Monday, 3 January 2011
Forgive me. Please forgive me. I love you. I have always loved you, I have loved you since the moment I first laid eyes on you. I feel like I loved you before that even. I owe you an explanation.
I was a good surgeon. One of the best. You definitely came to the right place. You were in safe hands from the start. Over the years I have performed thousands of procedures. Performed; the phrasing always strikes me as strange. As though my work is for show, but I suppose in a way it is.
Some of my colleagues naively liked to think of themselves as artists, claiming that they could see the sculpture in the plain marble of a woman’s nose. I preferred to think of myself as an editor, removing years with a scalpel, searching for a beauty still inherent. We justify ourselves in such strange ways.
I had not always been in cosmetic surgery. My children are in part to blame and to thank for that. I have always worked with faces but my background was originally in reconstruction, working in crisis and dealing with damage. Trying to make people look normal again, not beautiful. Vanity though, has deeper pockets and I would have two children to fund through college. The transfer was easy.
Though they might be too complex to comprehend, there are formulae for everything. Artists and scientists have long lauded the golden ratio which is as prevalent and intrinsic in the wonders of the natural world as in the masterpieces of classical architecture. The Greeks knew it, the Babylonians knew it. It is in the coliseum, it is in the coil of a shell. Built from the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence and tending more toward precision with each decimal place but without ever reaching it. There is an ideal, a mathematical magnificence which nature aims for and never quite reaches. Perfection is by its very nature unattainable. And so I thought, as many do, that true beauty lies in the imperfections. The subtle breaks in pattern, the freckles, the wrinkles, the scars and abrasions, the damage which tells of life. Was it the mole on Marilyn Monroe’s face that made it so captivating? It is the impurities that give rubies, sapphires and emeralds their colour. Diamond though, the most precious of stones, is faultless. Cold, hard and flawless, geometrical precision, carbon atoms holding hands in regimented alignment, tetrahedron after tetrahedron after tetrahedron.
Of course, all this was before I met you.
You were like a diamond.
The effect was physical; devastating to be frank. Time stood still. It was as if I forgot to breathe. And then the routine kicked in, the patter, my famous bedside manner. We went through the procedures available. I talked to cover the aching inside, options and stammering sales pitches masking my sudden teenage awkwardness.
You were the ideal. The model to which all my surgery aspired.
I know that they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there is so much more to it than that. We have evolved to find symmetry alluring. There are functional reasons; it indicates health, fertility, suitability as a mate. It is all aesthetically meaningful. There is a relative distance, from the nose to mouth and the ears to eyes, the ratio of waist to hips, the length of arms and legs that is innately correct. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, standing in his circle within a square, his eight limbs spread to embrace the world, is as much a study in the laws of the universe as of the human form.
The Mona Lisa was nothing on you. You would have made Da Vinci cry.
You did not look young. This sounds confusing I am sure, your face is youthful, unblemished, perfect, but it also has something eternal about it. Looking at you felt like looking at an original, as though all femininity since you were a mere facsimile, a copy of a copy accumulating errors and artefacts, a print while you were the one and only true masterpiece. You looked as I imagine Eve did before the fall.
There was nothing which I could recommend, nothing to fix, nothing that could be improved. You were a customer though, and you had different ideas. Your list was extensive. Fuller lips, a smaller nose, larger breasts, a narrower waist, higher cheekbones. You went on and on, cataloguing what you saw as your inadequacies. Afterwards you stopped and gazed at your feet awkwardly. I think I had been staring. I couldn’t understand. There was a sacred geometry in your face. How could you be unhappy with it?
Back to business. We took some photos, I drew with a thick magic marker on your skin. On touching you that first time, I felt like I had been drinking, like I had had a shot of espresso, like I could not sit still. I felt desperate for your gaze, a primal thirst to hold your eyes on mine. I felt giddy and childish. I would have given the world to have you in my arms. I remember how you giggled as the felt tip marker tickled under your nose. I touched you so cautiously. There is something about beauty which makes us assume fragility but you were far from frail. Your flesh was firm, I could feel the muscles under the softness of your skin. You were strong, tough in a tender way.
When the consultation was over and you left, I turned to examine my own image in the mirror. I might have been handsome once, before the persistent assault of time. I tried to think objectively for a moment and evoked my surgeon self. I scrutinised my reflection assessing each feature. My nose and ears have grown too big, a common feature with age, they are the only part of the face that doesn’t stop growing through life. My hair is greyed and thinning. Time and worry have ploughed furrows in my brow. But I felt young then. Looking at you had made me feel young.
We train on heads you know? Each student is granted their own decapitated head for practice, like the manikins little girls colour in with makeup in a naive race toward the terrors of adolescence. We make the most of each of them, attempting as many procedures as we can fit into the tight terrain of as single face. A face lift, a nose job, collagen filler, botox, a chemical peel. You remain detached of course. You have to, so much of surgery is butcher’s work. But you do develop a sort of affection toward your training head. My first had green eyes. I will never forget that.
In the weeks that passed, I carried your photos around with me. All files are confidential and not to be taken home. For this transgression alone I should have been disciplined. All the same, they brought me comfort somehow. I once caught myself doodling and found I could draw you from memory. Every morning I woke up thinking of you.
When the day of your operation came around I was a maelstrom of emotion. I was excited because I would see you again, but what would I do? I could never vandalise you. I scrubbed up in a daze, going through the motions. The attendants and nurses talked to me but I heard nothing. When I saw you, laid out there on the table, a pale blue shower cap over your head and your eyes closed as though in prayer, you looked as vulnerable as a child. I could not perform even had I wanted to. My hands were shaking; I could not hold the scalpel still.
I don’t know why I did it exactly. I only knew I had to stop it. I would have had to break your nose, break the bone. I would have had to break you.
I gripped the scalpel and without hesitation plunged it deep into my left eye. I screamed in torment as my blood gushed everywhere, all over the tools, the blades, the nurses, me and you. I tainted the sterilised area. I prevented your desecration.
I think I would have done for the other eye as well, if I could have. Dug it out of its shallow, bloody hole. If I could have overcome the pain, I would have done it. I would have done it for you.
Now the world is two dimensional to me. A facet of my perception has been lost. I don’t think I wanted to see in a world without your beauty. Knowing you exist, I cannot go back. I have been granted my wish and splendour has forever been compromised for me. I had always assumed that true beauty was unobtainable, and it really was, because I could never have you. But I want nothing else. The residual agony where my eye used to be pales when compared with the anguish in my heart.
All my love,
Friday, 24 September 2010
This is not a beginning.
I don’t know what this is.
Or when really.
I do know where.
A day at the office, my first day maybe, everything is fresh, everything is clearer.
The lift doors ping open. The woman smiles at me, steps in and turns round to face the doors as they glide closed. She presses 11.
She wears a pencil skirt and pinstripe jacket. Glasses.
She gets off and my gaze follows her. A man gets on, the doors close.
One level up. The doors open, the man gets off. I go too but wrong floor.
I work on 12.
1 level up, the doors open. I get off. Finish the induction, attend a few meetings, greet the rest of the team, sit at my desk, numbers, numbers, numbers. 6 o’clock and its time for home.
Take the stairs
I pass the woman.
She doesn’t look at me.
Memories. Here. Somewhere. Of a time before.
Another day at the office.
The doors ping open.
The woman smiles at me. Open lipped this time. I can see her perfect teeth.
She presses 11. We make conversation. She smiles a lot. She smiles an awful lot. We’ve met before. When? A meeting maybe or a social.
She gets off. She waves. The man gets on. The doors close.
I look down at my nails. I have been biting them. I see the man’s feet. We have the same shoes.
1 floor up. The man gets off. I go to. Wrong floor. 11.
1 floor up. 12. The doors open, I get off, I go to my desk, numbers, numbers, numbers.
6 o’clock. Time for home.
I take the stairs.
