T he red glow from the window framed everything from the street and its tidy brick-work to even the sly drift of silver sky threading out in the narrow strip between black slanting rooftops. And inside, in the depthless surface of the red, the contorting figures were snaking round and round in an eerie silent dance, serpents or dolls jerking in a strange rhythmic pact.
Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead three years, fat) held her breath and nearly dropped her heaving shopping bag. She couldn’t take her eyes off the scene and knew that whatever she was looking at would change her life. She was someone who liked apocalypse though this was the closest she’d been to it. She felt something burn up in her left eye, everything grew hot in a pin prick somewhere deep inside, below the top, and she began to walk on by, up the street towards its crest. She was amazed but her memory wasn’t quite sure what it had just seen. It was more like she was moving away from the future, as if there were things that had happened she’d meet only later.
She could hardly be bothered to feed Moustic her cat who purred and glowered, sensing that the old fool wasn’t quite all there anymore, some of her having gone back and would be met later, oh years on. There was a fierce stink in the house, it covered the surfaces like a green film, something of cabbage, something foul and needing a fresh breeze, an open door. Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead four years, fat) sat down, more like crash landed, in front of the little electric fire, two bars glowing as the rain fell outdoors and with it, small pips of ice. Things were falling to chill, to below zero.
Night time and Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead five years, fat) stretches out her body under one cotton sheet and feels something small and out of sight crawl up her leg. She prefers to lie and let it do the creep than intercept progress. A gate outside rattles in the wind, swinging back and forth. The net curtains shiver like pale ghosts in the blue thick night, ripple like skims, like frothies in the ether. She’s harking back to another era, another physics. There are voices, you see, that sing wildly in her ears and she’s demented by the sounds. She wants them to stop. At last she takes herself off for a glass of milk downstairs. The fridge seems to ooze some fine, brown liquidity. It drains out onto the floor, the red plastic mock tiling starts to shine and darken. She stands in her bare feet and mutters under her moustache. She drinks leaning against the wall, which in turn seems none too steady itself. Inside, way down, there are grumbles she wants to deny.
There’s more dust than there’s been for days. It has blown in on the last high wind. She’d call it a gale but technically, god knows what it is. The dirt is in smooth globes of grey stuff. It’s six inches in parts, piled up against steps and gates and fences. The street’s covered. She hardly likes to walk down to the Spar but she does , leaving heavy footprints as she goes. She glares around her looking out for someone else but she hasn’t seen anyone for days. They’re all indoors behind the curtains she reckons to herself.
There are the occasional flutters. Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead ten years, fat) finds it hard to breathe suddenly and flushes beetroot red and feels a nausea. She staggers against a lamppost and clutches it with both arms like a wrestler a torso. She refuses to fall. Her eyes are wet, there are tears but maybe that’s just the wind, bitter and full of the dust swirls. The sky seems a dull green, all the dust. She feels awesomely part of the scene, something integrated despite the sharp feeling below her right third rib. She’s felt this before now. There’s something worming around.
Everything worn through. The linen needs changing but she’s got no cash, no savings left and there’s a problem with the pension he left, something to do with an empty period way back in his forties which has now come home to roost. She looks at the picture she has on the bedside wardrobe. There he is, smiling and youthful and gleaming. All those teeth. His went first she recalls. She had her molars to the very last, she thinks. There’s a twinge and she rasps and doubled over staggers imperiously to the bathroom where she runs a luke warm bath, wondering where the heat goes. It’s never hot these days. There’s a fault she needs to get to the bottom of but when she thinks, when?
Her flesh seems to be outside of her. Her flesh seems to be moving without her, has grown independent and doesn’t seem to need her for anything anymore. It floats in the water. The yellows and greys and blues seem solids in the water. All around her paps there are huge red holes, gaping things like volcano peaks. They even stink of burning stuff, probably skin. They are too hot to touch. The water bubbles around them. She counts seven today. Last night there were twelve. The night before eight. This is how they seem to behave, forming and reforming in a random pattern. They also shift around. Three weeks ago, she recalls there were nine all round her brow. She had to stay indoors and her hair’s singed to cadmium and ochre. The traces remain.
