Advent Stories #3

FAILURE

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Patrick stepped from the bus into a Cologne morning filled with pigeons and rain. The Rhein moped away to his left, flat and grey, listless as he himself had felt this past month or so. Sigi had grown impatient with his lethargy and bombarded him with insults when she returned from the museum to find him staring out at the lowering sky or lounging in the bath, his skin pruning like that of an old man. ‘I can’t carry the both of us,’ she’d say, fretting waspishly at a cigarette. ‘You must find work. Your studies don’t eat up that much time that you couldn’t wait on tables a few hours each week. You must find work.’

Come midnight, when they were shivering beneath blankets in her bed, she would parry his advances and sometimes weep into her pillow. Patrick’s argument that his research would suffer should he have to find employment no longer made an impact on Sigi. ‘What if we were to split up? What then? You would have no choice.’

She was right, of course. Patrick had proved something of a parasite these past few months as what had begun as a very casual relationship turned into something more intimate without any discussion or analysis forthcoming from either party. An irony existed in that he had had a job before he met Sigi; basic administrative duties in an accountancy firm just off Konrad Adenauer Ufer. Dull, but it paid for the essentials. And then Sigi, followed by infatuation, love and a complete loss of responsibility. Instead of turning up to work he would spend hours grazing the dips and swells of her body. They would sneak off to walk the banks of the river for hours on end, feed each other apfel strudel driving a borrowed car on the autobahn with the windows down and Nirvana’s About a Girl slinking from the speakers. And then Sigi finished college and landed a job at the Arts and Crafts Museum just as Herr Schellenberg reached the end of his tether and told Patrick his absenteeism was unacceptable and it would be for the best if he found a job elsewhere.

But it was so much easier to vegetate in Sigi’s flat.

Until now of course. ‘There are no opportunities, Sigi,’ he appealed, a few nights ago. ‘For every job there are three people available.’ And her riposte: ‘You make your opportunities!’ It was a tiff that had escalated at frightening speed, culminating in Sigi’s threat to either kill him or herself. Though he guessed the warning to be hollow, the sheer fury and frustration in her voice had finally shocked him into accepting that measures needed to be taken. He had called Josef as soon as he had a moment alone.

Last night they had made love for the first time in weeks. It had been a cold, textbook affair. Head resting on his chest she’d said: ‘Patrick, I’m at my wits’ end. There is talk at the museum of laying off some of the staff. The recession is picking people off one by one. If I lose my job, we lose this.’ Her gesture took in what their life meant to them at the moment, all of it within arm’s reach: a few books, a suitcase of clothes, a photograph album. The flat itself. He made her breakfast and kissed her goodbye, watching the way she moved down the steps to the street, pony tail bobbing.

He followed Josef’s directions, angling down a cobbled road beneath an archway off Pfälzerstrasse where blouses and towels hung out to dry whipped about like strange birds trapped in netting. He seated himself outside the café beneath a birch tree filled with copper chimes and let their music relax him, knowing that Josef would doubtless be ten or fifteen minutes late for their meeting.

Patrick had met Sigi at a party thrown by an ex-girlfriend who lived in Koblenz. Patrick guessed he’d been invited just so Heidi could rub his nose in the success she was enjoying these days: she was like that. He went along just for the sour victory of proving this prediction and he was not disappointed; Heidi was swift to show him her new boyfriend (a tanned, flat-stomached astro-physics graduate called Wolf); her new flat; her car; on and on and on. He bumped into Sigi in front of the open fire where surreptitiously they tossed Heidi’s business card to the flames at the same time and howled over the coincidence of such an act.

‘Oh but wait,’ she’d said, stifling her laughter, ‘it wouldn’t surprise me if this fire was being fuelled with Heidi’s precious business cards. Isn’t she just insufferable?’

