Week Three. One ink drawing by Laura Morgans, one piece of writing by Tom Spooner, every day in October.
Black Eyes, Burnt Thumbs
With black eyes, burnt thumbs and rouge on her cheeks of an indefinable hue like the evening sky after a storm, many speculated that Lady Grey was a deeply troubled woman.
They had no real idea who she was, what she did, or where her money came from. All the same, she was a fixture on the social scene and one that had the power to both blanket a room with stunned silence or cause it to erupt with gossip and conjecture. These reactions coincided precisely with her entering and leaving a room.
It was true that she appeared to have two black eyes , but this was on account of the upper eyelids being somewhat hooded and her eyes being more deeply set than most by a lack of sleep. However, her eyes were a honey-like hazel that, being located amongst the gloom of the sunken sockets, seemed like two rare and beguiling jewels.
There were many rumours about the small blisters on her thumbs, from the malicious – witchcraft – to the benign – careless cooking. The truth was that Lady Grey enjoyed smoking the finest hand-rolled Nepalese hash that money could buy. Her preferred method of smoking was a small ornate pipe that a merchant had bought back from Morocco and gifted to her lover at that time. It didn’t take her long to realise that the pipe, with its intricate carvings, was far more interesting than her lover, and exponentially more satisfying.
Lady Grey would use a needle to skewer a small lump of hash. She would then hold it over a candle flame and watch and wait. Soon enough the hash would release a single lick of turquoise flame. This meant that it was ready to crumble into a small pile of cherry tobacco. Invariably at some point during the process she would find herself with a burn on her thumb, a small dark blister.
That leaves with the curious question of the rouge. In Paris, in Montmartre, Lady Grey had spent many months watching the great painters at work. She would sometimes sit for them in the attic rooms of elegant but faded houses, or spend the days drinking coffee and then the evenings, absinthe, in the squares. She was never interested in the finished canvas of the artists she watched; it was the mixing and creating of colours on the palette that captivated her, witnessing the birth of new colours emerging from the old. She wanted to be a painter only to have access to this magic.
For a while she painted, the same as she wrote verse, drew plans for fantastical buildings, and published pamphlets about workers’ rights and the rights of women, because she could. The enjoyment ended as soon as the colours had been conjured. The fascination started to wane as they dried on the canvas. After a year or two of selling her art, she gave it all up. It would be sad of course if this was the case. In fact it is not entirely true, because every day she create colours for her cheeks in the same painterly way. It was a small bold expression of the beauty of creation that Lady Grey celebrated on her cheeks.
Let them talk, she would think, she saw no beauty in their words. No beauty at all.
You remember that time when you couldn’t get warm? It was strange.
It was 20 degrees out, the sun was shining, people were wearing T-shirts and laughing. And there you were in three jumpers, your winter coat, hat and scarf with the heating on high, chattering like you were in a freezer.
I laugh about it now, but I must admit I was kinda scared at the time. You weren’t ill or nothing. No fever. You just couldn’t get warm.
Gary and Lisa came over with an electric blanket. Joan bought you a vat of butternut squash soup. Even old man Les stuck his head round the door to see what was going on. Hell, nearly the whole street came into visit you that day. They looked you up and down, and said things like: ‘it’s lovely out’, ‘you need to eat more fruit’, ‘have a bath’, ‘get some sun on your face’, ‘try cod liver oil tablets’.
Everyone said something, but they were only doing it because they felt they had to.
What are you supposed to do when someone just can’t get warm?
And then, later that night, y0u stood up and took off all your layers – your hat, your scarf, the thermals, unplugged the electric blanket, and went to bed without a word. It was strange.
“Honey, do you think…” He paused for a moment. “Do you think we should get her checked over? I mean a school psychiatrist or a child behaviourist, someone like that. Just to make sure she’s doing OK.”
“Abigail is fine. She’s better than fine. She’s our daughter. She’s a child.”
“I know she’s fine. Abigail is a great kid and you know I love her, it’s just this space stuff is getting a little out of hand. She’s, she’s, well, she’s obsessed. The other girls are out at McDonalds, going to the cinema, listening to boy bands.”
“And how is that healthier, Gary? Fast food and Bieber? Really?”
“You know what I mean. Doing other stuff. Doing stuff with friends. I mean does Abi even have friends? Who have we had round to tea? Tell me, who’s knocked on the front door and asked for Abi?”
“It’s just a phase. She’ll grow out of it. Look, I was besotted with Nik Kershaw for two years solid. There was no room in my head for anything else. And I turned out alright, didn’t I?”
“Do you know where she is now? She’s in her bedroom watching the moon landing on YouTube. She’s been doing it all weekend – she must have watched it a hundred times. I mean I feel like I’ve seen it a hundred times.”
