Alby Stone: Stained

Copyright © 2013 Alby Stone

Crack, smack; speed, weed. The rhymes of escape trip so easily from your tongue. Yet you haven’t gone anywhere but where you already were. The poetry of oblivion is recited to the discordant accompaniment of broken bells and an insane church choir. You do it all the time, self-medicating to appease the demons within. You are twenty-five years old and as cracked as those bells that ring out crazily as you meander home, slouching past a church, early on a Sunday morning after another too-long Saturday night. And the drugs are wearing off as they always do.

The church congregation, numb with God and dazzled by the Christ-Child’s light, pray and sing. They are blind to your shaking limbs and deaf to the self-recrimination echoing in your head. Their belief brings you no solace. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Blessed are they that mourn for they will be comforted. Suffer little children to come unto me. Who will take this cup from me?

You’re alive, still alive, still thinking and feeling too much for your thin soul to bear. They continue to praise the Most High as you, the lowest of the low, pass by with your head bowed and go back to the place you would like to call home.

The other guys are all in bed when you stumble across the threshold, snoring and dreaming. This house you share is only a refuge when they are asleep or are elsewhere. Then they cannot see you or the stain you carry. If they knew they would despise you. You say to yourself that it’s lucky they are ignorant of what you did, what you didn’t do. But that doesn’t make you feel safe from judgement. You will never be that, not ever again. You stand before the harshest judge of all. You are your own Nemesis.

You urinate and wash your face and hands. Maybe you should eat something? But no, that was for someone else, the person you once were, the man you used to be. You undress, not noticing how cold it is, and slip into your bed. The curtains are drawn against the world; you pull up the duvet against the room. You close your eyes against yourself. None of that works. Still shivering, you tell yourself a story about a time that once was but is now past. As usual you change a detail here, do something different there. You make it all better, the way it should have been. You almost forget the reality, and that allows you to drift into a light slumber. Then you awaken and it’s still there.

*

Staggering into an alley, you are unshaven and dirty, stinking of old sweat and unlaundered clothing. You sway as you piss against a wall, urine splashing over your shoes. But there’s still too much inside you so you bend at the waist, put one hand against the mossy brickwork and spew the last of your stomach’s contents onto a pile of ripped plastic refuse sacks. It isn’t enough. There’s something lodged inside you that refuses to come out. You’re dimly aware that you’ll feel much better when you’re rid of it so you retch and heave until your throat is raw and your guts ache as badly as your head. There’s a sharp pain in your thorax and for a second you wonder if you’ve broken a rib.

You suck in air, shuddering with every inhalation, feeling so ill that you wish each lungful was your last. You are forty-three years old, unemployed and going nowhere except downhill. At least you’re showing some urgency about that. The place you would like to call home is a small room in your sister’s house. She was the only one who would take you in, the only one who took pity. You can’t go back there in this state, not with the kids there. You’ve done that once too often and it would be the last straw. It’s not even as if you can stand to look at the bloody kids, but you don’t want to upset your sister.

Resting your back against the wall you stare into the shadows, seeing that darkness for what it is, a reflection of what is within. You slide down the wall until your buttocks touch the ground. There are tears in your eyes. They’re never far away but on nights like this they always come. Even though you never think of it, what brings them is always there and it is always felt.

*

Rolling a joint in the park and passing round a quart of Blackthorn’s Natural Dry cider – a warm, sunny day, just you and the boys, relaxing in the sunshine and talking about music, football and books. Seventeen years old and glowing with dope and apple effervescence. Later you’ll go to see a band, drink some more, smoke some more. Everything’s fine.

You carry a small notebook with you, and a ballpoint pen. It’s nothing pretentious. The others never see you write anything down. They don’t even know you have the notebook in your pocket. You want to be a musician someday and you have these things with you so you can jot down ideas for tunes and lyrics before they evaporate with the booze and weed. Last week you took some acid and it showed you astonishing things, opening places in your mind you hadn’t dreamed existed. That gave you plenty of inspiration, though little of it made sense. Too profound, you’d thought after the drug had worn off; too bloody mind-blowing. Maybe you’d try it again one day, maybe not.

Some girls who look about your age walk past your little group, pantomiming lack of interest in you boys, through that exaggerated coolness that signals the exact opposite. There are three of them, all pretty. But you’re not all that interested in them right now. You’re stoned, the cider is taking hold, and you have other things planned. You want to get some more songs started, perhaps even get a band together. There’ll be plenty of time for girls.

One of your friends calls out to the girls, something he thinks is extremely witty but almost certainly isn’t. To your surprise the girls turn and approach your group. As they get closer you realise they’re at least four years younger than you, far too young. Affecting bravado, you offer them the cider bottle. One of them takes it, has a tiny drink, wipes the neck and gives it back to you. She laughs, a sweet little trill like a happy bird, and they walk away. The blonde one who took the bottle from you looks back and smiles directly into your eyes.

*

She’s older now, but still very young. You are twenty-one years old and scared. You care about her but at that moment you are not sure how much. Could you spend your life with her? Right now she is the place you would like to call home but could you make that commitment when you’re still little more than a boy and when there are so many things you want to do? You’re scared but she is terrified, a girl in big trouble. Now she looks even younger than her seventeen years. Her eyes are locked on yours, pleading for you to say the right thing. You wonder what the right thing is. You have a lot of words in your head. Do you have the right ones for this?

