When she was away for university, Rhea reminisced about the only place she found belonging, Mouldon, serenity forever preserved, alone among the Taw Valley of Wiltshire. Now she wanted nothing but to escape it.
Her parents were always arguing, making home so cramped that every wall felt drawn apart like curtains. She’d be gone tomorrow, yet time passed suffocatingly slow. So, she ducked beneath the lost tempers, and slipped through the front door. University couldn’t come any sooner.
Hushed; the stream ahead flew heavy and bronze. In the swash and backwash of the clouds, airliners tore through a maya blue sky. A wheely bin slammed. Gate hinges whined. A postwoman tapped on a brass knocker. The scent of manured fields filled Rhea’s lungs. The country always felt soberly refreshing and healthy. She was not claiming the smell to be pleasant, except for when they were compared to the city fumes. Her first few days in Portsmouth were afflicted with a perpetual griminess, her mucus was black, and even showering failed to scour the dirt. Yet, as pleasant as the Mouldon summers were, she would have to follow the geese southward, as the last vestiges of summer fell from the branches and became mush on the road.
Scoffed biscuits. It was unbelievable that her parents could rip the linings of their throats over whose biscuits were whose. Yesterday too, Dad complained about her mum moving his favourite spoon. His spoon. They’d have forgotten all about it by the evening, hugging away the memory, but how could anything be that simple? She knew each episode fused to another in the backlog of their minds. How long until it tips over the levies, flooding into consciousness a collage of the other’s face? Every curse and slip of the tongue overcasting everything they had loved – the childhood Rhea prized.
They wouldn’t be able to look at each other again. All because of her. Just her breath proved enough to itch and nip at their necks. She was far too old and independent for home. It was her fault. A frost climbed up her spine like the tendrils of ivy. It clenched deep into the marrow of her bones. She had to get away.
Just at the end of her street was the local pub, The Moonrakers, bulging with prematch apprehension. Men in a multitude of colours spilled out onto the street, embroiled in feuds between cities known only by name. Cities like Liverpool, which were as familiar to Rhea as Tenochtitlan and Babylon, and the idea that these people could find belonging in them was ludicrous. It seemed as if the entire country was pushing their way into that pub. There was no way of Rhea getting through that crowd. The frost on her spine was encroaching. Everything looked towards her with hostility. The leaves in the tree beside her, harshly trilling and rattling, watching her every footstep. The air was scarce. The pub was still brimming. A cold sweat trickled down her forehead. The hostile air was ubiquitous and not even the horizon was far enough. Football fans covered the street, pushing and shoving to such an extent that it seemed the stream had burst its banks again. Cigarette smoke eddied towards her nostrils. Rhea tried holding her breath as if she could feel the smoke rotting her lungs. They’re just people, she told herself, they will do me no harm.
‘Yeah, you would say that, you’re a Spurs fan. Worst right back I’ve seen.’ The crowd blocked the street. ‘Excuse me,’ Rhea said. Her words trembled.
‘Clearly not seen many games then, you plastic’ another responded.
Her legs were frozen to the tarmac, lungs too full of smoke to raise her voice. Surely, they could see her in their periphery. She was sure of it. She was just an irritation to them. They had the right to block the road, she guessed.
The two arguing men grabbed each other by the collar. Rhea saw a space open, amongst the crowd. The perfect opportunity to slip by.
‘I shouldn’t need to wait,’ she thought. She nearly lost her footing, as the crowd moved back in waves as the fighting men went back and forth. She felt hands touch her shoulder, push her by. People sighed and grunted as she blocked their view.
When one of the men went sprawling to the ground, the crowd roared and the smell of yeast and sweat overpowered the street. So, poignant the leaves, which had been watching Rhea, lifted into a great murmuration. It became apparent that they were not leaves, but starlings. It was a spectacle that left Rhea questioning whether all leaves were in fact starlings.
She could see Allende Road. Rhea had made it through the crowd. She was free and, most importantly, unnoticed. She felt relief, like a current melting away her anxieties, the frost on her spine thawed.
‘Should have seen his face,’ said the victor, ‘looked like her.’
Rhian’s face blushed with the same hue of the begonias in the pub’s planters. The frost climbed her spine again with a new found aggression, and her legs could not stand her weight. Tighter the world seemed to squeeze around her chest; any more, her organs would spew through her rib cage like a garlic press. And her brain, where had it gone? There. It fluttered around, panicked, like the murmuration of starling on the horizon.
