Sisyphus: Am I here? At the crest of the mountain?
No. I am at the foot of the mountain – and there, far above me, is the mountain’s crest.
Mattie Anderson in her garden.
Coat, hat, gardening gloves, scarf.
It’s February weather and she feels like a ghost adrift in the material world.
She works her way down the flower bed, cutting back the dead perennials, pulling up weeds, her consciousness incorporeal, drifting away from the quiet street and the small terraced house, away from the sounds of school children and traffic, floating up above the park, the bowling green, the Methodist chapel, the school… The physical part of her moves between hibernating plants, careful of its step, throwing winter’s detritus out onto the lawn, instinctively assessing what needs planting in March or April or May – but the true Mattie Anderson, distant from all material things, distant from the world of animal and mineral, rises upward to another place, to a place where she needn’t think about her garden, her life, her past, her future, her troubled daughter, her second husband, her son.
Her mind is like a Chinese lantern rising up towards the barely visible crescent of the moon, and the garden and the park and the city’s streets fall away beneath her like a landscape from some half-forgotten dream.
Lightness is all I want, she thinks. To be immersed in an explosion of light.
Weightlessness is all she wants. Drifting with the wind.
Light as a helium balloon. Lighter than air.
Ethereal as light. Untouchable as light.
Calmness is all that Mattie wants. A life without upset. A life without its ups and downs. A life where cold winters can be expected, where the early arrival of Spring bears no hint of environmental apocalypse, where the seasons pass like clockwork and all else is barely of any consequence at all…
A memory catches up with her as she drifts with angel wings amongst the clouds. It’s a memory of Marshal, of Marshal sitting beside her in the park, when he was only three or four, when she was half the age she feels now – a memory of Marshal making daisy chains…
‘This one’s for you, Mummy,’ he said, ‘and this one’s for…’
And she remembers laughing, laughing out loud so that the other mothers in the park turned to stare, when Marshal couldn’t think of who his second daisy chain was for.
Sisyphus: I have been struggling with this burden for a very long time. As hard as I push, my burden pushes back. The vertebrae of my spine are compacting, my knees are imploding bone against bone, my hips are grinding into the heads of my thigh bones… Soon I will be a dwarf.
~ Don’t look so glum.
This is Mr Crawford, store manager at the supermarket where Marshal works. He is a small man with a beaked nose and eyes that express something almost sorrowful in their gaze. Marshal likes Mr Crawford, feels indebted to him, just about manages a smile.
~ That’s better. Now tell me, where is Mr Rajid hiding?
‘I… I haven’t seen him.’
Marshal’s pushing a high-sided trolley through the yellow light of the warehouse while the manager walks at his side. Marshal is thinking, What is it about human nature that allows us to destroy our world? The trolley is filled with cardboard boxes and the cardboard boxes are filled with tin cans and the tin cans are filled with baked beans in tomato sauce. Each box in the trolley contains twenty-four cans. Each can in each box contains three hundred and twenty grams of bean and sauce and sugar and salt. Marshal is heading away from the recently arrived delivery truck, deeper into the storerooms, seeking the shelves labelled Beans. There he will be greeted by Heinz baked beans and supermarket-branded baked beans and refried beans and Thompson’s Organic baked beans. He will find himself ambushed by flageolet beans and kidney beans, haricot beans and broad beans – and, waiting in the wings, tins of sweetcorn, tins of diced carrot, tins of peas, tins of spinach – more tinned vegetables than any sane person can reasonably deal with. As he manoeuvres the trolley into an aisle comprising rack upon rack of tinned goods Mr Crawford continues to walk beside him, blowing air through his teeth. The manager’s gait is birdlike. He flings each leg forward without bending it at the knee. He walks with his chest pushed out, his chin held high – puts an arm around Marshal’s back, not quite tall enough to reach Marshal’s shoulders.
~ He’s probably hiding from me. As is his way. He’s a sly one, that Mr Rajid.
