Doilum night

Texting unlovely acquaintances, online shopping, visiting the less salubrious meat dispensaries of the city: all appropriate activities when viciously inebriate. But poking, tasting, and bringing to the light the mould of your mind online? Oh no. Here’s an appropriate story instead of others. It’s the second part of a story, but can be read separate in any case.

On paper (reprise).

 

[n]ot the person I wouldve been

 

“That seat, is it taken?”

 

There was no reply at first. The figure was sat alone on a bench, its oversized grey overcoat concealing either a man or a woman, of late middle-age possibly, with an intense, possibly fecal smell, and beneath thick grey hair, eyes wizened and furious that gazed intently on the conversations of ghosts. Only the black Labrador guarding the figure’s overstuffed trolley bag had acknowledged the polite request to sit by the young woman, who had been standing in the housing office for at least an hour now.

 

“Yes yes, yes”, came at last a hoarse, impatient reply.

 

Crevice-skinned, paranoid, these thin night-dwellers who had been calling themselves Papierists had been conspiring and plotting heady visions throughout the summer. The unusual skin complaints of many city residents were reflected in the built environment’s strange transformations according to a spectrum between decay and chrysalis. Increasingly incongruous and unrecognisable estates and malls, semi-occupied still, had experienced an unparalleled bloom of buddleia, bindweed, dandelion and other wild flora. On the outskirts, the number of hiding places were increasing, as organic matter reclaimed not the public parks, which were still meticulously kept in their primary and secondary colours, but in the old high streets and closed down libraries and leisure centres of impoverished locales. Matching the dirty violets and reds of the flora, new skin conditions mapped themselves on the faces, armpits and groins of residents unable or unwilling to seek remedies, causing the eyes to swell and become red, the ears to take brown hues, and the arms and legs to develop insatiably itchy patches of raised skin. The working-class suburbs were at times overwhelming by an viscerally pungent odour from these wild plants, sweet and rich like marijuana yet nauseating, painful to the eyes and difficult to breath. The air often hummed with it, transported by the winds. Superstitions festered and began to flower in the cracks between hope and reason.

 

Caught in a hyperopic eye like Keira’s, who had known a successful, ‘normal life’, with a son, who had taught God and the Devil to nervous school-children biting their fingers and whispering away in the schools, none of the above seemed of immediate consequence. These fools who had forsaken their gods and occupations had forgotten that a person’s first loyalty is not to their destiny, or to their true self, but to the hand that ministers them food, that points them to shelter, that commands them to fight or struggle in the name of the hand that ministers, lord, king, fuhrer, or God. Like a dog or any other mammal, like Doilum, her faithless yet greedy companion, who accompanied her when she sang in the street.

 

She only knew about four songs, or really three and a half – the chorus and bridge of U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ was usually sufficient. Her singing style was hoarse, sincere, she used to enjoy singing Sandy Denny and Joan Baez songs in her past life. Having the dog definitely garnered some sympathy and tourist’s interest, as well as the fact she was one of the few female street entertainers on that stretch. “You gotta roll with it, you gotta take your time…. thank you very much sir. You’ve gotta say what you sayyy don’t let anybody get in your way … thank you m’am, have a nice day now. So come with us, we’re here to stay (is that the line, ah fuck it).” Rooted by the trees and benches opposite the Royal Festival Hall, on a good hour or two Keira would make about a tenner in silvers and change, but she could spy only five in the guitar case, by which Doilum sat glumly. Her fingers wrapped around the stolen acoustic guitar, covered in a student’s finger grime, and she reached another bar chord. I remember back in ’66, in the government yard in churchtown … observing the lunatics … thank you sir …. and the good people in the street, altogether now … no woman no cry! This one’s for me son … no woman no cry! From a severe-looking family watching in the distance, a boy came forward to drop 50 pence. Some Dutch tourists were watching and clapping. Everything’s gonna be alright! Everything’s gonna be alright!

 

They were conspiring and plotting heady, vicious visions in the city that summer. Keira had slept in the cellar of a derelict pub, creepy enough to prevent other superstitious wayfarers from disturbing her and trying to steal, and once it was light enough the next morning she worked her way out up the staircases and across the glass and split tables strewn across the bar-room floor. The hypnotic drone of a drum machine or dance track looped continually in the early morning from a nearby sound-system. Outside, the urban backstreet bracketed into two contrary directions, where to her left pogoed a solitary boy, possessed by the beat from the upstairs part of the pub still, eyes disappearing into the back of his head, feet stomping against the playground in some substance-induced Saint Vitus’ dance. No older than sixteen. “You got a cigarette miss?” Three golden bows of dawn light heralded her right, a chill wind, the street full of parked cars despite much of it semi-occupied now. Doilum and Keira found a supermarket. The security guards had at first attempted to refuse entry to a dog, but Keira feigned blindness. That greedy Doilum had got distracted when they were leaving, a child of a anaemic-looking mother was pretending to have biscuits in its hand for the dog. Come away now. It was only when a bottle of milk fell out of the waist of her long-skirt as she hurried out that they were found out.

 

“You greedy bastard Doilum!” She crouched down and slapped the dog, who whimpered obediently. “Bad!” But this was always happening, and hungry Doilum was always eating most of their food, taking and not giving, the worst of all the sins, like the bankers, “Bad!” Another slap fell against the dog’s back. But despite the blows the dog was not learning, he would just keep on doing it, using her, using her up, like all men, the filthy, selfish bastard! “That’s enough! That’s enough! You cannot be kicking and hitting your dog in here madam, it’s against store policy!”

 

The security guards attempting to take her beneath the arms, but the small boy who had pretended to offer the dog food ran forward and ran its hands around the Labrador’s soft fur. “Poor doggie!” he cried, and began to wail. She had already raised her hand, ready to pound the dog a little harder than before, now starting to get into her element after just a few practice blows – the school had complained she hit the children too hard, but she needed to, it was the only way they would learn, it was the only way Doilum would learn his lesson, like Pavlov, when momentarily she saw not the dog and the boy crying, but a single figure, in a grey cloak like hers, vertical, ready to say something, a man, but its face concealed by a white mask, as if its head were being plaster-cast. The man looked up at her and over her, through her. “Death to the gods that made us”, words she heard momentarily, spoken in her own tongue, but from the man, Doilum. The security guards finally managed to pick her up beneath the arms and shoved her out. “I’ll sue that fucking crazy bitch!” screamed the mother.

 

*

 

Peel away the layers of comprehension, the layers of experience, and beneath those, the layers of memory and of feeling: Keira had discarded most of the unnecessary clutter of her psyche. She wandered through the evening in search of something to eat, Doilum limping behind her. She was tired and didn’t have the energy to walk all the way to the central train station cafe where she used to like drinking coffee all day. Exhausted, she sat on the raised step of an old churchyard, stuffed with anonymous poor, diseased whores and plague dead. Pages and pages of some old maths textbook were pasted against the church walls, over the windscreen of a parked car and adjacent recycling bin, and further down, the skeleton of a payphone booth. Someone had painted over the pages on the wall in thick black marker-pen DEATH TO THE GODS THAT MADE US, with two letters at most per sheet of paper. There was no moon that night, and without the light to guide them, the quiet streets were teeming with the forms of the dead, short figures, faded and unfathomable complexions in mean grey garments, hurrying hither and thither along the streets, great hoots of laughter and shouting rumbling through them. Their difference to the living was hard to state with accuracy, aside from that they had a kind of washed-out appearance, as if somehow out of focus, or wrapped in a thin sheet of cellophane. Their sadness affected Keira deeply in her heart, that last place where memory had been reluctantly permitted refuge, and she could not help weeping at their attachment to these cynical places, their vain attempts to reanimate and influence a history that was already written far ahead into the future without them. There was nothing for them except the repetition of their lives and habits, their children now passively repeating the same cycles of reproduction.

 

Doilum sat by the trolley-bag, coolly unaffected. The gold and silver hues of the street-lights and overhanging corporate high-rises began to intensify, a chill wind sweeping away all the pages into gutter and across the deserted street. In the distance, a pair of figures were arguing by a wall. Great sheets of paper were flying about the place now, old newspapers and burst bags of rubbish too. One of the spectral figures had fallen and collapsed into the paper. Soon it too disappeared.

 

*

 

“Fuck off mate, I already told you, I didn’t know it was a no-parking zone here.”

 

A blue transit van had parked just in front of the large bin behind which Keira and Doilum had been asleep. The driver seemed to dumping lots of full bin-bags and a well-worn mattress by the bin. Clearly, local parking restrictions were in force.

 

“As a road-user you must agree to the local government restrictions on your driving”, came the reply of the traffic-warden, with a particular acute emphasis on every fourth or fifth syllable uttered.

 

“Who the fuck you work for man? The council ain’t gonna do shit. Whoa, get off me crazy lady, shit, I ain’t got no change. What is wrong with this city.” The man had possessed an uncanny resemblance to someone Keira had known well, not her son, but someone else, like one of these figures from her dreams. Doilum knew well enough, but he wasn’t talking now, he always got self-conscious and wouldn’t talk when other people were around. “Go on, tell them! Tell them what we’ve been seeing!” she shrieked, and went to bend down to hit the dog, who quickly scarpered away back under the bin. The van had swerved out in reverse, and hurtled down the empty early morning side-street. “Wankers!” came the driver’s final goodbye.

 

“What are you doing here, it is not legal for you to be sleeping here”. His gaze lifted from his hand console up to the side-street, to the Papierist slogans plastered over the low levels of the office block and the bin behind which the pair had slept. “You need to go to a housing office and be processed there.” It was starting to rain.

 

“You don’t get it!” she shrieked at him. He was shaking his head and gazing back at the console again, which didn’t seem to even be switched on. “People are disappearing! Listen! He’s seen it, he can tell you!” The last comment seemed to catch his attention. “Madame, do not shout at me. That is a dog,” he said with a smirk. “Well he fucking talks when he wants to, when he’s hungry, don’t you, you daft cunt!” she shrieked back, kicking the bin, beneath which Doilum was cowering. “He turns into a man with no face and talks about God, the cunt!” “Madame, you are not allowed to sleep here, whether your dog talks to God or not. Local government regulations forbid it.” Doilum had now skittered out from beneath the bin and down the road. “See what he does, rah. Have you got any food, anything at all? Please, I’m homeless, I’ve to get away from people, the people doing all this” Keira replied, the anger and passion from her voice draining away by the end, finally looking at the middle-aged man in his lean, almost handsome face. “Madame, are you responsible for this, the illegal fly-posting?” His fingers were now tapping away codes into the broken console.

 

Beneath an ironically semi-topless photo of herself pouting in a nightclub, Lauretta began typing her latest micro-blog entry of her London travels. I don’t know what I am doing. I look back at the excitement of when I was younger, and my home feels like it is under a landslide, between Western freedoms and China. My certainty about who I am, and what I wanted to be, is shaking. My soul is lost… Nothing feels right. I cry, alone. A girl kissed me at the club. Who am I? Is my name Lauretta or Lin-Hui? Lauretta looked up from her tablet device and took another sip of her latte. Outside the window, she could see some dirty vagrant figure in a long grey smock shrieking and swearing at a local policeman. A mangy malnourished black dog skittered past the window and into the tiny coffee store, and began sniffing around her feet. Do the dogs have rabies in London? She took a photo of the dog and quickly uploaded the second of the two entries to her blog. Already her first entry had started attracting comment. She searched and quickly found a quote by the lazily misanthropic Charles Bukowski, which she attached to a picture of a popular female film star. One guy from her English college had already posted back a Nietzsche quote. She began replying back when the angry looking vagrant hurried into the shop, shouting and trying to kick the dog, called Doilum, which was cowering beneath her stool.

 

Keira was authentic London. After buying her breakfast twice over, she began to talk to the shy-looking Chinese student, who wanted to film, photograph and digitally record everything Keira showed her. The two bacon baguettes had taken the edge off her paranoia, and Doilum wasn’t winding her up so much now. They found a bench behind Leicester Square and she cracked open a bottle of wine which the girl had bought. “I’ve not got an alcohol problem, I quite enjoy it” Keira said, quite sincerely. Following the Papierist trends, London’s built environment was back on the cultural map, but so far the mostly international middle-class bloggers had either been too lazy or unable to actually talk to find a real authentic Londoner to feature – until now. Keira’s alcohol quote had already been retweeted by a notably pompous English celebrity writer. It was so amazing how the homeless woman always talked and shouted at her dog Dawkins like it could talk back. But it was when Keira began talking really fast, that no-one even on Twitter could understand her, that people increasingly started to believe she too might be a prophet, in that one could hear almost everything and nothing in the inebriated trance of tongues she talked in, phrases congested and curled in upon one another. What she said, about freedom, about the men with white masks chasing her, about the Gods and the disappearances, seemed to bloom from the same subterranean place as the Papierists, and that was so goddamn cool -_-

 

*

 

It was remarkable how the Londoners had all kinds of slang words for things that were bad, like shit, or crap, pony, poxy, and so on, but very few for anything remotely positive. Even nice one suggested a kind of reservedness, a suspension of credulity, a withdrawal – nice for you, but please don’t bother me any more detail of it. Most of the vagrants at the food donations spot near Trafalgar Square were drunk and cursing loudly, complaining at the standard of sandwiches being shared out by suburban guilt missionaries. Lauretta was filming the event on her tablet under the real cool caption the crows of London. An investigator, McGinty, had messaged her. He wanted to meet Keira. Lauretta advised bringing some thing to eat or drink for both Keira and the dog.

 

Arranging the meeting was the simple part.

 

McGinty held down the Ctrl and Del functions, cursed the laptop, then administered a series of kicks and punches to the motel furniture. The intelligence community and the government had been taken by surprise by Papierism. Although it had never been theorised, to McGinty’s mind there had been a mass desertion in religious belief following the discovery of the death camps, the populations of the developed world too exhausted and demoralised by two world wars to conceive of anything except short-term escapism that took one’s mind away from the gruesome blood potlatch and transcendental guilt which overhung the West. Again, in which table of the standardised report would such a peregrination fit in? Yet there was no denying that the responsibility of explaining the unknown, and providing remedies for it, had shifted from priests to scientists. So who could come forward and explain the phenomena of the burning man?

 

He rubbed his temples and rested back against the solo bed, his eyes wearied enough by the peeling mustard wallpaper. The footage must’ve been faked somehow. Yet the figure of the burning man had induced online hysteria. Unlike previous self-immolations, which were already increasing to a problematic extent, this burning man didn’t ask for sympathy: the global poor were too hungry and cynical to sympathise with anyone’s poverty except their own. His statement was that of a man. His prophecies were texts, disregarded and discarded pieces of paper, once stowed away in local archives by a post-literate generation, but now dusted away and forcibly inserted into the cracks of everyday life. They were simply inexplicable: perhaps that was the first point of provoking unrest. Everything up till now could be explained, and was explained rapidly, and repeatedly. The burning man was protean, his ‘prophecies’ emerging across the cities at any moment, long after his disappearance. Nature was a force, and energy that, when harnessed and applied in the correct way, could be unlocked by the truth-containing text. Life therefore had some value in potential, in an inner animation surplus to economic requirements. This therefore linked the burning man, the images and graffiti of the stick man and the flames, up to the cult popularity of ranting prophets, often vagrants in a state of narcotic or alcoholic exuberance, talking in tongues to cameras, out of which thousands of comments soon appeared interpreting their meaningless glossolalia into timber-shaking utterances.

