3 September 2016

'Briar Road': a short story by Jonathan Buckley

Posted by Jonathan Buckley

In 2015 Jonathan Buckley’s story of a psychic won the tenth BBC National Short Story Award with Booktrust. In anticipation of the announcement of this year’s shortlist, you can read his winning short story, ‘Briar Road’, in full below.

I have the address, but it’s not necessary to know the number. Briar Road is a street of sixty houses, and I could have found the right one blindfolded. It emits a frequency that cannot be heard but can be felt; it has the aura of evidence. Most of the houses in this street are in need of some repair: paintwork, gnawed by the sea winds, is falling away; window frames are rotting. The house to which I have been called, however, shows no damage. Every sill gleams like milk. Rashes of rust have broken out on many of the cars that are parked on the road, but the car that’s parked on the drive here – a large German saloon – is showroom-immaculate, though far from new; the father’s van, parked in front of it, is in similar condition. The edge of the grass, where it borders the little flowerbed, is as straight as a line of light. I have seen the father’s business premises; other people in this part of town are struggling, but in this house there is money enough.

As was to be expected, it is the father who opens the door. The father was the one who read the statement to the press, and answered questions; the mother was in no state to talk. On television he looked like a man with whom you would not want to argue. In person he looks tougher: he is small and lean, and the rolled-up sleeves are tight on the disproportionate muscles; his gaze is confrontational and too steady; it would not surprise you to learn that he used to be a boxer. He has not shaved today; to the side of the chin, a complicated small scar is framed by the grey-flecked stubble. He looks at me as if I were selling something he would never want to buy, and is making it clear that he is not going to speak first. When I introduce myself, I manage four or five words before he interrupts. ‘Come in,’ he says, standing aside to let the intruder pass.

The atmosphere of the house is familiar: the air is becalmed; this is the stillness that follows calamity.

‘Through there,’ the father orders, jabbing a thumb. I step into the living room, where there is nobody. Every piece of furniture is aimed at the TV screen, which hangs on the chimneybreast, filling its whole width. Mitt-shaped armchairs, in caramel leather, flank a matching sofa. I am directed to one of them. Having dealt with me, the father steps back into the hallway and calls up the stairs for his wife. There is no need to do this. She knows I have arrived.

The seating is arranged symmetrically around a glass-topped coffee table, on which a newspaper is lying; there are no smears on the glass, and no dust; there’s no dust on any surface. The glass figurines and photographs arrayed on the cabinet are regularly spaced; the pictures are all angled in the same direction. A faint fume of polish is in the air, and the carpet has been freshened. There have been visits from family, neighbours, sympathisers, police and other intruders, but it does not feel as though the room has been prepared for the benefit of visitors. My feeling is that the house is always neat and clean, but is even more so now, partly because housework, of course, is something that may offer respite from thought, and partly because it is important for the family to control whatever can be controlled. A form of sympathetic magic is at work, it occurs to me, as I examine the room. If everything is done correctly, the greater order will be restored, and their daughter will be returned. And to surrender to disorder, to even the slightest degree, would be to surrender absolutely, to the worst.

The father returns to the living room, and sits down in the other armchair. He leans forward to remove the newspaper from the coffee table; he sets it on the floor beside his chair. I note the tightness of his mouth, and the tension in the muscle at the hinge of his jaw. In such circumstances the father is under extreme and particular strain, because the father is always a suspect, as is the boyfriend, should there be a boyfriend, which in this case there is not, as far as anyone knows. If no boyfriend has been discovered by now, it’s certain, almost, that there is no boyfriend. So the father is not immediately trusted, and for good reason. Weeping fathers have been proven to be liars, many times. This man has had to demonstrate his innocence. He has had to recount his actions on the day in question, hour by hour. Others have corroborated what he has said. But there is often a fault in such stories, a flaw that does not become apparent for some time. There will be people, still, who do not believe him, because it is often the father. This time, though, it is not. I know this.