Why mention me? Leave me alone. Why can’t people just not be in my way? They have the right to be there, too. I know. But it’s inconsiderate. I’m a joke to them.
She chased after her brain. And if she knew the village life well, they would meet again. If not in a few hours, tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.
Remember the milk. Must not forget the milk. There was something else, though. Eliza could feel it in the shade of her mind, cusping her hands around it. Don’t forget the milk. But what is it? Down the stairs, there’s the fish tank, the wallpaper bubbles above. Then that dangling string of dust on the ceiling, always swinging in the draught – must get that door done, winter is coming. But milk, must get that first and…the other thing, whatever that was.
And whatever that was flew out of reach in the sky, like the gulls circling. A red kite glided in the glare of the sun. ‘Typical,’ said Eliza, tenting her eyes, first with her left hand then her right, edging along the sun’s halo. Squinting her eyes when the red kite passed like Mercury across the face of the sun.
She gave her eyes a rest from a blinding pursuit of the kite’s hunt, catching what she could just make out to be Rhea in the blur. Gosh, how long had it been since she had seen the Carsons? Two weeks, at most, a month. Maybe two months. She should really pop by soon. How could you let it slip like that? I’ll make them something nice – ah, milk – maybe a sponge. Helen really does like my sponge. Rhea too. She used to plough through them. ‘Did you even taste that,’ we asked her.
Eliza was the baker’s daughter, when Mouldon still had an independent bakery. All her siblings were off elsewhere. So upon the death of her father, the keys were thrown into her adolescent hands. It was time to grow up. Tears were still brimming in her eyes when she met the accountant.
‘It’s not going to be an easy few weeks for you, Ms Ward.’ He nudged a box of tissues across the desk, fiddling with the buttons on his shirt. He parted his lips, but no words escaped. It was in death she discovered her father’s composure. Who really was this man?
She kept the bakery alive for a few years. Her daily communion was barely enough for her to relieve her stomach pangs. This was the only reason you would find her at mass. Never faith, for she had none of that, only hunger and thirst. But, through all this she learnt her greatest lesson.
‘There is no taste when things are made with stress and haste. Believe me,’ she told Rhea. Her mouth always had a stubble of brown crumbs. ‘You cantaste passion.’
And she lived with a sense of failure, having let down the family. Her father’s composure, too, rotted away with empty premises. She was nothing like him. It amazed her that Duncan, the milkman, the last of his kind, could keep it going all these years, keeping back the grief of lost faces, facing the inevitable.
Had it not been for another pitiful collection at Sunday mass, she would have lived a hermit. Father Liam came to her door, fumbling with his fingers. He offered a smile that has survived the wear of age: the growth of another chin and the retreat of his hairline. Eliza scarcely heard his petition for her help, trying to understand how two people, young and old, could coexist in his smile. And his voice, it was strained by the same desperation, a longing for better times that kept her locked away. There was still a way to keep the community alive. She baked for the church fundraiser, and after that for birthdays, for wakes, and for anyone all at her own expense (if she could). Father Liam, resigned to her lack of faith, knew her charity was enough. It was a modern concession.
Rhea, being one of the few young people in the village, was showered with Eliza’s generosity. Although, Rhea never thought her cakes were any good. She remembered tearing through a dry Victoria sponge, searching for its flavour, like a child digging into its toy box.
If there had been any passion in making it, Eliza had very little. Of course, she’d eat whatever sweet treats she was given. She would feel bad if she had thrown it straight into the bin. It felt sentient to her.
Eliza smiled at Rhea. Her teeth were cream with milky tips. Further back one could see a gold implant – though it lacked the enthusiastic glint of real gold. The sleeves of her grey cable knit jumper were rolled up to her elbows as it was the only way to keep it up. This off-guard meeting had shocked Rhea, who seeing Eliza’s bony arms, couldn’t believe this was the same woman who she imagined with bulging cheeks of cake. She noticed how prominent her cheekbones were, how sunken her face was, the dark moat of her eyes. How could this woman appear to eat so much whilst looking as if living off the nutrients of her fingernails alone?
‘Hello, Rhea, what you doing out so early?’
‘Fresh air, I guess.’
‘We like that.’ The kite dived, snatching a crying gull from the air in a burst of feathers. Typical. ‘And when are you going back to university?’
