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At the Heart of Things

there is no meaning. Hanging a picture on the wall I       give       a little too much force to my thumb skin breaks under pressure an orb of blood       red       red to dark red to dry red       to skin        to iron       to rust       to yesterdays       as they move, they move. Tuesday. Going into the city with the rest of them sliding down the greased pole of means become ends. Let me tell you. I slipped and traveled against the sharp grain of escalator, one flight of metal before I hit flat floor and crack, to the back of my head. I cried like a child       oh I oh I said me am in pain.

 

I was at work by the afternoon. I was at home by early evening feeling burning scratches on the backs of my legs and the bruised curve of my head. My mind curved bruised.

 

In bed, face down, the sheets scraped and tugged me sore any way I tried to lie. I stretched out an arm looking for a cool place and all that was solid dematerialised. Slipped me into water. Water, it was pressure. I felt the water as pressure. I’d always thought of pressure as a pushing down oh       it       was every drop of water for miles working into me. There was nothing to my fingers, no weight, no force on the pads of my feet, no cold draft wafting past the hairs of my skin, no sound, no sight. I couldn’t set my watch to nothing. I waited. I couldn’t scream, I wasn’t aware of mouth or lungs to do so not breathing, not dead, not alive. No fear. Not yet. Eyes wide open into dark while looking for sense. Unsayable.

 

The Friday, I dropped in on Uncle Padana. It was the beginning of summer: shadows fold neatly round corners, light warms the backs of the hands until four and cools before six. He answered the phone in a lady voice as I stood outside his door, then buzzed me in ‘He’s ready for you now.’ He was sitting behind his desk, leaning back in his chair, looking boyish, expectant, tired. A Ceropegia hung from the bookshelf and fondled the few hairs on his head. As I moved into the room he stood and for me opened his arms.

 

‘What painkillers you on?’ he said. He speaks out of the side of his mouth – gritted teeth, broke his jaw, never set right.

 

‘Something weak,’ I said.

 

‘Hmm, the brain is confused, confuses things.’

 

‘Confusion isn’t the feeling,’ I said, ‘and you were there.’

 

‘Was I kind?’ Scratching a nail over the stubble above his lip.

 

‘Kind?’

 

‘Pleasant, agreeable.’

 

‘You weren’t there in your physicality, at least, too dark to tell.’

 

‘No light to bounce off my face?’

 

‘No light to see.’

 

‘Black?’

 

‘Deeper than black, than basalt, as deep as death. You were a presence, not yourself.’

 

‘Well, take a light next time, then I might know that I was kind to you.’

 

‘You are.’

 

‘I want to know if I am, truly.’

 

‘You’re taking me seriously?’

 

‘Look around.’

 

I looked. A yellow corduroy sofa. The long list of clients whose arses have worn it down, sitting on top of each other, a stack stretching up to the crows, talking it out for the cure. To the left, a wall of books. A wooden floor that traced a walking path where varnish was worn and not worn. Piles of paper. Three pairs of glasses. The room was a rectangle. That plant was the only plant. Us three the only living things in the room that I could see. The things I could not see: mice beneath the floorboards, dust mites, woodlice work their way into gaps come out at night. A window. Outside, a wall, over which street life ran along as water runs downstream.

 

‘I’m all about your night visits, you tell me, you tell me all about it.’

 

‘Agreed.’ Then I hugged him.

 

‘Call your sister?’ he said, as the door closed behind me.

 

I didn’t call her that night. We were eleven when our father died. Sunday morning and I reached for my phone, touched her name and let it ring, no answer, but I felt she was at the other end watching it ring. A petty satisfaction I had then I was petty, pleased because she was so petty. Our blood was separated at birth but still runs hot through both of us. There was no big feud, that would be too easy, simply, we both need the upper hand. Our father died       he died. Twenty years of hot friction had passed since then. He cooled the blood. He waved the flag to signal the end of the race. He’s dead. We found no way of being without him. Sister, mother and myself, always        careless.

 

That night, I went back. I had taken the bedside lamp, an arm outstretched from the sheets, light, something solid against darkness. My hand was partially lit. I shone the light downwards, illuminating my feet, thighs, chest, arms, all there. It was snowing. It fell through the lamp beam. Then I was afraid. The light would only penetrate a metre in any direction, and beyond that a void that contained me. Last time I was there I was only myself, now, my self and body entirely oh I shone light in a circle around while the white stuff fell into darkness beneath me. I floating just an obstacle in the snow’s path. It settled into the hollows of my collarbones and attached to ragged strands of hair, but I couldn’t feel it. It was too light.

