Grandparents, Smiling, £7.95

story about running away

I went to Cornwall to escape broken things. I thought it was my work, a doomed quango project to build the unbuildable database that no one wanted, but Marie assured me it was our relationship. Do you really want to do this? I’m sick to the eye teeth of your back-end issues.

We were both strung out, me from too many late nights in the office and her from my countless rants. I think I asked her permission. As I dragged my suitcase down the path, gravel wedging in the wheels, she told me hers was already packed.

In the car, Chris phoned to say, I’ve got a new project, but he always had a new project and he never asked about Marie.




I had been reading writers obsessed with the landscape. Psychogeographers. Neologists with an eye on the past, or the world, or something indefinable just out of sight – they’d never let me know which. Maybe I was looking for that connection, but my interior world was ablaze. Every step led them to purpose, or context, or meaning, or self-definition. I’d only just been able to dodge the collapsing tower of stress when Marie dropped her bomb. She always waited.

On the M4 I rehearsed arguments I’d never have with Marie, finding twenty thousand ways to make it her fault. Sidestepping Bristol to plunge down the M5 towards the coast, I realised I could lose her. I held the steering wheel tight. We loved each other, but that wasn’t enough, was it?

My mind raced me till I passed Exeter. I travelled against the flow. The peace of the West Country, just out of season – the towns collectively exhaling as the relocating masses transformed the A30 into a violent miasma of fumes and honking in their universal individual need to get home – overwhelmed me. My day-to-day was a cubicle in a flickering neon arena of concrete south of the river. The fumes I recognised; the cobbled streets and squat farm cottages I didn’t.

In St Ives, I threw my case into the bed and breakfast room, bought cigarettes and alcohol, like I always do when things go wrong, and sat on the beach. The tide had retreated behind the harbour walls, so I lurked behind a fishing boat, which canted belligerently out of the water. You want children, Marie? When you’re ready to leave me? At least tell me what you want.

An immature herring gull, mottled and yet to develop the brutal cackle of its kind, stared at me until I flicked a cigarette butt at it. The gull swallowed it and eyeballed me, weighing its chances of getting another.

Chris phoned again, and I picked up. I told him about trying to correlate unrelated data, getting caught in a pissing match between three government departments. He wanted to do something big and personal; artists always do.

Something you can’t ignore, he said.

Just me?

It’ll look real, the real fucking deal. Gotta make you believe it, to see the truth.

You’re going to lie to tell the truth? I’m not guessing. Tell me or get on with it.

He lectured me about sleepwalking into a losing battle, the need to open my eyes, smell the coffee, wake up. You’ll be the one to get it. You always do. What he lacked in consistency he made up for in fervour.

Clouds kited overhead as I sipped sour cider, itself a rarity to a Londoner. Terriers scrapped with seagulls for begging rights. The scant scraps of Cornish pasty tourists gave up weren’t to be shared.

A single-prop flew in circles above, trailing a fluttering banner proclaiming, JESUS LOVES EVERY 1 OF U – enough to charter a plane, but not enough to buy the banner space to love every one of you. That observation was the kind of thing Marie hated about me, of course. The next day the plane would tout some local theme park, the ephemeral flying miracle granted a bathetic coda.

That evening I ate at a tapas restaurant, kept company by a raffia-covered bottle swollen with the dripped remains of a thousand candles. Marie’s eyes always wrestled beauty from a flame. The Spanish restaurant owner was charmed by my loneliness at first, then snide as I ate lightly: just a few tapas and a glass of wine. I called Marie over the dessert: Journey was OK. You remember that Peruvian restaurant, for our anniversary? We should go back there.

Come evening the town turned into a micro-festival, all the pubs hosting folk acts and raucous cover bands. My scene completely; Marie was one for the clubs.

The punks, of course, looked out of place. Walking the cobbled streets, smoking joints, drinking cans, arguing about whether the National Trust was saving or destroying England. As I passed by a full can smacked into my shoulder, falling to explode on the cobbles, spraying my trousers with lager. The punks burst out laughing, slapping knees and shoulders. I’d just made it to the door of the pub when a hand slapped on the same shoulder, enlivening the bruise. Really sorry about that, I wasn’t aiming at you. Trying to hit that dopey fucker. The punk who had followed me had a peroxide blonde mohawk; he pointed at an overweight guy with an emo fringe collapsed across one eye. Can I buy you a drink, to say sorry?

