This is the first chapter of my novel ‘Wine Dark, Sea Blue’. It’s similar in themes to my piece ‘Atomiki’, but obviously, a lot more in depth. I’m currently working on a new book at the moment, before returning to this and putting the final shine onto it. Feedback is appreciated!
My mother’s voice was on repeat as my brain lining trembled and began to disintegrate.
‘Accidental overdose, the paramedics said.’
‘How the fuck is that possible?’
‘She was getting older, so many different medications…’ Mum’s voice was tinny, lost down the phone line in the white noise. She forgot to tell me off for swearing, and her voice trailed into sighs and silence.
‘What do you need me to do?’
‘Get home now,’ she said and hung up. It was ten am, and Mum never called before twelve. I should have known when the phone rang. There’s never good news before twelve. Especially not after half a gram of MDMA and almost an entire bottle of vodka, shared in a South London flat with a boy whose name I’d already forgotten. He was pretending to be asleep when I took the call, and I was grateful. I paced the small space of his flat, bare feet scratching on his carpet, waiting to see how I felt, if I would feel anything at all. If I would panic when I didn’t.
He made a big show of waking up, yawning and stretching. He looked much like all the others, dark hair, nice arms. His smile failed to hide a concerned expression.
‘Everything okay?’ As he stood, his jeans slid down to his hips. A thin line of hair ran down from his belly button to the start of his boxers, and I focused on that. A dark trail of ants, a line not to cross, a line of coke, a line in the sand. Give me a line, a lifeline, anything.
‘What’s your name again?’
He smirked and ran a hand through his hair, ‘Daniel.’
I tried to place that somewhere amongst the memories of the night before, of the breathless laughter and the way I stroked his fingertips. The guitar sat untouched in the corner of the room. He hadn’t played for me. His fingertips were flat and rough, and I had traced his filed-down nails in soft delight. He was amazing last night. They always are.
But in the little white-flaked flat, with the green curtains that tinted the daylight, I felt like I was looking at this Daniel person from far away, through a haze of heat distortion. Like I understood that humans were just walking, talking lumps of meat, much like every other animal that lived and died. Except humans had things like Topshop and SkyPlus and Hello Magazine. This Daniel person was just another part of that world.
‘My grandmother’s dead,’ I said, staring past him to the posters on the wall. They were in French, pretentious twat. I scanned his bookshelf for Sartre and Nietzsche, and found them, broken spines and folded pages. Last night he was my best friend, this Daniel.
‘Are you okay?’ He started towards me, and I stepped back, ‘sorry, stupid question.’ He detoured to the sink, ran the tap, and handed me a glass of water. I drank desperately, so that I felt it hit my insides, rebounding off my organs and making waves. My stomach was an ocean. But it was always that way on the comedown. Nothing was different, not the boy, or the drugs, or the Saturday morning feeling. Except that she was dead.
Moving took forever, each muscle moaning, telling me I was stupid to do anything but lie down and get warm. Slow motion. Cotton wool head. Fuzzy.
Daniel was kind and earnest, like a lot of them are, willing to chat, eager to carry on the party. Some are like me, and happily say goodbye in the morning, not expecting anything more that a one-night friendship. Some are ashamed. Most of the time they’re asleep, and I just pick up my bag from by the door and get out. There are rules.
‘I’ve got to go.’
‘Maybe have a cup of tea first, eh?’ His voice had a northern drawl, soft around the vowels. I hadn’t noticed it last night, hidden behind the clipped London sound.
‘I don’t…’ I shook my head, surprised by how lost I felt, ‘I’m numb. Completely numb.’
‘That’s the comedown. You do know that? Last night, you said you knew. Chemical imbalance, body fuck-up. Right?’ He reached out a hand, and I backed away.
‘I know, I do know. I just…’
‘Shock.’ He nodded intently, and moved closer, almost whispering. ‘Look, I’m going to make us a nice cup of tea, and we’ll sit for a bit, and you can go when you’re ready, okay?’
He’d reached me by that point, and I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering, my hands from shaking. So cold, ridiculously cold. How was he shirtless, the bloody idiot.
He wrapped his arms around me, his cold palms flat against the base of my spine. You don’t do that on the comedown. The night before is for touching. Loving the sensation of hands on shoulders, fingertips encircling wrists. Skin on skin isn’t right the morning after. You’re back in your cocoon, and every other human is a hundred lightyears from where you are. He could have been anyone, but he was warm, and that was enough. And I put my arms around him, encouraging him to hold me tighter, harder, because if I was going to fall apart, it may as well be when someone was holding me up. It was only when I had to gasp for air that I finally pushed him away.
‘Don’t confuse what this is.’
‘And what is this, exactly?’ His smile was a half-twitch at the corner of his mouth, like I was a child he was humouring because he wanted to see what funny thing I did next
‘This is two people who got fucked together, and in the morning said goodbye.’ I strode past him, and grabbed my bag from the floor. Purple party bag, always ready for the escape. Toothbrush, fresh from a pack of ten, four of which are remaining. Ancient Nirvana hoody with the smiley face symbol peeling off. Scarf, always useful. Large bottle of water, because it helps. Chewing gum for the gurn, painkillers more for the placebo than the effect. The comedown kit.
