It was me, Rory and Aurora, back then they lived in a flat smack up against the tracks. Crawling back and forth between their living room and bedroom was like taking the train, Rory had punched a big angry hole in the wall one day while Aurora was at church, like the tunnel on that train line. Well, one day Rory said he didn’t love Aurora anymore, and looked at me with eyes I think I’d call turned around, I mean they were looking as much into his own brain as at me, and seeking affirmation both places. I said why and didn’t feel like talking about it when she wasn’t home, and in a way I was their child, so how was I supposed to talk to him about it anyway? My main interest, besides running away with Aurora, and I would never get her to agree to that, was to keep being their kid. She’s always out and about, he said, she’s not interested in our life anymore. Kiss my ass, I said, and went to bed with a rancid taste in my mouth because of what his our implied, that something like a his-and-my life could exist without her. Luckily she came home and threw her puffy jacket on the floor. I could tell from the sound of fabric collapsing and the way she sighed, a drawn-out, useless whistle like electric signals moving through a burnt-out computer. Where have you been? Rory asked. At the church, Aurora said. What’d you make? Enough, she said, and dumped all the money on the table in the kitchen, where he was making leek soup. I could smell it by the sweet, oniony steam seeping toward me in bed. The room was nearly dark, bundles of warm light poked through the hole in the wall. Headlights slid over the ceiling that was shaking from the trains. Does it really take all day to sell your shit to the faithful? Rory said. Does it take all day to steal vegetables for your soup? Aurora replied. Who’s the one with a baby in their belly? I was lying halfway down the gap between the two mattresses, my shoulder blades against the wooden pallet, which I had found out walking one day and dragged back home – like how a cat brings in dead birds, Rory had said, and it was fair enough: I was quiet and cuddly and almost never in the way, I registered everything that happened in the flat. A little food was all I needed but I could easily go a day or two without. And every once in a while I’d come home, guilty and proud, with some sort of junk they hadn’t asked for but had to accept: a wooden pallet, a board game, a lump of amber. Ceramic shoulder pads Rory would put on when he got drunk. There wasn’t any shame in letting them take care of me, it was hot and sometimes turned us on, but it would have hurt if I couldn’t return the favour.
Later – I must have been sleeping – they got into bed all stiff and stubborn with the silence they brought with them from the kitchen table. The air grew hard between their shoulders where I was curled up, and then Rory turned onto his side and snuggled up to Aurora, saying hey or babe or some other conciliatory thing. I wanted to join in as usual, to wedge myself between their laps and start on both of them while they kissed, but it was their fight and I guess their make-up too. I wriggled to the foot of the bed, crawled out and lay down under the pallet. Rory rolled onto his back again, his bony body closing the gap between the mattresses. He pulled his buttocks that were above my chest up and away from me as his shoulder blades pushed against the pallet, so his lower back became an arched bridge of skin. It smelled like sweat loosening the dirt he had accumulated during the day.
And then it was Aurora on her belly between the mattresses, pressed softly against the crisscrossed planks. I laid the palm of my hand against one of them and could vaguely feel the weight of her belly through it. Involuntarily, and with a sense of irritation that exceeded the tenderness, I felt for a second entirely equal with the creature on the other side of the wood and the belly skin and whatever else was shielding it from me. Dropped into this cramped flat, it would have to find its place in Rory and Aurora’s life, between the furniture and piles of clothes, the way they’d been living for a while. Who knew why that baby had chosen to come here. Who knew whether the world you were in before you let yourself be sucked into conception was as barren and formless and freezing cold as mine had been the night I met Rory and Aurora at that bar eight months earlier. They were out drinking up the last of her redundancy pay, celebrating her return from rehab, Rory was glowing. I had gone out hoping someone would buy me drinks and offer me cigarettes, and they did. They told me about their lives, that they had moved to London because Aurora got a job as a teacher at a local school, which she lost soon after when she lost their child in the sixth month and went to the dogs, and I loved sitting there hearing about it. I loved the lack that was so clearly part of their lives, since they were babbling about it to a stranger between giggles that made their martinis spill. It was paranoid and hot how they were getting closer on both sides. I followed them home because I was hungry. The sex and fun we had was so good that they let me stay, or maybe they were just sympathetic to my situation. Or maybe they were sympathetic because we had such a good time together, so in that sense I also invested some of my personality that night. I followed them because I was hungry. Next thing I was in love with Aurora.
