Emergence by R.H. Dixon (an excerpt)

Here’s an excerpt from Emergence, when John Gimmerick, his young daughter, Seren, and her imaginary friend, Petey Moon, make the journey back to Horden to housesit for John’s mother:

The day of transition started off warm. Low clouds above the North Sea banded the horizon like great albatross wings; a storm gathering, readying to fly inland. For most of the two hours it had taken John and Seren to travel from Leeds to Horden Seren had chattered excitedly, wanting to know if crocodiles are dinosaurs (and if so why aren’t they bigger), if Roseberry Topping is classed as a mountain or a hill (and at what point does a hill become a mountain) and why the Tees Flyover smelt like eggy farts as they drove over it. John had been concentrating on the high volume of traffic while they talked, yet still managed to miss their turn-off. He came off at Murton instead, joining the A19 southbound then backtracking for three miles to Easington. When he pulled off the dual carriageway they followed a long slip road till they arrived at a roundabout. Unhindered by other traffic now, John came to a complete stop and pointed off to the right. ‘See over there?’

Seren looked, trying but failing to see anything of particular interest. Apart from fields, trees and a large grey chequerboard building, which looked out of place in the largely green setting, there was nothing but a rook hopping about at the kerbside and a strip of black polythene snagged on a fence post, its tattered strips flapping in the breeze like corvid wings. 

When she didn’t answer, John announced, ‘That’s where I was born.’

‘In a field?’ Seren made eye contact with him in the rear-view mirror, clicking her tongue to let him know she wasn’t being fooled by his smart-arsed japery. 

John laughed. ‘No, silly, I’m being serious. There used to be some buildings, right there. Thorpe Hospital.’

Her eyebrows rose with piqued curiosity and she took another look. ‘Why’s it not there anymore?’

The corner of the field where the hospital once stood showed no obvious signs of it ever having been there. Green foliage bowed inwards, concealing a small lane that ran alongside it. 

‘I dunno,’ John said, releasing his foot from the brake and pulling out onto the roundabout. ‘It was knocked down years ago.’

Seren carried on looking at the field’s empty corner as they moved off. The rook, seeming to sense her interest, jumped onto the fence and watched her with beetle-black eyes. She raised a hand and waved goodbye. It cawed and spread its wings in return. 

When John announced their imminent arrival into Horden, Seren fell into a quiet, thoughtful concentration, her gaze alternating between the side window at the back and the windscreen up front. Every now and then she would lean to the right and look between the two front seats, her high ponytail bleached blonder by the last few days of sun and her nose and cheeks dappled with freckles. She was wearing her favourite new top: a white t-shirt with a purple tyrannosaurus rex printed on the front. John had bought it from the boys’ section in Next. It coordinated well with the frames of her glasses and she’d insisted on wearing it that morning. John gathered it was a feel-good emblem to mark the beginning of their month-long adventure together and wished he could share her enthusiasm. As they drove along Thorpe Road he was feeling increasingly anxious though. He thrummed his thumbs against the steering wheel, a surge of nervous energy forming a repetitive rhythm on the plastic. Questions and fears resounded in his head like quick-fire assaults: What if it doesn’t work out? What if she hates staying here? What if I hate it even more? 

Air blowing in through the dashboard vents brought with it the smell of Walkers, the nearby crisp factory. The pleasant cooking aroma of thinly cut potatoes failed to appeal because John’s breakfast was sitting uneasily in his stomach. He shifted in his seat, agitated, tugging absent-mindedly at one of the rolled-up sleeves of his checked shirt. And his face began to itch, the memory of the razor’s kiss earlier that morning starting to irritate him with some degree of psychological prickliness. He rubbed at his jawline, the skin smooth beneath his fingertips. 

If either of us doesn’t like it then we’ll go back home, for chrissakes, he told himself with angry resolve. And we’ll take the damn dogs with us.

There, he felt marginally better.

Up ahead a young woman was pummelling the pedals of a pushbike, her tanned calves muscular below cropped leggings. As she rode past on the opposite side of the road John openly stared at her exerted face before eventually deciding he didn’t recognise it. 

Did you really expect to? 

He had no place in this ex-colliery village anymore, didn’t know a damn thing about its residents or street-life. He felt he was little more than a ghost coming back to haunt the setting of his youth, coasting along on a different plane to the one he’d known. Little pockets of recollection opened up with every tree and grass verge he passed, but this initial reacquaintance with Horden seemed to command an altered, perhaps harsher, clarity through his thirty-eight-year-old eyes. He felt overwhelmed and underwhelmed all at the same time.

