Between the two Christmases, we spent most of our time at Dima the Tatar’s house. We had begun using the Orthodox calendar to find excuses for parties, having exhausted our Gregorian options. It was comprised of two conjoined houses, two staircases back-to-back, splaying out into long corridors and sudden attics. There was a hole in the roof over one of the stairwells and the little ballroom was full of dead leaves. Dima lived alone there with his space heater, mourning the fact he was now too old to be a musical prodigy.
We were accustomed to checking in and checking out of the continuous party as we chose. Work is only miming in midwinter anyway. Frequently, guests would become lost and fall asleep in out-of-the-way rooms. Dima would grumble to himself, though he didn’t send them home. Martini glasses gungy with our lipstick would still be there days later, when clean or clean-ish drinking vessels were needed. The house belonged to family friends in Uzbekistan, but Dima came from Kazakhstan or maybe it was the other way around. We had asked so many times and then forgotten that we couldn’t ask him anymore.
It was crisp and dark inside the house and out. We had brought large quantities of candles. As bottles multiplied, the house slowly became illuminated, at least until the next draft came through. Dima wandered round in his patterned dressing gown, anxiously checking on his guests. Even Dima would sometimes become disorientated and put his head back round the door, thinking he was looking into a different room. He’d recently discovered some of the doorknobs had been made by Lalique and was now convinced a particularly cultured thief might know this too and take them. We were becoming convinced that the guests we didn’t know were the same guests who had been in the background of most of the parties we had ever been to. Perhaps we were always in the background of theirs.
One evening more or less midway through this period, we were all sitting about waiting for the party to begin, although we were part of it. Dima was footling with the piano. We thought he might be playing Glinka. We had become fractious, for we could no longer be certain what in the small hours had been said or merely thought. What we’d done to one another or merely dreamed of doing.
René had just arrived, coat burnished with frost. He began to take it off, before realising that would be worse than pointless. The space heater was older than we were and moving it would probably break it.
‘I had a brilliant idea last night and now it’s gone again. I can feel all around its outline like it’s a missing tooth, but I can’t remember it.’ He was holding his notebook and running his thumb along to move the pages in the way you’d flick a pack of cards.
Luke was going through the carrier bags René had put down and distributing wine. He was in one of his gaunt phases and had likely been going for days.
‘You just need more inspiration, then it won’t matter what you’ve lost.’
‘I need a glass of that, I brought it’
‘Do you remember the thought process before you got to the idea? That usually helps me.’ Alexa, without Pavel for once, was curled up on the good chair. The rest of us had arranged ourselves on old mattresses and all-weather beanbags liberated from a beer garden nearby.
‘I was high as balls, so no.’
‘The solution to that is more drugs.’ Carly was sitting at Alexa’s feet, reapplying her lipstick. The only reflective surface to be found that still reflected much was the kitchen knife we used to rack up lines.
‘What? I’m convinced there are thoughts and memories I can only access when I’m in a similar state to the one where I made them.’
Luke said ‘That’s creepy, having thoughts and not knowing you’ve had them. I’m pretty sure I just don’t think past a certain point’
‘They’re still in there somewhere, but you couldn’t be aware of all your thoughts all the time, you’d go mad.’ Alexa’s parents had come through London, bearing many much-missed treats. She tore the cellophane off the black and gold cigarettes which had become all of our favourites. ‘Think of this house, no single person could inhabit all of it at once’
Dima put his elegant pianist’s hands together in a gesture of prayer. She threw a cigarette at him and it bounced off his steepled fingers, rolling away. Luke snatched that one up and lit it before Dima could, so she threw him another. He closed the lid and proceeded to ash into a jam jar that had been resting on top of the piano.
Carly asked ‘Isn’t that what artists do? Parcel themselves out to be in lots of places at once?
Alexa turned to Dima ‘What was the old story about Koshchei?’
‘He hid his heart in seven pieces.’
‘Wasn’t that Voldemort?’ Carly raised an eyebrow
René laughed ‘Where do you think she got it? Everything’s been done.’
‘How would you know? You’re a foetus.’
‘Stop trying to make me do opium with you, Luke. It’s just shit heroin.’
‘Well, going a bit mad would probably help you’ Luke’s pupils were very large, especially in the low light.
Alexa, needling Dima as her price for the cigarettes, said ‘He’ll do it with you. You wish it was the nineteenth century, don’t you Dimochka?’
‘да, очень хотелось бы пережить Крымскую войну’
Luke ignored them and carried on, ‘I just think you should try everything… since you’re having trouble painting men, maybe you should sleep with one.’
René choked on his wine a bit, then tore a page out of the notebook to blot his mouth.
Carly stretched out her hand against the candles, and examined the way they transformed her skin into rosy windows between the metacarpals.