I pass the woman.
She will not look at me.
Memories. Before running out. Bleeding into the now.
A day at the office.
The doors ping open. The woman, there in front of me. She gets on. She will not look at me.
My guts tighten.
I still love her, I always have. How?
She gets off, he gets on.
I look at my hands. The man smells like a brewery.
The man gets off. I go to. Wrong floor
My thumbs are bleeding. I have chewed the flesh around my finger nails raw.
12. I get off, desk, numbers. 6 o’clock, home time.
Take the stairs.
A gap, a hole, a chasm, a pit.
Any day at the office.
Earlier. Earlier, I think.
The doors ping open.
The woman. She smiles. She smells of coco butter.
She presses 11. She smiles.
She wears a pencil skirt and a pinstripe jacket.
She has a birthmark on the small of her back.
Her hand intertwines with mine.
She says goodbye.
I wave. The man gets on smelling of fear and hate.
1 level up.
The man gets off.
This is weird.
12. off. Desk, numbers, 6 o’clock. Home
Running down them.
Chasing something that isn’t there
There is a gap, a fuzzy void. There always has been.
A day at the office.
I don’t know when, after I think.
I am happy, it must be before.
The doors ping open.
We join hands.
I say something, I don’t know what.
Things are getting blurry. But still she laughs.
We decide to stay at mine tonight, its closer. When?
Holding hands, I look at our reflections in the mirrors either side.
Happiness stretched to infinity.
My heart stutters.
She gets off. He gets on.
He staggers off.
12. Desk. Numbers. 6. Stairs
She’s moved out.
The doors ping open.
She doesn’t smile.
Its after, definitely after.
She presses 11.
I repeat myself, I’m sorry
She gets off. He gets on
Again, I’m sorry.
He gets off. He’s wearing my shoes.
I go to.
Not my floor.
My fingers bleed.
12. Work, work, work. Numbers, numbers, numbers. 6. Home.
I can’t take this.
Time passes. It is what it does.
The doors ping open.
She is there.
Is she smiling?
I don’t know when but her scent makes me remember.
She presses 11.
Trapped between mirrors we stretch.
I repeat myself.
She gets off, he gets on.
11. He gets off
12. Off. Desk. Numbers. 6.
Take the lift
The doors ping open.
I step inside.
Catch myself in the mirror.
I look older.
Time devours, it is what it does.
The loop erodes.
Stuck between mirrors, I’m stretched, my soul worn thin.
The man gets on.
I don’t dare look at him.
I’m afraid. I’m tired. I’ve been drinking.
When? I don’t know. In the in-between? Is there an in-between?
Circles don’t have starts, only centres.
I can see my hands, blurry, fingers bleeding. I suck them and taste salt.
We are wearing the same shoes.
He reeks of misery.
It’s not a circle, it’s a hole.
He gets off, I follow. All offices look the same. Her desk. I just want to talk. She says, she has heard it all before. She has. I repeat myself. I’m making a scene. I still love her.
I have a knife. How? When? In-between? Before? After? But how? I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I repeat myself. I repeat myself. My fingers are bleeding. It is not my blood.
My eyes fill with tears. Things are getting blurry.
I walk back to the lift, shaking. I pass the woman. She is not there.
The doors are open. I see my younger self, almost unrecognisable. I turn around. Doors close.
I can’t be sure. Not somewhere but somewhen.
2 of me caught between reflections.
I lash out and punch a mirror, right or left, in reflection I cannot tell. The glass breaks and quakes. The epicentre a pupil, the shards an iris, a thousand visions of my face, my loathsome, fat face, dodge my gaze. Glances dancing around a hole.
My fingers are bleeding. I look around. I’m alone. The doors don’t open.
Friday, 9 July 2010
The tide swells and she feels it inside her, the pull to dive beneath, to let go of who she is. She slips off the rocks and into the sea. Her hair spreads out in the water like pale seaweed, and small fish swim through it, hide in it. She’s weightless now, at last, her body no longer a thing to drag to and from places.
She fans her fingers through the water, experiments with opening and closing them, cupping sections of the ocean in turn, dragging them wide past her face and shoulder, ribs and hips. This underwater seeing takes the sharp edge off things. Everything is a flower, or something beautiful. His face would be a flower, if he was here. She thought he would be here. She will wait. He will be here soon. She twirls, flings her arms out. The solidity of her breaks apart then comes together again, her limbs fractured and fragmented, not quite whole. She thinks that maybe this was a mistake.
She stops swimming and plants her feet on the seabed. Her toes are swallowed by the sand and she kicks them up, slowly, and the grains fall away. She is still mostly full with hope. Her feet rest soft on the sand. It is only sand.
He leans in close to her. She feels his touch as a push in the water around her. Without having a hand on her, he has managed to get her underneath him. Out of politeness, she will not move away. He knows this. He looks down and her face rearranges itself into happiness. He slips his hand around to the back of her, pulls himself closer. Neither of them are breathing. It’s all about the sway and return of the tide. They will be closer at certain points than at others, in time and physically. Parts of him will always be closer, as well. Like his hands. They will freely roam across the map of her. And the left side of his face, that will press against the right of hers often, sometimes intentionally, while other times, it will take him completely by surprise.
She kicks her feet in slow arcs, tenses then loosens her arms. She is in the water, moving, but not going anywhere, not leaving the space they are both occupying. He steadies himself against her. She feels his hand push against the bones of her hip. The sunlight zigzags its way down to where they are, and she closes her eyes against it. She wants only the green light of underwater.
He will not love her. She is silver, but even that’s not enough. He holds his fingers on her skin. He could be glued, he thinks. He could be glued to her and happy. But he still would not love her. There would always be that part missing. As long as her feet are off the floor everything will be okay, though. She will not think about it, or if she does, she will not reach any conclusion. She will let him have his hands on her in this way, and she will smile into it. He will smile back, into the doing. He will think about glue again.
When her eyes open, he is too close for her to focus on. He is all the water around her. She wonders if she can dissolve like that. Maybe if she could just let go of the parts of her she’s tried so long to keep together. It’s not the same as giving up. It’s more hopeful than that. A belief that maybe gravity isn’t inevitable. That not being anchored to anything could be a good way to be. Even adrift, she feels tied to him anyway. There might not even be a need for the seabed, for the ground.
He lies along her, lets his legs press against hers. She can’t feel the weight of him, that desire. But he is a knot inside her stomach nevertheless. Between them is only water, and whatever oxygen it has in it. Neither of them has taken a breath in a long time. It gets easier.
The tide is going out. He can’t stay like this, static, for very long. He thinks about the way they fit together. He thinks about flesh and bone. She understands before he can even speak. Something has been reversed and they are charged to repel. She feels him pushing away even as his hands hold her. She opens her eyes to it. She wants to see.
He slips out of her arms and away. She doesn’t bother to grip on to fingertips. She twists in the water, spins fast, her body becoming a blur, changing into some new thing. She looks down and knows that the seabed will now be scattered with broken glass. And if she puts her feet on it, they will be cut, they will be torn to shreds.
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
Alice knocked and waited in the hallway lit by stark fluorescent lights. Along the lower stretches of the white walls there were black scuff marks left by rubber soles and bicycle tires. Over there a streak of ketchup from a little plastic sachet that was now stuck to the ceiling. Cigarette burns and takeaway menus littered the carpet. Alice knocked again. She had seen him cleaning his door with a J-cloth and a bottle of anti-bacterial spray the other day.
The door opened, slightly, and one half of Alan's face appeared. The cool, fresh odour of chemical fragrances escaped from his room; forest pine, summer breeze, winter fresh.
Hi, said Alice.
Hi, said Alan. Alan wore glasses, wire ones with rectangular frames that sat level on his face.
Can I come in? Said Alice. Alice also wore glasses, with swooping bright red plastic frames that tilted asymmetrically no matter how many times she adjusted them.
