Friday, 17 January 2014

The Lift

The elevator opened its automatic mouth and Nick positioned himself in front of the doors – like a necessary pill, he thought, pushing into the interior, somewhat hindered by his coat swollen with workplace regalia. Once inside, his face assumed a practiced expression of contentment – enough to satisfy himself, as well as enough to make irate some stressed subordinate filing late to the office on a Monday morning. It was a pleasant sensation.

However, this morning there was only one other occupant of the lift. She seemed wedged as if customary in the opposite corner, adjusting her hair with one hand whilst artfully scattering ash from her cigarette with another. She reciprocated his glance with a momentarily scathing overview – her pupils apparently pulsing at various articles of his clothing, before returning faithfully to her hand. A perfect construction of control, Nick thought – how she held herself, leaning deep onto the blade of one shoulder, one foot propped on its precarious heel.

TICK TICK TICK. Strange. He had never noticed the ticking of his watch particularly before – it suddenly arriving in his ear like a late train, allowing him to realise (with a little humiliation homogenous with office politeness) that he had been leaning with his hand and fixatedly staring.  The lift had only just started moving, but he was aware that he had indeed been staring and thus checked himself, setting his eyes to the floor as their metal can continued to crawl upwards.


Her thick American accent approached him with an intensity – the very word choice itself seeming strange to him – a word of expression in an expression, just as they were being lifted in a lift. He mused this point momentarily and the elastic bow of his mouth almost twitched to a smirk, but he steered himself and slid his eyes back to hers. Conversation – early morning conversation. The prospect fazed him slightly.

“Yes?” He responded, mitigating the interrogative in an attempt to disguise his rising interest.

She let out a fruity laugh – a noise dripping with something decorous.

“Say, you look so damned nervous! Eight o’clock in the morning and damned nervous!”

Nick had not really considered this reflection of himself before, and he put a distracted hand to his collar where he manoeuvred between tight shirt front and skin sickly with layer of moisture which he had not previously been aware of. It unnerved him a little, and his voice adopted a more guarded edge.

“Can’t say I was aware of it. Just these early mornings, you know –“

“I know what?”

 Her voice was suddenly assertive, almost rich with an eagerness for argument. The cigarette splintered in her palm as she adjusted her position slightly,  her arrangement of hair dashing the side of the lift like a hastily dragged fake fur. He had to struggle with a smirk again – but in this case, a smirk of discomfort rather than anything else.

“No – I mean – it’s a turn of phrase…”

He embodied this point with a supporting hand gesture. She surveyed him obliquely.

“Gee, you do sure having some weird turning phrases…”

Though the laugh came again which reassured him somewhat. He allowed himself a long, languorous inhalation as if he was smoking himself and thought vaguely about Americans and their country, thought about he had once promised to take a girl there – Julie, she might have been called – though it was a long time ago now, in his college days where he harboured an appetite stoked upon aggressive existentialism which never came to anything.

He suddenly noticed something unusual on his coat lapel – a shattered circle of grease. Silently, he rebuked himself, thinking that it was very unlike him to leave the house in such a state. The layer of coffee on the breath was customary, the hair combed slightly to the left – a usual matter of urgency, but typically he felt sheltered beneath an otherwise tidy appearance. Surveying the stain more closely, its yellowing interior seemed to stir a strange kind of nostalgia within him – perhaps even just in reminiscing upon the hastily chewed toast he crumbled into the outside bin on his way to work. The piece of toast his wife always had ready for him in the anticipation that he would eat it, pressing it into his palm as he left the door under her agitated, eager-to-please stare which seemed to bubble at the edges, like the white of an egg on the edge of a griddle turned up too high.

He shook his head as if to dissipate his thoughts – thoughts now of keeping his home life at home and his work life at work…

But where was he?

His eyes lapsed from their state of inertia on the opposite wall, to the woman, who herself seemed a little stunned.

“We’re still in the lift.” She declared, Nick wondering why her intonation accumulated almost to a squeak at the end. In fact he wondered why she had made such a declaration at all – was she attempting to decipher his thoughts, attempting to answer his momentary confusion? Perhaps he was not only really evidently nervous but insecure too?

But then he realised – he had managed to construct such an elaborate thought in an elevator journey.
 It was usually in the lift he thought of nothing – mulling an absence in his mind like a lozenge of comfort. He seemed to suddenly realise his faculty of speech again.

“The lift’s stopped.”

“Bravo, office boy.”  The woman raised her eyebrows, answering with a tone externally snide but still failing to conceal the camaraderie. The lift was stock-still, suspended stolidly like the cruel grease which finally seals the artery.

It was strange, Nick thought, the lack of urgency he felt in the situation. Even the woman seemed to have recovered from her momentary wavering timbre, instead appearing, Nick thought, almost to be irritated with herself – opening a tiny spiracle of pocket mirror which he would otherwise had presumed to be a pocket watch and dabbing her exposed cheekbones with rouge in an almost aggressive manner.

“Well I never, well I never –“

“You never what?” Nick quipped before he could stop himself.

She snapped the mirror shut, confronting his face rather than hers, a sly half-smile toying with her lips – pressed to a defiant pout as she spoke.

“It’s a turn of phrase.”

He managed to raise his eyebrows reciprocally – something he realised he had never consciously thought of doing before. This realisation moved him a little, just at the thought of the character he must project everyday – unconscious, a social non-entity to whom even he himself was oblivious…

“Well, I guess this damn thing is stuck then,” This time her declaration more definitive, yet infused with a tone of mild amusement. Nick noticed her eyes surveying the tiny compartment in which they stood – presumably for some means of breach or escape. But she spoke again “Want a cigarette?”

“Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.”

He leaned forward to take the cigarette from her extended palm in an action which seemed to seep through his very fibres – as if overwhelmingly familiar. He felt a stressed flicker of pulse behind his eye. Ah, yes – that was it – the sudden leaning forwards reminded him of how he would customarily do the same each morning to plant a kiss on his wife’s cheek as he left the house, every quick contact with her flushed face a required confirmation of his cool combed exterior. Something he hadn’t done this morning, strangely enough – with the toast almost singeing under the grill because he was still fretting about what to have for his lunch or something similar, his tie confused about his collar – ‘like a trellis!’ she had said, adjusting it.

The touch of the cigarette was a little like her soap-exhausted fingers on the back of his neck, he thought, the ‘tsssk’ of her disappointment in his ear – ‘oh Nick, you’ve only gone and spilt…’. The aviator fan breathed raggedly above his head. He was digressing.

Again, he looked up. The woman’s face was partially obscured by a speech bubble of smoke.

Again, he uttered a kind of thanks, putting the cigarette to his own lips as if the necessary punctuation mark for a spoken sentence.

Her face swam back into view, powerfully powdered he now noticed, still not quite accustomed to the LED glare of the lift light.

“S’alright,” She slurred a little as if flickering tobacco in the movements of her tongue, “I was just checking round, you know, for air vents or something. Do you think it’s safe to smoke in here?”

The question was evidently conversational rather than urgent. She was leaning against one side of the lift now, enveloped by the folds of her great white coat with a lapel which looked almost mechanical, with its array of metal togs and polished articles, clippings of fur which shone three colours. Half human, half automaton – or for a little while. As he mused, she shed the coat from her shoulders  with an almost awful peeling movement Nick perceived as having a little gore to it. It was like watching a cat crack open and step from its fur – in terms of the level of abhorrence it seemed to stir within him anyhow.

He swallowed roughly before he spoke.

“Well, as  we are stuck here now – surely it doesn’t make much difference?”

He had finally mentioned their entrapment – yet  it was strange in a way that it did not feel particularly unpleasant to him. The cigarette seemed to hold a salty edge against his tongue and occupy any  insecurity of his hands.

“Nah, can’t see it doing,” Her words worked around her mouth as she spoke, emerging deep and fantastic. She said ;it’ in a way that seemed to infer they were speaking about something monumental, almost beyond words. And yet all we’re really doing is smoking, Nick thought.

She extended the same hand with the rose rounded nails through the thickening fug.

“I’m Lilly.”

“A pleasure. Nick.”

“Nick as in Nic-o-las?” She spoke the latter with a sing-song quality installed mockingly underneath every syllable.

