Imitation snow on the window, light blazed, bath filled with thick bubbled. Almost time. Later, water clouded and slick with scented oils, the cold invades once more. Time passed, the time is past. The steam misting the cold window now water again, soaking into the snow-foam.
Cold tiles. Feet bare, tread high and find the bath cold, water stale and still. She steps in, lies back. The water moves slows, closes clammily over her skin. Imitation snow on the window spreads milky patches across the sill. The lights are dim, the blue night grey in the white bathroom.
It is a ritual, performed for no one and no purpose. The oil on the surface is flammable and its blue flame dances will o’the wisp in the room. Corpse-lights. Here, Dracula’s coachman sets a rock to dig in the morning. She extends a leg, and allows all to slip greasily back into the water. She speaks, addressing the room. She incants.
The light will soon be on the other side of the window. True snow is promised in the mellow bulge of the clouds, banking over the distant hills. She takes the water in a small bottle, caps it. Curses, blessings, simple comforts for superstitious minds. She trusts its power. Walks, feet flat to the frigid floor, back out the way she came. Time over.
This hole is in your head. You have not imagined it, it is in your head. The line of gold bleeds light into your clear, clouded, pearlescent, missing, hidden, shaded, augmented eyes. Your head is the path. This is not in your mind, it is in your head. Look behind you and see how you ripple through our spaces.
Every time you breathe, you choose also not to and the ripples swim and darken, become deeper and more profound. More of you is gone, till the last of you winks out behind a broken wave. The golden thread dims. Please breathe. Your hesitation causes uncertainty. The wrong choice. You are not prepared for this, even as you have been shaped by the walk to reach this point.
The path you walk to each lighted spot is garlanded; honeysuckle and elderflower, juniper and pine, scents the you of now can follow to the next you. May Queen in July, Spring in November. Your path is scented with change and opportunity, follow to the previous you, along the golden line, through the darkening ripples, through the hole in your head.
The end is always the same. Inevitable. Everything broken. How do we begin to explain how it happens, every time? Sweetness cracked like eggshells, hope dimming on her face. Light palled by drawn curtains, summer alive and prowling at the edges of our experience. Birdsong filters through an open window and the realisation that it is late afternoon comes with it.
Hard, sometimes, to untangle experience from memory. She raised the phone, tapping the screen to bring the unruly focus under control. The screen presented a world much smaller than her sightline, a compacted miniature of reality in a vivid block of light. Colours burst from every passing pedestrian; yellows and reds the summer side of a bloom of flowers, deep rich purples, slow baby blues the colour of a thought as it escaped knowledge.
There. Good. She tapped again and the image froze, briefly, shearing the moment off from the onward march of reality and into a pocket world of memory – the phone’s memory, the memory of the cloud, incorporeal and endless. Her own memory, whenever she needed it.
This fragment was hers, an image of a crowd breaking around her like the sea. No matter how far she came from this world of damp heat and the close tumult of human contact, she could pick this photograph from a digital file and see. How it was. Who she was when she was here, that was contained behind the image but memory is a two-way process. The memory remembers you also.
She lowered the phone, slipped it like a sea-smoothed pebble into her pocket, moved as if she had never been still into the crowd. Off, now, to places of silence.
Light pressed in; the absence of darkness. Heat. A swollen menagerie of floating grotesques bloomed in his eyes as each arc and flare traced its lines on his retina.
He watched through the barrier. It would hold, it would do its job as he did his. He felt at that moment as if he was out there in person, defending the outpost like a knight. His shield held aloft, the bursts of arcing phosphor spears and arrows of a brutish army. He could smell the farmyard rank of the cavalry horses, the sharp fear-stink of the infantry trapped in their metal suits as surely as he was. At the end of the battle they would be prised out as heroes or as meat.
He was in an air-conditioned bunker, far below the surface. The monitors ahead of him blazed with the light of the attack but he felt nothing. No heat. Not even his heart beating faster. A trackball moved under his cool palm, recalibrating the aerial defence system. Eventually even this would be unnecessary. He was Atlas, supporting the sky, becoming stone. Raindrops could, given time, reduce him to dust. He just had to wait.
This is the centre of the school. Wide stairs, lost to the outside, the broad, darkly-lacquered wood last seeing daylight as an expansive oak. These knot-holed bolt-holes are peppered with ghosts of conversations had at right-angles, echoes bumped and rolled through click-clack heel-halls.
Stand here, on the landing, wait for it. Wait for the bell that moves the school, that animates these pass-throughs. So much smaller than adults, children make up for this by filling their immediate environment with sound, with their boiling-hot personalities. Their humanity, still plastic, fizzing, seeps into every woodworm pock in these old beams.
Stand here and let the waves of them crash around you.
Then nothing, and they are somebody else’s puzzle to solve. The staircase eases itself into shape, cracking and shivering. The whispering gallery of interconnected corridors returns. Gossip drifts on dead breezes, the only voices now the low murmur of the teachers. A laugh cracks through the stairwell, gunshot sharp. It chases out a joke that will never be funny again, wrong time wrong place wrong person, it hit there it hit then. Here, in the heart.
The scents of Christmas – cinnamon, pine, the muted sharpness of oranges – were starting to feel oppressive. He’d lost his taste for mulled wine this year, and the warmed-over dregs of a cheap rioja, with shards of broken star anise floating like driftwood on the surface, disgusted him. The snow settling outside depressed him, made him feel trapped and lonely.
Numb to the barbed wire now, pushing on, everything is the same shade of dead around him. The field was churned like the battlefields of the Great War but this is peace time. As much as any time is peace time. No time is peace time. There’s always war somewhere. Soon there would be war here, in these fields sectioned off with high fences and rusted wire. The sky was dark, it was the deep levels of the ocean, stars drifting in his failing vision like the organic motes drifting in the twilight of the sea. Soon he’d sleep, maybe he’d wake up and this would be fine. The cold would no longer bite. The spines of the barbed wire would not be swimming in his blood. He plucked a barb from his skin, a bee’s sting of splintered metal. It hurt more to remove than leave it in, but he could hardly drag a roll of this stuff with him. His own blood, dirty red, fell from the holes he had just opened. More churn to the soil. Was this a dream? If he sat up now with enough effort of will, would he see the daylight of his bedroom? What war was this, that was coming over the hill to greet him with fire, and songs of power? What ends were coming? He shut his eyes. It would all make sense if he could open them in sun.
It was a cold, bright day in harvest season when I met him, and I am still unsure if it was a dream. I woke and do not remember dressing. I was in my parents’ house, and I was late rising. The sun was already crowding in through the windows, through the rippled glass of the internal doors. The smell of coffee filled the kitchen; someone had left a jug to fill in the filter percolator and I took the opportunity to have a cup. It tasted of warm toast and hazelnuts in Winter.
He made the same speech every October, as his subjects grew ripely orange in mist-laid fields. He meant it to inspire them, to give them hope in their futures, to push them on to greater things. He spoke in good faith. He was wrong.