35# November (For Portsmouth Bookfest)

I wrote this story for Premature Articulation, a Portsmouth Bookfest spoken word event in February 2018. Photo courtesy of longwallpapers.com 

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A man in an astronaut suit sat quietly in the corner of my yard with rain pouring down his face, his helmet on the wet ground beside him like a skid-marked egg.

It was November.

“The stress of re-entry can be hard on these older model suits,” he said, taking off first one puffy glove, and then the other.

I could barely think. I remember seeing myself reflected in the visor of his scuffed egg helmet, my silhouette stretched out of all proportion.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused you.” He said.

I asked him how on earth he had come to be there, and he replied,

“I’m waiting for a signal. They’re usually quite efficient about recovery on these miscalculated drops but I’ll be honest, it could take days.” He sounded like an electrician giving an estimate.

“It’s alright,” I said, shaking.

He had a long nose which the rain trickled down; his lips forming a vulnerable bow. He was like a man waiting for a train; easy to trust because he made no sudden movements. Suddenly I found I was offering him a sandwich.

He stayed for nine days, and he refused to be entreated indoors, casually remarking that his suit handled all ‘biological imperatives’. I brought him sandwiches and cups of Ovaltine, which he seemed to enjoy particularly. We began to talk a lot. He would not be drawn on any details of his life and so instead we covered the minutiae of mine, and of grander things, like whether God existed, or the relative nature of the concept of time. He was happy with physics, and metaphysics, but when I tried to turn the conversation back his way, he would only sigh, and say, “I wish I could tell you, I truly do.”

At night, I found it increasingly hard to sleep. My bed was next to the wall which was the boundary between the house and the yard. I swore that as I lay with my head near to the wall, I could feel him breathing through the brick, feel his breath falling softly on my cheek. A steady rhythm, a heartbeat.

It amazes me how quickly I told him everything of importance.

The question, “Do you live alone?” solicited effortless from me, utter honesty.

“I have a partner. We’ve been together a long time. He wants to move in, I keep him at arm’s length. I just can’t see myself, in him. I can’t see him within me.”

He nodded, as if the data were interesting, but not useful. He was not collecting anything. I trusted him.

When my partner came around, the astronaut stayed in my backyard, hidden under a stretch of black tarpaulin some builders had left behind long ago.

I apologised for the arrangement but he simply replied:

“I’ll be fine here. It won’t affect my monitoring of the transmissions.”

I threw the tarpaulin over him and just before they were lost under the sheet, my eyes met his. It was something like an electric shock.

My partner didn’t notice a thing, except he had a habit of throwing his boots at the back door when he pulled them off – something I had previously tolerated. I squirmed.

“Not the backdoor,” I thought.

“and what?”  he said.

That night, he and I became intimate, but when it reached the bedroom I faltered. I was too close to the wall. He realised what time it was and fell asleep. I stayed half undressed and pressed my damp eyes to the wallpaper.

The next day I found the astronaut, monitoring.

“Hello,” he said as if nothing had happened.

“Will you talk to me a while?” I asked him.

When I finally went back to my laptop, my hands shook. When bedtime came, I found myself bringing him the Ovaltine, and as he took it from me he said,

“Are you really happy here, with things the way that they are?”

I bit my lip, and it bled a little. His eyes wandered to the place.

After that he came inside.

His skin felt like static; it was so soft and clean. Our movements were soundless, in sync. I grasped hold of him so tightly, to make sure he was real. He tasted like malted milk, and I felt the rhythm of his breath on my cheek as surely as I had felt it through the wall.

As the sun came up I said,

” I don’t know what to call you.”

“November is fine.” He replied.

Later, we drank Ovaltine, and I went out to clear my head. My skin tingled with static.

My partner rang, and after I hung up the phone, I wondered at how such a mundane conversation was now so impossibly laden with horror. All the way home it haunted me.

At home, the man, November, was back in his corner, reading one of my books.

“Marquez,” he said, his mouth turned down in a kind of appreciative expression. He pointed to the reviews on the back cover, “one of the greats.” he said.