 

The city was like dry paper, ready to burn. Yes, there were potentially a number of equally valid causes for Papierism. Despite its endorsement of physicality and the reclamation of urban spaces, its influence was primarily online. The inner city suburbs were rarely cleaned any more due to long-standing council spending cuts, and so the incidence of random pages and phrases being pasted or painted on disused buildings made little difference. Its significance was occult, not political, expressing some repressed need for bodily instruction and domination in the sickly urban residents. There was talk about climate change creating the vicious blooms of wild flora, former leisure centres and schools becoming like greenhouses of monstrously oversized wisteria, cow-parsley and knotweed. People had been going missing for years. Perhaps some of it could be explained by unrecorded suicides – like other mammals, when a colony was in decline creatures would lose their fertility or willingly end their own lives, through reckless conflict with others or through a more intentional choice. It didn’t matter, the people going missing weren’t people that mattered to important people. It was just life, like the weeds that hadn’t been cut back, like the striking factory workers in China secretly culled like cattle by their middle-class communist overlords. Some life mattered more than others, it was as simple as that.

 

Why didn’t they bloody get it? The traffic below the tenth floor window was thinning out as rush hour ended. Why bother. Most eras had their mystery cults. The arseholes would probably end up closing down the cities, shooting the ‘ringleaders’ (and here he kicked the radiator beneath the window again), and collectively punishing the rest through some embargo or other deprivation. “There will be vices as long as there are men”, he remembered his former Director telling him in their last performance assessment review. McGinty had since been on sick leave. Officially, this report hadn’t even been commissioned. His freelance colleagues in the British intelligence community had more or less abandoned him as a crank. But, all the same, he felt there was something potentially significant and explosive in this reclamation of the physical text. This rejected, negated life – this was what was reacting most viciously in these sorrowful suburban streetscapes. And it was all so damn easy, so boringly easy! He could hear a man and woman groaning and banging against the wall from the adjacent room. Even they would get it! Was it not peculiar that the new working-classes, mostly immigrants, had so readily adapted belief in a man who was claimed to be the son of a God, who was forced by his father to die in order to absolve the world of its ‘sins’ – and his church in which man’s worst sins have since been perpetuated in its name? Wouldn’t a new figure come around? The paper, the wild flora, the skin conditions, the near-universal occurrence of mental disorders and hysteria in the long-term unemployed in these ex-industrial territories, all signified to McGinty’s imagination a collective reaction to abstracted, digitised economies. Landfill sites were willingly poisoning agriculture, caught in the recent images of tyres, bathtubs and broken VHSs bursting beneath swollen strawberry fields. Oceans overwhelming coastal towns, destroying the derelict high-rises which had once been inhabited by holiday-makers from Fordist countries. All this life had become surplus to the production of wealth, now abstracted and digitised. But how was he supposed to write this in an intelligence report, not just a memo? Nothing could be clearly discerned or verified by any number of reliable witnesses. His eyes began to mist over, as if they were rapidly calcifying. He took a glass of water over to the bedside table, switched off the light, and poured the icy fluid over his face.

 

He wasn’t nervous about meeting the woman from the Internet. She was most probably insane, but could have some accidental insights into the Papierism and some of the new urban disruptions. He found Lin-Hui through her GPS, filming a filthy assortment of hobos and heroin-addicts by Charing Cross station. “It’s great going upwards”, uttered one middle-aged junkie to the camera. He began bending over backwards, slumping to his knees, hugging a lamp-post in a vain attempt to remain upright. Surprisingly, as the rotten reprobate fell into McGinty’s leg, he could see beyond the grubbiness a good quality suit on the man. There was a traffic of besuited bankers further up the street, streaming from Coutts bank into waiting taxis. McGinty was assessing the scene: a real security nightmare. He overheard one banker passing nearby talking on his phone, who in his speech managed to underline some phrases and place others in apostrophes, with a highly grating effect. “Listen big boy, YOU WANT THE SKINNY ON THE AGM? It’s a no-brainer. Those ponced up little pricks want heads rolling. We showed them the money and asked them what colour bog-roll the Pope brings when he goes for a number two in the school playing fields. COMPRENDE?” After brief introductions, and handing the case of dog biscuits, cigarettes and whisky over, Keira interrupted her silence to suggest they go to talk in a nearby betting-shop where no-one would care to hear them.

 

“How can you be a fucking investigator when you ain’t even got a badge?” The guy was clearly a prick. Doilum was just sitting there doing nothing, as always. But the guy had paid and he wanted to hear what he wanted to hear. “Paper babies, I’ve seen them. Plagues: have mercy on us. My heart could just burst with the sadness of carrying all these ghosts in its pockets.” Keira began weeping again. He felt she was causing a scene, and so after a couple of minutes he insisted that they get up and start walking over to Speaker’s Corner, where they could talk without fear of being recorded by any devices. He hadn’t even thought that Lauretta would be streaming everything live straight onto her blog.

 

Hideous clouds had become ensnared on top of office-blocks and street-lamps just ahead, the dawn’s golden bows giving away to the cast-iron melancholia of a cool overcast evening. Keira had a fondness for Speaker’s Corner. In a past life she had taken to the soapbox as a member of some left-wing faction she could hardly recall, but in these days it had become an easy place to steal from tourists, and this promised to be a good night. The area was fizzing with crowds desperate for easy answers, some even recognising Kiera from Lauretta’s Hamlet in London blog. Placards of the burning man were carried by angry, anonymous-looking figures. A teacher-looking scruff man struggled to shout loud enough for an impatient audience. Unused to being listened to, it took his fourth or fifth sentence before he finally made his point clear, by which time most of the patience in the audience has been exhausted. He explained that due to ‘unforeseen’ effects of atomic and anatomo-physical experiments, a reaction had undone the temporo-spatial fields that structure reality, largely assumed to have existed but lacking sufficient evidence to have ever been fully theorised. Time is layered, and these layers have become unstable. This had caused different exposures of time to overlap. Spatially, this caused the collision and combustion of materials relocated in recent times.

 

“I don’t even read fam! Fuck that shit!” punctured the audience’s distracted attention into sheets of spiteful laughter.

 

If the field wasn’t restored, unlikely given it was never properly understood in the first place, then earlier and earlier time periods would appear, or rather interrupt, the current. The spatial disruption would be devastating, never mind the psychological effects. The audience were unimpressed and annoyed at the length of his presentation, exceeding well over a minute. What are time layers? Why did this happen? How do you know? His inability to speak in plain certainties confirmed the uselessness of knowledge. The crowds found more satisfactory answers to their worries in the buffet of catastrophiliac conspiracies and hate-mongering on offer that evening.

 

Whilst McGinty gazed into the yellowy-eyed professor’s direction and Lauretta filmed the scene, micro-blogging Keira’s eerie utterance about ghosts in pockets, Doilum collided with McGinty’s leg, almost tripping him over. “Yes, lad!” Keira erupted. And in a dash, she’d pulled up McGinty and, in the process, pocketed either his phone or wallet, possibly both, the slow cunt. The crowd were surging forward to get a better glance at the humiliated teacher. Someone was heckling the man, and another had begun to tug away at his jacket. Keira and Doilum stole the moment’s opportunity and disappeared swiftly.

 

*

 

“What have you done to me, you fucking bastard?” came a woman’s voice from a second floor window above, one of the few still lit on the terraced side of the street. In the blue window, the outline of a man paced across a damask-flocked wall, until his stick-thin figure filled the bare window. His naked chest was covered in small red sores, with scratches and bruises on his back which now rested against the window. “It’s nothing baby girl. If I hadn’t given it to you, you’da just got it off some other feller anyway.” The nocturnal silence that was Keira’s alone returned once again, except for the scrape of her trainer-tread and trolley-bag wheels against the asphalt, occasionally kicking into a discarded lager can. The air hummed with dog shit. Doilum was quiet and brooding over some ill-omen, he was probably missing the on-demand access of treats from the Chinese girl too.

 

It was very late and the park seemed empty, though over the fence she could glimpse through the branches streams of paper hanging down, the red sky ministering its word through these Papier emissaries. “I don’t know why you’re complaining, Doilum. We can’t change what we are.” He looked up, and with his eyes gestured over the fence, which was assailed with difficulty, and for a while Keira had to untangle her impaled overcoat. When she turned around to face the perimeter path and the dark trees beyond, she could see that those awful wraiths had reappeared again. Great shrieks began through the trees, disembodied and scared. At last, Doilum had the nerve to speak, and took back on his familiar form of the long shadowy figure in grey hood, the man wearing the white mask.

 

“Have you ever thought to consider that the ultimate expression of natural perfection is not mankind? Instead, rising temperatures should be celebrated and accelerated as permitting new and bold expressions of life.”

 

“No Doilum, you bad bad man. I won’t allow it. The ultimate quietism!”

 

“Anything that permits life is beautiful, and that might not be humanity and its industry, which for the last century or two has posed the greatest danger to life.”

 

Deeper beyond the first perimeter path, the park increasingly hard to navigate through, the red night’s glare and the surrounding street-lights increasingly unable to penetrate the untended and overgrown thickets. Doilum had fall away somewhere behind. There was some answer waiting ahead of her, deeper in those unknown groves, that would unlock every past moment of her life, allow her to correct all that now blurred as bad histories – her parents, that holiday, marriages, work, words, breakdowns, words, words, all of that rubbish. She scaled a small fence and waded into dark waters, the cool tide never reaching more than knee-high, the grove-island ahead.

 

“A man is made, not born”, said the wind behind her. The spirit of the burning man was here. What did spirit mean? And yet they had always talked of it, the ancients and the analysts. Beneath a tree appeared a man in a long grey-coat, not like that of Doilum’s but her own, like a smock, his long grey-brown hair and dark brown eyes, her male double. “Only man and woman made me”, she replied. “The air is alive with it, don’t you feel?” said the figure, its words disembodied and swept swirling round by the wind. The figure stole behind a tree, the one tree that seemed to reside on the islet. Keira ventured closer, to the empty tree, and to the small shrub there, and below, beneath all the words and inscriptions carved into its sorry bark, a great pile of blue, brown and red hardback books, and the prone and unconscious body of Doilum the dog, and sat squatting, mobile phone in hand, McGinty. “So you want to do something about the misrule of men?” he said, mischievously.

Advertisements

Temple of Mithras

 

“Callum?”

 

“Yes… Agnes?

 

There was a look of total confusion. It was him; it was her. Four years hadn’t changed much to the face of either. Did he have a piercing, or had he ever had a piercing? Was her hair a lighter shade of red? Sit down, or stand up? Hug, or kiss, or too forward? Shake hands?

 

They uncomfortably hugged over the breadth of the table. He used his rucksack as a pretext for breaking it off, and sat opposite her. Her pretty silver notepad worried him. He looked stressed and distracted, carrying that slightly tortured and punctured air he always had, like those who have unwillingly had some sad event foisted on them which they now cling onto responsibility for long after. His wrist-watch made him look more grown-up than she remembered, though that was undermined by his patchy post-adolescent stubble. His grey eyes fired about, at her fingers, at the menu, back at her face, at his fingers, restless. He was still handsome, though not quite so as before, something had changed, though he would never tell her what.

 

“How was the journey?”

 

“Painful” she replied, revealing a well-rehearsed awkward smile. “I could not smoke for three hours!”

 

He started, and then stopped, before starting again, with the least audible of all bumbles, “painful, I imagine”. She was still beautiful, only a little older, the gentle and patient way she articulated this alien language suggested a kindness and a gentleness that was hypnotic. Beauty was still hers, in those greeny-blue eyes, her light face, that slim figure. His eyes briefly met hers before searching, in cold panic, to some other discernible distraction. No, no, I can’t look, things are over, everything’s changed, it’d be wrong. He caught sight of a irritable old man at the other corner of the café, ponderously rolling a cigarettes. He focused on him for a few moments, before returning his gaze to her hands, those spidery pale fingers he remembered.

 

After the awkward silence passed, she took it upon herself to initiate conversation, something she was not in the custom of doing. The same thought had crossed his mind.

 

“So….how’s….”

 

“Did… did you recognise me still?”

 

“Ha, no, you first!”

 

“Ok!”

 

“Yes, of course. How could I forget?” he smiled with a cheeky look, then frowned. Mustn’t come on strong, no. “Yes, you’ve not changed much. Well no, a little, maybe … your hair’s a bit different, have you lost weight?”

 

“Ha ha, nice turnaround! Have you seen my arms, I’ve been inked…’

 

She extended her long thin arms across the table, for a moment her knees knocking against his, displaying a mixture of sailor-type images, a ship in a bottle, on the sea, some pin-up type girls, a heart with an axe through, all with some non-English fine script woven in between, covering up most of her skin. The script intensified around her wrists and under-arms, taking the shape of waves like a calligram, but enough to still see the ladder-work of scars. Would he guess which one was about him, or for him? Or would he just keep gaping with that confused and lost expression?

 

“Nice, nice… looks really smart.” Her body felt so thin, but strong, lacking that vulnerability it had before. She’d grown up. He looked up and smiled. “You look really well. It’s good. It’s good, you know… it’s good to see you again.”

 

He’d emphasised the again, and that was ok, but it was only half of what he really meant. What if he’d been honest and emphasised the you, it’s good to see you again? And more than that, it was lovely, it’s more than anything, no, too corny. Ok, what about I’ve really really missed you? Would that be ok? Or not, because that made it sound like she’d just gone away before, like she was sofa-surfing around, when really he’d driven her away, and not because of some silly heart angst, but because of a selfish miscalculation, but one despite that, he couldn’t regret?

 

She smiled back. He still had something about him, like an air of trouble, but it seemed more frayed now, like his spark had become jaded and self-inflicted. His eyes, buried beneath high cheekbones, were still dark in appearance, but with the addition of a thin reddish line around his eye-lids which made his expression seem even more distant and slightly mental. Has he got into drugs? “You’ve not changed much either! You still look like you’ve been living on a diet of cigarettes, sleeplessness and booze!”

 

“That bad eh…!”

 

“No no. A lot of girls go in for the cute lost-boy look.” She gave a silly wink.

 

“Hah! Well you know, I stopped smoking actually, but I still drink, a lot, but not so bad as I used to be. No more blacking out…”

 

He picked away at his fingernails, which were neatly bitten away. This whole situation felt really weird, but already kind of nice, kind of natural. Are my feet touching hers? No, nearly. He could smell a very gentle perfume. He could feel himself hard, turned on by that same perfume she’d worn, but relaxed still. The caff-owner in his striped apron was looking at them. God, she mustn’t get any sense that he still found her attractive. He picked up the small laminated menu but there was nothing particular that he wanted.

 

It was oddly natural being with him again. He wasn’t as hot as she had remembered, but there was still something about him, that had her thoughts drifting back to being in bed, and the way that he murmured her name while they fucked, she’d asked guys to do it since, to say her name and pull her hair like he’d done, but hadn’t been the same as that first time. Maybe he hadn’t changed much. Maybe the horrible parts of him could be peeled away, or quarantined. Maybe cured. Maybe he hadn’t meant to hurt her, it had all just been an accident, or even it hadn’t’ve happened, and a magician and a brass band were going to pop into this poky cafe in a moment to announce all this. Surprise! It was just a test! You’ve just earned your right to a happy life now, bravo! That’s enough suffering collected in sadness points, please now redeem it with a faithful, caring and honest love!

