SWIMMING helped Michael connect with the other person inside his body. The water pressed against his outstretched limbs and the thud of his new heart bloomed across his lungs. When his fingers grazed the submerged tiles, the stranger’s beat travelled up through his trachea, his pharynx, his auditory tubes, and regulated the pace of his kick and stroke.
He’d yet to vocalise this to Shelley who, dressed in a blue summer dress and her wide-brimmed sun hat, frowned at him from the doorway. He wanted to know the guy sharing his body a little better before introducing him to his partner.
“What you doing?” she asked.
Continuing to stuff a rolled-up towel into his rucksack, Michael raised an eyebrow. “I’m going to the pool.”
“You told me you used to cling to the side when you went swimming. The instructor took the piss out you for being so inept.”
The level of his swimming proficiency wasn’t the only new thing since being possessed by somebody else; he had taken up teetotalism and ate kale by the kilo.
“It’s only been eleven months,” Shelley continued, “are you sure Doctor Evans said it was okay?”
His eyes dulled any hint of a smile. “Do you not remember having this conversation two weeks ago?”
“I nearly lost you, Mike. The surgeons gave you back to me, but it was touch-and-go for a long time. I know it wasn’t me who had the transplant, but it affected me nonetheless. Humour me.”
His lip twitched. She shouldn’t have needed to tell him that again. “It was nearly a year ago, Shelley, and if I’m back at work I can go to the pool. And it won’t mess with the steroids. I’ve already been several times, haven’t I? And everything’s fine.”
More than fine. The heart had a purpose: it was the engine that drove him. When he dived into the water he felt like a paraglider launching from the top of a cliff. It was an adrenalin rush; the heart a metronome for the tempo of panic. And panic came every time. Perhaps he should tell her that when he rushed to the water’s surface a rippling shadow of a person wearing a sun hat waited for him, but maybe it would make her worry.
Michael had never heard of Buckfast-on-Wey, yet on Monday night when the town featured on TV and the presenter strolled past Marks and Spencer, he knew that St Anne’s church was several metres out of camera range. “And if you take the shortcut through the churchyard, Shelley, you’ll come out at the library opposite The Stag, the best drinking hole in Buckfast. Christ! How would I know that? How would I know that?”
“Well, you must have been there. What is it, couple of hours drive?”
They were together on a couch that had moulded to the shape of their arses. Charlie, their spaniel, lay curled by her feet.
He hadn’t visited, not yet. “We should go.”
“It looks like every other market town in Britain, Mike. Let’s not. What’s on Sky?”
“I’d still like to visit, though.” Lying to Shelley made things complicated, yet he didn’t want to admit feeling compelled to go; like he was compelled to swim along with all the other things that made him someone else.
He waited for another response from his girlfriend other than lip chewing.
“I don’t really want to.”
“Next Saturday? We’re not doing anything.”
“My nephew’s eighteenth? Remember? And I said I don’t want to go.”
“We’ve got better things to do!” Shelley faced him with her jutting chin. “You promised me that you would do the garden, remember? If you just did that we could start growing more. But, you never seem to have any time.”
“Of course, I remember.” It was such an obvious lie. “Christ! Why don’t you want to go?”
“Because… because you want to go there so much!”
“Oh, now you’re just being stupid.”
She sprung from the sofa and charged out of the room. On screen: the inside of Dickson’s hardware shop that had remained open since the Fifties. Michael pictured the younger son Aaron, who used to work there part-time. Memory of things so alien and vivid unnerved him and he hurried into the kitchen with Charlie trotting behind.
“What’s going on, Shel?”
At the sink, her shoulders rose, a sigh followed. She turned and spoke with a softer voice, despite the defiance of folded arms.
“Many times I asked myself what I would do if I lost you. I questioned myself a lot, did some reflecting too, and didn’t like what I saw. Still don’t. Now, as you get stronger and become someone I don’t even know, I grow even less convinced of myself.”
“I don’t understand, Shel.”
She stared at the floor. “While I probably won’t lose you because of the op, I think you’ll decide not to be with me anymore.”
He cupped her cheek, the touch making her meet his gaze. “How can you think that?”
