Above the pine trees leaning into the wet black bank, a zip moved up and down in the sky, as the treeline moved up and down, controlled by two eyes looking up and looking down through the window. The bank fell away. The train passed mounds of red slag. The eyes unzipped the canvas on which the mounds were painted, and the canvas curled forward under its own weight. Thin reeds with LED tips curled forward and so did yellow freight carriages, below the curved wings of two red kites, then four kites, then ten.
The carriage doors pished open and through them a conductor fell. His walk was a kind of fall. He held his ticket machine to his hip, as if it was a bad hip, and peered down, falling left and right, to count passengers. Each number was breathed in. A man who, boarding at Warwick Parkway, had placed his tickets on his table before sitting down to accompany them, turned at the sound of the doors, then looked with contempt at the back of the lax conductor’s head. Seeing the conductor pass, the two women on the same table each moved a hand from the gold clasp of a handbag to rest on its black patent leather. When the conductor pished out of the carriage, the man straightened his tickets. The women stared ahead, which happened to mean that they stared at one another. One woman laughed and the other didn’t laugh.
The woman who laughed had blonde hair which licked dramatically around her head. Each individual hair was under her command but the whole was wild. She had thick dark eyebrows, blue eyes and pale lips, and was watery pink except for a concentration of yellow powder on her thin straight nose, which was bluish with a vein or a scar. Her eyes were slower than her mouth, settling on the headrest just above the woman in front of her, whom she called Helen, only after she had for a little while been telling Helen about a castle that she had taken her family to visit at the weekend. Her husband stayed in the car in the castle car park while she and the boys went in. “After bothering to drive all the way out there, he can’t get out of the car. He says it’s not for people like him. He would rather spend the afternoon inside a Japanese hatchback than ‘look at tapestries.’”
Helen’s small face was enclosed in a metallic bob. Her makeup, clotted and stopping sharply below her chin, made the one feature that her hair did not seem to reach—her nose—disappear; it also made her look naked. As her friend spoke, Helen pushed an engagement ring’s diamond into an adjacent finger. She looked at her own breasts, and, as if this was a secret cue, both women responded by tidying themselves away, glancing at the man on the table across the aisle, whose loose layers of sandwiches and newspaper spilled and who tutted as if the bread, ham, and paper had a mind of their own. Helen stretched each side of her cardigan across her chest and folded her arms over it; her companion temperately pulled her bag against her stomach. Helen asked: “What make of car have you got Cind?”
Cind avoided that question by stating that there were a few things that she shared with her husband that she went out of her way not to know anything about, and that not knowing about these few things was a gift she gave to her husband—he could own them, and he could keep them to himself or he could teach her about them; either way, she would always know nothing about them—although she didn’t say it like that exactly, she said, “Who knows,” and Helen understood. Cind quickly continued. She started to say something about the castle’s history, or about history, or about a tapestry, it was rushed and unclear. Her voice straightened its back. Cind said to her friend, Helen, who was probably not a friend but a colleague, as they both looked out of the near window, “You go out of the café where you get a cup of tea—they wanted Coke, they didn’t serve Coke—which is done really nicely. From inside the glass doors it looks like a castle but when you get outside you realise you’re in a ruin with no roof. The walls in the outside bit are high, so you only see the sky when you get out there. In fact I only noticed when it started to rain.” Helen, whose body, in response to Cind’s newly upright manner, had been squirming away from her head into her seat, relaxed at the mention of rain. Helen rolled her eyes sympathetically: always the way. “Always the way,” Cind conceded. “The boys got mud all over the car. He wasn’t happy.” But Cind was determined to go on. She made a maneuvering sound and said that she thought, “Just my luck, but then the rain falling inside the ruin was actually quite nice.” She looked at Helen’s yellow face and said, strenuously calm, “I was thinking about today and I wasn’t worried about it, which I had been a little bit, because I’m a bit older than you other girls.” (Cind whispered the word “older.”) “It felt nice and comfortable in the ruin. I felt comfortably naked, like I wasn’t in my clothes even though I was.”
