Scarborough. 13 years earlier.
Doug shrugged. Whatever. They’d been in the bar for a wee while and he was hungry but not fussed. Micky wanted to get a pie at the pub but Gordo demanded Fish N Chips from the chippie: like they didn’t see enough fish.
It had been a bright day for December. Last year’s storms hovered in the back of his mind. Bloody awful. And he wondered whether this year would be any different.
A north-westerly coming in over the top of the bay kept the clouds high and light. A wee bit of rain in the morning but nothing to write home about. Doug lazily kicked a stone perched on the edge of the kerb. He winced as it picked up speed down the hill, suddenly scudding left, towards a girlie. It clattered by her feet but she seemed oblivious.
Her feet: Doug was in the middle of thinking this half odd when he was distracted from his train of thought by Gordo punching him in the upper arm. Bastard. Since they started on the boats Gordo had become more of a kid than ever. Doug didn’t really know Micky but Gordo and he had kicked around since they were about six or so.
Every now and then a thought crossed Doug’s mind that made sense of something or other. This wasn’t one of those occasions.
Gordo was a wiry, blue-skinned fisher boy. His coppery hair was a slathered-over slick of cow-lick meets Oasis (pick a Gallagher any Gallagher). Much like his hair, Gordo spent most of the time just slightly out of control.
Recently though it was starting to get out of hand. It usually started with a glance and an exchange between Gordo and some bloke or other: then one’d have a pop at the other and before you knew it they’d all be rolling around on the ground like someone in a Die Hard movie.
Gordo had a tendency to spout phrases from his favourite films while having the fight, all part of some rolling movie in his head.
The most confusing of them all was when Gordo used a line from his favourite old movie Lawrence of Arabia.
Seeing Gordo wade into a load of pilly pin-eyed Scallies and Mancs shouting ‘we’ve taken Akabar, me and the wogs…’ was one of the most surprising things that Doug had ever witnessed – but not quite as much as the tenement boys Gordo usually chose to take a run at.
This usually gave Gordo an advantage in the fighting department because the poor bastards were either so confused or wrong footed by his ramblings that they usually forgot to get stuck in right away.
Doug would, as always, have to go and reach into the frantic twisting of what was Gordo and his current victim, lifting them off and putting them to one side.
He would then dust off Gordo, berate him, usually while trying to hold the now risen victim at bay with a large calloused hand, until he, Gordo and whomsoever was with them kicked off down the street with the other man’s curses hot in their ears.
Bloody fighting all the time: Doug thought the exertion of the Boats, the sheer freezing brutality of it might have put some lead in those flailing hay-maker arms of Gordo’s: but it just seemed to make his fists heavier and faster in the swinging.
Doug hated fighting; surprising for someone who was so good at it. He did not see the need to recreate your own little hell every Friday night.
Two nights; they were in for two nights until they set out for The Hook. Two nights – and out of their depth in another world.
They are a dead breed here – the fishing left a long time ago – and apart from the rare boat like the one they were on, the big fishing was further north and hard to come by.
Gordo had been warned by the Skipper that his apprenticeship was over if he ended up in the Nick like the last time.
(Gordo had been arrested for brawling with most of the bar down the Legion. The police report stated that Gordo attacked a man armed only with a lady’s blue plastic handbag, half a light & bitter and the glass it came in. Thankfully the most serious injury had been to the Club Secretary’s eye when the clasp on the bag broke mid-swing, scattering the contents like daggers across the room, one hair clip in particular.)
Doug wondered whether he could get away with just one shore leave without Gordo ruining it.
The punch in his upper arm hurt like bloody murder. Girl’s feet. The girl’s feet were bare. She’s off her head he thought, only half realizing that he was in fact walking towards her in a slight daze.
A noise; a familiar noise. His name. Mickey calling his name. Mickey had spotted the chippy. The three of them wheel right towards the bleak bright light shining through the fat, flat, blue-painted letters.
Scrapings. A bag of scrapings and chips. Battered saveloy for the brave.
Doug looked away from the acidic fat fry to his feet. He did this a lot for very little reason. It just felt quite comfortable to drop your head and feel the muscles through the back of your neck stretch tight. Next to his steel-toed boots, the right one pitted and scarred from where he kicked the lever on the winch, stood two small pink, dirty, pretty feet.
His eyes followed up the line from where the turn-ups revealed the stitching, up the seam, indigo jeans stretched tight over muscular but well-formed legs. Beyond the legs – midrift – and the beginnings of a jumper, ribbed, thick; but waisted and short like the fashion had them wear.
(Doug looked away to the door and back again – possibly just to check that it really was the month it was and he really was in the same freezing cold place as the inhabitant of the mid-rift revealing sweater.)
Stuck on top of the jumper, punctuated by two of the deepest ultramarine eyes he’d ever set his own grey-brown pools on, sat the face of the woman he would love forever.
Her face, still and pale at first, seemed to open like curtains on a sunny day. Her smile folded over his heart in a red wrap of happiness.
Doug felt something at the centre of him – a feeling – turn and expand.
‘how y’ doing?’
“good, nice, yeah. How y’ doing?”
The girl pauses and looks at him with a small tilt of her head.
