Introduction: Exodus was to have been the “Paradiso” section of a projected Dantesque trilogy, with the overall title of Under Heaven. So far, I’ve only completed the “Inferno” section to my satisfaction: a book entitled Secret Orbit, which I finished in January 2020 and which seeks publication as a standalone novel. Hell is always the most fun. The “Purgatorio” section exists in the form of another unfinished novel (Cockayne) mostly drafted a couple of decades ago. It is unlikely that the trilogy will ever be completed as planned. So call this one failed.
The worst is over. In those days, before this happened, whatever it is that has happened, we lived in London. Now I remember. It was my home for many years, though it was not where I was born.
Are we in London? I ask.
It’s still just about recognisable, you say, laughing quite softly, but in a friendly way.
London, England, Europe, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe. That’s what I used to say was my address. When I was a child. I wrote it in the front of my schoolbook.
You laugh again.
I am sitting up in bed now. What season is it? Perhaps spring. The evidence, such as species of flowering plants or the particular activities of birds (they sing, I can hear them), is out there, beyond the window. It’s impossible to sing without a voice-box. To listen without a brain. We are therefore all real beings with real organs. In a city that I sense is out there still, but can only imagine. Out there is a promise, I suppose: the imaginary air of an imaginary city, waiting for me until I can feel it for myself.
But suddenly you’re not there. I start to panic. Then I hear noises in the next room. The kitchen, of course. You’re in the kitchen. We are in our flat, the one in which we lived together for many years – it comes to me again. Anyway, there’s a muted clatter, and your voice is coming from outside the room now; you are humming, I think, I can’t make out the tune. Something we both knew. You are outside and I am inside, or am I outside and you inside, or are we both inside or both outside? well, never mind, it’s only a matter of perception, what you make of it, when you notice or I notice that we are in a different space now. There’s a small percussive sound, a different sound, coming from outside the window. And then you reappear, in the doorway. I don’t even recall you getting out of bed. You are in your dressing gown: I remember the soft material. Your hair is cut short; it suits you. Your age is indeterminate; or, alternatively, not of any importance. You carry in your hands a mug. That’s it, you always used to bring me a cup of tea. You were always an earlier riser. You come towards me, you set it on the bedside table, so that it obscures the no-time display of the clock radio. Steam rises faintly from it.
Am I under house arrest? I ask.
You laugh again, as though this were my latest witticism.
You OK? you ask.
I don’t feel pain any more; that’s something. It’s not nothing, anyway. I was exiled from you for many years, I do believe. That was when I was living in London, I’m sure of that now. This is what’s running through my head.
We were apart for too long, is what I do say.
You are sitting on the edge of the bed. It doesn’t matter, you say, we’re together again. We’ll make something of it, you say.
I take the mug up with both hands and I raise it to my mouth where its heat and fragrance is very close. I hear that repeated percussive sound, quiet and gentle, definitely from just outside the window. What is that?
I know, of course, it’s the chink of the bird feeder knocking against the railings of the fire escape outside, maybe in a slight breeze or maybe because it has been disturbed by a bird coming to perch. And now it seems to me the sound recurs in a definite time signature at first but then decays to indeterminacy, which is also called free time, or freedom; and now in addition I discern below or above it the soft, liquid other sound which can only be the wind chimes, suspended above the fire-escape stairs. And a blind has been raised (by you? I don’t remember you doing it), so that I can see a square of light blue sky. I used to record the species of birds that arrived, and the frequency of their arrivals, in a battered notebook. Where is that notebook? It must still be here somewhere. There were no great rarities, but they were our friends in those days, those mysterious days, chiefly great tits, some blue tits, sparrows, but not as many as there once were, the occasional chaffinch or a metallically brilliant starling, unwelcome because it pushed the others out of the way. I recollect that with some clarity now. I watch the window. A tiny wisp of white cloud drifts across the square of light blue, slowly, right to left. When that has disappeared, there is only blue for a while, interrupted once by the vertical flight of a bird, a dark shape moving too swiftly to reveal its species. Some time later, another cloud appears on the right; as it too drifts across, it seems to tug behind it a larger, glitter-edged one that, as it comes fully into view, causes the smaller one to dim and dissolve into its azure surround. After a further period these clouds, too, drift behind the left of the frame. And this, strangely, reminds me of the place of my imagined birth, which would have preceded my life, which would have preceded my death, if we have everything in the right order. Yes, I imagine white, sandy soil, sun-baked stones, the blue of heaven. That would have been the island.
