Cable

Photo by Globalreachent (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Globalreachent (copied from Flickr)

Her gaze rests on his white calves, strangely insubstantial given the expanse of khaki shorts above. The fabric strains a little with each upward movement. He doesn’t seem to notice, just keeps marching up the track, walking pole swinging and dipping in his hand. She can feel a catch in her chest. She is having trouble keeping up.

“Nigel, please…”

He smiles down at her, his face pinkly moist under the brim of his Tilley hat.

“Come on Val, just this last bit, then it’s downhill all the way.”

She sucks in through her teeth and carries on. The sun is warm, or so it seems as sweat blooms under her arms and down her back. Around her, the fields are strung out like a botched crochet. Shades of green are interrupted by a thread of grey stone wall, which tacks up and down hills and dips. A farmhouse or two break the pattern, dropped stitches. None of those awful bungalows here she thinks. Not like the West. Not like round Galway and Connemara. No, this time she has to admit that Nigel has picked a good spot.[private]

Val’s something of an expert on Ireland now. Been coming for years. Along with Nigel, of course. They have found some of the most delightful little places: Places that most Irish people have never heard of. Not the Burren or Killarney or other likely tourist spots, but undiscovered gems along the Shannon, round Lough Erne and down here on the Beara Way.

***

Nigel had phoned in February. Wanted to know if she had anything doing over Easter. Not for the first time, she was tempted to say, yes, she did. She was going to the Mosaicists festival in St Ives or perhaps Reiki Week in Glastonbury. But she held back. Hadn’t she an obligation, really, to do it for Nigel? So, she went along with his plans thinking that maybe, this year, it might not be as bad.

***

They reach the brow of the hill. The view opens up in front of them, a present. And in the water below, Dursey Island hunkers, black on grey. Val can just make out the top of a pylon.

“There it is, the cable car.”

Nigel is talking loudly. He’s already filled her in on the highlight of the trip. The Dursey Cable Car. The only cable car in Ireland. 1,300 feet of 1.2 tonne cable. Oh yes, she’s heard all about it. Nigel is still talking.

“It’s a 6-Funitel Jig Back, unusual you know.”

Val didn’t doubt it.  Even at this distance, the whole thing looks pretty precarious. Feeling a little sickly, she leans against the wall of a farmhouse, dotted with statuary of ducks and lambs and a donkey with real turf in its panniers. Val stares, her mouth forking downward before she gives a snort. Then she sees a peacock standing on a gate pillar. Its tail hangs over the edge sweeping the gravel below in a shock of turquoise and shimmery green. Below the farmhouse though, the sea remains a stubborn grey.  Nigel points ahead with his stick.

“Onward,” he shouts and without a backward glance, heads down the hill.

The cable car station is actually a hut with a tiny office and two toilets. Val pops her head around the door marked “Mná”. She returns to Nigel’s side minutes later, her mouth drawn tight, shaking her wet hands.

“Typical, neither toilet paper nor hand towels.”

The office window is closed. Nigel reads the sign aloud.

“Islanders, animals and cargo get preference over visitors…The trip takes 15 minutes… There are six people living on the island…”

“For heaven’s sake Nigel, I can read.”

The window slides back.  A man. Grey hair, thin red face. An expression of studied blandness.

“If you’re looking to go over, you’ll have to wait.”

He gestures with his thumb toward a small man who is leading a cow out of a trailer and across the car park to the cable car. They watch as he uses a stick to flick at the animal’s haunches. He whistles, sharp thin sounds, sucking air fiercely through his teeth, urging the animal up to the concrete corral.

“G’yup, suk, suk, g’yup.”

The beast raises its head, rolls its eyes seaward then back toward Val and Nigel. It cranes its neck forward, lets out a bellow and makes a move toward them, legs scrambling on the concrete. Val jumps behind Nigel, who laughs. The farmer takes control, flicking and tapping the cow about the eyes. The animal backs up, head tossing from side to side, into the cable car. The farmer hops in beside it and pulling the door across. There is a loud cranking noise as the man and beast head slowly out over the sea.

Val shudders. Nigel is even louder. “Bloody hell, I can’t wait, looks terrific, doesn’t it?”

***

They find a spot to sit and eat while they wait for the cable car to return. Val takes a waterproof rug from her backpack, lays it on the grass.  Nigel unpacks the rolls and thermos. He places two hardboiled eggs on a plastic plate, and unwraps a small packet of sliced ham. He unfolds a camping knife and sets to making up the lunch. Val no longer tries to argue the point about making or indeed buying sandwiches in advance. This is just one of Nigel’s little quirks. And it’s not so bad. She accepts a cup of coffee from him. In fact, she thinks, this is quite pleasant.

They have a great view of the island and even though it’s starting to mist over, it is still spectacular. Two rusty pylons straddle the sound. The single cable car dandles from thick intertwined cables. The swirl of sea below is dark and viscous. Round the coastline, black rocks jag upward lashed by white edged waves.  Val squints her eyes and thinks she can make out a ruined building on the island.

“Is that a church do you think?”

Nigel chews quickly, and gulps a bit. “Oh, I believe so. I read somewhere it was …”

Val gazes back at the island, as Nigel’s words drift over her. She can’t see so much as a tree or a bush just dun coloured low grass. The only movement, the distant surge of sheep, looks like maggots from this side. Here the wind is loud even on this mild day as it funnels round the island dragging Atlantic air with it.

Nigel eats with abandon, clamping down on his ham roll, seemingly oblivious to everything but the sensation of teeth and tongue working together. He even hums as he eats. Val turns her head from the sight of the crumbs which land on his fleece.

He was always a messy eater. As a child he caused havoc at the table, spilling his drinks, sticking his elbows into his dinner, knocking over cereal boxes. Their father in particular could not hide his irritation, but Nigel seemed unaffected by it. Why did she always feel that tug of responsibility? Sympathy? Their parents seemed bothered, perhaps even embarrassed by him, by this evidence of their sexual life, born when they were in their late forties and Val already fifteen. They treated him like…like a curiosity? They seemed fearful of what he might say or do. Val was asked to “occupy your brother” whenever visitors called. On one occasion, Nigel waylaid a guest outside the bathroom and demonstrated the workings of the vacuum cleaner to him for at least half an hour. After that he was confined to his room for social evenings.

By the time Nigel was at college studying engineering, Val had been married and divorced. No children thank God. It was enough having Nigel during college breaks. And to think he’s still at college, a senior lecturer. She often thinks she should have discouraged him from becoming so dependent on her, but once their parents died, well it just seemed easier to go along with him. And between times, she had her own life. She kept busy. Her job kept her busy, too much so. Couples’ therapist. No shortage of clients there. God it was great to get away from it; the tedium of it, the unbelievable repetitiveness and inevitability of the problems they presented with, you’d swear they were the only ones in all the world. Why she could write the script for most marriages. Most ended the same way, like hers.

Val stretches out, shoves thoughts of work to the back of her mind and looks around her again, hears the waves, feels the furl of grass beneath her fingers. Grounds herself. She reaches for a small spiky yellow plant, bog asphodel. A little early she thinks, pleased with herself for recognising it without her guide book. Perhaps she could keep a wildflower journal. Most people never noticed what was right there in front of them, blooming before their very eyes. It’s just a question of opening yourself up to things, to paying attention.

