‘I’ll see you when I get back, O.K.?’
He this while shaking on his overcoat. His hand scrabbles about for keys in the pocket, his eyes are on his phone. She looked at him through her atramentous fringe, she supposed ‘puckishly’. His profile, when facing down, reminded her of a portrait she’d seen once. It had filled her with a kind of awe and sadness when she’d seen it, though she couldn’t remember when this was, or where. A floating image, broken from an anchor of space/time. It was a while before she met him, though, as she remembered being delighted by the resemblance. She’d bordered on telling him about it that night, then thought it would come out too ridiculous and somehow avoided it. ‘Somehow’ because avoiding saying something she wanted to say while under the influence of alcohol and/or narcotics was not something she was particularly good at. Now a little of the awe still remained around his aphotic eyes, cast down, and the equine nose that she could imagine belonging to an effete poet from long ago. He wasn’t an effete poet though, he was just Mark.
‘But I may be going out’ She ventured.
She was on the bed, legs pressed to her chest in the cold. The windows rattled in sympathy with, what she felt was, a continuous chill. She was small and looked smaller in the dim 7am autumnal light. Mark’s building is in a block of flats, which the windows face, so the light struggles through. In the room, the light appears closer to that of 5am in winter. It made her skin glow nacreous. Mark observed this every morning.
‘Do as you will, though I love the idea of you here all day for me to come back to. It gives me something to think about in the office.’
She didn’t like how this sounded, it was precisely the reason she wanted him to think she may go. He was being light-hearted, like it was their joke. She didn’t want to be the butt of a joke. She wasn’t sure if she thought she would go. She didn’t like that he sounded like he didn’t think she would, either.
More tired words, a shout from the door, and the sound of the 3 locks shunting into place. The flat relaxes, and the small girl’s arms loosen their grip around her knees. Her knuckles return to pink and her hands let go of their tense embrace. She catches herself taking a long exhale. It’s a surprise, and she’s not sure why. She lies down, outwards, spreads herself into an X across the bed, mixing with the covers. Cotton coolly brushes her skin; she wriggles to elongate the feeling. From corner, to corner, to Cimmerian corner, her eyes traverse the ceiling. Then the pictures; the pop art she hates, the old lady she loves, the poster for a club night that she can tell Mark’s quite proud of. She’d asked once, he’d supplied an answer, she hadn’t remained interested enough to recall it. Hairy bubble writing shouts out ‘The Spit and Bucket’, under which are written a list of what must be bands, but sound like various threats. ‘Eat your eyes’, ‘Broken Circadian Rhythms’ and ‘FaceMelt’ seem particularly worrying.
What if gigs weren’t people gathering to watch a band or DJ, but became like old ritual sacrifices, with each ‘band’ being a style of ceremonial murder. There were plenty to choose from, and they often sounded like bands. ‘Buried in the desert’, ‘Skinned Alive’, ‘Seppuku’, ‘Leap of Faith’. The Mayan’s thought those leaping could fall into a cenote, a sinkhole, and on into the underworld. Well, they weren’t seen again in any case. ‘Widow Strangling’, she’d heard about that in Fiji. In this world, the line-up on this poster would be particularly impressive (is that the word..?). We already want some violence, some destruction – a little ritual humiliation – from our artists. It wouldn’t be completely disconnected. She imagined the festival tents the event would have. T-shirts saying ‘Eat your Eye’s Ate My Eyes!’, souvenir taxidermied body parts for sale as charms. Maybe a stand of those fake butcher-knife-in-the-skull hats. Mini wicker men.
The thought of eating, which she had luckily managed to detach from the image of eyes and decapitation in her head, made her remember this was the time she ate. She usually waited till Mark was gone to eat, as he left so early anyway, and anyway, then he couldn’t tut about what she chose.
Peanut butter with bacon with marshmallow fluff. Gherkin? Fuck it. He told her off for eating those things, but he still got them for her. Sometime she wanted to go get things for herself. Just the thought of going through the corridor into outside stopped her. The corridor was suffocating and concrete.