She didn’t apologise when Patrick told her she was a former girlfriend, a matter that impressed him. Within the hour they’d traded telephone numbers and lingered over a goodbye that had left Patrick dry-mouthed and palpitating, remarkable for the fact that their proximity had only encompassed a handshake and eye contact. It pained him to think of her, six months on, her eyes less vibrant, her posture collapsing in on itself. He wondered if she had any ambition left; certainly the fiery creature he’d once seen her to be had grown sullen and maudlin. It wasn’t all his fault, surely?

‘We’ll take a drink, I suggest. To celebrate our meeting again. It’s been a while, no?’ Josef towered above him – he was almost a foot taller – and clapped a huge hand on his shoulder.

Inside the café they ordered bottles of Pils and spent a while splitting open pistachio nuts, watching the video screens.

‘Thank you for coming Josef. I know how busy you are.’

‘Remember summer? Three years ago? The last time we spoke.’ Josef chewed slowly, fingernails worrying at the hasp of his Filofax. His suit rippled and shone so readily it might have been made from water.

‘Of course I do. You know I do.’

‘It was not an enjoyable time. For you, that is. Especially for you.’

Patrick shook his head. ‘I know. But I’d be interested in something like that again. It would be worth the fear.’

‘Things are that bad?’

‘Worse. I think Sigi will leave me if I don’t find some money soon. I’ve been such a shit to her.’

Patrick felt the weight of Josef’s gaze, and the thickness of the silence that spread between them. Then Josef leant close enough for Patrick to smell the sweetness of his breath, his lavish perfume.

‘I have excellent contacts these days. In this city there works a man who can make you rich, if you have the stomach for what he would do with you.’

‘This is how you make your money?’

‘Christ no! I’m not desperate. I… supply him with his raw materials. He pays me well, but then, so do many of my business associates.’

‘I don’t like that. Raw materials? This is how you see me?’ Patrick took a long swig of his beer. Around them, the bar drew in towards them, as though air were being sucked out of the building, pulling everyone closer together. Patrick could smell aftershaves clashing; a hot volley of cooked sausages; even the tacky, sugary teats depending from the liquor optics. A barmaid wearing luridly coloured hair extensions pulled the hem of her tee-shirt down till the cotton creaked. Patrick watched a single gem of sweat stroke a line from the back of her ear to a gold choker where it sizzled brightly.

Josef, for the first time, was betraying his impatience with a long suck on his teeth and a crinkling in the soft folds at the corner of his eyes. ‘Why are you here? In Köln? Do you remember your reasons for coming here?’

‘Of course I do,’ said Patrick flatly. ‘To broaden the scope of my research.’ The words aired as dispassionately as those of a child regurgitating rote-learned multiplication.

‘This is untrue. You came here to make money. You came here for the butchers, you said. Medical experiments were limited in Britain; their wages weren’t enough to pay for the drugs you needed in order to put your belly right after filling them with chemicals week after week. You said.’ Josef stressed the last words with a poke of his finger into the limp shield of Patrick’s shoulder blade.

‘So what if my feelings are different now?’ Patrick argued, all the while thinking: He’s right, the bastard’s right. There’d been that time when the 8th and 15th of each month meant a trek to and from Leeds so that he could swallow half a pint of an untested lemon and lime flavoured drink called FYBOGEL which was being hailed for its potential cholesterol reducing properties. Was it worth £1000, travel included? Hardly. There’d been the 3Cs too; Common Cold Centres he haunted during the late 80s till research funds became so piddling that they closed down. It had felt like he was being made redundant – only without the severance pay. He’d talked to a few friends about the dismal situation, one of which had suggested getting in touch with Josef. Josef with his Technicolor labcoat promises of injections and induced muscle spasm and sleep trials and mild Electro Convulsive Therapy. All designed to line his ruptured pockets with marks and pfennigs. He’d come across the water, helpless as a Bisto kid, floating on the anaesthesia which poured from Josef’s lips. In the foetus crease of sleep he’d danced with molecules that whispered their drowsy names into the very gristle between his ears: thiopentane, helothane, enflurane. He spent soporific breakfasts popping ‘jellies’, his body gradually becoming conversant with the torpid heat of temazepam and omnopon. In the University library where he was to land his doomed job, amputated chunks of sunlight scattering the dust and people, scalpels grinned at him from the pages of the British Journal of Surgery.

