At the party, Griff said I looked pale, stressed. I’d have said “dead” was more fitting but I didn’t say it and on he went with that timeless gem: “Mate, don’t you think it’s time you and Tina, you know…”
Griff was a knob-end but a knob-end who made a wicked punch with more bottles lobbed in than most. He looked like the KFC bloke though his hair was jet black and not grey and he never ate chicken wings because he was a vegan.
“Look, Griff,” I think I probably began, and I was about to say that veganism and marriage are very similar in that they both sap the good stuff out of life and turn you into a boring bastard, but Tina came over and pulled my arm to the dance floor for some 80s hit and I must have flailed my arms convincingly because she seemed happy, though you could never tell with Tina. An angel at a party and on the way home a shit-tongued whore.
There was nothing natural about the night when we walked back. Like it was pretending to be day. Blues from neon office blocks for skies, streetlamp yellows parading as miniature suns.
I wasn’t sure whether Tina wanted my confirmation when she said, “And did you see what she was wearing? She looked so fucking cheap. Proper pound-stretcher cheap,” or just an ear to vent the shit bits of her evening, but there was a tramp in the tunnel under the ring road.
“Don’t you think?” she asked, and I grunted and she tutted and I tripped up and nearly made her trip too because her arm was hooked under mine.
“You know what it does to you babe,” she said and tutted again.
The tramp was in a sleeping bag and he had cats. I counted three and a water bowl and biscuits scattered on a Daily Mail. He had a sign that read Think about it and I pondered its effectiveness because his begging box was empty and when Tina whispered “Did you see how fucking dirty he was! What was it, porridge?” I went straight back and put a fiver in his begging box and with his porridge face he smiled, or perhaps he laughed – I’d have laughed – and then Tina wondered if I was alright coming out of the tunnel when my knees started to give way and holding her hand I slumped to the ground.
“Will you marry me?” I think I asked.
Diptych: Girl, Memory
1. No One Liked That Girl
No one liked that girl, for certainly she was the kind of girl no one could like, beginning with that smell of hers – not musky or unpleasant, but not not unpleasant either, a kind of in-between smell we didn’t know what to make of, what even to call. We’d never smelled anything like it before, not you and not me, which gave rise to basic questions as to where she was from. In this absence of a likely origin, she was furtive, with an overall shiftiness of both demeanor and temperament that made her seem both cagey and unreliable, whereas we, we prized ourselves on our reliability, our most solid trait. On top of that, she was a whiner; a big-time needer. She even took seconds. Even though seconds were allowed, everyone knew not to take them; one person’s seconds was just less to go around the next time we sat down.
The list goes on. Don’t even get me started.
But liking, or not liking, was not part of the deal. We all came from somewhere, so like it or not, we did what they said, which went something like this: you had your room and she had hers, and if they turned out to be side-by-side, well, so much the worse for you, by which I mean me, for that’s where mine was, right next to hers. The rooms weren’t very big – in truth, they were very, very small, with just enough room for a bed and a basin and box – but also in truth, we were grateful for them, for compared to the places they picked us up from, ooh la la. What more could we want, after that, than a bed and a basin and box.
They left us alone like that for a while, just to let us get used to a thing like a bed. The bed had a cover you slipped underneath and a pillow attached for your head, and at first we were glad for all this, anyone would be. But after a few nights or so, they started the thing with the walls, which they could make the walls go clear like something, not water, running through them. You’d be sleeping in your bed, all nice and comfy, and suddenly, a blaze of lights and, bam, right next to you on the bed of the other side of your water-like wall, the wily, smelly girl no one could like, and now neither one of you was sleeping.
We couldn’t complain – see where that got you – but didn’t we need our sleep, the same as anyone? In the morning, there were our chores and our lessons. We needed our sleep to work and we needed our sleep to learn, but that didn’t stop them, and even though they must have had their reasons, we didn’t know what they could be. I’d curl my back to the wall, away from her sly little smirk, but I could feel it boring into me anyway. I don’t know why she smirked. No one did.
Eating took place in the same order as rooms, so if your room was next to hers, you had to eat next to her too. You got your food and took your place, and so did she. Sometimes the food would be hot, and sometimes it would be cold, but it never had a taste you could name, more like a mealiness. I’m not saying this for any other reason than that when your place was next to hers, like mine, the smell of her mixed with the taste of mealiness such that the one and the other got into each other, and even though you needed your food, as well, to work and to learn, who could eat that?
I, of course, was not the only one. The other one was you, on the other side of her. You didn’t smell at all, that I could tell. Your skin was smooth and white. And in your eyes, a kind of open friendliness. I liked that about you – what wasn’t to like? – even if I couldn’t ever tell you what I felt because of the girl between us that no one could like.
I wanted you to know and I wanted to tell you. Your friendly eyes were kind of green. I noticed that. I noticed your skin. I noticed your open friendliness. You were just a girl anyone could like, and so I did, but between you and me, the girl that smelled, so what could we do?
Looking back, maybe the difference between liking and not liking wasn’t that big of a deal. For one thing, what choice did we have? And for another, a time was coming when we were all going to smell. Not right away, not then, but not so far in the distant future, either – if you made it out of your room, that is. They didn’t tell us this, but we knew. We did our work; we learned our lessons. But what we did not let ourselves think was how the future was coming and you were either in it or not. That’s what the rooms were for. The rooms were for culling.
So maybe you think I could at least have signaled you at night when the walls went transparent and we could look through the room of the girl no one liked to the rooms of both you and of me – made a sign or something, let you know the thing I felt about your open friendliness and yellow eyes, as if that might have changed what was going to come down. I know I said green before, but a kind of yellow-green, or even golden. Golden eyes. Who has golden eyes? Only you.
But who can signal feelings when everyone can see? And across the body of the girl no one liked? We were lined up three in a row like that – first you in your room, then her in hers, then me in mine. Sometimes, all the walls would go clear at once, but sometimes, it was only the wall between the wrong girl and me – her and me, her and me – which made me think, when my own walls were all dark and I was drifting off to sleep, on the other side of her, was it her and you, her and you? In my little dark room, I would lie there thinking this: did she smirk at you the way she smirked at me? Did you lie awake beside her and look into her eyes, which were neither green nor golden, but just a dull flat no-color no one liked either? Could you even, maybe, smell her the way I sometimes could?
A lot of the time, though, it was our three rooms at once, one, two, three: you, her, me; me, her you. Lying there lit up, with her between us, I’d think about how much I liked the smooth, white skin of you, your open eyes, your gentle friendliness. If your room was next to mine, it would have been so easy. We could sleep and eat and write out our nightly reports side-by-side – you writing on your bed and me writing on mine. But without a way to signal you, we were totally dependent – not just you and me, but all of us – on the room they put us in when they brought us from where we had been.
You had your room. I had mine. She had hers.
I don’t know why they made the walls like that. On the other side of me, a boy with big balls and a lump in his neck. We didn’t not like him, but we didn’t not not like him either. Neither did we hold it against him, the room he was taking, the droop of his balls, for it was clear as day to all of us he wasn’t going to last long.
Most of us kept our things inside the boxes they gave us to store under our beds. They had to go somewhere, so we stuffed them in there – our photograph of somewhere else, our half a second pair of socks, our button we’d torn from a thing someone we loved once had worn. Meantime, meals came and went. We all turned the color we turned from the color we were when they brought us in to the waxy, inside color of our rooms. Sometimes, a room would go dark for a while, and the next time it lit up, someone new, still the color she came in with, would be lying in the bed, her head on the pillow and a wary look to her that said, not now.
We always knew this was a possibility.
The boy with the balls that hung low, for example, when he left, they brought in a girl with hair in her ears. It grew in long strands down the sides of her cheeks.
By the time I figured out it was about the pairs, I’d given up all hope of you ever looking back but had yet to give in to despair. That, the despair, would come later, after you’d gone and I knew I would never again look at your smooth, white skin or your gentle eyes that turned out not to have ever been for me, but always for her, the girl no one could like. Between the one and the other, what there was – what sustained me – was both my hope and longing, and the things I thought about – the plans I made for us – how one day they would move that girl the way they moved that boy, and then it would be just you and just me, side by side in our rooms, so when the walls would clear we could lie there, hip to hip. You’d put your hand to the transparent wall and so would I. It was fine like that, so it went on for a while and had nothing to do with dreams. Plans are not dreams. Plans are plans. Plans make you powerful because you are the one in control, not them. My plan was to be a pair with you so we could go where pairs went, which, wherever that was, had to be better than here.
But oh, no, not so fast, because they never moved that girl. They could never move that girl because that girl was the point, and when they took you off with her, that’s when I knew I hated, not loved you both. That’s I knew they were the same.
2. The Gift of Common Memory
Prescience came to all of us in time. You couldn’t really avoid it, not that we didn’t try. There was plenty of doom as it was, why invite more from the future?
No one started out with it, of course. We started out small and full of cheery optimism, like everyone else, rambunctious giggles galore. We had rosebuds for cheeks and buttons for toes. They kept us like that as long as they could. It was the least they could do.
Then they put us in rooms and waited to see what would happen. The only question was: what would we develop into?
You had your room; I had mine. But we were waiting too. That’s what the rooms were for.
What I love about the time before they put us in our rooms is a word that will not do it justice, which is bedlam. The meaning of bedlam is uproar and confusion, although it once referred to institutions for the mentally insane, for of course it is well-known that the mentally insane are prone to scenes of uproar and confusion, unless we drug them into stupors, or let them drug themselves. Once, the mentally insane were also kept in rooms, but not anymore.
We are not insane. We are prescient instead.
For some of us, prescience goes both ways.
When we were all giggles galore, we romped in a vast room like a hall or auditorium, all of us together, rolling about in each other’s chests, elbows, and knees, slurping our food from our great shared bowl. We slept in long rows of small beds, for this is how we learned that we are all connected. In this, our noisy communality and joyous pandemonium, our seeds of dedication and purpose took root.
But in the rooms, no bedlam. Developing took concentration. It was lonely at first.
And yet, we did not stop to think: why us. Why us was clear as day to all of us, for we were we.
Because of the hole between your room and my room, I could sometimes hear you breathing. You breathed with a rasp that smelled green. Sometimes, I tried breathing back. It was the least I could do.
After a while, when our prescience came, it either came with a wallop or in dribs and drabs you could sometimes see but sometimes only sense. It was hard to tell which you wanted – a wallop or a drib and drab. Wallops were sometimes too much, but dribs and drabs took their toll too. Backwards prescience, the rarest of all, came with a stab of regret as useless as it was uncommon, so they gave you a box and said this is for your memories. Or sometimes, they gave you two boxes – one for your good ones and one for your bad. Included in memories was everything, everything that ever happened at all, to you, yourself, or humankind at large. As for me, I only got the one box, but ooh la la – you got two.
The thing about the boxes is they didn’t always work. Some of them leaked, or some of us maybe caused ours to leak, giving rise to the question: was backward prescience a failure of technology, or will?
Either way, the overall feeling about it was this: what good was a memory anyway? The joys of bedlam notwithstanding, what’s done is done, they said. You couldn’t change a stitch about the past.
Whereas, here were the functions of prescience: anticipation, preparation, mitigation, protection; see what is coming before it’s too late; nip things in the bud; fix them.
Compared to all of that, what earthly good was looking back?
But some of us, we couldn’t really help it. Either our box or our brain leaked. It was out of our hands. Most rarely of all, a kind of curiosity took hold, driven by such questions as: how did we come to be in rooms? what did people eat for dinner? is God dead?
Your room was the color of milk; mine was the color of pie.
In addition to our rooms, we had our traits. Your trait was wholesome; my trait was bulwark. I was the block in the middle, the finger in the dyke; you were the brook.
For most of us, developing started start with a dream. We’d wake up, a cry on our lips, as if from another language or world, and wouldn’t know what to do. You couldn’t really hide it – no one could. Oh here and there, a wily child or furtive adolescent could keep it secret it for a while, the way we hid our private appetites and musings. But once you had one dream, you were going to have more. You could try to breathe it in all you wanted, but one day it was going to breathe you out.
Our dreams were like windows. When we saw what we saw out the windows of our dreams, you can just imagine what happened to whatever was left of our rosebuds and buttons. Prophesy, they told us, is a gift.
The way to tell the difference between prescience and memory was, one, you woke up with a clutch at your heart, the other, a sear of remorse.
What we learned in our dreams was to breathe, you in your milk-colored room and me in my pie-colored one. There was something fundamental about breathing that prepared you for the time they were going to plug you in to a window of your own looking out on a world without walls or beds that is no-color at all.
It’s not no-color, you prophesied, but it’s close, a kind of dun.
When you said that, I knew your time was coming, but in my backward prophecy I could still see the color the world was before it was dun, which was the color of root. Root is less color than dun, you might say, but not to me. Dun’s a dead color and root’s a living one. Also, my root-colored world was brimming with things and your dun-colored one was, you said, almost entirely empty of them. No trees, you said, to shade the people; not even beds for them to sleep in.
The others lay in their rooms, moaning the cries of their lips from their dreams, but because your time was growing close, we bided the time remaining to us the best we could as I tried to teach you my gift of common memory.
Oh, you said. Oh, you said. Oh!
I alone could tell if what we were seeing had already happened or if it was still to come. That’s why my room was the color of pie, stained from the memories leaking from my box, so thick and pie-colored, you could almost taste them, is what I told you through the hole where we talked.
What is the color of thick? you said.
The uselessness of backward prophecies is all they can tell you is where you have been.
Don’t cry, they told us, over spilt milk.
For a while I put mine in my box like they said, but they piled up fast, every night another common memory – ancient or fresh, ordinary or rare, brutal or tender – until finally my box overflowed and my room filled with ideas about the way things used to be. For example: clothes for your feet were once known as shoes; shoes came from cows; cows were beautiful animals with many stomachs and wet, brown eyes and something called cud. The future grew out of the past then, which no one forgot. This knowledge had a smell to it, like the mattress you slept on or begonias.
But even as my room filled up, yours remained devoid of anything but you, a holy circuit, for your dreams, unlike mine, had a purpose, and so they came for them each morning, clearing them all from your room before we had breakfast.
Now that you’re gone, I think about that sometimes – the emptiness of your room, the fullness of mine. Thinking that, I better understand how bedlam was never an accurate word. I just picked it because it was there. In the vast room we once shared, all of us together, there was a communality of frolic and skin. Skin is a warm thing until you plug it in. Maybe there was uproar and confusion, but it was pleasant uproar and confusion – lively and full of human spirit, like love, even if we were just rosebuds and buttons. You need to be more precise about words that you choose, if you want to stay in your room with your dreams, which like it or not, is better than windows with views.
The word I chose correctly, though, is love. I nabbed it and used it and because that is precisely what I meant – I loved the time we spent all together before we were sent to our rooms, I loved the things that passed between us through the hole shared. Sometimes, through the hole, all I heard was breathing. Your breathing, I thought. Then I closed my eyes and this is what I saw: not a glass of milk or piece of pie, not a button or a bud, but a pasture and a barn. The pasture had creatures in it, with snouts dug deep in the dirt. Inside the barn, more creatures with udders being milked.
Because your time was coming close, we talked until my tongue got hot and furry. There was so much to tell before they plugged you in and made you look. Plugging in is for protection, just the same as looking out to whatever it is that is coming to turn the whole world to dun.
Another word for rooms is fortress.
You breathe in, you breathe out. That is the most you can do.
When I think about your room now, I think of all the words I know. All of the words share common letters, but none are what I mean.
The walls were too thick to shove anything through, only our voices. That is the nature of fortresses. But you could blow wind in my ear. When you blew wind in my ear, this is what I heard: wind. But I could also hear things like asparagus and rain and what you were afraid of when they took you to your window, which was going to be soon. You were afraid that if they took you to a low window, you would be close to the ground, but if they took you to a high one, you could see far. You were afraid it would hurt when they plugged you in. Because you didn’t know how gentle rain could be, you were afraid of that too.
Be afraid of missing me, I wanted my wind to blow back in your ear, but in the absence of a human memory, once you were gone, you were going to be gone, so what I did instead was this: I opened my box and blew everything in it as hard as I could through the hole in our thick wall to you.
Sometime around Christmas
Today I’m marking papers and doing grocery shopping. I don’t want to be. It’s July and it’s hot in the city. I want it to be winter. Sometime around Christmas. A cold but sunny day. And I want to be out in the country, early in the morning, like I’ve just finished something tiring. I want to be in the open air, walking and smoking a cigarette and drinking black coffee and feeling the warm steam rising around me. I don’t even drink black coffee; I have it with cream and sugar. But here I would have it black. There are woods up there in Westchester. And the idea of snow on the ground, the silver trunks of the trees, the oranges and yellows of the leaves in the light – the sense that the whole scene is somehow enclosed in glass – well, it’s got me thinking about Chris. I haven’t thought about Chris for years.