“Do you just repeat everything or do you make up your own sentences?”
”Sentences: are you just going to repeat mine or will you make up your own?”
The smile belied the sharpness of the question: and Doug was a bit lost to know how to respond.
The women where Doug came from either put drunk hands on you or curled them into a fist and stuck them in your eye. Or hit you with a heel if they were at the ‘heels off’ end of a night out.
They rarely used words to bite; they had teeth for that.
Her voice was southern; soft; different to the guttural crawl of words that poured out of the mouths of the mothers and sisters of the boat boys in the bay he came from.
He fidgeted. Then spoke before thinking.
“I’ve a mind”
“A mind to what?”
Bollocks thought Doug. A smart arse. But mother, those eyes.
“It wasn’t an accusation.”
He looked at her and panicked. Hot fingers of shame crept up his throat and he collapsed backwards through the years to a birthday: he was five and they said ‘sing ye bastard sing’ and he couldn’t. Nor could he run away. He wanted to run away.
He began to apologise for being, well, not what he thought she might have wanted him to be.
He was so busy apologizing to her in his head he didn’t hear the soft words tumble over her lips; he just felt the cool fingers of her hand on his throat. The lava subsided and his heart lurched to a stop.
“Shall we eat”
She pointed to his food, now resting in a freshly staining paper wrap on the counter.
“We in a rush then?”
He slipped the wrap off the counter and turned out towards the door with her.
As Doug trailed out the door he passed Micky and Gordo who seemed oblivious to his leaving.
It was as if she’d spirited him out of the chip shop in an invisible wrap of staining newspaper and her smile.
He watched her feet as they stepped in front of him. The soles were black and slick with the rain salt spit from the granite paving slabs.
“So where we going then”.
“What’s LTs when it’s at home?”
The last part of the question took on a woofing like quality as the chip he bit into deposited its incendiary fat sodden middle onto his tongue.
“Kind of a club – bands – live music.”
“Who’re we seeing then? Someone big?”
Fuck knows who they are thinks Doug. His tongue has started to cool a little. So he tries talking.
“Where’s your shoes?”
She looked at her feet, as if it had just occurred to her that she had no shoes on.
“I gave them to a man with none.”
“A man? You gave your shoes to a man?”
He wanted to say you’re truly out of your mind; it’s December and it’s freezing; and you’ve no shoes; and shoes are important.
If you’ve got a pair of boots or trainers that you’ve coughed up for you should wear them with pride.
People got mugged for trainers.
You’ve got to have too much money if you’re giving the likes of your shoes to a man you don’t know on a cold port night.
But he didn’t: that would be rude; aye, bloody rude; not what you’d say to the woman you will love forever.
His eyes searched the floor in the half-light: there was glass and bottle tops and the crisp bags in the gutter.
“I hope he has pretty feet”
Her aquamarine pools blinked and sparked back at him: and the barefoot girl and the fisher boat boy walked on, he blindly behind her, his mind lost to wondering many things but mainly to wondering her name. Hope maybe. Hope. After years of bloody awfulness to meet Hope in bare feet in a back street chippie in Scarborough on a December night would be a beautiful thing indeed. The kind songs are written about.
Doug’s version of hope, the one he kept locked tight in the metal box of himself, was a different hope to the one carried around by the brick thick boys on the boats: with faces like memories and fists like paddled bats of splintered decking and whale thick skin.
Not much had changed for them really – for centuries – and even now, with the world turned upside down and all but over – still much the same. Their hope lived quietly, hidden, shored up in booze, birds and the money they earned out in the leathery black tides of the North Sea. Fixed. Secured. Tied.
Doug thought his hope seemed to come from a different place: a moving place where the lines didn’t matter anymore, or the rattle of your accent or the callouses on your hands or the scars across your heart.
All you needed was some belief in the amazing: and in the kindness that frees people to be truly great: in a world where a man like Doug would forfeit his people’s inheritance and his ‘place’ in the world and follow a barefoot woman out of a chippy to a place where hope sang with barely a backward glance.
That would be extraordinary.
The extraordinary would free you in the end Doug believed; somehow somewhere, but it would free you. No hope and you’re tied to a past and a life not worth living. Last Christmas as Doug had felt the first heavy weather roll in off the spume he knew that it was to be a special year: a year of extraordinary things.
“What’s your name?”
“So B then, as in?”
“B as in Beatrice.”
“What you sorry about?”
She looked at him, smiled that smile and took his open hand and walked on.
“Doug; my name’s Doug.”
Said more to remind himself that it really was him standing there than to identify himself.
Doug’s fingers trawled the outlines of his face – a small loop and Bos’un’s Knot plays through the fingers of his other hand.
The Bosun’s Knot. It went with him everywhere: roping and tying his memory to him; a reminder of a childhood spent tying and untying boatmen’s knots for his father to disapprove of and throw back in his face.
Once a particular knot had been particularly bad. His father’s chopped-loin fingers simply pulled it though until it was tight like a fist; and proceeded to beat Doug soundly without any trace of emotion until it had woven flaxen patterns across his shoulders, face and back.
Doug turned the knot over through his fingers, feeling its rubbing against his palm.
