The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden
My father and I had our ups and downs but in the end we were good for each other. His name was Alan. After he died, which was on a Wednesday, I wasn’t sure what to do. In the end I left the hospital and went and sat on the steps of the nearby tube station, which, though busy, didn’t seem as crowded as the waiting areas. It was quiet, too. Out of the warm wind and noise I felt more able to think. I sat a few minutes, smiling up at the people who picked their way down past me. I thought that sitting there like that might help me acclimatise to the experience, and all the other experiences I would now have to become used to. Then I walked down the road and took the 10.40 from St Pancras home.
On its way to Dover, the high-speed line passes smoothly across the grain of shallow wooded valleys south of the Medway. What you see on that route is a toytown landscape, new cuttings, slopes at precise angles, grass with a look of AstroTurf, stiff model trees in a fringe. Occasionally the view opens up to reveal a motorway running alongside; or the land drops away startlingly to the left or right and a narrow ride swings away at the speed of the train through the softwood plantations. But you never seem to see a house. Everything is new but already lost.
After half an hour the train stopped for a few minutes. It lurched suddenly, started up again; then stopped for a longer period. Everyone expected an announcement, but none came. Out of the window could be seen a town, a lot of blackened churches close together; and at its edge, vague with heat haze, a stretch of suburb. I thought there must be a breakdown somewhere, along the line, or in the train.
People were leaning forward in their seats to look out of the windows. I heard someone say:
‘Over there, behind the screen of trees.’
‘Oh God, are they still standing?’ a second voice said.
Eventually the train began to move. The suburbs drew close and pulled in around the line. They were as tidy as the new cuttings, but at least they were houses. Among them I caught sight of a steep pile of sand – or perhaps less a pile than a bank: a bank of sand baked and eroded concave until it resembled a wave glimpsed at a distance at the end of a toytown street, the foam on its top represented by a scruff of vegetation faded to dusty green. It was a curious, threatening feature for a contemporary housing estate. A few minutes later, very slowly, the train pulled into a station. The first thing I heard there was a recorded voice advising passengers to stand back from the edge of the platform. ‘Trains passing through this station can cause turbulence.’
The name on the station signboard was Doe Lea, and later I would come to believe this was the name of the place itself.
Hospital corridors always seem to be patrolled by middle-aged men with flimsy plastic carrier bags. As people, they’re well turned out but lonely-looking; perhaps a little irritable. Shaven-headed. A Ben Sherman style short-sleeved shirt, worn loose with cargo shorts. That generation. If they don’t take care of their appearance, their selves, they seem to be saying, who will? Who’ll remain true to the assumptions of their youth?
‘But you don’t have to constantly declare,’ my father would say of them.
By then he was quite frail. If you asked him how he felt, he would consider, then conclude, ‘Frightened, of course.’ The last thing he asked me was, could I remember what the acronym DBX stood for. I had no idea, nor any idea why he thought I would know. Morphine had caused him to confuse me with someone else. I said I thought it sounded more like a protocol than a system or a thing, and that seemed to satisfy him, because he made a slight movement of the head and closed his eyes. I went home expecting to see him again, but as I’ve said, he was dead the Wednesday morning.
The passengers weren’t sure what to do. Some opened their laptops and resumed work; some continued talking on their phones. We would all be at a loose end until a relief train arrived. Two or three of us got down from the carriage and walked about on the platform reading the advisories – ‘Please take care around the station, as some surfaces may have become slippery’ – while we waited for something to happen.
I was the only one who went out into Doe Lea, where the streets seemed pleasantly deserted. Afternoon had come early. The air was hot and silent. The shops were closed and peaceful. You were soon through the centre and out at the other side, surveying the turn of a river, a field with a horse in it or a roundabout and a big box store beyond which you glimpsed an empty cattle yard with metal dividers; then railway lines curving away towards the coast.
After that the only thing left to look at was the little suburb, which was, if anything, quieter than the town. It had absorbed more of the morning’s warmth. The new houses, laid out in cloverleaf curves and clusters, were small enough that, for a moment, you couldn’t quite trust your sense of scale. It’s easy – and tempting – to dismiss a sensation like that. With little else to do, I got the idea of looking for the sandy bank I had noticed from the train. Everything was easy to see in toytown but harder to reach. You would get an angle on it, but then something intervened and you were unsighted again. When I found what I was looking for, it proved taller than I expected, south facing, and made of sandstone, not sand. Its base was hidden beneath nettle and ragwort, brambles through which I had to force my way. Heat radiated from the stone.
