Magdaleno

We both rejected the fortune teller. He said he doesn’t like his destiny determined by anyone; I think it has something to do with his parents expecting a girl and naming him as such. His grandfather was a medicine man. On his death bed, he told me, he asked him if he was gay. He responded that he didn’t think so, and his grandfather said he didn’t mind either way. He just wanted to be sure he had the right kind of relationship with the plants. His role as healer was to be passed over. 

He told me about meanings the Zapotecas assign to numbers and then he had to go. He had been waiting hours for a haircut. At the barbershop he was told they were seeing people in descending order of length. I said that’s hardly fair and he agreed. 

When he was a boy with a shaven head, someone told him that tomato juice helps you grow, so he pulped some and lathered it into his scalp. He became a lightning rod for fireflies. They lit him up like a Christmas tree, and he ran home to tell his mother that she didn’t have to catch them with a net any more. 

Never go to San Christóbal 

I sat watching people, enjoying the end of a day of ephemeral conversations in Spanish, the kind which are friendly and meaningful but never encroach on the pleasure of feeling absolutely alone. He caught me off guard on account of the fact that he read as gay and circumvented all the usual pick-up lines by immediately asking if I wanted to see some art round the corner. 

     I was busy enjoying how it felt to navigate the world in this pleasant alternative self, one which speaks with the vocabulary and therefore naïve rapture of a small child, so I was slow to realise what was actually occurring. 

     He had perched beside me and was giving me a brief history: his heritage is Italian and Spanish but he was born and raised in Mexico City, he volunteered, a confession weighted with some historical justification I wasn’t privy to, which felt unnecessary, and would have been better suited justifying everything he went on to say.

     “I took my savings and I’ve been traveling for a year now. I love nature too but it’s tricky because I need a good internet connection. I trade full time. Cryptocurrency is revolutionary, it’s going to change everything. Everything is digital now, so it makes sense that the economy is.”

     I told him that I put money in DogeCoin and chose to forget about it because taking financial advice from a cartoon billionaire tech entrepreneur you know is rigging the game is just as meaningful a move as taking it seriously, and I don’t know if he thought I was joking or not. 

     Every time I interjected he looked at me blankly and quickly filled the space with a rehearsed line. This dissociating encounter with the lines men bring on dates recalled almost every one I ever had with a man before and I realised he had tricked me into one. He hadn’t established if I was available for one, or if I was this way inclined, and he didn’t seem interested.

     “Anyway I can’t do it forever, I need to invest in doing what I really care about.”

     “And what’s that? Do you want to set up an orphanage?” 

     With no hint of irony he said, “Maybe…maybe cats or dogs though.”

     “I get it, children are a nightmare,” I said.

     Again without irony: “No! If you raise them with the right education they can be wonderful. That’s what I care about — education. Spiritual education anyway. I’ve studied yoga and in this last year I’ve seen the pandemic really accelerate people’s spiritual awakening. They want to get back to nature, they’re realising what’s more important. It’s all part of the revolution happening and I have the tools to help them.”

     I asked him what those tools were and he gave me a flurry of loosely-related fluff-brained pickings from whatever New Age dogma of the day.

     I felt suddenly angry. I didn’t know whether it was because I hated every single thing he said or because he said it all at me and not to me.

     I told him that something isn’t revolutionary just because it is decentralised, that crypto-fanatics will eventually need to account for the fact that its value is just as divorced from labour as any other currency, and that a personal spiritual awakening is just another phase in the life span of a person as disillusioned with material reality as anyone else, only they have the income and self-importance to have their road to transcendence obliviously destroy local economies and ecosystems. 

     He was so busy not listening to me that when I excused myself he said “What a shame, we’re having such a great discussion,” as if I wasn’t speaking in unrestrained contempt, and he still believes we have a date tomorrow. 

This House, A Burial Ground

I’m waiting for a train on the Northern Line which smells like a hundred years of blackened grease. The stench from the Burger King fries is worse. Two tiny mice flicker across the platform like a hallucination, which is why the old man standing dangerously close to the edge is staring so intently into the direction of the void. I think about the first time I did mushrooms. They were Thai, I was told, and bright blue. I chased them with a litre of orange juice because they tasted like shit, and sat at a platform not unlike this one, waiting to come up. I guessed they had kicked in when I watched a tiny underground mouse sprout wings and fly away. The guy must sense this about me because when he turns around, he catches me looking at them too and hobbles over. You see them? Yes, I say, two tiny mice. He grins a gold smile in relief and pats his leathery forehead. In a South London accent, he bellows thank God! I fort I was seein’ fings. 

