In the middle of the desert, next to a trailer park and an abandoned diner, time stands still. Three friends try to fill their days as they wait for the sun to endlessly set.
A FIELD OF AMMONITES, uncovered by the storm. The wind had blow off a layer of sand and underneath was a vast strata of rock, studded with tens of thousands of these coiled gems; pink and iridescent, or flatly white like unpolished marble.
They walked amongst them, taking care where they put their feet. Severin had her notebook and the stub of a pencil. She occupied herself in taxonomy; cataloguing, sketching all the different varieties. She told the others to alert her if they found anything unusual – a relative term, now. Her sketches were imprecise and childish, but they captured all the details that most interested her.
Some of the ammonites were no bigger than a fingernail. Some were the size of a football. Not all were complete; there were partial designs, ones that had been exposed at an angle in the stone, so that all that was revealed was the valve at its mouth or the broad saddle of a segmented back.
Daye and Blues, with shards of rock, tried to chip some of them free. Daye stood straddling one of the larger specimens – Severin could only think of them as specimens – and hammered down with a pointed blade of stone. The stone shattered in his hand and cut the meat of his palm. Severin heard him call out and ran over. She had in her bag a strip of cloth, and she used it to bind the cut. There was no blood.
The ammonite he had targeted was split across the middle, still firmly embedded in the rock.
It is rock, Severin tried to explain, but the other two didn’t seem to understand. What we see here, she said, is just the tip. If you took any stone here and cracked it open, it’s not that you would find the remains of something compressed inside, but something that had been turned into the very same substance that contained it. Do you understand?
On the skyline, infinitely suspended against the horizon’s flat ribbon, was the cold purple flame of the declined sun.
They went back the next day – what they termed the ‘next day’. The field had been covered again; a change in the direction of that almost intangible wind had silently veiled it with sand, and levelled the sand into a perfectly smooth plane.
The wind put a peppery taste in their mouths, and the sand they cleaned from beneath their fingernails at the end of their day was a burnt orange, like paprika.
All three of them stood looking at the horizon, at the low sun perpetually burning in the vapour of the cloud. Morning, noon and night there was just this permanent dusk. Eventually ‘morning’ and ‘night’ were just the terms they used for the period between intervals of sleep. Time, Severin thought, had become almost bespoke; something tailored to fit their brief and lingering needs. She thought of her father, his unremembered face.
Severin had in her trailer an account of every type of animal they’d seen here. She had files written on reclaimed paper, the back of some forms she had found in a drawer in the office of the abandoned diner. She kept the files separated by type; insect; mammalian; avian; reptile. She did not know how to catalogue the ammonites, and decided that they should occupy a class of their own. ‘Fossil’, or ‘Evidence.’
Flies scrambled against the glass of salt-scratched windows. Hanging from the ceiling were half a dozen wind-chimes, made from dried bones, feathers, shells that she had found. Beads and polished glass, scavenged from the abandoned caravans. They shivered in a breeze that peeled in warmly from the desert, moving through her open windows, her open door. A soundtrack that emphasised rather than interrupted the silence.
She had stripped out most of the trailer. The bed remained, but she had torn down the cupboard space above it, and had replaced the narrow, polished formica dining table with an old fold-up writing desk, a school desk. She kept the blinds half closed. The light was so low she lived in a wavering darkness, lit only by the oil lamp on the inset shelf next to the broken shower cubicle. If she had nothing to do that day, she would sit on the steps and smoke and watch the horizon, her trailer positioned so that she had the best view of the encircling desert, without distraction or obstacle. If she had information to write up, she sat at her desk and worked on her files.
Most of the files were on reptiles. Not that there were a profusion of them in the area where they were living, but if you saw an animal out here, that’s what it tended to be. Snake, lizard, once something that looked like a cane toad, which they had dug up from underneath one of the trailers and had tried to eat. Blues had killed it with one emphatic blow upon its head, using the trimmed-down hockey stick he had found in one of the smaller caravans. Daye had volunteered for the task of preparation. His hands slick with the creature’s expelled mucus, he had gutted and skinned it, and they had done their best to roast it over an open fire, in the cleared space between the trailers. Most had managed one mouthful or two, before casting the remains off into the desert, into the liminal space beyond the trailers.