“No, just plain old Nick – Nick like a nickel -  Nick.”

She nodded, the rattle of mysteriously hidden jewellery seemingly accompanying her movement, nodding as if his introduction required confirmation.  Her eyes, on closer inspection, looked oppressed and even ugly under the fa├žade of face powder, Nick thought – they seemed to harbour a moist over-ripeness that was lacking in her face.  Her cheekbones seemed suspended at strange angles, as if circulating over the words which she seemed to chew and spit like a child with sweets –

“What d’ya think we should do?” She was moving now, striking the walls of the lift with the flat of her palm before pulling back resignedly “This thing is well and truly fast.”

The intensity of their cigarette smoke in such a small environment made Nick feel almost pleasantly unaware of himself.


“You heard me, Nic-o-las.”

He glanced around their suspended cell – the key panel and push button reflecting the sporadic motions of his stare. Jabbing the button in a mock-anger would serve little purpose inevitably, Nick thought, but he did it anyway. The button was greasy to touch and it was a struggle to conceal the spasm of disgust which passed through him.

Lilly laughed, burrowing her back against the wall and sliding to a sitting position on the floor. Feeling u nasally self-conscious standing on his own, Nick did the same. A raw reverberation of sound struck up as his body, unaccustomed to such small spaces, struck the floor.

Lilly laughed again. “Gee, if they couldn’t hear us then, they’ll sure have heard that…”

Somehow, to Nick, the sudden reference to the external world seemed superfluous – as if he had almost evaded his existence. In further reflection, Nick also thought it odd that neither himself or Lilly had seemingly been seized by the impulse to cry for help – despite it being the typical trope of a countless series of films where entrapment as a lift serves as a kind of climax…

“Well, I guess we’re just hanging around –“ Lilly worked her way through apparently aimless speech, more significantly occupied with the cruel clasp on her crocodile skin bag. “- Goddamn – hey, could you open this for me?”

She threw it at him and he intercepted with unpractised hands against which his wedding ring glowered in its possessive gold. The bag felt like a new skin beneath his fingers – glossed and mysterious – the clasp collapsing at his touch. He managed a glimpse of the velveteen interior; a rough assemblage of pots of rouge, exhausted tubes crushed with apparent indention from nails, crumpled tissue. In a sudden strike of self-awareness he realised he had been half-looking through her bag and passed it back to her almost apologetically.

“There you are.”

Hanging around. It was a phrase that thrilled him – like the same phrase thrills young children when rather than describing the task they are doing, they perceive they can use it as an idiom dripping with a kind of credential. It was strange, too – hanging – a kind of suspension, as they were now. Even death by hanging – that was one way of it happening. Hanging by the neck until death. He tried to imagine the lift shaft as some great neck or oesophagus cracked under the weight of a noose. Hanging, dying – somehow all seemed distant and almost cinematic to him…

His thoughts were interrupted by the immense crackle of aluminium foil.

Lilly looked guiltily over the unwrapping on her lap, her legs emerging  from beneath an almost overwhelmed pastel dress so her shoes, which almost seemed mis-matched in their comparative level of wear and tear, struck out at the opposite wall. It was common to see people in offices striking walls, Nick thought – like the fiery young foreman seized with the convulsive anger under the eye of the clock which made him buckle and press his palm to any kind of surrounding surface – ‘One of these days I’ll do it, one of these days I’ll do it…’ – he would always say.

Nick never asked him what.

In fact, his sudden perception for questioning shocked him a little.

“What’s that?”

She smiled  back at him. “Sandwiches – I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!”

The sense of domesticity, almost comforting, tempted him to a belly laugh – an indulgence of special occasions, after which he resolved that it would not displease them to do the same.

“I’ve got some sandwiches too…” he squeezed the words between a mouth wedged in a concentration, retrieving a complicated wad of cling-film from his jacket pocket.

“Egg and cress.” He declared, as if coming to realisation himself.

“I’m on jam,” The colloquial turn of her phrase was a little touching, he thought. It was strange for him to be touched by any kind of speech really “Raspberry seedless if you were wanting specifics. Nothing fancy – Dan threw them together for me as I was running late this morning…”

She realised her thinking had seeped into her speech.

“Dan, my partner, that is.”

“My wife makes my sandwiches.” Nick reciprocated, but he wasn’t quite sure why. Neither was he quite sure of motivation behind his next gesture, but it proved a comforting one. “Would you like one?”

For some reason he recalled that he had eaten egg this morning, at one point or another. The concept of repetition seemed somehow horrible.

She paused a little before she took a crumpled egg sandwich with mock-admiration.

“Don’t mind if I do – thanks.”

She handed him a jam sandwich automatically – the brown bread blackening where the steeped fruit soaked into the incision. To him, there was always something comforting, albeit rebellious about eating jam sandwiches.

“They’re not proper sandwiches…” He remembered the roll of phrase his mother used to whine whenever he asked for them – repeating it now, hardly knowing. He only realised when Lilly replied –

‘But they sure are better than egg.” And raised her eyebrows in defiance, apparently disabling the sandwich in front of him, creasing it almost to corrugation. She ate the sandwich in a single mouthful – a way of eating which children typically find fascinating and adults disgusting.

For some reason Nick too found it fascinating.


“Not too bad actually.” She answered over a mastication of cheap white bread and overcooked egg, some of which scattered her exposed neck. Nick had never really thought about his sandwiches before – the hastily crushed up contents  which he had always assumed as standard.  He was even blushing a little, eating in slow mouthfuls that lingered longer than usual.

“My wife makes them…” he said again, but in a repetition which swelled to expansion. It was as if the cold cloys of bread had served as catalyst for the speech of both – and he talked of his wife, the kids at home, how he hated the new car, and not just the car but the road, in fact, every-damn-mile- taken… – and she listened, as if entirely expectant of such a tirade. It was also as if expectant that she followed – her partner Dan and how ‘he just didn’t think of her anymore’ and how she was ‘seriously thinking of ending it, their engagement at all that, at some point, y’know’, how she had an old school friend, a man, she had been seeing at the weekends, why she would want to get away to the country –

It was in this timelessness of continued conversation and chain-smoking the lift suddenly shook around them. Nick didn’t feel  fear, he only felt Lilly’s wrist against his bent leg to steady herself.

But like a stubborn eye eventually exposed to the light – grinding and painful, the doors were suddenly split open.

Nick was initially blinded by the sudden intensity of shine, dancing in the eyes in an almost pack-like flurry of faces.

“Two of them, two of them – yeah – conscious and everything…” A voice swum through as if stretched by a microphone.

Then there was a sudden clamour, and a sound like lashed  water on stone as a figure burst forward, a cascade of hair and hastily draped jewellery, dripping tears through a voice which wavered.

“Nick! Nick! You’re alright!”

It took a few moments for him to realise that it was his wife. She stood at the cracked open entrance of the lift, shaking slightly, her face creased with a series of emotions, primarily relief which sweated almost ugly across her cheeks.

“Oh, and I was so worried, and I phoned the office straight away, and all this time… all this… these ten hours… Anything could have happened…”

But the twist of her tone of that last line of speech seemed suddenly different as she stared into the lift, eyes almost bulbous in their eagerness. Nick and the woman were still sat, slightly stunned by the sudden commotion, adjacent to each other upon the lift floor. Due to the confined space, Nick’s knees were bent, beneath which lay one of Lilly’s scattered shoes, poorly-fitting and rain-swollen. Their coats were both crumpled behind their heads, pillowing the heaviness of time slightly,  almost accentuating their smoke-flushed and consequently sweat-filmed faces, the smoke which now trickled through the air in a melting steam. In the commotion, Lilly’s hand was still stoppered against Nick’s leg,  the fanciful arrangement of her hair now lashed at odd angles from which beneath she stared with querulous eyes and berry-shaded lips.

That was when Nick’s wife’s eyes slid from woman to her husband – the red stain shared by his lips… and now her voice, suddenly squeezed to almost silence as if channelling a great hysteria.

“What have you done, Nick?”

The way she said his voice separately, almost condescendingly, as if addressing a child, irritated Nick – still confused from the sudden transition of scene, the lengthy time of talking and uncertainty suddenly broken. He licked his lips in preparatory way, confronted with a sudden sharp burst of jam, which he realised was still clinging to his mouth – not particularly surprising him considering the slowness with which he customarily ate.
He looked upon at the shaking silhouette of his wife which he did not quite understand.

