CAROLE JOHNSTONE

British Fantasy Award Winner; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Friday, 28 August 2009

Excerpts & Free Fiction




Equilibrium

By Carole Johnstone
[Published in Black Static #41, July 2014; TTA Press]

ENTIRE STORY

     I just want to feel.  It’s as though I’ve forgotten how; as though my skin has become shrunken and ossified, my internal organs indurate, my thoughts polished marble.  I sit and I breathe, I sip warm water from the plastic jug by the bed, I hold his hand, and I can feel none of it.
     “How is he today?” I ask the nurse through numb lips, and there are no vibrations inside my chest, my throat when I speak.
     Her smile is kind, wary, distracted.  “He’s comfortable.”
     I stand up and look down at his paper thin skin and the slow, blue blood beneath it.  I stroke the hard/soft curve of his bald skull and pretend that I can feel it: the warmth, the downy fuzz that is nearly white.  He once had beautiful dark hair that was silky smooth to the touch, long enough to grab inside fists.
     “You’re going already?”
     I try to smile at the nurse, but am not certain I succeed.  “I’ll be back tomorrow,” I say.
*
     It’s very quiet at home.  Sometimes I start to believe that I can no longer hear either, but I know it’s not true.  My stony heart thuds slow inside my ears.  I make myself eat some dry toast before I turn on the computer again, though I have no appetite.  Mostly I forget to eat; other times I cram my belly full of everything and anything until I’m sick, and only then do I remember to stop.
     I log onto the site, but I don’t check my profile.  I go straight to his.  His photo smiles with straight, white teeth, and he’s standing on top of a daisy-sprung hill, his dark hair blown over his forehead.  Immediately, his name pops up in the small window at the bottom of the screen.  ManlyBeardMan.  The first time he made contact, the name made me laugh when I thought nothing ever would again.
     ♂ Hey!  Where u been?
     ♀ Sorry
     ♂ Bad day?
     I look at his picture again.  I’m so wary, always so wary of getting it wrong.
     ♀ Just tired.
     There is too long a pause, too long.  I try to ignore my panic because it doesn’t help, but I stare at the blinking cursor inside that small window at the bottom of the screen.  I wait for the electronic beep of severed contact.  Sometimes it comes out of the blue, when I’m smiling and mid-flow and nearly sensate again; other times hours pass in kind or funny or even flirty exchange until I forget to be cautious.  There is no pattern, no learning curve for my mistakes.  I always vow not to be the one to give way to these silences, but my need for connection, my need to feel again is too great, and so I nearly always do.  The silence presses in around me until I can’t even hear my stony heart.
     ♀ I want to hear your voice
     Am I allowed to say that?  Allowed to ask it? I don’t know.  But I need to hear something, I need to hear him.  And my vision has grown blurry; I can hardly see his smiling face anymore.
     ♂ Next time
*
     “He had a bad night,” the nurse says, looking at me carefully.  She doesn’t know what to make of me; none of them do.
     I sit carefully down next to the bed.  He’s connected to new bags, new machines.  The crooks of his elbows are punctured purple and framed a sallow yellow.  Micropore wraps around the needle in the back of his hand, but it can’t hide the dark, congealed blood between cannula and gauze.  His arms and wrists are still big, still covered in dark hair, but underneath pale and translucent, running with that slow, blue blood.  I kiss his temple and his eyes open, dark and shot through with crimson thin threads.  His face is swollen with steroids, nearly as unrecognisable as mine.
     “Hi,” he says.
     “Hi,” I say, letting his dry fingers curl around mine because I can’t feel their squeeze.  “Are you in any pain?”
     He tries to smile, but soon gives up, dry lips trembling.  “No.”
     It strikes me suddenly how different we’ve become.  He seeks only anaesthesia, while I long for the return of pain, of any kind of feeling at all.  “I’m glad.”
     His eyes become momentarily sharp.  As do mine; long enough, at least, to see it.
     “Are you?”
*
     “It’s very weird hearing your voice,” he says, and I strain to hear his chuckle.
     “I don’t sound like you thought I would?”
     “You sound softer, more Welsh.”
     I stretch out the hand that isn’t holding my phone.  I squeeze it in and out of a fist, pressing my nails into the numb skin of my palm, the shallow lines of my head, my heart, my life, my fate.  My stony heart is beating too hard.  “You knew I was Welsh.”
     No chuckle this time, though he can no longer wield a threatening cursor.  He still has silence; the roaring deafness in my ears.
     I close my eyes, give in first.  “I knew exactly how you’d sound.”
     “What are you doing?”
     “I’m talking to you.”
     Another chuckle.  “No, I mean, what are you doing?  Where are you sitting, what are you wearing?  We men need visuals, you know.”
     I pretend to myself that I’m relaxed, though I’m not.  “I’m sitting on my sofa with my feet up.  It’s leather,” I add unnecessarily, in the wake of another pause.  “I’m wearing jeans and a jumper.”
     Through the roar of fresh silence, I think I hear the far off drone of an ambulance siren.  “Did you want me to lie?”
     He laughs loud and long, and it makes me jump, nearly curse.  “No,” he finally says, “of course not.”
     I stand up because I can no longer bear to sit.  I stagger a little as I go into the kitchen.  My sense of balance is no longer very good, though I’m never certain why: if it’s timidity, or what has been done to me, or just forgetting again to eat.
     “What are you doing now?”  The question is sharp, nearly accusatory, and I wonder at it, because I can’t hear a single thing that he is or isn’t doing at all.
     “I’m pouring a glass of wine,” I say, though it’s more of a tumbler.
     “Maybe I’ll join you.”
     I carefully carry both it and me back to the sofa.  We talk about wine, about living rooms, about nothing, and when I get up again to bring the bottle back from the kitchen, I hardly stagger at all.
    “Don’t you want to know what I’m wearing?” he eventually asks, and when I say yes, he describes a black latex suit with strategically placed holes.  I try to smile, and it nearly works.
*
     The doctor stands while I sit.  He frowns at me from under giant, grey brows.
     “He’s signed a DNR.  It means that--”
     “I know what it means,” I say.  I clasp my fingers together.  My nails are longer, but their press is no sharper.  I stare down at the purple half-moons that they leave across my knuckles.