 

If so, it seemed hardly the place. The waiter was gazing absently at them from the counter: they should really order something. But here, at this point, it felt like everything was paused. It was late afternoon, yet the overcast skies and autumn rain, the damp and empty cafe, it all felt like it could be four in the morning, like when they first met in that garden, and talked about their lives, what they’d known. Maybe there is a future. That’s what she thought then. Future now? How long will this pause last? How long before she had to return back into this world of roaming for a home forever receding?

 

The waiter politely approached in the usual circumstances. “Can I get…. um…a large espresso please. You have skimmed milk?” “Yes, skimmed, semi-skimmed, soya, even goats milk!” he said, smiling with an affable glint at the pair of them. “With skimmed milk please”, she smiled back. “And for you, sir?” “Oh…um…can I get a…umm…”

 

Bollocks. Must pick something.

 

“A caffe ristretto?”. The waiter’s cheery expression suddenly clouded over in confusion and inner turmoil. After a moment, he cleared his throat and spoke in quieter tones, “it’s very small, and strong, what they drink in Romagna, sir.” It sounded fine enough, but his disapproving cautiousness suggested he’d be making an erroneous choice, like an Englishman cannot, or should not, be allowed to access black coffee. Where the fuck is Romanya? Why couldn’t they just have a machine in nice places like this where you put your money in? He still hovered above, disapprovingly. Something straightforward then. “Black coffee then.” “Large or small Americano sir?”, his worried expression showing no sign of relaxing. “Small black coffee please.”

 

The caff-owner disappeared to another table, where a group of international students were noisily trying to attract his attention for the bill.

 

His begrudging politeness was so awkwardly enacted it seemed the very essence of Englishness. If only he could see how funny it all was. She was smiling at him, with a look that was deeply generous, almost forgiving. “I didn’t even want anything!”, he said, with a laugh.

 

“So…are you in the city for long?”

 

“Just a few days. Staying with an old friend.” She looked away. “Look around, hang out for a bit, see some bands, get drunk with a minor member of the Royal Family, you know…”, and she looked back. “And you? Are you still living in the city?”

 

“Err yes. I never moved away.” They were quiet again. She was looking intently at him, her expression more steely. “I’m doing my degree in London, […]

 

The noise from one of the nearby tables obscured what he said, but he was speaking into his collar with such quiet tones it was hard enough picking out anyway. But there wasn’t any point in asking him to repeat anything at this stage.

 

“And you know, of course, me and Julia moved in not long after she became pregnant…”

 

“Yes, you’re a dad. How’s that?”

 

“Fine, fine. Louise is learning to talk at the moment. The nursery say she’s doing really well for her age. She’s crazy, causing mayhem where she goes. She’s even taken to riding on the dog. No, really well, it was a surprise, you know, but it’s worked out really… ok. It’s one of the nicest things surprisingly, being a parent. Makes you very boring of course!”

 

He was smiling again and shaking his head gently, some stream of images flooding his downward gaze.

 

It was an expression that was impenetrable, and the temporary shelter established together in this sweet-perfumed grotto of a memory had again disappeared. He’d only told her long afterwards that Jodie was pregnant after he’d spent that night with her. That act of infidelity, however drunken or confused or whatever he said it had been was, it ended them. The child just added more weight to that. But something good had come of it, something that was naturally good and not premised on pain, and maybe what they’d had before had been so unnatural. But nature’s shit, a blank flag for anyone to ink their colours into. He was talking away about his life, about his daughter and his partner, and he looked happy. And she was rootless and roaming. She remembered that final day in the city four years before, the last time she’d been there. Wandering around with him, but something was wrong, and he wouldn’t say what, until the very end. All that time, not saying anything, as if by not saying something you could somehow froze it in time and prevented it from having consequences. She didn’t even shout at him. It was unforgivable. And that final day on her own, walking around the city where they’d been, where they’d first known each other. They’d been men she’d loved before and after, but this one had really hurt. Going away to get him off my mind, work it off my mind. Always on the move, living out of suitcases. He was asking her something.

 

“What’s that sorry?” a grave and serious expression had taken over her face.

 

“I said, ‘and how about you?’ ”, he said, with a nervous smile, attempting sympathy with a liberal dash of condescension.

 

I haven’t got any fucking kids, Callum. “Ok yeah. I’m not a mum!” She felt like looking at him pointedly, but the appetite for confrontation, something she normally enjoyed in part, restoring the balance, wasn’t there. “I was working back home in a record shop for about a year, that was fun, and now I’m at uni too. I want to write screenplays, but really, I have no idea what I’m doing!”

 

“That’s ok, neither do I.” His phoney expression from earlier was fading away, revealing a face that looked more tired, like as when he’d first wandered in, confused, not spotting her at all until she called him out.

 

“Who does. You think you do and then you don’t.”

 

The coffee arrived. She continued. “I think it’s part of how we live now. We’re roaming, we’re rootless. The way we work benefits capitalism…”

 

“Yep…”

 

“…It prefers workers to be rootless, no contracts, no security, moving around to fulfil demand, working for lower and lower wages with no attachment to where they work…”

 

He agreed entirely. He’d written anti-capitalist pamphlets and more since then, but it’d never been much of a feature of their relationship. Talking about it reminded him of facetious and pedantic disagreements over doctrine in paranoiac squats and dreary pubs. Of people like him and who knows, perhaps like her too, who hoped that a political transformation would solve their personal problems. “Have you moved around then?”

 

“Yeah a bit. Different cities – Berlin, Glasgow, a few towns around Sweden. Marseilles, Turin, Geneva. Frankfurt, now that was dull…”

 

“Blimey.”

 

“I like Glasgow. Boy can they drink!”

 

“Hehe! Sounds like good times.”

 

She was fingering the silver ring in her right hand, while with the left she sipped at the strong coffee. When should she give it back? It was not hers, it had never been hers, when what it symbolised wasn’t hers, and wasn’t even his to give.

 

“Do you write at all, still?” she asked, more quietly.

 

“Yes, but I haven’t tried to get much published.”

 

That was his excuse. “I self-publish a lot, in little magazines and home-produced books I make.”

 

“Umm-hmm, so no-one will ever read it, right?”

 

“Yep, that’s the plan! Not sure who’d choose to read moody and cryptic little stories anyway…”

 

“I’ve worked in a bookshop, and believe me, a lot!”

 

“And you? You were writing stories too before, I remember.”

 

“Well not so much stories, more articles, some autobiographical stuff. I had a few things published online under a pseudonym, until a teen magazine back home picked them up. They’re a bit more ‘literary’ over there, haha!” she said with a smile. “…So, reluctantly, I agreed to do a series with them, about two years ago. Ok…”

 

With this, she pushed her long and thin frame forwards, her hands pressed towards Callum, ready to pitch.

 

“Imagine now, what’s the most corny, gay-sounding title for a series of autobiographical articles about issues, experiences, desires and disasters that a fair young lady like myself might encounter, living in an era of late capitalism?”

 

She was laughing and smiling, her expression different from earlier. It was so pleasant to see the transformation. He wanted to stay longer and longer.

 

“Ha, I don’t know…umm… “Chihuahuas, Chanel and Chelsea tractors: the ennui of an independent woman?”

 

“Haha, no no, much worse. Some experiences, some stories, bundled together, of course I can’t imagine you would heard of it, it wasn’t very cool…”

It was finally at this moment, and for this moment, that he could feel some intense flickering within that brought him back to her eyes, fluttering langourously by a window, by a bridge, by a night with its distracted and hopeful faces, when he realised that this could not just be some insignificant affair. Do his best or not to forget her. Her mouth fluttering again with giddy nerves and charming self-deprecation, her words washing over with the beauteous meaning of her. Touching her arm and back again was like connecting with some dark and sexy current that charged manically between them. He nearly fell off his chair.

The Temple of Mithras. They were autobiographical, of course, you know, but with details changed. Anyway, it was a hit with a particular audience, and they ended up publishing the pieces together as a book, which is now getting translated into German, Finnish, some others…”

 

“Congratulations, I guess! Did you get much money out of it?”

 

“Probably enough to cover these coffees!”

 

Would she mind asking? It didn’t seem so. She was all happy and sad, one moment her hands running against her long hair, the next her arms folding her thin frame inwards, her colours changing continually. “And do you still cut, Agnes?”

 

With a very quick clearing of throat, she matter-of-factly responded. He could imagine her having to update her doctor or therapist or whoever she went to see in this kind of formal voice. He missed the first part of what she said. “…but despite that, I’m better at the moment I think. Things have been ok for about a year now.”

 

Why was he asking all this shit, like as if he was immune from it? Fine, he can hear things like everyone else does. There is no special place for him or anyone else, just the world and I, the world against me.

 

Love will make you drink and gamble, make you stay out all night long

 

But Billie Holiday didn’t have the choice. Her songs are all about being a victim of love, and of taking these lousy unfaithful men back.

 

Love is just like the faucet. It turns off an’ on.

 

Ach.

 

“That’s good to hear, really…”, he murmured in place of a sincere reply a moment later. Who trains you for these things?

 

They both stared into their coffees.

 

He could no longer clearly remember how they’d met. Memory always feels like a film capsule that is only allowed perhaps one or two exposures, before it becomes corrupted by contemporary environs, becomes confused with anachronistic or wishful details added or subtracted to the picture. He’d thought over too long about how they’d met in the past, to the point where those happy scenes in the past haunted every conversation and scene. We were like two of the same kind, our moods and our movements, like the last two of a forgotten species, mostly silent, but in a sexy way. Hands always off and on each other. But we were just kids.

 

Seventeen’s not kids, she thought. He’d said shit like that in his letters later, the letters that she now carried in her rucksack with the ring she was also to return to him. Seventeen is when your apprenticeship in life, love, sex, and self is in full throes. So at what point does it become too late to unwrite bad habits? This, perhaps, she would love just to chance to ask to someone. But all roads led to fucked-up exes either of the past or of the future. It was all so wrong.

 

What was it about her? She was of course, most obviously, very attractive, in an intense, subdued, compelling way. He wanted to know her, but ordinarily would’ve been too shy to introduce himself or some matter of conversation, had it not been for the plentiful amount of alcohol around at that small party, where, in the garden, he heard her talking to her friend about music, who would later turn out to be a relative she was staying with in London, and a mutual friend of his friend. And he interrupted them, because at that point they happened to be talking about one of his favourite bands…

 

He was a bit drunk when they’d met. He rolled out into the garden with a cigarette in his mouth, talking about this band he was in. He seemed like a bit of an arse but kinda cool, anyway, they got talking, Mel probably could see they liked each other, as she left them to it, and the more they talked the more they got on. He was a nice boy…

 

But she was unhappy, you could just tell. And that was the bite. That sadness he wanted to salve, he could feel all the pain in her, he could sense all the love that she needed, and he wanted to be one to give what she needed. So it is that sadness often first attracts young lovers to find refuge in each other, and to project all the confused, rootless, positive qualities in themselves onto someone else, with such hope for a life no longer alone, but shared with someone else…

 

She’d never believed in love at first sight, but there was intense attraction and lust, and that was far more real than all the abstracted and tragic descriptions often given of love. You grow up feeling alienated and alone from being a child, from the security of your parents and their lives, and all that longing and angst might well be some genetic component that kicks in to force you out into the wild and rootless world, to increase your own chances of genetic propagation. All that makes it sound so straightforward. But no personal development is ever simple. And rarely is it simply a case of just lust or sex…

 

Yes, that was it. Every conversation seemed leaden with distrust, cold mockery, and cynicism. For once, he wanted to put his trust in her, perhaps. So he’d asked her, ‘how’s life?’ That was it, so simple enough…

 

No-one had ever asked her that before. And that was how they’d ended up talking for most of the night, until Mel insisted that they had to go and catch the night-bus, and they made sure that they’d meet up again the next day. It was sweet how he’d followed them to the bus-stop and they’d kept talking…

 

The following afternoon they’d spent walking around and talking again. For a long time they’d sat at a riverside bench by the booksellers, facing the Thames. She had retraced her steps at numerous different points since to that bench, with its peculiar plaque, ‘Everyone needs a place to think’. She sit there alone and evaluate her life and where it was heading, with this alien river as her company, just as for a moment he’d been her companion. It was not home, but places like that were a kind of home, back in a time that she still had the power to revisit. But later, they were round at his, where they could drink easily enough. It all felt natural at that point. He’d not really been with girls before, and so when they first made out, he asked her what she liked, and what she wanted. She hadn’t believed that he was inexperienced for a long time. ‘I bet you say that to all the girls’. But she was so beautiful, and all her doubts made that a beauty without a hint of self-consciousness. If only they could have stayed within those first few days…

 

She’d always been uncomfortable with intimacy – for instance, she hated it when guys touched her without any kind of warning, and she didn’t like guys taking her clothes off – she preferred keeping control. Touching, fucking, she was ok with, but somehow it felt most uncomfortable and strange being completely naked with another, and making love. It was like she’d never been able to properly relax. But that was the first time where she had relaxed and found herself. It was the first time that a guy had properly made her come. She’d never been that open with a guy before, but in a different city, other things felt possible, like maybe she could move here and make a new start, have her chance at happiness…

 

They’d been silent for almost too long now. She’d come here to return his things, to say goodbye properly, not to just sit in a sad silence like this. There’d been quite enough of that.

 

“So, I have the things you wanted.” She placed on the table some CDs and a book he’d long forgotten ever possessing. She’d give him the ring at the end, it didn’t seem right now.

 

“Ah, thanks.”

 

“And I have your letters here. You said some very beautiful things in them…”

 

She’d read through them a final time the previous day, along with all the mixtapes he’d sent, for the first time in at least two years. She wondered what she’d put on hers, or the cards she’d made, of those things exchanged between them over a one year-period after that first night, and then abruptly halted.

 

…“What did you do with mine I sent you?”

 

“I haven’t got them any more Agnes. I had to … get rid of them… there was no choice.”

 

Jodie had known about Agnes. They were just fucking, just friends. Nothing was ever said of that other thing, until it was pretty clear that there was never any such thing as just fucking. It was after she’d found out she was pregnant, when they had to take their lives far more seriously, and of course, he never said anything about contraception, that she discovered Callum’s letters, and evidence of phone-calls, and texts, and everything else. ‘Why did you think you could do this?’ Perhaps his first gesture of commitment was in burning all of those letters. He felt the soft skin of a ridge in his nose where later, extremely drunk at a friend’s house, he’d burnt matches into his skin, like everything else.

 

“Why does that not surprise me?”

 

She had prepared so well for all of this. So far, although it had been sad, every part of this conversation had been in some way predictable. But this last detail had tripped her up. Just how could he do it? Still?

 

She remembered a poem she’d seen on the city’s public transport system after the second time she’d returned to the city, six months after that night. That second time was horrible. Something had gone wrong so badly. It was only at the end that he’d bothered to tell her the truth she already knew: that he’d got lonely and got together with someone else, but kept both relationships hidden from view. How the fuck could he, when we were so good. It was like before but all wrong. Walking round in quiet sadness, hugs, holding hands. A letter at the end that explained, written on a piece of cheap and dirty coloured card.

