The end of the habitable world

A short story by Tracey Emerson

23 March, 2017

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Photo by Stewart Bremner
Photo by Stewart Bremner

Jared had been home for three days when he found his own gravestone. A black granite square, engraved with silver letters.


IN MEMORY OF JARED
LOST BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

A sapling had been planted behind the stone, he couldn’t tell what kind. He knew the big, twisty trees either side of him were horse chestnuts. As a child, he’d come to these woods next to the family home every autumn, waiting for the soft thuds as the prickly green balls landed in the leaves.

LOST BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

When his father passed away, his mother told people, I lost my husband to cancer. Jared had wanted to correct her and say, you didn’t lose him…he died. When Leigh lost her purse she’d say, my purse has gone missing. That drove him mad when they lived together. The iron’s gone missing. My cash card’s missing. He tried pointing out that inanimate objects don’t go missing…you lose them. There was a huge difference between missing and lost. He should know. His lost father had a plaque a few feet away from his. Green slate, gold letters.

SIMON MOODIE
1947- 1999

Jared remembered sitting with his mother and his brother, the catalogue of headstones in front of them, squabbling over which colour to choose. Jared had argued for black marble.
The January cold came for him. He pulled his grey blanket tight around his shoulders. The only belonging to come with him from that other world, the place he could never return to.
The earth crunched under his feet, noisy with brown leaves. He bent down and picked one up, pressed it between his palms. Parchment dry and rough to touch. The stench of stagnant water crept up from the pond behind him, its once glassy surface now smothered by a lime-green skin of algae, the knackered limbs of fallen trees jutting out of it.
This wouldn’t be his choice of resting place. He’d have put his headstone elsewhere, at the front of the house maybe, with a view down to the water. No, he wouldn’t have a headstone at all. He’d want his powdered remains dissolved into the sea, leaving no trace. Or, as he’d once told Leigh, he’d have his ashes packed into a firework and blasted into the sky. Going out in a blaze of glory.

