The author of The Metal Heart shares an exclusive short story about grief, love and lockdown with Penguin.co.uk.
The author of The Metal Heart shares an exclusive short story about grief, love and lockdown with Penguin.co.uk.
All night, on the long train-journey north, rain has battered our carriage. The moonlit landscape becomes murky and opaque, even when I press my face against the cold window. We are travelling blind, each beat of the wheels on the track an unanswered question, like that trust exercise of falling, eyes closed, into strange arms.
When we finally arrive, the world outside is wet and the air has unfamiliar teeth. I pause on the cocooning threshold of the carriage, then step down. Light comes back to itself, then colour, revealing a paint-by-numbers country of ludicrous beauty. My breath steams out in front of me as I turn to lift down my bag, which you have grabbed already. Heavy as it is, you heft it easily in a mock salute – at me, at the lake and mountains of this chilly land that will be our home while we wait out the isolation.
It happened quickly, the spread of the virus. My children were in Spain with their father – the man you refer to as my ‘ex dickhead’ – when the news came in that there had been fifty cases and three deaths in Madrid. And that was it. Lockdown. No hope of coming home, no possibility of me getting to them. For an hour I paced the living room, wild with grief. I had an ominous, crushing vice around my chest every time I thought of my boys – six and eight – in some strange hospital, being treated by a doctor who might not speak English, who would be tired, who might make a mistake.
‘What will happen?’ I’d asked you, still pacing. ‘If they die, where will they bury them? Will they be allowed back home? Will I be able to see them, if they die?’
‘They’re not going to die,’ you’d said, taking me by the shoulders, holding my gaze. I love that way you look at me, the patience and kindness there. I see it even when you’re being a prick. Even that time when we had a fight and you were drunk and you’d shouted, ‘Fuck you!’ at me as I walked out of the room. And when I’d turned around, ready to yell, you wore that look, along with the anger – that steadiness you carry. That reassuring confidence that helps me breathe when you tell me to calm down, that makes me want to believe you when you tell me that everything will be fine.
‘People are dying though,’ I insist. ‘All the time. I don’t know what to do. What if I catch it here and then I die and I never see them again?’
And that was when you suggested Sweden. A still-open travel ‘gateway’. No cases and a great healthcare system. We could go into the wilds of nowhere, wait this thing out.
‘I want to go to Spain’.
‘I know you do.’ That same steadying gaze. Blue. Reliable as the sky.
Sweden was quiet. Not on lockdown but subdued. Everything clean, the streets deserted.
‘See, people here know how to stay safe,’ you’d said. ‘Now, let’s get to the middle of fucking nowhere.’ Your face bright, your voice brighter. And you made it so easy to be relaxed, despite the breathless anxiety I felt every time I looked at the news. .
‘They’ll be fine, you’d said, time and again. ‘They’ll be watching telly and eating crisps all day. They’ll think they’re in heaven.’
Except I’m not there. I bit my lip and nodded, tried to look reassured.
In the café, I’m determined to get a Swedish pastry – fika are world-famous. I usually avoid sugar, but I’ve developed an obsession with something that involves custard and cinnamon and butter. We buy five and eat two each, sitting on the bench outside the station, staring at the lake and licking icing from our fingers. I’m anaesthetising myself with fat and sugar and scenery.
I walk around the lake, holding my phone up in the air until I find a signal then I call the boys. Just as you told me, they’re watching TV and snacking – my questions are greeted with long silences. I tell them I love them, that I’ll call them again tonight, and I hang up.
You’re waiting on the bench, grinning as you watch me walk towards you.
‘You ate the last pastry, didn’t you?’ I ask.
You look deliberately, comedically shifty. I slap your shoulder.
‘Ow! What was that for?’
‘You can buy more pastries.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘Are you seriously pissed off at me? Over a pastry?’
But I can’t shake my irritation as we walk through the sleepy town, looking into people’s gardens and the tiny rows of shops, still open. In England, everything’s been shut for the past week. Again, I feel the crushing sense of being boxed in, as if, even in all this space – or perhaps because of it – I’m trapped.