He is looking over my shoulder, into the sky. Rasping a palm on a cheek, he makes a remark about a journalist – ‘a snoop,’ he calls her. It is to be understood that I am of the same company. ‘They can go too far,’ I sympathise. Then his wife comes into the room. She is more or less my age, the same age as her husband, but she looks a decade older; she moves as if using an invisible stick. Her smile is the smile of a woman who has come for a medical examination that may or may not reverse her prognosis. With something like deference she puts out a hand, which I enclose between mine. Her hand has no weight in it, no strength. It’s like holding the body of a small bird, just killed. Her eyes are sore, and drowsy with despair.‘The boys aren’t here yet,’ she apologises. They are on their way, she assures me; in ten minutes they’ll both be here. She suggests a cup of tea.‘Thank you,’ I answer. One must never decline, no matter what one’s preference.

Left to cope alone, the father can come up with nothing but the bluntest of questions. ‘So is this what you do?’ he asks. ‘For a living, I mean.’‘Oh no,’ I answer. ‘I have a day job. In an office.’‘So this is a hobby,’ he proposes.‘I wouldn’t say a hobby, no,’ I reply, and I smile, unoffended. It is essential in all cases that tension should be dissipated as it arises.‘How did you get into it?’ he asks. I tell him, briefly, how the faculty was revealed to me, when I was a young woman, when a relative was in crisis and I knew what was happening to her, although we were in different countries. It would not be appropriate, for now, to reveal that this relative was my twin, and that I could not save her. ‘Woman’s intuition,’ the father comments.‘If you like.’ His gaze makes a detour onto my jacket, and he asks: ‘Go to church, do you?’ He thinks what I am wearing is my Sunday best. ‘I don’t,’ I answer. ‘Same here,’ he says, in the tone of a player begrudgingly accepting a draw, as his wife brings in a tray.

A young woman accompanies her. She is twenty years old, I would say, and is six or seven months pregnant. Bad skin has been masked with expertly applied make-up; the eyelashes are heavy and the teeth perfect. She is bashful and nervous. This is the other daughter. She sits on the sofa beside her mother, and takes charge of the pot and the cups.

The mother asks about the Shoreham girl, but I cannot tell her much in addition to what she has already heard. Everything is fine between the Shoreham girl and her mother, I tell her, which is almost true. Confidentiality must be respected. The Shoreham girl is the case that has brought me here, by word of mouth. She went to a festival with friends, with the consent of her mother but against the wishes of her mother’s husband, and did not return. The police were alerted but could find no trace. Appeals in the newspapers produced no worthwhile information. But I went to the house, and spent time in the girl’s room, with the mother, and I could reassure her that no harm had befallen her daughter. In time she would hear from her; her daughter was in London, I told her, and was happy. And she was indeed living in London, and happy, with another young woman, which is something else I could have told the mother, who had come to me after hearing about the young man in Poole who had gone into town for the evening and vanished. He would be found living rough, in a town that had some significance for him, I had told his parents, and a year later he came home, having been sleeping on the streets, in Southampton, where a girl they had never heard about was living.

‘He had forgotten who he was,’ I explain. The Southampton story is an element of my bona fides, the summary of my successes. I make no great claim for myself. Some people can hear notes that others can’t. Some tongues can distinguish gradations of flavour that elude the majority, some noses can detect a dozen elements in a perfume that to other people is a single scent. That’s what it’s like, as I tell them.

The father’s attention is not focused on what I am saying. Several times, as I’m speaking, his gaze is directed narrowly at my mouth rather than my eyes. It has been said that my lips are the best feature of my face. And I have endeavoured also to make my voice pleasing. Its pitch, when I began, was a little higher, and the timbre more astringent. The father finds my voice agreeable, I can tell, though he is inclined to dislike me. But he would describe himself as a man who likes women, and as a man whom women tend to find attractive. This is obvious. Some years ago he was unfaithful, his eyes tell me, as does the glance that his wife gives him; he will be unfaithful again, I am sure.

