Here's The Persistence of memory, which got 3rd place in the Costa Short Story competition this year.
The Persistence of Memory
A comet strikes the moon on our way to the pantomime, and nobody reacts.
My husband Ben goes on driving in his clunk-click, hard-by-the-rules way; our two children remain sprawled on the back seat, going about their business of dishing out dead legs and back-and-forth bickering as on any other drive.
Singular feeling, that: bearing witness alone to the end of the moon. A melting, meandering fireball of ice crept across my passenger-side window and ploughed with unimaginable force into its nearly-new face. Our little satellite wept flame, flared briefly as bright as the sun, then disappeared behind some wintergone trees.
I blink, sit up sharp. There's no new sound of calamity: just the car droning over tarmac as before, the heater set on four, some radio 4 show rounding up the year. Iris, behind me, hissing to my youngest Jack: Do that again and I'll smash you, pizza-face. Jack growling back: Like ah'm bothered brace-face. Ben telling the both of them to pack it in, then his hand on mine (he must’ve seen the impact too?) and a quick glance at me as he checks the mirror on my side.
'Everything okay?' he asks.
‘Was I – did I say something?’
‘You made a noise. You alright?’
I gawp out at the passenger-side sky. Over a frosty stubble-field the moon is there, back, doing its thing: tailing us, dodging clouds, counting its spots like my teenage son, suspended in place exactly as before.
I look to the windscreen and see at once my mistake: little rafts of sleet, melting, meandering, pushed and pulled along by the airflows outside.
Just sleet. Of course. That's all. The moon’s unharmed.
I sink into my seat, close my eyes, wanting to put off any other mistruths the world will tell tonight.
We make the panto with ten minutes to spare. The kids look embarrassed by my infirmity, and to be honest, I'm doubting my own obstinate demands that they come along. I must be soft in the head. Morna, my old dear friend, laughed when I told her. 'You're not serious!' she said. 'Which one?' 'Aladdin,' I'd replied. 'Want to come?' 'Ha! You're pulling my leg! You're not serious!' 'I am serious. What's so damned funny about wanting, no, needing to have a little bit of fun?' Here her smile faded. 'You are serious,' she said. Then: 'Ignore me. Have a good time.'
So. A pantomime, because pantomimes are happy things, forget-yourself entertainment, and I could do with a little of that right now.
There's a service lift which gets us into the theatre, just large enough for Ben and me. He pulls me inside until the wheelchair sits snug against the grille doors. Honestly, I'm glad to be slipping past the box office and all those sympathetic titled heads. Ben, holding my bag, leans in over my right shoulder.
'Still keen?' he asks.
'Yes, yes,' I say, irritated by any hint of backtracking.
The lift jolts, rises a few feet – and then stalls. The lights flicker off, on, off.
Ben presses the first floor button: nothing. He presses again, then again. Nothing doing. No movement. He presses the red alarm button and I laugh, exasperated.
'Typical,' he says. He slaps the sheet metal wall.
'Looks like it's broken,' I say.
'Your luck is one of the wonders of this world.'
'Speak for yourself.'
Ben kneels down beside me, rubbing at his eyes. To keep me amused, I suppose, he morphs into his younger self. It's 1978. Summer loving. Grease at the picturehouse, that hippy-coloured-ink-blobs screen before the film, blue loops of fag smoke rising along with lustful thinkings, dirty floors, tatty seats, screeching girls: me among them. Ben and I are punks, but we've forgotten to be snot-hurling and world-weary for the afternoon and instead we're just filmgoing teens. We're the twin rejects in a cross-eyed double-date. Our original date partners—loud and beautiful, you know the type—paired off quick together, then shrugged off going to the film with us. Last seen heading for the parklands beyond the high flats and an unwanted baby nine months later. Ben, beside me, is wearing faded denim, 24-hole Doc Martens, studded belt, spiked hair. (His Mohican is still a year off.) I'm in tie-dyes, leather snog-me skirt, 18-hole Docs, laddered tights. My foundation might be putty and coal dust, and maybe I fancy myself as a punk Cleopatra, but I look more like Francis Bacon's leering pope. Ben sticks his tongue in my ear. I tell him that this tickles my right bumcheek and he spits popcorn in mirth.
I try his ear, but the tickle is mine alone.
Afterwards we walk home, arms around each other's necks, stopping for brazen punk-snogs wherever there's a chance that someone might be there to see us. We both agree that the film was dire and that John Travolta was an utter arsehole, Olivia Newton-John pure cat's piss. In fact, the film was so bad we talk about it the whole way home... A safe distance from my street we stop to kiss in a reeking underpass where I suppose my spots might be less obvious. I sit up on a zzzrrrnnng-ing electricity box, away from the streetlamps, looking down on Ben, who looks up, his face hairless, his own angry rash of acne obvious, looks so young when I see him now--
older when I see him now. That young punk: now careworn, silver in his beard, his father's crow-lined eyes and hairline going the way of the glaciers. We're back in the lift.
'You were gone for a moment there,' he says. Then haltingly: 'You, eh, tried to stick your tongue into my ear.'
'Yes. Yes you did.'
I don’t like his disappointed, scared, tired face. 'Relax,' I say, patting the stubble-island of his forehead. 'A little ear-tonguing before the theatre never did anyone any harm.'
'You'll give me swimmer's ear.'
'Ach you never bothered about that when you were a punk.'
He's silent. Reaching in under my cardigan, he takes out my morphine pump. 'How much of this did you have in the car?'
I tell him not nearly enough. 'I felt all the bumps in the road. I think I hit it every three minutes, or as soon as the lock-out would allow. How? You think I've had too much? You think I need to go easier?'
'Maybe.' Ben looks away to the floor. 'No, of course, press it if you're sore. Don't worry about that. Don't worry about getting too much. Just as long as you're not in pain.'
I put the pump back in out of reach.
In my case, cancer has been about pain. My right breast and a job lot of lymph glands were removed five years ago. The cancer returned a year and a half later. A second round of chemotherapy dusted off the recurrence, but six months later this recurrence—well, recurred. I am now officially beyond remission—in the terminal lounge, so to speak. And I am in pain. Bad pain. Burning, burrowing, unmanageable pain. Let's call it commanding: a neat euphemism I learnt while on the oncology ward. This is pain light years beyond the nudges and scratches of a good punk-kicking; pain that has you wishing, pleading, praying, even as an atheist, for god.
