Inside, we are all ribbed and veined, but thin as he was and livid as he had been, you could see bones and wires on the outside of his frame. There was barely an ounce of fat on him; fury had burned it all away, until, if you took up a pair of mallets, you might play him like a xylophone. The superficial temporal vein stood out on his forehead. Once he had been both of the words tattooed on the knuckles of either hand: HATE and LOVE. Had you seen him at the height of his fury, you would have thought that he couldn’t possibly have become the lover that he was – soft fingers applied with both a gentle intensity and an attentiveness to the needs of the body and mind he was touching. Instinctively he understood that the greatest pleasures lay in furnishing his lover’s erotic imagination while never forgetting to feed the emotional furnace of her heart. Of course, his head and body were not the only parts of him which were ribbed and veined, thought it was not so much this soft cylinder rendered hard which brought his lover to her knees as the gifts he had already given her, the scene he had already set. He was all ribs and veins, while she was all ribbed and vaulted tunnels in which a lover could secretly hide, and arterial warmth, in which he could bask.
He was in love with the sound of her singultus. By extension with her, but it was the hiccups which had initially drawn his attention to her every movement and mannerism. Sugar’s diaphragm was susceptible to the slightest provocation. From the first time he had heard her hiccup onwards, he had been charmed by the almost apologetic tone and timbre of her each and every involuntary emission. Sitting at a neighbouring desk, he soon took it upon himself to make sure that throughout the working day, she was watered with sparkling rather than still. A graceful creature, her hiccups were delicate flutters and birdlike chirps, relatively speaking. Sugar guessed that her desk neighbour was soft on her. Secretly pleased to have an admirer who seemed not to mind her hiccupping (in fact quite the opposite), she did nothing to discourage him. Under the cover of his desk, he found himself aroused, and it was always a satisfaction – hiccup – when the next one came. He would steal a sideways glance to see in profile her breast rise and fall and her Adam’s apple bob. Then – it made his heart lurch – she would put her slender fingers to her lips, as if to steady herself against the reflex action’s gentle onslaught.
One day he had the idea to record the sound of her hiccuping on his phone. Surreptitiously, of course. Lying in bed that night with headphones on, he played back his recording, allowing it to loop. He listened to the cycle endlessly: the explosion of her hic, the fall of her cup, the fluting laughter which often followed, her valiant attempts to swallow successive hiccups down. He fell into step with her, and had never felt more intensely alive than when he managed to match his long-delayed ejaculation to hers.
‘Woe is me’ was the phrase which most often passed his lips and it was for that reason that both his family and his friends had taken to calling him Alas instead of Alan. Conversing with himself, his habitually woebegone side always wrestled the straight man he might otherwise have been to the ground, so it was inevitable that he too would begin to see himself as Alas. The name stuck, inside and out. It was only when on his deathbed that he truly saw the funny side. There really had been nothing to moan or worry about, compared to this, the painful end of it all. Alas died laughing.
They cut into the mattress with a Stanley knife and then ripped the tear asunder with their bare hands. Feathers puffed into the air, skeletal springs were exposed and the mattress would never feel the warmth of two bodies lie against its quilted surface again. Under cover of darkness they slipped down the garden to the bank of the river and rowed away, their rucksacks heavy with the wads of money that they had found beneath the feathers, between the springs. The gift of all travel was theirs at last, and with it the gift of all tongues.
I’ve just completed a series of stories called Missing letters. Together they make up an alphabet of lipograms, a lipogram being a piece of writing composed entirely without a particular letter (or group of letters). I’m relieved to have finished, and now that I have, I thought it might be interesting to write about the experience of writing lipograms.
While I was working on the first letter in the series, I came across an article by Jonathan Franzen in which he contended the following:
‘My work represents an active campaign against the values I dislike: sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes, and so on. Indeed, much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.’
Obviously there are some items in that list which most if not all of us would sign up to, but others – well, ouch. I can’t help feeling Franzen is being more than a touch prescriptive about his approach to writing. He himself is guilty of at least a couple of the items with that very statement, let alone the essay as a whole. I loved The corrections, but ‘negative’ is the word here. We all come to writing from different places with differing intentions and motives. It’s not hard to imagine that Franzen has no truck with or time for the Oulipians. That’s authors like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, who provided themselves with constraints which inspired the works they then went on to create. Perec it was who wrote La Disparition entirely without the letter ‘e’; not the first lipogrammatic novel, but probably the most famous, along with Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby. Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, written with a full complement of letters, has a complex set of structural constraints based on a chess knight’s tour around a 10 x 10 grid, the squares of which represent rooms in flats in a Parisian apartment block. What the constraint serves to render is a beautiful book full of very human stories, some simple and sorrowful, others humorously fantastical or extreme. Life A User’s Manual or Calvino’s Invisible cities are just two answers to Franzen’s reductive critique.