Back then I was new to New York. I had no career and no sense of where I was going. I was living down in Brooklyn in this shared flat with friends. The place was too cold in the winter and had no AC in the summer, but it was cheap and we didn’t mind. The city seemed like another world then, bristling with possibilities. Every evening and every weekend was the brink of some discovery. I started dating Chris around then. He was from Australia. It was only ever going to be a temporary thing with Chris, we both knew that; he was travelling around and not working and I wasn’t going to leave New York. He met me and kind of stayed around in the city for longer. I wasn’t lonely at the time, but I’d had a couple of experiences of being rejected by guys and I think I wanted someone to affirm who I was.
I had a small room in the flat with a single bed. Chris and I, we slept in that single bed together every night, tangled up in each other. In the mornings I would get up and get ready for work and leave him sleeping in the rounded warmth we’d made. I’d always come to kiss him goodbye before I left. I remember one time he gently pulled me back into bed with him, under the covers, and went down on me.
Chris was an architect. Well, he was training to be an architect. He was really into it. He would try telling me sometimes about his favourite architects and why he loved them. In a bookshop in East Village he found a section with loads of architecture books and he was so happy. The books were heavy, square, glossy and full of pictures of buildings that I didn’t understand. The pictures were stylish, in some kind of hyper-real focus. Too much focus for me. I didn’t want to see all that detail. He tried to take me through some, explain them to me. I didn’t pay enough attention; I was threatened by his real self. Besides it was my city and my life he was in.
Another time he told me about the dream house he wanted to build for himself one day. It would all be stone and wood, then glass everywhere. “It would feel plain,” he said. “Elemental.” The walls were going to be low, made from boulders. “A soft, pale blue stone that looked like it had been worn smooth from hundreds of years of rain.” Then wooden walkways joining up the rooms and the whole thing enclosed by glass. “It would feel like outside inside.”
We talked so easily about futures that didn’t contain each other. It was strange to think of him in the future, older, in this house he’d made. I think he’s come back to me because of that house. And because I want it to be winter. Because that was when I remember him here in New York.
He’s fading from me. The mist of nostalgia is settling over him. What
other things can’t I remember? Sharpening with repetition the things I can
remember, the others drop further into murkiness, like smooth pebbles sinking
into the dark.
Other things. He had a racing
bike in Brisbane. I remember that. He lived in one of those sleek modern
apartments and he told me how he had to leave it in the hall outside his flat.
For some reason I could imagine that bike so well, gleaming in a dark hallway.
The foot clips, the chrome light-weight frame, dropped handlebars. This bike, it
was everything I imagined his life in Brisbane to be. People on sharp racing
bikes, gliding over smooth tarmac with no potholes, glass buildings,
architects’ offices with the sun slanting in. And everyone’s skin warm to touch
from living all those days in the sun.
He went home at one point
over Christmas, back to Brisbane, and I went to the airport with him. I think
he didn’t know whether I really wanted him to come back. It would be
summer where he was going, I couldn’t imagine that. We stood in line together
waiting for him to go through passport control, and we made out the whole time.
Shamelessly. Our bodies pressed tight together, and with all these other people
around us looking elsewhere. It’s unbelievable to me now that I did that. I
think we did it because we didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember missing
him one bit when he left New York.
A few years later he was back in New York for a brief visit, or passing through or something, and I got a text from him asking if I wanted to meet up. I was with someone else by then and I made an excuse that I was out of the city. I wanted to be able to meet him, but I couldn’t figure out how we’d be together. How would we not touch each other? Just be distantly interested in each other’s lives? I made my excuse then deleted his texts standing in the middle of the street with all these people walking past me.
It’s been years since then. I dread the thought of meeting him. To see what we have both become. But then I think, no, it wouldn’t be so bad. Of course it wouldn’t. Remember. It would be like this: he would be back in New York and it would be winter, around Christmas, like I want it to be now. We’d meet in a bar in the city, busy with people out on work parties, loud and in their own thing, looking elsewhere, with the whole loosening feel of the holiday season taking hold. And his skin, when I say hello and kiss him, would still be warm from the sun, and the city outside would be waiting for us again, wide open and dark and gleaming.
Death of a Pacifist
There were thousands of us at Trafalgar Square, chanting in rhythmic parts, “Don’t bomb Syria”, then “Not in my name”.
A tall grey-haired black man wearing a navy jacket and cap limped along beside me with the help of a walking stick. He managed a placard in his free hand that shouted: “Who are you kidding, Mr. Cameron?” He had trouble manoeuvring against the late November wind and rain. I tried conversing with him as we marched with the mob of boisterous peace soldiers to Downing Street.
“I’m against the bombing, even if it is that damned Islamic State,” the old man yelled over the whipping wind, his goatee bobbing up and down as he spoke. I caught a hint of Caribbean melodies in his voice: “Bombing Iraq didn’t work. Bombing Afghanistan didn’t work. Bombing Libya didn’t work. There’s no way it’s going to sort out Syria.”
“You’re right,” I shouted back, though I wasn’t sure he could hear me with the protesters around us yelling, blowing referees’ whistles and honking hand-held horns to get our fresh-faced Prime Minister to drop his plans to bomb Syria. I didn’t really share my marching mate’s absolute certainty on Middle East interventions. I just thought bombing Syria was useless, and I was looking to meet up with Serena, the too-young barmaid at my local who said she would see me at Trafalgar Square. She must have been having me on.
“We’re just stoking it up. All we’ll get out of this is more extremists. Bombing won’t make us a bit safer. Probably make things a damn sight worse. Cameron’s just jerking his knee. And Hilary Benn…” His voice trailed off as he tried to wipe the rain from his glasses.
Then we got separated in a melee with the Met trying to kettle a roaring crowd of Socialists from getting nearer Number Ten.
When I got on the train to Blackheath an hour later the old man plunked himself down across from me, stuck out his long bony right hand and said, “Fulton – nice to meet you.”
I took his hand, “Benjamin.”
“Ah, like my bro, Zeph, the poet.”
“I guess,” I laughed.
We talked about poets. He liked the youngsters and their slamming and performance art. I said I admired Wendy Cope and Simon Armitage. He laughed. I told him that I had just bought the bookstore in Blackheath and his eyes lit up like firecrackers.
“Young fellow like you?”
He lived in Blackheath’s once stately Selwyn Court apartments near the station, but leapt up at Lewisham, moving well despite the limp in his left leg.
“See you about, then. Got to go see a girl,” Fulton said, breaking into an expansive smile.
A few days later he walked into my store carrying a bundle of books and reached his long arm towards me: “Fulton, don’t suppose you remember.”
The books were bound together in several of those rubber bands that the Royal Mail letter carriers scatter all over our tidy little village in southeast London. Fulton stood so close I could taste the fried onions from his lunch. His face beamed with his wiry eyebrows reaching towards his blue cap.
“My book. You’re going to sell it.”
I looked it over, trying to show due respect. It was ninety pages. The figure on the cover of Peace Poet reminded me of a Degas sculpture I had seen at Tate Modern, a man waving a walking stick in silhouette. You couldn’t see his face, but the slightly crooked left leg left no doubt it was Fulton. I turned it over to read the biographical notes.
Fulton left me to it, tapping his way to the new Local Authors shelves I had set up, found a prominent spot for his book of poems, mounted three copies there, and pointed his walking stick at me.
“You’ve got a bestseller on your hands.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
He laughed. “No doubt, man.”
When he left, I took the books down and put them onto my backroom desk before rearranging my local authors. They were giving me enough grief about selling their tales of woe since I had bought the store with the help of sizeable loan from my parents, who were spending half the year in the Caymans these days after selling their greeting-card business to one of the conglomerates. The little shop was more like the cramped back office of an eccentric old scholar when I bought it, complete with cobwebs that had likely been there since the blitz. I was sprucing it up with new volumes, pine bookshelves and fresh paint. Since my divorce from Loretta, an aspiring model with deep affection for the high life my books couldn’t offer, I was living in the tiny flat above the store, basically one rectangular room and a toilet, with wrinkled paperbacks discarded by the former owner scattered throughout.
It took me a week before I got back to Fulton’s book, having moved aside the flyers and spreadsheets that had gathered on my desk. I picked up Peace Poet and started reading. An hour later I closed the book and sat a long time. I had studied poetry at university a decade or so ago, but I wasn’t sure how good Fulton’s poems were. They were brave, maybe even foolhardy, mixing politics, religion and sex. However, it was the rhythm that held me. I could hear Fulton’s hypnotic voice. One line struck me:
“When the river of peace rests in the sea / It’s you, my brother, must take up the plea.”
I locked up the store and crossed the road for a pint at the Crown. It was all polish and gloss inside, but I preferred the old picnic-style benches outdoors. There was no sign of Serena, and I wasn’t sure if she had quit or run off with the waiter with the slicked-back hair. I took a long pull of my pint then got out my phone and searched for everything I could find about Fulton. There was more than I had reckoned: poet, pacifist, church elder, arrested for protesting, Stephen Lawrence activist, dishwasher and political candidate. The next day I put him back up with the local authors.
Fulton was a Windrush baby. Born in Jamaica in the early 1950s, he came to Britain when he was ten with his parents. His daddy drove a bus for fifteen years but got tired of what he called harassment and returned to the Jamaica sunshine. His mum stayed. She’d got a job as a cleaner at Lewisham hospital, worked there for thirty years, washing floors and swabbing down operating theatres, before her body gave out. She collapsed at work, and they shifted her to the A&E, then to a ward, but she only lasted a day. She had a weak heart. Fulton was washing dishes in Brixton at that time, dodging the stop-and-searches when he left the restaurant early mornings six days a week. He told me this when he came by the bookstore a while after we first met, poking his walking stick toward the Local Authors, goading me to move his book up to eye level.
“How’s it going to be a bestseller when you’re hiding it on the bottom shelf?” He was laughing but his blazing eyes meant business.
I closed the bookstore for lunch and split my egg salad sandwich with Fulton and made us a pot of tea. He took his black. “I’m pure,” he said straight-faced.
“Seriously, it’s Martin who made me pure in politics,” he said.
“Martin Luther King, my one and only hero in this world and the next.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant and started rooting around in my rucksack to get my pound cake to split with Fulton, who had devoured his half sandwich but hadn’t paused to sip his tea.
Suddenly he stood up, took off his cap and held it to his chest and began preaching to his congregation of one, his eyes flashing like a television evangelist.
“I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.”
He sat down and swallowed his tea in one gulp.
I was too taken aback to speak. I used to have great admiration for Martin Luther King. However, I wasn’t sure how the American civil rights preacher’s approach would work in twenty-first century Britain, though I was mindful of the gap between Fulton’s life experience and mine, so said nothing.
Fulton, sensing my discomfort with his speech-making, caught my eye and held it, whispering:
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
Martin Luther King. I just knew.
As he got up to leave, Fulton said, “When you have some time, I want to show you something.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling like I owed him.
A week later, we met at the Crown. We drank a pint outside and talked a bit about his poetry, his odd spellings and use of words like “machination”, which he called “machine nations” and his affection for alliteration. He talked too about how distressed he was during the Brixton riots in the eighties, how he almost went and got himself a brick or a can of petrol to join in the struggle.
“But it just wasn’t me. Mum was starting to get sick, though she never told anyone. I knew. I had to stay close to her and I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had left her to go into battle with a brick.”
“Have you faced racism?” I heard my voice breaking.
“Benjamin,” he scolded. “This is a racist country. See that crooked leg. They kicked me every day at school for years from the moment I arrived on that boat. I tried to fit in. We all tried. But once they got us here, got us to drive their buses, scrub their floors and wash their dishes, they never wanted anything to do with us. I love this place. I’ve never left. I’m not going back to Jamaica, though my Daddy’s there – eighty years old! But this country can be Hell for a man with my skin. You can let it infect you. Some people do. I choose love and poetry over sticks and stones.”
I was trying to figure if Fulton thought I was part of the they. I wondered too how Fulton would see my mum and dad, soaking up the Cayman sun behind locked gates in a pristine neighbourhood in his part of the world.
He stood up.
“One more pint, then I’m taking you somewhere.”
I didn’t resist.
Five minutes’ walk from the Crown to the heath and another five minutes’ hike and we arrived at a scruffy bit of elevated brush and bushes that looked like it needed tidying up. Fulton stopped, lifted his stick towards the sky, closed his eyes and shushed me: “Listen.”
There was a swirl of wind, a jet headed to Heathrow, a helicopter twirling towards the Thames, then nothing. Not a bird. Not a dog. No kids. Like he had willed it. Then Fulton whispered, “Can you hear them?”
“Uh, no. Fulton, are you taking the piss here…”
I didn’t hear anything. But at least I knew then not to laugh.
Suddenly Fulton started preaching towards the heavens. It was like Martin Luther King’s sermon, back in my little office, but eerie, his voice wobbling like he had lost control of it.
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And, therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
He stopped. There were tears in his eyes. He was in a kind of trance. We stood there for a long time before he spoke.
“Do you know who that was?”
“Not Martin Luther King.”
“Who was it?”
I was wary of where we were heading, worried about the look of Fulton, the tears, the sweat rolling down his face, his shaking.
“I hear those words when I come here,” Fulton said, reading my mind. “That’s John Ball. They’ve got a school in Blackheath named after him, though I’m bloody certain they don’t know what he was about. He was preaching to the rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt on this very spot in 1381.
“This is Wat Tyler’s Mound. You know him? It’s Whitefield’s Mound, one of the first Methodists. My mum and daddy’s families were all Methodists. Whitefield preached to 20,000 people here, in 1739!
“They were for justice, these people. The Chartists came here too. You know who they were? And then came the Suffragists – nonviolent women changing the world for the better. Some men yelled at them, saying, ‘You’re just telling the same old story’. Smart women, they agreed: ‘And we’re going to keep on telling the story’.
“Benjamin,” Fulton said, looking down at his crooked leg. “This old body is getting weary. Guys like you have got to take up the story just like my mob – bring justice, jobs, equality to this country – and without violence.”
“That’s why I brought you to the mound – it’s holy ground.”
In the weeks that followed I thought a lot about what happened at the mound, all the things Fulton had been trying to teach me. Still, I wondered how many of us had time to wage his kind of peaceful war, with working and just living. I wasn’t sure how he paid his bills though I know his mum left him something – and he sold his books in stores across southeast London. I was drawn to Fulton as a man of character and as a storyteller but I wondered if he really knew me and my lack of principle. I was too busy trying to get my bookstore to turn a profit while Mum and Dad in the Caymans were pressuring me to shut it.
Good Friday was coming at the elegant church on the heath where I attended sporadically – too much “bells and smells” and not enough meat in the preaching. It was Mum and Dad’s church, really. The vicar, who was nearing retirement, had announced he was going to hold a service on something called “just wars”. The bishop wanted congregations to think about gas attacks in Syria and new calls for British airstrikes. Good thing Mum and Day weren’t here for this, but I was at least curious.
I mentioned the service to Fulton when I saw him heading to the mound the Sunday before with a group of youngsters he was helping find work. One of them, a plump young fellow with a retro afro, was squatting on Fulton’s sofa after the old poet got him to turn his knife in. The youngsters were making a racket, so I wasn’t sure Fulton heard me.
There were no more than twenty of us seated down the left side of the sanctuary because the rest of it was shrouded in tarpaulins thanks to the never-ending renovations in the imposing old edifice. I sat close to the front of the sanctuary. The frail vicar was known to mumble. After a few short prayers the vicar put up a list of the “Seven Principles of a Just War” on a flipchart. He started talking about number one, “Last Resort”.
Suddenly Fulton tapped his way to the front of the sanctuary. I hadn’t known he was there, but when I saw him I thought he was trying to get a closer look. Fulton turned around and started chanting. The vicar sat down.
I didn’t take in everything he had to say in the few minutes he had our attention before two elders escorted him from the church. I was too worried about the way he looked, cap askew, jacket covered in leaves, muddy shoes. Had he been sleeping rough? He ran through the vicar’s litany in one mocking breath – last resort, legitimate authority, just cause, probability of success, right intention, proportionality, civilian casualties – shook his head and sang:
“It’s love, not hate. Appreciate. Some wars okay? What more, I say? Adultery? Good God, you say. Bible tells us to love and pray. Jesus said love your enemy.”
As the elders near carried him out of the stunned sanctuary, Fulton hollered: “I’ve been thrown out of better places in Alabama with Martin Luther King. We carry on the struggle.”
The vicar got up to continue his talk, but I left my pew in search of Fulton. I wanted to see if he was all right. He was setting out across the heath with a few of his youngsters when I caught up to him.
“Fulton, you don’t look so good.”
“Book man, Benjamin. Truth is, things are happening. I’ve got to sort it. I might need your help. I’ll let you know. Your vicar, man…”
He gave up.
There was something bugging me.
“You told me you’ve never left Britain since you arrived from Jamaica?”
He gave me a long stare, like he was trying to remember what he had told me.
“Marching with Martin. You’re talking about Alabama.”
“I was with him in my dreaming and scheming – and he’s marching with me today. That’s my ‘Just Marching’ theory.” He laughed, turning to walk away, his oak stick pointing towards the mound. I didn’t know what to think of Fulton’s explanation. I walked home half chuckling at his cheek, half worried Fulton was headed off into some kind of personal and political madness.
I only saw Fulton once or twice over the next year. I was fighting to save my business. Mum and Dad had sent their consultant – the one who sold their greeting-card business – to sort things out. I agreed. It was either that or I would lose the line of credit they had set up for my bookstore. Things were getting tense and I didn’t want to lose the store after working at it for a year. I guessed Fulton was busy too. He came by the bookstore collecting for the Grenfell fire families. He and his band were making up packets of clothes, books and toiletries with 1960s peace signs stamped on them. I gave him a few quid and a couple of paperbacks. His books were selling, and I was sending the money on. I asked him about the problem he mentioned after the Good Friday service and he said he’d be in touch. He seemed slower, quieter.
“Keep the faith,” Fulton called back over his shoulder.
A month later I happened to meet Fulton having a pint outside at the Crown with his woman friend, Maxine. I’d given up looking for Serena and she no longer answered my texts, though I still saw her Greek idol and he smiled at me knowingly when I ran into him at the pub. I had seen Fulton and Maxine together a few times over the years, crossing the heath, his arms gesticulating wildly, her laughing alongside him. She was probably in her forties, not that much older than me, smartly dressed that day, wearing a rainbow scarf and dangling ear rings. Sipping my pint and listening to Fulton talk about helping some peace church send people to Israel and Palestine to stand between the two sides to prevent another intifada, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Maxine. I was watching her watching him. Her dark eyes seemed to change colour slightly moment by moment, probably reflecting the sun’s peeking in and out of the clouds, but somehow illustrating her complicated attachment to the old poet – moving from awe to amusement to worry. I was seeing the different faces of the poet – through her eyes.
I looked directly at Fulton. He always seemed to be able to suss out different approaches to things. I was happy to hear that some churches weren’t just sending pilgrims on Holy Land tours or praying for the end times. They were close enough. Fulton was obsessed with never using a gun or a bomb to help settle things. But I never really had the gall or the energy to take him on, though he knew I was somewhat cynical.
Then Maxine asked, “Fulton, love, what happened to your peacemakers when Hitler was murdering and massacring across Europe? It was men with big guns and bigger bombs that ended that. Your Martin Luther King ways might not work always, you know.”
Fulton furrowed his brow as I picked a few last grains of salt from the bottom of my peanuts packet, looking like he was accusing me of putting Maxine up to it, or suggesting she at least had the nerve to ask that question. He grabbed his stick from where it was leaning against the picnic bench where we were seated like he was going to leave, but just gripped it and responded in a slow, clear tone.
“Give peacemakers the human resources, the big budgets, the broad political will, business’s push, organized labour’s blessing, the spiritual guidance of the holy church, the great nationalistic fervour of every living man, woman and child to the very end – like you had in that bloody war – and then we’ll see how things compare.”
He stood up and grabbed his walking stick and went off to the loo.
Maxine turned her dark eyes toward me and shook her head, and again said what I was thinking: “He’s thought it through, but I don’t know…”
A few days later I got this text from Fulton: “Meet me at the mound.”
I wish I had understood how desperate he was.
I was trying to keep the bookstore alive so shutting early wasn’t possible and a few last-minute customers were rummaging through the sales bins for weather-weary Richard Ford or Katherine Mansfield paperbacks. I couldn’t just kick them out.
I will always regret not getting there sooner.
When I arrived at the mound, Fulton’s body lay among the thick greenery, arms and legs spread out like a mangled human clock, a ring of yellow high-vis-clad police officers surrounding him. His blue navy cap rested on the ground beside him, his oak walking stick lying further off.
Beyond the circle stood a rag-tag cluster of a dozen head-hung-low youngsters carrying home-made placards declaring, “Free Fulton”.
I thought I had walked on to a low-budget Ken Loach film set, though the wailing of the ambulance and police cars as they mounted the kerb and drove across the heath told me otherwise.
Fulton was dead, and though it took me some time to admit it to myself, maybe a part of me had died too, though I would hesitate to say exactly what part that was, confusing as that sounds.
A few weeks after the inquiry I closed the bookstore for lunch – there wasn’t much lunchtime trade and it looked like I might have to shut the place down permanently. Mum and Dad were coming home for a spell and wanted a meeting with me and their consultant. It didn’t look good and I didn’t know what I would do with myself if I lost the bookstore. I strolled across the heath the few hundred yards to the mound. It was a sunny afternoon, but there were dark clouds in the distance. I stood on the edge of the heath’s curious few square meters of odd tufts of grasses and weedy bushes that is a blight to most heath walkers but for me had become a kind of monument to that mad poet.
When Fulton first brought me here to listen for the voices of the revolutionary John Ball, the holy Wesleyans, the peaceful suffragists, I could only hear the wind. That lunch time I stood a long time and again heard nothing but that wind and one annoying crow trying to tell me to buzz off back to my store. But I couldn’t get Fulton out of my mind – his poetry, his politics, his twisted body lying on the mound. Tears started rolling down my cheeks and I began to shiver violently. The episode lasted less than a minute. But it shook me to the core.
The inquiry lasted just a day. It was his heart that killed him. That’s what they said. Fulton had a condition that meant any excitement might have set it off. His doctor admitted it under some intense questioning from the Met’s lawyers. The judge said the taser was probably misused and admonished the officer wielding it. Still, the judge emphasized that Fulton had escalated the situation by “waving his walking stick about and theatrically reaching towards his jacket pocket”, though he acknowledged Fulton carried no weapon and had been trying to show the police the latest document he had received from the Home Office, telling him he was in the country illegally – after living here for fifty years. And the judge maintained that the fact that some of Fulton’s ragtag followers had put out messages on social media that Fulton would be defending his right to remain in Britain “to the very end” had created a kind of “inhospitable environment” and that the police were right to be there in numbers – and to have the taser at hand.
When I read all this in the newspaper, in black and white, it was hard to argue with. Bad heart? Inhospitable environment? It made sense. Still, I thought, the police didn’t know Fulton, the judge didn’t know Fulton and the reporter covering the inquiry didn’t know Fulton. I did. I have to admit that he was bloody annoying at times, preaching like Martin Luther King, disrupting our Good Friday church service, pushing me to sell his thin volume of poetry, dropping hints about his troubles but never letting me know how I could help.
Occasionally, he even stretched the truth a bit to make a point. But he wouldn’t have swatted away a mosquito – even with his gnarly old walking stick – let alone attack a police officer. Weak heart? Maybe. But Fulton, though he limped through his life in this part of the city, rarely strayed from the path he thought was right. I wasn’t sure we could have said that about all those officials at the inquiry. Or whether I could have said that about myself. I was too busy trying make a living to see the crooked old man dying right in front of me. That’s what really hurt, to be honest.
Half-way back to my bookstore I stopped in my tracks because I heard those wailing police sirens again at the mound. I looked over my shoulder and sure enough there was a police van arriving at the kerb near the mound, and six or seven officers were climbing out of it, strapping on helmets and grabbing shields – like ancient warriors preparing to do battle. A ragged group of Fulton’s peace army was arriving from Greenwich Park, waving their walking sticks and placards. I think they were yelling, “Stay out of Iran” and I could hear his name being shouted too, “Fulton lives. Fulton lives”.
Though, of course, he was dead.
Fulton always said there were those who benefited from continuous war and people ought to be persistent in seeking peaceful ways out of our messes. I had my doubts, though I probably should have argued that point with him. The youngsters, however, must have thought another war was coming and they were resisting in their own noisy and undisciplined way. I looked at them on the heath and didn’t know what to think.
“Peace is the only answer, and it starts right here,” Fulton told me many times over the past few years, pounding his chest.
“That’s just sloganeering,” I always said.
“No,” he’d say. “That’s the truth. Peace starts in your own heart – but it needs to burst out into the real world, otherwise it shrinks you, suffocates you.”
Maybe I should have joined Fulton’s band on the mound; maybe those kids shouldn’t have been left on their own to make change. I was worried they would end up like Fulton, lifeless among the weeds. Maybe. But there was going to be trouble and I had enough of that on my plate. It was going to be a battle to keep my store running and I needed all my business armour to win that fight. One of the big chains had opened a bookstore in the village and shoppers liked the look of the place – like a local bookstore, funny enough – and the price of the books. I figured that was the only fight I truly had energy for, but I wasn’t optimistic about winning. The odds were against me.
I turned away from Fulton’s followers and walked towards my store. A man carrying a black leather case stood outside the display window where I had recently placed Fulton’s Peace Poet. My Mum and Dad, looking richly tanned and in their best business outfits, but grim and determined, greeted him with cordial handshakes and chat as they peered inside the store where Fulton’s shadowy figure dominated my latest window display.
So it begins, I thought as I walked towards them, feeling ripped in two, one part of me preparing my best arguments for keeping the bookstore alive, the other part haunted by Fulton’s verse:
“When the river of peace rests in the sea/It’s you, my brother, must take up the plea.”
The Taste of Water
Can you describe it? Can you describe the taste of water?
No, not mineral, not bubbly water…
Plain water, flat, pure water…
* * *
Those cartons, square… cubic I should say… I will always remember them.
They were handed out after the show, back stage. In the rear of the truck, I mean, whose front was the theater on wheels. It went from town to town, suburb to suburb, periphery to periphery, favela to favela.
I sat there. I collapsed, exhausted like a beaten horse, not even removing my stilts, my complicated harness. Still on my wooden legs (those tall sticks I wore, for kids to hold their breath), I recovered after an acrobatic performance: in the tropical sun and equatorial dampness, tramping thick yellow sand…
Someone, a member of the modest production, graced me with a carton cube full of water. I remember pouring the contents into my throat, with the ecstasy of one sipping chilled champagne. I consumed that thing like ambrosia. It was nectar to me.
For, you see, I was thirsty.
What’s special about it? Well, as for many other issues, it is degree that matters. There are nuances. I’ve been around quite a while, but I experienced “the” quintessential thirst in those Brazilian favelas. Summer, midday, a soft muddy soil where we staggered on stilts, feeling, I believe, the opposite of what astronauts felt on the moon.
If they floated we sunk, sucked in towards the center of earth, lifting tons at the end of our fragile extremities.
Still I looked like a butterfly in pink satin: sporting feathers, pointy hats, fancy masks… Tracing arabesques with Chinese ribbons while galloping around, my gaze at roof level, my accordion tickling the unforgiving blue sky.
Miracles of youth and adrenaline, when they mix.
All that effort, that tremendous display of energy and grace, was paid pretty little moneywise. But enormously when I finally, simply, was given that thing.
Water I mean.
Oh my, how could I love it so? Maybe for I had little to love otherwise.
How sad was I, without even knowing. Sadness was like the sand grabbing at my stilts, entwining my steps… while I danced away, just sweating it a tad more. I didn’t notice my sadness or solitude.
Lord, how lonely I was! I knew I would be, from the very beginning.
He had told me about an old flame, about a previous lover living close by. He said she would visit during our tour and I shouldn’t nag or protest.
Did I ever protest? I took it as a natural flaw, like a storm or a draught, something you don’t especially wish for, but then what? If it happens it happens. So I knew I would share my booty with a double, a twin…
I had seen pictures. She didn’t look very different from myself. Dark and small, maybe a little plumper, less angular: all right.
Then he suddenly fell for a third gal, brand new adventure and local actress. Local beauty? Not truly. In fact, that one time I sincerely puzzled, night after night, about what made that plain sweetie so much better than me.
But indeed do our rivals have something that makes them better? Do they ever?
Or is it another problem entirely? Is the question a totally different one?
* * *
As I was saying! Can you tell me what water tastes like? Can you please give me the taste of water?
Water has none.
What you feel is the taste of your quenched thirst.
And sometimes it is all that matters.
It was winter again. Jijo’s favorite day came in winter. The “Annual Excursion Day”. All of junior school was packed into four buses and dropped at one of the cut and dried locations with a handful of trainee teachers as caretakers. This time it was to be the local zoo.
They gathered outside the school building sharp at nine, indistinguishable rows of ironed uniforms and oiled hair. It was no different from other gray mornings; the wind blew heavy towards the north. Jijo peered outside the bus window at the gathering clouds and remembered the new word he had learned in class. ‘Sinister’.
It excited him, the thought of impending doom. He imagined himself as a supervillain from one of his favorite comic books. In his excitement he pushed poor Ketu sitting next to him. When the boy fell on the greasy floor, Jijo pointed a finger at him and said, “Your end is near” in a venomous voice.
When the PE teacher stood in line to get entry tickets, Jijo saw the first board. “Do not tease the animals. Do not throw stones at them.” He didn’t intend to either. All he wanted was to go inside and buy a softy with the money mother had given him.
The first cage was always the giraffe’s. He liked the giraffe and the zebra best, they looked the least insidious. If he was a beast in the wild they would have been his favorite hunts. But it was not until they reached the tiger’s enclosure, surrounded by a moat and distanced from the public that he saw the second board. This time the language was harsh. “Do not tease the animals. Do not throw stones at them. There are consequences for your actions.” The tone was almost challenging.
In a few minutes the phalanx of thunderclouds broke and everyone ran for shelter. The teachers started counting heads, only Jijo managed to slip away. He managed to find the softy store but in his rush forgot about the note inside his pocket.
When he brought it out it was soaked beyond recognition. Savagely he tore it into pieces and started walking back. It was the smell that repelled him first. Of animal skin, termites and oxidized iron. Then he saw the monkeys, cramped inside a boxy coop, looking straight at him as if mocking him for his idiocy.
And there was the third board. “Do not tease the animals. Do not throw stones at them. There are consequences for your actions. And vengeance will be theirs.” That was it. Jijo picked up a stray piece of rock from the wet mud and hurled it towards the cage. The rock hit the biggest one on the head and it squealed in pain.
Something happened that moment. Jijo felt victorious but his head felt heavy and vision got blurrier. When he could see clearly again, he first saw the rusty iron bars. Then he extended his dense furry arm and felt the icy corroded steel. The repelling stench was now seeping inside his system.
Outside the sky was clearing. The stray rock lay at an arm’s distance in his cage. His own body stood outside, free and smiling at him. With the monkey now inside.
You don’t want to come across ungrateful, but it wasn’t meant to go like this. If you hadn’t given her that key, she wouldn’t have let herself in and she’d never have found you. It started right: overdose, collapse, loss of consciousness. Only then she walks in and sees you under the table in a pool of your own piss.
She calls for help, then the cavalry arrives to breathe life into the dead thing that was you. They blue light you to hospital, pump death out of you and force life in through tubes like plastic worms. One of the nurses is pissed off, moaning about how selfish you are, a waste of their precious resources. You’re too sick to give a damn, so you don’t say that if anyone has the right to be pissed off it’s you. When you wake he’s gone and there’s a Nigerian nurse who smiles and says you remind her of her daughter, says you have to look after yourself because you’re a beautiful person. Her words prick you in the eyes.
The next day the psychiatric team want to talk. They make notes on their clipboards as they ask why you did it, and were you gonna do it again? Of course it was a mistake, a moment of madness. You tell them what they want to hear, make it convincing so they leave you alone.
They move you to a ward with geriatrics who are trying not to die. You doubt they notice the irony. The woman in the bed opposite has hair the colour of clouds. She calls you dearie and offers you biscuits. Your chest tightens when a doctor in his twenties talks to her too slow and loud and makes her falter over simple maths.
They get an agency nurse to guard you. She follows you to the bathroom in case you try to choke yourself on loo roll or shatter your reflection and slit your throat with the shards. She’s Nigerian too, only she doesn’t smile or talk to you. She talks about you to the nurses and then watches the clock until her replacement arrives.
