Tiptoe

Tiptoe - Sample Chapters

 

 

 

Chapter 0 - The edge of the world

 

There was once a little boy who dreamed of being a knight. He played with a plastic sword in his mother’s garden. He cantered around on his imaginary horse, searching for dragons to slay. At the end of the garden near the pond he saw a dragon jumping around. It was green and wet and stared at him with round bulging eyes. He squashed it under his foot. No-one wanted to play knight games with him. All the boys played football and the girls didn’t need to be rescued. So he killed dragons by himself.

One winter night when the boy was asleep, dreaming heroes’ dreams, a dragon crawled under his door and climbed up his duvet. It scurried over his arm and chest and neck. It was so small he could have squished it with two fingers. The dragon bit into the boy’s skin and sipped until its little dragon tummy was full and then crawled back down the duvet and into the shadows under the bed.

When the boy awoke he felt far-away. His neck was hurting but the mark was too small to see. The extra drops didn’t show on his pillow because everyone knows a dreamer’s blood runs white like the pages of a storybook. On his way home from school the next day he chased a dragon down an alleyway until it pranced up onto a wall and out of sight. Another dragon barked at him from across the street but he was too tired to chase again. His mother yelled at him for being late; she tried, but she wasn’t a real dragon.

After supper and story time he went to sleep. Later, when the house was hushed, the dragon crawled out again. It scuttled along the floor and up the duvet. Tonight it was hungrier; it drank the boy’s milky storybook blood until its little stomach was swollen. Then it crawled back into the shadows. In the morning the boy was further away. His mother laughed, thinking toast and tea would bring him back. At school the boy had given up asking others to join his games. He was happy alone with his imaginary horse. He killed a dragon as it scurried up the bark of a sycamore tree.

From then on, every day, the little boy woke up further away while under his bed the dragon was growing bigger. Its eyes were white and its limbs were jagged and grey. Sometimes in between dreams the boy would hear a scuttling or a dry rasp of breath but never enough to make a memory.

The boy grew up strong and sad and gentle and he packed his bag and left the town. He told his mother she would understand him eventually and he cantered off into the forest on his imaginary horse. Somewhere between the rainy days he saw it, in a clearing, scales gleaming in the sunlight. It had grown since the nights it used to hide beneath his bed. It was jagged and grey and monstrous and when its wings beat the treetops rippled. Before he could draw his sword it was gone. He galloped through the trees, backpack bouncing behind him, but the dragon was nowhere to be seen. That night, as he drifted into a troubled sleep, he swore he would find it again, if he had to travel to the ends of the earth.

The next day he chewed on his biscuit breakfast. All the carrots were rotten so the horse had biscuits too. From dawn he walked until the sun was too far gone to see his path, and so it was every day. And every night he watched the stars and dreamed his troubled dreams. He walked to the end of the forest, through dust and open sky, dizzied by the sun. Through strange towns filled with watchful eyes and silent prayers. Then one day, when his face was thick with frowns and whiskers, he reached the ends of the earth. There he dismounted, laid down his backpack and crept to the edge. Beyond it and below, the emptiness was white like the pages of a storybook.

He camped there that night and gazed along the barren horizon at all the figures tiptoeing alone along the edge of the world. Some had their arms outstretched, like tightrope walkers; others knelt peering over the ledge, touching the emptiness with their fingertips. From time to time he thought he saw the grey outline of distant wings against the white, barely bigger than a speck of dust. When morning came he stood up, holding the hilt of his sword. There was no dragon to be seen. Testing the ground with each step, he approached. The other tiptoers all along the horizon watched as he placed the first foot over the edge of the world. And then the second. It was like walking over snow and making no foot prints.

 

“Do I know this story?”

It crawled closer and craned its neck.  Don’t you want to hear the ending?

 

 


Chapter 1 - Knight

 

Roan’s alarm clicked. Clicking was better than ringing, less intrusive, enough to wake but not to startle. Keeping his body as still as he could, he extended a hand and turned it off. With the same hand he picked up his notebook and pen:

 

-       Snowing

-       White photographs

-       Voyeur

-       Can’t move

 

He wrote with the book up above his chest. Movement speeds up the forgetting. Lying still will buy you another thirty seconds, before the haze comes in.

It gave him chills. Not a nightmare, more like the answer to a riddle, or a half-formed memory. He twisted out of bed and replaced the book on the nightstand. It was five A.M. He pulled the cord of the blind and felt the light swimming over him. The sun dispelled the last of the dreams. He looked back over the bullet points; all their meaning was gone.

It took a few minutes to open his eyes fully. Then he moved to the sink and splashed water over his face and hair. The mirror was too low for him but he stooped a few inches just to see the dripping from his chin. His own gaze burned into him. Roan’s gaze burned into everyone. His forehead and cheeks were sombre, whatever expression he tried to pull. Water ran down clumps of long hair, over his face and through the hairs on his chest. He opened the window to let the breeze dry him. It was going to be hot again today.

