An Acquired Taste
I want one. Why can't I have one? Just one. There's lots of them about. Clip-clopping along the street in big shoes, at bus stops, with mouths ajar in little gaggles of girlfriends. There's one opposite at 72. A tall one. A thin one. And I want her. Just her. Just as she is now, gliding across the room, lights on, nothing else. And I'm watching, quietly watching, nose and tongue pressed against the glass, my breath wrapping me in a sheath of vapour.
"Didi, supper's ready."
The name Mother calls ascending the stairwell could belong to someone else and I have no name. I am no one, invisible; an apparition fading like hope into the striped wallpaper. I wither and ebb, blending in; into the scuffed tiles and metal chairs at the cafÃ© where she serves bagels and cappuccino, smiling at strangers; into the trees in their spring costumes when she walks home through the park, in the pitted air suspended like old curses over the bridge.
"Come along, Didi, don't think I don't know what you're doing."
The girl stands in the twilight like a mannequin in a shop window, motionless, marble white, a flash of dark between her legs. And I want some. Mother need never know. I would lick her all over, toes and ankles, long legs, gleaming hip bones and shoulder blades, the purple wells reflecting hollow cheeks, her translucent neck, turned to one side so that it is only one eye that feasts on the gathering darkness.
"I won't tell you again."
She will. She does. There's no one else at whom she can shout. No one else would listen. I don't listen. Love is about never having to listen.
The food on the narrow table hisses like an irate kettle. Ssss. Ssss. Didi, you look sick. I am sick. She's sick. Mother has a weight problem. Not her fault, you understand. She eats like a bird. Sausage and chips, baked beans, white bread, cold tea. I don't touch these things. I never touch these things. My needs are more refined.
The food hisses. Ssss. Ssss.
I watch, her cheeks puffing like bellows, false teeth going clickety-click, clickety-click, her little hands wielding the knife and fork with the lively movements of a savant in a knitting race. She's eating to forget, an exercise that began the day my father died, shortly before or shortly after I was born, I can't recall which, but he was a man with appetites and in his honour the flame beneath the chip pan is eternally lit. The sight of ketchup leaking in bloody clots from the corners of her lips reminds me of toothpaste oozing from the wrong end of the tube. Mother's mouth, proportionately minuscule, is a restless toad in a face as round as a balloon glutted on helium, a pink sphere stabbed by raven eyes lambent with pleasure, these murky indentations pushing out a nose immune to the low-lying clouds of cholesterol. Her ears drip constellations of obscure alloys that glimmer under the fly-flecked bulb and I relish vanity's abundant bathos. She tints her hair in carrot shades, the dye seeping below the hair line in a watermark and upon all these pounds of flesh her make-up gives her a bronze tan although I don't recall that she has left the house since I left school, a sordid epoch I prefer not to dwell on. I cash the cheques, shop at the supermarket and pass my days at the library with the Random House Dictionary, starting with aah, an exclamation expressing incredulity, I am now on blood, the fluid that circulates in the principal vascular system of human beings and other vertebrates.
Imagine what quantities of blood pump through Mother. A reservoir of blood. Enough blood to float a boat filled with happy children around the lake. In their faces, in the wind pulling at the leaves, in the rococo markings of a butterfly, we see a divine presence. Mother's appearance is a religious act, a philosophical statement: proof of the non-existence of God.
"Come on, Didi, you're wasting away. That's what you're doing. Wasting away."
She repeats herself, a national attribute. British, And Proud Of It, my mum! Nice day, innit? Yeah, nice day. Better than yesterday. Yeah, better than yesterday.
"Wasting away, you are."
The lardy French fry irresolutely gripped between my teeth has the consistency of a cigarette filter, the bile taste of disappointment and I spit it out. I don't want to eat. Why should I eat? There's no law telling me what to do. Right and wrong are no different from right and left, just choices, just words: circumcision, the eucharist, cannibalism: it's all tribal. Who makes the morals, sets the judgments? Forbidden territory for one is another's Costa del Sol.
"You're going to disappear you're so thin."
