Passing Through - 2/3 - Passing Through/Stuck in a Fence
By Stephen Thom
2. Passing Through/Stuck in a Fence - 2014/2026
'It's nothing to do with that,' she replied. Her voice was calm and measured, but her hand slid across the table towards him, forefinger tapping at the wood with increasing force. 'It's that you keep finding a way to fuck everything up.'
K stiffened in his chair, clenched his fork, and pushed a lump of potato on an aimless tour round his plate. There was a silence.
'Why,' he muttered, 'are you being such a complete and utter bitch tonight?'
The forefinger stopped tapping. 'I'm not talking about this. I'm not talking about this...this, us, I'm fed up to fuck of talking about it. I've accepted it. Everyone else has accepted it. It's only you that won't seem to fucking accept it. You fucked it up, just like you fuck everything up.'
'Don't say that to me.'
'You're a liar.'
'Don't fucking say that to me.'
'You're a liar.'
'Don't say that to me!'
Her hand had crept towards the edge of his plate. K didn't mean to - he didn't think he'd meant to - but he brought his fork down as he shouted, and saw the prongs puncture her skin. He saw a trail of little red beads; saw her screaming and thrashing around by the sink, grabbed his jacket from the kitchen door peg, and left.
K loped down the garden path and crunched onto the long stretch of road outside his home. It trailed off into the distance, surrounded on either side by flat, black panels of field; disappearing at the furthest point as the night sky bled into it.
The cold stung his cheeks, and he thrust his hands into his pockets and tried to hit a pacy stride. Pacy enough to push through the feverish angst bubbling behind his forehead. Slick night silence washed around him. Breath left his mouth as a thin vapour, and sharp repetitions of phrases sparked round his mind; clattering and mingling into a convenient whole. The organisation and sense in her sentences collapsed, and he could only hear aggrieved sounds - peaks in pitch, resonating vowels hanging at the end of barked utterances. Suspended and shifting between his ears. Her face was less and less fixed - increasingly a warped, transparent, irrelevant shroud, diluted through the dissonant sounds.
Through the clamouring, an angular shape gestated, writhing at the fence to the left of the road. K paused and the dark closed in around him. Crisp huffing and little yelps sifted towards him, and with several more steps the struggling shape gained clarity. A man was tangled up in the fence.
Padding onto the grassy rise aside the road, K gripped the cold fence to steady it. The man stopped and turned. Although the majority of his body was through the fence, his left leg was wedged between the two middle stretches of wire. Closer now, K could see his trousers were caught on two barbed twists.
'Got yourself in a bit of a fix,' muttered K, easing along the fence towards him.
'Yeah.' The man had stopped tugging now, and slumped onto the grass. He rolled onto his back and wiggled his trapped leg. Looking down, K took in his thin face, reddened by the cold. His eyes were deep-set, larger than most, and notably far apart - giving space to a long nose that rose above a tiny, thin-lipped mouth. K had trouble focusing on his eyes. He felt, for the briefest of moments, that they might have been entirely white.
'It's my leg, my damned leg,' the man sighed.
'I can see that. Here, you just need to-'
K slipped the folds of fabric from their tiny spikes, and the man jerked his leg free, springing to his feet and exhaling. Rubbing his hands and rising, K glanced up and down the dark road. The night had leaked further, and only small stretches of road were now visible. Several white lines in the centre offered the only colour around. They might have been the only two people in the world.
'What were you - what are you doing out here?' Asked K, immediately struck by the feeling he might regret it.
'I think...just passing through,' nodded the man, flexing his arms and shaking each leg in turn. He flicked a spindly finger at the fence. 'I keep doing that to myself.' Then abruptly, he turned to K and proffered his hand.
'Thank you, thank you for that. You have a good night now.'
It was said with such finality that K felt any further small talk sucked out of him. He took the man's hand and they engaged in a brief, solemn shake, whereafter the man turned away and looked up. Fiddling with his jacket collar, K squinted at him for a moment, then slid his way down the wet grass back onto the road. He walked several paces, confused, and muddling the idea of throwing a 'good bye' or 'good luck' back. Yet, when he looked round, the man was staring at the sky with such intensity that he felt he would only be interrupting.
K strode on into the tunnel of shadows, waiting a discreet distance before glancing back again. The grassy rises became black lumps, the fields around were endless oceans of oil, and the crooked shape of the strange man, standing and staring, was silhouetted against the sick, grey light of the stars and moon. K turned and ploughed on, and intermittently he would peek back, swivelling between the shadow tunnel and the receding stick of the still man.
His memories of the argument - obliterated by the tangled trousers - swam back out of the murkiness, and temporarily he was lost again in broken words and gestures. The next time he thought to glance back, the man was gone. He was sure he could still make out the stretch of fence, but no skinny figure holding a vigil. No cars had been past. Perhaps he had moved on. Perhaps he had remembered which way he was going.
I keep doing that to myself.
When K returned home, she was gone. He found a couple of scrunched-up note attempts in the kitchen bin.
