Story for a snow day


Tavish gave a low whistle as the grainy mess on the portable screen in front of him coalesced into an identifiable image. Still grainy, but clear enough to coax a whistle out of the usually unflappable geologist.

“Pierce!” he shouted. “Oi, Pierce!” His voice sounded flat in the landscape, and this high up there was nothing for the sound to echo from – had it been able to fight its way through the heavy, crystalline air in the first place.

Tavish whistled again, this time through his teeth. A high-pitched tone that would have cut through less severe meteorological conditions and raised the attention of its intended recipient, but in these ones, did not. He called again.

“Ho there! Pierce! Fucking Pierce! Would you come look at this?! Oi!” He added an enthusiastic semaphore dance to his repertoire hoping to catch his colleague’s eye with the jumping and waving his arms in the air he titled ‘neon commotion’ on the spot.

Pierce looked up wearing the bewildered expression of one whose deep concentration has been wrested unwilling back to earth.

“Mmwhat?” he enquired.

“The screen. Just come look, will you? I think there’s a fucking road down there. With vehicles on it. And people.”

Although the words fell like ice cubes to the ground before Pierce could catch them, Tavish’s ordinarily muted face was animated enough with a shifting melange of excitement and horror that he got up in a hurry to go see.



“Yep. Okay. Gotcha. Man, I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Uh huh, I’ll see you both in 30.”

Swift disconnected the neural net, gave her dog, Bones, a quick whuffle of the ears on her way down the short hallway and grabbed her coat – patched together from multiple mismatched shorthaired hides with an under-jacket of sheepskin and a gilet of thick, wiry wool on top – before opening the door and holding it there, expectant. Her expectation let down, she raised her eyebrows at Bones, who sat patiently at the other end of the hall, panting gently and sweeping the hard-pack behind her with her besom of a tail, head cocked to one side as though to say, “¿Que?”. Swift rolled her eyes and flicked her head towards the open doorway. “Come on, dog,” she said. “You’re letting the heat out.” And with that she strode out into the flittering dark, grabbing a torch from the sconce by the doorway and with the dog trotting at her heel, a loll-tongued grin on its freckled face.

There wasn’t much you could do for transport these days. It wasn’t so much that the knowledge was lacking as it was the ability to manufacture and shape the materials. Technology had adapted in some truly remarkable ways since the white wash, or WWIII, as it was sardonically known in the hubs, but raw materials were almost impossible to come by. Without raw materials there was no way to build the heavy machinery required for manufacturing at scale or mine for the fuel needed to run the heavy machinery to manufacture its bloody self to begin with. It was a whole chicken/egg thing nobody had ever quite managed to figure out. The upshot was that any remotely sizeable machinery was a) very thin on the ground, and b) only used in the most extreme of circumstances. You could power small electronic devices with your own electrical energy, and there were portable leg-powered turbines fitted with friction dynamos for anything a bit larger. But automated transport was all but unheard of.

Dog teams, or shaggy splay-hooved ponies. A goat cart. That was about the sum of your available options.

Swift set out on foot, holding the torch high ahead of her in the blizzard and keeping one hand on the day-glo pick-and-cord line that led all the way to her colleague Pierce’s house on the far border of the compound. Tavish was already there.



It wasn’t that anyone was naïve enough to think there’d be no-one down there. Under the tundra. Enough of history – hell, civilisation even – survived that the information was transferred from what remained of the archaic internet to the neural web, for those who had lived close enough to the remaining stuttering pockets of industrialisation to have it implanted when it was first released. A handful of the old places had lasted a while – after the Wash had swept across the globe – by dint of latitude, altitude, or some other good fortune that allowed it to survive where others were engulfed by the encroaching cold snap that took over the planet.

Everyone out on the fringes of what remained of humanity lived primitive lives at best, most of them with a good dose apiece of rickets, from the vitamin D deficiency exacerbated by their darker skin tone – olive was all it took – and scurvy, from lack of greens, which loosened their teeth in their skulls and gave their hair and eyes a dull look. Scurves, people from the hubs called them. ‘Biners, they were called in turn, on account of the chalky complexion that had triumphed with the increasing lack of meaningful sunlight. With humanity returned to a more tribal existence, in-group preference was exaggerated, and it was hard to move from one group to the other without being made to feel like the most royal of sore thumbs.

Swift was a Scurve. Well, without the namesake, anyway. But neither Tavish nor Pierce really noticed such surface-level inconsequences when there was a half decent thinking machine to be tussled with beneath. Swift, in short, could hold her own, even among those adapted for this life. And for the rest, she took homemade vitamin D supplements made from dried powdered mushrooms and hydro-farmed algae blended with a good lug of rendered animal fat. Whatever animal could be trapped did the job, although how palatable the resulting concoction was depended largely on the species of the binding agent. Never mind. She sucked it down dutifully each day. Eggs helped, too, when she could get them. There wasn’t much scratch around for poultry.

