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.
Days followed. Things happened, few making any sense. Families converged on the north London house: his from Devon, Jen’s from Cumbria. They brought tears and muttered opinions about how Clark would cope alone. Like the media, they’d kept their eyes always on Jen, never her inconsequential husband. Journalists prowled. Hattie, Jen’s formidable sister, scared them away.
Paperwork intruded. Once, Clark found himself in a building society with their joint account book in his hand. The clerk asked if he wanted Jen’s name crossed out, or a new book devoid of her entirely. He’d always been confident with the finances; on this occasion he had no idea what to say.
Somewhere inside it all was the funeral. It was something they’d talked about. Jen had said she wanted purple flowers, cheerful music, a cardboard coffin. No sad faces. But she’d been twenty-six and drunk. Hattie made it happen the way she’d said. Fellow artists came, and the press. Clark was there, but she wasn’t. A strong conviction came over him: that without her he would cease to exist. At one point Hattie steered him to the front and he said these words:
‘I miss her and I’d do anything to bring her back.’
As he said it, he thought he heard surf on a shore, and a creaking sound like bending timbers or bones. Through the chapel window, clouds like smoke smothered the sun.
The families went again, all except Hattie, who made herself a bed in the spare room and promised not to outstay her welcome. Clark tied up Jen’s affairs, or made them his own. In this respect nothing had changed: he managed her money as he’d always done.
Hattie was good company. A solid presence. She knew when to be there and when to leave him alone. Sometimes they ate dinner together; most evenings they raided Jen’s wine cellar and made themselves drunk.
‘They had the pair of you wrong,’ Hattie said one night. The silver clock told Clark it was two in the morning. ‘All of them. She was nothing without you.’
‘Tell it to your mother,’ said Clark. His words took him by surprise. He glanced at Hattie, afraid he’d offended. But she was laughing.
‘Mum hates your guts,’ she said. ‘Sorry, but if you don’t know that you’re more stupid than she thinks you are. She never thought you were good enough.’
‘Never a proper job?’
‘Something like that.’
They drank in silence.
‘Here’s the thing,’ said Hattie. ‘Jen gave me something for you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It was last year. She was, I don’t know, in one of her moods. You know?’
Clark knew. Last year Jen had started having fugues: whole days when she drifted away. She said she heard music. The music was what inspired her dances. To begin with, Clark assumed she was talking about imagination, the artist’s muse. Only gradually did he understand she really did hear things. Songs from under the world, she called them.
If the hearing things was real, maybe the going places was too. It was a crazy thought. But.
The fugues had stopped as suddenly as they’d begun. Not long after, Jen had presented her dance at the Natural History Museum, and found her fame at last.
Hattie was digging in her bag. She brought out something like a pen. It was a voice recorder, a cheap pink gimmicky thing.
‘There’s something recorded on it,’ she said. ‘I never listened to it. Jen told me not to. She said to give it to you if she died. I told her not to be stupid. She made me promise.’
Clark turned the little device over in his hands. At one end was a tiny mesh-covered speaker. The sound it made would be thin, metallic. He had no desire to hear what that sound might be.
‘The day she died,’ he said, ‘– just before the accident – I thought she looked afraid. She got this look, just for a second. As if she knew what was going to happen.’
‘You must have imagined it.’ But Hattie looked away.
‘I suppose so.’
Hattie gripped his hand. She was the stocky one. Strangely, Clark had always thought her more graceful than her sister. Powerful too. His fingers hurt inside hers.
‘You have to let her go, Clark,’ she said. Her eyes and voice were intense. ‘I know you, what you’re like. I know it’s you who steered the ship. Without you, Jen would never have been who she was. She looked strong but she wasn’t. She needed you and now she’s gone … I’m worried how you’ll deal with it. With not having her to look after.’
‘I’ll be all right,’ said Clark.
They finished the wine.
Hattie left. The journalists found other stories. Alone again, Clark took to roaming the rooms. Jen’s scent lingered; he spent whole days on its trail. Hide and seek in the big Victorian house, a way to imagine she was still somewhere. Here in this wardrobe? Under the bed? It made no sense, but he hunted all the same. She’d left no tracks but the trace of her perfume, which wasn’t fading after all but getting stronger. Sometimes he heard her feet in rhythm on the floorboards. He made himself leave the house, forced marches down the hill to buy pizza, then back up. The return was always a relief, because the hunt could resume. It was odd, his behaviour, he knew. But the grief.
