was speaking Gordon the Greek, the guard was coming along the train to see what was the matter.

‘GORDON! Phone the polis!’ I said. As I did a faint voice came from the interior of the coach.

‘Eh… it wis me by the way.’ one of the kilties says.

‘What did you pull it for?’ I snapped.

‘Er… mah scarf was round it and  ah pulled the scarf and accidentally pulled the chord as well.’

‘Well don’t hang your scarf on it, thats not what its for!’ I rebuked and closed the door.

Then we had the job of resetting the alarm which in those days had to be done manually. Eventually we proceeded on our merry little way. At each station, the kilties slipped away into the mirk. there wwere only a few left by the time I reached Gourock where my dad was waiting to drive me home, concerned at the late arrival of the train.

‘Eventually, I left the Electrics and went to Eastfield and the diesels on the West highland line. but I’l,l never forget the fun we had on the sparkies. I once asked a controller ‘Are ye winning?’ He replied. ‘Ye canny win on this job hen, the best ye can hope for is tae force a draw… ‘

A Fancy

From the author: “This story is all about a breakdown of order, which is the classic idea of chaos.”

‘I saw you.’

She does not move. She blinks, once, twice, but does not move. His lips curl at the corners as he nears her.

‘I saw you here, alone, and thought, mighty, a girl like that shouldn’t be alone.’

Her fingers tighten on the stem of her glass. The knuckles whiten. But he does not understand; he nears enough for her to recognise the stale stench of yesterday’s sex.

‘You shouldn’t be alone, for you are so beautiful. So beautiful, yes you are.’

His stench is strong. He has not washed. She glances down to the between of his trousers. It bulges.

‘You are too beautiful to be left alone? Are you alone? Are you with someone? And why on earth would they have left you here, all by yourself? If you were mine, if you were mine, why I would build you a palace of pure marble and present you to the world as my queen, my goddess, my courtesan exquisite!’

Extravagant promises. She can tell he has done this many times, that he has come here, gone there, watched the lone girls as they are abandoned by their boyfriends, their companions, their pimps. He has experience. He practises in front of the mirror his woos and wiles, his charms and smiles, trying to find fakery love in this pit-stop before hell.

‘Do you come here often? I come here quite a lot. Have been for a number of years, so I know the staff. In fact, I know the owner, if you want some inside work. She’s a love, she is, Miss Gretel, not that you would know. Or you might, if you come here often. Because it’s a beautiful place, suitable for beautiful women. You are beautiful, like the stars of the heavens which adorn Adonis’ brow, like the moon in all of her glory washed up on the still waters of the dark midnight lake. Like the sun, glowing as a beacon of hope, light and above all else, love!’

He speaks the word with passion, extreme passion, then his eyes drop down to her breasts. She sees his fingers twitch, his eyes widen, his scalp glisten. Her hand tightens on the glass.

‘Can I get you anything? Wine, beer, lager, ale, vodka? I see you have a white wine, mind if I join you. Waiter, a white chardonnay, if you will, and a bottle of champagne, if you will, two glasses, for me and my beautiful companion here. No ice, just the glasses, just the champagne, to drink, to divulge, to imbibe to our hearts content. For that is its purpose, is it not? The purpose of the Moët, to die from enjoying the taste and the freedom in your heart after drinking something so beautiful, that is the purpose in life is it not? To enjoy life, then to die forever happy.’

He pauses, very briefly, but she does not answer. Instead, he takes his chance. He nears enough for their breaths to embrace, and slowly raises a hand. His finger floats, following the contours of her throat, chin, jaw, but does not touch until it reaches her cheek. Then, cold, seizing, entrancing, he caresses her face.

Burn

From the author: “It’s a short piece on the chaos of war, but it’s really about the chaos of human experience and memory. I suppose how these moments define our lives, both deconstructing and rebuilding them.”

