Once upon a time, Dad would begin, I think, focusing on the road, there was a man called Watt. Watt was an alchemist. An alchemist is a? Dad wanted me to have the definition by heart. Someone who, through belief, hard work and persistence, turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I knew the rhythm of it. I don’t think I quite knew what belief, hard work or persistence were; extraordinary I probably had some sense of. Allegory was still a long way off.
Watt was a good man, there was no doubt about that. But he didn’t always seem it. Often he would be so absorbed in his work that he could go days, even weeks, without seeing his family. His mother was sick and bedridden. His wife was stooped and bent from scrubbing the floor, washing the clothes, milking the cows. And his son, his only son, clothed in rags, missed him terribly. But Watt knew, Dad would say, that when his son grew up, he would come to understand how important his work was, the true wealth it had brought them, and would forgive him.
It happened without warning. One night, after a long day’s work, when Watt was tidying up his laboratory, he went to pick up a certain block of lead which he’d been experimenting on, when a terrific pain shot up his arm. His body was thrown across the dark room in a spray of sparks, as though an anvil had been struck.
When he came to, he found himself lying flat on his back on the cold stone floor. The block of lead, which sat on the big oak table, glowed a strange orange colour and the air around it flowed like water. Watt, brave man, stood up and reached again for the lead and again the pain shot through his arm and again a splash and flurry of sparks and his body again shuddered with the force.
When he came to once again he once again stood up and one again touched the block of metal. Once again the same sharp pain, the same shaking, as if in fear, the same cascading particles of light.
And do you know what Watt did when he came to the third time? He did something you would never have expected, something quite mad. He threw his hands into the air and whooped and laughed and ran around the room, crying, ‘Something extraordinary has happened!’
Dad would leave a long pause here, as if it was the end of the story. We had a lot of time to fill on those long car journeys, when Mum was away and he had to drive me around the country with him, visiting schools and universities and demonstrations and occupations and so on, and he was a genius at narrative pacing. I would sit quietly and look out through the window, just happy to be spending time with him. But, no, more than that: enchanted, bursting with suspense, in awe. I don’t know how he did it; it seemed so effortless. I would close my eyes and imagine him weaving around me from nowhere a cocoon of coloured threads, patterned and glittering in the refracted sunlight and I would feel safe. He had the gift. A natural storyteller. One of the last.
He drove a white Rover, second hand, battered. I can smell the sweaty plastic of its faux-leather interior, I can see my distorted four-year-old face in the sheen on its faux-wood-panelling. Grainy synthesised heat blowing at my sinuses; a nausea not quite reaching the surface of consciousness. Wow. This is how I first knew the English countryside: encased in metal and hurtling along its motorways. And when I look through that car window – rain-marbled, now – at the stains of brown and green and grey that make up the fleeting roadside, a rush of concrete and wood and metal and verge and foliage, I see no nonplace, no drab dull borderland denying the continuity of the landscape, overwriting its ancient mystery with industrial surface; I see a boundless world, lit up by myth. The motorways, for me, were, are, as natural as the hills; paths stretching from pre-history into my narrative present and off into some unknown future. The motorways, for me, were, are, magical places, deep rooted and alive with energy and possibility.
But the same image recurs. The car slows, haltingly, as we join the end of a traffic jam and Dad swears and the blurred outside shudders into focus. The seat belt catches tight across my neck as I twist to see the vista that emerges through the quicksilver rain on the car window and settles into solidity. Details may change but it’s the same view every time, over and over, reflected and multiplied in each bead of water. I can’t speak; I don’t know why it scares me so much. What I see through the window is unremarkable, ordinary. But it strikes a metallic coldness into my heart. What I see when I look out of that car window, then, now, is a line of electricity pylons: dull angular formations like dark crystals clagging the brown hills and receding – fractal-like, infinite – into their own diminishing.
Watt knew what he had to do. He put on his thickest leather gloves, his travelling cloak and cap, he loaded the block of lead into the back of his car – a beat-up white Rover just like ours – and thundered down the motorway.