‘I can make no promises,’ I say, presenting a frank face to the husband and to the wife in turn. I explain that it is not simply a question of opening a secret door and listening. Sometimes I cannot find the frequency. ‘Every case is different,’ I tell them. ‘But I may be able to help you.’ I have finished what has to be said.

The father has no questions; the mother has a question about the practicalities. A table is required, but the kitchen, it is agreed, would not be a sympathetic setting. The table will be brought through to the living room. Extra chairs have been borrowed from a neighbour, the mother tells me, as one would tell the doctor that one has fasted in preparation for the examination, as requested. A car stops outside. ‘That’ll be the boys,’ she says, eager to start. She stands up, but it is not the sons’ car.

‘Could I see her room before we start?’ I ask her.

The father needs to be told why this is necessary. It has to do with becoming attuned, I explain.

‘I don’t know what that means,’ he responds, as if commenting on a remark made in a foreign language, by someone who is wasting his time. ‘I’ll get the chairs,’ he says.

His wife leads me to the stairs and up to the daughter’s bedroom. She opens the door gently, as if the girl may be asleep inside. ‘This is it,’ she says, in a whisper. Side by side, in the doorway, we look into the little room; there is a bunk bed, with a small desk below, and a chest of drawers, and an area of unoccupied carpet large enough for just one adult to lie within it. I take a step forward. ‘I’ll leave you,’ she says, and the door silently closes on me.

A skirt lies under the desk, entangled with a pair of tights. The bed, unmade, has a magazine on it. Lipsticks and eye shadows are scattered on the chest of drawers. The police must have examined the laptop that’s on the desk; they would have discovered the stuff that all girls hide from their families but disgorge to friends and pseudo-friends on the internet; none of it has been useful. Otherwise nothing seems to have been touched here. This is another aspect of the magic: there must be no interference with the attributes of the missing. To rearrange this room would be akin to giving up. So the room is as I need it to be.

I lie down, to absorb what the room contains. A huge birthday card, home made, is pinned open by the head of the bed. In the loop of the 6 of the big 16, two pretty faces are pressed cheek to cheek, blowing kisses. Other friends surround them, in a swarm of hearts and exclamations. All are girls. On a sheet of lined paper, LUV U is written in gold and crimson glitter. All around the mirror, boyish actors and singers smile at her. Amid the friends and the famous, the girl herself appears: on a beach, with her sister; on the back of a static horse; in school uniform; on a caramel-coloured sofa, between the brothers. And there’s the one we know from the reports, the cute one, on a boat, wearing a beret. A soft pink horse stands on a shelf above the bed, beside a small Eiffel Tower.

This girl is guileless and much younger than the Shoreham girl, though not in years. ‘Bubbly’ is a word that has appeared in the papers, as it often does in such cases. There is certainly a great deal of jollity on show here, as there was not in the room in Shoreham. The pictures in the Shoreham room were postcards of old portraits; the books were indicative of thoughtfulness, of a more inward character than is evident here. Here I see no books of any kind. This is the room of a child. She has not escaped. The Shoreham girl had escaped and was alive, I sensed right away. And when the father – the stepfather – came home, and shook my hand, I knew beyond doubt that I was right, from the way his eyes shrank from me, and from the stain in his gaze, a stain that the wife could not see, it seemed. ‘My princess,’ he called the girl, and the word was putrid in his mouth.

In the room below me, a voice is grumbling; I cannot hear the voice of the mother. I close my eyes to summon the CCTV picture, the last image of their daughter. Leaving a shop, in a part of town in which she has no known friends, she raises her hood and steps out into the rain. I take into my body the air that only this room has. Underneath me, the father grumbles on. This is not a house like the Shoreham house. No love is left between these parents, but the situation is an ordinary one. Many children come through such things uninjured. Mine did. This girl was happy here. She has been loved. Silently, as if impelled not by myself, my lips form the words: She has not run away.

I hear a double slam of car doors, then a key in a lock downstairs. No sooner am I on my feet than the father knocks and, without waiting for a response, opens the door of the bedroom. ‘Everyone’s here,’ he announces. ‘You ready?’

‘I am,’ I answer, taking care to betray nothing.