The Dewhirst factory units, where his mother had worked as a machinist during the seventies and early eighties, were no longer there. In place of the corrugated buildings was a derelict stretch of wasteland and rubble. Directly opposite was the cemetery, now almost full. Oddly, this resting place for both of John’s maternal grandparents, with its neatly lined rows upon rows of gravestones, cherubim, flowers and greenness, looked thriving compared to the ruined site of Dewhirst’s across the road. He supposed the cheaper manufacturing of clothing had been sourced elsewhere, but business would never be short when it came to burying the dead.

Just past the cemetery rape fields stretched out to the left, a vibrancy of aureolin yellow that contradicted the sky’s bad mood. Further off in the distance the sea was brooding, conspiring with the sky to generate one hell of a rainstorm. It was only now, when confronted by it, that John could say with some modicum of sincerity that he’d missed the sea in his absence, its invisible pull instantly causing a renascent longing, a link to his heart. And maybe it was, he thought, no coincidence that he’d been lured back to his place of origin. There was something weighty and unseen in the air all around him. A sense of foreboding as unnerving as the North Sea at its darkest, and it was calling to him in the persuasive, hypnotic tongue of the sultriest of sirens. 

It was the silent cry of nostalgia.

What else could it be? 

A homecoming after almost two decades had passed was bound to cause a conflict of emotions. This sense of wistfulness, or whatever it was, was as thick as lightning-charged static, filling every bit of the Honda and making John feel as though he was encapsulated within a dream – and not a very good one.

Down an embankment, immediately to the left of them, was a cluster of houses and farm structures, and further back leafy trees sheltered a larger, stone building clad in ivy with a vacuous black doorway that yawned through a row of stone pillar teeth. 

 ‘Look, Dad!’ Seren said, breaking the silence inside the car. ‘A haunted house!’

John smiled, pleased to be distracted from his own thoughts before his mood dipped below reform. ‘Hey, you might be right, kidda. That’s Horden Hall. It’s been there since around the sixteen hundreds.’

‘Wow, that’s even older than Petey Moon.’

‘I should say so, he’s only nine isn’t he?’

‘Yes, but he’s been nine for like forever.’

‘Of course. Silly me.’ John looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Seren had directed her attention to the empty seat next to her.

‘Actually, he wants to know if anyone lives there?’ she said, before swivelling her head and stretching round in her seat for a continued view of the portentous building that was Horden Hall.

‘I’m not sure, kidda. I expect so. When I was your age your granddad used to tell me tales about there being tunnels in the cellar that went all the way down to the beach.’

‘Cool. Does that mean the people who own the house own the beach as well?’

‘No.’ John smiled. ‘The tunnels, if there ever even were any, were allegedly used for smuggling.’

‘What’s that?’

Checking the rearview mirror again, he saw her blue eyes staring back, waiting to be enlightened. ‘Er, let’s see. It’s when people fetch things they shouldn’t into the country.’

‘Things like what?’

‘Oo I dunno, lots of things. Cigarettes. Alcohol. Perfume…’

‘But why?’

‘To avoid paying tax. Then when they sell the goods on, they make more money for themselves.’

Seren’s brow crumpled and she looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘Lucy Dale’s dad fetches cigarettes back from Spain. He sells them to his mates at the pub, does that mean he’s a smuggler?’

John laughed before he could stop himself. ‘Suppose it depends how many he fetches back, kidda.’

‘Lucy reckons he only takes two sets of clothes to last him all week so’s not to take up much space in his suitcase, then before they come home he stuffs it full of Superkings. He must fetch quite a lot back.’

John was both astounded and amused by his daughter’s matter-of-fact tale-telling. ‘However many he fetches back,’ he said, ‘it sounds to me like Lucy Dale says way too much about her dad. I dread to think what you must tell the other kids about me.

Seren shrugged, pushing her glasses up even though they didn’t need pushing up. ‘Not a lot really. There’s not much to tell.’

‘Gee thanks.’

‘It’s true. You work all the time and you’re always tired.’

‘Surely there must be more to me than that?’

‘Hmmm. You drink too much mucky beer and don’t shave as much as you should.’

Ouch!

‘Cheeky little sod, you mean to say you never liked my beard?’ John rubbed his hairless jawline. 

Seren caught his reproachful glare in the mirror and giggled into her hand. ‘Nuh-uh, it’s horrible. Makes you look like an old man. You look much better today.’

‘Well, I’m pleased that today I have your approval.’ 

‘And I’m pleased that today you’re making an effort.’ 

