"Above the house I sensed a kind of ball of flame, or a dragon propelled towards me, a crashing mountain of noise like steel and timber and bone and fire and stone cast down upon the house and now only an inch away from the roof. I anticipated the force ripping every brick and tile and window and scattering them for miles around, for miles up into the air and for miles down into the ground"
Lizzie wrote, and in the envelope were other letters – rather, hand-written notes from other friends and old work colleagues. She had gone round them all and gathered their little paragraphs – some asking me questions, some stating what they had been up to, some recounting bits of gossip I might be interested in, others criticising me for what one person called “Going all Grizzly Adams on us!” – and she had put them all in an envelope and sent them on to me.
Wonky Wanda (we called her this because she always seemed to go out with men who had some kind of physical disability) sent a wonderful pile of photos from my work-place’s leaving party. In one picture, (we are all there) (a waiter took the pic) there’s me looking shy and delighted, Lizzie pouting (Lizzie never worked at the same place as me but she had done some work there so everyone knew her), Wanda sitting in Gunther’s lap (he’s in a wheelchair), Gunther looking startled, Josh wearing a long blonde wig from a costume shop (he thought it would amuse me – it didn’t really – I don’t know why – perhaps it was because his nose is too short) and appearing to make some kind of aggressive, drunken yell (men do that at a particular point on evenings out – I think the point is around 10.45pm – give or take the odd pint), Lucy is looking serious (her nick-name – behind her back always – was Lucy Bladder because since her second child her peeing habits have been free and loose to say the least – hence the serious face – she’s way too terrified to laugh at jokes anymore!), then, lastly, there’s my old boss Agamemnon (so-called because he’s one hell of a hard task-master but on a night-out always requests that the DJ play ‘Agadoo’ – it’s the oddest dichotomy in the world to see one right hard-faced bugger ‘pushing pineapple’ and ‘shaking the tree’ on the dance-floor!) – we’re a lovely bunch, even though we are so different in many ways! Just looking at them makes my mind digress and go off in tangents and cul-de-sacs and basically go all messy and marvellous at the same time (what’s strongest, messy or marvellous, I really couldn’t say). And after a few minutes I have to sit down because all the many recollections are so multiplied and chaotic (on top of each other too and fragmented – phew! imagine that!) and all different colours and all loud.
Yes, loud – I’d forgotten all about loud. This house is so often so quiet. You know, I’d really forgotten loud existed.
This was about two weeks ago and I still have the pile of little letters and pictures sitting on a chest of drawers in my main room. From time to time I glance at them and finger them for reassurance, and all I feel from them is love and the moment is beautiful, but taut and raw at the same time, because I miss them all and I miss parts of my old life. But I can’t see me going back. Going back would be like inching towards a mousetrap that has a smile and a hug in place of a block of cheese. The end result being the same: my spine broken irreparably.
Loudness. Not that it’s always quiet here. The astronaut sees to that. One night in particular, he really did see to it that the silence was shattered.
What was I doing when I first noticed it? That’s right, I’d been washing knickers in the kitchen and in the process of ringing them all out when I heard the sound of a plane overhead. That was so unusual in itself that I was tempted to rush out and look at it, but it was late in the evening and, even if there was a clear sky outside, all I would see would be the lights blinking. I thought of people going on holiday with expectations and light clothing that feels curiously uncomfortable just because it’s alien, or returning home with souvenirs and tans that would instantly fade a little on landing just out of sheer disappointment at the climate that it stepped out into.
As the sound started to get louder I began to think that it was maybe an Air Force plane on night manoeuvres that was changing height rapidly and in a way that would be unusual for a passenger plane. I stopped what I was doing and listened to the rare sound of noise and tried to picture the plane – it’s a curious fact that plane noise almost always sounds as if it’s right above your head, only for you to find that it’s a mere speck in the sky, almost as if they drop packets of noise like food parcels as they fly by.
"If there is a noise that is like the devil arriving to take murderous and hate-filled souls out of this world, then this was it"
With my ears still focussed on the increasing noise of the plane’s engines, I moved from the kitchen into my main room in order to place my elegant and diminutive smalls on a place to dry. But as I entered the room, I started to become more concerned at the noise growing above me. From a distant rumble to a loud groan the noise had grown, but now it was turning into a screech and a dissonant and piercing whine. I looked at the room around me. An empty vase on a chest of drawers was rattling and I felt the ground beneath me vibrate. I thought about running somewhere or hiding behind or under something – but what? and where?
Before I knew it I was putting my hands up to my ears. I swallowed. I’m pretty sure that I whispered something about God and about angels and about a firmament – whatever all that is. Above the house I sensed a kind of ball of flame, or a dragon propelled towards me, a crashing mountain of noise like steel and timber and bone and fire and stone cast down upon the house and now only an inch away from the roof. I anticipated the force ripping every brick and tile and window and scattering them for miles around, for miles up into the air and for miles down into the ground. If there is a noise that is like the devil arriving to take murderous and hate-filled souls out of this world, then this was it. It too sounded murderous and hate-filled, almost as if it contained every damned soul in its loud, tortured, aching belly.
