The web was tiny and delicately made, so small and thin she almost missed it. The finest of silver ropes stretched across a space the size of her thumbnail, modestly hung with three or four more. Poverty, or minimalism? It had caught a single elderflower, blown in on the spring breeze. The spider must be tiny, just starting out. Even the smallest mosquito captured by that web could make the difference between its survival and starvation. She hesitated. One swipe of the duster and it would all be gone. She lifted the duster. She put it down again. She was terrible at cleaning, and inconsistent with her compassion. Today was its lucky day.
She straightened up. Her house was small, and clean enough. There were flowers in a vase on the table. Her grandmother had given her that tip; if you don’t have time to clean, put out flowers, and nobody will notice the dust. She always remembered it, even though she never had visitors, even though her grandmother was long gone. The flowers cheered the place up and added their own delicate scent to the overwhelming smells of ginger and sugar and, from the kitchen, of children. Which reminded her, she still needed to clean out the cages.
She was not as lithe as she once was. Her knees creaked into place. Her back bent if left to its own devices. Although her hips were as sturdy and broad as a park bench, her legs were skinny now, and her belly soft. She felt her body curling in on itself, like a leaf. She missed her mother. For some weeks now she had been eking out the last of her sausages with watercress from the stream, nettle soup, wild sorrel. How she looked forward to her next roast dinner. The firewood was ready. The stove had been swept.
The children were murmuring when she entered but they soon fell silent, their big eyes turned towards her, black pupils huge in the dim light. Don’t use their names; more of her grandmother’s wisdom. They’ll be harder to kill when the time comes. The boy was still thin, despite the sweets, but the girl, though smaller, was becoming plump and soft. Her wrists had creases where they joined onto the swell of her arms, and her legs were solid and thick like the white stalks of mushrooms. She was hugging her knees, which were smeared with chocolate. Pink icing sat sticky in her hair. She would have to be cleaned well. Onions and rosemary would balance the sweetness. Her mouth watered. There would be enough for sausages to help her through the winter. Briskly, she started cleaning the cages and re-filling the food and water bowls. Early on, the children had cried and screamed and lashed out but they were compliant now and the jobs were quickly done. It was not until she had turned her back that the boy spoke.
‘I am Henry and this is my little sister, Grace. You invited us in. Please let us go. Our mother will be missing us.’
She ignored him. They were hers now, caught with as much effort and attention to detail as a spider catches its flies. Who knew when the next ones would happen by? She had worked assiduously to bake and build and decorate with the scented sugar that gave her a rash, and the flour that made her belly cramp to look at it. These may be the only real food between her and starvation. So their mother would miss them. Well, life was hard and that was that.
She turned back for a moment. The boy, Henry, had a strained look, like an old man staring at death with pleading eyes. The girl, Grace, still waiting for her parents to find her, was too young to understand. Did she really need both of them? They had names.
The hunger was making her weak. Of course she needed them. Stuff and nonsense. Her grandmother would never have tolerated this kind of sentimentality. On her way out of the kitchen, she demolished the cobweb with one swipe. The tiny elderflower, unnoticed, floated to the floor.
He stepped out of his hire car in front of the only motel in town and clicked his keys. He was tall and broad shouldered, dressed in a tailored black jacket over a sweater of fine black wool. His glasses were black rimmed, his dark hair was neatly slicked. Only his skin was pale, and his eyes; a cold and watery blue. He checked in under the name of Oliver Barnett, architect with an out-of-town firm, here to talk to the project manager of the new development, to go over the punch list and, in two days, to be gone. The receptionist gave him his keys and went home. All the way to her car she felt as if someone was watching her. When she reached her house, she scurried through it closing every window and locking every door. There was a strange, foul, scent on the wind.
The next morning dawned clear and still. Monica Farley, project manager, stepped out of her door and immediately felt uneasy, with the prickling of energy before a storm. Nervous about the meeting with the architect? Hardly. There was no reason why she should be. Still, she drove fast, and arrived at the site early, stepping through a gate in the hoarding and pulling out her phone to call the foreman as she did so. It was strangely quiet. New walls threw sharp shadows on concrete and gravel. A light breeze lifted the edge of a tarpaulin. A pile of dry leaves stirred and then settled again. The phone rang out. She pressed redial. The builders should have been here for an hour by now. She experienced a stab of irritation. Of all the days to slack off. No foreman, no activity, and the site was not secured with so much as a padlock. She swore under her breath.
