13940 words, novelette
The submarines were gone, had been gone for years. Officially they had been destroyed, torpedoed in the North Atlantic during the first six months of the clampdown, though Caitlin allowed herself to believe that someday they would come home, streaming nose to tail up the firth like salmon nearing their spawning grounds. If the subs were still out there, she told herself, then Morrie was, too.
Caitlin remembered how as children they had stood together on the narrow cast iron balcony of their grandparents’ house in Helensburgh scanning the gunmetal waters of the loch below, fighting over Grandma’s binoculars, playing at spies. They weren’t supposed to go out on the balcony because Gander said it was dangerous. Part of the side railing had come away, leaving a dizzying blank space like a hole cut into a cereal packet, a window into thin air. The Void, Morrie called it, with a capital ‘V’ like in the monster movies. Morrie had loved monster movies. Still loved, Caitlin reminded herself. Still loved. Just because she didn’t know where her brother was didn’t mean he was dead, though it was three years and more since she’d heard from him, and even that final communication had not been from Morrie, not directly, just an automated confirmation from his division office, that the Neptune was still intact, still plowing the ocean’s waters like a Minke whale.
We are the orcas, Morrie had said to her in his last proper email. Silent and fleet and loyal, the orcas of now.
Before the Internet shut down completely, that was, and they’d had to resort to that quaint anachronism: letters home. It’ll be fun, Morrie had written. Morrie loved fiddling around with stamps and envelopes, always had. Remember that little stationery shop Grandma used to take us to, opposite the pier? They sold maps, too.
Caitlin remembered, and it might have been fun, were it not for the web of bribery and corruption that characterized what remained of the postal system. Money for paper, for franking, for paying the fellow who was due for shore leave to get your letters to the depot. Like everything else since the clampdown it was a racket. She had received three letters from Morrie in total. Two of them had pages missing. Whether this was down to blackouts or simply carelessness she had no way of knowing.
She liked to imagine Morrie snug in his bunk, still writing to her as she knew he would, not caring how long it might be before the letter was posted.
Morrie had joined the sub corps because he had to, he said. “I need to feel like I’m doing something.” But also because he loved them, those big beasts. To Morrie, who had spent so many summers on the firth, the subs had always seemed like friends.
Caitlin’s job was to search for salvage on the beach at Kilcreggan. This was how she kept them going, her and Steph. The number of shipwrecks had increased tenfold since the clampdown. Breached cargoes littered the pebbles on a regular basis, everything from gas masks to Japanese wristwatches to freezer baggies. Often the objects were damaged or waterlogged but Caitlin had discovered that it was possible to sell almost anything. It was amazing what people would buy, what they found a use for. The twice-weekly market at Rosneath, just over the headland, was beginning to make a quiet name for itself. Ex-servicemen and their families, draft dodgers passing through on their way to the islands. Women and children left behind or just washed up here for a dozen reasons or more but really just one: life as they had known it before had come to an end.
Once, Caitlin had gone down to the beach and found it covered from the road to the strandline with blue plastic turtles, a mad reiteration of old nature documentaries about the annual Leatherback migrations in Costa Rica. Caitlin found it deeply strange that anyone was still making objects there was no real use for, stranger even than the sight of their humped shells, sprouting out of the sand like blue plastic mushrooms.
The kids loved them though. She remembered one little girl in particular, who had started bawling her eyes out when her mother told her no, she couldn’t have a turtle, they had no spare money. From the look in her eyes, that fixed blank stare lodged midway between furious and terrified, Caitlin knew at once that she was speaking the truth. Caitlin bent down to the girl, slipping a turtle into her hand out of sight of the other stallholders.
“You’ll get thrown off the market,” Steph had said when Caitlin told her. Steph was right of course—start giving handouts and you’re going to attract beggars. Unless you can feed them all you’d best feed none, or so Rory Murdoch had insisted when he gave her the pitch. Caitlin had stuck to the rules until now, more or less, but for the little girl, her fingers curled like suckers around the lump of blue plastic.
“Can I really keep him?” she whispered.
“Shhh, you,” her mother hissed. She nodded at Caitlin, her eyes hard as flints, snatched the child by her other hand and marched her away.
There were other people working the beach but Caitlin had learned ways of getting one over: bypassing the usual places, scrambling over rocks and through tide pools until you came to inlets and skerries and lochans most of the others didn’t know about. Many passed through so quickly they never got to grips with the place, not properly. There was little to keep them here, which meant it was very safe or very dangerous, depending.
Today: out towards Baron’s Point, slip-sliding on the greasy pebbles—some kind of fatty deposit, oil mixed with seaweed it looked like but who knew? These days it could be anything. She did her best to keep her hands clear. She kept a lookout for sea glass, always. Sea glass was her thing, the indulgence she cherished. And they sold, didn’t they, the things she made, the glass-gobbets twisted in wire and strung on cord, leather, a rusty bath chain, whatever she could find or came soonest to hand.
Green glass from old wine bottles was most common but there was also brown, clear, orange even. Occasionally a glowing sapphire of Bristol blue.
Shards of another life, shattered dreams, twinkling among the shingle like holes in time.
She first remembered collecting sea glass with Grandma, on the shorefront at Helensburgh. Had Morrie been with them that time? Caitlin wasn’t sure.
How long did it take for the shards of a broken bottle to be transformed into sea glass? Caitlin liked to think: when this was a bottle, there was still the Internet. Or: when this was a jam jar—Robinson’s marmalade, Cooper’s jam—we still had five years to go before the clampdown.
Sea glass, in its way, was innocence preserved.
Steph said that was pure nonsense, pure as the glass if you like but still nonsense. They’d known for years.
“Not me.” Caitlin shook her head.
“You had bad dreams, didn’t you? You told me. That was them.”
No sea glass today but she was lucky anyway: five bottles of shampoo, one with the label still on—Johnson’s, with its teardrop logo. Her heart leaped, because these were valuable, the equivalent of a week’s food. One of the bottles was split—sticky with lather—which meant she could justify keeping it back for herself and Steph. Enough shampoo for two months, more if they were careful. She touched her chopped-short, saltwater hair, her wind-chapped cheeks. Wrapped the split bottle in an old carrier bag and stowed all five in her rucksack. Normally she would have stayed out another hour, perhaps two, but the shampoo had made her time-rich. She would go back to the cottage, make tea.
She straightened up, casting her eyes outwards, long-range across the firth, force of habit. The wrecked supertanker jutting like an exploded monument against the skyline but that was all. She made to go, up the shingle bank towards the coast road, where it was usually safe to walk so long as you kept a lookout. Then spotted something glinting on the stones, ten paces away, twenty, halfway between the place where she was standing and the bilious ocean.
She strode forward, sliding on the heaped-up stones, bent down. An unknown object, rectangular and gold-colored. Her first thought was a mobile phone case. Loads of those still around and sometimes people would buy them. God knew why but they did. It wasn’t a mobile phone case though, it was a mouth organ. A harmonica. Skin dented but still shiny and with the maker’s name emblazoned in swirly letters: HOHNER.
It felt cold in her hand—sea-cold, dented ingot. She felt the urge to put the thing to her lips but resisted it. The inside would be filthy, and could be infected. She slipped it inside her backpack with the shampoo bottles.
Tail ends of the old world. Curiosities. Things you might not see for a year and more, then suddenly a dozen of them, quaint throwbacks, all at once.
Some days were like that. Filled with strange omens, Caitlin thought, knowing Steph would say they were no such thing.
There were times when Steph was so deep in the mire that Caitlin feared she was lost to her, the real Steph that was, gone for good, lost in the mist of captivity as if it were a forest she had wandered into and couldn’t get out.
Steph suffered during these absences, penetrating, crucifying pain that left her brow glistening with sweat, the veins standing out in her temples like electric wires. “It’s not like the pain you might get from a wound,” Steph had explained to her, or tried to, anyway. “It’s not like a cut or a bruise or even a broken bone. It’s at the cellular level.”
“Like cancer?” Caitlin had asked, and Steph had nodded and said maybe, yes, in a way it was like cancer, that was a good analogy, or good enough. Caitlin thought of Gander, the way his cancer had started with a nut-brown cyst then rippled out of control until the Gander they’d known was gone, left behind on a distant shore, a shore that had become inundated anyway, so who gave a shit?
