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 heat        to sweat        to yesterdays as we move, we 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 travelled 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. 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, the sheets scraped and tugged me sore any way I tried to lie. I     face
down, looking for a cool place, stretched out an arm and all that was solid
dematerialised. I     a nothing slipped into water. Water, as 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 draught 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, unaware of mouth or lungs to do so not
breathing, not dead, not alive. No fear. Not yet. Eyes wide open into dark,
and no sense. Unsayable.


The Friday, I dropped in on Uncle Padana. It was early 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
consulting room 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.


I told him about the fall, the senseless black of that night. He cupped the
bowl of my head in his hands, throbbing sore into his palms.


‘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.


‘Do you feel weak, sick?’


I shook my head. ‘Nothing,’ cupped my elbow, rough pad, a graze dried red,
and the other elbow, the same.


‘A crack to the head. Confusion, no doubt.’ He took away his hands.


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


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




‘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.’




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


‘Well, take a light next time—’


‘If there’s a next time.’


‘Yes, then I might know that I was kind to you.’


‘You are.’


‘I want to know if I am, truly.’


‘You’re serious?’


‘Look around.’


I looked. A yellow corduroy sofa. The long list of clients whose arses had
worn it down talking it out for the cure, a long stack of them stretching up to
the crows. To the left, a wall of books. The wooden floor, with a walking path
where varnish was worn to the wood. 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 high wall, over which street life ran along as water runs downstream.


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


‘Okay.’ I hugged him.


‘Rest your head dear, lie horizontal. I worry.’


‘I will.’ I was out of the room.


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


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.


That night, I took the bedside lamp, an arm outstretched from the sheets.
Light in my hand to extend my gaze solid shield against darkness. My hand
backlit glowing. I pointed the lamp downwards, illuminating my feet, thighs,
chest, arms, all there. It was snowing. I watched it fall through the lamp beam.
Then I was afraid, and the cuts on my legs did burn then. The light would only
penetrate a metre in any direction, and beyond that a void contained me. Last
time I was there I was a nothing, now, myself and body entirely oh             I
shone light in a circle around while the white stuff fell into darkness beneath
me. Arm moving against dense water, resisting. I       floating      an obstacle in
the snow’s path. It settled into the hollows of my collarbones and attached
to ragged braids of hair, but I couldn’t feel it. It weighed nothing.


I wrote everything down after then: the pressure, I’m becoming accustomed; time undeterminable; snowfall, grey-white, like pieces of bleached moss; sense presence of Padana like hands cupping my head, Rhumz a tickling at the top of my throat and eyelids, as if singing a high note; no sighting of a living thing          yet          no skin and bone other than mine yet.


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 underwater, so deep I knew that. My cousin, Rhumz, had been the librarian at The Gross for years, until she had the kids. I’d catch her in the toilets sometimes, brushing her tongue in front of the mirror. My habit of going to The Gross stayed after she left. I sat at library desk with head propped on my hand let my thoughts run through into evening. Looking out of 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


After Rhumz, I called sister again. Again, no answer. Had I finally turned
her off? There were only a few axes of love, hate, attention in this world to
sustain me, Padana, Rhumz and Sister – Grindy. She was where? I never got
very close to her. Voice at the end of the phone, sometimes. Voice from across
the table. Face at the other side of a grave. Wet eyes returning my gaze. I’d
always fancied that her back was covered in acne, warts, moles with roots deep
into the heart of her.


A fantasy close to me at this point. I small as a flea scaling her back, looking for a foothold such as a protruding mole, ingrown hair, pimple. I reach the base of her neck, she screws her head around to look at me and I fall I scream so deep it pains my chest       pain I was falling.


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, faecal 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 liked 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,
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 it undulated, body S-shaped light and shadow. I moved as if running,
fanning my arms out behind me    downwards      downwards into the dread,
now only the eel I had for company. And, Padana and Rhumz I sensed in the dark.


The eel led me to a pool, I examined it piece by piece. A blue lagoon encrusted at its edges with smooth, charcoal-black pebbles, a slick mist of ochre hung above it. The eel disappeared into it and never reappeared into my light. Water beneath water? Dead crabs and eels lined its edges. The black pebbles, at 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. Wisp of blood from my heel
drift away. To feel my feet. I didn’t have feet before they had something to
stand on. A Surface. Now my feet were accustomed. Unsteady though          it
was          unsteady the surface could have swallowed me.


A red light. Legs kicked I held the lamp with one hand, plug dipping into
the lagoon. I followed the red light, just like the eel moved, undulating my legs
as if they were swinging ropes and I drifted forwards so slowly at first it took
time. But there was so much time. I’m getting used to it. Approaching 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. It travelled without fear,
it had a red light beneath each eye, for lighting the way? That hinged mouth.


It didn’t hurry away from me. I followed and forgot for how far or how long we
burrowed into dark, me and this fish. A long swim through the deepest layers.
Long swim through the snow into the nothing beyond sight lines overhead.
And pool after pool, haze beneath my feet. Overhead there were bioluminescent pathways. And mine, my lamp beam, my red light fish.


I followed the fish into morning. 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, deep
buried like a weight, my heart of lead. 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 held
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.     The glass was thrown to give me time to run away. To give me time
to run and to find the edge. I changed the locks after a few          days.


Malacosteus niger. The fish can be found in the midnight zone, with a flash-
ing red cheek for attracting 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. 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 that night. I walked down the fox’s alleyway, past that
lonely streetlight, fried chicken bones. 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 kick through black. Only I could really
know what I’d seen. I spoke with Uncle Padana about the visits, as he’d asked.
I’d hear his pencil burning at 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. Unlike me, she looked dead. Her skin yellow,
as always, but pale, above us a ceiling of flashing fish cruised along. Her hair in
thick bulging soft 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. The only
difference was that she was wearing shoes, black front buckle. I moved closer
to my sister. Her feet and hands were puckered. My face inches from hers, her
eyes were open staring ahead into the lamp, brown irises illuminated. Then
she blinked, slow. Mouth opened and closed, mechanical, like a young bird begging for food. The eyes moving but no fixed gaze. Her limbs and head only
floated, drifting with the currents. I moved to touch her, but I couldn’t. My
hand a weight, her puckered feet in my eye line. I was alone. I swivelled my
lamp about me, I was close to the bed. Tube worms, red lipped, floral, spread
like grass beneath me there was no room for standing.


I’ve seen an eel tie itself into knots, poisoned by the brine. I’d shone my
light on it. Grindy’s eyes had seemed empty as the eel’s. She was retreated deep inside, so deep her body was just another floating debris fallen from the surface, her eyes opaque as the brine pool. The eel’s head had jerked back and forth – the crack of a whip. It was momentarily surrendered to a powerful terror. Soul a black seed underwater. But it did survive.


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. We are all alike in this 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 kick into black. I shone
my lamp over the edge, but the light was swallowed. No point in the lamp
light, too deep. I turned, they were all there. 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 accord-
ing to size, colour and temperament. And I was grateful but 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. No way of making sense of




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.


is a writer and poet living in London. Her work has appeared in Prototype Magazine, Frieze, and The Literary Consultancy. Her story 'At the Heart of Things' won the The White Review Short Story Prize 2019.



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