“Well, we’ve been eating sandwiches – and –“

His wife’s voice was nettled with hysteria, arriving in a sudden shriek. “And - ?”

Lilly answered with a reciprocity that made the whites of his wife’s eye flash almost mauve.

“And we’ve been smoking.”

And it was the truth – the literal truth – food and cigarettes.  Yes, all we’re really doing is smoking, Nick thought – a thought that returned to him, unfurled to him.

Yet the world had returned to him too – the world of wavering faces and familial duties and flashing cameras, press stories and public places – a world in which there was no memory, no quiet, no stop, no truth. 

The Products of Madness

You were eighteen when you tried to die.

Although you may deny it – you tried, I know.

Yes, had reached that point where I could hardly write about you, our stares close to repulsion, but seeing nothing. Sometimes there is an edge I am convinced you are close to. I write to keep you from it – the little black and white hatchets composing print but also a more significant structure.

Perhaps you did not exist at all before i wrote this – how do I know? Perhaps I am not even capable of truly knowing the four walls which surround me, their white effrontery almost horrific in with blankness. I have carved bloodshot into them using a red biro – red and oily, the same sick ink that would coarse a tick, cross, tick through our childhood learning.

I always had more crosses. I envisage you had more ticks.

I wonder how you sit now – is it a book or or a laptop over your knee, straddling your frame like a dead bird? I know more of you than you think. At your side, or on the floor with the various detritus of your day, there might be a cup, a crumpled note, an apple core. You look fitting amongst these fabrications, slightly hunched – the necessary bodily gesture for the act of reading.

I never was one to fit in – that is why I am here, writing. There are a few hundred, perhaps a  thousand of us like this.

You are reading, pretending to concentrate. Sometimes you do strange things with your hands you are not fully aware of – perhaps part of the grand rehearsal for the day you will write back to me. You have sipped at a drink until you felt the conviction you could breathe air again, and do so, occasionally glancing away from the words in the search for something more relevant, occasionally becoming idle and failing to interpret a sentence as meaning anything at all.

I have known your eyes for a long time – they are the same eyes that have looked, paralysed into mine, even just for the space of a few seconds. I wonder if you remember – for the days are long now, and occasionally you feel as if your eyelids are dredged with silt, a barely perceptible weight and becoming heavier. Last night’s sleep was somehow insufficient – it comforts me that we have that in common. There are few comforts here – white walls and yes, the written word – but only my own.  The bones of my wrists look greased like hinges against the skin, writing disjointed, whilst you scroll the page with as little as a single finger. You are not fully aware of your grace, just as you are not fully aware of who I am.

There was always such a difference between you and I.

I wish I was closer to you now. I have said paradoxical three word statement, though you may not have heard me, but I did. It is typical I regress to defending myself, though, it could be the case that you reciprocated. Sometimes I shed a tear for the unfairness – thick salt droplets turning my face to crepe, leaf-like as if defenceless in air – for I know you love others. I know you love others even if you have to extract it from yourself with a medicinal kind of dedication; still so you attempt.

You run a hand close to your scalp – an almost experimental movement, as if suddenly aware of your own skin. It approaches you in moments, sometimes when your thoughts wander and align the walls with their little lights which sometimes intensify themselves before your eyes before you sleep. I see them too, albeit briefly.

You may perceive this as digressing – you hold a  half-wish somewhere within you that this was a book, even for the times you hate reading, so you can fold the pages to the front and read a single name. But there is no need. You know who I am.

You are an unexplainable distance away, and so am I.

But I know we are both reading.

I know when you were eighteen you tried to die. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

What is made after dinner

We had made a perfect couple.

‘Perfect’ is typically a superfluous adjective, especially when applied to ‘couple’ – as I myself have often heard  ‘ a perfect couple’ exclaimed fleetingly, even adoringly, I have even once before used it to reference myself and another.

But despite all, I am largely convinced – Lilly and I made a perfect couple.

I remember the very afternoon when she sat facing me over dinner at The Anchor, allowing me the privilege of seeing my own reflection swim towards me in her own eyes.  That afternoon she wore a single white rosary over one of her wrists where the skin sheathed the bone so fine that it seemed diffused with the marble-blue of her veins. That was when I knew she loved me, a love she seemed to orchestrate perfectly – right down to the way she slid the champagne flute through her fingers like a pen.

The way she said, allowing the breath to unfurl like a rich smoke as she spoke - “He’s paying,” – and the almost imperceptible wink of a lightly shadowed eye, which accompanied it, for me, just for me.
I wasn’t the only one there, mind you.

No, it had become a feature of custom that every Friday evening – following the weeks work or lack of it – my wife and I would go to dinner with Mr and Mrs Wieht. Lily – I always knew she hated to be known by the title of ‘Mrs Wieht’ would roll her eyes at her husband who sat beside her at dinner and say ‘O yes, he’s half German you know’ in an undercutting mimicry of surprise which never  failed to make me laugh. He would always half-laugh too – in a strange disjointed kind of way, shaking that poorly combed head of hair of his.

There was always the tuned tinkling of laughter following Lily’s usual quip of ‘he’s paying’ –  and whilst the rest gave themselves the momentary indulgence of a guffaw, I would look lingeringly to Lilly’s eyes upon mine. Only then the laughter would escalate a little too uncomfortably for my liking – with Frieda, my wife, beginning that disjointed whine of mirth which I always assumed came more commonly to domestic animals than people. She would sit alongside me – snuffling and whining under the immensity of a laugh seemingly reflective of the immensity of her character.

Even when I met her, Frieda had been one of those girls referred to through a thick tone of artificial affection as ‘bubbly’. Five years into marriage and she seemed soapy and superfluous before my eyes – a natural decline, I told myself. I supposed there was little I could do about it – she was efficient anyhow, and filled the inevitable silences of suburban living even just by the meandering of her movements.

She seemed happy – even when going out for the meal with the Wieht’s – for I knew that really she would much prefer a night in with a bottle of tasteless wine and a big home-cooked meal equally tasteless but serving as an illustration of her nights effort. It was increasingly she would keep herself in the kitchen as the weeks went on and our routine continued – the working week – seeing the Wiehts – and back again, and she would occasionally survey me with the quick fastidious gestures of a cat, big-eyed and wary. When I asked her what the matter was, she would say –

“Nothing!” In a sugar-thick voice which wobbled like blancmange.

I decided to leave it at that, and I assume that so did she. It would sort itself out, I resolved, just as the previous problems had. It was increasingly into the Winter months I noticed Frieda dissolving aspirins, a crumbled palmful in water and drinking the putrid solution with an almost religious regularity. Even that stopped after a while – ‘everything stops’ – as Lilly said, her lips rolling as the clear circle of the coin she sent across the table towards me, her face apparently everywhere in the unwrapping of after-dinner mints. For me, it was a significant ceremonial gesture.

Anyhow, I digress.

But ‘digression’ it surely is not to contemplate one of such charm, so utterly alive! Her very gaze was suspended with delicacy – as if her eyelids were coated with an imperceptible weight. Tiredness,  I sometimes dread to think, though it rarely entered my mind that such perfection could succumb to the strains of  mortality. Even her husband seemed aware of her superiority, sitting beside her – flitting nervous glances between my wife and I. At our Friday gathering we would sit typically at  one of those regular rectangular dining tables – nothing special, but significantly elevated in my esteem – for on one side I would sit beside Frieda, and on the other side would sit Lily and her husband, Lily always positioning herself directly opposite me. The candle tapered between us, as if thick with our mingling breaths and the awareness of significance of these moments.

“”Roog. Roog? Is that what you call it -?”

It was at one of our early dinners I was interrupted with a great pawing at my arm, with Frieda beside me simultaneously engaged in this rude molestation whilst also straining over the menu. – splayed crudely over her lap. I opened my mouth to speak, and yet the voice which emerged was not mine.

“Mrs. Ray, I think you’ll find that it is pronounced – rouge.”

Perhaps it was actually then I knew Lily loved me. Her voice flowed, tinged with the very intensity of the wine she described – her one deliberate, almost tingling condescending which rather than made me pity my wife, sent me crimson with embarrassment.