We pass a shop and you duck in to buy the tiny tobacco pouches that they sell over here – you’re trying to give up smoking. For me, you’ve said, which feels like both a compliment and a strange pressure. You emerge from the shop with a paper bag, which you give to me, without fuss. I open it. A pastry.
I start to thank you, to say sorry, but you’ve already turned away. You didn’t buy it to hear me grovel. We’ve been together more than a year and I’m still not used to that unshowy way you have, your easy gifts of apology and forgiveness.
‘Dickhead,’ I say. You laugh and we walk on, holding hands. I eat the pastry, offering you half which you eat in one bite. You wipe your hands on the paper napkin and then give it to me. I stuff it into my bag and my fingers brush against the little box that I’ve brought with me, which contains a handful of my dad’s ashes. I’m trying to scatter him as widely as I can. He died nearly two years ago, and I haven’t been able to write a good word since. When I try to write happy stuff, it’s full of people smiling or holding hands or kissing. I’ve started using similes like, She felt as if someone had tipped iced water over her. Cringy, clichéd crap. Part of me thinks that I’ll be able to write again once I’ve finished scattering Dad; part of me is terrified that I won’t. My agent and my editor are being understanding but I sense the pressure in their emails when they tell me they’re so excited to read what I write next, that they’re sure it’ll sell well, that people will love it. The only thing I can write is stuff about Dad and it’s really fucking morbid and far too depressing to publish. Last night, for instance, in our cabin on the train, I read a poem by a girl called Linnet, a Young Poet of the Year. It is based on a piece by Louisa Adjoa Parker. Both poems begin with the line, ‘Instead of you dying…’ They’re brilliant. I tried to write something similar but it was shit. You’d seen me scribbling and kissed the top of my head.
‘I love your brain,’ you’d said.
‘Stop objectifying me.’
‘Will you read me what you’ve written?’
‘What? No, it’s crap.’
I read in a rush, breath tight in my lungs:
‘Instead of you dying, why don’t we go and sit in your living room with the chipped glasses and the dust fogged windows and I’ll say yes to that glass of red for once, even though it’s not yet midday and you will draw a picture of me in profile and tell me that I have a very distinctive beak and then you’ll laugh and I’ll join in, because you don’t mean to be mean, or if you do, you mean it kindly. Afterwards, we’ll do the crossword together, and you’ll work out all the answers to the cryptic clues, even though sometimes you don’t remember my name. I’ll sit on the arm of your chair, watching the slight tremor in your hand as you write, looking at the pinkness of your scalp through your wisps of white hair and I will be able to imagine, for a moment, how your mother might have pressed her lips to the top of your head before she sent you away to that expensive school that you hated. Instead of me sitting by your bed, three days later, holding your hand as your fingertips turn into blueing marble, why don’t you finish the crossword and put down your pen and turn to me and say, I feel sad and I’m frightened because I can’t remember things. Then you won’t have to wait until I’ve left you and then and go to the bathroom and take a razor and cut a jagged line across your own throat. And when I next go to visit you, you’ll be there among the dust and old crosswords, a glass of wine in your hand, your teeth tinged with the red of it, and you’ll look at me and say, It’s you. I feel much better today, my lovely girl. I don’t remember what happened, but I’ll be fine.’
When I’d finished reading, I couldn’t look at your face. We’d planned to have train sex but instead, you wrapped your arms around me and told me that I was exceptional.
I’m not, but I liked hearing you say it.
After we’ve finished the pastries, we stop outside a glassblowing shop, where the owner is doing live demonstrations, holding a copper tube up to his mouth and puffing air into the bubble of glass, which twists and expands. People are walking in and out of the shop, watching with awed, church-like whispers. We stand at the back and I watch the man’s puffed cheeks, his fixed gaze. I wonder if time disappears for him when he works like it does for me sometimes, when the writing’s going well. I wonder if he ever burns himself, and if the fire scares him. I wonder how he feels, watching these people buy hollow containers that once held his breath, his hope. I wonder if he feels like an alchemist: sand to liquid, liquid to solid glass that you hope will hold something, that you hope won’t shatter.
You lean in close to my ear, your breath warm. ‘Do you think it’s weird, watching things you’ve made get carried away? You know, one-off pieces that could get broken.’
