Pieces on Earth:
Oh Emma! Who could have guessed you lay trapped within the cells of my broken, dying body? We shall run, Emma, you and I, to the mountains, far beyond the reach of rising seas. We will run from a humanity that is less human each year.
The guests chirrup and cluster like lovebirds displaying bright flightless wings, but their costumes mean nothing to Christman. Beneath the masks, all are mutton. Satin and chiffon; organza and lace; ruffed collars and jewelled gloves: all will peel, as easy as skin.
Three Red Tulips:
Now, the harbour bench is losing the day’s heat to my back; sun glitters on the rising tide. The estuary holds its breath. Each gull and eddy, each stone and rocked boat, all wait for Juliet.
In Geneva, there is a park, which in high summer is full of the deep shadows and dropping sap of plane trees; a place of green secrets. It is bounded on one side by tall railings, and on another by a sheer wall, nearly thirty feet high. Against this wall are set four statues: outsized figures of stone, forbidding, almost intimidating in their severity. Somehow, they convey both age and great strength; wisdom married with power.
Ahead of the Game:
Up it came, the carefully bagged ape’s head, up from the liquid nitrogen, trailing cold mist heavier than air; a billowing fog that cascaded to the floor, lapping at my ankles, chilling my feet through their sterile overshoes. I watched as they fixed transparent tubing to pre-positioned connectors on the throat’s stump; as cold blood substitute slowly rose through the tubes that fed the brain’s vessels.
I didn’t get in the lift straight away. I walked past it, my breath made short and my mouth dry by the joyous irrevocability of what I’d done. I walked up the corridor to the Prof’s office, my heels tapping the warped reflections of neon strip lights on the polished floor. I knocked on his door; the light was red, but I went straight in.
Alan got down on one knee and felt around the edges of the panel; its entire perimeter was flush with the floor. Then he stood up and looked through the sash window, past the rivulets of water on the old glass, and down to the gravel path just outside. His gaze followed the path to the rain-spattered stone steps, and continued beyond them to the sodden lawns sloping down to the lake. The surface of the water was agitated, as though whipped into infuriation by the unceasing rain.
The two boys left the dorm and hurried to the front of the school. A fine, hot day; not a fierce sun, here in the high mountains, but a tropical sun nevertheless. The sky was a delicate blue, shorn of the usual hill-station mists and clouds, and the school’s low Victorian buildings, once the summer residence of the governor of Madras, threw precise shadows on the ground.
Hue and Cry:
Don’t look; walk on! I tell you, that bright shade’s cast everywhere. Even the hollies carry its rumour in their dark leaves . . . The old warren, too; it’s as if the gleam of a stoat’s eye could paint small lusts and gluts on a buck-rabbit canvas. Walk on!
The curtains around the hospital bed were pulled back, exposing the tangled wires and sensors that had linked Yolanda 2 to reality. The covers had been torn off the bed, and the sheets and pillows were rumpled and disordered, their thin corrugations like the cotton scars left on your cheek after a bad night. The latex face of Yolanda lay on the stage floor, facing me with empty eyes, as though she’d finally discarded the mask she had always worn for the world. But Yolanda herself wasn’t there.
Jeopardy ad Absurdum:
Weiss paused at this point to look around the courtroom. This was a device he often used in his lectures—a dramatic pause, during which he would bask in the attention focussed on him, on him alone, by an enraptured audience. But on this occasion he was distracted, perhaps even discomfited, by the intense, tortured gaze of the defendant. The boy was leaning forward as though poised for supplication, his hands grasping the dock, his lips parted by some inner agony. His hair, previously androgynously long and blond, had been scythed back, drawing attention to an irregularity of growth around the perimeter of his scalp. This, Weiss knew, betrayed the presence of the long scar where he had sawn through the boy’s cranium and lifted aside the top and back of the skull, like taking the lid from a tin, to allow access to the brain.
The Speckled God:
Even after forty years, we can, perhaps, discern Joki’s whispered story. We read it between the lines in dog-eared diaries; we trace its outline in pencilled pictures; we hear it in the faltering accounts of old men, in what they say and do not say. It tells us of a pattern drawn in soured milk and scattered marigolds. It insists that Joki’s story cannot end with cold ashes taken by a cold river.
Stand here, by Jack’s house, and look East: there’s nothing higher than the sea’s swell between here and Holland. In the old days, this place would have been packed full of the Dutch, showing us how to steal good earth back from the marauding waters. Today you’d be lucky to see another human being. Maybe a couple of pikeys setting dogs on hares; or a half-daft farmer. And you’d have to be half-daft, or worse, to live out here. There is nothing. Just nothing but grass and stunted trees and the cold, cold wind. It blows straight in from the Arctic, they say, pausing only to chill and whip the North Sea into green and white. And it doesn’t stop. I can hear it now, not strong, nor wild; just insistent and incessant. It nags at me, making doors creak and curtains tremble; it comes down the chimney and croons at me from the blackened fireplace.
The Fisherman’s Wife:
Mrs Parry worked her way down the long bench in the Hospital’s kitchen. She had started, as always, by mashing up tinned cat-food with brown bread, cod liver oil and thiamine supplements. That was for the little ones. Then she had moved onto meals for the ones who could feed themselves. These would get a mixture of cat-food and chopped-up whitebait. Finally, for those that were soon to leave, she prepared strips of raw fish, taken from whatever haul had come in with the boats: pollock or ling, grey mullet or gilthead bream.
Glass Half Empty:
In the mirrored morning, we’d share the rhythm of brushes on gums; a ritual of cleanliness accompanied by the clink of milk on cold steps and, perhaps, a siren’s distant ululation. She would find some sweet syncopation there, some cadence to which I was forever deaf, and pause to mark its beat with elegant fingernails tapped on cracked wet porcelain.