It’s comfortable here. Here has everything she needs, right now anyway. She puts on Radio 4 and sits down to her sandwich at the small circular wooden table in the living room. There is a T.V, but it’s too big and daunting. It’s mainly used by Mark for football or films.
At some point, at a younger age than it should happen (according to the psychiatrist on the radio), I separated into a private, withdrawn, more hidden life. Everyone does to some extent go into this mode eventually, through separating from his or her parents. According to the psychiatrist, this was usually at age 14. I remember definitely being separate, and secretive, before 14. My mum had thought I’d been smoking weed long before that, which wasn’t even true, but my secrecy allowed for the possibility. Constantly daydreaming didn’t help her impressions. I lied from a young age, but always about things that didn’t matter. I remember being embarrassed when my mum would point out a lie and laugh, while I saw it as an exaggeration. One I was entitled to. I would usually be claiming to do something other children did, like dance or gymnastics classes. In reality, I was probably at home, watching, reading, while my mum slept. She slept a lot. I got very used to my own time, my own environment. This didn’t endear me to my environment, however. When the sleeping silence was broken, the air would become static and filled with friction always on the verge of eruption. That feeling that hurts your teeth when synthetic wotsits of packaging rub together. That was how silence felt in that house. Mark’s place was a haven from the first time I came here. A place I can stay in stasis, in private, do my things without observation, without disruption. Without waiting on the knife-edge for the next tragedy to happen.
The flats on either side felt reassuring both in their proximity and separation. I liked to hear the muffled noises of TV from upstairs in the daytime. Coming through the mottled ceiling came the muffled sound of solitary solidarity. (Who invented that plaster thing? Those seashell waves, never even, inscribed on ceilings? Surely it was only ever intended to cover up something someone’s already fucked up?).
There are 5 rooms in the flat. The kitchen: size of a queen-sized bed, practical, all mod cons etc. It also contained the washer and drier, the drying rack, the iron. The living room: moss-green carpet she can’t imagine being chosen by anyone, over large TV, small brown sofa, 2 stains, both me, 2 chairs, small wooden breakfast table, sandwich half-eaten on plate, open windows, cigarettes resting on the ledge. Bathroom: all male, shaving foams, razors, blue, black, silver, she keeps her things in a bag under the sink, he doesn’t like it spread out everywhere. Light brown grime rims the bath, absentmindedly she runs the sponge round, letting it melt away. The mirror’s too big in here. It takes up the whole wall. It’s on the left as you walk in. You try to walk straight forward each time, to the sink, which faces out of the window, without looking left. I bet you can’t not look left. She feels like Lot, she almost always ends up looking.
Bedroom: bed’s a mess, make it before Mark gets back, hide all smoking paraphernalia, so he won’t know. A slide slots into her internal camera of him tutting and brushing the bed down, one of the hundred times she’d seen this scene, patiently annoyed. ‘You’re such a mucky pup’. Scalding her like a small child. It alleviated her responsibility, she wasn’t being purposely disrespectful, she didn’t know better. She knew she did, and she was being, she just wasn’t sure why. She preferred the charade.
The other room was the office. A small office with a desk, and a chair, and bookshelves. The desk faced out of the window and the room always smelt damp. It’s Marks office.
I first met Mark 5 years ago, through mutual friends that neither of us see any more. He’d been the boy from the portrait, that’s how she’d described him to people. His large white hands had danced everywhere while they’d talked. Big flesh moths. His fingernails so much cleaner than hers. At the time he’d seemed confident, if trying. She didn’t know whether this was him trying to impress her, or whether he was always trying. After they’d been seeing each other a while, she realized it was always, the trying. Eventually he did it less with her, but it was still under the surface, a certain eagerness. It unsettled her. It was so obvious, wasn’t it obvious to everyone? It had embarrassed her, when they used to go out as a couple. She avoided that now, she didn’t have to see him struggling for air with her. She didn’t have to consider how other people saw him. She had enough to worry about over how they saw her. Other people’s eyes are terrifying to look through, especially if you’re guessing. We always guess the worst.
