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Alex is leaning forward on one elbow, Kindle held like a hand of cards close to the chest, looking concerned. Looking at you with concerned eyes: but for a moment Alex’s eyes are only globes of protein and water, glittering without meaning like stones in a river. Half-buried white stones with patches of greyish-blue.

‘You alright?’

You had just been jerked awake, arms and legs suddenly twitching in unison as some random firing of neurons dragged you from sleep. That was all. It happened often enough. But you had the feeling – you have the feeling, though it is fading fast – that you had stepped back from an abyss. Or been pulled back by an unseen hand from an abyss that you were powerless to stop yourself from stepping into.

‘I’m fine,’ you say. ‘Just jerked awake.’

A hand squeezes your arm – more protein and water, warm and only a little alien now, as meaning flows back into a world that had been drained of it when you awoke.

Alex rolls over and goes on reading, and you close your eyes, listening to the reassuring click of pages turning. You will turn over yourself in a minute – you don’t like to sleep on your back, and if you do, Alex will usually prod you awake, saying that you are snoring. Falling asleep is a strange thing. You are there, and then you aren’t. You do this every night; but you can never remember exactly what you’ve done. What do you do? Is there a you to do anything? A minute passes as you repeat these thoughts to yourself until they no longer make sense.


The world is meaningful again. Alex is Alex. You can hear sounds full of meaning: the hum of the refrigerator through the wall, the click click of the Kindle pages. It seems to you that the time between the clicks is getting longer.

‘What are you reading?’ you ask Alex.

‘Viking Shipbuilding, by –’ click, click, ‘E. Vandervelden.’

‘Is it at a good bit?’

‘Pretty good, I suppose,’ Alex says.

‘What’s happening?’

‘Well, this bit is about picking trees for the keel.’

You make a vaguely interested noise.

‘You see, the Vikings built their ships around a single central beam, the one that runs along the bottom, like the spine of the ship. The keel. In almost all of the ships that have been found, this single beam was made from a single tree. So it was very important that this tree be the best it could be. They used to take oak trees, mostly, and there were all sorts of rules of thumb: like, you would never take a tree standing on its own, because it would have grown up stronger on one side than another to resist the prevailing wind, even if it looked straight, but always one surrounded by lots of other trees.’

You relax, listening to the familiar sound of Alex’s voice, happy that the words have meaning without caring too much what that meaning is.

‘These people in Holland in the forties thought it would be good to make a replica Viking longship,’

‘As you do,’ you say.

‘As you do,’ Alex agrees. ‘But they were twentieth-century people, and didn’t bother with scouring the forest for the perfect oak tree, they just glued lots of boards together in the shape of a Viking keel. So their ship looked perfectly right, but when they took it out, as soon as the sea got a little rough the keel broke in half, and they were all drowned.’

‘That’s too bad,’ you say, and you say it lightly, but can imagine how horrible it would be. There you are, a bunch of cheery slightly nutty enthusiasts, but instead of being enthusiastic about restoring vintage cars, or arguing about Adûnaic verb roots on conlang forums, you are enthusiastic about building Viking longships. And your dream has finally come true, and you are sailing out onto the North Sea in your glorious recreation, feeling on top of the world; and then it falls to pieces in an instant, and the cold water is pressing on your chest remorselessly, and you hold your breath as long as you can, but you can’t. And you know you are going to die: not in forty years, not even in a month, but now, in the next minute.

You fill your lungs, a good deep breath, realising you have been holding your own breath in unconscious sympathy with the doomed Dutchmen.

‘So. We mustn’t assume that we know more than people who lived hundreds of years ago, just because we are modern and they were ancient; they did things the way they did for a reason. That’s the moral.’

‘I’m glad it had a moral,’ you tell Alex, trying to shake the too-vivid memory of drowning.

‘Good night,’ says Alex, and kisses you.

‘Good night,’ you say, kissing Alex back. ‘I love you.’

‘I love you too,’ Alex says.

You force yourself to take deep breaths. Count to eight as you breathe in; hold your breath for a count of eight; count to eight breathing out. Forget the drowning. Forget the nagging sense of unreality that swells up when the dark water withdraws. The feeling that this life is all a façade, a painted mask over whatever reality really is, a meaningless dance of atoms that is not really without meaning, but only meaningless to us, who are trapped on the inside.

Click. Click. Alex moves the pages of the Kindle forward. You remember thinking something when you were falling asleep; you don’t remember what it was, but you know it was something unsettling. Something else unsettling.


‘The Vikings must have been very patient with their oak trees,’ you say. ‘I suppose they would want to find ones that could grow into the sort of trees that they wanted, and look after them carefully to make sure they would grow up the way they wanted.’

