The lessons are held in a room in an old church rented out to a down-on-his-luck dancer, not exactly overworked but uninterested. The room has artwork lining the walls, slashed with rustling sheets of plastic, high sloping ceilings; church ceilings with room to spare. A group of five stands in a room too big for it. There has been a mistake. When the instructor tells them to move, they reveal themselves to be incompetent dancers and incapable of grace. The instructor stops them often. His frustration mounts. The mistakes become more frequent, one woman slips and falls hard. When she gets up they have decided to try something new.
It was like coming out of a drowse, or the haze after a long, hot bath where the water seems like sleep made liquid. When she opened her eyes, everything was composed of abstract shapes. A white something occupied the entirety of her vision and crowded out a black something to the far-left corner. It moved gently from white to grey to black, in a rhythm in time with her own breathing, and back to white again.
She blinked, puzzled. She remembered that they were driving to a conference that Sy had been invited to, a well-known philosophy conference where everyone bragged about their book deals, but this thing was pressing down on her, down the entire length of her body and as she regained consciousness she became concerned, vaguely at first, and then insistently, about the fact that she had no idea where she was or what she was looking at.
Her stomach was beginning to twist, pulling at her skin with goosebumps like needles as she struggled to move. Visions of people locked in basements, frantic moths fluttering silently with their wings on fire ran through her head and she felt her heartbeat increase to a steady note which ended in a dull pain in her left breast.
At an emergency help seminar that she had once attended, after two hours of playing with dummies, the emergency workers had packed everything away and informed the class that if you could wiggle your toes after an accident then you were probably fine. A flight of midges had come from somewhere to coat her face and neck in a rough film. Like communication received from a rusty satellite blinking forlornly from thousands of miles away in space, she felt eight toes struggle against the insides of her shoes. Relief. Who in this day and age had any use for little fingers, especially toe pinkies? And who knew, this might even end up improving her balance.
Moving on. Left hand, no pain but not free. Right hand, contained movement. She had decided to invent her own technical language for this; until she knew what the matter was she was content to treat it all like a game. She moved her right hand gingerly and touched the expanse of white in front of her. It collapsed and then ballooned back again.
She pushed it off her face and saw the most absurd sight she had ever seen.
It surpassed anything that had ever happened to her, and for a moment, she was relieved at the thought of being in possession of such an exceptional conversation starter.
“Have you ever been in a car accident?” Never a dull party again.
Although of doubtful veracity, their neighbour told everyone he met a prize story from when his wife was giving birth. She was screaming on the bed and at a crucial juncture in events he had bent down to detach a piece of gum stuck to the sole of his shoe. He looked up only to glimpse a placenta flying right at him. If his story was true, she felt a deep sympathy and a spiritual connection to him in that moment of first clapping eyes on a tissue whirling through the air and slapping him in the face.
There were knobbly pieces of glass everywhere. From what she could see, which was very little, much of the tree had collapsed onto their car. Slabs of bark were jutting in through the windshield and a fine powder of crushed wood was scattered everywhere inside the car, like a trigger-happy carpenter’s workshop.
“You think it only happens to other people and then you find a tree sticking through the front of your car. I mean, how hard is it to see a tree coming at you?”
It must be the seatbelt which was pinning her to her seat.
“Thank God for seatbelts! Still condemn the structural misogyny, though.”
Things of this kind were what people her age were expected to say and she always said it too glibly, without enough force.
The car felt angled somewhere disconcertingly far from one-eighty. She turned her head. Sy still had one hand on the steering wheel. While she did not know how to drive she had often dreamt of her sun-bleached arm hanging out of the window and her hair wiry and brittle, driving somewhere with red haloed grass slitting the air outside, through fields that were bumpy and scraggly and un-manicured.
“Sy,” She called loudly.
“‘Wakey wakey.’ I said to him, and he was so cross to be woken up.”
She reached out and touched his arm gently, then inched the tips of her fingers to his neck where she was sure she felt a pulse.
