by Philip Miller
He was changing the light bulb in his bathroom. The ladder standing unsteadily on the wooden floorboards.
The bulb had gone that morning. The light had flickered for a while. The flickering was wild, unexpected.
He had risen late, and now he scratched his chin and flicked the switch on and off again. As if that would make the bulb come back to life. “Oh fuck it”, he said, out loud.
He showered in the dim daylight from the small window. As he washed, he looked down at his stomach – it seemed bigger, hairier.
He made a cup of tea, with a splash of milk. The milk left a curl of cream on the darkening tea: it was going off. He turned the TV on in the living room. There was a blue screen. Some bubbles drifted across it, then a jellyfish. A voiceover started explaining the mysteries of the deep.
His finger moved to the TV control again. The screen was now full of jellyfish. Globules of undulating phosphor propelled in convulsive throbs, backlit so their translucent flesh and guts glowed eye-blue and bruise-purple. Others spread vaporous, tattered wings about them, swooping to the screen. Another was a small halo of glimmering flesh, soaked in violet poison, vomiting tentacles, streaming in knotted trails. “I need to change that light bulb”, he thought.
He took a new bulb into the cold bathroom and put it beside the sink. He noticed a wet footprint on the floorboards, ringed in slowly melting bubbles.
At the top of the ladder he looked at the light. A white glass bowl was attached to the ceiling with a metal fitting. The glass bowl was held to the metal fitting by three screws. Under the white bowl hung the dead bulb. He realised he needed a screwdriver, and climbed slowly down the ladder again.
He went to the hall cupboard. There were a few boxes. Some were full of items he never used, or would never use again: Christmas decorations, old tea towels, a pair of trainers covered in dried mud. There was a dusty grey hard drive for a computer, and a large box full of photographs and old birthday cards. There was a skipping rope with plastic grips, coiled beside the hoover. He got the screwdriver he wanted and, as he walked back to the stepladder, he heard the beep-beep of his mobile phone in the next room. A text message. He stopped for a moment, but then carried on to the ladder, climbed it again. He slowly turned one of the screws with a shaking hand, and held the white glass bowl in the other. Then he unscrewed another, and the bowl dropped a little. He felt the weight of the glass, smooth and cool, on his left hand as it slipped away from the metal fitting. He felt it drop into his hand as the screws released it from the fastening.
Leaving the two screws hanging, loose, in their positions, he stood at the top of the stepladder. He could see out of the top of the bathroom window. The bottom half was frosted, but the top was clear, and he could see the pubs and flats around his apartment, and beyond that church spires, the city hall, and the brown, dun, ochre and black roofs of the city climbing away to the west.
Beyond, the dark hills rose to the white sky. He heard the beep-beep of his mobile phone again. Another message. Or a reminder of the first. He stood at the top of the ladder, and looked down. It was a six foot drop to the wooden floor. Maybe as much as ten. He could see the dust on top of the shower rail. The pile of books beside the toilet, and a jumble of cosmetic goods he had never used. The sink, and the new bulb beside it in its box. He looked out the window again.
All those hours, he thought. What did I do in all those days? All I know is what I did not do. All those days.
He heard his landline phone ringing in the living room. He came slowly down the ladder and put the white bowl carefully in the sink. It rolled with a rasp on the blue plastic. He answered the phone. It was his sister. He could hear high squeaking voices in the background as she spoke.
“Hey, I thought you were coming over to see us today”, she said.
“Are you going to be late?” He thought for a bit. “I'm sorry, something came up”, he said. “Something came up”, he said again. There was a brief silence and she said, '”Well that's a shame”. She waited for him to say something, but he didn't. “Could you not have texted?” “Something came up”, he said. “What was so important?” “Something I need to do”, he said. “You're so … whatever”, she said. He said he would email her and said “Bye”, and then he put the phone down.
The TV was still on – the jellyfish. He sat down on the sofa and put his head in his hands.
* * *
In 1980, his father had just been widowed. He drove them all, silently, to Mallaig. From there they caught a ferry, in a storm, to Eigg.
They slept in a tiny holiday cabin on a cliff.