An unpleasant rap on the door. As if the bell wasn’t working which she knew wasn’t the case. Some odious intruder. She was prepared. Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead twenty years, wasted) pushed her face against the window glass of her door and saw in the mist the tall figure, a male besuited sort, standing some way off staring back. She decided to make bold. She shouted out: ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ and then she bent down again, so her nose tip touched the cold glass and her arse stuck out for miles behind her, waited.
Evening brought a cold wind and rain. The young man’s got a latch key and’s fiddling in the lock. She’s in the kitchen with her cup and her tea, still warm, plenty of milk, silver top, her heart’s always been a strong point thank you, and then the door’s open and in he comes, bold as brass. His eyes seem to be beautifully touched up with mascara but its actually coal dust. His long lashes have caught the stuff and like black nectar it remains.
His tired limbs stretch and he flings himself down on the settee and looks at the television even though it isn’t switched on. Mrs. Gibson swallows her tea and gropes into the room as if blind. Her hearing’s actually the weakest. She smells his sweat, something briny, salt and sea, even seaweed. A shiver, as if she remembers something and then forgets it at the same instant.
His lips are red as if he’s been eating cherries or something, and they bleed into his face which is so white, so pale,so gaunt. There’s a terrible bone in all this, the bone that should have flesh but has been left to shine, to uncover, to expose itself. She wonders how he can bear not to scream. Returning to the kitchen, where the dim light of the evening forces her against her better financial judgment to turn on the yellow electricity bulb, she brews up another pot of tea and gently takes of it. Her gums hurt as the tea squirts over them. She winces. Under her apron she’s burning, a white ridge of burnt, blistered skin flares up. She can smell it. She wants to cry. She drinks another shout of tea and suffers in silence. She’s doing ever so well.
Through the wall one night, the sounds so faint but so distinct she could easily have imagined the sounds were coming from within the wall, there’s music. It’s new to her. Or before her time. She wants to complain about the disturbance but she’s also relieved that there’s someone else about. The days have really been very quiet and she’s seen no one. Just the time, she consults her rimmed clock on the orange kitchen wall and knows that there are days passing, every day passing and that she can’t see anything else. So these noises, she consults her tables compiled over several years, the records of other intrusions.
She reads with intense pleasure, her pencil lines clear and straight and effortless. She’’s unhappy to find nothing that correlates. How she’s supposed to deal with this emergency on her own she really can’t say. She’d shrug but there’s a terrible thumping pain in her shoulders, like great balls of lead packed under her skin, sewn in whilst she was sleeping no doubt. She casts around for a likely culprit but there’s nothing, noon.
Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead thirty five years, scrawny) totters into her garden patch. The grass is thigh high, nearly yellow. Blue and golden flowers bloom and she smiles at the shifting, dreaming movements. Over the wall at the far end, too far for her to ever walk these days, a large bird sits stabbing again and again some wrecked scrap of carcass. The sky shines azure blue, there’s the promise of space travel, of space ships and all that. It’s like her childhood. She remembers the words and speaks them without the sound, ‘Apollo’, ‘Nasa’, ‘Neil Armstrong’. The clothes line stretches from the house ring to the far post and wavers in the slight detectable wind. She can just about hear the young man sorting through his kit bag before he goes off. It must be after five. It must be summer. Everything is sweet.
But indoors she cannot bear to face whatever she was living through, preferring to live in the grey twilight of self-deceit than elsewhere, its harsher black, damning white. She stares at the small chip at the rim of the cup into which her tea circles and wonders where the hell it came from before blenching at the expletive and its coarsened eruptive. She blushes into the empty room.
It takes her an hour and four minutes to climb the fifteen stairs onto the landing. She has to take breaks on each step after the fifth and each break is longer than the last. By the time she’s up she’s wrecked. The lavatory’s up there and there has to be coordination and planning so that dreams and reality don’t collide; fundamental biology dictates general routine procedures and she has to be disciplined if she’s to stay on top of things. The daily round demands she stays upstairs until full evacuation of bowels has taken place and no uncertainty no. Cleaning the surfaces, tidying the odd nick-knack, straightening the ruck and ruffle, these were the events, the tasks , the fillers around which she structured herself.
