Authors: A. L Kennedy
I MADE YOU AND HELL MEND YOU
Which was hardly fair.
DID I SAY IT WOULD BE
And now another tune washed over him from childhood and shook loose something, nothing, some emptiness that wanted to be filled with apples and angels and promises and releases from sacrifice.
This was customary; you wanted it in a Christmas service: an opportunity to weep.
Douglas, or whoever, shivered and the snag and heave and braveness in his breath surprised him. Wipe at the eyes when he sat and no shame about it.
Before this lifting up of prayers started, the guy with the lectern, quiet and sincere, deliberately named the anxious and lonely and fearful and so forth.
He took pains to make his audience aware of them.
He was beseeching.
His audience was beseeching.
Douglas was beseeching with them, he couldn't avoid it, and was hurt beneath his ribs from the effort, the wholesale striving for others' sake.
No thoughtful child, no watching mind, could say they didn't care or hadn't asked, considered feasible improvements.
And then here is the final carol coming, designed as a crescendo, the triumph of being born as solid in the music as the triumph of refusing to be dead â lower harmonies thrumming in the floor, as if hell is dancing and not so bad, nowhere and nothing so bad as the man who isn't Douglas, as the put-away boy, might have thought and he doesn't believe, is not a believer, doesn't seek to be pure, or righteous, or mingled with forever, tasting it. He is simply crying and unable, for heaven's sake, to cry any less or prevent small howling bubbles of sound from escaping him and there is no justification for his behaviour, he is not especially mourning or damaged and this is exactly his problem, to be frank, because he deserves no particular sympathy. All that has happened is that time has passed and he isn't who he was and never will be and occurrences have hurt him
and so he weeps and he would like a rest and so he weeps and this boy, this man beseeches an intervention, but has no faith in saviours and so he weeps and he knows he is commonplace and unrequited and so he weeps and he knows he is impossible and built around these small pieces, baffling pieces, ridiculous animal pieces, and so he weeps and he knows that he needs to be saved and he sings for it, tries to sing for it.
Everyone, he thinks, does try to sing for it.
His problem would be that he's making the wrong noise.
DOROTHY USED TO
dream in wonders, but that happened not so often now. Apart from the usual, there was no joy in pulling back a quilt and fitting herself snug to a sheet for that first touch of rest. She appreciated what was there: the cool cloth above and below and an inrush of what was gentle, was purely easing, but her nights remained unillustrated: sleep was simply fast, it seemed, and getting faster, no more than that. It would find her and immediately open itself in the manner of a soft but determined, familiar mouth. Yes, familiar was the word for it. Not miraculous.
Nevertheless, she had no real cause for complaint.
Insomnia would be worse.
Any number of things would be worse.
So she should take advantage of her current situation.
Dorothy's next stage in life, as many magazines and also human people told her, would involve increasingly extreme possibilities. Either she would be eaten by some irreversible dream and disappear, or else she would tackle older and older age â frayed bones, cascading dysfunctions â sustained by less and less unconsciousness. The old did not sleep, apparently. She would start to be up and about after three or two or fewer hours of respite from activity, outrunning the sun and desperate to knit, or bake, or to shout at lawn-digging squirrels until trespassing children dared her to summon up the deeper kinds of wrath. Leastways, these were the occupations of the elderly when Dorothy had been a long-dozing, shouted-at child. And there was sitting, of course. Sitting formed a tremendous focus for the waning and silvered, it once was their chief endeavour. It had been sort of heroic, the way old people sat. But as magazines and also human people told her, the current generation of over-sixties were mainly occupied with Internet shopping, exotic holidays, divorce and unprotected sex, perhaps in that order, perhaps not. This seemed a step forward, if not exactly up.
She wasn't sure she'd have the energy for all of that by then. Maybe not at the moment, either.
And low-income sexagenarians were probably sitting as usual, sitting as hard as ever, sitting and slumping and folding gradually towards the waiting horizontal, no sponsored sky-dives for them, no still-warm car keys chucked on the drawing-room table in hopes of a racy afternoon with widowers and widows.
