Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18

NAOMI BOOTH
‘Cluster’

THE MAN TWO DOORS DOWN pursues a secret hobby in the dead of night. This is one of Nessa’s first discoveries. She’s seen him around, in the daytime, in the time before, but only to nod to. He’s a solid man with a mild demeanour and she had assumed he was a postman, or a hospital porter, or a refuse collector; that he was engaged in some stolid, civic-minded profession. Surely a man like him should have no trouble sleeping. But just a few nights in, she finds him out. Nessa hasn’t slept at all. The nightlight is a small crescent of brightness in the dark blur of milk and skin and adrenaline that night has become. And then there is a sound outside. Something clangs as it drops onto the ground: metal against concrete. Then shuffling, shoe scuffing, a mechanistic clacking. None of these noises would be loud enough to wake her, if she were fast asleep. But in this new nocturnal world, they are more insistent than daytime sounds. They are intimate, in the same way that voices on the telephone whorl into the dark of your ear, closer even than someone speaking next to you. She glances at her phone, which now sleeps under the corner of her pillow. She tilts it, makes it glow. Three twenty-five. There have been letters from the police, opened by the people in the flat downstairs and left on the table in the shared hallway, letters about burglaries in the area. She should get out of bed and check on these furtive sounds. But even the thought of witnessing a crime is poor motivation. She’s drained. She is being drained, nightly. And yet, her body moves: she rises up, passing the Moses basket on her way to the window. Her hand moves the curtain, just a fraction, so that she can see out over the backyards and the black river of cobbles that bisects them. She stands very still, waiting for another sound. It comes again: the low tinkle of metal, the sound of someone about some secret business. She surveys the terrace gardens until she spots it: two doors down, there’s a small tilley lamp at the end of a yard and a man crouched down beside it. It takes a while for the scene to sharpen into coherence. A man crouches over a wheel, spinning it. A bike is upside down, and the man curls over it, working on something at the wheel-hub, adjusting it with a tool she does not recognise, and then spinning the wheel again. She watches for a while longer. The man’s movements are slow and full of care. He works over the body of the bike with a soft cloth periodically; stands back and puts his hands in his pockets. It’s her neighbour, she realises, though his face is turned away from her. She lets the curtain fall back into place. All this detail, all this secret work, is folded back into the dark. After that, she listens for him in the nighttime, when the baby frets and whinnies awake, over and over, startling out of sleep as though she is falling, falling, into something terrible, her tiny limbs twitching, her mouth a worried beak; the baby who does not know what sleep is, who doesn’t know its softness. She listens for the man when she scoops the baby up over and over again and rocks it and tries to teach it how to sleep, whilst beginning to forget how to herself — when this happens, she listens for his nighttime industry too. Often she hears him moving around, or a bike chain creaks, a reptile in the night, and she knows that their nocturnal movements are overlapping.

 