The windows collected the dust particles, they smeared the glass so that there was a pale wash of colour in the light, a Saharan colour and heat which helped to preserve the wasteland feel of the whole thing. When she looks out she sees the limit of the garden, its tiny wall, and then beyond it she see just the grey and flat concrete all broken up and spanning out to the horizon of mist. Grass grows in a bearded spike between the great cracks and slab plates and boulders like hairs between toes. Everything stays to hurt.
Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead forty years, thin as a rake) wants to eat but when at the gate she notices how the road’s all chewed up and spat out. Nothing could move along that on wheels. She remembers the vans and lorries that she used to see regularly and then feels their loss as something intimate and huge. It’s never been like that before. Everything shimmers in her eyes, the scene itself is filmed over with a saliva mottle and she has to squeeze the cup between her stubby fingers and let the heat of the tea burn thorough to wake her from the threat of falling over. She’s done that before and had to live through the colours of the bruises and the irregular shapes in her brain. Thoughts come spilling in the same patterns of the pain, the sharp and then dull sensations.
‘There’s nothing to distinguish things save the symbols.’ She modestly covers herself in the space between the front door and the stair, then the length and breadth of the landing between bathroom and bedroom , leaving the stairwell to fend for itself.
Maybe something clots. She stands in the road and sniffs the air. There’s still the edge of petrol and oil in it and like a dog she follows the trail, snout in the air, but it fizzles out before she gets to the first rye grass fixture poking out from two crude rocks half way down the garden metres. She tries to make out the route of the destroyed road but the mist that’s been there for the last month or so is thick and lemon yellow, hiding everything. Everywhere is hidden in the gases that swirl and twist slowly, languorously and she begins to remember the old warnings of radioactivity, of designer eco-freakology - her dead husband’s phrase. What was he? She can’t remember now, though it had once been fresh and she’d been part of it. Whatever. Things die, more than just bodies. But there’s only one kind of thing, just different ways of symbolising and mapping it. She reminds herself. This is something of a recurring statement. The proposition leaves her high and dry. No traffic comes along the road. Her larder is emptying..
She begins to wonder if they’d repair anything if there were faults. Like, if the lights stopped, if electricity no longer came through? She tried out the yellow light bulb but it worked. She had spares in the cellar. But they wouldn’t last forever. Maybe there was a need to study a bit harder, talk to more folks. But there wasn’t a sign of any other faces. All the curtains in the other places were pulled to and never quivered now. There were no footprints in the dust along the road. Noone seemed to be alive anymore. She once started to sing an old familiar tune, just a snatch or two to keep herself in practice, never knowing when the feat would be useful once more, as in the past, the old days, ach...her heart can’t take that kind of stab. She spits. Something pink and white froths out from between her scrawn lips and she watches it bubble and fizz in the dirt at her feet before she bores and turns down.
There are gulls and crows which come nibble on the scraps that they seem to be able to scavenge even though she sees nothing, living nor dead. She welcomes them whatever they find and watches out for their sudden intrusions, arriving as they do out of the lemon fog like dark emissaries from another sphere, their wide eyes glimmering with things seen and unseen. She wipes her hands over the bowl in the kitchen and just stands transfixed if one drops into the back garden, sheep wool or fish skin between clamp beak.
Sometimes there’s blue green smoke rolling at a pace almost coming from underneath the fog, rolling at knee height, thick and inpenitrable, unfurling like fathead grease. It can take days to disperse and the vulgar odours keep her inside. She’ll keep an eye on it from either upstairs or downstairs and meditates for as long as she might on the whys and wherefores of such a phenomenon. In one swoop she puts it down to jealousy.
She has to lie down after this brutal summary. Her eyelids are sore, especially as they snap close so she keeps them down to prevent the snap. But she can’t keep it up, she wont fall into sleep so she looks out and then remembers and then snap. The pain shags her right down to her toes, even her middle right digit’s pins and needles and all poor circulation. She half expects that one to turn black one of these days and then drop clean off. She chuckles at the excess of the worry. Her middle right toe. What a farce! She tries to hone her mind. Just who, she wishes to remember, is jealous of whom? And what the cause or if not the cause, the reason? Too subtle. She collapses and can only just manage to keep eye closed for the next four minutes and seventeen seconds. Yep, she’s counting. She’s counting on and on and ... on whom?
