Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Picnic in Bohemia

‘It is absence which commands us to exist’


Mina took a long slow drag on her cigarette as if it was the necessary apparatus to sift through the artificial air of the oft-frequented club – it was the usual accolade of 1950’s London, she could not complain. The lights pulsed dully, intended for atmosphere, like uncertain breaths brushing over the traffic of socialites at the bar, their enhanced hair and painted faces glowing like the human façade in the animal kingdom. She felt sick. Her slot was in 15 minutes, and she attempted composure.

For everything in the room wavered, as if possessed by a kind of sewn-in insecurity. Posters boasting of the freedom to drink and dance were accompanied with the curtail of handing over coinage – so many pounds for a drink, so many for a dance. Life’s pleasures always have a price, Mina thought abstractedly. We have to lose some of ourselves - otherwise they are pleasures no longer. She glanced at the wild smile of some nearby society woman – so happy in that she no longer knew herself – a part of her at the bar, part in bed with a man, another part courted, another part married. It was a glorious human dissection at every social gathering. Mina mused that it was the cheap pot-pourri which attempted to mask the bits of blood, or at least a lust for it.

It was a lust she felt concentrated upon her, every time she stepped onto the stage, all assembled like some extravagant act, and strangely – not  towards her body. Her body just suspended itself – the uneven tone of her legs, her torso nervous and overly-rounded in anticipation of childbearing or a certain tender touch which had never occurred, a waist which caved in with no definition like a blunt knife, all empty. But her voice was somehow infused, almost enchanting.

 She ran her fingers through the crudely cropped blonde hair, and smoothed the strange strands on her dress which stood up pink and obvious like guilt – all the fashion in America, hopefully empty at home. It was not attention she wanted – no, she wished immensely to be back in the room she singularly called ‘home’ and yet was a simple expanse of space owned by someone she did not know and had never met, to whom she paid the rent, and just to stare through the window and let the moment be lost. Not that it was difficult to lose oneself in the club – people were always rapturously, desperately, giving themselves to others – but everything stank of age and experience, the coffee stains resplendent on the tables told of past lies, and lips, and deceit. Old ash glimmered in the cut-glass trays beneath artificial light and stagnant heat.

A masculine voice somewhere to her left announced in the stretched drawl of a synthetic American accent, prompting her forward ‘Mrs Mina True!’

It was the management’s insistence that they would announce her as a married woman, when her actual circumstances were quite the opposite – she had never been married. It was more ‘presentable’ to appear as such, they told her – oh couldn’t she quickly find someone, they asked of her. They told her that audience loved nothing more than a married woman singing about lost love – perhaps they would presume she was a widow and enjoy the absence even more. The awful absence of truth, like the absence she saw in every open eye, the cut, cut, cutting of the clock face in the corner, every dripping night -

As Mina stumbled up to the stage, she wondered what in the room was real –  so many necessities ultimately unnecessary and extravagantly unreal. Humans covering up humanity – sex was taboo, and sweat masked with a scent close to collapse. Of course, humanity happened in private, but in public – these were people, models of excellence. Instigators of quality, who liked wine and cards and pretended to appreciate art.
At a table just next to the arc of the stage sat a middle-aged man with a wizened face fashionable at the time – indicating experience and the expectation of sincerity. His table was ornamented with a dish of empty oyster shells and several blank sheets of paper – one fast between his fingers as if he was inspecting the thickness. He breathed loudly beneath an age-old moustache.

‘’It would be the rocks which would kill her in the end…’ He mused, marking the motions of the words in the air with his free hand, somehow aiming his speech towards Mina with flickering fingers which fell through the air as if imitating a broken body, his words peculiarly spaced. They were resonant in her ears, as if individuals.

‘Excuse me?’ She managed, for she was shy in the social sense, sheepish and inelegant as she stood in front of him.

‘Aw, nothing, nothing,’ He continued, still apparently engaged in thought ‘Just an idea for my new work. I come here to write you know. I like the – ‘

He paused with an outstretched palm in the air.

‘Exhibitionism.’ He finished, almost triumphantly ‘Yes, that’s it. The exhibitionism. Nothing’s too real here, you could picture anything – '

‘Perhaps you should paint then,’ Mina managed by way of departure as she ascended the stage steps hurriedly, avoiding him – just another attempt at another failure, to create something, to make something. Whatever ‘something’ was, she was sure it existed by itself and that moment she was acutely aware that the management – whatever kind of conglomerate that was -  which enjoyed the particulars of it’s times, giving the audience a certain act at a certain minute. She hurried.

When finally upon the stage she was always confronted with the same simmering nausea which tripped the end of her nerves, almost familial with an agonizing regularity, as she gazed down from her elevation into a sea of painted faces beneath painted lights – ladies in their brocade finery, men  assembled as if peeled from packaging with pins and ties and buttons to press them together.  Indeed, the whole room seemed suddenly tense with the need to retain composure. It was the same every time she stood onto the stage, staring down at those cold, hard faces, ugly, almost abstractedly formed heads, bringing time back to her, back to her… . Memories suddenly flooding of how, once, she had stood on a stage of her very own, eerily distant like a half-set dream, and how she had stared and stared at the tongues of water below. She thought so strongly that that was what ‘something’ was – it was ‘something’ to die when to live was empty. Absurd – how people searched life for it! She remembered standing, the wind slicing her sides as she knew it would be the rocks which would kill her in the end.

Not herself. No, she was not even permitted the identity of her own death, suicide– to ‘commit’ anything or even ‘commit to’ anything still had the connotations of crime. It had not ended, just as the singing never ended, and the dancing, and the made-up human assembly – they all dragged on as her feet had dragged her away from the cliff and back to the ‘home’ which meant nothing, and the layers of old love letters and the immediacy of cold water and all the other things people believe it necessary to live. For everyone says life must be composed of ‘something’…

It was with these thoughts, of the past, that she began to sing. She sang of heartbreak, of lost love. For she had lost love before, that was why it was so significant. Everyone wants to see the gaping wound, stand with staring eyes upon the still smarting flesh, the thickened rawness  of the treble notes which everyone applauded as if eager to aggravate the injury. Her body was insignificant, her voice went on, a voice pierced with desire, how she yearned for the solace of human touch, how she had lost, how her thoughts became wild and time increasingly distinct, and drilled and drained her. Her heart coursed beneath her ribs, her mind looked on blankly, stared into the voice so rich and bloody. She shrilled the last few lines of the world not letting her love, or something like that, and stumbled quickly from the stage. The women in the audience sitting at the little glass tables inevitably with a dry Martini and a man’s hand firmly round their waist clapped ravenously– for how they loved to see someone without! It was a treat for them, the high-fliers, the lucky audience in the unfair trial. Flurry after flurry of hands in the awful velvet of the air, little lights of cut-diamond rings glinted sickly in the half-darkness.

‘She even cried!’ One of the ladies declared confidentially, affably to another, over the long steel finger of her cigarette holder.

But Mina could hardly recall what she had done – all she wanted was the horrible cold confirmation of money in her hand and the absence so many waited for – sleep. Her feet seemed to unfurl with every step like a thick human weight between the hardened rain of female glances and bodies passing each other non-committal and cold in the night. Just as she was down from the stage, rustling and dragging like a bird caught with a bullet – a young man approached her, emerging from somewhere on the left with an excited step.
‘You were really swell!’ He gushed, though the flush of amiability in that young face and the composure of his neat hands hurt her. A touch she would never know, a voice she may hear in one singular  instant and then only ever in memory – for she was used to people becoming immaterial before her, coming, going, no true meaning. Dark hair and piercing eyes framed her.

He leaned closer, as if in confidence – always and ever-assumed -  so she felt the dry heat of his breath against her cool neck like the pressure of fine jewellery on an open throat. His hands were moving closer.
‘Let me buy you a drink. You know, you were really something.’

She knew herself as nothing. She shook her head with the precision of an oft-performed action.
‘No,’ she replied, quickly, deliberately ‘If I was something, they wouldn’t applaud like that.’
He looked at her questioningly.

‘People would rather see someone with nothing than with something, otherwise they don’t see someone anymore.’ She hurried, adjusting the shoulders of her dress as she spoke ‘Audiences like absence – it’s humanity they don’t have.’

She glanced round emphatically at the piles of coloured crêpe and napkins and balloons - their torturous hues glowering as if attempting to make up for their emptiness. Mouths open and empty, and in an attempt to fill them – bowls empty, glass empty, a horrid human emptiness shrieking over and over…

‘I’ve got to go,’ She muttered, by way of departure. Every explanation was accompanied with departure.
She felt the clammy fingers of exhaustion around each wrist, easing deliberately behind the lid of each eye, her whole head. For she was heavy, as if swollen with monotony and inevitably of another day, pulling the stones of attempt for human contentment, jagged, desperate -

The rocks which would kill her in the end.






Friday, 19 July 2013

In tribute to The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner

I have been running for as long as I can remember.

From being a fickle, what could be called unfortunate, child with nervous limbs and stubborn thighs which seemed so contrary to the rest of the little girls – I have been running. The hot physical thud of footfall on concrete seemed at the time, and still does now, the only kind of confirmation needed. I run metaphorical too. My hands run across sheet after sheet of paper, drawing, writing, making at least some kind of impression to be remembered by. I do not know whether I want to die. When the running becomes hard and the heart hits the back of your throat like a closed fist – it feels pretty comfortably close, and I tell myself I like that.