Callum sleeps. He sleeps through all of it, even just a few days in. How can he, she wonders. The baby makes such noises, such terrible tiny rasps and rattles and sighs, as though breathing is altogether too difficult, as though she might give up on it at the turn of each breath. Fifteen-days-old, the creature at her breast. The nightlight glances off the baby’s darting eyes: half-blind eyes that can barely see beyond her face, but they flicker wildly when the baby latches, as though she is checking sideways for competition or predators. Nessa hears scuffling outside; is comforted by the thought of the secret mechanic. But quickly she realises that this is not him. The scuffling is more persistent and less careful. There is laughter, and then there are low voices. Earlier in the night there was bellowing and singing, the voices of groups of people veering wildly as they stumbled home from the pub. It’s Friday night, she remembers: the weeks have lost their shape for her now that the nighttime lasts so much longer than the days, now that the dark seeps out and makes the days feel insubstantial, so very fleeting. But today she took the baby to a class, a class for new mothers in the city centre, so she knows that it was a Friday. At the end of the class there had been an opportunity to ask questions. The new mothers had all sat in a circle on beanbags with their babies bundled in blankets. The women looked variously blissful or alarmed or stupefied by the creature in their arms. I read a story about a pack of baby powder exploding and the baby choking on the dust, one woman said. Is it true? Can talcum kill them? Am I not supposed to be powdering him? God, another woman said, there are stories about everything. Try to relax a bit. This one’s my second and the older one, she’s five, she came home from school yesterday and said, Mum, what’s terrorism? Just you wait until that happens, then you can really start to worry. This is the easy bit. Women in the circle had begun to fidget then, to shift uncomfortably on their bean bags, whether from their episiotomies or from the talk of terrorism, it was difficult to say. Nessa had resolved never to go to a mum’s group again. The baby is still at her breast, the baby has been at her breast all night. Cluster feeding, the health visitor who led the group had said, is very common in the early days. The baby might feed for hours in the night. Hours and hours. It’s clever. It knows when to seek its mother out, with the best chance of her undivided attention, with the best chance of her body guarding it against the cold, and snakes, and raiders. But we don’t have snakes in South Leeds, do we, one stunned-looking girl had said. Oh I know, dear, the health visitor had said, I’m speaking ev-o-lut-ionarily.
    The new word flickers in her mind. Cluster. Cluster / fuck / bomb / feed. None of the associations are exactly friendly.
    The voices continue outside. Nessa listens but doesn’t move. There’s a bit of back and forth; some sort of negotiation is taking place. The voices seem to have settled in one spot, close to the back of the house. She scoops the baby up with her, keeping it latched, and moves to the window. Again, she moves the fabric just a fraction. There are three of them in the back alley, three lads. Two of them are jittering about from foot to foot, pushing their hands into their pockets, taking them out again, pushing them back in. The other is making a show of not being nervous. He’s wearing a bulky jacket and he leans back into the light cast by the street lamp at the very end of the alley. He’s selling: he passes something over to one of the lads. Then he’s off, leaving the pair of them to lean into one another, excited, or relieved, before they stagger off too.
    The network of Victorian alleys where they live at the edge of the city is a gift for buyers and sellers. They’ve often found needles in the gutters. And Sheila in the ground-floor flat of the house has called for an ambulance more than once; young lads and old, wiry men alike, who’ve not been able to make it to home before necking what they’ve bought. What city doesn’t have a bit of a drug problem, Callum had said, when they looked around the place. And anyway, that’s why we can afford a flat with a double-bedroom, so don’t knock it, babe. She’s not knocking it, not now. She’s glad of the company, while the baby clusters. As she lies back in bed, and the baby tilts back her head, swooning with milk, Nessa listens to those lads, seeking out their own comfort, their own protection from snakes and raiders.

 

Sometimes there is singing. There’s a couple whose voices Nessa has come to recognise. They stumble home together from the pub a couple of nights a week. They’re both loud and hoarse and boisterous. Some nights they sing together, ‘90s Britpop anthems, blundering through the words, compensating for inaccuracy with volume. Take me to that place where you go … Where nobody knows whether it’s night or day… And the drugs don’t work … You’re the very worst … And you’ll never see my face again. Tonight it’s mostly the woman singing; her voice cracks when she reaches for the high notes, and Nessa doesn’t know the song. The man whoops when she finishes. As their voices recede and the street settles back into quietness, the distant city sounds skitter across the sky: a freight train echoes for minutes, its rhythm on the tracks repeating over and over: gooseberry, gooseberry, gooseberry; silence again; a faraway siren swooping; a sudden whoosh from the motorway; silence. When the baby finally falls asleep in Nessa’s arms, she is too afraid of waking her to put her down.

 

A blackbird breaks the quiet outside. When Nessa checks her phone, dawn is still far off. The bird is misfiring in the dark. That’s another of her discoveries: the sounds of the birds. She hears them as daybreak approaches each morning. There are so many of them, clicking and cooing and calling out to one another across the dark rooftops, telling of the light beginning to crack open the distant horizon. She’s begun looking for them in the daytime too. There’s a pair of blackbirds nesting in the privet at the front, and they seem to be doing things so very carefully and so equitably. The nest is hidden deep inside the hedge and each parent, when it is time to leave, darts suddenly out, leaving any watcher uncertain of the exit point. Then they return, standing some way off, on the top of the gate for example, with a morsel in beak, checking and checking once again that no one can see where they are about to go. She watches this from the upstairs window, as she tries to settle the baby, and the birds take turns all day long, so prudent and diligent. They’re wise to be so careful. The mangey white cat from next door, its fur yellowed at the paws as if by nicotine, waits on its own front-door-step, licking its claws until its time for fledging. 
    Over the road, where the houses have small front gardens, two ducks have made their nest a surprising distance from the river, their clutch of thirteen eggs hidden underneath a shrub. The old man whose garden they have chosen fills an icecream container each day with water for them, and sometimes the dawn chorus admits some quacking. This afternoon, the man stopped her on her walk out with the pram to tell her that a plumber’s merchant has run over the drake — the old man had to scrape him off the road with a spade — and now the female circles her eggs dementedly, giving the whole game away. The foxes will surely come. What should he do, the man asks, as though the pram qualifies her in some way to give advice. I don’t know, she says, what can you do?
    She tried not to think about it as she walked the streets, the baby whimpering under gunmetal skies and falling blossom. But now that the blackbird has gone off at this early hour, she can’t help but return to it. Can a blackbird be insomniac? Or is something afoot? Is the fox about? All is quiet again. Even the baby is silent. As she continues to listen, a memory materialises vividly in the dark: an experiment they were forced to take part in at primary school. Each child was given an egg, a hen’s egg, at the start of the day, and was asked to keep it safe, to guard it all day long. The lesson was about the difficulty of looking after something precious and fragile, how much care was needed. Most girls put the eggs in their pockets, curling their fingers around the grainy shells and hoping to see it through to the end. But one of their group, Leanne, a girl whose hair was always dirty and whose life was already marked by loss and disappointment, had smashed the egg almost immediately, hurling it against the playground wall: I’ll only end up breaking it, she said, might as well do it now. Nessa had made it to lunchtime, when a brief lapse in concentration and a desire for more pudding had resulted in her leaning over recklessly and crushing the shell against the serving table. The crack was small, but tiny chips began to come away along its fine line, until she could see the white skin inside and knew that the game was up. At the end of lunch, she dropped the egg into the dining room bin, with the slop of leftover custard and chocolate sponge, and it had made a sad little plop of defeat.

