A bit of a stretch to link this story to my self-imposed ‘isolation’ theme, I admit, but I think a case for it can just about be made. This story is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It comes from my Spring Tide collection, and there is nothing science fictional about it at all.
Darius strode across the park on his way to the pub. He was a big man, over six foot tall, solid and broad like the rugby player he’d once been. His great thick mane just beginning to turn grey, and grey hair spilled out from the open neck of his shirt.
It was a blowy evening. With each new gust of wind, a row of big chestnut trees to Darius’ right began to dance, the great round clumps of foliage swaying back and forth across the trunks like the massive breasts and thighs of giant women. Over on his left, beyond the open grass, was the town hospital. All his daughters had been born there, as Darius himself had been and three of the group of friends he was going to meet that night.
In the middle of the park, a father and his young son were flying a kite. Darius had flown kites here too, when he was a boy himself, and when his own daughters were growing up. The girls had a big red one, he remembered, and the oldest had a pink one of her own with a pony on it that never really worked. This kite now was bright blue. When those big trees began to dance, it strained so hard toward the sky that the father and son together had a struggle to hold it down. Darius remembered how that felt, the string as hard as metal wire. The boy yelled out with excitement at the power he felt in his hands. The dad glanced at Darius and smiled.
The pub was right on the edge of the park. It was called the Live and Let Live, and when those giant tree-women danced and the kite string turned to wire, its sign creaked and swayed on its rusty hinges. In the bright, windy evening, Darius put his hand to the door.
* * *
He stepped through into the body of a living creature. Softly lit, humming with activity, pungent with hot meat and fermentation, it was tightly packed with lumps of flesh in many shapes and sizes, some of them oozing bile, others storing fat, others again pumping out the precious fluid on which the entire organism depended.
As Darius looked round for his friends there was a certain weariness in his eyes, but he banished it at once as soon as he spotted them.
“Hello there, fellers, sorry I’m late. Chris was going to drop me off, but then something cropped up for her and I had to walk instead.”
“No worries,” said Roger. “We’ve got your pint ready.”
“Room for a small one on the bench there, Bill?” asked Darius. “Did you see the news this evening? This bloody government just gets worse and worse.”
And then he was off. They were all off, but especially Darius. From their table in the Live and Let Live, he and his friends strode out together across the world, seeking out injustice, absurdity and cant, and flinging it fearlessly aside.
* * *
But half-way through his third pint, Darius’ mood suddenly changed.
“Look at us. Still drinking in thesame old pub we’ve been coming to since we were fifteen years old. What have we done with our lives, eh lads? Let’s be honest, for all the lot of us have seen and done in this world, we might as well have been canaries in a cage.”
It was an old refrain, but the others tried their best to look interested.
“I could have played for England,” Darius told them, although this wasn’t news to any of them. “I was good. I was really good. I had that sports scholarship offered me, remember? I had a career offered me on a plate. But like a fool I turned it down.”
He’d gone to the local college instead, and ended up working as a draughtsman in this same little town, with its park, and its boating lake, and its small but award-winning folk museum.
“A sports career would just have been the beginning, too. You all know how passionate I am about politics. Well, I could have gone down that road. I would have had a platform, wouldn’t I? I could have made my mark.”
The others waited stoically, like animals enduring rain, keeping their minds a blank until the dark clouds pass. They knew Darius, and they knew that sometimes he couldn’t feel complete until he’d summoned up this shadow, this alternate self, and brought it to stand beside him.
* * *
Outside darkness fell. The park was empty. The boy and his father had gone home. But the dance of the chestnut trees was constant now, as if those tree women could hear some urgent drum so deep that it was beyond the reach of human ears. Wisps of wind-torn cloud blew from time to time across the rising moon.
* * *
“Of course it’s a lot to do with Chris really,” Darius declared. “Bless her, you couldn’t wish for a kinder heart, but she was never the right woman for me. She really wasn’t right at all.”
His friends looked uncomfortable. They disliked this part. All of their wives were friends of Chris’s, and so indeed were they themselves.
“And by the same token of course,” Darius added hastily, so as not to seem to be putting Chris down. “I wasn’t right for her at all. We were just too young to realise it.”
This was the very heart, as Darius saw it, of all his difficulties. Chris had got pregnant when they were barely more than children themselves, and had needed her parents’ support. He’d not felt able to leave her and take up the opportunity he’d been offered, because he’d seen how important it was to her to have her mum round the corner, and her sister a few streets away, and it just wouldn’t have been fair to ask her to give that up. And of course he couldn’t walk out on his own child.
But Chris lacked his ambition.
“A home, some kids, a reasonable job, a night out once in a while with her friends, an annual holiday, that’s all she asks of life.”
His friends frowned down at their drinks. It was all they asked of life as well. All that most people asked of life, in their experience. What was wrong with that?