You convince the doctors that you can’t believe what you’ve done. You say you realise you have so much to live for. They’re glad you can see that now. They release you into the care of your family who make you promise it will never happen again. You promise, cry and beg to go back to your place. After a few weeks of following you about the house they let you.
You’ve worked it all out, refined your plan, but this time you call to say goodbye. The problem is you’re not dead by the time they arrive. The police break through your furniture barricade and you end up back on life support. This time no one trusts you, you’re a serial offender who needs to be locked up. When you’re mobile they transport you to a secure unit in a van with a cage in the back; makes you think of wild animals. The driver says ‘For the disturbed ones. Safer to put them in there.’ God knows who you’ll meet on the ward. Your nails cut into your palms.
Secure ward? There’s a misnomer if you ever heard one. They won’t let you lock your door, but through the window you can hear ranting and swearing from the men’s ward and there’s a woman roaming around with a plastic bag on her head. You stay awake all night and refuse to come out of your room to eat the next day. You talk yourself out of there, but you have to commit to a therapy programme. Now you’re to sit in a room each week. You don’t say you’d rather be dead.
There’s a long wait for talking therapies on the NHS, too long to be a lifeline. Your mother insists on private sessions. She’ll pay; she’ll even drive you there. In the first session you’re stingy with your words. The therapist sits opposite you and stares with this faint smile until you give in and speak. When you pause she wants to know why you don’t share your feelings with your friends. You say ‘Because no one cares.’
You describe the relief as blackness overwhelmed you. You say it was the most wonderful feeling and you can’t stop thinking what if you’d been left to die. You tell her you know she thinks you’re making a fuss when there’s nothing wrong with you. But she says ‘you tried to kill yourself twice, there’s evidently something wrong. It’s really important that we get to the bottom of what’s making you feel this way so you can begin to enjoy life.’ You just cry.
The next time you see her you say you feel like an alien. You can’t read other people without a map and there is no map. You say you have these constant negative thoughts, like missiles exploding into you: everything you do is wrong and you’ll never change. You say you’re blamed for every argument, but never know what you’ve done.
You tell her you think about punching through a window and crave the comfort of ITU where it feels like you’re floating outside time. There’s no hope for you, your life is over, you say. She says you’re in immense pain, but it will get better and she’s there to help. You tell her you don’t want her help and walk out. She doesn’t follow you and you wonder whether she thinks you’re going to die, wonder if she cares.
But the next week you go back. You tell her you hate your mother because she kept you alive just so she wouldn’t feel bad. You say your mother isn’t speaking to you because you broke your promise and tried to kill yourself again.
She hands you a box of tissues and says ‘And how does that make you feel?’
It Starts With Video Games
It starts with video games. In a way Yates is not surprised. Online gaming, a world he has never entered and doesn’t know much about, could be a new adventure for her. A new life, since her flamboyant exit from the old one. Inevitably she would be bustier, her shoulder-length hair would probably now flow to her waist, and her clothes would be low-cut and skin-tight, but that is just the nature of the internet, she would still be Garnet. She could assume a new identity, drive a faster car, battle monsters and defeat devils. As alternative lives go, it’s not a bad one. It is only thirty, forty dollars a month. Yates pays the bill gladly. Each time he sees the charge on his Visa statement, it feels like a message, a code, a whisper from the dark.
Each month Yates handles the envelope delicately, unpeels the flap and slips the paper out. A love letter via credit card, that is what it feels like. Visa is his Pandarus. And Garnet has gone shopping.
The bill doesn’t show what she purchased, only that it was through the shopping channel. Yates phones their 1-800 number.
“Is there a problem with any of the items, sir?”
“No, no problem. Just trying to keep better track of where the money’s going. Can you give me a list of everything charged to this card, please?”
A set of hand-painted casserole dishes, an exercise bike that folds away neatly under the bed between workouts, a fall coat you’d swear is made from real fur, an eau de toilette called Attar of Roses. Yates is happy she’s looking after herself, cooking, exercising, dressing warmly, though the Garnet he knows hates exercise. He orders another bottle of the Attar and when it arrives he mists it into the bathroom. Now it perpetually smells like she’s just left the room. He can imagine each morning she’s just headed in to work.
And Sarah said he should cancel her credit cards. That he should put Garnet behind him and move on. But how can he when Garnet never truly leaves him? It’s not as if they said goodbye or even planned to be apart. Imagine if he cancelled her Visa or got rid of her clothes or did any of the things his sister advised and Garnet suddenly found her way back. She would be furious that he could give up on her so quickly.
The porn is a surprise. Yates types the names of the websites from the Visa bill and his browser is flooded with flesh. So many scenarios, inside, outside, by the pool, in a massage parlour, at the office. Maids, doctors, nurses, teachers, bosses, pole dancers. Yates is bewildered and hurt. Their sex life had been satisfying, if tame by the standards he was now seeing, and perhaps predictable. Yet it had its moments of ecstasy, moments when a whispered word or the body shift of half an inch could seem to rip open eternity. Fulfilling is a clichéd word but it is also true. He was filled by her in those moments, he was full, he was whole.
But this? He tortures himself for many nights afterwards, fantasizing about her new fantasies. His dreams are sticky and sordid.
But eventually they abate, these dreams, and there is a lull.
The problem with credit card statements is that they only come once a month. He needs more. He needs to see her again, catch her in the act of doing these strange, new, un-Garnet-like things.
In February the answer comes. A single ticket for Coppélia, purchased through Ticketmaster. It’s a sign, a signal, the real Garnet at last. She’s going to the National Arts Centre.
He hates the ballet, stuffing his fat and flab into a suit, sitting for interminable hours in a narrow seat that doesn’t afford nearly enough leg room. But Garnet adores it. She always said that in her next life she would come back as a dancer. Yates said if she did, then maybe, just maybe he would voluntarily attend a performance.
But this time he’s going to surprise her. He calls Ticketmaster, makes a big fuss over forgetting which performance he booked a ticket for, and eventually finds out what he needs to know. March 6th, seven o’clock at the NAC main stage. Centre balcony, row 1, seat 15. He can’t wait to see the look on her face. It will erase the one that haunts him, pale and strangely unresponsive.
He doesn’t need a ticket of his own. It will be enough to see her before the lights go down.
Up there, somewhere in the unfathomable distance, the last waves throw back their great heads and collapse onto the moonless surface—the final white froths fizz and fade until there is silence. Vague, grey light scratches at the dark, salty dermis with blunted claws and broken fingernails, and fails to make a mark. Deeper, and closer, where the limbless crabs and the dead fish, with barnacled plastic soldiers in their bellies, neither float nor sink—deeper still, through the disembodied limbs of ice cold kelp that appear and disappear like phantoms, and into the skull-crushing depths where his darkest moments hide behind shipwrecks and serpents.
This is where he lies. On a mattress that is eating him. Dissolving him slowly. His chest and right cheek have already been digested. Legs, too. He is lying on a tongue of a leviathan—sinking into the stomach lining of a whale. Swallowed whole. The stench of his own fluids mixing with the creature’s juices is comforting, and his impatience is soothed by the certainty that soon all of this will be over. Liquified and liberated. Free to explore the cool oceans among the cells of this enormous beast. Together they will dive deep into the dark depths of the earth and beyond, free from sickness and pain. Rapture of the deep. Blackness behind his eyes darkens and soon everything will be shed. Left with nothing but his shadow, he will traverse the seabed safe in the company of his own, out of reach of the longest fingers and sharpest stares. Protected by this viscid water, this soft, sandy floor. A lost cargo—an old leather suitcase, adhesive disintegrating, his name and his past abraded and torn by the salt.
And as he swims through slitted eyelids, there are shouts from the search party on the other side of the mammal’s flesh. They will never find him in here. It’s too late now. Anxious, angry voices—eager to locate the foreigner lost under the sea—frustrated by the futility. There is nothing that can be done. He tries to respond, to fill his lungs, but his mouth and throat have gone the way of his chest. He thinks as loudly as he can: it’s too late.
The great whale dives and he spins slowly—legs rising, head falling, around he goes, again and again. All about him, wreckage and empty treasure chests, corpses and shoes, rags and fragments of photographs that hang amongst the seaweed and scaly carcasses in the wash of the cetacean’s warm acid. But voices still pursue him—clinging onto the dorsal fin, sobbing for him. She has followed him down here. It’s too late. Surely she must realize? No hope for him now. Urgent, desperate, meaningless words float up to the surface and away. A door clatters in its frame and a scream harpoons his dream. He lifts his head from the bed. A cry, footsteps, a distant door slams. There is little to see—a grainy dullness with occasional calcium highlights—the bones of fellow seafarers.
On Tuesday, Leroy Angoy pointed a gun through the screen door at Perry and yelled that his mom don’t want none of the candy Perry was selling, so get lost. Perry got lost. On Wednesday, worried about Snoodles, Perry had his sister Jeannette call Mrs. Angoy.
“She says come on over,” Jeannette told him over her shoulder, as she put the chicken and rice casserole in the oven, “She says Leroy ain’t home.”
“I guess he’s back from Rikers,” Perry said.
“Uh-huh,” Jeannette said. “But not for long, I bet.”
Perry was in the habit of helping Mrs. Angoy give her cat Snoodles her daily medication in a piece of chicken liver that she bought special at the Jewish deli on Flatbush.
A couple of years ago, Snoodles had shot past him when he was walking home past Mrs. Angoy’s house. She’d yelled out her window for Perry to help, and since Mrs. Angoy had gone to church with Ma before she died, he’d grabbed Snoodles and brought the cat inside, where Mrs. Angoy was fluttering around in an old blue housecoat.
Since then, Snoodles’ heart medicine was almost entirely Perry’s responsibility, because being in Mrs. Angoy’s lap only made Snoodles act up. In Perry’s lap, she purred. Perry thought he maybe might become a veterinarian someday, so it was good to get some practice in on Snoodles. The only other real animals he saw were squirrels and pigeons, or the occasional large dog that he wouldn’t go near.
He didn’t mention Leroy or his gun to Mrs. Angoy, not even when she fussed that he hadn’t shown up the day before, “after you said you would.” While she went around her tiny kitchen, opening and closing her cupboards, the fridge, even the oven, muttering about finding “a cookie or a cake” to feed him as a thank you, Perry got on to the business at hand: pill in a piece of liver, Snoodles in his lap, liver consumed, medicine administered. He was saying “Bye now” to Mrs. Angoy before she realized he was done, trying to get out before Leroy came back.
But Mrs. Angoy stopped to squint at him, opening and closing the top snap on her housecoat. She had stopped searching, even though Perry could see there was a box of Entenmann’s in the cupboard, which he wouldn’t mind as a hold-over before Jeannette’s dinner.
She asked, “How old are you now, Perry?”
She nodded once, sighed, and slammed shut the cupboard door, before shuffling off down the hall.
As he watched her go, Perry wondered if he was excused. For a moment, he stood staring at the old poster of Leroy’s basketball team, stuck up on fridge with masking tape, crooked. “2004 – 2005 Vikings” the poster said. Leroy and Jeannette had been in the same class, at the high school Perry went to now. In the photo, Leroy didn’t look so mean as he had the day before. He looked like he was working on becoming mean, though.
The sound of shuffling alerted Perry that Mrs. Angoy was returning, so he took a step towards the door. He noticed that you really couldn’t see who or what was on the other side of it, which made him feel a little better about Leroy and his gun.
Mrs. Angoy tried to hand him a little baggie of weed, holding it up in the same way she usually offered the Entenmann’s box.
“To say ‘thank you’,” she said, when she saw him hesitating.
“No, thank you, ma’am, I don’t sm—“
“Not for you to smoke,” she said. “To sell.”
He stared at her. She sighed.
“You been helping me for a long time,” she said, “And I don’t have any cash around, not enough to pay you what I should be –“
“But, Mrs. Angoy,” he said, then stopped. How could he explain this?
“Go on,” she said. “It’s good. I take it for my nerves, but I don’t need so much. Leroy said –”
But Perry never did hear what Leroy said about the weed because he walked out the door. From the step, he looked back into Mrs. Angoy’s house and saw that he was right – it was a lot easier to see in than out. And then he went home to Jeannette’s casserole.
A couple of weeks later, Jeannette told him that she had some bad news. “Snoodles had a heart attack last night,” she said. “Died in her sleep, sounds like.”
Perry nodded. He hadn’t gone back to Mrs. Angoy’s, even though he knew she wouldn’t be able to get that medicine into Snoodles herself. But, anyway, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to be a vet anymore.
On Friday night, Billy McDermiad crashed his car into a telephone pole, and left this world forever.
By Saturday afternoon, his grieving sister had already bitch-slapped the girlfriend on the Facebook memorial page, claiming the abrupt dumping of her brother had led to Billy’s actions. That, and the fact that the slut was five months gone with some other guy’s kid.
By Sunday, word was the girlfriends’ brothers had had a dust-up with Billy’s brothers over the accusation. We heard that Billy’s sister and girlfriend had done a few rounds, too, over whether it was or wasn’t suicide that Billy had been after.
No one would have been surprised if it were Billy’s drinking instead, least of all me and Trey. But since it was clear from the police report that Billy had been drinking, we’d probably never know for sure. Not that it made a difference when you were planting your kid or brother in the ground, I guess. Unless you were Catholic, like Billy’s mum was, and believed the path to Heaven was locked against you if you tried to get there on your own steam.
But Billy’s Da could give a flying fuck what the pederast Church – his words, not mine – said. “No God I believe in would pick on a poor broken soul like Billy!” his Da thundered, slamming his hand down so hard on the counter that the plates in the cabinets above rattled. The family claimed it was drunk driving and got Billy a plot in the church cemetery, anyway.
On Monday, we gathered at the church, some of us drunk on a lack of sleep or sorrow, some of us just drunk. As Billy’s best friends, Mr. McDermiad wanted me and Trey to be casket bearers. I felt I owed it to Billy not to stumble, so I held back my tears. At his corner, Trey kept his head bowed as we navigated the aisle and steps, but I felt how the quiet hiccups of his tears unsteadied the coffin balanced on his shoulder.
I think I was the only one who looked at Deirdre and her brothers when we went by them at the back of the church. Her eyes and mouth pinched dark as Trey, then the coffin, then I moved by. She wilted against her brother’s side as we passed. Maybe it was respect for Father Overby, but none of Billy’s family even acknowledged Dee’s presence at the church.
I worried about the cemetery, though, and I was glad when Dee, who’d never let anyone tell her what to do, showed the good sense to stand back from the grave. Even with his wrist in a sling, Billy’s younger, Ned, spat at their feet as he passed. When Dee’s brother stepped forward, his bony fist clenched, I saw Dee lay a hand on his arm to stop him. He looked a question at her, and she shook her head, and he fell back into line with her and the rest of her clan.
No surprise in that, either. She always did get what she wanted, I thought, bowing my head over the Our Father at the graveside. Then we were all distracted by Billy’s sister, who practically threw herself after the coffin, wailing her brother’s name. They were twins, you see, and I guess that putting Billy in the ground was like burying part of herself. Her Old World grief unsettled the lot of us; a bunch of the mourners began crying as she clawed at the loose dirt next to the grave, though Mr. McDermiad stood red-faced, like he was holding his breath, and Mrs. McDermiad just stared straight ahead at the horizon, never looking at the hole in front of her.
Over the mourners’ shoulders, I saw Deirdre wipe her nose with the back of her thin wrist. When she lowered her arm, her hand came to rest on her belly where the swelling had only recently become noticeable.
Next to me, Trey continued to shake. I threw one arm around his shoulders protectively. It felt to me like the burden of his sorrow was so great he would never be able to lift his eyes from the ground again. For sure, he’d never be able to look at Deirdre again.
Over everyone’s heads, I saw how Deirdre watched Trey, patient and sure. Then she caught me looking at her. Her face went stony and defiant, her fingers twitched on her belly. I looked away, but not before I sent a silent message to her through the expectant air between us.
Go figure it out, Dee. Go figure it out, ‘cause this time you’re not going to get what you want.
so much white
The blankness shudders under a rapid staccato noise.
A paint roller, dripping red, glides across in diagonal.
wait, wrong. you’re supposed to go up and down.
supposed to be yellow.
A gash appears in the wall. She is pushed through it, up to the heavy surface. More shots and then a shout: Yeah!
She may have said his name out loud, or just thought it.
She struggles out of sheets snaked around her body, while a thick white ocean still swirls around her. Her bare feet touch cool hardwood. Her legs falter under shifting weight, body not yet under control, as she stumbles into the dark hallway. Their house is new and empty, no carpets: sound ricochets like a child’s ball. They’d moved into the new subdivision just two weeks ago, the first and only ones on the crescent. So new that sidewalks haven’t even yet gone in. Everything still mud.
he always plays that stupid game so loud.