A sheep stares at her as it trips past, its blue tattooed rear swaying, fastidious in its gait. Nigel has moved away and is looking at a sign beside a stile. Frowning now.

“Look Val, it says dogs have been shot here in the past.”

He pauses, staring at the words.

“Oh come on Nigel, it’s because stray dogs worry sheep.”

“Worry them?”

He glances at the retreating rear of the sheep.

Val shrugs, packs her things and waves her arm at him.

“Cable car is nearly back.”

***

Nigel slides the door across. There’s a screechy tinny sound, and then a whiff of cow smell or grass or…Val looks inside. Splodges of wet brown excrement cover the rusty floor. Two wooden benches on either side. She sits down while Nigel fumbles with the latch, a flimsy thing like you’d find on a cupboard. She curls her hands around the edge of the seat. Pasted to the wall is a yellowing sheet of paper. Psalm for Protection. And now she can see what is dangling on a length of twine from a hook beside the window. It’s a plastic bottle in the shape of the woman. The Virgin Mary she thinks, judging by the blue crown or bottle top. Quaint, really, these old superstitious ways.

The cable car lurches forward, the pulleys screeching above her. She feels a distinct swaying motion as it trundles out over the ocean. She glances again at the Psalm.

Nigel sits opposite, beaming.

“Mind if I open the window? I’d like to see how this works.”

“Yes I do mind Nigel, you’re rocking the damn thing.”

When she can bring herself to look again, the island seems to be moving toward her, ethereal in a light misty gauze. Nigel is looking at the floor, pointing.

“Look, there’s a hole.”

The metal is corroded, and through a gap the size of a fist she can make out the sea below. The perspective is odd, disorientating. She pushes herself back on the bench and clasps her hands together. Nigel brushes his hand on his shorts. His booted foot is tapping.

“What is it Nigel?” Val’s voice is querulous.

He looks out the window and plucks at his fleece.

“Nigel!”

“See, Val, the thing is, I’m, well, actually I’m getting married.”

And he’s smiling at her, beaming like he has handed her a precious gift. Val stares. Nigel, married. It simply wasn’t possible.

“She’s a post-grad student, from Duisberg…”

She just couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t imagine him with a love life, and certainly not a sex life.

“…Monika. I think you two will get on really well. She loves the outdoors as well and…”

Married. She’d actually thought of him as asexual, neither one thing nor the other. Has he had other relationships and not told her or is this his first at thirty-five?

“Val, what do you think?”

The cable car has reached the halfway point. The wind is loud now, rattling the metal, vibrating along the cable.

She thinks.

“Are you sure? It’s so sudden.”

He laughs now, a ripple of happiness. She feels it, like a lash.

“Oh, no, not sudden. We’ve worked together for over a year.”

The rusty pylon is moving toward her, filling the small window. The island slipping away behind it dimming in the swathe of mist.

“You’ll have to come with us now, share our holidays…”

The cable car cranks under the frame of the pylon and seems to hang there for a long time, creaking, while only the black jagged edge of the island is visible squatting beneath the cloud.

And then it lurches forward again.[/private]




Baby Love

Photo by Rick Galvan (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Rick Galvan (copied from Flickr)

“Mama,” Jacob says, and it sounds like he’s said more. Like I want. Like I need. I lay still enough he’ll think I’m asleep. The heat already rising from the floor like burning from a baking pan. His baby sister shrieks to a growl, and he leaves. When Jacob was born, my water broke and he was breech; when the doctor cut me open and went in there to get him, she say he’d crawled all the way up inside me, was balled up underneath my ribs like he ain’t want to come out.[private]

When I wake up again, they outside with Pop; he’s wrestling the tiller through the garden, his rows of corn and snap beans and squash, and Jacob is sitting on the front steps, the baby in his lap. From the back, Jacob could be grown; not just his build but the way he curl around the baby, lean down to her, talk so low I can hardly hear. She glows in his lap, bright to his dark. He asks her, “You see Pop, Mayla? You see Pop?”

His daddy Michael the one want to name him Jacob. Said it was his granddaddy’s name. Said his granddaddy was extra salty when me and Michael hooked up, said: We don’t bring they kind home, Michael. “It’ll piss him off good if we name his half-black grandson after him,” Michael said. I had only picked out a girl name – Michaela Marie – so I went with it.

Sometimes I wonder if it was a bad thing, naming him after his white grandpa. Maybe I should’ve named him after Pop. Maybe then Jacob wouldn’t judge me so harsh every time I come home from working a double at the bar, every time I stay out and do something that make me forget Michael in jail, make me forget my kids. Maybe then he wouldn’t glare at me. Like now.

“I made her two bottles today,” Jacob says. He looks down when he says it, sucks his lips in over his teeth like he shamed they crooked. Got his teeth from his daddy. I shake the bottle I’m making.

“She hungry again,” I say.

“She wouldn’t sleep with you gone.”

“Make it thicker at night,” I tell him.

“She scream herself to sleep.”

“Babies cry.” The baby kicks one peach foot. “Give her,” I say, and Jacob hands her over.

The phone rings. I pick it up and I can tell from the static leaden silence that it’s him on the other end of the line waiting to say his name after the operator speaks, and I can see him pale and bald, all the hard lines of him, his jaw, his arms, the V of his hips, like stone, all still and tense before he says his name: Michael.

“Yes,” I say. It’s only when I hear his voice that I know I’ve been waiting for days, through shifts and sleeping and more shifts, to hear him speak to me again.

“Jacob,” I say. I hold out Michaela. He looks at me like he’s hungry, like only I have something that could fill him. His eyes: mine. I turn back to the wall, the phone, my love. “Hey, baby.”

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward will be published by Bloomsbury on the 16th January 2014 in hardback (£16.99) and eBook (£14.99).[/private]




and one last time, from the heart

Photo by Bolshakov (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Bolshakov (copied from Flickr)

Tho’ we said goodbye
When the moon was high
Does your heart beat for me?

Patsy Cline, 1963

When they brought her back they explained that her heart had been fitted with a transistor to help her body thrive on such small reserves of life.

It was, they implied, an untested implant.

It was, they admitted, an experimental approach.

They had taken old vacuum tubes out of the skip, dumped there when the in-house hospital radio was outsourced to Hospedia.  The studio had been gutted to make room for more beds, each fitted with a touch screen interface at shoulder height.  After half a century, the deep roll of radio waves in the corridors had stuttered into a lighthouse’s binary pulse.

Beep―(one)―beep―(zero).

I imagined the old thermionic valves out in the car park, awash with crushed glass, grit and the shadow of the skip, glistening like the jellied eggs of an octopus.[private]

When the junior cardiologist dived in and lifted them out, scribbles of wire filaments had jangled tunefully.  He brought in a damaged unit as an example and he held out the heavy glass for us to look at.

As I watched Glen take the vacuum tube to his chest, weighing it in his hands, I thought of the female octopus who guards her eggs to the point of exhaustion.  The first thing an octopus must see is the deflated body of its mother, her translucent skin like a plastic bag snagged in the net.

