Skillfully crafted and vivid with detail, this collection of prose examines the strength and fragility of life. From the heat of Africa to the warmth of France and the snowbound dales of northern England, this volume spans 20 years of short story writing and includes narratives that display a deep sensitivity to both the natural world and to human relationships. Featuring a young child adrift on an ice-filled lake and an aging farmer facing life alone, this absorbing compilation is sure to entice fans of poetic fiction.
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About the Author
Graham Mort is the director of postgraduate studies in creative writing at Lancaster University. He is the author of the Bridport prize-winning story "The Prince."
Read an Excerpt
By Graham Mort
Poetry Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2010 Graham Mort
All rights reserved.
A Walk in the Snow
Snow fell again last night, blowing against the windows, tapping its fingers as we lay huddled up in bed. It fell in huge sweeps. Total. A white anaesthetic dulling the trees and hedgerows. Putting to sleep rabbits and weasels, the badger and the shrew as they hid in the curdled earth. I imagine ice crystals shaken from their fur, nocturnal prints as they snuffle in the snow under a nail clipping of moon. Foraging, surviving, killing. I imagine the deep drift of hibernation, sleep piling against their dimming minds like snow driven against autumn. These are days of hunger. This morning black and white cattle stand grouped in the meadows, heads inward, shoving up gouts of steam from the centre. They trample piss-coloured hay, bellow with sadness or slowly kindling rage. High up on the fells the sheep have almost disappeared. They try to melt the snow with faint identities.
Now you're at the window, burning peepholes in patterns of frost with your hands. White fronds have stiffened on the glass overnight. You shiver in your nightdress, exclaiming at a wilderness of cold. I call you back to bed, warm your body with mine. It is soft, infinitely caressible, smooth where my lips brush against it. Your hair is tousled like a boy's and your eyes are dark in this room of frost-filtered light. Our mouths close together with desire, the hunger of touch. Outside, the street holds the silence of the Sabbath. Inside, this other silence thickens under our quick breath.
Downstairs, the dishcloth has frozen to the sink. There is a chink of ice as I lift the teapot. The gas ring blooms, blue with heat; water is brittle in the cheap kettle. I scramble some eggs in the frying pan and we eat them with buttered toast. You've kindled a fire from last night's embers. Fresh flames hollow out the log that has smouldered through hours of darkness and falling snow. The coal sends up twists of yellow smoke. A bubble of tar bursts and plumes with flame. You're wearing your Herdwick jumper, your breasts sloping inside its coarse wool. For a moment I want to stop everything. To take you and kiss you behind the ears, on the nape of your neck where your hair curls, feathery and dark. Instead, I bend my mouth to the creamy yolks on my plate. Traffic begins to swish past on the road.
On the window seat lies yesterday's newspaper. On the front page, a photograph from the war in Iraq. No blood or soldiers or weapons. The picture shows a room with distempered walls. The barred windows are set high up. Light is falling through at a steep angle, so it is late morning or noon. The room is striped with shadows. There is a single bed and on the bed a woman sits in her black burka, face covered. Her hands are folded. Beside her, on the stained ticking of the mattress, without a sheet or pillow, lies her small son, a boy of seven years old. His hair stands out in dark tufts; his eyes are closed above black rings, his lips pursed in sleep. The boy's arms are drawn up above his head and his legs are splayed. Both end in bandaged stumps just below the knee. The bandages are crusty with discharge from his wounds. The light falls, the colour of clear acacia honey, and his mother waits. On her arm are three silver bangles. The boy is called Saddam. Saddam. This means he is a real boy in Mosul in a real war, not just a figure in a photograph. It's hard to look at him, even though the picture is beautiful: its artful composition of light and shadow, its timeless tableau of suffering, its pietà.
Eager to get out into the miracle that has fallen upon us, we drop our plates into the sink, pull on socks and boots against the cold. We struggle into our coats, catching our jumpers in the zips, then unbar the door to let ourselves out from the room's warmth. A patch of plaster has fallen from the wall and the horsehair shows through. It's odd to think of a horse that died so long ago embedded here in the wall. A little heap of snow has sifted against the doorjamb, leaving a clean edge when the timber pulls away. You place the first footprint on the step and blow out a gasp of white air. I lock the door with the iron key, drop it into my pocket, take your hand. It seems lost in its shapeless mitten. We step out together.
Down in the village the thaw has already begun. Pavements are inscribed with interlocking footprints. A big dog has walked along at the very edge of the kerbstones. Melting snow slips from the church roof. It lies curled at the edge then slides into the graveyard where headstones sprawl. Where the names of the dead congregate. The living are already inside, repelling the cold with prayer and hymns, shuffling their feet on the numbing flags.