Now I was climbing back into bed and falling asleep to her breath. Her hand on my shoulder shook me awake, did I want to come with her? Rory was still sleeping.
She preferred to work alone, probably knowing that we would never really do anything without her, so it felt special to be brought along. Sitting across from her on the train going backwards, watching things disappear. A timid streaming orange light in the leaves and the rails and the rail workers’ bodies, like they hadn’t returned to themselves after sleep. Their hammering sounded daring and impossible so early in the morning, coming through the window with the cold air.
And with the whirring of the train’s frozen axles. Aurora said, Hold your breath! and I blocked my throat as the darkness was pulled over us. The friction of the train on the rails sounded stifled and secret. In the light from the other side of the tunnel, she let her breath leak slowly out between her teeth, her hand slipping the pills into her coat pocket, and I coughed mine out with a gasp. A pair of coattails flapped out of the train compartment after the man who had been sitting next to her. Vowels, that’s what we called those pills, because they softened you up and made you receptive, starting with a round feeling and a light in your mouth, your throat, your belly and so on, until your whole body was a glowing processor just waiting for data, which was probably why City Church was the perfect market; affiliated with the rehab centre, it was full of addicts who had turned to God or were trying to. The vowels, like the service, lasted for about an hour and were usually a prelude to acid, a way to prepare for the actual trip, so Aurora could get a bag of 100 for £50 and sell them on for £1 apiece. She would prop herself against the wall by the entrance, then push off with her shoulder and greet people as they arrived. She pulled them to her, calling them by name, and leaned into them with her voice. A kind of smoothing, a levelling of features into a dull plate of a face, marked the majority of these people, and from where I was standing it looked like Aurora was pulling them out of their sameness one by one and really seeing them. I thought about whether it felt that way for them too. Whether she could do that while selling them drugs.
What surprised me that day, and what I think Aurora brought me along to see, was how they remained seated when it was all over. From the moment I had taken the pill – in sync with a hundred other hands rising from pocket to mouth, a hundred throats stretching and swallowing when the prelude began – the service had seemed to be elapsing in parallel with my trip, expanding in time with the space being cleared out inside me. As if its composition were encoded into the chemical formula of the pill. Afterwards, there was only the comedown. I was all tied up inside and couldn’t feel a thing. And that felt like an awful weakness in light of the service and the way the prayers, the organ music and the priest’s gesticulations had filled me up. Now it was quiet, the priest had left, and all around me people remained seated with the saddest faces or their eyes closed, afflicted by something they preferred to deal with in the dark. They sat slumped and shaggy, but seemed at the same time infused with a mystical will to be present in this after, a persistence that went far beyond what the pill could give them. But Aurora! She wouldn’t budge either, didn’t react to my elbow poking her side or my feet tapping the floor. Of course she sat through the service so people could see that she didn’t split as soon as she had milked them, and when the dealer is tripping too you know the product is good. But why was she still sitting there – and with that belly too, shouldn’t she eat something soon? Her abdomen was bulging in the light from the barred windows above, trying to get her attention, just like me. She stayed that way for hours. And the church actually wasn’t even a church, but a bare room without ornamentation, just concrete walls and ten rows of folding chairs set up for the occasion.
Back home in the kitchen, Rory had a roast in the oven and two homeless men at the table who looked up at us friendly and embarrassed when we walked through the door. Dave and Sully, he said, introducing them with an outstretched palm, we got to talking up by the corner shop. Aurora hid her confusion, probably so that they wouldn’t feel unwelcome, went over to greet them with me at her heels and turned to Rory, who had his head in the oven: Food’s ready! Over dinner he tried to keep the conversation going, mostly talking about Aurora – only three weeks till she’s due but she’s still bloody working nine to five – while a tone of accusation crept into his voice. Yeah, things are a bit tight right now, Aurora said, looking at him, especially if we want to be able to afford a roast now and then. She ate very little. And now she’s taking Casey with her too, Rory continued. Yeah, I said, I’m not doing much anyway, so I get to go to work with Mum! And I’m here all day thinking about them, Rory said. Well, you’ve got friends up at the Park, Dave said, implying Sully and himself with an almost noble nod back and forth between them. I smiled, feeling really wretched, sad that they had to step right from the street into this family drama, probably the first home in which they’d set their wiry feet in a while. Rory had insisted they take their socks off and rest their feet on a stool under the table. They were sitting very awkwardly, unable to relax or give in to the reclined position their raised legs demanded. They reeked much worse than we did, everyone could smell them. When Rory offered for them to stay the night, something happened that went way beyond this covert marriage dispute and the discomfort of sitting in the middle of it. Dave, he was the one who did the talking for both of them, looked down and said, Thank you but we can’t. But it’s freezing cold outside, Rory continued, and the shelters, aren’t they all closed now, until Dave said, We wish we could accept the offer. You’re very nice people. But you see, it’s not easy being comfortable in someone else’s home – it can make us really sad, Sully added – we can’t do it for your sake.