One day they walked for miles, and he collected rocks and put them in his pockets. So many rocks that one of the pockets broke. “Looks like you’re going to have to learn how to sew”, his father said. They went to the Singing Sands, in the shadow of the island's mountain. Singing, a local had said, because the sand is so pure it squeaks under your feet as you walk on it. He was young, then. He picked up a large stick, shaggy with seaweed and chased his sisters. His father sat on the sand, smoking a pipe, looking out to sea. Looking at them. Looking out to sea. And back to them again.
At night his father sat in silence in the cabin, held books in his hands. He never seemed to open them. Their cabin overlooked a beach. For the first few days it was too cold and there was too much rain to play there, but the sun came out halfway through the week. He remembered: my sisters and I ran down to the beach in our swim suits, clattering buckets and spades. The grass on our feet, springy and wet, gave way to sand, and then, ahead, my sisters screamed: the beach was covered in jellyfish, stranded by the tide. They were purple, bloated, sitting squat on mounds of tentacles. They stank in the sun, covering the beach with their stolid stench, the dross of their rotting corpses. “Daddy, daddy there's monsters on the beach”, his little sister called, as they huddled on the grass, eyes like saucers. His father walked slowly along the beach. Finally, after a time, he rolled up his sleeves and bared his coffee-brown skin. He stood over one corpse. It seemed to shrink as he planted his legs. And then – and they gasped! – he thrust his arms into the sand either side of its gleaming body. He bent his back and grasped huge handfuls of sand from under it. Steadily, he straightened, and slowly walked to the sea, where, with one arching heft, threw it, with a splosh, into the waves.
It took more than an hour to throw every jellyfish lying on that beach into the sea. His father worked slowly and without comment: the arched back, the deliberate digging, the clenched teeth as he walked to the tide and slung the jellyfish back. After every deposit he would check his hands and arms for stings, and move to the next one. Afterwards, he sat on a rock, chewing his pipe, as they played on the beach – digging holes, making castles – for the rest of a hot afternoon.
That night, he remembered, he couldn't sleep. He went to the main room of the cabin, but his father wasn't there. He looked out the window. His father was standing on the beach, silhouetted in the moonlight, the embers of his pipe sparking red. He paced up and down, his hands on his hips. He walked to the water's edge and stared out to sea. His father stood still, and stared and stared. He heard a noise, and his elder sister joined him. She knelt beside him on the settee by the window, as they stared out at their father, standing on the edge of the black ocean. “Maybe he’s looking for the jellyfish”, she whispered. “Maybe they’re going to come back and bite him.”
It looked as if his father was holding his breath. Finally, his father turned to walk back, with his slow stride, to the cabin. They ran back to their beds before he came in, and pretended to sleep.
They left Eigg the next day.
* * *
He was sitting on the sofa, a CD was just coming to an end. Outside the sky was still empty and white – without light or shadow – and people walked up and down the street or sat in cars or sat in the pub. In the bathroom the stepladder reached up to the light and the dead bulb hung naked from the metal fitting.
She had sat on this sofa, where he was sitting now, as she waited for the last taxi.
She had said, “It used to be so good. You destroyed it. And you won't tell me why”. She said this while he was rearranging the books on their shelves.
There was more space now she had packed away her things. She said again: “You’re still not going to tell me?” He said nothing. Her hands shook as she waited for the taxi. As soon as she left he picked up his phone and made a call.
But that was a while ago.
The album came to an end and he heard the last whirr of the disc as it glided to a halt inside the black machine. He got up and walked to his bedroom and picked up his mobile. He saw the sign for a new message and opened it with a press of his thumb. He read it a few times. He stared at it a while longer. And then closed it and walked toward the bathroom. He stopped and looked into the cupboard for a time, and then walked on. He climbed the stepladder again, and reached up to the light fitting to test its strength.
Philip Miller was born in 1973 and grew up in Teesdale, County Durham, England. He studied history at the University of Edinburgh, and has been a newspaper journalist in Scotland since 1997. He writes short stories and poetry and has completed two novels. He is trying to get one of them published. Philip lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland.