The twelfth instalment of our Story | Retold series is a new interpretation of Dilys Rowe’s ‘A View Across the Valley’.
Fewer, fewer visit her page now. On her profile they can catch at snippets of her still, like fallen petals: the mole at the nape of her neck, her bitten fingernails. Friends occasionally still scroll between the unfaded memories and click through the co-ordinates that made her up: her last birthday and its small, bought cake stuck with the year before’s burnt-down candles, or that uncharacteristic sponsored walk she did on the long tarmac road around the Orme in familiar August rain, making twenty-five quid for the ward where her mother worked, or how she dipped apples like a real girl on bonfire night, confusion misfiring in her eyes in the photo. The friends who still come here, to the unaged profile, can press play on a clip to see her dye her blond hair electric pink with the help of two friends in a tangerine bathroom, and see that same head of neon waves spinning and spinning on the Waltzers at the fair until she falls apart in pixels, laughing. The kids write their fear all over her. Can’t believe you’re gone, girl. What a waste. Still can’t believe it, each posting now a small memorial.
Fewer, fewer clicks. Sometimes the timeline reminds her friends that it’s been one, two, now three years. Sometimes they share its memories, because the profile still longs for how she stroked that soft part behind her right ear when she considered something, how her words tasted of silt, how waking in the L shaped room each day was to her like shedding an old skin, preserving only yesterday’s little cuts which glimmered like bracelets up her soft forearms. At the time of the incident, between the commiserations and memories, someone even posted a link to an article about the coroner’s report, and before it was taken down people commented on the doubt between the words accidental and death, or said how the coroner, a flimsy man, fumbling at his papers, had seemed unable to find the right bit of protocol to apply to the case, as had happened with the other, similar cases, all girls also, all also lingering unextinguished on the web. It was unclear who was to blame, and without blame the story was unsatisfactory, broken. But these questions were soon hidden and instead left to hang dimly in the background of the site, and in the air of the real village too. Doubts still mutter through backyards, and threads of old questions whisper out across the unrippling stubble of the common, which stretches away away away from her bedroom window – where the computer sits, still.
She’d arrived home from youth-club with the sounds of the kids still trailing from her like shoelaces, and gone straight up to the computer and the game, closing the door behind her.
As she switched it on, pressing the pad of her finger against the fingerprint-shaped button which sprung with blue light, she glanced briefly down at the yards of the houses on her street, steepling away like the squares of a gameboard, lit now by orange streetlamps. A warmer household glow shone from each downstairs window into each small yard, and these lights battled against the darkness which swallowed at the edges of the village. On her street there were seventeen other families crowded into their terraced rooms, spearing peas, smudging butter onto their pale potatoes, switching appliances on and off, on and off and on, shouting at each other and then turning down the volume. There wasn’t a button to turn off love, so they would keep making each other ache inside the houses.
Last week she had looked up and seen, in the upstairs window of the house next door, under a bare bulb, the neighbours’ kiss. The wet kiss lacked fluency, their unpractised arms around each other’s wide bellies, tongues clumsy and famished. She was glad to see the kiss though; when the neighbours touched it was amateur but also fresh and honest, like an open window. She was reminded by the kiss that there were places to escape to. And outside the village, on the common, there was a wind that blew and blew. Enough to lift your body into the electric sky. Enough to make you think your body might sing again, with its own pleasure.
In youthclub this evening, she’d not been able to listen to the other girls, as they talked and laughed like grey geese. Instead, she’d wondered if the scent she caught, sweet and honeyed, was real, and whether it came from the common outside, or rose from her own body – in which case was she made of daffodils and daisies, or orchids? The boys had become frantic for her again, pushing and shoving her, trying to sit beside her and whispering did-she-want-to’s. But because of what had happened last week, she’d turned away from them tonight, sat by herself listening to her ipod, feeling snatched at, and also hungry in her own way. The girls watched her and muttered, also catching at parts of her body with their jealous eyes. Through the beat and blast of the song she listened to, the voices of the others rose and clattered around her. She felt her skin blurring slowly, and their words turning into long, slow ribbons of sound which clung and hung from her. Later the girls would say that she’d seemed alright that night. She’d seemed alright.
On the way home from youth-club, hoping for some kind of leftover sanctuary, she’d called in at her brother’s workshop. But he was working late, making little circuit boards. Although he gave her goggles so she could watch as he soldered the tiny parts together, like fixing up a little body with its nerve endings and tiny bones, the light from the soldering gun stayed glued to the backs of her eyelids afterward, making long, churning shapes like the shapes thrown by the long necked swan in her dreams as it reached from its dark water and pressed toward her, ravenous. She walked home through the grey streets trailed by these threats of light.
There would be several witnesses who remembered how, on her way home that night through the darkening village, she bought chips and ate them, scuffing her heels through the estate, and then turning out onto the common.
