The waking up came with the dream not remembered but the word. A dream word with amplitude. The word more than a word. Waking came with a sense called “be fore.” The awakening therefore confused and nearly anxious even before breakfast with these two words rattling around, tussling and touching one another in none too an appropriate manner.
Why the words?
The crawl from the bedroom cramped around in an ungainly hunt for the dream tissue; where the image begetter; where a touch, taste, or smell of these lewd day starters? The words were pushed together: before… a slightly different savour but again breaking open; be fore. What was before?
The going downstairs was a shivering, for the heating had refused. And the seeking in the kitchen that was a question: ‘AM I TO BE… forward?’
Then another question: ‘In a fortnight, who will be here?’
In the cold questioning, an icy doubt. Be forewarned.
‘Of what to be forewarned?’
No cup or saucer would answer, the fridge hummed as if it were pretending not to hear. But the matchbox was a death rattle and the question did not resolve.
‘For I am to be-fore-gotten, fore-saken. Will I be fornicated four times?’
The cooker was a stubborn thing, a not giving any gas thing. The match burnt as a burning thing, down to fingers, and yet the ignition of grill was saying no toast today and the sparking of the hob said no no no; not today for coffee. Now, the not coffee part was a jittering jangle of unease, harrow pulled along spine and it might have been then—and at this exact moment—that all unstable elements began to disintegrate.
‘What heat, where was the heat?’
Too many questions too early, each pushing, each jostling one another and making stomping stomped motions up and down the kitchen. It was the stamping of cold naked feet saying no; I do not want cereal; no to cold milk, for cold milk was sour and of a greenish tinge with lumpen denial stirring its flesh.
Skin burns and reddens, flesh peels away in dust layers; a good sunny day. Be-fore-gotten, those foolhardy days turning body raw for fun. Drunkenness on a beach alongside another sweetly sweating body. This a memory foregrounded cruelly, a sudden return. A story of what was coming back to torture the morning, returning so to drift ahead, a phantom diversion to what might truly happen today.
The evasive dream and then the aggressive memory, as if the morning was not already bad enough because it was about getting washed in cold water and pulling on clothing: quick quick. More layers of old wool to cover up all this cold bodily extent, this urgency to be an overriding of the hunger and to have some warmth as a distraction from the caffeine-less flesh quake. And all this while a once beautiful memory is busy shoving its way in; an unnecessary image of what was before.
‘Such delight did the day bring… before.’
The warm grating discomfort of sand between toes, the repeated flexing of which was also a pleasure. A satisfying tightening of skin across the shoulders which by the evening, on the bar terrace, already made that region of the body painful to touch. Untouchable said the skin, but the two people were listening to different sections of their membranes. The memory was of two people sharing skin. Hands moving oozing creamy ointments, gently, and rubbing softly, and turning medicated massage into another kind of relief. Afar away, both the day and that other body. Gone now, past. A tincture of acute radiation syndrome. Be-fore-warned. Dream haze stinking up the fashioning of a re-membered perfume; citrus apple zest be-ing gradually cooked by the two persons mingling their other odours. This can occur when doses of radiation exceed certain levels. Low doses of ionizing radiation can increase the risk of longer term effects such as cancer.
Cold can kill also. All external heat of the house was gas powered. All the internal heat of the person now relied on heart rot, on brain radiation rippling beneath the skull. The memory set out to say sorry. Memory apologises for its manner and its content, and yet despite that, it does not fade. In fact, rather than drifting back a grey distance, it pushes up its colour saturation. Beneath the skull there is a voice.
‘This,’ it says, ‘was BE FORE the soul grew savage. This: Be. Fore.’
It recalls that the loss was savage and how this somehow made the vessel that had been emptied into a repetitive brute. Empty but full of confirmed savagery.
The be fore and aft. The shape of memory, dream, and loss. The lingering chill of a dysfunctional radiator... Ionizing radiation is a type of energy released by atoms. It travels in the form of electromagnetic waves or particles. Point by point it hits the brain, wave after wave, it drowns the brain. Thoughts increasingly forget that they can swim.
‘But we could swim. We swam in the sea.’
The spontaneous disintegration of atoms is called radioactivity, and the excess energy emitted is a form of fish burp. The ocean waters are swilling full of poisonous fish burp.
