It’s a sound like an unrelatable metaphor. Like that song I heard once, playing in a passing car. Stripped back to its essence, only the beats necessary to give it shape, silence in between, muffled (slightly).
My guy, he can remember three things. The discovery of his penis. The dark windows of burglary nightmares. Two attempted muggings.
The burglar is a woman with bed hair. It arches in long blackness out of her scalp and frames her cheeks — like this (( ) ). It is uneven. Her face is the face of a woman I met. She was on the other side of the bridge at Homerton, I’d seen her a few times before. I don’t ask people’s names but she should have been an Esmerelda; she looked like an Esmerelda. I gave her ten pounds, which I said I’d been paid extra that day and then back-tracked on myself when I realised it wasn’t a good thing to say. I was trying to say it wasn’t anything cos her face made it seem like it was a lot and that I was generous. It was not a day on which I could be generous. I could have said I was saving the rest of my pay cheque for A—, but I hadn’t met him yet. He was just an idea in my mind of the future. I could have said I got the money for delivering leaflets — that I didn’t actually deliver them; that I didn’t expect to get paid. I didn’t say these things but what I could have said as I back-tracked is clearer in my memory than what I actually said to Esmerelda before I walked away.
Later, much later, I saw her again. I was with someone and I asked her how she was but then I had to explain why I asked her how she was to the someone I was with. The words slipped and squirmed in my mouth. It was not a day on which I could be generous.
The sound I am thinking of describes me, exactly, the sound is exactly how I am, now. It’s the hum of a jack when it’s half-way into the aux but not quite. Not quite the grunge-growl of feedback, but it sits between the pops and crackles. Rice Krispie music. It’s not the death spiral of Stereophonics out of a neighbour’s window either, but it has aspects of that melancholy. It contains within it the last note of the fire alarms we had in primary school, the note which fades slow into deflated-expectations. But above all it’s joyful. I could dance forever to this sound.
I’m walking across the Common. It’s raining and I’m wearing trainers so I walk on the path, feeling mist drops on my fingertips. He follows, slow, on a bike. He wears a balaclava. He exists in synecdoche. IC3.
Mugger: What you got for me
Mug: I ain’t got nothing
(n.b. the Mug’s yellow clothes clash with the harsh
Bethnal Green accent the Mug puts on)
Mugger: What’s in the bag tho
Mug: I ain’t got nothing. Fuck off
Mugger: So if I stopped and searched you right now, you tellin me I wouldn’t find anything?
(n.b. the verbal theft)
Mug: Fuck off
There’s a guy walking his dog. I know this guy, but I haven’t seen him before.
“What’s your dog’s name,” I ask, afterwards. “Tiger,” he says. He says Tiger like the guy on the train at Brockenhurst said it, as he pointed to the tattoo on his ribs: This one’s A Tiger, A Panther, A Lion.
Before I ask the guy about his dog, I ask if the guy’s got a phone. “Nah,” he says.
Shards of calcified smegma sink below the soap suds. I have prepared for this unveiling. The sound echoes perfectly around the tub. But this is a painful moment. The head of my penis shrieks purple in agony as I ease down the fused foreskin. The possibility of permanent damage lurks in my child’s mind.
The Woman in the Window:
Esmerelda grins toothlessly in the darkness of the kitchen window as she rams her screwdriver into the gap, finding leverage.
My guy, his name is A—. He is unsure. He is conflicted. He is a chameleon. He adapts to all that isn’t himself. As a result, he is his own doubter, his own challenger, his own usurper. As a result, he struggles to believe in himself. As a result, he becomes conscious.
In his conscious adaptation, his conscious giving away of himself, he retains control, which is what he desires.
But this control, and this desire for control, makes him deeply uncomfortable. He seeks, by various means, to give away this control and this desire for control (without really giving either away).
This is why he remembers three images of almost-theft. The discovered penis, the attempted mugging, the dreamed burglary. He owns the other’s attempts to take away from him what is his.
A— is in the grip of a love story. This love story will end in sex, an exchange.
Perhaps A— is a virgin. But he feels too old to be a virgin. In the event, the climax of this story, it will be left un-communicated, blurred into ordinary sexual awkwardness: he will fumble with his belt, his too-tight jeans, the condom. His penis will soften against his will, coiling limply as he licks her, politely, to orgasm. He will stroke it back to strength as he strokes it now, in his masturbatory fantasies, as he thinks of the end.
