Bella found her father in the shed again the next morning. She creaked open the door to see him absorbed in a book and, as he noticed her, he quickly hid it beneath a pile of papers on the shelf and adopted a conspicuously innocent expression. He’d never been a subtle man. “Everything okay, Dad?”
She stepped into the shed and closed the door behind her. The weather was better than it had been over the last few days with clear blue skies and a fat full moon hanging low in the sky. For the first time this winter there was frost on the ground. “What are you reading?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he answered too quickly.
There was a little stool he was sitting on but that was all, so Bella leant against the wall. She was determined to get to the bottom of this today. “Come on, Dad, let’s stop being silly.” It was an echo from her own childhood. Whenever she or James – most often it was her, she recalled – did something he disagreed with, he’d always say ‘let’s stop being silly’. That phrase covered all manner of sins – from throwing a tantrum as a young child to staying out too late drinking cheap cider with what he’d called ‘unsuitable boys’ (if only he’d known the truth…). She hadn’t meant to evoke those days, but she found it came naturally to her, here and now.
“Really, Bella, everything’s fine.” His pale eyes were earnest, but she saw the desperation in his gaze. His hair was wild, and it was nothing to do with the wind now. The grime under his fingernails was still there – when had he last showered, she wondered? She saw him with new eyes suddenly; a normally composed academic, suddenly gone feral. Was it grief, or something else? She’d never envisaged her father as the sort of man who’d be taken by sentiment of any kind. The idea was anathema to her idea of the man, but losing a son, and in such circumstances, could break anyone. He was, after all, only human. Albeit rather a strange one, she’d always thought.
She stepped close to him and crouched down so he had to look down slightly to meet her gaze and rested a hand on his knee. It felt a bit odd – he’d never been a physically affectionate man – but he responded to it and, for just a second, she saw his façade crack. “Show me what you were reading, Dad.”
He removed the book slowly from the pile of detritus and handed it to her wordlessly. It was a leather-bound notebook rather than the actual publication she’d assumed. She leant back on her haunches and leafed through it. The pages were covered in even, tightly-packed script, in blue biro. There were lots of crossings out and corrections. She frowned at it and then suddenly realised what it was. She looked up at her father. “James?”
She leafed through. There were pages and pages of it. She could only skim some of it. The punctuation was erratic, and there were no paragraphs – it was all a solid wall of text, virtually unreadable – but it seemed to be some sort of fantasy or mythology or something, like a nerdy teenager’s first Lord of the Rings mimicry. She turned the page and saw there were drawings too: a crude map of the world, criss-crossed with dozens of lines in all directions. They were purposeful, not scratching out, and there were various landmarks highlighted. The Giant’s Causeway, Ayers Rock, Stonehenge, the Nazca Lines. The usual sorts of things. She turned another page, and saw a familiar snaking spiral shape. “I don’t understand…”
“Can you imagine him writing a thing like this?”
“What is it, Dad?”
“His life’s work, I suppose.”
Looking at it, it did seem to have taken shape over years. The ink changed, and the handwriting, although it never quite deviated from his trademark straight, regular lines, scored hard into the paper. In some places older text was scribbled out and supplanted by newer corrections, as if he’d gone back and performed revisions. The notebook was quite thick, and here and there he’d squeezed extra lines in at the bottom or the top, or blocked off whole new sections in the margins, like footnotes expounding on the main text. “Is it a story?”
“Not exactly.” He took it from her gently. As he turned the pages, his movements were almost reverent. “He was bright. I always said he was bright.”
Bella sighed to herself. He had always said that. And yet, James had achieved essentially nothing in his short life. School had been a disaster for him. He’d been badly bullied and he was quite sickly. He’d be off for weeks at a time, able to manipulate their weak-willed mother and completely beneath the notice of a father both emotionally and physically absent. He’d floundered academically and he was certainly no athlete. There’d been no possibility of him pursuing higher education, or even a trade. He was a misfit. And yet her father had always insisted there was more to him. Pity he hadn’t encouraged him when he was younger then. She felt a sudden stab of resentment over that. It was too late to start caring about his potential now, wasn’t it? “I didn’t know he liked to write,” she said.
“He kept it to himself. He kept everything to himself.”
Like you, she wanted to say, but didn’t. “Did you find this…after…?”
“Oh no.” He shook his head and smiled. “He showed me, eventually. A few years ago.”
“I inspired it, you see, with my work. He was my student, in his small, secret way. He loved to find links between things, to see patterns in the world you or I might miss. He brought together fantasy, mythology, fairy tales. He thought there was some fundamental truth behind all the old legends.”
“That’s sweet,” she said, as diplomatically as she could manage. The fond look in her father’s eyes as he turned the dog-eared pages of the notebook was making her distinctly uncomfortable. She wasn’t used to him showing this depth of emotion. Even at the funeral he’d been stoic, seemingly unmoved, a pillar of restrained dignity.
“I think he was onto something,” he said softly.