“You’re not the same man, Michael.”
“No, I’m not.” The acceptance annoyed him. “And you’re not the same either. People change. Doesn’t mean they stop loving each other.”
She turned away.
“All right, Shelley. Know that I haven’t stopped wanting you for five and a half years since you nicked my seat at the Odeon. That’s not going to change.” His recent action of adopting a later bedtime than her suggested otherwise, however that wasn’t because of his feelings for her, but due to the drugs killing his libido – there were only so many times one can try without both partners feeling dejected. “Besides, I’m fifty-four, who else would want me?” He winked. “I know things have been difficult lately, but we’ll get through this, okay? Look, come with me when I go swimming.”
“The chlorine messes with my sinuses, you know that.”
“Have a coffee upstairs then while you watch your Poseidon.” He raised his arm in a strongman pose, though he was more prawn than sea-god; one that was about to be de-shelled using the bad weld that ran the length of his sternum. Four months ago he’d fuss with that scar hourly, now he could go a whole day.
“Okay, come with me to Buckfast.”
“I think you should forget that town. Concentrate on being you. I want Michael back.”
“I’ll concentrate on us.”
To do this he knew he had to discover whose heart beat in his chest, which is why he skipped work the following day.
Coffee shops, car park charges, and bland housing developments, Buckfast was all Shelley predicted. However, the strangeness of the previous evening continued with Michael finding that he knew shortcuts to various places, including from the leisure centre to the Cricklay estate, and remembered that the café next to the Oxfam shop on Durdle Street had once been a tobacconist until the council refused to renew its lease.
The couple seated at an outside table departed, their hands united, fingers embraced, a kiss, a head settled upon a shoulder. Michael checked his phone and saw that he’d missed Shelley’s regular lunchtime chat. If he didn’t leave soon he’d have to explain why he arrived home late. Worry tripped his guilt switch and he regretted making the journey, especially as he’d found no answers. His feet had led; his head had pieced the images into a landscape devoid of life or meaning.
Disappointed and hungry, he set off to find the car. The roasted bean aroma replaced by exhaust fumes, and then a sour mineral odour that made the heart rap against his chest as if he’d overdosed on caffeine. A black signpost tree rooted into concrete displayed the words, ‘River Walk’, and pointed to a path hugging a long, lazy murk of water.
Michael’s breath became shallow as he stayed close to the writhing water and its glossy brown skin. First-date butterflies came with the realisation that it wasn’t the town that had drawn him but the river.
His mobile beeped.
A text: _Evrythg ok?_
Shelley figured he wasn’t at work. He neglected to call her back after the missed call. Michael doubted the couple at the coffee shop neglected each other, not yet, not until the slouch into dissatisfaction. He wanted to text the words, it will be, in reply, but knew she’d want answers that he didn’t yet have. To tell her that he loved her would fuel her suspicion.
Under a bridge nearing the town’s outskirts, two swans disappeared round a bend. He found them again and kept pace for three quarters of a mile until the path veered left bordering a fence. He clutched the metal crowned by barbed wire and saw the river skirt the breaker’s yard as it departed the shadows of brick and mortar for the freedom of fields. Michael knew where to go.
He drove out of the town centre, entered Garricks View housing estate, and weaved through the knot of narrowing tarmac until hedges replaced brick. It had not been a compulsion to pull into a short gravel lay-by, more of a suggestion. Recognition grew when he saw the galvanised farm gate the other side of the passenger door.
He mounted it, dropping into the scene of feathered grasses and flittering bugs. As he raised a hand to block the worst of the sun from his eyes, bone-coloured fluff puffed from dandelion heads. Hollow stems of grasses cracked and bent, crushed like crisps under his feet, the din of insects resounded in his ears, and seed and dry leaf made his skin itch as he scraped a channel through the middle of the field heading toward the willow dominating a file of trees on the far side. A cold rivulet of sweat trickled under his arm and the sound of running water similar to a murmuring audience haunted his ears. A silt infusion stained the air. Michael increased his pace until he saw with surprise that a riverbank separated him from the willow. Weeping branches, the sun, and cloudless sky reflected in the water’s veneer while underneath surged a thick mass.