 

It’s the couple again, on their way home from the pub. Tonight they’re heckling each other mercilessly. It’s the woman Nessa hears first. She’s jeering, almost singing her insults at him. The thing about you, yeah, is that you don’t know when to shut up, do you? On and on about boring shit. No wonder Paul left. With you going on and on about your dogs. No one cares about your pedigree bitch, Johnny— She shrieks. Her heels clatter; she’s stumbling around, winded by laughter. Yeah, well the thing about you is that you don’t have your own friends, do you, Shell? You’re only friends with the blokes you’re shagging, aren’t you? Not exactly known for your conversation are you? His voice is lower and rougher, but it’s still got that playground cadence. Yeah, yeah, well at least I don’t walk funny. Look at you, look at the fucking state of you, bow-legged, walking like you’re from Manchester, she shouts back. Yeah, right, then why are you shagging me, love? You can’t get enough of my amble. And look at the fucking state of you. Look at that fucking fringed monstrosity you’re carrying. What is it they say about handbags? Meant to be like a girl’s cunt, aren’t they? Peals of laughter. Howling. Singing. Silence.

 

In the middle of the night, in the time before, if she found herself awake for long stretches of time, Nessa would sometimes get to wondering about what it would be like to die. Imagine, her brother used to say to her when they were children, late at night, a torch up-lighting his nostrils and teeth, imagine, our Ness, how many people have died in this house. It’s over a hundred years old you know. And aren’t there meat-hooks in the cellar? Do you think they were only used for animals? And what was that creak in the hallway? Redbrick terrace houses, she was always awake in redbrick terrace houses. She’d grown up in a council-owned back-to-back in Meanwood, and now she was back in her hometown, on the other side of the City; another Victorian terrace sliced-up unconvincingly into flats.
    But tonight, as she lies awake listening to the baby scratching the sides of the crib-basket, she doesn’t wonder about who has died here, over the years; she thinks instead about how many people might have been born in this house. How many tiny creatures have spluttered into life, here, in front of the old fire or drenching the sheets of an old bed? People seldom give their consent to die; but no one can ever give their consent to be drawn into life. And endings seemed more comprehensible, now, than something beginning. After all, no one was really responsible for death; even a murder was only foreshortening. But a birth? Conjuring something into blood and bone and nails? You were truly culpable for that.

 

The girl in the flat next door goes out every Thursday night. There is music beforehand, loud laughter, screaming, ferocious and repetitive swearing. Sometimes, at around 3am, she hears the girl return alone, closing the front door carefully, padding up the stairs to her studio, starting a film on her laptop, American voices pinging at one another indistinctly through the party wall. Tonight, the girl returns with another girl. Nessa feeds the baby, she feeds the baby for more than an hour; the baby rests briefly, its head lolling back, and she thinks that she might be able to lie down, to rest for just a minute or two, but then the baby’s head lifts again, eyes soft and closed like a tiny bat’s, and it blindly latches back on, still hungry, clustering its tiny soft mouth. Callum turns suddenly in the bed; sighs; settles back into sleep. Nessa listens to the girls as she feeds the baby. They keep trying to whisper, but their voices speed one another along, rising, giggling, shrieking. Eventually their voices taper off into silence; only to re-emerge in the darkness as long, soft, lush moans.

