Thomas Stewart: O

There’s this thing Facebook does, it offers you a memory. A memory of what you posted the exact same time, exactly a year ago. It reminds you of where you were, what you were doing, how much your life has changed. It happens to me on Monday, ‘Jamie Munro, here’s a memory.’ I’ll offer my name, no others, not here there’s no time for names. What’s in a name? And all that shit. Shakespeare piled up in the attic I crouch in. Shakespeare with spines broken and abused, left over from my Literature Degree days.

Now, I fix clocks for a living. Well, freelance clock fixing. Freelance. Everything is freelance. Part-time. We can’t offer you much. Not Facebook. Not this modern age of technology, the age of social media, how we communicate, how we get our information. Here’s Jamie Munro’s memory, everyone. This is what he was doing a year ago, this is how much has happened.

Facebook has reminded me of the fact that I’m no longer living alone, reminded me of the fact that people are dead and people are dying. There was a scary statistic I read the other day, which was that over seventy per cent of people in the UK will now communicate through social media businesses, maybe that was it, that’s how businesses communicate. Anyway, you get my point. You know what I’m getting at. In short – fuck you, Facebook.

I light myself a cigarette in the dark, cramped attic. This is the attic room I’m renting because I’m so shit poor and my parents now have my sister living with them, no room at the inn. So I rent the cramped, dingy attic which smells of moss and cobwebs. My propped up mattress is in the middle of the room, next to it a lamp with a pile of books and a cup of cold coffee. Dirty clothes are piled in the corner. My small desk is full of papers, clock parts, screwdrivers, my laptop, mugs, candles and cigarette butts. Next to me, the pile of rejected essays I’ve sent out. No success as a critic, why not become a clock fixer? It would make more sense if I was a clock maker but nothing makes sense anymore.

 

O’s already waiting for me when I get to the bench. Secluded, far from everywhere else, covered by trees and a short slant. We discovered this place a few months ago, realising it the best of all the other places we’d met. I got in contact with O when I came back to Landoke, when the first of them had died. I needed something, wanted something to distract, to swallow me up. Now, I meet O at the bench we’ve found and when I get there he’s just finished rolling the joint.

“Good day?” I say.

“Ordinary. You?” O says.

“Dull. I wrote a bit, fixed a clock.”

He laughs, laughs at me, the clock fixing.

I sit down next to him, take off my coat. The sheds of grey rain drop down in front of us, withering off the leaves. When closed in, I’m warm. He hands me the joint.

“Thank you,” I say and light it.

I suck in, hold and blow out, through my nostrils so it swirls and vanishes. I take another drag. “I was reading today that a publisher – I’ve forgotten the name – is only going to publish female writers for a whole year.” I hand him the joint. He’s larger than me, broad and hunches over, his shaved head shaded by the cover.

“Why?” O says.

“For equality. A woman wrote that the statistics of men getting published are more than women and that more male writers are considered for prizes than females. So this publisher has decided to publish only women to sort of balance the scales.”

“That’s stupid,” he says.

“Why?”

“Because that isn’t equality, is it?” He says, twisting his head. “That’s the opposite of equality. That’s…rejecting men because of their gender and allowing women a whole year when we should balance and be more selective of our male writers, you know?”

“Oh, no, I completely agree with you, I was just bringing it up because I read it and now I’m a little stoned.”

I am a little stoned. My hands are trembling and my chest feels both heavy and low. My eyes are heavier. He hands me the joint.

O says, “Do you think our souls live on?”

“Our souls?”

“Yes,” he says.

I shrug, smoke, blow out. “I’m not really sure we have souls. What are souls? Little sprays of grey? Little clouds?”

“No, souls aren’t physical things,” he says.

“What are they?”

“They’re…” He catches his teeth on his lips, tries to concentrate. He takes the joint from me, sucks it in, smoke coming out of his ears and nose like a house on fire, hands it back to me. “They’re parts of our mind, our personalities. Our souls leave our bodies because our bodies are just physical, sort of, keepers.”

“Soul keepers?” I say.

“Yeah,” O says.

“This sounds like a Cassandra Clare novel.”

“Who?”

“She’s this mediocre writer who started off writing Harry Potter fan fiction erotica and then sold a fantasy series about angels and stuff. It’s OK, not my thing.”

“Mediocre?” He says, his voice loud, deep.

“Yes,” I say. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Can you call someone mediocre if you haven’t become one yet?” O says.

“Is that a burn?”

“No. I just mean if you haven’t done that yet are you on their level?”

“Maybe,” I say. “I’m not sure.”

“Can any of us judge?” he says.

“Maybe not,” I say. “But we do.”

