A cup of flesh & bone – Kaisa Saarinen
October 21, 2021
Electric Medusa, Mia thinks, staring down at a black tangle of cables underwater. Her vision is medically intact, yet badly blurred with a certainty of loss. The gleaming cords sway softly in the morning light, surrounded by the debris of skeletal bicycles, leather boots, a mass of things in indeterminate stages of decay. The sight of so much dead matter makes Mia feel overwhelmingly alive. Her body is throbbing a migraine beat, her nervous system awash with nauseatic tides.
‘What did they say to you?’ she asks Rhys, who is kneeling by the water, staring at his pasty reflection.
‘Not enough power to operate the extraction pump.’ Rhys’ eyes wander upwards, at the heaving sky. ‘Besides, it’s not over yet.’
‘It’s already fucked.’
‘Must be about fifty thousand people without power at present. Conservative estimate.’
Neither of them mentions the number of houses submerged, of living beings washed away.
Rhys looks at Mia and smiles in that placid way of his. ‘Look, it’s out of our control. Whoever was in charge of sealing the terminations botched the job so badly, it’s hard not to see it as sabotage.’
‘I’m not looking for a scapegoat.’
‘I’m just saying we don’t need to beat ourselves up about this. Nobody can say we aren’t doing our job. They’ve screwed us over.’
‘Fine. I’m going back inside.’ Mia brushes past Rhys and walks up the little hill to the substation control building.
She stands in the dim entryway, exhaling a hundred times, trying not to think about the infinite hunger of the rivermouth – how it inhales guide dogs and garden sheds, midsummer roses and soft-bellied children. Mia walks into the kitchenette in the back and transfers some water from a yellow canister into a kettle. She sets one of the gas burners aflame and stands over the stove, listening to the liquid boil, cherishing the mundanity of that moment.
As soon as Mia sits down with her mug of nettle tea, surrounded by the ringing silence of the room, bitter thoughts surge right through the barriers she so desperately tries to keep. There is so much anger brimming inside her, and nowhere for it to escape but through streaming down her cheeks, hot and shameful. Rhys comes in and thinks she must be sad; he is wrong, as usual. He doesn’t say anything, but Mia can tell he feels sorry from the way he skulks around her, trying to make himself respectfully contained. Fuck your condescension. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you, she thinks and takes a scalding sip of her tea. Rhys pours himself a fat finger of gin and retreats to his room, treasuring the glass with a two-handed grip. Mia hopes he won’t get too drunk for too long. Now, there is nothing to do but wait.
They have been working together for nearly three months, prisoners of the suburban substation damned by their incompetent predecessors. This forced proximity has only widened the rift between them. The frequent blackouts they’ve been having this summer, with no resources to fix anything quickly enough, are bad enough. The hostile atmosphere only adds insult to injury. Sometimes Mia wishes she could go back to that day she arrived in early March, make more of an effort to forge a connection with Rhys. In her heart, she knows this would only be possible if the change of timelines would also involve a change in personalities. The things that bother her about Rhys haven’t changed since the beginning, were already evident in their first exchange.
‘So you’re from Portsmouth?’
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking – how long have you been here for?’
‘I evacuated six months ago.’
‘You mean from Portsmouth?’
‘But what I’m trying to ask is, where are you from originally?’
Mia had taken a deep breath and feigned confusion. Boring. This was so fucking boring. ‘I was born in Gosport.’
‘No offence, but you look like a refugee.’
‘I am a refugee. From the south coast of England.’
‘Come on, you know what I mean. You look like a Bengali on a boat.’
Mia had not uttered any of the insults that throbbed inside her head, desperate for release. She’d bitten the soft insides of her mouth until she tasted blood. The bluntest thing she has ever said to Rhys is ‘You make a habit of talking about things you have no experience of’. (The retort – ‘Well, I’ve got an imagination. Don’t you?’).
Maybe Mia has got it the wrong way around – it might be a blessing in disguise, having a ready source of irritation close at hand. It is a distraction, after all. There is a white noise of malaise in her head, looping every moment into a rosary of hopes undone. There must have been a time when she experienced life in a different way. Perhaps before she got on that evacuee train; before she graduated; before she knew how it is to perpetually mourn for the living, and the dead. There must have been a time, but it was long ago, and this is the only state of being she knows. Hopelessness breeds a barren kind of fury, arid and cold and infinitely vast. Being mildly annoyed at another person is a very specific itch that one can scratch with silent curses, an oasis within a centreless anger.
The hostility of the outside is bleeding into the well-insulated substation control building. The rain batters the roof, howling wind its loyal accompaniment. Mia’s fingers twitch around the handle of the mug. Her mind thrums with the need to do something, to cut through the thick anticipation with the force of motion. Her body follows, gets up and runs through the door, into the storm, down the little hill. Already the rain is infiltrating her eyes, turning them red and burning. She reaches the boundary of the river, three miles south of where it should be. The constellations of debris shift around as the liquid rises higher, still several inches below the concrete edge Mia is perched on.
She makes a cup of her open palms and bends down to fill it with filthy water. She raises it, lets it spill on the porous surface of stone, and repeats this procedure six, twelve, twenty times. It is insane. She is an environmental engineer. Not enough power to operate the extraction pump. What is this? She stills the motion of her hands, crosses them against her chest instead. She cries, and this time there is something like sadness in it, too.