It is rare that I write something without the accompaniment of music; my stories are influenced by sound. That’s not to say that there is a direct correlation between the writing theme and musical genres. For instance, my short, ‘Catch’, was largely written and edited to the film score by Marco Beltrami for ‘The Woman in Black’. But the resulting story wasn’t one of spirits and the supernatural, instead – ‘Catch’ tries to capture the relationship between a single father and his daughter and tells how unconditional love is often just not enough. Writing it devastated me in ways that I find hard to articulate. It feels terribly narcissistic to admit that a piece of my own writing could move me in such a profound way; surely it’s no different to the comedian who laughs at his own jokes? There is an essential difference though. When I write, I might have a vague idea of what I want to say but, often, I don’t have any real feeling as to how characters will evolve from one scene to the next. Like millions of writers, I just make it up as I go along and only when the end is in sight do I have any idea what the end will be. Unlike the comedian, I don’t have the punchline. While writing ‘Catch’, Beltrami’s score allowed my mind to frame the conversations between the two characters in a way that I don’t think writing in a silent room could ever have done. It reminded me that the story is dynamic; a thing of light and shade and atmosphere and the audio landscape, this dread, allowed me to visit the very worst fears of a parent.
I am listening to the same film score now.
Ugly Hill. A small stretch of climbs and cleaved earth; an artificial place bolted to the back of joy. Carpeted with weeds and cellophane grass, it is the banks and dips, piled rudely skyward into sly humps. It is the ground. It is leftovers, where filth crusted diggers tore at the world with teeth that dripped rust and rain. It is pretend pursuits, made for jaded people in frayed towns. It is where they came with hard-hats and lurid fluorescence, to pace out parallelograms and to flatten and stretch: build bingo halls and bowling alleys with quick-as-you-like, flat-pack frames. And it was a cruel transformation, an absence of imagination that was nothing more than a crude attempt to engender some sense of nature into an awful municipal sprawl.
But those small hills, seemed like ours, and it is a simple matter of fact that it was there that you chose to reveal your sadness.
We sat with our bags of food on the harsh incline, feet planted like brakes and you told me that you felt an indelible darkness; it was inside, you said – most of the time. I remember how you turned your head away and couldn’t look at me. I thought that you had held your breath, as if somehow ashamed for your sorrow and, afraid that I had nothing to offer you in your awful and unexpected journey, I allowed the silence between us to balloon.
I watched distant others; people – drifting along in the wind and I tried to imagine them away from that place, huddled behind pulled curtains and locked doors; stuck with their small lives and lost causes, perched on the edge of panic like frightened little birds. And I wondered how many came there to disguise misery.
‘I want to help, Lenny,’ I said meaninglessly. I placed a hand upon you; spoiled and spiteful – foolishly, I imagined the approach of ghosts, the two of us in happier times, running up the hill, laughing.
Later when we had returned home, somewhere between the door and your slow ascent of the stairs; where, with my arms offered wide – there was a chance; but met with a small, sad shake of your head. You went to your room to lay in the gathering gloom.
‘I’m disgusting,’ you said – and I leaned forward across the dining table. Childishly I tried to think of people who were horrible to behold, hoped that you could see the folly of your declaration. For a moment, I remembered the man who tried to sell us new windows. He smelt of cigarette ends, death and regret.
‘Why do you say that?’ I asked, and I swallowed something grisly from my plate. ‘You aren’t, Lenny – honestly love, it’s ridiculous to even say it.’ You stared at me. Was that it? Should I continue or stop? ‘OK, let’s think of it another way. Describe what you see when you look at me.’ You exhaled loudly and your eyes were on your feet.
‘I don’t want to do this,’ you said to the table.
‘Try it,’ I urged. And I could see that you were thinking about it.
‘Striped top, green and black glasses,’ you began.
‘No,’ I interrupted, ‘not objects or clothes Len – I just want you to tell me how I actually look. Be honest.’ Again a slight pause.
‘Overweight?’ you questioned. ‘Skin tag on your neck. Left eye slightly higher than the other one.’
‘Isiah,’ I said.
‘It doesn’t matter – carry on.’
‘Beer gut, bald and bad teeth. Hairy ears and double chin.’
‘Whoa!’ I said, ‘Ease up – I asked you to describe me not kill me with disappointment.’ And there it was; magnificently you. A smile that came out of the evening and brought dancers to the backs of your eyes. I couldn’t recall the last time I had seen it.
‘See,’ I said, triumph within me; I nodded at you. But in horror, I saw that you hadn’t felt anything at all and what was there died in front of me like the last of life. Panic.
‘Listen, you’re right about me. It’s a good description and I guess that if I am honest enough to acknowledge my own faults, you should accept what I say about you in return. You I know I think that you are by far the prettiest girl in…..’
‘Don’t Dad.’ And you got up and started to walk out of the room.
‘WHY NOT? IT’S TRUE,’ I shouted after you.
