Editor’s note: To celebrate Bob Dylan’s award of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature Open Books author Paul Breen presents a deleted, Dylan-inspired chapter from the first draft of his novel The Bones of a Season. Breen’s published book can be found on the Open Books website, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
PHEW – finally she was inside. Drenched to the bone, Katy dropped her suitcases to the floor, sighed heavily, and looked around the dry faces in the crowded station. Already she could feel London’s presence, as if she’d stepped over the threshold of this island, and into another country.
Soaked, suitcase-laden she had found shelter from the storm.
Shaking the wet off, as dogs do after playing in the sea and coming back onto dry land, she approached the ticket office, and display board with departure times. She had an open return, and could catch any train. But as she got closer, one word flashed uncomfortably as a flickering lightbulb.
‘DELAYED, DELAYED, DELAYED,’ the schedule screamed from above, as cold and damp sank slowly into every part of her skin and bones—from the last hour, to the present, and the hours still to come.
Hurricane Nigel was sweeping in across England’s coast, and setting the station into a panic—nobody knowing what to expect next.
At least the delay would give her time to go into the toilets, unpack, and find dry clothes. By the time she dried off, the worst of the storm might have passed over the Thames estuary, away from Kent, and into Essex. Then, the trains would be running to London again, and she could go home.
Inside the station toilets, stripping off, she noticed puffiness in her cheeks from nights of drinking, eating late, and sleeping more.
Back in the city, she’d go to the gym, and start a new regime.
‘Just like starting over,’ she mumbled a John Lennon song.
With a dry top and jeans—tight at the waist—she felt fresh.
‘Clean,’ she thought, like getting out of a bath, putting on robes, crossing to the big double room, lighting candles, for a second round.
It was a night of fragrant fire and bruised shoulders.
‘Stop—stop—stop this,’ she ordered her mind.
Outside the station, the storm was still raging.
‘No news yet,’ said the man behind the desk, repeatedly, as each dripping passenger would enter the room, and ask for further information.
Finally, tiring of this ritual, he came out and put up a sign.
No information on departures until further notice.
Settling back into a seat, Katy waited and watched others do the same—weighed down with condensation, sighs, and speculation.
The passage of this storm could take minutes or hours. Inside she felt safe, but threatened too, fearing a crack in the fault line of the walls. Even before it happened, she had a feeling of something wrong in the air—the way that fish are said to have premonitory sensations of earthquakes. She had once read of how, in the hours before the collision of tectonic plates, shoals of catfish have been seen to migrate away from the danger.
Maybe she too should have tightened her shoelaces and started to run, when she first sensed that of all the fucking trains out of Ramsgate, of all the days in the week, she had to choose this hour for her departure.
But if it was bad enough getting caught in a storm, it was worse to see an unexpected guest in this same waiting room, sitting beside another woman.
Immediately, she was disarmed again—by him, and by his guest. Blood boiled in her nostrils. Fragrances too—candles, mud under the fingernails, and then soap on a brush. Sounds—bristles on fingertips, suggestions, laughter, splashes of water, sighing as feelings erupt.
‘Stop,’ she told herself. ‘They haven’t seen you.’
Rising up, trying to ignore the couple, she crossed the waiting room. Taking cover by the side of a coffee machine, she looked out the window to take her mind off the sudden, strange sense of jealousy that she felt.
‘I don’t want him, but can’t bear another woman having him, touching him, being in the same bath, the same bed—no stop this, stop, stop.’
The night was wrapped thick in armour, such was the force of the wind pushing through its womb, and breaking its waters. Feeling the chill, she craved a hot drink and decided to buy coffee from a machine.
Fiddling in her pocket, she took out a 50p, dropped it into the slot, and watched as a disposable polystyrene cup appeared in the bottom compartment. Seconds later, first trickles of pure black coffee appeared.
‘Katy,’ the machine seemed to speak her name.
But it wasn’t a machine. It was a man. Turning her head to trace the voice, the pure black liquid leapt from the bottom of the cup and she was looking into features smooth as coffee beans in magazine adverts.
‘I didn’t realise you were going,’ he said.
‘I didn’t expect to see you here,’ she replied.
‘You were leaving without saying goodbye?’
‘Things don’t always need neat endings.’
‘Endings,’ he echoed. ‘Without words?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I’m going back to London.’
Turning towards the window, she caught sight of the darkening sky. Sure enough, the storm was intensifying. Storms, perhaps, for there was such force there might well have been a whole conference gathering on the island. Hurricane Nigel was readying to engulf England.
