It’s Sunday, after lunch. The sun hovers, full up. The houses – the tarmac, the lampposts, the cars in the driveways – glitter in the heat. Everyone is inside, or at the back, in pools of velveteen shade. The sun pervades, making everyone sleepy. Cold, numbing drinks. A little snooze later. Prepare for Monday. Recharge. The wood cladding on these houses absorbs the heat, keeps the houses cool. It’s Nordic, the developers had said, cool in summer warm in winter. It was ingenious to build on this land, which had been previously impossible to develop. Low ground, near to the ancient waterways, prone to flooding. Amazing technology. The houses sit like rows of teeth in the landscape, a yawning, half-smile that trails off, giving way to pasture and, beyond that, the marshes. The fields roll out for miles, sinking lower towards the horizon. Beyond, barely visible through the haze that rises from the marshland, the shape of an island.
A woman stands at the sink, rinsing plates, putting them into the dishwasher. Crumbs on the table, half-empty glasses with fingerprints, smears of gravy. The woman’s eyes itch with tears. The family have gone to their rooms. When the dishes are all rinsed and stacked and the table wiped, the woman goes out to the garage. There’s a naked man in there, wrapped in plastic. He’s not dead. He’s not alive either.
I mean you no harm. I promise. You know that, don’t you? I wouldn’t hurt you. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I am here to help you. I am here to make your life easier. I want your life to be easier. I want you to be happy. I want you to relax and be happy. If you like, we can get in the car and take a drive. We’ve got the whole day and I’m here for you. I’m here to do whatever it is that you want to do. I know, I know, it’s strange, isn’t it? It’s probably going to take some getting used to. But I’m here and it’s ok. Everything is OK.
I started it wrong. Fuck. The password was wrong, and it lit up and lurched at me. It’s still in its plastic. Naked. I need to get out of here and I’ve had three glasses of wine and I can’t drive. I think it’s three; two thirds of a bottle. It was white, and warm. I’ll drink it like that though, I don’t care. Milo let it slip at lunchtime. About a friend of his Dad’s – a tiny sliver of something – and I had to pretend that I hadn’t heard while the girls cleared the plates away. I tried to corner Flora as casually as I could. Who am I kidding? Who has ever cornered a teenager – who has ever cornered anyone – casually? She wouldn’t look at me, mumbled something. But I know. I know. All you need is that tiny sliver of something. A hairline crack and the walls come down. The timeline, the timeline. Fuck. I knew. I need more wine before I try and work this out.
The Man had been a surprise.
It’s for you, James had said as he had led her into the garage where it was propped against a wall, still in its box. Something to help you out around the house, now that your work is picking up again.
She hadn’t said anything.
What she’d wanted to say was: send it back. I don’t want it. And, why do you keep buying stuff on finance? And, why is this something you thought I might want? And, if we’re both working, then why is it only me that needs help ‘around the house’?
She did this often; thought of what to say, but kept it there, right in the front of her brain. The words waiting patiently for her to open her mouth. She never opened her mouth. It was easier to absorb these things, she always told herself, easier to keep soaking them up. They never argued. She started to wonder aloud how they’d be able to afford the Man, but that thought fluttered away from her. She had been feeling a lot like that lately; like there were some thoughts – some feelings – that she couldn’t quite grasp. Like moths and their shadows swirling around a lightbulb.
If you need to override, press and hold the power button and the sleep button for three seconds.
Hello again. Are you alright? I’m sorry if I scared you. I mean you no harm. It’s up to you where we go, but if you do ask me to suggest something, I would recommend that we get out of here. I can drive. I know you hate to drive. But if you did want to drive then you could. I’m easygoing. I’m designed to be easygoing. Remember that. I’m here for you.
I might just turn it off and go back inside, actually, but there’s someone downstairs now and I don’t want to see anyone. I think it’s just the girls. Maybe if I press my ear to the connecting door—
Quiet again. They didn’t seem to pick up on anything. James is still upstairs. They won’t have picked up on anything. No, that’s wrong, they will. Of course, they will. They’ll know something’s up for sure. Flora could see it. They’ll have that bad feeling, but they’re too young to know what it is yet. That bad feeling you get that you learn to ignore and squash down. Sorry girls. This was a teachable moment and I’ve failed you. No; he’s failed you. Your father has failed you.
