Asleep in the water
March, 2000





The final fragment of the Manhattan 2050 Serial takes us to Danielle's childhood and uncovers the origins of her
"fear of light" and the word "Niamh"inscribed on the key she found in the grass of Broadway

//fragment begins// she was six they lived in a turn-of-the-century house with a large attic. One night, she stood at the top of the last flight of stairs and pushed opened the door. The one window was dark and the smells of tar and mothballs sharp in the cool fall air. The little Tandy nuclear reactor's red light flashed steadily. Danielle saw with a shudder that far down under the eaves, there was a triangular compartment five feet high, which had always been hidden by a wall of thin boards and plaster and a pile of trunks. A beam of yellow light was slanting into this space through the steep roof. She could not see what made the light or what it shone on, and stood very still squinting at the motes of dust moving slowly in the bright steady beam.

Then she knew suddenly, without thinking, that this light was a sign of all the loneliness and death in the world. An image flashed through her: a large corner room with high windows, sleeping men, men with no homes or families, lying ominously still in their chairs, late on some distant afternoon. she bucked in her bed and woke up and went and sat in the bathroom on the edge of the tub with the light on for a long time. her stomach hurt and she couldn't stop blinking her eyes. That was the first time she saw the light and years later, reading about chemical film in a history book, she realized that it felt as though she had been exposed like a piece of film.

* * *

Several years later they had gone to California, and during the winter holidays they choppered inland to the foothills of the Sierra Madre to stay with a friend of her father's, before he began his downward spiral. It was a modern pine-planked house that had a sauna and a big kitchen with waffles for breakfast. In the daytime they skied cross-country in powder, sliding the the long awkward skis among the fir trees that crowded the small hills, under a constant low ceiling of slatey clouds, with the tall handsome friend, a doctor, their guide and instructor.

At night, her hamstrings aching, she sat in the sauna, breathing the red wood and intense dry heat, her small body sweating gratefully. She had her own bedroom with a small bathroom, and on the last night of their visit while the four adults sat up late after dinner, she bunkered herself under a heavy wool blanket with the door ajar to let in the smell of the fireplace and the sounds of voices and glasses, occasional words and phrases resolving themselves in her ears. "...especially in summer...his French was terrible...character..."

Someone had put out the bedside lamp after she fell asleep, and before dawn she woke up and stared into the chill darkness of the room. She was glad to find she wasn't afraid of the dark. Then she sat up in bed, and saw the sliver of light coming out from under the bathroom door. There was a low roaring noise. The fan of the electric heater built into the wall must have switched itself on with a thermostat. The light must have been from the orange glowing coils of the heater. But the light had a fierce ultrawhite luminosity. It would be unthinkably, blindingly bright in the bathroom for the gap under the door to glow like that. She was stubbornly afraid and unwilling to know what the light portended, but could not look away from it. In shame at her fear she lowered her head under the blanket.

A series of three images appeared in rapid succession behind her tightly closed eyes: a clearing in the trees located by a shaft of sunlight; a big man half-kneeling in the snow there, alone in some terrible despair; the hot coils of the heater very close and roaring. she got out of bed and averting her eyes walked quickly out into the darkened kitchen. Through the window over the sink she could see the close circle of trees and then, with relief, the sky crowded with stars. The day would be sunny and they would be gone from this place.

She ate some cold grapes from the fridge, watching the sky, and in a while went back into the room and shut off the heater, which had returned to normal functioning. Her father's friend died in the spring, but only years later did she find out that he had committed suicide in the woods.

* * *

She was 18, walking some time after midnight down the main road of Holyhead, a port town in Wales from which the skimmer goes to Dublin. She and her friend Patrick had hitchiked from London with some 40 pounds between them. The route had been almost put out of business by the chopper service from London, and a schedule in a plastic case told them that the next boat went at noon. Already cold and hungry, they looked with increasing frustration for an all-night chip shop, train station, or church. The town was empty under the streetlights, and shuttered tightly against a sharp October wind off the Irish Sea. Nothing was open. In the little fishing harbor the boats rocked about madly.

Cursing Holyhead and wanting to see the ocean, they walked out towards the jetty, along a street of disrepaired modest houses facing an oily freight canal. they kicked a beer can noisily down the street. Some of the houses had graffiti on them; football crap, couples' names, political oaths. "Niamh a USA" was spraypainted across the front door of one. They looked at each other ironically, two New England kids months and miles from home.

It was colder on the jetty, whitecaps flashing in the darkness and a coarse spray flying high over the seawall. they hunkered down behind a wall with the wind at our backs.

"What do you want to do?" she asked Patrick. He was older and wiser than her, and two years sober with Alcoholics Anonymous and she was worried that this situation would make him want to drink. "Never get too cold, too tired, too hungry or too angry," went one of the many AA slogans pasted on the walls of the shabby meeting rooms they visited together in London.

"We gotta get indoors," he said. "We'll get back to town and hail a cop car. There's a police station somewhere in this shithole."

"Sounds great. Sit on a bench in a police station all night."

"They might let us sleep in a cell." He rubbed his eyes. "You want to freeze to death out here."

"Fuck, dude."

