The Black Stuff
Money literally evaporating as the man at the bar held his card above the reader. He remembered when contactless was just a buzzword, a slogan for the age of convenience. Turns out this financial osmosis was gesturing towards something more, a heat signal left over by the future’s redshift.
Behind the Autender’s glass the Guinness tap cuts off at three-quarters full, straightening the glass from its precise forty-five-degree inclination. Exactly three-quarters full. Four-hundred-and-twenty-six millilitres, not a drop more or less. The nozzle waits precisely 119.53 seconds before it starts again, allowing the bubbles to finish their smokescreen surge and settle into blackness. The nozzle plants no clovers. No tears are shed along the glass’s side. It’s flawless. A living advert. Liam reached for an ugly memory, of hands unwashed and electric-taped from cutting limes. He pictured these yeasty hands gripping one of these glasses. He pictured the numbers in seizure as the angle of the glass vacillates with each fleshly vibration. At fifty-nine, he was the oldest person in the pub by quite a distance; his memories a bygone era.
Already most have clocked him; a collective eyebrow hoist that seemed to say: Mr. Gazelle, this is the lion’s cage. His number flashed up on the board and he headed to the bar. As he planted his sandaled feet on the designated service path, he could feel the young ones, sliced into half-faces, watching his steps, assessing for signs of ricketiness. He thought about the message from the Doorman™ screen after its blue light finished its tractor beam swipe over his ID: You are high risk. Are you sure you want to enter?
He gave the code for a pint of lager, reasoning it would take some sting out of the sunstorm he’d just waded through. The drink was dispensed, and he pulled it from the delivery bay. He waited for the screen to reform and for the muffled hiss of the sterilization jets. His number disappeared from the board.
He returned to the two-person booth that he’d booked online. It had taken weeks to get a slot at the economy rate. It was at the back end of the pub, right in the corner. You could tell from the faded patch of wall above his seat that a dartboard had once hung there, the area around the circle an asteroid belt of puncture wounds. Pubs all across the city were full of these little artefacts; all too easy to miss. You had to catch them in the right light, like scars that stayed dormant until the summer months. Gridded tracks in the floor meant that the manager could shift the booths around to accommodate each booking, no more than six per group. Each night the booths are thrown into different configurations, Tetriminos in this strange new fellowship. Of course, to many there was nothing strange or new about it, parking oneself in these hermetic chambers and syncing speakers. It just was another self-evident universal. He knew what it was like to hold these beliefs like granite. What he knew that they didn’t, though, was that these same beliefs are thin as silk.
It was maybe the smells he missed most: the rain on a someone’s jacket, their tobacco breath, the detergent that for some reason conjures your childhood. They were sublime intrusions, these smells. The booths – autoclaved nightly – forced you to stew and fester in yourself. Not even the body that came before you could be counted on for company.
As far as seating arrangements went, it was either prison visit or confession. Feeling it important that he look this man in the eyes, he opted for the former. He kept an eye on the door, nursing his drink in birdish sips. The guy was already fifteen minutes late. When he arrived, they caught each other immediately. He was wearing a red polka dot handkerchief across his mouth, and – despite the heat – a thick woolly hat; deep navy. They were oddly patriotic, the colours in tandem – a sort of deconstructed Union Jack. As the man came towards him, he fanned through the five quick-deposit cards in his pocket, checking they were all still there. There could be no money in his pocket or millions. Unlike an envelope, cards don’t fatten with money. Still, they felt heavy in there – heavy enough to buckle his knee even. The man got into his section and synced himself in before ordering a drink. Straight away, his number popped up on the board – number six.
“You know, I used to come to this pub half a century ago. Feels strange to say that out loud: half a century. ’Course, it had a slightly different feel back then,” he said.
“Back when you could throw a dart,” said Liam, flicking his eyes towards the wall’s pinprick halo.
“Not my game – just as likely to hit a human eye as a bullseye. Preferred the fruities.”
“Did you win?”
“Course not. I’m sure I thought I did. It was about getting in the zone, you know – when everything around you just disappears.”
Liam watched the man’s eyes smile as he took himself back to that zone, his pupils dilating as he chair-tipped back into that dark collusion. They were old eyes, older than his; puffy folds of skin that crinkled together like neural tissue.
“What you’re asking for is a lot. Don’t take this the wrong way but how do I know it’ll even work?” said Liam, curling his drink up to his lips.
“How do you think I got in here?” replied the man.
“I could buy a brand-new knee with what’s in my pocket. I probably should do.”
“What good’s a new knee if the only place you’re walking is to and from the pisser. Excuse me.”
