He was beginning to notice a lot. Every light-reflecting surface in the hostel’s kitchen glared at him. The kettle accused him. The four cooker rings accused him. The shiny linoleum floor accused him. Get your own place. Why are you always here?
Viv, his care worker, flicked the switch on the boiling kettle lowering its rumbles to a hiss. Viv came twice a week to see that he went to work. He looked at her feet in her flat-heeled shoes planted on the black-and-white squares of the lino. He was often surprised by the presence of others – their weight, their outline, how firmly they were moored in the world. Nothing would pull Viv’s legs from under her.
He looked at his own white shins jutting out from trouser legs too short for his gangly limbs. ‘I’m a scarecrow.’
Viv laughed. She was all teeth and wrinkles. ‘You’re Pete,’ she said, handing him a mug of milky tea. ‘Pete Roberts.’
He gave her a blank look. She placed her hand on his shoulder. He flinched.
‘Taken your pills today, Pete?’
He nodded, covering his eyes with his hand to hide the image of his morning capsules bleeding purple dye into the toilet bowl, same as every morning this week. Then he looked at her hand resting squarely on his shoulder as if it were a part of some alien creature. He wondered why people were always touching each other. He stirred his tea. Viv always nagged about pills but he knew better than Viv.
She removed her hand. He watched it move across the broad expanse of her skirted hip as she turned back to the counter. He looked at the glossy skin on her solid calves. Black women had softer skin. The guys at work told him that. He liked the look of women’s skin. He liked everything about women. There were women in the supermarket, women in the street, women in cars. Sometimes they stood close to him in a crowded tube. He would shrink from their nearness but be spellbound by a cluster of freckles, a single flyaway hair on a cheek, a tongue licking a lip. He would try to keep his eyes on the map of the underground, but instead they would fix on an earlobe, a smooth neck, a pillowy cleavage, until its owner moved away.
He looked at the floor. The glossy cover of Viv’s romantic novel lay on top of her worn leather bag. An elegant Victorian couple danced across a ballroom lit with chandeliers.
He felt Viv’s eyes on him. She wanted him to look up. She was working on a Social Skills Programme for him so that some day he could ask a girl to dance too.
He kept his head up as he walked down Pepys Road trailing one hand across the park railings. It was his fifth day without pills. The world was taking on a new resonance, vibrating like a film with the sound turned up. Frame by frame, he saw every branch of every tree, heard parting words in doorways, felt moved by the captured light. Everything was part of everything else. The wind, daylight, voices, his own edges thinning as though he no longer had a skin. There was a girl approaching; raincoat plastered against thighs. He flashed a smile at her startled face.
He walked on, smiling. He had graduated from Unit Six of the Bethlem Royal to his own bunk bed at the hostel, and a job two mornings a week, and soon he would have a girlfriend. A car pulled up at the kerb. A woman got in, kissed the driver’s cheek, then they pulled away. He felt a rush of joy. He didn’t need drugs. He was sure of it. It was ages since that time in the hospital. Noises hurting his eardrums. The never-ending table tennis in the common room, pock! pock!, the bedlam of TVs and stereos, pock! pock!, slamming doors and shouts, pock! pock!, the thundering of the tea trolley, pock! pock! and Wednesdays in a tiny white room, where he sat in front of a psychiatrist, who sat in front of a wall-chart, which seemed to frame his head. He used to stare at the image on the wall, the fleshless head in coloured sections: cell, brain, blood, bone, the white paper of the chart shining through the gaps between them.
‘Is that an actual person?’ he asked the psychiatrist once,
‘…Am I an actual person?’
But he was sorted now. He had a job to go to. Pete, Pete, Pete. He shook his head. It emptied for a moment then the voices returned.
The van waited for him outside New Cross station, its hazard lights flashing warnings at him. He decoded its white letters SNUGFIT DOORS & WINDOWS against their flaky blue background. He approached and glimpsed Ray the driver then the squatting figures of Frank and Eddie through the open mouth of the side door. He climbed in, concentrating on Viv’s Tasks For Today. Smile and say hello. It was important to practice for tonight. He hunkered down among the huge rolls of fibreglass padding.
‘Hello Frank. Hello Eddie,’ he said, focusing on one of Frank’s Doc Martens and stretching his lips into a smile.
Eddie nudged him with his foot. ‘Shut the door, Pete.’
‘Right mates. Peckham today,’ Ray shouted over his shoulder and started up the engine.
He watched Eddie offer a rolled cigarette to Frank. Frank took it between thumb and finger and sucked in deep. ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’
He saw Frank’s head jerk in his direction. ‘A bit radio rental.’ Frank winked at
He looked away from them, his eyes irresistibly drawn to the congealed paint splashes on the van’s floor: a woman’s face in profile, a woman’s hair, flowing. Silhouettes jumped out at him then retreated. The world was coming at him in fugitive shapes. Outlines formed on the misted van windows and in the exhaled jet-trails from Frank and Eddie’s nostrils. He shut his eyes.
He practised listening to Frank and Eddie. Listen actively. Frank and Eddie knew about things.
