Dirty Tiles

She wasn’t late; but then again, she never was. As soon as I pulled over I saw her, hunched over by the weight of books she was carrying. I had brought her up well: respectful and kind and most of all utterly perfect. And mine, always mine. When she entered the car, her blonde hair was hanging wet and limp around her face, flushed from the wind. She smiled warmly.

“You look tired,” she said, slightly concerned. “You alright, Daddy?”

“Always, Princess,” I replied. “Are you hungry? We can eat out tonight.”

Her laugh sounded surreal. So beautiful and untouched by life. It struck me how far gone I was in my worshipping of everything that was my daughter. “Don’t we always, though?”

The innocent yet blatant criticism to my skills as a parent was too harsh to contemplate. This was too important to fuck up. I would cook more often. It scared me how easily she could cripple my confidence, and not even on purpose. Genetically, she was built to destroy with a look, with a well-placed comment – I made it one of my life goals not to let her grow up into a stereotypically vicious woman. Should that stir her entire existence only to fail miserably, it was a risk I was willing to take. I was already risking everything; she was my favourite project, my most important list of numbers, my most important job.

I was being ridiculous, this could not fail. We drove in silence, her nose uncharacteristically not buried in a book. My precious baby.

“You’re too quiet, Daddy,” she said.

“I was just thinking, love. What do you want to eat?”

She thought for a second. “Can we get Chinese? It’s been a while.”

“We can get anything you want.”

I meant it too much for comfort, but it was something I had been living with for sixteen years. I was more than used to it. It was why, in retrospect, I must have been born.

***

When Alan woke up in the lonely double bed, soon after he returned home, he realised just how fucked up he was. Not in the motivational kind of way, the one that makes one get on a diet and cut down the alcohol. But in the way that pushes one to their limit. Why eat a salad when you could create the perfect being?

A different person might have adopted a cat, but Alan knew better. He was better than that. He was better than all of it, really. Why die, when you could build something more majestic than anything ever built before?

***

The light was on and I had no memory of leaving it like that. I had no memory of many things that had happened in the weeks before the incident. It was almost scary how easy memories could be wiped from someone’s mind. I remembered the blood on the dirty tiles, the stinging, and what I could easily identify as endorphins. Self-harm had always been portrayed to me as a horrendous thing to do, but it seemed more horrible to go out on the streets at night and rape innocent women. At least I kept to slitting my wrists in a poor attempt to die.

In hindsight, I never wanted to die. I was destined for greatness, even if it meant constructing my own greatness. Sweat for a reward, that sort of shit. I needed the absolute lowest point in order to get to my highest. It was thoughts like these that happened in my brain shortly after my suicide attempt. I can look back and realise I wanted to be that low. Master of my fate. Captain of my soul. And everything in between. My mind will sometimes work faster than I can process, and when it does, I end up on the floor of my bathroom, drenched in my own blood.

When they let me go, I blatantly lied about my sister coming to stay with me. I was never going to attempt suicide again; I had a purpose. They believed it after all those tests Dr. Flounders made me take. He said, he had never seen someone recover so well. I almost scoffed aloud.

It took me a mere month to find Anastasija. She illegally moved to England in the hopes of finding a better life, and it so happened, I held all the promises in my hands. I never allowed myself to feel anything for her. She was a tool, much like my razor, or my computer. I visited her every night and fucked her, no feeling involved other than the absolute need for her to give me a child. She was a stunning woman, unfortunate enough to be born in Russia. She had perfect genes – all I needed for my greatest achievement. She got pregnant within weeks, and had I believed in a God, I would have been so thankful. As it was, I cared for her as much as money permitted. It did a great deal.

When this perfect little girl was born, her blue eyes opened and I like to think they focused on my happy face. I know how sick I am. Anastasija thought I was a proud father. I was, in fact, a proud Creator. This fragile creature, delicate and lovely was, all in all, my hope for a future. I paid the mother of my child in full, kissed her forehead, and had her deported within a month. I never heard of her again.

