28th August 2010.
Bent over in a heat haze, a figure trudges through a field of yellow rapeseed.
Seen from a water trough at the field’s furthest corner, the sun’s flickering mirage has turned them into a blob: a foetus on an ultrasound image, stripped of all definition or angle, just a shapeless mass of coagulating circles glooping from left to right. Occasionally, in its never-ending quest across the horizon, the figure becomes still and appears to squat, forcing their shimmering mass to bleed into the hot yellow oilseed beneath, like a raindrop surrendering itself to rotten wood at the foot of a windowpane. At other points, it seems to raise its arms and become a scarecrow in the stifling August sun, fizzing against the gold rapeseed like static – possibly human, possibly machine – before it becomes formless again, and begins inching forward once more as a fatigued boar trudges across a poacher’s crosshair.
Beth jumped as the steel gate she leant on at the field’s furthest corner gave way slightly, gouging through a doorstop of crusted cowpat. She batted her hand as a lather of green-backed flies evaporated off the foetid mass and swirled around her face. Her phone massaged her thigh: a reminder. It’s 3.15pm. She must be back soon.
She’s been watching the figure for the last 10 minutes. Like her, it had moved gradually westward away from the Lowestoft skyline that hung heavily with dour apartment blocks dimpled lengthways with satellite dishes, until now all that remained visible of the town beyond the field was the odd strobe of light that flashed off a crane as it rotated sluggishly through the thick, polluted air. Something about the figure’s peculiar movements vexed Beth, and while she’d realistically never intended her Sunday jog to last the full hour dictated by her gym coach, her preoccupation with this odd sight made her flunk out even earlier that she’d hoped, and that bothered her even more. It wasn’t even a particularly remarkable sight, probably just an ardent rambler, or farmer looking for evidence of moles or badgers. Or maybe someone who had lost something? Perhaps they were hunting for a puppy that’d broken loose and was now lost under the waist-high duvet of vibrant yellow flower. Either way, it had preoccupied her with unusual vigour, and swept all the calming thoughts to the side of her mind like a croupier moving chips off a casino table. Beth, by nature, was bright but not perceptive. Five years earlier, walking up to the school gate, her rucksack had emptied itself of its contents and she’d remained entirely unaware. A metal Looney Tunes pencil case had clashed to the floor, a water bottle, and a flapping pad of A4 paper. She hadn’t even felt the bag getting lighter.
By the time Beth had come to rest at the cattle gate, it had become clear to her that the figure was making its way towards a railway line. Here, deep within the wide floodplains of the Suffolk coast, the line cut across the top end of the field before the sea, like a great dam holding back the land from spilling off into the brown-grey-mudflats of the Waveney Estuary. People mocked the estuary, but Beth had always lived here on the edge land between town, sea and country and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. ‘The cure for any woe is salt water’, her mother used to say. Even on chilly autumn mornings, the yacht clubs along the Waveney Estuary would come alive with multi-coloured sails and pepper the foreshore at high tide; or, like now, sleep under their jetties as all the water recedes to a shipping channel several miles off, where lazy tankers underscore the distant gap between land and sea, their smoke exhaling into the air as a blur, and their throaty engines sending discernible tremors through the land and up your legs. The trains reminded Beth of the long slivers of DNA that she’d learned about in Biology class, as they threaded their way across the field, their electrical contact with the overhead wire spitting furious blue sparks. On her morning runs, before she started work at the Suffolk Heritage Museum, Beth often felt sorry for the commuting passengers, hauling themselves up to London while she circled back to the office, had a warm shower, and returned home in the evening to her cottage hidden away up a mews behind the fish market.
The grasshoppers buzzed as she jogged on the spot. Pausing, she raised her hands to her hair, nipped her scrunchie between her teeth, and drew the stubbornly frizzy locks back into a ponytail. She was quite alone. Apart for the shimmering figure in the field, she’d left everyone else behind back up along the more heavily-trod footpaths. Even up there she’d only seen two people: a balding man with a Jack Russell pulling frantically on a perpendicular lead nosing down rabbit holes; and a mother with two young girls in pink striped dresses tearing ravishingly at long, lime green Hairdo shoelaces. Suddenly, a small bubble of anxiety crept into her stomach. Glancing over again at the wandering figure, she began to worry for their state of mind. The route across the field was taking them directly towards the railway line. Before stopping to think what had compelled her, Beth started jogging slowly a new route along a hedgerow, watching the figure as it appeared at intervals to her left in the intermittent gaps between the spindly bramble. The parched earth cracked under her feet while choirs of grasshoppers fell silent at clodding footsteps brought her steadily closer, closer, closer, to the figure. Now, within moments, their paths would intersect, and with each stride Beth took, the figure’s features sharpened slightly. A man – or perhaps a boy? – young; very thin, gaunt even, in shorts, T-shirt and sandals. What struck Beth more, however, was a peculiar boldness that’d taken hold over his movements in the past few seconds, leading him to up his pace, and take on a more determined stride which contrasted eerily with his pathetic, drooping gait.
