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.
Thursday, 21 February 2008
Tuesday, 19 February 2008
I think we can expect a return of about five percent.
I don’t know, something about that sausage roll bothered me. I leaned up against the window, I watched the world skip by like a schoolgirl. Pigtails and knee-high socks and all.
The guy was in the cafe. It was one of those students and builders-type places, cheap bad fry-ups, cigarette smoke and XFM. I was eating breakfast, pretending to read an indie fanzine and watching these two girls wearing black eyeliner and All Stars painted with graffiti like the sides of New York Subway trains. The voice kind of slowly filtered in, and then suddenly it was all I could hear.
We’re still shifting stock from six months ago, the figures reflect this.
He was still talking into the little headset, talking through mouthfuls of the baked beans he was shovelling into his mouth. I don’t know, it was pretty disgusting. He must have been in his forties, and he looked pretty out of place, like he should have been eating a sandwich in Cafe Rouge or something. Prosperous I guess.
I paid and left, stopping to see if either of the subway-car-All-Stars girls would give me a glance but instead the guy was looking at me. He was still talking that yuppie shit into his headset, but staring at me really intensely. A kind of chav’s “I’m gonna kick your arse” stare. I walked out into that shiny-pound-coin sunshine pretty fast.
The guy was looking in the window of a stoner shop on Cooper Street, eating a packet sandwich.
As it stands we’re seven percent over target.
The guy was in the “R” section of a record shop eating a Cornish pasty.
We need to improve out portfolio in that sector.
The guy was sifting through biker jackets in the vintage clothing shop eating a fucking jacket potato. The guy was literally everywhere I turned, talking into the little headset and giving me his Superman lasers-for-eyes stare.
The shareholders have the final say.
I walked over to say something to him in the vintage shop, like, “Dude. What the fuck? Why are you following me everywhere? Do you ever stop eating?” But his had this look on his face – this look like he was actually just going to kill me there beside the leather jackets and, well, I just walked out instead. I mean, he was a big guy.
The guy wasn’t on the bus home. The sunlight was still as bright and yellow as an Argos necklace, but it just made my face hot and prickly and my palms were pissing sweat. I don’t know, the whole fat guy thing had made me pretty fucking nervous. I was looking forward to getting to my apartment. I was pretty much going to roll a joint and playing Burnout 3 for about three hours. Maybe have a wank. Subway-car-All Stars and black eyeliner.
The guy was in my apartment. I heard that yuppie voice bellowing about over target earnings as soon as I stepped through the door, and there he was standing in my hallway with his back to me.
Yeah, Mike? Mike, I’ll get back to you in a minute. Something’s just come up.
And he was there in my hallway, turning around, eating a fucking blueberry muffin and turning around.
There had been an accident on the road. Ambulances filled the narrow street, and beyond a web of barrier tape he glimpsed a deeper tangle of metal and worse. The ambulances’ lights cast the scene in a slow surreal strobe, as paramedics moved back and forth. He turned back, his usual route out onto Oxford Street blocked. He could catch a bus from Piccadilly Circus instead. As he turned his back on the scene of the crash, a figure moved across the periphery of his vision.
Funny, he thought, that amongst all those emergency crews in their hi-viz jackets, the one to stand out should be dressed so soberly, and half-hidden beneath a black umbrella.
He saw the same man not much later, as he reached the bottom of Dean Street. Passing a dimly-lit shop front promising a range of adult literature, he saw the dark suit and the black beard that stood out so starkly on a white, rubbery face. He hurried on, heading down into Chinatown. He quickened his pace to give himself the chance to pause outside a restaurant, pretending to scan the prices of the menu. The man was still behind him. The umbrella was folded now, and it swung like a metronome as the man took his measured steps along the street.
Relax, he thought, lots of people are going this way to find another route home. Still, he took the long way around to Piccadilly Circus, rather than take the shortcut through the alleys of Chinatown.
At the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, the man caught up with him. The hand on his shoulder made him think of an exquisitely animated puppet, the joints of the fingers like finely carved wood.
‘Oskar Lang?’ said the man in a voice as cracked and gritty as the pavement they stood on.
‘…no.’ said Timothy Clarke, quietly.
They had been standing together under the black golfing umbrella for over an hour and Tim was still struggling to adjust to what he had been told. He tried to arrange the facts in his head.
1. The car accident was not an accident.
2. The bearded man had deliberately caused the crash, in order to kill Oskar Lang.
3. Four people had been killed in the crash. None of them was Oskar Lang.
4. Oskar Lang looked very much like Timothy Clarke, and was now sitting over the road from them, in the window of the King James.
If Lang knew that he had just been the object of an attempted murder, he didn’t show it. He was sitting contentedly in the pub, in full view, talking and laughing with another man. The pub threw a warm light onto the street, an orange glow that spread over the road and stopped just short of Tim and the bearded man. The black umbrella hid them in a black void that seemed to Tim to be as solid and confining as a prison cell. He could hear the bearded man, still talking insistently in his ear.
