Matt Thomas


Matt Thomas is a writer who lives in South London.

View as PDF: Matt Thomas - Cup and Ball 


Cup and Ring       

Coming back from her regular walk, Emily had to leave what was left of the old woods and cross a road to a field full of Defra machines. Most of her neighbours refused to walk through the field. They said they didn’t like the noise the machines made; the sound of the wind turbines annoyed them and scared their dogs. They were also suspicious of the mists the machines sent out just after dawn and before dusk. Whenever the mists were blown towards the village they became anxious, even though the official literature they had received through their doors explained that it was only “water with the occasional inert lipid mixed in”. Emily had once been caught in one of the mists; the vapour had felt slightly warmer than the air when it landed on her skin and smelled faintly of apples.

      As she stepped into the road, she could see a man sitting in the gate that led to the field of machines. He was next to an expensive racing bike. His right leg was off at the knee and he was plucking at the fabric of his cycling trousers and gathering it around the stump. The material had gone flaccid where the leg was missing but was still taut around his muscled thigh.

      “Are you OK?” she asked. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. But I thought I’d better say something.”

      “I’m not actually,” he said. “I think I might need a hand. This has stopped working. Completely seized up on the ankle.”

      He pointed at the artificial leg lying on the grass next to him. It was a dull pink colour, hairless and plump; it looked heavy and solid, as if it had never been able to move.

      “I was on the last stretch,” he said. “Everything was fine until I got here. If you can just help me up onto the bike, I should be fine to get home. It’s just along the lane. I do need you to hold that though. If you don’t mind.”

      The leg was hot in her hands. It was awkward to hold but not disturbing. It felt completely unlike a limb, more like a length of dense timber or a roll of carpet. Emily expected it to flex under her hands but it was rigid. The hole was slick with a clear liquid and she could just make out thin shapes rearranging themselves in the darkness of the socket. Some of the liquid oozed down the calf of the leg and onto her hand. She took a ball of tissue from her coat pocket and swabbed it off the leg, then wiped her hand on her coat.

      “Is it supposed to be leaking?” she said.

      “The gel?” he said. “That’s nothing to worry about. It’s supposed to help it connect to me. Like super KY or something. That sounds worse than it is. It’s harmless.”

      Emily crouched next to the man and he put his arm over her shoulders. They levered themselves upright and humped him up to the saddle of his bike. She walked alongside him, holding him steady as he pushed himself along with his foot. She carried his leg tucked under her other arm. They travelled in silence until they reached a small row of estate cottages at the edge of the village. He propped his bike up outside the front door of the first cottage and took the leg from her.

      “You’re not too far out of your way are you?” he said.

      “I’m just up the road. Not far from where we met,” she said.

      She left him on his doorstep, the leg lying flat in front of him as he pulled his keys out of the back pocket of his cycling bib. Her phone bleeped back into life when she got into her kitchen. It was a text from Simon.

      “You would be proud of me,” it read. “I had sex in a Tesco car park last week. When are we getting that hotel? I’m free this weekend.”

      The words were accompanied by a picture of his half-erect penis. Simon liked to think he could always get a reaction from her and she had encouraged that for a time. Now she was determined to get more of what she wanted from him. She turned the phone off and started making lunch.

      The man she had found in the gate knocked on her door in the middle of the afternoon. He was holding a bottle of wine and wearing his leg. She was going through the new scans from the V&A on her laptop.

      “I was going to leave this outside,” he said, after she invited him in. “But I saw you working, through the kitchen window.”

      They opened the wine and sat at the kitchen table. He was called David and had moved into the estate cottage a month ago. The wine was a Berry Bros’ barolo, which he called “a crowd pleaser”. Once she had handed him the corkscrew, he went straight to work, cutting the foil capsule neatly and pouring them each a full glass without tasting the wine first.

      “How did you find me?” she asked.

      “I checked at the Post Office,” he said. “Where you should always go if you’re looking for someone. But I’m from around here, vaguely. So I knew pretty much where you meant. They told me you moved here from London. Bit of a change, isn’t it?”

      “I was bored in London,” she said. “I thought I’d try a different boredom here.”

      “That sounds a bit silly,” he said.

      “Everyone said that,” she said. “You sound like my mum. ‘Why do you want to leave that lovely little flat?’ Everyone seems to have completely the wrong idea about me. That’s what I like to think. Anyway, I’m back and forth a lot. I work for museums. I restore old prints from their archives so they can sell them on tea towels and stuff like that. I can do a lot of it digitally but I still have to go and get the feel of them sometimes.”