“It makes sense, you know.” His voice grew louder and it was as if he was reciting aloud something long-rehearsed in his head. “When you look at all the myths, at all the elements they have in common, you start to think there might be something in it. That maybe it was all true, in a manner of speaking.”
“Dad, you could say that about anything…”
“No no, this is different. I’m sure of it.” He laid the book down on the shelf and began to sift through the papers laid out there. “Ley lines, that’s the key.”
“Ley lines…?” She was starting to worry again. He was supposed to be a man of learning, not a believer in pseudoscience.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he smiled, “but it’s not like that.”
She straightened up. “What is it like then?” She looked over the mess of papers and books on the shelf, trying to figure out what it all had in common. It was just a seemingly random selection of concepts, myths and tales, but she supposed that was the idea.
“James and I talked about it a lot. There’s a fundamental need, something deep within the human spirit, to express the concept of the unseen.”
“The unseen?” She picked up a sheaf of papers – designs for this garden? – and flicked through them. Spirals and spirals, and lines coming from all directions, looking almost mathematical in the way they intersected the arcs, converging at the centre point. What was it called? Fractal? Something about fractal.
“The otherworld, faerie, the kingdom of the gods, Asgard, whatever. If the stories mankind had told itself down the centuries – millennia even – have anything in common, it’s that. We have a powerful urge to explore the realm of the imagination, to find patterns in the unknowable.”
“Sure, I guess.” She put the plans back down. “What does this have to do with a garden, Dad?”
“The world,” he said, gesturing with his hands, moving them back and forth to form a wedge in front of him, “is made up of intersecting lines, drawn between sites of interest to ancient peoples.”
“Monuments, you mean?”
“The monuments came afterwards. The key is to look at why they were placed where they were. Look at the alignment of the Pyramids of Giza, at the Incan temple complexes.”
“I thought it was all to do with the sun?”
“It is, it is,” he said, nodding earnestly, “but there’s more to it than that. There is a powerful energy suffusing the world, and ancient peoples were closer to the land than us, so they could sense it in a way we can’t today, with all our technology, our bright lights and wireless machines.” He sneered slightly. He wasn’t looking at her, just staring into space as he spoke. She began to feel very uneasy. “You have to be one with the earth to understand it, you see.” He was rubbing his fingers together, and again she saw the ingrained dirt in his skin, under his fingernails. Was that what this was? Some misguided attempt to return to a simpler time? To become one with nature?
“Dad, what are you trying to do here?” she asked carefully.
“James understood. It’s ironic that he, a boy who never passed an exam in his life, would open the eyes of me, a professor, to the truth. I think…I think there was something in his mind. Something that allowed him to see past the bullshit. He was pure. He wasn’t obsessed with the petty concerns of modern life. He should have been born five-hundred years ago – he’d have made a good monk, I think.”
Bella laughed, assuming it was a joke, but her father’s expression was completely serious. “Yeah, he didn’t care about that stuff, but I’m not sure that was a good thing, Dad. He didn’t have any friends. He didn’t have a life. He just stayed in his room and wrote…shit. And now he’s dead.” She didn’t intend it to come out as bluntly as it did, and her own tone shocked her. She felt the raw, burning grief again, tamped down over the last few weeks as she’d buried herself in her real life.
“Dead,” her father said. He was holding the notebook again, cradling it with more affection than she’d ever seen him express towards her or James. “Why did he kill himself, Bella?”
“Because he was sick, Dad. He was depressed. I don’t know. It’s too late now, isn’t it? Whatever it was, you…we…didn’t spot it in time to help him.”
“No,” he was shaking his head over and over, “not James. He was bright. He wrote all this. And he came closer to the truth than I ever did.”
She snapped. “It’s just the scrawlings of a crazy person, Dad! What are you doing in here? What’s this all about, really?”
“It’s not important.” He changed abruptly, tossing aside the notebook. He was the man she remembered again, standing up, straight and tall, with his impassive face and his unreadable eyes. “If you’re going to stay, you should make yourself useful and help me lay some of this topsoil.”
“I’m not going to stay, Dad.” And she wasn’t. She flung the door open and walked out of the shed, shivering in the cold air. She wanted to go home. This had all been a mistake.
Bella drove Lara out to a country pub for lunch. She wanted to get away from the house, from the sight of her father working in the garden. It made her angry, and sad. As they sat at a little table, picking at the mediocre food, she tried to explain what had happened in the shed. “I’ve never seen him like that.”
“He just lost his son.”
“He wasn’t like that at the funeral.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Lara shrugged. She popped a chip into her mouth and chewed slowly as she looked out of the window into the car park. It was a pretty part of the countryside, and Bella thought Lara would like to see more of it. She considered where they might go. There must be a B&B nearby. She didn’t want this week to be a total waste, but she didn’t think she could stomach another night in the house.
“The thing is…wait, what?”
“Hm?” Lara turned back to her, staring blankly.
“What was that about the funeral?”