She rouses her voice, hoarse.
Another spray of gunfire, the gun reloads, and a triumphant laugh. The soles of her feet squeak along the glossy wooden floor. She passes the spare room. In her head, the thought blooms: We’re painting the baby’s room yellow. Yellow: bright, happy, and gender neutral. Who knows if they’ll have a boy or girl. Who knows if she’ll even get pregnant. But they are painting the room anyway—a signal to the universe that they’re finally ready.
Jamie! she calls at the top of the stairs. Turn it down! But her voice is covered by other ones, digital ones that speak a stiff drama between plays.
The dream’s wall of white still presses down on her. All she’s been doing since they’ve moved in is painting walls: now she’s even dreaming of them. When they’d arrived, the house’s walls were a cold blue-white, like the snow outside, and on a sunny day the inside of the house was blinding. She’d found a gentler shade, pearly with a bit of pink and gray called White Collar. Every day has been painting, painting. Her arms and shoulders ache.
She reaches the main floor and switches on the light. The microwave clock reads 3:30 a.m.
Maybe Jamie couldn’t sleep. The game sounds carry on from the basement. She probably won’t get back to sleep now either. They might as well finish painting the baby’s room. She is relieved to be painting with a whole other colour. An escape from white.
have i been painting with yellow?
Her padding steps echo throughout the empty main floor. The living room has no furniture yet, only an array of boxes and a lamp with no shade set down on the floor. She reaches the top of the basement steps, blinks at the darkness there.
Reload, reload, a voice urges.
Something is wrong. But her hand reaches out for the switch, her legs move anyway. Her skin recoils as she descends into icy basement air.
As the room comes into view, the last shreds of white blow away. She remembers. The phone call. The hospital. His red car. Crumpled, like a piece of tinfoil. And the baby’s room, not yellow, but wide blank white.
She tried to straighten her thoughts, give them some order and linearity, and when that didn’t work she tried to imagine herself elsewhere, on a mountain or coast far from the city, rather than on the Central line with its erratic movement and office-bound passengers and the prickly silence of those torn from sleep. She and her mother had been lucky to find seats; at that hour the tube was nearly full, a geometric overload of skirts and suits, and wherever she turned she saw freshly combed hair and painted faces and newspapers and briefcases all vying for space.
“You know, you could have died.” Her mother lowered her voice in the hope that none of the other passengers would hear.
“Well the point is, I didn’t.”
“You nearly did.”
“Don’t you have a sweater in your bag?”
“I gave it away.”
“You gave it away?”
“This morning. To one of the nurses.”
With something close to nostalgia, N. thought back on the small room she’d just left behind, its itchy grey blanket and sweat-faded sheets, and the dent in the wall, courtesy of a former patient, in which her own fist had fit perfectly. Now that she’d left she found herself missing the kind female voices that roused her each morning, voices that for a few seconds invoked the promise of a new life, voices she preferred to that of her mother’s. And she thought back too on the strange dreams she’d had, dangerous and ornate, dreams unlike the ones outside. And then the wallpaper: red and white stripes connecting floor to ceiling, heaven to hell. There was a window, always locked, but as a view N. preferred the walls and the ceiling since they didn’t present any mocking beyond.
In the seat in front of her sat a boy wearing headphones. She hadn’t heard any music in five weeks, she realised, not a note. As soon as she got home she would listen to… everything. Thousands and thousands of songs. She’d go through them all, one by one, day and night, an endless carousel of memories, welcome and unwelcome, round and round, that melodic loop of acceptances and rejections, tiny triumphs and huge disasters. In the clinic, what she’d feared the most was the loss of her memories; now, she was willing to keep them all.
“Which sweater was it?
“Just a sweater.”
“I hope not one of the nice ones I bought you last month.”
“They won’t be on sale again. You won’t have one like that again.”
She shrugged a second time.
“She must have been a very nice nurse to deserve a sweater like that.”
“Yes, she was nice and kind and brought me tea whenever I wanted.”
“Shouldn’t they do that anyway?”
“Well, they don’t.”
Her mother shook her head and mumbled something to herself, as if running a few mental maths, trying to assess whether she had possibly, in this latest guilt venture, been taken for a ride.
N. looked down at her hands, which had nearly recovered their delicate form. There’d been a point when she hadn’t recognized them, they were so purple and swollen she feared they would break off and drift away, the palms puffy and indistinct, a fortune-teller’s nightmare. And then she wondered, as she rubbed them together, what had happened to her gloves, a beautiful pair her grandmother once knit, dark blue with grey borders. They’d begun to feel tight so she’d stowed them away, but where? Well, it didn’t matter, what was gone was gone. Just as long as no one touched her records, the only belongings N. swore to herself she would never sell off. This past year everything, pretty much everything, had gone up in smoke, part of an amazing alchemical transformation of base metal into gold.
She couldn’t help but keep an eye on the doors. Instinct. Each time they opened and closed at a station, an opportunity came and went.
At the next stop two men clutching paper bags from McDonald’s got on. The carriage filled up with the tantalizing smell of french fries.
“I’m cold and I’m hungry.”
“I’ll make you something when we get home.”
“That’s ages away.”
Her mother looked up at the map on the wall. “Only twelve more stops.”
“And then the bus.”
“There shouldn’t be traffic at this hour.”
“I don’t see why we couldn’t take a cab.”
“A cab would’ve cost the same as a day at the clinic.”
“Then think of all the money I’m saving you by leaving now.”
“I just hope Dr. Reid knew what he was talking about when he said you were ready to come home.”
Coming home: once upon a time, quite a while ago now, this phrase was like a magic potion, but the word ‘home’ had now been attached to so many spaces, it’d lost all currency. Each year it had referred to somewhere else, to a different scenario, a different roof, a different set of faces: the rented flat in Bow, the rented flat in Seven Sisters, the family house in Mexico before her mother went off with the Englishman, and of course the string of clinics where she’d been sent after the first so-called intervention.
At Oxford Circus half the carriage disembarked, leaving room for the dozens of passengers who clambered on. Nearly everyone found a seat and those who didn’t grabbed onto the bright red poles and handrails as the tube began to pull out of the station. N. rubbed her arm and thought back on the handsome new patient who’d arrived at the clinic two days earlier. She could still visualise him perfectly, ambling down the corridor with his combed-back hair and long-sleeved turtleneck, no track marks visible, only the familiar scent of melancholy. It was his fourth time there, the nurses said, and they doubted it would be the last. He’d looked over in her direction once or twice, at least she thought he had… If her mother hadn’t arrived so early that morning they might have spoken.
“Twitch, twitch, twitch,” her mother interrupted the reverie. “Twitch twitch twitch. I thought they’d ironed all the twitches out of you.”
“I set some aside for the journey home.”
Yes, her mother had tried. But only for a few months and not hard enough. Her attempts were half-hearted, mechanical, and she’d been careless – forgetting to dispose of expired medication, leaving earrings and banknotes within view, passing on phone calls that should have been screened: endless temptations for the easily tempted. She hadn’t tried as hard as some of the other mothers, at least according to the stories people shared, and she certainly hadn’t been very present in the early days, when N. had desperately needed her.
It was at Chancery Lane that the pigeon flew in, right into the carriage in a clean diagonal sweep, a whisk of all four seasons compressed into one. It was a large pigeon, slate grey with reddish eyes and white-tipped wings, and it entered at the last possible second before the doors banged shut and the tube recommenced its journey.
One moment it had been on a vaulted platform with friends, the next, it found itself alone with the other species inside a closed space in motion. Almost immediately, with the first awkward movements of the tube, the bird turned into a dervish of feathers, panic and confusion. People ducked and dispersed yet it still managed to graze a few heads and shoulders. Two startled young women rose from their seats and hurried to the opposite end of the car. Someone waved a handbag.
The pigeon flapped this way and that and N. caught a glimpse of its underwing, of an inverse serenity, light powdery grey. Each stroke of its wings released a slight breeze, the breeze of hundreds of flights across the city.
“Ssssss,” someone hissed when the bird came too near.
After about a minute or two of useless histrionics, the pigeon seemed to calm down and landed on the floor with a thick, clumsy thud. It surveyed the area and then headed enthusiastically in the direction of the men with bags from McDonald’s. One of them stamped his boot and muttered something in a foreign language. The pigeon backed off.
N. and her mother watched on. The other passengers watched too. No one spoke, no one moved. All eyes were on the bird.
At St. Paul’s, a station N. rarely used, a woman with a dark ponytail got on and took an empty seat near them, straightening out her skirt as she sat down. The woman pulled a novel out from her bag, cracked the spine wide open, and turned to the first page. When the pigeon pecked at something near her feet, she simply moved them a few inches to the left without looking up from her book.
When had she last read? She couldn’t remember. She’d started countless books, of that she was sure, novels and biographies and even some poetry. But despite the warm glow that came out of the pages she would doze off before long and find herself, hours later, with the book in her lap or at her feet, and she’d put it aside and pick up the next one, and this too, she realised, was an endless carousel, though instead of a whole variety of memories the main memory the books brought back was of herself as a student before she dropped out of university, and of her prodigious concentration, remarked on by everyone, and her proud rows of 10’s.
Swoosh, swoosh. The pigeon was back in the air and had begun flapping more frantically than ever. It circled a pole, zipped down the carriage, zipped back near where N. and her mother were sitting. People would hastily make way for it, clearing a path for its desperation, but it didn’t want to see. At one point mid-tunnel it flew into a darkened window and was thrown to the floor for a few seconds before resuming its flight.
At the next station N. grabbed a sports section that had been left behind and tried to usher the bird out but it grew even more flustered and headed in the opposite direction just as the doors were closing.
“He prefers it in here, where it’s warm,” someone said. No one laughed.
At Liverpool Street a serious-looking man in a pinstriped suit strode on and sat directly across from them, the aroma of McDonald’s replaced by the confident reign of cologne. The man was hefty, with cheeks bearing the flush of countryside and pale blue eyes that with one glance sized up the other passengers. He set down his briefcase, wedging it between his polished black shoes, and unfolded the newspaper he had under his arm. Soon all N. could see were shoes, large knuckles and knees and the outspread wings of the Financial Times.
“By the way,” her mother turned to her, “We’ve decided you’re going to Mexico for a year.”
For the first time since her last fix, she was aware of the blood circulating through her body.
“You’re going to live with your father. We’ve discussed it and agree it’s the best option.”
“I’m happy here.”
“You know you’re not. This is your last chance.”
There’d been many last chances; she was nearing the end of her supply.
“What will I do there?”
“You’ll live with your father and start thinking a little more seriously about the future.”
“Of course, the future…”
Little by little, it had come to represent nothing more than a shadowy road lit by fireflies, lined on either side by the silhouettes of people and possibilities that would remain just that: silhouettes.
The woman reading the novel let out a small cry. The pigeon had flown past a little too close, brushing her cheek. In a delayed response she waved a hand in front of her face and leaned back as far as she could but there was no need, it had already flapped away. A grey feather zigzagged to the floor.
“Three more stops,” said N.’s mother.
It was shortly after she said this, N. would never forget, that the pigeon flew right into the centre of the Financial Times. Without blinking, the man in the pinstriped suit lay down his paper and within what seemed like a fraction of a second, grabbed the bird – the whole carriage was now watching – and with his fat knuckles snapped its neck. It was a clean snap, expertly done, as if he’d been snapping birds’ necks his entire life.
One second the pigeon had been tense and aquiver, the next, an immobile lump of grey. Whatever its journey across the city had been, it ended here. The man deposited the corpse on the empty seat next to him, picked up his paper and continued to read.
The act was met with silence. Everyone simply stared at the dead bird, just stared and stared, as if pooled together the intensity of their gaze might resurrect it.
For a few seconds N. fought the impulse to pick up the pigeon and take it outside to bury – the sanitation people would surely just toss it in a bin – but the thought of touching the thing made her queasy. She imagined what it would feel like to hold the feathery corpse, still warmed by its recent life force, and wasn’t sure what was more overpowering, her distress at witnessing such brutality or the guilty flicker of revulsion she’d begun to feel.
As if in quiet defeat, the pigeon’s head lay to one side like the emblem on a fallen coat of arms. Its eye had almost immediately turned white, or perhaps it was the eyelid that had closed, and its legs, already stiff, looked like little pink twigs that could easily break off.
N. turned to look at her mother, who continued staring at the bird, willing her to say something, anything. But no, she kept whatever she was thinking to herself, hands in lap, fingers interlocked.
At the following station, which was open air, the businessman folded his paper, picked up his briefcase and stepped out. The doors of the tube took a few moments to close, and as they stuttered N. gazed out at the sky and the platform and the spaces in between, seized by the urge to grab her bag and run for it, in whatever direction opened up to her. But she remained in her seat and with one strong tug unzipped her jacket, for the temperature inside the carriage suddenly felt very warm
In the house where I was born and grew up, the final unexplored frontier, the last stronghold of the old west, the ultimate wild territory was my father’s study, a narrow annex attached to the rest of the property, with olive-coloured walls and moth-eaten furniture, that he used to sequester himself away at night and drink when we lived beneath the same roof and which, after he abandoned us to go to Cancún to work as the manager of an “all inclusive,” my mother filled with chairs, tables, sofas and bookcases, as if that chamber were a mouth she had to muzzle. Then she closed the door, locking it with a key, and didn’t speak of her husband again.
The house belongs to my mother. She inherited it and she decorated it, with the compulsive attention of the unemployed, choosing identical sheets for our beds, the same tapestry wallpaper for all the walls, and baskets full of plastic fruit for the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room. If my brother or I took just one of those fruits and moved it from its position, my mother noticed in less time than the blink of an eye and took us to task. Where did you put my peach? What have you done with my lemons? That melon goes upside down. The pineapple goes in the other basket.
My father left without taking anything with him. I always imagined his flight in fast motion, as if it were part of a caricature, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. A few months after abandoning us, he sent a letter in which he asked our forgiveness for not having said goodbye, assuring us that this new work opportunity would benefit all of us and promising to visit us in February, the off season. Months later we received another letter, congratulating us because soon we would have a little sibling. He had just met his new wife, he told us. Come and visit. You’ll like her, you’ll see.
My mother didn’t touch this subject, but my aunt Elda lost no time in offering her opinion. First he goes off with that slut from work, he knocks her up, and then invites you to Cancún, is that right, Sergio? she asked me, as if I knew what she was talking about and had also drunk four tequilas. Those are chingaderas, my boy. On your heads if you go to see that cynic.
We didn’t go to see him, nor did we talk about the matter between us. My brother began to sleep in my mother’s room, on the carpet on one side of the bed, whereas every afternoon I snuck into the study through the window and, more than delving into the things my father left behind, I inhabited that space as if it were mine. I kept comics, my homework notebooks and sweets in my knapsack, and tried to entertain myself there, among the mountains of furniture and appliances.
I never managed to last more than ten minutes before running back home. At twelve, I was certain that something malignant dwelled in there and that the only way to face it was to have an accomplice who accompanied me.
I convinced my brother to venture in there with me during a family meal one Sunday afternoon, while my mother and my aunts played cards and drank in the living room. Elda’s two daughters, her newborn baby and a two year old girl who had not learned how to talk, slept in my room, and the daughter of the recently-divorced Beatriz had gone on a trip with her father. My brother and I were the only children in a house where the adults paid no attention to us and we were forbidden to watch television. Bored, I challenged him to go into the study with me.
Four years younger than me, my brother was always stick-thin and stuttered, with the sharp features and nervous gestures of a squirrel. He was a boy wracked by incomprehensible fears. My mother couldn’t leave him alone in the car for more than a minute without him beginning to whine like the teakettle, not even the juiciest bribe managed to convince him to get onto the swings, and he wouldn’t eat anything but roast beef and rice with ketchup. I also had fears (what boy of twelve doesn’t?), but they weren’t as obvious nor as absurd as his. He cried when he was left alone; I asked my mother to get out of my room and leave me alone. He trembled in fear the moment he placed one foot on a carousel; I got into the first car of the roller coaster. He refused to try anything new; I asked for a double portion of giblets – even if afterwards I went to the bathroom to throw them up in secret.
Where are you going, kids? Elda asked us when she saw us heading toward the garden. She clutched a small crystal horse in her hand and played cards barefoot, the soles of her feet grey with dust.
We’re going to climb the jacaranda, I answered. My mother looked away from the game and asked my brother to put a sweater on. She asked me to take care of him when we went out. Don’t force Carlitos to climb if he doesn’t want to.
