Gathering Senses

Gathering Senses

I

A giant bearded face peers down from the sky. I stare back at him through my bedroom window but his gaze won’t be broken. His eyes are wispy, like they’re too sad to hold themselves together. They sit beneath a forehead that wrinkles the more I look at it. A woolly beard covers his round cheeks. His mouth seems to be forever parting yet unable to speak.

The world is fresh against my face as I lock my front door. Looking up, I can only see the back of the giant’s head. He has turned from me even though I’ve done as he asked. I quicken my footsteps towards the hill so that I can confront him.

Turning into the park, I see the path before me stretching upwards to the cold blue sky. Behind me is grey and noisy, ahead silent and lonely. Looking over my shoulder, I see the city shrink away like the tide from a winter beach. The grey is matted with a million different shades of itself. The city lies like a lake at the bottom of the hill; every ripple is different, but it’s all water.

I leave the city trembling and stirring up silt. The hill is only one colour; all the grass is a gentle green, like someone had used green chalk. Above it is only blue, the light blue that they wisely call sky blue. And the only thing breaking the blue is the giant’s head. He still won’t look at me. I’m determined to prove myself to him, prove that I’ve done what he wanted.

The hill is quiet. I can usually see a few people from my window either playing with bright kites in the wind or pushing plastic prams over the summit. Maybe the wind is wrong for kites, I wouldn’t know. All wind makes me cold. Maybe it’s the wrong time for prams. All prams make me feel guilty.

About halfway up I hear a voice run behind me. I feel like a trader broadsided by pirates in an ocean of pointed waves. I stop and turn around twice, and then I feel silly for it is clear that I’m the only person on the hill. The hill has no time for ghost ships or stalkers. The hill doesn’t know any such stories; they are for the city. The city is a scattered kingdom of stories. Wherever you look there is a new chapter falling from the rooftops of a concrete block. On the hill there is only the giant’s head, refusing to acknowledge my efforts.

As I pass the tree line, I can see everything. The simple sky has no end, the chalky grass surrounds me. The hill is an island. Two colours dwarf me, and the giant head dwarfs the two colours. The air grows colder and I find that besides the head there is nothing else in the sky.

At the top of the hill I stop. The head is almost directly above me and I gather in my misty breath before confronting him. In front of me the hill falls back down to a different part of the city. I can see a hundred different ripples sloshing against each other, sounding like slaps of hands on faces.

The giant head is turned away, so I gulp down the dry air that hangs around my tongue and step forward. But the head has changed. He’s still looking away from me. I circle the summit of the hill in vain; wherever I stand, I cannot see his face. The face that had implored me to leave my home won’t allow me an audience. The answers he offered are gone.

Regarding his stubborn skull, I see for the first time that he isn’t what he promised. I thought that he’d been drawn upon the sky by the same hand that spread the endless green and the everlasting blue. He’s an absence rather than a presence. It’s not that his white is drawn on the blue, but that the blue had stopped. That’s why he’s alone. No one is drawing him and no one is drawing anything like him.

I laugh to myself and turn to head back down to the untidy city. Before I get to the trees, I stop. Already I can smell the anarchy below; it comes at me like rotting driftwood. I shudder and the scent is gone. Back at the top of the hill, the giant is still alone. I lie on my back in the chalk grass and wait with him awhile.

II

I’ve found myself lost again. It wasn’t until I stopped that I realised I’m not where I should be. I should be almost at the end, but I’m only halfway home.

I can see the river behind a row of warehouses to my left; the blue line worms across my vision. If I can get over to it, I can follow the bank until I know where I am again.

Above me, the sun beats down like a solitary eye staring intensity. It highlights me out of place, follows me around and stains my skin yellow.

I can see green in the distance that reminds me of something. It’s a coiled snake basking between rocks of city life. For a moment I long to be swallowed up by it. But, no, there are still things I can do.

I need to go between two warehouses. They look abandoned, but it’s just the wrong time of the week or year. As I get closer I realise I was only half-right. One is securely locked and fastened against the wandering nameless. But the other; the door swings in windless air, fanning my unease. The chipped red peels to rotted wood.

I quicken my steps as I pass between the buildings. I walk the line between two worlds, facing one but with the other always at my back.