He wonders whether his love, whose life runs parallel to his own, feels the same – and this uncertainty excites him and, he thinks, only him.
He stares at himself naked in the mirror. He imagines being her. And the thought of sucking his own penis, with his knowledge of its first unravelling, the soap-covered-stench of that unravelling, stings him. The end will never come, he thinks. More sexual awkwardness.
Lemon Stealing Whore has been dubbed the greatest porn movie ever made. It is a critique of capitalism: the fetishization of commodities (in this case lemons) brutalizes human relationships. The bourgeois lemon-grove-owners (a loving couple imagining their life together, profiting from the labour of their lemon trees) discover and fuck (orally then anally) the titular Lemon Stealing Whore who will be paid, the couple promise, in lemons, if she fucks well.
A— is afraid of the Lemon Stealing Whore. His cock recoils.
As his cum drains into his belly button, A— takes control of his love story and buries his desires.
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In a 3am fog she wakes to the sound of the rainstorm but thinks only of the conversation, the droplets stolen by the sun from the seas, lakes, puddles, leaves, fingertips, returning heavily, a drinking and urination, another conversation across time through a billion, a trillion bodies, she feels a sense of synchrony, of her body with all those others, with the clouds, which lightens the load on her feet. She floats back into her dreamscape.
She hums, beneath the mask, shopping for Dawn. Peas & Kidney Beans. Not a sound of disconnection, something better, warmer, broader. A ripple of molecules, of atoms, from ear to ear.
My guy, he’s on checkouts. Their eyes meet. She smiles, he brightens. Her mask. His blank canvas. Hold and release. Clutch, scan, slide. She does not feel the discomfort of his touching as others do. She does not care about the threat of these hands. Lubricated with sanitiser. She smiles at a machine. Slide, clutch, release.
The exquisite beauty of loving someone you have created for yourself.
“Babe,” She says, Her voice luxuriating in irony. She is a shape-shifter, too. “Bae,” She says.
The exquisite hope for reciprocation.
“What,” drowsy, out of sleep.
The exquisite pain of the realisation that they do not love you, but someone else entirely.
She lays Her gift on the pillow. “I got something for you,” She says. Lips meet with familiarity.
Her gift lies untouched as Bae showers, eats, sits staring at her laptop screen. She waits. They sit in silence, together.
Into the mood, She preaches a philosophy of hope from Her feed:
Memory rules over us. Those who remember only loss are doomed to lose. Those who remember only theft are doomed to thieve. Those who remember only pain are doomed to pain. Those who remember to hope, they will inherit the Earth.
It is rejected. “You need to get off twitter,” Bae says, filling it with the feeling of the opening line of a scripted speech. “That’s not how the world works,” She will say. “Read a book,” She will say. Rehearsed lines. The over-familiarity of this relationship is a stage for rehearsed lines. Thoughts which have been given time to ferment into articulation. Points on a list being prepared for the next fight. They will be spoken with drunken freedom, with no space for listening or for thought. They will play their roles into the night, then kiss and make up.
Until then, the pre-fight silence hangs thick in the air.
“Ah this is jokes — the caucacity — look,” She says, handing Her phone across the gap to Bae.
Her Mutual Aid group pings over and over again, a chorus, following an act which She calls micro-colonialism.
Their flat is in the western half of —Estate; so, the Mutual Aid group which She is a part of is called MA —Estate West.
At 12:36, the group leader (GL) of MA —Estate West mentioned, casually, that it did not seem like MA —Estate East was up to much. They hadn’t printed so many leaflets, knocked on so many doors, taken so many calls. He is not sure they even have a burner.
Maybe we could stage a takeover? GL suggests.
