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These Violent Delights: A Short Story

By Karina Evans




THEATRE


Hastings is a small town. It’s split in two.

There are those who fight: the gladiators.

There are those who watch: the spectators.

Which you are depends on how high you live.

The gladiators live in a neglected, dilapidated seafront shelter, bookended by salt-stressed flower beds. Once resplendent, the painted red shelter now flakes, revealing smooth, brown wood. Smooth brown wood splinters, exposing a sharp, uninviting interior. Yet the gladiators sit, ignoring the cracking beneath them, blindly absorbing the blame for its erosion.

Mostly, they stare across the road at the ever-changing landscape of sea on stones. Their moods and actions reflect the impact of the water, distorting and blurring lines, forging paths where none existed before. Huge globs of sea foam fly from fierce, crashing waves, sometimes reaching as far as the windows of the spectators, who startle at the reminder that their view has life.

The spectators look down. Over their balconies, down, down, deep, past even the depths of the bottom of their glasses of vintage wine. Their buildings are old, but they patch them up. The balcony doors stick, swollen by the elements, and they wrench them open, planing off unneeded wood, relieved they can again force them to fit within their frames.

They watch the gladiators fight. When shall we intervene, they ask each other, mesmerised by staggering limbs and hollow shouts. When we see blood or death, they decide. Then we will call 999.

The spectators don’t physically fight: the windows of their glass houses won’t take the weight. Their judgements and psychological warfare, however, cut sharp like shattered glass.




Bill:

I focus on the double-everything in front of me. My two-headed companion, with her blurry legs and smudged torso. She held my hand and my drink while I purged too-much-lager, and now she’s taking a piss in the sea. She led me here, telling me that pissing in the sea is freer than pissing in a bush, that the two streams would mix together and make something new, something never seen before. Then she waded in, knee height, wobbling with the booze and the mighty grey waves, bunching her stained yellow dress in her hands and screaming as the stones cut into her bare feet. I imagine the little fish, weaver fish, buried under the sand, stinging her in revenge. She lets go of her dress, arms stuck out at right angles to her body, wading back towards me. I watch her stagger, her dress now sucking to her legs, trapping her inside it. Why are you pissing in the sea, I call thickly. You know they are watching, judging you, pissing in the sea. She doesn’t reply.


Mark:

I stare at her mouth, visualising disposable words dripping from her glossy mouth. I’m going to subscribe to coffee, she shrills. Two brown bags of the finest organic blend on the fourth of each month, one full roast, one decaff.

Don’t we already have a drink subscription?

That’s wine.

What about the one that comes on the tenth?

That’s meat.

What about the one that comes on the nineteenth?

That’s seasonal veg.

What about the one in the pink box?

That’s cosmetics, you know. For beauty.

What about the one in the box in the hallway?

That’s a wellness box.

What for?

For me.

For why?

Vitamins. To help me get pregnant.

I close my eyes and quickly say yes to the coffee. Let’s get a coffee plan. We can drink coffee while listening to music from the music plan or watching a film from the film plan. There are different types of coffee, she explains. You, she says, could have a long one or a short one, or one with syrup, or crema, or chocolate powder on top. And I, she continues, can have decaff. Decaff, she explains, because it’s safe for the baby that we are trying to have.

I open my eyes to look at her. Claire, with her fake tan, her long lashes, slashes of eyeliner and too-straight-hair giving me a headache. She’s covered from head to toe in smooth, shiny chemicals, absorbing into her skin, poisoning her brain. She makes me feel sick. She’s staring at me, waiting for comment. I close my eyes again and tilt my head back, imagining a different life.


Bill:

The shelter has four sides and each side has a bench. The north side of the shelter has the most protection from the wind. It’s ten steps away from a row of Victorian houses, turned into flats. It’s there that the smell of piss starts to fade.

All that can be seen from the north side are doors, balconies, and the spectators. I watch them watching us. I see them pointing, frowning, judging.