When he arrived at the palace, the queen – red-faced, bursting out of tight robes – greeted Watt warmly at the door. ‘Watt, is it?’ she grinned. ‘Come, come.’ And she ushered Watt, who followed gingerly with his block of lead, into the dank throne room. She sat in her throne and when Watt began to speak she cupped her hand to her ear and said, ‘What Watt?’ and she chuckled and her guards smirked and I roared with laughter. Watt tried again and the queen raised her eyebrows and said, louder, ‘What Watt?’ and even Dad laughed this time.
But Watt had something extraordinary to show her. Silently, he took a huge glass bowl from the queen’s collection of huge glass bowls and placed it on the ground. ‘What’s this, Watt? Watt, what?’ the baffled queen asked through her laughter.
‘Watch,’ Watt said quietly.
Watt placed the block of lead inside the glass bowl and immediately the once gloomy room was filled with bright fire and the laughter stopped. The queen cried, ‘Seize the devil!’ but the light was so dazzling that when the guards leapt to their feet they bumped into one another and tumbled over and Watt stood still and calm in his cloak and cap and gloves at the centre of the light like the sun itself. He lifted the lead from the bowl and it sucked the room back in and all was darkness, though the fire still danced in their eyes. Once again he put the lead into the bowl and once again the room poured out, ablaze. Then he took off his cloak and placed it over the bowl and the fire dimmed and the room glistened.
‘See?’ Watt asked.
And it was as if the queen saw the palace for the first time: the intricacy of the mosaics on which she tapped her careless feet day after day; the exquisite shimmer of the glass bowls; the detail and workmanship of the vibrant, colourful tapestries, once thought so dull. Her heart began to race.
‘Watt.’ The queen swallowed hard. ‘I’m sorry I laughed at you. I don’t know how you’ve done what you’ve done but you’ve given me the gift of vision and you’ve made this ordinary room… extraordinary. For that, you and your family will be rewarded.’ Then, impulsively, with both of her hands she took both of Watt’s and said, ‘We will mend everything.’
When Watt went home that night and told his wife, she wept.
Dad would leave such a long pause here that I’d think the story was over. He’d start talking about his garden, excited and animated and drumming out his incomprehensible enthusiasm on the steering wheel. I’d be too awkward to say anything. We’d recently moved from a cramped council flat in Elephant and Castle to an only slightly bigger house in a village in Kent – a move that was presented to me as an unequivocal upgrade because the new house had a garden that dissolved into the surrounding countryside but which felt, even then, like a move towards isolation, solitude. Dad would drone on about his plans for this garden – what bulbs he wanted to plant, which seeds, where, when, how they would blossom. It would mean nothing: I could never translate the empty patch of earth we’d just obtained into the vibrant blaze of colour and life he described. But it never occurred to me that this dull, this excruciatingly dull turn in the conversation might have been just as stage-managed, just as part of the story, as anything that came before or after. I never joined the dots.
Later, Mum would talk to me about what she called Dad’s naïve ideas about gardens. She’d sigh, looking out of the window at the wilderness it had become, the opulent tangle of weeds and brambles and branches, as if she were invoking his willful horticultural ethics as an excuse for both the garden’s unkempt appearance and her lack of interest in its upkeep – and therefore, I suppose, by implication, in mine. His whole thing, she would say, his eco politics, was about engineering autonomy: scatter your seeds, bury your bulbs, and let the garden grow how it will. Immoral to interfere. We grow out of each other. And maybe that’s what he wanted me to feel, droning on in the car: that the garden grew out of him, was his offspring. My sibling. Because he knew he wouldn’t see it bloom.
But what I think about most, when I think of that garden now, are the happy afternoons I spent in it, three or four years later, with a boy called, believe it or not, Jonathan Orchard. Jonathan, as a refutation of nominative determinism, lived in a house with no garden. My seven, eight-year-old brain couldn’t compute that. It was like saying you lived in a house with no walls, or like one of those drawings where the stairs rise indefinitely. It just wasn’t possible. But it was and he did. And so he came round every weekend.
