A short story by Amy Mackelden and Laura Tansley
Illustration by Jon Owen
I tell Jack that Tom lives on the Isle of Dogs. Jack says he could count on fingers the islands he’s been on, that what he knows he learnt from TV, and that doesn’t just go for geography but everything, from how Brad Pitt met Angelina Jolie to making apple crumble.
“Neither of those are complicated,” I say, trying not to offend him, but it’s when I try not to that I do and his mock laugh’s meant to say he’d happily pit himself against me in a pub quiz, or on Mastermind, his specialist subject the films of Michael Bay.
“The guy who made Transformers? Are you kidding?”
When I meet Tom I put my phone on silent, but the vibrations cause tension. We talk about how there are no headlines to wrap the chips up in anymore, no newspaper like when we were kids. Now the chips come in polystyrene that sweats, with plastic forks that shatter rather than splinter, and sachets of ketchup that will be with us for another millennium, in heaps, or what’s left of the heaps once the seagulls, rats, pigeons and crows are done with them. So when we’re finished there’s nothing stuck to the paper, to suck off, no words to taste; there’s no romance in chemicals. But the smell is everywhere. Making mouths fill with saliva, overpowering the lifts that smell of bleach that won’t erase the graffiti. And like the fingers that grope through packets, pokes, portions, sat on the swings in the park, or on the railings by the flats, or by the husk of a car, the taste of salt and malt and oil lingers on him.
Jack asks what Tom and I talk about when we’re together.
I reply, “Well, what do talk about with your friends?”
And Jack asks, “Which friends?” as if there are set topics he broaches with Martha, things he won’t say to Jane, that Kate gets his jokes like no-one and Paul’s so into Laura he won’t talk about anything else.
I say, “We’re both into history, have been since GCSE. We like to figure out how things start, see where they end, if they do, if people can change or if there’s a sort of fate in the way lives get written up and if you can trust any historian really, when eye-witness accounts get written out and in other countries they tell the same stories from different angles, alternative eye lines. And the film adaptations don’t even try to cast actors according to ancestry, or find a good fit for the protagonist.”
Tom says it’s an archipelago, fingering the atlas at its innermost page, where the cotton binds the paper, where the stitching is precise.
“Isn’t that a musical term, archipelago?” I ask him, “Isn’t that the lined paper, bars and notes we had to learn? That you wrote and I tried to? But looking over your shoulder never generated the sort of accuracy needed for A-levels, and Mrs. Dolan knew it. Said duets didn’t work, weren’t syllabus.”
Tom laughs but gets cut off mid-chuckle by the light from my phone flashing like a torch in distress. It’s Jack’s Morse code, his ringtone dot-and-dashing making Tom’s white-t-shirt strobe in the dark till I turn the handset over. The phone’s upside down and Tom’s shirt’s inside-out; he swings his jacket over and around his arms because it’s suddenly cold in here, and the label and hem of his shirt slips beneath the leather like tectonic plates trying to find a good fit, his convergent clothes the only thing I’d undo in any of this.
I remember how Tom would sit and make his own notebooks out of recycled paper and cardboard, tied with needle and thread, the sound of the string pulled tight like nails on denim. So he wouldn’t have to argue with anyone about what happened when.
He took these notebooks to places where the earth had more to say, dictated the pace of life because it could smoke, could crumble whenever it wanted to, the shape of it belying how it looked when all land was joined together.
I’d say, “but its edges are worn,” like his clothes used to be, “it’s hard to tell how it used to fit.”
We didn’t know quite how to fit when he was going on adventures, when his skin was tanned from the sun, when his nails were brown with dirt and every seam was frayed and his fringe had grown out and his hair curled up over his ears and neck. But now he’s back in shirts, back in a nine-to-five and we can fantasise about our other lives again instead of trying to live them.
Jack says, “Love Actually”, and I wonder how he timed this declaration so badly, so that it can only be a response or retaliation.
Then he says, “Batman Begins, The Constant Gardener, The World is Not Enough, all filmed there, on the Isle of Dogs”, trying to tie Tom up, Tom in, with trivia anyone with an internet connection could know.
“It’s in a Pulp lyric”, I say.
Jack says, “Yeah, and they keep finding unexploded bombs there, even now, the target of the Luftwaffe.”
“What do you know about the Luftwaffe?” I ask him.
Jack says, “My dad told me things, showed me a tin of medals his dad left him, and I know they keep finding them, it’s an ongoing process, but scattered, not on a calendar. Soon, all we’ll have is the medals, the bombs and the tins. There’ll be no survivors left.”
Jack asks, “What about Coney? What about Hayling? All those islands in name only, like the way that some women cling to their maiden names as if that stalls the change that happens once they’re married, or stops it.”
