Some pages from a notebook kept while invigilating The Palace of Humming Trees (French Street Studios, 2021) during a thunderstorm in August.
If you wanted to know, I’m from Mars, like men are, or in the order of things what a man doesn’t know the controverse of other waters, almost all of us exist as ice. Never to be ready for end, its artificial blush, to edit and close to the distance of light.
That you await water or more, gone muscle of the month nothing happened, acres of pleasure gone and into the stadium, more or gone to wake pink and stinging the dream, everybody wants to. The many-stomached among us arrive and wearing lace. We eat bees, we half kiss
If it is a mall and if analogue. I begin to forget the difference between, how easy it is to order hard slushie, rewind and loop myself into the fretless moment, a whistle of football, a slow man. Test acids:
No cup of coffee is hot enough. You up, you accuse me of people, I seem to have revelled in the air for too long. Where did our liquid water go? The intriguing discovery of three buried lakes, surface bruises. Had I the famous grouse and soda of your eyes are bubbles, we sup on the luminous and blemish, generous language. “Lack of a substantial atmosphere” was our review. Not to advise a trip here. Wait.
But trip, you go. Sip peaches under the bleachers, three poems. Not up yet. Not bright, not early. Waiting on me for the thirst. Bloglore, blueness, periorbital circles. Why so much neon pigment, not sleep, you go bass it is sultry “just pretend they’re your friends”. Advantage of entering thirties is the austerity of early sanguine, no YOU go to bed at noon; I will iron your watercolour until it is warm.
Victory to the internet so said privacy, party, my vice a nightly garment, smelt pain. At the left desk dream-amaze you save me, take pictures in natural formation, go see frog. Conflagrate lateral flow, high up in the sentence is forfeit, your sweat.
There is a courtyard on Mars where daylight, nay the leafminer, leaves scarification. No more raids. I have been here in flesh and blood to salsify, lightly the oyster plant is edible and does not grow. You do shrub mail, you don’t hot. Everything to do could else refuse.
No more scare, cup ring, close your accent permanently.
Plans for the Fall. Accounting.
Enrol to all that and wear a cloud, I want to write this you, to you, lower ourselves to parallel tarmacs; am I to speak the particulate deltas of this planet, no this one, you are a rainbow. We could be anywhere. Alice says ‘sad foam’, ‘Disappear’.
The money forth comes, does not accommodate thought; it is the feeling that I saw a seal. Start your bitcoin emptiness and pyre of light; I wrote on afternoon this letter. Ocean goes away.
Fullness and not to floss sleep from prison but I think the Marxist rabbits are fucking released.
Maggie says of the urge to begin mistakes. A surprise that the flotsam arrived here, not of shape, are you the sleekit to enter say the sea isn’t real.
We build whole houses with roofs of sequin. Desperado attic of saltheart, salvage flower. Meadow / Black / Wild / Yellow varieties.
I deleted 54% of this article.
Substantial genitalia of the not getting wet.
1.6% argon, we are gone
where softly the walls sag.
Knit you a fortress of seasonal transition. Khora my lame electron.
Martian quality relayed in me a voice, surface, can’t get a full-length mirror from you, get dressed, exit the internet. I exist in this flat and wait for the post. No more furnishing.
Lemonade also goes this way.
How did I thinner the telescopic? Lop a water? Log into the apple?
Well, it is Red.
Starfish suck excess from solar landmass.
Sometimes gravity, shoots you up, does not come back. Inelegant hipbone blue and yonder. Sometimes very close to the ground I like spiders. Eat you up. You up.
What did you think of your time alone?
If the portal is a smiley you want, abstracted, I already
am the same. Await your reply if we are alternative time
zones, your train was late and the wifi shaky is only
another ‘trembling structure’ in the words of John
Wieners. It wasn’t smiley it was pure mad HIYA smiley,
aslant on the concrete childhood where once I lay down
and later tried to make this theory. Lie flat. All the
horses lie down in protest of symbolism. That I write
anthropomorphically is only because most days I am
more like a fox and stealthily will steal your garden
gnomes to think they are chickens and the most
perverse fox I turn vegetarian, asking the gnomes what
happens down the drains and they say ask the trolls.
But this is why I left twitter in the year 2030, released
a thousand marbles in the weft of the sun’s coming
too close for comfort, organised my floating children to
clearfix the element, old and browserly on your blog.
Shine brightly with flashes of light. Will I fuck. That feeling
when you miss someone but somewhere to know they are
there for you, making bread or like, conserving energy.
You should buy a firm mattress if you want to lie
on your back and tell me the stars were good, what else, like
how could you put that in a past tense where the stars are
still coming, £10.99, they are light years towards us and to think
of when the stars are come is delicious, becoming this
drunk at the splendid omen, lavishly served. Inebriate
starlight / a laced pony / liquored with three sheets
to the wind and call you beauty. Hold us up.
Bubble write most of the film, asleep
means only to dream in the house / your birth.
All the drunk horses are sparkling, swear it.
New publication: Soft Friction by Kirsty Dunlop and Maria Sledmere
Here we present you a bundle of our dreams, wrapped in something like a rhythm, or did we mean a ribbon? Soft Friction is an intimate gathering of dreams from 2018, written during a summer of ‘existential soup’, fainting at gigs, pulling all-nighters and panic surrealism. Extracted from a longer diary, these fragments wear the sensuality and sass of an active dream life shared between two people getting high on each others’ brains. From dolphins thrashing in kitchens, to maths equations, celebrity encounters and shopping for underwear, the pamphlet runs through the four stages of sleep and wakes you with a cheeky tickle of incompleteness.
44pp (A5 B/W)
Printed on recycled natural paper 100gsm
Cover by Maria Sledmere
Published by Mermaid Motel
£5 inc. UK P+P
To order, email kirsty_dunlop[at]hotmail.co.uk or simply paypal £5 to this email with your postal address. For orders outside the UK drop Kirsty an email for postage.
Dear Town Square
My horse disappeared. I had contrived to love the rat
with cheats. Have you considered the ethos
To save your game, pluck acid out of the water;
is communism good code to love you
For bread? In summer I chose the orange grass
with yellow grass, the blue inedible magic flower.
In winter the white grass, blue grass of spring
a verdant seaweed and moondrop flower
Will you take me to school today? I want to learn
the inevitable lesson, in the law of spring/summer
Green-grass fashion, will you describe a toy
flower, sift me from hill, let grow?
I put the wild-grown light in my hunger
I put the coloured grass under soft expense.
I cantered hard across the dream salad
of somebody’s laughter, I lost you
Pinkcat, gathering these flowers afield
before I fell into clement spinach.
If hurricanes come, bless a watering can.
The rats will carry me gently
For every yield of our life, soft rain
the average shipping cost of corn and onion
Or a peach tree dies in the sun
as soon as we receive the foiled mushroom.
what if she entered
the sliver of morning and haemorrhage
left for her
on the rooftop, signal
that someone was still coming in caustic shoes
theorising a free continuation
of handsome disorder, to access the paywall
and free us from pain
she could breathe here, just
to feel like getting trains, filming herself
speak only to speed
in practice of relative motion, to feel it
“how all the protests ceased”
but not to look
was to watch the hard tomatoes soften from green
and the weight
to glow awhile, orange
and I miss
a strategy of oratory whereby someone has a line
from beautiful afternoon television, like
“who would buy this house?”
as if there were choices
next to the undiscovered
I’ve been having dreams about family
how she just lay there
until the child began throwing soft toys at her
in the 1990s
anyone could come to life and be numb
I want to read Graeber’s thesis on magic,
slavery and politics
she didn’t say to me
do you ever feel free, for instance
in fugue state when brushing your teeth
I’ve been dreaming about ancestors
stuck on trains
killing rabbits and eating crackers
it was that easy
complaint of what’s coming, knowing nothing
when you can’t measure the wind
by the grass
she had this enormous laughter
dwindling into ambivalence
if this isn’t a dream exposure
and we can’t enter houses
I’ve been trialling sentences, Bernadette Mayer says
I’m not faulting being periodic but sentences with caps and end marks do seem so bloodless to me
You swing gazelle legs over the actual
You wait in the room for the wine
You pull collectives out of the sink
distracted, I watch through windows
turn on my flash
to lead workshops on trash
and poetry as finance, like
eons of speculation
had brought us to nothing but numbers
and the anxious among us, cooking the numbers
I watch her slice an avocado in the dark
and the police van
opened to reveal us
with leaves in our molars, perfect hello
in the bloodless sentence
dreamt I was tidying the rooms
this mad kind of everywhere acid
I couldn’t clean up
in the panic of rich, linguistic Monday, you are
part of the story, too smart for me
the interminable smell of pine resin, kimchi
and menthol gum
yes, just there
in lightness rimming
I made this commitment to sleeping ‘upstairs’
on my editor’s credit
before the treehouse snapped
I can barely listen to music anymore
it’s all error
describing her pain as shooting
when I smashed my thumbs in my eyes
you kept going
it was Jupiter
cruising down Alexandra Parade to send you
the voice message
of not seeing nightingales, a bathtub
attached to a car
I wish I could touch
between times is when I most feel ‘we
exist’ and just like that
the cornflowers won’t die
and we can’t enter houses
and you end
with the fresh heat of illusory commute
I could say anything new
in dumb, erotic anonymity
where all this falls
she had lit up the sad remains
of the tree
bound to other seasons, even look good
despite not hearing this live
I like it, finally
summer light on the same
even if we live
in adrenalised versions of trying to keep warm
on the video call
of audit continuum
she was all
“it is up to the unassuming […]
to represent reality”
in The New York Times
and the well-oiled loss of taste
feels the same
years of tax avoidance
what if she knew before all of us
doubled in running away with me
I dream all my friends
attending the burning
“where have you been”
and you could put this to archive
swipe left for the hidden
indentation of nothing happening
20,000 years ago
mostly I worry if she lived in the dream
I had to wake from
cradling the ersatz animal, sprigs of rosemary
having clambered reality over again
and knowing you survived the scaffold
GESTURES FOR LIVING AIR
as the art was told
“I just need to check
a rough kind of festival kiss
that was listening
in the underpasses of everything
prior to millennium
installs a magical feeling that
you would be at the station
and my bouquet emoji of blood
Fenne Lily – Solipsism
Sylvan Esso – Ring
Gus Dapperton – I’m Just Snacking
Sufjan Stevens – Run Away With Me
Fleet Foxes – I’m Not My Season
Chastity Belt – Ann’s Jam
The Durutti Column – Sketch for Summer
Frog – Photograph
Adrienne Lenker – anything
Tim Heidecker, Weyes Blood – Oh How We Drift Away
Bill Callahan – Sycamore
Gillian Welch – Picasso
Margo Guryan – Why Do I Cry
Norma Tanega – You’re Dead
Elliott Smith – Speed Trials
Kath Bloom, Loren Connors – Tall Grass
The Jesus and Mary Chain – Darklands
Alice Boman – Heartbeat
Edwin Organ – Self Alarm
Broadcast – Echo’s Answer
Cocteau Twins – Aloysius
Yo La Tengo – Bleeding
Perfume Genius – Valley
William Basinski – Tear Vial
Oneohtrix Point Never – Long Road Home
There is a scenario in which the jukebox is equivalent to the poet and some elaborate analogy is to be made between intertextuality and the limited catalogue whose selectional form produces play. The scenario only survives in video. It needs this urge of duration, not to mention the tenderness of a touch. Where fingers brush keys like notes, there is something to add to the story. A social space in demand of ambience; on flickering alongside off. When Lana is alone on stage, hands stuffed into a bomber jacket, singing ‘Fuck it, I love you’, swaying almost nervously, I want to think about what she is doing there and who she is speaking to and from where she is speaking. She is not really speaking but singing. The lone girl on the stage is the open mic dreamer, with nothing but lines. She is scattered across june-dreams of multiple personality: ‘The I which speaks out from only one place is simultaneously everyone’s everywhere; it’s the linguistic mother of rarity but is always also aggressively democratic’ (Riley 2000: 57-58). We mother our solipsism with words but in doing so there’s an opening. So to say fuck it and state the interruption with syncope, sincerity. Lana Del Rey was born on the cusp of Gemini and Cancer season, which more than explains that statement: ‘Fuck it, I love you’. With her sails to the wind. To say it over and smooth into plural refrain, you could even say chorus. For a chorus wants to be shared. It is a commodious mother, fed by the keys of the jukebox baby. There is a constant reversal of nourishing; the democracy of lyric utterance, the milky feed that streams.
Denise Riley argues that any ‘initial “I love you” is barely possible to enunciate without its implicit—however unwilled—claim for reciprocation’ (2000: 23). But what is reciprocation in a song? Is it just the urge to be sung with? And this ‘fuck it’, the pervasive millennial injunction to just be, to move on, as the tag which erases the expectant price of the utterance? Riley argues that I love you ‘must at once circulate as coinage within the relentless economy of utterance as exchange’ (2000: 24), but in a pop song it bears the leaden weight of so many prior expressions. The irony is that to cut through that with a simple fuck it, Lana can attain something like sincerity in the very pop mode whose lineage of commercialised love would surely undermine her feeling. Fuck it, in spite of saying I love you I really do. The pop song becomes this space for the staged epiphany of repeated assurance, I really do. It is a softcore admission of the self in its burning limit.