―As you can see, it’s not at all like today’s transistors (all solid state, light weight, discount-rate).  No, these glass domes are enormous and delicate and as easy to break as they are difficult to repair. 

The junior’s lanyard tangled in his hands as he gestured towards his chest.  I imagined a spray of glass, of crystal splinters firing off like arrows.  I nodded, wincing, and allowed myself to lean a little into the bed between us.

They were running an investigative programme, the surgeon explained.  She continued to detail how the hospital had allowed a small team to perform a series of xenografts using thermionic valves to support the human heart in terminal cases.

The junior shifted forwards, holding his hands out like he was inviting us to step across the bed.  His movement had interrupted his supervisor and he hurried to tell us that a xenograft was the term more usually employed for animal-to-human transplants, but that ‘xeno-’ could more broadly be applied to any non-human tissue being used to keep the heart pumping.

The surgeon nodded once, smiling briefly at her student before turning back to face us.  She mirrored her junior’s movement, holding her hands out, palms facing one another, across the bed.  The two of them looked, at first, like they were each trying to contain something I couldn’t see.

The idea was that they’d fit a transistor to our mother’s heart to amplify what was left of her, to help her, they suggested, power on.  At the end of each sentence Glen and I nodded, as if we were initialling each page.

As she spoke and as we nodded, the surgeon’s hands floated further apart.  They stood there as two fishermen, chest deep in water, convincing us of their greatest catch.  Your love for your mother is this big, they seemed to say.  We nodded, and at the same time, I heard Glen take a breath.

The human heart produces its own electrochemical impulses in the sinoatrial node, small and silent and just enough to keep the heart pumping at a steady pace.  We nodded.

The experimental cardiologists wanted to see if they could strengthen the impulses.  They didn’t want to make a pacemaker implant to regulate the heart.  They were going to make a power plant of an implant.  Sell her back to the grid to pay for her stay.

It was only fair.

It was our only option.

They asked if we were ready for them to wake her up and we nodded.  Trying to speak, Glen and I looked at each other, but we were mouthing uselessly like fish drowning against the air.

We looked down and nodded into our chests.

***

Propped on a pillow, she patted her breastbone where weakened valves gasped glassy.

As we stood about her bed, the surgeon raised her hand and tapped a ceiling-mounted screen, saying that there was an internet-based service that she could tune into whenever she wished.  Much clearer than the old radio they used to have onsite.  She could listen to the morning show now if she wanted.

The surgeon was smiling, kindly―kind of.  There’s nothing to worry about, she insisted.

As she turned to leave, I saw the surgeon’s smile fold into itself.  A drawstring thought seemed to pull her mouth into a hard, fixed asterisk.

For a brief moment, I worried about the small print, about what had been left unsaid.

They left us to discuss the state of our mother’s heart.  I looked at Glen, who was looking at the television with an absent stare.  I tried to joke about living the life bionic before I too fell into Glen’s silence as we sat either side of her.

As the radio started to gargle out the first strains of an old love song, we sat and watched her body, trying to detect the strange change keeping time at her chest, underneath black stitches and raw skin.  My mother’s skin.  Her body seemed to be sinking; her hands so much smaller than I remembered them being.

Above the bed, Patsy Cline’s voice spilled out into the room.

―You know she recorded this song a month before she died, I said.

―I wonder if I still linger in your memory, our mother sang along, absently.

―She knew she was going to die, Glen.  She made arrangements for friends to care for her children before the plane crash.

Glen held his hands out, motioning for a hug.  Your love for your mother is this big, his hands seemed to say.

 

***

The Tuesday after the operation they came to adjust her glass heart valves.  They increased the voltage, altered the current.  I listened to the brutal tinkling of wire against glass from the visitor’s waiting room—the sound of her heart being prized apart.

Outside, I heaved my tears into a plastic cup.  The consultant, the undertaker, the surgeon and now the junior cardiologist had all been able to touch our mother’s heart.

Glen made me another tea, pulling his jumper sleeve over his hand to avoid being burnt as the water drew an opaque line up the cup’s side.  As he leant over, hand outstretched, he blinked slowly.  I know, he gestured.

Over the next few days, her fragile body fell over and under the electronic waves amplified at her chest.  I imagined her heart as a glass diving bell, my mother a champion diver.

Smiling, I held my breath for her.

She went under.

***

Glen was eating a sandwich when she sat up straight, three and a half days later.  He spat a hunk of half-chewed tomato across the bed sheet in astonishment and called to me in that urgent, small voice I hadn’t heard since we were children.  That panicked bleat of my name―‘Sarah! Sarah!’―that had once signalled a bloodied knee or a broken bike shuttled down the hospital corridor.

I arrived at the door to see him smiling broadly, laughing between the glistening parentheses of tears on his cheeks.

Our mother was sitting up in bed, complaining about a tomato on her bed sheet, about poor levels of hygiene in a hospital of all places.

“Death Cannot Kill What Never Dies”. I blinked.  I think that’s what Cline had written on her gravestone.  Glen, already dialling dad, didn’t seem to hear.

***

Beep―(alive)―beep―(dead)―beep―(alive).

As the days progressed, she grew in energy.

As I sat on the bed, pressing her hands and moving them a little to the beat of the music, I thought I saw her move her lips.  As the song came to an end, I held her hands up in mine and she hummed a little past the final bars.

Your love for your mother is this big, my hands insisted.

***

Two hours later she said something.  She shouted.

Glen turned off the radio.  This hadn’t been a listed side-effect.  She couldn’t seem to control the volume of her voice.

It had maximised in size and shape.  In fact, her voice changed altogether.

By the fifth day, her voice seemed to grow out of her body.  It commanded her throat as if a pair of monster lungs had been ventriloquized.  She held her hands out, flapping her arms while she funnelled up a frantic sound.  She shouted and crooned.  She whistled and raced through words in a macaronic flurry, slipping from moribund to binary as easily as water spills from your hands.

Beep―(on)―beep―(off)―beep―(on).

We counted the days she’d been awake.  We counted the days she’d been, at least officially, dead.  They had assured us that brain damage would be a minimal risk.

When we reported her speech problem, the surgeon returned to hand over a document.  She had printed off instructions for care of the electric bell jar, outlining the risks of having a vacuum for a heart, advice on how far we should expect it to take her.

The surgeon put forward her hands again.

It’s crucial that at this point we have your permission to continue. 

The surgeon nodded slowly when we insisted it was what we wanted but that we just wanted to know what―

Your mother may well go on to enjoy an extended life but as we discussed, there is the risk that, should the valve shatter or the current power prove too great, your mother may begin to―shall we saylose her focus?  On herself, I mean.  On her body. 

She reminded us that the valve was obsolete and that no stockists kept spare parts.  The glass was so fragile no doctor or engineer could fix a fracture.

It will be as if she has died again, you understand. 

Beep―(alive)―beep―

――――(as if she has died again, you understand)

But we’d known from the beginning that if it were possible, we’d keep her alive on a machine.

Keeping a machine alive inside her seemed the next best thing.

It had to be.

***

Before her heart broke for the very last time, she wrote to us.

