The Cheap Gin Appreciation Society

Another long read from the Prague diaries.

 

And to say, ‘You’re very nice?”

‘Sei molto sympatico.’

‘And to say, ‘Would you like to do something tonight?’

‘Vuoi fare qualcosa stasera?’

‘Good. Hah! Have you seen this bit?’

You have (a) beautiful

body

eyes

hands

laugh

personality

smile

He’s/She’s a

babe

bastard

bitch

prick

‘Hai gli occhi belli,’ say I.  You have beautiful eyes. ‘Posso ballare con te?’  Can I dance with you?

She blinks. ‘Sono qui con il mio ragazzo.’

I’m here with my boyfriend.

‘You don’t have a boyfriend.’

She shrugs. ‘It’s better than,  ‘Non mi interessa.’

The first needle is in under the skin. It’s only a matter of time before she takes my fingernails.

This is the first time I ask Viola to dance. She reclines on the little divan in my studio, idly twirling paint brushes in her hands; her gleaming sweep of auburn hair is shocking against her white shoulders. It isn’t human hair, or it shouldn’t be. I touched it once, it is more like the glassy hair of a mermaid. She tosses the brush into a corner and smooths her lilac skirt down over her thighs. Viola is hyper-feminine, given to antiquated styles and luscious silks and chiffon. She likes to cinch in her waist, full skirts rustling about her knees. She is the only woman I know apart from Mona – who has been forcibly ripped from the past and shoved into the present and doesn’t really count – who wears stockings. Her make-up is applied with an artist’s hand. Long, sweeping eye-black, cheeks flawless and rosy from her little Moroccan pots of powder and rouge. She rises and picks up her bag. When she is not busy being a muse she works in a gallery, and I have made her late. I am glad the reason she is late is because we were teaching each other one of the most beautiful languages in the world. She trips past me with her swaying gait, her perfume rolling over me in a heady wave where I am sitting pretending to be absorbed in Italian grammar. The door closes behind her with a dull click, like a full stop.

I whisper against the palm of my hand, ‘Sono innamorata di te.’

I am in love with you.

I remember all this, painfully clear, as I smoke in the bath that evening. Suddenly I am an adult, but I do not want adulthood, with its loss and its terror of loss, and responsibilities and exit wounds. My mouth becomes dry, and I resolve to go and talk to Mona first thing in the morning, because I’m overwhelmed and Mona is a cocktail mix of helpful contradictions and employs the kind of hard-headed, practical values particular to whores and long-lived bohemians who have survived the razor’s edge. I wipe the steam from the bathroom window and look at the stars beginning to freckle the long evening sky. My heart feels weighted, steadily developing a little tumour of lead.

Mona lives in a well-off part of town and I always feel just a little degraded, despite myself, when I walk through it. People sometimes stop and look at me, they are dressed in neat and sober navy and winter grey; work suits for people who go to offices with coffees and pastries clutched in their hands, grease seeping through paper bags. My clothes are ugly, and they look at me as though I were an exotic but dirty animal let loose from someone’s private collection; a pet baboon with an unexpected freedom and mischief in its head. How Mona must make them tremble! She opens her door in a silk and velvet kimono decorated with peacocks, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She exhales, and I watch the smoke tumble past my shoulder like a spirit released into the street.

‘You sounded dreadful on the telephone, Dearheart.’ Mona calls everyone Dearheart, or My Darkling. She wrinkles her nose at my abject appearance and motions me inside.

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The Great Dying

Sachie is sick. His breath clogs in his lungs, rattling like a trapped animal in a pipe. His skin is first cold, then hot to the touch and covered in a sheen of sweat. There is silence for hours apart from that laboured breathing, and when he speaks little of what he says makes sense. He strokes Theresa’s hair, talking in Czech. He grips my hand, he thinks I am his dead brother. Jan’s car is waiting to take him to the hospital, and slowly, the three of us lift him up from his bed and get him downstairs. He does not want to get into the car, he is watching the snow fall out of the sky and gasping with relief when the tiny flakes hit his skin. He is pointing into the void, he says something in English about flowers.

