Image: Happy Couple, by hafecheese
This story was first published in ‘From Whatnot To Where I Belong’ in 2013. Image used, creative commons attribution non-commercial share-alike.
The bus hinged around arching corners of endless overpasses. This unkempt net of highway had been cast over the country to catch shoals of fat bright motorcars. It seemed here knotted and there unbound, and never finished. On verges, and across still un-tarmacadamed lanes, drove yellow pillaging machines with bright sharp teeth. Leaning and craning and biting they hewed at the earth, at its rich jewellery of stones.
Cliff’s hand, sensitive in the extreme to Audrey’s touch, raised fine hairs as her arm approached. There was a rhythm to their touching, a blind dance. One would pull away, and the other cross the gap between them. A hand would find itself inside a hand, or a cheek against a shoulder, or an arm loosely wound around a waist.
On Audrey’s phone shone the woven façade of fitted Victoriana. Tween girls and androgynous boys flitting by with each soft finger flick. They posed awkwardly in perfect outfits in orchards, on cobbles, in torn abandoned rail yards. As the bus leapt and landed Cliff reached reflexively for his calf leather camera case, patting it down, confirming its weight and spayed boot shape.
“Amélie, dark dreamer under pearlescent seas.” Audrey read. “Sandals, Ralph Lauren. Stripped stockings, Gucci. Gothic Summer-dress, custom.”
Cliff frowned, “Bulimia, catalogue.”
“Stop it,” she said, pinching the screen to zoom in on Amélie’s pale skin and hollowed cheeks. “So hot to flavour a look like that. Like, with a hint of something usually naff. Fail on the heels though.”
Cliff turned the phone over in her hand, the image flicking down to reveal Amélie’s, “Black platform heels, vintage.”
Audrey whistled, “Hope she kept the receipt.”
“I doubt Claire’s Accessories take vomit damaged returns.”
She looked out at the hazy buzzing knots of trees that verged the motorway. “I want to be a dreamer under pearlescent seas.”
Cliff released her phone and began studying their fellow travellers, commuters wedged into their faded turquoise seats.
“Wait long enough, I’ll drown you.”
At the town Cliff hefted Audrey’s bag and his own, bulky with the hard projections of tripod and lights. He wouldn’t let her help him carry their gear. As they left the bus she slipped about him, nuzzling his chest, although he was a head shorter.
The trail began almost immediately, through open cast iron gates at the head of the town’s one shopping street. They dodged the Autumn mud, cresting a verge that divided the narrow line of woods and counsel estates beyond from the loose stones and potholes of the great house’s drive. As they followed the road the woods thickened and thin dirt-brown streams sprang up like sewers between the sparse beach trees.
Nearing the great house they moved off into the thickest strip of woods. Cliff slipped two fingers into the back of Audrey’s jeans and kissed under her ear. She moved away, skipping a stream and stretching to pose against an old oak, its bare branches thick enough to block out the sky. He set to work extending the compact tripod; oozing its feet into the humus of the woodland floor. The camera came in parts that clicked together, satisfying a desire for clean contemporary joy. Raw snaps ricocheted under the canopy. Passages of shadows through the still damp woods. Passage of evening into night.
Audrey set small lamps burning amongst the trees. Beeswax cups that shone bright blue and green and purple inside their plastic sheaths. He followed her, camera in hand, pulling the focus from skin to fabric to surrounding woods as she wheeled amidst the trees and laughed at him. Cars groaned and crawled up towards the great house, ignored.
On the bus back to the city, Cliff opened a battered copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ he’d picked up in a charity bookshop. He read out a description of the ‘villainous’ guns hung above Heathcliff’s fireplace, and mocked Emily Bronte’s use of adjectives. Audrey smiled but didn’t otherwise respond, her eyes on the camera’s LED screen, her fingers greedily commanding- next, back, next. Later Cliff would phone his brother, who worked in the new glass and steel courthouse by the park and wore a mask at night that pumped cold air like the whispers of nights on moors heady with the history of things written and unwritten, and tell him that when Audrey ignored him he sometimes imagined her dashed under the quirky whirl of wheel and undercarriage, and suffering, but not at his hands.
In the city the narrow streets of the artist’s quarter ran with tourists who caught on the chords of buskers, burrs in the eddies of a swift pedestrian stream. Audrey knew the hostess of a party that was happening that night. The girl had exchanged letters with a famous local film director for years, and met him finally at a screening of his newest, poorest work. They had gone together to a bar famous for its celebrity clientele and necked and he had finger banged her in the ladies washroom, and she had gone home alone.
Walking towards the party they passed couples headed back into the city centre. Cliff watched them, making eye contact with the girls, varying his facial expression and carefully noting their reactions. He had once read an article about an autistic woman who designed pressurised bellows to hug cattle and unreflective passages to ease them to their slaughter. Afterwards, he had searched online for autistic spectrum tests, and blogged about the empathy he felt for her perspective on the world.
The party was in the basement apartment of a building otherwise dedicated to offices. As they entered, Cliff told the guests about a party nearby years before, whose revellers had clambered up to a roof garden. They’d jaunted about on garrets and slanted slates and out further along the roofs of other buildings. He told the guests how ironic it was that the host had broken his back, not there but soon after, falling from the roof of an ordinary detached house. It was a true story, but he told it badly, interesting only a drunk and overly friendly guest named Tibor. Tibor shared his own fables- stories of young men damaged doing things that should certainly have been safe, and watched Audrey explore the party, speaking to the hostess and to other girls, and playing with her dark pageboy haircut and the trim of her American Apparel dress, and quickly drinking several glasses of a punch heavy with crushed frozen fruit and Jameson.
