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Saint Lizard

Rating: PG-13

Here in Saint Lizard, the one road starts on the cliff by the lighthouse and crawls in circles down to the sea. We have enough town to justify a strange-shaped road, but not enough to justify two roads. We have two chip shops, one of which is nice. Here in Saint Lizard, the moon is significantly bigger than in nearby Lancaster or Carlisle. Science hangs together more loosely. Most days, our moon is most of the sky.

In Saint Lizard, we had the westernmost promontory of part of the UK but not the whole thing. This generated no tourist income at all, and we stopped being the end of the world when they found the Isle of Man. Still, though, when you went to the lighthouse you felt like you were balanced on a long limb extremity. We went on low-budget school trips there to draw it but not go in, and we all had dreams about the lighthouse regularly, though we mostly forgot them. I only remembered lighthouse dreams from when I was very sick, or very under the influence. They smelled like flames on waterlogged sand and sounded like machinery gathering for an accident. I would wake up already sitting up to open the curtains and check the world was still there.

I was a child by the beach. I had a very round face, mild eczema, pigeon toes. Children in other towns had buckets and spades they got out occasionally from mouldy garages, but mine were in constant use. All my shoes were full of sand. I created tiny banks and beaches in the house, then it drifted out from between my toes to wash up in the bathtub.

On November after-schools when my mum wished I would come inside for tinned soup and educational activities, I wouldn't leave the beach, even when everyone else had gone in for tea. I had a trick I liked to do that I could only manage when I was alone. I turned my wind-bitten face along the sand and ran, and when I went far enough and my breathing was right, another version of the world came up to meet me. The untouched beach was shot through with thousands of footprints, and I saw my milky self at a thousand different ages across the sand. She stood on the cliffs looking down. She bobbed down in the water looking up. It was day and night all at once. When my mother called out to me I heard her as an old lady, and as a child, neither near nor far off. If I went far enough, almost to the lighthouse, I could see a version of me looking down. I waved. I wondered what she thought about, or if she could run as fast as I could, or if she could see me.

Then I stopped and turned around to go back to my mum and breathe on her with my hot breath. I felt like a Viking or a saint, someone who shared a secret with a friendly universe.

Mum always ruffled my tangled hair, always told me to brush it, and on the way home, we always met Mrs. Peacock and her pregnant daughter. They walked slowly because Mrs. Peacock had inhaled a lot of asbestos when she was young, and her daughter's feet were so swollen. They gave me warm mints when they saw me and asked why I stared out to sea so hard if I was planning a trip.

"No," I said sombrely because my plans for my life in the world were vast and serious. "Not yet."

"You should go soon." said the pregnant daughter, wide-eyed, like she thought I should walk out right now in my coat.

I did go to the beach every day until the time the tide went out and didn't come back for a year.

I was twelve, almost too old to believe I'd really join NASA. We all fell asleep at low tide and had faith the water would come back, but it slipped further away all night when we weren't looking, and there was none left by morning. I was quite philosophical about the whole situation. Mum tried to explain that other towns didn't lose their seas, and I said "mmm".

Brendan's dad got some other dads together to walk out as far as they could. I helped make their sandwiches, stout ham, and mustard in manly paper bags, and then they set off to the space where the Atlantic used to be. The wind was less salty, more forceful, just then. Seabirds gathered sadly in the town centre. The dads came back like army men, didn't say what they'd found.

Only then did I become afraid. I thought the dads would tell me where the water went so I had never imagined, but now I did, and I imagined terrible things. My mum, like other mums, had no idea what to say. She had lived in Saint Lizard all her life, and I found she had cried like this too once, but she still didn't say anything, she just made oven chips for tea. That day I sat cross-legged in bed and looked out my square window, high under the eaves in the pebbledash wall. Outside I saw myself looking up at me, from the staticy world I had only ever encountered on the beach before. It was a state of existence I had enjoyed when I chose to summon it. When it arrived without me knowing why I felt for the first time that I lived somewhere strange. The figures I saw were always me.

I lay in bed and discovered how many footsteps going past could have been a neighbour coming home from the pub or could have been one of my own ghosts about to appear in my room. The footsteps were surrounded by scratchings, warpings, waves. I avoided the beach and lit scented candles so I would never have to smell salt again. In bed I was silent like a pile of pillows, I faced the wall like a corpse, no matter what. I spent my evenings hammering away at the piano.

One day Brendan waited for me after history club and asked me to put down my lollipop stick Tower of London to talk to him. Mr. Margery had said it was a beautiful piece of work - soft-voiced Mr. Margery dabbing at the grease on his nose. I had never seen the Tower of London for real, in its distant other country where the weather could be predicted and compasses all pointed the same way. Part of me wanted to stay and talk to Brendan, because he was the tallest boy in our class, and part of me didn't, because I could feel something terrible waiting for us.