As he ushers me out, his eyes perform a rapid search, looking for signs that the drawers have been opened and belongings disturbed.

The sons are awaiting me at the table. The older, his father’s workmate, mid-twenties, in demeanour is a slightly softened version of his father, and clearly is attending under protest. I am something of a surprise to him – he had expected a fairground tarot-card act, and the woman instead looks like a lawyer. He takes note of the shoes, misappraising the expenditure they represent; his trainers would have cost more, I am certain. Like his father, he takes note of the figure too, but more blatantly, as if, by agreeing to participate in this nonsense, he has earned such entitlement. But the other son, two or three years his brother’s junior, is a more personable young man, and is more willing to enter into the spirit of the thing. Apologising for the roughness of his hands, he offers a handshake; he is a mechanic, and the ingrained oil has made the ridges of his fingertips as clear as prints.

I have been given one of the borrowed chairs: its frame is gold metal, and the seat is a deep pad of red plush; the mother, to my left, has the chair that matches. The father is on my right, beside his daughter, who is next to the younger son.

In the light of the setting sun, the wall that I am facing is a block of radiant tangerine. It is too bright. ‘Would it be possible to draw the curtains?’ I ask.

The older son raises an eyebrow. The implication is that he suspects me of intending some sort of sleight of hand under the cover of semi-darkness.

‘We must minimise the distractions,’ I explain.

‘I’m not going to be distracted,’ he tells me. ‘There’s nothing going on outside,’ he says, and he gestures in the direction of the street, inviting me to check for myself. His sister looks up into a corner of the ceiling; she is not close to her older brother.‘It will help me to concentrate,’ I clarify, in a tone that might be taken for an apology.By now the mother is at the window. For a few seconds she stands there, one hand on the drawstring of the curtain, looking out. Another day is closing. The evening is beautiful: the sea burning all the way to the horizon; a profusion of gorgeous clouds, dyed in so many colours. What she sees is an affront, I know. She sees the vastness of the sea and the sky, the countless rooftops, the traffic flowing away all the time, and it terrifies her; it feeds her grief. Her child is lost somewhere in this immensity, or perhaps is no longer in it.

I thank her, and extend a hand to ease her back into her place in the circle.

But the curtains are too thin. We are sitting not in darkness but in a burgundy-tinted half-light, like an artifical dawn. I become aware of the bright red dot that is glowing on the television set, and another on an amplifier in the alcove. I ask for the equipment to be unplugged, and for any phones to be turned off and taken to another room. Three phones are duly carried out. Then we can begin.‘We should join hands,’ I say. The older son, of course, smirks at this. He makes his hand collide with his brother’s like a small belligerent animal. ‘This is what has to be done,’ I tell the gathering, quietly. ‘What we are performing is a ceremony, and this is the form that the ceremony takes.’ The brothers settle their hands into a manly clasp.

When the circle has composed itself, I pause for a minute, directing my gaze downward; one by one, the five participants do the same. ‘Now we should close our eyes,’ I say. My voice is quieter now; the quality of the voice is important at all times, in any such ritual. It is theatrical, some might suggest, and this is not untrue, if a service in church is a piece of theatre. Mass is a performance, you could say, and by means of the performance the spirit descends.

I can tell that the older son is observing me, and the others, through slitted lids, but I do not challenge him; one must never do that. I keep my eyes closed and wait for him to join us.

‘Now we must be silent,’ I say, after a minute. ‘I would like you to think of nothing.’ I advise them as to how this might be done, and then we enter the interval of silence.

It is up to me to maintain the connection with the father: he has clenched his fingers into a rigid hook, which I must grip. But the mother’s fingers are clamped onto mine like a padlock, and there is a quavering sound in her throat as she breathes. With a small motion of the wrist I rock our hands lightly, to calm her, to encourage; the quavering ceases, and her fingers yield.

Our breathing has become harmonious and hushed, like the breathing of tranquil sleepers. The circle is receptive, or as receptive as it is possible for this circle to be. ‘I need you to picture her,’ I tell them, when we have reached the moment. ‘I need you to listen to her voice.’