Perec thrived on the challenges he set himself. You can impose rules on yourself and deliver something which you might not have achieved in any other way. When Franzen dies and is honoured with a sinecure in literary heaven, perhaps he’ll seek out Perec to debate the issue. And Perec might well wave a Gauloises in his face and say that it’s not a trick for trick’s sake. Likewise, though my stories might have been written another way with a different set of rules or a complete set of twenty-six letters, the resulting fiction still has depth of meaning. Playing a game doesn’t necessarily make the way the work unfolds any less emotionally true.
Would my stories have been better for being written unencumbered? The point is that they might not exist but for the constraint. From the choice of title onwards, the constraint shaped the stories and the stories fought the constraint. There are scores of different ways of saying roughly the same thing, and each of them has its own nuances. You choose the nuance which most closely resembles the truth of the fiction you have in your head. The constraint has also served to make me think that much harder about how to avoid the ease and restraint of clichés.
While Perec was the background inspiration for these 27 pieces of mine (I wrote a second story for U, suggested to do so by how the first unfolded), the immediate inspiration came from being reminded of and reading a more recent novel, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea. Forbiddingly subtitled ‘a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable’, in fact it is as whimsical as it is clever in following the troubles of islanders who successively lose the use of letters of the alphabet, as a result of the irrational authoritarianism of the island’s elders. The islanders themselves battle back as flexibly as Dunn negotiates the ever-increasing constraint, and in so doing reinvents the English language:
‘Such a beguiling sight – your long auburn tresses falling as cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the table top, gathering in swirl upon your note paper – obscuring? framing? your toil.’
I can’t make such claims for myself, of course, but the commoner the letter, the more I found I had to bend the language, and come up with alternative ways of saying what I wanted to say, which often turned out to be better than the sentence I might otherwise have written. Each letter presented a different challenge. For some, conjunctions and definite articles were out; for others, participles and past tenses. Every grammatical construct was at one point or another unavailable to me. But language, like water, can find a way around each obstacle it faces. And there is definitely a creative tension between the story-telling and the being one fork short of a full picnic set.
How Perec managed in the age before computers and word processors, I will never know. When I finished drafting a story, I habitually ran a ‘Find’ search on the letter which was supposed to be missing, only to discover there were often several and sometimes even tens of the little blighters highlighted in fluorescent yellow. S was the only story where none of the letter in question got through the net of my finished draft. I guess it tends to stand out in a sentence.
‘I’m always interested to see, reading these, whether I’m aware of the missing letter — whether I’m noticing the writerly things you’re doing (not unlike tumbling) or whether I’m too caught up in the narrative to be conscious on that level. Often it’s a mixture of both, but I got too caught up in this one to think for a moment about who, what, wildcats, etc.’
The set of 27 is far from perfect. I only slowly realised that the lipograms were becoming predominantly fictional, and so a few are riddles or non-fiction, and maybe one of these days I’ll have another pass at those letters. Probably some of the narratives need a little more room to breathe, and perhaps if they were appearing in book form rather than here, they would get that.
To which letter would I direct you, if you wanted to sample one in particular? That’s hard. Ironically the last letter of the alphabet is possibly the best story, about a woman leaving a relationship as a result of an ant invasion – but that too would not have come into being but for the suggestion of the missing letter. Combining Perec and Calvino in a two-headed Hydra for U – imagining first an alien poaching and eating her eggs in The reader [u] and then a talking horse in The horseshoe [u] – gave me most satisfaction and fun. On one occasion a single lipogram wasn’t enough to contain a character’s story so she returned in another – I [b]’s anthropologist is a lone survivor on another planet, until she meets her end in We [r]. Another memorialised a pub in my home town – The Cupola House [q] – which sadly burnt down last year. There was a lot of life, death and meaning in these stories.
But if you forced me to settle on just one, perhaps I would suggest the playful love story that is CK & U [F]. That’s what it all probably comes down to. That I am playing with letters, with words, for the sheer joy of it. Perhaps it’s what I like to do most of all. Jonathan Franzen too, I suspect.
And now? I’m not sure what the writing future holds in store. But I am certainly looking forward to being able to use the alphabet’s full range, without constantly double-checking myself for a letter which ought to be missing.
