‘Its either the last great Existentialist novel, or the first great Existentialist novel of the century. Better than anything else Ive read in the last ten years. A beauty. - Steven Augustine

‘A fascinating world and very funny too’ - Irvine Welsh

   For mature readers only


Welcome to my fiction editing site, showcasing mixed edits of works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Virginia Woolf and others. The original texts run in parallel (and are available here for those on mobile devices). 

I've freelance-edited novels published by several of the world’s most prestigious houses. Clients have been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, the Dundee International Book Prize, and nominated for the Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award.

For editing services please complete the Contact Form or send your story or opening chapter to seanmcnulty2 (at) gmail dot com (I take your privacy seriously and will never divulge your email address or other details to any third party). The price in instalments is €50 per 10000 words, but I’ll give your story or chapter (max. 3000 words) a detailed critique and line-edit for free and we can then discuss whether or not we'll proceed together. 

Feel free to get in touch with your editing requirements, any questions you may have about the editing process, feedback on The Promised End edits, or any queries about book cover design or the Soma Cult Fiction Classics anthologies. 

Due to differences in international copyright law, the original texts on the site are offered for readers outside the US only (I am, of course, always happy to work with US writers).

Thanks for dropping by.

Sean McNulty


 




The Promised End 

A novel adapted from works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and other Modernists.

A mind-altering myth for our self-obsessed era and an epic end-times drama, with traces of Borges and Pynchon at their most accessible as well as auteurs like Lynch and Nolan. This is not only a highly original and daring work, it's also a hell of a story.
Peter Murphy (John the Revelator, Shall We Gather at the River)


The free epub extract can be downloaded here. The Kindle/mobi can be downloaded here. The pdf can be downloaded here. All three have bonus original texts. Because of US copyright law, it is illegal to download these if you live there. 


Other writers' soundtracks are available here.



We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

               Samuel Beckett




Come close now, friend. Every night, no matter what else happens, this mystery unfolds beyond Big Bangs and supernovae and Great Collisions and the creaks of mills and barns.
A woman walks among the worlds looking for the boy who kills her.
The story never starts and never ends and cannot say too much. A woman walks among the worlds looking for the boy who kills her. Same endless story every night.
Welcome to the mysteries.



Bad Friday

Lenny watched through the windscreen’s muck as the Great Comet rose pale blue over the mountains. It glowed in his brain, this world about to end. It flickered and shimmered, looking almost supernatural. When the shimmers merged as Maggie cycling on the road ahead his head seemed to revolve slowly, rhythmically, and burst out blazing at the temples.
The Moray Cycling Club’s fanatics were allowing themselves one last ride before the Comet hit. Bringing up their rear Maggie was the glamorous thing that attracted all the morning light, casting a sun-shadow and a longer Comet-shadow, ringing her bell and grinning till she caught her reflection in a farmhouse window. She’d glimpsed flowing bleached hair there and fine enough features, but they were also slack with lack of breath and gaudier than they ever were, the features that had shed those masks – Maglemosian, Egyptian, Greek, Spanish, all the way down to this last reality, the final mortal mask of the thing now called Maggie Guthrie.
Well, nothing endures, does it? Without this Comet Pessaria business, without big Lenny to kill her off and send her on to pastures new, she doubted she could have faced more masking on this Earth and not felt sick to the pit. Once it had been wearying to think of yet more years of masks of skin and bone keeping hidden her essentials, but now with the Great Collision here at last she wasn’t sick or sorry, not sad at all, just too much time to think as she pumped away at these pedals.
In time the cyclists dismounted for a break before the return to Moray. Lenny parked the Austin in a lay-by. When Maggie walked her bike into a wood he left the car and followed. He watched her double-shadow dance on leaves and a passing stream and his head began to revolve again. A pulse went through his bruises and he ran toward her.
She let her bike fall and backed away. Her foot caught on a root and she went down backward and thudded her spine against a stump. He got his knees on her chest, pressed her chin back over the stump’s edge and with the base of his palm shoved it hard. She wheezed out, ‘Nothing endures.’
As he kept kneeling there and shoving, everything blurred for a moment and became a painted film set, the blue Comet and golden sun its glaring spotlights. He remembered Maggie with his father, Maggie desecrating his dead mother, Maggie sneering as he came. He wondered how his contorting face might look on camera.
Though the base of his palm pressing at that upturned chin, that woman wheezing there and gurgling – that wasn’t acting. He heard a little cluck and crunch and his head turned to vapour as convulsions shook her body. The limbs twitched and sprawled and blood brimmed from the nostrils, hesitated at her deep red lipstick and ran back into her dead eyes. That was fine. That was as it should be.
He found himself brushing dirt off the strip of Comet light along her chest. He sat beside her body, surprised that the leaves at his feet were glittering and the woodchips reflected blue.
He looked about and tried to remember where he was. Not a film set. He got on Maggie’s bike and rode it along the nearest path. A doe, a moving bit of reflected light, went running through the shade. Lenny, transfixed by it, went crashing into a tree and fell.
He stayed there on the ground with his temples throbbing, his mind busy with delirium. His mouth was dry and blood was darting in his head. There was something tapping. Trees and other greenery, streaks of weird light across the ground, something tapping. A whistling bird tapped its beak on a fallen treetrunk and then ran out of the shadow, its head bobbing and its white legs twinkling.
So I have done it, Lenny thought. I have murdered Maggie Guthrie.
A kind of wonder came on him, followed by low animal exultation at that cluck and crunch and those sprawling, twitching convulsions. Some grief came too, but it was all right, he told himself, it wasn’t really Maggie. That dead husk with blood pooled in its eyes wasn’t Maggie and never had been. Whatever dark spark constituted Maggie Guthrie, it wasn’t that. And he wasn’t really Lenny Uath either. Wasn’t that what she always told him?
Something scuffled and he sat up and watched a squirrel run in bounds over the ground. It flew at another squirrel and they chased each other until he had a coughing fit and sent them up a tree. One peered round at him halfway up a trunk, clinging to the bark.
Darkness fell like a shutter. He had killed Maggie as she said he would and the Comet was here at last. He was arriving on the real dark bottom but it was all fine, fine. 
He thought he saw lightning flutter around the rippling, flickering oval in the sky, Comet Pessaria 6, the hairy star itself, and visions came of tonight’s Collision and the last few minutes he’d now have to face, tramps gazing upward and gossiping about last-minute escape rockets and rescues by archangels, prostitutes flicking tongues and blowing the Comet kisses, priests and ministers wailing psalms and prayers, some tearing off their clothes and sending up blasphemies or hallelujahs, some scourging their backs bloody and collapsing on the ground in fits. The delirium went on and on, his thoughts flickering like the lightning.
Then a hunt for water, and surges of now pointless hate for Maggie. Then moments of calm and ease and his father’s voice somewhere, approving of her murder: ‘Fine, boy, fine.’
His brain was flaming with thirst. Beyond the trees the mountains ranged across the edge of the sky, double-shadowed and solid with blue snowy markings. He was twisting in a paroxysm on the grass.
His thoughts had split from him. There was also the clog of his body, another splitting thing. He was dividing. There was maybe some connection between the different parts, or maybe not. Either way, all the shapes were going. Faint blue rays were drilling through their bonds.