The man went to go and collect his drink. He was heavy over his front foot as he walked, as though trekking up a hillside path. Liam thought about the three meters or so between his bed and his toilet, about the clean lines between the carpet, the brass transition strip, and the bathroom tiles. Then he began to think about all the other lines running through his flat – the walls, ceilings, floors, fittings, and furniture, the curtains – the way they had criss-crossed together over the years to form a geometry of belonging. What pattern would they knit when, in a two-months’ time, he wouldn’t belong anywhere else?
The man returned holding a pint of the black stuff, using his licence to buzz himself in, purposefully slowing things down as he did; a hustler’s protraction. His shoulders were dusty, like he’d been walking under a scaffolding tunnel for blocks on end. He pulled down his handkerchief to take a sip, long enough for Liam to glimpse another shard of his face. His lips were thin and anaemic, engirdled by a hedgehogish stubble. Like pollen on a bee’s legs, the froth latched onto his whiskers, turning his moustache from grey to cream. He pulled up his handkerchief, a kissy shadow blotting up through the fabric.
“Where do they come from?” asked Liam, as though knowing their origins might somehow reassure him.
“Where all forbidden things come from. The proper channels.”
Liam thought about this whey-coloured man cosying up to some government necktie, about the theatre of make-believe they had managed to somehow form together. His savings, holstered in the thinness of his pocket, were now part of that fantasy, the outer dust of a spiral galaxy. He thought again about the message he’d been given at the door.
“So how does it work then?”
“You brought the five droppers?”
“You transfer the first two onto the account I give you. You’ll get the driver’s licence and the birth certificate once the money’s through. Then it’s the other three for the passport.”
“Can we do the passport first?”
“Driving licence and birth certificate first,” said the man, taking another gulp. “Starters before mains. Whet the appetite and all that. Look, my number for the gents’ is up – have a think.”
Into the vacuum left by the man, he stared – allowing his thoughts to rebound off the Perspex as he chewed on his thumb. His fiftieth birthday appeared as a hand on his shoulder. His daughter had even joked about it. She’d snuck around the restaurant’s side-alley for a cigarette, the caiman’s eye glaring back in the dark the only thing that gave her away. He bummed one and smoked barely any of it, but let it burn all the way out just the same, desperate to prolong their shared moment. Enjoy these next ten years, she’d said – it’s all over after that. Nobody thought the law would still be in place now. But then temporary measures have a way of becoming permanent. He pictured the armoury of canned goods he’d bought at the time but never ended up eating, whole cupboards filled with imperishable foods bought for a supposedly perishable situation. They were still in the house somewhere, stuffed away in some forgotten enclave – ageless. He had been expiring ever since, hurtling towards his own sell-by-date. He spat out the nail he’d chewed off. It landed right in the middle of his pint; a total fluke but still a decent shot. The thought of swallowing it seemed gross, even though it had only just been inside his mouth. He completed fishing it out just as the man returned.
“I’ve thought about it,” said Liam, wiping his beer-wettened fingers on his shorts.
“I want to go ahead.”
“Put your number down for the bog.”
“I don’t need to go.”
“Just do it.”
Liam inserted himself into the virtual toilet queue – there were three people ahead of him, two urinations and one defecation. Then, the man gave him the first two account numbers and had him download an app he hadn’t heard of before, Delphi. The app filtered money through a kind of crypto-filtration system, converting and re-converting each penny across multiple cryptocurrencies. Imagine a swarm of locust rampaging through a house of mirrors, the man told Liam. A green arrow ticked up across both their screens.
“When you get into the bog go to the urinal, there’s only one. Right in front of you, you’ll see photos of all the dogs, all hanging on the wall. On the left you’ll see one of a sausage dog or whatever they’re called. Take the picture off the wall and look inside the frame.”
He waited for his number to flash up before making his way to the toilet. The air was still damp and acetic from the cleaning jet; so much so it almost made him sneeze. He unzipped and traced his eyes across the canine gallery. Boston Terriers in bathtubs, Alsatians on sofas, Collies leaping through long grass, Staffies holding tennis balls, Shih Tzus wearing fedoras. He quickly found the dog in question. He had initially thought the man had forgotten the breed’s real name – Dachshund – but maybe not. Whoever owned this dog had dressed him in a hot-dog bun and even bothered to procure a fake mustard squiggle for its back. Where the rest of the dogs on show all seemed lost in that typical canine bliss, this one looked distinctly nonplussed to have had his torso reduced to cheap farce. He pulled apart the frame, making a letter opener of his forefinger.
The documents were as he’d said they’d be, the driving licence tucked into the birth certificate which had been folded into quarters. There he was, just one number different. He’d been told to look as young as possible in the photo he’d sent through. How ridiculous he’d felt – a man of his age whitening his teeth, highlighting his hair, pressing used teabags into his eyes, smearing on foundation. Looking at the thumbnail, he found himself identifying with the dachshund’s ignominy, appalled by the fig-leaf self staring up at him.
