Adrian’s boiler had croaked and he’d had to come round to theirs for a shower. Summer holidays, the kids all at home. Adrian, hangover notwithstanding, had made everyone a huge cooked breakfast. Cheryl had sat towel-turbanned with her feet up, reading bits out of the paper. How old had Luke been then? Ten? Gina going on eight. Lois four, with the serious face and look of not enough sleep. Bacon, coffee, toast. Afterwards sun-shafts of fagsmoke and the good feeling of surrendering the day. His dad had come round, lonely, looking for shared flesh and blood, poor old bugger, and for once it had been okay, love had stretched itself, brought him into the warmth. Ade made him a bacon sandwich and later Cheryl gave him a haircut, in which spectacle the kids took a peculiar delight, Frank sitting draped in a bedsheet and holding a hand mirror very seriously.
Nathan had this at his disposal, to be produced on demand. Then the next thing would happen. He’d have to find a way of describing all this to Cheryl when he got back.
Loop completed. Realisation: he’d had these thoughts before.
Now he was back at the starting point. The real starting point.
Something was wrong.
You started off knowing something was wrong, but time passed and you started thinking everything was all right. Even now, if you let yourself drift . . .
He could feel himself approaching it again, the untroubled state. Slip into it and the loop would have him. How many times already? Didn’t bear thinking about.
No way out. Except – intuition precise and fierce as a paper cut – to remember the thing immediately before this. The last footprint would be the first in the trail leading all the way back. Immediately before this was . . . Immediately before this . . .
But he was close enough to everything’s all right for a little of it to reach out and pass into him like the first swallow of Scotch in the evening. Warmth, that loosening, things not mattering. Have another. Afore ye go, as the label said.
It almost seduced. He flirted with letting it take him (now it had the feel of Cheryl’s arms coming up round him and the kids laughing), held the memory of that morning ready, felt sure he had neither the strength nor the inclination to resist – but at the last moment wrenched himself away, thinking that even if he did there was no knowing what––
He’d seen heads in silhouette, shrieking halogens, three doctors in peppermint green smeared with blood working like insects.
Then something had exploded from his chest and skull, a double birth of pure light followed by total darkness.
Silence in himself. He didn’t want anything, only not to have to think. You could make your mind all but blank. You could roll up the incline right to the edge from which your identity, your self, your consciousness, you, could sheer off into the void, atomised. But sooner or later you rolled back. To everything you didn’t want. He had an image of a black jewel in someone’s held out palm. Your birthright. Don’t you want it?
Without knowing he’d been holding on to anything, Nathan let go.
As a child, Luke had said to him, Dad, if you’re in a lift and the cables snap, what about if you manage to jump up in the air just before the lift hits the ground? Wouldn’t you be all right?
Light coalesced, below and to the left. Down and to the left. Which way do your eyes go when you’re lying? Not a lift shaft but a curved chute. One of Luke’s wormholes? A torque of colour. Beautiful. The reason you couldn’t travel faster than the speed of light was because you’d . . . Your mass would . . .
Implosion threatened, or some irreversible fragmentation. He tried sheer will as a brake and found to his surprise that it worked. He slowed. Stopped. Chance to think. Whether he really wanted to do this.
The luminescence dilated – pink in there, pale yellow, flecks of amethyst and aquamarine – then contracted, shrank or pulled away from him. Bye.
You go through at its pace or not at all. Of course. If you want the way back.
He wasn’t prepared for the new rate of fall, nor the surge of brilliance at the approaching core; but there was no stopping this time.
Last thoughts flickered, distraction from the one thought that this would annihilate him: This is nowhere. Nothing. Something. Will I remember when I wake––
Then the light engulfed him and sped him on towards darkness.
When he emerged the people he knew stood below him in negligible rain round a freshly dug grave: Cheryl, Luke, Gina, Adrian. His father. A handful of others. Nearby, a bulbous conifer tilted like a giant microphone awaiting a quote from the sky. Raindrops scurried over the coffin’s camber, beaded its edge, dripped into the cavity below.
The body goes back to dust, his father had told him, in the after-Mass-and-three-whiskies voice, but the soul is immortal. As a boy he’d imagined his soul as a wisp of vapour flickering in his chest. At death it would curl from him to slalom up towards Heaven or to be sucked down towards Hell.
Whereas in fact.
Whereas in fact what?
Wait. Calm. List the facts. This is St Xavier’s. Exeter. Everyone. A grave.
In spite of his injunction consciousness threatened to petrify, to reach a state from which nothing, surely nothing could follow. He started again.
St Xavier’s. Exeter. Everyone.