‘Fuck it I love you’ is soaked in lights, but they’re fading. ‘I like to see everything in neon’, is the line that opens the song. To see everything in neon is to fluoresce what is haunted and gone. I think of Sia dragging rainbow dust down her tearful cheeks in the video for ‘The Greatest’ — tragedy’s shimmer as fugitive mark on the body. Lana offers herself up as sugar dust, cliché in honour of Doris Day: ‘Dream a little dream of me / Make me into something sweet’; she acknowledges ‘dancing to a pop song’, but it’s not clear if this is her or the character or the one she loves. ‘Turn the radio on’ could be a reflection or an imperative. The reader is hailed between these positions of love and the loved and the effect is saturating, warm, delirious. Separation is that ‘it’, the spacing. In the video, we watch Lana painting and then suddenly she’s surfing with the aurora borealis in the background. She’s on a swing, her jean shorts caressed by the camera, she’s the sexualised pop icon again. She’s on a surfboard, green-screened, young. She’s choosing a shade of yellow from the palette, singing ‘Killing me slowly’. What is this ‘it’, killing her slowly:
I’ll return to the unknown part of myself and when I am born shall speak of “he” or “she.” For now, what sustains me is the “that” that is an “it.” To create a being out of oneself is very serious. I am creating myself. And walking in complete darkness in search of ourselves is what we do. It hurts. […] a thing is born that is. Is itself. It is hard as a dry stone. But the core is soft and alive, perishable, perilous it. Life of elementary matter.
(Lispector 2014: 39)
I want slyly to argue that this is a kind of anthropocene existentialism. Recognition of the self as this ‘hard’, ‘dry stone’ thing of geologic mattering, reflexive species. This is what it is to be ‘Human’ right now. And yet the agential spark within, the ‘core’ that is being alive in a world where we have deposited those sedimentary layers. Creating ourselves in the stone, often with the tarnish of the very products we chose and developed to beautify, excoriate and cleanse ourselves, to remain forever young. So there is this oscillating temporality at work between desired infinity and the trace of our fugitive place on earth. The very earth minerals that would ruin humanity, mine our bodies of endless labour. But to go back to the song, with its idea of a gradual dying. I want to call this something like anthropocene softcore: the unnamed presence of species being within Lispector’s slender novel from the early seventies, or the Mamas and the Papas brand of late-sixties ‘sunshine pop’ whose solarity derives from the perishability of that energy, utopian commons, cascade of flowers — that serotonin glow of selves in streams and streams.
Lana’s anthropocene poetics are not of the hardline, direct call to action. You would not say of her cultural presence, eco-warrior or nature goddess. You would not brand her Miss Anthropocene in a kind of demonic marketing gimmick. You would say most often she is a siren, per se, leisurely supplicating us towards death on the rocks. Desirous flow. This is anthropocene softcore. This is what it is to challenge the act of self-description itself, and in doing so questioning those generalisations that arise from the ‘we’ of humankind, not to mention the ‘I’ of pop’s delectable, mainstream lyric. Alchemically, Clarice Lispector and Lana make of these malleable pronouns the ‘perilous it’. The it, the feeling, the speaking self which is nothing much more than a bundle of affects, sensations, atoms. To be cast over and crested by the wave. Significant that ‘Fuck it I love you’ ends with the rising bubbles of this wave, the one that spills us through the fourth wall and into the studio. This song slams together pop’s saccharine mythos of California as dreamland, a late-summer song as the former was written, surely, for autumn. California: ‘it’s just a state of mind’. She could be talking about the self or the state, or the state of the self.
What happens next? The shot drifts over the cliffs, the coast, to a strip of palms and a distant view of the LA skyline. That shining love in the previous track is replaced by a minor key, a glimpse of the jukebox whose songs include The Eagles, Bon Iver, The National. Artists whose Americana is the melancholy of generations moved from political despair to something like the glitch of the times as a basic fact of intimacy. One of the Bon Iver songs shown in the video is ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’, and if that title was not rife with implicit apocalypse, what is, what is. A stammering into language, pitch-shifting the fragile space of utterance. There’s a spiritual glimpse to the sky and the infinite quality of the stars:
There I find you marked in constellation (two, two)
There isn’t ceiling in our garden
And then I draw an ear on you
So I can speak into the silence
It might be over soon (two, do, two, do, two)
(Bon Iver, ‘22 (OVER S∞∞N)’)
I don’t know what the maths is doing. I don’t want to know that the song ‘was inspired in part by Bon Iver mainman Justin Vernon’s unsuccessful attempt to find himself during a vacation’. I am however interested in the hubris within this term ‘vacation’ at all. Do we now live in a world where you can take ‘time out’? There is nothing of the world we know that could be switched off. There is no ‘away’ of complete erasure or original presence. Deconstruction caught up with our living. Vernon describing this song as a gesture towards what might end of his emptiness could just as easily be flipped: its relief is equal to a mortal sense of loss. The impending erasures. It ‘does’ or acts the accretional event of extinction that is speaking into the silence, to those who could not speak back.
Fragments and snatches: the neon green lining Lana’s eyes, the aurora borealis, the neon green palm in the club where she sings alone. A season by yourself. The love of the couple together surfing is cardboard, Hollywood. It is a trembling symbol. It is almost ridicule.
What is Justin Vernon looking for in the constellation? When he sings ‘two two’ I think of Hilma af Klint’s nose-touching swans, or the hours of the day chipped at the edge — two of them stolen by tragic event. I think of a mic check, two, two, ch, ch. Click. Near-enough-presence of speech. A white swan on black background; a black swan on white background. Flip. The swans are geometry, signets of signature, they move towards abstraction. Growth. I love them. Fuck it I love them. The way they are just it. Inversions of colour and a monochrome mood splashed with cornflower blue, the tiny excess we can treasure. It is the cornflower blue, the little webbed feet, which make the swan in question unique. So we can care for it, figuratively as it swells through grey-white waters of memory. The swans we have lost in our shit. Royal iterations freed from belonging. This painting is from af Klint’s series Paintings for the Temple, works derived from spiritual communication. The abstraction of the swan / renders us stark in frame / for we were Lana or Leda / before we were animal. Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Seven Swans’: ‘All of the trees were in light’, ‘a sign in the sky’; ‘My father burned into coal’. And all of our sadness was carbon neutral before this. We plunge into whatever remains of the water, its plasticky thickness.
I keep pausing the video as it transitions. ‘Fuck it I love you’ twinned with ‘The greatest’. When The National sing ‘It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders’, what exactly is the ‘quiet company’ of the ‘it’? It could just as well be spiders. Maybe it’s the web itself, the web between the human and the more than human, the gossamer moment where metaphoric articulation becomes more than feeling and gleams material. ‘It’s a terrible love that I’m walking with spiders’ — what is the grammatical transition done by that ‘that’ and who is to blame. Walking with spiders might just be that love. Transitional, subject/object logic is reversed in this song: ‘Wait til the past?’ is sung, then ‘It takes an ocean not to break’ when surely the ocean itself would break you. Soon the ‘terrible love’ is a substance, something ‘I’m walking in’ — to feel it is an act of immersion. It is to let that wave crest over, the ‘lyric auto-explosion’ (Moten 2017: 3) of the wave that would break you.
In ‘The Greatest’, Cat Power sings of former ambition now cast to nostalgic regret. There is a sense of time slowing to delay, laconic strings, relaxed drums, the balladic sleep of a once-held fault. It is a parade slowing down in the rain. To say ‘Once I wanted to be’ is to hold this question of ‘the greatest’ as a generalised desire itself. The hunger we lose in time, whose primary colours soften. I hold to that precious, cornflower blue of a swan’s foot. ‘Two fists of solid rock / With brains that could explain / Any feeling’. This solid rock that would box you into the future, that would harden the edges of self. A thing is born, as Clarice puts it, ‘hard as as dry stone’. This is the thing born ‘that is’. To exist is to be this hard thing, protein ligament, to kick out in lines; but then in time there is the plasmatic self inside that, like some fatty animal byproduct, sticks to the others it loves, it needs, it leaks. Gelatinous, softly sticky love. The ‘it’ that needs saving. Anthropocene softcore; soapy inside of all geologic agency. Who we are and what we regret. The turning of the outside-in, the inside-out. Kathleen Jamie, in Sightlines, asks: ‘What is it that we’re just not seeing?’ (2012: 37).
A sightline is a hypothetical line, from someone’s eye to what is seen. Is it clear or blurred, bad or good? Anthropos recedes in its very own scene as the ocean continues and we howl in the dark like a lossy-compressed version of species. We are the sirens and wolves. We are at the great concert of the Earth. We have to resist what Bernard Stiegler calls the ‘proletarianization of the senses’ (2017); we have to find longform ballads of what’s happening, pass them down the line, resist the short-circuiting of thought that occurs between screens and machines. We have to send letters back to our consciousness, our elders and children. This is the work of lyric. It could be the work of dance. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Alabama, learning to be a ballerina too late in her life: ‘Her body was so full of static from the constant whip of her work that she could get no clear communication with herself. She said to herself that human beings have no right to fail’ (2001: 180). Alabama barely eats; her energy is all the zeal of will. The dance of lyric as reduction, lack, as static and chased success whose collapse lands as Alabama will eventually do on the event of inevitable break. Grapefruit squeezed on the gritty turmeric shot of the future. And a brake, a screech. And yet we write, we cast out limbs and materials, we work towards this loss; we imbibe it.
This is an ugly type of writing in which the outside is always imagined from the inside. Horizons are fictional and buildings are barred. I have no sightlines. I’m
fucking cutting the corners of someone else’s desire. All paths are the continuation of a pre-existing line. This is a city from which I send myself postcards wherein I wish I was here. Flying letters. Words stolen from myself. I refuse to recognise that I have not composed them unintentionally
(Bolland 2019: 78).
The videos for Lana’s ‘Fuck it I love you’ and ‘The greatest’ swerve between inside and outside. We find ourselves in rooms we don’t remember entering. Writing the anthropocene has an ugly, masturbatory quality of fucking yourself with the rush of elaborate doom. Okay, so. Constructing fortresses of lines which would make a valiant destination. When I listen to Lana, I’m accessing shortcuts to ‘someone else’s desire’ which is the opening up of presence. ‘This is a city’; ‘I wish I was here’. I have never been to LA. We plagiarise our very own diaries to get back that sense of the once-intentional, the greatest declaration on Earth. That we were here, and we loved. She wrote that lit, forgot. The papers curled up and rolled away in a sultry air that was summer, 2012. The year of failed apocalypse, the year Lana released her debut album, Born to Die. We saw her campaign of fashion smoking through plexiglass bus shelters. Remember all ‘horizons are fictional’: they tell a narrative, they bleed and tilt and set like ice. Towards them we stupidly drift: the lived throb of our softcore skins, our hungers and rhythms.
Drifting in colour like H.D.’s Leda, the rape of the land and the body and bodies engendering bodies. Worlds ending around us. And so I could say, but this is just one song, a phrase, a white woman of fame lamenting her world. But this self-conscious cinematics is a gesture towards the western world itself as this haunted, tragic protagonist: ‘The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball / I guess that I’m burned out after all’ (‘The greatest’). So you could say, anthropocene softcore speaks to the lyric I in its state of orphaned exception, which in turn is the loss felt by us all unequally. If we make of Lana a sort of anthropocenic siren, we must recognise the distinctions within our longing. For we all lose worlds differently; harm is striated along lines of class, gender, race, ethnicity, geographical distribution — of course. That wave that closes the video could elsewhere be a tsunami. I like to think its place on the edge is a deliberated hint to what could or is even already happening here or elsewhere. And maybe the colour, the aurora, is this streak of need for an excess beyond static blank, ‘human’ planet, standardised canvas; the need to splash something more of blur and blue. Flood the structure.
When we say something is ‘lit’, we mean it is hot, on fire. We mean it is turned on, ignited, intoxicated, drunk, excellent. Lit is the past simple and past participle of light. Isn’t that line alone just lit? Maybe we are in the twilight of a former Enlightenment, recognising our species hubris as this alien green that tinges every familiar horizon, upsets the normalised green of pastoral. Is it toxicity, the elsewhere within ourselves? It is a radar showing who we are and where we have been. Those material metaphors cook on a smoulder, and this is the softcore coming to knowledge about what is happening.
What does it mean to sing: ‘I’m facing the greatest / The greatest loss of them all’. To sing this on the brink of a hyperreal sunset, to chase a solar excess among loss. This loss could be a love but it is more like a culture; it is more like a voice and the condition from which to speak or sing it. The loss of lyric, its possibilities of address, and the loss or deferral or ruination of place itself. Maybe this is Lana’s lyric maturity, a generational acceptance that ‘young and beautiful’ is no longer the apex state of what we should strive for. Absence tenders complexity. Is this, as Roy Scranton puts it, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene? This question of mutability, the green-winged eye that sees a darkening world, a lack of birds along the bay, an edge. In the video for ‘The greatest’, Lana’s jacket reads LOCALS ONLY on the back. I google the phrase and find a hipster restaurant in Toronto with the slogan, LET’s PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED. There’s a kind of parochial nihilism that glisters like the light on the sea, but the sea can never be local only. There’s a boat in the video whose name is WIPEOUT. It’s all happening; the signals are obvious. How we are practicing the absent-presence of the name’s erasure. My tongue gets twisted when I say anthropos; I want to say mess, I fall into ‘guest’ and ‘gesture’. With its glaring cinematics, LA offers the hospitality of light. But it is an exclusionary light. For now, only some of us get lit, get to the mic.