“What? Oh, nothing. Forget it.” She waved a hand.
“No, I’m tired of people telling me to forget things. What did you mean?”
“I just…no, really, can we not?”
“Are you annoyed I didn’t invite you?”
Lara made a face. “Not when you put it like that.”
“You can’t bring a date to a funeral.”
“I’m not a date, Bella. I’m your girlfriend. Right?”
“Yes,” she said quickly, “of course you are.” She reached for her hand, but Lara didn’t respond. “It’s just…”
“I know, it was personal. And I know you feel guilty about dragging me into this whole situation.”
“Yes, exactly. We haven’t been together that long. It’s early days and…”
“Four months, Bella.”
“Like I said…”
“That’s fairly serious, isn’t it?”
“Sure. I didn’t say it wasn’t.”
“After what happened, I knew better than to talk about it.” And now Lara reminded her of her father that morning, unloading things that had been locked in his head for too long. “I held off, because I know how hard it can be. I’ve lost people I love before too. I didn’t want to push you. But, here’s the thing, you seemed fine. Just distracted. I thought the counsellor would help, but now I come here and I see there’s something more to it than that.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means…nothing. Seriously.” She picked up her drink, a gin and tonic, leaving a ring of perspiration on the table. She paused with the glass at her lips and, without looking at her said, “you know, I love you, Bella.”
Bella had been idly running her fingers through the condensation on her own glass and now she looked up. Lara was still staring out of the window, glass poised. When she didn’t reply, she slowly put her drink down and folded her hands in her lap. “Lara. I…it’s just…”
The door of the pub opened and she turned, grateful for the interruption, to see a big crowd walk in. It was the rugby team from her hometown, presumably playing away today, and she recognised more than a few faces. They came in, laughing, boisterous, red-faced from being outside in the cold, thirsty. Immediately the atmosphere in the pub changed and she felt herself relax. She tried to think of how to reply to Lara as she searched the faces of the players, wondering if there was anyone she knew well who might provide a longer distraction. Her prayers were answered as a blonde man her age caught her eye. He cocked his head and then smiled.
“Someone you know?” Lara asked. Her tone was flat.
He walked over to their section, cordoned off slightly from the main bar by a waist-high partition. “Bella?”
“Robbie,” she smiled, getting up from her stool. They hugged and he kissed her cheek.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I’m back for a little bit.”
“Wow. Hey, I heard about…”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.” His expression was genuine. There was no artifice in Robbie. It was all on the surface with him. They went back a long way. He caught sight of Lara over her shoulder and grinned again. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.” He held out a hand and Lara took it a little gingerly.
“Sorry, yeah, this is Lara. She’s…my girlfriend.”
“Right, yeah. Hey, nice to meet you.”
“Rob. Only Bella calls me Robbie.”
“He’s an old school friend,” Bella explained, sitting back down.
“Yeah, I figured.” There was a question there, but it wasn’t one Bella had any intention of answering right then.
Robbie pointed to their glasses. “Can I get you two some more drinks?”
“She’s driving,” Lara said.
“I’ll have a coke though,” Bella told him.
“I’ll come with you, it’ll be good to catch up.” She stood up and they went to the bar together.
She knew a lot of the rugby team, it turned out, though most of them she still thought of as kids. They were brothers of her old friends, or boys she used to babysit. With Lara standing awkwardly to one side at the bar, she reminisced, immersing herself in a life she’d made herself forget. When she’d left home, she’d put all of this to one side, drawn a line underneath it all and started her life over with a clean slate. She could be herself at university, and she’d seen no need to ever look back at what she’d left behind. But now there was something comforting and familiar about it all. At some point, someone – Robbie, possibly – pressed a lager into her hand and, forgetting herself, she started drinking.
“I’ll drive back then, shall I?” Lara asked.
“Mick’ll let you leave your car here,” Robbie said, “get a taxi back.”
“It’ll be fine,” Bella assured her. “Just relax.”
“Fine. Get me a drink then.”
“No problem,” Robbie said with another grin. To Bella he still looked as boyish as ever, with the same twinkle in his eye as he’d always had.
The afternoon wore on, and she spoke to people she hadn’t seen in years, often for longer than she’d ever have done when they were children together. People she’d barely known and had virtually forgotten except as vague pale shapes from the dim past, but who seemed to remember her well enough. And even people she’d hated. Now, in the warm glow of adulthood, everyone seemed to be friends, classroom teasing all behind them, neurotic teenage spats dismissed as the nonsense they were. For the first time since she’d arrived, she felt happy. Then Anthony sidled his way over to her.
“Bella, fucking hell!”
“Anthony,” she said. She’d spotted him earlier and had carefully avoided circulating too close to him. Now she kept her voice as calm and neutral as possible.
“I thought it was you,” he said. He was a short boy. A man now, though younger than her. Her brother’s age, of course. He didn’t look like much of a rugby player and she’d been surprised to see him with the team.
“How have you been?” she asked.
