I unpack. In for a penny, in for a pound, in-for-mation. The bra goes off, make-up goes on, and another happy pill goes in. Wolf dressed as lamb.
The bar is authentic, right down to the smell of puke beneath the perfume of stale beer. Evan ignores me, for as long as he possibly can, then strolls over to engage. "What do you want?"
“Hey Evan, this pub is amazing, how long has it been in the family?”
He looks at my blouse and into my eyes and adds “... to drink?”
"Oh, right, OK, yeah ... gin and tonic?"
My drink arrives and we perch near the ale taps and wait. The mirror, opposite, helps me to pluck the shoulders of my blouse until the neckline hangs just right. In the far corner are a group of local lads in their late twenties. A puppy breaks from the pack: it’s his round. I count six boys, that’s at least two trips back to the table, carrying three drinks each time. Perfect. The puppy orders and Evan starts elbowing the pints. The puppy casually looks at me and smiles. I drop my phone and bend down carelessly, yet long enough, for him to see my breasts. He saw them alright, I know because now he is suddenly fascinated by the drip tray. He is probably wondering if I noticed. I did boyo, I did.
Seconds later he offers me another casual look. I accept his eye contact for a full second, turn coy, smile, fix hair, steal another glance, then get up and go off to the loo with an ice cube, leaving him with my perfume and a lingering smile.
I check my watch and imagine Evan pulling those pints, I count them down, timing is everything, then lift my shirt and ice my breasts. Men are very simple machines. I arrive as he raises the first three pint glasses, he turns and bumps into me.
"Oh! I'm sorry."
His eyes fixate on my sharpened nipples.
"I'm not," I smile.
He leaves to tell his mates and returns with a friend, who will evaluate me and carry two pints back to the thirsty pack. The last pint will stay and chat me up. And it does.
Dylan and I chat lightly. He smells of dung. I laugh, often. He probes and I lie.
"Oh, I'm here for the night, just passing through, and you?"
He widens his chest and spreads confidently, "I work up past the old mill.” I look interested and nod.
"You know, a bit of livestock, but mostly just tilling and ploughing, like.”
"Yes, I can tell.”
I stroke his forearm.
"Does anyone live up there?"
He answers way too quickly. Perfect, he'll do just fine, it's time to reel him in, I lean forward to let my blouse hang loose and beckon him into a whisper. He complies.
"Dylan, look down. And please take your time, I am not shy. Listen. I don’t want to be your girlfriend. And I don’t want to meet your parents or hang out with your mates. I want you. To plough. Me. Room 2. Oh and it’s alright if you can’t, I’m happy to just do it by myself.”
I murder the gin with one swallow, wink and leave.
Instinct tells me Dylan has never been flung through a windscreen, he’s never killed anyone, he's never been married or divorced and he doesn’t fuck to forget like I do, because Dylan's happy gland is perfectly intact. Mine, on the other hand, is plastered together with medication. Happy pills help dysfunctional people function. An overdose, however, helps functional people to dysfunction. By my measure, he’ll need two, maybe three, pills to get the juicy local secrets into my ear. Back in my bathroom, I prepare his cocktail.
The knock arrives sooner than I was expecting,
“Come on in honey! I won't be long.”
I walk out in my knickers, with my blouse mostly unbuttoned, and hand him vodka and orange.
We break the ice with arbitrary chatter while I turn on Spotify, to ensure there are no awkward silences. Then I fling my arms about his neck and plead, "Dylan, dance with me." He undresses me while we dance and kiss.
Spotify is sometimes uncanny. It’s a voyeur, sitting in the armchair behind you. It has seen you do this before. So it watches you carefully and picks songs that you love, songs that erase everything, songs that guide your hips, and so you dance confidently on the person hooked inside you with an arched spine, with pleasure sublime, edging forward, little by little, until you come. And for a while, they were just songs, and you were free again and then ... it’s gone. I know it is random, but I can’t explain it. Perhaps it was tuned to Dylan?
I really was not expecting him to be like this. He’s young and strong, and my measure was wrong. It cost half my vodka and another condom, but, we both got exactly what he came for. And if I am honest, I might have got a little bit more.