And it was true. But it didn’t matter to you what I thought. And in the silence that followed, by the half-light of the crooked dining room lamp, I slowly began to ache for your childhood again; for just a little civility and a sense of understanding.
In the kitchen, one unexpected morning – you were there.
‘I’ve changed this to brown,’ you said – grabbing two bunches of wet hair in your fists. I nodded.
‘It’s nice,’ I said. But it wasn’t and neither was the flip to red, then blonde; black, then back to brown again. And when we had to buy other people’s hair, just to replace your own that had given up and fallen away, I hoped you would see the irony. You didn’t. You continued to chase something that I couldn’t see. By the end of your search, neither of us was brighter of spirit and there wasn’t a towel in the house that didn’t look as if it had been tie-dyed.
Ugly Hill, washed and wet through. There were more crows than people and they drearily stabbed at remains trapped in wet bags. Scavengers, unnecessary reminders of a dark day; thick charcoal smudges, they were like attendants at a funeral – smartly dressed in jagged shards of black. I had to let the car windows down a little to release our condensed breath and when I glanced over at you, I saw that you hadn’t even opened your meal.
I saw you in the bathroom, with your hand under the running tap.
‘I was cutting bread,’ you said. ‘Knife slipped,’ you lied; blood at the ends of your fingers ran from an unseen source inside your sleeve. You were choking back something that you didn’t want me to see.
‘Ok, let me get some antiseptic,’ but you refused my offer of help, and I took a step back as you pulsed past me.
In the days that followed, I saw your behaviours through fresh eyes, each little action, nuanced; an accompaniment, a silent alarm. It whined at me, urged me on to the truth; it was information, in at the eyes and processed in the soft deep of sleep. A cold slip of paper, slipped between my ribs; a message from the future – “Cutting. She’s hurting with blades.” And when I confronted you and asked to see your arms – you found reasons to object; anything to avoid showing the damage that you had done. But you could not avoid that moment forever. I challenged you, until – one evening, you rolled sleeves to reveal your scars; the roads of hate. I held your delicate wrists in my hands and stared at the lines upon your skin; your tiger stripes, patterns that burst through you.
‘How long?’ I asked you, an odd vibrato in my voice that I couldn’t control. ‘How long have you been doing this?’ and I pulled your arms towards me. You shrugged and tried to snatch your limbs back. I let go and grabbed you by the shoulders, shook and shouted – screamed into the space between us; watched the horrible breach of trust, unfurl like a flag across your face. I lost all sense and came at you with my exorcist’s heart, howling and begging the disease in you to die. You turned and wrestled me away from attack.
There had been no rescue in my force, no answers for us in that outburst; you were only drifting further from me, like a small little bobbing boat that had slipped her moorings to head inexorably towards the horizon.
Much later. I had stood outside your bedroom door.
‘Go away,’ you said. And there were times when I would have done. ‘I need to talk with you, Lenny. I love you so very much. We can’t go on like this anymore – you’re scaring me.’ I asked for forgiveness and when you came to me and cracked open the barrier between us, enough to let a thin rectangle of your face into the light, it was like a confessional.
‘Why, Lenny?’ I asked – and I had your hands in mine again; your muscles twitched with the brutality of my affection.
‘I’m ugly,’ you said.
‘No lovely – these are ugly,’ and I pointed at scars old and wounds new. But I could see that this wasn’t an acceptable reason to stop hurting; you needed more, a moment of affirmation. ‘I want you to stop this,’ I said, pointing at the criss-cross of lines. ‘It has to stop Lenny, ok?’ You nodded and I took that nod as progress. ‘When you cut yourself, it hurts me too.’
You looked at me with pity and hate. ‘This isn’t about you Dad?’ You went to the open door and thrust feet into boots.
‘Where are you going,’ I asked,
‘Out,’ you said. And I asked where and with whom, with a voice louder than bombs. But you said nothing.
‘Please don’t go; we should talk about this,’ I pleaded, but you told me that I couldn’t help; defiant eyes burned hot with tears. You stood me aside, began to walk away from the house – turned around.
‘Sorry,’ you seemed to say. I nodded and mouthed that I loved you; I pointed to the sky – where the moon should be. I think you knew what I mea
[Ca(OCl)2] : BLEACH. OXIDISING: BLOOM.
I waited for you to come home; time with its parade of memories – a rabble, voices from the past, clamouring to be heard.
Photographs. Vignettes of days that are forever frozen.
The one with daisies. You and a pale yellow sleep suit; impossibly small, held against my shoulder in the palm of my hand. When I shut my eyes, I imagined the sound of your whistling breath and the smell on the top of your head.
The braids and the palm tree; corn-rows tied tightly to you by African women, gaily dressed in the colours of rainbows.
Candlelight; a birthday party that had demanded formal dress; head cupped in hands.
Rigid with fear, stood at the edge of a giant leap; a monstrous wire slung across an impressive space.
