Advent Stories #7

f/8

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Up ahead, the trees gave way to a field edging the final row of cottages before the Derbyshire hills and the brittle January night took over. The road was visible for a little way but there was no moon. Behind him, the lights from Manchester formed a thin meniscus of pale orange. Tommy felt the pressure of the clouds; they seemed close enough to grasp. Like matted strips of iron they’d be, warm to the touch, buzzing with unknowable energy. He struggled with his backpack over the mud and stones. The flashlight secured to his headband ranged wildly around that final barrier of trees. Once he breached it, the darkness ahead deepened, as if the field had become flooded with oil. The trees had acted as a windbreak; now he was almost felled by the hard gusts whipping across the flat. He righted himself and moved on, feeling the hair on the back of his neck tingle. He closed his eyes to it for a moment and breathed deeply through his nose. There was a smell, he felt, of something organic and flawed, like the metallic edge that was present in a cancer ward, or a delivery room. The ruins were maybe sixty feet away. Tommy had rehearsed this walk in good weather and daylight, counting steps, ticking off landmarks. The headlight was for hazards only, really, although it was powerful enough to pick out the gleaming, broken spire of the church. Now Tommy felt the first, fat spots of rain.

He quickly made his way to the location he had chosen earlier, a corner of the field sheltered by an overhanging hawthorn tree, where he hunkered down against the drystone wall to assemble the tripod. Once his Nikon was attached to its head, he switched off his flashlight and drew up his hood; the rain was sheeting down now. Fingers of it stroked and restroked the same channels in his skin, reaching for his eyes and mouth. It patted against his waterproofs like some insistent knuckle at the door, demanding entry. He heard the voice of the storm, far away, but coming on. He made a few test exposures and decided to dial in a shutter speed of thirty seconds at f/8. Now it was just a case of waiting for the moment.

He knew about waiting. During the past month he had sat by two beds, waiting for his father to die and his son to be born. Neither had happened. He was unsure how he ought to feel and as a result felt nothing. Louis had eventually been removed, dead, from Jessica’s womb; his father had slipped into a coma. Rain drummed his hood. He stared at the dark green grass of the meadow. He thought about the terminology, the way the doctor had presented it to him, as if his father had decided to go for a relaxing swim in some deep, warm pool.

Jessica, his wife, deciding to spend a week with her parents had spurred his journey out here. She had looked through him, her eyes unfocused, soft, as if she was something newly hatched. He asked her questions and she grunted in reply, sometimes minutes later. It only dawned on him after she had gone that he was reacting in the same way. They were ghosts in the same house, only aware of each other long after they had vacated the rooms they’d inhabited. He watched her being driven away by her cement-faced father – Tommy’s not and never will be good enough for my girl – and worked his way diligently through the onlytwo bottles of alcohol in the kitchen: port and gin. He came to in the living room, an empty pizza box he couldn’t remember ordering, much less eating, on his lap; an album of photographs; the keys to the Jeep.

He showered and shaved and drank three cups of black coffee. He slotted a recharged battery into his Nikon and pulled out some maps. Keep busy. Fill your mind with other things. Don’t give it any space.

He couldn’t remember driving out here, or where exactly here was. The Jeep he’d parked in a public layby near to a farmhouse with one amber light burning in an upstairs window. Cloud massed behind it like something steeling itself for attack. It seemed he might play those last few days over and over in his mind; it was as if nothing he did from now on would possess enough acceleration to escape the restrictive atmosphere he was breathing. He swung his head up towards the sky and the rain fussed into it like a swarm of cold steel wasps. He regarded the camera on its tripod as if it were some kind of exotic farm animal ruminating by his side. Then there was a flash of lightning that corkscrewed out of the leaden ceiling, close enough for him to feel its heat. He felt his flesh draw in, as if instinctively trying to make itself as small a target as possible. He knew the risks. He knew the myths. Lightning could strike twice in the same place. Stay away from the trees. Make yourself flat on the ground.

