Thomas Stewart: “Cremations”

He places his glass on the shelf and the water is tilted. A sharper, stronger, heavier lull pushes itself against the edge of the cup. He moves across the room, away from the shelf of books and, bending over, pokes at the fire. He watches the flames, they do not dance, nothing dances here, here in this edge on the edge of nowhere, here in this non-garden, non-Eden, here where there is nothing but the titled water and the thousands of books, nothing but the snapping, clanging fire and the whirring laptop with the manuscript staring, a blinking curser, thousands of hackings to the printed pages, crossings, re-workings, paragraphs circled and stabbed at, nothing besides this and Hugo and him.

Hugo laps into the room, slow, methodical steps but hugs into him. He is resistant at first but hugs back and they sit together, staring at the flames.

“What the fuck am I going to do?” he says, playing with Hugo’s ears.

Hugo blinks at the flames; the answer is none of his concern.

The answer is obvious. Write. Write the damn thing and find out how the hell it will function. The answer is inevitable. Stop being a cliché. Stop being this writer who cannot write when you know how to write and what to write but you like being stuck. The answer is there. Right there. The answer is get up from the fire and write. And he does.

By lunch, he’s finished six pages. They’re shit but they’re done.

He makes himself a sandwich and as the bacon crackles in the pan, his phone bursts to life. Ariel. He ignores it. As soon as the phone is quiet, it rings again and again and once more, then it’s a voicemail. He turns the cooker off, he’s lost his appetite and listens.

“Anthony, it’s your sister, you have to talk to me, you can’t ignore me. Mum said you’ve gone to the lakes or something. Is that true? If you don’t answer and tell me I’ll come up there. You can’t run away. Everything is falling apart here. You have to come back. You can’t hide.”

He deletes the messages. Then it’s another.

“Anthony, call me. Stop ignoring me.”

Deletes. Another.

“Anthony, it wasn’t your fault. It was nobody’s fault. Pick up, please. I’m worried about you.”

He hits the delete button and there’s another voicemail waiting. He doesn’t listen to it. He throws his phone down, it clangs against the kitchen counter and he stands there. He slides his fingers through his hair and walks in circles, one hand against his mouth, the other on his head. He paces and Hugo does it with him. He drops down to the floor and lays against the cold concrete as Hugo lays beside him.

He pours himself a glass of wine and tops up Hugo’s water. He sits by the fire, books and papers surrounding him, not wanting or thinking he will write anymore tonight. He plays some music – depressing covers of eighties classics – and guzzles away. His phone bursts to life numerous times – Facebook, Twitter, e-mails, texts, phone calls, all of which he ignores. He doesn’t turn his phone off and he’s not sure why.

“I want to be wanted, Hugo,” he says and gets up to pour himself another glass.

Dressed in his cardigan, he is very much black. His hair is messy, a pair of glasses hang over his nose. He looks out of the window. The sun is dying – everything is dying – a spray of dark blue is coming over the fields and bushes, over the houses and roofs, over the people in their rooms and bedrooms, in their beds and on their landings. Living. Life. Life and going about it and not realising, not knowing the end.

He knows the end to the novel, the end of his characters, he is God and he is in charge, his guilt, his feelings pushed into those pages, hacked away, reformed, handled with his fingers, his touch, mashed up and beaten together. A cake. Put in the oven and watched blossom, bloom, delicious or kept in for too long, trapped, and burnt, turned into a crisp, blackened and horrid, untouchable and uneatable. He drinks his wine.

He picks up his phone and ignores the six new missed calls from Ariel, the one voicemail, the dozens of texts from his mother and sister – “where are you?” “Are you OK?” “We’re worried about you” – and downloads Grindr. As he waits, he drinks and as he drinks he makes sure all of his notifications – Facebook, seventeen messages, Twitter, ten new e-mails – are ignored and deleted. He opens the app and the closest person to him is a man without a face, a mere torso with the header “horny?” He finds it unoriginal, too forward, too immature, too easy.