“All right. You?”
“Well, you know, not so bad considering.”
There was no indication from his facial expression that he understood what she meant by that, and that hardly surprised her. Anthony, vile little Anthony, a cruel and vindictive bully, a nasty little terror, the proverbial blunt instrument, was as stupid and ignorant as ever. But slowly, like the sun peeking out from behind the clouds, understanding came into his eyes. “Oh…ohhh…right, yeah. James.”
“Yes. James.” She remembered Anthony very well indeed. He was in her brother’s class. He was a horrible little shit. One of those vermin who would normally be bottom of the food chain everywhere he went, but who for once in his life had found someone lower than him to torment. Anthony was the reason James had spent so much time off sick from school; he’d made his life a living hell. Things were never going to be easy for someone like James, that’s just who he was, but most people had just left him alone. Not Anthony. Anthony was the kind to seize on anything that might elevate him above someone else. Anthony was a little shit, and she hated him. She hadn’t realised quite how much until he was standing opposite her, smiling his little smile, saying her dead brother’s name.
Her nostril’s flared. When had she last been this angry? “He killed himself, Anthony. He committed suicide.” The people standing around them went quiet and there was a subtle movement as everyone distanced themselves slightly from the brewing altercation. Robbie hovered. She could see him out of the corner of her eye, looking uncertain. He was perpetually in a good mood. He didn’t know how to handle this. Lara, likewise, was tense. She could feel her at her elbow. She was ready to follow her lead. Because she loved her. Holy shit. Lara had told her she loved her, and she’d just brushed it off and tried to distract herself. What was she supposed to do with that?
“Fucking hell,” Anthony said. “What was wrong with him?”
It was maybe the worst thing he could have asked. She remembered him asking that question before, in the corridor at school. She was back there then, walking out of her maths lesson, one of the few times they crossed paths. She was in sixth form, a world away from the first years who swarmed around, scared little children, not the wise adult she thought of herself as, tempered by life experience. She wafted past them, unattainable goddess, but then she saw James, solemn-faced, lumpen and awkward as ever, except now his façade was cracking as Anthony taunted him, sneering, cackling, a nightmarish little rat thing. “What’s wrong with you?” he was asking. “What’s wrong with you?”
Was it her imagination or could she still see the scar on his head where she’d grabbed a handful of his greasy black hair all those years ago? Where she’d yanked his head back and kept pulling until she saw blood?
“What was wrong with him?” she asked calmly. “I don’t know. I guess living your entire life with no one taking your seriously takes a toll. I guess being an outsider everywhere you go, being different, being quiet and introverted, not wanting to join in, being uncomfortable in your own skin, being awkward and shy and just wanting to keep to yourself and do your own private things and not being allowed to do that wears a person down. I guess never doing anyone any harm and being punished for that can have an effect on someone’s psyche. I guess being bullied so badly at school that you miss half your exams so that you end up never really amounting to anything is a little hard to take. I guess having some undiagnosed mental illness that people use as a stick to beat you with so that you internalise all that pain and anxiety to such an extent that you never dare to seek out any help eventually kills you. Who knew? Not me, Anthony. I never knew. No one did. We weren’t there. We weren’t present in his life. But you were, you little cunt. You were there the whole time, weren’t you? What was wrong with him? What’s wrong with you, you worthless fucking chimp?”
There was a horrible moment of silence as everyone stared at her. Anthony had shrunk even smaller than usual, and she felt an awful pang of sympathy for him as he stood there transfixed by her fury, no doubt wanting the world to swallow him up. Her face felt hot as she blushed. But she wouldn’t feel ashamed of this. She wouldn’t back down. Her brother was dead, and this was why. Because of people like Anthony who’d made his short life a misery. She turned and ran out of the pub, into the car park.
Lara was right behind her. “Bella!”
She stopped by her car, panting. Not from the run, not exactly, but because of the adrenaline rushing through her. She doubled over. She hadn’t noticed she’d brought her drink with her. She stared down stupidly at the half-full pint of lager in her hand.
“Bella! Wait!” Lara caught up with her and put one arm around her shoulders. She let herself be held, burying her head in her girlfriend’s shoulder. She was still holding onto the beer.
No one else had followed them out. After a few seconds she pulled herself free and put the glass down on the wall by the car. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. “Jesus. What was that?”
Lara laughed slightly. “I thought you were going to tear his throat out.”
“Fucking hell, I nearly did. Oh god.” She put her hands over her eyes. “I should go back in there and apologise. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.”
“No. It sounded like he deserved it.”
“He did. He was a little prick. Still is, I guess. Jesus.”
“Are you okay?”
“No. No I’m not. Holy shit, Lara.” She thought she was hyperventilating. She leant against the car and tried to get her breath back. She waved a hand in front of her mouth, as if that would help. “I just…everyone’s carrying on. No one cares.”
“I know. That’s what it’s like. It hurts.”
