Long Fiction

Borderlands

I

Pushed on he did through the heat of several thousand explosions, each one seeming to peel the skin from his bones. Like everyone else he wasn’t expecting it when it finally came. Many were sleeping in their beds, idling in the nest shapes made by interwoven limbs; spittle on one pillow, lover on the other.

He’s already crawled on his hands and knees through the debris of fallen roofs, support walls and garage doors. Has asked for forgiveness – a mere whisper of a request it was, but the pardon never came.

His abdomen aches for rest, his neck is close to cracking, too. Dirt and broken glass are lodged beneath his fingernails and infect the more delicate skin – those hard to reach parts of his hidden self.

Smoke plumes cannot be seen against the night sky, but he knows they’re there. He smells their twisting, winding menace in his nostrils. They close his throat and tighten it to drum skin stiffness.

He will though survive this second test of his nerve, just as he made it through the first. He’s a fighter, has always been, and always will be. There are those men in life – and few are their number – whose minds and bodies naturally adapt to the demands of survival. This synchronicity of mind and body is hard to stifle, hard to suppress, and difficult to extinguish altogether.

He’s already lost everything: wife, daughter, friends and the small clutch of family that remained distant to him even in the final hours of humanity.

But he will push on through the ash, the coals, the embers and burning skyline of apocalypse. He’s built to last, a pitch perfect note played upon the grand piano of life. Sweat, blood, broken bones and a beating heart define him for the entirety of the burning. He will emerge from this stasis, renewed and invigorated by this second test of his nerve. He is the last of his kind and very much thriving in the face of the impossible odds stacked against him.

II 

He arrives at the coast in time for sunrise.

There are hundreds of gulls riding the air, picking over the deathly tide as it crashes against the rocky beach and takes a little more of the land with it on every stomach-churning retreat. The birds have come from inland, from that hellish place that scorched their tail feathers every time they neared the ground to claim its bounty of corpses.

The sky here is grey and hangs low at the horizon, as if unable to lift its spirits to higher altitudes. The lands that border the cove are two bleak arms outstretched to envelop this final spot of unfettered land.

He’s now positioned on a sand dune, eyes smote with black tattoos, reminders of the arduous journey undertaken to reach the coast. And then, yes, he’s suddenly caught off guard by the emerging sun and tips forward – falls over himself and tumbles into grasses and more forgiving ground than that which stretches behind him.

Fuck, he cries out, fuck and damnation, the sun is not dead, and nor am I, as luck would decree it.

He almost feels like his body might sink into the ground, should he give up at this point. Eventually, someone would find a shoe on a pile of sand and nothing else – a single shoe, size eleven, and a roll of prints where his body fell outside of his control and hurled him down the side of a sand dune. He giggles at the image of his token shoe and rises from the ground with elastic ease.

There is a freshness to the air here that will never know the infections and explosions of the place from which he runs.

He lay down the invisible lines of these two opposing compass points, many years ago. A mere boy who pressed his face to the car window the moment the city left his eyes and ears, reaching forward with every tendril and sinew of his body. He broke branch and bracken to reach the place where light is born and dies in a fixed cycle.

This is his coast. It belongs solely to him.

It was once lovingly forged by his unguarded imagination. His own secret retreat now the world has collapsed and come to an end.

III

Every object here is a character.

Every lump of stone and outcrop of grass stirs in a certain light – against a certain wind, against a certain shift in the earth.

The cottage is no different. It creaks and moans as it strains against the blustery coastal gales, complaining of this or that ailment. It is a white cube, two storeys high, enormous in the eyes of a boy, but in the eyes of a man of his stature — a mere dwarf.

The chimneystack branches off at an odd angle away from the slope of roof.

Just as I remember it, he smiles. 

The roof tiles are marbled with seagull shit and ivy creeps about the south-facing wall. A birthmark it appears to want to hide from the world.

He mounts each the stone steps, one by one.

Morning light reflects off the cottage’s little windowpanes, despite their grimy lustre, and the past and present blend into one.

At the door there appears a woman who is looking out across the lawn – a fixed expression of concern pinching her face to a point.

Hurry, boy, dinner’s on the table!

He keeps track of the image in his left eye as he drags his carcass across the bank of grass to reach his mother; white tea-towel, a flag of sorts, snagging on the winds of remembrance.