Lana sings from within the metallic architectures of LA’s coastal infrastructure, the port. In the bar, she throws a dart and misses her target by a nonchalant smidge, knocks the 8-ball towards its pocket. I keep thinking about exports and imports, what we put out, take in and trade. Economies of luck and depth and surface. Maybe Lana is a hydrofeminist, her soaring lyric gesture recalling a hauntology of America as that dreamscape of what lies beyond or in the deep. And now we know it is further extinction, precarity, hardened borders. What do we do with that looming closure? Lana has shrugged off her jacket now, she’s smoking in the kitchen where the lid slides off the pan to let the steam out. I’m not saying we’re sitting on a pressure cooker here. There’s simply work to do, mouths to feed, ears to fill. This is a ballad, a paean to the transient, fragile beauty of everything. The songs shown again on the jukebox are songs of a type of blues specific to oceanic or cosmic consciousness, to hunger, the time of lost summer or that of a broken love:
Janis Joplin — ‘Kozmic Blues’
Dennis Wilson — ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’
Sublime — ‘Doin’ Time’
David Bowie — ‘Ashes to Ashes’
Jeff Buckley — ‘Last Goodbye’
Leonard Cohen — ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’
I’ve spoken before of what ‘anthropocene sadcore’ might look like in poetry. I’m still working through that. It comes from the common phrase used to describe Lana’s music, ‘Hollywood sadcore’. I’m interested in how that emphasis on mediation, transmission and cinema plays out in our understanding of ecological emergency, but more generally the existential condition of the anthropocene, which places us as geologic agents under the generalised, gendered rubric of Man. Maybe Anna Tsing’s feminist work on the ‘patchy Anthropocene’ could be applied to the cut scenes of a glossy Los Angeles caught on video. A patch is also a software update, where comprised code is ‘patched’ into the code of an executable program. Maybe the patchy anthropocene involves this kind of cultural patchwork: the lament to a love or a culture is patched to include this bug of ecological consciousness — the patch is a kind of coded pharmakon, poison and cure for apocalypse blues. But Lana paints in shades of yellow too. Blue and yellow making aurora borealis green. A cosmic gesture to what lies beyond thought. And what of those oil rigs in the distance, glistening. They form an audience to the siren’s lament; they are part of this story, and we are mutually complicit. Where the magnetism of the male gaze is often part of Lana’s canon, here it is mostly replaced by oil rigs — supplementary Man as the infrastructure of anthropos, looking back at its melancholic, warning siren. Softcore is less affective than sadcore; it is the ambient hum of climax coming. Its cousin is the slowcore, luminous melancholia of a band like Red House Painters, perhaps: ‘Purple nights and yellow days / Neon signs and silver lakes / LA took a part of me / LA gave this gift to me’.
In Bluets (2009), Maggie Nelson writes of a restaurant she used to work in, where the walls were ‘incredibly orange’. After each shift, collapsing exhausted in her own home, ‘the dining room’ of the restaurant ‘reappeared in my dreams as pale blue’:
For quite some time I thought this was luck, or wish fulfilment— naturally my dreams would convert everything to blue, because of my love for the colour. But now I realise that it was more likely the result of spending ten hours or more staring at saturated orange, blue’s spectral opposite.
(Nelson 2009: 43)
Orange and blue, water and flame. The mind’s alchemical transformations reveal the way colour works chiastically upon us. I think of Freud’s mystic writing pad, the waxen surface of memories allowing for palimpsest versions of stories that trace and erase. ‘This is a simple story’, Nelson writes, ‘but it spooks me, insofar as it reminds me that the eye is simply a recorder, with or without our will. Perhaps the same could be said of the heart’ (2009: 43). ‘Fuck it I love you’, sung to the blue-orange wall until something comes off that surface like a static or fizz. Irn bru, ironed blue. There is quinine in my dreams of hungover labour. Surely there is a violence to this particular love, that is staring, necessary. The love of what must be limitless hurts.
Janis Joplin’s ‘Kozmic Blues’ rises to a swell, a jostling of guitar licks and urgent, assured vocals. A sonic thickening. ‘So mastered by the brute blood of the air’, H.D. writes in ‘Leda and the Swan’. Held in that vascular shudder that acclimatises to a manmade world, what happens next is a loosening, a shimmer, a shrug of the garment. In the poem or song, in the painting or film, in the collapse of that wave into a bluer future. To incur a kind of erosion and yet live on in those terminals. ‘There’s a fire inside of everyone of us’, Joplin sings, and I think not of flames but of cinders. ‘At what temperature do words burst into flame?’, asks Ned Lukacher in the introduction to Derrida’s Cinders (1987), ‘Is language itself what remains of a burning? Is language the effect of an inner vibration, an effect of light and heat upon certain kinds of matter?’ (Lukacher 1987: 3). I know if I did not write I would smoke. These acts of temporality in its material extinguishing. What makes the remembered restaurant blue, not orange, is something of this transmogrified smoulder — an inversion akin to af Klint’s swans, demanding that splash of blue. When I write, am I pursuing the absent space of that skyward blue? ‘Blue is the colour of the planet from the view above’, Lana swoons in a song (‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’) from her previous album, Lust for Life (2017). But in Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana’s California album for 2019, it’s less of this ‘above’ we see. We are held within the infrastructure, cinema, the end of summer. The dreamlike logic of How did she get on that boat? When did she enter that room? Who put that song on the jukebox, baby?
I want to say:
It takes an ocean not to break a planet.
It takes not a planet to break a species.
Lana’s voice grows wispier as she sings of that burnout. There’s this imperative that okay we could enjoy this with American flags, we could pour communal Jack and go down in flames. We could riff the history of our culture in archives of song, gestures and nods of reference. Ladies of the Canyon, Cinnamon Girl, Norman Fucking Rockwell. We could keep laughing or dancing while the world is or was at war. Lana is both behind and at the bar, the sightline of where we go to be ‘served’. Intoxication is the order of the day and we call it ‘fun’ to put the fucking of other people’s desires under erasure, strikeout, as Bolland does.
If this is it, I’m signing off
Miss doing nothing, the most of all
Oh I just missed a fireball
L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot
Kanye West is blond and gone
“Life on Mars” ain’t just a song
Oh, the lifestream’s almost on
(Lana Del Rey, ‘The greatest’)
‘Miss doing nothing’: post-recessional ennui becomes the paradoxical happiness of living in static, not working as a kind of work that resists the future as set out by capitalist horizons of accumulation. We used to just ‘hang out’ and several other dreams of youthful nostalgia. Kids of today can’t even touch that innocence. We know so much; maybe or probably they know more. We are all variously entranced by the softcore unfold of this happening; we are all variously called upon to be complicit, to recycle, act, resist. To speak or not-speak. To be in one of many different levels of rising heat. The conditional state of being’s value, ‘If this is it’, in the anthropocene raises its pitch to a charge. To sign off is a form of surrender that gives up the name for the blur of species. I think of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the planet that would smash us and yet somehow Lana dodges it, that.
The audience in the bar where she sings are mostly men, but their gaze is not sexual, as in much of Lana’s prior visual oeuvre. Rather, their longing gaze, often filtered through further glass, is something like the profound melancholy of a multi-generational sense of this loss. These old men have lost the planet, the one they grew up with, just like Lana’s siren, come from some other time, a life ahead of her steered by the changing climate, the hurt and vengeful seas. The camera holds close ups on their staring faces. The song holds the long durée of a loss that spans generations, damages and is damaged by elders, sparks in the present-tense of cultural tendency. In Lana these men look to a future hurt whose cause was partly theirs, as inheritors of industry: she is both victim and heroine, singing and swinging. The shot opens out to reveal her smiling with younger friends, her own generation. These intimacies are what we have left. The next shot shows some kind of factory or refinery leaking smog into a cloudy, overcast skyline, sulphured yellow. Once again the boat appears with its title, WIPEOUT. Lana is supine on the bow at sunset. She is golden, angelic, silhouette. It’s like she missed the fireball but melted it, cooked it up for tea, apocalypse syrup. Things are going down around us. She hugs her arms, later standing, laughing with a dreamlike intimation of imagined elsewhere, closing her eyes. Be hospitable to yourself and others. The reel of the jukebox keeps ever turning: this is our ever faith in culture. We have to take care of what’s left in whatever space we can make of song, duration.
But the mainstream disciples and idols of Hollywood are failing, Kanye West is ‘gone’. Surely a reference to Elon Musk’s plans to save us by colonising Mars, ‘“Life on Mars” ain’t just a song’ is sung with a melancholy matter-of-factness, a kind of sigh which implies the banality of techno-utopia in a time of extinction. The thrill of such dreams is lost now. We lost our faith in Hollywood, lost our faith in the movies and the scale of those solutions. In a world without books, we’d be ‘bound to that summer’, addicted to one of many narcissistic ‘counterfeit[s]’ to make love to nightly in futile repetition — that would be, as Weyes Blood sings, the ‘Movies’.
What we look back with:
The trauma is not, in the Freudian lexicon, this or that violation from the world (such as war), but the ill and trauma of this originary installation of “the cave”—what could properly be called the cin-anthropocene epoch, particularly given that the era of modern cinema is to be regarded merely as an episode: that of the machinal exteriorization of the cinematic apparatus, given that it coincides with the era of oil (artefacted “light”), given that its arc coincides with that hyperconsumptive acceleration leading to mass extinction events, ecocide, and an emerging politics of (managed) extinction.
(Cohen 2017: 246)
The trauma of greatness as such is this accelerated promise of the dream, the event, capitalist growth, the movie itself — whose imperative is towards scene, closure, episodic narrative in demand of the next. But the drinks in this video are barely drunk; they are more like props. Everyone is aware of their place in the tableau vivant of the anthropocene, even in its softcore, consumerist pop expression: the iconography of oil rigs, downbeat affect and intergenerational longing. Not a violation from the world so much as the stream, and where its accumulative logic would eventually come to crisis, even as corporations beyond our imagining were already plotting that logic of a break within archival excess: the feverish incineration of the present, the smoulder and melt that smogs and spreads and streams.
Fire is there or it is not there. […] But surely there is a word for that moment when a fire log, beneath its bark, has become one immanent ember, winking like a City or a circuit board; for that moment when you know only the desire, no, the need to stir it up. What is on fire, you ask yourself, staring into that waiting. What is that moment. What is that word.
(Lennon 2003: 434)
The nights ‘on fire’ that Lana sings of are those of the Beach Boys, reprieve of the sixties; the bar on Long Beach that served as a ‘last stop’ before the tiny island retreat of Kokomo. Frank O’Hara died on Fire Island. Fire is presence or absence, but there is a moment before it is both. A slippage between the extinct and extinguished. And the world was lit up as before. I wonder if the word Brian Lennon looks for is simply ‘sleep’, the title of his essay which I first read in John D’Agata’s anthology, The Next American Essay — with intimations of that Lana song, ‘The Next Best American Record’. What is with America and the positioning of the next. A constant state of pressurised imminence that streams and streams: ‘We lost track of space / We lost track of time’ (‘The Next Best American Record’). We sleep into death or spirit. My first legal drink was a fireball whisky, in a pub by the sea they built in a church. That moment when you know only the ‘need to stir it up’, fanning the flames. That impulse towards blitz feels extra political in these contexts. We need something of relief that would stream, and in that flow be more than a question. Something of cinders, drifting.
In Lana’s song, I’m interested in this word ‘lifestream’, which seems like a slippage from the more familiar internet-lingo, the ‘livestream’: the coming live that seems provisional to digital retro-future, the promise of satellites beaming the present, simultaneously. Lifestream, instead, is a vascular imaginary of bodies flowing together. ‘LifeStream’ is actually the name of a blood bank serving the Inland Empire and its surrounding areas. Lifestreaming is, Wikipedia tells me, ‘the act of documenting and sharing aspects of one’s daily social experiences online’. It is the flow of the timeline, akin to the wall, the blogroll, the feed. But here, at the end of the song, the promise of information’s overflow is in a liminal state — ‘almost on’. Extinction’s monetised data cast as the simultaneity of thick presence spread by millioning participants. We are here and we said something, our words were atoms, splashes of blue. We stream towards a life, cut ourselves short on the fragments of others’ desires. Mortality’s softcore contingent. The fear of missing out is assuaged by the narcotising work of cinema. And if this is it, Lana has already signed off. It’s something more like her spirit that’s here for us, the stream of an echo, fold of a song that we could replay, continue voicing. Hope lies in the circadian rhythm, the lived time of a pause in the anthropocene’s ceaseless, cinematic duration — that which we see and drown our hearts in. As Jean Rhys’ drunken, depressed protagonist of Good Morning, Midnight (1939 – the year WWII began) muses, ‘Well, sometimes it’s a fine day, isn’t it? Sometimes the skies are blue. Sometimes the air is light, easy to breathe. And there is always tomorrow….’ (Rhys 2000: 121). And what if tomorrow was the greatest loss of them all?
Bolland, Emma, 2019. Over, In, and Under (Manchester: Dostoyevsky Wannabe).
Cohen, Tom, 2017. ‘Arche-Cinema and the Politics of Extinction’, boundary 2, Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 239-265.
Fitzgerald, Zelda, 2001. Save Me the Waltz (London: Vintage).
Jamie, Kathleen, 2012. Sightlines (London: Sort of Books).
Lennon, Brian, 2003. ‘Sleep’, The Next American Essay, ed. by John D’Agata, (Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press), pp. 427-234.
Lispector, Clarice, 2014. Agua Viva (London: Penguin).
Lukacher, Ned, 1987. ‘Introduction: Mourning Becomes Telepathy’, Cinders, trans. by Ned Lukacher, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), pp. 1-18.
Moten, Fred, 2017. Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being) (Durham: Duke University Press).
Nelson, Maggie, 2009. Bluets (Seattle: Wave Books).
Rhys, Jean, 2000. Good Morning, Midnight (London: Penguin).
Riley, Denise, 2000. The Words of Selves: Identification: Solidarity, Irony (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Scranton, Roy, 2015. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilisation (San Francisco: City Lights Books).
Stiegler, Bernard, 2017. ‘The Proletarianization of Sensibility’, boundary 2, Vol. 44, No,. 1, pp. 5-18.
