Requiem for Those About to Live
If you were to ask me why I am starting here, or why here is there, I couldn’t explain. Except that I must start somewhere and it is absolutely essential to write some thing. Frankly, it’s no small miracle that I’m alive. If you asked me tell you what I was wearing or why it began, I couldn’t. Except that it did and what I was wearing caused me to sweat a great deal.
The darkness didn’t help but, then again, neither does the light. It was raining but not cold, which meant the hood of my coat stuck to my forehead and the smell wasn’t washed away by the water. The solitary street light shone an orange halo onto a smidgeon of the footpath on Union Street – just enough to illuminate a flooded drain at the kerb’s edge and a dead rat floating in the gutter, the incessant lukewarm rain bouncing off its upturned belly. I imagined a gull would find him – or was it her? – this way in the first light of morning and rip open a gut filled with dog shit, burger baps and gestating maggots with a single swipe of his bright orange beak. A baby’s bottle lay snug against the kerb where the puddle had drained, all teat and no milk, looking like a pram’s miscarriage, abandoned by a careless buggy that had trundled off and left it all alone.
The thudding was made louder by the enclosed space of my hood, disconcerting me beyond the point of no return. I imagine, for a chronic claustrophobe, it would have been nigh on unbearable. Thump, thump, thump went the diminishing atmosphere inside my hood; squelch, squelch, squelch went the soles of my shoes. And all I could think was ‘Fie, Fi, Foe, Thumb, I smell the blood of an Englishman’. Or was it an Irishman? Too flustered to tell for sure – all I could really smell were my shoes and socks, damp merging with stinking sweat.
A couple walked past hand in hand. All highlights in their hair and designer glasses and tight jeans to accentuate their asses. And I pondered the smell of a rapist said to be operating in the district. He – it had to be a he – was rumoured to come out about this time, when the clouds were obscuring the moon and the single street light offered plenty of cover through which to stalk his prey. Drunken stragglers, kerb crawlers … and me? God forbid.
The thumping became a din impossible to drown out. Rain water dripped from my matted, tatted hair onto my forehead and the broad of my nose, from whence it trickled onto my quivering lips. It was salty. Who fucks arses? He fucks arses? He most certainly fucks arses.
The skin or nerves or sinew or some thing was becoming tighter around my left arm. I rolled up my sleeve to release the pressure. Pointless. Blood pressure must be sky high. I put my left hand under my clothes and rubbed my stomach – who knows why. Rain water splattered the protruding blue veins and pounded the light brown moles. And I thought of Little Nutbrown Hare.
‘Guess how much I love you?’
Not enough to care.
The faint halo faded further into the distance. Ahead was the deserted car park, its rusted free railings rattling in the wind and I knew I should have taken a taxi.
‘Where to friend?’
‘Accident & Emergency please, you see I’m in the midst of a massive heart attack.’
‘A massive one, eh? I better put the foot down then.’
Why did it have to be a massive one? Rarely, you heard of people having a minor one and never at all of someone having a medium one. It’s always a massive one the middle aged women go on about.
‘Dropped dead of a massive heart attack, so he did.’
And they always drop when it’s massive. They don’t faint or fall, stumble or crawl, they drop. Like a sack of something impossible to keep a grip on any longer because of its unbearably heavy burden.
Think of some thing, any thing. Numbers, statistics, letters jumbled in conjunction into beautiful meaning, salvaging something lasting from a world of ever potential pain. Count footsteps or raindrops on your head. Recite poetry. I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head… These things remind me now of Anaktoria who is far, and I for one would rather see her warm supple step and the sparkle of her face than watch all the dazzling chariots and armoured hoplites of Lydia… She’s all states and all princes I; nothing else is … There’s a stake in your fat black heart and the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through… Think of all the verses you’ll never write. Admit defeat. Conquer fear. Never could. Never would.