When he was small he’d had a babysitter, Janice. At some point in the evening she’d tell him his parents weren’t coming back. Ever. He always started off not believing her. They’re at the pub with Aunty Maggie and Uncle Dave. But she’d shake her head. No, that was a lie. They weren’t coming back. Ever. The familiarity of the ritual tortured him. The moment he most dreaded was when in his heart he believed her. They’re never coming back. Janice wasn’t satisfied until she’d brought him to tears. Then she’d tell him no, shshsh, it was just a game. Until the next babysitting, when the whole thing would start again.
He made himself take a moment, while the priest – Murray, whom he hadn’t seen since Lois’s christening – raised and lowered his arms like a tentatively worked marionette. This rain was the soft rain Cheryl said materialised around you rather than fell from the sky. He couldn’t feel it. Knew it, but couldn’t feel it.
Taking the moment was to let the obvious in. His funeral.
Best for now to accept what there was, suspend disbelief, assume that what appeared to be the case was in fact the case. Someone had said, the world is everything that is the case. Wittgenstein? One of Cheryl’s favourite quotes, back in the days.
There was something close by he didn’t want. He didn’t know what it was, but panicking would bring it to him. Cheryl always said, if I’m on a machine you switch the fucking thing off, okay? No arsing about. He’d said the same, without her conviction. Never been able to lose the image of himself wide awake despite diagnosed brain death, watching in horror as the doctor reached for the switch and his loved ones bowed their heads. Don’t turn it off! I’m still here!
Did you know, Gina’d said to him one day when she’d reached the age for the laconic delivery of such ideas as fact, if you die in your dream, you actually die in real life, in your sleep? Think about it: you never die in your dreams. Then one day you’ll dream it, and that’ll be you – snuffed it.
The deep habit of thought dictated that there must be someone, an authority he could consult. He sent out a query (to whom he wasn’t sure) vague and giant, just . . . What . . .? Then listened as for the sound of a dropped stone hitting the bottom of a well.
Nothing. Or rather not quite nothing. Something was being withheld, he thought. To trip him into a mistake (there was a quick and suspicious way of thinking ready to work for him), to trick him into falling for it, whatever it was. So he wouldn’t. He’d wait. Like treading water. You could go on for a long time but not for ever.
With babysitting Janice there was always a period of treating it as a joke they were both in on. He remembered the frailty of his laughter, the way it caught in his chest. Her careful cruelty and how he was childishly in love with her, white shins and that greasy blond bob. I’m going to marry Janice when I grow up. His dad had laughed. They’re never coming back, Janice used to say, sitting forward, elbows on knees, long-nailed fingers loosely linked. Never ever.
Gina was in a black skirt and blouse and carried a bunch of irises by their stems, like a club. Luke still looked too young for a suit, for adulthood, would for years. Nathan imagined them all getting ready this morning, Cheryl dressing in silence. He’d loved the wideness of her stare at herself, applying make-up. He used to lie on the bed, watching. Haven’t you got anything better to do? Nothing better than this, no. Then her eyes went sideways to look at him in the mirror, the little acknowledgement that she had this power.
Is there any history of mental illness in your family? Every now and again a form asked something like that and you wondered what it would be like, the psychotic uncle or schizophrenic dad. You ticked NO.
Now this. There’d been that phase of taking acid and mushrooms, two summers in the early Seventies with Adrian, then the mad dabble again in his first year at Goldsmiths, him and Cheryl wandering around Regent’s Park looking for the zoo. Flashbacks? The deal was that years later out of nowhere hallucinations assaulted you.
In which case it would pass. In which case he could wait it out.
The classic progression was denial, anger, grief, acceptance. He’d read it somewhere. For the loss of someone, that was. Not for the loss of everyone.
It wasn’t panic he was holding off. It was love. All of it with nowhere to go. The horror of this was in him, waiting to be let loose to drive him mad. The thing was to think about something else. Anything.
He’d never said one way or the other, burial or cremation, but there had been a conversation with Cheryl years back, before death had touched either of them. It’s not the going into the ground, she’d said, it’s the awful contrast, all that satin and silk with your bones and offal slopping around like a stew. He’d agreed: revolting; in the light of which he felt betrayed now, until he realised at the sight of his father standing with head bowed and hands thick that they’d done it for the old man out of sympathy. The Church. Fire whiffed of paganism, the old gods with their genitals and hangovers. Plus the problem of resurrection without a body to raise. Same with his mother’s funeral, the insistence on laying her to rest. Cheryl had said: It’s so he’ll have a place he can go to talk to her. She’d said it as much for him, Nathan. At the time, he’d been thinking of his mother’s corpse in the coffin, bed-sored elbows and heels reduced to their matters of meat and chemistry fact. The names of body parts – eyeball, liver, heart, tongue – had presented themselves with a new purity, and it had numbed him to think of his father kneeling with nasturtiums or tulips above ground while a few feet below the sluggish divorce of tissue from bone proceeded in soundproofed indifference.