“No. It isn’t that. It’s…it’s something else. He didn’t matter, Lara. No one gave a fuck about him. They’re all just getting on with their lives. They’re sad, but mostly for me. James didn’t mean a thing to them.”
“Well, why should he have? They’re bastards anyway. A bunch of rugby boys. Who cares?”
“They were his classmates. They were my classmates. We grew up with them.”
“You don’t care about them, do you? You left.”
“I know, but that was by choice. I walked away from all this with my head held high. I left home on my own terms. James…James just existed here, with no way out. No wonder he fucking killed himself, you know?”
“You don’t mean that, Bella.” She stroked her head gently. She could tell she wanted to hold her closer, but she kept herself at arm’s length for now.
“Nothing my brother ever did meant a thing. And that’s the truth. His life was just a thing that happened. He never touched anyone. Not even me. I could go months without talking to him. I didn’t care. What was there to care about? He was just some nerdy kid. He was a nobody. It was just family at the funeral, you know. No friends. Who did he have?”
“Some people just…they aren’t like that…”
“And now it’s too late.” She could feel a sob rising in her chest. That grief again; grief she hadn’t understood until now. “Now he’ll never be anything, will he? Just a lonely guy people occasionally remember when they see one of his relatives.” She finally let Lara pull her into a tight embrace and, as she rested her head against her girlfriend’s chest and quietly cried, she began to understand what her father was doing in the garden, and why he felt this strange need to honour something James had done.
“What do you mean you want to help me?” Her father was frowning at her, poised with his wheelbarrow which was stacked high with compost bags.
“I want to help you do…whatever it is you’re doing. Is that so strange?”
It was the next morning. Yesterday’s good weather had gone as quickly as it arrived, and now dark clouds were glowering over the horizon, promising truly awful weather. Bella was wrapped up in a borrowed jacket, wearing wellingtons that didn’t quite fit her that she’d salvaged from the garage. They were already pinching her toes. “I don’t know exactly what this is all about, Dad, but you seem to think it was important to James.”
He seemed to give that some thought, and he looked at her hard, his eyes searching, probably thinking this was some joke she was playing. “Come with me,” he said, turning back towards the shed. They tramped across the churned-up earth and he opened the door for her, ushering her in before him. When they were both inside he shut it behind her and leant over the shelf with all his papers and books. “You really want to know about all this?”
“I said I did, didn’t I?”
“You said you wanted to help.”
“I have to know what we’re doing. I’m not just going to blindly follow your directions.”
“It would be easier if you did…”
“Sure, but I won’t. So there we go. You want my help, you have to tell me what’s going on. For real.” She was reminded of being a young girl, struggling with homework. She’d asked him for help, thinking that a noted academic would be the perfect person to explain whatever complicated concept it was she was struggling with. He’d proved less than useless. He just wanted to give her the answers and have her repeat them by rote – he didn’t see the value in nurturing actual understanding. It was a mystery how he managed to teach students.
“Fine then.” He brought out the notebook again. “But you have to understand, this isn’t just any project. This is important.”
“I get it, Dad.”
He shot her a look. “No, you don’t. This isn’t just about James.” He shook the notebook under her nose. “He was really onto something, do you understand? Something important.”
Bella scratched her head. “Yeah, you said. Something about ley lines?”
“For thousands of years, human beings have understood that there were two worlds, one we can perceive with our physical senses and one…” he tapped his head and grinned, “…one accessible only through the power of the mind.”
“You wanted to know, didn’t you?” he snapped.
“Yes, sorry. Go on.” She was getting uncomfortable again, but if this had meant something to her brother, she was determined to see it through.
He placed the book down carefully and began to motion with his hands again as he spoke. “Ancient peoples were more in touch with their inner selves. They were closer to the land, to the important things. They understood this kind of thing intrinsically and, I think, so did James. He was a very special young man.”
“So it seems,” Bella said. She thought of the book filled with his writing, jotted down over a period of years, and which none of them ever knew about. What other secrets about him could be lurking?
“Out of his time. He saw clearly what I only fumbled at the edges of: that the world is interconnected by strange energies. All the legends, all the old myths, they’re all telling the same story. They speak of a…a golden age, when mankind lived alongside the gods. When we were heroes. You can go back to the earliest narratives of all, like the epic of Gilgamesh, and you can see the same beats repeated with Heracles, Odin, Rama – wherever you look.”
“This sounds like your PhD, Dad.”
“Like I said, I was just fumbling. I had the outline, but it took an uncluttered mind – a pure mind – to cut to the heart of it. I heard the stories and thought they hinted at an underlying truth within humanity. He understood that the stories were the underlying truth.”
“Are you saying that they were true? That there really were gods and monsters and stuff?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He grinned, but it was a private grin; he wasn’t looking at her. “There is another world, Bella, and I think some people are blessed enough to live part of their lives in it. James was one such.”
“Okay.” She could feel her headache coming back. How was she supposed to take all this seriously?
“He saw everyday what we could only glimpse. And so, now, I’m going to try to honour him by showing the whole world what he discovered.”
