Circle

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I liked you to draw on me. Firm, but not hard enough to draw blood, or to leave a mark beneath the ink. I liked you to draw slowly – lines and waves, definite shapes. I liked circles especially. Closed and neat and whole. Always returning to their beginning, smoothly predictable. You had a good hand. Steady. And you always asked – if you were pressing too hard, if you had strayed too near somewhere sensitive. You never made me feel weird. When I asked you, just once, to see if I liked it, if you would press hard enough to make me bleed, you did. When I barked our safe word (I did not mean to bark, but that’s what came out) you stopped. I liked that you liked it when I decided to leave one of your circles on me – a palm-sized ring just above my right hip – and have it rendered permanent by tattoo. I liked that you understood my frustration with friends and family who could not see the point of an empty circle. I liked that you got that my tattoo was too big to contain a name or an image. That it was too big to contain anything except possibility.

*

I thought, afterwards, about placing your name or your image inside my circle but I could not, for there was no possibility of you coming back. My lovers now trace it with post-coital fingers, and ask me what has faded from inside. You would never have asked such a question. Always, with these lovers, I return to the same datum: they are not you.

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Thunder

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I could barely see through the rain. A metre ahead, if that. The driver’s side window wiper had stopped working.

 

Slow down.

 

I slowed down.

 

There you go.

 

God, that noise. A tattoo of rain. Mist over the road, silent. Thunder crashing overhead.

 

Stop. You cannot see.

 

I could not see. I stopped the car. The rat-a-tat of rain for company. Anxiety subsiding. Then: headlights in the rear vision mirror and the squeal of old, long-unchanged breaks. Footsteps on gravel, the flash of a torch or phone light.

 

Lock the doors.

 

I locked the doors.

 

Start the engine. Drive away. Better to plough into a tree or sign you did not see than…

 

I did not start the engine. I did not drive away. A tap on the window, gentle. I smile, close-mouthed, through the mist. I don’t think they can see me. Another tap. Please be a woman, I think. Not for now the low voice of authority, the strong hands of the car engine enthusiast. For now – give me a high voice, quiet sense, camaraderie if you must but no bluster, anything but bluster. Make me laugh without cruelty. Remind me of the dawn to come. Or fix my wiper and fuck off.

 

Another tap. Still gentle. I wind the window down a little, make an opening the width of a cigarette packet. Breath swirls into the car’s interior. A flash of lightning illuminates a thin, friendly face, framed by a tangle of long, wet hair, dark as the night.

 

‘You alright?’

 

I nod. They nod.

 

‘Can I help?’

 

I don’t think of the wiper. I think of Lennie with her. I think about the next day, the emails I will be replying to long into the night. I think of Lennie with her. I think: help me remember where I was going.

 

What are you?

 

I wind the window down a little more.

 

Then all the way down.

 

Rain flecks the inside of the door, the sleeve of my coat.

 

Yes you can help.

 

I reach into the darkness outside the car. I hold a face, wet like clay under my fingers. My lips press against theirs’. Our tongues search and meet. Our bodies quake.

 

I am reminded of the dawn to come.

 

 

Filament

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You want to know what our universe looks like from Earth. You are curious. You have not been here before. You look up. We see stars, the smear of the Milky Way. You can see further, all the way to the edges of the galaxy filaments that form the boundaries between voids. I think, were we to see such things, our minds would fall over themselves. But you do a little dance, something like a tarantella, fast and light and teasing. This is what you came to see I think. Not for you our paucity of vision, our black blanket of night, its pinpricks of light. For you – supercluster complexes and galaxy walls, expanses of light and time and dark matter we’ve only known were there for the blink of an eye. You’ve always known. It’s tempting to think you put them there but you did not. You must have your own names for them, names as lovely as ours but unpronounceable by our tongues. I reel ours off for I don’t know whose benefit. The Great Attractor. The Pisces–Cetus Supercluster Complex. The Sculptor Void. Names that fall like weights, that seem to cleave the air in two. I think as well of the Zone of Avoidance, the patch of sky obscured by the Milky Way. I know you can see all the way through it, through to the Zone and beyond, wavelengths of light both visible and invisible. I don’t know where your seeing stops. Ours stops with the dust and the stars, and what we physicists call attenuation – the gradual loss of light intensity through space. Our cities obscure our vision even more, but I took you into the desert where the air is clear. It made no difference to you. You could not see the city, like a long-sighted person who can see to the back of the shop but not the newspaper in front of their eyes. The allusion was lost on you. I am lost on you. And yet here you are, dancing on our sand, compressed to a third of your usual size by our unbefitting gravity. I want to see your universe. I want to dance on your sand.