“Frieda never had a talent for languages.” I responded quickly, emphasizing my wife’s name in the hope that it would infer to Lily the level of regard I held for her talents.

 It was a talent extended when Lily ordered the white wine instead for herself, watching Frieda take  hungry almost blood-ruddy mouthfuls of the rouge before dipping her head across the table, speaking to us all – “I prefer white – casts a better reflection of you all”, finishing with a lacquered laugh she smothered into a napkin and settled over her lap.

But when she said “You” – I knew that it was especially for me.

They began entering Winter and it was into the Spring our dinners continued. Always the same restaurant – The Anchor -  for my interest remained with Lilly and  thus the food, the wine, the location, seemed to slip to the superfluous. Not that I minded, as for myself, a new necklace aligning the lengths of her throat, a new rosary encircling the wrist – was an indulgence enough.

Only sometimes it was interrupted. Interrupted as I am now – with assessments and questions, doctors face tipped angularly towards mine as if attempting an exhibition of understanding, an upturned palm pressed to my arm in the form of restraint.

“I don’t need restraining!” I cry – now more often than not at each visit. The words wash over me in an etherizing echo – becoming something numb and awful. The same series of words which circulated my mind as I looked into her eyes, extending my hand under the table – I don’t need restraining…

Sometimes my fingers would brush hers and she would sigh, those imperceptible tremors of breath meant only for me, a sigh which caressed the arrangement of hair she seemed to sculpt around herself. Sometimes I would just be on the point of seizing her hand when – we were interrupted, as I said.

Frieda and Lily’s husband would  penetrate the moment with their ringing laughter.

“And she said – what?!” He whinnied, slapping his paper-thin palms on his thighs with such audacity I thought it would be close to drawing blood. He was all together a fragile man, who seemed to stare upwards from an assemblage of bone – he seemed more constructed of air than anything else, just like his name, which was seldom mentioned and something I cannot at this moment want  Lilly talked little about him, and even less to him – occasionally addressing him with a cautionary glance as if examining a purchase for lasting flaws. Then she would look back at me, when their laughter would be finally coming to a close.

Out of the corner of my eye I would watch Frieda lean in towards him, her lips undulating in that wobbling way of hers – “Say, I haven’t even needed to wear my rouge today – I haven’t laughed so much in ages…”. Her voice stuttered unpleasantly in slow bursts – making me faintly nauseous. Oh, to be able to leave them both at home and for just lilly and I to be itemized for an evening! Occasionally I succumbed to the temptation of the thought that I would only be asking for a table for two – Lilly, feather-light and enchanting on my arm…

Her voice slid down my spine with that sensation as she spoke to me one evening when the roses at the centre of the table burned to an orange beneath the lingering candle-light. We had been there a long time – Frieda chattering away to lily’s husband about the oh-so-hot-weather, and similar….

“Listen, Tom” Lily spoke my name with an urgency which thrilled me, stirring the very depths of my consciousness as if shifted through a seashell  “These Friday meetings,” – she  pronounced ‘meetings’ with a way that was more-than-suggestive, I am sure “ – are charming and all that, but…”

Her sudden negation caught my sweet immersion by surprise. I dipped my head closer to hers.

“… It’s just that with the – you know – finances being difficult, especially considering his lack of rise over this past year; I was thinking that perhaps we ought to cut these dinners off. I mean, we could all meet up for the occasional walk or something…”

Her harsh reference to her husband and his lack of funds made me seethe – not at her, but for her. He already declined me of her arm – he was not going to decline me of her company, I was sure. O Lilly! Lovely Lilly – her eyes crystalline across the table as if expectant to be ringed by some rich reply, her head interrogatively on one side. A pearl bracelet sashayed slightly against her wrist as she rested her chin and sighed almost longingly.

“it’s not an issue,” – that night I met her sigh with mine “I don’t mind paying.”

My words worked my lips hot and impulsive like a kiss – intentional, entirely intentional.

Her smile was sudden, almost overwhelming in its intensity.

“Well that’s settled then.” She declared boldly – finally defiant of all who might have heard. But Frieda and  Lily’s husband were too busy furling gossip by the forkful. Their idle chatter and sharp insinuations seemed to mar the sincerity of my words.

It would be alright, I resolved, I would show the final sincerity in summarising the meal with a flourish of banknotes – leafing through the peeled green which Lilly’s eyes seemed to desperately feed upon, as if admiring some rich foliage. Poor girl, I thought, it must be very bad at home. As I began to pay for these Friday dinners the spring spiced itself into summer, stoking a palpable heat which I kindled between my fingers in increasingly presenting Lilly with little trinkets  - objects of affection, ornaments, jewellery.
At this, she would always bridle her head as if responding to a touch upon the cheek I so very much intended, though instead my hands were fast to cool metal cutlery which I pictured to be her smooth, fine wrists which rose at points where the bone skimmed through.

It was only once that her husband commented on the delicacy of her frame, referring to her significantly in the second person.

“Oh, I don’t know what she does, always out of the house… rushing around most likely.’ He chuckled. “What are you like, eh Lil?”

The idiomatic inferences of his voice only intensified by dislike for him – underlined by the awful eclipsed utterance of ‘Lil’, which was said in the mock-heroic melodrama of the young which made Frieda laugh and laugh until she was quite pink at the gills. It was  that night Frieda had forced herself into this sleek black assemblage, her hair combed back behind her with equal severity – quite striking actually. It was like having a good bottle of wine on the table – I might not care much for it myself, but it was a pleasing article to have by. Most of the time I was just relieved at the fact she provided ample entertainment for Lilly’s husband – their discussions infantile and arguments uneducated, but accumulating in  their intensity over time which increasingly allowed me the privilege of an additionally long look into their eyes, a precious minute in which I could present her with some love-token or another.

“It’s nothing,” I would insist with the very lacquer of a gentleman as I  would pass her rich candies, lace handkerchiefs, hairpins crusted with polished stone. Although Frieda became red in the face sometimes, I assured myself it was only because of her excitement in unaccustomed conversation – she had never got out much before we started these dinners. Besides, as Lilly accepted my gifts with a  blush and the bend of the head, I told myself I was the luckiest man alive. I even felt lucky   in that Frieda did not seem eager to question the fact that these weekly meals were paid from our income – perhaps the first time I  my life I told myself, albeit a little cruelly, that she had actually been quiet about something! This made me chuckle myself, a chuckle which was met the unfurling of Lilly’s little laugh.

Once she was laughing at her husband asking for another glass of wine – my triumph! I paid for the refill of his glass with a vacuous, almost soupy rouge in a way I hoped was adequately condescending – after all, the very chap seemed to be flaking away – it was only wine that seemed to keep him pink-cheeked and talking.
As summer simmered and bruised to autumn I noticed that Lilly’s cheeks were sometimes tipped with pink too. She stirred more against the stiff back of her sheet, coursing her long hair through the complex cradle of her fingers, tracing her cheekbones with a silk-paper touch. A woman’s way of beguilement I told myself – she  was the executor of her own exhibition, sometimes setting her clothes at jaunty angles too, for me, in a way that accentuated the figure beneath, breathing in sporadic little bursts which came to a climax as she spoke.

It was one of these evenings of the famed romantics where the rain pelted its confetti with all the fury of passion. Meant for me, I thought, meant for me.

“Well, yes, as I am spending more time apart from him than ever...” She mused across the table to me, twisting a ribbon of courgette caught like a shined serpent in her fork, her undertones similarly succulent “Then I’m sure he would have no reason to object if… well if we…”

“If we…” I urged, as if easing the words with the intensity of my eyes, my fingers clasping the cloth until I felt moisture, the same liquid tension in my very stare, suspended around that plurality – ‘we’.

“…If we came to an agreement that I could go back to stay in France.”

Her idea of our escape? A beautiful engagement?  I attempted to be optimistic, I attempted, I meant it.

“But France, why France?”

One side of my hearing was dominated by Frieda loudly discussing summer preserves.