He returned to the house only once after moving out, some twenty years later. News of her passing had filtered through to him, and although he by-passed the funeral, he found himself giving way to an irresistible, melancholic pull that reeled him onto a train and back to their old country home.
The dying afternoon was still warm as he stepped up the garden path. Weeds snaked amongst the soil. His hand rested on the doorhandle, the wind played with wisps of his thinning hair, and he felt as if he should have remembered it differently. There were windows, set in the white walls to his left and right. Had there always been two windows above those? He had the murky sensation of viewing a hologram, or a much smaller house, or that he was in entirely the wrong place.
Inside the hall felt damp and oppressive, and the patterns on the wallpaper had faded into blotched, abstract bursts. The kitchen was set out as he knew it; patches of light leaked over the table and far wall, and he shuffled between them. He leaned beside the sink and watched the wooden chair squared away at the centre of the table, where she had sat when he had last seen her. He scratched his cheek and studied the dusty curve of its back, the floral imprints. It looked so small.
His own chair, at the head of the table, was pushed in tight against the table. He squeezed his eyes together and tried to project her onto her chair, and in the well of conjured images, he knew he was alone because this was what he was always doing. He had been projecting her onto everyone since then, and he would continue doing so for what little time remained. And there was so little time now. He had sat at the head of that table as if everything had fallen into an unshakable, definitive place. Days, months and years had collapsed underneath him and as he squeezed his eyes tighter, hopelessly willing some kind of final picture, droplets wet the deep lines under them.
Rubbing a shaking arm against his nose, he clung to the sink, manouevered round and tugged the utensil drawer open. Rummaging through it, he pulled out several knives and wooden spoons, hurling them onto the floor. Night had crept in and the wind had picked up outside, rattling against the window as he took his place at the table with a single fork. He spread his right hand out on the wooden surface. His left hand was shaking so much now that he had trouble positioning the fork above it. Steeling himself, K raised his arm and motioned to thrust the fork down. By the time it landed his will had failed him. The prongs tapped at his wrinkled skin, leaving the tiniest of indentations.
Setting the fork aside, he looked at the chair across from him again. The shadows seemed to bleed into thick shapes within its confines. Pulling himself up, he rushed out the house, holding onto the walls for support.
The wind propelled him along the narrow road, and the moon suffused the fields on either side of him with a muddied glow. He was sticking close to the scrappy grass at the edge, bouncing threads of history, and reimagined history, and ruined, obliterated history behind his eyes. And whilst he stumbled on into the familiar shadow tunnel that grew away from his home, he saw two convoluted shapes shifting in the rises to the side of the road. Black shapes separated from finer layers of black, and hoarse voices mingled with the wind.
K felt drawn to and comforted by this as he clambered up onto the grassy hump. The ground had the consistency of fudge, and he reached for the metal support of the fence. Groping along it, he navigated his way towards the wriggling shapes. It was men. Two men, lying on the ground. Their legs were trapped in the fence. A bluster of wind flung K against the wires, and he slumped to his knees beside them.
'You're stuck?' He shouted above the rumble. 'Your legs, are you stuck?'
He was closer now on the ground, and he could make out the two rigid, grey faces as they turned towards him. The mouths were tiny and thin-lipped. But it was the eyes - horrible, clear white eggs, that shook him.
'Yes, our legs,' the man closest to him said, rubbing his hands into boggy folds of soil. His voice was thin and had an odd, metallic quality to it. The second man laughed abruptly - a sharp, hollow sound.
Reaching towards the fence, K unclipped the segments of trouser fabric twisted onto barbed spikes. The wind caressed his shaking hands and he felt safe in the familiarity of the task, in the vicinity of his old home. For the briefest of moments he indulged in the snowball of memories that accompanied it, snippets of interactions and mental photographs.
When they were freed the two men jumped up and wiped off the muck on their clothes. K stood up to join them. The wind had calmed, and a still hush fell over the road and the great fields.
'I think I remember you,' he said, 'or at least one of you. I think this happened before.'
'It's possible,' replied the man to his left. His white eyes gleamed in the moonlight. 'There are times when we are passing through.' He turned to the fence and patted it. 'We keep doing this to ourselves, though.'
The second man laughed again; a terrible, grating sound.
K parted his lips to reply, then realised both men were staring at the sky. They seemed rooted to the spot, heads upright, white eyes sparkling. The time for talking appeared to be over, and they took no more notice of him. As K traipsed away, a fine rain wet his scalp, and when he looked around, the men were gone. He was unsurprised by this, and in truth he had been expecting it. It was absurd. Yet he found himself missing them, and their clumsiness, and the way they had stopped him thinking about awful times.
He closed his eyes, and felt a bubbling mass of images returning. When he opened them, the dot of the house was still visible in the distance through the slanting rain. He wondered how it was possible that he could have found it within himself, so easily, to say and do things that hurt someone he loved so much... it was absurd.
The house would be there when he closed his eyes again, as everything would be.
We are passing through.
We keep doing this to ourselves.