The thirteenth instalment of our Story | Retold series is a new interpretation of ‘On the Tip’ by Rhys Davies.
The clouds scud in just as Morgan bends to his digging. He stands and puts a flattened hand over his brow to watch – as though he is there again, and the whole world is brilliant, and he needs to keep his wits about him. Coal-edged and forceful, the clouds parcel the land neatly into darkness: Fred Davies’ farm, Phil Walters’ turning-out fields, the rusting skeleton of the old colliery – all slide into shadow and retreat, or so Morgan likes to think, back into the black earth. He picks out his street, worming across the valley below, and waits for the clouds to claim it. It does not take long.
He cannot tell which slates support his own crumbling chimney stack from this distance, but he knows that between the uneven walls of his little two-up, two-down, Beth is hoping him home with a valuable find. They’ve been waiting on a good haul for so long that Beth’s face is starting to narrow, and Morgan had decided, against the rattle of his five o’clock alarm, that something would turn up today. He had willed it. Now, at only ten minutes to seven, the lowering sky is pressing the belief out of him.
“Not too late,” Beth had warned from her pillow this morning.
“It takes as long as it takes.”
“No. I’m not having you killing yourself up there.”
Morgan glances again towards the colliery. She doesn’t know how close he’s been. He chose his spot months back, when the sleet dropped like daggers and the cold cracked his hands and there was nothing, nothing at all, to thieve. He had decided he’d like to go where his grandfather went; share a cleft open grave with the old man. Better to stare at the sky for eternity than the inside of a box.
The clouds hurl themselves over Morgan finally and a fresh cold travels the length of his spine. He stiffens against it and pushes out his chest. An early May morning on the mountain isn’t going to cow him. He is a soldier… Was. Was.
Mogs they’d called him then. His wife still does. And Morgan ‘Mogs’ Lewis still congratulates himself on finding a woman who, instead of whining for her ‘darling’ or her ‘love’, shouts for ‘Mogs’ or her ‘man’ when something has made her laugh. Beth has never yet called to him in need. Capability is cut into the breadth of her shoulders, the swell of her hips. They said she was even as stone in battle. Mogs hadn’t witnessed it – he’d been posted elsewhere – but he can imagine how stilling the calm line of her mouth, the smooth way she moves, the sturdiness of her body, must have been in the chaos. On rough nights he lies awake and, in the muted dark of their bedroom, fights to shove out the gunshots which have made a sieve of his brain. He hears them, though, in the flapping of owls’ wings outside the window; in the attack of rain on the glass; in the steel bang of the postman swinging his gate shut; in the rattle of car tyres down his pot-holed street; in the sudden bark of a dog. He hears them. And Beth, he knows, does not.
He bends again to his task and begins, with gloved hands, to shuffle through the mounds of waste. Having picked the edges clean for weeks, he has waded into the middle of the tip today, twisting his ankles and knees as crushed cans and ripped mattresses and snapped table legs and smashed lamps shifted beneath him. He has secured himself now against an old wardrobe someone took an axe to before abandoning it here. Morgan is careful to avoid the shard of wood jutting from its door, though he’s not sure why. He doesn’t feel that kind of hurt any more.
He lifts a cracked photo frame, tosses it aside, and listens for the shattering of glass. It does not sound. Even in this act of destruction, Morgan has managed to fail. He plucks a length of rope from beneath a bicycle frame and hauls it out like a fisherman, hand over hand. It is attached to nothing. He works faster, picking and pulling and throwing, sweating and heaving and choking, and all he is doing is moving junk from one place to another. There is no treasure here.
The Tip, as it has come to be known, glares down towards the town like some ugly god, growing fatter year on year. It is an unofficial dumping ground, where disgruntled people shift what the bin-men refuse to take, and sad people ease needles into their veins, and teenagers stand about and neck lager and test how far their groping will get them. Morgan had discovered it when, unable to sleep one pale Sunday pre-dawn, he’d run the dog up the mountain. He’d let Jazz lead the way, the white-haired musculature of her rear driving him further and faster than he’d intended. When she’d skirted the skip he’d stopped, breathless and grunting, to scrub the perspiration from his shaved head and had seen, not opportunity, but the scrawniest of chances. Surely there was something of worth here; something he could sell. They’d threatened to sign him off as ‘fit’ the week before. The PTSD, they said, was under control.