‘Who is it you know? What can he offer me?’

Josef’s presence seemed to diminish, a salesman who has hooked into a big fish and can finally relax. As he softened, he slid into the chair next to Patrick and blinked for what must have been the first time. Now he was at eye level with Patrick, his clout retreating, Patrick could only wonder at the chameleon nature of his character, the way he had piled on so much unspoken pressure, his bullyboy charm.

‘You can make £12,000.’

Patrick scoffed and turned to look into his friend’s concave face, at the wide spaced eyes that seem almost to be turned in towards each other. A smile played in there, like a candle in a bowl, tinting the edges of his face with light. Fuck, Patrick thought, he really means it.

‘Yeah,’ he humoured, ‘and what would I have to do for twelve grand?’

Josef’s smile faded. He wore the countenance of one searching a set of features for steel, for inner grit.

‘Die a little,’ he said.

*

Sigi was asleep under the yucca, headphones on. The only light in the room came from the dancing equaliser on their stereo and the violet neon from the snooker hall across the street. He left it that way.

She came to bed hours later and he watched her undress from the half mask of their blanket. Sigi rubbed her neck where the cold had stiffened it and applied a little night cream to her cheekbones and forehead. She brushed her hair. She lalled a fragment from whatever song was looping in her mind; something that sounded like I got so high, I scratched till I bled before killing the light and smothering his chest with her heartbeat. Her mouth and cunt made gummy demands on his skin but it was too much like being dabbed with open wounds. He pushed her away and felt her dampness on his thigh tighten and dry. When her hand scooted under his leg to gently mash his balls, peel the skin back from a reluctant hard-on, he tried to relax. Her thumb capped his tip, smeared a tear of fluid over his glans and: ‘Fuck me, Pat. Come on.’

The flesh across his chest tightened so swiftly he almost heard his skin tearing. In there, bloated within its cell of ribs, he convulsed and spat; a leathery knot tiring all the while. His fear travelled quick as his blood; he dwindled in her fingers.

‘What’s wrong?’ her voice was thick with sex. She sat up. He saw the spike of a nipple against the window; a curtain of hair sweep the wedge of her brow; cilia eyelashes flutter in uncertainty. He imagined the purple net of veins stutter on his retina. Ear-drums concussing with the pressure of his blood as if it wanted to be away from the body which contained it.

Again, her question, voice see-sawing on a fulcrum of confusion, not yet knowing whether to lend weight to the cynical end or its charitable opposite.

‘I’m tired.’

‘What have you got to be tired for?’ The sudden injection of outrage, for the first time, was unable to find its way through to him. He lay there, numbed as she ranted, to her credit finding new ways to express old, old things. But it didn’t matter how much she dressed the words up; they could make no impact on him any more. He wondered if that was because their content was stale or the person delivering them was no longer so vital to him. And, consequently, was that feeling merely forced by his reluctance to tell Sigi where he had been, what might be in store for him? Was he trying to hate her in order to spare her?

He listened to the music of her body when finally she slept. All of it seemed circular, reproductive: the wet mechanics of her breathing; the dull knell of her heart; occasional glottal murmurs. It all sounded too insular and stale. He knew that trawling his memories for something soothing was likely only to fret him more but he couldn’t prevent a regression; insomnia seemed to be its perfect bedfellow.

*

Meat. Sunday afternoons hanging round the kitchen with the cats waiting for Mum to finish roasting the hunk of dead stuff in the oven. Patrick liked lamb best; the fat blistering and loose on the rich, dark meat. He was never able to finish his serving, mainly because Mum always dished out too many slabs of the stuff but also because he didn’t want Gatsby and Mac to go without a few scraps from his plate. And one time, everyone was rushing around for some reason or other: Dad had a meeting to attend; his sister Mo was helping a friend with her display at an art gallery. And Mum was gearing up to go to a yoga session – she wasn’t eating till later. Only Patrick was free of obligations: he tooled around with Gatsby, a ping-pong ball and Dad’s shoe while Mum clattered her timpani orchestra on the old Belling cooker.