Don’t worry about it – happens all the time. I pushed into the pub, surprised at how easy it was to forgive him. I tried Marie again, left another message. How long will you be away? I’ll find a new job, as soon as I get back.




At Land’s End, the signpost my grandparents had sat under decades ago – a rare shot of them smiling at the same time – was off limits. £7.95. We’ll post the photos to you. I leaned back on the fence to get as close as I could for free, just to spite them I guess. I sent Marie the picture: Who doesn’t love the sea?

Down the coast, the shipwreck burrowed into the cove with ease. The rusting hulk was all that remained of the RMS Mülheim, which had sheared in two on the rocks after the navigator passed out on duty. That’s what the little sign said. Now it was a sculpture shedding girders and plating like a dying tree after a storm.

Birds of prey soared overhead, snatching a few moments to hunt before the crows harassed them away. I stared up at the raptors’ profiles, sure that the psychogeographers would know each breed by sight. Buzzard, harrier, kite, kestrel, eagle, falcon, hawk. The rhythm stuck the phrase in my head, until I drove myself mad with it. They’d tell me which music to listen to and which books to read, stabbing pins into every association like butterflies for a museum – some intertextual morass – instead of letting me close my eyes as the wind pounded me into irrelevance. I could name roadkill: grey for rabbit, red for fox, stippled for pheasant. Black for too old to care.

Halfway down the gulley two fence posts were hammered into the soil, gatekeepers of the ruined. Past them the sun turned rusted metal trunks bright orange. I stamped over rocks and flaked iron, squealing and crunching a path to the shattered hull. A crow watched me from a railing, head cocked in curiosity.

The remains of the ladder left itchy splinters in my hand as I hauled myself into the cabin. Was this where the mate had slipped away from responsibility? A tear in the bulkhead revealed a sea at peace with what it had done. I slumped into a corner, smelling salt spray, feeling disintegrating metal. My phone buzzed, Chris calling again. I jammed it to my ear but the signal fractured against the boat: I can’t— pened at hom— kits all gone. There was a roaring noise coming from somewhere, an angry growl of atmosphere, a fury of the spheres. All burned to nothing.

I spoke back to him, but my words were lost in the hulk. Can you hear me? Are you—

A message slipped in with the shreds of Chris’s call. Marie: all I could hear was the fuck. My signal dropped, so I couldn’t retrieve more and was left to seethe. Chris sounded stressed, Marie angry, and I still couldn’t get work out of my head. The light made the doorways swell, an overexposed film, or a hole in time and space. The wreck was luminous, surviving patches of paint like petals, frozen mid-conflagration. The waves crashed on the beach all around me, the sound tinny and far away. Burn it, buzzard, SQL, kestrel, liars, failing, fuck!

Those moments of inspiration, satori, the kick in the eye. Like curtains opening – it’s clear how stupid you’ve been, all that time. I hate them. In the salty air, sat in the wreck, afraid I would be single come Monday morning, I saw the fix for work. A small change in UI – more a conceptual leap, only the slightest adjustment to actual practice – an extra table to parse the change. It could be done in a couple of weeks.

I dragged myself upright, shouted Fuck! in frustration or release, I don’t remember which, and having fixed the thing I didn’t care about, kicked the wall. The booming clang, the rusty splinters, the feeling that maybe I could go through it made me do it again and again. I stopped when I heard the groan of metal, panicked when the floor rolled out from under me.

I had never tasted iron before, not properly. Not rusting iron, soaked with salt over decades. It tasted like shit. I remember my face smacking into the tread of the floor plate, knowing my mouth was bleeding and opening my eyes to a filthy headache. It’s hard to know if you’ve been unconscious without someone there to witness. It felt like the continuation of a bad dream that had already lasted days, and I remember the disappointment that I wasn’t getting a break from it.

The sky was dark and ablaze, a great tear revealing luminous, divine guts. God was bleeding all over me. My shoulders were buried in a metal scree, my back bent to lift my legs to the sky, like my body wanted to fly but my mind was weighing it down. I disentangled myself from the iron embrace of the wreck, tumbling and rolling down some new slope once free. I felt light, joyous and strong, coiled within the hulk. A snake slid from my neck to my ear, slipped under my shirt, tickled my chest. My head pulsed with the breath of a galaxy as I climbed out of my pit, my hands red like rust, pushing through decaying metal with every motion, as the ship and I merged, became a glorious tribute to the failures of endeavour.