This was why he had come. Michael tried deepening his breath to slow his heart as he slipped off his trainers and clambered out of his T-shirt and shorts. The current pulled at him while his toes rubbed the dry earth, and he questioned whether his scrawny self had it in him to take the plunge. If Michael was a quitter, he wouldn’t have been dead within the past year.
He jumped. Bangbang. Bangbang. The cold clamped his skin in welcome as he immersed into darkness. Bangbang. Bangbang. A weighted hook, he sank.
Weeds tickled his feet. His eyes shot open flooding with dirty water. Bangbang. Bangbang. The heart’s pounding felt like it bruised his ribs and shook his eardrums, filled his throat as his ankles were stroked along with his calves, his knees. Bangbang. Bangbang. Bangbang. He kicked – toes scraped grit. His arms shoved up into the gloom. Bangbang. Bangbang, Bangbang. His fingers grabbed at the bitty fluid, dragged it behind him, its swirling shards nipped at his palms, ropes of weed brushed his feet again, twined between his toes, gripped his ankles. Bangbang. Bangbang, Bangbang. Michael strived upward. Through the clogged filter of muddy eddies, summer was one last breath away. Bangbang. Bangbang. Too far. Michael’s eyes bulged. Bangbang. Bangbang, Bang.
Cornflower blue sky visible through the water, blemished with the silhouette of a girl in a sunhat. His fingernails only scraped at the surface, at the figure static beyond the chaos.
A final kick. His lungs filled with hot summer air. The willow’s nest of roots offered escape. And high above him like a tower built on the cliff of a gorge stood the girl.
“You came back to me, Jake,” she said.
Alice. Upon her left breast and hidden from sight under a work blouse was a heavy black outline and vivid colours of a mermaid tattoo. Below that, Alice had a mole which irritated her. Michael wished he did not know this.
His teeth chattered as he wiped the excess water from his skin.
“You should get warm,” Alice said.
“Is there a bridge or a crossing point?” There appeared to be no easy way to get his clothes.
“No.” Her attention was on his chest. As she came closer, the memory of strawberry shampoo filled his head. “I’ll warm you up.”
If Michael hadn’t seen her touch him, he wouldn’t have known. She rubbed his arms firmly but the heat was solar.
“You called me Jake. Who’s Jake?”
There were three vertical scars on the skin of her wrists, two about an inch in length the third a little thicker and much longer. It was almost a relief to find something about her that he was not already aware of. “How do I know you?”
“No. Answer me. Please. At least look at me, Alice.” She didn’t. “All right, I’ll go first if you prefer. I had a transplant if that’s what you’re so intrigued about. And, I’m not Jake, my name’s Michael. Your turn.” He nodded at her wrists.
“What do you remember, Jake?”
Playing along with her game might lead to answers, though he doubted the usefulness of them, neither was it fair on this deranged girl. “I’m not Jake,” he said, though when he uttered these words, he did so unconvincingly.
Alice told him to lie down. He sat. She half-knelt in a cat-curl the way women in skirts do, her head settled on his shoulder. A whiff of perfume sedated by hormones and sweat came to him, a memory, like her lips being always slightly dry when they rested over his top lip as a precursor to exploring his mouth, or the way she giggled when they cuddled. The familiarity allowed her to ease him backward crushing the grass. Her bare leg snaked over his. The plumpness of her abdomen yielded to his bony hip. His chest was tickled by her eyelashes as her ear pressed against his heart. And he warmed as heat radiated from her body.
“We used to lie like this for hours, Jake.”
“What happened to me, Alice?”
“We came to the river for some wild swimming like we’d been doing since we were kids.”
“How long ago?”
“A year, exactly.” She tugged at the hairs on his chest, her pinky brushing his nipple.
“For a while, we messed around down by the weir where some other people had a barbeque going.”
With the words came the smell of charcoal smoke and burning fat, a clink of bottles, laughter. He embraced her because he remembered doing it a hundred times before, and when she touched his chest a tingle travelled to the swelling under his soggy underpants. His mouth was dry as he anticipated the movement of her hand.
