There’s glass in my palm, blood on the tarmac, no air in my lungs. Spit slips out of my mouth, no air, dangling long, dragging at my lip, before dropping to the tarmac. I can feel it fall, but can’t stop it, keep heaving, can’t close my mouth. The spit dribbles, drops, lands in the small pile of yellow on the floor, a few crumbs drifting in the bile and bumping against bubbles. I gasp at nothing, grasp desperately at the air and hear the last ebb of the crowd’s own easy exhalation. I’m on my knees, can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. Panic runs through me as I suck at the air desperately, but the pain in my stomach is sharp, too big to allow oxygen in. Strong arms grasp me from behind, hidden hands under each armpit and haul me up onto unsteady feet as air finally bursts into my lungs, fills me with sweet, sharp pain. In front of me the police man-cum-road sweeper unclenches his fists, bends to pick up his broom and walks back to the wreckage. I let my head loll, glance behind, knowing what I’ll see and there it is. There’s the look in her face. Maya. Pity? Disgust? Hard to tell. She turns into our son’s chest behind the police cordon. I can’t- I just can’t … I turn back to the road sweepers, but know I can’t stop them. They’re brushing broken glass and bits of debris away, their backs to me, trying to ignore me in case I cry out again, lash out again, make a grab for someone else. Behind them, on the other side of the wreck, the other family. I can’t see their faces, don’t want to. I can’t look at them properly, can’t make out features, only shock. I can’t do anything now.
It starts to rain and I hit the tarmac with both knees. The two officers trying to stop me from completely crumpling, buckling, give in, let me collapse forward and move off shaking their heads. Their faces turn to blank stretches of skin as they walk off, like the sweepers, like the other family, like the corpses, like everyone watching, then blur away into darkness. There is only the fire. Behind me, Maya wails through the darkness. Someone in the crowd coos at her, trying to calm her. Like a baby. I blink away after images of the pyre, but can’t keep my head up and let it fall again, heavier and heavier. I start to stare at the tarmac, at what should be there but isn’t, tensing my stomach so that the pain of the punch flares up again and again. I grit my teeth against the pain and the pluses, against the tears, against everything. Water running across the ground, tinged with red, with black. Ink the water. Paint. No. Maya wails.
I hear someone begin to water blast the blood from the road.
“I-I d-don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t… I don’t fucking….” My voice is a faltering note, a stalling tone, a stuttering engi-
I stare at the tarmac.
They came today with a small box and a wealth of apologies. I was stood looking into the fridge, at the white empty rows, populated by crumbs, a single tub of ancient margarine and half a lemon curling in onto itself in the bottom shelf, then six sharp knocks at the front door, a jaunty tattoo.
Sorry, so Sorry, Mr. Weston.
Lost in filing.
Know it’s a bad time.
Accept our apologies.
So, so sorry.
A sad little metal affair, Ed’s old box, filled with everything they salvaged. I held out two wooden arms and let them put the light little life into my hands, then stood looking down at it until they walked off. I turned to the telephone table, placed the box down, saw my face in the mirror, looked away, put on my shoes, picked the box gingerly back up again and walked to the road.
Now, I’m sitting in the road while some small voice in my head screams at me; that I should be feeling more; that I should be home with my family; that my suit will be ruined; that I should be ruined, that I should be clawing at the world, screaming at the sky- but a slow numbness drowns it out with white noiselessness, brain static. I stare at the tarmac. No skid mark. He didn’t brake. Didn’t have time, I tell myself. Ed just didn’t have time. Another car screams past, a long blast on the horn, but I don’t move. Couldn’t. No more rain, just stupid, glorious sunshine. I can’t feel anything here anymore. Another car flies past, only laughter coming from it though, someone with the top down, enjoying the sunshine, enjoying the world, enjoying life. The car careers round the blind corner and I clench my hands hard against the box. Close my eyes. Try not to shatter my teeth against themselves, try not to break, try not to scream. The metal in my fingers gives one small groan of protest, then pain! -Pain!- Scratch, pain, shaking through my arm. I look down- my right thumb has plunged through the side of the metal and a jagged edge has claimed my fingernail, leaving it sticking to the outside while the stricken thumb pulses inside. My hands start to shake and I drag my thumb out, rushing to stop gushing more blood into the box. My thumb comes lose with a sickening rip, completely dislodging the nail from the cuticle and making my knees shake. My hand shakes in sympathy, violently, as I stare down at the red mess, the thumbnail fallen, more blood soaking into the old grey tarmac.