Soon she appears. I see the girl rushing into the rain. She pulls up her hood and runs into the downpour, and disappears. Again and again she disappears. Then I see, vividly, a scarf – a gold scarf.

From the reports in the papers I know that she was wearing a scarf of that colour. The scarf that I see is lying on grass. Slowly a landscape is clarifying: a hill, a low hill, no trees, some windblown bushes, an outcrop of boulders. This is a crime scene, but I am creating it. I do not see the dead, nor where they are. The dead are dead, and beyond reach. They do not speak to me and I do not see them. My talent is not a special sight: it’s something for which I do not have a name. When contact is made, a kind of shimmer runs through me, a presence as uncanny and as powerful and as fleeting as déjà vu. I cannot describe it.

The hill vanishes, and a new scene begins to manifest itself: a path, in woodland, and clothing strewn among undergrowth. The scarf is there, but it has no colour. A barn, a derelict barn, is surrounded by silver birches. This, I think, is a memory. I see a well, amid the birches; a sheet of corrugated iron lies over the shaft. It is a dreadful place: a memory of a place that frightened me many years ago, revived by the dread that has been seeping into me since the daughter’s room. The girl is dead. That she will be found by a ruined barn, in woodland, is nothing more than a coincidence. Or perhaps a form of prediction, just as one could have predicted the arrest of a single man, aged 35 to 45, a man who ‘kept himself to himself’, a man with unhealthy predilections. I did not see her killer. And what I saw was something that I was imagining, I knew, and so I remained silent. I do not provide a commentary on everything that I experience in these situations. I exercise discernment. Possession is not what is happening, and I do not pretend otherwise, though many would prefer a performance of that kind.

‘What’s going on?’ the older son interrupts.

I know that he is watching me again, but I continue without comment, without opening my eyes. The memory of the barn and the birch trees is fading, and still I have no sense of any presence. Out in the street, a man shouts; another man swears loudly from a passing car, and the first man, laughing, swears back. A single sharp snort is expelled by the older brother. It is becoming apparent that he did not care enough for the missing sister, and is troubled by the beginnings of guilt.

The woodland has gone now, and I am wholly conscious of myself, sitting in this room. I open my eyes, and propose that we change the structure of the circle. Under my direction, the daughter replaces her father, each son moves one seat along, the father takes the place on the left of his wife, but she stays with me. She takes her husband’s hand, with a shake, as if urging a decisive effort, but they do not look at each other. This is the first time they have touched since I arrived at the house.

We prepare ourselves for another attempt. Silence is again achieved, but this silence has a quality of falsity, of simulation. It is not the true silence of submission. On one side the mother’s fingers contract on mine, as if she were a rock climber, fearful of slipping. On the other side, the daughter’s hand is gentle. Her thumb strokes mine in a regular and unconscious rhythm. I glimpse the sisters together, laughing, but it’s only a photograph put into motion. Now I see, at a party, someone who resembles the missing girl; she is with the friends from the pictures in her room. Sympathy is doing the work, but it’s not sympathy with the missing girl – it’s sympathy for the family. I want to help them.

By an effort of will I remove the pictures, but the involvement of the will is always an impediment. I am failing. Other faces emerge: I see the parents of the young man who had forgotten who he was, then the naïve and grateful face of the Shoreham mother. I see the Shoreham girl, the Folkestone girl, and the Colchester girl, who has never been found. So many faces appear, of the bereft and the abandoned and the hopeful. It is all interference, which cannot be overcome. I have to end it. Defeated, I come back into the room.

‘I am sorry,’ I say. ‘Nothing is happening.’

All the hands unlink; I retain the mother’s until last. ‘What does that mean?’ she asks, stricken.

If the girl were alive, I would know, if the circumstances were ideally conducive. But here they are far from ideal: there is too much resistance. ‘I can’t say,’ I tell her. ‘All we know for certain is that I haven’t succeeded.’ I apologise again.