Steph slept a lot, sometimes for days at a time, her eyes gummed shut like a kitten’s eyes. Those times were good in a way, because Caitlin could pretend that Steph was getting some rest. When Steph was unconscious it was easier to forget how terrifying she could be, the gibberish, the wailing, the time she had crouched in a corner for eight hours whispering to herself. Caitlin remembered how towards the end of that day she had begun to fantasize about using the service revolver Steph still had, pressing the gun to the back of Steph’s head and just pulling the trigger. The atmosphere had felt polluted, seething with infection.
What if Steph was a crack in the world? That was what they said about the flukes, wasn’t it? That they were a liability and a weakness. A danger to every man, woman, and child on this planet, one politician had ranted soon after the clampdown.
In the cities to the south, flukes were mostly shot on sight, or rounded up and burned.
Steph had been fine for most of a week, almost normal. The mouth organ aroused her interest immediately. She gazed at it with gleaming eyes, like a child at Christmas.
“Let me hold it,” she said. Caitlin hesitated then handed it over.
“Be careful,” she said. “It’s full of sand.” She felt queasy suddenly, as if the instrument might be dangerous. She glanced down at the clogged grille, which looked like teeth, she realized. Stunted, rotten teeth, like a demon might have.
Steph’s fingers closed around the metal, folding down slowly one after the other like the tentacles of a sea anemone.
“You found it on the beach,” she said, then smiled. “Like Professor Parkins.”
Caitlin’s heart missed a beat. “Who’s Professor Parkins?” she said.
There was a story, Steph explained. About a stuffy old history professor who goes walking on a deserted beach. “In Norfolk,” Steph said. “Or Suffolk. Somewhere down south, anyway. He’s there to play golf.”
“Why not? He’s on a weekend break. Anyway, he finds an old tin whistle buried in the sand, and when the professor cleans it up he discovers that there are words engraved on it—who is it that is coming? Really creepy.”
Steph grinned, her eyes bright, reminding Caitlin of how she’d been when they first met, the mischief in her, the contrariness that felt like fun and outcry and protectiveness all at once. Steph was never one simply to accept things. Not even the storms, the clampdown, the pursuit and conquest and colonization of her own organism. She was physically weak today as she usually was during her there times, but not too weak to hold up the mouth organ, to bring its mouth of jagged teeth level with her eyes, to poke at the caked-in dirt with the tip of her finger.
“When Parkins blew into the whistle the world seemed to change in an instant. A great wind blew up,” Steph said, her eyes misting over in a way that Caitlin had come to recognize as the signal that they were here with them in the room, listening in. Caitlin felt their presence only dimly, a minor sensory irritation, like dust in the corner of her eye, the faint echo of distant laughter from another room.
Unearthly, Caitlin thought. A word that used to have poetic connotations, angels and saints and that touch of the numinous. Now its meaning was simple and stark: un-Earthly meant not of Earth. Unearthly meant them.
“Forget them,” Steph whispered. “Professor Parkins was pursued along the beach by a ghostly wraith, some sort of revenant. His golfing partner saved him. Told him to get rid of the whistle but Parkins didn’t want to. Thought it might be historically significant, I suppose. He would, wouldn’t he? Men like him always do.” Steph coughed. The room filled up with the smell of burning hair.
Caitlin had asked her on several occasions—her breath short, her heart racing—if this was truly the end, if the human race was doomed. “I mean all of us, forever. Everything we’ve made.” Steph had refused to answer.
Caitlin plucked the mouth organ from Steph’s fingers, which seemed too frail to hold it, suddenly. The metal felt cold and heavier than it should be. The sand, Caitlin supposed. All that sand inside its workings. She laid the instrument on the bedside shelf then lay down beside Steph. Steph trembled and seemed to retract, like the horns of a snail.
“Ignore them,” she breathed. Her voice was dry and cracked, almost inaudible. “I’m here still.” She gripped Caitlin’s hand, or tried to, the pressure faint upon her skin as a passing breeze. Steph-but-not-Steph. Caitlin did her best not to recoil, knowing that Steph would feel it anyway because not-Steph sensed everything. Her mind felt briefly clouded, a sensation that had initially terrified her but that she’d grown used to as she might grow used to a blocked up nose when she had the flu.
She had once thought the sensation meant she was infected, that they were in. Now she knew it was just Steph, trying to communicate with her from an altered state, the state of not-Steph. A low-grade form of telepathy. No Signal.
An invasion, Morrie called it, he and his friends, one of the activist groups that began to spring up everywhere in the wake of the clampdown, bound together by their disquiet and later their anger over what was not being said on government websites, over what they saw as a betrayal by the band of offbeats and diehards and refuseniks that still referred to itself as the BBC.
The official line was computer hackers. Industrial saboteurs, extremist insurgents, military spies or professional anarchists or whoever best chimed with the narrative at any given moment. These were the people responsible for the plane crashes, the financial meltdowns, the firestorm that consumed a third of the Moscow metro, the uncancellable launching of nuclear missiles from both sides of the international dateline, the fusillade of retaliatory strikes that everyone said had been called off but turned out not to be.
The uncoupling of the world from its digital shadow.
Invasion, the counterculture insisted. An alien parasite, curled in the guts of the world like a monstrous tapeworm. Ouroboros, eater of worlds. Find the worm and tug it out, that’s the solution.
“They’re all wrong,” Steph had sighed, wearily. “It’s not an invasion, it’s an overwriting. Their template placed over ours, joining up the dots, filling the spaces.” A wiping from the record. “A kind of bleed-through.”
“A bleed-through from where, though?” Caitlin had asked. She could feel her organs flexing inside her, dark globes of rancid meat. Steph shrugged. She claimed she could see them sometimes, when the pain was most intense, that she could see their cities, spirals and curlicues and vortexes of festering matter, the roads’ surfaces bruised and collapsing with something like apple-rot, running with ants. She showed Caitlin an image in an old copy of Art Review magazine, The Entire City, by Max Ernst, a painting that was supposed to represent Europe after the war. To Caitlin it resembled a stack of rusting cheese graters, the torn, ridged openings like burned-out windows or bullet wounds.
“It’s not really like that, though,” Steph said. “It’s redder than that. More like meat than metal. Can we not?” she added, when Caitlin tried to ask more questions. “It hurts to look at it.”
If it hadn’t been for Grandma and Gander, Caitlin might have abandoned the idea of going to university altogether. It was Grandma who suggested that she come to live with them. Helensburgh was less than an hour from the center of Glasgow and the money she saved on accommodation would cover the tuition fees.
Caitlin’s closest friend Deb was horrified, called Glasgow a frozen hell-hole, although when Caitlin asked if she’d ever been there Deb admitted she hadn’t. Deb’s mother was a crown court judge, so Deb could afford to be picky. Tuition fees in England were three times what they were in Scotland. The idea of Glasgow secretly thrilled her, though relations with her grandparents had never been the same since her parents’ divorce. Grandma and Gander were part of the old times, a reminder of what had been lost, of her mother’s foolishness which—as Caitlin never tired of reminding herself throughout the autumn and winter of her final year at school—was the chief reason Caitlin couldn’t afford to go to university in the first place.
It turned out all right, though. The excitement of arrival, the green-gray hills of Argyll. Gander’s mind was beginning to wander but he was still the same Gander. Grandma still walked the foreshore with her binoculars, noting birds and navy maneuvers, the bands of travelers passing through on their way to the islands.
Itinerants, Grandma called them. They were beginning to be a phenomenon even then: people on the move, restless and watchful and untidy and somehow haunted. Caitlin began to think of them as bellwethers, symbolic of the age, the increasing insecurity everyone was feeling, not just because of the government’s stepped-up austerity plan but because of something deeper down, a sense of fracturing that was psychological as much as economic.
A separation. From what exactly Caitlin found it difficult to name, or perhaps the damage went so deep she did not want to name it. She reasoned that the itinerants—no one called them flukes in those days, the term was unknown—had as much right to be there as she did, as her grandparents did, more even, that they were as much a part of the landscape as any of the drovers’ roads and burial sites she was studying as part of her degree course but they made her uneasy nonetheless. They reminded her of every bad thing that could happen.