She bounced back to the bedroom. She liked to move in strange ways when she was alone. Letting her limbs hang heavy, dropping her head, loosening any muscles in her arms. Lurching her top to drag along her legs, stepping in steep sinking sand. Topple, muddle; pitching and reeling. Sandbags hanging weightless off the back of a truck. Those cylinder material worms, with confettied arms, outside of American car dealerships. Somewhere between the two she limped, lumbered, lurched and swung herself back onto the bed. Settling back into the X, she moves her limbs more than necessary, feeling them now weightless against the cotton sheets. I smiled at the ceiling, inside giggling to myself. Movements made that no one can see have a special mystery. You can fully own them, hold them and turn them 360. Only the mover knows the movement – and they truly know it, there are no extraneous subjectivities to change the narrative. I am watcher and mover, performer and film, clown and satirist. 360. Only my walls watching.
Her eyes catch the pop art. Pop is meant to mean popular, yes? Was pop art only o.k. when advertising was still a kind of novelty? Now every one who works in advertising thinks they’re the child of Freud and Warhol, some post-modern pioneer of hidden messages. Buy this, because it’s clever, and you’re clever too, for ‘getting it’. It’s all so self-aware. The stuff of presidential campaigns and spacious apartments in gentrified areas. This one was much like any other. Her only reaction to it was exhaustion. Primary colours, repetition, the image of a baked beans can. Oh the homage. If her eyes rolled any further back she felt she’d be staring straight into her hypothalamus.
Looking up to the heavens would have been a sign of despair first, maybe hope too? Was this how eye rolling began? The heavens never replied, never rended the firmament, never shot down empyrean bars back into our eyes, never filled our head with the singing of the spheres. So we scrolled past them, looking back into the heads we’re so used to staring out from. A sign of surrender, futility, and exasperation: the eye roll. These are the times we look to our brain, only to find a stygian silence staring back. These thoughts felt like little exercises out of life. I never feel like they’re truly true, no more than I feel most things aren’t. Personal parables from a fictional vista. She often felt that if she’d been alive in BC, and a man, she could have been a convincing preacher.
The pop art was too frustrating to remain in the room with, so she left for the living room. This time, she crawled on hands and knees. She dared herself not to open her eyes till she reached the sofa. She only hit her shoulder once on the door frame, and congratulated herself as her eyes opened on the sofa. It hitting her nose, which had let her know she was there, did not count.
She flicked on the TV, sighing inward acrimony before the pixels had found their places.
Watch those wrinkles disappear
Shrink 2 sizes
Beautiful women smiling next to a giant ‘GONE’ made of out cartoon clouds
Peptides, formulas – ‘fixed’
One conceptual argument showed a woman. Dark green and grey overcoat, standing in the rain, in a town of grey brick walls. There can’t be any hills, as there’s no distance, or background, beyond the brick. She looks miserable.
A giant masculine hand tears from the sky. She looks up just as it grabs her round the waist. Next shot and she’s the picture of pliant pulchritude. Long sandy hair, bikini, fulgent liquid in a wide glass, complete with little pink umbrella. At first she looks confused, not afraid somehow, despite the situation. This only lasts a minute before the screen is filled up by costumed, colourful figures dancing out of the margins. Our girl relaxes, beams, and begins to dance.
The cathartic wash that overcomes me as I crush the advert into a tiny white dot in the middle of the screen, disappearing, is almost worth the angry confusion the advert stirred up. I imagine it as a picture I’ve crumpled in my hand.
The last image on the screen is ‘SMART’, white on black. Make up advert? Probably. It’s enough to make you laugh, or cry. They wonder why it’s women who are associated with hysteria. A high-pitched giggle doesn’t come from next door. It surprises me, coming out of my mouth. In the empty room it sounds higher, shaky. I picture the sound wave resembling a power line after the birds have departed. Jumping in the air. The word ‘hysterical’ flashes before me; making me erupt in giggles all over each time I see it.
She catches herself, suddenly self-conscious, looking about her. She knows there’s no one here.
The laughing made me remember I’m alone. Relief glazed back over me, and the flat settles back into its colours (It had all felt too bright during the giggles).
