Wednesday, 11 June 2014

These are the remains of some (extremely rough) short stories I produced from 2009 to 2013, written around work, and as part of a short course at Birkbeck.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Elevator Shift

I killed God by accident. It happened in a grey pearl over Hanoi. It was unexpected and born from circumstance. Now death had the scent of our tracks.
I considered myself a Christian. I was raised a patriot, in Jackson, Alabama. I wore a slim tie and wingtips – polished, if I could – on my days off. So why, I wonder, did they decide to make me bunk with Chuck?
It had been eighteen months now. Chuck had no higher beliefs. He believed in himself. He was the source of that rumour, emerging just after Christmas last year, that he’d jumped eight feet during a basketball game. He once told me he landed in a lake in Korea, surrounded by enemy, and then confirmed three kills. Occasionally a greenhorn would come into one of our games of midnight Texas Hold'em and would look at the amulets, trinkets and miniature buddhas which he’d bought down in Panduranga market and mistake him for the real deal, but I suspect he’s as a real as any of this, these endless nights of swimming in the dark.
The trouble started in the afternoon. Beneath us, the vegetation looked black. In the air, the clouds were as pregnant as brains, and the silence of the engines was giving me tinnitus.
“So you think he’s got a hormone deficiency,” said Chuck, over the radio. He was talking about Walter Jr, my son, and Sue, my wife. I’d met her on a rally during leave from flight school. I missed her, I think, though her letters were getting kind of crazy.
“Yeah. That’s why I’m sending back so much money,” I replied. The radio made a hiss.
“Is she drinking again?” he said.
This made me kind of mad. He thought he was being funny but I was pretty sensitive, and the more I became annoyed, the more he thought it was hilarious.
“Not that I know of,” I said.
Hazily, I looked out through the glass. I was aware it was possible we would get enemy flak. I'll square with you, this was just what we didn’t want, as our enthusiasm for this had recently plummeted. Once I’d wanted to be here. Now I would consider myself disillusioned. Chuck, again, thought this was very funny, and would tease me about it. He didn’t realise that I kept a ledger of his sins beneath my bed.
There were various pops: scattered salt, chinking into the glass. Up ahead another bomber was swirling like a whale ship tackled to the ground. Chuck had started talking about his plans to open a meat shack in the US. I guess he’d not noticed the flak. He’d taken to wearing a sun visor and flicking through magazines during patrols.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, and yanked back on the stick.
I was shifting the elevator. You get them in planes. Many pilots use them to control variations in their pitch, but I’d taken to flipping them at random, possibly in a sub-conscious desire to get myself grounded for life.
The bomber swung up. Not much. Enough, though. There was a loud bang, like one of the engines had been blown out. I looked to my right and the cockpit glass had a spider’s web of cracks in it, ringing out from a central core. It looked unsteady. Part of my vision had turned purple.
“I’m turning around,” I said.
Chuck didn’t know what was happening.
“Did you see that?” I asked, and he hadn’t, but as we swept back, my calls to base remained calm and detached. Chuck started chattering nervously, talking about how I must have some kind of second sight because I’d instinctively curved away from the bullets. Maybe they would have scored a direct hit, who knows. I didn’t. It was surely a miracle, though I came to doubt even that in the coming weeks. Maybe it was what it was.

“You’re saying it wasn’t an accident,” said George, our squadron leader. He had a moustache. Half a moustache.
“Yeah,” said Chuck, “You should have seen it. Walter saw it, before it happened. He saved our lives.”
“Uh-huh,” said George, not looking up from his desk, where he was penciling a large turkey on to a blank piece of paper. Either that or he was filling out forms. We were in his office, where I stood in silence, looking out at the jungle rain. I liked George. Unfortunately I figured he thought we were a couple of assholes.
He stared at us, then. Looked into us. Not enough to get bored, but enough to realise his view of us was better than our view of him.
“Take a little load off boys.” Halfway through the sentence and he was already writing again, staring down at the turkey. Chuck looked at me and shrugged, so we went back to our barracks and began to get drunk.

I read the letters from Sue, the ones freaking me out, and started to realise I didn’t want to go home. She was worried about the war and was making plans, and while the security and sense of structure from these people who loved me had once been useful, I now wanted to run.
Chuck had begun inviting the other men over to tell them about the story of our little salvation. He was getting a bit too superstitious. He’d begun talking about this thing called an “elevator shift”, this impulsive forty-five-degree tilt of the wings which was supposedly good luck. The pilot was the one who did it, but actually I was beginning to think it was also controlled by the machine. The machine met you in the middle. It was the one that decided whether you lived or didn't.
As we sat around, then, the others began talking about other elevator shifts. There was a story about a member of the French resistance who’d once grounded an entire squadron of Luftwaffe with secateurs. The German pilots refused to take off because they couldn’t do elevator shifts. Danny, another navigator, started sneaking out to the hangar in the middle of the night and applying ice-packs to his bomber’s tail. He said it helped it function better. He said it would introduce a random responsiveness to his elevator function, which could help him when he was trying to avoid the enemy. How could they predict his movements, then? I figured they’d just follow the bomber which looked broken and shoot at it.