He went to go and wash his hands – the toilet door wouldn’t unlock until the tap’s sensor registered twenty seconds of movement – but stopped, a singular thought halting him. Less a thought, more a juggernaut impulse. Where else could the passport be if not in here, behind one of these photos? He still had three-fifths of his money left. Poverty was its own special kind of isolation, after all. Find the passport and he could walk straight out – the guy wouldn’t even see him leave. Sure, he knew his address – but he had far more to lose than he did. He would have to be quick, though – find the document and get out before the man sussed it. Treachery he could handle; direct confrontation not so much, the mere thought of being caught in the act enough to centrifuge his innards, stretching the hyphen of his brain-gut axis.
The dogs came flying out as empty frames began to pile up near the sink in a Jenga-ish tower. He grew more and more frantic, even pulling at pictures far too small to smuggle something the size of a passport. The floor a mosaic of puppy-dog eyes. As the frames departed the wall grew larger, metastasising into a chessboard of dirty and untouched white. One of the bigger frames, recently housing a mastiff spread eagle in a paddling pool, slid from the pile and fell to the floor and smashed. He didn’t feel anything at first, no pain – more a trickle of hot breath over his ankle from where the shard of glass struck him.
The blood appeared as if teleported from another dimension. Within moments it began even to move the photos on the floor, shifting them like buoys in a storm swell. He yanked a handful of paper towels out the dispenser and shoved them against his ankle, but they turned red and limp within seconds. Starting to shiver, he caught himself briefly in the mirror – he looked as grey as the man’s lips. His licence – now looking younger than ever – sat like a water boatman atop the arterial lake as the certificate sunk. He went for the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge, hygiene-sealed. Sea-sick, the room began to wobble as his bad knee gave way, caving him into the gore. Floating black globs began to ricochet before him as the room turned to a welder’s yard. Feeling porcelain, he swung his hands back and forth to trip the sensor before scrubbing up. He counted back from twenty as the water’s cooling lips skimmed over his sticky warm gloves. At zero he unfastened his hands from their surgeon’s motions, summoning the will to make it to the door. As his hands slid down the bowl, though, they hit something foreign, a pucklike thing that fit snugly in his palm. Instinctively, he squeezed it – a thick spike of urine puncturing the ironclad air.
He ran the numbers in his head.
Even after wiping the dust away there’s a smear. Vinegar – applied with newspaper – is meant to do the job. There was some irony uncovering that trick on a news website that hadn’t printed a thing in years. I might have been able to find a grin in that if it weren’t for the bytes I had to use up. The next giga-ration wasn’t for two weeks. Which meant I maybe had enough for one phone call; two if I really budgeted my syllables. There was a store cupboard right next to the boiler that was never properly cleaned out before I moved in. Maybe there was a newspaper in there. I’d come across random things in there before: tennis balls, hangers, lighters – the junk objects that eschew ownership, choosing instead to accrue in the spaces between people. Would I even recognise one? The last time I’d seen one in the flesh was at the bottom of a fire at my uncle’s house, watching history’s worthy events curl and blacken.
The closest thing I could find was an old magazine. A gardening magazine of all things. What was it doing here? The nearest thing resembling a garden was three miles away. Maybe it was aspirational. I thought about the old tenant, a person I’d never met and yet had walked in all the same footsteps, flicked all the same light switches, dreamt and sweated on the same mattress – I imagined them in one of these distant gardens, taking their sockless feet out of their hot shoes and letting their toes spread across fresh grass, the cool of the earth pressing upwards. Or maybe it was in here because they couldn’t bear to look at it any longer; a dead thing that just wouldn’t die. It definitely smelled expired, damp and rotting.
I flicked through, nature and commerce blending together in flipbook animation, until I found the driest page I could in the middle, a once glossy photo of a flower bed popping with different coloured tulips – pristine. I gave it a go with the vinegar but that just seemed to make it worse, turning the dust into a gravyish spread. Bullet bit, I tore off a few squares of toilet roll (who knew isolation was such a powerful laxative?). I would just have to sync my inner movements with my daily wash as best I could and hope to catch the system’s morning hot streak. Anyway, who decided that smearing shit around ourselves was the height of civilisation?
I went at the window until I could see out of it again. It was clearer than before, but not by much. Even if I’d turned it to air though, it would still have felt opaque – an invisible mucosa held tight against a flat world.
