The Road May Rise To Meet You, But The World Will Roll Against You
We’re pacing through the half-arsed dark, and though he keeps lagging behind, it’s obvious who has the sprightlier step. Which is impressive, considering the state he was in the last time I saw him.
“Streets are quiet, aren’t they?” He says, and it’s not that odd an observation to make. On any normal day, sure, the only people awake would be farmers, posties and milkmen, just getting round to their breakfast. But this wasn’t a normal day. When he’d turned up in my kitchen an hour earlier, the sounds of screams and outrage and delight were echoing through the night, from every house within earshot, resonating through the peculiar mist that still stuck to the ground at our feet.
Now, though, there are no signs of life, whatever that means. Not as far as we can tell. Not over the roaring in our ears and the sound of our bodies moving as we stride with purpose.
I don’t want to stop moving. I know that if I do, and I leave a few moments for the blood to stop burring in my ears, I’ll probably be able to hear activity within the houses. The sound of emotional chatter. The noise of impossible reunion.
Or else the blood won’t stop, and the chaotic roar will take me where I’m obviously already heading, to the looney bin.
I tell him to keep it down, and keep walking.
“Where are we going, anyway?” he says, but doesn’t seem that interested in teasing an answer out of me. The haunted streets hold a fascination for him, and he’s full of energy, trying to take it all in, a sheen of eager sweat on his forehead.
I had hustled Ray out of the house as quickly as I could, before I’d even registered the oddness of him being there. Instinct had told me to get him away from Tanya and the baby, I think, though I didn’t think he would be a danger to them. I think I just knew that if we woke her up, and she came downstairs, I’d have to explain Ray’s presence to her, and I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t for a little while longer.
Not that there was much fear of Tanya waking up. Since Jude’s birth a couple of months ago, she’s usually exhausted by ten, asleep on the couch, and once I rouse her from there and drag her up to bed, she’ll be spark out till seven or eight the next morning.
My sleep patterns are considerably more erratic. Jude has, quite miraculously, been sleeping through most of the night almost since we got her home, but I’m still not quite straight with the extra body in the house. I wake up at regular intervals, and have to go in and check on her.
I was lying awake, fruitlessly trying to grab a couple more hours before the alarm, when the sounds started up in the world outside our window. People squealing, and squawking, and yelling. I guessed that a house party had kicked out somewhere, and briefly checking that Tanya was still asleep, I rolled out of bed and went to get myself a snack.
Ray had been sitting at the kitchen table, still enough that I didn’t register him till I recognised him. I forgot all about food. I also found I’d forgotten – or perhaps my life experience had failed to train me in the first place – how to deal with finding someone you haven’t seen in nearly eighteen years in your kitchen at four in the morning.
After a few exclamations and choice words exchanged, I decided we were going for a walk. I left him on his own in there for a matter of moments while I as quickly and quietly as possible found myself some clothes, and bustled him out.
“You not going to talk to me, then?” He asks.
“In a minute.” I reply, the words forming in puffs in the cold, misting air. I’m feeling cold everywhere except on my cheeks, which are flushed red, but that film of sweat seems to cover him, now, forming in patches through his clothes. “I need to think.”
“Jesus, okay. Sorry I asked.” He says, thrusting his hands in his pockets, outpacing me in a moment. “Do you at least have your Walkman on you?”
I check my pockets, and find my mp3 player, which I hand to him, untangling the earphones without breaking pace.
He holds it, examining it as we walk. He turns to me.
“What’s this?” He says.
“Oh, sorry.” I say, and take it back for a second. “Hang on. I’ve got a playlist that’ll be… Hm. I’ve been putting together for Jude.”
“Playlist?” He asks, but he knows what to do with the earphones, as I set up the particular running order for him. I plug him in, and hand the player back.
He almost immediately nods his head in appreciation.
“Beasties… nice!” He says.
“Yeah. It’s so she’ll know what her dad listened to growing up. That’s the nineties you’re listening to.”
“Oh, right.” He plays with the player, and works it out pretty quick.
We walk in silence again.
He bobs his head until he hits the Sleeper track on there.
“Who’s this?” he says, showing me the display.
“Oh, yeah… they’re alright. Not together any more, though. She was a bit hot.”
“Yeah.” I say, and it’s starting to sink in. It’s Ray.
The Eels are a revelation. He doesn’t know what the fuck is going on with Eminem, but he’s almost certain he’s heard The Streets before, until I tell him he can’t have. Regina Spektor’s voice makes him wistful, and The Bloodhound Gang make him laugh, and Los Campesinos! confuse him for a second, but he flicks the track back to listen to them again once the track finishes.
