For the last five years Robbie has been living in exile. He left behind the “old country” and his old life and moved on, severing all connections with the past. When he left the old country, he hoped to re-create himself, but all he really managed to do was dig himself into a rut. He kids himself on that he is some sort of genius, misunderstood artist, but in moments of lucidity, he recognises that he is a drug-addled waster.
Despite these moments, he is content to carry on living as he has. But fate has other plans for him. Enter Catherine
Like so many other nights before, he meets her at a club and takes her home. But Catherine is different from the nameless woman he has casually fucked over the last five years. There is a fire in her eyes that enchants and mystifies him; and despite his (justified) reservations has him chasing after her for more.
It is the beginning of a love which he is extremely reluctant to acknowledge: a love that will torment him because of a past that he has buried.
From the moment that Robbie meets Catherine, he has an intuition that his life is going to be shaken up, but he has no idea how devastating a force his new found love is going to be.
The devastation comes in the shape of his past, which rears up its ugly head and bites him on the arse. As the novel unfolds, in the form of an Internet Journal, we find out exactly why Robbie has run away from his past.
Eventually Robbie realises that the promises of a new life that Catherine has brought will come to naught, if he doesn’t face up to his past. His Internet Journal becomes a sort of cyber confessional booth where he offers up his sins for atonement. Ultimately, though, he has to learn to forgive himself, rather than looking for forgiveness in the eyes of others.
As he goes through this process his salvation appears to be within grasp, but just as he approaches the final stretch his world is shaken asunder. During a night of drug-fuelled passion he gets his (deserved?) come-uppance. A blood vessel bursts in his brain, causing him both pain and devastation.
He loses Catherine and appears destined to live out the rest of his life as an invalid, as a victim of his own foolish urges. Depressed and at times suicidal, Robbie rails against the gods who so nearly delivered him happiness, then pulled the rug out from under his feet. It would seem that only a miracle could save him from living out the rest of his days in a state of debilitating self pity. But miracles don’t happen in these secular times, do they?
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Journal Entry 5: An Unbearable Heaviness Of Being.
Thursday 5th & Friday 6th July 2001.
I’m wired into this machine. Sinking in, as deep as I can go. Headphones on: twisted house music burning through my skull; and the bright white of the screen - too bright, too white - searing my eyes. Fingers run over the keyboard in a rubber rhythm. They’re disembodied. Not mine. Words pop out, like a weird magic. Symbols, sutras, mantras. Loaded words, echoing emptily in the basement. Words like “sunshine”, “city” & “sex”, clanging down the stairwell in a dull metallic discord.
The sky is acid-blue; and the city lurks underneath it, like a slater bug waiting for the rain. Colourless & lifeless. Everything, colourless and lifeless. The city, the music, the computer, me. Everything emptied out. Everything raw, bleached, coke-tainted.
The floor disintegrates beneath me: the carpet fraying to threadbare transparency, floorboards splintering, joists and beams giving way. And down below, empty miles of empty nothing; and here I am, wanting and not wanting to come down to ground; wanting and not wanting to fly away.
My fingers stray towards the stash box: tempted by the promise of chemical salvation; the nirvana of nothing-ness, of oblivion; as if by entering the void I could exorcise these demons.
* * * *
Dreams, fantasies, hopes... the cruelty of them all! Before she arrived, I was buckled down by sweet anticipation. I imagined her arriving, dripping wet (as if the storm were some sort of sexual metaphor). She’d remove her clothes - except for something white and lacy - and I’d dry her hair by the fire. Then we’d make the most excruciatingly tender love imaginable; and later, we’d drink wine and dab coke on each other’s gums; and then in the full glow of the afterglow, I’d paint her, naked, as the most beautiful urban Eve/ Venus/ Aphrodite you’ve ever seen - the sort of painting you only ever see in art history books. And later, in the wee small hours of the star-fading dawn, Stravinsky’s “Firebird” on the stereo, we would stare, delighted, in awe, at the finished masterpiece; and I would proclaim that she was truly my muse, that I had never painted with such inspiration before, that she was the breath of God going through me. Then she would turn to me and tell me that I was the same for her, that I had drawn a poem from her, the like of which she couldn’t believe herself capable of writing; and she would recite it from memory; and I would be moved to tears.