 

It’s the couple again. The baby has just gone down in the basket when Nessa hears shouting from the end of the street. They’re rowing. But he’s louder than before. There’s no laughter and now the woman’s not making any comebacks. By the time they’re close to the house, he’s going full throttle. Don’t think I don’t know about it, about you and Jimmy, you fucking slag. Don’t you stop here, don’t you think you can stop here, don’t you think you’re not going to get what you deserve. Get up. Get up. You can fucking walk. Nessa moves to the window. Someone turns a light on in the house opposite. They can call the fucking police. I don’t give a fuck. The woman’s down on the pavement. She’s in tight white jeans and a white top that has ridden up as she’s dragged along. She’s not making any sound: she’s playing dead, trying to make herself as heavy as possible. Fucking get up, you cunt. You’re coming home with me.
    Stay on the line, another voice in the darkness says to Nessa. The police are on their way. Can you keep them in your sight? I’m inside, Nessa says, and they’ve just started moving again. Can you go outside? the voice asks calmly. Can you follow them at a safe distance?
    Nessa turns to the Moses basket. The baby is asleep. Callum is asleep too. But he’s close by. He really is. He’d hear, surely he’d hear and he’d wake if anything were really wrong. If the baby really needed him. She can go outside. She can leave them together for just a moment. The idea is terrible and wonderful.    
    I’ll try, Ness says. She grabs a coat from the hallway and leaves as quickly as she can. She can’t have taken even a minute but when she steps out onto the street, the couple has vanished. The night is darkest blue and as fresh and deep as a sea. She clutches her coat around her, walks up and down, checking the turn offs and the mouths of ginnels. But there’s no sign of them. I’ve lost them, she tells the call handler. I’m so sorry. Can you keep checking? the voice says. We’ve had a number of calls. The police are almost with you. Other people have called too. Other people have been awake, or woken, and heard and called too. Nessa turns back towards the house. The sky above it is clear, the stars glinting coldly in the darkness. This is the first time she has been outside alone since the baby. She feels giddy and bereft. She thinks of the woman, somewhere close by, but hidden from her. Maybe someone else will hear her again in the dark, someone who can help. Nessa remembers the first time she heard the baby’s heart beat in the blackness inside her: her own slow, low pulse answered by a new quickening. Maybe there’s someone listening for the woman right now, someone who will answer when she cries out, wherever she is.
    The police van approaches slowly. She flags it down. I lost them, she says, I’m so sorry.

 

Tonight an owl breaks through the darkness. At the same time, the baby laughs in her sleep, a goofy breathy laugh, her cheeks dimpling, her lips wet with milk. Nessa’s heart feels like it might be about to shatter. She cries often these days. Maybe it’s that thing they talked about in the class, Ness, the baby blues, Callum says. You could ask the doctor. You shouldn’t be this sad. But it’s not sadness. Not exactly.
    The thing is, she now thinks, she’s lost all of her conditioning. That’s what it is. She remembers learning about Pavlov’s dogs at school; conditioned to associate a bell with food, they slavered whenever it was rung. But the lesser known fact, her teacher said, was that when Pavlov’s lab flooded, the dogs lost their conditioning. A trauma, a shock, a revolution: you can lose everything you’ve learnt, all your habituation. Ness has forgotten all of her passwords; her days feel like waking dreams; she doesn’t know how to talk to people without being honest, or how to listen to music without weeping, or how to pretend she’s not terrified. 
    The owl screeches again. The baby raises her small, fat hands in the air, twists her wrists and points her fingers as though she’s conducting an orchestra in her sleep. It’s the caring that’s the trauma; it’s the caring that Ness keeps coming back to her, that has been the shock. After she gave birth, the midwife who was about to sew her up stroked her hand. I’m going to be ever so careful, love, she said. I do needle-work at home. And Nessa had felt like a precious, embroidered glove. It was the tenderness of the details that broke you: the tiny scar at the belly button, the tuft of hair at the nape of a neck, her tongue, Christ, the baby’s tiny, perfect tongue, rough and clean as a kitten’s. And that woman in white, it was her top riding up that Ness kept returning to. She hadn’t even seen her face, just her pale naked torso, and the line of dark fabric that must have been her bra. Was there anyone else to care about these details? Or was Nessa the only god of them? Other people had phoned in. Other people had heard in the night; other people had cared. The baby has settled into a deep, silent sleep in Nessa’s arms. Ness looks at her: at the feathered veins of her eyelids, thinner than lines of purple silk; at the tiny creases in her dark lips. I have numbered each hair upon your head. I have picked off each scale of cradle cap and scooped out the soft wax of your ears. Nessa listens for the baby breathing; and when she cannot hear it, she pulls her in closer and feels the baby’s breath in her own chest. She reaches her right arm under the duvet, finds Callum’s warm belly, rising and falling. Aren’t we all asleep — or awake — together, under the same night sky, with no gods except ourselves to care about these clusters of detail.