Suddenly he was within the thickness of the storm. The wind punched him. The rain seemed more substantial than it ought to be; seamless, almost. It billowed and swirled like a sheet on a washing line. Tommy’s fingers sought the shutter release button and depressed it. He felt, rather than heard, the click of the mechanism. A thirty-second exposure. Nothing but the dark and the rain and the howling of the wind. He closed his eyes. He could feel a fizz in the air, a crackle of energy. It was all around him. It was right on top of him. But no great spark. He released the shutter again. This time, fifteen seconds into the exposure, the lightning came. Thunder surrounded him almost at the same moment. He jumped, lost his footing. He put out a hand to steady himself, but wrenched over to one side when he realised the exposure was not yet completed; if he touched the tripod the shot would be ruined. His foot sank in mud; he felt water turn his sock heavy and cold. A fresh barrage of rain. It was getting through his supposedly waterproof clothing: determined weather. There was a flask of coffee back at the Jeep. One more shot and he was gone.

He checked the camera settings and waited, his finger on the shutter release. The storm was moving on anyway; he could sense the belly was full. The dense heart of cloud had softened, reared away. Pale light was sifting through. He depressed the button. Twenty seconds. Twenty-five. He’d missed it. He’d —

(Max)

One hundred million volts entered Tommy’s body at the V of flesh where his thumb met the rest of his hand. He received an exit burn from the sole of his left foot. The contact temperature, in the 1/1000th of a second in which the lightning bolt travelled through his body, touched thirty thousand degrees centigrade. He lost consciousness immediately. It was another nineteen hours before he was found.

*

The first words he heard after the strike were delivered to him by a doctor at his bedside in Intensive Care. The doctor wore a Stockport County lanyard around his neck and a well-trimmed goatee as white as his coat. He said: You’re lucky to be alive, Mr Clare. You cheated death by a whisker, somehow.

The nurse helped him upright in order to drink water. Tommy heard the creak and whisper of what at first he believed to be the sheets, but it was his cindered flesh. He tried to speak but nothing travelled on the sirocco of his breath.

‘Shush, Mr Clare,’ his nurse said. ‘You need to be patient. It will all come back to you, in time.’

He lay on his back staring at the saline solution as it drained from its plastic sac into his arm. He felt too hot inside. He couldn’t hear properly. He was still unsure as to what had happened.

You cheated death.

He had a vision of someone with eyes blacker than boiling tar tearing up a betting slip in a shadowed corner, it blazing to ashes before touching the ground. He remembered the burnished chaos of the sky, and the trees, aghast. The worn edges of the ruins clung to the skin of the Earth. He seemed the only unattached thing for miles around. Tommy and his camera. He felt a deep stab of concern; what had happened to his camera?

He dreamed of his dead son. His wife was on the bed in the delivery room, sweat wicking off her, teeth clenched, eyes rolled back to whites. The anaesthetist was standing next to her with a needle the size of a baguette.

You want the epidural now? he kept asking, wagging the needle in her face. How’s your pain? Now? You want me to go in now?

The midwives were sitting still in plastic chairs, facing the wall. They wore red gowns with hoods. The hoods were too collapsed to suggest that anything as substantial as a skull lay beneath.

His wife had been induced. They had been told what to expect. Tommy had not wanted to be there, but he felt, because Jessica had no choice, then neither should he. A plastic tub lined with blue polythene lay at the foot of the operating table. There was a saw in it. Whenever Tommy asked the midwife what the saw was for, she giggled and told him to stop being so cheeky. She was coughing like a consumptive. Her words became a red surge against the cotton of her mask. Her eyes were shark-dead. She leaned into him, conspiratorially, and said: ‘I know how to joint a chicken like you would not believe.’

