The following short story is a chapter from a book I’ve been writing for the past 12 months. Sadly, time to write a novel is scarce and so I’m only 4 chapters in. But this opening stands on it’s own and I hope that posting it will help me re-channel energies in to getting the project a bit further. The book draws upon themes of boredom, postmodern apathy, feminism and the guttural murmurings of a nocturnal corpse.
“I need a wee. No I need a poo”, whispered Keandre to himself in a cartoon voice. He smiled wryly for moment: that he could have mistaken his body’s messages. But he had simply been distracted.
The mental image that had been occupying him for the afternoon was of teeth marks in a bed head. The carnal love teeth marks seemed to index had almost led him to bite the behead himself, unprovoked. He hadn’t. Who would see them? His girlfriend, Eilis? And together they would know that they were ersatz. And in these times of mutual stress and fatigue they would be provocative signs of an absent passion.
“Absent passion”, Keandre said out loud.
And there was also the fact that he was staying with Eilis at her parents’ house this week, so the bite marks would be found by mother, Mary; interesting, sure, but probably a bit disturbing for her. ‘Not sure how someone from a Catholic background would view teeth marks in a bed head’, Keandre thought, wishing he had a deeper understanding of Catholicism and everything else.
In the bathroom, made in the attic for him and Eilis to use on visits, Keandre stared into the mirror. He loved staying here. He’d idly read the first bit of Bachelard’s Poetics of Space at some point: attic spaces are where people usually imagine intellectual, thinking-things happening. Murders and skeletons-in-the-closet are basement things. Up here he felt clean and safe. The boredom of his daily life was still there, a dull ache, but there was a clearer feeling too, a kind of goodness. “Kind Goodness”, Keandre said in syrupy voice.
Looking in the mirror Keandre became a 1960s news reporter. Not a ‘genuine’ 1960s reporter, but someone playing a 1960s reporter in a contemporary drama. You could tell this from the colours of his imagining; this was not technicolour or black and white, it had a rich variety of velvety reds and emerald greens.
“In times of stress and tiredness”, he began, “the incidence of people biting bed heads in moments of intense passion decreases. Sad miserable bastards of the world”, he had lost interest in the news reporter already and sang in melancholic fashion, “sad miserable bastards of the world, unite and take over.” Not as good as Morrissey. Not as sweet as Jim O’ Rouke.
It was Thursday, a rainy day in Belfast. They would be going back to Edinburgh on Saturday. Keandre would be back to the job centre and back to the stress of being out of work. At the job centre he would be humiliated, run through the last round of rejection letters he’d received and have to fill in forms to explain that he had been asked to do a short lecture.
‘Will they care that the lecture will radically attempt to reanimate modernist avant-garde ideals?’ Keandre had asked himself in a previous moment, fully aware that they would not, suspicious that a lecture could ever achieve this anyway but not daring to commit to that suspicion. All they would care about was when he had been working on it and for how long.
Keandre’s mind turned over these thoughts and in a wave of sudden bitterness he imagined making a stand, ‘I’m really fucking sorry’, he screamed in the imagined situation, ‘I thought I had provided enough rejections letters to evidence that my creativity and critical thinking are not valid recourses in this fucking money driven culture. I thought your little grey hearts might be pleased that I was engaging in challenging ideas for a little sum of money.” Keandre imagined the whole tirade, the whole vitriolic tantrum to be met with a blank expressionless countenance. At this point Keandre reaslised he was just as angry at the impracticality of his studies as he was the pragmatics of consumer society. He promptly flung the fantasy, in a blue A4 cardboard wallet, onto the table of the expressionless person’s desk and left it behind.
Instead Keandre closed his eyes. He imagined himself in front of a small panel of intellectuals. They were aware, he pretended, of his achievements and qualifications (and that much more mysterious depth kept from everyone that would one day allow him to do great things – or so, once a long time ago in his long 25 years of existence, he had believed). The intellectuals were waiting for him to explain why he deserved a better life. A dull ache surfaced like a repeating memory, a memory of being frozen by disappointment and frustration. And this was a memory not issuing from the pastitself but emanating from some dark place within. It didn’t contain images of previous experiences but a vivid close-up image of Keandre in a spotlight within a darkened void. A crippling fog, ‘as much about forgetting as remembering’, he thought, ‘somehow a bit of both. It is remembered in the same way a deep cut is remembered, the feeling of the scar is there, where the skin joins together in lumps like oily polymers, but no longer a sensation of being alert and alive to the pain’.
A low melody played on a synthesiser to build up the tension, the academics hadn’t heard what he had thought, it seemed that this fantasy had certain realistic rules. The intellectuals shuffled in their seats. Each intellectual exuded a confidence gained from years of learning and mass debating. And Keandre, who had spent the last three years desperately trying to earn a living and ‘find himself’, felt like he was shrinking. The keen microphone picked up the dry click of his parched lips as he readied himself to speak. “Wank”: the word echoed around the blackened chamber followed by silence. The intellectuals didn’t even deign this worthy of their disapproval.
Back in reality Keandre heard footsteps coming up the stairs and so he went quietly into another one of the converted rooms, a spare bedroom he was using as a study. He sat down quickly so as to appear busy in his work.
“Coffee”, Eilis announced friendlily.
“Thanks”, muttered Keandre. They exchanged sad smiles and she set off back downstairs. He had the lecture to prepare and, as always, it filled him with a sense of foreboding. And this was the way holidays seemed to go. He’d bring reading with him and it would dominate his mental landscape, crushing hopes of enjoying the time.
Keandre felt dull and numb, he’d be paid for about 4 hours work, but had put in about 4 months. He glanced at the pile of books he’d dragged 200 miles and the stack of hand written notes. What was all this really for? It was too much; he was just torturing himself and would probably give a tortured lecture as a result, maybe. “But I’m finding something, something important”, he forced himself to say out loud in an attempt to convince himself, “I just don’t know what”. He wanted to cry.
He drank the coffee slowly. While there was liquid in the mug he was technically on a break, although of course he had been wasting time fantasising in the bathroom.
Coffee finished he picked up ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’. The lecture was about Modern Art, and many modern artists had been inspired by Nietsche’s famous text. On the cover on the edition Keandre had was detail from a reproduction of a painting by Wenzel Hablik. A lone figure stood on top of a black and green hill surveying an impressionist landscape of blue clouds, their cool gentle ripples contrasted by a the hot orange and yellow horizon of the sun.
Eilis’s sad smile lurked in the back of his mind as he made some notes. Unbeknownst to him, his sad smile lingered on too and had travelled downstairs with Eilis, an ache inside, a tangle of electric impulses and chemical reactions. She sat in the kitchen with her mum hoping that later Keandre would want to go out with her in the evening. Her mum, glad they were both home for a time, chattered on about people they both knew while doing the ironing.
The Georgian house, the site for these short episodes of life, was carefully and sparingly decorated. Calm greens dominated the interior. The stairways were furnished with books and there was always a fresh smell from the clean clothes constantly being aired. Old books in Gaelic and pictures of a bucolic Ireland gave the house an added a sense of authenticity. Previously Keandre had seen a jar of flutes by the door leading from the kitchen to the back yard and asked Eilis and Mary, “Do you all have your own flute”. Mary had laughed hysterically at the through of someone thinking the family might sit round together playing flutes; Keandre had soberly inferred that the answer was no. Actually there was a dignity about everything, a caring ambience.
Upstairs, Keandre, back in the bathroom, was applying a facial scrub to his penis. He was going for an austere wank, one he imagined metered out by some strict nun who insisted his body be perfectly, painfully, clean. Of course the nun wouldn’t let him have an orgasm and that was the beauty of the idea: it was a game of attrition. The game would end when he did, the final image being of his chastity exploding. But perhaps the orgasm was the fictive nun’s and not his own?
“La, la, la, la lah”, he sang to no particular tune as he cleaned up and felt guilty. He sat down in the study again to read. As usual he didn’t return to the book he had been reading, but to another, read a few pages and then moved on to another. He liked the links that occurred as you read in this manner, it was a creative way to read. But creativity wasn’t necessarily what was required and it certainly wasn’t efficient. Eventually, realising his productivity was pretty low, he went downstairs.
“Hey!” he said to Eilis who was now rooting through a bag in the hallway.
“Hey. Have you come down to see us now?” she asked expectantly.
“Yeah. Done what I can for now” he replied, but felt suddenly stressed that he was making some kind of commitment that might prevent him returning to his reading for some time. “I’ll need to do more tomorrow. Are you ok with that?”
“Yes”, Eilis rebounded hotly, “You’ve told me that hundreds of times. I know you’ve got work to do. Do you want to go out tonight?”
“We don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“No, I do”
They both moved through to the kitchen where Eilis’s mum and dad were now preparing dinner. Keandre tried to clear the signs of grumpiness from his face.
