was born in Berkshire in 1976. He is the author of five novels and two collections of short stories. His latest novel, The Devil's Highway, is published by Fourth Estate. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
A foot on her bladder jolts her awake. She queues for the toilet, is ushered to the front by kindly passengers, and on returning to her seat discovers East Anglia overlaid with a map of vapour. She pretends to herself that this is stable English cloud, its blue lacunae the Norfolk Broads that she has never visited. The thought makes her thirsty and, looking down the aisle for the drinks trolley, she reaches into her purse for change. She requests a tomato juice and watches as the hostess measures out a sample. She takes a sip and her taste buds seem to revive like flowers after rain. Taking her time with the dregs, she sits back to consider all that has taken place – the journey to and from Berlin, her courtesy tour of the heat-dazed city, the performance at the Konzerthaus. Is it common for the Small Hall to have so many empty seats? No matter: the applause sounded genuine and lasted a long time, until she began to suspect that it was her condition, rather than her composition, that won people over; for she had been summoned to the front of the stage and exposed there, bashful, elated and flagrantly pregnant, until the first violin encumbered her with a bouquet and turned her into an allegorical figure from a masque of plenty.

There is a second jolt. Passengers murmur as the plane lurches through fathoms of air. Clare grips the armrest and shuts her eyes. She reminds herself of the statistics about aircraft safety. All the same, she does not open her eyes or wipe the perspiration from her upper lip until they are safely delivered from turbulence.

‘Now that was a drop,’ her neighbour says. ‘Cheaper to stay at home and fall down the stairs.’

Clare nods and sketches a smile. She resists the urge ethically to justify her presence on board, to describe to this affluent woman the difficulties of securing a permit, the cost of exceeding her carbon allowance and her worries about the ethics of doing so.

Ajay insisted that she go. Hasn’t she always told him that Germany values new music, whereas in England only the comforting oldies have an audience: the vanished pastoral of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Clare’s compositions, swarming with terror and magnificence, hold scant appeal to such patrons as remain to fill the void left by public subsidy. Who wants orchestral noise that frightens and dismays? Berliners, it would seem. They absorbed, as if they deserved it, the stern sermon of her Threnody and meditated on it afterwards in the air-conditioned café, the balm of their approval soured by a few sidelong glances at her fullness, from abstainers perhaps, or else musical enthusiasts who foresaw, as Clare does with a pang of apprehension, the sinking of her gifts under nappies and night feeds.

She rests her hands on her belly. Her lower back aches; her bladder seems full again. She feels gross, usurped –– time to be done with it all. Yet she fears the pain of labour and has complained to Ajay about the ordeal ahead. Having to squeeze a living body through that tearing, agonised neck.

‘Men have it easy. All the fun and none of the effort.’‘What about gallstones?’

‘I think you’ll find a baby is a bit bigger.’

A baby passes through a bigger aperture.’

‘Oh God – can’t I just pay someone to do it for me? If men had to do this you’d have come up with a technofix years ago.’

‘There are some things, my love, that cannot be fixed by technology.’

The aircraft dips towards England. Clare sees through the window the cloud dissolve to reveal the faded quilt of Essex, the fields and woods from this height a blend of coffee and cream, with here and there the glint, like dropped shreds of foil, of solar panels on domestic roofs. The plane tilts again to reveal the vast circuitry of London smudged by photochemical smog.

‘Beautiful,’ her neighbour says, leaning close to see out. Clare inhales the woman’s perfume and mutters about pollution. ‘I don’t think so,’ says the woman. That’s just humidity, isn’t it?’

Clare warns herself not to take against this frequent flyer with her Botoxed brow, her snakeskin handbag and faded cheeks. Above all, do not get polemical. It is a side to her nature that has not served her well. In Germany, it was better received. She was able to describe, without inwardly cringing, the subject of her Threnody, a funeral piece for the non-human Earth to which, now that we have despoiled it, we have no option but to pay attention. Ideally, her music would embody its purpose. Yet whenever a journalist asks, she finds the urge to proselytise difficult to resist. It has made her enemies –– like Quentin Barber in The Telegraph who claimed to have discovered in her song cycle, The Sleep of Reason, ‘an ideological focus reminiscent of the vanished commissars of socialist realism’.