God I loved that boy. I wanted to spend all my time with him; I wanted to spend time with no-one else. He was my first crush. I don’t imagine either of us knew that such things as impulses and desires existed but when I remember, now, what it felt like to be with Jonathan – the uninhibitedness, the heightened sensibility, the bodiness of those afternoons – desire is what I unambiguously recognise in the light that glints from the warps and blemishes on the surface of my child’s consciousness.
I’d walk into town before he arrived and stock up on waterbombs from Mrs Lee’s toyshop. You remember waterbombs: little coloured balloons that you’d fill at the tap and throw at each other; on impact their tight, thin skins would tear and retract and send forth a gush of cold water. The thrill of humiliation when you got hit and stung and soaked by a waterbomb was like nothing else. We’d fill a bucketful each and run out into the garden – if it was hot, in just our underwear.
The garden was the perfect place to get lost in. Incoherent to me, everything issuing from the same unseparate throng. Dad would have known precisely which leaf or flower or fruit belonged to which crown, which trunk, which root. But for me it was like the back of a tapestry: an illegible jumble of threads. I couldn’t even tell you the names of the trees, the flowers, the weeds. You unravelled. It spilled and it pulsed and it surged in waves: sprays of grass; phosphorescence of wildflower; oily slicks of bald earth. Exhilarating for a six, seven-year-old. Now? In its drone of prelinguistic indistinctness I hear a sea receding from a blank beach. Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.
In any case, there were plenty of hiding-places for two excited children. Ditches, sheds, bushes, thickets, unruly flowerbeds; thick trunks, hollow trunks, fallen trunks. Always another opening to crawl through, another tree to climb; once I hid under an upturned wheelbarrow for a whole afternoon. It remains endless in my memory, ungraspable in its totality. If I’d ever had the chance to go back, I’m sure it would have seemed pitifully small.
We’d run off with our buckets, careful not to lose our footing, stumble over a root, else our waterbombs might burst in transit, and we’d count to a hundred. You’d hide. Then, on a hundred, you’d try to find each other. But without being found. You had to see without being seen: that was the challenge. You had to join the throng, you had to become part of the garden’s white noise. Your heart would be hammering and you’d have to wipe sweat from your eyes to see, it was that hot. Woodlice twisting in rotten stumps; seeping must of fox shit; sunbleached. It could have been any time. Sometimes you’d scurry through a hole in a wire fence that Mum didn’t know about and the game would extend into the labyrinth of maize fields, shallow hills, towpath, churchyard, copse, that surrounded you; you’d be able to find your way back only by following the towering metal frames of the electricity pylons that led like pins on a map across the flatness back to the bottom of the garden.
When you had a clear view of your opponent you’d lob a waterbomb at him and its bursting would send off sparks in the sunlight and he’d squeal and spin round to see you but you’d already be gone, heading for your next hiding place, somewhere the light couldn’t reach, because if you were seen throwing your waterbombs then you automatically lost. And there you’d wait in seclusion for your next opportunity to strike, always with the voluptuous fear of that sudden sharp snap on your bare skin, that electric shock sprung from the invisible.
The game was over when you’d both used up all of your balloons; the winner was the player who’d scored the most body hits. In terms of keeping count, you’d have to trust each other unreservedly. It could go on for hours. I can’t remember being happier.
Well, of course, Dad’s eyes glinting with mischief in the windscreen mirror, you realise don’t you that the queen had no option but to make Watt a Knight of the Realm. What’s a night of the realm? Yes, exactly, Dad would say. No, I would laugh: what is a night of the realm? Yes, Watt is. Dad! Yes? Dad! Oh OK, a Knight of the Realm is – is someone who shines like the sun and lights up the world. And as a reward is given all kinds of cool stuff by the queen. Like what? Like Watt – exactly. Dad! Well. For Watt, for instance, she threw a huge party. There were dancers, fireworks, magicians, acrobats, jesters, fire-breathers, contortionists. Guests arrived on the backs of elephants, they came in hot air balloons, in Cadillacs, on magic carpets. They stayed up all night. Bananarama played. Wow. Even Watt’s mother came to the banquet in a mobility scooter, though she went home before the end of the first course of melon and parma ham.