‘Get out my brain,’ I say. And again, I think about the children. Those people I’ve made, now so far away. The life I breathed into them. Their lungs taking in air. Their cells multiplying. Their bodies, so strong, so breakable.
We walk on, through tall pines that are older than both of us. Overhead, the vaulted blue sky, clean and clear as water.
‘I read that they’re going to start mining here,’ I say. ‘For iron ore and other stuff. Vanadium, or something – they’ll use it for batteries. They’ll dig all of this up and poison the water supply. This whole place will be ruined.’
‘Jesus Christ, you’re a ray of sunshine.’
‘Should I just let you enjoy the view and pretend that everything’s going to be fine?’
‘That’d be great, thanks.’ You kiss my cheek, hard and we both laugh.
We’ve been walking for about half an hour when we see a tall wooden building up ahead. It looks like a big barn, but you tell me, looking at the guidebook, that it’s a museum.
‘It says here that it’s interactive.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I’m telling you now, if they have people in costumes, I’m out of here.’
At the desk, we’re greeted by a woman dressed in a hand-woven tunic, wearing a cotton cap. Her cheeks are dusted with what looks like flour.
‘Have you come far?’ she asks. ‘If you travelled by horseback then there are stables for your animals outside.’
‘Christ,’ you mutter.
I squeeze your arm, ‘Hello. Could we have two tickets please?’
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘I am a baker’s wife. The year is 1765. Every morning, I rise before dawn, and I begin to bake so that you can eat bread.’ Her eyes are bloodshot, and she does look like she might have been baking – her strong arms are flour-covered, like her face.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I’m sure your bread is very nice.’
‘What time do you get up in the mornings?’ she asks.
‘Ah…well, um, early this morning because of…the train. But normally, if I’m on holiday…ten. Or, nine, maybe?’
Her mouth twists. ‘Young people. All the same.’
There is an awkward silence while I consider walking out, but then it is your turn to squeeze my arm and steer me away.
‘Deep breaths,’ you murmur into my ear.
‘Cheeky bitch! I don’t care if she’s in role –’
‘Shh! She’ll hear you.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Young people,’ you say, in an exaggerated Swedish accent, rolling your eyes. ‘All the same.’
I laugh in delight and any atmosphere that lingered between us from before is gone. You’re good at this. I kiss you. From the corner of my eye, I see the woman at the desk turn away sourly and I feel smug.
We walk around the museum, which is mostly open air, once we get past the displays of old rakes and spades in the barn. The area outside is lush and green. The rain has stopped, the sun has emerged and everything glistens. Somewhere overhead, a bird whose call I don’t recognise, begins to sing.
It is hard to make myself realise that in other countries – in my own country – people are dying from a virus they can’t escape.
You put your arm around me, kiss my forehead and say, ‘They’ll be fine.’ And I know you’re talking about the boys and I love that you were thinking about them, even when I wasn’t, or not directly. We have talked about them so much since the news. How they will be coping, if they’re bored, if they miss us too – it’s hard to tell on the phone. They just sound far away.
‘What if –’ I begin.
‘They’re not going to die,’ you say. ‘They’re going to grow up to be grumpy teenagers and clever adults and they’re going to donate lobes of their livers to us when we get cirrhosis.’
‘I’ve got dibs on the livers,’ I say. ‘Find your own spare organs.’
‘Why, thank you.’ And you keep your arm around me, holding me close, grounding me. One time, when I was high and freaking out, you did this for hours. You stroked my palm while I said, ‘What if I die?’ over and over again.
And over and over again, you said, ‘You’re not going to die.’
We walk and walk, breathing in the greenness of the clear air, the cleanness of it. Taste of foreign food on our tongues and the warmth that comes from knowing that the only moment you can control is the one you are in. I have these glimpses of peace sometimes, mostly when I’m drunk or high, but occasionally, as now, when I am somewhere that is entirely new and feels utterly safe.
We sit on a bench and I write some more while you doze. It’s about my dad, again, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Isn’t autofiction the new thing anyway? Memoir and so on. My favourite writer mostly does fiction but she brought out a brilliant memoir too – it was all about death, but not at all morbid. I’d love to be able to do that. I met her at the Edinburgh Festival last year. She was halfway through eating a nut bar, and I said, ‘Oh my God! I love you! You’re amazing!’ She couldn’t really answer because she was chewing.