Beth had not told them what they needed to hear: about the hollow nights, the rasping nights, the bleak nights, the guttural nights, the throbbing nights, the burning nights when Morgan did not sleep. She knew he would not want her to. She chose, instead, to grow thinner with him as their savings leaked away. And every morning since, Morgan has risen at five and hiked up to the tip, to dig for the lives they were both so capable of fighting for just two years ago.
A child’s wooden trunk emerges next – empty. Then a bag of ancient, chipped ornaments. Then a handle-less shovel. Morgan flings them all away, scrabbling amongst broken jars and tins which slice through his already torn gloves to open his skin.
Rain arrives within the hour, heavy with summer lethargy. It drums odd tunes against the glass and plastic, the metal and wood. Morgan removes the new weight of his jacket and lets the water soak through his shirt. He is sticky, exhausted. He can’t remember now what he thought he might find of worth here, but his doubt is shushed slightly when he spots something white hidden amongst the scrap and, thinking of Jazz’s white bull terrier coat, reaches for it. Only a thin curved slice is visible. Removing a glove, Morgan puts his fingertips to it. It is smooth and dry to the touch despite the rain. He begins pushing away the debris around it, working methodically. It seems delicate, this find; breakable as eggshell. A faint crack is already noticeable in the clean dome.
Morgan crouches closer and fingers away some splinters of plastic. Dirt flakes under his nails. Soon, his excavations reveal the perimeter of a hole. He penetrates it with a little finger and works the mud free in misshapen clumps.
On duty, Morgan had been gung-ho: effective, but unpredictable. He’d joined up at twenty-two. What did they expect? Now, at thirty, he finds pleasure in this kind of action: in sitting and discovering the new piece by slow piece. He’d known today would yield something. He is keen already to return to Beth, show her his find, but he wants too to delay the finding of it. He wants to sit a while, caught between anticipation and revelation, and just enjoy the hope. It has been too long since he last knew hope.
Beth, though, never gave up on it. She couldn’t, she said. She was growing it.
When Morgan’s wedding finger locates another hole, he realises what he has found. He does not recoil, does not gag. He is a soldier. Instead, he leans in and brushes and brushes, snagging the skin from his fingertips, until it sits loose on the tip and watches him. Were the teeth intact, he thinks, it would be fixing him with a grin.
“Well,” he says to it. “Who are you?”
The silence makes him feel idiotic. He rubs his fists against his eyes. You’ve lost it, Mogs, talking to a skull. They’re going to lock you up this time. But the skull stares at him with an expression which says, No, they won’t, carry on. He rubs again at his eyes. He can smell filth, damp and sour, packed into the lines of his hands.
He looks into the brown cracks of his palms. He doesn’t have a hope in hell of keeping Beth; not now; not for long. She couldn’t possibly continue to love this man.
Standing, Mogs snatches up the skull and, balancing easily on one foot, drop-kicks it across the tip. He had played rugby at school. He has missed it, he realises. Perhaps he could find a team, play on weekends; perhaps it would focus him, the way Beth keeps telling him he needs to be focussed. The skull lands with a thin crack, perhaps seventy feet distant, and rolls lopsidedly away. Mogs moves after it, wanting to check if it has shattered, though he doesn’t think it will have – he’s seen what it takes to snap bone. He quickens his pace as the skull continues to roll. He does not want to lose sight of it amongst the rubbish. It might be important. He might just have solved a murder.
He decides he has not when, seconds later, he approaches the skull and glimpses nestled alongside it, a second flayed cranium. Unsettled now, Mogs lifts one in each hand and pitches them as far as he can. They clash mid-air and ricochet east and west, arcing through the ribboned grey rain like missiles trapped on a designated parabola. He is dealing with the already dead, and still Mogs cannot shake the killer from himself.
He opts to move east and begins stumbling after the newer skull. Having discarded it, he needs immediately to take a closer look. The rubbish, though, hinders his every step. He is wading, not running. He has trained his legs thick and strong, and yet he is being sucked downwards. It can’t be that muddy. The rain only trundled in this morning. And yet he is pushing through something thick, something gluey. He pounds forward, arms punching. He heaves his fifteen and a half stone over mounds of crap, but his progress is slow. Some feet away he spots the skull and lurches on, desperate now because he is sure he can see, nearby, a third stripped crown.