     “His brain tumour is very advanced; his cognitive abilities are questionable.”  The doctor clears his throat, looks out of the window.  “You can contest it,” he says.  “If you want to.”       
     I look out of the window too.  I realise that it’s nearly dark: heavy darts of rain fall through the red-amber glow of stuttering streetlights.  I wonder what time it is, I wonder what day it is.  I have no sense of any of it at all, as if my body’s rhythms no longer have a clock, a sense of biological purpose.  My numbness is only partly to blame for that.  I can no longer work; I have no routine at all beyond coming here and going home.  Days and nights blur, coalesce, and I forget what my life used to be like: its order and its cadence; its cosy certainties and terrors.  I look up at the doctor.  
     “Why would I want to?”
*
     “I’m very drunk,” I say, because it’s true.
     He chuckles that chuckle, although this time it’s different: low and rumbling.  “Will you touch yourself for me?”
     I stretch out on the sofa, gripping the phone in my numb fingers.  “I want you to touch me.”
     “I will be touching you,” he says.  “When you do it.”
     A silence that this time I’m not afraid of, because I’m more afraid of what he might ask of me next.
     “Reach under your top,” he whispers.  “Squeeze your breasts.”
     I acquiesce before realising that he will hardly know it.  My nipples are tight, hard; I feel nothing at all.
     “Does it feel good?  Is this okay?  Tell me what it feels like.”
     I stare up at ugly swirls of ceiling and draw my fingers into a numb fist.  “It feels good,” I whisper back.
     “Are you wet?”
     “Yes.”
     “Do you want to touch yourself there?  Do you want to slide your fingers through all that hot wetness, push them inside?”
     And I can’t bear it, not any of it.  I feel sick and scared and lonely and entirely frigid, entirely numb.  I don’t even feel the lump at my throat, though I know that it’s there.
     “I want to feel your fingers inside me, not mine,” I say.
     “Then do it, do it,” he says, and his breathing is choppy, his self-restraint spooling loose like magnetic tape.
     And I only obey because obey is what I do, but in that instant some memory of what it felt like to feel returns; it burns at my face, pricks tears in my eyes.
     “Fuck me,” I whisper.  “Get on top of me and hold me down and fuck me.”
     This time the silence is not silent.  I can hear his ragged breath, I can nearly hear what he is doing somewhere else; somewhere I’ve only ever half tried to imagine.
     “Hurt me,” I whisper, though I am no longer touching myself at all.  “Choke me.”
     “God.”
     I think of his too white teeth, his dark hair caught inside a breeze, his big arms, the squeeze of his fists.  “Bite me,” I whisper, listening to his faraway groans.  “Fuck me so hard that it’s all we can hear.”
     When he comes in a choked roar, I press End Call and drop the phone.  I shiver and shake; for a while I forget how to see or hear or think.  When I wake up again it’s light outside.  And I still can’t feel anything at all.
*
     This time the hospital phones me before I’ve showered and changed and prepared myself to go back.
     “You should come now,” the nurse says.  “It won’t be long.”
     When I arrive, there are more people, more careful stares.  I struggle to focus, I struggle to balance; a nurse has to steer me back to my bedside vigil.  There are even more machines, but their beeps and slow clicks are muted metronomes.  I don’t hear them any more than I hear anything else, anyone else.
     I hold his hand, though neither of us feels it.  I squint, trying to see those blue slow veins under his skin.  His big arms, his big hands have become mottled, sluggish.  When he finally opens his eyes, they are crusted yellow.
     He smiles; I think he smiles.  As though he could, quite literally, return me to my senses. Though I know he won’t.  I know now that all these hours and weeks and months of waiting are for nothing.
     He grips my fingers suddenly hard enough to almost hurt.  His voice is ragged, unrecognisable as his own.  I can’t smell his breath, his skin.  “We were happy once, weren’t we?”
     I don’t let him see my phantom tears--not even then.  I try to speak: to shout and snarl and snipe, but I can’t.  I stroke his skin, it’s dry and scaled and friable; I feel it under my nails, and shudder.  And I try to think of any time that we were.
     The doctor has to prise our hands apart.  Has to whisper a “he’s gone” before I realise that it’s true.
     When I finally get up to leave, the nurse has me wait in the corridor while she goes off to get his personal effects, though, of course, I don’t want them.
     The prison officer standing next to the door clears his throat, tries not to look at my scars.  “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs Barton.”
     “We’re getting divorced,” I whisper, willing the nurse to return.
     And he nods a quickly embarrassed of course, even though he’s right.  Even though it’s still my name.
*
     “I’m sorry,” he says, even though it was all my fault; even though I was the one who spoke the words.  “I don’t want you to think--”
     “It’s okay,” I say, but my voice is too cold, it betrays my lie too quickly.  I think about hanging up again.
     “I think you’re very pretty,” he says.
     I close my eyes.  “I’m not.”
     He pauses.  I hear him swallow.  And I want to ask him to do it all again--and this time properly.  To hurt me, defile me, debase me.  To make me feel.  To spit in my face and tell me that this is what I’m worth, this is what I’m good for.  
     But still I don’t dare, not even now.
     “This isn’t enough,” he says.
     I hold my breath behind my tongue.  I hold it alongside the things I don’t dare to say.
     “Meet me,” he says, and his voice his flat, its threat inflectionless.
*
     It’s been a very long time since I was in a bar.  I perch awkwardly on a fake leather stool, sipping my wine in shaking fingers, trying not to look at my reflection in the dark, wet window.  I want to leave, and yet I’m too afraid to move.  I’m too afraid to go home, to sit on my sofa, to remember that I have nothing else left to do.
     “Hello.”
     I turn too quickly.  Close my eyes and then open them again.  His hair is blond, his beard very far from manly.
     He laughs, but I see straightaway that it isn’t at me because his cheeks colour red.  “I’m sorry,” he says.  “It was an old photo.”
     “No,” I say.  “You look the same.”
     “You’re very beautiful,” he says, and he doesn’t even look at the burns on my neck, the deep gouges that knives and teeth left in my skin.  When he touches my arm, it tickles.  When he kisses my cheek, I feel it from the roots of my hair to the ends of my toes.  When he smiles, I feel my own stretching wide, warming every part of me that I’d forgotten had ever existed.
*

