Life on Other Planets (novel excerpt)
‘And lo, that celestial crucible which bore us all to Earth doth embrace thy spirit once again.’ Book of Jupiter, Chapter 6, Verse 3
When I was 15 my family had a nervous breakdown. It was August 1997, the summer my Great Aunt Edith died. The same summer that all the spiders in East Sussex chose to leave their homes and run amok for reasons no scientist on the planet could explain. Were these two things connected? I like to think so.
I have a lot to thank Edith for, especially my name – Benjamin Convalescence Wade Carter. I was a difficult birth. My father, Victor, says it never stopped, that I’m now a difficult person, but he’s a pessimist and a godless scientist so what does he know? Anyway, things were going badly for Mother and me but thanks to the midwives at St Francis Maternity Hospital & Convalescence Gardens in Ipswich, we’re both here to laugh about it. Or we might if anyone knew where Mother was. It wasn’t Edith’s idea to call me Convalescence, by the way. She just convinced my mother not to call me Francis.
That particular summer my life was going pretty much down the toilet. For a start, my teachers wanted me gone, expelled, evicted, probably worse, assassinated, on account of my academic suicide, which no one else in my family was yet aware of. So there was that. Additionally, I was in disgrace. I had fallen prey to a slick magazine advert that promised to turn my flab into giant muscles via a miraculous new protein powder. Except that all I got was a rash from the muscle potions and a tubload of grief when Victor opened his credit card bill and nearly passed out. Fact: Victor is a mycologist, which means he knows mushrooms inside and out. That is his thing, to start sentences with the word ‘Fact’, like a grand opening. For instance:
Fact: this room smells absolutely terrible. What on earth have you been doing in here?
Fact: this car is making some very peculiar noises that it was absolutely not making when we set off.
Fact: fungi absorb nutrients from plant or animal matter around them, which may be living or dead.
Fungi are my father’s passion. He is a quiet academic with an unfashionable moustache, who believes in the slow life and wishes we could all just be more content and love the ground we are on. He even has his own special gesture: rubbing the tips of his thumb and index finger together gently, as if crushing a fragrant herb or rolling a bogie. Its secret meaning is ‘savour this moment’. Back then I’d sometimes see him doing it alone, and it looked like he was crying, until I remembered that he never cried in front of me, only ever in locked rooms or the car when he thought I was out.
But let us return to The Breakdown. It is generally taken – by those prepared to discuss it – to have been a random thing that materialised out of nowhere. That God took his eye off the ball momentarily. But I know He was watching closely because I was watching too. What happened had been set in motion years before. Pale monsters had been lying in wait for decades, and I probably should have felt their presence, a rumbling you can smell and feel in the roots of your hair. But I had my problems, and Victor, well, he was just one giant mushroom of a problem. It didn’t help that Mum was now officially AWOL, or that Uncle Patrick had accidentally impregnated his new girlfriend and everyone’s coping strategies were beginning to wear thin. And then Edith had a stroke and none of it was her problem anymore.
Eastbourne, if you don’t know, is way, way down, on the very edge of our great country. Once, on a Flying Visitation there when I was little, Mum told me, ‘If we all pray really hard, maybe it will drop off’. To me Eastbourne was always a mysterious place, somewhere dinosaurs lived and where truths forced themselves out of your mouth before you knew what was happening. My Great Aunts Edith and Gloria had lived there all alone since well before I was born. A trip to Eastbourne was an excuse to go crazy for all concerned. Shrieking at the sky was entirely permissable. Stealing things. Heavy drinking. Believing. Disbelieving. Everything was allowed in Eastbourne. It was always hot there, not from the sun which actually seemed to bleach everything cold, but from ancient lavas which coursed shallow beneath the earth’s surface, which was what we all knew even if we never talked about it. Sounds were clearer. People in themselves were so much more so. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
Fact: some fungi drop spores gently, which are blown away by the wind. Others shoot them out in an explosive burst.
Supposedly the Breakdown began on August 16th, the day that Edith died. It was a day that had been endlessly anticipated and dissected throughout the Carter clan for years. What will happen, we wondered aloud to each other, when the Lord finally relents and whisks her up to be reunited with Gloria on Pluto or wherever? Even so it managed to creep up on us, just like everything else. Without warning Edith’s soul was released and fired into space at a 1000mph and the Earth-Membrane was left momentarily ruptured, leaving the rest of us to deal with the monsters, who were keen to get to know us, yes indeed, and they started, I can tell you, with me.