Monica paced back and forth, calling each number on her list. No reply. And still that strange electricity in the air. Frustration turning to anger, she gave up. Fine, then. She would deal with the architect herself. There was a weird smell on the breeze, something foul like gas or sewage. It had better not be a broken pipe. She strode off into the middle of the building site, an open courtyard with a concrete foundation that should have been poured yesterday. If it had not been done, so help her God, she would … She stopped in the gateway, not sure of what she was seeing. A smooth expanse of new concrete and in the middle, a line of something. Mossy boulders? Sculptures? Heads? They were so lifelike. She ran over and threw herself down on her knees. Four of the builders were buried up to their chests in concrete, one up to his neck. Their eyes were glazed over. They were all dead.
Monica froze in shock, staring at them. A voice came from behind her.
‘Hello, you must be the project manager.’
She stood up and spun around. The architect was in front of her, hand outstretched. She stepped back instinctively.
‘Are you OK?’
‘There’s been a terrible accident.’
He smiled, joyless.
‘I visited the site last night. The project lacked something, so I added some sculptures.’
He stood relaxed in front of her. Monica was acutely aware of the size of his body next to hers, the fragile bones of her neck, the strength of his hands, the reach of his long arms. Instinctively, she avoided his eyes, focusing on the ground. She had been learning this her whole life. Don’t contradict, don’t trigger, don’t make him snap. Show respect, walk don’t run, hold your keys in your fist. She could do this.
‘An interesting architectural feature’, she stammered. ‘Unique.’
‘You don’t think it’s a bit derivative?’
‘I could add you.’
His voice was bored, thoughtful.
‘But the symmetry is perfect’, she sweated.
‘You may be right. Less is more.’
Monica relaxed, just a fraction, and glanced over at the entrance. Could she sweet talk him all the way to her car? The distance stretched into miles. He didn’t seem to be armed, though. If she only made it out of reach, that might be enough. She caught a movement in her peripheral vision and glanced quickly across. The foreman was coming towards them. She could have wept.
‘Zander!’ she cried loudly, forced jollity in her voice, hoping against hope that he would hear the warning.
‘I was just going to come and look for you. This is Oliver. Shall we start at the entrance?’
As she spoke, she moved carefully away from the architect, as if to lead him. Zander had not noticed anything. Perhaps he would distract Oliver and they could both run. But they were face to face, now, and Zander still hadn’t spoken. Don’t look over there, she willed him. Don’t look, don’t see, just get us out of here.
She met his eyes. They were a filmy blue. He smiled at her.
‘You’ve seen the sculpture, then.’
‘We had fun. It’s going to be a theme. I was thinking we could hang you in the atrium. Oliver, would that work visually?’
She ran then. For a second, she thought she had got away, but she was wrong. Oliver caught her effortlessly, barely raising a sweat. Zander looked on with a smug smile as she panted, Oliver’s arm around her neck, his wool sweater hot on her back.
‘You can’t go yet. We need to string you up.’
‘Please. Please let me go. You don’t need me. I can turn and leave, and I won’t tell anyone, I promise, I’ll disappear, I’ll never bother you again, I’ll do anything.’
But that was never going to work. Think, Monica, think, she told herself.
‘I have a fiancé. He’ll be looking for me.’
‘I’ll ring him, look, and then you’ll see.’
Oliver released his grip by an inch or two. She reached slowly into her pocket. Be there, James, be there, pick up.
‘Hi James, can you please come and get me? It’s urgent. There’s been an … issue. I’m at the building site. Do you know where that is?’
‘Sure, are you OK?’
She glanced at Zander, his filmy eyes and wide grin.
‘Yes. Just – take care, alright?’
‘OK, sure. Love you.’
And he rang off. Oliver released his grip but did not move away. He was relaxed again now. There was no chance of her escaping. Zander moved closer.
‘Come with us to the atrium and see the boys.’
She marched in front of them as if tied by an invisible lead, their breath hot on her neck. At the entrance to the atruim, three more builders sat slumped as if shot. But before she could feel the horror of their deaths, they stood and came towards her. A second of relief melted into despair. Even before she looked into their eyes, she knew they would be a filmy, watery, blue. The men surrounded her, discussing the merits of rope vs wire, which fittings would be strongest, whether to kill her first and hoist her up as a dead weight, or whether she would be easier to position while still alive. Monica’s eyes darted back and forth, back and forth, searching for an escape route, a distraction, anything. She strained her ears to hear James’ car. At first, she imagined it and then she wished it and then, she was sure. He was there. She had never been so glad to hear him beep his horn. The men looked up at the sound and she took her chance. She ran like she had never run before. Back across the courtyard, frantic footfalls echoing, flinging herself around walls and through empty doors, not stopping to listen for pursuit. Not stopping until she had run into James’ arms, her frantic body slamming into his firm chest, her breath ragged, her eyes full of tears.
