• Once more the boy called Daniel finds himself at the kitchen table, it’s a memory that keeps calling him back and a practicality he can’t ignore.
• He always feels a little closer to Jasmine when he sits there. Closer than he did when he stood by her corp-… on the patio
• The rain seems to be made of spiders’ webs as it falls through the sunshine. The stars feel distant and hooded.
• The boy called Daniel does not tap the table seven times; instead he reaches out and leafs through the heavy boredom of Mum’s parish magazine. He reads about Fairtrade and church fun day and the primary school his parents never sent him too.
• He puts the magazine aside and draws the paper map closer. He winds the routes it charters around his brain and then unravels them. He is reassured to discover that he still likes maps.
• He reads the roads and the bridleways and the places where they intersect.
• He places his finger on a randomly selected location and reads all the possible roads that could take him there. The shortest and the longest. The narrowest and the widest.
• His mind also reads the noisy gloss of the paper and the clock still counting the room into a song it won’t sing. He reads the feel of his mother hovering over him and the thermometer on the wall fluctuating. He reads the creak of his chair, the number of knots in the wooden table. He reads the way that the stairs sound when dad descends them and the plumbing that’s set into the walls.
• His mind can never stop reading things
• So that words in a religious magazine
• Don’t quite manage to seem important enough
• To distract him from the nesting misery
• That has set hatchlings in his lungs.
• There is a lonely tension in the air when dad enters because having three so bereft humans in a room hurts enough to force the doors and windows open. The tension is one of needing to hug and touch and comfort but being too afraid to drag another into the whirlpool they create.
• In-between the fingers of drizzle, the rainbows draw them one by one to stare outside.
• Daniel stays seated to observe the promise of no more flooding.
• He decides that a promise of no more droughts would be more potent. He wants to be promised that nothing more will be taken from his clutches. No more family, no more childhood, no more of himself and his conviction. No more water.
• Missing Jasmine is like a drought; the necessities have crawled away and left them barren.
Dad: (scraping at the tension with his voice – like a dentist scrapes at teeth) shall I get lunch?
Mum: No, no it’s fine… I will (she cannot unhook her eyes from the greys and purples and blues squashing together in the sky. It seems to have been forced through a food processor)
Daniel: I want an orange.
Dad: (surprised) but you don’t like oranges, Danny boy.
Daniel: I know.*
Mum: Do you want me to peel it for you?
Daniel: I want you to cut it into eight pieces. Like watermelon.
Mum: Are you sure?
Daniel: I want you to cut it into eight pieces. Like you always cut it… (He almost says ‘for Jasmine’ but he wants to avoid splitting his parents open with the girl who is now just a word. He might not understand much about people but he’s learnt to know them. He knows that they don’t like to remember precious things that are no longer tangible.)
Dad: (with unintentional force) it’s OK; just let him have it.
(They all watch the knife slice expertly through the fruit, so practiced at its routine that it hardly has to think. The wedges fumble onto a plate which drifts twitchily to the table.)
Daniel: Thank you.
Mum: (edgily) I’ll get you some kitchen towel.
Daniel: Thank you. (He says it automatically and takes the roll of paper that she gives him. He remembers Jasmine’s hands cradling the same roll and using it to swab paint. He wonders if her skin cells are still hanging to it. He vows not to use it. He can’t explain what he’s doing. His idea is ritualistic rather than logical. It reminds him of a party he once went to, back when he was too young for his parents to realise that parties did not work well when Daniel attended them. It reminds him of the way that there was a string of doughnuts dangled before them on a string that was rigged like a washing line. It reminds him of some silly rules that were supposed to be fun, rules that forbade him from cleaning his desperate hands or licking his desperate lips while he ate it. He didn’t understand the game then – it reduced him to frenzied tears, even after a bar of soap had been fetched – and he still does not understand it now. He just plays it.)
Mum: I’ll make some sandwiches.
Dad: Maybe we could go to the nature reserve this afternoon?
Mum: (her gaze crossing surreptitiously to her son) I suppose so.
Daniel: (sensing her unease) you don’t have to worry about it. I like the nature reserve. I like the boardwalks. I like counting the boards. I like not having to touch the mud. (It has been too many years since they last visited for him to be able to recall the number of boards.)
Dad: (to his wife) see? We’re going to be alright.
Daniel: Alright today or alright always?
*A SHORT NOTE:
Jasmine likes oranges. Jasmine liked oranges. Daniel never understood how she could tolerate the juice violating her hands. Now he knows that he has to. It’s important somehow. Like building an Air Fix model. Things do not cease to be important because the people they belonged to are vanished beyond recall. They are not holy. They need to be touched.
• They walk in a way that they are not accustomed to walking because they have to reconfigure themselves now that they are not balanced into a square with Jasmine and Daniel darting ahead of their parents. They have never considered the shape they make when walking, but they do now. Most things are only noticeable when they change.
• Today the boy called Daniel trails between them and behind so that they spread into a triangle. They are like an arrowhead flock of Canada geese, flying in the wrong direction. His parents do not touch exactly but sometimes their fingers trail together the way that seaweed sometimes knots together under the wrath of the tide.
• Daniel does not look up to notice this pattern; he has eyes for nothing but the plank after plank after plank beneath his feet. The boards and their chicken-wire wrappers fill his head and take up the empty spaces with numbers.
• He’s never understood how counting sheep can send people to sleep. For him, counting is an exercise in occupying rather than releasing.
• As he counts he sorts – like a middle-aged man at the recycling dump – he sorts the planks into classes based on their colour, their grain and their wire covering. Despite the scale of the data he processes, his challenge does not delay him too much.
• He stays in his parents wake, attached to them by a distance that never stretches beyond 8.5 metres. Close but far; the way that stars are.
• 476 – Pale, straight lines, double-layered wire.
• 478 – Grey, two crinkled lines, half-single-half-double-layered wire.
• 479 – Yellow-grey, expanding like water behind a boat, single-layered wire.
• He looks up briefly as he walks and realises that his parents have left the boardwalk. All three of them have nearly finished their tour of the ‘wading bird walk’ and he has not troubled himself with a single wading bird.
• The blues and the greys are still fighting to own the sky and his parents stand beneath the patchwork of summertime looking like trees in winter.
• He remembers running into the sea at Camber Sands in the belief that he was running towards his greatest fear. He realises that his greatest fear can no longer be the beach. He realises that things are bigger and more devastating than grains of sand.
• There are 567 boards in total. A multiple of 7. The numbers make sense to him, the way that the gaps between stars do. He wishes everything else was so simple.
• He also wishes that the gaps in his constellations were not quite so endless.
Daniel: Its smaller here than I remember it being.
Dad: Maybe it got shrunk in the washing machine. (He smiles at his son while he says it to make it obvious that he is telling a joke.)
Daniel: Maybe I grew.
Mum: How many were there, Danny?
Daniel: 567. I don’t think I’ll forget this time.
Dad: I’d forgotten this place too… well – not the place, just how beautiful it is here.
Mum: Mmmm. The sun’s nice while it’s out. It was a good idea.
Dad: It’s so peaceful… but not, erm, not-
Daniel: (nodding) quiet but not ‘on mute’?
• The boy called Daniel stops abruptly as they climb into the car.
• It is too hot inside; he wilts at the stuffiness and the breaths he draws seem to be airless and painful. They stick heavily in his throat and his lungs struggle to refresh him.
• His parents turn their heads in concern.
• He stops because he realises that tomorrow is his birthday.
• Tomorrow he will be twelve.
• Jasmine will be fourteen forever.