Waves of Gravity
The good fight was compulsory in my grandparents’ house. Petitions to keep libraries open, posters for fair pay, the constant collection of pens and footballs for African schools. When I was fourteen Grandma Sara organised a car boot sale to raise money for a local youth centre. It wasn’t local to me, but I was on Easter holidays. She made sure the dates coincided, claiming it would be ‘good for me’. My job was to stand by the gate to the field and catch any change people tossed in a bucket. Every two hours I’d run to the parking lot and ask people to donate as they drove in. ‘Isn’t it enough we’re coming here to buy video tapes?’ a man asked me. ‘That’s all they sell at these things. We haven’t even got a video machine. My wife took it to the dump.’ I told him only half the money raised went towards the centre: any more and the stall-owners said it wasn't worth pitching their bric-a-brac.
‘Isn’t half enough?’ he said. ‘I never had a youth centre. No one’s raising money for me.’
‘Maybe you should’ve sold the video machine.’
Half was not enough for Sara, a Marxist historian married to an Angry Young Man playwright, Grandpa Seb, who turned Angry Senile. They lived in a cob-cottage overlooking a creek, which doglegged from the estuary. From the attic window you could see the criss-crossed masts of yachts leaning into each other like hopeful drunks. Centuries before ships weighed down with tea and gunpowder swelled the estuary. Now the yachts’ owners lived in converted barns and commuted to London, leaving Mary Sue II and Gone Fishin’ to bloat and sweat. Their children played in the limekilns studding the water. I used to join them. During the sale I planned to climb through the hedgerows separating field and water and burrow into a kiln, testing its stone for the ghost of heat. I never did. I didn’t want to, by the end of the day.
I wasn’t alone at the gate. Willie stood to the other side, spanning a bucket with his fingers. Sara told me Willie worked for Derek, the removal man who helped my grandparents leave London. Derek became their first local friend, though thirty years younger. Sara would boast of his resilience: his father laid off when the shipyard closed, how Derek set up his own business. My grandparents made friends with peoples’ stories.
Derek takes people in, Sara told me before the car boot sale.
‘You mean he’s a con artist?’
‘I mean he’s taken Willie in since he left the army. And he might have to take you in if you wind me up.’
Seb looked up from the piano. ‘Neither of you wonderful women possesses a sense of humour. But I love watching you try.’
Standing at the gate, Willie held the bucket so still the coins could not rearrange themselves. I wondered what those hands had done. Four years earlier, 9/11 diverted history. I heard the words at school – planes, towers – but did not understand until I got home to the TV. Blue sky, glass and girders, smoke tinged like a bruise. I do not remember the first images of Afghanistan: I was not yet old enough to understand their significance. But I remember Shock and Awe on breakfast television. White punctures in Baghdad’s night, pops that echoed and rolled after the lights faded, lights licked back into life by orange tongues from the ground, which lolled and darted, smokestacks swaying like inflatable palm trees buffeted by the wind. A slow dawn, and the sky leaked, baring the damage.
I remember asking who Bush and Blair thought they were awing. We wore ‘Not in my Name’ t-shirts to school, walked out on classes, protested on the steps of Parliament. When helicopters flew overhead I imagined living with that wasp-drone every day, knowing its threat: that silence would come when the bombs stopped and the smoke cleared and once again you bared your damage. We saw newspaper spreads of prisoners with arms stretched, fingertips wired, soldiers smiling at their work. We watched footage of insurgents cradling long swords. Our soldiers appeared small under the weight of missile-launchers, soldiers without enough armour, they said, to stand it.
The man next to me held himself straight. The change spared between his hands did not whisper. I wondered what those hands had done.
‘Are you from around here?’ I asked him.
‘I was. Joined up at sixteen.’
‘When were you…?’
‘Discharged. Four months ago.’
‘Have you been working with Derek since?’
‘Just the last month. I was in recovery, before that.’
A family of four split their change between our buckets. Whilst they counted I tried to formulate my question, but I didn’t have to.
‘Afghanistan,’ he said. ‘Iraq.’
‘What’s it like there?’
‘You know, not many people actually ask.’