So was the Comet real? Was Maggie real?
These are not simple questions. Others who’ll tell this story may answer them conclusively, but for now we’ll just say this. Certain events, entities, things, lack what might be called precision. They’re too large to be contained by the world of facts, and occur partly to find out if that world can bear them. Think of those queer gaps in the history of your own Earth, those Atlantises and Marie Celestes, those Tunguskas.
Normal events are strung along time like carriages on a railtrack. They have their causes and their effects, pushing and pulling one another forward and forming all our stories. But what about events too large for that railtrack, that maybe need a different gauge? Well, time has many parallel tracks, my friend, and the fact is that down certain secret tracks these larger events await us all. And if they’re not real then nothing is.
We must come to terms with the Great Comet. We must come to terms with Maggie Guthrie. We must not let their reality embarrass us into silence.
Och for God’s sake, let’s shut up and get started.


The Broadcast


1

The Reverend Don Uath’s first and last ministry was in the Shaugh, the village of his birth. His family made the flit there from Tomintoul in carts. Lenny was two years old.
The going was wild the night they set out, and several times they skidded in drifts of sleet before the horses brought them to the hills. Don watched his wife Willa in her nook in the leading cart with Lenny at the breast, her skin cold and blueing and strands of her red-gold hair draped into the light of the swinging lantern. When the horses skidded again she held off Lenny with milk dragging from his lips.
Don called out to her, ‘We’d better get beds at the next village and not try the hills in this weather.’
But Willa called out at that, ‘Beds? Think we’re made of money?’ 
‘No,’ Don answered, ‘but maybe we’ll skid again and all die this night.’
A bellow arose where old horse Mo had halted, tail to the wind and refusing to pull his cart any further into the hills and sleet. Willa laid Lenny on his back and climbed down and went past the head of Mo, and there she uncoiled the length of hide she used as a whip. It crackled through the sleet onto Mo’s back and made the hair rise across it, and he began to neigh and fall into a trot, the younger horse Tod following after, slipping and sprawling on his hooves.
So, creaking and bending beneath their loads, the carts plodded into motion again, full of gear and furnishings for the manse the family would occupy in the Shaugh. Head down to the wind went the horses in the moonlight, in this mile and that Don calling, ‘Fine, you two, fine. Come on then, boys.’
The road kept winding up and sometimes he sat huddled in his nook as the sleet went past in the darkness, and sometimes he climbed down and walked beside Tod and watched the lights across the moors where folk lay dry and warm. Then the road would swerve and the wind would be at him again and he’d climb back on the cart with freezing feet and hands, urging Tod on to their new home. 
But in a few hours the carts had cleared the hills and through the sleet Don saw the Shaugh’s scattered points of light. Willa stood on her cart holding Lenny and took in the nearby loch, where night fishermen in cockleshell boats were braving the weather and casting out their nets. On the banks others carried baskets of flapping catch and looked up at the northern sky.
Tiny smears swirled up there among the sleet, an enormous flock of swallows. The scene looked like some old fresco, full of birds not intended for the Moray sky in the depth of winter, criss-crossing it in graceful climbs and swoops. A few hundred roofs stood out clear below them, and a manse and steepled church set round with gravestones and grass in tufts.
Maggie Guthrie watched the same scene from the standing stones, then rode down toward it on her bike.




Once upon a time and a very exciting time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nice young boy named Uath. The moocow came down along the road on a bicycle.
Lenny’s father told him that story when he was drunk. Lenny believed that he himself was the nice young boy named Uath.
His mother was smaller than his father but she’d a nicer smell. She cried sometimes and prayed to God. When Lenny hid under the kitchen table she said, ‘Now Lenny will apologise.’
His father said, ‘Or the moocow will come and blind his eyes.’
The words looped round Lenny’s head. Blind his eyes, apologise, apologise, blind his eyes. Apologise, blind his eyes, blind his eyes, apologise.




2

The playgrounds were swarming with children. The afternoon air was chilly and after every charge of the boys the football flew like a heavy bird through the grey Moray light. Lenny kept out of the reach of the kicking feet. He was ashamed of his body. It felt small and weak.
One girl watched him, smiling. ‘You have a girl’s lips,’ she told him. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Lenny Uath.’
‘What kind of a name’s that for a girl?’
He couldn’t answer.
His hands were blue with cold. He kept them in the pockets of his trousers. A belt went round the trousers. A belt was also used to belt you, and Willy Lindsey once said to him, ‘I’ll belt your face in a second.’
That wasn’t nice. His mother had told him not to speak with the rough boys or girls. On his first day in school she’d kissed him goodbye and her eyes went wet. She was a fine mother but looked not so fine when she cried. His father kissed him too and said he must never ever tell on anyone.
Now he was caught in the scramble for the ball. The legs kicked and blocked till Chae Law toed it out and all the feet ran after it. Lenny ran after them and then stopped. It was useless to run on.
Better to be in class than out here in the cold. The sky was grey and cold but there were lights on in the school. It was good to see those lights, like something in a book or picture. There were good pictures in Doctor Cornwell’s Spelling Book.
Cancer is a disease of animals while canker is a disease of plants.
It would be good to lie on the rug before the fire at home, leaning against his mother’s legs and looking at those pictures. She’d have her feet on the fender and her slippers would have a nice warm smell. She knew a lot of things. She’d taught him about the Old Testament times and what the folk did then in their tribes and what were the names of all the prophets. When she made that noise after dinner and put her hand to her mouth, that was heartburn.
He shivered like he was still in cold slimy ditchwater. It wasn’t right of Nell Morrison to shoulder him into the ditch this morning when he wouldn’t swap his drawing pencils for her conker, the conqueror of forty. The water was cold and the shame on his face was hot.
A voice called across the playground, ‘All in!’
The children filed indoors and walked to the study hall. Lenny sat and leaned his elbows on a desk and shut and opened the flaps of his ears. He heard the loud noise in the hall every time he opened the flaps. It made a roar like a train at night and when he closed the flaps the roar was shut off like a train going into a tunnel.
Nell Morrison had golden hair. ‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘do you kiss your mother before you go to bed?’
Lenny answered, ‘I do.’
Nell Morrison turned to her friends and said, ‘Here’s a boy who kisses his mother every night before he goes to bed.’
The girls all turned round, laughing.
His face went red and he said, ‘I do not.’
Nell Morrison said, ‘Here’s a boy who doesn’t kiss his mother before he goes to bed.’
The girls all laughed again.
He tried to laugh with them and to see the right answer. He’d given the only two possible answers and still they’d laughed. But someone must know the right answer. What did that really mean, to kiss? He put his face up to say goodnight and his mother put her lips on his cheek. They were soft and they wetted his cheek and made a little noise: kiss. He didn’t know why they did that with their faces. She never did it to his father.
There was a picture of the Earth on the first page of his geography book, a big ball in the middle of complete blackness. He couldn’t learn the names of all the different places that had different names. They were all in different countries and the countries were in continents and the continents were in the world and the world was in the universe. He read the flyleaf of the book.