‘It isn’t really a matter of why, Timothy. Sometimes people have to die.’
Tim opened his mouth to protest. A torrent of thoughts tried to articulate themselves at once, and in their rush, became trapped in the narrow door of his mouth. No sound came out.
‘You will find things much easier if you stop questioning’ the bearded man continued, his expression light and easy. ‘I stopped many, many years ago.’
Tim found his voice, a small, frightened rodent of a voice. ‘I think…I think I would find things a little easier if I knew what he had done.’
‘He has done many things. He has been to school for example. When he was nine years old he was sent home in disgrace for buttering the floor at the top of the library stairs. As a young man he enjoyed racket sports. He once found a wallet containing fifteen pounds and some small change on a beach in Wales. He donates to several charities, for example Friends of the Earth. Also Barnado’s. He has a wife, whom he loves and has remained faithful to. He looks at pornographic websites while she watches Coronation Street. You are trying to see some sort of grand arc to this story, aren’t you? There isn’t one. A series of more or less related actions and events is the best that can be hoped for. The odd accident. Some little planning.’
‘Are you insane? I don’t mean, “What has he done throughout his life?” What the hell has he done to deserve death?’
‘Nothing, particularly. As I said, I receive instructions and I prefer not to question them.’ The bearded man looked over to where Lang sat. Tim followed his gaze. Lang and his friend were playing dice, betting for notes. ‘My predecessor had a taste for the declamatory. “Life is a carnival of accidents” he liked to tell me, “And the revellers are quite, quite blind.” He sounded better when he said it. It was the accent, I think.’
Timothy Clarke sank to the pavement, his head in his hands. He felt his sore heel rub against the inside of his shoe, exposed to the leather where his sock had worn right through. He felt the damp of the pavement seeping through the seat of his trousers. He turned his head to look up at the bearded man, and found the white face and its pickled walnut-eyes much closer than he had expected.
‘And why am I supposed to help you? What does it have to do with me?’ he spat at the looming face.
‘For a start, I cannot act directly. That is one of the conditions under which I must work. And since my two helpers are now being peeled out of their cars, I need you. Bad luck for you, Timothy. Bad luck that your route home was obstructed by my crash. Bad luck that Lang left his office twenty minutes early tonight. What could that mean? Nothing, I imagine.’
‘If I refuse?’
‘You will die. It will be a terrible, meaningless shame.’
Fifteen minutes later, Tim was waiting in the alley behind the King James. He had a bright, sharp knife tucked up the sleeve of his jacket. His face was as white as the bearded man’s, and his teeth were grinding together. He watched as the side door opened and the familiar warm light glanced out in a beam that expanded and then shrank back. He waited in the shadows behind the large green bins until he could clearly see the figure that approached. He held his breath for a second, then lunged.
By midnight, he was walking with the bearded man along the Victoria Embankment. The tide was low and the gritty gums of the river were visible. They had disposed of the knife in the river and left Lang’s body to be found in the alleyway. Tim’s eyes were sore from crying. How could this happen? he asked himself over and over. A cracked voice answered inside his head.
-You have suffered from asthma since you were a boy. Your first girlfriend found it hard to talk about her needs. At the age of twenty-three you got a job as a marketing assistant. When you are alone you pull at the hairs that have begun to protrude from your nostrils. You briefly considered becoming vegetarian but decided you didn’t have the willpower. You were mistaken for a man named Oskar Lang one evening in Soho.
Her skin is taught; it looks like the skin of a grape stretched across the flesh of a melon. She is uncomfortably fat, and her eyes dare you to mention it. She is staring firmly ahead, and not once does she look over at the irrelevant man she is following. Not even once during their shared thirty minute wait for the 242 bus to Liverpool Street does she look at this ape in a suit, dawdling awkwardly in front of her.
As the man plays at waiting, he can’t help but reveal his growing anxiety. His nerves seem to be faltering , as he waits, as she waits, for his unreliable bus to work. Today he rings his hands, and his eyes dart over to the woman surreptitiously, as though he expects her to pull out a gun or run into the road. He is pretending, unsuccessfully, to watch the corner at the end of the street, around which the bus will soon turn.
His clothes are smart and expensive but he makes them look messy and cheap. People have always been naturally unsympathetic towards him, although he is wholly inoffensive. He is in his late thirties, and must be a civil servant, or an office worker of some description.
