For Unrequited Love
The ceiling is covered in paintings, with no theme or substance or style but woman, and they flow down the walls like all of history from the caves of Africa was melting into this one little alcoholic furnace in the heart of dead industries. The staff are dressed as American rock stars, and Gene Simmons carries a couple of bottles across the floor and makes wide, soulless, voracious eyes at the women he passes.
Her eyes are glued to the television; Alexander Armstrong laughs at something a celebrity said, and his eyes flash and invite her to laugh with him but she can’t hear him. The TV is muted in favour of music and conversation, which rolls around her and about her and doesn’t touch her like she touches the bottle of wine, standing an inch from her hand and barely a foot from her other, which curls around the glass only heartbeats from her lips.
Her heart beats.
She doesn’t start, but twitches her eyes every time the door opens and the pale blue-grey light appears as a block within and behind and against the far wall; she twitches each time with the expectation of a grimaced smile; she had been rehearsing that smile in the mirror of a flat she shared with a fat laugh behind a clipped goatee.
The door opens and her heart beats and he walks in from the miasma of blue and grey and into the mess of art and drink and candlelight, red-faced at the pulsating wind which rose from the stone pavement outside. He moves towards the middle of the room, checking the smaller, solitary tables for one, or two, or three, and almost misses her on her large table beneath the television. She raises her glass and tries to repeat the practiced grimace but it comes out from behind her lips like a smile and he sees her and smiles back – she pretends to ignore the spasm of horror that cuts across his features.
She has a wolf tattoo on her left shoulder, and dye damaged hair and the scar of a lip ring and he sits down with old scars running up his wrists and raised white flesh from metal belt buckles leaving a web across his back and she knows they are there. They both know about both of them and she once decided to let her wounds breathe, where he had bound them up and let them fester and rot until the poison flushed out of his body one night, asleep and alone on a bus that roared and spat into the wet air alive with iron bacteria.
He is thin, haggard, with rings under his eyes, in a suit with the top button of his shirt undone and the tie loosened until the noose hangs halfway down his chest like he is being marched towards the gallows in relative comfort. The red electric light and the candles on the tables are invasive, and they creep through his shirt until it is nothing more than a filter and a blur and she can see the outline of a logo emblazoned across a white t-shirt – it looks like a heart, she thinks.
‘Hey you,’ he says, and she says ‘hey you.’
He stares down at his fingers as they work at the two buttons holding his jacket closed, and pulls it away from his shoulders and hangs it over the back of a chair – not next to her, but taking care to leave an empty space between them.
She looks at the empty chair and he smiles and says ‘for the ghosts’, and her heart skips a beat, even as her eyes wrinkle in mockery.
‘Did you know,’ he runs a hand through his hair that is so much shorter than she remembers, ‘that almost a third of people in this country sleep naked?’ As his lips close around the questions mark, he almost seems to wrinkle up, shrivel, like he had been waiting for years to say that and as it left his lungs it took parts of him with it. After a few moments as a broken thing, he inflates himself again and smiles at her, like he would smile if he had tears in his eyes.
‘You come straight from work?’
‘Yeah; everyone else has gone to that new place down the road, you know, that erm Marty’s, Morty’s place – between the scaffolding?’ She shakes her head. ‘I’ll show you it at some point, it’s quite nice in there – kind of this shabby Americana; I mean, it’s meant to be shabby, it’s still pretty posh for ‘round ‘ere.’
‘Sounds nice.’ She sips at her wine.
‘Yeah; I had an old fashioned there the other night – it was, I dunno, lime and pecan flavoured or something like that. Friend of mine had something called She Wore Blue Velvet.’
Tell me you love me, her heartbeat beats, tell me you love me like you did in your skin.
‘So, what’re you up to these days? You doing anything?’
‘Yeah; I’m still at that bar, not too far from yours, actually.’ She looks at him then, for the first time, and he sees her flashing ice blue eyes like a distance peak emerging from a broken plain of sheared ice and dead creatures with white fur and he feels a spike of anger in his gut that rocks him. He lets it roll up in him, he savours it, he swallows it like she swallows the last of her glass of wine; he realises he’d never been angry before – not really, not with her or with him or with anyone.
‘You still working on your art?’
‘Nope; I wasn’t very good anyway.’
He catches himself preparing to say ‘yes you were’ and managed to turn the reaction into a cough. She looks back at the television screen through narrowed eyes. The wine has blurred the air, and each breath is like a desert spreading along her lungs and across her throat – she can feel the sand between her teeth.
