Tap tap tap.
The spoon on the glass brings the private room to a hush. The twenty-six faces seated at the oblong table turn to see the esteemed Professor Marvin Cockburn, standing, smiling broadly with the anticipation of someone who knows he is about to hear his own voice.
Oh boy, how lucky we are, Gracie thinks to herself. She has been a student of Cockburn’s for four years and is soon to be set free into the big cruel world. She will miss many things from studenthood: the safety of the bubble, the loans, the parties, the feeling of being important; but this man’s sweeping speeches are not one of them. Although she and her peers have all shared their excitement for the future, Gracie has kept hidden the fear with which she wakes up in the mornings, the mornings that come faster and faster than ever before.
Under the dinner table at this prestigious restaurant, a warm hand falls on Gracie’s knee. It happens as if by accident, but then stays there very purposefully. It belongs to the man seated next to her, whose face remains straight as his fingers probe and wander. Gracie feels her cheeks redden a touch, becomes aware of the tiny white hairs on her face. She scratches an imaginary itch there, while Cockburn savours the silence, then speaks.
– I had a very lonely childhood . . .
Jesus Christ, Gracie thinks. She lets out a muted sigh and braces herself for another chunk of time the man will have taken away from her.
– . . . I spent many long afternoons, alone, playing in the garden. I wasn’t allowed to play on the street with the other children . . .
To Gracie, every syllable sounds stretched and dragged out, as if the Professor is clinging onto every second he has the attention of the room. This must be the reason he became a university lecturer to begin with, so he could talk for hours to people who were obligated to listen to him.
. . . I would say to my mother ‘Mother, I’m bored’ . . . and she would say ‘Don’t worry, my darling boy, you’ll be dead soon enough.’
Laughter from everyone present except one. They’re hooked. Gracie wants to point out that the final semester is over and there’ll be no extra credit for paying attention during the farewell dinner speeches.
Across from her at the table is Nicholas Jacobs, the acned aspiring aristocrat, who shared her postmodernism literature classes at Aberystwyth University for the last four years. He looks doped, eyes glazed, as if he could froth at the mouth. Gracie wonders how poor young Nicholas will get his fix of Cockburn magic out there in the real world. She wonders if he’ll even survive for a minute. Then she wonders about her own chances of survival, swallows something big, and pushes the thought downward.
– . . . It’s true, that’s what she said, the most amazing woman. I never understood what she meant. I never understood any of the things she said, they were all meaningless words, empty, overused clichés about the fleeting nature of youth and life and how we let it all slip through our fingers. We’ve heard it all a million times, have we not? To a young boy with a starved imagination, this all meant nothing. They were her problems, not mine. I certainly wasn’t going to grow up and grow old, not like her. Not a chance, not me, I’m not like everyone else . . .
Nicholas laughs so loud it makes Gracie shudder. Under the table, that hand has snaked further and further up her leg, to the point where it has peeled back the hem of her denim skirt to reveal the fine hairs of her upper thigh.
– . . . But everything my dear mother said was true. That’s the thing with clichés. They’re all true. And that’s what getting older really means: finding out that all the clichés are true.
Cockburn pauses for a moment to allow his monologue to be absorbed by his doting subjects. To Gracie the speech is clearly scripted and well-rehearsed, despite his best efforts to appear spontaneous.
The secret hand that lives under the table has stopped and planted itself firmly on her thigh. She does not pretend to hate its presence. She opens her legs a crack to give a clear sign to the hand that its journey may not yet be finished.
On the other side of her is her best friend, Kelsey Martin, the four foot eleven sociology student who was nicknamed Big Kelso within the first hour of her campus arrival and has been addressed as nothing else for the last four years.
Apart from the affectionate initialism: BK.
– . . . But you, all of you, who have graced us with your presence at this dinner tonight, you are in the best part of it all, right now. This is it, right here, the best part of your whole lives. I’m serious. You’re at the foot of the mountain. All ahead of you. Anticipation is the best, and the worst, part of everything. It took me many years to figure that one out, I’m giving it to you for free. Ladies and gentlemen boys and girls, I am excited! Aren’t you all excited? Don’t you just want to grab this night by the balls? Grab it and grab life, with both hands, choke the life out of it? Pin it down on the ground and have your way with it? If you don’t, you shouldn’t be here. You are the best of the best. We may not have said it so bluntly throughout the last three or four years, but you’re our favourites. The teacher’s pets. The brightest and boldest, the most questioning and curious, the most infuriating and enrapturing of all the students in the whole faculty, the whole campus. That’s no joke. There’s so much potential in this room, it isn’t fair. I wish I could tell you to dig your heels into the earth, seize hold of time, make it stop, give you a chance to look around, savour everything, drink it all in. But unfortunately, I know too much. I know that you’ll walk out of this restaurant tonight, blink, and miss it all, just like everyone else . . .
Cockburn falters for a moment, letting his emotion, staged or genuine, get the better of him. Gracie suspects this is just another choreographed part of the routine, but the others are buying it. Their mouths are wide open. Nicholas is tearing up.
-. . . But, anyway! Haha! What else is there? A toast! To the future!
Zealous laughter and applause. The glasses raise, Gracie’s a fraction behind the others. The final Cockburn lecture of her life, and it was just as melodramatic as the rest.
The delicate hand, which has gotten so comfortable, leaves Gracie’s thigh to join the others in applause, leaving a warm spot on her flesh which suddenly feels exposed.
Rubbing the back of her neck, she turns to her friend on her right, BK. They share one of their cynical smiles together. They know this heartfelt speech, the rules of Cockburn’s world, don’t apply to them. They don’t need to listen to an old man like him.
They’re not like everyone else.
The celebrations continue into the night. The professors at the table order five bottles of the finest champagne in the house. The table overflows with appreciation.
At some point, that sneaky hand returns to its rightful spot, and Gracie breathes out butterflies.
– I’ve got plans . . .
Young Nicholas struggles to keep his eyes straight after his third glass of wine. He’s drunk, the whole table is drunk. The dinner is long finished, the plates swept away, the bottles emptying and reappearing on their table as if by magic.
Professor Bob sits opposite young Nicholas, his eyes in a similar, otherworldly place, his nose glowing pink with happiness.
– What’re your plans, Nick?
– I’ve been researching PHD options. With my grades I’d be guaranteed a place.
– What, and just stay in education? For another seven years, or however long that takes?
Big Kelso is always straight to the point in her criticisms. It is the main reason Gracie fell in love with her. She says the things she thinks and thinks the things she says. Young Nicholas takes another slurp of wine before answering.
– Education is a lifelong journey, BK. We’re all apprentices in a thing of which we never become masters. Who said that? Was it Hemingway?
– I think it was Cockburn, actually.
Nicholas picks up on her sarcasm, despite his glorious inebriation. He levels his gaze straight at her, he thinks, but it’s more towards the painting of a yacht hung on the wall behind her, a metre to the right.
– Yeah? So, okay, so, yeah, okay what’re your plans, “Big Kelso”?
– I don’t know yet, not exactly, all I know is the first thing I’m going to do is move out of my mum’s house, get my own place. Just me and my cat, versus the world.
– You still live with your mother?
– Soon I won’t. Soon I’ll be free from her tyrannous reign. Seriously, ask Gracie. The woman rules my life. I think it’s because she’s so dissatisfied with her own. Anyway. I’ll be gone soon, away from her, and I’ll be happy.
– Ambitious. What about you Gracie? What’re you going to do?