In a scratchy, cursive writing she wrote short, asemic poems on the window of a box by her bed.

The high regular notes of the monitor sang out across the ward, shrilly cursing each pitch and furrow of the needle, each gasping closure of her heart’s valves.  As the doctors told us at the time how to listen to that suppressed, submarine sound of lubs and dubs murmuring from the depths of her heart, we listened closely.

Beep―(lub)―beep―(dub)―beep―(lub).

We read every line on the monitor; attentive to anything she might tell us, any clue she might need something or be uncomfortable.

***

I measure the gaps in sound, nodding my head with each passing second.  One day we know she will stop writing to us and the note will drop into a long, low line.

This is what they underlined for us.

We, the undersigned.

Glen and I are sure, and we hold our breath; waiting for her to take hers.  As the pulses slow, time stretches out.  We measure it.

Your love for your mother is this big, I hear Glen say.[/private]




Hotline to Almighty

Photo by Andrew_Writer (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Andrew_Writer (copied from Flickr)

Ten years, Mac’s been hauling them up, up and away. Below, waves are flexing muscles. He listens to their prowling shapes. A moment, then – hair on Mac’s neck. A tern cries needy and human. Using his feet as guide, Mac inches along narrow cliff, pieces crumbling into the Atlantic. Nightly he patrols, as familiar with each gulley and wind-honed incline as his own salt-streaked palms. Today it’s quiet.

Mac likes checking the dial-tone. Putting the phone down, he slots a thumb into his crown’s shallow indentation. No deeper than a finger-tip width, he was born with that groove. As a boy, his mama said the Almighty was sizing him up for the world. Poking him like he was a cinnamon bun, warm from the oven. Later, Mac suspected that dime-sized dip meant something was missing. Every life’s wrong turn pinpointed to when something was poked in, something else pushed out. At night, Mac sees this lone speck of brain floating around the universe. Unclaimed, like a meteorite crumb. Hard to say whether believing this has been a comfort or a curse.[private]

Moving his lips, Mac tells himself the sky is dark. Dark-dark with lighter-dark at its edges. Important to be specific. Otherwise there was potential to be crushed. Taken Mac nearly sixty-one years to understand that if he’d thought, been more specific, history could have swerved. He wouldn’t have crossed that stateline, an action sequence singing at his life’s heart. His wife slamming the door, gunning the once-smart Honda. He, Mac, ploughing nose-to-tail for three hours down the airport freeway. Having the foresight (or bad luck) to take his passport. Threatening at the departure desk. Phoning the kids on his cell, phoning next door to keep an eye on the kids. Handing his Visa to the check-in girl, noting through his haze her lips painted the solid colour of optimism.

The air-hostess gave them looks during the flight. When she’d said Cool It, his wife’s eyes had lightened, turned metallic and shiny as new pennies. Arriving in California, they’d checked in somewhere, nowhere, slumping by a turquoise kidney-shaped pool, him with a Pabst Blue Ribbon, her with a bucket-scale piña colada. As if they were thirty years younger, as if they were on vacation, everything in between erased on an Etch-A-Sketch. Chlorine fumes had vied with gas, a memory-smell that today still tugs him off balance. “Mac,” she’d said, “you understand.” She’d sipped her colada, then tilted her head, slugging the rest like cough medicine. He’d been addicted to that vision of her, as if he’d paid to see a film and she was it. “Our real children are out there, honey.” She’d sucked away the sweetness from her finger-tips. “We got somebody else’s. Let’s switch.” He’d been about to say, “I hear you, and if we-” when they were interrupted by a tannoy calling them to reception. Their son had been found on the wrong side of a cliff.

On a good day, Mac allows himself to think it was that lone missing brain speck. That whatever thing would have held his family together, he’d missed. Some tiny screw nudged loose. People believe history is made by assassinations, presidencies. Wars. Mac knows better, that it’s the small things that keep the world spinning. And his history is folded deep in that cliff belly.

When the wall clock shows 4am, Mac tugs his ears. He flicks at the small wattle underneath his chin, a drooping piece of flesh he’d no say in growing. The room isn’t much of a kingdom. He studies it how a teacher might a group of students, with caution. A single painting hanging in a cheap bamboo frame is the only decoration. A flamingo for godsakes. Wobbly brushstrokes of cheap, explosive pink. At the bottom of the paper the words: FLMINGO BY DYLAN AJD FIV, 3 DAYS AN 1 HALV A MORNIN. Precocious, was how teachers described Dylan. Yet Mac had felt the true scald of Dylan’s genius. Dee now, she hadn’t the gear changes for precocity. Slapdash from the get-go, a blur, always moving. Opposite to her shy, secretive older brother. Instead, Dylan at fifteen had been whole and perfect, huge, shy conker-eyes fringed by lashes tipped red as a fire-fly. Mac’s careful, oh he his, not to let the littlest memory-drop spill. When the last Dylanness shivers away, he blinks. Fingers that tight, wishful groove in his crown. Decides yes. Dylan is ready.

It’s very nearly pitch-black. Just that slight, light crinkling at the edges. Young Milkman, son of the Old Milkman, will be stopping by. A car-door famously opened in Young Milkman’s face, back when things happened to other folk. That accident left Young Milkman simple, locked in the grooves of time. Wasn’t everyone locked in time? Birthdays, funerals, childhoods. People always stopping somewhere.

In Mac’s meat box sits a chicken from Stacey’s Bird Farm, ready-cooked. In the freezer, ice-cream. Funny how yesterday’s details scatter, but the sweet-sour tang of Dee’s grape ice-cream – now, that was preserved in Technicolor. Occasionally Mac drops by a Walmart dairy counter, just for the half-pint of memory. He blinks. Whiskey now, that’d be good.

There, on the coffee table is the globe of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wooden base glooped with varnish, thick glass protecting the cathedral’s filigreed dome. Snowflakes and plastic birds alike have settled like sugar dust in windows and doorways. Mac had bought it when Dylan was three, or nearly three. When everything had been fresh. They were on a family trip to England, to Marcia’s cousin in London. In that artificial little tourist hole in Westminster, Dylan turned the globe in his hands, like it was a lump of dynamite, like it could do something.

“Thanks, oh Poppa, thanks!” Well-mannered even so young, bursting with not-yet-received pleasure. Stuffed with a hope Mac would have mistrusted in anyone else. Different to the sister arriving three years later. Had Dee known her portion of life had already been chewed-over and spat out? Oh, if someone had warned Mac there was a set amount of love, he could have set some aside, like surplus food. Because when he’d looked at Dee’s black hair and round, huskie-blue eyes, he’d known he owed her. The thing of it was, he’d married his neat wife because of her ways, her easy-flowing laughter. Her sweet dancing skills, especially The Chicken. Her own happy lip colours. Spry she’d been called. And their plans had matched everyone else’s – children, jobs, grandchildren. Then – when? – unhappiness had taken root in their shared future.

