After bombarding you with a few blog posts of the navel-gazing variety (not to mention all that shameless promotion of the new novel) I thought it was about time I rewarded you, dear reader, with a gift.
The Voyage of the Plastic Beagle is a short story I wrote some time ago, and which I never could decide what to do with. Like a lot of my fiction, it doesn’t fall into any neat category. You might call it fantasy, bordering on horror. You may very well consider it strange. I don’t mind. I never had much truck with categories. All I hope is that, when you’ve read it, you find it’s got under your skin, just the teeniest bit.
THE VOYAGE OF THE PLASTIC BEAGLE
Clark Dillon crossed the high street and headed straight for Plastic Attack. Terrible name, great shop. Just a flaking brick facade wedged between two glassy monoliths, with its name in neon and a door and a narrow splinter of window. Jen liked the shop too, but today she was shopping for clothes, leaving Clark free to indulge himself. Sweet.
Inside, the shop was a tunnel. At the far end stood the owner, Fat Rick. Reaching Rick meant negotiating long trestles sagging under weighty cardboard boxes that smelled of ammonia. The boxes were filled with Hendrix and Fats and obscure movie soundtracks – it was the soundtracks Clark went for. Storytelling music. Jen was more avant garde: the Glitch movement and early Philip Glass. Clark called it white noise. But when she danced to it she made it beautiful.
Today, Clark was on the hunt for Silent Running. He’d always liked that seventies eco-movie about the crazy hippy on the big spaceship with the cute robots. The soundtrack had Joan Baez singing about having the earth between her toes and a flower in her hair. He’d long wanted the green vinyl edition. Maybe today.
He found the movies box, shuffled the sleeves. The usual suspects: Oklahoma; Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien score; James Bond compilations. No Joan. But he did find an extended Italian edition of Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. This at least was irresistible.
Morricone in hand, Clark squeezed past the other punters: a waif of a woman all lime-green cardigan and unwashed hair; a guy with a sharp suit and the jitters. Eventually he reached Fat Rick, who wasn’t fat at all. Fold Rick and you could post him.
‘Found something, Superman?’ Rick said, eyes intent on his texting thumb.
Always a joy to find someone who thought the joke new. Or even funny.
Clark was still formulating an answer when the wall behind the tea-crate counter distracted him. Since his last visit the wall had grown shelves. The shelves were crammed with boxed plastic kits, floor to ceiling. Jet fighters, world war two bombers, rally cars, armoured cars, U-boats and E-boats.
Clark pointed. ‘Where did they come from?’
Fat Rick’s thumb continued to skate on the phone. ‘Neat, huh? Fire-damaged stock, only they weren’t in the fire. Friend of a friend. Back of a lorry. Know what I mean?’
Not knowing, Clark nodded.
‘Plastic, see? My brand, sorta. Worth a shot.’
‘Nobody buys this shit now,’ said Clark. He wasn’t sure that was true. But he was hooked. As a kid, he’d bought a plastic kit a week. A Spitfire. A Panzer. Enola Gay. And so on. The local model shop had swallowed his pocket money whole. The completed kits had filled his bedroom: tanks crawling the shelves; planes bomb-running on threads from the ceiling. The room stank of enamel thinners and polystyrene cement. A sensory obsession. Later, the model shop closed and he grew up.
‘I’ll buy one,’ he said before he’d even thought of the words.
Fat Rick exposed rodent teeth and vanished his phone.
‘What’ll it be, Superman?’
Clark chose the Beagle. He hadn’t bothered much with ships as a kid. He’d built HMS Victory but thought the plastic sails looked stupid. World-war hardware was more gratifying – angular vehicles with turrets and guns and undercarriage that folded from sight. Today however the Beagle appealed.
She came in a big sturdy box. The front was a painting of the ship – that smart little 10-gun brig – in full sail on a high sea. Beneath the name was a byline: The Ship On Which Charles Darwin Discovered Evolution. Not strictly true. But Darwin was the reason the ship was famous. Five years aboard had shown him the globe from the Azores to Galapagos. His theory of natural selection had come later.
‘Wife’ll think you’re a nerd,’ said Fat Rick as he squeezed the box off the shelf.
‘She won’t mind,’ said Clark. But he wondered if Jen maybe was influencing his decision, absent though she was.
Last year Jen had put an art installation into the Natural History Museum – a first for the venue. A hypnotic dance about evolution. Her body in silk, a living screen for projected prehistory. The arts media had gone crazy for her. They called it her breakout moment. After years dancing in the wilderness, she’d finally found her feet.
While Jen was front-of-house, Clark had done most of the research, geeking out on Charles Darwin and the whole evolution thing. He’d collated all the images for the projections: engravings of Galapagos shores, sketches of Darwin’s ship at sea. No surprise, then, the Beagle had caught his eye. But did he really want to buy a kit? The wall of them was a delight, but these were childish things, long left behind.
Still, the ship made him think of Jen, which was only a good thing. He bought it, and everything that followed followed.
Clark exited Plastic Attack with the Beagle under his arm and Morricone in a flimsy white bag. The kit box was awkward – not exactly too big or small, just full of corners. He checked the time and texted Jen to meet him early. He waited outside the shop until she appeared on the other side of the road, two big shopping bags in each hand, looking like a dancer even in repose. Short dark hair alive in the wind. When he saw her, as always, he felt whole.
But her face was wrong. For a second, Clark thought she was terrified. Then came her trademark knowing smile. He couldn’t imagine why she should be afraid, and dismissed the idea.
Growling traffic kept them apart. Jen mouthed nonsense, knowing he was a hopeless lip-reader. Seeing him blank, she put down the bags and waved at the pedestrian crossing three stores down. Clark started for it but she stopped him with a lifted palm and sent a silence that might have been, ‘I’ll come to you.’
Clark backed against Fat Rick’s neon and studied the Beagle box. The long side listed in six languages what cement he’d need, what paint. He had neither. A model shop was required after all. Did such places still exist? On the painted ship a figure stood: a little man at the bow, eagerly gazing. It was meant to be Darwin, he supposed. A romantic touch.
Then a sudden dreadful bang, and the sight of Jen airborne. The shopping bags flew beside her. On the crossing was a van, slewed and front-dented, its driver white behind the reflected street. Clark decided later she was dead already, that her arms and legs moved only with the puppetry of momentum. She flew in a mathematical curve, at the end of which the road rose up and hit her and there were screams, but not hers. The tarmac abraded Jen as she slid. The bags splashed out the clothes she’d bought. Live bodies rushed in, occluding hers, which was dead. A dozen mobiles snapped out the same emergency call. Everything in motion but Jen and Clark. She because she was gone. He because he was suddenly unglued … read the rest of the story here.