Gracie shifts and tugs at the sleeve hugging her elbow. She laughs, no one else does. She considers telling Nick about how she woke up and couldn’t breathe last week, how she has found a dark place inside her where all her dreams are jokes and kept it secret, how she considered nuking her final thesis just so she could resit the year and stay safe in the womb of university life; but she holds back.
She thinks back to the student wellbeing survey she filled out a few weeks ago that was voluntary but not really.
State how strongly you agree or disagree with this statement: I am feeling optimistic about the future. Strongly agree/Agree/I don’t know/Disagree/Strongly disagree/Get the fuck out of here/I won’t even make it to the future /Prefer not to answer.
– . . . Still figuring it out.
The warm gaze of the man sitting next to her lights up her cheeks. She can feel the burn. His hand is still resting gently on her thigh, creating a mini pool of sweat for his fingers to play in.
Professor Bob speaks, louder than he notices.
– Grace is destined for big things . . .
– Stop . . .
– . . . She can be anything, anywhere she wants to be. A diplomat. A judge. Chief of the UN. Nobility. A great social commentator. Anything. All I know is, she’ll never be a nobody . . . Am I right?
The professor, forgetting his surroundings, throws his arm around Gracie and pulls her in tight. A flicker of suspicion flashes across Nicholas’s face, but he lets it go. He’s drunk, they’re all drunk. The euphoria of the occasion has gotten to everyone.
No one present at the table is aware of the extracurricular relationship between Gracie and her professor. Not even BK, a few inches away from them.
The table empties. People make their excuses, pay far less than their share of the bill, and leave. The professors will cover the shortage, like they do every year. They never admit it, but this event is more for them than for the students. Their only chance to get them all loosened up enough to say what they really think about their experience at the institution. Far more accurate than any survey.
The numbers thin out, some go home to sleep, others go to all night graduation parties.
Professor Bob and Gracie meet in the car park, behind the rubbish bins, right in the dirt where they like it. This is the time they have been waiting for, when no one is around. All the drunk, abandoned sexual energy spills itself out, all over them, all over the floor.
Bob has a house, and a pretty big one, but the problem with that is that his wife rudely lives there. Though really, even if Bob were unmarried and boring unforbidden fruit, Gracie would still prefer to do in car parks and dark alleyways and public bathrooms and the woods and, one time, in a payphone booth, in the middle of the damned day.
The professor pulls his tongue out of her throat for a second to gaze at her, her glasses, her brown hair and browner eyes, her perfectly imperfect face, just the right amount of pretty, not so much so that other, more competent men would compete with him. Her plainness is what the professor loves most about her, her accessibility.
He catches his breath and speaks.
– I should’ve failed you. Graded your dissertation F. That way you’d have to stick around, for at least another year.
– I could always get a job as your assistant. Then you could have me waiting in your office for you, every day. You could even lock me in there.
– Jesus. Don’t say that, that’s dangerous.
Gracie smiles her most devilish smile and locks her mouth back onto his.
They fall back together and fuck the life out of each other right there on the stony floor. Pebbles stick in Gracie’s flesh and she doesn’t care.
She looks up at the stars. She catches herself taking heed of Cockburn’s words. Take it in. Savour it. Appreciate it. This is it, this is it right here, as good as it gets.
Gracie will find that this will be her biggest problem in life; her and everyone else’s inability to bottle it.
A vague but significant amount of time later
Your mind is a river, flowing, always flowing, changing, always changing. The river is never the same, from one moment to the next, as your mind is never the same; from the moment you start hearing this sentence to the moment it finishes, your mind will be different, you will be different. Your mind is a river and you are a river trout, swimming in the river. You can try to take a bite out of everything that passes you, you can try to get hooked on every worm or every fly or every other tiny insect; or you can learn to simply watch, to simply let the worms and flies and insects pass you by, without judgement, without feeling, because in the flowing river that is your mind, everything is temporary, worms, flies, pain, happiness, love, fear, it all flows like time and energy, it’s all one lifeform, it’s all –
Nope. I shut down the app, the fifth one that promised me peace of mind, the fifth one that failed. I bet Ghandi didn’t need a goddamned app to meditate. I bet the Dalai Lama doesn’t need a long list of empty metaphors to reach enlightenment.
Is there even a place for peace of mind in the twenty-first century?
I open my eyes. I’m still in my flat, with its grey walls and the big mean clock which hangs over my head every day.
This is me, me and my open prison. Not sure how I got here and not sure how I’ll get out. I just take it day by day, minimizing my life and my ambitions into small hours which, when taken one at a time, I can just about get through.
I have nothing on the agenda for today, for this week, or the rest of my life. It’s kind of surprising, actually, how restricting endless freedom is. It’s tempting to just sit here all day and let time pass, but really I need to get out, even if only for an hour, go for a walk, something. I find aimlessly walking difficult to keep up, the pointlessness of it all always gets to me, so I like to give myself some arbitrary destination, to trick myself into thinking I’m not just a loser walking around the streets with no purpose. Tesco’s usually a good one. I have £1.73 in my bank account but there’s probably something I can get to justify my trip, some way to take part in consumerism that gets me out of my hole.
Toilet paper, that will do. Always got to have toilet paper.
I stand in the checkout queue at Tesco with my pathetic basket of smart economy value cardboard toilet paper and feel a profound sorrow. These moments are nothing new. They strike me now and then, like when I try to get dressed in the morning and slip putting on a sock, when I overcook or undercook food, when I make phone calls and try to sound like an adult, when I see grown men cry on television, when I log on to the job centre website.
A doctor would probably tell me I have something like depression but not to worry because hey, there’s no stigma anymore, honestly, it’s okay to not be okay, actually it’s pretty cool, everyone’s doing it, come on, get stuck in, don’t miss out.
I hold my breath and bite down on my index finger, hard, wait for the moment to pass. It always does.
In front of me, a woman pushes her baby in a pram.
I look at the baby. The baby looks back. The baby instantly bursts into tears.
The woman turns around to scowl at me. I mumble an apology. She hurriedly pays for her things and rushes her baby out of there, away from me.
The lady at the checkout refuses to look at or talk to me. She scans my pathetic toilet paper and points to the numbers on the screen. I mumble another apology and she shakes her head in disappointment.
When I get home, I get a phone call.
I answer to the sound of tears.
– . . . Hey Bob.
– . . . I miss you.
– Can I come over?
I look around at my sorry little flat. A decrepit armchair, a small portable TV (which only shows the telesales channel, I tried fixing it but somehow managed to burn a hole in the carpet and lock myself outside so I thought it better to quit), a pile of clothes, books, a collection of frozen pizza boxes, a grimy balcony, a general air of sadness. My existence fits neatly into a few square metres.
I could do with some company, but I know if Bob comes over, getting him to leave after we’re done will be the hard part, like always. I just want a man who will come over, fuck me, and leave the second I want him to. Is that too goddamned much to ask?
– . . . Uh, actually, I don’t know, it’s not a good time.
– Why, what are you doing? Who’s there?
– No one, it’s just . . .
– Just what?
– We broke up, Bob, remember?
– Yes, Gracie I remember. You ruined my life.
– Well, shouldn’t that teach you not to call me again?
– I can’t help it. I miss the smell of your shampoo.
– You can buy the same shampoo at the supermarket.
– It’s not about the shampoo Gracie. It’s about you. About those little hairs on your cheeks that you hate but I love.
– . . . I’m sure you’ll find someone else, someone who uses the same shampoo. You deserve it.