He carried the little pen-recorder everywhere. He never listened to it – dreaded its contents, actually. Some message from Jen, he supposed, now from beyond the grave. It lived in his top pocket, a silent talisman.
He started sleepwalking. He knew this because he woke in unusual places: the attic, the foot of the stairs. He woke always scrabbling, fingertips reddened, as if he’d been digging for her. Once he woke at midnight in the garden, ankles deep in mud and his hand on a spade; that was when he decided something had to change.
He shaved off his apathy beard and filled the kitchen with fruit. He stripped the bed and laundered the linen. He opened the windows. It felt both false and necessary. Pretend to be real and real you’ll become, sooner or later. Soon both he and the house were smart. But still he imagined her somewhere. The need to hunt persisted. The deep unbearable need for her.
He had to occupy himself.
The cellar ran under the whole house. Most of it was shallow, just a crawl-space. But under the kitchen it was deep enough to stand in. Half was occupied by wine racks; in the other half Clark had made a room from an old installation of Jen’s: sleek silver panels hung on a chromed rig, sharp halogen lights. There was a leather couch and a bar with stools. A big TV on the wall. A boy’s den.
Jen had never liked it. She lived for the light and the air. And Clark had rarely used it, this theoretical bolt-hole, because he’d never felt the need to bolt. Now it was perfect. Jen’s ghost liked the den no better than her actual self. The absence of her was a relief.
He brought things down: books; the microwave and coffee machine; his turntable and a stack of vinyl. On top was the record he’d bought on the day Jen died: Morricone’s The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. He hadn’t yet taken it out of the sleeve. Today, though.
He located the town’s one model shop and drove there to buy tools and consumables: a craft knife; two tubes of polystyrene cement, a dozen tiny metal pots of enamel paint – all the colours listed on the Beagle box; a bottle of thinners; a plastic cutting mat. He laid the gear on the bar, made coffee and put the record on the turntable.
He opened the box.
Inside, a sealed clear polythene bag held all the parts of the Beagle. Clark slit the bag with the knife, releasing the oily scent of captive plastic. He slithered out the sprues. Most of the parts were still attached; a few rattled loose: the two big halves of the hull, a handful of smaller pieces accidentally detached. The new plastic shone like walnut, except for the sails, which were ivory. The material the sails were made from was wafery, better than the Victory. Maybe they’d look okay.
Clark examined the sprues one by one. The mouldings looked crisp: decks grained like wood, railings thin and neat. The cannon barrels had holes in the end. He looked for the little figure of Darwin, like the picture on the box. But Darwin wasn’t there. An artist’s conceit.
There were no instructions either.
Disappointed, he drank more coffee and turned up Morricone. The howling motif of the spaghetti western took him west into distant mythic lands.
Back at the bar, he made a start anyway. Everything was numbered, and he wasn’t exactly a novice. He cut the parts from the sprues, dry-fitted them before gluing. Gradually the decks took shape – main, quarter, poop and gun. On the latter he glued the cannons. The pots of enamel remained unopened. Building was the imperative. He’d paint when he’d finished, and curse at the corners he couldn’t reach.
Time flowed past. For a while he felt a child again, and was free of grief. But his back stiffened and hunger crept up, and he came back to the present and felt sad all over again.
He made lunch. The smell of noodles joined the tang of plastic and glue. The record had reached the track called Il Deserto, where Clint dehydrates under a killing sun. Relentless melodrama. The music made Clark smile, despite the ache in his heart.
Eating, he studied more closely the sections he’d built. Part-Beagles littered the bar, sub-assemblies waiting to become part of a whole. Like a kid he ducked to their level and peered into them, imagined himself walking the miniature planks. An imaginary Jen was there too, her first appearance in the den. She was welcome. She held Clark’s hand. They went to the railing, leaned over to watch the dolphins. She was a cramp inside him.
Clark took his hand from hers to grip the rail. After a moment he lifted his fingers to his lips and tasted salt. Released, Jen continued to follow the deck. A hatch yawned and she vanished into it. Again she was gone. Clark held and turned the plastic deck under the lights, looking for where she must be. If only he could find her, he could bring her back. But she was gone.