Later, after we had said goodbye and closed the door behind them, we stood in our respective corners of the kitchen, staring into the living room. It was so full of their honesty and our pent-up conflict that we had two possibilities: either cry or shout at each other, either fight or be sad by ourselves, so we went straight to the bedroom – Rory through the door with Aurora at his heels, me through the hole in the wall – and met in bed in an indecisive embrace. Sex between the three of us could never become that self-contained formation that shut out everything else, the snake biting its own tail, we were always trying to open and extend the pleasure, with hands and mouths, across the mattresses, through the room, up and out of the building. While the train screeched through every ten minutes. Water glasses rattled on the nightstand. The flat bulged red with heat against the night’s blue-black. The air was riddled by traffic moving in all directions, up to the satellite and back again. Someone shouted, started running after someone else, Hey, you! Cars accelerated and hit the brakes at the foot of the bed. Aurora’s belly was bulbous with visible veins, we navigated around it with caution. At one point I was on my knees with Rory inside me and Aurora lying diagonally in front of me. I was sucking on her nipples and could have sworn some milk came out, just a few drops. Just a second of that body-warm, sugary, a little oniony, a-little-too-soon liquid in my mouth, and right after, an impulse to suck away, to drink so much that it would fill me all the way up and push out Rory’s cock, but there wasn’t any more. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate his presence, but there was a longing inside me to be alone with Aurora and be pure milk. Sometimes when he fucked me I could feel so specific and demarcated, bound to the bed. The morning after our first night together he made scrambled eggs and said I should stay around. So strange sitting there together, eating breakfast in a T-shirt on a cold stool, like the two of us were going to be a couple, but then he said, I think Aurora would be happy if you were here when she came home. Rory had a way of being in the flat without her, always in the process of taking care of something or other, which I really liked about him. He would gently rearrange the furniture and clothes, wipe the crumbs off the table, make the bed and air the place out. Water the plants with a spray bottle and nuzzle the leaves between two fingers, count the cash and meticulously decide what kind of soup he would make today, and which ingredients he’d have to steal for it. He dragged everything out, as if to fake a household and make it last until Aurora got in – maybe that was part of why he wanted me to stay? Back then she would come home early, and we would have started flirting around noon, stirring up a mood she could wade right into and release. Later, if he hadn’t already that morning, Rory would go do the stealing, and then me and Aurora would make out hungrily and wait to do more until he returned. A lot of me loved her exclusively, wanted her now and all to myself, but 1. that would ruin their marriage; 2. then I might have to leave the flat or at least not be under Rory’s care anymore; 3. I cared a lot about Rory too; and 4. it was because of their marriage, with my place in the sweet spot between them, that I could even be close to Aurora in the first place. Without them I might lose her for good.
Now I was looking up and saw a guilty but also kind of outbound expression in her eyes. I looked over my shoulder and realised that they were responding to Rory’s, which were looking at her the same way as when we had come home late that afternoon: an injured look that expressed the same feeling that I had had next to her in the City Church all day: she was on her way out. She was turning toward something that made her stay in her seat much longer than necessary, forget to eat and drink, and which made her care about everything but her sales, the baby and us waiting for her at home.
