Shortlisted for the Tom-Gallon Trust Prize 2021
You’re in a room, bare and grey: a metal chair, a table covered with cigarette burns and a policeman sitting opposite who is making quite the joke of your predicament. You want to join in, to laugh with him about the stupid pills he’s just counted but now he’s counting them out again, this time raising his fingers theatrically. He smiles as he counts to ten, smiles again as he begins on his right hand, first his thumb, then his forefinger. You think, for a moment, that he is trying to teach you how to count in his language. But at the next finger his smile drops and he draws his hand across his neck. Thirteen, it seems, is an unlucky number when it comes to sleeping pills.
An interpreter arrives, unshaven and smelling of stale sheets and methylated spirits. He sits beside the no longer jovial policeman. “I am your interpreter,” he says.
“I’ve no idea what’s happening to me.” There’s a bubble of panic in your voice, which surprises you because normally you’re calm in difficult situations. In fact, it’s only in really difficult situations that you feel calm at all, like the time your brother jumped off a ten storey building right in front of you to prove he could fly. Everyone told you how well you coped with that, despite the fact your brother could not fly; despite the fact that, as he launched himself into air, you’d thought maybe he could.
“You are under arrest for drug smuggling. More I do not know,” says the interpreter, exhaling primordial decay.
“Drug smuggling? They’re sleeping tablets.”
“No they’re not. Not really. I know what drugs are.” Oh, the drugs you know about. Funny it should be sleeping pills.
“More I do not know.” The interpreter stares over your shoulder.
No one speaks. It hardly seems right you should be the one to make conversation, but wanting to fill the void you say “Your English is very good. Have you lived in America or somewhere?”
“My bachelor’s degree is in Russian and French, but my Masters is in English philology and my doctoral thesis is entitled ‘The harmonies of Mrs Dalloway’.”
“The harmonies of Mrs Dalloway?” you repeat, baffled.
“Yes,” he says, as if it is only to be expected. “It is thirteen.”
“If it had been twelve tablets you would have been able to pay a charge.”
“Yes, a fine. But thirteen tablets is a trial, a sentence.”
“You seem to know more about my case than you thought.”
“I was supposed to explain this to you. I am sorry. I forgot. I forget things. I am an…” he searches for a word, “alcoholic.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Well not about being an alcoholic. That’s up to you, obviously. But forgetting things. I’m sorry you forget things.”
He smiles, his teeth uniformly brown, and you guess alcohol isn’t his only weakness.
The policeman, who’s had his eyes half shut, his gaze more or less on your breasts for the last ten minutes, rouses himself and says something to the interpreter.
“You will be given a better interpreter for your trial,” says the Harmonies of Mrs Dalloway.
“But your English is very good.”
“Yes. My English is very good.” He grimaces.
You’re given forms to fill in. Beside profession you put ‘palaeontologist’ because it’s what your masters’ degree was in and also because it’s what you like to say your profession is.
“You’ve come to see our dinosaurs?”
“Yes. What they left behind, anyway.”
The policeman is now looking at you with the hunger of a much-beaten dog. You fill in the rest of the forms as quickly as you can. You’re charged with the offence of attempting to smuggle a dangerous quantity of sleeping tablets into the country and must await trial. To your surprise you’re not detained but are told you may stay at the local hotel. You’re not yet quite certain that you won’t be raped or tortured, but as you walk out of the police station into the fading spring day you find yourself failing to suppress a skip. You are a skipper, after all, and a hopper, too, and you’ve always found a hop, skip and jump an efficient means of making progress. You’re surprised it’s not more popular.
The hotel is called ‘The Ocean Hotel’ despite being a thousand miles from the sea. But there were oceans here once; there were oceans everywhere. Everything was different in the distant past, as everything will be different again in the far-off future. It’s only the now that carries the terrifying possibility of always being the same.
At the reception desk you hand over the copy of the forms you were given at the police station. The receptionist, small, neat and earnest, his round wire spectacles, wispy moustache and white blazer putting you in mind of the ghost of Anton Chekhov, studies the forms so carefully that you wonder if he’s about to turn you away. If he does you tell yourself you’ll be free. He looks up at you, back at the forms, up again. Eventually he reaches behind him where three rows of keys hang from hooks. It is, inevitably, number thirteen that he gives you.