I look at the newspapers and the book I wrote. I count the years it’s been and I buckle at my knees. Time passed both with and without me. I think of my mother and the days spent burying through rubble in search of my baby brother. I think of my sister who never spoke again but who cried every night for years. I look at the scars on my body and I feel shame and fear. At my trigger, my vanity, my fragility – at my desire to hide it rather than be thankful for it. I pray now as I did then. Desperation in my voice and a willingness to induce a deliberate amnesia; pleading for my life as if I hadn’t done so already. The fire, the smoke, the terror in the eyes of strangers. I see it all so clearly. It blazes before me now. Just like those hot, ravenous flames that nearly devoured us all.

The drop of the bomb sent our village into slow motion; a stunted pause before the lightning echoed its spark. At first there was light: the blast illuminating the farmer in his field, a mother in her kitchen, children playing with ragged toys as they looked toward the sky, startled and scared. Everyone stopped momentarily from their work or families or task at hand. I dropped a bowl or water and cursed as it spilled at my feet. Ominous silence followed. Then a deafening explosion ripped through our lands for miles. I covered my ears and yelped, a strained and painful sound; something strange and unfamiliar to me. I was crying. What had they done?

I turned to my mother who was thrown to the floor by the rush of an invisible force. I had fallen too, rubble toppling above me as I covered my head. I looked at her, so delicate and small amidst this raging thunder, a look of desperation in her eyes as the smoke travelled into our home in thick, poisonous clouds. She looked towards the crib at the other end of our home but she could not see through the smoky haze. Our eyes connected briefly before a broad snap caused us to pull our hands over our heads again. A sickening crack sounded to the side where my brother lay. My whole body convulsed in fear. I cried, but mainly I prayed. Then it started to burn.

Clouds of gas met my skin as I rose to find my brother’s crib. Like flames on flesh, a burning rubber scent caught my throat as I howled in excruciating pain. But rather than revert from the acidic clouds in instinct, I remained confused and lingered unknowingly in my demise. Stalled by the pain, I would have collapsed to unconsciousness had my mother not grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the door. I looked at my arm as we ducked out to safety: melted flesh had burned my skin like tear wax on a candle. My arm was unrecognisable – I didn’t look myself anymore.

Outside people were distraught with destruction and fear. Most were running through the smoke while others simply prayed on their knees, rocking with the blankets of their lost babies or the rubble of what was once their home. Who did this to us, they cried. Why? Why? I scurried with weak legs to the collapsed side of our home, desperately searching beneath the wood for signs of my brother’s crib. As I scrabbled through the debris, pulling broken plates and bricks from the top in a daze, I noticed the colour of caramel and reached for what I thought was my beginning of my brother. It wasn’t: I had found a woman’s hand.

The faces of strangers have never been so familiar to me. I felt their terror and their pain as we were engulfed by flames of a fire not our own. So many ragged faces in terror. So much death splattered on innocent streets. They didn’t know then what they had done. They didn’t know it wasn’t them at all, but a conflict imagined by political greed and false boundaries. I dropped to my knees in the shadow of the fire, weeping alongside the remainder of my family and so many others. We wept together as we burned.

The feelings of that day remain vivid: the grief and fear, the hopeless desperation. But the memories are murky. My mind had become numb to the scenes of heartache and destruction. A whole nation of people burned. Some by flame, others by the searing pain of poison and gas. Some burned with rage, why did they do this to us? While others, like me and my mother and sister, burned with the aching pain of loss and grief. Our bones became black and brittle as we lost our hope to the fire. To rise amidst flames is a quest lifelong and demanding – the fall is deep and dark. The memory of what we endured toughened and defined us but it followed through our lives; entangling us in thick smoke, blinding lights and shades of ash. You can snuff out flames but the glowing embers will continue to burn. We don’t ever forget what burns.

The all that is nothing and everything

Inthedark or is it light? I can’t quite see my footsteps leave a shimmer across my perception of where I am which is shaky and uncertain but I know that I am though I can’t know what I am or how I am or why I am I just am

For now

And I think I move through this nothingness that must be somethingness just because if I am and I exist then what I perceive must be and exist even if it’s not quite there or not quite as real as I am

I feel myself itch and I quiver in my mind

I hear noises and I turn but instead of me turning the world turns around me the world or whatever this place is it spins and spins and spins and STOP.