There was a pain too, which I thought the compact heat and strain of running would melt down to nothing. I am only a young woman now and yet I still feel it beneath my ribs – a gnawing, exhausting ache as if a balloon has been painfully, slowly inflated in a tight vein. It is the worst at night, and thus consequently, that is when I run the most.

Even at 5 am, you may see me running.  There is something mildly comforting of  running through the early morning  which flickers in front the face like a kind of perforated black crepe, and I – the lone funeral marcher following the greasy coffin of existence. Because even then – everything starts to move. I watch foxes dart into the undergrowth as the consonant stream of cars begins to accumulate, shuttling unfortunate individuals to some despised flavour of monotony. The steely neutrality of routine often scares me, and when it does, I let my footfalls fall uneven on the floor as I run – I become the disjointed pulse on the pavement next to the efflorescent tarmac artery.

But it has no effect. Day after day – cars still shuttling just the same. Starched-looking secretaries perched in front of steering wheels they never seem to make much use of – just hot sharp movements, every so often. I attempt to follow a certain car sometimes, as if warped red of its rear lights offers some kind of solace. But it course it moves away – everything moving.

It may be about 8am and I could still be running – the time when sweat starts to anoint the limbs like a kind of mesh, the tongue crawling to any moisture in the palette like a desperate mollusc. The Thump, thump, thump on the road. The vague echo of the heart. The occasional stare of someone at the wheel – a quick flush of blood. And when the respiratory system begins to protest, blood thumping in the ears – endurance is often out.

At this time, it is usually the case for some car driver or another.  There  is usually some sense of carcass to run past – the flaming end of some vehicle with human bodies emerging like bloody little fireworks. The only time the cars slow voluntary – their strange behaviour, like observing wild animals. The maniacal stares of those still alive, newly-driven by the vision that they can contribute some story to the office, if they get there. No one looks at the foliage beside the road, no one observes that there may be far greater miracles in nature than the human detritus of a car torn in two.

It is often the case that journalists materialise, attracted to the nearest available chaos.

‘Did you see what happened?’

‘Gee, the whole thing’s on its side!’

‘You fancy giving us a few words love?’

 I have no words to give. I always ignore them, evade their greasy clot of taboo and tobacco with a swing of the shoulder and onto the grass verge. If it is anything near 9 am, my pace will have increased.

I continue running, even after this. Sometimes I feel I could reach a point no longer quite human, the springs of the body worn down to their original metal, folding into a form of empty androgyny. I would not have to think. I would not have to go home and take pills and food and advice  and whatever other addition to life people would recommend to me. For there is nothing really to drive me forwards or backwards. The cars continue in their concentric circles, and I run, a thump, thump, thump on the tarmac, a sound which almost overcomes the human heart. 

That is all – I am truly nothing more. It must be every day I pass the houses of people who believe they have something. If it is the evening – lights linger confidentially below the blinds, inviting perhaps only the imagination in longing – for there will sit families talking excitedly over dinner, couples cradling each other as if regressed to children, people talking and talking into the night. My arms envelop only the endless air as I run and run. Exhaustion is not even a sensation – it is a kind of company, a company which prevents the smell of fear condensing over the skin. Sometimes I run as if my life depends on it – hunted. Sometimes I run as if I have no life to give.

At 11pm you may see me running – life rolls on. Girls spilling out of dresses sprawl over the arms of young men in the public walkways, boisterous and filled with beer. But no one ever questions the person running. I pass by like an object of indifference, the missile which will never hit, the lapsed athlete. Even when tears are running, the only time the runner is noticed is when they stop; when the body finally unfurls that white flag seen in the stressed flesh and wild eyes of exhaustion. But that is not often.

I wonder occasionally  if I will  ever be the centre of the flare – if people will stop to look at me for any other reason. Whether they will look at the girl who attempts to shift the frozen blood through her limbs in a desperate gesture of continued movement – pounding feet, calves, thighs, the nausea embedded deep in the gut.  Sometimes another runner runs past fleetingly, like an endangered species – and we wonder, if we too, will be part of that orgiastic light which suspends human attention thick in the iris.

It is true we run much slower when we are dragging lives behind us.

I do not know. I keep running, and even though I reach home and the pain still continues, I will keep running.

Sometimes I turn and see myself behind, screaming. And that is why I cannot return, for there is nothing. 

Colour like a death

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” 
― Anaïs Nin



The letter landed loudly on the ceramic tiles under the letterbox like a bird killed with one bullet. She squeezed her eyes shut at the sound.

Mara had been writing for months, as if compounding wings from paper in an attempt to escape the desperate monotony of existence. She attempted to write away the days, slamming the curtains shut as if sunlight was a wound attempting to seep through a bandage, finishing some kind of solace in the darkness – Icarus and his waxen wings had been consumed by the sun, she knew that, and she could not bear her fragility. In the strange half-darkness the paper did not stare up at her quite as blankly. A crawling exhaustion greased her limbs as she groped forward to reach the letter, her bare feet rustling on the floor.
The letter was from a publisher. Another rejection – she could tell by the hollow, depleted note with which the it had fallen. The envelope gave way easily, as if it had been sealed passionlessly with the lips rather than the hopeful tongue. Ah, she knew it well – the loose envelope, the barely marked sheet inside. Her eyes scanned knowingly over the computerised words of artificial encouragement – and then the line – ‘Interesting, but perhaps you would benefit from injecting some more colour into your writing’.
This took her rather aback. It was the most personal sentence she had seen in all her rejections – not entirely artificial, not reconstituted words from some senseless system. But what could she do about it? Her stories were set in an immersion of black and white – young men and women in the 1920s who spoke colourless words to save on silence, watched some empty black and white comedies together, courted over the inevitable cold colour scheme of the piano. It was a society Mara imagined she would like to be in – knife-sharp, with the cutting clarity of illegal alcohol swigged from disguised decanters and the fashionable nature of insanity.

Injecting some colour onto her writing?

An empty sheet of paper lay bare as a bone on her writing desk – as it had done for the last week. In that way she had attempted to convince herself that simply staring at the paper may result in some sense of sudden artistic discovery, wholly beneficial. But to inject some colour? She crossed to the corner cabinet and plucked an orange from the top drawer. In the greasy pallor of the room it weighed upon her palm like a stone, and she thought of how inside it contained millions of spiracles of moisture, the very moisture which could break the dry fineness of all around her. It was repulsive.

As was the thought of natural light. She told herself that to open the curtains would not allow colour, only allow access for a terrible shrieking white, which she shrank from. For she was not pure, she knew. Her right wrist ached as she searched through drawers, files, footstools in a kind of panic to find some permeating colour – rifling through napkins curled like long grey invertebrates , sequins which shone like the last gasps of cigarette smoke. It was useless. Bananas and apples mulched in the paper-bin, rotten black to the core.
She threw herself abstractedly into her writing chair, working the nib of the fountain pen between her fingers in a frustrated fashion. What to write, what to write.  The lingering light at the base of the window blinds gave the furniture of the room the countenance of cold steel. She shuddered, the pen flick, flick, flicking against her thumb. Her heart drumming, the mind desperately filtering, thinking – the wind outside snapped into a long hoot of laughter.

There was a silence, there was always silence. Then with a sudden realisation, the pen drew not the craft of words, but blood, the nib somehow catching the corner of her thumb. She stared at the mounting droplet with a familiar apathy, the rich red nothing more than black through tired eyes. It was not enough and she felt nothing. All that nothingness, lifelessness, as she paced to the bathroom – the lightless hall presented a facade of false proportions like a bloated gullet, her thumb smarting through skin nowhere near innocent.  The faucet spat as she started to rinse the blood, her nostrils assaulted with the funereal stench of lilies, now skeletal, which had once bloomed thick and ugly beside the sink.

The bath glittered in the corner of her eye – the ornate marble coffin, staring open in a lidless magnificence, like an assaulted eye. So white, so cold! But this gave her an idea. The bath plug clinked in like the final stopper against any unnecessary thought, the taps unfurled like slender steel arms with surprisingly little resistance. Begrudgingly, she ran a deep expanse of lukewarm water, reaching through the ruffling bathroom blinds to open the window slightly in order to dissipate the steam. The wind licked her damp palms. She was glad for the familiar darkness once the window was open but the blind back to buffering all light. She hate steam forming – it was like extra flesh.

Languishing shadows seemed to curl against small currents in the bath water as she lowered herself into it, her thin cotton dress clinging to her like a child about to be drowned. Her eardrums started to shriek as she sunk in by her neck, her shoulders, her head. For the utter immersion in water was beautiful, as if seeping oneself in a sheer mirror, she thought as her chest flamed and open eyes strained upwards to the shadows feeding tentatively at the surface of the water. Everything so alive together! Each palm was pressed down by ineradicable human weight – perhaps loneliness, some kind of sadness which would have made her laugh if she had been able to open her mouth. The water prised at her lips, stroked against the saturated softness of a skin like a desperate lover. It was the hard eyes, the head firm on the surface of the bath, which said wait – waiting, waiting, as the heart slammed sluggishly in the chest, breaths attempting, cutting short, seething at the back of the throat, the beating of blood in the ears, nose, beneath the beautiful searing cold. The long, slow, sifting of water, heavy as a whole human hand around her throat, speaking like one clean shriek through either ear, opening the old wounds – of mind of body, of all. And then suddenly, utterly, the colours swam into her vision – innumerable circles of bright, bursting lights, seeping, bleeding. She shot up. Sleek with water, she ran as she was to the writing desk. Colour, so much colour, colour like a death.

Only it was perhaps too much.

She had to write, to write, she sat squirming, quivering, the pen like a liquid between the fingers, to write, to write…

Searing strange cold. She slumped over the writing desk, the unwrapped orange seeping against her damp skin.  Old, ornate hours embraced her, an obelisk of artistry, the quiet statute with blue lips and open eyes, bare breast and a heavily marked wrist. The wind crept through the bathroom window and scattered the curtains like its own kind of confetti. And there on the floor – the immoveable tissues about her seeped a rich, raw red. The pen was somehow stained, the floor covered, the page empty. 


She had been searching for colour all this time. 

Thursday, 18 July 2013

In response to reality

“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” 
― Akira Kurosawa

I take coffee black – concentrated matt dark which gives me no hassle of a reflection. It is a usual routine, though some may call it unusual – we all have our own patterns I guess. I sit staring through the frosted crepe covering over the apartment window. I like to leave the window covered like that, the lacy trim almost a veil through which I can look at the outside world and feel pure and chaste, like a bride bundled into a ceremony over which she has no control. That is how we all operate, I guess. All part of one great ceremony. On the street below, people clot in a human saturate of confetti. I will have stared long enough for the coffee to go cold, for my eyes to focus, so that the piercing wakening white of the box-room is nothing more than a dirty beige. We notice the truth after a while.

I have been practising to smile. The mirror invites me – drawing the confused animal to the sheet of pure water – and I practice, curling my thin lips upwards, forging a façade of reassurance. Of course it is artificial – everything in the damn room is artificial, the light which seeps slowly like the matter from behind a bandage and permeates my senses sore, the plastic window plants which boast of their eternity, the toast which lies untouched on the plate like a piece of exhausted earth. I haven’t much appetite these days, for I am gorged with memories. I lie awake at nights, embryonic, squeezed into such a position in which I can imagine a pair of arms around me. Just for the sake of being alive.

But existence is the definition of loneliness and I am trapped in time – endless time which does not even need to unfurl itself amidst the artificial light, and sound, and occasional synthetic smells of some microwave meal from another room. It is difficult to be implicit, though I am usually quiet. Sometimes I imagine that I have been kidnapped, that I am kept in this room by someone who is utterly transfixed, captivated by me, watching me, holding me in this way which is hardly physical. I do not like to think that this is my existence, mediated by myself, for I am such a waste. I can take whole days in my hands and tear them to nothing.

The dry drum of my heart confirms that I have to continue. I rinse the remaining coffee down the steel sink, watching intently as the harsh black liquid dilutes and dissipates to a quivering grey. We are all diluted in some way – spread to hideous expanses in order to work, to operate. I start at 9 am, the official time I am reckoned to begin as a human being. I do not tend to wear very much when I first wake up, for that way I can stand as I think an artist’s model would do, imagine flesh and bone invested with a life of charcoal and graphite – most likely feeling much more than I do now. I do not look at my body as I put on my clothes. Tears waver tauntingly on the edge of my eyes but I dig my nails into my cheek to stop them, hold everything still. I feel numb.

Sometimes I enjoy feeling very little – I float between the hours in the kind of ecstasy. That way, an approach can be entirely medicinal – the array of scattered sheets over the single bed now an open wound with the skin scored back. I think it looks beautiful. Sometimes I wish I could take pictures, just pictures of here in my apartment so I can send them away to some distant art school and say something like ‘THIS IS MY LIFE.’  That is all.

But I don’t. in the mirror my face swims into view, some kind of terrible reminder. It has scarred cheeks and eyes which seem to grapple with the flesh for some kind of exposure. I apply face cream, foundation, powder, foundation again – working in short sharp concentric circles, slowly sifting, skimming, building - -if only to hide myself for a few hours. I hear a man screaming at his wife next door, followed by that undeniable dull thud of physical violence. I hear it every day, pulsing in my own ears, straight through my chest like a tight fist. And it doesn’t stop, no matter how hard I try. It is like a course of mockery.

I wonder why I have to live, why I was chosen to live. The red lipstick I slick over my lips like a lie seems so absurdly alive, throbbing, almost arterial. It makes a nice clean cut between both cheeks, I decide. That is the wonder with cosmetics – I ease life back into my face, some rouge or another beaming over bone, so I can blend back into the lines of acceptability. People will smile and nod at me and I say I look well, and I will probably mirror their behaviour back and everyone will smile or at least pretend to smile and we will feel convinced that we have done something right. Ha. Ha. Ha.

I don’t think many people want to live in the human sense. The perfume pools in the nape of my neck as I spread it hurriedly – we all try to cover that horrible salt scent of human existence some way or another. I laugh. A horrible puncturing sound  – as if a foul animal has been suddenly uncaged. A horrible red row of mouth grins back at me.  Ha. Ha. Ha.

When I throw my make up into my bag there is a comforting metallic click, somehow preparatory. I look at the calendar, pull the knife from the drawer. Mark another day clear. Wipe my wrist clean. Pull down my sleeves.

It is time to head for work. I look back on my apartment in confusion as if I am no longer the inhabitant, for how alien it looks, the strange furniture of existence spreading miserably in its confinement! I cannot remember when I last cleaned it properly – it just lies there like as soiled body, gaping and miserable. It is pleasant to have control over something, like torture of the aesthetic sense. One day, if I have the energy, I will buy a great number of cheap prints on canvas which do not correspond so I can smile bitterly at these stupid four walls in their injury.

Of course I choose the shoes I struggle the most to walk in. For females flutter about the wards like insects, constrained in some kind of secret male ideal – it gives the patients something to watch. Somehow like walking upon needles, waiting for the familiar jar into flesh. As I walk the jar, jar, jar of my breath. The hospital is only across the courtyard. I am two minutes early. At least.

The double  doors smack back against the walls of the hallway like a pistol.

I am met with the sterile stares of other synthetic staff members – for we are all the same, though no one thinks of admitting it. I wish that I had stayed in bed, practised the art of my preservation of hours, seeing how long I could lie perfectly, cleanly still – slowly shifting the thoughts from my mind, every mechanism, in the hope that there would be nothing left. But I haven’t. There are so many things I have not done – for I am weak.

A new patient on the ward is in my care. Her eyes barely register as I slide in front of her cubicle curtain.
I tell her ‘Good morning’, but I know that’s a lie. As I take her temperature, the explanatory laceration purpling the throat like a necklace is inches away from my fingers. I want to ask her – how did you come to think of doing it? Did you write anything down before you tried?  I wonder how it felt, I wonder if you did it so you could finally feel something, so you could see the vision that has haunted you all your life become an array of coloured circles and stars and a beautiful pressure – for I should know because I’ve seen it. .. –

She stares up at me and I am lost mid-thought. In her eyes lies a strength, a steely determination I could  never grasp myself. For I am only here, just as everyone else is, because I need something to channel my madness into. We hold these people, under an act, under steel beds and straight-jackets, we hold them with the desperation of children. We let them personify our madness.

I choke on the emptiness and pretend a hasty exit to get some psychological papers. I go to stand at the window. It is a beautiful height and the people in the streets below clot like confetti. They have all jumped too, some way or another.



Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Waiting

For do we ever think of the machine we live in, die from?

It was one of those mid-winter days where the sun begins to coagulate in the sky mid-afternoon, turning the sky to sickly pallor before finishing in a bruise of black by 4pm. Beth began to notice this as she was finishing her lunch-time shift in the restaurant – the absurdity of the time of year where people consumed food endlessly into the day, clutching comfort where they could get it!

She threaded between the tables under the incessant stare of artificial orange light and the twisted paraphernalia one may manage to associate with Italy when under the influence of alcohol. Plates were stone cold in her hands as she lifted away the finished meal from the table of an elderly couple – a meal that looked barely different from when she had served it. The strange empty eyes of the old man, the shrunken skin hanging against the jaw, made her want to cry. A young couple argued at an adjacent table, the clockwork gesticulations of their hands seemingly  attempting to compensate for empty words – such horrible desperate gestures! Gestures drawn by thick sluggish pulses of blood and wine mulching in the veins like a sickness.
She had had enough. Enough of the forced façade people had fastened to their faces – the whole room seemingly an exhibition of synthetic sympathy. It made her sick! Sick as she heard the regular Click, click, click – from the wall-clock perhaps, or the sharp shocks of knife in the kitchen, splitting the heads from spring onions in a bitter execution. Only ten minutes left. Damp hands shook in the fold of her apron.
Ten minutes of waiting. She wanted to open her mouth and ask them – what am I actually waiting for? Am I waiting for you to fill my life with some menial activity so I can feel money cold in my palm and go home to return again? Am I waiting for you? Am I waiting to say the anticipated words at anticipated times and mirror your gesticulations so you feel safe? Do you want me to wait, dripping with cordiality?

