Joyland

Consulate |

Souterrain

by Helen McClory

edited by Michelle Lyn King

It was now high morning on a bright day in late March, the kind of day when the earth begins to release scents it has kept pursed all winter long, and it seems as if, finally, the year shows a little fight. Up in one of the red sandstone tenements a woman was plumping the cushions of the window-seat in an otherwise empty room. Frances: A study in sallow blotches against white, puffy, slept-in skin, pale hair knotted at the nape of her neck, a jumper tucked in heavy black folds into a red skirt, under which rumpled winter tights, no shoes. She was at that moment kneeling on the hardwood floor. She was not praying but, powered by the purity of the sunlight on that late March day, attempting to clean. Under one cushion of the window-seat she discovered a small, stiff, brass handle. Frances tugged on the handle, and up came the wooden lid on a secret cache of her daughter’s things: up came a scuffed tin with a lighter, rollups, three squashed filters and a wiry clump of tobacco inside, which she sniffed – just tobacco, fine. Up came an old glasses case, the one her daughter had told Frances she had lost – this was years ago, when she was still in school. Other shifting debris, none of which struck Frances as more than dimly poignant, until she got in her hands from its position at the bottom of the cubby, the black ledger.

The black ledger said ‘encase me in gold’ in gold glitter on the front cover, and Frances, running her fingers over the letters, supposed they must be from a song lyric her daughter had found. She opened the book and the spine of it creaked in protest, and Frances ran her fingers down the inner leaf. Mayhem and Death, it said in a serious font, and underneath that, A Nightmare Chap, lettering this time a black scrawl, marked over and over again in the same lines, until a groove had formed. Frances, repelled at first by the naked angstyness of the main title, tried mulling over all the meanings of ‘chap’: An old fashioned word for a man. To knock. To split or crack. A small book. It was, she thought, silly, the wrong word, something Madeleine would have picked.

She licked her finger and turned to the first page. It was a crabbed list in one corner with dates next to each. She looked at the first. 7 th of November, 1999. That was the day Madeleine had started primary school. Later than everyone else because of that strange sickness that had for the early part of the term kept her tiny body sunk in fever. The teachers said she would always be a little behind of the other children, the doctors said she might even have been damaged by the sickness, a lasting damage, and Madeleine’s father put on his grave-and-knowing act, but Frances would not take her daughter out and have her wait at home until the next class started, growing bored and tetchy. Madeleine, she argued, belonged with her peers. Even as Madeleine was called in to the head teacher’s, repeatedly, for kicking students, for crying, for getting confused and loud when her spelling was corrected, for making strange drawings and gifting them to other children like an omen of their futures, for telling lies – as if a child of that age had anything worth lying about or worth punishing for lying about – for never being good, according to the fussy standards her teachers and peers had all somehow come to agreement upon.

And yes, because of this rough start, her daughter had always been a little behind, awkward. Frances had waited, first unconcerned and then impatient, then resigned, for the static to disperse from her daughter’s personality; the obscuring details of herself that got between her and other people. But it never had gone away.

Frances got up creakily and moved to the kitchen. She filled the kettle, she watched the kettle boil, she poured herself a tea. Too weak to stream in as it would in the summer the sunlight hung suspended in front of the tall window, held back from her by the thin glass of the pane. The tea turned the hot water reddish brown, the milk, added with care, turned it the colour of a cat Frances had once seen sleeping on a doorstep in a provincial French town. Frances sat herself at the kitchen table with the book and looked upwards at the airing beam hanging overhead from which a crimson bed sheet and pillow slip were drying. After the list of dates, there were drawings of sea animals over the first few, wordless pages, fantastic creatures with giant eyes, backwards pointing teeth, and long tentacles. Recognisable as subaquatic beasties, boneless and sprawling their soft bodies outwards across the blankness. It was all a bit beyond Frances, but her daughter always loved the ocean. And that love, with its attentiveness and autodictatic seriousness, was what redeemed Madeleine, made her a worthwhile creation.

