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Dan Robinson

Dan has been commissioned as an artist and writer by Liverpool Biennial, Grizedale Arts and Ikon Gallery. He trained in Fine Art at Newcastle and Leeds and teaches for Open College of the Arts. He lives in Leeds.

His current novel tells the story of a family’s journey of loss and connection: After newborn Bea’s death in Yorkshire, Dad – Raymond leaves to work in a US-Japanese archive. Back home, Mum – Kate and nine-year-old Diana lean on Granny and new friends, but everything feels different. Over a year, encounters with people and place fragment and bind together.

dan (@mudoffice.eu)

  

The Two Ys

 

Raymond grips a maggot between his forefinger and thumb and pushes a fishhook through what might be its eye. Clear liquid oozes out and down its ribs. Fingertips work in the juice. It is dusk. Diana sits facing him. We’ve seen them here before, the father and daughter in the rowing boat. Last time they moored off the jetty. Now they drift, under a bare clutch of trees watched by Orion and the rising moon.

‘It’s so calm,’ he says.

Diana is quiet. Her hand is half-in the water. Where her fingers break the dim surface we go under, to murky tin sounds. Her palm stays above, touched by the breeze. Raymond leans to cast off. His shifting weight upsets the boat, sending out ripples.

‘It’s all got its place,’ He changes his grip on the rod, ‘All of it. The maggot, the trees, the stars coming out. Everything’s just okay where it is.’

Diana studies him. ‘That maggot isn’t okay Dad. Look at it’s face,’ she says.

‘I mean – I’m saying, Bea. You know.’ He pauses. ‘She’s not here but maybe that’s right, for her. Or, she kind of is here. Somehow.’

‘Maybe,’ Diana says.

‘I am sad though. It is sad. It’s okay to be sad. We need to be sad.’

Diana counts his words with slow dipped fingers. Sad. Sad. Sad. Sad. He casts his line – Splish. She looks to the orange float, think flick, no bob. Nothing moves, no fish, no birds. Diana sticks her hand deeper in to the wrist. A reassuring cold. She studies the waveforms. This wobbly plane between water and air, criss-crossing patterns. A field of outstretched hands, switching over, front-to-back, front-to-back. She tests the cold wet again. Put the hand in. Take the hand out. It feels real.

‘Can we just be quiet Dad? Just float?’

‘Sure.’ He says.

So they float. And beneath, Perch avoid the maggot. Above and below. A star, a fish, a planet, a midge. The eyes in the edge grass. All of it – you and I, them – just waiting. The light is fading as Diana jabs her finger through the liquid moon. Right here but not. She wants to pin it, but it escapes. And again. Her finger puts a black curve in the white-not-white and drips make little errors in the wet. Thinking. Waiting, to feel something. She notices the distant wash of traffic. One or two more stars. Dad’s nose hairs. He breathes in. He breathes out. How many fish are there? What are they doing? Don’t catch any. Leave them there. A sister would have been nice, but maybe annoying. Maybe there’ll be another one.

‘I’m sorry I’m going away,’ he says. ‘It’s only ten days.’

‘It’s fine Dad, just go.’

 

Kate, five days earlier

My alarm goes off and nothing. Tuesday and there’s no one to feed. A steady pounding in my breasts. Hunger in reverse. My mindless body – me, meat – tender and raging. Keep me under my duvet. I’m sweating. Two days have gone. Since what? It’s too much. Body, send me back to sleep.

Time passes. More pain. Ray in the other bedroom. He brings tea. We talk. More dozing. Daylight’s here. Ray’s gone. What time is it? Slide my legs out. Open the curtains. Are you fixing a door, in the garden? Look at your jacket. The clock says Thursday. You put the trip off but you still have the ticket. Do we need you gone? It was meant to be two precious weeks at home, with Bea. The Monday ticket would mean a week, eight days. Is that wrong? You’re hammering nails in wood. It takes the dents. Keep going. I’m going back to bed.

Another day. I come downstairs. Diana in the kitchen, her back to me.

‘Six ounces of sugar?’

‘Yep.’ Ray’s voice from upstairs.

‘Three eggs?’

‘Use the sieve,’ he shouts.

‘I know.’ Her finger marks on the butter lid – all parallel – and then a fast one across.

Later, we’ll tell Diana the plan. Once we decide when he’s going. We’re not there yet. Tomorrow, or the next day, we’ll make our minds up. When we can face each other. I sense it already. He’ll be going Monday and she’ll be back at school.

On Friday, we decide. It’s as I thought. It falls into place. Do we talk? We try. It feels right. Diana is fine with it. The weekend comes. Saturday is wind and rain. On Sunday Ray takes her to the lake.