Seething, she cleared away the detritus from the corner table – the table where a young woman had sat by herself all evening, eating with painstaking slowness like a kind of sacrilege, poised like she had been preserved amidst the strange sour smell of vinegar. Beth remembered how the red wine had stained the woman’s lips – appearing, from a distance, to be a slick incision scoring between pale cheeks. The cutlery was eerily clean. Beth picked up a napkin smeared damp with mascara, crumpling it into the bin. She wondered why people visited restaurants in that grand old exhibition of public life, as if affirming that they had a kind of self-consciousness, operated like others. For everyone seemed so unhappy.
A birthday cake coated in candles emerged from the back – it seemed to drip flames, circulating the restaurant interior. The illuminated boast – look who’s survived another year!  Manic applause and laughter, horribly cavernous smiles to cover the unrepentant sadness which slid through the blood as coarse as salt.

Those who looked especially unhappy were those who would usually ask for their meat ‘rare’ – as if they envied some mistaken form of exclusivity, desired some strange sense of identification. What of the identity of flesh and blood and grease and sweat?

Very little. Beth supported soiled plates against her chest like a porcelain doll, taking them mechanically to the back of the  restaurant where a boy, not much older than herself, would clean them. It was strange how so few seemed to think about his task – his hands against the saliva of speech, coursing away those empty words and teeth-marks. His fingers flexed in the water is as if stirring a vat. Beth turned and choked her apron against the whitewash in its own noose. She had 4pm leave to return by 6pm. There was no comment from anyone – just table after table of greying skin like some dreadful metaphorical tapestry, the clash of glass being scoured, the choking gasp of hot oil left too long in the pan, lobsters screaming.
Outside, the sky was still slightly flecked with cobalt and instead of walking, she ran.

The restaurant was some kind of highly-idolised, rural composition for those who had convinced themselves they were passionate about location, having lost self-location long ago. For those couples with cavernous cars they could use to construct some idea of identity – parked row after row like new-shined coffins. Beth crossed behind the restaurant over a stile and into a field. The grass cast against her legs, almost serpentine, an endless dark mass in the dying light opened up languorously like liquid. Silence was treasured, and here it glistened as it seemed to sink her to the ground, her hands crystalline with dewdrops as she lowered her head onto the earth.

Staring upwards, the magnificent expanse of sky domed like an arched spine. How everything pulsed and throbbed – these terrible organs of the world! All flashing lights and loss and screams! The blood pounding through her ears, the occasional click of the pheasant, the throbbing lungs crackling as if sifting ice from the chill air. She hated herself – for having eighteen years of experience and still not knowing why she felt such inerasable sadness, a sadness which would smite as if sewn through tissue.

Her body lay heavily whilst the ground seemed to force upwards, like in her suspension she was amidst some terrible conflict which strived to crack her ribs apart. Her tongue trilled against her teeth as if nervous in the hiatus, anticipating hysteria. For the World cannot cope with those who stop, that was what she told herself as her work clothes became saturated against her back, beyond any form of identification, the body clotted inside a single skin. Cocoon-like, a chrysalis. Tears trembled like globes to decorate the cheeks. It was as if a weight brooded in each half-open palm, fixed to the vague texture of the earth usually scored only by footfalls and floodlights.

The stars peered through the black bandage of the sky like poorly shrouded puncture wounds. For the whole thing was rotten, she knew. Her mouth opened in a half-cry as if to taste the sudden seep of silence, the hot salt of the advancing evening in which people may hold each other, some image, anything to flee like desperate animals the immeasurable pulse of loneliness which continuously creeps over unassuming flesh.
She thought of the cries in the restaurant, the exclamative assertions announcing ‘I’m so happy!’. How bitterly she laughed, how she laughed as she felt something so cold and beautiful against her palm, the arms of the night flexing towards her mouth. It could have been hours, she let the earth cradle her like a corpse. There was an annihilating cold.

A group of cows huddled softly, gently in one corner of the field, their long eyelashes brushing the bottom lids with an eerie regularity, keeping their gaze cautiously, almost tenderly.
Beth rose, for she knew she had to return the restaurant – to return to the instrumental, the sprockets and springs with the desired femininity of consumer efficiency. Nothing more than a pylon, throbbing a few fields away, dully, numbly. Why had she been given the capacity to feel? Granted the capacity to hurt like some great greased weight?  The wood of the stile was a bare bone beneath damp hands, a human skeletal arrangement for some  kind of convenience.

She staggered into the restaurant – the thickened air of forfeited joviality swam through her nostrils, the familiar persuasive sedative. The Click, click, click like the strange sideward motions of securing ammunition, lock, trigger. Beth put a hand to her head. To her left, another waitress sat entwined on the bar stool  -  some ornate ornament, adding  to the complimentary furniture.


The fork had stopped halfway to her mouth. The meat seeped, still pink.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Artistry

A short story inspired by Sir John Everett Millais' painting 'Ophelia'.











Artistry

Love is incompatible with life. The wish of two
people who truly love one another is not to live together but to die together.’
– Aldous Huxley, ‘Chrome Yellow’.



For he could not say he only painted for himself, that would be incorrect.
But Reve painted as himself, coursing acrylic over canvas in the hope that one day his artwork, and the fragments of himself within it, would be noticed. He was still young, body taut with that fibrous nervous energy eager to display something of itself.

He did not necessarily understand what people wanted – for he was only the artist. He would assemble himself next to the waterfall, or undergrowth, or whatever object was to be of interpretation and feel the air harden around him. He always painted in a kind of suspense, as if searching for a mechanism of life that was still missing, applying paint like a vacuous gauze healing some indecipherable wound. He liked silence, albeit in the right places, and although this shone through his artwork – people were not contented. At shows people searched his paintings for something meaningful to them, staring until paint seeped to a haemorrhage which meant only injury for him, and their departure – often home to find some source of comfort, the televised news telling of the latest person to die. That was normality.

His paintings, apparently, were not.  He attempted to paint closer to humanity, to encapsulate some kind of constructed meaning in his brushwork – railways, roads, bridges. The grass verge would weep against his knees as he knelt like another sacrificial victim to a life dedicated to decadence – the selling of one’s art, pressing brush desperately to the canvas with a movement close to indecency. On the hottest days, the sweat spooled from his brow and stung his eyes; his dark hair became plastered to his skin like an act of preservation and lay thick with salt.  It was like a prostitution of the lowest kind- the dust kicked back in his throat as a reprise, for living his life by means of touch. Abertha attempted to help him – the young woman who had once seen love in his eyes rather than his art, and had followed him, helped him.  Her house was only some meaningless distance away, though her true abode was inside the sinuous depths of her mind, in what she considered as devotion. She would sit and watch the intricacy of his work in a kind of ecstasy, knowing that he may even be inspired in being the object of love, and taking this as consolation.

It was rare, however, that people touched his life. He would not let them – if money touched his palm, then that was enough. For the cold air was his company, how it flavoured his hours!  Perhaps he would be considered a Dionysus of his time – he thought fondly that he might make the Papers, a kind of headline, so to speak. He and the newspapers both searched desperately for something to uncover in a quest of appalling self-consciousness. Abertha stopped him from uncovering himself.

Yet e knew he had to paint closer to humanity, where people became more sceptical, more cruel. Alcohol became a kind of sustenance for the long nights and the empty days – he had taken to painting landscapes at night, considering that his paints had darkened with age – and thus he would linger over monochrome nights with shrouded stars. The little paints opened greasily like canopic jars as he worked frustrated hands over some half-carcass in oil on the easel.

It was at one artists fair or another,  someone seemed to notice the effect of these old paints on a sun-warped watercolour of last year.

‘Say, son, is that the bridge over near the train station?’ He gesticulated bluntly.

Recognition. Reve nodded a hasty affirmative.

The man continued to stare at the painting, almost angrily, the jowls of his face heavy and soiled with grey bristles and scepticism.

‘Well’ He began bitterly ‘You have it all wrong – it’s nothing like that. Why so cold, so angular? It’s people like you who give art a bad name.’

Reve remembered the cold fluidity of that remark just as he remembered the accumulating abuse – the mounting distaste headed towards his work. People hated to see the monuments they passed every day defaced. Perhaps it was the only happiness in their miserable lives – the objects they could interpret themselves.

What the public wanted was to see was people – and art their means of imprisonment. Everyone enjoys a show. Even Reve’s mother had liked paintings of country families to be put up in the kitchen, the little worn figures handling rough grain or cloth – ‘Makes you feel so much better about your own life’, she would say often ‘Just look at their faces’.

Reve liked male faces best. The meticulous contours of bone and skin, intricacy of the jaw, the border of the collarbone. He had given what felt like all his love away to a standing male nude at college, leaving the art he had inside him  numb and mechanical. Male friends would emerge from those days occasionally, to come back and see him, placing their high society hands on what still felt like the shoulders of a boy. He felt ashamed – how he could never ask to paint them! How he would never caress to life the delicate porcelain of the neck, the silk of the tie, the cold hard lips which mocked him in their artistry. They were far away now, distant, resplendent bodies to be cats in marble as the very model of a man.

