by Simon Friel
Joan buried cigarette after cigarette into an old, now certainly cancer ridden coffee cup, and tormented my mind at least two times an hour with the grinding and tearing of the old espresso machine as he got his fix. He moved between the high intensity spot lamp lit disaster of his scorched desk and the kitchen as though bound to an irregular conveyer belt of dissatisfaction. If he fucked up his university project again, the money flowing across from the island was going to be cut off. He had been taunted with the promise of one final payment to cover the cost of the suit that he would need to wear to the job interviews that would follow his final defeat.
I lay on the sofa in the middle world between his fight for a future and the ugly, bubbling stench of the world outside the open balcony door that I now did my utmost to avoid. I bathed in the after burn of Joan’s interrogative bulb and the primary bursts of colour from the almost inaudible murmur of the TV. My eyes followed the fuzzy images on the screen as they bled imperceptibly from one abortion of a program to another. My legs and arms itched constantly from the bug infested, torn brown sofa we had found on the street.
Everything was decomposing.
“Let’s go and drink a beer,” Joan said.
Our street was bathed in the ghoulish pink half-light that signaled the coming of Autumn. With each turning of the earth the day was swallowed more ravenously by the night and dusk settled earlier over the city. But the heat wouldn’t budge and the air was so heavy that you could taste it. Summer had lasted too long. People were tired and moved slowly like drooping, dying flowers. With some steps it felt like you hadn’t moved forward at all and that the world had instead dropped down an inch further into a pit whose face we were losing sight of.
The drunks milling about on the street in front of the bar on the corner. The bald Venezuelan guy who struggled to hire out bicycles. The Pakistanis from the kebab shop. None of the faces of the people in the neighbourhood that I had come to know over the months we had lived here offered smiles or nods of acknowledgment as I passed. They scowled or simply looked away. The exchanges of words amongst these people, which I understood little or nothing of but had once taken delight in guessing at, were now only sharp, threatening sounds of accusation and recrimination.
“Dos,” Joan said to the beer seller who appeared beside us before our backsides had even hit the floor of the MACBA square. The cans he procured were warm and froth erupted over our hands when we opened them. We said “Salud” anyway, locked eyes for a moment so as to avoid the curse of seven years of bad sex, and slumped back against the large black, rock like sculpture that Joan had once told me belonged to an ancient swindler named Sisyphus.
In front of us the smooth granite surface of the square clicked, scratched, and hummed under the pulsing beat of the wheels of the skateboards as they rolled and jumped to and fro through the night. Behind us the long white curves and precise lines of the glass fronted museum were possessed of a weird luminosity borne of the conflict between the high-intensity lights on the inside and the stifling auburn air that enveloped everything on the outside. The sickly sweet smell of Dutch green mingled with the harsher one of tangy Moroccan black. The call of the beer sellers rang out in incessant nonsensical prayer: “Serveisabeer, amigo. Serveisabeer, amigo.” And in the reflection of the museum’s huge glass panes a flamboyant Filipino kid counted his troupe of earnest dancers through their steps. “1,2,3,4. 1,2,3,4.”
“So, she’s lost her voice?” Joan asked.
“I already told you. The Norwegian answered her phone and said Kali couldn’t speak because she’s lost her voice.”
“Fucking bullshit. Stop looking your phone. That’s over.”
I put my phone back in my pocket and smirked at his switch of tactic to tough love as a means to rouse me from what I knew must be for him a weary fight against my listless stupor. I knew very well that the Kali story was over. I wasn’t expecting a message from her, but I was too embarrassed to admit to Joan that after all that had happened, it was Maya who I still hoped for some word from every time I unlocked the screen of my phone.
Kali I’d met a few days earlier. She was the instigator of the meeting. She had taken my number from Josep after I had walked out on her the night we met. At her suggestion we reconvened in the same place of our first encounter for a drink.
I felt uncomfortable in the bar. The circular black leather stool was at the wrong height to lean back against naturally and left my legs dangling in an awkward space of nothingness when I tried to perch myself on top of it. Kali furthered my discomfort with enquiries in the direct Teutonic style about how I was feeling and what it was that had happened to make me so angry. I was in no mood to share with a stranger and returned her enquiries with oblique replies and meditative stares into my beer glass. My refusal to engage didn’t faze her. A look of pitied concern remained a constant on her face.
I hung around only because she looked cuter than the memory I had retrieved of her through the hangover. She was the definition of zest; a very pretty face with dancing blue eyes and flawless pale skin warmed delicately by the sun. I saw her as my antitheses and I wanted to rub some of my muck onto her. I had no great desire for sex or anything else but I knew contact with and the defilement of something as clean and pure as this would bring me back up for air, at least for a while.
She took a call on her mobile while I pondered her debasement in the stagnant white and gold pool at the bottom of my glass. The words she spoke were ugly, fast and foreign. The explanation in English was simple: her friend would be joining us; she had played her get out of jail card and the cavalry was on the way to save her.
My masochistic pride insisted I stay until the friend arrived. When she did, she whispered a hoarse “Hello” in my general direction and then launched into a muted tirade in their speak.
