The balcony garden quakes; tiny brown leaves fall from branches. The final charcoaled piece of shipflesh falls from the sky, a fiery planet-sized ball of skin and meat. From behind glass in their living room, they watch as it disintegrates silently over Manchester. An infinite number of black meteor flakes spilling across the red morning.
They look over at the last of the melted black dots as they fall ashen against the windows of the Beetham tower.
There had been a party outside of the city in the Irwell basintown a week before. Glittering fireworks had shot into the air, exploding green and red. There had been music, real live music and the smoked barbeque scent had risen up into the tenement flats. Somewhere, they had thought, a Skinship had found something and was coming home. He never thought it was anything other than impossible. A Skinship coming back was as good a bet as snow. But he knew that no-one threw a party like the basintowns.
Those who lived in the basintown had dreamed of the day it landed, crushing down somewhere out in the Windermere desert and crawling its way towards home, guided by unfathomable signals and algorithms. The presses: those single page A4 bulletins that wisped their way across the floor of the city in high winds, and lay piled next to stations and factory entrances on other, calmer days, had headlines proclaiming ‘It Returns!’ and called the Skinship ‘saviour’ and ‘messiah’.
The two of them had waited until the sun had settled and wandered down to the basintown. They had been before, on one of those god-awful tourist trap guided walks, outskirting the shacks and houses, crossing the wider, main strip of the Peterloo way and into the markets. Never seeing more than what the guide wanted them to. The quaint façade of the place. This time though, they ignored whatever advice had drifted in from newspapers and feeds and went straight in. They followed the noise of crowds, the dim off and on yellow orange of the bonfires until they reached the central square. She kept close to him, squeezed his hand and looked around. He took it all in, strode around exuding confidence, stopping at stalls and picking up foodstuffs as though he knew what they were. But as they walked he would turn his head and check behind them. There were what, a dozen or so murders a week? Gangs vying for territory and arson attacks burning whole tranches of housing down. He’d seen the videos and read the articles. Insurance scams, back-alley deals. The basintowns were a mire of criminal activity which excited and frightened him in equal measure. So he was disappointed that it didn’t feel like that kind of a place that night. People laughed and danced. Grinning stallholders held out sample goods. Some people had made Skinship paper lanterns, and children huddled down in the dust flicking lighters and letting the lanterns rise and rise.
“Find safe worlds!” one of the children yelled.
“Come back soon!” another.
They picked up two plastic glasses of some dirty liquid the basintowner on the stall called gin, and sipped it whilst they watched more fireworks. It tasted the way petrol stunk.
As they drank, she leant in close to him and asked him quietly, “How old would she be? I’ve forgotten.” He didn’t answer. Somewhere else, it was still so obvious, but he liked it being somewhere else.
Someone had told him once that the Irwell basintown stretched right up along the side of the city, winding and twisting until it met Merseytown somewhere south. Hundreds of thousands of people lived here. Houses latched on to other houses, ramshackle shacks meandered atop carefully constructed sheds. The sturdier of homes, concrete breezeblock palaces, had new structures thrown on top. He looked around and saw little dots of fires burning in the distance. He imagined for a moment, what it would be like to be a Skinship, to have spent so long in space, only to return. Space giving way to atmosphere and cloud and then the lights of cities and the cold night black of towns and villages and there, somewhere far below, hundreds of little yellow fires, guiding the way like landing beacons. Would someone be waiting for him?
She gripped his hand from behind and rested her head on his shoulder, “What are you looking at?” she asked him. In front of them a small procession danced along to the beat of an unseen instrument, a few cheers rose up and the procession raised their hands to the sky. He could feel it, that will, that want for something to come down and save everyone. He had never felt it before, but there in that crowd more than anything he wanted to see the Skinships, wanted them to land and come to the city and take them away from everything. An old man wandered past, a stupid smile spread across his face, half masked by a long grey beard. He was wearing just a sandwich board which had at one point read, ‘The End Times are Here’, but now in thick black paint simply said, ‘He is Returned’.
