Sometimes you think about Atlas and you cry. Poor thing. A lot of the time you can’t get over it. A fossil of a man, an allegory, you know, but the simplicity of the image remains – heaven has a burden to it. And how obvious is that? How ruinous. You tell Jun this over a half-spilt Guinness and he laughs, which has always seemed to you like another way of crying. He says okay, we tread all over people. What can you do about it? You buy him another drink.
You’ve been at the club a year by this point. What of it? Not much. You watch him make martinis and mimosas and margaritas – 2 for 1 on a Thursday special treat for the lady – hear the softness of his fingers on glass and metal shakers, spot the solidity of his tongue, damp, deft, as it tastes the mixtures. Nod if yes. Shake if no. And you see these as secrets. You’ve decided they are secrets of him, which only you know.
He waves at you every night as you enter and you wave back all innocent but observing the veins in his arms and neck. You travel a long way to get there, alone on the tube, below the bright city, waiting for that wave and all the anonymity you feel to end. You make notes on your phone about him such as SEEMED SAD LOOKING AT A BOWL OF OLIVES? You worry about him incessantly. You do your make-up on the train and from your headphones come the songs you know you’ll be requested – obviously Amy, Adele, on and off Alicia. You sing on what Bobby calls Jazz Evenings! But even with instruction the punters only want pop’s soft melodies. You have become a tribute to other women and you know it – in your compact mirror you see increasingly little.
During the days you ponder the proximity of other people; you are told London is filled with them but you’ve never quite believed it. During the nights you make a study of the dark, as you try to sleep on an old cotton sheet rough like elbows, through the pillow with your fists tightening. You feel Jun there the same way as you do from your stage, when his body is just visible behind the bar, past the audience’s eyes, which reflect nothing but your own spotlight; this makes each member look caught in the flash of a camera, and the whole scene seems an artifice. But you believe it is. In the dark you know, he is the only fleshiness.
And then on a Sunday he offers you a drink. You have always assumed fate works on restful days. Bobby isn’t there to warn him against getting you drunk – he says you do a good Amy but the slurring is overkill. Overjoyed, you ask for a piña colada and toast the men watching before starting again. Singing. Drinking. None of their bodies move as you go and it makes you sadder as you get drunker, to remember your father opening all the windows of your home and banging his bare feet on the floorboards listening to jazz. Never still. You can feel it. Can you still feel it? Never still, but shaking.
You can feel Jun there watching. You drink your cocktail and the bar is quiet so he is listening. You have coconut milk on your tongue. You soak your throat in it. You sing to him, and you try to make him understand this. He is smiling – you can make out his teeth shining.
Occasionally he speaks to others as if it’s easy – just dance around the oddities, ignore the slack jaws, the hollowed-out pupils. You are amazed by it. If you don’t take care of otherness you are swallowed there – this is what you’ve taught yourself.
You hang about in the toilets with the last of another drink after closing. You are smoking. You listen to Roberta and Joni and Nina whilst waiting, sitting, swinging your head on a toilet. A new note: LIKES LOOKING AT MY HANDS? You put on mauve lipstick and shake your hair out, saunter out a bit nonchalant, fingers first, accidentally kick a chair and apologise to it. He is holding up a bottle of red.
‘Let’s finish it?’
You nod. He points and you get yourself up on a stool, black leather, wipe your teeth in case of lipstick left.
‘Fucking quiet,’ he says. He comes to your side and sits there. He smells like fading aftershave. ‘Can I get a cigarette?’
You nod. You can’t think of anything to say but hope that he will, so you can stay there together. He holds the cigarette between thumb and index finger, and you contemplate the risks of making a note, so you can keep the reality of him there – the cigarette burning, his finger squeezing the filter – by the bar, before the second moves on. You entrust words with such moments since you don’t trust yourself, fearing the fever of remembering will only burn the memory out. But you hold on too tight. Why do you fear you won’t retain things?
