An overspill from From your favourite sky.
Imagine that I’m a recovering alcoholic. Imagine that I have issues and torments, the kind that need a troubled cure for a troubled mind. Imagine that I’ve gathered with seven other self-flagellating substance misusers to try and effect some small changes in my life which may just set me on the road to recovery. This is not so much therapy as self-help, with serious doses of woe and misfortune from all corners and sides. It’s about stepping out of the mindset which allows us down and outs to proceed on autopilot, so that we can repurpose our rote behaviours away from what we don’t want, and towards what we do. To press pause, before we press play again.
At least, that’s the theory.
Having relaxed in our seats and closed our eyes, we are asked by a gentle guiding soul to imagine a lemon on a pure white plate. As we are mentally picking up the lemon and putting it to our respective noses, the silence – which we have been made aware is not in fact silence simply by having it drawn to our attention (the whirr of fans, talking from the next meeting room along, the cries of seagulls) – is broken by the entry of a grey-haired man with a similarly-coloured moustache and tattoos on his muscular forearms; an apparently random entity. We open our eyes, surprised, but our guiding soul decides to ignore him and proceed with the visualisation, trying to maintain the spell, to keep us in the palm of her hand, and the lemon on the plate from vanishing. So, in the stranger’s presence, we are asked to take a knife and cut our lemons in half, observing how the fruit feels, its colour, the smell as the serrated edge bites through its skin. ‘Cut a slice from the lemon, and eat it.’ I eat mine with the rind on, pips’n’all, wincing at the sourness in front of Miles Davis, to see if the sight of lemon being eaten renders him incapable of playing, as the urban myth suggests is true of trumpeters, and so that a lemon tree begins to grow inside of me, the fruits emerging in a matter of minutes in place of fingers and toes and ears and nose and – no, I’ll stop my imagination and yours short of there. The guiding soul has said that all this might seem surreal or weird to us, but to me, it’s what I do, imagining lemons, or rather, what is not, what is elsewhere, what might be, to the extent that sometimes I find it hard to be present in the actual moment, which this visualisation of the non-actual is confusingly proceeding from.
Having eaten some lemon, we come back into the room and open our eyes again. The interloper is still there and I ask him which meeting he’s expecting this to be. ‘School governors?’ he says, and we tell him, no, and he leaves, having witnessed something which must have seemed infinitely more surreal and weird out of context than in.
We are asked to volunteer an aspect of our behaviour that we would like to change. When it comes to my turn, I look around the room, as if to make doubly sure that none of the people with whom I work directly are there to hear what I’m about to say, and then talk about burning the candle at both ends, and how my – ahem – ‘creative pursuits’ (a phrase which occasions some fnarr fnarring, so that I’m obliged to say ‘oi, stop it!’) keep me up till all hours and minimise the amount of time I have in which to sleep, until inevitably I end up feeling exhausted, falling into a daily afternoon slump that inevitably affects my work. The guiding soul teases out how I feel about this. I am conflicted. I wish there were twice as many hours in a day, but there aren’t, and if I want to keep imagining lemons while also attending a place of gainful employment at which I am on occasion invited to imagine a lemon, then my behaviour has to change.
To finish, and without sharing, we commit to a task; mine has to be to go to bed earlier. I already know this – had in fact resolved upon that course of action the previous day – but sharing something of myself with people to whom I rarely if ever open up gives my commitment an edge. And last night, I did indeed go to bed early, or at least, earlier. One harvested lemon doesn’t make a summer, and I can’t say that I feel entirely refreshed on the back of it, but I believe that will come, in time.
For five or six days now, he’s been tapping. Ever since Carolyn put the tulips in a vase on the sill of the kitchen window. Mistaking the purplish-red of the petals for berries, perhaps. Or – but no. It couldn’t be.
When she hears him tapping she rises from her desk in the study down the hallway and ventures to look at him, inching across the kitchen tiles so that she can better see the glint in his sideways-on eye, the space-hopper orange of his beak, the sootiness of his feathering. He looks wise. Masterful, even. They stare at each other, the double panes of glass between them until a sudden gust of wind spooks the bird into taking cover within the laurel hedge which encloses the view from the window. She leaves the kitchen with the vase of tulips and sets them on her desk. But still the blackbird comes and taps, two or three times a day.
By the sixth morning, she has quietened and slowed her movements so much that the bird does not flinch even when she puts her fingertip to the glass. She waits for him to tap his beak against it, but it’s still a shock when he does. As she feels the glass vibrate against her finger, a feeling of exultation passes through her being.
Each night when Carolyn gets home from work, she steps out of the car and pauses there in the garage, poised between three worlds; the world in her head, and the worlds outside of it, the exterior of work and the interior of home. The twilit sky is the void between the worlds. She sees the lights of aircraft pass high across it, and follows the path of one for a while, before looking instead for the emerging patterns of the familiar constellations. She wishes there was a moon she could wish upon, to transform the blackbird back into the man who is gone, for by now she is quite sure that it is his reincarnation. Genie or none, tomorrow morning she will open the window, and let the blackbird back into her world.
