Algebra

Tramway

Issue 1

Underlying

by Kirsty Logan

Underlying

Lauren and Grace live out by the water in a caravan adrift in a field of yellowed grass. The field fills the gap between an abandoned petrol station and a big house converted into a discount tile shop. No one comes near the caravan. Even the tile shop employees skirt the grass, keeping to the path.

In the mornings, Lauren makes a mug of Nescafé, pulls on a fleece, and sits on the flimsy corrugated step of the caravan. It's summer but the air has a pre-dawn chill, and her fingers ache against the ceramic. Across the water the sun is staining the clouds. She watches the bridge, the steady lines of commuters, her eyes flicking as she sips. If the wind is blowing the right way, she lights up a Marlboro and smokes it as fast as she breathes. Afterwards she tucks the butt under the caravan's sagging belly.

She makes tea—soy milk, two sugars—then sits cross-legged on the bed and strokes Grace's hair until she wakes.

Morning says Grace, turning the word into a smile.

When Grace has propped herself on the pillows, Lauren presses a kiss to her mouth and hands her the tea. Grace tugs open the curtains. The window doesn't face the water; instead it frames the crows scattered across the field and the ruined church up on the hill and the pylons against the clouds.

You'll be late, says Grace, but Lauren's ear is pressed to the swell of Grace's middle. She's so far gone that they're almost eye-to-eye, and Lauren is sure that she can feel the press of miniature toes even through the duvet.

She turns her head, finds a strip of skin between the duvet and Grace's nightdress. Worth it, she whispers into Grace's bellybutton. She kisses down the mound until she reaches the pink-white scar. She hesitates, begins to kiss along the bumped line. Stops when she realises that Grace has tensed into stillness. Sits up and covers the scar, careful not to knock the arm holding the tea. Kisses instead the safety of Grace's mouth, cheeks, closed eyelids.

Lauren potters around the caravan, opening and closing cupboards until Grace lies back down and closes her eyes. On her way out, she tips the leftover tea onto the yellowed grass then stows the teacup in the glove compartment, cushioned by a bundle of Grace's t-shirts.

There is dew on the leather circle of the steering wheel; Lauren pats it with her sleeve as she turns the ignition key. The Fiat's radio coughs. She taps it off before it starts shouting music, then bumps across the field and onto the bridge. She's driving away from the sun, and the road in front of her is still blue with dawn.

At the hospital, Lauren scrubs the remnants of cigarette and steering wheel and Grace from her hands. Above the sink she sees Saint Agatha carrying her severed breasts on a platter. Lauren dries her hands and hefts an armful of files to her chest. There are so many that her elbows lock; she presses her chin on the top one to stop it slipping to the floor.

Lauren spends the day peering at the insides of people, the evidence of life.

Are you wearing any other jewellery? she asks.

And Do you have any tattoos?

And A hearing aid?

And Any surgical staples, pins, screws, plates?

The patients say things and she ticks the box on the form. Sometimes they nod or shake their heads without a sound, like shy children, and Lauren has to look up after each question to check the answer. Beside the machine she sees Saint Julitta tied to a stake with her flesh charring.

The machine can pull out the tattoo ink, says Lauren.

And Your piercings might heat up a little.

And Metalworkers have tiny flecks of metal in their eyes; the machine can pull them out too and then their eyes bleed.

Lauren does not think this has ever happened, and she only tells it to younger patients who want scary stories. Even then, she only tells it to the ones who aren't really ill. Broken bones are fine. The ones with shaking hands and threadveined skin don't need horror stories.

With every image of bone and brain, sinus and intestine, Lauren wishes she could see the insides of Grace. Laid out like this, clean and simple. No mystery and no questions. People are more than DNA, she knows, but if she could feel their child from her insides, know him with her own flesh the way that Grace does, it would be better. It would make sense. He would feel more like her own; he would be more than just an idea.

She can't shake the nag that Grace knows something that she does not, some mothering secret that makes other women nod at one another knowingly in the baby-food aisle. Lauren is tired of being on the outside.

At the end of her shift, she taps her foot on the pedal of the bin, ready to drop in the waste. The white metal lid flips up, making the lips of the yellow bag inside puff towards her. It's almost full: discarded sharps and blood-bloomed cotton. Insides, outside. She drops in the waste.

On the way home, Lauren practices saying The thing is, Grace. Listen, Grace, it's this thing. Grace, this is the thing. But she cannot finish, because she does not know what the thing is. It's an ache of being on the outside; a distance from their child, so hidden and unreal. These are the things, but she cannot fit them into words, and so it is hard to finish the sentence.