There

Dead ahead is a light a ring of light that shines yellow through the dark and then it shines dark through the light and I’m transfixed it’s not a ring yet but a sliver of light that is growing around a circle and I can’t look away

I look away

It appears again in front of me wherever I look it looks back at me a ring of yellow light in dark or dark in light. It grows. It consumes. My eye. That’s what it is it’s my eye staring back at me from a nothing that is everything and I’m inside it all and outside of everything. I blink and it reappears slowly

From it all

The all that is nothing and everything

And then I remember.

There was something delicious about the air that night that ruffled the grass and played through the leaves in the trees and sang songs across the water that enveloped me. Her hand on my hand and the tiny hairs on her arm felt like velvet on silk as I sank beneath her timidity. She lay like an ocean before me and I tasted her salt on my skin

The all that is nothing and everything:

She melted from me like a snowflake on an outstretched palm.

Life.

I matter because I live or I think I live because I appear to be matter though I can’t be sure in this current state and I cling to the idea of existence though in reality I cling to nothing because I have no arms that I can see though I can sometimes feel a movement in the dark and it makes me happy

Or is it memory?

I remember an arm or I remember happiness because there is no arm and there is no happy or sad there is just this a me of sorts gazing back at me out of the darkthat’slight pulling my thoughts around and around without purpose.

I look for answers out of habit

And I can see it all. A world that’s every colour at once stretching as far as the eye can see this eye and that eye gazing left and right surveying scene after scene in marvellous high definition. The sounds so crisp the tastes so compelling the sensations so present.

I draw a line

The sand parts falling back in on itself as the indentation settles and I write my name a sound made physical in temporary lettering that will be obliterated by the sound of a wave and the push of water the pull of the tide and the steady tick of time that has made me and made this world and made this memory that floats adrift in nothing and despite the emptiness I can hear the wave and I can hear the clock and I know the time

Under the stars

That wheel around us as we spin to face a new sky every night we track the movement of their dying light and we call our fortunes fate to add a sense of order to events that are just because they are and because they weren’t another way

And it hurts

To know that every possibility that slipped by every alternative road I could have taken were in many ways the same as the ones I grasped and the roads I did walk and that my life if not pre-destined was certainly somewhat foretold because unless I dared to push the balance bar to tipping point I would never be propelled to dizzying heights or fall to sickening depths

Because the middle is where I exist

So my accomplishments are lost along with the memories of a few people who knew me for a collection of moments and now I’m no more. Suspended in a lack of animation an over-stimulated imagination thinking of all the things that could have been if I weren’t me and I was somewhere else and something else for another reason

And it’s beautiful

This temporary life that begins by chance and ends by the slow ebb and tide of a ticking clock that pulls us all to one certain end.

The all that is nothing and everything

His touch was gentle and his arms were delicately masterful they guided me they pushed me they brought me back around and clung to me two bodies in a city of strangers crushed together by the magnitude of inexplicable connection. I breathed his scent I kissed his skin I opened my mouth and drank him in and I know he lived because I can smell him now I can feel his touch and I live again in a thousand shared moments

And the darkness melts into memory and the memories fade to darkness and the darkness gives way to the knowledge that without memory there is no time

Without memory I am

For now

The all that is nothing and everything

The Many Moons of Jupiter

I was just five years old when my Dad first took me to see the stars. In the museum downtown they have this observatory room with a great glass ceiling displaying the night sky. A kind of visibility you can’t get in real life; you can’t help staring and staring for hours and hours, just staring at that bright jewellery case of stars. The blackness in the bashckground, that velvet sheet they use, seems deeper alongside the purplish blueish hues which streak behind the twinkling chips of silver. I would sit on the floor of the observatory and stare up at those stars until my neck hurt. There was a makeshift telescope too, which showed up tiny coloured planets. You could check everything you saw against The Book of Celestial Details which was lying open on the glass table. It gave me an immense satisfaction: checking up on those stars, learning the constellations.