Outside, the street was still but for a suited man trudging through leaves. Roan watched, then pretended to fix the blind when the man looked up. His clothes were squashed in one corner behind the bed. On the far side by the kitchen worktop was a single threadbare sofa and all the grocery shopping he had forgotten to pack away. The floor was covered with ankle-height paper sculptures. He stepped carefully around them as he got dressed. The walls were empty and stained with damp. He hated hot days: his armour absorbed the sun and cooked him slowly. Once he had fainted - fallen backwards onto the pavement. When he inspected it that night, his body plate had a dent. He must have clanged.

For breakfast he made a spaghetti hoop sandwich and slurped a few mouthfuls of water from the tap. Before he left he perched on the end of the sofa to tweak the little structures on the floor, nudging a stray building back in line with the street. A neighbour greeted him in the corridor, catching him off guard so he responded too late. His armour was jangling in a holdall by his leg. About this time every morning, as he went into the outside air, Roan had the same feeling. A hollowness in his chest, a tame sorrow. It would be gone within the hour.

He wasn’t a street mime; he had evolved beyond that. He didn’t move or act or entertain. It was not about pleasing people. It was half-past six when he parked up and wriggled his body into the armour. He never enjoyed the walk from his car; it was too noisy and broke the illusion. Today no one noticed as he arrived and settled in position, locking into the familiar stance as though he had been there all night.

The helmet had a visor that pointed outwards like a snout and slits just wide enough to watch the passing heads and shoulders. People studied him as they walked to work. Most had seen him before and gave only a passing glance. Some dropped money into the cup by his feet. Others treated him like a real statue. He would be here until after the evening rush hour. Between now and then he had nothing but empty time and peace. First he deepened his breaths, feeling calmer with every exhale, then he let his eyelids droop. A few more breaths and it would all disappear.

 

“YAAAAAAAAAGH!”

Roan jumped to life. The yell was urgent and right by his ear.

“Aha! You are a coward!” Turning round he saw a familiar toothy grin.  In a swift motion the man moved a few paces away, looking him up and down. “Good Morning Pepper? No? Or a salute maybe?”

Roan re-adopted his pose.

“You in there? I know, I know, you’re in character. One of these days I’ll come by and speak to an empty suit, while you’re at home having a lie-in. Aha. Anyway! I know you don’t want to speak, so you can listen. Guess what I have today. Don’t say it, just guess. You see I’m bored of performing tricks every day, so I’m mixing it up. Merchandising. Building a little magic for people to take home for £25 a pop… Guessed yet? I’ll tell you: FLAMING WALLETS! I’ll show you.”

He drew a black leather wallet from his pocket and held it up. Then he opened it slowly, revealing the cards and notes inside. “Ordinary wallet, for an ordinary man.” He was dressed in a dark blue suit, the shoulder pads protruding sideways from his gangly body. “You’re not an ordinary man though are you, Mr Knight-in-shining-armour?” A quizzical smile rode up one cheek toward the end of each sentence. He was tanned and skeletal, the top of his beard cut off abruptly into a bald head. “Ha. Of course not. Ordinary men answer questions. You ignore them. So maybe you are an extraordinary man.”

Pepper spun around to intercept a passing woman. “Hey! Hey… Hey! Oi!” He stretched his head towards her. The woman shuffled quickly past, ignoring the intrusion. “I’m quite the sales man, I’ve discovered. Not today though, I’m not on form today. She looked sharp. Talking to her would’ve put me back on form. But I wasn’t on form enough to talk to her. A pickle.” His speech was emphatic and raspy. “Anyway, watch this. Pretend you’re a woman. And pretend I’m you, and you wanna impress. It’s not enough to be chivalrous these days.” He drove his hand towards Roan’s chest with a grasping motion, pretending to pull out his heart, then brought it back and examined the invisible heart, sniffed it and slotted it into the wallet. Roan watched silently. Pepper shook the wallet and kissed it. With a final flourish he flipped it open, releasing a torrent of flames. They flurried upward past his nose sending wisps of grey smoke into the air. For a few seconds they both admired, then the wallet snapped shut and the flames were gone. “That’s what love would look like. A living stage play. Or maybe it’s just a flame. It sends mixed messages and that’s the language women speak in, isn’t it? I think you could get yourself a few lady friends, a few damsels with this party piece, wouldn’t you agree?” While performing, Roan rarely acknowledged anyone, no matter how intrusive they were. Once a child had stuck an ice cream cone on his nose; he just waited for it to fall off. “The thing is,” Pepper continued, “there are separate flaps inside. One contains the ordinary wallet interior, for all your notes and cards and damsel pictures. The other one contains a liquid capsule you can fill with ordinary lighter fluid. No leakage. And you have to open it vigorously to fire the ignition. So no unexpected accidents. Only £25. How does that sound Mr Knight?” Pepper’s keen eyes cut through the gaps in the helmet, probing Roan patiently.

