The Loch

I named the fox ‘Kafka’ because he is irrelevant and because he tosses around a lot in his sleep. It can be annoying. I had never imagined foxes get nightmares. These days we sleep together, the fox and I, in my trailer by the loch.

I call it a loch but that is since I found it earns me the locals’ respect. The loch is not really a loch –it has no proper name– and not even a lochan perhaps. Maybe just a big pond.

An entire year went by before I made the decision to relocate. I had never before inherited a lake, so weighing my options took considerable time. I did not even know there was a lake involved when I was first informed, over the phone, of the existence of a parcel of land registered in my name. I discovered as much when I travelled to see it. I took ownership but did not move here until the following summer, giving up the Big Smoke and my life in it.

At the time, I was working as a non-destructive testing technician for a London-based company. Other than that we shared the same surname, that he had dropped out of Princeton and that he had been a shipping magnate, I knew nothing of the uncle who left me a plot of land almost forty hectares large in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands of Scotland. I never met the man. His wife and executor of his will said her husband, childless as they were, had bequeathed property to every relation of his, no matter how distant, in the hopes that his name and life’s work would be fondly remembered.

I cannot say I relate. Maybe I just never had ambition in me or simply I do not care for the love people seem so keen to go after. In my eyes, all the earth ever was is a planet populated by morons, most of which are in dire need of leaders and some of which opt for fulfilling that role. So simple. People clinging onto religion, fighting for lost causes, creating art. Making up purposes of every kind. Anything to lull existence until the final defeat. I do not think there is anything that matters really. I was always one for anchoritism, I guess. But living so detached from the world puts things into a certain perspective.

I have lived here for the past four years and have yet to decide what to do with the loch. There is not much you can do with an expanse of water. I am not attached to it but I admit it is handsome to look at and imagine its depth. In the winter, with its surface frozen as if by the all-encompassing silence, it becomes one with the land surrounding it, a secret sort of being, imperceptible. Maybe I will stay, maybe I won’t.

The fox found me one afternoon in September. He came out of the forest and stood there, at the bank on the other side of the loch, staring at me. I remained immobile for an hour until he got bored and disappeared into the woods, a blush in the low light.

He kept coming and going. Two months later he was eating out of the palm of my hand. When I dared to touch him, I laughed out loud and scared him. Nowadays he does not even mind me brushing him, in springtime when his moulting gets bad, so the trailer is not covered in hair. I prefer his looks in late autumn though; he gets all dapper and cushiony.

Because he is so docile, I suspect Kafka might have belonged to and escaped from someone breeding domesticated foxes. On the other hand, it is clear he has spent enough of his life in the wild, maybe as a stray cub that lost both his parents and somehow survived. When I met him, he was neither a cub nor an adult fox, not a proper one, but something in between. Hence he will always be semi-wild, regardless how long I spend with him.

The first time I put trance on the speakers, Kafka flipped out. This was before I installed a cat flap –a fox flap– and closing the door earlier had been an inadvertent movement on my part to forestall the evening mosquito attack. Instinctively, too, I put on music. The fox was napping curled up in the middle of my white bed sheets while I was busy cooking on the other side of the trailer, over the stove and the adjacent small counter. Thoughtless, I just reached and turned on the stereo.

He wrecked the place, thrashing about and jumping like a lunatic against the walls, hissing and whimpering with considerable brio. Whatever he thought was going on, in his tiny fox brain he had translated the sudden sound as a direct threat. Ears fallen back, tail stashed between his legs, he kept launching himself wild-eyed against my few neatly stacked possessions on the shelves.

The spectacle seemed to me hysterical until the devil bit me. He got me right in the calf, his teeth burying sharply into the soft flesh below my left knee. I did not expect this. As I spun around gasping, I sent the pan with the teriyaki chicken crashing into the washing machine.

Apparently, a terrified fox turns into a jaw-locked idiot. It took me ten minutes to dislodge his toothy grip on my leg, petting his head all the while and muttering continually ‘Stupid baby fox, stupid baby fox,’ under tearful eyes.

The fox listens to trance now. After several low-volume, carefully orchestrated training sessions involving fox treats (hamsters I bought from a pet shop in Inverness) and cuddles, I conditioned him to tolerate the beats. It is pure happiness, jumping into the jeep at night with the fox on my heels, driving to the other side of the loch, turning off the lights and blasting the speakers with 90’s trance classics, rolling up and watching the galaxy. There is no light pollution so all the stars are visible.

Once, I let the fox share a joint with me. The first times I smoked around him, Kafka avoided standing too close, perhaps unsettled by the pungent smell. As with everything else, he gradually grew used to it. One night in the car, I leaned in and breathed smoke I had not inhaled into his nostrils. His nose felt hard and wet against my lips. He freaked out a bit but after a while he loosened up, rested his head on the seat and was blinking very, very slowly.

Sometime in January that first year, the fox disappeared. He just left, early one morning to tend to whatever fox business he tends to when he is not here, and did not return for supper. After three days without any sign, I took the Subaru and drove around looking for him, unwillingly keeping an eye out for road kill. Nada. Fox gone, I started sleeping naked again, a habit I had been forced to give up since he was so scratchy a partner.