At the hospital, he is taken away from us. The nurses are kind and brisk. They talk softly to him, lifting the dark hair plastered to the back of his neck. Theresa and I stand motionless in the white corridor for a while. We are as blank as the walls, as blemishless and without distinction; we’ve had our strings cut and no longer remember how to shift our limbs. Jan is as shocked by Sachie’s sudden deterioration as we are and he drives us home, he is as quiet and firm as the nurses, warming our cold rooms with his sense of purpose as he makes tea in the kitchen. Theresa and I sit on the divan and we don’t avoid one another’s gaze, as such. It is as though she is not sitting next to me at all; there is a shell of empty clothes there, inexplicably upright. A directionless rage is building within me, oppressive as thunder; we are both drowning in blame even as we breathe easily under the heavy water. My organs are cringing away from one another inside my body, such is the force of my loathing. What if he dies.

‘He won’t, they’re a wonderful hospital. They’ll take care of him.’

I realise I must have said that out loud. There is no boundary between myself and the surrounding air anymore, anybody can read the thoughts inked across my brain, they can tear into the secrets printed on the inside of my heart as though my body were made of glass. Jan comes in with the steaming cups of tea. He is saying something comforting, trivial. I want to strangle the words out of his throat, slap them out of his mouth. I want there to be silence as I wait for the harsh bird call of the telephone. I wish Mona was here.

It is pneumonia, in both of his lungs, and the infection is complicated. We visit him, but he is hardly ever conscious. One day he is awake, but his eyes are glazed with the effort it takes to breathe. Antibiotics are being pumped around his veins through a tube that goes into the back of his hand. He doesn’t speak to us, although sometimes he says words in Czech, disjointed sentences that we cannot understand. I don’t think he knows we’re there, now he inhabits a world of restless shadows lingering at a crossroads we are privileged not to see. Theresa and I are his only visitors but for Jan, who looks in out of a peculiar sympathy. He is not Sachie’s friend, but he was witness to his fall and so he feels strangely obligated to be here. He does not bring useless gifts, just himself, and his hand in Sachie’s, and I love him a little for it. I take the sick air of the place into my lungs and hold it there, making wishes. There are hours when we are not allowed to see him. There are hours you are not allowed to look on the faces of people resigning from life in their halfway houses of thin cotton sheets, even when they are your best friend. Even when they are leaving you.

He dies at 03.46 on Monday morning, when neither of us are there. Theresa and I go to his funeral dressed as swans; white feathers hang from our shoulders, they are wrapped into our hair. Our faces are covered with thick white make-up from the theatre, so are the backs of our hands. You are not allowed to leave flowers on Jewish graves because it is not well to mix the worlds of the living and the dead, but you may leave stones. Theresa and I leave a piece of deep amethyst where the headstone will go because he loved the colour purple, the crystal is fractured inside and reflects tiny rainbows and I hope it remains in the ground with him forever.  At night, whether my eyes are open or closed, I see him laughing at one of Millie’s parties, surrounded by a halo of electric light. I see him roaming the sterile hospital halls, holding hands with silence.

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For a little while, everything comes apart. I realise the true nature of grief. It is not quick; a bursting bank of tears that flash-floods your life and then recedes. It is a hundred electric shocks to the heart per day. I see a bank of tulips opening in the park and I want to tell Sachie, to bring him there, but I can’t because he will never take my calls or receive a hasty note shoved through his letterbox again. It is as though we have broken off a long talk and I am yet to realise that he will never reply to my questions. He has shut the door, thick enough that he cannot hear me, and will not open it. In my dreams, we are walking side by side down one of the alleys in the Jewish quarter at three in the morning as we so often did. I turn my head, waiting for him to renew our conversation but he never does. He stands with his hands limp and natural by his side and when I shake him by his shoulders he does not respond, and soon I am left clutching cold air. In my worst dreams, I am watching his coffin being lowered into the earth when I think I hear him pounding on the wood. I try to alert the mourners to the sound but they do not hear it. He is covered with earth even as he kicks at the coffin lid and I scream soundlessly into Theresa’s face. I wake then, drenched in sweat and terrified of something in the room I cannot see.