Wish you would tell me where we’re going
as though in a car, snaking down the road
instead of waiting for breakfast
waiting to say this and chewing your oats
It’s dark outside, gets darker every day
this isn’t supposed to happen
I only listen to radio on Fridays why is that
like a song or something
everyone is leaving the party already
afternoons are reminiscent
of last week’s afternoon, come over later
and tell me what you did
I feel quite sick when I think of a lyric
and a stranger asking if I have any filters
You could put a white tip at the end of the poem
like pushing oil into cuticles
Nobody glides down the rain like you do
Which is lifted all bent from a love song
milder than cheddar
You listen on Sundays for wine, she comes out
of the willow to speak to you
coyly undoing her hair or herself
There is no reply, I hold in my grammar
with a bell for the wheel of the eerie freedom
something better than nothing
is like aaah is like aaah
I think this is the song you wanted
me to send, edgewise
sounding the commute back to verb
and speaking in frail duration
send me the book
like send me the lemons in nets
I tear up my tights on your thorny gaze
said nobody ever
one or two poems to think of the future
coming all orange across my eyes, ode
to the hairbells, ode to spring
Nobody does better the song of your loss
becoming this twice
aligned with health, somebody calls
the corner out
Even circles of knitwear have their factions
This is what it is to order a reef
when the coral runs out
Nobody will visit
wherein all the albatrosses start to sing
of plastics, clattering outwards
the slick of your thong is a sorry
I did not want to include
in modes of deception, lesser
named firs for timelines
going on to wherever
the trees can’t stop like dubstep
I know he’s still alive because he updates his tumblr
with black and white versions of parisian film sets
What is the speed of your smile times time
I’m the you in the nobody, ask me a question
Align with astral cancellation
very bad glasses occurring small
sweet sertraline as if we—
dream in which on the hill you kiss me
and I can’t call a doctor
rolling over the hunger
looking at anything for the memory
sparkle chips click in my eye like granite
Haven’t felt this good about feeling for ages
I could say there’s a veil
dragging the face into thrill of the lyric
repulsive sense just is
made to appear like sickness
lifting weights in little reps
Always seven or ever eleven
salve for lateral acid
lifting my arms for the shape of you gone
I don’t want to leave the house today
I don’t want to stay
I don’t want to leave my dreams tomorrow
Who was it that wanted their post just so
and tripped over horses
how clean he looked, sans cigarettes
we look better like light I suppose
castles are glass apparitions
when pressed against cereal
somebody lighting a candle at noon
This final luxury, fold me fast
my wicked friend how are you how are you
I ate all the rotten satsumas
a cascade of raisins
You see of the sky is it stars
or loops of moon
coming everywhere over like fruit
A bike ride, spectacular orbit
undoing that future
share of negative, however pristine
you will your spirits
they glide, authentic
collapse is verse of vice
Dark logs in the fire of order
sharing a wary winter
therein you see me not as it seems
not as in dust or starry application
dictionary effect of your all-sorts
soft liquorice next
sorting the necklace
It got really great before it stopped being anything
the girls are just men
and the men are waves like william said
is it the string that fallates a sea
change in me
the cloud is light
the cloud is heavy
something comes on in the breath of the lethe
I wish I could write like her it seems
wingless to admit this
Drowning dreams me
A pallor of belly and sound
What we read then we read only as extract
locked in the lyre of mind
a fragile cant of flint and ticket
a voice comes out of the hurricane
like sugar and the serenity tint of your missive
I would be wreath and tea, I would be holly
and berry your eyes just so I like them
shinier on high apparitions of pills
pain-wise it’s easy to breathe
absently-minded the child again
sits on the hill, stirring a little
leaf with its fist
and singing of latitude, sisterhood
lustres of puberty hurt
a poem rolls up
a play in the middle like sequins of toffee
all cooked up
babies are blue and twirling their words
fertility is lyric
lately a georgic thought
updates the landscape, refresh of its disk
in embers, cabling dark a sigh
a fish hook, best to cock
one’s eye at the sun for money
caress the sand
and scatter monopoly houses
if I were so young as a werewolf rage
and twang of your green-red tongue
and sunwise; no matter for affect
aphexxing light without face
and girls of the sea
and boys of the sound
resting, newness is blue and plenty
writ of the world for day
and rage, opening indie
pseudo confusions of listening
What nobody has is time
or velvet, less of you
is always the bulb of next year’s
and how did the system get so notorious
coming everywhere glowing like solar
panels in squares of gardens
making this civic
bliss of the window, fifties
kiss-catching my way into the country again
how did it get this mild
cradling the absent children as lambs
the way we did then
sweet green midnight
je suis shepherdess
a ridiculous landscape
clatters upon the stereo, two hours ago
hold out for multiple eclipses, active now
man you taste like whisky I love you
better in nuclear energy
a plantain reply
it doesn’t matter which outlook you use
the tax is similar
season three was a language parasol
being small again eating polos off your toes
I’ll be in that bed forever
better apple of revolutionary england
did not occur
let milk shake
I hate to say all general evie
and everything made for you
A big star fell on your pillow again
traded the oolong for tooth
this is february fifth forever and ever
do you want to come under the duvet again
as if it was made of straws
do you want to come over
threading first storm of loss
the adequate tapestry
Mostly recyclables, hold out the phone
as saul does a melt
to speak as surface
gliding nightly a rare casino snow
soldering palms for oil
and dairy dream of cold pastoral
flays me, such nexus flesh
in the kitchen
lunarium death and starving time
the driver was listening to angel of harlem
a fair blue world
a bluer fur
who would crowd now the pale critique
closing all windows
the way you fell over.
(Short story, written sometime in February).
The first time we met, he was already talking about hallucinogens. This isn’t to overemphasise their significance within our relationship, but to give it context, enlightenment. I got a friend request two days later and I knew that maybe he wanted to follow up on our 4am conversation, fueled by chewing tobacco and copious refills of Bombay Sapphire. He had a laugh you could hear in the next room, but he wasn’t by any means American. I liked that about him though, the sitcom quality. He was sort of shivering at the edges, always anticipating the applause. I seemed to find a way to dwell in the beat with indecision, and I suppose he liked that about me. We talked about the deep sagacity of blue glass and later exchanged blue messages. We sent each other trippy, nicotine music over Messenger and then slipped out of each other’s lives awhile.
It was August, the brink of autumn, the next time he messaged.
Now, it might be the prerogative of my story to give details here. Oh I don’t know, things like: what happened in the intervening months, what happened afterwards, what were his intentions–what indeed, were yours or mine? I was listening to this cute track by Teebs called ‘Double Fifths’ and watching the dust scroll through the empty space of my room. I’d cleared everything out to obtain a sense of minimalist realism. I hadn’t cleaned. I’d left stacks and stacks of junk in the street, for the council to pick up–you just had to phone them to arrange a time. At 11.45 on a Friday, I watched from the window as a truck scooped away the residue of my life. What was left: a laptop with crackling speakers, a few clothing items, two types of eyeliner, a book of Tom Raworth poems with pages missing. This was to remind myself that there are other types of logic. Recently, all my words come out riddled with typos, I don’t know why.
I wasn’t to know that you can fall through cleaves where the sky is not quite finished. I can now recall a glitch in Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, a single or multiplayer GameCube game which occupied much of my childhood. There was a special limbo location called the ‘Normal Garden’ where you could raise teardrop-like critters called ‘Chao’. The garden, essentially, was a floating island. If you selected a precise point where sky met cliff edge on the raised mountain I don’t believe you could climb, and you double-dashed real hard into the blue–you could literally fly out the garden, beyond screen, beyond the brown and green. Your sprite would double as it swung out in each overlay of sky and sea (or was it all just sky?), invoking a genuine sense of terrestrial and existential vertigo. A glitch, by its very name, enacts a rupture in the game’s organising logic. Sometimes you can see the little Chao prowling around, half-submerged in the ground. Every arrangement of object and space gets just slightly, temporarily distorted. I didn’t do the glitch often enough to find out if prolonged abuse would damage the code of my game, triggering all sorts of other glitches. Sometimes though, that serenity of repetitive steel-band lullaby leaks into my dreams. I can hear the muted moans of the Chao themselves, the blend of animal cub and human baby that was so unsettling, electronically warped by my television’s poor sound quality. I am always pacing around, jumping up and down, looking for fruit. I fear all the Chao will die before I wake up.
This happens over and over. There is a dark sweet part of me that longs for the Chao to die. The abuse could go on forever. The seasons in the garden do not alter; you cannot align your emotions to fading pastures, solstice awakenings or imminent harvests. Chao abuse is different from crashing cars into innocents, shooting shop owners or beating up on a passing prostitute–the kind of reprobate behaviour you can indulge in via GTA or the like. This felt more perverse. I was but a child and already fantasising over violence, albeit the delicate torture of hurling a Chao at the wall, tackling it into the water. I told myself it was all experiment. The more you hit the Chao, the shorter its life. A simple mortal formula. On the brink of death, the critter goes into a cocoon: grey is the colour of failed reincarnation, pink indicates it will leave an egg behind. A new egg in lieu of a grave. There are numerous ways you can cheat this death, namely by exiting the garden without saving and returning to pick up your Chao before the internal clock does its doing. You can place it in a water location; Chao cannot die when swimming. You cannot, I suppose, drown a Chao; although I seem to remember Sonic himself was supposed to be a terrible swimmer. Some noughties cartoon where he falls through the sky and helplessly into water. There’s an Eley Williams story that ends with all these hedgehogs floating in a twilit pool, ‘right in the very centre, sitting like asterisks, like parodies of stars’. That really stung me; the sense of nobody really knowing what to do.
Once upon a time, my father rescued a hedgehog he’d found in the garden, curled in my collie dog’s empty water bowl. It was covered in frost and shivering profusely, so we knew it probably wouldn’t make it through the night. I wanted to stroke it, express my primal sympathies, but my father reminded me of the needles. Everything sweet will prick eventually, he might’ve said.
Was there something sick inside of me, that made me want to harm the Chao? I wanted to break them, shorten their lives; albeit often only to go back and comfort them. I wanted to be their protector, but to do that I had to instate a threat. Through this, I learned the psychology of the abuser. It was the taste of bile, a question of power: I literally held the balance and duration of life in my tiny, pixelated paws. For every smash against the wall, there could be a caring caress. Binge and purge. I could leap to the heights of a palm and drop back down with fruit, an apple to hand to my tiny darlings.
As I said, the music got into my head. I hadn’t played the bloody game in over ten years but the tropical, jewellery box lullaby was lodged inside of me. There were palms and psalms in my dreams for weeks. At first, we only cooked a measly, careful, handful of shrooms; they were not as abundant as my new friend said. Well, we were going to cook them but actually I think we had them raw, in a sort of brew. If memory serves. He rubbed off the dirt while I tried to find blankets, because it was cold in his flat–too cold for August. His flatmate was milling around, doing the dishes, watching. I think he knew exactly what we were up to.
There have been times since. I thought I was made out of sugar, my whole flesh a trembling of visible particles, and I knew this meant I would die soon. We were at a party on the other side of town where you have to cross a river in a car or train and I was kissing all my friends, all these people I didn’t know, simply because I knew I was going to die. There was no control anymore. I was going to be this heap of sugar, and I thought I would die there alone and my body would fade to grey like a Chao cocoon. I think this was because an old guy at my work once said, ‘Sugar is cancer’s best friend’. He was loading sachets of aspartame sweetener into his tea at the time, while I was devouring a bar of Cadbury because I’d been on my feet for hours and was starving. We enjoyed our mutual poisons, dragging it out. I could not reply with my mouthful of caramel. Now when I look at cakes and sweets in the supermarket, I only think of my own body, its bubbling of blood and skin, a confectionary of molecules. I have lost two stone in the months since; my family at Christmas barely recognised my toothy, skeletal smile. Something about their candour, their concern, really thrilled me. I could tell they were hurt by my behaviour, which they were judging before understanding. They were fools from another dimension. How could they possibly grasp the cannibalistic implications of consuming sugar? I started to dash and leap around them, looking for fruit I could gift to heal the effects of my cruelty. It was exhausting.
My mother laughs out loud to the radio still, and for that I love her–even though she leaves pieces of fruit to brown in her handbag. There is such a thing as too much ripening. How ever could she know the fatal expense of every tangerine or banana? There is less to be said about apples, potent of juice and shining.
On New Year’s Eve, I read ‘Errory’ and finally fully understood. He was messaging me the whole while, his reflections and concerns. Very little about the year to come; everything honed in on the past. Still, I believe he is to become an engineer of sorts. His job is to fit things together, even memory. Mine: to take all apart, quite deliciously, like an intricate honeycomb melting. You have to enact a hovering, to see between beats and worlds and feelings. This is especially visible in Raworth’s line, ‘silhouettes of participants / dangle in their own data’. You see there are stages to everything, and damned if I was to remain purely neutral, Normal. One time, I saw my future as a singular, golden halo, stretching and stretching outwards like one of Saturn’s rings: it became so huge I couldn’t see the edges. It was beautiful. But then all these other halos started to spill from the invisible centre, just gurgling up hundreds of golden rings like from the spout of a fountain and they were spilling outwards and filling all that holy, haloed space. There were too many rings to count. Altogether a gorge of purity. They started to melt into a pool of liquid gold, and suddenly I felt ashamed. This was the time, I think, when I woke up a day later and found him licking my eyes when I thought he was gone. He murmured something about wanting to eat my soul, in a good way. His tongue stung a little and I slipped it into my mouth instead, mulling over our secret. I thought this boy perhaps was the devil. And could I build something with him; what good would I do?