After a few seconds Roan cleared his throat, unable to bear his own silence. “I don’t really need a wallet.” The helmet distorted his voice sending the words back to his own ears.

“Eh?”

“I…I don’t need a wallet. I haven’t got any money on me… to buy it with.”

The lopsided smile returned in vague disbelief. “Aha. Aha. He speaks. He lives. I know you don’t want one boyo, I’m practising my pitch. Made ‘em myself – what do you think?”

“It’s a clever idea.”

“Glad you think so. Now, seeing as you’re awake, I’ll throw in a free sachet of lighter fluid.”

“Like I say, I’m…”

“You pay me fifty pounds for the wallet plus you get a free twenty five pounds and you get to keep the wallet and the extra money and the sachet. If you pay me tomorrow, I’ll be back. I’ll give you the wallet then. Aha!” He punched the breast plate playfully. “Aha! Only joking. Confusion tactics - effective in magic, not effective in sales - make people think you’re a nut. Now listen here, I want to see you tomorrow. Come by the office and don’t tell me you have plans…  And bring fifty pounds. Aha!” Pepper glanced around, slid the wallet back in his pocket and moved across the road with spidery strides. Roan remained stock still in position, his warm breath oozing against the inside of the helmet, dampening his hidden face.

 

 

Chapter 2 - The Hospital

  

On his first visit Roan had paced the street for nearly twenty minutes before knocking. While he sat in the waiting room, she had examined him from behind her desk, eyes bulging unpleasantly. Roan had scowled back at her, not sure why. She was young but weathered, with dark hair squeezed into a bun. For a few seconds they said nothing and then she introduced herself as Ms Limms. Roan found it hard to look at her. When she brought him a coffee, he regretted scowling and tried to make conversation. She told him she had worked for Mr Hansel ever since leaving school, he was a pleasure to work for, when he wanted to be. The room was a dirty cream colour, with thinning brown carpet and solemn paintings on the wall. He wondered what a street magician needed a secretary for, but he didn’t ask. Years later and nothing had changed but the lines on Ms Limms’ face.

Roan flinched, looking up from the arm of the chair he’d been picking at.  “Sorry, what did you…?”

“Mr Hansel is ready to see you,” Ms Limms repeated. Thanking her, he moved towards the door marked Pepper’s Room – No girls allowed.

 

“Roan.”

“Hello Pepper.”

“How is my artist?” Pepper was dressed in a woollen jumper and the worn-out expression he kept for the indoors.

“I’m fine, good.”

“You’re an artist, you can’t be fine. Artists are a-flame with tears and confusion, no?”

“I’m trying not to be too a-flame, everything’s a bit easier when…”

“Aha, of course. I have flames on the brain.”

The floor was strewn with piles of books, half drawn diagrams and props from his show, devices made of wood and mirrors on hinges. There was even a black top hat, which Roan had never seen outside the office. The window looked onto a glass tower block across the street and the pigeons huddled on the lampposts.

“Now,” Pepper began limply, “when’s the next masterpiece? May I ask?”

“I’m trying a few different acts, no masterpiece yet.”

“You’ll know when it comes along. It’ll kick down your door; it won’t ring the bell like the rest.” Pepper’s face was sour, between the occasional smiles.

“I’ll keep at it.”

“I hope you will.” He stretched his fingers back against each other. “You’re out there to make a masterpiece, not just to stand around in funny clothes. We’ve got Ms Limms for that.”

“For what?”

“Exactly!” he barked, animated again. “She’s a ghost in the machine. You know who said that, don’t you? Gilbert Ryle, the philosopher. Not about Ms Limms of course.” Roan laughed self-consciously. “You know what my father told me?”

“What was that?”

“He said one day everyone will be descended from a sperm donor. So learn to recognise greatness before it’s gone and we all become wankers. That’s what I’m doing with you.” Roan looked up at the mini chandelier, choosing his words. Before he could speak Pepper sighed and scratched his neck. “You want a drink Roan, don’t you? You don’t want me thinking I’m going senile with all this enthusiasm, do you?”

“I could have a small drink.”

“Of course you could, not too much or Ms Limms will tell on us. And you know who she’ll tell, don’t you?”

“Who?”

“Plants, that’s who, in her flat. Tells them everything, she reckons it helps them grow. Mind you, with all the complaining she does it’s a wonder they don’t walk out.” In the corner of the room was a small table, covered in bottles. “I’m going to give you whisky because there’s tiptoe mixed into some of the other bottles and I can’t remember which ones. Unless you want an extra boost?”

“No thanks, I don’t...”