The river runs away to my left, curving out of sight behind billows of browning trees. I realise that I don’t know which way to go. I picture the map in my head and deduct that left must be east. But I can’t remember which side of the city I’m on.

I look around for clues and my eye lands on something I hadn’t seen before. Sitting with his back against a tired willow is a fisherman. His knitted blue jumper and green waders make him more of a character than a person. I didn’t know people looked like him anymore.

Sure enough, as I approach him and his face comes into focus, his red cheeks and greying beard fall into place.

‘Excuse me.’ I say, leaning against the tree. ‘Could you give me some directions?’

He doesn’t say anything for a moment. Instead, his eyes meander round to meet my face and the edges of his thin mouth itch towards his ears. I think about repeating myself but he breaks the silence.

‘Fishing.’ he says. ‘Been fishing here nearly nine years now. I spent my whole life just sitting here on this riverbank.’

‘Sure.’ I say. ‘Did you come from the city?’

‘No, no.’ his head shakes and his curly hair bounces. ‘I walk here every afternoon. Fish ‘til the sun goes, then I go. Can’t want for more than that.’

I’m torn between talking to the old man and pushing for an answer. I figure that listening to an old fisherman’s tale isn’t going to hurt, and there’s no real reason to be home.

‘Mind if I take a seat? I’ve been walking for hours.’

‘No, no.’ he smiles, and slides over. The grass where he has been sitting is flattened like a great weight has forever lain there. As I sit, the grass rises up around us to our heads. We’re in a dimple, removed from the outside and hidden from passers.

‘You’ve been walking a long time alright.’ he says to me. ‘I can see you’ve been walking almost as long as I’ve been fishing.’

‘I don’t think you-’

‘Now don’t interrupt. You want your story or don’t you.’

I keep quiet, take my eyes away from the man and look out over the river. The water looks darker than it was before; the willow casts a shadow over things. A hundred ripples bounce off one another, arguing over which way to flow. I can’t hear much but that’s the thing about rivers; unless they’re hitting rocks they don’t need much noise.

The old man laughs and pats me on the shoulder.

‘Don’t take too much notice of me.’ he says. ‘I’m just an old fisherman with bad manners, I don’t mean to hush you but you aint a born listener. You just watch that river and make sure it’s going the right way.’

I nod, keeping my eyes fixed on the water.

‘Course it don’t matter where you’re looking, you see the same bit every time.’ he says. ‘Something you should take heed of this. You see, your problem is that you worry about how deep you are. That’s why you aint going nowhere. You just sit alone trying to work out how far up you’d need to swim to find the sky.’

The old man’s words soothe me; his voice is gentle and seeps into my ear as I watch the water. The birds and leaves only make their noises when he speaks, like he is the outside world and his sounds are all sounds.

‘Take these three people.’ he says. ‘Sisters they was, sisters since the day they was born. The eldest, she learns to swim real good. She takes lessons and travels the world swimming and winning medals. One day she meets a man who dives to the bottom of the sea without no air. They make a wager over who can go deepest. They dive in and the man comes back after four minutes with a rock from the bottom. The woman, she’s still under trying to pick a bigger rock. Six minutes go by and the man gets nervous, he dives in and finds the woman dead with her hands wrapped around her rock. The water is so dark that there’s almost no light on her face.

‘Now the sisters they are broken up about the whole thing and they don’t ever go in the sea again. The middle one though, she’s stubborn. She won’t swim in the sea but she thinks “what harm can a river do to me?” She thinks that she is in control. So she swims until she gets tired and decides to get out. On her way back she gets ripped under by an eddy and caught up in some weeds. They wrap around her legs and she can’t kick out. She dies just under the surface, looking upwards.

‘The youngest sister, she’s the smart one. “I’ll never go in water where I can’t reach the bottom” she says. She swims in her pool and nowhere else. She’s safe as if she was on dry land. One day she’s swimming and in her pool and sipping on a drink. She bobs under for a moment but the water it’s against her and it jumps down her mouth with the drink. She coughs and half pulls herself out of the pool. But the water chokes her hard and she drowns just the same, with only her legs in and the rest of her already drying under the sun.’

Only when he finishes do I realise what he’s been telling me. I jump up from our little hollow and stumble backwards with words falling from my brain and bouncing against my lips.

‘Now what did I tell you? Keep your eyes on the river I said.’

