Shoelaces by Luke Newell

I don’t think many people remember Lewis. Apart from the two or three people you’re really close to, you don’t remember anyone you went to school with, or even really care. At school, everyone has to play nice because for six hours you’ll probably share a class with them. But when the step into the real world they don’t need to play nice anymore. They don’t return the messages, and soon enough, you are left with a pitiful handful of people whose company you never quite grew out of.

Lewis never had two friends to rub together to make a third. Just one. Me.

We met when we were seven, and I moved to a new school for breaking someone’s nose. I met Lewis in the back of a classroom I had no purpose being in. He gave me an extra Fruit Shoot he’d nicked from the shop when his mum wasn’t looking. I gave him half a Galaxy. Not quite blood brothers, but it meant a lot to seven-year-old me.

That’s probably why we were together all that time. Why every fight left us both with bruises. Why when that kid brought a bat to try and cripple Lewis, I wound up in hospital with a cracked skull and more stitches than a bag of bedsheets. But even then, he was there and I could forget for a while.

I never asked why someone attacked him with a bat. Never crossed my mind. And it didn’t matter. His fight would always be my fight. My laughs were his laughs. I tried to help him with the girls, but he always had an answer. Too tall. Too loud. Not smart enough. Mother was a bitch. Et cetera.

I bounced from girl to girl, and he followed and the whole time, the fights came. I tore more knuckles defending him than I care to remember. It was always a little scuffle we could shake off. Nothing big. It became a weekly ritual for us to go out and fight. How depressingly working class is that?

But as we grew older, the fights came more frequently and more viciously. I never understood the problem with Lewis. He was always a joker. Loved nothing more than to lighten up a room. Always toeing that line between excellence in school and being just shy of the A so nobody would resent him for being too intelligent. I asked why so many people seemed to hate him. He just laughed it off and rose his fist in triumph.

“They just hate us ‘cause they ‘aint us.”

I finally realised why on a cold November afternoon. We were both seventeen. The classroom was filled with vacant stares, the occasional scratching of a cheap pen on paper, and the dull murmur of teenagers talking about whatever it was that interested them. For us, it was girls.

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Looking back, I can’t say I was ever much of a gentleman in my teen years. Who is, right? Just hormones packed into tight black jeans and a hoodie, looking to fuck anything that walks. So, of course, this conversation was hardly going to be some blistering indictment of current affairs. No, I was telling him about how I’d love to have a go on Sophie’s tits because let’s face it, they were pretty fucking amazing. I don’t think it was until after it all happened that I started seeing girls differently to the way I saw food. Then I caught a glimpse of…shit, what was her name? The black girl, always wore really short skirts so if you leaned over low enough just as she walked past, you got a glimpse of her arse bouncing, ever so slightly, but still enough to make you drool. Like I said, hormones looking to fuck.

“So, you gonna tell me about that girl you’ve been fucking?” I punched him in the arm and laughed.

“Not a chance,” he laughed, taking a packet of Amber Leaf from his pocket. He took out a rolling paper and began sprinkling the ground tobacco onto it, either blissfully unaware or totally defiant of the fact that we were still in a classroom.

“Oh, and why not?”

“Because,” he began to lick the edge of the paper, “I know what you’re like.”

“Lewis, I’m offended!” I leaned back and clasped both hands over my heart, as though he’d just stabbed me there with his words. “What would I ever do?”

“Try fucking her, probably.”

“Guilty. Roll me one, yeah?”

“Alright.” He set to work rolling another cigarette, staring at his work like a true artisan. I watched him for a moment, wondering if there was anything else going on in his head. If there was anything else to be known, that is.

“Go on, tell me about her. I promise I won’t try anything.”

“I’ve told you, I’m a gentleman.” He smirked as he handed me the cigarette.

“Fucking queer more like.” I tucked the cigarette behind my ear and leaned back in my chair. I didn’t register at the time that the corners of Lewis’ mouth quivered slightly. Only after everything did all the minute details flood over me.

But if he was offended, he never gave any indication. Just told me to fuck myself and moved on.

