In the beginning was the word and the word was snow. Delicious, huge piles of it all the way from slush to powder, littering the driveway this morning as David Saltman tried to get to the bus. He wasn’t quite running, though he did fear the consequences of missing another shift. He padded along the white crown at quarter-pace, hair squirming in tight curls over his brows, Wellington boots on that (shit) he’d forgotten to swap for shoes on the way out the door and a half-smoked joint lying dormant in his hand. Back up the driveway his windows were lambent orange, the party still going. They would be impotently flirting, reading non-linear passages of fiction, smoking desperate roll-ups and discussing the booze plan. ‘What exactly do you think happens if you eat too much fruit?’ ‘Your body is… it’s not fair you know!’ and ‘Has anyone got a number?’ would be conversational titbits doing the rounds. David had been there before and knew things would descend over the next couple of hours. Still, hm, maybe he should just turn…
This was the heart of Upper Nithsdale, in among the rivulets and runs, a place of unassuming beauty, too far from the Solway to be coastal, too far from Dumfries for the green to be undercut by city tendrils. There were signs on the ground and in the air here, metaphors or just memories, from back before the spirits and the meaning went out of the world. It was as close to home as could be hoped, currently glowing with nacreous sweeps of hill, chastened Christmas trees and familiarity.
David made it to the main road and looked up the slope circumspect, resisting a degenerate’s lapse into autopilot, hoping his eyes were in place. On time, the bus rose over the horizon with lights ploughing through falling crystal. This, this was too much to take and he turned, sprinting back up the driveway, reaching alarmed into a wax-jacket pocket for his mobile and figuring out who was the best chance at this unsociable hour.
‘That… that you Dave?’ the voice crackling like a bad line, really only Rust’s awakening tremors.
‘What you up to big man?’
‘Can I help you?’
‘Eh, aye. You mobile?’
Rusty hacked something up. ‘Could be.’
The bungalow looked deceptively twee under its flattop of white, smoke emanating from the fire hazard beneath to make an uneasy communion with the branches of a horse chestnut. The windows were still lit with a candle-effect that the progressing morning would dissipate, walls letting out muffled bursts of ambient techno and proclamation. Feeling like a frontiersman, crass grin attached, David took a moment to steady himself, thought about how to carry this one (missed-the-bus sympathy or fuck-it swagger?) and burst inside.
‘Right folks!’ David opting for the latter, ultimately less cynical option. ‘Have you ever seen my… secret stash?’
Bodies horizontal or almost so glanced up with underpowered enthusiasm, having been trapped in here unable quite to capitulate, aware of the world around on some vague, guilty level. David led two or three with the spring still in their knees around the circular layout of the cottage for a few laps in a lackadaisical conga, before retrieving a long black key from the chain around his neck and revealing the hall cupboard in all its post-apocalyptic, emergencies-only, recently restocked glory.
‘Fuckin’ hell,’ said Lilith, ‘maybe we should go out and build an igloo. Enough supplies ‘n here to keep us going for a week.’
Black Wellingtons still on, wayfarers now perched, David started cutting a Rommel-type figure; intermittently manning a chopping board for Pimm’s and lemonade, handing out tins of lager and orchestrating skin-ups. Behind him on the bookshelf, a worn volume had fallen open, blank rows visible between lines of text. Yet David’s eyes were mostly on Lilith, de facto lieutenant (music, fire, patter) striding to and fro in denim cut-offs, holding forth:
‘Of course, the beverages may seem unlimited but don’t be fooled by the low lighting. Make the most of it.’ Lilith was the only foreigner and capable of the air of an old-time MC, circus impresario or street caller. ‘We’re in this together now, tout le monde. We need to have a goal.’
‘Yeah…’ said David.
‘I mean,’ continued Lilith, ‘we’re all driven, intelligent people, right?’
They weren’t, but they were alive, a prospect sufficiently terrifying, even here, that certainty or even just clues on a symbolic level could be very appealing. In fact, religions and etcetera probably need an event like this, where a zest of conviction carries in the morning air.
