It wasn’t the grey he hated. In a city, grey is honest. It was colour. Everywhere neon. Too cheerful posters pretending that phone shops wanted to be your friend. Smoothies in knitted hats lying to you in faux casual san serif fonts. People, generally. He hated the duplicity. On the ground of the train station, dappled pigeons pecked their way through fatty crumbs of pastry. Good, thought Timothy. Good that the city is full of fat parasites. It suits it.
The queue moved forward and Timothy walked up to the window. The squat, bored looking attendant didn’t lift his eyes. Timothy noted his lazy stubble and primary blue polyester polo shirt.
'How can I help?' asked the ticket seller.
'I'd like a ticket please.'
'Where to?' 'Anywhere.'
'I can't put in “anywhere”. Whereabouts did you think?'
'I don't know. Surprise me.'
The queue behind Tim had already begun to swell. The ticket seller made a decision. 'How much do you want to spend?'
'I've got seventy pounds.'
'Sixty-three gets you as far as Weymouth. Return is it?'
'No. One way.'
The ticket seller paused, looked up to take in Timothy’s small rucksack and ripped jeans. ‘The single is only a pound cheaper. Get the return.’
In the moment Timothy had thought he must have looked like a run away, or a criminal, or a suicide. Later, on the train, he reflected he’d probably only looked like a twat. The train carriage, with its too cheerful banquette and its dull sweaty passengers, made that twattishness a victory. Better to be a twat than to acquiesce to this. He'd spent the last of his student loan, ditched the inadequate fawning boyfriend and cut off any possibility of contact from either his parents or the university. He was really, truly, nothing now. Hollow and honest and, almost too cliché to say, free.
He thought of the letter he’d binned at Waterloo. I should have kept it, he thought. It would have looked good later, when people read it. But then he looked at the sweaty passengers again, the screaming kid. He overheard some dullard teen talking to her sister. No, it was a shitty letter. Horribly written. All clichés and run on sentences. It was a fetter.
The train had just left London. The familiar and miserable tower blocks had been replaced with novel but still miserable fields. Flats to flats, he thought. And green and brown is not so different from grey and neon. Diminishing kebab shops do not suggest a sudden Wordsworthian lushness. The world is just this, this, this. Things don’t end.
The horror of the letter had been its total misrecognition. Jason, the boyfriend, was not half so empty as Tim, not half so hollow and echoing. The fullness Jason thought he saw only made Tim feel lonely on top of empty. To be so mistook, as if he were a something and not this yawning hole. And ‘I love you’, in the mouth of an idiot, is just idiot speak for ‘I will follow you’. And Jason was an idiot. And Timothy wasn’t interested in being followed. He’d turned off his phone.
An hour later, he woke up with the setting sun shining into his eyes. He turned on his phone briefly to look at a map. No missed calls. The New Forest was close, only twenty minutes’ walk from a station called Brokenhurst. He asked the conductor how long till they arrived there. The conductor told him it was the next stop. Timothy smiled at the simplicity of it. Now that he wasn't real, he was floating on dream logic, like thistle down.
As the road crossed the river Lymington, he left it to walk beneath the oak trees. He trailed his hands over the rough bark and enjoyed the feeling of leaves parting over his trainers. He liked the looming, physical presence of the oaks. He loved the space between them, that seemed to vibrate like the still in a church. He followed the slick curves of the river until he couldn't hear cars anymore. The very last light of the day caught in the outstretched and golden arms of the trees, something like prayer and something like dance. He loved it, its swollen generosity, its unarguable reality. And, being nothing, he became everything, became self-same with the wet soil, the distant cawing of crows, the soft calling of woodpigeons, the moss, the kind smells of leaf mould and hidden mushrooms, the wet on the underside of high ferns and the colours on the faded crisp packet caught in the roots of the field maple.
He dropped his bag to the ground to pull out his tarp. Once the shelter was erect he lay on the ground and waited for the next part of the dream to suggest itself. A little later, the moon rose, smaller than on television and in one of its less poetic shapes, neither crescent or full. Timothy, face down in the leaf litter, awoke and crunched the skeletons of old leaves into his fists. Air moved through the branches, goosepimpling his flesh and, as much as he wanted to think about nothingness, he thought about being cold. He knew what to do.
He stripped off his t-shirt and jeans. He looked along the banks of the river and listened for footsteps. He heard only the soft swells of the breeze through the leaves. Satisfied he was alone, he stripped off his underwear and stood naked in the woods. He looked down at his body and found it neither beautiful or ugly. He enjoyed the effect of the dappled moonlight on it, how alien his body felt to itself, a marble edifice to which he had no attachment or responsibility.
Looking round again, he started to crawl cautiously down the bank. He secured himself against an ash growing parallel to the water’s surface. The reeds breathing against each other sounded like a hive struggling to rouse itself. The air in his mouth tasted green.
He lowered his foot into the water, felt the shock of it in his lungs first as he gasped cold air down into them. Something, finally, like sensation. He lowered the rest of himself in down to the waist. The river bed beneath him was slippery, calf-high mud. As the water slid up along him, to the back of his knee, the underside of his buttocks, the sensitive skin behind his testicles, he gasped and gasped again. It was touch, true and incontestable.