I adapted to being a father quicker than I expected. I called her ‘Princess’ ever since I laid eyes on her, but in the back of my mind this constant nagging pointed to what I had known all along. My greatest failure was Amanda, the history teacher. This was atonement.

My Amanda was better: she was part of me. I had given her life and I would mould her to become whatever would suit my needs. If you want something done, do it yourself. Very well, I figured. I would do it myself. Here, I would play God to myself, as I was prone to do. I held in my hands the best relationship. If they all rejected me, if life rejected me, if I rejected everything I could have had because it would end in suffering, this could not fail. I would not fail, not ever again. My daughter, the only woman who would give herself to me completely, the only woman who would never refuse to love me the way I needed it.

But first, my daughter needed feeding. She would grow up to be strong, like her Daddy needed her to be.

***

For her entire existence, Amanda knew that the single most important thing in her life was her father. Her mother left after she was born, and despite how much her Daddy hated when she used bad words, she was happy the bitch was away. It meant never having to share the most important man in her life. Sure, he was a bit odd at times. She had found his little corner, as she liked to call it, and even with the strand of hair and the little vial of blood, she couldn’t bring herself to judge. He had taught her better than that.

It was fascinating to delve into the mind of her father. Discreetly, of course, so as not to disrupt whatever thought process he was having. He worked so hard to make her happy and offered her all she needed. In return, she would work twice as hard to make him proud. She could often recall the disappointment on his face. If she broke every last bone in her body it wouldn’t be as painful as sitting there watching his eyes disapprove. She should have known better than to lie to him. It was as simple as skipping a class, but to him it meant the world and by extension, to her too.

When he was away, she would get the red blanket from him and wrap herself in it, rereading his old copy of Sappho. Her fingers would hold on to his fountain pen, whispering the verses.

“Altar or love, crushing / a circle in the soft / smooth flowering glass.”

Occasionally she would bring a yellowed hanky to her nose to sniff it. It always smelled of him, in a deep, almost bodily way. It was crinkled and sometimes crusted. She didn’t think much about it. Amanda understood how important all those objects were to her father and she cherished them. They were always returned to the exact place she found them.

***

I knew the second I chose to give her more freedom that she would break my heart. More freedom meant her growing into her genes and eventually fucking me over. She got herself a boyfriend, a preppy looking boy by the name of Caleb. He came by to pick her up once and I laughed at how young he was. I told myself time and again she would grow bored, she would want something more. She would understand I was what she needed and not some spotty teenager. I had always been petty.

I wanted to strike her the day she came begging for a longer curfew just to go to a party. It wasn’t her staying out late that was killing me; it was the sparkle in her eye, the eagerness to leave me, the way she spoke about the boy. I allowed it, though. As if I could ever deny her anything.

I knew how to play it, though. “I guess I’m just afraid of growing old,” I said dejectedly. “Of you not needing me anymore.”

“Oh, Daddy!” she squealed before jumping in my arms. “Don’t be silly, you’ll always be my favourite man!”

Damn fucking right, Princess.

***

The bus ride, an otherwise mundane activity for Amanda, was rapidly becoming dreadful. There was a distinct tightness in her chest and the knot in her stomach pushed upwards. She wished she had less decorum, so she could simply vomit it out. Along with all the feelings. She fiddled with the earphone wire, not bringing herself to listen to any music. Her Daddy taught her better than to cry and cause a scene. The fickle drizzle kept taunting her. She checked the time again. Soon she would be in her Daddy’s arms and he would know what to do. He would make it all better.

***

The boy wouldn’t leave her alone. Every time she went out with him, I covered my face with a pillow and screamed into it. It was why I had to replace the goldfish five times – it was the closest I got to murdering something. The fucking thing was useless anyway.

Every now and then, as she was growing up, I had someone take care of my needs. Blonde, blue eyes – much like Amanda. It was so hard to wait for my baby to finally grow into the entirety that she would be as a woman.  I used to call one of the whores I knew and wipe my mind, enjoy the treacherous pleasure and eventually come back to who I was: a bastard who loves and was in love with his daughter. The same young woman I had counselled in such a way that she would one day come to me on her own. And for some unknown reason, I was feeling guiltier for cheating on her with this unnamed distraction than I was for loving her in a sick way.

