Relief, by Anna Taylor

Relief, by Anna Taylor (Fiction & Literature)

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*** WINNER OF THE 2010 NZ SOCIETY OF AUTHORS AWARD FOR FIRST BOOK ***

A little girl out of her depth in her friendship with an adult neighbour; an armed intruder thwarted by a bee; a woman determined to believe in her brother’s goodness under the shadow of accusation; a Christmas dinner guest who will eat only peas–these stories effortlessly mix the menacing and the comic, and handle real-life situations with warmth and subtlety.

Relief introduces an astonishingly mature and confident new voice in New Zealand fiction.

Praise for Relief

Dark, sometimes menacing, often funny, this is an extraordinary collection of stories. They are beautifully understated, yet deeply layered, and the weather is a wonderful character in many of them. My favourite two are Michael is Fasting for Christmas and In the Wind – both deal with dark subjects in witty and original ways.
Carole Beu The Women's Bookshop SPEAKING VOLUMES RADIO NZ NATIONAL

These are wonderful stories, exquisitely observed and recorded with delicacy and wit. Emily Perkins

...Anna Taylor in these stories has the command of technique to make the most of interesting story material, most of it to do with family relationships, from the ordinary to the extreme.
Lawrence Jones OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Taylor has produced a superb debut collection, is unafraid to turn calamities into blessings, and writes with the elegance and composure of a silversmith. I can't wait to read what she does next.
Paula Green NZ HERALD

Anna Taylor

Anna Taylor was born in 1982. She completed the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2006, and won the Adam Prize in Creative Writing for the manuscript she wrote during that year. Anna is a guest at this year’s Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

She lives in Wellington. This is her first book.

From: Relief, by Anna Taylor

Electricity

That spring things grew vigorously, but in an odd way, decay blooming like flower buds. Boulders in riverbeds sprouted algae—thick and slimy—that couldn’t be scraped off, even with a stick. Schools of fish were washed up on beaches, their fins adorned with clusters shaped like tiny stars. Scientists were excited—they’d never seen anything like it before, it was a phenomenon, they said—but everyone else was disturbed. Seafood sales plummeted all over the country; the local fish and chip shop put up a sign in the window, stating that it would be closed until further notice.

People started cleaning their houses and patios feverishly. When searching for a lost earring one morning, Beth discovered a patch of bright pink mould growing in a perfect circle under her chest of drawers.

The air also seemed odd that spring, as if it were charged, electric. It felt to Beth as if all of them—people, plants, houses, sky—were being held hostage inside an enormous generator. She began to get electric shocks off anything. Not just when she closed the car door, but when she pushed start on the washing machine, or stacked the plates in the cupboard or, worst of all, once, when she went to give her mother a hug. They jumped away from each other when it happened; jumped away simultaneously like two opposing magnets.

Beth started spending five minutes each morning out on the grass, in bare feet, trying to earth herself. It was James’s suggestion, though he said his friend Annabelle had suggested it to him, and she’d never tried it, just read it in a book called How to Heal Your Self and Your Soul.

Beth did it religiously, not really knowing if it would help. She went out there in her pyjamas every day at 7.30, before her shower and breakfast. The ground always felt damp at that time but not cold. It was lovely, in a strange way, just standing out there on the green, the static electricity supposedly seeping out through her skin. Lasting the full five minutes was always a challenge, though. Once, she dug her toes into the ground, grinding them in and flicking the dirt out with the stubs of her toes, but when she looked down she saw she’d injured a worm by mistake. One end of its tail—or was it its head, god forbid?—was quite mashed, a fleshy pink poultice in the dirt. It writhed around for a moment and then slithered away, seemingly being sucked back into the earth.

Everyone was troubled by what was happening, but went on with their lives, regardless. ‘There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark,’ James kept saying, jokingly, but even he knew it was no laughing matter. People stopped watching the news, as if reality was some dumb sitcom they wanted nothing to do with any more. It’s not my fault, they all seemed to be saying under their breath. It’s nothing to do with me. Is it?