I waited until a few A-bods walked past, their papers dangling from their necks in laminated cards as though they were attending some conference of the streets. They didn’t look up at me. Not that I wanted them to. My attention felt like a cold call, an unsolicited defenestration best left to wither in the unseen. Watching them place their feet on an unfamiliar patch of ground – just one of the infinite small levities they took without thought – it aroused a deep envy. But not enough to turn away. In fact, I needed it – the envy – like I needed the window. It was a boundary, a way to stay tethered, even as it kept me apart.
On a good day I might catch an A-bod get examined by a Thermodrone. Great flying noses, they divebomb anyone whose heat signature exceeds 37.5°C – papers or no papers. Algorithmic highwaymen of the skies, they hover not more than a foot away until you open your mouth, sending two antennae-like probes deep into the throat and nostrils. The analysis only takes thirty seconds or so, but it can feel like thirty years. It can happen right in the middle of a conversation. Two people will be chatting away and out of nowhere, your orifices will be state business. Remarkable, really, that so many are able to pick up where they left off and continue their conversation. Those who run hot have a torrid time – often having to ice-bathe themselves before venturing out, even with their biological privilege. Some just can’t take it and so choose to stay inside, like me. Well, not exactly like me. Choose being the operative word.
I’d read online about the procedure (the government even described it as non-invasive) but it wasn’t until I saw it in action that I could really make sense of it. The first time it happened I actually gagged in sympathetic reflex. After a while, though, my throat became numb to it. Truth be told, I’ve begun to crave the violation. Sometimes, in the pause between sirens, you can hear them flying overhead – once you’ve trained yourself to pick out their unique pitch, that is. One day I went straight from a hot shower into three knitted jumpers and began to do star jumps, waiting for their telltale whine so that I might throw open the window and seduce them. It was a terrible way to discover that the window had been painted shut. I lay baking on the floor for hours. Denied their touch, it remains a pornography of privilege.
Star jumps are not my only form of exercise. I’ve become a master of certain balances and bodyweight holds. Not like yoga, though. More like stress positions, the kind that squeeze information from a person’s pores. Like pretending you’re riding a motorcycle. Or sitting on your knees and back-bending at forty-five degrees, arms folded across your chest. A daily enterprise in self-interrogation, I hold these positions not to be inside the posture, but for the relief that comes from falling out of them. Really, there’s nothing quite like it.
I’ve even found myself playing the numbers of late – despite the fact I swore I never would. A whole afternoon in Victoria park. Sure, you have to stay in your assigned square. But can you imagine, unfiltered sunlight? Not just the sound of the wind rapping against a window, but it glancing across your skin, startling the hairs on your arm? I’m told the money goes to clinical trials, but rumours abound. Of course, nobody knows anyone who’s actually won it – but every N-bod has a friend of a friend. And that seems like enough.
I know the person above me doesn’t splurge on the numbers. I can tell by the double-clunk of his latch, by the clink of his keys on the side table that they’re an expatriate of their own flat, that they’re an A-bod. Their feet weave different patterns to mine, strange constellations of petty freedoms. I’m sure they, whoever they are, sit comfortably in their armchair and allow their muscles to relax at the end of whatever day it is they have. Not for a moment do I think they sit against a wall, bent double with arms wrapped around the back of their knees until the force of their own blood fells them.
John next door, though, John is like me. Or at least I think his name is John. It could be Tom. Or Sean. But to me he’s John. What he is to himself I can only guess. The walls are dense in this building. Synthetic fibres designed to take a bomb and still cohere. The human tone doesn’t travel well through this material. It gets snagged, like skin on razor wire. Like foreign exchange students we share half-words through the wall. Sometimes we even eat together, if and when our delivery schedules align. The clink of cutlery on plate, carrying far clearer than our words, forms its own kind of language, an apartheid melody. I remember my biology teacher once telling me that digestion starts in the mouth. It might even have been a question on an exam. What nonsense we learn in school – things break down long before they find their way into our mouths.
There was an evening – I can’t remember how long ago – when John said something about a drilling a hole, I think. Of course, it could have just been something that sounded like that – what with our conversations being a case study in false impressions. The prospect of him grilling a sole certainly seemed unlikely. But then again, so did having a drill capable of finding its way through the wall. It was an enchanting thought, at first – that we might suddenly find our words clear and obvious, our names fully known. All the same, I refused the idea almost outright, yanking it out before its roots could take. No, I repeated. Thrice. Still he kept on, though – I’m going to drill a hole. Did John think me a Santa impersonator? I focused on my enunciation, flicking the “n” hard with my tongue, as though begging some invisible captor for mercy. I needed him to stay as he was; half-finished, partial. I needed our conversations to continue in uncertainty, our words to remain in their persistent disrepair. Too much else was already in amber. I couldn’t let him fossilise as well.
We’ve barely spoke since then. Instead I’ve taken to going to bed early, allowing the muffled fragments of his life to creep into the still foreign parts of myself.
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