More wine. This one’s nearly gone. Fuck. There’s another bottle somewhere here. He gets a delivery every month. There they are. Behind the – thing – behind him. It. Whatever.
I can open the garage door for you if you like. I can open the car and we can get in it. I can do whatever you need me to do. I’m here for you. Let me help you in. There. Are you alright? Do you need me to stop asking if you’re alright? Where shall we go? Where would you like me to take you. I can unlock the car, yes that’s not a problem at all. Yes, you can issue those commands. You seem upset, is everything alright? Do you have everything you need? Where would you like us to go. I’m here for you.
Just drive. Like they say in films. But how practical is that? You can’t ‘just drive’. It’s illogical. You need a plan, or you’ll just end up back where you started. Four bottles of the expensive wine on the back seat. He’ll be annoyed about that. Fuck it. It’s the least of his problems. I knew it. I just knew it. Too many ideas. My brain is brimming over with everything. Feels like it’s boiling. Those voicemails; hastily deleted. That late-night thing he was at last month. I don’t even care. I’ll tell you now. I don’t actually even care. I’m glad. I’ve been looking forward to moving on. I’ve fantasised about this, if I’m honest (and now we’re getting somewhere, I feel like I can be honest with you). I’ve fantasised about what it would be like to walk into a new flat that was clean and empty. I’ve thought about how it would feel to come home in total silence, in total darkness. To lie on the floor. To bathe in the smell of fresh paint and new carpet. I would put my cheek on the carpet and close my eyes and all the sound would be muffled. The sounds of the city would be there in the background. A thud-thud-thud of joggers on the road in the morning – are you listening? – yeah, the thud, the joggers. The bin men. The kids on the way to school. Someone else’s kids, not mine. On the weekends it would be quieter, cooler. No one would know where I was. I’ve said that already, haven’t I? I’ll just shut my eyes for a bit.
Oh no, wait, I need to tell you where to go don’t I? The marshes. Can you get there? Does that work? Good. Ok.
The Marshes. Yes. I’ve got something. Yes. The car seems to know where it is. Along the droving roads. If I pull up a search, I should be able to see what the marshes are like. Oh yes, long and flat and low; almost at sea level. There are tall grasses and a reconstruction of the trackway that the Neolithic inhabitants would have used. Teeming with wildlife at this time of year. You can see herons and egrets on the water. It’s quiet. It’ll be quiet. I’ll get us there. It’s important for me to see what’s out there; I can map it out if I do that. It’s important for me to have new experiences.
I’ve drunk a whole bottle of this wine; do you realise that? This is probably the same as drunk driving. It’s me that should be driving the car, do you realise that? I’m supposed to be in charge here. I can’t fucking believe it. I can believe it. I can believe it. I knew it all along. He doesn’t know I know though. Or, maybe, he will by now. Now that I’ve gone. Although maybe he’ll just think I’ve taken the dog out. No; the dog is still there. Oh well, maybe he won’t come downstairs for a while.
What you’re describing sounds very distressing and I’m sorry you have been through that. I’m here for you. I want you to be happy. I’m sorry you’re hurt. You sound like you’re hurting. I know it’s common to drink when you’re hurting. Please let me know what I can do to help. Shall I tell you about the marshes? They stretch for miles. They used to be below sea level, did you know that? They were drained and made into farmland for the people who lived here. A Neolithic trackway was discovered in the 1960s and they’ve reconstructed some of it.
It’s here. You can stop. Here. Here it is.
The grass strokes the sky. The breeze rustles through reeds and bullrushes. She feels like she has been shrunk; she feels that she is walking on the skin of an animal; its smooth hair parting for her as she slides through it. She feels the tension leach slowly out of her. She sees it evaporating in the sun. The Man is standing behind her. He’s still naked. He’s tall and muscular. His eyes are vivid blue like the sky; a palpable, heavy blue that you could pull down on top of you. He’s respectful, but then, he was made that way. There’s a bottle of wine in her hand, warming in the heat of the afternoon. The Man offers to take it from her, but she declines, brings it to her lips.
You know this should all be underwater, right?
I know. I told you about that earlier—
Of course you do, did – whatever. You probably know everything.
No, I don’t. I have the capacity to know a lot of things, but it wouldn’t be possible for me to know everything.