My first boyfriend and I lived a span of intensities caught between being too young and too old for seven months. I was in Secondary School, he was in Sixth Form. I don’t need to recall the house we spent most of my truancy in; there are photographs of it in news reports and on blogs belonging to amateur detectives and people with morbid sensibilities. We used to joke about the notion of a future excavation of the house yielding a treasury of speed and weed which persistently fell through the cracks between the floorboards. Ultimately it was a body dug up from its foundations.

I was fucking his friend Bobby at the time. I’m not just being vulgar; I believed that dating would involve sex on sheets which would feel good against my skin, free from the fear of interruption by someone’s parents or a CCTV camera or the London Transport Police. But for now, Bobby was an anchor for my getting high; too simple to experience anything cerebral enough to threaten my flight. I just needed a boy to feed me water and make sure I didn’t fall into traffic. I brought him back to our house while my mother was at her boyfriend’s. I had come up suddenly whilst waiting for our train home when I saw the impossible mouse. I didn’t notice Bobby come up; he only had one frequency. He wanted to fuck, but he was a sack of breathing, bulging blue and purple veins, a heaving mass of viscera. I imagined my sinew cartoonishly bubbling against his in pointless collision, and I burst into laughter. There was nothing more absurd than bodies bashing against each other. What were his veins supposed to do with mine? There is a chance he never recovered from the humiliation. 

I met Jake when Bobby took us to a park to pick up some weed. He was a little taller than me with features just as dark, standing in indifference to his poverty or good looks. His big brown Boxer stood by his side, dribbling on the pavement and panting at Bobby whom Jake ignored him as he took his money, staring at me in silence. Bobby was an idiot, but he had money neither of us did, and so without a word, we acknowledged this new triad.

Bobby didn’t need as much weed as he was buying, he was doing it to impress me. Slinging bags to kids was a risky business, and the market was small. I didn’t want Jake to lose a regular customer. I told him this at a bus stop. The Boxer recognised me before Jake did and leapt at me in ill-mannered affection. Jake sat coolly beside me, tempering the dog, his hood hiding his eyes. I crossed my legs, hoping he wouldn’t notice me vibrating for him. When are you going to break up with him? I looked back. He had moved his long fingers close enough to mine to feel his heat, but he had not touched me once. I caught him looking down at my scuffed, salvaged biker boots and my pleated school skirt with the stain I was trying to hide until I could wash it on Friday evening, and flushed with embarrassment until I felt the cold foil on my bare knee. See you next time then. He had left me a Hershey’s bar and skulked off. As he became smaller, I caught sight of the nunchucks protruding from the waistline of his faded jeans, and for the first time since I had been a child, I felt the draw of safety.

The question of cruelty was ambiguous, insofar as Bobby was content to pass out after one too many bong hits, and was a moot point by the time I climbed over his body to roll around with Jake like dogs in heat. There was a point at which we stopped every time: it was exciting and also reassured us we were not bad people. Jake insisted it would be too cruel, with him in the room, besides, he wanted it to be special. Just us. I was liberated of having to find out how far I was willing to go. There was no melodrama; I dragged it out with Bobby long enough to keep us both in a bit of money. When I let the boy down gently, Jake lost his custom, and we articulated our relationship. 

*

Mãe is Mother in Portuguese. I can’t remember her name because that’s all we ever called her. She was taking all the benefit money meant for Jake’s invisible, dying grandmother who spoke no English and couldn’t argue even if she had known. During our entire relationship, I only ever heard her frail groans from the bedroom whose door never opened. She could have been a ghost. Mãe was nothing like a ghost; she was an alcoholic diagnosed with bipolar disorder and made her presence known every minute she was around. When she was on she smoked and laughed with us, showered me with hand-me-downs and kissed me on the cheeks, calling me her daughter-in-law. I noticed Jake let these moods wash over him, disappearing into a corner to draw or play guitar. He was adept at both but would get embarrassed and put down the tools in irritation if anyone praised him, so I learned not to mention it. She would spill glasses of wine, make inappropriate jokes and tussle his hair, all of which he hated. It meant we were free to come and go as we pleased, but the more we came home to this, the more I felt we were heading for a summit, and she was about to crash.

We got locked inside a park one night having taken pills and lost track of time. London light pollution illuminated the rusty iron gate just enough to make it look unsurpassable, and I floated, bemused while Jake nimbly hopped it. He was on the other side, great gothic bars between us, and he slipped his hands through. I placed one muddy biker boot in the palm of his hand, followed by another, quietly overjoyed that stairs were being created for me out of thin air as though I was the faerie queen of 50p pills and cheap cider rendezvouses. I reached the top and looked up at the starless sky, taking a moment to breathe. The shit of our suburb and the sweat of teenage sex dissipated; the trees shivered sounds older than any language, and I began to fly right out of the city and into nameless wind. Then my bulky sole got wedged, and I slipped. Jake caught me but not before a spire ripped right down the back of my thigh. He panicked, but I shook it off; I couldn’t feel much through the ecstasy, and we walked home in meandering lines holding hands. When we got back, Mãe had trashed the living room and there was a pool of blood in my boot. She flapped her arms, flinging cigarette ash everywhere while we explained what had happened to my leg. She grabbed the bottle of vodka within reach, rushed me to the bathroom and poured it over my wound. I felt no pain but from the look on Jake’s face.  