It hurts- Christ, Christ- it hurts. Sharp, quick pulses of pain with every beat of my heart. I grab my thumb with my other hand, bend over, clutching it to my stomach and squeezing it hard, feeling that constant scream of shocked, exposed nerves. I stay that way for a while, until I don’t feel the need to squeeze the pain away, and it settles into a dull ache.
The box is laying on its side, just outside my reach. I inch myself over, still seated, and pick it up with my good hand, popping the top from the tin box. If my blood is there- if it’s gotten on everything then… Then what? I stop as the wind picks up, the sun warming the growing wet sweat patch on my back, my hands quickly turning sticky with the blood.
I settle myself back, blow air in and out of my lungs and hold my hand over the open box for a moment.
“Ed.” The word taken from my mouth, fading to nothing in the wind. I reach in and began to pull out the items one by one, arranging them into a neat little line in front of me, in ascending order of size.
One half of a pair of glasses, with my blood splattered fresh and red against the lens.
A black watch face, strap missing. I place it against the tarmac, taking my time to line the two items up while my thumb sends low slow pulses up my arm
A Half-burnt wallet with melted plastic and a scorched, warped photo of Ed and… someone else. Red Hair, short, pale, the rest is a blackened mess. Someone I’ll never know.
16-25 railcard with the photo end burned and warped into some fine crystal pattern, some intricate work of god.
A melted phone, with his life and secrets forever lost.
I shake my head and put my hand around the last item I’ve laid in the line = the box. Shallower then it should be, by the dimensions. A little metal thing that had mostly survived the fire, big enough for a small book to fit in. I had given Edgar it as a child and the boy had loved it, had buried it in the garden like pirate booty, had put his most precious treasures in. It did look like a pirate chest… I look away, can’t stand the sight of it and close my eyes, scrunched them tight together, my hands beginning to shake again. It was so… stupid. All of it, so fucking fucking FUCKING-
I screw my hand up tight, pressing my nail-less thumb into the small scab in my palm from the day of the crash. The pain is sharp, at first my hand tries to open, but I push, push, push down, constant, a pulse, pulse, PULSE, making me shake as I press harder. Time passed and the pain lessens, tries to numb itself, when all I want is for it to stay. I open my eyes again, blowing air out and start to feel around in the bottom of the box when my hand slips, again-
“Fuck! Fuckedy-” no pain this time though, just a false bottom giving way, crumbling almost, and onto something below. A book. A hidden book. I reach in and pull it free, letting ash fall away and back into the box.
It was tatty, with some of its pages missing, whole chapters seemingly fallen away, or ripped free, leaving it looking somewhat gap toothed as I twist it in the sun, letting black ash drift down slowly from the cover. I bring it close to my face and blow more of the black from it, my eyes lingering as the motes caught in the sunshine, glinting like diamo –no, dust. Dust in old rooms, unused rooms, dust dancing in the light. I look back at the title.
Then at the spine.
Then the title again.
The Book of Levi
By D I Southward
I open my mouth to speak, but pain pulses suddenly through my right hand as some of the black ash settles into the still raw wound of the thumb.
“Agh! Fffff-” My voice is loud against the quiet and the slow wind.
I drop the book, which lands heavily against the tarmac, the cover the colour of dried blood, the colour of the thumb. I screw my eyes tight again and shakily try to blew out some of the stress, some of that tension that is keeping my shoulders hunched. Take a deep breath, in-in-iiinn, juddering breath, nice and slow, then out… out… I bend to pick up the-
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’a break-
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’a break.
A missed call, Maya. I glance at the time on the screen and sigh, close my eyes.
Time to go, should have left long ago. I slowly pack the rest of the belongings into the bloody tin, stopping only when I reach the book. I should put it back… I shake my head and put it in my back pocket. No time.
No time any more.
The fact was that the preacher had never met Ed, but he was still making a good effort to pretend he had. His voice was a phlegmy death rattle as he struggled on, stopping to lick his parchment lips every third word, pausing for breath for just too long after each sentence, and almost dribbling in his senility.
That little voice is still screaming for me to feel outraged, to want a more fitting funeral for my youngest son. To just feel bloody something. Another part, another voice, keeps me aware that I’m the only one of the meager congregation that has yet to cry. The preacher clears his throat, coughs wetly onto the back of a pale trembling hand and continues. Someone walked up to the podium and read a poem that washes over my ears, someone tries to hold my hand and the old boy rattles on about choices and the harshness of life, his voice barely loud enough to echo. A baby’s cry towards the back of the little room begins to drown him out.
