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Brief Lives

When you put the lighter to it, it spits and hisses on the spoon, gives off a sweetish, rank smell. Congeries of bubbles appear and from each as it bursts a tiny figure stretches and claws its way free; they writhe, leap upward like a salmon in pain, then collapse. There’s thousands of them upon the surface, being born, living and—presumably—dying every second, whole tiny silent screaming lives born from the bubble and back to the roil, right in front of my eyes. I’m not sure, but the longer I stare at it, I’d swear that some of them are actually fucking, right there on the spoon, joining together as they burst out their bubbles and entwining in a flowing liquid congress that always ends in an athletic mid-air petit mort, dissolving as they’re spent.

I could watch those little figures—blank-faced but for a part that opens like a mouth and silently screams and screams—for hours. Eventually, either the spoon heats up too much and burns my hand or—if I have remembered to take adequate precaution, swaddling the handle with a towel—until whatever it is inside it that makes it do what it does has evaporated away.

An aside: whatever it is that makes it do what it does doesn’t really evaporate away. I conclusively proved that by utilising crude distillation techniques gleaned from Wikipedia. The distillate forms a sort of chalky precipitate, like old-fashioned smoker’s toothpaste. It tastes terrible, is a right pain to make into a decent solution so you can get it up a needle (fucking about with bits of cotton wool or cigarette filters, nasty chance of getting a blood-clot), doesn’t get you high, and definitely, definitely doesn’t do The Other Thing. Therefore, I have chosen to believe that over-heating just kills all the little people.

If they can be said to be alive in the first place.

When I pull it up into the plunger, I like to imagine I can hear all those brief lives, I like to give them voices and I like to imagine their screaming, their cries of anguish or ennui or satiation suddenly cut off as they’re pumped into the corner of my eye.

After that I don’t think about them, much, because my heart’s beating at spin-cycle rpms and writhing shapes are crawling in my vision and a wave of euphoria clenches me in a vice of pleasure that will begin, before the hour’s out, to feel like the worst toothache I’ve ever had but right in the middle of my brain. Right now though, it is literally the best thing ever: the undisputed champion of clean clear mountain-fresh highs, a waning summer sunset, the smell of someone you love who you’ll never see again.

By that stage—should she deign to grace me with her presence—I’ll probably be able to see her, hear her. Which, I keep telling myself, is the point, after all.

Later, staring down at the grease-ghosts that were all that remained of my bacon butty, she told me her theory. One of them, anyway. There were many, once upon a time.

“I think that fat people are always fat,” she said. “Even when they’ve lost all that weight, something . . . Something clings to them. Their physical bodies shrink, but something—their aura or something—remembers the way they used to look, and it pushes against the skein of the world, distorts the amount of room they take up. It bulges around them and drips off them in great ugly slabs, no matter how much they starve themselves later. You can only see it in photographs where they’re not the actual subject, ones they’ve just wandered into the edges of, where they’ve been caught—or rather, have caught the photographer—by surprise.”

I nodded. Somebody on the next table brayed a laugh, then said: “Five Tibetan exercises. Yes. People in Tibet do them.”

“Point is,” she said, “if you’ve been a fat bastard once, you’re always a fat bastard, no matter how much weight you eventually lose.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I was big once,” she continued, as if I’d not spoken, “and I never really got over it.” She smiled. She had such a lovely smile. I’d almost forgotten.

“I didn’t know that!”

“Well. Goes to show, doesn’t it? But I never got over it. Or out from under it, if you like.” Her smile vanished. “It made me unhappy, therefore, whenever you called people ‘Fat bastards’. I never liked it. I know how much it hurt, you see.”

“Are you saying that I should be less hurtful in general, or just more careful about that particular subject? Because I called people mentalists all the time, and you never pulled me up on that.”

“That’s different. Anyway, I’m not mad anymore.”

Rain beat against the window. The stubble-headed body-builder pretending to be a waiter leaned lazily on the till in a pose he’d probably borrowed from a fitness magazine, one that showed off the swell of his biceps really nicely, and riffled the pages of his slim paperback as he pretended to read. He had very pretty eyes, too young for his face.

“I didn’t like myself. When I was mad, I mean. So, I don’t mind it when you criticise others or compare their actions to those of the neurologically atypical. I can see why. I may not like it, but I can see why.”

“But you did like yourself when you were fat?”

“Of course I did. I liked myself so much. I was a curvy, voluptuous goddess,” she said. “I was fat, fat and happy.”

“So why did you change? Why diet?” I waved a hand. “Exercise, whatever.”

“I couldn’t stand the way people treated me. I decided I’d much rather like myself a bit less and have people treat me less like shit.”

I gawped at her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just . . . I mean . . . That’s so . . . ” I tried very hard to avoid the word shallow. “Sad. You . . . You’d rather feel bad about yourself, just so that people might be nicer to you?”

“You,” she said, “have no fucking idea what it’s like to put up with people making fun of you, of hating you, for what you look like.” I opened my mouth to protest. I didn’t get very far. “Or what you are.”

“That’s not very fair,” I murmured.

“Ha! Fair? Fair, he says! You don’t know the fucking half of it.”

And with that, she was gone. I stared down at the table and tried to squirm out from under the appraisal of the body-builder, pretending to be a waiter, pretending to read; squirm out from what waited in those soft, pretty eyes. Outside, dogs began to howl.

Normally, she starts to fade around the edges first. Her conversation begins to drift. The colours bleach from her, as if she were a bad photocopy of herself. It’s only when I’ve really pissed her off that she just disappears, and no matter how much I bang into my eyes, how long I wait, she doesn’t come back.

She refuses to come and see me, to have anything like a relationship—as much of a relationship as you can have with a dead person, I mean—on anything like my terms. So I have to go to places she’d like to meet, which are the same places she liked to go when she was alive, which is every terrible fucking hipster café within a ten-mile radius, cafés we used to frequent when we were happy, and when we were . . . When we were happy.

“Don’t you think,” she said, “this place looks like a cross between the inside of a giant vagina and a Barbie-obsessed seven-year-old’s bedroom?”

“I’m not quite sure that’s a combination of things I want to imagine.”

“Why ever not?”

I looked up from my plate at the violent pink walls, the pink plastic tables and seating, the pink flooring, the various plastic and plaster cupcakes littering the walls like faux-confectionery escutcheons, the explosions of tooth decay and incipient diabetes extravagantly carved from fondant, butter-cream and icing sugar behind the counter. Papery things—either Victorian children’s parasols or the faded dried-out wings of long-dead moths—were nailed to the walls; on each flat surface threadbare teddy bears were propped, glassy eyes staring forever at the mad swirl of the colour scheme.

The toilets weren’t much better. The gleaming yellow tiles threw cheesecake reflections back at me. I half-expected buttercream to come squirting out of the tap. Locked in the cubicle, I couldn’t help but shudder, and not just because I was stabbing a needle in my eye.

Back at the table, I was uncomfortable, too hot, clogged with the smell of the various ways you can melt sugar. I tried not to think about children’s bedrooms or giant vaginas. It was surprisingly difficult.

“When you were—”

I always called it “ill.” I called it her “illness.” This attempt to medicalise what happened to her, to pathologise, if you like, the episode which she underwent . . . I’m not happy I do that. It’s one of the many things I’m not proud of. Anyway—

“When you were ill, I got so scared—”

“Why?”

“Because . . . ” I sought for the words, words that might exonerate me, for a few syllables that might help me sleep at night. They wouldn’t come. I sighed. The too-bright lights reflected violently off the giant plastic cakes, and then their outlines began to swim, to shimmer, and I realised tears were swelling behind my eyes.

“Okay. D’you want to talk about it?”

“Of course I want to talk about it!” I snapped, too-loudly. I made an effort to get my voice under control, speak in a low murmur. “Of course I want to talk about it. Talk to you, I mean. Why else . . . Why d’you think I go to places like this?”

“Because you like the décor?”

The tears burned their way down my face. The girl behind the counter glanced over, shifted on her stool, sighed, shook her head, went back to her book.

“You’re still so cruel. Sometimes I just want to tell you to fuck right off.”

“Oh. Okay then.”

“He didn’t have a lavatory brush,” said someone from the corner of the room, a stage whisper cutting through the twee 1960s pop music on the stereo. “Can you imagine what kind of man doesn’t own his own lavatory brush?”

“It’s only ’cos I miss you,” I said, looking up. “You don’t know how much I miss you.”

She’d already gone. I sobbed quietly to myself. When I got myself together a bit, I mopped at myself with a soft pink napkin. The women in the corner were talking about something that involved reiki, energy balances, shamanic journeys and a dog that had cancer. I tried not to hold it against them, but it was hard.

“Even when you were just burying yourself for the umpteenth time that day—”

She made a face. “That’s a little off, isn’t it?”

“Is it? Is it?”

“Choice of words, mate.”

“Sorry. But it was like living with a character from Edgar Allan Poe, caught in a tape loop. You used to pile all that shit on top of you. Then I’d have to spend the entire day helping you claw your way out of the coffin.”

“I don’t appreciate the metaphor.”

“I know. You said. But you’d work so hard to dig your way out, and then once you did, you’d kind of sigh contentedly and then let yourself fall slowly backwards, as if you’d laboured hard and now needed a nice rest from it all.”

This one was a little hippie place, in a space that looked like it had been converted from something institutional: drab greens and browns, low-wattage environmentally-friendly lighting. A couple of earnest, heavily-bearded, headphoned young men sat at the cheap Formica-topped tables, enacting a mating ritual for the benefit of the young lady behind the counter.