The rest of the lesson passed like this, until we were liberated by the screeching of a bell that had been on this planet longer than either of us. We commenced the same walk home, smoking the same cigarettes, having the same conversations. I couldn’t ask for more.

The sky was a pale pink that afternoon, threaded through with the occasional golden or grey cloud like a Bob Ross painting. Happy little clouds on a not so happy day. I couldn’t help but smile as I shared this thought with Lewis, who smiled awkwardly.

“Come on.” We turned a corner. “Enough hiding, what’s going on with you?”

“What? Nothing.”

“Don’t bullshit me. Something’s going on in your head. Tell me. Come on.”

“What, because I don’t want to talk about the sky? Alright, if I must offer an opinion, it looks fucking romantic. Happy?”

An elderly couple walking a grey Shar Pei with thick, woolly fur stared at us with open-mouthed shock painted across their faces. The old man’s was tainted with the hint of a smile. I felt my cheeks burn as Lewis skulked along beside me.

“Sorry, man. I don’t…I didn’t…”

“No, I’m sorry.” He rubbed his eyes like someone who hadn’t slept in three days. When I noticed the circles, I realised he probably hadn’t. “Just, I don’t know. Things are weird.”

“No shit. We’ll probably end up drafted for another Korean war soon enough. Couldn’t get much weirder than this…”

“No, I meant in my life. At home. Personal stuff. I don’t know what I mean. Christ.”

We passed a crumbling wall and Lewis took a seat, burying his face in his palms. I sat next to him and put an arm around him, the thin plastic of his Nike jacket rustling under my fingers.

“Come on, it can’t be that bad, can it? Just, I don’t know…you wanna talk about it?”

“No.”

“You sure? We talk about everything else.”

“Not this.”

“Okay.”

A rusted old pickup rattled past us, the bed stacked high with sawn logs. Probably a business run out of someone’s garden. The windows were all down, in spite of the cold, and the staccato introduction to Sweet Child O Mine blasted through the street. This didn’t matter either. All that mattered was that Lewis still hadn’t spoken. He was silent, until a muffled sentence escaped his lips.

“You wouldn’t understand anyway.”

“’Course I would. We’ve been together, what? Fuck, nearly ten years. If you can’t talk to me now, what chance are we gonna have when we’re in rocking chairs in a nursing home together?”

“What, we couldn’t take care of ourselves?” A hint of a smile blessed Lewis’ voice.

“Oh, God no. I’ve seen the way you eat now. You already need someone to feed you. And I’ll probably break my back on my sex tour of Britain, so yeah. Or no. We couldn’t. Whatever. Come on, what’s up?”

He gave a shuddering sigh and tried to steady himself. I almost feared what he was going to say, but that never stopped me before. I always liked to think I was a good friend.

“Okay.” He stopped and looked around, as though making sure there was nobody else around. Satisfied, he continued.

“Okay. The thing is, like, I’m not like you. I can’t jump from girl to girl. I just… I don’t know. I can’t so.”

“Right…so your big issue is that you aren’t a man-slut? Fairs, I guess. It’s pretty fun, till you get a bush full of crabs.”

“Never say that to me again. And way off. It’s not that I can’t get loads of girls. I could. You’ve seen how some girls are. Remember that night with Jade down the Viscount?”

“Jade, Jade, Jade… Was she that emo girl? Load of piercings? Tattoos all up her arms?”

“Yeah. That’s her. I mean, she was so… I don’t know. She was something else. I wish I could have just got with her that night. Wish I could’ve enjoyed it. She was basically crawling on top of me…”

“She was trying to suck you off in the booth.” I smirked at the thought, remembering that I’d woken up the next morning in her bed, at her uni.

“Yeah. But she didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t know if it was because we didn’t have a ‘connection’”, he said, arching his fingers into quotation marks, “or because she wasn’t my type, or because you would’ve tried to dive in the other end. I don’t know.

“So, I got to thinking about all the girls we know. None of them did anything for me. None of the celebrities or models either. I don’t even want to know how much porn I watched to try and figure this out. I think I might need to bleach my eyeballs after watching some old woman being tag-teamed by three black blokes in washing-up gloves.