‘You’re young. Just you wait.’ She stands at the door, her hand pressed against its dust smothered green and speaks for the first time for many a day. Maybe more. She notices the way the yellow fog’s all but blanked out everything. It’s as much as she can do to see the end of her arm if she stretches it out in front of her. Her hand begins to fade out. It’s also cooler than it’s been. She pulls her shawl over her shoulder and can almost count the number of goosepimples studding her whole body, it’s that clear and she’s ever that sort, precise about the details. She smiles and slams shut the door behind her, keeping out the approaching fog. Indoors she switches the switch and hey presto the bulb shines from the hanging lead from the cracked ceiling. She stirs and makes a pot of tea, careful to hang out last time’s bag.
In the night there’s the peculiar range of colour tints because the yellow fog seems to glow a little in the dark so the whole scene outside’s a weird kind of yellow grey hue, lighter than indoors. It’s as if everything’s inside out. She’s upstairs and of course exhausted. She’s been drawing pictures on the bedroom wall these last few months, trying to use the crayons she found in a clean up under the bed some time ago now. She’s tried to recollect how they came to be there, indeed how they came into the house at all but that’s something that’s gone. She just accepts the failure of memory at this point, or just put it down to a new angle on the whole thing ie she was never in possession of the truth.
Then there’s a creeping doubt. She’s hiding something from herself, she isn’t owning up. If that’s it then the cat piss stink’s more than just a thing coming out of the Moustic in these parts, it’s a pussy metaphor. She doesn’t like that. Her stinging eyes are red, nearly bleeding through the blinking she has to go through. She frowns at the accusations now muttering at her from the dampening walls. Everything’s getting cold, and she’s wrapping up warm as she’d have it, tearing things out of her wardrobe, ignoring the bronze moths swirling through the chilled air.
There’s a breaking noise, the dull rush of engine grind and boost. Outside. It’s almost a memory, then she realises its happening again and now. She walks slowly to the window, every step painful in her joints. She begins to doubt her ears, maybe the noise is inside her head, a tinitus event, a rewiring in the brain causing trash information. That’s so, but sure there are headlights out there in the fog. Her heart leaps a tradewind to the promise of exchange. She recites her own name as if confirming her own existence, or inventing it.
Someone comes in to the house downstairs and crosses through the wreckage and debris and calls out ‘Anyone here, at home ,anyone, hello hello’ in a half raised voice as if embarrassed to intrude. Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead fifty years, starved rake thin) shifts along the upper landing on giant legs thick with arthritic additions and multiplications, screaming under her panting. At the top of the stairs she peers down the well into the infused light, flushed with both over-effort and over excitement.
The intruder stares up.
‘Gibson?’ The voice sleeps upstairs. You can hear the snores. So this is happening under hood, a subliminal thing? Dream or nightmare? Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead fifty-one years, disease-ridden, stomachless) shrugs in the dark and replies,
‘You’ll have to speak up. I can’t see, legs completely shot you know.’ There’s a pause.
‘You want I should come up?’
‘Yes.’ An awkward moment this, the intruder still feeling a little embarrassed by the entrance, its abrupt invasive manner etc. So she stays put, a stone, a spirit, a soul and a body of coagulate, dissolve, flight. A face.
‘Orphans from the pin-dust. From here South just loam and glasses.’
‘You’re just projection.’
‘Coming through the golden smoke there’s nothing else could have arrived. What did you think?’
‘I thought maybe you were coming to tell me there’s a way, that the trap’s annulled.’
‘From coal, gold?’
‘No.’ But if there’s alchemy in this first exchange, there’s a breeding affection. They seem to care, even though the face below is just a projection, whatever the jack shit that means. They both seem to know.
The atmosphere’s made of cheese and Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead fifty five years, fading out, eyes nearly switched down to zero) draws a sigh and wonders if the face is more than just a face.
‘You more than what you seem?’ she shouts down. The face, in a way which seems to draw lots, answers after a while,
‘Just a face. That’s all they can afford to send up here. You’re lucky. This whole section was closed down years ago. Can’t understand why they left you here.’ Face speaks in that tone of voice which answers the rebuke of separation with fortitude. Face can smell the time passing in unequal measures.