 

A’s asking when I’m coming over for dinner. Who knows when the next lot will die? she’s saying. Who knows what I will miss? I say I’ll come Tuesday. It’s Sunday today, that gives me a whole day to avoid. I come up to the attic, stoned, open the window and throw my coat on the floor. I’m hungry and have nothing to eat, the small fridge for snacks has only a packet of Chedders and a can of Fanta and there’s nothing in my cupboards in the kitchen. I hate living with other people. I miss living alone, affording to live alone, working and having money and freedom and now, this.

There are no mirrors in my room.

Mirrors are vulgar. In the corner, my broken Underwood typewriter I keep telling myself I will fix. Broken and unfixed, just like the relationship it came from. I sit at my desk, near the window, light myself a cigarette and scratch my forehead. O, such a peculiar person. O, who I cannot tell you much about. I won’t tell you much about all of them, look out for the novel it’s stacked under my desk, the pages yellowing from the sunlight blots, curling from misuse. I don’t like the novel. The novel is messy and confused and I can’t let go of it. It’s my second novel, the first being rejected categorically by agents but coming ‘close’ they all said. This is the second, this is my second chance and it’s a disaster.

A bee hurls itself at the window. It’s the sound. The loud buzz of its sting that makes me jump, push back, almost fall off my chair like a loser in a Fox drama. The bee is a normal sized bee but hovering, hooked under the window, jolting at the glass outside. I pull on the window, push it out and the bee vanishes into the noise of the chimney-ash life.

 

V phones. V living like a confused princess in a clock tower of coils and stone. Blonde haired V, I imagine sitting in her chair, under her lamp, a book in tow, a joint in between her fingers. Why do we smoke? Why do we all push ash into our lives, V?

“Hey,” I say, I’m sitting on my bed smoking also, smoking and reading Allen Ginsberg, who I know V doesn’t like. Sometimes you have to push past your differences to maintain friendships.

“Are you free?” V says.

“As a bird,” I say.

“I have a problem,” she says.

“Of a disease kind?”

“No,” she says.

“Good,” I say.

“A girl problem,” she says.

“OK,” I say. “Let’s hear it.”

“So I’m going on a date with this lady tomorrow tonight and she’s really cool, she’s an artist, feminist, writes essays, blah, blah – you’d like her – anyway, I just need you to tell me what not to do so I won’t fuck this up.”

“Right,” I say.

“Just, you know, something.”

“OK, I would first get yourself a nice beverage – something light and classy, you don’t want to turn up shit-faced.”

“OK,” she says.

“And, obviously, drink it and relax. Just remember that you’re awesome, you’re intelligent, you’re a very cool individual. Just remember that and be yourself, the worst thing you can do is pretend you’re not you before the relationship has even begun. If it doesn’t work out then you know you didn’t get into a relationship with someone who doesn’t love you for who you are. That’s all we can do.”

“Are you high?”

“Maybe,” I say.

“Stay high,” V says. “Your advice is better.”

“Thank you, I think, maybe, anyway, do you know what I mean though?”

“Yes, you’re right. I know you are.”

“Just relax. Relax. Relax,” I say. “What are you doing?”

“Watching TV and smoking, the life, you?”

“Reading and smoking. I have a question.”

“Go,” V says.

“When will someone hire me so I come and live somewhere else?”

“Something will come along,” she says. “I’ve got my fingers and my toes crossed. Are you sure you want to move right now?”

“Why?” I say.

“Because…”

“No, that’s nothing, that’ll be sorted. Nobody’s going to die this time.”

“OK,” she says.

“I’m right,” I say, “you said I am.”

“OK,” she says.

“You don’t sound very convincing.” I say.

“OK,” she says.

 

Do you know what I dream about when I go to sleep? I dream about ice. I dream about falling through ice, drifting in the cold water, shards in the black. I dream about being swallowed up by that blackness and existing in it to see upwards, the small cracks of ice and light. I know people dream about this too, I know people could consider it a nightmare. I find it soothing. The cold, the water with no gravity, drifting as in space through black and light. I could disappear forever, fall into it and in some of my dreams, in the best of them, I don’t come back.

 

A house has burnt down, at night the family have died, presumably choking on the smoke that falls and clutters its way down the streets as I walk to meet O. Another set of people dead, add them to the piles on the streets. Add them to our mistakes and moments of idiocy. Add them to greed from the men and women upstairs. Add it to their names, their stupidities. I’m escalating, I know.

O isn’t there. I drop my coat and sit down. Today, the sun is coming through the leaves, lighting the pebbles. I take out the cigarettes and papers, put them on the bench. O’s better at me than rolling. It’s Monday and O’s coming from the dentist.

