Sandstone
© Jon Horne  

   There aren’t many things to do on the Beckwood estate if it’s a blistering August Sunday, you don’t have a car and you’re sick of the sight of your own four walls. So I went for a walk under Spaghetti Junction.
    High above, the roads arched, split and overlaid each other; a gigantic loose reef-knot of concrete ribbons held in place by pillars which stood to attention in pairs. Far ahead, the pillars stopped and a sliproad came to rest on a sandstone cliff, along whose gradient it made its way slowly down.
    A wrought-iron bridge spanned the Grand Union canal to a paved path which led to Salford Park. There would be people there; Sunday pram-pushers, kids playing football, and the assembled wasters of Aston doing very little. I carried on through the rubble.
    I had a pee against a pillar, whistling as I did so. I zipped up, turned around and walked up to the red cliff. I touched the stone. There was no vibration in the rock as juggernauts thundered overhead.
    I saw something, a fleeting movement in my peripheral vision - maybe a fox - I’d seen them before, down by the cut. Then I saw the movement again. I turned and saw in the distance a woman. She was naked. I blinked and she disappeared.
    I’d been on my own for six months. Too long, it seemed now. Another few weeks and I’d be imagining legions of naked housewives marching up Corporation Street doing their Saturday afternoon shopping.
    I went back to the bridge, crossed over the cut and made my way to the park. A hockey match was in progress - a little sublimated race-riot between Sikhs and Greeks, which failed to ignite the lazing spectators. Old men leaned against the wooden pavilion, drinking from flasks. In front of them women and children bickered listlessly. I lay on the grass and dozed.
   
    The week went by the same as every other week. I worked from eight until half past four and was late for work twice; I filled out product sheets, argued with recalcitrant foremen and listened with detached pity to the panic-stricken tones of customers’ buyers - a sad string of Geordies and Welshmen, prisoners of Enterprise Zones and beholden to their Japanese masters.
    At lunchtimes I went to the Royal Oak, ate pies and chicken tikkas, silently suffered the forced bonhomie of my hyperactive boss, and on Wednesday, managed to get a half-hearted kiss in the pub car park from his secretary, Karen. I bought her a Martini to celebrate.
    In the evenings I sat in the Green Man and drank alone, or I stayed at home and watched television. My mother telephoned. I completed four out of five weekday crosswords in The Independent. For three nights running I had a dream about the woman by the cliff.
    On Saturday night I took the bus into the city.
    New Street was teeming; muscle and waxed legs, cologne and perfume, mirror-shined shoes, dangling earrings and mutual cold sweat met and mingled in the atavistic late-summer mating ritual.
    In the Yard Of Ale there were a few lads I’d known from school. At chucking-out time I went with them to the Que Club, where the music was dire and none of us pulled.
    Noisily drunk, I was ejected from the one o’clock bus, so I caught a taxi. The driver did as I asked, waking me up and dropping me outside the Golden Temple Tandoori Takeaway. I ate two somosas, which revived me and made me wish that I hadn’t left the club so soon. I walked the long way home, across Salford Park and under Spaghetti.
    By the time I’d staggered over the canal bridge I was wilfully conjuring up images of women posing seductively before jagged red cliffs.
    “Hello pillar, remember me?” I said, peeing on it. The pillar continued standing to attention as if nothing had happened. The cliff was equally unmoved when I was sick against it.
    I stood on the same spot as I had on Sunday. I sensed something, a flicker of light. I hoped it was my imagination limbering up for the full show. I blinked my eyes, took a deep breath, and stared straight ahead. Nothing. Then I concentrated on the peripheries. Finally I turned my back and glanced over my shoulder, trying to catch my subconscious unawares. None of this made the woman appear. I sat down and leaned against the rock wall.
   