Out came Rhea’s well-rehearsed answers: tomorrow; yeah, it’d be nice to be back again; english; I don’t speak to many people on my course. Meanwhile, Eliza nodded, and no one could be this interested with her mundane life plans. In spite of this, she couldn’t help feeling settled, as if no matter how boring the subject Eliza would handle you like an ancient artefact, grasping your answers with the tips of her fingers, and setting down into a display case. She could say anything. This was freedom. This was probably what good friends felt like. But this scepticism nips away every so often, with a clockwork regularity: is she really listening. Who cares?
As she left Eliza – who had now forgotten she had needed milk at all – she passed a minimalist, art-deco building that many still knew as the Police Station. It had a characteristic Victorian black lantern with opaque blue glass imprinted with POLICE. Beside the blue lantern, a Harley Jones sign, the local estate agent, displayed: ‘FOR LET: Luxury Studio Apartments.’
Its last known resident, PC George Nugent was forced to move on to a regional post, three years ago. No one really knew him, but he represented something far greater than George Nugent – one-hundred and thirty years of protection, not enforcing.
The bells drew a tumult into a churchyard celebrating his future. It was filled with white vinyl tables, covered in aluminium trays of treats, hardly enough to weigh down the table. It was all Eliza’s doing, overseeing the event beside Father Liam, trying to keep the hair from knotting. There were neat rows of sausage rolls, baklava, gulab jamun, rasgulla, and motichoor ladoo. And what a farewell party for Mouldon’s last local bobby it was. Nutty, windy, and definitely very sticky.
PC Nugent made his way through the crowd, with guilt peeking from behind his cordiality. He made his way through a crowd that never recognised the man out of uniform. It was disheartening for a boy born and raised in this village. To Rhea’s eyes, he looked like a man trying to hand off the honour awarded to him with every hand he shook. But much like the syrup of Eliza’s pastries and sweets, it clung to his fingertips. She could not keep her eyes wide open while the wind froze her eyes and stung her ears. Not enough to remember any features of his face, but in its place was a happy feeling, a time before home seemed too small, before it all went wrong. She never imagined the effect the mere hint of syrup would have for him years afterwards. PC George Nugent – the name that represented all (and the end of) a hundred and forty years of justice in Mouldon – felt himself consumed by insatiable dissatisfaction.
He shut off the lantern ceremoniously, as folk cheered and wished him luck for the future. It hadn’t occurred to anyone what they were celebrating. Spiders, rats, and mice climbed in through the cracks of the old cells, to claim their new squat, as do worms through the eye sockets of the dead. The lead paint on the lantern flaked, and the spider webs gave it a soft white fuzz.
This was not the end of justice in rural areas, they were reassured. Rare patrol cars would come from the station in Royal Wootton Bassett to remind residents that they had not been forgotten. Rhea had only had the privilege of seeing one in the last year. And when she glared at the officers inside, their faces were skinned over. She felt more scared than safe by this new, cost-effective form of justice.
For the ensuing years, there was some hope that it could see life again, that people would soon be coming and going from its doorway. They got what they wished for after three years when Alan Nixon bought it from Wiltshire Police. It was a sum which had outweighed the sentiment held by many of the forgotten faces of the village. They were to be apartments, mainly for the retired, for an escapee from city life. No one resisted.
On the night of the sale, as if awoken by a premonition of its death, the lantern relit. Brighter than it had ever done in its years of service. Its reassuring light splashed across the pavement, poured over the curb onto the road. It flowed uphill and downhill. By the scrapyard called Phoenix Gardens, down Signal Way and Station Road. Every street, road, lane, and close. It was all covered in this delphinium petal light. It rose above the pavement, the front doors, and the roofs. Mouldon was encompassed in a blue dome, which many nearby drivers mistook for light pollution of a city. It dived into the deepest of sleeps, and held the hands of the residents, bringing them back into the real world. Most did not question why they had awoken, since it is not too unusual for one to wake up in the middle of the night. But when they noticed their curtains twitch, and the petalled light pour onto their carpets, they left their beds to investigate.
Among all the tales of that night, a common theme was the air of bewilderment. Neighbours were fixed to their door frames, cocking their heads around the corner. Some ventured as far as the centre of the road stretching their necks as if to poke their head above a wall. Others were lost, wandering about, snatched from their beds, dizzied by the vast openness of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, above. The light was gone.
