Advent Stories #21

THE MACHINE

mach

When he asked her, she said: ‘A car, wasn’t it? Or was it a bus?’ There was a little smear of mayonnaise on her mouth and her hair was scrunched like dead spiders’ legs at the back, where she had not been able to see it to comb in the mirror. Graham had parked the car by a pub, The Britannia, that overlooked the flat, greasy edge of sea. Inside he had bought them halves of bitter. The barmaid seemed preoccupied, unable to look them in the eye when he ordered. The only other couple were sitting at a table inspecting a camera.

‘Don’t you remember resting your hand on mine? On the gear lever?’

Julia looked at him as if he had asked her to perform an indecent act. Maybe, in asking her to remember, he had. He watched her as she moved her glass on the table, spreading rings of moisture across the cracked varnish. He could smell beef and onion crisps, smoke from the little train that travelled between Hythe and Dungeness, and an underlying tang; the faint whiff of seawater.

‘Can you – ’ he began, but stopped himself. Her answers didn’t matter anymore. He didn’t know how long they should stay here. He didn’t know how long it would take.

Three months ago, he didn’t need to mash her food for her or accompany her up and down the stairs. She wouldn’t slur his name or regard him with a lazy eye. ‘Where are we?’ she said, one Sunday morning as he re-entered the bedroom with a tray of tea and toast. ‘I don’t know where we are.’

He sipped his beer. It tasted sour, as if what had filled it previously had not been properly purged from the glass. The symptoms of brain cancer — or gioblastoma mutiforme as the specialist revealed to them (with an unwelcome flourish, as if he were introducing an unusual item on a menu) — are headaches and lethargy, seizures, weakness and motor dysfunction, behaviour changes and unorthodox thought processes. This form of cancer, the specialist said, was particularly aggressive. If it were a dog, it would be a toza inu.

‘I don’t want the rost of is,’ she said, pushing her drink to one side. ‘In bastes faddy.’

He rubbed her knuckles, white and papery, and tried to smile. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Come on.’

Outside they headed towards the sea, compelled by an unspoken mutual need. She was not to know that he had been here before, many years ago. She just wanted to see the ocean one more time before her sight deteriorated. He allowed her to lean on him and they went slowly over the uneven shingle; it didn’t matter. Time had lost its meaning. Time was nothing anymore other than now and the next thing. ‘Next week’ was as alien to his vocabulary as a phrase of Russian.

The tide was a long way out, visible only as a seam of pale grey that stitched the lead of the sky to the dun of the beach. Fishing boats trapped on the shingle faced the sea, their bows raised as if impatient to return. Explosions of static from their communication radios made her start. She moved into the collapsed light as though immersing herself. The air was thick here. It seemed to coat the beach. Her footsteps in the shingle beat at the friable crust of his mind and in the shape of her progress, the delicacy of her step, he saw how near the end was.

The sea was affecting the light in some subtle way that he had not recognised before. It erased an area above the horizon, a band of vague ochre that she would stare at during the moments when she stopped to rest, as if it might contain words, or the barest outline of them, some code to unpick. An explanation. Around them, the beach slowly buried its secrets. Great knots of steel cable, an anchor that had lost its shape through the accretion of oxidant, cogs so large they might well drive the Earth’s movement. All of it was slowly sinking into the endless shingle.

Us too, he thought, blithely. If we don’t keep moving.

‘He isn’t here,’ she said, panic creeping into her voice.

‘He’ll come,’ I insisted. ‘He’ll come. He always does.’

‘You saib he would be fere.’

She wasn’t going to be pacified. He was tiring, and sat back against one of the drifts of shingle, watched her move away from him, a gently wailing wraith in black clothes that were now too big for her. He lost her for moment, against the distant flutter of black flags on the boats, and when she re-emerged, it was to drop, exhausted, to the stones. He hoped she would be able to sleep, at least for a little while.

A wind was rising, drawing white flecks to the crest of the waves. It was getting rough out there. Small fishing boats tipped and waggled on the surf, bright and tiny against the huge expanses of cobalt pressing in all around them. Behind him, urgent bursts of white noise from the radios wrapped voices that nobody received. The deserted boats looked too blasted by salt and wind to be up to the task of setting sail for dab, pout and whiting.

machi

An elderly couple picked their way through the shingle, hunting for sponges perhaps, or other similarly useless booty. All he remembered seeing on these beaches were rotting fish-heads and surgical gloves, thin, mateless affairs flapping in the stones like milky, viscous sea-creatures that had been marooned by the quick tides. The couple reached Julia, then passed her by, giving her a wide berth.