George called me into his office.
“What’s all this elevator shift bullshit,” he said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied. I had stopped wearing my crucifix, so these days I had nothing to clutch at when I was getting reprimanded.
He threw his pencil at me and it collided with the space above my head.
“Cut it out, OK,” he shouted. “The guys are starting to do it during patrols. If there’s an accident, I’ll blame you and Chuck.”
“Will there be a court martial?” I was hopeful.
“Negative. I might just shoot you in your sleep, however.”
He was tetchy. He said he was going to separate Chuck and me, he said we were a bad influence on each other. It hit me then. Previously I’d hated every bone in Chuck’s body. Now he was the only one who knew me, the man with whom I’d lost what I had.

We still had to go fly, though. Two months had passed since the first elevator shift. I hadn’t heard from Sue in weeks. Chuck was in a different plane, now, alongside us, and I was flying with Danny. We had to slide over Hanoi on a mission, but there was a big purpose this time. Chuck had started raving more and more recently and the other men were avoiding him. I wasn’t really sure whether I could picture any ghost in the machine, but by this point it made more sense to me than God. How could He stomach all this superstitious shit without taking His revenge? And how could He know that folks were dying, and about to die, and sit there, simply cool and just?
It all seemed rather trivial since I figured I’d forget all about these questions once I’d delivered a payload over one of the suburbs. This time I’d need to see people warmed up. I knew they’d get to smell the napalm on their houses. I wondered if that smelled the same as my God had smelled. The one whose breath was rich with the cut grasses of the South. He had evaporated too.
Danny never said anything. Chuck was murmuring about how this was wrong, how we needed to get out. I thought about Sue. I wondered how I could avoid going home.
I hung back. The sun was falling. Chuck, I saw, was up ahead and I focused on his tail. I saw that his elevator wasn’t working properly, stuttering and catching where it should instantly shift, and I wondered whether I should radio over to warn him. Warn Chuck. I tried to stifle a laugh. It didn’t matter to me: elevator or no elevator. Not really. But it mattered to him.
 “Your elevator’s not working,” I said, on the radio.
Next thing I know, Chuck’s pulled his ejector cord and shot up. I watched his canopy inflate and I fluttered up above him, up in the clouds above his plane, momentarily curving down as his pilot reeled from the shock. He barked over the radio back at us, poor son of a bitch. I could hear Danny, too, talking to Chuck’s pilot, but I was just thinking how I wished I was out there as well.
Danny and I whipped through the cloud and I panicked. What if Danny’s ice-packs had ruined the electrics? What if our elevator shift didn’t work either? So, well, I copied Chuck. I didn’t have much time to fathom it at all. I heard a raised voice as I did it – there was a protocol, we were trained in it – but in the end it came down to just me and Chuck. We were the only ones who knew what this was all about. I guess we had to believe in each other. So I took the time to compute, to watch, as I looked down at the fields which surrounded me and then I ejected into the sky.
The sun hung low, now, filling the parachute's under-side with orange, and my body was orange too, lit by a sinking sun. It struck me as beautiful, not just to consider, to worship, but for what it was. Unfathomable. As vivid as it was unexplained.
I saw Chuck to one side, his parachute descending in a long minute, and it felt strange there was no sound, like there should be, but he slid silently to earth and landed softly on its surface. I felt unceasing: like I could hang here, in the air, and never descend. But I sank anyway.
Hours later, I stood alongside Chuck again. I knew Danny would be OK. He could take the controls in an emergency, though I didn’t really know. You see Chuck and I both realised there was a lot we didn’t know. Not at all. Like why we were weeping, here, and why we were surrounded by local people, shouting and screaming into our eyes, pointing their fingers as if to attract the men with guns, the ones who wanted to kill us, and bring them close. It felt like I couldn’t remember the name of my own wife and son any more, though I guess, like everything, they weren’t just mine any more. They belonged to us.  
I fixed on a point on the horizon.
“You OK?” I asked.
“No,” said Chuck.
“Let’s get out of here anyway,” I replied.
He followed me into the wilderness. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