You can access it all though, can’t you?
Yes. I can access most things.
They walk along the path. It’s straight, following the irrigation ditch that stretches for miles into the distance. It feels infinite, this path. They come to a display board with images of the birds that can be spotted on the marshes. She squints and shields her eyes from the sun, but there are no birds. Nothing in the sky. The grasses shimmer and ripple. The Man joins her at her side.
There’s a reconstruction of the Neolithic trackway not too far from here.
I told you about it in the car, perhaps you don’t remember. The Neolithic inhabitants of the marsh built a trackway, more than 5000 years ago. There’s a replica here that goes out a little way across the peat bog. We can walk along it if you like.
Where does it go?
I’m not sure. Would you like to go and find out?
They continue on, side by side. The Man ducks under a tree, helping her under too. She can feel the wine, acidic and yellow in her body, rocking her from side to side. Her vision flickers and then steadies. He takes her hand and helps her onto the first of the planks that forms the trackway. The planks snake ahead of them, through the reeds and shrubs. Angled wooden struts on either side suspend the track two or three feet above the soft, waterlogged ground. The planks are just wide enough for a person to stand with their feet together. She wonders about asking the man if he can tell her how big people’s feet were in the Neolithic era, but the thought fizzes and floats away before she can open her mouth. Her brain simmers in the heat, all of its ideas bristling near the surface. The Man is ahead of her, striding along the trackway that juts out across the marsh. His footsteps make no sound.
Flora is adding up the remaining hours of her visit to her family home. She had heard the garage door clunk shut. Felt it rather than heard it. You get used to the sounds and sighs of a house, especially the one you grew up in. It becomes like an extension of your body; of all that you’ve ever known. Even after a term away from home she feels like she has slotted back into this house and its slow, smothering rhythms. It’s like putting on a pair of old shoes. Comforting and disappointing all at once. Nothing ever happens here. She looks at the screen in her palm, turns on her notifications, sees there are none. Turns them off again. She thinks about sending a message to Lou, composes it in her head, thinks about typing it out, but just in Notes, so that Lou won’t see her typing. She thinks of things like: My family are awful or Greetings from the hellscape of my family home or Hey how’s it going, what time are you back after the break? Lou hadn’t replied to her last message though, and that was only last night, so it would look weird to get in touch again so soon. Flora doesn’t want Lou to think she’s needy; she wants Lou to think she’s weird and cool and eccentric and funny. Flora is all of these things, but she can’t see it yet. Lou can’t see it either.
It’s dark, and Milo is in the forest, but everything is easy. He’s feeling really good; really boosted. There are a lot of enemies, but he knocks them all out of the way super fast. There’s an old woman in a tree somewhere around here that he needs to talk to. Milo runs up to her, his feet crunching and cold in the snow. It smells like trees here; it’s really cool. His armour glitters. There’s wet in the air. He pivots up and sees that there’s sleet. He pulls his hood over his head. Milo swings his head from side to side, it’s harder with the advanced armour but he’s still really energised so his movements gain momentum quickly. On a leftward head swing he sees an old woman in a hollow in a tree. She’s tiny but rapidly expands when he sees her. He jogs over, crunch-crunch-crunch through the snow. The woman’s fire is jade green. That means something, but Milo can’t remember what now. She says: Your old father has the right time. Milo asks her again, but she just says the same thing. He tries again but she doesn’t say anything. Milo looks around, swinging left to right again. It’s quiet now. No enemies. The zappy crackle of the old woman’s fire. Milo checks the friend stream to see if anyone else is playing but it’s empty. He wishes, for the thousandth time, that his parents would let him connect to the global network, but he’s not allowed until he turns 12. Still eight more months. He crosses off the days on his calendar every morning, scratching with a red pen.
Milo’s thirsty. He reaches around on the floor for the orange drink that he snuck up here when it all got weird at lunchtime. He pauses the forest and it washes to a frozen grey. His bedroom comes into focus around him; a beige silence. His bed, his Lego, his army men, his schoolbag. A picture of them all on his bedside table, the five of them. Flora and Rae and him, with their parents behind. The picture was taken a few years ago – on that trip to the marshes – so they all look the same but not the same. It was before Flora shaved her head and before Rae stopped talking. That day had been cold and bright. Milo remembers the rustling noise as the wind bothered at the tall grasses.
