Norman played dominoes in the kitchen, not waiting for the lost ones to show. Spots under his palms. Norman, the once upon a time beautiful boy, shattered twink, reverb child, horny fingered string bender, had lost his hair in one big surprise. Ivory rectangles clacked together to make patterns that Norman was sure would eventually be the key, the number, that might turn behind his eyes and release a flow of awe and rage and tunes from where they were trapped, whirring like thugs’ knives forever in that alley in 1972. Over and over, he moved the tiles and stared into the new shapes chance had made. He liked a small glass to drink out of, as he emptied the skinny green bottle of red wine that tasted of raspberries and smoke.

Mother, whose name would always be Sheila, sat in the best room at the front of the house, the red brocade curtains pulled to, leaving a small gap which allowed a hot stripe of summer light to fall across her motionless face. Sometimes Sheila was dead and sometimes she was alive. Annabella the cat was black and rested atop the bookcase, not knowing of books, but well understanding what is dead, what is alive and what is in between.

In a time before, Norman walked by the river, heard the trout conversing with the finch, saw the last lark of England in the jaws of the final weasel. The fruit of the land lay rotting in the fields. Haystacks set afire by lonely wanderers sent skyward unclear signals. A flint tower held and released golden light, faced the sea and its next thousand years of standing.

Norman turned off the path into the meadow and lay down. Wheat stubble prickled his back, crickets rhymed with one another, the mice busied away, and as he fell asleep Norman realised that his young life was over. Thirty years later—the same. Twenty years earlier—the same. Now—the same.

Clouds of Albion, blown in from fires elsewhere, cruel conflagrations set by greed and burning for all time. The tinking sound that came occasionally through the soft air might have been pebbles knocking on the milder shore, or peeps from hedgerow hidden birds, or the swinging harness of a horse headed for its stable home, or chains from the past, the burden of the unpossessable spirit. Conscience watched from the trees. With a slight disturbance of the air, ripe seeds rose from the dry wild grass and drifted, momentarily fixed, in the form of a ladder, unfit for foot, headed for heaven, reaching from something to nothing. Anguish is simple. The richest England of all time is too mean to care for its sick and aged and broken and stricken. Curses fall and none are saved.

Words slip on each other, he had thought. We get out from under what we know, we fail to get out from what we think. We never discover what thinking is. Flickers of sense escape us, we have a word for what happens to the side, we have a word for what is underneath. Dissociation, unconscious: we don’t know what they are, what’s inside. We name what we don’t know. But we don’t know.

Norman was out of the shade, become unborn, barely visible, undestroyed and returned to nothingness, freed of sacrifice and errors beyond disguise: contented, almost. The summer was within him.

The movement in his mind was like prayer, a silent pleading with everything and nothing. No one is going to help, he said, but did not wake.

Norman imagined that he rose, and passed through the grass to a silver rill, a glittering tributary of a wider waterway with an ever-dark sea at its end. He loosed the painter and lay down in the boat. He drifted in time in the boat floating down the river. Strangers called from the bank, and he passed them by, saying nothing. Norman’s mind emptied into a sky of solitary blue that contained everything. 

Norman whispered. 

Come we. Be fond. Be past. Be forsaken and oblivious and unstifled and scornless. Be unconsumed. Be useful to no purpose. Be unmoving on the peak of the vaporous green ocean, above the depths unknown, the far shore unknown, the receded shore unremembered, above the vaulted sky. Be welcome. Fingers, once long and loved, now tiny, scaly, run along strings that only I can see, which stretch through now from then to then. The hedgehog I rolled in a furrow of which to make a ball of mud to bake in a clearing fire, thought heat for me behind its tiny black eyes and I panicked in the flames and raked it from the orange wood. I was only a boy, but I knew I was wrong. I reached through the narrow knot high up the beech tree, bent my wrist and twisted my arm and drew out five paley blue eggs, the woodpecker’s treasure, and brought them carefully to the ground. I blew the little maybe lives from them with a straw and kept the shells on a bed of cotton wool in a shoebox in my bedroom and from the first night that I began to think of my body singing, I started to hear a hollow knocking at the window ledge, at the door, at my heart, and I never could make it stop. I never learned to live with my misdeeds and piled wrong on wrongs and dragged them with me, weightier and heavier still, until one day I lay them down and they gathered in a circle around me and held me and told me of the end and the beginning and the end. Our problems will outlive us, let us abandon them today.

What will take away the bitter taste of love and no love? Ice cream, said me the child.

Farewell idle companion, myself. Power is elsewhere, and against me, and ignorant of me, and of which I have a declined portion, useless and belonging. Withered roots of the mind, there was nothing to find. What meant most were the times of idleness, pure nothing with least reflection. Rapture appals me now. Calm will glean the last grains of golden nothing until, with wordless inspiration, the slowing breaths approach.

Flowers freak in the gardens of the abandoned village, in colours for which we might tell ourselves there are words. There are words. Words.

Solar dinched, his body warmed through, and the thoughts that the body contained, too thermalised. Norman, gravid with heat, earth-pinned on the wild and spicy green. He slept to rise, awake this time, steeped in primrose, honeysuckle and violet. There was no boat, no river, no village. 

A day later, Norman was found on the road, sundazed and unsteady, and returned to home, where his mother, at first, did not recognise him, or more precisely sensed the loss of something essential and knew of an addition, a spot of white that might expand without end.

Norman’s words ran backwards in his mind, and sometimes out of it, until he reached his baby first word, his original vocable, and his hand moved a domino tile and slotted it into place and the numbers gathered and the key turned, and the light came on and then off for always.

David Hayden’s

David Hayden’s work has been published in Granta, A Public Space, Zoetrope All-Story, The Georgia Review, Zyzzyva, AGNI, Winter Papers and several times in The Stinging Fly. His book, ‘Darker With the Lights On’, was an Irish Times ‘Book of the Year’.

About Clouds of Albion, for Max: When the sun shines on the East Anglian land, where I live, stories come up out of the ground, or down from the trees. It is the same everywhere. But in some places, it seems, there is no one there to listen, or to write them down. Or the people there are committed to silence, because they think it’s none of the strangers’ business, because they believe that their stories might be held against them, as evidence and admission, or they think that no one would hear them, even if their airborne tales were spoken slow and clear and direct. Or they believe that the telling of a story changes nothing, and it is best to let tales and voices rise on the warming air and drift away unheard, past the woods and over the sea.

I caught the echo of Norman’s story one fine and lonely spring day, and because I have notions of this kind, I followed and carefully listened and made what I could of the sounds and the sense, even though his life was not mine to tell.