Twenty or thirty feet up, towards the top of the curve, I could see a thick tangle of rose briars and dozens of shallow niches containing pots and jars, which I thought must be earthenware beehives, rather crudely made, with the bees flying in and out. They were painted, although the colours had faded to chalky pastels; beneath them, worn into the cliff, stretched a line of sloping, smoothly-eroded footholds, set at awkward angles and irregular intervals. These I began to ascend without thinking, surrounded by a calm, musty smell of nettles, late elder and dog rose – then something I couldn’t name – until I was about halfway up. Anxiety overcame me at that point, although I can’t explain why. I saw the hives above and heard the comfortable sound of the bees. I could see that I wasn’t high up. But the steps were dusty and sloping, and suddenly I slithered back to the ground and stood among the nettles feeling disappointed in myself, as if I had let someone down; and after that turned away.
The town streets were as quiet and empty as streets from sixty years before, when everyone was in work during the day. You might see a figure emerge from a garden door and make off along the pavement between baking brick walls. You might see a dog in the distance, or hear a metal gate clanging shut, down where the hot wind blew across the cattle market; but that was the end of it. I wandered about between rows of terraced townhouses with red brick facades and shiny front doors. I felt as if I wanted to go into one of those high, comfortable-looking places, though I couldn’t make up my mind which one. Later, as I stood in the street looking upwards, a couple came out of one of them to ask me in.
‘We wondered,’ the woman said, ‘if you needed help.’
Early on, the hospital kept my father in a bed by a window on the third floor, out of which he could see, past the tops of the plane trees, the back of a different hospital. At that time he was still generally cheerful, could dress himself and walk; we would take the lift down to the ground floor and drink tea in the waiting area.
There he crumbled his favourite cake on to a plate but never ate much of it. He was already suffering the attacks that would characterise the later stages of the illness, during which lights seemed to dance on the surface of everything. They were blue, lilac, pink and green, he said. They danced on the coffee in his cup and meant as much to him as if someone had spoken. During these episodes everything else would remove itself. Voices receded, the sound of activity in the cafeteria drew away, as if the world was already out of earshot. He would feel as if everything was operating like that, not just sound. Even the information the conversations were carrying would cool down and contract and move into the middle distance, taking up some distant position in terms of its import to him. It wasn’t that my father felt remote from things, he said: it was that things felt remote from him. As if to make up for this, every colour, every sound had what he described as ‘a halo’ of extra meaning.
Later, under a care regime that featured increasing doses of diamorphine, he stayed on the third floor and at the same time drifted slowly away. ‘Funny, isn’t it?’ he would say, in the voice of a teenager. ‘I’ve walked over this bridge a million times and I don’t remember those lamps.’ Then: ‘Is there someone else here? Is someone with us?’ He was fully aware of them, he said, but he couldn’t see who they were.
My father loved a wet afternoon in summer; he loved to hear rain. One of the things he said most often after the condition took hold was, ‘I keep thinking it’s going to rain, can you look out of the window for me and see?’
‘We wondered if you needed help,’ the woman said.
They stood smiling at the top of the townhouse steps, quite thin and tall – in their sixties, I thought, but still calmly attractive – dressed very simply – and I went up into their house, which didn’t have as many rooms as you might expect for a place that size. It was tall and deep, but it was thin – a slice through a terrace, among other tall, thin elegant slices. ‘Let’s have tea inside,’ the woman said. ‘It’s so much cooler in here.’
‘Let’s have it in cups!’ the man said, as if this was a new idea. ‘Give me your coat and I’ll put it on the back of this chair.’
So I gave him my coat and had a cup of tea, and they asked me how I had got to Doe Lea. They smiled when I told them about the broken train and the way I had wandered around the town; but when I described the little cliff with its wavelike architecture and its colonies of bees, they looked at one another puzzledly.
‘Bees?’ the man said, and shook his head. The woman shook her head too and said:
‘We’ve never heard of anything like that.’