Gathered all together now in Pierce’s firelit cabin, the three self-styled scientists – a geologist, a meteorologist and a climatologist – discussed today’s findings and batted some ideas around as to how they might go about learning more. It might be an important scientific and historical study, but – which was more vital – there might be salvageable ‘stuff’ down there. Stuff was the agreed-upon scientific term they decided to go with. Stuff could be useful. Or it could be life-saving for the inhabitants of this particular frozen corner of the earth. Learning more about what was down there, under Great Static, would help them and the hub leaders decide whether to risk the fuel on a full-scale excavation.

Bones lay by the fire allowing her face to be head-butted by Pierce’s bobcat hybrid and cocking an occasional ear at crescendos in the conversation, before settling with a pointed huff-and-grumble when it resumed normal pitch.

When they had decided on the best course of action, along with one or two contingencies, they conferenced into the network and put forward their suggestions to the hub leaders. In the meantime, all the information gleaned so far would be uplinked to the neural web and thus be made available to anyone implanted, on the off chance that someone in one of the hubs dotted around the world had any useful input.

They decided on spiders for the initial exploration, and set about charging them from their own source – even Bones and Bob the sort-of bobcat were roped in – ready to set out for the glacier at first light. Equipment and provisions went into tough skin bags and were packed on a sled, to be pulled by Pierce’s ragtag team.



He – or rather, his depressing and piecemeal record and his seventeen-year-old bag o’ bones – was discovered by scientists drilling for ice cores on the vast edifice known as the Great Static glacier, in the Hog’s Rump Tundra, erstwhile East Anglia, UK. At a depth of some 800m the drill had struck a thin layer of metal followed by a sizeable air pocket, and mobile ground-penetrating radar had been brought in to investigate at great fuel cost. The reason behind the glacier’s name was what made it of interest: the densely compacted snow-ice was on more or less flat footings, and so it just kept getting thicker and thicker as more snow was deposited and compacted, never actually flowing anywhere. Which explained how it had gotten so damn thick in the relatively short time since the White Wash back in 2018.

Safe excavation of the magnitude required to allow a team down from the surface was impossible; the ice river didn’t move much, but it did move some, and the danger of any tunnel bored through it becoming warped and trapping whoever might be down there was simply too great. The lead scientist, Dr. Pierce, had opted for octicbots, otherwise known as ice-spiders, to be sent down instead; the mechanical spiders had the advantage of coming in a variety of sizes, and the fine-yet-robust machinery could both drill partway into the ice using the distal articulations in their eight telescopic legs, and hammer them into any tiny fissures they found with enough percussive force to send webs of cracks skittering across the surface of the ice. Pun intended. The skittish, tickling noise a pack of them made moving across it was of a type to make your skin crawl, even with the general lack of invertebrate life around to serve as a backlash of childhood nightmares.

Scavenging for usable hardware bore little fruit; the immense pressure exerted by the surrounding ice coupled with the year-round sub-20 temperatures meant that most things shattered when even gingerly probed by the scuttling spiders. To the scientists’ surprise, the 30 metres of ice running through and immediately above the road was composed of salt water – like an immense tidal surge had been frozen solid while still in motion – but the lack of oxygen had prevented corrosion. Now the site was exposed to even the thin atmosphere of the tundra they would have to work fast, because that was about to change.

The road had been gridlocked when the surge hit, they discovered, although many of the vehicles had been crushed over time. But somehow, a large bus – complete with its very own air pocket ­– survived. And so, for a while, had the driver and his twelve fleeing passengers, including one teenage boy and his account, begun as a video diary on his phone, then a series of other phones and devices – the preserved micro-SSDs could be uploaded to the neural web easily enough – then, when batteries had all given out, his own notebook, followed by a spread to any scrap of paper he could lay his hands on and finally, scratched into any exposed metal on the buckled inner shell of the coach with a bit of broken glass. According to a forensic analysis of the spider pics sent up to the surface via neural relay, the last few entries were made with bits of gnawed rib.

The spiders retrieved what they could, spraying any perishable material with an insta-set polymer compound before touching it, and took pictures of the rest before the rust obliterated everything. It began cheerily enough, given the circumstances.

KC Video Transcript, 2 March 2018, 10:14am, Duration: 13m47s

KC [teenager, animated]: Yo, Internet. Fuck. Fuuuck. Check this out. We all [pans phone camera around a gathered group. Flash on. Dark] just survived the craziest apocalypse shit! Like, two, three days ago. It’s been fucking mental. [A number of the group – older – tut. Presume at his language?] Get this. So, when the flood warnings start blaring everything hits the fan [contemporary idiom?], yeah, and I reckon the whole fucking world starts running around like a headless fucking chicken. [Cont. id.?] [More tutting.]