“I can’t pay,” you say. The police have taken your credit cards as well as your passport.
“Money,” he says with a stricken smile, reaching into his till, spooning notes and coins over the desk, the face of his president strewn at every angle and not one of them jaunty. “What is money? It is nothing.”
“Just as well.”
He leads you to your room, shows you the bed, the bathroom, the window through which there’s a view of concrete buildings grown huge and tumorous in unconfined space. At the door as he leaves he hesitates, extends a hand which you shake. “I am Alexey.”
“Pleased to meet you. I am Sky,” you say, reflecting his turn of phrase, before adding, “I mean, that is my name.” He knows this already, you suppose, since your name was on the papers you showed.
“Good to meet you Sky. Would you like to fuck?”
There was something in his watery eyes, his ravening hesitancy that has prepared you for this. “No. No thank you,” you say, as if he has offered you something your diet will not permit and that you are obliged to decline with regret. For a moment he stares at you, your anxiety mounting, before he nods, withdraws. You close the door slowly before resting your back against its merciful security and allowing yourself to slide slowly to the carpet-tiled floor.
You’re hungry, but you don’t want to see Alexey again and you decide that trying to find something to eat would lead you back to him. You have an unopened packet of peanut-flavoured biscuits in your rucksack and you eat them all, one after another until you feel sick. In the rattling fridge are three cans of beer and a bottle of water. You drink the water but dare not risk the beer. There is a wooden chair, just like the one in Vincent Van Gogh’s suicidal bedroom. It sits beneath a picture of a bowl of fruit, apricots and pears, a picture so dreary it would have driven Vincent to stamp on it. You wedge the chair beneath the door handle and hope it’s enough. You do not sleep that night.
In the morning you wander down to the hangar of a restaurant, woozy with sleeplessness. All along one wall are objects of the seashore: lifebelts, ropes, driftwood, fishing nets; arrayed in front of them the artefacts of an unappealing breakfast: boiled eggs, prunes, cheese, yogurt; also, a single dolorous fish in a tank. Two of the fifty or so tables are occupied. No one looks up and you feel invisible. Alexey bustles into the restaurant, catches your eye but looks quickly away. He says something which causes the handful of breakfasters to raise their eyes and then duck swiftly under their tables. He repeats himself, this time in English. “There will be an earthquake” he says, his words followed by a faint tinkling of cutlery and glass. The noise increases and the floor begins to move, not as if the ground is shaking, but as if it is sliding over water. The fish tank splinters, spilling its occupant out onto prunes and boiled eggs. Then the shaking stops. A fine dust begins to descend, settling on everything, even your eyelashes. You wonder how Alexey knew an earthquake was imminent; whether he has that gift dogs and birds possess causing them to bark or take to the air a moment before such calamities strike. But then again, who is to account for the reasoning of dogs?
You go out into the town to see how badly it has been affected. Power lines trail here and there in the road, each with a policewoman standing in front of it, her boots planted wide and her arms crossed. There are cracks in the tarmac which appear newly-formed. You wander for an hour or more, finding an older part of the town hidden behind the wide, tall buildings of a faceless square. Here alleyways draw you in, deeper and deeper until you know you are lost. You go into a tea shop and ask for chai. Looking into your cup you see ripples; the faint seismic shocks that you can no longer feel. Odd how that a cup of tea has a greater sensibility than you.
A woman of indeterminate age arrives and sits opposite you, her expression one of unasked for sympathy. She has a profusion of white hair and deep smudges beneath her eyes that put you in mind of Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland grown old. “You have found tea,” she says in English, gesturing to your teacup as if it were an exhibit in a trial.
“Yes,” you say, feeling certain that you are meant to be friendly to her, whoever she is. Remembering the rules of hospitality, you add “Would you like a cup?” but the proprietor is already bringing her a brass teapot. He pours for her. You note his terror and wonder if it is coming your way.
“Are you comfortable, in your hotel?” she asks.
You think of Alexey, of the bare room, the picture of a bowl of fruit. “Not bad,” you say.
“We would like you to be comfortable.”
You wonder who the ‘we’ is and pluck up the courage to ask.
“We is me. And yes, we is the town. We wish you to be comfortable.”