*

He snapped awake. His eyelids felt like scraps stuck to a barbecue grill. Over the months that followed, he suffered countless operations to enable his drawn-in limbs to extend once more. Plastic surgery wrapped him in tissue that was discoloured and alien. ‘Function over fashion, hey?’ the consultant said, on a drearily regular basis. Tommy’s hearing improved a little, but he was warned that it would never come back to the way it had been before. Occasionally, when he was drifting into sleep, he might be shocked awake by the sudden smell of vinegar, or hot oil, but nobody was cooking on the ward, nobody had brought in any takeaway food during visiting time. His senses wee still dealing with the insult of the strike, he was told. He ought to be prepared for lots of little surprises like that. How else had the lightning changed him? he wondered. In moments of rest, between skin grafts and sutures, he would close his eyes and watch the cosmos of his thoughts tumble in soothing, mordant colours. Ochre. Maroon. Carnelian. Into them frequently stepped a figure. Steeped in shadow, yet surrounded by a thin corona of crackling white light, its back always to Tommy, it would pulse in and out of true, as if being hunted by the automatic focusing system on a DSLR. Sometimes the head was a shaggy halo of loose, unkempt hair; sometimes it was smoothly combed back into a ponytail. Tommy became fascinated by this elusive figure. He wondered if he had created it, or if it was a memory of someone he no longer recognised. He began to look forward to periods of rest, when he could forget about the physiotherapy exercises and return to his pursuit of it.

He lay in the dark and touched the raw scar – arborescent, sprawling – that covered his entire chest. It was as if somebody had laid a network of branches against his skin and pressed down until their pattern was transferred into him. He listened to the faltering suck of his breath and understood what it was to be an old man. It had reduced him, this incident. He wondered how many years it had sheared from his span. Whatever it was, he decided, he was grateful. If things didn’t improve, he didn’t relish the thought of as much as four more decades of pain.

*

‘You’ve changed.’

‘That’s one way of putting it.’ The words tumbled out over the sandpaper of his tongue. He was always thirsty now, he found.

‘I’ve changed too.’

He nodded. Jessica’s face was bowed, trembling, knitted. What followed was quick, and full of the phrases he’d heard in any number of Hollywood break-ups, or read in novelised splits. I just thought… we’ve grown apart… best for both of us… fresh start… remain friends… keep in touch…

He didn’t even notice she’d gone; he thought she was still talking, but the voice was different. It struggled to be heard, and it was deeper, gravelly. It seemed to be rediscovering itself, little more than a mumble as he struggled to understand its rhythms and intonations. Closing his eyes helped. When he closed his eyes he could no longer see the fork of scar tissue on his chest. The figure seemed to step through a seam in his inner darkness, as if it were an actor just off stage, waiting for his cue. It trembled there in its lambent cocoon, perhaps waiting for a sign, or for Tommy to act. A word broke through the human static: South.

*

Tommy was allowed home a few days before his birthday at the end of May. His flat was stale, stuffy. There were no traces of his wife. She had removed the photographs of them together from their frames and left them in an envelope by the door. She didn’t want them, but she didn’t want them on show either, was the implicit message. He hobbled through the rooms, reacquainting himself with the layout, but it was as alien as his own body. It no longer felt like home. He didn’t know if that was because Jessica was no longer around, or that he himself felt that he had become someone else, a kind of imposter. It took a few moments to establish that the kitchen was not where he felt it should be, nor was the bedroom. It wouldn’t come back to him, his old life. His heart stuttered as if echoing his panic. He sat down on a sofa he could not remember buying and wished for a drink. There was an old yellow Selfridges bag on his desk chair. Inside it were the remains of his camera, and a note. This was found nearby when the emergency services picked you up. It’s a write-off… but I thought you’d need it for insurance purposes. J.

Tommy cradled the blasted remnants of the Nikon. The lens was cracked. The body of the camera had warped and opened, the plastic buttons melted and fused with their housings. All of it beyond repair. He turned the camera on its side and thumbed open the memory card slot. The card inside seemed to be intact, although the images it had stored were surely fried. He tried loading them anyway. He did not feel any pleasure or relief to find that all of his exposures uploaded without any sign of corruption. He stared at the final shot: the lightning that had passed directly through him. There were no jags in it. It was really quite beautiful. A viciously straight beam of blue-white light, turned to a soft, powdered explosion in the bottom left corner where the lens had flared. And where he had received it. He was about to turn away, sweating with the terror of the event’s documentation, when he noticed the little blue bar at the side of the application’s viewing window. There was space beneath it, indicating that this was not the final shot. He stared at the small gap, trying to understand how that could have happened, and resisting the force drawing his fingers to the mouse to reveal what his camera had recorded after the strike. Would he see himself lying in the grass, a smoking body swollen and ruptured within his clothes?

