HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

The Turner Exhibition

The antennae of the red bus drag along lines suspended from poles, sending off sparks and tiny flashes of blue lightning.
He leads her upstairs and to the front seat, because this is what he thinks she likes. She remembers liking it when there were two of them to jump up and down together, shouting with joy as the bus bounced along the wild road across the moor, but this bus does not bounce. It slithers sickly up the walled ledge, below which the river narrows as it flows under the bridge. He points things out, trying to engage her, and she says ‘Yes,’ and again, ‘Yes’. At the top, the road flattens, then descends slightly between fields, bisecting a hamlet expanded into suburban shapelessness by a straggle of modern dwellings, detached, semi, bungalow, in dispiriting brick and pallid stone.
Closer in to town, behind walls, topped with broken glass and gateless gateways, dank tarmac winds through forests of laurel and rhododendron to the grandiose entrances of rambling piles, sinister, soot-black and garnished with towers, ranks of chimneys and crenellated balustrades.
Now they pass the gates of the park where, in the summery past, they took fishing nets and jam-jars with string handles to carry home tiddlers and sticklebacks. Here he does not say, ‘Do you remember?’ But she does remember. She remembers the pearly beads in the turbid glow of the jar held up to the light, their transparent tails trembling, then motionless, then trembling, and old people sitting on benches, and their mother giving them bread to throw to the swans; and the green taffeta-caps of the ducks flashing burgundy as they dipped their fat beaks.

The bus stops beside the coffee shop. The rows of tins are deep red to complement the darkness of the beans skittering in the roasting drum, and the vibrancy of their odour. She sniffs the saturated air, her eyelids half closed.
They walk. They walk, until, at last they climb to a pillared entrance, into which they step without knocking. Inside they ascend another flamboyant flight that curls apart halfway.
As they enter the exhibition hall, volumes of air and white light and emptiness blind her. There is no furniture. On the walls hang rectangles, twice, three times her height. He leads her towards this array and stops before a canvas in which, at first, she discerns so little that she barely recognises it as a painting. Vaporous seas of indeterminate colour merge with one another without form. Or perhaps there are forms of a sort, formless forms, undefined, unstable. They resemble the transient shapes of clouds in the process of accumulation, piling up and crushing one another, dispersing, replenishing, and blending with a background of pearly opacity still vaguer than them. Bit by bit the mystery resolves. The forms are cloudy because they are the forms of clouds, clouds of steam merging with clouds of smoke in an atmosphere already dense with humidity. And, as she stares, something hard and solid begins to materialise in the heart of it. More and more determined, intent, urgent, it bores through the confusion, until it leaps out ferociously, irresistibly, red and black, in a bolt of jaundiced lightning. Penetrating the skin of the canvas, it charges directly towards her out of nowhere, roaring through is own storm, pounding out its threat and filling the emptiness with its scarlet throbbing. She closes her eyes.