It makes sense: the members of MA —Estate East do not have as much time on their hands as the members of MA —Estate West. The chorus agrees, one after the other:
That sounds sensible
I agree, sounds sensible
Sounds like a sensible idea
Yeah, seems sensible
Sounds sensible to me
“Yeah so anyway—” She says, beginning, “we went to the after party, after that, and it turns out the after party means cramming into this tiny room. There’s three sofas, the walls are yellow from cigarette smoke, there’s a TV and a DVD player but they only have this crusty boxset of High School Musical, and we just sit there, crowded around. There’s a hunchback, a Moroccan guy with one eye, a journalist and there’s this 43-year-old woman, she’s from the Midlands — she’s like left her kids to buy heroin off the Scottish guy, who has no hair except for this tuft tied up at the back of his head — and then us. I don’t know why we ended up there — they musta all thought they were gonna get some,” She laughs, forcefully. “But anyway, we’re all sitting around, just chilling, chatting, smoking: the Moroccan guy’s got his hash, the woman keeps reaching over us to get her ting off the Scottish guy but he’s distracted by the journalist with the guyliner who’s eating bananas to help him come down — and then I can’t remember how it came up but the Scottish guy is outed as this priest with a pierced penis. He’s got a certificate and everything — for the priest thing — I can’t remember the name of the church, it was some online course he took — but he starts this sermon like — he says that in Genesis, yeah, the snake is actually the one who did everything, built everything, created the earth and the universe, the animals and the people and all that, and then God came in at the end and He comes and He whispers in Adam’s ear, like, ‘I’ve got something for you,’ and boom, Adam wakes up, sees the whole world, da water, de animals, whatever, and he believes that booming voice — he’s like, this is all mine — and he believes he’s been created by the booming voice, too — not by the serpent who’s obviously pissed off at God and goes up to Eve wid that hard-truth. He’s all like, ‘Don’t listen to him babes. That God ain’t nothing but a fruit-munching liar who don’t know nothing about Eden.’” Silence.
The silence dissolves when Bae gets up to leave. Sliders and keys and she leaves.
She will talk about this moment repeatedly, with Herself and with Esa who She’ll meet in the park to smoke and talk things over with. An hour and they’re there, sitting in the sun, Esa rolls a joint and says:
“Octopus, definitely an octopus, like fitting through holes and shit—”
Which holes you been fitting through lately? She almost thinks of saying.
“Plus they’re smart — smartest animals out there — smarter than people,” he says, pausing to lick the rizla. “There was this one in this lab once who figured out how the lights worked and started jetting water onto the lightbulbs until the electricity cut out. They had to set it free cos it was costing too much money, endangering other projects and that. You can’t cage ‘em — they’re too smart.”
She regrets Her Idunnowhataboutyou silence.
“Their arms are creepy as fuck though,” She manages, but She does not mean it.
Esa lights the joint; more silence, but it is not painful.
“Anyways what’s up wid y’all,” he says, smoke billowing from his mouth.
“I dunno — she just been quiet all day, like, total radio silence”
“That it? She still at yours?”
“She got up and left.”
“Without saying anything?”
“She said the name of the—”
“The what — the vid?”
The moans, groans, rippling cellulite and tiger-stripe stretch-marks, the itch of his thigh-hair.
“Yeah — she found it,” She says. “She said that — then she just left — like her laptop open and everything, just sliders and keys and she went.”
He laughs, “Oh my days.” Staccato, exaggerated, outdated. “You can’t catch a break — how she find it?”
“I dunno — the same way the others did I guess.”
“You needa stop hitting the porn freaks.”
“Nah it’s true tho — that guy was a prick init — how you gonna go all silent treatment about suttin like that — shit occurs, like,” a pause, unsure, suspenseful. “No lie it’s good tho,” he says, passing Her the joint.
“You’ve seen it?”
“You’ve actually seen it? Fuck you,” She says, but beneath Her smoke-screen She smiles.
They pass time. They chat shit and they theorise: Bae acts like she knows all about being with someone, all about emotions and that, but she doesn’t even know herself; Bae acts like she’s this holier-than-thou kinda figure but she don’t know what’s going on; Bae acts like bookshelves are a substitute for a mind; Bae acts like cold, hard experience is meaningless; Bae lectures and lectures but when the time comes to put her lectures into action, Bae finds a dog-eared excuse and she hesitates.
Their conversation is iconoclastic, cathartic, and though She knows they create caricatures, She values what they create for the power they give Her. To remould, to remake, to recreate. Out of shame, pride. Out of loss, hope. Out of pain, self-love. When it’s done, when Esa drags the last stinging breath from their third roach, when She sinks back glorying in Her usurpation, they get up and they leave.
She does not go home but wanders, preserving Her gassed-up superiority, knowing that Bae will be waiting with pins and needles behind the door when She returns.
At the end of his shift, my guy, he leaves his judgment seat and walks. He does not stop, but walks, sometimes in circles, creating Her for himself, extrapolating from an imagined smile. Until he stops. Until he sees Her clearly, paused in the sunset glow of a streetlamp.
She walks on. Out of darkness, he follows. She does not turn back.
About The Author
Luke is a graduate in English from UCL, this is his first published short story.
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