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Tucking in while Mum stuffed a duffel bag with leggings and leotard. The first cut of Patrick’s knife brought a dribble of blood from the spongy pink cross section of meat; it spread in a watery pool to infect his mashed potato. Dad and Mo were mopping up spillages, scraping and slurping: pulpy noises at the centre of his world. He imagined blood forming a thin wash on their gums, swilling hotly in bellies packed like haggis. Then a whitening as the kitchen faded and his chair didn’t feel as though it could support him properly.

Dad leaning over him: vermilion lips peeled back. Clotted, meaty breath.

Patrick had steered clear of red meat ever since.

Hours later he slid from the sheets feeling misshapen, as though, during the night, he’d been eclipsed and gently crushed by a giant fist. He scrimped breakfast from a curl of bread in the larder, a rind of tired cheese. Coffee was in abundance but he could hardly brew up without rousing Sigi. He didn’t want her questioning him; he didn’t want to let on as to the nature of his insomnia.

Josef’s BMW was a lozenge of black assuming form out of the soupy half–light beneath the railway bridge. Inside (against the fetor of leather upholstery), was a fleeting whiff of freesias, money – a stale waft of fanned banknotes – and Doublemint. Patrick listened to the whispering engine, the chuckle of an unseen fountain. Water always made Patrick feel cold. His upper arms he pushed against the shivering shanks of his chest, hoping Josef wouldn’t notice and misinterpret the gesture as fear but his friend was busy clipping a large cigar.

‘Well?’ Patrick quailed at the pleading in his voice. He so wanted to prove his mettle, not only to Josef – and Sigi – but to himself. Since his voice broke he’d been cursed with a reedy delivery, lacking any character building inflection, any gravel or, conversely, any silkiness, like the brogues he’d known when relatives visited from Ireland years ago. People such as Josef, though no bigger in stature, could pinch out Patrick’s light with an articulation only dreamt of by the other.

Josef wouldn’t allow himself to be hurried. He bolted the cigar between his teeth and torched it with a match which seemed to have extended from hisfingers. ‘You – paff – told – piff – her – poff poff?’

‘Of course I did.’

‘The boy lies. He lies well, but not well enough.’ For the first time Josef eyeballed him. The buffer of smoke made his face appear unstable; his mouth roiled around the cigar and Patrick found it easier to follow the orange pastille of its coal than the eyes behind it.

‘Christ Josef, if I told her, do you think I’d be here? I’d be out on my arse. Better I just do it and come back with the cash. Then I’ll tell her.’

‘Because then, if she kicked you out, you’d have your own money to take care of you, instead of hers.’ He grinned: the cigar grew erect, gleaming on the narrow bridge of Josef’s brow.

‘Look, it was you. You who encouraged me to go for this. Why do you want to piss me off about it?’

‘Because I can. So easy.’ He shifted the gear out of Park and into Drive; let the car mosey over the cobbled alley till, hitting the main street, he dipped his foot and Patrick was pressed back into the bucket seat. If he looked out of the passenger window on his right, the houses and hedges – all that was solid and detailed – grew molten.

*

Sloe-eyed Sigi passing him a dry Martini. ‘See?’ she said. ‘See how you have to make sure the glass is cold? Now rinse it with vermouth and throw the excess away; you just need to coat the glass. Pour your gin from an ice cold shaker. Olive.’

