Saturday, 4 October 2014

Fiction Editor's 3 Favourites - Outside the Atmosphere by Shirley Golden


Cornfield before Thunderstorm

 The first of my three favourite stories from my time as Fiction Editor at The View From Here is 'Outside the Atmosphere' from Shirley Golden. There's no order to my three choices - I like them all as much as each other. I chose them because I could still remember, with each one, how I felt after reading the story for the first time. 

'Outside the Atmosphere' made me feel great warmth towards its characters. It is a story with a light touch told from inside; no distance, no judging. It could have been told so differently, but it isn't. It's told from exactly the right place. That's what makes it so special for me. 

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‘Pez says the moon landings were faked,’ I say.
‘Pez assumes everything’s a fake,’ JC replies.  He shades his eyes and looks across the fields.
‘But what do you think?’
‘Does it matter?  It’s history, Kim, makes no difference to the here-and-now.’
JC’s hard to read, and he doesn’t like to speculate. 
We’re seventeen.  We don’t want disappointment to etch out lines around our mouths and chart the corners of our eyes.  JC often says, ‘let’s not end up like Mum and Dad.’  Mum and Dad, who wound up bickering in a bistro in Westbury.  We all live in the poky rooms above.
‘Pez was busy, then?’
I blink.  ‘Said walking through fields was lame.  Don’t think he believes in aliens either.’
‘You serious about this guy?’
It’s hot, but my cheeks burn hotter.  JC’s pretty cool as brothers go.  We’re twins and were inseparable as kids.  We tell each other everything. 
Except I kept the fumbled kiss a secret; I didn’t confide how Pez tasted of mint and smoke, or how our noses bumped.
Pez is a couple of years older than me.  I’d always fancied him; all the girls in Year Eight did.  I used to daydream a future for us but JC said he was bad news, a train wreck.
JC glances over.  He pulls an imitation face of me.  ‘That serious, huh?’
I jab a fist into his arm.  ‘Not funny.  I don’t look like that, you moron.’
He shakes out the map, forehead creased in the same expression that clouds his brow when we take refuge from the shouting and screaming at home.  ‘I’m sure it’s the next field,’ he says.  He folds the page and forces it into his ripped Jean’s pocket.
‘You said that two fields ago.’
He’d never admit to being lost.
‘I said the Charm Bracelet would be easier to find.  This one’s minuscule in comparison.’
My fault; I didn’t fancy the trek.  ‘Yeah, it’s a pity we never got that far.’
‘Come on,’ he says, ‘we’re so close.  I can feel it.’
I glance behind.  ‘You sure…’
He doesn’t hear, at least he doesn’t answer.  He strides ahead. 