Six months later, I suddenly spot the reflection of the man in the dull grey trench coat in the glass I’m looking out of. In the opposite window, he’s sitting with his hands in his lap, letting himself be rocked by the swaying of the train on the tracks. He’s staring straight ahead at the empty seat across from him, apparently so familiar with the scenery on this route that he can just as well let it slide blurrily by. Who knows what it’s like: being a dealer, spending your days on those efficient, silent transactions. Recognisable, at this point even familiar buyers in the seat across from him, who he can’t talk to or really look at, just a second of eye contact to confirm the imminent sale. Maybe it’s not only a matter of discretion, maybe he actually prefers it that way, cutting straight to the bone of the transaction: in the dark of the tunnel handing over a ziplock bag with a right hand, taking the cash in a left, getting up and leaving the car before it gets light again. The train turns softly to the left, setting course for an arch of brown bricks that frame a darkness for me. Two deep breaths and I block my throat, haven’t been able to breathe in tunnels ever since Aurora told me you couldn’t. It’s a game she used to play. Hidden by the dark and the mechanical rumbling, I get up and walk over and kneel on the seat behind the dealer. I dip my hands into each of his coat pockets, close them around whatever they’re holding, pull them out and walk fast out of the car.
An hour later I’m knocking on Rory and Aurora’s door. It hurts in my bones going over there, knowing that I have to see them again, but I really need the money. The sight alone of Rory’s puzzled face in the cracked-open door almost makes me cry. He lets me in, and then I’m standing there looking around the kitchen, at the evergreen countertops with all of his lists on them, at the toaster and the kettle, in the yellow glow of the ceiling light. I can feel how my body is sucking everything in because it has forgotten and knows that now’s the chance to get it back: the piles of clothes, the draught and the knots in the floor, the smell of Rory’s soup, the jagged hole in the wall, Rory, his birdlike body in the kitchen, I swallow it all and hold it inside my wide-open belly. Then I take two steps forward and look into the bedroom to the right. Aurora is sitting on the edge of the bed, rocking a cradle on the floor. Something awkward about the way her arm is extended, she must have sat down like that as soon as she heard it was me. The baby is quiet and barely visible between the hat and blanket, snub nose and a tiny open mouth. What’s up? Aurora says. What’ve you got? I take the bag of vowels out of my pocket and say, There’s 98, I took two already. Where’d you get them? she asks. Don’t worry about it, I say. You can have £30, she says. You know I know what they cost, I say. I want 40, minimum. You get 30, she says, even more resolved . . . Listen, I don’t want to know where you got those pills, but if our guy has lost 100, and then we buy half the usual amount the next day, how do you think that’s going to look? No matter what, I’m gonna have to spread those 98 out over a few weeks, or months . . . Fine, I say, 30, that’s fine.
I handed her the bag of pills. She handed me £30.
I still don’t know how we ended up with that cruel transaction. Was it my indecisiveness, my inability to take a stand in the fight, that let the two of them close around each other? Was I just too passive, a kind of pet, was I becoming too dirty and unkempt? Or was it the baby, the arrival of the actual baby, that inevitably excluded me? That would be really ironic, because it was most likely conceived the night we first met. After Dave and Sully left, we lay in bed and counted back to that night, and I felt fertile for a second, or at least beneficial to my surroundings. Me and Rory were curled up on either side of Aurora, who was sitting halfway up in bed, each of us with a cheek and a hand on her belly. You’ve never been so pregnant, he said dreamily. Soon there’ll be a baby here. He gestured panoramically across the room like it was a showroom for their life after the birth.
I realised that the child, or at least the dream of a home that the child was supposed to fulfil, was Rory’s most of all. He had never really been good at anything, but the flat was his to arrange, to potter around and display at the end of each day. A helpless living creature here would make him indispensable. The next morning I was awoken by the door slamming, jumped out of bed and caught up with Aurora halfway up the street. Hey, you’re pulling my love out of bed way too early! I said, smiling, and grabbed her collar. I didn’t think you wanted to come, she said. Her face was blank and exhausted in the headlights of the cars driving by. Sometimes she looked almost wounded by fatigue, it was really cute. I just don’t understand what they’re doing in that church, I said, why don’t they get up at the end? I don’t think I can explain that to you, Aurora said, it’s a kind of meditation – But I want to be part of it, I said – on the hangover, she said, the state that comes after. Okay, come on then.