The way she pronounced olive – as Oh-live – made him laugh. Her lips were wet with traces of cocktail; teeth too as she smiled, as though the reaches of her mouth were flush with a layer of cellophane. This image clogged in his mind as they took a series of lefts and rights through an area of the town he was unfamiliar with (gabled roofs and streetlamps like unfinished gallows; block buildings with pastel slivers in frameless windows). A woman in white with a gash of red silk at her throat rode by on a piebald horse. Trees encroached, first dotted between, then concealing and finally replacing the houses on the city’s limits. Patrick suddenly realised he was wearing the necklace Sigi had bought him during the summer – the last gift she had proffered before their current impasse. It was a simple claw of metal gripping a blueish enamel swirl which he wore on a leather cord. He liked its weight against his sternum; during lovemaking, it would answer the knock of his heart against his ribs with a dull call of its own. Sometimes, as she peaked, Sigi would draw it into her mouth and suck on it till her bucking waned.

‘This is how it shall be.’ Josef spat the butt of his cigar out of the window and didn’t speak again till the electrics had sealed it once more. ‘We go in. I talk to Brandywine and Losh. You do your stuff. We get paid. We go out.’

We? We get paid?’

‘Yeah, we. I’m acting as your agent on this, remember.’

‘So what’s your cut?’

‘Not as painful as your cut, I can assure you.’

‘Bastard.’ Patrick felt like ordering him to stop so he could get out and walk home. ‘Maybe I should become an agent.’

‘You don’t have the contacts or the cuntishness. And you speak German with all the composure of a tightrope walker with one leg suffering from Parkinson’s who is in the midst of morphine withdrawal.’

‘What’s your cut?’ Patrick didn’t really want to know any more, but he’d just caught sight of a building through the net of branches up ahead and felt the first slow convulsion of fear in his loins. Hearing his voice – andJosef’s smug rejoinders – was helping to nail his panic down.

‘Six k.’ And then, as if parrying any protest of Patrick’s before it was aired: ‘Do you know how hard it is, liaising? How perilous? There are butchers in this country, Patrick. I’ve worked laboriously to get you this and you can be sure you’ll be treated well. Proper anaesthetists, sterile conditions that are second to none, excellent post-op and Intensive Care facilities.’ He risked a cheeky glance, perhaps gauging the humour of his friend before mugging: ‘If you snuffed it here, the quality of your death would be orgasmic.’

Patrick sneered; his hands were greasing up. He couldn’t summon the spit he needed to coat his words with venom. ‘Not funny,’ he wheezed, but Josef was corpsing, ratcheting the car into a space it seemed was designed for a motor half the size.

‘Let’s be having you, my lad,’ he soothed, releasing the child lock so that Patrick could get out.

The air. The air was brittle and rarefied, as though cleansed in a filter made of pure ice. When his foot crunched satisfyingly into the gravel of the car park, he thought his metatarsals had powdered from fear-weakness.

‘I can’t do this,’ he whispered as Josef steered him into the revolving door.

‘But you will, all the same.’

They were met by a woman in a starchy, cream suit. She wore her hair in a Thatchered black hive; a silver brooch in the shape of a heart clung to her left nipple area.

‘Imogen,’ she said, a rising note on the last syllable so it seemed she were addressing Patrick thus. He was about to deny the name before realising what she meant, not that he could have summoned the clout required to send adequate breath past his vocal cords.

An odd gesture busied her hand: it dived down, index finger pointing to the floor, thumb stuck out at 45°. The rest of her digits tried to press themselves against her wrist. Patrick saw, very clearly, a tendon and a vein rise against the skin, like flaccid rubber hosing suddenly made stiff with water. Her other hand fussed at the back of his, making his knuckles hot. ‘If you’ll just wait here,’ she said, ‘I’ll get Dr Losh to come and see to you.’

There were no paintings or flowers; nothing resting on the desk marked Reception bar an open ledger, pages blank. There wasn’t even a receptionist. Or any of the bustle Patrick might have associated with a hospital.

‘Who said this was a hospital?’ countered Josef when Patrick explained his unease.

‘What is it then?’

Josef didn’t answer. Instead, he led the way forward, down a corridor that was at least as bland and thinly antiseptic as he would expect. At the far end, a trolley came into view, pushed by a tall black man who wore a mask and glasses which filled with white light when he turned his head to look towards them. Patrick saw something small and dark fall from under the crumpled blankets. They didn’t appear to be getting any closer to him, despite Josef’s devouring stride. The trolley, and its guardian, disappeared into the white perfection of the opposite wall; Patrick could hear a dodgy caster protesting in diminuendo.

