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The Dandelion Tree by Mike French

© Mike French

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Prologue

The sun exposed the beach in its glare. Holidaymakers mixed with locals, flesh tanned, children played, waves swam away as the tide receded. With worries left in cars reaching boiling point, carefree days rolled over the cliffs to give a lightness to the touch of toes beneath bobbing breasts and Bermuda shorts.

Isaac shielded his eyes from the glare and looked through the assortment of mix and match bodies.
‘What is Jacob carrying?’
The silhouette of Abe and Esau danced across the divide of ocean and sand as Jacob struggled forward.

Isaac looked at his wife, Rebekah. She lay reading a book, her soft underside squashed into her beach towel. Coconut sun-crème glistened on her back, a white band of skin ran below her shoulder blades. Isaac stood up. Seeing his father, Jacob started to run.
‘Daddy, Daddy!’
Jacob’s find hit the ground like an anchor thudding onto the sea bed. His fingers kept hold and he followed. Sand flew up as the beach shifted to follow the contours of his face.

Isaac nudged Rebekah, ‘I think you need to see this.’
‘What?’
‘Jacob has outdone himself.’
Rebekah sighed and clipped her bikini straps, ‘Can’t we have just five more minutes?’
‘Rebekah,’ said Isaac, ‘Jacob’s found something, it would be like King Canute trying to hold back the sea.’
Rebekah sat up, ‘What’s he found?’
‘Look.’
‘Bloody hell!’ said Rebekah, ‘there’s no way we’re taking that home.’

It had started a year ago. The first was a frog. Isaac remembered its egg shaped pupils protruding from the tyre marked body. The second, a dead baby swallow left outside their bedroom door. The third, a yellow spotted newt left in the shower with one leg missing. The garden was a graveyard. Rows of lollipop sticks identifying the dead in poppy borders.

Jacob placed the seagull down.
‘Look!’
‘Sweetheart,’ said Rebekah, ‘where on earth did you find that?’
‘In the sea.’
‘Jacob,’ said Isaac, ‘we’ll have to bury it here, in the sand, okay?’
Sunlight caught a tear in the corner of Jacob’s eye.
‘Are you pleased with me, Daddy?’
Isaac looked at the fish nibbled carcass before him, then at Abe and Esau making their way up the beach.
‘Yes, Jacob, I am pleased with you, but it will stink the car out.’
Jacob’s shoulders dropped. His eyes searched through the grains of sand.



Chapter 1
Night is Coming

The glow of the terminal bled into the sky to light the wings of vagrant seagulls. White rain fell and splattered over the train as it left the protection of arced plastic like a pig leaving its sty to forage for truffles. Isaac looked out of the window as the station pulled back, then glanced at his Rolex watch. 5:17: five minutes late. Around him, businessmen sat with paper drawbridges waiting for the track to lead them to supper, children, wives, mistresses. The train picked up speed and with a sigh the driver picked up his evening standard. Behind him the length of the day brought fatigue across evening faces like Marmite spread across dry toast.

Isaac opened his book. It was The Bible Revisited by D.B Night that he had bought from the station shop. Beside him, an old man’s head bobbed with the rhythm of the train; his newspaper coming close to his eyes then receding again with each nod.

A chapter in, the train slowed and stopped at a station. Isaac put his book down.

The carriage spat out a few morsels, then ate whole those waiting to board. Doors shut behind them like the toothless gums of an old woman. The train pulled away from its concrete harbour leaving cars tethered by printed tickets in the carpark.

Isaac checked his watch again.

The stale smell of sweat pushed out of the impregnated seats by the overfed buttocks of businessmen and seeped around the carriage. Above their heads the electric arms of the train rose to connect with the overhead cables. The train danced along the track following the line.

Isaac glanced at the woman sat opposite. She had a self-help book clasped in her hand and held it close to her lips as if she was kissing a holy relic.
‘Pop Noodles for the brain,’ thought Isaac looking at the book. ‘Hearts ripped from stories and presented as shopping lists.’
The woman lowered her book and for a brief moment their eyes met. Isaac looked away, then up again. She had returned to her Pop Noodles.

‘Tickets please.’
Isaac put his hand inside his jacket pocket and produced his monthly pass. The conductor clipped it and handed it back. Isaac watched the woman pull her ticket from her book. He glanced at her left finger. No ring. He was forty-two, ‘Perhaps in her early thirties?’ he thought.
‘Thank you,’ said the conductor handing back the bookmark.
Isaac looked around; papers became barbed wire, suitcases rabid dogs, overcoats: vultures flapping in the overhead storage rack waiting to dine on flesh.
‘Hmm,’ thought Isaac. He sucked in his imagination, inhaling it as if nicotine to his soul. He lifted up his laptop, powered it up and breathed out. Heads nodded, vultures snapped, dogs barked.

The woman opposite glanced at him again. The dying light streamed through the window. It played over the gaps between her buttons on her blouse and caressed her face.

Isaac opened his e-mail and scanned the subject headings. One caught his eye. The woman turned a page, then coughed.