She put up her collar and began walking back along the frontage road. Just past the "Niamh" house she stopped. Patrick was looking at the house. The door was very slightly ajar, too much to be locked. they looked up and down the empty street, then walked over and squinted through the crack. In the little entry foyer, some newspapers lay crumpled. they went inside and closed the door behind them. A second door was closed but the lock barrel was missing. Looking through it she saw a staircase. Patrick knocked politely on the door, waited and knocked harder. they shoved the door, pushing some rubbish with it, and walked into the house.

She looked up the stairs and froze. The Light was hitting the wallpaper and seemed to almost pass through it. It was squared off by shadows, its source somewhere above her. Her heart began to pound rapidly and she turned to Patrick but he had gone into the ground floor room. She glanced up again at the rectangle of light and then followed him.

The place was trashed. At one end of the room was a kitchenette with all the cabinets open and dirty dishes piled on the counter and in the sink. Against the back wall, a brokenbacked couch of indeterminate color had cushions and possessions strewn about. A candle was stuck to the table and she lit it and sat down on the couch. Patrick found a few more candle-ends and pulled the curtain across the single window and in a minute the room was illuminated.

They rifled the cabinets and came up with a big can of beans, a tin of herring and a can with no label. She also found a smelly rubber "winemaking kit." They opened the beans with a clean knife and heated them a little over two candles and ate them with the knife. Then they ate the herring. The can with no label was full of some nasty english meat. On the table was a quarter-full pouch of virginia tobacco and some loose papers, and she rolled a sloppy cigarette and lit it and looked around.

Someone had moved out--or just left--in a hurry. They began trying to figure out who he was. The console was gone. Stuck between the couch cushions was a little envelope of digital photo prints. In once picture, a straggly-haired man sat in this room, posing earnestly with a young girl who stood holding a minature wooden guitar. The guitar was sitting broken on a folding chair. In other pictures a very pretty scandinavian-looking woman smiled frankly at the camera. In the pictures the house was sunny and neat. There was a debit book, the top few checks stained with brown ash. They opened a drawer and found a sheaf of letters, in dutch, all signed "love, Mika." There were some sort of court papers relating to possession of cocaine. The man's name was David Robathan.

Patrick lay down in the Lazy Boy chair, pulled his jacket over his head, and went to sleep. She sat on the couch smoking and watching the candles flicker in the draughty room. Outside she could hear the cold ocean and beneath it the sound of some immense engine idling. she lay down and closed her eyes and tried uselessly to sleep. She looked out at the staircase and stood up.

The Light shone hard and bright on the wall as she came up the stairs. To the right of it was an absurd black velvet painting of a tiger poised to attack. She was very frightened and wanted to stop and go back down but she knew that if she did the fear would keep her up all night and she was too tired for that. The door to the bathroom was open and it looked clean; it suddenly occurred to her that illogically someone could be sleeping up here. She tiptoed to the door, the Light pouring around the edges of it. For a moment she held her hand in the light and looked at it. The Light was chemical yellow and her hand was shaking. Then she gently pushed open the door, ready to run if she had to.

The room was painted light blue and was immaculately clean, the bedcover smooth and taut across the twin bed. Fifteen feet outside the window the heavy halogen streetlight streamed in past the heavy open curtains. She caught her breath and began to laugh quietly. The room looked very bright and comfortable. On the bedside table an alarm clock ticked away beside a pretty wooden box. The birch dresser had empty drawers and a few man's socks and underwear, and in the little top drawer a neat gold chain lay curled on a bit of paper. she closed the curtains and lay down carefully on the bed, the springs gently creaking.

* * *

In the morning they went to the dock and found that the fare was 26 pounds. they could not both cross with forty. They decided to see about sneaking onto the big ferry somehow. It was loaded hundreds of cars and trucks and they waited outside the trucker's bathroom in the waiting lot, asking for lifts. A trucker told them that the ferry charged cars by the passenger anyway. Then a middle-aged man with a Welsh accent pointed at an outbuilding on the other side of the perimeter fence of the where the cars and trucks would queue. "Do ye see those train tracks?" he said. "Go down to past the fence and walk in along the tracks. When she heave up alongside that shed come out quick. she'll put youse in her trailer."

They humped along the rail tracks, sneaking behind the auto ticketing booth, and hid for what seemed like hours on the chilly ocean side of the shed hidden from the sun. The huge Russian and Finn ships lumbered past with no people in sight. They could not get on the ship from here without a car. At last our man came driving along, towing a small mobile home behind his Ford. He slowed slightly and they came out running and she grabbed the door handle of the RV. It was locked. they ran up to the car and pulled at the back door handles; fumbling he opened them. It was too late. The cops up ahead were already walking towards the car. "Tickets, kids?" they said brightly.

They got to see the inside of the jail briefly, and a little before noon satisfied they were harmless they patronizingly cut them loose. Outside she gave Patrick all her money except five pounds; he had a grandmother he had never met in Ireland and she was old. They embraced quickly and he took off for the ship running. she walked down to the motorway in the sun and stuck out the thumb. It was late at night again by the time her last ride was driving in the rain along the London M1 flyover. Spread out in all directions, a million lights glittered in the houses along the wet dark streets, and she realized that it was everywhere. The yellow streetlights passed in in a steady rhythm through the humming car