‘We got to get out. We got to try. I might not be able to help after a while. I’m expendable after all. There’s a limit to the resources my team’s committing to all this.’
‘As I recall, there’s little any of you can do. As I recall...’ and the voice drifts away like a child of perdition. Face sniffs.
‘I have some calculations. I made them on the way here. There’s a way. There’s always things you can do if the numbers are fitting, the stiffness of flesh abated.’
‘For fuck’s sake.’
The spell is broken and they both squat in the dumps, saddened by their loss of common ground and their legacies, delays and hatred of traditions. Outside the lemon gas is tightly wrapped round the house. Through the windows everything but the fog itself is obscure. Face watches the other slowly and painfully descend.
They drive together. Visibility down to zero the jeep bounces along at a crazy angle and there’s merely radar and compass readings like they’re flying blind. None of this matters. Years later Face and Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead 69 years, mere memory of herself, green skin, where it hasn’t rubbed through) stand in the kitchen with their cups of tea, their large heads drooping and their eyes for once looking out though there’s nothing but the forsaken view to see, the concrete, the grasses and the concumbere gold which binds them in puissance. They can never leave. They never left.
Night after night, then things do change. Things become tinged pink. Then it deepens, darkens, the pink becomes a red and the red a deep deep crimson. It’s as if the whole sky’s become a bloody wound. The fog swirls with this gore fest. They’re both upset by the change. Face seems to have had an inkling, she’s written about the colours and has hesitated before writing about red as if superstitious or in the know. Her companion can hardly lift her skull, sits in a pile by the window, you can see the white breath, it’s that cold, everything’s dipped.
‘In the clouds there were eyes...’
‘Red eyes, eyes full of blood?’
‘They were there then gone. Nothing stayed, some were pushed through and then faded out again. Whatever was out there was moving. Forms and creatures, something loathsome, monstrous. Fickle striplings, smearing their horrid trails...’
‘You saw this?’
‘In the fog. On the way in. Years ago.’
‘But you already knew?’
‘I was supposed to know. You saw the red dancers after all. You were the only one to have got so close. An accident.’
‘And you know how it happened?’
‘We were too frightened to admit it. Not for years did we admit it. We tried to find other ways of explaining what you’d seen.’
‘But I told none. There was just a private moment.’
‘Between the coal house and the dog house there are packs of us, mongrels, sniffing our arses, following the shit.’
‘You were in the last zone. Everyone else had been moved, closed down. You were coming next. But the vacuum we’d created was like a super highway. Nothing to prevent their movement. So they came here so quickly, they travelled without any just cause or impediment. We were traumatised alongside you. And you were the one who seemed to see first. We immediately knew.’
‘We look in all the houses, we count. Like ten green bottles, all fall off the wall. All the houses, full of the dead.’
‘But I’m not dead.’
‘You’re the one bottle didn’t break. So we try and get in but they lay down the fog, the gold, and we see nothing but it, the fog, the gold.’
‘And my mind. There’s something in my mind I can’t quite figure.’
‘Time running weirdly. Time’s become discreet, variable, applies differently to different objects. Some are moving fast through time, others more or less stopped. We weren’t sure how long we’d taken to get through. Seems like it was a matter of days. Seems like years to others. To some of the others. We’ve had directors die of old age waiting for this. Noone can say how long this thing’s taking. We all have our own time in this. Could be we’re thousands of years old according to some by the time the fog lifts.’
‘Bolt’s head, limbek and retort, everything’s nonsense.’
‘ But you, you did see the red dancers?’
‘A glance, a quip. With furnace and eradicators I might have made them suffer. As it was I had just a shopping bag and enough supplies to last me until the end of the week. That’s the beauty of the thing. End of week tomorrow. Always tomorrow.’
Face wanders morosely round the house, upstairs and downstairs, even on the stairwell holds her own invention in her pocket. She’s not out of breathe but she’s pension age, she’s feeling the burn - out of her body. The eyes are the first going, there’s a white slice to the vision field she can’t repair and Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead 97 years, more bone than green/blue flesh in truth) her throat tired and wrecked, with hardly the pieces in place anymore, croaks that she’s looking old and finishes nearly collapsing, all spent. Face has to wryly agree and knows that the last sex she’s likely to ever have will be within this house.