I hear Mother scraping the food from my plate to her own as I climb the stairs back to the bedroom. The girl has showered and is dressing in clothes that must have been bought with someone smaller in mind and which had since shrunk in the wash. She feeds long legs through a membrane of silk, sexy as whipped cream; sits, wriggling into white leggings, sliding feet like two fish into silver slippers. She stares out into the night and in her gaze that registers the windows, the rooftops and stars, I feel a frisson of solitude watching, just watching as her stomach narrows, her shoulders rolling as she wraps contortionist arms around her back, snapping herself into a white bra as light as a coating of sugar and more nourishing than those things Mama places on the kitchen table. She teases her breasts into place, pushing and prodding, before stretching into a white tee-shirt.
There: impeccably wrapped, sealed with a gemstone that sparkles from her middle and, though I am unable to see it as I shadow her, I imagine I am one of the three wise men following a star to some knowledge not revealed in the Random House Dictionary.
"I'll be waiting for you, Didi."
Yes, Mummy, dear, I know. You say it every night and every night you are waiting. You will always be waiting and I will always yearn for silence.
The night is a drowsing predator. My skin grows damp, shifty as quicksilver. A bus grinds hesitantly up the hill, lights dimming, the sound making the hour long and empty, a war zone studded by the striking of her heels, the sound echoing my heart as it rises to my mouth in a sour lump of foreboding. As she passes through the glow of the street lamps the white of her clothes and the paleness of her hair describe an angel and I, too, am an angel, imperceptible, omnipresent. Something is growing between us, the osmosis of a memory still cloaked in the future.
The pub on the corner is called The Galleon. I am jostled by moist bodies, surrounded by masks, deafened by cheerless laughter. People in pubs always look ill, melancholy and lost and I'm never sure if it is the pub that makes them appear this way, or if they are this way and go to the pub seeking the succour of those equally ill, melancholy and lost.
Her aura fades. Her features corrupt, a porcelain figurine cracking, losing its glaze, turning soft, spinning into wet clay, cold earth. Something has gone out of focus. It is a script device her being here among the clamour and confusion, the leering faces like headlamps on speeding lorries beaming in on her before flashing by in torments of black noise and shrieking rubber.
The barman has shaved his head and the hair has gathered in a moustache that moves like a burrowing animal digging into his face. He blinks frequently as if to show me the swastikas embellishing his eye-lids. I look away to avoid his gaze and point at a bottle on the bar. He pours lager, concentrating on me like a lizard. Half-smiling, half-embarrassed, I behave as if I'm the ingenuous victim coaxed from the audience at a live show. It is a variety act, rehearsed many times, perfectly executed. Do I applause? I pay, he sniffs, and she's drifting away, a white stripe on a field of wet sweatshirts and denim, the tortured lights like a chain saw cutting her into silver slices.
The room of dancers, arms aloft like Christians nailed on crosses, writhe in the lightning bursts, and I can't imagine why anyone would want to be here, doing this; why anyone is anywhere, doing anything: sickly, ice-eyed boys; hungry girls wearing their tits like medals. Only Mother seems real. There is no point to our existence, no value, no exit but death and few seem conscious of the emptiness lying at the heart of all things. Life is appalling and it is my knowing it is more appalling for others than it is for me that endows me with such fortitude.
The lager drips over my fingers. I tip half into a petrified rubber plant when no one is watching and wind myself into the smoke. I disappear. No one noticed when I didn't go to school except the bullies and they always welcomed me back like lovers greeting lovers at a railway station. Were the bullies abused as babies in their cots. I like to think so.
Losing sight of her, I locate her again in intermittent glimpses, a cartoon in a flick book. The floor beneath my feet is a sinking ship on a friendless sea. Like an object drawn into a drain by swirling water, the girl gravitates to the spot below a ball of mirrors with its mutating scenes from grand guignol, the pivot around which three figures in denim gauchely turn, thrusting at her, then recoiling, as if a force field prevents them touching: together, yet not together, like families.