She's driving away from the sun again; in the rear-view she sees the buttery light and the bone-white turbines lined up along the horizon.

She turns off the road before she gets to the field. The car hums along fresh-laid tarmac and she checks off the street names: Glenview, Rowanwood, Oaklands. There is no forest for miles, just pylons and turbines. Lauren counts up to 23 Cedarpark Road then idles outside, imagining the windows lit and the bare rooms warm as a cocoon. No one has ever lived in the house; its insides will still smell of paint and air-freshener.

She scoops up the contents of the glove compartment and walks to the door. Posts Grace's t-shirts one by one through the letterbox. Imagines them crowning the pile on the inside of the door: nail clippers and wooden spoons and lipsticks and earrings and socks. The mug will not fit through the slot so she stands it at the side of the door, upside down so it won't fill with rain.

She gets back in the car and turns towards the field. The SOLD sticker on the board outside the house is beginning to curl up at the edges.

For dinner, Grace makes boiled haddock and minted couscous. She cuts the mint with a blade in the shape of a half-moon with a handle at each end; she waits until Lauren gets home to do this because they both like the smell. Lauren sits on the corrugated step, beer bottle dangling from one hand, and watches the sway of Grace's shoulders as she rocks the blade. The moon is as thin as a smile.

Lauren says: I went by the house.

And Everything was signed months ago.

And No arguments. I'll pack.

Grace says:

This is our house.

And I will not leave.

And finally, hand on her belly, If there's space for him in there, there's space for us in here.

Later in bed, sleep velvet-heavy behind Lauren's eyes, she folds herself into Grace's side. She slips her hand under Grace's nightdress. Presses her palm to the scar. Keeps it there even after the tense of muscles.

You don't have to be scared, Grace. This one is coming home with us.

Grace does not reply for a long time—so long that Lauren begins to sink into sleep.

I can't keep him safe out there. Everything has to stay the same because it's the only way to keep him safe.

The first contraction hits when Lauren is sitting on the corrugated step, watching the sun seep into the clouds. She doesn't need to wait for Grace to call out; the tensing of her muscles sends a tiny ripple through the caravan's flesh.

Lauren throws her half-finished Nescafé and Marlboro under the caravan, grabs the overnight bag, circles her fingers around Grace's wrist.

Walking through the hospital's main entrance, with Grace's grip squeezing tight her hand, Lauren sees Saint Felicity cradling the bones of her seven murdered sons, Saint Margaret of Antioch being swallowed by a dragon, Saint Mary of Oignies cutting off chunks of her own flesh. Then a gasp as a contraction hits and the world shrinks to the size of Grace's body. The inside, even smaller than the outside. This is all there is.

Twelve hours later, they meet their son. He is as red and scrubbed as a Valentine heart.

He is a stranger but his face is familiar to Lauren, like someone she used to know in childhood. They lie on the hospital bed, bodies curled into brackets, and discover that he fits perfectly into the space between them.

Look at what we made, says Grace. Look at what we made from what others didn't need.

While the rest of her family are asleep Lauren drives away from the hospital, away from the sun.

In the field, she hooks the caravan onto the tow-bar attached to the bumper. Even with the accelerator almost flat, the car shrieks but does not move. She gets out of the car and puts her shoulder to the caravan's back end, shoving in rhythm to the throb of the cars over the bridge. With a disapproving sound, the caravan's wheels tip forwards out of the dirt. She gets back in the car, presses her foot down, and prays.

Three turns later Lauren stops in front of the house and pulls a ring of keys from the glove compartment. Inside, the house smells of paint and dust. Unfamiliar.

She scoops up the piles of Grace's belongings from under the letterbox and puts them on the caravan's corrugated step. Unhooks the caravan in the street in front of their house. Gets back in the car. Turns the key. Drives into the sun.

Kirsty Logan

Kirsty Logan writes fiction, edits a literary magazine, teaches creative writing, and reviews books in Glasgow. In 2009 she graduated from Glasgow University's Creative Writing MLitt with Distinction; over the next year she won a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust, the Gillian Purvis Award, and third place in the Bridport Prize. She is now working on a novel, Little Dead Boys, and a short story collection, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Her short fiction has been published in around 80 anthologies and literary magazines, as well as broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She has a semicolon tattooed on her toe. kirstylogan.com