Excerpt for The Burden by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Burden


The Burden


J.W. Carey


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2017 J.W. Carey


Cover by J.W. Carey


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



The Burden


J.W. Carey

Content:

The Burden

- I

- II

- III

- IV

- V

- VI

- VII

Contact

The Burden



I


The Slave is free; she had told him that – the siren with broken snow for skin. He is free to live and love, free to read what books he could and drink what wine he could and smile what smiles he could. His liberty is sacrosanct, the word of God and Man, and was his alone. His freedom was given, freely given, and could never be taken away.

He watches a young Arab with a red wristband taking pictures of a slim white girl, with her hair hidden beneath a woollen cap and her throat obscured by a rainbow scarf. Her face seems to glow, white skin around a red nose growing bulbous in the cold. The Arab watches her closely; tracks her with the lens of his camera and his finger moves like a piston, catching image after image as the moments fade away and into one another. She poses with two fingers extended and one leg cocked – her balance is perfect; she doesn’t slip or stumble on the frost-burned ground, but immediately comes to resemble one of the statues that surround them both.

The statues are made of black iron, or steel, and their reflections seem to flicker in the frost, like half-forgotten things, like memories on the cusp of being lost. They seem to dance for the couple when their backs are turned; rejoicing in love, in sunlight and the biting cold that brings life to their man-made veins. They wait for the lens to move and they dance with the grinding snap of gears.

The slave watches them, sees them rejoice in the ice and the cobblestones; sees them live beneath the sight of the museum and the library and, behind that, the art gallery which skulks low to the earth, with indented pillars of cream-stone racing into the sky. He is half-perched against the wall, with one leg raised and angled so that the base of his foot runs against the wall’s surface. His other foot is against the ground and the familiar pain bites into the space just above his ankle. His eyes water in the cold wind, but he continues to watch the couple; he sees the young woman turn to face the museum and bend forward slightly, turning her head over her shoulder to stare directly into the lens – there, a flash of light, a flash which splits and blends into the edges of the morning. The slave turns his head when you lens points in his direction; obscuring his features in the formlessness of his body.

Aside from the laughter and quiet conversation leaping across the ice, there is a low rumbling which moves slower, harsher and designs to shake ice until it shatters. The coach puffs in the air like a smoker; a long, squat creature that whimpered with gasoline and who’s very being said no, no, I refuse. The slave understands, sees the gas emerging from his own lips as that which wheezes out of the vehicle’s exhaust. The driver is asleep; slouched in the maw of his great beast.

Behind the creature, the bone fingertips of the trees extend into the white sky; they look strong, proud of their frailty in the winter air as though they wore it like a medal – they would not be cowed, he thinks, they would not be murdered by the spinning of a rock around a sun. He shakes his head and focuses on the hailstones which still resemble white tumours rising above the ice. They aren’t even melting, but are caught somewhere between life and death, between protrusion and dispersion.

The Slave lets his eyes hop from one cyst to the next. They do well, making it halfway across the courtyard before they are interrupted. A long pair of legs, encased in black leggings above faux-fur trimmed boots cross his vision and he feels the old allure, the desire that made him rattle and roll through the warm nights and the winter.

He casts his eyes down again as the legs move past him. He can still see her; she is young and pretty, with a high brow leading down into a pixie-like chin; a pointed thing beneath lips gone red with the cold. Her mouth opens and closes, as though around the words of the heart-rending poem of youth and beauty, and he feels his heart shudder at the thought of her conversation. He thinks about drinking her in like a drowning man, but she is gone. His lungs draw in the frozen air and almost make him gasp – stirred by the sensation, he feels the bite of anger in his jaw – he remembers how it felt to hate his body, to feel that blood-soaked divide.

No,’ he thinks and closes his eyes, ‘my body and I are one and the same. There is no divide. I am free.’

Winter laughs by stinging the exposed flesh of his neck. He shivers and shrugs his coat a little tighter about him and dreams about the statues again. He doesn’t know their names, but their accomplishments are easy to guess; the founder of the city’s university, the first patron of the hospital, a former Prime Minister who called this city home – a clustered memorial to a lieutenant colonel and his long-disbanded regiment.

Beneath a scholar with a black-iron beard, the Arab is showing the girl his photographs. She brings her hands to her mouth in exaggerated embarrassment, and makes a playful grab for the camera. He moves it out of her reach and slips on the ice – his hand crashes into cobblestones and, even from that distance, the Slave can see the lens snap away. The two of them stare at it before she helps him to stand and they both walk away, slowly, carefully; their feet slipping on the ice.

The smell of frying bacon and sausage hits the air, warms him and he looks over his shoulder at the café. The open front looks sad, small and welcoming. Blue plastic seats spread beneath wide parasols embedded in waist-high wooden tables. The frost lays against them, running in still rivers against the chequered material and glinting in the sun. Beneath them, the air shimmers with heat, and his body urges him to enter. He refuses; he cannot give in, not yet; he can’t surrender to his desires.

A police car pulls onto the cobblestones from the adjacent main street and creeps slowly over the ice; a wild animal lazily hunting for prey. The driver is bald, with a fat throat beneath a coarse face, interrupted by angular wrinkles like carved stone. His skin is marked with imperfections, but straight imperfections. He scowls out of the window at the cold. When he moves his head, the slave can see his companion in the passenger seat; she’s a tough-looking woman with black hair cut into a severe bob. The car pulls off into the park, the small garden where the dead trees and some of the statues mock the passers-by with their dancing.

