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Joseph's door was open by the time I reached the top of the stairs. On entering and finding the room oppressively dark, I went straight past him and looked out the window. This didn't help much. Before me lay the estate called Nowhere, with its potholed road and houses squat and mean. "There's a bus every hour or so," Joseph muttered.
I regarded him from where I was standing by the long-hardened curtains. Then I nodded - he looked like he needed some sort of a reaction - and sat myself on the dusty ledge. I lifted my feet up and placed my face on my knees: a favourite position of mine.
It had been a couple of weeks since I'd last been in Joseph's flat and I was glad there appeared no awkwardness about my absence. Events had obviously moved forward. He flung a pouch of tobacco at me and I rolled myself a cigarette. There was a tape in the old machine. Joseph turned it over robotically and pressed play. The music sounded like a machine-gun. He continued talking, but the noise was so loud I couldn't understand what he was saying.
My sinuses hurt. I suffered an invasion of dust up my nostrils as he angrily swept the kitchenette floor. Not only had events changed, he had changed also. The last time I'd seen him he'd been so gentle and melancholic. Anxiety was deforming him; the estate had finally sucked him in, on this the day of his departure.
The purpose of my visit (apart from seeing if he was still talking to me) had been to borrow a fiver, but I didn't want it to seem so mercenary and I was prepared to listen to what my friend had to say for the duration of a cup of tea before making my request. As I smoked I chanced a peek at the grey sky and, realising there would be no request, started reflecting on where else to scrounge the money for drink and tobacco.
I noticed that my hand was shaking. The cigarette made me feel sick and I knew I should help him with the cleaning up and packing, but I couldn't summon the energy. A feeling of life's senselessness stung my eyes.
Leaving his sweeping half-complete, Joseph pushed a sofa across the floor; the twisted castors scratched the wood, making a sound I could hardly bear. I was about to tell him to stop, but held my peace, as I didn't yet know if we were friends or strangers. If I'd waited another day it wouldn't have mattered. I'd have missed him a lot, would have cried my eyes out, and hated him that he didn't say goodbye, but life's about losing people; otherwise it just stays still.
Instead I took off my mauve coat and deposited it on the windowsill. Then I made for the brush he'd left against the wall. Joseph was balanced on a chair ripping posters down from the wall as I got down to work.
It was a pluvial morning. I didn't bother asking why he was getting out. To be honest, my primary hope was that no knock would come to the door while I was there. The tape stopped; there was silence.
"I got a Mass card in the post on Friday. You know what that means?" he said.
I shrugged my shoulders and asked if he couldn't reason with them. He looked away at this question, pretending not to hear. It was a stupid question anyway and I wondered to myself if I hadn't asked it just to punish us both.
"They came last night and I wasn't here," he continued, sitting on the sofa that was now positioned half-way across the floor making the place look like a bleak stage-set.
He sounded excited as he spoke. His pupils dilated, which caused me to feel nervous myself. This nervousness begot a presentiment of horrific claustrophobia, but Joseph caught me in a stare and I knew walking out wasn't an option. I noticed his eyes were still tender, still big and round and human.
"Which people is it?" I asked, feeling both frightened and excited. My ears began to register every movement on the street outside.
He looked at me and nodded his head towards the window. His helpless smile indicated the massive force out there which didn't need to be named. My hands clutched the sweeping brush and I beheld the window as well, but my eyes didn't get past the dust on its panes. In these panes I saw film reels replayed - images of violence, sadness and ugly self-righteousness that exploded tiny bombs of terror inside me.
Next I glanced at where his rucksack lay half-packed on the floor, a pile of clothes, notebooks and other articles beside it. After gingerly placing the brush back against the wall, I squeezed some of these items into his bag.
"I think you should go now... this minute," I supplicated, taking the rucksack in my hands, bringing it to him like a religious offering
"It's alright for you," he replied bitterly.
"I'll come to the bus station with you..."
He turned and looked at me, at the rucksack, and then around the room.
"I'm thirty-six," he said.
"So what..." I rejoined.
"You don't care what happens to me once nothing happens to you..."
"I do care..."
The way he shook his head made me angry. A passionate need to justify my actions beat back the growing panic in my breast.