I think of Dad’s blue-tipped fingers when he died and I trace my pen over the word cyanotic again and again, until the blue ink tears the paper.
I wake you up by stroking your forehead. You squint up at me.
‘What’s up? Have you been crying?’
‘A bit. Just, you know.’
‘I’m sorry. Come here.’
You pull me close and I talk into your neck. ‘I think it’s just, the reason I’ve been such a mess, I’m just really scared, you know. Death is really…fucking...final.’
Eventually, we walk on. You squeeze my boob and make a honking sound.
‘Twat,’ I say, and put my hand in the back pocket of your jeans.
The field of sheep surprises us. Not that they seem out of place, grazing peacefully in their heavy fleeces, but because they are in a little field away from the rest of the museum, down a long path. Perhaps they’re not even an attraction in this place, perhaps they just belong to one of the strange actors, who dress themselves up, pretending to be from another time, pretending that the time they show was carefree – there’s a romance, it seems, in the deprivations of old. Or perhaps the romance comes from knowing that we’re safe, that we’re not starving, not ill, not dying – not yet.
You sense my mood, nod at the sheep.
‘I fancy mutton for dinner. Can you fit one in your bag?’
‘Not a whole one.’
‘Just a shoulder? Or a fillet.’
‘Shhh! They can hear you.’
‘Baa!’ you say.
The sheep are eating from the bushes around the edges of the field. The grass has all been clipped back, short, so they are grazing on the big, fern-like plants next to the fence. I reach across and grab a handful, then hold it out to the nearest sheep. It shuffles backwards, turns its head sideways and eyes me suspiciously with one grey-blue eye. Its pupils are horizontal slits. Freaky.
It ambles forwards, lips the ferns and then gobbles them, pulling backwards with its strong neck, yanking them out of my hand.
I laugh, grab another handful and feed it more. The other sheep shuffle closer to me, barging each other out of the way. Food is tastier when it’s free, apparently, even for sheep.
You pick some too, hold it out, watch them eat. Both of us grinning. It’s therapeutic, this fresh air, these sturdy-bodied beasts, their indifferent appetites as they eat and eat.
‘Look at them! It’s like me at the cheese market. Fatties!’ I call.
‘They love this stuff,’ you say, nodding at the fern. ‘What is it?’
I scratch my face. My hand smells like fennel.
‘It’s fennel,’ I say, and I nibble a leaf. I hate aniseed, but I love fennel. ‘We used to have this in the garden when I was a kid.’ My dad adored his garden. He went through a phase of wanting fennel in everything. ‘Try some.’
You look sceptical but try a bit, then refuse when I offer you more.
‘I bet you’d eat it if it was in a pastry,’ I say.
We laugh. And then I cough. And I have the strangest sensation of my throat closing in on itself. I imagine it: my windpipe, snapping shut.
‘I can’t breathe,’ I gasp. Although I can breathe, enough to get air into my lungs to say that I can’t breathe, and you think I’m joking, and you grin, like when I call you dickhead or smug git or greedy fucker.
‘Seriously. I can’t breathe.’ My windpipe is swelling. I fight for air, but I can’t get enough in, as if there’s a hand squeezing the air out of my throat, out of my lungs.
‘Shit,’ you say. ‘Are you ok?’
‘I think I’m having…an allergic reaction…. To the fennel, the plant…whatever it is. I can’t breathe.’
‘Ok. You can breathe. You’re fine.’ Your voice is rock and rope and ball of twine; your steady voice, which feels like an anchor, which has calmed me through illness and a difficult divorce, which has talked me through my stories about past abuse and pain and has been utterly unflinching.
‘I can’t breathe,’ I gasp. ‘I need you to call an ambulance.’
But I know, even as I say it, that you can’t call an ambulance, because we’re in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no virus and no signal and no one knows where we really are.
I imagine my body being shipped back to England, after they open the borders. I imagine my small sons hearing that I’m dead and not understanding it, because every time they’ve been scared of death, I’ve told them that I’m going to live for years. I’ve promised that I’ll torment them in my old age. I’ve promised dementia and adult nappies and alcoholism and embarrassment and instead, I’m going to die before I’m forty from eating fucking fennel.