Dreams, fantasies, hopes... the cruelty of them! The way they set your heart alight; and leave it to burn, till there’s nothing left but clinker and cinders. Oh, you know the story. The cliché of the genius couple, inspiring each other to fly the dizzy heights. It’s all Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. A glitter of diamonds littering the golden path, masking the end of suicide and bitter recrimination. Dreams and fantasies and hopes.
Of course, reality always has the last laugh. As soon as I opened the door, I knew this to be self-evident. Her face was a mirror of the thunder. Her eyes were bloodshot: clouded and angry. She dropped her dripping umbrella in the hall and walked into the sitting room, not even a kiss hello. “I’ve had a fucking awful day,” she said, “I need a drink.”
I took her coat and she sat down on the sofa. I pulled a dirty rectangle of mirror out from under the sofa, placed it on the coffee table, gave her my library card, a wrap of coke and a tenner. “Here,” I said, “make yourself useful while I fix us a drink.” A flash in her eyes told me I’d got the tone of voice wrong: that the humour got lost somewhere along the way. I retreated to the kitchen, hoping I could salvage something from what looked like a disastrous evening in the making. As I raked about for champagne, glasses and nibble-bits, I tried to persuade myself that all was not lost.
When I came back through, Catherine was in the process of hoovering up a huge, fat line of coke. She hadn’t even cut one out for me. “Oh that’s just fucking great,” I thought.
And so it went after that. We tanned the champagne and powdered our noses. Then we got down to the sex. And it was just that: sex. I wasn’t really up for it: feeling disconnected and jangled. But she pulled my trousers off anyway. It was almost aggressive. Next thing, she spat in her hand and wanked me till I got an erection. Then she stuck her fingers inside herself, dabbed up a line of coke and coated the head of my dick with the gunk. She smeared the rest of it round the opening of her cunt. Then she climbed on top of me and rode me like a vixen from hell. Her eyes were wild. And when she came, she let out a hideous banshee like scream. I didn’t even come. I don’t think she noticed or cared.
Maybe ten minutes later, she was at me to fuck her again. She got me to fuck her up her arse. This time, she was passive, but she kept urging me, “harder, faster, harder, harder...” and I begun to lose it. “Harder, harder, harder, like you want to hurt me...” I pushed harder and faster; and then eventually the friction did its business and I came; and with the orgasm there was a sort of fury that gave it an intensity. But afterwards, I felt cold and numb. Cold, numb and angry.
Despite that, I still asked her to pose. I got my easel and paper and charcoals and set her up near the fire. The first drawing was okay. Kind of dark. But it didn’t look like her; and it didn’t look like the Eve I had imagined. I tried another drawing, but she kept fidgeting and asking me if I was finished yet; and it turned out even worse than the first. Then she came round to look at it. “Is that what you think I look like?” she asked, “It’s hardly flattering!” And then I just lost it. “That’s coz it’s crap,” I yelled, “it’s crap because I’m crap, because I’m a waste of fucking space.” Then I tore the picture from the easel and ripped it into little shreds.
Next thing I knew, she was calling a taxi and I was trying to persuade her to stay.
After she left, I was strung up and in a mess. I wanted to sleep, but the coke had put paid to that and I didn’t have any valium left. I was fucked. I was going to have to spend the whole night up, with only the sad remains of my brain for company.
It was about three in the morning when she left, and the sky out East was beginning to get light.
By the time the sun poked it’s head above the derelict factory roofs I was ready to top myself. I’d drunk 2 bottles of wine and the remains of a bottle of Buckfast, and I was no nearer sleeping.
* * * *
Down the canal, I thought about just dropping myself in: like a sack of kittens and a cold stone, down into the foetid depths of blackness. But, it was more a thought than an intention. Like I’d kicked back the years and returned to being a spotty, depressed post-punk nobody, with my Joy Division LPs and existential paperbacks. I was completely absorbed: staring into the green, scummy water; and I started going back, back into the never-before time that I erased, all them years ago. Remembering all the pain and confusion. Remembering all the dreams & frustration. Sinking into the murk of a time I thought I’d forgotten. And in the darkness, I saw HER face, clear and sharp as broken glass. She was at peace, smiling serenely: a bright corona in the penumbra of my dismal mind.