Here, in the water, he was finally wild, finally filmic and authentic. He kicked forward, a body splashing, a no name thing flashing like litter on the river bed. His skin seemed to burn and his body, the moon, the river, the trees all lost themselves in the heat of it. On the other side of self, he thought, out beyond the tawdry business of ‘I am’ there is this other thing, this fullness. I am a starfish turning itself inside out. I am a hollow pot singing a note as the wind blows across it.
He lay on his back to look at the clear sky. He framed this as another act of surrender. The water did not worship him. It did not fawn or versify. It only held him and moved him. The nothing that had been called Timothy loved it.
Sometime later Timothy’s foot caught against a root in the bank. He did not know how far he had traveled, or for how long. He tried to think of absence again, but his body shouted the cold at him. He had started to tremble. An unwelcome thought appeared; at some point he would have to walk back to his tent. He was naked, the longer he floated the longer he’d be vulnerable on the bank. He’d need to eat and start a fire. Reluctantly, he pulled himself free of the water and back up into the trees.
Now his eyes had adjusted completely to the darkness, the forest was a feather hush world of greys and silver, leaves in slithering sibilance moving across once another, their insect scuttling like a series of whispered invitations. Timothy felt himself splitting, as if the steaming fire in his skin were melting him into his component elements. One Timothy, the one who had loved on the river, thrilled in the terrible intimacy of the wood’s silent witness on his body. The other Timothy, a Timothy he had thought he’d left in London, started to wonder about being seen, eating, how long he could survive with no money. That Timothy seemed to pace at the edge of his eye line, despairing and inevitable, bringing London, parents, boyfriends and bodies back with a tectonic certainty.
But beneath both Timothies, Timothy felt a felt a glorious absence. He decided to listen to it for a little while longer. Hidden in the undergrowth a deer watched as the steaming man dropped to his hands and knees. He scrabbled through the paper leaves as if searching for something. When his fingers broke the detritus to the crumbly soil beneath he scooped handful after handful up out of the ground, grunting as he piled it beside him.
He walked towards the river and began to carry handfuls of water back to the pile to moisten it. When this proved too slow, he reached his hands over his head, stretching out his body in animal pleasure, and began to piss. With his arms extended, his eyes closed and urine pooling at his feet, he felt the tangible weight of the night pressing in on him like a lover, the visceral understanding that the air touching him was touching every other thing. Nothing embraces. Nothing enfolds. It slid over and across him. He felt he was making love to the world and the soil bubbled warmly over his toes.
Satisfied that the soil was wet enough, he knelt down to push his hands back into its rapidly cooling body. He kneaded it, working it into a thick, sculptable clay. He worked the leaves into it, his breath, discarded beetle shells. His breath steamed. His hands became slick with slip, a black smear in the dark. The deer decided to run further away from the river.
The figure forming beneath Timothy looked a little like him, but a little like anyone, the way that a mannequin looks like anyone. He used a cold finger to poke in two divots for eyes holes. He rolled a snake of mud between his palms for the clay man’s penis. He pressed old leaves into its surface for body hair. Twigs for stubble. Finally, he used a stick to slowly scratch a hole through the centre of the clay man’s chest.
Dream logic, he thought. Don’t overthink this. He sat down cross legged before the piss and dirt idol. If I don’t exist, and it doesn’t exist, then we are the same. There’s no difference. It’s easy to swap. And nothing watched, and nothing cared and nothing heard Timothy. And nothing swapped with nothing is nothing that could be obstructed. They switched.
Timothy was the clay man. He felt his cold body, the fine cracks slowly forming as the piss evaporated. It felt good, so good, to finally know his place. He could feel the curiosity of the worms beneath him, the potential of chickweed seeds lodged a centimetre under his skin. He looked through the holes where eyes would have been as the clay man walked off into the woods wearing his old body. He wished him the joy of it. He looked forward to the moment when the clay man had gone, and the wind had dried Timothy’s body out, and he had dried out and returned to dust. He looked forward to being forgotten, to finally being able to forget himself.
The clay man lumbered back towards Timothy’s camp. It saw that the boy had not travelled very far. Nowhere near as far as he’d thought. The body was cold. The clay man dressed it with clothes. The body, from old habit, checked the pocket for wallet, keys and phone. It did not take down the tarp or repack the bag. It tilted its head when it looked at these things, and bent to retrieve a snickers that had fallen from the bag, but then it turned away. The clay man walked back towards the train station.
The sign on the board said that the final train back to Waterloo would leave at 22.45. The clay man turned on Timothy’s phone. There was a message from someone called Jason. It said ‘Hey. How’s you?’. The clock on the phone said it was 21.50. The clay man waited at the station for 55 minutes. It didn’t notice the buddleia between the tracks, or the pigeon calling from the trees. It didn’t notice that the wind sounded like a voice. It didn’t notice the flaked paint on the railings, and it didn’t occur that the flaked paint had gotten so because the rain and the wind had been touching it for years. It didn’t notice the oil spillage on the gravel between the tracks. It didn’t notice anything at all. The train arrived.
On the train home, the clay man wondered what he would do with no money. Probably call his parents or borrow some cash from Jason. It didn’t have any feelings about the banquette. He pulled out his phone again and began to type a text message. ‘Hey. I’m good. How’s you? I got your letter. I love you. x’