Marshal tries not to look glum, no matter how he feels – no matter that his unmedicated mind is sinking down towards some deep and gloomy abyss far beneath the realm where ordinary people live. All my life things have been going downhill… environmentally… economically… even psychologically…
How can that be fair?
He nods at Mr Crawford’s words, attempts another smile, tries not to feel uncomfortable at the manager’s closeness.
~ Speak up, petal. Don’t be shy. If you have an opinion, voice it.
An opinion on what? Marshal wonders. On Mr Rajid? Or on the end of the world as we know it? On the environmental apocalypse? – or the population-imperialism of China and India?
Why should my opinions matter?
There are too many opinions. The world is overrun with them.
In the pecking order of branch ascendancy Mr Crawford is as high as he can be – and he makes no bones about it. He’s clearly not sweating the small stuff. He walks with an avian swagger. He displays, like a peacock’s plumage, an imperious nonchalance. He finds giving orders easy – loves to see people jump. But, at the same time, he nurtures his staff like fledglings cast prematurely from their nests. He takes them under his wing. In his manner it’s quite obvious that he cares about each and every one of his employees – worries about their wellbeing, their home life, their social lives, their ability to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fate. It’s because Marshal’s mother came here to talk to Mr Crawford that Marshal got the job. Not overqualified – no one’s overqualified at the supermarket – but Marshal is fatally honest in his applications for work, and every job he applied for saw honesty as a qualification for unemployment… They would more or less write, in their letters of rejection, ‘Why employ someone who is three quarters mad?’
So his mother called on Mr Crawford and played the compassion card.
Mr Crawford took the bait.
Marshal’s work ethic, his good manners, his mood-modified presentability did the rest.
Sisyphus: Relax your guard, let your burden slip from your grasp, and you will never be able to bring it to a halt. The boulder will roll right over you. It will roll all the way down the mountain, leaving you crushed in its path, nothing more than a blood and flesh veneer upon the stony soil – and everything you have ever cared for will be over and done with and demolished – every memory eviscerated, every experience made pointless, every aspiration repudiated, the family pathway stretching back into the past, stretching forward only so far as this moment, personified at last in the form of Sisyphus, brought abruptly to an end.
He arrives at the shelves set aside for beans, pulls his trolley to a halt. Mr Crawford reaches high to slap him on the shoulder.
~ Keep your pecker up, Marshal. Stand tall. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Marshal nods as if he understands what his manager is crowing about – but none of it makes sense. With every passing minute every decision, every movement, requires more of an effort. The world is receding and Mr Crawford’s voice sounds far away and insincere. The warehouse around him is draining of colour… The smell of cardboard boxes, the noise of the other warehouse staff, the exciting hum of life – are draining of meaning. When he flushed his medication into the Bristol sewers it felt like an act of liberation, a step forward into a positive future… Then the doors opened not on manic heaven but depressive hell.
Mr Crawford puffs out his chest, stalks on towards the metal stairs leading up to the administrative cabin nesting in the roofspace. Mr Rajid will be up there, laptop open, checking the figures for Goods In, Goods Out, awaiting the moral support of his manager and friend.
Marshal takes the first box from the trolley. He heaves it up onto the highest shelf for Beans. He takes the next – fights the unremitting resistance of gravity. He stacks the third box next to the second. Keeps on going. Keeps on going because keeping on going is easier than stopping and starting. There’s a momentum you can build up with repetitive, boring tasks. You can take pleasure in the momentum even if not in the task itself. He’s almost finished when his friend Tom pushes past with another trolley. Marshal stands back, raises a hand, watches his friend’s back recede down the aisle. After that, the momentum is gone. He finishes all the same.
I’ve never been a quitter.
He circles his trolley warily – predator and prey, but which is which? – prepares for the journey back towards the loading bays.