The jacaranda, denuded and dying, was two metres tall. Perhaps it would have grown higher if the garden, a muddy space hardly larger than our bedroom, would have allowed. Behind it, through a narrow hallway where my mother kept the pruning shears, a shovel and a pitchfork, was the study.
Why do you tell lies? my brother asked me, stuttering, as if asking a question were an aggression.
They don’t care what we do, I answered him, without looking him in the face, while I pushed the cold glass of the window inwards.
Barely inside, my brother tensed all his muscles, beat his hands against his chest and began to whine: let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here, let’s get out of here. It was a sunny afternoon, the sky clear of clouds, and the light that filtered through the window revealed a thick patina of unsettled dust. The room had the smell of a public lavatory, barely disguised by the scent of a chain smoker.
Did you piss yourself? I asked my brother, although I knew that the scent of urine was too persistent and rancid to have come from him. He patted his crotch. Of course not, he said, his tongue stumbling on the consonants.
We walked between the furniture along the route that I had opened, myself, on those afternoons on which I escaped from the house to go to the study to eat sweets and read comics. I asked him to be careful, time after time, as if the objects around us were still in use: a torn wicker armchair, a wardrobe with the doors open, plastic bag after bag filled with clothes, and, on the floor, under one leg of the desk, my father’s college degree, in Accounting, with his hair gelled back, his cheeks clean-shorn, and his eyes wide open, possibly surprised by the camera’s flash. I didn’t remember ever seeing him so serious. My father always laughed, he was always telling jokes, tickling us; he was always disguised as a smiling dad.
Did you hear that, my brother asked. I placed my index fingers to my lips and asked him to be quiet. I listened to the distant murmur of my mother and her sisters chatting in the living room as they played and, then, I heard a short, sharp squeak, the acoustic equivalent of a pinch. The moment we became quiet, the squeaking multiplied. It sound like a choral tantrum. In miniature, the sound reminded me of my own brother, crying like a little girl because my mother had forgotten to come pick us up from school.
He begged me not to look for where the sound was coming from, but I didn’t pay him any attention. I put my shoulder to the wall, facing the chair where I always sat, full of crumbs and candy wrappers, and with an effort I pushed it toward the middle of the room. Suddenly, the squeaks became clearer. What was crying was there, inside or beneath the leather armchair, just one metre from us.
I slipped into the gap that had opened between the back of the chair and the wall, I crouched down on my knees, stuck my hand in between the ground and the bottom of the chair, rested my cheek against a spongey mat and peeked at what was under there.
I pulled back immediately, so quickly that I banged my neck against the wall behind me. What is it? What is it? What is it? my brother asked, also moving back like a crab, his foot breaking the glass frame of the diploma.
Come and see, I told him. Take a peek.
I don’t want to.
Don’t be a sissy, dude. Come on.
I let him pass by, so that he was closer. Then we crouched down at the same time. This time I didn’t stick my hand inside the chair, out of fear that those things might bite me. I only stretched out my index finger and pointed to the mound of tiny little bodies, all pink and skin, piled one on top of the other on a bundle of paper and cotton. Each the size of my pinkie, the animals moved in restless spasms, with a repulsive clumsiness. They didn’t look like newborn animals but instead creatures in their final throes, about to die.
What are they? he asked me, placing the palm of his hand over mine.
I withdrew my hand, pulling away from him. What do you mean what are they? They’re rats. What else would they be?
We need to tell Mom, he said, standing up.
What for? You want her to yell at you for coming in here?
My brother assured me that rats were dangerous. They infect you with rabies, he said. That’s what Michael, his only friend, had told him.
They’re just babies. They’re not going to do anything, I told him, trying to calm him down, but I couldn’t convince him. He climbed out through the window and headed straight into the house. When I reached him, he was in the middle of recounting the anecdote. Exaggerating, like always, my brother swore to my mother that the nest was immense, that there were hundreds of rats, that the entire place reeked of animal excrement.
I thought that my mother would get mad when she discovered that we had gone into the study that she herself had locked with a key, but apparently the nest was a more urgent problem to deal with than the mischief of her sons. Elda went to my bedroom, to check on her daughters, while Beatriz and my mother left their cards on the table and went out into the garden.
We followed them towards the study.
My mother opened the door, followed by her sister, who pinched her nose shut with two fingers. Jijos, Beatriz exclaimed, those damned rats have already gotten into everything. You can tell just from the smell.
I accompanied them inside, happy not to be alone and, above all, happy that the most boring afternoon of the week had turned into a hunting expedition. My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm. He remained outside, standing beneath the jacaranda, as if he were hugging himself.
I’ve seen them now, my mother said, peeking under the chair. Sergio, go to the kitchen and bring back a broom, a dustpan and a plastic bag, OK?
Excited, I obeyed. I returned with my hands full, stumbling against the broom my mother had asked for. My brother remained outside, while Beatriz and Elda shifted the furniture around the armchair.
What are you going to do? I asked them.
My mother spoke. We’re going to stick them in the bag and throw them out into the street, she told me.
The operation consisted of four stages. First, Elda and Beatriz moved the armchair away from the wall. Then, my mother put the dustpan on the floor and swept the nest toward it. Finally, she lifted the dustpan and dumped its contents into the bag. From the moment my aunts pushed the first piece of furniture, the little things didn’t stop squealing, sounding increasingly more pitiful with each cry. As my mother took the bag out to the garden, I saw them moving backlit against the plastic, indistinguishable from each other, like an amorphous and pulsating mass. I didn’t stop smiling, but I began to feel disgusted.
Elda, grab the shovel, my mother said.
The shovel? What do you need the shovel for? I asked.
By this time, my brother had already hidden behind the tree.
My mother tied a knot in the bag, placed it on the ground, took the shovel with both hands and, in a single circular movement, lifted it upwards and then let it fall, directly on the tiny animals. You could hear a damp, squirting sound, like a tomato squished between your fingers. A tiny squeak could still be heard, until my mother lifted the shovel again and, with the flat side, banged and banged and banged the bag until its contents no longer seemed to be made up of tiny rats but instead a puddle of brown paint.
The friction of the shovel against the ground had torn the bag. Chunks of viscera and purple foetal skin poked through a hole. My brother began to cry and ran inside the house, covering his eyes with his forearm. My mother pushed her hair behind her ears and asked me to help her throw the remains into the trash.
I picked up the bag, surprised at how little it weighed, and carried it to the garage, leaving behind a dribbled trail of blood along the way. I thought to open the bag before throwing it away. It wasn’t the morbid impulse of someone who looked out of a car window when passing a traffic accident. I wanted to see if some rat were still alive. I untied the knot, I couldn’t help it. Inside, the bodies were all mixed together in a bulbous paste of skin, sinew, organs, and a fresh red, almost warm. I saw the little feet of one, the grey eyes of another, the tail of a third. I don’t know why, but I felt a tightness in my throat. Then I threw the bag into the garbage can, among the scraps of food and empty milk cartons.
When I went back inside, my mother congratulated me for having found the nest. Elda served herself another tequila. Beatriz lit a cigarette. My brother cried in the bathroom.
I stopped visiting my father’s study, even when my mother turned it into a game room, a guest room, a gym, and finally, now married to my stepfather, a bar.
Many years passed before I could break free from the memory of those rats. First I imagined them alive, wandering around the nest, and then dead, asphyxiated, rotting in the bag. Then I began to think of their mother, who we never found. I was sure that she was still there, enormous and hurt, hidden among the pipes of the house, spying on me from a corner of the living room, ready to exact vengeance. I dreamed that she slipped inside my bed and, little by little, with patience, she gnawed away my fingers while I slept.
Carlos died at 17 in a highway accident.
I graduated with a degree in Accounting. I got married. Had two daughters.
I should be afraid of human beings, but the only thing I’m afraid of is rats.
Translation by Lawrence Schimel
It’s the type of business where those with a PhD are the unprepared ones; they had to go to school and waste their time while the rest embraced universal culture without aides and from an early age. Frankly, there are assistants who are quite simple and accountants with mental retardation but overall employees have a terrific intellectual calibre.
The best are those who didn’t even finished High School. As an example there is this one who wanted to become a professional football player. He had some success at a youngster’s league team but his father, an engineer, prevented him going further. He then read every book, admired every painting and listened to every record he bumped into; just to contravene his dad. He ended up incapable of joining any other sort of industry. There is this other one, who retired yesterday in a hurry, who is able to translate in six different languages; she’s invented two perfumes and during her free time she writes advisory papers for the development of Brazilian aerospace programs. There is a Chilean who sees series of figures in action where for the rest of us there’s only a bicycle, for example. He asks: what is the basic ingredient in your bike’s alienation; titanium or aluminium? One responds: Aluminium, why? He looks up, closing his left eye, and adds: 28.3 kilometres an hour without considering slopes; not bad. He’s spent his life turning cultural entrepreneurs into millionaires; by visiting their shops and studying the relevant yellow pages he is able to advise on investments since he already knows how much will be sold during their first year. However his true speciality, in which he never fails, is Thomism; he discusses Councils as if discussing restaurants and he’s a Jew. There’s a physicist who invents motors at his own place. He can distinguish errata just by looking at a document and left the movie industry at 20 after concluding Godard, for whom he worked doing research, was Maoist not out of conviction but stupidity.
It was on all those people’s computer screens that the decisive email inviting the entire personnel to attend the Second Evaluation Meeting on ISO 9000 advancements appeared. In the company all of us understood the partners’ upsetting fixation with our way of getting things done and the sad confusion of the Director General, recently arrived from his MBA and Milky Way’s rotation; so we were polite but condescending and foolish at the same time. Nobody spoke on time to stop the Certification process, maybe it was never possible to do so since the Director had learnt through his private university ministerial teachers those communication strategies of the revolutionary General type that sometimes are mixed up with political ability. When we realized it, the several thousand dollar contract was a reality; a deal with the most unlikely basic group of hustlers on Earth. We had nurtured the monster with a funny attendance at the Total Quality workshops and when we were called to attend the First Evaluation Meeting many amongst us had something else to do. Only the accountants, the secretaries, the janitors and the Director General attended; hence the scarcely veiled ferocity of the Second Meeting invitation. We thought of our kids, of our medical insurance, of the gas coupons, and ran to them en masse.
As usual, there were coffee and nibbles at the entrance. Apparently that’s part of every hustler’s manual: you don’t have to be a charmer just badly pretend to be one and offer coffee and nibbles. We ate them happily chatting in the auditorium’s hall while waiting for the Director General to arrive, always behind his tie which he would wear tomorrow to Wall Street and the one he wore yesterday to the City of London, we proved that scientifically. None of us conceived entering the auditorium before the Meeting started, busy as we were eating the hustlers’ nibbles. Had we done that the smartest amongst us might had given an alarm signal and we would have escaped in order to form an ironic resistance, this time around voluntarily speaking. The tornado Director passed in front of us ten minutes late for the Meeting, cooling our coffees, and we entered the auditorium behind him.
Seats were displayed by Project or Management Offices. There were groups of seats labelled under handmade banners: a broom stick with a paper note announcing Humanities, Sciences, Cutting edge Research, Philosophy and Arts; or Maintenance, Finance, Purchases. Each banner included a crowning, ferocious animal. In our case it was a wolf, we envied the Humanities team, the favourite ones, who had the jaguar. You were to sit under your banner next to the rest of the team of your office, which in our case included a secretary, an errand boy, two assistants and a sizeable group of doctors and people way too illustrated to deserve a PhD.
It started with an extravagant speech, apparently inspirational, by one of the hustlers, who showed very weird images on his computer. Cartoons of Americans, or people of the sort; all were either blonde or black; measuring graphics or working in front of their desks next to what seemed like a ventilator at top speed. What the speech really inspired was laughs, but all of us restrained ourselves because we are quite polite and because the previous afternoon we thought of our kids, our gas coupons and our medical insurance. We were invited to commit to Top Quality as if it was really hot or cooked great. At the climax of the speech, the General Director looked at the sky – or at the ceiling since we were inside an auditorium – and asked who were we tied to. Tradition? noted someone from the Arts Office timidly. An uncomfortable silence followed. Surely it was one of the seven people that failed the anonymous ISO exam the previous week. No, he said, we are tied to our client. Then I remembered one of the workshop sessions where we were told there were internal and external clients. For over forty minutes we discussed who was whose client within the company. At a certain point someone gave the example, if I go for lunch to my house at the end of the month and bring along my monthly salary who is the client? Me or my wife? The hustler said it was the wife; someone from the Human Resources Office thought it was the husband; a somewhat naïve and disoriented girl from the Cutting Edge Research Office said it was actually the children. What if there are no children? insisted the sensitive one. The Chilean intervened to calm the waters, and ask us to continue – the hustlers, like parking lots, charged on an hourly basis – and answer the following question as homework: how may clients fit onto a pin’s head?
After the Director’s speech we listened to those of the managers, quite funny frankly; it was obvious none of them had a clue except for the sales manager who was always clear about who was whose client. Later on, they organized an award ceremony in which the guy next to me got a pen without really knowing the reason for it. We applauded vigorously.
It was then that we learnt how to stand on our own feet; we who thought so highly of ourselves. We were buttoning our jackets and getting ready to go back to our cubicles to share ironies when they turn off the lights. There was confusion, a feeling we were getting used to. Then there was fear, not because of the dark but because of our medical insurance and the gas coupons of the technicians in charge of the event. The screen lit up with the company’s logo, Wagner was coming out of the sound system and we watched images of ourselves in our desks mixed with images of athletes breaking world records and climbers dominating mountains. Jesus! came out of the mouths of the most agnostic Philosophy fundamentalists. A spotlight set on the centre of the podium illuminating the hustlers’ leader, the only interesting one of them because of his obvious hypocrisy. He asked us for a war cry; he asked it of us, who thought heaven looks like a library. The downside of it is we thought again of our cars without gas and of our kids deprived of insurance and then we gave in. Once more, he said, and we followed suit. Once again, another one, once more. Now close your eyes and hold hands with each other. No, one of the oldest ones yelled. Yes, he said; feel the power of music, feel the power of music, feel the power of music. And we did. After three or four minutes of this nightmare during which the only thing we felt was the sweaty hands of the secretary and the errand boy, he screamed: synergy has been done. Lights came back. Those who believed in the miracle applauded.
The rest of us lined up and left the auditorium in pain, following our banners. We were prisoners of war. What we had always been and never noticed for thinking so high of ourselves, immersed in our books. Or maybe what everyone knew but no one dared to tell us: the radiant loot of a secular faction.
Translation by Diego Gómez Pickering
Sunlight (Your Son’s), Fury (Yours), Shame (Mine) and Fatigue (the Additional Person’s)
You guys were at the pier that afternoon checking out the seagulls, and I guess maybe at a certain point you felt my look on you because you turned away from the seagulls to look at me. We were standing only a few feet away from each other. I was inside one of those concrete enclosures they stagger along the pier to give people some privacy who want to take in an undisturbed view of the bay. You could only see my head, maybe my shoulders, because from your perspective, standing on the pier, the rest of me would have been shielded behind the enclosure.
You nodded hello. I nodded hello back. From beside your knee your young son’s look said to you, “Would it be OK, Dad, if I also say hello to this man whose lower body is shielded from our eyes by the concrete enclosure, this man whose body is, oddly, facing away from the bay?”
An additional moment passed between us. It was during this additional moment that I think you maybe came to intuit there was an additional person seated on the bench below me within the concrete enclosure, and that the goings-on down there between the additional person and the lower part of my body were shielded from you and your son and the other piergoers for a reason.
A pair of seagulls glided by overhead. Your son’s eyes followed mine. I shielded the sun with one hand, pointed up with the other.
“Look!” I said. “Seagulls!”
Something you couldn’t have known, but the detail that remains most vivid for me whenever I pore over my memory of that afternoon, as I often do, is that when I looked back down from the seagulls to regard the three pairs of eyes peering back into mine, I noted that each pair—in addition, I could feel, to my own pair—had begun watering.
That’s what the title of this thing is talking about. Those are the reasons our eyes were watery alongside a parenthetical indicating which pair of eyes belongs to that reason.
In The Water
We are naked and in the water when Liz, who has the idea first, throws the ball in a high glittering arc over Sara’s head. Sara who doesn’t dare reach and risk exposing a shiny wet breast. Modest Sara who turns first, giving us her nude back, silver-slick with lake water and moonlight, before sloshing after the ball. Liz, with the movement of her hands and the urgency of thought, conducts us and we, girls and boys kicking naked in the water, receive her psychic transmission and, with one mind and motion, duck beneath the soft curl of surf.