The dates corresponded with stories. She opened the book at the first date (page 6). The story there was a retelling of a dream, she thought, of darkness all around and a terrible pressure. It did not seem like something a child of that age could have dreamed, or even if so, articulated in the words in which it was written. But the form of the writing, familiar as Madeleine’s, was childish enough that it looked as if it had been written at the time it proclaimed. Steam came off Frances’ cup and travelled in a fine faint skein up towards the ceiling. Frances tugged at the neck of her jumper, then at her neck itself. After she had finished the story, she did not know how to feel. She couldn’t imagine her daughter writing it. Madeleine, who was, outside her one burning interest, discomforting but not in any way precocious, and in her schoolwork nothing more than lax, blissfully uncaring of deadline, Madeleine who was a shrug personified. A shrug and an indignant curse, maybe. But hadn’t Madeleine used to like films, noir films, thrillers with the kind of atmosphere of this story? If nothing close to the surrealist air. Mayhem and Death. Perhaps it hadn’t been right to show her such films from when she was so young, but it had been the one thing they enjoyed together. They had watched films, every night, Frances’ choices. Madeleine with toast, and coconut oil cheese melted over apple slices, lying full out on the white imitation sheepskin throw-rug, in utterly engaged consideration of what she was watching. You know you can’t swim that deep, no human could survive it. Madeleine’s dog-faced slippers kicking up and down. Her rejection of failure to communicate what was true, even when she knew it was for the purposes of fiction, it had to have truth in it, or be a waste of time. Her long glossy hair cutting over her shoulders. There’d be bubbles in your blood, and you’d choke to death on blood in your lungs . I want to put something else on. And the iron hissing as Frances sprayed a school shirt with scented water, performing a delicate perfuming she had never known growing up and that still felt like a ritual to do, and asking, off-hand, do you have any homework for tomorrow? And Madeleine sitting up and scowling. Then the arguments that always followed, and crying, and the days following tarred with her sullenness. Madeleine was like that, like a storm cloud poured into the shape of a girl, able to make a whole room feel atmospherically the tortured static of her moods. She wasn’t unaware of it, either. God, Frances hated her. Had hated her.

Frances rubbed her forehead, and hurriedly turned the page.

She was out walking towards Queen Street station with her bulging cotton shopping leaning into her side and too many folk going up and down the street. She had decided because she had no commitments she might as well take a train somewhere; Mallaig, as it turned out, about five and a quarter hours distant from her life. She wanted to think fresh things, nourishing thoughts. However flaky that sounded in her own head – at least, the thought would go nowhere else. After all the waiting, the phone call, the letters, the interviews and the silence that followed there remained the need to pull herself free, the impulse to move at least physically forward, even if in actuality she had not one thing in her life that held her since she had made her last partner, Madeleine’s father, move out.

Frances sat at the window seat and, feeling ridiculous, took a selfie with the vivid soak of Garelochhead behind her, the mountains misted and hefty like they would never die. But even a mountain dies. Think of all the mountains that must have, before apes walked. Or during the ice age, when the white came down and levelled them, when the slow rivers of ice tore at their sides. Think of them, shifted of their green tonnes and tonnes of soil, rock, plant, squealing braying animals, shivering, falls and breakage and rockfall, silence, steady patters on the ground, someone coming at them with explosives, eating away at their bodies for commerce of ores and quarrystone. We are all just barely holding on, she told herself, looking at her face on her phone, always more asymmetrical, more frail than in mirrors. Permitting herself a smile that, for god’s sake, could look that pitiful.

She had a small tray table, and the possibility of a cup of bad coffee brought to her from down the aisle, and until it came, she leaned her elbows on the table and rested her head on the trembling window. The country gave the impression of crooked rowans and what else, white bark and pale green lichens prickling from branches the further north the train crept. There was Rannoch Moor with its waters shining silver. There was a whole other country in this country, grasses trembling in the winds, great big eroding lonely rocks, if you just kept going.