I ask Jack what he means, what change it is that girls undergo but boys don’t, and Jack laughs like I’m improvising and I’m funnier than I should be.
“Michael Bay made The Island in 2005,” he says, “and the rap it gets is worse than the film is”.
“Really?” I ask “Really, you think that?”
And every extra word after this is tacked on, is deposition, is the slight sediment you’re surprised to see in rainwater, or the grit you get on your hands from picking up change from the pavement.
I’ve seen it done somewhere, in films maybe, so I split the legs of a compass to some good-looking angle and make it take pivoting turns across Tom’s map laid out on the floor. I make it move like a netball player, or a ballerina, or someone else more athletic than I ever could be, ever was when we were at school, someone more in tune with what each side of their body is doing at any one time. I spread the compass even further and repeat the action.
“Acute will take you to the Faroes. But if you want to be obtuse, go to Greenland.”
Jack asks, “So he wants to be alone? He’d like to be stuck somewhere deserted, on a tropical island, and he thinks he can adapt to it?”
“That’s not really it,” I say. “The Isle of Dogs couldn’t be more populated. And even if he moved, I’m not sure where you think he’s going.”
Jack says, “I’ll pick it. I’ll choose his next location. I’ll print maps from Google. I’ll check the cheapest plane tickets.”
Jack’s trying to shipwreck him.
I say that’s not necessary and Jack says, “I was a prefect. I was librarian. In Sunday school they groomed me to take over, lead, because of the rapport I had with my classmates, and you can’t breed that. Tom can think island life is all about excitement, about connecting with the earth or something, but the reality is, you’re surrounded, so you’d better know how to tie knots and talk to sports equipment.”
Tom says, “What about Canada? What about Devon Island?”
And I say, “I’m not sure,” knowing I’d choose whatever he did.
“There aren’t people there,” he says, “just oxen, some birds,” and then he shows me pictures of them, dirty brown, Neolithic-looking.
Tom says, “They live on willows, on lichens. They survived the last ice age, adapt a lot better than we have, than we can, to cold weather. And they emit a strong odour to attract women”.
“Like Lynx, then?” I ask.
And Tom says, “The adverts would have you believe that nothing competes with it, but I’m doing pretty well without it”.
I fold out the map in place of him, imagine it’s him, pray that paper works like Voodoo, that the must in corners might signify something ancient, something deep-rooted between us that I can manipulate.
My phone rings and this time Jack won’t be ignored.
“Tell him about 28 Days Later, filmed on location.”
Streetlights flicker on like eyes slowly opening turning the blinds that Tom pulled down on purpose, pink.
“He’s lost,” I say, as I hang-up, “his signal’s gone,” and I scan the map again for safe-houses, high walls, obscure places, countries no-one thinks of.
It’s nearly night, twilight, we’re slow-waltzing into this without caution. If his face gets any closer I’ll have to move; I’ll have to make the decision to move.
“If I stretch my hands over a continent, like I’m trying to bridge an octave, I can nearly reach the Americas,” I say.
Twenty-eight days later Tom’s picture-postcard of Fiji says, “I picked. I took your suggestions, but it was Jack’s idea really. He sent me a list, helped me find hostels, came to my flat to box things up. You should visit sometime. It’ll be like when you snuck into the boy’s chalet on the Peak District trip, or when we shared a bed in Germany. The weather’s great. I’ll send my address when I have one.”
Jack doesn’t mention the postcard, but I know he’s seen it, read it and used the corners to clean under his nails.
In bed he says, “I was on the island earlier. They were filming. I couldn’t make out who it was. Stunt doubles maybe. People who looked like other people. A fat guy with a woman’s wig on. And it made me think, what if we’re not each other’s soul mates? Just people who look a bit like the people we should be with. What then?”
Amy Mackelden is from the Isle of Wight, and now lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. Her writing has appeared in Fractured West, NANO Fiction and anthologies from Leaf Books and Cinnamon Press. Her spoken word show, The 8 Fatal Mistakes of Online Dating (& How To Avoid Them), sold out at Durham Book Festival 2012, and she’s developing a play about working in retail. She co-founded northern poetry print magazine Butcher’s Dog, and blogs about TV at ClarissaExplainsFuckAll.com.
Laura Tansley is a recent PhD graduate. Her creative and critical writing has been published in a variety of places, including Short Fiction in Theory and Practice and Kenyon Review Online. Her writing with Amy Mackelden has appeared in Versal, Social Alternatives and Friction.
Jon Owen studied graphic art and design at Leeds Met, graduating in 2006. He now works as a freelance illustrator and designer based in South East London. www.jonowen.co.uk