Alan opened the door fully and Alice went in, passing in front of Alan. Brightly coloured fabrics swished with the rolling of her hips and the hair that brushed Alan's face, wavy and thick like a lion's mane, smelled of something sweet and organic. Sandalwood and clove cigarettes, perhaps.
Alan stood and cleaned his glasses while Alice gathered her bare feet beneath her on the bed.
I love your room, she said, looking around her. Alan had many posters on his walls: Chicago skyscrapers rigid and correct, sports cars from the eighties whose lines resolved themselves into a sharp wedge. A Bridget Riley print, a mosaic of softly coloured trapezoids. The posters were evenly spaced and perfectly aligned, as though composed on a grid.
Alan's desk, arranged so that it was precisely perpendicular to his bed, held his computer monitor, engineering text books, a desk tidy and a pad of A4 lined paper. These elements too, were laid out in exact spatial proportion to one another. A biro lay a perfect inch from the pad of paper, parallel to the spine. The text books were laid on one another in descending size order, forming a neat ziggurat of mathematical principles, material behaviours and logarithmic functions.
The overhead fluorescent light was turned off, the room lit instead by spherical free-standing lamps that rendered everything cool and serene. Electronic music without lyrics was coming from the stereo, soothing and regular.
It's like a little oasis of calm, said Alice. She laughed, one fluid, shaking breast threatening to dislodge itself from her cleavage. Alan looked away as she readjusted her top.
Thanks, he said. I like to keep things a bit tidy, you know.
She watched Alan as he cleaned his glasses, his neat features sharpened by concentration. His shirt was square-cut and well-ironed. She imagined his body beneath it, taught pale skin without creases.
Maybe you could come and sort my room out for me. You know, rearrange it. Give it some Feng Shui, she said.
Alan looked up from polishing his glasses. Alice ran a hand through her unruly hair, pulled it into a certain position only for it to mutiny and spring back. A thigh was protruding from her skirt, a wild and expanding curve back towards her buttocks.
I don't really like touching other people's things, said Alan. Alice shifted position and readjusted her bra strap, a bright flash of mismatched underwear causing Alan to look away abruptly.
Oh no, it's all perfectly hygienic, said Alice. I'm just a bit messy. I just leave my clothes wherever I take them off, you know, she said. She laughed again, the warm flesh in her cleavage rolling like bathwater.
I have a laundry bin, said Alan.
That's good, that's admirable. I need to buy one of those.
Well, said Alan. You can always come in here. You know, to escape the mess.
It feels so tranquil in here you know, she said. It's so messy everywhere else. In the kitchen, the bathroom.
I don't go into the kitchen much.
I don't blame you, it's horrible. There are things growing in there. Alice stretched, her top riding up to expose a broad expanse of her belly, a small jewel glinting in the vortex of her naval. Alan polished his glasses.
Would you like to come to the pub? A few of us our going out, you know, having a few “beverages.” She made quotation mark signs with her fingers on this last word, skin tightening in the hollows of her armpits.
Oh, said Alan. I don't think so. I have a lot of work to get on with. He gestured towards his desk, its contents lying in regimented isolation from each other.
Go on, said Alice.
Next time, said Alan. Definitely next time.
Alice stood up, and readjusted her clothing, pulling down her rustling skirt and setting a bra strap back in place with her thumb. She went to the door, opened it and paused.
Next time? She said.
Definitely, said Alan.
Alice hugged him, his body remaining stiff against the warm chaos of her flesh that smelled of sandalwood and clove cigarettes.
Alan stood by the door, and looked around his room full of right angles. He walked over to his bed and examined the rumpled crater on his duvet where Alice had been sitting. He ran his hand over it, gently and comprehensively, drawing from it all of the heat left by Alice's body.
Saturday, 3 October 2009
You have your back to me. I watch your back become smaller as you recede from me, towards the vanishing point indicated by the street’s parallel lines. One point perspective. The further you go, the more objects interrupt my view of your vanishing back. Lampposts, trees, cars, until eventually, you will disappear completely. I think about how if I were standing at the other end of the street, I would be watching your face growing larger. But I am here, outside my house, watching your back becoming smaller.
I have already learned not to bother trying to read anything in anyone’s face. We have become experts in controlling, to the millionth degree of subtlety, what our faces show, and what they hide. If I could look into your eyes now (which I can’t) or study the tension in the muscles around your mouth (which I can’t), I’d see whatever you decided to allow me to see. If I want a window to your soul, I’ll look at your back.
Example: The fullness of the backpack that you are wearing is unbearably eloquent. Your shoulders, I can see, are straining up against the weight of it. Whatever mementoes you decided to keep from these past few years are weighing you down. I don’t want to carry that kind of weight around, so whatever you’ve left behind, I’ll probably throw away. Most of it, anyway.
Next week I will be at a concert with two of our friends. In my rear pocket I will have your now unwanted ticket. Between now and then, the band will travel across a continent, growing larger and, presumably, more audible as they approach. In the time it takes them to do that, and to arrive on this island, to unpack their instruments and their gear and perform their sound check and strike the first notes of the evening, in that time, you will have receded entirely out of sight.
I will stand a little bit behind my friends, and I will read their backs. I will study the spine of my friend, a sharp-peaked mountain chain visible through the fabric of his impeccably cool t-shirt. I will see the back of my other friend, a back which hurts so badly she wants to cry, all the time, and yet she spends her time taking care of the people around her. Perhaps other people will look at my back, and if they do they will notice an imbalance, a terrific weight centred around one rear pocket.
As we watch the band and listen to their music, we will see other things retreating into the distance. Something in the music will remind us of science classes, when we were fourteen, learning about the inflation of the universe. We will remember something vague about every point accelerating away from every other point, and we will start to see it happening. I’ll see my friends accelerating into the distance, on their own unique trajectories and I’ll look down at myself and see every part of my body growing further and further apart. An arm vanishing over the horizon. A thought and a word going in opposite directions, becoming ever more remote from each other. From this point, in the middle of our twenties, we will even be able to see time becoming bigger and further away.
All that is still to come. I am still standing outside my house, still watching your back disappearing, and waiting for myself to start dissolving.
Later, when the sun crashes gold through the leaves of this tree, he is going to kiss you. If you think about it now, it will seem utterly ridiculous. For one, he’s your best friend. And two, he’s infatuated with someone else. But three hours and eight minutes from now, he is going to kiss you.
You will climb the tree, putting your hands and feet the same places he does, shadowing his ascent. When he reaches his branch he will shift around on it and offer you a hand. You will let him steady you until you are safely wedged between the branch and the trunk, your legs dangling against the bark. As you lean back you will look up, and see the sky blue and white through the gaps. You will feel out of reach. Sunlight will filter through the leaves giving everything a citrus glow. Horse-chestnuts are the palest green this time of year, their spikes conical and comic-like. He will close his hand around one, then open it and test his fingertips against the spikes. At this point, you will only be thinking about his blood, and how red it will be if he pricks his finger. You do not know about the kiss that is going to happen in a few hours’ time. He will not prick his finger.
Your breathing will slow as you make contact with the tree. You’ll feel your spine melding with the trunk. Every time you look at him, his arms will be at a different compass point. They’ll be on the leaves, the branches, his knees, scratching his head, then up again, reaching for conkers. You will keep your own arms down at your sides, slightly back so that they are hugging the trunk behind you. You’ll feel safe. You’ll feel like nothing bad can happen while you’re there.
In twenty-four minutes’ time, he is going to look at you, and when he does, it will feel like you’re the centre of the universe, the horizon point that every line leads to. You will not understand this. You will think you’ve been mistaken. You will tell yourself you love each other because you are friends, and this will make things make sense.
After he looks at you, and after you’ve convinced yourself there was nothing in it, he will start a conversation about how long you’ve known each other, and will tell you things you did together that you’ve forgotten about completely. Like the time you broke into number four’s cellar through the coal hatch, and sat terrified in the dark for half an hour, your fingers pretending to be spiders. And the time you hid under your bed for so long that you both fell asleep, and he had to sneak out through the window to avoid being caught by your Dad. And the time you rode your bikes through the Nook and that cow just stared after you, and you pedalled with your hearts in your chests, pedalled for your lives.
In the course of this conversation, he will tell you things he felt at the time that you couldn’t have known. About how scared he was when he tested the bridge you made from twigs and the washing line. And about how he followed you home after a row, at a distance, just to make sure you got back safe. He will tell you all sorts of things that will make you realise there’s always been something there. That there is the shape of him in your life and vice versa. He will tell you all these things, and you will lean back against the tree and you will allow yourself to smile. You will tell yourself you are not entertaining any ideas about anything, just that you are having a nice time. And then you will rest your eyes on his face, and watch the lines change when he notices this, into a mass of upward curves. There will be something about his eyes that will hold you there, and as you’re held, you will be thinking about how his new haircut makes him look different somehow, and how you love that band on his t-shirt, and how when he put them on the mix-tape for you, he must’ve been scanning your brainwaves for all the feelings you’d been trying to find words for.
An hour from now, his hand is going to press flat against the tree just left of your temple. You will feel the heel of his hand against your hair, pinning it to the bark. He will be oblivious to this, and will keep his hand there for what feels to you like a long time. In this time, you will glance at his wrist and follow the blue veins as they disappear inside him. You will imagine his heart, seeing it as a diagram of four chambers beating quietly inside his chest. You will think of the chambers as rooms, and you will shrink yourself down into one of them and lie still, surrounded by oxygen. You will stay there, unnoticed, for what feels like forever.
An hour and fifty-two minutes from now, a bird will land in the upper branches of the tree, and you will open your mouth to say something about it, but he will press his index finger to your lips and silence you. You will watch the bird like that, his body angled over you, your breath condensing on his finger, for the entire four minutes, thirteen seconds it is there. When it flies away, the flapping of its wings will sound to you like your own heartbeat, and for a moment you will be afraid that your heart has been beating out loud all this time. He will catch that look and misread it, and will move his hand away from your lips and up over his head into a fake stretch. You will want to tell him it wasn’t that, but instead you will stay quiet. You’ll feel awkward for a minute, and then he will pull you into another reminiscence and you will both relax again. After twenty minutes has passed, he will find an excuse to rest his arm against you, his elbow touching a circle of skin on your knee the size of a two-pence piece, and you will not blink, you will not move.
He will say, two hours and twenty minutes from now, that he likes spending time in trees with you, especially this tree, and especially in conker season. And you’ll say ditto, and then add something like, how you like spending time off the ground with him, and you’ll hope it sounds like you’re being swept off your feet. You’ll both be aware that there are words underneath your words, that the things you are saying contain a secret code. You will try to unlock this code through the semaphore of your bodies. You will notice your limbs slowly migrating towards him, millimetre by millimetre, closing up the distance. His body and yours will be in a constant state of overlap. And him kissing you will start to feel like a possibility. You kissing him will be your pervading thought.
You will think about hearts again, trying to remember the names of the different sections. You’ll hold the word Ventricle on your tongue, and it will feel like a cross between honey and a sherbet sweet. You will think about the relation of things and of the shapes you make in each others days. You will try to remember the last time he mentioned the girl he has a crush on, and will realise he hasn’t spoken about her in a long time, and this will send a jolt through your chest which will become a smile.
Three hours and six minutes from now, he will ask you what you’re smiling about, and you will just shrug and tell him you have no idea. He will be so close to you that you will feel the tension of his out-breath. It will be like he is trying to say something, but all you’ll hear are body sounds; the soft push of air through his mouth, the quiet wetting of lips. He will smell of salt, and strawberries, and wood, but you will not be certain if the wood is him, or if it is the tree. From the angle of his limbs, it will seem to you that he is part of the tree, and an image will come to you of him with leaves in his hair that will cause you to reach out your hand to touch him.
He will not respond, at first. You’ll bring your arm back down to your side as slow as time-lapse, hoping the movement won’t register, hoping he will think you’ve been like that all along. A minute will pass, and you’ll still be thinking about the feel of his hair between your fingers. You won’t notice the acceleration in the rise and fall of his chest. You won’t see the sparks firing deep inside his ribcage, in the very top corner of a knot of muscle you have drawn a thousand times, but are only just beginning to understand.
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
He presses his hands into his legs, like he’s going to push himself up, but he doesn’t actually move, and it’s me that steps over into his personal space and nods hello. Now he stands. There’s another seat next to him, but we both know if I sit down we’re trapped, so we stand face to face and rack our brains for words to say.
I know he works in the IT department. His desk’s right by the photocopier. I see him every day, and I know we’ve been introduced, but I can’t for the life of me remember his name. It’s too embarrassing to ask him now, after working there for two years. I’ve never really had the need to know his name before now. Sometimes he comes to the pub with us, but he always sticks with the other IT nerds on their own little table, that’s next to ours but is never pushed up against it. A couple of them are here. I saw them earlier, by the punchbowl. Note to self: steer well clear of that. Maybe they’ll be back soon, and I can make my escape. Or maybe he’s been on his own all night, and no one else is ever coming by, and I’ll have to think up a good excuse pretty quick if I don’t want to spend the rest of my night stuck in this weird dialogue with him.
‘Fancy seeing you here,’ he says, and almost immediately he cringes. He visibly shrinks at least two inches.
‘Yeah,’ I say, trying to think of something witty to say back, something that isn’t sarcastic and mean. He would usually get my sarcastic and mean retort, but at such close quarters, I worry it’ll slam right back into me, so I settle for, ‘Nobody gets out of a Dan The Man party.’
Dan The Man is our boss. Dan The Man made up his own nickname. Dan The Man only refers to himself in the third person. And we all think he’s a tosser. He throws these parties every few months, and no one is allowed to miss them. On the plus side, the booze always flows freely, and he usually has a nicely catered buffet. And as long as you get into a couple of the photos early on, you can pretty much leave straight away if you want to. He spends all Monday poring through the pics on facebook, adding his inane captions and tagging everyone. There’s no trace of family in Dan The Man’s house. No real photos anywhere. It’s like stepping into a show home. Even IKEA feels more lived-in than his place does. But all that free booze - who can pass that up. And there’s none of that supermarket own brand stuff either. Dan The Man certainly has taste where alcohol is concerned, if nowhere else.
‘Mm...no. Guess not,’ he says, staring at the floor.
This is painful. We’re both nodding, trying to will words out. He’s turning me into a social retard now, like it’s contagious.
‘Who are you here with?’ I say, trying to kill the silence.
‘Er...I just kind of came...by myself.’ He takes a swig from his bottle. ‘I’m gonna catch up with Steven and those guys in a bit. I was just...y’know, erm..’
I know he can talk. I’ve seen him chattering away with ‘Steven and those guys’ loads of times. I mean, they’re probably just telling jokes in binary, but they look the same as normal people do when they talk. And maybe it’s just we have nothing in common to talk about, and I’m glad about that, by the way, but fuck, there’s always the weather. Surely we can hold a conversation about the weather and it not be too traumatic. Surely?
‘I didn’t know whether to bring my brolly or some shades, weather’s so crazy lately,’ I try.
‘I always carry a brolly,’ he says, and he bends down and picks up this massive golf one and starts waving it like he’s a magician.
I don’t get the chance to change my expression from ‘what the fuck?’ to something more composed because he looks me right in the eye, exposing me for the shit I am. I try to morph it somehow into wonder, amazement, and he lets me get away with it, smiles like he believes he amazed me, but he knows. And I know he knows.
He puts the umbrella back down on the floor. There are dog hairs on the back of his cardigan, and for some reason this makes me want to cry.
‘Hey Suzie, babe, we’re making like trees and getting out of here.’ Tom’s appeared from the depths of the party and now has one hand on my hip as the other pulls open his jacket, revealing a bottle of Bourbon. ‘We’re taking the party back to mine.’ As Chris joins us, their jackets clink together. This is my chance to escape. I look at my feet and they’re already pointing away. They’ve been pointing away all along. I just have to lift them, step over the umbrella, and I’m free. But I’m not going anywhere.
‘Hey. Thanks, but I was just talking to...’
‘Ben.’ He says his name quietly, like he’s feeding me the answer in a game of charades.
‘Ben.’ So easy to remember. ‘So....I’m gonna stick around for a while.’
‘Right,’ Tom says, giving me the you okay? stare.
I nod, flash a smile, and Tom walks to the door with Chris, looking over his shoulder at me the whole time. And then they’re gone. And it’s me and Ben, in the corner, alone again.
I don’t know why he’s getting to me. I’ve joined in with the mockery so many times without even thinking about it. But now I feel bad because he had to whisper me his name.
‘I think “talking” was a bit hyperbolic,’ he says.
I meet his eyes and he smirks.
‘Yeah, maybe just a bit.’
A roar erupts from the other room, followed by the chant of ‘Snog, snog, snog!’
‘Damn,’ I say, ‘looks like we’re missing out on Dan’s obligatory game of Spin the Bottle.’
‘If they realise they’re one female down they’ll send out a hunting party, drag you back by your hair.’
‘I usually try and leave before they start on the games.’
‘At least you’re close to the door. If I see them coming I’ll give you a nod and you can make a run for it.’
I reach my arm out and pull a dog hair off his sleeve. He stands perfectly still, like we’re playing Operation and he doesn’t want to buzz. We both keep our eyes lowered, staring at each others’ hands. Another cheer goes up. Ben takes another mouthful of beer.
‘Snog, snog, snog!’ rasps through to us, louder than before. Ben’s bottle is pointed at me, and we both notice this at the same time. He smiles and shakes his head, makes eye contact for a split-second. And I lean into him, lips-first. We kiss for maybe a minute. He tastes bready, from the beer, but I like the non-mintiness of unexpected kisses. And I like the way he tangles his fingers in my hair.
When we stop kissing, we stand close and I notice my feet are toe to toe with his. But even if I’m actually where I want to be, I know it’s still time for me to leave.
‘I’m going to make a run for it,’ I say.
Ben holds my gaze for a long time before he says, ‘Yeah,’ and blinks, and then adds, ‘See you around.’
I nod, ‘Yeah.’ And we smile, and then I go.
Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Tuesday, 29 April 2008
Jason clacked the head of the blue plastic razor against the pink porcelain of the sink, the razor coughing out black flecks of hair that looked like the severed legs of house spiders. Mum had had the bathroom re-done about six months after Dad moved out. Two guys in heavy boots had ripped out the old fittings, treading flakes of plaster into the kitchen on their way to make mugs of tea, while Mum pointedly swept the torn lino as the kettle boiled, muttering to herself. In place of the old fittings, the pink sink, with gold-effect trimmings and a recess for bars of soap, moulded into the imprint of a seashell. A new bath and shower combo, in the same style as the sink. Cream carpet and pink paint on the walls. Yellow and pink tiles above the sink and the bath. Mum put it all on credit cards.
They had stood in the bathroom while Mum admired the effect.
Much nicer. Out with the old, Mum had said.
Mum, it’s like being inside a fucking Battenburg Cake.
Language, Jason. I think it’s nice.
Jason had surveyed the shower curtain that had come with the package – Country Dolls’ House, or some such shit. It was covered in geometric scrawls and blobs of pink and yellow, at once chaotic and regimented, an object of profound and nauseating ugliness. The rest was just about bearable, but that shower curtain was a fucking nightmare, a fever-dream puked across a sheet of machine-washable polyester.
Well I guess Dad definitely won’t be moving back in now.
Jason. Mum had bitten her thumb and turned away. Jason had laid an awkward, lanky arm across his mother’s shoulders.
It’s lovely mum. It’s what you wanted.
Jason had gone to the Chinese down the road for fish and chips, smoking a B&H on the way down and sucking a breath mint on the way back up. They ate the fish and chips on their laps straight from the paper while they watched Strictly Come Dancing, eating with their hands and wiping the grease off on the sheaves of white paper.
Fish and chip shops stopped wrapping fish and chips in newsprint because it gave you cancer or some shit.
Jason shied away from the showerhead as the water ran cold, then hot, filling the shower with steam and leaving a pink mark across his shoulder. The water settled on a bearable temperature and Jason pulled the shower curtain across – his shower curtain. He reached among the regiment of little feminine phials and bottles that lined the edges of the bath and took a plastic bottle of shower gel, lathered his armpits and chest and crotch and up behind his ears, then rolled his head under the shower head as the lather dispersed and descended his body.
He had bought the new shower curtain as a birthday present for Mum, mainly as a way of removing the pink and yellow travesty from his morning routine. It was a montage of painted maritime scenes: isolated beaches, fishing boats, Cape Cod lighthouses and a sailing boat riding the crest of a wave, the foresail billowing out, its crew tanned and languid on the deck. Warm, cobalt blue skies containing clouds like chunks of vanilla ice cream. It didn’t really go with the bathroom, but his mother had been graceful about the shower curtain.
Thank you Jason, it’s lovely.
Jason examined the shower curtain intently, picking out the faded numbers painted onto the side of a small fishing boat pulled up among a pile of low, gentle boulders, the fresh white painted ironwork around the bell of the lighthouse, the elegant curve of the sailing boat’s foresail. He did this every morning. Jason’s shower curtain was a thing of mesmerising beauty.
He ran the palm of his hand over the waxed surface of the curtain, over the cool blues of the sea and the hot blues of the sky.
Jason walked the stretch of the beach approaching the lighthouse, the heat of the sun warm across his pale, narrow shoulders, the sand giving softly around the soles of his feet. He approached the fishing boat and ran a hand across its sun-bleached wood. The wood was smooth and a deep warmth came from the fine fissures that followed the grain. The name “Maggie” had been carefully painted by hand on the stern of the boat. In the middle distance the little white sailing boat fought the tide, the delighted cries of its crew reaching the shore as soft murmurs. Jason waved to them and a lithe, brown arm, rendered tiny by distance, waved in response. The tower of the lighthouse gleamed crisply in the bright, golden haze of a Cape Cod afternoon.
Mum gave three hard, jolting knocks on the door.
Jason? Jason, I need to shave my legs.
Jason dried his body and then his hair, gathering the towel around it and rubbing it hard. He pulled on his uniform, the blue polyester trousers abrasive and itchy against skin still pink and tender from the heat of the shower. The shitty, cheap blue fleece snapping with static as he pulled it over his head. He checked his reflection in the mirror, the narrow face above the fleece. He smoothed down his hair, stiff and gritted with salt crystals. He put his hands to his face and inhaled a breath of dried seaweed, sun-baked wood and sea salt.
Outside the bathroom, Jason’s mother waited in her pink and yellow dressing gown, one arm clutched around her middle as the smoke from her cigarette worked its way into the ceiling plaster of the low hallway.
It’s about 3 am, and I’ve just locked the bathroom door behind me. There’s no real purpose in locking the door; I’m the only one who lives here now. It’s an old habit, though, and at times like this, old habits often step in as a sort of co-pilot. The rest of my brain is concerned with things other than the bathroom door. My insides feel like somebody is running a branch of bramble back and forth, up and down the length of my intestines. I’m sweating and when I pull the string cord that operates the shaving light over the mirror, I see a red, wild face. My eyes look like dirty windows with something shadowy moving around behind them. My face hasn’t looked like my own for several weeks. I’ve been watching it ageing quickly into the face of a stranger. The sensation of something splitting inside seizes my attention. I pull off my boxer shorts and sit on the lavatory, with my bare feet smacking around in agony on the tiled floor. Something is leaving my body in a horrible fashion. It just keeps coming out, yards and yards of it. Oh God.
