I first noticed it when I was reading: It was my well-worn copy of Cannery Row – the Arrow Classic paperback from 1998 in a warm, summer sunset carmine with black header. It is a perfect size and fits in the majority of my coat pockets. There is a small cover illustration, repeated on the back that depicts a boat braving a choppy sea, surround by determined-looking gulls. The ship is moving away from the unassailable cliffs.
I often return to this book, usually in winter to take me away from the needles of icy cold and the shivering dawns. As I read, unfolded into my armchair, the sun setting outside my wide window, I found myself brushing at the paperback pages, leaning in close to blow away what appeared to be dust. Closer up, it gave itself away as dead skin. It was as though the book itself was some kind of pumice novel; bringing away a piece of me page after page. I blew away my own crumbs and read a few pages more. Then it happened again.
Closing the book I had got out of my sagging armchair and rolled a cigarette. As I spread the dry, spidery strands of tobacco into the cigarette paper, I was aware that my mind was drifting, my hands automatic as they rolled the cigarette. I shook my head like a child might, hoping to begin anew. Hoping to start clean like an Etch-A-Sketch. I felt dizzy and the image of you barely moved, oozing from left to right like lazy molasses. That was when I saw a flake of finger skin nestling in the cigarette paper; lying like a flag of surrender in a muddied trench.
I rebuilt the cigarette and licked it shut. As I smoked from my front window, the room behind me was dark, savage indigo as the dregs of the day seeped in through the pane. There was little light in anything today. My fingers struggled to hold the cigarette, as though there is sand on my fingertips. Moments later, ten fingers had become nine. There was no blood, just a sudden, arid absence. There was no pain, just a noiseless crumbling. I remembered sandcastles taken by the water in Bridlington, many years since. That never appeared painful, just inevitable; comfortable.
For the remainder of that night I managed to think about something else: I read, I paced back and forth, leaving just the faintest trail of collapse behind me. I hoovered frantically, the fibres in my rug left standing proud; tickled by my efforts. I slept badly. There was a dream that pushed on through the night like a train with passengers. Something involving a castle sliding sideways.
The next morning I awoke to nine fingers and ten toes. My pillow was cursed with what looked to be dandruff, but what I immediately recognised as minute pieces of my scalp come away. I must have dreamed about you without remembering. I left the house needing fresh air. I needed to feel alive in the chill morning. One minute I could hear the crazy birdsong of a quickening dawn, the next half silence from that direction. The birds had not stopped. My ear was no more. I am left now with a small round hole with no aural support. Pale skin dust clung to my shoulder. There is no longer the ability to channel sense.
My actions have caused an embarrassment of physics, for I have tried to force a return to a dimension I no longer hold a plan for. I remember when I was in my early teens, I saw a man at a bus-stop. He was shabby – forlorn clothes and stooped shoulders – and appeared exhausted. I smaned at him with the immaturity of youth and he lunged at me, grabbing at my arm. I struggled to get free and eventually I did, but before he loosed his grip, he leaned into my face, erupting with a volcano of sweat and saliva as he fixed me with dead, grey eyes barking, “Time fuckin’ bends for nobody!”
It meant nothing at the time.
It means everything now.
I am thirty-eight. It is still very new. Like a diagnosis from which there will be no escape. It is an age where some surly landlord may call time at any second, without giving me the chance for one, final, glorious double dark rum. You are an age when every smile is a spark, not a weary, broken pantomime. I am little more than a clown now but you still belong to the audience.
Yesterday – five days since I lost my right ear –I lost all of the fingers on my left hand. They were felled in one desperate act, winding back the hands of all my clocks. I clung for a moment, open-mouthed and silent like Harold Lloyd, before my fingers fragmented into dust. Even now I cannot bring myself to sweep the mantelpiece. An army of dog-eared postcards and curling photographs stand ready for inspection, overlooking a small mound of what was once a hand that might once have cradled your face.
My shape has abandoned its curves, my limbs like those of a stillborn lamb. Shallow sockets are gaping all over me. I am so many dents, scrapes and hollows. I have stopped hoovering. I cannot keep up with the daily avalanches. Writing this is taking so much longer with the fingers of my right hand, my left wrist closed at the pulse, involuntarily banging against the keyboard, pulling in asdewrtfgc with each dive.
I blow on the keyboard in front of me and the dust leaps back into my eyes. An elbow falls away when I least expect it. I am disintegrating at an alarming rate. Each thought of you could accidentally kill me. So far it is the exterior that is escaping from me, but I know that soon, it will move inside. I can feel my blood clogging with the dust of the inside of parched veins.
I am hungry for my most beautiful yesterdays and the greed has turned on me.
There is no going back.
No amount of wishing can bridge the distance between. Friends and family are terrified. They offer daily suggestions, urging me to simply alter my focus; change my thoughts. I cannot, for that is a cold, lightless corridor that leads to a clamouring, stagnant place without hope. Every thought of you gives me hope. I believe that if I can tease magic from the most mundane of days, I can halt the collapse.
Even now, blind and stubborn, I am choking on the rushing, upward dissolve of my right ventricle.