 

I wrote everything down after then. To work out some things, a pattern, or maybe to plan ahead. Some research at The Gross Library. I looked for oceanography and geology, cruised the pages of The Silent World, The Deep. I’d travelled deep, so deep I knew that. My cousin, Rhumz, had been the librarian at The Gross for years, until she had the kids. My habit of going there stayed so I go. I sat with head propped on my hand let my thoughts run through into evening. Through the window, a streetlight, a fox inside the light’s yellow triangle, looking up, tipping back its head, black tipped ears folding back, dipped ink black, catching yellow falling from the streetlight. Then gone.

 

At home, I picked up the phone. I said, ‘You were with me last night, Rhumz.’

 

She said, ‘Ha, sweetheart. Where was I last night? (Voice quieted as she turned to bring in her husband) I was cleaning some five year old child gunk out of the U-bend wasn’t I?’

 

‘Yeh,’ he said.

 

‘What else will they find for their fun and games? The dangers of children, the perils of living with children. It’s us who need protecting cousin, it’s us who are naïve cousin. How could I have been with you?’

 

I said the same thing that I said to Padana. Though, Rhumz was a different temperament, a different grain.

 

‘Presence? Well fuck me, I’ve always wished I could be two places at once. But I never was there, not me. You know one of them left a little nugget of something at my front door, on the mat. They think they’re all cats and dogs and little elf people. The kids think they can be anything they want. Leaving little shits over the mat. I’m a cat or a dog they say, and that works for them. Cousin, don’t let them fool you, the perils of family life it’s too late for me. The party’s over after a point. It’s all old cigar stubs from then on. How’s your sister?’

 

After Rhumz, I called sister again. Again no answer and then I was worried. Had I finally turned her off? There were only a few axes of love, hate, attention in this world to sustain me, Padana and sister – Grindy. Where was she? A fantasy close to me at this point. I small as a flea scaling her back, looking for a foothold – a protruding mole, ingrown hair, pimple. And then I fall. I poured a glass of vodka, warm, and paced. As I passed the bookcase a spike of pain. A small shard of glass lodged in my foot, a fresh wound to join the others. I washed it with some drink, dabbed it with a tissue and drank more and sat down one minute and the next, I was in the snow. My lamp, shining right at me, suspended about a metre in front, glass in my hand.

 

The snow was dead matter, fecal matter and inorganic matter. Over weeks it falls from the ocean’s surface to the deepest layers. A tug at my foot. Sharp teeth, a tail, something that likes my blood. The first time feeling something here. Oh I felt the teeth sharp in me and I liked the feel. I’ll say it again I liked it. The pink eel rasped at my foot, coiling itself and flexing, tugging. Tiny thing, eyes black as the surround. I flicked my foot and it held on, my heel fresh meat to chew, so I kicked downward harder and it let go.  I followed it with my lamp beam as i undulated, body S-shaped light and shadow. I moved as if running forward forwards now just the eel I had for company. And, somewhere, Padana an Rhumz I sensed in the dark.

 

The eel led me to a pool. A blue lagoon encrusted at its edges with smooth charcoal-black pebbles, a slick mist of ochre hung above it. The eel disappear into it and never reappeared into my light. Was it water beneath water? Dead crabs and eels lined its edges. The black pebbles, with a closer look, were mussels, mouths open, ready to swallow me oh terrifying and so beautiful it has to be seen unsayable beyond I know. I put my feet onto its surface and felt it push back. To feel my feet. I didn’t have feet before they had something to stand on. A Surface. Unsteady though, it was, unsteady the surface could have swallowed me.

 

A red light. Now my feet were accustomed and my eyes were accustomed. Legs kicked I held the lamp tight plug dipping into the lagoon. I followed the red light, just as the eel goes, undulating my legs as if they were swinging ropes and I drifted forwards so slowly it took time. But there was so much time. I’m getting used to it. Catching up to the red light, I pointed the lamp. Teeth transparent pincers, eyes glancing to its sides – foil dishes, as its dagger head cut through dark water. But it travelled without fear, the red lights beneath the eyes for lighting the way? That hinged mouth. It didn’t hurry away from me. I followed and forgot how far or how long I’d travelled. A long swim through the deepest layers. Long swim through the snow into the nothing beyond sight lines overhead. Overhead as we burrowed into dark, me and this fish. Overhead there were bioluminescent pathways. And mine, my lamp beam, my red light fish.

