Shop Boy – Emma had not adjusted to the fact that he now had a name – knocked on her door at half past nine in the morning. She was quite happy for him to remain nameless as it seemed to make their 'friendship' less official.
He offered her a smile like a slap in the face and she held the doorframe to keep herself steady. She was momentarily caught off guard by his lack of uniform and the wiriness of his legs in skinny jeans. It was almost as if, without the shop setting and the shop clothing and the shop produce, she was meeting a stranger. She wondered whether she should refuse to leave; lie and blag her way out of it. “My Dad’s ill,” she imagined herself saying “I’m really sorry,” and then she’d make sure that she would never go to the Co-op again.
That would mean she’d face the alternative to his company; another day of indefinite length that cried out in its emptiness and wallowed stonily in its own grave. Perhaps a seventeen-year-old boy with a crumpling car and mannerisms that almost passed as arrogance would be a nice distraction. She allowed herself to imagine it – the idea of getting lost in someone who was not dead or burned or burning – and she realised how attractive it was. She must have briefly considered the same thing the week before, when she’d last seen him, but she had not explored it then.
She was not built for exploring.
“I – I’m really sorry-”
“That you didn’t take me up on the windmill offer last week? Don’t worry, I forgave you.” He cut her off and changed the meaning of her words with disingenuous misunderstanding. They both knew what she’d intended to say.
“I don’t belong in Britain; you spend half the day saying ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ about things that don’t matter and-”
“In France you spend half the day eating.”
“Oh yes, we both whip out the stereotypes when we can’t think of anything else.”
“You went first,” he said and chewed his thumb nail. “Besides, it’s true.”
“Of course it’s true – that’s how it became a cliché.”
“You’re right. Sometimes I think middle-class Britain is a competition; each ridiculously competing to be politer than the next. ”
“We have over four hundred kinds of Cheese in France, did you know?”
“From the amount of time you spend talking about the damn stuff, I’d kind of guessed,” he sounded exasperated but pleased at the same time. Pleased with himself, Emma decided.
She found, bizarrely, that she was pulling on her shoes and shuffling, very gradually, through the doorway. She sent a goodbye up the stairs but received nothing back and so followed her ‘friend’ – an elastic collection of limbs – tentatively, still deeply regretting that he existed at all. She wished their meetings could be restricted to the cheese isle of the supermarket – bound in subject to stereotypes and food and only ticking certain boxes in terms of sociability. She buckled herself awkwardly into the passenger seat beside him and he took a sidelong glance at her.
“OK?” he asked.
“Not Really, forward slash Yes – delete as preferable.”
“Oh God,” he blew out the words and raised his eyebrows. “The effort of chauffeuring a girl who speaks like an intelligent opinion poll! What am I letting myself in for?”
“I don’t know. You’re the one who insisted on this,” she said coldly, wincing internally at her voice and the words she used it for.
Without the topic of Cheese to guide their conversations, Emma felt entirely lost and she leant over to switch on the radio. Perhaps it was rude of her but she wasn’t sure she could stand the expectant silence. The world seemed to be waiting for her to prove something. She cowered from the quietness but did not want to have to fill it.
As they drove, the hills seeped into flatness like wrinkles under a steam iron. Someone seemed to be pressing the patchwork of green and yellow until it ran out of ridges. The wind gasped over the half-opened windows and tendrilled under their clothes.
Still the music played, lilting strummed fingers and bleeding nails into the sky as retaliation against the gusts that had wormed inside it.
“Where and what exactly is this place?” She asked as they drove seemingly eternally towards the flat nothingness of English Channel.
“Dungeness? It’s a nuclear power station and a lighthouse and a lot of beach houses.”
“And why exactly are we going there?”
He could not answer.
Grasses scattered and tumbled over the expanse of shingle, with blue and silver-green like the sea was leaking onto the stones.
“The biggest number of pebbles in the world,” he said.
“I believe you.” She felt dwarfed by them.
They were by the sea but barely noticed; it insisted on hiding out of sight. It made no sense. The flatness should have meant that the sea unfurled around them but all that was visible was the shingle. There were clumps of scrubby plants as well; spongey, resilient and too leathery to be bent double by the wind.