*

On the first Sunday of that October, Beth’s brother got married. He brought his fiancée back from Illinois, where they’d been living, and they went to a registry office and got married, just two days after they arrived home. There was absolutely no fuss. They sent out no invitations and didn’t have a party afterwards, probably because he’d got her knocked up, their father said, though as time went on it became clear that that wasn’t the case. It was typical Will, though, Beth thought. He had just slipped his fiancée into the country as if she were an illegal substance in his bag.

And then there was scandal number two. Four days after the wedding, Will put in an offer on the Landfall Motel—which had been on the market for ten solid months—and got it. He referred to this as his landslide victory, which seemed ironic, though he didn’t mean it that way. The Landfall Motel was living up to its name. It was down by the river, and the banks were literally crumbling away, the clay sliding into the water, the river mouth seeming to grow wider with each passing day.

Will’s new wife was called Alice. She had skin that was quite transparent, the veins showing through, faintly, around her temples and on her neck. She’d been born in Illinois, but had moved to Salt Lake City with her father when she was thirteen. Why she had done this, and where the rest of her family was, remained a mystery. She answered questions with a listlessness that aroused an unnerving curiosity in Beth. It was as if words bored her, as if forming them with her tongue, moving them out through her lips, was somehow exhausting. It wasn’t rudeness or shyness, Beth decided; it was something else.

Alice looked as if she had never seen a speck of sun, though her eyelashes were so fair they appeared to have been bleached by it. She had a long, slightly curved neck, and shoulders that sloped down to her arms. She looked to Will for answers, it seemed, which suited him just fine. She had left everything and everyone behind in America, and the thought of doing that, just for a man, made Beth feel like screaming. She said this to James, who was gay and single, and therefore, she thought, would acknowledge the foolishness of giving up one’s life in this way, but he just ground his teeth at her when she said it, as if he had heard it all before.

Beth had met Alice the day before the registry office wedding. Will brought her round, unannounced and uninvited, at eight in the morning. Beth had just come inside from her five minutes of grass time. She was wearing her dressing gown and her hair was wild—finger-in-an-electric-socket wild. Funny that.

Will looked pleased with himself, but she didn’t feel too pleased with him.

‘Welcome back!’ she said cheerily, trying desperately to tie her hair up into a bun.

He didn’t go to hug her, but gestured to the side, elaborately, like a quiz-show host introducing a prize.

‘This is Alice!’ he said.

Alice smiled wanly and blinked her heavy, translucent eyelids, the veins under them glowing a soft lilac in the morning light. She tilted her head.

‘Hello,’ she said. She smiled more broadly once she had closed her mouth, but Beth noticed her fingers tapping against Will’s left arm: tap-tap-tapping a Morse code, it seemed. Save our souls. Save our souls.

Indeed.

*

In America there was a hurricane—the worst, meteorologists said, in history.

It was curious, Beth thought, how everyone was willing to watch the news about that, how everyone wanted to talk about it, but not about the slow unravelling that was happening on home shores. The hurricane in America wrestled for first place in the media stakes, and won hands down. People switched their TV sets back on and sat in front of them, shaking their heads. Beth watched because of Alice, who had left America—her home—only two weeks before the storm hit, and who surely knew people affected. There was endless home-video footage; one showing a freak wave rising over a road barrier, over the road, over a car with three shadowy figures inside, and then drawing itself back, sucking and sucking, so that when it was gone so too was the car, so too was the wheelie bin that had been blowing around on the pavement beside it, and there was only the jolting of the camera, an hysterical burble of words, the grey sea writhing away.

Beth went to the phone to call Will and Alice.

‘I’m just ringing to see if Alice is okay,’ she said to Will, who was breathing quietly down the line. There was a pause, a moment when neither of them spoke at all, and then Will cupped his hand over the receiver and Beth heard his voice, slightly muffled, calling out down the hallway.

‘Are you okay,’ he called out to Alice, ‘about the hurricane and everything?’

Alice’s voice seemed to slip through Will’s fingers, seeping through the small plastic holes in the receiver like liquid. It seemed, by the time it reached Beth—sitting there on the couch in her living room—that it was hardly a voice at all, something more organic than that: water, perhaps, or air.