"Look man, I don't want to die because of you. I just came here to... say hello. And whatever happened that time," I cut myself off. He looked at me and smiled. "...I'm not involved..."
"You are involved," he said, and I thought he winked.
"I don't think so," I replied slowly, my throat very dry, my head covered in fog.
Joseph grabbed the rucksack and threw it against the wall. This made me lose my composure. He must have seen the glint in my eyes for he got paranoid.
"Why are you here? Who sent you? What did they say?"
He spoke very quickly, his eyes were terribly wide and the skin on his face looked motile.
"I just came to borrow a fucking fiver," I stated frankly.
"I don't have a fiver... I don't have any fiver..." he answered me, shaking his head and gritting his teeth.
"It's OK! It's OK! Forget the fucking money," I went on, holding the palms of my hands towards him.
"There's evil out there, believe me," his voice had descended a pitch. My nineteen years of life in the town didn't put me in a position to challenge this assertion.
He eyed the kitchenette; its press doors were open, its cooker manky.
"You have to go," I repeated, but not so harshly. "You've got no choice."
"I didn't do anything wrong," he countered with deliberation, as if I were the accuser.
"Just split for a while. It'll blow over."
"Who told you that?"
"No-one told me anything, man," I snarled.
Joseph sat on the sofa and we were both silent. A car passed outside. I held my breath and longingly eyed my mauve coat which lay like a cat on the sill. Time stalled until the car turned the corner at the top of the road. We exhaled, and, to my amazement, Joseph began to roll a joint.
"Might as well die happy," he remarked grimly.
I decided to leave.
"I don't understand you," I muttered under my breath.
"There's a lot you don't understand, baby."
"Don't call me that."
I stood above him to add authority to my parting salvo.
"I have to go now. We'll probably never see each other again. But you know, that's life, isn't it? I advise you to leave as soon as possible Joseph. Look, you've hardly packed, and smoking a spliff will slow you down further."
I took the joint and pulled deeply on it, then walked to the window, the smoke balled in my mouth, and exhaled, scrutinizing the sky. It provided little elucidation so I turned back to him. That smile again - I averted my gaze, handed him the joint in an overly graceful manner, and made to leave.
"I'll walk you to the bus if you want," I offered coolly as I donned my mauve coat.
Joseph laboriously got to his feet and stretched his arms. Unfortunately, at that very moment, a really bad fit of the giggles struck him down. He collapsed back into the sofa laughing with tears running down his face. I'd seen him giggle like that before, watching some stupidly funny trash on TV. It crossed my mind that the whole thing was a big joke, so I sat on the chair waiting for him to get the giggles out of his system. Though I was on tenterhooks, I felt a bit becalmed, for it seemed things weren't so bad after all.
"I can't just leave," he declared finally and started laughing again.
I could feel a glow of anger burnish my cheeks.
He stopped, wiped his eyes, then straightened out and sighed.
"It's not so simple."
"But you've lived in many places before. You can find something good anywhere if you look..."
He waved away what I said like it was hash smoke. Then he rubbed his unshaven chin as if wondering whether to confide in me.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" I asked roughly.
My stomach was hollow; the joint had hung an even more hungry feeling onto the day. I wasn't worrying about anyone kicking the door in anymore for I was hiding inside my own vacuous universe where nobody (least of all myself) could find me. Even the man sitting in front of me, beside whom I'd soon be lying in a pool of blood, was a mere shadow. His eyes were no longer wide, his soul clamming tighter with every beat of his pulse. Perhaps my question had been too much.
"Are you my friend?" I yearned to ask, but a car passed along the street raising a wave of terror inside me. As the tyres bespattered the pavement, Joseph went white and his head bowed like an old man's in a church.
Out for a Sunday drive, I thought.
"I could apply for asylum in the church," Joseph remarked in a depersonalised fashion, as if it were a non-suggestion, and I treated it as such.
"So... we should get the stuff together," I was talking more to myself than to him because I no longer knew who he was.
There was nothing needed in the small kitchenette for any type of a voyage, so I walked into the pokey bedroom. The flowery curtains were drawn: spiky yellow blooms I had looked up at that hung-over morning a good three weeks before, wondering if the thing had happened which I, on one level, hoped had not, and on another level had prayed for for months. Like then, the room smelt strongly of sweat. I looked around to see what could be salvaged: a pair of old workman's boots? No. Maybe some clothes. I picked up a pair of jeans that looked reasonable.