‘Ellie.’ Daniel smiled and shook his head.
‘Don’t say my name like that!’
‘Like you know one fucking thing about me!’ I pulled on my hoody, tugging on the hood and pulling my hair free. My hand rested on the door handle.
‘I was listening last night when you spoke.’ His smile was smug, his hands open, palms up.
‘I hate to burst your bubble, but this is a weekly occurrence for me. You’re just one of many guys I do this with. It doesn’t mean anything. Ships in the night, strangers on a pill. Get it?’
The door handle was warm and slippery.
‘You really think you won’t remember this moment?’
I rolled my eyes in response, ‘Sorry, guess you’re just not that special.’
‘Your grandmother’s dead. You always remember where you are when there’s bad news.’
‘Well, maybe I don’t care. Or I don’t like my family. Maybe I have no family.’
Daniel took two lazy steps and was invading my space. I tried not to breathe in, because it was his air. Hold your breath, Elena. Get out, go home, deal with everything. Everything. Her. Deal with whatever that means.
‘You,’ he smiled, ‘are a terrible liar.’ He stepped back a little, and I got the full effect of that smile. A smile that dared me to argue, that wanted me angry instead of scared. Anything but numb.
‘I like you,’ he said, stepping back, that half-twitch grin in place again, ‘So, tea.’
He strode across the room, and tapped an ancient green kettle with his foot, so it lit up and hissed. His little kitchen area was so tidy, an ageing mug on the side with a knife and a spoon sitting in it, his one plate in the sink pathetic and lonely. I knew then that I’d stay.
I had the chance to walk out, slam the door, but what would I be heading towards, really? Parents who didn’t know what I’d been doing when my grandmother died. What was so important that I hadn’t come home, they would ask. Family who thought my nights out included a couple of glasses of wine, maybe a kiss. The night spent on Dexter’s floor, or in Lee’s spare room. Never class As and a one-night friendship, in bed with a boy in Clapham Junction. Never that I did it every week, every chance I could, because it made me feel so perfectly alive until the morning came.
So I dropped the bag. I sat on the bed and drank strong tea from a chipped blue mug. I watched rubbish re-runs on TV and smiled, even laughed. I forgot. And when he relit a joint from the night before, I let him rest his head next to mine, closing my eyes as he softly blew the smoke into my mouth. Sweet, herby, tinted by toothpaste. Sleepy green, taking the edge off of the morning.
When I finally did leave, that morning sun had faded into grey dullness. I felt flushed with and irritable as I walked to the tube, pushing the last moments with Daniel from my mind. He’d asked for my phone number, and I’d given it to him. I never gave them my phone number, I only wanted them when they were strangers. I only ever wanted one night with someone who had no idea who I was. But when he kissed my cheek, he smelled of sweat and aftershave, and everything I’d found fascinating the night before. I had let him hold me in his bed as I pretended to cry, pretended to feel anything. But all I felt was cold. And he was so warm. The warm boy with the cold hands.
I walked through Clapham Common to the tube station, and got on the Northern Line. It had been hours since Mum called. When I finally appeared Dad would rant about my irresponsible nature, my selfishness. Mum would be disappointed, and that’s always worse.
The train carriage was empty, and I sat in a corner seat with my headphones in. I was glad there were no people, I can’t bear to make eye contact on the tube. On those kinds of Saturday mornings, I start to get paranoid about the Underground. I take it personally when people choose the seat two down from me, or move when another space becomes available. Like they think I’ll infect them. I never move seats in case I hurt someone’s feelings.
I tugged on my hood again, and put my headphones in. Sometimes, I pretend to react to the music I’m not hearing, smile when I play a certain song on my internal jukebox, tap my feet in time to a rhythm that isn’t there. This time, I just closed my eyes, and tried not to think about how many people’s arses had sat on the seat I was sitting on.
The train droned on, rattled and jolted and it was easy to lose myself. I watched at every stop how the tourists boarded the opposite trains, heading into town for a weekend with the family, a day out with friends. That was the best thing about returning from central on a Saturday, everyone was going in the other direction.
I wobbled out of the tube station at High Barnet and walked to the bus stop. The sky promised rain. I told myself I would let five buses go passed, then I’d get on the sixth and go home. Give me five buses, thirty minutes. Breathing space.
Dead. She was dead, and I had been smiling with a stranger. Had she died whilst I was dancing? I shivered, it felt like I was drowning in mundanity, greyness. Traffic, and jobs and so many people just living their little lives. Overdose. She never seemed that old to me. I thought of her dark eyes, her white hair, her steady trundle across a room with her swollen ankles. Overdoses were ugly. Painful.
I suddenly wanted to be back in Daniel’s little white room with the green curtains, where time froze and I had no dead relatives. I didn’t have to be strong in that room. But I did now. I waited till the seventh bus came and went. Then I walked home.
©AL Michael 2012