Helen recrossed her cardigan. Her eyes crawled the window in search of something. They stopped briefly on her own breasts, then busied back to the window. With no expression, she told Cind that the day was going to be “very classy and natural.”
The bank was there and then not in the window. The train stopped and curtly started. The two women widened their eyes at one another when the man sharing their table snored. Nevertheless, when Helen stood up, bending to get round the table, with her bag in the air, Cind flinched, as if Helen was rudely cutting her companion off midspeech. Helen said she was getting a cup of tea and asked Cind if she wanted one, or a packet of crisps. “Ta no alright thanks breakfast just now.” “Will see maybe share a Kit Kat.” “I’m alright thanks love.” “Will see what they’ve got will get you something.” “Ta no Hel it’s I’m ok.” “Will just see.” “Ta,” Cind capitulated.
As the door closed behind Helen, a piece of music opened. It was a piano piece, weakly projected from a table a few rows from Cind. The sound was electronic, bellyless and only just distinguishable from the vibration of the carriage’s sides. The music began with a simple melody made up of a few notes. The melody was repeated a few times and then another melody started up—but it wasn’t another melody, it was the same one played backwards, or upside-down, or accompanied by a different harmony. The man sitting next to Cind woke and in an outraged fit screwed his head around the back of his chair. He pointed to the “quiet carriage” sign on the window and looked as if he might cry. The music took no notice of him. For everyone else, the music, whether welcome or not, gave them the feeling that they were in a film starring an enraged man on a train; or because the music was projected so weakly, the feeling that the carriage existed at the threshold of film, or was part film and part real, and it was impossible to tell which part was which. The piano was delicate, but insistent on its one and only melody. The world according to the piece was bent into that one shape. The angered soul, whose eyes were closed and who might well have been praying, exerted an immense, humorless pressure on the notes. The piano seemed to sense the man’s resistance and was going through all the versions of that one thing it could say, hoping that repetition would transform it into something else, which would placate the audience. But it never found that other melody, or not before the music was cut off and a young man barked “sorry,” loudly. He must have thought he was playing the music through his headphones. Cind’s neighbor shook his head. Then shook it again. Again. Fading.
When Helen returned, the handle of a paper bag creased between two fingers, she was completely changed. Her tiny face had dominated the large, stiff landscape underneath it; now head and body flowed together towards her seat, and she accumulated in the seat, until her body reached her mouth and words poured out, “Did you see that rabbit? The rabbit running by the train. There was a rabbit.”
Cind flexed an instinctively cautious smile and said that she had seen the rabbit. “Did you hear the music?” It was not clear whether Helen was listening. Her head was in the steaming bag in between them. A Kit Kat in front of Cind; a tea and a Kit Kat in front of Helen. The bag was crushed, left alone, looked at, then straightened out and folded up. Cind touched the folded bag and said with a noiseless laugh that one of her boys wanted a rabbit. “It looked scared don’t you think,” said Helen, continuing her train of thought as if Cind had said nothing. Helen’s left arm was still holding her cardigan in place. The other arm had a cup of tea at the end of it. “I thought it was trying to catch us up,” said Cind, with a confused look. “No it was scared you could see,” said Helen. “It had its tail down.” Cind said, “Why. Why would it run the same way?” “You probably couldn’t see its tail,” Helen said, “it was down. It was scared poor thing.” “Maybe it was just running,” Cind said. Helen’s body was now rock. The flow was all in her speech, which washed away whatever Cind put in its path. Helen said, “Rabbits don’t just run do they unless you think this train looks like another rabbit.” Cind breathed deeply. Her voice had stiffened again. It was shrill. “Maybe; I don’t know. I thought maybe it was a mother rabbit. All mothers defend their young don’t they. I’d fight a train—wouldn’t you, if your girl was …” Helen cut her off: “If my girl was what? A rabbit? If my daughter was a rabbit, you know what: She would not go running after trains.”
