The Write Stuff: Under the Heartless Blue by Allyson Stack

Allyson Stack
Allyson Stack
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WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Under the Heartless Blue by Allyson Stack

Why tonight, after all these years? Why trouble my sleep with

this dream of desert rain? You arrive unseen. Just a hard bare

arm that curls around my waist so deftly accurate, pressing

me up against you – there in the rain-soaked dust, embracing.

You are all heat and breath. No sight, no sound. Just a featherscratch

of beard against skin, warmth of your breath in my hair.

Until I jolt awake, heart hammering out its tired backbeat

in the breast. Awareness shuffles over me. Blankets twisted.

Ache of chilblained hands. Sleep-sounds of the other nurses:

air passing softly between dry lips, creak of a bedspring. And

as I lie on my side and wait for sleep, the girl I once was rises

up before me. Wind-whipped hair without a hint of grey, she

is striding down a railway platform beneath a wide arc of sky.

Ruddy-faced women turn and stare, eyeing her slim-waisted

jacket and lace-trimmed sunshade. A dark knowingness in

their eyes. As if they sense something in her gait, her attire, her

air of urban worldliness that marks her for failure. Some flaw

hooks their gaze, holding it fast.

In the years ahead, the memory of these women will come

back to her. Their sun-weathered faces shadowing every doubt

and disappointment, haunting her every loss. But on this, the

final day of her journey, she gives them little thought. Elbowing

her way through the crowd, she is shaken by the rough clamour

of the place. Stock-pens, freight cars, shouting cattlemen.

Animals bellowing on the load-ramps. Slam of ore carts, the

scent of raw timber.

She draws a long breath, choking on dust and smelter fumes.

Throat burning, chest billowing like a sail. And there, beneath

the sour steam, she can taste it. Something fresh and strange 


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rising from the earth like smoke.

She keeps walking. Down the platform, past the roundhouse,

through the town’s dusty streets until she is striding through

open desert. And as she walks, she thinks. Of days spent inside

a Pullman car, of mile upon mile of forest and wide open

prairie unfurling behind cold glass. Of nights passed in that

narrow coffin of a bed as the tidal rhythm of the rails rocked

her to sleep – black and mercifully empty.

An entire continent divides her from the only life she has

ever known. The weather-beaten rowhouse where she was

born and raised, the ailing dockyards of her youth with their

stink of tar and moldering rope. That patch of earth where, at

the age of twelve, she watched her mother’s coffin slide into

the ground. Then, four years later, her father’s too. It would

take a five day journey to carry her back to the office where

she once worked keeping accounts, until a geology professor

with a warm smile and straw-coloured hair took a fancy to

her. Courted her, then proposed. They married. Moved into a

small rented house, where they lived in contentment and quiet

ease until Henry died of an illness no doctor could diagnose,

leaving her a widow at twenty-three.

Vera scrambles up a graveled slope, breathing hard. Her

hem catches. She bends to unhook it, sparing no thought for

rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders. Never thinking

to draw her hand back from a thorny tangle of mesquite. For

she knows nothing of this place. This land of heat and rock.

Knows nothing of the tyrannical passions that accompany a

certain kind of love. Its aching doubts and savage joys. Promise

of rhapsodic surfeit that never arrives. She knows nothing of

you. The one who lies in wait. Even now.

Of all this she remains blissfully ignorant as she stands

beneath a sky so big it hurts. Air fragrant with things she

cannot name. In this moment she knows only the sun on her

face, the dry wind in her hair, sight of distant mountains rolling

on and on under a cloudless blue. 


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She feels a throb of excitement. A delicious shiver stirred

by this vast expanse of land. Every breath ripe with briny

promise. Salt of something so close you can taste it. Some wild,

undiscovered sweet lying just within reach, just barely ahead—

Shout after her. Warn her. The way someone should have

warned these nurses who slumber on around me, naïve and

unsuspecting. Never guessing where the real danger lies.

Never wondering: what will happen when the war ends and

every drop of my youth has been drained away?

In every one of them, I see her. That girl staring across a

ceaseless sea of dust, gaze locked on the horizon – as if its very

expanse were a test of her resolve. A challenge to be met and

conquered.

I want to cry out to her. Warn her.

But a soft wave of sleep rolls over me. And when I surface,

she is gone.

• Allyson Stack holds a BA from Yale and a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where she is currently a Lecturer in English Literature. Under the Heartless Blue is published by Freight, £9.99.