Two years and he had made so little – made no money, no name, no recognition. The cigarette quieted him like a finger against his lips. He had to paint someone; the inevitable tragedy of humanity people lusted over. It would have to be Abertha, he concluded, twisting the cigarette to stunned  silence against cut-glass. He could taste the ash in his mouth.

*

People consumed women in art, this he knew.

It was almost November when he asked Abertha if he could paint her, the formal proposal of roles – he the artist, and her the object. The utter intensity of her sad smile pained him, the strange meticulous wringing of her hands. For how she wanted to be a woman to him! And he was only the artist – his cold, astringent movements perfunctory in his task.

He wanted to paint her in water – for how tragedy seeped from flesh so close to utter immersion! She agreed with everything he said, for her voice was decadent, obedient, in any kind of response to him; she watched with concern the exhausted fluttering of his eyelids – eyelids like paper shutters over slightly grizzled cheeks. He knew, and yet he did not want to. All he wanted was to paint and for it to be over.
The body had to display something of itself.

He chose a whitewashed outbuilding adjacent to the cottage he shared with his mother as the site for his work – as it was in the outbuilding the light struggled against the mere incisions of windows, leaving the room almost soaked in the pallor of sleep. This weighed heavy in his mind as he bailed water into the old bath tub , a relic perhaps preserved from watering the cattle years ago, so ultimately striking – like shell or bone, it had laid there, untouched for years. It was almost like chaste skin for the water to be encapsulated in, the water he let run through his fingers like speech. It was lukewarm. He imagined the body laid within it – pure and clean as a young man, the desperate beauty of innocence, like Shelley who had drowned so long ago. A truly male idyll, the incessant pulse of the tide against those strong masculine forms ‘LOST AT SEA’, water sealing a skin already so white in a kind of completion in his mind.

But what people wanted as a female model.
                              
He had told Abertha to arrive early in the morning, just after he had filled the bath at dawn. It was the time when the light was languorous, still infused with the bruise of the sky, and thus mingled a darkness he so desired. She wore the white dress he had given her, a dress which enshrouded her like a cold crepe, mixing with the contours of her body until she became almost a pattern – a pattern with wide eyes and a shock of long red hair. How pale she was! She stood in front of him, bare feet upon the cold floor, mercilessly naked apart from the single shroud of gown.

‘Where shall I stand?’ Her voice emerged tentative, as if held and released from her small white hands.
He hadn’t told her about the water! It had completely evaded his mind amidst the array of things – the long nights scoring the paintbrush across pages and pages like a knife, writing desperately, feeling his hair thin and watching his eyes fade. Watching the healthy young things thread the street. Was it shame he felt? He dared not hesitate. He told her.

And she said nothing, only smiled slightly as she stepped into the bath – immersing her feet in the thin layer of water like entering a perfect mirror, watching it lap at her ankles, slowly sitting. A sense of admiration flooded her heart, several sharp shocks rippled along her spine. And it was the artist, the artist who laid her back in the water with his palm cradling her head – she giving herself in complete cold surrender to him as she lay, the water covering all but her face, the back of her head on the base of the bath. Her hands were turned upwards in offering, palm lines firmly, almost disturbingly deep. The crucified figure in the cold. The drowned poet. He tried to avoid the tenderness in her eyes as he withdrew from his preparations and began to paint.

*

The painting process took many weeks – morning after morning of the same routine, her submission, a different kind of beauty by the day. Over the time, her skin settled to a more translucent hue, he admired the thin telling expression of her lips, the angular cast of her bones like a boys. He traced, his hands ached, felt the reassuring burn of alcohol against his lips. And she laid for him, felt his eyes pass over her, imagined emptily, numbly.

Over easel he coursed oil, acrylic, scored on the dress like a second skin which seemed almost melted into the flesh, the strange protrusions of the chest he traced in charcoal. For there, on the white spread under his fingers, he desired the painted body of a slight young man. But not yet. He sighed, departing from the picture as if breaking away from that hot physical grasp of a lover. Kneeling by the bath, he spread out Abertha’s long red hair about her, unfurling through the water, plastering her hands, cast against her neck. The hair was cold and saturated in his hands like a whole human weight, slippery, serpentine.

By the end of the third week, he finished sketching the body, the hair.

She would lie, gazing up at him, a thinning chrysalis preserved in the clearest amber. For what they shared, she knew, was the intimacy of silence, the whole body of water solid at each side of her head, over her hands, her feet. Preserved in absolution, and the paintbrush, as she could see it – flicking, forking, turning – as if wiring her very frame. She gazed up at him from a beautiful annihilating cold.

Yet in the fourth week she did not arrive.

He laughed with disbelief at first – perhaps she was tired, perhaps like the last leaves of the artichoke her energy had fell in a kind of exhaustion. Maybe she hated him – he could not know by now. It was on the second day of waiting when the light began to fade, he knew he must continue alone – all the sketching completed and just the hair to paint. Her hair scarred each iris as if it had bled into his very hands, lingering on his fingers like lashing red ropes – the shocking red, how it projected the searching desperate nature of her eyes! He bit his dry lips nervously. In the garden a peacock gave a scream like a flash of pain as it alighted the fence with disjointed motions, unhinged and horrible. He wondered when he had last eaten, stopped wondering.

The red like a heart encased deep in the chest! The red of a poppy swollen heavy with opium! He searched his box of paints frantically – lingering over the greasy grey emulsions. His weary eyes tinged his vision pink in a kind of mockery – if only he could concentrate the colour, squeeze his very soul into it, a horrid, frantic externalisation of arduous emotion! He searched the old chests of drawers in the out-building with quivering fingers – pulling them apart into skeletal heaps, coursed the floor, even filed through the house, scrabbling, searching. Smashed the medicine cabinet - Crushed tablets in a desperation of colour, watched them fizz against his fists in a portrayal of artificial anger. The sunset mocked him through a sky of thick cobalt. His sight mocked him. In the outbuilding – the last shot of sunlight mocked him as it cast a red-thick rainbow over a glass tile. He could taste the ash in his mouth.

*

 ‘Crazy, just crazy,’ The Chief Inspector shook his head in a heavy kind of disbelief. ‘We’ve found one girl dead with hypothermia just this week, and now this –'

The police investigation found him several days later – after all, it takes a considerable time to wonder on the actual circumstances of an artist.

Reve’s body was still slumped over his easel, appearing to have fallen onto a glass tile, his palm seemingly spread to take the impact. It did not take long to lift the wasted body away from the painting, for his clothes coated him like a film, coated him as his body had become half-curled, half – embryonic. And yet under him on a single easel lay the single perfect suspension of a young woman in water, reams of rich red hair unfurled behind her – the eyes intense and passionate, nostrils fluted, almost aquatic.

After the body was buried, the painting went up, for if there is melancholy in art, it ought to have already been captured.

 A young man, from somewhere in the South, entered tough competition to have the painting in his possession – for it had been in the papers, the subject of public scandal, a post-mortem - emerging at the expense of many-thousand and a few ounces of dignity.

Now the young man eats his lunch beneath the painting sometimes – sitting, utterly captivated, his delicately fluted jaw working over some tasteless morsel or another, gazing with china-blue eyes at the delicate skin, the haunting dress sprawled inside the frame. He watches, the aesthete immersed. He sees male and female beauty in the delicate body, the dress draped like a second skin.  And sometimes, when the breeze brushes against the curtains, there it sparkles and seeps – the hot metallic clotting of that long red hair, so slick, so strong in the sun.
The signature lies beneath, those  last tortured strokes of the artist. The artist at work. The artist who had the hope that one day his artwork, and the fragments of himself within it, would be noticed. 

Saturday, 13 July 2013

1968










She had been a whirl of colours for several summers before it all had to settle.

The money was forced from her like the last leaking of blood from an exhausted artery – and she – its personification.  Marie was tired. Her eyes stared from her face like slowly staving fruit upon a stricken tree, quivering violently, violently as she sipped the last dregs of coffee – as coarse as stone stealing over the tongue. The boyfriends had left. The money was running out. And she sat, sat like a porcelain doll in her apartment – the make-up ever-thick on her face, the mini-skirt clinging short at her thighs, drinking coffee and watching the crowds clot in Grosvenor square, and waiting. Now it was the young men below who were in a whirl of colours, their tight dextrous bodies threading through the scenery like ants, assembling microphones, holding placards, screaming, shouting. She needed a job. She started to cry.

Hopefully something fruitful would emerge from journalism – especially with all what was going on, she thought and hoped – her arranged interview being at 9 am. For already she had tasted the deceptive syrup of failure – had experienced such bitterness, and learnt little – only shock after shock of pain like the seeds splitting from an overripe fig. The restaurants did not want her – no, the restaurants did not want the girl with the strange staring eyes and slight sear of alcohol topping the breath like a layer of caution. She told them it was breath-freshener. It didn’t wash. Neither did the boutiques want her – perhaps it was the wedge-cut bob and the beauty spot, the strange steel in the voice and the crack in one shoe which was seen in her smile, perhaps, perhaps. She did not know.