She mounted him.
“When we wanted privacy we came up here.” Her skirt rode up and his weathered hands gripped her bare thighs securing her. Her hips rocked as her hands and gaze rested on his chest, a finger pressed his scar, traced it with the nail and picked at the mangled flesh like she searched for access. “Afterward, you went for a swim.” She scratched against hard muscle and let her nails graze over his ribs. The intensity of the scratches amplified, the pleasure peaked. “Then I watched you drown.”
_I drowned. I. Drowned. No!_ “Stop it!” He batted her hands away. Jake had drowned, Jake not him, not Michael. The beating heart – so fast, so strong had – been fuelled by panic all this time, compelled to relive its death until the river had dragged it back to the weed-thick depths. He intercepted her hands, turned them palm upward to reveal the damage to her own flesh. “What the fuck happened?”
“I wanted to be with you, Jake.”
Grief had forced an attempt on her own life. Perhaps that embrace of pain had shifted her state of mind to the extent that Alice saw Michael as the manifestation of her dead boyfriend.
“I’m not Jake, Alice.”
It occurred to him then that she had never once made eye contact. She’d been addressing the heart. “Get off!”
“Don’t worry, Jake,” she said, “I won’t let him take you away.” Her nails dug like hot needles. The hard keratin envelopes of her nails rammed full with his skin. She was at his chest like a cat furiously burying shit. Her fingertips bloody.
“Get off!” Michael shoved her, bucked his hips, she toppled. He kicked out against her limbs, flung his arm over himself, rolled onto his front, clambered to his knees, to his feet, and turned to confront her.
He was alone. Only grasses and flowers, and the water’s mirrored surface moved in the summer expanse. The sound of a cricket and the distant drone of traffic made eerie by solitude.
Shelley sat at the kitchen table swirling what remained of her white wine about her glass, the phone inches from her hand. When she greeted him with, “Where did you go today?” her voice wasn’t weary like her expression, but sharp as the nails that had shredded his chest a couple of hours ago.
He considered telling her where he had gone, but Michael wanted the river for himself.
“Work. Same old.”
Going upstairs, he told himself not to think about Alice. He chucked his clothes in the wash basket, reminding himself to retrieve his damp boxers from the boot of the car later. The girl needed help, he argued. “And I’m sure she’ll get it,” he said aloud, not completely believing this, and swearing that he’d never return to Buckfast. He had a distinct lack of readiness to admit she’d disappeared. He didn’t believe in ghosts and ghouls. What scared him was losing his identity.
“I’m Michael Goddard. I can’t swim. I don’t like swimming, or kale, or anything else that I think I may have liked this past year, but I like a fucking drink!” Minus the swearing, the statement became a mantra.
The day, along with the smell of the river, swirled down the plughole. Michael had gone to work and come home without much ado. He pulled a towel from the rail, patted himself dry, and stared at his chest. He had no idea how to explain the scratches alongside his scar.
Presentable, Michael Goddard rejoined his partner, Shelley who hadn’t moved from the kitchen table.
“I only asked where you were today, Mike, because your car wasn’t in your firm’s car park when I went to the dentist.”
“Oh, yeah, there wasn’t enough space.” He took a wine glass from the cupboard.
“It’s always there. In the same spot.”
“How often do you go to the dentist?” He laughed despite the deterioration of the conversation, then noticed that the wine bottle was empty. “Fucksake. We got anymore booze?”
Shelley’s eyes, red-rimmed, were focused on the hypnotic movement of the liquid rising in waves to the lip of her glass. Her jaw was rigid. Her hair no longer reached past her shoulders. “The new hair style suits you.”
“Where did you park, Mike?”
“Where’s Richmond Way?”
“Round the back. Jeez, what’s with all the questions? You don’t trust me anymore?”
“I really wanted to, Mike.”
Her use of the past tense made his gut twist like a writhing cat. “I went to Buckfast.” Whether it was guilt or the fear of alienating her that made him blurt this out, he wasn’t sure. When she didn’t respond, he added, “Shall we go out for—”
“You took a sicky so you could play tourist in a town half an hour away?”