The scene in the hallway is one of wrestling with coat, buttoning and then unbuttoning and again attempting to button so that either panel of the jacket’s front does hang in an even and most proper fashion. The be-coated person in the hall of the house, which is a place where much of the house casts down its surplus or otherwise unwanted matter; a bicycle, ladders, kites, rabbit feed for a deceased rabbit, and circulars and flyers systematically stacked and rigorously ignored. And here is the person in a buttoned-up coat leaning forward, making an effort to untangle ropey lengths of power cord as if this, all of a sudden, is an important thing to do. The door is opened. The day is ready to absorb another body. Only before the person will allow themselves to step out they must knock over the neat stack of circulars and flyers. And now they must urgently stack back up all the junk mail. The scene in the hallway is not improving.
Before, be fore, being what kind of dream? The hallway is stepped away from and the door is locked while the press of elusive dream seeps once more into a dissatisfactory focus.
‘Be forewarned. Be in focus.’
Only the focus does not satisfy because it keeps shifting, lathering up, layer on layer. Hunger and no coffee and lack of gas for heating and being hung in foreboding. Foreboding and wanting. Each element glints precisely whilst receding in the miasma of association which form the tracery of their walk to a nearby café. An enigma of memory. An insistent tickling and jiggling of some extremities, the befuddled stirring of loins whilst all the time this prickle of presence says this was before, a time and time ago. Let us not confuse before with now. There is today; an arrangement, an understanding—this will be today.
‘I had forgotten the beach and forfeited our happiness.’
Beach scenes play out, repeat, play. How the happiness unfolded.
In the café they are cooking on electricity only. Some explosion somewhere, someone says. So, the delayed breakfast is baked potato with melted cheese and there is coffee, although not quite as the coffee drinker likes it.
People are also exposed. The door is open. The door is closed. People in and out of the café, some hurry. The one in the coat with cheese and butter shiny on chin, ordering a second despicable coffee, they seem to have nowhere to go. An open door neither hinders nor hurries the progression of cosmic rays. Light is a burning stuff falling insistently and perpetually in the foregone being of the once began. Sizzling juices slip down inside our gullet. These long travelling particles insist as an ongoing presence. Their insistence is that of the burdened prophet who cannot do but what the prophecy demands, who cannot be but within the radius of what the prophesised allows. Atomic shell knocking on atomic shell, light kicking out light, shoved aside by gravity. Before and after are too vigorously fondling one another in the unsupervised curvature of the brain.
The electricity is erratic. Surging lights up, lights down, the microwave pinging in an act of fancy, the computer having to be rebooted and the radio to be re-tuned. Stewing in the manner of coffee left in a jug for far too long on a hotplate; yes, why not go for a third cup. You have a loo here?
On the walls of the cubicle visionary crudities are revealed. Rough graphics. Brute sexual encounters conflated with apocalyptic notions. Back out in the café a radio news programme has returned from out the fuzz of static. It is brooding over coincidental fluctuations and it is not heeding its fluff piece, which has been side-lined in a rude editorial decision. That will wait until later because as we speak a benighted politician is hauled before the press so that they may professionally mutter reassurances and extend all acts of avoidance.
Breakfast over, coffee cup tipped toward the possibility of a day, the meeting to be came to mind. A trickle of arrangements that were the expectation and possibility for this day.
‘Would the other one show up?’
Meeting, coincidence of persons. Bland statements such as starting afresh, and they would not have wanted… (flush of rage, fury; what they wanted was to live) and nonetheless, stewing inside the curvature of a brain, that memory of interlaced bodies breaks free of its particulars. A memory shrugs off time and place and wriggles into ghostly presence. A phantom stepping into the moment, happy to pretend to be no longer memory; as one who danced on a wedding night, so it now dances.
‘We are glowing,’ whispers of accouchement.
‘It is sunburn.’
A quiet intimacy, hands touching, fingers pulled lightly over the renewed familiarity of skin. Hot skin. Corrupting skin. Skin laced with the latent, the insidious, and the all the too potent instance of death. And then there was absence.
Most mists are radioactive. The door is opened to a dose. The person in the doorway is swearing as the electricity falters and stops. This person is background radiation. Before and behind. A person receives naturally occurring sources of terrestrial and cosmic radiation. The coffee cup is empty. Not having unbuttoned their coat they decide it is time to leave the café, avoid the swearing person, and walk around the park.
