‘Which way now?’ Christopher asked at the T-junction.
‘How should I know,’ Angela snapped back.
‘Why are they never any signposts out in the country?’
‘Because people usually have a good idea of where they are going.’
He ignored the insult. He glanced at his watch, the second-hand on fourteen, fifteen, he turned right.
‘I hope this is the right way,’ Angela said.
Christopher remained silent and drove on.
What should have been a relaxing winter weekend getaway from the demands of their respective professions and their two young children, a time to rediscover each other, had gone wrong from the very start. The temperature had taken a sudden unexpected dip and they had argued as to whether to return home to collect heavier coats. Christopher had remained adamant that they press on while at the same time blaming Angela, who had been in charge of packing, for her lack of foresight. When Angela countered that the weather forecast had called for it to remain mild, Christopher, in that tone of voice that always made Angela see red, suggested that instead of always believing absolutely everything that was on TV that perhaps she should have looked outside the window.
The icy conditions and sleet showers made leaving the city even more difficult than usual and it was 7:30 before they reached the open countryside. Stopping to fill up at the petrol station Angela bought chocolate and coffee. It would be very late by the time they reached the hotel. Continue reading →
The sensation started in my thumbs. A weightlessness, an unbelievable lightness. I rolled over and shook my hands, thinking I’d just been sleeping too long in the same position. The sickening sensation only grew worse. I lay staring at the ceiling for a time, willing for it to stop. It spread from my thumbs to my wrists and back down into my other fingers.
I slipped quietly from bed so as not to disturb Henry. He was never pleasant when awoken in the middle of the night. In the bathroom, I elbowed the light on to protect my hands, hands that no longer felt like they belonged to me.
The flickering fluorescent light intensified the ghostly sensation. I heard the sound of metal against porcelain and realized that my wedding ring had dropped into the sink. What was happening? In my panic, I let out a scream that echoed throughout the house.
“For God’s sake, Molly, what’s with all the noise?” Henry shouted irritably from the bedroom.
For what seemed like an eternity, I was rendered speechless. How could I possibly articulate what was happening? “Henry, please come here!” I finally managed. “I’m dissolving!”
It was true, I was dissolving like sugar in a cup of tea. My fingers, wrists and forearms had disappeared. It was like I was being erased, I was being rubbed out. The phenomenon was dissolving every inch of flesh and bone as it progressed towards my shoulders.
With a sigh, Henry leaned against the door. “Really Molly? I think you’re being just a wee bit hysterical, don’t you?”
“Henry, look at me!” I cried.
“Seriously, Molly,” he said, frowning.
“Can’t you see? Henry, I’m disappearing, I am going to vanish!”
He sighed heavily and went over to the sink. “Please be more careful, you dropped your ring,” he said, holding out the ring.
“Henry, help me please, please, please help me,” I wailed in utter frustration.
He placed it on the bathroom vanity. “I don’t know what is going on with you Molly. Come back to bed when you have finished with your amateur dramatics.”
I sank to my knees sobbing. My shoulders had been rubbed out and now my breasts were being erased. Those breasts that Henry had so adored when we had first met. This self, myself, Molly Matthews, this unique identity was in process of complete disintegration. It was becoming difficult to breath; in desperation, I inhaled deeply as my body faded. Now I was just a head, an unconnected head floating in space. Henry always said that I lived too much in my head. Now all that was left of me was this head. For some reason this thought made me laugh hysterically. The light flickered before shorting, leaving me in the dark.
I sat bolt upright in bed. I was sweating heavily, but that was OK. It was only a dream, just a dream. I moved my fingers, they were there. I touched my arms, thighs, belly, breasts –all still there, Thank God, it was just a horrible dream. I was complete, I hadn’t vanished or been erased. I was whole.
My relief was so great that I couldn’t sleep. Unlike Henry, who didn’t stir, even though I tossed and turned. Towards four in the morning my limbs became leaden with the accumulation of toxins, but I welcomed this leadenness. If anything, I wanted it to increase so as to drive away the disturbing sensation of lightness that I had felt so vividly during my dream.