‘But we had something good between us,’ he protested.
‘These things pass,’ she insisted. ‘They always do.’
‘And sometimes we get caught up in them.’
Was he playing the same game? Was he saying one thing, and meaning another, feeling goose bumps sting his skin every time the heavens rattled, and raindrops broke against the glass in a shoal of jellyfish?
‘You can choose not to,’ she fought back, resisting the tentacles of her former lover’s eyes, ‘You can take shelter from the storm.’
‘Like the Bob Dylan song,’ he remarked.
‘Maybe,’ she replied. ‘I can’t recall it.’
Perhaps it was amongst Fergus’s treasured music collection. When he wasn’t following football, he was hunting out vinyl in record stores.
Greenwich had several, where he’d spend Saturday mornings, browsing for bargains—mostly Irish, country, and the late 80s music he’d grown up with. She tried hard to think of Fergus shopping there, but again Wagner’s lyrical voice disrobed her thoughts. ‘I could sing it for you.’
‘There’s no need,’ she cut him off abruptly. ‘When I’m back in London, I’ll perhaps check it out, or look it up on YouTube.’
‘Not the same as hearing it in the flesh,’ he teased.
‘Maybe Fergus, my partner, has a copy.’
Finally, she had the men in her life in their rightful places.
His eyes rolled towards the ceiling, playful and dismissive.
‘The song is about a man who takes shelter from a storm.’
‘I kind of guessed that much from the title.’
‘It’s more of a poem or a story than a song, I suppose.’
‘I prefer poetry to songs,’ she forgot herself for an instant.
‘Like a lot of Bob Dylan’s work, there are different layers.’
Again, she felt lured to his voice—no matter how hard she resisted. Caught up in the tentacle of words, she leaned in. ‘The story starts off with someone coming in out of the mud and darkness, to a place that’s safe and warm, but you’re never sure if the story’s being told now, or it’s a memory of the past, because the tense keeps changing.’ Then he paused, searching her eyes, until she turned away from his gaze. ‘Tempo changes too, and there’s tension, which is maybe resolved, and maybe not.’
She could feel the tension, wishing he’d recite the lyrics in that voice, but knowing she should turn back now, towards the light of another house, rather than the one she was being drawn to, slowly, and surely.
‘You’re left wondering if the man’s regretting what happened between them, or regretting the absence of what didn’t happen.’
Maybe that’s worse because you’re left with grief for what might have been – haunted by the ghost of something that was never real.
Though she’d only had sex with Wagner once—that evening after the protest—thoughts of it had been eddying through her mind for weeks.
Several times in the bath she sank back into the bed of nettles, a dizzying sting beneath the surface of the water, where she’d gladly imagine herself as a mermaid submerged in the passion of the moment.
Again his voice became a nettle of grit in the shell of her abdomen. ‘Yet at the same time, the song might not be about desire at all.’
‘What’s it about then?’ she prayed him to tell, and he preyed.
‘Search for God and meaning, and the love of a mother.’
She leaned in. ‘You’ve thought deep about this song.’
‘I think deep about all songs. Doesn’t everyone?’
‘I don’t think so. Most songs nowadays are made of random words scrabbled together, and easily thrown away.’
Suddenly, he grew more animated and his voice boomed across the waiting room with such force it mixed into the thunder.
‘Not Dylan’s music, when we listen up in the hostel.’
Roused with passion, his eyes flared—as in the moment their bodies became as two fishing nets knotted into one, and she changed positions so that she was above him, clenching his flesh in hers, tightening and loosening the knot according to the rhythm of her own desires.
‘Dylan’s voice comes like thunder across an empty sea,’ he insisted. ‘It’s heavy, and at the same time light, rolling off the tongue of the waves. And there’s importance in things he sings about, civil rights and the fight for justice, stories about black people like Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter fucked over by the system. Up in the hostel, we sometimes joke that Stevie Wonder probably doesn’t believe that Bob Dylan’s a white man.’
Hearing Wagner’s passion, the room emptied of all other human life. The sea had risen up and swallowed the world. They, on a deserted beach, in the ruins of what was once a city, surveyed a new dawn on the morning after taking shelter through a night of records, lust, and lamplight.
‘Every good song has its own story,’ he carried on, as she fought to resist the savage force of lust overcoming sense, ‘but there’s room for other people’s stories to come inside and be part of the same song.’