Someone brings a radio to the shelter one day, lifted from the tip, and we dance to music in between the adverts for windows and carpets and smart doorbells with cameras to see the world beyond. I look up and see a guy watching from a window one floor up. He is tall, imposing, yet his head is tilted as though he is curious, absorbed.

I look away and swig from a can. I might be me but I still get embarrassed.

I wonder if he dances, that guy at the window. I look again and now he is moving, talking on the phone. I watch him pace, his eyes fixed on me. I see him see me, but who looked first?

Mark:

I take a work call about selling pharmaceuticals to doctors, while watching a homeless man in the shelter. He looks up and then down. He notices me and I notice him.

Yes, yes, I’ll be back in on Tuesday and yes, we’ll go for that meal after to seal the deal. I’ll be there. Yes, on top form, better than well, not drinking at all these days, no. Yes, thank you for giving me some time off to better myself. Thank… yes, understood, important client, very important. Yes, Claire will be there. No, I’d be nothing without her, I would be a drunken mess, wouldn’t I?

My fake laughter stings my lips. I drain my wine glass and refill again. The homeless man looks up, I look down. He buddies up with a girl in a yellow dress, dancing with her: music punctuated by drinking, dancing punctuated by drinking, drinking punctuated by nothing.

My boss is still a noise in my ear, demanding. I top up my glass, shaking the bottle to capture the dregs from the bottom.

Yes, yes, yes, it’s in the diary. No, no, no, I won’t let us, the company, down again. I’ll be there, on my best behaviour. No alcohol… no. She’ll be there to keep me in line. Yes, no, yes, no yes no no no no.

I drink, watch him drinking, stumbling, falling into flower beds as I lean against walls. I see his face properly for the first time. He has a beard and sea-blue eyes. He is handsome. I hang up the call and I close my eyes and sway to the beat of my heart.

A cigarette butt between his lips lit by a passer-by and at that moment I wish I was next to him, sitting on a cracked bench amongst the flowers. I wish Claire would fuck off with her pedicures and nails and complicated stuff that makes her beautiful. And suddenly I am angry with her, with him, with myself, and my brain shakes black and red as I call the police and tell them all about that man who is sleeping amongst the flowers.


Bill:

Waking up on a hard police custody bench, scratching at the welts left by the fake wool blanket, ketones on my breath, feet cornflake-crusted and bare.

Clicking shoes down the corridor outside and the metal door shakes as the hatch drops, but there’s a second before a face appears and I want to tell the face that it shouldn’t be scared, it shouldn’t have to step to one side in case a fist appears through the hatch. Nobody should have to feel fear. Fear is the worst of all emotion.

The face says good morning, sir. We have decided you are now sober, it says. We will need to take your fingerprints again, it continues, and then we can release you. But, it continues, if you get drunk in a public place again you are likely to be looking at metal doors for at least a year.


Mark:

Claire comes home from yoga and takes a crystal wine glass from the crystal glass cupboard. She pours half a glass of wine, then rattles a container of vitamins. Before I can look away, she catches my eye.

Let’s get an early night.

I turn back to the window.

Why? I’d rather just watch the sea.

You want a baby, don’t you? Tomorrow, then? It’s been weeks.

There’s a storm coming, Agnes it’s called.

She slashes open a box with a knife.

Aha, single origin coffee. And?

I’ll want to see it.

You’ll want to see the coffee?

The storm.

You’ll be watching the storm instead of having sex with your wife?

Probably.

But why? And when, then?

Nothing’s changed, Claire. You’re still here, I’m still here, we still have what you married me for.

I married you for love.

You married me for money.

She sighs then, lifting the knife, opening her mouth to say something, then closing it again.

What?

Nothing.

You have something to say.

Just… just, why did you marry me?

I have a work thing. They want you there.

Don’t change the subject.

I didn’t. They want you there.

Do you want me there?

Yes I need you there.

Or you’ll lose your job, I suppose.

It’s best that one of us has a job.