The burden was upon me and, in me, the coward has always had the controlling interest. When it comes to the decision between fight or flight, I freeze. It’s said skilled interrogators prefer the threat of pain to hang over a detainee for as long as possible as the reality of pain, the moment of its infliction, provides both a relief from the tension of waiting and a clarifying moment for the victim – there is no longer any doubt about the motivations and intentions of their captors. The line has been drawn again and who belongs to which side of it is again plain. The true coward, however, will find relief in neither the threat nor the reality. Both the promise of pain and the point of its infliction are equally and permanently unbearable. Perhaps this is how informers are made. The only alternative to threat and realisation – the third way – is talking.
Talking on this night, though, brought no such promise of relief, however fleeting. Generally, we say what we think people want to hear – and there was no one around to hear. You could babble a Hail Mary or practice breathing from the stomach upwards, contract the diaphragm and let the sigh of sighs rise, but the left arm will still tighten and the pain would still be imminent. I felt the pulse on the inside of my right ankle and felt sick, picturing it throbbing in and out, fit to burst. My tongue gagged against some thing ready to come up, a sure sign. Yet my mouth was dry and there was a faint taste of pickled onion, which had to be one of the tell tales of death. And, suddenly, I could smell burnt toast – or was it hair – and knew immediately what this meant. A stroke. A massive one, no doubt. How unfair. All this time battling against the heart tying itself up in knots of blocked arteries and it was going to be a stroke that administers the coup de grace. Or both things.
‘Dropped dead from a massive heart attack-stroke, so he did.’
And I’d be found in a puddle where Union Street meets Patrick Street. The smell from my shoes would overwhelm them. It would be all that was left to linger – the stench of rainwater and perspiration left to dry and go wet and dry again in weary, stinking, sombre succession. It was my own fault I hadn’t washed them. There was now an intermittent throbbing pain on the left hand side of my chest and I wondered how bad it had to get before the collapse came. Like a perverse orgasm that brought the sensation of a thousand knives.
The figure in front dragged me from the precipice of prayer and abdominal breathing exercises. Was it Him? Too dark to see for sure. Just how depraved was He? In Glasgow, it’s not uncommon to receive a rusty screwdriver up the rectum while ambling along the street. One minute, you’re all hands in pockets and easy saunter; the next, you’re all ripped denim and blood from your bottom as the assailant glides past with a smirk on his face. The screwdriver should be rusty to increase the risk of infection. An added, no doubt calculated, factor is the shame experienced in presenting oneself to hospital to describe all the symptoms of a brutal violation. It is the essence of rape shorn of all pretence of sexuality – the power to inflict, to humiliate, to hurt without consequence – an abuse of the most primordial of powers. Neither is it a motiveless crime – is there ever? It is reserved as punishment for those who break their word or take what is not theirs to pilfer.
But I’m weaving a clumsy tangent. As I said, the screwdriver business isn’t sexual – it’s a matter of honour. To break your word deserves – demands – payment in kind. It’s wasn’t just how depraved was the prowler of Union Street but what his motivation was that was the crux of the matter. And His motive wasn’t honour and broken bonds.
What to do and why to do so? Speed up, slow down or stand around and dilly dally; shilly shallying waiting for Sodom in Gomorrah. For fuck’s sake Polly, would you ever put the kettle on? To continue pressing ahead would be to risk a confrontation in which I would surely freeze stiff. One shove and I’d be on my back. He’d be able to bugger me where I lay. The only hope would be that the stench from my shoes would be too much to maintain an erection for long. But, again, just how depraved was he? To turn right and walk the top half of Library Street was equally risky. What if the figure in front wasn’t He? The derelict factory buildings with their rusting fire escapes and gaping glassless windows – like sockets gouged free of their balls to rule out the danger of witnesses – that ran the length of the street would surely be where he lurked if it wasn’t, in fact, he that lurked up yonder in front of me. Even minus the potential presence of a rapist, the crumbling red brick edifices usually scared the all too easy to scare wits out of me. I’d have to restrain myself from muttering some incantation the significant number of times as I scuttled past. Like ‘Candyman, Candyman… Fuck no, was it three times or five? Better leave it at two to be on the safe side’. You get the point.