A flicker of men in the area: selfie faces, pouts and eyeliner, torsos and muscles, arms and cameras, it’s serious people looking for dates, others hiding behind smiling faces but looking for sex, it’s others being obvious and uninteresting and saying things like “are you horny?” “You look like you suck dick well”, “what you up to? Fancy a bit of fun?” Boring. Boring and unoriginal and not interesting him.

It’s a student that he finds, a student that is a few miles away – walking distance – somebody who is here on holiday but his friends are out, somebody who he talks to for an hour before being invited round, somebody who he goes to and uses.

The door is open, as arranged. He walks in.

The house is quiet, empty, dark and when he comes into the living room the student is waiting there, on this sofa, dick in hand, an accidental finding. He stands there watching him, the student looks back. He looks the same as his photos showed – slender, well-built, thick, black hair, young. A nice boy, a kind boy, a boy who wants more but he’s there, in the doorway, staring at him beating off and joins.

They suck. They swallow one another’s dicks and he flips the student around. He fucks him. He spreads his ass cheeks and fucks him. He fucks him and groans and the student groans and he fumbles around for the student’s prick, feels that it’s hard and goes back on the student, harder this time. He fucks him and it’s the slapping of his legs against the student’s ass cheeks. He fucks him and it’s fucking away the worries, the pain, the aching. He fucks away the guilt, the stabbing, the uncertainty. He fucks away the feeling of being left behind and here, in this moment, he is moving. He is moving into the student, out of the student, he is in control. He avoids the mirror, avoids the room, it’s his dick, his ass. He pulls the student’s hair, slaps his ass, pulls the student closer and pushes his tongue past the student’s lips. It’s the student’s mouth and his mouth, it’s everything and nothing. It’s avoidance. It’s grief. It’s the avoidance of grief. He fucks and keeps fucking until he cums inside the student and when he does he drags his nails across his legs, into the crevices, he cums and screams and pushes his head down against his neck and pulls out immediately, he does not linger. He pulls off the condom, wipes the sweat off his forehead and leaves. He walks fast, almost runs. He leaves the room, the building, the house. He leaves and walks and keeps walking until the air is a feeling of mist and the pain comes back again.

His face is on fire. It’s burning. The house is burning down. He’s going to die.

He wakes and when he does he realises he has fallen asleep on the wooden floor. He stands, accidentally stepping on Hugo as he does who stomps upwards and squeals.

“Shit, sorry, Hugo,” he says and rushes to the kitchen to get some water. He feels like he could vomit. He bangs into the empty wine bottles, the third and half-finished one almost falls to the ground. He reaches the sink and sticks his head under the tap. His teeth are heavy, coated in lace. His head throbs. His stomach swirls. He’s going to be sick but he’s not, instead he returns to the living room, back in front of the fire and puts his hood up. He sits with his knees pulled up to his chest, his eyes on the flames and Hugo beside him.

“Sex solves nothing, Hugo,” he says.

He runs the shower and stares at himself in the mirror. He’s naked. His chest is a wet, broken board, the sad tuffs of hair between his nipples barely meeting. His arms are limp, tiny strings joined together in some vague sense of connection. His hair is scrawled, as if an angry child had drawn him at play time. His face, bloated and bruised, he needs to shave. His eyes, heavy and red. He stands in the shower and scrubs and as he does he cries. He screams. And above the sound of the lashing water it is silent.

His phone vibrates. Six new missed calls from Ariel.

“Doesn’t she sleep?” he says.

It’s becoming dark, he hasn’t done any work, and as he sits in front of the fire again, his knees back at his chest, protecting himself, he clicks on a voicemail from last night.

“You think I won’t come but I will. I will come –”

He deletes it.

There’s another.

“Anthony, pick up.”

Deletes.

And the final.

“Anthony, I’m really worried now, I’m worried you’ve done something stupid. Mum and Dad are hysterical, they were going to call the police but I told them not because you sent a message the other day. I lied for you. I know where you are and I know you don’t want to see anyone but, Anthony, please, isolating yourself doesn’t help. Anthony, it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known he was going to die. Nobody knew Gramps was going to die so quickly. Don’t blame yourself, Anthony, you know he wanted you there, you meant the world to him. I miss you. Call me.”