Slow songs in the car would be too sad for him. Piano was sad, silence was sad. They had only been married a year and she knew with absolute certainty that his mother would blame her for this.
The screen of her phone had detached and was lying smashed near Sy’s foot. Her left hand was trapped between the side of the seat and the door, where something had come loose during the collision. She tried to shimmy the seat away from the door and put a foot against it when she felt the car move and stopped, clutching her chest where her heart had suddenly let off a great electric beat of indignation.
“Coming home late and your mum says half laughing, half angry, you scared me!”
She realised she was shouting out her cocktail conversation and now began to move more gingerly, her performance of old and prudent. The seat did not budge. She tried reaching under it for the lever to move it. Her hand found it, and she was horribly aware now of the precariousness of the floor beneath her feet. She had never been prepared for something like this, perhaps if her father had been a survivalist, if Sy had been a survivalist, they never would have been in this mess. If she had been a survivalist by association she would likely have already leapt out of the car and chopped the tree down to clear way.
The handle gave way and twisted without more fuss, (“Nobody had to get down on their knees!” laughter, another hit quip) it at least had remained unscathed in the crash. The seat obliged an inch and she pulled her hand out and examined it. It seemed fine, a little creased, and perhaps a tad splotchier than she would have liked. There were ugly bands of red across the knuckles.
She felt entitled to a break now and her sense of her own utter uselessness increased. Sat like a spectator not knowing what to do with her hands, back to the days when she had got it into her head to take dance lessons. A tin-flat, prickly time runny with loneliness.
The lessons were in a room in an old church rented out to a down-on-his-luck dancer, not exactly overworked but uninterested. All movement in the lessons was sombre. Woman on Street Bending to Pet a Dog, Stretching Hand Out to Pick Apples, Fake-Laughing at Party, everyday motions were elevated to choreography. Sometimes, secretly, she arched her shoulders and pushed them up, down, side to side to recreate a tangle from somewhere deep inside her.
Once, she slipped and fell hard. When she got up Mr. Vance was having them try something new.
She turned to the person next to her, a bald man wearing a Def Leppard T-shirt, and linked the base of her wrists to his so that their hands opened across each other like wings. His wrist was broad and firm and she could feel the cords of muscle working steadily. The dance teacher told them to keep moving around this fulcrum and follow their partner’s wrist, to never lose contact.
Although the car was no more than a few feet high, every time she glanced outside she felt the urge to be sick. The clearing was not much bigger than a squash court and smelled like garlic and salt. Everything had flown off-kilter and she was like a rock jutting out through this new sea-world of twisted green, bark in front of her like hacked off rope and leaves spread over the ground below, which, until now, had been an inalienable constant to her feet. Now it was a snare shot of bone snapping on impact.
The door was so heavy that it felt dangerously temperamental, like a missile biding its time. It swung when she pushed it open and fell against one of the upright parts of the tree with a clap. She crept to the edge, bent like an arthritic diver, whimpering and babbling nonsense, it was just air, just gas and then a solid slab of ground. Billions of little particles crammed together with all air pushed out like concrete floating on a vat of lava. The floor of the floor is lava, and that was what she was expected to jump on? Are they mad? Sy’s mouth was open like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“Everyone! The universe!”
“Has anyone ever told me I’m good at this? That’s what they tell you: this kind of thing never really happens. Who’s to blame? Everyone who said, ‘calm down, everything will be all right,’ that’s who. If they had told me this would happen, I would not have spent most of my life making sure my granola was soft enough to eat at breakfast.”
The car was stifling, there was a strange acrid smell rising from the plastic, what if it’s on fire? She was being very loud, which bears get scared by yelling and which ones get attracted to it?
The air rushes past, whistling in and out of her ears and gathering in tears at the corner of her naked eyes and her heart stops beating, she falls through the air between heartbeats like an interrupted breath, going underwater waiting to come
come up again.
She was hugging the ground and repeating the words “wow” and “oh my God” to herself. The undercarriage of the car was torn up badly near the front and accordions of pipes hung down ludicrously. With its network of snaking lines and wires, it most resembled a map of the routes the car traversed.