At home, afterwards, I took a long bath and cried and cried. My tears were hot and perfectly formed. I could not stop crying. The salt, I hoped, would neutralise the sugar. Chao cannot die in water.
Other Echoes Inhabit the Suburbs
The soup tasted pretty gross, but April kept right on eating it. For one thing, she couldn’t bear letting her grandma know that the heap of sugar she’d added ‘to bring out the flavour of the carrots’ had rendered the whole dish a form of cloying mush, as opposed to subtle teatime cuisine. Her grandma wasn’t all that good at subtlety. You only had to glance around the dining room, where they were sitting right at that minute, to know that Ms. Grainger (a return to her maiden name after the divorce) had a taste that lent itself to the gaudy and nostalgic, far more than the graceful and subtle. Along the mantelpiece, ugly china ornaments cluttered the marble surface (long overdue a good dusting); the wallpaper, a lurid shade of magenta, bore the same floral pattern it had done 30 years ago. As a child, April enjoyed peeling the corner of wallpaper behind the headboard of her bed, leaving a gape where the plaster underneath revealed itself like a blank and secret canvas. On that surface of plaster, April had written something special, eight years ago, when she first moved into her grandma’s home. The day after her parents died. It had been a long while since she’d checked if it was still there.
Despite her constant culinary failures, Ms. Grainger loved to entertain. She ran a competitive bridge club, who every Thursday traipsed through her door and gambled their pensions away round the dinner table. She still took great pride in her swimming pool, the envy of neighbours for decades now, even though she rarely (if ever) used it herself. Once upon a time, April had splashed around in that pool with her brother and sister, falling off her father’s shoulders as he waded her through the water, laughing. She had advertised her thirteenth birthday as a pool party, gathering all the kids from school round the kidney-shaped turquoise surface, drinking lemonade in the springtime sun. April was named after the month she was born in; when the kids used to tease her and ask her if that was why, she would nod, glumly, complicit in their derision of her mother. Her grandma always said it was a lovely name, but April herself was indifferent to its supposed charms. She realised that probably it was another ornament, a quaint and pretty reminder of a golden, bucolic past, when girls would flock round Maypoles in their white dresses. Maybe it hadn’t been her parents’ choice at all, but another idea cooked up by her grandma.
“Don’t you think it’s marvellous, how Jacob is doing?” Grandma Grainger piped up, pausing to look around the room for dramatic effect, though her only audience was April, along with old Marjorie from down the road. Marjorie, who was half deaf, took a good long minute to process the question before answering.
“Oh, what? Jacob, how is he doing?” Marjorie slurped a spoonful of soup, piercing her lips in mild disdain.
“He’s sailed through his third year of law school, that’s how he’s doing!” Grandma exclaimed, making no attempt to suppress her glee. “They say he got As all through his exams.”
“You must be so proud,” Marjorie said.
“Not only that, but he’s landed quite the internship, out in the city with a big firm.”
“Isn’t that wonderful,” Marjorie said, even more mechanically this time. She, like everyone else, had grown used to Grandma’s bragging, and had developed her own form of automatism to deal with it. April sipped her soup. She fixed her eyes on Marjorie, intent on registering every hint of discomfort that showed on her face. She too would be tasting, right at that moment, the same watery sugary sludge, the faint aroma of sage that cut brutally through the blandness of broccoli, potato, carrot. There was a pleasure in the knowledge that they shared this painful experience, dragging their spoons through the viscous excreta that Grandma Grainger had poured so obliviously into bowls for them.
“And how is Grace doing?” Marjorie asked, clearing the last of her bowl with one triumphant swallow. The question seemed even more forced than the act of putting soup in her mouth.
“Oh Gracey,” Grandma smiled, “she’s doing just fine. Very sensible girl.”
“Is she still wanting to…what was it, design buildings?”
“Yes Marjorie, she’s actually apprenticing as an architect right this minute, though I have high hopes for her and this man she’s living with. He works for a bank and is quite the charmer. I can see them settling down very soon.”
“Children, at her age?” Marjorie seemed mildly alarmed. She had never had kids, and though the subject was once taboo in the neighbourhood, she was now quite proud of the fact that the freedom had allowed her time alone to tinker with her paints, with trips to the seaside – to spend the evening consumed by soap operas instead of her husband’s ironing. Besides, some of the art shops in town had once bought her watercolours.
“Goodness, but wasn’t I firing them out at eighteen? Grace is 22 now, perfectly capable of handling a couple of youngsters.”
“Of course,” Marjorie murmured.
“A year younger than April, in fact,” Grandma found the need to point out, unnecessarily, as April stared glumly into her soup. There was no way of finishing the last of it. Already she felt a little sick. She swirled it round until patterns appeared about the sides, patterns which soon sunk back down as gravity sucked at the sludge.
“May I be excused?” she asked, having long ago perfected the strategic politeness of an obedient grandchild.
“Yes dear, what have you planned for the evening? I was wondering if you’d let Marjorie and I teach you bridge. You could whirl up quite the storm, with those maths skills of yours. I’d like to show you off on our Thursdays. I could do with some more winnings too, now that I think of it. Ethel really swiped us last week, eh?”
“I’m not sure you need maths skills to play bridge,” April said quietly.
“Will you listen to this? The girl really cannot take a compliment,” Grandma retorted. “I’m just trying to involve you dear.”
“I work most Thursdays.”
“Oh well. You spend far too much time alone, it’s not healthy for a young woman. You ought to be more like your sister.” The cutting line. “She’s always telling me – on the phone you know – how much fun she’s having.”
“I’m going out, Gran, I’m going out.” She scraped back her chair and wandered upstairs to her bedroom.
“At this time of night? She must be crazy,” Grandma muttered, out of her granddaughter’s earshot.
“Indeed,” came Marjorie’s reply.
The house was so dark, mostly lit by old-fashioned oil lamps that were stuck to the walls. It was an ex-council house, which Grandma Grainger had spent most of her life trying to make look bourgeois. Most of the houses in the surrounding suburb had been knocked down, upgraded into gleaming new builds, replete with fresh pine surfaces and huge double-glazed windows. Grandma, along with a small handful of fellow residents, had refused this development and by some miracle they were allowed to go on living in their humble hovels. It was a good thing they did, because the new builds had driven the local house prices up considerably, pushing out many of her old friends. It was home now mostly to young families, who relished the picket-fence dreams sold to them in American movies, who wanted to cocoon their kids from the dangers of ‘town’.
It wasn’t just town that was dangerous though. April knew well enough that this house itself could be ‘dangerous’. Many times she had fallen up those creaking stairs in the darkness, had found herself privy to some sordid phone conversation between her grandma and a mysterious third party:
“Oh, a terrible thing indeed!”
“He’s quite the scoundrel!”
“You’ll never believe what she told me she found in his sock-drawer!”
“I heard they’re getting the police involved. A terrible mess, for certain.”
One thing April hated was her grandma’s tone of mock horror, her incantations of scandal. She had perfected it for all the local housewives, proving herself a key player in the steady circulation of gossip upon which the suburb depended. It was worse than Facebook, the way news got around, the way her grandma would dissect every last detail of her neighbours’ lives around the dinner table, while April stared into uneaten soup or peas or sometimes, on Sundays as a treat, ice cream. April deleted her Facebook a long time ago. It provided too many links to her past, reminders of times that were happier, sadder, or at least more complicated. It hurt, to get bound up in all that again. She couldn’t be bothered hurting anymore. She couldn’t help thinking it would be nice to delete real conversation as easily as she’d gotten rid of Facebook.
“Well I heard he lost his job at the call centre. Shocking, isn’t it?”
April couldn’t help thinking: if only her grandma had employed that tone, to deft effect, when her parents had died. If only she had talked to the in-laws, to April’s father’s family; if only she had been more understanding, less impatient with the lawyers. Maybe then, April would still have another family. As it was, Grandma Grainger was all she had. Jacob and Grace, in all their seeming perfection, were always too busy – out of reach, ploughing headlong into their respective futures.
April’s bedroom, like the rest of the house, hadn’t changed an awful lot since she’d moved in. In fact, her grandma’s kitten obsession had crept its way even in here, in the form of a cross-stitch concocted from a palette of lurid pastels, tacked to the wall by the window. It was a very small window. The carpet was a foul kind of jungle green colour, supposedly a fashionable compliment to the orange walls, though its chic shabbiness was no detraction from the massive stain where Grace (who shared the room with April as a teenager – they slept top-and-tail in the bed) had once spilled half a bottle of red wine. Despite sharing a room for those years before university, Grace and April were never all that close. Grace seemed to find April strange, asking her all sorts of weird questions, as if she were the big sister and not April. Have you ever let a boy touch you? Ever done drugs? Why don’t you ever text anyone, I never see you with your phone. Are you gay? In truth, April had never really understood her younger sister. Her life had always revolved around a carnival of minor dramas – breakups and hook-ups and clandestine phone-calls, which April would eavesdrop on at night, while she pretended to sleep – and the whole wanting-to-be-an-architect thing seemed nothing more than just another design for life that took its place among the rest. Grace had always had plans, always rattled on about some boy she liked, a handbag she was saving for, a class she was intending to drop or take up. They were as sure in her head as the bottles of alcohol she stashed beneath the bed, and as certain to disappear or deplete by the end of the week.
As for April, the whole concept of a ‘design for life’ seemed drastically elusive. She couldn’t quite grasp how some people were able to think into their futures, then spin out a ten-step plan about how they were getting there. She liked lying in her bedroom, listening to obscure classical music, staring at the ceiling, letting the percussion and the elaborate orchestration of instruments and melodies weave themselves into her brain. She had been to university, stuck at it for nearly a whole year, but it just wasn’t for her. The equations and quadratics came easy to her, but everything else had gotten her down. Halls were a drag, seminars were a drag, and getting out of bed in the morning was the biggest drag of all. Making friends seemed to require some impossible formula that nobody had bothered to teach her, and April had made herself content with loneliness.
The mirror in her bedroom always showed you as fatter than you really were. Grace had first pointed this out, aged fourteen, preening her face and frowning as she noticed the curves that she hadn’t noticed before in the old mirror of their parents’ house.
“You haven’t put on weight,” April had assured her, with careful sincerity. Puberty had been the elephant in the room for a couple of months now: April had filled out and sprung up like a runner bean, her feet had grown to an impossible shoe size, while Grace stayed skinny and small as a boy, as her grandma. She became very touchy about it, worrying about every pound she might put on, pinching at her stomach.
“Oh,” she sighed in reply, “yes, it’s just the mirror I think. See the way it stretches out like that? The glass is damaged or something.”
After that observation, neither of the girls bothered much to look in the mirror. For April at least, it was difficult to be narcissistic in a house where every surface, every detail or ornament, sucked your attention away. It was all too lurid, too extreme; there was no place to retreat into the bubble of yourself. You found yourself trapped, submerged even, in the things around you, their perpetual assault on the senses. It wasn’t beauty, because there was no seduction, no entrancement caused between the eye and the objects that absorbed it; it was more like the constant bombardment of sheer stasis. Realising that time hadn’t really changed. Feeling as if time itself were that sticky thing that stopped you from leaving and growing. Grandma herself was as preserved, as perfected, as she was thirty years ago. The hair remained the same dyed silver; the face was as powdered and smoothed as ever. It was only when she frowned or smiled that the wrinkles cracked out around her mouth; otherwise she seemed not much of a breath over sixty. Yes, it was the sense of timelessness that drew April away from the mirror, away from thoughts of the future, of what she would do with her life. The stasis sucked you in, like some kind of chemical in the air.
She had gotten out for nearly a year, but something drew her back. The phrase ‘Boomerang Generation’ meant nothing to April, because coming back to her teenage home wasn’t like bouncing backwards – it was more like sinking into a deep and dirty swamp. The familiar, suburban smells of petrol, musty cars and marijuana. The Sonic Youth CDs she’d drowned herself in as a teenager, losing whole afternoons to that wall of gritty, reverberating sound.
Yes, Grandma’s house was the shrinking bedroom, the endless, empty summers, the grating noise of Kim Gordon’s cool and impassive voice, filling April’s ears through her Walkman headphones.
There were never any pets, no familiar animal presence. When she lived with her parents, there was always a budgie or a hamster or even a goldfish, whose daily needs and eventual deaths provided a healthy sense of normality and temporality and responsibility: they had to be tended to, their deaths were milestones in the family calendar. They had no garden, so it would be a ceremonial trip to the local park, a gathering by some innocent tree for the symbolic burial, followed by a treat – chocolate ice creams and tea. No such markers of time or presence existed in Grandma Grainger’s abode. There weren’t even any family photos; just the kitten pictures, the cross-stitches and faded placards declaring various slogans on love and housekeeping that Grandma herself forgot to live by: Home is Where the Heart Is (did she even have a heart?), A Clean House is a House Well Managed (the dust that covered the placard said enough), and, April’s favourite, Love is All (what was love? what was all?).
Thin as a rake, Grandma was always cold and perpetually had the thermostat turned up full, so that sometimes it seemed as if the walls themselves were sweating. Sometimes, just before dawn, when April would come home from a shift at the petrol station, she would sit in the kitchen eating toast and staring at the wall. As the butter oozed on her plate, greasy and gleaming on her fingers, so too did the floral wallpaper. It was as if the stems were bleeding, dragging themselves down over the other flowers, drowning each other out or else entangling themselves in a choking collective suicide. After a sleep she would check again, much to Grandma’s bemusement, but the wallpaper was the same – tastefully gross but admittedly flawless, unchanged, after all those years.