My little pump keeps me sane. And insane, of course, depending on your viewpoint / bias. Before cancer I used to be scared of losing my mind; now cold sanity is the bogey man. After a minute or two at the surface I'm done, and ready for reverie. Sometimes I get an odd notion of myself as human Morse Code: dots and dashes of real life with long gaps for nostalgia in-between. Sometimes it gets me the guilt: to be woolgathering while everyone else worries. The same guilt—and fear—that roots me in stopped horror in the supermarket, gawping at the sell-by dates: will I be gone by then? I need to sleep less, live more. What about this date? Will I still be here? And then? And then?
'Someone on the other side,' Ben's saying. 'We might catch the start yet.'
I swim back up to now. 'Where are our kids?'
'Waiting. I can hear Iris. She's asking if they couldn’t just leave us be.'
'Very droll. A punitive slashing of her allowance, then.'
'Ten o'clock curfew.'
'Removal of sleepover privileges.'
'No art school for her.'
'Oh… wouldn’t go as far as to say that.'
Iris, my bonny Iris, plans to follow in the footsteps of her mother. It's 1985. Glasgow School of Art. My spots have gone. I'm a self-styled Caledonian Dadaist, in thrall to Salvador Dali, doing for surrealism in Scotland what Hitler did for little square moustaches in Austria. I make kilts for dead rats; elegant evening dress for dogs; deface my own early watercolours with moustaches and pubic hair; beseech pigeons teetering on the sides of tall buildings with a loudhailer – DON'T DO IT; draw a comic strip series where all the main characters turn into elephants, then eggs, then back to elephants, before someone thinks to say: 'Oh, screw this for a laugh.' And in the midst of all this self-indulgent creative hubris, I fall pregnant with Iris. My first lesson in real life art: there is nothing more surreal than trying to complete your final year thesis while vomiting twenty shades of green into a bucket. Now here am I, Ben's hand on my shoulder, his hand fine, young, slender. He's pulling my hair back out of the way as I throw up. I'm retching so hard, in fact, that I see stars. When I look up again, my forehead slick with sweat, there's a cup of sweet tea by my left hand.
And a ring.
Advice, ladies. Test your man. Vomit endlessly into a bucket, or trial a mysterious flu or five-day migraine which keeps you incapacitated in bed, then wait and see what he does. The good ones will be there to hold back your hair, wipe the sick from your mouth. The bad ones will make good their exit.
Ben cranes in, nearly falling into my lap. 'They're forcing the doors,' he says. 'Let me lie over you for a sec.' Sure enough, some sort of metal pole—a marlinspike, or is that the morphine talking again—is being forced between the lift doors above our heads. We're mid-floor—three feet of concrete, three feet of busy foyer. Not quite six feet under—an apt metaphor for my life! Above us, the box office, two flustered ushers, our mortified kids, and horror of horrors—a crowd hanging back, greedily waiting to eyeball the sick lady in the chair.
'So much for slipping in past the box office,' I say.
A cheer goes up as I'm wheeled past the stage. I could do without Widow Twankey's not very subtle aside, 'Three cheers for our lady of the lift! Isn't she a brave sweetheart!', and the sentimental furore of clapping and foot-stomping that follows. Ben pushes me left of centre, where I huddle inside my jacket, sitting between our kids, staring at my knees. The panto goes on. I squirt morphine until the colours wash with the sound which washes with time. The stage and auditorium empty and it's just me, Jack, Iris.
My eyes slip shut and they turn toddler beside me. They're wearing pyjamas with blue stripes and pink butterflies: four and six, the bowl-cuts I gave them yesterday, Jack's gappy grin, Iris throttling her manky toy rabbit. I show them how to put a knitting needle through a balloon, how to yank a tablecloth leaving all the crockery in place (we fail.) Then we're on holiday in Wales and Jack is asking me, 'Are there spacemen in space, mummy?' to which I reply, 'Of course. Else how would we find them?' He puzzles over the false logic of this, then: 'Are you scared of ghosts, mummy?' And I answer: 'No, I'm more scared of there being no ghosts.'
It’s only now that I understand what this means.
We retreat to the barn adjacent our holiday cottage, where I subject them to the long-winded ghost story which begins It was a dark, dark night…, while holding a torch, uplighting my face for sinister effect--
torch shining in my face. One of the usherettes is asking, 'You feeling alright, ma'am?' I scowl up at her. I mean, who calls anyone ma'am these days? I seem to have slumped a little. Ben says everything's fine, and rights me back in my chair. Iris, on my left, dabs at her eyes. 'Knew this was too much,' she says. 'You're exhausted. But you would insist.'
'I'm fine,' I snap. 'The goose is about to lay the golden egg. Leave me alone.'
There's a pause. Ben squeezes my arm. 'Wrong panto,' he whispers.
What will I become? Dust on a window ledge? A distracted moment on a vulnerable day? A saltwater memory, photos thumbed and yellowed?
I believe in no god: so can only hope to persist in the minds of those I will leave behind. The occasional thought in my direction would be enough.
On the oncology ward all we talk of is hope. The living know nothing of this language: our terminal code. There are days where I wake up feeling optimistic—it still happens—and on those days I talk of a bridge to a bridge to a bridge. Perhaps the next treatment will take me up to the next breakthrough which will buy me six months, a year, two years, who knows. And then, in that future remove, things might be very different: gene therapy, nanotechnology, some miracle cure for all forms of cancer discovered in an as yet unshorn Amazonian glade: an über-cure, extracted, distilled, crystallised and available in pill form for me to take just in time for Jack's twenty-first birthday.
This is the way you get. This is what hope does. This is where perhaps and maybe and who knows gets you; to the edge of forever. But no further. This is my drop, my festering consciousness, my dance of death. This is hope.
Ben's hand on my shoulder. He's smiling, and so are the kids. It seems I've been screeching along with all the other children at the villains. Oh my. The auditorium crackling with applause. So I missed the end. Too bad. To be honest the costumes were a little disappointing this year: washed out sepia, the colour of old underpants. But maybe that's the morphine talking again.