 

Collapse. That sums it up. He collapsed. This morning. I scooped him up, as though he was a pile of towels, a laundry basket emptied on the platform. A loose array of limbs, a body taken apart and reassembled. The scooping was physical. The limbs, their mutual attachments, the head – so heavy. This morning. I don’t know why he chose that moment. Our conversation had been light, plans for the week. I actually felt happy. Strange, but I was. It was a bright crisp morning. I didn’t sense it, it just hit him. The devastation. We were walking down the platform. He was about to enter the carriage. Instead, he changed course.

‘I can’t do it.’

‘What?’ I say.

He circled back on himself, he didn’t stop, didn’t turn around, didn’t walk backwards. He steered to the left in a sweeping circle. As though part of his body was still trying to walk forwards. As though two competing parts ran in counterpoint. A perfect swing, a sweep-around. He tried again and circled. It was actually ridiculous. A joke. He swayed and stumbled, skipped a little to the back and all the colour rushed from him. He leant on the wall – an advert for St Lucia, his palm on the white sand. He knelt on the platform then got into the foetal position, eyes closed. Weird. Like a deflating plastic crocodile; a swan-ballerina crumple, all tiptoe pads and billowing silks. He was curled up, his eyes and mouth closed. Then he opened them again.

‘What’s going on Ray?’

After that he stood up and got on the train.

So here we are. Diana’s at school and he’s gone. I needed him gone. We knew that. I need to get back to work. Not yet though. Next week, perhaps. Just mornings. I’ve been feeling okay but tense. The pain is more bearable. Something about him gone is right. He’ll be good there. Should I feel bad thinking that? Everyone will ask why he’s not here, won’t I need him? We’re solid. We need him there. I hope Diana’s okay. On her way to Granny’s. I won’t call. She’s old enough. Need to get her to Granny and under her wing. It’s not a weakness, it’s our strength. They can all fuck off. Everyone does things their own way. This is our way.

 

In Granny’s parlour we see them. Clock ticking. Unmatched cups on white hooks. The old fridge purring. The tea tray; gold rim, a hunt, beagles and bugles. A modernist hotel in Costa Brava, little figures on the beach, high contrast. And blue birds of chinoiserie. Enjoy the curls and leaves, furled edges. Symmetry, lineage. I’ve been there myself. Fall in, Diana. Fall in.

‘Here.’

Without standing, Granny reaches to the sideboard for the biscuit tin. No eyes. Tin lid releases biscuit air and warmth hits the spot with soft bite and crumbs on your lip. A fugue, clatter. It pops out a dent as it moves. Biscuits and tea. Ceremony, practicality, continuance. No coasters nor mat.

‘What homework did you get? Let’s do your homework. What did you get?’ Reaching in the bag, pulling out the book.

‘No! Granny!’

‘You get it then.’

‘Okay.’ Granny unfastens Diana’s bag.

The week goes by. Diana goes to Granny’s. Ray calls us. It seems to be going well over there. They’ve offered him the job. I think he’s okay. He’s back next week for three nights and then away again. We need to plan the ceremony. I can’t imagine it yet. The weekend is nothing much. The woods, cinema, swimming. I’m not ready for work yet.

 

 

Raymond

That first time in room 252, my first day in Colorado. I was reeling from the heat and the journey, lost and running away. Kate had bundled me on my train and I’d sleepwalked through Manchester airport. It felt like my girls – Diana and Kate – were somehow with me, holding me together. As though they took turns pushing me along stood up, my feet strapped to a trolley. As though their voices were in my ear.

‘Go on.’

‘Just unearth it, you say?’

I made notes that first day. I’m glad I did. They ground me now in what was what. Now, I think back and I can’t tell. It seems so far – 252 – from here. It’s held me for a year. My chrysalis. I was so empty, and the room was so full.

My note says, ‘Room 252, Naropa, Colorado. 7th May 2015. Full of boxes; dark, musty, motionless. Almost brimming, but just plain lost.’

And it was locked with no name. An unopened door, years shut. No action, or maybe just a touch. Leant on, even yesterday. Theresa gave me the key. Chubby black plastic. Would forensics find traces of sweat and hair on the wall and floor? An ultraviolet celebration, if they’d looked. Grubby hand marks in white-chalk paint; scuffs above brushed steel kick-board. But no. A fire door; ash, heavy, shut. And then, open. With me standing in it. And life was there, in the hangings and edges; kids, tears, tales. More, much more – but sense was still a shadow. Bryn Folme got me the job. ‘Sorting through the archive of a retired Professor.’ A casual contract to fill a gap. Yeah, right. That was almost a year ago now. I really had no idea. No clue how big this was gonna be, for me nor anyone else. This reset my life; direction, family, everything. Not to mention a whole new field of academia; Narrative Anthropology. There’s conferences, awards, dinners, and a new institute in the making, all down to 252. And, yes, I guess I’m part of that. Let’s just say, it would be a long warm up. For now, it was cold still.