“So what you’re saying is that you’d rather she was watching Vloggers or pop videos with semi-naked women? At least space is educational. She already knows more about physics than I ever will.”
“OK. OK. I’m just suggesting we get someone professional, you know, to take a look behind it all. Make sure nothing is going on.”
“It’s not happening, Gary. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Abigail’s fine. In fact, she’s amazing.”
“She is amazing, I’m not saying she isn’t. It’s just she hasn’t said a single word to me in eighteen months. And when I read her diary…”
“Hold on. You read her diary? Gary, what the hell were you thinking?”
“I was worried about her. I wanted to know what was going on in her head.”
“So you read her diary? Do you have any idea how bad that is? It breaks trust.”
“The whole thing was written as a logbook. Every entry was a detailed account of some space walk or technical dilemma. She wrote about having to fix a damaged solar panel on a space station. There was bits about what it felt like to be weightless, about how she missed her family back home.”
“How much did you read, Gary?”
“Pretty much all of it. It was fascinating, scary. How does she know all that stuff? There wasn’t a single sentence about the real world. No boys, no teachers, no nothing.”
At that moment, the kitchen door opens and Abigail floats into the room. She extends her arms and swims breaststroke across the air, hovering two metres from the ground. She arrives at her parents, reaches out her hands, and squeezes both of their shoulders before summersaulting backwards out of the room.
The sky is the colour of phlegm – viscous greens and translucent greys tectonically shifting, swirling angrily, infectedly.
The sun is the colour of American orange juice or an autumn/winter scarf from a boutique. It is a perfect circle of intense artificial tangerine.
A man with a beard down to his waist looks up at the heavens and cries: ‘Forgive me father for I have sinned.” He falls to his knees and hits the ground with his clenched fists.
A teenage girl, with streaks of red in her hair, pouts duck-lipped into her phone screen. The sky is an angry three-day old bruise behind her, the sun a bright smudged dot. Hashtag end of the world.
Tango the puppy, whose claws are too long, swipes at the baby, cutting her above her left eye. Matchbox the cat curls up inside the airing cupboard and purrs deeply. A leopard in a small zoo in Devon chews at its left paw, drawing blood.
The sky is normal, everything else is not.
There is music everywhere. You can hear it in the rhythmic ticking of the air conditioning, the grunt and grime of the plant machinery, in the scuff of an old man’s shoes across the gravel of his drive, in the dumb frustrated plight of the bluebottle trying to escape through a closed window. You can hear it in the train tracks, car wheels and bicycle gears. In the birds, the bees and the beetles.
The best music of all though is created by pylons. Beneath these skeletal structures, so sharply delineated against pale skies, you can hear angels singing and the deep thrum of monks in reverent response.
It is a hum so rich and textured that you feel yourself touched by the divine. You may even find yourself dabbing at tears on your face. The natural reaction is to prostrate yourself beneath its steel limbs and ask forgiveness. The air here is thick with energy and it clings to your skin like dirt. Bask in it. Ask to be absolved of your sins as it sings to you. Eternal salvation is in the pylon song.
There’s a wooden cabin at the bottom of the cliff and this is where I live. I have a wood-burning stove at one end and a single bed at the other. There is a shelf with a dozen books, all well-thumbed with cracked spines and chewed corners, on the wall opposite the door. Beneath this shelf is a small writing desk where I write and keep my papers.
I do all of my cooking on the stove in a saucepan and a frying pan, both are blackened. I also have a large kettle for tea, coffee and bathing; also the occasional hot water bottle when it turns particularly cold.
On still nights, I can hear the ocean from the cabin. Usually, all I hear is the wind. It howls like a wild animal, as it licks at the contours of the cliff face. The ocean is a twenty minute walk, out across the shingle, longer still when the tide is out.
It is a simple life that I have chosen, but it suits me fine. Sometimes, I think back to how it was before in my old life. All I really remember is the noise. Voices talking over each other, babbling, machinery screeching, engines revving, babies screaming, music blaring. It was chaos.
I never had anything to say that was worth saying, so I stayed silent, and absorbed the noise, soaking it up like a sonic sponge. There were times I wanted to scream, even pull my eyes from their sockets, anything to relieve the pressure I felt inside.
I am quiet most of the time now. I do speak to the birds and occasionally read aloud what I have written. My voice always comes as a shock to me. I don’t recognise its timbre or the elongated vowels of an accent that doesn’t feel my own.
When it comes to conversations with people, it simply doesn’t happen. A year or so ago, a walker knocked on the door of my cabin – a tall broad woman from the Netherlands. She asked me if I knew a shortcut back to the coastal path. Her voice was calm and measured, the English precise but gently warm like a forgotten cup of tea.