I can hardly bear to write her name.
There is a power to it I cannot abide, and I am frightened: frightened she will stir the acid juices in my belly again.
I was in some sort of trance. Completely fucked up after too many days on the bender. I could see her face on the surface of the water: clear, at peace, as beautiful as she was on the day I met her, all those many years ago. Sylvia. A ghost from the past. A ghost I thought I had exorcised. Sylvia, smiling up at me from the scummy canal. Sylvia, smiling and beckoning: calling me to dive in.
And then a voice in my head, warning me.
So, I did what I had to do. I walked fast, the fuck away from the canal, down into the town and up to the shopping precinct.
I got myself lost in the cheap tinsel and tack: got myself distracted, removed from the past.
Late in the afternoon I returned to my flat, with three shopping bags full of junk I don’t need. Exhausted.
Then, finally, I slept.
But I dreamt about Sylvia. I dreamt we were back together again, living in our old flat, in the old city, in the old country. I was lying flat on my back, naked and blindfolded and she was kissing me all over, sending mini-orgasmic tingles up and down my spine. Then she slowly, teasingly went down on me. And just as I was anticipating the blood rush of being enveloped, of being contained, I felt the strangest of sensations. I felt her tongue penetrate me, deep inside. I raised my head, tore off the blindfold; and looking down, saw that I was a woman.
I woke up, drenched in a film of sweat, the blankets tangled round me in a heap. I woke with her name on my lips: feeling small, vulnerable and fragile; exhausted and frightened of falling asleep again.
So, I made myself a strong coffee and, against my better judgement, cut out a stiff line of coke, which set my heart dancing like a voodoo dancer.
Once I felt steady again, I sat down at the computer. I logged onto my Internet Journal and started writing. The feeling of panic didn’t leave me, but it was eased, as I sunk into the texture of words and got lost in weird abstractions.
Sometimes I’d come to a halt entirely. I’d stare blankly at the letters of a word. I’d roll the sound of it round in my head until it would lose all meaning. Even now, as I write this, the word “sex” sounds itself out, like pebbles rattling in a giant shell.
Hours passed. And I was only saved from completely zoning out by the polite little “pling plong” the computer makes to announce the arrival of e-mail.
I knew it would be from Catherine.
It was an apology for the previous night.
“Please call,” she wrote.
So I dropped an E and waited for it to come on. Then I phoned her.
About an hour later I arrived at Catherine’s place: a big, two bed roomed flat in the heart of the cosmopolitan West End, above an over-priced Bistro Bar. It was all polished floorboards, bright coloured walls, up lighters and packed bookshelves, finished off with a tasteful scattering of ethnic artworks. Not at all what I’d expected.
I floated into her sitting room in a bubble of narcotic warmth. Talvin Singh dribbling out of her stereo and the orange rag rolled walls made me imagine Cafe Del Mar and lazy afternoons in Ibiza. Sipping at the malt whisky she poured me made me sleepy, dreamy even. So I was unprepared for the tears; and even less prepared for the story that unfolded afterwards.
Even now - now that I’ve had time to digest the information - I can’t get my head round it. It excites and revolts me, all at the same time. It belongs to the realm of the occult and the absurd; and yet, some would dismiss it as mere coincidence.
After Catherine was all cried out, I put my “not ready for a relationship” speech in the back cupboard. The hugs and the taste of her salt tears on my tongue mellowed me to a soft receptive kitten ball of fluff.
She apologised profusely for her behaviour the previous evening and promised me it was an aberration: that it was because she’d had the day from hell, which all started with the arrival of a letter from John, her ex-fiancée, informing her that he was flying over for the funeral of a mutual friend.
At that very moment, had I had designs on Catherine (or, at least, were I not confused about what my designs were) I’d have been thrown into a panic about the prospective arrival of an ex-fiancée. Instead, I was quite calm; and blissfully unaware that it was the proverbial calm before the storm. As I hugged her to me, with almost paternal affection, I listened as she told me, between sniffles and nose blows, the recklessly unedited story of her and John.