We [pans camera again], us lot yeah, we all end up together on this bus – this fucking miracle of a bloody bus [some smiles, some shell-shocked expressions among the group] – but we’re alright. We’re alright. There’s two fully loaded snack trolleys in the galley, and look, it’s cold enough to keep the fresh stuff fresh a while, am-i-right? [Winks.] And there’s a few miniatures to keep us warm n’all [winks]. But we’re gonna need rescuing pretty soon, alright? [Various gestures of assent among group.] We’re on the A47 [location marker?] near Trowse heading in the direction of Norwich? Just past the lights before you turn right towards County Hall.

I’m gonna go round the group now so you know who’s here, and then we’ll get this little beauty posted, alright? [Looks around group.] [Moves phone so camera points at first person on left and goes around each member in turn.]

Soft-spoken woman [middle-aged, shy]: Er, hi. Uh, I’m Vicky. I’m from just outside Norwich and I’ve got a daughter and a grandson to get back to at home. [Waves at camera.] Hi kids. I’ll be home soon. Don’t worry about me, I’m sure they’ll send help as soon as they realise we’re here. Love you both.

[Pan right.]

Old couple [both shocked]: [Him] Um, well, hello. We’re – that is, Di, my wife, and I. Um, I’m Ed – we’re actually from Portsmouth, just at the seaside for our summer holiday. We’ve got family waiting for us [squeezes wife’s hand and smiles at her]. We just want them to know we’re safe [squeezes hand again] and, God willing, we’ll be there as soon as we can. [Turns to wife.] Isn’t that right, love? [Her, shaky voice] Oh. Yes loves. Course we will. And we’ve got sticks of rock for the kids, Janet. Will you tell them, dear? [Tapers off.]

And so on around the group. There’s Tamsin – Tammy – a forty-seven-year-old divorced stylist with a teenage son; she doesn’t seem to notice KC’s Estuary idiolect. Then there’s Pete and Marie, middle-aged couple out on a day trip to the beach for that bracing sea air with Pete’s mum, Greta; Betty, Vi (short for Violet), Linda and Prim (Primrose is the flower this one’s named for), a pair of Bridge partners out having tea and scones at a tearoom near the coach station when the sirens set up their mournful, persistent wail; David, local business man hoping (though he doesn’t say so) to see his younger mistress again, if only for one last romp, please God; and finally, Len, the driver, who didn’t sign up for any of this and who has a grown-up son and daughter and a granddaughter on the way, due imminently. We come back round to—

KC [turns camera to face himself]: And I’m Dan: apprentice bricklayer and all-round dude, and I ain’t never letting my boys forget who’s tha [cont. id.] boss, innit. [Cont. id.]

[Long pause. Face and voice drop, group looks uncomfortable.] But look, yeah. Not all of us made it… There’s three people. Two guys and a woman. [Female voice sobs off camera.] Down in the luggage hold. We put them there, cuz [id.], you know.

[Reaches in pocket, pulls out three small cards, looks at each in turn] Caroline Matheson [holds ID up to camera], Robert Murray [holds up ID] and Mike Ford [ditto]. Sorry. To their families, I mean. [Drops camera to side.]

[Shakes himself, to group, camera shows floor of coach] Okay, so I’m gonna get this baby uploaded everywhere, alright? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Send it to my whole address book, all that. Anyone who’s on social add me and share. BigBadDan2001. [Ends.]

The leaders searched the archives, such as they were. What with the age of his fellow passengers, KC – Dan-the-apprentice-bricklayer – didn’t get many takers. And anyway, most of the internet was gone, frozen in time in the space of a few hours. But the four old Bridge dears were on Twitter and Instagram somehow, the respective feeds the leaders pulled up full of the meanderings and unselfconscious biddy-isms of a generation that grew up pre-internet. Tammy, too, of course, and Len as well. Oh, and David the horny businessman, albeit furtively. Caroline Matheson and Robert Murray were hooked up to social too, but they were dead in the luggage hold. At any rate, there was no sign of the video anywhere in the archives.



Tavish, Swift and Pierce transcribed each video meticulously, and then set-to tidying up the handwritten ‘Stuff’ and putting all the scraps and pictures of scratched-out entries in chronological order, becoming more maudlin as the pile of transcripts mounted up.

KC video transcript, 12 March 2018, 19:08pm, Duration: 6m17s

KC/Dan [thin sounding cough, sunken eyes and sallow tone, chapped lips, skinny]: Please. Someone has to be seeing this. Nearly everyone’s gone from the cold. Just fell asleep and never woke up, except for Dave who went fucking barmy, raving like a fucking loon about some Becky chick and how he was gonna leave Sarah – I guess that’s his missis – and drank his own piss for fuck’s sake [coughs]. It’s just me, Tammy and Len left now. [Mumbling female voice off camera.]

[Shouts] No, Tammy, I can’t, right. I just fucking can’t. [Protracted coughing fit.] I… [cough] I… [hacking cough] Just… [heavy wheezing] Just no, okay? I won’t. I won’t do it. [Prolonged coughing.] As if this wasn’t bad enough for fuck’s sake. [gestures ahead of him, sound of lighter sparking off camera, more coughing followed by retching and hawking to one side]. Their hair. Jesus. I’m burning their fucking, cunting hair. [Cough.] I can’t…I won’t…Just no. Not gonna happen. Someone will come, I’m telling you. No, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t…[Trails off, sobbing interspersed with more coughing and retching.] [Ends.]