He hauled himself out of the shingle, noticing how the flinty chips had crept over the toes of his shoes; always the beach was in the process of sucking under, of burying. He tried to understand the motivation for building on something so unsubstantial: the sheds and houses dotting the beach were grim little affairs, colourless, uninviting, utilitarian in the extreme.

He caught up with Julia; she looked withdrawn to the point of translucence. Her skin was a taut, grey thing that shone where her bones emerged. Salt formed white brackets around her mouth. The shingle had shifted across her boots, completely concealing her feet. He gently drew her upright and picked the strands of hair away from her eyes. Her scalp gleamed palely through a scant matting that had once been thick, black and silky. When she opened her eyes though, everything else became superfluous. He felt scorched by her gaze, as he had for the past twenty years. Even with her flesh failing so quickly, she could not be anything other than beautiful if she had strength enough to open her eyes and look around her.

‘Are you hungry?’

She shook her head. ‘Where is he?’

He smiled. ‘You’ve always been impatient, haven’t you? I told you he doesn’t come till dark. We’ve got an hour yet. At least.’

‘I want to walk,’ she said, looking around her as if assessing the landscape for the first time.

‘You sure you aren’t too tired?’ he said. ‘Okay. Come on.’

They trudged up the beach, the strange, stunted vegetation like hunks of dried sponge or stained blotting paper trapped between the stones: sea campion, kale, Babington’s orache. Angling towards the row of weatherboard cottages that lined the Dungeness Road he looked back to the great hulk of the gas-cooled reactors of the power station. Maybe they were causing the sizzle in the air, or perhaps it was the taut lines of the fishermen, buzzing with tension as lugworm and razor clam were cast far beyond the creaming tides. He told Julia that special grilles had been constructed over the cold water intake pipes for the reactors because seals kept being drawn into them. She nodded and shook her head. One eye was squeezed shut, her lank hair swung about her lowered face. A vein in her temples reminded him of mould in strong blue cheese. The colour of decay. Nature consuming itself. He reached for her hand but she snatched it away as if burnt.

They toured the strange, attractive garden at Prospect Cottage where he took a picture of her standing by a circular pattern of stones that were adorned with pieces of coloured glass and a single, brilliant white crab’s claw. A rusting, battered trumpet had been nailed to the back door but it was so deteriorated, he couldn’t tell if it was the right way up. Though the day was overcast, it had a dry, scorched smell and the air was unpleasantly metalic in his mouth, as if he had pressed a spoon against his fillings.

The previous time he had been here — the only other time — had been with his school on a field trip as part of his geography course. The teacher who accompanied them, Mr Wilson, spoke with what Fudgey, his best mate, had said was an ‘X-rated lisp’. His sibilants weren’t so much softened as slurred. He always sounded drunk and though the boys had suspected he might be, they never smelled any booze on him; only the musty depth of the tweed that he wore or stale pipe smoke. Mint imperials.

‘It’s because he’s missing a few teeth on his top set,’ one of the more liberal teachers explained, when Fudgey had been overheard mimicking him. ‘You should see him trying to eat a banana. I have to leave the staff room.’

Mr Wilson was more interested in birdspotting than the shape and behaviour of the land. At lunch one day, he had taken some of the more interested boys with him — squeezed into his beige Rover — to the reservation and passed around binoculars that smelled of the clothes he wore. He pointed out garganey and greenshank and Balearic shearwater. On the way back, he allowed the boys half an hour on the beach while he went to post some letters and make a phone call. ‘You can take off your ties but leave your blazers on. This isn’t a holiday. You are still representing your school.’

You are shhhhtill represhhhhenting your shhhhhchool,’ Fudgey intoned, spot on. ‘Represhhenting my arshhe, more like.’

