Mab is another of my Undead Manuscripts – an unfinished fragment of a novel that I like too much to consign it to the grave. I began it in 2010, on the back of a single idea: “What if you woke up from death?” Once I began writing, a second idea attached itself to the first. I’m reluctant to share it here because I may go back to it in the future. But I will say this: it’s the second idea that led me to choose the working title of Mab.
Like all my other abandoned novels, Mab is raw and uncertain, but I’ve decided to publish a short extract here because I like the rhythm of the prose. It isn’t quite a dance, but perhaps one day it might turn into one.
The following extract is taken from the beginning of the manuscript:
Mab – Extract
It was nearly two years since Peter had died. Ever since then, time for him had glued together into a kind of impenetrable paste. Oh, Peter could follow the turning of the seasons well enough, could even feel the pull of the tide. But logging individual moments was hard, and getting harder all the time. Sometimes Peter felt like a piece of clockwork winding slowly down, or like a car coughing along on a near-empty tank, breathing fumes. With every day that passed he felt thinner and thinner, more and more faded, bleached away like colour under the sun. Often he forgot the words for things, or where he was or how he had got there, and every day the world around him seemed more and more like mist.
In contrast, Peter remembered his life clearly. Clearest of all was his memory of the day it had ended. The recollection brought no emotion, only the memory of pain. Emotion was a thing of the past but the pain, like Peter, lingered.
Sometimes it seemed to Peter that in dying he had somehow shrunk, becoming like one of the tiny frozen people on the platform of one of his father’s model railway platforms. Sometimes, this belief was so strong that Peter was convinced this was indeed his doom, that he was living out eternity inside his father’s miniature dreamland. It was an ironic thought.
It had taken Peter many years to convince his father that he had interests of his own. When Peter was young, his father had brought down all his old things from the attic – steam engines and paints and plastic kits and boyhood sketchbooks filled first with cartoons then cars, then the nudes from his college life-drawing classes. A father desperate to share his passions with his son. But Peter had little interest in drawing or painting or making intricate models or watching old science fiction movies. Instead he ran long distances and cycled fast and played football hard. Peter preferred the bite of wind in his throat and in his hair, the solid jar of his boots against hard winter ground, the pungent reality of the big, real, moving world.
Peter knew that on some level he was a disappointment to his father but there seemed no solution; the two of simply them ran on different batteries.
“You know, Pete,” his father said one day, “if we were ever in an old B-movie together, I’d be the mad scientist and you’d be the hero who thinks with his fists. Peter Cushing and Doug McClure, that’s us!”
Peter never did get the reference.
But in one respect Eric Wheelwright had been triumphant: he’d always been there. He’d been there running, puffing, at Peter’s side, ready to catch his son’s bike when it wobbled just a little too far; he’d been there to make breakfast, and he’d been there after school; he’d been devoted to his son, and even after Peter had turned twelve his father still kissed him goodnight, and told him he loved him.
Peter’s mother used to say she loved him too. But her messages were made jagged by their trip around the world, and the kisses were just pixels in the corner of the screen.
A boy of sudden steel
Peter had died on his father’s thirty-seventh birthday, a Saturday.
There had been a football match in the morning. Eric had driven Peter to the park, then clapped his hand to his head – the classic pose of the absent-minded professor. There was some student work he had forgotten to mark. Another couple of hours would do it, which meant they would still be able to meet up at the cinema for the afternoon show – dad’s birthday treat – as they had arranged. Anyway, it wasn’t a cup match, would Peter mind very much if his forgetful old dad didn’t stay to cheer him on?
Peter had shrugged and said nothing. Nothing was the last thing he ever said to his father.
After the match – during which Peter had scored a goal which was immediately disallowed (he had been offside) – Peter had cycled beneath massing clouds to the cinema, where they had arranged to meet up. Rain came suddenly, like gunfire, but Peter did not let that slow him down. He loved the feel of the rain against the skin of his legs, the way it scoured the mud and made him feel clean and free and wholly himself. He whooped inside the storm, entirely a boy for the last time in his life.
The bus hit him hard, driving him down into the road, crushing him and mixing him up with the mashed metal frame of the bicycle and painting its tyres with copper-scented blood, so that Peter’s last thought was that he had turned to metal, a boy of sudden steel. Perhaps, he thought with electric clarity, his new steel skeleton would allow him to rise up and run forever, metal legs pumping, iron lungs burning hot, shining feet like road machinery driving him on through the rain that had suddenly become so much like mist, so much like light, so painful on his dying eyes, so much pain to remember here, but no real feelings, only a deep and distant regret that he had let his father down again, had died on his birthday, that poor Eric would be forced to sit alone inside the cinema, an empty seat beside him and the lights going down, going down …
Just before he died, Peter heard a voice.
“Push,” the voice said. It was the strong voice of a woman, deep and sure. Not his mother but someone just as familiar, or perhaps unknown. “Push now, push hard. It’s all right. There, there …”
And the voice faded, along with everything else, everything but the touch of a smooth, strange hand on Peter’s dying brow, and the anguished cry of his father who, waiting on the other side of the street beneath the moving lights that marked the show times, had seen everything.
If death this was
And death was not so bad, if death this was. Occasionally Peter wondered if perhaps this was not death at all but something more strange, something beyond his capacity to understand. But mostly he was incapable of such thoughts. Mostly he moved as if between dreams, an existence much like waking in the small night hours, when the world is vast and silent and somehow other than it should be, a world not seen in full but glimpsed through half-opened curtains, no more than a skin laid over something altogether else, something ready to wake or at least turn over, grumbling that its peace has been disturbed.
For two years, Peter drifted through his father’s rambling seaside home, barely conscious, a creature of broken memory.
Then, one day, he woke up.
Copyright © Graham Edwards 2010