There were four cars in the clifftop car park. An empty family car; a van; the taxi in which Cind and Helen had travelled from the train station; and the taxi inside which I was sat. Three women, who had been hopping from foot to foot and rubbing their hands as if it was cold, greeted Cind and Helen from the taxi, and absorbed them. The group of five waved formally at the man and woman walking towards them from the van. Once they had all met, the group of five climbed down the steps to the beach while the man and the woman unloaded equipment from the van.
The wooden steps to the beach came off long weathered poles, steadied with nails into the cliffs. The steps turned back on themselves to make a squared-off spiral. Each time the women, descending, turned a square circle, they saw four shades of gray: blue-gray pebbles, purple-gray sea, white-gray fog, gray-white cliffs. The women assembled in the white shade of the short section of white cliff, which, walking a few minutes in either direction, petered out, and which was marked by surprising slashes of brown-red and tufts of green.
Above them on the steps, the man, following the woman piled high with equipment, shouted “I love England!” in such a compromised way that it was not clear whether he meant it sarcastically: whether he wanted to say that he really truly did love England, or the opposite of that: that he did not love England, or that he hated England, or that he had no opinion about England at all. “I love England!” the woman replied from further down the steps, sounding sincere, and as if she thought the man, who appeared to be her assistant, was a moron.
After several trips back and forth between the van and the beach, the assistant began to set up two large softbox lights. They were top-heavy and would not stand on their fold-out feet on the pebbles, so he started to remove surface pebbles from one roughly square area, on which he then placed the feet, on which he then replaced the pebbles. This seemed to work with one of the lights, but the other would not stand.
While her assistant assessed the level of the terrain he was making, the photographer sat with her back to the sea, apparently doing nothing. She stared ahead. She looked up to the clifftop. She stared ahead. The group of five women, the subjects, moved self-consciously in front of where the camera would be, as if their clothes were a discomfort to them, but were sewn on. They had erected a screen, a flimsy rainbow sheet designed to keep sand out of picnics, which was thigh-high.
One of the women flicked the straps of her dress off her shoulders and let the dress fall to her waist and then, with a stroke over her hips, collect at her feet. The act was clearly supposed to initiate a sequence including all five women, but looked instead—peculiarly, given that it appeared to be what the women were assembled to do—like defiance. The four clothed women shot backwards, then circled her protectively.
The sound of the photographer clapping broke the circle. In another context it would have been mocking, her slow clapping; here, it was supposed to signal an impersonal approach and a seriousness of intent. She was not quite ordering the women to get ready, but emphasizing to them that she herself was ready, and that she was a serious and professional person, and that therefore everyone else should be ready. Her assistant tried to move to tell her something—probably that the light would not stand up straight—and then had to retreat, to catch the teetering light. So he retreated and caught it and conceded and folded its legs up and placed it flat on the pebbles.
The photographer had pulled out the woman who had stripped down to her bra and knickers and appeared to be explaining to the others the related ideas of wearing clothes and of taking clothes off, using the seminaked woman as a real-life example. High-pitched voices rose. There were two seagulls above the line of the horizon, gliding authentically. The four women with their clothes on turned away from the sea and upwards, to the top of the cliff. The photographer stood with her hands on her hips. She explained something to her assistant, who nodded and strode towards the steps, then strode back, exchanged a few more words, and set off again.
The man grew with each turn up the steps, while the women on the beach fell politely into disarray. The woman in knickers and bra accepted a coat, which she hung from her shoulders. By the time the assistant finally reached the short grass on the clifftop, he had become tall but still not old—in his early twenties. He bowed his head as he approached the bench. He was lean and drably pretty, with long brown hair tied in a knot high on his head. He kicked a tuft of coarse grass and reeled and, without looking up, magically found his course again. He stopped, looked defiantly up and took in the view. He was wearing a purple puffa jacket and tight cream jeans. Then he stepped forward and stopped again, with his hands clasped over his crotch, a few feet from the bench. He blinked and puckered his lips.
He said, “I’m sure it’s not funny or anything what you’re doing but it’s sort of private it would be great if you could just not sit there watching maybe move on a bit. They’re not professional models or anything. It’s a charity thing you know so you know. Thanks.”
I didn’t reply.