He reacts to the song from the South Park movie the same way Tanya did – at first, stunned silence, and then an infectious giggle.
It’s weird. There’s a misting of liquid where his skin is visible, a halo around his face and his hands. Millions of little droplets of water, vibrating in the air.
I walk in silence next to him, the tiny trebly hiss of music coming from the tiny buds in his ears telling me which song he’s hearing.
We get to where we’re going well before dawn. I hesitate at the gate.
“Ha!” He says, coiling the earphone lead around his hand. He hands the mp3 player and the lead back to me. “I thought we might be coming here.”
It takes a few minutes to find what I’m looking for. The lampposts lining the lanes have been left on all night, every night, since a spate of quite nasty assaults took place here a couple of years ago, but it’s still quite hard to read the inscriptions on the stones. It’s been over a dozen years since either of us had been here, anyway, so we’re not sure where to look.
But eventually I do find the grave, and we both stand over it. For a few moments, we’re silent.
“Hm. This is a bit weird.”
“Yeah.” I say.
“I’ve never actually seen this, you know?”
“No?” I ask, genuinely curious.
“Mm. Had other things on my mind, and it seemed a bit… morbid, you know?”
“I suppose so.” I say, but I’ve formed a few questions, now, and I feel the need to ask them. I can’t decide which one to start with, so I ask the one that seems to get to the crux of a few of them at once. “Ray, what the fuck is going on?”
He ponders for a second before answering.
“Well, I don’t know, really. There were a few years of not a lot going on. Just lots of nothing much. A lot of people in a room, talking nowt. And then suddenly I’m here, all pulled together and buzzing around.”
“But… you’re dead, dude.”
“Well, yeah.” He rubs his arm nervously, a mannerism I remember. His arm seems to fall apart wetly under his fingernails, but when he stops it moves for a second, and then it’s as if nothing had happened again.
“So, why visit me? I haven’t…” I bite back my first pass at that sentence, and say “… seen you in nearly twenty years, and don’t your family still live in town? Didn’t you want to visit them?”
I hadn’t thought of Ray since a few months after he died. He had been part of a large extended social group that I stumbled into when I was studying. I was a transplant to the town, here for the University, but most of them were natives, and had known each other for years.
The glue of that particular group had been music and drugs. Nothing too hard – indie pop, sample-heavy, and rave, happy and hyper – and the drugs were picked to match. I took a lot of acid with those guys.
Ray and I had similar neurosis, and similar senses of humour, and when the pack was tripping, we’d find ourselves in synch pretty well. We’d get the same daft notions. One night, for example, Ray remembered that I was borrowing a professional camera, with seperate flash and everything, from Uni, and we decided that we would sit in a dark room, with my album covers and the flash, and see if we could burn classic images onto our retinas.
Fond memories. But altogether I was probably only part of the group-proper for a couple of years before it started to dissipate. People got jobs, or went on their own way to study in other towns. You’d see them in pubs or clubs every now and then, down through the years, and it’d be nice, but we moved on, because people do.
Ray had stayed, but I hadn’t seen him for around three or four months before I heard that he had died. Some random accident – a guy driving his kids to school had got distracted somehow, and slid off the road onto the verge – an incident that passed without even the most minor of injuries to the occupants of the car, and would have gone forgotten in a couple of hours, if they hadn’t hit Ray. The verge was his quickest route from home to work, and it was just dumb luck that he was killed walking it.
It had been an incredibly sad piece of news for everybody to hear, but more, it was an imposition on the expected natural order of things – one expects for loved ones to get ill, get old, or die, and expects it to hurt, but people you just know – that you don’t see for ages and then you do – they become more like landmarks in your physical world than individuals. You don’t know them that well any more, but you know which bars they’ll be propping up, or which shops you’ll bump into them in. When they go, it’s surreal. You know you’ll miss them, even though you haven’t till then.
Loads of faces cycled back into the town from across the country for the funeral, and it was good to see them. But it also served as another reminder that as life went on, we would have less and less in common. Even back then, a few new partners and spouses were left at home, or people had to leave early to make it to important meetings at work the next day “back home”.
Ray never left that scene, but the rest of us carried on, and found life coming at us in waves, as sure as Brit Pop gave way to Shit Pop gave way to whatever came next, and the only person that stayed persistent in a person’s life turned out to be themselves, aside from the rare person they managed to trap in a close enough trajectory to their own.