When Dylan was drunk and relaxed and talkative, he told me that everyone loved Gwen, a beautiful local lass. Gareth, on the other hand, is a foul-mouthed foreigner from Liverpool. A Scouser, who never attended Sunday mass. However, they fell in love. When Gwen was three months pregnant, Gareth murdered her. She died in hospital with third-degree burns. A gang, led by her brother, Evan, mister charming from downstairs, beat him severely before he was collected for questioning by the local police. But they couldn’t arrest Gareth, insufficient evidence, so he got off and left town to squat in an abandoned cottage.
Dylan’s mother sings in the Sunday choir. She insists Gareth is possessed by a daemon. A Balrog and creates satanic idols to channel Hell and that’s obviously linked to the changing weather patterns and explains why there is a hole in the ozone layer. He is the one responsible for global warming because he is trying to incinerate heaven. Let us all pray for heaven.
Sounds just like the shit I write to pay my rent.
The morning arrives cold, grey and drizzling. I walked downstairs for breakfast to be greeted by Evan.
"We don't want the likes of you here, there will be no whoring under this roof."
I roll my eyes. He hates on me because I know that he’s just jealous, you see, I don’t come quietly.
I pile everything back into Chloe. The radio issues an amber weather warning for heavy snow. I long for London, where the pollution melts the snow before it lands. We head off and meander around the streets until we come across a sad old library.
The library has six shelves of actual books, but luckily I’m not here for the literature, I’m here because they also keep records of the local newspapers. I absolutely love reading the local scandal. It turns out that Dylan’s tale has an overarching truth. I also discovered that the locals colluded to get Gareth arrested for first-degree murder, proposing that his weapon was, I love this, "spontaneous human combustion". Ha. That’s nice! Time to meet the Balrog.
As I leave, the drizzle turns to snow. The pulp fiction, I found in the library plays back in my mind, setting fire to a pregnant woman? Who is then taken to hospital and dies later? That doesn’t sound like an effective way to murder anyone. It doesn’t add up. What actually happened to Gwen? The country road snakes into foothill forests, and a muddy road ends with "PRIVATE PROPERTY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE EXE(PROSE)CUTED!" I laugh at the wit of the vandal.
The driveway and front yard are littered with junk, I knock at the front door. There’s no reply, so I walk around the modest cottage toward the back. My ears are tricking me because I can hear a bagpipe. The high pitched squeal on the wind, like a proud kite. No. It’s not a bagpipe at all, it’s a clarinet, tethered to the earth by softly struck snare drums. Halfway along the west wall, I can hear more clearly, with less pollution from the wind’s frenzy. It’s a symphony. It’s Bolero, and at the point where the clarinet fences with the oboe.
I turn the corner and walk into a crowd of lifeless corpses.
I stop dead in my tracks and look around. I’m at the rear of the crowd, and their backs are turned to me. The snowfall is getting heavier. My toes are freezing, my nose is ready to run, but none of that matters because I am astonished.
My eyes dart from one petrified person to the next. They are recycled human forms, reborn in wood and iron and concrete. Each one unique. The closest is a man sprinting, snatched in mid-stride and balanced on a flexed toe. He has glass marble eyes with drilled holes for pupils, and he's wrapped in scales, layered like sequins, salvaged from bottle tops, flattened and stitched together with coloured wire, the kind you would find littered beside a telephone junction box.
The yard opens out and extends off to the fringe of woodlands. My eyes follow the bramble seam along to a stone barn whose open belly flickers with orange. Bolero is coming from there. I see someone inside. He’s tall and dressed in heavy gloves, a long black apron, and he has no face. It's just a smooth black barrel, with a slot where eyes naturally belong. He's focused on a furnace. Bursts of blinding white light strobe across a corner wall, followed by arcs of fire. The balrog wielding a whip and sword? He stops for a moment and folds his face up. Then he folds it back and continues welding.
The yard is packed with statues that all stem from the same recycled race and share the same maker. All of them stare into the distance, transfixed by the same mark.
Little by little, they are being dressed by snow, and soon it will look like a sect gathering. I move through the crowd like a pickpocket. Stopping to evaluate the distracted disciples. Thieves have truly mastered the art of looking, to them, I suppose, we're the naked model of a life drawing class.
It’s eerie. Where are they all looking? What mecca is this? I move on to the next figure.