‘Good, then we’re both pleased.’ John became aware only now that his freshly shaven face was just as symbolic as Seren’s t-rex t-shirt. On some subconscious level, without him having realised, he’d made the effort to clean himself up with a view to starting afresh.

They passed along Sunderland Road and John saw four teenagers in caps and skinny jeans standing about in a Perspex bus stop, all of them interacting on smartphones instead of with each other. He remembered being that age only too well. Leaving school with a handful of decent grades and going steady with the girl he thought he’d marry and regular band practice in his mate’s parents’ garage, because he was going to be a rockstar someday. A life full of opportunities had stretched out before him. How quickly things had changed.

On the other side of the road, opposite the bus stop, an expanse of green passed by. The pony field. John could remember whippet racing and football games taking place, but in all his life he’d never seen a pony tethered there. It was during Horden’s industrial heyday that the field had been used for keeping pit ponies on, way before his time, but the name had stuck and was passed down through the generations. He could vaguely recall the demise of the coal-mine in the mid-eighties, but even that was long after ponies had been swapped out for machinery. Nowadays the pony field was still as pony-less as he’d ever known it, overlooked by elevated red-brick, semi-detached houses that had been built in the seventies. With matching white fascia boards and jaunty, narrow windows, synonymous with style at the time, the uniform houses weren’t ageing too badly, but neither were they retro-cool just yet.

Further on, straight over the mini-roundabout, John was surprised to see The Bell: a large public house with Tudor-style façade. In his late-teens he’d spent many a weekend there, it being one of many stop-offs for him and his mates on their infamous Saturday evening pub crawls. Suffice it to say there’d be no shenanigans of that type going on this time around. The only inebriated crawling John was likely to be doing was to and from his mother’s kitchen, either side of the witching hour.

Approaching the traffic lights outside Memorial Park, he shot a glance down Blackhills Road and saw the impressive stone bulk of St Mary’s. It was the same warm, oatmeal biscuit colour he could remember, and the green-grey tint of its slate roof was now complemented by a shiny new golden cross. The church looked as grand as ever, yet John felt nothing but emptiness and a certain despondency towards it. 

When red flashed to amber he pushed the accelerator pedal down and cruised past the clock tower on the left, which still stood white and proud amidst pristine lawns in the park itself. He remembered playing there as a kid: blocky and footy with Stuey Griggs and Daniel Homestead on and around the green, sometimes knocky-on-nine-doors up Park Terrace where they’d knocked on random doors and run like hell. He also remembered lying on the sloped green opposite St Mary’s with a girl called Maria – her face more memorable than her surname. She’d had long wavy auburn hair and the colour of her eyes, strangely, had reminded him of the underside of a crocodile. The pair of them used to roll from the top of the bank to the bottom, then lie there with their fingers interlocked. They’d watched clouds roll by overhead, dreaming up shapes as well as their futures. That was in a time before kissing involved tongues and life became complicated. A time now untouchable, save for such fleeting, dog-eared images of his mind’s rosy eye. 

Ah Maria. 

He wondered what had become of her.

The motorbike shop at the top of Cotsford Lane and the Chinese takeaway on the corner of Third Street soon passed by on his left, then the Comrades Social Club and Kingy’s coal yard on his right; all of them markers of his youth in one trivial way or another. The instant recognition of each seemed to imbue a deeper sense of melancholy within him, which in turn brought with it a dose of guilt and shame. These buildings from the past had stood through so much and all remained impartial to the worst of Horden’s secrets and scandals. They didn’t judge, they were nothing but bricks and mortar after all, but their being there made John judge himself. He’d been away for so long yet they had continued to exist. They were all testament to the idea that without him the world could, and would, carry on unabashed but also that past problems would continue to exist for as long as he did. Not for the first time John felt as though he was drowning in a void of black-dark insignificance, with nothing to grab onto. Not even sentimentality, because that didn’t belong to him. Not here. 

By no means was his downward spiral in mood an indulgence of self-pity, or even a type of pity reserved for Amy, his dead wife, without whom the world and everything in it was still spinning. These feelings of regret simply provoked a caustic question to arise within him. A question that had all the ferocity of acid reflux and had burned a hole – a deep, empty, growing chasm – in his core and plagued him most days: What’s the point in all of this?

‘Dad are we nearly at Gran’s yet?’ Seren was peering between the two front seats and her voice disrupted John’s thoughts, prompting the answer to his own question.

She was the point. 

‘Yeah, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘Here we are.’

Emergence on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01E4VBLGC

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