They knew about women and football and politics. He looked at Eddie. Eye contact. ‘I’m meeting my girlfriend later.’ He jumped. His own voice felt sudden and loud.
‘In your dreams, mate,’ Eddie said, laughing.
He thought it was definite. But when he was sure about something he would begin to see it in a way that made it something else, then something else altogether, then his first thought would vanish before he could get hold of it again. It was his thinking disorder, his ‘cognitive dysfunction’ Viv called it. Organise your thoughts. Football, he thought. Favourite teams. Contribute your ideas. He looked in Eddie’s direction. ‘Arsenal played good last night.’ He got ready to say it again.
Eddie snorted. ‘Arsenal! Crowd of old women could beat Arsenal!’
A girl on a red mountain bike followed the van. She was close to the back window now and he could see the sheen of her wet cheeks. Her fringe was dripping rain and she was blinking. ‘She’s not old,’ he said. ‘She’s nice.’ He imagined she was a girl in a club and he was snogging her as if he enjoyed it like the guy in Eastenders. The van pulled away again.
He forced himself to look at Eddie. ‘Manchester United are definitely good.’
Eddie wasn’t looking at him. He was saying something about blind old women now and Frank was laughing.
He laughed too to show that he got the joke. He visualised last night’s sports page in the Evening Standard. Wing-backs, four-four-two, flat-back-four, sweepers. He tried to grab unto the words but they were leaking through the gaps in Pete’s brain. He hated Pete. ‘Outside-left,’ he muttered, ‘forward-centre, four-back-flats.’
He felt his brainwaves taking up the rhythm of the music from the van radio. Totten-ham, West-ham, Chel-sea, Ar-se-nal, he mouthed silently.
They dropped him back at New Cross station at lunchtime.
He stood by the entrance trying to make eye contact with passers-by.
He squinted through windscreens at drivers heading east for Lewisham. He would tell Viv about his morning. How he had practiced all his social skills and how Frank and Eddie had let him seal up cracks with strips of draught excluder, Eddie measuring it out for him, Frank’s drill drowning the voices in Pete’s head that said Pete, Pete, Pete.
He saw Viv approaching and raised his right arm carefully. ‘That was a good wave, wasn’t it?’ he asked when Viv was in front him.
‘That’s right, Pete.’ Viv reached up and took his arm down. ‘Not so stiff though, okay?’
He gave a solemn nod and walked down the noisy street along with Viv, remembering to keep his head up. He looked back at the station. ‘Let’s go to Ted Baker. I want to get trousers in Ted Baker.’
They passed a building site and he was distracted by the sight of a man high up above them in the box of a crane. He’s on his own up there, he thought. Toblerone, out on its own, a jingle from an old TV ad sounded loudly in his head. He heard Viv saying something about budgets as she led him into the charity shop. He saw the name over the door and was distracted again. It reminded him of a word from one of Eddie’s jokes. A word that rhymed with Oxfam. ‘Jam,’ he said. He wasn’t sure whether he had spoken. Sometimes his thoughts were echoes, sometimes his words were thoughts and he was surprised to hear them repeated. He stood in front of the counter. ‘Eddie said to put jam on my shoes and invite my trousers down to tea,’ he said to the man at the till.
In the toilets of the Coburn Arms, he checked the buttons on the fly of his new jeans. He missed the small screech of a zipper pulled firmly into place. He washed his hands then stood in front of the condom machine staring hard at the bright yellow sticker in case it had a message for him. The red letters snapped into focus: Release-any jammed-coins-using-reject-knob. He pressed the knob three times then he shrugged and walked away. Back in the lounge, semi-circles of people were collecting by the bar. A queue waited to be served from steaming dishes behind a glass counter. He stood beside Viv.
Viv handed him his well-thumbed flier. He stood staring into the distance, turning the flier in his fingers. Viv ordered him an orange juice. The woman beside her took a sip from her drink and left a crimson lip-print on the glass. Viv moved and stole his view of her. A large woman sat in one of the chairs lining the room, flicking lint from her skirt. Bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep, he followed the sound of the cash register to decipher its signal. On another chair a man sat in a solemn trance, fractured occasionally by a smile.
He tried to smile too.
The slam of the till drawer made him jump. He held the flier in front of his face. The letters were hopping on the page but he knew the words by heart.
He murmured this to himself; keeping his eyes on the illustration of the lounge bar with its leather covered armchairs. They looked real. Organise your thoughts, a voice told him.
He felt Viv touch him on the arm then she turned to speak to the barman. Leather covered girls. A girl stood by the food bar. Her face curved against the collar of her jacket. Her skin shone as if there was a light behind it. She smiled at her friend. Her face lit brighter when she smiled. Her friend had mousey hair and a hard, shut-in face. Her hostile glances met his stares in mid-air making him blink and lose focus. The bright-faced girl had a lot of sounds in her voice – sometimes light, sometimes low, sometimes like chocolate. She smiled. Smile and say hello. He saw himself chatting her up like on Eastenders.
‘Alright, Pete?’ Viv spoke to someone.
He tried to stop thinking. Sometimes Viv saw his thoughts.