To stand still was to be alone with my own thoughts, a fate worse than anything the Candyman could inflict. To torture by thought is to remove the danger of trial by living. Possibly. Someone said that once. Maybe. Was it a hook he had instead of a hand? Or just a large knife? Too long ago to tell for sure.
Momentum kept me stumbling forward regardless, perhaps spurred on by a desperate desire to outmanoeuvre the shooting pain to the upper chest that would come any minute now like lightning striking a rod. The throbbing drum roll reaching a crescendo as it made its appearance. Maybe I could leave it behind me in the dark for the next poor creature to become its conductor. Not likely. The moment had passed for a farewell phone call. Besides, I never was much of a talker. I never was much of a doer either, come to think of it.
The figure in front wore no hood, neither a hat, just a close-cropped head acting oblivious to the rain. Good people who live in peace and joy, breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy. Away and fuck the Croppy Boy, say a prayer for those about to die on Union Street through heart attacks brought on by stress and the imminence of buggery. He stopped to light a cigarette – a strange decision on a night like this one – it would be all soggy butt and dying embers in no time. Impossible not to catch up now, maybe he’ll phone me an ambulance when it’s over. Possibly even hold my hand and encourage my breathing while we wait in the rain. Be grateful for small mercies says he, and I agree.
But the face that came into the corner of my eye while I was overtaking was a she not a middle-aged he (It’s always a middle-aged man with soiled shorts, a skimpy tee-shirt and a filthy unkempt beard in the mind’s eye – a hipster playing the part of a hobo or a hobo acting up as a hipster). And it was a face that smiled. But as she did so the cut above the left-hand side of her lip shed a new drop of blood.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
‘What’s wrong with me pal? What the fuck is wrong with you more like.’
Her voice was Glaswegian in tone. Maybe it was a She. Maybe she had a screwdriver in her pocket with which she tormented the district. Maybe she’d just had her way with her latest victim; a resister who gave her a cut lip for her troubles. Would she be satiated? Was she satiable? Play it cool. Don’t show you know.
‘Have you ever seen the film Candyman?’
‘Aye, I watched it in Craig Maguire’s living room while his big brother kept trying to feel me up.’
‘Is it three times or five you have to say Candyman before he shows up?’
‘Five, but you have to be standing in front of a mirror for it to work.’
‘I forgot about that. And is it a hook or a big knife he has?’
‘It’s a hook. Have you really seen Candyman?’
‘Every night in my dreams,’ says I, which strikes me now as a somewhat inappropriate thing to say. I don’t dream.
I decided to be bold.
‘What’s your name?’
The response will last forever, which may not be that long. The Glasgow accent in the mouth of someone so young, so pretty, so soft spoken yet so assured is a thing of wonder. She fondled the sound of her essence perfectly on her tongue. It’s a name better not wasted on voyeurs like you, who besides could not adequately imagine how it came off that one time she spoke it. Secrets shared with the world inevitably become figurines of fun and this… well this will not. She took mine in turn but insisted on calling me pal.
‘So what’s wrong with you pal? I can see it in your eyes. They’ve this wild look, like a badger who’s about to be baited by a pair of pitbulls. Are you on coke or speed?’
‘Is it too many vodka and red bulls or five or six jagerbombs over what they recommend you are? Or maybe it’s the blow laced with LSD, or acid and a few ’shrooms? Have you been on the black stuff for a couple of days and not been home? Have you been messing around with fuck its, pipes and bongs? Or maybe it’s methamphetamines, uppers and downers and one or two horse tranquilisers? Have you been stomping on the dance floor off your bake on Es or doing poppers with the lads in the toilets? Have you been chasing the green fairy or the dragon, shooting up smack in the jacks or swalling McIllhatton’s finest to keep out the cold? Or maybe you’re one of those desperados who drinks Toilet Duck and bleach when they’re all out of dough just to keep the party going and the demons on the run?’