‘Fine, thanks,’ the voice replied, wearily.

‘She’s fine, thanks,’ repeated Will directly down the line. He sounded relieved, really. Perhaps he hadn’t asked her himself, perhaps he didn’t know the answer. Beth didn’t believe it anyway.

‘Has she called home?’ she said.

‘Home?’ Will took a bite of something and began to chew loudly. ‘She never calls home.’ There was a slap of a page being turned. Was he reading the paper?

‘Well, I think that’s odd,’ said Beth. ‘Don’t you think that’s odd?’

‘She seems happy enough,’ he said, sounding bored, vaguely irritated. He began to chew so audibly that Beth was certain the food couldn’t be contained in his mouth.

‘All right then,’ she said. ‘Have a good night,’ and drew the conversation to a close.

*

In the paper there was a picture of more dead fish littered across the beach. They looked bloated and shiny, and lay belly up, facing the sky and the sun, as if that’s where they’d come from; as if they’d fallen all that way before landing, stunned, on the sand. Some scientists said they suspected the growths were paralysing the fins so that the fish could no longer swim, and they simply rose to the surface of the water before being washed ashore.

The next day, though, when Beth looked in the paper for more news of the fish, there was no mention of them, or of the plague that was sweeping through the sea. That was yesterday’s news. Instead, there was a three-page spread on the aftermath of the hurricane in America, with photos of human bodies that had been swept away and then brought back, fleshy and fat, waterlogged, bursting out of their clothes like sausages out of a skin.

It was certainly a season of bodies being gifted by the sea.

That weekend Will and Alice officially moved into the Landfall Motel. They had rented a unit there before actually taking ownership of it, since staying with Beth and Will’s parents—which they’d done, briefly, after their marriage—had been unsurprisingly awkward, from all accounts. Will had left home when he was sixteen, and a couple of years later had moved to America like someone from an olden-day film off to seek his fortune. He had not been back since, although Beth’s parents had been to visit him there once. He seemed to be a stranger to them—a man who still looked peculiarly boyish, his hands and feet too small and pale-looking for a man of his size, a jaw that didn’t have the strength in it that the rest of his face seemed to require. Even with his mouth closed, one of his front teeth forced its way through, sitting on an angle against his bottom lip. Beth noted all these things about him, feeling ashamed that she could judge her own blood with the same distance, and aloofness, that she might apply to a prospective boyfriend. Perhaps she was just trying to understand things through Alice’s eyes. What do you see in him? was the question she would have liked to put to her. What is it that you see?

On the day that Will and Alice took over the motel, Beth and her parents went down there to look around. Will and Alice were standing in reception, side by side, just waiting for them, it seemed. Will had been talking to people in town and had slowly but surely come to understand the erosion problems on the river bank. He announced this to them, once they were gathered around, with an authority that suggested it was breaking news. He had clearly forgotten that it was Beth and his parents who had first tried to bring it to his attention. And now, of course, they were all too kind to point this out to him. Tendons stood out on his neck. Alice swallowed a lot, and loudly, as if she were drinking air.

The two of them took Beth and her parents on a tour of the grounds, and the units, which ranged from standard to deluxe. Although Beth had driven past the motel many times, she had never been beyond its low concrete fence, and it felt strange stepping inside its walls, something so externally familiar but unknown. She looked around, feeling a little voyeuristic, at the wallpaper, the orange threadbare carpet, vinyl rising up behind the sink in the mini kitchens, the swimming pool with its film of green on the bottom.

‘What’s the difference between standard and deluxe?’ asked their father, trying unsuccessfully not to sound critical or sarcastic.

Will drummed his fingertips against the back of Alice’s neck, and cleared his throat.

‘The deluxe units have a double and two single beds,’ he said. ‘Instead of bunks.’

‘Oh, right,’ said their father, and he nodded in an indulgent sort of way.

They continued on the tour, looking at the small creaky children’s playground, the huddle of oaks by the laundry with picnic tables and chairs underneath. The oaks were covered in a thick froth of new leaves.