      David, it turned out, was a lot more handsome when he wasn’t wearing a cycling helmet. He had been working as a contractor on a Chinese megafarm in Africa before moving to the village.

      “I can imagine you out there,” she said. “Wearing a bush hat and shorts. Bossing people around. I’ve always quite liked the idea of Africa. Only the idea, these days.”

      “I was looking after the best part of three million hectares of biofuels; calendula, soy, high-yield, very intensive farming. Not very romantic,” he said. “Until this happened.”

      He pointed at his leg.

      “Is it OK after this morning?” she said.

      “Oh, fine, just fine,” he said. “It’s relatively new kit, to me and to everyone else actually, so sometimes it needs rebooting. ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ Tech support. I have to plug it into my computer so the boffins can fiddle with it over the internet. It’s quite a sight.”

      “It does look very hi-tech,” she said. “I was surprised by the weight of it, if anything.”

      “Try getting it on the NHS,” he said. “It’s bleeding-edge stuff. Superconductive carbon implants in my leg, had to come from Holland. The software is tuned and built around me specifically, that’s all done in India. The muscles, they’re the cheap part, funnily enough. Made out of fishing line basically, except they call it compressed high-tensile polymer. That’s why it feels so stiff when it’s not working. All the tension.”

      It was getting dark by the time David left. He pitched slightly to the left as he stepped down from the front door to the gravel drive.

      “Bugger,” he said. “This thing gets pissed a lot easier that the rest of me. Try to imagine that, having one drunk leg. Listen, we must do this again, I think. Let me give you my number.”

      Emily agreed and turned on her phone so she could tap the digits in. Beyond the garden hedge, the first wraiths of the Defra machines’ mists were appearing. A brief wind tangled and dispersed the mist, then set the machines’ turbines whirring.

      “Bit weird, those things aren’t they?” said David.

      “The villagers don’t like them,” she said. “They think the mist poisons their animals and gives them headaches. I don’t mind it. It doesn’t make me feel ill. I think it’s like having a giant humidifier. It opens up your chest. I feel much more positive that something’s being done now that they’ve arrived.”

      As she shut the door, more messages from Simon started appearing on the screen of her phone.

      “Hello,” one read. “I’m BORED now. Send me something?”

      “Come on,” said the next. “This is starting to be a bit of a pisstake. You’re the one who got back in touch with me, remember?”

      “Look,” the final message read. “I don’t know if you’re aware of how much I’m putting on the line for us. Are we doing this or aren’t we?”

      “Yes”, she replied. She put the phone away and went back to work.

A week later, Emily called David and asked him to take her somewhere for the day. She was feeling low after visiting London. Her on-going battles with Simon, in which they each tried to get the other to do things they did not want, were necessary for keeping her in the world but the attrition inherent in it all occasionally overwhelmed her. She wanted to see David and experience some of that comfortable excitement she had felt around him, rather than Simon’s aggressive negotiation.

      “You’re from around here,” she said. “Show me somewhere interesting. I’m fed up of being stuck inside.“

      He agreed but insisted she drove. She realised why when she arrived at his cottage. He wasn’t wearing his leg. Instead he was using a pair of old-fashioned aluminium crutches.

      “I know, they look like something out of a museum,” he said. “But you’d be used to that. It’s not working for some reason. I’m going to have to send it back to the hospital. Minor blip, I’m sure.”

      Emily had suffered her own minor blip in London. Simon had insisted that they meet in a sports pub in Bermondsey. It was the sort of place Claire would never go. Even though Simon knew Claire would be at home with the children, the pub acted as an extra bulwark against Emily intruding into his family’s world. It was an unfair thing to do and made their time together unnecessarily unpleasant. They had walked around Southwark Park, where it met the river, and argued. Eventually they had gone to bed in a serviced apartment Simon had rented near Tower Bridge. She had felt as good as she always did after sex with Simon but spoiled it by saying something about Claire. She left in a rage.

      David refused to tell her where they were going.

      “You’d probably think it‘s too boring if I told you,” he explained. “But really it’s something quite special.”

      They were on a B road and Emily was driving fast. Hedges gave way to open fields with a church spire visible in the distance.

      “Slow down a bit,” he said.

      “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Scared of a little speed? I wouldn’t have thought so with that flash bike of yours.”

      “No, I just wanted to show you something,” he said. “And now we’ve missed it. Back there, you can see an old moat. It’s supposed to be the remains of a house belonging to a man who had so many kids they stretched from the front door all the way over to that church. And that was supposed to be one of my ancestors.”