The picture in the park is one of fog draped around bare trees and a person tramping around the pathways whilst wrestling with an elusive dreaming. A person who snarls at the oversexed intimacies of memory, barking at them as would a chained guard dog at intruders. And as that person steps onto the tarmac path, checking a sign that says To the aviary, it is seen that they are wobbling. They stop and check pockets. Nothing amiss. They sit on the bench. It is damp. All that is past is conjured forth as a furiously impossible present. In the manner of a puppeteer they invite the dead to sit-up and mouth false words: I do not blame you. And, There has to be another, that is what the living do. Yet the puppet rebels, ignores the strings: Go fuck yourself. You are a selfish bastard.
Be-fore-warned. Background radiation levels fluctuate according to geological discrepancies. The ice on the pavement is melting too quickly. A slushy river pushes along the guttering and the drains are refusing to swallow this flood.
Effortfully rising, the person once more encounters the exposed pathway. They are going toward the aviary. They sway across the path; legs seem too unsure of their function. Exposure to radiation in certain areas can be higher than the global average on a regular basis. The birds have all toppled from their perches and most seem to be corpses already. Beyond certain thresholds skin will slide to ground, discarded shirt, forgotten skirt.
‘We stood naked to naked and utterly raw. It was wonderful.’
Once upon that thing, that dream, this path.
We stepped over a slushy flow and one day realised we wanted to step back, but how difficult it had become. Be-fore certain thresholds are crossed it must be realised that the threshold is already crossed. You are your own forewarning, you are that which is re-membered. Heat burnt from within and left the person feeling cold.
The meeting is like this: one says hello and the other says hello. Each takes a half-step back to assess the other, recognising the person from a digital image and simultaneously encountering a stranger. A stranger is a set of possibilities utterly distinct from any computer rendering. Despite introspection and an accumulated sense of guilt, which always arises when there is a fresh option for relationship, the first feels a stirring of excitement, thresholds of intimacy are already crossed. The second is amused by the sighting of pleasure creasing eyes and squeezing at edges of lips. Both are flattered and faltering also. The second therefore constructs an awkward sentence. They had been building, dismantling, and rearranging a sentence such as this one for the entire morning. Inside the curves of their brain it had attained some elegance. Immediately spoken it was soggy and rather embarrassing:
‘Once upon a time there would have been instructions, like I will be carrying a paper, or, you would be wearing a rose in your buttonhole. That had a charm to it, I imagine.’
‘Only, what if someone else was carrying the same paper?’
‘And we met a wedding party who all had the exact white rose in their lapels!’
The first laughter of the meeting. Polite yet pleasant enough. The first now points into the cage they had arranged to meet before.
‘There has been some sort of accident.’
‘Oh…are they dead?’
‘All of them.’
‘We should call someone.’
Each look at their phones, not at all sure who they should call. Only then one of them notices that their mobile device is not getting a signal.
‘End of the world.’
Second laughter, nervous.
‘Oh god, but I am so bored of the end of the world, aren’t you? We get it all of the time.’
‘Yes,’ the other agrees. ‘The world has a tendency to end on a fairly regular basis. It is time we should worry about.’
‘How true… Can we go somewhere else?’
They set off into the park, not sure of where they might go. Away from the decimated aviary.
‘The world ends but time flows, which is why we experience the world again. I guess… If…’
‘Oh yes. What is time, then? It’s that pulse, isn’t it?’
‘It is measured by a radioactive pulse. There is some material they have locked up in a box. They have a microphone stuck in the box to measure the pulse of this stuff.’
‘A stethoscope; how is our patient?’
‘Boom boom boom. That is time, so far so good. The most regular heartbeat anyone has ever found anywhere.’
‘A radioactive heart attack.’
‘End of time.’
They forgo the protocols and hold hands, not even apologising. Neither are surprised by the necessity of the gesture. And through a drifting, hazy rain they walk close together, not taking heed of where they might go. This is the last scene, a moment of unexpected tenderness, before
About the author
Nick Norton's short prose can be found in 3:AM, Idle Ink, The Selkie, Punt Volat, Soanyway, Epoque Press, Bird's Thumb, Fictive Dream, The Happy Hypocrite, and elsewhere.