‘Are you a night of the realm?’ I’d ask. ‘Maybe one day,’ he’d answer. ‘Is Mummy a night of the realm,’ I’d ask. ‘No,’ he’d answer, ‘Mummy can’t be a Knight of the Realm.’ ‘Why not,’ I’d ask. ‘Well,’ he’d say, differently, ‘maybe one day.’ ‘Mummy shines like the sun,’ I’d say.
The days that followed were full of busy excitement. Watt and the queen put their heads together and they came up with a plan: every house in the kingdom, they decreed, would be given its own metal block of lead. Each household would be lit up by bright fire. Well, you can imagine. The people rejoiced. They crawled out of the earth, out of mines and factories and kitchens and warehouses, wiping soot and grime and grease from their faces. They did their hair, put on their best shoes; there was dancing in the streets, there were parades and parties. A sailor kissed a nurse. Sales of the morning after pill went through the roof, what’s the morning after pill, the morning after pill is a very delicious breakfast. The filth, the fog, the poverty, the hunger: all now things of the past. It was a new dawn.
Only Watt’s wife was sad about the amount of time Watt was spending with the queen. Only his son still missed him.
I’d first spoken to Jonathan on a school trip to a local farm organized by a charity called Encounter whose stated intention was to introduce kids to a dying, rural way of life. Dad’s kind of thing: they wanted to ‘stage an encounter with nature’, to prompt in us a direct and unmediated response to our environment. An education officer would show you around in the morning and, droning on about pigs and crops and soil density and subsidies, would do her best to introduce you to a realm of rootedness and immediacy, of simplicity and continuity, and you’d have fuck all interest in it. But the main event – the encounter – would come later.
‘After lunch,’ the education officer said as we sat down to eat ham sandwiches in a cold bare room that smelt of hay, ‘we’re going for a walk in the woods.’ We groaned. ‘Guys, come on – it’s good for you; it’s good for your digestion!’ Everything was always about our digestion. We were so bored of our digestion. And in any case, we had a better idea.
There was a girl in our group whose older brother worked on the farm. He’d terrorised her with tales of an on-site abattoir. It was all she could talk about, ponytails bouncing, buoyed by the voluble excitement that comes from knowing about something no-one else does. And it was all we wanted to hear about.
Abattoir. The concept was incomprehensible to us, the word magically new – a talisman of all we didn’t know about the world, as powerful and mysterious as any curse. Abattoir. Had the morning been less dull then perhaps our thirst for the unknown, the arresting, the dreadful, would have been less perceptibly unquenched but talk of this abattoir – and God knows how we would have conceived of it, what we would have imagined went on in there, this opening onto the obscene, this obscure aperture onto some secret vitality – talk of this abattoir overtook us and that, inevitably, was where we wanted to go after lunch.
Jonathan was the abattoir’s most vocal and stubborn advocate and I was thrilled by the uninhibitedness of his performance. Some strange pulsing of his blood that set mine pulsing strangely too. I’d never noticed him at school before; I kept myself to myself. But he had such an energetic commitment to transgression, unstoppably marching and whispering and smirking at the anticipated disruption, that when he finally led the group in a chant of ‘ab-a-ttoir! ab-a-ttoir! ab-a-ttoir!’ – a chant that visibly shook the education officer and our teachers, one of whom, skin pale and shaving-rash inflamed and Adam’s apple protruding and eyes bulging, pulled him aside, shook him with more violence than could ever have been appropriate, and, having to stoop down low, clumsily, shouted with primal force right into his face, silencing all of us – I just couldn’t take my eyes off him.
And, who knows, perhaps Jonathan was right: perhaps we should have visited that abattoir. Perhaps his understanding went deeper than that of our protectors; perhaps that was exactly the encounter with nature we needed to shock us into unmediated engagement, the vision to tear open our closed hearts: not the contrived apparition in the woods planned for later but a squealing pig slipping comically on the blood that gushes from its slit throat, its trotters clacking and squeaking on the linoleum. Perhaps, then, at least, we’d have known who we were. Who knows.