Marshal likes to think he’s winning, even when he’s not. The undiagnosed and inexplicable pain beneath his left ribs which has plagued him since he was ten pulses in warning then suddenly increases. Winning? He staggers backward, falls against Tinned Soups, clutches his side, unable to breath.
Losing my fucking grip.
Then his phone rings.
Sisyphus, it is fair to say, bears no similarity to Marshal at all. Sisyphus was not a nice man. He was, if anything, the opposite of nice. Seducer of nieces, wheeler and dealer of antiquities in ancient antiquity, haggler exemplar, devious and sly, believing he could get away with anything… and then he had to pay.
His punishment was to push a boulder as heavy as himself up the side of an ancient Greek mountain beneath the gaze of an ancient Greek god, the gorse bloodying his shins, the boulder threatening at any instant to roll back and crush him, the sun beating relentlessly upon his shoulders, only to reach the top of the mountain and find the boulder slipping from his grip, rolling past him as he flails and weeps, tumbling headlong down the sun-bleached slopes towards the shadow of the sea, stopping only when it ploughs into the shallow blue water, to stand there incongruous, accursed, a monument to human futility, waiting for its slave to stagger down the mountain behind it and resume his perilous toil all over again.
And then again.
And then again.
Marshal catches his breath. The pain subsides. The phone has stopped ringing. He hasn’t the strength to extract it from his pocket to see who wanted him. He uses his empty trolley to hold him up, wheels it back to the truck, reloads, repeats.
The warehouse smells of cardboard.
Machines would be better at this than human beings. Could do almost everything better… Machines would know how to live better, without pain, without suffering… Could stack shelves with unthinking commitment, with a kind of mechanical joy.
Machines should run our world for us.
They would do it better.
Perhaps they soon will.
Marshal survives until the tea-break, thrusts his trolley to one side, staggers out into the open air. Tom hands him a machine-made coffee.
~ You look like shit.
‘Hour after hour of this? I feel like Sisyphus, pushing some great rock up the slopes of Mount Olympus.’
Tom studies him over the lip of his polystyrene cup. Like some dark angel, Marshal thinks. An angel who loves me.
~ Life’s about whatever you want it to be about, Marsh. That’s what I believe. You write the book.
Marshal snorts. ‘Not this book. This book was written by a sadistic Greek god.’
A truck reverses past. Its warning siren bleats like a stuck pig. The sound is in colour: jagged white on sullen black. Marshal glances up at the fugue of the sky. The steel grey expanse has only one message. What is it about human nature that is compelling us to fuck up our world?
He can almost sense – as if it were the shade of death standing at his side – the inalienable presence of apocalyptic climate change.
Not yet, perhaps. But soon.
~ Amy’s on the till.
He tries to remember who Tom’s talking about. He’s forgotten about Amy – and not for the first time. His coruscating burden, threatening to roll back the way he’d come, threatening to extinguish his identity and leave him utterly crushed, has divided him from his past. He scalds his tongue with coffee, forces his mind away from the glowering sky.
Utterly beautiful Amy.
One of the first at Bristol university to take Politics, Philosophy and Economics, she isn’t the sort of person who trumpets her IQ – but her close-cut brown hair frames a face of such engaging alertness that Marshal was drawn to her like a mosquito to warm skin. He glimpsed her arriving at the supermarket one morning and found himself waiting around for hours to catch a second look. The fact of her existence made even medicated equilibrium seem tolerable. Her smile lit up the world. Ninety-nine per cent of the middle-aged male customers at the supermarket had long since fallen in love with her. Half the female customers, too.
Deadened by the tide of depression he had forgotten her…
The sky, in thrall to the coming apocalypse, is grey as old stone… but Amy – the very thought of Amy – is for Marshal a radiant beam of light. Amy is redemption, love, affirmation, sex, friendship, kindness, empathy, every good thing, rolled into one.
Sisyphus inhales, fills his chest with the essence of life. Sisyphus straightens his creaking spine, throws his half-finished coffee into the bin, actually smiles.