She was one of the few kids who walked there at dusk, or even during the day, since the countryside was an unknowable place to them all, tenuous and unsteady. And tonight she was unsure which landscape she was walking through – just the common, a field bald of flowers, grass ready to be grazed? Or the lush sunshined meadow of the game? Or perhaps the topography of her own dreams, where meadows and flowers seemed urgent and exquisitely burning? Her body was overcharged with these thoughts, and, as she rounded the path between the gorse, perhaps she saw a flash of white dart into the bushes ahead of her, and then, as her feet brushed through the spiked grass of the common, perhaps a hare sprang again across the way a few metres ahead in the open grassland? But it was gone a moment later, like some part of herself she couldn’t quite grasp, and tonight she’d arrived home safely, and up to her room and the computer.
At the computer (just an ordinary desktop: monitor, keyboard, mouse) she clicked through to find the place in the game again.
She never played the game itself, which took place in a village made of buildings set in terraces that loaded slowly onto the screen, one wall, one parameter, one backyard at a time. All the other players went there, to the geometric village, all the kids in their bedrooms chasing after points with their robotic onscreen bodies.
The place she went to – walking with the cursors up cursor, right cursor, up again – was just the incidental backdrop to the game, a hillside with trees and meadows where you could walk back and forth and on and on. This backdrop was meant to be just filler, an irrelevant, pleasing context, and so it lacked detail compared to the game proper, where the buildings had definition and intent and where enemies teemed eventfully. But she liked to go there alone, to the freshening, empty spaces of the game, turn off chat functions, walk through the endlessly cycling meadows, and through the hills which bent back around each other again and again on the screen like an expansive hall of mirrors.
It was a wordless landscape that made her dizzy. She’d eventually found a set of keystrokes which allowed her to sit down. As she sat, she thought she saw the flit of something white again, a hare urgent with life, or just a glitch in the programming. But the meadow softened, flat and empty, and she exhaled. There, between the gorgeous, livid wildflowers and under their blinding sun, she sat unclicking momentarily, and, closing her eyes in the bedroom, let the light from the screen percolate beneath her closed eyelids. She hung her head so that her hair, live-wired by pink dye, shone indigo in the blueish light.
Lately, the light had grown more searching. It pressed hot and cold through her hair, through the scarlet of her inner eyelids, and into her. She sat, porous and shining. The light was like that boy’s hands, how they’d trespassed their fiddling way under her clothes by the wall last week at youth club. She hadn’t known how to push him off. His hands were still close to her skin every day. When she woke each morning, they were there, a dry, hot imprint on her belly, her thin thighs, and other places. Her body was turning into a collection of highlighted prints, stencilled brightly with feelings, an array of spot-lit parts that had been touched and seen.
The pressure in her body thrummed. Each week she cut little vents in the skin of her forearms, like lifting a saucepan lid slightly to let off the steam. But when she faced the computer, she could feel its light distending as it filtered between her pores, and her skin, like the loosely glued shards of a vase, might be blown apart again as this new charge from the computer swelled painfully in her own slight body.
A change in the tenor of the screen’s glow made her open her eyes, and she felt, with ice certainty, the presence of another player. She turned around, full circle right cursor, right, right.
In the first full circle there was no one, just the meadow, its flowers a blur as she span, but she felt him there, and so she turned again.
This time he didn’t hide. The man, whose avatar’s face was brilliantly white, stood, and waited to be seen. In the L shaped room she was static. And he didn’t move either, tall, entirely present beside her, letting off a silvery smell, like a new coin. Their two bodies hovered, side by side. A second, two seconds. Her finger balanced above the cursors.
She started to walk quickly back toward the village, but he paced beside her with his own animated stride. For each of her steps, he seemed to jolt forward, and only need one. He began to ask her in text, which she’d forgotten to disable, did she want to see something? Do you want to see, Leda? Do you want to see? She turned off chat quickly, but his words hung on the monitor for several moments. She could feel his breath moving strands of her hair across her cheek. She selected the running icon and pressed the cursors faster than texting, knowing somewhere in the base of her spine that what he’d wanted to show her was caught up in that brightness which allowed no resistance. She felt a coldness at her ribs when he copied her stride again and shadowed her in his brilliant, quick way, running beside her as she followed the familiar route into the village where the buildings were still loading greyly, still appearing stone by stone, segment by detailed segment. She was expert, diving through the buildings and frantically pressing the cursors. She knew the game like her own backyard. Her breaths came short and fast into the still air of the bedroom.
Back out on the other side of the village, she passed through the dense, smearing trees on the outskirts, like a spirit, and into another meadow, blemished with yellow flowers. When she turned around to see if he’d followed, she was alone.
It was just her now. Despite the man, she didn’t want to leave the game, where she’d come, as a diver comes to the surface for air, in search of a place to feel possible – a place where her body might be viable again, and have peripheries, a clear outline. But several times when she was about to sit down, to consider the long, long-repeating view, she’d seen a flash of hot white spring between the cool green trees, or spied a white mark shift among the blurr of flowers in the meadow. The white shape seemed to her to be everywhere, churning behind the interface of the game, so she switched the whole thing off, extinguished the monitor with a wrenching feeling.