“It’s we’re not going to be by the way it’s not me, I don’t mind I work with loads of photographers on proper shoots all the time, with people around. I did a naked shoot on London Bridge the other day and no one cared so it’s not but they’re amateurs you know it’s for charity and we’ve only got this one day to do it.”
I didn’t reply.
“I realize it’s pretty ridiculous, if I was taking the photograph, I am a photographer myself. I’m getting quite a few shoots at the moment, actually I don’t do very much assisting any more, this is a favor. I flew out to Belgium the other day to do my own shoot, which was quite creative. I worked for seventy-two hours straight. If it was me we’d get on with it you know but she’s pretty sensitive you know. Cheers.”
“I’m afraid I have to be here,” I said. He said, “Yeah I understand.” Then he thought. Then he said, “Why do you have to be here? I mean I know but.” I said, “I just do.” “Are you a scientist or something?” “I have to watch.” “You mean you have some fetish or something?” “No I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I don’t care what happens, exactly, I just have to see what it is. I just have to watch.” “You think it’s bad luck,” he said, “or you think it won’t exist if you’re not watching?” “Yeah, actually, something like that, yes: It won’t exist if it’s not recorded, and I could make it up but it’s much better to make notes from life.” “Why does it have to be you? I’m watching,” he said, “and so is a two-thousand-pound camera. My camera’s probably nicer but it’s broken, not my fault, so I’m borrowing one which is still pretty expensive and professional. The calendar will be on sale in a few months. This is supposed to be July, hence the beach. But as I said it’s for charity so we can’t afford to do much with the lighting to make it look like July. You can record all you like if you buy the calendar and turn to July. The great thing about that would be they wouldn’t be able to see you looking so no one would go mental. It’s just they’re not models or anything and the photographer is pretty sensitive about it and as you can imagine they’re pretty self-conscious about it, and it’s a bit weird how you have to watch, maybe.”
“Maybe I could hold one of the lights,” I said. “I couldn’t help noticing that one of your lights is a little bit unstable. I could hold it up for you. That might not be so weird, because I wouldn’t just be watching then, I’d be part of the shoot. What about that—that seems like a good solution doesn’t it?”
The man’s face reminded me of the cheap rings that appeared when I was a young teenager, supposed to change color depending on what mood the wearer is in. Most of the time, the ones I had were the color of slurry, which referred to no mood—or all moods—but every so often, just when I had given up on a mood ring working, it would turn rhubarb or lemon, and in doing so, trigger in me exactly the mood to which the color referred. In response to my suggestion, all parts of the man’s face, which had been chaotic, aligned. All he now wanted, his expression said, was what I wanted. I wanted to descend to the beach so he wanted that too, everything else was forgotten.
On the way to the steps I sensed him becoming unsure of what he had done, and several steps down I heard his footsteps lose faith behind me. “Also,” I said, “if anyone else starts hanging around I can tell them to move on and you can carry on.”
He didn’t reply.
On the bottom step, a habit, I sat to remove my shoes. The assistant’s boots stopped scuffing behind me. He made an exasperated noise and, seizing the opportunity to do something definite, caged me momentarily in thin legs. A trailing leg knocked my back. I offered my arm, which he could not refuse, to pull me to my bare feet.
The photographer stood with one leg stretched out. She was wearing close black clothes which left only her hands and head not black. Her face was heavy and handsome. Her expression was hard and patronising.
“Your assistant says one of your lights won’t stay up,” I said.
She gave her assistant a detached look. Her assistant danced his outrage unconvincingly.
“So I said that I would lend a hand with the shoot,” I said, “assuming that’s ok with you, obviously, and the women, ladies”—I waved cheerfully to the huddled group—“and look out for anyone lingering on the cliff, people on the cliff being a nuisance I can move along.”
She smiled. She said, “Did my assistant tell you that he is going to have his photo taken too? And so you’ll have to have a photo taken too, with him? That’s how it works. It’s for charity.”
I said that he had not mentioned that but that it was ok with me. “That seems fair and reasonable.”
Her assistant’s outrage became more convincing.