“And how are you going to do that?” she asked, inching closer.
“I’m building a monument.” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“A monument? I don’t understand.”
He opened the notebook at the page with the map of the world covered with lines. “Metaphorically. I told you the monuments came later, didn’t I?”
“They were built at focal points of the lines of energy. They were gateways into the world of the unseen. Places where the gods could enter the world and where we could enter their world, like folds in reality. A man could easily stumble in and be lost forever, so they marked them out with symbols of dread power. Beasts and monsters like the sphinx, or symbolic mega-structures – pyramids. The motif repeats in almost every culture: the steps up to the heavens. It’s obvious. So obvious even a child could come up with it. It’s fundamental to the structure of our imagination, see? Something intrinsic.”
Bella was lost. “So…you’re building a pyramid?”
“No, no of course not.” He turned the page again, revealing the tightly wound spiral design she recognised from all his plans, and from the structure taking shape in the garden. “A different expression of the same basic idea. Circles and spirals. Basic, natural shapes. It’s all about the power in the Earth, see? Have you ever been to Stonehenge?”
“You should. It’s quite a thing to see.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
He looked up at her and his wild stare bored into her. Such was the intensity of his gaze that she had to brace herself against the shelf to avoid taking an involuntary step backwards. “These places exert a hold on us, Bella. They haunt our dreams. They are gates to our souls, and we have lost our respect for them. We build willy-nilly, bulldozing the landscape into ruin. We’re adrift in the modern world. How can you survive in a place like London?”
“What do you mean?”
“Concrete and glass. Brick, steel, neon lights and smog. No order. Just madness on an industrial scale.”
“It’s not so bad…”
“Man shouldn’t live that way. We all know that. We’ve made a terrible mistake somewhere along the line. But it isn’t too late. We can bring back an age of heroes.” He placed his hands on her shoulders. “That’s what James wanted. If I’d been able to understand him, really understand him, we’d have done this together. But now we can do this thing for him. We can make his dream come true – all our dreams come true. Then he’ll have died for something, won’t he?”
She looked at her father, more animated than she’d ever seen him before, almost shaking with the passion for this utterly crackpot idea. He’d been emotionally distant for her entire life, an austere, repressed man, seemingly incapable of affection. Cold. That was the word she’d have used, if she was pressed. But now he was lit up with this inner fire and she found something exhilarating about that. She didn’t believe a single word of what he was saying, but she believed he’d belatedly found some love for his son. And that was worth fighting for, wasn’t it? Maybe they could both find some peace in this. “Tell me what to do,” she said, taking his hands in her own.
The rain had already begun to fall by the time they started. It was unpleasant work in the cold and mud, but they were both the kind of people who didn’t let go of an idea once they’d put their minds to it. Her father was turning over the earth, laying compost, sowing seeds of native plants in the same spiral pattern that encompassed the whole garden. It was a wide, elliptical space, and every inch of it was needed for the project. Despite the plans he’d made, his methods were erratic, and he jumped from one part of the project to another rapidly. It was all she could do to follow after him, pitching in where he pointed. They began to lever up the patio, revealing crawling beetles and worms beneath. Her mother and Lara watched them silently from the French doors, clutching cups of tea. She waved at them both with a stupid grin on her face. When was the last time she’d done any sort of manual labour anyway? It got her heart pumping, that was for sure.
“We’ll need to reuse some of these slabs,” her father said as he hauled another one out of the earth and, grunting with effort, heaved it over to the wall of the house where he rested it at an angle.
“No problem.” She used a spade to lever another one up and then let him get his hands underneath to pull it free. Together they worked much faster than he had alone and soon they’d uncovered a great swathe of bare ground. The rain was heavy now, and her hair was plastered to her scalp. She barely noticed it. “What now?”
“Um…” He looked around. “We really need to finish off the main spiral path.”
She turned to see that Lara had opened the French doors and was looking at her with an expression of concern on her face. “Hi!” she said with another wave.
“It’s pouring out here. Come inside.”
“You’ll catch your death.”
“That’s a myth,” her father said as he picked up one of the slabs that used to be the patio, “colds are caused by a virus.”
“I don’t care,” Lara said shortly, “at least take a break. You’ve been out there nearly two hours.”
“We have?” Bella looked around and was suddenly impressed by what they’d achieved. Her arms ached, but it was a good ache. Maybe her father was onto something after all. She could see herself coming to enjoy doing this sort of thing.
“Come inside,” Lara repeated.
“Okay. Just for a break.”
She went in the back door, removing her muddy boots and sliding out of her damp coat. In the kitchen, her mother was boiling the kettle again. She looked pale and tired. She didn’t say anything as she fussed around.
“Hi, Mum,” Belle said.
“Hello, dear.” Her voice was small.
“This is what it was like, at the end.” She stirred the tea slowly.
“With James.” She sighed heavily. Her shoulders were slumped, and looked defeated.