But I can’t say any of this, because there is no air.
‘You’re ok,’ you say. ‘You’re ok’, guiding me across the paths, past the quaint old buildings, the stupid fake buildings.
I’m not ok, but there’s no air left to tell you that. My hands are tingling. I can’t feel my legs. My vision darkens at the corners.
You see a man walk past – he’s wearing a cape and a ridiculous pointed hat.
‘Hey!’ you call. ‘Can you help us? I think my girlfriend’s having an allergic reaction.’
Still, your voice is so steady. Your calm, steady voice. It will be the last thing I hear.
I grip your arm. You sit me down on a bench, or my legs give way. One or the other.
You explain everything: the sheep, the fennel, my sudden reaction.
The man in the stupid hat looks at me. ‘You have had an allergic reaction before?’ His voice is soft, kind.
I shake my head. I’m not allergic to anything, I want to say. Except my ex-husband. This is a joke we share, you and I, but it doesn’t seem funny now.
The man examines my hands, peers at my eyes, asks me to open my mouth.
‘I am not a doctor,’ he says. ‘But you are not swelling. I will call our doctor and we will see. But you are still breathing. I can hear you.’
I nod, focusing on drawing air into my lungs and releasing it. I count, but the numbers are meaningless.
The man speaks into his walkie-talkie, which he pulls from a pocket inside his old-fashioned cape, and in no more than five of my laboured breaths, I hear footsteps running.
It’s the sour-faced woman from the reception desk, hurrying down the path towards me. She has a material bag in her hand and, before she has even reached me, she has taken out a stethoscope.
‘Hello,’ she says, and her voice is low, her eyes gentle with concern. And I see what I missed before, in these people, when I was being snide about their costumes and the roles they play: I see their care, their compassion. And I understand, for a moment, that they are real people, not just there for my entertainment or for me to mock. And you, too: I see you staring at me, and I understand that you, too, are a real person, not just there for me.
Although you are there for me. You haven’t let go of my hand, not once.
The woman introduces herself as Angela and gestures to her ID badge, which shows her smiling face, when she is wearing modern clothes. She looks younger.
‘I need to listen to your heart rate,’ she says. ‘And I need to take your blood pressure. You haven’t felt ill before this? No temperature, no cough?’ I know she is asking about the virus and I shake my head.
‘And,’ she says, ‘you ate a plant in the field?’
I nod. ‘So stupid, sorry,’ I gasp.
‘Can you describe this plant?’
You do, then: it is tall, you say, and looks like a fern, and has a strong smell and taste. ‘She thought it was fennel. But,’ you say, ‘I don’t think it can be poisonous. The sheep were eating it and they were fine.’
‘Yes,’ the woman says, frowning. ‘The sheep would not eat… Although this does sound like quite a dangerous plant. We have some here, although we destroy it when we find it.’
‘Which plant?’ I gulp.
Her eyes slide from mine.
Finally. ‘Hemlock,’ she says.
It feels as though someone has tipped iced water over my head. You kneel down next to me, taking my face in your hands.
‘It wasn’t hemlock. Think about it: the sheep wouldn’t be eating it if it was hemlock. I’ve eaten some and I feel fine. This is just…something else. But it’s not hemlock.’
The man in the silly hat kneels next to you.
‘I think,’ he says, his voice soft, ‘that perhaps this is something else. Are you feeling tense today? Very stressed?’
I think of my children, hundreds of miles away. I think of Dad’s ashes in my bag and my inability to write anything except crap. I think of the virus, creeping into lungs across the world. I think of the people dying in hospitals in every country because they can’t breathe.
‘Maybe.’ The pressure in my chest eases.
‘I think this is a panic attack,’ says the man. ‘I have had these, sometimes. They feel very frightening. Sometimes, I think my heart is stopping.’
‘Yes,’ I breathe. That’s exactly how I feel, like my heart is stopping, like my chest is constricting, like my world is burning up and collapsing in on itself, the edges of everything flaking away like dead ash.
You stroke my hair. You kiss my knuckles.
‘You’re fine,’ you say.