I sit in silence, watching birds and leaves and wind.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says.

“That’s alright.”

“Fucking dentists,” he says.

“Not good news?”

“No, it was fine, I just fucking hate dentists.”

“For anything specific?” I ask.

“No,” O says, “I’ve just decided to hate them, you understand?”

“Totally. That makes total sense.”

“I’ve brought good stuff,” O says.

“Perfect,” I say.

“Stressful day so far?”

“Un-stressful day,” I say. “Everyday is un-stressful with regards to its events, not its demands.”

“You should put that on a postcard. Are you stoned already?”

“No,” I say.

“You sound it,” O says.

“I don’t know if that’s a good thing,” I say.

The joint is rolled. Fast. Faster than I ever could have done. O passes it to me and touches his chest. The lighter snaps, the fire ignites, I smoke.

 

One hand on his chest, the other on the joint. O, like the tin man, reaching, in and out, joints extending, muscles stretching. Bringing the joint to his lips, smoking out.

“What’s wrong with your chest?” I say. I’m curled up on the other side of the bench, leaning against the shelter, the sun sinking now. We exist in a blue.

“My scar,” O says.

“From what?”

“Last year,” he says.

“What about last year?”

“You know,” he says. “What I told you.”

I’ve drawn a blank. I’m a bad person. O and I have an odd relationship, something that has grown into a friendship. We’ve known each other for years, he was the guy who scared the shit out of me in high school and here we are. Facebook. Facebook memories.

“When I was in prison,” he says.

“Oh, shit, yeah. How did that become a scar?”

“A fight,” O says.

I nod. I don’t know how much to pry.

Facebook couldn’t offer that memory, not unless he put it on Facebook. A year ago that slash, that fight or that time in prison? I don’t ask, don’t want to ask. Dregs of information come in the tiny moments, you have to latch onto them.

“Is it hurting?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “It does from time to time, I need to get some cream.”

I smoke, existing in the music of it.

“Big plans for this week?” he says.

“Dinner with my parents,” I say.

“Ouch,” O says. “That sucks.”

“You?”

“The same. It’s always the same, Jamie, we’re all existing at the moment. We’re not living.”

 

I spend the night fixing some of the clocks I’ve been sent, putting them in their boxes, piling them against the wall. It’s dark when I’m finished, nearly one o’clock but I don’t care. That’s what freelance life pays for: the freedom of sleep. Freelance. Ridiculous. I make about £700 a month in total, after taxes, that coming from clock work and the odd copywriting gig I pick up. £400 of that goes on rent, for this shit house. That leaves me £300. £100 goes towards paying back my student loans. £200 to live off. I survive off this and pieces of money my parents send me, using for potatoes or juice, the pauper I am. I fall asleep in a space between sleep and highness, my eyes drooping, my face in the pillows. I fall into the ice-water as I lay on the cobweb stinking ground.

 

Tuesday. I wake around six and shower. None of the other people in the house will be up. I very rarely see them, three are nurses, one is a doctor in training, the other two I haven’t met. I imagine they’re junkies or teachers or both. I shower in the dirty blocked off piece of wall, scrubbing myself with stolen shampoo and body wash. I go back to my room, my nipples hard. I’m freezing. I pull on my boxers and go to shut the window. The bee. The bee is back. It hammers down on the glad. It comes forward, standing in the same spot, buzzing, moving, taunting me. Fuck you. Fuck you, you piece of shit.

I grab my copy of The Smith Journal, twist it up and run at the window. I bring the paper down, hard but the bee moves. I go again, miss. Fuck. The bee leaves. It leaves just as it came, in charge, in order. Fuck you, you piece of shit bee.

I sit down at my desk and want to smoke but know I shouldn’t. Not before dinner. But I have time. I light a joint.  I’ll do it now. I don’t want to be high or smelling of smoke around my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law and my nephew. We’re all painfully straight, my family. I have lots of gay friends much to my sister’s disdain, she, oh Catholic one. My mother once asked me if I was, explaining how completely and utterly fine it would be. I remember a look of disappointment when I told her I wasn’t.

I check my e-mails and see how much work I have due. I suck on the joint, blow out smoke. My hair is still wet, my feet without socks. I’m wearing a t-shirt and a pair of trousers that I should wash, that I won’t wear to dinner. I browse the Internet, go onto short story websites I know publish good stuff. Ever since University, after taking the American Short Story module, I’ve become obsessed with short stories. Fairy tales. American shorts. Gothic Literature. I go onto Storgy, something V told me about, come across a story called Cremations. I read it in one sitting feeling exhausted and claustrophobic and stand up to smoke. It’s interesting, I’m not sure I’d attribute it to be good. It’s harsh, brutal and there’s no hope in it. Or is there? Maybe. I imagine it had been rejected a few times before, the ending is brutal enough. I finish the joint at the window, blowing the shit out to the sky, resembling decaying bedsheets. I sit down again, read Lipstick by Lee Hamblin. It’s quick, as short stories should be, it drums along. I jot down some thoughts, not really sure why, scribbling the lines of ink across the page, understanding with every new line.

