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Vince and Julie had bought the flat together: a smart two-bed, gold bath taps, plush shag carpets, stuccoed ceilings in tasteful beige, satin pine woodwork, tubular chimes hanging in the windows. The view from the window was pukka Monet, a canal vista, rainbow barges moored under willow trees. People walked their dogs along the grassy banks. Couples promenaded by the water's edge, fearlessly hand-in-hand.

After they'd moved in, Julie had left him. It was a hell of a thing for Vince to deal with; everybody said so. Friends counseled, family consoled, but his arms reached into a new and cold space between the sheets of his bed, and the nights were comfortless. The winter mornings only made the emptiness more bitter. It seemed as though the seasons would never cycle.

But the important thing was that he was getting through it, not darkening with the days. Coping, basically -- perhaps even better than expected.

Until the floorboard problem started.

It began around the refrigerator, a sonorously nautical groan -- Titanic going tits-up under the tiles. The floor bowed a little when he put his weight on it. He could step over it, but it was a big step, and dammit, one should expect better of over a hundred grand's worth of real estate.

There was the issue of neighbors, too. He was living above somebody, a woman -- creaking over her. He didn't know her name, but she had a baby and it cried all the time, sometimes right through the night. She probably didn't get much peace. He thought it best to apologize.

She barely opened the door to him when he knocked, her face pale and frosted.

"Hi, I'm Vince, from upstairs. I've come to say sorry about the noise from my floor. It's in a bad way."

"Okay. Well. If you fall through, aim to miss the TV. I just rented it."

"Hope it won't come to that. Think some floorboards might have to come up, though."

"Sounds expensive." She opened the door a little. "You living on your own up there?"

"Yeah, it's just me. I had a partner. But not any more."

"Things can be tough when you're alone."

"I'm getting used to it."

"Me too." A baby gurgle distracted her. "Oh, she just woke -- I'd better go. Hope you manage to fix the floor. Thanks for dropping by."

"No problem."

"Don't be a stranger."

"I won't. Thanks."

Vince went to work as normal, sat by himself in the office, sat in the canteen, sat at his CAD screen, drawing straight lines, junctions, rectangles, radii, curves, circles, geometric regularities. No bowing, though. Not one single bow, anywhere.

Roger came and sat with him for a while. Fat Roger, with a beard like red moorland scrub. Most of all, he was happy. "Hey Vince, you likin' the new pad? I know it's tough without Julie, but you got a great place there."

"It's okay. I have a floorboard problem. They're creaking, making a hell of a noise."

"Could be the insulation. The sound insulation layer under the floor. It can rot sometimes."

"My floor's rotting?"

"Could be. You should check it out."

"I'll call the construction company. That's what I'll do."

Outside Vince's flat, they'd started tearing up the road. Men with hard hats and cables over their shoulders, stirring coffee with pens. On the way home, Vince pulled his car over and leaned through the window. "This gonna take long?"

Most ignored him. One answered, a real stand-up workin' fella, big gnarly knuckles, evolved for digging. "Few weeks maybe. Depends. Got subsidence here, see."

"You're telling me the road's collapsing?"

"'S an unstable part of the world. Nice houses, though. You live here? Got a family?"

"Not any more." Vince motored into his driveway.

The floor in the flat was worse; he noticed it immediately. The bedroom boards winced underfoot. The timber in the living room flinched at each step. It was getting serious.

His mother called him up that night. "I'm worried about you," she told him. "I know how unhappy you must be."

"I'm fine. Just got some noisy floorboards in the flat, right now. I don't know what the problem is."

"You should talk to somebody. Get help if you need to. I worry about you on your own."

"It's okay. I can get the construction company's number, see what they say first."

"Take care, sweetheart. I'm here when you need me."

When rather than if.

The receptionist at Davison Fabrications was sympathetic the next morning, between sips of decaf. "Mmmm," she said, "sounds strange, could be a problem there, I'll put you through to Mr. Morris in our survey department. He'll know what to do."