Image of Carington Bowles’ The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master, 1782 via Granger Art on Demand.
It begins in June. A week after his birthday, in fact. A sickness falls upon the people of the earth. First accusations fly, then counter-accusations, then finally bombs. The apocalypse doubled. Wires fall silent as residual power fades. Only the odd transmission now, from who knows where and whom.
Reach for the dead
A couple are parted at the time of the apocalypse. In a week its work is complete and life as we know it is beyond hope of rescue. Everyone he knows and loves is dead, but for inexplicable reasons, some have survived, he among them, and he can’t help daring to hope that she may have been immune too. Away visiting in the hills of the north, perhaps she has been protected from the worst of the dual catastrophe.
For a few days, he remains at the far extent of the suburban fringes of his provincial city, keeping a low profile, sniffing out a sense of the scale of the disaster, and how he might navigate his way to her, for it doesn’t take him long to realise that survival depends on leaving for the rural isolation of the north. Enlarged, irradiated spiders climb the walls and drop into his hair, freaking him out almost more than the gruesome sights he encounters on the streets.
In a Jeep, and then on foot, he journeys to her. Dodges wrecks and barricades and attempted car-jackings. Goes off road when the main routes become impassable. Switches to walking when the petrol runs out. Sticks to the back ways, the lanes, a compass hanging around his neck, always aligned to the north. On the way he faces many dangers. Brigands wait at one end of a causeway across a marsh; with the press-gangers who have dogged his every step behind him, he cannot go back the way he came. He has no choice but to brave the cold, swampy soup of the marsh. On the far side, he comes across an orphaned child who has escaped from the brigands. He accepts his obvious duty to look after her. She has with her a dog, who will the very next day save them from a murderous psychopath, with a warning bark and then a savage attack.
He knows that his love will have remained where she was, looking after any of the frail about her to have survived and fearing the worst about him because of his proximity to one of the apocalypse’s many likely epicentres. But the mind is a powerful thing and half-wishing, half-deliberately she transmits to him that she is still alive, that she loves him, that she knows he is coming for her, and that just as she won’t give up on him, she knows he won’t on her, no matter what. He receives the messages in a feverish waking dream, the girl leading him by the hand. He burns hotter with the exultation of knowing that his love is still alive, that she waits for him. Neither knows how long it will take but both believe that one day, maybe sooner, maybe later, they will be reunited. He counts the days.
At one point he and the young girl are travelling down a long holloway during a violent storm. It ceases as suddenly as it started, and at that moment the ash clouds are parted and sun breaks through for the first time since the week of the apocalypse. The canopies of the holloway shield the sunlight except for slivers and chinks. Distraught with wonder, he thinks: how could we have let such beauty go to waste? And yet somehow there are still birds to sing at the sight of the sun, offering the travelling pair hope.
With fierce determination, man and girl learn together the arts of hiding, foraging, and hunting, in that order of necessity. The girl has a better grasp of the fruits of the forest than he, while – having previously been a vegetarian – he learns to skin an animal through trial, error, and a book borrowed on permanent loan from an abandoned library. At night they search the airwaves on a battery-powered radio, but the only patterns in the static are the ones they imagine themselves.
When sickness gets the better of him, it is the girl who finds them an isolated house in which he can recover. The cellar has two exits. There they lie low. She makes him nettle tea and salves his sores with a paste made from the same leaves. With the plasticity of youth, she is adapting to the new state of things, this post-apocalyptic landscape, far better than he.
They resume their journey, but this time it is the girl who gives way, falling prey to radiation sickness. And now in another hideout, he nurses her back to health, using a pharmacy’s formulary and drugs, all the while wondering whether or not human evolution will be able to outpace the anatomical effects of nuclear fall-out. This girl is a survivor, though, and soon they are able to press on, close now to their destination.
Meanwhile, racketeers are keeping his love against her will, but because this is a story, an artifice, somehow her dignity will have been spared her; or, at least, she will not speak of it to him once she has been rescued. Though perhaps it might be that the brigand’s leader genuinely has fallen for her, and has shown himself to be a patient if dangerous man.
Split your infinities
Through binoculars he studies their encampment, an old farmhouse whose dry stone walls have been topped with barbed wire. He stakes it out and watches the comings and goings, the girl waiting patiently at his side, and the faithful hound at hers. When his eyes tire, she takes her turn to watch and note. On the third day he catches sight of his love at the back door, pausing for air with what looks like a kitchen implement in hand. He risks standing, so that she can see him, and anyone else might – a chance he feels he has to take. After a time she turns in his direction, and visibly starts. With his arms crossed in front of his chest, he signals a kiss. But she is called back inside, and needs must go, not daring to look round.