He swept the empty plate from the bar. It smashed on the floor’s wooden boards. Noodle shreds flew. The grief hurtled in as it did most days, a sandstorm to scour him. Morricone played on, the soundtrack to his misery; how ironic, that the movie was about men searching for lost treasure.
He screamed. He missed her. What he’d said at the funeral – that he’d do anything to bring her back – had never been more true. The urge to seek her was like an engine. Entering the cellar had brought him underground. Jen felt near. Wherever she was, she’d be dancing. Long limbs moving to the beat of the surf. The vision had gravity. A dance like a tide, dredging him in. It was a strong thought and a good one, and it brought her almost back.
The next track was Marcetta. Whistling chorus and harmonica, the music jaunty yet haunting. Marching music, music to journey by. Clark turned the volume up.
He went back to the Beagle. The two halves of the hull were plastic gourds; they looked bigger than the box they’d come out of. Gluing them together emptied the first tube of cement. Good job he had another. He kept pressure on the seam, waiting for the glue to dry. He had to stretch his arms wide to do it. He felt strong and ferocious.
His arms started to ache; the plastic hull was heavy. Soon he had to put it down. There wasn’t room on the bar so he put it on the floor. It took up half the den. Amazing how these things got bigger. The music around him was loud.
More construction. The work was hard now. Thick plastic spars locking into place, plastic ribs curving down into deep shadow. Everything slick and faintly scented. Gobs of glue running like syrup. Slowly the plastic ship grew. Soon it occluded the light. Clark had to climb to reach its limits. Up this plastic mast to adhere the crow’s nest, down this plastic ladder to secure the hold. He walked the deck, tightening the rigging. The echo of his feet on the plastic timbers was wrong and unearthly. Eventually no more parts remained. He went to the helm and gripped the wheel and turned it; the ship’s bow swung at his command. He tasted his fingers: still salt. Salt in the air too, on the wind that had rushed in. The plastic sails above him stretched with it and swelled, and the plastic Beagle pitched deep into a trough of waiting darkness. Clark forced the wheel against her sudden roll. The little ship screamed defiance, climbed the wave to its crest and tipped forward through spindrift to spill herself finally out into a wide flat place in the water, where the waves heaved syncopated, all dancing under a black and thunderous sky, black water swilling between slick high canyon walls that gleamed like coal. An ebony salt river. The drum of the waves against the rock was a calling song. It was Jen’s feet against whatever underworld had claimed her, it echoed through everything that surrounded it and it drew the Beagle on.
The river snaked beneath the storm. Speed tore Clark’s hair. The waves were music. The canyon narrowed and the water ran fast and white, tempo hectic. It broadened and there were ponderous straits, mirror-water mimicking the lightning that pinned itself again and again to the tops of the plastic masts. Clark shouted at the speed, the preposterous gusto of it.
The storm peeled back suddenly to reveal the river’s bank: a shelf of oily sand. Beyond it, rain sluiced down black striated cliffs. Black smoke bulged. Everywhere the stink of burning plastic. Clark’s eyes stung and watered. Bobbing offshore, impossibly afloat, was the skeleton of a boat, useless unbound ribs. On the sand behind it were two figures, one very large.
The Beagle lunged for the river bank. She would ground herself. Clark hauled the wheel. Slowly the ship turned. The plastic sails sagged out of the wind. He raced to the bow and dropped the plastic anchor. It splashed shallow, bit and held the river bed. He seized the gunwale of one of the whaleboats. For a second the plastic boat was tiny in his hands, barely a matchbox. Then it was smashing through the rail and into the water, and he was jumping down into it and using the plastic oars to drive it ashore. It beached with a crunch and he leaped from it.
The sand on the river bank was coarse and black. Rain soaked the cliffs, but not the beach. The sky hung like forgotten drapes. Clark swayed, convincing himself the land wasn’t moving.
Before him, the two figures were locked motionless, statues of themselves. Time had stopped for them both. The smaller of the two was Jen.