Theresa is patient with me. She listens to my endless protestations of guilt. She comforts me, she does not feel the burden of his death as I do. I accuse her of being unfeeling, of cold. She is like a mother holding the thin shoulders of a child lashing out in his ignorant innocence. Of course she is distraught, and guilty, and cries when no one is looking, because that is Theresa’s way. I want to suck in her quiet strength but I am too angry with it. I am dizzy with rage. Sometimes I fall in the street and gaze at the cuts on my hand without understanding the force of my own defiant blood, seeping through the miniscule abrasions on my palm. People are kind and solicitous, they want to know if I’m alright after my fall, but they are just moving their mouths and no real sound comes out. I think I push them aside and keep walking, head down, measuring my steps by the number of breaths I am conscious of taking. I feel as though I should always have a hand held firmly over the flesh of my chest to keep anything from spilling out. The flowering trees of the city creep shyly out in their new dresses and I don’t notice any of them, I feel as though I am trying to staunch an exit wound with a clock.

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Somehow, Claudine hears. She sends me a letter, I burn it. I remember without wanting to the talks I had with Sachie about her. Her serene and celestial presence, her yellow hair that haunted me so that I chased women I did not know down the street, trying to get a glimpse of their faces all because they were blonde. I remember his peculiar grimace, the clown-like contortion of his features when he swallowed really bad table wine. When I realise that I will never drag him by his collar into a cafe again, I fall in upon myself. I am like him when he was drunk, I become a collapsing wall. I say the word ‘dead’ to myself over and over in our rooms when I am alone. I cannot comprehend it. What is dead? Where is he? Has he gone, as he used to say, to the arms of God? If he has, then can God not release him for a moment so he can let me know that he’s alright? Why is he so unreachable when all that separates us is death, that upstart we used to joke about in our morbid cups? I want his God to understand that for me this is an extinction event, the Great Dying, and like people chasing the mystery of the dinosaurs I will dig and dig until I get my answers.

***

Sometime in the spring, I decide to return to London. I pack what little I’ve remembered to salvage from the ruins of our life together. Theresa and I pass each other in the kitchen, the corridor, like ghosts now. I don’t believe she will even notice my departure; perhaps she will bump into my spirit in the hallway as I so often bump into Sachie in my sleep. Perhaps she will continue to speak out loud to me although I am gone, as I do to him, as though his shade lingers close to my body, listening. At night, the people across the street flick off the lights and their window goes dark in an instant. I wonder if that’s what it was like; darkness falling like a velvet axe across the dinner table, when the guest of honour has left for home.

Fidelis

He is fantasising about rescue. Like a man at the bottom of a cliff conscious only of a dangerous numbness at the base of his spine, or pain so awful that he cannot scream over the white noise filling his skull. Perhaps, sometimes, you only have time enough to register that the accident is a bad one. Seconds spill out like coins from a dropped purse, spinning away across the floor, stuffing your head with a complex, unforgiving feathery silence, or the sound of radio static.

Like this, he realises that the argument was their finale. Sickly yellow light pours in from the street, while the echoes of all his words skitter though the room like an army of poisonous spiders. Already his skin begins to cool, losing heat from their shared sleep. A broken cup gapes at him reproachfully, china shards scattered across the floor like milk teeth.

The texture of the air has changed. Before it was thick with breathing, a slow rolling shush warming the nape of his neck. It is no coincidence that our breath sounds like the ocean gently breaking its heart upon the shore. Funny how music of all kinds can lift you somewhere precise and usually painful. Memory is our reminder that glass was once sand.

It is with these numb thoughts that he wanders slowly back into their room. The sheets are rumpled and strangely fixed and solid-looking, like unhappy fossils. He does not want to disturb the shape of them, that would be too much like clearing out the wardrobe of someone who has died. Instead he sits on the edge of the bed, rolling a name around his mouth like unripe fruit, and recalls the morning they fed each other green grapes, laughing.