I am back inside the car's bone-snug, air-con closeness.
On our return home I notice three things. One: Ben's hand drifting to mine as he says, 'I haven’t enjoyed the theatre so much since we went to see Grease together. Do you remember? That was a good film. You cried at the end. And the middle. And the beginning. You were the soppiest punk in the world as I recall.'
I categorically reject this version of events.
Two. Our children behind us going on about Christmas like it's not some doomed pageant or Shakespearean tragedy, but an event to be enjoyed.
Three. Our little satellite moon, surviving another cometary collision. At the last I move my head and the colliding fireball of ice veers from its path, melting on harmlessly.
I'll leave off the pump for a while longer.
Really pleased to be able to announce I've been shortlisted for the Costa Short Story prize, along with Jess Kidd and Billy O'Callaghan. Here's a link to the Costa website where all three stories are available to read and listen to.
Rapture of the deep
Here is the Human Zoo, in this old theatre-turned-dance-venue. It's a big space, with adjoining bars, plenty of room to groove and breathe in. The DJ's John Kelly, over from the UK. You see him up on stage behind the decks. He's playing a totally wild-school mix. It's def. It's rad. It's nearly too much to bear. There are stacked speakers either side of him, and lasers illuminating the crowd, scanning upwards out of sight.
Everyone: in front of you, beside you, dancing in the auditorium behind you, is going crazy. And you're in the steamy centre of it all. What a guy! You turn to see these people rising behind, and you think: this is the Human Zoo. This is where all the mad animals come to rattle at their bars and foul up their cages and bite at the hands that feed them. Here are the strutting peacocks and the vainglorious stallions and the preening meercats and the baboons with their mad arses and hallucinogenic faces; here, all of the skins of the world, black and white and yellow and reds and in-betweens, with all the same wide smiles. Look at the movement, look at the colour, the outrageous clothes, luminous bikinis and silver romper suits and Superfly wigs and naked torsos and tattoos and t-shirts with logos on them like Orgasm Donor and Fucker and Betty Ford Clinic.
Your name's Marcus. You were born here in Sydney and grew up under its oceanside spell, and you have the sun-kissed skin and easy-going charm to prove it. You're a very beautiful young thing. You make top dollar working as an IT consultant for a PR company on the sixteenth floor of a very shiny office block in the heart of the CBD. You like Aussie rules and vodka Redbull and sushi and casual sex and going to the movies stoned. You smoke hydroponically grown Sydney skunk, and you blast coke Fridays and Saturdays, with diazoes for the heavy comedowns. And you surf: at Maroubra beach weekday evenings, maybe the southern beaches on the weekends when the swell's on, provided you're not languishing at a recovery party somewhere.
You have a luxurious condominium in Double Bay. In your garage there you have a quiver of ten boards to choose from, including, in pride of place, a 9'2" custom shaped hand painted Bob McTavish, worth a cool twenty five hundred bucks. You also own a BMW Z3 roadster, a Toyota Prado, and an immaculate 1964 Ford Futura, which does for cruising out of town.
Tonight, your clothing is the hetero side of camp. Sleeveless white lycra top, cargo pants, denim jacket, moosehide moccasins. Hugo Boss underwear.
Most important though, there's a Chupa Chup lolly in your mouth. They're de rigueur in the clubs at the moment. Your one is strawberry flavoured. You suck hard at this lolly; waves of kickass saccharine pinch your cheek. Sucking stops chewing which stops teeth grinding. Your teeth are soooo beautiful. You have to protect them. Chupa chups are free at the bar. Most folk have them twisting around in their mouths.
How dangerous could it be to suck on a lolly?
There's a change in tempo: Kelly mixes in a particularly slamming track, and you and the rest of the crowd respond with frenetic dancing. The club goes off its rocker – for a while there you were flagging, but now you're resurgent. All around you, face lift, wind tunnel smiles. You're whooping and thinking: where does the warmth come from? Why's it not always here? Where do I end? Where do I begin? Why do we go back to the same old scene on Mondays, exchanging polite convo, always keeping the respectful distance? We need to change ourselves; it could and should start HERE.
This and much more of the same. The music washes near and far. You get all removed. Your head becomes a new planet with its own red spot and ring system and coterie of moons. The faces of the people around you register pain, confusion, but you're way in control. A warmth, a sensuality rising into your neck, then you're gone, thoughts tunnelling ahead, mind gone, ego dissolved, eyes upward, following the tracers, people in strobing standstills, the music distant and happening somewhere, not here.
The sexiness is so great that when you reach around yourself to check you're still there, you fall in love with your own caresses. You forget everything outside of your own singular heaven, and perhaps that's what heaven's about: a vaunted detachment, nothing to reach you, nothing to annoy or frustrate you, inhabiting a vast, empty space, a space of time and light which belongs only to you, never sleeping, a chemical pharaoh, like Anubis watching from twenty miles up the unimportant people of the world turning circles swerving colliding like bumper cars on Arctic ice floes--
Huh? Hold up.
Hang a U-ey. Bumper cars on Arctic ice floes?
You try to remember how you got to this thought—but the way of your thoughts, the path, the process, is gone. You think: Whoa. What a trippy pill.
Then you're back. Kelly mixes in a new uptempo song. You and all the others detonate into life. It's too awesome. What a world!
A wild guy, tattooed neck, shaved head, blue shades, dances like a feral rabbit with myxomatosis behind you. He rocks around so hard in fact that he misjudges, and his elbow strikes hard the centre of your back.
The Chupa Chup lolly that you were sucking on falls into your mouth, and is pulled with a gasp of inspiration into your throat.
The lolly lodges a good way inside, stopping just over your vocal cords, preventing completely the flow of air into and out of your lungs.
You try to cough, bent over, hands at your neck, face red, the veins on your forehead standing out. You're shocked into reality. You pull vainly for breath. The Chupa Chup will not shift. Unhappily for you, the lolly stick has lodged into one of your throat muscles. The stick is, if you could see it, acting as a wedge against expulsion.