I proceeded to the lopsided bookshelves to see if there was anything of value. A hash pipe fashioned from a bullet, and a large manila envelope with several letters inside. Under the envelope was a scrapbook. It had a painting of yellow flowers on its cover. Even in this the twelfth hour of our acquaintanceship I harboured curiosity towards Joseph's minutiae (I'd followed him like a dog when he'd first turned up in the town. After a few months of not seeing me he'd finally taken me under his wing. He'd said once I was a precocious gamine - a what? I'd asked clenching my fists; he'd shoplifted me a dictionary. He'd also told me we were like brother and sister. I cringed thinking of this); I opened it on the first page, and spied my photograph. It was not so complimentary: my eyes were like red stains and my smile was stupid and drunken.
Slightly peeved, I turned the page. Pasted onto the next leaf was a sketch of a lanky craven- faced creature with a shaven skull. Her rips were exaggerated, her belly concave. She was slightly crooked and struck me to be floating within a vacuum. There were nails and spikes sticking out of her skin; her head was dangling at a terrible angle, and her neck was dripping with blood.
A strange picture: this was more than an embarrassing discovery; it was a voyage into another person's diseased soul. Nevertheless, I mused, it wasn't my place to look in his private things (not anymore at least, I sighed) and what person didn't house inhumanity some place deep inside? But wait...! I slammed the scrapbook shut, shaking like an eel, and gently placed the book back on the shelf.
The creature with the bleeding throat was me.
Back in the living room, Joseph was curled forward unconscious on the sofa.
I went to the window and looked out wearily at the empty street. Joseph had been my hero; we'd engage in deep talks while the rest of the crew looked on. Their easy mockery at our philosophising rapidly became scorn. I wanted to protect him from them because I knew what they could be like, though never before had their cruelty touched me personally. And I began to realise I wasn't like them, and that he was the only person I could get closer to. Now I knew that I was also his muse. My narcissism had its parameters and I didn't feel much complimented.
I squeezed his shoulder roughly. Joseph snorted back to life.
"What's goin' on here?" I demanded to know sternly.
He looked up through one eye. "Ah, they won't harm you." Then he smiled. "Ah, no-one's after me."
His eyes closed. A trickle of saliva fell from his upper-lip.
I left him there and went back into the bedroom, heading directly for the shelf. There I re-opened the scrapbook, and ogled my bloodied corpse. Strangely moved by it, tears filled my eyes. Nobody had drawn me before. Furthermore, I believed he had captured my soul, an achievement I had never thought possible.
The sudden discharging of a shot outside led me to fling myself behind the mattress and cover my face. Another blast, and then the sound of a car screeching away; keeping my head low, I pulled back the curtain and witnessed a dark blue car career by, the driver's rubbery face silhouetted against the street-lights.
On the road below lay the twisted remains of a brown mongoose; bloodied it was, with liquorice eyes. A little girl dashed out of a house opposite. She was wearing a pink princess's dress. Her mother attempted to haul her back in out of the rain. Seeing the child, the mongoose, shaking like it was being subjected to electric shocks, attempted to crawl along its belly towards her, its paws scratching the amber-shaded tar.
"You bastards, I'll blow your fucking heads off!"
A big man ran out from the same house wielding a shotgun and fired wildly at the car skidding around the corner.
I let myself fall into the mattress, as if it were a pool wherein I could blot out the world. Alas this wasn't so easy. I heard another two shots go off, dogs barking, a woman's furious voice, a man's enraged curses and a child's plaintive howling. I put my hands over my ears. Mongoose Open Season again, I thought to myself. Nobody knew who they were; they always got clean away. No pothole existed big enough to stop them.
Joseph stepped in and turned on the light.
"Turn the fucking light off, Joseph," I hissed, wondering how he'd survived at all during my absence.
"Huh?" he muttered, scratching his head.
One, two, three, knocks at the door. Joseph cowered against the wall, bringing his hands to his face. I didn't want to die either and scurried across to the other wall whimpering with fear. The room seemed to be closing in. The terrible yellow curtains were dancing. Outside the worsening rain began to summarily execute the light of a day that hadn't really started.
