PWG International Writing Competition 2016 runner up Marcia Woolf
The pylon came when I was a child. It seemed to me then that it walked to us in the night, this skeleton tower lurching towards the village on its bony metal feet, picking its way delicately over the fields and hedges, a slender girl stepping across a lawn in wedding shoes. A fantastic creation of wire coat hangers and discarded bed frames, the pylon descended on us, stooping as a tall adult bends towards giggling children, awkwardly out of scale.
“What are you playing at?” it seemed to say, lacking the confidence to mingle.
The morning after the night this strange creature arrived, I opened my bedroom curtains and stared. It was alone, as yet unconnected to its gawky family. The pylon looked back at me balefully, plaintively, for it had just spent a dark night alone in a damp field, far from the neon buzz of its factory home. An emigrant from another land, uncertain as to protocol. My father came in: he was dressed and ready for work. We stood together, gazing out at our new neighbour. I felt the familiar warmth of Dad’s arm around me, smelt the old tweed of his jacket.
“What do you think?” he asked.
I beamed, excited by the novelty, the modernity, the 1960s space-age glamour of this electric rocket towering skywards, that had turned the farmland beyond our garden into our own little Cape Canaveral. With a knowing wink of its homage to Eiffel, it seemed to fill the air with the scent of romantic electricity; to proclaim its kinship with the beacons and lighthouses and skyscrapers of the industrial world; at once steely and transparent, trim as a goalpost and rooted as an oak. It had come to stay.
My father, laughing, picked up his hat and kissed me goodbye, his sandy hair brushing mine as we parted. He kissed my mother too, in the hall: out of my sight but where, I knew, he would be holding her near, stroking the soft curve of her back, gazing lovelorn into the dark olives of her unflinching eyes, inhaling the woody aroma of her mysterious perfume. They hated to part, even for the few hours of the working day. The door closed behind him and I heard her sigh, heard her travelling slowly and sadly along the hall, doubtless running her fingers over the table there to check for dust. Pricked by guilty jealousy, I looked down at the jaunty yellow pattern of tractors and haystacks on my flannelette pyjamas, sensing all the time the watching gaze of the angle-iron, an alien Peeping Tom, an outsized invader, desperate to learn our human ways.
At first, we were aware of the pylon nearly all the time. It was a talking point for customers chatting to my mother in the village shop, almost as if they expected her to have learnt the language of her interloping lodger and translate for him, to explain his fancy ways and unorthodox mien. My mother was a sensible type, not drawn to gossip or conjecture. She nodded and smiled non-committally and placed the eggs carefully into her basket alongside the bread and the marmalade. She was neither happy nor unhappy about the pylon: it just stood their quietly, minding its own business, doing what it had to do, and she respected it for that. Let people talk and gawp in awe: what did they know, who did not live cheek by jowl with the incomer? This stranger promised power and light where once there had been none: it seemed churlish to resent its presence and even more foolish to wish it gone.
A few days afterwards I came home to find the pylon had been connected to its distant tribe by skeins of wire. Men with ladders and special tools had come in gangs and accomplished this astounding feat in hours. My mother had stood admiringly on the back step, watching their progress as she drank her morning cup of tea, fascinated by the adept skill of the men in denim uniforms, noting the muscular ease with which they scaled the spike, their shouted instructions ringing from the metal minaret like calls to prayer. When I was an adult, and she lay dying, my mother recounted how one of them had smiled cheekily and winked at her, and practised whistling to her as men do to women they cannot have (and, in truth, do not desire). For a moment she considered waving back, calling out some flirtatious pleasantry, but instead had turned on her heel, gone back inside and slammed the door. That regret had stayed with her for thirty years.
But then – that day when I came in from school – she told me how hard the men had worked, how cleanly and efficiently, like a chain of ants; dwarfed but not daunted by their silver prey, to bring their project to fruition. The pylon now gave out a continuous thrum of satisfaction: purring, catlike, sometimes singing eerily long into the night or buzzing rhythmically in the wind. Its lullaby drew me to sleep, and its calling woke me. If this was the pylon’s language, we had no hope of speaking it. I remember standing in the garden, mimicking the sounds of pylon interlocution, but could not grasp the finer points of its grammar and, though I hummed and squealed, it stood, impassively, not understanding or perhaps not caring to acknowledge that I wanted to be its friend. Sometimes I lay on the grass, imagining myself the pylon’s equal, by squinting with one eye creating the illusion, reaching up with my hand to the place where its hand should be, longing to feel the giant’s steely fingers circle mine.