They’d had Lois cremated. It hadn’t needed discussion.
The memory brought closer whatever it was he didn’t want. It loomed up and darkened everything like the shadow of a giant wave. He veered, wildly–
Never again, Cheryl, the shape of her. Feel air moving, bare feet on a rucked beach, sun-heat, fingers thawing, stone. All that. If this is–
He hauled himself away. But from “all that” he’d got a sense, like a glimpse of a terrible army, of the questions, an infinite number, each with its attendant terrible answer. At the moment when in his heart he believed Janice, all the objects in the room, the room itself and the world outside shed an outer layer of disguise and revealed their collusion with her, with all of it, everything they’d told him there was really no need to be afraid of. Then shshsh and him lifted up hot-faced and sobbing onto her lap and her laughing and holding him to her which almost made it worth it to be that close because there suddenly was her white throat and the tiny gold cross-and-chain and the smell of her blouse and Wrigley’s Doublemint.
He was a few feet above his mourners’ heads, looking down. A couple of dozen people and the priest in white surplice and black stole. “Hear our prayer O Lord and grant that the soul of your servant may . . .” (That was the thing with Janice: you had to go through the agony, but then there was the bliss.) The shadow had gone but left the promise of its return. He forced himself to focus instead on the novelty of seeing them from this angle. Had he seen them like this before? Cheryl yes, from however many painting and decorating ladders, also a Gaud” spiral staircase in Barcelona. His father? Never. Adrian? Yes. Years ago, teenagers, him, Nathan, up a pear tree looking down between bright leaves and rough-skinned fruit, Adrian arriving below, back from the house with a pilfered and greenly glinting bottle of Gordon’s gin. Now for the second time in his life he saw Adrian’s double crown, twin points of growth from which the blond and of late grey hair grew in cropped whorls.
Horns, he thought, with affection and an unexpected stab of loss for the friendship. Thirty-five years. But the thought brought something else up, a flavour or smell he didn’t want. With an effort he got himself away from it.
Gina’s head he’d seen from above countless times, the first more than eighteen years ago, blood-slicked and mango’d by the forceps, the last, a week ago, when, him up on the garage roof in a square of sunlight for a reason he couldn’t now remember, she came out to call him for lunch. He’d glanced down, and in the glance mistaken her for her mother; she had Cheryl’s gold and brown colouring and as of that morning the same wedge haircut. He’d felt pride, then a pang of sadness, realising his mistake. Her face tilted up, one hand shading her eyes. It’s on the table, going cold. He’d thought of her for the first time as having the capacity to have children, and suffered, absurdly, a small pain in his own abdomen. But of course there was the boyfriend. At it, presumably. He didn’t know. He was by definition behind his children’s times. Dad-lag, they called it, bored.
Shouldn’t Lois be here? If this was . . .
He sent out a query: Lo?
Nothing. (Which surely suggested this wasn’t, in fact . . .) Or not quite nothing. As before: something withheld. To hoodwink him, he couldn’t help feeling. Anything hasty (like what? He didn’t know) and he might lose what he had. It had been at the back of him from the beginning, that his purchase here was precarious, a grace that could be withdrawn without warning.
Lois would’ve been fifteen now, grown out of the knobbly knees and artless hairdo and the smelling of crisps and school, the agony phase of not quite womanhood girls went through. Body Shop perfume, the ubiquitous White Musk. Menstruating, maybe. That time she’d seen a cross-section of the female reproductive organs in Gina’s biology textbook and thought it was a sheep’s head. His private satisfaction because he’d always seen that, too. He’d had to find some excuse later to wrap her in his arms. Too many times that was all you could do. And Lois didn’t always like being scooped up like that, if she was in the middle of something, some girl business.
That whole way gone–
It was no good. Standing still (standing? Hovering, he supposed) these thoughts were going to break through and come at him, bellowing. And if it was that whole way gone then there were questions: How could he see? There were the colours, innocently visible: green, purple, grey. Sounds, Murray’s murmur and the rain’s exhalation. Smell? There was something, a version so faint he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t dragging it up from memory, wet Devon afternoon, damp lawns, conifers. Taste? Touch.
He and Janice used to play a game, ‘drawing” with the index fingertip on each other’s bare belly or back. You had to keep your eyes closed and guess what it was. A house, a car, a flower. The thrill of it knotted his guts. There, after all, was Janice’s quivering midriff and deep navel. But also, there was the rich moment just before her finger touched him.