They played Verdi's Requiem during the call transfer.

Mr. Morris sounded about sixty. "Typically, our floors comprise a floating layer of 18mm timber with tongue and grooved edges spot bonded to a substrate of 19mm plasterboard. The load bearing resilient layer is usually 25mm mineral wool with a density of 100 kilos per cubed metre."

"It's creaking."

"It's the cold. Contraction of the timber. Give it time."

"How long? Before things get better?"

"Depends. It's an equation of extremes."

"Thanks, Mr. Morris. I'll be calling you again."

On the way home from work Vince saw the builders huddled around a makeshift bonfire, saw an array of orange-licked palms, broad as spades. When he parked the car in his driveway, the same grizzled guy wandered over.

"How you doin'?" asked the guy.

"Okay. Any news?"

"Just ancient news. This whole neighborhood is built over magma. Volcanoes burned here once." Flecks of soot danced under streetlamps. "There's flaws in the rock here. Fissures. Could be a problem."

"What's going to happen?"

"Who knows? Time works against you sometimes. Things get worse when you least expect."

The woman who lived downstairs was called Maggie. She invited Vince to call in for a coffee. He wasn't entirely comfortable about it, but she'd intercepted him on the way in, and he didn't like to say no, what with the floorboard situation and all.

"My daughter's called Ione," she told him. "It's a pagan name. You take sugar?"

"Two, thanks." He reclined on the sofa, stretched his arm across the raspberry-hued cloth, and gazed at the wall hangings: medieval fairs, a tournament, a lovers' tryst beneath a hanging willow, the exchange of precious gifts.

She brought the drinks. "You like them? They're to cover the walls. The plaster is cracked. The walls are bulging outwards."

"Whole place seems like it's collapsing!"

"Yes, I think so. I think it is. I've noticed it for a while -- things falling apart. Maybe it's gravity that's failing, some invisible fabric, the attraction between molecules -- scientifically speaking." She wore a black shawl, like someone in mourning. It wasn't flattering. "Would you say you were an optimistic person, Vince? Does the future hold much promise for you?"

He swore he could feel those boards bending downward, sense the walls pushing away. "I can't say. I'm not myself at the moment. Too much to think of."

"I wonder if we struggle too much. Perhaps it's just a process of acceptance."

Ione began to cry.

He thanked her for the coffee, though he'd found it a touch bitter. When he went back upstairs, he noticed the cracks in the staircase for the first time.

He checked his answering machine. Checked his e-mails. Checked for missed calls on his mobile. Checked the floorboards. They sounded worse.

The creaking came from outside, too, a high wind raging, the trees clinging to solid ground with weary fingers. Vince peered from his window, out over the canal, where a couple flurried through the gloom, dissolving under the willows. It hadn't always been so safe; wolves had prowled there once.

He woke at three in the afternoon the next day, a brutish headache beating at his brow, and decided to call Mr. Morris at Davison Fabrications. "These floorboards -- I need a solution. The problem's getting worse."

Mr. Morris coughed like a man with asbestos in his lungs. "You could construct a new floor. Make a fresh start."

"Shouldn't I fix the old one?"

"Perhaps you can't."

"Won't it improve with time?"

"Things don't always get better." He sounded very old when he said that.

Vince stayed at home for the remainder of the day, cocooned from the cold, a tide of medication lifting him clear of spiteful sentience. When he finally retired to bed, haunted and disheveled, the timber gently mocked him.

The wind had died by morning, the trees slumped in exhaustion. Vince poured a coffee and looked out from the kitchen window. The road outside had sunk -- hollowed in the middle -- a macadam sponge left to bake too long. It seemed that the houses opposite were leaning towards the sidewalk, buckling in grief. If human, they'd have worn black armbands and hugged one another.

Vince spotted Maggie sitting on a wall next to the friendly hardhat who'd spoken to him. Her hand was on the guy's shoulder, a posture of consolation. It was all very intriguing.