Then, in the middle of the night almost a full month later, I was woken up by frantic licking on my beard. The prodigal fox was back. And not only that. He smelled strongly like something from the underworld and had lost half his weight. His fur featured rough patches where skin was showing and he had obviously received bites in a couple of places. I had read up on their mating habits, and the following years I never wondered where the fellow went when he took flight around January, but that first time I was not expecting the fox to return. At least he looked happy, I thought, if not beggarly and spent, and was more aggressive in his affections than I remembered. I realized that despite his fond shrills and unmuffled excitement at our re-acquaintance he was also a bit shaken, which I connected with the barking outside. Probably the dog had followed him all the way here. I pushed the fridge in front of the door, blocking the fox flap, and groggily went back to bed, facing the wall to avoid my stinking fox’s endearments.

In the morning the dog was still there, sporting a sullen and menacing mood that didn’t bode well at all with the peaceful mist hanging over the loch. And I loved the fox, so I calmly picked up my rifle, went down the trailer steps, and blew the dog’s brains out.


the loch

Kandinsky – Joyous Ascent

01010000 01101111 01100101 01101101

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poem

Kandinsky – Round Poetry

Temple

In the East someplace there’s got to be a temple
where devotees of the wind spend all the day silent

secret as bees, deaf as a man underwater or
man-under-train, gasping for breath

far from our European capitals and the noise of
life, continually resonating through our screens

like traffic; stuck and static, occasionally an
inadvertent crash, the shock and kick of a kiss—

Some Oriental marvel, perhaps, that I will never
understand (and I could never possibly understand)

but this temple has to exist, like a taxi to the sky
they got to be there and studying the politics

of air, these monks factorying silence
humble like weather dials and

almost as passionate as you, who
always had time for another time—

I respect myself so I never research to see
whether such a place does really exist (though it must)

just I love thinking about it and its
restness, what sort of haven it would be

but the swarmer and the brawler in my heart gets
going again, seeks an opening for the haymaker

like a novel delivered to you by Rocky Marciano
that it never mattered other than fight—


Kandinsky - Untitled

Kandinsky – Untitled

No More Bets

That stark, crispy cold. London’s familiar morning mist making clouds of my breath. Not a soul on the streets. My hands, apron and eventually the lighter are painted red by blood. So fucking surreal.

Between my lips the fag tastes like a carpet would, I imagine. Smoke, evicted from my mouth, mingles with the mist. From inside the venue, the music plays on:

Mr. Mojo Risin’, Mr. Mojo Risin’
Mr. Mojo Risin’, Mr. Mojo Risin’
Got to keep on risin’…

Morrison accelerates in a gritty hue and breaks into a howl. Red lights roll in the mist.

Police arrive and I’m still smiling like a lunatic.

~

‘Kris doesn’t really want to win. He’s playing for the game.’

This gains me a smile. The Korean turns to us briefly before refocusing on the screen and a big grin forms on his face as he nods, ‘Dat’s true’.

‘Yeah, ha. Better say Kris don’t know how to win,’ Felix gets up pretending to be frustrated and walks to the office. His name is Felicjan, Polish. But here he’s simply Felix. Names tend to get butchered in this place.

Same with me. My name is Cypriot: Damaskinos Eleftheriou. This is what the tag on my uniform reads:

Damaskinos
Assistant Manager

Here to Help!
Xerxes Casino London

Still, everyone here calls me D. Partly because it’s shorter, partly for the jokes.

‘Your love’s here again, yeah?’ Felix blurts entering the small office. 

‘Who?’ I don’t look up. I’m sitting on the floor before the safe, counting notes. 

‘Mrs Lu, yeah?’ 

Mrs Lu. Korean woman, mid-60s. Two sugars, very little milk. Always plays Magic Gems, knows when to stop. Well, mostly. Doesn’t talk much. 

‘Mhm.’ 

‘She asking for coffee…’ Felix pauses dramatically as if I don’t know what will follow. ‘But I think she wants the D!’ 

I emulate a facepalm to keep him happy. Felix laughs and I have to go out to serve Mrs Lu because she won’t drink coffee made by anyone other than me. Apparently, I’m a coffee-making god.

~

The venue is empty at this hour, 4.30 am. But we’re 24/7, you never know when someone might walk in. I have to do the hoovering, clean the screens, change a light bulb, maybe do some refills and check the float for the morning shift. But we’re waiting for Kris to leave to turn off the machines. I have time, so I’m staying on the floor watching the Korean play and thinking about names.

I know Kris isn’t his real name. I mean, half the people here use fake names anyway. Either because they’re foreigners or. If you look at our books, they’re full of Lees, Rays, Mikes, Sams and Nicks. Anything, as long as it’s short and can be confused for someone else. No gambler wants his real name written down.

In front of me, Kris is playing on two of the three Golden Jubilees. He’s been checking the screens for a whole five minutes. Now he’s standing like a rooster, head tilted slightly forward, one foot a step ahead of the other, and places his hands on each machine’s START button. He waits, waits, then presses them both simultaneously, lunging forward and jolting back again, as though startled. His face is a marvel, so empty and so alive, eyes dashing back and forth between the screens as the machines begin to gurgle.

The slots spin. No combos.

‘Aaaaah!’ he lets out a big sigh.

‘Kris? Why don’t you try three of them at the same time?’ I ask.

He turns to me, confused. They can never tell when I’m joking.

‘Look, right? You can just stand at the middle one, like this,’ I get up to demonstrate, facing Golden Jubilee #2. ‘Then press these two with your hands and the middle one with your knee. For better luck, you know?’

Kris is laughing as I stand there pretending to press three START buttons on the machines, maintaining a pose that looks like some karate move.

‘Nawww!’ he says. ‘You make fun of me, naw!’ His mouth when he pronounces ‘o’ produces the roundest vowel I’ve ever heard. He laughs and pats me on the shoulder when I resume my seat.