“Jesus effing wept,” said Tavish, as always his colourful language belying his stoic nature. “I can’t look at any fucking more of this right now.” Swift groaned her agreement, and Pierce pushed his netpad aside, relieved to cut the link for a beat. “That poor kid,” he said. “Those people.”



When the transcripts were completed they were uploaded as a package to the web. Horrifying – hope consuming – as it was, news was still news, and there wasn’t much of it to go around the handful of hubs dotted at intervals on the surface of the snowy globe that was once blue and verdant. Travel between them was all but impossible – the distances too great and the conditions too poor to navigate by. The only thing making communication possible at all was the neural web, a small network of collected humanity joined by an implanted neural interface that succeeded the thing known once as the internet. News was news, and people were glad of it. At least now there would be no more surges and flash frosts. Those things were behind and beneath them, and there to stay.

Eventually, the Scurves would die off or mutate to better fit the climate, but that was a way off, and in the meantime they rubbed along at an uneasy distance with the ‘Biners, the two remaining branches of humanity always suspicious of one another, never quite mixing. The Scurves got the Chinese whispers [contemporary idiom?] mix of the road and the bus and the lad. It was more a legend than anything their malnourished imaginations could muster. Except, perhaps, for the kids.

But stories round the night-banked fire were what kept the people from crumpling to the ground somewhere out on the tundra and never bothering to get up. They told them they were still human. With history.



The atmosphere in Pierce’s hut was hazy and full of potential sleep, perchance not to dream of things seen and words written down here over the last several days. Perchance to forget there had ever been a road. Pierce stared blankly into the dancing flames, head nodding; Tavish had left almost an hour ago, and the two stragglers hadn’t exchanged a word since, instead wallowing in the silence and their own morbid reveries.

Rousing herself, Swift sighed large and downed her drink – some kind of unforgiving corn liquor imported from a hydrostill in Hog’s Hub, near the foot of Great Static. She rose creaking to her feet, patting her thigh to summon Bones from her stupor on the hearthstone and lifting her torch from the sconce on the mantel. “Come on old girl,” she said. “Time to get back.” The dog rose with a grunt, shook itself and padded to its master’s side, glancing back at the fire before huffing and giving a brief, questioning shake of her tail. “’Fraid so girl,” said Swift. “Time to rip the plaster off, eh. G’night, Pierce.”

Pierce muttered something incoherent and gave a snort, mumbling darkly as he settled back into his corn-liquor-numbed slumber.

Swift opened the door, whistled for Bones and thrust her torch out into the night. It had taken an age to piece together the diaries of the lost child who became – morbidly – known over the neural web as Kid Cannibal, and it was an age she would rather forget, buried deep down under the tundra where all the dead things slept. The tundra she now crossed with her dog, headed for home and hearth.





When she opened her eyes, her view had been reduced to two tantalising, far-off pinpricks surrounded by a blur of red-black, as though they had been disconnected – not only from each other, but from her brain as well. The noise in her head was a roar of silent heat, receding. She was hollow.

She appeared to be moving but had no notion of her arms and legs. She could neither tell where she was nor who might be there with her; a rumbling sort of vibration both was and wasn’t – sensed but not heard, nor even felt. She sensed that perhaps she ought to panic, but somehow could not.

Groping for her fever dreams she tried to position herself within this new state of being, and felt part of herself – her physical self – lurch as though trying to emulate this mental seeking in the real world, if that was what this was. She tried to identify herself but, unable to pinpoint why it would matter, reverted instead to instinct – fuzzy proprioception, a feeling not quite felt, movement, hunger – although she could no more name the feelings than she could herself, just now. She felt incomplete, like some vital part was missing; she was a passenger to impulse with no inkling how long she had been travelling. Awareness came and went, unattached to linear time.

A montage of disordered tableaux whose common thread was marked by the sounds of building chaos played a disjointed show reel through what was left of her mind. The sharp reek of blood, piss and shit was an immovable bolus lodged in her sinuses, highlighted by a bass note of cloying sweetness, burned rubber and fuel.

Her ravaged memory clasped onto the mayhem and rewound in a morbid attempt to replay some sense of being, but all it found were sensations – hot, wet hands, and an acid reek burning and bubbling the tender skin at the edges of her mouth; the taste of new decay; the echoes of screams, men’s, women’s and children’s. The rusted haze of the fever that had enveloped her, scorching first through her skin, then down through adipose, flesh, organ and bone until only her autonomic nervous system remained intact. Sort of. A cursor, blinking; waiting for instruction.