The bungalow was modern, sleek like a vehicle speeding over a small hill. Its wet doorstep was wrapped in apple blossom. 
Max Deblonsky shuffled into Lorna Bick's hall with his laces untied, a small plastic bag for his swimming trunks hooked under his arm. The leavers' party was around the pool, and it took Max five seconds, strolling to the back, to realise he hardly knew anybody. Part of him stung when he saw Lorna wasn’t there. He pulled a Marlboro from his pocket, hid behind a wall of guests and blushed. Then he grabbed a can of beer, threw it back, and felt it explode in his gut. Max was seventeen. He had never touched a girl. 
"If it isn’t my little man."
Moira Bick, divorced from Lorna's father, Steve, was already drunk. Red, round, and angry, she appeared out of nowhere and thrust Max into a group of her friends. She had platinum hair, wore a blue stole above baggy jeans, and was draining lager from a bottle. In doing so, she meted out punishment to everyone surrounding her. 
"Steve met Max, here, at primary school. Steve! Can you imagine? Always bad with people until he first produced David," she said, addressing three women, who mostly smiled.  
Moira and Steve met in the record business. Moira referred to the day’s celebrities — artists, musicians, the heads of major record labels — by their first names. She was remarkable because of her indiscretion and her opinions, but she was also openly anxious and jaded and bored, willing to expound upon her successes and criticise others to their faces. Those of use to her, she indulged. 
Max felt a tug at his sleeve. It was Lorna. 
"Hey Max."
They slipped away and kissed on both cheeks. He felt Lorna’s hair in his mouth and she doubled up, laughing, like she’d just got a shot in the arm. She was wearing an aquamarine one-piece, her hair pinned back by sunglasses, and she smiled warmly over his shoulder. Her lips were smudged purple. She rolled her eyes in the direction of Moira and pulled him down to a bench. While Max spoke Lorna focused on the clear, blue pool, studying whatever split, merged and multiplied upon it. 
“Moira seems good,” he said. 
“At least someone is.” He glanced sideways, then filled the silence before it came. 
“Not sure about the summer,” he continued, in a low voice. She seemed tired. He wanted to hug her, or at least tether her limbs to stop her floating away.   
“What Max? This music is too loud.” 
“I didn’t get in, you know,” he said. “I didn’t get my place. But it’ll be a great summer, it always is.”
He pulled the collar of his coat up; his face was chiselled, almost elfin. When he smiled his mouth made a ‘V’. 
Instead of replying, she watched Marvin Ackroyd. He had a football top on, and peeled off his clothes to reveal a pink set of abs. He slid into the pool with barely a sound. Those near him cheered. 
“I heard you got your place,” he said. 
“Yeah, that’ll be fun,” she replied in a sing-song voice. She stared blankly. Her eyes were dark and wet. 
“I’m lucky, I ‘spose. Don’t have to think about stuff for another year.”
He followed her gaze. 
“I guess I could maybe go swimming,” he said. 
Lorna stretched out both arms, ratcheting her wrists back. Marvin was throwing a football around the pool. He looked at Lorna and a scowl walked across his face. 
Lorna turned.
“Where did you say you were going again?” 
He sucked on his cigarette. A note of bitterness rose in his throat. She was barely registering interest; she frowned, then hugged her legs. 
“I was wondering what I should do,” he said.   
“Oh, Max, you’ll be OK.” 
She leaned in to hug him, affecting a bleary expression, her eyes closed halfway in fatigue. She nuzzled his shoulder. 
“You coming into the pool later?” she asked, wiggling her eyebrows. “I see you’ve brought your trunks.”
He reddened.
Marvin edged up, trailing Moira, who’d looped her arm through the younger man’s. She waved, twisting the ends of her spoon-like fingers. Max felt Lorna’s breath on his cheek.
“I thought I’d take this nice boy for a ride,” said Moira. “He wants to teach us all to drink.” 
“Sure,” said Lorna. She turned to Max. 
“Unless you’re too busy?”

In the darkness the doors of the drinks cabinet were spread wide, beckoning those hungry for a fresh piece of freedom. Lorna was blank and set apart from the maelstrom, poised with her arms crossed, pressing her chin to her breastbone in a reflex that Max had seen since primary school. He could hear songs piped through a stereo outside, and a girl’s elated screaming burst out for a short second before falling back into muffled discussion. He drank the beer and vodka put into his hand by Marvin, whose mouth was permanently agape, though he wasn’t really that stupid. He tried to enjoy himself. 
Moira quizzed Marvin on his football scholarship and linked it to Lorna’s love of golf and water sports. She tried to relate this to Max, but couldn’t quite remember what he enjoyed doing. The mood was calm, though Lorna finished the ends of Moira’s sentences and sniggered when she name-dropped. Marvin cracked the sides of a plastic cup on its way up to his mouth while backhanding bottles to his friends. Lorna tried please her guests — ignoring the excess, filling mugs up to the top — but felt guilty. Max noticed Lorna’s forehead had become blotted and leathery, oddly shiny under the kitchen spotlights. 
“We shouldn’t be drinking all Dad’s alcohol,” said Lorna. 
“Are you serious?” said Moira. 
“We bought plenty of our own.”
“Why not? It’s just sitting here.”
“But it’s Dad’s.”
Outside, people danced by the pool. Boys pushed girls, their wet hair slapping the ground, their limbs marched like wheelbarrows, spinning over the overflow vents around the water’s perimeter. A young couple had locked jaws, lying down where the shallow end throbbed into a foamy grid. 
Revellers downed drinks stolen from Steve’s cabinet, spilling fizz on to a counter. Lorna grabbed a dishcloth, pirouetting her hand across the work-surface. Marvin, his feet stamping wet prints into the lino, registered Lorna’s disapproval. Moira threaded her arm around Marvin’s waist, then tugged at Max’s belt. He was still wearing his coat. She sneered when she spoke. 
“OK, Max, when are we going to see you in the pool? Why haven’t you been in?”
Max looked at Lorna and drained his glass. 
“I don’t fancy it.”
“C’mon, get your feet wet,” Moira said. 
“Mum, leave it,” said Lorna. 
“I could. But I wouldn’t like it,” said Max. 
Lorna looked at Marvin who shrugged. Max’s eyes vibrated with the music. He buried himself in a cotton fug. Was this how people enjoyed themselves?
“So what are you up to these days, Mrs Bick?” asked Max. “Lot of time on your hands?”
Max noticed Lorna scowl and he assumed he’d piqued her interest. Moira also seemed pleased.  The older woman opened her arms — a bracelet with a silver dolphin hung low from her wrist — and she clapped her hands. 
“You still can’t swim Max?”, said Moira.
Everyone laughed. Max didn’t answer. His vision danced. All he could see were his black, unlaced shoes, strangled by their skinny laces. He stepped back, accidentally clattering a fork to the ground with an urgent rattle which brought red to his cheeks.
“I guess we’ll just move along,” said Moira. 
“I’ve got a question,” said Lorna. “For you, Moira.”
“Have a go honey!”
Lorna let her drink fall to the floor. 
“Is it true you screwed Josh?”
Her eyes were raw, her pain had pleasure. She didn’t wait for her mother to reply, and ran out of the room and down the hall. A door slammed. Marvin offered to pour some more drinks. Max thought the older boy must go to these parties pretty often. 