Dorothy was taking a non-racy and non-exotic holiday. She'd needed a break and had made a point of letting sleep keep her late this initial morning, which meant that she'd missed whatever the hotel described as breakfast. This didn't upset her. She'd woken in enjoyably slow stages at the soft close of a somehow wearying night, showered and then eaten the banana left over from yesterday's travel before she stepped out for a potter in the town. A banana would do her fine until lunchtime. Tennis players and athletes in general ate them for potassium with positive effects at a cellular level.
She recalled a school chemistry lesson in which her teacher â Mr Collins, who sported an unfortunate type of ailing Chinese emperor's beard â had dropped a sliver of potassium into water. The whole class had then watched as the metal wasped back and forth on the liquid's surface in a tiny blur of lilac flames, too angry to sink. It made Dorothy smile, then and today: the idea that every human body hid a pastel shade of outrage no one should view without safety glasses, or else protective screens. It was a necessary element. Inside. The fuel for frenzy, beauty, frenzy, for evaporating types of heat was medically essential.
She breathed in sweetish, Middle Europeanish air â a sense of distant mountains about it and of overpriced market-place snacks closer at hand. The lane around her was either medieval, or a convincing reconstruction of bombed-flat houses, which had restored smoothed lintels, stooping doorways and colourful shutters, ornately impractical locks. What would once have been flammable and squalid accommodation, if not rubble heaps, had been turned into something charming â slightly too self-conscious and with ground floors mainly dedicated to the sale of alarming artisan ceramics, but cute. Relatively cute.
Dorothy padded along in her holiday shoes, feeling uncluttered and free from the need of garish mugs. Or lace, there was also lace. And contagious-looking biscuits. She believed it had been a good move on her part to avoid the dull, muzzy bustle around the hotel's buffet arrangements with morning strangers. She didn't like unknown quantities first thing â they were too much. Unsolicited early conversations made her tetchy as a maiden aunt facing down a squirrel.
Which was a good phrase. She must remember and say it for someone she knew. Although without a context it might fall flat.
Someone known was required for a good breakfast â either that, or solitude and culinary excitement. She'd liked the period a while ago when European breakfasts cut a mysterious dash with plates of unnameable meats and pure, wild colours of substances in jars and sealed little punnets of things that might be for on your foreign-looking bread, or for in the foreign-tasting coffee that would race beside your heart and rub it up into unnatural states, but you'd let it â far from home and a special occasion, you'd let it, you'd give the beats your leave to skip away on you.
These days, hotels practically everywhere had the same eggs, sausages, bacon, hash browns, French toast, the customary Anglo-American harbingers of obesity and doom. Dorothy continued to long for regional variations and mistakes â dishes of weird broth, unpardonable chicken sausages, potatoes to which sad accidents must have happened, strange grains and badly transfigured eggs. She sought out oddities whenever she could in order to encourage their continuance.
On her way back she would buy some of the worrying biscuits. She briefly wished her phrasebook included the question, âExcuse me, do these taste bizarre, or have a disturbing texture, in which case I'll take several?'
Her banana had made for a bland, albeit nourishing, start and had not been â as it turned out â a quite adequate preparation for so much immaculate paintwork and so many small, deep windows full of burnished and horribly pointless ornaments. It all made her vaguely inclined towards vandalism or at least shouting and so she ducked off as quickly as she could to follow a footpath that dipped down a slope and abandoned the houses so it could cuddle the shade beside a stream. Eventually, the path thinned and become a chalky track. The mild breeze was grassy at this point, warm, and was flavoured with a sense of water, soaked leaves, secretive motion. Pheasants rose and battered up to the left of Dorothy, their tails straggling. As they laboured higher, they called out in stupid alarm: u-wa-u-wa-u-wa. Further on, they were less uneasy and merely let her drive them ahead, neatly trotting birds with the silhouettes of little fat men on horseback. Then they bustled off into undergrowth, rustles, nothing.