Isaac read the proposal: an alarm clock made out of sheets of paper. One sheet for each day of the year. Write the time you wish to wake on the page, when the alarm sounds, rip the page from the others, crumple it up to stop the noise, then throw it away.
‘Hmm,’ thought Isaac. ‘Crumple Clocks? I’ll sleep on it.’

A ruffle of paper distracted him from his thoughts. A man next to the woman had dropped his paper and fallen asleep with his head pressed against her chest. Isaac looked at the saliva flowing from the man’s open mouth. The woman pushed him upright. He flopped back.

Isaac set his laptop down on the empty seat beside him, ‘Let me help you.’
The woman nodded and smiled. Isaac leant over and tipped the man towards the cold comfort of the window. The sleeper grunted and sucked up his dribble like a man slurping froth from a beer. Isaac turned to the woman, realised that he now commanded a view down the curve of her cleavage and sat back.
‘Thank you,’ said the woman.
‘No problem,’ said Isaac. The woman continued to smile at him. Isaac shifted in his seat.
‘What is your book about?’ he said.
‘How to manage your emotions.’
‘God we’re talking,’ thought Isaac. ‘People aren’t supposed to talk to each other on the train.’
‘Would you like to look?’ said the woman.
‘Er, thanks but no.’
‘She’s still looking at me,’ he thought. His heart rate increased, adrenaline ran like blood from an open wound. He smiled and picked up his book. A snatched image of her thighs pushed back the words.
‘What is yours about?’ said the woman.
‘It’s The Bible Revisited by D.B Night,’ said Isaac trying not to look at her breasts.
‘Is it funny?’
‘Yes.’
‘Read a bit to me.’
‘Er, okay …’ Isaac flipped pages in his book. ‘Um …In the beginning God said, ‘Let
there be light,’ and lo roads were dug up and electricity piped to every house. And man planted the garden of Eden to reduce God’s carbon footprint.’
The woman laughed; as she did her face lit up like a Christmas Tree in a bleak December. A man on the other side of the train straightened his paper and tutted.

Isaac smiled, her laughter calmed him. His heart rate reduced.
‘Sorry, I haven’t introduced myself,’ he said extending his hand, ‘I’m Isaac Steward.’
The woman looked at his hand, then clasped it, ‘Jane, Jane Peter.’

The evening disappeared as the train went through a tunnel. Isaac became aware of the throb of wheels over tracks underneath him.

‘I work for Tamarisk,’ said Jane. ‘You might of heard of it, we did the advertising campaign for the Conservatives at the last election.’
Isaac nodded.
‘What do you do?’ asked Jane.
‘I’m the managing director of Tamarisk,’ said Isaac.
‘Shit,’ said Jane. ‘Really?’
Isaac laughed, ‘yes.’
‘So, what shall we talk about?’ said Jane.
‘We are talking then?’ said Isaac. ‘You know that’s against British Rail regulations. I think there is some bylaw somewhere.’
‘We are talking,’ said Jane smiling.
‘What sort of things do you like?’
‘I like my work-’
‘This isn’t an interview.’
‘Okay,’ said Jane, ‘I hate my job, I hate sitting on this crap old train surrounded by the living dead, I hate the way my toaster makes me jump every morning.’
‘You hate a lot of things.’
‘What do you hate?’
‘Well,’ said Isaac, ‘I dislike-’
‘Hate, go for the hatred, it brings things into focus.’
‘Okay, I hate getting up in the morning, I hate Sunday supplements, I hate being held in a queue, soap operas, dishes, arguments, DIY and sometimes,’ Isaac looked at Jane. ‘Sometimes I hate people.’
‘Like?’
‘I’m not going to name names.’
‘You are.’
Isaac smiled, ‘Do you know John Trench?’
‘No.’
‘Good, then I hate him.’
‘There you go. Now what do you love?’
‘I love …I love ...’
Jane looked at Isaac’s book, ‘You love reading.’
‘I suppose. And you?’
‘I love sitting in the fading light overlooking an azure lake, with a drink in my hand, laughter inside my head, a flutter in my heart, birdsong to serenade me, good food on the table, and-’
A pause.
‘And?’
Jane looked at Isaac for a moment, then said, ‘Good company.’
‘Sounds like you love poetry as well,’ said Isaac.
‘Yes.’
‘So why are you reading a self help book? I hate them, they’re like life squeezed through a bloody spell checker.’
‘We’ve finished the hate stuff.’
‘Sorry, it’s just-’
‘I have my reasons,’ said Jane.

A judder went through the carriage; Isaac looked at the sign on the station as the train pulled up to the platform.
‘This is my stop,’ he said.
‘Mine too,’ said Jane.
‘Fancy a drink?’ said Isaac.
Jane flicked a strand of hair away from her face, looked down at her feet then into Isaac’s eyes again, ‘Okay.’