 III

I’m a different person to who I used to be. Most of my memories went away with her. Without them I can’t remember who I am, all I know is I’m not old enough to have used a typewriter when I started out. I worked that much out. There’s an idea that if a person saw a drop of water they could describe the entire water cycle. They would know that rain, rivers, oceans and clouds existed without ever seeing them. This is called deductive reasoning. I have deducted that I’m not old enough to have used a typewriter.

Maybe if I did have a different way of writing I wouldn’t be sat in my bedroom looking at a computer. I don’t have the light on when I write so the glow of the screen is all that illuminates my world. It’s tinged with blue and spreads past me and over the bare floorboards, absorbing everything in its way. The light is soaking into the dead lamp by the bookshelves.

Over my shoulder the blue has reached the far wall. I can see the copies of my book about her lined up next to each other on the top shelf. They came after. I didn’t have anyone to give them to so I just let them nest up there. I had twelve at first but then I gave one to my postman and another to my doctor. I keep one on me in case I recognise someone. I’ve had nine on the shelf for a few months. They’re dusty and like the shade.

I can’t sit still any longer so I stretch myself up to the ceiling and leave the room. As I reach to close the door I catch sight of the screen. There’s only one word on it. I don’t want to close the door and trap her up here. I leave the door open with the sad hue creeping its way towards my feet. The more it tries to leave, the thinner it becomes until almost all trace of colour has gone. By the door it is anaemic and gasping for life.

I plod down the stairs and into the kitchen. It’s winter again so the moon is already up and sending down its backwards day. It’s not musty here but it doesn’t smell right. I imagine a heavy scent leaking from somewhere beneath the floor. It wears on my nose like a bruise and puffs up my eyes.

The fridge light is on. The door is closed but the bulb is screaming out yellow. I try flicking the bit inside that should turn it off but it’s not working. There’s no way of getting it out so I leave it alone. ‘Let it be’ I say to myself. The sound reminds me of sound. The house has been so quiet I forgot how many dimensions I live in. I’ve come accustomed to every noise except my voice.

On the fridge there is a picture. I don’t always see it but this time I do, it’s lit up from the space around the door. She must have drawn it a few days before. She was always drawing the hill; she loved to watch the kites flapping in the wind. Sometimes I think that if I look at it long enough I’ll see myself there, walking away from her for the last time.

My shoes are by the door so I put them on. I climb into the driver’s seat of my car and aim the headlights into the kitchen. The whole house bursts open like a firework. Each room glows brighter than the last but only for a moment. My whole life burns in front of me until it is sucked into the engine. Soon the house dims and I drive away.

On the road I have time. I pass a sign that says six miles. The rest of the world is asleep. The first mile is through my silent estate. It’s too early for anyone to get up, too late for anyone to be awake. Every home I pass is dark and every house looks the same. The people who move around inside them are all the same too. Nothing changes except yourself.

I don’t know why I live here anymore. I’m not adjacent to the world, I’m below it. The best reason I have deducted is that it is only six miles from where I’m going. I’m always going there. A part of me is driving there forever.

Leaving the estate, there is more life on the open road. Signs from international companies turn to watch me pass. Some of them wink at me like we’re in cahoots about the whole thing. All the way into the distance different colours are waving me on.

Looking up at the sky, I see a misty red reflection from the loose clouds. I speed up. The sun destroys everything; it sprays a disinfectant over the world and blinds everything that loves the night. My time grows short.

The gentle sea greets me with muted fanfare. I drive onto the sand and my wheels struggle against the dried grains. My engine roars out and shatters the calm as it struggles to move. The wheels find grip and the car lurches onto the hard, flat sand nearer the water. I pull on the handbrake and it clacks upwards.

The moon is low this time of year; it’s almost hidden by the waves. I flick the switch to my right and my full beams burst out towards the white disc. My life flies out over the sea and on to greater places. The blue and yellow join and shoot away from the two blazing headlights. But the moon is sinking and there is still much to do. The clouds are bathing in red and the sea burns in the distance.

I release the break and crawl forward. The brightness still flows over the swells. I push on until the wheels refuse. The sun creeps over the line of the surf and water swills around my feet. The lights go out.

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Afterword
With thanks to my friends on the Creative Writing MA at Newcastle University for their kind feedback that helped this story develop from a one-scene experiment to what it is now.

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