Last Days By Ben Tufnell

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I.

The summer we found the skull was also the summer that Smith got stuck in the sluice gate and nearly drowned, and somehow those two events have been inextricably linked in my mind ever since. Looking back now, it is as if together they formed a threshold, a kind of boundary between the first years of my life and what came after. Nothing would be the same again, somehow.

It was the long hot summer, the longest and the hottest in living memory, they said, when the fields were baked as brown as butcher’s paper and the village green was burnt to a pale yellow. The mud in the marshes was cracked into plates and the air itself shimmered and rippled in the heat. Everything seemed to be attenuated. The pier had burnt down. Whole stretches of the sea cliffs had collapsed, pitching houses and their contents into the sea. Every night there were comets in the sky. Dust from the deserts carried on the air currents coated everything in a soft grey film. The economy was crippled by strikes. Wars were being fought. And the strangest thing of all was that the winter before had also been the coldest and the hardest. So much snow fell: our village was cut off from the outside world, the roads completely impassable, and I was unable even to attend school. In those years, we seemed to go always from one extreme to another. I remember watching the news and hearing the words ‘climate change’ for the first time. Murmurings of crisis. The beginning of the end.

School closed for the holidays a day early because an ominous crack running the length of the building had opened up. Sitting in the assembly hall, waiting to be dismissed, we could see daylight through it. Leaving, the summer stretched endlessly into a distant future and everything was golden and glowing with promise. The next day I took my bike and rode the few miles to the big house at the edge of the woods where Jack and Al lived. We would spend many days together that summer.

His name was Jacques, but we called him Jack. He was charming and confident, qualities I have ever since associated with the French. Alain was older and quieter. A calm presence. Strong and steady. Their family had arrived from France a couple of years before and were renovating a rather grand but dilapidated farmhouse. They cooked with garlic. They represented another reality, a mysterious, exotic one somewhere beyond the sea. At their dinner table, eating coq au vin or tarte tatin for the first time, or sipping a glass of watered-down red wine, I felt the bounds of my small world expanding.

Jack was friends with everyone, always ready with a smile. Incredibly, he was equally at ease making conversation with teachers and parents, or even with girls, an ability that seemed almost like a superpower to me. But he was also asthmatic and carried a Ventolin inhaler. He cursed his condition, but to us, even this gave him a curious and exotic air.

Most days I would cycle over there and we would lounge around in the big empty barn, entertaining the far-fetched notion that we were a rock band. We had two cheap acoustic guitars and some cardboard boxes for drums. We tried to write songs, but had no idea what we were doing, and spent more time dreaming up names for the band, making lists of possible song titles and fantasising about what we would do with our millions when we hit the big time.

Sometimes we went into the woods. Or we would ride our bikes down to the coast and swim in the sea. We would play Space Invaders and Missile Command in the amusement arcade, or sit on the concrete sea wall overlooking the charred remnants of the pier and smoke the cigarettes Jack had stolen from his father’s duty-free stockpile. Smith joined us sometimes, a vague presence. And that was it. The summer stretched ahead pleasurably, endlessly, and the days drifted by in a soft haze. I was happy, I suppose. I don’t think there was any homework to be done. No books to be read. We had no worries, no real fears. Although, now of course, looking back, it seems to me there was something, something far off, in the background, out-of-focus and distant, lurking and waiting. The end of the world.

One day, Jack excitedly announced that he had made an important discovery in the woods: a swimming place. ‘We’re going there. Smith is coming,’ he said. ‘Look, you can borrow these,’ he said, throwing a pair of beach shorts at me.

*

We went up into the woods on the usual path, but where it curled around to make its way up to the top of the hill Jack led us off into the undergrowth. After a few steps we came to an old wire fence. On the other side, the forest changed. Instead of the dense tangle and the deep shadows of the old woods, here there were fir trees in neat lines, columns of sunlight; a plantation. I remember the smell of it, sweet and piney, like resin. The ground was covered with a thick layer of soft brown needles giving gently beneath our feet, like carpet.

Jack led the way and we followed. Smith straggled behind. He was a strange boy, tall but slight and with a thin face and watery eyes. He kept on calling to Jack. Is it far? Is it far? Not for the first time I found myself wondering about Smith. What was he doing? Why was he with us? He was, I supposed, like so many others, like myself even, just drawn along in Jack’s starry wake.

Suddenly we were at the edge of the trees and a wide expanse of water, perfectly still and reflecting the pale blue of the sky, lay before us. It filled a shallow valley ringed with dark trees. On the opposite shore an area had been cleared and logs were neatly stacked. We could see a track leading off into the woods. I tried to work out where it would lead to.

‘Logging’, said Jack, pointing.

‘What if they come back?’ asked Smith. He was nervous, as he always was.