Sheath

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The sheath had once held a weapon, something like a very curved, very fine rapier, but now Freeman was using it to transport an animal. It was one of the newer hybrids so he did not know what to call it. It had four frog-like legs, but was long and thin like a large worm, and had a bird-like head from which emerged two, ever-twitching antennae. Its skin was almost human – soft, pale, lightly furry – and at the base of its stubby tail sat a small, spiky club. This last had been impossible to fit into the sheath so Freeman had simply cut it off and tossed it away in the hope that, in the manner of most of the hybrids, it would grow back once the animal had space to do so.

 

The hoped-for buyer was new to Freeman, someone from one of the outer zones with a taste for the exotic. She had been recommended to him by a mutual acquaintance, a former border guard now turned rogue. The pick up point was one of the old offshore detention centres, abandoned since the government had simply decided to mine the sea, let the refugees drown where their boats took fire. Hardly any boats came now. The world had turned, and turned, and turned against refugees, until the only place that would take them was the ocean, the black depths of which their bodies now thickly layered like new sediments.

 

It was late, and hot. Pinkish sunrays were slanting across the Bismarck Sea. Freeman’s guide was a large, ebullient Papa New Guinean named Samson who had a small boat and knew where the few remaining mines were. Shouldn’t carry that, he had told Freeman on sight of the sheath. People will think it’s a weapon. Freeman had ignored him, affecting a roguish laugh, but sure enough they were attacked as soon as they made landfall – another hybrid, this one humanoid and not for sale. It wielded a shotgun. Dark man go, it said, and Samson shrugged and rowed his boat away. What that? Freeman emptied the sheath out onto the sand, the drugged, unconscious creature collecting in a heap, a new tail club unfurling like a time-lapsed flower coming into bloom. Which hybrid? It meant Freeman or the animal – was evidently not that bright. Me, said Freeman, I’m the hybrid. He remembered, suddenly, a strange contortion of the elbow he used to perform to amuse his school friends, and he did it now, evidence enough, he hoped, of his superhumanness. The hybrid beamed, and shot Freeman’s animal clean in half, the noise reverberating around the island like thunder. Just you me now, the hybrid said, shotgun trained on Freeman’s chest. You fetch good price. Freeman risked a look behind him but Samson was gone. Fire danced on the sea.

Brace

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She had known her flight had been delayed since just after she had woken up in her hotel room at 5:00am but had gone to the airport as planned anyway, arriving hours before her flight. She would not get back to sleep if she tried, and anyway the room had stopped making her happy. It had on the first night, with its luxurious sheets and hospital corners and faintly exotic view of the esplanade. But he had not showed up, and he had not answered her calls. The room, once full of promise, seemed to have grown cold in the increasing sureness that he was not coming, that, perhaps, he had been lying to her since the beginning. In the circumstances, she did not mind Ubering out into the cool 6:00am world, the hotel room – a coffin of silenced possibilities – receding into the bluish, pre-dawn distance behind her.

 

She had kept checking her phone in the Uber, nervous, panicky. What if something had happened to him? What if he had tried to get in touch but her phone was not working properly? Her phone was fine. Theon had texted. Morning baby! Can’t wait to see you. Safe travels! Xxx. They had had a conversation about air safety before she had left for the conference she had told him she was going to, one of those hypnogogic late-night dialogues between couples that ebb and flow like a dream. ‘The brace position kills more people than it saves,’ he had ended up saying as she drifted near the brink of sleep. ‘Breaks the neck.’ She thought this was bullshit, and told him so, only her language had been softer, more open. She had recalled hearing about a plane crash in which the only survivor had been the sole passenger to correctly assume the position. And hadn’t there been a Mythbusters about it? But she could not remember if the myth was that people who braced in air crashes died or did not die, and she could not remember what conclusion the hosts had reached. He had held her that night as he always held her – not spooning, but lying on his back with one arm outstretched, his palm resting on her hip or buttocks.