I turn slowly and stare at the woman next to me. My wife of twenty two years, who slips that cold wet hand into my own again, returns my gaze with sad eyes, downcast eyes, filled with red lines and water. I look at her and then at my other hand, which is shaking and clutching the little pale card with scribbles meant to make me feel better. Hymns and prayers. The hand is hollow, it feels hollow. Like all of me. I’m a casket of gas, a shell ready to crack, an empty egg, I wait for the shell to crack, for the gas that roils in me- numbs me, stops me from caring, moving, feeling – waiting for it to leak out and leave me to crumple empty inwards. I don’t feel- I think. I think and see myself for what I am. Hollow. Skin wrapped round the shell, a convincing pseudo-man, an unreal human. A falsehood. I turn back to the small smile on my Maya’s face, the trembling lips, the twitching struggle. Later, someone would describe it as brave. She had cleaned me up when I had arrived, wrapped up my thumb and we didn’t say a word, but I had kissed her hard and almost cried, almost, finally cried, but no. Then she had mumbled something and took me to where the coffin carriers were. The fact was she didn’t have to ask where I had been, with the dirt on my shoes and suit.
Maya pulls me up for another hymn that no-one in the family has ever sung before, one that Ed certainly hadn’t ever heard, praising God in the cracked tones of the mourning. Then we sit back on the uncomfortable benches again, staring to the old man who was standing by the too-light coffin, containing only a full urn of what I hope is the majority of my son’s ashes.
The old man’s voice drones on, presumably comforting, but I can barely hear the words as they turn into the sound of empty noise, white radio waves, television static. Everything around me blurs to a comfortable darkness, an unknowing, unthinking tunnel of black that leads, pinprick light, through the outer wood of the coffin, to the small ornamental urn, feeling like I should be feeling but not knowing how. There should have been something, something to feel, to say, my mouth refusing to move, my old eyes nowhere near to tears. The baby cries out again and I turned in my seat, finally feeling something other than empty, finally feeling anger filling me with quick red lightning, a feeling which instantly falls to nothing as my eyes catch someone I don’t, but should, know.
The light from the door catches in her short red hair, which halos around her shadowed silhouette. She is stood in the doorway, staring in, and something in me jolts. Something feels wrong, or right. I can’t look away, can’t help feeling like-
A small tug from Maya and I turn round back to her, trying to blink away the image burnt onto my eyes. The shadow of the woman in the doorway blurs over Maya’s face, turns her brown hair to red, her eyes softer. I could hold her now, grab her and walk out, never be seen again. I could take her away from this place and all of this… the image fades and Maya turns back towards the priest as he continues on.
“So p-please be st-standing and, umm, we will all, all-er- finally, go out into the liiight.”
Men paid to look sad open the doors, the preacher turns his hunched back on the crowd and we stand, file out like school children and soon we’re out in the sunshine on a sad little concrete patio, with Jonny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” ringing out too loud from a sophisticated wall mounted speaker system.
But I’m alone. They gravitate around and near, but I’m alone. I look down at my shaking hands and the card still clutched in my white knuckles, a litany of hymns my wife selected, some poetry someone read. On the front: “Service In Loving Memory of Edgar Weston, Taken From Us.” Someone pats my shoulder. Someone else slips between my arms for a hug. Someone offers me a tissue. But they all soon walk away. Conversations wash around me, and I turn to see my wife by me, her hand appearing in mine. As I look into Maya’s eyes, neither of us speaking, just listening to the wish-wash of hushed mouth sounds, I wonder when we got so old. When the whisps of grey entered her dark hair, when the gauntness came to our cheeks. I wish I could make her happy, could give her food, comfort. I just … what? Nothing left to say here, but the voices wash around us as we stand and hold hands.
I don’t want to be here anymore.
“-others were killed inst-”
“-Nasty way to g-”
“-He would have found a way-”
“oh I know.”
“Such a sh-”
“-haven’t seen you si-”
I look away from her eyes, the threat of tears there, the sadness I can’t bear reflected back, and try to see the wreath everyone is gravitating towards. Glorious red flowers gleaming in the sunshine in a circle with two letters, written loud, embossed in yellow:
The wind blows cool through hot air, rustles the flowers like a child’s hair, passes through the crowd and touches against the other wreaths scattered around. A busy day for the dead. Time must have passed because there was no-one around me anymore on the sad little patio and the men with pre-paid sadness were ushering people along, glancing at their watches. Time to go home.