Turn it off. Dump the files. Grind the card to dust.

He swept the mouse across the mat until the cursor filled the gap. Click.

A translucent human shape: black, glistening rags hanging from its shoulders, hurrying away from the viewfinder, long hair whipping about it in the wind. The fist of meat at the centre of its chest glowing like an ember disturbed at the heart of a dying fire.

*

Later, after whisky, Tommy opened up his email accounts and read messages wishing him well. Before he knew what he was doing he was punching the word ‘lightning’ into his web browser. He read about what had almost killed him. It was as if he were witness to a car crash; he couldn’t look away. He read about the path of least resistance – something he had been a part of (wouldn’t Jessica have found that a hoot) – and the return stroke, which taught him that the nearest point of lightning to the ground – the stepped leader – built up a charge in whatever it was going to hit and that, at the last moment, an upward discharge flew out from that object to meet it. I embraced the killer, he thought. I might as well have flung open my arms to Death.

After much self-admonishment and coaxing, and a light meal, he felt better, well enough to think about the figure and the voice and what ‘South’ might mean. He wondered if this person might be the embodiment of his own spirit, here to jolly him along the long path to recovery. ‘South’ couldn’t mean death, in this case, which had been worrying him a little. He felt better, he was on the mend. The doctors had told him he was out of the danger zone and that it was up to him now, and how much work he wanted to put in to getting himself fit again.

When night came, Tommy let it. He ignored the light switches and the curtains and allowed the moon to fill the rooms with its pallor. He found these to be the best conditions in which to entertain the figure, whom he realised he was beginning to rely upon, perhaps a little too much. There was no improvement in definition or sound, yet Tommy had come to prefer it this way. With clarity would come epiphany, he felt, and he liked the mystery. If the presence revealed itself as someone he knew, was even a younger version of himself, disappointment would follow. Now it shivered into view again, as if it had been waiting for the moment Tommy invoked it.

It moved a little easier this time, as if, like Tommy, it had been undergoing physiotherapy. There was less of a hunch in its posture. Less hesitation in the reconfiguring of limbs. It seemed looser, suppler, more at ease, with itself and Tommy too, perhaps. What’s your secret? Tommy willed at it. Show me how to improve.

It seemed to react to his imagined words. The glimmer of surrounding light broke into disconnected seeds as it turned its head, then rediscovered its uniformity. The struggle to hear what it mouthed at him; deafness had followed him into his daydreams, it seemed. A hiss and crackle of nonsense. Black clods fell from lips that seemed to have forgotten how to move properly. And then: Dead tree.

*

Headaches. The doctors had warned him about these, but nothing could prepare him for their severity. It was as if a little portion of lightning had become trapped inside him at the moment of the strike, and was jagging around his cranium, searching for a way out. Pills did not help. Tommy decided to go for a walk, hoping that the fresh air would scour the pain from his head. As he opened the main door to the block, though, his legs buckled and he felt sweat stripe his spine as if someone had painted it upon him. There was a bank of light cloud obscuring the sun, but no low pressure, no reason to fear the weather today. He realised, bar the struggle from the taxi to the front door on the day he returned from the hospital, he had not ventured outside. He wasn’t sure he could do it, but then the figure was there, behind his eyes, coaxing him, its arm outstretched, bathed in benign blue light. Tommy shuffled down the steps and across the gravel forecourt. He kept his head down, as far as the stiff, unresponsive meat of his body would allow. Sometimes he was convinced the strike had cooked him through, that he was a dense, overcooked joint of meat, moistureless and tough. Good for nothing but the bin.

