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“Conrad Williams is a skilled craftsman who demonstrates how vivid, unsettling, and lingering dark fiction can be. He wields mood and suggestive detail with an accomplished hand and evokes images that can turn the normal into nightmare. Use Once, Then Destroy is one of the most solid collections of disturbing but engaging work you’re likely to find on the shelves today.”

Tom Piccirilli
“Williams is without doubt one of the finest fantasists writing today.”
Tim Lebbon
“A writer of extraordinary talent; stories that shine dark light into the world’s shadows.” 

Michael Marshall Smith
‘”This guy is good, and he’s only going to get better. Use Once, then Destroy is thoughtful, toxic, and very, very hard to put down.”

Wes Unruh, Green Man Review
“…one of the more inventive and gifted writers of horror and dark SF to emerge in the past decade.”

Tim Pratt, Locus
“…depraved and elegantly ambivalent stories… Williams writes with a poetic brutality that definitely makes him a dark voice to note. Publishers Weekly (starred review) ‘…a genuine, deeply macabre spellbinder.”

Ray Olson, Booklist


I was on my way to work when Louise appeared, seeming to peel away from the grey cement walls of the block of flats opposite. She drifted into my arms. I could feel her bones, thin and febrile, poking through the shredded leather of her jacket. As I drew her inside, I noticed it was a jacket I’d given her, five years ago – the last time I’d seen her. She made sticky, glottal noises into the crook of my arm as I led her upstairs. Her hair was matted with dog shit; her mouth pinched and blue.
‘What are you on?’ I asked, but the question could have been directed at myself. I should have been taking her to hospital. She didn’t answer.
I sat her down in the hallway while I ran a bath. My face dissolved in the mirror.
‘Can you…?’ Clearly, she couldn’t, so I undressed her myself, trying to keep my eyes off the breasts I’d once caressed. Unbidden, a memory of me rubbing olive oil into them on a hot beach somewhere made my cheeks burn. ‘Let’s get you into this bath. Come on Louise.’ She’d lost weight. The skin around her navel was purpuric and slightly raised, like that of an orange. I hoped her condition was due to vitamin deficiency and exhaustion. I wished I hadn’t written to her.
She revived a little when the suds enveloped her. She found some kind of focus, frowning as I no doubt looped in and out of view. Her slight overbite rested upon her bottom lip: something I’d once found irresistible. Now she just looked afraid.

‘It’s been like – ‘ she began, and coughed a thick clot of mucus on to her chin, ‘- like I’ve been drowning. All this time. Just as I thought I was leaving, going out like a candle, you rescued me.’ She collapsed slowly into the water; her ribs, for a moment, seemed like huge denuded fingers pressing against the flesh from inside, trying to punch their way out.

There was nothing particularly unusual about our relationship to warrant my attempt to contact her. At the time, I was nineteen, she eighteen. We said we loved each other. Although we had no money and still lived with our parents, we believed we were independent, different from anyone else because we were intelligent; we were mature about sex.

We were stupid. We were children.

We holidayed in Wales one summer, borrowing a caravan that belonged to a friend of my father’s. We buried each other in the sand and lost sleep, fucking with impunity. It was exciting, hearing her approach an orgasm without fear of a parent barging in on us. She missed a period.

I wanted to go with her on the day she aborted. I’d travelled to Stockport with her to make the appointment, sitting in a waiting room trying to avoid the female faces around me, watching faded vehicles slew across wet, wasted dual carriageways which reached into the dun fug over Manchester. Louise’s mother went with her when the time came because she paid for the operation. The private clinic was picketed by pro-lifers that day. Louise told me they pleaded with her to re-consider, that they would help to bring up the baby. It fluttered in her womb. Ink blot eye. Fingernails.

When I saw Louise again, she’d gained something which made me nervous for a while, something which shone dully in her eyes as if the surgeons had implanted some strange, ancient wisdom at the time of termination. We talked about it and grew very close; smiles and kisses drew a frosting over the bad area, like icing decorates the mould in a cake. I suppose we believed we were richer for the experience. Louise became clinging; I thought it was love. I never believed that we would be together for ever but she didn’t doubt it, as if this trauma provided a bond we must never break. Sometimes I’d lie awake at night feeling like the carcass of a sheep; she, a dark scavenger of emotions, burrowing ever deeper into the heart of me. That I felt guilty for entertaining such thoughts shouldn’t have brought me comfort but it did.