Skyshine (or Death by Scotland)
By Carole Johnstone
[First Published in Black Static #60, September 2018; TTA Press]
EXTRACT
Monday is the List of Worries day. I keep my List of Worries in the middle drawer of my bedside table, on top of some lining paper which is covered in painted brown frogs with red eyes and three toes on each leg. None of these things are possible, since the front legs of all frogs have four toes each, and the back legs, five. And only rana arboricola de ojos rojos have red eyes, and they’re not brown, they’re green. That’s at the top of my List of Annoyances, which I keep in the next drawer down, and which isn’t until Wednesday. There is no lining paper in the next drawer down.
“Is Gordie MacDonald alright?”
Doctor Sinclair looks very tired today. He looks tired most days, and I’ve mostly stopped mentioning it since he told me it was rude to. But today he looks especially tired.
“He’ll live.” And then he glances over at me to gauge my response. “Has Gordie MacDonald made it onto your List of Worries?”
“No.”
Doctor Sinclair sighs, rubs the bridge of his nose. “Well, we can talk about Gordie later then. What’s top today?”
I push the list across the table. He doesn’t pick it up, but he’ll take it away at the end. And then I’ll have to start another. “More gay people are being murdered in Chechnya.” I lean towards him. “It’s against moral and criminal law to murder anyone, so why aren’t the authorities doing anything about it?”
“Well, I think moral and criminal laws vary from country to country.”
“Moral law doesn’t! Scientific studies have proven that we are all born with palaeolithic moral thinking, and that only people with poor communication between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, for example, psychopaths, are unable to differentiate—”
“Criminal law then.”
“Do you mean because Chechnya is a poverty-stricken and corrupt republic that routinely uses kidnapping, torture, and murder to quash opposition, while being itself repressed under the yoke of the Russian Federation?”
Doctor Sinclair doesn’t think I see him wince, but I do. “Yes, probably. What else?”
“I’m still worried about Syria. And black people being shot in America.”
“We covered both pretty exhaustively last time, I remember. I wish you wouldn’t keep asking people about these things. There’s a reason I’ve banned you from going on the internet or watching the TV, you know.” One of his quick smiles. “It’s not out of meanness. You know it doesn’t help. Okay, what else?”
By people, he means Leonie. I don’t think he likes her much. Mostly, I have to make her tell me about things like Chechnya anyway; she’s more interested in what happens right next to her. When Doctor Walker was found hanging in his office, she talked about only that for weeks. About what a pervert he was, as if she’d known all about it before anyone looked at his laptop. Leonie believes that every boy in the world grows up to become an alcoholic womaniser (including the one who also became her husband but isn’t her husband any more). Dem nuh baan dat wey, buh shua dem mek up fi dat layta, yuh zeemi? Staff shouldn’t gossip with the patients, Doctor Sinclair’s always saying, but who else would I talk to? Everyone else here is mad. That’s a joke.
“Donkeys.”
“Donkeys?”
I nod. “Leonie says the abuse of beasts of burden is endemic the world over, but it’s always the worst for donkeys. She says she gives ten pounds a month to The Donkey Sanctuary.”
“But that’s not your worry. That’s Leonie’s worry.”
“She told me about it, and then I worried about it.”
“Okay. So donkeys are number four. What’s five?”
“Still dogs.”
“And are numbers six to ten still men?”
I don’t know why he’s asking when the list is right there in front of him. “Yes.”
“It’s a lot of numbers to dedicate to one thing.”
“They do a lot of worrying things.”
“Such as?”
When I don’t answer, Doctor Sinclair gets up, comes around to my side of the table. When he crouches down next to me, his eyes are so bloodshot his sclerae look more red than white. “I mean apart from Gordie MacDonald, obviously. A male patient should never have been able to access the female ward in the first place, never mind your room—”
“Irena, the new cleaner, brought me my new towels this morning and told me that Mr Fraser pinched her bum in the corridor, and when she called him a perv, he called her a Russian bitch, but actually she’s Bulgarian.” I don’t want to talk about Gordie MacDonald. About his greasy hair and bad teeth and grabby, long-nailed hands. His horrible smell, like the rock pools at Yellowcraigs. The things he said with his horrible mouth that made me first want to hide and then to fight back.
Doctor Sinclair looks both alarmed and resigned, I think. I don’t know how you can be both together, but I’m getting much better at reading his expressions if no one else’s, so I’m probably right. “But that isn’t your worry either. What I mean is it’s a secondhand worry, a remote one. None of the worries on this list are practical worries. You cannot address the problem of gay men being murdered in Chechnya; you cannot personally resolve it. Therefore, it cannot aid in any way with your own personal growth, your own coping mechanisms and triggers, emotional responses and resolutions.”
I don’t tell him that if he’d told me to write a List of Practical Worries this would never have become an issue, but I’m pretty sure he knows I’m thinking it. He’s a very good psychiatrist, Leonie says. And most nurses — especially Leonie — are pretty uncomplimentary about the doctors here.
“They used to call me a Paki,” I say. To make him feel a bit better. “When I was in shops or walking down the street with Mum, sometimes men would shout Paki at me. And actually I’m Scottish, so the joke was on them. And if they meant Mum, she’s from Sri Lanka, so they were still wrong.”
“Okay, so—”
“And this morning, after Irena, the new cleaner told me about Mr Fraser, she said I was lucky to be locked up in here because all men were creeps, and it wasn’t safe to even get the bus home at night.”
“Well, obviously she shouldn’t have told you any of that. Do you remember our sessions on literal facts versus subjective opinion and hyperbole?”
“Yes. I’m not stupid.”
Doctor Sinclair doesn’t think I’m stupid. I have Aspergers, anxiety disorder, OCD, and depression. My hospital notes say I was diagnosed with schizophrenia less than a month after my parents admitted me here. Doctor Sinclair doesn’t think I have schizophrenia either. He doesn’t think my delusions are delusions any more than I do. But he’ll never say so. Not to me at least. And he’ll never know so, not for sure. The diagnosis of mental illness, he has said more than once, is a complex and contentious puzzle, built upon a foundation of shifting sands. And so, instead, we’ll keep on having stupid conversations about lists.