He should have kept his mouth shut; it would have blown over. “Like you said before, it’s two hours.”
Now she played silent so that he would keep on talking. “I know that place like the back of my hand. I think it might be something to do with the heart. Like the swimming. It’s related.”
Shelley’s tongue prodded the side of her mouth like it was a word struggling to be vented. She toyed with her phone before gulping the last of her wine.
“It may help me work out who I am now. It’ll help us, Shelley.”
The chair screeched as she stood up and strode toward the back door. The seat had scored the dimpled plumpness of her thighs. “I miss you, Shelley.” It was a thought spoken quietly and her stride faltered upon hearing it.
The kettle boiled.
When she returned carrying the dry clothes from the rotary line, he stood with his back against the sink, mug in hand. The clothes basket hit the floor with a thud.
“You miss me, do you? A mania trembled in her voice as she walked toward him. “Do you?” her breath stale with alcohol.
She shoved her phone up into his face. He reared back, stuck with nowhere to go. The photo on the screen showed him in a field next to the willow tree, stretched out in only his boxer shorts. Alice was nowhere in sight.
“Well?” she said.
“What have you got to say for yourself? Who is she?”
He put down is mug. “What d’you mean? I’m alone.”
But, you’re not are you? You were with a girl. She was sat on top of you, Mike.”
“You’ve got an erection, Michael! How the hell did you manage that fucking miracle!”
His attention was drawn back to the image. “Aren’t you concerned that there is no fucking girl!”
She dropped the phone to her side. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
He opened his mouth to argue that it indicated something significant.
“I saw you both.”
“Shelley, there’s nobody there.”
“Don’t,” she warned.
“How did you know where I was?”
“I tracked your phone, of course. Who is she?”
“You tracked me!”
“Who the fuck is she!”
Alice was a memory that belonged to somebody else, or a bored young woman on her lunch break. A woman that he had run away from minutes after that photo had been taken, yet who had never been there at all.
Shelley picked up her keys. “Oh, and my hair? I had it cut last week.”
Her absence nagged at him. Hunger hollowed his stomach yet he was gorged on the possibility that he could lose her. No use in denying that he had done wrong; the fact that he had not stopped Alice, he’d just prevented anything happening, didn’t quite warrant hero status or even decency.
Jake had wanted Alice, not Michael. “It was Jake!”
Charlie raised his head from the cold tiles of the kitchen where he lay curled against the back door. The eyes monitored Michael, the lids sagged with worry.
“C’mon Charlie, let’s give you some exercise.”
He returned from the walk carrying pork balls, ribs and jasmine rice in one hand, beer and dog lead in the other.
Most of the food went uneaten. Throughout the evening he wrote several messages to his girlfriend. On rereading they smacked of guilt and so were deleted. He sent, Let me know you’re safe, then tossed his phone onto the empty seat next to him.
After, he’d drunk some more and dozed in front of a film, he received a text from Gemma’s husband: Just 2 let u know m8 Shelley’s at r gaff looks like she’s kipping here 2night. Best, Gus._
This was new. This was shit.
Shelley returned the following day. He’d been at work. She had packed some things and left him a note telling him not to contact her. He reread the two lines, each time interpreted them differently; he tore it up, refusing to be reminded of the situation, denying anxiety. If she wasn’t back in two days he’d talk to her.
The mind’s ability to shrug off something that’s inexplicable is astounding. Michael simply denied the events of that day in Buckfast ever happening. The photograph on Shelley’s phone would always show him alone whether that was what Shelley believed she saw or not, and so in time, she would doubt her own memory. A waiting game. Meanwhile, he’d make a small amends for whatever wrong she thought he had done.
With a beer after work, he assessed the overgrown patch of weeds and nettles that Shelley wanted turned into a vegetable patch, and estimated a few hours labour with a chance he’d complete it that evening. He shifted, squinting to the left of the bench that lined the rear fence. For a moment, he’d contrived the trio of drooping sunflowers she’d planted last year to be a sunhat, and the image of Alice – not Shelley – flickered at the back of the garden. The girl had no part in his past. Shelley was rooted, not only in his history, but bloomed in his present, and Michael was adamant, his future.