My sleeplessness meant that I didn’t get up with Henry like I usually did in the morning. I just lay there, staring at the ceiling. I could hear him getting ready for the day. The same routine, breakfast with two cups of strong coffee, a shower and shave. It was Wednesday, so Henry always went in a little later, but he still got up at exactly the same time. As I lay there, I thought about calling out to Henry to ask for a lift to my morning class as my car was in the garage, but I was seized with a curious inertia. I realized we hadn’t really spoken to each other for quite a while now, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember when or why. When had we stopped acknowledging one other? How had we let things come to this pass?
I was surprised to hear the doorbell ring. Who could that possibly be?
I heard Henry open the door.
“Oh hello Jane.”
“Hello, Henry. Is our Molly around?”
“No she isn’t. I don’t know where she has got to, to be honest. Maybe she went to her classes.”
There was a pause. I couldn’t shake this listlessness that had taken hold of me, because I knew that I should have announced myself and stopped whatever was going to happen from happening.
“Oh, that really is a shame, I was so looking forward to catching that new exhibition in town with her. I have so being looking forward to it. Really.”
“I’m sorry about that, Jane. Seems a pity that you will miss the exhibition.” Again, there was a pause, longer than before, but it didn’t matter, I knew what he was going to say before he said it. “You know, Jane, I’m at a bit of a loose end today. How would you like it if I took you to see the show?”
“Really, would you do that for me Henry? Are you sure you haven’t got something else you need to do?”
“Well, yes… but nothing that can’t be postponed. A little outing with you, Jane, would do me the world… yes indeed, a whole world.”
“I am flattered, Henry.” I could almost hear the smile in her voice. “Well… I would like that very much, indeed.”
“Great! Excellent! Come in then, Jane, while I get ready. It should only take me five.”
I heard her heels click on the marble floor in the hallway. I just lay there, unmoving, staring at the ceiling, while my husband and my best friend chatted and laughed away to themselves, like they were alone, like I wasn’t there, like I no longer existed, like I had never existed.
After the front door had closed and Henry’s car started up and they drove away, I still didn’t move, yet part of me disconnected… I was in the rear seat of the car watching the glances, the smiles playing upon their lips, the tension generated between them –tension that could only be resolved later. After the exhibition and the lunch, Henry had paid the hotel receptionist in cash and had received the key card –handed over with a knowing and complicit look– and my husband and best friend closed the featureless hotel door in some infinite corridor and Henry cupped her face, like he had done so many times to me, an aeon ago, an alternate dimension away, a universe apart… and kissed her parted lips. That disconnected part of me observed what followed without surprise or emotion, that part of me had known all along that it would eventually come to this. Even if they knew they were being observed it wouldn’t have stopped them, so intent upon each other were they. They knew I knew they knew…. And it didn’t matter.
And as I lay there in the deepening shadow, inert, listless, desperate, I willed myself to wake up, this time for real.
This is the cakeordeath treatment of Dr. Meg’s story Dissolved. She very kindly let me play around with her idea, and I added an extra layer of existential dread, a sprinkling of sexual paranoia and a dollop of ambiguity. You can find the original at https://drmegsorick.com/2016/08/18/dissolved/.
The train left at 4:13, which meant they had exactly 37 minutes to kill. Margot bought two packets of Silk Cut and handed one to Max.
‘Now you can at least smoke your own instead of taking all of mine,’ she said drily.
‘I thought sharing was caring.’
‘Yeah, but it’s meant to be a two way street, darling, not completely all one way traffic.’
They went over to the dirty, beige-coloured cafe and ordered two dirty, beige-coloured coffees. The place was full of tramps in the process of disintegrating before Max’s very eyes and sharp-faced young men, completely immobile and watching all the entrances and exits patiently. They were undoubtedly pimps just waiting to offer sinister charity to the inevitable waif having strayed too far from home.
‘Shall we head towards the platform now, Margot?’ Max asked her. ‘This place gives me the creeps.’
‘We still have…let’s see,’ Margot said as she checked her watch. ‘Another 23 minutes yet. Besides, you haven’t finished your coffee.’
‘Nah, it’s OK. I think it’s re-heated washing up water anyway. I need to get a coke on the way out to get rid of the taste.’
‘I suppose we can wait on the platform. I hope you will be able to sit still on the train. It’s over two hours, you know,’ she teased.
‘Of course. Sitting still is not really a problem for me. I can do anything if I put my mind to it.’