Later, we slow and JC says, ‘What does Pez think of your plans?’
‘You mean Uni?’
‘Uh huh, yeah.’
I wipe sweat from my forehead.  ‘Not that it matters, but he’s cool about it.’
‘Didn’t think he was the type to appreciate an education.’
‘What’s your problem with him?’
He stops.  He shades his eyes, scans the horizon.  I assume silence will be my answer, but he releases words that float weightless into the atmosphere.  ‘You can do better.’
I can’t have heard right.  He never judges me.  He rarely confronts anyone.  His lips are half parted as if the words slipped out by accident.  He presses them shut.
There’s corn covering the next field – all upright.  I slump against a fence post and pull a bottle from my rucksack.  ‘We should head back.’
JC sinks next to me and I offer him a swig.  He says, ‘I can find this place.’
‘I believe you.  But it’ll take at least an hour to get back to the car.’ 
The sun is dark orange and arcing towards the earth.
‘Dad says everyone will have a degree soon and they’ll be worthless.  Says I might as well go out and earn.  He said that to you, Kim?’
‘It’s guilt ‘cause he can’t afford to contribute – especially for you, Smartie Pants.  You and your big plans, off to study medicine.’  He’ll make a great surgeon with those steady hands.
JC shrugs.  ‘Huh, perhaps.  You fixed okay for money?’
‘Still waiting on the loan.’
‘I should hear about those rooms next week – we’ll be neighbours at night, even if during the day I’m in anatomy level one and you’re in Beckett for beginners.’
‘It’ll be odd to be split up like that, to not see you in class,’ I say.  I’d been excited by our prospects but feel suddenly small in an expanse of fields and sky.
‘Uh huh,’ he replies.  ‘I’ve a bit more set aside if you’re stuck…’
‘No.’
In the pause the caw of crows climbs.
‘Don’t ask Pez for money.’
‘Why not?’
‘Sh.’  He gazes into the thicket.  He slides an arm around my shoulders and guides my attention to a gap in the hedgerow.  
There’s a bird of prey hunched, slate feathers and yellow eyes.
‘It’s a Merlin.’  JC’s breath is hot across my ear.
I smile.  ‘Are they rare?’  He can recognise most birds of prey. 
When he was eight he kept a sketchpad and drew all the birds he’d seen in it – he insisted when he grew up, he’d study wildlife, like Attenborough. 
‘A summer visitor.’
It breaks cover, soars, misses its mark and loops away; its cry of frustration is sharp.
He withdraws his arm and rests his elbows on frayed denim covered knees.  His hair is sun-bleached and long enough to cause Dad to mutter in disapproval.  He reaches in his rucksack and pulls out a Yorkie bar.  He snaps it in two and gives half to me.
‘You remember our holiday in Cumbria?’ I say.  ‘It felt as if we were a million miles from home.  Dad ran out of petrol and we stayed in the car whilst he searched for the nearest station.  You told Mum he was useless, said we should find our own way back to the B & B.  Do you remember?’ 
It was strange that memory was stirred.  Perhaps it’d been hot in the car?  Perhaps we’d been eating Yorkie bars?  The details escape me.  But I remember I didn’t mind waiting; we played “I Spy”, and Mum chose something beginning with “T” as Dad reappeared as a dot in the distance.
When we failed to guess, she told us it was, ‘tit.’  JC leaned out of the window and said, ‘blue or great?’  Dad opened the door and she said, ‘big.’  It was the first time I’d heard Mum refer to a rude expression. 
Dad never lost that label in JC’s mind.
‘Uh, yeah, sure I do.  I was so damn hot, and angry at him, not just for running out of petrol but the whole holiday – him saying we’d do all of this cool stuff and never getting around to any of it.  He planned and talked but we never actually got anywhere.  Then Mum made you laugh and your laugh made it easier.’  He doesn’t look at me but picks at a blade of grass.
‘Come on.’  I stand up and brush off imaginary twigs.  ‘Let’s get back.’
We hoist the rucksacks over our shoulders and begin to re-trace our steps. 
‘Why did you say Pez thinks everything’s a fake?’
JC rolls his eyes.  ‘Christ, Kim.  Don’t you remember how he was at school?  Always in trouble, swore at the teachers for fun, smoked in class one time, I mean actually lit up right in front of Miss Barley, so I heard.  He fancied himself as a Brando for the eighties, brooding in leather jackets – such a dick.  Always down on everything, drifted in and out of lessons.  There’s a rumour his dad’s in prison...’
‘He’s changed.’  I remember how at school, Pez used to open his mouth so wide his jaw would click – like a PEZ dispenser.  It was how he earned his nickname, and even now he wouldn’t let anyone call him by his real name: Ian.
‘Yeah, now he works down a boat yard in Bristol and has a motorbike.’
‘So what?  Don’t be such a snooty git.’
‘He’s into raves, isn’t he?’
‘Not everyone wants to listen to Nirvana the whole time.’  Although I pretty much did.
‘But you hate rave music.’
‘It’s not so bad.’
‘Once you’re at Uni, he’ll lose his appeal.’  He speaks with a confidence that rankles me. 
‘Is that right?’
‘Oh, forget it.  Let’s not argue, not over him.’
I’m about to give him a mouthful but he trips in a pothole and yelps.  At first I think it’s a joke or way to restore peace.  He doesn’t get up; he cups his ankle with his hands, biting his bottom lip and saying nothing.
I kneel beside him.  ‘You okay?’
He rubs his leg.  ‘Think I’ve twisted it.’  Gingerly he lifts the bottom of his jeans.  He rotates his foot and winces.  ‘Nothing broken, but it hurts like hell.’ 
When I look up, the shadows seem longer than ever.  The fields stretch into the skyline with barely a division.
‘Can you stand?’
‘I don’t know.  I’ll try.’
Using me as a lever, he hauls himself onto his good foot, but swears as he places pressure on the other.  We sink to the ground. 
‘You’ll have to find your way back to the car.  You can drive along that narrow, gravel path; it should bring you to within a couple of miles of where we are now.’
‘I failed my test, remember?’  He passed first time.
‘That’s bollocks, you can drive.  You’ll be fine.  It’s an emergency.’
Dad says he can’t afford anymore lessons for me. 
I stare across the rows of darkening privet and crops.  ‘I can’t find my way without you.’ 
‘Look.’  He pulls out the map and waves it around.  The markings are nothing like a road map, no road names, just dots and dashes, codes and signs.  ‘Follow this path and…’  His words come quick and urgent.
I can’t focus on where he’s pointing.  A lump rises in my throat; it’s thick with the threat of tears.  His breathing has quickened and I wonder if he’s going to shout.  But he folds the map away as if resigned.
‘Okay.  It’s okay.  Let’s stay put for the night, huh?  I’ve a blanket in my bag.  It’ll feel different in the morning.  I’ll be rested and I’m sure I’ll feel able to walk.’

