Two days ago I stepped on a slug by accident late at night and killed it, smushed it down into a stain. I didn’t even see the poor guy standing there.
It was a horrible thing – me, in the dark and the rain, in a low mood and tired of the day-to-day, now with shoes to clean before the morning. That came first. And then sudden a fear, apocalyptic fear the doctors mentioned before. This omen meant something very real in the very real world. But I followed age-old instructions, put it to the back of my mind and chained it up there, hexed the chains too, set booby traps. ‘Sit!’ I said to the thought. Like my dogs, it sat.
Tonight, coming out of Nandos, walking with my friends through the rain (I think, for the hundredth time in ten years, there is more rain in England than any other place), I almost screamed at the dozens of slugs on the path. I could sense the meaning of this sign, this fuck you from the slugs, we know what you did this summer. It was a vigil and a warning call and battle cry all at once. Vengeance, blood. Avoiding them reminded me of that game we used to play as kids where the floor was lava but the pillows we laid down on the floor were safe. The floor-pillows of empty space on the car park ground were smaller than an infant’s hand. I navigated fine, I think, but I can’t be sure. The rain was so heavy, puddles so deep, that my shoes were soaked clean, slugless, by the time we got back to my car.
The drive home, while they all laughed and reminisced about times I could barely remember anyway, I considered mortality. I considered the home that, after four detours dropping off friend after friend, I would have no choice but to return to. How many things had died there, not just pets and foreign creatures? The slug, yes. But our first dog, many years ago. So many fish, unfed on family holidays, and no one mourned them. Two birds I found once, a foot apart, lying on the bricked patio behind the house. They looked the most sad. A rabbit ripped apart by a fox in the dead of night. Four chickens, all killed brutally, one beheaded and one stomped to death, looked the most wronged. My great aunt, who passed hopefully comfortably into sleep while visiting with us one Christmas. Some young girl whose name I never learnt, crushed by her own flipped car on our driveway while we were out for a family friend’s barbecue.
But most of all the slug, because I had killed it, because the other slugs had felt the disruption to their joint life force in a way that humans couldn’t, for better or worse. Better, probably, or else I think we would all be constantly raging and grieving at once, overwhelmed by how widely we could feel our own pain, each other’s.
Friends said goodbye one by one as they were supposed to, leaving my car. Unintentional, these final farewells. Forgive them, etiquette, they know not what they do. Because I had not told them, foremost, because the disturbing mob of slugs meant nothing to them, who had not committed a mostly innocent murder the night before. So of course none of them asked why I was silent. Just one of his funny moods, I guess, they would say to each other next time they met, without me. And the next time. And then: have you seen him lately? And then nothing. I had seen it before – with Dan and Beth and a girl we barely knew who spoke less than I did. They called her Chatty Hattie, and then they called her nothing at all.
At home, in the same place where the slain slug still congealed in a stain – outside the outhouse that we kept our dogs in at night – a new thing had appeared, at first mistaken for a dog turd. The dogs steered clear of it, whining, walking carefully around it. I could see its feelers moving – it could sense. The dead thing was a son or lover. The father-lover was looking for me, for the killer of something it loved, could smell the juices still on the sole of my shoe because the smell of death does not leave for them. King Slug wanted me to pay for what I had done. So I rushed the dogs into their outhouse, latched the door and ran, through the rain and back up to the house, to the guest bedroom where I was staying, and though I tried to open a book I couldn’t muster it.
Lying in the dark quite quiet for some time. Listening to my breath. Expecting to hear the front door open. I put ‘Stars’ by Nina Simone on repeat to fill the silence. I lay there like that the night, thinking about dead slugs, thinking about murderous giant spiders and floods of spiders coming in through windows and out of taps and up drainpipes, and about an arm with no skin but red flesh draped out of a smashed, overturned car, and about black paint that coats a baby’s face and grows out of his scalp, that replaces pacifier and rattle, that elicits a silent scream, the most painful expression of terror ever made by a nineteen month old baby. Thinking about fathers stealing love from their children, thinking about children made homeless forever by unlove, and those children when they run out of front doors with none of the things that they want or need, the way that some still now are running, and always will be, out of doors, never carrying anything, never running anywhere, just away. I am them, I am running. Running through the door and into the cold, away from angry slugs and friends, hurting in my body, a bruise on my head and worst, most painful, most shameful, warm tears on my face. Running from horror to horror. Running to my mother. Running to love and a future, full of horror, love, both. Running either way, anyway.
The next morning, old things packed into an old car, back to a flat in the City. I stayed there for two weeks, not going outside or seeing friends or eating much. The man I lived with brought food and drink often, took hold of hand and just sat beside. After those two weeks, when the lease was up, moving to a new place.
That year I did not go back to my family’s home for Christmas, or any year since. My brothers and sisters visit me, and my parents too, at my new flat or new house, depending on the year because who can afford to buy a house now? We stay in the city because there are fewer spiders, even fewer slugs. But I do not go back there, to the scene of my crime, and I can tell, whenever we talk about it, that the man I live with is happy, because even though the horrors are still dormant in me, rearing disfigured heads on special occasions, he does not have to see them wreaking havoc unchecked, running circles around me in my eyes when I’m in far away places. So I do not go back, but go on. Running.
I am back from work, early by quite a few hours. When I look into the window I am expecting to see my boyfriend fucking some other man on our pristine couch.
He is crouched by the leftmost bookshelf, the one mostly taken up with his record collection – not the one that is filled, every available inch, with books.