I stand up, shakily. I open the bathroom window to breathe in some cold air, and lean on the window frame for a while, feeling the sweat on my face and neck cooling and drying. Then I turn around and go back over to the toilet bowl, just to look. There’s this thing, long and flat and whitish. It looks like a strip of fat from a rasher of bacon, but it’s far too long for that, and it’s moving, swimming and squirming in the water. I see its head (‘scolex’, I learn later) and its four sucker things. Then it seems to panic, and it starts thrashing around like mad. I’m about to close the lid on it, but as my hand goes out, the thing whips right out of the bowl. I think I actually scream, and I turn and try to pull the door open, forgetting that I locked it on the way in. When I turn back, it has settled again, coiled up like a snake in the washbasin. Its head is resting on top of the coils, as if it’s looking at me.
‘Hey, bud,’ it says.
‘What’s your name?’ it says.
‘You can call me Tom, if you like,’ it says.
I perch on the side of the bathtub, as far from Tom as I can get, and stare stupidly at him. He’s talking to me with this lazy, growling, shambling, sleepy voice. If I’d ever imagined how a tapeworm would sound if it could speak, it would not have sounded like this. This sounds like Tom Waits. I haven’t listened to Tom Waits since before I was married, I realise. I swallow my revulsion and quell my disbelief. After all, it’s company.
‘Sorry about all that, you know, all that scratching around. Just had to get out of there.’
‘That’s ok, I suppose.’ I don’t know what else to say.
Tom is on the move again. He’s winding over the designer taps that I had put in a few years ago, moving slowly and deliberately. He’s making judgements on my furnishings. After a while, after he slips round the edges of the wall-fitted up-lighters, he begins humming with approval. He flops down onto the mocha-brown Italian tiles, and slips across the heated towel rail. He coils up around the warm chrome bars. There used to be fresh, white towels there every day, but I don’t bother with that, these days.
‘This is all real nice’ he gurgles. ‘Real nice.’ Then he keeps going, moving around the entire bathroom, commenting on all the fittings, the paint colours, the Swedish wooden bench and shelves, and the big glass jar full of sea-shells and coloured rocks that my ex-wife collected, one summer in Cornwall. I always wanted to give the bathroom the feeling of a sauna, lots of blonde wood and clean lines. Maisie kept saying it was too ‘masculine’, she kept adding little decorations, bits of carved driftwood, clamshells for soap dishes, things like that. Tom seems to like it all, though.
I try to spark up a conversation. ‘Don’t get too attached’, I say, awkwardly. Tom just goes on making happy, gurgling, bubbly noises.
‘Yeah, well, I’m selling it,’ I say. ‘I’m selling the house, and moving somewhere smaller.’
‘Uh huh,’ he says, not showing a lot of interest. ‘Why?’
I change my mind. I don’t feel like discussing this with him, especially if he’s only half listening, so I tell him I’m going to make coffee. I unlock the door and leave him in there while I go downstairs to put the kettle on. When I bring the coffee back up into the bathroom, I feel ridiculous. I’m carrying a tray with a whole coffee set laid out on it. A smart cafetière, little coffee cups from Finland with a matching milk jug, German coffee spoons that cost more than the rest of the set combined. I balance the tray on top of the cistern. Tom is in the bathtub now, laid out in long coils that run several lengths of the tub. He must be four metres long at least. I plunge the coffee and pour out two cups. ‘Milk?’ I ask. Tom shakes his scolex. I put his coffee cup in the bathtub for him, and he dips his tail end into the cup, absorbing the coffee directly. His body shakes with pleasure.
‘Oh, boy’, he sighs. I think about trying a different topic. He’ll have forgotten the other one anyway. ‘So you’re leaving,’ he says. ‘What gives?’
And despite myself, it all comes out. I tell Tom all about my life. I tell him about my wife, and my kids, and how my kids grew up and moved out, and how my wife grew up and moved out.
‘And now you?’ says Tom.
‘Just moving out,’ I say. ‘Like you. Why did you come out?’
‘Well, bud, in truth, it was getting pretty boring in there. It used to be fun, it really did. There was good food coming through, something different every day. And you used to do a lot more. Now you just sit around. Drink a beer now and then. Pasta bake every day.’
‘I’m no fun anymore? My tapeworm is dumping me?’
‘Sorry bud.’ He absorbs a little more coffee. He avoids my eye. I feel cheated.
I want to know how I ended up with Tom in me in the first place. He tells me the whole story. I fill in the details from my side for him. He was a larva in a piece of beef when we first met. It was my first date with the woman who would eventually become my ex-wife. I ordered a steak, medium rare. It came almost blue, but I didn’t want to complain and send it back. That was a pattern of behaviour that would last long into our relationship. Tom lived in my gut for a long time as a larva. He was about the size of a pea. Maisie and I started seeing each other regularly. We discovered a mutual love of Japanese cinema and we went to the BFI together a lot. Three years after that first date, we got married. We did it quite cheaply, and we held the reception in kind of big barn that had been turned into a health food café. I didn’t like the venue much, but I was already in the habit of just going along with Maisie’s ideas. I didn’t resent it; more than anything I wanted her to be happy. There were butternut squashes hanging from the ceiling and sacks of lentils around the walls and everyone was getting drunk on beer that we were smugly assured was pesticide-free. After we were married, I took on a new job. I left my job as a projectionist and started as a junior manager in a company that claimed to offer great promotion opportunities. Tom started to change. He grew and grew. His proglottid segments became differentiated. He was becoming an adult. Maisie and I stopped renting and bought our first home, a basement flat. We bought a big Kurosawa poster to hang in the living room, an original one with Japanese writing, not English. Then later we moved to a little house. We took the poster with us. The frame got damaged in the move but we hung it up anyway. Tom kept producing more proglottids, always from the neck. ‘They always grow at the neck,’ says Tom, but he can’t explain why. As quickly as he grew new segments, the old ones would break off and leave my body to reproduce. Maisie and I had kids – first Mark, then, four years later, Grace. When Grace was five, we moved again, to this house. This time we didn’t take the Kurosawa poster. We decorated this house more expensively, but with less excitement. Tom was up to full size by now. He says it was already feeling cramped, even then.
I talk more, and Tom talks less, and then we take a break from piecing our stories together to sip our coffee. It’s starting to get cold. I’m getting numb from sitting on the lid of the toilet. I get up to take my dressing gown from where it’s hanging on the back of the bathroom door, and notice my boxer shorts, still crumpled in the corner. I feel mortified at firs, but Tom doesn’t seem to have noticed my lack of underwear, and, after all, he’s lived in my colon for thirty years. I take my dressing gown and fold it into a cushion to sit on. I put my coffee cup on the shelf that runs along the bottom of the window, and notice a faint light through the frosted glass.
Even when I set out the whole story like this for Tom, I can’t quite understand the transition from those first years with Maisie to this. We used to struggle to count all the things around us that took on a beautiful warm glow whenever we looked at them. Just ordinary things, like shoes, and ice-cream cones, and train tickets, they would reflect our happiness back at us without fail. Now the same objects look as if they’ve been drained of colour and hammered flat. I walked past out first flat a few weeks ago, in a fit of nostalgia, and I almost walked straight past it without noticing. I can’t pin down what was different. There was the same metal staircase leading down from street level, and the same two streaky windows, that now peered up at me mournfully. Somebody else’s curtains were hanging behind the windows anyway.
I’ve been telling Tom all this, and more in the same vein. I can’t tell whether he’s listening or not, but I’m pretty sure he is. We seem to have reached a sort of understanding. I reach out for my coffee again and take a sip, but it’s truly cold now and I spit it into the basin. Tom has wrapped part of his body around a big sponge of Maisie’s that had been sitting on the edge of the bath, and he’s busy tightening and relaxing his coils, squeezing out the water that had soaked into the sponge the last time I had a shower.