With the girl bedded down in a house as safe as any in these times, he keeps vigil into the depth of that night, awaiting the moment when he will attempt the rescue. Through binoculars, in the fading light of the evening, his heart has jumped to see a window marked with an X in parcel tape. Now he knows where to go, and what he has to do.
Nothing is real
His heart pounding, armed with wire-cutters, rope, a gun, and climbing gloves, he runs across the open fields to the stone wall perimeter. He cuts through the barbed wire, and follows the shadows cast by the outbuildings until he comes to the drainpipe he hopes will bear his weight. Even with the gloves, it’s a struggle to climb, but somehow he manages to make it to the roof that will allow him to access her window, if he can keep his balance across its apex. After a pause to steady his nerves, he runs it, and makes the safety of the wall. Then she is there at the open window and with his mind outside of his body he tells her to secure the rope to one of the feet of her bed. She has a rucksack of things ready on her back. She knew he was coming for her. They only dare to embrace once safely beyond the barbed wire perimeter, and that’s when his mind and reality both come crashing back into him.
It is their first day together as a family of three. The woman and the girl are shy of each other, but he can see the first signs of friendship and what will become love. He is mortally tired after the night and the days spent watching and one in which they tried to put as much distance between themselves and the farmhouse as they could.
They find the perfect house, one built into the side of a hill, all but invisible from the passing road. A nearby clearing in a wood becomes their allotment. Whenever they venture out, danger and distrust go hand in hand, but gradually, through chance encounters, a network is built of people intent on surviving whatever the poisoned world throws at them. All for one, and one for all, they stockpile food, fight off threats to their security and raise their children.
Come to dust
Dust storms are a condition of the new life, but safe in their hillside home, the growing family – now supplemented by twin boys whose survival instinct is as strong as that of their parents – rides them out, and afterwards, sweeps up everything back to a state that they are beginning to dare to think of as normal.
In many ways the new life is an idyll that surpasses the old. But it’s impossible not to look back, and mourn what has gone, what has been lost from the world. Mourn the individuals, the millions, the billions who died. In any individual who survived the end of the world, the will to do so must have been strong, but both the man and the woman have a sense that this is fed by the determination of the species as a whole not only to endure, but to live free. The fate of the dead informs all of the living yet to be done.
In a remote hamlet many moons ago there lived a farrier whose air of charm had allowed him to make a marriage above his station to a similarly charming woman, the stripe of whose character he had not bothered to ascertain before the banns. He liked the way she felt in his arms, against his chest, and at that time of his life, little else mattered to him.
His new wife placed great store on the lore and traditions of their part of the world. One of these was to hang a horseshoe above the door of the dwelling place, in order to catch all goodness and keep evil at bay. The farrier however scorned the old ways, and to assert his word over both his wife and the whole of his domain, he nailed their horseshoe to hang from its loop rather than its arms. When she saw what he had done, his wife told him that any milk and honey with which their coming together had been blessed was now as good as spilled. The farrier scowled, and said as if to himself, ‘Next she’ll be telling me that horses talk!’ In the coldest tones of their marriage so far, his wife replied, ‘Mark my words, we will pay a price for this.’ The very next day the farrier was kicked into the following week by an irritable stallion whose hooves he had been overlong in shoeing. He had only a dim notion of how close he had come to being kicked into the afterlife.
On his first day back in the smithy, he hammered the index finger of his left hand broken. The following week having been called to a job, he stepped inside for a drop of the local elixir, and emerged to find that his tools had been stolen. He began to get a name for mishaps befalling him. Many who had once come to him with their beasts looked elsewhere, fearing that he was more bother than he was worth. Some work however still came his way, and soon he began tentatively to remark that the ill-winds which had been blowing his way now seemed to be howling over someone else. ‘Told ye so’ passed his lips all too often. His wife bit back her chidings. Had he considered why, he might have realised that her silence meant something; sense, let alone wisdom, had not yet been knocked into the farrier’s head.
What the silence meant was soon revealed. Walking one afternoon into the stables of the richest man in the district – the man who provided him with the majority of his work – he froze to see his wife bent over a bale of hay while his lord and master made close inspection of parts of her anatomy that till then he had fancied marriage had rendered to him alone.