‘What in the hell are you two doing?!’ Felix pops his head out the office door, eyes bigger than two-pound coins. He’s been checking the float for the hundredth time, I know, sat like a bear on the floor before the safe, counting and stealing glances at the CCTV monitor. Felix is obsessed with the float, checks it even when we haven’t performed any transactions, as though the money in the safe might eat each other or the numbers betray him and turn up fewer digits than before. He must have seen my graceful kung-fu-style gambling demonstration on the camera board.

‘He making fun of me!’ Kris complains, smiling wide.

I don’t say anything. I’m sitting on the short chair in front of Ultra Bets III, in the middle of the room.

Felix leaves the office and comes closer, holding a bunch of twenties. ‘What’s this?!’ he says, looking at my hands.

I’m holding my komboloi. It’s a game, a string of beads you just play with to pass time.

‘My anal beads?’ I tell him and give the komboloi a flick. Crack it goes.

His eyes bulge even more before he gets the joke.

Finally, he does. ‘Oh, it’s like a praying thing. Rosary, yeah?’ He facepalms. Then turns mischievous. ‘Because if it were anal beads, they really small, you know, that tell something about you.’ We’re laughing.

‘What you doing anyway? Praying for Kris?’

‘Indeed. Praying he stops gambling his money away. The day he never returns to this place I’ll be happy about him,’ I say.

‘Pray that he fucking leaves so we can do some work round here,’ Felix starts, his attention diverted to our only customer. ‘Kris? You know it’s five, yeah? We got to turn off the machines, they’re fucking burning! They been on for two days! You don’t sleep? What you even doing awake at this hour, for fuck’s sake?! You were here when I came at nine…’

And on it goes. Felix directs a torrent of life advice to him. The Korean keeps on playing unabashed with a smile on his face, answering once every ten sentences. It’s always like that.

Their voices fade out as I get up and return to the office. I think about how almost nothing here is what it seems. Apart from Kris, we’re not truly cheerful. Felix isn’t happy; his constant stream of frustration and obsessive rechecking of the float are ways to vent, from too much pressure. And I? What am I doing here? My jokes are a rugged defence, determination to pull through, some unbelievable temerity I have in me. I’m overworked. Have slept three hours in the past two days. The clock on the wall marks my ninth hour of work for today and I’m looking at another two before I can go home. I should be writing.

I gather the pots of coins and stacks of notes from the floor and put them back in the safe. The keys are still on it; I take them and keep them in my vest’s pocket. Return the scale and paperwork to the desk. It’s 05.00 am. I wonder what Isabelle’s up to. Sleeping, probably.

I make coffee. I’m tired of the store’s radio station and the pop shit it regurgitates. I turn up the volume, hit Forbidden Tigers on the speakers, and drag Henry behind me. Henry’s the hoover.

When Son of a Carnivore comes up, I headbang throughout the song and air guitar with the hoover hose. The other two souls in there laugh with my shenanigans.

~

I don’t kill the spider in the toilet. It’s webbed up pretty much the whole left ceiling corner. But I never kill spiders, I like them, how stoical they look.

Instead, I just clear the web. Strange. I’ve never noticed this before. Matte paper? Whoever in their right mind would use matter paper with –what’s this, blue tac!– to cover a hole in the tiles? But they have. Fang, probably. Nothing goes to waste in this place with her. The matte paper is all-white, almost indistinguishable over the tiles, covering up the hole perfectly.

I prize it open carefully with my fingertips. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Just a hole in the wall. In the gents of a machines-only arcade in a London suburb.

The spider is unaffected by my curiosity.

~

‘You’re terrible silent when you cum.’

I’m lying out of breath on top of her, a puppet unstringed, aware of my weight pressing her down. Isabelle’s laptop is playing deep house or something. The statement catches me unaware.

‘What the hell. I didn’t know I had to announce it to the world.’

‘No, like, I just never know when you finish, is all,’ she laughs. I can’t see her face, the laptop’s light facing away from us.

‘What the hell, surely it’s obvious when someone stops fucking you!

‘Not necessarily, no.’

‘Ouch.’

‘You could, you know, moan or something.’

‘Let me get this right. You finished. Why would you need to know the exact moment I follow?’

‘It’d just be nice, my god!

She pushes me to the side with a bit of effort and goes to get water. Not much of a cuddler.

When she’s back and we start again, I wait a bit. Then, as she’s spasming and about to finish, I start shouting, hysterically loud as I can: ‘NEIGHBOURS, NEIGHBOURS, I’M CUMMING, I’M CUMMING, AAAAAAAGH!’

She’s finishing and cracking up into nervous laughter and punching my face by accident all at the same time while trying to shush me with her flying hands and hissing, What the hell is wrong with you?! 

In the end she buries my head under the pillow and continues moving over me.

Feels like the sea contained in a flat.

~

‘Ladies and gentlemen…’ I cough, put on my radio voice.

The fifteen or sixteen guys on the floor, some of them playing, some watching, look up momentarily. Their eyes return to the screens though their ears perk up.

‘Welcome to Homewrecker Casino Laaandon. The one, singular, most bizarre place to spend your hard-earned quid without even experiencing the marvels of getting dildo-penetrated in the rectum by a midget hooker tripping on ecstasy.’

This brings zero reaction. I speak quite fast and, of course, their English is worse than basic.

It’s 02.15 am. Time for the hourly promotions announcement I’ve been postponing for the whole shift. I’ve pulled my chair next to the CCTV screen and I’m holding the mic close to my mouth. We’re supposed to be on the floor and addressing the customers directly when making announcements; fuck that.