We’ve been talking for hours. We fall back into silence for a while, until the timer on the central heating clicks over and we hear the boiler rumble downstairs in the kitchen. The radiator warms up beside me, and I lean over to push the window open. The morning air wafts in, chilly and clean, bringing with it the smell of the apple blossom from the tree that Mark planted on his tenth birthday. I hang out of the narrow window, resting on my forearms, and Tom pops up next to me. I can see the sunrise if I lean right out, and it occurs to me that Tom has never seen the sun before. I let him crawl along my arm, which I hold out of the window, stretched as far as I can reach. He hums happily as he watches the dawn.
‘I’ll miss you, Tom,’ I say.
‘Yeah, I’m going to miss you too.’
‘Really?’ That surprises me.
‘Of course, bud. Don’t you think I’ll miss you?’
‘But you wanted to leave. You chose it. You could have stayed inside, if you’d wanted.’
‘Sure, I know that. I had to leave though. Even so, I mean, you’ve been like my whole world for thirty years. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.’
‘Well.’ I’m touched. Then a terrible thought comes into my head. I see a ripple flow down the length of Tom’s body and I think the same thought must have struck him too.
I notice how dried up he looks now. ‘Um, what are you going to do now? I mean…’
‘Yeah. I know. Oh boy. Do me a favour, bud?’
Those are his last words. He’s crumbling in my hands as I carry him from the window to the toilet. It takes some time to get rid of him entirely. I have to stop and wait for the cistern to refill several times before all of him is flushed away. I pick up my cold coffee and swill it around in the bottom of the cup for a while. I stack everything back onto the tray, and think about going downstairs to make some more. Then I get distracted by the sunrise, and the coffee can go to hell.
Friday, 28 March 2008
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
"With every movement something brave and new flashed into life. The jerky undertow of flame and silk tattered and torn in the storm. Until now colour had failed to excite me, floating aimlessly across my field of vision as white noise in an ever increasing pool of distraction. Tender whispers shuffled from under meandering feet, hot flashes in the evening torrents. All eyes now glanced to and from my own without recognising the fear I so carefully hid beneath my terrible agenda. Sweat and rain, pain and fever, passion and anguish. What had begun as childlike enthusiasm had evolved beyond recognition into the spectacle before me now. In time it would become a beguiling conduit for torment pushed into existence by the throb of orgasm, blushing through flesh and disappointment. Were they alone? Where had these restless figures appeared from? For miles around, only sand and searching. Logic alone could destroy what I now faced. Heart-wrenching, cold, and ruthless logic. Blustering through dreams of greatness only to topple from high above, bringing down the power lines with them. We tried to appease it, offering love and goodwill, but again it rose only to smother our visions in clouds of confusion. Shear belligerence could plunge through the mist only to be faced again with twisted serenades and a faltering percussive pulse. Time and time again we bolted at the ever-increasing threat. I collided with tired limbs and brushed against damp skin but before I could wrench my aching torso free, the gulf had spread into the next uncertain chapter. All I could do was relent, entrusting everything to chance. The chaos around me reached new peaks, flailing and spinning with kaleidoscopic mystery. Sensation had never seemed so uncontrollable, breaking free of the reins into frightening new territories of pleasure.
But all too soon morning came, and with it a new, brash perspective. Smoking coals and empty beds, I was alone again. The flourishes of wild abandon began forming new memories and I soon understood why I hadn't been afraid. It should have been different but my rapidly mutating snapshots of last night told a story all too familiar. Grasping hands interrupting comfortable solace with false promise. My eyes fluttered against the onslaught of harsh light as the sand fell from about my ankles with every step towards the peak. Breathing was easier than before and soon I was able to look upon the panorama. Only hours before had the surroundings occupied a much narrower consciousness. A pool of light in this echoing wilderness. The scale and space was overwhelming, but inside I embraced a new distance."
Monday, 10 March 2008
I cross over to the crowd and try to see what they are gathering around. I stand up on my toes to look over their heads but I can’t see anything. I try to wriggle in between people, pushing my way to the front, not at all sure that I want to see what is there. Someone’s elbow hits me in the teeth. Someone’s sweaty hand slips off my shoulder, twisting my t-shirt. I reach the front of the crowd, where people are standing staring. They are looking in through the shop window. They are looking in at a television screen.
I stare with them for a while before I realise what I’m looking at. BBC News 24 is showing. The red band at the bottom of the screen says ‘UN holds disaster conference’. Some other words are scrolling underneath. There is a man on the screen. I recognise him as a reporter but I can’t remember his name. I’m still standing and staring and I notice his cheeks are shining with tears. He is reporting from outside the United Nations building where it is still daytime. The sun is bouncing off the glass walls and off his wet face. I hear him choking out words like ‘environment’ and ‘life-support’ and ‘resources’. There are people on the street with him. They are standing silently as well. The news cuts to the inside of the General Assembly. They are sitting in silence there.
The reporter comes back on the screen, and I see the face of the man next to me, reflected in the shop window, super-imposed over the face of the reporter. It looks like a hologram seen from the wrong angle, caught halfway between two images.
Five days. Who didn’t know this was coming, really? The shock is not that it’s the end. It’s that we know when it is coming. We know how it is coming. We can count down the days and we can picture the scene. I don’t want to picture the scene.
I spend the next two days just walking. I walk all over London. I see people dropping like hailstones from the tower blocks.
On the third day, Friday, I’m walking through the city and I look in through the window of this place called MARINE ICES. It’s a low, white building that doesn’t fit in with its neighbours at all. It looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1950s. First I think there’s nobody in there. The lights are on, but the TV attached to the wall in the corner is off. It’s the only TV I’ve seen all day that hasn’t been tuned to the news. Then I notice there’s a girl sitting in one of the window seats. She’s sitting there with a pink milkshake. She has a transparent straw to drink it with, and I watch the milkshake moving slowly up inside the straw. She raises her eyes from the drink and looks at me. She pushes a stand of black hair out of her face and tucks it behind her ear. I go in and sit down with her. She smiles so easily I realise there’s no way she’s heard the news.
She keeps smiling, and we keep talking, and we leave the empty ice-cream parlour. The street lamps have stopped coming on at night, and it’s too dark to see her face while we walk. I keep picturing her pushing that strand of hair away from her eyes.
We get to the top of Primrose Hill and turn to look over the city. There’s an orange glow across the horizon that I hope she takes for light pollution. We sit down on the ridge of the hill. She smiles at me. I am not going to tell her. We warm each other’s hands. We stay up on the hill all night.
We walk all day Saturday. The heel of my trainer comes loose. She loses a hairgrip and we crawl around until we find it again. I try my hardest to pretend that finding the hairgrip is really important. When the sun goes down on Saturday evening, the orange glow is brighter, and taller, and closer. She asks me about my plans for the future. I am drowning in a sea of violins. I make up an answer. She smiles, pushes that strand of hair out of her eyes, and says they sound like good plans.
The hallway was dark, and Darren tripped over a pair of trainers before he found the light switch. The energy-saving bulb hummed as it built up momentum and a dismal, low frequency light revealed the pair of trainers lying paint-spattered and forlorn on a pile of take-away menus inside the front door. Four Seasons, Paradise Fried Chicken, The Golden Wok. Linda, Darren said.
Darren turned on the light in the kitchen. Plates and knives and bowls and a cutting board lay on the sideboard. Brian blinked in the hard fluorescent light, stretched and padded over to Darren, his nails clicking on stained linoleum. Darren scratched Brian behind the ears. Darren wiped his glasses and put them back on his face. Linda, he said. The bowls were stacked on top of each other, forming a crooked little totem pole of dirty crockery. Darren turned off the light.