Mac feels anger, hot and likeable. Where was everyone? Dylan’s friends, they’d been computer types. Married? Or split up with first wives. Second marriage in, it would be the same story, but more. More babies, bigger mortgages, larger homes. They’d lived to tell the story. Big office jobs paying for kids’ summer camps. Shiny cars. Mac’s own social life had been what you might call modest. Containable. Activity that could be held in the palm or let loose without a moment’s thought. There was Bute from the auto-mechanic at work. Bute probably wasn’t even his real name. Dee now, she’d had shadowy bucks waiting in the drive, tan elbows resting on open truck windows, engines gunning as they’d collected her en-route. Mac had known and not known Dee was using her body as cherry-bait. But he’d left it to Marcia.

In the end, Marcia had returned for Dylan’s funeral. Dressed in head-to-toe black from a mall, there’d been a flush to her cheeks. As if she’d been interrupted from looking at her future. Her old work-friends had attended, a group from the hairdressers in town, high on hairspray and celebrity magazines.

Mac’s past sixty and he saves people from jumping from cliffs because he wonders – who’d do it otherwise? But saving people doesn’t address Dylan. He’s navigated his painful and not so painful way through the equipment of a long-gone youth. Pot, weed, sensimilla, skunk. Hydroponics. Mushrooms. Cookies, bongs, spliffs. Pies, pipes. Drifting into a consciousness sometimes, not always, offering him his son. No-one had yet jumped when he’d Journeyed. December’s first three weeks are far from spring or summer, seasons when most people get happy. When suicides spike.

Snow, light and feathery, slides down the picket fence adjoining his and Mrs Gabel’s plot. Hers is a loyal army of plants drilled into the earth, not a leaf nor a bush out of place. Mac has thistles, half-dead and dry. Looking out, Mac imagines the snow tasting like ice-cream. Vanilla-cream. Lemon-sherbet. Nearly-three Dylan would have gotten a buzz from that. Oh, Dee too.

A staccato sound makes him blink. He holds the telephone with white-knuckle grip. “If you hold,” he says, after listening. “I’ll be there.”

Thermos and car-keys he grabs from the breakfast counter. A burglar alarm code is punched. Outside, Mac doesn’t bother checking for black ice. He’s aware of a contradiction in setting an alarm and not checking for black ice but that’s okay. The car’s back seat is full with blankets, thermos, three candy bars. Glucose tablets.

Everyone’s different. The last had burrowed, frantic as a moth, into his army blanket. A dead-weight, drunk on dreams. Rain had hurled against the windowscreen while Mac waited for the emergency services. The authorities don’t know what to make of him, unsure where to place him on the axis of hero and tragedy. It shows up as pity and admiration – and something else. Mac wonders how many have remained alive. Or whether elsewhere they’ve succeeded. Gratitude letters, sometimes sent, are tipped un-read into the trash.

Cliff-side, he notes the snow has cleared, flakes gone. Pulled back into the earth’s core or melted into the atmosphere. The moon is a neat disc, light arcing in from the East. He reaches them better if he can see their eyes. Sometimes he visits when it’s sunny, when people are dog-walking. Tries to imagine it different.

He’d approached the first, a thin slip with cropped peroxide hair, by accident. It was late, one of those staticky nights. His head was full, but he’d been empty. He’d found her crouching, thought maybe she was stealing tern eggs. Her head was angled, like she was dialled to a radio station inside herself and wanting more signal. With every exhalation, more words left his body. After a while, her face had sealed and she’d curled up, spent. Had he won or had she? Half-dragging her, he’d pulled the girl towards the car and driven to the nearest help point. Then, he’d been hoping he could turn back time. Now, he knows what he thinks of that theory. You don’t turn back time. You loop across it, psycho-active compounds singing through your veins, urging you on.

Leaving the car, he swings the blanket over his shoulders. It slumps, a dead weight. At the cliff’s edge, the fluorescent numbers of his WANT HELP? board glow Florida orange against dented cream plastic. Dug into the cliff, the phone is his hotline, its instalment covered by Dylan’s life insurance. The authorities had been reluctant, scared of any responsibility, until local press scented the story. Mac thinks the reason people listen is because they understand he doesn’t care.

The caller is pressed against the beige-and-cream rock. Hat tugged low. Hands a shock of whiteness. Wind buffets Mac. Below, moonlight bounces between the teeth of rocks. A raw familiarity to the woman’s profile itches, tugs at somewhere sore in him.

“You can step back,” he tries. “Come to me.”

A pause. Then her words: “You told me he was fine. Yes sir. I believed you.”

Mac thinks he hasn’t heard right, then thinks maybe he did. He hooks fingers into the crumbling yellow rock face.

On the phone the voice had been muffled. Off-key, distant. Here, it’s clear as bone who the speaker is, despite the wind. She’d looked up to her brother. When Dylan got those tics, began collecting the habits like loose change, Mac had ignored everything from fierce love, wanting it to be alright, goddamn it. It was Dee who’d discovered the Ramones T-shirt. Odd, angled flash of leg. While Mac had been preoccupied hauling back their mother. Hadn’t realised what the situation required. Hadn’t been specific enough in his assessment. Hadn’t counted on that missing speck of brain, floating around the universe.

Dee’s hat spins off and away. Mac sucks thirstily at this new-old vision of his daughter.

“Does it help pop, your numbers on that board like a hotline to Almighty?”

Filling his lungs, Mac lies to himself that Dee needs saving. That she’s like the others.

“He was important, Dee,” he says. “To me. Your mom-”

“Mom was part of it.”

“Yes,” is all Mac can say.

***

He’d moved to class A’s. Cocaine, meta-amphetamines, MDMA. But these were synthetic, making him yabber all night. So he’d discovered plant-based, psycho-active compounds. Peyote, Kratom, Yopo, Khat, Salvia Divinorum. He’d arrived at Ayahuasca. A Quecha Indian word, Ayahuasca meant vine of the dead, promising connection with spirit world. On his last visit, nearly a year ago, Mac drunk bitter tea from a leather gourd bought at a community market up-country. With curtains closed, he’d sat cross-legged. Vomiting into a plastic bucket, peace had settled in his bones. Closing his eyes and falling back, he was taken to a desert where the sand was like snow and the snow became a presence. Saying Dylan was very nearly close.

Out of nowhere, Mac recalls a game Dylan and Dee had played. One stretched summer, Dylan and Dee enjoyed Deaded as much as they’d enjoyed spraying hose-water into dense blue sky. Deaded meant running against a wall, then falling with heads, arms, legs, bruised. Had Dylan been the leader? Had Dee? Both were bright-eyed, bodies torn. It was a summer of ointments, and bandages, and visits to the doctor. Marcia had no idea why her children played a game called Deaded.

Five years now, Marcia’s been hitched to a retired used-car salesman in the Sunshine State, bright-eyed host to three alien step-grandchildren. Some people feel happier taking the shortcut. That’s the truth. Requesting a snapshot, Mac received a picture of his ex-wife’s three step-granddaughters. Three little girls wore white ribbons, white as the slat-boarded house behind them.

Oh, it’s cold. Mac watches his army blanket shuffle down the cliff, then gather speed. Low-bellied clouds shield the moon. Relaxing his fingers, he hears the faint rattling clatter of his torch falling. In those slowed-down seconds before his daughter steps forward, Mac thinks of the Unsaved. Then he thinks of nothing, because his daughter’s nails are catching on his coat buttons, his pockets, his lapel, reaching for the first time in, well – he doesn’t know how long.