The breaking of dawn brings with it the sound of traffic and his head is full of gnawing black and disconnected thoughts – like the man at the base of the cliff with the shattered back – the senselessness of everything. Flower petals raped by violent rain. The shrill whistle of adolescent seagulls. Meredith asking gentle questions of a blind man, like someone trying too hard to be good. The spots of blood from a nosebleed on the back of his hand, a swathe of stubborn poppies blooming in a white field.

Autopsis

The man opposite me is a troll. He is stone-coloured, a bland, inoffensive creature in grey and khaki. I imagine that he shuffles around the cafes as the sun goes down, stony skin safe in the half-light of candles on tables and mellow fairylights. In the morning he will slowly walk along the beach as the sky bleeds into pink and gold, and lie down amongst the pebbles and disappear between them.

I watch white crumbs collect in the sad corners of the troll’s mouth as I sit in the corner full of weary students tapping at Macbooks with steamed-up glasses from the freezing night outside. I feel like a breathing heap of clay, something dormant and Biblical, a little Golem rendered dumb and immobile by endless cups of soothing tea and watching people pass the window, so variable and yet so hypnotically the same. Clutching newspapers and little fingers in warning and restraint before crossing the road slick with rain…Thinking about sex and divorce and sucking in killer cigarettes, tapping at tiny squares of coloured light with aching thumbs.

I am glad my thoughts are secret, close to my chest, hidden behind the acid green padlocks of my eyes. I am imagining in exquisite detail performing a slow autopsy on my lover. Not because I do not love her, or because my brain is cruel and sparks sadistic neurons, but because I can hear things rattling the bone cage that keeps my heart pressed in, tied down with bruised, scarlet muscle. Our skeletons are burrowed deep and tangle together, and I must consider the inside of her skin my own simply because it is hers, and because I am terribly afraid of death.

Dead flesh does not bleed even when penetrated by knives and isn’t that funny? How the great gasping gush of red inside sinks to a thick stillness when the soul leaps out – doesn’t it thrill you, how alive blood is? Lungs are empty chapels of stained violet glass, where once a choir exhaled. I look at the rosy arms of the girl sitting next to me and imagine her thrumming skin pierced by an expert scalpel like teeth entering a crisp apple. I imagine pulling back the sheet covering a still, cold face and realising it is my lover. I flinch inside, a steel door shutting in my guts. I shiver in uncontrollable terror and excitement, and the girl looks at me as though I am a dangerous snake; madness coiled and about to strike.

Walking home is cold and loneIy. I cherish the silence and the reflection of the street lamps on the pavement. Great splashes of orange, like a row of suns dropped carelessly on the concrete. I count them all, but I am not certain that I have caught all the suns and so I count them again. When I open the door the smell of her crawls into my nostrils and wraps around my hair. We are about to eat together, her voice pierces my brain like a long, silver splinter.

The eggs are boiling. Thin little shells bubbling and jostling in the pan. The fish is cold and vaguely metallic on my tongue, it is the cool, thick texture that at once repulses and attracts me. She smiles shyly over the table and I feel invisible wires twitch and coruscate between us. She does not know that I am thinking of her skin under hard flourescent lights, waiting patiently for attention like a child striving to be good in a hallway full of motionless silhouettes. She would have turned a mottled blue-white, like the underbelly of something dreadful, and her face is set in a terrible calm, even as her long guts are pulled out like handkerchiefs from a magician’s sleeve. The steel trap closes quietly around my stomach; sharp, writhing, wonderful.

Every time I think of her like this I tap my left index finger on my heart three times to keep her safe. I know that if I have a thought about her dying I can knock on the door of my heart like this and her spirit will fly there, where nothing can touch her. It is by this ritual that I stop the angels of death and protect her within the great fortress of my white ribs. They tell me this kind of thinking is abnormal.