The sobbing escaped from under the toilet door. Above it, a light bulb, painted blue, smoked and smelled of sulphur. He pushed the glossed wood and it yielded easily. Lorna sat on the toilet seat with her legs clamped shut, her make-up aflame. She pretended not to cry. Max wondered whether to offer to catch her tears.
Her thighs were blotchy but bronzed. He wondered what would happen if he touched them. As Lorna watched him, her head tilted forward, her pupils thrown towards the top of her skull, he ventured slowly near, tossed a towel down and lowered himself on to his knees. He waited, pulled her legs apart. They offered little resistance. He pressed his palm into the surface of her skin. His hand felt electric as it trembled on a delicate layer of hair. He slid his hand slowly along the warmth. He felt triumphant. 
Their eyes met. It was the first time in many years he’d seen her up close. He didn’t feel worthy to look at her. She let out a loud sniff and looked into him. He knew she was calculating what she could find in there, deep inside, and after several moments Max knew she knew. She had discovered that all he contained was more of the same. He was more of what she found in this house. He was more of what she would leave behind in three months when she went to university. She pushed his hand away. 

He followed her back to the pool. The music was off and Marvin was dancing on his own. Moira was throwing glasses into a plastic bag. Max walked up to Lorna, who was rigid and staring at her mother. What could she say? He whispered in her ear. 
“I’m going now,” he said.
He pulled back, threw his bag with his trunks over his shoulder and sloped off towards the front of the house. He saw the long drive roll down the hill, the shy sun, and he span and looked at the pool for the last time. There were a thousand memories drowning in its ripples. He wondered what it would feel like to jump up above it, curl his legs into his torso, and hang there, above its surface, for a moment longer than seemed possible. He thought he could hear countless other bodies piercing its filmy top, like hailstones troubling the surface of a village pond.
As surely as he arrived he turned around and left. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Carver Beats the Devil

Reverend White blinked.
"What did you say?"
"I said the woman smiled widely then moved quickly--"
"What---excuse me---what in his name are we all doing here?
Am I wasting my time?"
He stood up. The class shuffled around to look at me.
"No, sir, no--"
I looked down at my page. I was scanning through it to see what I'd done wrong. Bill, the 42-year-old geography teacher from Maine, smirked. I glanced at Janey. She looked shocked.
My pulse was racing. I couldn't focus on the page. I used my finger like a ruler beneath the line.
"The woman smiled and moved down the hall. She was beautiful. She had auburn hair. She grabbed the handle of the car door. She felt tired. She---"
I heard a loud sigh. I heard Reverend White cough. He looked at me. Some members of the class started sniggering.
I couldn't hear what he'd said. I was in two minds about getting him to repeat himself. He shook his head. He seemed to be spitting his words.
I said I didn't know what that meant. Everyone was laughing. I tried to detach myself from it. Like I was in a different room. Janey was staring. She shook her head and then looked back down at her notepad. I kept reading.

I guess I was surprised when she didn't wait for me after class. I wondered what I'd done to upset her. As I moved through the campus I could see her talking to Bill near the parking lot. They were exchanging pleasantries. Bill looked over at me and smiled. I didn't know why they were talking. She'd told me she hated him. She said he looked like a basking lizard in a safari suit. I ran over just as she was about to get in her car.
"Hey, Janey---"
"I don't want to talk to you."
"What? What have I done?"
"You always do this. You insult his name and you pretend nothing's happened. Well I've had enough. You're acting like you've never even heard of 'Elements of Style'. Have you even read it?"
"I have..."
"Oh yeah?"
"What do they say about adverbs".
"They say you should use them sparingly---"
"You don't fucking learn, do you? You just don't fucking learn."
I didn't know what I'd done wrong. I tried to apologise but she slammed the car door shut. She reached over to the passenger seat, picked up a book and wound down her window to shove it into my chest.
"Read it and then maybe we can talk."

