It happened on the same day I masturbated for the first time. And I remember thinking how everything that happened that day was in some way connected to it, was my doing because of it.
Sometimes, I see it all rewinding, playing backwards. Like now, sitting here in the hospital, I see the arrow of time stop and then move in the wrong direction. And as it plays out, I see the effect before the cause, again and again, until I’m back there, in the coach, watching her.
I watched Miss Filly, our guide, walk to the front of the coach to speak with the driver. Or, to be more exact, I watched a particular part of her; it was a part of a woman I hadn’t noticed before. The further south we travelled through France, the shorter Miss Filly’s shorts became; for two days, my eyes were fixed on the fleshiness at the tops of her thighs. I was convinced I could draw it: the way the tops of her legs grew wider, each swelling to a buttock.
“When we stopping?” Angela asked, her feet shuffling, her arms folded across her chest. “She asking him?” Half standing, half sitting, she looked to the front of the coach.
Leaning into the aisle, I watched Miss Filly talking with the driver. “Is now I think.”
“Wish we’d stop,” Angela said, folding her arms across her stomach. “And I wish he wouldn’t drive so fast — scares me.”
My attention was no longer fixed on Miss Filly’s legs, but on her adamant gesticulations and high-pitched tones. I looked along the aisle to the rear of the coach, to Mr Davis and Mrs Whitehouse, who were both reading. I remember thinking how Miss Filly had become the adult we all turned to, who we all relied upon. At the front of the coach, she pointed to the side of the road, at a sign advertising a service station.
The driver never smiled, never spoke, never acknowledged any of us. When he moved from his seat, which wasn’t often, it was with heavy and deliberate gestures. It was only Miss Filly, and only for our benefit, who spoke to him. The day before, after the driver had clambered out of his seat and slouched down the steps onto the pavement, I watched how she looked at him, and he at her. With shoulders thrust back, chin raised, Miss Filly was fierce. There she stood, not much older than us, with her long blonde hair, her small lean figure, displaying little readiness to submit to this hulking man. But even in her dealing with him for our benefit, the urge to disrupt their interactions and their compromises, meant I was always close by, ready.
“We’re stopping,” Angela said. “We are — look, we’re stopping.”
Moving towards us, Miss Filly smiled. “Won’t be long now,” she said to Angela.
I zoned out of their hushed conversation, because right there, beside me, was Miss Filly. No one saw me examining her legs, taking in the smell of the cream on her skin. Being so close revealed short blonde hairs peppering her thighs; this was what gave her legs the silver sheen I’d observed, when the light was right. My fingers twitched with how lightly my pencil would have to move to emulate this lustre upon her legs.
“It’ll be ok,” Miss Filly said to Angela, moving away, towards the rear of the coach.
Angela nodded, her eyes watery. Something in her posture, the way she turned to look out of the window, made it clear she wanted to be left alone.
Not until the coach began to slow down, did I notice how much noise it generated. As it rocked back and forth, negotiating the twists and turns of the motorway services, an ache in my stomach throbbed, and I began to share the anxiety everyone else exhibited in wanting to stop.
Stepping off the coach, as the others headed to queue outside the main entrance, I spotted an old shack of a bathroom beside the petrol station.
There are around 250 million sperm cells in every ejaculate. You learn this sort of thing when you’re trying for a baby. And on average, a man will produce around 500 billion sperm cells in a lifetime? That’s around five times the amount of stars in the Milky Way, and around five times the amount of people who have ever lived. Makes you wonder doesn’t it — what’s with all the sperm? One theory suggests there’s so much of it because of competition: the more sperm a male can place close to an egg, the better — simple as that.
A sperm cell either carries the x chromosome, or the y chromosome; this makes each sperm, in effect, either female (x) or male (y). The male sperm cell is faster, but has less energy and a shorter life span; although slower, the female sperm has more stamina and lives longer. So, exactly when sex occurs can dictate the gender of the child. For example, if the time of ovulation is known, to have sex at this time will increase the likelihood the child is male, as it will be the faster sperm cells to reach the egg first. Having sex around four days before ovulation, and not again, means the majority of sperm still alive will be those with more stamina, the female sperm.
On average, a man has 11 erections a day, around half of these when asleep.
The nurse said I can see them soon.
We’ve not decided on a name yet. Want to see her before we decide — see if she looks like a Lisa, Lucy or Charlotte. In some way, it’s already been decided; the name she’s given will be the only name it could have been. And I think I understand the reasoning, the theory behind determinism, the mechanism of cause and effect. But most of the time, it feels like you’re choosing doesn’t it? It’s hard to believe otherwise — to really believe. Now and then, you see the inevitability in what happens, you see the cog-machinery behind the ticking hands moving about the clock face.