The City Church was in East London, Stratford I guess, in a remote industrial neighbourhood twenty minutes walking from Leyton Station, and the patients had already served their five hours when we got there a little before eleven. That was how they paid for their stay at the rehab centre, Aurora told me, by working it off in the factories. The whole complex was owned by one of the private companies that the state had started using to contract its social services. People were sent here after being on benefits for a long time, as a kind of combined detox and job training. Even from a purely therapeutic standpoint, the work played an important role, Aurora explained; getting sober was all about rediscovering your functionality, teaching yourself each day that you’re good for something. In the work halls, screens listed the day’s productivity figures, and once a month you had to sit in the observation room to watch the big picture and be reminded of each person’s indispensability on the production line. But I always felt totally replaceable, Aurora said. The days I produced the most, it was like it was running right through me. What do they make? I asked. Turbines, computer chips, that kind of thing. A bell rang, or the sound of a bell was played from speakers on the roof of the church, and a few minutes later people left the factories lining the road, and walked down the sidewalk and across the gravel car park. There was something protracted and uncertain about their movements, on the way to yet another demanding job, one they weren’t sure they could complete, but also something serene, a kind of faith, maybe, that it was worth doing anyway. On the way into the church, which was actually an empty factory, a box-shaped building with peeling walls and the trunks of demolished chimneys sticking out of the roof, they stopped by Aurora to exchange £1 for a vowel with a handshake or an embrace across her belly. She was pale and professional in the late-morning sun.
Inside, we sat on folding chairs, swallowed our pills and listened to the prelude. After a few minutes I felt the light of the vowel expanding my body, activating an alternative nervous system that was directly connected to everything around me. My skull and my rib cage enveloped the hall, the organ and the sermon quivered inside me. As the priest pronounced the blessing he melted into my spine with a fluid click, pushing my ribs from each other with his arms. Our addiction was a hallmark, the sign of a foundational weakness and impotence that we had to accept in order to let God accomplish inside us that which we couldn’t do ourselves. And when we speak of God, we mean God as you perceive him. He said that several times.
There’s nothing to say about the séance after the service. No altar, no ornaments in the empty, square room could distract me from the unbearable feeling of paralysis or permanent sedation of my soul with which I was left after the trip. Even the light was useless, falling without shadows or nuances, it probably hadn’t been changed since there was a factory here. After a few hours I started getting hungry, and what about Aurora, could she feel the baby complaining inside her? Was she ignoring it like she was able to ignore her own hunger? The air was greasy from the gas that had been burned in the room. Grease got stuck in my eyes and the roots of my nails, and I felt the creeping griminess I remembered from living on the street, before I moved in with Rory and Aurora, in an inhuman crowd of people and vehicles. It’s a boundless space, not fit for living, you can’t tidy or clean or decorate anything. You own nothing around you.
When the bell finally rang again, who knows when, we got up in a daze from our folding chairs and left the church in the opposite direction of everyone else. They squeezed past us, heading toward the back wall. On the threshold I turned around, grabbed Aurora’s hand and watched them disappear through a double door made of dark-green metal. They stepped out onto a muddy field, in the dusk that fell murkily into the church. What are they doing? I asked. The rehab centre, Aurora said, it’s on the other side of the field, and pulled my arm. I hesitated for a second, trying to make out a building, but saw only blue-grey fog framed by the doorway, and the patients sliding away, disappearing into it, one by one, in the middle of the field.
Several worn faces looked up at us as if we had interrupted them in the middle of a sentence or a prayer. At least ten homeless men and women were seated around the table, on the two barstools in the kitchen, on the floor against the opposite wall and on the windowsill, with their bare feet resting on stools and piles of clothes, in a stench that made the flat swell. It was completely silent for maybe five seconds, until a bony woman with long, iron-grey hair burst out laughing from the window and said, They weren’t expecting that, were they now! Just look at those two! Rory laughed too, goofily resting his hands on our necks. But they’re totally speechless, the woman said, haven’t they seen a homeless person before? And in their nice little living room too. Come on, give them a break, Ellen, said a slightly younger man at the kitchen table, let them get through the door, all right? And I’m not doing that, or what, Ellen said, not giving them a chance? No, you’re not, the man said. I’m just teasing them a bit, she said, just joking around. I mean, they look like they’re at the zoo! And that’s no problem at all. That’s just fine. We are a bunch of old seals, the two of us and the others, a flock of crows, free birds in a cage that’s too big? No, we’re not, there was a third who said, we’re wild dogs, and then their eyes and voices kind of let go of us and turned to each other, so we could throw off our jackets and turn to Rory, who was awkwardly stirring his soup. His cheekbones shone boyishly in the steam. Up in front of the shelter, he said quietly, I stopped by on the way home from the shop. And they were all standing there freezing and their numbers weren’t getting called, you know, it’s completely packed tonight. There’s a storm coming. So I said they should come over here to warm up and have a bite to eat . . . You know, honey, I want us to be able to take care of people here, just provide the bare necessities. That’s why we have a home, right? Someday you’ll be old too! Ellen shouted over everyone else. She had gotten up from the windowsill and was hanging in the middle of the room, her crinkled skin aglow like a paper lamp, like an ancient creature on speed. Ellen, Rory said, and went to meet her on the floor. Calmly, he placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye, as sure of himself as he was when he stole. Do you think they understand the insanity of being sixty years old? she shouted. I don’t think they do, Rory said. They’re not listening to me, she said, they all think they’ll just die in their sleep whenever they’re ready. But you know a thing or two, Rory said, that’s for sure. Yeah, just look at me, Ellen said. Here I am, spent my whole life on the street, getting ready to die, and still I’m afraid! Still, I want my life. I can’t take it anymore, not for another second. Don’t think about that right now, Rory said, it’s time to eat. I made pea soup. She thought about it for a second. Yeah, she said, sinking into herself, I’m so hungry.