‘Once more unto the breach,’ he says – and walks back into the store.
‘I’m worried about Marshal.’
‘Why worry? There’s nothing you can do. That boy was always going to be a problem. You knew that when you took him on.’
‘He’s very withdrawn today. Depressed, I dare say.’
‘And far too pretty for my liking. Like an Aryan Jesus’
Richard Crawford is looking down from the warehouse office high above the aisles. It’s a grey day – or a yellow day in here, with the electric light – and he’s feeling in need of warmth, love, comfort. He reaches out, wipes at a patch of glass with the tips of his fingers, winces and draws back his hand. ‘When did anyone last clean in here?’ Turning from the window he inspects the tops of the filing cabinets, the surface of the amenities table, Rajid’s desk.
Rajid closes his laptop, stands up, stretches out his arms, yawns. ‘Why should anyone care? No one ever comes up here.’
‘I care. Senior management would care.’
‘On the day they deign to visit I’ll get the place cleaned up.’
‘You mean, I will.’
‘You bring it on yourself. You’re too conscientious. Do you think your efforts will make one iota of difference when they decide to sell us to another supermarket chain? Do you think they’ll care whether you have the happiest, cleanest, best run supermarket in the South West? They won’t even remember your name.’
‘Don’t be cruel.’ Crawford steps away from the window. He feels insignificant perched up here, high above the stores; much less comfortable than when he’s bustling about in-store knowing every eye is on him, sensing staff start and jump at the sound of his voice, enjoying the spectacle of customers wringing their hands before they dare approach him. In-store, he is almost a god. Out here, amongst the heathens, things are very different.
And this little eyrie, in particular, is just far too masculine.
‘I’ll send a couple of the lads up here. Blitz the place. Install a vase and some flowers. It’ll be nicer for you. The windows will let more light in for a start.’
‘Exposure to sunlight, you know that can kill me.’
‘Have you done the Month End report?’
‘Is that why you’re here?’
‘Amongst other things.’
‘I’m a creature of the night, not a bureaucrat. Of course I haven’t done your report.’
‘Then I’ll have to do that too?’
Rajid languidly circles his desk. He has big dark eyes with girlish lashes. His teeth are very white and glitter when he smiles. Crawford likes to see Rajid smile. A smiling employee is a good employee.
I’ll put that on a noticeboard somewhere.
‘So you’ll clean my office, write my report and what else? You’re my manager, not my secretary.’
‘Managing you is quite an ordeal.’
‘But you enjoy a challenge.’
The two men are facing each other. Crawford looks up into Rajid’s face. Rajid is very manly. Crawford feels his heart beating like the wings of a bird inside his chest.
Suddenly they step closer, then passionately clinch.
‘Why, Mr Rajid!’ Crawford can’t help but giggle, his hand on Rajid’s crotch. ‘Mr Rajid! You’re rigid!’
Sisyphus: My longing for meaning is doing this to me. The weight of my hunger for the numinous is doing this to me. My desperation to penetrate the mundane and reach right into the heart of the world, into whatever it is that really matters – that’s what’s doing this to me. That’s what’s turning my blood into some strange slow liquid which my heart can barely pump. Each step and I’m reduced. Each step without meaning and I diminish. When they come looking for me at the end of my shift, when I turn back to face the way I’ve come, looking down towards the sea, when I pause at last, I will suddenly be extinguished, I will be nothing more than a blemish on the storeroom floor – and in my place will stand a boulder, the burden of all mankind, representation of all our hopes and dreams, a stony encapsulation of our longing for meaning… the burden I’ve been pushing up this mountainside for all eternity.
