Skindeep

The cacophony of sounds was increasingly unbearable as time passed. Indistinct voices from the street flew in and swirled in the room’s otherwise stiff air. It seemed that no matter how long the window was open, the air would be stale. He often blamed it on the tobacco smell that was infiltrated deep in the yellow colour of the walls. The steps of the people marching, or walking, or galloping, or however they chose to move, were overlapping in an endless string of aimless beats. There was no other noise quite as annoying as the song of everything going on outside of the room.

It didn’t help that the little cuticle knife, the metal friend and fiend he had, was being driven into the desk. Regular intervals, equal pressure applied. The habit helped him concentrate. The noise added to the song, making it more modern, an almost niche market. A song that sounded like the mundane life of strangers. Remix. With the added noise from his endless scratching background music.

His right foot was pinned under his arse as he sat slouched at the half rotten table. It moved with the rhythm of the knife. Sinister, as he christened it. In accidental blood droplets. His mind was focused on very few things, and that was all he needed. Between the heat outside, the parasite growing inside of her, and her being passed out in the bathroom, he didn’t want to think.

No, routine was good. The room itself was small and cramped with books and clothes; typical, his mum always said, of a lazy bum. There were a couple of places where the walls weren’t completely yellow; it was where he had pinned papers – perhaps a poster, or a post-it note. All those used to cover cracks, holding no sentimental value whatsoever. With those missing, fallen or simply removed, the room seemed naked and old. Yellow, smelly. It reminded him of his late grandmother, the one who hated him more than the other grandmother. He wondered, over the unfortunate current song of his life, if his room would die too.

He looked up to check on the time again. Fourteen minutes since she had gone to the bathroom to vomit yet again, while he refused to acknowledge it. The world was too simple for a thought about children. His or not, he didn’t want to wrap the thinnest of his mind limbs around it. She said she just needed to be away for a couple of hours. Away from her husband, her mother. She also said it was in fact all-day sickness, none of that morning crap. Apparently it was something all women said. He Googled it out of boredom.

George didn’t care, as long as she flushed the toilet and left him the bloody hell alone. As long as he lived and died, anything that could come after him was insignificant. He didn’t even care for her, but his dick had needed attention. Sinister slid into a new thin ditch in the table top, just as she walked out looking pale. Her arms snaked around his shoulders and she sobbed a couple of times. George thought it was high time he had pizza for dinner.

***

His mum always told him that should he turn sideways, he’d become invisible. He thought it would be cool; people would stop staring at him. She explained in a slow quiet voice, too slow and too quiet, that she meant he was too thin. He nodded and that was it.

When Layla happened to him, or happened on him one warm evening, he was walking home. There was a slight limp on his right side, as he tried to step in such a way that would be comfortable for his erection. Normally he would be in his small studio in East London all alone, and he could touch it away in that perfunctory fashion he taught himself. As it happened, he was in public and he had observed what happened to people who wanked in public. George had learned most of the things he knew through observation.

Layla was not Layla when they met. She was a blond, too thin woman with lanky hair and a short pink dress. She walked up to him, touched his shoulder; she smelled of vodka. George remembered the name of the drink because that’s what his father’s bottle spelled, along with ‘Tesco Value’. The smell was identical, the breath on his face equally hot.

She told him to take them to his. He stood there. She leaned on him. She grabbed his awkwardly hard penis. She followed him. She pushed him on the bed. She undressed him. George liked the wetness around his dick. He liked the tightness of her vagina. When she pulled his hands and held them on her breasts, he allowed it. He finished in a couple of minutes, and wiped himself with a shirt. She stayed in his bed, draped around him, smelling of alcohol; if he were poetic, she was his father’s ghost through and through.

“You should shave,” she said, running her unsteady fingers on his face.

He nodded.

“I like this. My name is Layla.”

He nodded.

“What’s yours?”

“George,” he spoke for the first time.

She smiled. “Your eyes are pale blue. They look like they’re fading.”

He nodded again. She kept talking, saying something about a beating and her husband signet ring being too hard on the back of her head. She dragged his fingers to feel the bump. He nodded. Eventually she left. He pulled on pants, lit a roll-up, and sat down to write his code. George remembered all this every night he worked. In time it became a lot like a TV programme.