‘Run!’ She gasped. ‘Get in the car, let’s go’
‘Oh I don’t think so’ he drawled, relaxed. ‘Didn’t you want to see the sculpture?’
She froze, rigid, in his arms and raised her face slowly to his. He was smiling. His eyes were a filmy blue. She was overcome with love, with the nearness of him. Perhaps he was right. He was fading out of focus, growing soft around the edges of her vision. He looked like a Monet painting, all color and light. How decorative he would be. Perhaps just his head, hung from a high ceiling. Or his magnificent chest, framed on a wall.
She stood back, transfixed, as the sky grew dark and the thunder growled, as the longed-for storm burst into being and drenched them with rain. There was a moment – just a moment – when the cold reminded her of something and she blinked and then there was a thundering of hooves and flash of light glancing off huge glistening flanks and someone plucked her up from the earth and she was riding, fleeing, dashing away at the speed of light, clinging on with all she had as the huge beast moved beneath her.
Sometimes the Ploughman and I miss a clod of earth. Sometimes the plough cuts too deep. Sometimes, before we can bury a soul, its poison seeps out into the world of the living and spreads on the air. We try our best, he and I, but even the strongest of hooves can sometimes slip. But sometimes, also, we can break through. Sometimes we can save. She clung to me as I galloped through the clean wind. Her eyes brightened again like stars in the dark. She did not fall.
2021 was my year of writing a story a week. It was a great experience and I couldn’t have done in without you. This year will bring different resolutions so for now, farewell, and thank you for reading. I hope 2022 treats you with kindness.
I had an inkling that this would be the last thing I ever wrote, which is what made it the hardest. Be casual, I told myself. Pick up the pen like it’s a spoon to eat porridge. Open the laptop like you are just checking its hinges. Don’t make such a big deal of it. Nobody cares. It didn’t work. I cared. Ideas jostled like marbles stuck in the neck of a bottle. Just say bottleneck like a normal person, I told myself. Why the laboured simile? You are spooking yourself now. There’s nothing more choking than stage fright. Just look at the fictional marbles and pick one.
So I picked one and it rattled briskly into my palm. It was a jolly little thing, a blue and breezy tale of boats and adventure, cool as the sea on a sunny day. There were children in it, and a witch’s cat that had stowed away below deck, tired of spells and willing to earn its keep by catching rats. The boat was too small for rats, however, being just large enough for three children to navigate between islands in the Summer holidays, so the cat was placed on lookout duty and then fired, but cheerfully, when they ran aground during its afternoon nap. I paused. Was this really worth the commitment? Perhaps not. I placed the marble carefully on the windowsill. I could come back to it another day. The bottle tipped again, rattling and rumbling, bright with colour, and out slid an orange and red one, all glassy swirls.
Oh but I wanted this one. It vibrated in my palm and I bent close to listen. Two voices, one of them mine. What does it feel like? she asks, her fingers brushing lightly over my skin. What does it feel like; the lover’s question. To someone else I would say it feels good. Good is good enough for some but not for her. It feels like a cool breeze, I say. It would be irritating if I wasn’t so warm. And this? An ember glowing under my skin, just here. Now here. You? The line of phosphorescence drawn by the wake of a boat sailing by moonlight. I feel that too. The rhythm of her heart is a Bach prelude, mine a toccata. It feels like anxiety I say. And now, a quickening. Like a storm cloud before it rains. And you? An unfurling. Like a blossom. Or a sail in the wind. Now? Like your words have melted on my skin and mine on yours. Yes, they have. They feel like sunburn, like fever. Yes, they do. And we are close as a breath. And our breath is closer now – I stopped, flushed and fretful, and placed the marble in my pocket. I would wait until I was alone in the house before I picked it up again.
A green one next, calm and cool as a myrtle forest. The trees were mossy and gnarled, the ground thick with tiny yellow leaves. Ahead was a slow brown stream, winding and shallow, with thin sandy beaches at the edge. A man sat on the bank dangling his feet in the water, heavy backpack upended behind him. He was reading a letter to which he intended to reply, just as soon as he got back from this walk. The letter was an email, printed on paper that had been folded and refolded. It was already three months old. He was getting his head together, deciding what he was going to do. He refolded it and placed it back in his pack. He’d decide when he got back to town. Nothing to see here. The green marble dropped reluctantly to the floor.