There’s a knock at the door, loud enough to make Doctor Sinclair jump. The clinical director pokes his big face into the room. I don’t know his name. I asked him what it was once, when he was walking down the main corridor at the start of visiting hours, and he screwed up his fat face to say I hardly think you need to know that, young lady.
“Doctor Sinclair,” he says. “Have you—” he glances at me, “you know?”
Doctor Sinclair gives a big sigh. He turns round and looks at the clinical director until he backs out the room and closes the door again. Doctor Sinclair turns back to me and sighs again. “Roshni.”
“Yes?”
“There’s something I need to discuss with you today. The government and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency have told us about a new behavioural and cognitive modification pill that they have just approved. They want hospital psychiatrists across Scotland to choose which patients would be the most suitable candidates to take it. With the aim of eventual rehabilitation and discharge of longer-term inpatients.”
“Is it like my Clozapine?” Of all my medications, I hate that one the most. It makes me sleepy and slow and stupid. Sometimes it makes my hands shake for days at a time.
“No, no. It has less side effects than even your benzos. Virtually none.” Doctor Sinclair isn’t looking at me, which normally I like just fine, except when it’s him.
“What does it do?”
“It…it’s very complicated. But essentially, it’s designed to narrow cognitive focus, block out the extraneous signals that anxiety and personality disorders provoke in stressful situations.”
“How does that help?”
“Well, a person like you always needs to be in control, right? You seek it through obsessive compulsions and paranoid prophylaxis, but this pill will — perhaps — allow a person like you to achieve control without having to resort to these responses. Before, in other words, they are even able to kick in.”
“How?”
“Well, in the same way that we can often project our own bias, emotions, even judgements onto someone else, this pill will — perhaps — allow you to achieve control of not just your own emotions and responses, but those of the source focus, if only in terms of how your cognitive processes perceive them.” Doctor Sinclair clears his throat. He still won’t look at me. “There’s a very narrow normal range between social and cognitive action and response. Between deciding whether something is to be appropriately acted upon or not. And within that range is a sweet spot, the absolute desirable social and cognitive response to external stimuli and interaction. That sweet spot is what the pill is designed to unlock: by altering — transforming — the way your cognitive functions respond to stimuli otherwise outside your control.”
That sounds brilliant. What I understand of it. Like something out of X-Men. “And if I take it I’ll get out?”
Doctor Sinclair closes his eyes. I’m getting a bit worried about him. “You might get out. But you might not. I have the final word, and if I think you’re not fit enough, if I don’t think the pill is doing you any good, I’ll say no.”
“I’ll take it. What’s it called?”
“Ethalechtin. Look, you don’t have to take it, Roshni, do you understand? Just tell me you don’t want to and I won’t ever ask you again.”
“Why did you tell me about it if you don’t want me to take it?”
“Good bloody question,” Doctor Sinclair says, and closes his eyes again. “Look, you’ve been here a long while now, more than five years—”
“Five years, three months, and two and a half weeks.”
“Right. You’re no longer a child, but an adult. And…I don’t think we’ve really helped you as much as we could have. Should have.”
I don’t say anything. Sometimes it’s better if you don’t.
“And I also don’t see how you can ever get truly better locked up in this sterile and artificial world instead of being exposed to the real one.” He glances at me and closes his mouth. And then he doesn’t say anything for so long that I start to wonder if he asked me a question. “This is really really important, Roshni,” he finally says. “Have you been thinking about suicide again?”
“No!”
He stares at me so hard I can nearly feel it. “Are you sure? Because Nurse Jackson found some literature and some notes—”
“She shouldn’t have been going through my stuff!”
“Roshni.” Doctor Sinclair’s voice is different. It’s thinner, flatter. His eyes don’t blink. “This is really serious, so I need you to be completely honest with me, okay?”  He leans closer. Looks down at my twitching, counting fingers and then back at my face. “Are you thinking about suicide again?”
Suicide is very common in humans. Every forty seconds, someone in the world commits suicide. The UN said more than eight hundred thousand people committed suicide last year, and every year that figure gets bigger. Suicide kills more people than all the wars and murders combined. I like statistics. I know statistics. And Doctor Sinclair knows I do. He probably knows that right now I’m trying really hard not to tell him all these statistics about suicide, even though he already knows them because I’ve already told him. Maybe that’s one of my extraneous signals. Or paranoid prophylaxes. I make my hands into still fists. I try not to move away or blink either, because this is important. I want to take this pill more than anything else in the whole world.
So I shake my head. “No. I’m not thinking about suicide again, Doctor Sinclair. Okay?” This is a lie. “I’m not going to hurt myself, I promise. I promise, Doctor Sinclair. Okay?” This is not a lie. I don’t think it’s a lie.
Doctor Sinclair leans back, rubs his red eyes. He is quiet for a very long time.
“Does that mean I can take the pill?”
“It means you should at least be given the choice, the opportunity.” But he still doesn’t sound too sure about that.
“Can I stop taking all my other pills then?”
“No, no. No. This pill is only experimental, okay? You must never ever stop taking any of your medications without asking a psychiatrist first, alright?”
“That’s why I just asked you,” I say. Doctor Sinclair’s gone a bit red in the face. I wonder if he’s feeling stressed, overworked. Leonie says that’s why most of them are alcoholics. Although I’m pretty sure Doctor Sinclair’s not a womaniser.

