This is probably the fifth time this evening I’ve told you to stop setting fire to my legs. I wish I’d never agreed to this – to be hung upside down from the lower branches of this tree. My head feels heavy and my feet are swollen. The dressing gown cords cut past my socks and take away another layer of skin. I’m already in considerable discomfort. And there’s you… upside down and flick-flick-flicking the lighter.
I tell you that I might be having a nosebleed. I might choke upside down. You wave the tall flame past my eyebrows, deleting them with a single hiss and a brief needle of pain. You say, ‘I like boys who bleed’.
It is hard to disagree with that.
We sat on the grass near the ornamental pond where the drunks sit and stare at the water, like fishermen without rods confronted by a lake with no fish. The definition of useless, these men belch without talking and meander whilst sitting still. Since you pointed it out to me, I can’t help but notice how career drunks are the only people who don’t look into whatever it is they are about to ingest. As automatic as the diaphragm the career drunk picks up a can, takes a deep chug and places it by his feet – all without his glassy eyes moving from the still, fetid water beneath him.
It was here, on the rim of this grey saucer full of dead water, that you told me about your suicide attempt. How you’d made yourself a bath then plugged in a hairdryer and tried to knock it into the water with you. The fuse blew moments before it hit the water and so it remained, impotent and dead, under the water between your heels.
“I’ll never understand” you recalled, “why I ran a hot bath. I was expecting it to be over in seconds. So why make the water comfortable?”
“…and another thing.” You took a deep suck on your cigarette, hollowing your cheeks so the tip flamed amber in your eyes. “When I got out of the bath my hands were wet, and I dried them before switching off the mains. I was scared of being electrocuted.”
You shook your head and laughed.
“How fucked up is that…?”
I do another lap of the warehouse to waste time. On my first day a fat man in a tiny hard hat stood on the strongest crate ever built and told us all proudly that the interior walkway of the warehouse was a third of a mile long. I work out that if I stroll at around two miles per hour I can waste half an hour just doing three laps. Walk the warehouse three times and get thirty minutes closer to going home. I pretend that I am performing an errand, and by the time I’m on my second or third lap most of the crackheads and winos in here have forgotten that they’ve already nodded to me once or twice. I resist the urge to walk six laps though and waste an hour. I don’t want to be confused with them.
Ben is a nice man who does more than simply nod and acknowledge that I am alive. He walks over to me, eyes as wide as his arms, and gets me in a gentle hug and calls me ‘Chief’. Or ‘Boss’. One day he calls me ‘Champ’, jabs me in my ribs and is gracious enough to pretend that I am strong back when I give him a playful thump on the arm.
I’m astonished at his tenderness in resting the head of a Polish co-worker in his lap and rubbing his forehead, speaking softly to him in the few words of Polish he knows just to make the man feel more comfortable. The man is crying out the same strangled noise over and over again, which Ben later tells me was a cry for his mother. He’s just been crushed between two loading trucks and his legs are broken in so many places even his shapeless work trousers cannot hide the fact that from his hips to his ankles he is just an accordion.
The poor man is carted away in an ambulance. I didn’t know his name because he hadn’t been here that long. Ben puts his hands on his hips and says “nasty business that.” His stoicism impresses me. That coolness under pressure probably helped when Ben, for reasons that I’ve never understood fully, held up a post office with a sawn-off and blasted apart the forearm of the elderly man behind the desk. I learn this only after Ben doesn’t turn up for work for three weeks.
Sitting on some crates, I accept the horrible whiskey and look across to a line of newly planted trees. Sometimes I daydream about running across the wide dusty loading bay and leaping to the fence, scrambling up it for freedom. It’s a curious kind of imprisonment – the kind wherein you could simply walk out and suffer no physical or emotional harm besides the loss of a job. But still I stare at that line of fake trees and I know that they wouldn’t hide me.
I keep fantasising about having some dramatic accident, but the kind where everyone thinks I’m badly hurt or dead and I come out dusting myself off without a scratch. I eventually decide that I should be flattened underneath a large pallet of toilet roll. This absurd conceit runs through my mind in ever more elaborate detail – the shocked cries of my co-workers, how I would land without hurting myself, my witticisms as I tell them I’m fine and I don’t need an ambulance I just want to do my job – until I start to believe it has happened once.
I pass back the whiskey and I say “remember that time with the toilet rolls?” My co-worker just nods sullenly because he cannot understand my question.
It can be jarring, travelling between universes. This is why I am sometimes uncommunicative and why I wish you wouldn’t meet me from work. You bound up to me as I file out with everyone else, sweating and grimy, and you tell me you aren’t wearing panties; and I react as though you’ve lost a pet by asking how this happened? “Jesus, how!?” It’s not funny really but you laugh all the way home because you haven’t smelt the alcohol on my breath yet, and I’m trying to move my face away to stare not at your beautiful face but a rotting fence everyone has pissed against at some point in their lives. Even you.
Especially you, now that I think of it.
“I had to climb into a bin today” I say, after you ask me about my day. “I didn’t have to of course, but I was asked to and so I did. I had to break down some boxes so I just got in the bin and stomped.” You ask a question and I answer. “No, I didn’t pretend I was in a tank. Or a submarine. I just stomped the shit out of those boxes. I don’t pretend anymore. I just do. Anyway, that was my day. Let’s talk about yours.”
I find it hard to sniff a road that is being freshly laid. This is not a terrible problem to have but it crops up more often than you’d think. It reminds me too much of walking to school and wishing I could have a job in those little plastic tents that protected the men and equipment from the rain. It was always raining when I walked to school, except in winter when the skies were a piercing blue and the pavements paper white from a hard frost. Never snow, just frost. I walked to school for ten winters and never slipped over once, so I find it baffling that I constantly fall over now.
A Good Samaritan once approached me after a spectacular spill but she obviously remembered the recent news story about a young man who would deliberately fall over in front of people just to steal their wallets as they tried to help. She held out her hand, then saw my young face fall out of my scarf and hat, and carried on walking. In that moment of conflicting decision making, she kept her hand out in front of her as she warbled off.
We make out, as young lovers do, and you kick me so hard in the jaw it clicks to tell me that you don’t want to be eaten out anymore, as young lovers don’t (or so I’ve heard.) I find it hard to maintain an erection whilst checking my tongue, which still tastes of you, to see if all my teeth are still where they should be. But I persevere. Perhaps when I’m older and if you haven’t burned the world down, I’ll be asking for painkillers instead of Viagra to help my sexual performance. And performance is the right word. Sex with you is about me acting as though I know what I’m doing. Sex is a poker game in which you have the best hand and if I lose I have to drive the motorcycle over the Grand Canyon. So I bluff my way through it until you pull my hair enough to make my nostrils flare and the corners of my mouth curl up into a twisted Joker smile.
“Do you remember when you fingered me on the Piccadilly Line?” We’re lying in a post-coital heap, a tangle of limbs, sheets and underwear. That black mass over my ankle could be yours or mine. That leg is probably yours but I cannot be sure. I cannot be sure of anything.
I don’t know, I say, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.