I really needed to focus now. I promised myself that I would pick the very next one and see it through to the end. It was pale and clear, matter of fact in the way it rolled out, taking its rightful place. Good. Something stately and dignified. A white-haired queen sits, upright, on a carved wooden throne. Her blue eyes are surrounded by delicate creases like a river system, or the roots of a tree. She is very pale. In front of her, her husband’s coffin. Beside her, her daughter’s husband. She grips the arms of the throne and takes careful, shallow, breaths. Her son in law can barely mask his excitement. He has worked so hard to get to this day. He and his men battled a forest of thorns. He climbed to the highest tower. He married the cursed princess. He waited and waited and patiently waited for his time and now his time has come. The queen, Agnes, is silent, regal, controlled. The day he arrived was day she woke to find the world she knew had disappeared, and the king and their daughter were the only family she had left. Their daughter had been young, and supple as a new stem. She had married the prince and learned the new way of speaking and grafted herself to the future. But Agnes and her husband had clung to one another, bound by grief for the world they had lost. And now he, too, was gone. I am out of time, she murmurs to herself. I am out of time.
I sat, looking out at the garden. She was gone and there were still so many marbles left. What about the odd ones, with the single thoughts? Like the way the inside of a tomato feels like the inside of a mouth. Or how Mozart would have loved the electric guitar. Or the bizarre logic of plastic wrapped bananas. Or the larger stories; people who lived their whole lives on one small island, the ancient architects who first built, not to provide shelter, but to inspire awe. The imaginary, the real, the shadowy borders between.
So here is a story. Because you couldn’t imagine the words, you thought you had nothing to say, so you thought and overthought and prepared for writing like it was an exam in a subject for which you’d attended no classes. Perhaps you even attended classes. You were not ready, and you were sure to fail. A sense of doom hung around you like a cloud of mosquitoes, but you pushed on. You forced out a few constipated sentences and then criticised them for weeks. You were astonishingly talented at making things difficult. You determined to work harder despite all the evidence that pointed away from that very approach. But then one day, purely by chance, you found yourself with a pen in your hand and not a thought in your head. Maybe you were exhausted or tipsy or doodling or perhaps you had given up. Anyway, for some reason you turned your brain off, and finally there it was; the wellspring, the torrent, the rushing stream pouring through you onto the page. All you had to do was keep up.
I put down the pen, closed the laptop, walked out into the sunshine. There is no such thing as the end, or at least, if there is, you will never know it.
There were titters from Emily and Madison. Stacey glanced over to where they sat at the back of the class and gave them a quick, secret, smile. They weren’t her friends, but they amused her. In another life, where she wasn’t square, she imagined they could get along. It did not occur to her for a second that she could approach them in this one. She was invisible. She turned back to her notes, AKA doodling. Like a virgin, she hummed under her breath, touched for the very FIRST time. Like a viiiiiiirgin … She mentally recorded Mrs Davies and played her on a loop over Madonna’s backing track. At the end of each phrase, Mrs Davies moved stiffly back and forth – reverse, forward, reverse, forward. O magnum o mag mag mag magnum. It passed the time.
Stacey was acutely aware of the passing of time. This was her 15th Christmas and her life was as beige and average as a prototype. No, not a prototype, because that would at least look like something. She was a basic model, waiting to be customised. Everyone she knew seemed to have developed into someone; bright and loud and bursting with originality. She was just … alive. She intuited that she lacked some crucial ingredient required to progress to adulthood. She had no interests, no features, no soulmate, and no style. There was something wrong with her. For sure. After school that day, she walked past the LGBTQI+ crowd on her way to the bus stop and envied them in all their uniform diversity. She would feel too conspicuous in bright pink Converse and rainbow socks, and public displays of affection, or indeed any emotion, made her blush. She kept her head down, which meant that she didn’t see the girl with dark hair running to catch her. At the sound of pounding feet, she swerved and they nearly collided.
She was panting, bent over with her hands on her thighs.
‘Mary! Is that you?’
Her heart gave a little flutter, like a sparrow in a bird bath.
‘It’s me. I’m back. It’s a Christmas Miracle.’
‘What do you mean you’re back? For good?’
‘No. Not for life, just for Christmas. Staying with my Nan. Coming to carols?’