– My wife is getting married again. Did I tell you?
– Yes, you told me, Bob. That means she’s not your wife anymore, right?
More tears. I sometimes find it hard to believe I once found this man so irresistible, used to get nervous about his calls, used to go down on him in his office.
– . . . I need you.
– I’m going away now, Bob, okay, feel better, okay?
– Goodbye, Bob.
I hang up.
I look at the big mean clock. It’s 7pm. It looks pretty smug about it, too. Like it’s asking me, ha, what now, what the hell are you going to do all night? What about tomorrow? And the rest of the month? What about the impossibly long stretch of dead empty grey days ahead of you? What are you going to do, Gracie?
I could apply for jobs but no matter what I search for I only get jobs for digital marketing, social media content providers, sales calls, warehouse operatives, lorry drivers. Also spending hours on tedious, repetitive application forms just to receive vague automated rejections gets boring fast.
People always told me life is short, but it feels like it’s taking forever. What I want to know is: if life’s so short, why do I feel so old already?
For a minute, I think about calling Bob back and letting him come over. The evening will pass quicker if he’s here to make me wish it away. But I know this will be a mistake. It will only give fuel to another six months’ worth of sobbing phone calls.
I turn on the TV, then turn it off. I open a book, then close it. I look at my phone then throw it on the floor.
I stare at the walls, at the big mean clock, watch it ticking.
Nothing will do. Fuck it. I’m going to bed, even if it’s still light outside.
When I finally fall asleep, I dream all night long, dreams in which I am raging, exploding, punching at walls made of Styrofoam, screaming soundlessly until my throat bursts and unleashes spiders while a crowd of people stand and watch and point and laugh at me until I pee myself.
These dreams, like my routine moments of sorrow, are also nothing new.
– Knock knock.
– . . . Urrghhh, what? What time is it?
– Knock knock.
– Who’s there?
– You’ve been unemployed for a very, very long time, Gracie.
– . . . What?
– Knock knock.
– Who’s there?
– Life is going on all around you, getting faster and faster, and you’re stuck in your little bubble, aren’t you?
– Seriously who is this?
– You tell yourself it doesn’t matter, you’re all heading to the same place in the end, but even you know that’s a lie, don’t you, Gracie? You’re too afraid to take part in life because you’re no good at it.
– Whoever this is, leave me alone.
– Knock knock.
– What do you want?
– You’ve never tried at anything your whole life and now look at you, drowning in your shallow puddle, complaining. That’s always been you, Gracie.
– Go away.
– Knock knock.
– No one’s home.
– Knock knock.
– I’m calling the police.
– Knock knock.
. . .
. . .
. . .
I pry open my eyes and sunlight stabs at them.
Was that someone knocking just now? Or was it in my dream? I heave my stupid body of out of bed and trip my way to the door. I open it. I see the stoned walls of the hallway, the cracked floor, the broken bottles and cigarette butts.
No one there.
I close my eyes, rub the shit out of them, open them again. Silence and emptiness. Nothing, nobody, of course. It was foolish of me to think someone might have come knocking for me. I don’t really exist in here.
I close the door again, but before it slams shut, I hear a shout. A vaguely familiar voice. I open the door again, and there she is.
She looks just like I remember her. Funny, this is both pleasing and disappointing in equal measure. Her frayed brown hair, her big old blue eyes, a little wet around the edges.
I can’t even remember the last time I saw her. I don’t know how she found me. I didn’t think anybody could find me here, in my rainy little puddle.
I poke my head out into the corridor to look past her. No one else with her.
She must be wondering why instead of saying hello or asking her inside I’m just staring at her.
– Don’t I get a hug?
It’s only then that I notice the cat in her arms. A big furry ginger beast, its sprawling belly hanging loose. I hug her and the cat squishes between our bodies. The thing looks ancient, furious, like it wakes up each day and curses god for not yet having taken it to a better place.
– Why the – What are you doing here, BK?
– Can I come in?
I nod and step aside. She enters my sad little world. I make lame excuses about the mess to which she says nothing.
Then I see the big black bag. She drags it along behind her, her cat dangling from her free arm. – How about some help?
I splutter something and grab the bag. Shit, it’s heavy. She makes her way into the living room. I kick the door closed and follow her in.
The cat drops to the floor and: instant piss! Fantastic. The thing finds a good spot and leaves a warm, dark yellow puddle on my blue shirt. Satisfied with itself, it then gets comfortable on the armchair.
I look at BK, then to her bag of shit.
– You moving somewhere?
She picks up the cat from the chair, it screams at her. She steals its seat then sets the thing down in her lap, where it leaks again, all over her leg. She appears to not notice.
She gives me a smile.
– So how the hell have you been? Gracie! It’s been so long! When was the last time?
– Uh . . . Can’t remember. Was it the dinner? Or that house party? The one with the porridge. One of the many “last ever” parties we threw before graduation.
– Oh yeah. I think I hugged you and said this is goodbye forever to you around thirty times that night.
– Simpler times.
Piss is trickling down her bare leg. She is smiling.
I feel like I should offer her a tea or something, but all I have in my cupboards is cheap tinned food and insects. – I didn’t know you were still in town.
– I’m not.
– Actually I can’t stay long.
– Things . . . Things are a bit messed up for me right now. It’s my mum. She’s crazy. You have no idea.
– . . . Yeah –
– Can Asshole stay with you? Only for a couple of days.
– . . . The cat?
– He’s really sweet and cuddly and lovely. He’s house trained, pretty much, mostly, sometimes.
– . . . Uhh . . .
– And he’s twenty-six years old so he sleeps a lot.
– Twenty-six? That’s an old cat.
– I know. He’s been with me my whole life. The only one.
– How old is that in cat years?
– Like, a thousand.
– Its name is Asshole?
– He’s a real good boy, he’s an old grandpa, a big fluffy sweetheart, aren’t you? Aren’t you?
She scratches the cat under it chin and it coughs blood.
– Why does it need to stay here?
She sighs and rubs her face, like she’s been asked that question a hundred times today.
Oh, that’s it. That’s exactly it. She’s been everywhere else already. I wonder how far down on her list I am, how many people had to reject her before she considered me, her old best pal who she left behind in this nothing little Welsh town.
– I’m sorry Gracie. It’s just for a few days, I promise. It’s . . . Uh, god, it’s my mum, she’s . . . you wouldn’t understand.
– Your mum? Still? . . . Uhh . . . I mean . . . I guess . . . I but hmm I’m not sure . . .
– It doesn’t look like you ever have people here so it shouldn’t be a problem for you right?
– Um . . .
– It’s not like you’ve got other stuff going on.
I swallow something big and nod.
She grabs the bag and pulls more stuff out than could possibly fit in there.
– So here’s his cat food, here’s his cat brush, here’s his cat milk, his cat toys, his cat bed, his cat sweater, all his cat shit is what I’m saying, here’s all his cat shit . . . his favourite meal for breakfast is trout but for brunch, second brunch and all three dinners he prefers the flesh of a hoofed mammal, for his suppers he’s good with anything as long as it’s organic, oh also in the evenings it’s best to give him something lighter because if he eats too much he gets bouts of existential dread, so, um, yeah, what else . . . he doesn’t like it if anyone is sleeping when he’s not so, you know, be awake more, he likes scratches and cuddles and a bed time story several times day, and he prefers imported filtered water to tap, uh, okay, I think that’s it . . . alright Gracie, phew, you’re a life saver, I can’t tell you how great a friend you are, hey we should hang out some time when I’m not tied up in all this shit with my mum, you wouldn’t believe her, the way she controls me, the things she puts me through, anyway really happy to see you again if you have any questions use the internet I’ll see you soon it will only be a week I promise you’re the best Gracie take it easy!