The shine the lord of the manor had taken to the farrier’s wife went beyond worrying what serfs and vassals made of him, let alone God, and soon after being discovered in flagrante delicto, he arranged for an accident to befall the farrier while on his way to a distant farmstead. Left for dead in a ditch, the farrier crawled his way to the road’s edge, where a passing tinker added him to his collection of scraps, trinkets and ironmongery, and took him on his way. In a town a great distance from the only place he had ever called home, he slowly began to recover his wits and his senses, cared for by the tinker’s wife.
The tinker liked to shoe his own horses, and had the wherewithal to allow the farrier once he was better to renew his trade in the town to which horse and cart had carried him barely alive. Soon he was able to afford his own premises, above the door of which he nailed a horseshoe with its arms pointing to the sky. He did not really believe that fate had anything to do with the chapter of accidents which had befallen him; however, he wasn’t going to take any chances. His heart was clear. He bore his wife no ill will yet neither was he of a mind to take or win her back from the lord of the manor.
One morning he was close to finishing trimming a fine sorrel mare which belonged to a rich landowner whose patronage he had gained. As well as the elegance of her coat, the mare was notable for the two silver bangles which circled one of her forelegs. When he had asked the owner what was their significance, he had been peremptorily told to remember his place. Now amid the blows of his hammer, he was staggered to hear the horse speak. ‘No hands have ever handled my hooves as gently as this farrier’s have.’ So great was his shock that he only narrowly averted another broken finger. The voice was half-neigh, half-maiden, and came to his ears as it might in a dream. ‘I am going mad with overwork. Did this mare really speak to me?’ A silence followed his words; then once again he heard the same strong yet honeyed voice. ‘Yes, it was I who spoke. I believe I have finally met with the man for whom I have long been looking, the one I will make mine if he makes me his, for I can hear in his words and his mind that he has taken blows at the hands of fate as have I.’
Speechless, the farrier stood before the mare and waited for more. ‘Ride me to the head of the great river, and once I have taken a drink there, kiss my nose and rotate the bangles on my foreleg three times each.’ ‘And then?’ ‘And then see once more how life can change from bottom to top in the space of moments.’ Amazed at what the mare was saying more than at the fact that he was talking to a horse, the farrier said, ‘If I steal a horse, I can never come back to this town.’ ‘It is not stealing to ride a horse if the horse herself was stolen in the first place and she asks a good man to free her.’
He was being asked to leave behind his restored good name and a life renewed on the say-so of a talking horse. The farrier realised he was at the mercy of another twist of fate; it was clear to him that he had to follow the path laid down for him. ‘I have remade my life from scratch once before; I can do so again if need be.’ He sent word to the tinker and his wife that he had been obliged to leave immediately, thanking them for all they had done. Then he bestrode the mare, settling into a leather saddle of a fineness beyond his own means. Letting the reins fall, he allowed the mare to carry him across the borders of many wapentakes, following the river back to the spring from which it began. Few words passed between man and beast, yet with each mile he felt the connection growing between them.
When they reached the head of the river, the farrier let the mare wander into the water to drink. As soon as she had finished, he kissed her nose and rotated the bangles three times each. So swiftly that he was never clear how it came to be, the horse transformed into a maiden-spirit asleep on the wet meadow grass by the water, naked save for the two silver bangles on her right arm, and so lovely that the like of it can only be told in tales, and yet is neither to be imagined nor divined. He planted another kiss on her lips, and freed at last from enchantment, she awoke into his arms. At no great distance from the head of the river, the farrier and the horse-maiden began their life together. Children who had the power to transform at will into foals and back into children followed. And the teller of the tale let them all live happily ever after.
The writer can’t help imagining the reader of these words. He hopes it’s not ill-mannered of him to poke his nose and the imagination which lies behind it into affairs which are none of his concern. In his mind sirens call and he finds himself irresistibly drawn into another attempt to replicate a three-dimensional life from scratch, from nothing more than the cross a finely sharpened pencil might make on a map; a world from a grain of sand.
So he imagines her, or certainly alternately it might be a him… perhaps it might be safer in terms of not antagonising half his readership to think of this archetypal one as a non-gender-specific alien. Yes, a race which doesn’t have sexes. However, they do have sex; it’s the best of both worlds. When they decide it’s time, they pass the calcified egg between them and go half and half on the rearing, like Emperor or King Aptenodytes. In most other respects however they are like earthlings. They enjoy a good breakfast, for example. Poached eggs – they’re not averse to eating a reptile’s or bird’s – on wholemeal toast, with a pot of coffee.
