Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Stoning – a short story

It was as he wiped his face before getting up to make a cup of tea that William noticed the dust falling from his forehead. He stared as it floated in the air, barely coaxed by gravity to the desk. After a moment of staring, realising his hand was still at his brow, William rubbed his eye and watched again as more microscopic grains joined the cloud. He sniffed, dragging some dust to his nose. It didn’t smell good.

He hadn’t been feeling well lately, William. Hadn’t had his usual zest. He was tired, always tired, and getting slow. Heavy. Walking had become an issue; where before he could have burst up a flight of stairs, or just jauntily strolled down a high street, now each step asked the question: do I have to?

A stroll had become a shuffle, and it wasn’t just his legs; his fingers were losing their panache. The keys on his computer were suddenly deeper than they had been. He plodded around the keyboard as if he was looking for a series of scattered possessions. He couldn't sort through his pockets, or count his crumpled cash. His breath was dense, his thoughts sluggish and mundane, his skin pallid and chalky. And now there was the dust.

He traced a cumbersome finger through the powder that had collected on the desk. Greyish dust, with a hint of blue, he fancied. Perhaps his skin was sloughing. But not flaking. Not flaking, but drowning, he thought. 

Maybe try the cup of tea, loosen up the joints. He wheezed himself out of the chair. His feet clubbed the ground as he walked to the water station, head throbbing with each step.

Two of his colleagues passed by, looking at him with trepidation, as if they were worried both about him, but also that if they asked, they might have to talk to him about it. They passed without acknowledgement, eyes straining at the ceiling. William tried to take a deep breath but his nose barely pinched at the air, and he continued, thudden-footed, towards his cup of tea.

At lunch, he went out to sit in the sun. He spent the entire hour on the grass, watching the wind in the trees, and barely moved a muscle the whole time. By the end of the hour, his skin was warmer, slightly, a surface improvement. But he was slower than ever. To lift up his head took the concentration of a crane operator. 

There was no point going back to the office, he decided, so he sat for a further three hours in the warmth, hoping it might improve things at least a little, but by the end of the afternoon, though his skin was warm to the touch, none of the heat had penetrated his muscles, which remained starched and stiff. He struggled back to the office to collect his things, and to tell them he’d not be in the next day. A day of rest, he decided. That was what was called for.

The morning sun cracked the curtains as William rested flat on his back on the bed. His thoughts were gummed up, his body lay fallow, static, somnolent. His mind chanced through options for anxiety. What kind of illness might this be, he wondered. What kind of cancer? What kind of life?  

Sitting up was manageable, if slow. His eyes barely wanted to move from looking straight ahead; they would move under his instruction, but only eventually, in their own time.

He went to the doctors' surgery. They told him to wait, which was the one thing that was easy, and he managed to sit there for three hours, without the time bothering him. In fact, he thought, it was more relaxing when he didn’t try to move. If he just stayed still, there wasn't really anything to worry about. He let out a breath at that thought, one that was barely able to leave his mouth.

The doctor listened to his complaint and examined him, sympathetic but hurried, before ruling out cancer as a cause, and suggesting some brisk walking, or yoga. But William knew brisk walking was out, and yoga had been unlikely at the best of times. He left the surgery and went to sit in the park again, where he watched litter gambol on the breeze, and his obdurate limbs soaked up what sunshine they could. 

He spent the day with his cares rolled up in a motionless daze, and by evening he again could feel the warmth on his skin. But the weight, the density of his body was unchanged. If anything it was even worse. His walk home was so lethargic he barely got back before dark.

As he lay back in bed, he could feel the warmth from his body reflected on his blanket. Perhaps I should take more notice of the sun, he thought.

The summer solstice was up. The man on the radio mentioned it, as William eyed the blue sky and wondered if he could go back to the park again. Ten thousand people expected at Stonehenge tonight, to welcome the solstice dawn, the radio man said. I’d like to welcome the dawn, thought William. That could help.

He took a train to Salisbury, and sat in his seat like a sack of sand. Then he took a bus. He approached the stones as evening fell, great crowds of students and hippies and costumed mystics converging for their vigil, carrying drums, blankets and liquor across the wide grass plain. The cheerful atmosphere passed him by, and the onset of cold at dusk had him worried. He entered the circle of stones, the ancient, cragged rocks towering above him. His back straightened and tightened, his head rolled in its place on top of his spine. His breaths tightened. He took a look at his skin, greyer, and bluer than before. 

By the stones, he felt better. The revellers' bodies gave him shelter, and at least the idea of warmth. He gently moved through the crowd until he found his spot, his feet resting on a dip in the ground. Beside him was one stone that was missing its pair. His feet felt secure here. His mind lifted. These stones were going to help him. 

The night passed briefly, easily. William didn’t move a single inch until the sunlight grew in the east, and the drumming grew harder, the shouting louder and the dancing wilder, and the light began to rise in the distance, and the sun breached the horizon, striking William’s sluggard mass, and he looked up, just, to see the sun one more time, before his eyes sunk into his head and his joints closed up, his feet dropped into the earth and he found his place amongst the stones.

And Stonehenge once again gave its solstice smile, this time with an extra tooth.