I toss the keys to Allan on the way out and watch my son fumble them out of the air. The boy turns a half smile to me and steps into the car, turns the engine over. I stand and watch him drive his mother away and move off to follow, my feet feeling heavy already. The road turns quickly into a dirt track, sharp stones for verges and a low hedge that runs all the way back to Glentworth and the house.
The house would be full of the silent black dresses that flitted around, handing people drinks and nodding, holding hands, telling tales of how he lived and they laughed. Relatives, friends, hangers on … I’m taking my time as I walk, surely justified on today to want to be alone, but it still feels wrong. My shoes are too thin against the stones at the side of the road. My head too empty of anything but myself. My torso feels empty of organs, filled with that numbing gas and a dull canon-ball sized ache in my stomach. Dust swirls beneath each step as I walk along and watch the rapeseed swaying in the fields, the glorious unjust sunshine warming me through and the gentle breeze kindly cooling me. Time passes, measured by steps and the gradual passing of the fields. Only a couple of miles back to the house. Ed had loved this road. Had.
“I miss him.” Barely a whisper, and the strength goes from my knees, sending me to the dirt where jagged edges meet my hands and shins. Stinging pains began to shoot from both and I let myself flop onto my back, rocking as tears burn hot trails down towards my ears. Warm tears, hanging on until the last minute then dripping past to the dirt. I should say something, I should do something, I need to do- to feel- to let-
“I-I miss him.” Stutter start, stalled engine. “God. I miss my son- I miss my son- I-I-I- m-misss…” I push the words out, trying to talk until I feel, repeating, repeating, entreating, repeating, entreating, entreating God, praying to God, begging, damning. I can’t stop, couldn’t stop, kept on shaking in the dirt by the road, moaning and crying. “You f-f-fucking took him from me!”
Pathetic. I’m just so… pathetic. A flashbulb image of my wife surrounded by black blobs, serving tea in her own room pops unbidden into my head. She pours a small amount of milk in each mug, apologises, swears she thought there was more in the house. No biscuits, she says, sorry. She thought there were some in the cupboard, but those who search find it bare, filled with the shells of garlic bulbs and scraps of packets. I should be there, I should be there right now. The shaking stops, with time, and I push myself up onto my elbows, looking back down the road the way I had come, where a cloud of dust was forming, growing slowly, with the sound of a roaring engine and obfuscating the way to the little church.
A car. I pick myself up, dust myself off and lean on the hedgerow for support. Brown dust still clings to the suit, and the scratches on my palm are peppered with a few tenacious pieces of grit still stuck in.
The car roars past, whipping up dust and stones and I hear the laughter of the young fade away with it, with more swearing screamed out, rebellious and free. I need to get home, to get out of this heat, of this… of all this. I need to get back to Glentworth and the people who I would smile at while all the while wishing wish were gone.
As it turned out half of the procession have already left by the time I get back to the cottage, waving half-heartedly at one or two of the cars that pass me. I catch the eye and some concern from the passengers, but their faces are soon lost to speed and distance. The Pillbox, as we call it, stands stoic and grey against the ravages of time. It used to be a manor house, Maya’s old family money long running out, however, and both the wings, the hallways, all eventually crumbling away with decay or weather, until it was easier to just tear them down, sell the stone and scraps. Eventually all we were left with was The Pillbox, the converted cottage built from the grand entrance hall. I can see places where the plaster needs patching, has needed patching for a long time now, but who has the time? . The gravel drive is half full of cars still, though, and I can see one of Maya’s friends is crying behind one of them, making strangled sobbing noises that sound like an asthma attack as she wipes mascara smears across her cheek bones with her index fingers. She looks up as I near and I look away quickly, snap my head to one side, walk on pretending not to have seen. She’s still sobbing as I reach the door, pull it open and step into the hallway and the terrible silence that followed the click of the door.
From the end of the hall, I can hear the sound of a few gentle clinks of metal on porcelain from the kitchen, ashamed stirs flitting through silence. I walk over and peer in.
The women in black are huddled around Maya in a circle, standing or sitting, some with hands on her knees or shoulders as she gently shakes up and down, one hand to her face, the other staccato rattling a spoon against the edge of her tea, resting on a crochet coaster. Still life, almost like a painting, perfect light shining through the kitchen window, stained yellow as it reflects from the tips of the rapeseed beyond. A few men are deposited awkwardly around the corners of the room, looking down at their shoes over cups of tea, not daring to look up. A hand touches my shoulder, making me jump and I almost shatter the silence with a cry. I turn to see Allan, remaining son, reddened sore eyes and with that pathetic half smile still on his lips; one corner of his mouth turned up, his eyebrows furrowing together in an expression of sympathy. Allan.