And she’s gone.
I close the door. I look at Asshole, spread-eagled on my armchair.
It’s looking me right in the eye.
Three weeks go by and I hear nothing from BK.
I mean, I think three weeks go by. It’s hard to tell. Time does its own thing in here, in my little puddle. It expands and contracts and distorts just for fun. In here I brush my teeth and a month goes by. I drink a glass of milk and I’m years older. I bend over to tie my shoelaces and the world has changed. But if I sit and stare at the big mean clock which hangs over my head every day and whispers shit into my ear, it doesn’t budge.
I’ve tried calling BK, hundreds of times in fact, but it goes straight to her voicemail, which is her mum explaining that her daughter is too busy to come to the phone right now but will call back at the earliest convenience.
Oh yeah and Asshole hates me.
At first I thought, hey, maybe this will be nice, maybe we can bond, maybe I won’t have to call up Bob every now and then when I’m bored and lonely, maybe this cat can fulfil me, but that is never going to happen, the little fucker has made that clear. The one time I got close enough to try and stroke it, the thing scrammed the shit out of my arm and it bled for three days. Yeah, that doctor I should probably go see could’ve helped me, but she would also tell me all the other things that are wrong with me, so it didn’t seem worth it. I wrapped a towel around it and the bleeding stopped eventually, so there’s no problem, definitely, definitely no problem.
For the first three days Asshole wouldn’t come out of a little hole it found in the wall. In the end it got hungry and emerged, looking pissed off at me and the world. The only time the thing is not openly hostile to me is when it wants food, the rest of the time it hisses and spits at me if I go within ten feet of it.
Oh yeah it also keeps pissing on my shirt. I moved the shirt to a new spot, but the thing found it and pissed on it again. I even hid the shirt at the bottom of my drawer and locked it, but, somehow, Asshole found it and pissed all over it again. Now the shirt has been relegated to the litter tray, and I’m over it.
Sure, I could just say, hey, BK, fuck you, fuck you and your cat, but the truth is that now, for a few brief moments of the day, I have a purpose. I must feed the hungry. They meow, and I provide. It’s not much, but that big mean clock, always hanging over my head and grinning at me menacingly, now has a few little spots on it where I’m not a meaningless creature, where being awake isn’t a challenge, where I’m not simultaneously wishing time away and desperately trying to claw it back.
A few little spots where I exist again.
After another pointless walk, this time to a supermarket in the next town to make the journey longer, I come home to suspicious peace. I look around and can’t find Asshole anywhere. I look all over the flat, even in its hole in the wall. It’s gone. I guess it found a way to escape. Can’t say I blame it. I catch myself feeling sad, and even sadder at the fact that I could feel sad about the departure of a creature that despises me.
I tear up. I bite down on my finger, harder than ever, hoping to draw blood.
Got to eat through the pain. The only way. Frozen pizzas are my lifeblood. I get two out of the freezer and open the oven.
Oh. There you are. Hiding, in the oven. Of course. I wonder how the thing got in there and closed the door after itself. I try to coax it out by clicking my fingers and making pspspsps noises. The thing looks at me like I’m the dumbest fuck that ever got born.
It’s time I called BK again.
Ring . . . Ring . . . Ring . . . And holy fuck! The bitch answers!
– Hey Gracie I can’t talk at all right now what’s up?
– . . . Uh, um, not much, the cat.
– Is he okay?
– I couldn’t find it for ages. Then I found it. It’s in the oven.
– Oh. Yeah, he’ll do that.
– Seems safe to you?
– He likes warm cosy spaces.
– I, uh, it’s just . . . was going to cook something.
She pauses while she tries to find a way to tell me she doesn’t care.
– Try to lure him out with some treats or something.
I hear a loud bang in the background, like a bomb or a car crash.
– What was that? Are you okay?
– Yeah, yeah, no, not even slightly, yeah, no, don’t worry I’m fine.
– . . . Right.
– It’s my mum.
– What the hell is she doing?
– She’s . . . Lots of things. But mainly she’s trying to frame me for a triple murder, which I so didn’t do.
– . . .
– This is so typical of her.
– I’ll be tied up in legal battles for a while. I’m sorry. I know I said it would only be a couple of months but it might be longer. I can’t let her win this time.
– Sounds like you and your mum still have something of a strained relationship.
– Yep. She does shit like this all the time. Last year she tried to blame me for the economic downfall of Zimbabwe. Wrote a letter to the UN and everything.
– I’m sure she loves you really.
A loud, painful scream.
– I have to go, tell Asshole I love him?
I wake up from another dream in which I am screaming and pounding at walls with my fists and making no sound whatsoever while wet patches form all over my pants and an ever-increasing audience enjoys the spectacle.
I fall out of bed and into some dirty clothes.
Today is a rare kind of day, one that only comes around twice a month, one where I actually have something to do, some reason to leave my puddle and enter the real world.
I go to the worst place on earth. There’s a queue to get in.
I’m early, I’m always early, partly because my dreams wake me up when it’s still dark out regardless of the time of year, and partly because I want to get this over with, despite it being the only thing on my to-do list.
I’m here like the rest of them, all huddled in the cold, the security watching over us like the wild animals we are. The sound of a gong rings out. They open the doors and let us in. I am told to sit down and wait to be called up for judgement. I wait for forty-five minutes, until a reptile with a beard calls me over to her desk. I take my seat. I recognise her. One of the regulars. Her job is to wait at her desk until people turn up to sit opposite her, and when they do, tell them to get a life. I want her job. How did she get that gig, the sweetest on earth? What qualifications does she have, how many cover letters did she have to write and rewrite until they were “tonally appropriate”, how many impersonal rejections did she get, how many times did she not even hear anything back?
I thought about asking her once, during one of our sessions where she told me I should consider work outside Applied Greek Philosophy, the only thing I have a piece of paper in, my equally expensive and meaningless master’s degree. I wanted to ask her how she got to be the one that decides. Was she like me, like all of us, out there in the cold, lining up for our routine scolding and begrudging handout, did her jobseekers counsellor not show up for work, did she just take his seat and say next please, did no one notice, did she just keep working here for years, is that how it happens? She must be in it for the thrill of giving or taking away oxygen from societal forgettables. Caesar on a cushioned throne, fucking the poor in the ass with her thumb while some lions watch and beat off.
I thought better of asking her in the end. Her signature is the only thing keeping the small amount of disgusting food in my cupboard. Making her angry could cost me my life. I hate her and she hates me, but the difference is, while she could just flick me off her shoe and think nothing of it, without her and her signature, I would be nothing. She is the only person in the universe who knows I exist, who has some date on a calendar with my name on it, whose responsibility it is to mumble words at me for a few minutes twice a month. Even if Asshole could talk to me I’m sure he wouldn’t, except maybe to tell me to go fuck myself.
This bitch is my best friend in the whole world.
I give her my papers which illustrate that even though I’m still showing up here every two weeks, still begging for money, I really am trying my best to be a real person. She grinds phlegm in her throat while looking them over.