The rest of the night he took care of everyone, ladling and clearing the table, moving things around and making soft encampments out of pillows and clothes, with a new spring in his step. And at the same time he was trying too hard, wriggling his hips, carrying four bowls of soup with demonstrative ease whenever Aurora was watching, as if to say, Look! You too could be this nimble and caring if you hadn’t spent all day wearing yourself out in the pews. I leaned toward her, attempting to squeeze myself into the place he was trying to appeal to. I avoided making conversation with the homeless people. In the corner of my eye, they were a wall of voices, a greyish fog, and I felt ashamed. But I couldn’t see anything in them but fatigue. That deep, undying fatigue that takes over a face and settles inside it. Too much bad weather and bad sleep, too much noise, abuse and traffic, that was all they expressed. That was what spooked me about them, the way their features had yielded to a far-too-general and shared condition. It hadn’t happened to me, not in the year and a half I was living on the street, which was part of why I was able to find a clean set of clothes, dress up, go to the bar and flirt my way home with Rory and Aurora. Now they were saying good night, and I hurried after them into the bedroom. We got into bed and listened to the storm and the snores of the homeless people. One of them had put their feet through the hole in the wall. I had the urge to chop them off at the ankles.
On the train the next day, both Aurora and the trees on the other side of the glass, which I loved, and in which the sun slowly rose, were dead to me. In the church, when the high started to fade, I recognised the down as the same condition of insufficiency: not being able to give the world back the meaning I knew it had, for me too. For hours I sat there, feeling that absence, and it hurt in my bones like they were crumbling.
Aurora shouted hi and walked straight to the bedroom in long leaping strides to avoid stepping on anyone. They were everywhere and more since yesterday, strewn across the floor, talking and tea-drinking, slumped over like the participants in a shabby symposium. I was on the toilet, my buttocks freezing, when her voice cut hostile through the wall, quickly followed by Rory’s. Without being finished I pulled up my trousers, ran across the living room and stopped at the door to the bedroom. Do you have any sense, Aurora was shouting, do you have any idea what it’s like? If you’re so fucking pregnant, Rory said, why don’t you come home and relax when you’re done working? Why are you staying out so late? But you’ve got a room full of people! she said. Yeah! I said, and took a long step into the room, maybe you should be taking a little more care of them. I nodded in the direction of Aurora’s belly. This all started long before I started helping those people, Rory said, and don’t you try to teach me anything! You’re the one out with her all day, what the fuck are you thinking? I’m taking care of her, I said, and looked at Aurora. As she stood there on the bed, emaciated and bulging like a chicken carcass picked clean, with one hand under her belly and the other raised at Rory, I realised that I had completely forgotten about her in the church the last few days. I felt the kind of sadness that collapses in your belly when you realise the person you love and live with is lonely. In the hallway, some of the homeless people were pulling on their boots. Rory ran over and blocked the door with outstretched arms. But you’re already here! he said. We don’t want to intrude, they said. It’s just a little squabble, he said, lowering his voice, the kind of thing that happens when you live together. My wife . . . it really doesn’t have anything to do with you. Stay, won’t you? He came back in, got up close to Aurora and hissed into her ear: Come back home to me when you’ve done your thing. The violent potential in his voice reminded me of that night when the pot of soup was steaming away in her absence. All of a sudden, he got up and hurled it at the wall and made the hole through which the homeless people’s awkward silence was now audible. There was soup everywhere. Then you get rid of all these people, Aurora said. If you don’t come home late again, he said.