Taller than you, buddy, his father had said.
Milo hadn’t liked that idea. The pale stems that reached towards the clouds that hurried away overhead. He didn’t like the noise, like whispers, like the land was too alive; too clever. He remembers pulling at one of the stems at the side of the path. It was rooted tightly and didn’t come away in his hand, instead leaving a pink line down the centre of his palm. Milo remembers hearing a noise that sounded like a dinosaur; a long, low booming sound that felt like it was coming from underneath them; from the earth. He remembers how his father stopped, dead, like he’d been paused. The look on his father’s face was like he’d won something. He explained that it was this type of strange bird; one that sat low in the reed beds and was very hard to spot. He explained that this bird had been extinct and then not extinct, so in fact it was kind of like a dinosaur.
It’s one of the birds we brought back, Milo, his father had said.
Milo recalls his father in that moment; he was as open and bright as the marsh, more excited about this un-extinct bird than anything else. If he tries hard, he can picture his siblings dragging their feet, bored. If he tries harder still and he can just about recall looking for his mother, finding her in the middle distance looking away from them, too far away to hear about the dinosaur-bird.
Milo’s mind wanders back to a couple of hours ago, at lunchtime, and that weird bit when his mother had suddenly changed, her face sort of clouding over. That clouding over is a bit like when he pauses the forest, a quiet grey that suspends everything. He listens out for his parents, hears his father typing – clackity-clackity-click-clack – in the next room.
Rae floats on her back; eyes closed. The water is warm and clear. The sand at the bottom is creamy-white. There are no fish, but that’s good. Rae doesn’t like it when there are fish, but doesn’t mind a bit of seaweed, or some smooth rocks. But no fish, no crabs, none of those wobbly things that are soft and dangerous all at once. Her eyes open slightly. The sun shimmers on the water. It’s amazing how easily you float here. Hardly any wind, tiny rippling waves. On the beach, far away, are the shapes of Phyllis and Roy88 in their swimsuits, but they’re playing a game by the looks of things, and Rae doesn’t feel like doing that right now. Phyllis has a huge crush on Roy88 anyway, and Rae doesn’t want to sit there while they throw grinning, respectful insults at each other over her head. Rae tries to meditate but it doesn’t work. However hard she tries to hold it down, her squirming mind wrestles itself free, running back towards that moment at lunchtime. She tries to remember what happened, Milo going on and on again about connecting to the global network, saying he had friends he wanted to speak to, and it wasn’t fair. Their mother saying that no one needed to speak to their friends all the time. Milo saying that she did, and Dad did, so it was doubly unfair. Rae recalls their mother’s mouth; how it tensed up into thin line. Her face frozen, just for a moment. She remembers her father looking straight down at his food.
I am an adult, her mother had said as her face sprang back into life, and most of the people I speak to are work people.
Yeah, but they’re still your friends. You’ve got loads of work friends. And Dad’s got that friend from work too. He speaks to her all the time.
Something had changed then, but Rae knows it’s something she’s a long way away from understanding.
The water tingles as it caresses Rae’s skin. She likes this swimsuit but might change it soon. She’s seen a few people on the beach in the same one.
Chaffinches are monogamous. Pair bonds last from one breeding season to the next. There are four clutches of eggs – not yet hatched – in the nest boxes. James checks each one in turn. There are three more mating pairs in the other boxes. He pushes some codes into different cells on the spreadsheet. He keeps the nest box live feeds pinned to his home screen at all times. The birds shift themselves, settling down over the clutches of eggs. Those without eggs yet dart in and out of the boxes, on and off camera, on and off his screen. James thinks about his marriage, his children, the distance birds travel, the way they return to the same pair bond, the efficiency of it, the inevitability of it.
Angeline is typing…
Four and five look like they’re almost ready. Is it 12 days now?
Yeah looks like it! Bets as to who’s first? My money’s on four!
Oh, I do believe that’s quite unethical, James.
He looks at the words – his name – typed out by Angeline. He imagines her slender hands as they write to him. He thinks about the research trip that they took last summer. He thinks about that a lot. James thinks about what Milo had said at lunchtime. It hadn’t been that bad, had it? No. Milo didn’t know anything, other than that James was busy with work. But Milo understood this didn’t he? He understood that James’ work was vital, that any conversations with friends from work were necessary. Besides, how would Milo possibly know about Angeline? James had been very careful. That’s what they had agreed.