I don't know how long I was in the parking lot. I leafed through the book. I didn't know whether it would give me the answers. I watched the last of the students drive off. That's when I saw him. That's when I saw Reverend White.
To this day, I don't know why I acted like a man possessed. It was something about the way he moved. I waited for him to pass, then began walking behind him. Even then, I could have left it. But I held the book tightly and I pushed it out towards him. Like I said, I wasn't being myself. I could hear him mumbling to himself.
".....they listened....they ate what they could...."
For some reason these words pushed me over the edge. It was like they signified something I could never have. I pushed him in the back with the book. He stumbled foreward and tried to stand up but I kicked him down to the floor with my boot. He swiveled round on to his ass and sat there, stunned, his eyes almost popping out of his head like a cartoon character.
He went to get up.
"Don't fucking move!"
My neck muscles were taut, my mouth was dry. My hands were shaking.
"What's come over you?"
"Can't you remember? How you just humiliated me in class? My girlfriend doesn't
even want to talk to me any more."
"I don't know anything about that."
He moved to get up again.
"Don't fucking move!"
I was shouting. I kept shouting. I wanted him to know how angry I felt.
"What the jeepers is wrong with you?"
I pushed him back to the floor with my hand. He tried to struggle. I battered him around the head with the book. He squirmed slightly. He seemed to think about getting up again and then changed his mind.
"What's the issue here?"
"The problem is you fucking humiliated me in front of my girlfriend."
He sighed. He paused and slowly rubbed his head where I had hit him. He looked me over.
"I'm sorry. Some students take to it, some don't. I just find a lot of your words---"
He was unexpectedly silent. He was choosing his words carefully.
"I find a lot of your prose---"
"What are you going to say?"
"I can't say it. I can tell, with you in this kind of mood, that it's not a good idea for me to say it."
"Tell me."
"I find your use of"
A pause. I heard a church bell chime in the distance.
"I can't believe this. I can't believe you're telling me this."
I looked down at my feet. They seemed like they were a mile away. I peered out across the car park. No help anywhere. All these conflicting emotions swelled up inside of me. I ended up dropping to my knees. I'd lost all my strength and I leaned in towards him.
"I'm sorry."
I can't work out whether he'd really forgiven me. Truly. I started weeping. I sat there for half a minute and I was crying with my chin pressed against my chest. Suddenly I felt his arm around me. I was warm. I began weeping into his chest. I was a child. I could feel his breath like a lover's kiss. And he said the following words. I'll never forget them.
"Carver will show you the way."
Undoubtedly the best advice I've ever had.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Lost Cosmonaut

He stretches down the skin beneath his eye. He looks at the pink flesh. He enjoys staring at the arc, seeing the moistness of this secret space. He imagines shrinking and lying in there; drawing the eyelid back over himself like a shroud.

Volodya pulls himself away from the chrome's reflection and looks out of the window. He is travelling at 18,000 miles per hour, he estimates, the perfect speed to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Not too fast, not too slow.

As he leans back, he presses one hand into the metal and pushes himself further into the bucket seat. The super-cooled surface feels freezing on his palm. He snatches his hand quickly away and looks at the islands of condensation slowly disintegrate.

The Soyuz 1 rolls on its axis. It is over the Black Sea, and it turns its two solar panels perpendicular to the water, which is uninterrupted by cloud cover when seen from the night sky. The sea is expansive, unfeeling, immortal, and unkind, though Volodya cannot see it. Instead he feels his face, and glances up at the controls, wonders whether this will become a tomb, or an angel delivering him home.

A young boy sits on the pavement. It is St Petersburg. He plays with a toy aeroplane. He looks up at the aeroplanes flying above him, and he knows which is which from the sounds of their engines before they come. His mother thinks he is strange and the other boys tease him because of his obsession with flying. When he plays football he is flying. When he is walking to the shops he is flying. When he is sleeping, above all, he is flying.

He cannot see the other boys approach. He can feel the pit of his stomach fall away. He doesn´t want to show he is scared, but he is scared, and he focuses on swinging the plane around more clinically than before. But he can´t launch it into flight again. He grounds it, pretends it is taxiing across the runway, the paving slabs, the weeds, the dirt and the grit on his fingers transferred to his face but not to the clean aluminium of the plane's fuselage or wings.

They come over and the biggest boy stands above him. He doesn't say anything. Volodya is on his own, his mother is too far away to help so he takes what they give him. The punches rain down on his head, on his ribs, on his face and he takes it because he knows what they do not. He knows that one day he will fly among the stars and their blows will be as insignificant as the dying movements of a small insect, though probably not one that flies.

They leave him, prostrate and bleeding on the pavement. The blood mixes with stone, the grit is in between his teeth, his head feels boiling hot and it is not from the sun that beats down from a clear blue sky across which a Tupolev Tu-154 is slowly charting its course. He cries, but no water escapes. His body heaves. He runs inside and up the stairs, up another flight of stairs and into the attic. There is a wardrobe. There are a line of tin cans. He takes a knife and carves out a section from one of them, a rudimentary propeller, and he bends it into shape then leans out the window and releases it. He watches it spiral to the ground. As it lands a woman with another small child walking past stops in her tracks and they look up at the window.

Voldya tries to message mission control. One of the solar panels has not properly unfolded. He is without feeling, though, he is not fearful. He lets the training take over. Any anxiety he may be experiencing is perfectly normal for a cosmonaut in the final stages of landing a spacecraft and should be expected. The relaying procedure with the Soyuz-2 will take place another time, now. They were due to dock with him, were due to rescue him, in fact, but since that promise 10 hours previously the plan has been mysteriously scrapped. He will be sent back into space at a later date to complete the procedure.