"My dad told me he saw footprints," said Brendan.

"Where?" I said stupidly, making sure he knew he had the option of being stupid too.

"On the beach." A tide of vomit climbed my throat. "Footprints the size of our car or the size of our house, bigger than a dinosaur. And do you know what else he found?"

I chose anger over nausea and shouted, ran home, and realised after I'd arrived that my Tower was still there in the dirt. I snapped at my mum and went to bed to sit and shake. It was almost silent, almost moonrise. The only strange thing I loved was the moon, its low vast bulk. Only we in Saint Lizard knew it like this. That night I dreamed about walking out to sea in my raincoat, my small feet finding the footprints, joining a path that went all the way out.

After that, I got older. Like other teenagers, I went out on full moon nights to sit on the disused railway bridge - at one time, I imagined, we had had a railway. The moon lit us up like a tiny school-project world under a bright blue lamp. We drank our parents' vodka and smoked our sisters' cigarettes. Our mums let us out because we wouldn't have slept well anyway.

"If you're sure, baby," mum said. She didn't want me drinking on school nights but she had had the nightmares too. She was from Saint Lizard, after all. So she decided drinking couldn't be too bad for me if I stuck to clear spirits, which was an odd and motherly distinction. If I stuck to vodka things would probably be okay.

We all looked up, me and Brendan and Kathy who worked at the wrong chip shop, Kathy the new girl we'd convinced to be friends with us, Kathy whose hair curled the way mine never would. She found the town strange when she arrived. She said things like "why doesn't google maps work here?" and "why do I hear growling when I go to sleep?" She was like a feral child that had joined society too late to understand it. She said strange and unhelpful things. Saint Lizard was not strange to me, because it was my home, so I chose what I allowed it to be. It had been a long time since I'd seen a version of myself I didn't want to see.

Kathy commented once that I held a lot of tension in my neck, my shoulders, my arms. I said yes, I do.

That night, the tufts of grass that reached through the tracks were scratchier than we'd hoped, and they were silver, just then, the grass, the tracks, and the cigarette in my hand. Kathy's sister only had menthols. I pretended to like them, and I looked through the smoke at the lakes on the moon where we could never go. Brendan, Kathy, and I sat in silence because we were sick of truth or dare and no one knew any other games.

Brendan threw a rock at the moon. I don't know what he thought would happen, but he had just discovered cannabis and thought he was inventive and funny. At that time I was in love with him so I didn't tell him he was a moron. Kathy and I laughed. I laughed low as I practised it in my room, and she cackled with her wrinkled-up rabbit face. Her laugh was so ridiculous it ruined mine and I became shrill and genuine, lost half a cigarette in the damp grass.

"What are you doing Brendan?" I said. I spent most of that summer trying to telekinetically make his eyes meet mine, with no success at all.

"You'll make him cross," said Kathy. I never knew if she sounded like a child on purpose or not. Maybe it was meant to be sexy in a babyish way, her hair and bra straps always halfway falling down.

"Who? It's not a fucking person Kathy." Brendan was in his swearing phase. When, many years later, I would tell my children that swearing didn't make you big or clever, he was what I meant.

"Not the moon, dummy, the lighthouse keeper." She looked off to the side. She was gaunt under the planetary light. I felt protective of Kathy, Kathy who thought men on the internet really wanted her to model for them or receive free sunglasses. Brendan's eyes rolled upwards like he was trying to remember, and I sent my mind out searching too. It had never occurred to either of us that there could be a lighthouse keeper. I had thought it would all be mechanical, or a man from the council would arrive once a year to inspect it. Now I imagined a fairy tale man in oilskins going up and down the spiral steps, up and down in spirals.

"He's been teaching me about the moon." Kathy giggled. My stomach felt weird and my muscles knew something terrible was coming. If I heard anything about the lighthouse keeper and what he knew, I would hear a great graunching noise and the ground would start to shift.

"Don't talk to some fucking weird guy about the fucking moon. Christ Kathy, how stupid can you be? He's probably a fucking pedo anyway." Brendan inhaled fast like gasping backwards. He made himself cough and the breath he brought up was blue.

"He's nice, his name is -"

"I don't arsing want to know what his cunting name is!" Brendan shouted, broke off to cough.

The lighthouse keeper was unwelcome in my shuddery mind. I refused to listen, and I let the moon iron all the thoughts out of my head. The moon could do that for you if you lived right. I wanted never to leave its gravity, never to ask questions, only to look up. I tried to loosen all the tension in my jaw, my shoulders, my thighs. It didn't work. Across the scrubby ground for us I saw figures walking in the distance, moving in fast-forward, carving desire lines across the grass in the future. Every version of me that leapt out from the future made my muscles tighten a bit more. No one knew why I was so tightly wound. They had never seen anything so strange. I swallowed.