Vince went downstairs, coffee in hand.

"Hi," said Maggie, shawled in black satin.

"Hi. Warm, isn't it. For a winter's day."

"This is Nathan. He's working on the road."

"We've met."

"Nathan's wife is dead."

"Jesus. I mean -- Christ. That's terrible. I'm sorry."

She hugged Nathan's shoulders. "It's okay. It happened a long time ago, didn't it, Nathan."

"The whole thing is tearing apart," Nathan whispered. "Feels like there's nothing to hold onto."

"That's why we have to stick together," said Maggie. "Help each other through."

"Most of the time I think I'm over it," said the working fella. "Then I see things more clearly."

"How are you doing, Vince?" asked Maggie.

"Yeah, how're you coping?" added Nathan, wiping his eyes.

"Fine. Getting by, most of the time. Floorboard problem won't go away."

"You have to understand it better," said Maggie. "It's the only way."

"The only way," nodded Nathan.

Vince brushed cement dust from his shirt.

When he went into the office the next day, he heard Roger was ill, fat Roger, happy Roger, beard like a cloud of rust. He'd had another stroke and was in intensive care. The word was that he was getting better. Vince left to visit him immediately.

They didn't let him stay at the hospital for very long. He found Roger laid out like a Viking chief, plastic tubing threading through the red of his beard. He looked content.

"Hey, Rog. Nice spot you got here."

"Yeah. Got some real scenery through those windows. Pretty as a picture. Way back, this whole place was a glacier. Nurse told me that. How's things with you, anyhow?"

"Weird. Pretty crazy. Things seem to be coming unglued. The flat, the road, houses across the way. Even the trees are uprooting."

"Sounds like you're losing gravity." Roger's chest billowed in a chuckle. "Only kidding. Don't look so worried." He rested his hand on Vince's forearm. "Seriously, man, you have to realize the problem. Deal with it."

"I know."

"Sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, I guess. How 'bout you?"

"Just had a stroke. Ask me another time."

When Roger's wife arrived, her makeup was fresh, but the tears left scars. Vince shook his friend's hand and left them to each other.

He drove back through the valley, limestone cliffs radiant under the moon, trees black as time. The road he navigated was empty, a glacial husk. An ocean of ice had surged there once.

On the horizon, a purple funnel of cloud pirouetted. Perhaps it was siphoning gravity, drawing the mortar from between bricks, pulling people apart.

When he got back to the flat, he called in to see Maggie. She was packing a suitcase, dark rings under her eyes.

"I was thinking," he told her, "if you ever need me to baby-sit for you, I'd be quite happy to. I'd like to, actually."

The cracks along the walls had grown, spread like a spider's limbs, the wall tapestries no longer hiding them.

"I'm leaving," she told him. "It's not helping being here. It's like standing on a ravine that's slowly opening. What was your partner's name?"

"Julie. We were married."

"Can you talk about it?"

"I'd rather not."

"Do you still speak to her?"

He felt his insides folding, the ribs detaching one by one. The will, the pride, dissolving.

"It's such a fragile world, Vince. You should talk to Julie."

He was determined not to crack.

"I'm going to see Nathan," she told him. "Maybe we can find a way through, stop things coming apart."

She made him a coffee while he helped her pack. "Here's where you'll find me," she said, handing him a small note. "If you want to."

There wasn't much more to say. The walls were buckling.

When he went back upstairs, he noticed that the stairwell ceiling was drooping, the steps sinking, the skylight sliding down the wall. Through the glass, the stars of the Milky Way plummeted.

He found the flat as he'd left it, except that it was smaller. Spaces had compressed, folded in. It seemed as if the air itself had begun to unbuckle its molecules, leaving him straining to breathe.

He decided to call Mr. Morris one last time. Mr. Morris had solutions. He was a logistician, a theorist, a man with at least two dozen textbook remedies for the collapsing of the universe.