On reaching the door, he discovers it’s locked – his mother’s shadow whisked back into his junk-filled memory and filed away. The paint on the door has flaked away in a shape similar in width and height to the woman he finally came to accept as his mother; the lady with a tea towel, yes, and a man he was forced to call father, although that never sat so easily with him.

A little more paint gives way as he presses his hand firmly against the woodwork. The flakes parachute to the floor in long, unending spirals, but the door does not give way.

Jesus, who’s in there? he shouts. You have to let me in. I’ve travelled for days, I have, for days. And this is as much a home to me as it ever was for the likes of you!

He lashes out at the door, boot connecting with one of the panels, and wonders if the back door has been left unlocked, or a window perhaps?

The old man will not give up his secrets, so easily, he laughs, his head swimming with hunger and light from the horizon leaking into his eyes.

He’s quickly at the other side of the cottage.

No handle on this door, only a single keyhole staring out at him in spiteful glee.

Damn you, he screams, I’m asking for entry. An odd request, I know, but I need to be inside.

A gull lands on the roof, cocks its head at him and shits.

He dips to the ground and makes a rock into a missile, hitting the bird squarely on its neck and sending it back into the air.

Got you! he screams.

Triumphant, he picks up a second stone and marches back round the perimeter of the cottage to a window where late at night he used to sit and read stories to the stars.

They liked tales that included their kind as important characters within the design of each narrative. One particular star leading wise men across deserts; or dozens of Greek myths, including the boy’s favourites of how Orion and Andromeda came to be positioned above the little cottage; or sea explorers like Drake and Raleigh using maps to navigate their way into uncharted territories; or the ancient Chinese myth of the ox star that fell from heaven. The stars listened intently to each of his stories, remarking on the boy’s wonderful execution and his ability to warm their hearts when the sky was clear and the temperature had dropped beyond their liking.

The crack of glass echoes around the hills and the image he has of himself seated in the window – book in lap is quickly shattered. Latches are soon released, and in a moment he’s allowed inside.

Keep me out, will you? he remarks to the cottage and finally makes out the horizontals and verticals of furniture. Just as I recall it! he laughs, not an item moved, or sold, or thrown out to the sea. All in order, like I was here just yesterday!

His lips are cracked and his tongue, blistered – but his next words are heard all around the little cottage; they sink into the stonework and the leatherwork and the paintwork.

This I’ll make my home now there is nothing left for me beyond the borderlands. This I’ll call home, if you’ll have me, old man?

At this point the door he once found impossible to open swings eerily back on its hinges and reveals a view of the bay and swell of waves beyond. And something else is there, placed in the centre of the doormat, its ironwork still as elaborate as he remembers it.

A door key.

Which he retrieves from the ground.

Safely stationed within the little cottage, he decides to put the door back in its frame, not wanting to deprive himself of the picture-perfect view, but he suspects others will soon come knocking, looking for shelter and company — and that especial regard for ceremony and civility that went up in flames, along with the city.

People are dead to him now, along with the life he fed each day like it was a pet that needed continual attention … Dead and gone.

IV

His first thoughts centre on the need to eat.

Entering the kitchen he yanks at handles high and low to be presented with cupboards lacking anything vaguely resembling sustenance.

The unusual character of the cottage means it possesses all the functional tools that will allow someone to thrive, but no edible matter appears to exist within its walls.

The fridge is in working order, as are the oven and toaster, the kettle, too, all appliances fully operational. He wonders how this is possible now the grid of pylons and powerhouses have been sentenced to an interminable blackout.

The end had been decisive back across the borderlands and into the burning quarter. There, no machine so much as blinked or whirred.

He guesses then the little cottage must have its own power source.

Your heart and lungs are here, somewhere old man, he spits, switching off each of the items to conserve energy.

He searches high and low, even revealing an old ladder and using it to enter the cramped attic space he’d once loved to crawl into as a child. To torment my parents more than anything else, he remembers.

His search takes in the sights and sounds of years long dead to the living world. The cottage is locked in a period peculiar to him and it’s difficult not to become drawn into thinking the cottage is purely for him, and him alone.