The fire reflects his eyes, the wide, dirty puddles, feet stomping in time, intruding. He stares at the fire and keeps staring until his eyes throb and all he can see, in that wicked red dance, are coffins.

He steps out into the cold and walks, he thinks it will snow or, at the very least, should be snowing. He walks with no particular idea of where he will walk or should be walking, he just does it, one leg in front of the other, Hugo by his side. It’s day but should be dark and the streets are quiet and dead, nobody around.

He goes into the park near the house and lets Hugo off his lead but Hugo doesn’t run, Hugo stays and walks slowly, one foot in front of the other also, next to his owner’s side. Apart from a man and his dog, apart from him and Hugo, there is nobody in the park, there is soon-to-be snow, there is cold, there is silence but there is no-one.

He drops his head down, looks at the ground, then up again and it’s at the park. He thinks about his novel, about the chapter he has planned – the book he has planned – thinks about what everyone has said about it so far, the contradictories, confusions, relays and then it is back to what he always thinks about. Nothing. It is numb. Mind, empty and blank. An empty black box, shake it around, hear a rattle and realise it is a broken part from the inside.

He sees the man on the bench nearby. He is older, maybe late thirties, tall and thin, he’s staring. He’s looking over and then back at his dog and then back again, a coy glance, a coy exchange. He stares back at the man who stands and demands his dog follow him then he walks in his direction. The man wears a tightly fitted coat and gloves. He has a trimmed, black beard and hair with grey strands. He is well-put together, organised, efficient and when he’s done walking – in his brown leather shoes – he sits down next to him and they’re on the bench together, looking at their dogs.

The dogs are nearby and he’s kissing the old man. Up close he can see wrinkles under his eyes, lines on his forehead. He pushes his tongue into the old man’s mouth, closes his eyes, feels it and thinks about dry tongues, flakes of skin, thinks about dead tongues, carpet tongues. The old man takes off his gloves and goes for his belt, he tugs at it again, one more time and it’s loose, it’s open. There’s no time in between the open belt to the old man’s cold hands down at his prick. He gasps and gets hard and the old man smiles.

“Someone’s excited,” the old man says.

He ignores him and goes for the man’s belt, opens it and wonders about old men’s pricks, wonders if they’re different and when he pulls it open, tugs down the boxers, yanks out his cock he sees it’s normal, it’s thick, it’s large – he’s an old man with a large dick.

The old man does the same, except more, he pulls down his trousers so they’re around his ankles. One hand on his prick, one hand on his ass, he knows the old man wants to fuck him, he wouldn’t have a condom, nor lube, he would just lick it – use the saliva – and ram it in. The old man masturbates him and as he stands there, the merge of feelings from pleasure to cold, feelings of being caught and thinking about other things, hot things, things that turn him on, he looks down and sees the old man’s wedding ring.

“Let me rim you,” the old man says and he’s already being spun around and feels the wet, warm feeling of a tongue between his cheeks. He can feel the old man’s hands on his asscheeks and thinks about the wedding ring glistening. The old man uses his other hand and jacks him, tugs on his dick and he wants to hold the old man’s cock, wants something but he’s not allowed, it’s the tongue in and out of his ass, it’s the wedding ringed finger wrapped around his cock, jacking, tugging, going harder and harder and the “cum for me, boy, cum for me,” again and again until he does, until he shoots his load into the trees, against the leaves, onto the blueberries and tugs his trousers up, to walk away.

By the time it’s dark, he’s finished twenty rough pages, and continues. He’s read extracts from books he know will help him – Homes and Carver, Cunningham and Cheever, Smith and Yates. The books are stacked around him, some of them with old train tickets shoved inside, others with the spines broken and packed on top of one another. Old stories and discarded chapters lay in piles around the room, on the floor near the fire, in a nearby chair, against the bookshelves and television. The fire still roars and, as it gets even darker, it’s the only source of light as the computer screen illuminates his face. As he writes, as his fingers bang against the keyboard and time fogs, his phone rings and rings and keeps ringing.