“That’s not really how it worked. I couldn’t do anything about it.” She thought for a moment. “I didn’t realise it was so hard on you.”

“It wasn’t hard on me. You weren’t hard on me. But I definitely . . . I just couldn’t deal with it.”

“Well. That was your problem, wasn’t it?”

This infuriated me so much—and left me with so little to respond with—that I performed a sort of whole-body flinch. The coffee cup upended, spilled across the table. I swore loudly. The counter-person was a chubby, muscular young woman in a sleeveless, faded hardcore T-shirt, half her head shaved and the lank remainder left long and dyed a washed-out scarlet; she half-smiled in a tolerant way, picked up a cloth and wandered out from behind the till. Crawling things swirled as they flitted across my eyes, too fast to catch.

I sat still as she mopped the table, forcing myself to breathe through my nose. She leaned across me to chase the last of my coffee across the Formica; she smelled of recent sweat and something earthy, sweetly spicy, probably the lentil curry bubbling at the back of the café.

“You all right?”

I nodded, a touch too frantically.

“Perfectly,” said my ex.

“Well, you just let me know if everything’s okay, yeah?”

She winked and walked back to the counter, swaying her hips to the bass of the hip-hop on the café’s stereo. My ex sneered at me from across the table. She leaned forward, peered down at my lap.

“Is that an erection? Do you still get those?”

“No! I mean, yes! But I haven’t—”

The barista looked up from behind the till, the look on her face sliding from genial concern to that sort of careful, non-judgmental aspect people get when they’re trying to think of a nice way to ask for the number for the Emergency Care Team. I dropped my gaze to the table, made a conscious effort to speak softly.

“I haven’t got an erection, no. I’m just embarrassed.”

“Don’t wanna be seen with me in public, eh?”

“Very fucking funny.”

She grinned.

“Honestly, I don’t mind you getting random erections off the smiles of hot waitresses.”

“Fuck off. She’s not smiling at me. She just thinks I’m mental, and regards me with concern and pity.”

“Oh.” Beat. The floor yawned open. I opened my mouth to pre-empt what was coming next but she cut me off.

“Did you used to pity me, then?” Her voice was very small, quiet; very hurt, but very grown-up. I’d never heard her sound like that before. “Is that all it was? All I ever meant to you? I was just someone you pitied?”

“Please don’t say that, please, don’t say that. You know that’s not true.” I was appalled at the pleading, wheedling sound of my own voice; I was appalled that it wasn’t quite the entire truth. I shifted tack, tried to cover myself with bluster. “You know it was more complicated than that! How can you say something like that?”

It came out louder than I’d intended. The counter-person shot an inquisitive, puzzled look from across the room, and I hunched myself over until I thought it safe to look up. When I did, the sun had broken through the clouds outside; the swirling things uncoiled and writhed and seemed to snap and threaten, and then, when I tried to focus on them, skittered away up the field of my vision. The sunlight bathed me, turned the hairs on my arm to spun gold. But I was cold, and I was alone.

“D’you remember the first time I had an attack?”

I closed my eyes and tried shut out the café. Muffled bozlak played from hidden speakers, all davuls and zurnas and wailing: loss, loneliness and freezing cold under an endless night sky, insect stridulation and death-shriek, nothing to look forward to once the sun came again but thirst and burning and pitiless heat.

“Of course I bloody do.”

“All right, I only asked. There’s no need to get like that about it.”

“Sorry. Sorry. It’s just—” I stopped talking, because the Middle Eastern gentleman who looked harried enough to own the place appeared at my shoulder and clinked a glass of Moroccan tea down on the table. I smiled up at him, but he turned smartly away without acknowledgement.

I’d already shot up, an hour ago, and the pleasurable bit was wearing off. Two heavyset men sat in silence at the next table, an untouched game of draughts between them, taking tiny sips from thimble-size cups. One glanced over, a look that I couldn’t help but interpret as pregnant with threat, and I took a renewed interest in my mint tea. She sat on her hands, arms locked straight. She was beginning to fade. It was like watching the sun rise behind her.

“Do you remember how we met?”

“I need the toilet.”

“You don’t remember!”

“I need the toilet.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

The gents smelled strongly of some heavy, tar-oil based disinfectant, something old-fashioned and serious about the business of killing germs, wildlife and small children. I turned to the cubicle. As I approached it I realised the smell of disinfectant was coming from inside, so I tried to do my thing over the sink, but my hands shook so much a whole regiment of squirming white people went down the drain.

