Ocean is playing Fortnite in his nana’s caravan. She’d got the TV already obviously, but he’d persuaded her to buy the console a few months ago as a thankyou present for chopping some wood for her.
He’s deep in the game with about thirty other players still to take out. He should be building right about now, making stuff out of virtual wood, bricks and steel. At least, that’s what Valentino told him last week was the best game play. But Ocean’s not sure; he reckons the direct approach – the attack – is always the most successful.
For now, he’s hiding in a bush, hoping the storm that shrinks the safe zone doesn’t get too close. In the weeks he’s been playing Fortnite, the furthest he’s got is being player twenty seven out of the hundred starting. He’s feeling lucky today though – he’s sure he’ll get further. But then, the becoming all too familiar screen: you were eliminated by gone-cat. You placed twenty eight.
Ocean shouldn’t even be here today. Everyone else, including his nana, is gathered in the field nearer the woods, to mark the passing of Lavinia, the little girl hit by the car a couple of days ago. It was an accident, but the man who was driving and the rest of his family have had to leave the camp. There’s no way on earth they could stay now. Ocean knows what he’s missing – the singing and crying and silence. “You need to be there, boy”, his nana had said, “It’s respectful”, but without actively standing up to her, he’s just not turned up. Instead, he’s let himself into her caravan and here he is.
His Fortnite skin is always female. Today, he is Valor with her red and blue outfit, her red, flowing hair. Ocean loves this - it’s freeing and wild. And sometimes, it’s just hard to be yourself. In the game, he’s safe in another skin, behind another face.
Through the caravan window behind the TV, Ocean can see the sun is going down and the sky has a violet-orange colour to it. He gets up, switches the console and TV off and goes into his nana’s bathroom. Her makeup bag is on the vanity unit to the side of the basin. Ocean switches the lights round the mirror on and takes out what he’s going to use. There’s little choice really – his nana knows what she likes and has used the same shades for years.
The green eyeshadow he applies on his lids make Ocean’s eyes an even paler blue. His cheekbones are precise lines underneath the old woman rouge. Bright coral lipstick gleams on his lips.
Ocean walks out of the caravan, locking the door behind him. In the early evening air, the acrid burn of tires and packing crates that make up the fire around which everyone is gathered, catches in the back of his throat. Time is short and he knows they’ll be moved on soon. He goes towards the fire, catching sight of his nana immediately. She’s sitting on a stool she’s taken from the caravan, her arms tight round Lavinia’s mother who’s crying on her shoulder. “We are many stars gathered in the sight of God”, he hears his nana say.
She notices him then, but in the half light, he’s not certain she can see his face. Rosella’s boys can though and he dodges their stones, whilst catching their words. “Ocean, you queer, fucking bastard.”
“Come and sit by the fire”, his nana says, but Ocean walks on, strutting a little, driven by the catwalk music in his head. Behind the flames, the trees may be dark, but Ocean holds the rain within himself. He carries the storm.
In the end, it’s the field I think about. Not the people in it. Not Kit, not Ellie, but the field. It didn’t have a right to be where it was, in the middle of this city suburb, planted where it shouldn’t be; or at least holding out against the relentless spread of buildings circling it.
The field was a mongrel acre or so of grasses and weeds – nondescript in winter, teaming with vivid, wild flowers I couldn’t name from mid to late summer. Kit could name them and amongst other things, it was this that attracted me to him in the first place.
I met him in the garden centre attached to the stately home near where we lived. When John had left, I’d spent many hours taking Ellie – first in her pushchair and then on increasingly less faltering legs as she grew older and stronger – round the grand, old house’s gardens and into the garden centre.
I don’t remember the exact age she was when Kit came to live with us. Maybe three, maybe four. But whatever, he made us happy and I felt so safe with him. And how can someone who gardens be a threat to anyone? A gardener tends, and in our little family, he looked after us and my fig tree, my mother’s old ferns, my camellias.
He couldn’t even kill the slugs that destroyed my attempts at growing cabbages, preferring instead to try useless copper rings round their bases. When I remonstrated with him about the bitten filigree of the cabbages’ leaves, he simply shrugged and said, “Oh well, I gave it a go”.
How can we know the points when things actually change, especially if the points are tiny and not seemingly worthy of note? Is it a look captured in a mirror? A glance you notice between two people when looking back at photographs? A bath towel slipping innocently off a young shoulder, long, pale hair wetly twisting like wisteria tendrils in the rain?
Looking back, I sometimes think it’s the spaces in between even these small things. That, or the dreams you have where nothing makes sense, but where your brain is processing to the point you wake up in the middle of the night with cold, sweating realisation. In any case, seeds are planted and then they germinate and grow. That’s the nature of things.
I’m still not sure it was a dream or the truth, but when I woke up that late summer morning, I knew I had to go to the field. I put on my tracksuit bottoms and hoody and went out into the colourless day. The air had that quality of absence that gives you no indication of what kind of weather the rest of the day will bring once it gets going.
I could hear the field before I could see it. The whisper of its grasses, the needle rake of seed head against seed head. It gave off the earthy, complex scent of petrichor and as the sun began to rise, the field was flooded with colour. The red of poppies and cornflowers’ startling blue. The mellow beige of plants that are over for another year.
In the middle of the field sat Kit and I remember in my dream (if that’s what it was), I wondered why he was allowing the seat of his trousers to get wet on the dewy ground. On his knee, Ellie was resting her head and her pale hair spread out, drowned Ophelia in the water. Kit was looking down at her upturned face and he was stroking her hair. Stroking her hair.