        *   *   *

Once round the corner from the woodman’s cottage, they tear downhill through the bracken to the wall above the single track that will later join the main line sweeping across from the far side of the valley to the station under the wood. Overjoyed, they hear the train toiling doughtily out of the tunnel and up the steep gradient. They clamber on to the wall, cling to the biting grit under the sooty fleece, lean over, wave and cheer the brave little engine they love more than any of their toys. It gasps and wheezes, and sends up smoke rings like Indian signs. They wait and wait until they can see the fire, the driver and the stoker, at which point they jump down and race along under the wall. Her brother far outruns her, but the train is at the station long before either of them, because the path veers away, climbing through the trees again. Her legs tremble. She scrambles, stumbling, seeing nothing but the rocks in her path. Finally they reach a point from where they can stand, turn and look. Far below the stationmaster folds his flag. The driver and the stoker dismount to tend the panting engine. From this height, the men look as if they have no bodies, only heads and legs, and their legs are so short that their feet seem to come out of their ears.
The weary machine emits a patient sigh as it waits for its long, cool drink from the water tank, perched on stilts up among the trees. Her brother is gasping harder than the engine as they scramble higher still to the proper path where their parents are waiting for them. Their mother crouches before him, until his chest stops heaving. Her father holds her hand, rubbing her wrist with his little finger to comfort her.
Now, half a mile beyond the station, having descended the long, stepped path through the far reaches of the wood, they turn onto the cinder road that passes the church, cross the bridge over the river, which, when it rains too much, floods the churchyard, making the coffins bob in their graves, pass the row of quaint houses and the vast blackness of the mill and come out into the sunshine of the flood meadow, cut by the canal and crossed by two more bridges.
The first is the huge black viaduct carrying the branch line down from the town and across the canal to join the main track on the valley bottom. The second is a narrow wooden path suspended from the wall of the arch that strides the canal. There are tiny gaps between the planks, through which she can see the water, and she is just big enough, if she stands on tiptoe, to look over the rail and stare at the green opacity of the dead surface. The huge stone blocks ooze grey tears. Silvery sweat seeps down behind the black moss.
They like the surreptitious footfall of the invisible pursuers the echo conjures from the sound of their shoes on the boards. They like to think that if you lean too hard on the fence it might break. They delight in the dread that a plank will give way, and in the horror of falling, through rot, through black, through the hole they make in the emerald mirror before gently sinking, slow and pale and silent, open mouthed and open eyed, as their helpless parents stare mournfully down. But, of course, the boards are not rotten, the fence will not give way. Their parents would never let them go running ahead if there were the slightest danger. They would not go running ahead, shouting so joyfully if they believed there was the slightest danger.
But this time, they are halfway along the little footbridge when they hear thunder. Their shouts and screams die in their throats, and they listen as the echoes quail and fall into a dull roar that comes closer and sharpens, and comes, and growls, and comes, and howls and grinds and deafens the whole world. Its hot breath surrounds and crushes, blocks the way forward and the way back. It sucks her screams into its pandemonium. The footbridge trembles. She presses herself against the wall, clings to the quivering moss. The wall vibrates. The trembling loosens her teeth and shakes her flesh from her bones. No one can hear for the pounding, screeching metal, the shuddering stone, the tumult of the world being torn apart. No one can save her.
‘Don’t cry,’ her father says. ‘It can’t hurt you. It’s only the train.’
She feels the wetness of his shoulder under her tearful cheek and his strong fingers cupping her back and pressing her to his chest. The thwarted dragon rumbles away, further and further, raging, sulking, quieter and quieter, until there is nothing to hear but her jerky breaths and a sound like soft rain as fragments of mortar dribbling from the roof dent the meniscus of the canal. He carries her into the sunlight, and sets her down among the buttercups.

        *   *   *

The white room returns, empty and silent. She thinks the silence is in her head. The picture of the mad train has vanished and another has taken its place. Her father is bending down to her. His lips are moving but she does not hear what he says.
They pass from picture to picture. He explains and explains, his soft voice patient and tender. She can distinguish words, even phrases, but their meaning floats away on the lofty air. He longs for her to understand, and this longing is the one thing she understands.
They stop now before an immense swirl of colour, almost as nebulous as the colourless colour that emerges when a circle of striped card is set spinning. The tints merge like the threads of paint that dissolve and disperse when you dip an over-charged brush into a glass of water. The chaos looms above and leans hugely over her. ‘Can you see the monster’s eye?’ he asks.
She stares, and half-discerns something darker than the rest, not deeply or richly dark, but dark like dirt, like the grey and ancient dirt that lay under the weaving sheds at the side of the path leading to the wood where the train burrows into the earth beneath it: a smudge, a squalid stain, a smear of putrefaction, deathly, like the dead mouth of something that has never been properly alive, yawning, sucking, smothering. Yes, she thinks, there is a monster. Formless and watery as it is, it is monstrous, but its eye eludes her, for her gaze is trapped by the monstrousness of its obscene gape.
Her silence makes him glance down at her and he sees that she is disturbed. He cannot know why. He had heard them often enough, on those walks to the woods, frighten each other with stories of rats as big as dogs and man-eating snakes lying in wait for the unwary under the weaving sheds, or the skeleton hand that would reach out of the shuttered windows of the defunct toll booth if you dawdled on the lonely road along the valley. He had seen them break into a run and race past these terrors, and had taken their laughter to mean that it was a game, that they were not really afraid. He is too far from his childhood. Too much has happened. His notion of what it is to be six years old is almost as vague as hers of what it is to be an adult.
Her face is pale. He tells himself it is just the stubborn sadness from which, no matter what he does, he cannot divert her. All his talk has been an irrelevance. He senses that her inability to see what he sees heightens her loneliness, and his recognition of the absurdity of trying to make her see as he sees deepens his. It was a mistake. He must think of something lighter. He will make a kite. They will make it together, and fly it on the moor. Or he will build a toy yacht and they will sail it together on the lake in the park.
‘Shall we go home?’ he says, and she looks up.
Her eyes are wide.