She arrived on Fleet Street the following morning just before 9 am – the taxi cabs moving dolorously along the road, as menacing as blood clots – moving unfortunate individuals to one kind of monotonous organ or another.  The mild march sun was experimenting in the sky – shocking spangles of light through the glass façade of what Marie thought must be one of the famous places to work in the World. Reporting for a newspaper! Sometimes, it did serve, having friends in high places. Well, she called them ‘friends’, those ‘friends’ that pronounced her name as if it had an upwards intonation at the end, stalling at her apartment, serving themselves drinks and drenching her with mouthfuls of ‘MarIE, MarIE, MarIE.’ It made her quite sick to think about it now. Feeling the polo-neck thick against her skin, she adjusted hastily before filing up the allotted stairs in the allotted building at the allotted time. She just did what she had been told.
She reached an impressive expanse of office room lacquered in linoleum, waxed a perfect white. It made her guilty to touch it, her shoes slamming on the floor with a rude audacity. It was as if any serenity has to be interrupted by one individual or another – there was no smell, no sound, everything could just melt into –

‘Is this Marie to see Mr Aton?’ A perfectly polished voice piped, verging on the cruel interrogative. Blinking rapidly, Marie found it corresponded with the mouth of a tiny trim of office girl – the sharp-cut dark hair, forced nasal tones, red lips – as if the whole body had been forced into some fantastic role, wavering in front of her as if upon a pair of steel pins.

‘Yes,’ Marie managed.

‘Right this way.’

Marie’s head swum. Perhaps she was tired, or had not eaten enough – the previous days food lying untouched, unwrapped on the table, settling like corpses into the general furniture of her existence. Very little interested her. The television would usually stutter uselessly in the corner like a desperate patient, the protests in the square below may bubble over into the foyers, furl out into the streets, the spring evenings would  haemorrhage the sunlight dry. All was wasted on her closed blinds and cold face. Not that she cared. Not really.

She just wanted the interview to be over.

The office girl slammed mechanically to a halt outside a severe oak-panelled door, a complete pause as if some silent controller had slipped the key from her mechanisms. Even her mouth, as if layered in metal, went cutting the words to a piercing clarity –

‘You just go straight in.’

Marie knocked automatically against the cold surface and pushed the handle.  The door slid open with a disconcerting lack of resistance.

Her eyes met a room largely a wash of pale blue – somewhat like the colour of wallet-worn banknotes, and very little else – a frighteningly ornate artificial cactus in front of the single window blind, and a central table, which, on one side, sat Mr Aton, and an absolute chaos of papers which covered both table and floor. The paper almost matched the colour of his skin, against which the only noticeable attribute was the mottled, well-fed red of his cheeks, puffy eyes and the slight sprigs of hair at either side of his head – emerging like two-badly potted plants. He had his feet propped up on the table and did not rise to meet her.

‘Marie, I presume?’

He asked the question almost as if he was attempting to tell a joke.

Marie responded cautiously ‘Yes, Sir.’

‘Want to be a reporter for The Mirror, do you?’

She continued  the adjacency. ‘’Yes, sir.’

His facial hair was poorly shaved and greying, scraping clearly against his face has he spoke with increasing emphasis – almost to the extent where Marie could have sworn she heard the noise of it, like the sharp shock of sandpaper.

‘’Have you had experience?’

‘Yes, sir.’ She lied promptly. She needed the money.

‘Interesting. You’re a pretty thing aren’t you?’ He mused with a bold line of flirtation, rising to his feet, cracking the balls of his heels in his slick suede shoes. ‘But you know what the prettiest  thing is Marie?’’
His eyes glittered manically, his voice caressing very syllable in a way that could have almost been considered indecent – so slow and languorous.

 ‘’ The prettiest thing that can be, is the cold hard cash from a good old story. That’s what we want here. You get me a good story today my love, you got the job.’’

Marie stuttered, rather taken aback. Her tongue felt swollen as she licked her lips nervously over the single word ‘’Alright.’’

Mr Aton grinned, clapping his hands together conclusively. A little ash fell from his sleeves, if anything sweetening the already prevalent smell of alcohol which accompanied the room – the exhausted fan in the corner assured that. Across the table, he handed the still standing Marie a notebook and pen – she wavered slightly, hesitantly.

‘’What’s up sweetie?’ Mr Aton growled menially ‘You want a drink, huh? This too early for you?’
He bumbled over to what she presumed was a kettle, but appeared externally closer to scrap-metal. There were half-emptied tumblers on the table, still glittering in their glasses, which were evidently of greater interest.

‘I take black coffee,’ Marie squeaked suddenly, as if making confession.

He looked at her quizzically, the smile creasing his heavy brow before it hit against his lips. 

‘Say, you’re a strange one, ain’t you?’ He swayed back towards her again, his step hindered by an apparently tight-starched shirt and trousers. ‘’ Remember, what we want today is a headline-filler, something that will get people going, get ‘em excited. Be it abortions in backstreets, drug houses, those riots at the minute … whatever. But it’s got to get ‘em going, you know what I mean?’

The questions were evidently rhetoric. His voice was increasing to a drawl, a drawl dripping intoxication, self-absorption, whatever those media fat cats feed themselves – Marie thought. He talked and talked.
‘You get out there my love and you get a good story, back here with it by 9 pm, cash on the table, cash in our hands. Or I can collect it from your address; you sent it in the mail – yeah? Yeah. ‘

His speech finally finished with a magnitude which made it evident that Marie was to go right away.
*
Back on the street. Less than 12 hours – so little time.

The crowd careered onto the black and white crossing which lay under the warp of feet like a bar of perfect white had been melted to reveal the dirty tarmac beneath. It was disconcerting. Marie ran clutching her notepad and what felt like only a lungful of breath. She had to hurry.

Where to go? Perhaps back to what would likely be now an avalanche of voices and bodies outside the embassy in Grosvenor square. She would try the surrounding streets first, she concluded it more time-efficient, as her heels clattered on the cobbles of emerging alleyways, goods vehicles screamed past, people grappled with newspapers as they walked, as if arresting live birds mid-flight. The camera, which she had largely forgotten even preparing this morning, slapped against her chest like a lost piece of over-emphasized costume jewellery. Just playing the part, just playing the part –

Halfway into some unnamed territory she stopped at a noise which wavered in the air like a cat in pain. On closer observation, the source was actually a woman, not much older than Marie herself, half-curled, half-crouched against the walls gored with graffiti – ‘GET EM OUT’, and such.

‘He left me,’’ The woman shrieked disconsolately ‘He went and left and – ‘’
A needle hung from one of her exhausted arms, stuck fast into the skin like a steel leech. The network of veins under the skin glowed translucent, even to Marie’s eyes, like a sickly, sewn in bruise. The woman looked up, saliva dripping down her chin, looked up with eyes whose fruit had long-died, and now just the exhausted crop of her body, waiting, waiting.  Her lips parted like a wound.

It was not a picture of the press. It was a picture of human suffering.

Marie could not do it, she walked on frantically, her eyes starting to smart. She could not even see a story in the situation she had just passed – but how, why? She did not want to think, only walk, walk as if the floor was moving over her feet, people tearing at the concrete with footfall after footfall which wore it to liquid. Something to get the people excited. She saw a woman groped by a policeman as she was dragged along, still clutching her placard ‘OUT OF VIETNAM’. People might like that, even if they did not care for the cause. The woman’s cause was meaningless – as meaningless as her piercing yells and frantic stare.
Marie swallowed nervously. The camera lay thick and black against her fingers like a coffin – what the crowds wanted was only a snapshot of some sensationalised suffering. Not a smile on a face. Not the sky. Not the sky which as Marie looked up, seemed bright enough to puncture the pools of tears wavering in each eye. They wanted someone to hurt, they wanted people to burst  - people to burst in all directions like flowers torn apart from within so people could feed themselves on the daily shades of human suffering, congratulate themselves. Oh how lovely it was! She laughed aimlessly, emptily.

Then the sickness. The riots, just get to the riots. A child screamed somewhere behind her. Sirens were everywhere – melting the crowds into chaos like a hot knife. She reached the corner of Grosvenor square and stopped, her heart heaped in her mouth.

For now, under the doubtful eye of the midday sun were heaped hundreds and hundreds of people. The striking male screams of comradeship which still buzzed in the voice box, the square which had been aligned, prepared like  chocolate box, was now seeping into flame and disarray. People oozed and thickened outside the embassy. CND banners, placards, sticks, bats, men and women shamelessly bloodied, hands, arms. Her eyes were the only lens. The pad was like putty under her hands .Everyone so endlessly distant – ignorant armies clashing, suffering, screaming under the mock-Georgian apartments.

A young student with tousled hair stumbled up to her.
‘It’s gotta get ‘em going,’ He declared, the façade of bravado failing to match the face which is somehow symbolic of a privileged education – one of the bright young things  swallowed by the promise of revolution. She could tell how he nestled his hand in the indent in her side, just below her hip, that he was an educated man. He lent his placard against his leg momentarily.