This statue is me, I know it's me, moulded by a chicken wire mesh. Inside the scaffold is winter Jasminium, a wild climbing vine, anchored in the earth under my feet. The creeper has been trained to grow inside me, and leafy tentacles fill my torso, knit my head and branch off into my arms and along into another smaller mesh, that is saddled on my hip. A little girl. My little girl. My very own Jasmine. I imagine that soon they will blossom together, bees and butterflies will buzz between them and an ambitious spider will tickle them into hysterical laughter. Like the other statues, they both have glass eyes. The little girl is looking off into the distance, as all the others do, but mine does not. My glassy eyes watch the little girl, watching the world. Tucked into her bushy hedge of hair are two sets of ceramic cherries. They are lopsided because that’s how she did them.
The bass drum, of the symphony, arrives, like a hammer, beating slow sure and regular. It strikes with progressive and mounting force. The beauty of the statue before me is a pointed chisel. The momentum of each strike is aimed at cracking me apart. Panic germinates in my stomach. The drum is accompanied by trumpets to herald my obliteration. The band marches mercilessly, the hammer and the chisel have seen my sorrow and they smashing me to pieces.
The fucking Prozac. Where is the Prozac? Anxiously I take the orange bottle from my pocket and fight with the lid until it pops open and flicks the three remaining pills into the snow. The fucking snow! I drop to my knees to rake through the bleached mud. Oh please God don’t let this happen now. The pills are nowhere. The panic is everywhere, spreading up to strangle me. It's replacing me. I raise my eyes up, to curse the statue, like a condemned criminal begging an executioner’s gun for mercy.
My jaw quivers and the statue blurs with tears, and all I can say is: "I am so, so sorry."
Suddenly it looks vulgar. A headstone at the grave of everything that was once good. This murderous motherfucker has no goddamn right to parade that like this! It's mine.
I leap up and beat the statue, punching it and try to tear the child from its mother. I will destroy this thing, and I scream, and the Balrog sees me.
"Hey, you! BITCH! NOSY FUCKER! THUNDERCAT! What are you doing?!"
And the Balrog walks toward me carrying a disembodied iron arm.
Panic swallows me and my embalmed emotions resurrect. All the sorrow and happiness of my pathetic life comes to visit me. Everyone I fucked, everyone I forgot and everyone I loved, all arrive together to say hi. The Balrog also arrives and stands still for a moment. He watches me with a thief's eyes. Then studies the statue. He nods to the girl. The wind whips into syllables, the language of the sky. He nods again, as if he’s in communion, then gasps in shock and spits “BLISTER”.
Then the murderer, the arsonist, the sadist starts to cry.
The more he cries, the more my sorrow is whittled away, he takes it all and laments for me, and weeps for them, and in the wake of my sadness compassion overwhelms me.
He turns slowly and twitches and erupts "GOMORRAH, BITCH, WHORE, I know who you are", and steps forward, and wraps his three arms around me, and as they close he returns my sorrow. All of it.
I cry for seven years, four months and nine days. He just holds me. The third arm, from the furnace, keeps us warm. When my crying subsides he sneezes: "FIREFLY, CUNT! Would you like a cup of tea? CRYBABY!" So I punch him in the face and run.
I run to Chloe, who’s under a light shawl of snow, leap in and bang the door. Her engine coughs and chokes. On the third attempt, she starts. I rev hard and smash into gear. Reverse. Forward. I punched my foot down, too far, and the wheels whirr uselessly in the snow and then bite, jumping the car forward.
The windscreen is misted, so I clear a viewport with my sleeve, as I approached the last downhill curve before the gate and turn the wheel, but Chloe just carries on straight, skating toward a ditch. I yank the wheel, the car spins and time stops. Deja vu. The car pitches into the ditch and the stretched continuum of time snaps as the steering wheel cracks into my face, and suddenly I’m gone.
I wake up to the fresh smell of clean linen, rinsed with lavender fabric softener. I don’t want to move. I don’t want to know where the hurt is. I don’t want to know where I am. So I lie there inhaling the perfume of the sheets. For a moment I’m twelve and at home in my bedroom, with my entire life ahead of me. My bladder starts to nag. No matter how still I lie, the bladder will eventually win. I sit up too quickly, the room spins, I try to stand, but a stabbing pain fells me, and I vomit on myself and faint.