In her bedroom, April struggled to yank open her window, only managing to open it a crack. It always got stuck. She rummaged in her sock drawer and drew out the little tobacco tin (her grandfather’s, found at the back of a kitchen cupboard) and prised it open carefully, so’s not to spill any of the precious weed on the carpet. She sat on her bed, still sweating, and rolled a joint. It was perhaps the one thing that she wasn’t clumsy at. She bought her weed off a kid she’d known at school, a boy who met her in the carpark by the mall, who wore baseball caps and communicated mostly in grunts and ‘likes’ and ‘mans’. He had a nickname, Rattata, acquired during an epic Pokemon battle he’d won in his first year of high school. Somehow, it had stuck; such was the timelessness of the suburbs.
She left out the back door, trying to attract a minimal amount of attention. Through the window, she could see in the gap between the filthy velvet curtains her grandma and Marjorie sitting round the table still. They would not wash the bowls up, probably not until the morning. Nor would they do something normal, like sit together and watch telly (Grandma prided herself on having never owned a telly, which probably explained her absolute indifference to current affairs and anything which might tenuously be defined as ‘culture’). Grandma would bring out the bottle of sherry from the dust-filled drinks cabinet and they would sip it all night, mostly in silence, punctuated only by Grandma’s vague and inane observations. She saved her best gossip for the neighbourhood mums, not for little old Marjorie. April knew the routine well. That was why she was gasping to escape it.
The night air was cool and sweet. It was funny how you could literally taste it, it was so much nicer than inside. The sprinklers were on in the back garden and their spray lilted across the darkness and snagged a few rainbows from the street lights which poured their light upon the grass. April hung out by the bins and smoked her spliff. The smell rose up, warm and fragrant, curling around the drainpipes, hovering dangerously by Grandma’s bedroom window. April loved the smell of marijuana: the stuff she bought had a kind of spice to it, reminding her of far away locations, exotic places she had only imagined, the lifestyles of those who made a career out of slacking – or, at the very least, a perfected mysticism. She liked the way it numbed and slowed her brain, how it allowed her to focus on single things; how it dissolved, momentarily, the pressure of Grandma’s house, which always loomed, monstrously, at the back of her mind.
She stood for a while, watching a snail slide slowly over the patio, trailing its glimmeringly malignant ooze. Grandma left slug pellets all over her garden, but the little molluscs had grown clever and cunning: they knew their way around her property, how to crawl inside the skirting boards and leave their silvery traces over the carpets, walls and cabinets – even the stacks of housekeeping magazines.
April started smoking weed aged seventeen, two years after her parents died. It was the highlight of her day, lighting up behind the bus station in town, prolonging the return to the suburban hinterlands, watching the sun fold itself neatly behind the high rise buildings. Relishing that lovely oblivion on the bus home, giggling at nothing.
It was the perfect evening for a walk. The streets were pristine, gleaming from the shower of afternoon rain that had now cleared into a late spell of twilight sunshine, that bounced off the white gloss paint of the picket fences and semi-detached houses. Just a few yards from her grandma’s home, April felt lighter already, as if each step was somehow melting her material connection to the world. Often she was gripped with such wonder for things. It made her heart sore, to see the yellow roses in the neighbour’s garden, speckled with raindrops, swaying against the fading sky of pastel blue. Her body no longer mattered. She could not taste the gross sweetness of the soup, nor the earthy residues of the spliff. She felt the houses around her (of which her grandma’s was the sole, grotty anomaly) blur into a white haze, as if they were a chalky plume of cloud, following her, swaddling her. It was lovely. On nights like this, she kept walking.
When she was younger, she walked a lot; mostly to escape Grace (when she had a boyfriend over), or Jacob, who would always ask if she was okay. Grandma didn’t count. She was just there, and then when April crossed the threshold through the door, she just wasn’t. The whole while, she always wanted to get lost. She knew these streets so well, it seemed as if she were walking through a film set, a well-trodden stage which never changed.
Her footsteps echoed on the clean concrete. No chewing gum, no cans or crisp wrappers, as there were scattered around downtown. A man was out mowing his lawn, the grass cuttings billowing up in slow motion behind him.
The light was turning, darkening. April hardly noticed: she was so intent on her walking, that to a passing stranger she might seem possessed by her thoughts – though in truth she thought of nothing at all. She passed through the copse of woods where she had smoked her first spliff, where Katie Willoughby had pushed her into the nettles all those years ago, where Grace (as she had confided, breathlessly) lost her virginity. She passed by the pastel-coloured sheds where people stored cars and gardening equipment, the allotments which sparkled strangely with birdsong, the pile of slates stacked outside the Cherry Tree mansions, the road that led towards her old school. All detail floated by her. Until she heard the screeching.
At first, April thought it was someone being attacked, maybe even raped. The sound was so shrill, so gasping and sharp, that it seemed the definite screech of a tortured human. There was, however, no human voice, no desperate breathing. Just that screech, that terrible wheezing. She tried to identify its source, peering over the tall hedges into people’s gardens, but there seemed to be no person around at all. It was only when she crouched to the ground that the sound got louder, and suddenly April stumbled upon the poor creature who was making the awful noise.
It was a fox, its flesh bearing a graze of barbed wire across its back, gaping and bleeding out onto the grass and concrete. The fox was smaller than April had ever thought foxes were. From her picture book imagination, she had always imagined them larger, perhaps the size of collie dogs, whereas this one was no bigger than the average alley cat, worn scrawny by its scrappy suburban diet. April knelt on the pavement and tried to place her hand on its little head, expecting it to snap at her. Instead, the fox’s body was seized by a great spasm; it jerked violently as if to vomit, but only gasped instead – the kind of breathless gasp that seems to suck a lifetime of oxygen.
“You poor, poor thing,” April whispered, stroking its soft ears as it lay there, whimpering. She had never owned a cat or a dog; she had only watched the blonde labrador that used to skip about the street by Grandma’s house, chased playfully by the kids that lived opposite. The screeching subdued, the fox settled into a kind of stasis. April glanced at the wounds on its back. She couldn’t think where there was barbed wire round here (the allotments, perhaps?), though she had to admit that she wasn’t exactly sure where she was now. Had she really managed to wander far enough to get lost? It was an exciting thought. She found herself dipping a finger into the pool of blood that had gathered on the concrete. It glistened under the lamplight. As if by instinct, she raised the finger to her face and painted two streaks of warpaint on each of her cheeks. The blood thinned to a graininess, mixed in with the dust and dirt of the pavement. A solid feeling of invincibility formed in her stomach, like a knot.
She waited a while in the silence of the evening, alone on this street which she could not name, among houses whose windows were no longer bright and golden. A hundred chintz curtains shut her in darkness.
The day the police phoned, she had been alone in the house: Grace was at choir practice, Jacob at debates club. She remembered the cold feel of the kitchen tiles on her bare feet as she ran through to pick up the receiver, the smell of the toast that she had just burned. What chance of luck had made her pick up? April never answered the phone, but that evening she had. The way the words spilled through the line, clumsy almost, like chunks of food being forced through a pipe; had they made any sense at all? Had she slumped against the wall, the way they did in films? She had experienced that cold certainty, the tingling clarity that got her onto the phone with her grandma, that got her to school to tell her siblings. There’s been an accident. Mum and Dad.
What horror had torn this fox to such misery? Had it chanced its luck in the carpark of some warehouse, raiding the bins for food?
“Poor, poor creature,” she crooned. The thing was quivering, shaking with some savage pain which shook April to the pit of her stomach. Its black glossy eyes were shrunken, yellowed at the corners as if strained by some disease. Only once before had she spotted a fox around the suburbs, but it had sprung away into the shadows of an alley. Making eye contact with this injured thing before her, April felt something dissolve inside of her, the knot unravelling. She curled up beside it, trying to keep the fox warm with the mere heat of her body. The pavement felt cool; the fox smelt of damp fur and trash and blood.
“Hello?” How much time had passed since she had first lain down beside the creature? April sat up with a fright, to meet the gaze of the man standing over her.
“Is everything okay?” he knelt beside her. She could see he was wearing a navy cable-knit jumper, like the ones her father used to wear. He smelled faintly of soap, as if he had just had a shower, and of something else that seemed vaguely familiar.
“It’s-it’s a fox,” April stammered, “I found him on the ground and he’s really sick.”
“Oh.” She moved out the way a little so he could see the animal. “Jesus.”
“What should we do?” It was strange how easy it felt, talking to a stranger. She expected him to unleash a flood of genius upon the situation, to take control, to tell her she’d be safer leaving it in his hands. Instead, he took a seat on the ground. She watched him feel among the matted fur, which was beginning to clump and congeal with dried blood, though a steady stream of fresh stuff still made its way out onto the pavement. There was a deftness to his touch, a gentle, clinical sense of knowing.
“We should phone a vet. They’ll come out to sort it out.”
“Sort it out?”
“Well, put the damn thing out its misery I suppose.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. You ever had a pet they put down?”
“Um, well, I guess they all just died naturally…”
“I’m a doctor,” he said, after a pause, “I guess I’m used to it.”
“It seems strange to say one is ‘used’ to death,” April pointed out. The doctor was surprised at the way she spoke: there was an old-fashioned, perhaps conscious naivety to her diction, reminiscent of some prim heroin of Jane Austen’s.
“Well, I wouldn’t say you ever get used to death,” the doctor replied. “Look, give me a sec, I’m just going to phone a vet. I have a number somewhere, a place that’s on-call 24 hours.”
Time itself suddenly occurred to April. 24 hours. Well, she supposed, it must be somewhere in the middle of the night by now; perhaps she had walked for hours. She listened to the doctor speak on the phone in a hushed yet urgent tone. She wanted to cling to the security of those words, whatever it was they were saying. She watched him click a button on his phone (a Blackberry, she noted), then slip it back into his pocket.
“They’ll be coming within the hour,” he said. “You don’t…you don’t have to wait.”
“It’s okay, I want to.”
“Better get comfy then eh?” a sudden boyish playfulness sprung into his face. “I have an idea. Be right back.”
“Oh, sure.” He hurried up the street again and disappeared round a corner. Those ten minutes while he was gone felt like an eternity. The fox seemed to be in even more pain now, slipping in and out of consciousness, its eyes flickering like the kid in math class who once took a seizure on the floor. April was increasingly feeling privy to some dark reality of the animal kingdom, a turn towards nature’s cruel lacerations. It was as if every minute she swallowed another gulp of the fox’s pain, the barbed wire gashing at her own throat.
The doctor returned, finally, with two bottles of beer. She realised that maybe she was just thirsty. He deftly opened the bottles with an opener attached to his keys. She took the first sip, murmuring thank you, tasting the sweetly bitter tang of the cheap hops. It was strange, the taste, because she had not drank alcohol since her months at university. It wasn’t really the drug of choice in the suburbs. Grandma liked her wine and sherry, but April had never been attracted to that sleepy retreat, the way it made you spill out truth after truth round dinner tables. She had seen enough people ravaged by alcohol, at teenage flat parties, where she stared at the walls while people around her pulled and played cards and were sick. She preferred marijuana, the way it scattered you into laughter, made you slink into sofas, soporific.
“Are you hungry?” she asked the doctor, after a brief pause. “I’ve got sweets.” She slipped a roll of fruit pastilles from her sleeve. Since starting her job at the petrol station several months ago, April had taken to sugar as a means of coping with the insomnia caused by the erratic night shifts, as a means of staying awake after ten hours staring catatonically at a cash desk.
“You’re getting fat,” Grandma told her, a few weeks in. Grandma, who didn’t own a car, had no concept of the world of the petrol station, its jelly-like liquefying of time. With her pinched appetite and terrible cooking, she could have no concept of the need to just gorge. She seemed quite surprised that April could put on weight so fast. She had no concept of coming home, drowsy and stoned at four in the morning, laden with packets of junk food. Of staring mindlessly at the flickers of a screen while stuffing all that salt and sugar in your face. No, she could have no concept of that at all; she was from a sensible generation, she knew the rules, the limits. She had dieted in the eighties, but only because it was fashionable.
April realised how rude it was to offer sweets to a doctor. Would he not warn her of the dangers of tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease? It astounded her that he simply took the first pastille of the roll (a black one) and slipped it between his lips. The alcohol had relaxed, almost instantly, the awkwardness between them.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had one of these,” he chuckled. April grew frustrated with his mildness. She decided to ask him about death again. It seemed so easy, pressing her questions upon the darkness, the distant sound of sirens that filled the streets. She wanted to fill that darkness with everything.
“You’re pretty morbid you are,” he replied to her query, chewing thoughtfully.
“Well isn’t death right here beside us?”
“I guess I can’t argue with that…”
“Have you ever killed a person? she asked brightly, after a pause.
“Of course not—have you?” The beer bottle was still partly wedged between his lips as he spoke, sending his voice into a strange consonance of echoes.
“Well no.” He took the bottle out his mouth.
“I’ve had a part to play. I’ve messed up enough times at work to know that sometimes I’m powerless against death. These dying patients, you realise that their whole lives are closing down. One by one they’re saying goodbye to their will, to their memory, to all those tangible things that kept them together. Personality blurs into a sort of serenity of acceptance, or else twists into violent denial. I’ve had folk scream at me at my practice, telling me I’m wrong. People are so sure that they’re fine sometimes. Then again, so am I. I’ve misdiagnosed before, of course. I thought a man in his mid-40s, non-smoker, vegetarian, track-runner, was fine. He came to me with stomach pains, problems with his digestion. I put it down to IBS, prescribed him some antacids and peppermint tea. A couple months later and he’d lost three stone and was passing blood. It was cancer of the bowels, and he only had three weeks to live. Hell, if I’d caught that sooner…he had a wife and two kids. It still haunts me, I’m telling you.”
