“Don’t you find the expression ‘real estate’ absurd? Is there anything less real than a house?”
We sit – me and her – dangling our legs over old stone into the grabbing waters below. Seaweed coils around our toes in furtive strokes as though all our past lovers have drowned and are now trying to reclaim us. Our picnic is sparse – two bottles of inexpensive wine, a packet of cakes, meats and pastry rolls, a vial of cocaine, three cans of Pepsi, two chocolate bars (melted) and a small envelope containing four or five scraps of blotter acid. Her phone is pumping out some kind of transcendental new age bullshit, full of pipes and violins and King Arthur and…
“I really hate it.”
‘Don’t be racist.’
“How is that racist!? I’m not being racist, I just can’t stand…”
‘…you are so racist. I saw the way you looked at that guy yesterday.’
“That was not race. That dick fuck’s dog tried to annihilate me.”
‘I’m going to burn you every time you are racist.’
“I’m not…. oww! Stop doing that!”
She pushes another cigarette deep into my flesh. She does this every time I am negative about something. I have five black holes in my forearm. One of them – the earliest one – is showing signs of blossoming into an infection. Around the jet black disc I can see yellow and orange petals. It doesn’t hurt but itches like crabs or sunburn.
‘…or crabs with sunburn’, she offers. Below us, the sea is no longer lapping at our feet. Now it hugs our bones, caressing our ankles, flattening and darkening our ankle hairs. The tide is coming in fast. I draw deeply from a fresh roll and take a bite out of a fresh roll. Suggesting that we should probably leave before the tide engulfs us completely, I pass the smoke over to her and she blows the smoke back in my face.
‘How can we be high and drown at the same time? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’
Neither of us can swim. But in this frame of mind, it is hard to disagree. The sea comes in at two inches every minute. I do the calculations. We may die in approximately…
‘Approx-him-at-lee’ she snarls. Then, with the ‘finger quotes’. Ahh-prox-him-at-lee
“When I was seven years old I burned myself to death…I’ve spent the following twenty-one years talking about it, trying to work out…why did I do it and what went wrong.”
The Boy had been gone for a little while now. Technically, he’d been dead for over six years, but he’d only been gone in the last eighteen months. The Boy usually manifested himself in our deep discussions, until all talk about him dried up completely. The local newspaper ran a story about a devilish – or ‘Satanic’ – cult that grew up around the tree from which he dangled to his end. It talked enthusiastically about weird symbols, blood rituals and inhuman howling heard around its cursed trunk. A spokesperson said, with authority, that a local group of vampires were sacrificing their veins under the shadow of that old tree, leaving spots of blood on the dead and dried up flowers strapped to the bark; notes covered in the blue poppies of ink from rain-soaked tributes. A local group of ne’re-do-goods built a small fence around it, trying to dissuade these fiends from desecrating the final day of a simpleton. The fence was about three feet high and not even electrified. We were mildly disappointed in their commitment.
The blood was hers, as were the symbols. She’d been trying to cut the tree down for months. Unable, or unwilling, to find an axe she jammed sharp pieces of railway ballast into forked branches and tried to hack it to the ground. Her fingers were torn apart by the violence. Her screams of frustration could be heard by insomniacs in the nearby neighbourhoods. Finally she tried to kill the tree by carving deep gouges into lines that she imagined were the tree’s veins. On more than one occasion I found her curled up and asleep under the boughs. The fence remained intact, untouched, but the blood and the hacking continued. Clearly these are sick individuals said the spokesperson earnestly. Clearly new measures are needed.
I couldn’t imagine anything less clear than this. I shook her shoulder to wake her up. In the night she’d rolled partially into a bed of stinging nettles and one side of her face was swollen red and pockmarked by little white volcanoes. One of her eyelids had fused shut.
“I can’t imagine anything less clear than this….” I offered.
‘My gums…’ she said, surprised. ‘My gums.’ She stretched, yawning wide and pushing her tongue out like a church gargoyle. ‘Help me make an axe will you? This needs to come down, now. Now.‘ It’d been three weeks since the first blow.
“I don’t think you can be happy and content and connect with people. There are two kinds of art – tragedy and tragi-comedy. That’s it.”
She told me about a dream she had, where her eyes had been replaced by cross-head screws. She said; depending on how I wanted to view the world, I could take a small screwdriver to my own eyes and tighten them or loosen them as I saw fit. If I wanted to take a world view, I’d loosen them. If I wanted to focus on a point, I’d tighten them until I felt the back of my brain trying to pull away from my skull…did you know when you are dehydrated, the headache is caused by the brain shrinking and the nerve endings attaching the brain to the bone getting stretched too far? Anyway, the dream will never come true and I’m not sure I want it to either. All I could smell was chrome and grease, and I couldn’t cry without rusting myself shut…
“Without rusting myself shut” I said aloud.
‘Alright, it was a fucking stupid dream, but it was important to me.’ She brings a leg out of the water that now swallows us to the knees. It’s an effort and she has to lie backwards. Seaweed hangs from her ankles. Spray is flicking at our thighs, arms and faces. My hands are wet as is my fringe. A few minutes ago I started – quietly – freaking out. Now I’m in a strange state of contemplative bliss. It’s a combination of two states of mind – accepting death and knowing that she can’t die, so therefore whatever she does, I will follow. If she attempts to swim, I will dive in after her. We won’t drown just because we can’t swim. It’s impossible.
After several hours of strong drink, stodgy food and lowering drugs I’m feeling sleepy and horny. Before us, I can see the colours of the sky blending and colliding politely together like guests at a wedding. I lie back, but it just makes the sea colder and I shiver. The rough stone below me turns into mercury and I spread my arms out wide, feeling the soft bumps against bone and memory. My spine protests but nothing else in my body is listening so it shouts alone. I don’t even notice the hot point somewhere in the region of my mid-thigh. She’s pressed a cigarette out on my rolled up jeans and the fire has burned through.
I wrench the bloodied homemade axe from her hands. She’s sobbing. As if in sympathy to the tree in front of us her throat begins to hack with gutteral noises and coughs. She falls onto her hands and knees, clawing at the earth and pushing it over her fingers and toes. She tries to take root in the ground. Her hair is lank with mucus and tears and sweat.
I bend down and touch her shoulder with the reluctance of someone trying to test an electrified fence. The spark from the wispy hairs on her goosepimpled skin is dangerously charged. I reach down and grab her firmly at the upper arms and try to raise her to her feet. The tree still stands but the bark has been slashed and carved with unnatural fury. Several of the old wounds are already darkening, whilst the more recent ones gleam with a cream, green freshness. A deep gouge, flowering at the edges with infection, now waits like a half-scream unrealised.
She gets up without my help, raising herself up to her tiptoes and stretching. With a vicious snarl she kicks out at the tree with a straight leg and it shivers in fear and torment, the leaves rattling to the impact. I can hear faint snapping and rending noises from the open wound. Satisfied, she shrugs off my embrace. The hairs on her arms and shoulders relax back into slumber. The skin becomes smooth again. She takes a deep breath, puts her shoes back on and presses her tongue deep into her nettled cheek, which now blooms a sickly, pale white with only the faintest of thin red lines tracing like rivers from space.
I imagine I can make things better. I imagine I will save her one day. But I fail to realise – again and again and again – that not everyone is in trouble.