“I don’t understand…”
“No, well, you wouldn’t. You weren’t here, were you?”
She dumped the tea bag in the little composting bin on the side and gave the cup one last stir before hanging it to her. “You had your life.”
“Of course I did. What are you trying to say?”
“You don’t know what it was like living with him. You think he didn’t know how people thought of him? He wasn’t stupid.”
“I know he wasn’t stupid, Mum.”
“Alan thinks he was some sort of…what’s the word? Some sort of savant. He wasn’t. He was just a sad, disturbed boy. And he was angry, Bella. So very angry.”
She swallowed. The tea was still in her hand. She hadn’t taken a sip yet. “He never seemed angry to me, Mum.”
“You weren’t here. You came home for Christmas. Sometimes we went months without seeing you.”
“I had a job, Mum, I had…”
“He was ill. My poor boy, he was so very, very ill. And there was nothing I could do. Now it’s all happening again.”
She shook her head. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
Bella watched her mother walk out of the kitchen, head down. She couldn’t make sense of any of it. Happening again? What was? What had James been through in his final months of life? For the first time it occurred to her that she’d barely asked about the circumstances surrounding his death. All she knew was that he’d stockpiled painkillers and whatever else he’d managed to find and washed it all down with a bottle of vodka from the drinks cabinet. They found him on the bathroom floor the next morning, cold and dead. She didn’t know if he’d been depressed or anything. They hadn’t talked about it. They never talked about anything. Furrowing her brow, she finally took a drink of the tea, then grimaced at how sweet it was. Her mother always got it wrong. Putting it to one side, she pulled her boots and coat back on and went outside to carry on with the garden.
The weather got steadily worse as morning turned to afternoon. The sky was almost black. They didn’t stop for lunch, just kept working, tearing up what was left of the rockery, tossing everything to one side, dragging out old plants by the roots, dumping them in a pile near the back door. Then the slabs went down. Huge concrete squares, suitably monolithic. Her hands slid across their wet surfaces as the rain pelted down despite her gloves and she lost her grip on one. It thudded onto the muddy ground, splashing her with dirty water. She barely noticed, just adjusted it with her foot until it was in the right place, perfectly aligned with the others in the arc. It took shape piece by piece, the great winding spiral, mathematically perfect, and she lost herself in the inexorable geometry of it.
As she squatted down and looked along the curve, she began to see what her father had meant about it being something intuitive within her. It was a very natural form, like a snail’s shell, and if there was any pattern that could tap into some fundamental force in the universe it was surely this. Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance and, for a moment, she was taken by the notion of powerful lines of energy threading the globe, and now converging at this point, this nexus of power. It was silly, of course. It couldn’t be true. But it did make a sort of sense. She thought about pyramids and temples, all lined up invisibly, all acting as lodestones for the human heart, pulling people to certain places, encouraging them to enact the same rituals generation after generation.
And then she had a vision of all those who had come before her, all the millions of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, who had worked on projects like this. Teams of labourers, skin baked by the fierce desert sun, hauling vast stones up slopes of dirt, straining against the ropes of their harnesses so they could erect an edifice to a god. It was as if she was there, in Egypt, looking down at the flat brown land below her, where all of the thousands of people on the enormous construction site were no larger than insects. So many lives, all spent on a single goal. Even if there was no true power in what they were building, surely that meant something? And how many others across the world had lived and died building such things? She perceived herself as part of a great legacy of builders, stretching right back to the dawn of her species.
The thunder rolled again and it brought her out of her daydream with a start. She straightened, feeling like a different person. This was just a small garden, but it represented something much larger. They were at the heart of something real; something incredibly powerful. “What now?” she called out to her father.
“We’re nearly done.” He had to shout to make himself heard over the wind and rain and the gathering storm. The sky above them was totally black. Brown leaves whipped through the air above them, carried on a keening wind. It was a portentous day. She could feel the electricity in the air, both literally and figuratively. He pointed. “We just have to complete this last whorl. Then it’s done.”
“And what then?” she asked.
“Then…then it’s done. That’s all.”
What had James seen? Had he dreamt of the same workers? Had his imagination taken him back to Egypt, Babylon, the kingdoms of the Incas, the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, now lost to the dust of aeons? What did he know that they didn’t? She was dimly aware of someone calling out her name as she walked towards the centre of the spiral they’d made, unconsciously following the path. The wheelbarrow was ready, loaded with more of the great concrete slabs. They lifted up the first one together and laid it down on the ground in the right place. It squelched in the mud and shifted. They edged it into place with their boots. There was no need to communicate about its positioning, they could both sense the rightness of it somehow. Thunder pealed, and then a flash of lightning lit up the sky.
She ignored it. The next slab awaited. They moved like they were in a dream, grabbing it together, lifting it together, dropping it into place. No need to move it now, it was perfect where it was. Their movements were guided by something greater than themselves. Just two more now. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed, the storm was right upon them, a great confluence of energy and rage. This was it then. The next slab, down in place, the spiral ever tightening towards the heart of it. She could feel the hidden power begin to pulse around it, unbelievable as it was. James was right, wasn’t he? Somehow, that poor boy had really been onto something.