Lenny Uath
Class 3A
The Shaugh Primary School
The Shaugh
Morayshire
Scotland
Great Britain
Europe
The World
The Universe

That was him, Lenny Uath. He wondered what came after the universe.
Nothing.
But maybe there was something round the universe to show where it stopped before the nothing began. It couldn’t be a wall, but there might be a thin line round everything. It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. Lenny tried to think what a big thought that must be, but he could only think of God.
God was God’s name just as his own name was Lenny, or Leonard when he was christened. There were different names for God in different languages and though God understood what all the people prayed in their different languages, still God remained always the same God and God’s real name was God.
It troubled him that he didn’t know where the universe ended. He wanted to be like the boys in 5A who’d big voices and big feet and knew these things. 5A was far away in two years’ time. First came the holidays and then next term and then holidays again and then another term and then another year of terms and holidays. He liked thinking about the future. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels, which was like the noise when you closed and opened the flaps of your ears. Term, holidays, tunnel, out, quiet, noise.
The study hall was darkly lit and filled with cold air and the marble statues were the colour of the sea at night. The sea was cold all the time but colder at night, and sometimes it didn’t smell nice. There was a cold smell in the hall but it was a holy smell, not like the smell of the tinks who knelt in his father’s church at Sunday service. That was a smell of air and rain and turf. But they were still holy tinks. They breathed behind him on his neck and sighed as they prayed. He once saw a tink at the half-door of a caravan with a baby sucking at her like she had udders. It would be fine to sleep for one night in her caravan beneath her lantern, breathing her tink smells, air and rain and turf and milk.
His fingers shook that night as he undressed in his bedroom. He’d to kneel and say his prayers so he wouldn’t lose his soul to Satan and go to hell. He removed his glasses and put on his pyjamas and knelt beside his bed. His shoulders shook as he prayed.
He climbed into bed and curled under the cold sheets, shivering with guilt and shame as he examined the conker he’d stolen from Nell Morrison’s satchel, the conqueror of forty. But he wouldn’t lose his soul to Satan and the shivering would surely stop.




3

When Lenny and Chae Law were thirteen they tired of only reading about adventures in books and comics. They wanted their own adventures now, so they planned a day’s skiving off school. They’d meet at nine in the morning on the Low Bridge and then cycle into Icht until they came to the ships and then decide what to do there, maybe sneak into the pictures. They shook hands and Chae said, ‘Till tomorrow, then.’
Next morning Lenny hid his school knapsack behind the ashpit in the manse’s garden and cycled along the canal bank. Then he got off his bike and sat up on the coping of the Low Bridge admiring the running shoes he’d cleaned last night. Sunlight slanted through nearby trees onto the canal and railway track. The stone of the bridge was warming and he patted it in time to a rhyme in his head. A pretty woman went cycling past.
Minutes later Chae came cycling up the hill. Lenny jumped down off the bridge and they set off together on their bikes.
They left the Shaugh and passed his Aunt Elsie’s farm where he sometimes worked after school. It was a mild sunny morning in the first week of June. Low sunrays met grass-stalks heavy with dew and crowned them with a million jewels. The sights were all fine sights. The smells were all fine smells.
They arrived in Icht and Chae cycled after some tink girls with his unloaded catapult. When two tink boys flung stones at him he told Lenny they should charge them. Lenny said the boys were too small and so they cycled on, the tink troop screaming after them.
They cycled to the River Spey and watched the cranes and engines. The day had grown sultry and in a baker’s window pies and shortbread lay bleaching. At the quays all the labourers seemed to be eating lunches, so Lenny and Chae bought doughnuts and ate them on metal piping beside the river and watched the spectacle of Icht’s commerce, the brown fishing fleet, the big threemaster being discharged on the opposite quay.
In another shop Chae spoke to the owner while Lenny stole a bottle of Iron Brew. Outside they drank it fast and then cycled through the streets where the fishermen’s families lived. Chae chased a cat down a lane but it escaped into a wide field. They felt a bit sick from the doughnuts and Iron Brew and when they reached the field they lay down on a sloping bank. Chae explained recent improvements to his catapult, trying to regain some cheerfulness.
Now Lenny saw a woman approaching on a bike. She had long blonde hair and deep red lipstick. It was the woman he’d seen at the bridge that morning.
He chewed a green stem and watched her come along by the bank. She was wearing shorts and had long slim legs, though her top half wasn’t slim. She looked a little younger than his mother, then a moment later she looked older. She glanced over and dismounted when she came level with them.
‘Lovely day,’ she said.
She smiled and sat beside them, produced an apple from her bag and had a bite. She began to talk about the weather, saying the summer would be dry and hot and that the seasons had changed greatly since she was a girl. She said the happiest time of your life was undoubtedly your earliest days and that she’d give anything to be reborn young again. Did they ever feel tired of this life?
Chae said he did sometimes and the woman ate the rest of her apple and spoke about school studies and books. She asked whether they’d read certain books and Lenny nodded, pretending that he had. She poked his leg with a red fingernail and said, ‘I can see you’re a bookworm like me.’ She pointed at Chae. ‘Not him, though.’
She said she’d lots of exciting books at home and never tired of reading them, though of course there were some books that boys should be just black ashamed to read. Chae asked why that might be but the woman only licked her lips and smiled. Her tongue was pale against the deep red of her lipstick.
She asked which of them had the most sweethearts and Chae said he had just the one. She asked if he loved his sweetheart and he said he wasn’t sure. She asked Lenny how many he had. He decided to lie and say two but the words wouldn’t come. His lips were trembling.
The woman reached over and stroked them and said a pretty thing like him must have a sweetheart. 
Chae said to her, ‘Please, how many have you yourself?’
‘I have many, many sweethearts,’ she said, ‘and I love them all from the bottom of my heart.’
Having lots of sweethearts sounded sensible to Lenny but for some reason he disliked the words in her mouth. She looked in his eyes and began to speak about boys, saying what nice clear eyes they had and how nice their breath smelled. There was nothing she liked, she said, so much as looking at a pretty young boy like him, at his nice clear eyes and fine full lips and curly hair.
She said her name was Maggie Guthrie and asked him his name, but he didn’t answer. She poked his thigh again and said, ‘Are we all skiving off school, then? Having an adventure on our bikes?’  
She placed her fingers on his shoulder, and on Chae’s shoulder too. When Lenny leaned away from them Chae did the same.
The woman pointed across the field and said, ‘There’s your cat.’
Chae jumped up and cycled after it across the field and the woman and Lenny watched the chase. The cat escaped once more and Chae began to throw stones at the wall it leapt onto. Then he began to cycle aimlessly about the far end of the field.
The woman lit a cigarette and told Lenny his friend was a rough boy and asked did he get belted often at school. Before Lenny could answer she said that when boys were rough scheming rebels they should be belted and well belted. When a boy was rough and disobedient there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound belting. A slap on the hand or a box on the ear was no good, what he wanted was a good hard belting. It sounded like a speech of some kind, like she’d said these words many times before.
Her dark brown eyes, ringed by slightly smudged mascara, peered at Lenny through her cigarette smoke and then drifted off as though already bored with him. He was hot and hard between his legs and didn’t understand why. This woman wasn’t very nice.  
She said that if a scheming boy had another girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it she’d give him such a scorching pair of eyes as no boy ever got in this world. She described how blurry and dark and deathly but also how very clear everything would appear in that boy’s streaming eyes, as though unfolding some mysterious lesson in how to see through blinded eyes. She led Lenny through the mystery then pulled his hand against her heart, promising that every word she said was true.
When she finished he stood and pretended to fix his shoelace. Then he found himself saying goodbye.
As he pushed his bike up the slope he was still hot and hard between his legs and his heart was beating fast. When he reached the top an urge came to go back down and kiss the woman, but instead he called across the field to Chae. He’d to call out again before Chae shouted back in answer.
He came cycling across the field with his catapult between his teeth, as though to rescue his damsel in distress. And at that sight Lenny felt just black ashamed.
That night he couldn’t sleep and instead lay facing his bedroom window, watching a giant woman’s face and figure form in the moonlit clouds. Eventually the woman smiled at the boy lying there in bed, like a mother at her nursing baby. More clouds appeared, the giant face of a bearded man, and the woman leaned her face up toward it and the faces merged. Lenny’s legs stiffened and he moaned. Moments later he was watching moonlight dance inside the blobs upon his belly.
Now Lenny will apologise. Or the moocow will come and blind his eyes.
These words kept running through his head. He’d no idea where they came from. Downstairs his father moaned.
He wiped his belly and pulled the bedcover over his head. Reading books and comics, playing with his friends, shadows playing over open fields, insects murmuring in the grass, these weren’t enough any more. Please bring my father peace, he prayed, and bring me a girl or woman, with or without a belt.



