Spread across the dining room table, the newspaper is
dissected, absorbed, and devoured voraciously. This rag, running necklaces of
dirty type that smudges fingertips, this dirty Herald, the only touchstone with
the world outside Bloomsbury Square. Today the paper tantalizes with a headline
on a comet streaking through the southern hemisphere; one slice of an
onion-thin page and there it is, an artist’s sad rendering that accompanies the
story of the Great Meteor shower of 1922, first seen in Cordoba, Argentina.
Over wire-rimmed glasses, Virginia Woolf peers down at
the drawing, takes in the words, breathes in an imagined Argentinian starry
12th December – the paper informs her – the nucleus had all but disappeared
but the long tail retained a bright viscosity that shot through the wintry sky
near Princeton, New Jersey, its breathless magnitude an estimated 140,000,000
miles long and still visible to the naked eye. That said, the story writer
concludes spitefully, “It is very doubtful whether people generally would know
anything about the occurrence until they read of it in the papers.”
If she were so inclined, she would track down the writer and
slit his miserable throat just for that attitudinal prose alone. Fortunately,
it is in her practical nature to reserve homicidal urges (imaginative, of
course) for matters of a more pressing nature – most recently, an unknown and
heinously boring writer had shunned the press after Leonard declined his
manuscript, and thus her imagination rushed him to an early grave – a razor
blade to the throat perhaps, a body slumped in an unmarked grave wrapped in a
Persian rug – perhaps the very rug she’d had Nelly send out for just the other
day, which had been delivered two hours early, and she herself had had to see
in the delivery men.
There is the chink of glass against glass, somebody is
pouring her another drink, and Virginia reclines back in her chair, happy to
allow the conversation to continue around her. She is back in the room, present
again, a flurry of fire-lit faces that had not been aware that she had ever
left. She sweeps a thumb across inky fingertips, and crowns a drawing of Tutankhamun
on the opposite fold on the paper with her discarded glasses, which distort a
thick spray of stars in a farsighted lens. She fixes her expression just over
Leonard’s shoulder, to the window – she looks into the winter evening. All that
is visible are shadows from the dim light of other buildings, other rooms,
gaslights along the street, and beyond that, the eternal vault of the city that
harbours so many of her dreams. For long hours the dreary, muddy, rainy winter
stays encapsulated in darkness; winters are different here than they are in
Rodmell. Even after everything that has happened, she still thinks of London as
home. She still thinks of returning. But there is no undoing the past, no
returning from Rodmell to here – the precarious edge of the world, where this
strange city captures voices unknown to Mr Bell’s invitation of a dinner party,
where the abstraction of the waves of imagination always fit, painful and unerring,
in the form of a novel, an essay, a word on the tip of her tongue – a story
that takes flight mid stride down a street fuelled and chased by everybody
How exciting other people were.
She had become lost again, a train of thought abruptly
derailed by the door opening, a great oak of a door, creaking on its hinges,
and she was back in the room for the second time, transfixed by the sudden
entrance of another woman, the conversation, she realised, having taken a
rather alarming turn, and Vanessa, blushing, was clutching Lytton’s arm in mock
“You can either become an actress or a whore,” Clive was
saying, though the subject of conversation was lost on her. Then the damning
line, aimed at Vanessa: “I’d say the latter, as your acting in the bedroom has
always proved a mastery of your performance.”
Somehow, Virginia is neither shocked nor offended,
neither does she look across at her sister, Vanessa, who she knows very well
will be sinking herself into Duncan Grant’s shoulder, much to Lytton’s despair.
She hears Clive’s usual demanding rap upon the table, following what he thought
was a comment of great hilarity, followed by the shoulder-hunched uxoriousness
of his posture, as if in the time between the knock and the opening of the door
he thinks better of his behaviour, and suddenly, once again, he is in love.
“Who is that?” It’s Dorothy that speaks after what
appears to be a considerable amount of time, and Virginia wonders if she had
somehow seen the door open even before it had.
“Mrs Harold Nicholson”, “Lady Sackville-West”, “The Right
Honourable…” Whispers pass between the glasses, and Clive stands, chair legs
grating fiercely on the flagstone floor, and opens his arms to welcome the late
She shines with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink
glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. Lytton pulls a chair from the table
with the lavish gesture of the half-drunk, and Roger Fry pours wine into her
glass as she comments on the décor, touches
the fine satin of the curtain, as marvellous as what lies between a woman’s
legs, and says, “Virginia Woolf,” slowly, as though she were reading her name
for the first time whilst tracing a finger along the spine of Mrs Dalloway, and finally Virginia sees
her face in the light, plain, handsome, dark eyes burning as if she were coming
out of a fevered dream. Virginia is no romantic, but she imagines her own eyes
in response, the perihelion – the blazing comet at its closest point to the
sun, so dazzlingly close to immolation – to be this elusive shade of blue, cool
and hot at once.
And then, before Virginia can respond, Vita is caught up
unexpectedly by E.M. Forster, who, sitting to her left, encompasses Vita and
her attention halfway through a sentence. And then, seamlessly, she is laughing,
charming, taking the floor, immediately the highlight of the evening, her being
in short (what Virginia had never been) a
real woman, and Virginia is left to push her wine glass half an inch
further away, leaving a half-moon of condensation on the table, a puddle reflecting the fluttering caprices of the fire’s
waxes and wanes. She feels heat rising within herself, not unlike the heat of
the fire itself, only this heat is inside her, and she knows without looking up
that Vita is watching her, in between conversational pauses, so, instead, she
turns to her right, to Desmond MacCarthy, a man in mid-rant, who points
dramatically at John Maynard-Keynes, dark eyes threaded with fine lines of
bloodshot, an embroidery of failure and gin. “I trust you’ve made overtures to
the fellow?” he inquires. “Suggest that he leave the premises?”
Desmond snorts a laugh through his nose and gestures with an
empty glass. “Suggestions, overt, subtle,
and all gradations in between, have been felicitously extended.” And John declares that he should be
“throw him to the wolves,” which Virginia mishears as the waves, a thought
which rolls in, and rolls back with the suddenness of yet more snorted derision
from Desmond, and again, Virginia finds herself between half-heard
conversation, and, whether deliberate or not, her gaze about the table wanders
hand-in-hand with her mind, catches the rise of Vita’s fingers to her lips to
conceal a smile that reveals, despite this glamour, grape clusters and pearl
necklaces, that there is something loose fitting.
She reaches again for the wine glass,
blurs the crescent moon of firelight on the table, and sips the warmth of it,
and, like the waves of the sea, the wine
consecrates the past in a dreamlike sheen, in memories blurred and comforting,
the real and the imaginary indistinguishable in a fragmentary nocturne. For a moment
she closes her eyes, imagines the bottom of the sea. Then, with a sigh, rouses
herself. Her imagination lifts up its skirts and tiptoes back to life: the
clinking of glasses, the slapping of cards on the table, and the gentle murmur
of a piano she had never realised was being played.
In Need of Repair
I followed him up a narrow, wooden staircase and wondered if this was a bad idea. I hadn’t gotten high since I graduated college more than two years ago. Blonde fur collected at the corners of the stairs. As James unlocked his door to reveal the inside of his apartment, I considered making up some excuse to leave, but when the door opened, I followed him inside.
James was a non-traditional student at the state university where
I was enrolled to start my MFA that fall. He’d done ten years in Iraq in the
military and now he was getting his degree in political science and living with
Kai, his service dog, off campus. We’d met one week earlier while I was filling
out hiring forms for my teaching assistantship. James’ apartment was flanked by
a church on each side and it looked like it could have been an old bank, two
stories high with small windows close together.
I was never sure what I wanted with men or from them. On some
level, I liked the attention they gave me, the distraction for my everyday woes
and anxieties that seemed to plague me at every turn. Friday afternoons were
the peak of my nervous tendencies. I’d dream up what felt like thousands of
different scenarios for my weekend and then be hard pressed to choose one. The
state of indecision was a mental place of sweet torture and one I chose to
inhabit often. So when someone invited me to do something, took some agency
over my plans, it was a relief. I could simply say yes to whatever they
proposed and that released me from my suffering for a moment.
In the case of James, I couldn’t discern my desire from my fear,
so I crossed over his threshold knowing where going into his apartment would
probably lead. There were sexual places in myself that I hadn’t explored much
as a teenager and which I wanted to understand now. I was missile seeking
whatever didn’t feel like home.
James’ walls were adorned with framed military awards, electric
guitars, and art. A psychedelic wave swallowed a dark silhouette in a swirl of
color. Pepper licked Kai’s metal food bowl so it rasped across the kitchen
floor and James invited me to sit down. I chose a black chair at the edge of
the living room which was also the kitchen and bedroom. Next to me was a table
with some rolling papers and a bong. James sat on the futon and lit the bong
for me, told me to hold the glass to my lips and suck in. I took two hits and I
felt fine. James took a turn and then gave it back to me. I took another hit.
And another. Then everything started to disintegrate.
We went for a walk in the nearby woods where we held hands and
Pepper got sprayed by a skunk, so we had to come back and wash her. Time started
slowing down and that made me sweat and do lots of nervous yawns and check my
phone even though no one was messaging me.
The summer night blossomed,
heat pushing its way in through the window screens and causing the tapestries covering
them to billow subtly inward. After washing Pepper, James joined
me on the black futon. His flat screen TV loomed in
front of us and I thought I heard the rustle of leaves from a nearby tree.
Everything felt eerie and dangerous and I wanted it all to stop, but I didn’t
know how to make that happen.
If I could talk to my younger self, I would remind her that she
had legs. She had strong legs that could move her up off that couch and away
from intimacy with James. I would give her a small lesson in quantum physics,
tell her that nothing is real until you look at it. Your perception brings
things into existence. What was I changing by continuing to look at the TV
screen in front of me instead of looking at James? His parents were from Korea
and he had jet black hair with a round face. He was taller than me, but so were
most men. If I’d looked at him more that night, would I have been able to
change things? I don’t know.
In other universes, other things happened, but in the universe I’m
conscious of, I stayed on James’ futon watching a terrible comedian on Netflix
until James took off his tank top to reveal the ripples of muscle on his chest,
his tan skin, a map of his body in front of me. He noticed that I was shivering
and draped his wool poncho over me. I snuggled up to him with my head resting
on his tattoos. He rolled
a joint and after he smoked it, he rested his fingertips on my inner thigh. I
played with the soft edge of his board shorts and then he moved to touch me
under my dress.
That’s when my phone started buzzing. My sister was calling, and I
went to the bathroom to talk to her in private. She was in Vermont and called
to catch up. I told her I’d gotten way too high and was at some strange guy’s
place and didn’t know what to do.
“Wait it out,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”
I hung up and stared at myself in the mirror. My skin was covered
in salt from the ocean. I moved my mouth to make sure it was attached to my
face and I was still living in my body. All the wires appeared to be connected.
I wondered how I’d become the kind of person who hung out with random guys and
smoked weed. Before, I’d always protected my ladylike presentation at all
costs. A lady would never get high. A lady would never have a one-night stand
with a military man. I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked out of the
bathroom and sat back next to James.
“Let’s go to the bed,” he suggested.
Kai slept below us in her den and I thought about her being there,
not watching but feeling the walls of her den press a little closer onto her
under our weight on the mattress above her. James decided the bed was too hot,
so we got in the shower. The falling droplets of water all around created the
atmosphere of tropical rainforest and I imagined how peaceful a place that like
that might be: with large roots and tree trunks triple my size, the echoes of monkey
calls from above and leaves bigger than my face. That sounded like home. The
sex wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant, but neutral. I couldn’t open my eyes due to
the water streaming down, and eventually the pounding stopped.
We stepped out of the shower and toweled off and when we got our
clothes back on, we resumed our places on the futon. I found my phone blinking
with a new message. Taylor had come to pick me up and she was waiting outside.
I told James this and we walked down the stairs, my hair still soaked and
dripping down my back. The clouds had become so heavy and dense that they
couldn’t hold on to their wet cargo any longer. James and I hugged on the front
lawn of his apartment. I got in the passenger seat of Taylor’s lime-green
Two weeks later, I’d find needles in his apartment in the cupboard
under the gecko tank. I’d wonder if he was a junky and be afraid to ask. I’d
sit on his front lawn while he read J.R.R. Tolkien in a lawn chair while
smoking another joint and get the feeling that he probably wasn’t a junky but
that I wanted him to be. If he were a junky, then I would have a reason to stop
hanging out with him.
On Lovella Avenue
I decided to go for a walk. I had been bedridden for several days from a fever and general malaise. Cause unknown. I felt being outside in the oppressive heat might rid me from the burden of my thoughts. So I set out on my journey, hobbling like an invalid. My hips tight and sore from lack of movement.
I tried to look at everything with different eyes. As
if I had never seen any of it before. Which was quite the contrary. I had taken
this route for several days before the illness had taken hold and left me
housebound. But I was surprised to find that actually, there were so many new
things to be discovered on this walk. On this day.
I noticed a pair of bright teal doors to a two-family
flat I’d passed by many times. But now they stood presenting themselves to me,
as if installed just yesterday. My eyes just never saw them. I continued on my
journey, eager to know what other hidden treasures remained undiscovered by my
My gait was awkward. Each step felt unnatural and
forced. Like a quadruped made to walk on its hind legs for show. I was almost
certain my legs would collapse underneath the weight of my body at any given
moment. I wasn’t heavy, my legs just felt abnormally weak. And they were, as was
everything else in my body. I just didn’t know it yet.
Feeling spontaneous, I diverted from my usual path. I
turned right down Lovella Avenue. What a strange name. I assumed I could cut
through this street to reach my regular trail a block or two down the road.
There were two small squirrels, I’m almost certain they were babies, running
back and forth in the street. Flourishing. This made me happy. Babies make me
As I approached, they scurried off to clear the way.
Further down the sidewalk I saw two more obstacles. A pair of black cats. But
unlike the squirrels, they were anticipating my arrival. They sat and stared,
waiting for me to approach them. When I finally did, the scruffy black one
asked to be petted while his friend looked on from a safe distance talking to
me in meows. I spent a few minutes with them. Contemplating their life. Hoping
they were safe, okay, loved, well-cared for. If I was more insane than I
already was I would have taken them home, but their presumed owner was standing
in the doorway. So I kissed them on their heads and went on my way. That’s when
I saw it.
An opossum. Blonde, not gray. Small. Strange to be
seen out in the middle of the day. I thought they were nocturnal. It didn’t
notice me, so I called to it. Making kissing noises to get its attention. From
what I knew about opossums they were aggressive, so I was surprised that this
one did not seek to engage with me despite my best efforts. I watched it cross
the street. It didn’t look well. Each step it took seemed to take a great
effort. It seemed tired and I understood. My heart hurt, but I continued on my
walk. Past deceased worms on the sidewalk, bloated from the heat of the sun.
Whenever I saw them alive, I tried to save them. But for so many, it was too
late. This, I also understood.
Two blocks further down and I’d reached a dead end.
There was no indication of this when I made the initial right down Lovella
Avenue. I felt conned. All this walking for nothing. Just another dead end,
like my life. I turned around in frustration, ready to return home when I saw
It had made it across the street and was sitting by a
truck in the driveway of a pristinely manicured lawn in front of a pristinely
manicured house. Something I knew I would never have the luxury of owning in
this life. I said hello to the opossum as I had to the squirrels and the cats,
but the opossum said hello back. I paused. Unsure if my insanity had reached
its apex under the blistering sun and days of fever. But it continued on. It
was a she, I could tell by the voice. She asked me to stop for a moment and
listen to her.
I sat down on the lawn under the shade of a Dogwood
tree. She came closer and sat next to me. I was silent, waiting to hear her
story. She told me she was old, nearly two now, and tired. Not much longer for
this earth. Her last litter of babies had been poisoned by people and died. She
was dying from the poison, too. I felt sad for her, I could tell she was
hurting and I wanted to ease her pain. I asked her to sit in my lap and let me
hold her for a while as she talked. I would listen to her endlessly, for as
long as she desired.
She told me about her youth. She was born not far from
here, near a dumpster behind the supermarket off Clayton Avenue. She was one of
twenty-two joeys, but her mother only had thirteen teats and nine of her
siblings perished from starvation in infancy. Nature is cruel. Her childhood
was short-lived. She witnessed the death of her mother at four months old, hit
by a car filled with teenage boys having their idea of fun on a Midwestern
Friday night. “People hate us,” she said, “and I don’t know why. We just want
to live, is that too much to ask?”
Humans are cruel. I began to quietly weep and my tears
fell onto her matted coat, covered in dirt and fleas. I didn’t want her to die,
she was special, but I could feel the shortness of her breath and her weak
heartbeat. I told her I wanted to take her home and rehabilitate her and maybe
we could live together, happily ever after.
She told me she was ready to die. After watching her
babies succumb to the poison she didn’t see a reason to go on. All she asked
was that I sit with her and listen for as long as I could. She told me about
her adventures. After her mother died, her and her siblings had to fend for themselves.
Some set off on their own and she never saw them again. She stayed together
with three of her sisters and for some time they lived peacefully in a vacant
lot. She raised her first litter there in paradise, but land developers
purchased the lot shortly after and began construction so they had to move
again. With babies in tow, she was too slow to keep up with her sisters, so
they parted ways and she began her journey alone.
By then she was nearly eight months old. She had seven
babies in her first litter. She was successful in raising them all to
adulthood, which was an extraordinary feat for a first time mother. Now and
then she would cross paths with them around the neighborhood. Many had families
of their own now. They would stop and chat for a bit, but everyone was busy
just trying to survive. Not much time could be spared. She told me one of her
sons died from an attack by a dog. He was her first born son, Ico. I could hear
the sadness in her tone as she told me this. Her voice trembling and weaker by
For many months after her first litter she lived
alone, taking refuge in a feral cat colony near the Recplex. People felt bad
for the stray cats and would feed them regularly. No one ever feels bad for
opossums. The cats were kind enough to share their food with her despite their
differences. Then one rainy day the local animal control came by and rounded up
all the cats, never to be seen again. Shortly thereafter, the food stopped
coming and she moved on.
She made many friends along her short journey, but
many of them also perished. Hit by cars, attacked by animals, hurt by humans.
Life seemed so unfair she questioned why it had to be like this. She struggled
for many months, deciding whether or not to conceive again. It didn’t seem
right to bring more babies into this world of chaos and suffering. But then she
They fell in love quickly and lived for many months
near the outdoor Home and Garden section of Home Depot. Eventually she became
pregnant and when she told Aris, he was elated. It was his first litter. He
left that evening to go forage for food to bring back to her and the growing
babies, but by sunrise he hadn’t returned and never did.
Alone and pregnant, she needed protection. She had
seen several neighboring opossums in the area and reached out for help. An
older female named Kaiza took pity on her growing belly and agreed to take her
in. Kaiza was almost three years old when she met her, ancient for an opossum,
and refused to have more babies. She had seen the horrors of man and could not
allow for the possibility of more suffering than already existed. She stayed
with Kaiza until the babies were born nearly two weeks later.
Not wanting to be a burden on her elder, she decided
to leave with her five babies in her pouch. She felt strong and hopeful she
could fend for them alone and set off to live in a nearby park. Her babies grew
in the park and played and had many experiences exploring the wonders of
nature. She had discovered a bag of food near the playground, a prize, that she
took back to her offspring, now big enough to venture outside her pouch. She
fed the five of them a cheeseburger, fries, and chicken nuggets. They were
happy at the feast their mother had brought home to them.
That evening two of her smaller ones fell ill. She
stayed with them the whole night, not wanting to leave their side to find more
food. By sunrise she awoke to her greatest horror. All five of them were cold,
lifeless. They died in their sleep from the food they ate that had no doubt
been poisoned. She stayed by their side all day. Crying. Feeling incredibly
guilty for feeding them the food that killed them. She found the scraps from
the bag and ate them ravenously. She didn’t want to go on in a world like this.
And now here she was, almost lifeless herself, laying
in my lap. To me, a small little baby. I cradled her and cried with her. I told
her I was sorry people were so cruel and that her babies were no longer
suffering. I told her I had so much I wanted to share with her if she would
only let me take her to a vet, but her breathing was labored and she told me
the end would be soon. I told her I would take her body and I would bury it in
my backyard so she would never be alone again, she would always have a place
with me. I asked her name to put on the tombstone and she replied with her last
I sat there motionless for some time. Sobbing into her
fur. Feeling like I’d lost an old friend, perhaps the only one in the world who
ever truly understood me. Eventually the owners of the house came outside to
move the car. I must have been a strange sight, crying with a dead opossum in
my lap. I stood up, holding her still warm body, and began to walk home.
About two blocks down the road I crossed paths with a
dead bird. Its head bent upwards unnaturally towards the sky. I didn’t have a
chance to meet the bird while it was still alive, but I picked it up all the
same and placed it gently on top of Nila’s body as I continued my journey home.
Maybe her name was Nila, too. Like the opossum.
Breaking Bread with the Pomaks
With each passing kilometre along the E55, my hopes for picturesque
Pomak villages nestled in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains became snarled
up in the plastic debris that littered the fields and riverbanks of the valley.
Earlier, after breakfast, we’d checked out of our accommodation in
Xanthi, a small Thracian city in North-Eastern Greece, jumped in our hire car
and headed in the direction of the Bulgarian border. Touring conditions looked
good; empty roads and a blue sky; but within minutes we were snaking along a
valley of small, tatty farmsteads.
The area seemed poor and neglected; the buildings looked makeshift,
shreds of polythene hung from skeletal poly-tunnels or had tangled themselves
in shrubs or the branches of stressed trees. Empty fertiliser bags seemed to
have found their way to wire fences and any inner corners the wind had licked.
Used plastic bottles lay in the sun on the riverbanks, especially around the
high watermark. It looked as if some great storm had swept down from the
mountains and scattered this debris, but more likely the farmers and labourers couldn’t
even be bothered to burn the stuff. But where were these keepers of the land?
There wasn’t a person to be seen.
“Daddy, I’m bored, I’m hungry,” said Georgie.
I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw our young son gripping his
embargoed Nintendo; he caught my eye with a pleading look. I tapped my husband
on the thigh and glanced across at him.
“How far, Baba? I fancy a coffee, maybe a snack.”
He looked down and traced a finger across a vague map in the guidebook.
“Five minutes to Echinos then about half an hour to the baths at
Thermes; we could even nip over into Bulgaria if you wanted; it’s just a few
“Maybe. Let’s have a coffee first.”
The valley opened out into a plain, and I saw a white village up ahead,
climbing the hillside. A minaret pierced the sky, its tip gleaming electric
blue against the evergreen firs of the foothills.
“Echinos is one of the few Muslim villages in Greece,” said Baba.
“What does the book say?”
“Not much. Inhabited by Pomaks, a Slavic Muslim minority in Western Thrace da-da, less than 40,000 people in all, scattered mainly across a group of small villages near the border da-da exempted from the 1922–23 exchange of people between Greece and Turkey. Pomak is an oral language, not written. Listen to this, movement in and out of this area was restricted until the mid-1990s.”
“Sounds complicated. I wonder how different it will be?”
As we approached a long low bridge across two converging rivers in front
of the village, I saw a large open cemetery to my left which seemed to cover
more space than the village itself. I thought to pull over and take a closer
look, but then I noticed a couple of police or army vehicles parked either side
of the entrance to the bridge and a couple of uniformed men standing in the
middle of the road.
“Who are they, Daddy?”
“Police, I think. It’s OK.”
I slowed down and scanned the bridge ahead; it was clear, though I could
see more parked vehicles and uniformed men on the other side, near a church. I
felt my stomach muscles tighten and a dull ache in my fingers as I held the
steering wheel. The two uniformed men, carrying automatic rifles, stepped out
of the road and waved us through. As I drove past, I gave a small nod, forcing
my eyes to fix on the way ahead, not them.
As we crossed the bridge Baba took photos, Georgie stayed quiet for
“Don’t take pictures of the men or stuff,” I warned Baba.