They moved with dreamlike slowness, taking a grip on the last great slab. Wordlessly they heaved it up and then they sidestepped over the slippery ground, manoeuvring slowly into position. They stood there, in the very middle of the garden, at the heart of their monument, about to place the capstone and fulfil the dream of a dead young man. A fork of lightning split the sky in two.
She was there by her side, tugging at her arm. She turned slowly, staring at her uncomprehendingly. “What?”
“Bella! For god’s sake stop!” It was Lara, blinking away the rain under her mother’s bright yellow mac. She looked terrified.
“We’re nearly done,” she said simply.
“You have to stop! This is ridiculous! It’s thunder and lightning out here! You’ll be killed!”
“No. We have to do this. It’s important.”
“Because…” She didn’t know why. She just knew that it was. She had to finish this. It was about James, and about his ideas. “Because it has to mean something. It all has to mean something.” Her voice was quiet, cracked. She was exhausted. Her whole body ached. Why hadn’t she noticed that?
“This is madness.”
A spike of anger. Again. She was always getting angry. Her whole life, now she thought about it. With Anthony all those years ago, and at her parents when she’d first come out to them. God, she’d forgotten that. She’d forgotten everything. The fight that had ended her relationship with Mae. The argument at the funeral with her aunt. She’d just glossed over it all. She always did that. “This was your idea,” she said thickly, “you said I should help him.”
Lara was still tugging desperately at her arm. She still held the slab with her father. They were both motionless in the storm. “You don’t see it, do you?” She had to raise her voice over another crack of thunder.
“You’re the same. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but I think I get it now. Your dad, your brother, you. You’re all the same.”
She shook her head firmly. “No. No we’re not.”
“You’re obsessive, all of you. You don’t see anything except what’s in front of you. All the things I’ve learned about you these past few days, it’s brought it all into focus.” It wasn’t rain running down her face; she was crying. Bella stared at her, transfixed. “You…you don’t see how strange it is, do you? I don’t know anything about you, about your life. You never talk about it. I thought maybe…maybe something had happened to you. But no. You just don’t care. You’re indifferent. Everything in your life fits into neat little boxes: it’s compartmentalised. Who was that man, Robbie?”
“What about him?”
“Who was he? Were you two ever an item?”
“I…kind of…it’s complicated…”
Lara took a deep, ragged breath. “You don’t think I ought to know about that?”
“It was years ago…”
“I didn’t know who you were until just now.” Lara stepped away from her. “Do you love me?”
“I…I don’t know…” Her and her father were still holding the concrete slab. He was staring into space, looking at nothing at all. He might as well not have been there.
“No, you don’t do you? We’ve been together four months, and you have no idea what you feel about me.”
“Four months is nothing!”
“No, it’s something, Bella. It’s a real relationship. I thought of you as…as wise or something. Experienced. Cool. You were so composed about everything, so controlled. I worshipped you.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening here.”
“Neither do I.” She held out a hand. “What are you doing? What is this garden?”
“It’s a…a gateway…or something…” It sounded so stupid now. She bowed her head, feeling all the weight of the stone they carried in her shoulders.
“What’s in the centre, Bella?”
She looked down. What was in the centre? What would they find? What would happen when they laid down this final slab? Lightning lit up the garden again. She could almost smell the electricity in the air. “Nothing,” she said, and the thunder swallowed it.
Lara heard her though. “Exactly. There’s nothing. Just like you. You’re empty inside. There’s no love in this family, just madness. Your lives are a series of vignettes. I can’t even grasp what’s going on here, why you’re doing this crazy thing. But it’s taken hold of you, just like it took hold of your father and your brother before, I guess. You’re all searching for some kind of meaning in the world, but you’ve somehow missed the only things that matters.” She looked up at the sky, with its towering, roiling banks of clouds high above them, then back at Bella. “You were right though, about your brother.”
“What about him?” she asked hoarsely.
“He never meant a thing to anyone. But that wasn’t his fault.” She turned and started to walk away.
Bella went to go after her, but she couldn’t drag her hands away from the slab she held. It was like she was frozen in place. “Where are you going?” she screamed.
“Home. I’m getting a train.”
“But…you can’t do this! You can’t just walk away!”
“Yes I can. Get help, Bella. Find a fucking therapist. And get one for your dad too.”
“You’re being unreasonable!”
But she was gone, back into the house, presumably to get her things and flee. Her mother watched them sadly from the window and Bella met her eyes.
“It’s time,” her father rumbled over the storm.
Her hands twitched. What would happen when this slab fell?
Nothing, of course. Lara was right. And yet she stood there, as if it mattered, as if everything in the world had led up to this moment. They let go, and it fell to earth with an almighty crash of thunder. The stone split in two, and it was done.