So he imagines it in its kitchen. Wait a moment; alien or otherwise, he doesn’t want to label his reader an ‘it’. Perhaps it’s better after all if he says ‘she’. Call it an attempt to redress the balance of the ages when it comes to denoting species as a whole by the male gender alone. Earthlings and aliens in possession of the defining male characteristic will have to forgive him, and place their mind temporarily inside that of a female of the species.
So he imagines his reader first thing in the morning, scratching the scales of her nose with one set of highly developed fascicled toes, and with another clicking her way to this page on her technological device of choice; or perhaps if these stories ever find their way into a hard copy format she will simply take the bookmark from the book which at night resides on her bedside chest of drawers, and there at the kitchen table begin reading the next in the collection, namely this one. Slowly, with the dawn, the realisation may arise that it concerns her, and the writer hopes that far from giving her a fright, this might make her smile. As well as the poached eggs – which need exactly 180 seconds, as determined by the special perfect poached egg app on her technological device – she has the toast and coffee on the go, and these moments of waiting to sit at her kitchen table reading. Really she only needs the app for its stopwatch; she’s cooked dozens and dozens of poached eggs in her time and knows to whisk the sea-salted, boiling water till it resembles a whirlpool before dropping the egg into the centre of the vortex, and that if it isn’t freshly laid, to crack the egg into a ramekin containing a drop of vinegar to aid the congealing process.
The coffee’s percolations travel in scented arabican loops to her nose as this very paragraph is scanned and despite the many tasks she has on the go, her mind’s eye feels it has settled into the rhythm of the writer’s prose. At the ding of the app, however, she stops reading to plate and begolden the toast, fish the eggs (she’s having two) from the pan with a slotted spoon, and decant herself some coffee. With the plate before her, she slits the two snowy ovals with her knife and watches with keen appreciation as gooey yolk pools on the toast. Her tail swishes between the rods which form the back of the wooden chair on which she sits, spiralling one of them in what is evidently a characteristic expression of content.
As she wipes a smear of yellow from her reptilian lips, the writer imagines – especially if she is reading the story on the web where it may be less apparent that it is constrained than he imagines will be the case with a printed version – that the reader has been paying close attention and is in on the raison d’être of these stories. She knows, for example, that as well as each story missing a letter, each takes its lead from the title, and attempts to tease as it skirts employing typically chosen words, preferring instead less common, lipogrammatically permissible forms. Paradoxically he also hopes that at the same time as she is aware of it, she is also not noticing that the letter highlighted by brackets in the title has been temporarily excised from written English. For he hopes that these stories work either way, with the knowledge or in its absence.
Having imagined it, the writer himself can smell the coffee now. She likes it strong, and he wishes he might have even a thimble of it to keep his brain sharp as he strives to avoid the letter which it is necessary to avoid. Idly he wonders if she has read anything of the sort before, broadly speaking. He imagines she is a well-read alien, and will at least know of If on a winter’s night a traveller and Ella Minnow Pea and La disparition – translated as A void – even if she has not read all of them.
It’s a spring morning after a long winter, and the alien carries her device to the back door to keep on reading as she opens it to the day and lets light warm her scales. Blooms are beginning to appear on the wisteria, and the tips of its stems are starting to seek something to hold onto. Once again she will smile, he thinks, as she sits down with her second coffee on one of the ironwork chairs at the filigree garden table to carry on reading, over all this metafictional nonsense. He allows himself to imagine that she likes writers who play with words, who love making them dance to their satisfaction and that of their readers. However, now that his shaggy alien tale is nearly at an end, he stops to wonder whether she might in fact have preferred a good old-fashioned proper story, and in a flash decides to see if he can incorporate one. Had he gone down that path rather than this, he might have written something with the title ‘The horseshoe’ and had the aim of transferring to his reader something of the felicity that went into the writing of it. In the shire where the writer spent his formative years, it was traditional to position a horseshoe over the door of a dwelling place, so as to catch all goodness and keep evil at bay. From this detail, he begins to fashion a fairy story, one which describes the mishaps which befall a careless farrier who pooh-poohs old wives’ tales and deliberately challenges the Fates, and that’s what part two of this lipogrammatic clash of postmodernism and traditional narrative is going to relate, a click or a leafing of the page away from here.