The slave doesn’t like the statues; they were austere and firm and determined. They were men of industry – they had never slipped on the ice; they had never vomited into the cowering dark of night-drunkenness; they had never urinated on a wall when drunk, and seen the steam arising from the brick and smelt the sickly sweetness of sugar and wine in their piss. Black-iron had no doubts, no weakness; when flesh and bone they had never had doubts or weaknesses – they were born silent and brooding and as hard as the iron they were honoured with. He shivers in the cold and knows the meaning of weakness.

A long black Mercedes pulls onto the cobblestones from the road. It doesn’t seem to roll like the police car did, but it flickered in staccato images – one moment it was here, then it was here and now it was there, and now it was swinging neatly into a parking space with white lines worn away by the years. The slave pushes himself from the wall by his foot and takes a few hesitant steps in the car’s direction. The car growls softly until it falls asleep, and a slim woman emerges from the interior. She pulls a handbag from the seat and neatly shrugs it across her shoulder; black leather, an over-sized silver buckle, an engraving of a Taurus symbol on the lower left-hand corner. The slave knows; he has seen it before. He had nightmares about that Taurus.

She smiles and gives him a wave; only a short one, refined and calculated and perfect. He raises his arm in response, and almost stumbles as his left foot slips on the step. Pretending not to notice, she closes her car door, locks it and buttons her black coat until the fur-lining nestles cleanly around her neck. Her hair is red; brilliantly so, and her skin is smooth with youth and so pale that it seems to glow in the morning sun. She is perfect, suited to the season; to the ice and the hail and the death of trees, and her greeting seems to trail into the sky like the last smoke of a fire, with the memory of warmth that hides the coldness in her eyes.

Melinoë’s heeled boots click against the ice but, to the slave, it is as though she moves a fraction of an inch above the ground. She greets him warmly and he smiles and the two of them move under the tentative shelter of the parasols.

How’ve you been?’ She asks; her voice is like a teacher’s, warm and stern, welcoming and distant, authoritative and friendly all at once.

Well,’ the slave replied, a little too quickly – like he’s been waiting for the question and rehearsed his answer in the mirror, ‘how are you?’ He falls a little behind her, to let her enter the warmth of the café first. The cold finally hits him as he considers the heat, and he takes in a deep breath to stop his nose from running.

Oh,’ Melinoë smiles, ignoring his question, ‘I think we both know that that isn’t true. I can see it all over your face.’

The man behind the counter is young, younger than them both – a student, the slave thinks, working these early mornings to pay for his late nights. He is handsome, or would have been, had he not favoured the current trend of students which involved shaving the sides of their heads until they were little more than stubble and leaving their scalps long and gelled back with cream. He has a line shaven through one of his eyebrows, vertically, and his skin is tanned – he is a sportsman, no doubt about it, an up and coming athlete and he moved with the confidence of health.

Melinoë buys herself a coffee – a latté in a tall glass, whilst the slave opts for tea in a slim, porcelain cup. He would have preferred a mug, or a pot, and he silently swears at his failure to order some food. If she wouldn’t eat, then he would hold out as long as he could – he would not be the weaker of the two, he would not eat when she did not eat; he would not be human, if she would not be human.

They take a seat by the window, and Melinoë sits with her back to it. She pulls a notebook from her handbag, and a pen, and stares at the slave with an open, friendly expression. Behind her, the window drips with condensation, like civilisation perspiring against the threats of nature it didn’t seem to expect.

So,’ she asks, flicking to an empty page and smiling brightly; her pen poised between two perfectly manicured fingers, with red nails boasting miniatures silver stars ‘tell me about Amuigh’.


* * *


Robert Amuigh was free, to begin with. There was no question about that.

The cigarette smouldering in the ashtray told him he was free. The sunlight, cutting through the slats in neat, horizontal mockery of the shadowy room told him he was free. One of them fell upon the glass and made the whole thing shine like a diamond and made the curling smoke blatant in the air, and told him that he was free. The way the flags fell and snapped in the breeze outside his window told him he was free. He could feel it in the air as it seeped through the glass and the broken frame; could feel his freedom in every fibre of the old building as it groaned.

Amuigh wasn’t happy, but he was free. He wasn’t comfortable either. The sunlight, although it seemed to make the room shudder in warmth, had irritated him out of his fitful sleep. The cigarette which sung the song of freedom was his last and Rosemary, sprawled across half his body, was like an active weight pushing down on him. She had rendered half of him numb. Hers was a ferocious comfort; he didn’t have a say in it, but was forced to stay in position. Her skin was warm, warmer than the air by far, and it covered his like a thousand blind scratches. The air was hazy, heavy, and the smoke alarm hadn’t worked for some time – it felt, to him, like the room could be convinced to surrender at any moment; like the air would tear it apart and the trailing smoke would set on fire under the sun. He felt comfortable in the dark – not physically, but mentally. His thoughts ran lazy, slowly.

Amuigh was thinking about death.

His elder brother had died a few days before, and he longed to picture him; he tried to sketch his features in the air, to see him smiling behind the filter of nostalgia. He could only picture a suit, the kind of suit people were buried in, and a blank, featureless orb hanging above it. He supposed he would see him the day after next, at his funeral in their home town. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go, but it was more that he didn’t see the point. His brother was dead, gone, a lump of meat if he had ever been anything more.

What he found most strange was that he had been the one receiving sympathy; even Rosemary had been looking at him with guarded, pitying eyes since the news broke. It was like she expected him to burst into tears at every moment. Her speech had changed too; her words pronounced with a slow reveal. She considered every phrase, even the pronunciation, the inflections, the lilting tone that indicated a question was everywhere now – she had started asking him if he was okay every few minutes.