He walked around the block, pausing often. He ached the following morning, but it was a recognisable pain, one he was used to. It almost, but not quite, took his mind away from the constant burn of his scars. He walked again that evening, the figure accompanying him once more. By the end of the week he was able to walk two miles. The soreness was inevitable, but he managed it with painkillers and by calling on the figure. Its presence dulled his discomfort. It was as if it took on the burden, so that Tommy could sleep.

He wakened in the middle of the night, after the longest walk yet, a three-mile hike that had taken him all afternoon to complete. He lay still, wondering what had roused him. It wasn’t the fallout from his exertions, and it wasn’t the figure. Well, not directly, he realised, as he sat up and swung his legs gingerly out of bed.

South, he thought. Dead tree.

He went to his filing cabinet and tugged open the top drawer. Inside were folders of contact sheets, indexed by location. He sighed and pulled out a handful. These photographs represented half a lifetime of endeavour, with little reward. He had won the odd competition, and seen a few of his shots from a trip to China used in a travel guide, but he had never made a living from his work. Perhaps that was down to his lack of direction. He wasn’t a specialist, in the way that, say, Joe Cornish focused on landscapes, or Steve Bloom worked in nature. He photographed what was there on the day, whether it be cars at an antique fair, portraits, macro work at a flower show or dawn seascapes during a spur-of-the moment weekend away at the coast. Here were thumbnails of ex-girlfriends in candid poses, long-dead pets, friends gurning for the camera, and shots he had taken at Manchester Airport’s aviation viewing park.747blur - 2007-04-24 at 11-36-16.jpgHe placed this last batch on a lightbox and gazed at each exposure through his loupe. The memories came flooding back; because they were of a time before his accident, they seemed somehow brighter, more colourful. They seemed close enough for him to reach in and become a part of again. He remembered he had a Nikon with him that day, but not the DSLR. He had been using a film camera, an old F-801s, so he hadn’t been able to check each shot after taking it. He clung to the old technology because it was getting cheaper now that that film –inconvenient, unforgivable film – was less desirable. It kept him sharp. You couldn’t just point and keep your finger depressed. You had to think carefully about composure and exposure, or risk wasting a frame. He had been confident in his shooting that day. There was some amazing light, low and bronze, which underscored swells of seemingly solid cloud. There were a lot of small intercontinental passenger jets coming in to land from the north on runway 2. After twenty minutes, Tommy had realised he would get a better shot if he positioned himself on land south of the runway when it was being used for take-offs, especially if one of the big jets that operated out of here – a Virgin Atlantic 747, an Emirates 777 or one of the China Airlines freight Jumbos – opened its throttles. From this vantage point he would only get a three-quarters profile of a take-off, and that from the rear. Not good.

He remembered getting on to the A538 and winging it. Head sticking out of the window, navigating by the sun and the trajectory of the jets and whichever road seemed to promise to take him closest to where he needed to be. He had abandoned the car on a lane by a small farm and clambered over a fence into a field. He saw the airport perimeter, and about sixty feet shy of it, a single, dead tree, utterly nude and pale and smooth, like polished stone. He got to the tree and it was perfect. Sunlight gave it the illusion of life; the colour of it might convince you there was blood in its roots. If he got down low enough, he could make the forbidding perimeter disappear. Then there was just that amazing welter of cloud, the tree, and whatever came roaring up off the tarmac. Tommy had attached a 24mm wide-angle lens to the camera body and waited.

He had used another two rolls until it became clear that there was a hiatus in the traffic. By then the sun was overhead and the clouds had assumed a flatter aspect, anathema to the photographer.

Now, in his study, the pain uncurling in his limbs like a frightened cat regaining its confidence, Tommy pored over those photographs again, surprised that he had not viewed them properly since getting the contact sheets developed. The lone tree was a cliché in photography. But there was something about its juxtaposition with those cuneiform monsters lifting from the runway that excited him. It was fate and hope in the same picture. Death was all over it. He studied the tree, trying to find some message in its branches that would open up the mystery of the figure to him, but there was nothing. He almost expected to see a human shadow thrown upon the field from behind the trunk. A face in the portholes of a fuselage. Pareidol in those rampant clouds.