I wrote, ‘Three archive boxes, journals, loose documents, reports, papers, blue metal shelves, clear plastic boxes and trays – ROCKS, SOIL, microfiche reader, lab equipment, personal items: shoes, soft toys, moped chassis: 1973 Lambretta!’

When I first grasped the possibility that this was all part of the research, I thought I’d be months in the windowless cupboard, sifting through love letters, rubble, shopping lists. How to extract work from life? Some material was organised and labelled, other things were just a load of stuff. There were slides, data sheets, motorbike parts, papers. Index cards itemised parts of it but I felt a sense of dread at the lack of limits. And in the journals too; professional work, personal notes, a whole mess. Later – thanks to Theresa – I understood its beauty as a collage. As time passed, there grew a sense of connection, symmetries and layers – material, chemical, ritual. Something about scale and models. I would get there, I knew I would. And one box contained a letter of wishes. I kept it. Instructions and a payment plan for a two-year archival research project. No joke. Within hours of first stepping into 252, I took that letter to Bryn and by the end of the week I had a full-time job.

 

Naropa has a dry heat. Bukowski Building rears large above the trees and neighbouring tenements, boxing gym, booze shop. A beacon of restraint, invisibly handsome. Its white chalk render, stained and flaking helps set it back, in place. Up close, actual palm trees in real soil planters; clean windows without dust streaks, a cobbled forecourt with low shrub border, alive.

I push open the swing door – a handle in cherry, grain a little sun-bleached, edged in aluminium. On green-grey carpet, the air con’ has me, a noise-ear change. I’m in this world now.

Ping.

Elevator opens its mirrors. In I step. Back to 252.

The microfilm reader is on.

‘At the outskirts of a village; waiting for the new stallion. You have been here for several hours. This is your task. This waiting.’

Another slide, ‘Instructions: Wait for the doctor, follow him home. See what you can learn. Study his geometries. I want the informal paths, those made by wildlife, deliveries. This will take some time. I will pay you for your work.’

I could get into this, but it’s not clear what’s what.

Scrolling across the film, ‘Time passes, damp. Chew dried white fish. Drips gather on the roof line, stack and slide left. Silent mouthfuls. Worn suede grips.’

The microfilm has its own light. It feels warm. Then there’s the boxes. Theresa said there’s an Edo period land audit in here – some Shogun’s commission – Land use, soil, crops, diseases, yields. They travelled for months on horseback. Original brush and ink manuscripts, somewhere.

Next, the index cards. A plastic box in light tan. What are these?

‘Knee theatre; square hole in sheet. Look down over your naked body. People under the sheet manipulate tiny cut out figures on sticks.’

 

 

Kate

Monday again. I’m early. Diana won’t be out for ten minutes. A three-point turn and park at my dead end. Kerbed, here, close to the action. Shops, students and traffic over there; leafy school here. A fast street, a slow street. A crux. Waiting. Engine off and moment to nothing. Girl takes a red box from her boot – work stuff. My wipers going. Rain on the tin roof and down my windscreen, streak-free because I cleaned it. Things are getting done. But when will thoughts be mine again? Dinner. Need an early night; See? Someone stops drilling. Relax. Breathe, come on. Slide my chair back. Stretch out. This is where it happened. They won’t confirm it, but I know. They said it was a possibility.

Was it two months ago, here in the Citroen? My spot. Early then too. A Wednesday. She’d be out soon. Carnage would follow. First the cars reversing, double parking, stopping on the zig-zags. The fat man would shout, but not yet. Breathe out. Yoga had been good that morning. Get back there. My belly was vast.

Squirrels chasing in the horse chestnut. Those squirrels are really going for it. Quick down the trunk, three rivulets. Pasta boiling over. I’ll never say that to a patient, a possibility. What to do with Diana tonight? This time we have, with Raymond gone. Girl-time. Chess. Baking? Takes me back to Nan, standing on the chair. I hate squirrels. Since that one in the bedroom. Gloves on with a broom. All they care about is nuts and sex. Sex, leg, sex, leg, nut. Chase me, chase me where’s your nuts? Fuck me, fuck me, with your nuts. What has happened to my brain? A mum in the rear-view mirror. Bright and breezy sway, head up, purposeful. Knows where she’s going. I throw her a wave. Wiper blades in tandem with my hand. Even my car mocks me.