‘Know the tools of your torture,’ said Josef, but his mouth was shut. Somehow, without his knowing, Patrick’s hand had been subsumed by his friend’s. At last, they reached the end of the corridor and Patrick could see the splash of red that had fallen from beneath the blanket. This, at the same time as a man dipped through a doorway, hand extended, beard shifting to display a greenish scythe of teeth. Patrick leaned over, not to accept his salutation, but to catch the gloops of flesh which were sagging from his cheeks before they hit the floor. He couldn’t stop the left side of his face from melting.

Patrick splayed both hands – a kind of Whoa, let’s just calm everything down and be rational gesture. ‘This is an unorthodox procedure,’ he meant to say, but his lips kept stumbling on the fourth word. His knuckles itched where she had been fussing at them.

‘I’m Reuben Losh,’ the beard said, slipping a business card into Patrick’s shirt pocket. ‘What’s that? Unearth a what? An ox?’ Josef and the doctor laughed; Patrick watched their faces mingle, mouths folding together like something monstrous and Picasso-like, tilting on different planes.

He found that he could move much more freely now that Josef had let go of his hand, but it was probably because he was lying on a trolley, fading fast, losing all sense of what was ceiling and what was floor.

Brilliant light. So bright it was almost liquid; so liquid he could see the splinters of colour refracting, some of which he could give no name to because of their immediacy and freshness.

‘Patrick…’ Losh swam into view, his head causing an eclipse of the operating spotlights. His beard was like the copper wire graveyard of an electrician’s dustbin. ‘I want you to meet Dr Olivia Brandywine. She’ll be monitoring you while I still your beating heart, ha ha.’

Patrick didn’t see Brandywine, only felt a hand cup his shoulder, and catch a peripheral glimpse of flesh that seemed bleached and smooth to the point of plasticity. ‘We’ll need to send you deeper, Patrick,’ she soothed, with a smoke-scarred voice that was not unpleasant. ‘I’ll be administering a general anaesthetic and then Dr Losh will puncture your femoral artery. We need to feed a catheter along the vessel to the sinoatrial node in your heart. Once we’ve found that, we’ll send some radio waves to cause an arrest. I want to record your body’s reaction –

Another sting in the dip of his arm. Shouldn’t I be given a medical first? He felt heat sweeping up towards his neck.

– and then we’ll have you up and out of here before you know it.’

*

00.01

black upon me like that zoo time when a murder of crows falls out of the trees a strange sudden autumn full of screaming and mummy scratched from lip to ear and my heart full in my throat dreadfully sorry dreadfully sorry madam shall i call an ambulance here sonny have an ice cream courtesy of the management

00.02

maggie’s lips cold and blueish when she kisses me christmas day messing with mistletoe what will you do if i pin some to my fly maggie hey maggie and laughing and the smell of her breath oaten and chocolatey and wild and a lipstick heart on my wrist we run through forest brambles and the welts are still healing on my legs when she tells me it’s all over

00.03

sigi (oh sigi i love you) tossing me off for the first time in the back of her beetle as night spreads itself across the industrial estate and i come into the wad of tissues she’s stashed up her cardigan sleeve and she’s amazed at my quantity and she kisses the tip even as it twitches and weeps like something rent open and left for dead

00.04

I’m feeling cold. And halted, funnily enough. A feeling of stasis – could be my pumpless blood, settling thanks to a gravity it’s never known before. I’m able to think though there’s a godawful storm at the edge of my awareness, like a piece of paper lit at the edges, eating its way towards the centre, but no pain, only a tickling sensation deep inside. No ships sailing towards me for that rubicon moment. No dark tunnels or horizons of white light. No out of body

00.05

experiences like the time i burned my hand on the electric ring on mum’s old stove watching the clean red spiral blacken must be cool now but such a depth of pain that i can’t even bring it to mind but mum being mum always mum pressing her mouth against the hurt and blowing gently as i cry my heart out