Marshal works his way down Cold Goods. He’s wearing cotton gloves and a supermarket jacket with its collar buttoned up. At each freezer he pulls the older boxes or cartons to the front, throws an occasional out-of-date carton into the wheelie bin at his side. Each movement is a struggle. He feels like he’s pushing a terrible burden up some joyless slope. The UK is getting colder while the rest of the world overheats, and his breath condenses as he breaths. Depression impairs his vision. The warehouse rings with the squeal of trolleys, with the skewered bleating of reversing trucks, with interrupted conversations. There’s the blare of the tannoy, the clattering of footsteps as in-store staff desperately hunt for items requested by customers… there’s the slamming of boxes – but Marshal no longer finds the noises relevant, if they ever were. The warehouse is a landscape from which he is becoming detached. He’s aware of the threat of pain – the threat that’s always been there – but it’s internal, incidental, physical, inexplicable. Marshal has seen half a dozen different doctors, been ultrasounded, x-rayed, scanned, but no one’s worked out where the pain beneath his heart comes from or why it happens.
Some people think it’s all in his mind.
Imagine their arrogance.
Yet here and now he’s barely able to care.
He inhales, forcing his lungs to keep him alive, pushes his trolley round to the next aisle. Frozen fruit. Frozen puddings. Frozen vegetables. Chips.
He’s too cold to stand still in any case, which is good in a way.
Stop and stand still and he might never re-start.
Stop and stand still and he might remain there forever, mute and lifeless, watching his identity roll away from him like a boulder down a mountainside.
He tries to force his mind along positive lines as he works.
He tries to think of Amy – but instead finds himself thinking about a man called Graham Dean.
The belief thief.
The killer of faith and hope.
Enemy of Savantologists and other cultists everywhere.
What did his parents think they were doing when they employed him? How could anyone point a man like Graham Dean – a media-hungry, manipulative and irresponsible atheist – at their own son?
How could anyone do that and still call themselves kin?
But Sisyphus loves his family, so all the same he continues to struggle up the mountainside though his feet are sore and his brain numb.
Ice cubes and pizzas.
Ice cream and frozen meringues.
He is thinking of Amy.
It seems like only days ago he was looking down at the swallow-wing tattoo imprinted at the base of her spine, revelling in the sensation of his hands measuring her waist, almost forefinger to forefinger, thumb-tip to thumb-tip, his hips pushing hard against her pert bum, saying out aloud, for the whole world to hear: ‘I can’t believe this. I can’t believe I’m this lucky. I can’t believe this is me. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I’m with you. I can’t –
‘I – you know – I – I only feel this good – I only normally feel this good – when I’m off my medication –
‘I only feel this good – when my thoughts start to – sizzle and sparkle like – like there’s a firecracker in my head…
‘I can’t believe I’m this –
‘When – when I’m feeling this lucky – ’ and he draws back and thrusts – and thrusts so hard he’s almost afraid he might hurt her, then draws back again – and thrusts – and stops there, hard against her, hard inside her, deep inside intelligent, beautiful Amy, his hands gripping her hips, trying to take her in entirely, taking in her tattoo, her back, the nape of her neck – smelling her, tasting her, the taste of her vulva still on his tongue, unable to stop thinking of how lucky he is, unable to stop celebrating his luck, and he can’t stop speaking – says, ‘When I – when I’m feeling – when I’m feeling this lucky – it’s like I’m on the edge of a discovery – like I’m about to – about to uncover – something wonderful – just beyond my reach, a fundamental meaning that – that will make sense of everything, that – that will make sense of concentration camps and – and electric trains and – and spiritual beauty and – and material ugliness and – and the Higgs boson particle – and landing on the moon and – and 3D films – and global warming – and famines and – oil spills – and happiness and love and – ’ and now he’s thrusting in time to his words and Amy’s thrusting back, breathing more and more quickly, her lovely body glowing like fire, her skin glowing like she’s made of lava, her slender lovely figure radiating heat and light – but he can’t stop talking – says, ‘and – and photosynthesis and – and differential equations and – and ghettos and – and nuclear fission and – skyscrapers and – oceans of tarmac and – forests of windmills and – Sargasso seas and – subterranean swimming pools – and Afghan black – and crack cocaine – and growing up – and getting old and – biology, philology – and nuclear physics and – and – ’
Amy slows, then pauses for a second, looks back at him over her shoulder. Then she grins and says, ‘Just shut up and fuck me.’