Those awful chickens. They lived for weeks as small fluffy things, became hideously bald, developed diseases with names like pip and cholera, stood looking with stupid eyes at the wan Scottish sun and then dropped dead. A few exceptions fought their way through to life as hens and laid more eggs, and so the whole sorry cycle was repeated.
Lenny’s Aunt Elsie had inherited her parents’ farm outside the Shaugh and with her daughter Edy embarked on the nightmare of raising these idiotic birds. There followed years of wasting money on Wonder Cholera Cure and the like, of worry with incubators that didn’t hatch, of balls of fluff that passed into semi-naked pullethood and then dead henhood.
On the farm grotesques were sometimes born, little freaks of nature with three legs, two pairs of wings, or perhaps two heads – ‘Back they go to their Maker’s hand that briefly trembled,’ Elsie would say when they died days later. The weirdest ones she pickled in glass bottles and displayed on her front room’s mantelpiece. They’d be a conversation piece, she’d decided, when folk called round to visit.
But hardly anyone called round, due partly to those sickening sights on the mantelpiece but also, she eventually discovered, to her reputation as chicken-spooked or something-spooked, hardly the jolliest of ladies to have a cup of tea with. And so began the time of her affected cheeriness.
One Monday when Lenny came in with his father from collecting eggs Edy introduced them to her friend Adela Felte. Tall, curvy, snooty – Lenny liked everything about her but her short auburn hair.
He was also introduced to a crumpled little man who’d come to collect Adela, her chauffeur he supposed. But it turned out this was her widowed father Percy Felte, owner of the enormous estate nearby and also a London movie studio and several newspapers.
Elsie turned on the radio and grinned at the cheerful music, Bizzy Bee playing his ukelele and singing about his hobbies. Then she grinned at Percy but couldn’t get a word out, suffering from stage-fright.
‘I like birds,’ he said.
‘What kind of birds, Mr Felte?’
‘More exciting than yours. Peacocks and condors. The more exciting the better.’
Elsie couldn’t think of a reply so she just stood there grinning.
Adela rolled her eyes and sneered with boredom. Lenny tried to hide his erection.
‘You have heard of Christopher Columbus?’ Elsie finally asked, grinning down at the eggs Lenny had collected. ‘Well, that Christopher Columbus was a dirty cheat. He boasted of making an egg stand on its end and then went and sliced that end right off.’
She stuttered a little and then went on with her speech, claiming that it was wrong to praise Christopher Columbus the dirty cheat. She picked up an egg and walked around rolling it between her palms and talking about the effect her body’s electricity was having on it. Without breaking its shell, she said, and by rolling it in her palms, she could make the egg stand on its end, because her hands’ warmth and the gentle rolling motion gave it a new centre of gravity.
‘Great stuff,’ Don said slumping in an armchair. ‘Great trick. My sister knows her eggs.’
She stood the egg on the table but it fell onto its side. She attempted the trick several times, each time rolling the egg between her palms and speaking of the wonders of electricity and the laws of gravity. When at last she got it to stand up Percy was looking out the window and Adela was sighing at Edy, and by the time they looked back the egg had fallen on its side again.
Elsie saw the jars of deformed chicklets on the mantelpiece and took one down. ‘Fancy having three wings and two heads like this wee fellow?’ she asked, smiling at the greatest of her treasures.
Percy was fascinated by the terribly deformed bird and removed his glasses for a closer look.
Lenny looked across at Adela, who was glancing at the silent radio. As Percy peered into the jar monotony began to fill the room, shattered now and then by clucks from hens outside.
‘Do you hear the quiet?’ said Don. ‘Well, that’s no use at all, son. The thing in life is to find the action in the centre of the world, wherever that happens to be.’ His watery eyes widened. ‘Then things begin to glimmer.’
‘Yes, dad,’ Lenny said, turning away from Adela.  
‘Of course. I knew you’d understand. Our experience is that when the right people get together in the centre of the world and do the right things, everything begins to glimmer.’ Don got out his hip flask and had a drink. ‘Have you ever seen an amusement park?’
‘Last summer with you and mum.’
‘Well, go off and see an amusement park sometime. Go to one at night and stand away from it in a dark place, under trees perhaps, and you’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air and music playing everywhere and every blessed thing will sparkle. It will all just hang out there in the night.’ He had another drink. ‘But don’t get too close, don’t make any exciting new friends, don’t learn any weird new facts, because if you do you’ll only discover the tears and the sweat. You’ll stop drinking in your twentieth year but it will not last.’ He drank some more and began to mutter to himself about eggs and chickens.
Elsie clapped her hands and pick another egg up. ‘I will heat this egg in vinegar,’ she said. ‘Next I’ll put it through the neck of a milk bottle without breaking the shell. When the egg’s inside the bottle it will resume its normal size and shape.’
‘Which came first,’ said Don, ‘the chicken or the egg?’
‘Then I’ll give Mr Felte the bottle and people will want to know how he got the egg inside. Please don’t tell them. Keep them guessing.’
‘Which came first,’ said Percy, ‘the future or the thought of it?’
The radio was hissing and crackling.
‘The past or the thought of it? Death or the thought of death? Hm?’ Percy got out his pipe and asked, ‘Does death not concern you, Elsie? Or your past or future?’
She put down the egg and said, ‘They do.’
Lenny said, ‘And you, Mr Felte?’
‘Not a bit.’ Percy snatched the egg up. ‘If Elsie gets this inside the bottle I’ll confess my little secret. Then she’ll stop worrying about death and time and eggs and chickens. People will wonder why. Please don’t tell them. Keep them guessing.’
Lenny tried to catch Adela’s eye but she was frowning at the radio. Still no music there, but the crackling sounds were gone.   
‘Off you go then,’ Percy said to Elsie, handing back the egg.  
And that was when they heard the Broadcast.