00.06

in the bowl of my home town the rarity of snow whitens the grimy avenues and dad readies to take my sister mo and i on a walk to the land of far beyond where’s that i ask him far beyond he replies pulling on my wellies and we go out i’m humming a song from the beatles film on tv let it be and the warmth in my fingers and toes retreats and we all make breath sculptures in the chill down by the canal where they’re landscaping and knocking down old pill boxes and strange roads filled with glass cobbles the fallen tree is ash coloured with mould and snow and dad’s daft sayings the camels are coming hurrah hurrah and even my sister’s tiny tears looks frozen to death in the dusted patch of rhododendrons i spy a red swatch of cloth brighter than blood we’ve arrived dad says

00.07

morgan and me eating blood oranges on the train to Manchester we’ve got seven quid between us all of it going on the new police album and at birchwood station she gets on board and sits opposite her eyes like smoke made solid smiling at us at the sticky glaze on mouths agog and before we reach piccadilly morgan’s getting all cheeky with her saying give us a sticky snog love and shoving his fist up his top thrashing it around to mime a heart out of control when she blows us a kiss

00.08

There’s a definite kind of brittle coldness suffusing my limbs now but it’s not unpleasant. Not like I can feel Death’s fingers giving me a massage. The voices are calming and sufficiently distant to negate my understanding their content. I have the image of Dr Brandywine in my head with her tapered fingernails deep inside me, coaxing my heart awake. Sigi. It’s a feeling Sigi gives me all the time. I have that achy feeling of missing her, even when she’s near. We’ve been together a long time now, yet still I get excited when I know I’ll be meeting her later in the day. I can’t remember how tender her mouth feels against my own

00.09

room is a cell as i grow and more stuff accrues softening the corners erasing the concrete structure of the four walls and helping me lose my sense of place and belonging which i think is precipitating this huge unfocused dream i have though less a dream and more a wall of irresolute significance which includes what might be a stairwell for want of something banal to defuse its threat something approaches from the dark gulf larger than my mind’s confines will allow more momentous than the most extravagant unfurlings of imagination like viewing a fragment of film at a magnification of x10000 all detail lost but the power of violence and substance and movement inflating in my head it comes back regularly it comes even now

00.10

is it death?

00.11

sigi rubbing the oiled wishbone curve of her cleavage into my face steering her nipples into and out of my mouth cupping her breasts together with her remarkable hands pressing their delicate independent weight upon me till it’s hard to breathe and the thud in my head does it belong to me or to her

00.12

o me o my o god

Coming out of it hurt even more. Through the pain, he thought of birth and was almost able to conjure the moment his lungs were shocked into use for the first time. How many of us are born again? he thought, as the trauma of re-animation retreated, having left its fire smouldering in every shred and dribble of his body. His eyes felt poached and tender; the light seemed too much like living matter, crowding his immediate space with swimming motes – he didn’t know whether the headache was a side effect or a result of the insufferable thereness of day.

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Only when the colour began to leech back into his vision did he realise he had been without it. Shapes acquired depth and mass. The chair. The table. Josef. He was looking down on Patrick with an expression of dismayed fascination.

‘What is it?’ Patrick asked, through a mouth that felt numb and tight. ‘Have I been amputated by mistake?’

‘No, you look fine. Just a little pale, that’s all.’ Josef recovered his joviality, plonking himself at the foot of the bed. He fished a cheque out of his waistcoat pocket. ‘This’ll keep you in bratwurst for a week or three,’ he said, planting the piece of paper on Patrick’s bare chest. ‘The doctors wanted me to tell you all went swimmingly. They say you can come back in six months for another stint. If you’re up to it.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Ah, come on. You’re strong as a piece of my great aunt’s knicker elastic.’

Patrick kicked Josef off the bed. ‘You do it, if you’re so keen. Please leave me alone now.’

