THEY bang on the door. They bang so hard that they must intend to break it. They shout at me as they would a villain on the gallows. I stay silent, planted on the toilet with my shorts around my ankles. There will be no scratching my way through this lot. No - I will slop out of this room like custard.

A gnome specked with mildew looks at me from the windowsill. I reach over and flick his head. He jolts into life from the neck up, bobbling and swaying at my jokes.

The door is giving way. She pleas with them to stop but within their male fury her voice is lost. I consider calling out but what would I say? Sorry? I didn’t mean to? No, all I can do is wait.

I look down at my phone as its charge saps to nothing. Time bends and twists like a woven lattice. I think of popcorn going round and round, waiting for its time to burst.

The gnome’s head sways with laughter still. He can’t stop, as if he hasn’t laughed in years. “Ho-ho-ho,” he says. “Ha-ha-ha!”

I flick his dirty feet and watch him tumble forward, smashing into pieces on the tiled floor. And for the briefest moment I forget about what I did. I forget about the whining door and the chorus of garbled threats.

As I leave the taxi I draw in breath, staring bluntly at the sky.
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Bring your own booze, there will be cheese and cake. If you can’t that’s absolutely fine my lovelies. You are more than enough! xoxoxo

Great. 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 the beer belongs to 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 scroll down to see who’s going, slipping raisins in my mouth. There are men who have beards like tangled spaghetti and girls who pout like fish. I skim through their photos, watching time turn out its pockets. They age from back to front, retreating towards the womb in slow stop-motion.

I take a sip of tea, whose coldness takes me by surprise. I wonder how long I’ve been sitting here on the corner of Mum’s old bed. I look around the room, a museum of bric-à-brac and plastic shit. There’s a ceramic owl, mid-hoot; a hairbrush matted with wisps of dyed brown hair; an exercise bike that she sat on but never used; and the fading scent of lavender, which comes from the dying hisses of a plug-in freshener. Pssssssssssssst! it goes, as if there’s something on its mind.

By accident I catch myself in the vanity mirror propped against the bureau. In the half-light I examine my naked body: its febrile, vermilion skin stretched over golem’s limbs, taut and sinewy, not at all strong. I look over at my work clothes, which hang from their hook, drooping to a slouch. The t-shirt is green and yellow, the colour of the shop. The trousers are school-grey and itchy, fraying at the ankles. Grime latches onto them like corals on a reef. “Your clothes resist the wash,” Mum used to say, “no matter what I do.”

I call in sick and nestle into bed, scrolling and pawing at the screen. I don’t really know what I’m looking for but then, out of nowhere, bingo.

Andrew Apsey, Junior Executive at Wyndham and Birch, has a son who died. I file through his photos but I find none of him, just shots of brooding trees, lolling in the sun.

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The blood red sky is giving way to a void of black. The taxi disappears into the fading light, ready to drop another nervous person at another pointless party.

Despite the cold there is a rash on my chest burning deep beneath the surface. Its borders expand at an imperial rate, trickling into increasingly angry and abstract shapes. I want to scratch my skin until it flakes off like crisps of golden pastry.

I make my way to the front door, debating the merits of every step. I see men laughing emulously, their silhouettes sharp against the cerulean blinds. Someone cranks up the music and the refrain echoes out: Mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise/Rolling with the boys ’til the rest of my days/Chicken, pizza, takeaway/Get your booty in the car and let’s drive away.

I put down the beer and rummage through my pockets, turning over a crumpled twenty, keys, a phone, and a clump of hair. I run a finger through its knots, which feel dry like tying string.

I wipe my sweaty hands on the sleeves of my coat and take another breath. As I push through the door my head spins round, rendering as it goes. I avoid eye contact and muscle past the throng, praying for a shock of copper hair.

I find a corner where I pretend to check my phone, too afraid to rear my head. Ages seem to pass as I take a series of made-up calls. “Yes, yes,” I say. “Feeling much better now. Monday’s perfect. Yes. Yes. Uh-huh. Gotcha.”