“Then, out of nowhere, I realised I was in love.” This one actually shocked me. Lewis never seemed like the sort to talk about love or relationships. Always had an attitude of smash and dash, even if I never saw the girls, I was convinced. But now, talking about love? Something was seriously wrong.

“Mate, that’s great!” I tried look supportive, even if I was worried to my core. He bought it though and pressed on.

“Thanks. But it isn’t so simple. I don’t know if this person would actually, you know…”

“Yeah, I do.” I looked up at the sky and saw that the grey clouds had all but dissipated, and that the pink had blurred into a faded purple. Another half hour and we would be full dark.

“Exactly. So, I can’t actually do anything about it. I don’t want to risk it and lose everything. We’re great together, and I just… I can’t lose that. I just can’t.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes. The streetlamps clicked on and bathed the street in a dim orange glow, and painted the sky that dull, murky brown of light pollution. Shame. The sky looked beautiful before.

“So…what you gonna do about this?”

“Nothing. Nothing I can do, is there?” Lewis drew his knees up to his chin and stared out at the road. It had been empty for a while now, the only sound coming from the rustling leaves of a gently swaying tree, the only movement coming from the few birds still out scavenging for a few chips or half a bag of crisps. “Just gotta bite my tongue and get on with it.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Yeah, that’s the spirit mate. Cheers.”

“No, I mean, what’s the point in sitting there sulking?” I took out a packet of Embassy No.1s and put one between my lips. “Want one?” I offered the pack to Lewis, who nodded and took one for himself.

“You had these and you’re still smoking my baccy you tight prick.”

“Take it if it’s there, right?” I lit mine with a match that I tossed into the road, where the flame gradually consumed the stick, leaving behind a twisted black line on the tarmac. Lewis lit his with the black Zippo lighter he always had on him.

“What am I meant to do?” he asked, a hint of a sob in his voice, marred with a splash of desperation.

“Mate, listen. You love this girl? Fucking go for it. I mean, if I was a girl, I’d like someone else to make the first move. I mean, I’d probably also be a lesbian as well, but the fact remains. You can’t just sit here moping about. Just fucking go for-”

I didn’t have time to finish before his lips were pressed against mine, his tongue furiously squirming, trying to break into my mouth. Cigarette smoke had never tasted so hostile as it did in that moment. One hand was steadying himself on the wall, the other gently wrapped around my throat.

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I shoved him off the wall and threw my cigarette into the darkness, the lowing ember slowly ebbing away into nothingness. He fell onto the damp pavement, and while he was down there, I knelt beside him, drew back my fist, and thrusted it into his eye socket. I felt a satisfying crack beneath my knuckles, and when he stood I would have smiled at the already swollen mass under his eye, were I not seething with rage.

“The fuck was that! You come here, talking about some girl, then you’re trying to stick your tongue down my throat?”

Lewis spat a glob of black blood out and struggled to his feet, swaying slightly, but standing on his own two feet.

“I never said it was a girl. And you told me to fucking go for it!”

“Yeah! I didn’t think you were gonna try and rape me!”

“Oh, fuck off you idiot. It was only a kiss!”

“Fuck you.” I span around and kicked the wall, knocking a few ancient bricks loose. They collapsed and spat out a cloud of dust. “Why the fuck did you do that!”

“You told me to! I thought you felt the same way. I thought…” He stopped, as though weighing up the words in his head.

“You thought what? Go on you prick! Thought I wanted suck your cock? That I wanted you to fuck me up the arse? What the fuck did you think!”

Lewis’ words shattered the insipid emptiness of the world around us.

“I thought you loved me as well.”I started towards him, my fist drawn back again, but stopped myself. Instead, I just screamed. No words. No thought. Just screaming at the inky sky, like something was building inside me and needed to escape. He begged me to stop, to calm down and talk to him, but there was no chance of that.

When my lungs would not allow me to scream any more, I walked away, shoulders hunched and fists clenched, shuddering slightly.

I got home around twenty minutes later and hovered on the doorstep, training my ears on the sounds within. Shouting. Crying. Something shattering against the wall. Both voices got louder and louder, and I couldn’t help but think of a single picture that stood on the mantle, and was still there, unless that was what had shattered.