Just as we were throwing away our crumbs and foil and drinks cartons the farmer, who had been portrayed as something of a celebrity, endowed with the aura of an archetype – aloof, earthy, larger than life, full of folk wisdom – burst unapologetically into the kids’ dining room with big fat arms and asked graciously to borrow the education officer for a minute. They stood outside the open door, gesticulating and pulling faces of staged surprise. Then he went.
‘Well,’ the education officer said when she came back in. ‘This is all rather unusual.’ But there was no energy in her performance; her voice was toneless, the lines unconvincing. ‘When we go into the woods I want you all to keep your eyes peeled. Because there’s a rumour on the farm that we had a visit from some fairies this morning and, as you know, fairies never like to leave places as they find them. So if you see anything unusual, anything extraordinary or magical in these woods, anything at all, then the farmers need to know about it. OK? And, you never know, there might even be a prize for the first person to spot it. Now line up in pairs.’ She wanted to go home.
Without thinking about what I was doing I went to stand next to Jonathan and before I’d introduced myself, before he’d had (or I’d had) a chance to address the situation, we’d been counted off and had become an official pair. I remember his resistance when we had to hold hands, but I remember, too, his strange softening as we crossed the threshold into the woods and he stopped trying to pull his hand from mine and his grip tightened. I remember the thick clamminess of that little hand, the dry waxy sweat on mine. I also remember a carpet of dead leaves, the thick wetness touching my feet through my white trainers as I slid them through piles of mulch. I also remember trees with bursting red and orange leaves, twisting to the sky like fire-framed pylons. I also remember turning over every dripping wet stone and log with Jonathan, picking up every piece of twisted litter. I also remember darting in and out of ropes of light that slid through the trees’ thick green canopies, the strange soft touch of drifting blossom. I also remember a rotting fox carcass softening and steaming in the heat, poking it with a dry stick, wondering if the fairies had played havoc with its clammy entrails. I also remember how our breath condensed and drifted and we shivered and twisted in our coats and cupped our hands and breathed into them and stamped our little feet. I also remember the rainwater dripping from the hood of my waxy yellow coat and stinging my eyes. And I also remember, at the wood’s border, the yellow sun bursting forth from behind the towering, guardian form of an electricity pylon.
And then Jonathan tugging on my arm and shouting with a bell-like voice: ‘I’ve found it!’ And I remember the envy and the relief and the joy blooming as I turned around and saw what ‘it’ was, as if some curtain had been pulled back, some breach prized open to reveal – clear, definite, single – a small sapling tree with no leaves standing, alone, in a clearing. But transformed. I’d never seen anything like it. Every inch of it was covered in multi-coloured threads, short ribbons of dyed wool weighing down each branch – red and purple and yellow and green and orange and blue and brown and black and white and gold and silver shifting and slipping into one another and sliding around inside themselves – a burst and blaze and anarchy of colour and energy.
And then such disappointment, such sinking, when the education officer said, ‘Well, look what the fairies have done! They’ve gone and mixed up all the colours! I think we better all get to work separating the threads and sorting them into their colour groups for the farmer!’ But – why? Why would you sort them out? This was not what I wanted. I wanted simultaneity; I didn’t want separation. I wanted nothing to do with it. I crossed my arms and the tears stung the corners of my eyes as Jonathan got to work proudly and diligently, his eyes on the prize. He won a Mars bar.
But that summer, on the brightest, hottest day of the year, the queen’s twin sister paid her a visit. ‘I wanted to congratulate you,’ she said with warmth and grace, ‘on your most wonderful discovery. Truly, the world will be a brighter place thanks to you.’ ‘Don’t thank me,’ the queen said, ‘thank Watt.’ ‘Thank what?’ asked her sister. ‘Exactly,’ said the queen. ‘What?’ said her sister. ‘Yes, we have Watt to thank,’ the queen said. ‘We have you to thank,’ her sister said. ‘No,’ said the queen, ‘thank Watt.’ ‘What do you mean, thank what? Thank you.’ ‘No, don’t thank me, thank Watt.’ ‘What?’ ‘Yes, thank Watt.’
And so they went on until the queen’s sister, baffled and defeated, spread her arms to embrace the queen and the queen, with tears of happiness in her eyes, embraced her sister.