Others just spoke to each other like it was the most natural thing to do at this hour because not everyone was drawn out by the light. Phoebe Beal, a fine collector of arthritis since her twentieth year, was only pulled from her covers because of the murmur. Frank, her neighbour, had also not seen the light, neither did it interest them.
‘Do you think cavalier spaniels are bad luck,’ said Phoebe. She leaned on her porch to keep her joints from stiffening.
Frank chuckled, raising his forehead furrows. His own hadn’t been too bad for him, apart from tearing apart an old childhood pillow.
‘For royals, though, Charles the First, look what happened to him. They should be considered bad luck. If not, why not?’
A man in his dressing gown, feeling helpful, told them the light was probably something to do with the RAF. The base was not too far from here.
Frank smirked. ‘Aliens?’
‘You never know.’
Peter Flowers was the first person to discover the origin of the light. He was already wide awake and went out to tire himself. As he passed his car, he wiped the dust from his window screen, and glimpsed his reflection. He could see himself already at the wheel, hours later, nodding at him, envious of his freedom. He could not enjoy his freedom. All Peter wanted to do right now was to sleep to be ready for work, to be ready to become his reflection.
Everyone was in bed. Everyone. As he passed beneath a streelamp’s orange glow on Station Road, he gazed at a moth as it danced round the head of the light. The night was so tender nothing more than a sniffle was needed to rip through it. Later, he was sure it had been his footsteps that woke the village. Beneath the acid wash sky, he found himself cradled by the light from the blue lantern. He lost track of the years, approached the door of the police station, hoping to entertain George on his night shift. But he was shocked when the door latch slammed against the mortise. He found himself abandoned in the dark again with only the faint glow of the streetlamp. The lantern was off, flaking and still covered in a white fuzz.
‘It’s probably just Nixon,’ Rhea’s mum said.
‘I called him, I did. Didn’ get a’sponse. Tried again later, and he just went on about his electricity bill, he did.’
Alan Nixon, not long landed at Bristol Airport, dropped his wife at his home in Bath, and made his way along the A4 towards Mouldon. The car could not go fast enough; legally that is. He could feel the seconds dripping, the meter ticking. Blood pumping. How many of these people needed to travel? Only him. He had a Reason. If only. If only, the roads were clear.
The lantern was off. Exasperated, he phoned the electric company. The audacity of them to tell him to lower his tone. Why couldn’t they just answer the question? Finally, he squeezed out the answer he had been waiting for. The place was not connected to the grid, as suspected, it hadn’t been for bloody years. His fears went sour.
‘Morons,’ Alan said through clenched teeth. Alan Nixon never answered a message or call again.
Much to her mother’s disappointment, the stories never moved Rhea. Not because she saw them as myths in as much as this phenomena was nothing strange to someone who enjoyed her solitude. Take a look over there, at the sign that says SIGNAL WAY. Two words that hang like the thin mist of the past between the commercial units. The road is guided by the curve of the wall from the old station. Listen carefully. You can hear the clunking, the sorting of boxes and inventory in the units, or is that the loading of the carriages that used halt here? Unloading the sacks of provisions. Loading mail out, produce, and men, which many mothers and wives were too aware of. Up the wooden stairs into the Signal Box, thickly painted in green with chalk white window trims, the signalman paces, who possessed at his fingertips the flow of life. Chink, a siding changes, a signal waves the locomotive on. A whistle drowned the familiar lark’s tune. And off it goes, weeping into the mist of Signal Way.
There were too many words. Every silence had to be filled. Filled with hollow compliments and questions that no one wanted the answer to. Talking for the sake of it. Because silence was uncomfortable. Too many people were scared their friendships would slip into the chasm. All because they had no chatter to support their feet. Silence felt like death. In fact, they’re not wrong. In silence you can hear and feel the dead. And in an air without words, Rhea felt comfortable. This was why she had rushed out of her home for the route commemorated as the Railway Trail. Peace. The trail’s embankment was lined with a guard of honour of oaks, ashes, and blighted horse chestnuts. The light that broke through their canopy had the soft glow of acacia honey. They waited. They’ve been waiting since Beeching’s Axe.