“Noble fellow.” He returned with two glasses. “Some people get hooked on every pleasantry life offers them. Cheers.” They touched glasses, briefly quiet again but for Pepper slurping. “So tell me Roan, what is your chosen vice? Don’t tell me. I know already. That faraway look you have. What else could your vice be? Aha. So how’s it coming along then?”

“How’s what coming along?”

“The mourning.”

Roan gave a non-committal nod. There was a sinking in his chest that may have been shame. He watched the slurred reflections of passing traffic in the windows across the street.

“Roan, I think I’m ready to take you on that visit.”

 

In the passenger seat, Roan tried to read the graffiti as it sped past.

“It’s like the archaeology channel out here,” Pepper was saying. “Some city it’s become, eh? I don’t suppose we call it city? Not organised is it? Not a community. This is just brick-a-brack, like a garage sale… Garage sale for government oafs.” Rundown industrial estates appeared at intervals between patches of grassland, many were derelict, their smoky coloured bricks strung with climbing plants. Occasionally Roan would spot piles of rubble and weeds where smaller houses had long ago been destroyed and overgrown. “I’m not a whiner though, Roan. When I’m an old man I’ll be the less annoying type. If I have grandchildren I’ll probably try to listen to their dreadful music. No-one likes a whiner... You, you’re not a whiner either, I shouldn’t say. Not as far as I know. If you whine I don’t know who you do it to.”  They passed a brick wall covered in spray-painted faces, large and caricatured, with florescent pink skin. The sun glared through the windscreen; Pepper flipped down the shade. “You know what, Roan? I’m taking you to a place which is rather personal for me. A certain kind of personal, not picnic territory. I haven’t even told Ms Limms. Don’t worry it’s nothing too sinister. We’re nearly there. In fact… hup… yep, there.” A long line of warehouses gave way in the distance to grass and dust and a dot of something else on the horizon. They drove quietly as it took shape, tall and boxy with grey brickwork and empty window frames. It marked the edge of the city; beyond it was wasteland.

“What is it?”

“My temple of doom, aha.” Pepper parked the car, trotted ahead and made a sweeping gesture to the three storeys above him. Roan looked up as the wind lulled and it seemed the building held its breath. 

“What do you think?” Pepper asked.

“What is this?”

“People all over the city know this place. Look at its big ugly face. You’ve heard me mention my wife, or have you? No perhaps you haven’t. Did I ever tell you what happened to her?”

“No, you never mentioned her,” Roan replied, wondering why he had never asked.

“Well I was married briefly. My wife left us. Horrible business. Her skin changed, she had fevers, hallucinated… Believed she was suffocating in snow.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Aha. That’s the right thing to say. You’re not normally good at that.” He slapped Roan’s shoulder, digging his fingers in. “This was the hospital. Or the building at least, you won’t find much inside. It was due to be demolished. That was a while ago now. It was left to dilapidate, got overgrown, filled with wildlife, mostly human. They had tiptoe parties, sound systems to shake the ants out of the ground, thousands of people at once. They still do, I believe.”

The two men entered through the space that was once a doorway. Their footsteps clomped along the floorboards. Roan peered into each room, half remembering something. The afternoon was still blazing outside and sunrays flooded through the gaps.

“Would you believe I own this building?” Pepper asked.

“I believe it if you tell me.”

“Well I don’t, aha... It keeps sucking me back though. Maybe it owns me.”

“So who does own it?”

“The insects, I should say.”

Roan noticed the scurrying around their feet.  “Did you ever marry again?”

“No.”

They were approaching the heart of the building, where light was scarce. Roan paced around restlessly, still with a memory he could not quite grasp. After a few more steps he clapped, suddenly invigorated. “Clement!”

Pepper turned to him. “Who might Clement be?”

“Oh sorry, I just remembered...” Pepper waited encouragingly. “We made up this silly kind of ghost story when we were first dating. It had a ghost,” Roan snorted, “called Clement.”

“Bit of a posh ghost was he?”

“Yea, he was a butler ghost and he haunted people by bringing them tea when they didn’t want it.”

“Scary fellow.”

“Yea. That’s been in my mind all day; I couldn’t remember his name, and it was driving me nuts.”

“And what happened to Clement?”

“Oh, we hoovered him.”

“Ah.” Pepper stroked his knuckles slowly across the wall. “You remind me so much of myself, it’s astonishing.”

“Did you and your wife make up a ghost story?”

He chuckled and shook his head slowly.

 

On their way home Roan’s smirk remained. He was less attentive to the passing scenery and sat glazed over, humming so low that only he could hear.

“Well then. Here you are.”

“Already? …Thanks, I suppose I’ll see you in a while.”

“I’ll be by your spot again soon.”

Roan clambered out. His smirk was all gone and he wished he could stay longer, but before he could think what to say Pepper drove off with a cheery beep.

“Damn it!” His voice sounded strange, like it was borrowed. The afternoon was growing cool and cloudy; he wondered what he ought to do for the rest of the day. As he fumbled for his keys he hummed some more, listening to the hollow sound, trying to imagine he could step back and study it like a museum exhibit.  “Damn it!” He said it with more vigour this time as he walked up the stairs. As soon as he got into his flat he collapsed on the bed, staring vacantly upwards. “Idiot…” He put his hand in front of his mouth and repeated, feeling the vibrations of the word. “Iiidiiiiot.”

He guessed it was five o’clock and turning he saw he was exactly right. Tomorrow was Sunday, a day off. Thirty-eight hours until he had to wake up for work again. After a minute or two of lying still, he began to pretend that he couldn’t move, that he was paralysed or trapped under a spell. He thought about trying to move his foot, feeling it stuck in position, packed into place by the stodgy air. Perhaps he was trapped. Until his mind chose to move it, his body would be still. What if he never made that decision but sank further into idleness, until there was no way back? A fly buzzed onto his ear. He twitched, gave up the experiment and went to the bathroom.

As he turned on the light he caught his reflection in the mirror and stuck out his tongue. He saw his same face as it had been, late at night with her stray hairs clinging to it. He clasped the space where her torso had been, bent over the sink, rocking her body into him. The reflection stared back at him now, emotionless and intense; he forced an impish smile, then let it fall away. Still stroking the empty air, he stood there letting his mind settle, imagining with enough strength to momentarily touch her sweaty skin. Eyes still fixed on his reflection, he unbuttoned his jeans slowly, teasing as she had done. She moaned softly, meeting his gaze in the mirror. Roan rested one hand on the sink edge, just above hers, noticing each time she tightened her grip. His other hand was clasped as he rolled back and forth into it, listening to the soft slapping of his pelvis against her.

 

 


Chapter 3 - Ravers

 

“Milo!”

“What?”

“MILO! Put me on your shoulders, I want to touch the lasers.”

“You’re too fat. Let me get on your shoulders.”

“I have to touch the lasers. Look at them!”

“I know they’re…”

“MILO! Look at them, tell me you don’t want to touch them!”

“I do. Let me get on your shoulders.”

“Ok.”

Milo clambered aboard. Once raised up he swayed his head from side to side, sticking his tongue out at the mass of people below. The vibrations of the music tickled his nose and made it itch. The ceiling dripped with evaporated sweat. He tried to reach the lasers but they moved higher, so he just closed his eyes and howled, his vocal cords rasping.

“This music is making me hot,” he called down.

“What?”

“PASS ME THE WATER!”

“Sure!”

He took a couple of gulps, and passed it back. The lasers were lowering gradually; he stretched his arms up, noticing a girl some distance away doing the same from another set of shoulders. He waved at her but she was too engrossed to notice. Below him hot bodies danced against his legs. The bass faded out of the music, leaving a hum and a tick-tock. More arms were raised from all around, hooting, someone blew a whistle. Milo ran his fingertips through the lasers, cutting shadows in the green just as the beat dropped in and movement erupted again. He was lowered abruptly and his feet hit the ground.

“Milo!”

“What?”

“THIS DJ. HE’S LIKE… MY GUARDIAN ANGEL!”

Milo wiped the spray from his cheek. “You’re spitting everywhere! And he’s mine too.”

“HE’S EVERYONE’S!” Aaron swung his arms out in a circle, catching a man next to them on the jaw. “Sorry! SORRY! Hit me back! Actually don’t.” A girl stumbled into them and turned to mouth an apology. Milo clasped her hand and spun her around. She smiled and nuzzled into him, then broke away into the crowd.

“Milo!”

“YEA?”

“I feel like this place is going to suck me back forever, until I’m one of those mashed-up old men in the rave who can’t speak properly.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“OOH MY GOSH THIS TUUUUUNE!”

“Aaron?”

“Milo, shush for a minute… Listen to this tune. Listen to this tune. Seriously.” He had his arm clinched around Milo’s neck. The two listened; there were words mixed in just below the beats. The air was thick with moisture. Aaron tilted his head back and yelled upwards then continued in Milo’s ear. “Listen. It sounds like its saying cough-drops. Listen… cough-drops… cough-drops… cough-drops.”

“It sounds like locked-up.”

“Wait… rock-salt. It’s rock salt.”

“Pass the water please!” Milo took another swing, winking as he handed it back.

“You wink like a granddad.”

“That’s the best way to wink!”

“I invented a new dance today at work, but I forgot it.”

“Shit. No.”

A surge of people tipped them off balance. Milo ducked and slid between groups until he had his own section of dancefloor again. Aaron had gone. A figure walked past, catching his eyes briefly.

“Tip-toe-tip-toe-tip-toe-tip…?” The man’s voice chimed into the beat. Milo searched his pockets until he felt a small plastic bottle; this was enough for the night. He shook his head at the man who passed on without acknowledgement. “Tip-toe-tip-toe-tip-toe-tip-toe?”

The crowd was closing in again. The heat made him dizzy, so he wrestled his way to the nearest wall and slumped down with his back against it. For some time he sat alone, bobbing involuntarily. The wall sent vibrations up his spine.

There was a thud. A large man with a shaggy beard sat at his side. Milo tried to speak but the music flooded into his mouth extinguishing the words. The man nodded knowingly then lifted his hands and began clapping. Milo joined. The man leaned in close enough to be heard. “I am a drummer. Here, do this...” He continued to clap as he had been doing, Milo followed. “No. No. Like this. One two three four-one two-one two-one two three four. Now you go… No. No. One two—not one two three four-one two three fourtwo three four-one two-one two-one two three four.”

For all he tried, Milo could not master it. Eventually the man shrugged and went on his way leaving him alone to dance with the top half of his body while his legs rested. He went to check the time on his phone, but reconsidered. Instead he rummaged back into his pockets and found something far more valuable. Knees disguising, he unscrewed the top and poured a few more drops onto his tongue. The bitterness spread through his whole mouth. He reached for the water; it wasn’t there. With his face screwed up he clambered to his feet, scanning the room for Aaron amid the distortion of lasers.

“Can I have some of your water please? I’m dying.” The woman obliged. “Thanks, oh my God.” He was about to speak again when the beat of the music changed and he flung himself into the crowd. How could music do this to him? What was wrong with him? A doubt crept across his mind, a dread and he knew what it was. Postponing the inevitable he stood still, then finally reached for his phone to check the time. Just over two hours until he had to be at work.

The exhaustion that had been numbed for so long started to seep into him. A squat and pale skinned man was dancing nearby. Milo nodded a greeting. “I’ve got work in two hours.” The man looked back at him absently. “I’VE GOT WORK IN TWO HOURS!”

“AHH! Too bad.”

“Yea.”

“That’s not for two hours though.”

“Yea, two hours.”

“You tiptoed?” the man asked.

“Yea.”

“What do you do?”

“I work in a call centre.”

“Too bad, man. I hope you survive.”

“What about you?”

The man wrapped his arm around the neck of the woman next to him. “We are going to disappear together.”

“Disappear where?”

“I’m a romantic. He doesn’t approve, does he Baby?” He turned and pressed his forehead into hers, pouting at the air. “She’s my Baby.” He kissed her. “Her name is Baby but I would call her it regardless. And I am Isa.” He offered his hand.

“I know you, Isa… and Baby. I meet you here all the time!”

“…MILO! I’m so sorry,” yelled Isa, embracing him with his free arm. “I’m so tiptoed, I barely know who I am, never mind you.”

Milo chatted next to them, until they became engrossed in each other again. As he moved on, he took the vial from his pocket and swirled the liquid inside. If he didn’t see Aaron in the next five minutes, then he would finish it. He bobbed around for a while, still gripping the container. When had the five minutes started, he wondered as he unscrewed the cap and swallowed the rest. Once again he had forgotten to find water first. Swearing to himself he moved through swarms of people, bumping into Aaron.

“MIIIIIIIIIIIILOOOOOOO!”

“AH! I missed you!”

“I missed you too.”

“I need some water… Ah, thank you, that was so disgusting.”

“We’ve got work soon.”

“I was just thinking that.”

“Do you have any left? I want to get destroyed while I still can.”

“Oh shit! I finished it.”

“Are you serious?”

“Sorry. I thought I wouldn’t see you till the end.”

“Milo…”

“I’m sorry. Really. We can buy some more.”

“It doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t anyway.”

“No, I’ll buy you some more. I saw a guy earlier.”

“It doesn’t matter… Milo, you’re a fucking donkey!”

“I know.”

 “You have to get high for both of us now. I’m gonna live through you.”

“I will.”

 

Within twenty minutes it took hold. Milo was blind to everything but colour and sound, unsure where the floor ended and his feet began. Faces flashed and faded around him, while he floated aimlessly like a ghost lost in smoke. Every once in a while he thrashed into dance, unable to focus his eyes. The lasers above were a blur of moving green. If somebody brushed against him he cast a smile vaguely in their direction, unsure if it would reach them.

Someone tugged on his arm. He turned and after a moment realised what was happening.

“NOOOO!”

“We have to. We start in half an hour.”

 

 

Chapter 4 - Are you ill?

  

Milo sat with his head resting on one outstretched arm, viewing everything sideways. Rows of fingers on keyboards typing forwards instead of downwards. A dismal feeling gripped him. On the way to work he had tried to eat a sandwich and only progressed by five bites. Calls were being directed to him every three or four minutes, leaving time to resent the chattering around him and the chills from the air conditioner. No-one on his table had made any sales.