But if you’d been standing in front of the queen you’d have seen a strange expression creep over her face. And if you’d been standing behind her, you’d have seen why. For the queen’s twin sister had slipped a knife out of her long, baggy sleeve and had planted it into the back of the queen’s neck.
‘You didn’t think, did you,’ said the queen’s sister, ‘that we could let the people see things as they are?’ The ease with which Dad would perform the hatred would stagger me; his eyes flashing revulsion in the rearview mirror and spit flung from his mouth. ‘How pathetic,’ Dad would say. ‘How naïve you are.’ What’s naïve? Naïve means that you don’t know anything. ‘How pathetic you are,’ Dad’s green eyes, ‘and now look at you.’ The car would swerve across the lanes. ‘What do you have to say for yourself now?’ Dad would hit the wheel for emphasis and the car would jerk forward and people would hoot and shake wanker signs at him.
The queen tried to speak but all that came out was a soft gurgle like a mountain stream and hot pink bubbles of blood broke around the tip of the knife that poked through the front of her neck. As her eyes rolled back into her head her sister lifted the crown from it, surprisingly light, and placed it onto her own. She tore off the queen’s robes, hung them around her shoulders, and she sat in the queen’s throne, grinning. She took Watt’s cloak from around the glass bowl and the room blazed forth with blinding light as if the queen’s sister was the cold sun itself.
I am eight. I am nine. I’m sitting at the kitchen table. In front of me there’s a school exercise book open on a cork placemat. I can’t see the cover but I know it’s the salmony colour of flesh. My stepdad, Stephen, sitting next to me, helping me with my maths homework, attentive and patient. There’s a glass of clear apple juice, undrunk; Stephen’s breath smells of sour toast and I just this week at school learnt the word nauseating and somehow the two phenomena are connected. I’m concentrating. He thinks I’m concentrating but I’m not. I’m too sad to work. Why am I sad? I’m sad because I haven’t seen Jonathan for several months, though I can’t remember why, and I don’t know why I’m so sad about it. Why am I focusing on this moment?
The phone rings. Mum picks it up in her study upstairs. I can’t hear much of what she’s saying but I can hear the familiar sound of my name being repeated so I strain to listen. Mostly it’s panic I feel: who is it? what’s it got to do with me? what’s happening? what have I done wrong?
The shards of the shattered eggshell smeared with dry yolk are sticking to the pink plate. Stephen’s hair is crisp. I hear bacon sizzling in hot fat and it smells like Dad licking his finger to turn a page but there’s no bacon and there’s no fat and there’s no Dad and there’s no finger. I think: n-a-u-s-e-a-t-i-n-g.
Then Mum is in the room, smiling.
‘Well!’ she says with love or frustration or guilt or disappointment or fear or hope or indifference or somethings. ‘That was Susan Orchard on the phone. Did you know they’d moved house, sweet?’
I shake my head. ‘Uh-uh.’
‘Not far from their old house but much bigger. It sounds terrific. She says she knows it’s short notice,’ Mum says, ‘but would you like to go and see it? She just thought it was such a beautiful day and it would be a shame for you and Jonathan to miss the opportunity to play out in their big new garden.’
Garden! My heart stops. I look to my stepdad, Stephen, for guidance.
‘Well,’ he says, standing up and looking sadly at my mum, ‘I think that sounds pretty unmissable, don’t you?’
Dad’s voice, when he spoke again, finally, would be quiet, indistinct, as if he was talking only to himself. The queen’s sister, he would whisper, was a tyrant. She made the people work day and night. They starved; they got sick; they were sad, lonely, stopped caring for one another. Roofs caved in, windows shattered in the stormy weather, houses fell into the sea: families huddled together to ward off the cold winds and hide from the hot sun. When the floods came the queen’s sister looked the other way. Fights broke out in the streets: amongst neighbours, amongst brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. And because the queen’s twin sister looked exactly like the queen, nobody knew that anything had changed. They all endured in the belief that they would one day get their own magic fire.
The queen’s sister had a different plan. Rather than give each household its own block of magic fire, she would store them all in central banks and give people only just enough magic to make them believe they had their own fire, while making them even more helpless, even more dependent.