‘It’s really very nice,’ said their mother to Will, and she smiled at him reassuringly.

‘We’ll turn it into the best motel in the southern hemisphere,’ said Will, a brave trill in his voice. ‘Won’t we, Allie.’

She smiled mildly at them, at all of them, but didn’t say a word.

As all five of them were sliding down the bank to look at the river, Alice put her hand out to Beth—the first sign, really, that she wanted to know her—and turned her eyes towards her. In the grey afternoon her hair looked almost the same colour as her skin, washed out, a white gold with a throb of pink round the crown, the hint of scalp glowing through the roots. It was not Beth’s mother she turned to—who really was slipping, and making a show of it—but Beth, who was managing fine. It seemed odd, this formal gentility, considering she was only three years older than Alice; they were peers. Beth felt a rush of sympathy for her, though sympathy seemed a cruel word.

‘Don’t let me shock you,’ she said to Alice, thinking of the metal of Alice’s wedding band, and the electric current pulsing in her own self, its fondness for anything metallic.

‘Oh, you don’t,’ said Alice. She twisted her mouth as she said it, looking faintly mortified.

‘I mean,’ said Beth, ‘give you a shock.’

Alice still didn’t seem to understand. She stood staring at Beth quite blankly.

‘I’ve been giving people shocks,’ Beth said, beginning to feel exasperated. ‘Electric ones.’

Alice still stared, though there seemed to be no judgment in her face. A breeze lifted her hair, showing the pink curl of her ears.

‘Are you very tired?’ she said to Beth.

‘Yes,’ Beth said. ‘I guess, a little.’

Alice nodded and took back her hand—her hand which had remained extended the entire time—and slid it back into her jeans pocket. She nodded again, gravely, and turned away from Beth towards the water.

*

In the middle of that November Beth suddenly found she couldn’t sleep. She went to bed every night dead beat, and lay there, blinking, into the early hours of the morning. She became obsessed with insomnia remedies, trying a new one each week. Baths with essential oils in them, counting sheep, chanting a self-affirming mantra for half an hour before bed.

‘I will be able to sleep,’ she said to herself and her bedroom walls over and over again. ‘I will be able to sleep. I will be able to sleep.’

The more she wanted it, of course, the more elusive it became—something mysterious and fluid, sliding away from her whenever she got close. It reminded her, this feeling, of her relationships with men. How exhausting.

Sometimes she went outside, wondering if it was the static electricity that was causing her all this trouble and wanting to release it into the cracked earth. The sky seemed to be on her side once she was out there, curving over her like an enormous hood, caring and yet uncaring, like God. It would be there regardless, no matter how bad things got; no matter if her chest opened like a door and her organs fell out, landing at her feet in a jumble. No matter. No matter—when nothing is left, it isn’t important any more.

It was on one of these nights that the phone rang at half-past eleven, long after Beth had gone to bed. It rang three times and then stopped, and then rang again, and she clambered out of her sheets in the dark.

The voice on the other end of the line didn’t say hello, or sorry, but paused just after Beth picked up.

‘I wasn’t sure if you’d still be awake,’ it said, ‘I didn’t know if I should try.’ And then there was silence for what felt like minutes.

Beth didn’t instantly recognise the voice, though she should have, considering the soft soap-opera lilt. She squinted into the dark and rubbed her forehead.

‘I’m sorry?’ she said.

Did I wake you?’ said the voice.

Beth squinted harder, and then realised. It was Alice. She had never rung before.

‘Is there something wrong?’ Beth said.

‘No, no.’ She paused, but didn’t sound certain. ‘I just thought you might like to see it. What’s happening down here.’ And then she paused again. ‘Will’s asleep,’ she said emphatically.

Beth felt seized by a strange anxiety, her heart pounding somewhere near her throat. Was there something wrong?

‘I’ll be there right away,’ she said to Alice, and slammed the receiver back into place.