“Where do you think they’re going?” she asked Steph, about an hour after they first met. Hogmanay at Morrie’s mess, everyone drunk and disorderly, the drunkest rolling around in the snow with no clothes on, launching snowball attacks on the town revelers, shrieking like commandos in full flight. Then suddenly the walkers, the itinerants, fifty or more, passing along the gravel road that skirted the camp boundary. Some of them carried candles, others old battery torches. A silent procession of light.
There were children too, a good dozen of them, zipped into anoraks and too-big boots, their faces reddened and pinched from cold and older than their years.
Steph shook her head, still staring. “I don’t know,” she said. “They look frightened, don’t they?”
What do they know? What have they found out? The question rose up in Caitlin’s mind unbidden, spelled out in block capitals like in a cartoon thought bubble. She shivered, then suddenly Steph was kissing her, full on the mouth.
“It’s midnight,” she giggled. “As good as.”
Later: “My great-nan was a steelworker, on the Clyde,” and: “I’m a motor mechanic, in the army. There’s no shortage of work.” The physicality of her, as comfortable inside her body as some smart, strong animal. Caitlin later found out that Steph had completed two years of a physics degree at Strathclyde University, dropped out because she was bored and because she’d heard the army was looking for people with a head for machines.
She seemed to view Caitlin—her bookish high-mindedness, her cluelessness about the world, her need for solitude—simultaneously as a miracle and a liability.
Their first lovemaking was ravenous, almost grueling. On January 2nd, Caitlin telephoned the man she was engaged to—Jonny Lomax, an archaeologist, at a conference in Edinburgh—and told him they were finished. Jonny sounded devastated, completely sideswiped. When he begged her for a meeting—“so we can talk about this. Can’t we at least talk?”—Caitlin said there was no point, although she would be happy to have a coffee with him sometime, “as friends.” Her feelings for Steph had made her cruel, as only lovers can be. For a long time, Jonny did not so much as cross her mind, though in the past weeks and months she had found herself thinking about him more and more. How he was, where he had ended up, if he was alive, even.
She regretted nothing, yet it was painful now, sometimes, to remember how kind Jonny had been, how unerringly selfless.
Steph was—what? She was just Steph. Like they’d always been together and nothing else made sense. Like she and Morrie had been when they were children, before their parents’ divorce and before the clampdown.
There was a belief, in the beginning, that they came from the sea. Vast acreages of the ocean were still a mystery after all, the Mariana trench was deeper than Everest was high, which was terrifying when you thought about it. Such a crack in the world might harbor anything, even monsters.
They started sending subs down, the new generation of bathyspheres, Jules Verne stuff. Films were made, TV documentaries that followed the submarine crews as they prepared for their missions.
“We’re going to find some answers,” said one guy. He was one of the first to go down, Caitlin remembered him clearly: young (he looked well under thirty), with curly, carrot-top hair and celadon eyes. He disappeared from the show suddenly, a week or two in. Caitlin kept waiting for an explanation but none came.
“Caught the flukes, probably,” Steph reasoned. Flukes was what people had started calling it when you got contaminated. After the parasitic worm, Caitlin supposed, or maybe simply as an expression of thwarted surprise. Green-eyed sailor-boy’s sanity compromised. What a fluke.
It occurred to her that if the viewing public had felt a little less scared or a little more immune, the documentary team would probably have filmed the kid right up until his organs ruptured. As things stood, they probably shot him. They believed it was a disease, at least to begin with. Something contagious that could be stopped by killing the host.
“It’s not a disease,” Steph said. “It’s just . . . what’s happening.” The slipping of sand from one globe of the hourglass to another. Our time to theirs.
Later, the army began rounding up the flukes, interring them in barracks. For research, the government insisted. To understand. Everyone knew the so-called research facilities were really prison camps, the so-called black sites. Extract information by any means necessary or hell, just let off steam, the flukes weren’t human anyway, not any more, they deserved what they got.
Steph had to leave the army eventually or risk discovery. They came to Kilcreggan almost by accident, staying because they couldn’t see the point in journeying further, at least not yet, not while their luck held. People in the village knew Steph was ill, but not what she had. Multiple sclerosis, Caitlin said if anyone asked. People outside the cities seemed more tolerant of flukes anyway, many bands of itinerants harbored them openly. Caitlin feared these groups as much as she felt grateful to them. They made her feel—more than the roadblocks, the cordoned market towns, the endless curfews—as if she was clinging to a world that was already gone.
The travelers had stopped trying to decide who was a monster and who was normal. They had decided to accept the new world the way it was.
She sold all four bottles of shampoo in less than an hour. For the final one she doubled the price, just to see what would happen, and someone—a tired-looking man in a worn tweed jacket and a dog collar—bought it without even haggling. Caitlin knew then that she’d been stupid, that she could have charged the same money for every bottle. Steph was always telling her she wasn’t ruthless enough.
“Have you traveled far?” she asked the parson, as she mentally dubbed him. There was a danger in talking to customers. Information was currency, as Rory Murdoch was always reminding them, and did not come for free. But the parson looked exhausted, in need of talk. He reminded Caitlin a little of the man her mother had fallen in love with, all that long time ago, Stephen Lamb, a history teacher at the local sixth-form college who had briefly been in police custody for supplying cannabis to students at his home, although apparently this hadn’t been true and the charges were dropped.
In Caitlin’s mind’s eye, the parson almost was Lamb, the likeness so acute it triggered memories she believed she had buried for good: the emptiness of the house after her father left, her mother weeping in the upstairs lavatory, Morrie’s dumb fury. Morrie blamed Mum for everything, which drove a wedge between him and Caitlin, the first of its kind. In the end she had called him an imbecile, a moment that felt both cathartic and apocalyptic, the end of her childhood, the end of everything, or so she thought then.
None of that mattered now. Caitlin recalled their words and actions more or less exactly but the drama—the heat—was gone from them. She replayed them in her mind, scenes from a film everyone had once raved about but that now appeared melodramatic and vaguely embarrassing.
“From my parish in Dumfries,” the parson said. His words startled her. She had fallen so deep into reverie she had lost the thread of their conversation. “We were on a bus as far as Paisley, then we had to walk.”
“My wife and I. Maria. She’s not been well. This will be a treat for her. A small gift.” He indicated the bottle of shampoo, which he had already hidden away in his canvas backpack. Caitlin did not have to ask about the wife. She knew what she would be like: pale-cheeked and nervous, a million miles already from the person she had been. That was stage one, the difficult part. If you came out of stage one alive you might begin to find something. Not hope exactly, but resolve. She saw the parson looking at the other things on her table, the pieces of sea glass on leather thongs, the silver belt buckle she had found caked in mud at the bottom of a wheel rut, an old biscuit tin, its enameled design only slightly corroded by rust.
“Did you make these?” he asked. He pointed at one of the necklaces, a shard of orange glass shaped like a teardrop.
“You’re an artist, then?”
“Only recently.” She bit back her laughter. It was interesting—a novelty—to speak with someone who still thought like that, who was still capable of seeing her as anything other than a survivor, just one more itinerant. Artist, historian, writer—such terms were obsolete. Doctor, now—soldier, mechanic, cook, even. As if killing, eating, and driving were the only functions left that were worth fulfilling.
Caitlin fought the urge to ask where the parson was staying, if his wife needed help. Such questions were ultimately pointless and—like the act of speaking to him in the first place—potentially dangerous. She would never see him again after today.
He nodded and turned away, heading back down Court Hill, towards the shoreline. He walked with a limp, Caitlin noticed, a drag and then a stagger, as if his left leg gave him pain when he put his weight on it. She wondered why he still wore the dog collar, what significance he could still attach to it. All those centuries of cultural references rendered void in less than a decade.
She packed up her stall, glanced towards the bus shelter where the chancers waited, circling like vultures. Her space would be reoccupied in less than a second. Rory Murdoch didn’t mind chancers, so long as they waited their turn and didn’t carry weapons. She left the market and walked down to the harbor. She kept a lookout for the parson but he seemed to have vanished. Caitlin stared out across the loch. Snow still glinted on the hills behind Helensburgh and she remembered the winter of her second year at university, when the temperatures had fallen so low that the railway had been out of action for more than a week. Trapped in Glasgow, she’d spent the nights in the community hostel, the days traipsing the streets of the inner city and the West End until she knew them by heart.
There had been talk of the firth freezing solid, the subs coasting along silently beneath the ice like electric eels. In the end the big freeze hadn’t happened, but the images remained inside her head as if they’d been real.