The Approach



4

Comet Pessaria 6 had veered twenty degrees off its ninety-two-year path around the sun and in fifteen years would come crashing into the Earth. So said Mrs Benzie in the first Comet Studies class. Tidal waves would then go flooding across the planet and the Moray coast would be one of the earliest places to go under. This much you’ve heard already from the men of science, she told the class, but you mustn’t worry. You’ll learn how to calm your fears in Coping Studies class.
‘Now boys and girls,’ said Mr Touya in Coping Studies class, ‘let us try to realise the nature of the hell that awaits all souls who fail to repent before the Great Collision.’
Mr Touya had once been Father Touya, but was defrocked for drunkenness during the Great Crash that followed the Comet Broadcast. His cheeks were rosy.
Lenny pushed his broken glasses around his desk and watched the December daylight fail outside. As it shone softly through the blinds onto his blurry classmates, two almost orphaned recently by parental suicide attempts, it seemed to him that the sun of Collision’s Eve was already going down and all these Comet-haunted souls would soon be gathered for the judgment.
‘Consider for instance the torment to those damned souls of the company of the devils. They mock and jeer at those they dragged down to ruin. You knew the Comet was coming, they say, and therefore the Day of Judgment, so why did you sin? Why did you not give up that lewd habit, that impure habit? Why did you not, even after you had fallen the first or second or third or twentieth time, repent of your evil ways before the Great Collision and turn to God who only waited for your repentance to absolve you of your sins?
‘May it never be the lot of those present today to hear such words. On the day of Comet Pessaria’s terrible reckoning I pray fervently that not a single soul in this class may be found among those miserable beings who the Great Judge shall command to depart forever from His sight.’
Mr Touya wrote the word Eternity on the blackboard.
Lenny’s legs were shaking and his scalp was electric. He slipped a coke bottle from his knapsack and while Mr Touya’s back was turned drank some of the rum it contained, stolen from his father. As the rum’s fire hit his belly it recoiled as though from the Comet’s tongues of flame. The Comet had crashed into the world and he was dying in the Collision. His soul was being wrenched from his body and he was plunging headlong through space.
‘But the greatest and crowning torture of all the tortures facing those souls damned on Collision Day is the eternity of hell. Try to imagine the terrible meaning of the word eternity. You have all seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains, and how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful that a child grasps in play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand a million miles high, reaching from the Earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness, and imagine such an enormous mass multiplied as often as there are drops of water in the mighty ocean.
‘Now imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many aeons upon aeons before it had carried away it all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun.
‘And yet eternity in hell is the punishment decreed for those souls who die in sin on Collision Day by an almighty and just God.
‘I pray to that almighty and just God that my words may have availed today to strengthen the wavering, to lead back to the state of grace the poor soul that has strayed. His arms are open to receive your soul following the Collision even though you have sinned against Him. The Approach of the Great Comet calls you to Him. Now is the hour.’
Yes.
His soul was judged. A wave of fire swept through Lenny’s body.
Why did you not give up that lewd habit, that impure habit?
Again a wave. His brain began to glow. Another. His brain was simmering and bubbling inside his cracking skull. Flames burst from it, shrieking like voices: ‘Lewd habit, impure habit, lewd habit, impure habit!’
Voices whispered near him.
‘He’s fair rubbing it in today.’
‘I’m depressed.’
He hadn’t died, he saw. A bit blurry without his glasses, yes, but the world had not yet ended. The school sounds, the scratch of chalk as Mr Touya drew a little bird beside the word Eternity, the quiet when the scratching stopped and the silence was replaced by the begging cries of the unemployed in the village square, these all calmed his aching soul.
There was still time to be spared the fires of hell, if not of the Collision. He’d repent his sins and then those above, those in heaven, would see what he’d do to make up for his thieving, drunken, lewd existence. A whole new life, every hour of the Approach.
Mr Touya was now returning everyone’s essays saying they were scandalous and had all to be written out again with the corrections. Worst of all was Moses Clegg’s because the pages were stuck together.
As he handed back Josie Negrim’s essay he asked her to name the astronomers who discovered not Pessaria 6 but Pessaria 5.
Josie said, ‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ said Mr Touya.
He asked the next pupil and the next. Nobody knew. When he asked Moses he answered, ‘Was it Mr Pessaria?’
‘Kneel out there in the middle of the class. You are one of the stupidest boys I ever met. Copy out your essays again, the rest of you.’
Moses knelt between two desks. The other pupils bent over their jotters and began to write. Mr Touya’s cheeks were extra-rosy.
The door opened and closed. A whisper ran through the class, then there was silence again. Then the whack of a belt on a desk.
‘Any souls want belting here, Mr Touya?’
Lenny recognised the woman’s voice from dreams and suchlike (lewd habit, impure habit).
Blonde hair blurred by. She came to the middle of the class.
‘Boys and girls,’ said Mr Touya, smoothing down his straggly beard, ‘this is Miss Guthrie, our new head of department.’
She saw Moses on his knees and said, ‘Who’s this tiny wee boy? What’s your name, boy? Who are you and what are you about?’
‘Moses Clegg, miss.’
‘I knew the man you were named after.’
Moses looked up at her and said, ‘My father, miss?’
‘Laid off from the Gowan’s plant?’
‘Yes, miss.’
‘Born idlers, both of you. Why’s this damned Clegg soul on his knees, Mr Touya?’
‘He wrote a poor essay on the subject of counting one’s blessings,’ Mr Touya said, ‘and he couldn’t name the discoverers of Pessaria 5.’
‘Of course he couldn’t,’ Maggie said. ‘A fool like his father, a non-entity, a nothing.’ She whipped her belt down on the desk again and said, ‘Up, Clegg.’
Moses stood up slowly.
‘Hold out your hand.’
Moses held out his hand.
I am very sorry, Miss Guthrie. Say it.’
‘I am very sorry, Miss Guthrie.’
She lifted the belt above her shoulder and then behind her back. It came down on Moses’s hand with a loud smacking sound.
One, two, three, four, five, six.
‘Other hand.’
The belt came down again in six loud smacks.
‘Kneel down.’
Moses knelt down and squeezed his hands under his armpits, his face contorted with pain. Lenny’s heart was fluttering. His hand crept between his legs.
‘At your work, all of you,’ Maggie said. ‘We want no lazy little non-entities here, no idle little schemers who see no point in school because the Comet’s coming. Who take up loafing and boozing because the Comet’s coming, like their loafing, boozing parents. You, girl. Are you a lazy little schemer?’
‘No, miss,’ said Nell Morrison.
‘Then write away. You, boy. Who are you and what are you about?’
Lenny’s heart jumped. She was standing right before him. He could smell tobacco off her, and something like stale beer too.
‘What’s your name, boy?’
‘Lenny Uath, miss.’
She looked him right in the eyes. ‘Are you an idle schemer who sees no point in school, Uath? Who skives off whenever he feels like it? Why aren’t you writing like the others?’
He couldn’t speak.
‘Why’s this damned Uath soul not writing, Mr Touya?’
‘He broke his glasses and I exempted him from work.’
‘Broke?’ said Maggie. ‘Stand up, Uath. Lazy little schemer. I see schemer in your face.’
Lenny stood up with an erection swelling in his trousers. Nell glanced over at it, then up at Lenny’s face.
‘Where did you break your glasses, Uath?’
‘The playground.’
‘The playground,’ Maggie said, a strand of hair falling across her eye. ‘Great stuff, boy. I know that trick. You lazy little nothing, you. Out with your hand.’
Lenny closed his eyes and held out his hand with the palm upward.
I am very sorry, Miss Guthrie. Say it.’
‘I am very sorry, Miss Guthrie.’
He felt her fingers gently stroke the palm of his hand and straighten his fingers, then heard the swish of her blouse as she brought the belt down.
A stinging blow made his hand crumple together.
His whole body was wobbling, his crumpled burning hand and his erection too. Swish after swish, two, three, four, five, six.
‘Other hand,’ said Maggie.
Lenny dropped his right arm and held out his left. The blouse swished again and a fierce burning pain made his palm and fingers shrink together. In self-pity and shame and joy he felt a cry come from his throat and wetness spurt into his pants. Two, three, four, five, six.
‘Kneel down,’ Maggie said.  
He knelt down before her slim calves and pressed his hands to his sides. He thought of them held out with the palms up and the soft touch of her fingers, then of his loud cry and the wetness inside his pants, and more flushes of shame and joy went through him.
‘Get at your work, all of you,’ said Maggie from the door. Then she was gone.
The hushed class continued to copy out the essays, Mr Touya now helping them with their mistakes. He said to Lenny and Moses, ‘You may sit, you two.’
They sat down and Lenny opened his jotter with his sore hands and pretended to read without his glasses. The belting had been unfair and cruel. Exciting but also unfair and cruel. Miss Guthrie was exciting but cruel, cruel but exciting, because she’d steadied his hand first with her soft fingers to hit it better.
‘A stinking rotten thing, that’s what it was,’ said Chae in the corridor as the class went out. ‘To belt you for what wasn’t your fault, I wouldn’t stand it. I’d go up and tell the headmaster on her.’
Moses said, ‘And she lifted the belt behind her back and she’s not allowed to do that.’
‘I knew there was something up with her that day in Icht,’ Chae said. ‘But I wouldn’t stand it, from blondie or any other teacher. I’d go straight up to the headmaster and tell him about it.’
Lenny said, ‘But if I do she’ll probably just belt me again.’