I wake up, back in the warm lavender envelope. Everything hurts. I turn over, and my face thumps and stabs my eyes in protest. My left eye can’t open more than a sliver, and my cheek is hot and painful, and ... my bladder is empty. How humiliating! I must have pissed myself. Then I notice another smell. The soft floral aroma of another woman’s scent. Somehow I’m dressed in her pyjamas. She smells like orange blossom in the dry heat of summer. I lift the pyjama sleeve to my nose and fall asleep breathing in her beauty.
I wake up exhausted by my dreams. The hurt is still there, but I feel hungry, I guess I'm getting better. Very slowly I get up and stand in the pain then hop to the door. I press the handle down, and it jams, it will not budge. In disbelief I try again, it’s locked solid. I yank the handle bash the door and yell, then turn around, it’s light outside, and the windows are frozen, but at least they are smashable.
I find my clothes neatly folded on an old wooden desk, everything else is also on the table: my purse, phone, pill bottle, they’re all there. My phone is dead. I grab the jeans and pull the pyjama pants down as the door opens. In comes Gareth, with a bowl of soup. He looks at me and freezes at the sight of my pubic tuft. I yank the pyjamas up and shout.
"Why the fuck are you locking me up?!"
He looks at me as if I’m mad and twitches.
"W-W-What?" he asked.
"The door! You locked the fucking door!"
He grins and laughs at me.
"Don't laugh at me you bastard!"
"It’s upside down, PSYCHOPATH, the handle."
"Oh REALLY? "
I stand up, and he steps back, like a dog expecting a beating, I hobble to the door and pull the handle up. The door opens. I feel so embarrassed. Gareth leaves the soup, slips past me without a word and down the passage.
"Thank you," I say meekly to the empty room.
I drink the chicken broth and can’t help thinking of Gareth. And how he had held me and how he let me cry and how I dribbled on him and how he just stood there and held on. I remember his warmth, the arm’s heat and the freezing white confetti. He made me feel safe and warm. And I gave him that permission. He saw me. I hate him for that. I also remember that I punched him and ran. And I feel so ashamed.
Except for the crackle of a wood fire, the living room is empty and quiet.
The walls sparkle with light. It’s a mosaic of crushed glass, shards of mirror, broken china and coloured tiles. The furniture must have all come from the street and been carefully repaired. I look around the room and then it strikes me that everything in the cottage had been broken, and mended, yet the fix isn’t hidden. And seeing the repair, so obvious, is what makes it special, it is still beautiful, still relevant and still useful. The wall decoration is very intriguing, and as I admire the mosaic I spot a small shard of a mirror that shows me a bulbous purple eye. My eye. I immediately touch my face, and it’s hot and sore. I want to see how I look now and wander off down the passage. I pass a second bedroom before I find the bathroom, which has no mirrors. No mirrors? So I look in the next closest room, Gareth’s room.
It is the opposite of everything I have seen so far. It’s ugly. The roof is a black stain, with mustard at its perimeter, the air tastes like old coal. The bed isn’t a bed, it’s a black iron bench with a spring mattress covered by chain mail. Is this where Gwen had burnt? Is this a shrine? I close the door without entering.
I hear boots stomping and scraping on a bristle mat, so I head for the kitchen.
The backdoor opens and Gareth enters patting snow from in his apron and gloves. He takes them off and starts to prepare dinner. My offer to help is declined so instead I set the table instead.
"HER-RRR. HA. Nice. BISCUIT. The weather has shifted, you must leave soon. What's your name by the way? FIREFLY."
"Oh sorry, I um forgot ... Harry, my name is Harry."
He looks at me, directly in the eye, but that just causes nervous ticking "DIRTY. HAHA. HAIRY. HARRY." so he breaks eye contact. Pauses. Then continues calmly with "My uncle was called Harry. Harriet is so much better. It rhymes with Chariot and PUBIC HAIRY", he rolls his eyes in embarrassment.
I can’t help it and burst into laughter and nod my head, then mimic him "HAIRY. HARRIET. CHARIOT. FUCK. FUCK. CUNT!"
He erupts with hysterics and slaps his leg, and his smile is incandescent with happiness. When he stops, he spoons his empty plate and nods to himself and says, "you see Harriet, how easy it is to be happy?".