‘Why should I put myself through something I know I won’t enjoy?’
‘But you can’t know, that’s the point’
‘I have an imagination.’
Dima chimed in ‘My penis is beyond your imagination.’
This time Alexa threw the lighter at his head and said, almost without judgement, ‘How very male to believe that not only can every experience be yours, but that you would emerge unchanged and unhurt by any of them.’
Carly slipped the bindle back into her shirt. ‘I can either go find the rest of the party or I can find out how it feels to murder somebody.’ She picked up her satchel and left the room. As her tread grew quieter down the hallway, we looked round at each other and waited for someone else to speak first.
René turned to Luke ‘What was that?
‘It was just a joke, I was being Devil’s advocate’
‘You were being a massive git. You should go and find her and say sorry’
‘Isn’t that Alexa’s job?’
‘We aren’t sleeping together any longer. It just sort of stopped happening.’
‘Guys, this is getting boring. Someone go find her.’ Dima hadn’t moved from the piano, but had made it look so like any of the other pieces of furniture he habitually sprawled over that we’d forgotten he was still sitting at it.
All of us looked pointedly at Luke. He was waxy with exhaustion, but went anyway. This having been resolved, we moved on to pleasanter pastimes. After finding a dead bird in the grate towards the end of summer, we’d realised the chimneys were not blocked after all. Alexa was busily tearing up back issues of the LRB to start a fire. Dima found old furniture online that was free if he would take it away. He chopped it apart in the little courtyard out back, then dragged it up to languish in the corner of the ballroom. For someone who spent most of his life doing very little, he was surprisingly strong. René ran saliva-dampened fingers over the residue left on the knife and listened to Dima and Alexa murmur on about Ukraine. The rest of us were emerging from our testudinal self-burial, scrabbling towards the warmth and shucking off our dirty coats. The flames were lively, burning orange, then green when they caught onto pamphlets and brochures hidden among the pages, bifurcating and reuniting and consuming everything that came into contact with them. We began chucking in ticket stubs and balled up receipts, the detritus of the dying year. None of us would have noticed if René slipped out.
|Luke huffed his way along the corridor and tried to find the switch. It had a mildewy brocade trim around it that was peeling off. Nothing happened.
He decided to chance it and hoped there would be nothing unexpected on his downward path. The left-hand staircase seemed slightly less uninviting. A ray of moonlight drooped down into the stairwell from the jagged hole above.
He was so tired it occurred to him he might just pass out and tumble down all however-many flights. That might be more restful. He wanted to vomit. Buffeted by uppers and smoothed by downers, it remained to be seen which of these forces would win out. When was the last time he’d slept?
Carly needed to get a grip, it could hardly be the first time someone had suggested to her she might try an experience common to half the human race. More even.
He and René often joked that the only reason they didn’t sleep together was they couldn’t agree who’d be bottom first. If they did ever go for it, it should clearly be René, he was smaller and more feminine than Luke, with more ambiguous tastes. Having reached the ground floor, he heard a creak that suggested someone far above was coming down this way too.
Luke was sure Carly couldn’t have gone too far ahead of him, maybe that was her coming down the stairs right now, though the tread was a bit too heavy for it to be her. He hoped she would calm down and even give him some of her coke.
He’d run through the bulk order far quicker than intended and helped himself to more than his share. It had already been cut with a lot of crap, he couldn’t dilute it any further, the Russians knew their powders.
This had been how he was going to pay off his credit cards. João was getting increasingly unfriendly as it became clear Luke wouldn’t be able give him the second half of the money. He should never have kept it so close to hand. He’d been ignoring João’s calls.
He rested at the foot of stair case, with his back to the wall. The shooting pains had returned. He’d been advised to straighten his back out when he felt them, but this made it worse. There was a bronchial feeling as well as a spine feeling, like his lungs were clinging to the back of his ribcage.
Luke could just about make out the shape of someone a little shorter than him descending in the grey darkness.
‘Who is it?’
No reply, but the shape kept getting nearer.
‘Carly? Is that you? I’m sorry, let’s sit down and talk about it.’
He could hear breathing now, it was definitely a man.
Still nothing but the slow heavy tread down towards him.
Suddenly he remembered João had delivered here. Could he have come in through the back? Could it be one of the small men who sat in the back of João’s big white Jeep as it careened round London, grunting and playing on their phones? Small men were always the angriest.
He legged it.
Round the corner, round another corner, down two flights, into one of the old drawing rooms and through. Fuck, should he lead this guy away from his friends or was there strength in numbers?
Keep wheezing, keep going. He really wasn’t fit enough for this. Can’t go out into the street, they’ll be empty at this time of year and more men might be waiting in a car. Fuckfuckfuck.
