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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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.

Tongue of Fire, Hand of Fate

There is a voice that seeks to discourage you.

I hear it when depression creeps like frost over the leaves resigning themselves to death fallen on the autumn soil, and I think: ‘Why live, when waking up is penance and my heart has no home?’ I hear it when my pages miss their mark, or worse, float into silence, ignored, and I think: ‘Why write, when my words fold like paper arrows?’ I hear it now, when a dear friend faces imminent death, body and soul caught in the black maw of crack cocaine and I think: ‘Why get sober, when years of struggle still end in devastation?’

The demolition voice, reducing hope to rubble. You become a ruined abbey, paneless windows open to the cold.

The voice says that this will never change, that the road will always be strewn with rocks and glass, and your feet will always be bleeding. It tells you to hold out your arms, and drops an iron bar into them every day, even when nothing terrible has happened but the sheer relentless passing of grey time is iron itself, until you can’t remember what it was like to stand up straight, until you can’t pinpoint the day your back became irretrievably bowed. That voice that says you have done nothing, will do nothing, are nothing.

You can’t stay afloat with your arms full of iron.

Yesterday I walked round and around Bedford Square, steps too quick, breath harsh, claw-hands. I walked because if I stopped walking I was going to start shouting, or breaking things, or breaking myself, and whatever I started I wouldn’t be able to stop. This week, too close behind my own recent stint in A&E, the unkindness of life has rained down in cold hail as the last of the year’s sun shines on like a traitor. There is a life waiting for the recovering addict, I know, because I’ve seen the power of the rooms in action, but right now I’m surrounded by the drowning as my own lungs are filling with water and I can’t see the salvation, just the living death of the spirit, and it’s unendurable.

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Except…It’s not. Because there is another voice.

The one that says: Get up, get up. You would have to be mad to believe in turning a corner now, so be mad. Ride that wave of lunatic fire, and that conviction like a bell ringing in your body, and that crazy terrifying love you have for people, you sit on that bitch like a horse and ride it right through the valley of the shadow of death. I see you afraid of what people think of you, because you care too much and are passionate beyond reason and thank God for that, because lukewarm and sensible and proper are getting this world fucking nowhere. And no, you’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, or every place’s, or every cause’s, but I will show you how that terrible iron can be forged, and where it can be wielded, so get up. Fate is a hand held out to you now, will you take it? These words are falling from a tongue of fire, will you heed them? Do not despair, do not come down, do not bow out, pour out that madness like oil on the wounds of the world and thank me later, because this is not how it ends.

I will not be discouraged. I will listen to that tongue of fire, I will be directed by the hand of fate. I will keep these sodden lungs going because I have spent twenty-five years learning how to breathe underwater.

These are the conversations I have with God. If you find me walking around Bedford Square with a face like the end of the world, don’t be afraid. I’m just walking it off, the weight of all this burning iron. I wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.

Vampire Hunting in Paris

There are places in this world which split you open, in awe, joy or sorrow; gardens, ruins, stone circles. There are cities that cleave you like a ripe fig; alive and all millipede feet and heavy breathing. They are aware.

Paris is such a city for me. A great leopard with filthy paws, Paris unpacks my loneliness with my shirts and shakes it out.

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I couldn’t tell you why. It might be the long streets tapping with the ghosts of a million famous footsteps, making me long for the past, a trick of nostalgic light. It might be the solitude, having no one to share the breath of this city. It might be the swarming crowds; each citizen an arrowhead, focused, determined. I merely wander cluelessly from my moorings.

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The romantic in me can’t have it both ways; I love the solitude, the melancholy. Watching the moon rise over the Seine, I know the glimmering perfection of the moment would be lessened for me if someone were to run up, laughing, and clasp my hand (Really? Are you lying?). My most profound and bittersweet moments are only experienced alone. The city winks back at me from silver-plated water. She understands. She embraces suffering like a martyr, a mistress of mansions and garrets.

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I am fortunate enough to catch Vespers in Notre Dame, the call and answer of prayerful melody; a vast aviary of devoted birds. There is one woman close to the altar, decked in blue and white like the Virgin. She raises her hands in ecstasy when she sings, she is transported beyond her body, her hands full of stained glass light.

I wonder at her life when the music stops. I wonder if carrying such a faith, she is ever lonely, too.

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I walk slowly through the streets back to the hotel. My train leaves for the South in the morning, there’s no point ghost-hunting my heart in this place with one turn of the clock left. I need more time! Paris lets me know she will be here when I need her, she sends a gentle rain to freckle the long avenues. The smell of wet pavement rises, mingles with the frankincense still tangled in my hair; they say when a holy scent follows a prayer, then that prayer is heard.