Perhaps there’s something wrong with my face, he thought, biting his lip, forcing his thoughts to run faster, less sluggish, perhaps I look like I’m on the verge of tears.

He tried to picture his face, but found himself imaging Rosemary’s instead. The outlines of her body hung in the air above him, and he saw the curve of her nose, the soft definitions in her hair, the cheeks which leaned towards the gaunt. He saw her eyes in the hanging light, blinking at him like glass in the sun, widening as they were carried into shadow by the smoke. Her hair was a tangled mess in his eyes, ragged above short eyelashes and trimmed brows. He saw her skin, olive-tone betraying some Italian heritage, her body occasionally puckered with blemishes and patches of darker skin. It was wrong – the features he had arranged in the air were nothing, not even similar to the face of the woman beside him; he tried to shuffle them as one would a pack of cards, but I just didn’t look right – whatever he did.

He felt her stir against him, heard her moan softly in her sleep and turned his head from the cigarette. His eyes fell upon his own body, and he scowled. It was repulsive, ugly – the body of a half-man. He wore a pair of loose briefs but, besides that, he was naked. He had lost weight recently, weight he could scarcely afford to sacrifice, and his body didn’t seem alive in the morning light. The ribcage was that of a dead sea creature washed ashore and picked apart by vultures, yellow-white bone threatening to escape through the flesh. His stomach was a shadow, a plain caught beneath the cliff-face of his chest. His legs were thick, long and covered in a mat of curled, intertwining hair that threatened to tangle – it reminded him of a dog he had once seen emerge from the sea-foam on Hale Beach.

Rosemary was naked, and warm, and everything he wasn’t. Amuigh tried to stop himself from looking at her. He felt shame in the pit of his stomach, shame accompanied by the gentle intake and exhalation of oxygen. She wasn’t comfortable, her weight bearing down on his arm, his leg, his chest. He was stifling the cough that her weight demanded. It wasn’t like the movies. They didn’t fall asleep in each other’s arms; they didn’t draw each other close after sex, but would move to the bathroom and clean themselves off, one after another. They would wipe away the sweat and the semen, and when they returned to bed, the softness that should have existed between them was replaced with a guilty distance.

After a time, he couldn’t bear it – his eyes dropped down on her tanned flesh and he felt the ghosts of arousal in a matter of moments. She seemed to glow with health compared to him, a sun goddess descended to earth. He trailed up her legs, following the curve of golden muscle. Her groin was a shadow between her thighs and his hip and he could see her breath in the movements of her stomach. Her breasts sagged against him, and the pink flesh around her nipples was the palest part of her entire body, beneath shoulders that curved upwards and led to a slim neck, a defined chin, a pair of thin lips that opened with her breath; a small, slightly-upturned nose and her eyes. They were open, and she stared back at him. Her pupils were distended in his shadow, nothing but a sliver of brown around the reflective black.

Rosemary watched him turn away from her – no smile, no sound, no acknowledgement. It hurt her, but she remembered that he was hurting. Robert was in agony, she could see, but he didn’t have the kind of personality to express his anguish. It was locked somewhere in him, tightly hidden away within his chest, and she found herself waiting for the moment the pressure grew and grew and burst. He hadn’t cried, he hadn’t said a thing about his brother. She could’ve accepted anything, any misery within him that had to come out – she could deal with it. It was his lack of reaction that scared her the most. She’s known, even from the start, that his emotions were bottled up, that his dizzying heights were much lower than hers, and his lows much higher, but he was retreating from her. He was carrying his misery into some labyrinth and leaving it there, some deep, dark place and she had no way to follow.

What can I do, she thought, but cast him a rope and coax him out; hold on and wait for the weight of his mind on the other end?

Their silence hung in the air. Neither of them seemed to breathe in their stifling proximity.

I am evil, Amuigh told himself, staring at the ceiling, I am so, so evil. The thought came from nowhere, and he told himself that evil was relative – he told himself there was no Heaven and no Hell; there was no judgement. He told himself there was only the absence of light, and that Rosemary was the sun itself and he was her shadow. He turned his head to the cigarette again as Rosemary stretched against him like a cat waking from sleep. He saw the last dregs of smoke vanish into the air, completely, gone forever. He closed his eyes against it all; tightening the muscles until the glimmer of her eyes in the ragged glass was replaced with flashing lights and shots of pain.


* * *


‘Are you taking a suit with you?’

‘I’ll bring a spare shirt, but I’ve still got a suitcase full of clothes there. There isn’t much point bringing much – I’ll only be a couple of days.’

‘I don’t mind if you want to stay longer, you know? I can survive on my own for a week or two.’ Rosemary smiled; Amuigh liked her smile but he didn’t smile back. He didn’t smile often, simply because he was tired. Amuigh was tired. Not just physically, but tired of the way the main road curved, tired of the way the narrow side streets splintered off into right angles; tired of the asphalt and the stone which segmented the city into neat, if unfair, portions and tired of the sun’s oppressive heat. His hands were sweating, but cold, and the way Rosemary clung onto his left just seemed to exhaust him all the more.

‘How long are you working for today? Full-day or just a half?’

‘Dunno - you-know-who’s started getting more of us in than we need, and he just sends those of us he doesn’t need home.’ Rosemary bit her lip. You look so pale, she wanted to say, like you’re always in pain.

‘Well, why don’t you quit?’