No. There was nothing perverted. Nothing I could do about my daughter would ever be wrong, I adored her too much.

But for those minutes, five or ninety, I was void of her plaguing my mind; not thinking of how obsessively in love I was with her. I was my own man: free, free, free.

She walked in then, all over my freedom, just as I was feasting on this new distraction’s breasts. The nipple was hard between my teeth and I bit harder. The moan that greeted me was unearthly, almost a growl. I allowed myself to do it. I allowed the lie that I was not imagining smaller nipples in my mouth; later I would also allow the sharp razor slicing through my skin to take the guilt away.

Then she walked in and I found myself so imprisoned, shackled by guilt, whipped by the betrayal in her eyes. I found myself in such a whirlwind of pain and remorse that I came in my pants like an untried boy. As soon as the shameful pleasure ran its course I found myself crying, my face buried in the mistake’s breasts.

The emotion was short lived, and running on adrenaline, on the terror that I had lost my daughter, I sorted the woman out and sent her away. If she spoke, if flew over my head. I could feel the stickiness of my own release in my underwear, and it stirred a feeling I had always ignored. It reminded me of how beautiful my daughter was, and it reminded me of how much emotion swam in her eyes.

I found her in the corner I had in the attic, where I had all my landmarks. She was crying in the handkerchief I sometimes used to masturbate. The realisation of how much of a woman my sixteen year old daughter was hit me once more. I approached her, confused about what I wanted more: to cuddle her or to fuck her. I went with the safer option.

“Amanda,” I started, unsure how to continue. Her eyes were red. It stirred me again.

“I’m sorry, dad, I should have knocked. I just… Caleb broke up with me, and I hoped I could get a cuddle.”

She looked up at me and I swear I was getting hard again. “Oh, my poor Princess. Come, I’ll give you a cuddle,” I said and pulled her up to my arms.

I walked us to her room downstairs and laid her on the bed. I sat, trying to give her distance, but more importantly, to give me the distance I needed. The fragility and need in her eyes stirred my penis again.

She pulled me down, next to her and buried her head in my shirt, sobbing. “I was so ready to let him be my everything, Daddy.” The implication made me want to die. She was mine and mine alone.

I kissed her forehead. “There will be other people, not all men are arseholes,” I told her.

“I don’t want any other men,” she whispered and I thought I misheard her. I kissed her tears away, as fatherly as possible. “I’ll be Emma,” she told me, referencing her favourite Jane Austen novel.

I tilted her head back and smiled patiently while looking her in the eye. “I’m sure Emma’s father wouldn’t want to kiss her.”

Her eyes widened and she swallowed audibly. “Daddy?” She paused, searching my face. “You could never hurt me.”

I could break you in so many pieces, girl. I could ruin you. I will ruin you. It was your destiny the moment you came out of your useless mother’s womb. “That’s right,” I assured her and kissed her cheek. She smelled like moisturiser and tears. I was beyond gone with desire.

Her eyes kept on mine, so trustworthy and naive. My cock ached. “Emma’s father wouldn’t…” I started and found myself kissing her.

She bristled. I frowned; all my waiting and my planning for this reaction? I grabbed the back of her head, my other hand descending to her ass. She pulled back, her eyes still open.

“We can’t. Shouldn’t,” she whispered.

I kissed her forehead. “I know, Princess. But you want it,” I pressed. “I won’t hurt you like Caleb did.”

At this point her answer was irrelevant. I kissed her again, more powerful. She relaxed against me and puckered her lips. My hand flew to her breast and she made a sound I couldn’t place.

“I’m going to be your everything,” I whispered, and it wasn’t a request.

Her fingers grabbed my shirt and held on to it. “Promise?”

I smirked. She has finally started to fulfil her destiny. Amanda was going to make history for me, not teach it.

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.