Somewhere in the distance, fresh thunder rumbled—heavy as the wheels of trucks held back from travelling in the port of Calais tonight—giving drivers a welcome break from facing matadors on the highway.
‘You’d fear for fishermen on a night like this,’ she changed topic. ‘They’d face quite a struggle to get back to the shore.’
She too was adrift at sea, fighting the hail.
‘Maybe this storm is never going to pass?’
‘So what happens to those fishermen?’
‘They’ll stay out on the wild seas forever?’
She shook her head, fighting the thought. ‘No.’
They’d have no food and no drink. Madness would consume them if they didn’t starve first, or die of terrible thirst, from winds laced in salt. Maybe they’d survive a single night, but no more than that.
‘You’re right,’ he said suddenly. ‘The fishermen have to go back to their wives, and wives back to the fishermen on nights like this.’
Suddenly, the spell was broken. The enchanting voice was gone. She crushed the coffee cup in her fingers, tossed it towards a bin, and felt closure.
Outside, the storm was still raging. Inside, the other passengers watched on, blind to what had been happening—except for the woman across the way, who was in his company, and also making a journey.
Possibly she had gone to the café too and fallen for his charms. Perhaps she was his Fergus—the heart betrayed.
Had he kissed this woman as a raw onion ruptured in her abdomen, under the slice of his caresses, stinging her body in waves of acid, until her eyes watered, and she was crying for him to cease? She must surely have noticed the chemistry with Katy, and the passion of Dylan in his voice, as he became the incarnation of a perfect mug of coffee.
Catching Katy’s eye drifting and turning a subliminal shade of green, he spoke again. ‘I’ve never introduced you to my cousin Grace. She’s here to pick up a delivery, and then drop it off at the ferry terminal.’
Cousin—the word resonated, and reverberated above the whispers of the waiting room, until even the sea breathed its syllables.
If he had said wife, girlfriend, or lover it would have been far better. Then she could have assured herself she had meant nothing to him. She could have turned away towards a train for London, when one came.
Nothing on the departure board had changed this past half hour.
-DELAYED- the signs insisted in bright white lettering.
Katy glanced across to the woman who was watching them intently, with serious eyes, and furrows in her brow. Wearing a long green dress and shiny black shoes that somebody’s mother might wear, she wasn’t the casual company you’d expect from Wagner. From the first glance in the café, he painted an impression of being charming and easygoing. This cousin was the opposite, with a hard countenance and serious appearance. In fact she was like a witch—a Green Witch in that horrid dress of hers.
‘How come we haven’t met?’ Katy wondered.
‘It’s complicated,’ he admitted, turning away from his cousin’s unsettling stare. ‘Hey, can I get you another coffee?’
‘I’m okay, thanks,’ she replied—then thought of promises she’d made of no more coffees—ever—and no more conversations.
Again her eyes strayed to the stranger who had risen and stepped closer, gazing out on pagan flashes of lightning in Thanet’s skies.
There was no trace of the town that was theirs alone, as this woman watched. Turning around, their glances met for the first time, and this cousin weighed her up with stern eyes, and teardrop scars on her cheeks.
Tattoos of her tribe, Katy supposed—like Fergus’s badge.
As a sword formed in her mind, Wagner’s words pierced the moment. ‘She only came here a month ago. She’s staying at the newest hostel for migrants, the one you pass on the way to the café—with artwork showing the history of immigration, and where the word comes from.’
‘Yes, I know the one. It’s been done only recently.’
Aspects of the mural flashed through her mind.
Immigration—from the 1600s and the Latin immigratum, to go into, to move in—from migrare to move—popularised in the America of the 1700s—giving rise to a wall of words on the edge of the sea—émigré, expatriate, emigrant, migrant, exile, evacuee, deportee, refugee, alien, citizen—some words positive, others negative, like the images beneath.
On a bed of ocean blue, Christopher Columbus led a trail of vessels that featured Viking longboats, prison hulks, slave ships, the Empire Windrush, and the Pilgrim Fathers on their way to Massachusetts.
‘Did you have anything to do with that too?’
‘Sort of,’ he said. ‘I gave them some ideas.’
‘Properly taking after Van Gogh, aren’t you?’
‘What’s Van Gogh got to do with anything?’
She was about to explain that it was a light-hearted comment, connecting immigration and art in this seaside town, when the voice of the man behind the desk sounded, and a fresh notice appeared on the screen.
-ALL TRAVEL CANCELLED UNTIL MORNING-