Outside, the sun was getting low in the sky. I stumbled free of the ship, lumping across the rocks on all fours. The crows hopped nearby, chuckling to each other, seeing the funny side of their ruined home. Up the gulley, a family pointed, their waterproof jackets bright like the felt-tip pens we had at school.




The hospital wouldn’t discharge me, so I had to sneak out between rounds. Before I could, one of the nurses told me, The choughs made it tough for the paramedics. You shouldn’t feed them. Psychogeographers get everywhere.




I listened to the messages in the cab back from the hospital, peering at my butterfly stitches and scabs in the mirror. Chris had called back to tell me his house was burning down. Marie didn’t give a flying fuck about my job and wanted me to work out what the fuck I wanted, and if that fucking database was more fucking important than her.

I called Chris, but his number was out of service. I didn’t know what it meant, and an irrational fear overtook me. The certainty that of a multitude of outcomes, the worst had taken place. He was dead in my head for a couple of minutes, charred bones collapsed in the corner of his own wreckage, dark, sooty and lonely.

When I finally got to speak to Marie I asked, Is Chris OK? Has he got somewhere to stay? His home burned down.

Curtains rattled in the background. Chris lived in a sixth-floor flat a couple of streets over from us. A Saturday night ritual of ours was to guess if he was out or having a party when we came to close the curtains. Bollocks it has, looks like he’s still asleep. He’s been calling everyone, pretending he’s lost a leg, run over a kid, and now we can add his house burning down to the list. Some performance bullshit, you’ll be on tape, don’t worry. And fuck you for asking about him first.

Chris had cried wolf too many times, and I’d fallen for it again. Another satori, a sense of having everything upside down. The dead phone line had a powerfully self-satisfied tone. I told it anyway, I know you want more. I want more too.

I had one more night before the drive home; I went back to the pub. What else do you do in the country, at night? The wood panelling looked too dark and the press of bodies was claustrophobic, so I retreated outside. The punks hadn’t moved in the last twenty-four hours.

I sat on the gutter near Mohawk, who nodded hello, gave me a wink. I said, Don’t see your lot so often these days. He raised an eyebrow. Proper punks. Safety pins, wood glue, all that. Sort of anachronisms, up my way.

Anarchism. He clunked his pint against mine. What brings you to the ends of the earth?

A break from work. At least, I thought it was.

You’re a bare-knuckle boxer?

I lifted my scraped hands, touched the developing bruise on my cheek. Software developer, actually. I can’t work out if she wants to leave me, or something else. We’re already living together.

He passed over a rollie; I never liked them, but when change becomes your paradigm you go against the grain. The weak taste of it spoiled my beer. I smoked it anyway.

Me too. Front end, freelance. Here for our anniversary. I married Caz years ago. None of that church bollocks. He waved his left hand, a twist of wire in place of a ring. Caz was hard to miss with her shaved head, spiderweb scalp tattoo, delicately beautiful features and the heavy bull ring. Best decision I ever made.

Have you been married before?

Yeah, loads of times. Best decision, every time.

I coughed the last of my rollie into the gutter and drained my pint. Mohawk told me his name was Philip and shook my hand. I waved at Emo and Caz like we were old comrades from a war long won and headed for the wharf.

The tide was in, leaving a tiny parabola of sand. Across the harbour the coastguard had returned and were dragging their boat up the ramp, one of them waiting to wash the salt off it with soapy water. Here it looked big and impervious, but it was a tiny orange dot for the ocean, a few years of corrosion away from failure.

I kicked seaweed across the beach, wondering if I’d tell Chris how angry I was this time, sketching out the changes for work. A flash of metal shot into the dark, caught in the light from the harbour chippies. I followed it and found a ring – something machined, not jewellery – just too small for my fingers. It had smooth, if rusty, edges, and held the promise of a fiery colour, under the right light.

The sea slapped the beach with playful taps that night. I realised how peaceful it was without the seagulls. I wondered if the ring would fit Marie’s finger.



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