Insects were better. They ate crickets and grasshoppers if they could catch them. Like shrimp, Blues said. He turned up his nose at nothing. Snakes were the delicacy, prized beyond all others. The meat was tough, but filling. Sometimes, in a caught snake’s stomach, you found its recent prey – a desert mouse, a pop-eyed rodent that had been too slow or too negligent of its safety. If it hadn’t been badly digested, the fur slick and oily, the eyes closed and the white-clawed hands raised in prayer, it could be rescued and prepared in the same way.
None of this was strictly necessary, these gestures towards survival. There was enough tinned food in the diner to keep them going for many months. There was bottled water, there was a well for fresh water, and when it rained the trailers all had decent rain-catchers on their roofs. The temperature was more than bearable; the sandstorms when they came were exciting variations in their days. The dusk, unending, was a thing of distracting beauty. The azure sky peeled back to deeper streaks of blue and purple; the red-bellied, burning clouds.
Blues woke up aware of a long-deferred desire to set sail. He wanted to run off to sea; he had always wanted to run off to sea, but only now, provoked perhaps by these long weeks of land-locked semi-solitude, was he overwhelmingly aware of it. The sand and rock was around him like the broad expanse of an endless ocean.
There was a cluster of what looked like beach-shacks on the other side of the well. They had been torn down at some point, or had never been constructed in the first place. The doors lay in a pile next to the lopsided structures. Planks of wood yawned off from the main bodies of the shacks, brittle with minerals, dusted in a fine coat of sand. Blues spent his morning tearing up the shacks, kicking the planks free, wrenching the nails out with his claw hammer. He carried and stacked the wood by his trailer until the sweat thickened his face.
He didn’t know where to begin. He sketched out nothing in his mind or on paper. He decided to let each section of wood suggest its complement, for the whole to be grown organically, piece by piece, until he judged it complete.
Daye was occupying a deck chair on the bright side of his trailer as Severin approached.
You don’t sit on a deck chair, he said. Do you? You sit in a deck chair. It envelops you, you become part of it.
He was wearing his scavenged mirror shades, with the aviator lenses, and each lens showed to Severin the reduced line of her reflection. She stood over him, casting down upon him her shadow. She was thinner now than she had been before; the image of herself, laterally compressed by the shape of the lens, showed her thinner than she really was.
Severin took up a position on the fold-out steps that led down from the chrome door of Daye’s trailer. He had not personalised the trailer in any way. All the original fittings were still in place, and the signs of the previous occupants had been left much as they were. Photographs in their gilt frames decorated the shelving unit; in the kitchenette there were still the packaged remains of their uneaten food. The photographs showed a man in late middle age, a much younger woman, possibly his daughter, a boy no more than five or six. Severin had asked him to remove the photographs, but as she rarely went in to Daye’s trailer he had ignored the request. As far as she knew they were still there.
Where did you get that? she asked him, pointing at the can of beer, open, which rested in the shade between his feet. Daye picked up the can to take a drink, and when he had finished waved it vaguely in the direction of the diner, limitless in its hidden bounty. None of them liked to spend too long in there, but each foray netted at least something of a practicable value. Beer seemed as practicable as anything else today.
I would have got you one, but I didn’t know you were coming.
That’s fine. Are there more?
They could hear, in the background to their conversation, Blues busy at work. The tap and hammer, the ricochets of sound expending themselves against the flat landscape of the desert. Metal on wood.
What’s he doing?
I don’t know, Daye said, I haven’t been over to check.
Enjoying the sunset instead?
Every minute of every day.
Severin wiped her palm against the knee of her jeans. They didn’t wash their clothes often, and not just to conserve on water. There was a dry heat here, you didn’t seem to sweat much. A clean and sanitary heat.
Is this your morning, or your afternoon, or …?
This is late for me, he said. I’ll be turning in soon. He lifted the beer a can. A nightcap, as it were.
I don’t like it when our patterns change.
I’ll change mine back then.
You don’t have to.
It’s no bother. Give me a day or two.
What’s your earliest memory, Severin asked him. I’ve been trying to fix mine, but I think I’ve lost it.
Daye finished the beer. Slowly, with great deliberation, he crumpled it at the centre and threw it across the sand, towards the diner.
