I remember she once told me; the funny thing about endings is that they never happen. By the time you reach it, you’re already past it. Likewise we can never experience tomorrow, it is always just out of arms reach. She was always saying stuff like this; it sounded profound but then […]
When I wake up, my room is a deep pink from the sunlight passing through the cherry blossoms that cover this place. It never fails to give me a warm feeling inside, as though the rays are diluted through the petals and into the cells on my bare arms and legs. It takes me back to a colder memory I often have from five years ago of a windy dock and a rotten jetty poking forlornly into the harbour, reinforced by a finger of steel pointing towards this pink dandelion island nestling in the middle of the bay. I took the boat with other kids all looking at each other with the curious mix of shyness and knowing – that our sunken eyes and strong brows gave us all something in common we all knew too much about. As we sailed towards the island where my new school was apparently located, we began to see that this beautiful marshmallow floating in the rough ocean concealed bright white buildings, whose small towers seemed to furtively whisper to each other at the latest intake.
It took me a few days to realise why I was here. Sitting through an easy math’s exam to determine our respective abilities, I finished early and glanced over my shoulder. I was the second of five rows with a sixth row of kids all attached to trolley drips – thin hoses to noses and arms. After the exam finished I took a wrong turn down a corridor looking for a bathroom and saw another exam hall filled with beds and machines all bleeping in unison, the participants propped up and scribbling frantically on trays attached to the sides, with far more invigilators than we’d had in our hall, dressed in brilliant white.
I was now a permanent resident at The School For The Dying, an institution that allowed kids with incurable ‘situations’, as the staff euphemistically called it, to see out their education. Anyone who couldn’t realistically continue their studies and who wouldn’t make it past graduation could be considered. Inhabitants stayed on the island in rooms of varying degrees of intricacy – mine was just a bed with a desk, drawers and a small sink and wardrobe – but others were the size of operating theatres with machines and instruments that meant we couldn’t have the lights on after 9pm every day.
I got up and stretched my thin limbs, shivering in the warmth from the window. Today is a good day – double History followed by double Art and a single English Lit lesson that will probably be silent reading. It took a while but now the rhythmic hissing of ventilators helps me to concentrate during the quiet reading periods. I also get used to seeing our single desks slowly become more and more empty as the school year progresses. We all make friends as quickly as we can, because we know that our lives exist on fast forward.
I dress quickly, wash my face and prepare my books. My classroom is just across the courtyard from this dorm block, but I take the longer way around so I can get a glimpse of the sea. From the outside the cherry blossoms seem impossibly beautiful, until you are inside them and you realise they are blocking the outside world. But standing on the right bench, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, you can see through the canopy and get a sniff of that salty air or, if there is a storm, maybe a splash of real, unfiltered water.
As I leave, I see Prof Maguire talking to a group of young girls. I sneak away to the outer path, knowing that walking too close to the sea is technically forbidden – not that anything is really forbidden here. Maguire is well known for scolding the girls who hide in the bathrooms to smoke, telling them it is bad for their health, but the arguments always end in laughter. There are no real punishments here because no one ever really misbehaves. Life is too short, it seems, to spend it being a cunt.
The outer path is cut by curious feet to wind between the mass of trees that separate the school from the sea defences. I tiptoe through the mud of a recent rainfall so my shoes don’t give away my location. The air is still today so all I can see is a noisy curtain of pink, but I can hear the roar of the ocean as it breaks on the rocks that guard us from storms. I stand for a moment and try to remember a landscape that I haven’t already seen every day. I see the paths between buildings and I try to remember a street. I see puddles forming after rain and I try to remember seeing a lake, for real, not as a picture in a book.
Eventually I make my way to the classroom and take my seat. There are not many of us left who are so close to the end of their teen years. I have already repeated the final year once, so when questions pop up I keep quiet because I know the answers and I know the way to the answers. A couple of the seats have been filled with new faces this past week, and the other empty desks sit sadly like dogs tied up outside a shop waiting for their owners to come back.
I lift up my desk lid, now covered in deep little carved marks, and add another one to the gathering army. I wasn’t supposed to see my 15th birthday, so after I had passed that milestone I started carving little notches to mark my ongoing, bewildering march towards irrelevance and a little headstone on the mainland – my marble ticket home. I have to carve them deep, the sawdust falling over my wrists, to distinguish them from the other lesions and scratches left by previous students who also marked their time, however fleeting or lingering, but it gets harder every day to have the strength.