Your hands tremble at your neck. You keep trying to cough, but the lolly doesn't shift. Your panic becomes extreme. You push around the dancers, reaching for their help, pulling them by the arms, grabbing at their funky clothes, but they're gone—blind, lost inside their own raptures. You gesture to your throat, but no-one will see. Some spangled guy even tries to dance with you, giving you a damp hug, shouting yeah man! and copying your agonal movements by dancing with his own hands agitating at his neck.
You recoil, try to scream, but of course you're unable to do so.
You have a pressure in your head: the burn of a forced breath hold. Your stomach muscles convulse, moving in concert with your diaphragm. You stagger away from the crowds, the dance floor, and you try to reach the door, get to a quiet area where people will notice, but your legs are way weak. Your eyes brim with tears. Sounds swim as if in distance, or underwater. You look down on a floor covered in plastic cups and lolly sticks and cigarette ends and this seems odd, an abstract, meaningless mess.
You stumble, fall to the floor.
There you lie with your chest heaving.
Vital seconds go.
Someone's face swells into view. Shouting into your ear, repeating, asking rather hopefully, You alright, mate? Mate, you alright?
Yeah, of course I'm alright. No worries! I'm just a little tired, you fuckin drongo.
The voice startles you. It's loud, internal, yet removed. Is it yours? God's? The devil's? Then you understand: yeah. It's yours. Or rather, it's the voice of your superego and your id combined. The same scathing accent heard every morning at the mirror; the same gloating voice beside you as you thrust over your conquests.
A scrum of faces above you. One person runs for assistance, while another helpfully slaps you in the face. The penny begins to drop that you're not alright: in fact, you're definitely not very well at all.
You're dragged from the dance floor, legs sliding inelegantly behind you, to the light and lesser noise of a corridor. There are individual voices: shouts, someone calling for help, urgent interrogations.
What's he taken! Has he taken anything?
Is he breathing?
What the fucking hell's going on?
Now you can hear your friends, their voices small, panicky: answering questions, admitting to your ingestion of ecstasy and coke and even, from the sublime to the ridiculous, a wee bit of dope. You picture their faces, their self-reflected concern, hands at their cheeks, wondering if it's bad form to slink away.
Party's over, dudes! Enjoy the show. Hur-hur-hur.
You curse the voice and wish for more time, wish times ten that you had more time. You promise to be a better citizen, a More Giving Person, selfless to a fault.
Is he hot? Does he feel hot?
He's not breathing! He's not breathing! How much water has he had to drink?
Didn't you hear me, he's not bloody breathing!
What else did he have?
Could the coke stop his heart?
OOHH! I had the same coke! Will my heart stop too?
I heard that ecstasy can cause your lungs to fill up with fluid and you die. Your eyeballs explode and your heart splits in two.
There was this article in GQ about this coke fiend whose legs and arms went black and he had to have them amputated…
Oh my word! What about me? I dropped at the same time as him!
This is great. Having a debate about the potentially life-threatening side-effects of recreational drugs, while I lie here dying. And no-one has even considered the lethality of choking on a Chupa-Chup.
Does he have a pulse? Oh Marcus!
A voice, butting in: Is that a dead guy? Seeek, mate!
Get lost, asshole!
Another voice: It could be a case of hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, you know.
Who are you – bloody doctor Gregory House?
The voice admits: I'm a medical student.
Then do something!
Silence. Then: I don’t know CPR.
You're fucking joking! Does anyone know CPR?
The shout's taken up. It appears someone does. An irritating alpha male voice replies, I Know CPR! You feel fingers at the hollow of your neck.
He's got a pulse.
No shit, Sherlock. I coulda told ya that.
Is he breathing? A hand on your forehead, another firmly gripping your jaw, tilting your head back. No breathing.
Pursed lips, rough stubble, sour breath, the alpha male blowing into your mouth.
This is a bit better. Now let's see how long it takes him to work out I've got a Chupa-Chup stuck here bang in my windpipe.
Alpha male tries another couple of breaths. No chest expansion. Then are another two breaths, then a flummoxed silence. Alpha male thinks aloud through his ABCs.
Did you call an ambulance?
An ambulance? Anybody? Hey you fuckin lame-o's, an ambulance?!!
It's on its way, chill out.
Erm.. danger.. responsiveness...
As you lie flaccid and awaiting resuscitation, the numbskulls in your head play a naughty, cruel trick: they put on the jukebox in your mind.
My girl lollipop, by The Chordettes, comes on.
Ha Ha, very bloody funny. What an idiot I am.
It has been three minutes since your last breath. You are reminded now of the worst surf hold down you ever had: pearling on the lip of a massive set wave, in four-times-overhead conditions on a howling day at the Fairy Bower, Manly.
The ocean boiling. Paddling hard. A dark impossible shape beyond the wave you just crested. You pull for it, pull into it, strain as it lifts you, then gasp to see the guts of the Bower opening up way below. You take a short drop, then nothing: then the violence begins, down and up, over the falls, over again and down, down, down. Held there in the darkness, pulled along underneath, almost surfacing, but then hit by the next wave as you claw through the foam. Pulled along by this wave underwater way past the point, forgetting to relax and desperately trying to climb up your leash to the surface.
Being held down beyond the point was very heavy indeed.
But nothing like this.
The alpha male recovers himself. He gives more breaths. Then he wonders aloud: Is there something stuck in his throat?
Bingo! Check out the big brain on Brad!
You feel your mouth being opened and a finger pushed inside, poked around.
Come on, there must be something…
The alpha male sits astride your hips. He puts his hands together in the middle of your abdomen, asks everyone to stand back.
Performing abdominal thrusts!
Come back to daddy, come back my boy….
Now your body tightens around you. You begin to shake, the onset of a fit. It's been four minutes since your last breath, and soon you'll begin to die. You've entered a bloodless limbo, where you flex between disconnected serenity and moments of consciousness and panic. Thoughts form in your mind, but you can't register them, and will not later remember them.
Please, oh please, not me, not here, not now, please…..
You don't experience the stock in trade near death phenomena: floating above and looking down on your recumbent body, or ascending through a black tunnel to a blinding white light. Nor do you relive your life in moments, in a flickering series of snapshots, back and back to wind-whipped sunshine days of ice-cream and slip slop slap.