Available to buy here
*


The Draugr of Tromsø

By Carole Johnstone
[First Published Sherlock Holmes Abroad, April 2015; Constable & Robinson]

EXTRACT

 Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
     You will forgive, I am sure, my coming straight to the heart of the matter, for I believe that you are a man as well engaged as myself, and thus certain to appreciate an economy of words.  Though, I must confess that I hardly know where to begin.
     Despite having not resided there for many years, I am a man of some means and considerable influence within my home country of Norway, and this can be the only explanation for a recently received anonymous telegram imploring me to secure your help for the citizens of Tromsø, a northern charter town in Troms county.  The telegram spoke of its inhabitants being plagued by a creature known as a draugr, the old Norse meaning of which is a revenant.  I have some knowledge of the subject, having written of it on occasion, though no more than that.  When my own humble investigations uncovered that there had indeed been a spate of unexplained attacks, and even a violent death, I will confess to some measure of cruel curiosity, and having already intended to return home for a visit, I merely brought forward my plans and proposed destination.
     I am intolerant of both hyperbole and sensationalism, Mr Holmes, but upon arriving in Tromsø, I found a town paralysed by fear and, so it seemed straight away to me, truly besieged by malign influence.  In the surrounding countryside, animals are nightly slaughtered and terrible, alien cries are heard.  Even in town, people venture outside only when needs absolutely must, and otherwise hide away in silence, cowed by terror.
     The very night after I arrived, there was a terrible commotion on the main street, and when I hurried to find the cause, discovered a crowd gathered around a wooden gig.  Within it was the bloodied corpse of a man quite savaged, his eyes wide and wild, face contorted beyond, I imagined, all recognition and reason, as if he had glimpsed the Devil Himself before death delivered him.    
     Upon meeting with the chief of police and county selectmen, it became clear to me at once that no one had any idea as to what to do; indeed, that no one sought to do anything at all.  My own presence was just as ineffectual, for I am a writer and not a man of either action or investigation. 
     I have heard that besides being a detective of great repute, you are also one of reason and not fancy.  I am therefore of exactly the same mind as the anonymous author of my telegram in extending a most heartfelt invitation to travel to our country and free this town of its terrible siege.  I appreciate that such a journey would be long and arduous: Troms county is 350 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle and midwinter approaches, but you may name your price and I will guarantee it.
     Yours faithfully,
     Henrik Johan Ibsen
     “Well then, what do you make of it, Watson?”
     “Henrik Ibsen!” I cried, quite beside myself.  “Why, he is truly brilliant: a profound poetic dramatist; the best, it is said, since Shakespeare!”
     “Indeed, Watson,” Holmes said, putting down his newspaper and reaching for a half-finished glass of burgundy, “That I have ascertained for myself.  As ever, you have missed the point of my enquiry.”
     “Only two years ago,” said I, still enthralled by the letter’s author, “I attended the Princess Theatre to watch a most wonderful adaption of his Doll’s House.  I had very much wanted too to see Wild Duck, arguably his most acclaimed--”
     “No matter, no matter,” Holmes interrupted, agitated enough now to stand up from his easy-chair and begin pacing.  “You know how uninterested I am in the theatre.  What of the letter, Doctor, the letter?”
     “It sounds a most interesting case,” I answered carefully.  “But Ibsen is doubtless correct.  I have never chanced to travel to Scandinavia at this time of year, but I imagine that the journey will indeed be arduous.”
     “Nonetheless, should we accept his invitation?”
     “You are asking my opinion?”
     Holmes ceased his pacing at once.  “Do I not always?”
     “You do always ask for it,” I conceded drily, “though rarely does my answer--” 
     “Watson, dear fellow, you are driving me to nervous distraction!”
     “Yes, then,” I replied.  “My answer is yes.”
*
     In truth, I was very glad of the letter’s opportunity, for not since the theft of a piece of the famous Beryl Coronet, had anything come close to Holmes’ keen interest, and that case had been a full winter ago.  He had become increasingly vexed and then melancholic.  I had grown quite despairing of his neither speaking nor moving for days, and of the morocco case upon the mantle-piece and its syringe within; the countless puncture-marks dotting his pale, thin arms.