I am 17 years, two months and six days old… and I am running out of desk.
It’s catchy isn’t it? Basically, it’s a screenplay idea I’ve had… this guy, who is like Burt Reynolds in Smokey And The Bandit, is a zookeeper with a hot female apprentice, and together he saves the city, and she saves him from his whiskey problems, and along the way there is gore and rhinos – fucking rhinos! – or I guess just the one, and there’s love and mystery about who or what is causing so much destruction, and at one point he drives a car – probably a black Trans-Am because why not – down this alleyway through some boxes as the rhino chases and….
I turn around the corner, flicking a stone up with the tip of my shoe and volleying it with a loud cymballic crash against a nearby garage door. I feel the sun dancing with the atoms arranged on my cheeks, the downy hairs waving like a festival crowd with their lighters in the air. Last night was a bad night – one grimy blotter and me shrivelled up like a dead prawn hiding underneath a truck as the driver snoozed in the cab – all because I saw a child running towards me and as I bent down to say hello he ran through me and screamed – such a god-awful noise that I felt my bones rattle from my ankles to my skull – and with everything splintered and marrow leaking out from pulsating arms and legs I crawled into this dark place to die. When I woke up this morning, cuddled by a cold blanket of morning dew, the truck driver had left without knowing I was there, and all my achievements could be summarised in the perfect shape of a foetally-curled form, light grey against the wet dark grey concrete.
Walking down this side street, the houses on either side are either bravely inhabited or callously abandoned. It’s all squats and gardens here, where the windows are either broken or open, and an old boy carefully takes the scissors to his roses with a kitchen knife jammed into the belt loops of his trousers. I admire both – the nomads who find a clean space as far away from the smashed windows as they can to light fires, smoke cans and try to see the very molecules that they inhale drifting down inside their chests and creating light like so many fireflies sucked into a transparent vacuum cleaner – and the old timers who try to maintain the dignity of a perfectly cut and chipped lawn even as they throw out the needles and burned Coke cans. It is always Coke, never Pepsi… maybe it’s a moral thing.
Underneath an old teacup buried in the middle of a nest of thistles I pull a ten out from a roll of notes. It’s safer to bury money underneath junk and painful weeds than to keep it in your pockets. Somewhere around here, before the council relaid the road, I buried an old mobile phone, a childhood photo of me with a dog I can’t remember, three packets of Jawbreakers, the arm of a stuffed toy and an old Super Nintendo game that pissed me off so much I almost broke my heels trying to stamp it out of existence.
I would love to lift this road again and see the treasures underneath. Whether it is the faint acid echoes or just memory overtaking me vibrantly, I see two young lads ahead of me – hitherto unseen but no less real – in bright rucksacks laughing and chatting about what they want to do tomorrow, not even thinking about the next day or the next week. Being an adult means that forward plans sneak up on you as they stretch out in their breadth, no longer so focused but spread thin like the last corners of butter smeared across toast. Nothing is about tomorrow anymore, it is always next month or next year… or the year after that, that, that, that will definitely be the time.
Playing with the ten between my fingers I hurry past the old hotel, now so evil that the windows run red with blood when it rains, whilst lingering around the old bus stop carved with so many names that long to be reunited with their owners. It was here that my first, and probably only, love told me she was bored of men and wanted to live in a lighthouse; never mind manners and chivalry… what happened to fingering… why does every guy I meet search inside my vagina like they’ve lost their car keys? I kept my hands deep in my pockets and shrugged. Given the opportunity, I’m sure I would’ve been much worse.
The pub doesn’t have windows, just shutters and metal grates covered in old circus posters. Inside, the floor vibrates with the steady hum of the cellar fans and stale peanuts jump and dance over your shoes. No matter; I enter with a creak and the pale neon lights of the mirrored bar against the ceiling lights and the optics draws me in.
Sitting on a stool I order my first beer and lean over to a man with eyes as pale as milk, and a malformed head resting on a lumpy carcass like too many potatoes crammed into a sack. I tell him about this great idea I’ve had. It’s a screenplay called There’s A Rhino Loose In The City. It’s about this killer rhino who escapes from a zoo and starts slaughtering everyone. Basically, Val Kilmer is a private detective called Johnny Sundays and together with his hot young secretary they have to….