He burst into a bathroom, thinking to barricade himself inside and call Dima. Light and shrieking and shiny flesh. Apparently, Sita and Didi were having a bath together, both drinking champagne out of separate bottles. More shrieking, lots of bubbles. No time to look. He made for the next door into one of the back bedrooms. That should distract his pursuer for a bit.
Luke kept on going anyway, racing upwards now, three steps at a time. Could he lock him in a cupboard somehow, or force him to a standoff? Would anyone miss this guy if he fell off the roof? He could still hear footsteps behind him, and outraged cries of “Luuuuuke” from both the girls.
Luke ducked behind a door and watched the figure running past him. They had circled back into a less dark part of the house and silhouetted against the moonlight he could clearly see that it had a knife and an erection.
Luke eased out his phone to call Dima – the battery was on 3%. The guy must have seen the glow in his peripheral vision, came back thundering the other way.
Luke panicked, pulled the door to, then felt him ram the door with his shoulder. The wood was rotten and Luke doubted it would hold. He rammed it again and Luke heard a crack. If the crack got big enough, he might try to stab him through the door. The guy rammed it another time and as he drew back to go again, Luke yanked the door open and slammed it into the guy’s face as he fell past where the door should have been. It definitely connected, but Luke kept on running. No time to tell if he was concussed or merely stunned when the fucker had a knife.
He could taste blood, wrung out of his overtired lungs with the effort of running.
Maybe he should lie down and let it happen. He would never be better, there would always be a João after him. It wasn’t even that he particularly liked them anymore, but nothing was as effective as drugs. They annihilated time: no memory of the past, no fear for the future. It would be so much easier just to let it happen. But whatever it was was really going to hurt.
Luke kept running, forcing open doors now as he went, hoping to find something to fight back with. An old chair leg would do.
He could hear the other guy gaining on him, tread shaking the floorboards under Luke’s feet as he got closer, but there was a light on here and the sound of voices, he thought they were coming from the third door on the left.
|Carly was feeling better now. She had plunged right, into the dark of the house like it was deep water, shocking herself with the cold. At first she’d been making her way to one of the other rooms where there would be idiot friends to commiserate with her about her other idiot friends. The music seemed to get more distant as she moved towards it. She turned and tried to retrace her steps, went down one flight and up another, then came upon a little room she must have missed. Light was edging out from underneath the door. This must be one of the rooms in which some lights still worked.
She pushed it open and saw a divan, with a spineless volume of Swinburne lying face down on the floor beside it. The walls were covered with cloth hangings. It was hard to see in the low light, but they seemed to have patterns on them like vines, flowers, fruit and birds. She started tapping out meditative lines from the bindle onto the back of the book. Hopefully Alexa would find her soon, and they could talk it out. These hangings kept out the worst of the cold, and there was even a blanket scrumpled up behind the divan. She got on well enough with Pavel, but it was becoming difficult that she wanted a parallel relationship with Alexa, not to be part of a unit. The blanket smelled of damp but at least it wasn’t sticky. Had Dima never been in here?
For a moment, Carly didn’t notice René standing in the doorway. She looked up at him and started laughing.
‘Where did you find those? Don’t tell me Dima has a whole room of prosthetics’
Baffled, René looked down, as if checking his legs were still there. He mashed his palms against his chest in confusion. Panicking now, he pulled up his t-shirt to find out what had happened.
‘Alright, alright luv, get them out fer the lads’
Carly had put the coke down now and was making her way over
‘They’re so realistic. How have you got them to stay on like that?’
Without thinking, René tried to back away from Carly’s finger, but it was too late. She prodded him in the nipple and it visibly hardened.
‘What on earth…’
René turned round and with the door still open, undid his fly with his back to Livia. He gazed down, expecting confirmation that the change was complete but appalled to find it nonetheless. Shyly buttoned back his jeans and turned again. Carly caught his chin in the hand and turned his face in the light.
‘I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you make a very handsome woman.’
‘I… I started feeling weird on the way here, but I thought I was just feverish. All those endless flights of stairs, I started getting dizzy…’
René was making spluttering noises and grasping at his newly generous chest.
Carly had a squeeze. They were definitely breasts.
‘Just go with it and enjoy yourself. You might prefer being a woman.’
René sat on the edge of the divan, shoulders hunched, as if trying to hide himself.
‘Cheer up. Nobody’s going to oppress you in here. Have a line.’
René did as instructed. He put a finger over his left nostril and sniffed hard to make sure it had all gone in. After a minute’s silence, he sat up and ran his fingers through his chin-length ginger hair.
‘At least I’m among friends. Imagine if this had happened somewhere else, like a locker room.’
‘Or a job interview’
‘Or an airport.’
‘Do you want to go find people and tell them?’