Moving was a matter, as formerly, of volition, but with some loss of accuracy, some drift, slightest lapse in concentration and you were way off. Like the bike on the pier at Brighton which when you turned left went right. You fell, every time. He’d wanted Gina, but found himself instead alongside Luke, from whom, suddenly
can’t overestimate in the end the power of curiosity he said it’d be all right but obviously not obviously not
before recoil (not from the content but from the bare fact of collision with his son’s consciousness, a bearable twinge like the first suck in of air that reveals a tooth cavity) took him out of range or alignment.
Thought-fragments picked up and skirled: telepathy Uri Geller ouija boards ghosts listening those cards with shapes on them circles or crosses and someone trying to think them to someone else mind reading maybe gypsies incredible can’t be but you just did it read your son’s mind and all of science therefore in the dark.
It wasn’t dreamlike, either. Immediate, urgent, and that distinct little pain. Something like forced intimacy, too, the changing room packed with the male smell that wasn’t yours. Spatial location only part of it. Other gravities worked. Feelings, was it? Luke’s had leaped like a solar flare, a lash of energy from a furious inner blaze.
It had been a while since he’d had a real conversation with his son. They didn’t seem to want it so you let it slide. You did all the things you started off thinking you wouldn’t.
A defence he hadn’t known he was holding up slipped and there was his own disappointment in himself like a landscape he could get lost in. It halted him, until another flare from Luke
or rather be a billionaire you should ask yourself these questions people say they’re stupid they don’t want to answer them suppose right now in fact cancel all Third World starvation as long as your dad stays dead
ambushed him, gave him a glimpse of the astronaut’s nightmare, the snapped umbilical and slow somersaults away into space. Stays dead. Their certainty that he’d gone was stone-hard and cold. Going near risked getting hurled up against or repelled by it into the nightmare of the broken lifeline and the endless void. He must be careful.
The warning had been inarticulate. Now something articulated it. Or someone.
Again the not quite nothing.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Something in Janice’s face always convinced him eventually, a way she had of making her eyes go dead. She had all sorts of arguments to bring to bear; all he had was the refusal to believe. You’re lying. No I’m not, not this time. This time they’re really gone. For ever.
He watched Cheryl, who, having tugged finger by finger one black glove off now threw wet earth onto the casket. Then Luke threw, depressed (Nathan knew) by the ashes to ashes, its cheapening evocation of the Bowie song, and by his mother’s stripperish glove removal, the image it called up of her on stage to the sound of burlesque brass and wolfwhistles.
Their thoughts go into you. But not yours into them? One way? It was the sort of question he would’ve asked his father one of those Sundays. Frank, mage-like in his armchair, would have taken a sip of Scotch and rolled out some rubbish. The spirit can enter the body, of course, but the body can’t enter the spirit. Impossible. Impossible.
Gina followed and hesitantly threw. Nathan approaching her in careful increments could feel her trying to grow. She was making, whilst throwing, staring down – how’ll he breathe in there? oh god you idiot – turning away, linking her mother’s arm, an intense effort, a neural stretch not to condemn herself for not feeling what convention demanded. As at Lois’s cremation. Like Mersault, she told herself, for comfort. Then a horror-bulletin and inner delirious laugh: And look what happened to him.
Frank threw next. He paused with the dirt in his hand, jowls quivering. Nathan, negotiating drag and drift – the force like a bad smell around Adrian (something wrong, there), a high-pitched whine around Cheryl that warned him off – moved closer. Touch. Maybe it was the heat from Janice’s fingertip he’d been able to feel. He went closer to Frank. (His relationship with space and time wouldn’t settle. Bodiless and located. The contradiction threatened diffusion, the loss or dispersal of himself among trees, grass, stones. He had to keep imagining himself, there, however ethereally. If he did he could move, situate himself, rope in the old rules, mangled, but awkwardly workable.) He moved towards the old man’s back, felt the chaotic aura, eased through his father’s shoulder and side (like ducking his head underwater: local amplification but the loss of the rest of the world) picking up in transit
and now him as well for what for what killed
along with Frank’s history there for the rifling: the muscle-memory of the flyweight days; Spitfire innards, the hangar cathedral cold and the peeled moment before the pilots got in, knowing their lives were in your hands; the remnants of half-finished things, education, the plan to emigrate to Canada; the continuous white noise of fear and self-pity, all the ways he’d hurt poor Lil: Nathan saw these, wondered how many, but by then had passed through and re-entered the world with a slight loss of incorporeal balance and sound rushing back in.