They kicked about in the shingle and threw stones at the half-submerged gears and cogs and bolts. They agreed that this is what the world would be like after America and the Soviets swapped H-bombs. Merce found a fish-head and forced it on to the end of a stick then chased Bebbo around — ‘Snog it! Snog it Bebbo! Snog the fish, you fishy-faced piss-pant!’ — until he was crying. Fudgey and Graham broke away from the other three boys and headed towards the water. A naturally formed ledge gave way to a steep slope of shingle. At the edge, they could see what had been concealed from them until two or three feet away from where the land sank towards the water.

The woman was on her knees, her jacket and blouse discarded. Her bra was lost for a moment against the shocking white of her flesh. She was weeping, trying to cut into the skin of her forearms with a piece of shingle. To her right, his back to her desperation, a man in a panama hat was sitting cross-legged in a deck chair, smoking a cigarette as he watched the horizon. All the boys could see of him was a fat, neatly barbered nape bulging over a collar; the merest edge of brow.

‘Lovely view,’ Fudgey said, a little queasily. ‘Let’s get back to the car.’

‘Wait,’ Graham said, but he couldn’t explain what it was he wanted them to wait for. After a while, Fudgey’s insistent tugging at his elbow broke through his fascination and he allowed himself to be led away.

The following day, the final day of their week in Dungeness, Mr Wilson gave them another period of free time. Fudgey wanted to play football, but Graham declined, explaining that he had a headache and just wanted to go for a walk on his own, to clear his mind. He made his way back to the spot on the beach where they had seen the woman. The deck chair was still there. Where she had been kneeling, he found a smooth, glistening curve of steel buried in the shingle. He dug at it a little, moving away the stones from each side until he had unearthed a disc as large as a train’s wheel. What looked like caterpillar tracks, clean and freshly oiled, snaked around the wheel and deep into the ground. As hard as he pulled, Graham couldn’t budge it. He saw too, once he rocked back on to his heels, breathing hard with the exertion, how some of the stones were spattered with black spots of blood.

He stopped at a hot dog stall on his way back to the Bed and Breakfast and ordered a Coke and a packet of ready salted crisps. It was only as he was handing over the money to the woman that he recognised her.

‘Hello,’ he said, and his voice cracked on the second syllable like a recording on perished tape. The woman regarded him as if he were a retard; rightly so, he realised. Hellos were gambits, usually, not something you said when you were about to be on your way.

‘Sorry,’ he explained. ‘I saw you on the beach yesterday. You were — ’

‘I know what I was doing,’ she hissed, her eyes flicking away from his to scan their immediate surroundings. She came down the few steps at the rear of the van and grabbed him by the collar. Her cuff slid away from her wrist a little as she dragged him inside and he saw a pinkish bandage pinned tightly around her forearm. She closed the door and bolted it, unclasped the latch that kept the serving hatch opened. It was very hot inside, and heavy with the smells of enthusiastically recycled cooking oil and raw onions. Graham fed crisps into his mouth, trying hard not to appear frightened.

‘Would you like some Coke?’ he asked, offering her the unopened tin. She slapped it from his hands. He stopped eating and neatly closed the bag with a few twists.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice gusting from her collapsed mouth like heat from an oven. She tousled his hair and sat on her stool, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers. ‘He said that I would have an answer before nightfall tonight. The wheels had been greased, he said. He said that the technology, though old, was of a perfection you would not find anywhere else. Ancient technology. He told me that it wasn’t certain if it had been made by man or not.’

She snorted, a sudden, bitter sound that was devoid of any laughter she might have meant for it. ‘Anyway, I don’t care about that. As long as it brings him back to me.’ She stared intently at Graham. ‘My husband,’ she said, spicily, as if it were obvious. ‘A sweet, sweet man. He would help anybody. Stupid, lovely man.’

Her left hand had moved to her forearm and worried at the bandage. The pinkness at its core deepened. Graham stared at the bolt on the door. He retrieved his can of Coke and pulled the ring opener. Beige froth fizzed out over his hand. The woman didn’t pay him any attention. It was as if the memory of what had happened to her husband numbed her to extraneous sensation.

‘There was a car on a dual carriageway. The A12 going north, towards Ipswich. A nasty bitch of a night. Wind. Rain. So hard it was coming at you side on. The car hit the central reservation and went out of control. End over end job. Came to a stop in the middle of the road. Eddie, my husband, and me, we were about a hundred yards behind. He pulled over and put his hazard lights on, ran over to help. I sat there because we were on our way to a party and I didn’t want to get my hair wet. I’d just had it done, especially.

