Reading an old story you’ve written is kind of like reading an old diary. You look at the words and sometimes think “What the hell was I thinking?”. It’s always an intriguing experience to look back at those pages and notice how you’ve changed, your priorities and opinions and musical tastes, but I think it can be interesting to note how much of your current self is being shaped in those mini-epics of daily life. It’s the same with the stories. The tale below was published a little while ago now, but in re-reading it I can see elements of my current style, and themes that still interest me today: the scars, inside and out, and the tainted romance of the ordinary, the phone numbers in nightclubs and the broken water fountains. Re-reading has been a strange little walk down memory lane for me … an autumn walk in the park …
He had opened his mouth to ask her about the scars, and found that he didn’t quite dare. ‘How about a movie ?’ he heard himself say instead, but the late September sky was such a pale and cotton-cloud blue that Kate had touched his arm and whispered, ‘No … let’s take a walk in the park yeah ?’
Steven thought it over. The weather was fine now, but he could see his own breath and guessed that maybe a storm was coming, judging by the softly throbbing ache in his skull. The chill breeze had already burned Kate’s nose and ears a bitter crimson, and the tender, scarred pads of own fingertips stung with the cold, because he’d lent her his gloves.
The glory of summer was gone now, blown away on autumn winds, but when Steven recalled the warm smoothness of Kate’s skin against his own the temperature around them seemed to elevate several welcome degrees there and then.
‘Whatever you want.’ he surrendered with a smile, just like he always did. But then, Steven never could resist a pretty face.
* * * * *
Twin stone lions, shrouded in moss, sat poised either side of the tall iron gates that led into Shelby Park and watched them enter with grey, sightless eyes. Steven, as always, watched Kate.
Today her hair was tied back and tamed against the breeze, although he’d seen it spilled across a pillow and knew how good that looked. Her hair was an unremarkable but honest blonde, her eyes an honest and more than remarkable blend of green shot through with flecks of gold.
Those eyes met his own suddenly and he saw that she was remembering last night too, their first time together. They’d talked about it a little, got maddeningly close to it sometimes, but last night there had been no words and it had just happened. He trembled in the dark, scared of hurting her, scared that the condom might break, scared that he might not be good enough, and Kate’s arms and legs had held him in a dual embrace that was like a living cradle.
And when it was over they kidded around, high on the thrill of this new intimacy and already beginning to suspect that there was more to their union than just the physical. Steven tickled her legs and Kate had laughed so much that she tumbled from the bed and onto the floor and there they did it again, slower this time, and better.
Later, she lay snoring gently and he sat in a basket chair near the window, smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio play slow songs after midnight. One of them had been playing in the nightclub the night he and Kate had met. Steven had been alone, a stranger in a strange town, and Kate had been with one of her mates, a loud and claret-haired girl too drunk to remember Steven’s name or probably even his face. They’d danced, him and Kate, and Steven had asked tentatively for her phone number. She’d scrawled it in lipstick on an unfolded cigarette packet and a week later he’d rung her – that was a little over a month ago. He hadn’t met any of her family yet (though he’d noticed how evasive she became whenever he brought the subject up) or any more of her friends (though if they were all as obnoxious as the claret-haired girl, he reflected, then perhaps that was no bad thing.).
Last night he’d watched her dreaming eyes twitch rapidly behind their lids and thought about the scars on her arms. He’d seen them as they made love and all at once he understood why, on all the sunny holiday snaps she’d shown him, she had chosen to wear long sleeves.
Little white twists of skin, like tally marks counting down days. Scars that that night, as Kate lay sleeping in the semi-dark, Steven couldn’t keep from kissing.
Her voice snapped him back to Shelby Park. ‘You okay, Steve ? You look a bit pale.’
His breath jetted forth. ‘Never better. In fact – ‘
And then a needle of hot, steely agony was sliding into his brain and he reeled a little, his hand flying to his brow like some surreal dove. The needle slid free as quickly as it pierced, leaving him dizzy and slightly nauseous.
Kate seized his hand; her face was suddenly paper-white. ‘Steven, what’s wro –’
‘I’m okay,’ he insisted. He could feel those little arteries at the sides of his head ticking away like time bombs. ‘I’m okay.’
Kate squeezed his hand. ‘What happened ?’
He managed a smile. ‘I know it sounds weird – ‘ Better go careful here, he thought. ‘ – but I get these headaches sometimes.’ He tapped his temple with mock solemnity. ‘Static in my attic.’
He saw her expression darken and rushed ahead. ‘No … no, don’t worry, it’s nothing serious. I only ever get them on cloudy days … something to do with air pressure, I think. A lot of people –’
‘I know.’ Kate said softly. ‘I’ve heard of that. You just proper scared me, that’s all.’
She slipped her arms around him and held him tight.
* * * * *
They walked, and talked, and laughed and kissed. By the time they were crossing the gardens, blazing even in the shadow of winter, he felt a little better. As they reached the water fountain, broken now and overgrown with weeds, the dizziness and nausea had dissipated completely though the headache remained, lurking heavily behind his eyes.