Stacey had had no intention of coming to carols, but everything changed when Mary was back. In primary school she had been known as Mary’s little lamb. No wonder she’d not managed to grow up.
‘Sure. See you there?’
‘Yup. Meet you at the gate at quarter to. Can’t wait to catch up. Ciao!’
And just like that, she was gone again, and Stacey’s mood settled like dust. Back to beige. She shouldn’t even go, really.
The carol service was held in the cathedral. Other schools used their sports ovals or gyms, but those were the sorts of events where people brought picnics and kids ran around the margins holding overcooked sausages from a P&F BBQ. At those sorts of events, children performed corny Christmas songs out of tune and Santa visited on a truck. It was understood that those sorts of events did not happen at Stacey’s school.
She spent longer than usual getting ready and still arrived early. Quarter to came and went. So did ten to, and five to. Stacey, usually invisible, felt the eyes of the world upon her. Perhaps Mary was inside. She checked her phone but was too shy to text. As the choir lined up to process in, she panicked and ducked quickly through the door, immediately swept along in front of a family and seated in a corner before she had time to look around. It didn’t matter. As she sat, straining to look over her shoulder, her phone gave a ping and a picture flashed up on Mary’s Instagram. She was at the beach, backlit by golden evening light, squeezed between Emily and Madison.
‘Catching up with my besties. Love you guys’, read the caption. Posted just now. She wasn’t coming.
Stacey deflated, sinking down into her seat, surrendering to gravity, too numb to do anything else. There was something wrong with her and she knew it. Everyone knew it. Even her childhood friend. She couldn’t bear the humiliation. She stopped thinking at all. She would stay there forever.
Outside, the evening sky deepened and the first stars began to show silver against the blue. Moths fluttered and late night birds flew home to roost. Inside the church, candlelight flickered warm on the stone walls and bright against brass and gold. Carols were sung. The congregation shuffled and sighed, turned pages, sat and stood and sat again. They settled around Stacey as she hunched, immobile as a rock in a stream. And then for one long moment, without even knowing that it happened, they all took a breath in together and breathed out again at the same time. And into that moment, by some magic, came the sound of a single pure note, straight into the chaos of Stacey’s hurting heart. It caught her attention as cleanly as a bell on a silent afternoon. She looked up, transfixed.
‘Oh’, the choir sang, dropping the note for a full moment and then picking it up again unharmed. ‘Oh magnum mysterium’ Oh great mystery.
The music entered Stacey’s body not so much through her ears as through her skin. As more voices joined, it swelled and grew inside her like tears, or joy, or breath. She was floating, she was sinking, she was water and music and air itself. She was enfolded in warmth. She was an instrument, a molecule, a spark. She was perfect. She was made for this. The song drew to a close, and Stacey sat there in the silence; a mystery, a wonder, a single pure note. Her whole life was ahead of her. She was going to be fine.
It is always this way. You fit a year into December. There’s work and housework and meals and deadlines and now the extras; parcels, decorations, find a tree and prevent it from dying, see your neighbours, all of them, and then see everyone else you’ve ever spoken to, extra weight, extra bulk, extra cheer, Cesar’s inconvenient census, fatigue like pregnancy, endings and beginnings. Something has to give but nothing does. Time is crammed tight and dense as dark matter. Dinner for thirty? Why not? Homemade gingerbread for the masses. Two carol services a night. A family donkey trip under brittle stars. You can move out to a stable but you still have to entertain guests – kings no less – dirty clothes shoved hurriedly under the manger, afterbirth a secret hidden by your halo which must not slip.
But it is always this way too. The noise stops. The angels pack up and fly away. The cattle leave for the fields and the guests depart by camel or plane. And there you are, sun on your eyelids. Green garden exhaling around you. New life breathing, miraculous, in your arms.
The sea dragon, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus, lay on the sand, his little head resting gently, and his frills and fronds lifting and falling as the edge of the tide stroked him. His magnificent belly was plump and spotted and his long snout pointed proudly towards the rising sun. He had washed up onto the beach during the night; perhaps he had still been swimming in moonlight only hours ago. Ariel put out her hand and gently ran a finger over the frill on his tail. It was striped sunny egg yolk yellow then translucent and then orange. Such a beauty, she murmured. If she were to write myths about dragons, they wouldn’t breathe fire. They would swim, elegant, among swaying kelp forests and fight nobody because they had their minds on higher things.