      “Sorry,” she said. “Do you want me to turn around?”

      “It’s not worth it,” he said. “It just looks like a pond these days. Still, it’s a connection.”

      They pulled into a car park which looked like a small quarry. A money box set in a stone pillar had been erected by the entrance gate. A hand-painted sign reading “DONATION: One Pound” was leaning against it. A pile of black bin bags had been dumped in one of the rear corners, where the fence met the steep rock wall. One other car was already parked there. An older couple was fussing around the boot, pulling out professional-looking Gore-Tex waterproofs and small bags, despite the day being warm and only a little overcast. A trail led away from the car park before turning back on itself and heading up towards the top of the rock walls.

      “Not exactly accessible,” he said loudly. “But I’m pretty sure I can manage. I’ve been here enough times before.”

      The trail was gravelled but only in odd stretches. It went from wide and easily navigable to slippery and narrow seemingly at random. There were blank-ended branchings-off worn into the vegetation at its sides. Emily followed one into the bushes while she waited for David to pull himself up a tricky section. Although the route had looked like a path, it ended abruptly in a welter of torn-down plants and trampled undergrowth, as if something had been thrashing around or fighting.

      “You’d think they do something about this,” she said, as she waited for David to pull himself up a tricky section. “It’s not exactly safe.”

      “Who?” he said. “The National Trust or whoever? Hardly. It’s privately owned. The council are supposed to look after the track but they don’t bother.”

      At the trail’s summit the ground was flat and the grass was cropped short and very green. It looked spongy and unnatural. Emily followed David towards a series of bumps in the ground, set in front of a large bank of earth.

      “What do you think?” he said.

      There was nothing very interesting that she could see. The bumps were about two feet tall and arranged in a pattern. They were broken by a footpath. David led her along the path to the centre of the bumps where there was a round depression.

      “I’m not sure,” she said. “It doesn’t look like much.”

      David took her up onto the bank. The short grass made his crutches slip once or twice as they climbed the steep slope. When they reached the top, he took a small sports bottle from one of the bellow pockets of his waxed jacket and drank. Emily caught the scent of apples.

      “There you go,” he said and pointed.

      From above the bumps were revealed as a set of concentric circles, surrounding a deep dent in the earth. The footpath was a channel cutting through the circles to the central depression. It looked like a radiant antenna or a simple diagram of a tree. Emily took a picture with her phone. She turned back to David and raised her phone. He took his right arm out of the crutch’s arm loop and waved while she took a shot of him.

      “It’s apparently prehistoric,” he said. “No-one’s quite sure what it’s for. It always makes me think of that phrase ‘sacrificial landscape’, although not in the way that’s meant. The story is that there’s a network of caves and burials underneath it. Or it’s a fairy mound. You know, if you fall asleep up here you get taken off.”

      “It’s all very Wicker Man,” she said. “Do people come up here and dance around? Wearing horns?”

      While they were talking, the older couple from the car park had made it up the hill and were walking along the channel to the centre of the rings. The woman noticed Emily and David and waved. The man took his backpack off and started unloading lengths of rope and small poles with flags attached to them.

      “Did you used to come here when you were a boy?” she said to David. He was leaning heavily on his crutches, as if the climb had tired him more than it should have done.

      “There’s a cave in France,” he said. “Where there’s a painting of a man with horns.”

      The Gore-Tex-wearing couple had started arranging their poles and ropes around the earthworks. Their lines emanated from the central point where the woman was standing with a clipboard. The man was pacing along the ropes, stepping over the raised earth of the circles and pausing to shout numbers back to her. As Emily and David watched, he reached the top of another ridge and turned back towards the woman. Instead of shouting, he fell and rolled down into the gully between the two circles. David started to laugh but stopped as it became apparent the man was having a fit. The woman dropped her clipboard and ran towards him.

      “I’m going to help”, said Emily. She started down the bank and called back to David. “Can you call an ambulance?”

      The woman was crouching over the fallen man by the time Emily reached them. She was trying to get at his face but the man kept swinging his arms up and batting her hands away. He was making low choking noises.

      “It’s his pills,” the woman told Emily. “He’s always forgetting them.”

      Together they managed to hold the man steady and force a couple of small round pills into his mouth. The tremors and the choking began to subside almost immediately.

      “I get on at him about these bloody things but he won’t be told,” the woman said. “I don’t think he likes to be reminded he’s got something wrong with him. But you can’t ignore it.”

      She addressed the last statement to David, who had managed to climb down the bank and make his way through the rings to where the man was lying.

      “Do we still need the medics?” he said. He had his phone out.