Next to me, a Polish man pleads his case through the mouth of a translator while the counsellor stares into space. The other side of me is a middle-aged man in a suit. I’ve seen him in here before too, another regular for the slaughter. He’s always quiet, humble, respectful. I’ve seen him hand his CV over to his judge, I don’t know what’s on there exactly, but it’s six pages long. I’ve overheard his executioner scoff – Is four years of managerial experience really enough? I’ve watched him bow his head time after time, and I’ve watched him keep coming back, every two weeks, through those doors, still worth nothing, like the rest of us.
I bite on my finger. Hear a bone crunch. Wait for it to pass. It always does.
From the other side of the room I hear shouting. A lady is standing up, banging her hands on the desk. It seems her job search has proven unsatisfactory. Her benefits will be cut. She screams as the security run over to her, frothing at the mouths with delight.
They grab her and drag her kicking and screaming to the door.
– You can’t do this! I have children! Please!
The guards laugh.
– I’ll do anything! Please! Don’t do this!
They hold her, one by the hands and the other by the feet, swing her back and forth, then launch her out into the street. They wipe the dust from their hands and laugh some more.
The bearded lizard opposite me sets down my papers and coughs as if to make a point. I look at her.
– I see you haven’t yet got a driving licence.
-. . . Okay.
She gets to work with her red pen, drawing swastikas over everything. Once she has defiled my paper, she sets down the pen and levels her eyes at me.
– I recommend you expand your job search to surrounding towns. Get a bus. Get some rollerblades. It’s the twenty first century, people travel. You will receive an email with links to the hundreds of retail, administrative, secretarial, sales, scrotal and toilet vacancies you seem to be excluding from your search. If you think those jobs are beneath you, wait until you try applying for them and realize even you, the great educated millennial, can’t walk into them. Wait until you start trying in earnest and still fail, see how scary that is. Jesus, what is it with your generation? Why do you all think you were born to be millionaires on TV, astronauts, athletes, great pioneers? You can’t all be rich and successful, it won’t work. The world needs plumbers and bus drivers and secretaries and cleaners. We need ordinary people. Why can’t you just accept being ordinary? Because most of you are anyway, whether you swallow it or not. Maybe your mommy loves you and tells you your special but the rest of the world thinks you’re a piece of shit, and hey, guess what, your mommy’s a whore, and she’s wrong. You’re not a great thinker, a great innovator, you’re a worker ant, and what’s wrong with that for Christ’s sakes? That’s the most noble thing to be, a nobody. The rich and successful need you, need us, the masses, to prop them up. But do you need them? Would the world fall apart if there was one less celebrity or philosopher or personality? Christ no. Isn’t that a great one-sided relationship, why wouldn’t you want that? What even is it that you want? You want to be remembered when you die? Shit, you’re still alive and people have already forgotten you. Why do you think you matter? Does any of it matter? Jesus Christ, now I’m sweating, look what you made me do. Are you happy now? Here’s your goddamned signature, you parasite. Fuck this. I quit.
She slams her hairy palms down on the table, gets up and storms off. I look at her empty seat. I think about taking it, about sitting down and saying ‘next please’ and telling the next person in line that they need to really show me that they’re looking for a job, show me with fifty press ups.
But before I can get there, the security guards come over and haul me out. I have what I need, now I’m just taking up space.
I leave the worst place on earth and begin the countdown before I go back.
The big mean clock watches on, licking its lips.
I get home from another meaningless walk to nowhere and Asshole is standing on the edge of the balcony. It’s hanging on, looking down at the ground, five storeys down.
I approach. I see it and it sees me. I tiptoe out onto the balcony, onto the mouldy floor, afraid any sudden movement will push it over the edge. For the first time, the thing looks at me without hatred, without scorn. It’s trying to tell me something, I can almost hear it.
Back off lady, this is how it shall be, how it was always meant to be, trust me, relax, let go.
We share a long, profound silence together, and soon enough I begin to understand. I swear it even nods at me, with a steely, knowing look, and then it jumps.
I rush to the edge and look down. I watch it fall.
I wait for the splatter of feline guts all over the concrete, but it never comes. Before Asshole hits the floor, an old man exits the building, creating a bald, wrinkly landing strip. A bag of cat fat thumps against skullbone and a scream is let out, from both of them. Asshole draws blood from crown with its bare claws, then leaps to the floor, unharmed, infuriatingly alive, and now downright murderous for having its well laid plain thwarted.
It goes back at the terrified old man, clawing and biting his old, hairless legs. The man screams, turns around, changes his mind about wherever he was planning on going and probably about ever leaving home again. He runs inside. Asshole chases him, hungry for blood, anyone’s. I hear the old man banging on his door and screaming for his wife to let him in, hear him rushing inside and bolting the door and shoving the furniture up against it.
I open the front door and, yep, soon enough, Asshole comes stomping back in. It goes straight for the balcony again, but I rush to close the door before it can get there. It doesn’t like that, not one bit. It’s tired, but not finished. It needs a new outlet for its rage. It comes at me, throwing its paws around like mittened boxing gloves, hissing and pissing at me, its captor and tormentor. It sinks its teeth into my ankle and I yelp. I kick out, blindly, and launch the thing against the wall.
The wind flops out of its open mouth. It slumps into a furry, defeated ball.
I tentatively approach, feeling guilty, but ready for another round should it come at me again. It tries to lift its head but has no strength left.
– . . . Hey, I’m sorry, Asshole. You gave me no choice.
Wheezing, it looks me dead in the eye.
I can almost hear it again, it’s saying something, something like, Well, bitch, what are you waiting for? Is that all you’ve got? Why are you just standing there, why don’t you finish me off?
And I want to do it. I want to put the poor fucker out of its misery. It has outlived itself, stuck here with me, I’ve outlived myself too. Maybe we should both bow out together; swallow some cyanide in the bathtub and drift off to the places we belong.
It’s time I called BK.
– Hey Gracie don’t say a word they have my phone tapped what’s up how’s Asshole doing is he okay?
– . . . . . .
– Uh, hello?
– . . . Um, the cat wants to die.
– It jumped off the balcony. It landed on an old man’s head. And it sits in the oven all the time, I swear it’s waiting for me to turn it on. And maybe I’m going crazy, but it looks at me and it’s telling me things, it wants me to know, the time has come. I’ve got to honour what it wants.
– . . . Hey Gracie how about you don’t kill my goddamned cat?
– I’m not going to kill it. I was, going to, you know, get a guy to do it.
– What guy? Some guy off the internet?
– A fucking vet or something.
– A vet won’t put a healthy, happy, sweet loving little fluffy baby down.
– Your cat is none of those things BK it’s fucking miserable. And yes they will by the way, they don’t care, you bring it they’ll kill it for you, no problem. Come on, you just left it here.
– Listen, you agreed to look after him for a few years. We shook on that. And I know it’s been three years already but all I’m asking is just for a little bit longer. Can you not murder my cat for a little bit longer? Is that too much trouble?
That is when things go blurry. The wallpaper starts melting. The kitchen tiles stretch and dance around. The big mean clock above my head wibbles and wobbles like a plastic sheet in the hands of a bored god. I’m sweating and finding it difficult to speak. I look down at my hands. They belong to someone else.
– . . . Uh, hello? Are you there? Gracie? Please? He’s the only thing I’ve got.
– . . . I . . . I won’t kill your cat, BK.
– Good. Don’t ever babysit for anyone. God knows what you’d do.
– . . . I . . .
