As the dog, a Doberman Pinscher, growled at me on the path, a woman in a lavender raincoat called brightly, “He won’t hurt you!” With some difficulty—my legs were already beginning to stiffen—I headed towards the centre of the playing field, where a crisp wrapper was skittering on the wind. I glanced once more at the opaque sky, lowered my gaze to the crow, who was tearing at a morsel in a pine tree, and laughed. My jaws felt heavy, fixed. I could no longer blink, or cry out, or move. My digestion calmed down for the first time in its life. Good-bye, nervous stomach, good-bye mouth, good-bye problem skin that I’d fretted about and had bought 324 products in plastic bottles for, plastic which mostly now riddled the local tip, as the town’s waste slipped irretrievably towards the ground water. Good-bye intimate parts, silly rascals!
The playing field grew dark. Memory seized up. My name had become irrelevant. Who needs a name when you’ve become a weathered, four-sided post stuck in a playing field like a worm-eaten maypole? I’d only intended to go to the corner shop for superglue, to mend a butter dish. If a certain party hadn’t been so clumsy, I’d be human still. And the thought of him—well, what can I say? His face was growing dim. A morass of objects swept round me—a high tide of things. Salad tongs and hair dryers, birdfeeders and prams, drum kits, builders’ skips. A commode and bath in rose petal pink floated by. It was like that old television show with prizes on a conveyor belt. For a delirious moment I wished I could nab a bobbing apricot velveteen love seat. This thought passed, however, like the cockeyed goods swirling by. In their efforts not to be crushed by the onslaught, the furious swimmers entirely disregarded me.
After a long while, one of the swimmers approached. Red-haired and stocky, she gripped something between her teeth. A knife? No, it was a blue felt tip marker. And in one hand, held just above the maelstrom, was a square of plywood. Briefly, with her free hand, she clung to me. She unwrapped the garden wire braceleting her wrist and attached the board to my midsection, scribbled something on it, and swam off. From that point the swimmers began to avoid me. They swam away in shoals, so that I couldn’t see their faces anymore. The floating objects grew softer and more outlandish. For example, a waxen effigy of a man in evening dress floated by. He had a sneer on his face and a child’s tiny dagger in his heart. Next, I saw a few wax politicians I recognised from the television, lying in oblong bubbles. People were pushing at these to move them along, kicking their feet almost frantically. Meanwhile, other swimmers were diving under and coming up inside, where they broke off wax fingers or noses. Many of the bubbles I watched were like that, propelled equally by hatred—and dreams. After the last of them had passed by in a flurry, I spotted the red-haired woman a second time. She peered at me. “It’s just an arrow!” she yelled, and swam on. An arrow. That’s all I was, a directional marker. It was a difficult moment. I had a suspicion that the arrow pointed away from me for a reason.
As I pondered, I saw that the maelstrom was clearing a bit. It had become less billowy and, in the foreground, to the right, I noticed another post. Just as weathered, grey, and upright as I. Bringing all my intensity to bear, I thought I saw—yes, it was my neighbour from our old house! A quiet man, set in his ways. I can remember him raking his leaves into tidy heaps. His name, of course, is quite gone.
It’s uncanny, but as I stand here I think he’s acknowledging me. Acknowledging me across the maelstrom. We belong to another time, he and I. And I notice something else: the swimmers don’t avoid him. There’s a very faint phosphorescent glow around my former neighbour, which reflects, gently, on the faces of the swimmers as they pass. In his vicinity, there’s no arrow of warning, and the hordes, rushing on with all their paraphernalia of hope, have observed that to be the case.
A former health worker, Anne Rouse lives in East Sussex, England. Her poetry collection, Ox-Eye, will be published by Bloodaxe Books in the spring of 2022. She can be found at Twitter @rouseanne and Instagram @annerousepoet.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021