“Well, my husband knows I have a fondness for it,  I always have. I cannot keep up the marriage much longer, I know that. Besides  - I am excellently acquainted in the area, I have my advisor,  Conrad…”


“Aw, Tommy – there’s no need to congratulate me!” She interrupted in her ecstasy, evading my point completely and intensifying to a sudden surging whisper “I’ve been seeing Conrad for a very long time – yes, he knows how unhappy how things have been at home, and my weekends away with him have only affirmed that…”

I could listen any more. My ears rang.

“Oh yes, it really is sweet,” Frieda’s voice dripped beside me.

And there we sat – Frieda still talking away to Lilly’s husband, the candle gasping at an angle between the faces, and Lilly sat opposite me – watching the pair and smiling. I joined her in watching, my final alliance, watching Frieda’s hand reciprocated beneath the cloth, something which I had never noticed – a reformulation stared me sharply in the face and it bittered me.

Over the course of those dinners we had done it – we had made a perfect couple. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Is this a story about your friend and mine?

‘Well, if you put it that way yes… it is medication in a cigarette form…’ The doctor spoke, slightly shifting the complex cradle of his fingers. ‘Very strong, very effective. Also, because of the nature of your condition, it provides means of occupation…’

Lola was sitting opposite the doctor in a poorly constructed chair she perceived immediately as placing her in a subordinate position – lowly and straw-like in the legs. The table between them warped in its dirty beige as she glowered up at him.

“But what I want to know is – isn’t it harmful? You know, in terms of second-hand smoke and all that?”

She was conscious of the colloquial ring of her speech beside the clipped and pruned pronunciation of the doctor. A hot haze of humiliation seemed to flower in her face, the thorns simultaneously singeing her skin. Holding her own ground at home was customary – John simply sat and shrivelled in the corner – but here the matter was different.

The doctor appeared almost to take relish in Lola’s apparent struggle, responding with a ceremonial slowness as if selecting each word individually.

“Well, Miss Lack – “

It was a start – the first medical professional finally to recognise that she wasn’t married. John was her partner. PART – ner – she remembered enunciating to one psychologist with especial emphasis . People seemed to assume she was someone else’s problem, sent by a seething husband exhausted with the hours of melancholy, and so forth. Sometimes she liked to think that it was John who was HER problem.

But a slight sense of power never stayed for very long.

“ – Miss Lack, I can only assure you that the method of medication will do no harm to your loved ones. It is tailored to yourself, your environment… the product of many years of medical innovation… “

A layer of scepticism seemed to shine thickly in each of her eyes. The doctor continued.

“It is not to be used in public, mind you, but as I have said… there are no effects on those who you love.”

There seemed something incomprehensible in the concept, Lola thought, but then again, much of her life itself had been incomprehensible, and sometimes she liked it that way. It made the acceptance of things easier, even automatic – allowing for a needle sharp transition of thought. After all, the method of medication itself had been very good according to her judgement – that morning she recounted how she had enjoyed the security of the cigarette between her fingers, the spreading sensation as the ferrules of smoke seemed to dissipate the anger and anxiety she imagined cold inside her like a layer of calcite. Any thoughts of imagery thrilled her, and anyhow, the image of her, cigarette balanced between the fingers in an almost ornate arrangement, was somewhat pleasant –

“Well,” She was evidently musing now, and the doctor leaned back as if assuming an easy triumph. “If that’s what you guarantee, I might as well give it a go…”

The doctor nodded slowly as if intending to express a bearing of great knowledge as a kind of weight.
“Hopefully, Miss Lack, it will provide a much more instantaneous form of relief from those spells of anger and anxiety we have been discussing, and also a form of medication which is perhaps more convenient to take – and remember.”

Those were the words she needed, her idealisations sweet and thickening amidst the crystallisation of such a promise.

‘Yes, yes.’  Her tone was emphatic with inevitable agreement, still shaping the very same words as she shuffled behind the pharmaceutical desk – already far removed from the  doctor and his accusative ambiguity. She concluded that she didn’t like him, - didn’t like the way he looked at her, his eyes tracing her face in repeated circular motions as if smearing the contours of her face to a greasy smoke, to nothing. Men like him, in the real world – that is, were trouble, she thought.

The pharmacist gazed at her in a type of mock-sympathy, puncturing  her series of thought with a forced etiquette. “Have you been on anti-depressant medication before?”

“Yes, yes.” The same standard response – always upfront, agreeing. She allowed herself to be settled into the agenda – perhaps that was her problem, always too eager. I only wanted to help, she remembered herself repeating over and over as she would gaze up at John with tremulous eyes brimming with hysteria, busy in the breakage of some routine or other. She remembered that he once made a cake for her, heavy almost as a standing stone, which she dropped in trying to help him present it. But he dropped more that day, she was convinced, dropped everything when he spat back at her face, shaken like a layer of water which a pebble pushes through ‘You’re ridiculous! Ridiculous!’

He had ruined it – yes, yes. The same answer when her name was called forward to collect her medication, the floor under her feet florid with other people’s lives and the anxious marks of illness. The packaging seemed almost anticlimactic in its neutrality – though white with a sterility she attempted to convince herself as being good for her, passing its unusual lightness over her fingers, into her palms…

‘Is there anything else, Mrs – ?’

At the certain term of address emerging from the lips of the painted young pharmacist, Lola turned away rapidly. How long she had stood for, simply staring at the package, she could not recall, did not want to recall. Quite a pleasant exhibition to herself she thought – only, people had to ruin it. Ruined everything.  The door she rushed through seemed somehow smaller compared to when she entered it.


The cigarette seemed to fit with her fingers in a kind of reciprocity she thought, cradling, soothing.
She would lean almost provocatively against the counter, blowing smoke rings as she read or looked out of the window and into the imperceptible distance. The smoke which seemed to smooth a sense of power over, as if immersing her frail human body in wax to become a hardened, beautiful emblem, yet full of mystery. She liked to think like that.

John, she convinced herself, did not like to think at all. Most days now he slumped in his chair in the corner – the possessive adjective being significant – the steely grip of his fingers seemed to seize the arms of that chair with an almost maniacal possession, Lola thought. Perhaps a couple of months before she would have been jealous – with a jealousy as florid and awful as the artificial arrangements of flowers which dominated the mantelpiece, erupting into their own coloured flames. She barely turned the fire on now – and told John not to do so either – it was with this medication she felt a warmth, a warmth restored, so to speak.

Allowing the true self to be revealed…’

Her eyes consumed the oft-read syntax greedily from the brochure inside the medication box. It was lunchtime and an iceberg lettuce on the kitchen counter glistened as if frozen, isolated and cold like a laboratory specimen. Lola paid it little attention – she had become accustomed to one of the cigarettes at lunch, one mid-afternoon and one at dinner time. It seemed to pacify her appetite a little – not that she minded. She assumed John did not mind either, though she noticed he would occasionally cast her perfunctory glances from his usual position – his eyes exposed and questioning beneath the pale hair in a way that irritated her.

‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke in the house,” He mumbled, his fingers knitting anxiously around a pen with which he was completing some writing in a dishevelled pad which laid across his lap like a fallen bird ‘I’ve never liked the idea of smoking in the house…’

As ever, Lola responded with a dismissive flick of the hair and a customary creasing of the lips.

‘Doctor’s orders,” She responded, leaning in his direction across the kitchen counter. The lettuce rolled at the reverberation and hit the floor like a wet piece of flesh falls from an operating table. Her painted lips took especial pleasure from the re-iteration. “Doctor’s orders.”

After all, she thought, as the doctor said, the medicinal cigarettes did no harm to loved ones. If John had a problem with it, he was being selfish. She recalled what she thought of as his selfishness, even in the early days, when it required an additionally strong squeeze of the hand in order to get him to go the pictures again with her.

“Why can’t we just go for a walk?” He would say, an urgent appeal arising in his tone after a couple of times. “I need a walk.”

Never really did she care for such excursions – and many- a-time she had urged to make this evident, dragging on his arm, executing that appalling whine which was customary of small children and aggressive dogs simultaneously. Then he would sigh, and shake his head in the slightly lolloping way which seemed to infuse his whole movement, and submit to another night at the pictures, or at dinner, listening with a remoteness she took for fondness to her tirades of conversation. She liked him then, she told herself. Silence was romantic after all, like in the films.