‘How’re we going to live if I just quit?’ She snapped, and instantly regretted it. Amuigh’s expression didn’t change; he looked bored – bored of her, bored of the city; it was something more than exhaustion. ‘Sorry; I didn’t mean…’

They walked in silence until they reached the street that Rosemary worked. She squeezed his hand, ignoring the cold sweat between his fingers. She stopped a few feet down from the coffee shop and pulled him towards her.

‘You’re going to text me when you get there, yeah? And let me know how everyone is?’

‘Yeah, sure. I’ll try and get back as quick as I can – I don’t really want to spend more time there than I have to.’

‘You can’t say that; it’s your home. Your family; they’re going to need you know, you know?’

‘Yeah, I know.’ She stood on her tip toes to kiss him and he responded automatically, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d wanted to kiss her. Whenever she came in for a kiss he felt something between his ugly teeth and his gums - a cold kind of metallic taste like his teeth had all started to bleed at once.

The café was owned by a greedy little Etonian named Havisham – he liked his employees to be rude to his customers and, somehow, it seemed to work. He only employed attractive young women as his baristas, and when they were spiteful to the suited middle-aged men, it came off flirty. He’d told Rosemary, on her first day, that ‘it was more valuable to these emotionally-starved suits that they feel like people; they don’t come here for coffee – they come here to get pissed off’. He went so far that he’d occasionally completely change the menu over – not what was on it, but just what things were called. One day someone would be asking for a caramel frappe, and the next they’d have to try and realise that a chilled sweet sugar cookie combo was the same thing.

Almost as soon as Rosemary had vanished into work, he started limping. Amuigh had taken to keeping a piece of broken stone in his shoe at all times; it bit into his heel and sent shockwaves of pain ricocheting throughout his body. It wasn’t the pain he enjoyed, far from it, but it was the adrenaline – the sensation of the thing that pumped through his body and made him curl his hands into fists in his pocket. It was a drug to him, like; a drug that sent electricity crackling along unused nerves – a drug that leapt over synapses and coiled around his bones until his head was electrified by the agony.

It doesn’t make me a masochist, he told himself, it makes me alive! Alive! He hadn’t told Rosemary about the stone – he didn’t think she’d understand. She was strange – he often thought she was scared, but he couldn’t be sure of what.

II


Amuigh limped into the train-station; a wide, open-plan terminal with long pillars that stretched up to the old ceiling and down to the polished floor, kept smooth by the thousands of footsteps that moved across it every day. Even then, a little after the rush hour, the terminal was still half-full; a long queue stretched out from the one booth that was manned, and three security guards looked on with suspicion.

He caught a reflection of himself in one of the mirrors that hung on the far wall, and studied himself out of the corner of his eye. His shoes caught his attention first, mostly due to the limp. They were brown, recently polished, and the right-hand foot would twist a little with every step – a twist that ground the stone even harder against his skin. Above them, he wore dull grey trousers that seemed too tight for his thighs and too loose for his shins. He’d stopped caring a while ago – he was of a height and build that made clothes impossible to buy. No matter what he wore, he looked shabby, tired, angry, ill-fed; like a drug-dealer or a murderer or a thief. He’d never broken a major law, but he looked like a crime, like he was on his way to break a law of man, if not of the courts.

He wore a white shirt, and he had started carrying his jacket in the heat. He wore a backpack that was left over from his student days, from the days of potential and hope. He ran the bag’s contents through his head again – a spare shirt, a black tie, a couple of t-shirts, a pair of jeans, a few toiletries in a clear plastic bag and a couple of books – he couldn’t remember which books he’d picked up.

He was still waiting on his last pay check, and Rosemary had loaned him some money until he came back. Aside from the emergency twenty he had left in his bank account, he had fifty pounds to his name. With the security guards keeping an eye on the queue, he cut past them and walked through the unguarded gate to the platform – a criminal.

He remembered the days before the place was refurbished; there used to be a great clock hanging over the terminal, with black-iron hands that creaked and complained when they moved – late at night, when the last trains were just leaving the station, the sound of hidden gears filled the place. Metal on metal, rust and clockwork complaining to each other. Now, there was a large digital clock that flashed on the hour, an ominous red light that rolled around the ceiling but fell short of the floor.

The clock told him it was four minutes past nine; his train was arriving at seventeen minutes’ past. With the seats full on his platform, he leant against a convenient piece of wall and felt a chill shudder through him. It was dark, beneath the new ceiling, despite the glass panes that let in the sunlight. He pulled his jacket on, and flipped his bag open to see the books he’d brought with him.

The first book he lifted was one he’d never read – Lord Byron’s Collected Prose; a gift from Rosemary several months beforehand, picked up from a second-hand, charity bookstore. He dropped it back into the bag and reached for the second book. He knew, even before he lifted it out, what it would be. It was dog-eared and rough and the cover was ragged from that time he’d spilled whiskey on it. Thoreau’s Walden. He flicked through familiar pages, wondering how many times he’d read that book – how many times had he lain awake at night and stared at these same letters, words, pages.

And where has it got me?

It didn’t take long for the train to arrive. The driver stepped off and locked the doors behind him. It wasn’t until nineteen minutes past that he came back, red-faced and sweating. Amuigh was one of the first on, and found a window seat with its back against the toilet cubicle. He carried on reading as the carriage filled up around him.

‘Robert?’

An old friend from work smiled at him from the walkway and fell into the seat beside him without a moment’s hesitation. His face was red, embarrassed – desperate to share his embarrassment with someone else. He had done his best to look like a young professional should – he wasn’t quite clean-shaven, and his hair had grown a little, so that a single strand hung just above his right eye. He wore matching jacket and trousers, but his white shirt was unbuttoned at the collar. His tie hung limp and loose around his neck, and the smaller half was the wrong way around so that Amuigh could see the label.