He stands up and goes to buy a drink, and she watches him as he moves, as he leans over the bar, easily, and talks to the girl dressed as Joan Jett; he has one foot resting on the metal bar, which runs alongside the counter, and his other taps the floor in time with the drumbeat of conversation and life – she realises that he’s grown up over the past few years; grown up without her, without the need for her; in the space between those flickering moments where she’d seen him on the train, or he’d seen her on a bus or in a taxi as it rolled passed, he’d grown up and her heart beats.
Halfway across the town, a baby that looks like her screams out its hunger and, when it’s been fed, it howls out is fear and its rage and its misery and is soothed by the touch of her sister who can’t see the thing as human at all, just some wailing tumour in a blue shirt; a weight on their lives. The bearded laugh hasn’t come home from work yet, and she thinks about calling her sister and letting her know how late he was, but she doesn’t; she just watches the pale thing in its cot, and listens to the cars that pass by outside.
He comes back with a drink and she fills her glass again and holds the bottle in front of the candle and squints at the liquid inside. It’s almost empty.
‘I don’t know where it’s all gone.’ She says, and she doesn’t mean the wine.
‘Me neither.’ He takes a sip of his drink.
‘Just a jack and coke.’
‘I hate this show.’ They watch the television for a few seconds, and he lets his brow furrow and draws his upper lip back a little, like he is snarling in disgust. He holds it just long enough for her to see and it disappears. He likes to be seen to hate things, secretly – she once heard him say that hatred was a manifestation of love.
Tell me that you hate me, she thinks – tell me that your love was always that; tell me it was a cruel, cruel joke; tell me that you’re incapable of love.
‘How’s your brother doing?’
‘He’s good, yeah. He’s fine.’ She blinks. ‘I haven’t seen him in a while.’
The conversation beats more like his heart then hers – irregular, filtered through the noise only occasionally. But the way they occasionally looked at each other, the way their bodies angled so far apart and yet in the same lines might have convinced an onlooker that their conversation was in-depth and heartfelt and it was they who made the mistake, they whom stopped paying attention for long periods of time, while his drinks multiplied and her bottle found itself a partner.
The television played reruns and called it news. Outside, someone gives a homeless man a twenty pound note and asks him, begs him, not to judge the drunks too harshly; he promises not to, through broken teeth and rotten gums, and still scowls as they spend their money on beer and vodka and thick liquid which doesn’t taste of anything but the morning after.
‘Did you know I had a kid?’ She says, not so much to him, but to the air itself.
‘I’d heard something about it; yeah. Boy or a girl?’
‘It’s healthy, and well looked after,’ she smiles, ‘it’s going to be a chubby kid – it’s never going to want for anything. We’ll see to that.’
‘Who is the guy you’re with now then?’
‘You don’t know him. He’s funny, he’s kind – he’s got a beard and a beer belly.’ He laughs, and she glares at him.
‘Sorry, it’s just,’ he rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, ‘he’s the polar opposite of me, then?’ She frowns at him for a little longer and, suddenly, like a damn breaking, she starts to smile as well, a smile that turns into a giggle which grows and matures into a laugh. He watches the television, watches two men in suits gravely talk about the last steel factory in the country closing down, and her laughter slowly breaks down and she starts to cry.
Once, he would have rushed to her side and tried to held her as she shuddered until she pushed him away and backed away and carried on crying, leaving him raw and ragged and helpless – he lets her cry and watches the television suspended from the wall and surrounded by the dripping dregs of art.
He says he’s going to the toilet; she doesn’t respond. In the bathroom, he digs his nails into his palms and stares at himself in the mirror – strange; he always feels tears well up when he looks at his own eyes. He steps into the cubicle and locks it behind himself. The walls are covered with graffiti, and he feels inspired by the curving lines that form broken scripture – he puts two fingers deep in his mouth and starts to gag; he feels his heart beating around his fingertips; down his throat, and he tries to reach for it; like he could pull it out and show it to her and say “you see?” and then he could fall to the floor and buck and twist the last moments of his life away with her name on his lips.
This is another short story I wrote years ago. I was younger then, bitterer, perhaps. I kept mistaking my bitterness for romanticism; that was the problem. I kept mistaking my unhappiness for sensitivity. If I could go back, I’d probably tell the younger me to stop searching for happiness – tell him that it isn’t on the cards. Tell him “you’re just a bitter bastard” and it’s probably save me a lot of grief.
I’d tell me to find pleasures where I could and to stop worrying about being happy, all the time. If I could take back all the time I spent trying to be happy, I would; it’d have left me with more time to write, more time to play video games and get angry and calm down by reading – more time to sleep, and enjoy sleeping.
Forgive me, I am maudlin tonight. If you want to read something with a little less of a negative slant, you can always check out some poetry, like Swearing in Italian or prose, like The Air Spoke. For a non-fiction slant, there’s always Swimming Against Themselves. As always, there’re plenty of free ebooks you can take a look at, if you fancy.