Instead: you're underwater. Warm salt water. The sea. Opening your eyes, you see a tropical realm of immense undersea boulders. You drift over these monolithic stones which form hillside slopes and crannies and grottoes and pinnacles for countless types of fish. The stones are dotted with corals: soft corals, gorgonian fans, sea pens and whips, all caressed by the currents. The fish sashay around you. You swim on your back, looking up on the shifting mosaic of light formed by the waters' surface, and you turn again, look down to a sandy sea floor with coral bommies dotted around.
The water's so clear that you can see a hundred metres in every direction; the deep blue eliding with depth and distance to black.
…my girl lollipop! You make my heart go giddy-up, you taste as sweet as candy, you are my sugar dandy…
You hear the steady crackling of a million, million coral mouths. This sound will be the last impression within your dying nerve cells, and it's really not a bad way to go.
One, two , three--
The alpha male is delivering sets of five liver-splitting thrusts to your upper abdomen. He pushes up and in to your chest. Fireworks go off underwater.
Dynamite shattering the coral.
A high pitched whine in your ears, then:
The Chupa Chup lolly is dislodged. It appears with a froth of vomit at your blue lips. Alpha male falls backwards, amazed, triumphant. He holds up the lolly.
You take a harsh breath. You cough, breath again. Your breathing falters, then returns to regularity. There are calls for oxygen, and applause.
A rude consciousness slips around you, the strangest wakening of your life, lying in a star on the floor of a corridor with a huddle of strained faces over you. Pain in you head, nausea. You try to speak but cannot. You wonder where you are, what this is.
Things happening. People looking at you. Someone saying, just like in the movies – You're gonna be alright, mate. Then being lifted by some other people, moved down a stairway on some kind of stretcher. Pretty blue lights. A fast drive across town.
You'll be admitted to hospital for investigations. Your voice will return in a few hours, a whisper at first, then a croak. Visitors will come and cry to you.
The sun will shine on and on in your window. Flowers in vases will flourish on your windowsill. Nurses will sooth your early nightmares with sleeping pills.
You'll be discharged from hospital after three days. Then you'll stay at home for two weeks, anxious, haunted by what has happened. When you first return to work, on commute you'll panic at the sight of Chupa Chups on display in the newsagents. But this will get better.
And you'll be driven by an odd desire: to throw it all in, quit your highly paid job, quit the cars and the boards and the condo and take up scuba diving instead.
Published in Granta's New Writing 15.
This short story is set on Shetland, and was the first I ever got published. There are early hints of The Last of Us: the unnamed boy and girl's walk reminds me of Rona and Elizabeth and Alex on their coastline scramble to Message Rock.
Northern dialect words to look out for: Tirl (wheel of a Shetland mill); Tammie Norrie (Puffin); Bonxie (Great Skua); Voe (narrow sea inlet) and Böd (bothy, fisherman's shelter.)
The children take a grass path skirting the edge of the voe, kicking through summer flowers as they approach the turning click mill.
The boy, following behind, watches the girl's bare feet: admires their shape, their sure grip on the stones. She has a basket on her shoulder and a headscarf tied at her chin. At the underhus of the mill they stop – to watch the tirl turning, gasping as the sharp cold burn water runs over their feet. The boy puts an arm in - letting the feathers of the water wheel rap on his hand.
The girl puts a finger to her mouth, gestures for him to be quiet. In a huddle they listen over the water's noise for the mill-wife inside - throwing in her barleycorn handfuls and singing or whistling, but there is no sign of her.
They climb over a low wall, sun in their faces. Further on the grasses and wild flowers are bright around them: cream-pink of meadow fescue, deeper pink of ragged robin. Purples of standing thistle and clover, red of common sorrel. Yellows of ragwort and bird's foot trefoil, and blues of thyme and milkwort and sheepsbit.
The boy collects a posy of flowers for the girl. He presents it to her with an uncertain, bashful smile.
Here ye are, he says.
Fur what? she demands.
The girl takes the flowers. She makes a contemptuous noise.
The boy explains in a hurry, Ah like flooers, when ye see am da gither.
The girl turns and goes on ahead, carrying herself like the lady of the house on Vaila. She cannot think of how to reply. She's not used to the idea of thanking other children. Thank you, she understands, is for the elders of her family, or the laird, or the minister.
The boy follows the girl for a while - until she turns on him and presses the flowers back to his chest.
But don't ye like them? he asks.
She sighs. Ah like them scaittert, grawin wild.
Aye. All about the place.
A pair of Arctic terns chase by, turning around each other with paper wings, calling in thin rasps.
The girl goes on again, sending up clouds of white moths as she strides over the flower field.
They sit together by a small rocky bay.
The day goes. The sun turns high over them. They listen to the sucking and draining sound of the ebb tide on the nearby pebble beach, and the crackling sound of drying seaweed. Strewn around, the empty shells and blue arms of crabs.
The boy sniffs, and throws his posy down to the water.
He says, Tell ye what. Ah'd be a Tammie Norrie.
Ach! Why a daft birdie like dat?
He answers, Dey look grand, so they do! Dar wings are funny, and dar beaks as weel.
The girl looks away, shaking her head. Ah'd be a bonxie dan, she says, And steal awa me da Tammie's fish, ah wad.
They sit in silence.
The girl asks, Whit else dan?
A selkie, the boy ventures.
A selkie! Whit far?
The boy shrugs. Dan ah could swim in the sea.
Oh, right well.
The answer seems reasonable enough.
The girl feels a tickle at her elbow. She finds an earwig squirming there. Jumping up, she throws the insect at the boy and says,
Du is mair like a forkietail!
And then she runs off, laughing.
The boy hesitates. He wants to follow her, but fears that he will seem too eager or stupid. He swats at the earwig instead.
The voe: flat, deep indigo, only breeze rippled. A red throated diver on the water calls mournfully to a pair in flight, turning in circles at the head of the voe. Oystercatchers, piping from the dark intertidal belt of a small island.
The boy counts to twenty, then follows, as the girl walks around the headland to the Voe's Atlantic mouth.
He finds her sitting on a point of shattered rock. She's taken off her basket and her headscarf. Her face on the sea horizon, eyes bright with the sun. Foula in the distance, wearing a cap of cloud.