As we reached the other side, it became clear that something was going
on at the church. The Greek flag, and what I guessed was the Greek Army flag,
flew from the flagpole next to the chapel. There were more guards around, and a
couple of higher-ranked officers stood near a military bus that had parked up.
I noticed civilians in the church grounds. The guards looked bored and
thankfully uninterested in us; they waved us through and down the road away
from the church.
“Do you still want to stop here?” I asked, unsure of myself.
“Yes, it’s on the itinerary. It’s meant to be pretty,” said Baba.
We parked up and walked back past the guards towards the village. When
we passed the church, everyone seemed to have gone in, so I was none the wiser.
I led the way and took us up the first road to the left, and as the church
disappeared from view, I concluded that what was going on there seemed to have
nothing to do with this mainly Muslim village. I turned to Georgie,
“You look out for a baker, I’ll look out for a cafe.”
As we walked along the small streets of mainly whitewashed houses, I saw
crumbling boundary walls and cats warily stalking across old roofs. Here and
there, parked cars and mopeds, but not as many as I’d seen in other villages in
Greece. Even allowing for the fact it was only just after ten a.m. on a Sunday,
the streets were empty of people; no children, no women, no men, not even old
men. I saw one dog chained up in an earthen backyard, but also it skulked
around in silence.
There didn’t seem to be any centre to the village, and my hopes for
coffee were fading fast. Baba lagged behind, stopping every few metres to take
photos. Maybe it was time to give up and drive on. I took one more turning
uphill, and as Georgie and I rounded a tight bend, I whistled a short, coded
refrain so that Baba would know where we had gone. The road widened, and some
small mostly unsigned shopfronts came into view. We stopped at one with a stack
of logs out the front and next to them a row of large square tins with circular
openings at the top.
“What’s going on there?” I said.
“And what’s that?” said Georgie, pointing to a blackened long-handled
I could smell woodsmoke and then bread. I was just about to speak when
the door of the shop swung open, and a tall, hefty man in dirty grey trousers
and a white vest burst out onto the pavement. He grinned as sweat ran down his
face and he prowled around the street as if he had just thrown another wrestler
out of the ring. I smiled at him and held out my camera in the direction of the
shopfront. He smiled back, nodded and started to talk in what I thought was
Greek and then not. He pointed to the shop.
I looked at him and shook my head.
“Psomi,” he said.
I nodded. It was the Greek word for bread.
I made a kneading sign with my hands, and he laughed, nodding.
Baba caught up with us and came over and touched me on the elbow.
“I’m going to walk on and take some photos. You going to get a snack?”
“Sure, leave it to us. See you in a minute.”
I saw the baker looking the three of us over, taking us in, trying to
work us out, read our story. Georgie pulled me closer to the row of the tins,
and I saw that they had been filled with charcoal. The baker came alongside us
and gestured to a gap, less than a metre wide, between the bakery and the
building next door. He pointed from the logs then to a closed metal door in the
wall halfway down the gap.
“Fire,” he said.
He pointed back to the tins of charcoal.
“I sell too.” He laughed.
As I explained this to Georgie, a middle-aged man with a tidy moustache
and wearing a smart, patterned brown jumper came out of the shop carrying four
white plastic carrier bags of bread. He walked over to a green moped propped up
against a wall and hung two plastic carriers on each end of the handlebar. He
stepped through the frame of the moped, eased his backside onto the saddle and
turned to us.
“Do you want any help? Translation?”
I shook my head. “Thank you. I think we’re OK.”
The man turned the handlebars to one side, released a catch with his
foot and began to freewheel silently down the hill. I turned, and holding
Georgie’s hand stepped into the baker’s shop; I heard the baker mumbling behind
Inside, a youngish woman wearing a beige cardigan and dark hijab stood
behind the small counter. I found myself immediately drawn to the open, empty
oven. I stepped closer, crouched a little and peered in; the ashen interior
looked like it could hold maybe a hundred loaves. I straightened up and looked
around. A table next to the counter was piled up with white carrier bags
containing bread, but the small glass display case was empty, and I couldn’t
see any display shelves behind her. I pointed at my chest.
She shook her head, pointed to the carrier bags and waved her hands
around as if to indicate the village around us.
I turned to Georgie.
“I can’t see any snack things, can you?”
His head dropped as he shook it.
The woman must have seen the look on Georgie’s face because from under
the counter she produced what looked like a couple of sesame-coated
breadsticks, wrapped them in a sheet of white paper and with a small smile
passed them to him. I took out my wallet, but she shook her head. I nudged
“Effaristo,” he said, looking down at the floor.
The baker, who had followed us in, laughed. I took a picture of the oven
but felt too shy to ask to make a portrait of him and the woman. He talked to
the woman over my head as we said goodbye and left.
We found Baba sitting on a bench at the bottom of a marbled flight of
steps leading up to one of the mosques. As Georgie showed Baba the white
package from the bakers, an older man in a smart grey suit and taqiyah came
past and made a small smile in our direction as he set off up the steps.
As Georgie unwrapped the sticks of bread, the rustle of the paper echoed
around the general silence of the village. Georgie passed a whole stick to Baba
before breaking the other and passing one half to me. The breadstick felt
warmer and softer than I’d imagined. I inspected the dough and the soft raisins
it held; it looked like it had been platted in some way, certainly twisted or
twirled. I took a bite, it tasted sweet but with a savoury hint of tahini.
As we ate, we heard the sound of a moped moving around the village, then
getting nearer before appearing from around a corner. It was the man we’d seen
outside the bakers, but now the handlebars of his moped were clear of carrier
bags. He slowed and stopped in front of us next and switched off the engine.
“Ahh, you got a little something. Good.”
“Yes. It’s delicious,” I said.
“I’m sorry I interrupted before. Emin, the baker, was talking Greek and
Pomak before; you know, the language we sometimes use around here.”
“Pomak?” said Georgie, before taking another bite of the bread.
The man smiled at Georgie.
“Yes, Slavic Muslims. Some say ‘we were born when Greek and Turkish
souls got tangled together. Psomi is bread in Greek, but the baker used the
word hlap; that’s a Pomak word.”
“They don’t speak Turkish?” asked Baba.
“Only at home.”
“Are you the bread delivery man?” asked Georgie.
The man laughed.
“Yes, no. I’m a teacher, but I also deliver the bread to the old people
on Sundays. It’s not a job.”
“Do you deliver all the bread?”
“No, people will come out and start heading up to the shop in a short
“It’s a good thing to do. Delivering bread to those people,” I said.
He blinked slowly and lowered his head a touch.
“I have the time. My wife died a few years ago, and my eldest son works
in a boat-repair yard in Germany. He’s away at the moment, as are most of the
younger men in the village. He’ll be back in a couple of months, but his wife
is still here bringing up their two sons, one is about your age,” he said,
pointing to Georgie.
“Why wasn’t there any spare bread?” I asked.
“The baker knows every order for his customers. Very few other people
stop in this village, and if they do, they go to the smart cafe at the top of
the village, it also has a bakery and sells cakes. It will be open soon.”
Then the man looked at us, Baba in particular.
“Where you all from?”
“We live in the UK,” I said.
“I’m British, but originally from China,” said Baba.
The man smiled and seemed to think for a minute.
“My youngest son, he’s at university in Bremen. I think he will stay
there permanently after he completes his studies, if he can.”
He looked between Baba and me and then Georgie.
“I think he would like you guys.”
“Where now for you?” he said, readying himself to start the bike up
“Thermes,” said Baba
He pressed the starter on his moped, and it came to life.
“Ah good. Have lunch in the main restaurant there; it will be roast goat
and potatoes today.”
He turned the throttle towards himself, slowly pulled off up the hill,
and waved without looking back.’
We meandered back down the streets towards the riverside and where we’d
parked the car. Every now and then we passed a white carrier bag of bread
resting on a ledge or an upturned box near a front door; and finally, a wicker
basket hanging down from a balcony on a string, holding today’s loaf.
Magic Carpet Ride
The narrator coughed and said imagine a double rainbow how the surprise of it is like a traffic accident viewed by the driver of a random red car who had been until that moment slightly bored by his surroundings and the complaining chatter of the woman beside him why don’t we ever stop at hotels they have those long bars with a piano and the man said he had enough energy to get them to McSweeney’s and after 30 minutes driving the car slowed and the man said I could kill for a pint and she kept quiet until he said look there above the carpet outlet a rainbow and she said you mean two rainbows and that’s as far as the narrator got before the man said he was the one who’d spotted the double rainbow and the woman said no, she had, then the narrator coughed and said he couldn’t go on if the man and woman confabulated a rainbow story into a traffic accident, and the driver said, I’m that parched for a pint, and the woman said we never go anywhere nice, only pubs, even though I’m literally run off my feet all day the customers and the narrator told them both to shut up and let him do his job, and the man put on his jacket and the woman said they knew when they weren’t wanted, and after they left I checked the door’s double-locks, lit a cigarette, and leaned out the window, a red car stalled twice in front of McSweeney’s and a man and woman got out and I thought about my ex saying everything happens for a reason that time beauty said to her beast even a jackass writer knows smoking causes cancer until the pack was empty and the double rainbow above the outlet had disappeared.
God Meant Us To Fly
Crouchin down to peer through the smudged window, I could just about make her out through a fog of heat risin across the front porch. Heat as thick as cotton that day. I stretched my neck high as it would go without givin myself away and saw her rockin in that chair – the one Ma Rachel tried to sell in the yard sale but nobody bought. Sat there stale and stiff, brown hair mopped across her face. But I could see her eyes – how she stared straight in front of her, like she wasn’t seein nothin or nobody no matter how long she looked. And like nobody was seein her neither. There was somethin else funny about her, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.
Heavy steps and the screened-door slammed when Ma Rachel walked past. Ooh, I knew she meant business. Short and stout as a potbelly pig, Ma Rachel was never quiet. And when she got caught up in some sort a business, it was like a herd a cattle who just figured out what the slaughterhouse was for.
She spied me in the corner and hollered, “You get on outta here! Ain’t none uh’yur business what that girl’s here for, you hear me? You better move that skinny bee-hind now!”
I didn’t need no second warnin from Ma Rachel, I’ll tell you that much.
I scurried as fast as my feet could take me through the livin room, slidin on cool tiles and headed straight to my secret listenin spot cause I knew there was gonna be somethin worth hearin today. You see, it wasn’t scorchin outside but it was mighty hot. Sweat drippin down your panties hot like you only get down South. And it was hot enough for me to figure out, even only being eleven, that this girl wasn’t sittin out there for her health. The only reason people waited like that outside Ma Rachel’s was when they needed help. I knew she’d be tellin Ma Rachel somethin and doggone-it, I was gonna hear it. Not much happened round here so when it did, it was in your interest to know more than everybody else.
Creakin open the back door, I snuck down stone steps into the yard. I winced as sun flamed my face and the grass scrunched underneath my feet. Stickin straight against the house, I edged as slowly as I could round the corner til I was spittin distance of Ma Rachel on the front porch. But she couldn’t see me now. Stock-still behind her favorite Gardenia with blooms so sweet and ripe I could nearly taste them. She’d be none too pleased about that but she was gone now. Too busy wrapped up in helpin.
You see, Ma Rachel was the helper. People lost their dog? She’ll find it. Run outta hay? She may not have much but she’s got extra when it counts. Even little ones that needed lookin after, she’d take them in as babies. She helped people or animals alike – it didn’t matter so long as she thought you were worth it. My Momma called it a blessin and a curse.
Momma, in the meantime, or at least as long I remember, was on her own. Never threw any pity party, too proud for that. “Keep your head down, don’t mind what anybody says and you’ll be just fine.”All I’ve ever seen of Momma was her workin hard and stayin outta trouble. I guess after havin me she decided she’d had enough trouble.
Before I was even outta diapers Momma took a job workin down at the prison and I started stayin at Granny’s. Things went on like that just fine right up until the day I turned up and found Granny stone-cold and solid propped up on her salmon-colored sofa.
“Granny?” I called, wipin my shoes, lettin myself in through the back door. I was only little then but I still knew how to mind myself. I walked through to the livin room and plopped down on what used to be Papaw’s recliner that still smelled of Old Spice.
And there she was. Still as a cow in rush-hour traffic.
“Granny?” She looked like somebody had done flicked the off-switch right when she was in the middle a sayin somethin. I Love Lucy came from the TV and it seemed like Granny might keep watchin that show for all eternity. I don’t remember much else after that except for Momma showin up and huggin me as tight as she could. I still don’t know how she died but after the funeral Aunt Carla said, “That poor woman had as many crosses to bear as any Saint. Her heart just wasn’t strong enough to do it anymore.” I reckon I was one a those crosses she was talkin about.
Things got real hard after that. I’d count Momma’s cigarette butts in her ashtray to tell how upset she was. Ma Rachel musta known Momma was too proud to ask for help. So one day after Sunday service, I heard a commotion and saw Ma Rachel headed in our direction.
“Suzie!” she hollered and Momma stopped.
“Suzie, your Momma’s service was real nice.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. It sure meant somethin for you to be there.”
“Listen here, we need to talk about what you’re gonna do.” Ma Rachel looked me then.
“Go’on to the car, I’ll be there in a minute.” Momma gave orders in a way so you were sure to listen the first time. The next mornin, we woke early. Momma drove me down a gravel road and we parked up beneath the oak tree. Ma Rachel came out to meet us, walkin and talkin at the same time, sayin “Don’t you worry Suzie.” I guess I’ve been runnin with Ma Rachel’s pack ever since.
Lucky for me that day when the girl arrived, all those other young’uns had already gone home. It was one a those long summer days and Momma was on late shift. The mutts were worn slap out in the yard too hot to move, and Moses the cat was scratchin up against the woodpile, so I distracted myself watchin him.
I waited. It seemed like hours. Keepin so quiet I could hardly hear my own breath comin and goin. Ma Rachel waited too and I’ve never seen her so patient. Then, a voice cut through—
“I killed him.”
Nothin seemed to move.
Her hair muffled the words but they still hung in the air. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them right til Ma Rachel started pacin across the porch.
“I killed him, Ma Rachel.” Her voice louder and relieved.
I didn’t move a muscle. My legs hurt but I planted myself to the ground and prayed I didn’t make a sound, even though my body swayed back and forth towards that Gardenia. If Ma Rachel saw me now, my hide would be raw.
“Honey, what’ve you done?” Ma Rachel’s voice broke and her hands raised up like she was praisin Jesus but I knew she wasn’t.
I expected her to rage and holler like she does when we break somethin or make a mess. But instead, I saw her do something I’ve only seen a couple a times, like when Kurt broke his arm and the bone showed through. Her shoulders hunched over til she knelt right in front a the girl. She reached her hand out, lifted her chin and stroked her cheek. I knew she was lookin right at her.
“Honey, tell me what’ve you done.”
The girl lifted her head and I saw her lookin up to meet Ma Rachel’s eyes like she was ready to meet her maker. You could tell she was afraid but when she looked at Ma Rachel a stillness seemed to come about her. Her hair tumbled down and I could see that she’d been pretty once, maybe even beautiful. Goosebumps went straight up my arms and I knew she meant what she said. But it almost seemed like her problems had gone just by tellin Ma Rachel. I could swear there was somethin familiar about her so takin a chance, I leant forward. I could see her hair like buttered toast, freckles across her nose, and then it hit me.
When I first came to Ma Rachel’s, Tiffany was just one of us young’uns. I should say though, she was never quite like us. One dry summer our only relief came from the sprinklers in the backyard. The boys would push their way to the front while us little ones got sent to the back, at least until Tiffany would appear.
She’d slam the back door open, runnin straight up to the front like she deserved to be there just as good as anybody. Elbowin the boys outta the way – she didn’t give a hoot what anybody thought. First, she let us have our turn. Then she’d fly – bare feet on wet grass as fast as she could go, legs like grasshoppers straight over the water that sprayed her face and nipped her calves. That was as happy as I’d ever seen anybody.
Everybody always said there was somethin about Tiffany. She had more sense and charm than the rest of us combined and we knew it. She was Ma Rachel’s favorite, but we didn’t mind cause she was everybody’s favorite. Now, it all seems so long time ago and that girl sittin on the porch – I barely recognize her.
“Aw honey, what did he do to you?” Ma Rachel could barely get the words out.
Tiffany sat in her chair, just rockin til finally the words came out. “I don’t know how it happened. I loved him, but he just wanted everything for the takin. We were gonna get married. You remember how charmin he could be? But other days, he’d come home and I knew by the sound of his boots across the floor there’d be hell at the end of it.”
“The worst days,” she stopped now and lifted her head from her hands. “The worst days he’d leave. Lock the door on his way out and take the keys with him. Come back long after midnight. I never knew what I did to make him that mad.”
By now the whole night smelled like honeysuckle. Crickets echoed over Ma Rachel’s yard against the kudzu. I remembered how Momma told me once that only the males made that noise callin for a mate. The sun was drawn in but I could still see a pair of Blue Jays flittin through the Dogwood tree. It depressed me how dull the girls looked compared to the boys. Then I thought of Jimmy and how he ran so fast you woulda thought he was goin barefoot over hot coals when we raced in the backyard. I couldn’t ever keep up and I asked Momma one day after our races, “Why don’t God give us girls the upper-hand once in awhile?”
She smiled at me, “Oh Birdie,” she said, “It don’t matter how fast you run. When God means us to fly, he gives us wings.”
Even back then, there was always a winner and a loser. Jimmy was the nicest and we all looked up to him but Tommy was the one in charge. I was just little when I first came to Ma Rachel’s, so they treated me like I was their babydoll. I was one of the weaker ones too, if I’m bein honest. That was how I got my name Birdie. Ma Rachel used to say I was as tiny as a bird and chirped like one too.
You see, I liked to spy and then go tell on the rest of em. I reckoned if I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t big, I needed to keep up somehow. Sometimes it got me into trouble but usually everybody refused to point the finger back at me. Ma Rachel ain’t no fool though and she’d say “Well I guess you musta heard that from a little birdie?” So Birdie just stuck.
One late afternoon, Ma Rachel was away to help a neighbor. I was up a tree when I fell straight down onto the log pile propped up for winter. Usually we kept our distance because we knew the rattlesnakes liked it there, so I was in a hurry to get gone. I only had a few scratches and that woulda been alright, but as I was rushin to get down a log come loose. One by one, the logs started rollin and comin straight for me. I didn’t know what was happenin and before I could stop em, I ended up with one leg stuck underneath that busted pile.
I tried to move my leg and it wouldn’t budge. Splinters spiked my calf and a pain like I never knew went straight up my thigh, blood tricklin from the bark cuttin into my leg. I was still little so you can bet I hollered as loud as I could. I wasn’t worried about my leg or the blood but all I could think of was those snakes.
I spotted Tiffany across the field but she was far away. I kept hollerin until a shadow stood over me. The sun glared in my eyes but I could tell it was Tommy.
“Get me outta here,” I said.
I knew I needed out quick before things got worse.
You see, Tommy would get nasty if you let him. Usually when that happened Jimmy kept him in line. But that day, I saw the way his eyes went funny – just a slit across his face and still grinning. It set my nerves on fire.
“Ain’t that a funny way of askin for help,” he said, lookin down at me.
“Come’on now, I’m stuck!”
I was gettin desperate and my leg hurt somethin rotten.
By this time, he was makin his way around the log pile like he was on the lookout for somethin.
“You just wait right there.”
“My leg hurts somethin awful!”
“Holy Shit! That’s disgustin!” he shouted. “I’ll bring it over so you can see.”
“What is it? I don’t wanna see it – I just want outta here!” I craned my neck, but I still couldn’t see what he found. “That better not be no snake!” I struggled again to get free but I was too weak to move the logs by myself.
I could hear him as he tossed logs from the other side, one by one thuddin to the ground. “You better not make any more topple on me – I’ll tell Ma Rachel,” I warned.
“You shoulda thought about that before, little Birdie.”
I thought about yellin again but didn’t want to upset him even more. He’d been mad ever since I told Ma Rachel how he hurt Lacey. Lacey was Ma Rachel’s favorite dog and about a month before, I found Tommy playin this game with her. Throw a ball out, wait for her to bring it back, then as soon as she was reachin distance, he’d grab her collar, squeeze so hard it looked like her eyes might pop straight outta her head. Countin while he did it and every time he’d count up a second higher. Then he’d stop, give her a treat and do it again.
Now through the stacks, there was silence and Tommy appeared over me with that same grin.
“Look, I’ve got a gift for you. A birdie for a Birdie.”
I reached my head up and saw the outline of a small carcass, twisted with feathers, matted and stuck. It looked like a Robin’s head and he cupped the poor bird in his hands as he squatted down closer to me.
Sweat ran down my back and my eyes darted around lookin again for Tiffany.
“Come on, Birdie. What’s the matter? It’s just you and me now.”
He opened his palms and inched closer to my face. I squirmed, tryin to put more space in between us. I woulda crawled underneath that blasted pile by now if I could, snakes be damned. Then I could see exactly what he had – that bird musta been dead a good few days and it was so close I could smell its rotted stink. A thick oozing maggot slipped through his fingers onto the logs beside me and all I could see was the edge of that bird covered in a pile of grubby maggots.
I thought I’d throw up right there.
“Wha’d you say?” He looked at me, mean as sin.
“Nothin,” I replied, my eyes down. Momma always said there’s no use makin deals with bullies.
Then he whispered, his breath so close to my ear it made me feel even sicker, “Birdie, I’ll get you outta here, but first I need a favor.”
Tommy raised up the maggots and the bird til it was inches from my face. I couldn’t tell if the warmness comin down my cheek was tears or grime drippin off those maggots.
“I’m gonna put this bird right here, so you don’t get lonely,” he said, and I saw him place it to the right of my face on top of the logs. Then he cupped my jaw with his hand and I felt his fingers dig into my cheeks, squeezin my mouth so slow and so careful. I clamped down til my teeth cut into each other, but I didn’t know how long I could hold it.
“Open your mouth, Birdie. It’s an early supper tonight.”
I felt like I might pass out from the heat, the throb in my leg and the thought of those maggots two inches from my face. His fingers started to pry my mouth open and I thought again about Tiffany. I brought my head back ever so slightly and all I could think was, let’s get this over with. Waiting til he turned his attention to the maggots, I turned my chin and reared my head back just so. I opened wide and sank my teeth as hard as I could around his fingers until his flesh turned into bone.
He hollered so loud and I saw him swing his other hand back and I knew what was comin. Just as he lunged forward, I saw another figure over us and Tiffany appeared, pushin him off the top of me and down onto the ground. I looked up, sticky tears on my face and the taste of copper from blood in my mouth. She had one arm around his neck and he squatted down to get against her but he was no match. She held her ground. Him in a headlock, and with the other hand she grabbed the logs and managed to shift them off me, clearing them away as fast as she could.
Tommy was pitching a fit by then, shoutin “You nasty bitch!”
But Tiffany’s eyes met mine, she pushed the last log off my leg and shouted, “Go Birdie, go!”
Back on that porch, I couldn’t help but think how small Tiffany looked now. Like at some point she started shrinkin instead of growin. Ma Rachel had been quiet longer than I could count until finally, she stood up and started to pace. I knew her well enough to know she’d be hatchin a plan already. When she was like that she furrowed up her brow and stared down at the floor, not lookin at nobody til she settled on what had to be done.
“It’s gonna be alright.” Ma Rachel sounded like she nearly believed herself.
“What are we gonna do, Ma Rachel?”
She asked the same question I wanted to. Ma Rachel could fix just about anything but I had no idea how she’d get outta this one.
“We gotta fix this mess, don’t we? I’ll go tell Birdie I gotta run out.”
Ma Rachel’s words lit a fire under my bottom like you wouldn’t believe. I ran towards the back field, alongside the house, across the yard until I was right next to the fence by the ponies. The whole way back I saw bits of memories comin back – how Tommy apologized and started kissin up to Tiffany after she head-locked him. How a couple years later she started lettin him put his arm round her in the yard. How they borrowed Ma Rachel’s truck to go to the movies, and how before I knew it life had turned upside down and Tiffany was lookin at him like he was some gift from God.