‘They won’t’, said Jack.

‘How do you know?’

‘I just do. Look, it’s OK. Really Smithy, there’s nothing to worry about.’

Jack started to pull his t-shirt off. ‘Come on, let’s go.’

Across the water I could see a low wall dividing the valley in a straight line, rimming the water: a horizon line.

‘Is it a reservoir?’ I asked.

‘Dunno. I guess so.’

There was no shore really. The water just came up against the steep bank where we had trampled the long grass flat.

‘Is it deep?’ I asked.

‘No, not here,’ said Jack. ‘But it must be in the middle. Probably something living down there.’ He laughed at Smith’s horrified expression. Then he took a step back, paused and hurled himself forward – and in my memory he is frozen for a moment, in mid-air, sunlight glancing off the brown skin between his shoulder blades – and into the water. And that was it. We all went in then. The water was bracingly cold and a relief from the oppressive heat. And it was surprisingly clear too. It tasted of the woods and the stones.

After a while we climbed out and sat on the grass and passed around a packet of biscuits.

I pointed over at the wall. In the centre was a blocky structure like a pillbox and what looked like the top of a ladder. ‘I’m going to check it out’, I said.

Jack saluted. ‘Bon chance’, he said.

I made my way through the grass and reeds until I was close to the wall, and then waded through the shallower water until I reached it and could pull myself up onto the top. It was concrete; a thick wall forming a kind of step across the valley. Above was the lake and below I could now see a wide basin filled with reeds and bushes, which was ringed by more trees. A small river flowed away through a notch in the edge of the basin. Marks on the grey wall showed the water was much below its usual level.

I looked back and waved. ‘I can see the river’ I shouted.

Jack gave me a thumbs up and blew out a cloud of blue smoke, which drifted slowly across the water.

The wall was about six feet wide. I walked out along it to the centre and stood before the concrete box. On its side was a wheel with a handle. From inside came the sound of water rushing through a hollow chamber. An iron ladder was fixed into the wall of the dam, dropping down the other side. I climbed down.

A huge concrete pipe pierced the wall at an oblique angle. If I stood on the lip I could only just touch the upper rim with my fingertips. Water came rushing out of it, filling a broad pool fringed with rushes and reeds. I climbed back up and called again.

‘Guys, get over here.’

The reservoir wall was a sun trap. There was no breeze at all. The pale grey concrete was almost white in the sunlight and seemed to reflect the heat. There was a sort of beach of broken stones and rubble and we lay out our towels there.

We looked up into the pipe. It went up at a steep incline for about twelve feet and then the angle sharply increased, so that the water came surging and frothing down almost vertically. ‘Who’s first?’ I said. ‘Smithy?’

He shook his head miserably.

‘Jack? Al?’

Jack said, ‘You found it, you go up.’

‘OK. I will.’ I grinned. The game was on.

The water washing down the pipe made upward progress hard. I had to cling to the ridges of the concrete with my toes and try to find handholds to pull myself up. The water broke over me and in my mind’s eye I was an explorer in the Amazon, forcing a way through a cave system into a forgotten world. I got about six feet up – not quite far enough to see beyond the turn – and then my foot slipped on a patch of slime and suddenly I was down and tumbling, and then out and into the pool with a splash. When I came up the others were laughing, and I was laughing too.

‘Go on!’ I shouted. ‘It’s fun!’

‘My turn,’ said Jack.

It became a kind of competition to see who could get furthest up the pipe before losing a footing and tumbling back down into the pool below. We had bruises and scrapes on our arms and legs but we didn’t care.

When Smith went up, he was able to get higher than anyone else. Perhaps because he was so skinny, he presented less of an obstacle to the water. On his second attempt he actually got to the turn. ‘There’s something up there,’ he shouted down at us, over the roar of the water. ‘I think I can get to it’.

‘He’s actually going to try for it,’ said Al. He shook his head in wonder. Well, I thought, Smithy has something to prove.

And then suddenly he was climbing up and we could only see his legs, and then just his feet. But then he stopped and didn’t go any further.

We watched and waited. We could see his feet and they didn’t move.

‘What’s he doing?’ said Jack.

‘Is he stuck?’ asked Al.

‘I’m going to see,’ I said, and climbed into the pipe, water cascading over my head and shoulders and tugging at my arms and legs. I got to the turn and looked up. Smith was above me in the gloom and his eyes were wide with panic. ‘I’m stuck’, he screamed down at me, ‘I’m fucking stuck!’ He was gasping for air as the water flowed over him, into his face, his eyes, his mouth.

He was standing on a narrow ledge. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw an iron grille above him. Water was pouring through it. Logs were jammed against the other side of it. He had reached up, almost at the limit of his reach, and put his hand through the grill and it had stuck. It wouldn’t come out again.