I didn’t speak for a full minute, letting the sound waves make their way from my ear to my temporal lobes, mentally examining the strangeness of the human voice. It was like trying to identify a herb in a sauce: my brain was smacking its lips, rolling its tongue, chewing.
Eventually I spoke: the words came out as a dry croak and then a high pitched squeal. She looked at me and nodded. I was thankful for this. And then, she was gone.
That was the first and last visitor I had had, and the last time I heard a human voice. I started writing her letters the next day. I never intended or had any means to send them, or for anyone to ever read them, but I was compelled to write them all the same. Sometimes they were short, other days I would ramble on for pages.
I told her about my life before the cabin, even before the noise. I shared stories from my childhood – false memories embellished and rounded out into some sort of narrative. There were stories of those that I had loved and those that had loved me back. I didn’t write about the cabin all that much. Every now and again I’d mention the birds or inadequately describe a picturesque sky. Occasionally, I’d write about a storm or a sunset.
This went on for two winters. For long silent years, I’d write her letters at my desk.
It was spring when the knock at my door came. It was her again. I didn’t know quite what was happening, but I invited her in. After everything that I’d told her, she was no longer a stranger to me.
I indicated the chair at the desk and she walked to it and sat down. I filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. It was a little late in the day for coffee, but I thought tea would be fine.
As I made the tea, I noticed that she had started to read my letters, the ones I’d written her. She had no idea though that she was the intended recipient. She made her way through pile after pile, no longer feeling the need to be discreet about what she was doing, and I could see no reason to stop her. We drank our tea in silence as it grew dark outside.
Two hours later, she stood up and walked over to the bed and gathered all the sheets and blankets and pillows in her arms. Directly in front of the stove, she fashioned a ramshackle bed from them. I watched her in amazement, but again didn’t speak to question her. She removed her clothes except for a bra and pants, and lay there. After five minutes or so, she indicated that I should lie with her. I undressed and curled up into her, sandwiched between her warmth and the dry heat of the fire.
I willed myself to sleep because I could sense that tomorrow I was going to do a lot of talking.
Twelve pounds an hour is alright I suppose. It’s more than packing or being on the line. I don’t mind the hours either. As far as nightshifts go, 10pm till 6am suits me fine.
I’ve been here a fortnight. Night Watchmen, although they call it Security Officer.
The thing that gets me is that it’s creepy. I don’t like it. I sit in an office on the first floor for half an hour, usually on my phone, YouTube and Netflix and Facebook and that. It keeps my mind occupied.
It’s pitch black outside the room and I’m aware of how bright and white it is, how exposed I am. People can see in, but I can’t see them looking if you know what I mean. Sometime, I feel like I can sense them.
Every half an hour, I pick up my torch, one of those heavy Maglites, and start my sweep of the building. I take the old customer stairs to the ground floor and check the main entrance doors. There’s usually a few homeless in the doorway so I don’t bother with the torch. I can see the chains from the streetlights outside.
Next, I make way out back to the old storeroom. There’s still a few mannequins lined up in there and these really freak me out. I tend to make noise when I’m around them. Whistling or speaking to myself, picking things up off the desks and slamming them down again. I guess it’s a way of announcing myself, but I also think it’s because I’m scared of the silence, or more like, something or someone other than me, breaking it.
What would I do if I heard a creak and one of the heads had turned to face me or an arm had been slowly raised. You’d think going there every hour, I’d be used to it by now, but each time it gets worse. 4am was the worst. The night seemed to be at its darkest.
A job’s a job, I guess, and I can’t complain. I never liked warehouses or factories. I’d much rather be by myself. And there’s no boss either, breathing down my neck, telling me what to do. And when it comes to progression, climbing the ladder, the most I could hope for was a bigger torch or a uniform with less polyester. That was fine by me.
The top floor was next. I took the stairs three at a time, sometimes I would even attempt four. The top floor was never open to the public. It was a concrete shell. This meant it was the quickest to check. A simple sweep of the space with the torch and I was done. I worried about it each time just the same.
I feared that the torch would land upon a black mass in one of the corners. Like a heap of blankets. I knew that I’d have to investigate – see how the hell it got up there. I’d walk towards it, shining the torch directly on them, my footsteps echoing around the room. I’d be halfway there and it’d suddenly shift, rise up and unravel forming a shape of a large dog. The black tangle of shadow would come forward, bounding towards me. In this scenario, I always dropped my torch. Darkness would descend and then I’d feel something hit my chest. I’d fall to the ground.
The last guy didn’t last a week, so I guess I’m doing okay. And my first pay cheque was due Friday. It didn’t mean I had to enjoy it though.
Once the top floor was done, I head back to the first floor and my office. Returning to the bright light, where I sit, not able to see out, hoping that nothing was looking back in.