When Beth is struck by lightning again, the father of her dead boyfriend Sam, who died in a storm, pays her a visit at home.
When the storm blew away, the ants flew in. The sky pressed down, cracking concrete, killing plants. Old people had turns, dogs lolled in the street and young lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other.
The tale of Beth’s lightning strike carried on the sticky wings of the kamikaze ants flying over the village. They were larger than normal with clunky armoured bodies and white diaphanous fairy wings too long for their frames. There were thousands of them, clogging the airwaves, crowding the pavements and dropping from the sky.
Beth slumped over the table, relishing the silence of an empty house. She wondered if the buzzing in her head would ever leave. It was a constant quickening, a swoosh of excitement at the base of her skull, and when she closed her eyes, the blackness was ripped with jagged light.
A car spun up the driveway spitting shingle from its wheels and Beth knew it was not her parents. As she walked to open the front door, her feet peeled and stuck to the cold tiles like post-it notes.
Sam’s dad, Dave was leaning on the door when it opened and he stumbled over the THIS IS NOT A DOORMAT into the hushed dark hall where she waited. He was so close that Beth could smell the tang of ale on his warm breath. She stepped back.
“Mum and Dad aren’t here.”
He looked at her. As if encouraged by the chime of the grandmother clock, he said, “I just wanted to make sure you were OK.”
Beth wasn’t sure what to do with him, so she led him into the best room. Barred unless it was a special occasion, Beth and her sisters sometimes forgot a space existed behind its closed door. Inside, the delicate ticks of the carriage clock shared time with two grimacing china spaniels and a wedding portrait of her parents looking startled.
Dave sat next to her on the edge of the sofa and it slowed his breath. They sat in silence. The carriage clock slowed down and the spaniels watched with interest.
“I just wanted to make sure you were OK,” he said, more confidently. “I didn’t like leaving you like that in the storm. It wasn’t right. But, we couldn’t stay.” He sounded as if he was muttering to himself.
“It’s fine,” said Beth automatically. She didn’t know what to tell him. Yes, she was OK; no, she was not OK.
“It was too much for Ashley. She has bad nerves. It brought it all back, not that it’s ever gone away, but seeing you like that, made her wonder, us wonder, if that’s what it was like for Sam. Ashley said it must have been agony. She hadn’t thought of it like that before. She thinks he suffered. And we didn’t want to have to think like that. Not now, not three years later, for it to come back again, so sharp and vivid and loud. We’re drowning, me and Ashley, we’re drowning.”
“Did it hurt?”
“I don’t think I can remember.”
“Did it hurt Sam?”
“I don’t know.”
But Beth thought that she might know. Whenever she thought of him, it was only the dead Sam she could see, lying in the mud, black liquid seeping from his mouth like a tree weeping resin. She raised her head and looked at Sam’s father. Unhappiness puffed out of him like the clouds of flour from his bread rolls.
“You’re lonely,” she said.
“There is no bottom to this sadness, is there?”
Beth watched two ants locked in Dave’s wiry hair, which was the colour and texture of the brillo pad on the kitchen sink. It would scrape her fingertips if she touched it. He banged the side of his head with a flattened wrist and Beth imagined some tangoing ants in the caverns of his ear. They were smooching to Ella Fitzgerald records inside his mind, rubbing their wings against the other through the rhythm. She reached over and brushed the insects from his hairline. As she lowered her hand he grabbed her wrist.
“How are you?” Beth dislodged a fruit pastille from the side of her teeth. She thought she would never really know the answer to that question.
“No. I mean. Who are you?” He looked as if he wanted to drag the answer from her lips.
“Mum thinks I’m epileptic but I’m not. Did you feel that ball of light in the room? Did you see me hold the ball of light in my hands?”
“When the lightning came, I saw you talking to someone, you were talking and you were calm. You smiled. I saw you smile. What did you say? Who did you see? Was it Sam?”
And this time he was tracing the pink fossilised scar on her inner arm with a trembling finger. She let him follow the lightning trail all the way to her wrist, which he circled with his thumb and forefinger.
“Who are you Beth?”
“I thought it was the sun, but it wasn’t,” she said. “It felt like I was holding the sun.”