And he can’t help but be specific. He thinks of two doves in flight. He thinks; dark-dark and dark-light. He sees the fluorescent numbers on his HELP REQUIRED? board and of course, he understands.[/private]




Last Great Blizzard

Photo by Johan Carlstrom (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Johan Carlstrom (copied from Flickr)

I look back. “What are those red marks mummy? Those red marks on the snow?”

My mother does not look down. She grips my hand tighter and pulls me forward staggering through the blizzard. “They are nothing darling. Try not to look. There’s a good girl.” She is not wearing her gloves and her long frozen fingers squeeze mine as though she is frightened that if she were to let go our hands will be lost to each other forever.

It is the middle of the night and the streets are deserted. Even the taxi drivers have given up because of the weather. All of the buildings are in darkness and the city is smothered in a deep soft silence. Snow streams into our faces making us cry.

I look back. The drops of red are following us, falling between the marks left by our shoes, turning black under the streetlights. I think of how, in that fairy tale, the children leave a trail of stones so they can find their way home.[private]

We arrive at a brownstone house on 39th Street. The lights are on. “This is my friend’s house – Georgia Benton. She is very kind and we are going to be staying here for a while.” My mother falls against the bell and rings it urgently.

The door opens letting a flood of light onto the steps. Mrs Benton hugs my mother without saying a word. They stand like two ruins that have collapsed together.

Mrs Benton gathers herself. “My dear come in, come in. What has that brute done to you?” She turns and shouts up the stairs. “Oscar, it’s Joan. She has made it. Thank God she made it.” Then she looks down at me. “And you must be Jessica my dear.”

Mrs Benton takes my mother into the kitchen and gives her some tablets. “The taxi is on its way,” she says. “It’s been a devil getting one tonight it truly has. They say this is the worst blizzard in the past twenty years and the roads are a nightmare. Anyhow it’s on its way now so you will be fine.”

Mrs Benton is small and nervous but she exudes both warmth and efficiency. “Now we must do something about this poor little thing.” She smiles at me and opens out her arms. “If you come with me, I’ll put you to bed. You must be completely exhausted.” She sees me look at my mother. “Now don’t you worry about her. The best thing will be to let her rest here for a bit whilst we go off and get some sleep.”

Mrs Benton takes me up the stairs to a room with heavy floral curtains and a huge bed. “I have the heater on so you should be nice and warm. You can put your wet clothes over there,” she says pointing at the radiator. “They will be dry in the morning. I expect you’ll want to keep the light on tonight. Look there’s a lamp next to the bed that you can turn on and off as you please.”

I stand with my hand on the bed cover. It is thick and silky. I thank her but do not move.

“Now there is nothing to worry about. Not now.” She hesitates. “The bathroom is next door if you need it… Well, I’ll leave you to it and go and see how your mother is doing. I’ll see you tomorrow.

And with that she leaves and I am left standing there feeling utterly alone. I get undressed and climb into bed. I am naked and the sheets are cold. The bed is so big that when I stretch out my arms they do not reach the sides. Strange shadows fall from the walls. All the things that help me to sleep – my pyjamas, my favourite blanket, my furry pink bunny rabbit with one floppy ear – are somewhere else.

My mother once told me that if you stay quiet for long enough to hear the snow falling, the snow will repay you by letting you hear whatever it is you desire most in your heart. I close my ears to the sounds coming from downstairs. I lie as still as I can. Then I hear a car turn into the road and stop in front of the house. The bell rings and I know the taxi has arrived.

***

The bedroom is dark except for a gap between the curtains that lets in a long triangle of dusty light that expands across the floor, climbs up onto the bed and falls across my face. It is as if someone has been searching for me in my dreams and is now shining a torch in my face – “we’ve found her!”

Then I remember the night before and it all comes back to me. I am jangling with the memory of it all. I push back the covers and get out of bed, feel the fur of the rug next to the bed grow through my toes. I untie the curtains from their embroidered sashes and pull them open.

It must be gone ten o’clock and the street below is busy with people. I take my clothes from the radiator, get dressed and go next door to the bathroom. I splash my face with cold water and rinse my mouth under the running tap. Everything is strange, the translucent soap that smells of cinnamon and apples, the sunlight after the snow, the girl that stares back at me from the mirror.

For a brief moment I wonder if I have been left alone in the house but then I hear the wheeze of a vacuum cleaner starting up downstairs and Mrs Benton begins to hum a song over it. I pluck up the courage and go barefoot down to the kitchen.

Mrs Benton comes yawning and smiling into the warmth of the kitchen from a back room. She is wearing a green apron with a mermaid on the front and is carrying a bundle of washing. “Well good morning Jessica Baldwin.” The way she says my name in full makes me feel completely welcome. I sit at the wooden table and she gets me a tumbler of orange juice. There is a sense of calm in the way she glides from one task to another that I have never seen in my own mother who spends her life in a state of agitation and haste. “Now what would you like for breakfast? I doubt if I have the sort of cereal you girls like but I have cornflakes – or eggs if you’d prefer.”

“Cornflakes would be great.” There is a clock on the wall. It is ten thirty. “Shouldn’t I be at school?” I ask.

“Not today dear. They say we had sixteen inches of snow yesterday. All the schools in New York are closed and I doubt if they will open again now before Christmas. The holidays are only a few days away.”

Mrs Benton puts a bowl of cornflakes down on the table. “The milk is there,” she says pointing to a blue and white jug. “Would you like some toast as well?”

I nod. “Mrs Benton, where is my mother?” I ask.

“She’s has had to go to the hospital. Just to be looked at. It is nothing serious. She will be back later.”

“These cornflakes are delicious,” I say. She turns round from the sink and smiles. The toast pops out of the toaster. She puts in on the plate with a pat of shining butter and brings it over to me.

“I guess you are looking forward to Christmas,” says Mrs Benton.

“Maybe,” I say as I spread the butter on my toast. “This is very kind of you. Letting us stay here and everything.”

“It is good to have some life in the house,” replies Mrs Benton. “Now you eat up and I’ll see if I can’t find some things to make you feel more at home.”

All that morning and late into the afternoon, I move around the strange house as Mrs Benton goes about her chores. She is with me constantly but not quite with me, like someone who you know is watching you from behind.

By four o’clock I have read everything there is to read in the house and I am looking out of the bedroom window at the empty street below. The sky is turning from pinkish-grey to an inky purple.

“Mummy!” I tumble down the stairs and out of the front door. My mother shakes the snow from her hair and opens her arms. “Where have you been?” I stutter on the verge of tears. “I wanted you!” The snow on her coat and shoes reminds me of our separation.

My mother holds me tight. “I am back now darling and I will never leave you again.”

That winter it snowed for four weeks straight – right through Christmas and into the New Year. My mother was not well and Mrs Benton said she needed a lot of rest. So she stayed in the house all day sitting on the sofa in the drawing room with a blanket across her lap. She and Mrs Benton talked constantly from the first coffee of the morning until Mr Benton came home from work at six. I think my mother was happy then. I was too, for each night we would curl up together in the big bed in the guest room and listen to the storm as it raged outside in the darkness.