In Mallaig Frances walked from the dead-ending train station to the wide ferry port. At some point she had gone into a little white building and come out carrying a plastic bag with smoked mackerel in it. Mallaig. It was the kind of town where the sea is always grey and the swells of it flecked with drizzle. It was where she belonged, yes, but there was nowhere she could think to find a place to stay.

She passed time standing between a wedge of white lines, watching the white and red hulk of a ferry shoulder across the waters. Ferry workers appeared and their yells sent her in retreat. There was a small guest house on Lovat Terrace, suggested a man in the lifeboat shop, try there. And tomorrow? And tomorrow, Frances thought.

The room was papered with magnolia wallpaper over woodchip, the bed had a rough blanket tightly bound over it. There was no tea to be had, so Frances drank a glass of water and picked the oily meat from the mackerel’s almost clear bones, putting the bones and the packet into the bag it had come on and hanging it on the doorknob. She opened a window for the air; the view from it was suburban, though two streets or so to the right, the grey abyss swung under the white sky, until, by degrees, it swung under the navy blue sky, and the lights of the houses went on, and Frances, eventually, lay down to sleep early with her smoked fish stinking fingers making fists at her sides.

In the early morning the seagulls shrieked into her dreams, and she too had a nightmare. Though in actuality it was more of a daydream: she lay awake, stroking her hair, thinking out the sequence of events and unable to make herself stop.

It began with Frances taking a long walk along the top of a windblown cliff. The sea was making a noise against the rocks like the salt in it was hardening into crystals and these crystals were sharp, chipping away at the foot of the cliff. Onwards Frances went down a path that led her into some gorse bushes, bright with yellow flowers that in real life smelled to her like suncream smeared on chilled butter, though here they smelled of nothing, their scent transfigured into intensity of colour. The gorse, in explosive yellow, was mature, with thick branches reaching very high, or else she was smaller, and she lost sight of the cliff, or was in a different place without the cliff, because she realised she could no longer hear the wind or the salt-sharded sea, but where in most dreams placelessness or a sudden change is quickly accepted, here she became distressed, and wandered further into the spines of the gorse, becoming trapped in this hedge maze, this labyrinth silent and scentless and far too yellow to be borne. The dream-self saw no path through which there might be a centre, no clue to a way outside, back to the place where she had begun. But nothing, either, was chasing her, and the sun was warm, and the petals between the spines were delicate, and nothing less than beautiful, though it made her wince to think of such an unruly thicket of plants in that flaky term, beautiful. She took nothing from its beauty as reassurance: it was the absence of any real fear to the scene which Frances held on to when these insistent, intrusive thoughts finally let her go.

The air was painfully cold and wet on Frances’s face: if she looked towards the horizon, she could pretend she only wanted what was there, the island, emerging in dusky purples, where the ferry would dock. There was a tall man in a green waxed jacket on the red deck, talking to a companion, a short mousy woman in a blue coat. She could want that – but the couple were parting, the companion was moving off. They did not know each other, or they did, and the woman to fetch a coffee, and there she went away clumsily, pushing herself through the oval door to the stairwell. Down into the bowels where the canteen was.

“Fantastic day, isn’t it?” the tall man was saying, arms pinned gripping the white guardrail. Frances gave herself two options. She chose the latter, and turned stonily towards the swells, going after that specific power to be had, smaller than a grain of sand, in refusing to capitulate to a greeting from a stranger. This power embeds itself under their skin, an unscratchable itch and you’ve put it there, and if you have managed it once successfully with no rancour on either side, then later you may allow this act to be repeated, the act of keeping yourself to yourself, and others accepting your actions.

“Fantastic, right?” said the man, “Right…” he clapped his hands and looked as Frances had feared he would. She sighed and pulled out her phone. A reminder that she had an appointment at two o clock with her grief councillor. In Glasgow, however many hundreds of miles away. She brought up a selfie of Madeleine at her last training session before launch day, which Frances had not attended, or been invited to attend. Her daughter was looking bold in her uniform, casual though it was, blue polo-neck with a logo like she worked at a golf resort instead of a sociological and marine research station. Behind Madeleine, hulking machinery covered in rivets took up space to a mysterious purpose, but with kinship, distantly, to the boat Frances was now on.