He was about to file the pictures away when he did spot something. Off to the left of the tree, at the very edge of the frame. Something in the undergrowth that mirrored the exposed wood of the tree: sun-bleached, weather-sanded. A branch, perhaps, lopped off by strong winds. But there was something lacking the arbitrary in its shape. It possessed a form that suggested function, as opposed to the random reach of a tree’s limb.

Tommy went to the filing cabinet and extracted the corresponding negative. He scanned it into his computer and booted up the image manipulation software. He opened the file and magnified it to a point just before it would begin to pixellate. A little noise, a little fringing, but he could see more clearly now. A white hand.

*

The following morning Tommy went back to the field. Driving produced its own new set of agonies; the peculiar dipping of the clutch he felt all the way from his foot up the left side of his body. He was drenched in sweat by the end of that twenty-minute jaunt. The climb over the fence and the halting passage through briars and over the scuffs and dips of uneven ground translated every jarring inch through his body. A journey he had made without thought before, now it made him feel old, worn out.

He found the body almost immediately. He couldn’t understand how he had missed it previously; his brain had been no doubt addled by the fumes of aviation exhaust, and blinkered by the tunnel vision encouraged by that lens barrel. The body wore no clothes. Little soft tissue too. He wondered if scavengers, in digging for that, might be responsible for removing the other. Most of the flesh had been pilfered, or had disintegrated into the loam. Here was the fatal wound he had inflicted: a heavy blow with a blunt instrument

you know it was a cold chisel

just behind the left ear. Jets were still taking off, profanely, the hundreds of souls on board oblivious to what was being played out beneath them.

I did this, Tommy thought, and: I did not do this.

He went home, but did not remember the journey. He went to bed and slept for sixteen hours. The figure watched over him, baleful, intent, for every single minute.

*

The police were sympathetic, grateful even. They told Tommy that the girl, Molly Case, a 26-year-old waitress from Hyde, had been missing for two weeks and all their leads had dried up. Her boyfriend, Max Leinster (I knew that… I knew that… how did I know that?), 40, a Leeds musician, had vanished shortly after her disappearance and they had no idea where he was. South America, most likely. Either that or Molly’s hefty brothers had caught up with him and he was now slowly feeding the fish at the bottom of some lake. Perhaps they told Tommy that to assuage his fear that he’d be treated as a suspect. Clearly, as their barely concealed scrutiny of his ruined flesh suggested, there was no danger of that. They didn’t even want to know why he had been rooting around in the fields south of the airport. How dangerous could this shrivelled old man be?, he could read in their faces. He’d struggle to murder a salad.

But he had felt her squirm in the dirt under the weight of his hand pressing down. He’d held the chisel high, waiting for her to be still enough to enable him a clean impact. He just… hadn’t been there when it happened.

He took the bus home – the police’s goodwill had not extended to a lift – and wrangled with the contradiction. His heart beat slow, despite his agitation. It seemed to fill his chest. He had never really been aware of his heart before. He pressed his hand to his chest and felt its pulse beneath the new raised flesh of his scar. Sometimes he dreamed that the scar was real, a fire tree growing inside his body from a seed planted there by the lightning. The sense of something filling him up, something inhabiting him, or stripping him away from the inside out was a real and constant persuasion. The lightning seemed to have erased who he was, or thought himself to be, and magicked an intruder into the space he had once filled. He stared into the mirror and it was him, generally, in shape and height and physique, but there seemed to be nothing left in the face that spoke to his memory or his sense of recognition. ‘You could be anybody,’ he said.