Darius sighed, and knocked back the last of his beer.
“Of course it’s far too late now, I know. I’ve made my bed and I must lie in it. And, don’t get me wrong, it’s not such a bad bed as these things go. Chris is a good woman and I’ve had it easy in all kinds of ways. But if I could have my life again…”
He looked round at their faces and saw that he hadn’t brought them with him.
“Sorry, lads. I’m really sorry. I’ve been a bit of a downer tonight haven’t I? I’m tired, I guess. Haven’t been sleeping well. I think maybe I should love you and leave you, if you don’t mind. Get an early night. I’ll be fine in the morning, and better company next time we meet, but you’ll have more fun without me tonight.”
* * *
“The weird thing,” said Roger, after Darius had gone, “is that Chris tells a completely different story. It was Darius who suggested the baby in the first place, and it was Darius, not Chris, who was determined they shouldn’t move.”
* * *
The night was charged with superhuman energy. Countless billions of tons of air were moving rapidly over the town, making pub signs clank and creak and burglar alarms go off in cars. Darius buttoned his coat up to the neck as he strode off across the park. The big trees jived and roared. He felt like some tiny crawling thing at the bottom of the sea, with the waves crashing about above him in the world outside.
And as he walked beneath those great dark crashing waves, a shadow crossed the moon, unseen by him, unseen by anyone at all. It was the Angel of Death, riding the blast on its papery wings as it looked down on the town beneath it with its ancient, empty eyes. It didn’t notice the park or the folk museum. It didn’t see the trees or the roofs of the houses. All it saw was the souls that were its prey, like little lights in a void.
* * *
“You’re home early, sweetheart,” murmured Chris sleepily as Darius climbed into the warm space beside her.
“Yeah, a bit tired. Thought I’d call it a night.”
“Oh, you know, bit samey, but they’re good blokes, every one of them. Hearts in the right place and all of that.”
“You are tired aren’t you, poor pet,” she said, cuddling up against him in the darkness.
It was a long time before he slept. He lay with his eyes open for an hour or more, while the wind blew across the chimneys and rattled the front gate, thinking about all the places he could once have gone, that were now beyond his reach.
* * *
Two days later, Darius came back to an empty house. Chris was a teaching assistant in a local school and was normally home before he was, but he remembered now that she’d had some sort of social event to go to after work. One of the teachers was retiring, she’d said, or something like that.
“I won’t be very late,” she’d said, “but I will have eaten. I’ll leave you to fix something for yourself.”
It always unsettled him, coming home to an empty house, and he could never quite help himself from feeling a certain childish resentment towards Chris for not being there, and towards whoever she was with. Of course he knew quite well that this was silly and unfair.
He took a bottle of beer from the fridge and went to sit by the fishpond in his garden. The windy weather had passed. It was a calm evening and, as the light faded, the dragonflies came like they sometimes did, dry and papery, buzzing and droning around the water on some mysterious business of their own.
What were they doing, he wondered, these strange archaic creatures, that had been here before the dinosaurs, here when the first fish wriggled out onto the land?
He dozed off for a bit. When he woke it was dark, and the doorbell was ringing inside the house.
* * *
Cycling home from the retirement do at work, Chris had been hit by a car. She lost consciousness instantly.
People gathered round her. Somebody made a call. The police arrived and an ambulance came whooping through the streets. She was taken to the hospital and laid out on a bed in a special room of her own, surrounded by humming machines. The room had a view of those chestnut trees on the far side of the park. They were hardly moving at all.
When Darius arrived, her doctor told him that they wanted to disconnect her from life support.
“I’m so sorry but afraid she’s gone,” the doctor said. “There’s absolutely no brain activity at all.”
Darius, with his lion’s mane, began to rage and roar.
“No way!” he bellowed. “You’ll have to kill me first!” He shoved doctors and nurses away from where his wife lay like Sleeping Beauty, her chest peacefully rising and falling. He stood guard in front of her, daring them to come near. “Look at her, for Christ’s sake! Just bloody look at her! She’s obviously alive!”
It was his three daughters, all of them in their twenties, who finally persuaded him that Chris was no longer present. Her body was just ticking over by itself, they explained to him over and over. It was like an idling vehicle with no one behind the wheel. The driver would never return.
In the early hours of morning, Darius’ girls walked their father home across the park. Fresh air will be good for us, they said, trying their best to be grown-up. Two of them supported Darius, as if he was an old man who couldn’t stand by himself. And actually he couldn’t. It was as if some kind of malignant leech had sucked all the life and blood from him, all the muscle, all the roar.
As they passed under the chestnut trees, the clumps of foliage rustled slightly and sighed above their heads. Entangled among them was the bright blue kite. It had pulled so hard and long towards the sky that its string had finally snapped. And without the tension that had held it firm against the wind, it no longer knew how to fly.
Copyright 2017, Chris Beckett