Even edited, I couldn’t hope to write it all down here. It’s a story in itself, with all the dramatic highs and lows of a love that burns itself into the ground and ends in the usual betrayals. However, in this case, it’s a love story with a difference.
The alarm bells should have gone off when I heard it’s setting. She met this John in what I can only refer to as the Old Country (there are reasons I can’t be more specific). Not surprising in itself. The Old Country is a very popular tourist destination. Very romantic, beautiful scenery etc. The folk that live there - those that aren’t shackled by poverty and malnutrition - are generally witty, well-groomed and healthy looking. Some might consider them handsome and charming. Holiday romances aren’t unusual. Especially in my home town, which, it turns out is where John was from.
Now, I’ve never looked back since I left the old place. For all the gothic, olde worlde splendour of the city centre, I’ve nothing but contempt for the place. Most of my life was lived in the less salubrious peripheral estates; and even when I did manage to pull myself up out of the gutter, I did so in a manner I’m not proud of, becoming the sort of person I vowed I’d never become. So even my memory of the more affluent years is tarnished.
Nonetheless, I was more than just curious when the story unravelled further; and it turned out that Catherine had lived, not just in the same city, but in the same suburb as me. You know what they say though? Curiosity killed the cat.
So, I didn’t interrupt Catherine’s story with banal observations about how we were nearly neighbours, and wasn’t it strange that we never bumped into each other over the three years that she lived in my home town? I didn’t even tell her it was my home town. I kept schtum, but I looked at her more closely, wondering if indeed I did remember her from somewhere. If, maybe, that was the reason for the almost supernatural attraction.
I was still musing on this, not really listening with my full attention, as the story of Catherine and John reached its conclusion. So I didn’t really catch the full gist of the relationship’s demise.
However, I was shot back into the present when I heard the name of the other woman. Sylvia.
As soon as I heard the name, I knew it was HER. As common a name as it is in my homeland, I just knew.
Catherine’s John was the guy that went off with my Sylvia.
My head started spinning horrendously. And I think I must have taken a total whitey. Next thing I knew, Catherine was saying, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” and she was stroking my hair, with an almost frantic look in her eyes.
I didn’t know it at that very moment, but I was crying. That is, the tears were quite literally pouring out of my eyes. Tears. Nothing else, until Catherine pulled me to her chest and embraced me hot and tight. Then the sobs followed. Shaking me deep down. Like every insult and hurt I’d ever experienced was coming out in spasms.
I don’t know how long I was like that. It could have been ten minutes, or even twenty. Who knows? I’ve never cried like that. A few whimpering pathetic tears on an acid comedown, maybe, but not a full blown bursting of the river banks. It was cataclysmic rather than cathartic; and after it was over, I felt utterly spent.
I’d always envied women their ability to cry: imagining that giving free reign to their emotions was somehow cleansing. It never crossed my mind that they might feel sullied afterwards.
That’s how I felt. Dirty and flat. I could hardly look Catherine in the eye. Whilst at the same time, she couldn’t stop herself from looking at me. Like she’d never seen a grown man cry; and maybe she hadn’t.
I knew she was looking for an explanation; and that an attempt to pass it off as being the result of too many drugs wouldn’t suffice. However, feeling completely flattened, I hadn’t the imagination to dream up an alternative lie, so I told her the truth.
Next thing I know, Catherine is rummaging in a cupboard. She pulls out a photo album and leafs through the pages. Then she points out a photograph. And there it is, Catherine, John, Sylvia and a few others I don’t recognise, flashing cheesy grins at the camera. Underneath, written in biro, “Jean and Mark’s wedding reception, June 1994.” Not a coincidence then, the names. I guess I couldn’t have hoped it would be.
So, there we were, Catherine and me, staring, unbelieving, at what would normally be a fairly uninteresting photograph. Both of us gripping onto the photo album, like it was a life raft: suddenly unable to deny the stormy sea raging all around us.