“This is my daughter, Madeleine,” Frances said, holding up the phone.

“Oh, off to see her then?” The man in the wax jacket seemed unbreakably earnest as he looked at the photograph.

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Frances.

“Does she live on Skye, or is she just doing a course –”

Again, Frances had two options before her.

“Oh no, she doesn’t live on the island. She doesn’t live on land at all, actually. She’s dead, they tell me. But I don’t know if you can be alive or dead, where she is. There’s no stone, no grave I can visit, though there’s talk that they’ll make the underwater station a kind of memorial, but how that counts as a grave if you can’t visit it I don’t know.”

After a time, the mousy companion came back, holding plastic cups. The tall man was by then sitting in a red bucket chair in a row of red bucket chairs planted on the red deck below the ferry’s white flank, his back turned to Frances, peering at guide book to the best whisky distilleries in the whole of the country, the truly unmissable ones.

Frances was in the spongy, spiky interior of the island, walking along a gritty and uneven path lapped at by puddles on the edges. She had heard there was a waterfall, but having seen it and being unimpressed, she had continued along between the recently-planted sapling pines in their beige plastic tubes, taking in all the shades of brown the unsprung spring countryside had to offer. One day, she thought, raising her hood as it began to smir again, I’ll live in places not riddled with the damp. Somewhere clean, where the foliage snaps clean off at the beginning of November and is covered in snow until April, nothing like this dying into spore-y tangle and just staying there. Summers would be scorching hot: she would walk out on summer days, all day she’d walk and at the end of the day she would sleep well with a lightly burnt face and a head full of vistas of blue sky and hills. She’d never been anywhere other than here, the mainland and some of the outer-lying islands, and Ireland once – no use expecting drier days there – and twice to France, the flatter parts, and where she could really only remember the tawny cat sleeping on a step, and some minutes spent staring at a water meadow from the car as her and her ex butted heads about a missed turning and certain domestic inadequacies. Right now, in the near-invisible rain, Frances couldn’t picture what a dry landscape would even look like. Madeleine would have rolled her eyes and pulled up something on her phone to show me, Frances thought. But no, she wouldn’t have. Madeleine had moved away. Madeleine no longer loved her enough to stay above the sea, above the fantastic disaster which had claimed her.

Frances kept walking for a time until her nose began to run and she stopped, looked at the beleaguered hillocks, breathed out, turned and walked through increasing drizzle the eight or so kilometres back to her rental car. She was staying in a white-washed inn with a great fire in the fireplace that looked like it had been snapping and licking the grate since seventeen forty-five. She sat by the fire and had a whisky and stared into the pale flames. A few tables over, a group of hikers were playing scrabble. They all had good faces; high cheekbones, skin red and raw from the outdoors, with bright eyes and frizzy hair tied back, even the men. Frances watched them, and felt herself thaw. The men young, but weathered. The women acute, not smiling but with great purpose in their movements, good speckled woollen jumpers in greens and navy, boots that had taken them tramping round corries and scampering up all the sharp arêtes the mountains had to offer. It was not good, this type of thaw in her. She might start thinking of Madeleine again, in public. Better maybe she’d stayed in Glasgow. In the flat, forcing herself to sit it out, sit out the walls and the pace of one mouldering, pinched day and another, and another. Frances focused on the bottom of her whisky glass, and the swilling golds everywhere there, and the cheap burgundy carpet underfoot, the shadowy antlers over the fireplace, the black book with the gold glitter writing tucked safely in her bag. She thought of how there is no such thing as ‘safe’. Eventually she decided to go to her room before the scrabble players could be done, so she could know they were there in the bar where she had left them, where they were living and wholesome, even if it was not possible to be like them.