We stayed with Mrs Benton until the end of January then moved into a new apartment in Queens. It was smaller than our old house but it was neat and new and big enough for my mother and me. Just my mother and me. For I never saw my father again.

***

My mother is nearly sixty now. She has speckled grey hair which she keeps well cut and she has retained the high cheekbones and cornflower blue eyes she had as a young woman. Fine lines crackle at the corners of her mouth and her delicate hands are spotted and yellow but she is still beautiful. She dresses elegantly. But she has arthritis and angina and all manner of other ailments that make her frail. She despises her body now, as if it is a lover that has cruelly abandoned her. She is often tired and even on good days she can only walk with slow, tentative, steps. As she never remarried or had any more children (“I couldn’t have darling, even if the opportunity had arisen”) I am the only relative she has left in the world. She has come to depend on me and I am OK with that, I really am.

I see my mother every week. We talk openly about most things but we have never spoken about what happened on that night all those years ago. We both know that it has been the defining event of our lives and that we are still living with the consequences. In some ways it is what has held us together. It is the great secret that my mother and I share.

I suggest to my mother that we go to see an exhibition at the Met, of Northern Renaissance painting. I had read a review of it in the New York Review of Books that had said it was the exhibition of the decade – a “must see” – full of masterpieces that had never been to America before and were unlikely ever to come back again.

I have always been keen on art and studied it for a while at university. I am not an expert but I know enough to understand what I am looking at, to appreciate the technique involved and to place the picture in its historical context. I can ‘read’ a painting. I also like the quiet of galleries, the atmosphere of contemplation, the slow way in which people move. Sometimes I just sit and watch others as they look at the paintings and it is like watching someone sleep.

Mother is not enthusiastic. “I’m not a great one for exhibitions darling, you know that. All those pictures just hanging on a wall. I’ve never quite seen the point.” The truth is she doesn’t like to go out in winter and will often spend whole weeks without leaving her apartment. She worries about the crowds and ice and wet sidewalks and falling over. The winter makes her feel fragile. In the summer the sun warms her bones and colours her cheeks and she is more like her old self. Then we often go out for lunch or to the park or shopping and it is like watching a flower come back into bloom.

I tell her that the exhibition is a birthday treat to myself and that I really want to share it with her. “Then of course I must come,” she says. “If anyone can teach me how to appreciate these things it will be you.”

We walk to the museum from my mother’s apartment on 13th Street but it takes us almost an hour to get there. By the time we arrive my mother is exhausted and she steadies herself on her walking stick before we go inside. It is cold and the sky is a thick, milky, white. All around tiny lights flash and sparkle and the windows of the shops are filled with fake snow, crimson twirls and gold baubles. Christmas songs trickle and hiss from every doorway. Crowds push and shove their way along the sidewalk. “I had forgotten how awful it is at this time of the year,” my mother says.

“This booklet covers all the main exhibits.” The receptionist is holding out a glossy pamphlet. “The Durers are in room 2.” She is young with translucent skin and a long, thin nose. Her blonde hair is tied back into a high pony tail. “At least it’s warm in here,” she says smiling. “The forecasters say there is a major snowstorm on its way.”

I take the booklet and my mother and I go into the gallery. We walk slowly around the rooms full of paintings and drawings by Durer and Cranach and Holbein. It really is a magnificent exhibition but I can tell that my mother isn’t interested. When I stand and look at a painting I can feel her eyes on my back urging me to hurry up. I try to think of interesting facts about some of the paintings to get her attention but all she does is sigh and gaze into space. In the end I give up and we walk through the galleries without stopping. I resent her for having taken away my enjoyment and she must sense this. “Do you not want to look at these darling? You can just leave me to sit here if you want to go off on your own.”

Just over an hour later and we are at the end of the exhibition. We sit down in front of the final picture, a large painting of a village in winter by Brueghel which is teeming with figures. “It’s called The Massacre of the Innocents,” I say looking at the booklet. “It says here that it originally depicted the murder of the children by Herod’s soldiers. You know, after the wise men told him the king of Jews had been born but not where so he orders all the boys under two in Bethlehem to be killed.”

“I know the story,” mother says sharply.

“Well, when the Holy Roman Emperor bought the picture he didn’t like the look of all those dead babies so he asked Brueghel to paint them out. See that old woman crying over some loaves of bread in the snow? The loaves were originally dead babies. Same with the calf having its throat slit and the dead swan being carried by the soldier. All the bundles being hugged by the women were once their children.”

My mother stands up and moves closer to the painting. She grips the top of the walking stick to hold herself steady – grips it so hard her hand shakes. I wonder what she can see, what it is that is holding her transfixed. I want her to share it with me.

“And the snow,” I say, pushing for her to let me in, “Brueghel covered the village in snow, covered everything, to hide all the blood.” I remember that night thirty two years ago and my mother’s blood on the snow. I stop talking.

“In real life darling the snow melts,” says my mother quietly. “You can’t hide anything with snow.” Then she turns to me and says briskly, “I’d like to go now if you don’t mind.”

By the time we leave the gallery it is snowing heavily. I stick out my tongue and catch a flake. I feel it melt. I have always loved the snow. We hail a cab and drive through the streets of New York. They are white and pure but we know it won’t last – already the cars are churning up a brown sludge and the ploughs are scraping it into heaps on the kerb. “The last great blizzard we had was in…” My mother’s voice trails off. “How silly of me,” she sighs. “It was so long ago and for the life of me I can’t remember now.”

I feel her fingers searching for mine on the sticky seat of the cab. Her hand folds gently over the back of mine and curls my fingers into a ball. “I have enjoyed today,” she says without looking at me. “We should go out more often.” I stare forward, concentrating on the feel of her hand. How light it is!

My mother sits with her face pressed against the window of the car. We drive down 5th Avenue and past Central Park. Get stuck in a rush hour jam. The park is already a sea of white and the trees are strung with cotton. There are young couples walking arm in arm, some boys throwing snowballs and a woman with a toddler in a buggy pointing at the falling snow. The child’s face is pink with wonder. This is happiness I think, true happiness, just the two of us in the middle of a storm. Then the cab jerks forward and when I look back the child and its mother are gone.[/private]




Safe Keeping

Photo by Mark Barkaway (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Mark Barkaway (copied from Flickr)

If they would let me, I would go back in time, wrap my brother up in swaddling and place him in a basket to float him down the Nile for protection—not protection from Ramses but from his own choices. I would become the red blood cells forming his heart in utero. I would boss around the other cells, telling them to patch up that hole they’d carelessly left there. The one that would later weaken his already tired heart. Or I’d organize and get a union going. Those cells would feel protected and listened to and they’d do a better job.[private]

If they would let me, I would sit on my brother’s shoulder and whisper the answers to all life’s questions. That is, if I knew them, which I most likely would not. I would dress as a ninja and follow him through his high school days, throwing a star or pulling a samurai sword on anyone who dare tease him.

I would become a thug and enter the drugstore where he worked and abduct and knock out the teeth of the cashier that would later break his heart.

