Thomas stands, fleet of pulse, with a humid grip on the lining of his parka. A bus looms, perhaps his, creaks into position, and tears off again after admitting its quarry. His mother is now at the tube entrance almost directly opposite; he watches her neatly trouble her bag for her railcard, slip through the barriers and out of sight.
It can’t only be maternal concern. She comes to his appointments with Agnieszka because of their novelty, their American aspect. The only experience she has of professional interest in the lives of others she takes from the Hallmark Channel, binging as she does on those soft-hued and silly tales of family woe. She watches scenes of confession and despair, problems parcelled out in plush Upper East side apartments. Agnieszka’s under-heated and somewhat stark office on the outer limits of west London must disappoint her.
She comes too so that she can give what he has, what he is, some form of medical mooring, so as to distract her from her own composite picture of her son as a charmless and strange figure who puts them all in a tight spot.
Thomas feels himself straining, almost keeling forwards. He considers catching up with his mother, saying something, until a middle aged guy, in construction hard hat and high-vis jacket, approaches a bin next to the bus stop, and with an empty and balled crisp packet at his side disposes of a bottle of Coke which he’s yet to open. As the man colours, things lighten and lift for Thomas. There will be no scene on his mother’s train. His coat rights itself through his slackening hand. Others too!
It was decided that the next day she would come at 11, and they would talk over coffee and perhaps put up his shelves that had been delivered earlier in the week. Thomas rarely stocked anything, so she had brought with her this morning a decent blend and a homemade carrot cake that she wasn’t entirely happy with.
As she sweeps through the exit of Earl’s Court station she runs through what was said yesterday, that it pains her sometimes to talk about her son when in company of friends, but not for the reasons he’d claim; that he has plenty of potential and brains but no real self-interest or even pride; that the state of his health and his flat worried her; and that she said these things now not to pain or undermine him but because she felt that if not here then where, and she loved him enormously and wanted him to feel that.
Presumably he would be at his desk when she arrived, perhaps dressed, putting together another of his letters. Why he had taken to writing them she couldn’t quite grasp. It was a phase, unlikely to harden into anything professional or productive. He told her that it was his way of keeping his eye in, which she didn’t much understand.
He had given her one to post on her last visit to his flat. The envelope had been unsealed, perhaps intentionally. Holding it in a terse hand she had read the letter- addressed to a well known tabloid newspaper- outside his building and, with an instinctive glance up and down the road, had neatly folded it and slipped it into a rubbish skip in the front yard of a house in the midst of renovation.
When it has been proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, that it was Alice Duggan, of sepulchral chat room fame, who committed these grisly murders enjoying such coverage in the press; that it was she who as good as gutted those dreary Welsh teens for whom a trip to London, although a fatal one in this case, must have daubed some colour onto a canvas much in need of it, then perhaps you may like to use ‘Alice Aforethought’ as your headline, credit me with its construction, and compensate me with whatever sum you see fit. I only hope that no meddling psychiatrist intrudes a report mitigating criminal culpability, thereby scuppering a perfectly funny and serviceable pun!
I believe the sentencing is scheduled for Thursday week. My contact details are enclosed.
She had been faintly aware of the case the letter referred to. Why was he involving himself in it? No, she wasn’t going to send something like that for him. No mother in her right mind would.
Thomas’ flat is technically in Chelsea, but the road on which he lives has an almost slummy and provisional air. It’s bisected by a busy intersection, and she hates crossing it, but Thomas’ portion of road is just beyond it, and the only other station that his flat is within reach of is appreciably longer to walk from.
The red light is forever coming, and when it does the traffic slows to what feels like a grudging halt. As she crosses two trucks and a minibus eye her archly. Once across she hears them fill the space she’d been seconds before, racing to recover the time she’d cost them. As a girl she’d been knocked down outside St Mark’s Church in Edinburgh, where her family attended mass, not on a heaving Sunday but after a confirmation class on a cold November evening after school, and it had taken her some time, despite the superficial injuries to her leg and back that she’d sustained, to cross one again.
The houses on his road, which must once have been grand, seem now to be trading on their height and heft. Many appear vacant, with boarded windows and screes of leaflets, tins and cans. The brickwork seems slightly scorched. Roads like this let the borough down, need to be scrubbed, made over.
She lets herself into the ill-lit hallway of Thomas’ building. She bends to collect a small pile of letters, sifts quickly through them. They are variously addressed to a Mark Powell and a Brendan Fitzgerald. They may both have good jobs and live with girlfriends met at university or work, but more likely they share in Thomas’ problems, for this is a building administrated by the National Health Service, part of its housing provision for patients afflicted by mental illness.