It was always Dad that took me to the observatory. Saturday afternoons I was his responsibility, and the easiest thing – the thing I begged for – was to visit the museum. We would go out to lunch afterwards, me leading the way down the familiar streets with the bustling weekend crowd, people weaving in and out of each other like threads from a harlequin fabric, trailing smiles and shopping bags. We always went to the same cafe, where they sold chocolate milkshakes and beans on toast for a fiver.

Dad is a landscape gardener. He digs up piles of mud and lays down square rolls of soft grass and puts in fancy plants that people order from catalogues. He does things with precision: cutting up his food carefully, watching everything I do with his observant eye, following this kind of persistent rhythm. He hated if I got food around my mouth, if I made a mess of the salt shakers or the scraps of food I left on my plate. In the cafe he talked to me about school and how I was getting on and what I liked and if my friends ever got into trouble. One thing we never talked about was Mum. Dad didn’t know how to talk about Mum.

My favourite planet is Jupiter. The biggest planet in our solar system, made of flaming greys and yellows and oranges, patterned with swirling lines which sweep around its diameter. After the moon and Venus, Jupiter’s the brightest planet in the night sky. Of course, I’ve never seen it in real life, only the simulated museum version – the version that flashes up onscreen and floats around in orbit. I always dream of that beautiful hologram, but all those pixels get mixed in with the Saturday city buzz and the taste of milkshakes. I don’t know what I’d do if I stumbled upon it one day, walking in some clear crisp countryside and seeing it up in the real night sky. I think it’d be pretty scary, not very real at all. I always wonder about that giant spot, the storm that’s raged for centuries on its surface. I’ve zoomed in right close to that Giant Red Spot like I was looking into the eye of a god. It’s like my way of praying, staring into that spot, feeling very small as I read about its greatness.

In the cafe, Dad asks me about the future.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” he says. He asks me this just about every week, like he’s forgotten how I answered before. I have a list of things which I reel off for him: astronaut, astronomer, artist, builder.

“Artist? Builder?” he sounds confused. He doesn’t understand what I mean by that. I mean, I want to draw planets, to make planets come to life out of pencil and paper. I tell him I want to build things which will last like the planets, that will exist on the earth as the earth exists in the solar system. I can’t put it quite into words; it’s a feeling I have. Eternity. The rings, faint and reddish pale, that surround some of the planets – it’s sort of like that – the feeling drifts out to you, faint and pale. I wonder what it’s like to glide along one of those rings, feeling the chaos of gravity, shafts of light shooting right through you. Like playing Mario Kart, whizzing down a rainbow highway and picking up gold stars.

The problem is, I don’t think I’ll ever be an astronaut or an astronomer; I’m no good at maths.

Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever grow up at all, because Mum and Dad won’t let me.

“He doesn’t like toys anymore!” Mum shrieks at Dad when he buys me a train set for my birthday, or a Gamecube for Christmas. “He’s too old, for God’s sake!” She stares at me with her eyes on fire, wanting me to say something, to agree with her. Sometimes she throws plates or tips the dinner all over the floor, or literally shoves my father out the door. They fight over everything.

What’s confusing is that I can’t tell sometimes whether they’re making up or being mean; whether they hate each other or love each other. There is a small red wine stain on the carpet by the sofa, and I stare at it when they are arguing in the living room in front of me; I stare at it like it’s the Giant Red Spot of Jupiter. I want to dig my nails into the carpet and peel it off like a scab. They hurl swear words at each other, and Dad always shrinks into silence. It’s Mum who creates disorder, swirling her self around the room, her voice getting louder and louder. I sometimes have nightmares about this: the way she goes from shouting to crying, her red face blurring into something indistinct and terrible. I close my eyes and think of comets, shooting endlessly over the night sky.

She says I’m getting too old for museums.

“Help him with his homework instead,” she nags to Dad as we leave on Saturday mornings to get the bus into town. Her plea is lost to our backs as we step out of the house. Sometimes, late at night, I hear her come into my room and tuck me in. She stays there for a while, hanging over me and breathing softly – breathing warm tufts of fire. She touches my face and I pretend to be asleep as she slowly starts to cry, still stroking my cheek. All I want to do is shout: Mum, stop! but I can’t. I lie there, still as a shop floor dummy.