I came here a month ago, towards the end of August, when the noise and anonymity of the tourist crowds suited me. Now, I am seeing off the last of a warm September. I feel more exposed somehow; more visible on the emptying beaches, more vulnerable to the coming storms. More open to the memories I came here to escape; they crowd on me, mewling like gulls. I find myself watching people, seeking something to occupy my mind, to displace recollection. Something to silence, or at least drown out, that still, small voice, and its unanswerable taunting. But today Sennen Cove has attracted only the dull and the one-dimensional: joggers, and a few surfers looking like skinny seals in their black wetsuits. And so I walk further along the beach, searching for distraction.
The Butterfly Effect:
“Know the way to California Street, honey?”
Lia sighed. “Nope.”
“Ain’t from San Francisco, honey?”
“Nope. Iowa.” Home.
“Everybody knows Iowa!”
“Uh-huh.” They know farms and Des Moines; but Lia knows the limitless immensity of the prairie sky, sometimes blue as a jewel, sometimes black as Satan. The sound of the wind rushing through a thousand acres of corn on a summer’s night. Of threnodies left hanging in the tornado-dropped silence.
You’d think that there’d be a better way. You’d think that the chemo-stripped scalp, the peeling skin mapping out new, roseate principalities, the dead wells of saliva and the throat’s lining baked to uncooked meat by blistering isotopes – you’d think all this would belong to another age: mercury for syphilis, a poultice for the pox. But no; fetishes and amulets now come in foil-sealed blister packs, and the shaman wears a white coat. That’s all.
As the city awakens, dull and grouchy from excess, Mr Tanaka’s front door opens, and the gentleman himself appears, clean and fresh-faced as ever. He sits in his front garden, by the pavement, wrapped up against the cold, on a small fold-up chair he brings out of the house. Always the same chair. Or, if it’s raining, he keeps the door open, and sits just inside, out of the wet, while his central heating warms up January. In either case, once sat, he rests a doll on his lap. Always a finely-made doll, a doll of quality. A different one each year, they say. Some bigger, some smaller. Some pale as fresh bone, some brown as unhusked rice. Some in scarlet taffeta, some in vermilion calico. But all of the red-wrapped dolls have this thing in common, this one thing that they share. They have no eyes.
In Vino Veritas:
Harry was sitting there, what was left of him, in a chair, in his greenhouse, next to Black Hamburgh; upright, as though posing for a portrait. Vines had grown around him and into him and through him, the tendrils forcing their way through softening flesh with blind vegetable vigour. Oddly, one shoot had looped around his neck, and, I guess, finding little resistance, had constricted in its efforts to gain purchase, constricted until it had nearly severed poor Harry’s head. In fact, Black Hamburgh’s weak embrace was all that kept Harry entire, for when the police came to poke and prod, their manipulations disturbed this fragile equilibrium. The weight of the head, pushed off balance, finally cut the tired strings that bound it to the rest of Harry. It fell forward, dangling from the vine, pulling the vegetation downward, the strangest of fruit; a foul pendulum marking eternity. And as it gently swung, it scattered maggots like seeds; ‘tick, tock, tick’, they went, as they hit the tiled floor of Harry’s temple.
There is a part of India, near Mysore, where the Kaveri river helps feed the impossible lushness of paddy fields; indeed, where the green of the paddy is dominant, and where the imported car has yet to compete with the bullock cart and the bare foot. Take the train to a certain rural station in this blessed region; from there, engage your chosen mode of transport. Ask for the old house, from the time of the Raj. Everybody knows it, even today. It is haunted; the Englishman’s children died, and he left. Certainly the building is drenched in expatriate melancholy; perhaps bereavements are more bitter when they are borne in a foreign land. Yes, the house has a story to tell, but I have another.
Lest You Remember:
I am still trapped in the retention cage. I cannot move. Jon looks down at me. As our eyes meet, I see that he knows what I remember. And we share also the knowledge of what he is about to do, what he now must do. He goes to the machine. I cannot see him, but I know what those sounds mean. He is altering the settings. He is aiming the field at my medulla oblongata.
I see my thoughts lit up on the screen, a beautiful filigree of electrical pulses, my soul’s glowing outline.
These days, of course, I don’t have patients, as such; thank God. But I still need to shut out grotesque reality from time to time. For example, today, having been confronted by the cadaver of nightmares, a weeping, seeping well of pathogens and foul gases – what else could I do, on returning to my office, but close my eyes and find my gleaming sanctuary? It was an act of self-preservation. I had to escape, to find that imagined world of white surfaces and polished chrome, glistening with antiseptic. How could I have known that the corpse would follow me to my special place?
I hate the sea. At school someone said there’s under-ocean canyons deeper than ten cathedrals, full of cold and starving things with mouths that can open wider than their own bodies and fins with glowing bits they use to seek you out. They just stay at the bottom, waiting for drowned things to sink. I can’t imagine going down, down, into the heavy darkness, and watching these little lights getting closer and closer, and knowing what’s behind them. I can’t think of that.
Semper Tres, Semper Tristis:
The feeling follows me, day by day, mile by mile, to the bitter cold of a Venice in January. I walk past the Doge’s palace, where traitors once were hanged from the windows. I watch the moored gondolas nudge each other, as though they’ve seen me before and are seeking to place me, muttering to each other like old women on a bench. It feels wrong to be here, alone; it’s as though there is a space next to me, forever empty, forever full, where Cat should be, where she always is, and never will be again.