Her knees were bent, pushing her body back against the chain that bound her wrists. The chain pulled at her arms, forced their muscles into bunches. The white silk of her dress made hard folds like marble over her. Her heels were dug deep in grooves in the sand.
The chain ran taut to the hand of the other. It was a terrible thing made of naked bones and leather harness, as tall as four men. It wore a long thick necklace of knuckles or maybe coins. Like Jen, the giant was frozen, caught in the act of hauling its captive to the river’s edge. Etched runes covered its exposed skeleton; the leather that strapped its bones together was inked with screaming faces. A cloak, or the vestige of one, fell shredded through its open ribs. Its skull had too many teeth and no sockets for eyes, and its arms had too many hands; one held Jen’s chain; another a gnarled cable that ran out over the sand and into the water to where the skeleton-boat floated. It had been, Clark saw, a flat-bottomed vessel. A ferry. So here he was: the ferryman.
Seeing Jen undammed something inside Clark. Grief and joy and pity shrieked out of his pores. His heart hammered at the base of his throat. He reached for her but flinched before contact. Would she be cold and hard like the statue she seemed?
‘Jen?’ he said.
No response, her face inert. Could she hear him? Her mouth gaped, a silent scream.
His voice floated to the cliff, echoed back. The only sound here. The waxwork figures were silent, of course, but so too was the gushing of the water down the cliff face, the splash of the river on the bank. This was a noiseless world.
Clark tapped his ear but the silence lingered. His pulse throbbed in his head. His breath was loud on the air. No soundtrack but the one he’d brought.
He staggered, not understanding, suddenly faint. He touched his chest to test his heart. His hand met the pen in his shirt pocket that wasn’t a pen at all. He drew it out and held it up: the little digital recorder.
He thumbed the tiny button marked PLAY.
Music flew from the end of the pen. As he’d known it would be, the sound was reedy and coarse. It jangled against the sky: the final track of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. The showdown scene, naturally, where Clint and Eli and Lee draw guns in the graveyard. The trio. Il Triello.
Animation shuddered through Jen. Her flesh shook, shed its immobility and became vital. Her legs spun her; her spine twisted; her arms, constrained as they were, flailed. Her throat erupted pent-up air in a long fraught scream that might have been agony or despair or relief or all of them together. While her body writhed, her eyes filled up with terrified life and found Clark and pinned him where he stood.
His joy at her rebirth died as the ferryman came to life. It too danced, but in horrible discordant jerks. Its tusk-legs gashed the ground, and its many arms wrenched whiplike at the chains. The sky poured into it, viscous arterial clouds funnelled into the dead marrow of its bones then spilling out to make fluid fibrous clots that bulged and swarmed in crude parody of living meat. Darkness sweated from its skull; its gaze was a senseless shadow. It had a voice like machinery, made and metallic and quite cold.
Jen continued to dance. Frantic now. Her feet kicked up sand. But the ferryman was hauling her. It ploughed down the bank towards the river, dragging Jen with it. She followed, resisting, dancing still, but stumbling. The ferryman’s breath was cold fire, relentless.
‘Stop!’ shouted Clark.
He brandished the recorder: a pink, ridiculous thing. Tinny Morricone vibrated in his hand. He pressed the button to make the music stop and it did, and so did everything: Jen, the ferryman, this time even the rush of the waves on the shore.
Trembling, Clark approached the monster.
‘You can hear me, can’t you?’ he said. ‘Even when you’re like this, you can hear me.’
He circled, thinking.
‘What do you want? To let her go – what do you want?’ He fumbled in his pocket, brought out a coin. ‘Is this it? Isn’t this how the story goes?’
He looked at Jen, uncoiled in the heart of her dance. She was dead. Remembering this almost unhinged him. The Romans placed coins on the eyes, Charon’s fee. What was he here to do? How could he save her?
He tossed the coin aside. It was wrong, somehow he knew. But what else?
Out on the water, anchored fast under the paused storm: the Beagle.
Hands trembling, Clark turned the music on again.
‘I’ll take her,’ he shouted.
The ferryman had started to move. Clark’s words stopped it. It swivelled, creaking like ten dozen doors. Shudders displaced its unresolved body. It cocked its head, which was so much more than a skull, and extended a nest of thorns that could only be an open palm.