He could still taste the gin, harsh against the back of his throat and when he swallowed he coughed, painfully. He blinked, and when he did the parade stretched and contorted, faces fell slack and tongues lolled out along the floor like a carpet. People stared at him, and they wouldn’t stop staring and so he shut his eyes and held his arms up, aiming for space.
“Are you alright?” her voice, somewhere distant.
“I have to go,” he said, “I think she’s out there somewhere.”
He tried to stand, but she held his shoulder, “Sit down,” she furrowed her brow and he watched it dipped below her nose and vibrate along a wavelength, “You don’t look well.”
A young couple walked past them, each step reverberating and echoing their image across his line of sight. One of them held a sparkler and swam it through the air, spelling out incomprehensible words for him. They stopped and kissed in the centre of the crowd, then looked up and their faces looked happier than he had ever been. He felt guilty then, sick and cynical for being there.
“Are you alright? Is everything okay?” she squeezed his knee, trying to make eye contact. He tried to say that everything was fine, and that it would be alright, but it came out as a jumble of words which didn’t make sense. “Hold on,” she said, “I’ll get you some water.” She disappeared into the bustling mess of people and he sat still on the chair, trying desperately to stay focussed. His eyes wandered. His head began to throb.
He tried standing: harder than he remembered, he fell twice before composing himself properly and standing upright. He made his way down one of the thin sidestreets, ducking underneath clotheslines and bracing himself against walls to avoid open windows. He took too many turns to remember where he’d come from: a left, a right and then another, and another.
When he stopped wandering he looked up properly and found himself further from the party. In the distance the crowd could still be heard, but they were like an echo. He was in a wider space, a courtyard almost. An old man tottered about, back and forth carrying boxes, crates, and bags. He was placing them in the centre of the yard.
“What are you doing?” he asked the old man.
“I am taking all of my possessions and piling them up here.” He explained it as though it was the most normal thing. “When it gets high enough I can climb up and welcome them, and they’ll see that I’ve done the most. They will pick me first.”
“Do you need help?” he found himself saying. The old man nodded and passed him an armful of photo frames, the pictures twitching static. He took them to the foot of the pile, staring up at what it was made of: chairs, bed posts, clothing, plates and cutlery, children’s toys. He clambered on a chair which acted as an initial step up, then onto the top of a toybox. He reached up, grasping for a handhold and found a set of hangers, jutting out from the next level. Tugging on them jostled them loose and some slipped from the pile and fell a few feet to the ground. He regained his balance and felt his way up the pile, he brushed past a stuffed bear, the warmth of the fur and the coldness of its black eyes. He pulled on the edge of a large television and, when it didn’t move, he pulled himself up to the top of it. Above that, a coffee table precariously moved left to right, metronomic. It didn’t look sturdy but still he hoisted himself up and stood, higher than the rooftops of the huts and tents, surveying the basintown. He placed the frames carefully on top of the pile and looked down as the old man went back to his pile to retrieve some more of his belongings.
He looked up and there were the stars, simple and brilliant.
When she’d died a priest had come to the flat. What was it that he had said? Your daughter. He hadn’t ever thought of her as his daughter. He had never had the time. Your daughter is up there now. He knew the priest hadn’t meant it literally and he didn’t mean the stars, but he couldn’t help himself. He wondered briefly if the Skinships were grown with mouths, with voices. When he looked up he felt as though he was a little bit closer to her. Standing there on top of someone else’s things, crushing the life out of them, he reached higher and higher and somewhere amongst the stars he thought he saw one of them, a Skinship with her face and her body and her mind and she was coming back.
Daniel Carpenter has had his words on Metazen, Rainy City Stories and was featured in the National Flash Fiction anthology Jawbreakers alongside Ali Smith and Ian Rankin. He co-runs Bad Language and is new writing editor for the Blank Media Collective. His stories have been described as “serendipitous”.