The house had been in gradual decay for weeks of her last relapse. Buds fell between floorboards, bottles and cans accumulated while the cupboards remained bare. Jake and I lived on a diet of drugs, food we stole from supermarkets and fresh bread and milk we took from the crates of early morning deliveries in hours meant to be barren of wandering souls. We discovered Bentley Priory, an ancient reserve of woodland, burial grounds and an artificial lake, and gradually colonised a permanent spot there. Neither of us had space to exist at home. One night the woods were too wet and violent, so we snuck back to the house to sleep and knew it was over. I slipped through the chaos into Jake’s bedroom and tried not to actively listen to what was screamed because I knew Jake would be embarrassed. What I have failed to mention is that the bedroom wasn’t Jake’s alone, which is why we did so much sneaking around committing public indecency. Josh was thirteen or fourteen years old at the time, and he had always been around, only it’s difficult to know how to introduce to a narrative a child whose memory is now replaced for me with the mugshot of a grown man with dead eyes. Honestly, I can’t recall when I first met him; I remember him in parts. I remember him badgering us for speed one evening, and then badgering us for things to do when he had emerged from cleaning the entire house, little hands in marigolds with a frantic grin and excessive energy. I remember him coming into the room where I lay on my side smoking a joint, watching Jake play a horror game, proudly declaring to his big brother that this isn’t how you treat a woman, that I deserved more attention. I remember his bright red cheeks and floppy hair as he stood in the frame of a window down one street and up two floors, in the bedroom of a neighbour by whom Jake had decided it was inappropriate for him to be deflowered. I remember him and his friends joining us and ours in the woods, him dashing into the fire to rescue some dumb wig somebody had thrown into the flames. Some other idiot had hurled a gas canister which exploded at the moment of his rescue, meaning he pirouetted in shock, face painted with smog, mouth agape, eyebrows and lashes totally incinerated, and we all died laughing. I remember putting my arm around him while Jake told their mother to get the hell out of the house, and I remember him disappearing right beside me.

We had to clear out of the Priory regularly to avoid trouble. One morning we woke to an old man snapping pictures of us on a Pentax, shouting about alerting the authorities. Jake crawled out of our tent, groggy, and pulled his boxers down to piss onto fallen leaves, calling him a pervert. We took the long route home that night, in no hurry to get there. Banished from the woods, we were heading home to a very different arrangement. Jake ran ahead down a residential road, his nunchucks in hand. I saw him hop a garden fence and attack a rose bush. When I caught up with him, he presented me with a long, pink rose with teeth all the way down. It was the end of romance; we were going home to Daddy.

*

Their father had been a child star in a series of TV commercials and fairly useless since then. He would come back to fill the void each time Mãe was in rehab or staying at the YMCA. Suddenly there was food in the fridge, and we weren’t supposed to smoke or have sex in the house, although we came back most nights to find him smoking a joint in nothing but woeful cotton briefs in front of bad television. We stood, mostly sober, for a brief inspection and interrogation, before being sent to separate rooms. Jake was sent to Mãe’s, and I was meant to sleep in his, alone. Daddy slept in the living room like a prison guard, waiting to stop Mãe coming home to wreck things, waiting for Josh to return. We had lost him to the wild. When Jake was sure his father was asleep, he snuck back into our room, and we screwed quietly and lovingly. He poured sadness into me, his head buried in my neck. He didn’t even notice the door open. My heart leapt, ready to flip us over and bury us under the covers, but there was no towering patriarch; just a slobbering Boxer looking for attention. He stood panting in the half-light, staring at us coiled like tired animals. I watched him watching us, wondering how long I should tolerate this intrusion.

When I was six years old, I dreamt a pack of wolves breached the walls of our home. With each room we retreated into, we discovered the insufficiency of brick to defend us from the outside. They ate right through it until we were surrounded, huddled in a corner faced by gnarling teeth and indeterminate, irrational violence. 

Jake and I were in a rut, at least as I saw it. There was an oscillation between feral weekends which grew longer and a return to playing house. We would remain in the Priory until either his father or my mother insisted on a semblance of propriety. We feigned domesticity at home and pretended to be wild in the woods. Each weekend that we camped and did ecstasy pushed me inexorably to the schism between myself and what seemed like everyone else. There were things he could only say to me on pills. I didn’t understand why it took the drug to crack him open until he was raw, chasing my soul with his bug-eyes, fingers electric with the intensity of first contact. Our bodies morphed into a third being in the clammy tent, and he held me tight believing he had me. He told me this was it; we found it. I could just touch you forever. But I was somewhere outside of us, and so I reflected his euphoria for him, dutifully, getting comfortable with the sorrow because I knew we were close to the end. 