Chapter 2
If Indeed You Can Count Them

Abe Steward looked at the crayon man. A broad smile sat offset beneath its blue eyes, as if existing beyond the confines of the rounded face. Written below were the words we love you granddad. Abe ran his finger over the words, then tapped the mercury filled column of the glass thermometer next to it. The silver thread slipped indicating the drop in temperature. Ten degrees. Abe stuffed his old hands down into his jacket pocket and fumbled around until he found his stubby pencil and notebook. Flipping it open, he scribbled down the information to join the mass of data charting the history of his garden in the language of Fahrenheit and Celsius. He pocketed the book, took the thermometer from the wall, and wiped an old cloth over its surface.

The hard beam of a flashlight illuminated Abe’s face as he polished the wood set around the instrument. He finished and looked up. The dim light of the evening flowed over his angular brow and down his crooked nose. Abe smiled as he felt the vastness of the sky above tug at his sense of wonder. He placed the thermometer back on its rusty nail and turned off the flashlight. With no light to compete with, the evening hues increased and soaked Abe and his garden in soft focus. A gentle breeze caressed the pink blossom of the cherry trees and the noises of the day made their way home, blanketing the scene in reflective slumber.

The sun slipped under the horizon. Orange and pale yellow glows washed around the impression left in the sky. The evening colours flowed down to follow the warmth, striating the sky into darkening blues. Abe leaned on his walking stick as a warmth, which defied the cold evening air, flowed into him. Images of stars across the horizon twinkled in his eyes as he watched the darkness claim the sky.

An old woman approached Abe. She walked holding her frail form with an inner confidence. Soft curves defined her face; white hair flowed around her. Reaching out, she touched Abe on his shoulder. Turning, he looked at his wife, Keturah.
‘Pull this around you Abe, it’s getting cold.’
Abe folded his large strong arms around Keturah and pulled her towards him. Laughing, she rubbed her nose up against his in an Eskimo kiss. Abe moved his head over to the side of her soft cheek and whispered in her ear, ‘Shall we laugh like Eskimos later?’
She smiled back at him and squeezed his hand.
‘Without the kissing, your beard scratches me.’
‘Keturah, you know how I feel about-’
Abe felt her finger on his lips. She pushed herself up onto her toes, replaced her finger with a kiss, then walked back to the house. Moments later she returned with two steaming mugs of hot chocolate and setting herself beside Abe, snuggled up into the security of his embrace.

After a while, she sat up and turning, peered into the pale slate blue of Abe’s eyes. Within them she saw the reflection of the stars spiralling away into their depths; she giggled, laid back again and said, ‘Let’s play our game.’
Abe nodded and reaching down fumbled for the lever on the chair. CLUNK. The back of the chair reclined tipping Abe and Keturah backwards.
‘Our garden rollercoaster,’ said Abe.
‘Keep your hands in at all times,’ said Keturah.
They laughed, then as they lay sandwiched between the sleeping soil and the wandering night, Abe started to paint tales of aged years against the darkened sky. Words threaded their way in and out of the clusters of stars until the image of a white wood formed above them.

‘Where is the Dandelion Tree?’ said Keturah.
‘In the middle. Right at the centre of things,’ said Abe.
‘Can you still remember?’
‘Yes,’ said Abe.
‘Then tell me. If you can see it, describe it.’
‘It’s like no other tree that ever lived,’ said Abe. ‘It towers over the white canopy, large and majestic. Other trees gather at a respectful distance, glad only to fall in the shade of its branches. The trunk rises straight and true like a great ship’s mast.’
‘I can see it … there are dark bands encircling the trunk,’ said Keturah. ‘Like corset strings straining to hold back the years.’
‘Are you sure you never went there? said Abe.
‘Quite sure my dear. I’m right though aren’t I?’
‘Yes. Like corset strings? Hmm … I suppose.’
‘It takes a women to see things as they really are,’ said Keturah.
Abe laughed.
‘Okay, there are corset strings around its smooth white bark. The branches fan out from the top, like wooden fingers spread across the sky. Smaller branches push out and entwine to form a latticed bowl. There’s a long rope ladder that my father made from honey brown english yew, carved into smiling crocodiles, and two old sailors’ ropes.’
‘Which now flash dusty grins at our visitors,’ said Keturah.
‘My legs aren’t what they used to be,’ said Abe.
‘Still it was a shame to remove it.’
‘Maybe.’
‘Why is it named the Dandelion Tree?’
‘When I was five-years-old,’ said Abe, ‘I thought it looked like a dandelion seed which had lodged itself into the ground and then forgotten it was supposed to turn into a dandelion. Instead it shot up into a massive seed shaped tree. I used to wonder what would happen if it remembered it was a dandelion. Would it grow into an enormous yellow skyscraper to be seen for thousands of miles?’
‘Put yourself in the tree,’ said Keturah.
‘I am seven-years-old and I sit cupped in the wooden branches,’ said Abe. ‘The wind blows my hair. I feel like a Prince surveying the kingdom I will one day inherit. I can see scrub flowing out from the edge of the wood formed by sunken trees, which only breathe by pushing the tips of their branches up out of the ground. There is a field between the wood and the house, which is covered in the stubble of an unshaven sleeping giant.’
‘Stubble Face Field!’
‘Yes. I look down and see tall swishing grasses against the trunk. Birds sing around me, there is a sweet aroma from the broad evergreen leaves.’
‘Don’t forget the daffodils,’ said Keturah.
‘You have been there,’ said Abe.
‘No Abe.’
Keturah turned, looked at Abe and said, ‘You talk in your sleep.’
‘About the Dandelion Tree?’ said Abe.
‘Always about the Dandelion Tree.’
‘So you could see it all along?’
‘Yes.’
‘But you don’t believe,’ said Abe. ‘When I told you what I saw there-’
‘What has that got to do with it? I don’t have to believe to enjoy listening.’
Abe fell silent. The Dandelion Tree had been somewhere he had gone with his first wife, Sarah. She had believed.
Keturah held Abe tight, thought for a moment, then said, ‘Come on, let’s find the spot.’
‘But it’s dark, why?’
For the second time that evening she pressed her fingers onto his lips.
‘Shh, come on.’
He nodded. The old couple got to their feet and set off towards the edge of Stubble Face Field. They walked in the light thrown from the house until they reached a point where it faded leaving them in darkness as they approached Mamre Wood. Abe flicked on his flashlight as they entered. The path was dry and crunchy. As they pushed in they became surrounded by a sea of bluebells, which swirled around the trees and lapped up to the path’s edge. Unknown to them in the shelter of the wood, the breeze started to turn stronger and blew in immense clouds from the north, which scraped the ground and tugged at the sky with rounded heads.

