Short fiction

The Western Isles

It was when I was on the deck of the ferry, making its way laboriously between islands, that I first wondered why I had let Erin persuade me into taking this journey. On the mainland the weather had been very fine, cooler than in the south but without even a hint of a breeze to rustle the trees in Oban. But soon after we set sail, the clouds had blown in and with them what I would describe, in my landlubber ignorance, as a ‘squall’. Now I gripped the rails of the ferry, my knuckles showing white, as I fixed my eyes on the horizon, trying to calm my stomach. I thought, ‘It’s just a ferry, just a bit of movement, nothing to worry about. We’ll be back on dry land soon,’ (though I knew it would be several slow, painful hours before we reached land.)

There was a scattering of people on deck, all wearing more expensive waterproof clothing than me, hoods up. As the trip had gone on, cameras had been zipped up in pockets and the poor weather had driven all but the most hardy below deck. Now we made an abject group, dotted around, either gripping the railings or sat among the rows of plastic seating. No-one spoke, but we exchanged tightlipped smiles when our eyes met.

When I went below deck to visit the toilets, I tried not to notice the prostrate forms on the cheerful, patterned seating: pillows under heads, blindfolds over eyes, headphones over ears. Somehow their efforts made me feel worse. They were the tactical sleepers, hoping they could swiftly lose consciousness and make it through a couple of hours of journey numbed to the sensation of the ship’s swaying, battered by stronger and stronger waves. Everyone who suffers from seasickness has their own technique, and mine was to stay above deck whatever the weather, keeping my eyes glued on the horizon.

Back above deck, I returned to my spot, glad of the territorial nature of the others there which meant that this position had remained empty. Erin had insisted we take the long ferry route from the Scottish mainland to South Uist, rather than the relatively quick one from Skye to North Uist. She had some reason to stop off in Oban on the way, and had heard it was the more beautiful of the two ferry routes as it weaved between islands off Scotland’s ragged shoreline before getting out into open sea. I’d told her I hated ferries, that sometimes I could feel seasick before they had even left shore and she’d said she would find ways to distract me, I could swallow some pills, and that really there was nothing like having the sea wind in your hair. That was before the plan had changed and she had arranged to arrive a day later, skipping her stay in Oban and joining me on the island at an agreed rendezvous. But my trip on the ferry was already booked, so here I was, making my way through the notoriously windy stretch of sea on my way to the Outer Hebrides.

§

The last time I’d seen Erin had been about a week ago, in London, and our meeting was rushed. I’d been coming down with a migraine – it hadn’t quite arrived yet, but I knew it was on the way and was probably wearing that clenched look of someone trying to hide their pain. Erin had told me she needed to rush off so she could get up early for some shoot in Hertfordshire the next day, but as we spoke someone slid another pint in front of her, and she darted her eyes up at him and gave him a wink. We were sat on picnic benches outside a pub and I was trying to get the address of her friend Pete out of her – she’d just told me we would be arriving on the island separately, and I wanted to make sure I knew where I was going.

She was being very vague about the details, while somehow chatting incessantly. Talking to Erin was like swimming in a river, the tide running fast. You couldn’t swim against it; you just had to go with it. She was saying something about there not really being any place names or roads on the island.

‘But there must be an address I can look up. Or how does anyone find anything there?’

‘People who live there know their way around, and everyone visiting is always lost.’ Wind played in the trees as we sat in the fading summer light.

‘Ugh, Erin, I’ve got to go. Why don’t you just let me know the address when you find it?’ She pulled a face. ‘I’ve got a shitting headache again – one of the bad ones…’

‘I’ve got it,’ she said. ‘I’ll draw you a map – it’s better that way anyway. Like a treasure hunt. Plus this way I don’t need to text Pete again… He already thinks I lose everything.’

She reached into her bag and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, smoothing it on the picnic table, and assumed a look of quiet absorption so childlike it made me forget my headache for a moment.

§

When the ferry arrived in Lochboisdale, I waited below deck for the men in high vis jackets to shoo all the cars out, until they gestured me and the other cyclists that it was our turn to pedal out onto dry land. The wind struck me almost immediately – it was buffeting in different directions, making my hair leap wildly about and slap against my face, and made me feel unsteady but invigorated. I had to go slowly, which meant I could take in my surroundings, and was amazed to discover that it wasn’t even really a town we’d landed in – more a scattering of buildings, the most interesting of which was a Post Office-cum-ice cream parlour, its facade painted bubblegum pink. Apart from the Post Office, there weren’t any other shops that I could see – the buildings were resolutely closed, and the streets deserted except for the traffic flowing off the ferry. The only other sign I could see was a hand painted one at the side of the road, saying ‘Motor home services 1 mile’.

I paused at the first junction and pulled out Erin’s map, which I’d carefully put in a plastic sleeve. It was immediately covered by tiny raindrops and as I wiped these off with the back of one hand, a gust of wind caught the paper and sent it dancing out of my grasp, and high up into the air.

§

I wheeled my bike up to what I thought must, finally, be Pete’s front door, my head down against the wind. Darkness was starting to fall, or at least the twilight of a late evening this far north, and I noticed a light flick on ahead of me. As I looked up I saw a man watching me approach, his hip resting jauntily on the doorframe, smoking a cigarette. The man’s front door had a light above it, which cast a yellowish glow on the path between us, and he seemed to be standing in the only sheltered spot of the whole island.

When I got near enough to hear him through the wind, he said, ‘You’re Erin’s friend?’ Then, bouncing his hip off the doorframe to stand up straight, ‘You find me OK?’

‘Oh yes, fine,’ I lied. ‘Sorry it’s a bit later than I thought – the ferry crossing was delayed in the gale.’

‘This isn’t a gale… You should see it here in winter. 100mph winds are totally normal. Anyway, sorry you had a rough journey. I’m told you’ve asked half the island where I live. Didn’t Erin tell you the way?’

I’d reached him now and felt the wind drop. Told by who?, I thought. Out loud I said, ‘Oh. She drew me a map, but…’ I gestured the map blowing away with one hand.

‘Mmmm,’ he said as he dropped the cigarette butt under his heel. He cleared his throat and looked up, his expression softer, ‘Come in out of the wind and I’ll show you the palace. You hungry?’

‘Starving,’ I held out my hand to shake his. ‘Nice to meet you, Pete.’

‘Nice to meet you too, Clare. I’ve heard a lot about you…’

§

That night as the wind whistled in the chimney and around the walls I rolled my mind backwards to what Erin had told me about Pete. She’d described him as ‘a blacksmith or something,’ and they’d been good friends some years ago. Erin had hinted they’d been more than friends, but had been uncharacteristically coy about it. Then Pete had moved away from London to the island where his family owned some land. I remembered Erin’s eyes lighting up as she leant towards me conspiratorially, ‘I heard his family used to own the island, the whole island, going back generations, but had to sell it to pay off a colossal debt. They never lived down the shame, apparently, and most of them moved away, but they kept this one plot. For a keepsake I guess – the land’s no good, you can’t grow anything on it and the peat’s all gone, already cut or farmed or whatever you do with it. And then suddenly Pete wants to move back up there and… I don’t know, go back to his roots or something. God knows why he moved away from civilisation, he must be mad. But it would be an amazing place to visit.’

I think that was the first time we’d discussed visiting the island. I’d always wanted to go and Erin said she’d been meaning to pay Pete a visit for years. We shook hands on it, and I remember thinking that I would have put money on our plan never materialising into anything.

§

The next morning I came downstairs to find Pete sat at the kitchen table, frowning at a newspaper, with a powerful smell of coffee in the air. Last night I’d eaten the leftovers he’d saved me and had an early night, desperate to sleep off the long journey. Pete had been taciturn and a bit distant, but in a friendly way – I’d thought he was trying to be sensitive, allowing me to settle into this new situation in my own time. I hoped he wasn’t disappointed that I’d arrived alone.

As I walked in Pete said, ‘Enjoy your seaweed mattress?’

I made a quizzical, non-committal sound.

He looked up smiling, folding the newspaper in half. ‘That’s what the mainlanders think we sleep on here. Seaweed and horsehair. Nothing wrong with a bit of seaweed, but horsehair – now that hurts. You’ll be wanting a coffee, I guess?’

‘Please,’ I said. Then, glancing at the thick, black dregs in his cup, ‘A white one.’

‘Coming right up.’ He busied himself on the kitchen counter, assuming the manner of someone who has guests rarely, but enjoys making a fuss. The kitchen was rustic in the true sense of the word – not self-consciously rustic in a weekend magazine kind of way. It was gloomy and basic, the worktops made from some roughhewn dark wood with scores of lines and ringed burns from decades of use. I assumed Pete had scavenged it or inherited it from somewhere – it clearly had more history than the rest of the house. A bunch of heather showing signs of decay sat in a chipped glass on the table. I slid the newspaper towards me.