“But doctors must make mistakes like that all the time,” April said carefully, “I mean, there are so many illnesses to choose from – it’s impossible to get it right for each person. You’re not a computer.”
“Man, human weakness is no excuse. I was lazy, I should’ve asked him more questions. Can I have another fruit pastille?”
“Sure.” She pushed out an orange one, the last of the packet – she’d wolfed the rest already. A residue of the sugar coating remained on her palm.
“Then there was this old lady,” he continued, after a while, “she had all these problems. Alzheimer’s, kidney problems, trouble breathing and eating – the lot. She just came to me constantly, every week, complaining about everything. Sometimes she collapsed and a neighbour would find her and rush her to A&E. There were never enough beds to keep her for long. She’d always come back to me, just her practice doctor, thinking I had the miracle of life or something. I should’ve referred her to a geriatric specialist. I thought I was being clever, taking on the challenge; I thought all she needed deep down was someone to talk to. These suburban types, sometimes they’ve been shut up all their life, silenced by housework and Vallies. It’s a wee cliche, but it’s kinda true – an army of hypochondriacs.”
“What happened to her?”
“One time she was at a coffee shop, you know the one by the park, Crow’s Cafe I think it’s called. She was just drinking tea and doing a crossword. Collapsed right there and then.”
“Wow.” For a sudden moment, the image of her own grandma flashed into April’s mind: she saw her standing over the sink, washing dishes, staring vacantly at the filthy windows. So transparent, she could be a ghost.
“It was fucking gruesome. Her spleen and all. Kidney failure. They never really told me what happened exactly, but I was heavily disciplined for not spotting the signs.” He added, bitterly: “I nearly took to drink, after that one.”
“You’re a little too young to talk like that, surely.” April sipped slowly on the last of her beer, savouring it, as though if she drank to the bottom of the bottle the conversation would end.
“How old do you think I am?”
“Um, maybe thirty…?” It occurred to April that she hadn’t the foggiest idea how old a doctor was supposed to be. All the ones she’d ever met were in their fifties – at the very least – and this man beside her wore a nice jumper and had nice skin and a smile you could fall for. He could be near enough fresh out of medical school.
He laughed, almost snorted at her suggestion.
“Put it this way…my fortieth birthday seems a long time ago now.” She was conscious that he didn’t ask for her age in return.
“Uh huh. Twenty years ago, near enough, that I told my first patient that she was pregnant, that I first prescribed a batch of sleeping pills, antidepressants. I don’t remember their faces. The woman sent me a card, after the baby was born. I think it was a boy.”
“That’s pretty cool. You have a hand in life and death.” He snorted.
“I wouldn’t say that. I just…notice things.” They were cut short by the sound of the fox wheezing again. Its body trembled, rustling the leaves of the hedge behind it.
“Come on now fella,” the doctor said, awkwardly, as if speaking to a person. April knelt close to it again, stroking it, making soft, soothing cooing noises.
“You have a way with animals,” he remarked, as the fox began to quieten again, “you’re like the fox whisperer.”
“Maybe it’s just cos I’m crap with humans,” April said.
“I guess we all think we’re crap with humans.”
“That’s probably true.” She scrunched the foil of the fruit pastilles wrapper in her hand.
“For some more than others, I can assure you. The benefits of hindsight and age.” She saw him wink at her in the darkness.
“The vet’s taking a long time,” she remarked.
“Oh, they have to come across town,” he said vaguely. “Anyway, what were you doing out this late, wandering around?” It was the unspoken mystery between them, the chance encounter, the dying fox beside them on the pavement, the press of the darkness like the sweet-smelling sheets of a stranger’s bed.
“I…I get sad. Sometimes I need to get out of my grandma’s house. I could feel the walls melting. It’s a nightmare. And you?”
“Believe it or not, I’m wearing pyjamas under this jumper.” He lifted the jumper to reveal a baggy, pinstripe shirt. She noticed a flash of his brownish belly underneath where the shirt rode up, the hint of a snail trail in wisps of hair that she could see even in the darkness. There was a slight paunch, perhaps the only suggestion of middle-age. “My…girlfriend, she’s a doctor too, at the hospital. Works crazy back shifts and nightshifts all the time. We catch each other for lunch, for dinner parties, in bed in the wee hours before dawn. I get lonely: sometimes I can’t sleep and I just get out of bed and walk. There’s never anyone around.” He put down his empty beer bottle, ran a hand through his hair, which was overdue a cut. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“It’s like,” April replied solemnly, “you sometimes just need the fresh air.”
“Yeah, that’s probably it.”
“I wasn’t even sure where I was, but I think I know now,” she said, “it’s not far from my old school.”
“Have you lived here all your life?”
“Well…since I was a teenager. Something happened to my parents and we had to move from our nice flat downtown to Grandma’s place in the ‘burbs.”
“I bet that was a shock and a half for you.”
“Yes, they died quite suddenly.”
“Oh, er, no I meant the move to the suburbs…I didn’t realise your parents had actually passed away. I’m so sorry.”
“No, it’s okay.” His sincerity made something physically ache inside of April. Who was this man, and what was he doing to her? She felt as if all the scrunched-up resentments of the past few years were slowly melting away, leaving her with a sense of going soft, of somehow opening. It was so easy to just…talk. She stroked the fox’s ears, following a comforting rhythm.
“Yeah, this street…I think I even walked down it to school sometimes. I used to buy sweets at some corner shop. It looks different at night.”
“It’s funny,” she said, “I think a boy tried to kiss me once, just over there on that corner.” She gestured to a spot where the pavement rose up to someone’s drive, drenched in amber lamplight. “I’m pretty sure he did it for a joke.”
“What makes you say that?”
She frowned. “Oh I dunno, the look in his eyes. He was popular and they all hated me. He literally asked me the question, stared at me, came up to me out of nowhere.”
“What did you do?” She was surprised to see he seemed genuinely curious. What business did a middle-aged man have caring about the (non)romantic history of a girl almost half his age?
“I told him no thanks.” He laughed.
“Brutal, truly brutal. I’m telling you, you probably broke his puny wee heart.”
“I sincerely doubt it.” There was something so uncanny in the way she said that, I sincerely doubt it: it seemed a thing an older woman would say, someone made weary with bitterness, cynicism; someone with experience under their belt. There was a sort of aged wisdom that sparkled in her eyes when she said it. In the darkness he could not see her blush; could not read in her face that at 24 years old, she had never kissed anyone before.
“Can I offer you a smoke?” he asked, after a pause.
“So you smoke too, do you? I’m beginning to lose my faith in doctors,” she replied wryly.
“Well, you must’ve had a shock, stumbling upon old Fantastic Mr Fox here.” She smiled at his Roald Dahl reference. “And a thing I like to prescribe to myself on such occasions is, well, what you might call the humble drug of the suburbs.” He slipped a tin from his pocket and prised the lid open. There was a baggie of what was unmistakably weed, some tobacco skins and filter tips, like tiny pieces of white candy. “Marijuana.” He winked once again his mischievous wink, and April felt a tingling in her stomach.
“Yes please,” she said without pause. She felt like a child at a restaurant, being offered some exotic food for the first time. She watched him deftly roll a joint, handling the paraphernalia with the ease and grace of someone who spends all day tinkering with syringes and stethoscopes and thermometers. He lit up and sucked in the first draw, his face alight in the orange glow. In that slight intensity of light, she noticed the tiny lines that crinkled in the corners of his eyes, the tiredness that cut shadows underneath them.
He passed her the spliff. It tasted very sweet, and she realised there were little strawberries printed all over the skin.
“Yeah…” the doctor said awkwardly, “I find it hard to deal with the feel of tobacco in my mouth, so I use flavoured skins, like some brazen wee hussy from an American high school movie.”
April drew a long deep lungful of smoke. The weed was very sharp and bitter, but the strawberry taste smoothed it out.
“You just used the word hussy,” she stated.
“I know, is that very awful?” the doctor lay back against the hedge and giggled like a schoolgirl.
“Probably,” April replied. She took a few more greedy draws then passed the spliff back to him. The stuff was evidently much better than what she procured from Rattata. Already she could feel something lifting in her stomach, her brain sort of crumpling, lightening, as if filling up with a strange, ascendant vapour.
“Do your colleagues know you smoke this?” she asked, in all sincerity.
“Oh, I suppose they have an inkling that I’m not quite…orthodox.”
“I always wondered how you were supposed to have fun, as a doctor. Like, golf and stuff. Red wine, because it has antioxidants?”
“Terribly boring, eh?” he smiled. She saw that his lips were quite dry and pale. “I guess there’re some teenage habits you just can’t give up. I only do it alone these days. My girlfriend would kill me if she knew.”
At this point, April was only half-listening. Her hand was on the belly of the fox, softly stroking the ruined fur, feeling the troubled rhythm of its breathing. A Sonic Youth song – one she hadn’t heard in years – was pulsing through her head:
Everybody’s talking bout the stormy weather
And what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?
Looking for a man with a focus and a temper
Who can open up a map and see between one and two
“I just realised something.” The doctor straightened himself up from his slumped position. “Is that blood caked in your cheeks?”
“What?” April had totally forgotten about the tribal marks she had smeared on her skin on some bizarre impulse. “Oh.”
“I thought it was just the shadows from the street lamp, but no, I can see it now.” Then he did something strange. He licked his finger and placed it on her cheek. He gently wiped away the marks. Then he put the finger in his mouth.
“Bitter,” he muttered.
April finished the last of the spliff, stubbing it out into the ground, well away from the fox. She remembered, then, what she had written, all those years ago, on the exposed plaster behind her bed: I Hate Everyone.
It was only now that she experienced the vague realisation that maybe she didn’t.
“I think it’s so sad,” she began, “the way things can just die like this. Who knows what it went through? It’s like, why should an innocent creature be torn to shreds like that? For what? An accident? I don’t understand how easily death can just happen. It can just shake up the world for a second and then it goes on as normal. And so often we take for granted the difference – between life and death – like seeing death as this other realm, dressed up in old age and frailty and all this flowery symbolism, but actually, actually, it can happen at any time. It can be as part of your life as brushing your teeth in the morning. It hangs over you, as easily and constant as routine. You could die anywhere, you could stumble upon someone dying.” There was a pause of silence between them. April felt warm and content at her own eloquence. They listened to a trio of starlings in the tree behind them, presumably settling down to roost.
“I used to be suicidal,” he said suddenly, “as a teenager. I never told anyone. For six months of my life I thought about death everyday, and I never told anyone. I would write all my plans on scraps of my maths jotter: tonight I will take my mother’s pills; today I will hang myself. I won’t eat or drink anything, so that I can starve to death. It felt safe, having those notes on me all the time. Then one day – the day I decided to be a doctor I guess – I realised that what was the point in death? It wasn’t even giving up, it was making an effort for something that didn’t want you. Like unrequited love. I knew then that suicide required an act of will that I didn’t have. Since then, I’ve been a slave to anatomy. There’s something soothing about studying the body in this precise, objective way. You stop thinking about that abstract thing inside yourself that you want to kill. Eventually, it just sort of goes away.” He sighed deeply. “You don’t forget, but you can make it go away.”
“Do you think everything happens for a reason?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, “I think everything just…happens. We make the reasons, maybe.”
“My parents were killed in a car crash when I was fifteen. It was no-one’s fault. Just two sets of people clashing on bad luck.”
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated the phrase from before, when she had first told him of her parents’ passing. His sincerity seemed genuine, and not the perfected sympathetic stare of the medical professionals April was used to dealing with in the immediate aftermath of their deaths.
“It’s okay,” she said, “it was a long time ago now. Nearly ten years…”
“Do you ever wonder about the future? I suppose you have a glittering career ahead of you, smart girl like you from the suburbs, living faithfully and chastely with her grandmother…”
“No, I can’t,” she said bluntly. She was struggling for the words, waiting to snatch them out of the air; she was so high now that she seemed to be speaking through fog, the words churning and swirling in her brain.
“The world is just day after day after day and will anything change or happen? I feel like I’ve been preserved in jelly, destined to play out the rest of my days in this stasis…but it seems impossible to imagine time not happening anymore, the world going on without you, consciousness itself dissolving. I can’t see what it’s like, not existing. It’s kind of exciting, more tangible maybe than any real change you could have in life. I feel like the death of my parents was the one shock, the thing that would decide the rest of my future. But what future? Nothing changes in the suburbs.”
She pictured the ripples of her years, spreading out from that central, dramatic node: the stone thrown in the water, the shrapnel left by two cars crashing.
“Things do happen,” the doctor whispered. And then she felt him lean in towards her, over the dying fox, his warm marijuana breath suddenly so close to hers. His hand slid into her hair and he pulled her close to him and kissed her on the mouth, softly at first, and she felt the press of his lips which were so light and almost papery dry and she was conscious of how wet her own felt, tasting of cannabis and fruit pastilles. She felt his tongue push through and dance around her own, slippery and not at all awkward as he led the way, their heads moving together just so. His stubble left a faint, grazing feeling on her cheeks. He pulled away, after what seemed a long, long time – this interlude in reality, strange and sweet.
April leant back against the hedge and looked up at the cherry tree in the garden opposite. She knew it would be bearing fruit now, little glossy cherries that would shrivel and fall off in autumn. She felt a lightness inside of her burst open, a kind of pale fire in her chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Just then, a flurry of lights cascaded down the road as the vet’s van pulled round the corner. A single man got out the van. April noticed the pale toothpaste blue of his coat, the Converses he wore on his feet.
“Over here,” the doctor called out. The vet slammed his door and strode over to them with nothing in his hands.
“Oh dear,” he said, “what happened to it?”
“We don’t know,” the doctor replied firmly, “he was just here.” The vet knelt down and gently turned the fox over slightly.