Anna lay dying. The disease against which she thought she had immunity had at last eaten its way deep into a body unable to fend it off. Not long dead themselves, the colleagues she had lost had now become ghosts alongside the people whom she had left behind at home. They moonwalked the modules of the silo, and leant down to pillow level to speak quietly unsettling sentences about joining them into Anna’s pinnae. She hadn’t sufficient pep now to close the blinds, and watched the days pass double quick, two against each slow one back home. The leafy giantwoods outside cast shadows which sundialled the walls of the sleeping pod like speeded-up film. She had the sense that time was scuttling to a point, and existence likewise – the full stop following which it would not be possible to say, I think, so I am. She would not be thinking, she would be dead, although life on this odd planet would still go its seemingly infinite way. No-one was left to put Anna in a box and the box in the soil, and eulogise beside the gaping hole. But then millennia would see to it that Anna’s skeletal body was slowly compacted into a seam of fossil fuel which some subsequent colonising species might use to heat living spaces whose design she could only dimly imagine.
These thoughts came in clipped pulses, and between them – as she phased in and out of consciousness – was white space onto which the annals of Anna’s mind flashed a slideshow of images. Times past, landscapes she had walked. A balloon against a sunset. A dog and its dancing shadow as it jumped in a meadow with a deep blue sky above. A pumpkin, its jagged teeth, nose and eyes alight with menace. A headland and below it a beach, glistening wet in the sun. A cove on the same wild and wind-smashed coastline. A white sand beach and two caves; placed between them, Anna’s own walking boots. She felt the feeling of naked feet and toes in sand as she stood in one of the two caves looking out; a keyhole of light doubled at the bottom by a pool left behind as the tide ebbed. A snowscape with stone walls. A small wooden shed in a lush, sloping field; the angles of the hillsides led the eye to that little building clinging to one of them. A goat standing atop a dusty bank next to a stack of baled hay, upon which the animal was feasting. At the goat she laughed, and the sound she made, so unlike a laugh, shocked Anna into consciousness again.
Then above the wind, a sonic boom. In the last gasp of depleted faculties, Anna knew it must be the salvage mission. Salvage, because they wouldn’t be expecting to find anyone left alive. A blast of synaptic agitation emitted itself deep within a mind which had once been fine and difficult to shake. Why now, just as she was about to die? Couldn’t they have waited, have given these final moments the peace she wished them to have? She didn’t want to be found mouth open and spit hanging and with clothes which smelt of shit and piss. Would that she was instead simply a skeletal boo! She thought of the duck-billed platypus in its glass case; Anton’s find, his joy on display. Yes, that was what she now wanted to be. With Anton, back home.
The noise should have faded as the ship touched down, but instead the tail of its descent seemed to be met with the exclamation point of an explosion. It jolted Anna’s mind alive, and she had now one final chance to validate the Cogito. But it was not so much thoughts as images which began assembling. Again Anton came to mind, and without a shadow of doubt she knew he was on that flaming ship, come to save his one-time love.
Images of what they had seen hand in hand flooded Anna’s mind, as if they might be unspooling in his quaking consciousness and telepathically passed to Anna’s. Six silhouetted ponies on a beach with the tide out. Yes, that day! A boy had been unseated and the spooked pony had bolted into the town, causing havoc. If telepathy was somehow possible, then Anna could conceivably pass images back to Anton. So she sent him jumping into the Blue Lagoon, focussing especially on those pulse-heightened moments in advance of stepping off the cliff. He sent Anna an image snapped by his mind while they had stood high on the cliff above looking down on the lagoon. This was like magic! She sent him the moonscape of limestone paving they had once visited at the end of a solid day’s walking. He came back with dunes in which they had made love, the lapping sea to the east, the flat of cultivated, quiet land and a distant temple to the west. Next she gave him a mountain top, an island and the lapis lazuli in which it was set like a piece of jade. The palette of this image must have made Anton think of that peacock, defiant atop the gable of an old stone building. Then what about the peacock and peahen they had seen sitting face to face on a fence, effectively kissing? She sent him that, and saw his smiling face. Anna smiled too, but now the end was close. She wanted – needed – to see these scenes again, to have new sights to hold in common. It was so unjust; she wasn’t done yet. She wanted obstinately to live, tight to the point at which she and Anton simultaneously died.