But there was a problem: how would she transport the magic to each individual household?
One day the queen’s sister ordered all the people in the land to stop doing whatever they were doing and join forces to weave the thickest and longest ropes you could imagine. They weaved and weaved for months and months, persevering through sickness, hunger, poverty. The land groaned under the weight of these huge, fat threads. When they were complete, they were to be spread across the country. Just enough magic would flow through them to power ovens, hoovers, wirelesses, games consoles, beard trimmers and no more.
But when these colossal ropes were finally finished – years, decades later – they were too heavy for anyone to lift. So what did the queen’s sister do? You wouldn’t believe what she did. She did the one thing she was supposed never to do. She woke the Giants.
Susan Orchard always used to ask Mum to stay for tea and Mum always said she had to get on but maybe another time and I knew that Susan Orchard always bought things in especially for Mum because there would be a Safeways bag in the kitchen with iced buns and pink wafers which we’d never get to eat but this time I knew Mum was in a good mood because when we walked up the driveway she looked at the house and laughed and said how on earth can they afford this place so I wasn’t surprised that when Susan Orchard asked her if she wanted a cup of tea she said this time oh why not and put her car keys in her handbag and zipped it up and clutched it under her arm until Susan Orchard said just plonk your things down wherever there’s room sorry about the chaos and why don’t you two go and explore the garden and I’ll call you when tea’s ready and Jonathan took me by the hand and led me through a landscape of unopened boxes and piles of clothes and home-recorded VCRs and old issues of Radio Times and bare electrics and no furniture and into an empty kitchen with linoleum flooring and white wall tiles stained with splashes of fat and grimy windows which made the outside look darker than it was but also the inside and he pulled me through the back door and out into his garden and I have to take a step back.
I’m scared. I’m scared because at some point I’m going to have to stop. And once I’ve stopped, I will have spoken. I’m scared of having spoken. I don’t know where it’ll take me and I don’t know how I’ll get back. Back to where? Back to the moment before speech. To the mute, open-mouthed, pregnant moment before speech. You think it’s silence but it isn’t silence. It’s the breath before song, it’s the blank space around the text. Your world unmediated, immediate. You’re scared that your world will have spoken. You don’t want your world to have spoken. You don’t want a still birth.
But I’ll go on. We’re in Jonathan’s garden. It’s pretty big but we can see easily down to the end. There’s a patio right in front of us, cracked and weed-strewn and mossy, grey and green, perhaps a metre and a half deep. On it are two garden chairs, their white plastic roughened and their legs speckled grey. Their seats are stained with a green, viscous liquid that acts as an adhesive for twigs, leaves, dead insects. There’s a table between the chairs and an ashtray on the table, full of black water; three or four cigarette butts float at its surface. Something smells of salt. There’s a long stretch of what was presumably once green grass but is, in memory, earth so grey it looks more like overcooked mincemeat. In the middle of the churned, grassless earth, isolated, is what must be the ripped side of a cardboard box. Ripped the wrong way, so it lies in shards, the inner tubing laid bare, though the rain has drenched it and it’s softening into mulch. It looks like there might once have been a design on the side but the ink has run. Smeared is the word that comes to mind; you could say that the cardboard is smeared on the earth.
The mountains trembled and slowly unfurled. It’s said, Dad would say, you could hear the Giants waking up as far away as the North Pole.
As soon as they rose, blinking in confusion, before they’d even had a chance to think, the queen’s sister shackled the Giants’ feet; they tore the sky with their cries. Do this one thing for us, she called to them, and we will not disturb you again. What choice did they have?
For months the Giants marched up and down the land in long shuffling chain gangs, bearing these ginormous ropes on their shoulders. But the ropes were heavy even for giants and, to make matters worse, it was the coldest, wettest, windiest winter anyone remembered. Gradually their pace slowed and, finally, unable to move any further, they stood rooted to the spot.
People were kind: they brought wagonloads of food – goats; hay bales; apple trees – and huge troughs of riverwater to drink from. But their kindness angered the queen’s sister and soon she began to arrest anyone found helping a Giant and threw them into gaol without trial. When the kindness continued she began to execute the prisoners. The kindness stopped.