Lost to a pile of comic books, he stretches himself lengthways along his old single bed, even having to bend his knees and fold himself in half to manage the fit. He reads of Dan Dare, Billy Bunter, of Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace. His index finger marks out speech bubbles, action boxes, and the adventures of his favourite childhood heroes almost take his mind off his hunger.

He remembers then the cottage has a cellar.

He’s soon standing in front of a passageway he couldn’t remember seeing on his first tour of the property.

That’s the magic of this place, he calculates, it doesn’t show you what you aren’t ready to see.

The cellar itself can be reached by descending thirteen steps of quite irregular shapes, each one built to twist an ankle, or crick a knee, or stump a toe. You have to have your wits about you, if you’re to make it to the bottom.

He stares down into the black hole.

You have to go first, the cottage wants you to go first, a voice says.

And with each step he feels the force of their conjoined anger, nudging him forward, pressing him towards an incarceration that might last minutes, even hours, until his cries finally rouse his mother from her sleep.

I don’t want to go in there, please don’t make me.

The ghosts of the past edge present time, he knows that, and in a place such as the cottage – rife with memories, you have to be a brave boy, you have to learn to grit your teeth and step into the darkness as if your life depended on it.

And with a leap of faith, he’s soon at the bottom of the staircase.

The cellar door swings out and away from him and its unique smell of damp and engine oil quickly fills his nostrils. He also hears the sound of a generator, quietly spluttering away in the far corner of the room.

Is anyone there? he asks, recalling then a light cord once hung to the left, which he reaches for now with some ease and pulls downwards.

Light floods the little cell, making spiders and beetles scurry for cover among the cracks and shadows that border the room.

The cellar proves to be a treasure trove of supplies. Two large chest freezers hum and rattle as he lifts their lids and discovers a horde of frozen meats within — legs, hams, shoulders and bellies; he’ll not starve, that much is certain.

On the other side of the room to the freezers, a line of cabinets hold an assortment of tins and packets. He can’t believe his luck. Even some of his favourite brands have been ordered in for his delectation, and his alone.

This is not the cellar as I remember it, he says, but it sits nicely with me, it does, it receives my favour!

He thinks it wise whilst he’s here to check on the state of the generator and make a mental note of how much fuel he has in reserve.

V

With this being no ordinary cottage, it doesn’t surprise him to discover the generator is unlike anything he’s seen before. It’s a small black box, measuring around three feet along each its sides. It contains a small door facing out, whose little handle appears to be made of ivory, or shell, perhaps. Above the door seven measuring dials are arranged – four on the top row, three on the second.

You’re running on empty, he surmises, for the red pointer needles on each the dials is straddled across the line that divides the two markers of ‘empty’ and ‘minimum’. He taps at the first of the dials, and says to himself: Weird contraption, never seen anything like this in all my living days.

He notes then the absence of any electrical wires, or pipes leading to and from the machine. It appears to stand separate to all around it – the only reliable fact he can identify being the object’s connection with the stone floor beneath it. To its left, there stands a colonnade of unopened A5 notebooks, each wrapped in cellophane and the top one coated in a fine layer of dust. Fuel to feed a fire, he guesses, and removes the first of the notebooks from the tower. There must be fifty of them here, he says, rubbing his chin.

Inspecting the first one more closely, he wonders if the journals are his father’s preferred brand: black exterior, cream pages, no lines for guidance, and an elastic marker ribbon that allows one to turn to a page with speed.

Using one edge of his fingernail, he soon has the book removed from its protective cover.

I like to inhale the smell of newly opened books, he smiles.

Kneeling down he allows his fingers to manipulate the handle on the generator’s little hatch, opening it with amazing ease. He peers into the darkness and finally places the blank journal into the space that appears to be engineered to accommodate only objects the same depth, breadth and length of each journal.

You make your own happiness when you feed me your stories, says someone or something.

The cellar suddenly turns terribly cold, the same chill created by a shadow blocking the heat of the summer sun. It unnerves him. It makes him feel as if he’s not entirely alone in the cellar – indeed, the cottage. Unwrapping the first of the journals has upset something in his mind, and beyond him, something in the floorboards and walls of the little cottage.

Retrieving the journal from the generator, he takes three measured steps, done in reverse, one foot placed behind the other, the doorway in his mind a target to reach.

VI

As night descends across the ribbon of coast, he stands on the steps of the cottage, sensing a marked shift in the weather.