It almost hurts to inhale.
The air in the warehouse is so cold it’s searing his lungs.
Memories of high points hardly help when lead seeps through your veins instead of blood.
After his adolescent catalogue of longed-for girls, strangers he hungered for at a distance but never dared approach, or did so falteringly, stammering and embarrassed, and who quickly learnt to avoid him – after all of that he is hardly able to believe his luck. It feels a little like Molly all over again, Amy seeing in him something exciting, something worth loving, despite how different they are, despite his condition.
Sex and affection and love.
Molly certainly succeeded in muddling things up.
When he’s finished with Cold Goods Mr Crawford tells him to take a bucket of soapy water up to the warehouse office.
~ Wash the windows, dear boy, for all the good it’ll do.
Most of the dirt is on the outside, years of fine dust settled like snow.
It doesn’t really do much good.
When his shift ends he can hardly pull on his jacket.
~ It’s ok, Marshal. Come on. You’ll manage.
My guardian angel, taking me home.
It’s not depression Marshal’s suffering from, he recognises that. It isn’t sadness. It’s not melancholia. It’s not really any emotion.
There’s a kind of murk rising up within him, filling even his ears and his mouth, so he can hardly hear and hardly speak. Filling even his eyes.
It’s a kind of listlessness, a kind of emptiness – not really a something at all. More like a nothing. An absence, intangible and impossible to unknot.
Amy waves a hand as Tom takes him past the storefront.
At least he thinks it’s Amy. His vision is so narrow he’s not completely sure.
All he can feel are the thorns raking at his ankles. All he can sense is the boulder above him, pregnant with gravity and threat. He’s leaving a trail of blood behind him for all to see, all the way up the mountainside, then all the way back down.
Something inside him is saying something.
Something inside him is saying
Sisyphus: We are all of us crushed by the weight of our aspirations. Our legs are leaden, our selves are base, our souls are mired.
The sphere of the sky is no shining globe but a dull and glowering orb. No heavenly burden, here. No. A hellish curse.
Mrs Anderson: Oh… Tom.
Tom: I’ve brought him home.
Mrs Anderson: Marshal?
Tom: He’s stopped talking.
Mrs Anderson: You’d better bring him in.
Tom: Shall I take him to his room?
Mrs Anderson: How long – how long has he been like this?
Tom: All day, I think. He wasn’t right when he came in.
Mrs Anderson: I knew something was going on. In fact, I knew this was going on. I knew last night. He might as well have waved a flag.
Tom: Don’t worry, Mrs Anderson. He’ll be alright.
Mrs Anderson: Do you really think so?
Tom: He always comes round in the end.
Mrs Anderson: Does he?
Tom: You know he does.
They both love me, Marshal thinks. I have two mothers.
Marshal: Has she gone?
Tom: There’s no need to whisper. Yes, she’s gone. To make me a cup of tea, I think. (He leans forward, brushes the hair from Marshal’s forehead.)
Marshal: It’s good when you mother me, Tom.
Tom: (Holding back tears.) Me and your mother – we’re always at it.
Marshal: She likes you.
Tom: Your mum?
Tom: Mum’s always do. It’s normally my friends’ dads who hate me.
Marshal: I’ve thought of a new way…
Tom: A new way…?
Marshal: A new way to die.
Everything comes to an end.
In the end everything comes to the same end.
Why think otherwise?
What other end could there be?
It’s the great equaliser.
It’s our sole destination.
No one, ever, goes anywhere else.
Mrs Anderson: I’ve brought you a cup of tea, Tom.
Tom: That’s very kind of you. Thank you.
Mrs Anderson: How is he?
Tom: Almost asleep, I think.
