By Callum Barrell
A SHORT STORY
I’ll walk home in the discordant rays of moonlight, kicking cartons warm and wet with grease. I’ll walk in zigzags, probably quite slow. Cod philosophy will come to me: who am I, and who art thee, bitch pissing on a Volvo and smiling happily?
The invitation says there will be punch if you get there early, but only about forty quid’s worth, which isn’t very much considering forty-eight people have RSVP’d yes and only four have said no. The actual turnout will be less. It's easy to say yes when it's the click of a button; a plausible version of yourself would go to that party, just maybe not this self on that particular day. Intention barely comes into it. Whatever. It still works out at less than a pound a head, which doesn’t even cover the cost of the card.
I hate having to take my things to places where they’re not mine anymore. If I bring beer I’ll have to hold onto it all night, out of the passing robber’s reach. But I don’t want to do that. A) It makes it go warm. It makes it go from beer to piss. And B) I’d look selfish, even though I’d be spending much more than a pound. More than they want to spend on me.
I guess I’ll drink a lot before I go. I’ll bring lager and make sure the brand is popular enough so they say thanks, but shit enough so I can hide them and people won’t notice. Shoe drawers are good for this. Nobody looks for beer where shoes are kept.
I hope the people I like are going. My friends are dirty, but it’s a clean, left-wing sort of dirt. They all have moustaches like tangled spaghetti and names like fucking Cicero. Their clothes are the most important things about them, selected carefully from amongst the wreckage of other people’s shame. They are pointless anachronisms, these cosseted friends of mine. They say they know Dickens and how Victorian peasants looked. Truth be told, they wouldn’t know a chimney if it tapped them on the shoulder and fucked them up the arse.
My circle of friends has changed. Where I grew up, everyone up to the age of sixteen was dressed by whoever claimed them as their own. Mums stuff you in all sorts, see: oversized football shirts that look like yurts, corrective shoes that Forrest Gump would balk at, and jeans that are passed down from relative to relative like signet rings. Rigid from overuse and frayed at the bottom, I would try my hardest not to barf as I put them on.
We’d wear the stripy trackies of our brothers, the NY baseball caps of our cousins. Our t-shirts obeyed a simple formula: x, where x denoted a place I’d never been to, followed by y, where y represented any integer between sixty and the mid-nineties: Illinois 63; Chicago 89; University of A Place I've Never Been To. I was scared about how misleading it all was. What if somebody came up to me in the street and started up a chat? Sorry, just wanted to say that I love your shirt – I went to Yale too. Those were the days. Married now of course, always wish I’d done a different major. Hey, remember Vinny’s round the back of College Street? Vinny’s, where everyone would go for ice cream? Sorry, I’d say, searching for answers. I don’t know how else to put this. Vinny’s dead.
Saturdays were our shopping days. More often than not, we’d merely lube the streets with our boredom. But sometimes we would have enough money to actually buy something; say, a pellet gun, a shirt emblazoned with rappers we'd never heard of, or perhaps a dirty magazine if the shop was willing. Our budget would be about twenty pounds and something pitifully specific in pence, split across coins and cash and birthday cheques. We’d empty the High Street of its tawdry contents as if we’d turned it upside down and given it a shake. We’d rake our hair into lines that smelled in the midday sun. We’d squeeze our skin, translucent like the film of an egg, into trousers made for children.
We’d get burger on everything: in our hair, on our shoes, in the folds of our shirts. We’d brush each other until the meat, grey and destitute, came flying off like a gymnast on the dismount.
We would tell each other, utterly without irony, that today would be the day she’d say yes. To all of us, each and every one. Not once did we think about the implications of our plan. Come to think of it, I'm glad we lacked the confidence.
I hit reply. The good thing about online invitations is that you can change your mind – yes to no, no to yes – right up to the moment when paper plates are being unwrapped and dips put into bowls. It is tempting to go from yes to no right now. There would be a beep on one of their computers, a brief cough of indifference, and that would be that. But I like them and they have a big shoe cupboard, so I won’t.
The person whose housewarming it is, Mel, went to primary school with me (or in spite of me; who really knows?). Her hair, mutilated violently into turkey twizzlers, hasn’t changed since childhood. She is totally devoid of sexual presence, as if some surgeon had off with it at birth. I cannot imagine her naked even when I try. Do you remember those dolls you had, the ones with ambiguous genitalia? I like to think that, instead of a vagina, Mel has a polite bump that says made in China. We are friends and nothing more, so don’t push me on that front.
I love her very much. I know she sees me as an obligation; our mums were, and probably still would be, the very best of friends. She pretends like it’s all natural, as if she’d had the liberty of choice. She conjures up these titbits from our past, pre-chewed for easy digestion: the time I got stuck in a cat flap, or the time we tried to make paper money out of post-its. But what about the rest? Sometimes I get the urge to interject: Mel, what about the time I showed you my dick in the middle of P.E? And yet nothing can snap her out of it, this life of middle frequencies. It’s probably for the best. People seem to like me by association: oh so you’re that friend of Mel’s, the one she’s known forever. She dolls out kindness like a cheap vending machine and, for reasons I can't grasp, there's a queue.