“Hi Keandre”, said Eilis’s dad amiably.
Eilis’s Mum looked and smiled. Keandre felt there was something in the smile that suggested her and Eilis had been talking about him. ‘It’s true, I am a looser. I can’t even live properly and enjoy my life. I feel numb’. His thoughts were unruly.
‘Blah, hut, rhah’, Keandre said to himself.
Dinner smelt great: Rich spices and chilli. Eilis’s dad was red, with sweat rising from the pores of his skin, ‘like a cloth being rung out’. He’d been cooking this for hours, not to impress Keandre or Eilis but because the recipe was still novel and had absorded his attention.
After a bout of shuffling chairs along the squeaky marble floor Eilis, her mum and dad and Keandre started eating. Keandre really liked the food despite eating a few of the cardamom pods, which he wasn’t used to, his parents having not experimented much with fresh ingredients.
“So you’ve got some teaching?” asked Eilis’s dad to make conversation.
“A bit, but it’s just one lecture at the moment.”
“There was a job going at the college”, Eilis continued. “52 people with PhDs applied, so that’s how hard it is.”
Eilis’s parents had been at the graduation ceremony when Keandre had been awarded a medal for gaining high marks and for that reason Keandre could handle conversations about his lack of employment with them, although it was still uncomfortable. In no way could he provide for himself and Eilis. In fact, unknown to Eilis’s parents, his own parents were currently paying their rent in Edinburgh.
“Douglas Miller”, started Eilis’s mum, “He recently lost his job.”
“Oh!”Eilis exclaimed, wanting an active role in conversation about local people she might have known: in fact, just wanting conversation with her parents who she missed deeply.
“He’d been working at the school for 30 years”, continued her mum. “They said they could no longer keep him on.”
Conversation moved from one character to another that Keandre didn’t know. Eilis’s accent changed noticeably – ‘more Belfast, fast’ – and as the conversation accelerated and he started to lose track. He sat back and contented himself with being surrounded by the sound of conversation. This was a nice place to be.
After the meal Eilis’s dad left the table after the main course to stand by the door to get some air. As Eilis’s parents had cooked it was Eilis and Keandre’s job to wash the dishes. Before Eilis’s mum left them to it she asked where they were going to go for the evening. As the choice of local bars was pretty limited and, as Eilis’s dad reported, it was starting to rain outside, so they’d settle for the Kester, just around the block.
‘Is this going to be an important evening?’ Keandre asked himself and immediately whinced. He hated that question, but it always seemed to be there even if in a wordless kind of form. So overstated a feeling it was, for meaning, that it immediately annulled any other possibility.
“Are you ready?” asked Eilis as they moved out in to the hall after finishing the dishes.
“Er, just need the toilet for a wee”, said Keandre trying desperately to feel human again and return to a level where little details, like life, meant something again.
“Ok”, Eilis responded, part rolling her eyes to say ‘too much information’.
At the toilet a cold breeze blew in through the window. The orange street light that flowed through the blinds made Keandre feel urban and edgy. “Shit”, he cursed as he realised he’d got some urine on his trousers; but not much, it would dry pretty quickly.
Downstairs: coats and shoes. This might be summer, but it was still fairly cold. Keandre gave Eilis a quick hug, energised by a sudden feeling of affection. She smiled at him and they kissed.
They headed out into the night, holding hands for a minute before Keandre decided he needed free hands to flip a coin between his fingers, a little habit he had. He imagined the coin to be a tennis ball and used it to simulate the spin on a well struck winning shot. In his mind the shots were part of a perfect game, the game of a perfect champion. Another unrealistic fantasy: impossible to obtain and, Keandre thought, profoundly boring.
“Why are there so many palm trees in Belfast?”
Eilis laughed, “I’d never noticed.”
“Look. Two in that garden. One up the road there. I noticed them all yesterday, they are everywhere.” Then, intentionally asking a ridiculous and provocative question, “Is it because people want Belfast to feel like ‘nam.”
Eilis laughed. She knew him well enough to understand the layers of irony. They had been together as members of her family had recalled troubling stories about being intimidated, threatened and endangered during the sectarian violence. Eilis’ uncle had also given them an ‘unofficial tour of Belfast’, a tour, in other words, of the darker violent areas of the city where large militant murals suggested deep division, hatred and fear.