At school the next day my head felt stuffy. Teachers had sympathy on the days after full moon nights. They'd been up all night too, in chintzy teachery bedrooms where yellow lamps couldn't fight the blue, and their crying babies didn't understand what was happening. I was in a bad mood from biology, where I sat next to Helen who used only Lush-brand cosmetics when the nearest Lush was fifty miles away. I wondered if she ordered hundreds of pounds of products blind, or did she drive hours into the night to smell them all? The smell made me want to be sick. I supposed the sick would smell of citrus.

Our lunch hall was cauliflower colour. It made you feel hungover when you weren't, though on that occasion I was. I had my jumper stretched so I could hold it in my fists. It felt comforting, though the armpit seams were aching ready to tear. The older I got in Saint Lizard the more I needed my hands clenched at all times. I had pain in my sinuses and I ground my teeth. It had an impact on my dental health.

Kathy was giggly and conspiratorial. She arrived late when we were already eating lunch. Her books were always water-stained, dog-ears on every page, and her pens looked like they'd been chewed by carnivores. She sat down close to me, smelling of sweat and daisy perfume, and willed me to ask her why she was late.

"Don't look at me like that," I said because I was hungover and she was making me nervous. Kathy never had secrets. In middle school she followed me around with her lime green diary, reading out the passages she thought she'd written really well. Brendan launched peas at her with his fork. "Why are you late?"

"I was at the lighthouse." She smiled and showed me her dimples. Her eyes (green, bright) and her hair (orange, bright) were prettier in the day. She looked peppy and my stomach hurt. My stomach was an animal that knew what was coming. It told me to scramble for high ground. We both didn't say anything. Brendan and I never had another day of being on the same page.

"He did this for me, look." She rolled up her sleeve and I saw, in biro on her forearm, something like a map or an electrical diagram. It was small and detailed. Someone had hunched over her skin for hours to create it, each line and label. The ink petered out in places to be overwritten, and I imagined pens that hated to draw on skin and got switched out. I imagined the abrasive sound as he drew, the tiny scratches where he pressed too hard. I saw them together like I used to see people on cliffs looking at me. The lighthouse keeper's hands had been on her, and she'd breathed ragged but kept it level so he wouldn't know he was the first man to get this close.

She rolled her sleeve up all the way above her shoulder so that it pinched the fatty bit of her armpit, and I saw that the drawing went up under her shirt. My stomach said no. My lungs said no, don't hear this story. My eyes unfocused so I couldn't see. Brendan held her arm in his hands, turned it over to read. It was a wavy, pre-modern map of Saint Lizard. There were elevation markers and the bakery by my house was neatly labelled. Brendan held her tighter. Her skin went white around his red fingers. She breathed tight. I thought she might like it, or I might too. I'd have liked it if my hands were on her, or his hands were on me.

She smiled with her lips pressed very close together, elvish, lipsticky. In her school uniform, in the lunchroom, she showed us that she could become something new and she offered, with her held-out arm, to make me new too. I couldn't play the piano loud enough to drown this out, so I took her arm in my hands and every inch made me sicker. I saw paths winding out from the houses out to the lighthouse, out along the beaches, looping through caves and out to sea where they wandered miles down to her fingers, to the end of the world. My breath was close enough to her skin to disturb the blonde hairs, and every inch I saw made me sicker. I had a fever. She had given me radiation sickness.

My nails broke Kathy's skin just where the land met the sea, just below her elbow. She tried to pull her hand away but I had her too tight, tighter, and tighter. I knew all the ways the world would end if we learned too much. The graunching noise, coming closer, made my sinuses buzz and my mouth taste of metal.

"Let go of me, you're ruining it!" she shouted, and nobody looked round. I ruined it harder.

"You fucking stop this, you fucking fucking stop this," I spluttered, and I put all my nauseous force into my voice so she would know. If she went to the lighthouse again she would create a tidal wave or call an asteroid down, I could see it. She twisted herself away from me and ran.

"What was that?" said Brendan "Fuck." I heard the noise, then heard it again.

We didn't see her the next day either. The lunchroom at school stayed cauliflower coloured, and my head stayed fuzzy even after nights I only drank water. I practised my piano loud enough to drown the world. I played Khachaturian and imagined the percussion around me, thick like rain. There were noises outside the door, the ones from when I was little, wavy scratching starting like mice then distorting like a steel guitar over a dodgy radio.

Brendan came over after dark. His skin was sinking back from his eyes. He asked if I'd ever noticed that the trees in Saint Lizard leaned into the wind not away. I said I'd never noticed, I was sure he was wrong and did he have any vodka.

Saint Lizard reached the new moon when its bulk blocked out the stars. Every town had emptiness above it but ours went deeper. You could go out with a hunting torch and see nothing at all because it wasn't normal dark, it was liquid and vindictive. The lighthouse barely glowed. If your dog ran away those nights you let it go and hoped for the best. I sat up straight on my bed with my spine cold against the wall and counted the things I heard.