Matthew was swamped in a maroon Chesterfield, seeing Scotland in that queer commonplace only a few Ivor Cutlers can ever. ‘Isn’t this it? Just being here?’
‘Sure, it’s a valid point,’ Lilith dismissed him. ‘But nonetheless, we need, oh I don’t know… an exciting target, no?’
David felt inspired and went with, ‘Maybe some kind of longevity game? Or should we should paint something?’
‘If we need to achieve anything,’ tried Matthew again, once a Warhammer affiliate, now more into this kind of thing, ‘then it shouldn’t be inner peace or any of that other hippy crap. It should be total transcendence.’
‘Escapism is for pussies,’ said David’s partner, Jo, ‘Leave us in peace to get fucked up.’
Matthew’s eyes lingered on her. ‘Well, that’s settled then,’ he smirked, thinking about those no diving, no bombing, no heavy petting signs.
The room now cascaded into musical still life in front of Lilith, etched as usual in between punk disregard and naïve charm. Whole circles of people would regret the years on her behalf, a cruel settling for less rather than heartfelt frontier.
‘Two minutes,’ David flashed her a note of rakish licence, taking a while to realise he already had shoes on. There was an undeniable exuberance about the man, dickhead though he might be. He looked to Lilith like a manual labourer seizing the weekend spree with hard-won gusto, though the distressed fabrics and greasy hair suggested something else unspecific to her nerve-endings, like an imbecile Beat poet.
Rusty didn’t like using knockers or doorbells. So David’s phone kept ringing on silent, purring beneath the mellow Amen break, wheels compacting snow just outside. The world was only increasing in beauty, though David tried to pretend it was dark.
‘Alright man, top of the morning to you?’ he asked, realising it wasn’t really a question.
‘That good stuff?’
‘Yup.’ Rusty was smoking a king size.
The divisions started as soon as he was back, the tribalism, the possessiveness. David’s oversize pupils flashed at the three or four main suspects before receding entouraged into a low-lit bedroom. The others stayed put, irked but recognising their situation. Some had individual, minor stashes, which were now shared with quiet dignity.
‘Hungry?’ asked David, pulling down a mirror.
‘Of course, maaan,’ groaned Lilith in her nearest bass-baritone. Newly single, she’d been putting on a lot of voices recently, maybe coping, maybe just expressing herself. ‘So, what’s next!’ she asked, the minutes moving capriciously.
‘I don’t know. More!’ squawked David.
‘Fuckin’ hell, give it a while at least. We’ve a whole day ahead.’
Above the conversation, revealed over seven inches of fantasy-white triturate on the slates, the air was still and pensive, circling in a loaded winter helix. The most profound season, winter was a time of existential weight that all the drug taking, bare feet and hoodies in the world could only attenuate, perhaps finally to merge with its ambience towards something wide-eyed, dangerous and true.
David waltzed to the bathroom, alone. Well! A number of spirited mornings looked to have been leading to this now. Avoiding looking in the mirror, everything wordless, he planted a dozen or so canoodles on and around the upper thighs, having worked down though the neck region, stomach and so forth, centring with whimsical inevitability on the legs, to be worked aside towards a session of unrelenting shapes of the alphabet. Lilith, yes Lilith (it had to be) then dishing out a little something, eyes in charge, the mood becoming strangely graver, light dimming in sensitive response. In fact, there would grow a sepia rainbow just for a second, mind under the impact of a non-thought. If somewhat like death, then only in the petrified way that photography is. Even… could this be one of those fleeting lunettes when sex happens to equal love and love also equals sex? Full of cocaine and other stimulants, David was again in a mood to talk, threatening in truth to break the spell by articulating some of the mindlessness eddying in his brain. Lilith would surely pre-empt him, placing a digit over his lips. ‘Let’s just party.’ Watching her dress possessively (castle, room, girl, world), his trousers round his ankles, David felt his blood seep away. Even if she mightn’t opt for his hoodie, lying attentive over a chair as if placed for exactly that purpose, these were rough details beneath the purview of the artist.