The boy sits beside her again. Her smell: earth, peat smoke, carbolic, sun warmed skin.
Ah love thee, he says in a hurry.
The girl laughs, delighted. She turns and smiles at the boy: then throws back her head and laughs more harshly, surprising herself, roaring at the idea of romantic fancy like one of the fisherwomen on the wharf.
She doesn’t want to laughter, but finds it hard to stop now that she has started.
The boy's eyes shine. He runs back the way he has come, past the wall and the flower field and the turning click mill.
The girl knows that he will not come back to her.
A tin box.
A tin box in his hands.
Picking through the objects inside. Hands: clumsy.
Unwrapping the cloth lining, taking them out one by one.
Christmas cigarettes. Not smoked. A keepsake. Cigarettes made for the whole battalion. Bright red box, and a drawing of a smiling officer. Wishing them all a Happy Christmas. For what that was worth over any of the Christmases gone.
He reads the lettering on the front of the packet. The words: bright, hopeful, meaningless. Reading them over.
He looks up from the recess, the narrow space that he's backed into. Dirt walls. That cloying smell of mud and rotten sandbags. Sweat running on his face. A pain in his foot. His hearing starting to return. Someone running past - someone falling past – the last man's kit and gun spilling on the duckboards.
He begins to hear all of the noise again. Swelling to drown out the dull earthquake sounds: all of the other noise. The boom of artillery. The crack of machine gun fire, distant, then louder replies on his side. Shouts heard in between the volleys of gunfire. Machine noise, strangely unrecognised. Air pressure shifts of explosions, with that twin feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the usual encore of dust falling from the wet planks over his head.
It occurs to him, dumbly, in this moment, how little of it he generally hears.
His hands, disconnected. They fumble through the items in the box. A rat streaks past. An old rotten glove across the way, not salvageable. He can see in his mind's eye the corpses outside the recess: fallen into the ditch, pink and torn like the whales turned up on the wharf back home… How fascinating these large creatures were to him as a boy: how improbably large and hopeless they appeared. He would look into their foul-smelling mouths, to the yellow bristles there, and worry that the animal would reawaken, and he would be sucked in like Jonah, swallowed and gone.
This act of remembering, of being elsewhere, is a customary relief.
His hearing starts to come back. A ringing sound remaining. He's had this ringing in his ears before. He knows that it's usually temporary, and sure enough: everything is there and too loud again, and he retreats, falls back to the box in his shaking hands.
His fingers turn over the objects inside. The cigarettes. A sheaf of letters. Woodcarving of a small bird with wings outstretched in flight. A penknife, with ivory handle. Pen and ink. Cards.
And a slim soldier's bible. The pages marked by his hands, his dirty fingerprints. Pressed flowers spread through the pages of the bible. All of them turned to dry, flattened husks, ghosts only of the long summer light. Now as brittle and sun-starved as he was.
She'd given him the flowers before he left her.
Sees her still: standing on the pier.
Her expression, warm and defiant.
Dese flooers are for you, she'd said.
They'd looked at each other for a long time.
Then she'd said, nearly smiling: Ah like them less weel scaittert, now.
His ship drifting away. Looking back on the pier, with the elbows of his friends jagging into his ribs.
The home folk waving until they rounded the voe, and then the sea-swells beyond Papa Stour.
The flowers had kept their colour on the journey; but were dry and flat by the time they reached France.
Turning over the tin box. His reflection underneath.
A hand waving at his face.
An officer - standing over him. His mouth opening.
The sense of the man's words lost. The officer putting a rifle in his hands. Get up, Jock. Then grabbing him by his lapels, pulling him to his feet. Your ear's bleeding.
Answering, Is it?
Consternation on the face of the officer. Who's line are you on?
Answering: Twelfth, Highland. Heavy artillery.
Get in back with the others, then.
The officer's hands shaking. His smile a thin grimace; the very same drawn out fear there on his face.
Three summers later.
Drinking at the Böd, long hours in the company of the friends that had returned. The voe under cloud: flat and grey as if filled by oil, the wind sharpening its surface as the evening goes.
They drink and sing to the roof and shout for the fiddler at the window to play for them, which he does until he falls drunk.
His uniform beer-stained and trampled by the time he sets back for home, and then with the light coming again in the northeast.
On the next day: all of the islands are there, under a blue sky. High streaks of clouds and a cooling wind.
He walks along a winding road, following the sun. Solitary bees patrolling the hedgerows, nettle-fed butterflies swimming around.
He visits the girl in her resting place, by the edge of a white sand beach. Sweet high stands of cow parsley in the fields surrounding. He has a warm coal still in his chest for the girl with the harsh laughter. The girl who was gone with Spanish Flu before he could come back to Shetland to claim her.
Clouds, dropping on the western slopes of Ronas Hill.
He gathers a posy of flowers, again, and stands before her bright stone.
Sees a collection of flowers nearby, wilting in a small glass jar.
Then lifts up his hands, scatters his gathered flowers to the wind.
With a week to go until the publication of The Last of Us, I thought I'd blog a short story which is set on another Scottish island, and which I wrote a number of years ago.
It's set on Oronsay (just south of the island of Colonsay). I'd been reading about sky burials, and about the Neolithic tribes who left the shell middens on Oronsay, and wanted to try and write from the point of view of a young tribeswoman.
The island she calls forest island is supposed to be Jura; and Alba is the west coast of Scotland.
Between the tides
We colour our faces in black, using charcoal from a fire gone cold. The rain comes down and we stand and wait for the lead of the holy men, the men who will bear my brother to his final resting place.
My mother is crying. She has her eyes hidden, under her cowl, but still I can see her cheeks. Her tears cut lines through the black, and I put an arm over her shoulder. The sea beside us is calm, just a small cresting wave here and there. The tide tugs at the shingle and the rain spikes the surface of the water, making a sound like the rain on the skin walls of out tents.
I look up, close my eyes. The rain runs on my face, and I let it drop down into my mouth. I cannot listen to the eulogies. If I listen I will be broken by grief, broken as my mother is there.
I cannot listen.
Instead I look away from this sadness: to the ocean, to the sky, where the griefmakers, the childbringers, the moon and the gods lie.