What’s it like, seeing them for the first time?
I heard laughter outside, moving towards the bathroom door. Leaning forward, with one eye closed, I peered through a small hole in the cubicle door. The dimly lit figures of the coach driver and what looked like a woman, burst into the bathroom.
Recoiling from the cubicle door, my back straightened and my shoes kicked the porcelain at my heels.
Before long, I was leaning towards another hole in the wall of the cubicle. There was the bulk of the coach driver, his long swaying arms, his corkscrewed hair erupting from his head like solar flares. “They won’t use this one,” he said, his voice hoarse, breathy. “Come here.”
With frantic sounds, the driver’s shadow tugged at his belt with one hand, and grabbed the woman’s hips with the other, turning her around to face the mirror. A faint orange light illuminated him, and the profile of his face shifted to a grimace.
“Hang on,” the woman said, “wait.”
She tried to turn around, but he held her, pushing her so she was leaning over the sink. He shuffled the trousers from around his waist, and with a rattle, they dropped to the floor.
He tugged at the woman’s shorts, making her hips move back and forth, slamming her against the sink, then against his lap. They exchanged hissed words as she turned to look at him, hair covering her face. With violent kicks, her shorts were thrown aside, coming to a skidding halt near my cubicle.
“Hurry up,” I think she said.
He towered over her, the difference in their size exaggerated by her submissive posture.
He slapped the back of her thigh, making her cry out.
It was Miss Filly.
Covering my ears with both hands, I pushed my back against the cold cistern, and tried to block out the noise. I knew what was happening, I’d already seen film of this sort of thing by then.
After a short while, without questioning it, I peered through the hole again, watched him jump at her over and over again, pushing her waist against the sink. His hand squeezed the back of her neck and he swore at her through bursts of grunts.
My legs tightened, my chest throbbed, and in some other reality, I’d burst through the cubicle door and had him on the ground, my fists pummelling his face. In reality, I was catatonic.
He stopped for a moment, letting go of her, panting.
Then Miss Filly did something. And I knew, as I watched, it was connected to what I’d done in the shower that morning. She moved like some kind of dancer, like some sort of ballerina. I watched as one of her legs lifted slowly into the air, coming to rest on the sink. It was a slow, precise movement, accentuating everything small, and powerful, and exact about her. Her neck was taught, strained, as she turned to look at him. Beneath the amber light, I read the contours of her leg, her thigh, her calf. The shadow-gold hue of each line and angle moving across her leg made my fingers flicker once again at the thought of drawing her. She reached behind with a blind, searching hand. Grasping his arm, she pulled it to her head, asking him to take a fist of her hair. They muttered words I couldn’t quite hear, but they possessed the serrated edges of consonants.
He rearranged his clothes while she looked in the mirror.
“This why you wouldn’t stop the coach? Wanted to get me in here?” She looked around the bathroom.
He shrugged as he worked at his trousers and belt, gasping.
“The poor girl was desperate to stop, to sort herself out, and all you were thinking about was getting me in here.”
“Sort… herself out?” The driver stretched his back, filling his lungs with air.
“She started last night.”
“Started? What… started?” the driver asked, his face screwed up. “Already?”
“She’s 13… I was 11.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.”
She thumped his arm, “That supposed to mean?”
“You shouldn’t have to deal with that sort of thing.”
“What was I going to do? Leave it to those teachers?” She arranged her hair, and with a finger, wiped her eyebrows, eyelids and lips. Straightening her top, she looked about the floor for her shorts. “Took her to the shops to get some things — don’t have any myself.” She smiled at him in the orange light. “The jab.” She patted her thigh.
He copied her, only smacking her harder.
Spotting her shorts, she walked towards my cubicle. I held my breath. Reaching to the floor, one leg out-stretched, again she was a ballerina. She turned away, before pausing. She turned to look straight at the hole I was peering through. Her eyes narrowed, her neck extending towards me.
A coach, or lorry drove past, rattling the metal roof.
“Val,” he said, pulling her arm, making her turn away.
She moved quickly, stepped into her shorts, and arranged herself in front of the mirror one last time.
They moved out of view. The door rattled and light flooded the bathroom.
“Wait,” she said.
She appeared again, grabbed something from inside the sink, and turned to leave. Pausing, she looked towards me one more time.
“Come on,” the coach driver said. “Stinks in here.”
With a bang, the door closed and I was alone.
When a girl is born, all the eggs she will ever produce, are already inside her? Inside a new born girl, there are around 2 million cells, each with the potential to become eggs. So, let’s say, for the sake of argument, a woman can conceive between the ages of 15 and 45 — that’s 30 years. With 12 ovulations a year, when the ripest egg is released, that’s 360 eggs, or chances to conceive in a woman’s life. Out of 2 million potential eggs, around 360 of these will mature and travel along a fallopian tube, hoping to run into a sperm cell.