We still hadn't seen Kathy, and Mr. Margery kept us late so we could tell him we hadn't seen her. He was a professional man, a careful keeper of a neat mark book, who would never disclose information about a student. He raised his handkerchief up to wipe his sweaty cheeks and behind the linen, I saw his face of horror. If he had been unprofessional, he'd have told us he was scared. As he beetled away I noticed he had had toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe for ten years.

"Never fucking fitted in here did she?" said Brendan and I imagined he was thinking about her arched eyebrows and apricot hair. I thought Kathy was always hot and new and I was a creature made of hometown soil. Perhaps she'd been swept away to sea, gone on a journey, climbed the lighthouse steps, and been swallowed by the light. "Where do you think she went?"

I was still pulling my sleeves long, the stitches were still tearing, getting ready to break. Kathy was formed perfectly in my mind, in her gym shorts, setting out on the highest part of the only road. I knew where she went. She didn't have the strength I did, to touch the lighthouse walls and block the thoughts of what was inside halfway up my nervous system before they reached my brain. I saw her climb the steps, heard the sound, I always heard it now. It was nearly four o'clock and the winter half dark was halfway here. The road was dim but the moon was enough. At the top of the steps, she half turned around, found something in herself, and made it ready.

I sat still, didn't even shift my weight, because I couldn't see anything else anymore. Something was washing up over me

"You alright?" said Brendan. He sounded confused, more than usual. I felt bad for Brendan, a boy who was normal to his last atom. He always used to sleep well. He wanted two friends to drink warm beer with some nights, and he didn't have those friends.

"We have to go," I said. Brendan took my hand for the first and only time, asked no questions, and set the pace for running. I was unfit. My breath was painful and sour and my feet always out of rhythm. Winter nightfall was early, so we had the moonlight rising as we ran, and I remembered that Saint Lizard was once the edge of everything, the very last outpost. I heard a synthesiser pulse louder. We took the coast path hand in hand, shadow puppets under the grey, which was darkening and brightening all at once.

After some time running I settled into a painful equilibrium. I had got to a place outside time where I could be in pain forever if I had to. Brendan looked up and I saw a falling star in the narrow gap of sky that wasn't full of moon. He said something but the wind ate it, and then I saw another star fall, and another one after that. Our hands sweated into each other.

At the lighthouse, Kathy was caught between two steps, halfway through transferring her weight from one foot to the other. She was wearing a white tank top smeared with biro and I saw the map extend from her arms to her pale and hollow collarbones, up her neck behind her ears, down to her midriff and hipbones. We were at the head of the one coiled road, paths and caves and water radiating out. I knew, suddenly, that she had been here many times before, that the map had been drawn on her before, washed off and drawn on again.

This was not one event that would change everything, rather it was the one time Brendan and I had followed her, the one time we had looked up at the right time. She would walk up the steps, go into the lighthouse keeper and go home. I had been wrong about the end coming because there was no end, only the circular sound, the round moon, and spiral roads, reaching out and dimming like tides. I had dipped into the middle of something, jerked awake for part of a concert that would continue when I fell back asleep. The town was safe because it was weird to its bones, it knew what it was doing. Kathy wouldn't show us the maps again. She would keep my nail marks on her arm. She'd never learn the answers.

I saw it all. The next day Kathy would sit with other people and keep her sleeves rolled down. After her exams she'd move to the lighthouse for a while, then people would stop seeing her, say maybe she moved to Manchester. The lighthouse would say nothing.

Brendan stood in silence next to me, and he might have seen it all too or he might have been watching the sky. In three years he would marry a girl he met at college. She'd be a rugby player, an aspiring interior designer, generous with lip balm, I'd like her. I'd attend the wedding, and I'd mean it when I clapped for them because I'd had all this time to understand. I saw myself a bit taller and fatter, with a merit in grade eight piano. I played so loud. The future sped up in front of me. It hit me like light, down from the sky, up from the sea. I'd go to study in Lancaster, switch from vodka to rum, not quite fall in love, buy a microwave, move home to teach piano. One day I would wrap myself in a blanket, find I was so much older than I thought, stand on my doorstep and look past the lighthouse to the moon, see Brendan holding my hand on the rocks. One day I would go to the top of the cliff, right on the edge, look down and meet my own eyes.

"Do you see it?" Brendan said nothing.

Out in the deep sea, the lizard set its head towards the lighthouse and began to crawl along the ancient path. I knew it would always be on its way, always arriving, and we'd carry on with everything strange and everything alright. I would always hear its footsteps, always be a woman on the doorstep, a girl on the cliffs, and a child on the beach, hearing the same sound, always listening for its arrival.