When she calls my name I feel a primal sense of relief, as if I’d just heard peekaboo after the longest stretch of silence. 

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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.

I was there at her eighteenth. I spent the afternoon picking out a present. My budget was about twenty pounds and something pitifully specific in pence, split across coins and cash and birthday cheques. I emptied the high street of its tawdry contents as if I’d turned it upside down and given it a shake. I got burger on everything: in my hair, on my shoes, in the folds of my shirt. I brushed myself until the meat, grey and destitute, came flying off like a gymnast on the dismount.

I raked my hair into lines that smelled in the waning sun. I squeezed my skin, translucent like the film of an egg, into trousers made for children. I could barely wait.

I spent the party padding out the suburbs. I sat on her mother’s bed, whose room is never locked, wondering what to do. The room smelled of lavender, but not real lavender like Mum’s. It was lavender from a can.

She wasted her time talking to a boy called Martin, who fancied a girl called Lola (of course: her name was Lola). She ran upstairs and I heard her crying in the adjacent room, so the next morning I got up early and cooked up a spread: bacon, sausages, tinned tomatoes, you name it. I carried the tray upstairs, the glasses and plates all jangly. “Wakey, wakey,” I said, rolling her shoulders gently. “Come on, breakfast’s ready.” She stirred, opening her eyes slowly and — 

Well, you should have seen her face.

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Melanie. Her name is Melanie - or Mel. I don’t know why I didn’t mention that before. I call her Lem for Lemanie because I couldn’t say Melanie when I was young. We have known each other since we had rubber hands and rubber feet, practically since birth. Our mums were close and called each other sister. Lem never knew her dad and neither did I. “But that’s okay,” our mums would say, without ever explaining why. 

I beam at Lem as she walks over, holding a glass of ruby wine. Her hair, mutilated violently into turkey twizzlers, hangs over her freckled face. It’s funny: she is totally devoid of sexual presence. 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, Lem has a polite bump that says made in China. We are friends and nothing more, so don’t push me on that front.

She offers me her standard hug: not too long, not too tight. (She thinks they put me in my place!) I catch her eyeing my rash as I let her go. She averts her eyes, hoping I hadn’t noticed. “So great to see you,” she says.

I tell her about my dream with the gulping sofa – have I told you about it yet?

I ask her not to sit down, or lie down, or perch – preferably ever. She tells me that I’m being silly, that it was just a random dream. We fall silent. Then she clears her throat and says, “There’s someone you should meet”. With tipsy confidence I tell her to lead the way, hurry hurry, let’s go.

“At least let me take those for you,” she says, gesturing at my beer. “I’ll put them there with all the rest.”

I smile back at her and say, “not a fucking chance.”

But the joke doesn’t land. I think I may have shouted.

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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. I call the cab company several times to make sure they don’t forget: eventually the man at the other end tells me not to worry, that he couldn’t forget, even if he wanted to.

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 Lem who isn’t Lem. She is a man I know from work. Her long curly hair, offset by a stubbly beard, is glowing pinks and reds. 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 stand in the corner with a spotty friend, eyeing up the girls.

Lem disappears into the crease of the sofa and no one blinks. As I sprint forward I see locks of pink-red hair, poking out from where she sank. I pull and pull but like the magician’s handkerchief the locks don’t end. Mum says the spool will trip me up, that I will fall and break my neck, that I should come and drink my tea.

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I’m standing in a circle, listening to a man whose name I missed. Lem laughs at everything he says. Her friends have echolalia: they laugh in packs or not at all.

On and on he goes, moving through his three-act joke. I’m not really listening and I get the urge to interject: Lem, what about the time I wet myself in the middle of P.E.? Remember that? And yet I doubt anything could snap them out of it, this life of middle frequencies.