Now, running through that yard I thought about how this never woulda happened if it weren’t for me, if it weren’t for that afternoon. How the only reason he wanted to break her was because all those years ago, she broke him first.
I dried the sweat off my forehead and tried to look normal so Ma Rachel wouldn’t suspect nothin. When she reached me, she was so distracted I don’t think she woulda noticed if I only had one arm attached.
“Birdie, I’m fixin to go out” she said. “Get yourself to bed, your Momma’s workin late tonight.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” And she turned to walk away.
“What Birdie?” she asked, turnin towards me.
I thought of Momma and how she says it helps to say the hard things out loud. “I saw Tiffany, Ma’am. She helped me outta trouble once.”
Ma Rachel looked at me now and her eyes were so heavy. “I always knew Birdie was a good name for you.”
The summer night hung between us.
“Ma’am I might be young, but I could still help.”
She looked at me like she was sizin me up. “Yes, Birdie. I know you could. I tell you what, if anyone comes round later this week and asks what you got up to tonight, you just say we fixed a nice dinner and went to bed early. You say Tiffany came round to celebrate her birthday. That I made her favorite chicken and dumplins.” And without another word Ma Rachel turned back up the hill, huffin harder than I was by that point.
The next minute, I saw Tiffany and Ma Rachel headed to the old Oak tree and ducking into her truck. I ran to catch up. I felt somehow like I was part of if all, chained to this moment, this night sky for better or worse. My feet dug into burnt grass and I’d nearly caught up when my legs tripped. I fell straight down into hot gravel, my knees scraped and sore.
Then I heard the engine sputter and crank. I looked up. Tiffany’s head turned and she stared right at me. I stood up straight as I could and looked right back at her. I felt like I needed to show her that I could be trusted. At first, she looked at me like I was a ghost. Then her eyes flickered and I wondered if she remembered everything from that afternoon so many years ago. Just before her head turned, she placed her hand on the back windshield towards me and I saw her smile. I knew Momma was right – ain’t no use tryin to bargain with a bully. Now Tiffany knew it too. As she turned, the wind caught her hair, waving wild out the window and I felt a judder in my belly. Ma Rachel revved the throttle to gather speed and I watched them haul ass down that driveway, turnin up dust like I never seen.
Fire and Smoke
Most of the time, new submissives saw the same roster of longtime clients who rotated through every new hire. Those clients would make appointments, and we would be counseled on their particular proclivities before they arrived. So it was unusual that my second session was a random walk-in, a thirty-something, fairly attractive guy who wanted to meet all the girls working that day.
To my surprise, he picked me.
The client, Jason, chose toys from the wall behind the front desk and handed them to me to carry. Leather paddles, floggers, a long, slender riding crop. I could sense it even before we made it to the room: the quiet authority with which he handled the toys, the way he ran a finger along one strand of the flogger, examining it in the same deliberate manner he might brush a hand across my flesh. I knew this session would be different from my first, and again, my pulse beat as if it were trying to escape the confines of my veins, my muscles, my bones.
But did I really want to escape?
We sessioned in the other upstairs room this time, the Athena room with its less medieval and more exotic decorating scheme, leopard prints and tiger stripes on all the blankets and pillows and even the carpet. To my immense relief, I remembered the location of the intercom; I pressed it and heard Mistress Amber’s soon-to-become-familiar response of “Thank you.” Then I stood and waited, silent, with my arms clasped behind me. I did my best to appear calm, yet my heart still shuddered like some strange caged creature inside me.
Jason told me to get on the spanking bench, which looked very different from the low, squatting behemoth in the Venus room. I approached it slowly, carefully, in the hopes I would look like I knew what I was doing. Days earlier I hadn’t realized spanking benches existed, and now I was discovering they had nuances. The one in the other room felt masculine, thick and solid, while this one was feminine and almost delicate, curved like the arch of a back. From the center of the bench, two leather-padded armrests extended like wings, and behind them and slightly lower were similar pads for calves and knees. Once I’d climbed up on the bench – fumbling despite myself as I did so – I was hovering three feet off the ground with my ass protruding, ready to be smacked.
Jason didn’t smack my ass right away, though. He circled the bench, and I observed what I could of him while keeping my eyes cast downward: a slightly stocky frame, a purposeful stride, the dark, close-cropped shadow of a beard when he inclined his head toward me. I barely registered his facial features; in fact, my first year at the dungeon, I’m not sure I ever looked a client in the eye. I knew them by their smell, or the way they walked, or the cadence of their voice.
Jason wasn’t giving off much of a smell, or maybe my breath was too shallow to pick up on it, my unease still so great that taking in oxygen was only a secondary concern. But his movements, his voice, the way he touched me – every action emitted a confidence that tugged a response from deep inside me. It was as though some coiled, knotted ribbon of desire buried in the pit of my stomach was beginning to unwind. Or as if that tiny flame that had smoldered within me for so long, the one ignited by Story of O and Belle de Jour, was being stoked back to life.
Jason trailed his fingers up the side of my thigh, flipping up my skirt so my ass was exposed. He continued moving past my ribs to my chest, where he pulled one breast free of my little tie-front top. He acted as if my body belonged to him – no asking permission, not even ordering me to take my clothes off myself, just grabbing what he wanted as though I were an object made for his amusement.
That ribbon of desire inside me unraveled a little further.
And then he spanked me for the first time.
I had received a few swats on the bottom from hookups over the years, and a few more during my interview at Medusa’s. I’d even tried to spank myself a couple of times, attempting to see if it really hurt the way the books and movies and websites portrayed it. But I’d never experienced a hard, purposeful spanking from someone who really knew what he was doing.
It was just a slap against my bare butt. Just the hand of a man I didn’t know, and would never see again, connecting with my skin.
So why did it feel like such an immense relief? This wasn’t pain, but the release of pain, the jolting free of everything that was tight and heavy trapped within my flesh. The swats kept coming, harder and harder, and the blood rushed through me and my heart beat yes, yes, this is where you belong, and the ribbon of desire inside me unfurled and caught on fire, it smoked and burned away so that my desire became Jason’s desire, became my dominant’s desire, and I lost track of what was mine and what was not, of what I wanted and what I did not.
Smoke is hard to hold on to. It changes its shape, it adapts to fit its surroundings. Smoke can be submissive.
That fire inside me turned to smoke. It filled my lungs and I breathed it out and it settled around me, clouding my senses, warping my vision and altering the way it felt to touch, to be touched. But it was so subtle – odorless, colorless, tasteless – that I didn’t even realize it was there.
Jason kept on spanking me. He used the paddle with its impact that reverberated across my backside, the riding crop that stung with a small sharp pain radiating outward. He stopped and rubbed my ass and asked me how hard it hurt, on a scale of one to ten. It was a seven or eight, but I said five. I wanted to seem tough. I wanted him to hit me harder.
“Five?” he said, and the intonation, the rise in his voice at the end, made me hope he was impressed. But perhaps it was all in my head.
The session went on, so many fantasies fulfilled for the first time that I couldn’t absorb them, they passed over me like waves, I floated along with them and let them take me where Jason wanted to go. He pulled my hair and slapped my face, twisted my nipples and hit my ass again, as hard as I’d hoped he would. Then after the spanking, he ordered me to crawl on all fours to the back corner of the room, where a little leather couch was set in an alcove. Somehow, I knew not to tuck my breast back inside my shirt before I made the trip.
He sat on the couch and I waited on all fours before him, my left side facing him, my gaze still instinctively downward. “You’re a true submissive, aren’t you?” Jason said quietly, stroking my hair and then giving a tug. “This is what you dream of. This” – he jerked my hair harder – “is where you belong.”
They were words I’d hear dozens if not hundreds of times over the next few years, words that, eventually, I’d consider worthy of nothing more than an eye roll; but at that moment, Jason’s words sang through me like truth.
When I try to picture this scene as it happened, I see Jason only as a shadow. I remember the sensation of his eyes on me, a weight and expectation that lit fire upon my skin. I remember that strange tangle of need and desire and hope and fear within me all at once. So much emotion, how could it do anything else but combust? But I keep coming back to the one thing he lacked: a smell. I would learn the smells of so many men, in the weeks and months to come. Sweat and cologne, Speed Stick deodorant, musty clothes; and arousal, always arousal. But with Jason, there was nothing, and Jason never returned to the dungeon, as far as I know.
Was he real? Could he have been some phantom, conjured from my mind to keep me here, in this strange space where fear and pleasure, distasteful intimacy and the possible answer to all my dreams, combined to form a trap I wasn’t sure whether to welcome or escape? I know he was real, but I like the idea of him as apparition, animus, minor deity, walking briefly into my life to ensure I continued on my new path.
Jason tugged on my breast again – that was real, that I remember – tugged it like he owned it, and then he said, “I’m milking you like a cow, aren’t I?”
A small portion of my brain, one that hadn’t been clouded by smoke, registered how ridiculous the statement was. But the rest of me whispered, “Yes.”
“I’m milking you like a cow.” He pulled harder, and everything inside me snapped taut. “So moo.”
“You’re awfully quiet.” Another tug. “Moo.”
This wasn’t a part of my fantasy, not like the hair pulling or face slapping or crawling along the floor. But that didn’t matter anymore. “Moo,” I whispered.
“What?” he said.
“Moo?” I tried again.
“Pathetic.” His hand clamped down on my breast, spreading a kind of warm, constant pain through me, different from the sting of a slap that was there and then gone.
“Moo,” I attempted once more. He squeezed harder.
“Moo. Moo. Moo!”
In my mind I was crying out, yelling, moaning, but in reality my voice was probably still quiet. I was a quiet girl, that first year at Medusa’s. But it seemed to be enough to satisfy Jason. He released my breast, caressed it so softly I might almost have imagined his touch. Then he reached up to stroke my hair. “Good girl,” he said, and if I hadn’t already caught on fire over that past hour, the words would have been enough to make me melt.
Soon after that, the session ended. Jason left quickly – many of the men would do that, I’d come to learn, slipping out the moment I turned up the lights and began cleaning the room. For them as for me, Medusa’s was a place of fairy tales, a glamoured version of reality where anything could be possible, and beautiful, for an hour. They had to hurry out before the illusion faded, before the dust in the corners of the room started to show and thoughts of their own work and families intruded. Reality had no place in the dungeon.
Jason left without tipping, too, and after Thomas, that should have been a disappointment. But I couldn’t bring myself to care. I didn’t have any more sessions that day, and I spent the rest of my shift in a daze, drinking cup after cup of the terrible Maxwell House coffee we brewed in the dungeon’s kitchen area, trying to keep my mind from going blank. Yet no matter how much caffeine I ingested, I couldn’t seem to wrest myself from the big leather chair in the break room, where I sat with my legs tucked under me, staring at the wall as the hours passed like minutes and the minutes passed like hours. Even when I took off my collar and schoolgirl outfit, put on my ordinary dress and sweater and found a seat on the bus home, I couldn’t free my mind. I lacked the energy to pull the book I was reading from my purse, much less to look at the words and translate them into meaning. Instead I gazed out the window at the concrete twilight, the world turned blurry and unreal. I wasn’t reliving what had happened with Jason, not exactly, but simply sinking into a peculiar peaceful longing, peaceful because even as I was desiring, waiting, I knew that more would come.
Somehow, I made it home and walked my dog and showered and fell asleep, and by the next morning I was in possession of my mind again. Later I would learn this strange other-state was subspace, an altered mentality that often followed an experience of submission. This was the kind, gentle subspace, the one that screened you from the world as though you stood behind a swirl of smoke, where nothing was sharp or sudden and your breathing turned soft and slow.
There was a cruel subspace too, a place that was like an empty, endless gulf. A place you could lose yourself for good.
But I had a ways to travel before I would encounter that darker part.
St. Marks & 1st
bartender leans against the counter of the bar she tends, explaining to a man on
a stool how she prefers remaining sober on dates. Because when she’s drunk, she
says, everyone’s attractive. Then, after she’s hooked up with whomever that
other person happens to be, she doesn’t know if it’s because she actually liked
him, or if she was looking for something else. She keeps it at that, and the
man on the stool nods in appreciation. Whether his gesture is genuine or not, he
is outwardly captivated by the introspection she displays. A third man, sitting
some nine or ten feet away, next to a friend he’s just gone to see a matinee
film with, wonders distractedly what relation the man on the stool has to the
bartender. What position does he hold in her esteem such that she’s decided to volunteer
such a glimpse into her character? A co-worker, perhaps? A friend awaiting the
end of her shift? A hopeful romantic lending his ready ear? Thinking, You can stay sober with me. I can get on
board with that.
third man’s friend, having just finished expounding on a particularly
enlightening idea regarding the film, stands to go to the bathroom. Alone, the
third man pulls his phone from his pocket with the half-hearted intention of
seeing whether he’s received a text from his wife. Or maybe in his inbox he’ll
find an email from somebody. Or, if all else fails, perhaps there are some photos
in his gallery he might swipe through.
chorus of shouting arises from the other end of the counter. The third man
doesn’t look up to see the gesticulating arms and expressions aghast on the
faces of the sports fans, their eyes glued to the flat screen television. He’s always held certain disdain for unconditional
idolatry of athletics, the steadfast fealty to a team. Long ago, however, he
crossed the threshold of age at which those initially inclined stop admiring blanket
condemnations of things like professional sport. When the witty diatribe is no
longer taken as keen or original but is received as the bitter yammering of a
self-righteous fool—a fool who never made
it himself, no less. At least the athletes knew what they were to society, shaped
most of what they did around credence, and based their lives on tangible
objectives. No, at a certain age it is better to bite one’s tongue.
screen of his phone yields very little. There is no text from his wife, just a
promotional email from an organization he donated to until the credit card he’d
used to sign up expired. The photos in his gallery are somehow displeasing to
him, trite. They make him feel, in an instant, very small.
friend is back, standing over him. “Shall we?”
stuffs his phone back in his pocket—uncertain of why he pulled it out in the
first place. The bartender has left her station behind the counter. It dawns on
him that he’s afforded himself little design to guide a now weary mind through
what remains of the day. Besides, he is stuck thinking of the inadequacy of his
gallery, of the maddened, charged person he used to be.
Greetings from the Fat Man in Postcards
This could be, if Bognor had a cathedral, a tale of two cities, twin poles in the life of Wilson Thomas.
—I’m going as far as Guildford. Any good to you?
The shortest distance between two points, there being no motorway, is a meander, in this case the A285, A283 and A3100. It is on these procrastinating curves that Wilson Thomas has come to rely for his mental health, his life.
—You can put that nightie on the back seat.
There is another, identical, locked in the boot.
—Little gift for my wife. Well, I say my wife. Always take them something when I go home. Was it a holiday in Bognor, or business? Personally I live there. Not easy to own up to. I mean, what does anyone know about Bognor except George the whatsit’s dying words? Bugger Bognor. (Map of Britain. Bognor marked in red.Caption: Welcome to Bognor, Backdoor of Britain.) Its only claim to fame. Almost Joycean. Irishman goes for a job on a building site. Foreman asks him, sort of proficiency test, “What’s the difference between a joist and a girder?” Quick as a flash on a frosty night he comes back, “One wrote Ulysses, the other wrote Faust.”
Not a literary man, then?
Visit the pier? (Two explorers silhouetted in a tent. Night time. Caption: Where’s my pith helmet?)
Met my wife on the pier. Donald McGill exhibition. Working visit for me. Professional card-man. I like to say that. Shades of green shades, sleazy glamour. Actually more prosaic. Belle Vue Cards. I rep for them. Plus a little creative work. My wife helps me with that. Amateur cartoonist.
It was love at first sight. They were both peering at the same framed card. He noticed the dimple in her cheek matching the one between her shoulders. She looked up. Eyes of postcard-sky blue. He raised his cap. Her dimples deepened. The sea glittered, like the glass beads on his mother’s throat, his earliest recollection, tickling his eyes.
“I’ve an original McGill of my own if you’d care to see it?”
He drove her to his digs.
“Not many on the market these days. Difficult to come by unless you have contacts. Gives you a little frisson knowing it’s the actual paper he worked on. Speaking of frissons, I’ve another McGill in here.” He dropped his trousers. Embroidered mothers-in-law all over his shorts.
He had the McGill framed and gave it to her. The un-nuanced figures of Curate and Vamp, secure in their ink outline against the washes of colour, brought afresh the first rapture of childhood as they opened it together.
Her first present to him was a pair of musical shorts. They played “I Do Like to Be beside the Seaside”, at the touch of a microchip. He put them on to propose. “I don’t know your name yet.” “Er, Thomas, Wilson.” “Yes, Thomas Wilson, I will.”
—She did a little sketch of me. Caricature. At least, I hope it’s a caricature. I had it copied, printed up. Send them to her on my longer tours of duty, captioned “Greetings from the Fat Man in Postcards”.
Funny, women go for the fuller figure. Thin men don’t realize. Look at H.G. Wells. Never short of female admirers. Used to call him Treacle Wells. One of his women was asked why she found him so attractive. Said, because his skin smelt of honey. Extraordinary. “Stands the Clock at Ten to Three?”
I told my wife about that once. She said, Sounds fun, let’s try. Anointed me with a pot of Gales.
Every so often, one of us will say, Let’s have an H.G. Wells night. Only we moved on to Lemon Curd.
Did a Midlands tour a few months ago, sent her a jar, with a boxed chipolata and a note, “The shape of things to come.”
Duncton. Making good time. Another trip, I phoned her anonymously, did the old heavy breathing. She just said, cool as you like, “If you want the asthma clinic you’ve got the wrong number” and hung up.
You’d like my wife.
Ever been to America?
This will peter out beyond Petworth.
—Petworth Park. Sounds like a municipal tryst for lovers. As I was saying, we do alright, we larger men. Takes women unawares. I grant you a novel called The Fat Man wouldn’t have the same ring, but that’s only prejudice.
I usually stop about here, have a breather, stretch my legs.
At exactly here. Midpoint of his journey, zenith of his weekly trajectory. Marked on the Ordnance Survey as Ball’s Cross. Here he is poised between two worlds. He will drive into a lane, walk up and down, lean on a gate. His tongue searches his teeth, seeks out the small molar cavity. Into its rough protective burr his soul nestles. He will be here for several minutes while the magnetic field reverses.
He will drive up the narrow road, turn left, then on to join the A283.
—The quilted fields of England. I love this countryside. Even the names resonate. Chiddingfold. Could be Old English for “cemetery”, conjures up the cosiness of village graveyards. All safely gathered in. Hambledon, Bramley. English as autumn mists.
Pictures of this sort of landscape – maybe a shire horse in the middle distance, church spire far distance – still work their magic, guarantee the sales. Anythin’ rural or ecclesiastical or both. Even quite modern buildings can do it. Know Guildford Cathedral? Only finished in l961. Still a popular card. That’s how I met my wife. She was sketching it. Naturally I took a professional interest. Suggested she did a watercolour, maybe soften the cathedral, age it a little, submit it to my art director for a greetings card. She did, he went for the idea, I went for her.
It was love at first sight. He had leaned over her shoulder, watched the pastel smudge the deep-grained paper. Her long hair matched the quaking-grass, ruffled by the same breeze. Her chin set in concentration, a soft furrow echoing a distant field. He retreated until she was packing up, handed her his card.
They drove into town, had coffee and scones with a view of the Guildhall, then drove through darkening Surrey lanes.
This was the pattern of their Sundays for a month.
On the Sunday of Michaelmas, after their coffee, he parked in sight of the cathedral, wound down the window. “You’d make a perfect Mrs Wilson Thomas. You might even enjoy it.” “Will I, Wilson Thomas? Yes.”
—She became very interested in colour-washed pen and ink. We both love the work of Thomas Rowlandson, his chromatic delicacy against the robust penwork, the feathery foliage. I got her to do a series of views in that style, tried to get the firm to accept them as a set of upmarket postcards. Came to nothing. I had a few printed up, send them to her when I’m on the road, with a little poem on the back, something out of Clare or Herrick or William Blake. Blake is her idol. The watercolours, the woodcuts – she loves them. Did you know he lived near Bognor? Felpham, few miles along the coast. She wanted to visit it, soak up the atmosphere. Tricky. Had to head her off on that. Suggested a little project of my own – trace the locales of Wilson Steer’s works. Personal interest – he was a distant relative on my grandmother’s side. I’m named after him, in fact.
So whenever I have a few days leave, we’ve been trundling round the country, Suffolk, Yorkshire, Stroud Valley, tracking down the footprints of his easel, so to speak. She copies the paintings, I photograph the scene. “Then and now” sort of thing. Surprising how much of the country is still unspoiled. Turn down a lane, find a stile, follow a path between furrowed fields. Smell of wet earth. Leaf mould in the hedgerows. Like generations of wisdom, sifting into the soil. She’ll put her arm through mine, say, Breathe it in. I know just what she means.
You’d like my wife.
See that programme on cancer on the box?
Wilson is much possessed by death, and sees the skull beneath the skin. For if one of them should die? Or leave? Easier to face the knock upon the door.
Wilson is not, has never been, a political man, but he has watched, appalled, the bi-polarity of the world crumble. He is unnerved. The world now reminds him of a pre-Columbus globe in reverse. He sometimes feels the axis tilt, feels the slide and scramble. Each stop at Ball’s Cross becomes a little longer.
Wilson has read somewhere of a scientist who requested his ashes be made into a firework, who ended his earthly intactness in the starshower of a score of rockets.
He thinks of him now, thinks of himself, sees his wives and assembled guests, with their sausages on sticks, gazing at the flare and burst; of his soul ricocheting off the stars.
Lessons from a Homeless Man
I kept my head down on the way back home whilst immersed in my thoughts. I walked past Daniel’s spot hoping he wouldn’t notice me, and even ignored the first few times he called my name. But when I did turn around, and he saw my face, he insisted that I sit down with him for a moment.
It was obvious that I was lying when I told him that I was fine and that everything was okay. But it didn’t take long before I told him all.
Having spent my entire life in a classroom, I finally graduated from university in 2015. In the final months leading up to the end of my Business Studies degree, I had decided that before I settled on a career and pursued corporate progression, I had to travel.
My life was too unbalanced. The majority of my knowledge came from lectures, textbooks, teachers and seminars. I had zero real-life experiences and jumping from a classroom straight into an office just didn’t appeal to me.
After having graduated, and having spent a few months saving, my high-school friend Imran and I eventually bought a one-way ticket to one of the four corners of the world: Australia
The high in starting a travel of this nature – with no fixed end date or no real plan other than where to go – was fuelled further by a week-long stay in Singapore, prior to heading to Australia. It was a sort of celebratory holiday before the real adventure began.
And celebrate we did. Probably a bit too much.
Landing in Sydney, our financial situation could be described as “tight”. Fast forward to Melbourne, a few weeks later, and our financial situation could most definitely be described as “broke”.
It didn’t take us long to realise that all the advice we’d received about how easy it was to find jobs in Australia was wrong. And zero prior planning, due to a blend of stupidity and naivety, resulted in the need to find one being increasingly urgent. But a combination of desperation and persistence meant that I managed to land a waitering job in Melbourne’s iconic Federation Square.
I remember bursting through the doors of the hostel we were living in, with my arms in the air shouting, “I’ve got a job!” (Not even “the job”, any job would do at that point), and Imran hugging me as we both celebrated ecstatically the change in our fortunes.
But that job turned out to be an experience I won’t forget for very different reasons. And though on the surface it was a very negative experience, it actually turned out to be the catalyst for an encounter I will always remember and value. While the job also gave us some much-needed money, it also gifted me with yet another opportunity to add to my portfolio of racist encounters.
This one, like many others, was one of a very passive aggressive nature. Nothing so direct or concrete, so it could safely fall under the category labelled “alleged”. The “alleged” villain in question being one of the supervisors.
With no hard evidence, you can’t prove anything. It’s your word against theirs. It’s a very murky area where all you have to go by is your instinct and intuition, but in the world of facts, that doesn’t count for anything.