That night, I was awoken by the sound of scratching. It lasted for five seconds at a time, accompanied by a sharp and dry vibration in my spine, like someone was running a barber’s knife slowly down it. I lay there, getting scared, heard someone breathing between the scratching, counted to three and rolled fast onto my stomach. Between two of the pallet planks I could make out the bottom of a face, a small, tight mouth without lips, which opened and said sorry. What the hell are you doing! I said. You can’t sleep there, you really can’t. But it’s just me, she said – Ellen, I said – I like it here, it’s better than the living room. Her breath was sweet and dry. We debated a bit. She sounded harmless and frail in the dark, and I couldn’t be tough. Okay, I said, and turned onto my back, but can you at least stop scratching? I’ll try, she said, and started up again a while later. And then I couldn’t help but imagine that we were buried together like a married couple, Ellen below, tirelessly scratching the lid of her coffin. It’s like that for some people, I think it is, maybe for most; they have to lie in the ground and practice dying because they didn’t manage to get ready while they were alive. Their whole existence reduced to a dry breath in ash, a leg stretching, the sound of nails on wet wood.
The next day I couldn’t even enjoy the service. The high, the way the vowel turned me into one big glowing nervous system, felt mostly like an opportunity or a demand I couldn’t live up to. The hunger and numbness that would follow shone dull and desert-like through the euphoria, and drove it away. I had the thought that this feeling would never stop, and couldn’t shake it off. It made my intestines contract, and then I felt a jab, like from a little piece of cold iron, deep in my belly. Some of me passed through the hole in a quick and piercing movement, as if it were being snatched up by a bird of prey, into some foggy, directionless landscape, but it didn’t make me less sad.
I still don’t understand, I said when we were sitting on the train headed back home. Aurora turned her face from the glass and looked at me. She was actually ugly, or at least each individual feature was unattractive – snub nose, narrow pursed lips, dull eyes set deep in her face – but she was beautiful. I don’t understand why you take those pills . . . why you hang around after. Oh, Casey, she said, exhausted, you’ve been there too. How would you explain it? Terrible, I said, I just feel weak. Me too, said Aurora . . . but that feeling, it’s like it’s right for me. I think it’s what I am. Are you scared? I asked. Of what? The baby, I said. Why, it’s coming either way. But you can still be scared. Ahead, the dark semicircle of the Thames tunnel approached behind her. It rose and gradually filled more and more of the grey sky, and as we entered it she said, I’m just tired, Case. I’m so tired of waking up every morning at the crack of dawn with this light in my body. I wake up with such a dumb, totally physical appetite for the day when I should stay in bed. And with a baby in my belly when I don’t feel like it . . . like it should be there. There shouldn’t be anything there. It makes me so hateful.
The train raced through the tunnel, both jangling over the tracks and drifting away, the darkness expanding the space. The exit signs swished by, gave way to Aurora’s face. I reached a hand across the table and placed it on her wet hands. But I’m not scared, she said. I couldn’t come up with anything else to say besides that I was there for her and would play with the baby and give it milk at night when she didn’t have the energy, and then I could see it: me and the kids, there were two of them now, wrapped in our blankets in front of the television before Rory and Aurora got up. Rory had built a loft in the living room.
The flat was aired out and the makeshift beds cleared away, but it was full of people whom he must have picked up as soon as he realised we weren’t coming back early after all. There was something pointless and impotent about his protest now that he had said it out loud. Like stirring a pot full of water. We woke up around midnight to a fresh wet mattress. Aurora pushed us away, panting through her contractions alone. The light from the cars slid bluish across her forehead and hair. Two of the homeless people came in to ask whether she was okay. I hurried to push them back into the living room, where the others were sitting up in their beds, not knowing what to do with themselves. I started tucking them in, pulling the blankets up to their chins, placing a hand on their foreheads, but stopped when Aurora came out of the room, and ran to grab her hospital bag instead. In the middle of the room, she hesitated and said to Rory that she refused to give birth until they were all out of the flat. He turned to them, clapped three times and asked them to leave. Get them out of here! Aurora screamed. They hastily threw on all of their layers, laced up their boots and walked past her with their eyes on the ground. Let’s get going, Rory said. Her too, Aurora said . . . Casey too, she repeated without looking up, but sent an exhausted nod in my direction. Get her out! Rory turned toward me, and he was about to get it past his lips when I handed him the bag and left, on legs that felt ancient and foreign, through the door, down the stairs and out onto the street.