    I was woken by a piercing shard of sunlight from just above the horizon, between the towers of Aston gasworks. I shuffled along the base of the cliff to get back into shadow, and soon found my hand resting in regurgitated mutton somosa. I decided I had better get up.
    I wiped my hand on a patch of grass, then turned to walk home. As I turned, I saw something in the rock face. An opening. A cave in fact. Twin urges pulled my feet in opposite directions. The state I was in, an untidy flat and a lonely, unmade bed seemed wonderfully inviting. On the other hand I’ve never been able to resist monkey curiosity. I went to have a look at the cave.
    The hole in the cliff wall was about three feet high and four wide. I got down on my knees and peered into it. What I saw was unexpected. A cavern, reaching back some five yards or more. The low sun shone into the cave like a spotlight. I craned my neck to see further and my shadow moved to reveal a dark patch on the ground. A firepit.
    Just then, a fire engine passed overhead on the sliproad, its siren wailing. As the noise of the siren disappeared into the distance, I heard another sound, this time from inside the cave. It was a yawn. This was followed by a scrape and a shuffle, and I found myself face-to-face with the woman of my dreams.
    She was short, ginger-haired and slightly dumpy. She had a thick patchwork blanket around her. She didn’t look pleased to see me.
    Then the look in her eyes changed from anger to something altogether more alarming - a glare that held and repelled me at the same time. Repulsion won when she bared her teeth and snarled. I bolted.
    At least I tried to. Jumping up, I smashed my head hard against the top of the cave entrance. One ear went deaf, and when I did manage to drag myself erect I had no balance and lurched sideways into the sandstone. I weaved my way along the wall as best I could and was just breaking into a run when I felt myself grabbed by the arm. I spun round and she was there.
    I let her lead me back to the cave. At the entrance, she bent to her haunches and swung herself in. I got to my knees and followed her, backwards. I sat on the floor. She stood in front of me and I saw that there was blood all over her arm and side. I wondered what had happened to her.
    “You’re hurt,” she said, and I realised that the blood was mine.
    That was the last coherent thought I had. For a while I could feel her tending to my head, and I saw the multicoloured blanket in front of my eyes when she leaned over me.
   
    “Come on boy, wake up.”
    I opened my eyes. I was lying on a mat, by the wall of the cave. My head throbbed from an ache to a pain. The woman was sitting beside me, holding a small pot in her freckled hands.
    “You need water,” she said. I took the pot and drank from it.
    I could see the cavern now. The roof made an arch, high enough to stand under. There was a hole above the firepit. A shelf had been cut into the wall opposite me, lined with pots like the one I was drinking from. The floor was smooth and clean, with just a little red dust. Sheets of paper were piled up in a corner.
    She saw me looking, and scowled.
    “Why did you come here?”
    “I saw the fire.”
    “You couldn’t have.”
    “Last night... I think... I don’t know. I was a bit drunk.”
    She stared at me, hard-faced.
    “I saw you,” I said, “last week - outside, by the cliff.”
    Now she looked shaken. She darted into the corner and began leafing through the pile of papers. She picked one out and held it in front of my face.
    “That was you, wasn’t it?” she said.
    It was a charcoal drawing of the sandstone cliff, every jutting promontory hard and defined, with sapling trees clinging to the rock face. The cave was a tiny sliver in the distance. At the base of the cliff was a woman, exactly as I’d seen her.
    “What’s going on?” I said.
    “You’d better go,” she replied.
   
    The flat was lonelier than ever for being the same as I’d left it. I drew a bath and made a cup of tea. As I lay in the bath, I kept picturing the cave-woman in my mind. That she was real made the thought of her into something unbearably erotic. But the more I thought about her, the more her image faded. I tried to describe her to myself, but couldn’t do it, beyond the red hair and the freckles. I couldn’t put an age to her, I couldn’t describe her eyes or her hands, and soon I could no longer see her face.
   
    I always left an hour’s worth of mindless work for Monday morning - figures to add up, charts to draw; it eased me gently into the week’s routine before the serious business of phone calls and meetings.
    I was halfway through a pile of stock-control cards, with most of my attention on the conversation of Sue and Vicky, the two school-leaver receptionists who were describing in graphic detail their weekend debaucheries. I thought about chiming in with a story about meeting a cave-woman under Spaghetti, but no one would have believed me.
    I was waiting for Ivor Thomas to phone. Ivor was the Components Buyer at Kashiguru Electronics (Swansea) Ltd., our biggest customer.
    At nine o’clock my boss called me into his office.
    “Hang on,” I said, “Kashiguru haven’t called yet.”
    “Yes they have,” he replied. “Now get in here.”
    Heads turned. When we were alone, he handed me a fax.
    “Read this.” It was from Kashiguru.
    Saturday’s delivery was wrong. We’d sent them Friday’s delivery over again. They’d lost forty-eight hours’ production.
    “Well?” he said, “what have you got to say for yourself?”
    “I just take the orders I’m given.”
    He was taken aback by this. “Yes... and...”
    “And nothing,” I said. “They give me the orders. I take them.”
    “You’re saying they phoned the wrong order in.”
    “They must have.”
    “Well let’s see, shall we.”
    “There’s no documentation, you know that. I’ve been saying for weeks...”
    “...that this was going to happen.”
    “Yes.”
    He narrowed his eyes. I’d bluffed him out. I went back to my desk and carried on with the stock cards.
    In the Royal Oak at lunchtime, I let out the story of the cave-woman. Someone started singing ‘Hans Christian Anderson’. I shrugged my shoulders.
    In the car park Karen said: “You nearly had me going with that story.”
    “How do you know it’s not true?”
    She made ape noises.
    “You,” I grunted, “woman.”
    She mimed picking a flea off my back.
    This led to a clinch; a real one. I spent the afternoon grinning foolishly. Karen came back with me after work and stayed the night. She stayed over on Tuesday as well, and on Wednesday she was made redundant.
    Jimmy Irvine, the senior salesman, was the first person to speak to me on Thursday morning. He said: “You self-centred little shit.”
    “What have I done?”
    “Karen,” he said. “Done her and done for her.”
    “Eh? It’s not my fault.”
    “Not your fault?!” His chins quivered with angry laughter.
    I said: “They made her redundant.”
    “She’s been redundant for months, you idiot! Why do you think that bastard’s been keeping her on?” He jerked a thumb towards the boss’s office.
    “I didn’t think...”
    “You never bloody think, do you. First it’s Ivor and now it’s Karen.”
    “Ivor?”
    “Ivor Thomas. Remember him? They’ve sacked him.”
    “Oh God.”
    “Yes, you wriggled out of that one, didn’t you?”
    “Now wait a minute, Jimmy.”
    “He won’t get another job, you know. Not at forty.”
    “Jimmy! It wasn’t my fault!”
    “Nothing ever is, is it? I see a bright future for you, laddie. You’ll go far.”
   