Photographs. The same story. And I don’t know how I could have missed it; a stain on them all. I searched the images on my laptop desperate to find your love of life. I riffled through the bag of proper photographs, fished out from the stair cupboard, but there wasn’t a single smile on any of them. And it hurt me to believe that I might have been a catalyst for your misery.
When the knock came, I rushed to the door, in a hurry to reveal the discovery and explain how I might begin to put it all back together; we would start again, make new days with laughter and eyes alight with private jokes.
But the two people standing there told me that I should leave with them. I told them that I would put things in a bag for you. They said that I shouldn’t do that.
Lenny, there was a small fold-away bed so that we could stay together. It wasn’t sleep that came, just a series of urgent dreams, glued together with held breaths and half-moon eyes.
When the early morning sun came, it whispered at windows and promised renewed hope, a little of my spirit lifted.
There were short bursts, occasional noises from the corridor outside. The approaching whoosh of legs in polyester trousers, a rhythm of soft shoes that squeaked on disinfected floors. I held your hands and face and I could see that I wouldn’t have a smile from you. But it would come and I would make corrections, resolve an incomplete past; grab us back.
We held hands for a while Lenny, and I couldn’t understand how you were warm yet so lifeless. There were thin streams of plastic coiled about and into you and I wanted to keep our fingers lattice linked. But the machines wailed, started to tell tales on us and it caused a rush of people. I think that I floated to the ceiling so that I could watch everything, make sure that I wouldn’t forget; if you asked me about it at some other time, I could tell the story to you. And my face was wet; I had hands held out in front of me, reaching and begging them to start you up again; I thought that they might be angels – white robed and joined as one; they were over you like a wave. They stopped what they were doing. They were looking at one another with questions on lips and then in the next moment were inviting me forward, opening up a circle, creating a space for me to enter. And I was so frightened of that moment Lenny; I had words to say to you and I said them all, I promise you that I did, but I couldn’t hear them as they came out of me.
I was pointing at you and asking them what we might do next but they looked beaten and shook their heads apologetically. And I told them I couldn’t accept an end like that; they tried to stop me as I pulled things away from you and lifted your deadweight to me. And I think that they tried to explain again but I was telling them not to say anything else. I told the angels that they could give life back, that was their job; you couldn’t leave me, I said – we had plans and I saw that this made perfect sense to them; I sat down on the edge of the bed, and they helped place you on my lap.
I held you so tight and I swear that I could still feel something beating in you but you didn’t look up at me when I kissed your head and I wished that the moon was there so that I could point at it for you, prove that I wanted you to come back to me Lenny.
And it took all of my effort to keep you close; you were like a stone rolling away from me as I kept trying to snatch you back.
Then the Angels told me something that I didn’t want to hear and one of them was crying; I rocked you and smelt the baby on you again: I broke into a million pieces.
I watched you leave, a little thing, slowly getting smaller.
Swallowed by the harbour’s mouth; finally, a speck against tearful light.
Yet at the edge of the very last of everything, I saw you turn to say goodbye.
And fell over the edge of the world, into the disappeared and quiet morning.
I shouldn’t come to Ugly Hill but I don’t know where else to go. I’ve been trying to find you and I’ve run out of places to look. I have imagined you all over our town; carried in the faces of strangers, hiding just out of my sight. It feels as if you are everywhere; peering at me, around the edges of an empty world.
I am trying so hard to keep you close, but every day – I worry that I am remembering a little less about you.
I don’t want to sit on Ugly Hill. I don’t want to see the mothers and fathers, laughing with their children, swinging them between arms, carrying them on shoulders like precious cargoes. I don’t want to think about the last time that I carried you; like a piece of old furniture to a winter bonfire. And, selfishly, I don’t want to say that I was wrong; to admit that this place isn’t populated by unhappy people; I can hardly bear to see them all – making their own histories with held hands and laughter; creating collages from bright beautiful days, still lives, captured – that might lift them from the worst of times.
I consider chasing after you Lenny, I have thought about it so often, but I am a coward, terrified that there might not be anything on the other side, or worse – that I will awake in another place and have no recollection that you and I ever existed. I cannot bear it. I would rather endure this vast, impossible grief for an eternity, if only in the certainty that it would continue to keep you in mind.
I shan’t come back to Ugly Hill. I am selling the house, moving on, but I’m not sure what’s next. Somehow, I am going to take you with me, just keep searching for you in the things that I do and in the places that I go.
I will make life where nobody knows us; where I can shut my eyes on grey days and tell you how I miss you. Endlessly. Immeasurably, and where I can imagine your voice hidden in the hiss of approaching rain. I will take our photographs with me because I know that I have missed something important. I am so sure that it is there – hidden in the records of our lives, tucked away. I will find it and when I do, I’ll show you too.
Is that OK with you, Lenny?
‘Catch’ – Joint winner of the South Wales short story competition.
Available on Amazon as part of the “Breaking the Surface” anthology.
Copyright Tony Mayle. All rights reserved