We stand around a wooden platform, crossbeams supporting a raft at head height. My brother is up there, lying on a bed of grass and fireflowers pulled up from the machair. His eyes are open on the sky. Rain runs on his cheeks like the tears and rain on ours. We have him dressed in his fine clothes, his new leather cape, his feather-cap, and his tunic with its double brocade lines of cowrie shells. His hair has been plaited and tied, by my aunt and cousins, in the ceremonial way. But only half of his face is tattooed. My uncle cannot bring himself to complete the work, begun before my brother's death, on the eve of his first hunt year. Unfinished, his forehead and cheeks on one side are that of a youth.
He will appear before the gods in this way, unready. His eyes sunken, skin grey. There is no hair on his face. He is too young to fall into the pantheon of local gods, and must live out his next life as an animal instead.
This poignancy makes me cry.
We hang garlands of flowers on the uprights of the platform, with small offerings, new shell necklaces.
Later, I watch from a viewpoint on the high dunes as the old women sing the song of the redshank. Their lean voices mimic the keening sound of the bird.
The wind ghosts up fragments of their lament to me.
Further along the beach are the real redshanks, picking around with the oystercatchers, blown along by wind-whips, feeding on the wet sand between the tides. They call back to the old women.
On the following days scavenging birds come to circle: gulls, bonxies, then the crows and buzzards. A sea eagle scans from high up, but is harried and chased off by the gulls. Their high turning calls wake us early.
We avoid the far end of the beach, staying in camp. I tend to my mother. She has taken to bed, refusing to eat her meals. I lie beside her on our mat, running my fingers through her hair, giving her hot drinks and whispering songs in her ear to help her forget, songs of the summer forage.
The birds carry my brother to the heavens. His flesh takes one cycle of the moon to disappear; then it is safe to go and see the shell of him.
Each day I collect a posy of blue and yellow flowers to leave by his head. There is a growing petal-heap there, a garland of fading colours.
With the next moon and with the first cold rains of winter, the platform collapses. In two more days it is taken by the wind and high tides. My brothers bones and clothing and his gifts are washed along our shore, then scattered by the tide and pulled out to sea.
That which is left, stranded high on the beach, we take out in our boats to be thrown into the deep.
In the autumn we move our camp to the main midden on other side of the island. My mother has a little more of her appetite. I take her for walks, take her fishing in the west of the island, try to bring her back to the way she was. We walk on the dunes and I talk at her without stopping, telling her who is in hand with who, which man is in command on the hunt, who is with child. All of my gossip is a surprise to her. She follows behind me, nodding but saying nothing, her steps short, eyes down on the sand or machair.
The men go out in their canoes fishing. The old women and children collect shellfish and crabs in the tide pools by the headland. And on fine days we women take our skin boats out to forest island to forage for hazelnuts, which we bring back and roast in large fire-pits dug into the earth. This roasting keeps the hazels from tainting over the winter.
Last night the moon was long in the sky; each new day colder and shorter than the last. I take my skin boat out, alone, to forest island.
I pass seadogs upturned on rocks. They see me and crash into the water, reappearing around me at their own safe distance. In the sand-shallows there are fish which I could easily catch with my gaff—the waters here are easy to spike from—but I stay my hand. There is enough to eat on the island.
I have spent many nights alone on forest island. Alone, I can think and wonder at things, without the arms-jabs and keen looks of the young men.
The sun has already dropped below the horizon by the time I pull my boat onto the shore. I land it high above the tide line.
Under a cloudless sky I roll out my blankets, then wait for the stars.
My grandfather taught me what he knew about the sky. He said that the stars follow the sun around, rising over the mountains of the white land to the east, settling down again in the ocean, west. Higher up the stars shine with a steady light, but nearer the horizon they flicker like hilltop fires. The stars are in groups, and the patterns they form in the sky are unchanging. Around the dark wheel of the sky, circling in its whirlpool and visible all year, are the creatures of the sea: the salmon, the seadog, the whale and dolphin. Further out are lesser creatures: gulls, shags, puffins, smaller fish. Some of these creatures are visible all year, but others, to the south, appear only in certain seasons. Spring: the dog and oystercatcher. The swallow and eagle in summer. In autumn, the otter. And in winter the god of night appears with his bow and arrow, turning high.
The night-god is a shaman. Sometimes, on very dark nights in winter, his breath-trails and the smoke of his fire appear in the sky. The smoke is very beautiful: it can turn the sky completely to colour: to red, green, blue, so bright that it seems day will flare up like a dry-grass fire.
I wonder about the stars. Why should some wander the heavens while others remain fixed? My grandfather said that the free stars are the torches of great travelling sky-peoples, who move unhindered among the steady fires of the ordinary folk. These travelling people are eternal, he said. They can never die, and so they move on forever. The steady stars are mortals, like us. And when one of these mortals die they fly with a torch in their hand across the black. On any clear night, if you watch, you can see a hand or two of these people dying.
I see one such star and think of my brother.
Later, when the moon comes up, I overturn my skin boat, burying one side of it in the sand then propping up the other with forked sticks.
I lie on my blankets under the boat.
The sound of wolves, their noise carrying far on the sea-calm, from the white land in the east. They call to waken the dead, pleading with the newly-gone to reawaken while the moon is high.
I watch for my brother; when I watch for a long time I think I can see him standing at the far end of the beach, looking in my direction. He doesn’t move. I think he's smiling, but I'm not sure. His face is half in shadow.
He might have smiled once.
I waken, cold. Morning kindling in the east.
The wind whines around the trees. My blanket is damp, my clothes are sodden. The clouds scud low in the sky. Sheets of rain fall like grey nets cast on the sea. I crawl out from under the boat and stand on the beach.
The turn of weather has taken me by surprise. The sea is white-capped, my home island lost behind roiling mist.
I will not be able to push out my boat.
I huddle under my blanket, feeling dejected, cold. I had hoped to return to the island early, to share in the spoils of the hunt moon.
Hunger sharpens my wits. I make a fire in a shelter of stones, then collect shellfish, which I cook wrapped in docken leaves. I find hazelnuts, which I roast in the fire, and feel better after this.
