Conjunctivitis. Jesus. It sounded like some hellish offshoot of grammar. Welch had heard of it before, but hadn’t paid it much heed. He supposed that must be true of anybody who had never suffered from it. And suffer was the word. It felt as though some masochistic ghost was raking ragged nails across his sclera in the way an eczematic will worry irritated skin. Opening his eyes hurt, closing his eyes hurt. Light of any strength made his eyeballs feel as though they were being impaled slowly upon lances.
Welch blinked imploringly at the doctor as she shone her ophthalmoscope deep into his pupils. Tears from each eye had travelled the tense oval of his face and had almost met each other chinside. The doctor retreated to her desk and pulled a phial from a tray. She cracked off the top and shook a few drips into Welch’s eyes. The world turned acid orange.
‘Don’t worry about the old orangeade,’ the doctor said. ‘It’s a fluorescein dye. When that’s illuminated with a cobalt filter, any epithelial trauma will be revealed as, yes, here we are, bright green.’ She collapsed back into her chair and folded her hands behind her head. ‘Conjunctivitis it is, of course. No problemo, señor. A dab of chloramphenicol in each eye once a day for a week and you’ll be back to your winking best. Just keep in mind that what you’ve got is contagious, so no hot eyeball-on-eyeball action for you for a while.’
Welch nodded and thanked the doctor as the prescription was passed to him. ‘Any side effects?’ he asked.
‘No,’ the doctor said.
‘But I read somewhere that all drugs have a side effect.’
The doctor’s good humour seemed to have evaporated. ‘Aplastic anaemia, if you must. Bone marrow won’t function properly, won’t replenish red blood cells. But we’re looking at a one in forty thousand chance. Highly improbable. All right? If you have any concerns, don’t take the antibiotic.’
Welch wiped his eyes on a tissue as he left, alarmed to see the lurid orange – like some evil concoction of E-numbers disguised as a child’s drink – streaked across it. Its stain was in everything he peered at for hours after. He had never suffered with his eyes before yet had been surrounded by spectacles, contact lenses and cleaning lotion belonging to other people. His best friend throughout school had a squint that turned his left eye inwards; his mother had carried around (and continually lost) various pair of glasses -– readers and lookers, she called them -– all her life. There were colleagues at work who endured the insane daily routine of pressing cell-thick discs of plastic against their irises. Now that he thought of it, eyes were impinging more and more upon his conscious life. His father, a diabetic, was being treated for the double whammy of glaucoma and cataracts. One of his bosses had been involved in a motorbike accident that left him partially sighted.
How it often is: the things we need most in life get taken from us. The composer becomes deaf; the chef’s hands are mangled in a car crash.
Welch worked in magazines. He had always been comfortable with words, a spelling phenomenon in his school which had disgusted his dad, who wanted him to follow him into the welding trade. As soon as he was able, Welch had escaped the industrial town where he had grown up, and fled south to London, where he found plenty of words and people who were happy to pay him to fix them where they went wrong. He had worked his way up from a lowly temp to the position of chief sub-editor on one of the big monthly men’s glossies, a title pulling in a circulation of nearly 700,000 each month. He supposed it could be worse. He might have been a watchmaker, or a pilot, or a brain surgeon.
Now, having picked up the tube of ointment from the chemist, he discovered that after its application a film formed across his eye, rendering everything even more uncertain. It was like peering through fog, and it caused the edges of his eyelids to stick momentarily together whenever he blinked. The pain seemed to recede, however, and he was at least grateful for that. When he got to the office nobody paid any attention to his damp, baleful gaze; there was a big feature on ‘glunge’ fashion in the new issue and a beautiful Russian model was being interviewed, along with a prominent London designer, in the editor’s office. All the rubbernecking was in that direction today. He checked in too, but it was as if the glass walls of the boss’s den had been turned opaque by the heat coming off the girl from Donetsk. The Joker mouth and her freakish height distinguished her from the others in the room.