 

I loved you once, knowing I would never be your lover

 

She found the source of the words later, by the poet Carol Rumens. She could quote Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Genet now… of nameless punk bands and blues singers, lyricists of the ‘fuck it’ school who’d been an aid since, I’m leaving here yo cryin won’t make me stay, but it was this line which took her back to this time. Perhaps none of it was especially significant in itself, except this was when she’d first meaningfully lost her naivety, in that cruel taste of bliss taken away. And though for a long while she’d blamed him, it was clearer now that this is what men were like, and what people were like. Like Billie Holiday, could she take him back? Looking sad and pathetic there, his lips murmuring away, attempting to justify why he’d set fire to all that hope. Was it not enough to break her heart, he had to set fire to it too? She couldn’t listen.

 

“Callum, why did you want this? What were you hoping to see? You fucked it up…”

 

“But…”

 

“No, I let you fuck me up. I put too much trust in you, too much trust in anyone. It wasn’t your fault. How could you compare to my dream? I though you were an angel, but seeing you with her – isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that really why we’re here? – everything’s changed…”

 

Everything’s in between everything, displaced and rootless, wandering. She caught her breath.

 

“I won’t ask you, and I don’t think you’d know either, except like how it always is, ‘yes’, ‘why?’, oh, ok, ‘why not?’”

 

She was angry, but with tears in her eyes. It would be offensive to attempt to console here. Better just to hold it together, hold these arms together, until it’s over, until things maybe stop making sense again. But there was something kind of silly and sweet in it too, the way she’d dropped her voice in this kind of deadpan-mopey way to take the piss out of how he spoke, he was trying hard not to laugh, even though he was starting to get a bit wet-eyed too.

 

“Hey don’t laugh, don’t laugh, you hear me? You fucking asshole!, haha!” What use was there still being angry? It was all so silly, and she couldn’t help laughing too. She mock-slapped him, but did in fact hit him a little hard. He was laughing more and more, but he deserved it.

 

“If you keep laughing, I’ll read out one of your really corny poems!”

 

“Go on, I’d love to know…”

 

She skimmed through for vacant margins in his tight cursive. “Ok, remember this?”

 

She cleared her voice, and put on a thespian-sounding, deep-pitched voice:

 

“ ‘You and I, we fed ourselves on dreams til we were fat‘ … oh my God Callum… ‘and too full on this sadness to act on just dreams‘… I think I’m going to be sick! Ok, let’s see if it gets any better…. ok, here’s another, in your last letter actually. You really should’ve made it up to me in this one, I mean after all, I really liked you, and you went and cheated on me with someone else who you didn’t even tell me about, I mean, come on…”

 

The silliness and humour was getting more and more painful to keep up. “Ok, here it is: ‘Agnes, I have crushed both your soul and mine in attempting to cover up my lies. And there is nothing left of me except the world’s least acceptable sorry, and goodbye” ‘. At least you attempted a rhyme there, very good…”

 

As she read aloud those letters that he’d poured his pathetic doggerel and post-adolescent heart into, he remembered that time once more when they’d made love, two bodies in the night, hands mapping and discovering each other’s bodies, and how that had compared to the second time, and their final night together, just stroking and kissing her hair, holding each other, knowing everything would always forever be fucked in some capacity, like it had been before, like it always would be. He looked up at her. She was thinner than before, but he could imagine still what she was like, he could smell her still. But nothing would ever happen. What could he teach Louise of this? But he’d do it again, of course. No regrets.

 

“Would you do it again?”

 

“What do you mean? Do I regret anything, is that what you’re asking? Oh my god…”

 

“Yes, I guess.”

 

“I didn’t do anything wrong, don’t forget that. But I won’t regret feeling love of any kind, and of offering that love…”

 

“But Agnes…”

 

“Callum, it was madness, all of it. Every moment from start to finish. But how were we to know?

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I’m not a damsel in distress… that’s not my style.” Strangely, as she would later reflect back on this whole conversation, she kept seeing images of her and her flatmate Eliane drunkenly wandering around a hypermarket in Turin looking for lampshades.

 

“…but it would’ve happened somehow anyway. No long distance relationship lasts…”

 

“The body always beats the heart…”

 

“I don’t know. I drank a lot too, and who knows, maybe I would’ve fucked a guy at home too, or maybe not, maybe I just could’ve waited…. but all your letters make this error, I checked.”

 

She looked up, and smiled at him. It’s ok to be sad about the past, but it’s the past, she wanted him to know. She’d found the courage of her voice finally, within a transparent labyrinth of glass partitions of things once said, what should be said, and what shouldn’t. “You always assume that love and ‘the heart’ are somehow separate, higher domains to sex and ‘the body’. But it’s just not true. There is no lower or higher love – you love with the body. We liked each other, our bodies fit together, we loved each other. But yes, maybe we were just kids, I can say that even now. I couldn’t lock you up, and we should’ve called it off as a beautiful holiday-fling after the first night. You waited, then you fell for someone else. Doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your intention, it can’t be unwritten. I’ve loved others since…”

 

I don’t know if I’ve ever been so turned on like I was that night. It’s like you gave me the taste for something I’ve kept searching for since. But I will find it.

 

“Oh Callum”.

 

“Agnes. These are yours, aren’t they?” He handed over what he still had of the mixtapes, the letters, things he’d kept hidden from everyone. She gasped and smiled. Of course he hadn’t destroyed everything. As she began to look through the finely-decorated letters and outpourings of her own once-young heart, he downed the rest of his coffee, and began to gaze out of the now empty cafe’s windows, at drizzled buses beating streets covered in the black and the gold of another urban autumn night.

 

Maybe she was right. It reminded him of literary history, and of some French theorist he could vaguely recall studying, and his sweeping yet compelling remarks about the 19th century. The world only ever offered a temptation to give in: this was the submerged message of 19th century high literature. Its long novels, usually serialised into episodes, concerned the waves of tempting assaults on a hero or a heroine, and how their subjectivity variously yielded or resisted such temptations. The heart and the soul were intertwined and at times taken for granted as synonymous. So maybe then, the 20th century modernists partially abandoned the soul, attacking it as a fusty construct of religion and class, with its temptations merely moral prejudices. Instead they’d invented the ego and its stream of consciousness, hoping to liberate in their narratives some era-shaking drive. But whilst the soul was abandoned the heart was kept, at times as the gushing optimism of the mind, at times little more than the speaking clock of the cunt and cock.

 

And what of the 21st century then, that melancholic minefield of dead ideologies and dead futures? Now the body had become the protagonist, like his, operating outside the narrative but defining its limits and structure of references. 21st century characters are shaped by their doingness, by their activities as customers, consumers, and producers. They buy and buy into sex, sleep, love, and romance, and go tumbling and stumbling into one romance after another in a vain search for satisfaction as permanent state, when it could only be temporary. But much of these shifting thoughts were of little help here. He didn’t regret Louise, of course it had been a surprise, he’d naively thought that Jodie was using contraception. But it had created something beautiful and wondrous, which never would’ve otherwise existed. He was starting to feel a little faint.

 

“Err, I’m just gonna go for a slash.” He politely ducked round the cramped table, coldly knocking his legs against hers.

 

Need to get away, work you off my mind

 

She was glad that the conversation had nearly reached its end. She’d mapped out this conversation countless times before, in short stories and screenplays, in lucid dreams, and in passing holidays in her memories. This time, it had almost failed to live up to some of the high drama, or the sensuousness, or even sadness, of those past conversations, which now all seemed like the distant lights of faraway planets, whose present tense could only be seen thousands or millions of years after the fact. But in those distant travelling lights, the past continued to remain alive, and perhaps if we had a powerful-enough telescope, we might see on one star or planet lives like ours, living through again and again their past romances, excesses, and special moments. Perhaps in a telescope or another medium someone from the future would see what became of them, on those nights.

 

But he was still kinda hot, just unshakeably sad, and she no longer felt like trying to save him from all that. It wasn’t for her to hold him. She’d become comfortable with that loneliness now, it was hers, and must be killed again before ever shared. Hurting oneself in order to feel spelt a degradation of feeling. The waiter began to pile some of the chairs on top of the tables. “The bill please?”

 

The cold water helped bring him back to earth. Yes, he had given her back everything. Was there anything else?

 

“I’ve got a question and a statement left to say. Do we have to go?”

 

“Yes, but go on.”

 

“What happens if you just say yes your whole life, for fear of losing something by saying no?”

 

“Well well, the answer most often is a question.”

 

“Ok Agnes.” He wanted to hold her hands. No. They were folded in on each other, but her rich green eyes looked into his without any gesture of friendliness, as if perceiving their own reflection. “… I’m sorry. And that’s it.”

 

Is that really it? Of course it wasn’t, but at least they were both now released. “That’s ok Callum”. I forgave you a long time ago. “But this will be the last time we see each other.”

 

His expression seemed to have stalled into confusion. He looked about to say something, but then retracted. He went to down the coffee, though of course the cup was empty, though he pretended it wasn’t, and adjusted his seat again, then folded his fingers together.

 

“Yes, agreed.”

 

“Which way are you heading?”

 

“Just up the way to the station, back home”, he lied. “You?”

 

“Back to my hotel, then out again later, meeting up with some friends for a pint”, she replied, also lying.

 

“Well, I guess this is it.”

 

“Good luck Callum, I hope you find the happiness you’re still searching for.”

 

“You need that luck more than I do, Agnes, love.”

 

And with a long hug, and a kiss on the cheek, and their departure in different directions, so ended their conversation.

Greek vs. Greek

Dazed by hunger, passing one Tesco town after another. The great secret of these places is their void of a future. Nothing would actually happen there in thirty or forty years time. The malls and new-builds would be bulldozed and forgotten much sooner than that. With supermarket trolleys jutting out of the Thames mud. Objects indiscriminately laid out in the circumference of an invisible circle, without focus or centre. A world belonging to old men with ale-udders, mismatched sports jackets and beige chinos.
– from “Burial Customs”, one of a number of new short stories I’m working on. I’m hoping to complete a book-length edition of these, plus a musical collaboration of the article’s name, by the end of the summer…

Open mic shite – guest story by Kriddy T

Open Mic Shite: Point Blank Fuck Off – a guest story by Kriddy T.

It was me.

I went to a grotty little boozer in South Croydon, and teed off my set with a track from Half Man Half Biscuit’s début, the song was ‘Fuckin’ Hell It’s Fred Titmuss’. The locals were lapping it up, much to the dismay of my fellow musicians who were waiting their turn, a couple from Prague who were on a weekend break to South Croydon even bought me a cup of beer as well as complimenting me on my choice of song, however they said they would have preferred ‘99% of Gargoyle’s look like Bob Todd’ but that was nit-picking and anything from the HMHB back catalogue would have been, and I quote, “shit hot”.

“Cheers, Croydon. Lovely to be back…” I said as I chimed the last chord (D7).

I then burst into ‘One Step Beyond’, complete with me peacocking and jumping around, getting right up into peoples’ faces and knocking pints of lager everywhere. The song finished with me ducking as a foaming glass of Fosters (read piss) came whooshing over my barnet and exploding all over the pool table, fists started flying and a small burly but amiable bloke with severe eczema around the mouth came running from behind the bar.

“Oi oi! We’ll have none of that in our pub, now mind ya fucking language and keep playing sunshine” said the working class chap who owned the pub.

By no means was I going to calm the baying angry mob who I’d just antagonized into a frenzy.

“Any requests?” I smirked, as I tuned my shitty little Argos guitar up. I purposely dragged it out, this took well over five minutes to do, as I wound my rusty old guitar up, I read a passage from the Qu’ran, don’t ask me what part cos I’ve not got a fucking clue to be honest wiv ya.

“Get on with it you ‘orrible little mug!” said a small Jewish child who was out with her family for a few pints of Strongbow.

“Right then…” I mumbled as I downed the last drop from the pint of milk I had on-stage.

I was thoroughly tuned and ready to play. I laid out a frantic and crazed rendition of ‘Le Freak’, with most of the song featuring me in my pants kicking the fake wooden partition walls in till my monkey boots snapped like a Kit Kat. It went down a storm, a bloody great tropical storm that is, a bloody great storm that involves lots of civilian deaths and mass property damage, culminating with a bloody awful pop single to raise money for the poor bastards, yeah, one of those storms. The angry flatcap-sporting proletariat filth were now in pure infatuation and sheer awe of my performing skills. A few chaps at the front became so delirious with excitement that they were carted away to the hospital, and I do mean carted away, a wheelbarrow was fetched from the cellar by a blind racist geordie fellow by the name of Iain who insisted, often with force (largely verbal), that his name was to be pronounced “E-AAIIIIN!”, if you were to call him “E-UN”, he’d (try to) thump you.

I tried to lull the heated, hostile crowd, even pretending to be one of those violent black rappers you see on the telly.

“S’bout time we wind this shit down. Y’all need to chill the fuck out, ya feel me?”

By now the crowd were spilling out onto the streets, forming streams into the back roads, every vantage point had been seized in the whole of South Croydon, twitter was ablaze as people sent frenetic messages to one another from their tiny illiterate brains “OI @BAZSEXY1978 DIS MAN IN DA PUB IZ WELL GUD, CUM INNIT”, stuff like that I imagine.

“I, just took a ride! IN A SILVER MACHINE…!”, I screamed, the audience singing to every word, a large mosh pit spawned from the front making its way all the way to back of the pub and people became enraptured with sheer delight, my delight, angel delight.

As crowd-surfers knocked down the light fittings and the blazer wearing old men shouted the words to the Hawkwind classic, ‘Silver Machine’, I threw my guitar down in fit of pure spiritual incandescent rage.

“Goodbye Croydon. Goodbye.”

My Cash Converters Hell – guest tale

A lovely winter warmer of a tale by Kriddy T, who still refuses to blog. One of the best things I’ve read for months and happily reproduced here from Kriddy’s message. James Kelman in reverse. Enjoy…

C A S H  C O N V E R T E R S : MY HELL –

So i got my nat king cole (kriddish for dole) money on tuesday and went on a spending spree. The day started with me going to Penge. I had a little look on the internet for a musical instrument shop that sold maracas (that weren’t £15 or above) and found a good place that had them for £9 (not exactly a bargain but probably the cheapish i could get). I then took the 176 up to the good ol’ Walworth Road for a look in the fine boutiques and bistro’s, I bought a microphone from cash converters that seemed pretty decent and that was a tenner, I also spied a black 8Gb iPod* at £24.99 as I went out but thought “nah, fuck it”. I then went off to south london’s finest market, east street market (or ‘da fackin lane’ if your a prole) and looked at all the useless shit on offer, i contemplated buying a green denim shirt but then i got scared of the thought that i might look like a t4 presenter so quickly binned that idea. *my old mp3 player fell in the bath

Next stop was tottenham court road, I got the 12 up to oxford street cos i wanted to go into this charity shop that has sometimes has decent clobber on sale but there werent much on offer so I walked down oxford street whilst stopping in HMV to have a look at the albums n stuff. I like having a look at the albums, mainly just to have a closer inspection of the cover art (which is alway good with The Fall) even though im never gonna buy them as all i do is simply type into google “[album name and artist] mediafire” and hey presto! Free music.