She straightened up and looked along the beach. Miles of white sand were arranged in gentle curves between outcrops of orange rock. The sea shone metallic in the distance, throwing off sparks of light that hurt her eyes. When calm, it was a clear, enticing, aqua blue, but today it was hectic with waves crashing at angles into other waves, frothing and chaotic, stirring up the sand. It was in the mood to spit things out; a bright indigo man-o-war jelly fish, a green scrap of netting, a speckled dragon. Her.
When she sacrificed everything to become human, she was 19 years old and her certainty was half ignorance and bluff. She knew the cost but what she had not known, and could never have comprehended, was that she would become not one complete and different being, but two; her new self and her old tangling and splitting like a strand of frayed rope. She walked as if gravity felt right to her but at night, she dreamed herself all the way down into the depths and gasped for air on waking. No matter how hard she tried, there was a persistent, invisible, barrier between her and others, like the clearest of water on a sunny day. In human company she concentrated hard, always, to work out how to behave. In the water, her useless legs were unable to propel her and her thin bones kept her bobbing up to the surface. She was tired.
Ariel walked around to the nearest outcrop and climbed over the rocks, looking for pools. Here was a small one, perfectly round. Here, a luxurious bath lined with sand. Here, a shallow cove full of tiny darting fish.
The first time she had tried to go back was after her miscarriage. Her baby had been born too early, with legs fused into a tail, and a pretty frill on its back like the dragon’s. The doctor had tried to hide it from her but she had won, and had held it close, inhaling its salty scent and closing its delicate, silent, gills. It had been her fourth; four babies and not one who could survive. Two months later, when others had already started to forget, she left a note and crept out of the sleeping house with a set of diving weights. She was found later by a fisherman, sobbing and half drowned, on a rocky island made white by gulls. He had thought for a moment she was a seal.
The second time, she was more composed. She divorced her husband, packed up her belongings, paid the bills, and took her own boat, which she intended to wreck. It didn’t work. Again, she nearly died. Again, the sea rejected her. It felt like contempt, but it could have been compassion.
This time was different. She had come to the island alone, with all the time in the world. She would swim every day at the very edge of the ocean, respectfully and with care. She would live on seaweed and muscles until she smelled right. She would relearn the names and habits of every creature, starting with the birds. She would float lightly so as not to disturb anyone. She would become familiar again. And then one day, the sea would send an undertow to draw in her wrecked body and her ungrateful soul and wash her clean as a bleached shell, and welcome her home.
In 1956, a solid decade into the Cold War, and 45 long years since Hiram Bingham first emerged from the jungle to gaze at Machu Picchu, two oceanographers working off the coast of Mexico discovered the lost city of Atlantis. It was not where anyone expected it to be, obviously, but then again, lost things rarely are. They were investigating a new tidal pattern that suggested recent volcanic activity when their boat, the Papillon, very nearly ran aground on a sandbank 12 nautical miles out to sea. Depth sounder technology was less advanced then than it is now, but they could have seen this coming just by looking over the side of the boat, had they been on deck. One of the other two crew members called out and pulled them hard over. The landmass rose abruptly from the sea bed and loomed up to a couple of feet below the surface; some kind of submerged atoll, or perhaps island, not on any of the charts. As they bobbed about on the swell they could see a huge stretch of shallow water in the distance, covered by flocking and wheeling birds. They were filled with excitement. Chuck Clinton wanted to circumnavigate it, measuring and mapping until they had an idea of its shape. Joe Mulcahy voted to take the dinghy out right into the middle. They tossed a coin and Joe won. They left the crew on board; they would only be a couple of hours.
It was a warm, brooding, day with grey-blue clouds piled up on the horizon. The deep water was dark, dark, blue but over the sandbank it turned into green glass. As they approached the birds, they cut the motor and took out oars. It was so shallow and so clear that they could see the white sand underneath. Shoals of fish passed beneath them. There was no coral. Eventually, even the dinghy ran aground. They eased themselves into the water, which was warm, and continued wading, on their personal beach under a tropical sky surrounded by deep blue ocean, into the heart of something.