Her thoughts were full of Morrie suddenly—the subs, she supposed, it was thinking about the subs that had brought him back so clearly, although in her own mind it was more to do with the parson, as if Morrie and the parson were linked somehow, even though she knew the idea was nonsense.
What if the parson was some sort of omen? See him again and you’ll see your brother, rising from the frozen ocean, the returning dead. Like most superstitions, the idea was illogical but compelling. She looked both ways along the beach, still searching for the parson, she supposed, but there was no sign of him.
“What are we facing, then?”
Kirsten Villander, Newsnight, six months before the BBC had shut down overnight, leaving the airwaves and the broadcast media to whoever still had funds for as long as they could keep the hardware up and running. Caitlin missed Newsnight, not the arseholes shooting their mouths off so much as an overview, the sense of a structure behind things, a plan for the days.
Now there were just days—days like stepping stones between one passive chunk of time and the next. Time in its raw state tasted bland, unpalatable. Moving through it felt like being chained to a rock on the foreshore and waiting for the tide to come in.
“I don’t think anyone can answer that question accurately at this time.” The speaker, a guy in a suit, interchangeable with all the other guys in suits they had on Newsnight, someone from the Ministry of Defense, Caitlin remembered now, killed with all the others in that helicopter crash two weeks later. “Most government scientists agree that the occurrences are being caused by foreign intrusions within our infrastructure. The important question is one of intelligence.”
“Do the aliens know what they’re doing, you mean?”
“I would hesitate to use the term aliens, but otherwise, yes. A significant percentage of expert opinion tends towards the belief that the infrastructure crashes are the result of random generation. A sort of supercharged power surge, if you will. If that turns out to be the case, then it is only a matter of time before we are able to isolate the source of the interference and erect barriers against it.”
Had the suit believed what he was saying, or was he just parroting the party line? Anything to stop the riots, the mass lootings, the torching of cities. The so-called remedial actions sometimes caused as much damage as the insurgencies, more even. Perhaps that was part of the plan, if there was one.
“What do they want?” Caitlin asked Steph. She’d been bad that night but not absent. Still Steph, still fighting.
“Just to be,” Steph replied. “Just to be here. To flourish, as a mold flourishes. Mold under the microscope is beautiful, have you seen it? Like lace, like exquisite silverwork, like the etched, Corinthian columns of a maleficent coral reef.”
One of the sure signs that Steph was tipping over into not-Steph was when she began to sound as if she were reciting poetry. Just an odd turn of phrase at first, then landslides of words, a collapsed stack of colored building blocks, the remnants of some incomprehensible word game that children loved and excelled at but adults couldn’t join.
Were the aliens just that, Caitlin wondered, children playing war games? The whole of human endeavor reduced to a battalion of plastic soldiers ranged across a carpet, while precocious yet juvenile intelligences argued over Earth’s fate, entertaining themselves with the destruction of cities, of empires, everything melting to dust at the touch of a button.
Morrie had been obsessed with his model armies. At the end of a battle, he would box up his soldiers carefully in what he called mess tins. They were a big deal to him. Most of them had names. Name, rank, and number, just like in the real army.
Caitlin kept expecting to see the parson at the market. When he did not reappear, she assumed he’d moved on, he and his wife, to Arrochar or Campbeltown, where there was a garrison. He’d be safe enough there, for a while, so long as he could prove he wasn’t a fluke. It was a week and more before she finally saw him again. He was some distance away, along the shoreline, but Caitlin knew him at once from the way he walked.
She went towards him, slip-sliding on the pebbles, almost running. He glanced up as she approached.
“Good day,” he said.
“How’s your wife?” she said, breathlessly.
“My wife?” He frowned.
“Yes. You said she’d not been well.”
“Oh. Yes.” He looked down at his feet, like a schoolboy caught in an act of disobedience, and Caitlin found herself wondering if she even existed, this wife, if the parson had invented her for some reason. Or perhaps she was real, but dead. Or else they just weren’t married, and the word wife struck him with pangs of guilt every time he said it. Yes, that was probably it. The quaintness of the idea made Caitlin want to smile, to reach out and take his hand, even. Guilt was outmoded these days, or hadn’t he noticed? Men of God always were like that though—slow to catch on. “She’s . . . better. Not so sick as she was. Thank you for asking.”
“I brought this for her.” Caitlin reached into her coat pocket and brought out the pendant, the glass teardrop she had seen the parson examining on her stall.
“I can’t pay you for this.” An expression flashed across his face, something close to fear. What have you done? The question sounded in her mind like an accusation. Caitlin took a step backwards, almost afraid, then realized, it was money he was talking about, that was all, he most likely had none, which would be terrifying enough for a man like him.
“That’s . . . all right,” she said. “It’s a gift.” The words hung there lamely—lamely, like the parson’s bad leg, words with no muscle. “I thought it might cheer her up.”
“That’s very kind.” He hesitated, then took the pendant from her hand. The glass flashed, catching the sun, the opalescent gaze of a tawny cat. They were walking in step now, the shingle crunching beneath their feet as if they’d trod the path together a dozen times and more. Like Caitlin and Grandma on the beach at Helensburgh. Like Caitlin and Gander and Morrie when Gander was well.
“Will you stay here, do you think?” Caitlin asked. “You and your wife?”
“For as long as I’m needed,” he said. “And something tells me that I am needed here.” He looked at her hard, as if daring her to divulge something, to confess her guilt. She could feel herself trembling inside her coat. Hoped he wouldn’t notice. He was still wearing the grubby dog collar, she saw, for all the good it did. Did they still make love, this man and his wife, Maria, did they still have sex? There was an image in her mind: a woman, astride the parson, sprawled on the shingle, the soupy taste of his saliva, mingled with hers. Caitlin’s heart thudded. She drew in her breath.
“Here is no different from any other place, surely?” she managed to say.
“You might think not. But sewers must run into the sea.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean that the cities may be rife with evil, but evil will not stop there. Where must evil flee when it is forced from its hiding place?”
Caitlin shook her head. She could not imagine how things stood in the cities now, even in a backwater like Dumfries. You couldn’t trust what you saw on the pirate channels but even so, the footage they showed—the gassing-out of apartment blocks, the mass suicides—had to come from somewhere.
“They spread their disease where the mud lies thickest and then they come here,” said the parson quietly. “They come to hide, to regroup, to increase, but we will root them out.”
“Flukes aren’t evil, they’re ill.” Her lips felt numb as she spoke, and she could not have said what led her to challenge him but there it was: the danger Murdoch warned of, her own recklessness, whatever. God knew she had more reason than most to let this man’s closed-mindedness flow over her and away. Crouch down, lie still, keep quiet. This too will pass. “I thought Christians believed in helping people.” She was trembling again. No one talked of such things, or at least not to strangers.
“My duty is to the human race,” the parson said. “God’s people.” He cast out his hands to either side, as if commanding a wider audience. There was a light in his eyes, and Caitlin realized. her question had not challenged him at all, that it had been in some way invited, that this was what he lived for.
His lean hands and disheveled hair were all part of his message, even the limp. For those like the parson, chaos was no such thing. For those like the parson, chaos was the evolutionary soup they swam in, a culture for the growth of the doctrine they fervently believed.
The man was dangerous, she realized, and again she thought of Lamb, who had seemed a nonentity, a man of no force or charisma, just a lean and hungry look, an awkwardness that bordered on the sublime. She remembered the too-big jacket he wore, his limbs lean and stringy as beef jerky. Yet he had broken them, all the same. Her mother, with her Nuttall Bursary and three top industry awards, preparing food and fixing drinks, while Lamb and his friends lounged about smoking pot, indulging in aimless, shallow debates about the army crackdown and the latest set of travel bans. This is where things are happening, Lamb insisted. The kitchen cabinet, her mother had called them. By the end, they barely registered her presence.
“I’ll be holding a meeting here tomorrow evening,” the parson was saying. “People are frightened, they need guidance. You would concede that much, at least?”
“Guidance shouldn’t mean giving them permission to hate.”
“Would you call it hate if our enemy were a forest fire? A cholera epidemic? It is disease we are talking of here, you must see that. This is not a question of morality, but of salvation. You should come to the meeting,” he said. He thrust his hands deep inside his pockets, a recalcitrant student now, fighting his professor over some finer point of semantics in an essay he privately considered to be a work of genius. “You might find it helpful. We are not what you think.”