‘Really? Is that so?’ Margot seemed amused at Max’s boasting. ‘Maybe you should put your mind to it more often, then.’
‘Just because you’re my father’s guest doesn’t mean that you can be cheeky to his son. You’re not that much older than me you know. I mean, the way you go on, anyone would think you’re my big sister,’ Max grumbled.
‘Ahh poor baby, did I hurt your feelings? Come on,’ she said, standing. ‘Let’s get to platform 5, then.’
They left the dismal cafe and walked against the tide of disembarked passengers to platform 5. When they had found a place to wait, Margot opened her packet of cigarettes and offered one to Max. They smoked in silence until the train pulled up to the platform.
All the other passengers seemed to be Midlands businessmen ready to read every line of print in their rolled newspapers, either that or sleep. Even the ones traveling with friends or colleagues sat in stony-faced silence.
Max gauged that Margot wasn’t in the mood to talk either, so he contented himself with watching the scenery unroll outside the window as they passed through the North London suburbs. Of course, property close to train-lines always tends to be less than truly desirable, so for a good while all he saw were unkempt back gardens, strewn with broken prams, discarded children toys and rusted kitchen appliances.
As the train left the city behind and entered the countryside, it began to pick up speed. There was something about traveling that always made Max feel sleepy which in turn, made him very aroused. The desire for sleep had been somewhat counteracted by the drug —his blood cells jittered and raced through his ever expanding capillaries. However, the motion, the proximity of Margot (that scent -her scent), the living, shimmering fabric of her skin— all of it combined to make Max uncomfortably aware of his erection.
He didn’t suppose it would do any harm to close his eyes for just a few minutes and let delicious visions of unbridled bliss wash over his tired senses. It wouldn’t hurt at all. In fact, it would be a good thing, a very good thing indeed…
He could picture it all so clearly, the sun unmoving at its zenith above the tranquil, blue water reflecting the cloudless sky. The beach deserted as it would never be in this day and age, on such a perfect afternoon. He has it all to himself. Over to his right, where the cliffs meet the sand, a woman is swimming to shore. Once out of the water, she spots him and hesitates, but then waves at him rather hurriedly and shyly. Despite the tentative nature of the gesture, it seems like she is beckoning to him, the motion was meant to entice, is in fact, an invitation. But before he can get up and follow her, she has already disappeared into one of the many high-rise apartment blocks that nestle in the hills overlooking the sea.
The train came to an abrupt halt, jolting Max back to consciousness.
‘Ahhh, I see you have decided to re-join the land of the living. About time too, we are almost there now, Max. I would say about another fifteen to twenty minutes. That is, if the train ever leaves this benighted shit-hole,’ Margot remarked with a gesture towards the bleak landscape on display.
Max peered through the dirt-smeared windows. She hadn’t exaggerated. Massive chimneys belched out bilious smoke that only partially obscured the derelict Victorian factories and abandoned rusting warehouses. Heavy industry had long since poisoned the earth so that now only the rankest of weeds were surviving and thriving in the brown fields. All manner of refuse had been thrown from the banks of the disused canals into the silted beds below. A few occasional figures, undoubtedly drunks or junkies, all dressed in drab, earth tones or dingy, rainy-day hues, stumbled forlornly across this hopeless environment.
‘Do you know where we are now?’ Max asked.
‘Darling, what gives you the notion that I would have the faintest idea what that place is called? Does anyone know? And even if anyone did, would they care to remember? It just one of those places that the trains always stop at for some bizarre reason, even though there is no station.’
Just then, the train lurched into motion. ‘Finally,’ sighed Margot.
As the train approached Birmingham, slowly, with frequent stops —presumably because of interchanges and increased commuter and freight traffic— it became apparent that it was a city of competing brutalities. A place designed for man’s absence; all distressed concrete and smashed glass. Some joker had thought that Birmingham should emulate L.A’s autopia (under these northern skies!), while another genius had tried to recreate Le Corbusier’s Radiant City on the cheap.
Well, guess what, Max thought, that shit hadn’t worked. It had failed miserably, actually producing the opposite of what was intended, a place that neither shone nor sparkled, in fact cast no light at all. Birmingham The Unradiant City.
‘We are here,’ Margot said, standing up as the train came to a stop at New Street Station.