I got down to Denmark Street and realised that it were so like totally hilarious and LOLZ that theres a Job Centre on a street full of musicians n shit, like bare funnzy innit. So I went into a shop and had a look at the guitars trying not to feel too intimadated by the fucking cunts who eyeball your every move in there (also while i’m here, i have to say, they have the worse taste in music imaginable) and i asked the guy “how much is your cheapish guitar lead?”
“£15”

So i took a trip to few other places and found a shop that did a lead for £4, which isn’t too sore at all.

All this walking around was thirsty work, I went into a little shop and bought one them lamb samosa things you getter in plastic packet (i usually get them when im pissed so this made a nice change) and thought “y’know what, i’m gonna go for pint…..by myself”. Now some people might say I am a sad little man spending his dole money in spoons by him self and i might well probably agree, then the thought of someone seeing me drinking by myself made me anxious, I downed the pint quicker than can say….”pint”.

The 176 turned up eventually and I boarded back to camberwell, it started fucking pouring it down, but the sun was still bright so it made central london extra atmospheric, i took the opportunity to take a photo on my fone (cos im one of them twats that does that) which prompted some american tourist to come sit next to at the front and take a picture too (plagiarism). Then I got a flash back of the iPod in the cash converters. I wondered whether to buy it and thought to myself “I wonder whether to buy it”. Yes, yes I will.

At the cash converters the same guy got the iPod for me from the glass cabinet and handed it over to blonde polish assistant (weren’t that fit as she sounds if your wondering) for her to try it, which she did and showed me it was working. As she checked it she went “Aaliyah!” with a smile, the previous owner hadn’t deleted the contents so I was in for a nice suprise of r’n’b and other pop ditties. I handed over the cash and left with a now bulging bag full of fun.

I felt a little peckished so went to Greggs (where da fuck else?) for a sausage roll and then headed into morrisons to see if they had any good stuff in the reduced section eg. scotch eggs, yoghurt, booze, pork snacks in any shape or form etc. I bought three bottle of stella (those big one’s) for fiver (i got id’d and i havent shaved in a week!) and headed for the bus.

I tried to have a little look at my iPod on the bus but there was no battery in her, so just enjoyed the lovely ride down the boulevards of the walworth road into the salubrious area of Loughborough Junction.

When I got indoors my Mum was on the computer doing work, i cracked open a bottle of John Graham Mellor (kriddish for Stella) and i gave one to my mum, she likes a drink from time to time when shes doing her work, cant blame her really. I climbed upto my room to and fired up the laptop, not before i had a little mess around with the maracas and I checked the microphone was in working order (which it was). I plugged the iPod into the laptop and got ready to get down to some serious file transfering.

It came up as “aisha’s ipod” (yes it had a name), I deleted all the old crap and christened it “My IPOD”, which is a cracking name i know. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank “PHILLIPS 8Gb MP3 PLAYER” or Phil as he was known for his longstanding service until his untimely death in which he drowned in the bath with me, his corpse is now lying in the kitchen next to the teabags. I started putting all the stuff i wanted on to it, starting with ATV (there actually not too bad as it goes) finishing with The Velvet Underground. Happy days i thought (not the tv show), I disconnected the iPod which was now pregnant with fine music and switched her on to have a gander at it.

Everything was fine with it except the fucking menu button didn’t work, so you could listen to a track but if you wanted to go back a step you didn’t have a chance in hell. “Fucksake!” i roared.

I had a look on the internet, maybe there was someone way of tackling this, maybe on yahoo answers there might be some thirteen year old kid from Ohio who knows the way of unlocking it or something. I found one page which showed you how to open an iPod, with a vague suggestion there might be problem with dirt or something stopping the menu button from properly clicking. I got my manly wife (kriddish for stanley knife) and prized her open. This was the electrical product equivalent of key hole surgery, one wrong wrong move and she’s brown bread (cockney for dead). I then got too scared to carry on for fear of braking her. I carefully closed her body up and put it back in the bag. Refund was now on my mind.

The next day I got up and watched some shite on youtube for a bit and read about the stone roses reunion (to be honest i dont find the stone roses interesting but they do have some alright tunes tho, the reunion will be pretty darn embarrassing as they usually are but i spose it will make a lot of people happy so I why not pilage your legacy eh) and went downstairs for some toast with Sainsburys peanut butter.

The thought of the showdown at Cash Converters was weighing heavy on my mind. Now is the time, bring it on, “let’s fucking do this shit, yeah!?” i screamed at the top of my voice (in my head).

At the Cash Converters I was served by a different guy, a polite african bloke served me and asked if i wanted a different iPod. I agreed and he fetched a new one. He checked to see “My IPOD” was as bruck up as i said it was and he let have the new iPod (i say new, it was second hand with abrasions to sides and back), it was a kinda crappy teal colour instead of the black, but i thought this was a good sign, a sign this its going to work. I asked the guy if i could have a thorough look at it, i spent a minute whirling round the menu and clicking everything making sure it was in 100% tip top form which it was, and the guy let me have it even though it was priced ten pounds more at £34.99. Happy days (again, not the tv show) i thought.

A sausage roll later im on the bus trying to check it out, see if I could have more of a look at it, there was nothing on it so i switched it off, the previous owner was obviously savvy to the wonderful and frightening world of second hand retail and had eradicated the contents to not annoy the future user. Thank you sir/madam/

I got her home, going through the same process, for amusement purposes I called her “CRYPOD”. I got all my music on there and thought “now i can get on the bus and listen to music and i wont have to bat an eyelid at those charity bastards you see outside sainsburys in brixton cos ill have earphones in my head therefore meaning i dont have to talk to anyone”. Everything was working fine, the wheel and all the buttons on it worked and all my music was on it. I was happy. I plugged in the headphones and played taxidermist from the trendy sequencer-botherer’s Factory Floor (sound like these new puritans when they first started, s’alrite like).

“Fucking hell…” i moaned like housewife in a tone that suggested i had done this before.

The headphone jack on it was messed up, it only came out of one side. I checked to see if it was the headphones and plugged them into my laptop, perhaps they were damaged in the drowning incident on that fateful monday night when Phil died. The headphones worked. I tried plugging my iPod into my speakers and the sound only chimed from one side of the speaker.

“What the fuck!?!”

By Kriddy T

Three Swords

A new draft story for the gamblers and data administrators, but dedicated to M.H., wherever he is. It’s an experimental piece, a little too long, but I’d love to hear people’s impressions. It can largely be read in any order with the exception of the first and last part. Please – it’s not a confessional work, but explores some dark new psychological non-places that have appeared elsewhere in my stories, characters, lives and scenes. It requires an essay to explain it, and in some ways is the creative equivalent of my MA dissertation, which I am on the verge of finishing. Sometimes a character possesses you. Don’t make assumptions about the author, I’m quite fine, as is everything…

+ + +

It would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like…‘ – Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting.

This exercise works like this: he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over.‘ – Sigizmund Khrzizhanovsky, “Red Snow”.

There was a certain liturgy of words that had to be kept pure, uncontaminated. Words were sick creatives, continually expanding and mutating as new data-streams ruptured their existing semantic structures. We had to write and maintain entries for every word on the continually-expanding database. To say the task was exhausting, well – even that phrase catapults one back into a realm of etymological tracings, clauses and a mania to have done with it all.

The “I” was a construct of all these words and entries which were arranged and re-composed like elaborate sand-mosaics at the hands of children at the shore-side. No longer anything, but this infinity of things and names needed always to be characterised and organised. New words were being created at every second, disrupting the flow of existing meanings and requiring the databases to be updated and adjusted on a continual basis. Sleep, if necessary, was deferred for exceptional occasions. The body was a passive media device whose highest utility and calling was in coding its flaccid impressions into truth as digitised information. To this end, such externalities like physical health, reproduction and the like would have to be submitted to the regulation of pure information. To say that the task of data administrator was important would be no understatement. I had seen men and women slumped over their digital devices, their inactivity mocked by some asinine screensaver.

There was a person I used to think about very much when undertaking this vocation.

The work could be intensely demanding. We were frequently having to deal with trojans, viruses, errant codes. Working in former shops and warehouses, usually in industrial estates surrounding the M25 ring, our networks were safer and network-intruders were easier to detect away from the busy information traffic of the central metropolitan areas. Frequently though we shifted location. Many of the older workers stood at their workstations, it was a fairly effective way of remaining awake – it was easier to eat, piss and shit where you were. Any wandering around the perimeter was incredibly exhausting, and there’d been unfortunate moments I’d spent looking for some more Eudex, waking hours later slumped in the kitchen area or garage of the office, wrapped in my jacket. Lost time.

Gil Upscott was a fairly typical case. His deletion order had come through from the National Identity Database (NATID) and I’d been emailed a Temporary Licence Exception Order (TELEO). It was easy enough work. I had no idea what Upscott’s crime had been, but NATID wanted all digital traces and evidence of his existence to be deleted. In the past this had been a difficult task, but his traces could be found primarily in 3 or 4 locations. Facebook was used to disable his account under some unknown abuse. His blog http was reassigned to a minor basketball sports academy in Chicago. If they were well known, data administrators had to be a little creative – so I created a fake identity. Instead of being an obscure legal historian, Gil Upscott was now a mediocre US Basketball player from the early 1990s who had been forced into retirement by injury. I rewrote his Wikipedia entry, used Youtube to replace his speeches with some old digital footage of basketball games, and went to remove his Amazon page but this had already been deleted. That was generally enough. I got into the NATID database and found out his bank account, email addresses and phone numbers, and had these either deleted or rendered inactive. There was something immensely satisfying about this. Getting a new ID was intensely difficult. Afterwards I earmarked a few favourable reviews and websites discussing his most recent work, “Law and the abuse of emergency”, as criminal under the Anti-Terrorism legislation, a fairly convenient way of closing down websites without question. The Google algorithm was adjusted by a huge number of simultaneous data requests that brought the fake basketball player up when Gil Upscott, Gil Upscott law, Upscott emergencyand other phrases were typed in – the most time-consuming task. After around 35 continuous hours Gil Upscott effectively no longer existed. Even if a man with this name claimed to be asserting his identity, he would either be arrested as an identity fraud or confused with the American basketball player. It was ingenious touch and I was very proud of the shift’s work, as would be the client.

*

There was a menacing atmosphere in the air, as if I had offended some minor tyrannical deity whose language I would never know.

The children were having bets on who could explode a collection of fire extinguishers and found crockery. Somehow they’d managed to make it up to the top of the medium-rise housing block, and were throwing down rocks. The extinguisher wouldn’t explode of course, but most of the windows on my adjacent car were smashed through. As I gingerly approached the vehicle, they began urinating from above.

I climbed into the wrecked vehicle, but my presence here was dangerous. I found a lighter in the glove compartment, next to a pack of latex gloves and a wedge of dictol. The car upholstery eventually caught alight after a few abortive attempts that burnt away the plastic seat coating. The insurance company would provide an alternative vehicle. But the words would continue increasing and elaborating well after the data parsing was over. I was very tired, and somehow I fell asleep in one of the transport depots. Whether it was night or morning I could not discern.

*

Another time, leaving the building where these tasks were carried out, Claude had asked me to join him in one of the hotel rooms of a Travelodge in a nearby retail park. Occasionally we needed to work together, corroborate some entry or data set, and after that we might drink, wander around the retail park, perhaps eat some McDonalds before returning to the room to watch pornography. The June evening air was glinted through with a greenish dust that momentarily appeared beneath the street-light glare like the cheap trick of a mystic, a stage-prop of a mediocre punch and judy show.

I had not seen Lola for some time now. Exhausted, we had abandoned our attempts at feelings after our reproductive period was over. Our two children had been genetically successful and her parents had proved adequate in supervising them. Resource executives like her were wired, their work made them impatient, short-tempered, impulsive – so I thought. They generated all kinds of idiotic codes and slang that needed to be continually regulated. Like most couples we had been encouraged to have multiple temporary partnerships to enhance our ‘balance’ – absurd terms stolen from New Age medicine were frequently employed, with suspect origins, but little matter. Spas had been a regular feature of underground gay sex but a new mythos of compulsive eroticism had emerged with improved health and mental agility cited as benefits, and registration fees for spa memberships increasingly constituted the bulk expenditure of myself and Lola’s bored, disintegrating relationship. I actively consented to this system. I found myself attending two particular spas on the M25 periphery around three times a week, and would’ve attended more if there had been time left. It was our one leisure activity. Users would rate each other’s performance, liaisons were generally arranged online before, so even the workday was filled with a fairly insistent if monotonous sex-chat, a kind of call-and-response testing of interest. I was very proud of my 78.8 score, though it had been in general decline over the previous months, and was beginning to jeopardise my membership at one of the more premium spas. After the suggestion of one of my colleagues in another department, I insisted on home sessions with colleagues from various associated companies, but the weekly meals and sexual activity after soon exhausted the attentiveness of our limited range of taboo and transgression. I had now lost track of her lovers and she mocked my failure to emulate.

I had described my personal life for over 1000 words now, but this was a fallacy, as the I has already been established as not existing. Passengers on the transport networks occasionally erupted in violence and collectively these would stalk dreams, generating new codes for fear, outsider, terrorist, disruption.

*

It was a cool July evening. The swoosh of tires of a bulky goods vehicle against an oily erupted gutter injected thick fuzzy memories of the South-east, the regular transit of buses and the animalistic fighting and general violence pounding through the gated communities and retail parks like bad hip-hop. On a night not unlike this very one, I’d spent the day completing some semantic re-upping on a client’s database. Back then I’d largely been working as an Oreo™ Child Flourishment Executive for the South-Eastern district Social Services. It largely involved processing probation details and inputting the details of reoffending justice reports, arranging custodial transfers, but to supplement my income I’d occasionally sell parts of the database to media agencies or identity letting organisations. Hacking into databases out of a nihilistic boredom had given me the strangely obsessive taste for data admin – an obsession a few old pros like myself and Claude had and took pride in.

The heavy bags in my hand were full of scotch, lager, supermarket sandwiches and a couple of pornography films. Claude was sat inside the silver vehicle, engrossed in his media device, and I had to wait for several minutes before he was able to let me in, his self-deluded paranoia and lack of social skills almost charming. The car radio was reporting some criminal disturbances around the major metropolitan centres, with a large imperious voice, possibly that of the Justice Executive or the President announcing new emergency powers for the military.

The country’s sick”, I offered, quoting the words of a TV presenter I’d heard earlier that day.

Claude ignored me. “Butt-fuckers Booty-camp 2, I’ve seen that one”.

No matter”, I replied, handing him over a can of lager.

Have that”, he returned, shoving a couple of mittex into my gaping mouth.

Laughter.

You have always been a good friend to me”, he offered.

I suppose so”, I said.

It takes love to tell a person truly what their faults are”, said Claude, tracing the outline of his lower lip with his index finger.

It’s possible”, I replied.