Vanilla

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It was Thursday, late night shopping day, and Jolyon and his mother had reached the freezer aisle. Jolyon was bored, slump-shouldered and near to tears. He had been thinking for some time about a game a boy at school had told him about. He couldn’t remember what the boy had called it but the idea was simple enough: to compete with someone to see who could sneak the most expensive item into a random shopper’s trolley without them noticing before getting to the checkout. Jolyon didn’t have anyone to compete with – he could hardly ask his mother to play and, in any case, he had decided to play a lower risk version of the game, one in which it was his mother’s trolley that was the target. He had already got a packet of shortbread biscuits in there, some disgusting-looking brown bread, a three-pack of baby socks, and a stack of those puzzle magazines people buy to take on planes with them. Now he was eyeing off the ice cream, stretching out along both sides of the freezer aisle in Babylonian walls of sugary splendour. His mother only ever bought vanilla, boring old vanilla, white and plain and bland. As he looked up from the lino, where something had recently been spilled and mopped up badly, he saw her standing there, a two-litre tub of home brand vanilla ice cream in her hand. She seemed oblivious to the cold, the faint, wintry swirls peeling off the tub and reaching, graspingly, out of the open freezer door.

‘It’s so expensive,’ she muttered. ‘Even the cheap stuff.’

That was because, Jolyon thought but could not be bothered to explain, there was a world shortage of vanilla – something to do with the big companies developing a sudden preference for the real over the artificial versions – and prices had risen accordingly. There was basically only one country, he had heard somewhere, where vanilla was produced, and even there – where was it? Mongolia? Macedonia? – the flowers only opened once a year. These were interesting facts, Jolyon thought, not vanilla at all. If his mother knew, he thought, she probably would not be complaining. Maybe supermarkets should be more like art galleries, he thought, with little bits of information tacked to the walls next to everything so you could see where things had come from, how they had been made and transported, and what you were supposed to do with or think about them now that they were here.

His mother was crying.

‘Mum?’

She sniffed but did not look at him. He looked at her hands, pinkish and raw-looking from the cold. He had clearly misjudged her mood, would be in terrible trouble when they got to the checkout and she discovered all the things he had stowed away in the trolley. He might even be grounded, something that hadn’t happened since Dad had died.

‘Mum. I’m sorry. I’ve been putting things in the trolley you didn’t want. Stupid things. I know how you always say to keep to the list or we won’t be able to afford everything. I didn’t keep to the list. I’m sorry.’

She glanced sideways at him, a single, fleecy sleeve flicking out to wipe away tears, snot. Her eyes were red like burning coals.

‘I’m just thinking of those flowers,’ she said, ‘in Madagascar. The ones the vanilla comes from. They only open for one day a year, you know. Isn’t that something? Blink and you’d miss it.’

She slipped the tub of vanilla ice cream into somebody else’s trolley when they weren’t looking, grabbed the biggest container of Neapolitan she could see, and headed for the checkout, Jolyon trailing silently behind her with the trolley.

Pendulum

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Content warning: suicide

 

Nobody I have been close to has ever died. I’m now 33 and might reasonably have expected this not to be the case by now. But I did not know any of my grandparents well enough to grieve them in a profound way when they died. (I’m determined to write about this without resorting to the euphemisms with which we smear the reality of death – ‘lost’, ‘passed away’, and so on – but am aware that never having ‘lost’ someone myself may well make this easier for me than it might be for others.) I’ve been intermittently worrying about this for years, specifically about my ability (or otherwise) to cope when, inevitably, a friend or family member dies. For if I’m honest, the deaths that have affected me most in life have been those of animals, not people – namely my childhood dogs, the German Shorthaired Pointers, brother and sister, that we called Jess and Jack. Jack, having been hit by a car, lived much of his life on borrowed time, and Jess ultimately longer until she started to have fits and had to be ‘put to sleep’ – another euphemism – by a home-visiting vet. I was in the room when it happened but couldn’t watch, cried buckets anyway. I still regularly dream about Jess and Jack, half a lifetime ago though it was.

 

I have been to two funerals in my life that I can recall: that of a childhood friend who went away for treatment for a rare bone disorder from which it seemed for a time he would recover but did not; and that of a friend – a former girlfriend’s friend in the beginning – who killed himself (not ‘took his own life’, not ‘committed suicide’). I was not what you would call close to either when they died but I nevertheless remember my heart breaking each time: the first at the sight of that tiny white coffin, so wrong in its dimensions, bearing the boy’s undersized body; the second because, during the funeral service, my friend’s father observed, rightly, that his son would have – should have – made a great father, an impossible thing to hear.

