The brief and diagrammatic story that follows is a negotiation between the two gods of fiction, Contingency and Causality. Causality is the realm of explanation. In this world all can be deduced, all can be revealed, and all can be predicted, in theory anyway. Early in the nineteenth century Laplace claimed that if you gave him all the data regarding any closed system, then he should be able to predict everything that would happen in the system thereafter. Modern physics has changed all that. Contingency is the realm in which things might happen but they don’t have to. The discoveries of quantum mechanics situated contingency at the heart of matter. We simply cannot predict the behaviour of any individual particle in the double-slit experiment. In fiction the overall narrative translates all contingency into causality, but on the way to that ultimate causality every single sentence introduces the vertiginous element of contingency. It could all be otherwise…
After Jean left, Jack stopped washing.
He’s always had this thing about the sea. We all came from it, sure, but women had never entirely left. That was his argument. Their bodies, their rounded hips, their breasts, their wombs, were oceanic, whereas men belonged to the hard earth; the hard and stony ground. That was why women had babies, so they could create a little sea of amniotic fluid inside their bellies and have a tiny creature float around in there for the better part of a year. Men had hit the shore running, according to Jack, but women were always on the shore staring back at the ocean. Homesick.
I went to see him in his flat. The picture of himself and Jean that had always stood on the table he’d now torn in half. Jean’s photograph had had its breasts erased with a black felt-tip pen and he had dropped her into an empty vino carafe.
‘Like a ship in a bottle,’ I said.
‘They should go back to the sea,’ Jack said. ‘There’ll never be any peace otherwise. Women are from the sea, my friend, men from the mountains.’
Five Possible Developments
The strange thing was that Jack had not needed to erase Jean’s breasts. She hardly had any. She was one of those androgynous creatures, half boy half girl. A gamine. Beguiling, I thought.
Jack’s mother had drowned herself when he was twelve.
Jean had won a bronze medal for swimming at the Olympics when she was seventeen.
I went to see him in the hospital three weeks later. He had gone to Hyde Park Corner one Sunday afternoon, and begun to rant. Since he was in such fine ranting company, no one paid too much attention until late that evening when the police were finally called. Even as they pushed him into the back of the squad car he continued shouting: ‘They must go back to the sea. There’ll be no peace until they leave us here alone on dry land.’
There are still ‘primitive tribes’ who refuse to permit outsiders to create likenesses of them, whether photographic or not. Too much power is invested in the image. Its erasure could also be theirs…
One Conclusion Among Many
‘Come on, Jack, you can do it. Slip the towel off your shoulders and we’ll walk down to the sea together. Think how refreshing you’ll find it after all this time without a bath. I’ll hold your hand…’
And so, after some hesitation, we walked slowly into the waves. When these came up to his chest he dunked suddenly underwater. I kept a firm hold of his hand, in case he was planning on staying down there. But he soon thrashed back up into the air, shaking his head like a salmon taking a fly.
‘She’s down there somewhere,’ he said. ‘Probably got a sailor in her arms by now. He’ll have drowned.’
He was wrong about that last bit. Jean was dry enough, sitting in the kitchen of my flat in Pimlico, as the washing-machine spun our entangled clothes round and round. Beguiling, she seemed to me, as I stood here now neck-deep in the waves with Jack.
Alan Wall is a novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist. His novels include Bless the Thief, The Lightning Cage, The School of Night, China and Sylvie’s Riddle. His book of short stories is entitled Richard Dadd in Bedlam. His stories are currently appearing in Asimov’s and elsewhere. His poetry is now published in three separate volumes by Shearsman Books: Alexander Pope at Twickenham, Gilgamesh and Doctor Placebo. His non-fiction includes Myth, Metaphor and Science and Writing Fiction.
His work has been translated into nine languages. He has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing, and has received major awards, including one from the AHRC. He is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester.
You can read more about Alan Wall’s writing in this post by Steve Potter