The nauseating show reel of her senses ended not by fading to black but in the manner of an old super8 home movie – flipping the same final image over and over and over, the effect enhanced by the rusty vignette fadeout of her blood-washed peripheral vision. The two small and crumpled forms that lay next to the bicycles on her front lawn were discarded marionettes and not her children. Someone was tearing their stuffing out. A broken and twisted wreck, wearing her clothes. A voice she intuited as hers filtered into the scene from the outside, keening tortured anguish.

What was she?

Her now-body responded to comprehension with revulsion; she gagged and felt a thick, hot ooze rise up her gorge and flow down over her chin and neck, onto her chest. It burned. She could not locate her hands to wipe it away. She tried to scream but the sound that escaped was a thin and watery gurgle, made sinister as it bubbled through the viscid morass leaching from somewhere inside her.


It was a sunny summer Saturday, and Jenny stood washing dishes at the sink, watching through the open window as her children – shaggy-haired boys of nine and six – played out on the grass in the early evening light. Her husband, complaining about a deep scratch he had sustained while clearing the garden, had gone to shower, saying something about the risk of infection.

He snaked his arms around her now from behind, made an animal noise in his throat, and she reached up over her shoulder to touch her fingers to his lips. She smiled as he took the middle and ring fingers of her right hand into his mouth, began to say “later, honey,” but her words were cut off as his molars and 150lbs of pressure crushed her finger bones, and morphed into a strangled cry as she whirled to face him and tried to extricate her hand from his jaws in shock. Her bones cracked and splintered, and she withdrew instead two ragged stalks of grisly pulp.

Her husband’s skin was mottled green and grey and bore the oiled foam-rubber look of a cadaver, and she choked back vomit and a groan of horror as she backed away. He was naked, and the scratch across his forearm a livid purple oozing blackened blood and yellow pus. When she caught sight of her children, still playing on the lawn, she couldn’t choke it back a second time and turned, and ran, their names a strangled croak on her lips as she rushed to scoop them up and get them away.

Whatever the infection was it acted fast.

By the time she reached the door the mottling had radiated from the remains of her fingers and was reaching out tendrils of rot up her neck and jaw, and girdling her torso as her blood coagulated in her veins in a thick magma wave of searing heat and pain.

As her brain began to die she tried a final time to call out to her children, but her voice box was gone already. Her pace had slowed, and as she neared them she came to a juddering halt and stood convulsing for an interminable half-minute. She barely registered when her paroxysms broke her own neck as her boys looked on in horror, unable to move or cry.

They ran to her when the seizure slowed to an occasional hiccup, grabbing her arms with cries of “Mama!” and “What’s wrong?” They started to panic and sob when they saw her blank eyes, every capillary in the corneas haemorrhaged when the blood inside them coalesced and expanded. She cocked her head at a hideous angle as though hearing their cries, and her hands clenched reflexively as she appeared to notice them anew ­– those two trusting boys who couldn’t find it in themselves to believe it was true when their mother reached out and started to remove their stuffing.


A sky burial / Elements

Note: This little ditty is the beginning of what I thought might eventually turn into a book. I suppose it still might, but the initial idea has changed and evolved so much over the last couple of years as to be virtually unrecognisable. I am currently in the ‘research and note-taking’ phase (read: ‘procrastination and noodling about’) of the book it will now become. That said, it began as a story about balance, and it will end as one.

A sky burial

The circling shadows ripple across the sparse scrub of the mountain top. The air is thin here, and cool. The five figures stand loosely gathered, each looking out in a different direction across the bluff, where the light paints a late afternoon, bordering on dusk. It is fitting, given their purpose.

As the sun dips and grows, and dips and grows, the five stretch upturned hands in the direction they each are facing before lowering their arms and reaching out to the sides. Rather than joining hands, as you might be expecting, each person takes a light hold of their neighbour’s left wrist, until a circle is made. If you are listening, you will have begun to imagine the drone of a low hum as it undulates in the space – swelling, intoxicating. If you are observant, you will have spotted the not-quite-discernible bundle, wrapped in a blanket that fades through elemental colours, interrupting the ground within the ring of five.

The stillness of the scene is sharply highlighted by the flick and wave of the gusted grass, the thrum and roll of the low, low tone that seems to come up through the ground and collect in the throats of the five. If you find you have been there a lifetime, it is because the sound of the receding day has had a way of stopping thoughts in their tracks; make of that what you will.

When the sun kisses the distant summit the sound abruptly stops and hands once again fall to sides. Wordlessly, the five drop into a crouch and begin to shuck the blanket from what it shrouds.

And there you are. And me; except it isn’t really you or me but it might have been you and one day it will be me – we are all connected.

The body may have been man, or woman, or neither, but it doesn’t really matter as it all comes from the same place it will go back to: a memory that morphs over time.

The five stand back from their charge and once again turn to face outwards. Each one of them with gaze relaxed to encompass all in their periphery. You see them solemn, but clear-eyed and open. They stand still a long moment more, and before they disband each one touches fingertips to the forehead of every companion. Then they break into broad smiles and depart, each stepping lightly in a different direction. One waves the blanket-shroud jauntily in time with every step. By the time they are twenty yards away, the first vulture has landed amid a great beating of wings.