‘Should we try once more?’ she asks me, but already her husband is pushing back his chair.‘I think the result would be the same,’ I tell her.

The mother stays at the table, as all the others rise. As if it were a cavern of uncertain depth, she stares down into the tabletop.

Reaching into a pocket, the father says to me: ‘So what do we owe you?’

‘Nothing,’ I tell him.

‘We must give you something,’ his wife says to me. ‘For your time.’

‘No, nothing,’ I repeat.

The father does not press the point. ‘I’ll take you home,’ he says to his daughter, as he pulls back the curtains.

In the hallway, the sons are putting on jackets, having returned their chairs to the kitchen. The younger one brings back his sister’s phone; she has a hand over her eyes, and he places it beside her elbow, carefully. ‘Thank you,’ he says to me, giving me his hand; he will not meet my eye.

From the doorway his brother looks in; his gaze slides past me on its way to his parents. ‘Call you later,’ he says to them. Then, with a sniff of disgust he is gone, taking his brother with him. I see them striding down the drive, the younger lagging behind the older, whose walk has the determination of a man who is on his way to settle a score.

‘Well,’ says the father, looking at me; the tone of the word is interrogative and indifferent. His hands remain in his pockets.

All I can do is apologise again, which is what I do.

‘Let’s go,’ he says to his daughter.

She picks up her phone and turns it back on, then offers me a brief and disappointed smile, as if coming to suspect that she has been deceived. She nods, and follows her father out.

The mother is still seated. ‘Stay for a while,’ she requests, touching my arm. If I leave now, the house will be empty and unbearable. I sit beside her, and she puts a hand, cupped, in front of me. I place my hand over hers. ‘This wasn’t his idea,’ she says. I should not take offence at her husband’s attitude.

‘I don’t,’ I assure her. As a rule, I can see, the husband’s ideas are the ones that prevail here.

‘He’s devastated,’ she says. ‘We all are.’

‘You mustn’t give up hope,’ I tell her. ‘Never give up hope.’

Undeceived, she says nothing, and the sentiment expires in the air. She regards the black rectangle of the television screen, but her eyes are seeing nothing.

‘Shall we move the table?’ I suggest.

It seems that she has not heard me, but then she answers, very quietly: ‘We can do that later.’ She looks at me, for five or six seconds, steadily. It is as if we have been talking about the situation and neither of us knows what is to be done. She releases my hand and turns to gaze at the window. It might be a picture that makes no sense to her; she has no interest in it anyway.

I move to look at the window too. Together we sit in silence for a minute or more, with our faces in the sallow evening light.

As if listening to the sentence of a judge, she nods her head. ‘She was so lovely,’ she says.

No words could be of use. No words are ever of any use. One can only attend. I place a hand on her arm.

When the tears begin, I offer her a handkerchief. She takes it, and presses it to her eyes with force, baring her teeth.

Sometimes love can be rekindled in suffering, but here the opposite will happen, I know. Men find it difficult to love, as women do not.

Her daughter was beautiful, I tell her. Whatever I say, I sound to myself like a priest who long ago lost his faith. But silence would be worse, I think.

‘So many regrets,’ she says. Her voice is a murmur; her eyes are riven by anguish.

I stand up to move my chair, so that I can face her squarely and take her hands in mine. We are joined, with her left hand in my right and her right in my left. There is no resistance now. If the daughter were alive, I would know it. Our hands are resting on my knees, as she talks about her daughter. She smiles and weeps, speaking softly. Her gaze is fixed on our hands, as if they were instruments of devotion.

I will help her, she knows. When the violence of her grief has begun to abate, she will call on me, a year from now, or perhaps two, when the husband has gone. It is a mortal affliction and there is no cure for the pain of it. There can only be palliatives, of which love is the strongest, and she understands what I am offering.

‘Briar Road’ by Jonathan Buckley © Jonathan Buckley 2015

Jonathan Buckley's novel The River is the River was published in 2015 and is available in the bookshop.

Following this year's shortlist announcement we will be publishing extracts from each short story everyday following their reading on BBC Radio 4.