It was silent now, after the lettuce has seized rolling on the floor. Ten years! Her mouth seemed to expand in a kind of surprise, although this was ultimately necessary to allow the smoke to trickle through – emerging at intervals, John thought uncomfortably, like an ashen tongue. Yes, he thought, ten years they had lived together. The faux-leather chair, chilled and discomforting beneath him, seemed somehow reflective of that space of time, hollow as he drummed his fingers, fading where the scrub of his hair rested heavily against the material.

A cough contorted him back into the frame.

He coughed raggedly in a way that made his body appear seized by some external force, shaking from the inside so that even from where Lola was standings she could hear the click, click, click, of his grinding jaw amplified by the marble fittings. She mused – it had been her plan all along to have the lounge knocked-through to connect to the kitchen – a clear expanse in a marble, open-plan affair. She could see more that way.

She could see John with the paper still straddled stubbornly across his knee. John could see her, the curvature of her body emphasized by the straight-cut stone which surrounded her, the slender cigarette which was suspended between the thread-work of her fingers, occasionally scattering ash in its salt and pepper array.

She shook her head and crossed and get herself a glass of water. His coughing irritated her – rumbling through his lips and lingering in the air like a remonstration. The medication doing so much good and john idling away in his chair like that – occasionally clocking her out of the corner of heavy eyes where the pupils moved perceptibly, as if embodying some great weight. Water soothed over her temporary soreness of nerve – the way it curved from the metal faucet, a wide curve which reflected her face infused with colour, the full lips with which spoke with a smile –

“Oh John, this medication is doing a world of good, I’m sure.”

The way she pronounced his name clashed awfully with his sense of self-conception. He swallowed audibly – swallowed old, dank air as she drank cool clean mouthfuls of water with the fastidious gestures of a little sparrow, or some small animal. He looked grey and miserable today, she thought, coughing and spluttering there in his chair, probably staining the marble tiling with those great overgrown slippers of his.  Why couldn’t he be happy for her? Why couldn’t he –

‘I need a walk.” His speech segmented her thoughts – the unusual assertion had an announcement-like ring to it.

 He groped unsteadily to his feet, the chair and its exhausted skin squealing in protest as he moved. Such a physical effort, he thought, everything now seemed such a physical effort. Perhaps it was because the writer’s block had begun to set in and he was vaguely aware of an impending deadline for Monday. Perhaps it was because he was unconsciously concerned for his ailing mother despite her willingness to exclude him from her life for the past decade or so. People made strange choices, after all. If he had a choice now – he would have given anything just to for Lola to sit beside him and let him run a tired hand through that long brown hair of hers, like they used to, her hand in his. He watched her fingers adjust on the cigarette, the lacquered nails scraping against each other as if adjusting the settings of a weapon.  He wanted to say – “Come and give me your hand, Lo, come and give me your hand!’. He wanted to write, freely and flowingly of the grass they had chased through one summer when the idle ears of corn stretched way above their ankles. He wanted to –

“Yes, yes. Walking, walking – it’s all you ever do!”

Her words cut him, intended to be evidently without affection as her exclamation was followed by a defensive draw on the cigarette. Sure, she seemed stronger since taking up the medication, almost impossibly strong sometimes, John thought. Perhaps he should be happy for her, happy with the same intensity of the tiredness, the same dark intensity of her shadow as both swept over him where  he stood. He sidled to the door – not wanting to ignore her, wanting to instead install his movements, the way his feet aligned themselves on the floor with a kind of purposefulness of invitation. Desperate invitation, even. Walk with me, Lo.

The clock needed re-aligning, Lola thought, when John stood up, even with the strange shuffling gait he seemed to adopt nowadays, it accentuated the odd alignment of the clock. She could have it sorted soon enough – with all the new energy the medication seemed to invest in her, injecting her with resolve. Smiling around the cigarette slipped between the teeth, she stepped forward determinedly.

He didn’t look back.

Her efforts to adjust the clock, manipulating it by its sharp little fingers, were only interrupted some minutes later by a dull thud on the veranda – like the sound of the flower basket falling from its hook and uprooting the straggled articles of growth, yet again. She advanced outside crossly, biting down on the cigarette in a way that almost coated her tongue with ash. Little she cared, she just wanted to get on with things – caring equally little for the slimy, sweat-laden texture of the metal door-handle beneath her palm.

It was then, crossing the threshold, she noticed. John slumped on the slated wood of the veranda floor, seized with the spasmodic tortures of what appeared beyond a fit of coughing. She rushed to his side, careful not to swallow the ash.

“John? John? What’s happened John?”

His body was convulsed as if he had been caught in the back by a very intimate blade. But there were no such marks, no blood. Only a dry retching cough from the back of his throat which dashed the lips with foam and red. John dying, dying on his own doorstep! Lola was panicking now, pressing her face close to his, close to inanimate whites of his eyes which seemed to roll in their sockets, occasionally fractured by the images of the own futility of his fight.

“Speak to me John!” Her voice came in breathy, desperate bursts, furling across his face – she hoped it may rouse him, anything –

His voice twisted to an agonized shriek.

“Smoke! That smoke, that…”

Delirium, she thought hastily, it must be delirium. She tossed away the near finished cigarette, grappled for his hands, attempted to plant a quick kiss on his forehead. She could manage this, she told herself, that is what the medication would allow her to do – stay collected, stay calm.  It was with a sense of this regained resolve with which she rose and ran for the phone.

Must ring the doctor.

She scrabbled on the phone table for where her medication box sat customarily, rifled through for the brochure and punched in the given number.

The doctor answered without apparent surprise, despite the slight tremulousness of her tone. She was a little embarrassed, despite the gravity of the situation – this was the doctor to whom she always told – yes, I am and can be a strong and eloquent person.

“It’s John – I think he’s having a fit!” She managed, gripping the receiver in a way that seemed somehow familiar. She couldn’t help it.

The doctor calmly, almost absently, asked her for the symptoms. Unnerved by this, as she could not see the form of John as she spoke – presumably still prostrate in agony on the veranda – she began to list all she could remember.

The doctor did not interrupt her, only opening his audibly dry lips to conclude her listing.

“The most evident symptoms, it appears… of smoke poisoning.”

A pulse of perspiration seemed to thicken Lola’s palm in a hot burst, the anger fizzed in her throat.
“But, but –“

“Yes? Yes?”

The doctor seemed to mimic her, an echo in her air. She continued, falteringly.

“But you told me that this form of medication – these cigarettes, antidepressant cigarettes, yes, if they are the cause, that is - you told me that they would do no harm to those I love!” She spat in an almost single hysterical outpour.

The doctor paused momentarily, as if whetting his lips. His voice arrived at her ear, earthly and measured with every word.

“But Miss Lack – you don’t love John, do you?”

A great hacking cough.

She left the receiver hanging like a shattered jaw as she ran back onto the veranda at the accumulation of another grating shriek, hardly hearing what the doctor had said. The noise foamed from John’s lips – the words in which were inaudible.

 And there, on the veranda, she looked over the convulsed body of her partner, the cold wood against which his head shook, the sun glowing sickly through the clouds, the cigarette, her cigarette, the end of which she had left burning-ever-so-slightly beside him.

Her eyes looked for distraction – falling to the medical leaflet she still clutched between her fingers.

Allowing the true self to be revealed…’

The words rose to meet her, as thick and sudden as smoke. er

Friday, 3 January 2014

Finding Love

It had not been a terrible argument.

That was what irritated her. She mulled her hands in the bowl of hot water as if mimicking the movements of her thoughts – disturbed and aimless. The cigarette clenched between her teeth scattered occasional ash which fluttered vaguely on the surface before being immersed itself. She was washing the dishes, heavy in their crafted stone, from which they had eaten, ceremonially, almost unfeelingly. She fondled the fork from which he had eaten only moments before with a kind of triumph – as if smearing any significance of his into the metal. Bright little shards shone tellingly.

Her husband  was poised upon the chair in the corner, engaged in an evident display of watching her. He too was irritated. The cigarette seemed thin and insubstantial in his hand – somehow summative of all that was happening to him. He inhaled and exhaled at strange intervals as if purposefully avoiding his breath mingling with hers – instead ejecting the occasional trail of smoke which he allowed to flow from almost reluctant lips. He tried to think about what he had done wrong. He noticed that the angle of her sharp little head, even the way she stood in her bare feet with the insteps slightly raised and her back to him over the sink, seemed accusative.