He wonders how easily those from the city might pick up his scent, track him down like he is vermin and end his life. Done bloodily, too — hatchet job, torches set to a fuel-soaked pyre, those he’d turned his back on tasting the bitter salt of revenge in their mouths.

Behind him the candles flicker. He’s determined not to waste energy. Candles will do for light, to give form and shape to shadows that prefer the comfort of total blackout.

The wind though is turning against me, he sighs.

Far below, great waves advance to end their lives on rocks that will one day be worn down until mere granules of sand. Each wave’s death-rattle of spray fans upwards and outwards, searching for the little cottage and the newest of its inhabitants. The undertow groans to claim them as its own and, unsatisfied, moves on to find more vulnerable prey.

I made all this, he admits at last, and I can just as easily unmake you, for I have nothing to lose having already lost everything a man can rightly call his life.

In that moment, the wind torments him a little more and bangs at the windows that are the cottage’s eyes – its view out onto reality.

The storm knows my name and is coming for me, he says.

Sensing an air of menace all about the headland, he steps back from the challenge set before him by the elements. He’ll not compete today, after all, for inky night will prove enough of a contender without inspiring the wrath of other fighters.

The main door is soon locked, the key turned to keep the weather firmly on the other side of it. He draws the curtains and takes a lighter to each those candles that have already been extinguished by wayward currents of air snaking through his new home.

Outside, the first spots of rain tap sharply against the windows, their lifeblood dribbling down the glass in chaotic fashion.

There follows a downpour of rain.

He knows the cottage’s position on high ground will keep it from being washed away but he suspects it is too close to the sky to escape direct lightning strikes, should they occur.

The howling wind seems to be speaking to him – the patter of torrential rain an accompanying beat.

You’ll never make it out of here alive, it cries, suddenly rising in pitch. I know you by face, by name, by crime and by absolution. Your many faces are revealed to me at once – all at once, old man of the coast.

He opens his eyes in time to see lightning travel across the darkened sky. Standing upright – box of matches in hand, he dances about in candlelight, snatching glimpses of the flood that appears to be traversing the hillside, past his door and straight into the grim wash of sea.

The drums of approaching thunder clash twice and send him to his knees in abject fear of being discovered mid-dance. He’s listening closely to the wind, to the slamming of the rain, to the cracking of lightning, to the booms of thunder, listening for his name among the list of names being read back to the cottage.

Johnson.

Meachem.

Broom.

Hartford.

Leonard.

Upton.

Six, he counts out, six names the storm has chosen from the millions that perished in the city’s final hour.

Six names from the numbers of innocents who did not see it coming; who thought it would pass; who wanted to live on in one form or another; who wanted nothing more than to be left alone.

And you are the seventh, chimes a voice within his head – before each the candles flicker to nothing and plunge the cottage into blackout.

A fresh barrage of lightning forks cascade across the hilltop, but find no object within the cottage’s borders to conduct their majestic power; followed hard upon by the tortuous rumble of yet more thunder, and the rain still making rivers of neighbouring roads and footpaths.

VII

The storm passes, but no light follows – only a curtain of impenetrable darkness that leaves him shivering in a coil of blankets. They mummify him, mentally too, constricting his ability to fantasise about escape.

The cottage creaks as it dries out, its skin of paper and plaster tugging at the wooden frame lodged deep within its shell.

The wind drops until all it can manage is a rustle of leaves, forcing a slew of them to gambol across the lawn. 

You’re my friend, he tells the house over and over, a sort of ‘counting sheep’ tactic to induce a state of peace.

The house replies: I have no friends, only enemies. People like you who break and enter, take what they please, as if the world is still a place where greed can take root. Your world, broken and bleeding, makes you pine for more – for that which is not yours and never can be.

It’s at this point he hears an unusual sound beneath him – a single click like a door latch has been unhooked.

Impossible, he moans, throwing back the layers of blankets and placing his feet on the wooden floor next to his parents’ old bed.

Standing, he hears another click, possibly the door’s catch being replaced in its cradle. The room should be bathed in moonlight, but the curtains he has drawn to keep the cold out, and enclose the heat within.

