|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it. The author does not claim ownership of the character of 'the Librarian' in this story.|
His name is Dominic and he's never been on a boat before today. He's saved up his fare and now he's sailing all the way to the other side of the world. He's going to find his fortune.
His fare, he has discovered, doesn't cover anything in the way of a bed, so he's left to make his own arrangements for the night. He walks the boat aimlessly, from the back to the front, and then to the back again. Someone, somewhere, is playing a tune on a tin whistle. Dominic wonders what the bits of boats are called, properly speaking, and whether really he ought to name it a ship. He wonders whether these are things he needs to know.
He finds the Yorkshireman tucked in between a couple of crates, half slumped on the deck, his hat pulled down over his face.
"All right?" says Dominic.
The Yorkshireman pushes his hat up again, looks at Dominic. "Aye," he says. He pulls a baccy tin out of his coat pocket and begins rolling a cigarette. Dominic sits down next to him. The boat goes up. Down. Up. Down. It rocks and it creaks. The sea and the sky bleed together into shadow, as night begins to fall.
"I hear," says Dominic, "that there are birds in New Zealand that can't fly. They've got wings but they can't fly."
"Oh aye?" says the Yorkshireman, looking down at his hands. "That right, then?"
"That's what I heard," says Dominic. "Lend us a fag, will you?"
The Yorkshireman eyes him for a moment, and then throws him the cigarette he's just rolled. Dominic nods his thanks.
"My gran," he says, "had a bird that couldn't fly. Canary or something. Couldn't do nothing but hop up and down, on its little perch. I think she fed it too much."
The Yorkshireman looks up then, and smiles at Dominic, and Dominic smiles back.
"Chance'd be a fine thing," says the Yorkshireman. He has a gentle, quiet voice.
"Do you think," says Dominic carefully. "Would it be all right with you, if I were to bed down here tonight?"
The Yorkshireman shrugs. "I'm not stopping you," he says.
A breeze blows over them, and Dominic shivers. The waves seem to lap darkly at them, at the men in their little ship.
"Just hope it don't rain," says the Yorkshireman, pulling his coat tighter around him. Dominic looks at him, and nods, and thinks that there's more than one way for a man to make his fortune.
Two: To sleep
It was the trolley thing, really, that made him realise just how seriously wrong everything had gone. Well, obviously he'd twigged a while back that he had problems, but now he was getting a horrible feeling that he'd underestimated. He was lying at a weird angle on the grass, so all he could really see were those stretchy, Meccano-like legs with the wheels at the bottom. All shiny: clinical, like. It was coming towards him, the trolley thing, across the lawn, although he didn't imagine it was actually under its own power. He thought there were probably some people pushing it. There was a special name for those trolley things, wasn't there? God, what was it? Tip of his tongue... Well, no. Not his tongue, as such. Not the tongue itself. He didn't exactly have access to that any more, or indeed to any part of the rest of his mouth. Or body. Yeah. Something was pretty wrong, all right.
Still, at least it didn't hurt any more. That was nice. Because it really had been hurting quite a lot, in fact. So much that he hadn't thought at the time that he was actually going to be able to bear it much longer. But that was the kind of thing people said, wasn't it? "I can't bear it." It wasn't like you really had a choice in the matter. But maybe ... maybe this was what happened when you really couldn't bear it any longer. It just went away.
When they put the blanket over his head, Sean realised he wasn't actually breathing any more. The sensation, or lack of it, reminded him of something, although he couldn't think what. Swimming ... underwater, something? It wasn't ... comfortable, exactly. It was difficult to get used to. He kept wanting to take a breath, and then realising he no longer had control over his lungs.
Someone was speaking; Sean could hear them through the blanket, although he had a funny feeling that his ears were now irrelevant to the process.
"Poor bugger." It was some bloke. "Tell you what, Pat's going to be upset. She loved him in that ... what was it he was in?"
Someone mumbled something. Sean couldn't make it out.
"No..." said the first voice. "No, that -- where he was a soldier. Costume whatsit--"
"Sharpe, yeah. That's the one. No, she loves that. Got them all on tape. Never bothered myself."