‘Seconds later he was hit by a Ford Mondeo doing ninety miles an hour. Do you know… the force of the impact knocked him out of his shoes. Lace-ups. And they pinched him a little, those shoes. He was always going on about them, how he ought to get another pair.’

Graham rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. The saltiness of the crisps had made his lips sore. ‘What happened on the beach?’ he asked.

The woman closed her eyes and then clenched them even tighter, as if the darkness behind them was not deep enough. ‘You don’t need to know anything. I’m sorry you saw it. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘Who was that man?’

By degrees she relaxed. Her eyes reopening, she reached behind her to unbolt the door. ‘You can go,’ she said, and her voice was soft and likeable now.

‘Was he your boyfriend?’ Graham asked.

The trace of a smile. She shook her head and then she frowned. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I suppose he was, after a fashion.’

‘I don’t remember how I got back to the bed and breakfast.’

‘Sorry?’

They were sitting on a bench watching the colours in the sky warp as the sun ground itself out against the black mass of the power station. Julia’s skin was stippled from the cold; what colour it had enjoyed now thinned to that of cooked chicken, but she refused Graham’s jacket when he offered it to her.

‘I was just remembering,’ he said, turning his face away from hers, ‘the first time I came here. With the school.’

‘Where was I?’

‘I didn’t know you then. We didn’t meet for another fifteen years.’

‘Where you seeing someone else?’

Graham watched the edge of the sun slip behind the reactors. Parts of the sky were green. The sunsets here were always spectacular.

‘No, Jules. I was only fourteen.’

She giggled. ‘You were neber fourteej.’

The last three of the day-trippers that had come to Dungeness for a dose of stinging surreality got into their Ford Focus and backed out of the pub car park. They all turned to look out of their windows as they trundled past the bench, their faces partially eclipsed by the oily flash of weak streetlamps on the glass.

‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.

‘It could be workse,’ she said. ‘I mean, God, I could have a brain tuzour.’

He drew Julia gently upright and kissed the top of her head. Sometimes, when she slept, he would nuzzle her hair, enjoying the clean, warm smell of her scalp. He endured a second or two of real panic when he thought of her gone, her and her unique smell, and it seemed more unspeakable, for a moment, that he might not be able to recall her scent rather than the way she spoke or talked or touched him.

‘We should go now,’ he said. ‘He might be here.’

The strange buzzing noise persisted, though it was not so much in his ears anymore as deep within him, like the thrum one feels in the chest at a rock concert. It was as if the vibrations were rising from the stones themselves and, if he trained his view on the trembling shoreline, they appeared to writhe in the gloaming, pretending to be the leading edge of a tide long retreated.

He makes things perfect she had said, all those years ago. He had come across her one more time, on the morning of their departure. She was sitting in a bus shelter and the gin was coming off her in sharp waves, like the poisonous veils of a deep sea fish repelling unwanted attention. Well, not so much him as the beach he tends, and what lies beneath it. Even before him, before there was that stretch of Kent, before the stones and the sea, even, there was something that moved and rotated and ticked off the seconds, and all the while it was rusting and seizing up. Like an old person. Exactly like an old person.

Her eyes, when she looked up at him, were clownishly large, filmed with tears. But it won’t die. My husband came back to me last night. The tears in his body, they were all gone, like he had zipped them up, as easy as that. He’s… he’s perfect. But I’m scared of what perfection means.

He had gone back to the bus, his mind burning with her words. How, as a child, she had watched two girls playing in the surf. And one had been sucked out by a surge of water. And the other girl had been crying and somehow, minutes later, managed to grasp hold of her limp, outstretched arm and pull her from the water. They had lain together on the stones, one of them heaving and wailing, the other as still as the beached fishing boats that gathered shadows beneath their cracked, peeling bows.

She had stared at them for an age, while everything surrounding the girls, everything beyond her focus, seethed and blurred and warped. And she had blinked and the girls had risen and walked away up the beach, their hands linked, laughing, laughing, with wet hair and the white impressions of the stones on their legs and arms. She found a highly polished lever, brassy with oil, sticking out of the stones where they had lain. When she tried to move it, she felt a deep ratcheting under her toes and the lever sank out of sight.