– You know what? Instead of sitting in your disgusting flat, why not go out? Why not go get a job? Why don’t you just go out and find a real boyfriend? On the street? Why can’t you just have a life? Why is it so hard for you to move at the same pace as everything around you? Maybe if you got a job and there was some place where people would notice if you didn’t show up, then you wouldn’t be lying around all day, going crazy, thinking my cat is telepathically telling you to euthanize him. You don’t think he talks to me too? You don’t think maybe he’s worried about me and my shit I’ve got going on? You haven’t even asked about my mother. Her homicide case fell apart so now she’s trying to get me on contempt of court and trying to start a Twitter movement to send me to Iran to give me the death penalty and is also poisoning the water supply in every town I move to and oh yeah she was also really rude to the guy I’m seeing and brought round to dinner the other day. So maybe that’s why he’s depressed, because he knows his mommy misses him. And her mommy’s a pain in the ass.
– . . . You’re right.
– Goodbye, cat killer.
– Has it really been three years?
She hangs up.
I look at the big mean clock. It looks back at me, bearing its predatory teeth.
Asshole is now trying to claw open a bottle of bleach. It fails then falls to the floor, beaten, done. It passes out on the kitchen floor and I leave it there.
I go to bed with my dreams where I’m constantly screaming and no one cares.
Are you a bold, dynamic, innovative individual team player? Do you get erect at the idea of bringing your ideas to a bold, dynamic, innovative office, which is rapidly expanding? Do you have the right qualifications which change daily? Can you work well as an individual and as part of a team and both at the same time? Do you want to make the world a better place? Do you really want to? Do you get wet for PowerPoint presentations and social media updates and corporate meetings and spreadsheets? Do you look good in formal clothing? Do you look good in company photographs? Is your dynamism dynamic, your boldness bold, your innovation innovative? Are you looking for an entry level position which requires at least six years’ experience? Do you have twenty professional references, each more professional than the last? Do you have a passion for interchangeable buzz words? Do you love empty language and cope with the bullshit of life well? Did I mention our business is rapidly expanding, I mean, literally, the office is getting bigger all the time, it’s a scientific phenomenon which has baffled architects and physicists all over the world? Because here at Intergage 3000 we’re changing the world and improving the lives of millions, through boldness, dynamism, innovation and other zombie nouns. If you think you’d be a good fit for our photogenic team, please email over seven copies of your CV and repeat all the information on it on nine application forms, please punch yourself in the face on webcam and transfer the video to Natalie in HR. Please note we are currently considering candidates for this role who are already currently in this role. If you’re lucky enough to make it through the next stage of the recruitment process, we won’t send you an email, because here at Great Computechoctahedron we do things a little differently, so if you’re the right candidate for our team, you’ll simply know, you’ll know in your bold, dynamic and innovative heart, you’ll know like we know that the key to success is words with no meaning and that’s why our business is rapidly expanding at a rate measurable in miles per hour, it’s all because of our bold, dynamic and innovative –
I can’t take anymore. I’m done. I’ve filled my quota of job applications for the day. I’m ready to spend the rest of the day sitting in silence, staring at the big mean clock which speeds up every time I blink but then stops as if I’ve caught it in the act.
I go to turn my piece of shit computer off, but one last job advert catches my eye.
Are you generally unskilled and lonely? Are you an aging graduate looking to fill the hours before the sweet release of the grave? Are you clinging onto the idea that you might yet fulfil all that potential people always said you had? Do you have brown hair and glasses? Are you looking after BK’s cat? Do you live at 1547 Wimborne Road? Are you reading this right now? If so, you are a perfect fit for our modest sized office, which certainly isn’t getting bigger, because here at Wherever The Fuck, we don’t care about the world and don’t pretend to, if anything we’re making the world a slightly worse place through apathy, mediocrity and a slack work environment. Our only company policy is that we will immediately terminate and seek severe legal action against any employee or candidate who shows boldness, dynamism or innovation. Please don’t send us a CV because we don’t want to read it and neither does anyone else. Just clap your hands twice and make a wish, then wait for an email. Now fuck off.
I might be crazy, but this job sounds like it could be the one. Sounds like I tick the boxes. Actually it sounds like only I, in the entire world, could possibly tick all the boxes.
I make the application.
This is it.
This is what I have been waiting for, what that big mean clock has been counting down to. What my lecturers and careers counsellors and parents and everyone said would eventually happen. Something would come up. All my hours spent drafting and redrafting applications has finally paid off. I admit, I was getting sick of the whole thing, how they expect you to spend your time making the perfect application so they can click a button to send you a generic rejection message in return. When I got those response emails, I knew what they were going to say. I stopped reading them, I just scanned for that key word – regret.
– We regret to inform you . . .
– We regret you ever even applied . . .
– I regret my failed marriage. Also you didn’t get the job . . .
I hold my breath and wait.
I hear Asshole snoring from one of its hiding spots in the walls. The thing is still alive, still waiting to die. I caught it trying to hide under the cushion on the chair, waiting for me to sit down and crush it. I caught it trying hold its breath but all it did was keep passing out. Now it refuses to eat. I keep giving it food and it keeps looking at me like the dumb, cruel bitch I am. If BK doesn’t come back soon it will waste away, and she will no doubt blame me and hate me forever for letting the thing die. I don’t think I’m prepared to try to force feed it through a tube yet.
I get an instant (1) in my inbox. A reply to my application.
Shit. That was fast. This is it. This is finally the end of rotting away in my murky puddle. This is the part where the waiting ends and I finally start my real life. I delay. The anticipation is the best (and worst) part of everything. Who was it who said that? Was it Hemingway? I make a sandwich to kill some time and calm my nerves. As soon as I open that message, my life begins.
Halfway through making the sandwich I decide I don’t want it and throw it in the bin and throw the bin out the window.
I rush back to my computer and open the message.
– Dear madam. Regret.
At least they kept it short, gave me all I need to know.
I make a ready meal in the microwave and several birthdays pass without me even noticing.
I look at the pile of slop and decide I don’t even want it. I throw it away and sit. I wait. Wait for BK to come back, or for Asshole to die, or for the big mean clock to run out of batteries.
I get nothing even close to a job offer in my inbox, but I do get this:
– Dear madam. Congratulations! You are the lucky winner of our fabulous prize, a dinner for two at the Fanciest Restaurant in Town! Oh boy! What fun you’ll have! Download your voucher now and flaunt it in the face of your friends. And be quick! Offer expires by the time you finish reading this sentence! Ha! Just kidding. But really the offer expires in 24 hours. So get out of your flat, you loser, and go have some dinner with someone.
It’s times like this I wish I didn’t let all my friends and family drift away from me. I go through the contacts on my phone. I don’t even recognise half the names. Did I ever even know these people? They must belong to some untouchable, prehistoric epoch, where apparently I existed, in some other skin, some other consciousness.
I find the number for my old friend Nicholas Jacobs. Well, we were never really friends, but I can at least vaguely recall his existence.
I call him up.
– Hey, Nick!
– How long has it been?
– You free tonight?
– Absolutely not.
He hangs up.
I try some other friends from the old days, no one answers. They must’ve changed numbers or moved away or died. Eventually I get through to someone who sat in the same row of seats as me in lecture halls in another time.
A croaky old lady answers.
– Oh, hello? Is this . . . Alex?
– . . . Alex is dead.
– Oh, shit. Really?
– Yes. Alex has been dead for a long time.
– Damn. I’m sorry.
– Who is this? Is this some kind of sick joke?
– I’m an old friend. How did Alex die?
– Everyone’s time comes eventually.
The old lady hangs up.
I sigh. I stare at the big mean clock, it’s drooling. Guess there’s only one other person I can call. Didn’t think I would ever call him again, but here we are.