No letter for Thomas, nor are his shoes among the two pairs of similarly sturdy walking boots on the landing, which both suggest muted, muffled lives. She suspects that all three avoid each other, each attuned to the others’ patterns of departure and return, and doubts that Thomas has spoken to either.
In fact, he has met one of them. Three nights before he heard a door open, footfalls on the landing, a sudden rush towards his door. An awkward sequence of knocks followed, as if the person without was trying to imitate or recall a casual acoustical greeting from their past. It was a ragged effort at seeming poised. Thomas opened the door as his neighbour was beginning to knock for a second time, pushed it until the chain rattled in its silvery protesting way, and perceived through the gap a face that was clear and slightly flat, mixed-race, and which gave unto a high wavering hairline. Thomas was hit by that shameless tobacco smell that he had come to associate with this type, an association that no doubt developed from those trips to Calais and Brussels which were organised by his health worker as a way of reaching out to fellow sufferers, and which involved taking long coach journeys with blotchy and irredeemably strange fellows with sudden arrhythmic laughs, who hummed along to songs that probably didn’t exist, adrift in their raging and sifting words, and who disembarked in that disordered way from the coach whenever required to, some striding out into the road heedless of approaching cars, and the small team of professionals corralling the poor dupes into a group of sorts by a cafe on the roadside where most would flick out cigarettes and ask around for lighters with tongues lolloping faintly behind filter tips, whilst Thomas wished that he wasn’t there and swore that next time he wouldn’t be.
“Did you slash my tires?” the face in the gap asked.
Thomas ran his finger along the chain. “On which car?”
“Have the council changed the rubbish times?”
“No, not that I know of, they’re due to collect tomorrow I believe”.
“And the dial, does yours go all the way round on the boiler?”
Thomas pulled the door to, returned to his bed, and resolved not to answer again unless for family.
She has her own key, and enters the kitchenette first, puts the coffee and cake to one side. In a corner she notes the box of Panettone that they bought together weeks ago for Agnieszka. He said he’d given it to her, and she hadn’t thought to check whether this was true. Its been sitting there, she calculates, for just over a month. It’s little tag of thanks- Dear Aggy, just a little something to show our appreciation- clings to one of its sheer walls, like some improbable flowering on a cliff face.
He is sitting at his desk, with very little space. There are boxes either side of his him, and two cardboard rolls, the kind that store large wall posters, that lean oppressively against the wood. One is almost grazing his left elbow.
“How are you darling?” She asks as he half swivels to face her.
“I’m ok. Tired. Sorry for the mess”.
“Not at all. I brought coffee, and carrot cake. Although it’s not my best. Oh yes, and Hannah sent this today. I thought you’d like to see it”.
She digs out a postcard from her straw shoulder bag, passes it to him, and retreats to make the coffee.
The front of the card bears an aerial photograph, and a caption beneath it in gaudy font. Visovac Monastery- a lone, whitewashed settlement on a tree-ringed island, hemmed in by sea an insistent and perhaps doctored blue. To live in such a place, Thomas thinks, would be either immensely trying or wonderful.
Yes, of course, his sister’s in Croatia. He’d forgotten. ‘Dear fam’. Already excruciating.
He reads on. Between talk of local cheer and her friend’s heat stroke flashes the sentence: “Croatia has a liminal loveliness, nestling between the Mediterranean and Baltic”. Thomas returns to it after working quickly through the rest. Liminal?
Thomas is a year older than his sister. They went to the same school, where Hannah had excelled and been well liked. She became a prefect; won a poetry prize (a garrulous eagle narrates the plight of weary migrants across the Levant); represented Libya at a Model United Nations conference in Belfast.
Now she studies sociology or anthropology at one of the modern Oxford colleges. She’s sufficiently pretty, with thick chestnut hair and rich, darkly sympathetic eyes. She could pass for an Italian or Greek, which has always amused their parents, both of fair, Church of Scotland stock.
Hannah is involved in the life of her university. Thomas has heard his mother say this a handful of times. In her first term she wrote a piece for a journal linked to her college about ‘hygge’- the Danish mass noun which denotes ‘cosy contentment and well-being’- and confected something about how we could all do with a bit more ‘hygge’ in our increasingly unstable world, in this fear-addled Europe that seems content to usher in all these demagogues and petty nationalisms.
“Are these cups clean?” his mother calls.
“Yes. Well, they’ve been rinsed”.
Thomas puts the postcard on the desk. The monastery seems to diminish each time he looks at it. The monks must be amiable by nature, to stomach such confinement, or else have boats to row out in.