Then they showed me over their house – although I didn’t get much more than a look into the rooms, because their habit was to stand in the doorways and draw my attention to an interesting picture, a favourite item of furniture. My main impression was of well-proportioned flights of stairs lighted by tall windows from which you could see down into a garden. They were proud of the garden, much of which was taken up by a pond and an area full of brambles and rose suckers they called ‘the wilderness section’. Between the wilderness section and the back of the house lay a lawn the size of a pocket handkerchief, rather rubbed down, as if dogs were often over it.
When we had looked round the house, and they had offered me another cup of tea, which I declined, and the woman had said, ‘If you’re sure,’ they asked if I would do them a favour. They were going out – but they wouldn’t be gone for long and they wondered would I wait in for the old man who mowed their lawn? ‘He isn’t really a gardener, although that’s what he prefers to be called.’ It was charity to give him work, she said. And then, a moment later: ‘But you will do that, won’t you? If it isn’t much to ask? When the old man comes, you will let him in? He’s very independent of mind and wants to mow the lawn this afternoon.’ It wasn’t convenient for him to mow any other day. ‘If you will, we’ll get ready now. We need to bathe and change and get ready to leave.’
Of course I would, I said. After all they had been kind enough to invite me in. I thought I owed them that. Before they left I heard them arguing in another room. ‘Well, I’ve never heard anyone mention anything about bees,’ the woman said, quite sharply. When they came out, their clothes didn’t look any different.
After they had gone, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I wandered about the house, in and out of the rooms I hadn’t been invited into before. Out of a top floor window I could see that a man in the street below had lost control of his child. I heard his footsteps thumping along the pavement and his voice bellowing – really bellowing – until it echoed through the baking, silent streets: ‘Zoe! Zoe!’ Zoe was a long way ahead by then. ‘They’re not going that way,’ he shouted after her. ‘They’re going this way, Zoe!’ The street still seemed completely empty, except for the delighted toddler, her father’s voice, and the panic it sent ringing back off the pavement, up to the window where I stood. Not long after that, the gardener arrived.
My father would often wake with the words, ‘The one thing I remember–’ While he slept, shifting neurological states had shaken loose glimpses of his past, which turned out to be less memories in themselves than scenery, the backdrop to recollected anxieties of forty years ago.
Some of his earliest memories included:
Black sticks of reeds where a towpath had collapsed into the canal. The movement of people through streetlight, projected faintly on to the ceilings and upper walls of a bedroom; the bang and squeal of old-fashioned trains coupling and decoupling in the night; the dry cold winds of the early part of the year, on building sites, on the corners of the streets down by the railway, under bridges, across pond ice, over the vast empty expanse of the cattle market with its moveable metal dividers. Like any child he had wanted security, in a place convinced of its own feelings. Instead, his parents, young, tentative, full of post-war disquiets, were moved from rental to rental on half-constructed company estates with confusingly similar street names. They lacked agency; when he was young, everything communicated itself to him – so he felt – through their unconscious acknowledgement of that. He remembered a dead cat in a gutter in melting snow. A new kettle. ‘The original one we had never worked properly, especially on cold mornings. It sparked and buzzed and blew the fuses. It came with the house.’
By the end he was attributing the whole of his illness to the uncertainties he had inherited then: his mother’s fear that ‘there was no government in the country’; his father’s obsession with the electrical wiring. He was determined to remember what he could, and if not come to terms with it, then offer it to me like a half-finished crossword in case I could help. But how do you begin to retrieve a landscape you clearly spent so much of your life trying to forget?
‘Not by using satellite maps,’ he would warn me with a laugh and a cough. Because at that distance all they could record was its disappearance. And then: ‘The earth in those back gardens was always cloddy and dry, with a strong smell of chamomile and quicklime.’
The couple had been quick to assure me that their gardener wouldn’t need supervision. I let him in and he was soon at work. He started a petrol driven lawnmower, bending over it stiffly and doing something that produced large volumes of white smoke, which drifted across the surrounding gardens and between the houses themselves in a thick, obscuring cloud. Then he walked around the lawn, stared into the wild section of the garden as if he had seen something among the brambles, and entered the kitchen via the back door.
For ten minutes the lawnmower sat unattended. Its engine ran up and down the power curve in a slow, queasy cycle, continuing to emit white smoke and making the noise you hear when a helicopter hovers close above. Then the old man emerged from the kitchen and, holding out at arm’s length in front of him a square of old towel, began to dodge in and out of the smoke. He dabbed at the mower. Nothing changed. The engine continued to run up and down its power curve. The amount of smoke generated, its chemical edge in the nose and on the palate, had a real power to astonish. The old man dodged into it and out again.