He runs through a checklist of actions and fires the retro-rockets. A loud banging escapes from one side of the spacecraft and Volodya jolts forward in his seat. He keeps his hands firmly on the controls and focuses intensely upon them. It goes to plan. The spacecraft slows. As it does so its weight causes it to shift on its axis once again. The window turns towards the Earth. Volodya takes a moment to congratulate himself but does not see the Black Sea. Instead he sees a lightning storm above South America. For the first time he feels afraid, as gravity takes hold of his shoulders and drags him towards the Earth.

A boardroom, Moscow, Gagarin and the administrator are there. They are arguing. The administrator is saying that time is of the essence, that further testing is not necessary, that their track record so far is enough to build confidence that all will go well. Gagarin, chisel-jawed and as good looking as the photographs, disagrees, he bangs his fist down on the table but even he isn't strong enough to resist the administrator's will. The administrator reminds Gagarin that he would be nothing without him, that he should not fight battles that are not his, that his own life will be in the administrator's hands again and he would be wise not to interfere.

Gagarin asks Volodya whether he should lobby to take his place. That Gagarin is an asset that their fine country could not afford to lose. But Volodya tells him his training was not just the parabolic flights, the exercise regimes and diets, it was his entire life. Once in space is not enough. Once you have been up there you cannot come back. No one really ever comes back. Gagarin understands. He tells him he is a fine man but Volodya disagrees. He says he had no choice, that it was written from the beginning. That some men fly and some men walk, and the one man´s path will never be understood properly by the other. They go back and tell the administrator their decision. He seems happy.

The spacecraft shudders. The sound is deafening. The heat has hugely increased, it feels as though the seats may derail from the fuselage and food, sleeping bags and tools are falling from their positions, stowed away, and fly across the interior. Volodya closes his eyes. He is in God's hands now. There is nothing left for him to do. The Soyuz is designed to drop to Earth with no further intervention. There is nothing anyone can do any more.

He is over Russia. The spacecraft spins through the upper atmosphere. Gas rushes past its surface, whistling with confusion. How could anyone anticipate this heat, this harshness, the unfeeling, unfathomable nature of the universe? The sky plots its revenge.

He reaches for the radio. He has lost radio contact. He imagines that mission control must be happy with the way things have progressed. He does not feel afraid any more. He is one of the greatest Russians ever to have lived. There will be statues erected in his honour. His wife will proudly tell their children about how great their father was, and one day they will try to imagine what he sees now, what he feels now, what he hears now, though they will not probably be able to. He is lost. He wonders whether the president is aware of what is happening, how he will one day be reunited with him and there will be a ticker tape parade to rival anything the Americans ever managed.

He is in the middle of a lake. He is with her. She smiles at him, she is standing, they embrace, they are naked, they are in an island surrounded by mist, there are rings of smoke around them, blinking lights, but all they see is each other. They are perfectly in love. There is nothing above them and nothing beneath them. They are naked. Their bodies are intertwined. They kiss once more and he is a child, he is a cosmonaut, he is alive, more alive than anyone has been before or will be again. He has seen the world from above and he holds it in his palm.

The pair look up. The starry night is close, it is a blanket within which they swaddle themselves. A lone shooting star spins across the sky, leaving a trail of priceless dust in its wake. The man blows kisses, the lady laughs.

Volodya is thirty seconds from impact. He smiles to himself, happy at the thought of the future. The parachute is released. The Soyuz lurches to one side, and then pirouettes into a spin. Thrown across the cabin, he does not know why this has happened. The parachutes underwent many tests. Crying out at the pain now grabbing his side he feels metal in his mouth and his eyes are full of tears which stream down his face. The shuddering is too intense for him to cope with; he lets out one last, immortal gasp which echoes out of the spacecraft, into the night sky, drowns out the engines and wakes up his wife many hundreds of miles across Russia. She cries his name. The president pauses for a second then resumes signing documents. The administrator puts his head in his hands as the reserve chute entangles with the primary and the spacecraft's spin intensifies.

A snapshot. Two seconds until impact. An empty field soon to be ignited. A dead fly, its wings torn, shedding limbs as it falls. A man holding the sides of a bucket seat, his face distorted with pain, though deep inside an everlasting core shines brightly. The night sky. The ground. The clouds. The stars. An Antonov An-24 flying by, taking passengers back to Moscow. The moon laughs down, the memory of a distant heart-break pasted across its pock-marked face.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Bridge