You’d better not drink, then. And I’ll need a new dress.

I’ll give you some money.

Satisfied, she walks to the fridge, gathering pre-measured ingredients for our pre-measured dinner. She studies a plastic pot of diced white onion.

Perhaps you could cook tonight.

I'm busy.

You're staring out of the window.

I'm studying society.

She falls silent, tipping onion into a pan. The sound of sizzling fills the room and I face the window again and whisper that I’m going to leave her. But she can’t hear, I know that.


Bill:

My companion greets me when I return from the police station, thrusting half a can of lager in my hand and setting off to get some more. The doctor prescribed Diazepam during my overnight stay and it’s still in my bloodstream, stopping the shakes and the nausea, but still the half a can feels nice swirling with the medication in my stomach.

A support worker arrives, sent by the police. She seems kind, smells of flowers.

Her hair is whipped east and west, getting trapped on her lip gloss during its journey. She keeps hooking her little finger under strands and easing them away, rubbing her lips together to remove the gloss. She wants to know my story, and I tell her it will bore her. She sits a metre from me as though I am catching, or I will lurch or leap into her and then she’ll be like me.

I was in care, I tell her. But care didn’t care enough.

I laugh.

She nods.

My friend gets me drinks. With her money and my money. First thing in the morning. If it wasn’t for her I think I’d wait till later.

She writes.

I like living outside.

She speaks then.

What about the cold and rain?

I have a sleeping bag. Anyway, it’s punishment.

To punish you for what?

She is interested now, shuffling a bit closer.

For muggings and robbings and thievings.

Everyone deserves shelter.

I have shelter. I am happy here.

It’s the truth, of sorts. But I am not happy with the need, with the urge, with the abuse, the misuse, the mistakes, the blurred vision or with the judgement.

A door slams and a woman marches from the building opposite. I look up and see the man from the window wrench open the balcony door, his arms laden with fruit and vegetables, furiously throwing them, one by one, off the balcony. The woman jumps and dances around and swears, and he just laughs. I smile and he might be ten steps and one floor away, but still we lock eyes.

I jump as the support worker speaks.

Drama, eh? So, what would you be doing right now, if you could do anything?

I’d read a book in peace.

She opens her rucksack and passes me a bottle of water, a packet of fags and a dog-eared crime thriller.

What’s this for?

Reading.

Don't you want it?

I just finished it.

She writes more notes. The door in front of me opens again and this time it’s the guy, smart shirt opened at the neck, shoe laces undone, heading towards the shelter. He trips and suddenly he is falling in front of me, at my feet, falling heavily, his hand reaching for stability and landing on my knee, and I ask, you ok? I’m ok, he says, looking up at me. My gaze is locked on his and I feel the silence between our words dragging, heavy with something else.


Mark:

He’s got a visitor. From my window, I watch her get out of her car and take her first tentative step towards the bench, inhaling deeply and straightening her neck, her back. I can tell she is nervous and that the books she has read and the years she has worked and the presentations she watches can never be enough to prepare her for the reality of getting out of her car and approaching an unwashed man on an unwashed bench.

Claire is home late today. The doorbell rings twice and each time it’s a box-of-something. The delivery driver smiles with pity. The second box arrives just as she does and she pushes past me on the communal stairs as I lug it up to the flat. It’s your seasonal fruit and veg, I call after her.

It’s our seasonal fruit and veg, and it’s for smoothies.

She picks up speed and storms through the flat door.

Can you smoothie a TURNIP?

I trail her, slamming the door behind me. She is standing in the hall, fists clenched by her side, red-faced and furious.

If I had thought things through properly I would have opted for poor and happy instead.

You could never be poor, Claire, what about your nails?

Oh, for… just fuck off, would you?

But she fucks off instead, storming back down the stairs, slamming doors. I don’t want this life, this pretend wife, but she is all that’s between me and losing my job. All I can do right now is to take an armful of stupid carrots and potatoes and cabbages and wrangle open the balcony door and there I stand, throwing her stupid vegetables at her as she dances a dance of falling organic seasonal fruit and veg and then she shouts that I am a cunt and walks off to wherever it is she usually goes to avoid me.