‘You’re listening to another public service announcement brought to you by this handsome bastard soon-to-be-worldwide-acclaimed-author currently playing host in this asylum packed with lunatics –for the record, that’s you, gentlemen…’

Fast, I switch off the mic and press the CD function on the monitor. The previously paused 4 Non Blondes song on the PC resumes playing:

I try all the time
In this institution

And I pray, oh my God do I pray
I pray every single day…

Lydia, the only Brit in this business, is working with me tonight. She rolls her eyes from the other side of the office. I wink at her and she beams back.

I switch to the mic.

‘I pray for you, my nanny goats, truly. In this house of sin and decadence you so willingly and idiotically inhabit everyday, you should know there is, really, one exquisite person deeply caring for you and hoping for your salvation. Kris, stop excavating your nose dude, that’s so fucking disgusting mate.’

They turn to him and some of them laugh.

‘Gentilz homies o’ mine,’ I resume, honeying up my voice, ‘I was going to tell you all about how an American magazine’s hosting a short story of mine this month…’ I clear my throat, ‘…but knowing what illiterate nescient Philistines nursing no affection whatsoever for the miracle of written word you collectively are, I shall spare you the trouble.’

Lydia laughs. They haven’t picked any of that either, of course.

‘But my dear genteel anthropoids, the fact none of you reads me –do you copy, Houston?– or gives a lousy crap about my glorious-to-be career notwithstanding, and seeing how I’m by policy obligated to inform you on our current promotions, let’s get on with that shite before we can get this party rocking again, shall we.’

Of course of course, we’re supposed to be reading from the designated cards when making announcements but hell, this is way more entertaining.

‘This week, as every other week before this one and until the end of time, when oblivion descends upon our poor arses and all the nice things Johnny details in the book of Revelation will take place, i.e. when the Lamb Beast that speaks like a dragon visits and the pissed off angels that’ll be butchering the lot of us arrive– until then, sinner comrades, Xerxes Casino London is offering all our beloved customers tokens for match play up to the whooping sum of ten pounds, ohmygoshdudesdidyouevenhearthaaat?!’ I’m booming in the microphone. ‘Ten pounds match play for you, zhentlemen. Because we love you. Deeply. Intricately. Sexually. But wait, what’s that?’ I pause and send the mic gliding on the counter towards Lydia.

She picks it up. ’Not only that, D. Just for this week-‘ Lydia underlines, as I’m obviously totally ignorant of our running promotions, ‘you get another five pounds in tokens for signing up a friend!’

She passes the mic back to me, concluding with a pretty gesture opening her palms.

‘Woo!’ I exclaim. ‘Hear that, mofos? Don’t be a gambling addict on your own, ruin your best mate’s life too! Tsk, tsk, tsk.’ I look at Lydia. ‘From such a beautiful face, such dangerous proposals. But wait a moment here – I think I’m on to something. Is it my idea or does every employee in this demons’ lair possess a pretty face?! Is it possible we’re employed based solely on our good looks?!’

I get up and open the office door. Lydia directs me a worried look; she has no idea what I’m playing at.

‘Fellow primates of mine,’ I breathe into the mic as I enter the floor and most of them turn around, ‘I need your sincere opinion on this subject.’

They’re a bit wide-eyed. Good.

I reach out, pick Lydia’s hand and lead her out of the office. She spins and makes a turn under my raised palm – the girl’s a natural at impro.

‘Would you say our dear Lydia here iiis biutifol?’ I elaborate on the mic.

The guys send a quite loud cheer, mostly of ‘yes’s’ but a couple of them add other stuff, in their languages.

‘Ta, mah geezers.’ I direct Lydia back to the office. She curtsies a couple of times, walking backwards.

‘And what about me, now. I’m pretty handsome too, no?’

All of them, Korean, Chinese and Polish, gang up into a loud ‘NOOO’ and several ‘boo’s’.

I fake running back to the office, evading imaginary thrown vegetables. Close the door behind me. They’re all –including Lydia– crumpling with laughter now, shaking their heads.

‘Fuckers. Gits. Crustaceans,’ I mouth into the mic, resuming my position on the chair before the monitor. ‘I think they might like you a bit,’ I say to Lydia, who’s beaming again, ‘and as for me, I certainly feel adored. Gentlemen, I sincerely can’t tell you how much your vote of confidence means to me. From the bottom of my ductus deferens, I love you all. No homo.’

I feel the phone in my pocket vibrating. Isabelle? Time to tie things up.

‘So, my dearest aardvarks, belemnites, colocynths, jobbernowls,’ I read in alphabetical order from the list of Captain Haddock’s insults I’ve typed down, printed and stuck next to the monitor for such occasions, ‘…lemme remind you how you may always ask any member of staff apart from me for a cold drink, coffee, tea or a Jesus pamphlet should that come in helpful. Lemme also remind you that alcohol consumption is strictly prohibited in the premises. Of course, both you and I know all too well that every time you visit the paragon of filth we superficially still call ‘the toilets’ you come out drunker than Dionysus on a party night… It’s almost as if our sinks are pouring out pure absinth! But seeing as I haven’t yet overcome my repulsion of beholding other men’s pet-prawns, for the moment I still won’t be checking on you, so you may continue boozing freely in the loos.’

‘But, gentlemen, please keep this in mind. Shall you attempt to harm our machines, harass our beautiful members of staff –I’m talking about me here–, or get on my nerves for any other reason, I shall kick your arses out the door and make sure you’re banned for life. Capish, bros? Remembah Patrick.’