She loved to get first prizes in competitions when she was younger. The car was only three feet off the ground, she realised as she stood there. She could easily reach in and undo Sy’s seatbelt.
“This is why we take initiative, Jana!”
Sy’s face had fallen over to rest on his chest and a glob of saliva was spilling from the corner of his mouth onto his linen top. He seemed to say, “remember me?” with a petulant aggression that irritated her. The man still had to be rescued.
“Banging on about it.”
What should she do? Sy had long, slim legs which looked good in tight jeans and which were tailor-made to run around with golden retrievers in sunny fields, but they did not lend themselves well to being pulled out of a car by a woman half his size.
The back of the car was on the ground and she clambered onto the backseat and squeezed her shoulders through the gap between the two front seats to examine the situation. He could be napping on the side of a road. The trees were hemming them in, the back of her neck was prickly with dust and the golden green heat which seemed to come from the leaves. Before all this, when she used to sit in the back of the car there was always air rushing through the windows, smelling like clean sheets on a line. New and silver and sleek, like a pen.
There were emergency blankets under the seat, one ragged and one fancy. Sliding back out with the blankets rolled up under her arm, she walked over to Sy’s side and stood on her toes to open the door. The car had twisted while crashing, she saw, and Sy’s side was lodged higher up the side of the tree than her own. She wedged the door open with a stick and came face to face with Sy’s suspiciously hair-free ankles. The skin was as smooth as the skin on his forehead when it rubbed against hers and he whispered her name into her cheek like a bite.
She touched the gravely curved bone above the line of his shoe.
This was terrible, she realised. Instead of learning from the survivalists she had put her faith in the entertainment industry.
She knotted the top of the blanket to the knobbly underside of the car, which had several suitable pipes apparently for exactly this purpose, and slowly stretched the blanket taut to the ground. She nudged a starred rock lying nearby to weigh the blanket down, and then found a heavier rock to put behind the smaller one to keep it in place.
“Slide of life, slice of life.”
It was unreasonable that it had to be functional, too.
She climbed into the car again and wrapped Sy’s head in the other blanket and then attempted to turn him to face the door. He merely slumped over like a grotesque crash test dummy, his legs hanging over the edge. She hooked a hand through the steering wheel and drew him close with her other arm across his neck, put her face against the sloping shoulder, closed her eyes for a moment and then felt discomfited because he had used the hotel shaving cream and did not smell like himself.
She climbed out of the car, ran back to his side and grabbed his legs to pull them down; his arms moved upwards like pantomime wings, and when she tugged again he bobbed with a sigh like a ballerina. Then the breath broke and his head scraped the side of the doorway as he slid sideways onto the blanket. It held for a moment, straining grimly, then collapsed as a dog began barking in the distance, the bark like a heavy, wracking cough that swallowed up the air from under Sy’s body.
Her ribs contracted in shock.
If she thought that this might jolt Sy awake she was wrong. She bent over him. Still breathing. A drop of blood fell on his face and flowed in a steady line into his beard.
It led to his face like a determined pioneer. His eyes were still open, still seeing under the eyelids and she could feel them boring needle-like both inwards and outwards.
She was afraid to touch her face. A dull ache was building up in her sinuses. All she could see was the impossibly dark red wake in the dip of his nose. One’s face was only a fragile network of tunnels. He was such a handsome man. Before him she had not appreciated the importance of that slippery something which is Cool.
With Sy and his friends, she was expected to stuff it into her mouth and gag on it while their palms pushed it towards her relentlessly. She was expected to contort her face and her shoulders and mince herself up and she knew why, because it was dangerous here to be human and whole and her smooth pallor would mark her out as more alien than the twisted fawn she created for them ever could. Like a ragged hunchback she stored all the Cool they exuded in her hump. She felt so old with them, so out of date, even though Sy was the one who was older and she had naively assumed that that would make an even keel.