‘Running late as well, are you?’ He asked the question a little too quietly, like the two of them were co-conspirators in some dystopian surveillance state.

‘No.’

There was a pause as the train moved away, and his friend fell silent, suddenly aware that he had confessed to being late. His face deepened a few shades of red.

‘So, where’re you working now? I haven’t seen you since you, err, left.’ The question was asked brightly, innocently enough, but it was clear he was desperate to forget any mention of his lateness.

‘Nowhere; how about you? Still stuck at that hellhole?’ Amuigh would once have felt embarrassed, admitting that he didn’t have a job – he didn’t care anymore. I’m a social parasite, he wanted to say, and may as well have said, living off the immoral sweat of people like you. He could see the horror in his friend’s eyes.

I, he was thinking, am merely late, but you’re an unemployed! You’re a scrounger! You’re a layabout! You’re a degenerate and an animal and a monster! To think, I know one of them!

They kept talking, about nothing much – about how late the trains were, about how the quality had gone down recently; about the homeless people living in the city, and how he had given some change to one just that morning because it wasn’t really their fault, was it?

‘So, where you off to now? You got an interview or something?’ The question was asked hopefully, like he was trying to save Amuigh, like he was hurling him a lifeline.

‘No; it’s James’ funeral tomorrow,’ Amuigh mildly enjoyed the look of horror on his face, the horror that he immediately tried to cover up, ‘I thought I’d head back a day early.’ His friend’s mouth opened and closed a few times, like he was holding a conversation with himself. ‘I thought I’d head home for a few days.’

Amuigh returned to his book and, when required, he replied in clipped, uninterested terms to the man’s questioning. He answered vague questions with precision; going into grave details regarding time, blood loss and final words to the extent that his old friend began to feel somewhat sick.

You’ve changed, he thought, oh, Robert, what has happened to you?

Amuigh spoke emotionlessly; it wasn’t deliberate, but apathy. It didn’t matter to him. He returned to his book, and replied to the occasional, hesitant question in clipped, uninterested tones. He explained the means of his brother’s death; going into such grave detail with regards to timing and blood kiss that his old friend felt sick. The words hanging in the air were emotionless, and the images they conjured couldn’t seem real. It was like he was explaining a TV death, from a programme he wasn’t interested in.

They sat in silence for a while, until the train pulled to a stop. The old friend pulled himself to his feet and offered Amuigh something that was half smile, half grimace. It faltered when he didn’t look up from his book.

‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ he said formally, distantly, like he was reading from a script engrained behind his eyelids, ‘if you ever need anything, you know where I am.’ The sitting figure accepted his sympathies curtly, despising the insincere, undeserved apology. It burrowed like a scarab into the soft flesh of his skull and lodged there, spitting out discomfort across his body and leaving a bloody taste in the back of his throat.

The black suit vanished and the rest of the journey passed in relative peace. At the second to last station, he saw a few security guards race past the window with a terrified kind of joy spread across their faces. They were shouting, and he sank further back into his seat.

The train slid into his stop and Amuigh felt a strange reluctance to leave. He let everyone else get off first, and he had the sudden urge to stay there forever; to join the eclectic homeless, rattling from place to place and stealing the sights of the railway – all upturned fields and back gardens and the ruins of long-abandoned warehouses.

The town hadn’t changed; it hadn’t changed at all. The same coarse pavement gave way to broken asphalt and the occasional line of cobblestone. It sweltered beneath the hot sun, fat and relaxed and lazy for these few glorious days. The people limped beneath their fat and their heads and moved along the pathways and the roads, from home to home, from store to store, from the job centre to the bus station to the Wetherspoons. The river still stood like a noose, overlooked by iron gates and garages and the hollowed-out shell of the old factories.

Amuigh stepped out into the sunlight and was blinded. He closed his eyes to the warmth and stood there. Behind him, somebody swore as they squeezed out of the doorway. He shook his head, as though waking from a dream, and limped away in the direction of the bus station.

It was a long stretch of road, curving gently against the train tracks below and separated by the scarred stone wall which formed the railway bridge’s overlook. A few of the stones were missing now, leaving jagged cement. Amuigh could see the station below him, saw the rusted rails camouflaged against the grey-brown gravel which covered the floor. The train pulled away, back in the direction of the city, and he felt a strange sense of finality as it rolled away.

Across the pavement, there was a tall, terraced building. Every third doorway was bland, empty or leading to the offices on the upper floors; he remembered working in one for a summer, distantly – like it had happened to someone else. The lower floor was a mess of cafés and takeaways and he remembered his drunken nights staring, slackly up at the fluorescent menus behind the counter. The burnt-out husk of Mr. Joe’s was still covered with dark planks of thick wood, now bearing carved slogans and other graffiti. The Raja still had the same luxurious leather chairs set around tables of awkward, uncomfortable heights. Donna’s F&C still had the old offer of fish, chips and a can for £2.50 – a special offer which had long since ground any meaning of the word into the pavement, and boasted the title of a ‘luxurious meal’ with a blank stare.

He passed an austere looking building, somehow related to the local council, with a piece of paper nailed to the front door. It read ‘Poetry Here’, with no other information, and he passed it by, smiling up at the sun – it was warm, suddenly, and the ground beneath him glittered as though it had been inlaid with grains of salt. A spontaneous awareness of his own body gave him pleasure – he felt the strength of his legs, felt the pull of the bag against his shoulder, the slightest of breezes against his skin.