He winds up his story in a loud and affected voice. Everyone turns to laughter, knocking each other on the arm and shouting oh God, dear me, that’s good. He looks bashful and that’s his sale made. His eyes catch mine. I look down and caress my glass’s stem. He calls for another bottle. I don’t like wine but I’m running low on beer.

He asks me to open the 2009 behind me, which he says is very, very special. Everyone gets to talking. I reach for the screw but it’s one of those waiter’s friends, the sort of tool that spies might use on other spies. I try to slink off into a corner but someone grabs my eye. I hold myself together – just.

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Today is the day of the party and I feel guilty about leaving Floyd, my mum’s lissom and hateful 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 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 Floyd a glamorous wife. Not that he would have the slightest clue what to do with her: Mum 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 that one can say. I tell him that the label’s blue, that he’s really, really close. At last he picks it up and looks at me, my face burning from the flush.

He asks for my I.D. I pretend to search my pockets but I know that it’s not there. “I’m thirty-three,” I say. “And surely I look it?!”

“Sorry,” he goes, “I need something with a photo.” Just for show I have another rummage, plucking out a scrunched receipt, which I read in desperation: 1x black dress, 1x purple coat, £18.

I start to panic. My sweat burns like it’s made from acid and I feel compressed into the smallest space, the air thick and hard to swallow.

The walk back home is long and cold.

Floyd recoils when I return.

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“I’m Ella,” the stranger says. “Mel says you’re her oldest friend.”

I smile to the best of my ability and say, “Yes, that’s me.” I’ve been picking at the bottle for a while now, trying to look as though I’m not really trying. Thing is, I really am trying. I am trying very hard to align the curly screw with the middle of the cork, with all the concentration of an astronaut landing on the moon. Beads of sweat collect on my brow. I say, “That’s the temperature of parties for you.”

The jester watches me wrestle with his wine, his lips curling with schadenfreude. He opens up his palms as if to say, need a hand, idiot? I smile acerbically and he goes back to Lem, loading up the sequel to his blockbuster joke.

I can barely hear myself think in this pit of drunken voices. My thoughts deliquesce into muddy pools of panic, the bottle almost slipping from my hand.

Ella senses my confusion and says, “Do you need some help with that?” “No,” I bark, my cheeks turning red. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Never said you were,” she says.

Silence steals the air. Ella looks over at Lem, who waves her arms about like a runway marshal, urging her on. As the silence lingers, I ram the screw in the cork and start to twist.

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They come straight at me, their faces puce and sweaty from the siege. They shout all sorts of nasty things. A man, who had earlier introduced himself as Kris-With-A-K, scoops me off the toilet with his tree-trunk arms.

Bullets of spit, thick as treacle, land square on my face. There’s no time to wipe them off, or pull my pants up, or think of something smart to say. Before I know it I’m curled up on the floor, taking kicks to the head as the smashed gnome watches. “Ho-ho-ho!” he says. “Ha-ha-ha.”

A queue forms as men fill their boots with savagery. “For Andy,” they shout. “For Andy.” I want to say to them, you’re not fighting for Jerusalem, or squaring up to Nazis.

Finally Lem shoves past, looking a wild mess, her white blouse polka dot with cherry blood. She pulls my pants up and tells everyone to leave. Globules of phlegm reach down to her chin, mixing with the tears. “Stop! Stop!” she shouts, “Leave him alone!” They protest their innocence, citing eyes-for-eyes and teeth-for-teeth, but Lem kicks them out, saying “go and help with Andy.”

The party leaves in single file. Kris-With-A-K looks back, short-changed, wondering if I’m worth it.

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I perch on the edge of Lem’s bed, trying to make sense of what just happened: Ella asking if I’m okay, Ella pointing out the blood dripping from my hand and onto the cake, Ella munching on cheese puffs as she says all this. I think about that bottle of wine, the cork lodged firmly in its throat, daring me to try.