She tried to look around him without catching his eye. Sadness shrouded his body. Every time he spoke or moved, he made a tremendous effort. His broad shoulders triggered something in her. They held Sam’s shrug. And when he unconsciously raised his shoulders as he asked her that question, she had an overwhelming desire to hold his hand.
“Would you like a beer?” Beth had never offered anyone an alcoholic drink before. She returned with a can of her father’s lager from the fridge, pressed the metallic cold on her cheek and handed it to him. It was not until Dave opened the back of his throat and tipped the contents down in one swift motion, that she worried what her dad would say.
“Come here Beth.” It was not a request. He pulled her from the sofa onto his knee and placed his hands to her face. No one said a thing. Beth knew what was coming. The taste of beer was overpowering. He smelled of damp bread and nerves. His silver-stubbled chin grazed her face. Beth held her breath and clasped her knees with clammy hands.
She closed her eyes, she folded into him; she kissed him full on the mouth. He stroked her hair, he rasped her name into her lips, he pushed his thumb against her teeth. She pulled him down, the stiff fabric of the sofa prickling her bare arms, light and dark flickering as she closed and opened her eyes watching his hungry face, his trembling upper lip. How simple it was to melt against him. She left and watched the scene from the fireplace below her great great aunt’s china dogs.
Sam’s father cleared his throat. He let her go. The carriage clock chimed five and he sank back into her mother’s tapestry cushion. They lay on the sofa for a long time. The long afternoon shadows of the poplar trees shuddered and stretched along the parquet floor like old ladders. Beth wondered what was next.
She swallowed his taste from her mouth. His grief trickled down the back of her throat and lodged above her heart like a large pill she shouldn’t have swallowed whole. She needed a drink. The bees in her head buzzed on. Dave’s sadness pulsed and settled deep inside her.
“I just wanted to understand. Is there anything else you can tell me? I miss him.” It sounded like he was apologising.
Beth shook her head. “I think I hold a kind of terror. I think nothing will ever be the same again. That I am no longer normal.” And then she stopped, pulled her wrist from his grasp and sat up. “Can I show you something?”
For one moment, upstairs, Beth thought it was a bad idea. But then she knew that if she didn’t show him this, she had no idea what might happen next. She stopped in the hallway in front of the mirror and listened to him humming beneath his breath next door. She looked the same. Pale face pointy beneath her fringe, eyes shooting darts of golden light, the mirror glittered as if it was full of camera flashes. Sam was standing behind her, inky chin and torn T-shirt, he reached around her body and smoothed down the ripples in her dress. Beth walked back into the room.
“What’s all this?” Dave was rubbing his eyes as if he’d surfaced from a deep sleep.
“Treasure.” Beth opened the old shoebox and emptied its contents onto the sofa seat. He didn’t say anything but she watched him move his eyes from a tiny seashell to a dragonfly husk and a Peruvian stamp. Years of her life compressed.
“What have we here?” he said in a whisper. He fingered some of the objects. A polished wooden egg, a sea-smooth slip of blue glass.
“Treasure. I’ve been collecting it since I was six or seven. Since I was young.”
“Since you were young.” He said this in a way that was not a question or a polite echo but something uttered by someone who knows a lot, to someone who knows very little.
“Sam wanted to see it.” Beth tried to read his face but his head was bowed, shaking fingers slipping over shards of treasure.
“Shit,” he whispered. “Shit.”
Beth handed him Sam’s mix tape from the treasure trove. Sam had presented it to her at the picnic the day he was struck dead by lightning. His purple, spidery writing neatly filled each line. Dave cradled the tape in two hands as if it might break.
“Let me keep it,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, sad that she would lose this too.
He was crying now, as the silent music tape rested on his knee. She took it from him, opened the case and posted it into her father’s silver tape cassette recorder. It whirred and hissed and the needles on the dials shot up and down. It began with the sound of an electronic keyboard and then a soft-voiced woman joined them in the room.
Beth sat next to face Dave and thought, I wonder how wrong something can get? She pressed his wet crumpled face into her bony chest, where a caged bird flapped its wings, and said, “Ssh. Just listen.”
The evening ticked on. A long sliver of light shone on the polished parquet floor and flying ants sparkled in and out like fairies. A boy beneath the soap-smudged moon glared through the French windows and the stars fell like stones from the sky.