Dimensions of the body seem to collapse but they expand feelings towards each other. Face helps make the tea and sets out the tea bags along the string tied from one side of the room to the other with tact and a degree of skill her companion can only admire. Face likes to take sugar with hers, enjoys watching the syrupy mess stir up in the base of the mug. Face mutters as she stirs, her old face flushed with a passion she hasn’t felt towards anyone for many a year, never since adolescence she’d own to these days. Hatred though, comes with it, and fear. She wants to wipe out the red dancers whilst Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead 98 years, beginning to lose her liquid base, dry as a Temple Church) stays more sanguine and relaxed in the face of such superabundance.
Then one morning the fog began to clear. It was a strange and slow process and at first neither of them noticed. Yet by mid morning they happened to glance up at the window and both, more or less simultaneously, caught sight of the far wall of the garden. The grey concrete expanse of the garden was fully revealed. Both stared at it without a word. In all the time together they had pretended that none of it really mattered, that they were fully accepting of the situation but now, seeing things change and the prison seemingly bringing down its walls, they began to cry. Face sat down and felt the shame of the tears because she was supposed to have been the one with the information and the power. She was supposed to have been the expert, no God who failed.
And by the afternoon they could see that the fog had been driven off by fierce winds driving in from the North, cold and wild forces which shook out the becalmed stillness of the golden fog like waking a dream. By evening they could see the sky, the cumulus clouds clear as cream, even the moon again, the stars. They crawled to the door and stood under the night sky breathing the air.
‘We don’t even know what the fog is. It resists every analysis. It doesn’t register on any of our instruments. Again, it seems to select its own units of reality. We record it, but nothing electrical. There’s a chance we’re contaminated.’
‘There’ve been others?’
‘Some near correlates but nothing exactly the same. Some communities miles away caught in something similar but not exactly the same. There were disturbing changes to the people there, especially the children. Our people thought that the changes were fundamental. Like, they weren’t human any more.’
‘Not human? What on earth’s that supposed to mean? It’s a very peculiar statement.’
‘When did you marry?’
‘He was a lovely man at first but of course he went off, kind of rotted. In the soul I said to him. You have gone rotten in the soul and he just laughed and said he disputed the whole core of the matter. No soul you see , he said. I told him he was shallow and he frowned and said he was deep but I’d never get down to him, would never see what was happening and he was right. I never really knew what on earth he was doing.’
‘What were you doing marrying his sort?’
‘His sort was all sorts. They’re all like that. We all are.’
‘Did you ever discuss his death? Did you ever with him?’
‘What, talk about his dying? No. Not in so many words. There was just an understanding that’s all. A hush between us. Everything we said was in between that hush. Everything since has been footnotes.’
‘Remember his name?’
‘Not even his face dear. The pictures don’t remind me of anything either. You seen them. They’re a stranger’s spoor. I got not even a haze. I got exactly nothing. A rolling nought.’
‘We have some information. Family and friends, that sort of thing.The odd recording, the odd letter, tracings in the electricity. Old stuff. We picked it all up but it seems so far away now. So long ago.’
‘Laid him down in the water. There was a red water and they laid him on his side, gently, like he was a baby. And someone was singing a lullaby, so softly you might have thought it was just the winter, the marren grasses hiss. You could see the ocean, the waves coming backwards and forth, the sand glistening like snow. The moon.’
‘Who did this? Were they killing him? Was he already dead?’
‘Already dead. The eyes. I remember someone saying, close his eyes and I touched the eye lids and they were still warm and we were so cold. There was a night gull circling like a bolt of white lawn.’
‘Had they killed him?’
‘He had died, that’s all. It sometimes happened like that. It just left him and we were the remains.’
‘We were all surprised that you married him. I remember we couldn’t understand...’
‘I was in love.’
‘I spent all the wastes of my life, all the pangs, all the ceaseless moments of anxiety and sensation on knowing this, that it was for him, and I never really wanted him, that he never was my kind. Yet I was in love. Nor am I out of it.’
‘ With a person made up out of just the nuts and bolts of yourself.’