‘OK, Smithy, hold it there’, I called. ‘I’m coming up.’

‘Hurry, hurry!’ he screamed, before another surge of water engulfed him and cut him off. He coughed, choking and crying at the same time.

I climbed up alongside him. In the darkness I could just make out his hand wedged into the narrow gap between the rusty bars of the grille. I was able to stand against the other side of the pipe, away from the main flow of the water, but he was right there beneath it.

‘I’m drowning’ he wailed. His words were cut off again as he inhaled a mouthful of water.

Suddenly Jack was there too. He climbed up onto the ledge next to me.

‘What do we do?’

It was hard to see anything with the darkness and the water. Flickering light bounced up from below.

Smith let out a long low groan of pain and sorrow.

‘I think we’ve got to lift him up,’ I shouted. ‘If we can take the pressure off his hand, he might be able to get it free.’

Jack nodded. We manoeuvred so we were on either side of Smith and tried to lift him. It was very hard with the weight of the water pouring over him. I had an arm around his waist and Jack crouched and got his shoulder under Smith’s thigh. He could only stay in that position for a few seconds because of the water surging over him. We tried twice and Smith wouldn’t budge. He was wailing now. A wordless animal noise.

At the third attempt we managed to raise him up by a few inches. It was just enough. His hand slipped out from the grille and he went slack. We couldn’t hold him and he slipped from us and fell.

Jack and I climbed down and saw Al pulling Smith from the pool in the sunshine.

After the roar of the water in that enclosed space the quiet was unnerving.

We lay in the sun and for a long time no one said anything.

‘I thought I was going to drown’ said Smith, eventually.

No one spoke.

He swore weakly.

‘It was so cold.’

I looked at him and saw he had finally stopped shivering. Falling, he had cut his forehead and blood smeared his face, crusting in the sunshine. He had a stick in his hand and was idly poking at a stone. Around his wrist was a vicious red wound where the skin had been scraped away.

‘I thought I was dying’, he said quietly.

He was crying.

‘I could have died.’

No one said anything.

It was the last time Smith came out with us. I don’t think we saw him again that summer. And indeed, when we eventually went back to school there was no sign of him. His family had moved away. It was as if he had vanished. There had been a break up or a divorce or something. But no one knew where they had gone. And no one really cared.

In the weeks after the incident, I went back to the lake in the woods with Jack and Al a couple of times, but we couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for it. We stayed at the edge of the trees above the dam and didn’t go near the sluice gate. The place had changed, somehow. Indeed, I would not have been surprised to have emerged from the trees to see a pale body floating in the still water, at the centre of an ever-expanding series of concentric ripples, perfect circles incised into the surface of a mirror.

We swam in a desultory fashion, drifting in the dark water, mainly as a way to cool down. For it seemed the summer was becoming hotter, if that were possible.

II.

A few days before it was all to end, we went for the last time to the beach. We rode the six or so miles through rolling fields shorn of life and bleached almost to transparency. Silvery flints lay on the surface of the dry earth and glinted in the sunlight like strange bones. And as we climbed the long hill to the ridge that edges the coast, to the place they call Shuck’s Camp, the sky was torn open by a succession of low-flying jet fighters. We saw a lot of them that summer. They came so low and so fast they were above us before the sound, which followed them like a furious wake. We felt it before we heard it. Riding up the hill together we all wobbled and Al pitched into the grass verge as the sound exploded around us.

We stopped and watched them quickly shrink to pinpoints and then disappear out over the sea, the roar of noise slowly fading.

‘There are more’, said Jack. We looked back inland and another flight was racing towards us. As they went over in a deafening blast of sound, seemingly only just above the tips of the oaks, we screamed and waved, knowing it was a pointless gesture.

I felt weirdly exhilarated. It was as if some of the jet’s propulsive energy had been transferred into me. The speed and the noise were awe inspiring.  ‘How fast are they going?’

‘Too fast’, said Al. ‘Supersonic.’ He grinned.

‘They always take us by surprise.’

‘Of course, that’s the general idea.’

‘Look, up there.’ Jack pointed into the sky above us. And high up, incredibly high up, where the atmosphere must be pale and thin, there were a series of vapour trails, slowly extending across the sky in parallel lines. The big bombers were flying east, out over the sea. And I dimly perceived that far away something terrible was unfolding.

The lane from the coast road to the beach was lined with cars parked end to end. The car park was full. We locked up our bikes and went down the causeway onto the sand. I had never seen it so busy. I had never seen so many people actually in the cold North Sea. They drifted listlessly with the ebb and flow. The heat seemed to have stunned them into a sort of stupor. They lay about like so much flotsam, sweating and burning beneath the inferno in the sky.