 

Our house is a tall piece of brick, standing between other houses made of brick. Our house, A and H’s house. A and H, mum and Dad. My sister and her husband, U and R. Their son, X. The house is depressed, not like it once was and as I walk in, smell the evaporating scent of steak, there isn’t much noise. Mum’s in the kitchen, Dad’s in the living room with X. U and R are outside smoking a cigarette. I say hi to everyone, kiss my mother hello, sit down in the living room with my Dad and X.

X sits next to me. “Uncle Jamie,” he says.

“Yes?” I say.

“Do you live in a tower?”

“Of sorts,” I say.

“Are there dragons?” he says.

He’s five and innocent, loves dragons and Barbie dolls.

“Not enough of them,” I say.

“Can you show me a dragon one day?”

“I’ll make you a deal,” I say.

“OK…”

“I’ll show you a dragon if you can show me a goblin.”

“I’ll find a goblin for you, Uncle Jamie,” he says.

“And I shall find you a dragon,” I say.

“And I’ll find an elf,” my Dad says, not looking away the TV.

 

Mum serves steak served with garlic chips, salad and onion rings. We eat. Everyone attends to X, Mum cutting his chips and chicken nuggets she made for him.

“Mum, Mum, leave it,” I say. “He can cut them himself.”

“I can,” X says.

He hacks away.

“How’s work?” U asks.

“Good,” I say.

“Lots of clocks to fix?” R asks.

“Yes,” I say.

I don’t know why I’m here.

The conversation is dim and silent, more the scrapping of knives and forks, the stare in one another’s eye. The meal is consumed too quick, much quicker than its making. U and R start clearing the plates, thanking my mother who is silent, holding her napkin, staring at the withering candle she’d placed on the table.

 

She’s crying when I stand at her bedroom door and I let her for a bit. Sometimes people just need to cry, need to hammer it out, yell, scream, weep. I knock, she tells me to come in. I stand by the door, a few feet away from her. She’s on the edge of the bed, her eyes pink, her face red and sore.

“What’s going on?” I say.

“What do you mean?” my mother replies.

I look at her.

“We were going to tell you at dinner but we couldn’t really say it.”

“Going to say what?”

She touches her warm face, controls herself. “Your father went for a scan last week. It’s cancer.”

“What kind?”

“Stomach.”

“Is it bad?”

“We don’t know yet, we’re just waiting on the results.”

“Shit,” I say. “Shit, Mum.”

“I know,” she says.

“Are you OK?” I say.

“I don’t know,” she says.

 

He’s standing in the garden, smoking a cigarette, in the near dark, when I come back downstairs. U, R and X are in the living room, I can’t deal with them right now. I don’t know if they know, maybe not, I doubt it. U seems too perky.

I go outside and he doesn’t see me, he’s smoking, alone, the ash and smoke bursting alive in the dark.

“How many do you smoke a day now?” I say.

“Not as many as when you were a kid,” he replies.

I nod. “Look…”

“Your mother told you?” he says.

“Yes,” I say.

He nods, his chin moving in the dark. “We’ll get through it, Jamie. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Are you just lying to me?” I say.

“A little bit,” he says back.

 

Half-black, nothing but a lamp. My room, tarnished. I’m sitting in my chair, sprawled out like I’ve been dropped, a plonked insect, smoking. Drawing my hand to and fro my mouth, thinking, thinking, how much more shit? Thinking, fuck you, fuck everyone. Do you know why I dream of drifting in black water? Because in real life, I feel rage. It wakes me up, fills inside me as water beats beats beats on my head in the shower. It’s because every day, I feel rage and I like it. I like angry me. Angry me yells at train conductors and questions the tax people, you owe us £200. Why? Why do we obey these rules? Who are these people?

I’m wishing I hadn’t gone to dinner, wish I hadn’t left the house today. I hate Tuesdays. I’m in the near darkness smoking and my eyes are getting heavier with the smoke, my lungs are roaring no, stop, but I won’t. I get up, straighten myself, keep the spliff in my mouth and go over to the Underwood typewriter. I have my tools. I’m going to fix this piece of shit. Darkness. Dark in the room, dark on the keys of the typewriter. I grab the lamp, bring it over. The light reflects in the window. The bee.