He woke up and it was dark and his innocence screamed inside him, even as he felt the rough, dense weight of the chisel, and the meaty, repetitive smack of it at her head, vibrating through the marrow of his arm, causing his teeth to clack together and pinch the flesh of his inner cheek. He had dreamed of his own burial, an event he was sure ought to have happened. He had read about the victims of lightning strikes, how rare it was to survive them. And those that did live, well, ‘life’ wasn’t really a description for what they endured. Perhaps he was dead, and all of this he was experiencing now was the aftershock, the closing down of the brain, the random emission of data as synapses failed, as cells sparked out. But this was no normal graveyard service…

In the dream, he had been alive during the interment. No coffin. Just black bin bags. Nothing so grand as a coffin for something as worthless as him. He lay in the plastic listening to the skitter of grit across layers. No heartfelt platitudes of a vicar who had never met him. Just the grunt and toil of two men, matching the rhythm of their spadework with curses thrown his way. They’d stabbed him so many times there was little shape left to his body, but the fatal blow had not come till near the end of their assault. A knife that penetrated his sternum and tore a hole through the wall of his right ventricle. His pleural cavity had filled up with blood like a bladder. He had listened to his own wet breath in that cramped, pitch-black space, and felt the air turn warm from it. Panic gnawed, but he had withstood the urge to scrabble at the plastic, scream to be let out. He felt the pressure of tons of earth pushing in on his body, deforming it further. Cold descended. Time passed. Someone must come to find him. A man with a dog. An early morning jogger. It always happened.

Something else was coming, though. He could sense it, even here, locked underground. It signalled itself in the rise of individual hairs all over his body. It built up and built up, like the charge in a cell. Tremors of thunder. His senses so attuned that he heard the slither of earthworms as they moved against his wrapping, eager for depth. Here it came. Here it came.

He felt the lightning hit the earth as if in slow motion. Its heat reached through the cold soil like relentless, searching fingers. It entered the coffin and it entered him. It did not stop until it had penetrated his heart. He closed his eyes and the figure he had come to expect at such moments was no longer the hunched, long-haired spectre-within-a-halo he expected, but himself.

*

f/8 and be there. It was what the old pro photographers said whenever talk turned to the latest accessories, the flashguns and carbon fibre tripods, the fast zooms and software. You could have as many expensive add-ons as you liked; if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, it counted for nothing.

The place where he had almost lost his life seemed too tame without the bad weather to enhance it. The hill and the ruins were as inoffensive as anything found on a greetings card. Tommy had grown accustomed to the pain in his back and legs, had learned, if not to master it, then to accept it. He wondered if it was in fact lessening, but more likely his threshold had broadened. The weight of the spade in his hand felt good. It emboldened him, despite his suspicion that he would not be physically up to the task.

The area where the lightning had struck was still black. He found one of his shoes poking from the grass, a molten twist. He knew he was standing at the point where he had been hit without acknowledging the frisson that ran up his spine, like some ghostly aftershock of the event. Ignoring the complaint in his muscles, he began to dig.

It was getting dark by the time the blade hit a density that was not simply more soil. He fished his headlamp from his pocket and strapped it on. He knew he had been getting closer; the earth, where the lightning had passed through it, had created fulgurites, delicate glass tubes that carried within them visual echoes of its searing assault. Petrified lightning. He wiped his face with a sodden coat sleeve and worked at the soil, digging it away from the ragged edges of the bin bag coffin. He didn’t need to clear a path all around it: much of it was torn away. Rats. Worms. Christ. The despairing teeth of whatever lay inside? Tommy scooped handfuls of dirt away from the interior. He flinched when his hand met something that did not yield. Gently he swept it away from the face, wincing when his fingers became entangled in the long, lank hair. He positioned his head so that the beam of light would not pick out a single shred of the corpse and kept digging, wishing he had thought to bring some heavy duty gloves.

He found the chest and peeled away the cheap edges of the jacket that contained it. The ribcage had been blasted open. He smelled the faintest aroma of roasted bone. Tommy shut his eyes and reached inside the hole. He felt a waft of sour air caress him as the thing sighed, but it could not have been that. Just some pocket of foul air released by his digging, that was all. There was something here. It was small and hard, like a pebble. What he had mistakenly believed to be his own heart cried out in recognition.

 

 

 

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