December 17, 2013 § 16 Comments


‘Pilgrim,’ she whispered. ‘Do you think death is the end of everything?’

‘Can’t hear you. Hang on while I make this hole bigger with my ski.’

‘But hey,’ Tina continued. ‘I shan’t be going anywhere for a while. And neither will you.’ She brushed away a tear.

Pilgrim pulled the ski out of the air hole and wriggled around to face her. ‘What did you say?’

‘Forget it. Doesn’t matter.’

‘How do you know my name?’ he asked.

‘The instructor pointed you out the other day. He said Search and Rescue found the colour of your suit the easiest to spot in the snow. What the hell are we going to do?’

‘Well, I’ve done the first thing, so we won’t run out of oxygen. Now we need to dig ourselves out.’

‘How can you be so calm? What if we can’t get out?’

Pilgrim heaved himself into the full lotus position, closed his eyes and put his palms together like he was praying.

‘Hey. Get real!’ she sneered, staring at him in disbelief. ‘You’re not actually praying are you?’

‘Kind of,’ he said. ‘I won’t be long.’

Tina fidgeted then maneuvered into something like a half lotus. She put her palms together too and waited. But nothing happened – so she rummaged in her backpack and pulled out a cigarette. ‘You don’t mind, do you? In the circumstances, and all that.’

‘Close your eyes and empty your mind,’ he said gently.

‘Can’t,’ she said, flicking open her lighter.

‘OK, if you can’t, look at the daylight coming from the air hole and concentrate on that instead. And by the way, you’re using up oxygen with that lighter.’

Tina shrugged and snapped it shut. She stared at the air hole, but all she could think about was frostbite and dying.

‘I’m freezing and I can’t concentrate.’

‘Ok,’ said Pilgrim, opening his eyes. ‘Time to dig.’

‘Are you afraid of dying then?’ he asked, as he scraped away at the snow with the ski.

‘Hell. So you did hear what I said. Actually I’m shit scared.’


‘How should I know? Maybe I’m frightened it’s going to hurt. Maybe I’m frightened of what comes afterwards.’

‘What does come afterwards, then?’

‘Going to hell, I suppose. The Bible says unbelievers go to Hades when they die, and then they go to hell or the Lake Of Fire. John 3:36. See. I’m not that ignorant. I’m not a Christian, so that’s where I’m heading next, right?’

He carried on digging. ‘I’m listening.’

‘Can’t say I’ve ever needed to give it any thought,’ she continued. ‘I work all hours in the City. Too busy earning the next crust for that shiny yellow 911.’ Tina smirked. ‘Actually Pilgrim, I don’t think anything happens to us when we die. When the body wears out, that’s it. Finito. Curtains.’

‘So why are you frightened of going to hell if it’s not going to happen?’

‘Because maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong.’

‘About what?’

‘About there being a god of course.’ Tina stopped digging and lay on her back.

‘Gimme a break.’

            ‘Half an hour more, then we’ll stop.’

            ‘I’m stopping for five, then I’ll make the air hole bigger,’ she said. ‘It looks like it might be closing up.’

            ‘Could be it’s just getting dark,’ suggested Pilgrim.

‘Can you hear that rumbling?’ shrieked Tina. ‘Shit! Another avalanche.’

            ‘Come here,’ he said, putting his arms around her shoulders. He was whispering to himself. Pilgrim was praying again.

The rumbling stopped. ‘We’re safe for now.’

‘So, you’re a Christian, then?’ she asked.

            ‘Not any more.’

‘But weren’t you praying just now?’

‘Not exactly. I was reciting a mantra.’

            ‘Well, what are you then?’

            ‘Suppose I’m a kind of Buddhist.’

            ‘Aren’t they the guys who believe in karma? Like if you do something bad, you’re born again as a dung beetle or something? Yeah, I remember now. In Tibet they chop you up and feed you to the vultures. Sky burial. Saw it on the telly. Gross.’

            ‘I know it sounds bad to you, but the ground is frozen solid in Tibet – it isn’t possible to have earth burials.’

            ‘Couldn’t they just burn the bodies and chuck them in the river like the Hindus?’

            ‘No,’ said Pilgrim gently. ‘That would pollute the water, and in any case there are hardly any trees in Tibet.’

            ‘But giving your granny’s remains to the vultures. That’s just disgusting.’

            ‘Vultures are sacred there. The body is given as an offering.’

            ‘But isn’t the body sacred, too?’

            Pilgrim explained that Buddhists believed it was just a vessel for the soul, and when it had worn out and was no longer needed, it should be put to good use rather than wasted.

            ‘So what do you think happens when you die?’ asked Tina.

            ‘The soul is born again into a new body.’

‘Sounds cool,’ said Tina.’ So however much I drink or overdo the coke, it doesn’t matter because I’ll always get a new body, right?’

Pilgrim nodded his head gently. ‘Kind of.’

            ‘So that’s why you’re not afraid of dying then.’

            ‘We need to dig some more,’ he said.

‘My boyfriend’s going to be wondering where I am.’

            ‘He wasn’t on the slopes when the avalanche happened?’

            ‘No, he was sleeping off a serious hangover.’

            She talked about their privileged lifestyle. The fast cars, the holidays, the parties.

            ‘And what about you,’ she asked. ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’

            ‘I’ve never had one.’

            ‘Never. How old are you?’

            ‘Twenty eight. It just never happened. I like my own company and I don’t meet new people much.’