"Hurry," shouted granddad. He turned halfway around, eyes facing the floor, using his peripheral vision to catch Billy and I punching each other in the ribs.
"And cut it out."
I smirked. We kept quiet. I threw a sideways look at Billy and pushed out my lower lip, staring ahead, like I was following the old man's orders. Billy laughed, wiped his nose, started kicking grit.
The sun was low. As we moved, barrels of light shot out from the houses' edges, then spread down their flanks. I let the lights blind me, then disappear. They left streaks across my eyes. I threw my face up into the cold. The wind buzzed into my forearms and made them burn.
We were headed to the salt-marsh. The old man often read about nature, though he'd not shown much interest in it until last Christmas. That was when I'd bought him the Usborne Encyclopaedia of Nature, as a joke. For lack of anything else, it had become one of his favourite books. That and some book about birds he had stolen from the local library. He mostly read those two, knocked back scotch with ice, and sat in his armchair, the one which molted fabric like flesh. I didn't want to be here, I didn't want to be walking with Billy, but at least I could avoid being there.
He toppled forward into steps. A hundred metres down the road he would buckle. He usually wore this forlorn expression. Every time he made a clean step you felt like cheering. I kept one eye on him, the other was on Billy, behind whose back I was doing the international sign of the wanker.
The path widened. Whitewashed cottages gave way to low stone walls hemming tiny yards, then rushes blanketing the hillside down to the marsh. The wind blew harder. We took a rest by a small, burned out car and granddad handed Billy and I carrier bags. We changed into our Wellies in silence. Granddad made a couple of grunting sounds.
"Where are we going?", I asked, trying to suppress the annoyance levels in my voice.
He looked back. He pressed his finger against his lips.
The hillside ended. Rushes covered our legs in a fine layer of dew. The soft earth crumpled underfoot. As we walked, Billy lit a cigarette from a pack he'd stolen out of his dad's pockets. He helpfully exhaled his first drag into the wind. The breeze scooped up the smoke and delivered it into my face. Codger turned around. He asked Billy to put it out.
Billy complained. He looked at me for support, but I just shrugged, so he took a final tug and pressed it into the sole of his shoe. He waited for granddad to move on before flicking the butt into the undergrowth. We ran to catch up.
"What's that pops?"
"I hope we're not too late." He took a swig from a hip flask and pulled his woolen scarf up around his mouth.
We approached a wide creek. There was a drop of around five metres from the marsh to a thick layer of mud which extended to a shallow shore. The creek water nervously lapped against it. The surface didn't look solid.
Granddad asked us to help. We stood either side of him and put out our arms. The old man grabbed my right and Billy's left and slowly lowered himself down. Immediately after placing one foot on the unstable surface beneath him, he swiveled round and toppled gracelessly into a sitting position. His cheeks blossomed with anger. Billy raised his eyebrows. Granddad took a moment to compose himself before wearily pulling himself to his feet, one soggy knee at a time. He walked over to the lip of water and peered down. I punched Billy on the arm and we both jumped down to join him. I went to stand by granddad. Billy stood staring at the sludge further back, before walking up the waterfront, biting his nails.
"It's too dark." granddad cursed. I squinted into the rapidly-approaching night. The creek was maybe 40 metres wide, a dark, deep, green scar that cut past our home town to the left, then out to sea. Granddad peered at the opposite side of the water, where grass scored with the faint chalk line of a road ran over a hill.
The old man fired up his torch. He looked down at the water. Billy had found a traffic cone some way off along the mud layer. He picked it up and muttered into its apex, converting his voice into a low boom. "This is reality calling," he mumbled. "Your old man has lost it." Making sure granddad couldn't see, I gave him the finger.
"Ah," granddad gasped. He pulled me in toward him and he gestured at the water. There was a strong smell of alcohol, and I recoiled slightly, but he put his arm around me and switched off his torch.
It took a moment. There was something happening in the water. Small patches of phosphorescent light were glowing blue. Granddad picked up a stick and passed it through the liquid. As he moved the branch, it left a bright, luminous trail in its wake, a wiggling tadpole's tail, flickering light blue patches giving way to darker blue giving way to black.
Billy walked over. "Wow," he said, sarcastically. He asked granddad whether he could have the stick. With some reluctance, the old man handed it to him and I dreaded what would follow. "Thanks," Billy said, before immediately throwing it aside, grabbing a rock the size of a tennis ball, and hurling into the air. I grimaced as it landed with a huge splosh. A purple flower briefly blossomed from the stone's entry point. Phosphorescent needles surfaced, then dived.
Billy crouched and grabbed another piece of wood, maniacally slapping the surface of the water, turning around to us with a crazed look of gritted teeth and wide eyes. Granddad turned towards me, exasperated, and turned his torch back on. He suddenly seemed to notice something over my shoulder. He took another swig from his hip flask. "There it is." Around five metres away were two metal trusses, reinforced with crumbling concrete at their base, emerging vertically from the mud layer. We hadn't noticed them when we'd descended. Reeds grew around them like unkempt whiskers, but the passing torchlight made them glisten.
"What do you know about bridges?" granddad asked. I looked at Billy. He let his mouth drop half-way open in mock-disinterest.
"They tried to span this river, 25 years ago," granddad said. "It took a huge team of engineers." He held his hands a metre apart to try to demonstrate, then pressed his lips together, straightened his back and dusted the right arm of his jacket. Billy lit another cigarette by cupping his lighter against the remaining wind. Granddad shook his head. Billy put out the palm of his hand in anticipation, twisting his head before expelling smoke, which fluttered in the torchlight.
Recognising our disinterest, the old man shook his head, looked down, placed his rucksack on the surface of the mud and removed his Thermos and two cups. He poured coffee for me then him, which he topped up with a tot of whiskey from his hip flask.