The village itself was a collection of outsized garden shacks which had smaller, shed-like constructions tacked on to them like afterthoughts. The whole place was eccentric and the miniature steam train that hemmed it did not help. It was like the bedroom – or perhaps the brain – of an enormous and imaginative child, with buildings plonked down where they didn’t quite fit. All were so unique and incongruous – there was no pattern, no rhyme scheme – that the insanity retained a feeling of surreal loneliness and neglect. The beaten and rundown mingled with the obscenely modern. One house was made of a black material of unnatural smooth precision and it projected from itself in varying panels of glass and cuboidal structures. Like a Lego house that had run out of colours, Emma thought.
Some were wind-scoured with paint flaking away like sunburnt skin, others ramshackle – by design or weathering, Emma could not tell – with gardens that featured fishing boats. Beached like whales. Over it all, the power station hulked; grey, oppressive and omnipresent.
Somehow it was achingly beautiful. Stirred up in the ferocity of the wind and the barrenness was some sort of appeal – an overwhelming attractiveness about the place. A lure. Despite itself, it had beauty, beauty that a photograph could only record as emptiness. The lack of trees or contours gave the view through a camera lens an odd sense of proportion. The sky seemed to be forcing on the earth, pressing it paper thin so that the clouds appeared cavernous and swollen.
She absorbed the place in sheer wonderment;
“Why did you bring me here?”
He shrugged, looking suddenly and surprisingly uncomfortable.
“I thought you’d like it,” he shrugged awkwardly again and then stared at his feet in thought. “This place suits you.”
She raised an eyebrow: her scepticism which had been trailing behind her finally caught up.
“Meaning I’m frigid, bleak and desolate?” And beautiful? She thought privately, unable to say something so presumptive and arrogant. In fact, she hated the fact that she’d even considered it.
“Desolated,” he corrected. “It’s something that’s happened to you, something done against you.”
She thought of the padlock on the bedroom door and the ashtray Dad had shrivelled himself into.
“No,” she said. “Desolation is something we bring upon ourselves.”
“Maybe,” he said, “maybe it depends upon the circumstances first though – doesn’t self-destruction lead from destruction?”
They walked without lead or direction, simply tuning in to the intent in one another and applying themselves accordingly. They wandered down across the shingle until the road crossed the miniature railway.
The lights flashed and the barriers came down as they got there and the steam train trundled past in a frenzy of green paint, steam and passenger’s hands.
The shop boy lifted his own hand to all those faces as if they were some sort of parade – a stream of soldiers in need of a salute. He pressed his palm against the air and rocked it side to side like a puppet-master without anything to hold.
“Why are you waving?”
“They’re waving at us,” he said but she just shook her head blandly.
“Who says they’re waving at us?”
“Well who else would they be waving at? The sky?”
“You’re such a typical human,” she said. Perhaps she was a little disappointed about it.
“And you’re not? Perhaps that would explain many things.”
“I just mean… I just… I was simply referring to the perpetual egocentricity of the human race.”
“Simply referring?” he teased her. “Like everyone makes frequent simple references on the subject of perpetual egocentricity.”
She realised she had sounded snobbish but decided to continue anyway. She couldn’t take back words that had been spoken. Recently, she had discovered the eternity of things that were past and the way they resounded with unswaying conviction into the future. It was better, Emma decided, to refuse to admit to flaws and to continue talking until people forgot them.
“If the whole of time were a year then the entire period of human existence would amount to 21 minutes of it, yet still people have this obsession that humanity is all that matters. They forget that there is more, or perhaps they prefer to overlook it. They like their sense of self-importance because they are scared of being nothing. It took years for people to work out that the solar system is heliocentric simply because they were convinced that they must be the centre of everything! That everything literally must revolve around them. The truth perhaps is that they cannot bear their insignificance."
“But not you?” he was still teasing her but without smiling; questioning her right to be so imperious about the typicalities of human nature. “So you’re blessed with incredible wisdom and immunity to self-obsession? You say ‘they’ not ‘we’- are you special or something?”
“Sorry,” She said automatically.
“Then again, you certainly are something else; I don’t know many fifteen-year-old girls who slip the word heliocentric into casual conversation.” His faced stretched smile-wards and he watched her musingly, longing to separate her thoughts out until he could hold them all. “God knows why I like you. You should be intolerable but you’re not, somehow.”