What do people do when they’re alone?
The second the idea presented itself it felt like an order. Everything had to be in order first, of course. She did the tasks she’s agreed with herself, or been asked for by Mark. Washed up plate, dried, put away. Moved kitchen back into original state. She did this all on tiptoes. Moved clothes from washer to drier. Emptied recycling into its box, placed it by the door. A heavy, inky blue, wooden door with no peephole. It’s weight, and the 3 locks, were reassuring. I put my hand against it and breathed deeply for a second, feeling the dense, adamantine, wood under my torpid, pulpous, digits. Toes began to ache. I was aware of them again, forgetting I’d been tiptoeing for the past, hour? Half?
Roll cigarette, place in ashtray next to bed (will move that later, before Mark comes back). I settle back into the X. Breathing in the X. I lay there, just respiring a while. Choosing an image, a situation. Violence, rough hands on soft throats. Shoved, pushed, manhandled, rearranged, used. My hand works lightly. Not for long. The roll of images runs faster as my fingers do the same. Deftly remembering how to move. Motor memory. Wet, sweat, stuck, moans, fuck, fuck, fuck, no, yes, bitch, Yes, slut, YES. The first orgasm is the fastest.
I throb, sensitive, breathing slightly ragged. Faster now. Metal, stone, wood, cold, heavy, trapped, hand on wrist, pulse beating furiously. Firm. Hair stretched taut, bitten, scraped lips, scratches. Blocked airways. I come again. Then breathe.
Bad, wrong, punished, hurt, screams quelled. Screaming into fabric and flesh. Number 3. This is when I know I will reach 12. I hadn’t thought of it before I began, but now I know.
Always looking from outside, I’m not sure who I am in my fantasies. Sometimes I’m the victim; sometimes I think I’m just watching. Sometime I wonder if I’m the man, or woman, in charge. Sometimes I’m in the room with me, watching me, with my thoughts on a projector screen above my head.
By the 6th there are scratches up her arms, little half moons of blood on her right wrist where her nails dig in. Lips aflame, pulped, engorged. Eyes closed tight, tight, tight. 7th time. Scalp aches. Clit stinging, she changes angle. Images no longer necessary, only words. Less words each time. Fuck, Fuck, no, yes, please, please, please.
It begins to burn; she may have cut herself with a fingernail. One spot is electric to touch. Bolt of pain. Opened skin? No stopping now till 12.
I can smell something. Something outside of my body’s humidity mixing with the sheets. Food? Smoke? Shit. Shit. Shit. 9th.
The last 3 are rushed in what feels like a blink. She can no longer bother to dodge the cut, it must be a cut, and mixes the pain with the rush. Sorely biting her tongue, she finishes. Every muscle relaxes. Her arms pulsates and aches the most. She tenses all over. She can only orgasm when tense, taut as a bow, on the knife-edge. She breathes back into the X. Pulse punching chest. Relief flooding, she instinctively reaches for the cigarette.
The smell! The smoke! It reminds her instantly and she sits up, alert. Looking to her left she sees it creeping through the bedroom door. Shit, Shit, Shit. Hands on knees, this time it feels practical, she crawls towards the door, looking round. Through it you can see the bathroom and office doors, on the left, a metre of corridor, and the door to the living room. The smoke’s coming from the living room: thick, black, heavy, unhealthy smoke. The phone’s in there. Her phone’s in there.
It doesn’t look safe to go into the living room, I can’t see any fire but the smoke is volumous and undulating. But the phones are in there. So is the door to the corridor. My heart begins to jump double time, my limbs still ache, endorphins rushing through every inch of capillary. ‘Get help’ flashes in neons in my head like some Tracy Emin of premonition.