It started on the very first day and lasted around three weeks, eventually ending with a back-and-forth row in which the supervisor claimed the real issue was that I didn’t “smile enough”. The ridiculousness was too much. I quit the job and walked out.
From where Imran and I were staying to Federation Square required a walk along the city’s Yarra River. On one side of it was Melbourne’s Central Business District, the enormous Crown Casino and a very impressive riverfront full of gourmet eateries, high-end retail stores and tourists from the world over.
Directly opposite to the river – around this part at least – was pretty much nothing. There were no bright lights or a melting pot of people, just the distant sound of traffic, depending on the hour, and usually silence. So more often than not, it would be my route of choice. A handful of benches were sandwiched between the water and a bridge where I would occasionally sit and admire the city’s skyline; a view I would share with the city’s homeless and junkies who took up residence under the bridge. For me, it was a great and literal representation of the divide between the rich and the poor.
It was on that bench one day, that I got called out by a voice behind me. My vision led to a short man with messy hair and stubble. Perched up against the wall, half-covered by a sleeping bag and sitting on a cardboard box, he met me with an honest smile. He proceeded to politely ask me if I happened to have a cigarette.
I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did. Well, it was probably because of the pressure Imran and I had put ourselves under, but I bluntly told him “no”.
That encounter bothered me for days after. Not just because of how I had said no, but also because I actually had a spare cigarette on me and it was very out of character to react as bluntly as I did.
The next time I saw him, I walked up to him with a cigarette in hand and reminded him of the encounter that had happened a few days ago and gave it to him. He looked at me confused, but said thank you and accepted it. From that moment on, whenever we would cross paths, we would say hello. It was not too long after that the homeless man taught me the type of lesson which marked my journey a success.
After I quit and left the restaurant I was full of emotion. I was angry at what had just happened but more than that, I was upset. Being racially judged and stereotyped – rightly or wrongly – is something which comes with the territory of being a Muslim in the modern world. But to effectively lose your job because of something you have absolutely no control over was so difficult to accept.
It was on this walk home that I tried to avoid Daniel, failed to do so, and ended up telling him everything.
He listened silently as I recounted the details of everything that had happened. How Imran and I had gone against most people’s advice by travelling to Australia. How we had absolutely no money, no idea where to go and how to get there, and I had just lost the only job that was supposed to support the both of us.
And what if it was my fault? What if no one was racist and it was all in my head and I was being paranoid. What if the problem actually was the fact that I just wasn’t smiling enough, which, in a customer service job, is a necessity? What if my ego was the main suspect? And what was I to do now. It was the first time I had ventured out this far from home and in that moment, it felt like all was falling apart.
To add to all of this, I was in the middle of Australia. You really have no idea how far away that country actually is, from pretty much everything, till you go there.
I let everything out. I dumped all that I had been carrying for weeks on him. And he listened. Finally, after feeling so much lighter, feeling relieved, I asked him the question which led to the answer of which I learnt so much from.
“So what’s your story man? How did you end up here?”
It had been two or three weeks since I’d had my first encounter with Daniel, but I had never asked him any questions about who he was, and why he was there. I guess I felt it was a little inappropriate as it clearly wasn’t a very happy story … you know, with him living under a bridge and all. But now I had shared with him, and it only felt right that I learnt something about him in return. Though it was not just that, I was genuinely curious.
It had always seemed a little unusual to me that he was in the situation he was in. Unlike many of the people who were homeless, at least those who lived under that particular bridge, I had never seen him under the influence of any drugs. I had never even seen any evidence like syringes, pipes or bottles even suggesting an intoxicating habit like you would find elsewhere along the underbelly of the bridge.
More often than not, when you entered that area as a visitor in passing, all of your senses were hit head-on by the realities of that world. You could smell the smoke and the burning of drugs, you could hear the sniffing and inhaling. Most of all, you could see. You could see the vice of choice in effect, in motion, taking over them.
Whenever you walked past Daniel however, all you were met with was a genuine greeting, a smile and politeness. Something Imran had noticed as well. I guess sometimes you can sense the kindness in a person.
Daniel came from somewhere in New South Wales. At thirty-five years of age, he found himself in Melbourne because the city was the birthplace of his wife. Before, he had made a good living for himself by learning a specialised skill and becoming a cabinet maker. But unfortunately for him, those hands – as well as the rest of his joints – began a painfully long losing battle against arthritis that started in his mid-twenties. Cruelly ironic for a man who earned his keep by using his hands.
But in true Australian fashion, he carried on with his life and work without making a fuss, as the arthritis adopted the same strategy, and silently went to work.
It was during this period, still in the early and manageable stages of his struggle, that he met and fell in love with his future wife, Laura. From not just what he told me, but the manner in which he conveyed it, with sincerity and genuineness, I believed him when he said he had everything he wanted. And it was because of his relationship that he had learnt to accept the disease his body was fighting against.
When he initially contracted it, after the shock of it, he was angry. To be diagnosed with such a crippling, lifelong disease at such a young age was highly difficult to handle mentally.
What helped him the most in dealing with it, was the fact that if it wasn’t for his arthritis, he never would have met Laura, who was a radiologist. As their relationship grew stronger, his body got weaker, and eventually, at Laura’s insistence, he stopped working. He was a proud man and went on working for as long as he could, but finally he knew she was right. Plus, she had a good job and a long, stable career ahead of her and earned enough to support the both of them.
He told me that it was one of the reasons why he proposed to her. He explained that in this day and age, people just don’t do that for others. So when you find someone you genuinely love, one who so clearly loves you back, you act upon it and make her the mother of your children.
They got engaged, he stopped working and she did everything she could to take care of him. Even though he was in constant pain, they were content and happy with the life they had, “Because life,” he told me, spreading his arms out to highlight where we were, “Can be a lot worse.”
Laura had analysed and studied thousands of x-rays throughout her career. She observed, in black and white, broken bones, growing tumours, and cancers of various kinds spreading throughout people’s bodies. Slowly creeping and taking over, fulfilling their purpose day by day.
The cruel irony was that this time the x-ray she was holding up was her own. Watching as the poison surged throughout. But just as Daniel had done before her, she kept it to herself for as long as she could. Still taking care of Daniel’s needs while trying to get her own “problem” taken care of with the help of her colleagues and friends in the hospital.
She tried protecting him and all of her loved ones for as long as she could. However, once it was confirmed that the cancer was malignant, she broke the news to him.
He told me that as devastating as it was for them, it sparked something in him. It had given him purpose. Now he had to take responsibility to ensure he was always there for her. To be right by her side throughout the whole process and remind her, whenever she needed it, that she was too strong as a person to give in to her cancer. That they were too strong as a couple for one of them to perish without a real fight.
You would forgive him for being angry and cursing his fate. Finding a job he loved, before having it taken away. Finding the woman he loved, and the risk of having her taken away as well. Surprisingly, he told me that although they were the hardest times of their lives, he was never bitter about what they went through.
“Something inside of me just always knew, throughout the entire time, that we would win. That she was going to live with me for a long time and that I could go back to being the one being taken care of and not the one doing the caring. Jesus, mate, at times it felt like the blind leading the blind.” Funny guy.
Even when she got scarily close to the end, and he married her, as they promised each other they would if the time came to it, he still believed. Even as she deteriorated and all one by one, began losing hope, his remained true. “I knew with absolute conviction that Laura was going to go right up to death’s door, and then come straight back to me.” Heartbreakingly, he was wrong.
She survived for almost two years from when she found out she was sick, till when she passed. And in that time, they spent and sacrificed everything they had in order to keep her alive. Towards the end, he sold off the house and whatever else of value they had, but all that did was land him under a bridge. He told me that Laura was mad at him when she found out that he had sold their house and she worried about what would happen to him if she were to die. “But I’m still here, mate. Still smiling.”
I’d rarely come across a person who has gone through so much yet was still so positive and grateful.
What shocked me the most was when I’d asked, he told me that she had only died six weeks ago. It meant that the first time I interacted with him, his wife had been dead for two, maybe three weeks. He broke my train of thought and the deep silence that had befallen me by telling me not to go anywhere, and that he would be back soon.
He left. I thought about everything he had just told me. His highs and lows and eventual loss. Not only had he lost the woman he loved in a long, protracted, painful and mentally draining battle. He was now broke and homeless. I thought about all of these things… and then I thought about my own “problems”.
If ever I needed another perspective to realise how lucky I am.
The one thing that stood out, and has stayed with me since, is that though he barely had anything, not the health nor the ability to live a good quality life, his attitude and spirit was one which I fail to see in the richest of people I know.
The manner with which he shared with me what had happened in his life, was the exact same way in which he had listened to mine. Barring one or two moments where you could sense his pain, his body language, expressions, tone of voice, all remained even. Consciously balanced. It made me curious. I mean, the man who only just lost his wife, sleeping under a bridge and is crippled displays not a hint of bitterness or guilt or justifiable self-pity. None. How?
When Daniel returned, he was holding a box of Domino’s pizza.
“I only had a fiver, mate, so I hope you don’t mind sharing.”
I tried saying no, but he told me that I had had a bad day and so he insisted. A homeless, heartbroken, sick man had just spent the last of his money on food to share with me because I had a bad day.
What more can I say.
While we were eating, I asked him about the thoughts which had been brewing in my mind. How I could not comprehend the way in which he remained so calm when re-telling his story.
His reply was, simply, acceptance.
“If I don’t accept all that has happened in my life. My past. My present. I’ll turn bitter. I’ll forget all of the amazing things I’ve had, and just focus on the bad things I’ll end up joining Laura a lot sooner than I should.”
We finished our dinner; I said goodbye and went home.
When I had left the restaurant I was hurt, confused and angry. By the time I got home though, those emotions had subsided considerably. I was mentally drained but I was a lot calmer. My sit-down with Daniel had forced me to stop and take a step back. To analyse my situation but this time with perspective. Yes, what I was going through was not ideal, but look at what he was going through … and he was still smiling.
When recounting all that had happened that day to Imran I spent most of my time talking about Daniel. I went through the confrontation, quitting and what should have been the most important topic; the financial implications. But I did so as an obligation, so that I could get to what was more important.
From time to time, I wonder where he is now and hope that he hasn’t joined Laura just yet. It’s not often someone in a position such as Daniel’s, a victim of circumstances and homeless, proves to be such an inspiration.
But then again, it’s not often we as a society give them the chance to do so.
For their first date, he took her to see an iceberg. Well, bits of one. Mo said the artist had them shipped over from Greenland in freezer containers. Something about climate change.
He’d only had two pictures on his profile. One in a suit (smile) and one up some mountain (eye-roll). Halima had flicked back and forth, from tuxedo to snow, silk tie to shades, twirling them like a penny. Didn’t think he’d swipe back.
She didn’t mind the walk. They met
after work and went via Regent Street and the Christmas angels winked overhead.
Mo gave her a box of dark chocolates and said she looked nice. She lobbed the
word back, but it didn’t do him justice. Someone who’d done Veganuary and was
still going strong. Someone who’d done the Three Peaks challenge and was doing
the marathon next year.
But when they reached the Bloomberg building, Halima’s hands and feet were numb. Then they saw the blocks and he beamed. Taller than her and as wide as cars, each one had a different complexion, from foam to blue-grey. As translucent as skin.
He placed his palm on one, so she took
off her gloves and did the same. Then she wondered if he minded the leather and
stuffed them in her pockets. It wasn’t as cold as she’d thought it would feel.
It was smooth and beautiful, like the way death is in films.
Mo gazed at each one while she gazed
at him, ignored by the bankers and tourists, who were marching away or on their
phones. One sloped like a sled and three girls sat on it, taking selfies. Halima
looked at their jeans and Uggs, regretting her dress and pumps. Mo had had the
right idea, with his black peacoat and Harry Potter-y scarf. She thought about putting
her arm through his, to see if she’d feel his blood through their sleeves.
put his ear against one. “Listen,” he said.
Her hijab was cotton and she didn’t want a wet patch. Or, worse, for it to
stick, then fray and pull against her pins. But she copied him because she was already
shivering. At first she heard nothing except her own foolishness. Then a faint crackling
and popping, like cereal.
straightened up. “So, how’d you hear about this?”
was in the news, there are more outside Tate Modern. Thought it would be a cool
thing to do.”
The side of his face was as slick and pale as paper. She wondered what else he thought was cool. And why they hadn’t just met at the café. And if she could bear to spend another New Year’s Eve alone.
only be here for about another week,” he said. “Less, if it’s warmer.”
she said, and wondered if she’d still know him by then.
200+ uses for a Paperclip
Sometimes, a building is so large and central that nobody sees it. A passing wonderer might look up to see if anyone’s about to jump off the roof, but mostly it’s just there, grey, like an uncle’s suit at a wedding.
Deep, down, down, in the bowels of this building nobody sees, we can find young Whelp at an antiquated urinal. This is his third pee in an hour. The team meeting with Stratum is imminent. He’s nervous, hopes Stratum’s wall eye is happy with what it has seen of him so far. Stratum’s watching nine-tenths of the world. Whelp wants to be the one to give him the complete planet. I, Whelp, present you, Stratum, with this luminousorb. Whelp brings his trickle to a close, jiggles a bead of urine off his penis tip, imagines himself inside it, tiny and vital, a zorbing Borrower.
Over at the hand basin, Whelp looks in the mirror at what he can see of his face. He’s five feet seven and the mirror hasn’t been positioned for the likes of him. If he had a sudden need to see his chin he’d have to stretch himself like some hot tease. He is narrow-skulled, with dry skin, almost eczematous. Nurturing sorts might want to spoon thick yoghurt into his mouth. This isn’t a thought that Whelp himself would have, though he has many other thoughts.
Boom, one of his colleagues, enters the Gents like a trawler in a heavy swell, crashes into the urinal. ‘What you up to over there, Whelk?’ he says, tucking in his spine, knees bent, beginning to enjoy his own flow with a sob of relief. ‘That’s better, back teeth were floating.’
‘It’s Whelp.’ The P pops off the tiles. ‘I’m washing my hands. Some of us do.’
Boom shouts over the splashiness. ’What’s a bit of piss between mates?’
‘I may have to stop sharing pizza with you.’
‘You want to lighten up, you do, Whelky.’
This time, Whelp lets the name thing go. Boom wants him bothered. Boom is good-looking, six-three, brilliant, shouldn’t feel the need to be a wind-up merchant. Whelp thinks Boom’s got a nerve to not be at one with the world. He can’t work out if Boom is irritated by being a nerd who looks like a welder or because he looks like a welder and that is what he wishes he could be. Is Boom fuming because some arc flash of super-duperness hi-spec’ed his forming neurons while he was in the womb and he’s never been able to feel like his mam and dad’s baby? Boom’s parents have a fish and chip restaurant in Darlington. Boom should be helping the old man batter haddocks up north, worrying about his TripAdvisor rating, but instead some genetic fun and games have him a whizz in the capital.
‘Best we get back, Whelk, stop looking at yourself like that, you tart.’
‘Idiot,’ Whelp whispers to the mirror. Boom’s holding the door for him. When he gets there, he has to duck to get under Boom’s arm, feels good.
Bust’s waiting for them, head in the corridor. ‘Move it, you tools, it’s nearly time.’ Boom does a little dance to annoy her. She annihilates the last of her cigarette and her eyes disappear with the hard draw. Boom and Whelp take their place at The Oblong along with Crake and Quoit. This room at the heart of it all looks untouched since the 1950s. The dust on the iron radiator was formed from skin scuffed off temples during the removal of bowler hats. It’s a room that should have typewriters and telephones in it that are big enough to anchor ocean liners, not the sleek Macs standing on the six old desks pushed together to form The Oblong at which they work. The room’s smell is in keeping though, three of them smoke like it’s 1959. Everything is covered in a sticky ochre. There is no No Smoking around here. Whelp’s looking at a lung cancer horizon. He could leave. Get his balloons out of here while they still feel pinko silk with nothing suspicious growing on them but, truth is, he would never leave here, not without Stratum’s e-foot on his backside. When a fish out of water finally discovers his water, he isn’t going to be all up in the air the way he used to be. Not now he’s in his element. A happier fish is Whelp of late. He’s found a shoal.
His colleague, Crake, is as young as himself and the other one, Quoit, could be forty, has a receding hairline and a long yellow-grey ponytail hanging down to his arse crack. Bust turns various strip lights on and off until she’s happy with the level of illumination. This meeting with Stratum takes place on the last Friday of every month at 2300 hours. Whelp is the newest member of the team and this will be his first meeting. He’s been working so hard his mind feels like plate scrapings. He must shine, prove he deserves his place. Like the other four, he was found, sniffed out, hunted down by Stratum’s people.
Whelp does not think Bust pretty but her skirts tend to end mid-thigh over bare legs. Whelp fantasises about her. Two days into being here and high on the buzz of it all, his head full of algorithms, he’d wandered by mistake into the Ladies and caught Bust and Boom doing it standing up against one of the hand basins. They hadn’t noticed him and he’d silently reversed himself out into the corridor but his mirror neurons—they’re the monkey see, monkey do ones—had fired up and though Whelp still has his cherry, in a way, he really doesn’t.
Bust joins the four men at The Oblong but doesn’t sit. ‘Are we good to go?’ she asks. She’s looking for thumbs up and nods. Crake and Quoit are off somewhere in their heads and Boom’s poking at a back tooth with a straightened paperclip. ‘Anyone?’ Bust says. ‘Hello?’
Whelp slides his eyes to where she has a green vein at the back of her left knee. That’s one caterpillar he would love to squash. ‘Good to go,’ he says.
Bust takes her seat with a lament. ‘Save me,’ she says.
They wait for Stratum to appear. Stratum doesn’t give good face. He doesn’t give any face at all. Keeps it south of neck during the monthly teleconference.
‘What’s the collective noun for nerds?’ Boom says.
Whelp waits for the punchline, then realises it’s not a joke.
‘We’ll make one up’ Quoit says. This month, Quoit has been getting into mind control via neurocinematic studies.
‘Don’t bloody bother,’ Boom says. ‘I was only shooting the breeze.’
‘Ah,’ says Crake. ‘You were shooting the breeze with mouth bullets?’
Whelp looks at Boom looking at Crake. Boom is surprised because, like Quoit, Crake rarely interacts. ‘Yes, Crake,’ he says, ‘they’re called words. Words! Words! Words!’ Boom fires off a round.
Animated, now that he’s got something else to think about, Crake bum hops in his seat. His mild moobs rollick underneath the tight red tee stretched across his torso. This short wait for Stratum will be interminable for him. Crake works and that is all he does except for that time he stopped to tell them he was a savant cyberjacker who’d been doing a triple-decade stretch in the pen—so not that clever then—until Stratum’s people had all that sorted out nicely for him, had him flown over the pond to here where he works and hides from any potential disturbance by covering his face with his side fringe
Chitchat is not their bag. This wait is tricky for Quoit too, he’s off visiting somewhere in his head, unable to be present and correct, his lips move and his eyes flicker.
Boom’s sat opposite Quoit. ‘I feel like I’m at a bloody Victorian seance,’ he says. He wails, ‘Is anybody there?’
Whelp can see that Quoit doesn’t care if anybody’s there or not. Quoit’s a genius with a photographic memory but you wouldn’t let him use the cooker on his own, or mind your cat.
‘Come on, Stratum, we’ve things to be getting on with here,’ Bust says to the computer screen and she looks owlish for a second when it lights up and a headless body in a business suit speaks.
‘Folks! How y’all hangin’? Y’all look so darn good.’
Whelp hadn’t been expecting Forrest Gump.
‘We’re fine, Mr Stratum, thank you,’ Bust says, answering for them all. ‘And may I say you’re torso looking very well?’
‘Y’ get me every time with that one,’ he says. ‘Ah do love a funny lady. Now, ah’ve glanced over the notes and, yip dee dip, about these initiatives…’
Whelp holds his breath, cursing Stratum’s slow drawl. Tenterhook City.
‘Not bad goin’ y’all.’
‘OK, so some o’ these surveillance breakthroughs ah’m really kinda stoked about, no darn need for anyone to get into bed with anyone else these days, unless you’re offerin’, Bust, hon?’
‘Anyone know a good lawyer?’ Bust clicks her mouth.
‘Hon, you go rub that sexual harassment lawsuit all over me,’ Stratum says, you press it right up against me now. OK, let’s get serious here, folks. Ah spy with my l’il eye, somethin’ beginnin’ with T.’
‘Tosser,’ Boom says, behind his teeth.
‘Trouble?’ Bust says, to cover Boom.
‘Warm,’ Stratum says, and his shoulders move with a nod they can’t see.
The team has been developing a system to help better identify culprits of public disorder offences. Big disorder offences. Country large. Countries large. Continents large.
‘Could we be talkin’ ’bout those l’il ole terrorists again?’ Bust says in Stratum’s voice. ‘Hell, ain’t just about everyone these days?’
‘Give that lady a carrot,’ Stratum says. ‘A sackful of carrots for that l’il lady, hell yeah.’
‘So…what about the terrorists?’ Boom says.
‘We gotta draw ’em out, seduce ’em to reduce ’em. So ah’m talkin’ subliminal messagin’ here, some good ol’ carrots and the like. Quoit, fellah, ah’m diggin’ your findin’s. You’ll do it, you’ll have those terrorist brain reward systems lightin’ up like Caesar’s Palace when it hears we got Elvis back. You’ll get ’em round to our way o’ thinkin’ and have ’em comin’ out o’ hidey-holes feelin’ like they wanna group hug the whole darn world.
Whelp is desperate. He needs to hear Stratum say that he’s digging his findings too. He needs his own special shout-out. His pat on the head. His very own Whelp, ma boy, ma fellah, ah’m diggin’ your findin’s.
‘Aw, now ain’t he just as cute as a box o’ possums,’ Stratum says. Whelp smiles but he is not the cutie in question. ‘Crake, ma boy, diggin’ your findin’s. Ah do admire your use of the Gamers. We gotta use the Gamers. Throw a few free games their way. They call it enjoyin’ themselves and we call it gettin’ the shit bits done. Gotta harness those manic thumb fiends. There lies potential. We can get into so many rooms that way. Think about it y’all. Rooms, minds.’
Whelp waits for praise to shoot out of Stratum’s throat, a geyser of gush to endorse him, him. Whelp, for God’s sake.
‘We’re doin’ fine,’ Stratum says, ‘but we can do more. Remember now, rethink, reduce, reconfigure, retool, re-sequence, redesign, re-frickin’ everything.’
Isn’t Stratum going to personally acknowledge his work? Affirm he is a great asset? Whelp coughs but it doesn’t draw Stratum’s attention.
‘Y’all keep on movin’ forward and ah’m feelin’ we are done for another month. POIP remains as always. Are we done? Any other business?’
Whelp is frantic. He has to know if Stratum is pleased with his work. POIP stands for Passage Of Information Policy but at this moment it’s the sound of his blood giving up the ghost in his disappointed heart, poip, poip. Stratum hasn’t even welcomed him to the team. Not so much as a dicky bird of acknowledgement. He’s not having this. He breathes in and—
‘No other business,’ Bust says, and Whelp holds onto his breath like its a leashed terrier with a rabbit blowing kisses in its face.
‘Yay! Now we carry on innovatin’. You will all remain freed up from the usual bureaucracy. We are an elite group and you know also, dontcha, that when we go launch Project U, life will never be the same again. That is no slogan. It is a literal fact. See y’all next month.’ Stratum puts a high five hand in the air and all of them reciprocate except Whelp.
Bust stretches across The Oblong to log out. Whelp looks at the green grub on the back of her knee, ready to pop.
‘Pizza,’ Boom says.
‘Too bloody right pizza,’ Bust says.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Whelp says.
‘Come on, let’s enjoy the lull before the off-we-go-again,’ Bust says. ‘Boom, ring the order in. Ham and pineapple for me. Anyone want to go halves on some potato wedges?’ She goes to flick the lights to a fuller brightness.
‘I refuse pizza,’ Quoit says.
‘Quoit, you are having pizza like a normal human being so shut up,’ Bust says.