“I love that book.” I replied.

“Do you mind me – ”

“Keep it,” I said. “Keep it forever.”

I strode back into the house. I suddenly wished away my words, and that I had said he might only borrow the book. As I was making the Ovaltine I felt a surge climb up my back, I felt my skin itch, like a subtle charge.

I rushed out to the yard with an ache of regret,

but it was empty,

and he was gone.

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28# Vestiges

Image by Pansa. Freedigitalphotos.net

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They dissected his heart with fine tools, certainty and unwavering hands. Dr Plowers had performed the operation a total of one hundred and forty-six times before and his assistants were equally well trained and experienced men and women. The viewers watched on from the gallery and took notes, nodding, sharing the odd flat whisper, admiring technique and the technology. Dr Rawl looked down at the heart of the dead man being so carefully manipulated by his colleague and felt nothing out of the ordinary. There was no body for context, only the heart, penetrated by blades.

“Here we go, here’s where the magic happens,” Plowers said in a monotone. His catchphrase drew no smiles, it was routine. There were more nods from the viewers. Dr Plowers held open the now exposed chambers, making sure to get the best angle for the cameras above the operating table. There, sure enough, were the memories. They moved within the heart like living figures in a doll’s house.

“The vestiges,” Plowers said, indicating with a scalpel a particularly active figurine in one upper section which waved its tiny arms, demanding to be noticed.

“Patient history,” he demanded, and one of the shorter attendants shuffled forward and began speaking in clipped tones.

“Male, Caucasian, fifty years of age, death by drowning. Survived by a brother and sister. No offspring. Two nephews, one niece. One cat. Member of a local neighbourhood watch scheme. Played poker with colleagues once a fortnight. Considerable savings. Maintained a dating profile-“

“How active was this profile?” Plowers asked. He was staring down at the heart, and the little figures which phased in and out of being under the faint lavender light shed by lasers pointed into the chambers.

“Very active. Particular interest in a woman named Valerie Smythe. They had been dating on and off for approximately seven months, signs of significant attachment.”

“Yes I can see that. Describe Ms Smythe please, in terms of physical appearance.”

The attendant began to talk, his voice was pleasing, plain and without any significant inflections or flaws.

“Five foot five inches. Caucasian, freckled. Dark red hair, shoulder length. Grey eyes, wide set, hooded eyelids. Size twelve. You can see all these points from her account picture, plus some additional information listed on her voting profile.”

The attendant tapped the tablet he was holding and an image was projected onto a large screen both behind the operating table and in front where it was displayed on the glass in front of the viewers. Valerie Smythe surveyed them joyfully from out of her profile picture: her prominent teeth, her pink lipstick carelessly applied, the wind in her hair, the park backdrop with blazing greenery in the sunlight, the freckles on her nose.

Plowers nodded, he was staring intently at something inside the heart. “There she is,” he said, and turned to the viewing gallery. He let Dr Rawl shuffle into his place. Rawl took command of the heart with one hand as he adjusted the laser with the other in an almost offhand, effortless manner as Dr Plowers addressed the crowd through a small collar microphone.

“As you can see, here we have evidence of this patient’s love affair with this woman, Valerie Smythe.”

As he said her name, the woman’s image vanished and was replaced by a close up of the heart. There inside was a tiny shape which exactly matched the description of the woman, only in a different outfit, a distinctive vivid blue cocktail dress. She was waving her arms, pacing up and down and shouting, but no sound could be heard. She kept pointing to herself and then pointing outwards. There were many craning necks in the audience, the scratching of pens on paper, fingers jabbing at screens, notes being made and compared.

“As you can see,” Dr Plowers intoned, “using the Victor Phase-Light enables us to create memories from out of the past, holograms of emotions, not just artist reconstructions but images fashioned from genetic imprints left by human experience. Notice the snazzy outfit? She’s most likely dressed just as the patient chose to remember her best.” From over his shoulder, Rawl heard one of the attendants begin to hum, The Way You Look Tonight. A ripple of recognition shuddered through the nurses, mouths smirked behind masks. An old joke. Plower drawled on.