Snow drops onto the pavement from the eaves of the Black Horse. It is sliding away from all the roofs in the village. Dark slate is pushing through and the centre of the road is already clear. Snow-water floods the gutters and gurgles into grids. In one solitary entry we find undisturbed snow. It peers back at us like a blank page, quiet as a swallowed cry. We walk on up the hill leading out of the village where snow still lies thick on the road. It clings to our boots and trouser bottoms. The school on our right gleams with pale lights. On our left, amongst bare trees, its chapel sticks up dark as a mediaeval tower gutted by fire.
We come across tyre marks that have slewed off the road and then half filled with snow. There are discarded cigarette butts, three crushed beer cans, a pink hair band. There is a mobile phone with its face smashed and frozen into the slush of snow. Here are footprints with their heavy tread. There, a yellow patch where someone pissed in the ditch. Faint light is glimmering on the stained-glass windows of the chapel. The air hums with prayer.
We walk on between crusted hawthorn hedges. The road undulates northwards beneath its immaculate shroud. We hardly talk now. As if words are being pressed back, as if these are the black covers of a bible we are shut between. No birds sing. The day is silent. In the night the earth has slowly crystallised under our dreams. And we are its twin pivots, its speechless megaliths. You take off your gloves and run a finger across a fencing stake. A brindled fur of frost stands up from it. The weather is a white beast. You shudder and smile, but the cold is already stiffening our lips. The thaw has turned back on itself, the temperature falls towards zero.
We'll sleep in each other's breath tonight. The overhang of snow on our roof will freeze into a wave and under it we'll make love again, our mouths moist, our hands amazed at desire, at touch itself. Icicles will bar the bedroom windows, frost fossilise the glass. The earth will turn toward dawn in its caul of ice. And your skin will flow under me like pale cambric, like warm cream tilted from a jug or the freckled petals of foxgloves. Sun will ghost the moon, a spectral eye. The real sun will rise elsewhere, relentless, proud in its tyrannical heat. It will stand molten at its zenith to scorch crops and dry up creeks and burn away sweet hope and future. A flock of rooks rises from a copse across the fields. They turn in the air, a ragged choreography, scraps of soot blown up from a dead fire. The sky is a grey sheet, uniform, heavy with an imponderable weight of snow. Its thin light is amplified by reflection, surviving like the breath of that boy whose life flickers from heartbeat to heartbeat. Saddam. We trudge on through the drifts, feeling our knees slow under their seizure of cold. When we speak our breath vaporises, rises and is gone, air into thinning air.
A limestone boulder squats beside the road. It's a skull, a brainpan with its huge jaws buried in the earth. It is straining to utterance, holding the speech of centuries. All its thoughts inarticulate or lost. It cannot utter a single syllable for us. Nothing. It is blind to the light that falls around it, that bleaches it day after day, season upon season. It's deaf to the cry of that carrion crow turning on splayed wings above the fields. It's deaf to death, blind to life. Absolute.
Now we're walking downhill. The land is a white quilt stitched with hedgerows. Sheep huddle, yellow against the snow, chewing a bitter cud of grass. The land is smudged with woodland. Its horizons are vague. The river's meanders gleam in ligatures of light, making for the coast where the invisible sun will set in a few hours' time.
The air is raw with the scent of coming snow. Wind has begun to whip up flurries of white dust from the drifts. It is stripping the flesh from our faces, replacing it with a numb blubber-mask. Each gust drives a needle of ice through my temple. I see your hand go up to the same place. We are featureless. We daren't speak, daren't squander the last warmth in our lungs. In the pockets of our coats our hands are forming into snow. Our lips are dumb, our feet stupid, directionless. Ice crystals are shaping themselves in the bone of our knuckles. We are plumed with breath, struggling like beasts under tremendous loads. The cold is burning us to pillars of steam.
It begins to snow again, drifting at first in a few whirling flakes, then driving into our faces. We try to speak but speech has congealed. Snow smokes across the fields, obliterating them, white dust devils in a frozen desert. When we look up, the sky is a vertigo of black specks. They give the sensation of falling upwards into everything beyond. They whirl inside our eyes, particles of the cascading universe. We are fighting for breath in a vortex of choking flakes. A vacuum drags past our ears. It levers us against the hedgerows, twisting our steps. Twigs scratch our faces. Our hands are cut by thorns that pierce our gloves.
Halting, we try to speak, but words bale out into a slipstream of air. We were heading for the crossroads, but now we're meeting the snow head on. We gesture towards the village as if there is still a decision left to make that was not written out and erased by snow a thousand years ago. I take your arm and we turn for home. I think of that stifling hospital room in Mosul with its stink of septic flesh. I think of the Tigris flowing, of the ruins at Nineveh that yielded up an ancient poem scored onto baked tablets of clay. Gilgamesh. An epic poem forgotten for centuries, then found again. Like all epics it is a poem of lost life and love.