His mother returns with the coffee, dextrous fingers splayed so as to divide the two cups between thumb and forefinger of her left hand. In her right is a plate of cake for him, which she puts, along with the cups, on a small side table that he occasionally eats at.
“What do you think of Hannah’s card?”
“Nice. I’d forgotten she was there”.
“Almost a week now. And how typical of Alicia. Madness not to respect the sun”.
“Well, I can’t bear it. I don’t understand why people seek it out. Never understood it”.
“We don’t have the skin for it. Well, Hannah perhaps”.
He fingers the corner of the cake, and she flicks her face away.
“Are we giving the shelves a go today then?”
“Please, another time mum. We’re no use anyway. Dad can help next times he’s off work”.
Thomas swivels to face his mother properly.
“I forgot to mention this yesterday, and Aggy would have loved it, but last week the neighbour on the landing below knocked around midnight. He was all over the place, stoned maybe, definitely on something. He asked me if I’d slashed his tyres! And guess what I said in reply? Which is your car! Which one! Sort of sums it up really, doesn’t it?”.
Thomas’ mother tightens, as if before impact. His gaze, and the singular way he makes those pincer motions with his hands when unsettled, is hard to face. She looks away, gesturing to the cake and coffee.
“No, it doesn’t sum anything up. You were being polite. Maybe better to not answer the door Tom though after dark, unless you know it’s one of us three”.
Yes, sharing that was worthwhile, hit its mark, she’s looking for better and firmer words. As she twists in her chair he notes the grey of her hair, which she seems less concerned these days about hiding. It fans out from her roots, silvered reeds tipped with brown. She takes a sip of her coffee and pushes Thomas’ cup towards him.
“Well yes, thats what I decided on”.
She is consoled momentarily by this point of agreement, but no, he means to go on, and it strikes her anew just how any telling of anything that has happened to him transports him to such a very great extent. He’s coaxing a cat now; two fingers have replaced the pincer’s five.
“He asked really disconnected questions too, not many, but completely unrelated. I thought of a great name for him afterwards though. Don Sequitor!”
She pulls her cardigan tighter around a milky ridge of collar bone, and gulps blindly. This shame of hers, he thinks now, as she avoids finding his face with her own, a sense of it anyhow, has been present throughout his life, although it’s probable she hasn’t always felt it. How often he could have diminished it, checked it with kinder and saner words. Wasn’t it true that he used to try? But no, he doesn’t like the grammar of the question- he isn’t responsible for his mother’s opinion of him.
But at what point would it have occurred to her that things would only worsen from hereon? He cant speak for her of course, and he wouldn’t want to, and it’s certainly hard to pinpoint now, but things really started to shift at the start of his sixth form, perhaps because, with the admission of girls after five years in an all-boys, Catholic secondary (tinged with scandal and rumour but one of the best of its kind in the country, and a sporadically happy place for Thomas in the early years) many around him suddenly made some slight and unnerving adjustments. Including Eoin, a sunnily stupid classmate with reddish hair and large papery ears, who had taken him in, or rather kept him alongside his sturdier group of friends who played rugby and spoke to girls freely on trains.
There years of this sporadic warmth with Eoin, until Thomas cooled it, cooled it once he saw that certain things weren’t going to be reciprocated. There would come a point at which Eoin would hold up his coarse hands in wounded protest, or kick him away with a freckled haunch -prospects which had been too unpleasant to face down.
He often thinks of his former friend. He recently returned to him too, in a curious novel Thomas had read, which is written in a way at once feverish and controlled, and whose narrator travels back and forth throughout Europe as a kind of ghost, whose encounters with those he meets are at once barely perceptible and mysteriously significant. The narrator meets an acquaintance that he hasn’t seen in years, a man formerly capable and inquiring, but whose advancing dementia is settling, silt-like, over his mental life. He discloses to the narrator that now, when the mist of oblivion subsides, he sees enough to be tormented by the smallness of his own thoughts.
Eoin had surely never felt any such torment, and what freedom would be attached to that! Thomas misses him, although they haven’t been in contact since leaving school, almost three years ago, at which point they were barely speaking to each other anyway.