After that, things got very boring. Sean was left alone, lying on his back with just a sheet over him. Things were silent and dark. Then they were silent and light. Only, at some point, he realised that things weren't actually silent at all. Something in the room was making a very faint buzzing sound. Probably a, you know, light thing. Lightbulb. Anyway, once Sean had noticed that, he kind of wished he hadn't.
In order avoid listening to the buzzing, or, well, actually thinking about any of this, Sean played chess with himself in what he supposed was still allowed to call his head. Strictly speaking, he played chess with Viggo. They'd had this game going over the e-mail, and Sean thought it would be a shame not to see how it turned out. When it got to checkmate, he felt pleased. Then he realised that Viggo was never going to know how badly he'd lost, and he stopped feeling pleased, and felt sad instead. He started another game, but this time he couldn't seem to remember any of the moves.
He really hadn't been looking forward to the whole coffin thing, but once he was actually in, it didn't seem so bad. He thought that, if he'd still been able to feel things, he would have found it surprisingly snug. He was tired. Things felt grey. He couldn't remember now why he was in a coffin, but he didn't think it mattered much.
Funeral. The word came to him out of nowhere, drifted around a bit, and seeped into the coffin lining. He didn't recall anyone telling him anything about a funeral. He hoped it wasn't someone he knew well. At least he seemed to be dressed properly. Not like those horrible dreams where you suddenly find yourself walking though Richmond in your underpants, or something.
And there were voices, speaking dimly, as if through cobwebs. All talking about ... someone. He knew the sort of thing. Stories.
He wished he could remember more of the names for things.
There was laughter, that kind of raw laughter you only get at funerals. It echoed very faintly inside him, and then, slowly, it faded out.
Three: This most excellent canopy
It's well fucking hot. All day Sean's been feeling like he's bleeding sweat, sweating blood, whatever. The factory feels like a fucking Turkish bath, this weather; he said to Steve in the pub, he said, I thought I saw a heat haze earlier, a whatdyoucallit? Mirage. Everything went all wobbly. And Steve said you should get yourself checked over, like. Serious. His auntie suffered from heat stroke once, nasty thing. Plenty of fluids, that was the key, he said. You'd best get a round in.
The flat's like a greenhouse, even with all the windows open. The windows here are too big, too high. Sunday morning he woke up damp with sweat, from a dream about some desert or other. Lizards hopping about, all that. One of these days he thinks he might just fry in his sleep.
He peels off his clothes and chucks them in the direction of the laundry basket, walks naked into the kitchen and makes himself a gin and tonic. Crunching on ice cubes, he wrenches open the door to the balcony. Balcony's a bit of a strong word for it, maybe. It's like a lidless concrete box stuck on the side of the building, just long enough for Sean to lie down flat on his back, the concrete cool under him, his head amongst the plant pots. He can smell the mint and lemon thyme. The balcony wall hides him from the city. It's funny how traffic at night can sound like something gentle, lapping like the waves on the sea.
Stars are out. Really sharp, no cloud. He can always recognise Orion and the Plough, but he doesn't know the rest. Great big massive flaming worlds, winking and twinkling at him like fairy lights. He should go to the library sometime, look them up.
He yawns. It's still too hot. He reaches for his drink and holds the cold glass to his face. The ice rattles gently inside it.
Is space endless, or does it stop somewhere? How could it? What would be on the other side? But forever is weird to think about. There's so much of it; so much stuff out there. There's room out there for everything to happen that hasn't happened already. Maybe there's another him out there, a him who made different decisions, and is living another life. He doesn't know whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing. It makes him feel small.
He shivers a bit, even in all the heat. He closes his eyes, and all the stars go out at once.
Four: Perchance to dream
"Hi Viggo, yeah it's Orlando. Yeah, good, yeah. I--"
"Yeah? Sounds good. Yeah. Cool, cool. No, listen, Viggo -- the reason I was calling -- I just wondered, have you heard from Sean lately?"
"Really? Yeah, like really long, fucking weird messages on your machine? Yeah, no, I've been getting them too. That's what made me..."
"No, I know, that's the weird thing. I mean it's like -- if it was you, I wouldn't bat an eyelid, but..."
"Ha. Yeah, whatever you say, man. So ... do you reckon he's all right, or what?"
