Read by Tony Bell
Alone and not alone. Is partly what it’s like. You’re grateful for solitude and yet you dread it. Like today, my wife went out, took the kids. Took them somewhere. To the park, I think she said, or it could have been the pictures. Sometimes I find it hard to follow. Well, that’s not new, she’d probably say.
I was alone, but alert straight away. I have to watch for it, you see, this thing that stalks the ramparts. I am my own Vallon man, searching the ground, the air, for the thing that could ambush me, floor me, scatter me, at any time.
‘A phantom condition,’ I heard that said the other day. And there was this headline in the paper: ‘Government Expert Denies Post-Traumatic Stress Crisis in Veterans.’ That said it all, right there. Acknowledged and dismissed in the same breath. Shifting realities. Which, in fact, is the nature of the thing itself.
The psych says I’m on the road to recovery. I asked him where I could find Recovery on the map. Is it anywhere between Bull and Shit?, I wanted to ask. Just give me the co-ordinates and I’ll be right there. I don’t think he has any idea. I’ve tried to tell him, but I can’t.
If anything, it’s a kind of double-vision. People talk about panic, about feeling sick and dizzy at the same time, but there’s this other thing that happens, in quick little gasps through your body. It hardly seems worth mentioning, because you know the people around you won’t have seen it, felt it, even though it’s there, real as the faintest shudder of an earthquake, or the blurring of a lens. When it happens, I feel as though I have a sense of the actual atoms in a solid object. And I can see them shift slightly, so that they rearrange themselves into a different, more vicious thing.
To counteract it, I search the internet. I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for, for – you’ll think this sounds daft – but I’m looking for joyful things. For cats that dance and dogs that sing, and parrots that ride skateboards. And that’s how I discover this video of bears.
All you see, at the start of it, is a big industrial rubbish bin at the edge of a pine wood. And there’s a large bear pacing around it. Around and around. Distressed? Threatening? Hungry? You can’t tell. Suddenly, the bear runs off, and out from the edge of the shot, a pick-up truck arrives. A guy in the back throws a ladder into the bin. I guess they don’t need that old thing any more, you think. But the camera stays on the bin, with the ladder poking out. This is pretty dull, you decide, and then you suspect that something else might happen, ‘cos the camera’s still recording. And then up out of the bin pops a head – the head of a bear cub. And the cub climbs up out of that refuse bin, and another one follows, and then another. Then the big bear comes back – it’s the mother – and they all run off into the wood. You have to smile. That’s a great story. I’ve played it over a few times, maybe more than a few.
And so I’m here, at home, waiting for the all-clear. Rather, I’m waiting to be all clear. I help out around the house when I can. And today seemed a good day to hang out some washing. So I carried the basket out to the washing line, shook out the clothes, and the linen, got started. Then I dropped the bloody peg bag. Only that. But the bag plops open and the pegs scatter with a crackle and out of the corner of my eye I see the shed – the ordinary, oblong shed with a window and a pent roof and a coating of creosote – I see the shed shift, rearrange itself into a low building with a flat roof and a black gap in the wall. Shapes are moving in the gap and I can feel, with absolute certainty, the potential for disintegration held tight within those walls. This will pass, I tell myself, so I breathe, in and out. But this is worse than usual. Come on! I say. Once more unto the breach. All those clichés. Breathe, breathe. Think of the bears, think of the cubs. And I start to wonder, who would have filmed that thing? Who knew they were there? Who thought of the ladder? And then it comes to me, clear as crystal. That was us, in Afghan. We threw the ladder in. We helped them, didn’t we? Territorials, that’s what we do, we’re trained for this, Back-up and Stabilisation. Hurrah for Harry, England, and Saint George! Isn’t that how it goes?
And in my mind, I follow the road in the video, but the road in the video doesn’t lead into pine woods. It stretches out into a dusty track with reeds on either side. Then nearby, a couple of gardens away, a lawnmower kicks into action and there's the rumble of wheels on stones and there’s dust in my eyes and my helmet is buzzing and a bird flaps up out of the reeds. Something moves beyond the mud walls of the compound, or rather the sh ... the shed, the shed with the ladder in it. Our ladder, to save the bears. And there are cubs running towards me and calling my name and I must stop them. Before they step on those things on the ground. Before they are blown to pieces. And I scream at them, the cubs, the children. My children. To save them. Stay there, I say. Don't. Don't come any closer. Don't even think about it. Don't fucking touch me!
And my kids stop in their tracks, looking down at this man sprawled on the ground amongst the clothes pegs. And they are as white as the sheets flapping on the line.
They stare and stare at me, as if they have never seen me before, as if they are looking at a ghost.
© Caroline Greene, 2014
Caroline Greene worked for many years as a non-fiction editor and writer before giving it up for the theatre and becoming a fundraiser at Shakespeare’s Globe. Her writing has appeared in the Fish anthology and in Flash magazine. This is her first story for Liars’ League.
Tony Bell:Evening Standard Award nominee for A Man for All Seasons, he has performed all over the world with award-winning all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, playing Bottom, Feste, Autolycus and Tranio. TV includes Coronation Street, Holby City, Midsomer Murders, EastEnders and The Bill. He is also a radio and voiceover artist.