‘It’s yesterday’s, I’m afraid,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Today’s won’t get here until the evening ferry arrives… If it even sails today.’ He was setting an unusual contraption on the stove – a two-pronged espresso maker, with twin tubes going up and then doing a u-turn to send the coffee flowing into two espresso cups poised beneath.

‘So Erin said you’re a blacksmith?’ I asked.

He laughed at that, a short bark. ‘Is that what she said? That’s so like her…’ He paused. ‘How do you know Erin, anyway?’

‘Uh…’ I thought back a few years, ‘She’s a friend of a friend. Through Jesse, actually. You know Jesse?’ Pete nodded, his expression hard to read. Jesse was Erin’s on and off ex-boyfriend, and I knew some of her friends disliked him. I continued, ‘But more through that whole circle of people at Grove Terrace.’

‘You lived there?’

‘No. Well, not properly. Just a few nights here and there. But I was round there all the time. When I first moved up to London it was a sort of haven. A grubby kind of haven. I’d had a bad breakup, was still trying to piece myself back together. I didn’t know my way round the city, didn’t have a job, wanted to meet new people… Sounds rubbish, but it was that fun bit when you first move to London, when everything’s really exciting.’

‘Where had you moved from?’

‘From Bath. I studied there and stayed in the area a few years after.’ Pete nodded and I continued, ‘Anyway, I lived just round the corner from Erin so I’d pop round there all the time. There were always loads of people coming in and out of the house. You never quite knew what would happen. A coffee would turn into running an errand in some part of London I didn’t know, or a big improvised meal, or helping Erin assemble some fiddly bit of set for one of her shoots. And Erin was so great, it felt like she took me under her wing. She listened when I needed to talk things through, she helped me massively when I was looking for work. Set me up with a few good contacts. And she was so much fun.’ Even as I said it, I noticed that past tense, was.

Pete smiled, ‘Yep. She can be bloody brilliant, can’t she? Sounds familiar – we met soon after she moved to London and I couldn’t believe how quickly she found all these people. Some of them hangers on, you know? But so much fun, and some really good ones in the mix. I meant to ask you how she’s doing?’

‘Erin?’ Pete nodded. ‘Oh, you know, she’s good I think. It’s always hard to tell…’ I trailed off but realised he was looking at me with a particular kind of intensity. So something had happened between them. I thought for a moment, trying to find a way to describe how she was. ‘I think her work’s going well. She seems busier…’

‘She was always busy.’

‘Yes, but busy in a different way now. More focus, less complaining I guess. It’s more what she doesn’t say than what she does say, but I think she’s doing well. She’s still a nightmare, of course. Never shows up on time, always some ridiculous excuse. And she’s still got all those friends. Some of them… I don’t really understand why…’

‘They’re twats, some of them.’

We shared a smile. ‘It’s true. Some of them are twats.’

The coffee was burbling and sputtering and he turned to attend to it. I flicked the pages of the newspaper and we enjoyed a few moments of silence. Somehow I felt at ease around Pete. I couldn’t exactly imagine him and Erin together, but it was always a bit like that with her friends – a mismatched collection of people who didn’t always get on with each other.

He put a coffee down in front of me and I nodded my thanks. I noticed it was black, no milk. Perhaps he was one of those coffee connoisseurs who believed the only way to drink it was black, or perhaps he’d simply been distracted. He seemed lost in thought.

I blew across the top of the coffee and took a sip. ‘What’s it like living here? Do you like it?’

He exhaled, as if he’d been holding his breath. ‘Let me give you a piece of advice: don’t move here.’

‘Because of the isolation?’

‘Because of the people. The islanders…’ He waved his hand to indicate that they were all around us. ‘…They don’t like new people. If you’re a visitor, no problem – they’ll be great with you. Super friendly. But try and move here and it all changes.’

‘Isn’t the population shrinking? You’d think they’d be glad of a few new faces. It seems a shame…’

‘Quite.’ He was leaning with his hands against the worktop and he looked down at his feet.

I took the opportunity to tap a bit of salt from a salt shaker into my cup. Someone had told me once that if a coffee is too bitter for you, you can use salt instead of sugar to sweeten it. Worth a try. ‘But what about your, uh…’ I searched for the word, ‘connections to the island?’

‘Hm?’ He looked up with a start. ‘Oh you mean my family? Doesn’t matter a bit it seems. You have to be born and raised here, or it counts for nothing.’ He cleared his throat, then asked, ‘So what are your plans for the next couple of days?’

§

I’d spent an hour or so cycling into a headwind while trying to look around me and take in the landscape. It was extremely unusual, pockmarked with pools of water everywhere, with flat prairie-like plains and mountains in the distance – painted blue by the aerial perspective. I stuck to the roads, or rather the one, single-track road bisecting the island, and pulled over at passing places for the various cars of the island to overtake. It wasn’t always easy to hear them approaching behind, and one impatient vehicle (straight off the ferry, no doubt), had honked me until I pulled over.

Up ahead I saw a sign, ‘MUSEUM & CRAFTS & CAFE’, and felt a leap of joy at the idea of a milky coffee. It was the first building I’d seen that wasn’t either derelict or one of the many pebble-dashed dwellings, seemingly built to the same design. Stepping inside, it was a relief to be out of the wind, though I was enjoying the feeling of wildness, of being battered, quite safely, by an elemental force outside of my control.

I paid a few pounds to get in and slowed my step to museum speed. The museum was extremely old fashioned, and quite charmingly so. It had different rooms of a domestic house laid out, with objects matching a particular vintage: 1920s bedroom, 1930s kitchen, 1940s living room. In each room there was a period photo of a person in a room of their house, looking towards the photographer in a tense way that suggested to me a man behind an old camera, the hood over his head, sliding a sheet of glass into the body of the camera.

I scrutinised some of the objects, but for me they carried the association of over-designed cafes in east London, crammed with beautifully vintage objects smugly raided from car boot sales. Vintage objects had been forever ruined.

In the bedroom there were two four poster beds built with their roofs at a fierce angle, presumably to fit into the top floor of one of the many ruined crofter’s houses I’d seen dotted around the island. A few of them were still in use and had thatched roofs with stones weighing them down, to prevent the thatch from being whisked off in the next gale.

The beds had that sagging, tiny look of the past. There was a rope slung between them to stop visitors getting too close or trying them out. Just as I was about to move on I noticed that each one had a plastic zip lock bag attached to its end. One of the bags contained seaweed and the other, horsehair. They had typewritten labels saying ‘Some examples of mattress material.’

Later, I was sat in the cafe drinking my coffee and studying the sandwich menu when I felt my phone vibrate. I’d been passing in and out of mobile signal since I arrived on the island, and tended to get a batch of text messages arrive at once as they had bottlenecked somewhere in the ether. My first thought was that it was a voicemail message, some news about a job I was waiting to hear about.

It was Erin, saying, ‘Sorry love delayed by a day or two. You won’t believe it when I tell you. Hole up with Pete and try not to fall in love with him xx’.

§

I was in Pete’s house two days later, cooking him a thank you supper for letting me stay longer. It had turned out that his house was in a great location for island hopping – right in the middle of the archipelago, with causeways connecting most of them so I could cycle across giving me a great sense of accomplishment. We were getting on well, sharing evenings together with drams of single malts from his collection. He’d lit a peat fire one chilly August night, though really the weather was too warm to justify it. He knew when to give me some distance so I never felt overwhelmed in his company. And I was starting to draw out his humour. I realised he probably wanted a housemate here, or a companion. There was sadness lurking somewhere behind his kindness.

I was scrubbing and slicing potatoes, saying ‘I can’t believe you haven’t seen this film.’

‘One thing you might have noticed about this place: not chockablock with cinemas.’

I glanced over my shoulder at him to give him a sour look, a gesture of well, obviously, but he was hunched over his newspaper, his eyes on the sudoku. For a second I felt a flicker and wondered if I could be attracted to him. He seemed so self-contained in that moment. I admired his ability to maintain a conversation while keeping a continuous stream of counting in his head. I thought I would probably find it infuriating if I knew him better, could feel the seeds of that sown already. Being able to manage these two tracks simultaneously was inexplicable to me, as anything to do with numbers was always a major cognitive effort. ‘Yeah, but come on. You haven’t even heard of it? You get the newspaper every day. Or do you just do the sudoku and leave the rest?’

He exhaled deeply and pushed the newspaper away from him. ‘Not even that, it seems…’ Running a hand through his hair, messing it up, ‘I used to think I was good at these things, but maybe I just got lucky a few times.’

I pushed all the potatoes into a pan of boiling water and started slicing garlic cloves in half.

‘By the way,’ he said, ‘Did you hear anything about that job application?’

‘Ugh. Nothing yet. Tomorrow’s my last chance – they said they’d let us know Thursday at the latest.’

‘So, what, you just quit your old job and jumped into nothing?’

‘Jumped into nothing – that’s about right. In at the deep end.’ I looked over at him and saw he was leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed, keenly observing me. He wanted a real answer, not an empty metaphor. So I told him about my boss, a choreographer whose work I liked but who had proved increasingly difficult to work with. Towards the end there had been a terrible, risk averse, storm cloud atmosphere in the office. Everyone was cautiously avoiding another blow up, trying to self-filter so they wouldn’t trigger another argument. I’d handed in my notice and kept my head down, worked out that last month with a growing sense of glee and escape. And then, after I’d left, I hit the anticlimax. I’d turned inwards, attacking myself – my lack of resolve for not being able to stick it out. I was brought up as someone who would stick with things, get to the end. But, telling this story to Pete, I corrected myself, thinking it was a mistake to think of this as a character trait, that really it was an isolated incident and I was pleased to have left. ‘What I mean is, I knew I had some savings, knew I could manage for a couple of months without getting too panicky. Maybe in a way I wanted to test myself, remind myself that’s possible. That it’s possible to take some time to look around and… maybe make a better choice next time. That was the idea, anyway.’

‘Good for you. Is that how it’s worked out? You, uh, feel free?’ He winced a bit at the question.

‘Well, I’m pretty near the edge now. It’s a bit scary how near the edge I am. London rents…’ I slid the garlic cloves into a pan of hot oil and watched them dance. ‘It’s not got any easier since you moved up here. But at the same time, yes, I do feel better. Sometimes when I went to work at my old office I’d get this feeling like when you see your reflection in two mirrors, stretching out to infinity. Like this was it, for ever, and it was exhausting. I was exhausted. It felt like something important was draining out of me.’ I glanced at him, smiling. ‘Not to be melodramatic or anything…’

The centre of the garlic cloves began to pull away from their edges, pushed upwards by the steam and unfurling like petals of a flower. ‘Hey, look at this,’ I said, ‘They don’t always move like this…’

‘Hm. It looks like they’re being pulled up by some invisible force. A barn raising. Are you flavouring the oil, or…?’

‘For the mashed potato. They’ll make it amazing.’

He sat back down as I scissored some sausages out of their packaging and hunted for a pan. Clattering in the cupboard I said, ‘I’ve always wondered what it would be like to leave the city, live in the country for a while. I only go there for holidays, you know? What’s it really like out here away from the mainland? Is it lonely?’

‘Oh, you know… It goes through phases. First it was just a massive relief to not be in London anymore. I’d really reached the end with it, so glad to leave. And then I threw myself into building this place.’

‘You built this house?’

He waved his hand in a gesture I took to mean it’s no big deal, ‘Everyone does it here. You get subsidies, because of the crofters and the terrible history. Like we’re still making amends. Just build a new house, leave the old one to crumble.’

‘I’ve noticed there are a lot of derelict houses round here.’

‘And all the same, right? Blackhouses, they’re called. If they’ve still got their roofs on you’ll see them weighed down with stones. Anyway, I threw myself into building this place and settling in. That’s when I realised I’d made a big mistake. Even though my family lived here, going back who knows how many generations, it doesn’t seem to count for anything. I mean, I’m obviously not Scottish, I grew up in Portsmouth. But my blood is. The islanders, they love visitors, but you try living here… They’ll freeze you out. It’s great to have guests though, see the place through their eyes. It is beautiful. It’s just hard to hold onto that the whole time. And people tend to visit once and not come back again. It’s so far from everything…’

The sausages were sizzling in the pan now, cooking a bit too vigorously so I turned down the gas. The supply, I knew, ran from a large, red gas cannister that hugged the wall outside Pete’s house – the same improvised system used across the whole island it seemed.

‘Erm,’ said Pete, shifting in his seat. ‘That reminds me. You do know Erin’s not coming, don’t you?’

I looked round at him. ‘You’re serious? Fuck, you are serious.’ I wiped my hands on a dishcloth and turned to face him properly. ‘This is so like her. She didn’t think to tell me, that’s it?’

‘I assumed she already had, but then the way you were speaking… Making plans…’

‘When did she say this?’ I’d never seen Pete with any kind of communication device – no phone, no computer – but I knew there must be something hidden in this house because he seemed to get regular texts from Erin.

‘Yesterday, I think. Yesterday afternoon. I’m sorry, mate.’

‘No need for you to be sorry. And it doesn’t even really matter – I’ll have a nice time here, a good break. I’m glad to have met you,’ I smiled, to show him I didn’t blame him. ‘It’s just… Why not just tell me if she didn’t want to come?’

‘She probably wanted to come. Maybe something came up? A change in plans?’

§

As I crossed the causeway to North Uist and peddled towards Carinish, my stomach was still full of fish and chips from my stop off at a chip shop attached to a petrol station. It seemed to be the only one on the islands, and came with Pete’s recommendation. It was a sunny day, perfect for chips on the beach, and amazingly the wind was low so I’d decided to travel a good distance and felt a large portion was justified. In fact, I hadn’t finished it and had stowed the remains in their polystyrene box in my bag for later.

I was on an otherwise boring stretch of road, the landscape less spectacular than some parts of Benbecular and South Uist, when I spotted the sign for the Trinity Temple. My guidebook had mentioned this as a point of interest, and as there were so few sights to choose from I’d wanted to take a look, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in religious monuments. There was a church at the turn off, which seemed far too modern, but I followed the signs and found, tucked round the back, the ruins of the Trinity Temple. I propped my bike by the information panel and scanned it: an early religious foundation in North Uist, built 1263, a centre of learning as well as worship, founded by a woman called Bethag. There were a couple of cars parked by the gate, and a path through long grass that snaked its way up to the temple, which was raised on a slight mound. I remembered something Pete had mentioned and scrutinised the car doors. Sure enough, they carried the hallmark of an islander’s car: the doors had characteristic dents at the hinge – an indication that they had been violently overextended, the doors caught by the wind and bent back, denting the metal panelling.

I left my bike behind and walked the remaining distance on foot. Inside, the temple was strangely peaceful. It was half ruined, open to the elements and its stonework covered with orange lichen. Far from the grandeur I expected, it was built on a domestic scale. I imagined a group of men, studying for priesthood, in the room I stood in. The floor was dotted with gravestones, which must have been added when the building changed function. I looked out of a window at the fields of nettles and brambles, taller than me, then sat on one of the ruined walls and closed my eyes, tilting my face to the sun. After a few minutes I unzipped my jacket and took it off.

It was still and calm, with just the sound of birds calling overhead and, every few minutes, a car passing. I took a deep breath and felt some tension lift from my shoulders. It was in this moment that I thought, Yes, this is it. I’m on holiday. I remember how to do this now.

§

The next few days passed quickly. In a way, I realised, it was a relief to know that Erin wasn’t going to join me. She was always quite a dominating force on a situation, always the pack leader, always involved in some drama. She would tempt out my gregariousness, which I loved for the novelty, but it could leave me feeling depleted – something I’d particularly noticed in the last few months. Her absence allowed my other side to come out – the quiet thinker and observer, the considerate guest. I felt nourished and rested, my lungs full of Atlantic air. Plus I knew that I was definitely getting more cycling done than if she’d been with me. I took satisfaction in the ache of my limbs, the sense of having worked for my leisure. Peddling along the track on the last stretch to Pete’s house each evening felt like I had accomplished something.

I was nearing the end of my week on the islands, so I was consciously clocking a few landmarks for the last time: the roadsigns at the approach to each causeway saying ‘otters crossing’, the roadside statues of the Virgin Mary scattered over South Uist and Eriskay, the black-brown Hebridean sheep, the machair, with its astonishing fields of wildflowers covering the plains and sand dunes on the west coast of the islands. I’d had a fair bit of sun during my holiday but this day was changeable, more like the first day I’d arrived, and threatening at times. I’d forgotten my gloves and a sharp rain, driven hard by the wind, started attacking my knuckles. Looking up I could see black clouds rolling in so I looked around for somewhere to shelter.

I sought out the only place in sight – an abandoned blackhouse turned into a museum of sorts. I turned off into its lane, speeding past an empty shed where I was meant to pay my £1.50 entry fee and dismounted, leant my bike against the outside of the building and ran inside just as the downpour properly got going. It was incredibly dark inside the building, and I was struck by the strong smell of peat smoke that pervaded the rooms. Like all these buildings, it had drystone walls, a beamed roof covered in thatch and a packed earth floor. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that there was a central hearth and that the interior was completely blackened with smoke. Some yellowed newspaper clippings from 1976 were tacked to a board on one of the walls, describing the preservation of the building for the public, a way of showing how crofters used to live. A row of steel hand tools for farming were leant against one wall.

It was a gloomy house with nowhere to sit down while I waited for the rain to pass, so I paced the two rooms, rubbing my hands together to warm them. For the first time on the holiday I felt a creeping resentment that I realised in that moment had been biding its time. Why hadn’t Erin just said she didn’t want to come with me? I felt sure now that she’d never intended to come, could imagine her telling people about the text message I sent when I found out from Pete she wasn’t coming: ‘Where are you, arsehole?’ She’d be showing it to her friends, rolling her eyes.

I glanced outside and could see the storm was hitting its stride. It could be some time that I was stranded in this place, and I tried to force my thoughts away from Erin. Instead I thought of the treat I had planned – I was going to make my way back to Pete’s house via the smokehouse and pick up some peat-smoked salmon. He’d said it was the best he’d tasted in his life, about the only positive thing he’d said about the islands.

§

Last summer: a bank holiday perhaps. I was at a sprawling picnic in London Fields, surrounded by a mismatched group of Erin’s friends, with half-eaten food and cans of beer strewn around us. It was the start of summer so we’d all enthusiastically spent too long outside and burnt to bits. Now the sun was setting and we were chasing it across the park, dragging picnic blankets in a too-slow tablecloth trick that kept them loaded with detritus.

The gathering had turned a bit ill tempered – we were a disparate group and our conversation was becoming strained. Some people had been drinking all afternoon. I remember hearing someone muttering in a resentful way about waiting for the ‘guest of honour’ to arrive. I was sat with a couple of Erin’s housemates and was irritated that a cluster of people had slowly shifted round so their backs were to me.

Then Erin arrived, hours late, freewheeling on her bike, and I had one of those rare moments of clarity that comes from the in between state – a couple of beers in, but not yet drunk. Just enough to withdraw slightly from the situation and lose your investment in it. I noticed how Erin’s friends clustered around her, and it felt like time lapse footage of a field of daisies bending towards the sun – all eyes turned to her, faces lit up. She was wearing a turquoise, sleeveless jumpsuit with a pattern of scribble marks all over it, pink socks and bashed up, maroon trainers. On almost anyone else it would look absurd; on her it didn’t exactly look great but it did make me laugh. And then I zoomed out a little further, realised I was just like everyone else, basking in her presence. As soon as she’d walked up her scattergun chatter was in full flow, as she was recounting some story about how she’d been delayed at a shop giving a witness statement to the police about someone shoplifting. No-one believed this could be the only reason for her being so late, but we all went along with it because she told the story so well and it allowed us to shake off our ill humour. The funny thing was, she said, that she’d also shoplifted something from the same place and of course she had this ridiculous torn shoulder bag that wouldn’t conceal anything. So she acted out speaking to these cops, being the good citizen, while all the time trying to angle her body so they wouldn’t notice the stuff poking out of her bag.

Up until that point I hadn’t realised Erin actually stole things. I knew she had some swindle for travelling free on buses with her Oyster card, because from time to time she was caught and fined and would tell us about it. And she was notoriously bad at paying back debts – just a few pounds here and there, which she would conscientiously keep reminding us of even though it didn’t matter at all. I tried to imagine her picking something off a shelf and pushing it into her bag, keeping an eye on the security cameras and found it utterly believable. I found I could even picture the expression on her face while she did it.

As she stood in this park telling her story I realised that an invisible switch had been flicked. This group of people, which had been irritable and disparate before she arrived, had gelled together in her presence. Where once we were separate we were now coherent. And I realised that was always the effect that Erin had on groups of people – she made sense of them. The effect only lasted while she was physically present; it was fragile, but it was extraordinary. It was one of the reasons, I realised with a dart of pain, that I was in love with her.

I watched Erin pause dramatically, then cackle with laughter at something, her bright eyes flashing, and felt this tug at me. The sunshine, the boredom of a wasted afternoon, the beer all mingled together. There was a doubling of my consciousness: I was both removed from the situation, understanding for the first time that it was love that I felt for Erin, and also very much in the situation, caught by her story and transfixed by her presence.

§

As I paced around the blackhouse, waiting for the storm to clear, the resentment I felt for Erin softened, and with it that other feeling that I still struggled to admit to. I was on an island, separated from her by a body of water, five hundred miles and at least a day of travel. We’d actually been seeing less of each other in recent months; I had thought of this as a mistake, or because I’d been busy or preoccupied or passive, but I realised in this moment that it had been intentional. It was time for me to let go of Erin. I had been carrying this feeling for her for too long, this hot ball inside my chest.

Arriving in London I’d been eager, lonely, jobless. She had replied with generosity and wild energy, filling my time with her ideas and stories and an endless succession of people. Erin was someone who thrived off new people, giving each person the impression that they were special – as they truly were to her, in those first months. I was aware, even when we were seeing each other constantly, that her relationships were volatile and friends would come and go – I’d seen housemates and close friends disappear from her life without any awkwardness or even a passing mention from her. They were just suddenly absent. And so too had things changed between us – nothing sudden, but a gradual process of separation. Over the same period I had been figuring out how to live in London, a city that can be hostile for newcomers, and I couldn’t help feeling that the two were related. Erin had made sense of the city for me, she had taught me a way I could exist in it. I didn’t need that anymore, and what she could give me felt less important, less unique. It had got to the point where I hesitated before I picked up the phone to call her, and I realised it wouldn’t be long before I’d stop calling her altogether.

The storm had blown itself out and relative peace restored itself to the island. I picked up my helmet from where it was resting on the floor, took a drink of water, clipped the helmet on and wondered whether to keep my jacket on or take it off for the rest of the ride. I rested one palm on the handlebar and thought that Erin had probably never intended to come, and that it was better this way.

The Moon Speaks

The Moon lay face down on the soil.

She was made of thin card, rectangular in shape and softened by the touch of many hands. Larger than a playing card, her job was to be read and scrutinised not palmed and concealed. As she lay, her face turned to the ground and her patterned back exposed to the sky, a conversation took place above her.

One voice spoke more than the others: a woman’s voice, belonging to Maryam, her keeper. This voice was deep with a half century of experience and spoke with the slow pace of someone used to being listened to. There were pauses and brief bursts of laughter.

The conversation was turning to her. Soon it would be her turn to speak.

*

“And finally the last card,” said Maryam as she slowly flipped the Moon over, exposing her face to the night air. “It’s upside down, so something to consider, yes?”

With Maryam, a young man and woman sat on the reddish brown soil, squinting in the torchlight to get a better view of the tarot reading laid out before them. They were both dressed in army fatigues, crumpled and loosened, clearly off duty. Darkness had fallen around them, and with it the relief of a cool breeze blowing across the landscape of jagged mountains. They studied the depiction on the card.

It showed a full moon, large in the sky, hanging over dusty plains and hills. On the horizon were two pillars, each one the mirror image of the other. A dog and a wolf, one dark, one fair, faced each other from across a plain. In the foreground there was a pool of water reflecting moonlight and a crayfish was kicking its way towards the water’s edge. A footpath wiggled across the middle of the card, leading from the pool of water away to the horizon.

“This position can be taken as an overview of the reading, or as a ‘by the way’.” The two young faces looked at Maryam and nodded for her to continue. “The Moon represents the realm of imagination, dreams, the subconscious, uncertainty. Perhaps all is not as it seems. It symbolises reflection. Both kinds, yes? Thinking, thoughtfulness. Also the mirror image. It can be a warning: keep your feet on the ground…”

The man gave a short bark of a laugh.

“Shh, Parik.”

“…Or it may be a reassurance: your worst fears may not come true.” Maryam shifted her weight forward and brought a finger to rest on the Moon’s face. “Pay attention to your dreams but do not be inhibited by them.” Tapping the dog and the wolf, she continued.

“Dreams can also be nightmares, yes? Here we have the otherworld, the realm of dark magic. Phobias, over-thought fears. Indeed, over-thinking itself… The card represents a change, a journey, either one into darkness or one lit by moonlight…” Maryam raised her eyes to the young woman. “Does this card speak to you, Huma?”

Huma gave a shrug with her mouth, enough to show she was yet to be convinced. Maryam folded her hands in her lap. The silence that fell between them left space for the sounds of celebration taking place around them. There was crackling and popping from a nearby fire, shouts and laughter, short cracks echoing around the hills that could either be fireworks or soldiers firing their weapons into the sky.

“There are a pair of rivers in a country on the other side of the world.” Maryam waved her hand behind her, as if the country lay just over her shoulder. “At a certain point they converge, yes? One of these rivers is bright and foamy, almost white; the other stirs up the dark soil and silt of the riverbed, almost black. At the point they converge, and for a time after, they run side by side. Black and white. Distinct. After some distance they mix together, of course, but for much longer than you would expect they remain separate. A river split in half. Or a river with its mirror image, if you like.”

Parik spoke to Huma. “I like what she said about the Moon. Imagination, thinking. Always with your head in the clouds.”

Huma grimaced. “Actually I prefer these two rivers.” Maryam narrowed her eyes as Huma spoke about her last day.

*

The lookout tower was elevated 15m off the ground by a pylon-like structure. The building at the top was rectangular, divided into two squares by a solid wall down the middle. Each square room was occupied by a guard from one side of the border. Each guard climbed steps from their own side to peer out of a single window facing the other’s territory.

Huma had arrived at work as normal, climbing the steps that criss-crossed up to the lookout post. She relieved Parik, blinking at her with bleary eyes, and listened to the metallic clanging of his footsteps as he made his way down these steps for the last time. It was the last day that the border would lie along these exact lines and by chance also her last day of service.

She settled into her chair and picked up her binoculars. She liked to gather her thoughts before her first scour of enemy land. But today they weren’t quite enemies, she thought. What is it you call someone who is no longer an enemy but not yet officially a friend? She could already feel a slight lift of the dense atmosphere of tension that had blanketed her country for longer than she could remember. It was almost scarier in its absence, wondering what would move to fill the hole that this tension left in people’s lives. For three years she had worked on this border, her days of watching marked by non-events that brought with them a bolt of fear. She was going to try and treat today like any other so that the work was not made insufferable.

Now she was ready. She picked up her binoculars, gave the landscape a quick sweep and radioed her first report of the day.

*

Later on the sun had properly got to work and the heat seemed to be pulsing off the walls around her. She scanned the landscape she knew better than any, a landscape she had never set foot on. The hills fell away into a deep valley that was scattered with bushes and trees. The vegetation had always reminded her of a mouse or some other small mammal, balled up and clinging to the soil like it had just heard the footstep of a predator nearby. A scattering of rude dwellings lay in the base of the valley and Huma watched the slow movements of people through a shimmering heat haze.

For a moment her heart caught in her throat. Was that a gun? She frowned through the binoculars, wheeling the dial to try and bring the group of people into better focus. “Not today,” she thought. “Please, not today.”

The shape at the front of the group turned to speak over his shoulder and she saw, with a rush of relief, that he was carrying a rake. A farmer, most likely. She wondered if he was even aware of the change that was coming, of a pencil line drawn on a map decided in another country. At that point there was a sharp bang from the room next door and a call, muffled through the wall. “Cigarette?”

*

Huma braced her leg on the handrail at the top of the pylon structure and scrambled onto the rooftop. On top of the lookout she faced the guard from her former enemy’s land, the man who had chosen this day to break their mutual silence by inviting her onto their rooftop. He was about her age and as they took each other in they became coy, unsure how they should extend their greetings after spending so much time in neighbouring rooms.

The two guards sat on the rooftop with their backs to each other, facing out across their own territory for a change, each describing what they saw to the other. She noticed his accent, his speech dotted with unfamiliar slang. Huma was careful to remove any traces of triumph from her own voice. It was a hollow triumph anyway. She knew that life would probably be more awkward or distasteful for that farmer she’d spotted earlier, or for others like him, but she also knew that she would forget about this later and join in the celebrations.

She looked out over the nearest town on her side as a tank rolled through it.

“What’s that cheering?”

“Just some farmers. Drunk already.” She continued her description, “And so the road leads up to the hillside… On the other side of it there’s a well with the sweetest water…”

*

“That’s it?” said Parik.

Huma shrugged, “We spoke about the future and suchlike, where he would work on the new border, what I would do next, but yes – that’s it. It felt a bit like the last day of term up there.”

“Lucky you. For some of us there’s a new term coming.”

“Fewer guns.”

“But a new term nonetheless.”

Huma turned to Maryam. “Thank you for your reading.”

*

The Moon remained on the soil as the minutes ticked away towards midnight. Maryam had left the reading out as she always did, to run her eyes over it and to try and fix it in her mind. Huma and Parik laughed together as they were absorbed by the crowd growing boisterous around them.

As the wind picked up the group was suddenly bathed in a thin, silken light and, without realising, they looked up as one. The Moon watched her counterpart skipping out of the clouds above. This other moon was full and fat, sitting heavily in the sky. For a minute it graced them all with its presence.

The crowd was counting down: “…Five …Four …Three …Two …One …”

The other moon slipped back behind a cloud as the Moon was turned over and tidied away with the rest of the pack, readied for another reading on a different day.

 

The Moon Speaks was written as a companion piece for William Hsu’s work in the exhibition Hermes’ lack of words at Artspace, New Zealand. You can read a review of the publication here, or buy a copy here.

Rope and Pearl [work in progress 2]

Here’s another version of Rope and Pearl, possibly a section that will form a larger piece.

Dear Rope and Pearl *

Thanks for coming to the joint meeting on XXXXXXXX and talking about the problem we named ‘the secret’.

The secret has been going on for about 40 years, though it has escalated in recent months during which you have been forced to have more regular face-to-face contact under observation. As you both declined to describe the origin of the secret, I will focus instead on its current effects on you both.

Rope, you told me that the secret sometimes makes you mistrustful of your sister. You described your fear that she would behave irresponsibly by disclosing information that could put you both in danger (though it was not possible, you said, to disclose the nature of this danger to me). Other effects on you include some difficulty sleeping at night and occasional ‘outbursts’ during which you ‘snap at’ or ‘stare down’ your sister. You said that these outbursts make you feel guilty but that you think they are an inevitable effect of being ‘on a knife edge’ in your sister’s company. You said that the secret’s effects on you were more difficult to bear when Pearl speaks about your shared history, even when these anecdotes are unrelated to the secret itself.

Pearl, you also spoke about the effects of the secret on you. You said that you were living in a state of anxiety and paranoia. You have tension headaches that you associate with the times when the secret is most difficult to bear; these headaches can leave you bed-bound for several days at a time. You also described how the secret upsets you because it causes your sister to act towards you in a way that is ‘unsisterly’ or ‘hostile’. You described how the secret causes you pain and that you try to alleviate that pain by speaking with Rope about what happened 40 years ago.

You both described a time, not long ago, when the effects of the secret were much easier to bear. This was a time of ‘collaboration’ – for example, when Rope was first arrested and Pearl went to visit her. I feel that we made some progress during our meeting when we spoke about this time of collaboration, though I realise you will need to have a more detailed conversation in my absence.

In advance of our review meeting, I encourage you to consider the following questions:

– Pearl, you seem to have strong ideas about what a ‘sisterly’ relationship looks like. Where do you think these ideas come from? What different ideas might Rope have about a ‘sisterly’ relationship?
– Rope, you said that sometimes you ‘over-react’ to things that Pearl says. Which things, in particular, invite you to respond in this way? Are there times when it is easier for you to not ‘over-react’?

I look forward to meeting you both again at our review meeting on XXXXXX.

With best wishes

XXXXXXXXXX

 

* As requested, I will use your nicknames in all future correspondence.

 

Rope and Pearl [work in progress]

Here’s the start of something that I might rework…

Rope sits in her room, gazing out of the window as a late spring breeze ruffles the curtains. The breeze is a little cool for her, but she’s glad of it in this airless place. She pulls a blanket over her knees.

There is a gentle knock at the door and then a member of staff wheels in Rope’s sister. Another staff slips in behind them, and swaps a drooping vase of flowers for a revived one.

‘Thank you,’ says Rope, then she turns to her sister. ‘Hello, Pearl, I didn’t know they were bringing you over today.’

‘It’s a Monday – hadn’t you noticed?’ says Pearl.

The sisters relax into silence for a while, both glancing out at the well-kept lawn outside. The staff sits in one corner, leafing through a copy of today’s newspaper.

The other staff returns with a tea tray and places it on a table between the sisters.

‘How are you then?’ asks Pearl. ‘Are they treating you alright?’

‘Oh, you know, you get used to it. The loss of dignity, the constant surveillance.’ The staff turns a page of her newspaper. ‘The problem is, nothing changes. I’m bored again –’

‘You’re always bored.’

‘And you always interrupt me.’ Rope had spoken harshly, quite unintentionally, and a bruised silence settles between them. Footsteps pass in the corridor outside. The honk of a train, passing at some distance, carries through the open window.

‘You know,’ says Pearl, ‘as they drove me over here we passed a train track and a train sped by – so fast. Do you remember those slam door trains we used to take?’

‘Mhm.’

‘And that time I got embarrassed and couldn’t open the door?’ Rope nods. ‘You were sat opposite me next to that old woman. At least she seemed old to me then – she was probably about the age we are now. And we pulled into our stop and I tried the handle to open the door, but it was sticky and I couldn’t get it open. I rattled it and rattled it. And somehow it made it worse that this old woman was watching me, young and strong, and yet I couldn’t open the door. So you reached across her and opened the door but in our panic to get out at our stop we both tumbled onto the platform. Do you remember?’ Rope nods. ‘And we collapsed into giggles. Until the station guard tapped us on the shoulder and pointed to the train, and we both looked up just as the train pulled away and the old woman was staring at us holding my hat in her hand!’ Rope gives a weak smile. ‘Sometimes I think I haven’t changed a single bit, since then – I’m still that young girl inside. Do you ever think that?’