His poor mother – she had tried to intervene, only to be knocked sideways; as always.
It was the only time his father seemed to focus on her properly, when he was squaring to hit her. Hitting was what Doug’s father did; between working like a bastard and drinking like something he caught.
There was nothing subtle about Doug’s Da. He was very obvious in every way.
At one point Doug had looked up through the beating and saw his father actually reposition himself – to get a better grip on the rope, and to get a bit more swing on it.
Thorough perhaps, but a bastard none the less.
Doug’s father was a scuffed stone of a man soaked with the sea and colder than the deepest part of it. Doug had never really understood what bought his mother back to that bleak place and to the life and bed of that man.
Scarborough. It tugged at his heart. It was in his blood
Milly, his mother, was a teacher. She taught the young scrapings of the fishing families under the bleak blue of the strip light in small pre-fab classroom that sat just above the old Friend’s Meeting House near the petrol station. The school was mixture of small Victorian school house, prefab 60s bolt on and some outhouses. And a rather rust riddled lean-to bike shed. Milly’s domain was the 60s bit. Damp. Leaking. Bleak.
She had always coddled Doug, the youngest boy. Unlike the other two, Doug was always a little lost.
A dreamer; soft his father said. Full of words and rubbish and ideas that would drown him one day – because he’d be thinking of them when his mind should be on the sea.
So, Doug had lived his young life trapped in the screaming cavity between his inside and his out.
He had also learned to fight like a bastard. It was the perfect disguise. He hid every word he ever read, every poem his mother had ever taught him and every dream he’d ever entertained behind a curtain of random violence, very quick to fists and flailing lest anybody get the idea that he was a jessie.
That was his entertainment in this fishing land by the sea where weather and time rolled across the water to wash up frothing in the harbour at the bottom of the cliffs. The fishing village was made up of a collection of old cottages and new builds that stumbled down the steep hill to collapse around each other’s shoulders in a heap by the quay.
There was one small, singular thick-walled pub, part old, part 1950s build out, its inside a smoker’s lung, fugged with old fags and beer breath, the air cut every now and then by the slick, spilled sweetness of a rum and coke or one of those alco-pop drinks that the lasses tanked through.
Outside, the boats, the ones still working, jostled each other in the crook of the harbour, skittish, straining at their leads, waiting for their owners, the nets spread like webs behind them. Like creatures from a time forgot.
His grandfather had said that the day they slipped the drift nets off and dressed the purses in they killed themselves – as greed got hold of them by the scruff of the neck – them, the Frenchies, the Dutch and the Belgians – and suffocated the life out of the North Sea.
The fishermen had lost their voice in the world. And increasingly their memory – as the generational Alzheimers kicks in and enters them into a time of forgetting.
Doug’s mother had always struggled to be heard. That was because she spoke as opposed to the other women who cawed, screeched and attacked, scared of anything they didn’t know and the world outside the one they ruled.
She had every right to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. Milly was the last generation in a long line of Scottish Lasses, the teaming hordes of bright strong and adventurous girls and women who provided the desperately needed labour – the gutters the pickers and the packers – to keep the explosive growth of the North Sea Herring Industry and its output on track.
When the fishing industries of the late 18th and 19th centuries were still powerhouses of opportunity, work and profit, thousands of them would edge down the country, shadowing the herring shoals and the fleets that stalked them down the North East coast of Scotland and England.
Milly loved her mother’s Lasses’ stories. Her mother had loved her Scarborough times – days of hard work friendships and freedom. The Scarborough folk had the same attitude to ‘blowins’ that they had in her home village. Just like us. Not showy. Not good with strangers. Not like Hull or Grimsby. Every Tom Dick and Harry there.
Milly had every right to stand tall. But perhaps her mother wanting more for Milly – wanting her to finally step out of the scale-strewn floor and out of the rented rooms and the smell of it all – had severed the chord forever between the her and the old breed of fisher women. Milly wasn’t one of them – one of ‘us’ – anymore. She had set aside her roots and ‘got ideas above her station’. Or her mother had and Milly had concurred.
‘Teacher indeed. Get over yourself lass.’
Their fishing village was as every fishing village. Brined in it. Knowing nothing else. Or wanting to. Even as the corpse of it began to rot.
Every man in the village lived breathed and died fishing, the violence of their lives seamlessly moving between land and sea, rolling off the deck on to the shore like a wave. Doug’s father and brothers were no different.
To stop fighting, even while away from the water, was to leave yourself ill-prepared for the next time she might pick a fight with you. But the fishing was all but disappeared– leaving many of the young men locked in a vacuum, propped like side show wax works of a trade that once was, there only for people to point and stare.
The greater the dislocation became between the men and the sea they served, the greater the violence ingrained inside them flared and burned. Doug’s father stoked that violence in his softest son, plying it, teasing it into something bigger. He did it to spite Doug’s mother and he did it to spite the boy. She simply continued to share her dreams and her words with the boy far away from his father’s prying eyes.
Unknown to her, his brothers’ green eyes noted every occasion when she did and passed them on to their father on his return, seeking only to please him and set themselves apart from their Mother’s precious little boy.