“I told ‘im everything. Did the whole spiel. And he still wants to talk to his bloody wife first! No, you bastard, you buy it now or you bugger off!”

“Did you say that to him?”

“No, I should’ve bloody well said it to him. Listen to me, you cock sucker, you buy it now and get the free installation or I’ll come to your house and install it myself. Up your fucking arse.”

“Do you have experience with that type of installation, Jeff?”

“Yes very funny, in fact… Well Good Morning. My name’s Jeffrey. I’m calling from the… Another one! Cunt!”

“I like it when you swear. It excites me.”

“Well, if swearing’s a crime, then you can fuck me in the, Hi there…

Good morning my name’s Aaron. I’m calling from Thompson Optical. Could I speak to Mr Rains please?

Milo’s headset bleeped in his ear.

Hello, my name’s Milo. I’m calling from Thompson Optical. Could I speak to Mrs Ellabeck please?” An elderly woman grumbled something.

Mrs Ellabeck, how are you today?”

“I don’t want any holidays!”

“I’m calling you because you recently expressed interest in our laser eye treatment.”

“Who are you?”

My name’s Milo, I’m calling from…”

“Michaels?”

ThompsonOptical. You filled in your details on our website. I’m calling to let you know you can book a free consultation…

“I don’t want any holidays. Or insurance. Or any of your gismos!”

I’m…” She hung up.

Milo filled in the outcome menu on his screen - Call back customer… in 20 minutes - and lay back down. This day wasn’t so bad; he had fought through worse before. When he arrived that morning he had gone straight to the toilet mirror to inspect his pupils. They weren’t right. His skin was pasty and his t-shirt was smeared with stains that could have been blood. When he went into a cubicle to urinate he had a vague sensation of crowds watching him. Low level hallucinations. Walking to work, he had stared at each passing stranger in the street, sure it was someone he knew. “That’s Janice, look it’s Janice, oh no its not…” Aaron showed no interest. “Is that Callum? Aaron, its Callum. Oh… it’s not.” The only one he recognised correctly was the knight.

Waiting for calls was a rare luxury; often they piled through one after the other. Today he could doze between each beep – like a whole day of pressing the snooze button.

Hi there, my name’s Jeffrey, I’m calling from Norson Digitech. Am I speaking to a Mr Waterage? Hi there, I understand you recently expressed an interest in our state of the art digital television service. Television. That’s right…. Yes, I’m... Yes… Well that’s brilliant, what sort of programs do you tend to watch? Well if we book it now we’ll be able to enter you into… Ok. I see. No that’s fine. Have a good day, Mr Waterage. Bye-bye now. This is just a fucking joke…”           

The room was filled with rows of desks, banked together and facing each other in groups. Nearly two hundred people, all their voices mixed into one babbling wave. Some sat up-right examining computer screens, others lounged back in their chairs, a few paced around gesticulating into their ear pieces. Someone went to mark up a sale next to his name on the whiteboard. There was a faint ripple of applause. A pleasant anonymity kept Milo hidden amongst many other half-asleep workers. He thought about this with a smile as he sank deeper into his bicep, starting to cut off the blood. He enjoyed pins and needles, especially the first rush of cold as the numbness dispelled.

A few hours later he was ready to weep. The sun from outside dazzled him. The blind was broken and there was nowhere to move. People all around him grumbled about customers and hang-ups and narrowly missed sales. He lay there tensing every muscle in his face, trying to squeeze the world out of his ears. Before long he was weak and feared he would actually shed tears if he didn’t get out of this mood. It was nearly lunchtime and there was a long day ahead.

My name’s Milo. I’m calling from Thompson Optical. Could I speak to Mr Ruben please?” His voice was deflated.

“There’s no Mr Ruben here. There is a Mr Roburn. What might this be concerning?”

Mr Roburn… expressed interest in our laser eye treatment… Could I speak to him?

“I am he.”

To relieve his boredom Milo tried something: “EXCELLENT!  HOW ARE YOU TODAY MR ROBURN, BUDDY?” Jeff flinched at the sudden change. The people opposite glanced up in vague amusement.

“…Busy.”

“WELL THAT’S SMASHING, THAT IS!”

“What can I do for you?”

“NOT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR ME, IT’S WHAT I CAN DO FOR YOU, MR ROBURN, BUDDY!”

“Must you speak at that volume?”

“I’m going to book you in for the CONSULTATION OF A LIFETIME!”

Mr Roburn hung up.

He sat up straight and stretched his arms out. A girl dressed in black leggings and a lacy blue shirt wafted past, her perfume sent a burst of adrenaline through him. He yanked himself free from the headset and strode around to where Aaron was sitting.

“Milo, I got a sale. In this condition. I’m such a trooper.”

“Go and put it on the board.”

“Fuck the board.”

“Don’t you want a round of applause?”

“Where are you going for lunch?”