Sam swung by mid-morning and asked if he’d like some coffee. Sam was a sub, like him, and they had gravitated towards each other because of their age: she was a year younger. Everyone else in the department was at least ten years older. She was pretty; he liked her boyish hair and the square jaw and the thick, broad mouth, and he was drawn to her, but whenever their proximity threatened to push them towards a different sort of intimacy, he felt sickened. There was openness to her. Her body language was all go ahead, ask me. But then there was the drip-feed of terror, a rising in his throat. She was so slight, so slender, he worried he might bruise her, or break her, if he were to as much as hold her hand. Luckily, it had not become an issue. There were plenty of parties and events that the magazines hosted or received invitations to. There was never a need to spotlight his attraction to her by asking her out on a date; they were often out after work together anyway, albeit in a group.
Welch struggled with text – enhanced via the computer’s universal access options – until lunchtime, a notepad filled with crossed-out headline ideas for a shaving feature (Stubble Brewing? Shaven, Not Stirred? Cut to the Quick?) and then took his headache down to the park where he ate his sandwiches and owled at the passers-by behind a pair of sunglasses.
He tried to think how this might have come to him. He was fastidious where hygiene was concerned; he carried with him a packet of wipes at all times in case he could not wash his hands before meals. He didn’t rub his eyes, even when tired, preferring instead to use eye drops if he required a little freshen-up in front of a screen during a busy shift. He couldn’t remember poking himself in the eye with a stray pen or comb; nor could he recall a speck of grit trapped behind an eyelid. Perhaps it was the drops, out of date or fouled in some way. It might just be tiredness. He had one of those jobs that meant he was stuck in front of a monitor for eight, and sometimes ten, and on the eve of a deadline, twelve hours at a time. He often ate his lunch with his left hand while his right swept a mouse around his desk. He would come home and stare at the TV to relax, or spend another couple of hours on the laptop, replying to emails or sorting out domestic admin. He sat on the bench and thought about this. He was putting on weight and developing aches across his shoulders and around his wrists. Bad habits. Bad health. He was only 25 but he felt tired all the time. A phrase from his childhood came back to him, something his mother had said in that weary way of hers. Something about there being an outer person – the projection – but also an inner person too, and this was the real you, the you that mattered. If it’s bad, keep it hidden, his mum used to say. And if it’s good, let the outside know, ruddy quick.
He screwed his sandwich wrapper into a ball and tossed it at the bin. As he did so he caught sight of a figure… no two figures. No, actually, it was one figure, standing near the fence down by the pond. The misty effect of the ointment had fooled him into thinking there was a companion. From his physical aspect, Welch was certain that it was looking his way. He wished he’d brought a newspaper or a novel with him, but he knew he would not be able to focus on the words. The pain was reaching out, a greedy despot establishing an empire.
He pushed away from his bench and headed back to work, bothered by what he’d seen in the wake of what he’d been thinking of. He checked behind him at the outer perimeter, but there were no longer any figures by the pond. The water waxed, like oil, sunlight glancing off its surface causing pulses of pain deep inside his head. He felt queasy. It was like vertigo, a sense of the world not linking with him in any normal way. Everything was burnished, even matte surfaces made of brick or bark snagged on him, visual thorns. Nowhere was safe for his eyes to rest, least of all the faces of the people who bypassed him on the short walk back to the office. They all seemed to leak parts of themselves into their wake. One might turn and smear a layer of itself; another yawn and the black, liquid reaches in its head would tremble. He thought he was imagining it, remembering it in the moment it was over, but he felt sure, were he to reach out a hand, that these discarded membranes, sloughed skins, would wrap around his fingers. It was as if what his mother had warned him of all those years ago was unravelling in the people that jostled him on these streets.
He was hurrying by the time the magazine headquarters came into view. He rushed through the revolving doors, and it was all he could do to stop his hands from wiping at his jacket, or fretting through his hair in a bid to be rid of the shreds that he’d seen flying from the bodies he walked past.