Abe and Keturah trudged on.

An owl hooted above and span its head round to follow them. They glanced up, eyes searching. A fox stood still. Two dots of light shining out from the thickets. On they trudged until the trees closed in around their heads and framed them in a wooden arch. The entangled architecture drew their eyeline to a soft glow of light set in the distance before them. They drew forward. As they neared the moonlit scene, the wood pulled back and a clearing, encircled by sycamores, stood before them.


Abe flicked off his flashlight. A ring of daffodils sat upon a large hummock in the clearing. The ground at their centre was gashed in an open wound, exposing an earthen cavity. Abe and Keturah stood together, held by the scene. Keturah turned towards Abe.
‘Give me your knife.’
Abe fumbled around in his pocket, pulled out a little carving knife his dad had given him before his death, and passed it over. Keturah clasped the knife in her long fingers and stepped forward into the circle. Stooping down she cut a daffodil and gave it to Abe.
‘Let’s come here every year to pick one, and remember your stories.’
Abe smiled and hugged her. Keturah swung her arms up around his neck and nestled herself into his chest. The yellow daffodil followed the line of Keturah’s back in the embrace.

Moments passed. The night seemed to hold its breath. A drop of water landed on the daffodil. It rolled around the trumpet, then continued on its fated journey. As it fell, it looked like a teardrop shed at some passing moment. Another drop fell, then another, until lines of water hatched down surrounding their bodies in blue.

Abe looked up, the rain tickled his eyes and he smiled. He grasped hold of Keturah’s hand and whispered into her ear. Laughing they dodged back through the rain. It hit the undergrowth around them and swept up a chorus of muffled notes into the night air.

Reaching the house, they bolted inside and shook themselves. Water droplets scampered over the smooth surface of the wooden floor beneath their feet.

Outside, sat the two cups of forgotten chocolate. Rain pitted down; chocolate skins floated to the top and slid over the red glaze onto the grass.

Hours later, the daffodil sat drinking in the cool water in the china vase on the sideboard. Evening had moved into night. A log from the Dandelion Tree burned in the hearth. Keturah lay asleep. Abe stood in the bathroom.

The rain continued to fall, and blown by the wind, tapped at the bathroom window. The old wooden frames creaked. Outside, a leaking gutter sent drips falling towards the patio marking out, in their repetitive sound, the ticking of a clock. Drip, drip, drip. Abe stood listening to the sound of the rain on his house and made a mental note to repair the guttering first thing tomorrow. The old grandfather clock in the hall joined in the marking of time and chimed ten o’clock.

Abe waited for the chimes to finish, then running his hand over his thick grey beard he examined his face in the bathroom mirror. Reaching up into the cabinet, he pulled out a pair of scissors. He looked at the glint of metal for a moment, then attacked his beard, hacking away the years of growth. Thick curls of hair fell into the sink and onto the tiled floor until the hard edges of his chin started to show and his beard became stubble. He stooped down, gathered the hair up and pushed it into the pedal bin beside his foot. The brutal attack left no signs of sadness in his face. Instead, his mouth twitched, then spread out in a wide smile.

Abe turned on the hot and cold taps and swilled the two waters together to fill the bowl. Cupping his hands, he leant down and splashed his face. Drops fell from the tip of his old broken nose. He pushed past the medicines into the back of the cabinet and pulled out his shaving brush, razor and soap bowl. They had sat there unused since the death of Sarah, and his actions were uncertain as he swirled his brush around the bowl, scoring pieces of soap up into the bristles. He lathered his stubble, then picked up his razor. Pulling his skin taut to accept the cut, he brought the blade down.