“I’m Denis,” I said, offering my hand. “Julia,” she said, taking it and smirking. She seemed both a more experimental and a more calculating opportunist than her assistant, and readier to be amused. He had his arms folded and his legs crossed and his eyes crossed. “Denis,” I said to him. “Jared,” he said. “Jared,” I said, “we’re going to get to know one another.” “No yeah,” Jared said, as resolutely as he could.
Jared showed me to the leaning light. Once I had taken up my position next to it, and he his position crawling around behind Julia, Julia clapped her slow clap.
Four out of the five women squeezed behind the useless low rainbow screen. Helen, taking her place behind a blue satin banner with the name of a hospital and a drawing of a newborn baby sewn onto it, seemed to act before she decided to act. She caught up with herself and assented, with a private nod of her head, to what she found herself doing. Her face had been a smile for several minutes before she looked like she was smiling at something. In contrast to Helen, Cind’s body was slack while she concentrated, then, once she had decided what to do, her movements were deliberate. She was the last to strip down to her knickers and bra. She paused and appeared to be not quite in possession of herself, before taking her place behind the banner.
I understood, watching Cind, that trying to tell Helen what she had felt in the castle ruins had been a risk. It took courage—not to say that she was worried about being photographed naked, a worry that Helen shared; it was the unfamiliar ideas Cind had about it that left her exposed. Helen had risked something different. She had been enthusiastic—innocuously, until the proper course Cind felt Helen’s enthusiasm should have taken was blocked by Cind. When Cind did not respond appropriately, Helen refused to be slighted, and attacked. She knew the rabbit better than Cind knew the rabbit: Helen knows Helen, even if Cind doesn’t appear to know Cind.
In front of me, Cind, now behind the banner, had decided to look natural. The concentration that creased her forehead was the only part of her that looked natural; the way she cocked her head, her gripped toes, did not. Cind desperately wanted to be honest with the camera. Helen did not care about honesty. She wanted to look good. She knew what was proper to be in a photograph such as this, and was undeniably being that thing, splendidly.
As Cind smiled, Julia placed a small electronic slab vibrating on the stones. The music, a piece for strings, began with a simple melody made up of a few notes. The melody was repeated a few times and then another melody started up—but it wasn’t another melody, it was the same one played backwards, or upside-down, or accompanied by a different harmony. I thought of the angry man on the train. He had made that piano’s single tune seem defensive. There was no resistance to this music’s pedantic repetition; it slowed us down. Jared was no longer furtive. All five women settled on a stance with one bent knee and one knee straight. They made a gentle and earnest prospect.
The futile smell of perfume reached me, and I was aware that I was not aroused. It felt like when I ask myself if I am asleep.
The bodies being photographed were extravagant. Not being aroused—an unusual feeling faced with naked women—allowed me to see them in detail. Helen’s lower body, revealed momentarily when the hands holding the banner didn’t agree, was fascinating and lovely, rolled on top of itself with wide weight. It seemed very unlikely that all this body could have been contained under Helen’s clothes. But she did not look like she had removed her clothes, or not all of them. She was only wearing skin and yet it seemed that there must have been another layer of clothing to remove. I felt the unlikely warmth of a finger of light on my neck. There was dignity in the light touching the bodies. The insubstantial blue fall of Cind’s shoulders didn’t shrink from the light, and yet it gave away nothing to the camera.
Julia commanded her subjects to face her finger, held out beside her head, and the five heads turned and the five knees of the straight legs bent, and the five bent knees straightened.
A laugh moved unexpectedly along the line.
Suddenly the women flooded into themselves.
I blushed. Everything I could see wanted me to fall into it. Ankles, shoulders, fingernails, the soft cliff, the dark rim of a nipple, the hard bills of the obligatory seagulls. Each thing offered itself to me with that resistance which dissolves what is hard and resistant.
Then Helen’s smile froze again, pointed in the direction of the origin of the joke, and seemed to freeze everyone. Her fixed, chastising smile fell into place—JACKPOT—in five different faces.