He shook his head. ‘First twenty-four hours in Baghdad there was a fuck-up. An Intelligence officer got a text from an informer saying there were insurgents in the area. But the officer was at lunch. He didn’t check his phone. Walking through a square we’d been told was safe, a shoulder-to-air missile came at us from a bridge. There were children talking to us. I had to get my men to safety. We took shelter behind one of the supporting pillars. One of my men was shot. No medics nearby. I bandaged his chest, kept my hand in his blood. We were pinned for hours. I remember the sun. Tanks came for us, but they got blocked, couldn’t go anywhere. One of the drivers tried to climb out. They shot him in the head. The bullet went through his helmet, skipped up, followed the arc of his skull, and dropped out the other side. He had a scar afterwards right down his scalp, a permanent parting. I pulled him free. We were trapped there over twenty-four hours. None of my men died. Afterwards, they said I couldn’t have a medal because I hadn’t been in the zone long enough. That’s what it was like there.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said again. ‘It sounds terrifying.’
He looked at me, and the space between us seemed to contract. ‘You object?’
He shook his head. ‘National service should be reinstated. Young people need something to give them pride, teach them discipline. Give them something to do.’
‘We claim we’re at war to spread freedom and democracy. National service takes away your right to choose. What if I don’t want to kill people? Or build bridges or mend wounds or file papers that help to kill people?’
A couple walked past us; the man reached into his pocket and tossed some shrapnel – that’s what Seb called change – back at Willie’s bucket. A long arc that landed with a jangle like a belt buckle hitting the floor. One coin remained on the lip of the bucket. A fifty pence piece.
‘The penny drop,’ Willie said. ‘Have you played the arcades in town?’
‘Mum doesn’t let me.’
‘How much do you want to bet this coin won’t fall in by the end of the day?’
‘Is that what you were recovering from? Playing arcades?’
A grin like a crack in a wall. ‘We don’t all come back addicts and fuck-ups. Men who refuse to fight, men who desert their posts and their units – they’re the cowards. There’s a reason we shot them in World War One.’
‘That might be reversed soon. Most of those men were suffering from shell-shock. Parliament could issue a blanket pardon.’
‘You can’t reverse shooting someone. Believe me.’
‘Then you shouldn’t force someone to pull the trigger. Isn’t it my right to decide?’
‘You trust your leaders to make that decision for you.’
‘Do you? Trust them?’
He pushed his lower lip out and looked down, lidding his eyes. I realised, once he covered them, how bright they were. Wishes at the bottom of a pool. ‘You don’t think some human beings deserve killing? Isn’t your grandmother Jewish? Fled Yugoslavia?'
‘She told you that?’
‘She asked whether I was in Kosovo. We got to talking.'
‘I don’t believe in capital punishment.’
‘You will one day. You’ll see something on TV or the front of a newspaper; you’ll see something on a train or a bus. You’ll see something. And you’ll think, God, can’t someone just stop them? Send in a team of men at night with guns and stop them. Don’t tell me about it. Just do it. Let me wake up tomorrow and listen to a report about city foxes, or watch footage from some camera stowed away in a birds’ nest. The return of the redshank. You’ll think that some day.’
I wanted to tell him he was wrong but a little girl paused to sift through her pocket money. The five-penny pieces clicked as they fell. I said well done, what good counting, and when she moved on she seemed to take my argument with her.
‘What will you do now you’re out?’
‘This is fine for a while. Then I’ll find something else.’
‘Why were you discharged?’
‘Isn’t it time you ran along to the car park?’
For the rest of the afternoon we talked about school and the strangest piece of furniture he’d moved so far. An archebang couchette: a chest you could sleep in. Willie wanted to lie down in it, but Derek was serious on the job. It would’ve been like testing a coffin, Willie said. How often can you do that? He was the stillest man I’d ever met. I told him about the divorce; how removal men stuffed everything we took with us into one truck. Bed frames and tree ferns and radiators ripped right from the pipes – leaving my Dad with a snowstorm of plaster – all forming a compressed wall in the back of the truck, resisting the laws of gravity. The men were Croatian. Mum sang them a nursery rhyme Sara taught her as a child. Willie listened without eye contact, staring dead ahead. He talked with his mouth alone, no vibrations from his elbows, no spins of the wrist. I felt safe with Willie. When the car boot sale closed up the stall-owners’ children set up a football match. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if Willie would come and watch me play. He did.
When we said goodbye he gave me the coin from the lip of the bucket. It never fell, but I didn’t win or lose. I hadn't placed my bets. I slipped the coin into my pocket. It was cold against my thigh on the journey home despite the cotton, only growing warm with my sweat as we counted the money raised. When I left the next day it sucked at my flesh, still in my pocket, a clammy kiss of metal and fibre, the youth centre fifty pence short. Its weight was the tug of stones in my pocket, stones stolen from the shore against Seb’s insistence that the sea could not spare them.