5

Fierce winter weather it was the night Dion the Ploughman crossed his family over ancient Crete to the settlement of Axochon. Twice their carts skidded in drifts of sleet before the climb faced the reluctant horses. Dion’s wife Wella sat in her nook in the leading cart with baby Leon at the breast and her skin bare and glowing, until the horses skidded once again and she held off Leon with milk dragging from his lips.
Then a bellow arose in the road by some fallen rock. The cattle had bunched there with their tails to the wind and refused the climb into the sting of sleet. Dion jumped down and ran past his horse Dod till he came to where the cattle bunched. He began to slap them and a steer mooed and fell into a trot and the rest followed after. Ahead Dod saw them coming and turned himself about and began to tramp up the hill toward Axochon and the north.
So the carts plodded into motion again, the first with its hooded light and domestic gear and salt and bread and Wella suckling baby Leon. In the next cart, Dion’s, the seed was loaded and also corn and barley and bags of tools and implements and forks fast tied and two ploughs and a driller. As the road wound up into steep ledges the wind came at them and they shivered, Wella with freezing ears and feet, Dion in an even worse state with his body numb and blueing, arms and thighs and belly. He fell into a frozen drowse and a funny sight came to him as they plodded through the Cretan hills.
For out of the night behind them came a woman on a horse. Wella didn’t see her or heed her, though old Dod in Dion’s drowse snorted and shied away. And as the woman came riding by she smiled at baby Leon and then rode on into the whiteness of the storm.
Lenny’s father told him that story when he was very drunk.



