The Trip II

Later on that day, we all went out for drinks. Adam, the guy from earlier whose name I had finally learnt, was deliberately avoiding me. I went to the bar, took three whiskey shots and bought him a beer. I wanted to make amends or at least let him know that I had the potential to be better.

Potential is such a weird thing. It’s like the future, the promise of something to come. Everyone has potential. Potential for greatness, for cruelty, for kindness, for love. Until you die. Then you just become the sum of your parts. Were you actually kind? Were you actually great? That’s all that matters. What you actually are. And at that point, I wanted Adam to look at me differently.

So I went up to him. He was sitting with my friend Monae’s new boyfriend, Max. I’m assuming Adam was his close friend, because as I approached he stepped in between us.

‘Having a good night?’ He asked, looking past me. He didn’t care about the question. He was just trying to distract me. So, I said.

‘I ran into Ellis earlier.’

And by earlier, I meant the day I had picked up the pills from Ellis. But Max didn’t wait to clarify. He ducked out sheepishly.

I sat down next to Adam and offered him the pint.

‘No, thanks.’ He said, folding his arms.

‘Go on,’ I said, ‘I’ve paid for it now.’

‘You drink it, then.’

‘I got it for you.’

‘Why?’

‘I was rude earlier. I’m trying to show you I’m not always like that.’

He took the pint.

‘Max says you are.’

‘Yeah, well. I think Max is a bit intimidated by me.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Cos I know he was with Monae while she was still with Ellis.’

His eyes widened, and I realised I’d hooked him. That’s why I love secrets so much. If you reveal them at the right time, everything leading up to it is irrelevant.

He asked for details as he sipped his beer and I regaled him with a story that wasn’t mine to tell. I spoke in a whisper so he had to move closer. I looked at his lashes as he took it all in and I thought about how hypnotic it would be being fucked by him. Lying under him as he opened and close those big blue eyes with every thrust-

‘It’s not just Max, though.’ He said, when he’d finished his beer.

‘I know, it takes two to tango-‘

‘No, I mean it’s not just Max saying I should stay away from you.’

So we were back to this again.

‘People say stuff they don’t mean all the time. Like this afternoon, I didn’t mean to laugh-‘

‘They meant it.’

Under the table, I curled my hand into a fist.

‘I think you can tell that I’m sorry.’

‘But you haven’t actually said sorry.’

I dug my nails into my palms.

‘I bought you a drink.’

‘Yeah. Thanks. But you didn’t say sorry.’

His eyes bore into me. He was smirking. It was like he wanted me to be in the wrong. No. It was like he didn’t care who I was, like he’d seen enough. There was no use saying sorry because he’d made up his mind about me.

‘Well, if that’s how you feel.’

I got up from the table.

‘Enjoy the rest of your night.’

I picked up my coat before he could protest and marched for the door. He wasn’t going to get that apology. I was never going to apologize ever again.

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The Trip I

The second and, most importantly, final time I stared death in the face occurred on the same trip.

You won’t be surprised to know that something that started off so badly, ended much worse. After my near miss on the plane, I spent the rest of the holiday light-headed. I felt like I had been dislodged from reality. Like, instead of being in Sweden, I was floating alongside myself, watching the spectacle. Which was ironic, since that’s what most people think dead people do. And now that I’m dead, I can say: we don’t. It’s a very dangerous way to spend your time.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to explain: I remember being at a meal. There was so many of us on the trip. Too many of us for the restaurant. We’d split into fours to get everyone seated, and it immediately reminded me of primary school. So in my head, I named all the tables like they did at school. Red table, blue table, green. But instead, I used less abstract nouns. Dumb table, Obnoxious table, Unbelievably Vain table.

I was having fun with it. I even started laughing to myself. The only other person on my table also started laughing.

‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked.

‘I dunno. You’re laughing.’

‘You just laugh cos other people are laughing?’

‘I laugh cos sometimes I miss the joke. I don’t want to be rude. You know, cos I’m deaf in one ear.’

I did not know he was deaf in one ear. To be honest, that was the first time I had spoken to him throughout the trip. It had turned into one of those open-ended, tell-who-you-want, kind of things and before you knew it you were sharing a bed with someone’s cousin called Ben who you may have met once at a Graduation party or a Housewarming, but no one knows for sure.

For some reason, either the surprise of it or my own shame, I burst out laughing. I laughed so hard that everyone turned to look at me. And I couldn’t stop. At first, the guy opposite laughed with me but then he got really uncomfortable. He kept blinking his big blue eyes like he was trying not to cry and I thought at that moment he had never been, no- No one had ever been more awkward or more beautiful. And I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Eventually, the laughter subsided to tears. I wiped my eyes on the tablecloth and went back to studying the menu like nothing had happened. I felt the eyes on me. Not just the eyes of the guy sitting opposite me, or the people I was with who were now rolling their eyes, or all the other patrons who were looking down their noses. It was my own eyes. I felt like I was standing over myself watching myself. And I didn’t find that funny at all.

 

A Quiet Place

They were going to banish her from the city. That much she knew. As she stood in the docks, legs shaking, she made a mental note of all the things she would immediately miss. The smell of her neighbour’s barbecue. The sound of conversations as people passed her on her walk home from work. The soft fur of the cats that crossed her path. The sound of the bin lorries as they crunched up all the rubbish. The laughter of the school kids at break time.

Not family. Not friends. But the city. The life of the city, its heartbeat. The calming, constant pulse. People come and go but the city is always there, the city is what kept her there.

Every breath she took in as she waited for the verdict brought more memories. Playing on the estate when she was young- scrapped knees, screeching bike tires, mums yelling from the balcony at dinner time. Getting the bus home in her school uniform- unpressed pleats on rolled up skirts, collars popped for your pleasure, tinny music from old model mobile phones, the buzz of afternoon traffic. Getting lunch on a long work day- the impatient office workers, the tap of metal on ceramic, green trees, cigarette smoke, the clip clop of her heels on the paved stones.

All of it to go and be replaced with-

The judge cleared his throat.

‘May I say I something?’

The court room fell into a hush. The ghastly judge in his starched wig nodded slowly, rhythmically, like the chimes of Big Ben’s clock.

She gripped the edge of the dock to steady herself.

‘I know what you’re going to say. I know that you think I deserve it. There are a lot of people that agree with you and I know there isn’t anything I can say right now to change that. I’m not asking you to let me off. I’m asking you-‘

The words caught in her throat.

‘I’m just- I just want to say that I love my city. I love my city. I love the river that flows through it, the lines that run underneath it. The underground tunnels, the sewers, the disused dungeons- they’re all the same to me. All part of me and to push me out-

She pinched her nostrils together to stop herself bawling.

‘I left once. I went to a place that I thought would be the same because I didn’t realise how special, how strong this city’s current was in me. It stirs me, it moves me, it motivates me. Everything I do, everything I am and strive to be is because of this city. Is for this city and no one here can deny that or take that from me. I’ll be the same way anywhere as I am here so you’re not doing me any favours. Sure the sun will beam down on me, sure I’ll feel the grass between my toes. But you have to understand- if the sun isn’t shining on me here, if the grass didn’t spring up from this patch of ground then it will mean nothing to me. I am nothing without this city. Take me out and you may as well sentence me to death again. I will not survive.’

When she was finished, she bowed her head, exhausted. Tears streamed down her cheeks and pooled at the end of her round, youthful chin. The court room was in a reverent silence. One woman in a long black dress quietly gathered her things and walked out. A few others followed, less graceful, stumbling over their mates, trying to hide their faces.

‘My dear,’ The judge started after the door had slammed shut for the the last time. ‘That is why you must go.’

She closed her eyes, defeated, as the judge gave the sentence. One life in the flat plains. One life and then she could come back.

At the end, he asked her if she understood what he had said. She could barely nod. Her fingers dig into the dock and she wondered whether her hands might stay rooted even after they hauled her away.

One life. They said it so casually that you might be mistaken for thinking it was superficial. And maybe to someone else it would be. But she knew she didn’t have it in her. She’d tried that life before, you see. And she knew it would not end well. It would not end at all.

434

You wait for your number to be called. In your hand, you grasp a withering white scrap. You don’t know how long you’ve been here, but you do know there were faces here that came before you, and many faces after.

You wait.

There is one window in the room. It opens out onto a brick wall. Earlier you are sure you saw a head bob into a view. A plume of smoke strokes the window frame. Just by watching you can taste it. You blow warm air out of your mouth and it floats in front of you before it dissipates.

You wait.