Perhaps he had only taken up with her for her entertainment value. Let’s trot the old girl out for the folks. We need a bandmember to tap the beat out, three makes a crowd. It’s the kind of music he would listen to, as well, pompous army brass bands. And it was all fine, to criticise them would be to criticise herself, because she, Jana, had chosen. They needed her to help them suck the air out of a room because they were better. Hold the grown-ups up, freelancer, code for unemployed. It was more than enough reason to gently manoeuvre him away from them. She had a throbbing headache now which pressed down over her eyes.
Behind the car, tire tracks over the ground stretched backwards up a knoll. The ground was lacerated with the imprint of the tires, which was so vivid as to be alive. Now and then as she followed the tracks she could even smell burning rubber. On top of the knoll was a thick line of trees beyond which she could see the long backs of power lines. She climbed up to the road and the emptiness was like the muffling of sound after the slap of diving into water.
It was doable, she could drag Sy up here.
The leaves on the side of the little hill behind the road were slippery, and while climbing down she tripped and the sky spun, soapsuds in a churn of trees, before she tasted dirt upon crashing into a mulch of orange. Sy, the first time. Hand like a fern on the wooden frame of the door. Flash beneath the orange. Brushed the leaves aside and there was a thick mat like alien skin, so intensely blue that she thought she was going mad, surely this was unnatural. A carpet of electric blue Larkspur had been growing in silence, and a thick layer of leaves had collected over it so that the whole impromptu structure had now cracked like an egg, spilling blue all over her. “Felt,” “seemed.” How odd that all sense of proportion should vanish here.
If she had left him in the car this could all go away and be blamed on someone else. Now it was her, her fingerprints were all over the scene. Worse, who knew what would happen when he woke up and discovered that for one brief shining moment she had abandoned herself to occupy both their bodies like some God. She bit down on her knuckle punishingly. Delusions of grandeur. Why now? It tolls for thee, stop it.
“Ha ha ha.”
The trees moved with her in a ring, branches like demure hands holding up skirts. The sky was turning as she walked to the car, their poor car prone like a dumb pet after running into a saucepan for some cheap laughs, birds chirping in circles over the concussed man outside.
Come walking through here, Sy, and look back at me as you walk to the road.
It occurred to her that his jeans were too tight.
Well. The blankets weren’t so torn up that they couldn’t be used as a sled. A more pressing issue was how to drag him—by the feet or the arms? It would be easier to hold his feet, they were much more grippable. There was also the promise of slight amusement when she thought of his head bumping along in her wake.
“Is she telling you about the part where she dragged me over all over the forest? I told her when I woke up that she should have bashed my brains out with a rock instead of this wish-wash. Non-verbal assertiveness, don’t make me laugh.”
Why not her instead of him? And he would never speak like that, or would he? No, no, it was so easy, her understanding of him was already being replaced by her complacency with his silent body. Her hands were moist and raw from the dirt and there were pinpricks of blood under her skin. A mutinous feeling was welling up in her; the heat was thick and sticky, as insistent as a dripping, half bitten plum so that she felt paralysed. It was worse than being trapped in the car.
Sy was used to receiving things, not her, and now that she was fine with it, she had to act until he could stroll in and be the golden boy once more. More so, because now he would be the endearingly bandaged golden boy, something she knew he had been hoping for ever since his water skiing accident fifteen years ago which he had milked for sympathy for a mindboggling two years after the event.
“I said to myself, anything would be better than this mute idiot body lying like a portal to a world without him.”
Maybe that would turn out to be true when he woke up.
There were dragonflies here. Their bodies littered the ground and their crunch was the one in the sliding frame of her study window, where bodies of tiny insects had collected and hardened into an ill-packed mass. Her spine always felt tight in her chair with her back to the door and Sy’s hands were lodged there now, pulling at her so that her breath built up and escaped from the back of her head in a shimmer.
Her torso was forced parallel to the ground and as tense as a hand curled in the process of forming a fist. A lick of her hair smudged the corner of her vision.
“Does - my - bottom - look - too - big - in - this?”
