He fell, with a thud, into the abyss of another day. “Always darkest before the dawn” they’d said, but now the sun was high in the sky. He waited, open-mouthed, inert. Through net curtains, their dust and spiders and mummified flies, hours fluttered across the walls like shadows, in an ache of infinite and suspended time. Not waving but drowning, they said; yet he could no longer raise the effort to wave. There had been a time when each new day had been a fight for hope, when each new day – awaited with such fear – might yet have brought the reason to carry on. That was in the time when he still had the energy to feel commitment rather than stupefaction. Now he squatted like a toad on the brink of a dead pond, oblivious to the baking heat of the sun yet saturated with its ulcerous and corrosive rage: consumed with dark inner fires. A little saliva began to gather in his mouth and, like a toad, he gulped.

He lay becalmed, drifting silently as a ship that floats towards a magnetic lode, in a delirium spun by stealth. For loss of reason is an extension of daydreaming, a protraction of light like motes caught in a sunbeam, an subtle accumulation of shrewdness and care and the weight of what has been fastidiously observed. It is a microscope drawn upon oneself, the lax inertia and immensity of self, the infatuation. It is to have the eye of a fly, grown as big as the world, as it pores over the folds and crevasses of one’s own clumped body: running with sweat, a machine with a life of its own and its own strange aura of torpidity and whiteness.

An autumnal drift of letters lay beneath the door. Sporadic replies to a compendium of wasted dreams, of convoluted ambition and intimacies that people had never wanted to hear. He couldn’t bring himself to open them. Despair he could accept; but not the chance of what might even now be achieved – the warm spark of anticipation, instantly to be dashed, that accompanied the slicing of an envelope. He had realised as much long ago, when he’d still known who he was, what day of the week it was; when he had tinkered in his mind’s eye, endlessly, with the toy soldiers out of which the meaning of an individual’s existence is made up. Now he swam in and out of focus before a seamless expanse: retreating into the past, into outcomes that should have been and were not to be, floating over him with balmy reassurance, in a soft tide.

In those days he was free to speculate on how the understanding of children was a realisation of the size of the world, on how your twenties brought the exhilarated discovery of your place and your potential there. Ah, but what then of your thirties? A splinter of ice inside that will not melt, deep in the heart of things, compounded of an awareness of your own mortality and your own mistakes. A bulge of sagging flesh, veins as frail as cobwebs; the intimation of utter disappointment: of one’s limited and stultified imagination, the leaden trace of chances that were lost. There had been an odd, recurring memory dug up from a camping holiday. It was the time he’d walked towards the sun, coming in peace, to find himself a step from the edge of a ravine and its quiet roar of palpitating air. A statistic waiting to happen, a sheet of paperwork to be typed and filed by crabby limbs and soured minds that grated towards an imagined grasp of a crowning moment from within their dreary rut. Perhaps Hieronymous Bosch had his secret life as an insurance clerk.

He had been struck then by the fortuitousness of the natural world before specks of life who could barely control the random collisions of their own destinies, yet who presumed they could grasp and shape in their own image its play of implacable forces. God – a cosmic Mr Punch – was supposed to expiate the chain of cause and effect in which a solitary moth, dipping upon the stillness of secret water, could change the motion of continents across the globe. But London was a place of older memories. There was the smell of truer gods, something dripped from remains in a November dusk, a magical admixture of blood and brimstone. From its sepulchre of lime it nourished a bland forest of iron and crystal.

On a mantelpiece clock, the clockwork figures spun. Little whirring angels and devils, stamped in brass, and saved from oblivion during a rummage in a Bavarian junk shop. He kicked the post out of his way and climbed, as a wood louse climbs, onto the pavement. The walls of skyscrapers, oddly static (what else could they be?) had an opalescent sheen, the streets were pockmarked with staccato shadows of distant commuters: grit spun in miasmal light, the grass raced with liquid light. A silent haze was bloated, engorged, with exploded, wasted light.

There was a squawk from a car he hadn’t noticed. Your usual gawping pedestrians, in for the kill. Couldn’t be bothered to get out of the way? There might be an answer more candid than you’d care to hear.

Nowadays underground trains no longer smelt of electricity. They used to: an acrid smell, salted and musty, bitter as charred pork. Every week or two there would be a suicide on the track. Down Unders, they called them; and etched into a driver’s retina would be the rictus of some would-be passenger, plummeting in frames from a cheap movie into terminal solitude, centre-stage, social niceties exhausted. You never forgot the sight, they said; but it was the Line Manager’s duty to sluice clear the yards of intestine knitted into the rails. It was rarely the electricity that killed them, although the voltage was sufficient to boil blood, make eyeballs burst from sockets, reduce fingertips to smouldering tallow. But death by electrocution can take many minutes. Long before was the shattering impact of the train, the instantaneous crack of bone before a dissolution of lymph and viscera, as if an over-ripe tomato had been whacked with a mallet. We plough the fields and scatter. It taught you your place in the scheme of things.

Today the underground was cool and smelt of mildew. It made him think of the jewel-like greenness of mossy banks, or lichen, bathed in the slender sunshine of his childhood. His mind began to levitate amongst fluorescent tubes. There was a distant waterfall, brown water as frothy as Dad’s beer, and a shadiness carpeted with orchids. The rush of wind that preceded the train was crisp, clean. And he saw, through its drab peepshow of flickering windows and pasty faces….he saw, not so much a shadow as a resonance. It was the imprint of another human body, crouched in gloom, or of a panther waiting to strike: as if what had lain broken on the track had gained fresh and spectral life, leaching into this place of darkly spreading space. From the mouth came….no, not words; but private awareness beyond words. It said, There is a way to escape pain. You think there’s no way out, but there is. After a forfeited life, one moment’s decision.

Why was it that artists and novelists were supposed to have cornered the market when it came to making sense? “If you would see his monument,” said a plaque a hundred feet above the platform, in the temple of a new god, “look around.” Nature, recalls the Poet, held its breath. He felt buoyant with a sense of his own possibilities. And it was as easy as falling off a log.

October 1994 (1300 words) © Stephen Jackson


Stephen Jackson

London, United Kingdom

  • Artist

Artist's Description

I’ve done very little fiction. This was an early piece, written at the invitation of a Polish friend, which I include only insofar as it serves to illuminate themes in my later poetry.

At the time I was still a contented music journalist; but with hindsight you can see what was rumbling in the distance…

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desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait

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