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A quarterly international literary journal

Changeling




/ Fiction /

The four of them—two adults and two children—languished in a parked car held immobile by the rain. The weather had ambushed them, as it had the holidaymakers whose vehicles lined that stretch of road, with its coastal view and access to the beach. The sudden rain’s tropical intensity was like nothing Craig or Amber had known growing up. It debuted on the car roof with the finger-snap of popcorn kernels and swelled into the frantic rattle of monstrous guns. Nerves taut, the two boys in the back gasped. The windows were an opaque dishwater smear. Where the view should have been, the North Sea and sky were blended as they were on the first day of creation.


Amber frowned. She looked over her shoulder at Moe and Merlin, her and Craig’s new responsibility, their damaged goods. Neither adult yet referred to the boys as their children. Most of the time, they were simply “the lads.” For Craig, Amber’s partner of twelve years, the rain was a release in a time of constant tension; he welcomed the spectacle of nature acting out and was sure the lads felt the same way. But before long the wild drumming settled into an easeful white noise. The car’s atmosphere changed. They could hear the music on the stereo. A curtain of rain around them, the interior, warmed by a dusty heating core unused for months, grew intimate. Craig became restless. He moved to release the handbrake but stopped at the touch of Amber’s hand. He couldn’t see well enough to drive, she said. They should wait.


Then it came.


What do you think happens when you’re gone?


It was Moe, the eldest lad at thirteen. He was a head taller than his ten-year-old brother when they were seated and head and shoulders above him when they walked.


What do you mean?” asked Craig, stalling.


When you’re gone,” repeated Moe. “You know, dead.


People have lots of different beliefs, don’t they?” began Amber, determinedly upbeat. “Hindus and Buddhists think we come back in different forms. Some people believe in heaven or in the resurrection of the body—

Craig was not going to follow her lead.


Personally, I don’t go near the question,” he said, “or any metaphysical stuff. I mean, it’s all unanswerable. I just stay focused on what’s at hand and let the mystery be.


Amber shot him a look.


Who’s the Mystery Bee?” said Merlin. “I like the sound of him.” The lads had retained humour as a habit, Merlin more than Moe. They recalled its shape and texture, but the experience itself was lost to them. A shy Merlin riffed on his invention: the Mystery Bee. Craig was grateful for the reprieve. A moment later, he put the car into gear. They were on the move, cutting an uncertain path through rivulets and pools on narrow country lanes. Soon they would be mercifully sunk in dinner preparation.


* * *


Craig and Amber had owned a studio in north London. It wasn’t much in comparison to the Notting Hill townhouse or the Welsh barn conversion, the second home, between which the lads had previously divided their young lives. The adoption had at first been a verbal agreement made in desperate circumstances, but once the plan pushed roots into legal paperwork, the couple started to look for a new place to live. There were schools to think of. The boys, it was agreed, had come to rely on each other during their mother’s illness and should go to the same school, which had not happened in years. Thankfully, Moe and Merlin had been well provided for financially. Prior to this point, Craig and Amber had vacillated on the question of whether to start a family. In rare moments when their positions had aligned on the affirmative, they had fantasized together about the Suffolk coast. The old daydream was now a matter of necessity.


The obstacles and anxiety of moving became the manageable stand-in for more daunting challenges. The recalcitrant unpacked boxes, the expressionless white walls, the unexplored locale—these things gave the new four-person unit a focus for cooperation.


The couple put a lot of work into the kitchen arrangements. In the crisis, it felt natural that cooking was the primary pastime. Prodigious country walks and bike rides vied for second place. Suffolk’s long level panoramas and the featureless North Sea presented a barrenness that spoke of a bearable, even conciliatory desolation. Only once, in the village of Dunwich, did a summer outing take a bad turn. In a quaint museum of three small rooms, Merlin was upset by accounts of the sea’s centuries-long incursion on the land. In that war of attrition, Dunwich, a great port town in the days of the Spanish Armada, had over time been reduced to a hamlet where residents would, according to legend, hear the sunken church bells toll on stormy nights, a warning that more of the living world would soon be claimed by the inexorable sea. On a sunny lane of workmen’s cottages that looked across stubble fields, Merlin cried into Craig’s chest. Craig understood the boy’s fear implicitly. He, too, heard the wolves of water howl along the coast.


* * *


The lads were playing badminton in the garden while the grown-ups moved ahead another increment in the endless process of unpacking.


You know they don’t really understand what happened to Paul,” said Amber.