Beth got down to the Landfall Motel just fifteen minutes after Alice had called. She had put a sweatshirt on over her pyjama top, but was still wearing the bottoms—adorned with skiing penguins—and running shoes with no socks. She hardly remembered driving there, and felt appallingly rattled, as if she was about to walk in on a crime scene; find her brother, throat slit, in the bath.

Alice was waiting for her outside the reception area. She was wearing a light windbreaker, the hood pulled up over her head. She moved towards the headlights like someone in a dream, her face white and eyes wide.

She stood waiting while Beth tumbled her jelly limbs out the car door.

‘You were very quick,’ she said then. ‘You weren’t asleep, were you? Not with your insomnia?’

‘What’s happened?’ Beth said, moving jerkily towards her across the gravel. ‘Is it Will, Alice? What’s happened?’

Alice looked taken aback. She pulled the hood off her head, and her hair seemed to light up the car park, pulsing slightly in its whiteness like a light bulb.

‘Will’s asleep,’ she said calmly. ‘I told you that.’

‘I just thought . . .’ said Beth, and then stammered to a halt.

‘Will’s asleep,’ said Alice again.

Beth faced her, breathing hard. ‘I was so worried,’ she said. She felt as if her voice would crack.

Alice didn’t seem to understand. Her face was blank. Did she not know that it was she who had caused this chaos inside Beth’s head?

‘I thought you’d be awake too,’ she said. ‘I just thought you’d be awake.’

Beth nodded.

‘I was.’

This affirmation seemed to make Alice brighten, though only in a small way.

‘When I saw it I thought of you instantly,’ she said, and she smiled, showing her teeth. ‘I had to look everywhere for your number. But I really thought I should call. You’d want to see this, I thought. You and the electricity.’

Beth rubbed her forehead. It seemed Alice was speaking in some kind of riddle; she couldn’t quite grasp the words.

‘Let’s go,’ said Alice, and she turned and started walking down towards the river.

Beth had a mini torch on the key ring her father had given her in case of emergencies. She turned it on now and moved towards Alice, having to jog a little to catch up. The leaves of the trees rustled around her. One of the units had lights on and the curtains closed. As they walked past, she heard the sound of men’s voices, slightly raised, drunk possibly. Alice sped up and flicked the hood of her jacket over her head, holding it in place tight under her chin with one hand.

‘I thought of you,’ she said again.

Beth could already see what it was before they got there, even though she was a little distance away on the bank. She followed Alice down, so that her toes were perched right on the edge.

Alice turned her eyes towards her then.

‘Isn’t it like electricity?’ she said.

That feeling—of something magical—crept towards Beth, filling her up so that she too suddenly felt truly alive.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It is.’

The water was on fire, or that’s how it seemed. It was lit up like a Christmas tree, or fireworks in a night sky. It was as if tiny stars had fallen down and were moving around in there, under the surface.

‘I’ve never seen it before,’ said Alice. ‘Is it phosphor-escence? Is that what it’s called?’

Beth had seen it, though not for years, and never like this. She pulled the bulkiness of her sweatshirt around herself, feeling where the air was getting in, and moved her feet up and down in small jogging steps to keep warm. Little balls of clay rolled out of the bank under her feet, dropping almost soundlessly into the river.

‘It’s beautiful,’ she said to Alice. ‘Thank you for calling me, it’s beautiful.’

Alice didn’t turn to her, or smile, but she reached out her fingers and found Beth’s wrist, clamped her hand around it. Her fingers felt cool and smooth and finely made, the bones under the skin fragile as china. She just held on to Beth, quite tight, so that the blood in her wrist began to drum loudly against the skin.

‘You know the electricity you get,’ she said to Beth, ‘and the shocks? You know how you were telling me? I’ve got something in my throat,’ she said. ‘It’s been here for weeks, the feeling. Like a bone is stuck in there—’ she moved her free hand up towards her neck, and swept her fingernail across it in a dramatic slitting gesture— ‘lying right across it,’ she said. ‘Like that.’

There was a sound behind them, though Beth hardly registered it. It seemed heavy and yet quiet, somehow; a shuffling, a rustling under the ground and on top of it; something natural and normal, wind or water. Neither Beth nor Alice turned to see what it was.