The little he’d told Kate about the headaches had been true but incomplete. They’d haunted him since childhood, starting when he was perhaps seven or eight. His mother, a highly respected churchgoer, had condemned the spells as wicked thoughts – thoughts to be punished. Each and every time he was driven to tears and yells by the agony of them she taught him salvation; just the memory of it and he could almost feel his fingertips and palms blistering against the oven door, taste the soap on his tongue –
It was a slice of his life that Kate would never know about.
They both had their secrets.
* * * * *
Later, it rained.
They were just strolling along the edge of the lake, eyes sharp for swans, when the heavens abruptly commenced to rock and roll. Monstrous thorny clouds stained the sky with shadow and the fragile skin of the lake shivered with ripples. A moment later thunder spoke – Kate flinched – and the first scattered tears soon became a downpour of fat and bitter raindrops. They ran, and took shelter beneath a rusty canopy swiss-cheesed by vandals. Luckily, the most intact section of the shelter hung over the graffiti-scarred bench, and so they sat down.
‘Oh Steven, it’s such a lovely day, why don’t we walk in the park ?’ he mimicked her, not unkindly. She ducked her head and giggled, and something inside him flared warmly. ‘You and your bright ideas.’ he added, taking her hand.
‘Kate,’ he ventured cautiously. ‘There’s something I want to ask you.’
‘What is it ?’ Immediately he saw the barriers go up behind her eyes, and inwardly he cursed. But he needed an answer, needed to know that she trusted him before he could commit himself further.
‘The scars.’ he said. ‘The ones on your arm.’
Kate looked at him for a long moment before replying. ‘Well,’ she sighed. ‘Thanks a lot, Steve. Thanks for introducing that particular conversational tangent into our lives. That’s just wonderful.’
‘I – I’m sorry.’ he stammered. ‘I didn’t mean to –’
‘To what ?’ Kate twisted her grip from his and stood up. ‘To pry ? To make me talk about things that I might not want to, might not even need to ?’ She chuckled, brief and bitter. ‘I wish you’d thought of that sooner.’
Steven stood up, too. This had never happened to him before and he was terrified. He could feel her drawing away from him, pulling back her affections as instinctively as she might snatch her hand away from a naked flame. ‘Kate, please –’
She turned her back to him. The rain rattled loudly on the metal above their heads, emphasising her silence; water seeped through the cracks in the canopy and formed puddles at their feet. Suddenly Steven had an almost overwhelming urge to touch her hair, and realised miserably that his headache was getting worse.
‘I’m sorry.’ she said eventually, though she didn’t turn ‘round. ‘It’s just … touchy subject, you know ?’
‘I think so.’ he offered, and winced. ‘I mean, yes. Yes, it must be.’
‘There’s a lot of stuff, you see.’ she told him quietly. ‘Stuff that’s difficult to talk about with someone new. D’you know what I mean ?’
Steven remembered the hot oven door, burning away his fingerprints, his identity, his hopes. He nodded, though of course she couldn’t see it. ‘Yes. I know.’
She turned to face him. ‘It was a long time ago.’ she said evenly, though her green eyes glittered like grass wet with dew. ‘The fifteen year old me thought she needed it. The twenty-four year old me doesn’t agree. But we’ve reached an agreement. I don’t give her any grief for the choices she made and she doesn’t spoil things for me now. It’s a good deal for both of us.’
She returned to the bench and sat down. After a moment, Steven joined her. Hesitantly, he hooked an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. Her wet hair smelled very sweet, he discovered, of the peach-scented shampoo she liked.
‘I can’t tell you more than that.’ she whispered. ‘I will, but not yet.’
‘Thank you.’ he told her softly.
She looked at him, her eyelashes glimmering with rain and teardrops. ‘For what ?’
Steven smiled. His headache pounded. ‘For trusting me.’ he said.
* * * * *
Later, the rain stopped.
For a little while they sat and watched the clouds slip apart like tired dancers, then stood and turned for home. They walked hand in hand and in easy silence, Kate idly kicking a path through the wet drifts of autumnal leaves.
All around them, dusk bloomed. The darkness stole their shadows and grew darker still. Steven kissed her cheek. Kate smiled at him, her tears spent and dry on his lips.
The lions, stony eyes somehow filled with a deep and knowing sadness, watched them leave.
Inside Kate’s small, comfortable apartment, she pulled off her coat and his gloves and threw them onto the nearest chair. ‘Coffee ?’ she offered.
‘Thanks.’ Steven said. ‘Need any help ?’
She shook her head. ‘Are you sure your all right, Steve ? You’re white as a ghost.’
‘I’m fine.’ He touched her hair. ‘Just cold, that’s all.’
‘I’ll put the heating on for a bit, then.’ She gave him a quick kiss, little more than a glancing peck on the cheek, but a kiss is a kiss is a kiss and Steven was glad of it. ‘Sit down. I won’t be long.’