Abe hated shaving. It was the reason he had grown back the beard in the first place, now thinking of Keturah, he hummed away to himself as he exposed the sensitive skin underneath. As he worked, his mind wandered and he recalled his son’s first experience of shaving. It happened when Sarah and he bought him a British Navy Action Man. Isaac had unwrapped it, looked at its beard, then cried. A week later, after the incident at the beach, Isaac presented the toy to them, now an SAS Commander with a black jump suit and body armour. The biggest difference, however, was the face itself.
‘Dad look I shaved him!’
Toothpaste had formed the lather over the offending growth, a razor blade had shaven it all off. Isaac had also shaved his own smooth skin. Abe remembered listening to his son’s first step towards the allure of the adult world without ridiculing him, images of the glinting blade in small fingers haunting his mind. He wondered what his son would think of him now, clipping off his own beard, albeit without the aide of toothpaste.


Abe finished shaving, refilled the sink with cold water, and splashed it over his face. Pores closed at the shock. He picked a thirteen-year-old box of Old Spice, and took out the opaque glass bottle. Tipping it upside down he poured the after shave into his hands and rubbed it over his face. It stung. Abe cried out. He glanced around the doorframe at Keturah but she slept on. Returning to the mirror, he watched a spot of blood appear, and another and another, until it looked like ants playing paintball had wandered onto his jaw and discharged all their red paint pellets over his face. Split, splat, splut.
‘No!’
Abe grabbed some tissues, ripped them into pieces and squashed the ants.

The passing of time continued, marked out by the grandfather clock and the leaking gutter, until the clock chimed eleven o’clock. Abe sat in the chair beside his bed. The light from a small lamp threw his face into sharp contrast. His right hand side was illuminated, showing the upturned corners of his mouth; his left-hand side was in complete darkness. As he stirred, he turned causing his face to slip further into the night. On his lap lay a well-thumbed copy of Steinbeck’s ‘To A God Unknown’ open at the last page. He snored. The noise slipped under the door and filled the upstairs landing with its life beat.

The weather outside grew worse. The wind whipped itself up into a frenzy and blustered around the garden. Abe and Keturah slept on. High up in the sky, thunder roared like the sound of rushing water cascading down a ravine. Millions of raindrops broke into tiny shards of water and splintered off to different altitudes in the storm. Multiple lightning flashes raced over the bottom of the clouds, illuminating their bases in the night sky as they searched for the area over Mamre Wood.

As they neared it, the flashes grew more violent and rapid, strobing the night sky in brilliant flashes of light. Each lit the darkness for a brief second, and in those moments, strange images of winged creatures with faces made up of men, eagles, oxen, and lions raced forward. At the allotted point, all the lightning forked radially inward, setting the sky ablaze with fire. The atmosphere strained as it became charged then, when it could stand it no longer, the air gave way and lightning cracked down towards the ground, searching out the place where the Dandelion Tree had once stood.

A thin tracer raced upwards from the broken ground, jagging its way through the charged atmosphere to join the downward bolt. High above the ring of daffodils they met each other, and with its downward journey confirmed, the lightning forked down with a reddish glow and seared the open wound of the ground.

Inside the house, Abe Steward opened his eyelids and breathed his last breath. The noise of the snoring in the landing ebbed away, unsustained by the rise and fall of his chest, as his life passed away.

Abe sat staring upwards, the image of a multitude of stars in his eyes.

A promise eluding death in laughter.



Chapter 3
In the Beginning

The morning mist hovered over the expanse of water. Below streams of bubbles writhed in perpetual turmoil.
Dark nightmares of the mind.

‘Duh, duh, duda duda, duh,’ broke up through the depths and asked, ‘How does it feel?’
Without waiting for an answer, the question dissipated into Isaac Steward’s memory. Sleeping gunk in the corner of his eyes, body in a state of morning confusion, he started to wake on the cold Tuesday morning. Around the bed lay sheets of yesterday’s newspaper like a lizard skin shed from the past; beneath them the centrefold spread of a Playboy.

Isaac turned off his radio, formed two star shapes with his open fingers and sat up. He rubbed his eyes. He felt heavy, as if an astronaut returning to earth finding his weight.

It was six thirty in the morning.

Isaac gave into gravity and as he laid back onto his sweat soaked pillow a fragment of his nightmare caught at the edge of his mind.
‘What was it about?’
Isaac felt the dream slipping away.
‘No,’ said Isaac. ‘It was about …’
He glanced up at the flaking paint on the bedroom ceiling, then sat back up. Images of his mother, Sarah, projected before him onto the calico curtains.

She lay on the floor of a supermarket with packets of lentil soup around her. Isaac stood as a boy over her. A man in a tatty red and black cloak with a tear running up the front of it was laughing as he kicked Sarah with his black boots.
‘No Fable please,’ screamed Sarah.
‘Matilda Mother!’ said the man.
Isaac looked away as Fable smashed a can of baked beans into her face. Fable’s cloak flapped around him straining at the old medal pinning the material around his neck.
Isaac glanced back. Sarah’s face was mangled, blood pooled around her.
‘God.’