There was a ringing, cacophonous explosion like a bomb ripping through the floor and kicking up all the floorboards. Alongside it was another noise – full to the brim with energy and complexity and devastating anger – that moved through the house as a wave. The force threw me across the room and threw me upside down and against the far away wall of the room. The movement was so quick. I was thrown like a scrap of paper. My head and my back smacked against the wall and I was on the ground and delirious in seconds. The room was suddenly in absolute darkness and my head swam. All noise was gone now, but solely because my ears were shattered. All I could hear was a loud hiss in my head and all I could see was scanty shapes that flickered and appeared to slide around in front of me.
I must have stumbled out into the hallway of my suite of rooms. There I detected a vague swathe of light coming from under the door that led to the main corridor beyond.
I opened the door. I think I expected to see fire, smoke and wreckage, but by the dull and subdued light that was there, the house seemed completely normal. It was not at all clear where the light was coming from; everywhere I looked, the intensity seemed uniform in its weakness – no place looked any more likely than another to be generating the light. I started to climb the stairs looking for the light’s source, the high-pitched hissing still in my ears.
As I started to climb up to the second floor, I suddenly realised that there was one place I hadn’t looked as I had been climbing the stairs. The thought came to me along with the absolute realisation that the one place I hadn’t looked was indeed the place where the light was coming from. That place was right above my head.
My foot froze on a stair and I sensed the hair on my head and neck begin to bristle and tingle. A feeling like an electric eel scurrying around my stomach appeared from nowhere. Then I became aware that my feet wouldn’t move any further, nor would my hand move on the banister, nor my head arch upwards. Only my eyes moved, side to side, up and down frantically like terrified rabbits darting round a cage.
A two second burst of distant static. Just like the others, so short and so confused that as soon as it had gone I was unsure if it had happened at all. I glanced up. It was almost involuntary, as if someone had called my name and shattered my paralysis in doing so. As my head moved upwards, the brightness intensified in my eyes. And as I looked, for the first time, into the very centre of that light, I immediately heard the words: “It’s your turn.”
The words were delivered so quickly and almost dispassionately, and were bathed in a burst of static that lasted as long as it took to utter the words. On either side, silence. Not that I heard much of it. My eyes were consumed by the sight of an astronaut – but white, spectral, glowing and unreal – suspended from the ceiling right above my head at the very top of the stairwell. The figure seemed to be squeezed into the corner of the roof and the walls, the helmeted head appearing to look straight at me, the very blackness of the visor seeming like a great and dead eye pulling me in like a worm hole – black, but reflecting the world around it, all stretched and curved like the shape of the visor, as if reality was being distorted and all the shapes of the world were being skewed and warped. The figure did not move. At least, not that I noticed. In an instant, I took in the white suit, the heavy boots and large gloves and some rectangular pack on his back for breathing. After that instant, I was immediately running, my feet almost sliding down every step, every touch of my heel seemed like a rapid stumble. All I was aware of around me was the meagre, ineffectual glow of light that gradually seemed to be intensifying around me as I ran down and down the stairs. It was behind me. The astronaut. Close behind me. This was all I could sense or be aware of as I ran.
"My eyes were consumed by the sight of an astronaut – but white, spectral, glowing and unreal"
As I reached the bottom of the stairs I ran towards the main door of my rooms. Sensing darkness around me I glanced behind and noticed that there was nothing there. I stopped dead and stared at the point where the stairwell curved away from view. Then, in a split-second decision, I began to run again – back into my rooms, the door slammed shut so hard that I was sure that something deep in the ground boomed like an earthquake, and somewhere, perhaps in the Philippines, a butterfly felt the effect and fell off a branch, then sat on the ground feeling only anger that the universe’s laws had come back to haunt it.
I stood frozen somewhere. Not sure where. I didn’t move. I didn’t do anything. Not anything that I can remember anyway. I don’t even think I tugged my hair. My mind raced, but I felt it seizing-up and shutting-down at the same time. The pain I had felt in my back and head was gone. The delirium in my head and the hissing in my ears were gone too, although replaced by confusion rather than concussion. I felt a wheezing coming almost from my stomach, so deep down inside did it feel – it was sickly, jangling and poisonous, heavy and exhausting. It was like thin, spindly fingers dragging me down somewhere, and I was powerless to resist something that seemed so much a part of my identity.
By morning, my lungs, my stomach and my temples ached with the night of agonising breathing that had just taken place, and only my eyelids moved without discomfort and extreme lethargy. I don’t know when I finally got up, but when I did I found my mind to be empty of everything, almost as if the experiences of the night before had erased me, and left me as just some heartbeat with limited awareness, that knows nothing more than that it is just about alive and not, as yet, entirely, completely dead.
No, that's not quite true. Right beside nothingness there was a peripheral thought, sketchy and embryonic. All it said was: "It really was an astronaut, but suspended against a ceiling in a house. On the ground. An astronaut."
I recall the disjointed sense that entered my head and made my mind feel that it lay, all of a sudden, at an angle and I couldn’t right it. It was the sense that things had changed without me noticing. I realised that I’d left the door open once too often. Now the astronaut was inside the house.