‘You mind it?’ he says.
You turn to look at all the bottles behind the bar looking barren with the spotlights off. Empty vessels. You think of boats capsizing on water and bodies rising with their wet backs to the white sun.
‘Mind what?’ You have never known anyone to have drowned – why do you keep thinking of bodies floating?
‘Not having people to sing to.’
His voice has a lilt to it like music and it plays across you. You want to touch it.
‘It’s not my own, so…’ you say. He stares at you. ‘The songs are other people’s, so what do I care if no one listens to ghosts?’
He lets smoke from his nose. His head is towards you, tilted. You keep moving your body back and forth, in case it betrays you if it lingers. You are always scared of that.
‘People look different on stage.’ He stubs out his cigarette. ‘You know my brother’s a spoken word poet?’
‘You’ve told me.’
BROTHER IS A SPOKEN WORD POET!!
‘Did I? Shit. I don’t remember.’ He stops you twisting on the stool by placing his foot on it. ‘He’s fucking terrible, but I admire that – getting up on a stage and just saying stuff.’ He looks down the bar. ‘I mean this is a sort of…’ He drinks and doesn’t finish the thought.
By the time you get through the bottle his face is flush and he is holding a glass of water to it, laughing. You are sitting on your hands. He leans over and sways a bit on his chair. He’s been drinking all evening. He takes your right hand out from beneath your thigh and looks at it.
‘You have big hands for a woman,’ he says. You take your hand back. You are glad you haven’t attempted to accentuate them. ‘Shit. I’m sorry. They’re nice, just your fingers are long.’
You nod. You pull the baby hairs from your scalp. He shifts about on the stool.
‘Do I bother you?’ he says. You turn your head but not your body towards him. You cannot understand what he is talking about. ‘You never really talk to me. I mean…’
‘I want to talk to you.’
You run your finger over the stem of the glass and look away from him, and then you look back.
‘You want some food?’ he says.
‘I want to talk to you.’
‘Sorry,’ you say.
He watches you.
‘Your voice is steadier when you sing.’ He sits still and you think this is the thing he wanted to tell you. ‘When you speak it comes and goes. It sounds slippery.’
You turn about to the bar again. ‘But the songs aren’t my own.’ He doesn’t move. You look back slightly. ‘So.’
He looks at you like he alone can see the space and time that extend behind and ahead of you. ‘There’s a Turkish place.’ He says. ‘You like that?’
You suck salt from a peanut off your finger.
The meat is minced with garlic and parsley and chili. You share rice. There’s white wine and three plates of salad. He tells you about making spiders out of twigs. He explains that he and his brother used to spend hours bending the softer shoots to make a balled-up body and attaching the harder stems, dried from longer living, across for legs. He says they were totems to the real things. Relics, yet the veins in the bark were like those of skin. You imagine it. He says they hid them beneath the covers on their sister’s bed and waited laughing, tears on their faces, for her screams.
He still laughs as he tells you. Screaming and screaming and screaming and refusing to go to sleep. He looks at you. You are eating red cabbage. You have red all over your lips, but you do not know this.
‘Funny how people fear,’ he says.
He leans across the table towards you. The meat is gone from his plate but a line of brown fat remains.
‘The reason we found it funny was because it was perfect – an exact realisation of her fear. You know? Those fake bodies hiding under there.’ He plays with his wine glass. ‘We could have waited until she slept and put one of them on her face… but it wouldn’t have been the same. It was the hiding bodies that really got her and we knew it even when we were that young. And we found it funny. Don’t you think that makes us something?’
He is asking you more than what he is letting on.
He looks disappointed.
‘Maybe pricks,’ you say.
You drink your wine and brush salad off your sleeve. ‘What’s your worst fear?’
‘Oh, I’ve got this…’ His eyes dart about. You wonder why he seems excited to tell you and consider that he sees this as bartering. ‘I have this dream where I’m running across some fields and everything is yellow. You know, the ground is yellow and the sky is yellow and the sun is yellow.’