Now, unbeknownst to this private elite, or indeed anyone else then littering the bungalow in deep-neck t-shirts, Air Max and reckless abandon, their appetites were bringing forward latent possibilities well beyond the solitary fulfilment of sexual need. For beneath the house, or at least in the general district, was a socket of opaque energy. Hellmouth was not perhaps the best term, given the age and ambiguity of this presence, far beyond any meagre moral divisions. Yet when combined with the manner of these half-young delinquents and a handful or two of narcotics, some perilous shit could indeed occur. While the quiescent valley throbbed imperceptibly, breathing, inside oh too many heads were the same imbalances and yearnings.
Back in the lounge Jo had risen to her feet, buoyed no doubt by some of the afore-mentioned. The Queen of the house had a blank look in her eyes that prophesised a dip into the realm of cocaine aggro. This not-infrequent behaviour was manifesting itself most vividly in the fun-but-not-at-all-fun lockjaw displayed around Jo’s face. David, feeling responsible for everyone’s tranquillity, tried to intervene:
‘Hey babes… how’s it going! Think we’ll ever get them out of here! Do you say we should venture outside? Maybe we should head outside, know what I mean? Check out the weird light coming through those gaps!’
Annoying as this was, there was deeper pain in the room, a history of it. Small remarks and bite-marks on the soul, a reckless and sometimes sadistic tongue, abandonments, silences between words, the wrong frozen moments in the mind. Songs ranging wildly in and out of tune with the season, it could have been a word of Jo’s that did it now, something with only partial forethought. ‘Prick, aren’t you?’ Or, more subtly, ‘You…’ The lightening snap in the atmosphere was too familiar to be experienced by many as a revelation, more a sharpening of energies always latent.
It was hard to see who swung first, but Jo connected.
‘Bitch.’ David stepped away and spat on the carpet, the word not unfamiliar on his lips, softwood flames reflected in his face. ‘Get the fuck out of my house.’
No one could violate this nucleus of conjugal hatred. David had the height advantage but Jo was tough, farmer tough, and seconds later he was scrambling on the floor making animal sounds, unclear of his exact location. ‘Get out of my house,’ he repeated.
The door slammed, a few allies wondering if they should follow her but rationalising otherwise. David was content to coil back into some arms, nose unbroken, ready to see the bright side. Looking after him absently, Lilith tried to think of other combinations that could be made from rum, whisky, sugar and lemonade, re-evaluating the music, ignoring David’s liberties like a hand creeping absentmindedly, some directives spoken not quite kindly. She wouldn’t go near him tonight, ever, wouldn’t have in the first place.
It wasn’t long before the room was again a box of noise. Like most of the rest, Matthew had gone back to his own space, shared in the sense that television channels share a satellite signal. Less vocal than most of the others who patchworked the room trading lectures, he worked his tense throat by laughing at their enclosure, body in constant motion like Alasdair Gray. This Saturday night Sunday, this debauch, what did it spell? How like, how like… these punks hiding in a quaint cottage taking Class As and trying to ignore the hills, neighbouring trees and water that trickled hidden under a blanket of snow.
David was on a sideboard enjoying the elevation, unsure if he could stop dancing even though his heart was going like the clappers. He was making sure to spill a bit of his drink with every fifth hip thrust, imagining that the effect carried something of a Tudor banquet. Jo was still gone (outside?). The lust had returned with force – had he meant to stymie or ripen it?
‘Let’s go for an adventure!’ Lilith exploded into the room, having sourced a ‘90’s ski jacket from somewhere in the bungalow, patterned with what looked like a Hieronymus Bosch.
‘Aye!’ and ‘soon’ petered out quickly into synth chords. Lilith slunk back to wherever the impasto garment came from, not a little disappointed in the lack of true rebellion.