The seatbelt sign lights up, the captain gives his instructions, and the plane bucks and trembles into its final descent. Maybe she does hector; maybe she is a bore. Only second-rate composers write programmatically. Yet the state of things drives her to it. How can she keep silent? Clare envies Ajay his philosophical calm. The Earth will shrug us off, he says, if it has to. Life won’t end with humans. Sometimes his fatalism infuriates her, is endurable only with the knowledge that rather than wailing at the crisis he is acting to resolve it; whereas she obsesses at the news of famines in Africa and Southeast Asia, and scrabbles around for ways to make sense of it all in music that, to most ears, is nothing but discordant noise.

The plane lands without complications, and Clare leans under the thin ventilation jet to dispel her nausea. Already the woman beside her is gathering her things. Clare waits with eyes closed for the plane to taxi and dock. Perhaps, she tells herself, the birth will change everything: narrowing her focus to daily necessities. It might be a relief to have one person’s future to worry about above all others: a fraction of the world it is in her power to protect.


Ajay is waiting at the arrivals gate. The stubble is dark on his face; he looks tired. He runs his hand over The Bump before giving her a quick, dry kiss.

‘We’re not taking the Tube in this heat. I’ve got a car.’

Clare lets him take the lead. They are exposed briefly to the blast of the day before entering the multi-storey car park. With what feels like almost terminal lassitude, she eases herself into the passenger seat of the hired vehicle. It smells of new upholstery and sun-baked plastic. A previous user has stuffed the glove compartment with wet wipes.

Ajay negotiates the twists of the car park, the wheels making a high lament at every turn. He steers them past checkpoints and through bollards into broiling traffic.

‘I’m sorry,’ says Clare.

‘For what?’

‘For not being talkative. It’s nothing personal.’

She contemplates the sunlight caught in the hairs of his forearm. She prefers not to look at the countryside. Better to burrow into her thoughts and contemplate the man she loves.

The first she knew of Ajay was his voice – followed by his hands, lithe and articulate like his speech, fluttering half a dozen panellists from where she sat onstage at the FutureScope conference. She leaned forward, to the edge of inelegance, until she could connect that wry baritone, those elegant hands, to their owner. The face was not handsome (the eyes fractionally prominent, the chin distinctly receding) yet resting her gaze on it felt like a homecoming. It was not so much a sensation of déjà vu as of stepping back into a foundational element, the first air of childhood, when everything is remarkable. She liked this man with his baffling talk of recyclable coenzymes and photoautotrophic organisms. There was something Promethean about his ambition to reveal one of the great mysteries of life on Earth: life which had created the conditions for more of itself. Watching him talk, she could not help smiling. Was he straight? Did he have a girl in the auditorium? And was this joy she felt illusory, a somatic defence against the talk of tipping points and feedback loops and vanished albedo effects?

After the plenary session, she made her way through the crowd and introduced herself. They shook hands and continued talking until they found themselves mirroring one another’s postures on either side of a café table. Within a week, they were lovers; within three months, she had moved into his flat in Maida Hill. It was just possible to fit in her piano. When Ajay’s startup received the backing of a VC firm in Shandong, they were able to rent a small semi within walking distance of Bayswater’s gated communities. The area is reasonably secure and the house big enough for them to balance intimacy with the absorption of their respective callings.

Each endows the work of the other with the mystery of arcane secrets. Clare perceives as metaphor her partner’s quest to store solar energy in the chemical bonds of a fuel, but she hears rather than listens to his talk of liquid catalysts and electrochemical cells, while Ajay sits proudly through church hall recitals of his wife’s stringent and elusive music, all the while wondering, she supposes, what’s for supper, or whether messages of interest are gathering on his phablet.

In the car, now, Ajay glances at the screen clipped to the dashboard. Clare presses back into the headrest in order to read it. Nothing but his Twitter feed.

‘Are you following a news story?’

‘Just chatter.’ Ajay turns the screen off and Clare rests a hand on his knee.

‘I hope you’ve been sleeping while I’ve been away.’

‘When I get round to it.’