More knocking - Joseph grabbed my arms, and fell to his knees before me. I heard myself intone the word, yes. He was up, hauling me with him and thrusting me forward. I tripped across the carpet towards the arc of knocking. Joseph slid back into the bedroom holding his body to silence it. Still stumbling, I hauled open the door and fell into the hall. A little boy stood there and rhymed off the following without lifting his eyes: "Spare something so the poor of the town can have warm dinners this winter." He looked up on finishing; I saw his eyes widen. Then he turned and ran down the stairs, the sound of his footsteps receding until the front door banged shut.
"You are not my friend," I proclaimed on my return.
Joseph was lighting a cigarette, a dark fever in his face. He fired questions about the person at the door. I told him there wasn't one, but a dozen of them with axes and chain-saws, Armalites and Kalashnikovs, flagons of cider and rocket launchers. I was cold and hungry; it was unbearable to be there and I had to get out. I made for the door.
"The buses will be nearly gone by now," Joseph said fatalistically. It was true, time had speeded up, moved out of the estate, and who could have blamed it? We were sitting on the sofa again.
"If they want to get me they'll get me I suppose," he continued in a more philosophical vein. His voice changed again: "Will you come with me, baby?"
I was convinced by the intimate nature of his question that we had indeed enacted the love act that fateful night, or at least he'd enacted it. I was good at reading between the lines like that. It was like manic depression the days after: feeling high, grown-up and in love, and then dropping like a rock in the canal when I thought, no, he didn't love me. In the end I'd just felt angry and embarrassed.
"I saw that picture of me. Why didya draw it?"
He took his time answering.
"I don't know. Maybe to keep the evil at bay."
"Maybe it's you who's evil, Joey."
"Could be true baby. But I'm not evil enough for this fucken place."
At that moment I sensed a ghostly tapping along the wall. It spread to the adjoining walls like slow-falling dominoes and struck terror into my heart. I moved closer to my companion. He put his clammy arm around me; there was nothing I could do. Thus we sat, arm in arm, waiting on a stage for the curtain to drop.
"I want to ask you something."
We smoked a farewell joint.
Then we got out.
The two of us trudged in silence through the evening. I felt very hungry at this stage. Grey-faced citizens eyed us suspiciously as we approached the end of the estate. They nodded at me when they recognised who I was, and stared at Joseph as if he was mad - which he was. I reckoned he was shielding himself behind me and wondered cynically if my presence wasn't merely his guarantee of safe passage.
A hefty wind blew and the black clouds billowed across the sky. They were orange-tinted from the old volcano at the end of Forgetfulness Road. Sirens blared in the distance. Someone at a shop-door nodded and told us there had been a mongoose massacre. The last bus out passed by, its angry engine roaring
This stopped us in our tracks.
"We'll go to the church so," Joseph muttered.
The church had been built with sparkling granite blocks and possessed a modest Gothic spire. Tonight the entire edifice was covered in a veil of ignis fatuus. We hurried up the gravel path past the naked trees; the steps we took like a man and his bride. Together we shouldered open the heavy oak door, then snuck quietly up the side aisle. Joseph had his head bowed. I thought the glimmering candles were beautiful, like hosts of supernatural daffodils, and the smell of cleanliness also, lovely cleanliness, as I remarked to my companion, because such a place was never really dirty, sometimes just a little wet from dripping umbrellas.
Joseph made known his lack of interest in such childish utterances. He was busy looking for someone to speak to. But all he found were old women knelt in prayer.
We sat in near the top, looking dumbly at the Altar. Unfortunately there was a coffin trolleyed up against the railings. I hallucinated a purple wedding cake adorned with hundreds of candles rising up from the wooden box. The shimmying set me off giggling. I imagined we were having our nuptials and Joseph was beside me in a black coat and I had on a starchy dress with yellow flowers embroidered into its sleeves.
An old nun was mooching around offering truncated prayers to the various statues. This put a stop to my frivolity, and I coaxed Joseph into going up and begging some food off her, as the hunger was driving me to distraction more so than the drugs. I was too frightened to ask her myself. Joseph seemed very scared too, but approached her nonetheless. When he told her we were hungry, her fat face went red as a tomato and she glowered in my direction. I threw her a pious smile. She strode off through a secret door and duly returned with some bread, cheese and a bread-knife. She hoped we'd remember the trouble she went to and sniffed. We assured her we would.