Although we grew used to its vast architecture, it was never familiar. On sunny days it cast a crazy-paving web across the street, distorting hard mathematical precision into a shadowy net. When the weather turned stormy it clung to the earth by its spiny claws, clenching sharp metal teeth against the barometric force. It was a landmark for the traveller: the last thing visible on leaving the village and the first sign of home on our return. Sometimes it followed us in spirit form; hiding among the strands of lights on Blackpool pleasure beach; keeping a watchful eye over the rooftops on a school trip to Paris. Hardly a day went by when the spiky pinnacle did not hove into view, but still it startled me by its size, its stealth, its skill in stalking. Once spotted in whatever guise it had assumed, the pylon would freeze and take on an air of innocence. These games often amused me, but as I began to leave childhood behind and had secrets of my own I resented being tracked and spied upon. I shouted at it to leave me alone, but it merely withdrew a little and lingered in the distance, mournfully.
Over time, our little house seemed to settle ever further into the arc of the tower’s legs, brick and steel allied in order against the undisciplined hedge. Weeks passed, months passed. Summers came and went. The truth about Santa Claus was uncovered: I outgrew the tractor print pyjamas, and their replacements. One day I staggered home, tacking with my ballast of schoolbooks in a November gale, to find my parents sitting together at the kitchen table, holding hands. It was 4pm, already nearly dark. Father still wore his work clothes, but the cups of tea on the table had gone cold, untouched. The looming shadow of the pylon, cast by a street lamp, flickered on the wet window like a neighbour tapping to come in.
“What’s wrong,” it asked my mother, “why are you crying?”.
We had a quiet Christmas. There were no visitors that year, no decorations. The pylon served as our tree, stoic arms outstretched under a shallow weight of snow.
My father died in July. He went quickly in the end, but painfully. Mother seemed unconcerned when I told her my O Level results. She mentioned re-takes, but I’d had enough of school.
Later, of course, we heard the rumour: how the grey beasts came diseased with cancer and spread it to those foolish enough to live within their range. We looked at the pylon in a new light then. I stood again in the garden and spoke angrily to it, this time in my own language augmented by the pithy wisdom of the drawing office where I now scratched my trade, but the pylon remained impervious under the sequin circle backdrop of the moon. After all, it had chosen to live with us, not us with it. I wondered if it had come to punish us.
I watched my mother grow small and pale but, despite my urging, she could not, would not, leave the place where her true love’s spirit dwelt. The clock ticked and the pylon hummed. When the bus stopped outside, top deck passengers craned their necks skywards and tutted in dismay at the plight of the tiny habitation cowering under the scaffold of the tower. Three years later, I came to sell the empty house. The agent whistled through his teeth and raked his hair.
“The pylon: it might put buyers off” he confessed, almost in a whisper.
We stood on the crumbling tarmac drive, where weeds took their chances through the cracks and the low cloud of the carport hung over us. The agent looked at me curiously, his paltry valuation dangling in the August heat like a money spider hanging by a thread.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I might move back here myself.”
The agent cocked his head, and ran a chubby finger round the sweaty collar of his shirt. Then, embarrassed, aware of my recent loss, he inspected the dusty uppers of his brogues.
“You do know,” he said, “what people say?”
“It could be just coincidence.”
He peered at me again, searching my face as a lost man scans a map, desperately, recognising nothing.
“It could”, he conceded.
We remained there for several minutes, contemplating the Serengeti grassland of the lawn, the peeling paintwork on the lean-to porch, the kitchen curtain fallen into holes.
“I have good memories of this place.” I said.
“I’m sure you do.”
We shook hands and he meandered back to his company Mondeo, jangling the keys in frustration. As he climbed in he turned and called, with no conviction, “You’ll ring me if you change your mind?”
I stayed under the awning for a while, until fat penny raindrops began to ping off the hard-baked earth, and I whistled, intermittently, so that the pylon would not know I was afraid.