Nothing from the floor, but I know they heard that last bit. Sometimes they get a bit too friendly with the female staff, so it’s good to remind them of manners. ‘Friendly’ as in groping, hugging from behind, and making unwelcome proposals. And of course there was Patrick.

‘And after that delightful note, lets resume your education on the most excellent music genre there ever existed per se, that is, Swedish melodic death metal, you wankerful crew. This is In Flames, Through Oblivion, from their latest album, Siren Charms. Hallelujah!’

I off the mic, switch the monitor to CD function, and put on the song. Lydia goes out to serve drinks.

The text on my mobile is indeed from Isabelle. Brief. Rather dramatic, too.

Don’t contact me again. You. Fucking. Arsehole.

~

I’m an eidetic. I can recall, at any point in time, with perfect clarity, any moment I’ve experienced myself or have heard of second-hand.

I’ve never told anyone. At first, simply because I thought everyone was that way. And then because I’d realized it’s useful.

Other eidetics remember sounds. With me, it happens with images, scents, numbers, and feelings.

I can tell you exactly what sort of clothes the cab driver wore when Isabelle and I took a taxi back to the hotel on our last night in Madrid last August. The float in the fun place twenty-six days ago included £750 in fifties, £3,240 in twenties, £2,780 in tenners, £2.20 in silver, £0.09 in copper. And on the 26th of April 2012, the day I met Isabelle for the first time, there blew a north-west wind that stopped precisely at 18:15.

I’ve never used mnemonics or any other technique to enhance my memory. Call me lazy but I believe I’m training it regardless through observation. This is convenient when I research prior to writing a story; it may take me months to gather the relevant material and go through it but I never have to make an archive, use post-its, take notes, all that. I simply recall everything.

It also comes in handy on other occasions. For example. Ultra Bets II, v.2.0037. If you play, gamble-off, with a 50p stake for 34 spins, without collecting or adding credit, then change the stake to £1 for 18 spins, then back to 50p for 4 spins, the rows that come up on your screen are:

Jack of Hearts—Jack of Clubs—Three of Spades—Nine of Hearts
Ace of Diamonds—Eight of Clubs—Two of Clubs—Queen of Hearts
Four of Spades—Six of Spades—Jack of Diamonds—King of Spades
Three of Clubs—Four of Diamonds—Queen of Clubs—Seven of Spades

Now, that’s not a winning combo. But if immediately after this screen you change the stake back to £1 and spin again, gamble-on this time, ring-ding-ding! – congratulations, my friend, you’ve hit the £600 jackpot. All in all, thirty-eight quid for six hundred, not a bad exchange.

Of course, I don’t have to remember to carry enough money on me when I work lone shift. It just occurs to me. As I said, I’m eidetic.

~

‘You told me once, pretty boy, now go back to your work.’

Leo, who’s instructing me to leave him alone –his real name is Andrej– is right though he’s more handsome than me. He’s a builder, his clothes dirty as his look, and he has spent £2,300 in the last four hours playing on the Silver Performer. He winks at me and I wonder how can a wink be so menacing, how the fuck does he do that.

His expression communicates what every male in the world would immediately interpret as a direct threat. The ancient-old facial gesture of ‘I’m up for a fight’. Challenging. But I know it’s for show only. I won’t bite; I’m just taking the piss with him.

I suggested he doesn’t hit the machine. Last month he broke the lower screen, £1,200 worth of damage. But Fang didn’t ban him from the fun place. After a furious bout between them where she effectively over-screamed him, she allowed him to keep coming, provided he behaves and with the knowledge that next time he even as much as scratches a machine he will find the police at his doorstep. Because even with that much damage, he’d spent enough for us to have profits, imagine.

Since then, however, Leo –or Andrej– takes care not to hit the machine too hard, even when he’s losing big. I smile big too, when he punches the Silver Performer at 5.45 am –mildly, for his standards– and leaves, having lost a total of three thousand pounds. An animal tamed.

~

‘It doesn’t take much to realize this is a business. With more than one hundred stores all over the country, obviously these places are making profit, right? The machines are designed to take more than they give, how hard can it be to grasp this concept? So why in the name of fuck would you ever believe you might always be the one out of fifty guys that happens to win? Every time?! It’s implausible, by logic.’

Lydia here, upset at the gamblers’ mentality, venting during a slow shift.

‘And forget them. What about us? We had to sign that paper confirming we accept to work longer than the legal eight hours. CCTV is rarely for the benefit of observing the customers – mostly it’s so they can spy on us and call to berate us for this or that. Why is the office door open, why are you sitting down, even if there’s no customers I’m sure you can find something to do, why are our profits this month only fifty thousand. Really? Not to mention the fear of getting robbed on every single shift.’

I don’t make a reply.

‘These places should be illegal. Entertainment? What entertainment? Kim stole his wife’s card to continue playing. Phil has lost a house and is living with his son, from who he borrows –right?– to continue playing. Sugar Lee,’ (as opposed to No-Sugar Lee), ‘is on benefits and has two kids, a boy, seven, and a girl, three. Ray has lost over £74,000 in two years –Felix told me yesterday– and his wife divorced him. Still here, everyday. Last week? Nimish came in asking us for food, for food, because he’s getting paid at the end of the month and he’s got nothing left.’

She’s new so I don’t tell her this is the stuff you hear about. Every story has untold sides.

‘It’s a company,’ I say instead. ‘Think of all the people employed by it, on the other hand.’