The first time I kissed her: above us the cathedral like a giant stone spaceship descending through the thin snow, around us shades of the dead cavorting on whatever pre-Christmas revels those who’ve gone beyond think appropriate for that time of year. Men and women in rags and tatters did mad jigs through moonlight, people wearing what looked like very down-at-heel fancy dress laughed and reeled through unfamiliar dances. There were even a couple of pale sickly children on the cathedral steps. They held hands and looked utterly lost, but even the dead were scared of them and gave them a wide berth. I held her hand. I asked a seventeenth century scullery maid what she thought of the modern world and got spat at, phantom gob matting my hair like spider’s webs and then dissipating into the cold night air.

We danced with ghosts. We took our places on either side of a gaggle of mediaeval peasants who taught us the old version of Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses: I remember the living stopping and staring as we chanted and danced on opposite sides of a circle of hands twenty feet across, uncertain feet stamping on the frosting pavement in shaky time with two dozen others people couldn’t see or hear.

See? I told you we had some good times.

We’d snuck out of the burlesque show during a part of the act where one woman in a corset sang “I Got You Babe” acapella whilst another used her arse as percussion. Someone said they were going to score, which of course meant I tagged along, and—post our initial awkward flirting—so did she: expecting a quick visit to someone’s warm front room, we followed him down alleys and cut across building sites until we stood outside the homeless shelter, breath shattering to frost. I can’t remember what I expected: tense moments distracting the night clerk at the desk whilst our contact slipped by? Shinning up the drainpipe?

He took us around the corner, to where anti-homeless spikes separated the monolithic bulk of the shelter from the identical bulk of a telesales out-sourcing company. There, tucked into a corner where the spikes ended, the snow settling on his newsprint blankets, we found the Warlock.

How to describe him? How do I begin to tell you about the thousand-year seer, the writer of Tom O’Bedlam? How do I convey the presence of a fault between universes wrapped in human skin? What words can you use to describe the conduit from which magic pours into the world?

Our contact didn’t seem impressed. He knelt down next to the Warlock, roughly shoved his hands into the midst of the newspaper covering the old man, fumbled due to cold or longing or disgust at the filthy knotted tie the Warlock used as a belt. I glanced at her. Her narrow face was unreadable, but I’m sure she felt the air of sacrilege as our hook-up wrenched down the Warlock’s filthy trousers and dug his withered, senescent tool from amongst the matted tangle of his pubic hair. As our contact fumbled and worked at the Warlock’s groin I looked away, though I couldn’t tell you if it was pudeur or something else: she, though, she pushed the hoodie-clad cretin away with a snarl.

“You don’t do it like that,” she said, with a heavy air of derision. “You’re not pull-starting a fucking lawnmower. Here.” She bent down, snatched the little baggie from his hand, got busy with her other. “Like this.”

The Warlock mumbled something, went to sit up, then seemed to realise what she was doing and settled back. He smelled of meths and sour unwashed sweat and roll-ups and cold.

“Won’t take a minute,” she told him cheerily.

I gave it all up as a loss and, my hand protecting the spoon like someone shielding a candle as they cross a draughty room, inched across the tiles and pushed open the cubicle door. She sat on the toilet, so transparent I could see the cistern through her.

“You’re not well, are you?”

I began to cry.

“Go wash your face, for fuck’s sake. I might not be able to shit, but I appreciate having the time alone. Kindly close the door.”

“No. No I won’t. You ordered me around enough when . . . When . . . ”

“Go on, say it. Fucking say it.”

“D’you mind. You’re getting washed out.”

“I thought you said that you didn’t do that anymore? In fact, I definitely seem to remember you saying that.”

“I lied.”

“I thought you said you loved me so much you didn’t need to do it anymore.”

“I lied.”

“I thought you said, ‘Oh, never mind, it’s okay, just ‘cos you’re dead doesn’t mean we have to stop seeing each other, you’ll never be alone, I don’t even need to stab myself into the face with jism squeezed out of a homeless madman any longer—’ ”

“I definitely didn’t say that.”

“You bloody did!”

She faded to a smear.

“I so didn’t, it doesn’t sound anything like me.”

She faded further, and her voice got tiny, small enough to fit in a spoon:

“You said you loved me, once.”

I bit my lip. I looked down at the spoon. Was it my imagination, but there on the surface, was there a tiny white homunculus, even though I hadn’t heated it up? And was it waving frantically at me?

“I did once,” I said, “but now, I’m not so sure.”

The homunculus beckoned me closer; I craned down to see it, to see what it wanted from me: when I looked up, she was gone. I pulled the toilet roll out of the holder, shook all the sheets off until I was down to cardboard, then I folded it over until I’d made something I could prop the spoon up with, so it’d sit on top of the cistern and not spill its contents.

I never looked back to see if the brief people on the surface were waving. It’s easier, I’ve come to find, if you never look back.

About the Author

Nelson Stanley works in a library in the UK. His stories have been published in various venues, such as the latest issue of Vastarien. He keeps a Twitter @Not_A_Sentence.