As usual, we passed through the crowds and went along the shore to where there were less people. Eventually, we stopped in the shade of one of the black breakwaters that interrupted the beach every hundred yards or so. It was really very hot and the light was almost blinding. Jack and Al, of course, had sunglasses. I did not. I had to squint to see anything.

We swam. We ate our sandwiches and drank cans of cold pop we had bought at the beach cafe. We swam again and then lay comatose and silent in the brightness.

Later, Jack smoked a cigarette and Al and I wandered further along the beach to where there is a rocky shelf of hard chalky material and flint, covered in dark green weed and algae and dotted with rock pools. That was where we found the skull.

The flint takes many strange forms. The nodules, which range in size from a knuckle or an egg to a large loaf or a football are bulbous and bony, mottled white and black, forming uncanny skeletal forms reminiscent of bleached hip sockets and femurs.

It was lying before us on the edge of a pool.

We both stared at it for some time.

‘C’est un skull’ said Al, his language muddled in a moment of confusion.

‘A skull. Yes, a skull’ I agreed.

But was it a skull? It seemed unlikely.

It could have been a flint nodule but was definitely a skull. The jawbone was missing and while the crown was white the bone around the eye and nose sockets was brown and discoloured. There were traces of green, stains where perhaps weed had once clung.

‘What do we do?’ asked Al.

I prodded it with my toe. Sunlight flashed off the water.

‘Police? Lifeguard? I don’t know.’

‘I’ll get Jack’, said Al. He pronounced it ‘Jacques’.

Jack was of the opinion that the correct thing to do would be to telephone the police. But he did not want to do it. There would be trouble and hassle, he said.

So we carried the skull up the beach beyond the high water mark and Al drove a piece of driftwood deep into the shingle and then Jack placed the skull on top of it. A death’s head. A totem. A warning.

It watched over us for the rest of the afternoon as we speculated as to who it was and how it had come to wash up on the shore. Or if it might have been disgorged from the decaying cliffs, like the woolly mammoth skeleton that had been discovered a few miles south just a couple of years before.

After a while though, we fell silent. I sat on the shingle and watched the skull. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And I saw Jack and Al were the same. In the brightness of the sun, it seemed to glow. Yet the empty eye sockets were like terrible black holes, depthless voids burnt into the veil of the day. I had the uncanny sensation – even though the sockets were vacant – that the skull was watching me.

I remembered then the headstone in the graveyard. We always stopped to look at it when we walked through on the path to the fields. Large, dark grey, obscured by lichen and ivy, the stone bore a large skull in relief. I no longer remember the name of the occupant, but I still recall the inscription: OMNIS CARO FOENEM.

‘Life is hay’, said Mum, the first time we saw it, when I asked her what it meant. ‘No, all flesh is grass. Grass is better I think.’

‘What does it mean?’ I asked, holding her hand tightly.

‘It means we all die’, she said. ‘Everything will pass. Like grass blown on the wind.’

The sea beat back and forth, keeping tempo, slow, hypnotic.

After some time, I began to feel like I might burst. I was desperate to get up and run about, to scream and shout, but could barely move. Without taking my eyes off it I said, quietly, to Jack, ‘It’s beginning to freak me out’.

Shhhh’, he hissed. He was concentrating.

The air thickened about the bony matrix.

When the sun dipped below the cliffs and we suddenly found ourselves in shadow, it was as if a spell had been broken. The air began to cool and the brightness eased and as we looked around we saw the beach had begun to clear. The café was closed when we left and the car park was almost empty.

The sky began to burn. As the sun fell into the land the air was filled with fiery orange and flames of mauve and purple. The end of the world.

Before we got on our bikes, Jack wrote on a piece of paper, folded it and pushed it under the door of the cafe. What he wrote was:

We found a skull on the beach. 

Sorry. It was nothing to do with us. 

You will find it past the sixth breakwater to the south

Please inform the police.

Merci.

glasses

Ben Tufnell

Ben Tufnell is a writer and curator based in London. He has published extensively on modern and contemporary art and his most recent book is In Land: Writings Around Land Art And Its Legacies (Zero Books, 2019). Short stories have been published or are forthcoming from Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, Litro, The Write Launch, Nightjar Press and The Fiction Desk. He is represented by Charlotte Seymour at Andrew Nurnberg Associates.

Links to published stories:

‘The Ruins’ at Elsewhere: A Journal of Place:

www.elsewhere-journal.com/blog/2021/6/9/the-ruins

‘Acropolis’ at Litro:

www.litromagazine.com/end-your-weekend-with-a-collection-of-the-best-stories-litro-magazine-has-to-offer/acropolis-2/

‘The Island’ at The Write Launch:

https://thewritelaunch.com/2021/08/the-island/

Social media & website:

Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/ben_tufnell

https://bentufnell.com

Image by Enrique Meseguer on Pixabay

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