He reaches for the little gas lamp that he’d earlier placed on the bedside cabinet, which has now gone. He’s undeterred though, for he’s made of solid matter this man. He shuffles around the edge of the bed to be certain he’s not placed it on the matching bedside cabinet – until he finds nothing there save for his mother’s hairbrush – one of her treasured items; strands of loose fibres tickling his palm as he hovers above its spikes.

At the top of the stairs now, one hand on the wooden rail, the other on the knife he keeps about his person. He’s never directly killed another human, and the thirst for confrontation swells his veins, pumps his system full of adrenaline.

Who’s there?

Who’s there, I say?

Show yourself.

I know there’s someone down there. I heard you come in.

Hoping to murder me in my bed, were you?

Far below a chair is moved a few feet away from the dining table. A pile of books is overturned. Even the rug set before the open fire is rolled up into a tight cone and tipped onto on one end until it resembles a human torso.

His hand trembles against the wooden rail, for the cottage appears to be playing host to a truly malevolent spirit.

The confrontation he prefers to this endless waiting will not come looking for him, and yet he is reluctant to face whatever it is that stirs down below.

I’m not scared of you. You know that, I hope?

Downstairs the visitor pauses for a second at the dark passageway that leads to the cellar, before descending the stairs to reach the door. Beyond the flank of wood, lies the still dormant generator. It knows such to be true. The cottage after all, is no ordinary cottage and even its sole human occupant is beginning to suspect the house adheres to certain rituals; certain timetables of unrest, whereby the static electricity that is caught between foot and carpet, or cardigan and metal, assumes a definite shape in that stretch of darkness the cottage has come to call night.

Who’s there? Show yourself!

He’s now able to lay his hand to a candle and rid himself of the blindness of the last hour. He notices though his hand is shaking as he strikes match after match against the little strip of emery board and failing each time to ignite the fuel.

In the second or so of time between the match remaining unlit and catching fire – that special place where sparks are born and die – he makes out a pair of red eyes watching him from across the room, near to where the door would normally swing back on its hinges.

But as the flame in the candle takes hold, the room appears to return to its original state — books, carpet, chair and all, and the piercing eyes dissolve into the air itself.

He catches his breath, and once more for good measure, regaining composure with each passing second.

VIII

Once the storm recedes, shadows of passing clouds grace the expanse of seawater and darken the whole aspect. The torment of the previous evening is no longer evident in a gentle breeze that pinches those tall trees that once faced the ocean in defiance, and now wilt, as if in a state of submission. Lapping waves break after peaking, leaving traces of their journey across the line of beach.

He wakes to a markedly different cottage to the one of his youth. His eyes forming tiny blisters at their edges where lids fold and crease. A wall of bright sunshine finding its path to him, unimpeded.

What the devil?

Who has opened the curtains?

Where exactly am I?

The cottage appears to have reverted to an earlier time in its history.

He notes the lace hangings in every window, the sturdy, dark wooden furniture that seems almost to his taste – a soot-black stove where a modern kitchen stood only yesterday and a complete set of gentleman’s morning-wear – his size he guesses – lain out for him across a chaiselongue.

Outside the windows a bank of daffodils nod and sway, a symbol that spring is already upon the cottage – and throwing back the largest of the windows, allows the sea air to snatch breath from his two lungs.

The family who presently occupy the cottage are nowhere to be seen, the only evidence of their actions being a stack of dirty bowls that are positioned at one end of the family dining table, and a set of four bibles at the other end. He’s aware this is possibly a mirage, a mere figment of his tired mind — a dream perhaps, or even a nightmare. The cottage is able to convince its tenants such is the case, for it’s well practised in the art of spiritual manipulation.

Hello?

His words come back at him as mild echoes, forcing him to open the door and make his way out onto the headland where his little cottage squats, still bravely facing the elements.

Basking in glorious sunshine, his bones seem to unfurl, making him seem a lot taller than his actual height. Life is good, he thinks, until he notes how the beach beneath him contains the curlicues and pockmarks of human footprints – sending him into a panic.

He’d been hoping the storm’s passing had taken with it the intruders that had kept him awake half the night, but here – in the cold light of a new day, he’s presented with yet more evidence that he is not entirely alone at the coast.

She’ll not come back for us, sounds a female voice.

He turns on a single point in the grass to face a young man and a much older woman, although they share similar features. They’re both dressed in morning-wear, each carrying a pocket bible.