Lem’s cat, Pink - who was once her mum’s cat, Pink - is shopping for affection. She jumps up and nudges me with her head, all purrs and dribbles and tickles please. I follow the ridge of bones along her back, turning her white fur red. I go back and colour in the bits I missed, remembering my days at school.

Lem knocks on the door. I tell her to come in since it’s her room after all.

The door swings open and there the jester stands, wearing a silly grin and clutching a first aid kit, which he offers up as tribute.

“Where’s Lem?” I ask.

“You mean Mel? Downstairs. I’m here to fix you up.” He plonks himself on the bed and shuffles over. “New outfit?” He gestures to the cat, who’s kneading the mattress for spouts of milk. 

“I got blood on her.”

“Ha-ha-ha!” he says lamely. “I guessed as much. May I?” He goes to lift my hand but I shove it in my pocket, turning over the clumps of hair.

“Don’t touch me.”

The jester sighs. “It’s a nasty cut. It could get infected”— 

— “Do not talk to me like that”, I interrupt. “I’m not your child.”

The jester turns away and pretends to admire the artwork hanging on Lem’s wall: a Gaussian blur of garish colours, with an embossed circle at its centre.

“Alright, Robert, alright,” he says, shaken. “Whatever you want.”

The party starts up again, the incident with the wine seemingly forgotten. A soulless, drunk rendition of happy birthday staggers from their mouths: haaaaappppyyyy buuuurrrrthdayyyy tooooooooo youuuuuuu,  hip-hip-horaaayyyyy

“You can leave now,” I say, looking over at the door.

The jester hands me the first aid kit before rising from the bed. He faces me and meets my eyes wherever they go. He is tall and handsome in his way, although he looks washed out, exhausted even.

“Mel said you’re slow to trust, which I’m not saying is a bad thing. But you and I, we need to get along.”

“And why’s that, exactly?”

“You know perfectly well why. Or hasn’t she told you yet?”

I mull things over and fidget in my pockets: the keys, the phone, the hair, the twenty, and something else, sharp and cold to touch.

“Of course she did,” I say. “Lem tells me everything.”

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Sirens cut through the pre-dawn air, getting louder all the time. Lem strokes me as I sob into her lap, her coiled hair brushing against my cheek. I feel her body tremble and I tremble back: two lumps of jelly, one atop the other, wobbling on the floor.

I burrow into her body and disappear into her thick blue jumper.  I rest my head on her soft, warm belly, and inhale the stagnant air. Her tummy rumbles and gargles, sending me into fits of laughter. I think of Mum, blowing raspberries on my tush.

“I can’t do this any more,” Lem says, pulling back her jumper. Her eyes are vague and glassy.

It’s then that I realise my mistake: simple, an easy fix.

“Happy birthday,” I whisper. “I forgot to say it before.”

But Lem’s not listening. She is thinking about a different time, going round and round in a loop-the-loop.

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I lock the bathroom door and pace about the room, wandering my own brain like a mislaid tourist. My thoughts overlap with each other, a colony of worms wriggling and jostling for space.

I close my eyes and drag back time.

Lem chases Martin, who chases Lola, who chases whoever likes her least. No one chases me. I walk upstairs and follow the lavender smell. Mum is here, whispering mind your laces and what about your tea?

I open my eyes and forget where I am. I feel dizzy-drunk and my memory stinks. There’s all this commotion in the hall, male voices rising to their peak, and a woman crying shrilly.

I spruce my face with water and catch myself in the shaving mirror, which reaches out to grab me.

A golem stares straight back, snarling as he always does, a corkscrew in his wounded hand.

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Two hours now. Actually, three.

The cab arrives and at first I don’t get in.

My stomach flips and folds like a messy omelette.

The fare is rising: 3.80, 4.00, 4.20.

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.

As we turn into the cul-de-sac, I wind up the window and heave a sigh.

The sky is crimson and full of memory.






By Callum Barrell