 

I followed the fish into morning. Where my vodka had spilled into my lap. Head jerked back over the sofa arm, dried spit on my chin. My foot was red, dried blood, the glass was cutting not so deep. But the memories of the glass, too deep. He had been sitting here one night, though I had taken back his key. He’d been sitting here naked one night. Light on he stood, dry skin, looked scratched and sore, limp penis, which he put in my hand. Limp like a soaked cloth. It was I who’d limped him, he’d said. I took the penis in my hand. In part because it was warm and my hands were cold and shaking. For old times’ sake, then. The glass was thrown later. In the struggle, for my struggle with       The glass was thrown to give me time to run away. To give me time to run away and to come to the edge. I changed the locks after a few      days.

 

Malacosteus niger. The fish can be found in the midnight zone, with a flashing red cheek to catch its prey. Though its nature not as violent as its teeth. It was an ugly companion, led me further than I’d have dared to go alone with just the lamp light. Synaphobranchidae, the eel that ragged my foot for the taste of blood. The lake was filled with brine, a cold seep, salt deposits from sea after sea, leaching out from below the bed. Brine is heavier than water. The ochre haze of bacteria floating above it thick cloud of cells a soup wants to be left alone undisturbed, I know I understand. I knew its surface and the sense of my feet.

 

Leaving the library. I walked down the fox’s alleyway, beneath that lonely streetlight, fried chicken bones. The light reached only so far, once out of its beam I waded through that pink city darkness. As I walked along dark alley black shoes dipped into tarmac. Legs swinging black. Feet kicked through black. Only I could really know what I’d seen. I had been speaking with Uncle Padana after each visit, as he’d asked. I’d hear his pencil burning on the other end of the line he’d go quiet, cooking up diagnoses feebly but in true he was stumped. I called sister again a few times, again and nothing. Thick air between us.

 

I should have known that she would show up the next time. Unlike the others she was there in the flesh. Confirmed everything I had been afraid of on her answer, ‘Hello sister,’ at the other end of the mobile. Her skin was yellow, as always, but pale, above us a ceiling of flashing fish cruised along. Her hair bunched into thick braids which wafted around her face, obscuring, reappearing and she was silent. She was dressed the same as me. She always dressed same as me that was something I hated about her. Hated her ability to dress. She was wearing strap-on shoes. That was the only difference. Her feet were puckered. Unlike me, she looked dead. Unlike the others there was no presence in her. I swivelled my lamp about me. We were close to the bed. Tube worms, red lipped, floral, spread like grass beneath us there was no room for standing. I moved closer to my sister.

 

I’ve seen an eel tie itself into knots, poisoned by the brine. I’d shone my light upon it. Grindy’s eyes seemed as empty. She was retreated deep indoors occupied with important things, a fight. But not lost. The eel’s head had jerked back and forth – the crack of a whip. It was momentarily surrendered to a powerful terror. But it lived.

 

After then, my travels down the tube rails seemed the stranger thing. Travelling into the city with the rest of them, sliding down the         Eye contact eyes snap away. The city demands a certain kind of contact only. It demands suspicions. Changes the meaning of a glance or a look of love, to yourself you keep your looks only to your own chest. It begins with everybody and nobody people, flashing lights they shoes, make up, rats tails and so on, hinge necked bulb headed bug eyed. And it made me mad. We are all alike in strangeness. But I was accustomed to the dark pressures of the water oh I’m no longer accustomed to this.

 

Last time. I found myself at the edge of a trench. At the edge, lamp in hand. Trying to see into it there was no point. Legs kicking into black. I shone my lamp light but the light was swallowed. No point in the lamp light, too deep. Behind me, they were all there. I turned and everywhere I shot a beam there was Padana, Rhumz with Husband, the kids, getting on with things: moving rocks, feeding the tube worms, corralling the few fish into neat groups according to size, colour and temperament. And I was grateful but we all knew that I had to go.

 

I circled around them, a farewell lap, handed Uncle Padana my lamp, kicked past the brine pools and the spiked rocks and dead eels, mussels. No point in the lamplight, too deep. No point in eyes, too deep. No point in explaining, too deep. No way of making sense of

 

‘Ta-ta.’

 

I tossed my chin over my shoulder and waved as I went over the edge. If I could pass on something, it would be to say that at the heart at the heart        at the heart of things there is no sense. Sister. I brushed the tips of my fingers on the ledge of the seabed as they                      waved me off.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and poet living in London.

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