None of us understand what the fuck happened to Paul.” Craig resented the compulsions of his temper most intensely at the moment he gave in to them.

I mean no one’s really talked to them about it, what he did. Sophie was scared to. She was worried she’d fall apart and about copy-cat behaviour—I don’t think anyone really explained it in factual terms or gave them space to ask questions. Yesterday, Moe asked if his dad had gone mad, and it looked like he might open up, but we were in the supermarket, and then you came along talking about ice cream—


I was at fault?


I’m not saying that.


Won’t the therapist have discussed all this?


A therapist wouldn’t have broken the news to them, and I’m not sure anyone did exactly. That’s what the new therapist says. Besides, they have a right to ask questions, whether they know the details or not. Endless questions if they want.


Of course. I agree with that.


I think we—you and me—need to work out together how to approach the subject with them.


You’re right.” He was sincere but exasperated. “But what about all this?” He indicated two boxes in which she had delved. She had disinterred some of their most troublesome belongings, things he had hoped to leave till last or possibly move into the attic untouched. These items had been rescued from the lads’ Notting Hill home under the guidance of Sophie’s executor. In discrete piles, Amber had arranged books, pictures, and knickknacks, some destined for storage, others claiming a place among the living.


You’re curating their parents,” said Craig, “it weirds me out.


What do you mean?


Look, this pile is Sophie and Paul’s stuff we’re keeping, right?” He pointed to pictures Amber had lent against the wall to be hung. “Here is the church Paul designed and here Paul and Sophie on their wedding day, by the beach with that ridiculous conch shell and the bearded burnout who stood in for a vicar. But in the box going into the attic, we have Paul next to a race car he drove at some prat’s stag party, and here are the plans for— not a church—a shopping centre. Look what you’ve done with the books! You’ve put The Varieties of Religious Experience in one pile and this book about London gangsters in another. You’re curating … no, you’re censoring. This is censorship.


I’m trying to focus on positives.


Paul turned a tragedy into a living nightmare. There aren’t any positives.


Amber put the exhumed items back in their boxes.


* * *


Was it possible the lads didn’t know? They had attended their dad’s funeral. Could they have been there, beside their dying mum, and have not understood what had led to their young father being cremated? It had been the worst day of Craig’s life. No doubt it was among the worst of several lives, not least Paul’s widow. Sophie had so few days remaining, three months of them, according to what turned out to be a very accurate prognosis. Then again, the very worst for her was surely the day she found Paul’s body hanged from a rafter in the garage of their Welsh home. The details of that event, not even a year in the past, were forever irrecoverable. Irresistibly, Craig tried to construct a likely account of what happened from the little that was known: Paul’s ghastly asphyxiated features, Sophie dashing to find the children before they made the same discovery, the call to emergency services, her frozen face and snappish urgency as she bundled the boys into the car and drove to a friend’s house. What had she been feeling? Had Craig himself tasted a little of the same anger, the unbearable sense of betrayal? Was it, as he suspected, simply too much for her to process, and she responded automatically, a soldier in the heat of battle picking up her severed arm to resume running across no-man’s land?


There was a stunned automatism about the funeral. In place of the flamboyant wake Paul’s death would have otherwise inspired was a crematorium service without speeches, where the piped music was generic and the mourners, when they emerged into the sunlight, split into lugubrious twos and threes, conversations muffled by unspoken questions and restrained emotion.


After the service, Craig returned to the car and breathed hungrily, breaking the surface after the deep dive into public grief.


As if Sophie didn’t have enough to deal with!” said Amber.


Perhaps Paul thought arranging a funeral and finding guardians for their children might take her mind off the cancer,” said Craig. “I’m sorry—shouldn’t have said that. It’s just so awful. I was thinking how Paul led such an amazing, fortunate life. He was a revered architect, with a lovely wife, great kids, two homes, profile in the papers—so much affirmation it was like the whole world was his yes-man. Now, all anyone is going to think of him is ’Oh, that’s the guy who topped himself and orphaned his children when his wife was dying.’ It’s like he squandered everything at the last moment and now he’s moral junk stock, and that’s him defined for all time. From now on he’s just the suicide guy who let everyone down.