In her room she washed her face and brushed her cold ash-yellow hair. In her room she was in her room, as much as she could manage.

Mayhem and Death . Why had she written it thought Frances, running her thumbnail down her daughter’s handwriting; she had never known either, in her life, not at least as far as Frances was aware, though she couldn’t discount there might have been secrets, suffering, wounds that her daughter had seen or experienced and kept, in shame, to herself. It’s better never to have children, she thought. Larkin, that poem – Madeleine had been reading Larkin for school, more than a decade and a half ago, and certain things must have stuck. There was in some of his poems something she recognised and ached for, and knew her daughter had too. Just as when they had watched Inside Llewyn Davis together. A crisp, cold, nihilism, bracing as winter, and just as reassuring. Frances thought she needed those sorts of deep white winters, almost gone from this country, because of their shape, their old feeling. Winters are older by a long way than springs. Then life is older than death, she thought, because the latter needs the first. That’s it. Life is the first thing out of the brace of winter, tiny and pulpy, gasping – and a close second, death. And far, far after that, the grass is growing, things are blooming sickly-scented and everything is abundant, falling to mush with abundance, but by then it’s already too much of an afterthought, a soppy, almost but not entirely false reassurance from life of life’s success, that ought to be understood as such, in the face of the second of all things. Madeleine hadn’t quite got to that point of understanding, hadn’t quite made it beyond a teenager’s understanding of death as a simple dramatic boom, drop to the floor, without this sense of recursive, also-ran contradiction and self-deception. But, thought Frances, I’m only up to her dreams and thoughts from when she was what, fourteen? Nothing so far had proved illuminating, about Madeleine herself or anything outside of Madeleine. How much have I missed of her, Frances thought. Probably not much, not the things I want to know. What age, even, was she when she died? Was she safe? She screwed up her eyes, then looked out of the window in her room at the road and the loch some way back from it, across the sodden, dead bog land. Frances, you are still going, she thought. You are going to go to the place where it all stops, and then pass through that gate, and all this will have clarity. You will just have to keep going until it does. Or it doesn’t.

Frances had the map open on one of the tables. It was an old map, but roads wouldn’t change much around here, she thought, and in any case, what she was looking for was a sight older. Her finger traced a line in pencil to a small x under the words Kilvaxter souterrain. She thought, is that a bit much, to go down into a low house, where the dead might be thought to dance, or the fairies? She scowled at herself, both the indulgent self, and the self that threw up restrictions.

Well, something a little less obvious?

Like talking to someone?

No, but to be a woman on her own in her grief was to be the recipient of the thickest, tar-like pity from anyone about who wasn’t immediately repulsed: you could want that pity, sometimes, but it would leave her weaker. She skipped most sessions; no one ever seemed to mind. None of the other parents had written back to her when she emailed about the incident that had taken their children too. She would – she would do as she had been doing. You are an inch closer to the dead at this time, she told herself, and not to take advantage would be boring.

Frances, though knowing herself at all turns constrained by the expectations of those around her, stranger and familiar alike, and never before wanting to upset anyone unduly by the force of her personality knocking ripples across someone else’s day, had never wanted to be without the option to, sometimes and without fuss, tear the whole world fucking down. Even having a child – which, yes, she had resented – had not snuffed these feelings entirely. For a long time she had been content to feel the pulse of that desire without acting upon it, the tension was enough. Now grief made it permissible, occasionally, for her to appraise a situation and act beyond the normal acceptable standard, but not too much, too loudly, or too long. Blanking on greetings, missing appointments, wandering off out of her life, all this was fine. But what good was any of it, the freedom to be here or there, a selfish arsehole here or a selfish arsehole there? Frances pushed her hands down on the table top until her finger tips were pale: how better life would be if instead, in pushing, the table would give in, gently letting her slip her fingers through the layer of polish, through grain of the wood. She felt someone watching her. It was a young man with a beard, off through a doorway, seated at the bar, which should have been shut (it was a Sunday morning) but was glowing merrily, light trapped and dancing in the whisky bottles, even the cheap American stuff. The man at the bar raised his glass to her. Frances ducked her head away. And then softened: he was a calm looking sort, one of the hikers from the day before – there was his green woollen jumper, wrapped around his waist like a little boy would do. You never knew what might turn out to be permissible, even cheering to other people, that you had spent your life withholding from yourself. Ach well, she said to herself, the souterrain then, while the weather’s for it. And before her eyes, a glitter as off wet stone.