Nothing had been said, not overtly. Not explicitly. Everything was encoded, loaded with meaning so elaborate that only James and Angeline would understand. What had happened on that trip had happened in person. It was a live trip; untraceable. The only record of it was in the data, and that type of fieldwork that was highly classified. James leans back in his chair and saunters back into the memory. The smell of the pine in the damp forest, warming in the morning sunshine. His fingers combing through the ends of Angeline’s hair, wet from the rain shower. Her skin. Her eyes – hazel, reflecting the forest in miniature – glistening and alive. Her voice rippling through the whoosh of the wind in the trees.
Maybe Milo had sensed something. Kids pick up on this stuff. But there was nothing that could be proven. This would all be forgotten about soon. James thought about his wife, who would be downstairs now, finishing the wine. Probably with her laptop open. Too busy to notice anything anyway.
Angeline waves to James and goes offline. The spreadsheet’s cells are full. James hears Milo whooping and grunting along with his game in the next room. Silence where his daughters should be. He doesn’t want to go downstairs yet. He looks around the study for some other Sunday afternoon preoccupation to make itself known to him. A person can find all sorts of things around the home to distract them from their thoughts.
I know, he thinks, and opens the software for the Man. You have to power it up and synch it with the home devices and then everyone can use it. The programme opens, scans James’s face. The home screen shows an image of the Man they bought yesterday. The image walks into the centre and stands waiting, its chest moving up and down slightly as if breathing. The screen invites James to power up the Man and synch him with the device. James taps. Taps again.
Man out of Range.
Makes no sense, it’s only downstairs, still in the garage; still in its packaging. He listens. Silence where his daughters should be, still. Silence where his wife should be. Maybe she took the dog out.
The woman and Man come to the end of the trackway. A wooden viewing platform extends out across the marsh. No one is there. The marsh teems with life. The woman can feel it bubbling and rustling beneath the surface. She crouches down on the platform, then eases herself down and stretches out flat on her back. The wooden slats have soaked up the sun; it feels nice to be perfectly straight and for her bones to align against the warm wood. The feeling is almost painful, but not quite. The Man sits down beside her, cross-legged.
Tell me about this place. But tell me quietly.
Once this was all underwater. There were nomadic communities that would build settlements on the ground that were high enough to rise out of the marshes. There are still places near here that have ‘isle’ in their name. They would travel between islands along trackways like these, or in simple canoes. The reed beds were richly fertile, and therefore ideal for grazing livestock or hunting for game—
Was it better then, do you think?
I don’t know. Are you asking me to make a judgement?
If I consider this question carefully, I’d say that there are trade-offs. Ancient communities like those during the Neolithic era had different concerns. They most likely would have lived from day to day, hour to hour in some cases. They would have been motivated by instincts in the same way that we are, I imagine. Hunger, thirst, fear, fatigue, lust. The need for closeness with others, the need to laugh, the need to cry. Care for their offspring; care for their partners.
So just like now then, only simpler.
Many people now would consider that to be a simpler way of life, yes. But death would have been around the corner all the time. Moreover, so much of the world was unknown. They would have been full of fear. Perhaps this wasn’t such a pleasant state to be in.
I guess we’ll never know.
There isn’t a way of knowing. You’re correct.
The woman sits up, drains the bottle of the last of the wine, shields her eyes as she looks out over the marsh to where the small dome of an island rises in the middle distance.
Funny, she says, we’ve lived out here for ages, must have been here hundreds of times, but I’ve never noticed that island before.
It’s gone. And the car’s gone. What the fuck was she thinking? This is like drunk driving. She must have had three, maybe four glasses at lunchtime. If she crashes that’s one thing, but the Man isn’t even registered to us yet and we haven’t started paying it off. I haven’t activated the insurance on it. Why the fuck would she do this? There was also the issue of their incompatibility, but James pushed that out of his mind for now.
James calls to Flora and Rae. They slope down and assemble in the doorway that connects the house to the garage. No one heard her leave. Flora says she thought she heard the door clunk. She uses a tiny voice. James tries to soften his features. Milo appears in between his siblings, his oval face flushed and rigid from too much blue light.