My head swam and my chest tightened as she made a manic dance with all the dreadful possibilities. Perish the thought what these substances would do to a weak heart.
‘None of the above,’ I managed to gasp, ‘please stop, you’ll make it worse.’
‘Then what is that in your eyes?’
‘It’s fear. Fear as pure as the sin of a new born.’
‘True that, there’s nothing purer they say.’
‘Something bad’s going to happen, you see. I’m no longer sure what. Maybe it’ll be a heart attack or a stroke or even an aneurism – all of them massive. It could be a clot kicking in somewhere or something vital giving up. All I know is my face will contort, I’ll go all weak at the knees, there’ll be pain like no other and there’ll be no one around to mourn but the rain. I also regularly shit blood, but that can wait for now.’
‘I’ll be around pal, don’t worry.’ And then she looked at me.
Sweet suffering Jesus, I repent, I believe! I bend my knobbly knee at your altar of altars. In my hour of need, you’ve heard, you’ve felt pity and you’ve put an angel in my midst, and a pretty Glaswegian angel who looks me in the eyes at that. But then she laughed. She laughed so hard she doubled up and slapped her palms against the torn knees of her jeans. Fresh drops of blood fell from her lip to speckle the denim. Only after some time did she come to.
‘I tell you pal, you’re a funny guy. You’ve cheered me up no end.’
Croppy Boy bit her lip and allowed the blood stain her ivory pale teeth. Then she turned, rose up slightly on her tip toes in her battered guddies and kissed me on the cheek. And she left.
Her laughter reverberated down North Street and shook the pulled-down shutters in Smithfield. Or maybe that was the drunks sheltering in the shop front. Regardless, hindsight makes such considerations irrelevant. Her footsteps made a splash as they faded. She declined to stick around for the final act, whatever that happened to be. Autumn washed the dust and dirt from its highest echelons and sent it tumbling back to earth. Congealed grease and caked muck flushed from their fox holes and trundled under tyres and shoes, making their filthy impact upon hubcaps and trouser legs and the wheels of prams while brown and red and yellow danced manically against a canvass of ominous derelict grey.
Was she a ghost or a Scottish refugee, a rapist or all of the above? All I know is that I loved her Croppy Boy head, her cut lip, her laugh and the way she called me pal with such easy disdain. As she went on her way with her lipstick in one pocket and perhaps a screwdriver in the other I knew another burden had been added to a fat black heart that couldn’t cope. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
Pádraig Ó Meiscill is an unemployed writer from Belfast, Ireland. In an Age of Anxiety, he spends most of his time regulating his breathing and adding to his collection of copper coins. The adequate recording of this story would not have been possible without the collaboration of Shannon Thompson.
Standing awkwardly between neo-impressionism and electronica, Isnaj Dui (real name Katie English) conveys a minimal yet capturing sound using electronically manipulated flutes and homemade instruments. Cited as a distinct voice, taking the flute away from its pastoral image whilst maintaining its unique mellow sound, English has released several critically acclaimed albums, 2009’s Unstable Equilibrium (Home Normal) and her most recent work Euplexia (Rural Colours). She has appeared at venues such as the National Portrait Gallery and Union Chapel in London and has received extensive play on Radio 3’s Late Junction and BBC 6 Music. As a classically trained flautist, English has also studied electroacoustic music, alternative tunings and Balinese gamelan. Working without laptop processing, English uses the pure tones of concert and bass flutes alongside homemade dulcimers and electronics to create immersive yet restrained textures that weave in and out of each other. As well as her solo work, Katie plays in littlebow, The Doomed Bird of Providence, The Sly & Unseen, and has collaborated live and on record with many others.