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
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.
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
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.