He held out his hand to her. She took it automatically, without thinking. His palm was dry and cool, as she had imagined it would be, his grip firm enough to belie his slightness, his modest height. He looked her straight in the eyes, refusing to yield the contact even when she tried to look away. His eyes were gray as the firth, and she thought of Steph, huddled beneath the yellow blanket in the low back room.
The stove would be out, the sheets would be soaking.
“I should go,” Caitlin said. “I hope your wife feels better soon.”
“People of courage must stick together,” the parson said. They were still holding hands, Caitlin realized. “We must find strength in numbers. Please say you will come?”
“I don’t know,” Caitlin said. “Maybe.”
His wife might be there, she reasoned, although why she felt this recurring concern for the parson’s wife she had no idea. Caitlin saw her again in her mind’s eye: the pale lips, the lank hair, the threadbare woolen shawl about her shoulders. The parson should take better care of her, she thought distractedly. He’s so in love with the word of God he doesn’t notice she’s dying.
She came in to find Steph brewing tea. She seemed quite normal still, and stronger than she had been in weeks. She had even washed her hair. Caitlin caught the scent of her shampoo, the Johnson’s she’d found on the beach, the same as in the bottle she’d sold to the parson. She found herself wanting to press her nose into the downy nape of Steph’s neck, to breathe her in while there was still time. It had been months since they had been fully intimate. Steph was mostly too weak and in any case, the way she was now made the thought of sex repugnant, like opening herself to an assault.
“I saw that guy again today,” she said. “The parson.”
Steph went rigid, a spasm that hunched her shoulders and made tense right angles of her elbows and wrists. She turned slowly away from the kitchen counter, moving in jerky increments, like a robot.
“The man of God?” she said, the words slightly blurred, as if two identical recordings of her voice were being played over each other, a millisecond apart. “He is a weapon, Caty. A blade steeped in mud.”
“Blood?” Caitlin said. She hesitated, wondering whether she should try to bring her back, to put an arm about her shoulders, to haul her away from not-Steph like a fish on a line. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t. She felt the familiar nausea in the pit of her stomach, flecks and tendrils of otherness, purring about her head like a swarm of midges.
“Mud,” Steph said, and laughed. “Filth. Maniac.” She snapped back into herself then, her limbs relaxing, head lolling forward as if its weight had increased suddenly. “They’re all the same, these God-botherers. I don’t know what you see in him.”
Her voice had returned to normal. “I don’t see anything in him. I was just saying.” Caitlin could feel herself blushing, the red spattering her neck and cheeks like nettle rash.
“Keep away from him,” Steph said quietly, as if reminding herself of a task she had yet to fulfil. “Anyway,” she added, more brightly. “Don’t you want to see what I’ve been doing?”
“What have you been doing, silkworm?” Caitlin felt her heartbeat gradually returning to its normal rhythm.
“Cleaning up your harmonica. Look.” She grabbed hold of Caitlin’s hand, squeezing it hard enough to make the bones grind. Caitlin winced but said nothing. She looked down at what Steph was showing her, the mouth organ, polished and shining like a golden ingot on the scuffed formica. Caitlin had more or less forgotten about the Hohner. Now in its naked state it seemed to loom large again. The dent was still there, she noted, but the front grille and presumably the inside had been cleaned of debris. The perforations now loomed blackly, like miniature caves.
“Does it play?” Caitlin said. “Have you tried it?” She turned the instrument over in her hand. It felt cold to the touch, slippery, as if the metal had been coated in some sort of oil.
“You must never play it,” Steph said. She looked down at the floor. “Not unless you mean it.”
There was silence then, silence the texture of silt. Something unspooling in the chilly air—them, Caitlin assumed, then realized, no, it was Steph, Steph trying to tell her something in spite of them. Behind their backs, as it were. Passing a note under the desk out of sight of the teacher, the way they used to do at school.
“Mean it?” Caitlin breathed. Even in that moment she realized, there was something final here, a last instant of clarity that could neither be repeated nor returned to. Steph would be leaving her soon. In every sense that mattered, Steph would be no more. Caitlin felt her throat tighten. She inhaled sharply, gasping for air. There was a strange dry scent in her nostrils, acrid as ash.
“Professor Parkins,” Steph said. “He whistled, but he didn’t really mean it. He didn’t believe anything would happen. But it did.”
She raised her head. Caitlin noticed that a corner of her lip had split, a narrow band of blood pulsed in the crack. “It’s really OK,” she added. “Just different.”
Caitlin wrapped both arms around her shoulders, held her close. Steph’s body stiffened, then relaxed. Caitlin realized, she was still holding the mouth organ. She could feel its teeth biting into her palm, leaving their mark. “We’ll find a way out of this,” she said, her lips against Steph’s hair. “Somehow. We will.”
Steph sighed, the sound so wistful, so heavy with exhaustion it made Caitlin want to smash things, to batter the Hohner against the window until the smeary glass gave way and tore into her hands. They spent the evening curled together on the old divan, eating the last of the potato soup Caitlin had made at the start of the week and listening to the radio, a station that was being broadcast from somewhere north of Inverness, a program of readings from Miller’s The Crucible. Was it possible to feel hope, that there were people out there who found the energy to care about such things, who still thought words were important? Probably not, but we can listen, Caitlin told herself. We can do that, at least.
Sometime during the small hours of the following morning, Steph lapsed into a sleep so deep it was impossible to wake her. There was just her breathing, slow and rasping, like a very old woman’s.
It wasn’t the first time. No need to panic. Caitlin settled Steph on her side, tucked the blanket firmly around her shoulders then went down to the beach. The wind had blown strongly during the night. She expected rich pickings.
Scroungers threaded along the strandline already—three, four of them, bent over, dark, comma-shaped specks against a background of gray shingle. She could just make out Donny Carr, in his earflap camo hat, tugging up seaweed. The others were too far away to recognize Caitlin headed east, away from the main beach and towards the ingress. The shore was rockier there and harder to parse but it was her only option for salvaging, at least for today. All the decent stuff on the foreshore would have been snapped up already.
A yellowish slime coated the rocks of the ingress, as had become usual after a storm. In the places where it was thickest—the cracks and gullies and hollows between the stones—you could feel its presence as a low background hum, a disturbance in the atmosphere, as from an electrical appliance that had been left on overnight and begun to overheat. Radioactivity, people guessed, or some kind of poisonous effluent. It wasn’t a toxin, Steph insisted, it was more like footprints, or slug trails, a means of identification after the fact. The slime’s vibrations might drive you mad, Caitlin thought, if you listened to them for too long, the same as any white noise. Not just in your ears but in your blood and in your brain and under your fingernails.
From time to time Caitlin had wakened to find deposits of the yellow slime slathered in the crook of Steph’s elbow, or between her toes. She heaved herself over the rocks, the elongated spit of granite the scroungers called the sundial, jumped down on to the cleaner shingle on the other side. Here were pickings at last, though meager: a carton of Styrofoam cups, a plastic hairbrush, an ancient pair of trainers, their laces knotted together around a chunk of driftwood. Caitlin tipped out the seawater, stashed the items one by one in her backpack. When she heard someone yell her name she started violently, the shock rippling down her back in an icy frisson.
“Caty! Caty!” Another shout, then someone running. A warning, or a menace? Another second’s panic, then the blood’s retreat. Just Tommo, Rory Murdoch’s lad, huge as a lug and strong as casking iron but sweetly impressionable and wildly exuberant as a child. Soft in the head, some sniggered when Murdoch wasn’t around, but for Caitlin, Tommo’s presence was comforting, something of the old times. Tommo wasn’t afraid of what was happening, seemed not to notice. Carried on as if the clampdown and all it threw at them was one big adventure. A world teetering on the edge of oblivion was still a world, eh, Tommo? So long as you woke up in the morning and there were still things to do.
He threw himself down the slope, skidding to a halt in front of her, chucking up stones.
“We did it,” he crowed. “She’s back on the road, Caty. Dougie found some petrol. She’ll be moving in no time.”
“What are you talking about, Tommo?” Where’s the fire? she almost said, then checked herself. Tommo was liable to take her words literally. Any mention of a fire would have him chasing across the foreshore in search of a blaze.