She listens to me sleeping, but she doesn’t listen to me talk about the things I like. She doesn’t listen to me when I talk about the sun and the solar system, the many moons of Jupiter. She just switches off, shutting you out with this kind of supernatural force.

How amazing it would be, to escape among the stars! I watch the science channels and see the space ships and the shuttles hurtle away from earth. They always interview the astronauts after they’ve landed: How do you cope with not seeing your family for so long? Don’t you get lonely? What can you eat out there? but they never ask about the things I want to know:

Were you good at maths at school?
Do you need to do algebra to be an astronaut?
What is the square root of 395,691,324?
What do Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s Red Eye look like from Space?

I always turn off the tv when I see their smug faces, when they take off the space helmets like they think they’re in a movie. Plain old human faces are as boring as my parents’ arguing.

Nowadays, they fight about anything at all. I don’t understand it; they’re like kids – and even Dad shouts now. From the top of the stairs I watch them through the gaps in the banister, wishing I could go down there and make them stop, make them shut up as fast as a hurricane tears up a city.

“Don’t forget we love you son,” Dad always says afterwards, “no matter how Daddy and Mummy feel about each other.”

But he never answers when I ask if they are getting a Divorce. It’s like I’ve whispered a secret I’m supposed to keep quiet, the one special code word that holds us back from chaos.

Now that I’m older, we don’t go to museums anymore; we get lunch in the pub. Dad loves fish and chips and Fosters lager. He also loves the slots.

Saturday afternoons he stands in front of the puggies while I watch the bartenders pouring pints and count how many times they spill things. Sometimes I go over and watch him play: I like to see the flashing lights, the colourful fruit symbols glow as the slots fall into place. Simple, persistent, like the bubbles in a glass of lemonade. Dad buys the drinks and tells me to go sit down. It’s a weird thing, watching him at the slot machine; like he’s in control of everything, like he knows when the slots will align the way he wants them to. Often, he pounds on the plastic shell of the machine, curses. We walk home in the purple dusk, past the city shutting up, and he tells me about anything – a song on the radio, the size of his shoes, the hat his mother used to wear when he was a kid – anything but how much money he’s lost.

The other day, I found Jupiter in a textbook at school. I guess I haven’t really been thinking about planets and stars and space for awhile, and now it stood out from the glossy pages like a face smiling from the darkness. A familiar face.

This girl sitting next to me, Layla, leant over my shoulder.

“What’s that you’re looking at?” she asked in that bright, tinkly voice of hers.

“Jupiter,” I said. I ran my hand over the smooth page where the clouds patterned themselves across the surface, like the wisps and eddies of smoke leftover from a fire. In my head, I rehearsed the names of all the elements that drift on through those clouds: carbon, vapour, neon, sulphur. 

“Is that your favourite planet?” Layla whispered, a lock of her hair spilling over my cheeks. I nodded.

“It’s the biggest planet there is. It’s so big it could swallow up all the other planets.”

“And one day you’ll live there like a king?” she smiled. She was teasing me.

“Nobody could ever live there, it’s too cold.” I closed the textbook.

After a while, I turned to look at Layla, thinking she would be facing the front again, watching the teacher scribbling sums on the board. But she was still looking at me. In her eyes I saw the glass darkness of another kind of space, where stars come forward like shoals of beautiful silver fish rising to the surface of the ocean. I glanced back at my paper and wrote down a perfect equation.

It was winter and after class she cornered me in the snowy playground and for fun I kissed her, just like that. Her lips were cold and wet with snowflakes and everything felt very still around us, like we were caught in a hullabaloo. It was all just luck really – that was the exciting part. I told her it’s a beautiful world and she laughed, like I had just said something funny and random from a movie. Like we’d made up the world ourselves and now we were powerful.

When I got home, all Dad said was: she’s left us. He looked around the room with this blank expression on his face, like the air itself was different, like something in the particles around him had changed. I poured a glass of milk and thought about it for awhile, but then I remembered the stars and the cool night sky that was only a few hours away, waiting with equations and gorgeous auroras. And yeah, I guess I felt okay.