Doug’s Father, against his Mother’s best endeavours, triumphed in the end.
One night the violence went too far, sweeping Doug away from his mother, snapped free of her at last by the only thing his father understood.
He had not meant to hurt the man. He wanted to make him see sense. Knock him about a bit. Doug hated the pack animal frenzies that he saw in the shopping-centres at night. Call themselves men? He always carried his own fights and never set out to do more than shake people up.
This time though he was too much his father and little enough him – and the small, beautiful light that flickered in the corner of his soul was blown to black by the actions of his fists.
Doug’s father made no effort to disguise the joy he took in this Action of his youngest son, his words of pride clattering out of his mouth across his brittle, spittle-flecked lips; plumbing every depth of pleasure he took in celebrating the act of mindless insanity that had cut his son adrift from his mother forever.
His Da’s forensic interest in the detail of what Doug had done to the young man now lying in the hospital, barely connected to his life by tubes and monitor wires, was a crime all of itself.
Doug’s mother had sat in her old peach dressing gown, half slumped and half folded over in the small easy chair by the door.
She already knew what her son had done before he walked into the house. The gossip machine worked at speed in a village as small and incestuous as this. The news hung around her like a thick black wrap. He could not look at her. She could not look at him.
The police had come soon after. She recognized one as a boy who used to be in her class. He could be barely twenty years old and here he was for her boy – her little boy. A small tongue of rain spray from the previously open door speckled across the floor and over her bare feet. She’d forgotten to put her slippers on. She hated them anyway. One of the things her husband quietly despised about her. Bare feet. Like a mad woman from an institution. She was a teacher for God’s sake. Set an example he thought
The door was now closed, the departing Doug leaving a still black sadness in his wake so leaden that she could barely lift her head. The light warped across her face. Her eyes turned to coal and the light in her heart went out.
Over the following days and weeks after that night his mother retreated into reading in silence, unconcerned as to anyone else in the house and their needs. She would sing the gaelic folk songs of the Lasses that her mother had taught her word for word, as she had learned them, by joyous rote.
Milly did not leave her job, or get fired.
She just never went up the hill again, the door of her class remaining shut until her replacement arrived, fresh with vigour and egalitarian dreams.
Doug’s mother never cooked another meal again for Doug’s father or his brothers. They never asked for nor expected one. Doug’s father never lifted a finger nor raised his voice again to the woman he had destroyed. In exchange she never noticed nor looked directly at him ever again.
Only once, when he moved a small, cheaply framed picture of Doug that she kept on the sill by the chair where she read to provoke her, did she gather herself up, walk across the room to the fireplace, select the poker, walk up to him, and bring it down across his back, fiercely with all her might, in firmly applied rhythmic loathing for twenty or so strokes.
She returned the poker to the fireplace, stepping over his collapsed body to return to her chair, leaving her second youngest son to call the ambulance and report ‘the fall’. That she had cracked three of his vertebrae, broken two ribs, ruptured his spleen and committed him to a lifetime of excoriating back pain was of no interest to her.
She knew that the pride of his violent masculinity would never allow him to complain or berate. That would be unmanly. That would be to be a jessy in his world. She simply repositioned the picture frame and took up her book again to read. She suffocated slowly and quietly over some years, the weight of her disappointment and loss finally killing her quietly in her bed.
The exchange by the door was the last time Doug and his mother would ever share an intimacy. Doug went on an extended tour of fishing duty on the atlantic boats and then to the ivory coast to work on the wet storage boats moving legal and not so legal goods up and down the coast; just to let the squall pass.
He never saw his mother alive again. She died a year or so later, her funeral a blur. They had waited for him. They were decent enough to do that. But by the end of the afternoon on which she was buried, under the billow of another storm rolling in, Doug was already on his way to Manchester airport, for a three part journey back to the steaming hulls of Cote D’Ivoire. And now he was back. And the few years between then and now feel like centuries.
Doug fingers the noose. He made a promise to himself that night and it was one that he fully intended to keep. Promises.
Life was full of them: most of which he ignored for the tease they were. But there were promises of hope locked in the direction of the barefoot girl in front of him. A promise he was happy to pursue for just a while anyway . They walked on towards a small building with people milling outside.
The band. They weren’t bad if he remembered right. It was a home game for them. This was home. All a bit poodle and hairspray for Doug. But where the bare feet went, so went Doug.
As they stood outside, Doug caught two figures swooping across the road, cawing and soaring in and about each other like gulls turning wheels in the air: Gordo and Micky. And Gordo with blood spotting from a cut above his eye. Bloody hopeless
Bea sits at her kitchen table. Her fingers gently finger the pages of the newspaper. The radio chirps along in the background. Careful what you wish for her father had always told her.
Tom will be here soon. Is there ever a right time she asks herself? The rhetoric of her thoughts is not lost on her. She agreed with her sister a long time ago that when the time came to reveal the truth she would just do it. They would not discuss it and pore over the ‘hows, whens and whys’ of it all.
Bea felt the pressure on her chest shift slightly to the right. Isn’t fear an amazing thing. The phone rings. She slides out of the chair and walks into the hall. She picks up the receiver, the smell of a hundred old mouths, her mouths, meets her nose. The line crackles. Nothing. The white noise washes up and down the length of the line like soft, tidal waves.
