Some idle thoughts about books and babies.
In 2018, LossLit published a story of mine with the title We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. “I have always dreamed I would die in an aeroplane crash,” the narrator begins and then goes on to detail his attempts to make this dream come true.
On the day the story was published, Helen and I were on a plane ourselves. I’ve never had a fear of flying before but on that trip I remember closing my eyes as we roared down the runway, knotting my fists as the plane raised its nose and took off. I prayed that nothing would go wrong on the flight because I couldn’t bear the thought that my last published words (if anyone were to read them) would be misinterpreted.
“It’s what he wanted,” someone might say. “What are the chances of that?”
We Are Now Beginning Our Descent is the first story in my new collection, which itself bears the unwieldy title, Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land. The collection is due to be published by Unsung Stories, it might already have been published by the time you read this, although I probably won’t get a copy in my hands for some time afterwards. In 2019, Helen and I moved from the UK to Australia. International post is slow, shipping is compromised and thanks to the pandemic, the borders are closed tight so there’s little chance of us getting on a plane again any time soon.
With the recent climate reports warning of the unhealable scars left by air travel, I am not afraid of flying, but I am afraid of its consequences. Even as news of the country reopening starts to filter through, the appetite for travel seems to have become distasteful. But it feels increasingly like a necessary evil to us: a plane flight, two plane flights, more, if we accommodate return trips, lie between us and the families and friends we haven’t seen for years.
In the next week or so, a book of mine will be published.
In the next few weeks or so, Helen is due to give birth to our first child. Right now, he’s getting too big for her, stretching his limbs and kicking at her ribs. He rolls around like a knot of eels and the skin of her belly ripples when he hiccups.
Book and baby. We’re laying bets on which will get here first.
There’s something purgatorial about these last few weeks. The same sense you get in an airport waiting room. Our administration is largely complete, we’re as prepared as we imagine we can be (we’re not prepared, we know this and have made a sort-of peace with it), and we watch the clock hands tick closer towards the due date which may or may not be accurate.
He might come early. He might be delayed. He might be held up due to impossible demands put on printers and international paper shortages. But we wait on uncomfortable chairs, waiting to be moved somewhere else to wait some more.
Helen juggles the symptoms of the third trimester as though she’s gamely approaching an end-of-level boss. For my part, I hover and flutter, trying to clear a path for her through the trivia of the world, but I know I’m impotent, unhelpfully helpful. I want to make everything easier but I know I can never understand.
A thread running through my collection toys with the implications of Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation, with every decision made by every living thing creating a new universe of possibility. In the story, The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct, a man dies at the same age in every possible universe. It’s a terrible tragedy, unobserved to most, but to a group of scientists monitoring the ways in which the worlds diverge, the man’s extinction provides the data needed to map reality in all its infinite, impossible scope.
“Why do you write such miserable things,” my mum asked me over Zoom.
“I don’t think they’re all miserable,” I said.
I look around the house and it feels like a deathtrap. All the things we’ve accumulated, lovingly and carelessly, look lethal and irresponsible from the context of the family we might become. I see a million ways an injury could occur. A million things that could be choke or strangulate or suffocate. The staircase seems steeper, the road outside too fast.
We go to a newborn first aid class where injuries and accidents are catalogued with a level of detail that seems almost malicious. They talk us through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on infants but we can’t practice on the plastic dolls they’ve provided because the Covid regulations won’t permit it.
“You need to cover the whole mouth and nose.” The instructor opens her own mouth as wide as she can to illustrate.
The book feels more personal than the other ones I’ve written and I’m apprehensive about how it will be received; if it will be received at all. Some of the stories are inspired by things said or things witnessed but none of them are true. Anecdotes, jokes, ‘you wouldn’t believe what happened next’. I always worry that when friends and family read my stories, they’ll think I’m writing about them, or worse, that I’m writing about myself and all the ostentation it might imply. I worry how the occasional first person narrator is perceived and weighted based on those who know me.
Fiction isn’t what’s real or what could be, but perhaps a form of it is located somewhere, many branches and forked paths down the line from the trunk of the reality that imagined it.
We wait for the planes to fly again so we can introduce the child we’ve yet to meet, to his grandparents, his cousins, his aunts and uncles. We wait for the world leaders to do something, anything to keep the world alive for a new generation to live in and tip the balance. In Australia, where there’s enough sun and wind and tides to power the country multiple times over, the politicians’ heads are buried in the coal. In the UK, the health service and everything else is on the brink of collapse while a public school government trample everything and everyone to secure themselves lucrative retirements.
“How could you bring children into a world like this?”
It’s an admonishment that only considers a single version of the world. At this moment, our child is as infinite as the realities he might grow up in.
It terrifies me, it overwhelms me, it moves me on such a scale I can’t quite grasp the edges of it. His approach seems impossible, bewildering and yet he simply is. Somehow, as if by magic, he’s on his way, breaching the borders of the real world and keeping us all in the air.
Unexpected Places to Fall From, Unexpected Places to Land
by Malcolm Devlin
Malcolm Devlin’s stories have appeared in Black Static, Interzone and Shadows and Tall Trees. His first collection, You Will Grow Into Them, was published by Unsung Stories in 2017 and shortlisted for the British Fantasy and Saboteur Awards. And Then I Woke Up, a new horror novella, is due to be published by Tordotcom Publishing in 2022.