***

‘Where the fuck have you been?’
As soon as Jared emerged from the woods, he saw Seb storming towards the house from the direction of the sea, heard the words his brother sent racing ahead of him like pack dogs.
He made for the front door but Seb caught up with him, yanking the grey blanket loose, grabbing the neck of Jared’s sweatshirt and shoving him against the side of the house.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’
Jared struggled, the wall rough against his back. Seb held him firm.
‘Just walk….’ Jared gasped. ‘Walking.’
‘You’ve been gone two hours.’
Random greys in his brother’s black hair. Peeking through the sides, woven into his sparse goatee beard. Seb tightened his grip. ‘Are you listening to me?’
Jared nodded. ‘Jesus,’ he gasped as Seb released him. He doubled over, trying to catch his breath.
‘Fuck.’ Seb looked around as if seeking a target for his frustration. He resorted to aiming a couple of kicks at one of the front tyres of his own jeep, parked just a few feet away.
Jared straightened up. ‘Take it easy.’
‘We didn’t know where you were.’ Seb gave his foot a shake. ‘Fran’s going nuts.’
‘Calm down.’ Jared wiped the dust from his sweatshirt.
‘Calm down.’ Seb handed him the blanket from the floor. ‘You haven’t got a clue.’ He checked his watch and pushed open the front door. ‘News is about to start.’
When Jared slipped into the living room, he found Seb inspecting a video camera and his mother pacing in front of the blank television, one hand on her hip, the other twisting a necklace of red beads round and round her fingers. She glared at him. Her rectangular glasses, narrow and black-rimmed, framed her dark eyes, making them hard to avoid. He couldn’t get used to her in them. Or to her white hair. It aged her way beyond her sixty-two years.
‘Sorry Fran,’ he said.
‘You can’t just go off like that.’ She flicked the end of her black shawl across her shoulder and strode over to him. Her arms circled his waist, her head pressed into his chest. He gazed over her to the windows beyond, grateful for his six- foot height that kept him way above the family canopy.
Releasing him, she lifted her glasses and rubbed her eyes. He noticed the black circles beneath them and wanted to reach out to her.
‘I found my headstone.’ He shed the blanket, folded it and laid it on the back of the sofa. A look passed between his mother and brother.
‘It’s a memorial plaque’ Seb replied.
Fran reached into her pocket, pulled out a small, silver object and pointed it at him. Jared blinked at the quick succession of flashes. His mother could move fast when she spotted a photo opportunity. He should’ve known there’d be a camera stashed on her somewhere.
‘Sorry darling,’ she said. For what? For putting up the headstone – correction, memorial plaque – or taking the photograph? No doubt she thought she’d captured some vital moment. When she printed the picture she’d show it to him and tell him exactly what he’d been feeling.
‘We held a memorial service for you,’ she said, ‘six months ago.’
‘Who came?’ Jared asked.
‘We were told it would help us move on.’ Seb flipped open a screen on the side of the camera.
‘Who came?’
‘It was a very select affair.’ Fran tucked her camera into her pinafore pocket.
‘What about Pete?’ Jared asked. No one answered. He slumped onto the sofa. ‘Or Gareth?’ Still nothing. ‘Not even Gareth?’
‘Very select,’ Fran said.
Not even his two closest friends from university had been there. Should he be offended by the shoddy attendance or glad? He’d always hated the idea of his own funeral. Everyone who’d known him, all together in one place. All comparing and contrasting the different faces he’d shown them over the years. That’s how your secret self gets discovered.
‘One o’clock.’ Seb switched on the television and flicked through the channels until he found the news. Soldiers in sandy- coloured uniforms ran along dusty streets, dodging the smoking entrails of cars.
Jared couldn’t get used to the size of the television that had usurped the black, boxy one he remembered. The width of the screen and the thinness of its silver body. He could fit his hand around it – he’d tried when no one was looking. The TV might have grown but the stereo, once occupying a whole corner of the room, had contracted to a black cube that sat on a shelf. Maybe it all balanced out. If he went around the house noting what had grown and what had shrunk he might find that the total space taken by all objects was actually⎯
‘Jared,’ Seb called.
‘What?’ Jared looked round to find the video camera aimed straight at him.
‘Don’t.’ He hid his face. As he’d trailed, dazed, through Heathrow arrivals three days ago, the first greeting from his brother had been an instruction to face this way, look at the lens. His initial reaction had been annoyance, but then he’d noticed how Seb held the camera like a shield in front of him, protection from an emotionally awkward moment, and he’d been glad of its presence. Now however, he could do without it.
‘Turn it off,’ Fran said.
‘Oh come on,’ Seb moaned. ‘This is important.’
‘Sebastian.’
A click as Seb killed the camera. Jared focused on the TV as a photograph of him filled the screen, replacing the soldiers. His own face staring back at him.
Shit.
He’d wanted his re-entry to be quiet, to slip unseen through the atmosphere, not to streak past, tail blazing, with thousands of upturned eyes watching.
‘Here we go.’ Seb threw himself down next to Jared. Fran remained standing, beads and fingers still entwined.
The newsreader raised one eyebrow and gave a half-smile, indicating that the following item would be strange but uplifting.
“ A thirty-five year old man has returned home to Mersea Island in Essex after going missing over seven years ago. Jared Moodie vanished whilst travelling in India in December 1999. He was due to return home after a three-month trip but failed to turn up for his flight. His mother, the artist Francesca Moodie, and his older brother, Sebastian, launched a vigorous campaign to find him. Sebastian’s documentary about their search was screened on Channel Four in 2002 but despite their efforts, Jared was never found. But now he is back, claiming to have suffered amnesia for seven years after a fall whilst trekking alone in the Himalayas.”
‘Why did he say ‘claiming’ to have suffered amnesia?’ Jared directed his question at Seb. His brother shrugged.
‘Just newspeak.’
“Before his disappearance, Jared was travelling with his girlfriend, Leigh Costello. Although initially involved in the search to find Jared, she lost touch with the family five years ago.
Seb snorted. ‘Some girlfriend.’
Jared’s stomach twisted. Jared’s girlfriend Leigh Costello. Girlfriend. Each time he heard the word it didn’t make sense to him.
“The family is not prepared to comment on exactly where Jared has been for the last seven years⎯
‘Because we don’t know,’ Seb muttered.
“⎯say that although Jared is shaken from his experience he is generally in good health and looking forward to resuming his life back in Britain. For the families of other missing travellers this is a story to bring them hope.”
On screen, a weather map replaced Jared’s fading image. Seb muted the TV.
The phone rang. Jared jumped. Fran hurried across the room to answer it, tucking her hair behind her right ear in preparation.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘It is. Sorry, no further statements.’ She slammed the phone back on its stand.
Journalists. Jared’s shoulders slackened. Just journalists.
‘Look at you gone all white’ said Seb. ‘Bet you thought that was Leigh.’
Jared frowned. ‘What?’
‘On the phone.’
‘Oh. Sure.’
Music burst into the room. A Town Called Malice by the Jam. Seb dug deep into his jeans’ pocket and pulled out his mobile. ‘I told you not to ring me this week babes.’ He cut the caller off. ‘Women.’
Jared didn’t return his brother’s grin. Seb must only be a few years off forty now but his attitude to women seemed unal

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