“Are you the mayor, by any chance?”
Dismay flares across her face, as if she had eaten the mayor for lunch and now has indigestion. “No, Miss Brandish. I am not the mayor.”
“You know my name?” A noun and a verb, as you like to say of your name, since you wish people to know that you do not take yourself too seriously.
“You are our guest.”
You are as much a guest as the fish that swam in the tank at the Ocean Hotel. “Thank you,” you say out of politeness, but you have to ask: “Do you know how long I’ll be your guest?”
There is the barest flicker of her eyelids as the truth canters across her consciousness. “I know that you do not have any money to pay for your tea.” She smiles.
You had forgotten about the need to pay. You glance at the owner, standing behind his counter polishing his life away, and you’re relieved you’re not him, even though that means you are you.
“You are to have dinner with me tonight,” announces the woman.
“I’ll have to check my diary.”
She has the grace to understand that you have made a little joke, that it is harmless and that you are attempting to amuse no one but yourself. “I will send a car to your hotel at six o’clock.” She pays for your tea and, as she leaves, places a small silk bag in your hand.
You open the bag after she has gone. There is a card with her name embossed in gold lettering, and several notes of uncertain denomination. The tea shop proprietor watches you with undisguised curiosity, as if you’ve been given a cyanide pill and he is wondering whether you’ll swallow it in front of him.
You imagined that the dinner would take place at the woman’s home, but you’re driven to a dimly lit restaurant, its walls and ceiling lined with dark wood. It reminds you of the cigar box your parents once kept for broken watches, foreign coins and keys orphaned from their locks. The box smelled of the Cuban cigars it had contained, of warmth and music. It had kept a memory of itself. You’d wanted that box, wanted it a lot. When your father told you he’d thrown it away, you’d cried. You were twenty-two years old and inconsolable – over an old wooden Romeo Y Julieta cigar box.
The woman you met in the teashop, whose name you now know from her card to be Gülçat Babaeva, sits at a table surrounded by a dozen round-faced women, each in a traditional silk dress: pistachio green, rose pink, sky blue; other colours, too. They make you think of Easter eggs. Madame Babaeva has kept the place beside her free, and she pats the cushion there, awaiting your freshly showered presence.
“Hello, everybody,” you say.
She speaks to the assembled group and they give you a round of applause. You flush red with embarrassment, yet how can you be embarrassed by being the recipient of a round of undeserved applause in a city that you’re in only because you’ve been arrested over a packet of sleeping pills?
“Who is everyone?” you ask Madame Babaeva, who proceeds to give you a long explanation of each woman’s role in the town, nodding her head at the chosen subject, who smiles and nods back at you while her many qualifications, good works and courageous acts are enumerated. Plate after plate of vegetables and breads are produced, each stuffed with cheese. You wonder whether it’s acceptable to eat while the introductions are continuing, but remembering how hungry you are you begin anyway. As soon as you start so does everyone else. Before the final woman is introduced, a woman who at the beginning of the evening you had thought looked more interesting than the others, having something wolfish about her, you’re asleep.
You wake with a start, seized with the conviction that these women are about to eat you. Their eyes are upon you, already devouring you and it is suddenly obvious that you are their main course, their carnivorous dish. You shrink back into your cushions. You are certain that you’ve been asleep for an hour or more. The plates of cheese have been cleared away and empty teacups adorn the table. Yet it seems you have not disgraced yourself and you are not about to be eaten, either. To sleep in the presence of these women is to pay them a great compliment, or so you are told by Madame Babaeva.
“You have shown how at home you are in our town. How comfortable.”
The next day Madame Babaeva takes you on a trip out of town. Her car is battered and scratched. Within a mile you understand why: she is a very angry driver, revving the engine at crossroads, braking sharply at lights and gesturing at pedestrians who have the temerity to cross the road. To your relief you are soon heading east out of town on a narrow strip of tarmac that seems to be barely used. The landscape is flat, dusty and desolate and Madame Babaeva is silent for many miles. Eventually you ask her where you are going.
She sneezes. “I am taking you to see our famous lake.”
“You’ve heard of Okhoz Lake?”
“I thought it had disappeared.”
Sneezing again, three or four times, she says “Then we shall be driving for a long time until we find it.”