In the afternoon I make a stronger shelter of leaning sticks, woven together and covered with ferns and hazel suckers. It is dry and warm inside this shelter. Lying on a bed of tindered autumn bracken I enjoy the woodburn smell of the fire. I think of my mother, my brother, my tribe. I think of the food they'll be eating and their warm tents. I think of the stories they'll be telling and the children's games of stone-and-beaker. Watching my brother receive the first of his tattoos last summer, I remember how relaxed he looked during the ceremony: my uncle much more the concerned one, sitting astride him with his adze, tap hammer and charcoal pot. I remember the Spring festival last: the men leaping over the fire-pit to the drums, then kicking at the embers with their bare feet, sparks twisting up. All of us wearing our deerskins and god masks, the faces of the wild boar, the seadog, the wolf.
The wind grows through the afternoon, raking at the sea and scattering leaves from the hazel forest.
During a storm there are no birds or animals for me to take with my bow; nor are fish eager to stray from their crannies. I forage instead, but there is little for me to take, besides more shell meat and mushrooms.
I nest down under my blankets and skins, knees against my chest for warmth, and wait for morning. I keep the fire going for as long as I can, mesmerised by the flames and by the simple task of drying out kindling.
In the night I hear my brother calling me. His words come with the wind. I look up from my shelter and he's there at the far end of the beach. He sits, not waving. He shimmers like a fish, then stands, falls, rolls forward.
He takes on the mantle of an old woman, back bowed, cowl up.
Then he disappears.
The dawn sky is scoured-shell blue.
I eat mussels cooked in the cinders of last night's fire. The sea-fog has gone, and I can see my home island home. I am eager to be off early, to return to my mother and tribe. I forage briefly before leaving and find a giant mushroom in a mossy dell in the wood, which I pull up gently to take back home to my mother. Also, I collect smaller mushrooms and fallen hazels missed after our last forage, and a garland of white heather for our tent.
I rush my boat away from the shore, plaids gathered up under my arm as I climb inside the wobbling frame.
I have to paddle hard to get past the first breaking waves.
There is a sharp breeze on the sea, and it chills my face, my bare arms. The sun crackles like firelight on the water; I keep a steady rhythm going, concentrating on my movements, trying to plunge in the paddle with as little splash as possible. The wind turns as I leave the shore, blowing more or less at my back.
Forest island falls away behind me.
Slowly, towards noon, I pull closer to my home. I see many rising palls of smoke pushed south by the wind. Gulls skim over the water ahead, then dive close, close enough for me to see the red spots on their bills and their poisonous eyes. A sea-dog ducks close, then disappears.
From a distance I see two people standing on the Spring beach. I wave to them but they don't wave back, not even when I whistle and call.
I pull eagerly with my paddle.
The people are standing in the direction of the crackling sun, and it is hard for me to see them. The beach ahead is brilliant white, and I feel my boat begin to rise and fall, see a line of surf folding just ahead.
I call again, but they don’t reply. Nor do they come into the surf to greet me.
This is odd.
Then I see their faces.
Their faces are untattooed. Their bodies, dark with dirt. Their beards are brown, and they wear unusual leathers, tied as tunics at their waists.
They wear the silver hides of wolves on their heads.
Not my people.
My heart beats fast. I look up and down the beach for my tribe, but nothing. The surf begins to push me to the shore, and the two men laugh and beckon for me to keep coming, shouting words I cannot understand. I am close enough to see their eyes, which are coloured black around.
Their faces look like skulls.
I call for my people, my mother. No-one answers. The men hold up their spears. They taunt me, gesturing that I should come to them.
Confused, frightened, I paddle frantically back for the sea. The men whoop and whistle and run into the water up to their waists, coming so close that I fear they might pull me from my boat, but then they stop.
It is too deep for them.
They hold on to their spears, not wanting to lose them over the water.
I pull hard with my paddle, ignoring the burning of my arms and back, until I'm lost from the island's tide rolls and back out into the windcrests of sea.
Looking back, I see other men standing beside them on the beach. They huddle together in conference. One points in my direction.
Their voices come with the wind, then nothing.
The sun drops. I lie under my skins, bone cold. The sea laps at the side of my boat. The boat is made for short journeys between the islands, not for long stays on the water, and the bottom of it is slowly filling up. I have to empty it frequently; my feet are numbed by the cold water.
Feeling hungry, I eat the wet flesh of the giant mushroom, but it tastes of little more than earth. I lapse into a broken sleep, wakening often, the pitching movement of the boat bringing dreams of falling.
I think of my mother, my brother, and feel a terrible emptiness.
I waken, look out from under my skins. The chill of early morning on my face.
I have drifted overnight, the sea currents taking me east. My island has dropped to the horizon, but the white land, Alba, is closer than I have ever seen it before. It looms amazingly large ahead of me. There are mountains, vast in the sky, with white tops leading down to valleys of rubble, gorges, forests.
The boat is heavy with water. I waken to the danger of this and begin to bail. My hands are bloodless, clumsy at first, but as I bowl their strength returns.
I eat the scraps of mushroom meat remaining. The sun comes out and I lie in its warmth. Birds circle, way up, nearly too high for me to see.
I sit inert, hands rubbed raw by the salt-water.
The day warms. The ice-mountains of Alba gathers shawls of cloud as the day goes, reminding me of the old women of our tribe.
I lie down in the boat, no strength to take up my oar again.
The currents push me on.
I cry and wish that I were dead with my brother, curse the gods for their spite: then think again and send up solemn prayers instead.
I pray for my mother, finally submit to sleep.
I drift toward a narrow tree-lined beach.
No sign of any other tribe; no rising smoke. My boat lurches forward, then stalls. Looking over the edge I see water and sand. The feeling of stillness is very unusual and it makes me retch. Frightened, I huddle down inside the boat until the strangeness passes.
In a while I jump out into the shallow water and stand, for the first time in my life, on the shore of Alba. A beach of shell, sand, kelp, just like the beaches of my island home. I pull the boat up beyond the strand line and sit inside, wrapped up in my blankets for comfort, looking back on the islands I have passed.
I sleep and regain my warmth. Then hunger wakens me and I climb out of the boat, pulling it under dense prickling bushes.
With my knife, bow and sling primed, I set off.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.