In the early hours, when everyone else had passed out or dispersed, I stared at his still body in the dark and imagined his eyes were wide open. Utterly still, wide eyes. I froze, thinking he must be dead. I got right up close to his face and had to touch his eyelids. I continued to hallucinate they were wide open, staring vacantly into the dark. He breathed the way he only did when he was out cold. I sat restless and angry that he could so readily leave me with my twitching eyes boring holes through the tarpaulin, beyond our camping spot, into the wild. I slipped my naked body into my coat and took a pack of cigarettes outside. Perched a few feet away by the dying fire, I cut all the filters down on the Superkings and proceeded to chain-smoke my way through agitation. My eyes skated across the lake that at one point never existed to see wolves which almost definitely did not. One at first, just casually stalking foliage on the other side, and then more. One by one indistinguishable branch and matted fur merged to form a pack, and I was oddly still. I thought I should be scared now. Instead, I reached into my coat with the cigarette burning the other hand and delved between my legs to check if I was bleeding. From vague recollections of wildlife documentaries and sexist folklore, I guessed that was the difference between life and death. By six, I had already learned that tarpaulin was not enough to protect me from being devoured by the outside. 

*

Jake left no digital fingerprint, which meant I had no way of contacting him when I saw Josh’s mugshot below a headline about a homicide. Premeditated. Psychopath. Without remorse. Stabbed more than fifteen times. Buried in the back garden; that back garden. I saw photos of that house on my laptop screen and froze. Suddenly its walls were made of paper, or they never existed to begin with. We spent so much of our relationship high, I began to wonder how much of it was hallucinated.

The Priory remains fairly wild land that had been home to Augustinians during the Middle Ages, which means it probably would have had to be cleared of wolves at some point. This I learned when I began researching the place we called home. If I failed to discern Josh slipping away into the wild, who’s to say they really did get all of the wolves? No one else saw them, and I have no way of asking Jake whether or not his eyes were open that night I felt us falling away from each other.

*

Do ya know how I get tuh Stratford? I tell him the way, and he stumbles over and takes a seat beside me. Ahm gonna sit here dya mind? Fanks for tawkin tuh me, I swear I saw them mice an I fort I was losin’ the fuckin’ plot! I tell him about the first time I did mushrooms, about the mouse that took flight. He laughs with his whole belly. Ey this world can make ya mad yeah?

Art by Aykut Aydoğdu

The writer-as-mystic

I think the notion of divine inspiration, and of the mystical artist, is fundamentally a self-curated image which vanguards the arts from everyone who could create. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve wasted time because I don’t believe time is a resource which can be wasted. I have spent my life living and life must be lived in order for anything meaningful to be made, but I resent how much I internalised this myth: that one day, when the time was right, when I had lived enough, knew enough and could be true enough, I would be able to ‘be a writer.’ For this reason, I have discarded more than I have ever written, mostly before I ever wrote it. 

Something changed when I had this dream last summer; it was an image I couldn’t let go. I plotted it as a short story and it got longer. The characters began talking to each other, and then to others; the kind of madness which might otherwise be psychosis unsublimated, which I used to think was another bullshit line people say to support the artist-as-mystic mythology. Then I wouldn’t hear them for weeks and it hurt. I decided the whole thing was a dead-end. I still hadn’t found that fully-formed thing I’ve heard people speak of when they speak of themselves as conduits, like “I didn’t even have to find the story, the story wrote itself through me.” Feeling the compulsion to write as the first and last thing you experience in a day, with no object, is agony. It goes on like this for months. 

I’m watching the news, I’m talking to a friend, I’m in the shower and I make myself implant the characters I abandoned to stasis into scenes. I think less like someone waiting to be a mystic and more like a journalist and then try to behave like a director. I begin to see them in the world around me and their world becomes more real. They begin to talk again and their conversations get bigger; I begin to understand what the mystics say when they say you can walk around in a world you have created. But it’s not a lightning bolt, it’s not a moment of divine clarity. It’s every day and all-consuming, it’s holding one world over the one you’re trying to live in, trying to be present with real people, and every moment of it hurts apart from the brief respites when you look and realise you like what you have made. 

Signs of life

Signs of life are quiet. They are entrances carved into boarded housing, sheets stapled to holes in walls, smoke plumes and small children disappearing into small spaces. This building isn’t squatted, it stands in for those that are. The city is filled with them, squeezed out into the margins so the Acropolis can sit undisturbed. I wonder about the work that must be done to produce holiday brochure images once again for future summers when the city is hollowed out. Come and tan on top of Bunker City.