Amuigh had forgotten the stone in his shoe – it had moved to a less painful angle as he moved, merely grazing the side of his foot. As he ascended the pavement from the depths of the road, however, it twisted and, suddenly, agony whispered up the length of his muscles, coursed along his veins until it hit his brain. He flinched and limped across to the wall in a few tear-inducing steps. He cuffed angrily at his eyes and glanced up and down the street – there was no one there.

He slumped against the wall and tilted the shoe away from his heel. The stone fell out and he winced as the air touched the wound; a shivering coldness bit into the pitiable wound and, as though the chill carried a purity which cleansed, or numbed, all sensation, all he knew was that it didn’t hurt anymore. He tentatively slipped the shoe back over his heel; nothing. He lowered it to the ground and slowly placed all his weight upon it, nothing; he took a few steps and was soon moving in the direction of the bus station again.

When he arrived, the old house looked exactly the same as it always had. He walked past it a couple of times, remembering the way he used to race along those streets, following some neighbour kid or on his way back from school. He remembered reading about a technique where soldiers used to walk for ten minutes and run for five, before walking for ten and running for five and trying it out on those paving stones. He’d never been able to run for more than a minute, so he’d tried to make it a minute run, four minutes walking. He always forgot to start running again.

He unlocked the front door and stepped inside. It was silent, and he called out his name as though pre-empting someone’s demand. He let the moment stretch out again, the silence building until it snapped under its own weight and he almost smiled. He closed the door behind him and dropped his keyring into the small tarnished bowl on top of the shoe rack. It clinked against a rough, bronze key that had once been covered with hearts, scraped away by sweat and worry. It had been his mother’s, once.

He stepped further into the hall, into the shadow and the occasional mite of dust which caught a stray beam of light from the front door’s frosted glass pane. He moved into the living room and stopped – the room of his childhood was gone, replaced with half-carried out designs. His brother had been redecorating when he died and now the room looked like it had died with him; listlessly emitting wheezing breaths from ill-formed lungs, like a massively premature child – little more than a foetus.

He was accustomed to mahogany, to deep reds twisting into gentle creams, not the sight of torn wallpaper stretching from the skirting board to the ceiling; not the empty space where the television had once squatted. One of the windows, a small, useless little thing on the wall which faced the side street, had been bricked up on the outside, leaving a cavernous hole some inches deep and from which Amuigh could certainly feel a draft – perhaps that same pure wind which had licked at his broken skin mere minutes ago.

The paintings his parents had favoured, stunning images of windswept seas and miniature boats warring against the oppressive ocean, lay face down on the table – piled atop each other haphazardly, like a wealthy anarchist’s bonfire. He saw a picture of himself at his graduation, square-cap tilted at a jaunty angle atop his head as he put on a fake smile for the camera, and he rested his fingertips on the wooden frame, savouring the memory of the clear blue dock water on a hot day.

The couch was covered with a paint-spattered dust cloth, the ceiling having been repainted a pale grey in place of the white he remembered, but he pulled at one corner until it came away. It was brown leather and, he recalled, distinctly uncomfortable to sleep on; whenever his bare skin touched the furniture it would be comparable to a desperate, sucking mouth which held him down, which tore the moisture from his skin and left him with dry lips, like a husk of a man and nothing more.

There was a small radio plugged into the wall beneath the bay window which allowed the light to crowd into the room. Amuigh crossed over and flicked it on – it immediately burst into an interview between a rock musician and a small child, no doubt part of some school work placement programme. He stood at the window for a few seconds, staring at nothing until the interview wound to a close. The regular host of the show made an unbearably patronising sound, like he had been looking at cats on the internet, and immediately started advertising some new smartphone application which allowed you to track anyone else’s phone, anywhere in the world. Amuigh lay down on the couch for a very long time.

He woke a little after six o’clock and checked his phone – he had two missed calls from Rosemary, and three text messages, which he was too tired to read. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and rang her; the phone rang for long enough that he considered hanging up and trying again later before she picked up.

‘Hello?’ She knew who it was but she always put on the voice he imagined a professional secretary might adopt – a cool, inquisitive tone which was structured in such a way as to completely convey how desperate she was to be helpful. He had never known a voice more suited to the filter of mobile phone reception.

‘Hey, you,’ he muttered exhaustedly, ‘y’alright?’

‘Yeah, how’re you?’ Her voice warred between ice and concern; she was in a foul mood with him, he realised, probably because he hadn’t responded to her texts, but she had to balance that dislike with her sympathy.

‘I’m good, I’ve been asleep all day; how’s work?’

‘You’ve been asleep?’ She laughed a little, it was fake, ‘I dunno how you can sleep so much!’

‘I’m just good at it, I guess,’ he stifled a yawn, ‘what’re you up to?’

‘Oh, jus’ tidying up a little – I might grab a takeaway tonight; saves me cooking anyway.’

‘Sounds fair enough; I’m gonna grab somethin’ in a minute too, I’m starving.’ She laughed again, and made the same pitying noise that the radio host had made.

‘We had this customer today,’ her voice trailed off as his eyes closed again, but he made vaguely committal noises, occasionally repeating her words in a slightly higher tone to show his shock, or laughing when he thought it was appropriate, or twisting his mouth into a smile so that he sounded like he was smiling with her.

It was almost half-past seven when they finally said goodbye, the only farewell not to be interrupted by ‘oh, by the way,’ or ‘oh, you remember Katie,’ or ‘oh, I’ve seen this thing, right,’.