Isaac got out of bed and paced around the room. As he did the nightmare receded and a cascade of bubbles broke the surface separated his subconscious thoughts from his consciousness and rose upwards into his mind. Isaac became aware of the need to relieve himself as he watched bubbles rise through the warm water of the tropical fish tank next to him. Orange and black striped Clown Loachs swam around the air stone sitting on the gravel bed of the tank. Isaac looked above and stared at the paint samples on wall, left from a time when there was a chance the room would get decorated before the perpetual fatigue of parenthood. Nothing else registered, familiarity had cloaked the landscape of his room with an invisible sheen.

Isaac stooped down and looked at the Clown Loachs. The long elliptical leaves of an Amazon swordplant swished in the turbulence. There were five Clown Loachs in the tank; Isaac saw only three. The kids had named them: Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and Ishmael. The last one at the protest of Isaac; the kids had pleaded with him after a weekend at Granddads.

The memory of his half-brother, Ishmael floated to the top of Isaac’s mind.

Three fish became four at the back of his retina.
‘Ishmael?’
Isaac reached up to his face and felt the scar below his right eye. The sound of bubbles in the tank became the patter of rain.


A flash of a blade, blood, a cry of fear filled Isaac’s mind; he looked at the tank; the water became turbulent, then turned red. The liquid crystal thermometer changed colour as it ascending its scale. Isaac closed his eyes. It was a memory he had made a decision to forgot, to erase from his mind. Yet here it was tormenting him.

Isaac opened his eyes; the fish tank changed from red to blue, the rage subsided.

Adjusting himself within his boxer shorts, he opened a drawer under the tank and took out a small net. Pushing it past the Java moss he swept up a Clown Loach into the mesh. Isaac tipped the fish into his hand and stared at it. The four Clown Loachs left behind hid under the rocks at the back of the tank. Two sharp spines pierced the skin of Isaac’s hand.
‘Shit.’

He carried the Clown Loach out of his bedroom and into the bathroom. He looked at it one last time, then tossed it into the toilet. The fish span in the water under the peach blossom sanitary block as Isaac relieved his bladder. The thought, ‘How can you be sure that was Ishmael?’ crossed his mind as he flushed the fish away. ‘You could have just pissed on Jacob.’

Isaac ignored the question, kicked his boxers off into the corner and stepped into the shower.

Showering was a risky business in Isaac’s house; he saw it as a kind of aquatic Russian Roulette. He stood shivering under the showerhead; span the dial around on the control, as if a chamber to a pistol pointed to his head, and pressed the On button. He tensed, waiting. A few drops of water formed from the surface of the showerhead and rolled around its rim. Half way round they met each other, joined forces to gain more weight and dropped onto Isaac’s head. He looked up to see if that was all the shower had to offer. It was.

Up to that point, Isaac’s face had remained crumpled by his sleep, as if it hadn’t decided which expressions to use that day. Now his eyebrows twitched into life and went downwards to meet his sleepy blue eyes. He clenched his fists causing the pink bits of his knuckles to slink off down his fingers, raised his arm and battered the shower control.
‘You’re pathetic,’ he shouted at the shower as if it cared.
There was a loud rumble, then a pencil-sized column of water drilled out from the showerhead. Isaac stepped into it and started rubbing a small hard piece of soap over his body.

He recalled the evening before.
‘Jane Peter,’ he said trying the words on his lips, ‘Jane Peter.’
They had left their cars in the car park and had walked together to the pub. It had felt thrilling as if he was a boy again unravelling the line to his birthday kite: releasing the virgin canvas to the wind. They had talked for hours. Then there was the cinema:
‘Would you like to see Mona Lisa Smile?’
‘What?’
‘It’s a film, would you like to go see a film?’
‘I … er, okay, what the hell.’
‘Great, do you like popcorn?’
‘I love popcorn.’
Isaac thought it over in the shower.
‘A Pop Noodle girl who liked popcorn. Hmm. What the hell was I thinking invited her to a film? Christ what am I? A thirteen-year-old drunk on hormones? Thank God we didn’t sit on the back seats.’
Isaac felt the side of his face where she had kissed him before they said goodbye at her front door.
‘Jane Peter. J-a-n-e Peter.’
Bubbles ran over his legs, swirled around his toes and disappeared down the plastic plughole.

***

Jidlaph sat deep below the surface of Isaac’s consciousness. Before him bubbles passed through the light cast into the darkness by the lanterns of the Subconscious Tavern. He turned as the tavern door swung open. Ripples flowed through the fluid filled interior. A sentry looked up and tapped a domino onto the table.

A young man, wearing a long overcoat and a rolo with trim hat, swam through. Jidlaph shrank back into the darkness and watched. The sentry clinked his double six domino down onto the table and nodded at the man. The man pulled the collars to his coat up around his neck and leant against the bar.
‘Ten pints of Memento Melt and a Benco Belch, extra chilled.’