"And don't get any crumbs on the seats."
Despite all her trouble, we had to make our own sandwiches, which wasn't easy as the cheese was hard and the bread contained blue mould. I regretted not having paid the little boy who called to Joseph's door. I asked the sister if I couldn't have a bit of margarine. This earned me a dirty look, but she marched off again. I nearly cheered when she came out from the wings with the marg, some diluted orange in a milk bottle and a flask of milky tea. So we were set up. The food and drink were bringing me back down and I was a little embarrassed about my earlier laughter.
Joseph had been acting a bit odd also, muttering through his teeth about evil spirits and demonic presences. It brought back to my mind the sketch in his scrapbook and I reckoned that therein lay the evil: in his own poisoned brain.
All of a sudden he sprang to his feet and started roaring at the nun, telling her he was able to smell the mongoose blood off her greasy habit. I could not believe it - a raised voice in a church! The nun took a step back, held her hand splayed at her chest and stared Joseph out of it with angry puzzlement. Fortunately I was able to jostle him out onto the aisle and push him towards the oaken exit. It took a big effort to get out, for he kept turning to howl abuse at the nun, who was maintaining her position up near the altar.
It was at this point I remembered the special bus on Sundays for the students returning to the big smoke. Wife-like I looked Joseph straight in the eye, clasped his arms and advised him to take it, and, additionally, to go directly to the night ferry, like many exiled before him, for he had some chance across the water.
"And will you come with me?"
"No," I said again with all the firmness I could muster.
"They'll get you sooner than they'll get me, believe me."
I told him I didn't.
He reluctantly followed me half way down the town. He was a silent, doglike figure behind me (the tables had been turned, I thought somewhat triumphantly, feeling his eyes on my neck). I knew we were being watched, so I left him at the corner, where the whiskey bottles glowed in Murphy's stained glass window, and told him I wanted to go home.
"What I was trying to say back there in the house was..."
His shoulders were hunched against the elements and his eyes looking past me.
"Was what Joseph?"
I didn't mean my mocking tone. It was just for protection. His forehead knotted and he glanced at me for an instant.
Though I braced myself and closed my eyes, there was no hug of farewell. He just turned his back and walked into the darkness.
As I ascended the hill through the rainy miasma, I cursed him aloud and wept self-piteously. I regretted not going with him, but I was too stubborn and too damned lazy. The truth was I thought that because of him I'd no place in the town anymore.
Despite the grudge I now bore Joseph, I decided to go back in the church to pray that his ship would not sink, nor his bus crash.
The coffin's presence prevented me from venturing as far up the aisle this time. I kneeled near the oak doors. The nun seemed gone to her bed and, not requiring any dessert, I was glad. I tried to say a few words to God, but there was too much interference.
After a while, I looked up from the darkness of the palms squeezed against my eyes, and witnessed the walls of the church become transparent. I could see outside into the wind-turned night; could see the clouds at war above the lambent lights of the town.
I shrieked for I could also feel a blade at my throat and halitosis in my face.
"Joseph!" I gasped.
I craned my neck to look the madman in the eyes, but I glimpsed the nun's rubbery skin and the same puzzled anger frozen into her eyes. She was bent over me, one hand tightening on my brow, the other gripping the bread-knife that sliced through my skin like a wedding cake.
Then in the sky above I spotted Joseph. They had got him after all: a bomb on the bus; he was flying upward, his clothes ripped and flames spitting from his heels. And his blackened stump of a hand was waving me to join him, so I shouted up that it wouldn't be long now, for she was handy with the knife and there were bits of me falling onto the floor and geysers of blood spouting across the varnished seats. He winked and I heard him say alright, that he'd have a nice joint waiting and we'd smoke it in the stars.
Then I saw him recline on a cloud with nothing on, and something in his smile awoke my memory, and the last thing I saw before I left the world was the moment I'd fallen into his arms the night of my black-out, and I realised that we had started something but hadn't finished it and I reckoned the time had come and I looked up at him and smiled.
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