Each breath was ripped from the air and grew rough edged as it went in. The muscles in her arms no longer moved in smooth consultation with the rest of her body, they were becoming knotted and bunched with splinters and buds springing at odd intervals, an errant tree branch coiling stubbornly upon itself. A spot between her shoulders, the one you need another person to reach, prickled uncomfortably from the line of sweat that was crawling down her back.
Her body moved forward as if through treacle, and the fluffs of pollen that skimmed the air in front of her—she could see glints of white even high up near the darker tops of the trees—only made everything feel more viscous. It was peaceful, even fitting, and she could spend her whole—
“What are you doing to that man?”
A thin boy with over-large eyes bulging from his head. She had over-exerted herself. She was hallucinating.
“Is that your car? What happened to it?”
“Er, yes. Are you lost?”
“Did you run over that squirrel?”
“I didn’t know there was a squirrel there.”
“You shouldn’t be driving where-where there aren’t any roads. There’s a road right up there. How did you get off?”
The questions were a relief. Coming from this boy they did not seem like preparation for taking offence. He stood there scratching the strap of his satchel, clutching a jam jar with some dirt in it. The trees above him separated weightily in the wind and then came together with a low crash.
“Do you live near here?”
The boy pointed a toe conversationally.
“On a farm. My daddy has two of those big combinavesters and nobody else has two. They all just have one.”
Show off. She did not want to share. It had been her very own solemn mission and now, Sy was something to be ashamed of and the exaggeration of having crashed into a tree was newly painful. There was also the worrisome urge to impress this boy in some way and make him so attached to her that he would cry when she left.
“What’s your name?”
“What? Like the chicken?”
“All right, never mind, tell me, does my face look all right?”
He looked at her and made a show of squinting, closed one eye and then the other and slowly narrowed them until barely open. Then he shrugged.
“I don’t know what you looked like before.”
Pleased with himself. She felt incredulous, what was this, intro to philosophy? It was all a big joke that she was not in on, she thought as she glanced down at Sy, feeling uncomfortably sure that he was not really unconscious but surreptitiously feeding the boy lines. This was the kind of thing he would come up with on the first day of class. Licken. That whenever she turned around to drag him, whenever she did the work like always, he opened his eyes and waggled his eyebrows to laughter from an invisible audience.
“Help me drag him to the road.”
Licken stood uncertainly.
“Who is he?”
“He’s my husband.”
“Okay. What do you want me to do, then?”
She looked around. There wasn’t anything for him to do.
“There isn’t anything for you to do, so you can go home if you want.”
He did not go home. He followed her, becoming more and more excited, asking her why she was doing this, playacting, yelling when Sy hit something or when the blanket snagged and breathing very hard. He threw down his satchel frequently. By the time they reached the road he was beginning to frighten her.
She arranged Sy by the side and crouched down. Licken was whining about the heat and how she had tricked him into coming here.
Down the road, an engine shifted gears and they both turned their heads to stare. A large lorry was coming their way. She stood up and waved her hands. There were people cheering and singing in the back of the lorry, someone playing a flute. The music stirred the branches and the leaves and the grass and each blade twitched as if part of the same slumbering instrument.
Licken was jumping with her, they were both yelling. They were nearly level when everyone in the lorry waved back at her. A man wearing nothing but a cape held his arms out as if to embrace the whole world as they passed them without stopping.
“We are hurt!” She screamed in full throat. “We are hurt, stop!”
She heard someone laugh and toot a novelty horn before the sounds of the lorry faded. A plate of pain stretched from her throat to the front of her forehead when she breathed.
Sy would wake up. He would wake up. She would know then.
She slowly sat back down.
Licken had dragged out a copybook from his bag and was brandishing a pencil that was too large for him. He had crossed his legs to make a bony desk and was scribbling away.
She leaned over and saw that he was practicing the alphabet in careful three-line intervals. Savage, corrosive triumph rose up in her as she took the pencil from him and drew a perfect “g.” After a few minutes, his hand stole over hers as he watched her carve the same few letters into the paper. Her neat printing slowly turned into a jagged, demented scrawl as they sat waiting and the page ran out.