‘Spare me,’ she says. ‘A company that ‘forgets’ to pay the bonus every second time we earn it. A company that’s established an obligatory half-an-hour break every six hours we work here. Even though we’re not allowed to leave the place because of course we’re working alone and hold the keys to the safe. What do you do during your breaks at three fucking ey em? Visit your aunt for tea? You know how much they save from this ‘well-meant practice’ of not paying the half-hour, eh? Cutting from all the employees across the country? Even with the minimum wage they pay, it comes up to tens of thousands per year.’

I’m silent. Not on a good day.

‘It’s an asylum, this place, literally. I keep thinking how all these people are sick and our job is to nurse their sickness, keep them sick, milk them off their money. And nobody else seems really concerned about what we do here. They treat it as a basic job and there’s that. Too bad it happens to be destructive to other people.’

‘Well,’ I say. ‘After all it’s our job, yours and mine, to ask them to stop when their spending gets out of hand, right?’

‘Are you serious? They’re addicts. You know full well they won’t listen to anything we’ve got to say.’ Lydia seems infuriated.

‘Too bad then. If they’re not mature enough to see what’s going on, don’t they deserve it?’ I ask her.

Lydia gives me a sick look and storms out the office. I watch her on the CCTV monitor, picking up Henry and starting with the front door carpet. I did the hoovering half an hour ago.

It’s quite clear she wants out. Would I be useful was I making her shifts more comfortable, I wonder.

~

No matter how weird all of them are, Kris is the weirdest. The Korean has been playing in our venue since May. It’s October. He always gambles for small sums and rarely wins. He spends maybe £10 or £20 a night, comes every night. I’ve only seen him win once or twice, something like £70 or £100.

Why is he weird? Several reasons. First, he never gets angry when he loses. I’ve seen gamblers hit the machines, kick them, swear and spit on them, get up and full-on punch the screen using hands, helmets, even the fire extinguisher. But Kris never loses it. He constantly wears that vague smile on his face, as though he’s on some sort of nirvana and losing can’t really touch him. I’ve never seen him frustrated, not once.

Two, his playing style is the worst I’ve ever seen, by far. Of course I’m relatively new at the job and don’t know much about gambling. But the guy’s been playing with the same technique for months now and never tries out anything else. This is very strange. Especially if you consider he watches other players all the time. He has this annoying habit of standing there, behind their shoulder, and watching them play. But he never changes his style, not even when we tell him to. I’ve asked him dozens of times why he keeps spending his money on our most obscure, low-profit-yielding games. His answer never varies: he likes them. When I question him on his unchanging, unwinning betting technique, he shrugs. Says he has his own theory about how the machines work. When I press on, telling him his theories are bollocks as his months-long record of losing proves, he laughs.

It’s as if the guy wants to lose his money. He always chooses the smallest stake on the slot games, 25p, and takes ages to spin. He has his own ritual too. I mean, they all have. Some press the START button with both thumbs. Others take out money from the credit and put it back again before spinning. One or two even caress the machine on the side, or press the keys multiple times, muttering stuff under their breath. Kris does all of these. He repeatedly changes the stake, always ending up on the 25p, takes out the money, puts it back in, touches the screen all over the golden pot that promises a jackpot, then presses the START button with both hands, taking a small step backwards as though afraid his ritual might not work.

And invariably it doesn’t. When he plays roulette, his favourite, he takes entire hours to spend a tenner. He never bets more than the minimum amount, one pound, even when his winnings allow him to bet for more. Winnings and the betting amount are correspondent; the bigger your winnings, the higher you can bet. Not Kris. Kris always bets £1, wins £0.80 or £1.20 maybe. Place your wagers, the machine says. Again, he bets £1, after taking ages to ‘predict’ what the next winning number will be. The ball lands on a different roulette square, and Kris smiles. Then he bets £1 again, filling squares with electronic chips. Locks his selection on the screen. No more bets, the machine announces as he spins. And again and again and again.

~

Chumbawamba, Tubthumping. This place could do with some cheerfulness. Or I could.

It’s 01.00 am and I have only three people in, all of them the quiet sort. I’ve already hit the jackpot on Ultra Bets II four times this month (when on a lone shift and with my body positioned carefully blocking the screen from the camera’s view, as though I’m just resting on it) and I wouldn’t risk the machine’s payout records becoming suspicious, so nothing exciting on the horizon. I’ve no one to return home to and I don’t feel like withdrawing in the office and writing. Actually, I feel like drinking.

My shift end is approaching –only two hours away– so I call Jay. Saturday night, no surprise he calls back after 30’, from a club’s toilet by the sound of it. In the meantime, I’ve already ordered wine from an overpriced night delivery service and instructed the kind lady to please ask the driver to park at the back.

Jay sounds moderately inebriated and tells me to call him when I’m outside, he’ll figure out a way to gatecrash me in even though it’s a VIP night and despite my disgusting beard. He’s a fox in these things, I have no doubt he will.

I realize there’s no point trying to convince him for a quiet night out. And I’ve got some catching up to do, so when the driver arrives with the shittiest Pinot Grigio you’ve ever tasted I tip him a fiver, smuggle the bottle into the office hiding it in my dealer’s apron and, standing on the far left corner out of the camera’s eye, pretty much gulp the thing down.

~

The floor trembles under my feet and the beat from the speakers is so loud it can wake the dead and make a frantic army of them. Bodies, everywhere, dancing, touching, rubbing, pulling, jumping, fucking, pissing. Everything and anything.