He stared at the flowers, glugged at his beer and then fished out another from the fridge. His simmering frustration urged him to tear his skin open and shove his hand under his ribs to seize the heart.
“Well I won’t, will I, dog? Or will I?” he sneered.
Charlie sniffed the overgrown border where the hedgehogs trundled, while Michael retrieved his arsenal of rusting garden tools from the small shed and devised a strategy. He plucked and swallowed one little, rather tangy, blackberry from the brambles that had invaded the patch along with the nettles and ivy. Nature steals back when one’s not looking, when inertia fattened by self-satisfaction allows what one has created to be lost. Michael returned for his strimmer.
With a fork he scraped the fallen nettles from the tangle of weeds into a stack, the tines catching in dense tendril knots of briar. Sweat soon blurred his vision and dripped from his nose, the saltiness stung the fresh wounds on his chest. The pain evoked Alice’s voice in his ears, the echo of her words swirling about his skull. He demanded that she be left at the riverside, in that place Michael did not know, in a world he had no place to be. The heart – his heart – belonged to Michael Goddard. He raised his can in the air and drank a toast. When the can was empty he added it to the pile of wilted wild herb and breached a new ring-pull in his thriving urgency to be rid of the other man’s insidious control.
Michael wrenched and twisted at the woody threads, thrust hard into mesh, jolted, rebutted by solid earth, and reared back tearing at the long stubborn lengths refusing to relinquish their grip. Driving the fork into the ground with his boot, rotating the tines, his weight pushing them deeper than the roots, then levering clods upward hoping the wooden handle held and his muscles did not tear. Often he resorted to kneeling, his bones sinking into the earth as he heaped dirt into a growing mound in search for those hairy thinning ends.
When the sun singed the horizon, bold shadows emerged in the gloom chasing Charlie into the house. Michael leaned on the handle of the fork, can in hand, covered in purple berry stains, stings, and bloody scratches, reeking of a bile-inducing mix of body odour and bacteria-rich soil. A ripple of worms further displaced freshly-turned earth, beads of dirt tumbled into crevices while fresh mounds shivered with threats to split apart. He gave a yeasty belch and declared the large rectangle of crumbled earth ready for seeding. Eventually, Michael turned away, tripped over the rejected mass of barbs and stings and went sprawling across the lawn. Some time later his appetite made him move.
With one bite of a slapdash sandwich Michael’s stomach felt bloated. As he chewed he saw the dirt smears from his fingers on the bread and decided to run the taps for a bath.
He’d returned half the tools to the shed when he remembered the bathwater.
On opening the door steam took his breath away. He grabbed the handle, turning it frantically, the noise abating. A gentle sway of water lapped the overflow. He raised his leg, held on to the side of the bath to remain balanced and dipped a foot then remembered his pants were still on. He hopped, stumbled, decorated the white ceramic of the sink with several offensive brown smears from the dirt, hopped again, and finally tossed the underwear through the doorway.
The heart beat loud inside him, but Michael had faced the fear and exorcised Jake. A new mantra. He also did not feel the heat of the water electrify his skin and tingle his fingers and toes because drink had smothered his senses. His body hairs stood upon end like river algae alive with the current. His belly turned salmon-coloured. There may have been a noise downstairs. Perhaps it was Shelley! Charlie barked once then grumbled. It had been nothing. What held Michael’s attention now, what he pondered upon as the combination of alcohol and heat lulled him, was how much his dick resembled an inflatable tube-man as it swayed beneath the surface of the water. He concentrated on that and not the fear that beat inside him. He smiled as the dirty-brown water lapped at his earlobes as he tangled his toes in the plug chain and listened to the regular splash of the tap-drops. Drop. Drop. As the murky water licked Michael’s lips and his toes were tangled tight. Drop. Drop. Drop. Closed eyelids kissed by turbid water. Drop. Drop. Drop. The heart now a distant echo, its pounding slurred. Drop. Drop. Drop. A weight descended over his body. Hands upon his breast, fingers at his scar held him under as pink clouds bloomed and the overhead light was blocked by a wide-brimmed sunhat.