The computer is in the office. Crawling low I inch through the smoke. The corridor is filling now too and it won’t be long before I can’t see the doors. Thick clouds everywhere. Stinging in my eyes. Pushing on the corner of the office door it doesn’t move. I push harder. Nothing. Closed. Maybe even locked. I pray inwardly it’s not locked. Holding my breath, I rise slowly, straightening myself along the flat door, mirroring, staying as close as possible. Rubbing the wood with my hand I feel the squares, the lines, leading to the handle. Shock, decalescent, blistering. I grip harder, feeling it scorch my hand white numb. A hard yank to turn it, praying, works. I fall into the door in surprise; sure it would be locked, into the comparatively freezing room. Clear as day, before the smoke sucks in. The computer waits on the desk, where I had seen it in my head minutes ago.
She has seconds before the room will fill up completely with smoke, and she won’t be able to see the screen. Gmail. She writes a message.
‘Please call a fire truck to ************, London, ****. I’m trapped inside the flat and it’s filling with smoke. The phone is in the room with the fire so I can’t call myself. I love you.’
I send it to Mark, my mum, and my sister. Of the 3, Mark’s the most likely to check his e-mails. There must be more people I can send it too, what if none of them find it in time? I scroll through my contacts, each name a shot of anxiety hits me, along with a reason why I just can’t. I haven’t seen these people in years. After a while, people stopped coming round. Insulted by my excuses why I could never meet them elsewhere. I never said I couldn’t leave, I’ve never even said it to Mark, even though he knows. It just seemed callous, and selfish, of me, I could feel it did every time I fabricated my excuses. It was better than saying what I now know, with the smoke stripping the water from my eyes, heat rising around and inside me, that I just can’t leave. If I wrote to these people now, would they even believe me? Would they think it was some trick to get someone round here, for some attention?
Mary. It had been 2 years. She was one of the last people to keep coming. We’d known each other since we were both 14, and very naughty. We covered for each other, snuck into bathrooms for cigarettes together, tried out dodgy powders together, flattered each other when there was an audience, held each other’s hair back. I’d usually been the instigator, got us into the worst situations, while Mary had usually been the angel, getting us out of them again. This had begun to change when I’d met Mark. Now I’d found somewhere to just be, to do, as I wanted, I didn’t feel the need to rush around from place to place any more. I’d always been looking for somewhere to settle, while for Mary it was just to admire the view. She always had somewhere to settle, back in Ilford with her 3 brothers, 2 parents and many many loving relatives. Her parents had always been so nice to me, even though I was sure they didn’t approve. Her dad would make jokes about my fishnets and sprayed hair that would have been creepy were it not for his age and his past. As it was, it was approval I enjoyed, and I’d flirted with him mercilessly as I’d grown older. Mary had hated it. I liked that, it felt like I was winning back some points, points she had in abundance with her working family unit.
Looking back I now know I was a dick. I’d started realizing how bad I had been, how stupid and careless and such a mess, when I had told Mark what I once thought were funny stories. The looks of disapproval and surprise on his face were enough to wake me up. I’d not been the life of the party; I’d been an obnoxious prat. I flicked through those nights, those false memories, and saw them starkly for what they were, how I really looked. It was horrible. I didn’t want to do that again, so I stopped drinking or taking drugs when outside the house. Mary had been supportive, most people had seen it as a fairly good thing, even people I knew were still very much active in that regard. People visited.
First Mark was welcoming and friendly to all of them, but there was something in his damaged armor, his sideways glances, his evident insecurity, that made people uncomfortable. I would have them over then when he wasn’t there. It felt secret, like I was inviting Mary into my new private world that she could live in with me. She knew she couldn’t though; maybe that’s why she stopped coming? She’d realized I wouldn’t leave; she’d make up lies to drag me out. I stopped trusting her. The last time she’d come over she had said that Mark was bad for me. I’d screamed at her until she left. Howling anger had shuddered through me. Mark was the only thing that made me sane! Think how I was before! He has patience, he looks after me, he UNDERSTANDS! I kept screaming after she left until I couldn’t feel my throat and no more sound would come out. I’d had a croaky voice for a week afterward. I didn’t tell Mark why.
I came back to the smoky room; I could no longer see the screen now. I pressed send. I felt I had put Mary in the recipients. I was nervous. I felt like a young child in class, watching another child give out coloured envelopes, knowing they’re invites to a birthday party. Please come to me too, whispers their head voice.