The eggs are ready. The shells are hot and steaming. Benign and smiling, I lay my hand upon her shoulder, and in my mind they carefully crack open the globe of her skull, precise and melodious. The sound of colossal hammers ringing a hundred temple bells.

Summer-drunk

A thing I wrote about beekeeping and sobriety for Mookychick.

‘Start at the moment of greatest sweetness. When the office floor is freckled with drops of runaway honey, slow-flowing from fingertips and wooden frames. When the blade is used to uncap the wax like lifting the slab on a tomb full of gold. Outside, the colony are a hurricane of hard sound, their drone edged with rage, zipping low over the hot grass. There are several collective nouns for a group of bees, a swarm, a grist, a drift. I’m not sure what the collective noun for a group of addicts is; a clusterfuck, perhaps. It doesn’t matter here at the city hives, flaws in the soul float away with the smoke, the earthy smoulder of kindling leaves.’

To keep bees is to make a pact with yourself and the land, to discern the secret hymns of the hive, even as the colony feeds your own lost voice back to you.

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Clean

When you get out of treatment, you and a guy you were in there with ride around town after dark, wide roads lit by fluorescent yellow-white, scarlet pin-pricks scattered through the night along the skeletons of cranes like paprika. Windows down, cigarette smoke pouring out of them like white water. You stop at the red lights, because that’s what people do when they’ve scrubbed up and got decent and, you know, law-abiding. The music makes the frame of the car shake, sometimes you sing along together but mostly you stare. At the kerb, at lone humans loping like wolves in tracksuit bottoms, at the blank glass of empty office windows. When you suck in air you get the pure oxygen of the deserted road hitting you, gunpowder line sparking straight to the core like cocaine, meltdown at the reactor. Hour after hour spent on adventures to the out of town Ikea or the old football stadium, just to watch them glow. Drinking cans of plain tonic water, hyped up on fizzy cola bottles like teenagers, a couple of gentle outlaws on a sugar high.

***

When you are fourteen years old, you eat a whole bag of contaminated hallucinogens. You’re supposed to stop at four, and this is probably one of the first indications you’re gonna have a problem. They say if you can survive 24 hours after strychnine poisoning, you’ll live, on balance. You’re about four hours in when you see an angel for the first time, during one of those neck arches that felt like iron rods being pushed through your nervous system and would you look at that, there is a man on fire. A roman candle of a man, second-storey high flaring with orange gold that sears the drip of your eyelids, white-hot corona around death’s eclipse. The sheer roaring noise of his arrival scars the air, brands it with the kind of living burn you get in a lightning-struck trunk. You’re busy, shapeshifting into a thorn tree, gnarled and pouring out sweat sap hotter than a sticky midsummer, twitching on the lower bunk while Lisa crushed the hours under the doped up gears of her brain. Couldn’t even wake her by screaming she was so deep, or she was a goner too. You think about Johnson and how the great bluesman had gone under via strychnine and figure at least you’d die like a legend, and then you think: fuck off, I don’t wanna die at all.

You don’t have enough liquid in you left to piss at this point let alone weep but you manage to wring out a few acidic tears because you’re never gonna see your Mother again, and you’ll never get to say sorry to so many people, like your Mother. And your scrawny fourteen year-old ass is going to get tossed into one of those forever alone graves at the edge of the cemetery where flowers are only left by the wind pulling them off of the other folks’ hump of grass and some well-aimed bird shit.

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So you’re lying there and everything is calcifying as these little crystals eat up your musculature as they go, and you know you’re not going to the hospital because it’s just you and the zombie in the top bunk so your brain tries to make some peace with The End but you’re too young and stupid, and this panting little animal body twisting in a noose of its own contorting flesh is so much smarter than you are, and somehow another four hours are done. You crawl to the sink and gulp all the water you can choke out of the old tap and swear to God if you can just make it out of this one alive you’ll be different. No one will have to find you fossilised in dirty sheets brittle now with old salt. Never again. Never, never. Anyway, you make it out alive. Years later, you tell this story to a pharmacist friend, he stares at you, says:

‘How much of this shit did you eat?’