Viv moved away and he watched her disappear through a doorway nearby. There was a tiny silhouette of a woman on the door, like the Victorian lady on the cover of Viv’s Mills & Boon. She grew as the door swung shut, slowly, as if she was coming towards him. A man came out of the Gents and the door swished closed along with the door of the Ladies. Two small figures danced on the doors, swinging through gaps of bright light: a crinoline lady twirling, in a swish of billowing skirts; a silhouette man, advancing, coat tails buoyant on a current of air. Romance. Happy endings. Viv’s stories.
The bright-faced girl was definitely smiling. The air between them was sparking with smiles.
He put his glass on the bar and approached her and her friend. His vision was playing tricks with him. They were nearer to him than he thought. ‘I’m not drunk,’ he told them, ‘I don’t drink.’
They were tall and thin and almost touching him. Now they were small and fat and far away. He heard voices again. Red letter day. Listen actively.
The girls turned their heads away from him. Reject knob. He could not hear what they were saying. ‘You don’t look real!’ he said loudly. ‘Do I look real?’ He saw that they couldn’t hear him either, and he stopped. He wasn’t sure if he was speaking or thinking.
He bent closer until his face was inches from the bright-faced girl’s. ‘Sometimes I see things. Do you ever see things?’
She wasn’t smiling anymore. She was moving away with her friend who was dragging her by the arm. A circle of people opened for them then the circle closed again. She was unreachable now, like his own self.
He saw the barman approaching. His stomach tightened and the tightness gripped his entire frame. He navigated his way unsteadily through the lounge, the faces of the guests looming like faces behind magnifying glass.
Inside the Gents he swung on the door of a cubicle. One by one, the voices shouted at him until they were all clamouring at once.
He turned on all the taps. He pressed down the stoppers. He leaned against the wash room wall watching the sheeting water, his back against the cool tiles, his outstretched right hand periodically pressing the steel disc of the hand-dryer.
He kept his left hand over his eyes and hummed loudly to the drone of the
machine, drowning the voices in white noise.
He stayed like that without moving, losing all sense of time.
Occasionally, the bright mouth of the Exit swung open, slipping shadowy figures towards him from the murmuring crowd outside.
When two of the figures advanced, a half-voluntary movement allowed him to peer through his fingers. He was surprised by the man standing in front of him and by the smell of Viv’s flowery perfume.
His brain, empty of thoughts, registered the rough feel of a blanket against the back of his neck and something sharp pricking his arm.
The familiar cadence of Viv’s voice made him want to sleep. The man’s hoarse voice answered her. Their sentences made no sense. He watched them peel his wet shirt from his arms. He felt a second prick in his arm.
He watched the man replacing items in the open metal box: syringes, needles, several phials.
Viv was smoothing a crumpled paper in her hand. The girl’s number! He tried to locate his voice. He pointed at the paper until Viv put it carefully into his jean’s pocket.
Viv reached up and fixed the blanket around his shoulders. He felt its settling weight gathering him in, locating him. He saw his reflection in the mirror, outlined by the grey blanket, standing out against the white tiles, the white tiles standing out against him. He felt the weight of Viv’s hand on his arm, and he felt his own weight against the wall.
He walked back into the bar with Viv. The floor felt hard beneath his soggy trainers. The lights were low. He blinked to adjust his eyes. Shadowy figures yawned, stretched, searched for coats. Viv settled him into a seat near the door then went to get her coat.
He pressed his fingers against his pocket. He reached inside. His fingers met a damp fold of paper. His skin began to sweat. He pulled the paper out between his finger and thumb then he flattened it against the palm of his hand.
Fluorescent lights flashed on overhead. The gaudy colours of the damp flier were coming off on his skin as he turned it in his fingers. The only number on it was the number of the pub printed under the black letters of ‘Clubnight at The Coburn Arms…’
He sank into the torn seat. He stared at the flier. He stared at the dull yellow paint curling from the walls. He saw the cheap poster advertising the evening’s menu Sellotaped to the door. The shifting of crates behind the bar battered down the silence in his head. He covered his ears with his hands. He stared at the faded red swirls of the carpet and the leaflet that was now curling against them.
Viv’s solid feet swam into focus.
He slumped against the stained leatherette. ‘Viv.’
She put her hand on his shoulder. He gripped it. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. His voice shook. ‘Viv,’ he said. ‘I’m Pete.’
Valerie Sirr has published short fiction and flash fiction in Ireland, UK, US, Australia and Asia. Publications include: The Irish Times, The Sunday Tribune, The Stinging Fly, The New Writer (UK), Lakeview International Journal of Literature & Arts, Wisconsin Review (forthcoming). Poems have been published in anthologies from Revival Press (Ireland) and Poetry Lostock (UK), and in poetry journals in Ireland and UK including The Lampeter Review, The Poetry Bus. Awards include 2007 Hennessy New Irish Writer Award, two Arts Council of Ireland bursaries and other national and international literature prizes. She holds an M. Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. Her short story collection is currently under consideration with a publisher. Her writing blog is www.valeriesirr.wordpress.com
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis