By Sam Duda
And now I’m tired. It’s the cutlery in the canteen, the boots on steps. The crunch of the lights shutting down ahead and around me. There is knocking from the walls where they’re all breaking out, and the noise makes me want to close my eyes. The mattress smells of dust and blood and cheese. And it’s smaller here than outside. I can feel the ceiling on my back. I count fifteen steps around two sides of the square.
They’ve given me time to sleep it off, but instead I finger the scratched walls. I lie on the floor and look up at the bed, wait for them to slide open the hatch and show me their eyes. They scrape plates across the floor and I try to bend them. They send someone to see me and we practice spelling. He tells me there is an ant in repentant. He says it is I after you in guilt. I decide to write sorry letters. And I’m going to read the bible.
I tell them I think of finding out what’s going on inside me, in my stomach, with knife cuts into my head. I say it sounds like they took chips from my skull, like there’s a hole and air gets in. They tell me I’m lucky but I say I need longer outside and I miss the light. I tell them it hurts when I sleep, that my ears are fat with noise and I think I’m being stretched. But I don’t remember if it’s true anymore.
I dream about the girls sometimes. Their eyes are white. I follow them to rooms full of doors. And they’re running from me, but they are stumbling and some cry for their dogs, some spill teeth across the floor. I tell them I can still see them. “We will be together soon,” I say. The doors are locked. Someone inside is playing piano scales. I try them all and I shout again, let them know I will be there for them, that I’m coming. My shoulders crash at the doors. The scales climb faster. I run at a door and it breaks, it opens out. It opens out into nothing. And I fall.
I keep a tooth. I splash through a puddle under a bridge. The stockings drop in the grass. There is the smell of damp in the air and leaves cover the pavements. I know she’s all over me and I still feel the pride she had in her white eyes when I first saw her. I walk slowly and let them all stare.
At home I practise the piano. I work hard with my scales, remembering the C sharp in D major, the tricky finger change off the F sharp. I close my eyes and pretend I have always been like that, but when I see her face I have to stop and get into bed and I clean it all up afterwards.
In the bath I scrub the flesh from my fingernails. The water gets cold so I add more until my legs burn. I watch the walls run and listen to an argument downstairs, laughter, furniture being dragged around. I stand naked and open the window to suck in the cold air, that damp grass smell. In the mirror I find a fleck I have missed and I scratch at my mouth.
In the garden I set fire to my shoes. I find a hammer in the shed and play with it for a bit. I think of the dog. I see her again and for a moment I think she saw me. The sun starts to drop over the fence so I lie in the grass and watch a bird make shapes through the clouds. When it lands I throw a stone at it and it disappears.
Inside again I look at the tooth, feel it sharp on my fingertip. It is nearly night so I pull the curtains and sit in the dark. I wait for the knock at my door, but it is silent. There is the sound of laughter again from somewhere and that dragging. I put the tooth in my mouth and talk to the floor in a funny voice.
They ask me what I did, why I did it, and I tell them I did nothing and that I kept a tooth. The room they put me in has mirrors and I scratch my mouth. There are little lumps in the table so I stay and read them like Braille. Then a man comes and sits with me and the others leave. He says he is John and he calls me Mr. Courtenay. I like the way he says it. He has a moustache and when he speaks I watch it tickle his nose.
He shows me a photograph of a dog in blood. There is a knife in the dog.
“Mmm,” I say.
“It’s not very nice, is it?”
He shows me a photo of a girl.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes.”
“Why did you do it?”
“Put the photos away,” I say. “You know I didn’t.”
He lights a cigarette and I cough at him. He is silent for a long time. The room fills with heavy clouds of smoke and I watch them drift apart and mix together like blood in a bath. I listen to the clock on the wall and think of all the food I could get in this place. I tap a D major out on the table.
“I didn’t mean to hurt them,” I say suddenly.
“Them?” he says. “Who said anything about them?”
“My mum used to hit me,” I say. “I saw my brother kiss my sister. I was dyslexic at school.”
I tell him voices told me to do it.
“Told you to do what?”
“Nothing,” I say. “You’re putting words into my mouth.”
I tell him there is a man in the corner who is threatening to kill me. He is drawing his finger over his throat again and again, so I crawl under the table and wait for a knife at my neck. John is asking me where the man is, he is telling me there is no man. I hide and hold the laughter in with my hands.
He gives me a coffee and I spill it. I have been here two hours so I tell him I am tired. “I need to sleep. When I’m tired I do stuff. Like in the films. It was a robbery gone wrong and God told me to do it. I’m a vampire so I’d starve. My uncle used to take my clothes off.”
“Relax, Mr. Courtenay.”
“Whoohoyoo,” I say. “Ahoohoyo loohoyohoyo.”
I make noises for a while and he just stares at me.
“You’re not getting away with it like that,” he says.
She is at the bus stop. I get on after her and sit so I can see her face. She is older than me and her hair is long. Her dog sits at her feet, its tongue out. She is the sort that doesn’t wear glasses, like she is proud of the eyes, like the whiteness is beauty. I let an old woman take my seat and move closer to the girl.
The dog turns its dumb head to look at me and I whisper at it. “Shut up, dog,” I say, but the engine is loud and no one hears. I look right in its eyes and it looks away, its tongue still falling out of its mouth. I wait until the bus takes a corner and deliberately fall into the girl. I put a hand on her knee to steady myself and she looks around and her mouth opens and closes, but there is no sound. Her skin is thin like a bible’s pages.
“Sorry,” I mutter.
She moves her stare somewhere over my shoulder and she says it’s okay. She reaches down to her dog and pulls the fur at its neck. She whispers something but I cannot hear what. At the next stop she is out and I follow her along the road and through a park. Under a bridge I jump in a puddle and she pauses and the dog turns towards me, its tail flicking from side to side.
She lives on a street like mine. The trees are the same; there is a streetlamp red even in the afternoon. The dog takes her to her gate and up the path to the door. Looking around I see the street is empty. I wait behind her as she feels through a bag for keys. The dog watches me, but stays quiet. I nearly reach down and pat it. The girl opens the door but she waits before she goes in. As I slip past her I hear the dog start up.
There are photos in bags, a bleeding knife, the tooth. I stand with my tie on and watch them all watch me and sometimes I give a little smile. When they talk about dogs I push my hands into my pockets. There are questions but I’m thinking about this morning and the fists banging the van, the muffled shouts. I look forward to the flashes when I leave tonight, the microphones, the hood they pull over me.
They ask me again why I did it.
“Did what?” I say.
I do as I’ve been told. I pretend to watch a fly in the air and at one point I smack the table when the hammer pounds the wood up front. They still watch me and I still watch them back. I give a little cough. I mumble about films and God and eyes.
“I’m mad,” I say.
I tell them all that there is anger in the voices and when they ask about the voices, ask what they are saying, I make some funny noises and I hear them take a deep breath. I listen to the clicks of the keys noting it all down below me and I think of my piano, the days I wouldn’t touch the white notes. They ask me about my childhood and I tell them about a farm where I once saw a cow getting killed. I say my auntie made me watch it and told me it would happen to me unless I helped her feed the dogs each morning.
Then one of them says, “Are you sexually active, Mr. Courtenay?”
I shake my head and stare at the floor. “I think of my sister to get myself going,” I say.
I look at the twelve faces that watch my each move. There is sweat under one man’s arms and another has a plaster on his neck. Two women with white hair, a girl who checks her phone. One man has an eye that swims upwards when he cleans his glasses. I am told that they are all important to me. I am told that it will end soon and that they will be the last ones here. I am told that they will buy the voices stuff.
When it gets slow I read the letters they all sent me, the families and the others with the knocking fists, the newspaper girl, the one who wants my socks. I follow with my fingers; learn them all by heart, the spitting ones and the licking ones, the ones with crosses and the ones with kisses. I scratch I did it under the table with my nails until they snap and blood runs over my knuckles. I peel back my lips and smile at the girl with the phone until she can no longer look.
The mornings pass in a sweet blur of hands on the van and the wooden chairs scraping when we rise for the hammer. The one with the plaster never comes back. And then, one day, we all stand and wait for more, and there are words words words and then noise all around and a hand on my back. And I’m tired, but it can wait, I can wait.
Her wardrobe is warm and her clothes smell like Sundays at home. There are slats that I can see her room through, the bed smoothed neat, perfumes and music and a doll missing an arm. I notice there is no mirror. Downstairs I can hear her moving about and I know she didn’t feel me pass her. And the dog has stopped barking now.
I find some stockings and pull them onto my arms. I try on a hat and imagine dressing her, helping her on with her shoes. I see myself brushing my fingers over the thin skin on her neck as I put on her coat and straighten the collar. “Sorry,” I say, and she smiles that it was fine, that it was nice, perhaps. I wonder if anyone has ever stroked her neck before, whether they have rubbed the backs of her knees and pushed their noses into her lap.
My mouth is dry and I chew at my lip. I listen again, try to trace her moves below me, but for now it is quiet. The room has fallen dark and I strain to look out for a window. And then I hear footsteps on the stairs. I shift to get comfortable and I wait. Through the slats I see her come in, a hand palming the door open, three even steps to the bed. The dog is with her.
She feels for the stereo and puts on a song. She sways a little, ducks a shoulder to the beat. I feel my heart in my chest and breathe nice and slow. The dog watches her as she dances, bending her knees, spinning around, clicking her fingers. She comes closer and I poke a finger through the slats towards her, but I do not touch, I just point. The music plays on and she moves towards the dresser and the doll with one arm.
Her wardrobe door barely makes a noise as I open it. Somewhere I heard that their hearing gets better, but she doesn’t turn, she doesn’t flinch. She is opening a drawer and feeling through it. She is bent slightly and I think about jumping at her. The dog looks at me and I wonder again why it is so silent. Usually they bark, sometimes they come at me, but this one just watches, its fat tongue falling from its mouth. I take another step.
Then the girl turns and looks straight at me. For a moment I think she sees me.
“Is anyone there?” she says.
I move towards her. “No,” I say.
I bite into her B cup. I make her listen and I bang a knife into the skull of her dog. I tell her I’m her father before I open her up. Her mouth twitches and maybe she recognises my voice. I put one of her eyes out with a pen. As she dies, I whisper to her that I hate her. Outside I notice I am still wearing her stockings.