Just the ointment, just the eye itself ejecting the junk of infection.
‘Are you all right?’ Sam asked, appearing, it seemed, out of the wall, causing him to flinch. Her bright, hazel eyes, usually so friendly, now seemed other-worldly. He didn’t like how their colour seemed to fill the sockets. She seemed alien, animal. There was something predatory in her, enhanced now as she smiled at him, and her red lips parted to reveal a massing of white teeth.
‘I’m fine.’ He thought he might choke on his fear. He forced himself to calm down. This was Sam. This was his friend, and more, if only he would allow it. Nobody else saw the menace in her; everyone was going about their business as if it were just another dull day in the working week, which, of course, it was. It was all the doing of his sick eyes.
Sam’s hand rested lightly on his forearm and he felt his muscle leap to stone; she withdrew. Concern shaded her features.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m just up against it today. Bad headache. Bad deadline. You know.’
She nodded. ‘Come and have a drink with me, later,’ she said. ‘Just you and me.’
He felt his gut clench and he wished she’d say more – and we’ll just hang out and talk about work and I’ll tell you all about my new man – but she left it there, and it was an invitation to intimacy, and he could not stand it. He couldn’t say no, though. He knew the pain of the piercing of rejection and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. He couldn’t cope with the logic that spoke of other people dealing better with such things.
He got back to his desk and scooted his chair up to it, head down so he would not be engaged in any further discussions with his colleagues. He worked until three, until the world had reduced to a heavy ball of shining plasma spinning in the centre of his brain. He told his boss he was leaving early and she didn’t say a word in protest. He couldn’t see her clearly enough to gauge her reaction, but hoped that the wide, plum gash across her face was a lipstick smile of sympathy. Maybe she could see the agony he was in; he was streaming tears and any sight he caught of himself, in a window, in a shop’s security mirror, was of something diminished, melting, coming apart.
Welch forced himself to go out in the evening, grateful for the dark and the cold, which helped, a little. He arrived at the pub early, planning on having a little Dutch courage before Sam turned up. At the bar he was pierced with a needle of guilt, as he ordered his pint of Guinness, when he thought he heard his boss’s shrill laughter somewhere behind him. He shrugged away the childish feeling of being found out. He had no explanations he needed to make. He wasn’t infirm; he just had a headache. He was allowed a drink, wasn’t he? Anyway, he could use Sam’s presence as cover: they were having a meeting about work, to make up for his absence that afternoon. That might even impress the old bitch.
Nevertheless, he sidled towards the other end of the bar and slipped outside into the beer garden. He pushed through a knot of smokers to the rows of old, permadamp benches failing into darkness at the foot of the garden. He took his pint that far, and perched on a cold bench. He sipped the beer, realising as he did so that he didn’t actually want it. It was routine. It was the habit most of his colleagues fell into. I should have just gone to bed.
The pub was strung with fairy lights. Welch couldn’t tell if the mist that haloed them was down to his faulty vision or the moisture in the air. He wanted to rub his eyes so badly, but he knew that would drive barbs right through the meat of him. He heard movement behind him and turned to see the sway of willow branches. Their leaves glimmered with the beginnings of frost. He wondered if there was another table down there, deeper in to the shadows than he had realised, but he could just make out the shape and shade of the garden wall that marked the end of the pub’s environs. There was a grunt. A sigh. Now he thought he should return inside. An amorous couple, it must be, desperate for a secret location in which to consummate an urge that could not wait till closing time. When he reached the rear doors, he found them to have shut. Someone must have knocked the five kilogram weight that was being used as a stop. He bit his lip at that: five kilos couldn’t just be nudged out of the way by a trailing foot. A kid, messing around. A T-shirt affected by the cold.
