Six Easy Calculations

by Howard Laughton

Seven years on the beach. Two pebbles chime in his hand. One gull on the breakwater attacks something only it can see. In front of him, keen to drown him, the horizon and nothing solid between; behind, the shingle bank rising steeply, the sand exposed where he sits. He’s spoilt for symbolic intent but, adding everything up, it’s not cold today and at least he’s eaten from the bins.

He considers that minute. He considers it as if he were looking out over a precipice, measuring the drop, the speed of fall against the distance x to the horizon, working out whether it would be quicker to get to the horizon by swimming out to it (impossible) or by the simple act of faith in stepping once, forward.

Now he knows when he was less than every second of that minute, and, after one hour, was less than each minute of that. He’s worked out the moment the hour could scatter him and (without recourse to maths) how, a week on, each day could leave him for dead. And as a week is a month into year add a year + the years, so time totals to a loss; and seven years from that first second when he was finally nothing, in a rain of stones the kids throw at him he realises he’s even less than even that.

He worked it out long ago: the addition’s easy: two tours of Afghanistan, two of Iraq, days on combat duty 721. What for? Multiplication of events. He drinks what doesn’t add up. Like cataracts, questions blur focus. Two walk along the esplanade. Any change? One stops, chimes coins in his pocket; the other, laughing, tips him a kick. He falls and rolls to a reddening sea, sand blows around a landscape – the sun’s incoming. We’ve got to move! We’ve got to move!                (Heartbeat: it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.) He finds an arm (it’s Mike’s? Dan’s? Is it Mike’s?) and another, shorter – adds them to the torso in the dust. At his feet a perfect hand, the wedding ring on it zeroed.

He drinks as proof against winter, spring and the other one. Something’s not right in his calculation. His synapses twist in the wreckage; he limps on a small percentage. The moon decreases in all probability. A bell divides what the minute times. Gulls scatter and fill the air with minus signs.

− (all) confidence  +  army pension  +  sofa (sister’s, lives in London)  +  jobseekers  +  drink  –  terrors  +  jobseekers  +  drink  +  reassurance  +  drink  –  terrors  –  initial goodwill  +  drink  +  housing list  – housing supply  +  jobseekers  x  moodswings  ±  stress inhibitors/anti-depressants +  understanding  ≤  impatience (sister’s)  < impatience (sister’s husband’s)  +  tension  +  tension  x  tension  –  sofa +  bed (friend’s)  –  bed (friend’s)  +  sofa (another friend’s)  +  friend’s rent (pocketed)  +  shame  +  drink  –  terrors  +  terrors  –  drink  +  assault  –  sofa  +  bed (another friend’s)  +  untruths  –  bed  +  freedom of first night on beach under stars (sound of rollers breaking)  –  that exact minute when  +  first week under stars (rains solidly)  +  first month  –  pride in appearance  +  first year  –  who/I/am  +  seven years on  –  recollection of the  –  the  –  of  –  recollection  +  a tide, your hand  =  small steps small steps