Nothing. She puts the receiver down, the sound of the telephonic surf falling into the distance. She returns to the table.
The newspaper’s pages are filled to bursting with theories about which way the country is headed. No change there then. ‘Down the pan’ says the Sun. God bless the Sun. They had made the momentous step of getting Page 3 to revert to a Sun Stunna collection – with a young lady from each potential new neighbouring landmass. Tops on of course. Never to return to the heyday of young women’s breasts filling the silences in every workers’ café and van and lorry cab up and down the country.
They had quickly worked their way through the Dutch, the Danish, the Swedes, the Icelanders and the Greenlanders and were, currently featuring any one of a number of swimwear girls from the East Coast edition of Sports Illustrated.
Bea had recently taken to devouring every paper every day, bobbling between sheer terror at the ways of people and the crashing comedy of desperate newspaper flailing. She was never disappointed.
The relentless obsession with the ‘special relationship’ with America, one so close to the English heart, for better or for worse, continued unabated and with a new sharpened purpose. The Daily Express had chided everyone for just sitting there and not trying everything in our power to ‘Not go the way of the Americans’.
A reader’s Poll in the Express revealed that the rather thin and self-congratulatory double meaning they’d applied to the ‘Go The Way’ part of the slogan had been lost on approximately 83% of readers.
The Telegraph had simply reverted, via a few hot stories of ministerial profiteering (and a misguided interview with the gleeful camel-coated one smoking outside the pub), to a pre-1900 editorial stand-point, rummaging in their antique wooden chest of words from the exploratory, expeditionary Victorian past to celebrate and describe everything from the new ticketed petrol vending to cliff perching sea birds: flora & fauna always especially close to their hearts.
They had intended to marshal interest in the destruction caused by the spillages from North Sea pipes rent open as the landmass had bobbed off its latitude mark. But the growing distance between the people and the problem left the fish and sea beds of the North Sea, previously in very close proximity to the Scottish, coast feeling like so many Darfurians: totally out of sight and very out of mind
The Telegraph had also reignited their old relationship with the National Geographic Society and taken to mapping every movement of the island with expeditionary gusto and military precision, with the help of GPS and its old contacts at the Ministry For Defence & Homeland Security.
They were just happy now to be able to refer to everyone on the island as intrepid, imbued with the rich patina of the pioneering British spirit, each one of us a Shackleton in his or her own right.
Bea slinked across the kitchen towards the Aga where the kettle was now tooting impatiently. The scuff of her own slippers against the cool flags irritated her. Ironic given that it was an affectation that she’d originally developed solely to irritate her father, flack flacking around the highly polished wooden floors of the family home, making him wince.
She had even managed to talk her sister into doing the same. They would let the irritation build up to deafening as they wandered around the house. The synchronised flacking one could unleash across those expansive wooden floored rooms if you put your mind to it was, on certain days, verging on waterboarding in its application and cruelty.
She could amplify the impact of this at any time by reverting to her barefoot bandit persona for a few weeks, a silent but equally devastating tactic.
Arguments – Bea had mastered every shape, shade and form of them when it came to her father, her single-minded and wild eyed focus was awesome to witness.
Having palmed two, or was it three hob-nobs into her right hand from the grey-green biscuit jar to the right of the Aga, Bea stepped across to where the kettle perched.
She dropped the bag into the cup, and poured the steaming funnel of water down on to it.
She slopped in some milk and left it to swirl around as she flacked back to the pile of newspapers.
She sat and surveyed the scene of countless crumpled leaves of inked polemic in front of her, another catching her eye. As she hummed and looked further a scatter of crumbs from another bite of the biscuit held in her mouth made patterns on the page immediately below her, punctuating the blocks of text – little baked prompts and markers to random words and sentences.
Strange patterns wound themselves around the page, like fantastical maps, puzzling, codified and waiting to be broken.
Perhaps if Bea could link the words that each crumb pointed some reason would be ‘revealed’.
‘Institutional’, ‘Character’, ‘some’, ‘and’, ‘champfering’, ‘Gran Canarias’, ‘single mindedly challenging’ and her favourite word at the moment, ‘revelation’.
Everything was a bloody revelation at the moment as far as everyone was concerned. She bit again, this time sweeping the crumbed punctuation away immediately.
The Telegraph in tandem with the Daily Mail had also developed a role as ‘the voice’ for those Distant Islanders still under the governance of Westminster.
It seemed the Falkland Islanders (plus the odd veteran) and people from the Shetlands had some profoundly disturbing things in common.
The main one being this: if The Floating Island State of Great Britain was to eventually anchor herself up somewhere near Port Stanley, would she, if provoked, unleash her war machine half way across the world to save the Scilly Islanders from an aggressive incursion by volatile Bretons in smart smocks, waggling dangerous sausages claiming it for Belle France?
Or if Shetland was in danger of being recolonized by the Viking hordes of Denmark (though this time to be fair they would be bringing 3 star Michelin eateries, clean energy solutions, modular furniture and an endless supply of small, brightly-coloured and heavily franchised children’s building bricks) would Westminster dispatch the Sea lords to duff the Nordics up a bit and put them in their place?