He gazed back down the deserted garden. It was all oil. The lights were incapable of penetrating beyond the wall, managing only to turn the grass a lighter shade of grey. And now he saw clearly, the pain and the veil lifting for a few seconds: a figure moving out of those shrubs, blocky, broad: male, surely, his back – wreathed with cracked back leather – to Welch. He stopped when he was clear of the bushes and seemed to suddenly become aware of his surroundings. He snapped his gaze this way and that, and then took off over the wall and into the alleyways beyond.
Unbidden, a memory of a different pub, a different time. When you could be left in the car outside while Dad had a pint and picked the horses with his mate: 3 x 50p Doubles, 1 x 50p Treble, tax paid. A pint of bitter. A pint of mild. Welch in the car with his packet of cheese and onion, his bottle of Portello and a paper straw slowly turning to pulp. Dad coming out in the street, a boozy half-smile on. A good mood. Maybe a winner romped home by three lengths. A jerk of the head, a jerk of the thumb: come on. Welch gritted his teeth and it was as if every other part of him joined in, a gesture of solidarity.
Inside the pub for the first time ever. Had he expected this? He’d thought of a place like a shop, where people bought drinks in a queue and stood drinking them. You finished and went to the back of the queue for another. Like a go on the slide in the playground. But here men slouched against a long counter, seldom looking up unless it was to tip what was left in their glasses into their throats. Cheap wallpaper and a lino floor. Smoke thick enough that you might be able to grab handfuls of it. Thick enough to get into his sensitive eyes and have them streaming within seconds. This was before such allergies were recognised. If your eyes watered, you were crying. If you were a boy, this was not on.
‘Toughen up, Charlie,’ his dad said, clearly mortified by his own flesh and blood. ‘Fuck’s sake.’
‘This your daughter then, is it, Baz?’ someone cawed from the far end of the bar. Laughter, thick as the smoke. It twisted away: grey snakes from a dozen yellow mouths.
‘Fuck off, Jack. It’s me lad. Fair dos, like, he’s a bit soft, but it weren’t us fault. The missus pushed us off when I were spunking best part of the bastard.’
More laughter. Welch didn’t know where to look, what to do, whether he should be laughing as well.
‘Charlie, tek yer drink and go and sit in the beer garden. I’ll be out in a tick.’
Welch went off with his twisted foil bag of crisp crumbs, and the rest of his tepid pop. He meant to ask his dad what a beer garden was, but he knew he would think it weak of him to turn back now and profess his ignorance. He blundered through a brown door into a corridor that reeked of ancient piss. To his left was another brown door, to his right, a staircase leading up to a dark landing. He knew that gardens were outside. He wasn’t stupid. So he ignored the stairs and pushed through the door. Two more doors here, either side of a heavily barred fire escape. One of the doors was unmarked, but he could see screw holes where a sign had once been. The other door had a sign that said: HENS.
They had chickens here, then, in their beer garden? He pushed the door open and was met with another door. A light panic opened up inside him. He’d forgotten how many doors he’d come through. There were so many. He didn’t think he’d find his way back to his dad. What if there was a fire? He barged through the next door and it swung hard and fast behind him, clipping his knuckles and scraping them back to blood. He was in a toilet. Rows of cubicles, all closed. Two sinks with chipped mirrors above them. With dawning horror, he realised this was the ladies. Prison, for him, if he was found in here.
He was turning to go, feverish, not worrying now that he was lost, just needing to be away from this room, when the door of one of the cubicles swung open and he saw a man inside.
‘Aw, fuck,’ the man said. His widge was in his hand. It was big and hard and red.
Charlie was pushing at the door but it was too heavy. It wouldn’t open. Now the man was tucking himself in and zipping himself up. Sweat was like a layer of crumpled cellophane on his forehead.
‘Hey you, c’mere, you filfy cunt. Peepin’ Tommin’ me. Y’naughty lickul cunt.’
He smelled like the jug of batter Mum made up before she turned it into Yorkshires. He’d tried to stuff his widge away but the head of it was trapped in the waistband of his underpants. He wasn’t trying to pull up his trousers. He was shuffling towards Charlie, his fist dripping with spit. His eyes were red-rimmed and heavily-socketed, the eyebrows above them like black nonsense made by a child with a crayon.