Linda wasn’t in the bedroom or the living room. Darren stood in the doorway of the living room, stooping slightly as he absently rubbed Brian’s back. He checked his watch. 11:30pm. On the coffee table were some magazines, two mugs, a dried out tea bag and a half-full ashtray. Leaning against it, a ukulele with nylon strings. Brian walked to the middle of the living room, turned around twice and then lay down heavily. He looked at Darren with his sad dog’s eyes. Linda, said Darren.
Darren fed Brian, scooping chunks of jellied meat from the bottom of the can with a stainless steel fork. Brian’s tail waving like a windscreen wiper, Darren nudging Brian’s nose away from the bowl with his forearm.
Darren called Linda. Hi, said Linda’s voice, I can’t take your call at the moment, please leave a message and I’ll phone you back. Darren listened to the message and hung up. He found a clean bowl and filled it with Muesli and the last of some milk that smelled okay. He took the bowl of Muesli into the sitting room and ate it in front of the television. Football highlights, late night politics and a made-for TV movie about a woman married to a psychopath.
Darren turned off the TV and called Linda. Hi, said Linda’s voice, I can’t take your call. Darren hung up. He wiped his glasses and put them back on his face. He found Brian’s lead under the coffee table. It was a strip of red synthetic material with a metal clip on the end. He clipped it onto Brian’s collar and took him for a walk.
Brian took a shit in the middle of the pavement, squatting low and squeezing out a tidy yellow turd under the sickly, Calpol-orange streetlights. Darren wrapped the turd up in a little plastic bag and carried it with him until they found a bin designed for the disposal of dog turds. It was soft and warm beneath the polythene.
In Darren and Linda’s street a drunk in a suit was leaning against the wall of a terraced house, pissing onto his black loafers.
Darren called Linda. Hi, said Linda’s voice. Darren hung up.
Darren lay in bed. He looked at the alarm clock. 02:00am said the clock. Linda, said Darren.
Darren sat in the living room in his boxer shorts and his glasses and a T-Shirt. He played California Girls on the ukulele, then he smoked a cigarette. He thumbed through a fanzine that had an interview with him on page 5. He read the interview twice.
Darren stood in the kitchen and listened to Brian sleeping while he drank a glass of orange juice.
Darren lay in bed. He heard a key turning in the front door. 04:30am said the alarm clock. Linda was in the hallway, leaning heavily against the wall as she tried to kick off her heels.
Hi, said Linda. She went into the kitchen in her bare feet, leaving the odour of booze and perfume and cigarettes and cologne in her wake. Bruised skin on her toes where the heels pinched. Darren followed her.
I was at a club, said Linda. She sat at the kitchen table, holding a glass of water in one hand and trying to straighten her hair with the other. She spilled water onto the table and onto the floor and her hair remained dishevelled. A narrow streak of mascara ran down one of her cheeks.
Which club? Said Darren.
I don’t know Darren, said Linda. Just a club. Just a bar, Darren.
Brian woke up and walked over to Linda, his nails clicking on stained linoleum and his tail wagging like a windscreen wiper. He licked Linda’s ankle.
You look a state, said Darren.
Linda spilled water down her blouse, her bra visible through the spreading damp patch.
I mean, you look awful. Which club?
I know. I do know that, Darren. I’m fucking aware of that.
Linda cried, biting the knuckle of one hand while Darren held the other. A film of mascara, tears and mucus forming on her knuckle. Linda stopped crying.
Shall I make you a cup of tea? Said Darren.
Darren found some teabags and a clean mug and boiled the kettle. He wiped his glasses, put them back on his face and looked out of the kitchen window to the alley that was filling up with a dreary, grey kind of dawn. He put the teabag in the mug and poured the boiled water on top of it, the teabag surfacing and spinning and turning the boiled water into tea.
I used the last of the milk, said Darren.
Saturday, 23 February 2008
Mom: So Mason said that you would work together when you get home, and do the tidying in there.
Mason: What does that mean, VAT?
Dad: VAT, it’s a. uh, tax. If they take it out it’s cheaper.
Mason: Why is it cheaper if they take it out?
Dad: ‘Cause you don’t pay the tax.
Mason: What’s tax?
Dad: Tax is a value assessed to…another…it goes to the government.
Mom: They took the whole window out between the first and second floor. That was pretty cool. Whose idea was that?
Waiter: Cheese and beans?
Dad: Cheese and beans? That’s me.
Mom: Who wants tomato?
Mom: So will you guys do that, when you go home, will you empty the bookshelves?
Dad: Mm hmm. You have any ketchup?
Waiter: Yes, ketchup, anything else for you?
Kyle: You wanna try mine?
Mom: Yeah. You wanna try mine? It’s good.
Waiter: They need forks, also?
Kyle: Can I get some ketchup, Dad?
Dad: Like that?
Kyle: Put it right there.
Mom: Oh, this is good. It’s perfect.
Dad: Can I taste it? Wow, that’s good.
Mason: Try mine.
Mom: Can I taste it? Mm. It’s good. Wow.
Kyle: Dad, which of these smoothies do you like better?
Dad: I dunno.
Kyle: Mom, which one do you like better?
Mom tastes smoothies
Kyle: Do you like mine better?
Mom: I like yours a lot. Yours was sweeter. Mason’s was tangier.
Mason: That’s maybe ‘cause mine has more seeds in it.
Kyle: Ali…Ali said that her mom emailed you.
Dad: I haven’t been on the computer since we left. Huh? I saw your eyes pop out of your head.
A: Can I borrow the book?
B: What, the shit one? It’s signed, did you see how it’s signed?
A: No, I didn’t.
B: Here, my own signed copy from Crystal Love. Who the fuck would come up with the name Crystal Love?
A: Is it shit, have you read it?
B: No, but I spent an hour talking to here and she’s a dick.
A: I don’t think I’m going to read it now.
B: No, you should, you can read it and let me know if it’s good.
A: I might just take it and keep it for a while.
B: Yeah, sure.
A: Anyway, I’ve come to give you blessings. Of all kinds, heart, body and soul.
A: And a very merry Christmas.
B: Happy new year.
A: And can I have a new CD?
B: Seriously, you’ve heard all my happy songs. That’s it
A: You can find some.
B: I’m not spending money on it.
A: This is your homework, you can find some.
B: Maybe xxxxxxxx can make you a happy CD. Maybe xxxxxxxx, he’s like a ray of sunshine.
A: (singing) Walking on sunshine, ooh, ooh.
B: He’ll probably put that on for you.
B: Hey xxxxxxx – even though I’ve had the most horrible day and I’m feeling shitty and I’m not going to the doctor’s because neither is xxxxxx, we are up for going for a drink. Whereabouts are you?
A: I’m just over in Primrose Hill. Where are you going?
B: Are you? We’re probably going to the social? Are we? Or are we going to Camden? We’re going to a pub. Right, we’re going into Camden, So we’re just going over to get changed and then we’ll go over to the office and I’ve got a couple of things to do. So we’ll probably get to Camden about half five. And I’ll explain all about my day, and xxxxxxxx will explain her day, and we’ll all explain because we are Explainers.
A: (Chuckle) OK, I’ll give you a ring at about half five and see where you are.
B: OK cool. You’re talking very quietly, are you still in a café?
A: Mm hmm.
B: Ha ha, OK.
B: (More laughter) See you later then.
A: See you in a bit.
Twenty minutes later, outside work.
B: Hey xxxxxxxx -
A: - Hey -
B: - sorry, it’s been a horrible day -
A: - that’s OK, um, it might sound weird, but I’ve written down our conversation –
A: - It’s the new assignment for that thing I’m doing, you know, with my friend?
B: Oh, yeah, OK.
A: Is that OK? It might go on a blog.
B: Uh, yeah. It hasn’t got anything about me saying ‘wank’ in it, has it?
B: I don’t think I’ve said ‘wank’ today.