    I tried to phone Karen after work. She wasn’t in. Nor was she at home on Friday night. On Saturday morning she called me.
    “I’m so sorry,” I said.
    “What for?”
    “Well... you know...”
    “I’ve got another job. It’s in London.”
    “Can I see you before you go?”
    “I’m already here. I start on Monday.”
    “I see. Well, it’s good to hear you’re alright.”
    “I’m calling to say Goodbye,” she said.
    “Oh,” I replied.
    “Look, it was nice, OK?”
    “Yeah,” I muttered. “Well, good luck.”
    “You too,” she said, and hung up.
    I went back to bed and stayed there all day. I dreamed of the woman by the sandstone cliff.
    “Piss off,” I said to the dream.
   
    The next morning I was back in the cave.
    The woman wasn’t there, but there was paper all over the floor. More sketches. I sat on my haunches and studied them. The drawings were of a forest, seen from the undergrowth. Fleeting images of people blended in with the woodland. The pictures were hazy, as if seen through a mist.
    There was a shadow, then the woman entered the cave.
    “Oh, you’re back.”
    I nodded.
    “What do you think of my sketches?”
    “They’re... very nice,” I said weakly.
    She collected the drawings up and piled them in a corner.
    “Do you live here?” I asked.
    She smiled in an enigmatic way that would have been maddening if she didn’t seem just as confused as me. There was a pile of wood and kindling by the entrance. She began to stack the wood onto the ashes in the middle of the cave.
    “Got a match?” she said, “it’ll save rubbing sticks together.” I handed her my cigarette lighter. She lit the fire. When it was going, she sat down next to me. She’d changed. The frightened and frightening intensity was gone from her face. She seemed distracted. I wondered what I was doing, coming to see a madwoman who lived in a cave.
    “We’ll soon see, won’t we.”
    “See what?”
    “If I’m as mad as you think.”
    “I don’t know why I’m here,” I said.
    “You’re like me,” she replied, “it’s destiny... or something... I don’t know.”
    She rested her head on my shoulder. I felt myself tense up.
    “I won’t bite,” she muttered. “This is what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
    The next thing I knew, the fire had gone out. Only a weak dusk light remained from the cave entrance. The woman rubbed her eyes and said: “It’s time to go.”
    I groaned. “We’ve slept all day.”
    It was too quiet. The steady rumble of traffic had disappeared.
    “Come on.”
    She got up and walked through the ashes of the fire to the entrance. I staggered after her. And then stopped dead. There was a forest outside the cave.
    “You can see it too,” she said. “You are the one.”
    I looked around me. The pots were on the shelf. The wall still showed chisel marks. There was a depleted pile of wood by my feet. Only the outside... Everything outside the cave was...
    The woman climbed out of the entrance. I followed her.
    I relaxed. I was dreaming.
    “I’m dreaming,” I said.
    Spaghetti Junction was gone. So had the gasworks. So had everything. There were only woods and the cliff. The sun was setting and shining a rich amber light into the forest. The woman led me toward the woods.
    There was a movement ahead. The woman froze and gripped my hand tightly. Then it was still. She pressed on into the undergrowth. Huge oaks were all around. There was a dip, and we brushed through weeping willows. I heard the sound of water, and we came to a stream. The water flowed slowly, with green scum near the bank. I put my hand in, shook the algae away and cupped water onto my face. The water was cool. I didn’t wake up.
    “It’s real,” she said.
    It was too real.
    The woman looked hard at me. She said: “You’re not ready. I shouldn’t have brought you so soon.”
    She turned and began to walk back the way we’d come. I followed her up the bank of the stream, up to the ridge where the oaks began. She stopped suddenly, then beckoned me on. She gave a startled look, then broke into a run. I chased after her. We’d reached open ground before I heard the noise behind me - a shout, and footsteps. I turned. A hand grabbed my arm and pulled me down into the sandstone wall.
   