It was my parents on their wedding day. My mother was wearing a white, knee-length dress like something straight out of Grease, with her hair flowing over her shoulders, cascading in delicate waves of bronze. My father had his arm around her shoulders, dwarfing her with his enormous frame. Even with her white platform heels, she barely came up to his chest. He was wearing a white tuxedo jacket, like James Bond if he battered his women. But they were both so happy in that picture, and they came from a different time when man and woman was all anyone ever wanted. But now, it was impossible for me to believe that this couple, that had been so in love for so long, hated the sight of each other.

It started with the little things. A burnt dinner here. A late night at work there. Then it all snowballed to the point where violent, kitchen-table-breaking sex that wasn’t enough to hide what was inside. My father would hit her, and she would sleep with other men. Not a day goes by when they don’t break something in the house.

I don’t understand, even to this day, how they could just fall out of love. What if they never loved each other? The thought often crossed my mind. That all the smiles were a plastic façade and that all they ever really wanted was to fit in with what everyone else was doing. Maybe they could have married different people and actually been happy. I wouldn’t be here, sure. But they’d be happy.

Then a thought dawned on me. Man and woman can easily hate each other. My parents are perfect proof of that. But Lewis, he might be gay. Sure, but he was in love. What right did I have to say those things? That kiss, despite how much I fought it, burned with pure passion, something that was impossible without the presence of real love.

Oh Fuck!

I ran a few streets over to Lewis’ house and hammered on the door, hunched over, each breath catching in my lungs like a fish hook being dragged through the flesh.

The door swung open, and the familiar face of Lewis’ father greeted me. A small man with wispy grey hair and rimless glasses, he seemed to assess me before he spoke.

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“Can I help you with something?” He always spoke formally. If I’m honest, he was a pretty nice bloke. For a Catholic at least.

“Is…is Lewis back yet?”

“Yes, he came in about ten minutes ago and went upstairs to change.”

“Can…Do you…I need to talk to him.”

“Of course. Please, come in. you know you’re welcome here.”

“Thanks.” My breath came back to me slowly, and I made my way up to Lewis’ room.

I’d been up these stairs a million times before, but this time, it all seemed to different. The pictures on the wall seemed to watch me. The portrait of Jesus at the top was the worst. One of those pictures where he’s holding his robes open and his heart is on show, bleeding. Not a bad picture, but now, his dark eyes seemed to pierce my soul like tiny daggers, judging my very being. I tried to shut it out, but any Catholic will tell you, you can’t just shut Jesus out.

Even the walls seemed off. They couldn’t have decorated already, but even so, the walls were a different shade of eggshell blue. Or where they green? Was it the lighting and were they actually the colour of sea foam? I shook my head, hoping to restore my focus, but the whole house seemed to work against me.

I reached Lewis’ uniform white door and paused, gripping the handle as hard as my sweating palm would allow. I breathed in, deep, filling my lungs with jagged air that seemed to burn and scrape and do everything to cause me pain. I guess I deserved it.

No response. I knocked again, louder this time, but still nothing.

Bracing myself for the worst I could imagine, I eased the door open and entered. But the worst thing in my mind was that he was on the bed, crying, screaming, staring out numbly.

The last I saw of Lewis, and the thing that I hate the most is what I remember about him. It wasn’t his swollen cheek, or the blood trickling from his lips. It wasn’t the glassy stare of his eyes.

It wasn’t even the word faggot carved into his left arm, the pool of blood on the floor, the jagged slashes all over his chest, or the rope around his throat, cutting purple into his skin, with a few minuscule lines of blood seeping out.

No, these images are fading, either through age or desire. But the thing I remember most about finding my best friend of almost ten years hanging from the ceiling, was the creak of the rope, and the gentle dance of his shoelaces, barely touching the floor, barely rooted in reality, still swaying, ever so slightly, as though they didn’t know their owner would never move again.

About The Author

Luke Newell is a poet, author and filmmaker from Wolverhampton. Currently in his second year at the University of Birmingham, his work has been published by the 1888 centre, The Good Men Project and the Heavy Feather Review. He is currently writing his debut novel.
 
Twitter: @newelly249
 

Luke’s story Shoelaces appears in Issue One.

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