The women for the first time all strained towards looking like a photograph. They did not look like anything at all. Julia took the camera from her eye and was for the first time encouraging.
“Girls this is your reward,” Julia said. “Now let’s see how the men get on. Get them off Jared. Will someone hold the light.” She clapped. “The light please.” Cind went to the light.
“Underwear” is not something that occurs to me when I put on underwear. I was relieved when I looked down.
I didn’t particularly want to go anywhere near Jared—I didn’t particularly want to do anything. I felt spent. Then Jared fell into me on the uneven pebbles and passed a cold arm across my bare chest and that was that.
Jared quickly came to an agreement with the situation, as I imagine he came to an agreement with every situation in which he was placed, however extreme, and was absorbed flexing muscles as much as he could without looking too much like he was flexing. (He looked like he was flexing.) We wrapped the banner around our waists.
The women’s giggles gave way to a boredom that caused the sky to fall slack. The photograph of me and Jared was for nothing. It would go nowhere. No one would exchange the photograph of us for anything else. It was not for charity. It did not exist.
The real subjects, except Cind, had climbed the steps and were looking at the back of my head with a look of pity. I rewrapped the banner around my back. Julia photographed greedily and joylessly. I was convinced, over and over, that the sea was rising, and over and over again anticipated its approach and lift. It was a hard mounding expansion, purple black, and when it rushed onto the beach I was mass without weight. When it did not rush, I landed and collected in my shoes. I had the feeling that I was getting in the way of the photograph of myself. There was someone behind me who was the real subject of the photograph, who was obscured by my body. All I wanted was for that person behind me to be photographed. All I wanted was for me to get out of the way.
Denis took a long time to dress. It was the least awkward way of avoiding confused goodbyes. Julia asked for his email address. He imagined all the unread emails in the inbox of the account he wrote down, which he had not accessed since he was a teenager. He reached the clifftop as Jared and Julia pulled away in their van. The women got in one car. The car’s back lights watched until they were gone.
Denis decided to walk away from the sea. A sign said that a village was a mile and a half away along a track. From there he could take a taxi to the train station, get on a train going back the way he came, and get off where he was supposed to get off.
He had been on his way to visit his father, and had stayed on the train past his father’s stop following his father’s advice. Denis was curious about Cind and Helen. His father said that if something interesting was happening, to follow it.
Denis wanted to think about what had just happened. As was often the case when he wanted to think about something, he thought about other things. One of the women flicked the straps of her dress off her shoulders and let the dress fall to her waist and then, with a stroke over her hips, collect at her feet. Even if Denis remembered it exactly as he had seen it, the feeling that accompanied it was different; the feeling came from another memory of watching and of being watched.
The end of the memory arrived first—Denis wearing five layers of coats—then rewound to a beginning—the beginning of an evening, clean and expectant. He was in a skatepark-cum-club buying a surprisingly large colored pill in a brand-new plastic sachet. Nineteen: old enough to feel for the skatepark the sort of venom reserved for things until recently adored; not old enough to go so far as to find something else to do. The age when a couple of years more life confers great authority. A group of younger boys loved him for something he had done, he was not sure what it was, and they carried him aloft to a secret room.
For a moment they were all exquisitely comfortable together in the skatepark office. Sitting on a chair, though, proved a serious problem for Denis. It seemed to be the wrong shape. Denis had never had a problem with sitting in a chair before. Why did the chair not work? Was it upside-down? Was he? He realized that his subjects were looking to him expectantly. He was not sure whether he knew them. He told himself not to ask them again. He asked them if he knew them. The faith in their eyes was dimming. They looked at one another, jaws flexing and flinching. Somebody sucked on a cigarette and it seemed to Denis that the boy would be insane if he didn’t share that joy with Denis, and the boy did. In fact, he gave Denis the whole cigarette and briefly Denis thought it an unbearable generosity. Then he relieved himself of the upside-down chair and looked at a calendar of naked women on the wall. There was a swell of expectation from the boys. The image was, in Denis’s state of mind, weirdly flat. Denis felt like he felt when he asked himself whether he was asleep. He had nothing to say about it. He was not sure if it mattered, although something did matter a great deal. “Do I know you boys from somewhere?”