It’s only then he notices how he now appears to be wearing the clothes that only minutes ago he had seen arranged on the chaiselongue.

I don’t have to explain myself to the dead, he replies, almost against his will and wholly in character.

The woman’s grey hair is wiry and lifeless at the edges of her bonnet. She steps forward and slaps him hard across one cheek.

Let that be a warning, Nathaniel Johnson.

The boy stares intently at him, too, adding: I’ll lend my voice to that sentiment, sir. Now go, father, and find your daughter.

He looks back over at the beach and the footprints that hold some sort of clue to the girl’s whereabouts.

If she’s dead already, more of us will come and take up residency in the cottage, husband, you understand?

He nods, and wonders for a moment whether a more preferable fate would have been to perish in the bombings that flattened his city.

Yes, he says, bowing politely and taking his leave of the two people he instinctively knows he has poisoned, done one after the other, for standing in the way of the physical love he has, on more than one occasion, expressed for his own daughter, Beatrice. I will find her and I will bring her back.

IX

Dressed as he is for a church service he’s slow in action, arriving at the beach in time to see the tidal wash claim his daughter’s footprints.

What now? he begs of the sea.

The sea issues its reply, several waves connecting with large rocks that signal the gateway to a network of caves he remembers playing in as a young boy.

I know those caves like the back of my own hand, he laughs, swinging his cane in perfect glee, and marching across the sand as the tide advances alongside him.

The damp atmosphere of the cave bites deep into his soul, drawing from him a shiver and, to make matters worse, water drips cruelly onto his head from the ceiling, spotting his shoulders and waistcoat.

Beatrice?

Beatrice, sweet daughter, it’s your father.

Beatrice, daddy has come to take you home.

Beatrice, it’s dangerous in here.

These caves once nearly claimed my life, when I was a child no older than you.

In the deepest recesses of the cave system, her father’s voice reaches the little girl, whose two small feet have begun to sink into the swell that is claiming the very ground beneath her. It appears as a carpet of the most brilliant white, the foam reaching about her ankles and drawing from her little whelps of surprise.

There you are, child.

Beatrice comes here to be cleansed, never to die. She likes the way the watermark only ever comes up to her neck, and she is growing taller with each passing day – so that eventually the filth of his sin might actually only reach as high as her knees, and with it the hope her father’s hands might never wander higher than the sea dares reach.

You killed mummy and William, she says at last, squaring up to her father with an ease she never thought she’d be capable of achieving. They told me, and I wrote it down to let everyone know what an evil man you are.

I’m your daddy.

You’re a monster, Beatrice sobs, a monster and a murderer! You’d have to drown in water fifteen feet above your crown to be granted God’s forgiveness!

He registers such sadness hearing her words – words he’s always wanted to say to the man he was made to call father, and he stumbles then across the purpose of his stay at the cottage.

It has the power to heal.

Beatrice stares at him in shock and surprise, unable to respond.

He grabs her hand, making her suddenly cry out for help, and drags her back to the mouth of the cave, and in time to see their route has been blocked by the oncoming tide.

What must I do? What would you have me do?

High above the pair, the cottage seems to rock to and fro on its haunches before transforming its shape entirely – bricks and mortar becoming the hull of a great ship, the roof becoming a vast billowing sail of canvas.

I wrote this once, in a story, he shouts. Beatrice tugs to be free, to escape her father’s controlling influence. I wrote once the cottage was actually a yacht in disguise!

The girl manages to stop him in his tracks when she offers: I wrote once the cottage was actually a doll’s house in disguise!

He kneels down to face her – little sausage curls bouncing about on her shoulders. In her eyes, he sees his yacht become a great doll’s house whose front panels open far and wide, like wings – to reveal the inner workings of a universe Beatrice could fully command, where a dead mother and a dead brother could speak to her – could tell her how it is they came to inhabit a world on the other side of life.

Where do you write these stories, child? Tell me Beatrice, I beg you.

Beatrice’s eyes fill with water, and with it her little doll’s house fills with a flood that claims the residence and its occupants, floor by sodden floor.

I’ll tell you if you leave me alone!

When he speaks, it’s no longer as Nathaniel Johnson, but instead as the man who came across the borderlands in one piece, who made it through the fire to reach the coast.

Agreed, child, agreed.

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