At some point, with noon a fading memory, David either forgot about or abandoned the group dynamic of before, dumping the whole sack of coke out onto the dining table. This gesture, like affection from the irascible, carried more weight than was strictly fair and brought a cheer, the mound of obscene poison quickly surrounded by hillocks of other substances. Events now descended into real debauchery. The party fragmented into isolated pockets of chaos, interacting only in caught, stop-motion bursts of sound and colour, as when David twisted in a novel slow-motion, the thumping in his ears surely the music in a previous incarnation, to see Lilith doing her Groucho Marx in the corner. Some of the other delegates of our species were huddled around the laptop trying to resist snatched glances at the silvery hints of outdoors filtering in under the double blinds. The snow must have been calling.
‘I really, really think we should go out. Just buy more supplies and hunker down. Plus, it must be gorgeous now.’
‘I… I don’t think we should tempt fate.’
‘Don’t you love this place? What a bloody fortress!’
It wasn’t long before all kinds of people were hitting a tipping point, orienting towards an aftermath where private answers or just emptiness would be waiting like a forgotten countryside, negotiating for now the flow in suspension of chemicals and fatigue. David, heroically fighting the Dao on more than one level, was gaining an unnerved gleam about the corners of his mouth, embodying something, though perhaps only the truth that decay is a type of progress. Matthew was standing with a strange ecstasy in his eyes and in his jowls, barely able to read the poetry textbook he was holding, white spaces gleaming between the words. ‘But… what… if there… is no randomness…’ he spoke at an increasing pace, ‘only cause and effect. Like God’s will or whatever. What then? It’s all one huge ornament? Or static fable telling itself?’ Others became agitated and Matthew, coming back from a coloured brink, translated his existential misgivings into angular, arrhythmic dancing.
‘Come on bud, the letter kills but the spirit gives life,’ Lilith appeased him, holding out a bottle of single malt. She’d already made this joke three or four times.
Out in the peripherals, David’s legs were going in triple time. Tense hands: not enough booze, he cursed himself as if it was a reasonable assessment. The constellation of living-room lights was merging towards a single globe, to then soften out into a sheet-like canopy. Mute voices spoke to him from the trees and the water, and if he was still truly inside, then it was only in part. There are people who need the gaping sky, a sky now dominating David’s eyes as if his sclera had grown, creeping across white veins. It wasn’t quite a switch – he was too ossified for that – but beneath this eclipse, nose freshly desecrated, would be a moment coming soon when he would run, unleashed in the air of a December drift, up a steep hillside patterned with the off-white shadows of bird feet in the snow, harrying with little emotion visible beyond blind enjoyment to arrive on the peaks frozen in motion. His pupils then locking onto the phenomenon ahead, an immaterial crystal spectre that was gradually revealing his inertial state elongated in reflection, the effect dampened only by a wet leer and numbness. ‘Here we, here we, here we fucking go,’ David would chant to the double shadow, leaning against the overmantel, anyone who might be watching left unsure if this was growth or seizure or something of both.
And just beyond her own mute threshold, Lilith settling gently lower into the blizzard that lay deep, crisp and even around her. The snow was metallic tasting, like blood. With that face she would always have to straddle the realm of the heroic and the world of becoming. There may have been no way to turn back from here, no regression, no set of parameters even to describe that past. Statuesque in dynamic arrest, a digital presence, she launched forwards through time. Ever-changing, eternal, circulatory system revolving unseen, the flakes gathering higher and higher around her, Lilith knelt quietly, thinking about the power of silence in the snow.
Gerard McKeever is based in Glasgow and works mainly in prose fiction. He’s currently focusing on a sequence of short stories, the first of which are in 2015 issues of From Glasgow to Saturn and The Flexible Persona. One of these is in the early stages of being developed into a screenplay in collaboration with the filmmaker and artist Mark Lyken. Gerard is also an academic, in a postdoctoral position in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.
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