These sentiments, though pitiless, didn’t convey the real depth of Craig’s resentment. When he imagined Paul’s final minutes and the thoughts driving him to search for a length of rope and to google “hangman’s knot,“ Craig was led to a harsher judgement than he could share. Paul and he had been at secondary school together. Craig had witnessed the smooth ascent of Paul’s life all the way to the final dizzying precipice. There were experiences Craig would never have had without his friend’s intervention: a flight over the Maldives in an open-sided helicopter; a hike in Welsh woodland high on mushrooms, a day hilarious with supernatural resonance; early morning confidences when Paul shared hippy theories that must have been a product of his having been adopted—that first misfortune giving way to a run of good luck that, in light of his inauspicious beginnings, could have felt like divine intervention. A vast distance lay between jet-setting Paul, feted wherever he landed, and any substantial form of suffering or disappointment. At the first real hurdle adult life put before the man, he planted his face on the track. Confronted with the kind of concession we must all make one day to mortality, the preternaturally lucky Paul grew brattish. He lashed out, not caring how much pain he caused, not even for the wife whose terminal illness prompted his despair in the first place.


This was Craig’s gothic reading of events. For a time, it was persuasive, and he could never wholly subdue these ideas.


* * *


A friend in the pharmaceuticals industry provided Craig with another way of looking at the matter. Paul had been prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor almost immediately after Sophie’s diagnosis. There was, explained the friend, a tendency for these antidepressants to promote suicidal ideation in patients new to them. This was the kind of heavy irony typical of modern medicine, where sleeping pills listed drowsiness as a side effect and men who clutched at youth took hair restoratives that left them impotent. The Greek gods had never ceased to sport with humanity; they had simply put on lab coats. As Craig understood it, Paul’s antidepressant permitted a morbid fantasy to spread weedlike and blossom into action.

Craig thought of Anna Karenina. The dark angel of suicide came to her as a monstrous inspiration holding out the promise of relief. On the way to the rail tracks, Anna kept at the periphery of her mind the intention compelling her, a fragile brocade that would fall apart on even a cursory examination. Self-murder, Craig learned, was commonly an impulsive act born of a moment’s bleak epiphany. Most suicides, like Paul, did not leave notes. The ones who did were of a different order: the ancient Romans—the aged, the infirm, and the terminally ill—who weighed up options, came to a cool conclusion, and put the house in order before running a hot bath and searching for a vein. For the others, to write about their state of mind might have been to change it and to live.


Paul was not the emperor entombing an entourage alongside his body in a final act of towering vanity, as Craig in his remorseless moments had imagined; he was a driver under the influence careening into pedestrians.


* * *


There was another reason for moving to Suffolk. Craig’s mum had retired here and, having succumbed to dementia, now resided at a local care home. He tried to visit every month, loyally supplying an animal level of companionship to a woman who had largely lost the use of language. On a day appointed to this duty, it was agreed that Amber would take the lads on an excursion in the car while he rode the bus. The arrangement gave him time to sift his feelings. He took a book, which might as well have been printed backward; his mind couldn’t get a purchase on the text.


On the seat in front, two middle-aged women were talking.


The baby was a preemie, so it was weak to start with. It passed away in the cot right beside her, in one of those cribs that hang off the bed like a sidecar. Just imagine! She did everything right.


Why does it happen?


The doctor told her babies born premature sometimes think they’re still in the womb. They stop breathing because they imagine the mother will do it for them. They pass away feeling safe and secure.


That’s never true.

Maybe not, but I like the doctor for saying it.

If only his mother could drift away like that, dreaming she was still unborn, a redemptive circularity ending a life extended beyond its proper length. Granted a day free from dementia, she would surely choose Paul’s way out and, unlike him, have good reason. Uncomfortable on the bus’s bristling upholstery, Craig squirmed.


Mum was especially bad that afternoon, chewing the skin between finger and thumb compulsively, as if it were a pacifier, pink-rimmed eyes goggling. Craig endured the ungenerous fantasy that his mother had been stolen and replaced with a changeling, some goblin sent to torture him and mock the woman he had loved—the mother who had read aloud from My Family and Other Animals, leaving him breathless with laughter; she who had once been the bedrock of his life.


Do you know who I am?” he said. Previously, he had baulked at the question.


No.


That’s that settled then.” It seemed cruel to have asked, but no one other than Craig felt the sting. “Shall we take a stroll in the garden?


She rose with surprising alacrity, the goblin possessing her happy to grasp Craig and prolong his suffering. As it was, walking in the garden was good for them both. When he returned her to the vinyl cushions of the armchair, among the other residents where a game show chattered on TV, a perverse idea occurred to him. What if he told her he was the son of the couple holding hands near the far window? Would she accept the claim or challenge it? Would the information be no more than another shapeless piece of flotsam floating down a murky stream of semi-consciousness? The vicious imp who put the idea in his head was placated when Craig asked once more, “Now do you remember who I am?