Eventually, the boy slouched out of the rapeseed and across a tractor-scored path. Beth swallowed, as he progressed towards the railway cutting, rubbing his ankles feebly as stinging nettles brushed against them. Then: still. For a moment, beneath the sun, there was something magisterial about him; something god-like. As he straightened his back, Beth saw his body language alter once again, this time into an odd, relaxed calm, his fists unclenching, and his hands gently fingering the tendril of a long frond of cow parsley as he gazed beyond the railway out to sea. Beth swallowed. Something was pushing him to the corner of his own life…
Beth realised her choice of words, and the moment she chose to make her appearance, would be vital. She didn’t want to startle. Edging off the field and onto a small gravel path, she carefully parted two spears of barbed wire and limboed through the narrow gap. She was now on a path that ran parallel to the railway line she’d often seen used by orange-coated track engineers. A small, thin thread of polyester unravelled from her sports top claiming its place on the crown-of-thorn fence along with fluffy globs of sheep wool from a bygone age. The trains, at this time of day, ran every 12 minutes, their imminent arrival marked by a whining noise through the rails. Down the line, a pinprick of white light would enlarge into the snub-nosed face of a train, glowering in Intercity greens and reds. Fortified with adrenalin, Beth inched through the undergrowth towards the boy who had now resumed his frantic dance of shifting gestures. She took out her phone, and flipped it to silent. As she did, a Bluetooth notification floated up onto her screen: Pair with ‘David’s Iphone5’? She’d attended a talk about mental crisis once in which a Samaritans volunteer had mentioned that suicide intervention is more successful if the distressed individual hears their name used regularly. She gathered herself.
The boy looked. An incredulousness gathered over his features. His eyes appeared hunted and his stomach was gently pounding.
‘Do you… um. Are you alright, David?’
‘What? Go away! Who are you?’
‘I’m just wondering if… I saw you walking. Are you feeling okay, do you need to talk?’
There was a pause.
‘F-f-ine thanks, yeah.’
The half-words fled from his mouth, as if being terrorised out his body by some malevolent force.
‘I was just, I was running and…’ Don’t say “I” say “David”. Use his name. ‘David, I saw you, in the field, and I wanted to know you were OK, David. You seemed upset.’
‘And David, are…’ (Probably saying ‘David’ too much now.) ‘If things are getting to you… maybe we can talk. How’s life?’
“How’s life” is weird. Beth made a mental note: don’t say “how’s life” again. Just wait. One of the important things in these instances is not to fear the gaps between voices; the fact there is a conversation taking place, however slow, is what matters.
‘Yes. I, um. Not now, not now. I was. B’ not now.’ The words staccatoed strangely from his lips which seemed thin and taut.
Then she heard it. A few feet to Beth’s right, the soft whining of the rails had commenced. The crescendo was starting.
‘Don’t. Don’t come close to me!’
The boy stared, his eyes locked on Beth, as she inched closer, stooping, one hand in front her clearing throngs of fern that rose like anemones between them. The chill rush of the metal-upon-metal chorus in the rails grew loader. Ninety miles per hour, a hundred yards away. 40,000 tonnes. A horn sounded.
‘David, look at me. You’ll be ok.’
The boy stared. Beth upped her pace to within a few steps, her eyes fused to his which remained dark and locked in their sockets, his hands clenching and unclenching, and his brow glistening with a loose skim of sweat. Don’t break eye contact with him. Keep eye contact.
Unprocessable noise. The train horn careered past in a terrifying Doppler. The pair froze as the ground shook in a stone-jangling quake, as all eight carriages rushed past, each sleeper sinking slightly beneath the formidable weight of the wheels. Beth’s gaze had remained fixed on David’s the whole time.
As the last carriage passed, a cool wind buffeted them. Beth grabbed the limp hand, pale and trembling. Gradually, his breathing slowed and his eye narrowed into little tear-filled caverns. He exhaled a long, steady shaking breath like a crisp marsh wind in autumn, and began to cry. A gulping howl. For a moment, Beth felt as if she was in a play. Their conversation had been a poorly worded script: each word had moved banally from their mouths, taking its place alongside the next in a manner that bordered on the ridiculous. Their language seemed polarized from the horror of the immediate context. It was almost funny. Surreally funny.
‘It’ll be ok. You’re alright.’
‘I’m . . . I’m alright. Yes alright.’ David parroted back the words.
‘Yes. It’ll be OK, David.’