Despite the heat, the temperature drops with the sun.  I take his torch and collect nearby twigs.  Eventually, we get a fire going with his ancient lighter.  We wrap a blanket around our bodies and huddle together.  We hold our breaths and blink hard whenever smoke coils towards us. 
Everything feels strange at night – shapeless.  The birds are silent and the trees are shadows of their daytime forms.  There’s the scratch of an animal, which could be a fox.  Bats flutter like oversized flakes of ash spiralling from the fire. 
The moon sheds grey light across the fields, although it isn’t full.  JC points out how one side isn’t symmetrical.  I try to imagine footprints and flags, craters larger than the hollows we searched for in the crops.  The stars are a myriad of sightless eyes that serve as a guide if you know where you’re heading.
In moon landing photos, the sky is black, blank and soulless.  They fill me with doubt.
JC curls the ends of my hair around his fingers.  His arm tightens around me.  ‘You will come with me to London, won’t you?’ he says.  ‘Don’t stay here, promise me.  Don’t just let life happen.’
        He draws me closer.  He’s warm and familiar, his expression intense.  He’s a part of me, him and me, kicking against the world, viewing life from a different perspective.  His breath is soft across my face.  There’s no mask of mint; he’s earth rich biscuits, peanuts and chocolate.  And when we kiss, we don’t bump noses.  

JC is right.  Everything is different in the morning.  So different I know nothing will ever be the same again.  Early morning mist layers the fields but the sun corrodes the haze, fast.  JC is quiet.  We both are.  He stirs up the ashes with his boot and smothers the amber heart of our fire.  He shows no signs of pain in his ankle.  None at all.   
       'History matters,' I suddenly say as if no time has shifted between our conversation the previous day and this moment.  'The past shapes the future.' 
I think of Armstrong's first step into unknown territory and can't imagine ever taking it. But I know how it feels to be outside the atmosphere, to look down on the world and have no gravity for an anchor.


About the Author: Shirley Golden writes short fiction and novels.  Her stories have been published in various places, including, The Puffin Review, Dream Catcher, The Glass Woman Prize and Ether Books.  To find out more, please visit www.shirleygolden.net or Tweet to her @shirl1001.

Image: (c) Rene Schwietzke