But first there was the night to get through, a babyless sojourn with no stars.

Vince lay awake in his bed. He could sense the beams of the roof shifting, hear the copper piping in the walls groan and crumple. The wallpaper unfurled in the darkness. The plasterboard huffed discreet plumes of dust. Outside, nature howled. Vince thought of Maggie and Nathan.

And of Julie.

He awoke early, shivering under the duvet. The room was cold, the storage heaters giving no warmth. He grabbed a bathrobe and stumbled to the window. Frost sheathed the glass. Outside, the trees had given up the fight, brutally sucked from the soil. Subterranean strata had ruptured, pitching a row of houses into the chasm.

He ducked under the collapsed doorframe and squeezed his way through to the living room. The view from the window was pukka Dali, a canal conundrum, rainbow oil slicks moored to drooping monoliths.

He sat shivering in blankets until 9 a.m., when he called Davison Fabrications. "It's not just the floorboards now," he told Mr. Morris. "Can you tell me anything? I don't know which way to go."

Mr. Morris sounded weary. "Before embarking on a program of renovation, it's worth inspecting the basic structure for inherent weakness. There might be other gaps in the timber, inadequately isolated flues, exposed ventilation ducts and pipework. How well are you insulated?"

"Nothing's been getting through. Not until recently. It started with a baby crying."

"Sometimes, things need to fall apart. It's just a process of acceptance."

"Please don't tell me that."

"I'm not going to be here much longer, Mr. Morton. Let me give you some last advice. Before you change anything -- talk to your wife."

"I don't have a wife. Not any more."

"The principals of structural rehabilitation are general, Mr. Morton. They might not yield significant improvement in all cases. Goodbye."

Mr. Morris hadn't had two dozen solutions after all, only the same one that everybody else had. Vince wanted to thank him, but he was gone.

He dressed himself and edged his way down the stairs, each one ready to give way under his feet. Outside, the car was perched on cresting tarmac, a silver schooner surfing the wave.

Fires blazed on the horizon. Hot ash snowed onto the car windscreen. He used the wipers to clear it before starting the engine.

He knew the route, though he'd traveled it only once before. He'd had people with him then, and the sky hadn't been so frighteningly dark. Throughout the journey, he could see her face, smell her hair. She would have had those floorboards fixed right away, had somebody in to deal with the problem. She was always so much better than he was at things like that; that was the truth.

The iron gates of the cemetery were buckled, brutally reforged by the wind. He parked his car outside, where an impossible sea of lilies flowered. He picked some before walking into the grounds.

Thunderclouds raged above him and the ground shook at his feet. He was nearing the eye of the storm.

He made his way to Julie's headstone, a single modestly hewn tragedy amongst so many.

But what words, mother, after all this time?

Why, son, tell her the truth.

That this torn fabric, this cracked plaster, this fissured frame, still surges to the dreaming of her.

That you miss her too much to bear.

And always will.

He put the flowers in the ground, then knelt before her stone and cried.

It's such a fragile world, Vince, she might have said.

He stayed with her until the sky had shifted to a rich indigo, unfurling over peaks and valleys, smothering the flames in its deep calm. Volcanoes could burn around him now, wolves might prowl, an ocean of ice might surge, but he was unafraid. He was rebinding time, remaking heaven and earth. Things would be unstable for a while.

I have to leave now, he told her. But I'll come and see you again, let you know how things are, how the world is healing. From time to time.

When he walked back to the car, he took Maggie's note from his pocket. The address wasn't far.

Construct a new floor, Mr. Morris had said. Make a fresh start.

Maybe three people could do that.

Hell. Three people might even build a palace.

He started the engine.


Copyright © 2001 James Allison

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James Allison resides in the ever-eroding greenbelt of North London, England, from where he occasionally writes short fiction, having previously masqueraded as a theatre company director and music mag reviewer. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "The Passing of Sadly True." For more information about him and his work, see his Web site.

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