There is one set of double doors in the room. They swing open with great ease but creak closed. Slowly the wedge of blue light they let in thins to a straight blue line. Pointing straight at you, maybe.

You cross your legs as you wait.

No one is really moving. Stiff backs and even stiffer faces. Fixed smiles, slicked back hair. But the eyes. Their eyes are darting about in their skulls. Scanning. Checking. Watching each other.

You do it too, as you wait.

Watch their hands. Watch the paper tremble. Watch the numbers as they slide and smear. Who’s next really? And does it even matter? They come out and get you when it’s time. Blink and you’ll miss it.

You think you’re still waiting. But when you look down you’re not in the waiting room. You’re strapped to the bed and the only thing you see is the blue light. Not a slither but a blinding sheet of blue.

The last thing you feel is the slip of paper crumbling between your fingers. The last thing you smell is the sweet smell of burning flesh. The last thing you hear, as that sense fades away with the rest-

‘434 is ready. Prepare the host.’

Persy: Drapes

The thing about Aiden is- he always gets what he wants and he gets it by doing nothing. Honestly. One time we had a decade-long argument about the drapes in the front room. He insisted they were peach. I said they were salmon. He said it probably didn’t matter anyway, but he was sure that I was wrong. So I said-

‘If it doesn’t matter, then why bring it up?’

‘I don’t know, Persy.’ He replied, ‘I just thought you cared about that stuff.’

I should probably provide some context. Our living room, at the time, had a colour scheme which had been mostly informed by the drapes.  The drapes had come from the old house, a house that had never needed drapes but was filled to the brim with them. At one point, we had drapes disguised as throws, as rugs, as table cloths. Drapes on drapes on drapes, even. It had been a little joke of ours since our old, old house had been so- I suppose desolate is the only nice way to describe it- that we had made a pact to go ridiculously over the top decorating the next one.

There were many houses between that house and the very last one. And by then the drapes had completely lost their jovial, light-hearted warmth. They were instead a reminder of a place that we were both slowly realising we could never go back to. They went up with no joy. They filled the room with no love. We never walked past it and prodded the other, saying-

‘Drapes on drapes on drapes, eh?’

We just didn’t talk about it.

Didn’t talk to each other at all. Aiden had work. I had work. We had split the domestic duties so that he got the kids and I got the house and there was no overlap. No reason to interject while the other was sinking further and further into the empty nothingness of modern day life.

Until the drapes.

I can’t remember what he opened with. or how he closed. I just couldn’t get the thought that all my work had come to nothing. That something was wrong in our showroom home. It was my job. It was one of my only jobs. And somehow, without me realising, it had changed colour with no warning and no prompting. Or had it?

If I had been looking at it objectively, and I can never look anything objectively when Aiden is around, I would have been able to decipher his coded message. For clearly, what he had wanted to say was-

‘I can’t bear to look at those drapes every day, Persy. I can’t comprehend how much has changed since we lived in Florence, and Marrakech, and Constantinople and Carthage. I know in the beginning it was bad, sitting on uncomfortable stone thrones, sleeping on a wooden bed that was too small. Your mother would visit and make you cry. You couldn’t get anything to grow down in Hades. But somehow, now, I think it was good. Am I crazy, or do you see it too? We thought we had nothing, but, in fact, we had everything. We had each other. We sacrificed so much to have the chance to grow together and it seems growing has actually torn us apart. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d never taken you with me all those years ago.’

Something like that.

But Gods forbid he actually say it. Actually do something.

So he left the thought with me. Left it to me to destroy what was left of our marriage. Because I heard a different message in the following silence. I heard-

‘Take it down and start again.’

And I knew the minute it settled in my head that I could not start again. Not again. Couldn’t repeat the pause and reset combination again. I was spent. I was overdrawn.

There comes a time in every 2000 year old’s life when she must make peace with the fact that some things, some obstacles are insurmountable. That patience and love and understanding are not a fountain, but a well and the well will run dry if you dip in too much and too often. Being married to a man who is scared of his own voice is a sure fire way to turn that well into a cavernous abyss. And the abyss will start within you and then move between you. And then swallow one of you whole.

Aiden got what he wanted. I took the drapes down. I took the drapes with me, and I left. For good. The thing about me is- I never get what I want. But I’m very good at tricking myself into thinking I do.

 

That Time Again

‘Well, Meg. It’s that time again.’