     Thus, I comforted myself with the eager pinprick of his pupils and his quick returned enthusiasm as we travelled first to Newcastle, and then east to Bergen aboard a passenger steamer.  Though I freely confess to a dampening of my own, when thereafter trapped aboard a tiny wind- and snow-swept vessel on the Norwegian Sea, in the too close company of hunters and trappers and timbers, the decks still thick with the stench of dried cod and skins.
     When we finally arrived, by means of a low-bellied rowboat, at the otherwise deserted Tromsø dock on the island of Tromsøya, I was quite exhausted.  Though it was not yet five in the afternoon, the dark was absolute; the lights of the town were the only sign of life or comfort.
     Holmes disembarked with no trace at all of either tiredness or trepidation, turning back to our skipper with a quick smile.  “Good Sir, will you not alight?”
     “I will not,” the man muttered, already preparing to put back out to the strait.
     “Come, Watson!  The wire instructed us to repair to the local beer hall.  Your great playwright awaits our arrival!”
     The main street beyond the dock was entirely empty save a fresh blanket of snow; its gaslights few and far between, its fewer residences shuttered and dark.  I will confess that it was something of a relief to come upon the swinging sign of the Ølhall, and gratefully followed Holmes down its steep stone steps.
     The hall was blessedly warm and well lit by high candles.  Our arrival attracted the immediate attentions of a huddled group of men close to a healthy wood fire, and it was only when we reached as far as the long timbered bar that I realised that this place too was otherwise empty.
     “Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson!” a man cried, standing up from the huddle, already extending a hand as he rounded the table and marched towards us, his cane tapping loudly against the floor.  I recognised the exuberant and straight-edged sideburns straight away, the luxuriant grey hair, small round spectacles, stern thin lips.  Despite both my exhaustion and trepidation, I found myself shaking Ibsen’s hand as fiercely as he did mine, suddenly remembering to be glad that I had come at all.
     “Mr Holmes!” Ibsen said, turning to shake my friend’s hand as enthusiastically.  “It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance at last.”
     “Indeed,” Holmes replied.  “And I would very much like to say the same, but I have no idea who you are.”
     “Why, I am Henrik Ibsen,” he blinked.  “I sent to you first a letter and then a telegram--”
     “My pardon again, good Sir,” Holmes said.  “But you are not.”
     “Holmes!” I cried, immediately mortified.
     “Watson,” he smiled, quite unperturbed, “Henrik Johan Ibsen is, I believe, sitting directly behind you.”
     A man that I had not previously noticed at all stood up at once from the shadows.  He was dressed in dark clothing, his face hidden inside a white-furred hood.  His chuckle was eclipsed only by the sudden laughter of our nearer companion.
     “Bravo, Mr Holmes.  Bravo!” the former said, pushing back the hood as he came towards us, revealing nearly the same face again.  “You must forgive us the ruse, as impolite as it must seem.”
     “I am long used to having to prove my singular skills,” Holmes replied mildly.
     “You are no performing seal, Sir,” Ibsen said, suddenly sober.  He shook Holmes’ hand hard between both of his own.  “My apologies are heartfelt, you can be certain of that, though you acquitted yourself admirably.  And Doctor Watson!  A pleasure, a pleasure.  Come sit near to the fire.  Ludwig, some more beer, if you please?”
     Once we were seated on wooden stools next to the hearth, the other men drifted away, until only Holmes, I, Ibsen, and his impersonator remained.
     “If it is not too great an imposition, how did you know that I was not who I claimed to be, Mr Holmes?” asked the latter, as he removed his sideburns and wig to reveal an altogether younger, handsomer face.
     “Ah, that was no great imposition either,” Holmes said.  “I have long known that it is difficult, if not impossible, for a man to avoid leaving his unique imprint upon any object within his daily use.  Your cane, Ibsen, is just such an item.  And your companion--”
     “Ivar,” the man in question smiled.  “Ivar Brovik.”
     “Very well,” Holmes said, “Mr Brovik utilised your cane upon his right side, and favoured its flank, when its purpose is to be a companion to an opposing limb.  In addition, the cane’s inside extremity was scratched and scarred, where it should have been its outside.  And I have long made careful study of the influence of a man’s trade upon his hands; I have a great many lithotypes, for they are an invaluable aid to body identification.  And you, Sir,” he said to Brovik, “most certainly do not have the hands of a writer.  They are calloused and bear the score-burns of rough stone handling--sandstone, I believe?”  When Brovik only blinked in answer, Holmes nodded his satisfaction and turned to Ibsen instead.