Often we would go back to a hotel room but tonight we stayed in the vehicle, watched wiry foxes, bloated middle-managers with their chicken-tikka suits and roach-swagger, and anaemic young women with their plaintive rock music and depressive self-narratives scutter across the deserted car-park towards one of the supermarkets. We were watching a particularly violent male prisoner pornographic film, Prisoner from Cell Block XXX 9. Claude was getting quite turned on, the mittex and scotch often had a profoundly disinhibiting effect. Depressed at the likely outcome of events, I insisted that we drove around for a bit, but we were both too drunk to accurately command the vehicle, and we got stuck on a roundabout on the exit of the now-deserted retail park, the vehicle rolling and twisting around in perfect concentric circles, Claude roaring with laughter until finally I managed to switch the vehicle onto manual control and plough it into a small embankment, sustaining some minor bruising in the impact.

*

Myself and Lola habitually had sex, yet these sessions had recently become increasingly violent, more so the less intoxicated we were. She now encouraged regularly cutting, usually in the soft hidden skin below her buttocks, and a certain violence, biting and hitting had become necessary to reach climax. It was hard to estimate how many times we’d come together, but I’d recently taken recourse to sleeping at various hotels that were closer to my workplaces, or in the beds of various lovers, even the spas on occasion when I was too tired to travel back to Lola’s. The cutting was a concession to the banality of love-making. It had begun under my instigation. Resentment and frustration was satisfactorily played out in violent exchanges, but for a while I had desired to taste another part of her, and was given the opportunity after a particularly pathetic attempt at self-harm. I’d taken the blades and applied them fairly carelessly to a point she’d lack self-consciousness over, close enough to the major erogenous zones. As I forced the wound open I wilfully spread the blood around her, and the heady metallic taste, spread through kisses, drove the pair of us to push through the other limited range of taboos available.

She joked later that it was curious that such behaviour would land us both in a prison cell or at a mad house any other time.

My eyesight was diminishing. The words continued creating, mutating and modulating into innumerable new forms, perverted by number, splitting like quantum particles each time I attempted to make any sense of them.

The data input device that had once represented a part of my anatomy was now corrupting through age and overuse. The sensor I often wore above my eyes was increasingly crashing. Tiny silver and gold circles like bullets or firecracker-flashes exploded across my retina, confusing my vision. I collapsed and held my head, scrunching up my eyelids in a vain attempt to deprive my brain of witnessing the corruption and sickness already inside it.

*

Time had increasingly flattened into an infinite and endless present of interminable demands and data-streams. The events that might constitute my identity and life were one such data bank, whose experiences I could increasingly tap into and use, though the characters of this earlier life had all departed. And where, I could not say now. One memory: I’d wandered through the wreckage of an old leisure centre taking photographs. Isla was sitting quietly as I came in, her pale and spidery fingers generating Satie’s first Gymnopédie out of the keyboard in the corner of the apartment. I sat next to her on the stool, the third-floor window in front of us depicting some colourless scene of a central European housing block of the previous century’s Brutalist school, a billboard extolling the virtues of a new brand of toothpaste. She smiled, she was wearing some ill-fitting stripy frock probably belonging to an older sister, which her soft brown hair, unusually undone now, flopped against.

It’s wonderful”, I said finally.

She carried on silently, though smiling now. It was only her failure to keep the pace of Debussy’s moonlight song that finally had her erupting in giggles, the song creaking over like a runaway tram down a tranquil frozen Sunday morning hill, in the snow, possibly.

I kissed her neck and offered her a handful of Burfurine, but she ignored the request. The words were running rampant now, flickering and corrupting into new combinations and variations. I was feeling very nauseous. She eventually came back into focus after I managed to regulate and reduce my breathing to a slower speed.

You have so much love in your heart but none for yourself”, she replied.

I found charming but a little sad the way she would project her own qualities onto others and compliment them on these, whilst ever-castigating herself with apologies and sudden, sharp self-condemnations (“I’m stupid, I can’t”), when of all of us back then, only Isla could and only she would, though like in all these juvenile moments I said nothing.

Sol”?” Perhaps I’d failed to get her sarcasm on these occasions, an esoteric subtlety of words that they might in fact contain their own self-subversion, their own energetic undoing, puncturing the integrity of the steely-eyed data administrator like a jack-in-the-box. But no, Isla was strange always, laughing hysterically and out of rhythm to some unknown and unknowable joke.

I was day-dreaming into the car rearview mirror. Rain was falling and bringing a copperish dust onto the evening windscreen. I grimaced at my own reflection and inspected my teeth. In the glove compartment was the same brand of Burfurine, a physical link now back to those times. I’d only been known as Austin as part of the necessary identity change for the job, but so little in a name. I swallowed two pills. My user-rating was in decline at the spas, reducing too the potential amount of meetings available on my membership. The pills steadied my nerves, and when mixed with a couple of lines of Eudex made the user feel highly energised, beastly. Parking the car from the deserted goods-track round to the multi-storey car-park, I wondered one last time what might have happened to her and those words, her codes.

*

Hairs in butter. Various murmurs were now circulating about Claude, insanity and his bad DSM record, his expected departure. Such circulars were issued by the HR-PR departments about imminently departing employees. Some pop-psychology about blocked neurolibidinal receptors. Half the department of administrators were bipolar alcoholics with a declining grip on what was going on, as was I. It made us take our jobs even more seriously given there was very little else successfully occurring in our wearied and self-destructive existences. The industrial estates of the M25 were packed with drunken autistics, driving around in sick and deathly circles.

Happiness is a matter of science”, a woman later erupted at the spa later as we approached climax. It was strange how people often uttered catchwords as their bodies shook in tremors, manically licking their upper lips, another side-effect of the Burfurine. She was presumably a doctor as the tone had the self-confident semantic staccato of grade 4+ medical history programming, but there was no need to ask questions, as we generally lied about our backgrounds anyway. I had somewhat recklessly began telling people the truth about my life lately, just because it was so unlikely. I later slept in my car outside Lola’s apartment.

*

I gently held her chin with my snooked hand.

You know I’m not experienced”, Lola said. No, not Lola. Who though.

We’d been wandering around Westfield East in search of some cheap duvet covers for one of her service support users. I had kept pulling at her hair and clothes in a somewhat vain effort to amuse her. Our union had always been founded on a certain idiotic friction, either in gesture or word.

Who is, in this day and age?”, I replied, using one of a certain TV presenter’s favourite expressions, who had in hindsight been a real father to me.

You lot are only ever after one thing”, she replied.

I suppose it’s better than not being after anything”, I came back. I still enjoyed making her laugh, even back then, stealing smiles from her face like that.

The words and impressions shifted into one another, the unspecified parameters of more vague concepts like law, or love, or fuck, or war, troubling and confusing this jittery flow of data through my conscious thoughts.

Perhaps I was still dozing in my car, the Eudex comedown and the greenish dust, the rain. It was now a cool August afternoon, I forget the year, but it was certainly before the children were born. It was before even the prospect of the generous tax-breaks had come to appeal to us, on one of those rare occasions where we both had taken leave off work, and were out together. Unproductive days like these were not so unusual as they are now today, but I remember the rebellious buzz of our uselessness. We’d spent the day wandering around the old City of London, its forgotten churchyards in between the shambling pseudomodernism of the last century, and were now at Old Spitalfields market, watching elderly couples dancing slowly with care in each other’s arms. Whilst Lola was capturing images on her phone, a particular couple caught my attention. It’s strange how I’m so used to calling her Lola now, but she’d been encouraged to take on a new name after the children and the sicknesses of that year. She was called Eleanor I think when I met her, again I forget now. This elderly couple had both been shrunken by age and seemed at first entirely nondescript. But after watching their peaceful rhythmic gestures, I discovered just once a melancholy beauty in the careful motions of the human form. As he held her hips in his outstretched hands, she thrust her pelvis around and he emulated, but the peaceful way their hands clipped together, now his hands around her arched back, gave the lie that he was in control. They shuffled back onto her backfoot, then so quickly twisting around, left-right-left under the old market pavilion, her vintage blue floral dress, his at first ludicrous thick mustard Aran sweater and suit trousers, his cream soda quiff and her over-application of blusher and strawberry lipstick.

Their graceful gestures in imitation and synchronicity with one another, the mediocrity of the music made virtuous by these ancient, repetitive moves, motions myself and Lola in our relationship had perhaps known at certain points. But our real marriage was to our jobs, even during the kids – us both inadequate lovers highly capable of loving one another. No matter now. Eleanor become Lola, Sol become Austin, the mass-popularity of the spas cannily assuaging heterosexual angst with a wonderfully-simple panacea. Work and fuck. No matter the identity of who licked or loved whom, just a cool and lonely transaction, the wounded architecture of our lives, desire rendered to the status of hotel breakfast buffet where everything is on offer and nothing no longer tastes of anything, the possibility of the future now deferred or abandoned.

I asked her if she wanted to dance, but she gave me a dirty look. “Don’t be stupid”, she said.

You’re far too passive”, I replied.

It’s the work. I’m exhausted”, she said, looking away as if distracted, but with a certain hint of panicked excitement, which at the time still mistakenly struck me as intriguing and erotically charged, almost hysterical.

It’s not the work”, I replied again. She was upset, and would only hold my hand once we’d left the crowds. We saw friends later. I was surprised at how young we looked when I saw the photos after.

*

A fashion had come in for taking photos and short films of couples and group sexual activity in public places, particularly casual and busy sites such as a McDonalds, a bus, an airport terminal, anywhere more risky that might result in more hits and kudos. Lola was into these things. As info-workers, a certain classiness was used to distinguish our sexual acts, usually with ‘quotes’. These could be fashioned fairly easily: our parents’ generation had been very much into pulp literature like Harry Potter or Marvel/DC superheroes, so a certain classiness could be immediately connoted with an appropriately-applied lightning flash or a certain lurid choice of neon spandex. But this kind of garb wouldn’t be enough to get your photo listed on MSN Favorites or one of the Mirror or Sun videos pages. A certain inventiveness was called for. I remember myself and one of her colleagues were encouraged to dress as Wilde and Bosie in Victorian gear and were captured fellating on the boating lake of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, full of American and Chinese tourists. Of course amateur images were preferred, especially where obvious evidence was provided that the image had been taken whilst in the act, and a certain normalised vogue of either the missionary or cowgirl position, taken from a 45 degree descending angle usually, was preferred. Media outlets especially liked it if you could quote their name in the image, either by having their latest daily edition in your back trouser pocket or having some inane reference to a trending news topic scrawled on your body. It may sound perverse to describe all this in such detail, but much of the slang and data-codes that emerged out of these public practices constituted the entries upon which my vocation was predicated. Indeed it was the largely sexualised nature of data administration which first led me to enforce many of the experimental practices that would later have such a powerful effect on our relationships. The media outlets had abandoned their original moralising and were now largely full of home-made sex clips, of which one usually abandoned the copyright to when uploading, and a crude new terminology had appeared which required even more information processing. The entire process was ridiculous.

*

Who knows why, but later we were rolling around in the gutter like pissed dogs, grit and grease coating our collars and hair. We went without shaving for a while, allowing our bodies and clothes to acquire scents, allowing the afternoons to acquire a certain lazy cheekiness. We stayed with her brother in Lausanne during this time, often poaching his savings to take long sorties out into the country. He was a fool and we often took advantage of his self-pity to take him to dinner, ask him about his latest tryst or depression whilst conspiring to incite one another to further offensive behaviours. I was still working on a software data-processer at this time, one that would around all MS English 2006 words within a comprehensive semantic dictionary. It was a hopelessly naïve pursuit, and my algorithms were continually corrupted by errant data from web-gamers. My obsession with data-process had a negative effect on Eleanor. Yes, Ellie. Ha, that was her name when I first met her. We moved back to London after I announced to her with a complete lack of conviction that my devotion was to her alone. My cynicism possibly appeared from that date.


*

I returned to the apartment where the TV had been left loudly on a porn channel. The heavy breathing next door was unmistakeably that of Ehren, from another department, and a man, seemingly a little overweight given his deep, resonating whimpering. Outmanoeuvred by this sexless night with Claude (we hadn’t even masturbated together), I wandered into the living room where from the bar I lifted an old cointreau bottle and took some blue pills out of a leather pouch. I undressed and joined the lovemakers, curiously Lola was not there, and they were engrossed in servicing one another, a formulaic repetition of certain key phrases. Breaking one of the rules, I became violent and directed the fat man’s face towards my torso, pushing it down. A circular from the Health Association had emphasised that regular intercourse would improve mood and productivity.

Ordinarily rules and agreements were established beforehand, but the man was compliant and useful. Lola came in later in a gown. After a few lines were shared, the others became more intoxicated.

*

Anxiety of new words following corruption of non-user language on gaming databases – potentially revealing the huge number of non-human users, which may lead to political scandal. These improved the game experience but there was some anger against these A.I.-avatars that they were dangerously useless, consuming valuable energy and data, parasitic and decadent.

The new phrases didn’t bear the flexible usage of ordinary human phrases, being at least one third made up of numbers, but user chat was seeing a strange semantic crossover. The new words kept mutating and corrupting their entries. I took great pleasure in code-epidemics like these. Word-sicknesses. Policing data, like a gamekeeper in a frontier of nonsensical, non-meaning chaos.

A fox strolled across the deserted car-park. I had a letter in my pocket, a strange interconnecting series of observations of my own life titled “Three Swords” and addressed “To You”. I had to dispose of it in some organic way. I tore up the small notebook I’d scrawled into during my hours at work and pushed the notes inside the meat roll I had lost interest in, the papers scattering around, my childish cursive drifting into the pocked asphalt. The fox eyed me viciously. I flung the roll towards some rubbish a little ahead of his or her path. After a moment, the famished creature stole towards my papers, sniffing and devouring the meat roll, but the papers scattered everywhere. I kicked them around for a minute into the dusty potholes before hurrying along. So long as the words could not be encoded into any database I was safe in the security of my own self-pity and banal excesses a little while longer.

*

Lola had now returned, by now the fat man and the women were in the bathroom, and myself and Ehren were discussing some trifle on the bed, I think it may have been whether Tom Hanks would have been a great comic actor, some nonsense all the same. She returned after with one of our blades, the other two coiling in after, now lying against the pleated headboard, the woman massaging Lola’s shoulders, the man laughing like a pig. Her distracted delivery as she swept back and rustled her fringe was characteristic.

Look, he’s already turned on. This little thing, you know how it is to play?”

The other man, Ehren, possessed a charmless, guilty glare in the proud yet pathetic sorrow of a man who might’ve felt profound guilt over killing an ‘innocent animal’ or breaking the heart of a certain dewy-eyed youth. Such moments occur hideously quickly – a few words, a defiant gesture and everything shifts, callously quick. The blade slips in, or the facial architecture is undone by a few poorly-selected words, a heart’s hopes unmade. No matter in the end. I admired the way he had restrained the growth of hair around certain parts of his anatomy. Lola’s choice of red halogen light-bulbs in the bedroom, which had struck me as expensively over-indulgent at the time what with the animal-skin furnishings too, now seemed strikingly inspired. The Miscox was already kicking in and I could feel my armpits and the backs of my knees becoming very itchy and my temple sweating, a familiar sign of its efficacy.

Whilst Ehren held down my shoulders, the fat man began licking my exposed chest, whilst the woman began masturbating my sex violently with a jejune lack of sensitivity. Lola slithered up the black bedsheets and met Ehren’s lips.

“Come on Loli, you know it works one way alone”, I said, attempting a certain playfulness in my words.

No no Austin, you’ve shown me enough to know what a thing really is”.