Amuigh had risen during the course of the conversation, and paced the length of the room in irritated steps. He was hungry, he hadn’t been lying. His stomach didn’t make a sound but, instead, seemed to grow and grow until his every thought was one of starvation – it couldn’t have been any less than twenty hours since he had last eaten.

Muscle memory forced him to search the fridge, the freezer and one of the cupboards for food; it was bare, with the exception of a few cans of soup tucked away in one corner. He remembered that his brother was dead, that the house would be his soon and that he’d be more likely to sell it than keep it. He couldn’t afford to live there anyway.

He locked the door behind him when he left, and called in at a small Italian takeaway around the corner. The owner was a short, rounded woman with a greasy bandana permanently tied over equally greasy hair, but Amuigh was served by her son, a shaven head and a jutting jaw that only seemed capable of grunting. He bought a meal for one, consisting of a nine-inch garlic bread, a twelve-inch pepperoni pizza and a can of some flavourless, carbonated thing designed to resemble Coca Cola without the sacrificing of morality and left the change in their tip bowl. Forty pounds left, and a few coppers.

It warmed his hands as he walked back to the house; not his home, not any longer; and he thought about the money in his wallet. The money Rosemary had worked for, prostituted herself for – what else, he reasoned, was employment of any kind? She was paid for the services of her body, she was paid for the pounds of her flesh. What then, Amuigh asked himself, was he? A pimp, living off her efforts? He may as well have traded a plastic bag of her blood in exchange for the food in his hands.

He fought the desire to hurl the boxes away from him; to toss them into the road and walk on with his head held high, as though he was rebelling against something, against everything. His stomach growled at him, a low and dangerous sound, like the snarl of some long-toothed creature peering out of the undergrowth at a shaven monkey rubbing two sticks together.

He ate whilst listening to the radio and stayed on the couch afterwards, reading Walden again, from cover to cover whilst the sunlight died and the moon enjoyed its fickle domination. He wished Rosemary a goodnight but, by then, it had gone eleven o’clock and she would already have fallen asleep in front of the television, lulled into comfort by English actors imitating American accents and the gentle sounds of explosions and car chases in foreign cities.

It took him some time to fall asleep; Rosemary flickered before him like a phantasm, like a ghost on Christmas Eve, and he would reach out to her, would moan her name as testosterone and serotonin made illicit motions throughout his body. His hands became claws which pulled at the blanket he had covered himself with, his toes curled against themselves in abject pleasure and the motions of his hips moved the cushions from beneath him until he wormed his way into his discomfort and only then did Amuigh feel sleep come for him, breaking through the barriers of his consciousness like a bullet breaking the skin.  

III


Melinoë watches the slave drink his tea; he is an ugly creature. Not so much a result of his appearance, she tells herself, aware of how he used to look, but in the way he carries himself. He has not, she decides, fully come to terms with it yet, with any of it.

For his part, the slave can think of nothing besides his hunger; it had always been like this, he thought, my body is the thing which rebels against me, even if that rebellion is one I allow. It was an ache now, a swirling pain in his lower stomach which made his eyes linger on the steaming kitchen and his lips greedily suck the dregs of tea from the bottom of the cup.

So, what have you been up to over the last few weeks? How did your interview go?’ She takes another sip of her coffee, and the slave cannot help but imagine her in a café in Paris, overlooking a wide courtyard within which a stone fountain gracefully curves water back into itself.

It went alright, I think,’ the slave lies, remembering the stunned, disappointed eyes above a clean-shaven jaw and a thick grey jumper, ‘I’ve not heard anything back yet though.’

Well, I expect you won’t for a few weeks; it’s a good job, you know, I think it could really help you.’ She smiles at him, her pen scratching on the paper incessantly. ‘Are you still living in the same place?’

Yeah, down on L***** Road. A few new people have moved in now, and we’re getting on alright.’

Yes, so I’ve heard; I’m glad to hear you’re getting along, I hear it wasn’t a great atmosphere when you first moved in.’

There is a long pause. The slave looks out of the window; Melinoë looks over her notes.

A young girl, similar in age to the student behind the counter steps into the warm air. Her nose is red, and glowing, despite the thick woollen hat and scarf. Her glasses are large, and through them her eyes look similarly over-sized; she is stunningly attractive, the slave notices, especially with the thick, leather-bound tome under her arm. He feels something stir in his breast, but quickly quells it. She clutches the book to her chest and advances on the counter. He hears her ask for a hot chocolate, hears the student’s semi-stuttered reply, and tries to remember what it was like – to be so innocent in appearance.

Did Amuigh love Rosemary?’ She asks softly, flicking to a new page; Melinoë’s voice lowers, ‘You say that he felt like she was, what, ‘whoring’ herself out for him?’

The slave takes a deep breath and savours the scent of cooking meat, highlighted by Melinoë’s perfume. He stares out of the window before answering.

Yes, he did love her. He really did, but it was in his own way, I think; I don’t know if I’d call it love.’ There must be something in his eyes, in his posture, perhaps in the tone of his voice, because Melinoë’s eyes narrow and the slave cannot help but glance at them. ‘I don’t know, maybe he didn’t love her.’ He looks away, and she smiles.

I remember you saying, once, that Amuigh wasn’t so much in love with Rosemary, as he was in love with love. Do you still think that that was true?’

The slave leans backwards in his chair, and scratches his jaw. In love with love. It seems to Melinoë that he has suddenly come alive, as though the very idea of Amuigh’s love was one that excited and, yet, repulsed him.