No one counts for us, but we count together, telepathically, with one rhythm. Hours might be passing in the dry world above us. We won’t surface until we have to, until we all have to. When we do, we laugh as we explode up out of the water at the joke that passed between us that we all miraculously have just enough breath for. But Sara is a gray shape against the shore, every hanging part of her pulling pathetically through white sand to crawl into the tent we all share.
Fuck Sara, we say with our eyes in the moonlight. We didn’t want her here in the first place. Who invited her? Liz, we think. By mistake, she tells us. And by then it was too late to tell her no; we’ve gotten enough grief for being “bitches” as is. And the boys were too polite to say it; we must get new, better boys. We will let her pout while we swim. We let the boys come only so close, just enough to hear each others’ voices without shouting, before wheeling away, shy, clutching our breasts. The boys are careful. They never come close enough to touch us or each other.
We make the boys wait in the water while we make shore and dress. We are cold and sobering and this is our last night before returning home, so we decide to make peace. Liz goes first into the tent to make her apologies to Sara, to see, in not these words exactly, what the fuck her problem is. She comes right back out again. Sara isn’t there. Sara has told us the story of being kidnapped when she was little, riding in cars with a stranger for days before someone who paid attention to Amber Alerts and was used to seeing children’s faces on cartons of milk, saw her on the news then later in a station wagon in a Food Lion parking lot. That is what our mind goes to immediately. The boys come hesitantly to shore, cupping their junk, but, when we tell them what’s, missing their hands fly to flashlights and pocket knifes and car keys, their dicks bouncing until we hand them their shorts.
We walk up and down the beach, calling her name. We look for strange footprints, but they’re all strange to us. We check among the tall dry grass of the dunes, but it is vast, like the lake’s twin. Liz and one of the boys take a car and drive up and down the country road. They stop at the nearest gas station, thirty minutes from our spot on the beach, and ask if anyone has seen anything. They have not.
The light is coming up on our last morning camping on Lake Michigan. We consider that she has drowned. No one knows who to contact, who to tell. We are her only friends that we know of. We decided to call no one. We have spent the night sober, fucking no one, daring nothing, and then Sara comes walking out of the dunes like some kind of holy apparition. We can’t help but stare at her. Liz and the boy she took with her come down the hill just in time for her return. Liz is relieved. She comes running to join us at Sara’s feet, and she feels what we feel. A brief reconnecting of the oneness we shared in the water in the dark. We are pissed. How does it feel? Sara asks us. Her nose is in the air. We are standing in a loose circle in the sand at the bottom of the dune when Liz, who has the most to lose, grabs up a bleached length of driftwood and swings. No one stops her. We all get our licks in. There is blood on us all by the end.
Andromeda waves her rust-caked chains and screams up at the sky. She imagines her pleas, carried by the wind and spiced with sea-salt, flung into the town, the market place, the windows of houses and the church. Sometimes she even bleats like a goat, though she doubts the townsfolk appreciate the satire. They probably imagine that 48 days on a rock has shattered her mind. Apparently there are small clay likenesses of her for sale in the marketplace; some take them home and eye them furtively, others feel protected by her presence on their sill. Trouble – which might slap at any time, depending on the whim of the gods and the patterning of the stars – has been localised and caged and is no longer looking for fresh flesh.
The blue waters at her feet break and a dark shape emerges. Up rears Ketos the sea monster. He is stoned again. She can see it in the whites of his eyes, which are blurry, as though filmed with green smoke. His roar is so unconvincing that even a passing shoal of fish continue on their path; their buoyancy seems an intended sarcasm. Ketos does nothing because when Ketos is stoned he talks about everything being connected, as though he is regurgitating a watery version of Heraclitus.
Andromeda flings a rock at him. It bounces off his nose, plops back into the ocean. The fish scatter into a firework of cerise and gold.
With a limp flick of his tail, he makes a sulky descent back into the ocean.
She slumps back down onto her rock, on a cushion of dried moss that she fashioned herself. The branches of an ebony tree growing out of the cliff provide a dappled shelter. She examines her body, seeking metamorphosis. Her breasts are stained with sunburn and when she combs her bush with her fingers, it seems an inch longer. Her toenails are dirty; she dips them into the water. Before her imprisonment, she often glanced down at the ocean from the cliffs above her (how curious to think she stood there, in such happiness and innocence, unaware of how her future self would be chained to their rocky sides!) and considered the stillness of the waves. Now she no longer sees the ocean as a calm entity. She watches their bustle: the swim of the sea-thrushes, the flick of the thynnis and tritomus, diving xiphias, drifting pelamis, pinnotheres scuttling with their crampy claws, the batrachus blotted and whiskered, scarus bright as birds against the dull turbot and orcynus: busier than the market place on a Friday. Every creature seems to act with such purpose and fierce intent, exacerbating her sense of aimlessness. Sometimes the salt crystals on her skin glitter as though she is acquiring scales, or her bush looks dank and green-seeped like seaweed. Becoming a monster feels like a boon compared to her deepest fear: that she is becoming abstract, as though one day her body will lose its boundaries, slop into the ocean and her quiddity will become loose and liquid, drift into the horizon, lost and forgotten forever.
Another day, another day. Number forty-nine. End of summer. The cliff shrinking, nibbled a little more. The sun inches across the sea, redrawing chiaroscuros of light and shadow on her skin. There comes a certain point in the afternoon – when the sun slices her into a harlequin and the tide has pulled the waters from her rock – when she feels anchored to her setting, weary with remembering. Incidents which only happened months ago but already feel as though they have faded by too much unravelling, as though she is already an old woman struggling to assert details. Her Mother gave her toy horses to play with when she was a little girl. They would kneel down and pretend to race two beasts across the floor. Just before the finishing line, her Mother would draw her own horse back, allowing Andromeda to win. Every victory was tainted by the look of anguish on her Mother’s face, as though her daughter had cheated. Mother tied ribbons in Andromeda’s hair and told her how pretty she was; she became angry when the ribbons attracted the attention of young men at a feast, and accused her of whorish flirtation. Andromeda gradually realised that she needed to deflect compliments with the shield of self-deprecation, or bat back an even sweeter compliment in return. You are such a beautiful daughter, said her mother; but my looks are just echoes of yours, said Andromeda. You are a better version of me every way, her mother would insist; I am what you made me, whispered Andromeda. I seem a faded crone beside you, her mother wailed; I can be your shadow, replied Andromeda, and her Father rolled his eyes. They were all sitting at Andromeda’s birthday feast when her Mother raised her glass and declared that Andromeda was a very beautiful woman. She sat down, twitching, glancing. Andromeda thought, I am 21 today. I am rather tired of all this. She sipped her wine; her Father rolled her eyes. Her Mother stood up again. She raised her glass and proposed a toast to:
“My daughter – the most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia.”
The first reds of sunset. She has survived another day. She combs her fingers through her hair, searches the rock for some seaweed to tie in like ribbons. She waits for the splash of water. She waits. She waits.
Darkness comes, as though the gods above have stoked up a fire and the smoke is seeping into the world. It fills the horizon and blurs the sun before finally blotting him out. It seeps into the ocean and makes the waves, so light in the day, look heavy and turgid. As the air sharpens with evening chill, she begins to feel afraid. How hard did she throw at the rock at Ketos? Surely not that hard? Despair comes, suffocating, refusing to let her live like this for another moment. She considers the sharp rock hidden beneath the moss, imagines its slash against each wrist, her blood making the cuffs shiny and red –
“Andromeda, Andromeda.” The Nereid appears, slips onto the rock. “The most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia,” she sneers. “Ketos is waiting.”
Andromeda frowns. She feels as though she has been teased, her anticipation now sour with resentment. Which Nereid is this? She thinks her name is Plexare. She releases Andromeda’s chains and pulls her down, down, down into the dark depths.
Ketos’s chamber reminds Andromeda of her mother’s dressing room. Pearly oculta zigzag over the walls. A large mirror, decorated with firefly squid, reflects various vignettes as the crabs holding it shift and shuffle: a floor crackling with seaweed, a large double bed strewn with cerise sheets, fluorescent maracas. Andromeda feels Ketos’s playing reverberate inside her before she sees him. He is sitting in the corner, banging his drums. They range from large turtle shells, which bounce against his palms, to the shells of helices, which emit silvery tings! as his claw-tips touch them. Every so often he exhales a small, exuberant flame which flares blue in its core and dissolves into the air. She can smell his sins in the flame; the burning perfume of his drugs.
At the sight of Andromeda, his playing becomes louder. His smile is big and lazy. She pads over to the bed. There is a tray on the little coral table beside it, carrying food and water. Her fingers tingle with the urge to seize the glass and glug the water down in one gulp, to tear at the food like a beast. She sips it daintily, casually. She feels the sigh in her body; the pleasure in her throat is raw and sensual. Tonight’s food is, inevitably, fish – something that looks like a turbot. As she chews on its soft flesh, she muses on how the townsfolk might picture her. No doubt they believe that Ketos is eating her slowly, a finger one night, a toe the next, a slow torture. That, too, is a reassurance, for if he were to eat her in one gulp their sacrifice would be diminished to a casual snack.
Ketos bashes away and croons a love song.
The rhyme is execrable but Andromeda cannot fail to be charmed. His eyes sparkle as he plays, his wings fizzle and his finned tail flicks and bangs on the floor. She sits on the end of the bed, warm and calm now from the food, and clicks her fingers and hums along.
Ketos clambers out from his drums. He is a beast born to glide through air and water and his wings – a billowing grace when he flies – drag behind him like heavy, moth-eaten curtains. His belly is tubby, streaked with crimson; his face chubby and his chin bearded with green tufts that give his smile a shaggy sweetness. She stretches out and he clambers on top of her with great care, apologising as his tail hits the food tray and upends it. Ketos is in the habit of always saying sorry. Andromeda laughs and kisses him. She thinks of Phineus, whose chest was cool and slender, who used to make love to her as though she was a doll. Ketos’s chest, forever stoking up a fire waiting for release, is warm as a hearth. She runs her fingers over his barnacled back, shivering as his forked tongue flickers over her neck. At times like this, reality and dream exchange their substance. A return to the palace seems a nightmare. How strange it would be, to wear clothes and speak lines at court as though in a silly theatre.
Ketos leans over to sprinkle some powdered cuella stones onto a white cigarette paper. Andromeda, still airy from orgasms, stares at down at her nakedness, now imprinted with his touch. Greeny marks from his scales; scratches from where his claws became too enthusiastic; a piece of barnacle embedded in her shin; the faint smell of burning from where his fiery panting enflamed a few locks of hair. She imagines her parents seeing her, her mother appalled and her father telling her that her purity has been forever sullied. She smiles.
Ketos’s back is still turned. Sometimes he clutches her tight after their lovemaking, but not tonight. She wishes that she could dirty him too, smear patches of ebony on his tough skin, entwine his tufts with her tresses.
He lies back and sucks on his joint, his eyes childlike, as though he is inhaling dreams. She heard that when the Nereids ran to Poseidon with their soprano cries – “Did you hear the news? Andromeda’s mother has announced that her daughter is the most beautiful woman in all of Aethiopia! Why, she should be a god!” – he hailed Ketos and ordered him to wreak havoc on the shore. Ketos agreed and then never got round to even flying over the cliff. Poseidon blocked his supply of cuella powder and gave him cocaine instead. That night, Ketos beheaded a row of eight cottages, quartered a temple and jumbled divine mosaics into a chaos of colour, killed three townsfolk and set their market area on fire. Andromeda pictures Poseidon with his array of drugs, Ketos his puppet: give him a drug of the right shade and then he can pull the strings. And yet, Ketos’s need to blur the world because he finds it all a bit too much for him, too harsh for his tender heart, too manipulative for his simple ways, is what makes her heart ache when she lies beside him. Climbing astride his belly, she tickles him and he emits a hoary laugh. He offers her the joint. She stubs it out and tears at it, so that the powder tumbles over the sheets.
“Andromeda, you are cruel to me,” Ketos chides her softly.
“When that stupid Nereid was bringing me down to you, I heard some whispers from the others – they were saying something about Perseus coming, and how I didn’t deserve to be rescued.”
Three thwacks as Ketos’s finned tail hits the bed.
“Maybe you should go back,” he whispers.
“You want me to?” Andromeda rolls over, staring at the ceiling. Ketos’s silence is a hurt. She cannot imagine sitting down to dinner next to her mother again, a bracelet tinkling around her wrist instead of a cuff. The rusty scars are stained deep; she wonders if they will always leave faint scribbles on her wrists. Yet she cannot sit on the rock forever. The townsfolk will lose their peace again. They will soon require death to immortalise her. A martyr who never gets round to dying might become rather unconvincing. She surprises herself with the sudden ache to become a Nereid, stay beneath the waves forever, even if it would mean playing to Poisedon’s ego. Then she feels the weight of Ketos’s tail as he curls it over her legs. She leans into his chest and gently strokes the gnarly folds of his wing.
She sees the figure a few days later. He is standing on top of the cliff. It is a moment of clever theatricality, for the midday sun illuminates him with a leonine sheen and makes his sword look like the tool of an alchemist. He waves and cries out to Andromeda, but by the time his calls reach her, the wind has blurred them into vagueness, like the words of a child. She realises this is Perseus. She nearly cries out in return but stops herself. Her heart is beating very hard and suddenly she feels dizzy with indecision, for she planned out how she would behave at this point, her careless indifference, yet now her instincts seem to be overriding her intellect.
Perseus attempts to climb down the cliff. She realises there is no time for her to call a Nereid; besides, she is afraid of her secret lover becoming spectacle. She imagines Perseus laughing at him, calling him a dirty old monster; she imagines the waves scarlet.
Halfway down the cliff, Perseus gets stuck. His sword gets entangled in the ebony tree and leaves shower over his head and he makes it all the worse by attempting to wave at Andromeda as though this is all part of the plan. Her eyes water from the strain of trying not to laugh.
There is a silvery flash as his sword falls into the rocks and is swallowed up by the sea. She frowns and curls back into the shade, fixing her eyes on her feet, and does not look up until she feels his fingers – cold and slender – on her shoulder. She looks up. He is so much younger than she was expecting – his face is boyish and open, his smile sheepish, the kind she might see on the dog she used to play with in the palace grounds.
Andromeda enters the palace wearing Perseus’s tunic. The palace ceiling once seemed epic, as though remembered from childhood; now everything looks small and cramped. Her Mother comes running to her and she tenses, expecting the slap of harsh words or her hand. Her embrace and tears seem genuine; Andromeda finds herself sobbing into her Mother’s hair in abandonment. Her Father joins them and they hold each other tight. Perseus watches on, maintaining his smile, until his lips seem weary from propping it up.
The water in her bath is as gentle as down. The grapes at the feast are ambrosia. Her Father stands and makes a speech; her Mother watches her very closely, as though anxious that she might vanish into the ether. Perseus makes a speech too. It is very long and details all of the various monsters he has killed, including the minotaur, a chimera and several lamias. When they hear a keening noise coming from the sea later that night, they assume that the sea monster has been slain and is slowly dying, a story that Perseus feeds. Andromeda lies in bed, listening to the wails of his heartbreak and refuses to allow herself to cry. She tells herself that she cannot return to that wild existence, which already seems like a strange dream. This is not a desertion; she is a woman who belongs to a civilised life.
A few weeks later, Andromeda stands frozen, as though immortalised on a plinth, wearing a white dress which foams in a long train at the back. The dressmaker fusses around her, snipping and picking and stitching. Her Mother watches, paces about, calls directions, narrows her eyes. She declares that the dress is too ostentatious. Andromeda bites her lip. The world within the palace seemed so fresh on her return. But the changes she perceived were an illusion; history favours rhyme and repetition.
Excusing herself, she hurries to the latrine, gathering up her dress and squatting over the hole. A little of her urine splashes onto the hem. She licks her finger, desperately trying to rub out the stain, which is bright green. The faint curve in her belly is too slight for Mother or the dressmaker to notice yet. The wedding is just a week away; she doubts that Perseus will notice it either. By the time she is ripe and heavy, he will assume that the child is his.
Back in her position, she watches the flash of the dressmaker’s scissors. She considers salt water, alcohol. Then she pictures him, a small green boy with fair hair and turquoise scales, small wings and Ketos’s olive black eyes. Her smile becomes dreamy.
That night, she slips out of the palace. The keening noise becomes more piercing as she approaches the cliff-face. Moonlight is spread across the ocean like a lace cloth. She sings softly to him, until his cries fade and there is a peaceful silence.