The sea has a glassy stillness as I walk along the path. The horizon joins the sky in a dark band of incoming rain, the sandwich filling between the pale water and the massed cloud, and the wind murmurs and brushes around me with delicate paint strokes. Nothing moves out there, the white horses sleeping under the surface, the birds gathered in pockmarked lesions of white and grey against the dull landscape, nestling and bracing for another winter storm.
To my left, the ground seethes and writhes in deep scoops of old quarries now overgrown with trees and scrub as though the land itself is embarrassed by the scar tissue. These are dim places remembered only by the long dead, whose bones gained the ultimate revenge on the bourgeois by tumbling from the clifftop graveyard during a storm into the back gardens of the horrified middle classes in their seaside villas.
Ahead of me I can see the deep green V carved out of the hillside ahead. The old railway ran through here; coming the other way you would emerge out of The Tunnel, into this narrow valley with its sharp sides until it gradually fell back to reveal the sea, the town and the dreams of escapism – all those coal miners on their week holiday, their tired eyes now allowed to stretch as far as the sea will allow. How many of them left the pits where the rock pressed against their noses and the dust hacked their lungs, saw the ocean and cried? Not many, probably, but maybe a few.
I enter the valley and I can see The Tunnel ahead, bricked up except for a single rusting padlocked door. The air smells bland as I leave sunlight and the sea behind. All sound is dimmed except for the low hum of a generator. Dead ivy hangs down over the arch like long talons. I approach the door, remove the padlock and walk inside.
Two spotlights illuminate an iron lung. Inside, a man with long grey hair nearly touching the floor. He leans his head over to me and smiles, two beads of bright blue crinkling in his face. I drop my rucksack to the floor and remove a foil-wrapped piece of cake, and a bottle of mineral water. He nods to me and quietly says yea yea yea. Brushing loose hairs from his cheeks and mouth I feed him the cake, stroking his scalp as he chews and mulches the sponge into a paste that dribbles down one corner of his face. A sip of water here, another small piece there. I kiss his forehead – it tastes like old vinegar – and listen to the muffled clattering of the machinery.
When he’s finished I wipe the spit and crumbs from his face and he goes back to staring up at the ceiling, smacking his lips content. I sit down on a nearby crate and open a bottle of cider. Getting drunk in an old tunnel is codeine for the senses – every drip of water, every little piece of brickwork crumbling, the dank smell of cold air through musk and plants who exist without light. I think about masturbating but it doesn’t seem appropriate given the circumstances. Maybe I’ll climb into the bathtub later when it is empty and try then.
I stand up and walk further into The Tunnel, away from the safety of the spotlights. As I move further away his every noise becomes louder. I can hear his nose whistling as he breathes, I can hear every little movement that makes the iron lung creak. The generator, keeping everything alive, now buzzes in my ears like mosquitos after a monsoon. Looking back I see the beams of white illuminating this weird distorted shape, like a tomb but without the solemnity of cold marble.
I finish the cider and throw the bottle into the black void. I walk back towards the old man and rest my head on his metal chest. He looks anxiously at peace, the jaw clenched, still tonguing a piece of cake jammed into a cavity. He never really says anything except to agree or disagree with things. He knows yes and no, yea and nurrrrr, a weird little growl he does when he’s unhappy or when I accidentally hurt him when combing his long tangled hair.
It’s been a special day and he knows it, those little blue marbles twinkling away, a smile flicking at the corners of his mouth. Cake and a little water and a cider for me. The iron lung sighs and rattles as his breathing begins to increase. I give the tomb another cuddle and, reaching underneath, I unplug it from the generator. Electricity freed, the spotlights now glare and hiss as the old man’s face blanches bright white, the mouth open and agape filled with a red tongue. I stroke his hair one last time as he begins to make a strange new noise; a primeval grunt of indignation, desperation and terror.
I can’t imagine he will be too long, but nevertheless I don’t want to stick around. Turning my back to the rhythmic flailing of someone almost buried alive, the gnugh gnugh gnugh getting louder, I open the door to the real world and get a blast of cool air. The rain pats and taps against the old brick, and I can smell renewal, rebirth; something to cleanse us all. I close the door behind me, lock it securely, and begin the walk home. A piece of cake.
Under a piece of tarpaulin, draped inelegantly over a pair of upturned shopping trolleys, we listen to the patter of the rain above us, a pool developing over our shoulders. The damp seeps into our shoes and clothes, our hair is lank and clotted with wet dust. She pops another codeine between chapped white lips as we watch a pointless landscape disappearing into the murk.