Days and nights pass in stillness on the mountain top, weaving in and around the tempestuous grass and the carrion birds that circle and hop. There is nothing to be done now but wait for life to creep forward in that inevitable way it has; we might call it la via vita. Laviavita, rolling inexorably on.

After a few days exposed to the elements, our disconnected sibling reconnects; only this time the signal is clearer, stronger, faster. No data is sidelined, or siphoned off to become tangled in a web of our own making. There is no different perspective now.

Its hair flows in quiet symphony with the grass; it is naked, and unashamed when the birds begin to tease meat from bone in strips that stretch and snap as they are plucked. A simultaneous exchange goes on unnoticed below. Something – memory, experience, perspective – reaches down and noses its way between stone and root and earth, the one enriching the other as they pass by, eternally osmotic. It joins with the sweat of the earth to become religiously one with it.

Religion, from religare; to bind together. Take a moment to wonder what happened.

The bus stop

The low building sprawled out in every direction with a series of mismatched extensions, each revealing the decade of its construction in style. Although it was still light out, the cold blue glare of strip lighting issued from a number of windows hung with garish curtains and homemade light catchers – an air of artificial gaiety painted over glimpses of interior walls done out in drab institutional colours designed to soothe.

From his vantage point at the crest of the hill, Vince gazed down at the bus stop below. It was furnished with a simple wooden bench, and the little figure sat hunched at one end of it, a tapestry bag on the seat by her side. He had been looking for her.

He took a slow breath before beginning his unhurried stroll down the hill, taking pleasure in the light of early evening and the air that, out here, wasn’t permeated with the must that ran through it indoors. When he got to the bench, the figure, sitting on her hands and swinging her legs in childlike fashion, glanced sidelong at him from under concerned eyebrows, chewing the corner of her lip.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hullo,” she replied.

He wore a white tunic over utilitarian black trousers and comfortable shoes.

“Are you a milkman?” she asked. He smiled a small smile and said that he wasn’t.

“Oh,” she said.

“I’m Vince,” he told her. “Vincent.”

“I’m Molly Dawkins,” she said. “Pleased to meet you, Mister.”

The pair sat a while in silence.

The bus stop was tucked into the side of a green country lane lined with birch trees, hawthorn and hazel. It was early summer and late afternoon. One by one the birds took up their evening song and the bus was nowhere to be seen. It was peaceful. Vincent stretched his legs out in front of him and began to hum. Molly glanced at him again before peering down the lane in the direction the bus should come. Her eyebrows drew together in the middle, betraying her anxiety.

“It’s late sometimes,” offered Vincent. “Where are you going?”

Molly replied that she had to get home in time for tea – that her mother would be waiting for her and she would be in trouble if she was late. She lived in the next village but one, she said. She rubbed absentmindedly at a graze on her knee. Her stockings were falling down and she had on a yellow skirt scattered with tiny cornflowers, and a blue cardigan buttoned up over a cream coloured blouse. A red coat on top, even though the day was warm.

She told him that she had been to visit a friend whose mother was sick; that she took with her a basket of fresh scones and two sorts of jam, a dab of which adorned the corner of her mouth decorated with a pair of stray crumbs. She said she had had to leave when the doctor came. Her voice held an edge of agitation when she mentioned it.

It was nearly six o’clock and the bus did not come. Molly began to fret.

“I’m going to get in trouble,” she said.

“Come now,” said Vincent. “I’m sure your mother will understand if the bus is late.”

Molly indicated her doubt about this statement with an unconvinced sigh.

“It shouldn’t be much longer now,” said Vincent.

“I hope not,” replied Molly.

She had noticed the smear of jam and poked at it with the tip of her tongue, going cross-eyed in an effort to see how successful she had been in getting rid of it. Vincent chuckled at the display, but she showed no sign of being embarrassed by her unladylike behaviour.

Satisfied she was once more presentable, Molly eyed the post and rail fence edging the field opposite and sighed.

“If it doesn’t come soon I suppose I shall have to walk home over the fields,” she announced, evidently weighing up whether her mother would prefer mud-caked shoes and thorn-ripped clothes to tardiness. “It’s only three miles or so.”

The corner of Vince’s mouth twitched as he took in the object leaning forgotten against the bench next to Molly’s bag.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked Vincent. “I mean, how old are you, Molly?”

Molly drew her shoulders back. “Almost nine!” she said, indignant.

Vince struggled to conceal a grin.

“Oh, well, begging your pardon, Miss Molly,” he said. “But haven’t you paid the fare already?”

Molly’s face fell a little.

“Yes,” she said. “And Mother doesn’t like waste.”

“Seems like you have a bit of a dilemma then,” said Vincent.

“Hmmph,” said Molly, visibly deflated. “I suppose I shall have to chance being late then, shan’t I?”

There was still no sign of any bus, and silence fell over the pair once more, underscored by the sounds of busy wildlife coming from the hedgerow.

Eventually Molly stood up and took a few slow steps forward to see past a bend in the lane. The movement startled some birds from a nearby tree and they flew off squawking to settle elsewhere. Unable to summon the bus with will alone, Molly came to sit down again, smoothing her skirt over her knees as she sat, and adjusting her coat.

“Are they your mother’s rings?” said Vincent, gesturing toward the hand closest to him.

Molly sat very still and Vincent watched her closely for a moment, waiting. The transition was subtle – a flurry of blinks in an otherwise frozen expression; fleeting, like the briefest absence seizure. She sat up a little straighter and stilled her swinging legs, crossing her ankles underneath her as she reached for the delicate, old-fashioned gold bands on her left hand with the fingers of her right. She gave Vincent a guarded look and brought her hand to her chest, protective.

“I’m sorry, sir?” She was wary.

Vince held out his hand.

“Forgive my manners,” he said. “I’m Vince. Vincent.”

Molly took the proffered hand politely and gave it a light squeeze.

“Molly Johnson. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Do you happen to know when the bus is due, Mister, ah, Vincent?”

“It shouldn’t be too much longer now,” Vince replied. “Have you been married long, Mrs Johnson?”

Molly hesitated, cautious about being too open with a stranger, but then seemed to decide that the young man sitting next to her on the bench posed no threat to person or propriety.

“Well, I married Gerry at nineteen, so that would be twelve years now.” She smiled fondly at the thought. “I’m just on my way to him now, if this dratted bus ever arrives.”

Vince chuckled.

“It’s late sometimes,” he told her. “Do you have far to go?”

“Oh no,” said Molly, relaxing a little. “Just into town. Gerry will walk me home from there when he finishes work. We’ll pick the children up from my mother on the way,” she explained.

Settling down to wait for the errant bus, Molly told Vince about how she had been visiting her sick friend; that she hadn’t wanted to take her children along, so as not to scare them.

“Just as well, too,” she said sadly. “She’s really very sick. Barely recognised me, and was quite overcome with fright when the doctor arrived.”

Vince made a sympathetic noise and pretended not to notice the way Molly was wringing her hands. They looked painful.

“It’s hard to see someone you care for like that,” he said.

Molly glanced at him with an air of sharp surprise.

“Yes,” she said simply before falling quiet.

They sat in companionable silence for several minutes. The sun began to dip, lending the air a golden warmth, and still the bus did not come. Molly sighed, then gave herself a shake and looked over at Vince with renewed interest, taking in his apparel.

“Are you a milkman?” she asked.

Vince grinned at her.

“No,” he said.

She waited for him to elaborate.

“I work nearby,” is all he said, avoiding the puzzled look she gave him.

“Oh. I see,” she said, curious but not wanting to pry.

She let out an exasperated sigh and stood up, tapping her foot impatiently.

“Where on earth is that blessed bus?” she exclaimed, taking a few steps into the road. “Gerry will be worried if I’m not there to meet him.”

“I’m sure it won’t be much longer,” said Vince. “Maybe the driver’s had a spot of bother with it or something,” he added as an afterthought.

“Well,” said Molly crossly, “If it doesn’t appear soon I shall have to go cross country.”

She looked from her shoes to the ploughed field opposite and back again, shaking her head.

“But I’ve already paid the fare and Mother doesn’t like waste,” she said, looking confused for a moment.

Spotting an opportunity, Vince gestured toward a pendant that hung from a fine silver chain around Molly’s neck.

“That’s lovely,” he said. “Is it a locket?”

“Hmm?” said Molly, reaching for the necklace. “Oh, this? Yes. Yes, it is. Would you like to see?”

“Love to,” said Vince.

Molly fumbled at the clasp with fingers that trembled slightly, muttering to herself as she did.

“Won’t be long now,” said Vince to himself. Molly, concentrating on the task at hand, didn’t appear to notice what he said.

“There. That’s got it, see?” said Molly, turning so that he could look inside the locket, now open.

“Oh,” he said. “What lovely photographs. Are they your children?”

Molly’s face softened as she turned the locket to look and said “yes”. Vince waited as she paused an almost imperceptible moment and blinked twice with exaggerated slowness, tracing over the surface of the pictures with a fingertip as her mind appeared to grasp for something. She opened her mouth to speak, and when she did her voice was tremulous.

“No. They’re my—my grandchildren,” she told him. “I—Why would I—” She looked lost for a moment, “—forget that?” and her swollen fingers turned white as her grasp on the bauble tightened.

She looked at Vince with wide, childlike eyes, frightened and confused.

“Who are you?” she asked him, reaching to grab hold of his forearm.

“It’s Vince, Molly,” he said. “Do you remember me?”

“Vince…” Her voice trailed off. “Are you an angel?”

Vince smiled a small smile and said that he wasn’t.

“I just work here, Molly.”