Not long after a few low buildings appear and beyond a jetty, old cranes. She brings the car to a halt and you sit there, looking together at the port, which stands stranded in the middle of the sandy plain. To your alarm she lurches the car out onto the old lakebed and proceeds at fifty or sixty miles an hour, continuing east. “I think sometimes this must be the emptiest place on Earth,” she says.
“This was a lake you could sail across, swim in, fish in. Even when I was a child.”
“It’s as if someone pulled a plug.” You wonder why she’s continuing to drive for mile after mile across the flat bowl of the empty lake. On the horizon you see masts, the shimmer of water. At first you wonder if it is a mirage, but as you draw near you understand that you’ve finally reached a shoreline. Getting out of the car you breathe, the air sulphurous and choking. There’s a man standing at the water’s edge fishing. You approach him. “What’s he fishing for?” you ask Madame Babaeva.
“Hope,” she says.
“Hope? Is that the name of a fish?” It could be. There’s a fish called Sole and another called Ghost, after all.
“No, Miss Brandish. Hope is the illusion that carries us from one day to the next. You know that. And that’s what he’s fishing for.”
The old man turns to face you. His skin is red and blotchy, his eyes rheumy.
“Does he ever catch anything?”
She asks him.
“Never,” she says.
“Why have you brought me here?” you ask.
She looks at you in disappointment. You know the answer to your own question. She has brought you here so that you understand the hopelessness of hope.
You look over her shoulder to where a single tree stands on the plain. A bird sits on a branch, singing to itself.
A week passes. Nothing happens. That night, as the night before and all the nights before that you take Vincent’s chair from where it sits beneath the forlorn apricots and pears and wedge it firmly beneath the door handle. Lying back on the bed without undressing you fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
You wake with a start to see Alexey standing over you, his dark, sad eyes enlarged by his thick spectacles so that they seem to belong to some other creature; an ox or a dromedary, perhaps, some slow thing beyond wit or persuasion. He leans towards you, his hand brushing your feet. You sit up, opening your mouth ready to shout or scream.
And he is gone.
Standing, unsteady with sleep you go to the door, where you see Vincent’s chair wedged exactly as it was. Looking around for some other point of entry you check the windows, the bathroom, even under the bed.
You have almost convinced yourself that he was a nightmare when, on the blanket, you see them: your passport, your credit cards. And the sleeping pills. You let your fingers interrogate each page of the passport, ride the little bumps of your credit cards, squeeze the blisters containing the small pills that have kept you here. There are twelve. One has gone: the one that has kept you in this place.
You wonder if Alexey walks through walls.
In the morning he is there at the reception desk. He looks up as you approach, but then quickly down to what he’s reading. It’s a seed catalogue; he is studying a two-page spread of gourds.
“May I check out?” you ask.
“Certainly Miss Sky Brandish,” he says to a butternut squash. Reaching to his side he finds a bill which he pushes towards you. It’s for a sum you guess is about right. “I hope you have been comfortable here,” he says to the catalogue.
You slide your card across the desk and he shuffles his fingers out to meet yours. You allow the briefest connection. He takes a paper impression on an old-fashioned card machine, and proffers you the slip to sign, but your hand is shaking so badly that you are obliged to laugh at its uncontrollable tremble, to take a walk around the reception hall to steady your nerves. “When is the next bus out of town?” you ask over your shoulder.
“Where do you want to go?”
“The farthest place possible.”
“There’s the bus, now,” he says, pointing towards the hotel doors where, beyond, you see a Triassic vehicle trundle slowly past belching black exhaust fumes. You pick up your bag and walk out the door. Starting to run you try to catch it but it accelerates away. You keep on running. You run and run until you are out of town, until finally you stop but your heart refuses to slow. Your bag drops onto the road, and you beside it. The sun is above you now, a small, hard ball of pale yellow throbbing in a barely blue sky. You lie down, stretching your arms out wide on the ribbon of tar. Turning your head, you see a low ripple of rock about twenty feet away that has been snapped open by the earthquake. What you see is what could only possibly be seen be someone by lying here: by you, in fact. It is the fossilised footprint of an Aralosaurus, waiting here for the bus just like you. Waiting for around eighty million years. Comfortable.