Mrs Anderson: He’s stopped taking his pills again. That’s what this is about.
Tom: I suppose… he gets bored.
Mrs Anderson: And this is better? You really think this is better?
Tom: No, I didn’t mean… I’m sorry, Mrs Anderson. I really am.
Mrs Anderson: Mattie.
Tom: I – I didn’t mean…
Mrs Anderson: It’s alright, Tom. Of course you didn’t. It’s just – you can’t know how it is for Dougie and me. How bad it can be. When you have a son, perhaps… If it was your child doing this… going through this…
Tom: I –
Mrs Anderson: It’s alright, Tom… This isn’t your problem. You’re a good boy – but there’s really nothing anyone can do.
He’s in Marshal’s bedroom. There’s nowhere to sit so he’s sitting on the end of Marshal’s bed. Marshal is lying on top of the duvet, curled on his side. Tom wraps his arms around his ribs, draws his knees up towards his chin and sits there gazing at his friend. Though Marshal’s face is pale Tom thinks he looks totally beautiful: a tuberculotic poet devoured by his poetry; a pale and dying martyr curling defensively around his wounds.
As Mrs Anderson closes the door and makes her way downstairs Tom looks around the room. The bookcase is overflowing with a mixture of books: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; books on mathematics; Greek tragedies; expensive Savantology textbooks; philosophy; self help. A poster on the wall depicts a Greek statue, a man of marble with a book made out of stone open in his hands – but a real laurel wreath circles the statue’s head and a real bird, its wings half outstretched, settles on the statue’s shoulder. Men may die but philosophy lives on, Tom interprets. The skin of the stone philosopher is no more pale than Marshal’s. Tom represses a shiver, leans forward, pushes the hair from Marshal’s eyes.
He’s listening. He’s just not speaking.
~ You should try not to think those things. About dying. About ways to die.
Marshal opens his eyes slightly. He whispers, ‘I’m going to seal all the windows. And the door. Then I’ll create a vacuum, here in this room. Like in Total Recall. Do you remember? The Schwarzenegger film? Just imagine them coming in and finding me here with my eyeballs popping out, my tongue bursting from my mouth, my body twice its usual size… Just imagine the look on their faces… It would be a hoot.’
~ It’s your parents you’re talking about, Marshal. Your mum. You heard her. She’s upset enough already. You should try not to think those things.
‘I think about different ways of dying all the time.’
~ I know. And some of them are reasonably amusing.
Tom stands up, walks around the bed. He remembers the crucifixion. The drowning. The embalming. The electricity pylon. The leap from the suspension bridge. The HiFi in the bath. You could laugh until you cried.
He climbs onto the bed, lies down behind Marshal, puts an arm around his chest, holds him close.
~ Go to sleep, Marshal. Don’t even think those thoughts. Don’t think about anything at all. Let it all go. Let it all just drift away.
Is he asleep?
It makes little difference when Marshal’s depressions really kick in. Tom’s seen him like this before. The strange obsessions; the suicide plans; the speeches for his own funeral; how people will react to the news; how pointless everything is; how the world is doomed whatever anyone does; the weird and inexplicable pain in his side.
~ Go to sleep. Stop thinking those thoughts. They’re absurd anyway. How could you create a proper vacuum in here? And why would you want to? You love your parents. Life’s not as bad as you think… It’s just your brain putting a skew on things, screwing things up a bit. Just go to sleep. In the morning everything will look better. Just go to sleep. Let it all just slip away…
Tom thinks, I could be Marshal’s mother…
Beneath his arm he can feel Marshal breathing. Slow and steady. Deep and slow. Drawing oxygen in. Letting carbon dioxide out. Respiration. Slow and steady. Deep and slow.
Now he’s really asleep.
Tom closes his eyes. Better sleeping than dreaming up new ways to die. He remembers Marshal once saying, ‘I’m not sure how I’d survive without you and Amy. You’re undermining me with all your care and attention…’
He huddles close to Marshal, mothering him – wishing he could sleep too.