The Giants, Dad would be rushing now, his voice monotonous as he concentrated on parking, still shackled together and unable to move, began, one by one, to drop dead. But because they were shackled and bound together by those ropes their bodies remained upright and nobody noticed. So one day, he would open the door, one day someone, I would get out of the car and hurry round to his side, one day Watt saw, he would lock the car, one day someone, he would grab my hand and pull me along, one day Watt, he would start looking for someone to introduce himself to, one day someone noticed, one day Watt
He wouldn’t finish.
‘I’ve got a game,’ Jonathan says. He’s still holding my hand. ‘Do you want to play my new game?’ He’s smiling.
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. What is it?’
I try to remove my hand from his but he tightens his grip. He giggles and punches my arm with his other hand. ‘It’s fun. You’ll love it.’
‘What’s it called?’ Still he won’t let me take my hand away.
‘It’s called… ummmmm… it’s called…’ He can’t think of anything.
‘Um, what are the rules…?’
‘The rules are,’ and he thinks for a while, ‘the rules are,’ and he gives up trying to think because an idea seems to have struck him. ‘These are the rules!’
He shoves my hand into his grey tracksuit trousers and cups it around his stringy little prick and I can’t believe how insignificant it feels. A wet warmth pools in my palm and runs through my closed fingers; the prick coarsens, hardens, grows as it pisses. I forgot to drink that apple juice before leaving the house.
And look beyond Jonathan, to the far end of the garden where the ground drops away. Can you see it too? Or is this simply an invention of narrative memory, a late addition? Can you see it? You can see it, can’t you? Or is it a structure I erect in the moment, one of many that I pattern in a protective, enchanted circle around my self? Or a trace, a footprint in the sand, to prove that I’m here? Or is there something else going on entirely, something beyond me? Is there any way of, ever, knowing? Can you see it? Look beyond Jonathan, to the far end of the garden, where the ground drops away, at the bottom of the garden, in the garden, between earth and sky. Can you see the pylon? Bigger, somehow, than usual, right? You can see it, can’t you? Three hundred metres, head in the clouds, looming? Several strips of skin still hanging off it; the odd hair, chunks of tissue; muscle clinging to bone; unidentifiable matter? Tell me you can see it.
I snatch my hand away and run into the house and tell Mum I feel bad and we have to go home. She isn’t interested but I scream and scream and eventually she yields out of surprise more than anything and when she goes to hold my hand as we walk to the car I let her and when she asks me why it’s wet I tell her and she doesn’t flinch but she wraps her arms around me and I’ve never felt more grateful.
I don’t know if it’s a dream.
There’s the flat, smooth imprint of a curved body beside me on the bedsheet, wrinkled around the edge like skin around an old woman’s mouth. I feel as if I can read the future in the creases. A film of sweat is setting over my body: my sweat, his sweat. It smells of meat.
The day is turning. It’s darker outside than it is in, just. Translucently he stands naked and held in the window’s glass and, through him, a blackthorn.
‘Oh, look!’ he says. ‘Come here.’
I walk to him and stand behind him and with my arms around his thin waist I say to his reflection, ‘What am I looking at?’
‘Just look,’ his reflection says to me.
He reaches blindly for the light switch, hand scrabbling across the wall. He finds it and flicks it so that now it’s darker inside than out and his image, our image, in the glass disappears.
‘What am I looking at?’
I look at the tree and see, now that I’m closer, now that our reflection has gone, that it’s given flux and instability by the wind. Behind it, grass moves like water and sounds like water too. The clouds are parting in time for the day’s last light. He heaves up the window’s lower panel, sticky and expanded into its frame; it hasn’t been opened for a long time. Cool air roars in, bringing with it the faint scent of sloe, and I realise how hot it’s been inside. Blue-black bulbs bunched and hanging from the branches; thin leaves curled and cupping water. Here and there raindrops are dislodged by the tree’s movement, throwing off sparks in the sun-dazzle. Mainly they stick like burs to the charcoal-black wood. Each thorn piercing its own silver bead, each bead containing its own reflection of the moment’s motion, its own remaking.