I dial Bob’s number. He picks up immediately, and answers in a ghostly whisper.
– Gracie? Is that really you?
– Hello, Bob.
– Do you want to go to dinner?
– . . . Uh, well, actually that’s what I was going to . . . Yeah. Sure.
– I’ve missed you so much.
I give Bob the name of the restaurant and tell him to meet me there. I open my cupboard and look for clothes I have not worn in a long time. Real Life clothes. I have not been invited to participate in Real Life for a long time.
Before I leave my puddle, I check on Asshole. It’s withering away, all skeleton and ribs. It hasn’t eaten anything in ages but I guess it has enough fat reserves to keep it alive for some time. That’s probably why BK overfed the fucker so much, to make sure it wouldn’t die on her anytime soon. Despite its best efforts, the thing is indestructible.
It looks at me, a pleading, sad look in its eye. It’s telling me something. I can almost hear it.
– I’m sorry, Asshole. I’m sorry about everything. I’ll bring you back some fish, or something.
I meet Bob outside The Fanciest Restaurant in Town. He’s aged at least a hundred years. All his hair is gone, apart from sprouts of white hair sticking out from his oversized, overexposed ears.
I smile and he instantly starts with the tears.
– . . . You look just as perfect as I remember you.
This is an obvious lie but I nod along. I avoid looking in the mirror these days as it’s too alarming but I know I’m much older than he remembers me.
– Nice to see you too, Bob.
I show him my coupon and he grabs it off me, tears it in two, insists tonight is on him. I think about protesting, but shrug whatever; as long as I don’t have to pay, it’s fine.
We go inside The Fanciest Restaurant in Town. A fountain. Pretty flowers. Expensive looking art on the walls. A guy in a tuxedo playing romantic songs on a piano in the corner. Sophisticated people eating fine food. A hostess greets us.
– Good evening. We have a special father-daughter booth, if that would be to your liking.
– Oh, Jesus, no, no, uh, no–
I splutter until Bob interrupts me.
– Give us the best table in the house.
He slips the hostess a five-pound note. She looks at it with a wry smile, then nods, and gestures for us to follow her to a small table in the far corner, tucked in the shadows.
We sit down and I speak.
– Don’t spend all your money on me Bob, you’ll regret it. What is it you’re doing for work these days? Still substitute teaching?
He ignores this question which tells me the answer is yes. When his marriage fell apart, his academic career shortly followed. I nod.
The waitress rattles off the specials in a robotic voice. We peruse the menus and order, extra-large salmon for me, steak for him. The waitress takes our menus and leaves us alone. We sit in silence for a minute and I wonder why I crawled out of my puddle for this.
– So, what’s new, Bob?
– I think about you every day.
– How’s work?
– I’ve been waiting for your call.
– Listen, Bob –
He pulls out a box and sets it on the table. Shit. It’s the box. The same one he gave to me all those years ago. He pries it open and shows me the ring, the same one I put on my finger to his squeals of delight, the same one he made me wear with nothing else and stand in front of the mirror for him, in some other life.
– I kept it, in case you ever came back to me.
– We’re just having dinner.
– I gave up everything for you, Gracie.
– . . . I remember, Bob.
– We were meant to run away together. I waited at the airport for you. For three days.
I feel myself getting angry, mostly at myself for expecting anything different. My cheeks redden and my nostrils flare.
– What do you want from me? I know what I did! I know I ruined your life! What would you like me to say?
– . . . I never knew why.
My crusty heart softens and leaks something. I see the grim picture for what it is.
This tiny man’s entire world revolves around me. I spin it on my finger like a basketball and resent him for it for the minimal effort it takes me. He’s not asking for much. Something simple. Something I can offer.
– Because I was bored of you, Bob. Okay? Can you put the box away?
– . . . Wow.
He tucks the box away back in his shirt pocket.
– Come on. You were screwing your student in your office, did you really think that was the start of a marriage? I was a dumb little girl, breaking the rules and getting off on it. It was a rock and roll affair, which burned fast and died young. I thought we both knew that.
– I thought –
– Then I graduated, and the thrill evaporated. And that rhymes, so, you know. I wasn’t your little girl anymore, we were just two boring adults. People always told me all sorts of things would change when I get older, but one thing they never told me is that I wouldn’t feel fun or excitement anymore, that being an adult is fundamentally boring, it’s feeling tired all the time despite not doing anything, it’s putting your head down and charging your way through the relentless stream of days until it’s over.
– I think I told you that, exactly that, over and over again, actually. The word adult comes from the Latin verb: adolentia, which, when roughly translated, means to yawn, then fall apart and die.
– The point is, Bob, I’m sorry. I’m fucking sorry. I took everything from you. I know that. I took everything, put in my handbag and stomped all over it in high heels. Okay? I’m sorry. There.
A waitress comes over with our food. The tense silence between us makes her staged smile vanish. She hurriedly sets our plates down then moves away. We look at our food. Neither of us is hungry anymore.
I wrap my salmon up in some tissue and put it in my bag. Bob looks at me, puzzled.
– I have a cat waiting at home.
– Oh. Never knew you were a cat person. So much has changed with time.
– It’s not mine, I’m just taking care of it for someone . . . Bob, can I ask you something?
– You can ask me all the questions in the world.
– Jesus, just say yes.
– What do you want to ask me, Gracie?
– Would you kill someone if they wanted to die? If you thought it was their time?
– . . . Why?
– Well, the thing is –
– Is that how you look at me? An old vegetable, taking up space, wasting up life support?
– Woah, no, not you –
– You want to smother me with a pillow? Put me out of my misery? You out of yours? So you can forget me and have a clean conscience? Is that what you want?
– For Christ’s sake, I’m not talking about you, Bob. I’m talking about Asshole.
– The cat.
– Oh . . . Is that why you called me? To enlist my opinion on the ethics of pet euthanasia?
– I don’t know . . . Maybe.
– Do whatever you want, Gracie. Throw the thing out of a moving bus, strangle it, put it in the microwave. Do whatever you want. That’s what you always do anyway, right?
– . . .
I get home and Asshole is trying to suffocate itself in a plastic bag.
I rush over to it, grab the bag and rip apart the plastic with my bare hands. Asshole’s enraged face pokes out, reluctantly taking in gulps of oxygen, trying to fight the reflex to breathe and survive, but failing.
It glares at me, not with fury, but with a quiet pleading. It sees me, right through to somewhere deep inside me. It wants only for me to understand, for me to help.
And I think I do understand now. Really, I do. I can finally hear every word Asshole is saying to me.
I call BK. Her mother answers.
– Kelsey is busy at the moment, this is her mother. Whom may I say called?
– Tell her it’s time.
– Time? Who’s that?
– Asshole wants to die. I’m going to honour its wishes.
– Who the hell –
– Her cat.
– Oh. Jesus, that thing’s still alive?
– Barely. I just found it trying to suffocate itself in a plastic bag.
– It’s okay, the cat’s out of the bag now.
– Okay. Well I’ll be sure to pass on the message.
– How are things between you and BK? Last time we spoke she said the two of you were having . . . some problems.
– Oh. She said that? What problems?
– Stuff about you trying to frame her and ruin her life, stuff like that.
– Haha, oh yes, I remember. That’s all long in the past now. Our relationship has never been better.
– Long in the past?
– You know mothers and daughters. One minute they’re fighting, a couple of decades later they’re hugging.