Licking Toads

I see you. On trains and escalators; buying bread and walking the dogs. I see you clutching history books and muddy hiking boots in plastic bags. Invisible or too visible, broomsticks disguised as vacuum cleaners and butterflies nesting in your hair, cunningly mimicking plastic clips. I see you on the train; toying with old necklaces, picking scars, scribbling in miniature notebooks, sipping cans of pre-mixed Gin & Tonic.

I see you when you are young, and sad, and waiting to blossom; way behind the other girls. Barely tethered to the world, on slim and lonely paths the deer wend through the green; or padding through the city alleys, urban fox paws slipping out of denim jacket sleeves. I wonder if you are like me. I wonder where the cauldron is, it will be somewhere in your body but not full yet, or not ready to be tasted on the end of a burned thumb, like Gwion Bach. You must believe that your wet-leather skin is no less beautiful than the plumage of the blossoming girls. I see you. I see you when you too are riding the Hedge of a liminal late decade and the reality of your life – of what your life could be – is sinking in like clay.

I sit on those same itchy train seats with my own history books and fizzy green water. There are stoat bones around my neck and I am wearing sensible shoes and a lone dash of badly applied lipstick. I have started seeing you everywhere; in cafes and churches and doctor’s waiting rooms and yes, always, always on the train – or at least waiting on platforms speckled with gum like a hen’s egg. Toad Women. I see you everywhere phasing like ghosts through linen as I hoard more years, as I grow into my role with relish, leaning into the crooked bones of my house.

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I, too, am a Toad Woman. I have glittering eyes and hallucinogenic skin. A jewel hidden inside my head. I creep through dying leaves and pond sludge, fingertips sipping eccentric nutrients from moon-drenched soil. My palace is a hollow space in the earth to sleep in, my great hall is lined with lichen tapestries and pillars of decaying mushrooms. When I sleep, it’s to the sound of rain seeping through the tangled roots of my canopy bed.

I am glad for the invisible circle of us; sometimes one, sometimes thirteen. Endlessly together in our strange sisterhood, the ocean forever rolling stones around its mouth. I wait in threshold spaces for you to appear; public gardens, libraries, zebra crossings, A&E. Without fail I will spot another Toad Woman even if she is sitting behind me, with those extra, shiny black eyes rolling around the back of my skull like dice. Then I swivel my neck, Minerva’s owl, cough. She understands; she too has a throat full of mouse bones and hair from mourning lockets. She also feels the creak in that one glowing rib.

Come and creep with me. Let’s discover hare’s nests and hidden green stems no human eye has ever seen. Let’s slip between the loose stones in the wall, where tiny purple flowers thrive. Let’s find all the holy wells where a saint’s head fell, and hold out cups of silver, wood and gold. Let us rejoice, because the water tastes of myrrh, and apples.

Hush

There is a small tree growing out of the drainpipe on the old guildhall. Just beginning to brush the red brick with baby leaf hands, reaching up towards the cracked and peeling window frame. All around me the people hive-hum across the cobbles, a spilled yolk of morning sun pouring through cracks in ancient stones.

Some people stop, stare at me, point me out to their giggling girl gaggles, look me up and down pausing for breath on their mobiles phones; all because I am still and staring upward with a smile on my face at this gentle hand of spring relaxing into unobtrusive space. Tender green ears twitching to the city.

This happens. It happens when I stare too long at the dirt ingrained in the creases of commuter’s palms; overwhelmed with sweetness for the microscopic labyrinths of our bodies that breathe in ash and grease and motor oil. Happily drowning in our shared humanity; lashes streaked with cosmetic paint, the yellow crumbs of last night’s crying, filtering soot and dust from the mild surface of our eyes. Palms that weigh rice, coins, newborns; fingertips that test the quality of silk and writing paper and the texture of flower petals. Shoulders bearing water buckets, raffia baskets, coffins.

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I love everything. I love the eyes looking upwards to the sunlight sinking through leaves. I love whoever is marvelling at the exquisite pink of the new cherry blossoms right now. I love the girl, the boy, weighing themselves and wondering. I love the fingers fumbling with buttons and the toes rediscovering sand. I love everyone curled like living shells into dirty sheets: the sunlight touching old gravestones; holes in hand-me-down trousers, ragged hems brushing the pavement; the sweat clinging to people I will never meet in olive groves and orchards and corn fields.

I become these things, sometimes. My veins rise like ecstatic kraken and burst with thick ribbons of red and blue and yellow paint. I am the iridescent back of a long-legged beetle. I am every dissenter’s neck and every axe. I am hands cupping daily milk dishes. I am the shame that follows just one more drink. I am every nose passing a hot dog stand or candyfloss or stale urine at the bus stop. I am inappropriate laughter in church.

And people say, hands over ears, over eyes; Hush.

Why can’t you just be

A little

Less.