‘Tell me I’m not dying,’ I say. Like when I was high and you laid your body along the length of mine and your voice in my ear felt like my only tether to this world.
‘You’re not dying.’
‘It wasn’t hemlock?’
‘It wasn’t hemlock.’
I can see you now, can see your eyes. Wide with concern. Dependable as the sea.
You help me to my feet and we thank the man and the woman who tell us to stay close to the buildings, who tell us that we can have a free coffee in the café, who ask us if we’re sure we feel ok to walk.
‘Yes,’ I tell them. ‘I’m fine. It was just a panic attack. I think I got scared. I’m sorry.’
The woman nods. ‘It is scary, the world.’ She tugs at the collar of her costume. ‘It is also scary in 1756. Lots of disease.’
‘People are good at surviving.’
‘Not all of them survived,’ she says.
You squeeze my fingers. ’The strong ones did.’
I nod. I am strong, I know it. I’ve survived nursing my dad through a death from Alzheimer’s and alcoholism. I survived when my ex-husband pulled a knife from the drawer because I’d laughed at him and told him that he was like a toddler throwing a tantrum. I’m just freaking out now because of everything that’s going on, because it’s something I can’t control. I take two deep breaths. The air smells of smoke and pine.
I think about what it’s taken in the past for people to live, how many of them have died. And we’re terrified of this virus, but it’s nothing new. It’s the same fear that’s stalked us forever.
I turn to you. ‘Tell me again that it wasn’t hemlock.’
‘It wasn’t hemlock.’ You kiss me.
I take a deep breath and stretch my arms wide. I have the sensation of shrugging off a heavy coat, or of stepping into water, my body suddenly light. I reach into my bag and bring out the little box of Dad’s ashes.
‘Are you sure?’ you say.
‘Absolutely. I’ve just nearly died, so you know, letting go of the past and all that.’
‘You did not nearly die.’
‘Hey, don’t take away my near-death experience. I’m going to write about this.’
We are both smiling as I take the grainy, gritty ashes out of the box and sprinkle him into the wind. His teeth and bones and hair. His love of Elmore Leonard books and spicy food; his hatred of loud noises. Be quiet, bloody kids!
The wind takes it all and whirls it towards the endless sky.
‘Bye, Dad,’ I say. And as the dust of him disappears, I think about how they’re right to say that people don’t stop when they die, because there are memories and pictures. And there are stories. There are always stories. I think about how, when I see my kids again, I’ll tell them about their grandfather and how he made a slingshot to fire stones at the local kids when they sat on his garden wall. I’ll show them my notebooks, where I’ve written down all my memories of him. And the memories will seep into them, filling their minds and thoughts and blood: germs of remembrance that will spread through me to them.
‘I want to go and see the sheep.’
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. We should stay close, in case –’
‘I’m not going to freak out,’ I say. ‘I know it’s not dangerous now. But I just need to walk for a bit. I can’t go inside just yet. Please.’
My stomach hurts and I feel sick – the aftereffects of stress, I think, but I can’t face sitting and having a coffee and thinking about the future, not yet. I close my eyes, imagining myself reduced to my essential particles –minerals that can be scattered to the wind, can be mined from the soil. I imagined myself as something multiple and shifting, something airborne that can seep into other people, filling their lungs and thoughts. If I were a virus, I could pass from person to person, all the way to Spain, where I would reach my children and be close to them.
You hold my arm and lean me against you as we walk down towards the field of sheep. And I imagine your arm on mine when we are old and aching and tired of everything except each other. Including each other.
It takes me longer to see the sheep than it should.
They’re not standing and eating any more.
Every one of them is lying down.
‘Post lunch-nap,’ you say, and I can hear the smile in your voice, and then the catch in your breath.
It takes me a moment to see that they’re not napping. They’re not moving at all.
And even then, I can’t understand what I’m seeing. It’s not until I see the expression on your face, the knowledge darkening your eyes, that I finally grasp what’s happened. What will happen. What is already happening.
I blink, my body full of that light feeling, that sensation of drifting, of being like air, of becoming something else. Of turning into something that can float upwards and pass into people and lodge in their bodies, like a virus. And stick in their thoughts, like a story.
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