She remembered you from that afternoon in the park. A little over six months ago, you caught sight of her across a crowded concert hall and liked what you saw. You thought she looked vaguely familiar but you saw so many people around the town, at this party or that concert, that you thought nothing of it. When you asked her if she’d like a drink she smiled and said she would like cider, just like the last one you’d given her. That’s when you realised who she was.

Now, you are sitting on a park bench trying desperately to come to terms with what she just told you. You are dumb with shock and all you can do is shake your head. No, that’s not what you want. She’s funny and good-natured and kind, and you care about her so much. But this is a terrible complication. That isn’t what you want your life to be. It’s too soon for that, years too soon. She says something else and you finally find a few words for her, and though in your confusion you immediately forget what you’ve said you know they are stupid, hurtful words. It isn’t what she wants to hear. It isn’t what anyone in her position would want to hear. She speaks again but you look away. You can’t deal with it. You’re too afraid, beginning to panic. She starts to cry and you want so much to put your arms round her and tell her that you’re sorry; but that would only delay resolution of this catastrophe. She stands and walks away, sobbing and inconsolable. This time she does not look back.

*

A month later there is a small photograph on an inside page of the local newspaper, and a couple of paragraphs of text you read once but cannot understand when you try a second time. The words blur, shift and twist into incomprehensible symbols. But it’s too late. You already know what they say, what it means. The words have dissolved into a corrosive vapour that etches their meaning into your soul.

It’s too late for her, too. She’s gone and nothing can be done to change that. The second thoughts you’ve been having, the approaching change of heart, have no value to the dead. You’d stopped dreaming of one future and were contemplating another, a future filled with a different kind of wonder. Once again, it is too late. Now all your dreams are ashes. A fistful of pills and a bottle of vodka have derailed your whole life and taken hers. One life ruined, one life extinguished, one life snuffed out before it had even begun. And it was your fault. You were responsible for this. You put one thing you wanted before something you now understand you wanted more. And it is too late.

It is too late, too, to undo that unspeakable act of cowardice that followed, the thing that drove you from any home you might have had. You told no one. You did not share your grief, nor did you reach out to her mother and father. Your friends were left in the dark as you, too scared to tell anyone what had happened – what you had done – fell apart. You could not even dignify her death by grieving openly. Too ashamed and guilty to talk about it, too terrified of what people might think of you to own up, you kept it all inside and said nothing. You need not have shouldered that burden alone. Shoulder the burden? You did not even do that. No, you crawled into a bottle and whenever that failed, as it always did, you crept into another or anaesthetised yourself with narcotics. It wiped away the songs and turned your fingers into dead things that refused to form chords on the fretboard, but it could not cleanse you of that indelible stain.

*

You have washed and dressed in your cleanest clothes. It has been exactly twelve weeks since you last had a drink or took any kind of drug. You are forty-five years old and although the tremors have passed you feel so desperately tired and weak. You stand by a door, straining to find the courage to ring the bell. When you do it is almost a surprise, as if your index finger reached out of its own volition to press that button.

The woman who opens the door is much older than you remember, but you realise you haven’t seen her for twenty-five years. She must be over sixty now. Another surprise – she recognises you and greets you with a smile. She invites you in. You walk across the threshold like a robot summoned by an unseen electronic signal. Her husband is there, sitting at a pine dining table, watching television. It is only one in the afternoon. His face is lined and empty. His wife tells him who you are. He nods and tells you to sit. You settle uneasily into a straight-backed chair at the table. The room is comfortable and lived-in. Looking around, you think this would be a nice place to call home.

She says how lovely it is to see you after so long, disarmingly telling you that you look well. She asks if you would like tea or coffee. What you want is brandy or whisky or vodka but you ask for coffee, white with one sugar. She leaves the room. You and the man look at each other axross the table. You wonder what you are going to say. He is wondering the same thing.

So what are you going to say? That you broke up with their daughter when she told you she was pregnant? That you had selfishly rejected your own child and its mother, the girl you loved, because it would have clashed with your precious ambitions? That when she died you abandoned her parents to their grief because you were guilty and ashamed? That you were too much of a coward to admit your own grief to anyone? That their daughter died because of you? That you are constantly haunted by that dead girl you let down so badly?

The woman comes into the room with a tray of coffee and biscuits. She smiles at you as puts it down on the dining table. She smiles at you and it reminds you of that first time you met her daughter. They have the same smile. It injects itself into your heart like sweet venom and the pain brings home the enormity of the confession you are about to make. What are you going to say to her? How can you tell her?

You open your mouth and pray for the right words, knowing before you start that they will never come and that this visit is one more futile gesture in a depressingly long list. Before you can speak, her husband unexpectedly stretches a hand holding a blue cardboard packet, offering you a cigarette. Reflexively, you go to take one but as you reach across the table your arm brushes too hard against the cup and it tips over. Coffee cascades onto the table and spills over the edge, soaking into your unusually clean white shirt. Before anyone else can move, she rises and rushes into the kitchen, returning with a damp cloth before the gasp of pain has even finished its passage between your lips. She dabs at the shirt, shaking her head and apologising for your clumsiness, in the way that older people sometimes do when they want to reassure people.

Oh dear, she says, fussing ineffectually at the brown spillage. It’s such a pity, but it’s no use. That stain will never come out.

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