Ray doesn’t answer straight away. He looks up at the moon, and then off to one side – it takes me a few seconds to realise that he’s looking off out of the cemetery.
“Let’s walk.” He says, and starts off in the direction of elsewhere.
As we walk, and I’m struggling by this point to keep up, Ray is talking.
“Do you remember the first time we came here?” He says, while we’re still in the cemetery.
“Sure.” I say. “The night of Sam’s house party, yeah?”
“Yeah. That was the first time I met you, you know.”
“Was it?” I say, an edge that I’m not proud of to my voice.
“Don’t worry… this isn’t some weird unrequited love from beyond the grave thing.” He laughs. “It’s just a coincidence that it was that night.”
“Oh, right. So, yeah, we were all a bit drunk, and a couple of us were tripping, and… there were a few of us, yeah.”
“Nearly a dozen. None of the girls were out, ‘cos they were knackered and it was freezing, but we decided that we were going to go on an adventure.”
“We were… what were we doing? You had a dictaphone, and…”
The thing about acid is, it’s a clarifying drug, and you shouldn’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. At least, as weird as things might get, I always found that I’d retain clarity throughout. Every now and then, Tanya and I will have a couple of glasses of wine each with dinner, and I’d be hard pressed to give you many details of those nights now. But Ray invokes that night, and suddenly I’m back in that moment, nearly two decades before, remembering sensations and sounds, and what the hell we were doing there in the first place.
“…That dictaphone had been doing the rounds all night. One of the girls was doing a tape for Big Yellow Matty, because he was stationed out in Cyprus or somewhere. Someone decided they wanted to see the dawn, and then suddenly there were a dozen of us, and you decided that we should record the dawn for Matty.”
“Which in retrospect sounds a bit fucking stupid.” Says Ray.
“Mm.” I say.
“Get a shift on, then, mate.” He says.
We’re heading for the highest point within walking distance, which happens to be a field on the western edge of town. Twenty odd years ago, we were cutting it fine, and now we’re cutting it fine again. We walk in silence for a while, concentrating on speed. We’re using shortcuts that I haven’t used since that night, but Ray remembers them all. We stomp through a part of the town centre that I’m not convinced we’re allowed to go through, and we beat the pavement in as near as dammit a straight line toward the sun.
The sky is getting lighter when we hit the edge of concrete at the town’s boundaries, and it’s obvious that we’re going to make it, just.
The field is on a hill. Not much more than a mound, really, but I remember clearly the impression that it wasn’t a hill but the curve of the earth that we were traversing. And today, it feels the same. We walk across the field, dodging cowshit as we go, and as the ground slopes underneath us, it feels as if we aren’t moving at all. We’re walking on the spot, the planet moving under us as we go, and as the incline grows, the illusion deepens, and the world isn’t moving under us. We’re pushing it round.
And when we hit the highest point, and stop, it’s like being in a car and hitting the brakes – it feels like the world is taking longer to slow down than we did, and I rock on my heels. I glance over at Ray, who grins back, before looking back at the horizon. A slice of the sun makes it’s appearance, and I remember that the last time, it felt almost audible – like there was a choral ringing in my ears.
That doesn’t happen this time, but it’s exciting all the same. But sunrise is always faster than you think it’ll be, isn’t it? As we stand and watch, it goes from a slither to a lozenge to an egg yolk, and then it bubbles up, nuzzling up for one last few seconds of comfort against the solid black line of the horizon, before bursting upward, finally a perfect circle.
I look back down the hill. The town swings and sweeps around behind us, parts of it still in shadow, and all still wreathed in mist.
“Something major is happening, and I don’t really know what comes next.” He says. “But I figured my parents will probably still be there in a bit, and the one thing I realised I really wanted to do when I got back was this. And it wouldn’t have been quite the same on my own.”
I look across at him. In direct sunlight, the moisture at his skin is calmer than it was by moonlight, and I consider for the first time that he had held the mp3 player, and worn the earphones, and I don’t know what might be left of a man who’d been in the ground for such a long time, and what they might be made of now. Very thin tendrils of steam are coming off his cheeks, coiling up only to fall back to his head moments later.
“Oh.” I say, which seems pretty inadequate on the face of it.
“There haven’t been many sunrises, is the thing.” He says, and I nod, because to be honest I can relate. The dead don’t have the time, and the living don’t find it.
We stand and watch the sun, and wait for the next thing to happen.
This is a repost of a piece that was originally posted back in October 2009. It was originally presented here, and you can see other writing from the same week here. We’ll be sharing Elephant Memories with you for the next few weeks, while we break for Christmas.
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