Only after she joined Circus Alekan did Marion learn to ride. One spring morning, the trainer offered her lessons; at a loose end, she said yes, thinking nothing of it other than the chance to indulge the fascination horses had held for her since girlhood; the chance too to see life from saddleback height. Besides that, she could not have simply articulated the hold they had on her. Perhaps she loved them because they seemed at once unfettered and gently docile; free and excitable and dangerous yet all-embracing in their comfort and sugary amiability. Once she had finished the course of lessons, the trainer revealed his thinking – that she had it in her to perform her acrobatics from the platform of the horse’s back. She laughed him off but eventually he persuaded her, buttering her into an affirmative through saying he had never seen as natural a first-time rider. That, added to her gifts as an acrobat, not to mention her petite beauty…
Flying through the air on a trapeze had not been her ambition till late in her childhood. She had been something of a dreamer, scorning colouring books and pens – these could not match the colours generated by letters and phrases as she spoke them out loud or in her mind. Out of fairy tales she span lengthier yarns featuring herself as their core character. Her ever-extending vocabulary paraded across endless skies and each item in it competed for the most vibrant colours, or at violet hour the most delicate, the palest. Because of her size, because she often seemed lost on a planet far from others, she fell subject to being labelled an oddity. She didn’t care, for happiness came from perceiving ‘fingertips’ as silver, ‘horse’ as butterscotch and ‘leaf’ as an amber, autumnal hue; ‘star’ burned sapphire and ‘field’ revealed itself as an undulating sea of flax. Soon she thought she might like to be a poet, only she fretted that the poems could never be as colourful to others as to their author.
Routinely the young Marion hid herself beneath the curtain-like tresses of a Salix Chrysocoma, there to dream and bring colours into being. Besides nature only the circus could match the richness of the colours she perceived in her head. It had begun the year they first pitched their tent nearby her home. The red and the blue of the big top, the ginger spraying from the sides of the auguste’s face, the silver sequinned costume of the Russian funambulist sparkling in the spotlight as he danced the length of the tightrope eliciting intakes of breath. From then on she had only one undeclared object in mind. Circus skill training not being an option, she settled for gymnastics and spent all her unscheduled hours tumbling.
It started then, the living of a double life, the life all live to a greater or lesser extent – a double one, that of the interior and the exterior. But hers by any measure had been an extreme case of the dominance of the interior. If she looked back along the path her life had taken, she could see she had been happiest at those moments of conjunction – lighthouse flashes of love for another human being, the expressive movement of her handsprung body through the air, the age-old gliding of a bird of prey above a hillside hanger. But rarely did she share anything of that interior life. Her synaesthesia seemed itself a perfect conjunction of art and science, of magical colour and a predictable exactitude, yet instinctively she felt no-one could understand its meaning, except perhaps another poetic synaesthete, and she never met one of those. She moved through her life either in languorous, ethereal motion or as a blur of elusive colour. The others largely avoided her.
In the circus ring Marion and her horse Quicksilver spiralled the air into a life-affirming breeze. The music and gasps and applause from the audience came as from afar, much like the rhythms of her heart – she heard them as a series of pulses on top of the galloping horse’s hooves, such familiar sounds that by them she could set her tempo as she performed near-miraculous feats.
She had been the horse trainer’s since the day he first picked her up all covered in bruises from the floor of the ring. But though she loved the man he didn’t complete her and she felt obliged to look beyond him. For a time she admired the taut muscles of the strong man, but he never made her heart sing. The auguste brought forth music and made her laugh, but theirs could only ever be a brief encounter. Then there had been the impalement artist; in the end she had cut him more deeply than he had her. The day the lion tamer joined the circus, the horse trainer finally had his hegemony seriously challenged. She had never felt such a thrust through her heart as in the moment Isaac first set his eyes on her. Mute, she stood transfixed, oblivious to all else. He carried his difference about him; instinctively she could see that he too had once been scorned and labelled a freak but had risen above it. Livid red streaks scarred one side of his face; the result of flashing talons on the one and only occasion he had been careless. Never before had she been attracted so magnetically. And so the living of a different kind of double life began, one lived in both the interior and the exterior, conjoining them at last. She tamed the lion tamer, and in so doing set him free, and vice versa. Both in its command and spectrum of colours, Isaac’s strong, deep, accented voice thrilled her. In an outlying caravan in the depths of the night, he became her horse and she his lion and together they merged the grace of acrobatic flight and the anticipation of formal strictures.
You could never be certain about the future, but time gave Marion to understand that Isaac loved her more than his lions. He too had an interior like hers, and since he did, regardless of separation or loss, she could no longer envisage dying of a broken heart. ‘Broken heart’ – she heard that phrase as the intermingled colours of a bruise. ‘Heart’ by itself – a different matter. One night in the caravan she told Isaac its colour as she perceived it and never loved her lion tamer more than for his immediate reply – ‘may your heart stay vermillion forever’.