‘’I ‘ve already been arrested twice, come to nothing. What will it take ‘em to notice us? Paint the banners in my own blood? Some say it’s already been tried…’

His voice was distant, her limbs too unhinged to even attempt to write. After a moment she smoothed a hand over his in order to enclose his fingers back round his placard. His skin was a cold damp.  Everything desperate – the strange suffering look in his eyes as she left him, left him to run to her nearby apartment, taking the steps two at a time, slamming the door, dropping next to the table to write and write and write. Her pen scraped the paper like a knife scores skin, she was desperate, one lip bleeding. There was a vague crash. The task was soon over.
*

On Marie not arriving in the Fleet Street Office, Mr Aton was not worried – probably best to go over to the girls place and collect the article himself. He had full faith in that she had done it, he saw some kind of prospect in her, in her eyes, how she held herself – held herself like her body was broken in a way she was attempting to conceal, something interesting. And it was interesting stuff that sold papers! – This he declared grandiosely as he wallowed in the back of a smoke-plunged cab towards Grosvenor square. Selling papers, a second nature as a suck on a cigar! He could see the confectioners’ windows sparkling as if in obligation as the last copies of today were being sold – headlining with some untoward death or other - ‘RIOT MAN IN BLOOD BANNER SHAME’. Some student bled to death on the street, and oh, Mr Aton said to himself, how the people lapped in up! He had the city at his very heels!

He laughed heartily, tipping the driver as he pulled up at the edge of Grosvenor square.  He knew the way straight to the apartment – in the next apartment along he had once eaten salmon en croute and listened to lukewarm love songs on the radio with one leading lady or another. All these little trivialities! He looked out onto the square, now only studded with a few students, crumpled placards, and bushes consumed from the core by fierce little flames. At the foot of the apartment stairs, some lad in a Cambridge collar lay bleeding quietly, fingers still curled round a placard reading ‘Get them out’. Not exciting enough for the headline. Mr Aton shook his head – hopefully Marie would have something.

‘MarIE, MarIE,’ He whistled jovially, emphatically, under his sweeping breaths, shuffling up to her door and trying the handle. There was no resistance. Well, as his father always said, there was no resistance with an Aton boy either when it came to ladies, and oh – had he heard of her before!

He swept in, immediately developing half-baked assumptions from the unopened food and largely unfurnished expanse of white walls and cream carpet. Marie was waiting for him. She stood there, just behind the writing desk, in the corner of the room nearest the window onto the square. She looked almost strangely beautiful; her head tipped slightly sideways – the natural inquisitress perhaps! The girl so many people had turned away – and yet the long brown hair which caught slightly in the breeze, the polo shirt soft over young flesh, and that skin – Mr, Aton thought – a skin so porcelain, so perfectly pale! The glitter around her neck wound tight in what could have almost been considered the immaculacy of teardrops. There was something dramatic about the whole event – Mr Aton had been walking automatically towards the writing desk as he entered, and thus continued, the impossibly neat desk containing only a single marked sheet, a camera and a mug. He snaffled the sheet read greedily, hoping it would complement the good page of handwriting beneath, a sizeable article–

‘SOCIETY GIRL GOES HER OWN WAY’
He paused a moment. The camera, open on the table, had been cracked open like an unripe fruit – the roll of silver film scraped away. She just did want she has been told.

His voice. ‘MarIE, MarIE, MarIE!’

 Her heels were six inches off the floor. The coffee, black, was still warm.


Aisles

Aisles

She knew the betrayal was going to come sooner or later. Ah yes, the early morning walks, the absorption simmering in his eyes at breakfast, the strange slur of his speech. But she told herself it could wait. Because – how accustomed she had become to that solitary state of waiting; a weight which dries the tissue of the lungs to a pith and the eyes to stones. She had become a hardened woman. She shook her head nonchalantly at this thought. Alas, it was finally time!
It was strange; a voice reverberated at the corner of her mind -
‘We have plenty of time yet. Let me go and get ready myself. You do not leave here without me; do you understand?’
It could have been the couple in the room next door. Ah, life in union! She smiled and a cold shiver trickled down her spine. A siren sounded somewhere in the street. She laughed, the alcohol anointing her throat, a laugh which echoed as the room door slammed such. Such a free World it was!
She was to be at the Church for 12 O’ clock. A tumbler of gin glimmered next to the clock – she took long draughts with a nervous compulsion, hoping the alcohol would soften her – yet the ice glanced her lips, as if in mockery. Oh, she imagined in front of her, his tall languorous frame, that cold hard mouth she would make smile – she would try! Placing a slightly tremulous hand on her own hip, she felt it as his – waltzing her decadently round the room, glancing over her shoulder as she had seen to be the done thing in the films, watching her face in the mirror. The eyes – so dark, so weary! Her mouth tasted thickly of prescription medication and alcohol. Ah, but only necessary preparation! She smiled and a supressed giggle flooded from her lips as she imagined his arms around her, encasing her. For what was there to worry about?
Nothing, nada, nil. That was what she saw in her dress – the complete absence of impurity – it nestled against the contours of a body like a white crepe. She needed to be seen at this occasion –she wanted people to know she was a part of his life. Like a torch, a magnificent globe, suspended, glowing – she wanted to cry out ‘I am here! I have waited for him and I am here!’ She mouthed the words now, let the shapes streak over her coloured lips and painted cheeks. She had preserved herself for him, she knew, as she felt the ring strong and prominent on her finger, the band round her wrist – cold and fine-fluted, like his hand. The wail of a siren, or a horn, punctured the air.
The car, the car! It was the car. She went to the door in a flurry, taking a last sweeping glance of the unfamiliar expanse which glowed open to her like a tomb. The ornate ceiling – split into tiers and spiracles, a thick white icing – striking against the lonely expanse of strewn crimson bedcovers. She had been too worried to sleep well. She kept hearing his voice in her ear; the wavering tones almost like a promise of touch. A pair of discarded scissors glimmered as the sun attempted to prise interrogative fingers beneath the window blinds, hoping to illuminate what had been the scene of a hasty dressmaking. She had to go. The door swung shut behind her like a stoppered pendulum – somewhat like she felt – so uneasy, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.
The little black car was waiting on the kerb, gleaming slick with heat, the street almost swimming under the intensity. She ran quivering fingers through her short and rather uneven hair – before piling into the vehicle.  Money? Why did he want money? The driver examined her questioningly, before shifting into first and pulling away from the pavement, away from all those sad lonely fantasies, away from the nights spent alone in unfamiliar surroundings – she was finally ready .
Ready as the car drew up alongside the Church – evidently a relic of ages past, assembled from black slate and stone, assembled meticulously in rows. She imagined the cool, comforting darkness inside and the proximity of her love – to be like a child in the safety of the womb. So great – the expanse of cold stone, more telling, more true, than any flesh. She wavered as she got out of the car, stumbled towards the door – her head weighted with what she told herself was a kind of suspension, anticipation. Her lips tingled, her feet dragged. Her shoes, what about her shoes? What about – no, she had to go through with it, she had waited. And now he was waiting.
Her ears pricked at the distinct solemn drawl of the Church organ, the sudden crescendo of the unearthly voices organ music seems to draw from the mere mouths of human beings. It was her time. The women were always late; it was fashionable, it was right. She had read it in  some brochure or some magazine in at least one waiting room or another. One preparatory breath. One last look outside. One same, setting smile. She plunged down the aisle.
There was a sweep of silence amongst the pews, a collective intake of breath.
She kept walking, walking, walking as her feet would let  her, and yet they seemed so loosely hinged, like weary metal instruments –  But the floor, so cold, so fresh, it was as if walking through a form of purity!  And there, just aside the altar, she could see him – her eyes thickened with glassy tears. Such an immersion in sweet sorrow! There, for her, the beautiful pale skin, the rivulet between nose and mouth creased in a slight smile, but why – but how –
The vicar turned and paused on seeing her – his hand wavering in a half-prayer motion. Maybe it was how late she was! Maybe that was why all was so still! Perhaps she just better say it, perhaps the mouths were frozen open in anticipation, anticipation of her necessary pledge, every ounce of dedication which she had dredged inside her mind, every year –
‘I do!’ She cried, her voice shrill, striking up against the very eaves ‘I do! I do!’
She clasped her hands, she kept walking. The distance between her and him seemed eternal. The floor was cold, the aisle stunned to silence like a drained artery. The body of the church stuttered a steely grey – for where were the colours? Where -
‘ I think you’ve made a mistake,’ The vicar muttered numbly, approaching her with an upturned palm, how one imagines approaching an alien form in a sign of peace. She didn’t understand – was she to give him the ring? Who was to hold the rings?  Her eyes darted over stunned pale faces. There were a number of members of the congregation breathing in a horrid staccato accumulation, their heads in their hands, quivering. Why did they not rejoice? The flowers, the furnishing, all clotted dull in her pulsing vision.
She spoke through the approaching bulk of the vicar, the black, the white, divided like a fat, upright pill. She gasped , she motioned through very barrier to the man she loved, the man with the cold face and thin lips, the man to whom she pledged– ‘My love, you say I do, I do, I do too, don’t you? Don’t you my love?’
Her voice adopted a hysterical tone of angst. Why did he not speak? Yes, there had been the days where he had fed her with a ignorance so very sharp, she was enticed by its cold cajoling of her blood, how it grazed through her veins like a necessary suffering. But those days were over now, weren’t they? She grappled against the vicar’s attempt at restraint, taunted by the faceless altar in front of her, the red rug which had endured layer after layer after layer of matrimonial dust, pledges of love, it was like blood, why was it blood?…
‘Is it that again?’ Her voice split to a senseless scream ‘You love her again! Giving yourself to her again?! Are you? Did I never mean enough to you?’
She grabbed a handful of skin from her arm in her shaking fist. ‘This live, white flesh not good enough for you? Ha! Ha! Never good enough for you, never…’’
There was a clamour at the church door. A figure in navy blue, evidently a nurse, bolted down the aisle.
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!’
The lashings of entering light cast the church interior in a sickly hue, like an exhausted stomach. It took the nurse a matter of seconds to scan the ring on the girl’s finger, the band on her arm, the standard gown –
‘She’s ours.’ The nurse uttered singly, with a slight hint of apology to the vicar.
The vicar nodded. He nodded as the girl was escorted out to the waiting van, nodded as he continued the service, nodded as the first clods of earth were thrown into the young man’s open grave, the crushed chest, the red lacerations on the neck…
He nodded as sat back in a soporific stupor as the day drew to an end – for he had just seen a marriage with death, the funeral of life. The clock continued on the mantelpiece as it had always done.
.