“AARON GOT A SALE! OH YES HE DID! WE LOVE YOU AARON! YEAH! GO AARON!” Milo clapped emphatically, until the applause spread through the room. Aaron blushed slightly and raised his fist at Milo’s grinning face.

“Where are you going for lunch?” he repeated.

“I don’t want to eat anything. I want to down a glass of cheap disgusting whisky.”

“Seriously?”

“Don’t be like that, come have a drink.”

“Milo… do you know how sick I feel?”

“What are you going to do instead?”

“You’re a nasty man.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to sit next to a tramp and talk to him about the trials of life.”

“Ha, that’s what I thought.”

“Enjoy your disgusting lunch.”

Milo moved around the room asking more people. It was not uncommon to take a liquid lunch in his profession, but on this day nobody had the stomach to join.

“Beth, come with me to the Stag and get slightly wasted.”

“Wow that sounds lovely. I’ve eaten already though.”

“So?”

“Not today mate.”

“Fuck! What’s wrong with this company?”

He asked another seven people, getting more animated each time, using all the sales technique he had been sleeping on all morning. At last he gave up, buzzed himself out and headed to the pub alone. As he walked each person and thing seemed uncomfortably close to him. He shuddered, resisting the urge to shove people out of his way. When he arrived he slapped the bar with both his hands.

“Whisky… please.” He slugged the contents of the glass, groaning and scrunching his mouth in a happy grimace. After ordering a second to sip, he swivelled around on a stool to face the room. Three men with suitcases sat together eating pies and arguing. A few other figures hunched alone over their pints. Above them, along the wall, black and white film stars beamed at Milo from their frames. It was dim despite the sunshine outside. His phone buzzed; he hadn’t looked at it all day and there were four unread messages:

Aaron: DUUUUUUDE WHERE ARE YOU?????

Erin: You were at The Hospital and u didn’t invite me?? Gayboy! X

Jade: Ur a twisted fuck! Xx.

Ivy: You’re not coming home tonight then…?

Milo took a sip, concentrating, trying to work out the brand.

“You!” He looked around and saw a woman standing by him. It was Nadine, a colleague who sat next to him occasionally. She liked to flirt over the phone and cackle at her own jokes. Milo had never warmed to her. “Hi,” he replied.

“Drowning our sorrows, are we?”

“Yea.”

“What happened? You can tell me.”

He was bemused for a moment. “Nothing.”

“Here you are, all alone. Tell me what happened.” She edged towards him with a mothering look.

“I wanted to taste whisky. Because it’s sour and disgusting.”

“U-huh?”

“Yea.”

She sat by him, drawing her stool too close.

“I heard they do good soup here on Thursdays. I thought it was Thursday. How dumb am I?” He was about to reply but instead just continued to stare at her, wondering if she would get flustered. There were faint lines on her brow. How old was she again? After a time she struggled to fill the silence.

“You know my friend, yesterday right... Well not yesterday, but recently. This taxi driver kicked her, cos she didn’t wanna pay the fare. She said it was too much and got out. Then he got out and kicked her leg and fractured it.”

“Yea?”

“Isn’t that horrible?”

“Yea.”

“He should get arrested!”

“Are you buying soup?

“I can’t, can I? It’s not Thursday. You might have to buy me a drink.”

“I was bad to a cab driver once.”

“Really?”

“Yea.”

“Ha! What did you do?” She was smiling at him. Still too close. Her features were slightly thick set, but she was pretty. Why did he find her so repulsive?

 “Let’s sit on that sofa.”

“OK.” She followed and they sat next to each other. Milo collapsed back and closed his eyes. He felt her tapping his knee.

“You’re weird,” she said.

“Yea.” Milo swigged some more. The alcohol hit his ailing body with a surprising kick. His legs were warm with tipsy blood. She was leering at him expectantly. Maybe he ought to kiss her out of the blue. There was a peculiar irritation in him. He wanted to say something to wound her so she scampered away. Or perhaps he just wanted to manhandle her and gag her mouth. He touched her arm and was about to speak again but was cut off by a surge of nausea.

“Wait for me a second.” He stumbled from the sofa straight to the toilet and was puking before he got to the bowl. Not much came out; he hadn’t eaten for hours. When he finished he gargled some water and strolled back out.

“I just puked.”

Nadine looked blankly at him. She seemed offended. At last she came out with “Eugh!”

Milo laughed so much his stomach ached and he felt like retching again. When it subsided he dropped into the sofa.  The girl watched him nonplussed. Something akin to pity brewed in him.

“Are you ill?” she asked.

Milo considered the question. “No.”

“You seem like one of these weird guys in a movie that are going to die in a week.”

“I know. I like that.”

 

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debut novel

A surreal story of mental breakdown, infidelity, a disappearing man and a city built of folded love letters. Click here to see it on Amazon.

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