‘It feels like such a long time ago… It is a long time ago…’ Rope brightens, ‘Tea?’ Pearl nods and watches as her sister pours the tea. She notices the drift of time on Rope’s face, the white hairs – wayward, where their younger sisters were dead straight. She observes the shape of Rope’s hands, inherited from their great aunt and revealing this inheritance more with every day that passes. Her sister had kept her excellent posture somehow, and, Pearl notices with a grimace, she’d also kept that dreadful blanket.

‘You’re lucky, you know,’ says Pearl.

‘What?’

‘You’re lucky to get flowers in your room. They must like you more than me.’

‘Or they think they can bribe me…’ says Rope, flashing a look at the staff reading the newspaper.

‘If there’s anyone they can bribe, it’s me!’ says Pearl, grinning.

Rope leans in to pass Pearl her tea and whispers, ‘You shouldn’t joke about that.’ Her eyes say the rest. As Rope leans back, the staff clicks her biro on. On her lap is a blank crossword puzzle and she carefully writes something in the blank squares.

‘I heard something on the radio last night,’ says Rope, briskly. Pearl reaches into her bag and takes out her crochet things, spreading them on her knees. She untangles the wool and gestures at Rope to go on.

‘It was an astronomer talking about our night sky. He said that everyone used to think that the expansion of our universe had been slowing down. That, after the Big Bang, all the stuff of the universe had been thrown out…’ Rope gestures with her hands, but Pearl’s attention stays on her crocheting. ‘Are you listening to me?’

Pearl looks up, hurt. ‘Yes, of course. The universe is getting bigger, the Big Bang. I’m listening.’

‘The key thing is that they thought the expansion of the universe was slowing down. The man compared it to a ball that had been thrown into the air. At the beginning it goes up fast, then it slows and slows before it falls to the ground again.’ Pearl nods. ‘But apparently this isn’t the case: the expansion of the universe is getting faster, not slower. It’s something to do with gravity repelling as well as attracting – something like that. Anyway, here’s the interesting bit. Because everything’s moving away, and at ever increasing speeds, in the far future the stars in the sky are going to go out. They will be too far away for their light to reach us. So they’ll go out one by one until there’s just blackness up there. And this astronomer said that a future scientist would look at the sky and see nothing around us – just our sun, our moon, the other planets in our galaxy. Beyond that, nothing.’ Pearl looked up at Rope and observed her. ‘So then the question is, would this future scientist believe whatever records have been passed down from our time – whatever remains of our observations? Or would they draw their own conclusions, based on the darkness in the night sky?’ Rope lets silence return to the room.

‘So?’ says Pearl.

‘So what?’

‘So what did your astronomer think?’

‘He thought that the future scientist would be more likely to believe the emptiness they could observe rather than the records from our time.’

‘Bloody hell, that’s bleak.’

‘Bleak? I thought it was rather poetic.’

‘What, all human endeavour, all our science – lost to oblivion?’

‘More like… If such a significant thing can be lost to the future, what else have we lost from the past? Like the library at Alexandria – all that knowledge gone, and only bits of it rediscovered, perhaps. I like the idea that as hard as we try to hold onto this knowledge, there’s no guarantee it won’t be completely misinterpreted generations down the line.’

‘This, coming from a scientist!’ Pearl laughs, but stops when she catches Rope’s expression, dark and stormy. The staff discretely jots something down on her newspaper.

‘So, Pearl, tell me about your week.’

Pearl sets her crocheting to one side. ‘Do you mind if we close the window? It’s freezing in here.’

Take Me Out

Jack was sitting in the Green Room, slouched into a half-comfy chair. One ankle rested on his knee as his fingers tapped against the other knee. He stared at one corner of the room and a succession of images came into view. He was lounging in his bed with stripes of cold, winter light moving slowly across his bedroom walls; pulling shirts and trousers out of his wardrobe; phoning his mum to wish her a happy birthday; blowing steam off a cup of coffee; rubbing his hands together as he stepped out of his house; sweeping crumbs from the passenger seat of his car; misreading a road sign that he thought had said ‘Pet Bottom’; drumming his steering wheel in time to a song on the radio; feeling a sweep of nerves as he turned off his car’s engine. And then, as if from nowhere, he saw a face.

The head was surprisingly tall, with brown hair and a serious expression that occasionally erupted into a childlike grin. 1990s glasses, intelligent eyes, full lips. The man’s face was in motion and Jack noticed dimples on either side of his mouth. He frowned, trying to get an overview of the face away from these details. The man looked familiar and now, as he began to speak, Jack realised his voice was familiar too. The man said:

Many of my evenings in the theatre resemble a hen night.

‘Five minutes to go.’ Jack’s head snapped around to look at the Production Assistant peering round the door, her hand poised on its frame. Their eyes met, then hers slipped down to his chest, the top buttons of his shirt having been provocatively left open by someone in the Costume Department.

Jack cleared his throat. ‘OK. Thank you.’

‘You OK?’

‘Yes.’

‘If you need anything, now’s your chance.’ A twitch of a smile, then she swooped back out of the door again, closing it gently behind her.

Jack gave a long exhale, leaning back in his chair, and then forced himself to his feet. He jumped, short hops back and forth, and flapped his arms, trying to revive some interest in what was going to happen over the next hour or so.

‘What am I doing here?’ He thought, ‘This just isn’t my thing. I’m not going to be able to strike the right tone, to be sexy-and-funny, not sexy-and-creepy. How did I let myself get talked into this? I’ve come to this stupid industrial park in the middle of nowhere and wasted my whole day waiting around. What’s the point?’

Jack glanced over at a muted TV monitor in front of him, showing the mid-stages of the TV show. Andy, who he’d met briefly in one of the waiting areas, was undergoing a ritual humiliation in costume. Was that meant to be a barbershop quartet? The camera cut to a line of women, each stood at a podium with a button in front of them. The women were hitting their buttons, turning their spotlights off and signalling they were out of the dating game for that round. Andy was not doing well.

For example, I’ve walked through an office in the summer — not my own office — and a young man came in wearing shorts because it was hot. There were wolf whistles and people commented how nice his legs were and teased him in various ways. In another case, a female film critic wrote recently that the plot of a rom com made no sense because the male actor was so fat and ugly that no-one would want to go to bed with him.

‘OK, Jack, it’s time.’

Jack followed the Production Assistant down a corridor, his eyes following the line of her back and settling on a walkie-talkie that bounced against her hip. He was led into a large, open plan room filled with people criss-crossing, busily trying to look busy. Wires snaked across the floor. Jack was manoeuvred into a make up chair.

‘Beth! Over here a second…’ Jack saw a man, dressed entirely in grey, reflected in the mirror in front of him and watched the Production Assistant stride over.

‘Hello there. I’m just going to give you a bit of a dusting for the lights,’ smiled a young woman as she leant over him. ‘Close your eyes, please.’

Jack relaxed into darkness and let his mind wander.

When Jack opened his eyes again he glanced briefly at his reflection in the mirror, then took the opportunity to watch the scene playing out over his shoulder.

The Production Assistant was stood with her arms crossed, frowning, and Jack observed her properly for the first time. He noticed she had that knack of dressing in a way that was practical for hands-on work, while somehow making it look classic. Her hair was worn long and unfussy and she seemed at ease with herself in a way he couldn’t quite pinpoint. She was having a conversation — no, a disagreement — with the man dressed in grey. He was animated, gesturing his hands, while the Production Assistant watched him in silence. Jack could tell that the man in grey was her superior, and trying hard to persuade her of something. They seemed to reach a stand off, then the man in grey said something that made her raise her eyebrows.

Jack jumped at the hand on his shoulder.

‘Bit nervy?’ A young man smiled at him. He guided Jack into another room, his fingers hot and damp on Jack’s arm. As they walked together they avoided the intimacy of falling into step, causing the young man’s bag to bump uncomfortably against Jack’s side.
‘Here you go,’ said the man, ‘just stay here — on this spot. I’ll be right over there.’ He retreated to a glowing monitor, staring at it in silence.

Jack stood feeling very much in the centre of the room as a bead of sweat made its way down his back. One of the criss-crossing workers left a distinct smell of toast in her wake, and he realised with a twinge that he hadn’t eaten for hours. He concentrated on trying to catch someone’s eye as they walked past. Jack could hear a clock ticking somewhere but couldn’t locate it in the room. Time seemed to disappear.

The question is, are they made to feel uncomfortable? Watching that young man in the office I felt he was uncomfortable…

The TV show was starting up again below. Jack felt vibrations through his feet and could hear the muffled sound of laughter.

…I think the answer lies in the fact that female sexual responses are, in most cases, more benign and therefore they can get away with it.