Afterwards, they would tell people that it took them a day’s journey, and that it was evening before they stood on top of the hill overlooking the lost city. In truth, they had been walking along a sandy ridge all this time, not realising there would be a valley on the other side. When the water became deep again, they donned their cumbersome glass masks and launched out into it, gazing below as they swam. What they saw, no human eye had witnessed in a thousand years. Wide streets and flat roofs, elegant columns, an acropolis, a parthenon, ghostly white marble statues with floating robes atop white plinths. The late sun reached its fingers down and touched bright mosaics, broken shards of glass. They rested briefly on the face of a marble child, gazing up at the mother who held it forever in her pale arms. Joe and Chuck hovered over the city like birds, finally perching on the tallest building, waist deep in ocean while their feet touched tiles. They could barely speak. They wanted to take something, to show where they had been, but the tiles were so perfect, the mosaics so new. It would have felt like vandalism. In the end, they swam back with nothing in their pockets but wonder.
The crew were anxious and fretful when they returned. It was nearly nightfall and the storm that had been brewing all day was threatening to unleash itself in the dark. They had called and sounded the foghorn and even considered setting off a flare, but the men had not responded. They had been considering a search party when the dinghy came into view, and Chuck and Joe finally appeared, soaked, exhausted and on fire with what they had seen. There was no time for it. As they raved, the crew pulled up anchor and set sail hurredly for home, racing the storm as it bore down on them all the way to the harbour. By the time they reached home, it was too late for talk. They went to their beds.
The next day, the weather prevented them from sailing. The storms lasted a week, during which Joe and Chuck wrote down in meticulous detail everything they had seen, the co-ordinates, the depth measurements they had taken, and a rough layout of the city. They realised that was the greatest discovery of their lives, perhaps of their generation, and they debated who they should tell first. The president? The archaeological society? The CIA? In the end, they put a call through to the US embassy in Mexico and arranged a visit. They arrived in suits, painfully aware of both the significance of their news and of the lack of evidence they had to show.
The ambassador sat at his desk and touched his fingertips together, carefully, as he avoided eye contact. He seemed to be deciding what to say. After a long minute, he came to a conclusion.
‘I wouldn’t go out there again.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You understand that I am about to share classified information with you?’
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
‘Our military has an interest in some … testing that will occur in and around that patch of the sea. It will not be safe for civilians to approach.’
‘But they can’t! This is a significant find! It’s of interest to the whole of humanity! We have to get a message to them. Are you saying they’re gonna blow it up?’
‘Not at all. I am just advising – directing – you to stay clear. I’m afraid I can’t say any more. You must understand.’
It was a decade into the Cold War. They understood.
They waited five years and tried again, then another year, then two more. For thirty years, Chuck and Joe tried to go back. Some years they couldn’t get the funding. Once it was visa problems. A couple of times, storms saw them off, and more often than they cared to admit, they got out to sea and just plain old couldn’t find it. They never gave up, and they never saw it again.
At the bottom of the seabed, somewhere off the coast of Mexico, lies the lost city of Atlantis. It rose for a while and then sank again. Its columns still loom white in the murky water. Fish camouflage themselves amongst its mosaics. Its palaces are decorated now by shells. Sometimes, when the sun is at its height, a thin sliver of light penetrates into the blue depths and rests on the head of a marble child.
In truth, the photo was there simply because nobody had got around to it – the story of their lives. The McArthur family was large and therefore poor and therefore thrifty. Heather, the mother, bought a lovely frame at the local op shop, to house a lovely family photo. It already had a photo in it, of a neat and attractive family with only two children, and she planned to remove them and insert her own, but never got round to it. It stayed on the mantlepiece to remind her (or someone else) to do something with it. They got around to moving house before they got around to changing the photo. It came with them and was placed on a hook in the hall. The kids got used to it. The parents stopped seeing it. Sometimes they admired the frame, which really was very special.
Lauren, the eldest, was close to 30 by the time she met The One. She was not in the habit of bringing men back to meet her parents, but David was special. Her mum made a roast and her dad turned on the charm. The last couple of siblings left at home (Lauren thought of them as residual) arranged to be around for dinner. It was all going swimmingly well until David went to the bathroom and came back with a strange look on his face.
‘There’s a photo of my family in the hall.’
Surprise and consternation all round.
‘There’s a photo of my family.’
They raced out into the hall to look, and there, indeed was the photo. David, recognisable now even as a child, his cute baby sister, and his parents – no wonder they had felt familiar to her! What were the chances? One in a million or so? What an amazing story. They laughed, they talked over the top of each other, they texted people. Lauren pointed out that this was the kind of love story that got attention on social media. She and her sister competed to create the best headline. At the end of the night, David and Lauren left on a high as the whole family waved them off. Lauren sat back in the car seat and felt the planets aligning, as clearly as if she had seen them move with her own eyes. David was quiet on the way home. Perhaps he could feel it too.