 

The mother of one of my best friends died suddenly last month, the victim of an accident so freakish a report in the local newspaper had it that the chances of dying in such a way were slimmer than being fatally struck by lightning. Not long afterwards, two dear friends lost – I wrote that before I could stop myself – their beloved dog. I don’t mean to conflate these two deaths but they came hard on each other’s heels, and have left me thinking about death, and what it leaves behind. (Just before I began this post, another friend texted to say her grandfather ‘might be dying’. Even in death, it seems, every bus comes at once.) Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum contains the line ‘even in the grave, all is not lost’. Poe, as his writings make amply clear, was not a happy man, and it may be that he had something entirely supernatural in mind when he wrote these words, but I detect in them a note of redemption, of the way lives are continued beyond the corporeal by memories and ideas. I’m suspicious of all ideas of immortality, that anything we know of can compensate for the destruction of the physical body. But there is, I think, some measure of comfort to be found in the idea that life is multivalent, that it stretches over many canvasses even as some pictures burn bright, and others fade away.

Concrete

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1.

 

The word concrete derives from the Latin word concrescere, from con– (together) and crescere (to grow). To grow together.

 

2.

 

The Colosseum was built from unreinforced concrete. Most large structures built today from concrete are reinforced.

 

3.

 

Dams. Dams are concrete. Except when they are made from bread, or sticks, or aggregates of human flesh and blood and bone mixed with lime.

 

4.

 

In Australia, where brutalist architecture was invented, concrete holding towers modelled on Smeaton’s famous lighthouse, were built during the War on Terror to house enemy aliens.

 

5.

 

In the 1970s there was a whole department of the BBC dedicated to proving the theory that inanimate matter such as concrete can record and play back human voices, the source of all known hauntings. The department produced a documentary on the subject, which can be watched in full on YouTube, called Voices from the Stone.

 

6.

 

To concretise is to make an idea or concept real, to give ideas and concepts specific or definite form. A car park is the concretisation of the idea of a car park.

 

7.

 

They did not pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Paradise is a parking lot.

 

8.

 

In post-war Britain and Russia, concrete apartment blocks were hastily constructed to house those whose homes had been destroyed by German bombs. As many as a million bombs had fallen on some houses, making craters so deep that some of these apartment blocks could be built directly into them and not be seen from road level. In the event of the Cold War going Hot, the Americans unsuccessfully experimented at this time with concrete-eating bacteria.

 

9.

 

Brutalism has nothing to do with the word brutal. The name comes from the French term béton-brut, which means raw concrete.

 

10.

 

Raw-head (n.). Also rawhead, name of a nursery spectre or ‘scare-child’ (usually coupled with bloody-bones), early 16c., from raw (adj.) + head (n.). Members of the BBC’s Voices from the Stone team heard the screams of so-called raw-heads but, whenever they played back their recordings, there was nothing there.

 

11.

 

Humankind has dreamed of a space elevator for many years. It is possible we will be able to build one by 2035 but it is doubtful concrete will be used in its construction. More likely, such a build would utilise diamond nanothreads, which are real, and were invented in 2014 by an Australian.

 

Leaf

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She had devised the question herself but had been staring at it, written at the top of the page in her small, neat handwriting, for an hour without the slightest inclination to give an answer. What is the significance of the tree in Waiting for Godot? The essay was formative, not summative, so perhaps, simply, she did not care enough. Or maybe she really had no idea. She had liked the play, she thought, had even laughed out loud while reading it. She couldn’t understand why people found it depressing (perhaps she should have written her essay about that instead). But the tree? In all honesty, she hadn’t thought that much about it.

 

She turned to the first page of the play. A country road. A tree. Evening. She remembered Mr Nelson, her drama teacher, telling her how strict Beckett’s estate were about productions of the play, that you had to abide by the stage directions to the letter, couldn’t fuck around with any of it or they’d fuck around with you (he may not have used those exact words). Surely, she thought, that was how you killed a work of art, stripped it of potential new approaches and meanings to the point of lifelessness (perhaps she should have written her essay about that instead). She did not have much respect for the estate of Beckett who, she thought, should probably just write their own plays and put them on how they wanted and stop murdering the magnificent artistic legacy they had been fortunate enough to inherit.