If they would let me, I would sit by my brother’s side and monitor the caloric intake of each bite he lifted to his mouth. I would will the strained muscle of his heart to keep on keeping on. I would whisper, “You can do it.” I would become the serotonin he lacked, I would circulate through his brain making him feel that life was worthwhile, beautiful even.

If they would let me, I would melt away the selfish sister of myself, the rotten heart who cut off his rat tail against his will. Who cried and told on him when he ate my new lip gloss or when he accidentally pinged me with his BB gun.

If they would let me, I would keep him safe inside my shirt pocket, or I would let him keep me. We could keep each other so long as it kept the other alive for as long as the other had to be here. Down to the day.

But the trouble is—the governing powers of the universe, the bastards, wouldn’t let me. And whispering the worthless phrases flashing in the back of my mind, phrases like, “I’m sorry,” and “I love you,” won’t change anything.[/private]




Author Q&A with Matt Haig

9780857868763Litro: Tell us about your latest book, The Humans. It features an alien narrator, sent to Earth in the disguise of mathematics professor Andrew Martin. Why was this a story that you felt compelled to tell?

Matt: It was a story I had in my mind since way before I was a published author. It just never let go. I just thought it was the best way of looking at our species, and to look at all that is good about us.

Litro: Families and family relationships often feature heavily in your novels, and this is no exception. What appeals to you about the family dynamic?

Matt: I honestly don’t know. I try and write with as much power as I can muster, and somehow this always sends me back to family stories. I suppose we all have family, family defines us. It is the first and most crucial thing we ever know. Plus it’s that thing of people being related but not necessarily having that much in common. All those tensions. And the strange and powerful nature of family love.

Litro: You also seem to like telling these stories from unusual perspectives: an alien visitor, a dog… what appeals to you about assuming this outsider status?

Matt: We live our lives too up-close to our own existence, and kind of miss the wood for the trees. I think, well, we’re only here once, so let’s look at this thing called life, called us, called humanity, and what’s the best way to look at something big? To take a big step back. These strange perspectives give me the biggest step back I can think of.

Litro: What can you tell us about your own upbringing, and your own family. Do you have siblings? How important is family in your own life?

Matt: I have a younger sister Phoebe. We were – and are – very close. My mum was adopted, and I think she’s passed down to me some of that anxiety about identity and where I fit in in the world. I now have a family of my own. Two kids, Lucas and Pearl. So I’m always wondering what it means to be a good father, and how I can be a better one. It makes you live inside the present and the future all at once because you think this could be their first/best memory. It overwhelms me sometimes, parenthood.

Litro: As well as immediate family, authors often rely on extended support networks. Who helps support and inspire you in your writing?

Matt: Well I am inspired by other writers. I love Graham Greene. For mind-sharpening and prose-tightening nothing beats a quick blast of Lorrie Moore. I have a wonderful editor at Canongate – Francis Bickmore, who is sharp and wise and helps steer me in the right literary direction.

Litro: The Humans has been referred to as science fiction, but you have been resistant to this label. Why do you think that it shouldn’t be considered sci-fi?

Matt: Because it is too lazy and literal and I hate labels. I think people who are really into sci-fi wouldn’t really like this book. I think it is a book that non science fiction people like more. So while it is science fiction it doesn’t feel like science fiction. If you go solely on plot then it is science fiction, but plot is such a tiny bit of what a book actually is, that I think we need better labelling systems. I’d go for Philosophical Literary Tragi-comic Fantasy Fable but that is too long and pretentious. So let’s just say ‘a novel’.

Litro: Christmas is seen by many as a very family-orientated time of year. What are your plans for the festive season?

Matt: God knows. I don’t make the plans in our house. I just go with the flow. I’m sure it will involve family and slightly stifled conversations with extended family members and unhealthy eating. Oh, I’ve just remembered! We’re going out for Christmas dinner, so no cooking is involved. Plus I am taking Lucas to see a special screening of Elf in a museum, so that will be nice.

Matt Haig picMatt Haig was born in 1975. His debut novel, The Last Family in England, was a UK bestseller. The Dead Fathers Club, an update of Hamlet featuring an eleven-year-old boy, and The Possession of Mr Cave, a horror story about an overprotective father, are being made into films and have been translated into numerous languages. A film of The Radleys is in production with Alfonso Cuaron. Matt has lived in London and Spain, and now lives in York with the writer Andrea Semple and their two children.




Litro #131: Family – Letter From The Editor

litro131_family_singleDear Reader,

The festive season is upon us again: a month of tinsel, baubles, fake Santa beards and contrived TV specials. Whatever you’re celebrating this year – Christmas, Hanukkah or Thanksgiving – the winter is a time to turn back to our hearths, to gather our loved ones about us and remember the bonds of family. If that also involves consuming uncomfortable quantities of food and drink, then all the better. They say that blood is thicker than water – as winter pulls its shroud around us, our blood runs thicker than ever.

In this month’s submissions, the focus is firmly on the bloodier side of family ties. Family isn’t always a comforting safety net to fall back on – it can be an unwelcome duty too, even a doorway to neglect. As the year draws to a close there’s an aura of loss that surrounds many of these stories. This is a collection of familial failures and tearful farewells. That it also contains nuggets of warmth and affection shows just how tangled the family bond can be.

In Laura McKenna’s Cable the narrator is forced to reconsider her mental image of her younger brother, when he springs a surprise on her during a walking holiday. Jesmyn Ward’s Baby Love takes a darker path, allowing us a glimpse into the impoverished rural areas of America, and the harsh realities of the families that live there. Ward is a previous National Book Award winner, and her story is a study in economy and atmosphere. Rebecca Swirsky’s Hotline to Almighty is similarly bleak, but leavened with humour and insight, as it examines the fractured familial relationships in the wake of a child’s death.

In Last Great Blizzard, David Ford traces the lines of damage and regret between a mother and daughter, as two winter storms grip New York during the early Sixties and the Nineties. Theresa Coulter’s Safe Keeping is a short literary prayer for her brother’s health, a plea that’s as earnest and heartbreaking as it is funny. Then Holly Corfield Carr explores the helplessness surrounding parental illness in and one last time, from the heart, a story that finds its own unique poetry in the “scribbles of wire filaments” that keep their mother alive. Finally, we chat to Matt Haig, author of The Radleys and The Humans, about the importance of family in his work and in his life.

Personally, I’ll be spending this winter surrounded by a new family. This is my first issue as Magazine Editor, and I thank Andrew Lloyd-Jones for his wonderful work in the role over the last few years. As the nights draw in and the temperature drops, I sit around the fire with my new Litro brothers and sisters, and we raise a glass to your good health. May the festive season bring everything that you want. We’ll see you in 2014.

Dan Coxon

Editor




Litro #131: Family

Cover Art: Family by Ann Gee Chan – http://www.tintypegallery.com/

Contents:

Letter from the Editor by Dan Coxon

Cable by Laura McKenna

Baby Love by Jesmyn Ward

Hotline to Almighty by Rebecca Swirsky

Last Great Blizzard by David Ford

Safe Keeping by Theresa Coulter

and one last time, from the heart by Holly Corfield Carr

Author Q&A with Matt Haig

This is only a taster of our Family issue. Become a Litro Member to read the whole issue.