Next to the couch, a heavy tome on the coffee table that I recognise well, a copy of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt which he has said he will read, time and again, tomorrow, or else this week, or else soon or sometimes when I have some free time not taken up with taking care of you.
He doesn’t mean it – I don’t think he means it.
I notice a vase of flowers on the countertop – proof, then, of his infidelity. But no, next to them a box of tissues, of which we had run out, and across on the other counter, boxes of my favourite biscuits, our pasta jars refilled – a run to the shop, a bouquet gifted from himself to himself, or maybe to the room. He likes giving gifts to anyone, to anything.
He is still stooped – squatting, actually, on thick legs – by the records, browsing. For what is he looking? A record for fucking? For raging? For cleaning?
I don’t recognise the album he picks. The cover is mostly white, save for a purple square in the middle. I think I see a woman’s face, maybe some men or some dogs surrounding her, unholy orgy. He takes the record out of its sleeve, the thick black vinyl sliding so effortlessly as if it loved him, as if it wanted him the way I do late at night when he sits working, when he lies thinking, when he lies. It yields and is ready to keep yielding, its weight and its sounds. Melodies, memories. Every single thing it contains is held in his fingertips, weapon-like, love-like.
He lays the record down. I see his stiff hunched back, and the needle to his right lifting, and the table turning for its namesake. Something – a deft hand, a simple mechanism, the force of gravity – drops the needle to the record. I can’t hear the music outside, not for the cars going past, the trees rustling in wind, but it fills the room with sounds which are there and not there, simultaneously. Schrödinger. If a tree falls in the kitchen and no one is inside to hear it…
I can see his body loosen, shoulders drop. I see him sway, his fingers click, his feet tapping, stepping unstepped circles around the room with a grace that he only has at night, in the dark, and only on nights when he isn’t courting a black mood or some danger, the top of a cliff-like joy which can only lead one way, down and back to that black.
I do not know this man who dances around my living room and into the kitchen, who jazzes his way to the fridge for a can of pop, who jives and/or grooves back into the lounge, to our pristine sofa, to my boyfriend’s copy of The Goldfinch. He is so like my boyfriend, in that he has the same face, same flowing limbs, same paunch and dark clothing. But he smiles contentedly alone and dances.
What magic has descended here? What godly wrath or alien invention has transported the bitter man that I love to some far away place, and left this smiling doppelgänger in his stead? A change that I cannot perceive.
The man who is at once my boyfriend and not my boyfriend turns the pages of his book with a speed which I have not seen him read in so long. I am rooted, watching the twin speakers on the long table move slightly sometimes, seeing sounds, while the record continues its rotation.
Maybe it’s a forceful gust of wind that brought this changeling in, that started so much movement in the former stillness, former silence.
My boyfriend continues to lie on our white couch, continues to turn the off-white pages of his cumbersome book. He is making good progress, so quickly. As if he is desperate in his reading, as if something in the act demands his life. Yet his face shows no urgency or panic. His lips move to sound out words that I cannot hear, singing along to songs I do not know.
He looks up suddenly and I think, impossibly, that he has seen me in my guilty act, that I have broken the spell. Book on the table, feet on the floor, hand on the needle. The record goes up, flips – Side B – down; the needle follows; his hand goes up, dramatic dance gesture nearly pantomime. He is not performing for an audience.
This private moment is beautiful. I should not be here. I do not leave.
He lies again, stretched out, languid lover lounging, and reads more of Tartt’s novel. I hear it’s a masterpiece. He said that so many times. Now, I would always imagine it just inches away from the Mona Lisa, hanging, like its namesake commanding just as many visitors. It could not be understood, only appreciated.
He enjoys the book more than he enjoys lying with me, late at night in winter, more than he enjoys fucking me, late at night in winter, more than he enjoys crying when he thinks I am asleep, late at night in winter, spring, summer, autumn. Not as much as he enjoys writhing sometimes – rarely – when he is unsure where on the cliff he stands, if he stands, agonising unknown horrors.
A better man would attempt to understand or intervene, not just now but then, when he cried, when he appeared, obliviously, in a passive terror like the subject of an 80s slasher. It’s your own mind. Mask down, killer revealed. Behead it, shoot it in the head, journey into your own head and defeat it there in your dreams. Use all the old tricks, all that old magic. Witched.
It is no character who lies on that couch – a pure person, living that moment estranged from a perilous mind. He is.
And for choosing the part of the voyeur, I am not. In the role I stole, claws and sabotage and all, I cannot be. I watch a single-sided tennis match with no idea who will win, because I don’t understand the rules or know the players. I should have listened.
His feet go back and forth, his head too. The book is open next to him; he, like a karaoke queen, belts out the current silent tune, closing his eyes and making an impassioned fist in the air. I would give him the GRAMMY.
I imagine turning away then, from the flat, and coming back not for some time, not until he called and said he had finished The Goldfinch and listened to all of his records and wanted me to come back, to share more in his limited love. I can see the smile on his face which keeps on lasting until, with half a heart, he misses me the way you might miss your old teachers when you’re free from school.
I imagine knocking the front door, sending reverberations through the air in waves which, when they reach his lovely elven ears, tug at his lips and replace his smile, mute the music in his bones. I imagine he puts The Goldfinch down for another year, lifts the needle from his record and sighs. I imagine he comes to the front door to let me in, and greets me partly with a smile, but also with a weary fear, a why are you back so soon, and also with an invisible veil of black that only he sees, mourning the early death of his afternoon, of his reading, of his music.
I stay at the window longer, watching him turning the pages, shoulders still swaying to music. I should not be here. I do not leave.