‘The sun is yellow,’ you say.
‘Yeah, I know.’ He sits back and looks around as if he’s shocked he isn’t in that place, or as if he is shocked he’s in any place. There is nothing yellow near you. His voice grows quieter. ‘But it’s really yellow there. And, whatever… everything yellow, and I’m running into it but I can’t tell if I’m moving because everything is yellow.’
‘Yeah.’ He puts a slice of cucumber, so thin it’s translucent, on his tongue, and you can see his pink taste buds through the green in it. ‘How about you?’ he says. His voice clear again. His eyes rest on yours, decidedly, and you know he means to have this of you.
‘I don’t know.’ But you realise you do. ‘Like a blue whale, maybe.’
‘You’re scared of whales?’
‘No, it… it feels like the way they’d emerge and disappear, in the ocean, you know they come from the blue, and far away they’d look like a shadow, but then they’d be so big, bright, but go off hidden again.’
‘They must feel alone being so big. You know their hearts are the size of small cars?’
‘I did not. No, I did not know that.’
You walk back towards his without saying much and stop for a couple of Guinnesses on the way – three if you count the one you spill. When he laughs at you about Atlas you wonder why he doesn’t just cry if he wants to. Listening to him you think hearing a laugh is like watching a dead body be cut, so you picture this: seeing the knife through the cold flesh and expecting the blood and sensing where it would be even as it doesn’t run. Still, you know, it would bleed if it could.
After the pub you walk under weeping trees on the road, and the streetlights illuminate only the bottom of their branches swinging, so they seem like arms, hands, reaching down to the light from the dark.
In the pub he told you about this new guy he lives with, who eats raw eggs on his porridge in the mornings and always smells of the gas released from it.
‘You still live with your mum?’ he said.
‘Mm… she’s not getting better.’ You stroked your forearm. ‘Her benefits aren’t enough so… ‘cause my dad’s dead now.’
‘Oh yeah. Of course.’
His bed is unmade. There are men’s health magazines shoved down the end of it. There is a T-shirt twisted from sweat. Shadows carve out the sheet in sleepy motions, soft and hard.
He holds you down at first. He releases you briefly to pull your limbs closer towards his face, looking at all the bruising, but he doesn’t ask about it. Maybe he knows. Maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe both. He holds you down as you start and after a while he flips you on top of him. From there you can see out of the window where a green tarpaulin covering a glassless window inflates and deflates as the wind blows on it. You watch this as you go. Its body is crinkled. You will remember this tarp. You like watching it shudder there along with your body. He can’t see it from where he is and you find it odd to think that this memory will be different for him because of that perspective.
He hums a sound like a song in his sleep. It sounds like nuns singing behind partitions.
When you leave on the tube the next morning, you hear it whistling for minutes before it enters. The breeze it shunts before it lifts the bottom of your skirt, and a snake of primary school children passes you slowly, two by two, their hands in each other’s. They are yelling about all sorts of things. They slip right past as the metal whips from the hole.
You close your front door as softly as you can but there’s no point – she’ll be waiting in her chair just beyond the door. She’s probably been waiting all morning since the birds she hates began their calling.
The light is pale in there, and as you step down the hall you think of the green on the tarp and the red in his cheeks and the shadows in the curves of his body and bed. He seems a place like Neptune then, when you step before the door of the front room and see her skin so hoary, like the moon.
She is sat in the light that comes from the window. Her body bent to the side and a tissue in her fingers that she is scrunching.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ she says.
Her voice is coarse and high pitched.
‘You don’t have any fucking friends.’
Her voice is loud.
‘It doesn’t matter, mum.’
‘I’ve been calling – calling and calling and you haven’t answered and what if I’d fallen?’
‘But you haven’t.’
She leans forward.