“Oh I don’t know; I find myself pretty intolerable sometimes,” she said it lightly and with enough bravado to pass off as generally acceptable self-deprecation.
He continued to watch her; his gaze calculating her into sentences.
“How do you know it all anyway – about the sun and the universe year?”
“I listened in school. Plus, I devote a lot of my pointless time to thinking about existence and other similarly cynical things.”
“Doesn’t all this stuff about insignificance depress you?”
She blanched at the thought of it. Insignificance was the opposite of depressing; it was relieving. She didn’t say that, of course.
“The thing is that insignificance is inevitable so it’s kind of pointless getting upset over it.”
“So it’s pointless for somebody on Death Row to suddenly repent and read the Bible? Or could it even be pointless to do anything but sit and stare at life because nothing we do can ever matter at all?”
“The first depends entirely on whether the concept of God is pointless-”
“You’re unbelievable, you are. Since when is the ‘pointless’ little you big enough to decide whether God can exist?” he asked and his smile was real but frayed around the edges. What better a place or a girl to remind him of pointlessness?
They were still stood at the miniature level crossing although the miniature train and the miniature waving people, who may or may not have been waving at them, were long gone. They must have looked somewhat expectant, Emma reflected, waiting on a phantom train in a kingdom of emptiness. Blinded by themselves and their words.
“I went to charge my phone one day,” Emma found herself saying, “and I ended up just staring at the plug socket and thinking how absurd we were. Us organisms who have created these lives for ourselves; building all these things and concepts and systems – all as perishable as our species. And then I looked around and suddenly the whole world seemed stupid – so intent on such small and stupid things. How did it come to us actually sitting there, ordering workers to create thousands and thousands of little black boxes to charge our phones with? People say they fear all sorts of things but really, what they actually fear is truth – the truth of their eventual obsolescence.”
A car drove past the pair of them and crossed the railway line. Some other pointless sod going about his pointless business.
“So people refuse to accept that they are so tiny, so miniscule – our lifespans are less than seconds in the universe year – and assume that they are what the idle waving of a passenger is all about.”
She liked the way he didn’t try to apologise or cast his eyes to the road or agree with her. He did not back down from his foolishness in the same way that she could not backtrack her arrogance. It appealed to her, albeit in a twisted, distorted sort of way.
“So why did they wave?” Ryan asked.
“Who knows? People on trains don’t really wave at people; they just wave because they don’t know what else to do, or because they want the world to see them, or because it’s tradition, or because they feel a need to acknowledge the world they pass by – Don’t ask me to explain humans; I can only explain the things that I can understand.”
“Did you acquire all this depressing philosophical thinking at some stage or did you spring from the womb spouting cynicism?” He was teasing her again but the conversation was void of playfulness. It was just questions, questions that were monumental in size. They were, in fact, the first questions she’d taken time to fully answer since her words had been burned away.
She allowed herself to contemplate it momentarily – when did she start thinking like this? No – perhaps that was obvious – the question was why. She supposed it helped to recognise the minuteness of individuals and their consequences and therefore the minuteness of the individuals that were Anastasie and Maman. It was easier to think of things as bigger – incomprehensibly so – because it made her and her stupid, agonising self-ruin smaller. If people were tiny then surely their emotions were too. If people were just functioning organisms, they couldn’t feel things so acutely. It was reassuring to distance herself from it in such a way – to put herself in perspective.
“It was post Having-A-Life if that’s what you mean,” she answered eventually.
They crossed the half-scale tracks, suddenly and unanimously, as though they had been waiting for a cue. They filled themselves with the village and bought fish and chips to mask the emptiness that was nothing to do with hunger.
When they drove home, the radio stayed off and instead they listened to silence and the thoughts that pounded within it. The village looked, upon their return, superficial. It was the first time she’d noticed it. It was so pretty, so very pretty in the late, sun-drenched afternoon, and there was something too perfect about it. It was twee, sickly, and idyllic; every crisp white edge was a fragile as a knife balanced across a fingertip. I take one step and the whole beautiful mask falls, Emma thought to herself.
She climbed out of the car and made a point of not waving goodbye. Waving was, after all, merely a meaningless convention. Rather like breathing actually.