She vanished into the kitchen. He sat on the couch and closed his eyes. Something’s wrong, he thought. Very wrong. He seemed to remember that usually, the headache built and built until the storm broke and then he was fine. But not this time. The rain had ceased an hour ago and now the sky was clear enough to count stars, but the sharp, driving pulse in his skull was growing rapidly worse.
He could hear Kate in the kitchen, filling the kettle with water and innocently slaughtering some song under her breath, but the sounds were echoing somehow, as if coming from within a deep, dark well …
The pain was a hammer in his head, each blow harder than the last. Louder. Causing more damage. A film of cold sweat sprung up on his forehead.
His hands, shaking slightly, opened and closed. Opened and closed.
He blacked out.
* * * * *
Hours later, he awoke.
Cautiously, he risked opening his bloodshot baby blues and discovered himself sprawled uncomfortably upon a hard, damp couch that he faintly recognised. The window blinds were down and the room was flooded with darkness. His right arm and shoulder sang painfully. He could feel the shreds of a dream dissolving behind his eyes but couldn’t remember a moment of it, only …
Something shining … in the dark.
Scowling, he swung his long legs off the couch and stood up. The movement chewed at his sore and unrested muscles with razor-like teeth. He needed a hot bath, he decided. A hot bath and something cool to drink. His mouth was dry and oddly metallic.
But, he reflected cheerfully, at least his headache was gone.
He crossed over to the window, carefully navigating the unfamiliar room. He pulled at the strings and parted the blinds. Sudden brightness slashed the dark, dazzling him for a moment. Recovering, his fingers flexed apart two slats, to get himself a better look at the unexpected view.
Where the hell am I ?
Haloed sodium lights blazed down upon a street of shadows and starlit puddles. Two or three cars slid by. He saw no people.
He couldn’t ever remember having been to this part of the city before. Come to think of it, he thought as he turned to check out his surroundings in the grim glow of the streetlights, that went double for the apartment.
Then something – perhaps even the fear of what he might find – some impulse drew him to the bedroom. As he pushed the door inward, another door seemed to open, this one in his mind, and he caught a fleeting image of a room full of bodies and heard himself think, Again dear God I –
But then he found the girl, and all his thoughts were swept away like twigs in a stream.
She was waiting for him amid a tangle of torn and bloody sheets, her slender body curved into a foetal question mark. She wore nothing but her knickers and bra, although her form was too childlike and too mutilated to be in any way sexual. The wounds – hundreds of them – glistened at him like
dark-lipped mouths, silently accusing. The knife had been left buried in her chest up to the hilt, breaking her heart for always.
Her eyelashes glimmered with crimson teardrops.
‘Oh …fuck.’ Steven breathed. His body was warm meat lifeless with shock, hooked up to a brain reeling with terror. His skin was senseless, except for the scarred pads of his fingertips. They tingled.
‘Fuck.’ he said again, backing into the living room. The soles of his Converse left bloody imprints on the grey carpet. He could feel the headache coming back, a tremor of hotwired agony. He ran a trembling hand through his short, dark hair, spiking it with a flux of blood and cold sweat.
‘FUCK!’ he shouted, dizzy with horror now and still blind to the crimson splashes drying on his clothes, his hands, his lips.
‘FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!’
Dimly, he wished he could remember some other word.
He staggered down the hallway, ricocheting off the walls – his hands reached out for the door and suddenly it was open and he was stumbling down the stairs, choking on a silent scream. He crashed into another door, somehow sprung the lock and hurtled out into the street. The angry wind clawed at his face, turned scalding tears to ice.
He snapped his gaze from side to side and saw no-one.
He shook. He wept. He ran.
* * * * *
‘How about a walk in the park ?’ The words plumed from his mouth like smoke, although it had been some months now since he’d even thought about having a cigarette.
She flashed him a puzzled frown. He understood that. The desolate February sky shimmered like beaten silver, threatening yet more snow, but her new boyfriend didn’t seem to care. Steven understood her puzzlement, and smiled gratefully when she dismissed it and took his hand. She was wearing his gloves.
‘It’s freezing out here,’ she told him gently. ‘Can’t we just go see a movie, or something ?’
They did. But Steven couldn’t concentrate on the movie. His head had started to ache.
When at last they exited the cinema, dusk was sliding inevitably into night and it was snowing. The moon was a pearl blazing icily through a thin veil of cloud. They stopped on a windswept street corner and she surprised him with a kiss, although his mouth tasted bitter autumn rains.
He looked at her then, really looked at her, and was struck once more by how sweet his new girlfriend was. Tumbling locks of raven hair, framing a dark, oval face. Welcoming eyes, deep, and brown like September leaves. Eyes that a month ago had locked onto his across a crowded café and made him forget that once again, he was a stranger in a strange town.
He was glad they’d gone to the cinema together, in spite of
his headache. Glad he’d surrendered with a smile, just like he always did.
But then, Steven never could resist a pretty face.