‘You think that?’
‘I have the files back on my desk.’
‘Everything derived from that little cheap place, hey?’
Something stirred in both of them, a sudden apprehension, a dawning, that whatever they were was defined in these sudden bursts of jabber. Maybe they were jealous of their roles, each one wanting the upper hand, the final say. Face thrashed around in the void, splendid and cunning in her search.
‘I was always nosy. Always wanted to start the search. I traced it all back to you. It was me who told them we should go back and investigate this place. The fog was just the icing on the cake. Suffering brought me the work.’ Face stood with her cup, her hand trembling, proud she’d pushed aside her dark inertia, but Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead 100 years, faded out, a ghost sheen) falls her head back,the bald skull caught in the sunlight from the window glass, and sighs as if she couldn’t let Face in.
‘I saw figures out in the rocks, out towards the west, where the road runs out,’ she says. They both glare out over the cold concrete crusts as far as the eye, then further.
‘They’ve gone now,’
‘They’ll be back.’ There’s a startled finality about this which brings it all back home. They feel alone but they’re no more so than any on the planet. Gravity holds them down with the rest of us.
‘We can’t flee. We’d hardly get through the door.’
‘Will there be help? I mean, what if these figures you saw are the dancers I saw?’ Face can’t dare answer that question and so keeps her lips shut up fast. Then she speaks.
‘After you laid him in the water, after that, then what?’
‘I was jealous. Jealous of what I didn’t know. I was filled with the horror that he’d died knowing things that I didn’t, things about me I mean. I was jealous that he knew those things. I wanted them too. I remember feeling it intensely and then afterwards felt ashamed. But there was nothing I could do, nothing I could do about both feelings. So I just shut up. For years. For ever. Until now.’
‘We could have been sisters.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘We might have shared secrets.’
‘I remember nothing of the sort. I’m sure I would have.’
‘You were the older one. I was the younger and you were jealous of me.’
‘Jealous of you? Why?’
‘Maybe there were things I did you could never forgive. Maybe that’s what you remember in that confusion, in the shame and the recall.’
‘I don’t know. How could I know? It would require a sort of judgment I’m no longer capable of ...’
‘Yes, and you never told anyone , not even me, not until this very moment.’
‘It seems too much a fancy.’
‘And it was my child you were burying. You were jealous because it was me, not you.’
‘There’s so much we might have spoken of but this, this seems to be too strange.’
‘But there are signs, there are darklings waking up?’
‘No. There’s nothing. I’m an abandoned house.’
Rain fell for the next few days and neither could make a move. The stairwell proved a mighty obstacle to any ambitious projects. Once Face made her way out beyond the gate and even to the road. There was nothing on it, neither was there anything in the hinterlands and borders on its either flank. But the adventure was the most startling and exciting thing that had happened to either of them over the last few days, weeks even, and they talked about the possibility of going out even further once they got further used to the sky, the weather, the clearances.
Their conversations began to fade into the past sullenly and determinedly, just as had the golden fog. They were clearing themselves out like fabled stables and there would soon be nothing but whatever they cared to recall. The fear was that all that would be left would be banal, hardly enough to fill a single photo album, but maybe that was also what both were hoping for now, a gentle bedding down of character and life into something manageable, mirrored and well-ordered.
When Mrs. Gibson (64, husband dead 102 years, sable) at last caught a glimpse of the crimson strap of Face’s wrist watch they flooded into her, the memorised faces of the two dancing figures in the red, faces and bodies pressed tightly to each other. And what they were doing, and why she had had to wait for so long, being the older, had had to wait before the end had come, it was suddenly, like a fierce backwards sentence, made quite clear to her.
Face leaned over her and gently touched her head, desperately trying to find forgiveness in the hardened bone. Outside, a child began to walk in rigid silence towards the house, claws where there might once have been nails. But it was still miles away when Mrs. Gibson followed her damned husband into the yellow fog.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Sex is a chartered accountant living in Retford, England. He wears loud ties because he hasn’t much of a personality and changed his name from Reichmann to Sex in 1998 because he thought that this would get him in on every act. It didn’t. A far as he knows, however, he carries no diseases and although in therapy since eighteen has never harmed anyone.