HE SCARCELY NOTICED when they left, his wife quietly closing the bedroom door, allowing the screen-door to settle back into its frame with a tiny even hiss. The sound of their car rounded the driveway and the far side of the house, then disappeared. The room was silent. Though the pain in his arms and legs had faded a little, the sickness remained, unshakable and sticky-sweet as a shower of summer rain. His stomach lifted and turned in dry, heavy flops; sweat stood out on his brow despite the alien cool of the air-conditioning. It dampened his T-shirt, pooled on his neck and shoulders. His mouth grated like cinders.
Somehow it always seemed to happen like this. He would work, usually for months on end, and earn beyond question the right to a holiday, then collapse like some Heath-Robinson contraption the moment the pressure was off, all his carefully-pinned masks and professional gestures exploding into so much string and chewing gum. It had happened on their honeymoon, and the trip they had taken back to Britain to meet his family – there he’d felt the prickles of incipient fever before they even left the plane. It was as though his mind was perpetually jacked-up in work-mode, the handle cranked to the topmost turn, and couldn’t find a way to wind itself down. Instead something would come along and kick it out from under him.
He wiped his forehead with the damp cloth she had left and turned over in bed. In the garden, bright Georgia sun was lancing through tree trunks, picking out specks of red dust and grit on the window sill. This was his first time in the south, and before the sickness arrived he had enjoyed their first few days driving down from Atlanta. Her parents were away on a trip hunting for antiques, weren’t expected till the end of the week, so they had felt free to take their time. They dawdled through the back lanes in the big white rental car, laughing out loud at the price of petrol, stopping in out-of-the-way little towns for catfish dinners or gigantic cokes, making detours to roadside stands selling boiled peanuts and watermelon. Somewhere they stopped on a bridge crossing a slow-gold stream, and he wrote her name, then a corny love heart and arrow in the reddish dust as the sun touched the horizon.
He looked at the late-morning sky through the window. His wife and her parents had gone out for the day, first to Plains and Americus, small towns associated with Jimmy Carter, then to the civil war POW camp at Andersonville. They would be back towards the tail end of the afternoon.
‘Will you be all right?’ she’d asked, tucking the quilt up under his arms. ‘Because if you won’t I don’t need to go, you know. I can stay in the house –’ Her voice trailed off into unenthusiastic silence. Though she didn’t particularly want to spend the day riding around in a hot car looking at monuments, he knew she was keen to leave the house while she had an opportunity. Each time he was ill she ended up by the bedside, running errands and watching the holiday evaporate like a glass of water spilled on hot concrete. He could see the will to break that pattern in her eyes.
‘No, go on. I’ll be fine.’ And he had been, for a while at least. A new crime novel had kept him occupied, even taken away some of the sting from his constant stumbling trips to the toilet, but it was beginning to lose its hold. He lay back on the stacked pillows, their faint dampness cool against his neck. A vague sense of disappointment – then a quicker resentment – came into his mind. Not about being ill particularly, though there was always that, but about their constant shifting moves towards imagined improvement, the yellow brick road they were running down to a brighter future. Sometimes it seemed they were more running away than running towards it, this ill-defined change for the better.
They had met in graduate school, and immediately hated the smug, shabby air of intellectual superiority given off by their peers and many of the faculty, as well as the stifling suburban setting of the campus. They would have to leave, and as soon as possible – of that they were certain. Getting out of the suburbs and into the city became a driving force, and for a while, as he finished his thesis in the bowels of the public library and she put hers on hold to take on more teaching, it was enough. The freedom of the city drove clean lines through their frustrations, unwound their bitterness like a shroud. Then the cutbacks came, and the impossibility of his finding a suitable job – any job – without the right papers and contacts, and they decided to leave America for Britain.
London was an obvious first step. He had friends from university, possibilities and connections; she wanted to dive into history and spread her fingers through the dense substance of all those books and movies. Neither of them noticed the shift in the poles – New York to London, metropolitan power bases switching from an island pointing north like a compass to the flat watery lands of the south. Nothing much struck them beyond relief. His qualifications and demeanour – perhaps, too, that meeting over a few whiskies with an old member of his school – secured him a job and the hole in their bank balance began to close. Occasionally he thought of the city towers, piercing the sky like clean metallic darts, and she laughed or sneered at some sentimental British whimsy, but they thought they could be happy.
It took a while for London to really appear in their minds, but when it did they snapped to almost simultaneously, suddenly feeling the rub and pinch of needless expense, the stink of over-consumption. In a dockside coffee bar they waited twenty minutes for a crumb-scattered sticky table, then balanced sections of the Sunday paper on their knees while the £3 coffees gripped the wood like gummed paper. The buses began to grind on his nerves, so he stayed later – through the patronising banter of his aspiring colleagues, the silence of the immigrant cleaning crews – to avoid those jostling, packed journeys. She tried an interview, two, even picking up her thesis in the British Library, but they found themselves exhausted before they had really accomplished anything. London was busy, bustling, but dirty and ill-kempt and bursting with self-satisfaction. Through the smeared window of the bus it began to look nameless and dead, adrift like some rudderless corpse in the Thames.
Distracting herself with the travel section one Saturday, she came across an offer for cheap flights.
‘Are you interested?’ She waved the paper in his direction. He was trying to decipher a contract-letting manual and didn’t look up. ‘Hey – flights, coupons? A holiday?’