“Jesus,” he breathes. “Jesus.” Not because it is so peculiar to have found three skulls on the tip, but because he is nearly up to his waist in it now, the mud. It’s closing around his thighs, his groin. It’s grasping tight to his body. And he is sinking. He is sinking.
Mogs grabs for the corner of an old bedside table, seeking support, but he catches the drawer handle instead and rips it free. And it is only then, when he drops the useless item, that he looks down and understands that it is not mud pulling him down. It was never mud. It is the bodies.
He is drowning in stringy lumps of blasted flesh, some loose, some hanging from the bone; in heads dangling slackly from necks; in striped clean spinal columns; in gaping, liquid-leaking brains; in obliterated rib cages, and femurs, and ulnas, and digits; in exposed, still-beating hearts. And, strewn ubiquitously amongst the fresh-rotting body parts, skull after skull after skull.
All this time, he has been picking through a graveyard.
He thrusts his arms above his head, frantic at the thought of all that flesh, all that ruined flesh, touching his. He tilts his face to the sky and, as the rain hammers down, he roars for the only person who can help him.
The clouds answer with their own thunderous bellow.
“Beth!” Mogs cries. But the voice which finally says, “Yes, yes, Morgan,” is not hers. It belongs to a man. It is the ghost of one of those skulls, then, pleading for Mogs’ help, and he can’t, he can’t help. He tried. He starts thrashing wildly again, battering himself free. But every time he moves, his hand, his elbow, his leg, his knee, his shoulder makes contact with yet another skull, and he is neck-deep in them, and they are bubbling up over him and cascading away down the tip, and they are endless, and they have come for him, and they are endless. He sucks in the deepest of breaths, preparing to go under. He doesn’t want to die now. He doesn’t want to step off the colliery pit and settle in alongside his grandfather. Not when he is about to become a daddy.
“Morgan,” the voice keeps saying. “Morgan, listen to me.”
And it is not panicked, Mogs realises slowly. It is not pleading for help. It is calm. It is trying to calm him.
“Morgan. Listen. There’s nothing there. You’re safe. Look at me.”
Mogs swings his head left and right, left and right, trying to take control of his bucking eyes. He cannot find the voice. But finally, somewhere between the rising tip and the plunging sky, he glimpses a figure: a whole human figure.
“Can you see me?” it asks. “Can you see me now?”
Morgan nods. Yes. Though he can’t really. The man is only a silhouette, hooded, hunched in the dirty slant of the rain. He closes his eyes and concentrates on the voice.
“Come on, Morgan. Get yourself together. She needs you.”
“She…” Morgan repeats. And where minutes before all was exploded flesh, what he sees now is the soft, ripe push of a baby’s head as it touches the world for the first time. And the enveloped slide from the womb. And the mottled cling of vernix and blood. And there are screams of pain still but they are smoother, gentled by the wash of tearful hope. And he needs to be there to truly see it all.
“Is she at the hospital yet?” he asks, clamping his sight finally on Beth’s brother. They had been at school together, Morgan and Geraint. They have been friends for twenty years. Morgan is glad it is only Geraint who came, only Geraint who witnessed him losing his mind. He begins trudging across the tip towards his brother-in-law.
“There wasn’t time,” he calls. “She birthed at home.”
“No. Without –”
“Of course without pain relief,” Geraint grins. “Do you know my sister at all?”
Morgan is not able to smile back at him. Not yet. Not until he has seen Beth. Not until he has seen the baby.
“What did we have?” he asks.
“I’m not telling you that,” Geraint answers. “Wait and see for yourself.”
Morgan nods. Geraint is right. He does not want to learn if he has a son or a daughter up here, with the stench of the tip stuck in his nose, and the grime of the tip clinging to his hands, and the haunting of the tip just fading from his mind. He opens a palm to Geraint and they shake. Then, turning their backs to the sprawling scrapheap, they begin the walk down the mountain towards home, their heads lowered against the jabbing rain, their shoulders shrugging off the sweeping cold, their feet squelching in unison through the swamped grass. Below, the town is curled tight into the crook of the valley, and Morgan thinks it looks warm.
(Image: “Study of a man’s right hand” by Agnozo Bronzino, 1503-72)