I put the mug to my mouth again. I taste the hot tea. But I have never tasted before. I have never been thirsty. I was never born. So I never died.
I’m in the bathroom now, in my green bathrobe. I remember it now from before: that obscure time I keep calling “before”! I don’t recall putting it on. I believe it was hanging on the usual peg, behind the door. The mirror. The speckled mirror of the medicine cabinet. I peer into it. Nothing at first. Then something comes into view. My face? Is it? At any rate, it is a face, one that has seen some use. Whether it is mine … it’s plausible. I have seen such a face before, it’s familiar. Dark against white. I’ll claim it anyway. The bathroom contains the deep whiteness of the basin, the toilet bowl, the bath, all with a little sparkle in it. The mug with the toothbrushes. I recognise my toothbrush! To be able to say mytoothbrush! what does that mean? I have to sit down – there’s nowhere to sit, I sit on the closed lid of the toilet. Sunshine is filtering through the bathroom window now, from somewhere in London. There is definitely no pain in any of my limbs. We are clearly in remission. There was pain, and noise. There had been, I am sure. I believe I remember corridors. I was dreaming. There is no identifiable content to this dream. It’s a dream about the sea, maybe, and there is a soundtrack accompanying it, or part of it, strange whoops and shrieks, alien music from light-years away, and then, closer, an ensemble of animal cries and bird calls, a train whistle and finally, remorselessly, the rush of an incoming wave that can’t be deflected, coming in forever, its long moments of controlled beauty interrupted by brief interludes of mayhem. A sea that engulfs everything; you open the door and it brims. The sea makes its own sounds, which travel from deep within it. There are sounds in that sea that no human has ever heard.
You call me from outside the bathroom door (perhaps I’ve been in here longer than I thought – perhaps you are anxious). I’m desperate to reassure you. Was that my name that you called? I open the door, I’m at a loss. I stand in the threshold. These are the circumstances in which I find myself, but it’s impossible, how can this be? The sounds that make up the name are familiar, anyway. So it must be my name. I answer to it. I have a strong impetus to burst into tears. You say: Just one day at a time. And there isn’t anything else to be said. And now it has been said, and there’s an end to it. You’d think so. But I start to tremble next, like the first intimations of an earthquake, just a subtle blur of motion in my limbs at the beginning, then gradually the tremor spreads, the wavelengths increase, I am now shaking uncontrollably, you put your arms around me, to quell it, but it won’t be quelled easily. There has been an incident of some kind, you say, I’ll try to explain. But I’m not listening, I’ve lost my own wits. You say: We have all the time in the world. I take that to mean that time has dissolved, and has been distributed equally, fair shares for all. The tyrannical grip it had, where hour obliterated hour and day obliterated day and year obliterated year, all in that familiar sequence, well, that no longer has any meaning, because all of it is here now, simultaneously unravelling; and so your words reassure and calm me as I believe they used to do all those years gone by, with this difference, which is of course an enhancement: that what has already happened will not happen again. Your words pour out. These are your words, and these are the meanings of your words.
So we are sitting at the breakfast table, in the westward-facing bay of the living room of the flat we once shared and may now share again, where around us are the newly familiar bookshelves; where through that bay window you can see the great plane and horse-chestnut trees of the park across the road, their branches gently moving in the morning breeze. So there are leaves on the trees, there’s a clue. You are pouring coffee from the pot, I have two slices of buttered toast on a plate in front of me. Where did all this come from?
There’s a baker now, you say, they’ve set up a bakery, where the bank used to be. You know?
You are explaining things, very simply, your words placed one after the other, with no hurry, pausing in between; you talk to me gently as though I were a child again. You use the same words repeatedly. I am gazing out of the window, at the blue sky, interpersed with clouds, between the trees. It seems to me that the horizon has changed, as if permanently obscured by a golden aura. I say: What happened to the horizon? You say: We are at the horizon now. That’s the way I would put it, you say, as we sit there over our breakfast. Are we dreaming? No – because there is an outside, after all! Out there – beyond the window. You can point to it. I can. That’s good. Outside, there’s the park, probably people and animals in it, as there used to be before. But not as before. Before the incident. The Incident – I heard a capital letter in it. And you are outside of me. You are not me. That is so wonderful. There is a world, and we are both in it, independently of each other. That’s clear, isn’t it? But who is speaking which words still confuses me. Which of us is speaking?