Douglas Anderson: home from the pub. He’s cautious; on tip toes. I’m drunk. I’ve drunk far too much. I’m discordinated. I’m like a bear in the body of a mouse. From outside he’d seen the light still on in his and Mattie’s bedroom but the rest of the house dark. He’d come in to find everything quiet, quiet as death. He’s going to be quiet too – as quiet as a mouse. He climbs the stairs, feeling his way. He can feel where the wallpaper is coming away from the plaster. The house has got a damp problem. Mattie wants him to redecorate. Whenever she asks him to do things like that the mouse in him squeaks, ‘Yes! Yes, please! I’d love to!’ while the bear in him just grunts.
It’s not just the wallpaper. The stair carpet is so worn that in places you can see the underlay. Mattie wants a new carpet, too. The bear in him resents the effort; the mouse in him is worried about the cost.
Paint brushes and paint and wallpaper and wallpaper paste.
And he has to manage all of that with only one decent arm. He will manage, of course. For Mattie and for Mattie’s son and daughter, too. He’s already done a lot with the house. He doesn’t like to think about that all that much. Not when he’s half bear, half mouse, just back from an evening at the pub. Dougie had another family once. A wife, two children, a dog. He chose this family instead.
The bedroom door needs painting – or maybe stripping and staining. He doesn’t mind which. Mattie can choose.
Pushes open the door. Mattie’s in bed, her eyes bloodshot from crying. ‘Oh, Mattie…’ he says. Then she’s holding onto him desperately, sobbing into his shoulder as if he’s the only one between her and the end of the world.
He strokes the nape of her neck with his weak left arm.
‘There’s nothing to worry about, my lovely. Nothing in the world.’
He doesn’t need to ask her what it’s about.
‘It’s started,’ she’d whispered, late the previous night.
He dries her tears, strokes the hair from her forehead, turns out the light. ‘Go to sleep now,’ the bear in him growls, while the mouse just watches with big, frightened eyes. With the fingers of his good right hand he massages her cheek bones, her eyebrows, her temples, the bridge of her nose. He loves her face, loves the way she looks. When he thinks she’s asleep he undresses and steps into the bathroom to wash his face, brush his teeth.
He shuts the door. He runs the tap, good and hard. A noisy torrent of water swirls around the sink, spirals down the outlet. Staring into the mirror, gripping the sink, he recites his catechism.
‘The little cunt.’
That’s how it always begins.
Then it goes: ‘The self-indulgent little prick. Can’t he see what he’s doing? The depressions… Then the Savantology… Then the depressions again… He’s grinding her down, breaking her heart… And he can’t even see it. The little fuck can’t see it. The stupid little prick. The pathetic, weak, self-centred little cunt. I could – ’ He’s gripping the edge of the sink so hard his knuckles are white. ‘I could…
‘Christ – ’
He stares at the ravaged landscape of his face.
What’s he going to do? Beat his step-son to a pulp?
Mouse or bear? Or just an ordinary human being, caught somewhere between the two.
He forces himself to be calm. Turns his back on the mirror. He doesn’t like how wild he looks when he caves in to these sorts of emotions. He squeezes toothpaste onto his toothbrush. His left arm is good enough for that. Straightens his back. Lets his left arm hang limply at his side. Raises his chin. Then he stabs the toothbrush into his mouth like a swab into an open wound.
Tom falls asleep in the end. In his clothes, on Marshal’s bed.
In the morning he slips out of the house, before even Mr Anderson gets up – hurries home for a shower, goes to work.
The dapper Mr Rajid intercepts him. ‘Is Marshal coming in?’
Tom shakes his head. ‘I think he’s ill.’
Mr Rajid inspects Tom closely – sees the shadows under his eyes, the look of exhaustion. ‘No one’s ever too ill to work,’ the warehouse manager says, ‘unless they’re dead.’
© 2011 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.
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