Josef made a performance of pulling on his driving gloves. ‘Can’t offer you a lift back into town I’m afraid. Meeting a client in Dortmund this afternoon.’

‘I can go home?’

‘Of course. God, anybody would think you’d undergone major heart surgery.’

After Josef had gone, Patrick lay still for a while, listening for the knock in his chest. It was there, but it sounded hollow and sluggish. He dressed slowly and wandered the corridors till he found the reception where they’d entered, God, just two hours ago. There was nobody to see him off.

Outside, the light was waxy and uncertain, smeared about wads of cumulus like some brilliant resin. He handed over most of his change on the bus back into town, and spent the journey trying not to examine the stagnation within him. It was as if his soul had been taken out and washed of all its interesting impurities and flecks of self. He didn’t feel alive, he just felt as though he was living.

He got off in Herzogstrasse and watched the sky spin around the twin towers of the cathedral while he grew accustomed to the flail of traffic and pedestrians. Walking back to the Kunstgewerbemuseum, he checked the faces of those streaming around him. All were pinkish and vital; varnished eyes and teeth like tablets of ice. He felt stunted and tired in comparison; catching his reflection in a darkened window he was appalled to see how jaundiced he looked. The dough of his face appeared to lack elasticity. Turned off and switched on he’d been – like a car or a transistor radio. Drinking coffee in a backstreet bar, Patrick’s hunch that he’d been soiled, or abused, took on an ever increasing concretion. Should he have been counselled before leaving? He fed coins into the telephone on the counter and dialled the number of the institute on the back of Dr Losh’s card. Nobody answered.

*

In the museum he watched Sigi arranging a pastel display through the gallery’s glass doors. The sunlight had sliced her in half. Even from here, fifty feet away, he could see it playing on the wet curve of her mouth, the loose filaments of hair. In he went. Her smell was upon him; the same sweet odour that rose from the bed when he turned back the blanket in the morning.

‘Sigi?’

She twitched her head his way but said nothing, continuing with her task, perhaps a little more starchily now.

‘Sigi, I’ve made a little money today. A lot, really. I want you to have some.’ He reached for her but she ducked away before striding backwards, hands planted in her back pockets.

‘Is that picture straight?’ she asked, so softly it might have been to herself. She hadn’t looked at him yet.

‘Sigi.’

Now she fastened him with the angry green of her eyes. If she saw anything lacking in his countenance she didn’t let on. ‘We’re through, Patrick. Can’t you see that, honey?’

‘But I’ve made some money.’

‘Congratulations. Go and spend it. And then wonder where the next lot is going to come from.’

‘If it hadn’t been for you, I’d still be earning at the accountancy firm,’ he regretted the jibe, and the way he’d said it as soon as his mouth was shut.

‘Get a life, you sad bastard.’

‘But I love you,’ he finished lamely.

‘I’m tired,’ she said. She seemed almost not to notice him, to be looking through him, as though he were made of glass or water. ‘I don’t want you to be there when I get back tonight. I’m sorry.’ She tried a smile; her lips merely thinned. ‘I’m sorry.’

*

Patrick scuffed about the flat for a while, desultorily bagging his things (a piffling amount) and delving into his past for happy moments to feed the sense of loss that must come to him soon. He considered a number of follies: he’d open a vein in her bath tub, burn the cheque in front of her, leave the cheque on her pillow. In the end, he did nothing, simply sat in her rocking chair by the window and watched the boats fart and froth in the Rhein till darkness crept upon the city, flooding it with streetlamps. His body still felt strangely bland and ropy; the squish of meat in his chest was making him ill. He lit a candle and tossed his keys on to her desk. As he went to the door, a book caught his eye. It was lying flat on her shelf whereas the others were erect, a volume he’d given to Sigi early on when gifts and cards were exchanged as gladly as kisses and hugs. A novel she enjoyed, as he recalled. Picking it up, he leafed through, bending to smell the paper’s age. His riffling was halted by the card, a simple white affair with a pale heart sketched into a corner. Inside, his hesitant hand, in dark ink:

Always.

 

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