You stare at her. She is small, but so solid. She stares right back. You go through. You always do. Why is that?
She grasps at the side of the chair for her walking stick and whacks your leg with it.
‘Who’s this friend?’
‘A guy I work with. Stop.’ You reach down and grab the stick, so she jabs it at your chest and you fall over.
You retch as you catch your breath. She heaves herself forward and gets up with her hips low and her legs spread as she lurches towards you.
‘And I’m gonna fucking die for that?’
She goes on hitting you. You lie there. You curl up eventually. Her feet are firmly planted on the blue carpet in their black slippers with the veins growing emerald up her legs, which look like ivy.
There is a bruise at an angle crossing your face and absolutely nothing you can do about it. You hold ice to your cheek as you boil her meals and it runs cold down your neck. In the garden branches are blowing about, and you think of spiders waiting undercover.
Occasionally you are beside yourself, but mostly you don’t have the time to care about such things. Sometimes the wound seems done in a palette that strikes you as new, and from time to time you think untainted, but mainly you conclude dirty. The weather becomes bad, which is fine, but then it becomes good, which is intolerable. Soiled. This is who you are with the brown marks of her bitterness. But that’s a child for you. That is pain and sickness, and death. You wonder if she ever misses your dad.
In the mirror you look at the injury, and at first it helps you to realise you are there because it reminds you that your blood is; blood has always seemed to you its own entity, going about its business inside of you not caring to announce its warm arrival at unexpected intervals. Yet also letting you know, it’s okay. Isn’t it okay to flood? But then you remember that bruises fade. Blood drains. And then you remember that everything leaves.
You can’t wait to get back to him. You buy cigarettes on your way and in the shop a small boy waits with his hand in his father’s. This boy has a clown’s face painted on his, but he is looking at you with disgust. You conclude it is the bruising.
Still, you don’t bother with make-up before entering the club. You are thinking of the green tarpaulin. You are thinking of the yellow in his nightmares and the blue of whales. You are thinking the colours in your face are only your insides showing, turning like they did when he was within you.
Jun has his back to you as you walk in. He is counting bottles and writing things on a piece of paper. He does not turn around when you close the door. You don’t know what to do about that so just think about when you typed the note:
You were so happy because you are too.
You lose your nerve and decide on make-up. You go along the dark of the wall. You are your own shadow, holding your own dusk.
In the toilets it will take a while. Concealer: white, merging, pushing the purple skin about coming, going, here and there whilst you think of the sounds of the tube moving amongst the tunnels. The bruise is thick with blood. Disavowing your movements you sing songs beneath your breath like invocations. Why can you sing this way? Why can you sing at all? Coming, going, here, there, you listen to your voice as if you were him. Slippery. You put three layers of foundation on. The bruise is still not quite hidden, but beasts do not melt into the background so forgiving. Still you paint your lips and smile to the mirror, thinking you look almost a person. You walk out to the bar. Bobby turns to you.
‘What the fuck is your face?’ He smirks. ‘You look like an old clown.’
Jun looks. You remember the crispiness of the tarpaulin as it shook. He looks and he laughs, and then he turns away.
You think of the green tarp sucking itself – blown inwards, concave. The make-up grows hot on your face.
You get up and sing. There’s nothing else to do. You dig your nails into your palms and press the balls of your heels gently onto the stage and think of your father’s toes, which had all the world’s strength to them, as you feel the blood blow about you where it is dripping, like the sweat from Jun’s skin.
Your father’s feet kicking. Didn’t they shake the house around you? With the windows open, the music roaring, the neighbours surely grumbling, your mother screaming he’d bring the sky cascading, and still he kept pounding. He did. Behind your own voice crying out through the speakers you almost hear it. Almost, so you grow scared because all people leave behind them is a figment.
Well, doesn’t some fear make sense? A person is not a metaphor, nor any other figure of speech. But you know this already – you do. Loss is a most perfect thing.