And that first Friday of sixth form. His year had got together for drinks, and Thomas had frightened his mother in the hallway of their home, his father asleep, shortly before midnight, she not expecting him back for another hour, spilling out for her what had happened and what it would all mean going forward. Just how much effort the party had extorted from him, the exhausting social revolutions that he now knew lay ahead, struggling for priority among new voices, and the impotent rage that results from watching someone secure and mediocre being exactly that around people taken by them, and that you’d be just as well received if given the chance, if circumstances had shimmied an inch either side, and how the evening ended with a toke or two of cannabis with two girls whom he recognised from his English class and an effort to be amusing which backfired, an effort made in reply to a comment by one of the girls that Amelia, at whose house they were at that evening, and who was fairly fat but had what everyone agreed was a beautiful face, fine and luminous, with eyebrows that arced hare-like over bright eyes dipped with blue, and who was already the star of Drama Studies and belonged busily to a youth theatre outside of school, “was a social butterfly” , and he said in a tone that sounded more sullen than intended that he wasn’t sure there was much of the butterfly in her, but instead the caterpillar, which she certainly put the word pillar into.
Thomas’ mother watches him now- distant, troublous- and imagines that it is those school days that he is thinking of now. Days that were difficult for both. He went in, she remembers, more and more infrequently, and then only for exams. The school behaved well about it, made allowances, told her that it was a stressful time and lapses like this were inevitable. Her Volvo would hover on a side road whilst he sat each paper, as she wasn’t to park up by the gates. On one occasion she had looked back at his revision notes on the rear seat, and had gripped the wheel and screamed.
Minutes pass, half an hour, while Thomas and his mother go over familiar ground- BBC dramas; the upcoming programme at The National Theatre; next month’s film schedule at the French Institute. Has she booked Krakow? Yes, a weekend in September. Your father would have rather Bruges. Doesn’t appeal, and anyway, he chose the last trip. The coffee is finished, the cake eaten, and, he agrees, not quite her best. She’ll be going now, unless he’s changed his mind about the shelves. Next time, when dad’s here. Next time.
Outside his building the air feels sharper, and the sky, now streaked with blacks and greys, has lost its bloom. Time spent with him has had this effect. Ridiculous, and anyhow he seems better, if only slightly. Her cardigan is now insufficient, and she wonders at her decision that morning to leave without her coat.
The love I do feel for him brings me very little, she thinks, as she fingers the envelope he passed to her as she was leaving. Would she buy a stamp and send it for him? Yes, she supposes so. He doesn’t have one in the flat? OK, yes, she’ll take it to the post office on the way home.
Who petitions newspapers at his age? Or at all anymore? He’s falling out of time. An ambulance at the junction ahead half circles, turns back the way it came, and straddles the middle of the road as it grimaces past her.
She slips the letter from its covering. This one, lord help her, is addressed to the Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.
Seeing as you welcome into your eloquent arms various new words each year, I’d like to offer you one of my own. The word ‘solipsism’ (already on your books) could perhaps be stretched slightly further. ‘The quality of being self-centred or selfish’ doesn’t quite cover the types we see now looming large over our entertainment landscape, the types that make a cult of who and how they fuck; doesn’t quite do justice to the high degree of sexual broadcasting among those perfectly happy to maul and paw things that should remain intimately unrevealed. So perhaps ‘trollopsism’ would
No, nor this one. She quickly folds the letter, and after a scan up and down the road places it among the dregs of metal and plaster in the skip outside the neighbouring building.
Throwing his work away again was, she thinks, a nasty inversion of what mothers were supposed to do. You were to enliven your home with what your children produced, not confine it to skips. But it was mainly Hannah’s paintings or poems that had been tacked to the fridge when they were young. His school work, when it did arrive home, was scrunched and ripped and also strange and anyway he hated praise, absolutely hated it. She’s not sure she ever has put anything of his up. She must have done. But certainly true that he didn’t like praise, didn’t seek it out like other children. In France one year he had spent much of the holiday by the pool snarling at a Scandinavian boy of a similar age, long and treacle limbed, whose hair was almost silver in the sun, who insisted that his mother, fantastically blonde and blithe, follow each dive with a lovely eye. Maybe it became easier to throw things away after she’d found the photograph of Eoin, which had effectively ended her friendship with Imelda- who always commented on how well the two boys got on despite their obvious differences- that photograph of Eoin sprawled asleep on the inflatable mattress with his olive boxer shorts adjusted for the shot.
She’ll walk up to High Street Kensington, yes, slightly longer, but she has nothing until the evening, and those columns of cars, and the underground so soon, yes, she’d rather the walk.
And she’ll text him later, thank him for a lovely afternoon. Perhaps he’d find some modest success if he wrote with less venom and a greater detachment, about things that people actually wanted to read and respond to. That would improve things, if he brought less of himself to what he did, although that can’t really be expected of anybody. But if he managed to, to conceal the way things were like others seemed to, then she could actually leave him at his desk with a mother’s quiet pride and utter, amongst friends or colleagues later, that her son, the writer, would be spending the coming weekend with her.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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