If the smoke’s filling the living room, at first the same amount that now filled the office, it could be coming from the kitchen. The kitchen had more things that could catch fire of course, and was just off the living room. She scrunched her brow and tried to remember if the kitchen door was open. Too many snapshots of the door filled her head, open in varying degrees, or closed. She couldn’t tell which one was taken today. If it was closed, and the fire was in the kitchen, she could make it through the living room to the door, and just walk out. She tried to picture herself just walking out. She couldn’t.
I slid off the chair and curled up on the office carpet. It’s a dark forest green and rough to touch. I know you have to stay low. If I stay low long enough, eventually someone will come. Mark will come. He checks his e-mail every half hour at work at least, he would come. I just have to wait.
An oval of collapsible human on the carpet. Pink, still naked, changing hue, moving towards red. She’d tried to curl under the chair, as if it would provide protection. It being a wooden chair, that was unlikely, but she wasn’t thinking that way right now. From above, she was the pink bulges that protruded past the brown square on each side. Half feet, toes waggling; the nape of the neck turns into brown hair then disappears back into the wooden square. Soon there’s too much smoke to see the figures outline. Then the chairs outline.
The flaming drier fell, along with a heap of ignited balls of fluffy ceiling detritus, into the kitchen of the flat below. Moira, the cleaner hired by the two young professionals who owned flat 15, witnessed this. Moira had been vacuuming; she hadn’t heard a thing from upstairs. She’d been somewhere else. In her head she had been with her mother, on a cruise, somewhere in the Caribbean. Her mother had been passing her a strawberry daiquiri in a toast to the PhD she’d just received. This was when she was suddenly and forcibly made aware of the flaming drier.
She couldn’t tell it was a drier, it just looked like a blackening white box, combusted off its hinges, glowing with igneous fury. It was still aflame and the first thing Moira did was run out into the corridor, grab the fire extinguisher that health and safety had ensured was present on every floor, and hose it down. Moira regarded the mangled machine for a second, thinking how it resembled a heavily decayed tooth, and then picked up the phone to call the fire department. Black, carcinogenic, smoke was now billowing through the hole in the kitchen ceiling. Flashes of light proclaimed that upstairs the fire was still burning. With the fire department on their way, Moira packed up her cleaning equipment, picked up her handbag, and walked downstairs to go outside. She didn’t want to breathe in the dirty smoke, and the fire department had warned her to leave. Moira wasn’t scared; she’d been in houses far more on fire in the past. Her father had been a drinker and a smoker, and her mother was a hoarder. This was a hazardous combination that had resulted in 3 separate house fires in Moira’s youth.
The sirens and trucks arrived in no time, howling through the estate. They knew the position of the fire, thanks to Moira, and three went in with the hose, the ram, and visors over their faces. They broke down the door. The air erupted, galloped out, smoke and flames, a nebulous mess. The fire had spread outwards from the drier, engulfed the kitchen, and now covered the living room. The sofa was burned out, while the curtains had only recently caught. They swayed, burning umber. They found the girl curled up in the 3rd room they checked.
The fire hadn’t made it in, though it had reached the corridor, and the door frame was edged melanoid. She was loosely curled under a chair. Her throat was swollen and a trail of mucus lay next to her mouth, black bile mixed with black hair. One strand kept it connected to her lip. She was immobile, tiny. She looked about 15. A small tattoo of a bluebird on her little finger declared she was older. The firefighters glanced over the fetal girl, briefly. Face obscured, bloated in the middle, fingers resting on her legs. Limp. There were scratches up her arms, perhaps she had tried to climb out of the window? One man pulled up an eyelid; her corneas were dried dull, the whites were an itchy red. She had been dead a while. Smoke inhalation.
The coroner and firefighters reconstructed the cause of the fire. It had started in the dryer. It would have been hours before it had melted through and fallen. The firemen thought it best not to tell this to the next of kin, or that poor boy whose flat it had turned out to be.
A collaboration for Femmeuary 2015 with Steph Wilson from Lemon People Collective