My fingers grow numb strangling the half-filled glass. The moving figures move faster, as if in sudden panic, the black noise grows blacker, plunging into a pit, and I think of the tranquillity of Mother, never hurried, ever present, always waiting. My hand is a claw when I deposit the glass on a round table resembling a Sodom and Gomorrah of ashtrays, bottles, sopping cigarettes, crushed boxes, girls' rifled handbags, a used condom. Time has passed and it is inconsequential how much for less remains.
The dance ends. The glass ball slows, freezing time. The lights suck the blood from reptile faces. They are sodden and sagging, pale and distorted. The procession of them back through the night is one of demons and, just as it was among the dancers, she is alone, a white brush stroke on a dark canvas invisibly bound to the three shadows stretching over her like rotting beams in a decaying house, three dancers in denim no longer dancing. Before us on both sides of the road are wounded cars, skips like coffins for the unknown and unwanted, walls weary with grime, riddled with curses; the stench of decay, pigeons, asbestos, bus fumes and the yeasty, more subtle scent of fear.
Passing under a low arch, she draws the darkness from the night and disappears. I hear her next through the funnel of a narrow alley, her screams muffled by the dull weight of flesh against flesh. I withdraw into the brickwork and follow the alley to the waste dump between melancholy factories, my skin and clothes turning grey beside a row of abandoned containers made for jobs that no longer exist. These three are modern workers with new skills. Their movements are rapid, replicated with blunt precision, removing her white shirt, white leggings, as hard for them to get off as it had been for the girl to put on. She is an eel, twisting and turning.
Like a splash of vanilla, her white panties drop among the car tyres in front of my hideaway and it is a luxury for me to reach out and seize them. I savour the damp silk. It is the only sustenance that keeps me going and her taste on my tongue makes me think of small things like little birds and busy fingers.
There are trickles of blood like ketchup at the corners of her lips. I can see bruises surfacing on her shoulders and arms. The first worker, the biggest of the three, asserting some primal right, spits twice in his palm and rubs his hand through the copse of dark hair between her legs. Dropping his jeans, his lips scroll behind his teeth and I think of a scorpion as he strikes. His companions hold her, a hand clamped over her mouth, and it is a mockery not to cover that mouth with his own, take her tongue like a canapÃ© upon his palate. He doesn't know, and why should he know, that taste is the supreme of the senses.
He gets on with the business, a mongrel in rut, an alien from planet scum, the swift, steady way in which he's ramming into her reminding me of Mummy with a box of Milk Tray. The act is soon over and he stands with an air of triumph, a feverish bloom in his barren eyes.
The one gripping her legs is next. The big one watches with idle hauteur, arms folded. There's no need to restrain her now. She lies still, under contract with fate, ready for the third member of the gang to stir fry their sticky liquids. The last one grunts like a pig. The other two laugh at his grunting and he grunts more, enjoying the attention small men crave. For a finale he stands and pisses on the girl. The others join in with arcs of steamy, beery piss, grinning like open desks as they race off into the night, arms like sailors homoerotically about each other.
She runs her hands slowly over her face and down her body, drying herself as best she can. She eases into her tee-shirt, wincing with little blades of pain. She quickly gives up the search for her panties knowing, perhaps, that hunters always take something from the scene of the hunt. She pulls on her leggings and eases her feet into the silver slippers made for dancing.
As she turns, I see in the starlight that the gemstone in her belly is a bolt holding her together. She rotates it with the tips of her fingers, retreating from the waste bins and car tyres, passing through the pools of dim light with the trenchant air of a broken toy. I can hear her sobs, the sound suggesting to me the synergy of death and space, arrangements without beginning or ending, the eternal hum of emptiness.
The door closes at number 72. My own house is in darkness except for the glow illuminating the bedroom. I am a phantom infiltrating the pink space, my shadow imprisoned against the bars of striped wallpaper.
Across the street the windows are black. She has returned to her seclusion. I, in a different way, to mine. Mother remains silent. I extinguish the lamp, sinking into her embrace, the down sofas of her limbs making a raft that drifts upon my silent sea. Mother loves me. I love Mother. She is doomed, of course, and doesn't know it. I am doomed, and do.