"Well, look, I'm gonna ring round a bit, see-- Oh, hang on... Look, mate, I've gotta go, I'm wanted on set, but -- you take care, yeah? I'll keep you posted."
"You too, Vig. Good speaking to you ... yeah, I know, we should talk more often. Okay, see you soon. Yep, sure. See you. Bye."
The dreams always ended the same way, too, with Sean being nailed into a coffin and buried alive. But in between the beginning and the end, pretty much anything could happen, and frequently did.
He tried to ignore it at first -- after all they were only dreams. Nothing to get worked up about. But after three weeks of waking up drenched in sweat, heart pounding, he made an appointment with his doctor.
The doctor was very reassuring; he said words like 'anxiety' and 'stress', and prescribed a course of pills that did absolutely nothing, except that after that Sean sometimes dreamt about pills. He went about his daily life in a kind of jittery daze, his mouth rank and bitter with coffee, his face an unpleasant shock in the mirror. People said, "Are you all right, Sean? You look a bit..."
He was fine, he'd reply, and smile. Should get to bed earlier.
When he woke up, he could never quite work out how he got from the Ealing Broadway bit to the being buried alive bit. He would lie awake for hours sometimes, just trying to piece it together in his mind. It seemed important. He'd remember a tiny detail, something seemingly innocuous, yet which sent unidentifiable things crawling, cold and shivery, up his spine. There was a whole sequence, for instance, to do with a particular kind of crystallised brown sugar that he remembered from his childhood. It was some lady his mother knew; she'd always served it in this little silver sugar bowl, with a tiny spoon, and he'd been fascinated by it, and wished they could have it in their house. In the dream though, it seemed to take on a terrible significance. He watched it coming towards him, endlessly, endlessly, the little brown crystals on their little silver spoon. He had to watch, he couldn't look away. He watched the sugar until they came to put him in the coffin.
Another time it was the end of the world. He saw a car smash into a shop window (in Ealing, perhaps? But it looked more like Sheffield) and there were riots and dark smoky shapes hanging in the pale blue sky. It got very cold, and his breath turned to ice in the air. His daughters were there, all lined up on a striped settee, and he told them he loved them, and his mother was there too, standing in a doorway in her nightdress. After that one he had to get up and put the heating on, and all the lights.
In one of the dreams, he wanted to have sex with Orlando, but instead he was made to sit a maths exam with some annoying children who kept stealing stuff out of his wallet. When he finally got back to Orlando they held hands under a patchwork quilt, which for some reason was extremely disturbing. Then he got buried alive again. The next day Orlando called.
"Oh, man, finally caught up with you! So, listen, I'm in town for a few days, and I thought I might stop in for a cup of tea some time. Listen, Sean, are you sure you're all right? You sound a bit..."
"So you were the captain of this ship, yeah?"
"No, I was the first mate."
"Who was the captain?"
"Viggo was the captain."
Orlando nodded. "Makes sense. And then what happened?"
"Well," said Sean, "I suppose it was more like a submarine, really, because it was like we were underwater. It was very dark. Warm and dark. But there was this light up ahead, like we were coming closer to the surface. And Viggo said, 'We are nearing the end of our mission. Your wife and children will be very proud of you.' And I said, 'Thank you sir, but I'm not married just at the moment.' And then, I dunno, it was like we'd washed up against an invisible wall, or something. And I looked out, but all I could see was grass. And people's feet. And I knew I was looking out of my own eye. From the inside, I mean."
"And I was screaming and waving, but no one knew I was in there. And I couldn't get out. So they put me in a coffin and buried me. Because they thought I was dead."
"Weird." Orlando sipped his tea. "Have you got any biscuits, or anything?"
"No," said Sean. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair. He thought maybe he was too tired to deal with Orlando today.
"So, have you, um..." said Orlando." Have you had any dreams about me?"
Startled, Sean looked up. "Have I... About you? Um, no. None at all. None about you."
"Oh. Funny. No, it's just that I've been having loads about you lately."
"Yep." Orlando smiled. "Not scary like yours, though."
"No. Quite nice, in fact." He nodded slowly, then looked at his watch and stood up. "Well," he said, "I should let you get on. Can't stay here chatting all day!" He flashed Sean a bright and cheerful smile.