There is another girl present, who has thus far gone unnoticed by both the man and the woman. The girl seems intrigued by the tight faced woman, who is following the clumsy man, who is starting to sweat and grow red in the face. When the bus arrives, the three of them board in a movement that appears practiced. The older woman walks approximately three paces behind the man, who darts a nervous glance over his shoulder as he boards. The girl walks two paces behind the woman, who looks casually back at the girl, but who has yet to look at the man, even once. They each take a seat. There are only three seats available: the one behind the other, behind the other. The inoffensive man sits at the front, pulls at his collar, and mops his brow with the sleeve of his jacket. His breathing is visibly restricted, although his air holes are presumably unobstructed, and his lungs sufficiently large.
For the next twelve and a half minutes, approximately, the man seems locked deep in inane thought; his brow remains slightly furrowed and his fingers are clasped together on his lap. Subconsciously his index finger strokes his left thumb, in a feminine and altogether unattractive motion. The tight-faced woman takes a notepad from her bag, and begins to scribble furiously. She looks at the man occasionally as she pauses for thought. The girl puts the headphones from her i-pod into her ears and mechanically glances from the woman, to the window, to the man, who is now sweating uncontrollably.
The man swings out of his seat at Liverpool Street, and tries to look behind him, but is prevented from doing so by a sudden jerk of the bus, which sends him stumbling into an old woman in front of him. He is immersed in thought, and overlooks an apology. The old woman looks away with an expression that betrays pity and disgust. The sweaty, inconsequential man in the ill-fitting suit doesn’t notice this expression, but instead tries to steady his floundering feet.
In the meantime the woman has stopped writing and raised herself up in one fluid movement, and is waiting behind the man, who has not yet had time to steady himself completely. She looks over the man’s head as he steps down from the bus.
As the doors begin to slide closed, the girl with her i-pod jumps up as an afterthought, and makes it outside just before her handbag is crushed.
The three strangers walk along the street in unison: the one behind the other, behind the other. The girl walks five paces behind the woman, who is now walking six paces behind the man, who is now almost jogging. The woman with the notepad holds her gaze just above the ridiculous man’s head. She matches his footsteps instinctively, without once lowering her eyes.
His footsteps quicken, and his pulsating heart is almost audible over the rush hour traffic. He is now acutely aware that not one, but two women are following close behind him. He looks wildly over his left shoulder, and as he does so, loses his footing and staggers forward, eventually forced to take a dive towards the ground. His arms instinctively lurch out in front of him like the twisted prongs of a fork. In this moment he becomes a grotesque parody of a man falling over on a pavement.
The notepad-holding, tight-faced woman doesn’t smile, or even glance once at the paunchy bag of nerves lying in front of her. She continues walking, as though she hasn’t even noticed the man lying on his back on the ground. The girl, on the other hand, hurries forwards, and bends down to ask the man if he is alright. The man ignores her, transfixed, as he stares at the woman, who is indifferently marching forward. He watches her now as she disappears round the next corner.
Monday, 18 February 2008
Saturday, 16 February 2008
“Fuck off.” I admonish. I can’t move, and I can’t locate the noise.
Thick, wet headache.
I put my head back down momentarily, and bang; I find something harder than a pillow. The noise stops abruptly, and the room sinks into silence. Walking the fine line between intense noise and intense soundlessness, I am forced to remember what I’m doing here, and that it’s morning. Like a blast of cold air into a thick fog, I remember my yesterday, and my day before that. The pain in my head and the presence of this ‘other’ in my room cause me to focus. Focus on what?
I’m going to vomit.
I experience the sudden rush of fear rising up inside my stomach, the one that I always get when I realize that I’m about to be sick somewhere I shouldn’t, like in bed, or across my floor. I manage to swallow, but it leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. I know what it is that I have just hit my head on, and the knowledge hangs hard in my chest.
I gingerly lift the remains of my sweat-soaked pillow, and investigate the inevitable: a cheap plastic alarm clock, silent and stopped. My alarm clock doubles up as an old fashioned tape recorder; I reach forward, as I’ve become accustomed to doing and press hard on the ‘play’ button. The cheap plastic parts whir into action, and the machine begins to emit a rusty purr. Like a cat. The purr of the machine becomes louder, and indistinguishable from the cat’s purring. There is a seamless transition from machine to animal. I draw a sharp breath, and fumble with the ‘stop’ button, before abruptly pushing the clock away. A shiver trickles down from the hairs at the very top of my neck, just behind my ears, all the way into the dent at the base of my back. I close my eyes, but the purring doesn’t stop.
I can still taste a trace of acid in my throat. I listen to the continuous humming and it echoes inside me; it reminds me of the sweat-soaked bed upon which I am now sitting upright. The sound seems more familiar to me than my own heart beat. At once nostalgic and repugnant. It breaks into my sleep, and I awake to find it lying beneath my head, etched onto tape. It talks to me. By this I don’t mean that I grow to understand what it means, but that I begin to make out the words in the animal’s low rumbling. I begin to hear it speak.
“Fuck off.” I at once repeat, louder, unsure of myself. I stopped believing that I was going mad four days ago.