‘Seriously, you look tired.’

‘I’m in training.’

‘You’d be better off building up reserves.’

‘For the Sleep Crunch.’ A panic of sirens blazes its way through the traffic. ‘It’s good to have you back.’

‘It’s good to be back.’

Ajay, emboldened by this exchange, begins to ask detailed questions about her flight, how it felt to be doing something to which they had once been accustomed. Does Clare imagine it, or is there a forced quality to his inquiries? The heat, the flight, the long queues at security and to get her rations deducted, have left her jangled. As gently as she can, she asks Ajay for quiet, and spends the rest of the journey with her eyes closed, in part to keep from seeing outside, in part to find in herself some point of calm.


The sun has passed its zenith by the time he has dropped her off, gone to park the car in its charging bay and come home to find her sitting in the kitchen, tights in hand, curling and uncurling her swollen toes. She hands him the twin of her sweating glass.

‘London’s finest,’ she says. ‘Recycled a thousand times.’

‘All water’s recycled.’ They drain their glasses and Ajay gasps in that theatrical way that niggles at her. ‘What’s up?’


‘You seem preoccupied.’

‘Of course I’m preoccupied. Look at the size of me!’

She contemplates her splayed toes on the linoleum floor and does not look up until Ajay has left the room with her suitcase. She levers herself to her feet and begins to drift about the house, as if reacquainting herself with a place long ago abandoned. In the bedroom, she takes off her blouse and contemplates her belly: a pale globe with a line of longitude bisecting the navel. Something sits, an obstruction, in her stomach. The feeling has accumulated like thunder in the heat until, in a sudden revelation while she unpacks her suitcase, it cascades into a six-bar motif: a tremulous murmur in the strings, an embryonic pulse from bassoon and oboe, and then a solitary French horn launching on C major, only to lose faith in itself and slide back with a melancholy glissando.

She makes her way to the piano and scribbles it down: the sketch of her theme. The seed of the work that was germinating inside her.

She hears movement in the garden and look out to see Ajay plucking dead stems from the soft fruit. She barely notices the parched condition of the laurels, the grass like straw, the leaves of the dwarf apple puckered and jaundiced. She attends to her breathing. The mind must lie still and open like the palm of a hand. Whatever comes must not be rushed. To reach for it is to chase it away.

She looks at the notes hung out on the staff paper. She tries them again, her ear casting a line beyond the last reverberation. Drops of sweat fall on the piano keys. She hears as if on a wandering breeze the stridulation of violins, feverish rumbles from a full complement of doubles basses. Twisting over both, like butterflies in a pheromonal dance, oboe and bassoon restate and interrogate the opening theme. These forces – the elemental strings, the creaturely wind – are in opposition, and her body aches with the tension. She writes the parts one above another, forcing herself to concentrate. It’s like hauling herself rung by rung along a horizontal ladder. The weight is too much to carry. She lets go and turns on the piano stool to face the room: its books and scores, its row upon row of antiquated CDs.

Clare hears Ajay come inside and go to his study, closing the door behind him. She dares another look at the sketches and wonders what kind of music can welcome a child into a world of ashes. Will their daughter live to witness a miraculous escape from the bottleneck in which humanity is now horribly wedged? Or will she – the question terrifies – be among the millions to die in its breathless confinement?

The analogy belongs to a science blogger: their friend Olive. ‘Here we are,’ she said that time after supper, ‘the buffers hit years ago – peak phosphate, peak water, peak everything – and the chemical structure of the atmosphere altered beyond recovery. We have squeezed ourselves into this bottleneck. Either we get smart or history ends this century. This talk terrified Clare. She made an excuse and hurried to the bathroom, her heart pounding and her lungs sobbing for air. The word called to mind the mouse she discovered once, jammed inside a wine bottle discarded under their hedge: killed for the sweetness that lured it in.

Clare gathers herself off the stool. For the umpteenth time today, she goes to the toilet to ease the pressure on her bladder. Reaching for a square of paper, she wonders if, under the surface, Ajay too isn’t panicked by what is about to descend on them. Quite apart from the ecological questions – the world has no need of another human – is it right to forge a consciousness that must suffer and die? There are those who say we have a duty to resist our biology. Ten years ago, they were the ones telling us to stop shopping, to break our addiction to growth for the future’s sake. Yet the bulk of humanity heeds old imperatives. We let nature takes its course – even if nature’s course is, ultimately, to purge itself of us.