***

It’s always darker before the dawn. George was sure he had heard that saying before, but he didn’t know how it went. There was something about the witching hour as well, and his inability to pinpoint where exactly he encountered the phrases was frustrating. Then again, his limited mockery of self-therapy tried to rationalise, if it wasn’t on the telly the chances he’d know it were slim.

A minute to four: neither dawn, nor midnight. He noted the time because it was when Sinister slid and pinched his forefinger. He tried to be mad, but the little metal knife was all he could stand on those endless nights. Insomnia was not a concept, it was a lifestyle, he heard some people say in Shoreditch. He didn’t understand what they meant.

The artificial blue of the digits pulsated quietly. The alarm clock stopped having a working alarm months before, as soon as he got it. A little trip inside its circuits, along his trusted Sinister took care of that. If he could conceptualise amusement, he would have found his attachment to a cuticle knife almost pathetic. As it were, he twirled it around his fingers, a habit he had picked up from a man who visited his mother on Fridays. Sometimes, the man would sit and watch Blackadder, unexpectedly bursting into raucous laughter, his stumpy fingers holding his jiggling large belly. George never understood the point, but he sometimes quoted minutes and minutes of witty dialogue when he was in the shower.

Seventeen minutes past four, the darkness was broken by a quiet police car. There was no noise to accompany it, but he could hear it in the back of his head just as well, crisp and piercing, like the needle he remembered from when he was getting flu shots. Like Sinister when it caught on the partially dead skin of his thumb. Endless lines of code flickered on the screen of his monitor. Two hundred and eight lines of code, he whispered a couple of minutes later.

George grabbed one of the fags he had made earlier and rolled it further between his thumb and index. With precise movements, he clicked on his keyboard, the familiarity of the sound soothing. After another look, he lit the roll-up. At half past he unplugged the digital alarm clock and opened the window. The cold was welcome, and in the encompassing light from his computer, he followed the little vicious clouds of smoke. They swirled and twisted to the source of fresh air, caught in the draught.

He sent his work to his employer, some time close to five. The clock in the corner of his screen was covered with a post-it note that said ‘now’, so he had no way of knowing. The stillness of the outside world was once again disturbed by the birds. They never slept either, and had he been emotionally equipped to, he would have felt a serene sort of kinship to them.

A couple of minutes later, he could hear a shower running, and he figured it was half five. That was when his neighbour would wake up and start his day. He knew this because he had heard the distinct grunting of orgasms a couple of times. As he settled to sleep, stiff on his back, with the duvet pulled up to his chin, he heard a deep moan. He shut his eyes.

***

“George!” More banging on the door. “Open the fuck up, I need your help!”

He dragged himself to the door through the blurry room. He had been asleep for less than two hours when Layla’s voice got to him. She stood there, cradling a ratty blanket that stirred briefly before a shrill noise pierced the last remnants of his sleep.

“Let me in, I need a favour,” she shouted over the cries.

He mechanically moved to the side, shoving the door close behind her. She deposited the blanket on the bed, turning to him. Her eyes were glinting with hope, followed by layer upon layer of tears and fatigue.

“That,” she started, pointing to the blanket, “is Blue.”

“It’s actually grey,” he corrected.

She rolled her eyes. “The baby. His name is Blue,” she said slowly.

He blinked, bringing his arms close and crossing them. “Why is there a baby on my bed?”

“I need you to watch him for a couple of hours. I’m leaving Marcus.” She was talking fast, digging in the large bag for items to give him. Pulling a bottle out, she touched it repeatedly, checking the temperature. “This will do.” Turning to him, she continued. “I’ll stick this in his mouth and he should be okay. He needs a lot of feeding, he’s only three months old,” she informed him.

George stayed put, a blank expression on his face. “I don’t really care,” he told her.

She waved her hand. “Nonsense. I’ll go get my shit, and I’ll be back for Blue.”

“Don’t leave it here,” George warned her, a slight panic in his voice.

“I need to leave that fucker today, while he’s still away and I can leave for my auntie’s up in Bristol. I can’t have him pulling his usual crap on my poor darling.”

She kissed the baby’s head and left them alone. George approached the bundle of grey material with a guarded step. His shaking fingers pulled the two sides apart and he saw. The bubble of something was new in his stomach. It wasn’t unlike fear, or the needs he felt, but those emotions he knew. He had had all his life to rationalise them.

No, this new one was threatening to crawl up his body through at least three of his systems, and he was sure he would vomit, cough, or bleed it out. Blue’s face was radiant and peaceful, smelling of milk and baby lotion. The lashes were casting thin shadows on the soft skin. George was gone the second the child opened his eyes and, as unfocused as ever, looked at the man.