“Quieten yourself.” Comes the gentle response.
I look down at my feet, and vomit.
She switched off the radio-alarm clock and took a biro and a strip of white adhesive labels from the bedside table. She peeled one of the labels off the strip and onto the tape and then, in a precise but rounded script, wrote “January 28th 2008. Monday,” on it. The full stops were little circles.
She showered while the tape played in a portable cassette recorder on top of the bathroom cabinet, tape spooling under shiny clear plastic. Shaving foam stains on the cabinet mirror.
“You are in a supermarket. You are holding one of those little wire baskets and wearing your long kaki jacket, the warm one with the furry hood. The one your ex-boyfriend told you you looked like an eskimo in.”
Today the voice was her own voice, the turns of phrase familiar but the delivery flat and toneless, as if spoken under hypnosis. She took the showerhead and washed soap from her belly, the froth running down her thighs and collecting between her toes. The voice continued.
“You are in the produce section. You are squeezing an orange to see if it’s ripe, which it isn’t, when you notice a wolf standing at the far end of the aisle. It comes towards you, and for a moment you’re scared, but it just walks past you. Doesn’t look at you. It puts its nose in a basket of melons and sniffs around. Its wet nose, just like a dog really, you think.”
She dressed with the tape playing. A white bra with padded cups that were supposed to enhance her bosom, then over that a white sleeveless vest and her checked blue work shirt.
“You follow the wolf up the aisle with the mayonnaise and things. It brushes past a shelf and knocks over a bottle of soy sauce with its tail. It puts its nose in the soy sauce, but then it turns and walks back up the aisle, past you, brushing your legs with its tail.”
She ate a bowl of Rice Krispies with the tape playing on the kitchen table, picking out the burnt ones and laying them carefully beside the bowl.
“The wolf is standing in the dairy aisle, sniffing at the butter. You are an aisle down, in the fresh meat section. You say to the wolf, you say ‘Hey. Hey, this is what you’re looking for.’ You pull a steak from its wrapper, and the meat is cold from the refrigerator and blood gets on your fingers. You sort of toss the meat up the aisle towards the wolf. ‘Hey,’ you are saying.”
She rode the bus to work, checking her watch and listening to the tape an elderly Walkman she had borrowed from her brother.
“The wolf looks at you, like, cautiously. It sniffs the steak. You think it is going to eat there on the floor, start chewing on it. But it picks up the steak and sort of trots away, past the cereals and you don’t see where it goes after that. It doesn’t look at you any more.”
Sitting on the top deck she watched commuters queue up for the bus at the stop before work, weekly passes clutched in fingers pink from the cold. The wolf sticking its wet nose in a bucket of melons.
A second before she jerks awake, she feels the sensation of plummeting. There’s no sense of surprise anymore when she feels the tape cassette under her pillow. She thinks of the tooth fairy and their reliable contract. Fifty pence per tooth. No questions asked. Exchanges carried out under cover of darkness. She thinks of the ivory trade. She wonders what she is giving in exchange for these cassettes.
The first one arrived a week ago. Now she has three. She is going to play the first two, and then the new one. She can feel a lead bird nesting in the pit of her stomach. She starts the first cassette and as the tape picks up the slack and starts to reel forward, she feels the bird laying a lead egg in its nest.
The crunch of ice underfoot.
The breath of an animal.
Hoof steps fading gradually.
The wind in pine branches.
In the distance, the rough bleating of a goat.
She remembers that dream. A black billy goat appeared out of the forest with moonlight caught in the fog of his breath. Walking past her like a matted, reeking ghost, it had turned its yellow eyes towards her for a second. She waited for a long time, watching the moon carve a path behind the shivering pines. She realised she was alone. She had woken feeling as though she had been given a warning.
She loads the second tape. Three days had passed between the arrival of the first tape, and this one. She played it once, the morning it had arrived. She plays it now for the second time. It is less clear, the sounds more jumbled and chaotic, than the first tape.
The splash of water.
A tangle of noise, splintering wood, louder barks.
Underneath, the scuffling of feet and paws on dusty ground.
The sounds are hazy, but her memory is as clear and sharp as a splinter of glass. It is a dream that has followed her for years. Even without the tape, without the dream, she still has the images of that day acid-etched into her thoughts. A summer day when the sun was heavy on their shoulders. The grass in their garden had dried and turned to yellow dust weeks ago. Her baby brother playing in the paddling pool while she kept watch. The pack of dogs that carried him away before she had time even to scream. The slow spread of water from the pool, seeping darkly into the parched ground.
Third tape. The new one. She turns towards the window where the sun is still low and red, and a light breeze is breathing the curtains back and forth. She loads the tape.
The deep growl of trucks.
Rain pats down on hot tarmac.
A tiny bird sings.