As kids we played as a pair alone, long days and evenings, not pausing for breath until we were profusely bleeding into each other. We scrambled over barbed wire fences, took out security cameras with fishing slingshots and lobbed aerosols into the fire, holding our nerve to stand still and feel the white hot ice of glowing shrapnel slicing through our shins and thighs. We pissed in doorways, cuddled under hailstorms and licked each other’s muddy arms until we looked like a pair of half-starved and shaved tiger cubs.
I look across to her now; twenty years older and forty years wiser. The cheekbones are hollow, casting deep pools of shadow like bruises on a fallen apple, but I still see those fresh razors just concealed by puppy fat. The most beautiful faces and bodies are the most lived in – just as the most cosy house has dust in the corners and the smell of old dinners. I put my hand on her bony knee and give it a squeeze. She smiles at me, but I can see the first waves of codeine are assembling with the tails of the previous hit, creating the chaotic confusion of a torrential river flowing out to sea and meeting the incoming tide. I could be a sack of potatoes with a face drawn on them now, so I reflect on our first meeting.
It started with a fight and ended with a sprint. I hadn’t slept in three days, and decided to walk down an alleyway I knew was dangerous. The air was always heavy with musk and rotten things – dead wood, dead plants, dead tarmac; disintegrating animals with ribs protruding outwards like awful flowers. I could feel myself nodding as I drew in the thick miasmic skunk, clinging to my nose hairs and eyelashes when I saw her casually leaning against a lamppost talking to a guy. She was having an argument and had been called a cunt, and her response was inspired; you wish you had a cunt. Cunt’s crush dicks like paper covers stone. Moving her hand from behind her back, I saw a triangle of glass jammed between her middle two fingers. She smiled, cocking her head to one side and said, fist bump? A few seconds later the boy had the glass embedded in his cheek, the silent scream only serving to tear the flesh further apart as bright red juice spilled down his jawline.
As we ran together, I tried to introduce myself but I could only make breathless noises. So from that day on, my name was ‘Tah’, said as though suffering from an asthma attack. We ran past the point of his muffled yelps, beyond the visual sight of the alley, beyond that tree-lined avenue until it was a moment that had never happened. We rested until the stars came out, when the night was dark enough that we didn’t have to retrace our steps and see the trail the boy left as he staggered home.
Reminiscing does none of us any favours though. There’s a reason I tend not to dwell on how we met, and as I look back to that face now finally settling into an agreeably numb groove, the chemicals aligning to form a comfortable compound, it’s hard to imagine what those eyes have seen. I look down at her hand and she’s idly flicking a triangle of broken glass between the gaps in her fingers, back and forth. It’s a dreary day, but she seems happy enough. I pop a pill, wash it down with a polystyrene cup full of cheap vodka, and settle down for an evening of sensory drumming as the rain sprinkles down on our pathetic little tent.
Originally posted on Free Verse Revolution
I’ve been sitting on this icy stone for half an hour watching her swill the endless whisky miniatures, produced from her pocket, around her ulcer pocked mouth. She hisses at the weak sun, and in the cold our breath mingles like clouds colliding before a storm. The sky is barely lit; just a candle covered in dehydrated piss and viewed through a filthy window, but the grass and the sheet metal buildings and the broken down flat fences all feel alive. Even the dead trees kick and stomp under the soil, trying to work their dry roots into the moist holes under the soil.
We’d spent the morning in a burned out car, trying to find the places where our arse bones didn’t pinch on the exposed seat springs, making all the appropriate vrooming noises and twisting wheels both real and imagined. I hadn’t slept in sixteen hours and I’ve seen it all – news footage of melting women, dudes in crystal armour striding through sand, Disney characters sodomising each other with musical notes and treble clefts drifting out of their oversized gaping mouths. Acid is a hell of a drug but it is no substitute for insomnia, carbon monoxide and desperation.
I turn back to those two pinpricks of sheer light, as though God is pacing around inside that beautiful thin cavity flanked by tissue, skin and hair. She smiles something beatific and I don’t care that this burned out husk is staining everything I own and giving me severe asthma. Looking down the patchwork bonnet I see the sun struggling to gain traction, scrabbling to rise and to push through the haze. But I still feel the warmth on my cheekbones. I close my eyes and I see those rays travelling millions of miles to turn my eyelids pink. I feel it on my teeth, as they click and clatter to the cosmic metronome of a chaotic Universe.