Boom’s on his phone to the pizza shop. He looks up, ‘Cans of pop all round, yeah?’ He looks at Whelp. ‘What you having, Whelk?’ Whelp shrugs. Boom indicates with his hand that Whelp better hurry up. ‘Sorry, just one moment,’ he says to the person on the other end of the line, ‘we’ve got a petulant child here.’ He shakes his hand at Whelp. ‘Come on, you’re hard work, you are son, what do you want? Right, balls to that, you’re getting an 8 inch Margarita.’
‘Get Quoit the same,’ Bust says.
Boom gets off the phone, laughs, ‘look everyone, look at Whelp, he’s not happy. He’s worried Stratum’s not convinced he’s got what it takes. He wanted a little love.’
‘I didn’t hear him loving you,’ Whelp says.
‘I’m the longest serving one here, kind of says it all, mate.’
‘Oh, give it a rest you two,’ Bust says. ‘Christ-y,’ she cries, and tilts her face to the ceiling. ‘Where are all the nice people?’
‘Not here,’ Boom says.
‘Do you ever think about the rights and wrongs of what you do?’ Whelp says.
‘Are you talking to me, Whelk?’
‘Not especially, Boom.’
‘Rights and wrongs? Bust says. You’re taking it back to basics there, aren’t you, Whelp?’
‘We’ll never go that far back, no, never again,’ Boom says. ‘The rights and wrongs are thought about for us these days. I’d probably think it was shit if I could stop long enough to think about it.’
‘People like it, you tool,’ Bust says.
‘Yeah, Boom, they love it.’
‘What? Being spied on, assessed?’ Whelp says.
Bust inches down in her chair, kicks her shoes off. ‘They’re all exposing themselves of their own free will anyway, most of them, the so-called privileged ones. They get off on it, being watched, it’s the only way they know how to know that they’re alive.’ She moves her naked feet. ‘Hard work afterglow, nothing like it,’ she says. ‘Love this cusp of the new month, and I know we can’t see it from this dungeon but did you know it’s a full moon tonight, boys?’
Whelp is sitting with his head down. He’s done great work this past month. He thinks of all that concentration, the obsession, the breakthroughs and then the not so much as a kiss my arse from Stratum. He’s hardly slept since coming here. His brain has been too stimulated for any sort of proper Off. He hasn’t been off for the whole time and Stratum, headless hiding spineless stalker of nine-tenths of the whole world didn’t even acknowledge him. Well, the clown, whoever the hell he was, could go and whistle for his last tenth. Whelp’s got his own mind and he might use it in supporting the underdog. Yes, he just might go and bloody well do that. This thought is a thought Whelp should not have had. It is a thought that would have remained a thought. It is a thought thought in anger. But, Stratum can’t let it pass. You see, young Whelp was right in thinking he’s got his own mind, he certainly has, but Stratum has access to it. He didn’t get to be Stratum without keeping a few things up his sleeve. Whelp’s finished, a goner, though he doesn’t know it yet and, anyway, that’s a whole other story.
Bust’s off to the Ladies. Whelp thinks about following her. He wonders if he were to shadow her in would she do it with him like she did with Boom, standing up, her skirt all twisted up around her ribs, her buttocks finally ending up dropped like two bruised grapefruits into the sink.
‘Penny for your thoughts,’ Boom says.
A rock of embarrassment blocks Whelp’s gullet. He dare not answer for fear his voice is altered by desire, anger, sound softly husked, different, a giveaway.
Boom pulls at Whelp’s head, whispers into his ear. ‘Follow her, go on, son, take the road less travelled.’
‘We saw you.’
‘Peripheral vision, Whelk, we know a bit about that, don’t we?’
Whelp feels pixelated with alarm. The atoms of his being jump apart and he is made up of a shock of dots.
When Bust comes back, Boom and Crake go to have a ciggy with her in the corner so they can all share the ashtray. Quoit’s working on something. They’re all obsessives but Quoit would get to take the trophy home, if they ever went home.
Whelp watches from across the room as the smokers spark up. Bust sucks on her cigarette, says to Boom and Crake. ‘Are we going on the vapes, dear coworkers?’
‘Are we fuck,’ Boom says. He shouts from across the room, ‘Ciggy, Whelp?’
‘No, thank you,’ Whelp says.
‘You’ve never smoked, Whelp?’ Bust says.
‘Does he look like he’s ever been round the back of the bike sheds?’ Boom laughs, they all laugh, except Quoit who’s never laughed. May not know how to.
‘We all have the same centre,’ Whelp says, then he hears what’s escaped from his mouth. He doesn’t know where the words have come from. What he’s talking about even. Sleep deprivation probably.
‘Do we all have the same centre?’ Crake asks. He inhales his cancer stick and goes off on one of his thought voyages.
Quoit’s scribbling on a piece of paper and hissing at it.
Boom and Bust are looking at Whelp.
‘We all have the same centre,’ Whelp repeats, to feel bold, to hold out some boldness to the world. He wants to cry.
‘Do we?’ Boom roars. ‘Do we all have the same centre?’
Boor, boor, boor, Boom! Whelp thinks. He looks right at Boom now. Bores his stare into Boom. ‘You say that as though you’d be horrified to have the same…bullseye as me.’
‘You call your soul, bullseye?’ Boom says. ‘Interesting.’
‘And you call my bullseye my soul…now that’s even more interesting, Boom,’ he says.
Boom drags heavily on his cigarette. When he comes to pull it away from his lips it sticks and his fingers knock the red end off. It falls down the front of his sweatshirt. Burnt fingers, burnt chest and a shouted ‘Sod off, Whelp.’
Whelp’s watching Boom doing a pain dance. Crake and Bust are calm, smoking. Whelp goes over to Bust and takes the cigarette from out of her fingers. He sticks it into the back of his own hand.
‘Whelp, for God’s sake,’ she screams.
Whelp keeps it there, burning, burning, until Bust knocks his arm.
‘Head case,’ she says.
Boom’s still now, forgetting his own pain, his own piss takes. ‘You need locking up, Whelp.’
Whelp rolls up his shirt sleeve. It’s a four hundred pound shirt. He’s nineteen and he earns more than an astronaut. He’s looking forward to all the starry possibilities. He feels better now all of his pain is focussed. He holds up the cigarette. ‘Would you like me to do it again?’ he asks, and he turns the cigarette, holding it poised, red end down, over his bare forearm, ready to launch. On the back of his hand a tiny planet, burns, burns. He looks at their hideous bright faces. ‘Do you want me to do it again?’ he repeats.
The intercom buzzer goes.
High above them, out on the street, the pizza delivery lad waits for an answer, his handsome face illuminated by the moon, he’s smiling, he’s thinking about this girl he likes.
Royal Cauldron by Ariel Dawn
On the terrace of my room in the tower ancestors drink tea in the snow. Lately I awaken to feel them rushing for some high and holy day, suitcases open, dresses, tuxedos, gifts, bouquets, before they vanish. They remain, and the Royal Cauldron tea set, chai, cakes, oranges. Fur coats over nightclothes, eyes blue flames in silver shadows. Lawrence leans against door frame and smokes a cigar. Good path down the road, he says, and the doors are open at the Manet hotel. He holds The Forest, dark oil, to hang in the corner. Ancestors turn and stare. In his eyes they are invisible: the tea, and the lady setting out glass bottles, amber, sapphire, emerald, air.
As he entered the workshop, the elves lowered their voices
and conspicuously changed subject. They made a show of doing this, of cutting
him out. They didn’t hate Santa, they were just frustrated with the long,
repetitive hours and needed someone to punish.
Bushy approached with a clipboard. Santa straightened his
posture and cleared his throat.
“How’s everything going?” he asked.
“It’s going!” Bushy replied with a giggle.
“You think we’ll be ready?”
“We’ve been ready for days.”
“Great. That’s … fantastic work.”
The sound of wrapping paper crunching and tape being yanked
and torn from industrial-sized rolls filled the temporary silence.
“Would you like to check the inventory?” Bushy asked. He was
extending the benefit of the doubt, assuming some official purpose behind the
visit. The truth was that Santa had nowhere else to be. It was the night before
Christmas Eve, their most demanding yet, and he was bored.
“You read my mind, Bushy,” he replied, merrily.
Santa eased himself into a red golf cart, his girth spreading
awkwardly over the driver and passenger seats. Bushy sat on his lap and
steered, while Santa worked the accelerator. Virtually all of the presents had
been wrapped. They zipped through aisles upon aisles of gifts, a multitude so
vast the eye had nowhere to land and focus. Santa’s gaze bounced between
packages of varying colours: festive red and forest green, earthy patterned
prints, reflective wrapping, shiny silvers and golds, glistening now even in
the weak, grey light of the storage facility. Yet beneath this dazzling display
was a homogeneity of presents: phones, consoles, tablets. Every year, the
Bushy drove in silence. Santa wondered what Bushy saw when he
looked upon these gifts. Once, the elves had been artisans. Now, they were
procurers, dealing in abstractions: units, shipment dates, delivery logistics.
The rise of tech had at first eased and then ultimately emasculated their
profession. Did Bushy think about this?
“Do you want to see Zone B?” Bushy asked, once their canvass of Zone A was complete.
“No, no. It seems like you have everything under control.”
Bushy smiled and
turned the cart around. “How’s the missus?”
“She’s gone to the South Pole for a few days.”
“Alright for some!” he
said, with another mischievous giggle.
“There’s really no need for her to be here now. And, of
course, I need to focus.”
“You can say that again.”
“It’s for the best, I think.”
“Actually, Bushy, I get rather … edgy on Christmas Eve.”
Bushy made no response.
“I get almost… gloomy,”
Santa confessed, delicately.
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Bushy said, keeping his eye on
“It’s probably nothing.”
jitters, I’d imagine.”
“How is morale? Among
“This time of year can
“Hard?” Bushy shook his head, uncomprehending. “I mean, from
what I can tell, this year everyone is jolly. Everyone is feeling pretty jolly
about the way things are progressing. I haven’t noticed any issues with cheer.”
“Great. I assumed as much. Just making sure.”
“Everything is fantastic,” Bushy said. His brows were lowered
as if he was continuing the conversation in his head, puzzling over its
They parked outside the workshop entrance. Santa lurched to
his feet and felt his weight slam down hard upon his knees.
“Rudolph has been looking for you,” Bushy said.
“So everyone keeps saying…”
Bushy seemed anxious to rejoin the others. They stepped
inside. The elves were working hard, carrying presents, stacking them, curling
reams of red ribbon. Despite all this motion, they appeared purposeless. For
all Santa could tell, they were simply moving objects back and forth. A
simulacrum of Christmases past. At some point over the years, Santa’s
enterprise had been subtly misshapen, stretched beyond its elastic limit. He
watched them for a moment more, then slipped away, unobserved.
He was shocked by the state of his bedroom. Mrs. Claus had
warned that she intended to do a “Deep Clean” before leaving, but this was much
more. There was new bedding, a new watercolour print mounted on the wall. She
had arranged an elaborate floral display above the fireplace, dusted the
surfaces and shampooed the rug. It was as pristine as a hotel room. And, as in
a hotel room, Santa wandered this immaculate space uncomfortably, aware that
every time he made contact with his surroundings he slightly dishevelled them.
He did not resent her absence. Her family missed her and he was bad company on the 23rd, always anxious and unsocial. It had been a sensible decision. Yet now this strange overture, as if they’d had a fight.
Several magazines were fanned across his desk, all featuring
Santa on the cover. She had left those too: a quiet prompt. He absently picked
one and stared at an artist’s rendition of himself flying across a moonlit sky.
Recently, his media image had altered. People were representing him as thinner,
corpulence no longer being associated with jolliness, but disease. Santa stared
at the flattering image and felt a strange mixture of vanity and self-reproach.
He turned his attention to the sled manifest, a document so
vast they had resorted to printing it on scritta paper, the same as is used for
Bibles. There were 994,412 people with the name “Scott” in the USA alone. Most
of them wanted iPads. It was said that one death is a tragedy and one thousand
a statistic. This principle could be applied to Christmas itself. At a certain
scale, merriment became unintelligible.
He attempted to focus. He could not. He called his wife.
“I’ve been thinking about population forecasts…” he said, the
moment she answered.
“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Jesus … 4.2
billion by 2030? They’re killing me.”
“Baby, no. We can’t go through this again…”
“I’m aware that I say this every year, but I have a really
bad feeling about tomorrow. About the feasibility.”
“That’s right, honey, you do
say this every year. And every year the outcome is the same: the job gets done.
Can’t you just, I don’t know, try to accept that you’re very good at what you
do? Try to take pleasure in it.”
He needed comfort. Comfort should be easy to give. He felt
that she was withholding it deliberately.
Of course, he knew this was unfair. The fact that she had
never been down a chimney, and he had, meant that on some essential, material
level, they were different. He had a sense of the 24th that was wholly his own,
stored somewhere deep, inaccessible. No matter how strong their marriage, how
extensively they talked, this difference would never be breached. No other
living thing could speak directly to his doubts. There was only one Santa: his
worries were uniquely his.
“You sound far away,” he said.
“I’ve got you on hands-free.”
“Oh,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Just, you know, futzing.”
“Well, I’ll let you get back to it.”
“Okay.” She paused. “You didn’t say anything about the room.”
“Right, yes. It’s … very dramatic.”
“You don’t like it.”
“I do. I’m just tired.”
“We can change it back if you hate it.”
“I don’t. Sorry, I’m just distracted. It’s lovely. Really.”
There was a pause, then she asked, “Have you spoken to
“I haven’t run into him today.”
“You need to make an effort.”
“Well, I’ll see him plenty tomorrow.”
“He thinks the world of you.”
“He idolises you.”
Santa said nothing; any response would surely be petty. And
he couldn’t explain why he had grown so distant towards his friend.
“You should rest,” his wife said.
“Okay. We’ll speak tomorrow.”
They both lingered. He had the impression that there was some
code-word that he’d forgotten to utter. Something that might dispel this
“Nick—” she said, impulsively.
“I’m fine,” he assured.
“You’ll do a good job tomorrow.”
“Get some rest.”
“You too. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Nick.”
“Are you alright?” he
blurted. “Is everything okay down South?” But by then, she’d hung up.
There had been a time
when he and his wife flirted constantly and teased mercilessly. They had loved
to tease, to push the envelope. Their attraction seemed indefatigable so it was
thrilling to test its limits. On their third Christmas, back when Santa
assisted with workshop production, he’d pulled late nights. She’d once phoned
down from their bedroom:
“Mr. Claus, would you care to come up and join me in bed,” she’d
said in a throaty murmur.
“Not particularly,” he replied, sotto voce.
“You’ve got something better to do?”
“I’ve got a date.”
“My other wife. You knew about her right?”
“I didn’t. Well, I’d better call my boyfriend.”
“You’ve got a boyfriend?”
“He’s incredibly rich.”
“Bet he doesn’t drive a sled.”
“No, he drives a Ferrari.”
“Okay, you’ve made me jealous.”
“He’s ridiculously attractive. And the things he can do in
bed … my word!”
“He’s fat too! I love fat men.”
Santa wore a vacant smile as he recalled the exchange and the
more heated exchange that took place after the call. These days, he and his
wife were cautious when they spoke. It was as if they had stood witness to some
disaster and each were complicit in its cover-up.
Santa’s shadow pranced about in the firelight. Otherwise, the room was very still. A piece of bark snapped. A displaced log fell with a muffled thud. The muted sound gave Santa the impression that he wasn’t in the room at all, but far away from it.
No matter how strong his practical misgivings, how tired his
body, how unsteady his faith, Santa always woke on the 24th with a burst of
energy. He opened his eyes alert, cognisant, like he’d not been asleep at all,
but had merely blinked between thoughts.
The carpet outside his door was muddied; forked hoof prints
trailed up and down the corridor.
“Either Rudolph is impatient to see me, or the devil’s come early for my soul,” Santa said, aloud, to himself.
He stepped into the snow. The sun glowed dimly, blurred behind a wash of pale overcast, like a cataracted eye.
The last of the presents were being loaded into the sled.
Prancer and Vixen stretched and limbered while the other reindeer quietly
gathered their thoughts. Only Rudolph, who was the youngest, moved skittishly
between the elves and his fellow reindeer, joyous to the point of agitation.
There was something about Rudolph’s cheer that made Santa increasingly
uncomfortable. Sometimes when they spoke, Santa felt as if he were guarding
himself against exposure, as if he were concealing an infidelity of some sort.
And sometimes, to his bewilderment, he found that he wanted to be exposed.
He took a sip of his coffee; it was already cold and
beginning to solidify in the mug. Rudolph bounded over, his nose blazing red,
his eyes watery and bright.
“Look at this manifest,” Santa said, before Rudolph had
chance to speak.
Rudolph made a low, appreciative whistle. “That’s a doozy!”
he replied, excitedly.
“Maybe we should sack it off this year!” Santa joked. He
rarely made jokes like that.
Rudolph laughed. “Why not? I’m sure nobody would notice!”
“Exactly! Yes, exactly.” Santa was laughing more now. “We
could just say: sod it. Go inside, watch a movie.”
Rudolph chuckled politely. He looked towards the sled.
“Maybe roast some chestnuts,” Santa continued. “Crack open
the whiskey…” The thought was incredibly funny. Santa really couldn’t stop
laughing. “We could pack up all these gifts and use them next year. Or not! We
could leave them here. Just abandon them. They’d be buried in snow by tomorrow!
A nice, jolly graveyard of gifts. Let the kiddies go hunting for them.” The
image was hysterical and exciting; little children bumbling around Arctic
pastures, fields for PlayStations with chilblained fingers.
He let go. Santa laughed until the corners of his mouth hurt and
his stomach hurt and tears streaked his cheeks. The sound was absorbed swiftly
by the acres of virgin snow, his laughter disappearing almost at the instant of
articulation. Eventually he stopped. The surrounding planes were silent.
“We really have to get going,” Rudolph said.
The snow poured. The sled and the elves and even Rudolph were
obscured behind the powdery white flakes. Santa appeared to be surrounded by
“You ready?” Rudolph asked.
Over five hundred million gifts had been packed. Across the
world, children waited in feverish anticipation. The gifts would delight them
for a day and ultimately disappoint them. Eventually, they’d lose faith in
Santa, in presents entirely; they’d ask for cash. They’d be replaced. The
“I just want someone to tell me that what I’m doing isn’t
completely mad,” he said.
“It is mad! We’re depositing five hundred and twenty-six million
gifts across the world in less than twelve hours!”
“I didn’t mean ‘mad’ in a fun, slang sort of way.”
“In what way did you mean it?”
“I meant in a literal way. As in insane.”
Rudolph’s nose dimmed slightly. “You’ll feel better once we
make a start,” he said.
They moved through the air, travelling into darkness. At
certain speeds, it is easy to confuse physical velocity with more abstract,
even spiritual forms of progression. Santa was familiar with this tricksy
phenomenon, he knew it was coming and yet he was unable to resist its effects.
For a moment, he felt like he was really going somewhere. In the distance, he
spotted a swampy patch of brightness. Aurora Borealis. The eerie light
unspooled for miles across the black sky; his skin glowed sapphire and his
green breath fogged before him. Santa felt humbled by the immensity of his
task. The desire to do it and do it well absorbed him completely; his worries
seemed suddenly small and light.
They started close to home, Greenland their first stop. The
proximal approach was risky, pitting them against the time zones. But it
divided their route into short spurts, which played to the reindeer’s strengths
and it spared them a long journey across the globe with full cargo.
They advanced steadily across the desolate landscape,
visiting humble abodes that had remained unchanged for generations. In one, an
old woman sat in a rocking chair. Her children were dead and her home empty,
but she prepared their stockings every year and Santa always filled them. What
she did with the useless gifts, he could not guess, but he felt for her. At
Christmas, sadness was a purer distillate and he did what he could to dilute
it. These first visits were always more emotional; later there would be no time
Next, Canada, venturing briefly into Alaska, then back
across. In the Southern region, their progress slowed, particularly in the
densely packed cities, where whole families lived only breaths apart. He moved
through Vancouver trippingly, stopping and starting stopping and starting,
distributing gifts in vast apartment blocks, dozens at a time. Once complete,
they’d lost significant cargo and the sled moved faster. Bolting into the USA,
the G-force pressed hard against Santa’s skull, pushing at his eyes, his
cheeks, his jowls. The sled trembled.
“How are we doing, Rudolph?” he cried.
He worked harder. He filled his sack more heavily, reducing
trips to the sled. His mind went blank and his muscles thought for him. He was
a system of reflexes.
Santa scrambled down chimneys, fingers grasping for purchase,
fingernails snapping off, legs pumping. He discovered himself in a lounge:
garish, bright, decked out in white ornaments. The image vanished and he was on
the sled. The reindeer moaned as they peddled over a labyrinth of rooftops,
spritzed by a gentle rain. And then again. Ten houses. Twenty. Forty. In the
sixtieth, his leg cramped and he walked with a limp, hobbling towards a tree
which had, inexplicably, been placed in the bathroom. His sack, full of sharp
objects, gouged his back. Pain was progress. As the sack stabbed, he moved
faster, like a beast spurred.
“How are we doing Rudolph?
“It’s tight. It’s very tight.”
Faster still. He hurled presents towards trees, he pivoted on
his foot like a sprinter completing laps. He was in a squalid threadbare squat
in Brooklyn, reeking of old clothes, sweat. He was in a townhouse. A
brownstone. He was on Fifth Avenue. The sole of his boot flapped free and he revelled
in this, this validation of his labour. He fumbled across a ballroom, the men
were in black tie. A woman in a sequinned gown observed him panting towards the
ten foot spruce.
“How cute,” she declared, her accent waspish.
Some people could see him but most could not. Those that saw
him recognised him vaguely, like a figure in a dream. An experience of
translucence. He did not mind it now, on the job, but it haunted him after,
that sense of light travelling through him, of being half-vanished.
The air in Mongolia was wet and sweet. The air in Kowloon was
thick with pollution; a haze of petrol fumes settled on Santa’s skin. He did
not slow. They covered Hong Kong. His throat was sandpaper; it hurt to swallow.
Soon, his spit was just froth and there was nothing to swallow at all. Laos.
Taiwan. Rudolph’s nose pointed the way, a small and constant conflagration in
fields of dark.
The sun rose over Alice Springs, Australia, and bloodied the
sky. Santa witnessed it through bloodshot eyes. Time was short.
By Wellington, his muscles were shredded; his limbs loose and
disobedient. Hard to move quickly. Hard to be graceful: he bumped into a desk.
He shoved a couch from his path, rather than walk around it. His body
imprecise, a crude instrument.
When Santa deposited the final gift near the Slope Point, New
Zealand, they were all too exhausted to cheer. He coughed until he retched and
then wiped the sweat from his brow. Almost immediately, more sweat gathered. He
fell against the sled, staring into the middle distance. The landscape pulsed.
Lactic acid pickled his muscles. But he was done.
“Oh no,” Rudolph said.
Santa was too tired to acknowledge the remark.
“Oh dear,” Rudolph said.
“What. What is it?” Santa demanded.
“We missed one.”
Santa returned to the sled and there, in its shadows, was a
single square package wrapped in violet Crepe-paper. He picked it up, his heart
To, Tommy Baker Love, Santa
Beneath his signature was an image of Big Ben, indicating
that the present belonged in London, the other side of the world.
“It’s only four in the morning GMT. We could still make it,”
Rudolph said. Dasher’s head sank, and he studied the dirt ground. He looked
like he was about to cry. For a moment, Santa worried that he too might cry. An
image of himself weeping ceaselessly rose in his imagination.
“We could…” Santa said.
“Could”; the suggestion of an alternative. The air became
electric; a scandal, if not uttered, had been implied.
“We’ve never skipped a gift before! Not once!” Rudolph
laughed with strained joviality.
The other reindeer
looked at each other guiltily.
The package was light – most likely a Kindle Fire. Given the
hundreds of millions of gifts they’d distributed, it seemed absurd that this
flimsy thing should be of any consequence. He turned it in his hands and
wondered how far it would fly if he projected the toy with all his strength.