“Fuck!” he yells and gets up.

He walks over to the wall where it sits on the floor and charges. Ariel. The word stabs, dominates, there, there, there. He switches his phone off, pulls out the battery, and returns to work. He writes for an hour feeling that the story makes sense. He forgets. Forgets about the people who read it and had their opinions – “needs to speed up”, “I don’t like the main character”, “I feel this chapter would be stronger”, “this sex scene doesn’t work”, “this sex scene does work”, “I think the speed is great, keep it slow”, “I love the main character, just not her husband”. Comments and opinions. He forgets what is going on – the dead, the feelings of being lost, left behind and unstable. He forgets about thinking.

He writes and it is him and his fingers, his sentences, his words, his world and when he’s done and the steam has disappeared and the world slowly fades, he returns and it is the house, the wine, the broken phone, everything. He lays on the wooden floor and puts his head down, closes his eyes, puts his hands to his hair, he screams.

He gets up and starts pacing, he hits one of the bottles, it falls and shatters. He goes over to the mirror and screams again, sounds echoing in his lungs, rattling and clanging. He wants to smash the mirror, wants to stop seeing himself but looks, looks and screams. Hugo winces and in his rage, in the running of his hands, in the smashing, the screaming, the wanting to throw everything around the room, smash it all up, break it all, he sees himself as Hugo sees him. Angry.

“I’m sorry,” he says and goes down to his knees. “I’m sorry, Hugo.” He hugs the dog and the dog allows him, standing there, not breathing heavily, not licking, just listening.

There’s ink. Ink on his fingers, ink on the papers, ink smudged on his palms, against his wrists, ink on the floor, ink on the sofa, the pen is broken, snapped, destroyed. Ink is blood. Ink is thick. Ink is strong and foul, cruel and unforgiving. Ink. Ink against everything that matters, everything that can matter. Here, ink is the purpose and the meaning, ink is the destroyer, the betrayal, ink does not protect, ink is not loyal. Words. Words scrawled in ink and ink as pools, ink as blots and proof, proof of murder, proof of brutality. Ink is here and ink is going nowhere.

He pokes the fire. It’s nearly eleven o’clock. He thinks about going home.

He thinks maybe that’s enough hiding for now, maybe he has to go back. Face them, see them all, join the grieving party, have the dinners, reminisce, spread the ashes. Home. The word is foreign, fragmented, a tunnel. He sits and gets annoyed with the fire, drops the poker down, it clangs. He knows he is hiding, knows that going about the day, fucking, drinking, writing, sitting with Hugo, smashing things, breaking things, crying into mirrors, avoiding his vision, is hiding. He is hiding. He is hiding behind his novel which is crap and he no longer believes in. Hiding behind the student that has tried to get in contact again but he has ignored because that would be forming an attachment, that would be allowing him to get in, get close – why get close to a volcano? – he is hiding behind the married man with the ugly fingers and the now un-sexy grey strands of hair. He is hiding behind characters he no longer likes or finds interesting, passages that not only need to be re-written but re-thought, re-started, re-abandoned.

And now he is hiding with the fire, watching it, the room somehow darker and emptier, colder almost but him, with the fire in front of him, with the flames on his face, burning him, not caressing, not hands, but burns, slashes of it, he knows he’s alone and hiding and knows it even when there’s a knock at the door.

He ignores it but realises the time and gets up.

Another knock, a powerful knock, a knock unlike other knocks, a knock he recognises and when he opens the door there she is, dressed in her coat, her hair pattering against her forehead, angry. She stares at him and at first there are no words, just her. Her, the older sister. Her, a mother, a daughter, the child he could never be.

“I’m sick of you not answering me,” she says and pushes past him, making sure to hit his shoulder. As she’s there, invading the space, he sees it as she sees it – he smells the smoke of cigarettes he tried, the weight of sweat and heat and alcohol, the fire. “Is this what you’ve been doing?” she says, standing in the living room, his space. She is out of place here, she doesn’t belong, she is red against black, she doesn’t belong in this colour.