Behind him a chrome jukebox squatted on the floor; the aural displacement of Morrissey’s ‘First Of The Gang To Die,’ rippled out through a blue arc. The bartender looked at him as he pulled down on the tap. A red sticky fluid glooped down into a dirty glass. The man stared back for a moment, then turned and examined the sentries’ muskets lying in the rack against the far wall.

‘That will be two bubs Laban,’ said the bartender when he had finished.
Laban took the Benco Belch, downed it, burped, and inserted two bubbles into a small circular opening in the top of the bar. There was a loud sucking noise and they disappeared. Laban grabbed the tray before the bartender could complain and made his way to his favourite seat next to the huge viewing window. As he passed the toilets, a sentry, bent double over his zipper, knocked into him. A glass fell from the tray and shattered on the floor; broken edges floated across the room and thudded into the double top of the tavern’s dartboard.
‘Sorry,’ said Laban.
The sentry looked up, his old eyes unfocused.
‘Can you help me?’
‘What,’ said Laban, ‘with …’
A sentry sitting at the table opposite looked across. Lying across the table was a young woman dressed only in newspaper. The sentry taped his lead pencil on the table and glared at Laban.
‘Okay, okay,’ said Laban.
He set the tray down and helped the old man beside him pull up his flies.
‘Thank you sonny.’
Laban brushed his hands down the side of his trousers, then picked the tray back up and made it to his table. Raising a glass, he looked at the bubbles rising within his drink; each formed an outline of a naked girl that danced as she rose. Laban tipped them into his mouth and took a long thirsty gulp.
‘Oh that tastes good,’ he thought. ‘Goodbye unwanted memories.’

As he drank, he peered out through the viewing window, watching the water outside. Thousands of bubbles drifted up. Taking a packet of cigarettes from his coat, Laban tapped one out and lit it. Smiling he sat back on his chair, rested his boots on the table and blew a smoke bubble towards the ceiling.
‘I thought you had given those up,’ said Jidlaph emerging from the shadows.
Laban spat out a jet of Memento Melt. The droplets floated across the room and splattered into a table against the far wall. The table sucked up the fluid, then forgetting what it was doing there, rose up and floated up out of the tavern.

‘Hello Uncle,’ said Laban stubbing out his cigarette, ‘I … it was just the one.’
‘It is good to see Laban, you’ve been keeping busy?’
‘Yes, there have been a lot of break outs recently.’
‘Arh ... yes,’ said Jidlaph, ‘these are lucrative times for a bounty hunter.’
‘Who do you think is responsible?’ said Laban.
‘There is talk that Esau has come under the influence of Fable.’
‘Hmm.’ Laban watched a school of large bubble rings bounce together like dodgem cars in the fluid outside, ‘I couldn’t make contact with you.’
‘It has been difficult,’ Jidlaph leant forward and whispered in Laban’s ear. ‘Isaac has
reached crisis point, there are rumours that your sister will return.’
‘Rebekah? After all this time? How do you know this?’
‘There is a path along the woodland stream,’ said Jidlaph. ‘It is where your father escaped.’
‘Bethuel’s Leap? It exists?’
‘Yes, and there lies our hope.’

Laban glanced across at the bartender. He downed his pint, wiped the froth from his mouth, ‘Another drink?’
Jidlaph nodded. Laban looked at the bartender again.
‘Here,’ he said turning away, ‘have one of mine.’

Laban stared back out of the window and watched the bubbles outside swarm together to form the shape of a small boy. The boy’s face had two flushed circles set around an upturned mouth and cobalt blue eyes set around a short nose. The child turned towards him, waved, and swam upwards. Laban watched him ascend. The boy approached the surface, kicked hard through the smooth membrane, and broke through.

‘Flipp’n heck,’ said Laban, ‘he made it. Uncle did you see that?
Jidlaph nodded, ‘It was Isaac as a child, look there is Jacob.’
A second boy swam up past them.
‘What is going on Uncle?’
‘It has started.’

***

The water stopped; Isaac gave up and got out of the shower still covered in soap. He dried himself and squeezed some toothpaste onto his toothbrush. Wrapping the towel around his waist, he walked out of the bathroom brushing his teeth. Reached the end of the landing, he placed his hand against a door with a sign saying:

No Adults: Keep Out!

Isaac pushed open the door and stepped inside. He looked around, breaking the hushed silence of the room with the whirling noise of his electric toothbrush. Like every morning, he checked around to see if everything was in its right place; the books strewn across the floor, half the toys out of their boxes, the bed with sheets pushed back, a pillow under its slatted boards on the floor. And each time Isaac felt the rise of an emotion, he balanced himself with words. Stripped of their meaning, they formed a mantra of the Clown Loach names to soothe him …

Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.
Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.

The rhythm filled his mind like the TING of a tuning fork, blocking the chaos of connection with reality. He felt calm. Orange and black fish swam peacefully through his mind, protected by the environment of the aquarium.

Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.
Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.