I do not remember, now, what I spent it on.
A student watches from the bus stop opposite, adding us up. A van pulled up to Crescent Court Care Home, specialising, the gold curling letters promise, in piano removal. My Mum backing out of the Home’s double-doors, carrying a box to Derek, who jumps down from the van to take it. You don’t move a piano out of a retirement home, the student is thinking, unless something has happened.
But she is jumping ahead. Sara is still alive. She is making us execute her Will before she dies. Sara will not abide half-measures. She will watch the piano go. She will divide her jewellery and donate her wardrobe. Her eyes are failing, her hands choked with arthritis. She sits upright, resisting the axis of the over-stuffed sofa cushions. I do not know if she sits so straight out of habit, or because relaxing her bones, even by an inch, threatens too much. What if she cannot reset them? The cane chair brands my legs, The Guardian covering my knees. Sara has it delivered, saying she is a Spy in the House of Mushy Peas and Daily Mail Subscribers. Mum says she won’t make friends that way. Sara winks at me.
‘Read something,’ she tells me now, nodding at the paper.
In the hallway, Mum is directing the piano’s humped back into the elevator but still shoots me a look. I am supposed to keep Sara occupied without talking about Tony Benn or Ukraine. It will only make her sad, Mum says.
‘Well?’ Sara prods. ‘Has anything happened?’
‘We felt the waves of gravity today.’
I do not get a chance to describe the telescope at the South Pole to her, the closest you can get to space without leaving Earth, one researcher says. The telescope whose neck strained and eye twitched in a bath of spectral light, reaching across 1.30 billion years to glimpse the beginning of everything, to feel ripples in the fabric of space-time, to comprehend the violence needed to wrench us into being. These gravitational waves take us back to the point in which moments were conceived. ‘Before’ has no meaning: we cannot reach behind or beyond the infinitesimal second of inflation in which the Big Bang shuttered and released our heavenly bodies, just as we cannot stop it. We cannot resist the passing moment, or the fall of the wave – you cannot resist it, as much as I want you to. I say none of this because Derek is lingering in the doorway.
‘Alright, Sara?’ he asks.
She does not move her head. Is she worried she’ll mistake his co-ordinates?
‘Very well, thank you Derek. Do take whatever else there is.’
‘I was going to grab the occasional tables, if you’re sure...’
‘Please. See what they’re worth. You know Derek owns an antique shop now?’
‘Yes.’ I watch Derek slide the delicate legs together.
He whispers: ‘Your Mum’s taking them, don’t worry.’
Sara’s smile does not twitch. I ask loudly, ‘Do you still have a man called Willie working with you? He was a soldier.’
‘You mean Billy. Moved on. I don’t know where.’
‘He wasn’t called Willie?’
‘Don’t think so. You’re Mum said you’re doing an MA now?’
‘Politics,’ Sara says loudly, ‘at UCL. In London, you know. I don’t know why we left London. I miss the museums. Seb is always saying we should go back.’
Derek’s nod gets stuck. ‘I’ll take these down.’
‘Look through the books,’ Sara tells me.
‘You might still want them,’ I say. ‘I can read to you.’
‘Stop being sentimental. Look.’
What is left of her collection takes up a man-sized bookshelf. The top two shelves are grainy with dust.
‘How much time do they spend cleaning here?’
Sara does not answer. The books are out of order. Orwell’s Spectator writings; Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago; Jews of Yugoslavia 1941-1945 by Jasa Romano; Yevtushenko’s Wild Berries. A cosmonaut floats over Earth. When he shifts his gaze he travels from Paris to London to Copenhagen. He wonders if Gagarin was scared. ‘I’m tired,’ Gagarin used to sigh, ‘But I want to fly…’
Sara told me this morning she wishes she’d gone back to Egypt before her eyesight faltered. She longs for open land. My soul wants space. To drift. She has never talked this way before. She stood in the shadow of a pyramid for a full morning before realising it was not the imprint of a cloud. Was I with Seb, then, in Cairo? Her memory is a pocket turned inside out, its content counted, this shell or that cinema ticket proving mysterious – who was I when I collected this cup of ocean, when I watched this film unspool?