They decided the office was cold. Was it a failure? He was cold and he could taste mushrooms sprouting inside his mouth. The boys knew the owners and went somewhere. Denis was cold and kept putting on coats. He stood next to a Denis-sized speaker. Every time he located and put on a new coat he felt more protected and warm, and with each layer he needed more protection and warmth. He smiled at women. With each new beat the music loaned him a fresh warm body. He had a sneaking feeling that his dignity was at stake. He did not have the wherewithal to determine what might endanger or save his dignity, only that it was at stake. He looked for coats behind the speaker and stood in front of the speaker. He stayed by the speaker.
The lights came on and the music crumbled under feet and rolled up inside empty glass bottles. He was a scarecrow. A tree. A lemon. A penis. In that state of mind, even horror is not entirely unpleasant; every feeling is some kind of compound: ecstasy and terror, gratitude and dominance. A woman spoke to him. He could see in her eyes she was only drunk. Her face was full of uncompromising menace. A boyfriend stared. She told Denis he was wearing her coat. He stripped.
It was a familiar sequence to Denis—pill, calendar, coats, taxi lights; but he saw it now as the same thing as today’s nakedness—played backwards, or upside-down. When he remembered the woman slipping out of her dress, he felt as he had felt when the lights came up on him dressed in other people’s coats. Thinking about it made what had just happened seem less weird. A red kite hovered and, circled by camera flare, it looked like nostalgia. A tree threatened to curl forward. It was something Denis did with his eyes when his thoughts were going in an unpleasant direction. This landscape knew what he was up to and resisted—the layer underneath was identical to the one he peeled back.
When Denis went to secondary school, Denis’s father moved out of Birmingham. Denis’s mother shared the city with Denis’s friends and his friends’ parents, with the lollipop lady and with the Sunday-league football teams. His father owned the village he moved away to. Not as in everyone else paid him rent; as in he was the chief of the village, by virtue of the fact that Denis didn’t know anyone else in the village.
Denis remembered matted hay under the settled weight of a lone cow. This memory was also a version of the night at the club, which was a version of what had just happened on the beach. They shared a shape which was persuasive without having to persuade. A black-and-white surface that was both solid and disturbingly baggy. Only its head moved with the first item of clothing—a cap which neither boy believed Denis would actually throw, and which missed the head and landed on the cow’s flank. They laughed hysterically.
Joseph stepped onto the fence and threw a T-shirt, which did land on the cow’s head. The cow looked like a grumpy English sunbather, its head shaded with a rag.
There was a pause when none of the three sentient beings willed anything.
Then all in one movement the cow’s legs had raised it and it had amassed, with its covered head at a slight angle, so one wet eye was on them. It exhaled. It seemed to be saying that enough was enough. Denis and Joseph wanted that too.
In recognition of their agreement, the cow turned its covered head away. Denis and Joseph were shown its pink-white-nougat private parts. The sight loaded the boys’ eyes. It correlated, they knew, with something urgent they had never been able to say. They wanted to be near to it. Their game of dressing the cow in human clothes, which had been over, was now not over.
At the sound of the doorbell that evening Denis and Joseph ran to the room where they slept, and hopped around in it. Denis’s father came back from the door carrying a filthy T-shirt.
For Denis’s father it wasn’t a question of forgiveness. The children, he reasoned, did not see the cow as fully as he did. He had had a lifetime to accumulate an understanding of cows. Every time he had seen a cow, all the cows he saw benefited, because with each encounter his capacity to reach around the cow, to accept each cow as more abundantly itself, grew as a result. Denis and Joseph could do what they had done, he thought, because to them the cow was not as fully alive as it was to him. He was sure they understood well enough the architecture of right and wrong. What they lacked was the imagination to fill the cow full of cow, and that took time and experience to develop.
All he said to Denis and Joseph was that they had taught themselves a lesson, and taught themselves in a way that they would probably remember too. Then he served them some floury macaroni.
The absence of chastisement gave the children vertigo.