My eyes immediately drop into my lap. I fidget and the silence turns awkward.
Gareth looks at me again, with his eyes, the ones that make you naked.
"Sometimes things just break. And even if you do manage to mend them, they are still broken, they will always be broken. But ... they are also mended."
Gareth gets up, collects his plate and spoon, then comes around the table.
He reaches down for my plate.
"Thank you", I say and I reach up instinctively and takes touch his hand.
He jerks back, snatches away, the plates smash, and he clutches his hand, teeth clenched in agony, his body rigid and trembling, his eyes start screaming, wide with fear, absolute fear. He timidly retreats to the sink, for his gloves and side steps to the back door, not once breaking eye contact and then he disappeared into the cold night.
I am repulsive. Hideous. Millions of ugly words arbitrarily taxi around my mind only to discover the runway is gridlocked. The ugliness can’t get out. The only faculty still intact generates oxygen. So I practice breathing but that just makes me desperate, and then the demonic baubles reappear and sweep everything away and present me with a one-word solution for everything.
I skip to my room to check if, by some miracle, I might have missed a single pill stuck in the bottom of the bottle. There isn’t. So I ransack the kitchen for the next best thing. Alcohol. Not a drop. Calm down Harry, calm the hell down and think!
Chloe! Oh yes! Chloe, God bless Chloe! On the backseat is my suitcase, my medicine cabinet. But. How would I ... a broom, that’s how. The broom is next to the fridge. Great. I flip it upside down, and now the broom is a crutch.
I grab my bag and jacket from the room and tentatively test the broom down the passage. It holds me just fine. "Clever girl", I tell myself, and then I hear the backdoor open with a very quiet click. I have absolutely no reason to sneak down the passage, but I do. I have no reason to hold my breath, but I do, I have no reason to be terrified, but I am.
I tap into the living room, and across to the front door, and I noticed something that I had missed before. A plant pot on the patio. Inside are wilted flowers, leftovers from summer. Daisies. A gust of cold wind sweeps past, and the taps the fly screen against the door frame. Dawn is not near, but it is Dusk and the sky is a tinted purple.
This is like my dream. I know exactly what is coming next.
My name whispered in full with pleading mercy.
But there are no curtains. No blistering paint. No wallpaper. It’s not my dream because it’s not a dream at all, it was a reality, it was Gwen's reality, and all her horror is unfolding again just for me.
I open the door.
I look back as Gareth appears. But he is not the Gareth of yesterday. A furnace is growing inside his solar plexus, his fingertips are white, his hands glow red, his pupils have gone, his eyes are solid white and he is gargling lava.
He sputters incoherently then screams "Harriet ... RUN!" and his chest bursts into flames.
And I do. I run as fast as I can. And I run straight at Gareth the Balrog, just like Gwen had done. I leap through the air and grab him with both my arms and legs. And it hurts like hell.
I’m burning alive. And in that microsecond, I know that if I let go now, I’ll burn up. And I know that Gwen had let go because she had something left to lose. So I tighten my grip like a vice and kiss his gaping furnace mouth of lava, and let it flow into me like hot honey. With my soul, I scream into him, "I know who you are!"
And his soul replies, "Oh God no!" and all his flesh ignites.
He carries me through the door screaming and screaming, and we collapse into the soft powdery snow, burnt naked.
The pain was so severe that I found myself lying on the highway. Cut and grated by glass and gravel. I had just been thrown through a windscreen because I hadn’t fastened my seat-belt. I looked up just in time to see my car burst into flames and my daughter, beautiful little Jasmine, was in the back, in her car-chair, crisscrossed by sturdy black straps. And then I was inside the inferno, sitting next to her, watching her burn.
Jasmine looked at me, she was very sad, and said: “Mummy, I think it’s time to get better.”
I nodded at her and stroked her blistering little face, and straightened the melting cherries in her hair, and stayed with her to the very end. I wanted to follow her but Gareth called me by name. He kept calling, and calling, and calling until I climbed back into the pain of my burnt body.
The burns were bad, really, really bad, but they healed entirely. My hair grew back platinum and I never left New Bethesda. While I recovered I slept a lot, and read a lot too and apparently “Bethesda” is an ancient Aramaic word. It means “The house of mercy”.
Isn't that nice?
I live with a daemon now, and he lives with mine.