‘Is there something wrong?’ said Beth. ‘You must miss your family.’

‘Who knows?’ said Alice lightly. ‘There’s only him.’ She moved her lips over her teeth and bit into them. ‘I wouldn’t miss him,’ she said.

‘Your father?’

Alice may have shrugged her shoulder slightly. Beth couldn’t tell. She had let go of Beth’s wrist now, but her arm still seemed to be outstretched towards her, as if she was feeling her way in the dark.

‘Are things all right with Will?’ said Beth. ‘Alice?’

Alice tilted her head, and stared out across the river at the bank on the other side, the dark swarm of trees on its edge, the road beyond them. The headlights of a car swung into view, lighting up the trees, shocking their leaves into life. Even though the car was some distance away, the sound of its engine and its tyres against the road soared towards them, a rushing hiss that snapped off as the car swung away into the black.

Perhaps it was that—the suddenness of the car, close and yet far away—that made Beth turn around, the shell of quiet having been broken. She did not just move her head, but her whole body, and she found herself facing Will, who was standing behind them, a few metres away, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his dressing gown. She heard a sound come out of her own mouth like the faint cry of a bird.

Alice didn’t move, her face staring straight ahead out across the water.

‘Will,’ Alice said, without hesitation or alarm, but still quite loudly. She had not turned to see him, but she knew, somehow, he was there.

Will was only wearing his boxer shorts, the dressing gown open, flapping slightly against his legs. The lamps on the porch of the laundry were on, and they glowed behind him so that he looked like a cut-out, his hair on a sharp triangular angle, set like that from sleep. Beth didn’t know what to say.

She tried to smile.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘You’re awake.’

He lifted his hands to his face and seemed almost to claw at it, rubbing at his eyes and eyebrows.

‘And you are too,’ he said to Beth. ‘Or are you? Awake? What are you doing out here? What are you two doing out here together?’

Despite his agitation, Alice remained quite still, her arms by her sides.

‘Beth and I are just looking at things,’ she said calmly.

He made a coughing sound. ‘Looking at things?’

‘Looking at things.’ Her tone was firm, as if she were a teacher, he the child.

She turned suddenly towards him, so that the three of them were placed like points of a triangle.

Will started to laugh, though it was a vaguely hysterical sound.

‘Beth,’ he said. ‘What on earth is going on?’

Beth could feel Alice’s breathing beside her, the soft snuffle of it—in and out—rapid but not strained. She had lifted her hand to her throat and was holding it there against the skin.

Will, always prone to tantrums, lifted one bare foot up and then pounded it against the ground, making the whole bank quake.

‘Could someone tell me what is going on?’ he said, and then swallowed hard. ‘Come back to bed,’ he said, far too angrily. ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on out here, but I’m asking you, Allie. Please. Come back to bed.’

His shoulders seemed to collapse forward, and for a moment Beth thought he might cry.

‘She only called me because of the electricity,’ Beth said, ‘and the river. It’s nothing to worry about, Will. Come on now. Quieten down.’

‘Come back to bed,’ he said to Alice again, though he was looking at his feet.

‘No thank you,’ she said sweetly, her eyes wide, her hand still held to her throat. ‘I like it out here at the moment,’ and she smiled at him encouragingly.

Will let out an exasperated shuddering sigh, and flapped his arms around a little, and looked from Alice to Beth and back again.

‘This has to stop,’ he said to Alice. ‘Why can’t you just stay in bed at night? Like normal people.’

If he wanted an answer, he didn’t wait for it. He seemed to pick himself up—pulling his shoulders back, lifting his head—and without another word turned and walked away from them, the dressing gown flying out behind him like a cloak.

Alice continued to smile, watching him go.

‘Is there something wrong between you two?’ Beth said, but Alice paid no attention. She turned back towards the river as if she had simply erased Will with one blink. She looked into the water for a moment, and then she moved her fingers towards Beth’s arm, took hold of her wrist again.

‘Do you think you could look for me?’ she said. ‘In my throat? With your torch?’