Then, from below, the Host’s voice.

‘So we’ve got a space now and we need a new girl. Meet Elizabeth, a tele-marketing saleswoman from Sussex!’

More applause rumbled through the soles of Jack’s shoes. The young man raised his hand, pointing to the ceiling, then, after some minutes had passed, he counted down from five with his fingers.

Jack felt a judder as the circle of floor at his feet began to move down and now, as the seal was broken, the noise of applause and whooping from the floor below crashed into him. A wave of adrenaline travelled through his body, from feet to head. It started with his toes squeezed into newly gleaming shoes, rising through his legs, crossing his tibia, patella and thigh, moving past his hips, his shirt (still provocatively showing his breast,) travelling to his neck and finally his head, his chin, his long nose, his beady eyes, his dark hair with early shots of white at the temples.

*

‘So we’ve got a space now and we need a new girl. Meet Elizabeth, a tele-marketing saleswoman from Sussex!’ Beth felt the eyes of the audience sweep towards her and gave a wide grin. The Host walked over to her.

‘So, Elizabeth, you’ve got an interesting hobby…’

(‘Play nice, now,’) the man in grey said through her earpiece.

Beth looked around the studio, her eyes falling on a stripy top worn by someone in the audience.

‘That’s right — I’m learning to sail!’

The audience applauded as two of the cameras shuffled back for a wide shot.

(‘That’s the spirit. Now you can sit out the rest of the round. We’ve told Paddy to leave you alone…’) Beth’s eyes flicked up to the control room. (‘…I owe you a cocktail.’)

As Paddy walked away from Beth, she exhaled a mixture of anger and boredom. She had worked at Fremantle Media for three years and felt like she had flatlined — no change, no promotion. But up until now she had been spared the humiliation of actually appearing on the mediocre TV shows she had been working on. Beth looked along the row of women to her right: heavily preened, rehearsing the lines given to them by her production company. The level of artifice was extraordinary. This didn’t bother her so much — she was used to artifice — but this show had something extra that niggled. By presenting a line of women with a single man to observe and criticise it managed to be both subversive and utterly mainstream, both progressive and ultra-conservative. One step forward, one step back.

Paddy was busy setting the scene for the next contestant. Then: ‘Let the ginger see the nut. Single man, reveal yourself…’ And the man came down in the lift, his feet showing first. Beth watched the shoes she hadn’t noticed before as they appeared, followed by the legs she didn’t care about, the torso that had some slight interest for her and then, finally, the face of the man from the Green Room.

The man hopped out of the lift and gave an awkward strut in front of the row of women before retreating to his spot. Paddy clapped a hand on his shoulder and asked him to introduce himself.

‘Hello, ladies. My name’s Jack and I’m from Leamington Spa!’

Beth noticed Jack’s little gulp of nerves after introducing himself, which he tried to hide by smoothing his shirt.

After Paddy’s prompt, a cascade of lights turned off — women who, for whatever reason, didn’t like the look of him.

‘…Not a bad start, Jack,’ said Paddy. ‘Now, a few girls have turned their lights off so I’m going to get a feel for the mood out here.’

Paddy picked out various women and asked them why they had turned their lights off, or why they had kept them on.

‘I want a man to have less cleavage than I have!’

‘I like that you’re from Leamington Spa. It sounds exotic.’

Paddy passed in front of Beth to speak with a woman just to her right who had kept her light on.

‘He’s fit, isn’t he,’ she said, before collapsing into giggles, her hand in front of her face. Then, direct to Jack, with a note of apology: ‘I’m sure your personality’s nice too.’

A video played in which Jack introduced himself in a narrative constructed by the TV show producers. He spoke about working for the RSPB (prompting women to turn their lights off), was shown standing in a hide with binoculars, birdwatching (lights off), then eating a meal with his family. He was presented as a sociable man who was looking for someone to settle down with. Beth watched Jack as the video played and the lights went off around her. He was wearing that distant expression she had noticed in the Green Room. He seemed to swing between that dreamy look and self-conscious bouts of twitching, smoothing his shirt, touching his hair, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

(‘Wake up. Turn your light off, Beth.’)

Beth glanced again at the control room and clenched her jaw.

(‘Come on, stop playing around. This guy’s heading for a blackout, can’t you see?’)

Beth looked down at the button in front of her but it was too late, the video had stopped playing and Paddy was congratulating Jack on staying in the game. There were only two women left with their lights on so there was no avoiding it — he had to talk to her. He walked over with a curious look.

‘So, Elizabeth, this is your first round. Tell us why you’ve kept your light on.’

(‘Say it was a mistake.’)

There was a silence. Beth looked from Paddy to Jack and back again. Jack had that distant look, but then he twitched violently and his eyes fell on Beth.

‘Uh… I don’t know, really, there’s just something about him. How can I explain…?’

(‘For fuck’s sake, Beth. Say it was a mistake. Can’t you hear me?’)

Seconds dragged on. Paddy was starting to look bad tempered through his smile.

(‘Beth, I know you’re up to something. If you don’t behave I’m getting you escorted off.’)

‘OK,’ said Beth, ‘Can I ask him a question?’ Paddy nodded. ‘Jack, what’s making you so distracted? What were you thinking about in the Green Room?’

There was a mixture of laughter and stirring in the audience. This was not going to formula. Paddy looked out towards them. ‘It seems,’ he said, ‘these lovebirds have met before!’ Some whoops. He turned to the other woman with her light on. ‘Sorry, love, this is a bit awkward.’ Laughter. ‘Well, Jack, do you want to tell us what’s gone on between you two?’

Everyone in the room looked at Jack. He seemed to be making a dramatic effort not to twitch and tremble. Sweat could be seen beading on his forehead and running down his face through the make up. He opened his mouth to speak.

‘…Mark Lawson. On Radio 4…’

The Host frowned. ‘What was that, Jack?’

‘What was that, Jack?’ said Jack, in a mocking imitation of Paddy’s voice. Jack gulped and flapped his arms at his sides, hopping about like he was on hot coals. He tugged at his collar and snapped his head to the side. Again he opened his mouth to speak and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down but no sound came out. He shuddered as a single black feather drifted slowly to the ground. There was muttering and some laughter from the audience, then a single, piercing scream. Security guards appeared from either side, aiming for Beth, but at the sight of Jack they paused, uncertain. Jack continued to flap his arms vigorously, and as he did so his black shirt seemed to blur and distort, until suddenly it was obvious that his arms were in fact the wings of a giant, black bird. His head jerked and a beak appeared; his eyes became more beady and dark as he blinked away their whites. He doubled over in pain and the security guards advanced towards him, forming a circle, stepping tentatively. Then he sprang away from the ground, flapping his wings and careering at speed towards the ceiling. He crashed with a heavy thud into one of the lighting rigs and fell back to the ground, a leaden lump now, barely a foot long.

*

When Jack woke he winced in anticipation of a headache. He lay for a time with his eyes closed, gradually letting the rush of each sense wash over him in turn. The smell of toast, a sensation of gentle rocking as if he were on a boat, the cool feel of metal against his feet, the sound of voices playing from a radio. Then, slowly, he opened his eyes. He was lying in an unfamiliar room with long, grey cylinders running from roof to floor. Directly beneath him was a bed of words which, after some scrutiny, he realised was newsprint. Jack was having some difficulty understanding the distance between objects and everything seemed to be out of proportion. He lifted a wing to rub his eyes.

From a room nearby there were the sounds of movement and a woman humming. She must have turned the radio up because the words came to Jack now, clear and distinct.

Good afternoon, welcome to Weekend Woman’s Hour. Now, on the show this week…

‘Woman’s Hour!’ said Jack.

There was a cry of surprise from the other room. The woman from the TV show walked over to the cage with a smile. It was a kind smile, but for some reason it made Jack shudder. She was utterly grotesque.

‘You’re talking,’ said Beth. ‘How are you feeling, Jack?’

‘Feeling Jack,’ said Jack. He stood up and pressed himself against the bars of his cage, looking at Beth’s enormous form and the way her lips seemed to balloon from her face as she drew closer to him. She returned and held his look. From the next room the radio continued to chatter, and formed itself into that familiar voice again — the voice of Mark Lawson, a cultural commentator and a regular on Radio 4.

…Well, it’s a similar thing. Phyllida Lloyd referred to a hen night without alcohol. Many of my evenings in the theatre resemble a hen night with alcohol. In Viva Forever when the guy takes his clothes off there’s this huge whoop from the women in the audience; a similar thing happens in The Bodyguard when the same happens there. I’m mildly perplexed by this, what could be seen as a double standard…

Jack watched Beth frown as she shot a glance at the radio.