Get through today.

Two months gone. There I was, thinking, ‘How’s it gonna be when there’s two of them?’ Her, in the car seat next to Diana, gurgling and coochie-coo. She’d smell amazing. Her fingers reaching for mine. I was already on edge. Tears after yoga and a loud sob-belch from nowhere. ‘I’m gonna love this baby so much.’ My hand on my belly. ‘I’m gonna love you little Bea; love your fingers and your nose. How are you gonna be, Bea? Ha. Be a bee Bea, my beautiful Bea. Not Beatrice. Bea.’

And then, Shunk.

Clap my hands to hear it.

And, ‘What the fuck?’

Crunch-crack.

Fuel-stink-in-nose and brilliant sunshine and scream. It slows in whiteness.

Why replay it now?

Crack, split.

‘Ngggh.’

Shunt.

‘Oh fuck!’

Two knocks or one?

Yes, there were two. Short and long. The car in front. Car alarm. Wa-wa-wa-wa. Oh, my belly. It twinges just thinking about it.

Why do that?

Let me, I need to see it. The steering wheel pressing in. ‘Bea?’ Just the name, the question. The car was still moving. Uphill slow crunch – lorry beside me, shadow no sun. Big, blocking my view of school. Cold fingers. ‘Where’s this wet from?’ And then it was, ‘I need to get out. Out. Where’s the handle?’

You’re here now.

‘Let me out.’ Get out!

Come on now, put your hand on the handle. You’re safe – not there – this is now.

Jammed. Metal taste in my mouth. Is my nose bleeding? ‘Bea?’ Soft until then and then screaming, ‘Bea! Fucking get this steering wheel off her!’ Arms were numb. Sharp inhale.

Adrenalin, even now. Did you feel it pump into you? Back then, you felt it, the flooding. Oh, and it speeds up. Don’t sob now, sob then. All the thoughts. ‘Is she OK? Is she going to be OK?’ And that loud nothing. Numb awakening.

White cartoon sausages in a ring in front of you, floating counter-clockwise with a musical box. Sun’s rays bursting from the centre to streamers, coloured ribbons, so slow on your face, caressing, like a car wash but without the car. Strange picture until help arrives. And from that image, with panic all round, I see tennis and next week, and a strange calmness and plans for drop off and the work rota. But where are my fingers? All cold and not mine. Until a tap on the window. Paramedic with a beard and blue eyes. And later, at my hospital, the word ‘unharmed,’ out loud.

‘Just bruising.’

And I believed them. Why wouldn’t I?

A steady stream of parents now, must be nearly time. Need to calm these thoughts. I should go see someone this week, on level four. Turn the radio on. Traffic News. Here she comes – with Mimi and Stef – the terrible trio. And a new girl. Who’s she? The three stop to talk to the one. Nice, I see. Three to one, and the one skips off smiling. Well done three, whatever you said. Diana looks up again for me, one sock rolled down. Limping again? She’s so asymmetrical.

‘Hi.’

‘Hi.’ I start the engine. Indicate. Pull away.

‘Ok?’

‘Yeah.’ We make eye contact in the rear-view mirror. ‘I made a new friend, a new girl in my class.’

‘That’s nice. What’s her name?’

‘Charlie,’ smiling, ‘I like her. I’m looking after her. Miss asked me to. Can we invite her over?’

‘Yeah, fine’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘Yes, okay.’

She slumps back in her seat, drops her rucksack in the foot well and starts singing and dancing her hands. She sees me watching her.

‘What?’

‘Love you.’

Back home. Our evening is good. We don’t bake. We watch TV, chat, have a bath. Early night. We talk about Raymond, say we’ll write at the weekend. We decide to invite Charlie and her Mum.

We see them after school the next day and they’re busy the next few nights, so they come back with us, there and then. We’re caught off guard a little, shoes and washing everywhere but it’s great. So simple. Paula, her mum, is great. The girls play, we talk. We really talk: Bea, the accident, the birth, her move to Leeds, her Masters, her husband, friends, our jobs, teenage angst, politics, short crust pastry. All with the kids running around us. We drink beer and I tell her all about the birth.