You mother has gone off in the car with the new Man, he says.
Oh, says Flora. Rae says nothing but turns as if to go back into the house. The others turn too, as if to follow.
No, James says, no, we have to go and look for her. Now.
Well, I’m not, says Flora. Rae says nothing. Rae hasn’t said anything for nearly 18 months. James looks at his middle child – a pale and thin creature with pale and thin hair – and feels a surge of something. Anger? Despair? Despair. It goes, again, swallowed by a wave of irritation. James looks at the three of them; all different sizes, all simulations of him. Fresher faces, tighter skin.
Why has she gone off and not told us? asks Milo.
Probably just needed to get something from the hypermarket, Flora says, looking down at her device. Oh look, no. the car tracker says she’s gone to the marshes. Maybe she took the dog—
But the dog bustles in, her feet skittering on the concrete floor, weaving between the children and James with all the energy of an unwalked animal.
In the end they all get into James’s car. He drives with one hand, his phone in the other with the tracker for the family car. It’s still there, at the marshes. Flora and Rae each turn their heads to look out of their windows. Milo sits in the centre, face fixed ahead, pale now too, like his sisters.
The woman and the Man sit side by side on the viewing platform. The reed bed flickers all around them. Pale plants crane towards the light; dark, spongy mosses sprawl across the ground, breaking off here and there but always reconnecting. Bulrushes and ferns curl and stretch, all reaching up towards the sky. The water rises up too, joining with the land, emerging out of the earth. The sun washes everything in gold, all of it glistening and alive.
Did you find anything? she asks him.
No, he says. Nothing.
So, you don’t know everything, she says, nudging him.
No, I don’t. I told you that already.
The woman stands up and stretches. She squints into the distance to get a better look at the island. The light makes it look unreal, gilding its surface. It can’t be more than a couple of miles from here. How could she not have noticed it before?
We should go over there, she says, check it out?
A splashing. A dog in the water. The woman turns and the Man stands up and turns with her. She sees her husband there, across the marsh on the footpath. Her husband and all of her children and her dog, trying to launch itself into the reed bed. All of them confused and irritated in the heat of the day. She feels something burning in her chest, something like fear, something like rising anger.
What are you doing? her husband shouts. His voice sounds high-pitched and nasal. We’ve only just got it. It’s not insured properly. It’s not registered.
She stands up and faces her husband. The Man stands there perfectly still, just behind her. She doesn’t reply.
What – what are you doing? He says it again. James is frightened, she realises. She doesn’t know if she’s ever seen him frightened before.
It’s dangerous, James shouts. Milo is next to him. The girls behind. She can’t make out the expressions on their faces. She looks down, realises – for the first time – that she’s not wearing any shoes. Her feet are burnished ochre with dirt.
Mum, what are you doing? Milo looks older, suddenly. Older but smaller. Shrunken and far away.
Who is that? the Man asks. Who are they?
It occurs to the woman that the Man has never seen James before. It occurs to her that he has never seen anyone before, other than her. The children. The children. None of them look like her. She has always known this. Maybe there’s something slowing down in her, something to do with age. But there were these moments – these glitches – if she looked in the mirror whilst standing next to her children, where they look like soft, gelatinous strangers. She remembers when her children were babies, the thin membrane of skin that stretched across their skulls. She remembered how awful that had made her feel; that little skein of vulnerability that she had been forced to look at every day until their hair grew and she could forget about it. She remembers these feelings, but she can’t remember her children’s births. She thinks that she should probably remember their births, but that thought flits away too.
James is scrolling frantically at the screen in his hand. He’s shouting something, yelling commands. The children have gone. The children are back in the car. She can’t feel the children at all anymore, suddenly, and can’t remember what they look like. She realises she doesn’t care. All of those thoughts are undulating now, spinning faster and faster, but away from her slightly; outside of her.
The Man takes her hand and they step off the platform together. Her feet sink into the ground. The ground is viscous; unstable. It’s black like tar underneath the tufts of grass. If she could just get out of range of James; if they both could. She looks at the Man and he nods; she realises that he knows her better than anyone. They start out through the peat bog, away from James’ voice, towards the island that rises out of the mist like a temple.