No one has spoken of the standing stones? You must hear about their first time up the stones, friend.
That January had come on awful cold, the ground ribbed with frost and the horses needing their shoes cogged. But old Gus Morrison was too busy to cog his horses, he said, and on that frozen Monday afternoon he was soon in a sweat and bother with his cart. His ageing horse Tod, bought years back off the Uaths, was on the slide all the time and the loaded cart swerving behind on the glassy road. As East Street dipped Tod’s feet found a slide that someone had made the night before and he began to slip and the cart went with him, wheeling round with the weight of its load toward the side of the hotel, and then the horse was down.
Gus jumped off and as he picked himself up again he heard the screech of the breaking cart-shafts and looked where Tod had run into the hotel wall and a shaft had snapped and swung into his belly.
The crash brought folk running and soon a crowd stood watching as the blood froze around the shaft stuck in the crumpled horse. Next came kids as they left the school, Lenny among them on his bike, sick to see Tod lying there and hardly even twitching. Sim Leslie, the policeman folk called Feet on account of his enormous feet, he frowned stern and called out for a hunting rifle to put the beast out of his misery.
But this was when Maggie Guthrie stepped in, for she’d seen the accident from her office window and had cycled down. She tapped Feet and said, ‘No, wait you a moment. If the horse is shot Gus will receive no insurance. The firm will pay out on a natural death only.’
Feet said, ‘Can’t you see the thing’s in agony?’ 
But Maggie just smiled and said Tod was Gus’s property, and Gus said, ‘Yes, you leave that horse alone now, Feet. Do you hear me?’
For clarification Maggie said she’d return to the school and phone Gus’s insurance firm. ‘Come and help me,’ she told Lenny as he turned away from Tod.
It was the first time he’d seen her since his belting, though she’d appeared in dreams and suchlike (lewd habit, impure habit). He said fine and they went off on their bikes.
Folk helped Gus carry his load onto another cart and he went on home, the insurance money soon to be his, he hoped.
Before long Lenny was in the hills with the road holding firm enough beneath his bike, the frost a bright coating on posts and hedges and late sunlight lying pink across the roofs of shepherds’ huts. He kept on cycling after Maggie, watching her long revolving legs and wondering what he was doing up here when Tod was dying in the village.
They slowed down and got off by a frozen pond and she looked at her reflection in the ice. She got out lipstick and mascara and Lenny watched as she did her lips and eyes.
‘Nice to see you in your new glasses,’ she said. ‘Do I look nicer than last time?’
She didn’t. In the classroom she’d been blurred and almost glowing, but here beneath the winter sky her made-up eyes and lips and dyed blonde hair all seemed cheap and garish, like a chorus girl before a backstage mirror.
He asked when they would phone the insurance firm. 
‘Imagine kissing that,’ Maggie said to their reflections.
He asked again when they would phone the firm and was told he was a shameful schemer with dumb notions of himself and not hard and pain-wise like that poor gored horse. She grabbed his hand and walked him onward, whistling ‘Pessaria Serenade’ as they followed a track where the hills pushed out ramparts against the approach of life below. He knew now there would be no help for Tod.
Down in the Shaugh the horse slobbered at a pail of water and left his head slumped inside until Feet got it out. All the while Feet’s face was grey, near crying over the mess around him, but if he couldn’t stand the sight why did he go near it?
In time Tod looked like a hillock of red dirt and Feet would hold off no longer. He lifted the rifle someone had brought and the crowd drew off a bit. Tod sensed the thing that Feet intended and lifted his head and gave a groan. People looked away as they heard the bang.
By then Maggie had led Lenny from the moor, her hair filmed with mist as she watched the lands below and the flickers of the humans that birthed and rutted and swarmed and then were not, a cloud of midges lit by the dying sun. She led him past the ruins of the old observatory where for centuries the human midges had spied on comets and other sky-tricks that set them buzzing about with their supposings, like all these supposings nowadays about their own Great Comet.
On the other side standing stones stood ringed about. A few were upright and a few were fallen and some leaned a little, and right in the middle three big ones stood with flat faces.
A mole was moving over the frozen soil, paddling in blindness and pleased by the things that brushed its belly and its nose. Maggie put her shoe on it, not too heavy, and watched the swimming movement of its hands and the twisting of its nose. She lifted it by the scruff and watched close up as it flung its blind snout about snapping pinkish teeth. ‘Brave to come above ground in wintertime,’ she said.
She pushed back its fur to reveal its tiny eyes and sprinkled something on them. The mole twisted about in pain and she blew dust of some kind from her fingers. She squatted before Lenny and they looked a long moment into each other, Lenny seeing himself globed in those brown eyes.
The mole’s teeth turned like a spark on Maggie’s finger and bit down hard, but she kept hold of the scruff. ‘A bother, moles are, but what lovely skin,’ she said, stroking its fur with her powdered cheek, one ruby drop of her blood hanging from its snout. Then she dropped the thing to the ground, where it fumbled around until her heel crushed it dead.
She sat on a fallen stone and lit a cigarette with bloodied fingers. Lenny wasn’t pain-wise like the mole or Tod, she said. He’d near blubbered that day she’d given him a little belting, hadn’t he, and then sneaked off and got her in hot water with the headmaster.
She took the Iron Brew bottle from his knapsack and drank some of the cider it contained.
‘Where did you get this cider, sneak?’
‘From my father.’
‘You mean you stole it from your father like a sneak. Is your father nice? Do you love him?’
‘Yes I do.’
‘And do you love your mother? Any sneaky brothers and sisters? Do you all have pretty lips?’
‘I love my mother.’
Maggie opened her bag and got her belt out. ‘So glad we finally met,’ she told him. ‘So sick and tired of this world. So who’s this Maggie creature and what is she about? How did the likes of her become the Head of Coping?’
She indicated the markings on one stone, Παντα ρει, which were ancient Greek, she said, for nothing endures, everything goes.
‘You’ll murder me before the Comet comes,’ she said.
‘Your thoughts and acts are not your own,’ she said. ‘Predict your next thought, boy.’ She swung her belt and caught him on the thigh.
He watched the clouds sail over Moray, hating the pain and panic and confusion spreading through him, and also liking them a lot.
She looked at him through her cigarette smoke and said, ‘I was deputy head of religious studies at Milne’s High School. I’m a tremendous teacher. I have no father or mother or brothers or sisters or children but I have many former and current pupils and other sweethearts twisted round my little finger and I love them all from the bottom of my heart. You’re a fine thief, sneak, skiver, spy, masturbator, thinker, liar, killer. A little schemer, in other words. And a bad son and Christian and no help at all to Tod, and until now just nothing as a lover. Take your glasses off.’
He put them in his knapsack.
She said, ‘Do I look nicer now?’
‘Much nicer.’
Her hand flew above her shoulder but he caught it and the belt. Their chests and faces touched. Those same smells again, tobacco and stale beer. That pale tongue, blurry. When he tried to kiss her she blew smoke in his face and said, ‘Out with your hand.’
Her chest brushed his groin. He was very hard.
‘Out, boy.’
His right hand held her mist-coated hair. His left rose palm-up till it was level with her belt. She dropped her cigarette and gently stretched his fingers out.
I am very sorry, Miss Guthrie. Say it.’
‘I am very sorry, Miss Guthrie.’
Her jacket sleeve swished and a hard blow made his fingers crumple together like a burning leaf.
She opened his trousers and brought his erection into the chilly air. She wiped her blood along it and began to talk fast.
Did he know only brainwashed fools thought the Comet was any different from its rays? Did he know that the beasts were wiser, that never once did Tod think he was a horse, never once had a thought of himself at all, so that he was in immense pain down there but wasn’t suffering? Did he think Tod ever hoped or schemed or dreaded hell or the coming Comet? That Tod ever imagined a future Tod of any sort, or a future of any sort? How about the mole?
She sounded tired and bored, as though she’d done this many times before.
Would the smartest, slyest boy in school like rid of his Collision fears? Would he like something better than the gibberings of John Touya? Would he like to make the Comet go away? Would he like the Head of Coping to teach him special ways to cope? Did he think she taught these special ways in school? Did he think her daft? Did he know masochists were the world’s invincibles, the world’s abiders, and they’d sadists to thank for all the training? Did he love the Head of Coping yet? Was he twisted round her little finger yet?
She began to rub his bloodied cock.
Did he know the principium individuationis was the hoax of hoaxes, that only brainwashed fools thought that they were a me, that they really existed? Did he know the so-called self was all in the head, just a word, a human invention, an addiction, a parasite turned host, the unquestioned god, the lie that bred every other lie, and so you were entirely imaginary and any Comet terror was down to falling for the lie of your own existence, to the character forced on you by your mad old folks? Did he know this lie was the source of all the suffering, all the grief? Did he know life’s only bearable when you aren’t there?
The day’s last light was drowsing down. Around them like the gnomons of a giant sundial the stones pointed shadow-shapes across the old observatory. Far off Lenny saw the winter fog, giant sailing shapes of it going north down the River Spey and passing out of Scotland, sailing and passing, Παντα ρει.
It was with the foreign ships they came, she said, those dumb beliefs about a self, a soul, a me. Before that Moray folk roamed free without schemes or fears of fancied futures or guilts about fancied pasts, mating as natural and unbothered as beasts or birds and dying with a like keen innocence. Lenny knew all this already but didn’t know he knew it, she said, but it would come to him in perfect clarity the day he killed her off.
‘You’ll do it, boy,’ she said.
She lifted his hand again and rubbed him faster.
‘Why me?’ Lenny said.
‘Because you’re the one who kills me off.’
‘But why me?’
‘Because I’m the Head of Coping and the Great Bitch and the Original and you’re the one who kills me off. Or we would be if we were really here.’ One, two, three, four, five more swishes.
A shamed cry came from him and sperm and blood shot into the air.
A loud bang from the Shaugh echoed round the hills.
‘Great stuff,’ she said. ‘Welcome to the mysteries. Other hand.’




6

As the night flashed Kyla Calder saw the town of Raddie lit up beyond her window. The next few thunderclaps were far up, though still close enough that her family’s farm seemed almost falling down around her. She jumped with the next lightning flash, a ground flash that waited sizzling in the air outside, then the sky banged again and sheet lightning slashed down the hillsides. The haystacks shone up like pyramids and then vanished and darkness fell once more. Then the largest flash yet lit everything up and she saw that the fencing was alive, the lightning glowing and rippling along it. As the thunder moved across Banffshire the lightning struck down again and zigzagged across her father’s fields.
The night was now poised before the morning like a penny on its rim. She rubbed her eyes and yawned. Her father Ake made a snorting sound through in his bedroom, then that sound stopped, her mother Pauline maybe poked him. The house was quiet, and the fields as well. The storm was over.
Kyla opened the window and the wind blew in her face with the smell of rain. She leaned out breathing it and watched streetlights cast shadows across the Recession-blighted streets of Raddie. Out of nowhere her flow of thought said these nights and days were a nothing and would pass like the storm into nights and days that had long forgotten them and were also nothings, her damned future bit of life till the Comet sent tidal waves across the land.
So pale, the sun as it came at first, but then it was barred with red as though rising from the blood of sinners self-slain after the Broadcast, as the local minister had  called them. With her mother she’d attended his services in recent months and heard him ask the mercy of God on a world unwakened as yet by the Approach. But there were Last Days coming when the people might awake at last, he said, a brief time when they’d be selfless comrades on a great mission together.
She looked down at herself naked, the sunlight pink on her skin and the long smooth lines from her waist down to her knees. Daft to stand here naked, but that was the mood she was in, to watch this body as though through her Chris’s eyes, these lines that curved from her knees down to her feet, these breasts that tingled as she thought of lying in the fields with him. Lustily her father’s cockerel began to squawk.
She was the prettiest of Raddie’s girls – this she’d been told often by Chris and other boys and men. Her feet were clumpy things that belonged on a horse or goat, true, but her blue eyes were deep and clear and her light blonde hair fine and long, wonderful hair. Her teeth were clean-cut and even, a white gleam between lips as full as her mother’s. Maybe, she supposed, Chris might never have come near her had she not looked this way. She chased that thought away, though enjoyed the glow it left, and bent to see her legs again in the mirror and the sunbeams running queer and pink along the bruises he had left.
She near jumped from her skin when a bird screeched by her window and whirred away. Then she heard Chris softly singing in the garden.