She dreamt of chocolate; she dreamt she was chocolate, wrapped in alternating layers of silver and gold foil till she could no longer move a muscle. The man wrapping her pierced each successive layer at her mouth with his finger so that she could breathe, but otherwise she was entirely contained. All she felt was a twitching inside of herself. But that was a physical tic; her mind was at peace, wrapped tight as she was – she had been absolved of all responsibility. The only thing to do was to wait, drifting on currents of aimless thought and a growing ache. She was waiting for the man to break her, to snap the brittle parts of her body with the foil still on; slowly to unwrap the pieces of her, putting each in his mouth, feeling her dissolve upon his tongue. From being tightly wrapped, rigid, she would be made molten, and hers would be a liquidity that he might mould in any way he chose. She wanted only to be the shape he desired her to be. While wrapped in silver and gold, while melting about him, she gave up her right to self-determination. And yet in those endless moments, he was the more subservient – not so much to the greediness of his own desire, but to the fulfilment over and over again of this urgent need of hers, which could only be sated by the cyclical sequence of stilling, breaking, eating, and remoulding. She was couverture, she was Callebaut. She was ganache, she was fondant. She was salted caramel.
Lucky then that the man of her dreams was a chocoholic.
The afternoon was wan. The day had gradually lost its colour, as if all the light was being sucked out of the sky. Hitherto, there had been the definite suggestion of spring, a mildness in the air which allowed long-hunched shoulders to release all their tension at last after a long, cold winter. But now that daubing warmth from the paintbrush of the sun was as good as a distant memory, and once again he suspected he would remain forever trapped in a one hundred year-winter.
When he hears the call of the tawny owls loud and unmistakeable in the otherwise silent night, he thinks of how if they were Strix aluco, they might spend the nights hunting together, flying silently – ecstatically – on the wing to drop extended talons down on dormouse or vole or beetle, or even the plump succulence of a frog. Across the woods they would call to each other, first the long note of his drawn out hoooouh, and then the tu-whit tu-whoo of her response. Once each had its catch, they would return to the Scots pine roost to feast together. Later there would be the press of feathers in an ivy-curtained hole in the pine’s trunk, and just enough room to preen each other until morning came.
Past midnight, as incapable of switching off his awareness of the night as any nocturnal animal, his thoughts reverberate like the owls’ duet.
Inside, we are all ribbed and veined, but thin as he was and livid as he had been, you could see bones and wires on the outside of his frame. There was barely an ounce of fat on him; fury had burned it all away, until, if you took up a pair of mallets, you might play him like a xylophone. The superficial temporal vein stood out on his forehead. Once he had been both of the words tattooed on the knuckles of either hand: HATE and LOVE. Had you seen him at the height of his fury, you would have thought that he couldn’t possibly have become the lover that he was – soft fingers applied with both a gentle intensity and an attentiveness to the needs of the body and mind he was touching. Instinctively he understood that the greatest pleasures lay in furnishing his lover’s erotic imagination while never forgetting to feed the emotional furnace of her heart. Of course, his head and body were not the only parts of him which were ribbed and veined, thought it was not so much this soft cylinder rendered hard which brought his lover to her knees as the gifts he had already given her, the scene he had already set. He was all ribs and veins, while she was all ribbed and vaulted tunnels in which a lover could secretly hide, and arterial warmth, in which he could bask.
He was in love with the sound of her singultus. By extension with her, but it was the hiccups which had initially drawn his attention to her every movement and mannerism. Sugar’s diaphragm was susceptible to the slightest provocation. From the first time he had heard her hiccup onwards, he had been charmed by the almost apologetic tone and timbre of her each and every involuntary emission. Sitting at a neighbouring desk, he soon took it upon himself to make sure that throughout the working day, she was watered with sparkling rather than still. A graceful creature, her hiccups were delicate flutters and birdlike chirps, relatively speaking. Sugar guessed that her desk neighbour was soft on her. Secretly pleased to have an admirer who seemed not to mind her hiccupping (in fact quite the opposite), she did nothing to discourage him. Under the cover of his desk, he found himself aroused, and it was always a satisfaction – hiccup – when the next one came. He would steal a sideways glance to see in profile her breast rise and fall and her Adam’s apple bob. Then – it made his heart lurch – she would put her slender fingers to her lips, as if to steady herself against the reflex action’s gentle onslaught.
One day he had the idea to record the sound of her hiccuping on his phone. Surreptitiously, of course. Lying in bed that night with headphones on, he played back his recording, allowing it to loop. He listened to the cycle endlessly: the explosion of her hic, the fall of her cup, the fluting laughter which often followed, her valiant attempts to swallow successive hiccups down. He fell into step with her, and had never felt more intensely alive than when he managed to match his long-delayed ejaculation to hers.
‘Woe is me’ was the phrase which most often passed his lips and it was for that reason that both his family and his friends had taken to calling him Alas instead of Alan. Conversing with himself, his habitually woebegone side always wrestled the straight man he might otherwise have been to the ground, so it was inevitable that he too would begin to see himself as Alas. The name stuck, inside and out. It was only when on his deathbed that he truly saw the funny side. There really had been nothing to moan or worry about, compared to this, the painful end of it all. Alas died laughing.
They cut into the mattress with a Stanley knife and then ripped the tear asunder with their bare hands. Feathers puffed into the air, skeletal springs were exposed and the mattress would never feel the warmth of two bodies lie against its quilted surface again. Under cover of darkness they slipped down the garden to the bank of the river and rowed away, their rucksacks heavy with the wads of money that they had found beneath the feathers, between the springs. The gift of all travel was theirs at last, and with it the gift of all tongues.