Naturally, my first thought runs along these drunken lines: Look at this, this shit. This is what people enjoy doing. No matter what madness of plot and narrative you summon into a story, no matter how many fucked up nights you struggle for the perfect word, no matter how much soul you pour into it, it will never compete with this… this maniacal fucking orgy of bodies and alcohol. Lights and bass systems. Screams and pills. The fucking ground is literally fucking shaking under my feet. 

…let’s get in there.

~

‘-what?!’

‘Creative writing!’ I’m forced to shout. ‘It’s a four-year course!’

‘So you’re like a journo, no?’

I’d rather brave another PhD than suffer through the night with her, regardless that her body’s stuck on mine like words on a .doc file. There, but not really.

Save me, I mouth wide-eyed to Jay one moment he’s looking over at us from the bar and she’s bent laughing perilously close to my crotch.

He clearly mis-lipreads me, for the arsehole comes round with even more cocktails, shots, and a guy he picked up at the bar. Oh dear.

~

Jay and I leave the club, thankfully unaccompanied. My best mate stumbles and rests on a rail to look at the river. No, wait, he’s vomiting in it. Brilliant.

While we wait for the night bus, Jay elaborates on why it’s usually so productive going out clubbing with me even though I hate the sport. With our looks combined, he says, it’s easier for him to pick up guys and it’s also convenient that I don’t talk much, so he can monopolize chatting them up. The only thing he complains about is that I don’t look gay enough. Faking offense I ask what he means by ‘enough’, Jay laughs, the bus arrives, Jay pukes all over a Schweppes ad on a bin.

When we get to my place, there’s these weird moans coming from inside. I open the door to the new roommates fucking in the corridor, up against the wall. It smells of weed. They see me and Jay, she lets out a high-pitched moan, and they retreat into their apartment. I shove a semi-conscious Jay into my room.

In the kitchen, roommate Ken is frying eggs before work. The dawn is coming in from the window, such an aloof light.

‘Are they fighting?’ he asks me, a bit scared. Must have been hearing the thuds on the wall and her weird moans.

‘They’re fucking,’ I clarify, and we can’t stop laughing after that. I spill my coffee on the counter.

Then I walk back into my room. Ken’s crashed on the sofa, snoring the snore of the shitfaced. I open my laptop and start typing. Enter my very personal trance. It’s bliss.

~

Lights and blipping sounds. Extravagant colours. People are impressed by this stuff. Coat anything appropriately and they’ll fall for it. No one seems to realize these are men in their forties, fifties, sixties playing Age of Empires or Rambo 3D on ridiculous machines running on Vista.

Obviously there’s also the incentive to win. But once you lose, you start chasing up your losses. It escalates from there. Likely, it’s also loneliness that drives them here. What do these people have to return home to after work? An empty boxing room? In this sense, we provide them with some company of sorts. Overpriced, yes. Healthier than drinking it all in the pub? Probably not.

It’s no wonder these guys rarely tip. Everything goes into the machines, every last penny. How else would be making over fifty grand a month minimum?

Funny thing is, Kris gave me a tip, once. Five pounds, but it was somehow important. He had won sixty or seventy quid maybe. I mean, Kim once hit the double jackpot, one thousand two hundred and ninety seven on Alice in Wonderland, and he told me to keep the seven. You see the imbalance, right?

But I didn’t want tips from Kris. He was the only customer I sort of liked. He’d saved my arse quite several times too, when other customers asked about the particular rules of a game and he was around to provide them with explanations. I mean, we don’t get training about the machines. We have to figure them out on the way. And many times he translated stuff for Korean customers. At Worcester Park where the fun place is, we mainly get Korean customers, and Chinese occasionally. Some Indians and Polish, very few British. Many of them don’t speak anything but the most basic English. Yes, no, coffee. I’ve no idea how these people survive in London without the language really. Caught up in their closed communities, they live in a world within a world. Who doesn’t though, anyway?

He wouldn’t take it back, Kris. Even when I put the fiver in his bag. He chased me around the store and shoved the note in my dealer’s apron. Ridiculous really. So I gave it back one day when he was playing. He asked me for tokens –it was after midnight, so he was entitled to his daily £10 for match play as the date had changed. I left the book on one of the tall chairs when I asked him to sign and while he did I slid 20 tokens, £0.50 each, plus five one-pound coins into the machine. He already had £4.55 in the credit, so I’m not sure if he noticed the difference. If he did, he didn’t say anything. Silently accepted the tip back. Or he just thought I made a mistake and gave him a couple more tokens than I was supposed to.

But I don’t make mistakes.

~

Fang’s the one that employed me. It’s not her real name but what she chose when she came over from Japan. When she first told me, I thought of Hagrid’s dog from the Harry Potter books. But she’s brilliant, highly intelligent. If I know to offer customers tea or coffee right at the moment they’re thinking of collecting their winnings it’s because of her. Over the years, she’s accumulated all these small tricks that she’s passing on to me. Say, you have to pay a customer £500 that they won on a game. If you give them fifties, they take it and out the door they go. Give them £300 in twenties and £200 in tenners. The sum looks smaller. They’ll spend a couple of tenners, just to see if they win more, thinking they’re going to keep the solid winnings, the twenties. Before they know it, the fire’s burning again and they’re feeding everything back into the machine. No winnings at the end of the day.

During my shifts with Fang we talk about communism in Japan and Hokkaido in the 70s where she grew up. Her life’s a factory of stories so I record my shifts with her on my phone.