I don’t know; I think he loved someone else. No, I think he had always loved someone else.’

Ah,’ she uses the back of her pen to brush her fringe away from her eyes, ‘so who did Amuigh love?’ The smile fades. ‘As we would call it love?’


* * *


Amuigh had decided on lunch, at a pub which was only a few minutes’ walk away from the house. He felt momentarily guilty as he stepped through the door, but the shadows enveloped him and he was glad to be out of the sun.

From the outside, the pub, The Roe & Arrow, had been looked much the same as it ever had; it boasted an enviable view of the road along which Amuigh travelled to reach it, but the bay windows stretched out until the rich green fields on the opposite side of the asphalt were also visible. In one, cows could be seen gently grazing whilst the one beside it was nothing but a wide expanse of untilled earth. Besides that, however, was an even larger field within which shaggy-maned ponies raced each other and watched the cars pass by with perverse and unnatural interest. It was all on one floor, white-washed brickwork which blistered the eye whenever the sun alighted upon it, and a tall, sloping roof designed to resemble thatch. A generous car park was almost empty, presenting only two cars to the road.

The inside had been refurbished, but already the wear and tear of usage was beginning to tell. There were a few scratches in the wooden banister besides the entryway, some of the paint had flaked away around the door’s handle and already a fine collection of stains, of varying sizes, colours and intensities, were beginning to develop. Amuigh could only see a few other people in the place; there were two men in the remnants of suits, with their ties undone and their sleeves rolled back and their jackets tossed over the chairs of the table beside them, there was an old couple enjoying a quiet meal some distance back from the light of the windows and a youngish looking man, about his age, staring out of the window mournfully whilst taking irreverent mouthfuls from his bottle - Amuigh couldn’t see what the bottle was, but he imagined it to be an American import.

He moved over to the bar itself; there was no one there, but he still perched on one of the stools and pulled a ten pound note out of his pocket. It should be enough, he reasoned, for a sandwich and a drink or two. He had text Rosemary that morning, soon after he woke up, but she hadn’t replied. She might have been on the early shift that day, he didn’t know, but he wasn’t worried. She’d reply when she had the chance. She was dependable.

He was trying to plan out the rest of the day when the barmaid emerged from the backroom. He thought he might go for a walk along the disused railway line, a long stretch of hardened ground – at that time of year anyway – which opened up into a wide field divided by a small stream; afterwards he could pick up a little pasta from the corner shop, perhaps some pre-cooked ham or chicken and eat a simple meal with the radio as company. He could ring Rosemary when she got off work, or scavenge through his brother’s books and his old belongings until he found something else to read. Tomorrow he could go to the funeral and be home before Rosemary finished; maybe they could go for a drink or something – yes, he arrayed the day and the night and the day before like checkboxes on a timesheet and the barmaid tapped on the countertop.

‘Hullo?’ She called softly, leaning towards him, ‘hullo, anyone…’ she stopped and stared at him, scanning his features intently, invasively. ‘Robert?’

Jenny Aisling hadn’t changed. Her hair was a mousy blonde, and it had grown out from the retro-styled bob he remembered until it fell behind her shoulders – it was tied in a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck, and he could see her throat pulsate with life and health and memory; her jaw was the same line, a shade too wide to be considered obviously stunning, and her lips, which had once adopted a habitually morose expression, were now split apart in a welcoming smile. Her nose was deliciously upturned at the tip, and it drew the eye upwards into her own eyes – they were pale blue, the colour of thawing ice beneath a cloudless sky, the tone of the last days of winter and the promise of spring, and Amuigh felt the years melt away. Jenny Aisling stared out at him from beneath foreign hair, in a foreign setting, and he could have been sixteen again.

‘Hello Jen,’ his lips broke into a smile, the echo of hers, ‘how the hell have you been?’ She stood back, placing her hands on the edge of the bar and putting all her weight on one leg.

‘Yeah, I’ve been good thanks, yeah,’ she continued to stare at him, and Amuigh became hyper-aware of the ten pound note in his hand; ‘so what’re you up to now? What brings you back here?’

He went to tell her, honestly, he did, but the words translated as they passed through his throat and out into the air.

‘Same as always, you know, nothing exciting; I’m just back to see how the, err, the old stomping ground’s held up while I’ve been away. When did you start working here?’

‘Not too long ago really, couple of months maybe?’ She noticed the money in his hand then, and straightened dramatically; she ran a hand down her t-shirt, a white V-neck bearing the legend ‘PURE LOVE’, and smiled a professional smile. ‘What’ll it be sir?’

Amuigh couldn’t help himself, he too straightened up and ran his free hand through his hair, sweeping it to one side as though making a last-minute adjustment in the mirror.

‘I’d like a Guinness please, young lady, and be sure to have one for yourself as well.’ They stared at each other for a moment, and burst out laughing. She flicked two glasses out from beneath the bar with the skill of experience and placed one on the bar, the other vanishing beneath the Guinness logo. The silence became a little strained as she poured but then, as though struck by inspiration, Amuigh withdrew into the past.

‘You still hang around with Abby and Rebecca and all them?’

‘Not really, I don’t get much chance to see them anymore. Most of ‘em have done a runner to some city or other,’ she looked up at him quickly, to see if her words had caused offence, but Amuigh’s expression hadn’t changed, ‘I still message ‘em now and again and we meet up every couple of months, but it just doesn’t seem, well, as important as it used to, you know? He nodded, he did know, he really did. ‘Emma’s getting married, you know?’


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-30 show above.)