     “Also, I have, I must confess, done some research upon you, good Sir, and you are a man of certain composure and abstention.  Your eyes and nose are not likely to be bloodshot with drink.  Nor would your cheeks be pink with a barber’s razor, or squinting against the intrusion of spectacles that ill-match your sight.  I know too, that you have lived these past few years in Munich, while Mr Brovik has the skin of a man lived somewhere far more exotic.”
     “Afghanistan!” Ivar Brovik exclaimed.  “And you are quite right on all counts: I must confess to having suffered some recent misfortune--a few good investments gone bad--and the only means by which I could return to Norway was by working some months on the sandstone ramparts of the Citadel in Ai-Khanoum.  I finally returned to Kristiania not two weeks ago, and only found out about this bad business upon my arrival on Tromsøya.  Why, if Ibsen is not impressed than I certainly am!  Bravo again, Sir!”
     Holmes inclined his head as though in dismissal, but I knew well his easy susceptibility to flattery.  “As entertaining as this diversion has been, we must address the reason that Watson and I are here, gentlemen,” he said, draining his beer and leaning over the table to steeple his long, thin fingers.
     “Of course,” Ibsen conceded, “though I must confess that nothing more untoward has occurred since my letter to you, save more rumour and livestock slaughter.”
     “Rumour of the draugr?” I asked.
     “This town is but a newborn,” Ibsen answered obtusely.  “Less than a hundred years ago, it boasted a population of only a few dozen, yet now it is the “Paris of the North”, the “Gateway to the Arctic”, attracting socialites and hunters in equal measure.  But it is a place ill-equipped for either population or revenants--”    
     “Revenants!” scoffed Holmes.  “Quite impossible!”
     “Impossible?” Ibsen enquired benignly.
     “You do not fool me again even for an instant,” Holmes smiled.  “Because only a simpleton would believe in animated corpses returned from the grave to terrorise the living.  It is a nonsense!  Would that there were a crime scene or victim to examine, I should be able to prove so irrefutably.  But you mentioned in your letter that you had written of these draugar yourself?”
     “Indeed, I have, Mr Holmes,” Ibsen smiled.  “In Norse mythology, the draugar were described as the cruel and savage undead, who returned from death to avenge those who had wronged them in life.  They can increase their size at will, are said to possess superhuman strength, and being of corporeal body, are much decomposed.  They slay their victims either by crushing them with their heavy forms, or devouring their flesh and drinking their blood.  They are also credited with driving some victims quite mad with terror.  Any unfortunate animals feeding near a draugr grave drop dead in their dozens.”
     “Ah,” Holmes smiled, “Formidable opponents!”
     “Might you perhaps have read any of my works, Mr Holmes?” Ibsen enquired with a sudden frown.
     I had to repress a somewhat knowing chuckle at this, for here were two formidable opponents indeed: only perhaps a celebrated writer and littérateur could match the great detective for entitled self-aggrandisement. 
     “I have not, good Sir,” Holmes answered, quite unabashed.  “I have long held a belief that a man’s mind is like a storage shed.  One can cram it full of lumber, or of items carefully considered and chosen.  The distinction matters little to an ordinary gentleman, but a man such as myself must be certain only to store within it those items that will aid me in both my methods and philosophy.  I have no room at all to spare for detritus.”
     “Well,” said Ibsen, thin lips pulled thinner, “I have never before had my writings described as either lumber or detritus.”
     “Do not construe it as any stain upon your talent, Sir,” Holmes said with a smile.  “I have only passing interest in any kind of literature whatsoever.”
     “Well, what then of the study of character, of motivation?  How, otherwise, can a detective such as yourself begin to know what is pertinent and what is not?  Surely that skill alone requires at least a small corner of your shed?” Ibsen muttered.
     “Perhaps,” Holmes replied, “But I consider that a singularly acquired skill and not one stolen from the scribbled analyses of another.”
     I am certain that I was not alone in my considerable relief when the beer hall’s stairwell door banged open, admitting both a gust of Arctic air and a stout, short man dressed head to toe in black.  He marched towards our table, thrusting a folded note into Ibsen’s hand.
     “If you are ready to leave, gentlemen,” Ibsen said, “then this man has been sent with a carriage to take us to a residence in Bjerkaker, a few kilometres south of Tromsø.  Herr and Fru Lundestad have been kind enough to extend an open invitation to their home for the duration of the investigation.”