It was like laying down a bundle of kindling when I tucked her into my bed. I left a window open and glanced at London’s centre. It seemed strange that I would be working in that glut of noise down there while she slept, a Rapunzel in her tower. I left a note with my number by the bed, in case she should wake up. I had to lean over and smell her mouth.

On the Northern Line, I tried to spot other faces which bore the same kind of expression as Louise. A fusion of vulnerability and assuredness. The look of someone who knows they will be protected and cared for. I couldn’t find anything like it here. Maybe it was London which prescribed a countenance of stone; to progress here, you oughtn’t allow any emotion to slip.

It was a photograph that did it. A black and white shot of Louise staring out of my bedroom window, one breast free of a voluminous cardigan, her body painted white with morning sunshine. She wore a sleepy, gluttonous expression: we’d just made love. I’d placed some crumpled cellophane over the lens to soften her image. When the picture fell out of a book, I wondered what she was doing now. It pained me to think that the partners we felt so deeply for can be allowed to drift out of our lives. We were both five years older than the time it had ended. Old enough, responsible enough to face each other on a new footing and be friends…

… Ha.

I thought about her all day. I even tried calling her but all I got was my Duo plus: ‘Hi, this is Sean, all calls gratefully received, except those from Jeffrey Archer or Noel Edmonds… ‘

‘Lou? Are you there? Pick up the phone.’

I left the office as early as I could and caught the tube back to Belsize Park, having to wait an agonising time at Camden for the Edgware connection, which was late due to I don’t fucking know – litter on the line, driver claustrophobia, lack of application.

She was still in bed when I got back. I heated a bowl of celery soup in the microwave and fed it to her, remembering too late that she despised celery. And what else? Beetroot? She didn’t seem to mind now though, her belly grateful for anything to mop up the misery in which it was dissolving. The early February sky shuttered out the light in grey grades across my wall; she became more beautiful as darkness mired her features.

She sat up against the headboard, the duvet slipping away from her body. She didn’t attempt to cover herself. I gave her a tee-shirt.

‘What happened?’ I asked, lighting a candle – she wouldn’t have appreciated the harshness of a bare bulb.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It’s like I described earlier. I feel as if I’ve been gnawed away from the inside. For a while, I thought it was cancer.’

I bit down on my suggestion that it still might be; the candle’s uncertain light sucked the gaunt angles of her face and shoulders into chiaroscuro.

‘Lie with me,’ she said.

My sleep was fitful; I was expecting her to murmur something that would shape the formless panic I was barely managing to fasten inside. I lay awake listening to horses clatter lazily up Primrose Hill Road at 5 a.m., trying to delve for conversations we’d had, or pregnant pauses stuffed with meaning. All I could remember was the sound of her crying.

I nipped outside at around seven, when she was stirring, to the baker’s for croissants. I picked up a pot of jam and the newspaper, a pint of milk and headed back to the flat. Only gone ten minutes, it was some surprise to find her showered and dressed, painting her nails and listening to one of my Radiohead albums.
‘We’ll go out after brekkie,’ she said, slackly pursing her lips and blowing the varnish across their wake. For a moment, it seemed she was miming a blow-job. ‘You can show me around Camden.’

‘How are you feeling?’ I asked, unwrapping the croissants and offering her a knife.

‘Better.’ She broke off a corner of bread and chewed it, dipping her next bit into the virgin surface of the jam, getting crumbs in there. That was something that pissed me off no end when we were together. It didn’t bother me now. Maturity, I suppose. She looked at me slyly, as if she were testing me; I ignored it.

‘It’s good to see you, Louise,’ I said. ‘Really.’

‘It was a beautiful letter. How could I not answer it?’

‘I didn’t necessarily expect to see you on my doorstep… you know, a letter, a phone call or something, to let me know how you were.’

‘It was an invocation, Sean.’

‘A what?’

‘I said, it was an invitation. You called to me, I was on the brink. Your timing was immaculate.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘It always was.’
© Conrad Williams

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