      “He’ll just be embarrassed,” the woman said. “Look, he’s waking up now.”

      “We’ll go,” said Emily.

      David was quiet as they walked back across the grass to the trail. He was swinging forward quickly on his crutches and, once or twice, Emily had to run a few paces to keep up with him. He stopped when she called to him.

      “That was all very odd,” she said. “I hope they’re all right. I don’t really like leaving them up here.”

      “I hate seeing people like that,” David said. “I can’t stand it. Why can’t they look after themselves? It’s upsetting for everyone. Imagine if I had called an ambulance.”

      Emily put her hand on his forearm. He refused to look at her.

      “It’s bloody upsetting,” he said. “Endlessly bloody upsetting.”

      The path back to the car park seemed steeper than before and David slipped a couple of times. Emily had to give him her hand. His grip was slick and cold; her hand felt sticky when she took hold of the steering wheel.

Emily sometimes emptied her fridge before she went to London. It was part of a hopeless wish that she might not be coming back. It was a waste to pour away milk and throw away good bacon but it made her feel better.

      When she went outside to the bins, she found a web slung between the lid of the blue recycling bin and the hedge. The spider was the size of the top joint of Emily’s thumb. Where its body should have been round and full, it was crinkled and collapsed. It looked like some sort of mask made of bark. The spider stepped sideways around its web, its pointed legs landing at the junction of strands and stretching the silk beneath its brief weight. Smaller appendages were working ceaselessly, separating and reshuffling threads. Each small change made by the inhumanly busy limbs altered the alignment of the whole structure, its relationship with the breeze, the way it hung together and moved. Rather than disturb it she threw all of the rubbish into the green landfill bin.

      David had not been in touch since their day out. He had replied to one of her emails saying that he was feeling a bit under the weather and was probably going to lie low for a couple of days. One afternoon last week she had popped around to his cottage but there was nobody at home. The lights were off and she could see his racing bike propped up in the hall when she lifted the flap of the letterbox and looked through. She worried that he had been upset by what had happened.

      She had been putting off going to London for as long as possible in the hope that he would appear but she eventually had to make the trip. She woke up feeling sick and excited but not ill enough to call it off. She only managed half a cup of tea for breakfast before she started her fridge-emptying routine.

      She took a roundabout route into town and got stuck behind a tractor towing a Defra machine. The machine looked half-unfolded and broken. Normally the wind turbines and vents were tucked away when they were not in use but on this machine they were hanging loose and flopping back and forth whenever the trailer carrying the machine hit a bump. It was dripping a clear fluid from a crack on its side. The drops sprayed back onto the windscreen of Emily’s car. The tractor eventually turned off into a field, which looked as it it had been set up as a repair yard for the machines. Portable guardhouses had been placed at the gate and a crowd of men came out to meet the tractor and guide it inside. Suddenly angry at the thought she might miss the train, although she had done her best to make herself late, Emily accelerated hard and drove far too fast all the way to the station.

      Simon had emailed her a Google Map pin to guide her to their meeting spot. It was somewhere behind the British Museum and, in Streetview, looked like a Turkish café. He claimed to have set up an online bank account so that he could book better hotels and restaurants for them, without Claire finding out, but Emily hadn’t seen much evidence of this. He had promised to meet her straight after work, which meant straight after he had finished drinks with his workmates. He didn’t want to let on to anyone that something might be up, he had explained. Whether this meant Emily was any closer to getting what she wanted and getting him away from Claire, she didn’t know. Simon was convinced he was just in it for sex, that she was sure of, but she suspected him of having a deeper need. She didn’t want him for his own sake, she just wanted to be right.

      She logged on to her museum email account to check her schedule for the next couple of days. The internet coverage on her phone cut out as the train entered a tunnel so she started scrolling through her saved messages and photos, deleting anything obscene that Simon had sent her. She angled herself into the corner between the seat and the window so nobody could see her phone, even though the reflections would be obvious on the glass behind her.

      “If they’re that bothered, good luck to them,” she thought.

      The picture of David she had taken on their day out appeared on the screen. He looked ill. She hadn’t noticed how pale he had been. She felt bad for dragging him out and quickly scrolled past the photograph.

      The train emerged from the tunnel and Emily put her phone down. There were little drops of moisture on the screen where her fingertips had been pressing and swiping. Her hands were sticky and cold. When she rubbed them together there was a squeaky resistance. She took a tissue out of her pocket and wiped them off. The tissue, she noticed, smelled of spoiled apples, rotting and fermenting on the floor of an abandoned orchard.