Or perhaps not.
David was over 30 by the time he met The One. Lauren was everything he had hoped for. When she invited him to meet her parents, he knew that it was becoming serious for her, too. They seemed like decent people, a little nervy, but trying hard. Her youngest siblings were slightly odd and there was a weird smell in the house that he couldn’t quite identify, but none of that mattered. Lauren was the one he was there for, after all. He had the sense she’d built this up in her own mind and was quite worried about it, but she seemed to be doing OK. Until he saw the photo, he was doing OK too. But there it was in the hall. A family portrait taken when he was about 9 years old, in a fancy frame. He remembered the whole event. That was the year they gave the photo to all their relatives for Christmas. He had a strong feeling that this had been his aunt’s. How on earth had Lauren got hold of it? What kind of weird stalker displays a childhood photo of their boyfriend without saying anything? He was rattled, seriously rattled. When they told him the story of how it came to be in their house, it made slightly more sense but also slightly less. Why would you have a photo of a stranger’s family on your wall? He couldn’t shake the oddness of it.
That night he lay awake, thinking. Lauren by herself was amazing but seen in the context of her family, suddenly, she seemed a bit off. He had the strange sense of planets re-aligning. He was not sure how they would end up.
Alan was a tabby of modest looks. His fur was well groomed and he smelled of dusty soil and warm rocks. Did he dream of the desert? Perhaps. He could not abide the cold. He was a pest for food and a lover of company, never happier than when draped over a human. Most of all, he was a homebody, repaying his family’s kindness in taking him in from the streets, just by being his best, purring, happy, self. They looked at him every now and then and felt good about their choices. To have added this small act of goodness to the world’s store; to have changed a life from one of fear and hunger to one of fat contentment. It must count for something. Perhaps they were smug, but where is the harm in that? The universe could have left them alone, even so.
The collar was their downfall. For the first years of Alan’s life, he had managed to resist wearing one, but the children eventually insisted. It was purple, with a bell to mortify him and scare away birds. He tried for a whole afternoon to remove it. The next day, he lay disconsolately about the house with his chin on his paws until everyone went out. When they arrived home, there was a note attached to the collar with a piece of tape.
‘Hi, I think my cat is visiting other homes and stealing food. It looks like someone might have given him this collar as well? Please call if he is a nuisance. 0400927986 Jeff.’
Jeff was a bar tender in his late 20s who lived alone with his cat. He provided photographic evidence that Alan had been his since he was a kitten. They even visited his house one day and found Alan there, relaxing in an expensive cat hammock that was so much fancier than the bed they had made him, lovingly, from a cardboard box and old cushions. They were devastated. Their whole life with him was a lie. What else had they missed?
They started scrutinising their children’s messages, their internet searches, and their school attendance records. One day, their son was grounded for hanging out with friends different from the friends he’d told his parents he was hanging out with.
‘We have to be able to trust you.’ they explained.
He responded by slamming his door and vowing never to tell them anything again.
Their daughter was beyond reproach – perhaps a little too good? They followed her one day to the library, not deliberately, they just happened to be going in the same direction a few moments behind. When she walked past the library and on to the mall, they felt justified. She must be seeing a boy! They sleuthed her, ducking behind walls and lurking in shops. She just wandered around by herself looking at clothes. Maybe the boy had stood her up. They did not like the sound of him. That evening, dinner was a tense affair, as they tried to interrogate her without admitting to their spying. Eventually, the whole family settled into an awkward silence. Alan came in and rubbed up against their legs, one by one, to calm things down. He was not sure why the atmosphere had changed but he considered returning to Jeff’s place for a bit, or maybe one of his other homes. This place had got weird.
Things came to a head the night she visited Jeff’s bar, alone. It was out of character, but she needed a break. After exchanging a few wry words with Jeff about their shared cat, she took her gin and tonic to a quiet corner and settled in. Three sips later, her husband burst into the bar, looking wildly around.
‘Where the hell is she, Jeff???’
She was mortified. He had tracked her phone. They had a blazing, public, row to end all blazing, public rows. Halfway through, the kids appeared in the doorway. They had been waiting in the car, but it had been too long and they were worried. He took them home. She refused to get into the same vehicle. That night she stayed in a hotel and took an uber back in the morning.
I would like to say that this story had a happy ending, but it did not. The only positive outcome was that Alan gained an additional home. When the parents split up, they agreed to live in the same neighbourhood, for the sake of the children. Alan is a regular visitor to both houses.