by Jack Barker-Clark
We toiled under all the same manias. We worshipped mountains and trenches and volcanoes. Though we knew our gendarme from our arête, our abseil from our rappel, we were no explorers, and on weekends we dragged ourselves up into the woods behind our houses, pioneers, and took the gentle assent to the hilltop as though we were backpacking in the Carpathians, as though we were traversing the Transylvanian plateau.
We were unsophisticated, naive. In the woods a telephone mast had fallen and we wondered who would replant it, wondered how energy worked, how the phone lines operated, where all the broadband packages went after they’d sharked the pylons. The larch was so vividly arranged and we wondered how many millennia it would take to give way to moorland. We wondered about saplings, the tenacity of each falling seed, about the terrible odds of germination. At night we worried about every living thing.
One summer we came across a fox in the nearby fields, stiff and vivid under the clouds: flies, entrails, the horror of our youth. Its tongue was so red, the red of churning lava; death had twisted its jaws, a hateful, a supreme expression. Shaken, we entered the woods. There was a rumour in our town – of witches gathering. They had scratched signs into the trees, old tyres, indecipherable glyphs that we were frightened to reproduce. Though we knew the land belonged to teenagers, their sleek greyhounds, we ring-fenced our fantasy, our witches, and moved among the trees as if they too were cursed.
Every Tuesday evening we descended on your grandma’s council house just off the canal, our mountain facts and figures, our little-boy-flavoured enthusiasm, jumping up and down in the wood-panelled living room with the imitation flowers splayed colourfully on the sideboard. The television always held the same unwavering crime drama, a frozen decade; your grandma always rolled out the same two phrases. You should have worn a coat. You should not have come.
She didn’t much care for our fervour, our zeal. We used it amply to convert her to our cause, our mystic rocks, our talk of druids, the bones and stones and rare flowers we’d dug out of the woods, but she remained resolutely unstirred. Death was her specialism, everything went there, and so we charmed her with the fox lying mangled in the tall blades, the churning lava, the orange pelt now rotten, downplaying our nausea, tweaking our horror, inflating the virile composure that neither of us possessed.
We chose to leave out our panic, leave it up there at the top of the wood, with the panoramic views, of the corrugated valley, the canal, the wheat fields, the reservoir, the scrapheap that shone brightly. We’d clambered up onto the ridge, propelled by the fox’s contortion, but omitted the very spirit we’d found ourselves in, omitted that we’d fallen in love that summer, that we’d held hands under the power cables as the sun came down. Still, of all this she seemed instinctively to know. As you took out her bins she bent down to me in the living room, her face ridged and tunnelled. There were three terse sentences, brutally delivered. I waited for you, trembling, in the hallway.
I saw you, not long ago, in the bread aisle in our little town and was arrested with my own embarrassment: my overflowing trolley, my formal pleated trousers. It killed me to have you see me at a time when my life was so obviously, so explicitly together. After school you had taken on an apprenticeship in metalwork, ironmongery, at your uncle’s place near the railway. I had gone to sixth form, then university, to study law. Now I crouched down low behind the bulk of my shopping as you glided by. I wanted nothing less than to reveal to you that I was happy, healthy, content, fulfilled – I wanted nothing less than to berate myself for assuming you weren’t.
I wondered how many years you had been manufacturing metal railings, whether you ever thought about the vision we’d put together on the ridge as boys, the plans we’d made, the details you had swiftly extinguished, that embarrassed you soon after to think on: those trips, those heaths, that happiness. There we had been, among the loaves, nothing clever, no retrospective. You still had the face of a painter. But I had been carrying those sentences around for twenty years. Don’t touch my grandson. That fox is a sign. You people always end up face down in clay.
Jack Barker-Clark is a writer from the North of England. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM Magazine, Diagram, Hobart, Litro, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2021 Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize. A portfolio of his stories can be found at jackbarker-clark.co.uk.
Photo: Benjamin Voros/Unsplash