She turned suddenly in a way that made the hair bristle on the back of his neck.

“Will you be wanting desert?”

He struggled to contain himself – her voice was obnoxious to him, its mocking impersonality, the sing-song of the stripped-down artificial timbre of a shop worker. ‘Will you be wanting it in a gift bag?’ ‘Will you be wanting it to take home?’ – Yes, her speech was so painfully reflective of the external world. For she could go around, amass experiences, objects, noises, whatever she wanted – and then return to him, indifferent. The very life in her voice seemed to score incision after incision in his creased brow, his black eyes which burned in the shadow beneath –

‘Quit staring at me, Hugh. I’m asking you a question!’

That voice again.

It angered him and all he managed was a non-committal, mechanical nod of the head. Why? Why not? Whether he ate or not at present meant little to him – for it was just a momentary occupation, as everything else. Or nearly everything else. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the fire was burning low and hissing a dull orange in the grate. It was customary for him to get up and restore it, but tonight he allowed the dull assemblage of his body to remain passive, thinking that it might irritate her enough in order for them to have a real argument. There was something in her silence, the half-fondness of her movements, which disturbed him.

‘It’s in a tin I’m afraid – all we have is tinned. Will that do for you? Will that do?’

He clocked onto an almost hysterical note in her tone, the words arriving at his ears somehow broken and dissembled. What was tinned and why did he care if it was? Images of cold, damp metal seeped into his thoughts, and he moved his hand onto his knee as if manoeuvring a great weight. It sure was cold with that fire dying out.

He nodded again.

Slap, slap, slap. Her bare feet on the stone crossed pugnaciously to the pantry, past the mantelpiece and its emphatic array of cosmetics, past the stopped clock which still hung on the wall regardless of its stunted face. Slap, slap, slap. She returned with a dark circular tin of currant cake and a blunt knife – a knife they both used often, peeling and slicing overripe and swollen vegetables in the kitchen customarily on a Sunday afternoon. But it was the evening now and it was cake. Hugh attempted to remember what he had just eaten, but could not. All he could remember was a chilled congealing quality to mouthful after superfluous mouthful, his eyes fixed as if caught in the suspended strands of her hair, watching that triumphant little smile.

She was still smiling as she opened the tin. Deft circular movements with the tin opener – quick and determined from the wrist. She paused half-way through her manoeuvring, as if to gauge his attention. There was something sensual in the way she held her hands, a certain practice to her particular movements. She seemed to breathe a little louder than usual. The tin slid slightly against the marble surface and prevented him from drawing any kind of clear conclusion.

‘Unable to get out..?’ the radio drawled in a fusty monotone. An advert for stair lifts. It must be awful, bent and clawed in one’s own home, Hugh thought absently. The sensation of shuffling under the suffocating weight of one’s own mortality – the prospect sickened him slightly. A sickness which swayed to his stomach as his eyes still remained fixed on her movements – watching her prise away the lid of tin with a mechanical kind of precision. She drew a curved nail down the inside of the lid and tasted the scraping of cake.

She did not say anything.

When people became too sick, physically, metaphorically, whatever, they might be in need of a stair lift. The concept seemed suddenly highly logical to Hugh.  Their house didn’t have stairs. But then again it was a thought, just as everything nowadays was a thought – even those wild wandering thoughts of his as he recalled her hands, the hands that had once held his, becoming leering, clenched almost cat-like, clawing away from him. He saw it happen when he slept sometimes. The chair he sat on had that half-baked smell of sleep. Then again, its cover probably hadn’t been washed since he last fell asleep on it, the time when she had locked herself in the bedroom and raised up a cold-blooded cry every time had approached the door. But what had terrified him about the cry was not that it was a cry of sadness – it was a cry of anger.

Over time, the anger had seemed to seep through her skin, erupting seemingly when it encountered resistance – whether in screaming, or shouting, slamming doors, even in that horrible little sick smile of hers which shimmered like a wound – or even now, in cutting the cake. The cake was out of the tin now, stripped of that perverse metal armouring and somehow naked on the work-surface. She did not even use a board. He envisaged that it was in order to irritate him. Perhaps they might have a real argument.

On the radio voices discussed topics of no particular interest in clear, almost cutting voices.  That irritated him too. He would have risen to turn it off with a single jab of the thumb, but his every limb felt weighted as if strung-up by that cord of hostility which shimmered terse between them. He looked slowly, languorously over his right palm, turning it like a slowly cooking piece of meat. The dead stench of mortality. The chiselled grooves undercutting his knuckles stretched with every experimental contraction of his fingers. These hands that had gathered her hair in its sweet weight, these hands that had felt her skin and traced symbols which he once believed to have great meaning against her spine. His hands felt alien to him.

Smack. The knife struck the marble with painful bluntness. The deliberate weight of her palm guiding the motion thrilled Rachel somewhat, and she smiled with a smile that was intended for herself with a secret excitement which smouldered on the surface of the skin. The first piece of cake. She pinched it between her thumb and index finger like one pinches flesh and transferred the piece to a porcelain bowl. The dark cake, almost black at the edges looked like a hammered piano key set on a cool expanse of white. Such an inference of musicality set a stream of low humming under her breath – a personal private sound she knew made Hugh wary. It was evident in his eyes as she handed him the cake.

‘ Thank you.’ He managed, the two words feeling monumental and somehow gross against his tongue, as if still stuck in the gullet. It was like some great admission, or confession had occurred.

Not that she would have cared, he thought. His eyes never left her as she resumed her place stubbornly behind the work surface, scissoring herself a corner of cake so the knife never touched the stone, feeding herself with her free hand. She seemed to relish the opportunity to become an exhibit, yet an exhibit lacking any kind of accessibility to him. It was the same hand sticky with cake which she allowed to tease slowly, tremulously through her long brown hair, bringing it away from her eyes – her eyes which looked not at him, but over his shoulder into some unexplainable distance. Something else, someone else. The very premise of possibility sickened him, and he scooped the cake up to his mouth with an intended aggression.

A cake that seemed to silt to powder at his touch. It collapsed and crumbled against his lips – an initial sweetness followed by the ominous acidity of almonds or long-steeped fruit – black and bodiless.

Some of the crumbs caught in his sweater, others fell to the floor with a sound that was still perceptible, despite the radio. The cake in his mouth seemed steeped with holes, as if unstable from the inside, and yet almost torturous, such air siphoned from his nose and mouth as if the very act of eating suffocated him. He gagged a little, a hot pulse of perspiration across his forehead, silent and desperate and somehow ridiculous. Perhaps that was what Rachel thought of him – that he was ridiculous – an onlooker choking over the essence of her life. The currants bled their heavy fragrance into his mouth, and he gagged again over the cake – cold and swollen inside, and yet parched through, like funeral-baked meats.

He watched her cut another corner and eat it with a cat-quite quality, with tight almost imperceptible movements of her mouth. Perhaps she was laughing at him, perhaps with the unhinged stare which she held apart from him, aside him, she was laughing at him. Laughing laughing laughing. He made an attempt to get to his feet.

‘Just sweet enough,” She said suddenly, her voice doused with reflection, her eyes glittering with pronunciation. Her pupils pulsed on emphasis, her hot palms flat on the marble surface.


‘It’s just sweet enough. The cake. I’m glad they didn’t ice it, I hate the stuff.’

He remembered, though he couldn’t remember the actual event in question, how her nails had unhooked the icing and almond paste from the top of a piece of fruit cake, the dark lacquer of her nails staining that brilliant white. Those long lacquered nails, he remembered  them, how they unnerved him. They were lacquered now too, reflecting the little stains of halogen light which seemed to pepper everything, her hair, her skin, her teeth. He felt suddenly incredibly, insanely jealous, a jealousy ceasing him with a slight through the stomach. The semi-recognition of the feeling which had stunted him for so long drew speech in a kind of catharsis.

I think you..’ He began.

His speech was severed, causing his breath to bubble in the back of his throat, by the shrill wail of the telephone.

Ring after ring.

A sick single tone which seemed simultaneously mocking and ridiculous, intimate in a domestic kind of way and yet also mysterious in a way he had never noticed it before – squealing from its dark alcove through the lounge door and under the stairs.