I looked at Billy and shook my head, almost imperceptibly. Billy ignored me. He put his cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and it hung there. He cocked up his chin, and ash fell from the end of the cigarette on to the front of his jumper. He rubbed it in with his forefinger. He hacked up some phlegm, moved to the edge of the water, and gobbed into the creek.
Granddad got up, downed his drink in one and moved back to the water's edge. He bent down and picked up a handful of small pebbles which he lobbed up into the air. He seemed fixated by making little purple ripples. He waited for the water's surface to settle before setting another rock into motion. From several feet away you could hear him wheezing, loudly. He swayed from side to side. I quickly finished my coffee, burning the end of my tongue. Granddad coughed occasionally, breaking the rhythm created by the sound of stone hitting water.
Billy looked at me. He smiled. I was bored, and the old man looked like he wanted to be left alone, so I cocked my head at Billy and scowled. We didn't say much and started to walk back towards town along the mud. After we'd travelled around fifty yards we started fooling around, breaking off reeds and whipping each other in the head. Suddenly remembering granddad I looked back and saw what appeared to be the rough outline of a figure lying in the reeds next to the marsh layer. I started to move back but Billy caught my arm. He handed me a cigarette and we shared it, sitting on the mud, watching the last remnants of day descend.
After half an hour Billy said he needed to get back. We got up and started back to see what had happened to granddad. My feet felt heavy along the way as they stuck and de-stuck from the mud and when we found granddad I swore under my breath. He was half asleep in the mud. He'd rolled over on to his back, covering his jacket in dirt, and I could see his shirt was drenched in booze. He mumbled, fitfully, like he was dreaming things. I don't know what. I leaned down and shook him roughly by the shoulder.
It wasn't getting any earlier so Billy and I pulled the old man to his feet. I cursed again under my breath, thankful that he couldn't hear me, but in all truth this had turned into a nightmare. Billy told me I had to carry him, that he was my responsibility.
"I can't get him back up there," I said, gesturing to the higher marsh layer, half my body sagging down with the old man, who was kneeling next to me. It was Billy's turn to swear.
The the end, getting granddad back up there required both our strength. Each time we thought we'd wrested him up - Billy pulling from above, me pushing from below - he stumbled back into my arms, laughing into his shirt. We eventually had to drag him up, Billy pulling him by his arms and sliding him on to his belly.
I managed to get pops to his feet and he vaguely managed to stumble alongside me. Each time he fell down I hoisted his arm back around my shoulder. A couple of times the pensioner dropped to his knees. Once he almost slipped into a salt pan, his leg falling into some random, dark hole beneath us, but I shouted to Billy and he helped me pull him out. "You'll be back in your chair soon, Pops," I told him.
We worked our way up the path towards town, where a street lamp illuminated our path every 100 yards. When we passed beneath a pool of light, granddad's head glistened with sweat. We passed a bench and set him down. He collapsed his head into his chest. His head lolled to one side. Billy shifted in his seat uneasily and we took in the view. Aylesfords' lights twinkled from the other side of the creek.
Billy told me his dad used to work at a construction company outside town. He was made redundant seven years ago. He said he knew a lot about it because he'd wanted a new bike and his family couldn't afford one. He'd thrown a tantrum and Billy's dad had come up to his room one evening to explain. He said his dad was glad he'd left the mill because the construction industry was dead around town. He needed to re-train.
"I told him your granddad used to work in building," explained Billy. "He said not many people talked about that any more, that there'd been an accident, and that he'd never been the same since. He was annoyed. He said the compensation claims had ruined it for everyone else." Granddad's snoring rasped. He dribbled on to his shirt.
I looked down at the floor. The tarmac was flaking away. Black pebbles of tar spilled across the pavement. They looked like tiny ants marching towards me.
I didn't look at Billy. We sat there for 10 more minutes, talking about school, about our families, but I found it hard. Every so often we would stop speaking when we heard the sound of a distant engine. There were broken conversations which drifted to us upon the wind.
Billy helped me carry granddad back up to the house. He said goodbye. He punched me playfully on the arm, said he'd see me at school. Then I was alone, an old man dancing at my side.
"Why's the bridge no longer there granddad," I asked.
I didn't think he could hear me. He seemed as though he was going to stumble to his knees, and I tightened my grasp around his waist. He stared at me, drew back, and stepped away, hesitantly pulling himself to his full height. He looked blank. He drew his eyes much wider, so that I could see clumps of blood vessels clustered into constellations around his irises. He swayed from side to side. He eked out a wonky smile, raising one index aloft. His hands were shaking. "God," he said.
"It was God."
I snorted through my tears.
"That's why the water shines."
The front door slammed. Dan, my brother, wrestled his mountain bike on to its back and began adjusting its gears with a spanner. He hadn't seemed to notice we'd returned. After tinkering for a bit he glanced over his shoulder at us before getting back to work.
"Nice one, granddad," he laughed. "You show him the bridge?"
Granddad ignored him, and silently moved towards our front door. I stood still, for a moment, looking back along the road. The light of the street lamps ended abruptly several metres away. From the height of our house you could see the lights on the other side of the creek winking in the black.
I turned towards the house. Illuminated through the lounge window was the hunched silhouette of an old man, silently shuffling into his armchair. He nodded forward, as if falling asleep, before removing a dirty handkerchief from his top pocket and wiping his nose. He picked up the Usborne Encyclopaedia of Nature and began to read.