She didn’t, and he was no happier hearing it a second time. And still the urge to search out the bleakest perspective troubled him like a scab itching to be picked.


* * *


The healthy young staff he passed on his way from the care home had the appearance of something alien, skulls too large for their precarious mounting, wet eyes insensible. His mother’s decrepitude made a mockery of every stage in human development. The men and women exiting the staff common room or smoking in the car park, furtively observed by Craig, were meat puppets dangling from chemical urges, creatures deluded into thinking they were the pinnacle of evolution. Some barrier had been torn asunder. When the bus pulled up and opened its doors, he waved it away. In the little glass bus shelter, Craig remained, staring a burning hole in the middle distance. He wanted to be alone. He couldn’t stand the idea of anyone seeing what he knew to be etched into his features. And, despite a mounting sense of horror, it was essential to protect this frantic train of thought, even as the wheels screamed and sparked on the tracks. In his despair, Craig experienced something like a revelation, an exhilarating terror on which he needed to reflect. The world had unmasked itself. Numb and terrified, he gaped at a cosmic abomination, an object of writhing senselessness. He had known the scientific facts of existence a long time but never dared to contemplate the emotional truth they outlined, the unquestionable realization that life was the product of an infinite array of particles making impact over an unimaginable expanse of time and consciousness a cruel accident, an evolutionary trick produced in the search for better vehicles to carry deoxyribonucleic acid. Mindless eons of selection had endowed humanity with a shiny bauble of awareness, a cursed golden apple, the loss of which was a thing of terror—and terror its only meaning, the jealous possession of awareness being a motive for survival and nothing more.


Craig stood on a peak, the yawning abyss snatching at his toes, the wind howling—horror and wonder feeding off each other until his head might burst. He was cornered. The only person who would understand was Paul. If only Paul were here. Craig comprehended the unmanageable onrush of reality that had swept his friend away; both men felt the urge to rebel against a blind fate and let go. They were a brotherhood.


* * *


The house was a box of light. At the dining table, across the open expanse of kitchen, sat Amber and the lads. Moe had a small glass of Amber’s wine, Merlin’s head leant on his brother’s shoulder, their bright faces serious. The rays of the declining summer sun angled into the room, and yet the lads might have been huddling against the cold. Amber had her elbows on the table, hands extended. When the three looked up, Craig turned to the sink and poured himself some water, fearful of eye contact.


What were you saying?” said Moe. “Tell us what you think.


I think your mum and dad had such a bond,” began Amber, “they couldn’t stand being separated. I never knew anyone so much in love. Your dad wasn’t in his right mind at the end, but I know he believed in something after death—I’m not sure what—a place where he and your mum would be united somehow. It might sound silly to a lot of people, but I think what he did was done for her, and he probably believed that without her, he’d be no good raising you. That’s what it would have felt like at the time because he was so sad. He was depressed, and that can be very confusing. He loved you very much. And maybe he thought you two had each other, and he had to be with Sophie, your mum. After all he started out an orphan and had a very happy and successful life. Perhaps in his confusion, he saw what he did as a gesture of fidelity, something to show your mum how much he loved her.


Is that what you think?

Moe had turned to Craig not a mask, not a thing suggestive of mechanical drives, but a handsome and responsive face fraught with desperation.


Yeah, but I think Amber said it better than I could.


Craig’s glass of water conceded the field to a brawny single malt. He reached out to his wife, and his fingers found a living hand.


That evening the four of them unpacked another box. Moe wanted the sports car photo in his room. Craig hung the sketches of the church next to the fireplace. Merlin flicked through Sophie’s copy of the Bhagavad Gita. The more troublesome remnants of Paul would go into the attic. They would stay there, gathering dust in the darkness, untouched but unforgotten.


* * *


Do you recognize these lads?” Craig was back in the care home, where he had returned only a week after his last visit. He held up his phone to display Moe and Merlin stood shoulder to shoulder, their new school uniforms stiff and Chaplinesque.


No.


He had got off on the wrong foot but continued undaunted.


They’re your grandchildren.


Mum nodded, which she did at any speech not a closed-ended question.


They don’t look much like me, do they?


No.


No, they’re much better-looking. Perhaps they take after you. What do you think? Do our sons look like you?


Yes.


Right. I’m glad you think so. Now come on, Mum, let’s take a walk.

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