Clare told very few people about her pregnancy while it was still possible to conceal it. She dreaded disapproval; yet no one, not even Tilda who runs a despair management course at the university, displayed anything other than delight at the prospect once it was obvious. In the abstract, people with whom Clare and Ajay socialise parade their scepticism about breeding, but when it comes to their own lives, or those of friends, the opposition fades. The impulse is too strong, it’s a compulsion pushed on us like a drug by our genes. The baby wants to be born – isn’t that the truth? It announced itself, circumvented their precautions, technology no match for that lone swimmer and her porous, eager egg.

She knocks on the door of Ajay’s study and goes in to kiss him on the crown of his head. Half a dozen tabs are open on his monitor: emails, news items, syndicated feeds on air pollution and the riots. She wraps her arms about his damp shoulders.

‘What would you say, Mr Four-Eyes, to some supper?’

Ajay rests a hand on her forearm but does not return her playful tone. ‘Are you up to it?’

‘I think I can manage something simple.’

In the kitchen, the floor is cool beneath her feet. She inspects the jars of pulses and quinoa, measures out the latter and puts a pan to boil. The fridge is full of drought-stunted vegetables. She tests the tomatoes, quarters them; dices spring onions and radishes. It pleases her to cook when they have fresh produce. Nutri-shakes and algal compounds may be necessary but she cannot find in their preparation the sacramental quiet she looks for in domestic tasks. Every action must be undertaken with reverence. How hateful to be on autopilot, never to wake fully into the day.

Half an hour later, with a breeze at last creeping in from the garden, she lays the quinoa salad on the table. Ajay joins her in silence but it takes her several minutes, caught up in the undertow of her music, to notice his hunched shoulders and the slowness with which he lifts the fork to his lips. She looks at him, hoping to draw his attention with her eyes. His own are hooded and he keeps his head bowed over the plate. Only when they have eaten and Ajay takes their plates to the sink does she ask what is troubling him.

‘I don’t know if it matters,’ he says.

‘If what matters?’

‘In the grand scheme of things.’


‘Come upstairs. It would be easier to show you.’

She follows him, her stomach aflutter, into his study, where he wakes the computer with a flick of the mouse. Clare’s eyes wander, too weary to settle, over emails and campaign pages and various business sites. ‘What am I looking for?’

PhotoGen,’ says Ajay, ‘has been neutered.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘See for yourself.’

Clare leans forward and tries to narrow in on a single paragraph. She sees familiar names and acronyms. Dread parches her mouth. ‘For God’s sake, tell me what’s happened.’

‘Shall I bullet point it for you?’

‘No, just tell me outright.’

Ajay hesitates and she has to master her frustration at being toyed with, at having to wait for an explanation. ‘The mistake we made was to think we could play with the big boys…’

Clare stares at him. She recalls Ajay’s reluctance to tangle even with the remotest tentacles of that vast energy empire.

‘They have decided…’ Ajay sighs, and she can hear the effort in his voice to keep calm. ‘…to cease investing in uncertain technologies in order to focus on proven energy. For which read tar sands and coal-to-oil. Remote extraction in the Arctic.’

‘You said they gave assurances.’

‘They made all the right noises. We thought we were taking good advice, but who’s to say the advice wasn’t paid for by someone else?’

‘So who owns the largest share?’

They do, Clare. It was their game plan all along: get a foothold and then take over.’

‘How’s it in their interest to shut you down?’

‘It’s entirely in their interests, if you think in quarterlies. Look, there’s nothing new in their MO. You buy technology that threatens you and you suffocate it. Like a heroine dealer stealing the city’s supply of methadone and burning it.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘You were in Berlin. I didn’t want to spoil your concert. Then this afternoon you looked tired…’

‘Just when I’d started –’ Clare wavers and Ajay, reproaching himself for his inattention, eases her onto the office chair. She has to swivel away from the screen – cannot bear to see those urgent tabs with their freight of bad news. ‘I’ve started something new.’