The trail had flattened the hills, raised marshland, and felled the copses – which still remembered the face of Arthur. The biomes twisted, weaved, and rolled so often that the track layers’ arms ached from the rotation of axes, pickaxes, and spades. Rhea followed this pathway through its gradual turns, until her mind lost its grip, and her imagination flooded her eye. Before her, she watched the men in their undertakings, season-by-season. She watched them sweat and shiver, lay the ballast, fix the sleepers, and break their backs. All this she could still see and hear. Even her own steps shall echo centuries later, when even the guard of honour gives up and the trail succumbs to weeds.
Her imaginations degraded to mere flashes. Fingers: cut in heavy machinery and pruned from washboards. Flat caps. The hooter of Swindon. All onto the pyre of the hereand-now.
This was the path of lost and pruned fingers.
It is unfair for me to degrade these flashes as if nothing but Rhea’s fancy. Rhea herself testifies that she could hear these very souls whisper by the statue of Brunel – that Great Engineer – in Swindon. Groaning as they hold the statue upright, like Atlas holding the celestial sky. She remembered these trips into town with her parents. Sausage rolls and (always and) custard slices. She never spoke to the souls inasmuch as she pitied them. Mind the pigeon shit on the pedestal, she was told. It was all over him: his suit and top hat – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Engineer. And she remembered distinctly, as if it happened every time, two boys in hoodies swerving through the crowd on their bikes. Don’t mind us, grumbled one woman, interrupted in her story about her jammed bath plug and something about a storm and tea. And when their day was done in town, they would head up Havelock Street, lined with charity shops.
‘Time to find your mum.’ Her father peered through every charity shop window, nearly sending the poor elderly ladies into shock. He never did think before he acted.
They ventured into the British Heart Foundation shop, clogged with rails of musky floral-patterned dresses, old board games, and VHS tapes. Rhea was separated from her father, as a tie dye shirt took her fancy.
‘Christ, not you as well.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘I will leave you here. I’m going home with at least one of ya.’
Once she got over the disgust of secondhand clothing, there was no better place for unique items. Why? Have you ever smelt a charity shop? It smells like old people. Human odour. A record of them. The clothes, of their age, spirits on sale, your choice of haunting. Not many people know this as Rhea did. They all had the same smell of life passed. This shop in particular, she remembered, always smelt of naan bread.
‘Fuck me, there you are,’ her dad declared with a brashness that would have given the cashier a brain haemorrhage had he been a librarian. ‘Rhea, I’ve got her.’
Rhea’s dad always suggested a curry as they hauled their goods and memories down Regent Street. Though this memory was just a blur for Rhea. All she can remember of it is how it changed every year, how it was drained of its colour. Full windows emptied. Glass smashed. Windows plastered with closing sales. Walls with the shade of removed signs.
Down the Parade, the square was covered with a white canopy stained with mildew and algae. Soon this would be gone, too. When exactly it disappeared, she was not sure. It might never have existed. Above the canopy was the brutalist monolith, the Debenhams building.
‘I remember when it was Bon Marche, and the offices above were Allied Dunbar. Used to have a metal eagle on top. Been a while since anyone has been up there. Council tore down the beautiful Hermitage, but kept this. Makes you weep,’ said her Dad.
They passed into the subway of Fleming Way. The hum and sighs of buses above were drowned out by the busker splayed against the wall. The tiled walls were painted with blueprints of the famous engines constructed here, like North Star. The overwhelming stench of urine and sausage rolls, and tiles defaced with gang tags were the tour guides of Swindon’s past. She never paid much attention to these pictures, not even to the busker. However, in this frozen instance of reflection, she saw. In and through the busker’s din: travelled lifetimes of anguish, pasts edging on forgotten, still teeming in the blood born during ages of unemployment. Babies growing in a new norm. This is how it always was, they believe: the homeless spread on streets as often as streetlights. Don’t give them money, they might spend it on drugs. Distrust everyone – yuppies and druggies. Cram people into buildings cheap and efficient, not built to last. How unfortunate when they crumble and burn. How lonely life has always been, even surrounded with all these people.
Rhea was present again in the material world, on the Railway Trail. The air was warm, fresh, and humid. She could smell the beautifully pungent yarrow, the green leaves, and musk mallow. She looked up to the sky, almost completely submerged in a dark nimbus. Her skin felt fuzzy. As she turned to go home, she wiped her nose with the back of her hand, she noticed her snot was black, already.