When I open my eyes, I come to some fucking hippy realisation about the ongoing transient nature of being – of how there are no endings or beginnings but just the constant force of worlds and stars and comets and particles that cannot stop moving, even when they appear to be standing still. This is not even drug talk, or sleeplessness talk, but an apotheosis. Flanked by rust, dust and ash, and sat next to a drunk angel, I begin to stamp my feet into the ruined carpets pretending that I can still drive this tyreless wreck into the heart of the Sun, where we can disassemble ourselves in the heat and become one single entity, atoms joining in a nuclear fusion where no science can drive us apart.
We leave the car, because I begin to stop breathing. When I tell her she laughs… “You’re beginning to stop doing something?” She helps to carry me across the field to the remains of an old building, now just disfigured lumps of masonry poking out of the grass like broken fingers. It takes me a few moments to collect myself, and I can taste fire and smoke in my throat.
The Sun climbs halfway up the sky, gives up and begins to retreat again. Around us, the thin mist gathers and clings, grabs and devours, and the atoms in my flesh tremble without heat. I lean over and I can smell the whisky on her breath. She’s staring at me dispassionately, her eyelids heavy with drink.
I tell her;
“You are the most important thing to me.”
She sighs, rolls her eyes and responds;
“You always have to ruin things, don’t you…?”
Originally posted on Free Verse Revolution
She keeps me safe in the terrible places. Partly because of her spirit and partly because of the knife jammed into the belt of her jeans; the same cold blade that keeps her grouchy for the first half hour of every meeting until it has met her skin temperature.
We walk down sloganed spray-painted alleyways where rapists fear to prowl, and we stand at the apex between modernity and decay, bordered by a mist that permanently laps across this town like dying tides. On her haunches, wild hair flecked by raindrops and dust, she kisses the nettles flinging themselves desperately out of the concrete until her tongue is blistered white like mould on bread. Planting a triumphant foot on the burned out remains of an old car, we stare down this brick tunnel towards a fetid beige light that hides the brown blood seeping from the disused and dead structures beyond. The only life around here are the black specks that dance around the sickly yellow of streetlights, and the shine in her eyes when there is mischief to be had.
She kisses me, and as her ruined tongue laps around mine I feel the stings still planted in her own. Even as I think about releasing, the warmth around my hips, my chest and my legs draws me in, and just in case I have second thoughts she clamps a hand in the small of my back and presses me closer. As we kiss the tapping grows louder, and soon heavy drops of iron rain, moving on the shoulders of the perpetual miasma, are pounding down on our eyelids.
I want her and I am having her, but I know that I can’t. This is not a chapter reading but a glance at the cover. Releasing herself from me she takes steps backwards, her arms raised out. I feel something warm on my skin and then a sharp itch – she’s slid the knife inside my jeans and left a thin laceration down one buttock. I look left and then right down the alley – empty except for the loud nothingness – as she presses her back against the wall.
The rain gets heavier and behind me, through a chain link fence and a tangle of confused dead trees, the town steams and broils in protest. There are no colours except yellows and browns – even the blackest night skies are coloured in a film of grime. I can smell sulphur and feel the heat through my shoes, as I lick the corners of my mouth and taste the poisons.
She’s against the wall, spread like a crucifix, her fingers splayed out and head thrown back. I go in for another kiss but she plants a firm boot into my groin and pushes me backwards. The graffiti covering the wall is bleeding into her fingers, the faded reds blues and greens now growing bold in the tiny veins under her skin, past her wrist and into her sinewy forearms. Her hair crawls up the bricks, infesting itself like ivy and taking on all the colours around it. She is bleeding the wall dry of its art, of messages and memories. I look her in the eye and I see that they change colour as though flickering through a prism.
I sit down on the floor and cup my hands around the back of my head, because my neck is burning from the deluge above. Her feet are no longer touching the ground but pointed and poised like a ballerina, hovering a few inches above the gnarled path. Colours sap from the wall and bleed through her, processing themselves, and I realise that parts of her are growing fainter. The razor cheekbones are dulling, those shapely thighs less distinct, the hips that shook Paris are now translucent and warp when I move my head. Worst of all, I see that face fading away, the light in those eyes dying out like a pair of lightbulbs coughing and spluttering towards their eventual end. And far from fear or regret, I see contentment in her. I see a person becoming a ghost, becoming a memory, that disintergrates like ancient papyrus exposed to oxygen.