When the stream pooled and calmed under trees, she halted, relaxed.
There was an earthy and sandy bank, silent for footfalls and cool.
Dorothy had no precise idea which type of trees were stretched above her. Something in the style of birches.
She just stood.
It was clear there were fish in the pool, although she wasn't close enough to see, because a Labrador was wading about shin-deep and chasing them. The animal was avid: pouncing and stalking, tail wagging as it combed and quartered every hollow. Occasionally its belly dabbed down into what Dorothy guessed might be a pleasant chill. Beyond the damp and shadows, sunlight was sharpening overhead, already suggesting the need for reliefs.
Dorothy considered removing her shoes and paddling.
Perhaps once the dog had gone.
The animal seemed very busy, though, and jolly and disinclined to leave. As she watched, it snapped at the water, pressed its head full under and then shook itself free again, empty-mouthed, in a big startle of light that arced all round before landing in rings and sparks. Then it studied the wavelets again, entirely satisfied with the futility of its search. The pursuit was perfect, a twitchy and bright excitement. Finding, getting, that wasn't required.
Dorothy tried deciding â experimentally â that it wouldn't be a bad thing to wait here and see the dog being happy and have the shelter of dense-leaved, if unidentified, trees for a good while. Until dark, even. That could be a prudent choice.
Except then the dog's owner â she had to assume some kind of link between the two â began shouting what sounded like, âAnkle, Ankle . . .' and came into view: middle-aged guy, wading along and naked except for faded and overly short denim shorts and with a balding ponytail, as if such a thing should be possible in a kind and proper world.
âAnkle! Ankle!' And, at this, the hunt stopped and there was a whiskery sneeze of delight and a paddling trot from the dog to bring it gladly beside its master. Then both glanced over at Dorothy, the man's expression implying that he â creepy, scraggle-armed and too undressed, his browned and hairy little stomach pouched shamefully over his waistband â he belonged in this place and was here every morning, and what the hell was she doing, intruding on the scene and peering at him and his beloved Ankle as if they were not quite right?
She didn't outstare him. She was aware, in fact, that she'd started to blush and therefore had a kind of admission of guilt rising on her cheeks and neck, as if she'd intended to be here and to solicit bad interactions that ought to stay nameless. Like Ankle.
Who would call any pet Ankle?
The leaves sniggered hotly at her back as she withdrew, retraced her steps.
This left her alone with the path again and steering for town, because there was nowhere else aside from genuine hiking routes that led into the southern hills, for which maps were available from Reception. She didn't yet have a map, even though part of coming here had involved semi-plans for vigorous climbs and then worthwhile views accompanied by fruit, or bread and local sausage, regional cheese, decanted tap water from the metal bottle she'd packed with her boots and the largely superfluous compass intended to give her efforts an adventurous gloss. Every route was clearly and frequently signposted. There were inns every ten or twelve miles with rustic verandas and hygienic toilets. This was in no way a wilderness.
Possibly a wasteland. Probably. But not a wilderness.
In the pretty high street the pretty restaurants were crowded with lunching tourists. The tourists were not pretty, they were noisy and bewildering. Dorothy pressed open doors on clique after clique of happy tables, threaded herself under terrace parasols, found no comfortable space, found no space comfortable.
She wasn't hungry, anyway. That banana. Sustaining.
And the sunlight was making her head throb.
In the end, it turned out she could sit on the dark side of a repellent municipal statue, because no one else wanted to be there. Or because no one else was currently aware of its â she might term them â evasive charms. Others had been here, however: at the base of the thing, in under a mossy confusion of mythical tails and feet, was a shallow trough. Small-denomination coins lay calmly winking and shivering under its water, where they'd presumably been thrown: moderate, circular hopes or thanks for good luck, coming safely back, going safely home, finding contentment. She trailed her hand into the trough, made ripples and then stilled them. She lifted her fingers and licked them. They had no particular flavour: no hint of metal, no hint of luck. They were just colder than her lips.