And if he did? The reindeer would tell the elves. The elves
would talk amongst themselves. His dereliction would license theirs.
The reindeer watched him. Rudolph squirmed. Santa understood that he had, in his hand, the single loose brick that could upend the edifice. He could fail. He could choose to fail. Let the whole thing tumble. The prospect was dizzying.
“We’ll go to London,” Santa declared, solemnly. “And then we
will go home.”
They moved sluggishly from the Southern to Northern
hemisphere, the darkness disintegrating in patches behind them. Upon reaching
Europe, they turned west, traversing the sky like wearied vagabonds escaping a
long pursuit. The sled swerved and the air grew frigid. They pushed on. In
London, they travelled at an altitude and vantage that made the city seem like
an elaborate toy village; oddly fragile and easy to crush.
Tommy lived deep in a nest of council estates in Whitechapel.
There was no chimney, so Santa would have to enter by the door. He walked along
a narrow, concrete gangway on the fourth floor. In the courtyard below, a group
of teenagers were jeering and making trouble; grime music played from a muffled
A woman sat in the living room, cradling a glass of red wine.
She looked up, acknowledging him with only faint surprise, as if he were her
husband come home at an unusual hour.
“Hello,” she said.
“Ho ho ho,” he replied, somewhat anaemically. He had sweated
through his clothes many times and they felt stiff and filthy. The air around
his body smelled foul.
“Sorry … do you … I don’t know, do you prefer to do this in
private?” she asked.
“It doesn’t make a huge difference.”
He dropped the present under the tree. He noticed a glass of
milk placed on the ledge of a boarded-up fireplace. He paused. He was
incredibly tired; the night’s adrenaline was withdrawing, making him feel
strung-out, shivery. His stomach lurched at the thought of milk, at the thought
of putting anything into his body. Yet he had noticed the milk and she had seen
him notice. He took a sip and forced himself to swallow.
The room came into focus. Reams upon reams of red tinsel had
been tacked to the walls; it was the cheap plastic stuff. Several Christmas
cards had been strung up with dental floss.
The four-foot tree was shedding heavily. It was covered in
baubles and fairy lights that flicked frenetically from green to red to orange,
the abruptly alternating rhythm gave the space an unhinged quality.
“We’ve met before,” she said.
“Suzie Baker. We met in ’78. I stayed up all night, staking
“Yes! Of course.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“I’m sorry. I have a photographic memory for children but
adults are harder to place. I do think I remember…”
“I’ve seen so many faces,” Santa said, in a tone that seemed,
even to his own ears, strangely confessional.
“It’s okay, really. You’ve got a tough gig.”
Nobody had ever said that to him before. Usually, when he
spoke to clients, they talked about how enviable his job was. How he trafficked
in cheer, travelled extensively. So many
perks! they said. Such fulfilling
work. It was important for people to believe in the perfect job.
“It is tough,” he said.
“Next year I might send gift cards,” he ventured.
“What are you doing up?” Santa asked.
“Just clearing my head. It’s been a long year … I don’t
want to be mopey tomorrow. For Tommy’s sake, you know? Kids pick up on your
“Children can be incredibly taxing.”
“They lose it with time, though.”
“That sensitivity. By the time he’s thirteen, your jolliness
will be irrelevant. You’ll be able to take a break.”
“A break… Frankly, I could use a break from life. Will I get
one of those too?” “Not one you can
come back from.”
Her eyebrows arched and then she peered at him. “I feel
guilty talking like this in front of you… I can’t be responsible for depressing
“It’s important to share these things. Incredibly important.
I’m actually in a similar position myself.”
She smiled. “That’s hard to imagine. I mean, from the
outside, you seem perfectly together.”
“Oh, I have doubts. There’s a lot about me that people don’t
“I have a dark side.”
“You do, do you?”
“‘Santa’ is an anagram for ‘Satan’.”
She squawked with laughter, startling him; it was a strange,
unmelodious laugh, and incredibly charming.
Suzie looked down into
her wineglass, as if remembering something unpleasant. He recognised something
in that expression. Santa was always remembering himself, always alighting
briefly from his moods and descending right back into them.
“I’ve been reading about introverts and extroverts…” he said.
He wanted her to stay with him. “You know, it’s got nothing to do with how
outgoing you are. It’s about energy. Extroverts draw energy from other people
and introverts draw energy from themselves. They find people draining. You seem
like an introvert. Like me.”
“I draw my energy from coffee.”
He laughed. “Can I sit down?” he asked.
“Of course! I should have offered. Sit. Please.”
Santa fell heavily into the chair opposite. She was a young
mother. Her face was thin, almost gaunt. There was a stain on her black and
white striped top and her jeans were furry at the knees, discoloured from wear.
The old clothes strangely suited her. He felt suddenly conscious of how his gut
ballooned over the armrest and he moved his arm protectively across his stomach.
His features burned red, then melted to a soft and forgiving
amber in the changing light.
“It’s nice of you to sit here with me like this. I didn’t
know your services extended to adults,” she said.
“It’s nice of you to host me.”
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Do you get the blues when it’s all over?”
“Christmas, you mean?”
“Yeah. Ever since I
was a child, taking down Christmas ornaments has always felt so depressing.
It’s strange, because I rarely actually enjoy Christmas itself – no offence.”
“Believe me, none taken.”
“But packing it up feels so morbid. Like I missed my shot at
“I know exactly what
you mean. I’ve been thinking something similar. Christmas Present is …
“Even when I’m buying the ornaments, I’m already edgy,
worrying about how long it will take to put them away again, or how I’ll get
the tree to the skip.”
She tapped her wine glass. The edge of her nail struck the
rim; it produced a thin ringing sound that wavered in the air and made him
“It will be okay won’t it?” she asked.
“Certainly!” he replied. “Wait, will what be okay?”
“I don’t know … just, everything I guess.” She shrugged,
laughed at herself.
“It will be okay.”
The affirmation appeared to hit home. Her body relaxed. He
An image of Suzie naked flicked, almost intrusively, across
his mind. Then he welcomed it. He imagined her trembling in his arms. He
imagined being in hers. Sex with his own wife had become a thoughtless ritual.
They knew what each other liked and diligently performed. Their love was well
rehearsed, choreographed, and when they parted, the room seemed filled with
Santa had an overpowering urge to share everything with Suzie.
To go deeper. To help more. He yearned for that.
“I feel—” Santa began speaking, before he knew what to say.
“People like me hide behind people like you,” she cut in.
“When I feel anxious, or incapable, I show Tommy cartoons of your workshop, your
reindeer. It helps—”
“—Powerless. I feel, powerless,” he said, finishing his
sentence while processing hers. “Everything I do…” he continued, unable to stop
himself. “Everything is dedicated to making people believe in something that
“Oh,” she said, tonelessly. “That’s no good,” she added,
after a minute.
A piece of tinfoil became untacked and dropped from the wall.
She got up immediately to right it. She fidgeted, but the tinsel would not
adhere and eventually she snatched it from the wall entirely and put it aside.
“There really are too many decorations in here,” she said.
“When Tommy’s a bit older, I don’t think I’ll bother. Maybe a tree. Something
small, that’ll be easier to clear up.” She sounded different. She had shut him
out. Suzie glanced absently about the room, as if she were alone in it.
“I should let you get some sleep,” he said. He did not wish
“Tomorrow will be full of cheer,” he added, impotently.
“Yes, I think so too,” she replied, politely.
Suzie saw him out, nodding as he left. The door shut quickly.
“Woah! What were you doing in there?” Rudolph asked.
“We had a waker. I chatted with her a bit. Spread some
“Like the good old days!”
“Yes. Like those.”
Now, finally homeward bound, the reindeer enjoyed a second
wind. They sang carols loudly, out of tune and out of synch with one another,
garbling the lyrics and laughing. Santa could not shake a nagging feeling. He’d
experienced this feeling once before, in the early days, when he’d left coal in
a child’s house. Thereafter, he abolished the practice.
In no time at all, their home was in sight. It was a strange
law of nature that he had observed often. The outward voyage is always slow and
gruelling; the homeward journey always abrupt.
Inside the elves were celebrating. Every year, their
festivities grew more decadent. Alabaster lay naked across his workstation and
several of his colleagues were wrapping him alive. As they spread shining gold
paper over his pale flesh, he laughed at them, at the rafters, at his situation
entire. One look from Santa could silence this scene. If they could sense what
he was feeling, they’d freeze and sober.
Glances drifted towards him. The job was done and still he
was expected to perform. Santa made a limp victory sign. They cheered. He
excused himself. The constant pop-pop-pop of Champagne corks bursting, the
quiet sizzle and drip of bottles overflowing, pursued him through the room as
In his study, he considered playing a game of solitaire, but found it hard to move from his chair. He thought of Suzie. He had been ungenerous, and she was probably still awake. Already, he worried about next year and returning to that flat. Perhaps the room would be barer, stripped back: that would be his doing. And how would she treat him if they met again? Maybe she would greet him like a plumber, a necessary nuisance, watch him potter about the tree and hope that he worked quickly. The prospect frightened him. It terrified him.
After an indeterminate time had passed, Rudolph trotted in, his
nose pulsing wildly. It was truly an odd shade of red. A red that had no
corollary in the natural world. It was the red of American candy, the
corn-syrup, zero calorie, mass-produced sweets that rotted the innards of
“You should be proud, Santa,” Rudolph stated. “This year was …
A talking reindeer with an obscene nose. This was his lot.
“I almost didn’t deliver that last present,” Santa stated.
“What do you make of that?”
“I accept it.”
“But what do you make of it?”
Rudolph considered the question carefully. He seemed to be
struggling with a thought that surpassed his faculties; it was like watching a
child contemplate death. “Our
sled is empty,” he said in a measured tone. “Our gifts are given. These are the
things that matter.”
“I’m not so sure, Ru, I’m not so sure at all. I have this
idea of what I should be doing, how this should work, and every year I feel I’m
getting further away from it.”
“Well … maybe you should give up on that idea.”
There was nothing beyond the idea, just distribution plans.
How pale their offering. He needed to share this burden. He could not do
another twelve months alone. Yet the thought of Suzie gave him pause.
“Sometimes … to hold onto the things that really matter, we
have to let go,” Rudolph added. He concentrated. He remembered something and
exclaimed, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly!”
What was Santa to do with this? Penny aphorisms tossed into
the swallowing dark.
Rudolph waited for a reply. He shifted his weight from hoof
to hoof. Santa felt as if he could undo all of Rudolph’s Christmases with a
single, cool remark. One day he would.
“That’s a lovely expression, Ru.” Speaking came at physical
cost. “Where did you learn the phrase?” Santa asked.
“The elves say it whenever they’re cooking up a plan: hold on
tightly, let go lightly.”
“A lovely expression,” he said again.
Rudolph’s nose throbbed and he drew in close.
Santa’s fingers played
along the velvet fuzz of Rudolph’s antlers. He pressed down on the soft bone
underneath, which was warm to the touch, which had the faintest pulse, and
massaged it gently. It yielded to the pressure like damp bark.
There was no living bark outside. Outside, the arctic tundra
ravaged trees, blasted their branches clean off, entire trunks snapping like
sticks of chalk in the subzero climate. Only here, in Santa’s home, could such
a small, warm thing survive the night.
I wasn’t sure how it worked: if I could clasp
my hands and pray to Santa or if one had to actually write letters to the North
Pole to get a wish granted. Not that, at twelve, I believed in Saint Nick, but in
my desperation I wasn’t above begging for a miracle.
And yet, when I woke that Christmas
morning, I knew it was too late for any wish, prayer, or even bargain with the
devil to prevent my father from ruining Christmas.
As I watched my pajama-clad half-sisters,
dad, and stepmom giggle and rush down the staircase, I knew there was nothing I
could do but hope that when I got downstairs, I would not see a horse in the
I always knew that I didn’t fit in with my
dad’s new family.
While Dad and his new wife, Susan, loved
hunting, fishing, and cooking their kills, I was a vegetarian. While my
half-sisters grew up rowdy, loud, and tough, I was never happier than when I
was inside, alone, with a book. And even though Dad was passionate about his
horses, owning two and riding them daily, I always preferred fuzzy, lazy cats.
Such differences were small, however,
compared to our conflicting opinions on Christmas.
Call me a Scrooge but, growing up, I never
liked the holiday.
I simply couldn’t understand why anyone
would want to drag a full-grown tree indoors. Putting up snowflake decorations
in 80-degree Southern California weather, I decided, should be considered
court-accepted evidence of insanity, not proof of having a “holiday spirit.”
Plus, even from a young age, I hated the
idea of Santa. I could never convince myself to look forward to the prospect of
an old, unshaven man shimmying down my chimney. It sounded like a story from a
late night episode of Dateline
– not a tale found in children’s picture books.
Sure, I liked the two-week break from
school and I loved those seasonal pie flavors at Denny’s, so I never thought of
Christmas as a complete failure. But Dad and his family were strangely enchanted
by every last thing about the holiday: from the tallest inflatable front-yard
snowman, to the smallest piece of stupid tinsel.
Every year, Dad and Susan counted down the
days until Christmas. They hung too many lights and watched It’s A Wonderful Life until the film
from the VHS came out. They blasted Christmas songs from the CD player, proudly
displayed their A Christmas Story leg
lamp, and covered the house in Santa-and-his-reindeer themed anything.
So it was unfortunate that my parents’
post-divorce visitation schedule landed me at Dad’s house every Christmas morning.
From the beginning, Dad knew that I’d
never be one of those darling children who dreamed of snow or magic elves. He
wasn’t dumb. He knew I was never going to send letters to the North Pole, asking
for a pony or a rocket ship.
But it didn’t matter once my half-sister, Allison,
was old enough to sit on Santa’s lap. She danced around the house whenever a
Christmas carol came on the radio and her young life revolved around the ABC
Family holiday marathons. She covered her curly blonde hair with a cotton
ball-tipped Santa hat to celebrate the season and even wrote letters to the
North Pole in July.
She loved Christmas so much, she
practically had cranberry sauce running through her freaking veins.
And coincidently, Allison seemed to
naturally share a lot of Dad’s other interests, too. Even as a baby, Allison
loved going on the family fishing boat and she adored Dad’s horses.
The year I turned twelve; Allison was six,
and our youngest sister Avery was three. Like every other year, the house was transformed
into a winter wonderland by October. There were Christmas trees in almost every
room and light-up reindeer animatronics on the front lawn. Bits of holly hung
from the stair railing and the whole house smelled like pine. It was festive. It
was wintery. It was jolly.
I hated it.
As a non-believer in Santa, I was allowed
to listen in on the adults’ Christmas present conversations every year
– as long as I didn’t accidently tell my half-sisters what
gifts they were getting. Late one night, after Allison and Janine went to bed, I
sat with Dad and Susan as they talked about going “all out” and buying Allison
a pony. Dad’s blue eyes lit up as he explained how it was the perfect way to
combine Allison’s love of Christmas and horses. Susan, wearing her bathrobe, her
brown hair still wet from a shower, added that it was a practical gift, since Avery
would be old enough to ride the pony in a couple years, too.
“A pony? You’re actually going to get her
a pony?” I asked. “A live, literal pony?” I was convinced they were kidding. Dad
was known to play a joke every so often, but Susan was serious to a fault. They
both nodded at me, grinning like the elves at Macy’s.
They continued to brainstorm, talking
about how they’d bring the pony inside early on Christmas morning. They’d lead
it into the living room right next to the tree. He pony would have a bow on its
head, and a note, stained with tea leaves to look old and more official, with
large, ornate lettering spelling, “Love, Santa.”
This was the stupidest gift idea I’d ever
heard of. “Being given a pony on Christmas,” I explained, “will ruin a
six-year-old for life. You’ll spoil her.”
They didn’t respond. Instead, Dad watched
as Susan furiously scribbled the idea down onto a yellow pad of paper.
As if shecould forget to buy a pony.
I argued against the gift idea, explaining
that Allison would never remember to feed or walk the pony, and the duties
would fall on the three of us. I added that presenting her with a big present now
would make her expect an even bigger one next year, and the year after that. “She’ll
be the only second grader with a car.” I said, “The only seventh grader with a
Unmoved, Dad and Susan continued
When I finally started up the stairs to go
to bed, I could hear them still planning in the living room. “It’s just like finding
a puppy under the tree,” Dad said.
a big puppy, I thought. With bigger poop.
When mom picked me up Sunday night, I told
“A pony? Like P-O-N-Y? Pony?” she said.
“Like a small horse.”
Mom said they would never do it, but I
wasn’t so sure.
Weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Mom dropped
me at Dad’s house after church, as usual. I hadn’t heard anything else about
the pony, so when I went to sleep that night, I still didn’t know what Dad and Susan
decided to do.
The next morning, Allison gathered Dad, Susan,
Avery, and me, leading us all downstairs. I held my breath as I walked into the
living room, and noticed one thing immediately: the room was absolutely
Apparently, Dad and Susan had decided
against the pony. Good. I quietly saluted their wise decision and watched as Allison
danced around the Christmas tree, giddy with excitement, ignorant of the pony her
parents had denied her.
The morning crawled on, and I slowly realized
Dad and Susan had actually skimped on Christmas this year. There were plenty of
presents, but they were all small toys or things that we needed, like pajamas
and socks. Generally, I liked more practical gifts: I always welcomed a new
sweatshirt or beach towel. But I tried to hide my disappointment when I ripped open
a gift labeled “To Jillian, From Santa” and found a bottle of body wash, men’s body wash, with white beads
floating inside. By
the way the liquid didn’t quite reach the top of the bottle, I could tell it
had already been used.
I looked at my dad, waiting for him to
say, “Oh, woops, how did that get in there?” Or maybe, “You should have seen
your face! Soap! For Christmas! Wasn’t that funny?” But he said nothing, just
reached for another present.
Only then did it become clear to me: this
wasn’t a joke. Dad had probably taken the shower gel from his bathroom and
wrapped Christmas paper around it.
Did he think I smelled? Was this a very
direct hint that I needed a more vigorous scent and a “20% more free” size
bottle to handle my new, pre-pubescent smells? Or was this something else?
I looked down at the bottle of blue gel, then to my sisters’ piles of
dollar-store dolls and plastic hair barrettes, and suddenly I felt sick. My
throat dried out as if I had just eaten gingerbread cookies with no milk.
It was obvious now that Dad and Susan probably
hadn’t officially decided against the pony. They just couldn’t afford it. Here
I was, afraid Allison would get a too-extravagant gift when clearly, the family
was having financial trouble. That was why they’d dropped the pony topic so
As I watched Dad hand Allison another
gift, which she happily unwrapped to reveal a new shirt, I understood then that
I didn’t actually care about the pony. I was just jealous.
And I wasn’t jealous of the possibility of
Allison getting such an impressive gift. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted a
pony for myself. I was envious of the bond Allison and Dad shared. They were
close and I wanted a relationship like that with him too.
Perhaps, I thought, I was just going about
it the wrong way.
Maybe Dad and I didn’t have that much in
common and maybe I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with the family
– but I could fix that. I decided, right then and
there, that in the new year, I’d stop being jealous and find a way to bond with
them all. I’d make a better effort to do the things they liked to do. I’d willingly
go on a camping trip, even help plan one. I’d try to be more interested in
things like horses and fishing, and I’d try harder to like Christmas. It would
take some work but eventually, my relationship with my dad and his new family
would be stronger and I’d fit in.
When all of the gifts had been opened, Dad
looked around the tree, playfully itching the spot above his temple with one,
“Well, I thought Santa had one more gift
left,” he said.
“But everything’s opened,” Susan said with
an overly exaggerated shrug.
Dad pulled a large, white envelope out
from under the tree skirt and gasped. Allison’s eyes lit up like twinkle lights
and she hurried over to him, Avery toddling behind her. Dad held the piece of
paper up to the light, as if he were having trouble reading the words.
“Don’t do it,” I heard myself say under my
“Dear Allison,” he said slowly. I cringed.
“Look outside for your last present. Love, Santa!” He said the last words with cartoonish
emphasis, drawing out the words as his eyes got wide with mock surprise.
Before I could even get up from the couch,
Allison, Susan, Avery, and Dad were opening the front door. From my seat, I
heard Allison squeal with excitement in the yard. Dad laughed as I, too,
hurried to the front porch.
“We knew it would all be over once she saw
him,” Dad said. He stood in the doorway, talking to me over his shoulder. “So
we had to save the big present for last.”
I looked past him and saw it
– a brown and white Christmas pony, with a red bow on
At first, I crossed my arms over my chest
in protest, but as I looked out at the yard, watching Allison hug the pony and
pet its mane, I felt happy for her. I’d dreaded the idea of Allison getting a
pony for Christmas, but somehow, I wasn’t upset. I don’t know if this was due
to the fact that, just moments ago, I’d decided to make more of an effort to
get along with the family, or if seeing Allison’s wide smile softened my mood. Either
way, I was happy that my sister would always have this memory of getting a
real, live pony for Christmas.
And then, I remembered: Santa didn’t bring
her this pony, her parents did. As it turned out, there weren’t money problems
as I’d imagined. Dad and Susan got Allison a pony, and for that very same
Christmas, they’d given me used soap.
I didn’t know what to say as we all stood
there on the lawn that morning, so I just watched as Allison climbed onto her
Christmas present. We all stood there, together, and watched as the present
slowly began eating the lawn.
Later that morning, we had breakfast, and Dad
loaded everyone in the car to take the pony to the stable. I stayed home, waiting
for my mom to pick me up. Finally, she did.
As was customary for Christmas day, Mom drove
us to my grandma’s house. On the way, I told her the story, leaving out the
part about the soap. I made jokes about how crazy Dad and Susan must be to
actually buy a pony and I smiled when I talked about how surprised Allison was.
I wanted to sound like I was happy about the whole thing, but by the time I finished,
I felt my throat go dry again, and I didn’t know what to say.
Looking back now, I know I wasn’t old
enough to be able to describe, or even understand what I was feeling that day
in the car. But as we drove, I had the distant idea that maybe it wasn’t my
fault that Dad’s family and I had never been close.
I remembered the times Dad left me home
alone because I didn’t want to go fishing with him. About the times Mom drove
me the hour to their house, only to find that they went on an out-of-state
camping trip without bothering to tell us. I remembered all the times I felt
left out or unwanted or forgotten. I understood, in a small way, that it wasn’t
our different interests that were the problem. That the problem between me and my
dad was maybe, just – my dad.
After that year, I spent every Christmas
with my mom. I still visited my dad’s house every other weekend for years, but I
decided that I was old enough to make my own holiday plans.
And while I’d never liked Christmas before,
the holiday felt different after that year. Mom and I made our own traditions:
making waffles on Christmas morning, buying matching sweaters to wear to Grandma’s
for dinner, and stopping for second helpings of pie at Denny’s on the way back home.
Suddenly, I was happy, even jolly, during the holidays, like a child who got
exactly what she wanted for Christmas. Maybe because I had.
Love and Death on the Azoteas
She lay naked on
the flat rooftop drenched in the morning sunlight, Montez liked to photograph
Roya from different angles, catching the shade thrown from various bone and
limb positions. Across the city at this level he could see many such rooftop
dwellings, a private club of like-minded comrades living cheaply and
subversively, artists, agitators, lovers; all seemingly out of reach of the
tentacled government machine below.
the gap between buildings on the roof to his left was Brentano the artist, to
the right Roberto and his group of anti-establishment revolutionaries. Montez
and Roya had sex openly on the roof surface, a free exhibition for any of their
neighbours to enjoy as performance art. Brentano would occasionally sketch
their coupling, anonymous stringy figures wrapped around each other in a puzzle
that couldn’t be unpicked, completing the piece later to sell to local
galleries. He painted sultry, moody depictions of Roberto gazing down with
contempt at the heaving immensity of the city from his rooftop vantage point,
sometimes as caricature, other times catching the very essence of his intended
late steamy afternoon Roberto saw Montez sitting on the edge of his building
dangling his feet over the side a hundred feet above the road.