‘No,’ said Clark. The thin music threaded its way between his words. Jen was poised, the big muscles of her thighs tensed and ready to run her free. Her eyes wide, her mouth silent. ‘I won’t pay you. I’ll take her myself. See? I’ve brought my own ship.’
The ferryman said nothing, didn’t move.
Clark reached out his hand.
‘It’s all right, Jen,’ he said. ‘Come to me.’
She moved one foot, then the other. She shook her hands and the chains broke. On her toes she crossed the sand. Tears streaked the dirt on her cheeks. The ferryman listened or watched. Clark’s breath burned in his chest.
She reached him. He gathered her up, anticipating warmth but shocked at the cold of her. Still, her shape was whole. He held the wife he’d lost and felt the parts of himself come together again.
The ferryman roared. Acid-hot vapour gushed out of it. One by one, its bones detached themselves, each from the next. Each bone was a man, or a hammer, or both. Smoke, acrid like burning plastic, bound up the bones and made them missiles. The bones grew teeth and hurled themselves on.
Clark snatched up Jen and backed away. Better to run, but he couldn’t bear to turn his back. His feet waded through yielding sand. Jen was making gargling sounds, like someone choking or learning to speak.
The ferryman had become an army. Blind bone-men with hammer-heads and vast gnashing mouths. Crude limbs sprang forth from dangling marrow-buds, transforming spontaneously into fingered flippers, on which the bone-men scampered. As they came they bayed like wolves.
Clark’s feet found the water. The backs of his thighs struck the gunwale of the waiting whaleboat. He tipped Jen aboard then leaped himself, grabbing the plastic oars and heaving the little boat round. The bone-men grew heads and raised them, ululating. They became tall and twisted, like storm-struck oaks, and waded deep.
Clark rowed, head down. Behind him, Jen gasped and wept. The bone-men came on.
A shadow swallowed the whaleboat and Clark cried out. But it was the Beagle.
He urged Jen up the ropes, followed her to the deck. The bone-men towered towards them, heads sharpening like the heads of arrows. Smoke belched from their dangling mouths. They sounded now not like wolves but like children being torn into pieces.
It hurt Clark to leave Jen. But he had no choice. He skidded down ladders to the gun deck. The plastic cannons sat proud and ready. They were loaded – hadn’t he built them so?
He kicked open the gun-ports. Five square windows on the starboard side. Framed in them: what had once been the ferryman but had grown or changed or evolved into this battalion of marching bones. The enemy, so close.
Clark had no match.
He sat, despairing. The bone-men, long skeleton bodies honed now like knives, occluded the sky. They bunched together, building their many parts back into one. The reconstituted ferryman filled the space outside the ship; all Clark could see through the gun-ports was robes like black smoke, and tiny bones like the bones of a giant hand all swarming over each other like termites on a mound.
Then, feet on the boards. A shape in silk, dazzling light tumbling through the dark of the deck. Jen, dancing. The light of her met the touchhole of the first cannon, then the next and the next. The plastic cannons shouted and blew backwards to the ship’s centre-line. Smoke filled the gun deck, but it was white smoke and pure. The booming of the cannons pounded Clark’s ears, removing the music, but the music remained. He knew this, because Jen was dancing still.
He staggered from the ports. Nothing to see out there but blackness. His hand met Jen’s waist and he coaxed her back up the ladder to the main deck. They looked across the water to the shore, where the ferryman was either dying or changing to something new. Black smoke rose in a column, then condensed suddenly down to a single nugget of coal hanging briefly suspended inside broken ribs before shattering into dust. Bones sprayed, embedding themselves in the sand. A ring of bones.
Offshore, the skeletal ferry slowly sank from view.
They stood on the plastic deck of the Beagle. The recorder was back in Clark’s pocket, playing out the final bars of the soundtrack. If he turned it off, Jen would stop.
‘Jen … are you …?’ Love and dread in equal measure, and no clue of what to believe. But she was here.
‘You came for me.’ She could speak. There was a jag in her throat, an ugly rasping sound.
‘How did you …?’ She was here.
She took his hands. Her skin was cold and dissolved at his touch, like snow.
‘One day, last year, I came here. I was … I went away. I had one of my … I came here, Clark. I came and I heard that music playing. It made me want to dance.’