Fred stands on the door step, puffing on the last of cigarette. Meg holds the door open, waiting for him to finish. The sky is bloctchy, black and brown. The streetlights make Fred’s shadow look like a heaving black blob.

‘You’re letting all the warmth out.’ She shivers. Fred tosses his stub into the bush and crosses the threshold. He wipes his feet slowly and deliberately on the doormat. Meg cannot watch him any longer and heads into the kitchen, exasperated.

The remnants of the pasta bake, which she had just warmed up before he arrived, are now cold. She picks at the pasta shapes with her fork. When he comes in, he pulls out the chair, scraping it along the tiled floor, and starts to take his coat off.

‘No.’ Meg says, ‘You’re not going to be here for that long.’

‘Well, I gotta count the money, don’t I?’ He asks, leaning heavily on the chair.

He’d put on weight. No, muscle. He had always flourished as a bachelor. Underneath his coat he wore a nice suit. Zara Men maybe. TM Lewin?

Fred produces a money clip from the breast pocket of his suit. It  barely contains the thick wad of cash between its teeth. Fred waves it with a smile. Meg barely blink.

‘900 for rent.’ She rattles off,  ‘160 for school dinners. Lex needs a new PE Kit. That’ll be 50. Rowan’s going on holiday with Godmother and he’s going to need spending money.’

‘How much?’

‘Another 50.’

‘Let’s call it 100.’

He counts out the notes, licking his fingers, desperately trying to not to cackle with glee. Meg doesn’t watch the money the way he watches the money. She watches him. How different his very features seems. His soft smiling eyes are mean. Greedy. Lost.

‘What about you?’ He says, sliding the pile of money towards her. ‘You wanna do something? Your hair looks like it needs some love.’

‘I can look after myself, thanks.’

‘Doesn’t look like it.’

‘Well, whatever it looks like, I don’t need anything from you.’

She stands up and chucks the pasta bake in the bin.

‘Maybe not money…’ He says, quietly. When Meg doesn’t turn around, he gets up, joins her at the sink.

‘When was the last time you-‘

He places a hand gently on her shoulder, moves it slowly down her back. Meg suddenly turns around, the fork from the pasta bake hovers dangerously close to Fred’s Adam’s Apple.

‘Take your hands off me.’

He backs away.

‘Relax-‘

‘You think you can come in here, waving your blood money at me and what? Get back in this house?’

‘Megan-‘

‘Do you even care about your kids? Because you never ask about them. You’ve been here for half an hour and you haven’t mentioned them once.’

‘Of course-‘

‘Go home, Freddy. You’ve done your song and dance and now I’d like you to leave.’

‘Megan-‘

‘Now.’

Fred picks up his coat, defeated.

‘I really-‘

‘Out.’

He throws his coat on and leaves. The money on the table flies about in the gust.

 

Carbury & Grant

Joel points at his screen.

J: What do you think?

C: It’s a picture of you surrounded by bubbles. Wait, no-

Courtney squints.

C: On further inspection, it’s a picture of you surrounded by-

J: It’s me surrounded by butts.

C: Yup. Why?

J: What?

C: Like, why do it?

J: For nights out.

C: What are you talking about?

J: Calling cards.

C: Calling cards are for when you visit people in the 1920s. What’s that got to do with a night out?

J: If I meet girl.

C: If you meet a girl what? First of all, you would have already met her, so you don’t have to leave a calling card. Also it’s not 1920. Also-

J: Something to remember me by.

C: Stop it.

J: What?

C: Stop.

J: It’s original.

C: That’s the only thing you’ve said that makes sense. You’re right. It’s original. It’s also bad.

J: How?

C: You want to be remembered with a hundred butts that aren’t yours?

J: It’s original-

C: I heard. You realise you haven’t put any other details on this design right?

J: What do you mean?

C: How are they supposed to find you again? You haven’t even written your name.

Joel looks at the picture again.

J: Oh.

C: Exactly.

J: I’ve printed…

C: What?

J: I’ve printed 500.

C: How much?

J: 5…500. But I’ve only opened 200, so we can send the rest back.

C: Why would you-

Courtney rubs her eyes.

B: I just wish I could see inside your head. I really honestly believe someone performed a lobotomy without you knowing. Or maybe you know and you just can’t articulate because you’re so fucking stupid.