The Kester was satisfying to Keandre, it’s run down interior calmed his over active expectations and made him feel somewhat liberated. A large screen unfortunately dominated the room, but the sound was low and there were very few people in to cheer the football match that was being played out. Keandre and Eilis picked a bench on one side of the room. Eilis took the coats and sat down while Keandre went to the bar.
Cough, “Two pints of Smithwicks please”.
The barman had a mottled face and suspicious features. “Suspicious features, what the fuck does that mean?” Keandre realised he’d said this out loud, but luckily the barman didn’t appear to have heard as he had already moved away to pull the pints. When the barman returned with the drinks he paused long enough before getting glasses for the drinks to give Keandre a sense of his contempt. ‘Is it because I’m not from here’, Keadre mused. A few other characters were at the bar, hunched on their stools ‘like flowers drooping’.
While waiting for the drinks Keandre noticed a juke box. If the football wasn’t on it’d be good to pay for a few tunes. Keandre also ordered two packets of Scampi Frys.
He headed over the the table where Eilis was. She noticed the Scampi Frys.
“I know they are full of crap, but hey”
Eilis smiled and took a packet. Keandre had a pretty bad diet as a student. Since then his cooking had improved dramatically, but he and Eilis still had a penchant for unhealthy treats. Later after reading Alistair Gray’s ‘Janine’ in which the main protagonist talks about using drink to kill himself because contemporary society doesn’t allow people to realise their potential, a kind of topsy turvy logic, Keandre in immodest moods would start to suspect that this penchant was a reflection of low self esteem, an in-growing of his talents and intellect, rendered superfluous by a prosaic world.
“Are you ok?” asked Eilis.
“Yeah”, Keandre said, then realising he didn’t sound at all convincing.
“Do you not like being out?”
“Of course I do”, Keandre studied Eilis. She was very pretty. Looking at her petite frame, outlined in this context by the ripped and stained leather back of the high pew, he felt the urge to hold her tight.
“I still have a feeling that I can do great things”, Keandre started. “You know, I think I can do something great. But it’s just not happening, I don’t know, I can’t even articulate it.”
Eilies, more rational and pragmatic responded: “It’s not easy at the moment because no one will give you chance. We don’t have much money, we rent a pokey flat. It’s been a weird few months, I don’t even know if I can remember much of it. I think because we never know when you’re going to get work, and I’m so busy in my childcare jobs. But, you know, you do spend a lot of time playing computer games.”
Keandre flared at this last remark, “Well, what are you saying? I need to take my mind off things.”
Eilis didn’t want to fight, not tonight. So she let it go. They both sat in silence for some time, staring out into the bar.
Keandre longed to feel a desire to change the situation, but felt nothing. As a student he’d been more passionate about life. But at the same time he hadn’t been happy then either. Rather, his passion, though it evoked great aspirations and occasionally great ideas for art or writing, tended to implode: combusting-destruction-end. His theory of currently killing himself with chocolate and crisps overlooked the way he had drunk as a student. Things hadn’t got worse, his perspective had just changed. In the past he felt like he’d been mining the depths of experience, as he dragged his body through challenging, depraved, embarrassing and humiliating experiences. But there had been exciting about being so desperate, his depression a perverse sign of some kind of artistic success. Now he just felt like he’d been a prick.
Eilis felt sad too, but for other reasons. Their trip to her parents was drawing to an end. As a student, as Keandre was dragging his innocent boyhood morality through the festering stench of strip bars and night clubs, Eilis’ache was that of missing her family.
“Do you still want to go in to town in the morning tomorrow?” Eilis asked to break the silence.
Keandre felt the rush of adrenaline he always got when such questions were asked. ‘What about all the work I have to do?’ he asked himself. He looked at Eilis and felt an obligation. ‘Surely something’s wrong that it feels like an obligation to spend time with her, do I really love her?’ That he had to ask himself that question made him feel wretched. ‘Yeah, that’d be fine’, he rehearsed in his head.
“Yeah, that… sure”, he stuttered.
Eilis pushed her elbow under his ribs to get a rise, “Come on”, she said smiling, a sad look in her eyes. Keandre managed a smile. He did love her, didn’t he? When she made these little efforts to life to mood he felt like he loved her. To hurt her or upset her would be the worst thing he could ever do. But was that it? ‘Am I just afraid of upsetting her?’ He probed the inert cells of his wretched brain.
“I need the toilet”, Keandre said finishing his drink. “Do you want another?”
On his way to the toilet Keandre noticed something in the door frame leading to the toilets. Little marks, the imprint of something. Bite marks.