Her accommodation at university was empty. Devoid of any soul. When she first unlocked her door, swathes of dust flew into the stale air. And as she was left there, she tried to listen to the silence – the absence of words, which she desired so much yesterday – there was nothing. She searched everywhere for life. Her bed, the chest of drawers, the wardrobe. She searched under them and in them for something. And in her desperation to find something living, she found only a manky sock, a nose ring, and a small clump of pubic hair. University was a chance to rewrite her past with all her faculties developed. A chance to make friends, create your self, or even find love.
A student ambassador once promised, ‘In freshers, you’ll make friends for life and have unforgettable experiences.’ This bounty of opportunity was not as free as they made out.
She was often misread. Whether that be her dark eyes that always fell short of the others’ or her resistance to human touch, it was never understood. Standoffish; the first thought anyone felt when they met her. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Rhea was anything but someone who enjoyed absolute solitude. She enjoyed it because it was all she had. You could argue it was her fault. Hiding from her own friends after school never helped. She wasn’t to know this behaviour would commit her to a dreadful descent into solitude. It festered. Embarrassment of her parents soon became an embarrassment of her unbranded clothes, then of her larger than usual nose, then of her lack of friends. In her reception year she was held back with three others. She felt disappointed in herself as her classmates ran off, waving to Miss Church, into Year One.
‘She’s not taking things in,’ was the only explanation she ever had. What the hell did that even mean? In a way, she was glad to be left behind with Miss Church. Rhea had grown attached to her. Next year wouldn’t be so bad. Miss Church left.
At age six she showed off a picture of a castle she had coloured in like a rainbow. Ms Howard called a meeting with her dad. Whatever for, she couldn’t understand. Did she not like it?
As she moved into what should have been Year Two, the other three, who were also held back, were moved back up. Her only friend, William Maloney, never seemed keen to be seen with her. The look on his face the last hometime she saw him. She had only said hello.
His fear has been burnt into her retina since.
William never came back to school..
She was allowed to skip Year Two, finally reunited with her old class. Their faces were familiar, but they were alien. She found the year below more friendly, more like her.
Her friends, who had also been held back, were even more distant to her.
Though time would nudge her towards her own year group. It was then she struggled to understand the changes that came with age. Everyone had grown bored of playing pretend. That was for kids. The boys now played football, not World War Two. And there was one new rule: girls don’t play with boys.
Where did she fit in? Rhea Carson was always a year or two behind the rest and, in her nineteenth year, this was still true. It was a handicap she could never seem to recover from. How many times had she overheard the gossip of last night’s party, of which only her and the losers were not invited? Yes, at secondary school she had the opportunity to rectify her mistake. But her old classmates distanced themselves from her and she had no younger year to fall back on. Her embarrassment became fear. Lack of friends caused desperation. Desperation caused lack of friends. This cycle made her fear attempting anything that could embarrass her. Of course she was misread. Of course she found young adult social life strange. She could find many reasons from these muddled flashes of her memory to explain her present predicament.
All that she had left to do was to make bold decisions that would get her the attention she needed. Though, at age twelve, shaving your hair was something laughed at by those she wanted to befriend and punished by the school. While the ridicule from teachers and students alike would have made most committed to conventionality, she was overwhelmed with indignance. Her haircut was more attention seeking than fancy, but her indignance made her grow affectionate of it.
She folded her clothes to the rhythms of footsteps, beats of passing car radios. Beside the foot of her bed was where her shirts went. There, her rolls of trousers. Underwear goes over here, her jackets adjacent, and beside them her jumpers because the cold rains of the
British coastline were unforgiving. After sorting through her clothes, she moved onto food. The homemade goods were stacked on top of her cereals, rice and grains, and tins of baked beans. She cracked open the mint green lid of the plastic Tupperware and gorged on the baklava Eliza had given her on the Village Green, yesterday. There was no life in the room, there was in the food. She could remember George Nugent, the young officer, his dissatisfaction with life, she felt it too, and she wondered if he found life outside of Mouldon so dull and bare. Now she thinks about it, has Eliza’s baking always been this good? She really has mistreated her. How much effort had she gone through to make this? And in this moment, the Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell came to mind. It played in the car journey down. It was one of her dad’s favourites. She had a silent appreciation for him. So sweet, clear, and melancholy was his voice. It was a voice that could deliver a bittersweet flavour in even the most joyful pieces. With syrup stuck to the roof of her mouth and the resonance of
Campbell’s voice she remembered all the sad faces, whom she had paid no attention to, flash before her: George Nugent; Duncan; Father Liam, William Maloney (where did he go). And her, was she also another sad face?