“The dragon—the yellow dog!” Tommo spun round, pointing back in the direction he had come from. For a moment there was nothing, just marram grass and shingle. Then she saw them, up on the coast road—a straggling line of folk, grouped around some piece of machinery and all with their backs to her.
An earthmover, yellow with a long snout, its padlock chains flapping like kelp strands. A leviathan, taken hostage from the abandoned housing development on the shore road. As Caitlin watched the thing juddered rustily to life, its digger head extended, grizzled dinosaur on the loose.
“What are they doing?” Caitlin breathed. She watched the men, four or five to either side, hauling on ropes, drawing the rest of the crowd along with them as if by magnetism. There was something ritualistic in their togetherness that she found disturbing. A diorama of madness, myth in the making. “What’s it for, Tommo?”
“We’re helping the reverend,” Tommo babbled. “The reverend says we’ll have a party on the beach tonight. Everyone’s invited, he says. Will you come?”
He’d done it, then, he’d got them hooked on him. Still didn’t explain what the digger was for. For grubbing out a barbecue pit, maybe? For raising himself high in the sky as he delivered his sermon? An image came to her of the parson, spreading his arms to either side and crying out that they were damned—damned, all of them, if they didn’t pick up their beds and follow him. Caitlin stared at Tommo’s excited face and felt like shaking him. There was something wrong here and nobody saw it, no one wanted to know. A stranger comes to town, she thought. The advent of a stranger means change, or trouble. It’s in the script.
“I don’t know,” she said to Tommo. “I’ll have to see how I feel.”
“Ach, please say you’ll be there.” He caught at her sleeve. “There’ll be singing, and dancing. Deirdre Conway says she’ll play the fiddle for us, she told me so herself.”
His expression seemed to grind to a halt, caught midway between exalted and bovine. Deirdre Conway had been on TV once, she had been a child prodigy. Now she ran the bakery with her husband, Fraser. Deirdre’s right cheek had been burned, puckered and shriveled like the skin of an overripe apple. An accident with an oven door, Deirdre said, though there were those who doubted it, especially since Fraser Conway had done time in prison. Killed a man with a garden fork, according to Rory Murdoch, though Caitlin had no idea if there was any truth in the rumor.
Deirdre played the fiddle as if she meant to die later.
“If the weather stays fair, then,” Caitlin said. “See you, Tommo.” She turned away, headed back down the beach, glad to leave the spectacle of the earthmover behind although she couldn’t say why.
The sunset was garish, blood-orange, like a seaside postcard. Steph had not wakened all day. The skin of her eyelids had turned papery, like a Chinese lantern. When she rested her hand against Steph’s shoulder Caitlin could feel her trembling. Not shivering so much as vibrating, like an electrical appliance that had been left plugged into the mains. Caitlin knew she should stay with her but she couldn’t bear the smell in the room, the stench of flyblown meat, or fat, an overheated converter, though the flesh of Steph’s arms and face was clammy-cold.
Caitlin strode across the headland towards Rosneath. The grass seemed to crunch beneath her feet, like slivers of glass, Caitlin thought, though when she bent to examine it she saw there was no glass, just a grayish powder. Her boots were thick with it, as if she’d been walking for hours on a dusty road. Blind spots, people called them. To give a name to them, Caitlin supposed, although what caused the vegetation to denature in this way, or what the gray powder actually was, no one seemed to know. As she descended the hill the grass returned to being grass again. Already she could hear them singing, ‘Amazing Grace,’ and then the sound of the fiddle, Deirdre Conway’s playing, so high and so fine. Caitlin remembered the Christmas ceilidh at Helensburgh, her first sip of whisky, the shy lad she’d danced with, Liam Gould in his tartan braces, her first fumbling kiss. Never guessing for even a second that the world was over.
That Deirdre Conway could still play her fiddle, that she would still consent to it, was the closest thing to a miracle that Caitlin could think of. She quickened her step, along the cove road and on to the loose, broken tarmac of the harbor car park. Now she could see them as well as hear them. Some were faces she recognized—people from the village and from the shanty town, people who’d called by her stall, maybe. Most were strangers to her, just passing through. Caitlin could see from their faces that they were starving. Not for food so much, though that was often short, but for hope, and if there was no hope to be had they would make do with purpose. Someone to tell them who was to blame and what they could do about it.
They had erected a stage of sorts: planks of wood, laid across a stack of benches and weighted down with sandbags. The parson seemed a small figure, huddled in a colored parka, hardly a messiah. Then he raised his arms as he had on the beach, spreading them wide as if to encompass everyone—the whole crowd, the whole world.
Now he’ll call us children, Caitlin thought, though even then, before it happened, something in her refused the idea, knew the parson to be cleverer than that—cleverer and more dangerous. He would use words they’d never heard before, he would have to. How else would they hear him?
I never believed in God as a father, the parson said. The crowd fell silent. Blasphemy is always more interesting than holy writ. Not as the kind of father who could fix everything, anyway. A good part of growing up is coming to understand your parents are not gods, that they stumble and experience fear, just as we do. Fathers need help too, though they sometimes find it difficult to ask for it.
My da never needed help beating me to a pulp, muttered someone close to her, the ubiquitous stench of unwashed flesh and onions. The man’s hip was mashed up against hers, pressed close by the crowd. Caitlin pretended not to notice. She craned her neck to see the parson, like everyone else, though a part of her was already wishing she hadn’t come.
“God helps those who help themselves,” the parson was saying. “You will have heard people saying that there is no help, that the planet we have called our home for millennia is no longer ours. You will all have whispered the word they dare not speak.” He took a breath, let his arms fall to his sides. “That word is invasion.” He gazed about himself, a performer seeking applause, and here and there already, like patches of stubble fire, it was beginning to break out. Monsters! someone yelled, but the parson ignored them. “Invasion,” he repeated calmly. “The malign infiltration, not just of our towns and cities but of our planet itself. Earth’s trees and rocks and rivers, contaminated and poisoned by enemy agents. I say agents because that’s what they are.” Another pause. For effect, Caitlin supposed. He knew his words by heart. The people listened, rapt. Their silence was not really silence, but expectation, so thick you could feel it caressing you, cut it like cheese. “Agents of evil who seek to expel us from our rightful place. There will be those among you who remember the war. You remember what spies are, what damage they do. The agents among us now are no different. They do their worst by doing what they do best—secreting their way into our lives, into our hearts and into our trust. They dissemble and lie as Satan dissembles and lies. Yet they are not who they claim to be, and if we are to have any hope of ridding our world of the disease that has infected it, we must begin by forcing ourselves to see that disease for the evil it is. Even when it comes to us wearing the clothes of our precious loved ones.”
He was looking straight at her. Even though Caitlin told herself it could not be so, that she was just another face in the crowd, she felt herself quail beneath his gaze, the gray eyes that seemed to bore right into her, undoing the flaps of her soul like the worn-away fastenings around a stash of contraband. The crowd was stirring, whispering excitedly to itself. His words did that, Caitlin thought, then she saw the machine, the earthmover, its sponged flanks yellow as cats’ eyes, creeping along the harbor wall, its digger arm raised like the monstrous, articulated trunk of an iron elephant. The crowd parted to let it through with a collective sigh.
“Michael, please!” The cry cut through the air, a woman’s voice, stern yet terrified, and it was only then that Caitlin saw the truth of things: the figure bound and bundled in the digger’s steel grubber like a ragged cocoon.
“Maria,” someone cried, another woman, shoving her way through the crowd towards the machine. Two men in farmers’ overalls stepped forward, grabbed her by the arms. The woman struggled in their grip. She looked more furious than frightened. Caitlin wondered at her courage. The sight of the bundle in the maw of the digger made her feel faint.
“Geraldine,” the parson said, his tone suddenly placatory, cajoling. “None grieves for Maria more than I, but we have to accept the fact that Maria is gone. The thing that lives on in her body is no more your friend than it is my wife. We are doing her a kindness, Geraldine. This is the only way.”
The woman in the digger had been trussed with strips of canvas and nylon rope, her arms bound tight against her sides, yet still she had managed to work herself upright in the iron scoop, her chin propped against the rim, eyes wild and staring. Caitlin wondered why she had not been gagged and blindfolded also, if only to block out the sight of what was to come. Then it came to her that this was what he wanted, the parson, that they were intended to hear her pleading, see her terrified eyes, that this was what they had come for.
The woman’s hair looked lank and greasy, just as she had imagined, her cheeks thin and pale.