Taller than his father now, and more and more an imperfect mirror of his mother. Longer hair than mine, already greying as mine had early on, green eyes, the same weak chin and angular cheeks. Allan. Who always took after his mother, the wilder child with untamable ginger hair, now brought low by time and grief..
Ed had taken more after his father, a quiet child with my short brown hair and grey eyes that had always been stuck in books, all those authors I could never succeed. The four of us had balanced, had been perfect. Two of one, two of the other. Now Maya was left with two of the same and a hole in her heart where the lost should be.
No. Not lost. Dead. Burned.
Allan pats me on the shoulder and thumbs behind him towards the front room.
The room is at the front of the house, darker than the kitchen tableau and completely empty of the sympathetic. Two cups of tea are steaming away to themselves, resting on crochet coasters on the ancient coffee table in the centre of the room and Allan walks past, scooping one up and turning back me, pointing to the other one and smiling.
I close the door quietly behind me and sigh, walking over and taking the cup of tea as I sit down. How many bags do we have left? Allan, then, taking the seat next to me with a sigh echoing my own. We sink into the sofa, the burgundy knitted throw coming down with our backs, scrunching into a heap behind me, but I can’t bring myself to push it back up.
“You…” my voice croaks, “you okay, then son?” I blow ripples across the milky tea, let it warm my hands. Like a woman, someone else’s words, some writer. Sure I’ve read it somewhere. Held his tea like a woman, clasped between both hands, savouring the warmth. Something similar. Allan turns the same lopsided smile my way.
“Not really, dad.”
“…Yeah.” We both take a sip and I hiss through my teeth as the tea scolds a few taste buds.
“Where was um… where’s was your girlfriend?”
“She didn’t want to come, dad.”
“Oh… ” I try to sip the drink again.
“She… We’ve decided- well, we broke up.”
“I think she just needed some, err, some time? Or something? I dunno.”
“Oh. Okay. I mean, well. Sorry, son.” Silence. “Do you want a, er, a proper drink?”
“Yeah.” I stand up and walk over to the faded globe in the corner of the room, opening it up along the equator. Inside, a series of mostly empty bottles, tiny dregs left that I can’t bear to see gone. I pick out a half-empty orange bottle and two misted-up crystal glasses.
“Your brother bought me this when he went off to that whiskey thing in Scotland.” The top of the bottle comes off and a plume of stench that floods straight to my eyes, tears now of all times. “You remember when he, um, he got into all that… highland, lowland… I don’t know, he was so eager to explain it, but, I guess- I never really…” I pour us both a generous measure and hand one over. He looks at it for a moment, then takes it and holds it to his chest.
“I guess I never really paid that much attention.”
“Dad.” The glass shakes in Allan’s hands.
“-Thought there would be more time…to err, to listen.”
“Hah, I remember-”
“Dad, can we not?” Allan says, starting to swirl the glass, watching as it stuck to the sides before sliding down and avoiding my eyes. “I just… We’ll talk about it, yeah, but just a few m-minutess…”
The glass hit the carpet and failed to smash dramatically, instead just tippling over, turning the carpet dark in a small crescent as it rolled.
I put my own whiskey down on the table, next to the still steaming tea, and sit next to the boy, who leans into me as he cries.
“I-I’m s-so self- selfish.” The boy murmurs, and I can’t find my voice. I want to say that this is how it is supposed to be, that the only thoughts left are always of ourselves.
Why couldn’t he stay for me?
Why couldn’t he tell me?
Why did God take him from me?
Why didn’t the world change for me?
Should I be thinking this?
Should I be doing this?
Should I be saying this?
Me, I, Me, I , Me, I, Me.
Instead, I let him cry it out. Instead, I can’t speak, can barely breath. Instead, I just pat his shoulder as he shakes up and down, as he cries for the both of us. Something falls soft out of my pocket between us, falling between our legs as I shift and I lean away from Allan, who straightens up and wipes his face on the back of his hand.
“You dropped this.” He says, passing over the book. “I’m going to… to go.” A sniff, waiting for an answer, or some complaint, some word to stop him- something from me.
“Levi!” A Woman’s voice from the corridor “there’s um…”
I’m looking at the book
“Dad, I think I-”
The Book of Levi
“Levi? The other family are at the door.”
The cover creaks in my hands.
“Dad?” Allan now, standing. “Do you want to… to come say, um, anything?”
The throbbing from my nail-less thumb screams unheeded as I start to read. I feel my lips part, but never heard the word.