Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is by Scott Langston


A novel about awakening



A southern Cornish beach. Rocky. Sandy. Small children with bamboo fishing nets and bright, new plastic buckets inspect and torture crabs, shrimps and periwinkles: whatever they can find. It's too windy for the beach really. People are huddled behind their variously coloured, but uniformly garish windbreaks. Wind-broken. An optimistically raised beach umbrella - for the sun here, for the threatening rain there - now dances crazily along the shoreline. It is chased, not-chased, by a sunburnt man in his mid-twenties, self-consciously trying to run without seeming to run. The tide is out but turning. Seagulls populate the sand flats, mug-worming when the myriad children, oblivious to the wind, allow them a few seconds' peace. Now and then a lone gannet joins the feast, its black-tipped wings scattering its smaller rivals, but never for long.

In a semi-sheltered cove bobs a bright orange inflatable dinghy. Two boys climb in raucously and allow the larger waves to bail them out, again and again. The boat is tethered to a football-sized rock on the shore. They are no more than ten metres from the beach. A larger wave arrives, unexpectedly, for the boys are waving to someone on the beach, and tips out the smaller of the two, throwing him onto the rope. On the shore, a woman's smile and raised hand freeze. She sees the mooring rock slowly turn over at the pull on the rope and the thrice-wrapped rope unsnakes. The small boy resurfaces. His companion realises he is drifting. The small boy watches as the rope eels past him, not thinking to grasp it. The older boy, still in the boat, paddle-less, doesn't want to abandon his toy. He looks searchingly at the shore, 'What shall I do?' A man is sitting up, following the woman's stare, and now jumping quickly to his feet. He has seen in a shutter-flash what will happen. There is another man walking slowly past the boys, oblivious. The rope is at his feet. The first man wants to call out, but he cannot. He can only run. The little boat moves swiftly into the breaking waves. As the man reaches the small boy at the water's edge, they both see the dinghy overturn. The man starts to swim after it, but it has gone too far, too fast and it's empty now, although he can't see that.

The small boy doesn't move; tries even not to breathe. He has done something horribly wrong. Somewhere is the fear that he'll be in trouble for losing the boat, but he is unable to focus clearly on the idea. He hasn't realised yet, doesn't understand, the twist his life has just taken. He is vaguely aware of voices, panicking, screaming, but he doesn't hear them. He's already once removed from the scenes around him. He sees people running, jumping into the surf much further down the beach. He wonders why they are all moving so slowly. He feels calmer now too. All he can hear are the seagulls' cries and the rush of seawater on sand. The scene is monochrome, colour drained from it as from himself. He realises he is cold, but doesn't move. He doesn't know what to do next. He is not sure where he ends and the ocean around his feet begins.


Martin is sitting in his flat in South London. He is drinking a large gin; actually his third of the day, but he is not counting. He looks to be thinking as he gazes out across the city, but he is not thinking. Rather, more accurately, he is not consciously structuring his thoughts; he is their servant, not they his. This is not a desirable state of existence. Indeed, Martin's situation is not a desirable one. He has not had a good day…

Through the darkness and unfocussed fuzziness of half-slumber, it had taken Martin several seconds to recognise that the relentless ringing noise he could hear was of reality and not of his ebbing dream. After a couple of vague attempts to turn off the bedside alarm clock (those luminous red digitalised numbers staring wide-awake into his sleep-sodden eyes) he was sufficiently awake to realise that his telephone was ringing. The clock from Hell was declaring 4.17.

"Mr. Martin Gelan?" an unrecognised voice had inquired.

"Yes, speaking," he had clearly answered in his mind. "Uh," he had replied into the mouthpiece, as coherently as he was able. He woke. He listened without hearing.

That was just about all that Martin could recall of the telephone call earlier that day. The call, and his staring dumbly at the receiver in his hand once he'd heard the deafening click of the caller hanging up. Paralysed in both body and spirit, something within him took over, pushing him to move, one step at a time, to the bathroom where he vomited copiously. He next found himself dressed and being led from the flat to a waiting car. The news had failed to register; the numbness was already at work. Denial. Nothing was real. He was floating, a body-less spirit, unfeeling, unthinking.

Arriving at its destination, the car pulled to a halt next to a self-declaring 'Polite Notice' informing drivers that, if left here, their vehicles would be immobilised by a private wheel-clamping task force. Martin was oddly concerned about the now forsaken car's welfare, and kept turning to look at its forlornly flashing hazard lights, like an about-to-be abandoned dog's blinking eyes, as he was led up a wide flight of steps at the building's entrance.

Inside the building, he was assailed by artificial light and an incongruous sense of activity. Like a beehive. But one that served no purpose, Queen-less. He frowned to himself, an imperceptible shake of the head, wondering that these people could have things to do, things that they thought were important. As though things still mattered. How could they know? How could they even suspect how much of a game this all was? He felt a little sorry for them. Long corridors led to shorter ones. He was steered by kindly hands, fatherly and authoritative, through the maze, eventually to find himself a quiet and subtly lit room banked with large metal drawers on one side. A white-cloaked woman with an expressionless face opened one of the huge drawers, waiting for a nod of a head from somewhere unseen, before slowly pulling back a green sheet.

Martin had the curious sensation of being alone in the room with her. He felt calm: no rising bile, no fear or imminent collapse. He felt he was there and, at the same time, he wasn't. A serene calmness enveloped him. He felt above and beyond all that was going on around him, a voice somewhere within his depths telling him all was well and as it should be. He felt the vague beginnings of a feeling he couldn't identify, somewhere between contentment and acceptance, and, as if in admonition, a hand gently squeezed his left shoulder. It was a clumsy gesture of inquisition, attempting also to be reassuring, as though the touch of another person's fingers was the link that meant life continued on. He became gradually aware of the other people in the room and of a voice that seemed to be addressing him, like the memory of a recent dream swirling teasingly around the edges reality before succumbing to it. He nodded twice in answer to the inevitable question. He allowed himself, automaton-like, to be led out of the room. One foot in front of the other, then the next, then repeat. It was easy.

It was the coffee, remarkably, that Martin remembered most vividly a few hours later: the bitter, burnt plastic, uncoffee-like taste emanating from the polystyrene beaker he had been given after he was led from the room. "Can I call someone for you? Is there someone you'd like to talk to?" The offers hung in the air, uncomfortable, not comforting. Martin had looked briefly at the face which was addressing him, oblivious to its questions, a million words fighting for ascendancy in his head, none of them finding voice.

Sprawled on the living room sofa, telephone unplugged, stereo exceptionally muted, spirit cupboard as yet untouched and tears stubbornly refusing to come, Martin thought he might be going mad. He took what comfort he could from that notion.

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