She was watching the TV now. Everything on the media is sex and love, she thought, sitting in a room where the only life was the radiator wolf whistling. She was still years behind, she lamented. Time had only just introduced her to the world of love. Her first relationship at eighteen, what a train crash that was. How could her parents cope with that restrictive life? How can anyone know that they love something? She wasn’t sure if she knew what that felt like. The word was as hollow as the life in the city. The media would like to remind you that you are still years behind. This young celebrity is getting married. Oh, a teen drama where they meet by chance and discover the other is the One. It feels far from her experience.
She likes people. She wants someone to intrude in her consciousness, anyone. But being someone still years behind everyone else, standoffish, rarely invited out, that meant no one.
‘I’m not standoffish,’ she said to herself. People just need to get to know me. I’ve never wanted to intrude, I’ve never wanted to make you feel like I’ve ruined your joke or your conversation, and I don’t want to be your joke, and I don’t want to be the person you wish would shut up or you didn’t have to invite out of courtesy.
A dash of black or brown feathers went by her window. She was drawn to the pane, gazing with the excitement of a child at a zoo, trying to spot the leopards. Could’ve been a swallow, she thought. She saw two students pass. She listened beneath the noise of neighbours and traffic.
‘I really enjoyed it…it was like…’ A scooter rushed down the road. ‘And like…he was like…’
‘Hello,’ Rhea whispered, still sitting by her bedroom window. The words bounced back at her.
‘…He couldn’t even…umbrella…tonight it…’ Their words were lost, fizzled out. Rhea could make nothing of their sounds, and while this conversation was uninteresting, she couldn’t help that longing. Her longing to be caught up in meaninglessness. For chatter to occupy all the silence, she’d lose sight of the spirits, who have never done her any good. But who would she be if not the solitary girl? What if she was caught up in a flurry of pleasantries, compliments, and gossip, of which were so empty that it did not possess the strength to make her indignant or envious. She would lose who she was. Become basic.
It would be enough, however, to wrap herself in, to kill her chills.
Without Mouldon, who was she? When she crossed a road, she heard the voice of Ms Howard telling her to look both ways. When she spoke with her mouth full, she heard her mum ridiculing her. When she met new people at uni, she heard the unsettled voice of
William Maloney. What part of her was her own? But she didn’t belong there anymore. That much was evident. And while she didn’t feel like she belonged here in Portsmouth, either, this would have to be her. She had to grow up? Leave behind the Pleasant and convince herself this lifeless metropolis is the world, is life, without a doubt.
No. There might not be life in this room, but she will find it out there. People who accept her for who she is. They wouldn’t find her if she stayed locked up in here. And so
Rhea in a rush knocked over her folded shirts and slipped out the front door of the house.
The last vestiges of the sun hung around the red tipped needle of the Spinnaker Tower. A bubble-gum pink and blue sky. The birches and sycamores were ablaze, greens subdued by oranges, amber, and crimson. They stirred with the tranquillity of the sleeping – the slow dispelling of air in the rise and fall of the chest. A fox stood in the cool glare of the waning crescent moon, as if taxidermied. His limpid eyes met the wandering drunk. And there was a buzz, a squeal for life, filling the street, as the spider sunk its venom into the body of a fly.
The buzzing went on, and on, and on, until only the creeping steps of fox could be heard. Rhea wandered into the dark, unable to handle the stale air of her room. Just hours ago, not even a day, she was tucking in the sheets of her bed back home. Hours, mere hours were the distance from home and her parents. A frail man held onto the walls of his house as he placed a bag in his wheely bin. The precision, the delicacy of his disposal was similar to how Eliza handled conversations.
Rhea had to take another look. Was it Duncan? Could this be Mouldon? This was not the only time she was forced to restore her focus on what really laid ahead of her. What she could smell, touch, see, and hear. She mistook streets for ones back home, looked with expectation at the front doors she believed to belong to Eliza and others. She even thought she saw Father Liam, drinking lager in a Pompey replica shirt, that may as well have been a crop top.
‘There’s no room back home,’ she repeated, ‘I must grow up.’
A traffic light at a crossroad went green. The speck of light grew, as the lantern had done for Peter Flowers, until it encompassed the crossroad. The light projected the Village
Green – yesterday, her past – ahead of her. She could hear the voices of Eliza and her mother.