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Ad Astra

By Carole Johnstone
[First Published Interzone #248, September 2013; TTA Press]

EXTRACT

I get headaches in zero gravity. You'd have thought that I'd have discovered that during all the training and medical assessments inside the Astro labs, or when they sent us sub-orbital for the TV studios. I didn't though, and now those bastards get worse every day I'm trapped here with Rick and nowhere to go. Maybe the pain feels the same way too: we're both stuck inside a smooth, almost spherical prison and escape is nothing but dark vacuum.
     Rick and I have pretty much stopped talking. There's nothing and too much to talk about; sex is just about our only method of communication and it's usually angry. I don't talk to Rick because I don't believe anything he says anymore and perhaps because I'm afraid that I might; Rick doesn't talk to me because he doesn't trust himself either—I can see that in his blue-grey eyes though he tries to hide it. He wants to tell me the truth, I can see that. He wants to and he can't. Won't.
     Today we have to talk because I awoke to a beeped reminder that it was time for the quarterly biomedical checks. I don't want to do them—no longer even see a reason to—but the alternative is to do nothing at all, to sit and stare into that dark vacuum. And that way madness would truly lie, I'm certain.
     Rick is in the medical module already, not that it takes me long to find him. Aside from a tiny cabin that houses little more than a bed, there are only two living spaces in our octahedral capsule: the medical module and a larger area between, dominated by the table that we're supposed to eat our meals at every day. We have no need of a cockpit because our pilots are at least 3.57 billion miles away. At least. To use Rick's increasingly irritating vernacular, we've spent the last thousand days of our lives living in a space the size of a fucking RV.
     He's strapped himself into the cycle ergometer, but he isn't doing much cycling. Instead, he's slumped over its bars, forehead resting on his arms. I wonder if his head hurts too and feel an uncommon twinge of sympathy.
     "Hi."
     He jumps, flinches as he looks up as if expecting someone else. "Hey."
     "Bio check day."
     "Already?"
     I try to smile. "Another glorious day in the Corps."
     Rick tries to smile back. "That's a good one."  He reaches down to release the seat belt across his torso and unstrap his boots from the buckles on the footrests. When he comes towards me, I pretend not to be afraid of him and boot up the computer, busying myself with the equipment.
     Every month we both have ECGs and blood pressure checks. I take and then process urinary, blood, and respiratory samples. We don't shit very often—now even less than before—so I've dropped that test entirely. There are complex psychological exams, which is not my domain; we both answer downloaded and detailed questionnaires, always inscrutable, always the same but different. I scoff my way through them, getting angrier and angrier, while Rick chews the inside of his mouth, brow furrowed in concentration.
     Every quarter, I carry out more intensive experiments, mostly cardio-respiratory and functional tests with physical, mental and orthostatic loads. That is my domain. It's the only real reason for my being here, I guess. Back in the Astro labs, I specialised in immersion theory, more particularly hypokinetic disorders associated with zero gravity: the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the support mechanisms of the body, the central nervous system, motor function, hand-eye co-ordination and so on. There are other things too, a whole plethora of experiments whose potential results were far less alarming when considered only in aseptic theory: the effects of a hypoxic environment on the immune and metabolic systems, due to the fire-resistant argon mixed into our life support systems; the radiobiological effects of solar radiation on the main regulatory body systems; DNA analysis for genome-based prophylaxis and telemedical management. Rick and I take a lot of pills. Neither of us knows what's in them, though I can mostly guess. I don't discuss the test results with Rick, and he never asks. If he did, I wouldn't tell him only because he wouldn't want to know.
     Rick is chief cook and bottle washer—chief technical officer and chief science officer. I'm chief medical officer and chief communications officer. That's a lot of chiefs for two people, and the latter has become something of a joke: I record my medical findings and download both that and whatever Rick and I confidentially mutter in our psych exams. I've stopped doing jolly video messages home because I don't think anyone cares. I certainly don't. I have no idea if they reach Earth anyway. The last proper communication was more than eight weeks ago.
     Rick reaches for me several times, at first just my hand or my arm as I go about my tests, but then my thighs, my arse, my breasts. I bat him away in irritation because today I don't want adolescent oblivion, I don't want to answer his desperation with my own. Rick's looks of reproach grow until I have to give them a response. I think he's depressed. In fact I'm sure he is, but he also has manic bursts of almost uncontrollable excitement that I like even less.
     I turn back to the computer screen. "Later," I mutter, even though it's just about the only exercise he gets these days. It's like he's gone into hibernation.

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