Princess-Orchid pirouettes in the water. It’s a chilly day outside, but here in the baths, it’s a perfectly, climate-controlled temperate. She’s wearing her blue and pink tulip costume today and she’s gathered the wisps of her hair under her yellow, swimming cap. She thinks she’s beautiful of a type.
The others – the rest of the Mermaid Belles - should be here too, but over the years, they’ve dropped off one by one. Selena, then Dotty Delight. Ruthie, then Eve. Yes, they’ve had their troubles, but actually, so has Princess-Orchid and it hasn’t stopped her. That’s the trouble with some people – no sticking power.
She loves the crazy echo in the baths. There’s a quality of sound here that you can only really get in the largest of churches. A sound, Princess-Orchid likes to think is the sound of worship. At this time in the morning, there are very few other swimmers and sometimes if there’s no one else to bring noise, she’ll make her own fun and whoop-whoop-whoop, like there’s no tomorrow.
There’s no movement she can’t recall, but there are some she can no longer do. Of course she can still perform most of the sculls, but some of the leg positions are beyond her now. She misses being able to do the flamingo and side fishtail in particular. Princess-Orchid was always the flyer in the team - the littlest and lithest – but with no-one left to lift her, those days are gone too.
Princess-Orchid floats on her back for a while and as always reacts with a sad wonder at the lumpen, blue veins in her legs. Blue veins in blue water, as if she’s in advertently pricked herself, enabling the water to course through her entire body. Occasionally (and actually, more and more frequently, if the truth be told), she wonders what will be left of her when she dies. Not dry, lonely bones, but a spongy mush of wet flesh seeping out of the leg holes of a swimsuit. From water we are made, and to water we will return.
Years ago, the Belles had gone on a tour of various seaside towns on the east coast – an attempt to make it big and one which Princess-Orchid had known at the time would never come to anything. But the thing she remembered the most wasn’t the dirty baths or the small crowds of leering men at the pool sides, but the one time she swam in the sea. It was as cold and flat as a cup of tea, forgotten and days later happened upon by the side of an armchair.
She’d hated the sea in its vast, unknowable mass. It hid things she couldn’t even imagine, but it hinted at them in the slime of seaweed underfoot, the insistent pinch of a dead crab claw on her toes. No - swimming in the sea wasn’t for her. You knew where you were with tiled bottoms and towels that smelt of chlorine, not of the sea’s wild brine.
Oddly though, her cat has come from the seaside, brought to her by her neighbour because she thought she might be lonely. It’s a blonde-white cat, with pale, blue eyes, blind in one of them. In Princess-Orchid’s imagination, she thinks of the cat as coming from the milky moon, pictures a puddle of moonlight over the sea – the moon and fluid from the cat’s eye leaking into the water.
The cat (she’s never named it) will be waiting for her when she gets home. Pawing sullenly at its bowl until it gets what it wants. For now, Princess-Orchid waits to be hoisted out of the water and back into her wheelchair. Broken land-walker. Ex-mermaid.
The smell of the woods’ floor is damned strong today. It’s a consequence of the rain last night, long and relentless, soaking the dried ground awake. It’s a good day for cutting burls.
I’m going to have to go deeper into the trees than I ever have – it’s not only the competition with the other burl cutters, but the sanctimonious do-gooders – the tree-huggers – who now say how cutting the burls hurts the trees they grow on. My trade has had to become as secret as the words the trees share when their leaves rustle in autumn.
Do these people even know what a burl is and how it forms? An outward growth, covered by bark caused by a reaction to physical stress? Hell, I know more about trees than they ever will. If a tree is tough enough to protect itself by growing a burl in the first place, it’s tough enough to survive its severing.
In my bag, I have the three saws I use the most, and my axe for those first few chops. I’m heading up towards the redwoods I’d come across last week with the burls, misshapen and malignant, about five feet up their trunks. It’s hard to believe when you see them like this that the burls can be transformed into what they are. Coffee table bowls for the rich folks, trays, the bigger ones made into seats for back yards that I’ll never sit in.
The thing about a burl is that its wood is really hard to work with because the grain is so twisted and compressed, making it prone to shatter without warning. People who do manage to work with its wild grain can make shit loads of dollars by the very fact they can. What you have to have are good wood-turning tools and a whole lot of patience.
I need the dollars too – however fucking ethical what I do is. I take the trees’ burls - their cancers if you will – and in return, I can forget myself for a little while.
So when, I’ve found the burls and cut them off the trees, I’ll put them in the back of my truck, making sure I cover them with a tarp to protect them from the rain I’m certain is returning. I’ll drive carefully back through the woods and into town, taking in every last inch of this landscape I’ve known all my life. Feeling the joy of summer’s slip into autumn in the freshness of the air and the complex smell of truffles and other fungi filling the truck’s cab.
After I’m rid of the burls, I’ll call in at Brandt’s and get what I need with the money I’ve earned and I’ll drive my way back into the woods as carefully as I drove out of them. When I stop in some clearing or another, I’m usually alone, sometimes with other cutters with the same idea as mine. When there’s a number of us, we build a fire, fuelled by the offcuts from the trees and the burls we can’t sell.
From the back pocket of my jeans, I’ll take out the small packet containing what looks like fragments of glass, I’ll put them on the back of my right hand and then I’ll snort deeply and viciously. Then the sprites will come out of the trees, cautious at first, but not for long. The fire sprites are slower, but once they appear, they crackle and burn with untamed energy.
We’ll dance with the sprites into the night. Debt is for another day. Death is for another day. For now, there will only be this moment. This fire. This dancing.