The friend left for the bathroom and I made to make my own move. Kali reached out for my hand as I did. She smiled at me with something different to pity. There was a tenderness in her face that forced me to look away and at the floor.
“It’s not what you might think,” she said. “She’s my flat mate. We live fifty metres from here. She asked to come because her boyfriend has just broken up with her.”
“Whatever,” I forced myself to reply, and walked out without paying for my drink.
I played football later that evening. Bill had invited me to join his team. He was too fat to play, but he fancied himself as an inspirational coach. I scored three goals in the game and kung-fu kicked one of the opposition in the back in an extreme response to a bad tackle. A full-scale brawl ensued. Once things calmed down I was given a red card to go with the smack on the side of my head that one of the other team had got in on me during the melee. Bill was beside himself in the changing room after the match. He thumped me hard on the back and said it had been the most fun he’d had in years.
The game had kicked off late. I missed the last metro and walked five miles to get home.
In the MACBA square a smiling tramp swayed in front of Joan and I. He had very yellow teeth and incredible, turquoise eyes that floundered like misplaced jewels on distant seas of red. He pointed at the cigarette box by Joan’s side.
Joan took two cigarettes from the pack and placed them in the beggar’s shaking hand.
The man’s smile grew bigger and he waved his arms out and up from his sides like a windmill. “Yo soy de la Republica Checa,” he stammered with great pride. He took out the pigeon feather he wore in his hair and offered it lavishly to me.
“Why him?” Joan complained. “I gave you the cigarettes.”
The man screwed up his face and brought one hand up to his mouth like a small child fighting to contain his amusement at what he considers to be a rude joke. He closed his eyes and shook his head quickly.
“No. For him,” the man said. “For him.”
I took the feather from him. It was ugly grey and speckled white. The drone of the skaters continued. “Serveisabeer. Serveisabeer”, chorused in persistent wave. I rested my head back against the black rock. The dancing children jumped in unison to their right. “And… 1,2,3,4. 1,2,3,4.”
“Fuck it,” said Joan, breaking the flow of it all as something deep inside of me reconnected with a feeling that wasn’t all bitter and painful. “Let’s go home and get wasted.”
Joan went to the shop to buy some drink. He paid for things now. Playing Daniel Barry paid my rent and little else.
I had my bed. Joan. The itchy sofa. And the TV. If Joan had become my keeper, TV was my new best friend. If I wasn’t sleeping or pretending to be somebody else, I was watching TV. I didn’t care what was on and I rarely changed the channel from Tele Cinco. The channel that through hours of study I had discovered to be even more commercial and of slightly worse quality than its main rival, Antena 3.
Tele Cinco was a Berlusconi channel. That I would always remember from DC’s rant when he flipped out on the last night that I ever saw him.
My favourite programmes were the news and the Saturday night gossip marathons that I understood one in ten words of. I loved those for the screaming and abject ugliness of everybody involved. At the outset, the array of complete nobodies who had been assembled to talk seriously about gossip and scandal did so earnestly and with some kind of gravitas. A couple of hours into the programme, the vacuous and vicious truth of their beings began to filter through the heavy lights of the studio and they showed themselves to be nothing more than dumb animals fighting desperately to crawl over and above one another to get to the top of the pile they didn’t understand, nor care, was nothing but a mound of human shit.
The news on the other hand was a bright blue world of necessary information. The presenter had salacious lips and splendid cleavage. I don’t know what she felt on the inside, but she had two outward expressions: happy and sad. She used this rich palate in synchronisation with the mood of the story she presented. She sometimes lost track of this complex system and once opened with her most brilliant glossy smile and extended cleavage in close-up on a fast cut from flooding in Central America and the home-video footage of half a village of people being flushed away to certain death.
Tonight she looked sad. The image that followed her desolate face was CCTV footage of a man and woman entering a convenience store. A jump to another camera showed the man and woman on fire on the pavement in front of the store. A passerby and the store owner put them out quickly. The camera cut back to the studio and the correct pretty face of sadness.
“The man died,” she said.
She maintained the same face for the next story. Her cleavage was swollen and magnificent.
We jump to the grainy images from a motorway service camera on a ring road at the edge of the city. A car had broken down at the mouth of a tunnel on a wide bend. The car was stationary on the inside lane with its yellow hazard lights flashing. There was no hard-shoulder and the two people walked on the road in the direction of the camera that filmed them. The mouth of the tunnel lit up with the arrival of a new car. It slammed on its brakes in seeing the empty vehicle blocking its lane. The speed of the collision sent both cars sliding locked together across the two lanes. The men on foot registered their surprise at the noise of the crash but had no time to do anything else before the onrushing blast of metal flicked them like skittles through the air.
“Both men died,” my sad friend confirmed.
I hit the green power button and curled up into a ball on the sofa. A faint sound like that of a cat crying began to impose itself over the white noise that rang in my ears. The sound grew louder and was accompanied by a brittle tapping that seemed to be coming from the front door. I rolled over onto my back and stared up towards the ceiling. I never answered the door.
The tapping persisted and it was clear that the crying wasn’t a cat’s.