Mind Diving

“And… clear.”

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, calmed her body and slowed her heart and then let go. This was the hard part, the initial contact, the most important stage… She reached out, her consciousness leaving her body, reaching for the one other mind she could feel. It was so bright, practically calling for her…

She reached out, reached out her tendrils of thought, reached out towards the other mind and… she was in. She breathed in deeply, revelling in the moment. This may have been her job, but there was nothing quite like sinking into another’s brain, full of unfamiliar thoughts and each one so different. Each one so unique. She gazed around her, at the colours and the chaotic movements and flurries of colour. This was what couldn’t be explained.

You couldn’t understand what this was like unless you’d experienced it. How could you explain the sensation of seeing smell and hearing colour, of feeling without your senses and without a physical body, to someone who had never left their own mind? How could you explain this beauty, this riot of colour, to someone who didn’t know such colours existed? This plane of existence was different, so different, and unless you’d actually experienced it, unless you’d been diving, there was no way of knowing. No way at all.

She reached out with hands that didn’t exist, feeling the soft touch of colours that weren’t there. The colours were muted, dulled by unconsciousness, but nevertheless it was beautiful. Nothing like the frantic activity of an active brain, but calm and soothing and yet still chaotic.

Colour everywhere around her, waves and currents and eddies of thought, flashes of dreams and hopes and ambitions and the darker, murkier fears and nightmares. But she was searching for one thing, searching for the one place where there was order in this chaos, and she couldn’t let the beauty around her distract her from her task.

So she waded through the sea of thoughts- the blue and purple and black and silver of this person’s sleeping mind… And then she found it. The memory bank. Millions of billions of threads connecting every memory that this person had ever had in their entire life. Even now, more were forming as she watched. A chaotic mess of colour and yet this was the only organised part to this mind. The rows of parallel threads, so so important.

She reached out and ran her non-existent-but-still-so-present fingers over the taut memory threads, each one murmuring as she touched it. She smiled at the cacophony the reverberated from them, each note ringing in her ear, singing in her heart. She never tired of this. These fragile threads which held so much and yet were so easily broken. She could see all the frayed threads, so near to breaking, so near to being lost forever. It wrenched her heart every time. All those memories, some no doubt important, so close to non-existence. And she could see the sad ends of threads that had already snapped, the memories they held, gone, never to be remembered again.

She shook herself, remembering her purpose, and, running her hands more firmly over the threads, she found her first target, and clearing her head, she concentrated, and snapped it. It shuddered in her hand and then there was a terrible sigh, filled with anguish and horror and loss. She grimaced, and continued.

Thousands of threads broke beneath her experienced hands, thousands of memories gone immediately. She ignored the sounds that emitted from the dying threads, ignored the horror emanating from all around her. The time for gazing at the beauty and mourning at the loss was gone, and she had a job to do.

She didn’t know how much time had passed when she had finished. Time was a fluid concept, this deep in the mind. But she could tell from the brightening of the colours behind her that she didn’t have long. The mind was waking up.

Carefully, she summoned to the surface a thought she had carried with her, and oh so cautiously she shaped this precious thought around a broken thread, delicately moulding it, this thing she had carried with her. It flexed and grew, and as she watched, it bound to another thread, and another, and another… She smiled. Job done.

Feeling only the slightest tinge of regret as she left behind her the ransacked memory bank, she made her way back through the mind, and, closing her eyes once more, she followed herself back to her own familiar mind, back to her own body, back to consciousness.

“Mission status?” came a voice.

She coughed, twitched her fingers, breathed in, and then said, in a voice that was only the tiniest bit hoarse, “A success, sir. Targeted memories erased, implant activated. Mission complete.”

***********

I opened my eyes slowly, the light too bright.

“Hello,” someone said, and their voice was grating but somehow pleasant. “Tell me, my dear. Do you know who you are?”

I frowned, my mind curiously blank. “No.”

“Good. And do you know who I am?”

I smiled, a sense of certainty and righteousness filling me. “Yes. You are my leader. And I will follow you wherever you chose to go.”