The ovum, or egg, is the largest cell in the human body?
Do you know the smallest? Yes — the sperm cell.
There were complications they said. But they’re both ok.
That week in France, Angela menstruated for the first time. When I found out, at first, I couldn’t shake how complex the chain of events that lead to that one egg being the first, out of all the potential eggs in her ovaries, must have been. But in another way, it wasn’t complex at all. From the moment Angela was conceived, that one cell was always going to be the one to mature first. And although it was always going to be unfertilised, it was set on its journey all the same.
It’s the numbers that make you dizzy. Lisa, Lucy or Charlotte came about because of at least two probabilities: The 2 million to one chance it would be that egg, and the 500 billion to one chance it would be that one sperm. But even this adheres to cause and effect. The odds are no more miraculous than the odds the sun will rise again tomorrow. It’s not down to chance or probability at all. All of this, including my daughter on the other side of this door, is inevitable.
I recall the ache, at first far away, then moving towards me, from behind, pushing against my back. Gasping, there was a soreness at the back of my throat, and with it, an unfamiliar, hollow taste. Things were upside down, tilted, out of kilter; there was a warping, a stretching, the world falling across the event horizon of a black hole.
A pained sob emanated from somewhere behind, or above, or beneath. There was a response, the generality of a word, approaching from the opposite direction. Both the sensation and sound of movement, delicate and tentative, pulsed about me; I couldn’t be sure if the movement was mine, or made by something close by.
The scrape of glass, the hum of car engines, the yelp of sirens.
Angela’s body was buckled, twisted in a way I’d never seen a body positioned before. There was blood on her shirt and jacket, and on her jeans. A gash ran down her leg, another below her neck. These cuts were a deep crimson, the one on her neck pulsing, pushing out more blood onto the ground, onto broken glass, covering the many thin white tubes in and around her bag. Another high-pitched cry brought me closer to understanding. Above was the sky. An aeroplane, framed by a rectangle, glassless window, ambled from left to right. The sirens grew louder and flashing lights filled the coach.
They moved me on a stretcher, into an ambulance. The coach was on its side, its black underside still warm and fizzing with the accident. Some of the children were on their feet, wrapped in blankets, others were sitting on the ground. But they were all motionless, most of them silent, some of them whispering. Miss Filly was sitting on the grass verge, a paramedic beside her. Passing the front of the coach, I saw the driver, still in his seat, fallen limply to one side, blood covering his face and hair. The front of the coach had been peeled open.
In 1925, Edwin Hubble claimed there were other galaxies outside our own Milky Way. There must have been a span of time, in which he was the only person to have ever known this fact. Can you imagine being the only person to know something like that? And in 1929, he offered evidence to suggest the universe is expanding. In fact, now we know the universe is not only expanding, but this expansion is accelerating. It didn’t take long for scientists to view the arrow of time flowing backwards, and see how, around 13.772 billion years ago, our universe had a beginning.
There is a theory that suggests every point in the universe can be seen to be at its centre? And this means, each of us really is at the centre of the universe. And sometimes, it feels that way. Doesn’t it?
Lisa, Lucy or Charlotte is heavier than I thought she’d be. And she looks angry: red faced, eyes puffy, brow furrowed, lips pursed. I guess she has a lot to be angry about.
Sometimes, I think I’ll tell Valerie I was there, watching her with the coach driver. I think about it a lot; I’m not proud of it — can’t help it. Must have had a profound effect on me. I see her leg lifting, see the way she turned to look at him, see her hand reaching for his… Sometimes, I think she knows I was there.
“Been thinking about her name,” Valerie says.
A thin tube connects her arm to a clear bag of fluid hanging from a frame stood beside the bed. It has tethered her, fastened her to this time and place.
I am tethered also. I feel it. This time and place is important.
Everything that happened that day, all that happens now, is both my doing, and not my doing, in the same way the imminent ignition of a supernova at the edge of a distant galaxy is my doing. We’re Gods you and I. Can you feel it?
In the beginning I…
“She looks like an Angela,” Valerie says.
Of course. Angela. Couldn’t be any other name.
Neil Greybanks teaches English in a Secondary school just outside his hometown of Wolverhampton, UK. He graduated from Wolverhampton University, before studying a Masters in English Literature at the Open University. He’s now wrestling with a disobedient novel called ‘The Surface of Last Scattering’ that will not stay still and be written, but manages to ignore it for long enough to write the occasional short story.
Neil would like to thank Tom Vowler for his support and guidance during his studies at shortfictionjournal.com.
If you enjoyed In The Beginning I, leave a comment and let Neil know.
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