…For example, I’ve walked through an office in the summer — not my own office — and a young man came in wearing shorts because it was hot. There were wolf whistles and people commented how nice his legs were and teased him in various ways. In another case, a female film critic wrote recently that the plot of a rom com made no sense because the male actor was so fat and ugly that no-one would want to go to bed with him. Now, I just think it’s interesting that if in all those cases you’d reversed it — if you had a bunch of men whooping when a woman took her clothes off, if a male film critic wrote that about a leading film actress, if men in an office commented on a woman’s legs… These are things they’ve learned, correctly I think, not to do. So I’m just interested that there does seem to be a double standard in these issues…

Beth was still frowning, her attention torn between Jack and the words coming from the next room. Jack could see a deep frustration play across her face, mixed with sadness. As they considered each other her breath played against his feathers, ruffling them gently. Jack took a step back and tucked his head down, finding a comfortable position, and considered his predicament. He was aware that his life had undergone a great change but he was struggling to remember what had come before the TV show and waking up in Beth’s home. Strangely, it was a pleasant amnesia, a sensation like lying in a warm bath. He felt a great swell of relief: he no longer had to decide how to navigate his way through life, all decisions had been taken out of his hands. He felt a strong connection with the woman in front of him and a desire to know her thoughts on subjects that bothered him. He felt he could be happy here. He would practice his new voice and find a way of speaking with her and then they would sit together, in this room, discussing the world.

Jack blinked and cocked his head.

‘Such empty eyes,’ said Beth, to herself, ‘like black jewels.’

Embleton Road

A still image. The exterior of a house with a red front door and an estate agent’s sign outside it. A hedge demarcates the front garden and is neatly trimmed. Two young men are outside the house, both with pixellated faces. One is striding away from the house; the other stands at its threshold and looks towards the camera. Belongings are heaped on either side of the front door, including a carved wooden giraffe.

*

A community centre room with a circle of chairs around its edges. Emma is sat on one of these chairs. A man and a woman are at one end of the room, next to a projector and some piles of papers stacked on a table. The projector is on a tilt, propped up by a slim book under one of its legs. The man and the woman are facilitating a training day. The woman, Anna, has just spoken and is looking around the room for a response. A line of faces, thoughtful. Then back to Anna:

“Anyone?”

“The angry boss?”
“Yes, that works. Any others?”

“The moody teenager.”
Anna nods.
“The nightmare neighbour.”
“The kind nurse.”
“The martyred mother.”
“The passionate artist.”

“Good, good. All of these are ‘stock cultural scripts’. They are descriptions we reach for as a kind of shortcut. They limit our choices when we use them because they bring to our minds an idea that is pre-established and doesn’t leave room for information that contradicts it. We already have stories in mind that feature these characters, and think we know how these stories end.”

*

Three women, including Emma, are walking along a street. They consult a piece of paper and then knock on the front door of a house. It is the same house that was in the image we saw before, containing the two young men with pixellated faces. A woman dressed in a skirt suit, Mina, arrives behind them.

“Sorry I’m late. I’ll let you in…”

Mina struggles with the key in the lock and opens the door, then shows them inside. The walls are bright white and everything looks scrupulously clean.

“Here’s the ground floor bedroom… Original fireplaces…”
Emma sniffs. “It’s freshly painted.”
“Yes, it’s been completely redecorated. The carpets are new, too. Let me show you the living room… Sorry it’s a bit cold – the house has been unoccupied for a little while.”

The group moves around various rooms, opening cupboard doors and inspecting the furniture. Natasha opens the door to a bedroom and it drags heavily across the carpet.

“The landlord can get the bottom of that door planed for you – it’s because the carpets are so new.”
“Is the landlord nice?”
“Oh yes, he’s very nice. Always responsive. Though they had nightmare tenants before so they are a bit cautious.”
“Nightmare tenants?”
“Yes, you know: shouting, arguing in the street. They kept two dogs in the house – not allowed – and they actually tore up the carpets, tore them to bits. There was a sofa downstairs – ruined. And you see here, this chunk of wall? The dogs actually took a bite out of that wall. Terrible. They wanted their deposits back after that and we said, ‘Not a chance.’ We had so many complaints from the neighbours. Apparently their dogs would fight in the street. They got quite a reputation. And then, when we got them out, the threatening phone calls started.”
“They phoned your office?”
“They did – demanding their deposits back. But the cost of replacing the carpets, repainting the whole house… No way.”

The group move to another bedroom.

“Are these double glazed?”

*

An older woman, Emma’s mum Jane, is sat in a family living room with a computer on her lap. She looks up at Emma.

“What’s the house number?”
“Forty-eight.”

Jane taps at the computer’s keyboard.

“White front door?”
“No, no – a red one. Google gets the placement wrong sometimes, let me have a look.”

Jane passes the laptop to Emma, and we see its screen. As Emma clicks the camera travels along a tidy street.

“Here you go – it’s the one with these guys outside. Red front door.”

Emma zooms in on the front of the house and we see the two young men with pixellated faces, the heaped belongings.

“Oh my god, I think these are the nightmare tenants our estate agent was talking about. Apparently they had two dogs that fought in the street… It looks like they’re just moving in.”
“You can see a dog there, peeking over the gate!”

Emma zooms in on the front gate and we see two dogs – one looking over the top of the fence, and one poking its nose underneath. The image is dated May 2012.

“May… That seems about right. The estate agent said they were only there are few months before they evicted them…”

Emma explores, moving the camera back and forth, getting different angles on the house. The changing still images create a sense of movement. The dogs move towards and away from the gate and the man at the threshold turns to face the camera. We see he has a cigarette in his hand.

“I wonder if they smoked in the house, too? What a coincidence that Google went past on the day they moved in…”
“Your estate agent mentioned these people?”
“Yeah, apparently they were a total nightmare.”

Patriarchy in the Pool

Slow Guy
His body, suspended and lopsided, tilts and sends shoots of bubbles either side. His trunk rolls at a different pace to his legs, which lag behind and act as brakes to his front half. His head rotates upwards as more bubbles are pushed into the water, bobbing around, clinging to a hand and then dancing up to the surface. His legs go slack and sway, like the movements of a doll shaken in a dog’s mouth, played in slow motion. His hands move stubbily, searching for (but not finding) an elegant arc. At the surface he slaps and sucks the air, but underneath all is quiet – just the gentle fizz of bubbles against my face and the irregular motion of wavelets that reach me.

I have a lot of time to think about patriarchy when I’m swimming in my local pool. Sometimes it’s when I’m stuck behind Slow Guy, amazed that he can struggle and pummel the water so much with so little forward movement. I try swimming with just my arms, pulling my motionless legs slowly behind me, pondering the forces that play on him as he reaches the end, fails to notice he’s holding everyone up, and turns to complete another length inefficiently.

Sneak In Front Guy
He waits at one end, quietly observing the lane. He works on the correct positioning of his goggles, takes a sip of water from a sports bottle, sometimes does some stretches. He settles so that he seems completely still, a groyne which bears its tide mark. Then, just as I’m nearing the end and preparing to turn, Sneak In Front Guy flies away in a funnel of water and swims off, slightly slower than me, a hand’s breadth ahead.

There’s a lane etiquette that seems written and upheld almost exclusively by women. It involves observing the swimmers before getting in, choosing your lane to match your speed, noticing if anyone is close behind you and – if someone behind is faster – pausing at one end so that they can overtake. Sometimes men use this etiquette too, and sometimes women break it, but it’s rare.

Overtaking Guy
His body is equipped with a watch and timer and he always does a neat underwater turn at each end, sleek as an otter, head over heels. He has a beautiful front crawl which is at its most efficient when he’s under a length behind me. He sprints at the overtake, pushing waves of water diagonally across the lane, then seems to relax and slow until he spots another person to pass up ahead.

Patriarchy is a force on the women in the pool too, causing us to position ourselves as overly submissive. We make a show of our lack of speed, using slower strokes, or ostentatiously allow slower people to pass us to set a good example. Either that or it pushes us into sudden bursts of competition, racing others with violent jerks of our legs, or it leaves us to froth quietly, imagining the water around us boiling with suppressed anger.

After an unsatisfactory length pursued by Overtaking Guy, I froth. The entire pool evaporates and all the swimmers drop to the ground, gyrating their hands and legs in positions that seemed natural just a few moments ago. They look around at each other, suddenly embarrassed by their tight, lycra hides and aware not only of the differences between their bodies but also their uncomfortable similarities. They remove their goggles, dust themselves off (though they are perfectly clean) and, with the assistance of a confused lifeguard, struggle their way out of the pool.

They march one by one to the showers before looking down and realising that they are already perfectly dry. Some decide to shower anyway, others frown and head to their lockers, noticing the dry rustle that replaces the usual slapping noise under their feet. They all leave separately, having covered themselves with cotton, polyester and wool mixes, shod themselves and arranged their steam-dried hair. It’s only when they arrive home that they wonder what strange event could have suddenly evaporated the pool, and whether it will ever happen again.