“Hey Montez my
friend! Party tonight over here, celebration for our successful demonstration
today, positive action amigo.” He raised a fist to the air. “Bring Roya, let’s
party together, bring your camera we’ll take some pictures for the media!”
Montez was excited
by the idea, he knew it would be a wild night and that Roya would enjoy
herself. Shouts echoed across the roofs of several adjacent buildings, plans
being made, signals exchanged among friends. Montez nonchalantly walked along
the edge a few steps then turned to watch Roya padding naked and barefoot back
towards their single room outbuilding at one end of the flat expanse.
rooftop dwellers lived outside the system and were afforded a certain amount of
tolerance by local politicians because of the international artistic kudos they
brought to the city, but the local police or ‘Black Shirts’ as they were known
didn’t need much of an excuse to disrupt their bohemian way of life. The local Chief
of Police was a large, heavy lidded laconic man called Camacho, he knew about
the ‘subversives’ and their way of life and wasn’t overly concerned until found
himself one of an official party attending the opening of an art gallery in the
city. As he reluctantly shuffled around the exhibits his interest was suddenly piqued
by a painting depicting a man on a rooftop azotea, posing with fisted salute
and bearing a strong resemblance to the known political agitator Roberto
Sanchez, Camacho thought he recognised the location.
night of the party Montez walked out into the heavy warm air to listen to the
buzz and crackle of the city below and the shouts and laughter of the party
revellers. Roya was already there and the fun was spreading out over Roberto’s
rooftop, Cuban music and a smoky smell of barbecued beef swirling through the
night. Then something below caught his eye, small black shapes swarming around
Roberto’s building at ground level, like small insects looking for the entrance
to their nest.
Montez shouted the
warning, but it took time for anyone to hear him and start a chain reaction of
retreat, the police had already made it to the roof before most of them had
moved. Montez looked on at black arms flailing with sticks, people buckling,
angry voices and screams replacing the laughter. He saw two Black Shirts take
hold of Roya, she screamed as Roberto ran toward her brushing off the attention
of flying batons, he tried to pull her away from the men. Horror struck Montez
and he sank to his knees to watch Roberto backing away toward the edge of his
roof in front of three pursuers kicking out and throwing punches. At the point
of no return he looked across at Montez and smiled, still denying, fighting,
frustrating the system that he so despised right to the very last moment. In
the last seconds he looked calm and Montez knew what he had to do. Picking up
his camera he also noticed Brentano on his rooftop, painting the whole scene
for history, so that no one, would ever forget.
How to shoot down President Trump’s helicopter with a surface-to-air missile
Cal listened but didn’t say anything.
Selina was dishing out baked seabass with lemongrass. Her red dress crumpled at the front as she leant forward in a way that Cal found so attractive she had to look away.
‘He’s literally separating babies from their mothers.’
‘If he can do that without any qualms, then his next move doesn’t bear thinking about.’
‘It’s basically a test case for the introduction of Fascism.’
The guests competed for the highest level of indignation. Cal still didn’t say anything. Why had she been invited to dinner? The smile Selina gave her across the dinner table, as she ladled out the last of the sea bass juices, was deliberately bland. Cal raised one eyebrow but Selina quickly looked away. Despite this caution, Cal thought she could feel Selina’s boyfriend watching them, his mild blue eyes glinting in a surprisingly hostile way.
When she glanced over he didn’t turn away and it felt like he’d been studying her for a while. It was unnerving. She stared back. His mouth quirked up into an ambiguous smile, no, not ambiguous – smug but then he was the kind of man whose natural smile would be smug. This could be well meant.
He was thin, far thinner than her. As she’d taken her seat at the table her hips had felt enormous. He wore black skinny jeans that hung off him and a collarless shirt that had a narrow blue stripe like mattress ticking and probably cost £200 It made Cal feel the garishness of her navy silk shirt with its pattern of red, tropical flowers. He was losing his hair though, only a bit at the crown, but still.
Their eyes locked past the point of awkwardness as the dinner party talk continued around them. Cal switched to an expression of polite, bemused enquiry, but he just kept staring with that stupid smirk.
Facing him down across the table, Cal couldn’t help imagining him and Selina together, sitting in bed reading, frowning at pictures in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, buying sourdough at the Farmers’ Market. You just had to look at her boyfriend (no, Selina would probably say ‘partner’ to hide the fact that she wasn’t fashionably queer) to know he was a softly spoken, I’m-being-eminently-reasonable, mansplaining prick.
Their deadlock was broken by another guest passing between them to go to the loo. Cal was sure then, as she glared angrily away at the bookcase, that he knew. To spite him she summoned her memory of Selina in the toilet cubicle at the British Library, her black dress hiked up, head thrown back.
The guest talking now was a BBC journalist who was certain, although it was highly confidential, that John Goodman (had she heard that right? Rosanne Barr’s ex-husband?) had an audio recording of Trump physically assaulting Melania in a lift.
‘Yeah,’ a third guest chimed in, ‘Didn’t she cry when he won the election?’
But they’d all read Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or rather the excerpts that had been reprinted in the papers, so this didn’t make as much of an impact.
‘God, he’s just an awful, awful man, isn’t he?’
‘The protest’s going to be rammed.’
Selina, dark hair brushing her shoulders as she lifted the empty serving dish, said, ‘Are you going to come, Cal?’ Her smile was genuinely inviting this time. ‘We’re going to have a session making placards the day before Trump arrives.’
‘Umm.’ Cal had been planning on going swimming at the lido next weekend. There’d been an unusual run of baking hot days at the start of the summer but this didn’t mean anyone should count on the sunshine sticking around. They’d all been hurt by weather forecasts before.
‘I lead a very selfish life,’ Cal often said to people. ‘I’m sure you don’t,’ they’d say and laugh in a way that was flattering in its disbelief.
Selina was waiting, one tensed arm wobbling under the weight of the serving dish.
‘Yeah, maybe,’ Cal said.
A woman with messy, blonde hair and bright red lipstick broke in. ‘Oh my God, did you see that brilliant tweet, “Think you can hide in Scotland, Trump? Think again,” then there were just loads of photos of Scots with signs saying, ‘Trump’s a bawbag’ and ‘Ya maw was an immigrant, you orange roaster’.
Cal was pretty sure that Trump wouldn’t understand most of those words.
‘The Scots at least have got some sense,’ the boyfriend chipped in as if the whole table had been waiting for his verdict. Cal deliberately didn’t look over at him. She didn’t want to see the white flecks of crud that clung to one corner of his mouth. How could Selina stand to kiss him? Cal just knew that up close his skin would smell of damp plaster.
There were plans to fly a twenty foot blimp of Trump which looked like an orange baby and apparently someone had carved ‘Fuck Trump’ in Russian into a crop circle which he would definitely helicopter over on his way to Chequers.
‘Well, that should bring him to his knees,’ Cal said, aiming for jovial. As if Trump could read Russian, even read probably.
‘At least we’re doing something,’ Selina’s boyfriend snapped.
‘Not really, you’re not,’ Cal wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead she thought of the last time she and Selina had fucked, their mouths just missing each other’s, Cal’s fingers buried deep inside Selina.
There was an awkward silence while plates were cleared and Selina brought out a chocolate pavlova glistening with cherries. The boyfriend began to speak at length on the importance of protest and on the parallels between now and 1930s Germany, probably on the basis of an article he’d read in The New Statesman.
Over the expensive cheese and biscuits Cal found herself becoming obnoxious. ‘I don’t believe in the power of protest. It’s just whinging to make yourself feel better.’
‘So what do you believe in?’ asked the boyfriend in a pompous voice.
Cal snapped a cracker in half and scooped up a smear of brie. ‘Action,’ she said.
The boyfriend gave a scoffing laugh. ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ What made it far worse was Selina resting her hand on his shoulder as if to restrain this overwhelming display of masculine power.
‘Anyone want some more red?’ When Selina looked round the table her eyes had that measured, insincere warmth of someone carefully tucking her feelings away.
When Cal got home that night, drunk and tired, she did what anyone else would have done, googled. She opened an in-private window in Safari and typed ‘buy air to surface missile’ but Wikipedia quickly revealed this wasn’t right. She re-typed ‘buy surface to air missile’. It had sounded better the other way round.
You could buy a book on Amazon which listed which armies had what. According to VICE’s website, ‘El Chapo’ Guzman was in the market for one. There was a newspaper report of an auction in Florida that had included a Soviet SCUD missile. Apparently it needed some light restoration but was still expected to command up to $350,000.
The Telegraph had an article about how the British Army in Mali had found a guide on how to use MANPADS, which were man-portable air-defence systems. There was a helpful photograph of a soldier in desert fatigues with what looked like a length of drainpipe balanced on his shoulder. This seemed much more plausible than the ones that needed to be mounted on the back of a truck. Cal didn’t have a truck, not even a car, no one in London with any sense did. Selina’s boyfriend probably did.
In the guide there were grainy images of Soviet-looking soldiers firing the weapon. Point-by-point instructions explained how to insert the battery, focus on the target and launch. It advised the shooter to change into a second set of clothes after firing to avoid detection. Even though it was only research it felt like doing something.
There was a useful report from the Federation of American Scientists, which did sound like a phony organisation when she actually thought about it. It was entitled ‘Black Market Prices for Man-portable Air Defence Systems’. One could apparently be had for a couple of thousand dollars. Prices were from June 2010, though, so you’d need to allow a bit for inflation. She fell asleep with the laptop open in front of her.
Cal woke the next morning with a headache and went on facebook. She had a friend who re-posted videos and events all the time, adding ‘Share Widely!!!’ Cal had unfollowed her feed long ago but she flicked over now to look. Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Great NHS Sell Off –Film Premier. Stop the extinction crisis of the vaquitas (super-cute mini dolphins!) that live off the coast of Mexico. Come and support the Rio Cinema to become solar powered. Earth’s Cooperative Ecosystem for a Fairer Economy. The Future of Money – tonight! Vote no Heathrow Vote Rally – we must stop the third runway!!!!!!! We need climate jobs not dirty fossil fuel jobs! The first AIDS histories and cultures festival will come to London in July 2018 – so looking forward to this!!! Labour Live Music Festival, White Hart Lane – friends, come along!!!
Cal remembered how she’d been having dinner with this friend in Dalston and the friend had begun talking about Momentum and the possibilities for change this could unlock in every neglected child and had actually brought herself to tears. When Cal patted her arm, the friend shook her off, eyes shining. ‘No, don’t. I like crying. It’s so cathartic.’
If, to save herself from the mortification of having to witness such self-indulgence, Cal had had to sell the entire NHS to buy the last surviving vaquita for a dolphin club sandwich while taxiing down a third runway made of Momentum leaders laid end to end, she would have done it in an instant. That was why people liked Fascism. It made them look strong and powerful, not weak and hopeless, treating themselves to a cry over a £6.50 slice of vegan, gluten-free pizza.
Cal typed a deliberately bland text, thanking Selina for a lovely evening, then slowly deleted it. Instead she messaged her Cambridge friend, Tajana, to see if she fancied a coffee that afternoon. Tajana was Serbian and worked in software development but at university they all used to tease her for her mafia-like band of uncles and cousins. It was hard to broach the topic casually but in the end Cal said a friend of hers needed a portable missile for a performance piece.
Tajana sipped at her espresso. ‘So she definitely doesn’t want it to work then?’
‘No, it has to work.’
Tajana set her tiny espresso cup down.
‘It has to have a real threat, you know, otherwise the energy of the piece will be neutralised.’
Tajana raised one perfectly-plucked eyebrow. ‘Since when are you a supporter of performance art?’
Cal had a vivid flashback to labelling an experimental dance piece she’d seen with Selina as two hours of an anorexic laying an egg. She muttered something about doing her friend a favour.
‘What do you really want, Cal?’ Tajana wielded her dimpled smile. ‘Why are you feeding me this ridiculous story?’
‘It’s not a ridiculous story.’
‘Fine.’ Tajana’s ponytail flicked pertly as she cast her eyes up in the pose of an Orthodox martyr. ‘Okay, if I was trying to buy something so secret that I couldn’t even tell an old friend what it was and instead had to make up ridiculous stories, then I’d certainly consider downloading the TOR browser and going to one of the marketplaces that have replaced Silk Road.’
Back home that evening Cal bought two missiles off a dark website called Valhalla. She used the money she’d been saving to try and buy a flat in London. An investment in downing the helicopter belonging to the President of the United States seemed infinitely more likely to come off than her ever owning a studio flat closer in than Leyton. But she’d been hoarding that money for such a long time that it had come to seem like hope. She tried not to think about it and made sure not to check her depleted bank balance in the days after.
Paying in bitcoin was less of a pain than she’d thought. The first two purchases cost $11,000 and £1,500 but these prices turned out to be too high and too low respectively to be evidence of the sellers’ serious intent. Still, she felt a lurch of excitement every morning that week when the postman rustled along the walkway. When polite, then sarcastic e-mails to the sellers had gone unanswered she’d ordered another two, then another two.
Ordering the missiles had become an end in itself so she was confused for a moment when, the day before Trump’s visit, she opened the door to the DHL guy. ‘Whew, that’s heavy,’ he wheezed. His grimace looked less good natured than he sounded. Cal presumed he wasn’t allowed to swear at work. He hefted a long, thin parcel over her threshold and left it propped in the hall.
It seemed portentous the ants were swarming on the day President Trump was due to arrive in Britain, although of what Cal couldn’t have said. Up on the roof of her block of flats it had clouded over but the air was blood warm. Flying ants poured out from a cement crack by one of the risers, a foot or so from where the long tube of the missile lay.
She refreshed BBC News on her laptop, which she’d balanced on an old plastic chair, and there he was, stepping down from Airforce One at Stansted Airport, clutching Melania’s reluctant hand like he feared she might make a break for it. Trump leaned in and spoke to his wife as they descended the metal steps but her empty face didn’t flicker.
Cal had to close her eyes to stop herself imagining Selina, her hair held back in an impatient twist, paint-spattered t-shirt tight over her breasts, kneeling forward to splodge a brush over blank cardboard. FREE MELANIA. No, her placard would be better than that. MELANIA, BLINK TWICE IF YOU NEED HELP. Cal’s heart began to thump.
She quickly picked up her phone, found the message Selina had sent her mid-week, inviting her to the anti-Trump poster making session, and typed, ‘I’m not sure I can do this any more with you.’ Her stomach dipped as she hit ‘send’.
Cal refreshed Twitter. There was a photo of Marine One leaving the north runway at Stansted. Despite the cloud it was hot. She focused on the winged ants crawling blindly on the flat roof. How could they live up here? What did they eat? She was sweating. She’d calculated it should take Trump’s helicopter no more than 12 minutes to cover the 34 miles.
Until she’d sent that message she hadn’t realised how much the tormenting excitement and uncertainty of her affair with Selina had blotted out the ache of having broken up with her girlfriend six months ago. The loss of the children they’d been planning together was something Cal used to think about a lot, lying in bed on her own, late at night when it was too hot to sleep with the windows closed and too noisy to sleep with them open. Or when she hung, eyes closed, fingers gripping the overhead rail, buffeted by men in expensive shirts, in the muggy depths of the Northern Line.
Cal put on a pair of black latex gloves taken from a sex party she’d been to a few months ago. Then she clipped her bike helmet on. She knew it was ridiculous but from the footage she’d seen on YouTube of idiots firing missile launchers she’d learnt that she could expect to be thrown backwards by the recoil. She’d considered dragging her mattress up for a soft landing but she didn’t want to arouse suspicion. She glanced down at her phone. No reply.
The thought of Trump and his helicopter exploding in a fireball was as satisfying as a cartoon, though Cal was under no illusion that this would actually change anything. Mike Pence would simply become President – bluster being replaced by the serious, quiet intent of fundamentalism. If anything, this might be worse but England had just crashed out of the World Cup and everyone needed some cheering up.
Still no reply from Selina.
One. Two. Three. She hefted the SA-7 onto her shoulder. Fuck. It felt like she’d put her back out already. She wobbled under the lop-sided weight. The latex gloves were tacky but this let her grip. Sweat dribbled down the back of her neck. She held the smug face of Selina’s boyfriend in her mind and pictured him saying ‘And what exactly have you been doing to bring neo-liberal Capitalism to its knees?’ This. This memory seemed to make the weight of the missile lighter. But now she had it on her shoulder she couldn’t refresh Twitter. She’d just have to wait and listen. But if Selina messaged back she’d be able to see as the screen would light up.
It was strangely tranquil up on the roof, like being on a remote cliff. Cal wished she had come up here more often. She peered through the sights and practised tracking a seagull overhead.
Standing there with the missile heavy on her shoulder, she was using the same technique she used to get through her smear tests – don’t think about what was happening – just break it down into a series of mechanical stages. Trousers off, knickers off, lie on the padded table, place the sheet of paper over your stomach. This was no different. She told herself that once she had Trump’s helicopter in her sights, all she had to do was pull the trigger. Soviet 1960s infra-red technology would do the rest.
She glanced down at her phone. She didn’t have much time. Her stomach felt like it had just reached the rolling boil recommended for immersing tortellini. Why didn’t Selina text back? Please don’t say that. Or even I don’t want to not see you would do. The screen stayed stubbornly black.
The inside of her gloves were slippery with sweat. Her head swum. To calm herself she itemised what she could see: the flying ants, splodges of tar, spills of loose gravel, an old bucket and mop desiccated by the sun into a horrible head of hair. But this didn’t help. Her hair was clammy under the helmet. Every beat of her heart felt like a punch.
She felt her courage begin to slip. Surely it wouldn’t really matter if she simply abandoned the SA-7on the roof, took the lift down to her flat on the third floor, sat on the balcony and ate the rest of the tomato salad she’d made last night? But she knew it would matter to those migrant children who’d been separated from their parents. And any refugees trying to find safety in America. And any Muslims. And anyone who didn’t want to be poisoned by pesticides. Or was a black bear who didn’t want to be shot. Or had a student loan. Or was worried about climate change. And all those Americans who needed Obamacare, so all poor Americans really, and any woman who needed an abortion. She took a tighter grip on the SA-7.
Her phone buzzed. Selina. Im outside yr flat. Let me in? Relief opened up inside Cal like an umbrella. Selina was here. She lowered the SA-7 to the floor, peeled off the gloves, unfastened her helmet.
When Cal stepped out of the lift all she could see was Selina’s back. She was wearing a navy blue dress and espadrilles. She turned before Cal had quite finished wiping her sweaty hands on her jeans.
‘Where the fuck do you get off sending me texts like this?’
‘Where the fuck do you get off inviting me to dinner with your boyfriend?’
‘You know that we live together.’
‘That doesn’t mean I want to have dinner with him.’
‘I knew it would come to this.’ Selina shook her head. ‘I’m not leaving him, Cal.’
‘Then why are you here?’
Selina’s eyes narrowed. Cal couldn’t decide whether it was hostility or she was about to burst out laughing.
Cal flung the front door of her flat open. ‘Go inside and take your clothes off.’
Selina didn’t move. Far away Cal could hear the buzz of a helicopter. She tried to glance casually at her watch.
‘Don’t let me keep you,’ Selina said sarcastically, as though she wasn’t the one with a boyfriend and a whole other life.
‘Selina, come on–’ Cal moved towards her, ready to take her thin, tanned arm, to lead her into the flat, into the bedroom.
But Selina pulled her arm away, her black eyes unfocused, mouth smaller, tighter.
‘Fine.’ Cal took a step towards the lift, making sure Selina saw. ‘Look, there’s something urgent I’ve got to sort out.’
Selina’s face flickered.
‘It won’t take long.’
‘Where the hell are you going?’
‘Come and see.’
That was the problem with jealousy – you focused on desiring, not on what you desired. Cal couldn’t quite be sure through the closing doors of the lift if Selina was following.
As Cal threw herself up the final few steps, she could already see the helicopter, a black dot growing against the roiling grey clouds. The distant hum had swollen to an ominous clatter.
Shit, there were three of them. But the tail fins of Marine One were unmistakeable. She shouldered the SA-7 missile. More quickly than she could have imagined they were right above her. The noise was overwhelming. She hadn’t meant to let them pass overhead but they were already skimming the trees, over the park, heading towards the grey outline of central London.
Cal hunched her shoulders. The middle helicopter was centred perfectly in the scope. There was nothing left but to pull the trigger. So why didn’t she? She realised she was waiting for the restraint of Selina’s hand on her shoulder.
Before he knew he was lost
Even before the
man knew for sure he was lost, he was searching. He felt like he had walked
into a room, but didn’t know why. Instead of an occasional moment, an
occasional instance, every room he walked in, he felt like that, even if he
knew specifically why he had entered the room, something tickled his mind and
he wasn’t quite sure why he was there. He would go into the bathroom to take a
piss and, while he was peeing, be sure that there was something else he needed
to do, some other task.
He started writing
down his reasons for entering a room on his arm with a green sharpie. Pretty
quickly his arms were filled with notes like: get banana, or masturbate, or pay
phone bill. Soon the notes looked like old, faded tattoos. That was the best
part of the whole experience, as he had never quite been able to work up the
courage for an actual tattoo. The thought of a needle penetrating his skin was
terrifying, so invasive. Such a vulnerable position and irrevocable.
He tried to
pinpoint the moment that it began, the exact moment when he wasn’t sure why he was going, but it all felt too
nebulous. Had he felt this way when his mother died? When he moved again and
again? When he lost that job? He couldn’t remember, but a part of him wondered
if it had always been like that, if he’d always had a confused look on his face
after entering a room, and he felt embarrassed retroactively.
The green sharpie
didn’t help. Sure he could look down and see throw out dead mouse and know to throw out the dead mouse. The dead
mouse wasn’t the problem. It was the other feeling, suggesting that he was
missing something, that he should be doing something else besides just throwing
out the dead mouse. He thought that maybe there would be a clue in all of the
writing on his arms, like a pattern he could decipher. Maybe if he could
determine why he was going from room to room on a surface level, the subsurface
would begin to be realized.
He wrote down
everything on one long list, but nothing seemed out of place. If anything it
made the strangeness of what he was experiencing more pronounced. Did he never
go into a different room for a strange reason? Like just to go there? Or for
something out of the ordinary? This more than anything else worried him. He
became determined to figure out what it was that his mind was trying to tell
him. That wouldn’t be accomplished by staying in his apartment. He had read
somewhere on the internet about exposure therapy. A woman had been afraid of
water and they had taken her to the ocean. Not right away of course. At first
maybe watching someone sip out of an opaque glass, and then later pressing a
hand to a window pane while it rained outside. But eventually she went to the
ocean and the article or whatever it had been claimed she had swam. So maybe he
wasn’t quite afraid, maybe he wasn’t actively hiding in his apartment shivering
at the thought of going into the hallway. Not yet at least. And that was cause for fear. If he didn’t do
something soon, he was sure to become afraid.
He didn’t plan
anything, or pack anything. He just walked to the next room and instead of
walking back, he kept on. He walked outside, but that was worse somehow, and
the feeling lingered forcing him back inside wherever he could enter. So he
stuck to populated areas, areas with doors. He didn’t like it, but he forced himself
to do it. He was going to get his life back, whatever the cost.
Eventually after a
few weeks or months, he found an abandoned town. The eight-room, strip motel
would become his home for quite a long time. He could move from room to room
without going outside. It offered him a break of sorts. He could keep on with
his task without needing to move to a new city, without disturbing anyone. He
cleaned up the dead birds and settled in.
management had kept a huge stash of individually wrapped Rice Krispies treats,
and he was eating one in room six trying to remember why he had come to room
six when the door opened. I’m sorry. I
didn’t know this was occupied. The man, a vagabond surely, stood there in
the doorway checking out the room and dripping from the rain. They stood like
that for a few moments, until the vagabond seemed to realize that the room was
clean and didn’t have any of the man’s things. Are you management? Can I have a room? I don’t have much money, and it
doesn’t have to be this one. This room, I mean. The man considered it. The
vagabond was clearly on something and he shouldn’t enable that kind of
behavior, but on the other hand, the motel wasn’t really his. Who was he to
turn someone away? Particularly after he himself had been turned away so many
times in his wandering. And it wouldn’t hinder his daily activities; he could
just skip room six. He held out the confection. Rice Krispies treat?