A Modest Proposal

A modest proposal


There was a quick thrust and a flash of red light. Amidst the haemorrhage of human traffic, the tram pulled away, dejectedly, grey and slow like a lingering memory.
It was six O’clock. Water-worn high heeled shoes clattered along the city kerbs, and looking languorously out of the tram window, Leah watched the salt and pepper combination of workers picking their way across the streets. She wondered what kind of lives they were going to go home to. The young man clutching a briefcase with an air of vulnerability – did he return to a letted room he called home, draining glass after glass of dry wine? She wondered. She wondered if anyone had planned an evening quite like hers.
She had waited, prepared herself with dedication for what she considered years. But now, as the city streets clotted hotter than ever, the smell of damp copper coins radiating in the waning sun – she told herself she was ready. Ready to propose to he who had utterly dominated, shaped her very existence. Finally taking life into my own hands, she thought. It was a monumental occasion. She watched a woman with violent red hair patter along the pavement like a nervous insect. Finally, the waiting, the monotony, would all be over!
It was to be a surprise of course. What kind of proposal wasn’t?
She imagined herself slipping the key in the lock of the hotel room, cleanly and distinctly, like a form of preparation. She had been staying in the hotel after since she took the concept of proposal seriously – her parents had become gradually wearied by her utter compulsion, circuits of the churchyard in a kind of fantasy. She traced the stones, swept across the aisles. She imagined all those who would help it become a truth.
An aging clerk adjacent to her in the tram carriage wore a ring of a greasy white gold. It captivated her momentarily. White gold stinks of purity, she thought. She wondered why people lied to themselves on such occasions.
The tram stuttered to a stop. Those immediately in front of the doors flapped from the carriage like a collection of damp pigeons. Leah kept her reserve. She stood up carefully, considerately – she had not eaten since the previous morning, and her chain belt hung nervously against her stomach, empty and disturbed. She told herself the proposal would be more efficient that way – food only re-enforced the idea of monotony. She flashed an uneasy mandatory smile as she left the tram; It was somehow the suburban expectation of a hot day. Prioritising in her mind the necessary instrument for the occasion, she allowed herself to be caught in a flock of bodies until she reached the main street. Someone was crying out about politics.
She darted into the first suitable shop she saw. Silver and gold are only markers of antiquity after all, she thought. The shop floor was studded with possible buyers in possibly genuine jackets – their accents seeping with what they believed to be the idea of sensibility. The stirring syllables asking for the silver made her sick. She reacted hastily.
‘Can you point me to something good in steel?’ She asked the nearest shop assistant vaguely, her voice gathering a wave of hysteria. She told herself to think of the cold metal, its promise, the safety it held within its grasp. The young male assistant eyed her suspiciously, looking down with a slight discomfort at her exposed arms. His pupils were glazed over. He had been told a day previously that he was failing his degree and had stumbled home to fall into alcohol and malady and the smell of unwashed flesh. He looked abstractedly at how her chapped lips placed a horrible slippery kind of emphasis upon the single syllable of ‘good’. It was a strange existence.
He waved in a non-committal way  towards an open display which glowed sickly under a couple of broken LEDS.
‘Any from that collection really. Obviously depends on personal taste, how much you are willing to pay….’
She eyed the arrangement hurriedly. For which would draw his attention greatest, allow for the quickest, cleanest, most perfect result? She noticed that the assistant was attempting to ask whether she was currently finding her preparation routine difficult, had she bought with the chain before?– it wasn’t relevant. She wanted silence. A radio behind the customer service desk was spitting out part of a badly-spoken drama series like a clot of hot oil – ‘Did you fully commit to something today? Did you do something you believed true?’  It irritated her.
‘I’ll have that one,’ Leah snapped emphatically, indicating the sharpest steel with a delicately lacquered nail. The preparation had been pain-staking. She imagined herself a canvas on which convention was to be arranged, no less. The assistant nodded vigorously, wrapping up her purchase in a kind of crepe. It appeared to Leah uncomfortably like tissue or orange pith, the strands she had seen discarded in the public walkways and crushed under foot.
‘Would you like me to put that in a bag for you?’ The male assistant drawled in a practiced manner ‘After all, you might get some funny looks walking through the streets with something…. You know.. so.. obvious?!’
His eyes glittered, but with moisture rather than suggestiveness.
Despite his collapse of professionalism, for the sake of haste she agreed with him and left the shop in a state of agitation. She could feel the pastel lipstick thickening with a combination of sweat and saliva against her top lip. Her black dress clung to her desperate frame. Well, I’ll be wearing white later, she thought, And then, I hope, nothing. Despite the disarray, as she stole from the shopping streets to the more secluded avenues, smiling numbly to herself. She imagined herself, laid there in a kind of ecstasy, her body stripped down by him as a kind of confirmation. Ah, no longer would the bed be a devastating expanse! It would mean something; gather that necessary symbolism which only comes with time. She chewed her knuckle nervously.
Suppose the whole arrangement would not work! Suppose she found herself choked with nerves, her hands slicked and unsteady! Perhaps this was not even a woman’s role; she should have just been carried along listlessly – like those afternoons fondly remembered of flat tonic and alcohol with too many aspirins. But those types of relationships were fleeting, passive. This would be permanent! To be united with love and all that she found fascinating.  She grinned.
The timing was perfect as she mounted the stairs to the room. He always waited. It was verging on dinner time too, she considered, possibly beneficent in that any clumsy movements, the anticipated shriek of shock – would be as private as possible. The banister somehow resisted against her fingers like a reminder of living human skin. She detached herself and hurried onwards, clutching her gift with a kind of intimacy.
Reaching the door, she took a breath. It was a strange, ragged inhalation, like something within her own lungs was attempting to communicate with her, like a plea. She laughed and saw her painted lips and white teeth reflected with a kind of emphasized gleam with the bulbous glass lights in the hallway. Finish with a smile, she willed herself.
He had been with her in presence, in thought, all day, and seeing him as the door clicked open, she crumpled to one knee, sweeping her purchase from its package, committed, ready, smiling.
‘I’m so happy!’ She announced ecstatically.
There was a quick thrust and a flash of red light.

*

Mr Mors, the hotel manager, was listening half-heartedly to a replay of some wavering radio drama when he was interrupted by a member of the cleaning staff.
‘The occupant of room 40 hasn’t cleared their room yet, and it’s twelve lunch-time Mr. Mors, suh.’
How that dialectical drawl irritated him! With his characteristic, slightly weighty sweeping motion of movement, Mr Mors decided it would save time and patience if he went to the room immediately and challenged the occupants themselves – after all, it was only a short distance from the managerial desk. He shook his head as if irritation took the form of clinging drops of moisture he was trying to remove desperately from his shaved skull as he followed the cleaner. Ah, there were always a few people every so often, willing to push the system, step out of line! Reaching the room of question and with no response after two rounds of knocking, with a disgruntled sigh, he slipped the master key in the lock and pushed at the door. It opened heavily, reluctantly.
For behind the door was a beautiful woman.
Mr Mors stared . The woman lay with her face to the floor, both knees crumpled in a bend, as if fast in prayer, praying silently, praying on a mat of red. For from the woman’s side, straight through the folds of a tight black dress, glistened a steel knife.
The following hour was a wash of confusion.
 He phoned the undertakers, enquired of family, found none, sat at the phone numbly, the radio still stuttering, drank tasteless glasses of iced tea, mopped his brow. It was 2 O’clock when he finally dared approach the room again.
Reaching the door, he opened his mouth to ask whether the undertakers would require a room for that night.
He mumbled emptily against a wall of silence.  Words and eyes fell onto the corpse, undressed on the bed – her rouged cheeks, her painted nails, her combed hair. A young man, evidently an apprentice of the old undertaker, turned when hearing the greasy leather footfalls of Mors’ entrance. The lad’s eyes were red and wavering with hysteria.
‘Will you turn that damned thing off?!’ He shrieked.
Mr. Mors stared at him blankly, before he realised.
‘Turn that damn radio off!?’ The lad’s bottom lip was trembling under a nervous sweat ‘Can’t you see? This young woman here lying alone, she did it you know, she ….’
His voice caught and trailed off. But the radio, the radio continued to pulsate from behind the managerial desk only a few metres away.
‘’Did you fully commit to something today? Did you do something you believed true?’
.