As the other woman’s lips met my stomach, Lola raised the blade and with a fairly clumsy lack of precision drove it straight through my nipple, and etched what might have been a V-shape. I couldn’t tell, the pain was extremely great, and Ehren had cupped his hand over my mouth as the woman aggressively worked her amateur technique.

Lola’s face was pale but seemed pleasured all the same. But these impressions wouldn’t cease. There was Eleanor and I again, we were somewhere in Switzerland. Her brother couldn’t drive, it was a somewhat ridiculous handicap given the suburban nature of Lausanne, so he depended on me for lifts and so on. Either way, we had gone for a weekend drive and were out near the woods. He wanted to see some old war burial pit, so we left him south of the haunting Lac Léman I think, while we took the car up towards the Jura mountains, getting lost amongst the hills until the road came to an end. The fresh morning with its cool hints of lemon, blackberries, mint and other nameless herbs, pine and late-summer blossom already fluttering onto the vehicle bonnet and into Eleanor’s hair. I left her with the car as she struggled into a dress, and I began hurrying through the trees, laughing, hoping to discover an old dwarf’s castle amongst the woods. I scrambled down a clearing and across a leaf-filled stream, the trees thin and young now growing deeper, knotting thicker into grotto-canopies. As I scrambled down another slope in the distance, my foot collapsing into some rotten wood teeming with small red beetles. Around me now though in this clearing were a collection of fallow deer. I fancied the mad idea of throwing my arms around one of these gentle creatures, and assuming it would dart off in response to my violent energy, I instead slunk gently towards one of the larger deer. The other three began to slink away, but this creature continued gazing at me out of the corner of its eye, its soft fur the same colour as the thin trees behind it, its spindly legs seemingly attached to the forest floor. I smiled idiotically, somehow thinking this would persuade it of my misguidedly amorous intentions.

So-ol!”

Eleanor’s cry behind me, she’d somehow caught me up. And beside me almost was a great hart, its rich brown eyes huge and worldly, its mode calm and poised, ready to run me through with its glare as though nothing. And my phone began ringing, and the vibrating tone frightened off the creature, the deer sloping quickly through the dense wood which seemed to close up behind them.

What you doing crazy boy”. And all the colours of their bodies, their slumped shoulders and erect shoulders, the various hues of hair-colours and lengths, the various tones of their eyes and lips of all those I had ever loved shivered and fused into one, who now guiding himself or herself upon my hips, their gentle sighing.

He’s drying up”, and I recognised the girl’s brown eyes and the thin lips, straight out of my earlier dream. And they carved another new line beneath my armpit, the skin opening up like a burst plum, though they had cut too deep, I could sense this, but they too were hungry.


*

I’ve made a big mistake”, murmured Claude.

I glared into his eyes, scanning their pinkish rims, assessing their whites, the thick brown pupils. After a moment, I handed him the bag of supermarket sandwiches, lager and scotch.

I doubt you know what it is to love a person”, he said.

Don’t be ridiculous, you sound like a child”, I replied.

It’s more like a sickness”, he said.

I began adjusting the internal heating of the vehicle. “And I suppose you have no intention of ever saying or doing anything about it?”

He was engrossed with pouring the whisky into a couple of small shot glasses he presumably kept in his bag for unusual occasions like these.

Irritated by his failure to respond to a basic command prompt, I continued. “I can see why you’re always looking sad and sighing. You’ll never make any money with all of these profitless side projects.”

Take this, Austin”, offering the whisky to me.

Nonsense. What people call love, for a person or a God, or an idea, is just love for some part of themselves. They never match the reality, Claude, and it’s bad for both sides when they’re expected to. That’s when peoples’ emotions become damaged.”

And you know all this, sir”, he replied. He often mocked our difference in age to excuse his relatively slow speed of sexual climax or my lack of liberalism on the rare occasion we were comparing opinions on contemporary political events.

After silence, he resumed.

And I should call you the hanging man”, he said.

I am the man who will hang you”, I replied.

He glared into my eyes, an unusual gesture, but he lacked the dramatic sense to communicate his intention with a certain look, whereas I was well-schooled in all these things. He turned away and switched the classical music back on again.

I enjoy it”, he replied.

I’ll tell you what you really need”, I snapped back.

We sat together in silence for a while. He got out of the vehicle and began smoking one of the cigarettes.

A certain sexual liberalism was encouraged amongst the data administrators on the other side of the M25 ring, in the industrial estates and car-parks of Purley, of Thurrock, of Bluewater, of Dartford, of Hemel Hempstead, Foots Cray and Potters Bar. We were widely encouraged to exchange more psychologically harmful intoxicants like alcohol or cocaine in favour of Eudex, Burfurine or Mittex and the ‘dutty padders’ as they were nicknamed, but our habits were fairly well-established. The double and treble-shifts took their toll no doubt, but we were custodians of html, C++, UN-EN, and my speciality, MS English 1998D. As the labour was increasingly outsourced to India and Nigeria, workers like ourselves were killing ourselves and those around us in whisky and pills binges. Claude was already shattered. A man like him only had a certain amount of lives left to piss away.

Later I heard that Claude had been reassigned to another department. We were notified in a collective bulletin. I had hoped he would contact me separately to express his great friendship, perhaps offering a gesture of goodbye. Such a private memo was not forthcoming, and offended, I did not even make formal notice of his departure.

*

This had been perhaps two days before the night now with Ehren, Lola and the other two. I’d stopped attending sessions at the spa and found the compulsive eroticism of those occasions somewhat staged, as if all our labour and intoxication and exchanges were exhibited for someone else’s benefit. Largely I didn’t mind, so long as this absent other might declare their interest. But I’d stolen home late at night. We’d attempted something but I’d fallen asleep halfway through, it was my own fault for being so drunk. Whenever I’d been drinking scotch and snorting Eudex I found my sleeping patterns totally disrupted. This night was unusual – late summer and sticky, she had candles burning that against the red bedroom wallpaper struck an eerie impression. But rather than watching Sky-screen or masturbating, she was just staring into the empty space. I could see some kind of problem, like she’d been crying.

Why you awake”, I murmured, twisting around in the sheets and adjusting my pillow, facing her now momentarily.

Doesn’t it bother you how bloody pointless it all is?”

What is?”

Nah you don’t know. You give your body, and you suffer every day to live in this city for a job you hate and a life you despise, and all this debt you get into, for nothing, all this debt for a miserable life. In debt for nothing, for this? For a man who knows nothing, and for kids you never see? I bet you can’t even remember what their names are. And to think, despite that, Austin, that I’m mad enough to care about you, even though the only thing you might have ever loved is fucking random strangers and updating your bloody databases”.

She was surprisingly relaxed the morning after. Several items of post had arrived for me, one of which bore the Health Association’s logo on it.

You good?”, I said to her, with a certain disinterest, as I padded into the kitchen whilst unpicking the first of the envelopes.

You a madman now, honey”, she replied, without her usual irony.

The letter was in fact already open, as were all the others.

Yeah looks like you saw our kids what, 0.8 times in the last 3 months? Yeah don’t say nothing, fool. I saw your psych report, its saying you’re in danger of developing narcissistic dissociation aggressive disorder.”

Cheers Loli bunny. We don’t need a report to know what a junkie you are neither, rah. Has it got the right name and NI number on it too? I bet it says ‘ To the occupier’, yeah?”


“No Austin, it’s got your name on it. Don’t you ever get bored of lying to everyone?”


“It’s junk-mail. You look like shit.” I flicked her ear with my fingernail as I walked past. The result was bad in fact. She’d not read to the end, but my DMS V score was -0.28, a decrease on the last quarter by 0.18, quite a margin. If it got below -0.30 it might start appearing on my work record. I decided to put it down to a careless typing error, perhaps when I’d been inputting my weekly blood levels during a particularly sleep-deprived shift.

She looked sad and exhausted. Part of me wanted to console her, to hold her shoulders and kiss her hair better the way I knew would work, and part of me found her sadness repugnant in equal measure, and mention of the children equally patronising. I’d been raised by my grandmother and not knowing my mum or dad hadn’t affected in any way my strength or character in any way whatsoever, and I despised the implication.

The fridge was empty. After her silence, I felt emboldened enough to reply angrily back with some truths. I saw from the previous night that her hairstyle had changed, that there were new photos and colours in the apartment, that I was increasingly and deservedly obscure in my own life. Whilst I was happy to leave, I felt compelled to wound a former partner in the way only intimate lovers can.

You think after these gifts, after these meetings, he’ll somehow look after you in a way I couldn’t? Like I can? Because I can give you gifts”, and I picked up a gilt frame of a fairly handsome young-looking man smiling, with some kind of botanical garden in the backdrop. “And when we fuck, I know it’s right, and you know it too. I know every term inside you, every bit of data inside your skin. I can take you to dinner for fuck’s sake. What ultimately is this dickhead’s point?”

You don’t get anything at all Austin. There’s a world out there which you can’t even see”, she replied.

Unusually, I lacked the semantic content to respond to her proposal. I took a shower and then left the apartment block. The dust-count on the city was unusually high, and I’d used it as an excuse to clarify a large amount of the semantic backlog of queries, hacks and abuse on some of the user-forums. Mina and Perry were fairly heavy Mittex users. Knowing they were fairly young and naïve still, I took them along to an area processor meeting where my team supervisor largely spoke over myself and the other admins for ‘extra vigilance’ for over an hour. We yawned and appreciated the sandwich allowance at these kinds of non-events. Afterwards we drove around and picked up some whisky and a couple of their friends and started dancing and playing music in one of the Stansted car-parks. Mina’s hips snaked around Perry’s as I sat on top of the vehicle, laughed and threw bottle caps and coins at their skipping shoes while some poor girl, easily affected by the combination, rambled on about her miscarriage and the young Irish boy who loved and left her, with all the naïve idiocy of an illiterate. I yawned and wondered about Claude. Rumours had gone around about his apparent perversities which I hadn’t sought to correct. I realised very little regarding a personal reputation was factual. I had even taken to doctoring my own data entry with false quotes from invented clients.

*

Are you OK.”

The woman had disembarked and it was Ehren now, his mature, hairless face now filling the entirety of my vision. I had faded back into consciousness again but couldn’t move my spine. My belly was soaked. I couldn’t tell if it was the heat, but his pupils were fat and I knew there was very little activity going on beyond the sensory excess.

And what’s your date of birth, Austin.”

I’d come to in the back of a car, the insurance replacement model for the last burnout, judging by the plastic light fitting above my head.

It’s alright, I’m a nurse, sometimes”, said the same unknown man’s voice again. There was muffled laughter.

He’s a data-parser. They don’t share anything unless you’re paying.”

How much do you reckon I’ll get for the shoes?”

Enough of you. Piss off now, rah.”

Look at the state of him”.

Piss off now, he’s coming up”.

The car was blacked up, smoked out.”You can trust in me”, said the man again.

I could hardly move, the words all spun out of shape, a nameless and wordless panic blocking my throat, suffocating my flattened lungs with horrible, shrieking gasps of some inarticulable pain which might have signalled the formation of a new language beyond semantic utterances. My chest was in unknown pain, but between my exposed legs was an outstretched young man trying to adjust my shoulders. I could see what looked like quarry ruins behind him, but it was in fact a KFC and a boarded-up Currys store, and a series of parked cars in front of these retail warehouses, a cold grey morning with a certain greenish tint in the air. Most of the car was melted away but the upholstery was untouched. They’d tried to torch me in the vehicle perhaps after the fucking, make it look like another M25 suicide burnout like Claude’s, which I’d heard about a day or so ago. But after the fire with the children, the insurance company must’ve given me a fire-proof model, perhaps my DSM record had scared them. I was too sore and too tired to really get up.

Give him a packet. You can see the pain he’s in, struggling around ain’t he like a drowning cockroach.” Muffled laughter again, perhaps two others with this young man.

You’re quite fine aren’t you, bone man”, the young man said to me now, addressing me properly for the first time. “A brave day to play the Three of Swords, hey duke?” And he reached over and flicked my ear, and smiled again.

I’ve spent all my time, Sol”, I replied.

Thanks again”, I offered, in a vain attempt to appease the hopeless circumstance.

He reached over again and pawed into my mouth a bundle of pills. “Paxil. Midazopam”.

You’ll never learn anything like that,” I replied. There was silence now.

Later I could hear the monitors of the cops as they pulled out my cold naked body from the wreckage. I pretended to be unconscious still, it would be too much explanation, too much data, and I was quite done with all that now.

The reassignment process would take a matter of hours, the insurance-nurse told me later.

Just like that”, I murmured finally.

Some of the tattoos would need to be re-inked, but they’d otherwise faithfully followed the diagrams and instructions etched on my chest.

Learning how to disappear – the Deptford Psychogeographical Association

A story, the second in the Disappearances Trilogy. The third should emerge in late October, a certain time is necessary.  This is one of the few bits of writing I stand by. The rest is a locked house of noise. Yadder yadder yadder. Symphonies to Dorothea or St. John of God, who knows. More to come on all this, and on the real art of disappearances. Originally appeared in Nyx 5.

 

Learning how to disappear: My time in the Deptford Psychogeographical Association

Time in the late-age was bound by rules, necessities: for a little while I’d been working in a supermarket; before that, cleaning offices, bar-work, child-minding in the evenings. That was fine. Too tired to do anything else, hands raw and feet sore, my instincts quelled, I could pay the rent on my fifth floor Deptford bedsit and send a little money home. But when that kind of work dried up there was drink and little else. An archaic habit now, given how most citizens under the age of 40 were dependent on prescription drugs, but it did something else for me. It touched into a place I used to joke was freedom. The illegal stuff was too expensive or dangerous to take now that they’d closed up all the national borders, as well as the London security ring. When I’d been working as a party performer/escort I had approved ID access to get into the City, at least then you could move around London. But this group of rich finance clients got way too hands-on one evening, and when I refused one guy broke my nose. Luckily I managed to get away before he could force his way further, but I’d been blacklisted from performer work since. I was just the scrag end of pissed dockers and engineers passing through the south east district. I’m racing ahead though, and for once this ain’t about me. This is about Ehud, and his nocturnal wanderings. Dark places. Boredom. Full-moon nights.

Ehud was like me. He washed his hands obsessively, shaved and sprayed himself in fragrances at least twice a day. His shadow had twice the presence he did. Silent, lanky, hands fidgeting inside the pockets of his black Harrington jacket, short black hair, olive skin. Orderly. Almost normal. People thought we were sister and brother. He had CHRISTINE tattooed on the front of his neck above his Adam’s apple. Most of the people round this part of London had branded themselves in similar ways. Whether they enjoyed the pain of this self-modification or just the end of etching was a riddle to me. Yet why they chose Ehud as a specimen for the Department of Opportunity Social Refitting Programme wasn’t that mysterious. Remove the tattoos, delete the nervous data of his twenty-something years, reboot his biopsyche and install a new successful programmed-persona, he could almost be normal. His mum had brought him and his brothers and sisters over from Israel when he was still very small. He said little about his family, or anything else for that matter, but there was little trace of any Israeli heritage, and he had converted to Islam in his early teens. His brother might be paid compensation for the compulsory takeover of his body, and most people would forget he ever existed. People were too messed up to be bothered, and besides, refitting had apparently demonstrated itself as such a successful social model. Take physically excellent types, usually of high fertility and immunity, but living either proletarian or sick lives, and forcibly replace their biopsychical data, usually with that of very successful businessmen, politicians, scientists and so on. A recipe for success. With the declining generation of new bodies making education irrelevant, this rather crude technique was celebrated by a cynical age for bringing back its great minds. Perhaps once again they might return us to the prosperity, freedom and happiness that lay just around the corner, if we waited just a little longer.