Imagine for a moment that you are rushing through space at a million miles an hour. That stars whip by you like streetlights on the motorway. So dense they appear to you like a gas, unconstrained and beautiful beyond all words.
Imagine that the dots blur, an adjustment is made, and all of a sudden they really are streetlamps, it really is a motorway. Your brain is idling but you know certain things to be so. There is a car. It is a Saturday. It is late. A boy is half-asleep, sliding in and out of dreams. His father is awake and driving, steering carefully, apprehensively. They have been folded up inside it for hours, four at least. They are freezing and hungry. The conversation dried up and crusted over miles back. A sign flashes E’bourne 3m. The car slows, eases through ever smaller and darker roads before finally pulling up outside an old house. Legs creaking, the man and the boy unfold themselves like insects and shuffle towards the front door. Imagine that there they stand, each waiting for the other to reach out. There are no lights on. Nobody is home. Imagine that the moment lasts for a long while and that this wait disturbs something inside the boy, trips a wire, brings every sense imploding in upon some central point, rushing, binding into consciousness, awake at last. And now imagine that this consciousness is not somebody else but you, you are the boy and the dream is over and you are cold and you are here at a dead woman’s house, your skin prickling and dancing with something like a life of its own. You turn to your father.
‘Well? Open it,’ you say, feeling hardly any guilt for behaving like such a brat. Your bones feel frail. It is freezing.
The man who is your father, but who in this light could be anybody, nods and reaches into his pocket for the key, pushes at the door. It sticks. Something is massed behind it, heavy and crunchy like snow. You squeeze your fingers through the gap. They are letters. Hundreds of envelopes of all shapes and sizes, strange, ornate markings just visible. You kick at them until the door begins to move.
In you go. The house is dark. You grope for the hockey stick you hope is still there, in the umbrella stand. Is it? Yes it is. You lift it up.
‘There’s nothing here, Ben,’ says your father. ‘Settle down.’ You realise in the darkness that this old face staring back at you is very possibly what you will look like 30 years from now. You realise also that this is the kind of house you might live in. You shudder.
You follow your father inside, knowing he is enjoying the experience even less than you, and that all his bravery, including the shapeless tune he is humming, is for show. He feels like you, that he is tiptoeing along a brink. The moonlight shows you where things are in the corridor, the simple silly belongings of a recluse. What you can just about see appears heaped up. As your nose warms up, odours compete; old booze, corroding metal and mouldy fabrics. Soap. Plastics. You adjust your grip on the hockey stick, a twist and a heft. Just like you always used to.
The man who is your father is wrong. There is definitely something here. It may not be alive or necessarily visible, but you can feel it absorbing, hear it adjusting itself behind the unseeable curtain. It has been raining and somewhere there is a drip.
A cupboard door hangs open. You peer in. It is a cupboard of jams. At least, you hope they are jams. Spiders retreat from you, pretending not to be there, or perhaps they simply aren’t. Your eyes are definitely not behaving normally. One is fluttering uncontrollably. The smell of old flowers now intrudes. Mice. A rottenness in the air.
‘There’s a rottenness in the air,’ you say loudly to the man who you hope is your father but who is far away inside the kitchen, and whose reply is too faint to make out. You see something in her handwriting on the side, on one of the heaps. God, this place is rank. Key to small red door. The key is sellotaped to some newspaper. There is no such door in this house, none that you have seen and you know it well enough. Your footsteps are making a nauseating wet crinkling noise and you cannot quite tell whether it’s the carpet or your shoes or a combination of the two. You take a few steps and can see the wall of pictures now. This place is horrifying, truly terrifying. How did anyone live here?
It is now that the hairy face comes at you from the darkness, white whiskers splayed, teeth bared, and you scream but wow, here comes the hockey stick. It lands well several times before you see that it is just the stuffed badger, Marco, now eyeless and jawless, a window of clean white bone apparent underneath, a light dusting of Marco all over your shoes.
Father is holding your arm. This is ridiculous, you both agree, though what exactly, which aspect, is hard to say. This is not a house, it is a dead person’s fever dream brought to life then allowed to go cold. You press the heel of your hand into your temple and hold it there. Something is throbbing inside you. Your eyes are still not to be trusted.
Someone turns on the light.