“Ariel, please, don’t.”

“No – is this seriously it? You piss off and sit here for days, in a house mum and dad are paying for!”

“How are mum and dad?”

“You would know if you were around. You have to understand, Anthony, this hasn’t only happened to you.”

He stuffs his hands in his cardigan pockets and sighs. “I know.”

She swallows, looks around the room again. “You’ve been working?”

“Yes.”

“Has it come along?”

“No.”

She growls, a distressed sound and puts her hands to her face. She wears a beige coat, the kind men wear when they flash people and her wedding ring glistens. “I’m so frustrated by you, Anthony.”

He blinks.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?”

“What do you want me to say, Ariel? I’m sorry I’m not as perfect as you, OK? I’m sorry I’m not such a dedicated family member.”

“You are though.”

He rolls his eyes and goes back to his lair.

“You came back to see Grandad.”

“Yeah.”

“So you do care.”

“OK.”

He shuffles papers that don’t need to be shuffled, he’s putting page one on top of page two and back again.

“What has coming out here actually accomplished?”

He yells. “Nothing, OK? Nothing.”

“Anthony…”

He scratches his forehead. “What would you have me say, Ariel? What is the appropriate thing to do right now?”

“Speak. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Oh My God, do I have to actually say it? This is ridiculous. You know what happened, you were there and I’m sorry that I couldn’t be around you guys, I couldn’t stay. I’m sorry. I really am. I wish I was stronger. I wish I could stay in that…that fucking doom but I can’t. I can’t do it. I needed to get away. I needed to stop being in a place where I felt so fucking lonely.”

“And you feel less lonely here?”

“No. No, I don’t but it stops me from being there.”

Silence between them, between brother and sister, sister and brother, family.

“You’re selfish,” she says. “You’ve always been selfish.”

It’s an injection. An injection of anger. It’s heavy, in his throat, in his lungs, his chest pounding, a drum, a series of drum drum drums.

“It happened to all of us, Anthony.”

“I was closer to Grandad. I was there when it happened. Don’t make me out to be selfish, Ariel.”

Her face is blank. She is a robot. “But you are.”

“No. No, I’m fucking not. I came back to see him and I missed him by a day – a fucking day – so I had the coma Grandad. I had the dying Grandad. You got to see him, your fucking husband got to see him but I didn’t, I missed him and I was there, I stayed with him, for nights – for nights – I stayed there, I held his hand and I…I was there when he eventually died.”

“And now you run away.”

“Fuck you, Ariel. Just fuck you. You don’t get it. It’s like talking to a fucking wall with you. You don’t get it. You don’t fucking understand me. Get out. Why the fuck are you even here?” He picks up a wine glass and throws it against a wall. “Get the fuck out.”

Ariel doesn’t flinch, she just looks at the broken parts of the wine glass. “You’re right, Anthony, I don’t understand you. Nobody does. Because you don’t let people in. You’re the most lonely person I’ve ever met and I wish I could help you but I can’t.” She looks at the room again, a final sweep. “Clean this fucking place up before you leave. Mum and Dad have enough to deal with.” Her shoes are the sound, the sound against the wooden floor, the soft beats until the door opens – a swinging creek – and it slams shut behind her.

He cries. When he is alone he drops down to his knees and cries. His face is against the wood and he cries an angry cry, a cry that comes from his lungs and out against his mouth where snot dribbles from his nose and tears are poisonous things. He screams and cries a broken kind of cry. Cries for the dead, for the hospital bed, for the feelings, for the ideals, cries for his sister and his family and because he feels so incredibly weak and broken and lost. Cries because there is nothing else to do anymore because no matter how long he looks into the fire it doesn’t help. Cries because he’s angry and his angry brings him to grind his nails against the wood, to sit up and slap away the tears, to smash things.