‘Oh, sorry.’ He lifted his eyes to hers, a slight downturn crinkling their edges. ‘Yes, that would be nice.’ So she clipped coupons for a couple of weeks and booked them on a flight to Glasgow – a Rennie Mackintosh exhibit, the People’s Palace, perhaps meeting up with a friend from graduate school who had found work at the university.
On the bus from the airport they shook off some of the capital’s dust, surprised by friendly greetings instead of darting, cut-away eyes, and with the white cloud-caps and blue lines of the coast still in their eyes they set off around the new city. Instantly the buildings laid hold of him. Rising from the ground in long structured streets, gridded out, penetrating, they spiked the sky and rode over the hills like frozen locomotives. He loved the grey-black bruising of the sky above their heads, rain peppering granite and sandstone, even the wind cutting down the long streets. He steered her by the elbow into a bar.
‘Whiskies, please – doubles. Laphroaig.’ In a wooden booth they sat back and stretched out their legs.
‘Let’s move here. Now – right away, out of London. I don’t give a shit about it anymore. It reminds me of the suburbs, and this place reminds me of Manhattan.’ And she’d said yes, clinking her thick glass tumbler against his hard enough to slop a little whisky over the side.
He rolled over again, smiling broadly at the memory. But the movement upset something in his stomach. With a plunge he felt his bowels begin to give, and heaved himself up and into the bathroom. He flicked the light switch and the bulb blinked on, an extractor fan whirring into life. As he sat down he remembered the disappointment when he’d learned there were no openings in Glasgow – another kink in the dream – but he had persisted, and a few months later there had been an opening in the Edinburgh office. He had applied, concentrated like never before on the interview, shone and succeeded. They gave up their tiny flat in London and drove through the night to make a crazy deadline. That had been six months ago, and things were working out well.
He stood gingerly, hitching up his loose pajama trousers and holding on to the plastic rod for the blind as the plumbing flushed and gurgled through the empty house. His head felt heavy, shiny-bright and weighty as a sponge-rubber ball soaked in water; the fan’s groaning whir was muffled through his cottony ears. He turned off the light. The afternoon sun penciled through the slats, and he twisted the rod to let in more light.
At the back of the house the scrubbed and patchy lawn led down through trees to a red dirt road into the woods. The sun was fierce, battering, and cut the garden into flat dazzling strips and blocks of shade. He thought he saw movement near the road and leaned further over. There was movement – a figure lurching down between the trees, coming closer with heavy steps. He ran a hand over his angry brow, pressed it to the glass. It was a man in blue cotton overalls, without a shirt, his brown skin taut and liquid. He looked from left to right as though he was being followed. His mouth was wide open and there were dark streaks cutting his face and arms, marking his bare red feet. He seemed to scream then a moment later disappeared behind the broad trunk of a tree. The sun shone unbroken where he might have walked. A few puffs of red dust rose and fell on the ground.
Confused, his thick head twisting, he turned to the room and staggered back to bed. The pain gripped his forehead like a clamp, his heart drilling and corkscrewing in his chest. He fell asleep half under the covers, with his face against the wet sheet.
Later, the house still silent but for the low click and hum of the air conditioner, he woke and walked slowly through to the kitchen for a glass of water. He felt a bit better for the rest, his mind calmer, cleaned out as it sometimes was after a cup of coffee first thing in the morning or when he looked across the water to the docks and cable-laying vessels from the office window. He poured water from a pitcher and went into the living room. He thought about retrieving his book from the bedroom but sat down instead, unwilling to make the effort. He sat still for a moment, the small ticks and pulses of the house in his ears. Then he leaned over the coffee table where a stack of magazines had been carefully arranged on the near side.
Southern Living, a gardening magazine, something about local history and the Ocilla Star. He leafed carelessly through the stack. At the bottom of the pile was a thicker volume, the Philadelphia Weekly, with a couple of interesting photos on the cover. He picked it up and tried to flip through the pages. Most were still flat-bound together, unread and heavy, but it fell open in his hands to a feature near the middle. An interview, it seemed, with African American veterans of the second world war. “These local veterans survived segregation and World War II, only to face their greatest obstacles at home.” Underneath were the credits for author and photographer, then a first line about the ubiquitous red dust blowing up from the roads of Georgia.
When he got to the next line his heart stuck in his throat. “Falsely accused of raping and murdering a white woman in Irwinville, Ga., the man had been chased by hounds and captured on the road between the small towns of Ocilla and Douglas.” Chased by hounds. His stomach roiled, turning over in fear. His eyes jumped down the page – 1930, a festive lynching. “They cut off certain parts and displayed them. His fingers and toes were right there in the front window, in the front showcase where you display your wrenches, your tools, your things you’re going to sell.” He sat back in the chair, arms rigid at his sides, watching it unfold on the screen of his imagination. The needle-pointed city towers turned upside down and jabbed into his flesh. He felt all his petty resentments explode into ashes at the touch of horror.
Then the house filled with the noise of footsteps, a muted car, opening doors. He had an instant to arrange the magazine, rebury it at the bottom of the stack. In that moment he felt a rush of anger, and a wave of overwhelming love. As his wife came into the living room, surprised he was up and out of bed, he reached for her and held her as though he would never let go. When her parents followed they patted his arm, asked how he had been – would he like another drink? – and put down a bag of souvenirs on top of the open magazine.
James Roderick Burns is a writer whose short-form collections are published by Modern English Tanka Press. His translations of Baudelaire’s collected prose poems will appear later in 2018 as ‘Paris Bile’. He lives and works in Edinburgh.