A small patch of bog myrtle was thrashing about and flattening itself and springing up again. Surrounding the patch, wastes of dank brown grasses and the heather with its little dry florets were doing the same on a smaller scale and dictated by the physics and wiriness of their own materials. Frances held her pale hair to her head so that it would not blow into her eyes, and pressed on. She came to the stone hole which was the entrance to the souterrain. It was small and low, not much to look at, not much to describe to herself, except that it made her vaguely dizzy to stare into it. She crouched down and pulled a torch out of her bag. Moorland wind in uninterrupted force screamed in her ears but the hole was silent, and she could feel its silence and dark held there below better than a human fist can hold the silence and the dark, for this had been doing so far longer. All it was, for centuries, was a tunnel of several metres leading to a small chamber, and in the small chamber, if it was as they usually were, nothing, discounting the gravel sprinkled for the visitor to tread on, the welcome of the tomb.

For a little while, standing above the souterrain, Frances brushed the lintel and the stone floor with the yellow light from her torch. She even descended once and touched the roof with her bent back. And then she thought of the young man at the bar. And thought between cold stone, underworld, liminal passages, femininity, graves, storage or a buried dwelling and what really, at the moment, drew her most urgently. The living. The fleshly. The prickly. The cause. The tiles of scrabble scattered and picked up by people she did not know and never would speak to, and who would not like her and her great neediness if they did (Madeleine hadn’t, had she?). The beat of her heart, which she could not hear over the silence of this open mouth. A fact which made her feel deeply angry and aggrieved with this place, above all other vexations. She pulled her daughter’s book out of her bag and flicked the pages in agitation. Of course she was meant to bury it here, now that she had read it, or enough of it to see that Madeleine’s dreams or her accounts of them had been dark ones, much as her teachers and her school peers had said, to drop it in the dark and leave it behind, like her daughter’s body was in the dark even now, far below the surface of the world. Not to drop the book here would be a kind of failure to overcome her grief. But in whose eyes? Still holding Mayhem and Death, she turned and climbed out of the souterrain back into the moorland and raised her head, feeling spits of rain on her neck, and pulling her zipper up against them.

“Oh, fuck you,” Frances said to the souterrain, flapping the book at it without bothering to look back.

She dropped off her cotton bag in the luggage rack and hesitated, holding her purse in hand. She could do with a drink. But there was the issue of intruders, blunderers, taking her seat when she was up, thieves taking her things, even the useless things that were in that bag, or else the train decoupling and going down extra tracks for reasons announced in some intercom babble she might miss. The walls of the train shuddered as the engine was turned on. Frances smiled. She briefly thought of the silent base underwater thousands of miles away where her daughter had gone, and in which all occupants, including her daughter, were now long held to be dead, though permissions for retrieval – that much greater an expense than bestowing the judgement of death – were an ongoing effort by the lawyers of families richer than hers. And here she was, on a train, again! About to go somewhere, through the open-air countryside, where all around things were about to burst into life, grow fast, and whither and drop dead. And Madeleine was not, because she already had. Frances left her place and walked down the narrow hall into the lounge carriage, and straight to the bar for a tiny bottle of vodka and a tiny bottle of tonic water and a modest-sized plastic cup in which to mix them, no ice already. She sat by the window of the drinking carriage, which wasn’t hard to do, and ignored the people who had like her already begun filtering in, which was harder; she so very much wanted, in all her stubborn unlovedness, unloveableness, to love them. The train did not move, then the platform moved, then the train with great labour began to depart.