            ‘What about work. Don’t you meet girls there?’

            ‘It isn’t that sort of place. I work in British Rail’s Complaints Department so most people are looking for a scapegoat rather than a friend.’

            Pilgrim stopped digging and knelt beside her.

            ‘I need to close my eyes for ten. Just ten. Maybe you could check the air hole.’

            ‘If we get close, we can keep each other warm,’ she suggested, as she shuffled up and laid her head on his shoulder. ‘You’re shy, aren’t you?’

            ‘Um, I suppose I must be.’

            What’s your favourite thing in the world?’

            ‘Easy. Going places on my bike and reading. And yours?’

            ‘Easy,’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘Sex.’

            ‘I never had the opportunity,’ replied Pilgrim sitting bolt upright. ‘We better get digging again.’

            ‘Yes, I suppose we should. In a minute, OK?’ And she held out her arms. ‘I still feel really sleepy.’

            ‘Mmm, me too. Did you check the air hole? We might be running low on oxygen.’

            Tina yawned. ‘I’ll do it in a minute. Pilgrim?’

‘Mmm?’ He barely whispered.

‘What’s the most important thing to you in the world?’

‘Being happy. And you?’

‘Same, I guess.’

Pilgrim shivered. ‘I am suddenly so, so cold.’

‘And me. I could sleep forever.’

And they lay down in the snow, curled themselves around one another, and went to sleep.


 Any comments or suggestions for improvement much appreciated!

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§ 16 Responses to Oxygen

  • mikesteeden says:

    Splendid as ever – imagery through dialogue is a particular favourite of mine and you handled it so very well here.

  • I really admire the way in which you have managed to write this and move it along effectively using speech almost exclusively. Personally I find writing ‘realistic’ speech difficult as it tends to end up as either trite or pompous (this is also true of quite a bit of published writing that I have read) so hats off to you! I’m struggling to add any constructive criticism to this, Rachael, as I think that it is a very strong piece of writing.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thanks, Chris. I think the piece may be too dialogue driven for its own good. Having said that, it is really just a moment in time, where more than a hint of back story would I think, be out of place.
      I don’ know what the answer is when trying to write realistic dialogue. Listen to others, read a lot of it, and read one’s own work out aloud, I suppose. Only problem with the latter is the neighbours thank I’m quite mad!

  • Miranda Stone says:

    This is the kind of writing I most like to read. You’ve done a fantastic job of showing these characters to your readers through action and dialogue. I don’t think the story is too heavy on dialogue at all. I do think it takes a lot of skill to make this kind of minimalist writing work, and you obviously have that. An idea occurred to me while I was reading the story, and I’m not saying that it would be an improvement on what you already have here, but just something to think about. In the beginning, when the female character is panicking and the male character is staying calm, seeming to know exactly what to do in a crisis, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if she switched the genders of the characters, so that the woman was the enlightened Buddhist who was keeping calm, and it was the man who was panicking and thinking about his somewhat superficial life? Just a thought. Excellent work here, Rachael. The story held my interest all the way to the end.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      I think that’s rather a good idea, and would give me the opportunity to develop the characters more. I switched sexes a few times with writing group stories a few years ago, and it was surprising what new ideas sprang from that. It’s not dissimilar to switching from first to third person (or vice versa).
      I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. It was a story that I’d consigned to the bin, but on looking at it I thought it might be worth rewriting. It’s still work in progress though.

      On another note, I think I’ve only seen your poems, which I always enjoy. They are sensitive, unusual, and the language is evocative and sensual. You do have a real gift. Do you ever post any fiction? In fact, do you write it? I will have a look in your archives. 🙂

      • Miranda Stone says:

        Thanks so much for your lovely comments about my poems, Rachael. While I do post most of my poems on the blog, I’m primarily a short story writer. If you look at my Works page, you can find links to a few of my published stories that can be read online. I’ve also posted several short stories since I’ve begun the blog. I’m planning to post another one soon. 🙂

        • Rachael Charmley says:

          Thanks, Miranda. Looking through your stories they show quite a different writer. They’re excellent – so exciting to discover new talent!

  • jmmcdowell says:

    I think you’ve done an excellent job of “showing” the story and characters with dialogue. And that is not an easy thing to do. I’m glad you gave this story a second chance to “breathe.”

  • Wow, I loved this piece! I am intrigued about the sub-text behind his and her attitudes to sex and spirituality and what is really great about this, is what isn’t said. Great ending but I would like to see more of these characters, perhaps a bit about their lives before they got to their hole in the ground..
    Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Glad you liked it John. It’s really work in progress I guess. If I took your advice it would be more like a proper short story. At the mo it’s more a moment in time. How’s writing and music going for you? 🙂

      Sent from my iPhone


      • Yes I know about these moments in time, you just get them and they feel right just as that or something to come back to.. It is excellent though and could be expanded and I am sure everyone would be very interested to read more 🙂

        I have an article deadline at the moment, so concentrating on that but have made good progress on various writing projects. Looking forward to a break at Christmas 🙂

        Music is going ok thanks, I had my first gig in 7 years last weekend and just seeing where the mood takes us next.. How’s things with you?

        • Rachael Charmley says:

          I’m ticking along, thanks. No great impetus to write, but much to read and walk in the woods. Glad all is fine with you.
          Keep well. 🙂

  • Rachael Charmley says:

    Thank you for taking the time to comment 🙂

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