She sat in the room numbly. Now she didn’t know if the man had been there at all, in any kind of real way. It had become difficult to decipher anything lately. She dreamt so often of the hillside meadow of the game. And in her dreams hadn’t she seen a white, white swan, kicking its neck toward her too? Or was it a hare who passed through her body like some kind of unthinkable, erasing thing, leaving her to wake shuddering in its aftershocks? Sitting there in the room where she played the game, and where she also slept and dreamt, she felt there was no distinction between the hare, the swan from her dreams and the man, and she felt she had lost her own edges completely, skin dissipating just as a moth-eaten frock might disintegrate at the first unwelcome touch.
That night she lay, in the small hours, feeling for the bracelet scars on her forearms in case she’d left her emptied body behind in the meadow of the game or in her dream or outside her window, in whichever of the views was really hers. Something was missing that used to bind her together, throat to chest, hips to thighs, and feet to the real ground.
Later, she heard her brother kick his way up the stairs and humph into his room, and later still “Night, love,” called her mother’s voice, bringing her back to the room. Her mum had just got back from a long shift. She didn’t come up, or put her head around the door tonight.
“Night.” Her own voice was a black print against the light which still lingered oddly in the room. She didn’t move for hours, shackled by her scars to that brightness.
Somehow it’s dawn. She’s in bed and waking. Her L shaped room loads slowly in the slow light.
The room, as it appears, wall by wall, surface by detailed surface, seems unfamiliar. It’s been a long time since she’s looked at the walls properly. The posters, of tidy faced young men from films she once liked, don’t seem to belong to her. The powder-blue colour of the walls, which she and her mum painted on with rollers in a time when she still felt sheltered by her mother’s soft, present body, is now an artificial, inaccurate colour.
The door to the room isn’t thick enough to contain her, keep her safe, and her mother knows this because she calls again into the morning.
“You alright up there, love? Everything ok?”
“Yes, Mum,” she says loudly to the close walls.
Don’t believe me, don’t believe me.
But her mum falls silent, and doesn’t come up the stairs with her slippered feet, to knock, to ask again, to take her in her arms and mend her skin so she comes back into focus. Crisp. Clean. A child with neat, unperforated edges.
She lies motionless, afraid to move a muscle in case some part of her becomes detached. She waits until she hears her mum shout up, as she does each morning, at a regular, reliable, just about dawn time.
“Off to work, love. Packed-lunch in the fridge.” Solid and kind and tired.
The door closes and shakes at the house and at her body as she stands. The soles of her feet feel for the ground, and find it, the real ground with its materials, its wooden floors, concrete foundations and then the deep earth she homes for. She takes a breath. Another. Then she turns, left cursor, left again, and walks, spirit-like, straight through the wood of her bedroom door past her brother’s room where he lies, absent and virtual, and down the slowly loading stairs, her toes barely touching the carpeted steps, then over the linoleum kitchen floor which is appearing one pretend tile after another. The backdoor hasn’t loaded yet, so she walks through the open space, out into the yard.
She leaves the damp-blackened terraced house behind, and her packed-lunch forgotten. The cheese sandwich, granny smith apple and little chocolate square sit in the cold fridge behind her like the words of a true but abandoned story as she steps on through the pools of orange made by the undimmed streetlights. At the end of the road she makes a turn for the public footpath that leads out onto the common, which glooms with slow dawn. Her footprints make hieroglyphics behind her, ready to be deciphered by the forensic team, who’ll scratch their heads at them, illiterately.
On the common she listens to the sounds of the village fade, loud sounds of families fighting and jeering, toddlers raging, or throttling cars, and then the quieter, sibilant sounds beyond hearing, of lovers kissing, families crunching their breakfasts, the rustle of money, the shifting of weight, all these fade into the blank sky above the common. The sun begins to press further up, pulling the horizon tighter. She sees it then. That glitch in the programming again, at first dancing white at the edge of the common, and then bounding, unrestricted toward her.
With a passive, almost relieved feeling, she makes the key-strokes for sit down. Sits down. The grass is damp and chill on her legs and ankles. The dew air is cool at the nape of her neck. She sits, quiet in the spreading light, waiting, and watches with interest as the spark of the hare fidgets inevitably across the field toward her, white faced and urgent. She is still, still, caught by the brilliance of it as it slows tautly, slows, slows, just as a snake lingers and tightens before its final play.
As she watches, the meadow begins to singe from the edges with hot white light, the parameters of the common gathering toward her. She feels breath again, filtering through her livid hair and onto the nape of her neck, and yet there’s no instinct to reach for any kind of switch, to turn off the breath, the bright light, the common with its terrible wildness.
Instead, as if by some distant mouse-click, she lies down peaceably. Sacrificial and vacant, she shudders, her clothes oxygenating around her as the light, a rearing swan, breaks the boundary where skin had been and, one spot-lit part at a time, she begins to dissipate into pieces and pieces of a girl, pixelating in tiny white petals.