‘You always danced, Jen.’
She turned on her toes, a dreamy pirouette. Her arms trailed like gossamer threads.
‘The music played and I just had to dance. But I didn’t know the steps. I wanted to learn. I wanted someone to teach me.’ Her body moved like rain. ‘Someone came.’
Clark wanted to grasp her, but he was afraid she might melt to nothing in his hands. ‘Who?’
‘I danced with him. He taught me what I wanted to know. The music was everywhere. I had the pen with me so I recorded it. I knew exactly what I was doing, exactly where I was. Do you see, Clark? I knew everything. The price I’d have to …’ She paused, looked down. Her hands were whole again. But ice-cold.
The chill of her leached into him. It was appalling. ‘You knew you were going to die. That day. I knew it. I saw it on your face. You knew.’
She was nodding. The cords in her neck sang like cello strings.
‘But you’re safe now.’ He bunched her hands in his. There was nothing to them, only cold crystals. ‘I’ve come to take you back. You’re safe.’
She looked away. Morricone played on.
He steered in search of the canyon. He had to return before the music stopped. An absurd deadline, something from Grimm. Imperative all the same.
Direction was critical. Back to the canyon: up the river but not across it, never across. No ferry this. This was the Beagle. Not for them the opposite shore. Not for them he who danced there.
Jen lay against Clark. Her throat was drumming, but the noise it made was far from words. Her skin was cold and smooth and lustreless; her eyes were glazed. She was unlike herself but still he’d found her and would bring her back. The house was full of holes the shape of her. Only she could occupy them.
The storm was gone, the sky black and clear. There were stars that shone darker than the sky, a million eyelets opening on some further void. Clark swung the wheel and searched for the canyon but failed to find it. In his pocket, the music screeched to a crescendo.
Mist congealed. Something rose up from it. Clark yelled, tried to turn the ship, but the helm had died. Coarse sand first scraped the oncoming keel then clutched it and the plastic Beagle grounded and the voyage was over.
Morricone hadn’t quite finished. A coda remained, a reprise of the familiar spaghetti theme. A minute of music left, maybe less. Clark settled Jen at the bow and ventured ashore.
Mist panted round his ankles. Waves lapped the Beagle’s trapped plastic hull. Above, the air was night-clean. The dark stars flared. Clark ventured further.
There was shingle and rocks. The opposite bank after all. Despite his efforts, he’d brought Jen not up the river but across it. What could he do now but explore?
He walked. Small stones grated. The rocks rose up. Soon they hardened and became a room. The room smelled of noodles. Clark stepped inside. Under his feet the sand stiffened into boards. On the turntable the music went round. There was the bar. Both tubes of cement were empty and all the parts of the kit were gone from the sprues. There was the Beagle, built now and beautiful.
Clark rubbed his hands down his face. He licked his fingers, expecting salt, tasting instead a flaking residue of glue and plastic shards.
The needle lifted from the vinyl and the music ended.
In his pocket, the pink recorder fell silent.
He took the recorder out, thumbed it, but it had stopped working. He tossed it aside, went to the turntable. He ran his fingernail over the record. The vinyl was smooth, no grooves, no sound at all.
He stood alone in the cellar with the house empty above him. He sat and sobbed. She was beyond him. The certainty was a hell.
He considered the ship. Plastic like walnut, immaculately constructed. Every little piece in place. The two whaleboats steady on the deck; masts tall and straight; cannon barrels alert. Just a toy. But the hull was thick with barnacles and the cannons on the starboard side were blackened with soot. As if it really had sailed, and its guns had really been fired.
There was something at the ship’s bow. Clark peered. A tiny figure, plastic hands clamped to the rail. A woman, silk dress, back arched. Glazed plastic eyes and a gaping throatless mouth wide in what might have been a song or a shriek. A dancer unable to dance.
The cellar floorboards creaked. River water infiltrated the foot of the stairs. Eyes like dark stars winked behind the halogen lights. Nothing had gone away. There were no bargains, there was only the river and the means to cross it. Ferry or brig, it made no difference. Nor who manned the helm. Clark knew what the fare had been and who had paid it. When he looked at his plastic Jen he knew there were many hells.
The Voyage of the Plastic Beagle by Graham Edwards is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.