Red Gemma

All I can smell is burning. Every time I brush against a piece of burned wood, white flakes swoop up into freedom. My clothes and hair stink. Aside from the random piles of debris, everything is obscenely flat. I cannot even remember the layout of things. I just see stone slabs and twisted metal, carbonated wood. Nothing tangible, nothing recognisable.

I’m searching for a footprint. A place where I once stood in this melee. Beyond, on the perimeter, the tall steel fence rocks gently in the wind. It’s a shield that is supposed to keep us out but here and now it is keeping us safely hidden. You’re scaling the tallest of the mounds, pulling stuff apart, throwing a loose timber here and there searching for something. I wander between these pyres. The stone beneath my feet is unrecognisable. I’m looking for the layout. I’m trying to find something to cling to.

When you heard about the fire, you’d insisted on this pilgrimage. It had been close to a decade since this place had been relevant to us, and yet you still felt the need to pay your respects. So, after a night of hard alcohol and decisions, we drove out. I was so far over the limit I almost met sober on the other side, so I drove slowly. You – normally the speed freak – were content to recline in the passenger seat with your bare feet on the dashboard, staring ahead. I could see the glitter of the cat’s eyes blinking in your own black pupils during the brief moments that I dared look away from the windscreen.

After we parked in a deserted layby not far from the site, you grabbed me and pressed me against the side of the car for an intense kiss. I started fumbling for the button of your jeans but you slapped my hands away. Pulling back, lipstick smeared to the corners of your mouth, you insisted you just needed some courage. I could taste the needle tang of your bad vodka on my tongue. I took a lungful of cold air, my nose running and my ears burning. Smoke puffed out from my lips in frenzied bursts. You adjusted your hair and began to march down the footpath. My cock ached as it pressed against the seam of my jeans and I followed, walking as though I had fouled myself.

When we scaled the fence, you burst into tears. I tried to comfort you, but you pushed me away again and staggered towards the first pile of blackened driftwood – not drunk but despondent. I tried to make you calm down as you smashed a lump of breezeblock into a piece of distorted metal, sending an echoing clash across the empty fields towards the pinhole lights of the houses in the distance. Only when you noticed the cuts on your palms did you release it with one guttural heave, clattering it into two pieces, the black now edged by fresh silver at the point of severance.

As you rummaged now, burrowing your way through detritus, I started to remember and to piece together this canvas so mutilated. Like a piece of art whitewashed, I tried to trace my finger across to find the hidden lines. And then, as if the cover was withdrawn, everything became clearer.

I strode over to the point where, on a baking hot summer’s day, a group of us engaged in a water fight. Spraying the powerful hoses into each other, creating rainbows that flitted between memory, recording everything. I found the raised base of the old canteen where you once trapped me inside a locker and people waved cream cakes over the keyhole as I entertained you all in my upright metal coffin. I remembered the time we spent an afternoon trying to catch a mouse, you with a fishing net and me with half of a cardboard box like the front of a bulldozer. I walked to the lip of the foundations and found a small rectangle of loose gravel. In between the stones were the decayed remains of cigarette butts.

I called you over. I’ve found the smoking area I said triumphantly. You ambled over without much enthusiasm and seemed confused. I carefully sunk my foot into the loose gravel, feeling the crunch on the bottom of my foot, treating it with due reverence. This was the spot, I said. This was where it all began.

You furrowed your brow and tilted your head. Even in the dark your eyes glittered with water. We had our first kiss here, I said smiling. Behind the canteen, in the smoking area. You were leaning against the wall that used to be here.

We never kissed here, you said, and you looked down at my foot. Bending down, you retrieved the slimy remains of a long-forgotten dog-end and allowed it to slither between your fingers onto the top of my shoe. We did, I insisted. One afternoon in July. During a lunchbreak, we kissed here.

You shook your head sadly and forced a smile through a face that was imploding. We never kissed here. You must be thinking of someone else. And then you turned away and left me, impotent in a broken memory.

I walked away from the site so as to be hidden from view. A line of tall trees provided an impenetrable blanket of darkness. I looked over the rest of the site, now illuminated by a full moon sweeping out from behind a bank of cloud. I watched you as you started to gather pieces of timber and lay them on the floor. It seemed so random, like the desperate activity of a disrupted ant hill. Every time you placed a piece of old wood on the floor you would search around, scanning the floor, looking for clues. Then I realised what you were during. You were trying to map the layout of the original building.

By the time I returned, you’d given up. Pieces of wood were arranged in parallel lines and at right angles to each other everywhere. The area surrounding you looked like the remains of a burned maze. You were sitting on a clump of broken stones, sobbing and sniffing, your hair fallen over your face. I tried to put a hand on your shoulder but you shook it off with violence, looking up at me with a snarl and I saw a glimpse of a dagger from between your strands of hair; a pupil all consuming like a black hole. I trudged over to another loose cairn and sat down, looking at your arched spine. As a cold wind whipped around us, it carried your whispered words to me as you repeated over and over the same thing between hacking sobs and snivelling chokes.

I don’t know where anything is.

I can’t remember where I walked.

Over and over again.

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