The vagabond kept
to himself, apparently content. Occasionally, the man would pop his head in on
his daily tour, as he had begun to think of it, just to check on him. The
vagabond was passed out every time. He couldn’t help but wonder how he
continued to get high. Drugs run out. Wasn’t that the point? Both of the
vagabond’s arms at the soft, inner crook of his elbow were bruised with a
needle hole that wouldn’t quite close, like a cracked doorway. Once, when the
vagabond was passed out, he went in to make sure he was still breathing. He
was, and murmuring a phrase over and over in his haze: arrived now, now arrived.
The man couldn’t
stop thinking about the phrase. What did it mean to have arrived? Certainly in
all his walking he went places, he was in places, but he didn’t feel as if he
had arrived. To arrive meant a conclusion. To arrive meant to know. And knowing
would be a kind of bliss wouldn’t it? Maybe in that way, the vagabond’s way,
through the bliss, could mean an arrival. Maybe a conclusion.
He made a plan to
sneak in the next time the vagabond was passed out and see what he could find
out, but instead the vagabond walked right up to the man as he was debating. He
didn’t know what to say. How could he explain that he was planning on stealing
his drugs? The vagabond looked vacant, itchy, and far away. Take this, and no matter what I say don’t
give it back. He pushed a small black bag, like a travel shaving kit, into
his hands. I can’t. I can’t, he said.
And he left and locked himself in room number six. The man looked inside the
bag and every bit of it seemed to shimmer.
The man closed the
bag and made his tour. He’d never used before. The needle loomed in his mind.
What would it be like, if he was able? Would he spiral out? His mother, God
rest her, had always claimed he had an addictive personality. What if she was
right? What if by stepping through this door, there was no going back? He
didn’t believe that, he couldn’t. There had to be a way back. But if he had
truly arrived, would he care?
Every day he
smashed a Rice Krispies treat into a thin pancake, almost like a wafer, and
slid it under the vagabond’s door. He wondered if the vagabond might have died,
but there was no smell. For now that was enough. The man knew that some things
were only conquered alone.
One night, he took
everything out of the bag and laid it out. All the metal glistened. The needle,
oh-the-needle, was already filled with a mercury-like liquid that danced and
thrummed. It moved as if alive, and as he stared into it, he knew it would
never run out, not ever. Even after he was dead, it would still slowly dance
and thrum, and he thought that knowing this thing, pulling it inside him, would
be to know a small bit of eternity.
It seemed fairly
intuitive – just a prick and press kind of situation. He was scared, sure, but
to arrive, to finally know would be worth it. He made a night tour, and as he
walked by room six he was surprised to find the door cracked. He pushed it
open. The vagabond was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his
hands, but he looked up when the man entered the room. It’s still in me, even though I know it’s not. I can’t get away. Do you
still have it? The vagabond looked so tired. There were a thousand things
that went through the man’s head and all of them false. And he knew then that
paths only diverge, they don’t end. They splinter like light through a prism.
You could head in the same direction and end up with a very different
trajectory. The man nodded. Come with me.
walking, and were several miles away from the motel when the vagabond asked, why did you put it all the way out here? Did
it help to keep away? Did you use it? Of course you did. So you know, then. You
know that it will never run out. The man didn’t answer.
After a while,
when it became apparent that they weren’t moving toward his gear the vagabond
asked, where are we going? and kept
looking over his shoulder, looking back, though, now, he couldn’t see the way.
The man still didn’t speak, but he did grab the vagabond’s hand and they kept
An End of a Start
And they said they felt they could have had perfection, only coming across each other at the wrong point in life, one always in tow, or just wide of the course toward which they both ultimately tended. It seemed to them so much to lack fairness, like all life had conspired to make it hard, and so near impossible, despite that same life having conspired to bring them together in the first place. They realised too, that the difference between twenty and twenty-eight is far greater than that between thirty and thirty-eight; so were maybe ten years out of kilter with a full and easy life together. He was twenty and still wanted mistakes and failings, the thrill of them, and to not be so fucking serious all the time. To work shit jobs and to rent apartments in the wrong places and fail to get it together for at least a few years, which some part of him felt was grounding. And besides, it was what she had done – gone scrappily through the world on not enough sleep, and done things wrong and enjoyed that she had. At twenty-eight living a 24-hour coffee-enabled life was no longer what she wanted, needed, and yes so what if it was sad, she really did get fucking excited about having a mortgage and going to cavernous outlet stores to buy garden furniture. It wasn’t that her adventuring was over and all the romance drained with it, but that it was merely transposed down to a lower key, deeper and, she felt, more foundational. Yet she still wanted him to be able to tinkle about like a piccolo, and he wanted her to live in that new slower world in which she could better come to grips with her current reality. But as they did not converge they tried forcing it, therefore coming down and coming up to a life in between them of about twenty-four, a neither here nor there which suffered all of the instabilities with none of their dumb excitable hectic joy. He had begun to take his way, and she hers, and though momentarily converging, the two having met would not now join. It was a fixed thing, and you felt you could bring someone along with you but not move over to them. Not out of something stubborn, or selfish, but the mere matter of what was, and what would be; allowing him to go on fine and part-fulfilled by work which gave him nothing but money; and told her she could never again do something if it weren’t for the love of it. The different points along they had reached meant they were both suited to where they were at. But neither could be suited to what suited the other. And the painful thing, what they couldn’t quite understand and what made it now so frustrating and hard, was that this was nothing to do with them. They couldn’t change, and didn’t need to. They had to come to terms with the fact of being unequal, at this moment at least, and there was no getting around it or making it go away. So he was driving home and tears were stinging his eyes and he couldn’t really see his way forward, and she stayed put with her eyes stung by tears and saw too well, both of them pained by it not working and pained further still by the knowledge it was out of their hands.
Amanda was reading her phone when she stepped off the Tube at the wrong station. She halted in the tiled corridor, far too late, with other commuters filing around her. Where was she? Moorgate? She steadied herself. Ok, fine. That wasn’t so bad. She could walk the difference to Old Street. She was wearing the snug green skirt which wasn’t ideal but her trainers made up for it. Her heels were in her handbag. This was her IS’s recommendation based on weather, means of transport, her body temperature calibrated with her resting metabolic heart rate that morning, and her post-work schedule.
Moving stairs took her up to the real world. London in mid-October. Honey sunshine and the blue pleasure of a childhood sky. Her phone was pinging back to life as she pulled it out to share the observation, maybe an off-the-cuff haiku, but her hand was jittery with some kind of aftershock she couldn’t quite sort. Not yet. In the office with a proper heart rate she would tap it out, maybe increase her rankings as a result. Who knew? She could use the higher altitude. Not that she obsessed over that kind of thing. She had followers but lately it seemed she was putting out more than she was getting back so it would be a good time for some balance. First, though, she needed to sort out her actual direction as she couldn’t tell which way was which, so she faced left and then right before her IS chimed its approval. No need to enter a destination. It had already twigged that she was walking to work.
She made her way along City Road with its mixed complexions of stone and steel, shopfronts glassed into living eyes by reflected sky. Traffic snarling in constricted lanes. Charity workers holding out buckets for donations, a busker playing half-good guitar. She could feel the breathing energy of others as they passed. There was a fullness of being in this movement, this flap and flare. The grain of everything sharpened and brightened, washed to its deepest self. It had been happening lately — these slips into alien empathy, how else could she say it — which at first had seemed quirky and shareable until last weekend when she had paused with the mascara wand raised to her face, staring at what she had always known but not. Within and without at once. She couldn’t be the first person to feel such a thing but she also couldn’t twist it outward to common sense. She was twenty-five years old, actually seven months beyond her birthday and therefore closer to twenty-six than twenty-five which meant she was closer to thirty than she was to twenty, a realisation ringing through her recently. She had shared that one. Mum had read it and thought it was supposed to be funny. But Amanda felt the days escaping from her like air from a balloon and it didn’t seem like a healthy phase of thought.
She carried on toward a bright blush of foliage in the gated park ahead—a cemetery, as it turned out, with mossed gravestones and ragged overgrowth tinged with a stained-glass radiance by the canopy of dying leaves. Ochre and umber, blood cherry and rusty brown. She peered at it through the corroded rails with an urge to linger in the melancholy stillness but she was already late so she thumbnailed it and moved on, feeling the hummingbird weight of her life against all those others. She gave a mental salute of thanks for the perspective. At the next block she passed through a vast scaffolding with bars pad-wrapped at street level and white draperies stirring in the breeze like an angel’s anatomy exposed in a parade. This was the pulse of the world. This was her sense of being alive. And maybe it wasn’t so strange after all. Her phone started twitching in her handbag and it seemed like a wake-up call. She was happening constantly, her existence taking shape in every moment with nothing different about it now if she just stepped back from herself and really thought about what she thought.
HocusLocus occupied a loft with polished hardwood floors and timber beams and exposed brick. High windows admitted sunlight all year long but no view of the world below. The desks, twenty of them, mimicked a pattern made by cigarettes Ollie had tossed to the floor in search of a non-hierarchical layout to suit the management methods he had picked up in Silicon Valley. There were small conference rooms branching off the central area for actual conversations. This morning, though, Amanda arrived to find everyone packed into the kitchen with mimosas. She changed out of her trainers before joining them.
‘Power up,’ Ollie said, handing her a flute.
She accepted it carefully. ‘What’s the occasion?’
He smirked and moved on without replying, all mischief and mystery. She held the drink to her nose for the refreshing prickle of it. The flute itself made out of bio-refuse, or so Ollie claimed, though it seemed like ordinary plastic to her. She edged in next to Strawberry Zachary and managed to catch eyes with Hannah who transmitted her opinion by imitating one of the emojis they typically used to communicate across the office within sight of each other. As her face lacked the expressive range and precision of emojis, however, Amanda wasn’t sure if it was a bashful smirk with the tongue-peek to say sorry I beat you to it or the eerie smile with the blah-mouth which meant this was some unpleasant thing we must pretend to enjoy, and while the odds favoured the latter, Amanda didn’t know if the unpleasant thing was the occasion itself or the pseudo-champagne which, knowing Ollie, was Napa Valley ersatz, twice as expensive and half as good—not that it mattered anyway as the taste difference was nullified by the orange juice. In this sense the drink was like Ollie himself. A single year in California had infused his public school breeding with American can-do and sunny self-belief. He was an aggregator, a media entrepreneur and software innovator who had raised millions in venture capital to develop HocusLocus and then millions more in advertising revenue since going live. He wore plain blazers and open-collared shirts with Polynesian profusions of colour, cufflinks with extinct currency symbols in droll honour of the European Union, and heeled patent-leather shoes as a dressy pretence, Amanda suspected, for some extra height. He was square-jawed and raw-boned and insistently attractive. Fortunately he wasn’t Amanda’s type.
He carved out a spot for himself in the centre of the room and theatrically cleared his throat. ‘Hear ye, hear ye, I’ve kept you all in suspense long enough. Time for the reveal.’ He cued Gavin, who played a trumpet flourish on his phone. ‘Yesterday was our highest traffic volume ever. Three hundred thousand page views, which we hit when?’
Gavin glanced at his screen. ‘7.47 pm.’
‘A tipping point, it’s fair to say. Much as I love Gavin, it didn’t seem right to pop a cork just the two of us last night because you’re the ones who helped made it happen. So here’s to HocusLocus.’ He raised his glass and slipped into his faux-American accent. ‘It’s globally awesome!’
She clicked rims with Strawberry Zachary and, much to her surprise, relished the tangy fizz as a missing ingredient in her bloodstream. At home her IS would read the runes in her saliva and suggest a proper remedy. But here, what the hell, she gulped it down. Her nose filled with gas. Her eyes brimmed. Zach caught sight of it and nearly spat out his drink laughing. She batted him on the arm which was standard operating procedure for him as her brotherly stabilizer. As a web developer he was prized for the fine ergonomic sense of Twister, his popular dating app, along with a bargain-hunter called Bearly and some kind of personal encryptor in progress called DustDevil. His code sequences worked like the notations for chemical compounds that turned out to be either rocket fuel or table salt according to minor blips she could never identify. As her eyes cleared she took a breath and told him about the Tube jolt, downplaying the effect. She found herself getting all wry about it. A good anecdote. No biggie.
‘Really?’ He ran a thumb along the corner of his mouth. ‘That sort of thing puts years on my life. It ages my soul a bit. But not in a bad way. I mean, at first it scares the merde out of me, totally out of proportion, and then I realise it’s an inoculation. A flu jab, right? To build up your resistance.’
‘Resistance to what?’
‘Widgets. Bells and whistles. Bouncing balls.’ He waved a hand vaguely. ‘All these shiny objects.’
‘You’re a Buddhist this morning,’ she said to him.
‘I had Koan for breakfast.’
‘Oh stop jabbing.’
‘No jab. It’s a brand of granola suggested by my IS.’
‘I thought you switched off your IS.’
‘It’s an on-again, off-again sort of relationship.’
‘You don’t get as much out of it that way.’
‘You mean they don’t get as much out of it. Koan is made by Belle Foods, which is a subsidiary of Senserious, which is part of Deville.’
He aimed an expectant look at her, practically counting out loud as he waited for her twig it. At a party he’d go vertical right about now. He ascended into critical fits of passion with little notice and otherwise was a site-specific flamer, as he phrased it. He didn’t mind. He wasn’t hiding any part of his life. He just wasn’t a peacock with his tail feathers spread all the time. He was a web developer who thought about pensions because he believed his whole life was actually going to happen. Amanda needed to glean a bit of that.
‘And Deville owns Telmar,’ she said, ‘which makes the IS.’
‘Now you’re seeing through the maya.’
‘And it’s making me dizzy.’
‘That’s not maya. That’s the mimosa. And they both cloud your vision. But what happened on the Tube—that was twenty-twenty.’ He tapped her forehead with his index finger. ‘And clarity hurts, Mandi. Am I right?’
A buzzer sounded on Gavin’s phone—a mock-serious signal that had the double-negative effect of ordering everyone to work with a headmaster’s severity—and he began making his way round the room without appearing to make his way round the room. From the back he could be confused with Ollie, but from the front he was pure Gavin, with wide portal glasses and a beard, a flop of stylish hair, not bad-looking as far as she could tell, peering through it all. She smiled, which he returned as usual. As the room emptied out she turned to Zach, who flicked his empty flute into the bin with a high-handed flourish like a Russian nobleman saluting the Czar. Amanda did the same. Right. He had a way of shrinkwrapping a problem and setting it on the shelf. Onward and upward.
She made her way over to her desk and opened her laptop. As the latest feeds materialized she checked her socials ahead of the weekend. She had been counting on a gap between arrival at the office and actual salaried work to share her Tube experience and also triangulate the contact she had been considering on the train because despite her reservations he had praised her recent string of comments, but the mimosas had put paid to all that. One part alcohol, one part Zach chat. A necessary debriefing, as it turned out. She felt oddly behind now, though. She would need to squeeze it in somewhere. As the feeds came up she caught a bizarre piece about an ice hockey player talking like the Dali Lama or something. This came from where? She lensed it up. Nottingham, of all places. They had an ice hockey team—yes, she remembered those adverts by the uni, not to mention the ice rink near to that pub with generous vodka tonics where she had ended up so many Thursday nights her final year. One time she and some friends got mixed up with fans spilling out of the arena all jerseyed and team-spirited. Compared to football or rugby it seemed like a secret society accidentally released into the streets.
This particular item had come through a sports blog and then replicated itself across a range of platforms before generating enough viral interest to pique the algorithms of HocusLocus. A minor celebrity had splashed it around. And it had hooks, a high repeat ratio. She opened the text and read. Then she read it again with a mentholated clarity in her eyes the way she spotted a dress across the shop knowing it would fit her before she tried it on. That’s for me. That’s mine. Of course the decision was never really about the dress but the possibilities it offered, the kind of person she could be. And this thing? She wasn’t even sure what the guy was saying. She just thought it was cool, plain and simple, a perk of this job, this life.
She had landed the job at HocusLocus after a stint at a corporate shark tank and then, in recovery mode, waiting tables at a high-end restaurant managed by one of her inner socials. The better part of that time had been occupied by running two blogs—one under a pseudonym, the other as her true-blue self—while taking in serious literature and art exhibitions, watching her friends develop their careers, and throwing energy into liaisons that never quite reached escape velocity. Granted, some of those had been one-offs or hook-ups, experimental swipes in a culture devoted to sexual pleasure, but that phase had lasted only a couple of months and she now discounted it heavily when she totted it all up. Meanwhile she had spray-fired her CV at herds of job prospects that suited her notion of how she might make use of her English degree, with no success whatsoever. This was frightening. She didn’t mind waiting tables to make ends meet but she liked to think she was more marketable than that. By the time she interviewed with Ollie and Gavin she was ready to avatar herself as the Queen of Sheba if necessary, but all they wanted was someone to tailor up items with viral potential. Or rather, tailor them down. Trim and hem. She played along. As a kind of field test she was given thirty minutes to scale down a piece about subatomic particles which she managed to recast as an extended metaphor involving bracelets and footballs that sounded cool but didn’t make much sense. Shoddy work. Awkward at best. When it was over she calmly gathered herself up and managed to reach the pavement outside before breaking into tears.
She was hired the next day. Ollie said she had a natural flair for it, on par with her predecessor, an editor called Rebecca who, Amanda later learned, had been sacked for the crime of siphoning off a few of HocusLocus’s discards and incorporating them into her personal blog. Never mind it didn’t harm anyone. Ollie apparently didn’t treat that sort of thing like stealing office supplies. That aside, Amanda had to admit she felt the strange workings of a talent. As an associate editor she digested articles tagged by HocusLocus’s algorithms for use on their websites, planting her recrafted versions to see which ones took hold and multiplied most fruitfully, at which point the most successful ones were tweaked repeatedly until they went viral. Her posts, along with their integrated adverts, were seen by tens of thousands on a daily basis. True, the origins were obscured in the text she produced, but there was a ‘hat tip’ at the bottom linking to the root system she had used which usually ended with, or rather began with, a reputable magazine or academic journal. She worked on sites with the highest traffic—mainly Zinger, their flagship, though she also contributed to Soothsayer, Ad Absurdum, and Deep Six, while colleagues like Hannah worked similarly but in different proportions according to what came through the pipeline. Ollie sampled much of what they produced but spent most of his time tweaking algorithms, occasionally calling in some freelance engineers who hot-desked as close to Hannah as they could get despite her boyfriend’s photo propped like a biohazard sign at the perimeter. And while a small number gravitated Amanda’s way, she found it both flattering and unpleasant because none of them were her type.
Who was her type? Not Ollie, not Gavin, not Zach, and apparently not any of those tech turkeys. These days she favoured prospects with at least the possibility of real development. Her most recent contact had moved up the totem of chat with steampunk ruminations about the various gadgets and gizmos he loved rather than the details of his life. He was ambivalent about digital technology with its invisible workings, inaccessible to those who used it, he said, sealed inside a case. How could we trust something without moving parts? He was a retrofuturist who preferred an alternate version of today’s technology as it was envisaged by the past, with pistons and levers and cogs. But was he an utter misfit? That was the question. A face-to-face on her way home from work confirmed the relative merits of his askance photo but revealed an actual personality so hobbled by his own manifestoes of style and substance that he had closed down ages ago without even realising it, and you couldn’t treat this kind of thing as a fixer-upper. Down the totem he went, nudged from voicemail to text to social posts. No ghosting required. He caught on quickly enough.
It occurred to her, of course, that a single meeting would have made all this clear to her from the outset. It also occurred to her, of course, that if not for her dating profile she never would have met him in the first place. This was one of many contradictions she lived with, particularly as her IS had recently noted a correlation between her online social activity and fluctuations in cortisol and dopamine levels associated with depression. This didn’t make any sense because she enjoyed engaging with others, which seemed to mean that she enjoyed making herself depressed. She had grappled with this one on Nulterior Motives, her anonymous blog, but the vague swarm of likes and approvals were perhaps part of the very problem she was describing. Her straightfoward blog, Well Nigh Impossible, posed an even stranger problem as she began to envy the person who appeared there, as if she were missing out on Amanda Nigh. Unable to resolve it, she had decided instead to counterbalance it with more activity and basic being in her life.
She went running, off and on. She phased in and out of power yogas and super spins and crash-and-burns, most of which she liked well enough, but it all seemed to dissolve in the heat of deadlines or excursions or parties trailing each other until she was always starting over, getting back into shape when it was mythical in the first place, this level of fitness she imagined because she knew she was fighting a losing battle with her body type. Even now her midriff resisted the taut tone she noticed in others who swallowed pastries on a regular basis. The only reason she bothered with running was because her IS insisted it was the best way to raise her basal metabolic rate—and in the morning, no less. Fresh air, rise and shine. The ancient activity of feet on the ground. She enjoyed the outdoor element even though her knees ached afterward, probably due to her inconsistency, the lack of discipline in her stride, or so Strawberry Zachary had said, and frankly the seasonal nature of her activity. Winter drained the colour from her soul. Her fuel cells ran down easily and she needed someone in a warm room with flashing lights to yell at her to keep moving. This usually happened during lunch hour if it happened at all because she simply couldn’t haul herself off the mattress early enough, whereas after work she either lost all volition by the time she Tubed back to Shadwell or else joined a few friends at the pub on an empty stomach and could barely read her own screen as she went rattling home, which was probably for the best given that her IS took one look at her blood sugar and essentially recommended a transfusion.
IS stood for Intelligence System, a prototype which wasn’t a single app or lens but rather an integration of various custom mappings and attribute transformations into a single functioning network. This was the way it was described, at least, by an associate of Ollie’s who had bestowed it upon HocusLocus’s staff as some kind of divine favour. Hannah eagerly volunteered for the beta test. Zach was wary but offered himself for the benefit of his savoir-faire in the coding world. And for certain proprietary reasons which Gavin was not at liberty to reveal, Amanda qualified to ultra-beta test a model with biochemical interfaces. This required a digital meshing of not only her devices and clouds but also her physical condition as a dataset in itself with its own ranking and stacking algorithms, its own semantic functions, its own rich data. Part of the deal—and, truly, the clincher for her—was a stipend for single-occupancy housing as roommates would have contaminated the data. It had been an elegant excuse to trade an erratic situation in Clapham for a newer flat in Shadwell, cutting not only her interpersonal grievances but also her commute by a considerable margin.
Amanda’s initial misgivings about a system that blended her view-purchase patterns with biochemical data dissolved within the first hour of use. Her IS recommended clothing. It selected meals based on her nutritional needs and the expiry dates of whatever happened to be in the fridge. It notified her of sales at her favourite shops and adjusted her monthly budget and suggested birthday gifts for loved ones and played music suited to her moods as determined by not only her hormonal condition but also facial expressions and vocal pitches, which meant it knew her moods better than she did. These were algorithms keyed to biorhythms, empathic moldings of data. And it reduced the friction of her daily life—the paper cuts of all those little decisions, those little mistakes, those little things you forget. She had firewalled it from Nulterior Motives for a shred of anonymity and her brief experiment with hook-up culture as it was the sort of history she didn’t want to proliferate. She wasn’t ready for omniscience yet. And though she hadn’t tried the verbal interface, and therefore hadn’t selected a voice for it, she was beginning to think of her IS as female. Why not? This was positive discrimination on her part. Objects were gendered in romance languages, after all, which seemed much more honest about the state of things, and Amanda Nigh wanted a different view of herself—Amanda Nigh as seen from the perspective of someone very much like herself, actually, but with more wisdom and detachment. Was that possible? In any case she was avoiding a voice for her IS because she was avoiding a certain kind of commitment. Or maybe involvement. The IS belonged to her as long as she worked at HocusLocus and she didn’t see herself leaving anytime soon even though she didn’t exactly see herself doing this kind of work when she got older. And what exactly was older? She hadn’t squared it yet. There was no almanac for her life. She tasted odd moments here and there like ripe fruit and she told herself it was enough.