He smashes glass, kicks the walls, he punches the table, screams and throws it so it makes a loud bang. Belongings that he no longer cares about collide into walls. He throws his phone, rips the charger, breaks the battery. Hugo whimpers. Hugo tries to stop him. Hugo comes near his leg and rubs his fury back. He kicks Hugo.

“Fuck off!” he shouts.

Hugo wheels back but comes again. Stop.

“Leave me the fuck alone.”

He kicks. Kicks harder.

Hugo doesn’t stop, he is the stopper, he is the adult, the person, the referee but he keeps kicking, keeps screaming and as he kicks it comes out as fuck off fuck off fuck off and he kicks, he brings his leg down upon the dog, in the face, against the eyes, at his ears, smashes him, kicks him, screams and spits and the dog is down, the dog doesn’t come back and in the ruin it’s him and the dog where blood isn’t a halo but a splatter and the carnage isn’t a ruin but a mess.

He stands and looks at Hugo whose eyes are half open, half closed, who looks at his owner as his chest rises softly up and down and then no longer does. He stares at the dead dog and looks at his hands and drops down to his knees, cradles the bloody carcase and cries all over again.

He sits in front of the flames, the dead dog by his side.

He is a murderer. Suddenly, randomly, he has done something that has made him a murderer. Evil. He is evil. He murdered his dog and all he can think about is how will he explain it – what will he do? Go home and say what? Lie. He will have to lie. His sister will send him to – what? Doggy prison? He is evil. He is not being serious. He is in Hell. This is Hell. To be evil – what is it to be evil?

He hasn’t slept and cannot sleep. The sun will be rising soon, it’s nearly four in the morning. The large fire still burns, it will always burn, this is Hell, these are flames, this is it. Evil in Hell, where he belongs. He thinks how suddenly people die, how a month ago his Grandfather was alive and now he is dead and he thinks about when he did die and all that happened was nothing. There was nothing. No last words, no holding of hands, there was him and his Grandfather in the sad, white room that smelt of gas and opened windows and bed pans and there was death, suddenly, randomly, like the death of the dog, like the death of people, death. Unplanned, undramatic, death.

But now he has killed his dog. He is drama. He is evil.

He doesn’t look at Hugo, Hugo his friend, possibly his last friend, now he is alone.

The room around him, trashed. His phone broken, his laptop possibly not working, the papers torn and scarred, nothing fixed, nothing together. He puts his hand out and runs it along the wet surface of Hugo. It is time. He gets on his knees and picks up the dog, cradling him before kissing him on the forehead and saying, “I’m sorry,” and placing him on top of the flames. He catches his hand, the fire snaps at him but it doesn’t matter, he is cremating his dog. This is a cremation. He knows it will smell. He knows it’s wrong but he’s cremating his dog because he has to. He watches the fire engulf the fur, fight against the wetness and then coil around and burn through and soon it is sizzling flesh, it is melting fur, it is ugly. It is an ugly kind of non-working. It is an attempt at cremations. It is a failure.

He watches everything until there is not much, not much worth, just the attack of fur and flesh, the amount of a corpse and when he does it is morning. He gets up and stands. The room stinks. It is foul. It is a foul disgusting smell. He walks to the back door, opens it and the morning is grey and cold, he steps out in his cardigan. He is pale, his eyes are red. In his pocket, a cigarette, his last, the last of everything. The smell runs out through the door, down the back lane and he sits on the wooden steps looking at the garden and the lane. He lights the cigarette and sucks in as much tobacco as he can before blowing out the smoke and somewhere in the house he hears a glass smash.

nerd glasses with tape

THOMAS

Thomas Stewart has an MA in Writing from Warwick and a BA in English from South Wales. His work has been featured in The Cadaverine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Stockholm Review of Literature, The Metric, Erotic Review, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His first poetry pamphlet, ‘Creation’ is forthcoming by Red Squirrel Press. He is also a freelance writer and Assistant Editor of Mens Fashion Magazine. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, vintage watches, patterned jumpers, odd knick-knacks, scented candles and has a huge fear of the dark. He can be found on Twitter at ThomasStewart08.

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