Sixteen minutes passed eleven she was born. Nineteenth of April. Last month. A Sunday. It just happened, so effortless – not like last time. In a bath. Daylight and our own music. She came out, slap and air. Visceral liquids. Slump. Wooh. Hello baby. So strange and delicate, little Bea. Her fingers and soft arms. Us all grinning. Oh, to see Ray hold her. A wispy head in one hand. Coconut. Diana by his side. We had some time just to breathe. Stand and sit and pace. Skin to skin, bonding. She latched on easy and had a good tug. It was dreamy. I close my eyes and I’m there. My hormones were raging. It was like – all light and matter begin and end at her. Oh. She puked, sweetheart. Later, they brought a heat lamp and at quarter past two, she needed some tests, low blood sugars, routines stuff. Happens all the time. They didn’t want us there – sterile environment – so we got some fresh air. Outside was spring sun and people going places. The churchyard is right outside. A bright morning; trees, blossom and a couple on a bench. Then they called his mobile to come back.

‘As-quick-as-you-can.’ They said.

I even said to Ray, ‘What, those exact words?’

We ran. A man – my father’s age – held the gate for us. Across the car park, I shoulder-barged a smoker with her drip, in the automatic door.

‘Where?’

The duty registrar was waiting and took us through. Apparatus and the crash team round her trolley at the centre. Our tiny Bea on the white sheet. One of them on his phone. They cut off her vest with scissors. Round pads on her chest. Packets and tubes. Activity. The group were focussed on Bea and then they were looking at us. That’s when I knew. They took us to a room. Like they do. All I remember was the birch veneer shelves, posters, blue chairs.

Paula. Her face is an open window. My whole being shakes. She holds me.

Two weeks pass. We see lots of each other. I call her.

‘You know Ray was meant to be coming – at the weekend?’ She makes a noise. ‘Well something has come up at the archive. He’s postponed, again. Ten days. Can we go this weekend – to the river?’

‘Sure.’

 

We go to the river, Paula and I.

I untie the canoe from the silver birch. Damp green rope. The bank is muddy, and my pumps are already a mess. I slide the canoe down the bank. It slaps on the river. I put myself in and grab the oars. The bottom scrapes rocks as I push off from the riverbed.

Now. This floating.

Only half a mile into town. The journey back will be hard work, upstream. Feel the oar under surface and the pull. Movement and drift. Paddle on.

Passage of wild mint.

Japanese Knotweed.

Duck encampment.

Bristling of a bulrush.

And then; fragmentary wish – an ear of corn – imagined bounty.

I’m hardly even rowing, I just drift.

On the bank, sheep move as a flock, a joint mass of form; as though I lead them, though I’m back here, and they – up ahead.

I was getting in the boat and floating away. Now I’m here. A wide beach on the far bank. Bright sand. A man at the edge with a fire. Grey curls. We could stop there for the picnic. Keep going. A way beyond the beach, I tie the canoe to a wooden pier. Civilisation. Morrisons. I get eggs, milk, Toffee Crisps and a postcard for Ray – a technicolour Mallard, high gloss. I almost fall in a metal basket of yellow plastic golf balls outside Poundland. I picture them floating and come away with ten in a bag. There’s an old-style payphone. I call Ray. Voicemail. When I hang up coins spill to the floor. A short woman helps pick them up and knocks sunglasses off a stand. We put them back. I use the payphone again. This time, Paula.

‘Hey, there’s a great spot for a picnic just downstream from you, on the right bank. Nice beach. Can we meet there? It’s too difficult paddling upstream.’

‘Sure.’

Fifteen minutes later and they’re here. Diana in the boat says, ‘Catch us! Catch the rope.’

 

The cremation was May 10th. Ray’s family and mine together. Complex with cousins, colleagues, a few blank faces. There was love. Granny stayed in the corner. Later some of us went to the club. What do I remember? Gin and tonic. The chatter of ice – sibilant bubbles and glass. Cricket. A conversation on the steps and a walk with someone I barely know. Isn’t that always the way? A folded grey lambswool cardigan on the back of a chair. We got through it. On balance it was a good day. I think we’re moving forward.

Ray arrived on the Friday. We had sex on Saturday, service on Sunday, a walk on Monday – the strangest day. Bolton Abbey, Simon’s Seat and lunch in The Fleece. We talked. My thoughts were still forming. Is he my brother now? Careful, caring. Wrapping each other up. Something needs to happen. I can see it. He lives there already, in the US. I find myself asking will he come back. I think I miss him most when he’s here – with me.

He was surprised by my naked body. I’ve lost almost two stone. I still hurt. He’s aged, though I love his folds and wrinkles. He kept saying how much he misses us. He cried. He helped Diana with her maths and they kicked a football around – best bit of the whole weird weekend. That and the blackbird on the chimney, taking off with the smoke.

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