I was … I suppose I would have been two or three. I can’t say. But I was in the kitchen at home, when we lived in Trinidad, and I asked my mother for something. I don’t know what. Something to eat maybe, something I didn’t need. She said we could have it on Friday. ‘On Friday,’ she said, and to me, at that time, this seemed completely acceptable. We were in the kitchen. The light, it came through like sepia, like a sepia photograph. Early morning then, or late afternoon. Not like this.
What was so special about Friday?
I didn’t know when it was. It could have been any day of the week. It was a way of getting me to stop asking for whatever it was I wanted. ‘You can have it on Friday.’ It’s deferred then, but I had no idea for how long. A constant deferral, self-renewing, every day.
Are you sure that’s it, she said. Or is that just what you’ve decided is your earliest memory?
How would I ever know? he said. It may as well be that as anything else. Everything else has gone from me.
The wood was too dry for the nails to hold. Blues took from his trailer a length of twine, and lashed each plank together, building up sections that he could then fix with stronger rope. He needed glue, some pitch or tar to hold the construction in place. He needed to make it waterproof. And how to curve the planks of wood into the appropriate shape?
He stood with the hammer hanging slack in his hand. A moment, when he almost threw it over the roof of his trailer and kicked the wood to pieces. He let it pass. There would be a solution.
How’s your hand?
Fine, Daye said. He held up the dirty bandage for her to see.
It’s healing under there?
As far as I know.
It doesn’t hurt?
Tell me if you have any problems with it, I’ll take another look.
Were you a doctor?
It doesn’t hurt, he said.
That’s probably a bad thing, she said. If it hurts, it means it’s healing.
I don’t see the point of it hurting. A constant distraction. Why do nerves have to be so sensitive?
To let you know that you’ve hurt yourself.
It’s pointless, he said. I’d rather not know. I’m happy with this.
Severin said, Did you know that in the human stomach, in the digestive tract, there are more nerve cells than in the human brain? There’s a dense cluster of them in there. Some people think it processes information the same way the brain processes information, but faster, more intuitively – the cells in the stomach make the immediate decision, and the cells in the brain rationalise it afterwards. How about that?
He said, There’s something to be said for having a gut instinct then?
More or less. We’re more than just our minds, she said. Or, our bodies are part of our minds too.
I don’t think that gets us any closer to an explanation.
At that moment, coming in low across the roof of the diner and circling the little complex of trailers and caravans, came what looked to Severin like a black-headed gull. It pipped once, and wheeled away across the desert. Severin stood up to watch it, hand raised to block the low sun from her eyes.
I’ve lost it, she said. It was there a minute ago, now I can’t see it.
It looked like a seagull, Daye said lethargically.
She sat back down. Probably nothing, she said.
There was a roar from the other side of the trailers, the sound of shattered wood.
I’m going to see what he’s doing, Daye said. He eased up with much complaint from the canvas of the deck chair. While he was gone, Severin rolled herself a cigarette, savouring its blue smoke and cupping the bright tip in her palm as if shielding it from snipers. Daye came back and took up position.
What’s he doing?
He was trying to build a boat. He’s given up now. I said it was for the best.
Makes sense, Severin said. We are in the middle of an ocean, after all.
We’re not in the ocean, Daye said. We’re not on a life-raft, we’ve been shipwrecked.
He had turned his head towards her. Severin looked at herself, her frowning expression, in his mirroring eyes.
Stay with me tonight, Daye said.
He nodded, scrabbled in the dirt for the beer can he had already emptied and thrown away.
But come over to mine later, Severin said as she left.
They made the decision early to stop using their full names with each other. Then, a few weeks after that, one morning they decided to stop using their names at all.
Severin would become ‘S’, Daye would become ‘D’, and Blues would become ‘B.’
S felt that she had the most to lose from this, but that the loss was a liberation.
That was change, of a sorts.
D asked S if she would go with him into the diner.
I want to see if there’s any more beer. A few more cans – I’ve got a taste for it now.
I don’t want to.
Why not? It’s been weeks since you were last there.
I know, I want to keep it that way.
Nothing will happen. There’ll be two of us, D said.