    I woke up in the cave. Traffic roared overhead. I peered out of the entrance and saw the gasworks looming in the distance. Spaghetti’s concrete supports stood like great grey oaks outside. I stood up and brushed red dust from my clothes. The woman wasn’t there.
    Red stone, red dust, a red-haired woman. She was a fantasy.
    I saw black ash on the floor. I bent down and touched it. It was fresh from a fire. Sheets of paper were piled in a corner. I picked one up. A hand was rippling the brackish water of a stream. Another drawing, three faces; male, hairy, angry and dirty. At the edge of the picture, another hand.
   
    I sat in the bath and scrubbed. Every speck of red dirt had to go. I got out, dried off and flung the towel into the laundry basket. I dressed and turned on the television. It was dark outside. The television said that it was Monday night. I’d lost a day. I wanted to phone someone. My mother. No - she’d know straight away that I’d lost my mind. I opened a can of beer. Then I tipped it down the sink. Drinking - that was what had done it. Some people have no tolerance. I’d spaced out.
    I stayed up all night with the television blaring. Someone banged on the ceiling at four o’clock and I ignored it. I drank coffee. Anything to avoid sleep.
    At half past seven I picked up the telephone to call in sick. Then I put it down again. I’d face reality straight away. No more dreams, no more fantasy women, no more enchanted forests; just a thirty-seven hour week, a cheque once a month, a flat of my own and out on the pull every Friday.
    I put on my best suit.
    It was a short walk to the factory. My heart skipped at the sight of Spaghetti in the distance. I’d have to get used to it. I got to my desk to find Sue and Vicky struggling through the stock-control cards.
    “Where did you get to?” said Sue.
    “I was rough yesterday. Anything happen while I was away?”
    “Not much. Me and Vicky have been doing your job. Piece of cake, isn’t it.”
    “Thanks, you can go back to filing your nails now.”
    “Ha ha. By the way, Casanova wants to see you.”
    The boss. He’d have it in for me over Karen. I took a deep breath and walked into his office.
    He played at being concerned about my health, then gave me a roasting for not phoning in sick. I took it with a shrug and a submissive nod. Then he said: “I want a stock-check done on all the electronic components. Better do it yourself - I can’t trust the warehouse boys to count. I need it done by four.”
    I had to hand it to him. There are few better ways of ruining a person’s day than to give him ten hours of tedious, fiddly work to do in eight hours. No doubt he’d think of something every day until he thought I’d been punished enough, or until he ran out of ideas. My money was on the latter.
    I picked up some overalls from the stores, changed in the Gents and walked out to the warehouse. I set to my task with gusto, climbing all over the warehouse racks with a clipboard and pencil. In eight hours’ time I’d be fit to drop, but for now I was happy to be back in the real, mundane world.
    I stood on a pallet and got a fork-lift driver to take me up to the top rack. He drove me slowly along while I counted up the boxes and trays.
    Jimmy Irvine walked into the warehouse. He looked up and saw me. Then he grinned. It was a humourless grin that I’d seen before. My legs shook and I struggled for balance.
    “Down!” I shouted to the driver. He took me down.
    “You alright? “ asked the driver, “you’ve gone pale.”
    “Yeah, sorry. I lost it up there. Not much good with heights.”
    The driver smiled indulgently. Jimmy’s face was fixed; his eyes piercing.
    “I’ve just been down to Swansea,” he said, “you know, checking the Kashiguru order, making sure there’s no more cock-ups. Terrible business about Ivor, eh?”
    “What?”
    “You haven’t heard the latest then? Very sad. At that age - and the poor kid as well...”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “Ivor’s dead. It was on the radio coming back. Only the local radio of course. He killed himself - hosepipe through the car window. Shouldn’t have done it in the garage, though.”
    The bitter grin had gone. His eyes stared down at the floor.
    “And what with the boy trying to save his dad - so senseless the lad having to die as well.”
    Jimmy turned and walked out of the warehouse. I sat down on a box of two hundred F5329/16-B transformers and lit a cigarette.
   
    I didn’t bother picking my suit up on the way out. I left by the vehicle gate, over the canal bridge. I followed the towpath under Spaghetti Junction and crossed again, by Salford Park.
    The woman wasn’t in the cave, but she’d left a pile of firewood and a neatly-folded blanket. There was a sketch too. It showed a forest encampment, with people sitting in a circle. One face, mine, stared out from the picture. The face smiled in welcome. It was time. I took off my clothes and wrapped the blanket around myself. Then I piled up the wood and lit the fire.


      
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