The big grey Dali clock is dancing again, shaking its vile hips to a distant psychedelic tune. I look at my hands. They’re old and wrinkled.
– . . . How long in the past?
– Oh . . . I don’t know, twenty, thirty years? Who knows? You know how time is when you get older. Just wait until you’re my age, dear, whole months last ten minutes, tops. What even is time? What does that question mean, how long has it been? What a stupid question. What does it matter? You keep going to sleep and waking up and going to sleep and waking up, repeat until the time you don’t wake up anymore. Age, time, year, it’s all meaningless. I stopped caring about time a long time ago, when I realised I’d never get the better of it, and, ha, I’ve never been happier. Perhaps you should –
I hang up.
Life has passed me by. I and blinked and missed it all. No one warned me.
It’s time, Asshole. Let’s go.
I find the nearest chemist. I stand outside for a while, not quite ready to go in. Once I step through the door a cat’s life is over. I need to be sure. There’s an old lady in there, talking. She leaves and I have an opening. I walk in, trying to appear casual.
I walk up to the desk and put on a smile.
The pharmacist stares at me and says nothing.
– I’ve been having some trouble sleeping.
– Sleeping is hard.
– What can I help you with?
– Can you give me some sleeping pills? A lot of sleeping pills?
The pharmacist narrows his eyes. He glances over my left shoulder, then back to me.
– You trying to kill someone?
– Woah, no, god, no, no, no, nothing like that.
He isn’t buying it. He’s seen right through me, straight away.
A man and his child walk in. The child is crying. The man strolls right up to the counter. I step aside, gesturing for him to enquire away.
– Here. Give me something to make it be quiet.
The pharmacist nods and pulls out a bottle of green liquid. The man holds out his hand. The pharmacist hands the bottle over. The man drags his crying child back out the door, and we’re alone again.
– Listen. Don’t bullshit me. I’ve seen them all. Oh, I’m just having a little back pain, can you give me a decade’s supply of codeine? Oh, these aching bones, can you give me the standard lethal dose of morphine? I’m not putting up with any of your shit. Tell me why you’re here, or get the fuck out.
– I have a cat.
– That is a truly ground-breaking piece of information.
– The cat’s time has come. I want to help it along.
– . . . And you want to do that with sleeping pills.
It feels like he purposely left the question mark off the end there, to only point out my idiocy rather than ask a question.
I nod and swallow my tongue.
He glances over my shoulder again, to the street behind me. Then he steps out from behind his counter. Walks over to the door, locks it. Comes back to me.
– Not that I imagine you have any friends . . . But if you tell anyone about this, if you mention my name, you can expect some bad consequences. Understood?
I swallow my tongue again and nod again. He pulls out a small, dark bottle, covered in pictures of cat’s faces with Xs for eyes. The writing is in some language I have never seen before.
– If you’re going to do something terrible, like murder, you’ve got to do it right.
I have nothing to say to this. He goes on – With sleeping pills, you’d need at least fifty to be sure. A large cat, maybe a hundred. Probably. But with this magic, you only need one.
– Crush it up. Sprinkle it in its food. Wait five minutes.
– Five minutes? That’s all it takes?
– That too slow for you? Jesus. Alright, throw the whole bottle in there. Your beloved pussycat will be deceased before you can blink.
– No, I think five minutes is okay.
– You thought about what you’re going to do for those five minutes?
– Um, no.
– Look, this is serious. A lot can happen in those five minutes. A lot of doubts, second thoughts can creep in. I need to know you can handle it.
– You come back to me tomorrow saying you changed your mind, I might have a problem. Once this transaction is complete, that’s it. No going back. Am I clear?
– Yes. I’m sure. It’s time.
– Get yourself a sudoku puzzle. That should keep you busy for those five long, painstaking minutes, where you think about what you’ve just done.
I swallow again.
– How much?
He shakes his head.
– I’m not in this for the money.
He hands me the bottle of cat death, his hand lingers on mine for a moment, his touch cold. He looks into my eyes, like he is trying to share with me a dark secret. I nod once more.
Then I leave and go home.
Don’t worry, Asshole. You don’t have to be angry anymore. I can put an end to all your pain. I understand now, I finally do.
I take my seat on the kitchen floor. I set the timer.
5:00 – 4:59 – 4:58 – 4:57 – 4:56
The pharmacist was right. Five minutes is a long time, the longest possible amount of time in the world.
I close my eyes and see everything.
Myself as a little girl, playing in my back garden, looking for four leaf clovers. Going to school. Hiding in the bathroom. Getting in trouble with teachers. Throwing a rock at a girl’s face because she wouldn’t share her Quavers. Running through the fields. Playing hide and seek in the tall grass. Asking my mum for new underwear. Growing boobs. Rejecting boys and getting high off their disappointment. Trying wine for the first time at Christmas with my grandpa. Crashing off my mini scooter and breaking my wrist. Writing poems in my book about my hot history teacher. Passing my GCSE exams despite not revising or trying even one tiny bit. Going to college and smoking cigarettes until I throw up and can never touch them again. Going to house parties. Getting felt up in bathtubs. Failing my driving test. Arguing with my careers advisor about going to university. Going to university. Failing my driving test again. Partying some more. Celebrating loan days. Attending classes half asleep. Giving up on my driving test. Meeting Bob. Screwing Bob in every place I can think of. Graduating. Agreeing to run away with Bob then changing my mind and ruining his life.
It gets faster and faster. Exponential, exploding, mushrooming, racing, untameable.
It’s obvious what’s happening. This is it; this is my life flashing before my eyes. But really it’s more like sitting through an overplayed movie. I could get up and leave but I’d piss off everyone else in my row.
0:04 – 0:03 – 0:02 – 0:01 –
The alarm bell brings me back to my kitchen. I open my eyes.
Time has finished. It’s over, all over.
Asshole is dead.
He is smiling.
So am I.
The bright side of stuffing a cat corpse and a shovel into a rucksack is that at least now I have a reason to go for a walk somewhere. I remember a spot in the woods that overlooks the town. One summer in between the university years the gang went there to camp, and by camp I mean get so drunk that falling asleep where you fell on the ground seemed like a reasonable idea.
Before I leave, I try calling BK to tell her that her beloved Asshole has passed on. But every time I dial her number I just get harsh piercing feedback sounds and an operator lady telling me the number I have dialled does not exist and never did.
Ah well. If she ever comes back for the thing she claims to love, she’ll get the news delivered to her face.
I walk for two hours, out of town, through the woods, to the little clearing up on the hill. I am surprised by how much a dead cat weighs. My shoulders are aching by the time I get there, my feet too, in fact my whole creaking body feels like it’s on fire but the pain is good. It assures me that I’m still alive, a subject which can get confusing these days.
I reach the spot. It hasn’t changed a bit. Funny, how this is both pleasing and disappointing in equal measure.
I take out my shovel. I find a good spot on the ground. I dig. My wrinkly knuckles turn white. I sweat, breathe, feel dizzy. But I don’t stop. Stopping could be the end of me. I keep digging until I have a hole just big enough to fit Asshole’s body into.
I pull the dead cat out of the bag and put it in the ground. Then I take my shovel again and recover the hole. I find a stick and engrave some final words into the earth.
Here lies Asshole. A friend.
I stop, fall to the floor. I sit down in the dirt, next to the burial site. My breathing is heavy. My frail skeleton aches. My hands are the colour of death. I am an old lady now, spent, complete, looking back on and out at the world.
Birds sing in the trees around me, but I don’t need to say anything in return.
I just sit and listen.