Now the boy, Saddam. His mother sitting with folded hands, her eyes hidden behind her veil. Saddam, Saddam, Saddam. Her suffering is almost unimaginable. Yet not quite, for anything can be imagined for a moment. Each night she will sit and wait in his ebbing whisper of breath, an electric bulb flickering outside. Sirens screaming. Dogs howling from walled yards across the town. The moon filling out its blister of pus. Each day the sun will rise and fall through those high, barred windows. She knows – against hope – that her son's life is slipping away in millimetres, in seconds, in creeping shadows and abandoned syllables and motes of slowly spinning dust.
Now light is fading from the sky's faint incandescence to enclose us in a void of grey. Wind drives us before it, packing snow against our backs, making us stumble into drifts that pile through hedgerows and barred gates. It's a sheep dog gone mad amongst its own flock; its howl rises and dies like high notes on a church organ. We struggle back up the hill. Numbness takes our limbs, one by one. These flakes are silting up our eyes, clinging to the lashes, closing up their slits. Our hearts will fail here. Breath will falter in the ice-hung caverns of our heads. Our lungs are slowly drifting full of snow. We stumble onwards but our brains are ice- locked. There will be stillness, into which we'll fall, then sleep. We'll glisten for a moment, white as sculpted angels of snow, the whole weight of sky pressing upon us, pressing us to the permanence of crystal.
Then we'll be gone. Snow-wraiths in winter. Meltwater in spring. A draining residue that will find the sump of our tribe and sink there. Except for this fragment. This faint trace of ourselves. These scattered moments set down for you in words of an ever-fragile language. You, who'll come after us in the wake of our lives, your hands touching the page where we are youthful still and still kiss with hot mouths under drifts of ice and suspended sleep and frozen time. Or lost, maybe, and never found. Our walk in the snow.CHAPTER 2
Annik and Serge
The smell of the cake frightened him. A smell like hot fried aubergines. He hung up his coat and dropped his briefcase. A smell he'd missed for so long it felt wrong. He'd imagined a restoration. One day. That things would come right. Full circle. Things being what they were. Out of true. After the electric shocks. After the hospital sheets folded like white platinum. After Annik's shaven head. But Serge had never imagined a cake, the smell of baking, or that it should pull a fine thread of fear from his belly like this.
Annik was sitting at the kitchen table. All the lights were off and a white candle burned in a blue pottery candleholder in front of her. There was the low hum of the fan oven, its lit glass door, the top of the cake crowning like a baby's head. The candle swayed in the draught of his entry. It threw a shadow up from Annik's chin onto her mouth. She was wearing a long black dress and twirling a wine glass in her fingers. In the glass was a single flower head: a red carnation.
Serge closed the door. The shadow over her mouth trembled. Silver studs gleamed in her ears as she turned her head.
No reply. Just that dipping of her neck. The nothing game.
'Are you alright?'
Why ask when he knew she wasn't? Even he could follow that logic. It was nonsense. But he'd learned to stop looking for sense. He was looking for her. She came and went. Pure mystery. Like a childhood scar that a cold day makes visible. Something that has stopped hurting and has become elusive. The reminder of a past hurt. A part of himself. He looked for her on days like that. Clear days branded with frost where everything seemed sharply etched, super real. Days like those in his childhood when icicles had dripped from under the eaves and there had been skaters writing on the pond with steel blades. Days that had probably never existed.
She looked up dreamily. She would see him as a configuration of light and dark. Colour. Movement. She'd see him smiling, holding out the paper-wrapped box he'd taken from his coat pocket. He put it on the table in front of her. Annik turned her head away, showing her pale neck again above the dress.
'Go on. It's for you.'
She smiled like a child and the candlelight misted her frizzy hair that was the colour of brass wire.
Annik put a finger against her lips then turned to look at the oven. It was lit like a little shrine in the dark kitchen. She touched a hand to the stem of the candle.
'It's alright. I've made a cake for them.'
'For the children, of course!'
He tuned in to the steady hum of the oven, letting it calm him, then tuned out again. These days everything seemed to have to make a noise or to be lit by pilot lights. There was no stillness any more.
'Oh yes, the children. How are they?'
She smiled again, touching the glass to her face.
'They're very well I think.'
He didn't reply. Didn't need to. Instead he stood next to her and pressed his face into her hair. It smelled of lemons. Then, faintly, of vinegar. She'd been cleaning the windows again with handfuls of brown paper. To let the light in, she always said. To let it fall.
Annik pushed the glass away and yawned, tilting her head back from the candle.
'Aren't you going to open it?'
She stared at the parcel.
'It's for me?'
Her delighted smile clouded suddenly with doubt.
'For me, for me, for me, for me!'
She sang the words like rhyming couplets. Like a spell to ward off something. Which he knew it was. Serge went to the sink and ran the tap until the water was cold. He held a glass underneath then held the glass to his mouth and drank. He needed a proper drink.
'I'm going to the cellar.'
Excerpted from Touch by Graham Mort. Copyright © 2010 Graham Mort. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd.
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