His first instinct was to cover the baby with a pillow and keep it there for a few minutes. Unlike fear, this new feeling scared him. Unlike fear, he didn’t know love. There was no point in time he could shut his eyes and go back to. No safe haven to crawl into. No embrace, and no caress. His mother had always dismissed his antics with a smile, telling everyone that boys will be boys.

When his sister had fallen down and broken her collarbone, he had been watching Monty Python from the steps, behind mum’s man friend of the week. He had heard the shriek over King Arthur saying “he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail”. The bone had broken through the skin and she was bleeding on the carpet. His grandmother had been rather upset with the stains.

The baby yawned quietly, the little toothless mouth opening and closing accompanied by slow heavy blinking.

George pulled his filthy pillow and covered Blue’s face. He kept it there, counting too fast for the numbers to be seconds.

“There, it’s safe. It’s safe now, baby boy. It’s safe now, baby,” he mumbled, the cooing voice unfamiliar and rough on his lips.

When he removed the pillow, the baby was immobile.

***

The silence  in the car was as heavy as autumn mist, cold and gloomy. George reached out with his left hand and moved the still baby in a cradling motion.

“I’ll take you away, baby. I’ll keep you safe. Your father won’t find you where we’re going.”

He pressed the button on his stereo, and Liszt filled the old vehicle. George kept driving up North, away from London and into safety. Through Liebesträume, George thought hard. He couldn’t remember being as small as the child and he rationally knew it was impossible. Thoughts at that age, if forming at all, would become repressed memories. But he could clearly recall his grandmother’s serpent adorned cane closing in on his face. He could not shut his eyes, fascinated as he was with the silver head. It was an involuntary reaction of pain that made him do it, and he was mildly annoyed with his body’s weakness.

He recalled his father’s stubble on the side of his neck as the man, large and mostly inflexible, fought to bend over George’s prepubescent thinness. The groans that accompanied were muffled in the pillow, but George could distinctly hear them vibrating in his inner ear. His father told him every single night he loved him more than anything. Before and after he would pull down the boy’s flannel pyjamas.

Adult George didn’t know a lot about love. He wanted to say he was in love with the baby, but the feeling was immaterial, lacking the drive or a powerful association. They always said being in love was different than loving. He didn’t know a lot about fathers either, but he knew enough to want Blue’s father to never love him. Not like John had loved George, with the stinging and the vodka on his breath.

A couple of hours later, he stopped the car in the parking lot of a small motel in Northampton. Grabbing his bag and the child wrapped in the blanket, he booked a room and hurried upstairs. The baby had yet to move.

His old phone with only five saved contacts broke the silence with a shrill noise. He started, looking around for the source. The number was unknown, and he ignored it. The pressing matter of the voicemail reminders, the ones his mother forced upon him, took too much of his attention. He called his voicemail.

“He’s insane, you don’t understand. I fucked him once, and now he’s left with my baby. It could be his as well, I don’t – Hello? Hello! George! George, where the fuck are you? Bring Blue back to me! Pick up damn it!”

George nodded. He threw the phone on the bed and went to check on the content of the blanket. In the stillness of the room, the bed, the child himself, a lone cockroach crawled up the baby’s face. Its tiny feet seemed to stomp on the delicate skin. The army of limbs and the sliminess of the insect were telling a tale of more than unsanitary rooms. They were telling of men who mounted their children, as his other grandmother called it. They were telling of a time when it wasn’t dark enough in the world for a boy to hide and pretend to disappear. They were telling of failure, of love he couldn’t understand. Of pillows used to cover his cries. Of safety and of memories better left unturned.

George screamed and jumped off, retreating as far away as possible. His hands trembling with fear, with anger, with disappointment, he cried for the first time since he turned ten. He was told then that men don’t cry, delivered with vodka fumes.

The steps to the bag were mechanical, his vision blurred. The grip on Sinister was strong enough to make his fingertips white. The blood dripping on the worn out carpet blended in with the fabric. His grandmother would turn her nose at the sight. The gash reminded him of his father’s wounds when they found him in his library chair. His body slumping on the floor, with the wrists cut open, seemed as final as his last breath.

On that unusually hot day, exactly eight minutes past noon, from somewhere above George, a baby’s cry pierced the silence.

 

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