A decade before, this might have resembled in the eye of a viewer – a viewer like me, pressed up against the glass, distanced by the height and angle of an upstairs window – a kind of dance: bend down, dart in and out, dart in and out, round and round, round again, dab from a distance, dab from close up. But now the gardener was too stiff and too slow and too bow-legged for it to seem like that. After a further five minutes, he sneezed and his nose and eyes began to run copiously. He used the towel to wipe strings of mucus from his cheeks and chin. He bent over and vomited suddenly. Then he began to mow the lawn with the smoking lawnmower, the blades of which churned up what little grass remained, wrenching it out of the ground in tufts, leaving a tormented, scraped-looking surface.
Once the job was finished, he switched off the mower and left it where it stood, at an angle beneath the rotary clothes dryer. The smoke began to thin and drift away. The old man stopped shaking. He blew his nose. He went back into the house, through the house, down the hall, out of the front door and along the street outside, in a single fluid, swooping movement as if his trajectory of intention had begun at the back door with utter confidence and energy and would end only at the pub in which he spent most of his day, and where he and his friends would soon be chuckling about some prank of his when he was young.
The afternoon wore on. Down in the town, the shops were waking up; a breeze came up from the direction of the suburb, moving at random from street to street, bringing smells of honey and chamomile. I could hear the fast trains coming and going along the high-speed line through Doe Lea station.
I waited as long as I could, but in the end I was forced to admit that the gardener wasn’t going to return. Obviously I had no idea where his employers might be. He had pocketed his money, which they had left in an envelope on the kitchen table. I put on my coat to go; took it off again. While I stood by the window wondering what to do, three men walked past in silhouette against the brightly lit buildings across the road – one of them pointing at something in the sky and the others following his gaze. This provoked the memory of a baking summer evening in my childhood, shadows slowly filling the spaces between the houses, the smell of hot brick, dull voices; my father calling me inside. After they had gone I looked up. A single cloud was drifting slowly past the window high up, north to south in the otherwise empty blue. That was when I knew things would change forever but I didn’t know if it would be for everybody or only for me.
The relief train had already left. I sat in the buffet to wait for the next one. I drank a cup of coffee, examining its surface for lights and listening to the women at the table next to mine.
‘Every time I glimpse it out of the corner of my eye,’ one of them said, ‘I mistake it for a cat I used to have. It’s too big to be a cat, but I never owned a dog so I don’t see it as one,’ and the other replied, ‘There’s no government in the country at the moment.’ Outside, a man had parked a low-loader in such a way as to block the little roundabout outside the station and left it there with its engine idling. Every so often he returned and moved it ten or twelve yards back or forward, always keeping it on the curve of the roundabout, after which he would sit in it for five minutes with his thick hands on the steering wheel, looking straight ahead.
Later, as the train was pulling slowly away from Doe Lea, I found in my coat pocket a note from the couple in the townhouse.
‘Dear Alan,’ it began.
‘Dear Alan, we were delighted by your visit. We’re sorry to have to leave, but this is an important afternoon for us.’ They didn’t say why, but after more of the same kind of apologies, went on to ask: ‘We wondered if you might like to take over the job of mowing the lawn? We’re always looking for someone younger.’
I read this suggestion twice, then a third time. I turned the paper over and looked at the other side. Then I folded the letter carefully along its original creases and returned it to my pocket. When I looked up again, I could see the town, with its sleepy little red cliff, falling away behind; and I wondered what might have happened to me if I had kept my courage and climbed all the way up to the beehives. Soon the train was racing to meet the sea. Everything – fields, hills, buildings, hedges, trees, warehouses and distribution centres – was palely-lit by that strange coastal light you often see in paintings but so rarely in the world. Gulls were blown across the sky.
Photograph © andressolo
‘Doe Lea’ is a new story by M. John Harrison, taken from his forthcoming collection Settling the World: Selected Stories, forthcoming from Comma Press in August 2020. Comma Press were regional winners for the North of England in the Small Press of the Year Award at the 2020 British Book Awards. Signed & numbered limited edition of 200 copies originally published as a chapbook by Nick Royle at the Nightjar Press, September 2019.