Let her go, Caitlin mouthed, but no words came out. She felt a rage mounting in her, the urge to rush forward, to beat the parson’s shins with her fists where he stood on the stage.
She stayed still where she was. “We have to weed them out,” the parson chanted, his fists tight as dumbbells. “One by one, we must force them from us. The flukes are the cancer that is eating our world. Show mercy to one and you doom us all.”
He raised his arm in a signal to whoever was driving the digger, called out that they were ready, that it was time.
“Michael, you’re exhausted,” the woman still pleaded. “Think what you are doing. This isn’t the way. This is all wrong.” She was struggling now, her body thumping audibly against the metal. Her face was barely a face, Caitlin saw. The woman’s fear had made her features seem generic, the four or five perfunctory pen-strokes that stood for human. The rags that bound her were stained dark with fluid, urine or something else, it was impossible to tell.
The yellow gorgon lumbered forward, turning itself at right angles to the harbor wall as it prepared to dump its load over the side. The grab bucket rocked on its bearings, shrieking with rust. There was a thump and a splash as its voided cargo hit the water and then sank out of sight. A gasp swept through the crowd like wind through grain, and then a solitary cheer. More cheers soon followed.
The woman named Geraldine was sobbing in the arms of the farmers, her cheeks streaked with grime. The parson’s face was gray as a tombstone and as impassive. Behind him on his makeshift stage, the waters of the firth had begun to boil. The sea flickered with radiance: bronze, nasturtium-yellow, sea-glass green. Beneath its surface something convulsed. The firth vomited spume, whirlpooling violently, as if the channel were being emptied through a giant plughole. There was a smell of scorched rubber, acrid and sulfurous. Caitlin’s head swam with nausea. She inhaled, and it was like swallowing fire, that gagging sensation in her throat, that foul taste, as if her gullet was choked with dross, with the silt of the riverbed.
She heard a voice inside her head, clawing the walls of her skull as if desperate to be free.
You, it sang. All of you stood there. Can’t you feel me yet?
Maria-not-Maria, Caitlin knew her at once. Knew the cough that had plagued her for weeks, the scaly patches on the soles of her feet and in the crooks of her elbows that she dare not show her husband, Michael with his night terrors, his fanatical determination that this could not be happening because he had not foreseen it, her aching worry over her small daughter, left behind with her parents in Dumfries.
Maria had wanted to be a painter, Caitlin saw, until she met Michael. But already she was unclear to herself: a fading memory, an old photograph.
And she would come for Michael first, pouring herself inside him in just the way he dreaded, blasting his limited perceptions with an alien eternity. Caitlin slipped away through the crowd. She would have to leave here, she realized, she would have to head north, and if Steph was unfit to travel she would have to leave anyway.
Steph had tried on several occasions to talk to her about it, the inevitability of their parting, but she had refused to discuss it. I’m not going anywhere without you and that’s that.
She reached the shore road, breathless from running. The dusk was taking hold, cupping the land absent-mindedly in its outstretched palm. The few streetlights that still came on along the foreshore glimmered like Chinese lanterns, like citrines. The village seemed deserted. They’d gone to hear the parson, she supposed. Everyone was in Rosneath, drinking home brew and thanking God and singing hymns.
The cottage lay in darkness. She had hoped she might see signs that Steph was up and about again—the outside light on over the doorway, the curtains drawn with a glow behind—but there was just the blank glass, the cold gravel. The front door was closed, silent, and Caitlin felt terror turning her guts to water. It was like in the films, the films she’d watched with Morrie: there were some doors you weren’t meant to open because you already knew full well there were monsters behind them.
It came to her that she could walk away. She could return to Rosneath, to the lights on the beach, the drinking and singing, Deirdre Conway playing her fiddle and everyone dancing. She could go to the parson and tell him . . . Tell him what, exactly? That she was lost, but now was found? That he excited her as much as he repulsed her, that she was so damned lonely?
Tell him that his words and his bravery in confronting the devil had restored her soul. She would have bread then. A place to work and a right to be there. A place to sleep at night.
For a while, anyway. Perhaps.
We’re like ants, Caitlin thought. Ants swarming on a piece of driftwood that is slowly sinking. The ocean vaster and deeper than we could ever imagine.
She climbed the three steps to the threshold, eased open the door. The stench from within was overwhelming, filling the hallway like a solid barrier, the same scorched, sulfurous smell as on the beach.
“Steph,” Caitlin croaked. She coughed, trying to rid her mouth of the taste, like burned cabbage leaves. It was impossible to breathe the air without the thought of contagion.
Steph lay on the bed, wrapped in the blanket, her position unchanged since the morning and utterly still. Her body seemed rigid as paper, a lifeless husk. Horror twisted Caitlin’s insides, together with relief—relief that she would not, after all, be forced to abandon her, that the decision had been taken already and without her connivance. She did not yet feel grief so much as a kind of stunned wonderment. She understood that she was crying but the catch in her throat, the wetness on her cheeks, the soreness of her eyes—these things, the manifestations of her despair seemed exotic to her, a kind of play-acting, a jerky scrap of film from the dawn of cinema.
She reached out and touched Steph’s shoulder. Her body felt lighter than it should, brittle, as if it were made of plastic, like a storefront mannequin. The realization hit her then, that she would never hear Steph’s voice again, never lie beside her at night, never spend hours down on the strand in a state of suppressed worry over what state Steph might be in when she got back.
She was on her own. The relief of it, the horror. She tugged Steph’s shoulder gently, turning her on her back, wanting to see, to make sure she was dead, though that was obvious from the way her body moved, all of a piece, as if her arms had been welded to her torso. Rigor mortis, Caitlin supposed, though Steph’s transformation seemed more final than that, and she thought again how Steph’s body didn’t seem like Steph’s body at all but a thing made of plastic, not just lifeless but something that had never lived, a kind of retroactive proof that Steph had never existed.
Steph’s mouth was wide open. As if she’d died screaming, Caitlin thought, although the idea seemed false as soon as it occurred to her, a cover-up for whatever had really happened. The sight was obscene, nonetheless, the gaping chasm of her mouth suggesting violation of the most monstrous kind, there was nothing Caitlin could do about it, not now, the rigor had seen to that—if she wanted to close Steph’s mouth she would have to break her jaw. She pulled up the blanket instead, though it made no difference. Even with Steph’s face covered, Caitlin could still visualize the black hole at the center of her face, less like a mouth than an incursion, a tunnel between worlds.
As she stepped back from the bed she heard a rustling sound, a kind of faint clinking, like wind chimes heard from the end of a long corridor. She glanced upwards to where the sound was coming from, her eye caught by a flickering movement, a blurring of the air close to the ceiling. Moths, she thought at first, though they were not, she could see that at once, she couldn’t say what they were. Tiny dart-like creatures, each one transparent and barely there, creatures made of glass. They were disappearing through a hole in the plasterwork, pouring into the wall like a waterspout in reverse.
They had come out of Steph, Caitlin felt certain. Rising up from wherever they came from and flowing out through Steph’s entrails and gullet like bees from a hive.
She didn’t wait long. She stuffed the rucksack as full as it would go and then set out. It was fully dark. She planned to go first to Cove, to the old holiday park. Most of the lodges were derelict, not even watertight, but she could rest up for a couple of hours, get her bearings. As soon as it was light she would head north to Arrochar. There was a market there, solar powered heating and lighting. She had even heard that someone—a local schoolteacher?—had set up a newspaper. It was somewhere to walk towards, anyway, a destination, which was better than nothing.
She reached the holiday park at around 3:30, crept into one of the lodges closest to the forest edge. The place had been stripped—just bare boards and formica—but it was more or less clean. There were no sounds, no lights, just the gentle shhh-shhh-shhh of nearby trees. She lay down on the damp divan and fell asleep. When she woke it was just getting light, the baleful gray gaze of a dawn that was still under siege from the night before. Caitlin sipped water from the bottle in her rucksack, took a mouthful of bannock. She chewed slowly, making it last. She felt cold but not freezing, the kind of residual chill she knew would dissipate more or less instantly once she started walking. She lay where she was for fifteen minutes or so, gathering her energy. She did not think of the evening before, cast her mind back instead, tried to remember the last day upon which the intimations of what was to come had not been in the world. She quickly discovered it was impossible, mainly because there had been no one moment, no decisive transition point between then and now. Rather a slow drip-drip accretion of the uncanny, cautious as a glacier, so that when the clampdown finally came it came as no surprise.