‘You should be trying to sleep,’ says Alex reproachfully.

‘Trying to sleep never works,’ you say, rolling over to face Alex and opening your eyes.

You go on musing, taking a sort of glee in distracting Alex from the Viking Shipbuilding book by E. Vandervelden. ‘It would be strange to be a tree like that. If it is like anything to be a tree, I mean. You grow up in a forest surrounded by all these other trees, with the sun and the rain and the snow, thinking this is what the world is about, this is your purpose, this is where you are meant to be. But you are being groomed all the time, watched, pruned maybe, in order to be something completely different.’

You realise you have hit on yet another disturbing thing to think about. ‘Then one day you are taken away from your world, and most of you is cut away, and what is left is bent and stuck together with pieces of a whole lot of strangers, and plunged down into this alien world that is nothing like where you come from.’

‘Of course it’s not like anything to be a tree,’ says Alex, a little impatient. ‘You really should go to sleep.’

You make a non-committal noise that could mean anything and close your eyes, but don’t turn away from Alex. Slow breaths. Try not to think about being taken out of the sunshine and peeled down to your core and plunged down into the cold endless darkness. Try not to think of those men pulled down into the darkness, their lungs filling with death; try to believe that everything is not just a curtain drawn discreetly in front of whatever unimaginable thing the Thing-In-Itself really is. You try to worry about real things instead, money and sex and the health of people you know; but nothing comes strongly enough in your mind for you to worry about it.


‘Alex?’ you say.


‘Tell me more about Viking shipbuilding techniques.’

Alex tells you again that you really should be sleeping, but relents. ‘I’m up to the bit about the traditional human sacrifice on launching. The blood that our champagne is a pale substitute for.’

‘Ick. Well, that’s not going to help.’

‘I’m afraid not.’

‘We should read aloud to each other, like we used to. We could read Emma again.’

‘We never read Emma aloud to each other.’

‘Of course we did.’

‘You really don’t remember us reading Emma to each other?’ Something like panic has come into your voice, and now Alex puts down the book and runs a calm hand over your forehead, fingers through your hair.

‘I’m sure we did,’ you say.

‘It’s not important,’ says Alex, and smiles, and kisses your forehead, and you make up your mind that there is no point in arguing about it.


You lay down and remember Alex and you reading Emma to each other, as vividly as you can remember anything, and try to forget all the weird fears that have stirred up from somewhere in the depths of your mind, like sediment stirred up at the bottom of clear water. Eventually the fears blur and merge together into a vague grey sense of menace, with you in a fragile shell in the middle of it, like your fibreboard house sitting on the hillside. You listen to the wind outside. It is always windy here in spring. It shake the tops of the trees so they sound like the sea, and when it is just a little stronger the gusts will shake the walls and rattle the loose roof iron at the corner. It is not blowing that hard by now, but it might be by morning.

You remember the unsettling thing you had been thinking of before. What if nobody ever wakes up? What if when you fall asleep you are gone forever, and the person who wakes up with the memories of your life is someone different? What if the continuity of consciousness only goes one way, backward? You push this thought away from you, hard; as hard as you can. You begin to slide back into the vague bath of grey menace you felt before. Vikings. Trees. Champagne. Emma.

Click. Click. Click.

You force yourself to think about how Harriet Smith’s life could have turned out after she married Robert Martin.

You step over the abyss, and awake with a jerk.


Alex is leaning forward to look at you, face a meaningless waxy blob. You blink.

‘Are you alright?’

Alex’s eyes are like stones on the bottom of a stream, not quite in focus, spheres of quartz and jasper. You squeeze your eyes tight shut and open them again, hoping the world will have meaning again. Alex is holding the Kindle with an appendage made of protein and water. The Kindle is in Alex’s left hand. The Kindle was always in Alex’s right hand. You try closing and opening your eyes again.

‘Chris?’ says Alex, when you don’t say anything.

‘No, I’m not alright,’ you say. ‘I’m all messed up. I’m going crazy.’

‘It’s okay,’ says Alex, running a calming hand over your forehead again. Or for the first time.

‘You’re not messed up. You’re fine. You just had a bad dream.’

Alex’s eyes were always grey. And something else is wrong, something big, but you can’t remember what is.

‘Alex?’ you say, your voice rising much more sharply than you intended.

‘Hush. It’s okay. You’re fine. It’s okay.’


Alex holds you until the world is meaningful again.

You look at familiar brown-eyed, left-handed Alex, and smile.

‘We should read to each other in bed some time, like we used to,’ you say. ‘I thought it might be fun to read the book that movie we saw the other night was based on.’

‘That Jane Austen one?’ ask Alex, not looking away from the Kindle. ‘Sure.’