Beth didn’t know what to say. She felt slightly embarrassed, and overtired—as if she could cry. She looked at the darting lights in the water.

‘Okay,’ she said, and then she paused. ‘Of course.’

Alice moved her head immediately towards her, holding her wrist tight, and opened her mouth wide. The breeze lifted her hair again, like it had when she had reached out her hand to Beth on the bank. It looked so thin and light, as if it could lift off her head and float away.

Beth turned on the torch and shone it right down Alice’s throat. The pinkness, rawness, of it jumped towards her. She could smell the slight sourness of Alice’s breath, like something that had once been sweet but wasn’t any more: milk on the turn. Her epiglottis jolted around nervously, but other than that nothing seemed unusual. It was just raw-looking and ridgy, like all throats, Beth imagined.

‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to see anything,’ she said, straining her neck, bobbing her eyes around. ‘I can’t tell. I don’t think I can see far enough down.’

Alice dropped her head, and shut her mouth, and swallowed hard.

‘I don’t think it is a bone,’ she said. ‘I don’t think there’s anything stuck. It’s just the feeling.’

And then she smiled, quite brightly. ‘Thanks for looking anyway,’ she said. She released her grip on Beth’s wrist, and leaned her head back so she was looking at the sky. She lifted her arms out to her sides.

‘It’s probably nothing to worry about,’ she said. ‘Thanks all the same.’

The wind stirred the trees again, and the water, so that the surface rippled. Beth swung her head back so she too was looking at the sky.

‘What do you think’s up there?’ said Alice, and she flapped her arms slightly. ‘I think a whole lot of nothing,’ she said. She seemed lighter, and whiter—if that was possible; as if she had unloaded a great weight.

A whole lot of nothing. No matter. No matter.

Beth turned to look at her. ‘Maybe that and something else, too,’ she said.

Alice didn’t say anything, but Beth felt her silent agreement. The outline of her profile was tilted right back, so that her neck seemed to form a straight line right up to her chin.

‘I’m glad you called,’ Beth said, and Alice nodded, a blurry movement, a flash of white in the dark.

‘Yes,’ she said definitely, the word moving out of her mouth and into the night. ‘Yes.’

Beth just stood there looking at Alice, and Alice looked up, directing her words at nothing in particular.

‘Do you ever get the feeling that there’s nowhere left to go?’ she said, though she didn’t wait for Beth’s answer. ‘Like you’re all locked up, but as soon as you’re set free you just stand there waiting to be let back in. And it isn’t even that it’s a bone,’ she said again. ‘I’m pretty sure of that. But sometimes I feel as if I could hook my finger down and pull one out.’ She scuffed her feet against the ground. ‘I’d like the feeling,’ she said, ‘of pulling something out of there.’ She smiled then to herself, a faint curl of her lips, still looking up at the sky, blinking hard.

‘How does it feel right now?’ Beth said.

‘Okay,’ said Alice. ‘Okay, thanks.’ And then she paused. ‘Thanks for coming,’ she said, and paused again. ‘Beth.’

The breeze rose again, out of nowhere, lifting a plastic bag off the bank, making it roll across the grass, crackling and cackling. The hood of Alice’s jacket flapped against her back, filling with air so that, for a moment, it looked quite round and solid. In the distance Beth could hear voices, though they seemed very far away. Alice’s head was still craned back, and her mouth slightly open, showing the edge of her straight white teeth.

‘Look at them,’ said Alice. ‘All those stars.’

And Beth did, tilting her head right back again. It was true. There were so many of them, blinking in the sky, scattered across it in clusters. They seemed reflected in the water too, alive in there, moving around.

‘And the moon,’ said Alice. ‘So white!’

She said it with great emphasis—so white—and it occurred to Beth that she could just as well be talking about herself. So white! She felt a rush of relief—was that what it was?—move out from her chest, right down to her fingertips. No matter. No matter—even that everything was falling apart. There were stars all around them, in the waters at their feet, high above their heads, and the moon seemed just to have been thrown in for good measure. It was new—the moon—so slim and pale, and it looked quite out of place amongst the stars, like a shard of bone half eaten away.

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