And when she has gone I look past the potatoes back to the bench and I see that the woman’s shoulders have relaxed and I see a smile play on his lips. Then I see her shuffle closer and pass him some water and a packet of cigarettes and a book and I wonder what the book is. Probably drivel about empowerment and mindfulness and breathing properly and taking time to listen to the screaming inside.

I haven’t yet drunk a drop but I feel heady, adrenalin rushing to my brain, my heart, my eyes. He looks at me and I feel drawn by this moment, by his world, his life, his smile, and I grab my coat and my keys and I descend the stairs and steps and slopes. He is watching me, holding his book, the woman next to him taking notes, and I trip on my untied shoelaces. I look up as I stumble and see his eyes and I fall and grab his knee, and can feel myself tumbling into his life.


Bill:

He’s there, in front of me and in my mind, and the world might still be spinning but mine has stopped as I hold his warm hand to help him to his feet, and he rises and thanks me, his gaze and hand not leaving mine.

I hear movement and cans and bottles clanking in a carrier bag and then a shrill voice piercing the stillness of my world, and in enters my companion, stage left. Bi-i-i-i-llll, she calls, holding the bag high in the air like a trophy.

I glance at her and then back at the man, who wrenches his hand from mine, wiping it on his trousers. He mumbles that his name is Mark and I feel excitement rise from my stomach to my throat, constricting it like gentle hands, and when the feeling moves on and up it begins to squeeze the top of my nose and then it is behind my eyes, making them prickle and sting as though he is moving within them, adjusting my focus.


Mark:

His pupils constrict and expand as though a light is turning on and off and on and off. As I watch he blinks and his pupils dilate again and I am so close that I can see my face in their black black depths. Reality pierces my earholes as the girl who pisses in the sea calls a name, his name, this man’s name is Bill, I’m holding the hand of a man named Bill.

I release his hand and wipe it on my trousers, shame flushing my cheeks.

I walk back up the slopes, back up the steps, back up the stairs, back to my podium.

I close the door behind me and lean, bending my weak knees until I am crouching, not like a predator but like frightened prey, and I hear a fumbling and the sharp sound of a key trying to find a lock and oh god oh god oh she’s back but I’m not me, I’m not ready for her yet.

She has been to the corner shop and bought a pregnancy test and in the public toilets she has pissed on it. And while I was falling into a heap on the pavement outside my life, her life was just beginning inside her. Her life begins with two lines.

She holds the test in front of my eyes and smiles but the weakness inside me takes over from any strength I have forced myself to grow. I can feel it suffocating me, layering on top of the lies on my skin. I stand on my wobbling legs.

I can’t do this anymore. This is all a lie.

We work together, when we’re good. We can focus on the baby, give it everything.

I can’t.

You have to.

I can’t.

And then she screams, punching at me, the wall, the air, and I push past her, thorugh the door, away from my life.


Bill:

I shift on the bench to reach a can from the bag on the floor, my eyes locked on the door that swallowed him.

I want to talk to him. I stand, but the door opens before I can reach it, and he walks towards me.


Mark:

I walk towards him, towards Bill. Bill, I say, could I sit with you? But then I hear her shouting behind me and I turn and there she is, standing at the door, screaming and lurching towards me, holding the knife she uses to open the boxes. I raise my hand, feeling force pushing through flesh, puncturing and penetrating.


Bill:

Could I sit with you, he asks, but she’s followed him out, a knife in her hand. She lunges and the knife is now covered in blood, his blood.

You can’t leave us, she is wailing, not now not now.

He says nothing.

I move towards him.

I reach, squeeze his sticky hand, forcing the blood back inside, back inside so it can be caught and pumped to send some colour back to his ashen face.

Bill, he says, smiling weakly. Hello.




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