‘C’mere, an’ I’ll show yer a trick. Come an try my special eyewash, y’filfy lickul cunt.’
Charlie felt his hair disappear into the man’s other fist, it tightening, dragging him on to his toes. He was marched into the cubicle and the door was closed. He cried out at the sound of the bolt and the man slapped him across the back of the head.
‘Not another fuckin’ peek. Now turn around and watch.’
Afterward, the man zipped himself up and left. Charlie heard the fire escape door crash open and then footsteps in the gravel and a shadow flash by the frosted toilet window. Charlie staggered to the basin and turned on the tap. He was blinded by something. Was it glue? It had happened so quickly. He’d watched the man moving his hand so swiftly on his widge it was as if he were trying to pull it off, or make it vanish. His face had become somehow centred, pulling in from the margins: his eyes narrowing, his mouth a flat, gritted bar. And then a gasp, a cry that the man tried to quell by stuffing his dirty, nicotine-stained fingers into his mouth, and this warm, wet spattering, as if he’d squeezed the shampoo bottle too hard. His eyes stung; he splashed water on his face until the unpleasant, slimy sensation was gone from him, and the smell was chased away by soap.
He negotiated the torrent of doors and found the beer garden – little more than a few chairs on a fire escape landing – upstairs. His dad was asleep. Charlie sat next to him and pressed his hand into the seldom-known depth of his father’s. It was sunny in the beer garden, and very warm. A different world. Within minutes he was asleep himself, and when his dad shook him awake much later, the pair of them uncomfortable and hot and striped with mild sunburn, his first thought was not of the man in the toilet, whom he would never see again, but of concern for his dad, who was swearing about being late home for tea.
Sam came up to him and kissed his cheek as if they were long-time lovers. He felt himself cower beneath that peck, and hated himself for it, at the same time made dizzy by her fresh smell, and the momentary press of her breast against his arm.
She made figure-of-eight shapes on the table with the base of her glass of cider. She was trying to give up smoking and was always edgy and distracted during the first twenty minutes of entering a pub and having a drink. Cider without that first cigarette was a tough ask, but she was butching it out. She was telling him about a photograph she’d had to caption that afternoon. A picture of a woman pretend kissing a pair of Y-fronts. The article was all about a woman from Melton Mowbray who was addicted to sex, or rather, the male generative organ. She had albums of pictures, and plaster casts all around the house. They’d been tossing around ideas for an hour, until most of them were creased up with laughter. It was this part of the job she loved most.
‘I was going to go with cock-a-hoop, but Will said penile dementia, which just slew me. Jenny came up with the best one, but it was too obscure, according to she-who-must-be-obeyed. Pork sigh. You know, pork pie? Melton Mowbray? What do you think?’
‘Very good,’ Welch said, but his voice was strained. He didn’t like this prurient side to the job, which was unavoidable, especially when working on what was basically a lad’s mag with aspirations. You could call be titled Gent, but it was still all about tits and bums and football.
‘What would you have come up with?’ she asked. ‘You left too soon. You missed all the fun.’
She was teasing him, and he knew that, but it didn’t prevent his cheeks from burning. ‘Nothing anywhere near as good.’
‘Go on,’ she said. ‘You’re up against a deadline. We go to press in one minute. What’s your best shot.’
‘I haven’t got one.’ He thought of the toilet door swinging open, and the man standing there, his finger and thumb encircling the meaty head of his penis. Everything is OK. OK. OK.
‘Time’s running out. Think dick.’
‘Sam, please – ‘ You filfy lickul cunt.
‘Ten seconds remaining.’
‘I can’t!’ Welch stood up and the chair he’d been sitting on toppled to the floor.
The pub chatter ceased. Into that pocket of silence, before it began again, he apologised, and stalked out, head down, grateful for the sunglasses. He was shaken by the way events kept chasing the tail of his thoughts and memories. It was as if he were somehow initiating them, summoning them, even.