Maybe I am mirroring her. I do not know why I was thinking of Willie this morning, if that was his name. If I met him now I would not ask those questions. We learn how to un-think, how to un-say. How to shoot in reverse. I gave all the shrapnel in my wallet to a homeless man selling drawings yesterday. He said I was the only person to stop all day. People mutter ‘Get a job’, tell him he’s disgusting. ‘They don’t even say it to my face. What harm am I doing? I could be dealing, shop lifting. I’m just sitting here selling my art.’ I said that was awful. I hoped he could get out of the rain. ‘Don’t worry, love.’ He wears a thick-quilted raincoat and emergency-yellow hood no matter the weather because it keeps the elements off. He cracked open a plastic bag, showing me a hospital-white t-shirt. ‘I change in the public toilets at the end of the day.’ I almost asked where he slept, but didn’t. What if it were rude, making a specimen of him? Sara would have asked. Maybe something like that happened to Willie. Maybe not.
God. I don’t know where my mind is. There is nowhere to settle in this room. Nothing I am happy to settle for. I do not want to accept half-measures. I do not want the wave to fall.
Seb’s plays occupy the bottom shelves. An earthenware pot acts as a bookend. I poke inside, decoupling protest badges like rusted links of armour: Pro-Palestine, Anti-Apartheid, No Gitmo, CND, Vote Blair ’97 – and a Help the Heroes charity bracelet. It weighs nothing, ringing my swollen knuckles. I keep it from my wrist. It is the only piece of jewellery they didn’t take from Seb in the hospital. He died wearing it. I don’t know where he got it: a charity event, in the post after an online donation? Seb served in the RAF before national service ended. He told me he made a terrible Captain. I argued, not wanting my picture of him altered, but he eclipsed me, raising his voice. He didn’t want the picture.
The final book is Sara’s biography of Seb, published just after he died. I pull it down, returning to the cane chair.
‘Find something else,' Sara says. 'You need to know about Keir Hardie.’
‘What was writing it like?’
Sara bends, finally, tipping her head back. Her throat is exposed, the crepe folds taut and red. ‘I found myself in the footnotes, just before losing myself in the mirror. I exist in footnotes now.’
My phone chimes in my pocket, a Twitter alert. ‘That’s not true. I can see you.’
‘I suppose I sound like Seb. Always figurative, as if exact meaning would reduce him. I heard his voice with every word. Reading over his letters… We married when he was on leave, you know. He went straight back to Singapore. I remember his letters better than I remember breakfast. How can that be? I am utterly alone here…’ she pauses, probing the syllables, vocal cords pulling like puppet strings. ‘The officers are fox hunters. The regulars tolerate my command but have no understanding of things I could tell you so easily, things I so want them to understand. Marx. Poetry. Riding in the foothills around Hong Kong – though I cannot ride anymore. I am going into hospital with a thing called Tropical Sprew. Already I have lost one stone in eighteen days, and as you know I cannot afford to lose a pound. Anyway there's a chance of being sent home with it. I would rather be ill for the rest of my life than stay in the Army another month. Soon I shall do something damn silly, I know - it has now reached a stage I did not know I could ever get to. The whole thing has crowded in on me – it eats at my mind – the Army which is so dull, so full of foolish people, has succeeded in warping an outlook I thought could not be broken. I have ceased to enjoy all company. I am for hours on my own. One might have thought I would at least become introspective, but even that leaves me nauseous.
'This has been going on for a long time – didn’t want to say anything – but now that I have I suppose you ought to know what's really happening to your husband, though why you should have to stomach it God knows... I believe I shall crack up – of that there is not much doubt. But this Sprew may save me. I hang on to it as a drowning man with his raft, and do not know whether to let go so the water may take her course, or vainly cry to muted ears for help... Please darling, forgive my outburst. I suppose it is because I cannot bear to be parted from you for more than an hour or two, and a great many hours have gone past already. I long to God how I long for you. I shall all my life love you unceasingly. Please write soon. Else I shall go mad.
‘We were never apart again for so long. Until now. I’ve outlived his service. Strange to think…’
‘You didn’t put that in the book.’
‘We edit history as much as it edits us.’
I want to tell her to resist history’s full stop. Do not make me sign another DNR. I am not ready for your soul to drift. When Seb was in hospital I read him Yeats and Larkin. ‘No Dylan Thomas?’ he asked lightly. Mum took the anthology from my hands, saying, ‘Don’t do that to her.’ No Dylan Thomas. I wanted him to go gently, let the pain he was in wash over his body until he was released from its current. But not Sara. She has never gone gently.
She says it is up to me now.
I am already tired.
Kim's work is featured in Elbow Room Vol One and our UEA Specials Editions 2013 & 2014. Waves of Gravity is included in the UEA Special Edition 2014.