The strangest comments had come from some random Falkland Islanders who in response to this discourse had mooted that they were a bit miffed at the idea of the Motherland ending up parked somewhere off their shores: something to do with enjoying the distance, all the better to appreciate all things being British while far enough away from the greedy eyes and paws of centralized government and random interference.
Anyway, Devolution had been mentioned which was jaw-droppingly remarkable, thought the Telegraph. Fight a bloody war for them and what do the ungrateful bastards want – devo-bloody-lution. Bad as the bloody Scots.
Bea found herself getting up earlier and earlier and not leaving the house until later and later as the sheer scale of the ‘news’ mounted up on her kitchen table.
It was currently 1.30pm: she had stepped into the kitchen at 7am. There were upsides to this obsession playing out on the table in front of her.
This great event had been the saving grace of the Newspaper industry as a whole.
The hysterical speed at which the smart phone world could deliver atomised news suddenly seemed utterly pointless. The speed of their progress seemed to set the pace for everything. And the dislocated unfeeling tsunami of data pointed ‘stuff’ suddenly felt very cold and distant.
There was something about the tactile pulpy nature, the realness of a newspaper, clutched tightly for all its worth, that reassured the reader.Newspapers smelled of something. They were rather persuasive. They affected how you thought. Newspapers rubbed off on you.
And people could share stuff over newspapers. Pointing at stuff, comparing things and generally just ‘leaning in’ to each other: you had to get up close and personal with a newspaper. You can’t really hunker over someone else’s crackberry to share in the fun of their news feed.
The internet was great but it was ‘out there’ which was fine when you’re not. But when you become as ‘out there’ as the medium, its attraction seemed to wane a bit.
Bea loved the Met Office – for more than just the obvious reason of the link to the Shipping Report.
The Met Office could always be relied upon to develop a new model for something. In the instance they had developed a whole new continental shift model of weather reporting specifically to cope with the now utterly random weather patterns caused by the combination of weather fronts moving towards around and behind us and us doing quite the same to the weather fronts. Regardless of finding themselves a few thousand miles elsewhere, the weather people still held a pining attachment to the fortunes of the Gulf Stream which, after having a very confused fortnight swerving towards Norway, doubling back towards the Dutch coast creating an unknown spat of decent weather and stopping just off the coast of County Cork, finally slipped back into it old habits with added gusto, inadvertently turning the Scillies into the new St. Barts in the process.
(The other small fly in the global ointment was the matter of time. Now time should be simple and straightforwards – the small glitch was that Greenwich was now quite a distance from its emphatic world clock shaping position of 51.4826° N, 0.0077° W. So the world experts in time were currently throwing a few suggestions around – but hadn’t got much further that the idea of placing a marker at that precise latitudinal and longitudinal position – but which would be used a little like the Plinth in Leicester Square – to exhibit artworks of national and international interest (though even this framing was proving an issue as the EU and the UN were still trying to figure out whether the sovereign waters of the UK were abstracted from the actual material mass of the UK or needed to stay firmly attached to it).
Bea slouched backwards into the nobbled uprights of the back of the kitchen chair and smiled to herself.
Maybe at some point they would float up to a large sign-post in the middle of the Atlantic swell – a sign with two arrows, one pointing to ‘Hope’, the other to ‘Oblivion’, not forgetting that ‘Down The Pan’ would be first right at the lights.
Some people are very excited. And some people are very scared. The unknown is very scary to some. Bea thinks the unknown is the most exciting thing ever.
She had lived here for twelve years now but talked little of the lifetime she lived before it. She’d felt feelings that the people around her, the people that she knew as her neighbours and friends, would never know.
Bea had created the extraordinary from the inside out. Though doing extraordinary things isn’t always the most popular thing to do – as she sensed that the ordinarily quite ordinary boy may just be about to find out.
It had not gone down very well with her father. Bea remembered the expression on his face when she told him that sunny afternoon in April. She had been standing half in and half out of the door of the library, diagonally across the room from where he was busily perusing the bookshelf.
She distinctly remembered that the taste of marmite and the burnt edges of toast had played around the back of her mouth as she stood there. (Bea always burned her toast.) The day had come when she could no longer pretend that perhaps the month was being unkind to her and her tummy was just a little bloated.
He had said nothing the day he picked her up from the station a couple months or so before hand, though the light and distant look in her eyes had created an almost unbearable desire in him to ask her what universal axis had shifted between before and today.
Perhaps he was reticent to ask in earshot of his driver.
Her father disliked the degree of familiarity that she had cultivated with Michael.
Both the girls had become very firmly fond of him. And their father felt that with every small pull of the rope towards them Michael was pulled just that little bit further away from him.
She had clambered into the back of the car in a highly un-ladylike manner. She knew that his perfect little world disintegrated just that little bit more with every shred of poise that she discarded. The truth was that her father had been side tracked from this line of questioning by the absence of her shoes.
“You gave them to a man?”
The slightly rising screech in her father’s voice pointed to the fact that he was unable to always remain so passively intellectual about quite everything.