I walked to the flat’s entrance and put my eye to the spy-hole. An old woman dressed all in black stood in the stairwell on the other side of the door. She looked slowly to the left and right as though sniffing the change in the air around her. Her hair was pure white and rolled into two tight weaves on each side of her head. She had milky green eyes, grey lips, and taut skin the colour of polished bone.
I stood frozen to the door. She looked directly at the spy-hole and brought her thin white fingers towards it.
“Vecino, vecino,” she cried. Neighbour, neighbour.
I moved back slowly down the hallway. She rapped her nails again against the wood.
I closed the living room door, lay back down on the sofa, and switched on the TV. My old friend smiled enthusiastically as she introduced the sport.
“Grow lemons,” Joan told me as I poured the last of the DYC whisky into my coffee mug and knocked it back in one. I fought off the urge to vomit and fell sideways onto the sofa. I kept one eye open to focus on Joan who stared back at me from his seat on the floor.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked him
“Grow. Lemons,” he repeated.
“Okay,” I agreed, just wanting him to stop. Being on my side hadn’t stemmed the increasing urge to throw up onto the floor.
“Listen to me, Sam, I’m serious. I saw a program last week about a guy who gave up everything and became a lemon farmer in Andalusia. I think he was English because it was dubbed. Anyway, the point is just to grow lemons.”
“How the fuck can that be the point of anything, Joan?”
“It just is, man. It just is. You’ll understand when you think about it.”
The empty bottle of DYC stood undeservedly proud and empty on the table besides a now cold, full pan of spaghetti that had congealed into an uninviting mass of oil filmed waste. I’d lost more weight feeling sorry for myself in the flat with Joan than I had during my sojourn into heroin with Maya. “When you start smoking less, you’ll understand that it isn’t,” I told him. “And we’re out of alcohol.” I didn’t need more alcohol, but it was either that or the unrelenting horror of the TV.
“Sure,” said Joan. “Smoke this instead.” The joint that he threw across the room landed upright in my ear.
I smoked slowly and deliberately, concentrating on the intense crackling bud of fire as it systematically ate away at the white paper and the plant inside. I smiled. The sweet, redemptive wave of oblivion was coming to knock me out.
My phone shivered against my leg as my eyes softly closed. I took it out and unlocked the screen. I clicked to open the message and through bleary eyes read: Kali: We r outside
“What the fuck?”
I threw the phone at Joan and dragged myself up and off the sofa. I dropped down to my hands and knees and crawled through the open door to the edge of the balcony. On the other side of the bars, Kali and another blonde girl stood on the pavement looking up at our building. Kali took out her phone from her bag and their faces lit up in a spooky green hue.
My phone rang in Joan’s confused hands. He looked at me, at the phone, and back at me.
I bounced off the walls in the hallway to get to the bathroom, threw lots of cold water over my face, and looked expectantly into the broken mirror above the sink. An under-nourished, half a bottle of DYC whisky drinking, completely fucking stoned mess looked back at me.
“Fuck’s sake,” I screamed out in desperation, and threw more water at my face.
“Sam,” Joan shouted from the living room. “Grow lemons.”
Joan went down to the street to let in the girls. Experience had taught us that buzzing people in didn’t always mean that they would be brave enough to enter.
As the voices in the stairwell drifted in through the open door I stationed myself in front of the HI-FI on the bookcase in the side-section of the living room. I grabbed a selection of CDs from the shelves, deciding that this was going to be the most evasive and least conspicuous way of having to greet the new arrivals.
The front door slammed shut.
I opened the first CD of my pile.
Primal Scream, empty.
I shuffled to the next one as Joan began to say something into the space he expected to find me, but stopped when he saw I wasn’t there.
Daydream Nation, empty.
“Sam, your friends are here,” he said with a pleasant voice that I had never heard him use before. “Hey,” I mumbled back from my refuge.
I sneaked a look at the crowd of three who had moved through into the centre of the living room and now stood watching me, their inadequate host, in uncomfortable silence. Kali was wearing baggy, black trousers, a loose open necked green shirt, and a thin, sand coloured scarf around her neck.
“Sam, are you okay?” Joan asked with his normal voice.
“Music,” I said, without looking at them.
The Velvet Underground & Nico, mother-fucking empty.
My legs ached from the crouched position I had taken up. Out of the corner of my left eye I noticed something black and solid looking behind me. I rested my hand against the bookcase for balance and shuffled crab-like in the direction of my much needed seat. I let go of the support of the bookcase and relaxed back to the relief of the chair.
The base of my spine thudded against the wooden floor. The solid thump of my head followed close behind. I lay stunned and hurt with my eyes fixed on the far away ceiling.
I turned my head back slowly towards Joan and the girls. A black bin liner that I thought to be my seat clung to the moisture on the left hand side of my face. Joan and the pretty stranger looked at the floor. After a couple of tense seconds they both burst into laughter.
Kali remained silent and sad.
Simon Friel is a Mancunian who currently calls Barcelona home. “Kali” is a chapter from his first novel, Murmur. Other examples of his work can be found in places such as Cherry Bleeds, Underground Voices, 3:AM Magazine, Barcelona Ink, and Ping Pong from the Henry Miller Memorial Library.