D took a pillowcase, S her rucksack. The main door to the diner had been knocked off one hinge, and there was a space at the bottom where you could push it aside and squeeze through. Inside it was dark, lit only by a trio of faint horizontal beams that slanted in from cracks in the side of the metal shutters. It smelled of damp and rot, the seaweed smell of sharp decay. D put his hand to his mouth and pressed into the gloom, scuffing aside broken glass, bullet casings. S tried to follow. Her foot connected with something, a desiccated sliver of what could have been meat, or wood. Kicked, it rustled away into the dark corners.
I’m leaving, she said.
A minute or two longer …
I can’t stand this.
I don’t want to stay on my own.
Then don’t, she said. She crouched to slip back under the broken hinge. D stood in the middle of the first room, his back to the darkness, looking at the triangle of light at the bottom of the door.
There was a line of caravans on the other side of the diner, about a dozen of them. Once, they had been regularly spaced, but it was as if some force had blasted through them and knocked them all askew. Two had been thrown over onto their sides, and the others were bruised and dented, their windows shattered, the wheels ripped from their casings. They sat there in their scattered row, iced in the fine sand that accompanied the breeze, the tawny dust, lengths of rubber tubing from the window frames flapping against the broken glass and the twisted corkscrews of their windscreen wipers gently tapping an erratic code on their bonnets.
B found himself drawn to this area, this neglected and abandoned zone, peripheral even to the small outpost they had found here. He spent large portions of his day amongst the caravans, wondering what had happened to the cars that had brought them, or to the people who used to live in them. On every search, sweeping his torch into the darker corners, each caravan revealed further tokens and totems that he would spirit away to his trailer; evidence of those who had come before, who had been here and then departed. Household items, tupperware containers, cutlery, mugs, mats, bedding. Old books and magazines, framed photographs, notebooks, empty bottles, radios that picked up no reception. Soon, there was hardly enough space in his trailer for him to sleep. He took to sleeping on the roof, lying full stretch on its metal skin, warmed by the continual sunset.
The boat had failed. He had not been able to take something and reform it to his own design. Which meant, logically, he was prey to the environment that held him. If you cannot alter what surrounds you, then you are at its mercy. What next?
D woke with half the thin cotton sheet wrapped around his throat, the other half tangled between his legs. The sheet was drenched in sweat. He disengaged from it, stood naked in the light from the half open window. A dream, erotic. From this side he could see S’s trailer, and as he stooped to pull on his underwear he glanced over and saw S on her roof, aiming the dual lenses of the binoculars at something in the desert.
In the kitchenette there was coffee, his remaining half-dozen teabags. No milk, not even UHT or powdered. That was one thing they lacked, and there was now no way to get any more. Even the diner didn’t hold stocks so precious.
He brewed black coffee and stood at the open door to his trailer as he drank it, dressed still in his underwear, looking over at S on her roof, her binoculars, her crouched, semi-recumbent position as she balanced them on her knees.
He had the feeling that he had only been asleep for an hour or two, a disorientating moment of cancelled time. Which would make this, what? The middle of the afternoon? There was no way of telling, other than getting someone else to verify for you the distance you had covered. None of their watches worked. They had discarded them months ago. The white band on their wrists, untanned, had long since been coloured in by the sun, even at this low exposure.
He drank his coffee, retreated back inside to get dressed.
When he came out, S was climbing down the access ladder from the roof of her trailer.
How long was I asleep? Did you notice when I went in?
No, S said.
How long have you been awake?
I don’t know – two, maybe three hours?
We have an opportunity here, D said. We could reframe all these terms to our own specification. Why minutes, why hours, or days? Why not … He thought about this. Why not ‘units’, or ‘intervals.’ They can mean whatever we like. I was asleep for one interval.
S said, It’s been three units since we got here.
Not that long, surely, D said. What were you doing up there, what were you looking at?
There’s something out in the desert, she said. A glint, a reflection from something. I couldn’t see what it was exactly, the sand’s covered most of it.
The wind was up earlier, D said. An interval or two ago. I found sand in my bed when I went to sleep.
That’s just because you never clean your bed.
How far away was it, this reflection?
Hard to say in this light. A mile, perhaps two.
If our temporal terms can change, D said, why not our spatial ones too? Time and space are much the same thing, aren’t they?
So I’ve heard.
I thought you were a scientist?
I never said that, S said. I’m not anything.
A ‘span’, S said. I judge that it was a span away, perhaps two.
A span is just a mile, then?