“Now as you can see, this man is dead, but Valerie is very much alive, both in the real world (according to her current voting status) and also in this man’s organs.” Here, Plower leered at Rawl who happened to be in his line of sight, Plower was ready for the big reveal.

“Of course, we use the heart as the example, because it is the organ most often associated with love,” he raised a hand to silence the murmurs, “yes I hear you, we could just as easily have opened up this man’s testicles, it makes no difference, you see any part of the body might retain these vestiges, see here:”

A trolley was wheeled into the centre of the room, on it was a foot. Even though he had seen this trick many times, Dr Rawl now found himself recoiling a little from the severed body part, from its disembodied coldness, its redundant flesh.

He did not watch as Dr Plowers began to dissect the foot under a new set of lights, revealing more vestiges within, and continuing with his spiel about how attached humans had become to the human body’s constituent parts as separate entities with separate imagined personalities when in truth, every part was ultimately composed of the same mixture of particles on a fundamental level. “Its all the same, everywhere you look,” he was saying, pointing to the Valerie, still storming up and down under the lights, still voiceless and irritated.

Dr Rawl was watching her also, but within the heart. In there too he saw the little tabby cat, licking its paws, beside it a ball of twine. He saw strange shapes flicker in and out of the light, people who had almost made an impression, but were not important enough to leave an indelible mark in the man’s heart. Heart Rawl sighed quietly under his mask. Heart, foot, testicle. Dr Plowers was debunking it all now, reducing the symbolism down to nothing, to atoms. Inside the heart Valerie had stopped shouting and was looking intently at Rawl. Is she looking at me? He felt a sudden shiver rush over his skin, he wondered what it would be like to have a little irate Valerie, pacing indefinitely throughout his own organs, forever catatonic. But in a moment the figure was moving again, storming off into another part of the heart. Rawl straightened up, sweating uncomfortably in the restrictive protective clothing which blocked out the radiation from the Victor light but not the heat. He felt unusually tired.

“My, look at the little woman go!” Dr Plowers was saying, cranking up the ringmaster patter for the final delivery. “You’re lucky to be able to see this folks because usually our vestiges aren’t so active. Guess Valerie must be a real cracker, and hey, good news, she’s single now!”

The audience laughed from behind the glass. The presentation was brought to a close and the trolleys were wheeled away. Dr Rawl stood for the ovation and the applause, realising that the demonstration had all passed him by in a blur.

Back in the executive locker suite, Plower addressed Rawl as he was pulling on his clothes after the precautionary decontamination shower.

“So how’s Pamela?” he asked in a light-hearted voice, with a winched up smile he perhaps intended as an indication that he cared about the answer.

“We broke up six months ago,” Rawl answered, tying his laces.

“Joel, I had no idea, and after all those years too-” the smile fell down like a stage curtain, but was not replaced with anything.

“That’s how it goes.”

“You got back out there yet?” it had only taken a minute for the jovial tone to be resumed.

“Yes actually, I’ve been on a few dates.”

“That’s my boy, you go tiger.” Dr Plower left the room. Joel Rawl watched him waddle away, pawing at his thinning grey hair, off to meet his acolytes.

Outside the skies emptied a waterfall onto the streets as Rawl ran to the car park. He hefted a duffle bag onto the back seat of his brand new car and slipped into the driver’s seat. The car smelled like plastic. The wheel felt smooth, the dashboard shone. He wanted to admire it for a moment, to admire the way he had picked up his life, how he had transitioned from aching, wrenching futility into a blank emotional canvas everyday with seemingly little effort. Inside he started the ignition. He thought about Valerie Smyth, and the realisation that it didn’t matter how well he recovered from heartbreak, because one day, some glib Dr Plower was going to pull open his chest, take out his heart, or his foot or his testicles and reveal inside them, all the people he had ever loved and could never be free off, even though they were gone.