She could see the maya blue sky of the morning and a bee kissing a white clover on the lawn. All this had opened ahead of her. All she had to do was run into it. In that moment, it seemed that easy.
‘He should have given it up years back’ Eliza said, ‘it’s so merciless nowadays. Have you seen him?’
‘I’m not a morning person.’
‘He won’t listen, Helen, I’ve told him countless times. Has some sort of conviction, as if there is something worth saving. It’s killing him.’
‘I feel like that most days.’ Rhea’s mum tied her hair into a ponytail, tired, wishing, for once, to move to lighter conversation.
‘Stop trying to be a martyr, I tell him. Give it up. Go live your life. Get out of
Mouldon. I can get my milk elsewhere, you know. But it’s always the same response: “I’ll go when I’m ready.” Whatever that means.’
‘I believe “no,” if I know men.’
Street after street after street. Alley after alley. She was always two steps behind the memories, and soon a fog had descended, so thick that anything beyond ten metres did not exist. The vision of the Village Green was gone. She was lost, still following the voices of yesterday until she heard a familiar sound. Could it be? Was that the rush of the stream that ran heavy and bronze? If she walked a few steps further, would she see The Moonrakers, the rowdy men, or hear the shouting of her parents? She tried to convince herself this was true. Her imagination tried to throw a blanket of familiarity over the city, but it flopped, and fell into a pothole puddle. A little further and she was no longer on the path, but on stones, and ahead of her the ebb and flow of spruce coloured waves. The bellows and light hums of
Portsmouth Harbour. Guildhall’s bells tolled eight times.
She was abandoned to the mercy of a bone chilling sea breeze. This was her home, this city, where darkness is no longer a thing let alone pretext for rest. Darkness snatched away, so that work never ends, because the sun never sets. You work in your sleep too. It is the only way to live.
Saying this, Mouldon had become like this too. In the summer holidays, she slept for months, exhausted, the light of the city still permeated through her, shining on the back of her eyes. She would never be satisfied with home again. That’s it.
It’s in the eyes of everyone. Everyone is tired. The darkness is gone, replaced by an all-encompassing light. It was clear now. The one place she thought exempt from change – a refuge from all this mania – is no longer in darkness, as the world tugs at its lead. She wanted to enjoy its fleeting shade, except life there was too slow for her. Here, too fast.
Mouldon is panting, trying to keep up. And many would say it has been since the arrival of the railways. Others tell a different tale. But Rhea only saw its desperation now, as she watched a ferry, like a ghostly candelabra in the fog, dully float like the swans on the nearby Canoe Lake. It was time to forge a new identity, but the past was inescapable. She recognised the past is still here, around us, in us, behind the chatter, still felling, laying the ballast, and levelling the embankments for the present moment to follow.
Walking along the Millennium Promenade, a young man called William Maloney was struck by a sight of a girl on the beach that night. Her image aroused a melancholy and fear, carrying beneath her armpit familiar voices and images he could no longer place in space or time. And she was singing to herself beneath the ebb and flow of an ambulances’ wail.
‘I can hear you through the whine,’ her voice mumbled. That was all William heard.
The memory sunk so far in, so naturally, he was unsure why he felt so melancholic.
Not once that night in his room, nor ever in his life, did he recall his interaction with the girl. But her aura persisted. Can you not see it in the sunken rings around his eyes – the tell-tale sign of an insomniac? The song she sang, looping in his head, he remembered it as if a product of his own thoughts. He heard whining strings and fragmented lyrics. It kept him awake as he tried to figure its origin and name. Once he identified it as Wichita Lineman, he played it loudly on his phone, as if this would satiate his pangs. They always say: play the song to get it off your mind. He lit up a clumsily rolled zoot and sat back letting the soundwaves and eddying smoke carry him away.
The song could be faintly heard on the street by a woman named Emily Montagu, walking her cocker spaniel. The words were mostly insensible to her, but she could hear those longing strings travel through every fibre of her body. It brought back a taste of her father’s home, when she used to visit on the weekends. Scratchy records. He waited by the back door, smoking. A deep memory that constitutes most of her matter. So much so, that she felt like she was being stung all over. She’ll go see him tomorrow. Her cocker spaniel pulled her along, unaware she was busy wiping her damp cheeks.