Denis’s father was a private man. His feelings—which had a depth and ferocity that terrified Denis—were never present when you looked for them; they turned up in unexpected places: on Post-it notes in books; in conversation with Denis’s teachers.
“It’s our secret—let’s not tell your mother.”
Denis disliked stories in which the lives of adults are explained by singularly important childhood episodes. It was as if childhood was an accumulation of causes, and adulthood a performance of effects. It is not that consequential things don’t happen to children, Denis reasoned, it is that there is undue emphasis on cause and effect moving in one direction. Something discovered aged eighty—in a conversation or in dream, in an argument or an accident, or even in a book—can recast a whole life. Adulthood changes childhood, as childhood changes adulthood. The shape that Denis had for the first time seen clearly—the shape of being naked on the beach, of being dressed in the club, of dressing the cow—went much further back than childhood, and would travel further forward. Perhaps it had been set before he was born. It was not a matter of predestined narrative; it was a matter of persuasive rhyme—once he had experienced events taking a particularly charismatic shape, it was likely that he would repeat the shape, either in his future or in his past. The details were different each time but their underlying configuration was the same.
When Denis was a child, his father decided to go abroad. His father claimed he spent a whole year convincing himself that he could go abroad—that going abroad was for people like him. He wasn’t going to go somewhere he had always wanted to go. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to go to Holland. Maybe he wanted to go precisely because there was no good reason to go.
Denis was aware it was raining inside his torso. He had not eaten since breakfast. It was difficult to think. He slowed and, realizing that if he stopped he might not start again, rushed airheadedly on. There was a rabbit’s tail under the hedge. He could not care less. He told the rabbit to stop showing off. He shouted at the rabbit that it was “a moron.” There must have been half a mile to go until he reached somewhere he could get a taxi. Denis had the sense that he owed it to his father to follow his line of thought until he arrived.
The thing which affected Denis’s father about being strip-searched at Birmingham airport was not the invasion of his privacy, or so he said. He despised them—his own government—for undressing him. They had shame on their fingers, but he had no shame where they had touched him. What really burned was the feeling that he had brought it upon himself. He felt he should never have risked it. There had been no good reason to fly anywhere. He had only because he could. As far as he was concerned, they had strip-searched him for the same reason: because they could. Perhaps he was as bad as them.
Denis considered, for the first time, the relationship between his father’s trip and the breakup of his parents’ marriage. Which had come first? Neither, of course. They were both echoes from the same lost gunshot. No one knows when that was fired nor who, if anyone, fired it. Moronic image.
Start again. For Denis’s father, an opaque desire to go to Holland did not exist in the same world as hijacked planes and national security. It must, though, have been security policy which introduced, or you might say popularized, that particular shape in every airport in Britain—the shape of forcing another person to remove their clothes; not, apparently, to reveal their body but to reveal everything that is not their body (which, in Denis’s father’s case, was nothing). The image that came to Denis, low on blood sugar, was the pineapple. The plundered fruit made its way from people who did not know they were American, to English banquets, and then into the country’s marble and stone. Shapes multiply and mutate; some pass through minds and disappear, and some harden into stone. The imperial pineapples on top of St Paul’s cathedral are, the guidebook says, a symbol of peace, prosperity, and hospitality. A nation links a stolen spiky fruit with modernity; modernity with spikes and sweetness. A nation links an exotic kind of nakedness with security; security with shame. Hundreds of airport staff are trained in airless rooms how to strip and search. It is a variation, with strict rules and procedure, on what they themselves do in private every day. Imaginations might have rules and procedure that are just as strict. They are, though, mysterious to us. The shape circulates among the imaginations of people in ways we do not understand, Denis thought, picturing the old man waiting for him at the station. Strip-searching multiples and mutates and hardens into stone. His father, a chastised man, became bitter and cautious. But the shape which haunted him also made him determined to encourage his son to be bold. Denis’s father took a passionate interest in things his son felt embarrassed or guilty about. His father, Denis thought, would have happily passed the wait imagining what his son might be doing, somewhere that was not where he should have been, and with what new shapes.