 

She turned to the first page of the second act of the play. The tree has four or five leaves. Next to this, in the margin of the book, she had scrawled: a symbol of hope? She pulled out her phone and Googled the idea, checked out a few of the hits. On a not very professional-looking website someone had written: As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” She copied this sentence onto her blank page, not intending to plagiarise – she would, of course, excise it from the final, typed-up version of the essay – but in the hope that doing so would shake something loose, spur her to some insight of her own. Nothing.

 

She looked up at the clock. It was almost seven, and she had agreed to meet a friend in the park at quarter past. Perhaps they could swap notes, she thought, but then remembered he did not do English or drama – he was a science type, which was basically why she liked him. He would understand if she texted, told him she had not finished – started – her homework, and that they would have to hang out another time. As she thought this, her phone buzzed. It was him. He was tired, and had not finished his homework either, and could they meet in the park another day? She tried to think of a witty reply but could not, so texted back a thumbs-up emoji (medium skin tone) instead. He did not reply.

 

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed. This, too, was from the not-very-professional-looking website. This, too, she copied into her notebook. Nothing. A play in which nothing happens, twice. Hadn’t a critic said this about Godot? Was it Emily Atkins, she of the “indication of the characters’ impending salvation” observation? It was a good line anyway, she thought, a line a stand-up might have come up with, a line that, in a way, Beckett himself might have written. She wrote this down, hoping it would sound – if it made it to the final draft – as clever to Miss Somasundaram as it had to her when she had thought it. Miss Somasundaram was a fan of metatextuality, and she remembered her saying something about Beckett’s theatre (she always talked about ‘Beckett’s theatre’, rather than Beckett’s plays) being ‘alinear’. Maybe, she thought, she should just hand up two blank sheets of paper, and call her work ‘An Essay in Which Nothing Happens, Twice’. Miss Somasundaram would probably, at least, laugh before failing her.

 

She looked at the clock again. Curiously, it had stopped, the second hand ricocheting sadly between the same two indices. It was the last day of summer, and she would have had to change the time the next day anyway so took the clock down and put it on the kitchen bench, unable to remember where her mother put the spare batteries since they moved house a fortnight ago. Now that she was up, she could not bare to return to the essay. It was the last day of summer, and she wanted to go to the park to look at the trees before their leaves changed colour and fell away.

Mollusc

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The snails had emerged in number after the rain, and now the boy was placing them, one by one, in a sandwich bag. The rain – the first there had been all holidays – had been hard, but had now stopped. The air, earthy with its scent, hummed with the sound of water running down the outside of the house. There were a dozen snails in the boy’s bag, each languidly flexing its foot against the bag’s inside walls, glistening with mucus. The boy had set such bags out in the sun before, and watched as the snails therein slowly boiled inside their own shells, but there was no sun today – just the wind, and the rain, and skies the colour of ash. He had decided he would take a mallet to them instead, a big, rubber-headed one that Dad kept in the shed for hammering tent stakes into the ground when they went away. As usual, Dad had forgotten to lock the shed so getting the mallet was easy. But now the boy stood in front of the bag, its contents slowly squirming, the weapon – for that’s what, in his hands, it had become – limp. The frying of the snails had been relatively impersonal – he had simply walked away, and come back a couple of hours later to find them seared into a smoky, shapeless composite – but this felt different, less passive. Anger would have helped, but the boy felt none. It was boredom that had driven him to this, the unique tedium of the only child at a loose end, temporarily friendless and without anything good to read. The mallet felt neither light nor heavy in his hand. He had swung it before, at stakes and screws and bricks. He had clubbed himself with it, once mashing a toe so badly that it had almost required plastic surgery to repair, but never another life form. He prodded the bag with his boot. The nearest snail struggled drowsily against the bag, its stalk-like eyes probing the moist plastic. As the snail arched up suddenly, leaving a streak of mucus on the bag, the boy could see its mouth, a tiny, dark slit shaped like a frown. ‘Sam,’ the boy thought, the name seeming to come from nowhere in its easeful alliteration. After a moment the boy put the mallet away and sat on the step, waiting for sunshine.