He bashed his shoulder hard against the doorframe as he went out into the night. He could hear Sam coming after him, calling his name, but he no longer wanted company. He just wanted to get home and go to sleep and rid himself of this furious pain. He ignored her pleas to slow down, and her exasperated apologies. He was sure Sam didn’t know where he lived; he couldn’t deal with the knock at the door this evening. He was drunk, though not enough to wipe clean the dirt that had been revealed on the windows of his mind. He broke into a trot, and put distance, and streets, between them. He turned this way and that until he was lost in a little warren of back alleys and dead ends abutting a warehouse. A lover’s lane, though the broken glass and litter suggested it would be a better place to die.
He sat down on a discarded milk crate and blinked at the glistening asphalt, shaking at the memory that had opened up within him. You started feeling below par, you started feeling sorry for yourself, you became a conduit for all kinds of bad feeling. His mother had warned him. This is how cancer begins. This is where the necrosis in the heart originates. Sad faces equals early graves. Don’t allow that inner being to flex its muscles. Don’t let it grow, because it will fill you up, and it will need more space. It will want to get out.
He thought of how he had grown. He had been stunted, he believed, by a disinterested father, who spent his weekends away from the arc-welder immersed in The Racing Post and the Daily Mirror, and a mother who was so panicked about keeping him safe that he could not move for all the symbolic cotton wool with which she swaddled him. He was never allowed to play out; if he wanted to see his friends, they had to visit. Social interaction at a minimum, there was only ever going to be one way to develop. It was only when he made that decision to escape that he was able to put himself in a position to challenge the crushing shyness that had held him back for so long. But even so, he saw how others lived their lives and he found himself regretting choices he had made, or not made, people he had failed to make connections with who could have been friends or lovers; chances to travel that were spurned. Opportunities were missed, or never recognised as such. Now he was heading towards his 30s and there was little in his life that he could put a tick next to. He was drifting; freefalling.
Welch stared down this cobbled back alley, with its shining puddles of oil-infected rainwater, its beer cans and bulging bin sacks. It was all softened, made palatable, by the blur of his eyes. You could be witness to anything, blunted like this. Everything was sinister. There were no friendly shapes. The pain had become so known to him now, it was like the hum of a refrigerator, always there, but something he could filter out. He thought he could hear footsteps, still, but it might have been anything. It might have been the rain falling on the corrugated iron roof of the warehouse nearby, or the beat of his own pain, treading a furrow into the meat behind his eyes.
It was increasing, though, this pain, swelling beyond what he was used to. He drew himself upright and staggered, mewling, into the main street where the lights splintered in his eyes and they could not have been more agonising had they been real needles. All he could see when he closed them was a flicker show of horror: his father walking past him with an expression on his face that might have been do I know you?; the clenched man in the cubicle; Sam easing down his jeans to find only a sexless curve of skin.
The supermarket windows provided a wall of glass in which he could watch his own blurred, misshapen form stumble and trip. He came to a stop in front of it and held out his hands as if for help from his reflection. He called for his mother, though she was dead fifteen years. But here she came, a frantic, fraught shade in the blazing backstreets of his mind, trying to stitch shut the apertures of his body so that nobody bad could escape. There was panic creased into her features. He couldn’t speak. His mouth was a criss-cross of thin leather. He was deaf. He couldn’t smell the exhaust fumes in the road, or the rotting waste in the skip outside the supermarket. She was trying to say something, shouting at him, but he could not hear. Carmine lipstick bled into the creases around her fear-frozen mouth. Charlie! It’s bad! Keep it hidden! Close your eyes! Close your eyes!
He turned and through the gummy caul of his sight, everything was still hazy, yet he saw more than enough detail to last him what little lifetime he had left, as his agonies reached a point he could never return from, and the filth-rimmed fingertips within began to pick a way through.