‘Fine. Hangs around the house a lot. You know, little Jaqui’s gorgeous. I think things are alright. He seems to take care of her…but…I just wish…’
“He was less common?”
“That’s unkind and unfair…”
“Of course – what am I saying. It could have been much worse – he could have been black”
“Oh please we’re not going to…”
He stopped, either unwilling to disclose what he knew in front of Michael or unwilling to add his own conjecture to an already complicated situation.
“She’s fine…she’s missed you: she misses you.”
The pregnant pause hung in the car’s atmosphere feeling, for once, quite at home given the condition of one of the passengers.
“I miss her.”
Then that pause again, longer now
“Don’t want to know how your mother is?”
Bea had stared blankly out of the window – being Bea. Michael’s eyes watched her through the rear view mirror, curious to see how she would respond.
“She’s not my Mother.”
Her father loved Beatrice, his perfect little girl: but he hated Bea, because Bea was the woman who had taken all that was good in Beatrice: the gentle spirit and the light and the joy, the sharp curiosity: Bea was the young woman who had taken the child. She had taken her and turned her into an impulsive, difficult, willful, highly intelligent young woman who would not be denied.
Beautiful Beatrice had slowly over the last year or so turned into Bea. And Bea was the one who openly mocked her father’s politics and his publicly stated opinions. He hated that she had chosen not to be an accessory to his beliefs. Much to his annoyance she also seemed to be doing quite a good job of poisoning Michael against him.
She liked to find quick and easy ways of needling the middle class conformist in him. The recent development of her penchant for disposing of her footwear at the strangest times to the strangest people was remarkably effective in setting off is nervous social tick.
He was not from high enough up the social food chain to be blessed with the luxury of non-conformity. She knew that he quietly loathed this truth about himself. She knew that he dreamed of being ‘one of them’: the disheveled velvet Aristocrats that inhabited the comic society book in his mind.
It was a sign of freedom she said: she “wasn’t a cart horse forced to be shod”.
Her ‘mother’ Ellie, his second wife, hated Bea’s reappearances, viewing them the way some English women were forced to view loneliness or fat ankles: with a creeping resignation to their inevitability.
Ellie believed that Bea should have left home a long time ago: found herself a job; moved on; moved out.
Well, Bea thought; she had certainly moved on.
Her father had a tendency to put the words that described his own fears and concerns into the mouth of his new wife. Bea believed that he did this for a couple of very good reasons.
The first good reason was that it enabled him to hide his own deep wells of fear and vulnerability in someone else.
The second very good reason was that it was his indirect way of humanizing; softening her, this putting evidence of intimate caring or concern into her brittle mouth.
She knew that the witch was far happier when Bea was away. She could hide herself in the inane chop and scatter of Jamie’s bruschetta, some expensive lipstick and the mere physical presence of Bear being in their home from time to time.
Her father was used to Bea following ‘stupid’ bands around the country. Her father used words like that when he was scared and he was scared because he knew his daughter; and he knew the sheer expressive joy that living generated in her both spiritually and physically.
Everything that loosened the ties that bound them to him scared him. Scarborough had seemed a very long way away in December. They had let her go because she was going to go anyway whatever they said.
Bea found out that the witch had laughed in his face when he eventually told her about Bea’s ‘condition’.
She also found out that they had fought; bitterly. The witch had mocked him for his soft naivette. To his surprise, a furious anger welled from somewhere deep within him. It was the one of the few times that deeply unpleasant stain he kept hidden deep inside his highly controlled box of a life had leaked out in a fire spit traveling through his hand, forcing him to clutch and squeeze her arm very tightly: too tightly.
They both became aware of Viv, standing in the doorway accompanied by Bear. He had driven her to and from the supermarket at her father’s request while they baby-sat Viv’s little girl, now almost forgotten in her baby seat the mist of raised voices and palpable spite.
Bear had told Bea afterwards what had occurred.
Viv had apparently stared at them for a while, as if taking in the content and cause of their argument, blinked once, slowly, and walked away; away and up the stairs to where Bea sat waiting.
Bear had also intervened physically, walking across the room in four or five sinewy strides, his left hand reaching forwards, the calloused weight of his hand gently wrapping itself around Peter Davis’s right arm, the skin whitening under his grip.
Bear’s other arm moved simultaneously upwards cutting a space between Peter and Ellie, driving a soft wedge between them until they popped apart. Bea remembered that day as if it were both yesterday and never.
“Give him to me.”
Viv had walked softly and purposefully to the room at the far end of the house – the room where Bea sat hunched on the edge of the daybed (her favourite daybed in her favourite corner of the house, its comforting blue poplin embroidered with small floral motifs embossing themselves into her legs as she tucked them up beneath her). Viv just walked in and said it, directly, without emotion, flatly; it was almost a demand.
Schist & Leaving.
Schist. Michael would happily and without any trace of over cranked-sentiment admit that he loves the word.
Schist Schist Schist.
A guilty pleasure for a man who should know better than to play childish games with the English language – BUT – there was something of the divine collision in the word for him. Schist was more than just rock. Schist is where Schism meets Glisten. Where the rip and rent of timeless fixing, of rock in the ground ripped through with it, meets a liquid trickle of blackness. It’s the isthmus of it, the sliver of dark starkness set out against the sea of stone around it. The Christmas dark twinkle in it that he loves.