No … half a span.
A span and a half.
Two thirds of a span.
Shall we go and see what it is? I could do with stretching my legs for a span. For a couple of intervals.
Where’s B? We’ll let him know we’re going.
Why bother, he’ll only want to come too.
S nodded to this. From his trailer D got his rucksack and filled it with bottled water, dried meat, a can of peach halves and a tin opener. He fastened his knife to his belt and balanced the aviator shades on the top of his head. When he came out, S was ready too.
Okay, she said.
Whatever the distance they had covered, when D looked back on the collection of trailers, the glow of chrome, each one looked no more than an inch long. You couldn’t call it a complex, still less a compound, or an outpost. Attached to nothing, it projected no power, no sense of anything other than itself. It was just there, in the desert, isolated in time and space. Why on earth were they there?
Ahead, D could see the glint of light that S had first noticed. It winked and glittered, a star in the sea of yellow sand and copper rock. It seemed no closer than when they had set out.
It was brighter out here, closer to the horizon; not dramatically so, but the difference was noticeable, the effect of the sun warmer. D looked back again on the collection of trailers; disquiet, the sense of having abandoned something. His hand was hurting, worse than it had done before. The cut by the ammonites. He picked at the dirty bandage across his palm – a throb there, the beat of his heart found new locus, erratic.
S was shielding her eyes with her palm, staring out as they walked towards the glint of light. The binoculars had shown her only the shape of something humped under the sand, this jewel of light, four spokes flaring off from it. It had been difficult to see against the line of the horizon, the evaporating white sun, its palette of sunset red and purple. She felt very tired.
I have it, S said. It’s just come back to me.
My earliest memory.
Are you sure?
His hand hurt; it was definitely getting worse. He held it in to his stomach, cradled it with the other hand.
As far as I know, she said. I’m … It was when we lived by the sea, in the old port. We’re standing on the pier by the harbour. They hadn’t reclaimed the land yet or built anything out on the promontory, so beyond the harbour, the lighthouse, there’s just water. Yes?
Me, my father. I remember my father. He’s holding my hand, and we watch one of the fishing smacks come in, the white boat, coming in across the firth and aiming for the harbour. It slows, it sweeps in to the harbour and we watch it tie up. There’s a van waiting for it on the slope. There are, she said, seagulls everywhere above us. Dozens of them, hundreds, wheeling and circling – they can see the boat, they know what’s coming.
They’re waiting for the overcatch?
Yes, S said. Everything’s unloaded onto the van, and the van drives off to the fishmongers, the restaurants. One of the fishermen, bright in his yellow waterproofs, takes a handful of sprats and throws them into the harbour, and the gulls come peeling down to scavenge them. There must be hundreds of them, the whole grey sky a mass of these screaming birds. That’s it. That’s the first thing I can remember happening to me.
They had reached the source of the light, the body, buried in the sand. B, his torch uncovered and switched on and pointed in the direction of the trailers, far distant – his last attempt to signal them, before time overcame him.
The pain in D’s hand was worse.
It’s my father, you see? S said.
They called it the ‘diner’, but it wasn’t really. There were ten metal operating tables, a line of sinks, dormant refrigerator units against one wall. Store rooms, endless supplies, the ghosts of many dead. None of them could spend more than ten minutes at a time in there.
He looked at his hand, peeled off the bandage and watched the blood well up in the cavern of his cut; overflowing, turbulent, brimming over his cupped palm, which curled now with the pain of it. The blood fell, paying the sand in red coin.
She felt the vastness of her fatigue settle itself around her shoulders at once. He gripped his wrist with his good hand, his bad one gloved in blood. To go back or to continue.
Behind them stretched the plain of the desert, and behind that was the cluster of trailers, the broken caravans, the diner. Ahead, contained against the horizon, was the unravelling explosion of the sun.
Then, like a switch, the assertions of memory. The horizon beckoned them, and what had been contained began to melt and fall apart.
He looked at her. She made the decision for them.
My father, she said. I loved him once. I’d forgotten.
Richard Strachan lives in Edinburgh and has had short fiction printed in magazines like The Lonely Crowd, Interzone and Gutter, and by Galley Beggar Press in their digital singles list. He has been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize and the Dundee International Book Prize, and won a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust in 2012.