Isaac shut the door, returned to the bathroom and spat into the sink. He placed his toothbrush down and picked the gunk out of his eyes. Then he walked into his bedroom, threw the towel on the floor and pulled on a clean pair of boxer shorts.
‘Shave,’ he said almost as a command to himself and returned to the bathroom.
He rubbed the condensation from the mirror and flicked on the small strip light above it. He ruffled his short, brown hair that shot off in all directions as if charged by the night’s sleep.
‘Shave.’
Isaac picked up his electric shaver. The escaped childhood memory of Isaac saw its chance as he hesitated. The images played out in front of Isaac in the mirror …

A five-year-old Isaac, Action Man in one hand, pulls the bathroom stool across his parent’s en-suite and reaches up to the bathroom cabinet. Pushing himself onto the tip of his toes, he scrambles his chubby fingers over the top of the cabinet and grabs the silver key. There is a small -CLICK- as the key turns in the lock. Isaac swings back the mirrored doors to reveal the treasure. He hesitates at the sound of the back door, then takes out the entire contents and sets everything out in a neat row on the cold, tiled floor of the room.

Each item is sorted in descending order of height, with a pink medicine bottle placed first by the foot of the toilet (always the pink medicine first, that was important remembered Isaac), a box of tampons, anadin, haemorrhoid cream, a tube of KY jelly, and a small box of condoms squeezed in last under the radiator.

Isaac takes his dad’s shaving brush, the gold amongst trinkets. It looks like a paintbrush that has eaten to many chips and got fat. Grinning, he lathers up the brush with toothpaste and swirls it around his Action Man’s chin. Taking a razor blade out of its paper wrapping, he shaves of his Action Man’s beard, then pulls the sharp blade down his own pink skin.

‘Fools gold,’ thought Isaac, as the memory dissipated, ‘shattered by the drudgery of daily routine and stinging skin.’
Isaac wondered where his Action Man was now, probably in a landfill.
‘Shave.’

Reaching up, Isaac slotted the two-pin plug into the shaver point. It smiled at him as it did every morning with its little shaving face. Isaac ignored it and flicked up the switch on his shaver. He ran it over his chin in the predetermined flight pattern it followed every morning. As it entered into autopilot it buzzed away like a satisfied bee on nectar. Stubble disappeared into its inner crevices, revealing pore pits left from a painful youth under the whirl of the shaver head.

Isaac’s mind started bubbling as a micro snowstorm of hair settled on the smooth enamelled sink below his chin.
‘How can I solve the bug in my genetic programming causing my hair to sprout out like plasticine through a sieve? It’s like mown grass, it just keeps growing back.’

Images of Isaac slaughtering his electric sheep in the dead of night rose. Bubbles surfaced, and pointed out that his facial hair grew at just the right rate to follow the twenty-four hour day and night cycle, which meant he had to cut it every day. Isaac thought on this a moment and decided if there was a God out there, it was one who enjoyed a good laugh at this divine comedy.
‘What we need,’ he said to his reflection, ‘is technology.’
Isaac imagined the publicity for the release of his new product:

In the beginning God created Man and he saw that he was good. So good in fact that man had to shave every day to keep that ‘just made up’ look fresh and clean. In Twenty Ten, Nahor Incorporated created the ultimate solution to this problem and this time it was very good. The 1701D BugShave© consists of millions of state of the art nanobots, that shave your face for you. You will never have to shave again.
Creator let you down? Believe in BugShave©. Faith Applied to your Face.
Nahor Inc: part of the growing empire of Tamarisk.

Isaac finished shaving his reddening face, bent down and span open the tap. He chased the hairs around the basin, encouraging them to join the swirling water, then leaned into the mirror, and rubbed his hands over his chin.
‘Bugshave!’
Isaac’s lines radiating out from the edge of his eyes wrinkled together. Creases appeared around his mouth, pushing themselves back into his face. His eyebrows moved up causing furrows to appear on his forehead; he dropped his jaw, stuck out his tongue. His face softened and the ripples on his forehead receded back down; his eyes filled with light and he felt the release of laughter rise within.


The escaped memory of Jacob drawn by the lure of a father’s joy, replayed in Isaac’s mind. Isaac shielded his eyes as the glare of the sun sent rays up through the plughole of the sink. The hard tiles of the floor became sand. The sink grew; its curves straightened out forming the long line of the horizon.
‘What is Jacob carrying?’ Isaac thought as he saw Jacob stumbling towards him, the white of the enamel glaring behind him.

The light twinkling within him faded.

A tear rose up and dropped down into a well-worn channel in Isaac’s face. He turned, walked out of the bathroom and went downstairs chanting,

Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.
Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.

Opening the back door, he stepped out into the garden, naked apart from his boxer shorts. Goose bumps rose up over his skin. With long wet grass under his feet he walked towards the flowerbed at the back of the garden. The spotlight bolted to the house, switched on and threw a pool of light over his hunched shoulders.

Isaac stopped in front of Jacob’s graveyard of dead animals.


He stood under the charcoal sky looking at them. The lollipop sticks marked out the resting-place of the flat frog, the three-legged newt, and other animals. Isaac rocked backwards and forwards,

Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.
Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob.

He looked at a large mound.

The sound of, ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ replaced the colours of the fish with the black and white of Jacob’s seagull.

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