‘Can’t hear you, love.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

He rushes downstairs while Clare leans forward, her pregnancy vast between her thighs. Ajay returns with a glass of water and watches her drink.

‘Are you…?’ She tries to find a way out, an escape clause however tenuous. ‘Is it certain they’re going to defund you?’

‘Andy and Neil have been texting me all day. That’s the rumour. And there’s no going elsewhere when they own the patents.’ Ajay leans against the bookcase and folds up till he is kneeling before her, like a supplicant at the altar of his child. ‘I wanted to believe in the possibility of good faith. Their money and our forward-thinking. Proof that even the most entrenched interests can see where the future lies. The irony is, they can. They see where we’re heading, which is why they’ve spent decades trying to stop us from getting there.’

Clare runs her fingers through his hair, careful not to touch his bald patch. She sees a little boy in need of saving. How can she console him, she who has always needed his stability, his resistance to hope or despair? That dinner party, seated between technological optimists and depletionist Olive, he had argued against both contentions. She has seen him refute, gently but without evasion, activists clinging to the dream that resource depletion will bring down the ogre of industrial capitalism. Ah, he’d say, but that fails to reckon with its resourcefulness. The last acre of Earth will have been scoured before the system admits its madness. Perhaps, then, the giant will fall, but it will fall on the people below. Our task, the task of innovators, is to keep the giant on its feet and make it move more daintily until it learns a different dance.

Another thought, closer to home, pushes these metaphors aside. How will they manage with a baby on the way? She asks him the question.

‘Oh, any settlement will be generous,’ he says. ‘I can probably find work with another start-up. Don’t worry on that score.’

The word brings her back to herself. She hears a mockery of trumpets, flatulent brass: a tide of noise drowning the tentative music of Earth. Too obvious? Yet the obvious is what we fail to take note of. She listens for the next wave of sound. The next iteration.

‘We’re out of time anyway,’ says Ajay. ‘It was too late ten years ago. We’ve been looking for a technofix but it’s our minds we have to change not our means. And there’s no app for improving human nature.’

Clare turns, reaching for the windowsill. She stands on solid floorboards yet feels the world falling away. Into dread. Towards chaos. The chthonic darkness. Then a lone violin, unnoticed at first, forcing its way through the noise like a weed through concrete. She listens for it. Desperately.

‘I thought denial was a failing in others. And all this time I’ve been at the bargaining stage.’

The melody, thin and fragile, begins to spread like a virus to the other strings.

‘I’m sorry…’ says Clare. She makes her way, cradling the music in her thoughts, to the piano. He follows her and leans against the door jamb, watching.

‘It arrived this afternoon,’ she says without looking up. ‘While you were in the garden. I can’t just let it pass.’

‘You don’t imagine anyone’s ever going to perform it, do you?’

She writes, then puts down her pencil on the score rest and contemplates the vacant doorway. Downstairs, the fridge door opens and a bottle top dances on the granite counter.

Clare looks at the scrawl of her notation. She sounds the emptiness in her core – sorrow’s anaesthetic. She hears Ajay open the door to the garden and the respite of darkness.

Perhaps she has always known. To live, as one must, day to day, is to depend on saving illusions. Saving, that is, until they drown us. She breathes slowly. The air is kind to life. Life made it, after all. She must not give herself to anger or sorrow. The score is growing inside her. It will not save one life, yet with it she will add to the store of creation.

She thinks of Ajay standing among the withered beds. In a minute, she will go to him. First, she looks at the score: that scrawled clef, those crochets and minims. What else can she do with the time that remains?

Their child is coming into the world.

Nothing can stop it now.

C97ZIGSW0AAR_DE.jpg-large-666x1024 (1)‘Bottleneck’ is taken from The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017), a collection of stories that range widely in space and time. Historical, speculative and naturalistic fictions take the reader from medieval Byzantium and Elizabethan London to the present-day Edinburgh Festival and a climate-changed San Francisco of the near-future.

A sublime collection of short stories…  Unfailingly beautiful, deceptively simple and lyrically powerful

  Claire Looby, The Irish Times.


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