Sean cleared his throat. He looked back at the house. His bedroom curtains were flapping out through the open window, and he felt a great weight begin to descend on him, a warm and stifling weight. He really, really didn't want to be buried again tonight. He put a hand on Orlando's arm.
"You could, er, stay a bit longer, if you want?"
Orlando looked at him. "Sure," he said. "Why not?"
A light breeze blew through the garden, rustling in the leaves of the apple tree, ruffling the hairs on Sean's arms. Orlando smiled. And Sean felt himself begin to relax.
Five: Our little life
"What you reading?"
Sean's cellmate looks up from the book that lies on the small desk and twists round in his chair, straightening his glasses as he does so. The Librarian, they call him, because he's in there all the bloody time. Or sometimes they call him Professor. Witty bunch, prisoners. Nobody's quite sure what he's in for, and Sean doesn't like to ask.
"Mm? Oh, it's um ... Anglo Saxon poetry, actually -- a sort of ... lament." He smiles a little bemusedly, and turns back to the book.
Sean shifts on the bunk, stares up at the ceiling. Outside, the rain beats wildly on the reinforced prison glass. The wind sends it howling in irritable gusts, first one way and then another. A storm is building.
"Yes." He sighs and pushes the book away, turning round to face Sean properly. "The wife -- the narrator -- is lamenting the loss of her husband, because ... well, they've been separated. He's been forced to leave her, by his -- by his kinsfolk, his family. And she's been banished to a barrow, a -- a 'hall of earth'. She's in exile."
"Banished," says Sean, with a grin. "Very appropriate, that."
His cellmate removes his glasses and rubs at his eyes. "Just a coincidence really."
"Sounds like a sad story."
"Yes, well, er ... as a matter of fact, much Old English poetry does seem to have a ... slightly melancholic tone. I expect it's something to do with the weather." He blinks, and continues in a distant tone. Perhaps he's forgotten Sean's there. "Come to think of it, it's a streak that runs through most of the English canon. Melancholy. Hamlet, you know? The Gothic novel. Uh, and the Romantics, I suppose. The Anglo Saxons actually had a word for it -- they called it dustsceawung. Means 'contemplation of dust'."
Sean contemplates the ceiling tiles, his hands folded behind his head. "'And yet, to me,'" he says, "'what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither...'"
His cellmate blinks again. Sean smiles at him. "Well, there's no need to look so surprised! I know me Shakespeare, you know."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to be presumptuous. Unforgivable really."
"S'all right. I forgive you."
A silence falls on the small room. On the other side of the bars, the sky begins to darken.
"Read some," says Sean.
"Read some of your Anglo Saxon to me."
"Well ... all right. If you like." He smiles uncertainly. "Erm ... Ich this giedd wreece, bi me ful gemorre, mirre sylfe sith ... I'm afraid my pronunciation's probably terrible..."
"What does it mean?" asks Sean.
"It means, well, something like: 'I make this song of my deep unhappiness, of my own fate.' "
"Hm. She does sound sad."
"Yes, she does."
Outside, the first low growl of thunder vibrates heavily across the sky, but neither man gives any sign of having heard. Each is enclosed in his small private universe.
"I suppose," says Sean's cellmate with a half-hearted little laugh, "it's something we can all relate to, isn't it? E-especially in here. Separation from loved ones, all that. Do you, er ... have someone? A wife?"
"Not a wife, no," says Sean. "Just a someone."
"What about you? You got a someone, somewhere?"
"Well, er -- after a fashion, I suppose. Not, perhaps, in the way you mean. But yes, she's a someone. Was. She died."
"Yes. So am I. Very sorry. I wish I could have told her that."
The thunder is growing louder. Nearer.
"Perhaps," says Sean, "she forgave you anyway."
Sean's cellmate closes the book with a snap and clears his throat. He stands up and begins to arrange his books and papers into neat piles. Outside, the rain falls and falls, as though it might never stop.
Sean lies still on the bunk. I make this song. Of my own fate.
Lightning flashes silently, suddenly, in the sky, lighting up the room and the whole world. Both men look up.