Frank didn’t feel it. They couldn’t. Which meant all these years the dead could have been passing in and out, listening. The little old lady from Poltergeist drawling in her tiny Southern voice that sometimes souls couldn’t bear to leave the world behind, that they still felt attached, unfinished business among the living . . .
The living. The dead. You are the dead. Thought Police. Nineteen-Eighty-Four. That category of memory intact, then. Education. Orwell. Wittgenstein. Princip shoots Ferdinand 28th June 1914. Moon landing, 20th July 1969. That category. And the others? Nathan James Clark born 6th February 1956. Married Cheryl Fenn 12th June 1979. First child, Luke Jacob . . . Gina, January “85, Lois, December “87 . . . He’d always thought of dates as pins holding down the past, which would otherwise drift and lose its shape; also the constellations as pins holding space’s invisible blueprint, at which Cheryl had said Oooh “ark at “im, poet laureate. He had the dates, all of them. And the rest? Work was teaching, or had been until he packed it in; years of pupils and their million variations on the theme of not being interested. Home was Roseberry Road – no, they moved, just recently. It was bad with him and Cheryl. She’d gone away, or he had. Was that it? Life was Cheryl and the kids. Loved . . . She’d gone different, hadn’t she? Or he had. Everything that wasn’t a date had an alternative. Easy to burn himself out that way, trying to choose.
The nearer to now, the more difficult. All historians knew that. What was the last thing he remembered?
Images came willy-nilly: Cheryl’s face at nineteen. His mother between morphine shots not recognising him. The Roseberry Road living room. Gina looking up at him and saying, I did not, outraged. Lois in the Focus passenger seat after swimming, hair wet and eyes red.
Yes but the last thing?
There’d been a profound understanding between him and Janice, manifest at each stage of their game. Her claim, his laughing denial, her increasing earnestness, the terrible moment of conversion, distress, and finally comfort. It was as if he’d known her in a former life. As soon as in his heart he believed her she blazed with new life, became even more beautiful, though he saw her through a film of misery.
Adrian had a bad moment throwing the dirt. Some of it stuck to his palm, necessitating an ugly shake in which there was no disguising revulsion. The flung-off bit hit the coffin in an unseemly splatter. Nathan, feeling sorry for him, moved forward. Send something through him. Ade, for fuck’s sake it’s me.
No. Something wrong there. That smell like the stink of a cramped zoo.
Gina unlinked from Cheryl and walked away after Luke, who’d gone to stand under the conifer. The priest said something to Cheryl as she passed, but she ignored him. She went a few paces with an obscene hang to her limbs, as if excess or trauma had loosened them, then stood still, feet planted apart. Adrian caught her up and stood in silence next to her. He put his hand round the nape of her neck, gave it a slight shake. The gesture they’d all made to each other, down the years. It meant don’t give up. In the face of every reason for breaking don’t break because if nothing, absolutely nothing else I’m here with my hand on you. You’re not alone.
Nathan turned away (not easy; debilitating false starts, again the threat of absorption by trees and rain and grass, the effort to keep imagining himself, there, turning away) and noticed by the grave two people he didn’t immediately recognise. He began the thought that he’d never seen them before, but hesitated. She was a tall woman in her early forties with white skin and yellow-blond hair scraped back and tied with a black ribbon. Small eyes and mouth but long full cheeks and a hint of upturn in the nose – the haughty talking teapot’s face in Lois’s storybook of years ago. Wealthy. That coat and the emerald and diamond cluster. No wedding ring.
She was accompanied by a plump, prematurely balding young man who had the look of having drunk before coming here.
Her in the black coat and him three inches shorter in a well-cut dark grey suit. In every way not a couple. They stood at the grave, into which a kagouled and wellingtoned man with excessive earhole hair was now shovelling dirt.
His body in there. The thought brought the bellyemptiness of hunger. He let it go, focused again on the two strangers at the grave’s edge. They didn’t belong here. Didn’t know what to do. Don’t go near them.
The young man crossed himself, incorrectly, going to the right shoulder first. The woman stared into the grave.
Nathan had held himself above denial. Denial was the obvious thing so he’d resisted. But as the woman’s hands slipped into the coat’s slash pockets he found himself weakening into the thought (thought or plea? To whom?) that it couldn’t be happening. Any of it. It couldn’t be happening because if it was he’d have to bear it and now, realising for the first time his condition someone did this didn’t they he knew he wouldn’t be able to, would rather die, except dying – this straw of irony keeping him from collapse – was no longer, apparently, an option.
Copyright ” 2004 by Glen Duncan. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.