– Hey you!

– No!

– Wait!

– Shit!

I’d been drinking heavily another night, again out of boredom, with the media unit flickering away in the background, feeling bad. There were guys trying to contact me all night to ‘have fun’ via the Network, but as much as I needed the money I wanted to stay on my own that night. I was thinking about cutting down my drugs again, but I had to see my Opportunity Worker in a couple of days and if I failed the regular urine test they’d cut off my account. There was nothing to swallow the pills down with so I shuffled out to the African grocers to get some more drink. After picking up vodka and beers I headed back up Deptford High Street where, just outside the old job centre, I saw this ratty bloke daubing these fly-posters over the windows. He had headphones in, and with no-one else around he didn’t spot me. The fly-posters were mostly black, though each one was different, with various photos of the butchers shops round the area, of the Department of Opportunity building, of Christopher Marlowe’s grave. On each poster there was a broad outline of an eye and a simple type logo that read DPA. The posters were obviously home-done, and the paper he’d used was of a peculiar material that prevented it from sticking to the window for more than a minute. I leaned back against the railway bridge and slugged down the 100ml bottle of vodka, before watching him with great interest. I don’t know what came over me, but I decided to throw the bottle at him. It shattered a meter or so behind him. Terrified, he ran.

 

*

New dawn. I skulked through the Deptford stink in search of breakfast and a place to pass some time. I saw him again later when I was queuing at the Department of Opportunity building in Catford. He was in the Medical Enquiries queue a few places ahead of me, still with those headphones in. Presumably like most people in the queue he was being tested for Form 52B ‘Personal Capacity’, with the obligatory 2 minute session on the DSM VII computerised diagnostic system. Afterwards followed the chat with your Opportunity Worker and the urine-test to make sure you’d taken all your anti-depressants, tranquillisers, behavioural management pills and the like. Later I spotted him again in the Jobseekers’ suite where the last few library books were stacked against a wall in a large windowless white room full of computers. The desks were peopled by middle-aged men and women scratching their heads, sneezing into the keyboards, slurping high-energy drinks and watching online music videos and porn whilst pretending to look for non-existent jobs on the Departmental website. He was rustling through a box of old history books stored in a fairly grubby medical waste crate. He was surprised that anyone even knew who he was.

“Every man is a toilet” he said later, in his slightly stilted and deep Thames estuary drawl, sighing and folding his thin body into the blue formica seat of the Favorite Chicken shop. I hated this place but he insisted he only ate chicken or chips, never both, and that Deptford had the best fried chicken in the south-east district. I asked him about the DPA.

– The Deptford Psychogeographical Association.

– What?

– Ah it’s a long story. I was on one of them flippin’ Opportunity Community Choice schemes, we was clearing out gutters and dead people’s flats and shit. Nasty stuff. Well this old guy was there and was tellin’ me all this business to do with Guy Debord and these French guys who used to just walk around innit. We used to bunk off, skin up and roll around the area while he told me all this stuff, about knowing and seeing the area. I know this area. I’m from these ends. But I never knew the secret impressions the buildings make on you, the old buildings you see and what they were used for. All kinds of secrets, you know. It’s about your emotions, and the spirits yeah. You see, I can’t sleep. I dunno if it’s these pills they give me for my concentration but I can’t sleep, so I just walk around and I feel the place innit. The ghosts. The angels. When the wind cools on Evelyn Road or the high street you hear this shit, all the voices and sadness of the dock-workers, or the Navy men with their scurvy-up teeth and missing legs of the girls who killed cows like 24/7 at the British Empire Cattle Market. Their lives were tough like ours, but they couldn’t escape it. In the end me and this guy thought we’d take it further – we’d try and record and save these peoples’ lives.

– I don’t get you.

– Well you don’t have to get it. There’s plenty of people doing it. There’s other people like me who can’t sleep. We go together innit. Loads of us. Only at night, after curfew, when the Justice men aren’t around and we can move around a bit more. We moved Christopher Marlowe’s grave to where it should be and no-one even noticed. We’ve renamed some of the streets as well, but the Police arrested Femi and Harris, the old guy I was telling you about, and Femi just disappeared, so we ain’t doing that for the time being.

– Ok, but what’s this psychogeography though? That just a nice word for walking around at night when you got nothing better to do?

– Ha, maybe. You should come though. What is your name?

– Meliha. It’s Turkish.

– I am Ehud, by the way.

Ehud was sick, like most people in the district. He couldn’t sleep and spent the nocturnal hours wandering through the area. Eventually through idling around in the Department of Opportunity we met other addicts and insomniacs compelled to walk and drink together, photograph locations as crime-scenes, take notes and recordings. It was essential that nothing was available online. For that purpose, on that first experiment I joined them on, we all got drunk (like eight of us in total) before breaking in to the old Job Centre to establish our first archive space. Later I realised he was a bit manic when I had first met him – for much of the time after he was subdued, mercurial.

After the first few experiments I kept my distance a little, joining in when Ehud told me there’d be some drinking or maybe some violence involved, like Ehud’s crazed idea of crashing a car full of radio equipment, binary-jammers and antennae into the entrance of the Department of Justice station on Amersham Vale in order to sabotage their psychic hold over Deptford. That was a laugh. After spending some time together, Ehud finally surrendered one of his childish obsessive prejudices and began to drink alcohol with me. From then on we drank together a lot. I taught him how to play othello and backgammon, old games my Nanna knew. I was bored and curious, and one night after quite a session we took things further. His entire body was covered in these self-etched tattoos, of binary code like 10101011 all across his arms and legs, and other weird symbols, some of which I recognised from the digital keyboard. He was surprised I didn’t have any, but I needed to keep clean for work. It was a standard for men to try and finish as quickly as possible with legalised sex-workers in order to save money on the hours system introduced by the state. But this was nice. Afterwards, as a kind of joke, I asked him if Christine minded, but he just stared straight through me.

 

*

Otherwise my own life was starting to get out of control. The DSM VII computer programme had put me on a stronger course of behavioural reassignment pills, but the problem was that prescription drugs themselves were becoming harder and harder to obtain. Since the closure of the borders and the London security ring around the M25, it was impossible to bring through any illegal drugs. The other fact was that no-one was interested in illegal drugs now that the prescription drugs available were so much more powerful. Anti-depressants were used to treat criminal behaviour, meaning that you never really saw violence except by those few people not on the drugs, but there was a growing black market for them. Organised gangs had been targeting the drug company convoys, and so this time round Deptford was near-dry, meaning people were having to get their painkillers in the betting shops and takeaways.

It was a summer afternoon, rich with that hazy and heavy luminescence that sticks sweat to skin and drives colour into fever. Feeling sick of it all, I was queuing at the pharmacy for whatever emergency supplies they had for my English Nanna. She needed her immunity meds and her Alzheimer’s pills. Auto-immune diseases were striking down a lot of the population, and aside from ‘personality disorders’ like mine and Ehud’s were the main cause of the high unemployment of the London outer districts. They began like allergies but just persisted. Painkillers and ointments could be used to treat them at least in the short term. But I didn’t want to end up like that. Greasy and fetid mattresses were piling up in the derelict car-parks.

On my way back to my Nanna’s, I passed the boarded up school, but this time I could smell smoke and hear shouting from inside. Any kind of human noise was pretty unusual compared to the consistent speech and projections of the multimedia advertisements stacked all over the district. Curious, I ventured inside the now unlocked school entrance, through an old dusty corridor, through to what must have been an inner courtyard where the shouting was coming from. I saw a group of girls and boys shouting and laughing. Two boys lifted up an old media unit and threw it onto the raging fire burning through the pyre of piled fridges, radiators, old books and media boxes. They couldn’t see me, so content were these strange children within themselves. I wandered home, feeling dizzy and feverish.

I was very sick for a long time after. I don’t think I left my bedsit for at least a couple of weeks. I had enough water and painkillers, and my sister came over after a week to look after me. Imprisoned by vicious labyrinthine dreams. I lost my eyesight for a little while.

 

*

The DPA was becoming more and more active, taking over some of the local shops, organising literacy sessions and community work. Rosa and Harris were largely leading it now and its original and more occult bent was disappearing. As had Ehud. I asked Rosa if she’d seen him at all recently, but there’d been no sign of him for weeks. From checking through his contact ID I knew where he lived, so that afternoon I brought over a couple of large bottles of drinking water after another local shortage. I dressed up. I was looking forward to seeing him now I felt healthy again. He lived on the third floor of a block round Prince Street. I had never been to his place before, and when he opened the door with a confused look on his face it reminded me how remote he was. He lived with his brother, who spoke (and spoke over us) for the most part.

– You his girlfriend yeah? Well you know he’s been selected by Opportunity to be refitted right?
– No I didn’t….

– Well it’s an honour. You’re a good specimen aren’t you bruv? Apparently he looks a bit like this first chairmen of one of the data companies, Apple or something. They shoulda picked me! But don’t worry, this money’s gonna help us out. And you’ll have a better life than just taking your pills round here. You’re going to be happy bruv. Just a small thing. You won’t notice when you’re going, and then you’re someone different. I think we’d all do it if we could, have a free life and be rich.

Ehud was silent the whole time, and though I’d brought some wine over he asked me not to stay. A few days later I called again but he was gone. Then I got a letter from him, posted from Harwich in Essex. It didn’t make much sense, but it seemed like he’d been refitted – it was largely brief, but written and then scribbled out was STEVE followed by his real name EHUD. There was so much sadness in that letter. I had to see what they’d done.

 

*

Morning, a time I’d hardly known in recent years. There were no coaches out of the city for those with limited access, but it was easy enough to jump over the walls at one the more obscure suburbs like at Brickkiln Wood in the east, as presumably Ehud had done. From there on I headed to Billericay, then avoiding the motorways I tracked through the fields and minor roads to Maldon, before heading onto Mersea Island in the evening, where I found some trees and a hedgerow in the north part of the island to sleep under for the night. I had a rough map and I aimed to get to Harwich where I figured he might still be. It was the first-time I’d seen or smelt life outside the city. The paths were muddy but not like ordinary city mud – this was golden soil, the air smelt of fresh, crisp and somehow invigorating shit, and smoke from the large tractor units that rolled the wheat around the late summer fields. I hadn’t expected anything from this journey, but my mind replayed endless conversations with him, things I should have said, even small silly things about my life, about my upbringing, whether he believed in anything at all.

Perhaps the first day of my life. Birdsong scattered in an infinity of directions, each call and response describing new moments of experience I had yet to discover. The breeze tickled my shoulders, and the sun flickered through the embrace of the hedge which was so comfortable, tricking my closed eyes with all types of shapes beneath my eyelids. I woke up and walked around the surprisingly small field in my bare feet, letting the slightly damp soil wriggle in between my toes.

I found a supermarket in Wivenhoe and bought some vodka and cheese rolls. I followed the coastline for the rest of the day, reaching Harwich in the late afternoon. I’d still been thinking of our reunion as I walked along – would he remember who he was? Refitted individuals were usually moved somewhere completely different in order to avoid the danger of “regression”, and the media channels rarely discussed the process except in criminological contexts to describe its social benefits. Maybe we were all in some way refitted. Ehud’s refitting had clearly gone wrong in some capacity. No data from his old biopsyche should have remained, but he was so bound to the poxy and grey part of the south-east district we both shared that rambling out of the city was entirely out of keeping with his obsessive behaviour. His letter was uncharacteristically lucid, compared to most of his words, which usually began with inscrutable observations and had little personal bearing on anything remotely tangential. He even personally addressed it to me. He spoke of techno-biological knowledge, that time had been used as a weapon against us and that this way of living was a daily death. While the media units projected a world of war and disaster there might be others out there who could help reclaim the technology that he had personally created, and which had fallen into the wrong hands.

No-one was told who he’d been refitted and replaced with, but the Department of Opportunity and their financial backers may have wanted to get him back and get a return their investment. They may have wanted to kill him, or maybe this was the punishment already inflicted: their motives were fathomless. I finally reached the small town outside of Harwich where his letter had been written. The town itself was nothing much to look at however. Several whitewashed and pebble-dashed bungalows jutted against the fatigued estuary, barnacled in satellite dishes and St. George’s flags, with piles of lager and meat curry cans scattered on the patios pierced through with scrawny weeds and dilapidated people. One arterial road sunk through this town twinned with nowhere, drive carefully, a boarded up school, absolute silence and the stale sweat of frustration.There was a closed newsagent with a postbox where Ehud may have posted the letter, a declining and archaic medium used generally by the state and advertisers. He had been here, but where was he now? In the distance, just by the road that exited the village, was a country pub that offered rooms for the night.

– Yeah there was a weird bloke who came in last night, coming to think of it. He looked a bit Arabic, you know. Well we would’ve, but it would’ve upset some of our customers.

– Where did he go after?

– No. I mean, yes. But I don’t know where he went.

– What else is round here?

– Just the beach and the old docks and fair. There’s Felixstowe across the bay.
– …

– Do you want to leave your contact ID in case he calls back?

I found the path, but with no help from the gawping locals or that sweaty and pervy man who ran the pub. I didn’t even check for a room, I was so tired and getting angry. I had no money anyway. My Opportunity Worker would be wondering why I’d not shown up for my appointment today. The sun was already setting, burning through the heavy and languorous sky with rich burnished golden intensity, with a hum of peach and lavender emanating around it. The pewter sea extended to infinity. Somehow that concept gave me a little hope. I found the coastal path and reached the beach, following the pebbly coast northwards towards the bright lights of the docks. The sky was quickly transforming into a pale indigo cooled by the evening breeze and the distant cry of the gulls and the waves. After perhaps half an hour of this evening stroll there was still no sign of Ehud. The coastline began to snake round inward to the left, with the dock lights bearing brighter and bolder.

A shadow up by the rocks at the end of the beach caught my eye, and I ventured over. There were the remains of a fire, now cool, some empty beer cans and plastic sandwich packaging, his jacket, and folded inside his jeans and his shoes, and inside his right shoe his socks and pants, and inside the left a t-shirt and some money. The air was still now, and the night was rejoicing in a feast of stars.

The beach didn’t quite end there. On the other side of the rocks were some old fishing boats stacked up. I managed to wrest one and its oars from their dusty stupor and drag it down to the fastly-ebbing tide. THE BLUEBELL 314 FELIXSTOWE. After a minute of gently rocking while the seagulls clamoured on, the boat seemed seaworthy. I slung my belongings into the vessel, sinking the vodka before chucking the empty bottle back onto the shore. This time I did catch Ehud’s coat. Gently, against the heavy moon I embarked out North, angelically weaving between two Maersk super-container ships. The men shouted, but for once, perhaps, I was free, heading nowhere and everywhere. Maybe this nightmare of God had temporarily become something in a small way good. Maybe he had made it across, to the other side. There was only one way of knowing. Sick of spectatorship, I rowed with all my heart knowing there could not possibly be any way back.