I thought about staying. I thought that maybe if we made love and slept in each other’s arms that night, maybe the morning would feel like a safer place. But I couldn’t stay. I felt sexless, empty and completely confused. I excused myself in a fairly inexcusable way. Took a taxi back to mine. Then I remembered, to my horror, that I didn’t have any valium left. So, I rooted round every hidey hole I have in the place. Found just about every pharmaceutical you could imagine, but next to fuck all in downers. All I came up with was a fusty looking jelly, a sleeping pill and a red and blue number of dubious origin. I downed them with a bottle of Buckfast; and eventually drowsed off in my armchair, to the mindless babble of the television.
* * * *
I’m sitting here in this office, looking through the plate glass at the city out the window. Finger shafts of sun are pouring through the clouds and everything seems so tranquil. I’m numb still from last night: numb and blown away; and today just does not seem real.
I hardly know you, in truth, but in my heart, I feel I know you better than my head tells me is possible.
I’m not surprised by these synchronicities, although I am in awe of them. They are a constant in my life. As if I were a seventh child of a seventh child. Others believe I am “touched”. Most of the time, I feel blessed.
I know you are not the type that would immediately believe what I believe, but I feel, deep down in my heart, that you are a kindred spirit and that you know, if you will admit it to yourself, that we have a special connection. Even without the bizarre “coincidences” we talked about last night, I feel there is something very powerful between us; and I am sure that you feel the same.
Ever since I met you I’ve been having strange experiences. In your bed, that first night, I dreamt that you and John had morphed into one person. The dream was so real I was totally freaked. Hence my disappearing act. Walking to the bus stop, I heard someone call your name, but there was no-one around. Three times this has happened; and each time, nobody else there. I’ve even seen your face staring at me out of the clouds.
I don’t want to freak you out any more than you must already be, but I know there is more to you and me than what on the surface appear to be the facts.
It’s a week since I met you. That’s all. It feels like so much more.
I’m experienced enough now in the ways of life to know that this confession is enough to send most men running scared. My head tells me to tear this letter up straight away. My heart tells me you are not like most men.
If I am wrong (and I confess I often am), I will compound my errors now by including a poem. I wrote it the morning after we first slept together. It’s a first draft, so don’t judge it too unkindly. I’m sending you it, because it told me things I didn’t know; and it seems more than appropriate now.
When you opened me, it was redness you found:
A redness so sweet and annihilating
You’d have thought yourself to be lost
On the dark strand of a foreign shore,
Far from the singular land of your home.
There can be no safe haven now,
No sweat meats falling like flowers from heaven:
The kiss that made us one again
Wished up a symphony of iron and fire,
A love-lust forged of loneliness and desire.
When I laid myself down like the sacrificial lamb,
You did not see these leonine claws,
Nor did you sense that saviour God
Who could lead you out of my den,
Back to the comfort of your homeland again.
So will you go then, when you hear this song?
Will you leave me, spent and tossed to the wind,
Restless, rootless and footloose again?
* * * *
I found the note tacked to my door when I got back from Jimmy’s Fantastic Kingdom, a 20 pack of valium and a bag of skunk in my pocket. Something to help me sleep the rest of my life away.
Reading her note, sent me into a turmoil again. Instead of wanting to go down, I suddenly wanted to soar. So, like a stupid fucker, I dropped another E and sank a can of Red Bull.
I sat myself down and tried to write my Internet Journal. Attempting to sort this all out in my head; and failing.
I wrote until I’d exhausted myself. Then, despite the uppers, I felt myself slipping off into sleep.
So I went back to bed; and there I was assailed by a tangled confusion of nightmares. All of them about Sylvia and John. In most of them, Sylvia became Catherine.
As it is, I’m too fucked now to write down the dreams in detail. I’m sure they’re important, sure that they reveal the twisted knot of my psyche. Maybe even, I could untangle the knot. But not now. I’ve just skinned up a giant spliff. I’m going to smoke it down to the roach; and top it off with a couple of valium.
I’m going to get out of my face. I’m going to drop myself down into the well of dreamless sleep where, hopefully, I’ll drown.
It’s all too much.
I think I love her. I think I loved her the moment we met.