What do you mean by “we’re at the horizon”? I ask. At the horizon something else is always happening, you reply. And this is where we are now, where something else is happening.
That sounds good, I say. And I lift a slice of toast to my mouth.
Now I’m on my own once more. You’ve vanished like a weight dropped into deep water. But I believe I can hear your sounds – elsewhere in this flat. Perhaps you are busying yourself in the kitchen again. Yes, this is the flat I remember so well. It’s becoming more familiar, anyway. A potted plant, of the species I recognise as Dracaena, sits on the floor beside the table, its slender foliage atop its long crooked trunk bending towards the pale light through the window. On two sides, I am surrounded by comforting walls of many-coloured books on shelves reaching to the ceiling; yes, everything is utterly familiar and utterly mysterious. Have I read these books? I know that I must have, some of them at least. And then the shelves of CDs, and below them of LPs, no longer listened to. They are objects that define the life I once led with you; I think, they are evidence of a former presence, as the peaceful caldera, encircling a bay of bright blue water, is evidence of the mountain that was once there but blew apart. They evoke memories, recovered memories, perhaps, but memories that have yet to come into focus. Perhaps they will never quite come into focus; it begins to occur to me now that the process of focusing on memory is without finality; we could be immersed in an endless zoom into more and more fractal detail and never reach the conclusion of it. I could begin that process now, reach for a book on the shelf, perhaps that one on the top at the left, which by the hue of its faded orange spine I reckon … but at this distance it’s still completely out of focus to me; I could reach out and take it down, open it, observe the rough, yellowing pages, pick up its scent, and before I have even read a word of the first page the recollections will begin to come back, of the second-hand bookshop where I first came across it, on an eventless Sunday afternoon, in the aftermath of such and such events, and so on and so forth, but then … all right, another example is closer at hand to me: on the arm of the sofa, left carelessly, perches one of the most familiar of these defining objects: a battered, wire-bound book I recognise as the LONDON A-Z. I get up from my seat, cross the room, pick it up.
Everything is very clear for the first time. It will never be quite that clear again.
The bold lettering on the cover is bright blue, and red and blue on white. The book has been well used. Its top right-hand corner is slightly creased. Someone (was it me or you?) has scratched a zigzag mark on the front with a ballpoint pen, as though in a desperate attempt to make ink flow that has only succeeded in leaving a meandering gouge, a miniature canyon. Within, map follows map, page after page, some of them dog-eared, occasionally bearing Post-It notes attached perhaps years ago with inscrutable messages scribbled upon them; and the maps are the usual patchworks of orange, yellow and white streets on pink and pale yellow backgrounds, green spaces indicating parks, blue indicating water, black railway lines, and the lettering is black and red, all coding in three hundred pages the entire city I once knew as London. That is, it looks at first sight familiar enough as I riffle through, but then doubts start creeping in. I can’t find any bearings. Everything is simultaneously clear and completely obscure. The more I attempt to orientate myself, the less progress I make. I recall now that the book once fell open naturally at the most-thumbed page, the one showing the location of the building I believe I am now in, the block we inhabit, adjacent to the familiar green wedge shape representing the park that I know lies outside this window, a shape that has persisted through the centuries since this part of the capital was a village, since the park itself was farmland, before being absorbed into the metropolis. But I’ve lost the co-ordinates, I can’t find any of it now. None of it makes any sense. I close the book, I look once more at the title, where royal-blue capitals name the city mapped within, and I see now that I was mistaken first time: it appears that the six letters spell out, not LONDON, but EXODUS. I return to the bay window, I look out again, and again see the trees in the park, though what lies beyond them also remains curiously obscure, then I turn back to the book; but I can no longer make out its title.
from EXODUS, unfinished, May 2020
Ken Edwards is a writer and musician. His many books are listed on his personal website/blog. He ran the small press REALITY STREET, which published more than 60 titles comprising mainly poetry but also other sorts of imaginative writing, between 1993-2016. Reality Street continues, but no longer publishes new titles. These days Ken plays bass guitar with the St Leonards-based band Afrit Nebula.