It felt strange when Mel told me she was getting married and moving in with him. I had never owned her in that way but still I felt dispossessed, the loser of a game I didn’t know I played. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the nicest man you’ll ever meet, a straight shooter, and the sort of person whose eyes do all the thinking. He’s a teacher, for heaven’s sake, a shepherd of our young. I want to thank him for being so good to her, for being such a sport. Alas I want to smear shit on his drab and practical car.
I do a bit of research. A girl called PJ – Penelope Jane? – is going to be there. Her profile picture draws me in: a forest, avenues of light, lyrics from Enya. Maybe Mel can introduce us, unless PJ is in fact an eighty-foot beech tree. Sorry, that was lame.
I get ready the night before. Lotions, push-ups, flossing. I cut my nails so they don’t feel sore in the morning. I wash my hair so it settles, bouncy but with shape. You know the sensation of imminent explosion, like a kettle near the boil? I get like that sometimes, so I masturbate until I'm bollock-full with fumes.
I have this habit of watching things over and over again. I can't fall asleep without watching something; anything, but something that I know.
I dream about the party that isn’t the party, the cake that isn’t the cake, and Mel who isn’t Mel. She’s a man I know from work. Her long curly hair, offset by a stubbly beard, is glowing pinks and reds. Her husband is there, exactly as he is. My mother is serving cups of tea, whispering mind your laces. My head pans round, rendering as it goes. Things come in and out of focus like a lens on hard rotate. I know there’s music but it's played into a cushion. Everything is there and yet out of reach, like when children stretch for the Calpol.
Today is the day of the party and I feel guilty about leaving Chris. Chris is my tabby, lissom, and predictably anthropomorphised cat. I know how deep his apathy runs. I know he sees me as a mass of sorry atoms, built and bred for service. He probably thinks, in the way that cats may think, that I would make a better meal than friend. But I take no notice, blame it on false consciousness, and choose to love him anyway.
I leave in search of chicken for the cat and drink for me. Maybe I’ll get a lottery ticket, win the fucking thing, and buy Chris a glamorous wife. Not that he would have the slightest clue what to do with her. I cut his balls off years ago.
The guy behind the counter looks totally at sea. There, I say, the one that’s eternally on offer. His hands slide up and down the shelves like an automaton terminal with rust. No, that’s whisky and I want gin, the see-through stuff that isn’t vodka. I’m struggling for reference points; there’s only so much you can say. I tell him that the label’s blue, that he’s really, really close. I could seal victory if only I’d say, there, the one with the imperialist, smug and fat and rich. At last he picks it up and looks at me, my face burning from the flush.
He asks for my I.D. I’m more than old enough so I don’t comply. My sweat is burning like it’s made from acid and I feel compressed into the smallest space, the atmosphere dense with panic. I know it’s all for nothing, a trivial incident, but I don’t know how to stop.
Chris recoils when I return.
A man is shouting on the radio, something about his football team. I remember kicking a ball towards my sister. It was on a beach, windy and greyscale, in the middle of that winter. The sea came at us, an unwanted player with a heavy touch, and took the ball in its waves. That was that - no referee - so in we went for dinner.
I dial the numbers for my sister’s phone but hang up when I realise she might actually pick up. What would I say? I wonder how her children are, whether they still have rubber hands and rubber feet. Do they know who their uncle is? Are they capable of speech?
This party is not a welcome thing. I told you about my cat, the one that purrs when you’re in pain.
I have a dilemma: should I buy Mel and her husband a housewarming gift? Of course I should. She’s my oldest friend and it’s the least that I can do. Then again, they’d never pick me up on it. He’s too polite and she’s too tolerant. I wonder if they’re kinky.
I rummage through my kitchen cupboard, convinced it will throw up something good. The spices are old – too old – but I’m loath to throw them out. They’re familiar and the best I’ve got to hand. The pasta has things crawling on it; at first I think it’s pepper but then I think things through.
The tubs and plates are crumbed with skid marks from a meal I can’t remember. I think of giving up but something catches my eye. I pull it out and smile, knowing I’ve struck gold. Its provenance is troubling as it rings no bells with me. Then I remember: it was the millennium, the sky was pocked with fireworks, and once I had a flatmate.
I’m in front of a shaving mirror that plays tricks on your proportions. It’s the only one I like because I know it shows a lie.
I imagine myself there at the party. I play their music. I am embalmed in the smells of their house, the sounds of their street. I am prepared. I am ready.
Two hours away now. Actually, three. I need a drink; I’ve set the time aside.
Now it’s two.
One and half. This is going slowly.
I need to wipe the sweat from my brow. My teeth are yellow.
Forty minutes and I look ugly. There’s no time to fix it; how is there no time?
The cab arrives and at first I don’t get in.
My stomach is flipping and folding like a messy omelette.
The fare is rising: 3.80, 4.00, 4.20.
He is saying something.
My mouth is cloying from the toothpaste, stale and rotting on my tongue.
We take another turn and he asks me where to next; his geography is poor.
I see myself in the half-reflection.
The engine sounds like my purring cat.
The sky is crimson and full of memory.
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