He vaguely tried to remember once why it had risen to such exalted heights in his mind – people like Michael didn’t really do word play or invest magical or mythical properties into anything beyond ordinance. There was no particular love at first sight moment that he could pin point.
He remembered the name first popping up in class – though beyond Science’s place as a big word that explained how some things happen and questioned everything else, pure geology was scantily embraced at his thoroughly decent school, as were all things slightly too knowing or academic.
He remembered that there are a few types of schist – a definite picturing in his mind’s eye of some pale-grey and sandy-shale ones next to the black one – Mica Schist – on the Rocks, Minerals and Ores reference chart in the lab block.
And he remembered more recently the reoccurring pictures of dusty hieroglyph tablets and religious icons carved out of the dark stuff in the sheets of cultural back-up notes the Army Intelligence units (he wasn’t even going to go there) dispensed to them to inform and enrich their ability to live, thrive and survive in dusty lands with fragile regimes and fractious tribes for neighbours.
It had taken on a deeper meaning eventually, while he was scuffing around three feet deep in a hastily dug bunker outside the village just near the principal border. Schist. Black rock. A ribbon of it written into the rock strata they had hastily dug into.
What the fuck they were doing there was a small puzzle in itself. But the glistening black schist became his inner horizon line for the hours of cowering in that bunker, his face pressed into its shallow walls simply to reduce the amount of him showing to the armour-piercing rounds zipping over his head.
The low scent of the silent room drew him back from the panoramic black slash that had enveloped his mind Schist. It had popped up in the paper recently amongst the musing and the science fictions and the science facts.
Perhaps that was what had been quietly and quickly eroded away, leaving us free, cast adrift and floating into the sunset. It sounded sane enough: comparatively. Given the number of half-baked, fully roasted ideas bobbing around at the moment it could reasonably take its place without undue embarrassment amongst them and seem quite…sane.
The whole of Britain had been sitting on a massive plate of schist which for some inexplicable reason has just simply disappeared – inexplicable of course unless Arthur C Clarke or the various gods of different cultures and their legion of clerics had anything to say about it, in which case it was all apparently explained in a jiffy.
The room had started to roll in on Michael again. Oppressing him. It had a tendency to do that sometimes – question his purpose there – his right to exist within in its walls.
Rooms had minds of their own of that he was certain – their own personas, quirks, foibles and dynamics. What he was uncertain of was the provenance of his certainty – as to whether this certainty was due to some random and uninvited voodoo infestation in his psyche – or whether it was rooted in the molecular atomic truth that an atom never dies – just reapplying itself elsewhere in our material being existence and environment – and therefore atoms which had been at some point involved in unpleasantness or wholly negative activity – atoms not predisposed to being sociable or positive – could potentially come into a closed room and become trapped, claustrophobic and quickly unpleasant – like people on a cruise or those stuck in a lift.
Was he in fact in bad atomic company? The question unfettered itself and drifted out of his immediate passage of thought, only to be filled by another conundrum of spatial psychology.
There had never been a suitable explanation for the ‘uninvited return’ – a stark and foreboding atmospheric phenomenon that Michael had first identified as a young man.
The Uninvited Return was a unique experience that occurred only when just having left one’s place of abode one realised that one had forgotten something and returned to it ‘too soon’, only to find the atmosphere, the very air in the place quite antagonistic, seemingly both shocked and resentful at your sudden and unexpected intrusion, as if you had stumbled in upon a secret – its desperately needed time of repair or repose perhaps – invading its most intimate and private time – its ‘other’ time – time uncluttered by your needs and expectations – time when its walls could air themselves and throw off the mantle of galleries and securities. Where the windows could stare out happily inert, liberated from having to be the thing through which people seek the succor and the information of the outside world, and by which they light their own. The floors desperately yearning to become solid once more, their hallways and split boards free of the oppression of carriage and journey.
Sometimes when Michael returned suddenly, he found himself feeling deeply ‘unwelcome’ in his own home; its petulance hanging in the air around him.
It was as if he had come upon an indiscretion barely veiled and quickly hidden from him – somehow invisible to him yet palpable and earnest to the space itself.
Leaving his home came to create a deep sense of foreboding in him – as if stepping away from a place in the full knowledge that deep and damaging betrayals would be quickly underway.
At first he felt that it might just be some shocking paranoia that riddled him exclusively. But in time others came to nod and agree – some quietly some gibbering at the sheer release of being able to say ‘yes yes YES! I KNOW that feeling!’
Curious: Perhaps his intimate space was trying to tell him something. Perhaps ‘leaving’ was the glistening schism in Michael’s world.
Abandonment. Abdication of meaning and feeling. Desertion. Perhaps the spatial spectre was trying to reconnect him with what mattered most for better or for worse – compelling him to hitch him-self to something of meaning once more.
Or perhaps he really had lost his mind a long time ago. The motes in the lightened air between him and the cupboard shifted.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the process of publishing this story to the blog I am altering the original text of the Kindle Version. The blog published version will be the most up to date edition.