Ten thousand men and women from the town and neighbouring villages attend the wedding. The clay likenesses of her sold in the market have been recrafted to depict a maiden who looks chaste and sweet. Several times during the ceremony, she feels their eyes on her and feels like bursting into screams, or laughter, or tears. But she manages to coax her expression into something suitably demure and speak with an even tone. Just before the wedding feast begins, she strides into the kitchen and demands to taste the soup that will be served for the first course. A flick of her wrist and the vial of cuella powder is tossed into its greeny swirl.
Her Father stands and delivers a slurred speech which begins with praise of Perseus and digresses into a monologue about whether it might be possible to grow marrows on Jupiter. Perseus draws out his sword and keeps on attacking his soup, oily splashes adorning his tunic and the clothes of surrounding guests. Andromeda notices that her Mother sits tight and still, for she is a woman who takes little pleasure in gastronomy. But there is enough mayhem for Mother to become distracted, for she rises and attempts to berate the men who climb onto the table and dance, the serving girl who strips off all her clothes and crushes grapes under her feet, declaring that from now on she will only serve Bacchus.
Andromeda picks up her train and hurries outside. In the courtyard, the guards are lying on the ground, gazing up at the moon and attempting to converse with it. At the clifftop, she tears off her dress and hangs it onto a tree. It dances in the wind like a flag, a surrender. She hears Ketos calling her and replies, arrowing her arms and diving into the ocean. The water roars around her, bubbling salt in her lungs, deafening her ears. Then she is being lifted up, up into the bright air and finds herself on Ketos’s back. She kisses his neck and clings onto his wings as he slices through the waves. As the palace becomes a white speck in the distance, they sing love songs, their harmonies plaiting together until their voices grow tired.
Calypso in Therapy
“You are cruel, you gods, and quickest to envy. It afflicts your hearts that a goddess should take a mortal to her bed. I did vow to make him deathless and never grow crooked, or worn with age. But let him go. Let him sail the restless sea…” Homer, The Odyssey, Book V
Session One – a private counselling service, Moseley, Birmingham
– Not long after he left, I moved house and sold all my possessions
– That seems a little drastic… would you like to explain?
– He went back to his wife and son. I spent the first few months in a blur. Then I got tired of myself, and decided to make a fresh go of things. I thought it would be like the shedding of a skin. I thought that if I moved out, got rid of all the furniture, all the things that reminded me of him, that I would be able to start again.
– I’m interested in the fact that you sold all your possessions, rather than all the things he gave you…
– He didn’t give me anything.
– Ah. I see.
– Nothing at all, actually, come to think of it.
– The bastard!
– Are you supposed to say that?
– Sorry. So why did your possessions remind you of him? Surely these were things you bought before your relationship with… with…
– Yes. Odysseus. So, why?
– Everything reminded me of him. If I wore a certain jumper, it reminded me of the last time I wore that jumper with him.
– You got rid of your clothes too?
– My table reminded me of sitting at my table eating a meal with him. I couldn’t sit at my table after he left. My bed… I couldn’t sleep in my bed. I slept on the floor. The park reminded me of him, but I couldn’t sell the park…
– So what did you do?
– I just stopped going. I avoided all the places we used to go together. The sun reminded me of him, but I couldn’t sell the sun. The rain reminded me of him, but I couldn’t sell the rain. So I drew the curtains.
– And did it work? Selling all your possessions?
– It wasn’t the shedding of a skin. It felt more like a flaying. And everything hurt after that. Words. Music. The sun. The rain. It all hurt, like I was inside out. But I was inside out the whole time he was with me. Love does that. It puts your nerves, your receptors on the outside. And I found, after I sold everything I owned, that I couldn’t cope with losing everything that had reminded me of him. I wanted him close.
– What did you do?
– I started taking walks in the park.
– Would you like a tissue?
– No. Yes. I can’t believe I’m paying you for this.
Session One, Druids Lane NHS Clinic
– I sacked my last therapist.
– That seems a little drastic… would you like to explain?
– I was trying to bring things to a satisfying conclusion. I gave myself ten sessions. The sessions were very expensive. In truth, I knew, probably after session one, that ten sessions weren’t going to be enough. And I knew, after about session four, that I was paying someone to listen to me talk about him. I just needed to talk about him. And I felt my therapist wanted me to get over him, was willing me to get over him. I could feel her willing me to get better. That’s not very professional, right?
– I couldn’t possibly comment.
– She was a nice lady. So in session nine I tidied up all the loose ends, and in session ten I delivered the perfect ending.
– And what was that?
– I said, “I am so much better now. Thank you. I feel like I can really move on, so thank you.” I said, “I don’t even think about him that much these days.” And I paid her the final £75 and I left.
– And now you’re here.
– And now I’m here. Christ. £750. I paid her £750.
– What would you like to achieve, in these sessions? As you know, the NHS can only offer you six.
– I know, I know. I am lucky to have any sessions at all. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed, you see… bereavement counselling was a genius stroke of mine, wasn’t it?
– We assessed you as needing bereavement counselling.
– I miss him so much. I think about him every day.
– Would you like a tissue?
– Could you just pass me the box?
Accident and Emergency, Royal Central Hospital
– So, Miss… er… it says here ‘Calypso’. Do you have a surname?
– No. I am a goddess.
– I see (delusional).
– What are you writing?
– We believe that you may be suffering from an as yet undiagnosed delusional state. I was writing ‘delusional’ in my notes.
– I am not delusional. I am a goddess. My name is Calypso, and I have lived alone…
– Wasn’t that a song?
– Suzanne Vega. One of the more sympathetic treatments…
– Do you still live alone?
– I have always lived alone. Even when he was with me, I lived alone.
– How is that so?
– He didn’t love me. And so I lived alone. Would you pass me the tissues?
– This loneliness… the void… is that why you attempted suicide?
– Why did you attempt suicide?
– I don’t know. I mean what’s the point?
– What’s the point of living? For some people, it can get too much, yes.
– No. I meant what’s the point of trying to attempt suicide?
– Some people believe it is a way of ending the suffering.
– But my suffering will never end.
– We are going to help you challenge that notion. That is why you are in hospital.
– No. You don’t understand. My suffering will never end.
– Why? Why do you think that?
– I am immortal.
– I see (psychosis).
– What are you writing?
Mental Health Assessment Unit, Royal Central Hospital
– This is becoming very difficult.
– How do you think I feel?
– We think you must be feeling very depressed. But we are not sure how best to approach your treatment. You’ve been admitted seven times in the past eighteen months.
– I am aware of that.
– You shouldn’t have survived the past three attempts. They have been becoming progressively more… determined. We cannot understand how you survived the dose and combination of pills last May, the impact of the train in, August, wasn’t it?
– Yes. August.
– And now this. The combination of drink and hypothermia should undoubtedly have resulted in death. Do you know how you were found?
– Unconscious under a tree in Highbury Park, your arms wrapped round the trunk. You were covered by a couple of inches of snow. You were wearing a T-shirt.
– It said ‘Destiny’.
– Yes, that bit you do remember. You were wearing a T-shirt and jeans. No shoes. A dog walker found you. She thought you were dead. You were blue. You should have died.
– I told you. I am immortal.
– We know. You have said, many times. It’s in your notes.
– Do you think I am immortal?
– We think your desire to live is very strong. It makes all this… well, it confuses us. You keep trying to kill yourself. But you keep surviving.
– It doesn’t matter what I do to myself, does it?
– We are going to have to think of a more appropriate way of helping you. Repeated hospital admissions are not the answer. We need to work, together, on a way of reducing the impulses that lead you back here.
– I’m actually not aiming, each time, to return here. But yes, from your point of view, it’s all a question of resources, isn’t it?
– No. That’s not what I meant.
– Yes it is. You, the NHS, can’t afford to keep treating me because I am immortal. I will become, over time – a very long time – a drain on resources.
– You are draining your own resources. Have you ever looked at it like that? Have you?
– If you are immortal, then you have to think ‘Do I want to live like this forever?’ Do you?
– I don’t want to live.
– You would appear to have no choice. Many people in this hospital would give anything to be able to live.
– Not on this ward.
– Even on this ward. Many of our patients make a full recovery. With medication, and the right therapeutic interventions…
– I don’t want medication. I don’t want therapeutic interventions. I don’t want to live.
– We are going round in circles.
Alabaster Ward, Royal Central Hospital
– Have you been writing?
– Is it good?
– Does it help?
– Would you like to show it to me?
– Why not?
– You are a different nurse from yesterday. You people seem to enjoy playing Tetris more than helping any of us. You shine torches in our faces at night. Julie burned herself holding her hands against the tea urn again. Bill punched a hole in the nurses’ station window. Nobody is changing his dressing. Margaret told me she was given instructions for hanging herself, for when she gets out. I asked her what was said, so maybe I’d pick up some tips.
– I am sorry to hear that.
– No you’re not.
– Would you like to show your story to anyone else?
– Oh, nobody you know.
Maria only went to fetch some water. She meant no harm. Her mother was struggling in her labour; the baby was too large to part her small hips. She strained and sweated on her woven sleeping mat as the infant tried to struggle free; her long, blue-black hair plastered onto her forehead with water and salt.
Maria’s grandmother said, “Listen to me. There is a spring whose waters are good for easing the passage of the baby through the bone-cage. Follow the North path out of the barrio and go two miles past the largest mango tree. The forest-people live there, and there are ghosts, but they should not trouble you. The spring you’re seeking wells up between two large banyan trees that are always in flower. The spring itself is in a stone grotto, like the home of the Virgin. The water looks like gold. You will know it on sight.”
The old woman handed Maria a small, weathered Coke bottle with a twist of rag for a cork. Maria slipped it safe into the front pocket of her flower-print dress.
The old woman patted her shoulder, “Hurry, child.”
“Yes Nanai,” she said, and walked out the door.
Maria’s house stood at the very edge of the village, one more palm-hut roofed with corrugated slabs of iron that had turned brown in the acid rain that blew in from the city. Her family was not poor. They were not wealthy enough to afford electricity or cinderblock walls, but they had a lot of livestock, two outfits each, and they never went a day without food. Maria went to school, and did well there, even though she had to learn her lessons in English; a language foreign to her.
The deep, dark forest is the same everywhere on earth. Here, in Luzon, it loomed, black and impenetrable, just outside Maria’s door.
Maria hurried along the path her grandmother set her upon; the road seemed to glow with white dust, even beneath a canopy of green that closed out the sun and dropped the temperature a full ten degrees. She saw a few snakes, drinking in the warmth of the white chalky road, but they did not trouble her. She heard a few screams; a troop of monkeys, hardly worth noticing.
In a few minutes, Maria reached the large mango. It stood thirty feet tall and its branches were hung with huge globes of ripe red-gold fruit. A few had fallen to the earth and, since they were nearly perfect (and she couldn’t reach the better ones) she slipped one into her pocket with the empty glass bottle. The other fruit was larger, but it had a bruise near the stem, so she started eating it right away. She didn’t want the juice to seep into her school-dress; it had just been washed, if she stained it now she would attract flies for a week and have to live with the smell of spoilt fruit.
The pulp was soft and sweet between her sharp white teeth. The juice ran over her chin. She wiped herself clean with the back of her brown hand.
Past the large mango, the path devolved into a trail fit for children or wild pigs. It faltered to a thin white thread she followed with her feet. She sucked the oblong, string-trailing seed of her mango until the flavour was gone. Then she spat the stone onto the ground. When it hit the soil, she heard a loud cry, “Tik Tik!” The voice, if it was a voice, was loud. It echoed through the trees. She could not find the source of it.
Maria knew a lot of stories that she tried not to think about. She walked a little faster down the vanishing path.
She reached the banyan trees, the spring, about half an hour after she set out from her small house. The flavour of the mango was a memory in her mouth. The trees were larger than anything that she had ever seen. They were wider around than the church in her barrio, their trunks composed of many flesh-like grey stalks that joined like arches around dark hollows that were big enough to house four families. There were gaps in the trunk where hidden eyes could peer out at her, and the brown, fibrous roots hung down from the branches like human hair, trailing onto the earth.
She swallowed, screwing up her courage. Maria was afraid, but looking up, she saw that her grandmother had told her the truth. Among the tree’s green-black shiny, coin-sized leaves, flurries of miniscule white blossoms were blooming. She could see the fountain bubbling in its stone bowl between the twin, elephantine trunks.
The water really was gold!
The sight of it, the pure metallic smell (and the memory of her mother’s sweat-stained face) gave the girl courage. She ran to the lip of the spring and knelt on the sandy soil by the roots of the banyan that stood nearest the village. She took the bluish glass Coke-bottle from her pocket, pulled out the cork, and bent to plunge its mouth in water.
“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the echoing cry flew out at her from the black hollows of the banyan. Maria heard the solid clunk, the machine-like ratatat of horse-hooves on wood. She jumped up and screamed.
The tree, with its many dark doors, stood between her body and the path. Another tree, as alive, as ominous, stood to her left. She would not dare jump into the sacred water; she had nowhere to run.
“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the cry continued, growing ever louder. Something hard scraped across wood. Maria saw white sparks flickering across her field of vision. Her mouth tasted like she’d been sucking copper pesos. Breathing hard, she closed her eyes and brought the calm face of her Nanai swimming to the surface of her thoughts.
Suddenly, the tumult stopped. It halted like the cry of a chicken, decapitated with one sharp stroke of her grandmother’s knife. She heard the sound of water, bubbling up into the basin it carved itself in stone. She felt the pound of blood in her temples and clear warm air on her face.
Maria took a deep breath and smelled only green earth and her own stinking fear-sweat.
She opened her eyes.
The trunk of the banyan opened to black three feet from her face. The hole in the trunk gaped like a window. A face stared out of it. A creature was staring at her. It had the long chestnut-furred face of a horse, equine ears high up on its head. They swivelled in confusion. Maria gasped, covering her mouth with the hand that did not hold the bottle.
The creature startled, cried out “Tik Tik!” in its oddly humanoid voice. Maria thought that it was speaking a language, one she could not understand. The thing plastered its ears flat to its skull. Its teeth were yellow and very sharp. It leaned out of the hole, revealing a long, man-like neck frilled with a mane made of sharp, poisonous-looking spikes.
Maria forced herself to stand very still. She was hardly breathing. When she had been quiet for a while, the creature drew back. It still stared out at her, but its ears rose up again and the whites of its eyes shrank until she could see only its black, equine pupil.
Maria thought very hard.
She remembered the unbruised mango weighing down her pocket. Moving very slowly, very cautiously, keeping her eyes open and on the face of the Tikbalang (she paused whenever she saw the velvet ears fall back) she reached into her pocket with her empty hand and brought the fragrant fruit out into the open.
Maria watched the Tikbalang’s soft-haired nostrils flex as the creature snuffled at the mango. She held it out, waiting until its horsey ears flicked forward with interest.
It said, “Tik Tik?”
Then, Maria smiled. She said, very softly, “I need the water for my mother. She’s very sick with her next child.”
The creature was leaning out of the hole in the tree, snuffing the air between them.
Maria continued, “Do you like mangos? I will give this one to you if you’ll let me have some water.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the Tikbalang reached out of its hole (its arms were very long, too long for its head) and plucked the fruit from her hands with jointed fingers that looked like they had been skilfully carved from black hooves. Maria felt their texture against her palms for a moment as it scooped up the fruit. They were very hard, and razor sharp. Later, she found a thin red trail running down the centre of her palm, a mark from where the claws had grazed her, usurping her fate-line. It never healed.
As soon as the Tikbalang had hold of the fruit, it shunted its body back into its home, retreating like a spider into its hole. When it was gone, the woods seemed suddenly darker, and eerily quiet. Maria filled her bottle quickly. The water was golden in the stone bowl, and stayed golden when it was decanted into the worn glass bottle. She stuck the cloth plug in and ran for home, carrying her treasure in her hands. While she was running, it continued to glow.
Maria made it to the village very quickly. Even so, she was just in time. The baby was rushing fast to earth and her mother was pale. Her lips were parched and her black eyes were as glazed as the eyes of a market-fish at the end of the day. Maria handed the bottle to her grandmother who poured a few drops into her daughter’s gaping wound of a mouth. Her labour eased instantly. The baby was born a few minutes later, a boy, healthy and strong. Maria’s mother held him to her milk-rich breast.
After the excitement had passed, Maria took the mostly-full bottle down from the shelf that held her family’s special-things; the icon, the Bible. She sipped a little water. It tasted like mango and metal, sweet coins dissolving in her mouth. As the liquid touched her tongue, Maria heard the cry of “Tik Tik!” echoing in her ears. Maria smiled when she heard it. She would never run out of stories.