‘Not really, who knows how long this will last.’
Carly smiled slightly, felt a hard look enter her eyes. She pulled him to her by the collar of his t-shirt.
‘Are you sure you can’t get coke dick in your current condition?’
By way of answer, René removed his jeans, prepared to climb over on top of Carly. She already had her shirt half-off. She caught him by the shoulders and whirled him round so he was the supine one.
‘Let me show you how it is.’
She put her mouth on his neck, moving up behind the ear, alternating between hard and soft, felt his legs spasm involuntarily as she slid her hand over the ribcage along the underside of his breast. Before he could reach up to pull off the rest of her shirt, she slid out of it, pressed herself against him to him to keep him warm. She was kissing the new hollows in his hips now, tracing her tongue along them and laughing to herself at how he writhed.
She didn’t stop. He was staring at the hanging on the ceiling. Tulips intertwined with little crescent moons. She left him a grace period, waiting until he looked like he’d regained the ability to think.
‘I told you it wasn’t all bad.’
‘Is it always like that?’
‘When the other girl knows what she’s doing.’
He gathered her in and kissed her hard and slowly. She could taste what she supposed must be him, familiar-unfamiliar. Carly wrapped her legs around him, stroked his back like he was a horse that had won its race.
‘How would you feel if I took you out for dinner?’ Carly wrinkled a nostril, winced, remembering it was raw from coke.
‘You really have turned into a woman. I make you come once and you’re picking wedding china.’
‘Carly, you know and I know this has been a long time coming.’
No. It hasn’t. I could hardly have predicted you would show up female.’
‘You wanted me as well. You said I’m the person you have all your imaginary conversations with.’ He reached across the divan for the coke and licked his finger, breasts swinging out as he moved. He was really very pretty, mouth newly bowed and tendrils of dampened red hair escaping from behind his ears.
‘Are you sure nothing prompted this transformation? It isn’t something you’ve wanted for a while?’
René paused, fiddled with the newly loose strap of his watch. She could see he was considering lying, then remembering how well they knew each other. He said in a small, defeated voice ‘no.’
‘So this doesn’t feel more natural for you?’ She ran her index from his collarbone to mid-thigh.
‘It feels great.’
‘You’re avoiding the question.’
‘Yes, I would like my body back. My male body. I can’t believe you’re so hung up on this, it shouldn’t matter.’
‘If you really want it back, it will probably come back. And it does matter, the fact you think it doesn’t proves just how little you understand.’
René was lying on his side, but back in the hunched position. The balls of his feet were cold circles against the tops of her knees. Carly curled around him, pressing her breasts into his shoulder blades and insinuating her arm under his neck. She couldn’t believe she had to keep explaining this.
‘I’m sorry, ok? I do sort of love you, but I can’t. I can’t pick up your socks and be introduced as René’s girlfriend and commiserate with other women about how awful their boyfriends are. I don’t want to be acceptable again.’
‘You won’t be “picking up my socks”, I’m probably tidier than you are.’ He still gulped as though he had an Adam’s apple.
Carly could hear shouting from a long way off inside the house. She wondered if someone had broken another glass.
‘Let’s just enjoy this while we can. If you still look like this this time next year, I’ll take you out for dinner.’
He rolled over, nestled in closer to Carly, tucking his head under her chin and breathed in deeply. She stroked his hair and readied herself to disappoint him.
The door burst open and Luke half-ran, half-fell in through it. She sprang out of bed, not caring she was naked, about to give Luke the telling off of a lifetime. She couldn’t allow him to think she’d proved his point. For a moment, Carly was sure she could see René right behind him. She turned back confused to Renée on the divan, but no one was there.
‘Who’ve you got in here, then? She had great tits. Is she hiding behind the bed?’
Carly lifted up the hangings, found only peeling walls behind them.
‘What were you running from? Did you manage to piss Alexa off as well?’
Carly and Luke came back to us, hand in hand. We were pleased they’d made up. We couldn’t understand why they were so horrified to find René sitting quietly, scribbling in his notebook.
Leon Craig was shortlisted for the 2016 White Review Prize. She won a Young Writer’s Award from theshortstory.co.uk She has had stories published on Litro.co.uk, in Oxford’s Notes, Flight Journal and Next Review. Leon’s work is forthcoming on Queen Mob’s Teahouse and in The Frankenstein Anthology
Her short immersive play Ermine/ Stoat was put on at Babel Studios Southwark.
Leon has performed at Polari/ LGBTQ History Month, Swimmers, At The Inkwell, Queercircle, That’s What She Said and the Moth. This summer she will be presenting Brainchild Festival Short Story Hour and performing at L Fest.
If you enjoyed Raw Pork and Opium, leave a comment and let Leon know.
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