“That’ll be for me,” Rachel announced with a decisiveness which bit him, yet the unintentional rhyme and sweet tone which accompanied it made Hugh feel that it was the most affectionate thing she had uttered all day.

Affection that was not for him – but for another perhaps. The remaining cake felt moist and unhealthy in his hand, like damp skin, residue clotted on his tongue. He rose to his feet swiftly as if attempting to escape a kind of physical entrapment, the chair clattering his shed skeleton against the floor. Shaking, his eyes burned through the opposite wall, seeing her there now, cradling the receiver – the receiver suddenly grotesque in its physical significance, the hand of another, cold and purposeful, rising up to her face, brushing the hair behind her ears…

She  stood still with a jolt on seeing him standing when she entered the room. His ugly attempt to manifest power unnerved her –

‘That was just dad calling about… you know, well…  having a stair lift fitted.’

The words once again evaded him – striking against his ears painfully, yet nonsensically, spinning with his vision to an expression which made him feel anger, an anger thumping in his breast. He advanced in her direction like a blind animal, words, the very damned things, foaming in his jaw like a rising, swilling sickness .
His hand struck out, towards the mantelpiece and there his body became suspended in a gesture, caught almost like a puppet. Despite having closed the door behind her, Rachel felt more comfortably in power now, surveying with a kind of relief the shattered frame of the man in front of her, always the same. She readied herself for the volley of faltering accusations, which would collapse to apologies and run to remonstrations –

And yet it was his voice, identifiably his in a way it had not been so before, somehow, which suddenly announced:

‘I have found love.’

Declarative rather than accusative. It swilled his mouth with surprise. It seemed to emerge from him almost unconsciously.

Such an odd conclusion to all that had been felt, somehow appropriate. In speech he realised – his hand extended to the mantelpiece, that warped altar to love, piled with cosmetic pots and powders, tall bottles of fragrance which leered pale and translucent like a grotesque parody of naked bodies. Love had become a construct – boxed and bottled and stored, slimed on the tongue and crumbled on the floor – and he had found it, felt it, flushed and finally triumphant –

“And I hate it for –“ He spat in the sudden grip of announcement, looking over the black cake bloody and awful on the cream carpet. ‘- that…’

She cut him short.

“Well then, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know – I’ve found love too.’

Her eyes still looked way beyond Hugh, beyond all he had envisaged.

Behind him, the door opened.

'Can you give me a good time?'

Good times around the corner
Good times around the corner

The same words circulated like stale air through tepid beer – the obligatory anaesthesia she raised to her lips at intervals. Cold glass broke the beads of sweat beneath her fingers and muffled lights danced over the greasy interior. There were no suitable adjectives. No, she concluded, watching the reflection of her hands in the bar – as if serpentine and struggling in amber – nothing but insignificance. Poetry came automatic and meaningless. Even the tutor noticed –

‘What you need Leah, is to install a bit of fight in you. Get out, get some experience, have a good time…’
She remembered looking into those supposed academic eyes which seemed to glint as if the stare was fixed with something vindictive, the lacquered mouth mulching over the familial phrase. Miss Mariah Davy, master-of-the-arts, automatically-efficient, surely did not have to worry about having a ‘good time’ herself. No, it was just an oft-described antidote to the floating undergraduate, in the hope that something productive would arrive of it.

Leah cast a cautionary stare over the bar.

Nothing but the usual – sunken eyes sometimes staring back through a film of sweat, or hastily pressed powder. A group of girls forced laughter from a darkened corner to try and conceal the rolling of cigarettes. Leah’s hands itched with inaction and she opened and closed them – the ink-marks on skin splitting and distorting in the mimicry of a crumpled manuscript.

‘Hurry up please…’

The landlord retained his ambiguity behind the smell of beer and empty statements. It hit Leah’s face with the cold coagulated lingering of saliva. She raised her head as if transferring the sipping of beer to the sipping of air – yet it was speech that surged in a horrible convulsive motion of the mouth:

‘You might not give me time, no, but what I want to know is, seriously – can you give me a good time?’

The syllables seemed large and fleshy against her tongue, strange – but then again, what wasn’t strange? 

What about the revelry of the Christmas revellers on the cobbled streets with their decorous masks and equally decorous mouths? They stammered upon stone like miniature dolls, the click, click, click of limbs, the click, click click of lighters and fireworks and all else that illuminated…

The click, click, click of a chastening tongue behind the bar shutters –

 ‘Will someone mind showing this young lady to the door?’

Leah wondered at the acidity easing especially over the expulsion of ‘young lady’ – cold and creeping. A certain nameless cold like that which pervades hospital waiting rooms when one is a child and yet the nurse insists that all that in prospect is a ‘good time’, a cold that coagulated against her neck from the inevitable young man who gripped her waist and asked through an empty plastic face whether she wanted ‘a good time’… Memories, stirring and rising like glass in a wound.

‘Come on love... Let’s be going…’

A thick masculine voice stressed the imperative and she felt the customary hand clamped in the indent just above her hip. Cold, so cold. She felt herself being guided towards the door, her movements mimicked by the tapering flames of greasy candles stoppered in bottles and gloating in the lingered spread of seeping wax. The man escorting her  smelled of sweat and superfluous beer.

He paused just at the threshold of the doorway, where Leah felt the nights knife slide over her like a cloak. The streetlights seemed to fix their shuttered stare upon the ground below, glowering red, casting the uneven cobbles gross and carbuncular – a perfect mask of a private town. An accordion wailed on the street corner in which his voice was caught and mingled…

‘I’ll tell you want you want for a good time, love.’
His palm seemed to thicken in front of her face , quivering like a cut meat on the butchers slab. It was a physical effort to focus her eyes, a physical effort to notice that his too were red raw.

He gave no response to his declaration other than to indicate the plethora of pills that filled his palm, almost like spider eyes, and to muse in a voice strange and drawn-out as if swept through a seashell –
‘A good time, eh? Yeah, you don’t even remember the first couple of hours, and then the colours, the colours! And you know, I heard my mother once, dressed  to the nines she was, like a masquerade..’

It did not sound like a good time to her.

She felt herself disengaged from his grasp seemingly before making the conscious decision to make movement,  a slow-motion staggering on the slimed surface of the street. A momentary stab of consciousness told her that the accordion was no good either. The weeping instrument moving in sync with a rough assemblage of female body as if one great lung from which the flesh had been scraped away. There was something horribly human about its output, horribly so that Leah felt a flush of relief as her thrown coin clattered in the steel can at the woman’s feet. The woman flashed her shattered mask, old and bloody under artificial light –

‘A good night to you, a good night.’

The awful indeterminacy of the words struck like steel pins in the spine – confirming a structure that sought only to agonize. Leah continued down the street, watched only by crude assemblages of mannequins adorning shop fronts, defiant and almost dreadful as if in some genderless conspiracy with the night. Watching, forever faceless, watching. Watching those who trawled the streets beneath the bruised remains of the day. Somehow, people seemed to perceive that the lack of light made things not quite the same. A very exhibition of the case appeared to exhibit itself at the street corner, where a young woman leaned and suspended her image readily in the expectant frame of a car window. Although Leah could only observe the girl from the back, she noticed her hand moving with an evident agitation through fabricated hair – a hand once blue with ink and cold, now diffused with the blue of vulnerable young veins. She was cast almost as marble, chilled and resolute, murmuring through the car window  into the ear of her audience, the ear of the audience which  –

‘I’ll give you a good time… just…’

Then she named a price.

A good time always came with a price. Leah had learned that. The history undergraduate who defended his idea of a good time as the needle jarred in the vein, the young woman across the corridor who woke up to the human manifestation of a good time in the form of a lost young man with a wandering stare and staining hands. He went on his way too, just as the all did, indeterminate, unrecognised, the self-confirmed failures, the shifters, and stirrers. Caught under streetlights, headlights, flickering vaguely like leaf litter.

Leah remembered her face refracted into a million spiracles in the car wing-mirror, the stare from the rear window of the woman stood on the kerb moments before. Everything moving.

And yet there, beneath the inevitable stream of artificial light, the lingering illumination of those searching for the promise of a good time.