‘The pack.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Yeah, I guess He had something to do with it.’

He shakes his head, cap mashed up in his massive hands. ’Well aren’t you a lucky son of a bitch.’

And bitterness rises up like a dark Nile flooding the plain of your gut, because you hear people talk about near-death experiences and how they were changed forever and you didn’t change. You kept change at bay in bars and on living room sofas with springs poking through and street corners and every time you nearly died you’d swear to God: ‘Get me out of this one, honey, and I’ll be different.’ Skinny little liar right off the bat, because even though you knew what had happened in the warped fisheye lens of your brain it was easier to shrug, say, Hell, it was a long time ago, and slide the empty glass back down the long coffin of the bar. 

***

Now you’re resurrected, dragged backwards into your body by the tough-love chest compression of the clinic. Autumn is here – you see it in the curling edges of the leaves fluttering above the benches in the square and feel it slide blade-like into your bones the way it does every year since the accident, but summer doesn’t want to take the hint. She’s a party girl talking too loudly on the stairs, hoping the colder season will take her number.

There isn’t much to do in these newborn days, so you guys drive. You drive around the outskirts of town like one more circuit and your new lives will fly up to meet you, will pour themselves down your throat like shining water. Like the man the size of a house made of flaming wheels will come again with that sound to raze these sleeping buildings to mere lines in the dust and hand you that map he meant to drop off almost twenty years ago when you were busy in the electric chair. You stop at the red lights. It’s what people do when they’re decent, law-abiding. Clean.

To The Bone

The air is glass-coated wire dragged across my lungs. They haven’t been right since October, winter has bitten their slow recovery in the throat. As I settle into the star-haunted hollow of Grace I always seem to fall into at this time of year, I consider the soul. My soul, my soul like a bruised instep, like a shell replaying the music of a dead sea, whatever flies between the void and flesh of me. My soul like a ribbon on a holy tree.

As I wait for the light to return, I strip back the bed. The things of my life are dusted and cleaned, placed precisely and carefully down. I am ruthless with the cracked pots and stained linen, because I care about the housing of that battered soul, and because too often self-care is slathered on in facemasks and bubble baths and boxset marathons, and it is less fashionable to assess the roots and branches of yourself. Cut away the rotting limbs and pull up the roots from their sour bed. And yet…the roses bloom more beautifully for their beheading, for facing the genteel executioner of the secateurs. Ask a gardener.

We are encouraged to work on our defects of character in a 12-step program. It is sometimes a bone of contention, as though in acknowledging the pitiful state of our souls when we come into recovery, we are somehow rubber stamping our approval of an Original Sin. That we are agreeing that we are somehow inherently bad people, caught in an inferior web. I see that this both is and is not so. I don’t think there is anything inherently tainted about the addict, but I know that twenty years of addiction twisted me into something terrible. Something that was sinful in its self-centeredness. Putrescent flesh that was still walking, desperate for an end to its raw misery, to the meagre, salted-meat existence of perpetual December.

And so, because I have seen with my own eyes the power of resurrection, I am hard when moulding the clay, in sculpting a finer vessel, in digging up those monstrous roots. There are many malformations of my character to excise the same way any physician would cut out disease, reach in with a blade and remove the spidering sickness. This time of year, things are purged with fire. Throw on the plague-stained sheets, and watch them burn.

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I watch the glow of candlelight warming the pale stone and think of all the people who huddled there as winter roared silently on down the centuries, staring at the little flames as I do now. Sanctuary. A pool of gentleness in the long, medieval terror of freezing water and small graves. Then, too, the flawed character was a thing to be worked like the land; ploughed and sowed and harvested and taken into the body, that the body might be made anew.

My soul’s house has entered the silence before the Nativity, and in these suspended moments I also grieve and rage. There is so much pain as I pass through the pyre, because sometimes Grace falls like an axe. This year I welcome its lethal mercy. I will bow my head before it and be glad. I will cheerfully go out to slaughter the flowers. I will work myself to the bone.