On the day of the Broadcast Ake Calder had put aside the drink for good and set to the proper working of his lands. His family might die in the Great Collision but they would not starve beforehand. He began to rise at five o’clock and wouldn’t sleep till midnight, and it was graft, graft in the dirt until you’d think he was an earthworm, near.
He’d eat up his porridge and then muck out the barn and stable, all with a scowl of ill-nature on him. The dark would be lying on the land and through the low mist not a bird would cheep, and he’d harness his horses and lead them out to drink at the trough while he buttoned up his collar as the south wind woke. He’d jump on his horse Bod and out they’d go with the field smells in their faces, and the light would grey in a tide and hares scuttle away off through the grass. Men tramping the roads on the look for work would say, ‘Ake’s on the go, then,’ seeing his plough and the birds that now trailed it as ranging dots on the long slope to the moor.
As Kyla set out for school she heard him swear at the horses and remembered the days when he used to laugh and play with her and Keith her older brother. She called out, ‘Good morning, dad,’ but he said nothing as he studied the soil giving his nose a wipe. Then he called back, ‘Work hard and no lip to your teachers, lass. Remember you’re a Calder.’ With that he turned back to his field while she went on her way to school.
One day she told her parents about a piece she’d written for the school newspaper. Anyone who studied engineering at university, the Government said, would receive a bursary to help with costs.
‘And would you like to go to university?’ her mother asked.
‘I would.’
‘Well Ake, what do you say to that?’
‘Off to university with the Comet coming? And where do you think we’ll find the money?’
‘Maybe out of the corn you sold.’
He laughed and said, ‘I’ve my seed and tools to get and what about next year’s corn? Food in her belly’s what the girl needs, not more over-schooling. It glums and kills the soul, the beasts in the fields know that.’ He gave Kyla’s shoulder a pat. ‘It’s a small bit thing to mope over, lass. Come out and we’ll go for a walk around the fields.’
Days later her mother asked Kyla outside to help her wash the blankets. She’d dozens of the beds in Raddie cleared and their blankets ready to be piled in tubs of soap and lukewarm water. Kyla took off her shoes and tights and rolled her skirt up and stepped in the first lot of lathered folds and tramped them up and down, then into the next tub while her mother emptied the first one, fun work, only it grew quite hot. Next time her mother was indoors Kyla took off her blouse and skirt. When her mother came back out she stroked Kyla’s hair saying, ‘Made for the screen, you,’ and they went on with the washing.
But then her father came in from the fields and seemed to leer at her before he caught himself and said, ‘Jump out of that at once and get on your clothes.’ Out of the tub she got, shamed more for him than for herself, and then watched him rage at her mother. What would the neighbours say if they saw the girl’s great paps half hanging out?
When Kyla later mentioned that leer her mother’s face went slack as she stopped from her work. ‘I cannot tell you a thing or advise you, girl,’ she said. ‘The Approach has made men madder than ever with their lusts and leerings. You’ll have to face them for yourself, there’s none can come and help you.’ 
That May Pauline Calder hanged herself from a beam in the barn, pregnant with a baby that would never face the Comet, said the note she left. When Keith arrived from Dundee for the funeral he told Ake he should be ashamed for killing Pauline with neglect, but all Ake said was, ‘Christ lad, it was that Comet killed your mother. And could I leave my fields to weeds?’ At the funeral he met everyone in his black suit but his boots and hands were muddy. Graveside he was heard to tell himself, ‘It’s lime those damn fields lack.’
The night of the funeral Kyla asked Keith and his wife Ann if they’d left their baby with friends or family, and he said quietly no they hadn’t. They’d fallen behind with their rent, he said, and the landlord’s gang came down to the squalid tenement flat and turned the three of them and their gear out into the street. They gathered it in sacks and prowled the city looking in vain for a new place till Keith broke into an empty house and put Ann and the baby in. But the next morning the police came and turned them out, so off they went again, eventually to the countryside where they thought folk would be more helpful, but they were damn wrong in that. Finally they climbed into a deserted pigsty, and in time they got to sleep. Then Ann’s yelling woke Keith up. A beam of light peeked in the sty and he saw the cause. Something in the night had gnawed open their baby’s neck.
But now he’d joined the police force, he said, so their money worries at least were over. Next day they went back down to Dundee, leaving Kyla with her father.
She’d think about her mother dangling in that barn. She’d think about her dangling tongue. She’d hear the suck and slob of the rain on the soil and would hate the sound as she tried to hate her father but could not. There was something in him that tugged at her daft-like, that said he was right and the land should matter to Calders as nothing else.
One day she heard him call her name outside and went up in the rain through the soggy slopes. She found him soaked and pointing at a hole he’d dug and the chamber behind it and some gleaming sticks, the bones of a man of the ancient times. With them was a litter of flints and a crumbling stick in the shape of a scythe.
An earth-house of the early time, she said, built by the early people. He nodded and said, ‘And that stick once scythed these slopes. God, I’d have liked to have known that lad. What a crack we’d have had together on the crops.’
That night he began to splutter and next morning was too stiff to move, for he’d taken a flu or something while opening up the old-time grave. Nothing much in that, you’d think, so it fair was a shock when people heard that Ake Calder was dead and gone. He’d worked all his go into his fields, they said, and had none left when the sickness came for him. That final night he’d said to Kyla, ‘Pour me a beer, lass,’ though for months the house had never held a drop. Then thinking his wife alive he said, ‘You’ll get Kyla working on the land, Pauline. I’ve a notion for that.’ And Kyla said nothing and held his hand as his eyes grew dim.
The day after he died she went with Chris up to the ancient earth-house. When they reached it she took his hooch and had her first ever drink, watching the bare slopes and the gorse that rose above them as the wind and rain came up from the south. She thought of the men who’d made these fields and the years of their toil, and she thought of the toil that had been her father’s. He would be buried here, she decided, by the bones of the man of early time.
As the drink began to have effect she decided something else. She could not bear to tend these lands as he had wanted. They were still owned by the bank anyway, and for her were already a place to lay by and forget. The gorse would creep back down the hill when she’d gone on to her new life, with Chris she hoped, while the soil here would rest easy in its sleep, churned to life no longer, like that baby in her mother’s belly where dream and death and earth were one.

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