Molly’s bottom lip trembled.


“He’s not here, Molly.”

Vince put his hand over hers, patted it gently and waited for the new reality to settle into her mind, dragged unwilling through the years of Molly’s life.

“Are you a milkman?” A look of hope broke through her confusion.

He shook his head and reached for her bag, and the walking stick propped on the bench next to it.

“No, dear,” he said. “I’m Vince. I’m here to look after you, remember?”

Standing up and helping her to her feet, he took Molly’s hand and put it on the stick.

“Are we getting the bus now, dear?” she asked him.

Vince put her other arm through his and turned with her to face up the hill to the dementia care home above.

“There is no bus, Molly,” he said. “Let’s get you home for tea.”

“Will there be scones?” asked Molly, suddenly the child again.

“Oh yes,” replied Vincent, taking her by the arm. “And two sorts of jam. Come on.”















On the distant hill

Years past remembering she had lived there in that simple house – free, but not free; alone, but not lonely. It hadn’t always been just her, but she’d never married, never had children; although she would happily have done the one without the other and still had the temerity to hold her head high, even there, even then.

The house was clapboard: unpainted, with a wide verandah where she would sit a while when the day was fine and sometimes when it blustered. Unsheltered from the elements, it sat alone in the corner of a large meadow, which itself nestled snugly in the crook of a deciduous wood: sweet chestnut and oak and beech. Like those trees, she was lean and lithe and strong, kept the house in good repair and could pass for a woman twenty, even thirty years her junior. In the nearby town, most of those who had been there when she was young were either dead or moved to a kinder climate. She went in but occasionally, always arriving either on foot, or riding an ancient, black bicycle fitted with panniers, basket and bell. There, as she bought those necessities which she could not grow or gather or butcher or sew herself, she was greeted with their piqued curiosity borne out of the apparent mystery that shrouded her existence there – among them, but not of them.

In spite of her years, her days began and ended much as they ever had, so that it seemed to the town’s people that she lived in the bubble of a sometime-day. From sunrise to sundown her toil was constant and steady. She didn’t rush or fret the days to end, rather taking time to acknowledge every moment – giving every task, however small, the fullness of her attention. She was at all times, had always been, surrounded by lives in the meadow. She never sought them but they found her all the same. They would stay with her as long as they could before she released them to the distant hills without attachment or heartache, as she knew she would herself be released upon a day. Until that time, she was mindful to arise each dawn with eyes wide, to revel in the newness of the world. In this way, her every day was fresh and vibrant, though to those outside the bubble, it may have seemed repetitive, monotonous. To them it seemed unnatural for one, a woman, of her advanced years to lead a life of such vigour and independence; rather than lauding her vitality, they considered it suspect, unnatural. Those ones saw only her iron grey hair, not the lustre of it; her translucent skin, not the straightness of her back or the clarity of her gaze. They saw in her only what they themselves expected to become.

The children of the town were admonished not to trespass on her meadow, and of course there were whispered stories, but the truth was that she welcomed the sight of them, the more because it was rare. And so when she would hear them scattering hens on their wild dash through a corner of her meadow, she would stop what she was doing and go out on to the porch to catch a breath of their exuberance before their laughter disappeared into the sunlit coppice beyond the house. On those days she could see the shimmer of them long after they had skipped home, and it seemed to her that the meadow held on to the life that it had touched as though it recognised its ephemeral nature in a way that people rarely did. She knew as well as the grass that their time as draiads would be over as soon as selfconsciousness and conformity pulled them into that world which she gently refused to join.

There was one child among them, a boy, whose light was more diffuse than the others’. His connection to the world had not begun to dissipate and in him she recognised her end and her beginning. From the moment when she first saw his light reaching calmly into the world, the old woman knew that he would never lose his spark. She didn’t grieve in her knowledge for she knew that the shortness of time was subjective and in youth the summers are long. Although they never exchanged more than a look, they were inextricably linked, bound by their common fate as two eternal creatures being stalked by cool, impassive death. Only she and the meadow knew to whom it would catch up first. Only she and the meadow could confront that moment with calm acceptance.

The boy died of a slow-creeping illness one day, one summer. As his body drew its last breath, the fractal field vibrated and shivered and was permeated with a glow that lingered on and on, immersing the woman and her surroundings, allowing them to breathe it in. The town’s people were oblivious to it, even as the old woman welcomed and absorbed it. Their only desire was to cling to the body that was no more, to shape and contain it within a cage made of words. Although she had long since relinquished personal desire, the woman knew that if she wanted to find the boy, she need only split a piece of wood, or lift a stone. She only had to breathe.


With the ebb and flow of her companions in the meadow, the woman’s life went on, more the same than ever. Their being together was neither symbiotic nor parasitic; it simply was, until it wasn’t. The townspeople talked, the children ran and the world around her shimmered and hummed in a state of joyous flux. Her eyes were as bright as any bird’s who has denied the bars of his cage and flown instead to the distant hill, the better to silently sing.