The bee is back. The bee is buzzing, hovering, back in its space. It has survived me; it’s in charge. I ignore it and get to work on the typewriter. I will fix this. I’m going to finish the goddamn novel on it and fix the problems, I’m going to iron out the shitty characters, the bad dialogue, I’m going to fix it. Fix. Fix it. Fix it. The bee buzzing. The bee zap-zapping against the window. I hammer on the keys, bang my fingers against o o o v v v. I use my screwdriver. The bee is hurling itself at the glass now, banging its head, ass, whatever, again and again against the window. I twist, I curl, I coil the machine together. I sit back, stretch my fingers and hit O.

The bee stops. The room is silent. The letter ‘O’ on the page. I type again.

 

OH

The black mark on the black floor, made visible by the steps of light from the lamp. The black mark, the bee. Lying on the ground. Dead. I cry. I cry because the bee has died. I cry like the boys on the beaches, I cry like all the dead people.

 

O’s not at the bench. It’s dark, I use my torch. I sit, wait. My tears have dried up, my face is a mask. O’s not here; O’s going to be late. I know it. I know when he’s going to be late. Footsteps. There’s a shuffle on the grass, a movement in the dark. O. I’m wrong. He’s hunched, strolling toward me, one hand in his pocket, the other swaying by his side.

“Apologies,” he says.

“No apology needed,” I say.

“You sounded urgent,” O says.

“I fixed my typewriter,” I say.

“Finally?”

“Finally.”

I hand him a cigarette which he uses to crumble into the paper.

“A bee has been stalking me for the past week.”

“A wood pigeon stalked me once,” O says.

“Did it die?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

“How?”

“I shot it.”

“The bee died when I fixed my typewriter,” I say.

“Did you kill it?” O asks.

“No,” I say.

“My story is more interesting,” he says.

“My story is metaphorical,” I say.

“Do people care about metaphor anymore?” O asks.

“I do.”

O rolls the spliff, merging together the tobacco and marijuana. There’s an elegance to his method, the rolling slowly yet with affect. My spliffs look like broken arms.

“What did you do today?” O asks.

“I had dinner with my parents.”

“Verdict?” O says.

“Undetermined,” I say.

“We’re just saying words to one another now.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

I pass him the joint.

The quiet black is what we exist in. The rumble of the quiet, in my head.

“My father has cancer,” I say.

O smokes, the joint glowing in the black, the rattle of ash and fire. “What type?”

“Stomach,” I say.

“I’m sorry,” O says.

“Thank you.”

He passes me the joint. “You need it more than me, my friend.”

I smoke, hard, as hard as I can, so my lungs are screaming. “I didn’t think I’d be this person – the type of person whose father has cancer.”

“What kind of person is that?”

“Broken in some way. It’s the people outside of my small family that I hate.”

“Why?” O asks.

“Because they feed on tragedy. My cousins will post Facebook statuses about their Uncle who will ‘keep fighting’, is ‘strong’ and all the other clichés. Family members will come down. I’m a lot like my father and if I were him right now…I’d fucking hate it. I didn’t think I’d be the type of person who is so angry, every day.” I flick ash into the black grass.

O robs his chest. “When I’m angry, I fight.”

“You fight?”

O looks at me, his head barely turning. “At some place around here, a group of guys get together.”

“Like an actual fight club?”

“It’s not a club,” O says.

“No, I mean, like the book and the film, Fight Club. I’m not going to quote it but you know.”

“I don’t know it,” he says.

“Awful,” I say.

“Anyway,” O says, “as I was saying.”

“Apologies.”

“There’s a few of us, you go, you fight, people make money, you make money.”

“You get money if you win?”

“Indeed,” O says. “And those that bet on you.”

“Jesus Christ, I’d shit myself if I had to do that.”

O takes the joint from me.

“But I can understand,” I say.

“How?” O says.

“I can articulate what you get from it. Adrenaline, an ego boost, a rush.”

“Exactly,” O says. “It’s about the rush. What do you do to get that rush?”

There’s smoke all around us; we’re existing in it.

“I don’t know,” I say.

In the smoke, in the coil of fire and ash, through the blotted-trees, I hear the sound of a bee.

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Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY, Reviewer for EQView and has personal essays published (or forthcoming) in Attitude Magazine, Buzzfeed, What Culture, Buzz Magazine, among others. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from University of South Wales. His fiction and poetry have been featured in Storgy, The Cadaverine, The Stockholm Review, The Metric, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, ‘Creation’ is forthcoming by Red Squirrel Press. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark. He can be found on Twitter at ThomasStewart08.

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