I took the train to Stratford and walked straight through the empty church. In front of me, still framed by the wide-open iron door, the field and the overcast night sky slid into a big pile of mud. It thawed and received me to the ankles. There wasn’t a single light or star, only the cold, wet wind I imagined was coming from the sea to the east. What was there for me in the east? I walked back and forth, all around, in and out of the mud that was warmer and sweeter than the air. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, but then came the fog. I lay down on my stomach and fell asleep. At some point, I was awakened by some sticky sounds, and out of the damp, white fog there came two, then ten, then twenty and then a whole crowd, muddy and tired like me. I slid in between them and walked alongside them. When we reached the industrial quarter by the City Church, I followed them into a random hall and stamped computer chips for hours. After the service, I followed them back across the field, found a bed that was free in a room for five and was inaugurated into Group Therapy: taking turns, you talked for fifteen minutes about whatever you were feeling, while the others listened without judgment and helped you get to the Hurt, the places where the pain lay hidden. Reaching them would cause bodily reactions: sweats, shakes, farts, tears, yawns and laughter. I slept and ate and showered, serving my five hours at a new factory each day. Everywhere the buzzing of machines, and the fixed direction of the production line that I started to follow from hall to hall. In the factories closest to the church, work was easy and manual. We welded computer chips, cast rotor blades and fans, put together plastic and electronic parts, carrying out a few motions in a process that resulted in a processor, turbine, or motherboard. Farther out they were assembled into respirators, and in an adjacent hall, into servers that were transported to a building about the size of two football pitches and full of server racks in dead-straight rows. A set of keys and a laptop were pushed toward me through a crack in the wall, and for the next five hours, I followed the others: strolled up and down the rows, connected the computer to the servers that lit up red and followed the troubleshooting instructions on the screen until they stopped. Meanwhile, I saw glimmers of what was stored on them: data about individual patients, their productivity figures, medical files, records, transcripts of Group Therapy. Much of it was quantified, entered into charts I couldn’t interpret. That I could move freely between the halls also meant I didn’t have to work, I knew that. But I wanted to see where the respirators ended, and the hours of repetition made my grief foggy and mechanical, my feeling of not meaning anything to anyone. I missed Aurora all the time. One morning, in the parking lot in front of the church, someone recognised me and asked where she was. She needed to take care of some things, I said, as people flocked around me. She told me to tell you guys to go on without her. The last part just slipped out, but they looked like they understood. And without the vowels, one of them said. We need to continue authenticating our addiction. Some days, when crossing the field, a bird of prey would emerge from the clouds, and we would lean our heads back, watching it dive with its long, stiff neck and its claws. At the rehab centre, we had the afternoons off and could relax in the rec room where the lighting was low and ambient. It made you want to sit on the rug or in one of the furnished corners and chat with the other patients, or with the nurses moseying about at our disposal. There was always someone to talk to. And I discovered a pressing need to talk, a whole database of thoughts, feelings, fantasies and memories and quiverings in my nerves, that suddenly became accessible to me. Things felt true when I said them aloud. One day, with the help of a stolen ID, I entered the fenced enclosure farthest from the church, wearing a lab coat like the other employees I had seen coming out of there. The tall brick building was full to the rafters with a cool, rattling sound like wind in fallen leaves. Separated by stands bearing respirator equipment, hospital beds were arranged side by side in long rows, sixty or eighty beds total, housing the Newly Dead: warm, breathing, urinating and pulsating corpses that blood was being drawn from and drugs were being tested on, until it was time to harvest their organs. I was careful not to bump into their bare feet, their fresh faces. I recognised some of them from the centre: people who had committed suicide or overdosed, I had seen the nurses rushing to their rooms with the defibrillator.
Image © Ruben Balderas
This story appears in After the Sun by Jonas Eika, published in the UK by Lolli Editions and Riverhead Books in the US.