She remembered the night she met Steph, that snowball fight, Morrie so drunk he could hardly stand, yet still agile enough and crazy enough to scale the perimeter wall of the Three Stags hotel. Bennett Ryan had dared him, Morrie’s crewmate. Neasden Bennie, everyone called him. He committed suicide soon after the accidental strike on London.
Remembering the past was like drinking poisoned water. No matter how much you boiled and strained it, there would still be traces. It was only when she stepped out of the cabin and into the daylight that Caitlin glanced down at her hand on the rail and saw the flecks of discoloration—like liver spots, like rust beneath the skin—that had also been the first sign that Steph had become infected. Caitlin shivered in the clammy air, and her heart seemed to stand still for a moment, before leaping up in her chest like a fish out of water. A stickleback perhaps, or a neon tetra. Morrie had been into tropical fish for a while when he was at school. He won a rosette or something. A silver cup. Caitlin had forgotten all about that until now.
She pulled on her gloves, shouldered the rucksack. She was surprised to find she didn’t feel any different.
What was this world they had made for themselves? she thought later. She had been walking for hours by then, days perhaps, the coast road unfurling endlessly in front of her like a strip of gray felt. What did it matter if it was coming to an end? There would be others. Birds would sing and beetles would burrow and there would be others. She gazed out across Loch Long towards the moss-green humpbacked landmass of the Cowal peninsula. How long had it been since she’d stopped seeing landscape as anything more than a potentially hostile territory that must be passed through? Years, she realized. Years and years. Yet here they still were, the hills of Argyll. Most of the creatures that lived here were doing just fine. She thought of those summers in Helensburgh, the attic bedroom with its black-painted floorboards, the submarines, processing up the loch towards Faslane. Every moment of now curled like a comma inside each moment of then. That was what life was in end, a comma. A momentary pause between one clause and another.
She wondered if this was the start, this acceptance, the first sign of the fatal changes that would soon begin to sweep through her system, overriding it, compromising her physical capabilities even as they gnawed away at her cognitive functions. A calmness that would in time become something else, something she could not yet fathom. She imagined lying down in the road, crawling in amongst the scrawny bushes and becoming one with them, her life sparkling in the thorns like dewdrops.
She tugged off her right glove, looked down at her hand. The amber blotches were still there, but looked no bigger.
She chewed more bannock, sipped more water. So long as she was frugal, her provisions would last until she arrived in the town, where she hoped to find some sort of work, for as long as that mattered, anyway. As she replaced the water bottle inside the rucksack, her fingers brushed against the mouth organ, which she had thrown in on impulse, or so it had seemed at the time, although when she thought about it now she realized, she had brought it with her because of Steph, who had taken such pains to clean the thing, to buff the dented metal to a luminous shine. She remembered the story Steph had retold, ‘O! Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ by the Victorian scholar and ghost story writer, Montague Rhodes James. Caitlin had first read the tale when she was thirteen years old, from a book of spooky stories she’d found in the back of the glass-fronted bookcase in Gander and Grandma’s dining room in Helensburgh. The book, with its scratched black boards and gold lettering, had attracted her attention at once, though she had been disappointed with the stories themselves, which seemed too obscure and oddly meandering to be properly dreadful. It was some years before she was able to get properly inside them, their hidden corridors and decaying mansions opening to her only by degrees, their language resisting her timid approaches until she developed sufficient appetite to let it enter her soul.
Professor Parkins she remembered especially, golf-playing pedant that he was, an irrepressibly dull man whose eventual comeuppance had been for Caitlin a matter not of terror but of glee.
She’d said nothing to Steph, letting her recount the details as if she’d not heard them before. Because Steph’s retelling made the story new. Because it was wonderful to hear Steph being Steph again, like being given a gift she had not dared to hope for, but had dreamed of anyway.
You must never play the harmonica, Steph had told her, not unless you really mean it. As if the ancient, battle-scarred instrument might summon a demon, just as the tin whistle Professor Parkins found on the beach had also summoned a demon.
Was James’ story about revenge, or pride? Caitlin wondered. Both, probably. Professor Parkins didn’t believe in ancient curses, he considered himself to be above such superstitions. Which was why the appearance of the demon, or ghost, or whatever it was had unseated his reason so completely.
Caitlin pulled the Hohner out of the rucksack, breathed upon the metal, misting it over, then rubbed it clean with her mitten. It reflected the sky, she saw, an oblong slice of cloud, gray as doves’ wings, snug in her hand. She raised the instrument to her lips and blew into it, gently at first and then more vigorously. There was a wheezing sound, the clamor of rusty gates creaking open. Caitlin breathed in and then out, sliding her lips along the nubs of discolored teeth, teasing out sounds, a minor scale, slightly off kilter. The metal box felt warm now, alive with her breath, the sad, roughened notes rising and falling in the blustery air above the loch like motes of bronze light.
She wished she knew enough of music to play the mouth organ properly. She thought of Deirdre Conway and her magic fiddle, the high, sweet tones, cavorting and quickening until it was impossible not to dance. She felt a thrill pass through her, the sense of being answered, of a key turning, though it was not for some time—forty-five minutes at least, an hour, the scattered, fitful lights of Arrochar just piercing the horizon—that the sea itself answered, the loch shuddering like a horse before lightning, its surface misting over then breaking apart, erupting in spume as the sub breached, its conning tower a darker monolith against the blackening sky. Water slipped like oil from her gleaming flanks. Her name was not visible—she was too far from shore, the dusk too deep—but Caitlin knew she could only be the Neptune, returning to the firth as she had always known she would: fleet salmon, vast leviathan, beast of legend.
Morrie, Caitlin whispered. You’ve come home after all. She tried to imagine how it might be later after the sub had docked, how Morrie would come ashore finally, depleted in weight and ragged with tiredness but replete with stories, with reminiscences, with wonders to tell her. They would sit up long past midnight talking—talking until sleep invaded the corridors of their minds and pulled them under.
It would be like the old times.
Caitlin scrambled down the slope towards the loch, her feet catching on the rough turf. As she reached the water’s edge, the outline of the submarine began to shift and blur, flattening itself against the charcoal sky like a cardboard cut-out. None of it had been real then, it was all in her mind. Caitlin experienced a moment of complete devastation, a sense of loss so deep it was as if she had woken from sleep only to find herself trapped in a dream within the dream, to learn that the real world had never existed and she had no part in it.
Then she saw that the vessel had not disappeared after all. It was merely reconfiguring, becoming properly itself as she too would become properly herself, revealing its truth.
We are the orcas of now, her brother had written, and if the thing that rose from the water before her was not an orca, Caitlin found she could imagine a world in which the word orca might yet stand for it, its streamlined form and behemoth tail, its vast triangular maw. The mouth was crammed with teeth, she saw, black as jet and as sweetly gleaming, the tips curved, like paring knives. Who is it that is coming? Caitlin murmured. The waters of the loch poured with steam, belched yellowish smoke, though the night air against her cheeks was refreshingly cool.
The creature roared and shook its head, rucking up waves. Plesiosaur. Caitlin grabbed at the word, held it tightly to her, like a longed-for prize. Megalodon. Jabberwocky. The monster was astounding, and yet not quite real. It had an airbrushed quality, the smoothly-contoured perfection of CGI.
They’re showing us what we expect to see, Caitlin realized. As if resentful at being unmasked, the creature shimmered more brightly for a moment and then winked out.
Now there was just the loch, the rugged terrain leading down to it, the black hills beyond. Caitlin stood on the bank and stared out at the silence, thinking this was where it should end, she should go with Morrie, the water was waiting for her and would take her cleanly. But then, she was almost at Arrochar, she could see the lights. It would be good to rest, she reasoned. Under a tree if she had to, she still had her bivvy bag. It would be good to open her eyes on another day, the white houses that still clustered along the waterside, the gray hills of Argyll.
One step, and then another. The moon and stars above. The vast and silent sea.
Nina Allan's first novel The Race was shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2017, and her second novel The Rift won the British Science Fiction Award and The Kitschies Red Tentacle in 2018. Her 2016 novelette "The Art of Space Travel" was a Hugo Award finalist. Nina's third novel The Dollmaker is scheduled for publication in 2019.