“He’s a she,” he said.
“I found her,” April piped up, glancing at the doctor. “I think she got caught in barbed wire.”
“Well, the thing’s lost a lot of blood,” the vet observed blankly. He would never get used to these calls in the wee hours; his head was still swimming from the evening operation he’d performed on someone’s cat, back in the surgery.
“Are you going to…?” the doctor looked at the vet uncomfortably.
“Yes,” he replied. “I see no other way. Nobody owns foxes as pets so there’ll be no bother with that. There’s nothing else we can do for it I’m afraid.” April thought then what a sad thing to say, that in the end they could do what they wanted to the creature, because nobody owned it. She herself felt a strange propriety over the animal, as if she wanted to shelter it from its cruelly inevitable fate.
“I’ll foot the bill,” the doctor said quickly, “I don’t mind.” There was such gravity in those three words, I don’t mind, that he could be talking about paying the medical bills for his own child, never mind some stray fox who’d stumbled into a roadside accident. The vet seemed impatient.
“No, no, there are council fees I can claim for this…duty. Don’t worry.” He went back to his van and returned with a plastic box that matched the blue of his tunic. April noticed his fingers were shaking slightly as he fixed up two syringes with the solutions contained in little glass phials. The doctor held his phone out as a torch, while the vet fiddled around with his drugs. April stroked the fox’s ears. Its wheezing was growing more intense, more laboured. The blood had seeped right out onto the road.
“It’s okay,” she whispered, to no-one or nothing in particular. Somehow, saying it felt like taking control of the situation. She could feel the adrenaline start to rush round her stomach.
The vet searched the fox’s neck for a vein. April was told to step back as the doctor held its head and legs still. Sure enough, the fox mustered enough strength to snap at the vet’s arm, but the bite narrowly missed. The first injection, the vet explained, was a strong muscle relaxant. The second was the anaesthetic overdose. It took just a couple of minutes to shut the life out of this animal, this russet-coloured beauty of the streets who had once roamed and scoured and hunted for fun. What was left was this bloodied toy of a creature, which the vet so effortlessly scooped into his arms and took back to the van.
“What are you going to do with her?” April asked urgently. She noticed that the doctor was distracted by his phone.
“We can take the animal back to the surgery to be properly destroyed,” the vet explained, regaining the strength of his clinical tone, the relief that soon he could be home and in bed again. “You did the right thing. We put it out its misery.”
Once upon a time, Jacob had brought in a dying bird from the park where they used to play near their parents’ old flat. It was such a small thing, cradled in his palms.
“Probably got by a fox, or more likely a cat,” their father had said, laying the creature out on a paper towel on the kitchen table.
“Can we save it?” Jacob had asked, eyes wide in earnest. He was nine years old at the time, eager to exact a place for everything in the universe. He would not let his sisters anywhere near the bird, which had to be, irrevocably, his personal discovery.
“Best to put it out its misery.”
Had her father said it as coldly and triumphantly as that? April pictured him now, gaining power over the situation as he instructed the children to leave the room, then bent over the thing to wring its tiny neck. End the pain. The following evening they all traipsed down to the park to bury it in a shoebox, along with the hoards of other dead pets whose shallow graves had amassed over the years. Perhaps there was some law against burying your animals in a public place, but April’s parents seemed never to care a fig what anyone else thought, digging out their makeshift animal tombs with gardening trowels while the other parents looked on with a kind of supernatural horror.
“Well thanks.” The doctor shook the vet’s hand. The hand that had killed.
“It’s no problem. Er, do either of you need a lift home?”
“I live just up the road,” the doctor explained.
“I’m fine,” April said quickly. The last thing she wanted was a ride with that dispassionate harbinger of death. Already she could see hints of the sun coming up and a walk home through the pastel glow of dawn seemed the perfect way to gain some catharsis from this incident. She suddenly felt very numb.
“You’d better clean yourselves up when you get in, you look like you’ve been at the scene of a murder!” the vet joked as he opened the door of his van, where the fox’s body was already loaded. April glanced down and realised that sure enough, there were great bloodstains caked in her bare knees, all up her calves and along her arms. The van drove off. She looked at the doctor and he looked back at her and they both laughed. Maybe they were still high; maybe it was the adrenaline; maybe it was just the relief.
“Well,” he said, after they had regained control over their breath.
“I guess I better split,” April murmured. The doctor glanced at his phone.
“Yeah, Amy—er, my girlfriend’s— finished her shift. She’ll be back soon. I’m supposed to do the right thing and go home and make her grilled cheese.” He smiled wryly.
“It was nice meeting you.” She thrust out her hand, an awkward reaction to the ensuing silence. “I’m April.” Laughing again, he took it and shook it firmly.
“I’m Jonathan. April’s a lovely name.”
“It was nice meeting you too,” he said, playing along with the sudden formality, “and I’m sorry, well, sorry for…”
“No,” she interrupted, “it’s totally cool, really. Thank you.”
“Right, well.” He noticed with a shock that her eyes were shining with unspilled tears. She kept looking down at her feet. In an awkward, fatherly gesture, he sort of rubbed and patted her shoulder, then drew away again. In that moment, she seemed as vulnerable and defeated as the fox that had lain at their feet.
“Um, maybe see you again sometime?”
“Y-yeah,” she said. She couldn’t hold in the sigh that then escaped her lips.
“Oh, I just…” she paused. “I just wished we could’ve done something to save it. The fox.” As soon as she said the word ‘fox’ she realised she meant something else also: the moment, perhaps, that handful of hours they had shared, alone in the suburban gloaming, with the orange lamplight and the greenish shadows of the hedges and cherry trees, the spray of sprinklers intermittently twinkling in the neighbouring gardens. All the words they had said: hardly any, but so precious to her now as she saw it all disappearing, as she clasped at this silence between them, trying to preserve it in memory. The taste of the doctor’s mouth, clean and dry with the faintest tartness of marijuana, the blackcurrant fruit pastilles.
“If there’s one thing you’ll learn in life kiddo,” the doctor said, “it’s that there’re some things you can’t control, you can’t save or change.” And then he added, mysteriously: “you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Everything else is just…nature. The course of life.”
“S-sure…yes, I guess so.”
“Don’t worry about it, it’ll be okay. Take care.”
He watched as she turned away, denying him the twinge of her smile – as she began to amble back up the street. He watched her until the sliver of her silhouette – the swollen thighs squeezed into denim shorts – had turned the corner, then he made his way across the road, back into his own house, where the door closed tight on the last of the evening.
She was standing over the swimming pool in her grandma’s back garden, near-naked in the pallid morning light. It was that queer interlude between dawn and night, where the sky acquires a nacreous frailty, burst intermittently with the blue and yellow watercolours of a morning. The pool was variously still and rippled, buffeted occasionally by the slight blasts of wind which were picking up in the trees, shaking some of the leaves off their branches and onto the water. There was a slight coolness to the air that was almost autumnal, but something inside April felt warm and fiery. She realised she had sweated through all her clothes, and so took them off. Just like that: she pulled off her t-shirt and unzipped her skirt, thrust aside her shoes and socks. In the light she saw more clearly how they were covered in blood. It had seeped through to her skin, so that her feet too bore the dying essence of that fox. She didn’t spare a thought for the neighbours, who, if they had been awake, would most certainly have had full view of her bare white body through their windows. There were no secrets, not even in the gardens or the back lanes of this neighbourhood.
She found herself slipping into the water. The pool had been utterly disused for at least a year now, though the man still came twice a month to clean it of leaves and dead insects, to pump it with fresh water and scrub the grime that gathered around the sides, to pinch out the weeds that grew in the tile cracks. April had forgotten that feeling of absolute submersion. She tugged her hair out of its braids and dunked her head under the water. It was her brother who had first taught her how to swim. She saw now the ghost of those flexing muscles, the firm tanned arms scooping the water as easily as knives being drawn through butter.
She was seven years old, the holiday they took on the coast. The sea spray licked her neck; the cries of the gulls were a sadness her childish heart could not bear. She preferred the anxious, argumentative coos of the pigeons in the city. The jackdaws she could hear at night, nestling and rustling for fruit in the cherry trees.
She liked the look of her limbs in the water, fish-like and shimmering.
She started to swim in laps, gathering momentum to the breaststroke she had first learned all those years ago. There was a slightness of violence to each bending kick.
Sometimes she rolled over onto her back, letting the water, the slipstreams of her movement, buoy her body up for awhile. From above, her body would seem a pale sliver; from as high as an airplane, she could be just a piece of plastic litter.
She plunged through the water, again and again, her arms sluicing little currents around her. She felt the steadiness of the world slowing down, the sense that there could be nothing else except for the perfect emerald of the water, the white of the porch lights turned on like clockwork by her grandma’s timer, the soft ebullience of an uncertain sun. It seemed there could be nothing in the world so pure as the pool water. She felt light and clean and free, just swimming and swimming.
For a moment, she pictured the doctor in bed with his girlfriend. Would their bodies fold over each other, like koi fish caught up in the quivering swirls of their chiffony fins?
She thought of his tongue in her mouth, its lubricious, hungry press against her own.
It ached a little, to think of that. She plunged deep to the bottom of the pool, brushing the tiles with her hands. She pulled herself into contorted positions: front rolls and twists and hand stands. Underwater she felt lithe and elastic as a ballerina; her body was just this flexing and yielding of muscle. It was as if she didn’t even need to breathe.
She pictured the fox, tangled in barbed wire, making its final, bloodied struggle along the pavement. Had it tried to cross some boundary line, a manmade defence against that which would penetrate some inward purity? A children’s playground, a walled garden, a hospital?
She pictured the fox down some suburban back alley, skulking around for trash. She saw it murdering the starlings from the cherry trees, tearing them up in a scattering of cries and feathers. Not even bothering to finish them off.
Her mother and father in a car crash, all metal and flesh and seatbelt leather, the eerie screeching of brakes. The trailer clip of their deaths she had played over again and again, sleepless each night in the terror of waking dreams, until the weed had abated the awful addictiveness of that fantasy. Its hazy shroud, smoked daily, was the only escape. It was like inhaling the detritus of the earth, entering into a polluted communion with waste itself, rebelling against the aseptic surfaces of the suburbs, clawing deeper with every toke.
She climbed out of the water, finally exhausted.
In the glazed, cerulean surface, she saw herself: milk chocolate eyes wide as marbles. Its fluid reflection was as mercurial as the mirror in her bedroom, the shimmering, distorting wallpaper, the surfaces of wood, metal, plastic, glass and carpet which seemed to ooze and blend into one another. Inside the house, everything flowed and churned in static repetitions of temporality, of reality itself, whereas here there was a possibility of solidity. The tiles around the pool clung to her pale cold skin. It was so easy to just fold inwards, to just lie down, right there, in the sweet gold light…how easy to be that sliver of a thing, which the world would burn through in its indifference.
“April? April dear, is that you?” It was Grandma Grainger, leaning out the bathroom window which overlooked the back garden. Her voice echoed around the surrounding houses. She repeated herself when she saw no movement of registration from her granddaughter, who lay by the pool on her side, like a beached seal.
Grandma came running out into the garden, cradling a huge white towel that she’d grabbed from the linen cupboard, neatly folded.
“Oh darling!” she knelt over April’s wet body, her underwear soaked through and the skin of her fingers wrinkled slightly from the water, like long thin prunes. She realised that the skinny, teenage girl she had watched since her own daughter’s death had filled out with fleshy, swollen curves. She was there in front of her; she was substantial. As if in pain, April groaned a little, and her grandma breathed a sigh of relief, to see she was alive at least.
“You look so very pale,” she said, tutting with disapproval. “Sit up.” Unconsciously, April obeyed this instruction. She hugged her knees and let her grandmother wrap the towel around her shoulders, feeling like a child again, small and vulnerable. It was soft and almost warm. Another kind of shroud.
For a while, they sat like that in the quiet suburban garden, the only sound being the soft calls and song of awakening birds. So close they seemed, yet distant. The two women did not appear to be speaking to one another. They just sat together, as if they were static ornaments in the mise en scene of a film set: April enveloped in her white angelic veil, shuddering in the cold, Grandma Grainger folded in the cream-coloured silk of her nightgown. The garden was bathed in a queer blue glow that seemed to emanate from the pool.
Grandma did not comment on the bloodstained clothes, nor the fat, silvery tears which were suddenly pouring from April’s eyes, uncontrollable as the rain that came in a storm. There was something elemental and strange in that unexpected display of emotion. She did not think she’d ever seen her granddaughter weep, not even after her parents died, or when she came back from university, defeated.
“I wondered where you’d gone off to for so long,” she said quietly, picking at a tiny chip in her vermillion nail polish. In the ensuing silence, Grandma knew that she would never get an answer, not properly: April really was this unknown entity, an absolute other who she could do nothing for but care for unconditionally. It was a sorrowful burden, the love of this shivering thing beside her, an adult and yet a girl, almost an alien.
Fighting the paralysis that had overcome her in the cold, April dipped her toe back into the pool water. The ripples undulated outwards, as if she had just pierced some huge and molten jewel. All you had to do was find the weak point.
“Oh, what are we going to do with you?” Grandma sighed deeply, her voice a fragile croak, almost lost in the rustling roar of the poolside trees. The breeze would come and go; would rattle the branches then leave them in silence again.
“What are we going to do with you indeed,” Grandma repeated, as if for good measure. She was surprised when April opened her mouth to reply.
“I don’t know,” she said, teeth chattering, “but maybe we’ll figure it out tomorrow.” She wrapped the towel tighter round her shoulders, then stared back out at the water, at the spot where she had just dipped her blueish toe, the ripples spreading outwards still, stiller and still.