Audrey pissed in the apartment’s overly large bathroom, kicking off her shoes and running bare toes through a thick furred bath mat. She read a decorative china plate on the bathroom door, ignoring its painted stitch-work advice to wash her hands, and delayed returning to the party. Instead she sat on the lip of the bath and studied the spines of a stack of books piled by the sink. The whiskey and lateness made the titles hard to read, but she refused to tilt her head, gradually deciphering them, and running her hands unseen down the inside of the porcelain bath and leaning back and breathing heavily.
In the kitchen Audrey poured herself a glass of water, and allowed a stranger to kiss her and take her hand and put his on the inside of her leg, outside her dress. Over his shoulder she smiled at the hostess who stood automatically on guard between the kitchen and the living room, and smoked and moved her feet in a way that drew attention to her dark blue stockings.
The stranger’s pupils were dilated, and Audrey asked if he had any MDMA.
“Yeah, you know, pills,” she told him, smiling a little and playing with the fingers of his hand in hers, fingers that had stilled but woke again at this encouragement.
“Pills?” he said, and shook his head and laughed. “Naa man, might have a wee bit of coke.”
Audrey started at the closing of the door. She let go of the stranger and left the room, and found Cliff sitting on a chaise longue with Tibor and laughing and eating a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream. Cliff touched her ass and made to kiss her, but she moved away and he returned to talking. Audrey took another glass of punch and left the room and found the kitchen and corridor empty, and walked about softly attempting doors.
The stranger, whose name was Pieter, and who had grown up in East Germany after the wall but still poor, and emigrated late enough to have an accent and a strange hardness and distance and certainty, was standing in the bedroom of the hostess Claire. He walked about and lifted things, touching them ostentatiously, and turned as Audrey entered, closing the door behind her. Claire sat by the foot of the bed, drinking white wine, her knees folded under her chin, her legs crossed, feet slipping in and out of ballet pumps.
Audrey joined her, letting her head rest on Claire’s shoulder. They were not old friends, but whispered to one other and giggled and played footsie. Pieter sat down on the bed, hanging one leg off, and pulled out a small baggie of legal cocaine substitute and a little mirror. He made a great show of chopping the powder and cutting it into lines with a shopping centre loyalty card.
“Do we need to use, like… a bill?”
Pieter shook his head as Audrey approached, hair down before her eyes, her shoes off and hands turning up the hem of her dress.
“Just hit it girl.”
Claire watched Audrey dip her head to the mirror down between Pieter’s legs, holding one finger to a nostril and snorting and rising and tilting her head back and passing the glass with one line gone, and one scatted a little. Audrey sat on be bed and Pieter lifted her up and set her down in his lap. He wrapped an arm about her, fingers on her belly through the thin dress, and watched Claire while she snorted and coughed once and stood and dropped the mirror on her bedside dresser and left the room.
Outside, the snow had turned to rain. More revellers had arrived, duffel coats and capes and pea coats soaked with melt-water. A group of Romanian poets had begun reciting Brion Gysin permutations: repetitive verses that Cliff listened to and Tibor faded in an out of, once in a while laughing and shaking his head and looking around for someone to share the joke. Claire seated herself next to Cliff, and he said something appreciative she didn’t catch, and she returned his smile, and the poetry continued while the rain fell down outside.
A taxi driver caught their eyes, drove a little too fast, added spurious items to the tally. A road slick but pockmarked, trundling beneath the cab.
“Jandek’s playing in the gallery in college.”
“He’s this mad bastard who… Basically he’s this outsider artist. Plays atonal music, really out there. Like Tom Waits crossed with Ted Kaczynski.”
“I love that guy.”
“He played South by South West last year. We should go.”
“Who, the unabomber?” Audrey drew cartoon figures in the misted window.
“Jandek… We should go.”
“Exactly. Maybe I can get us tickets, do a review for the paper.”
“You should set fire the theatre.”
“It’s in a gallery.”
“Whatever, burn the place to the ground.”
He reached over and kissed her and she tasted ice-cream. A pop song came on the radio, and she leant forward, displacing him, and told the driver to turn it up. She began to toss her hair and dance with her hands and he sat back against his door and watched how the rain water stuck her dress to her skin, and toyed with a lighter in the pocket of his skinny black jeans.
In Audrey’s room they fooled around under a poster of ‘Le Chat Noir’, and a print of a famous painting of a frozen tsunami. Afterwards Cliff read aloud from Ariel as Audrey lay naked and smoking at the other end of the bed and checked messages on her phone. He ran his foot down the crack of her ass and down her calf and touched her ankle.
“I need to sleep.” She spoke quietly. Her parents shifted audibly in the next room.
Audrey looked at him over her shoulder. She stubbed out her cigarette and rose and padded across their clothes to the window. She lit a stick of caramel incense and stood looking out.
“Did you like the photos?”
She paused. “Not sure. You might have to mess with them.”
“We can try again tomorrow.” He moved about under her sheets. “It’s cold.”
“I’m not so warm.”
“Get over here then.”
He pulled back the duvet and held it open.
The window was a blue blurred view onto chalk painted houses and the hungry sea beyond, ships anchored far out but still visible, glowing through the approaching storm.
She looked back at him and in time came to him, leaving the sea to its devices.