There was a deckchair on the beach now, the alternating white stripes of its ballooned fabric like ghostly ribs floating above the ground. Graham smelled cigarette smoke and thought he could see a pulsing coal hovering a little way to the right of the chair.

‘I’m tired, Gray,’ Julia said. He removed his jacket and pressed her back into the pebbles, cushioning her head, which looked tiny and white and punched in with too many dark holes and shadows. There was a moon low in the sky, like an albino’s eyelash. What light there was came from the stars, or the ineffectual blocks of orange in the pub windows. A great arm of rusted steel reached out of the stones further up the beach, the hinges where its elbow might had long been gritted up with salt and time. Perhaps it was a crane, or a digger, a model of which he had enthusiastically played with as a boy. He had seen other heavy plant around the beach at Dungeness, silent, slowly being subsumed by the stones, like mammoths caught in tar. Nothing moved here, but change was constant.

Graham approched the figure. ‘Do you look after the beach?’ he asked. The man looked no different, despite the intervening years. When he turned around, Graham could not meet his eyes. The mouth wore a sweet smile and he inclined his head towards the chair. Graham went to sit down, but saw that the man intended for him to take what was lying there. He picked the stone up and moved away. Behind him, the creak of the deck chair and the rasp of a match.

‘Here?’ he called. ‘Is here okay?’ There was no reply. The sound of the sea was almost lost to distance now. There was the barest whisper, but that might well have been his own breath, hurrying on his lips as he bared his arm to a beach that suddenly seemed to whiten, as if the moisture on the pebbles had evaporated in an instant.

The stone in his fingers felt warm and familiar. It had been honed, and he pressed the edge against his skin. Beneath him ran a tremor, from the north end of the beach to the south. The pebbles chuckled as they realigned themselves. When the blood came, Graham looked up at the night sky and waited. Despite the wheeling areas of nothing at his shoulders, he had never felt so smothered. After a little while he was able to return his attention to the wound. Blood tigered his arm. It had drizzled the patch of stones by his foot. From somewhere, what looked like spark plugs and the teeth of a partially concealed cog had emerged. They gleamed in the subtle light, shop fresh, it seemed, oiled, primed for use. Infinitesimally, the cog turned. He heard Julia shift in the stones, a couple of metres away but he could not see any detail in the black shape she made.

machin

He thought of the woman, and her failed attempts to perfect her husband. Unlike the girl she had witnessed on the beach, he was too far removed from what it was to be human. All that had happened was that his injuries had been bettered, had reached a sublime point that could not be bested by the crude materials that had served him previously.

Perfection, he could see now, never had to mean something good.

The man in the deckchair had gone. The pebbles shifted again. Graham’s feet were buried in them. He felt something mesh with the leather of his shoes. A metallic taste filled his mouth. A chain had wound itself around his hand and was binding the muscles of his arm. Blood coursed along the links, oil-black in the night. Where was the difference here? He was soft and it was hard, but they were both machines, in the end. Machines needed other people in order to work properly. An hour, two hours later, his body hardened by fatigue and the attentions of the machine, Graham, by degrees, felt himself being released.

He remembered how he had thought the machinery was slowly being buried. How he had attributed its sounds to other things. He had been wrong in so many other aspects of his life that to be mistaken now was hardly unexpected. He trudged over to the shockingly small shape of his wife. He held her close to him, feeling her bones through the twill of his jacket. When he heard Julia’s breath leave her body, the tired echo of the surf collapsing on the stones, that too came as no surprise. He watched the sky at the horizon slowly flood with colour. The sun would rise before long but he didn’t need it to be able to see the shining grid of machinery pumping and gyrating across the beach. For a little while it seemed rejuvenated, super-real like an image manipulated by computers. He watched until spent, it grew still. The stones shifted and soon there were just the occasional glimpses of gears and pistons, as it was when he had arrived many years ago.

Like Julia, the beach was striving for perfection. Unlike her, it had yet to attain it. She was real to him and yes, even beautiful in the dawn. The smell of her was deep in him, of him. He would not forget. A part of her, at least, was perfect now.

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