Not everyone’s so nice at the fun place. There’s Frogger, for example. Her real name is Milanka, Croatian. But I call her Frogger, and it’s caught on, for two reasons. Her face truly bears the closest resemblance I’ve ever witnessed to that of a frog. And her life is like playing Frogger the arcade on impossible mode: frustrating and idiotic. Even the simplest task, like making tea, is entirely beyond her reach. She can’t understand the concept of keeping the sugar and tea bags inside the office by the fridge and using the kettle so one doesn’t have to go back and forth to the huge boiler outside the office. She insists on filling the mug with water outside, bringing it to the office to add milk, then taking it outside again to add sugar, making double the number of trips while customers are waiting. In fact, we argued about that on my first day. She wouldn’t let me make tea in the office and it escalated from there. After a point I started giving her the silent treatment, which made her run amok. Shouting in front of customers, calling Fang, other employees, and even my former employer whose phone she discovered on my application paperwork. Entirely nuts. As Felix once said, she’s proof there’s life after brain death.

But ever since Fang promoted me to Assistant Manager, Frogger’s not talking to me anymore. Which is splendid.

~

I’m called a cunt on a daily basis, almost.

I mean, what do you expect working in a place that takes people’s money, their children’s education, wives’ holidays, house loans, and sucks it all up into numerous blipping, flipping, colourful machines?

Not that I ever was particularly sensitive to others’ opinions, mind you, but working at a place like this toughens you up. It messes with your psychology to such a degree you truly, really, irreversibly realize what scum human creatures are or can be under certain circumstances, and that you need at all times to maintain a mind frame conducive to protecting yourself and your own. This, effectively, was a blessing in disguise.

Now you may call me anything, the most absurd insult you can come up with, and I’ll return you the kindest smile my facial muscles can produce. Nothing affects me, no matter how annoying you’re trying to be. I wasn’t always like that. It’s the fun place that changed this in me. The problem was that customers were allowed to be angry, because they paid. In the end, whatever happened, their money ended up with us. So it was Fang’s profit-making policy to let them trod all over us, provided they spent enough in the business.

With Patrick though, see, it was different again. He was spending too little and shouting too much. Not a good combo and I had already won Fang’s support by that time so my arse was safe from every point of view.

I mean, I’m still quite proud I lasted that long. Five hours. Because, by the time he grabbed me by the shirt, I wanted to do it. Would you tolerate a whole five hours worth of a commentary on how shit your business is, how shit you personally are for working there, and then, of course, uncalled-for stuff about your mother? I did. With a polite smile, that is, as stoical as master Miyagi on hallucinogenics, and serving Patrick tea (two sugars, one spit, no milk) every 10’, then replacing the untouched but requested cups. Using thank you’s, please’s and the like.

The moment he grabbed me by the collar, apparently only to shout at my face, was a blessing. I knew it was all on camera. Oh that moment, I was so hoping for it, frankly, I was. I don’t know how much adrenaline this guy had succeeded in pumping into me over the course of that shift. Of course he wouldn’t take it very far either. He’d spent about six hundred quid on Super Hot Games, without it paying any significant amount back; he just needed someone to vent it out on.

It probably looked ridiculous, if you were looking at the scene. Not that we ever checked the CCTV really. But from my perspective, what happens is I calmly reach up my hands and grasp his wrists. A shocked expression on his face as he registers –finally– some response to his torrent of abuse. Brilliant, fucker, let me change that expression into pain, just for you, dearly. The others all around, a blur. I knock his hands aside, open like flowers in spring. First, I push him back, quite violently but not enough to affect anything other than a stagger. Then, a kick to the balls. The gods of football are cheering from above, it’s that good. I’m not stupid – Patrick stands two heads taller than me and spends considerable time at the gym. I’m a chain-smoker that spends his free time over a desk. I don’t stand a chance if I play by the rules.

The first blow –magnificent– finds him on the chest as he’s doubling over, and cuts off his breath throwing him back at the same time. My fist connects with his jaw and sends him turning face first onto the Silver Performer –a brilliant machine may I note, very solid. He drops and I don’t leave him any time to get up. I practically ride him on the floor and direct punch after punch to his face. All around, screams? Shouting? I don’t register much, until I’m satisfied with how Patrick’s face looks. Pollock would have been proud, I swear.

I carry him by the feet and drop him outside, at the front of the store. Then call the cops to pick him up. No one dared touch him for half an hour.

Unsurprisingly, people became a lot politer to the staff after that. I felt quite shit about the incident for a week or so, then came to my senses.

If I hadn’t, he would have – to someone else. Good thing it was me.

~

I blush a bit when I hand the cashier the lace briefs I’ve chosen. Of course, I couldn’t order them online so this had to be done. They also had to be sort of pricy to be plausible.

I feel like a pervert carrying the £55 Stella McCartney Mia Loving Bridal Boyleg Briefs (Floral White, 91% Silk, 9% Elastane – whatever the hell Elastane is) but I leave the store with my chin up.

~

4.00 am. Monday. Lone work, night shift. Barely keeping awake.

A knock on the back door. I get up from my semi-slumber in the office and approach. I can’t see a thing from the peephole.

‘Sam? Is that you?’

He lost everything about an hour ago and left after throwing a brief tantrum. What the hell, is he back again?

No answer, just another knock. So I unbolt the big blue door and push it open.

Masked. Balaclava.

When I see the gun, a real fucking gun, my knees almost give way. Absurdly, I remember that scene in Dead Air where Iain Banks’s narrator explains how people shit themselves in moments of terror, the body’s fight-or-run reaction making sure you’re empty enough to escape unhindered.

‘Holy fuck.’

~

I named it ‘the fun place’ as a means of reverse psychology for my sake. I wanted to associate the place with positive thoughts, even though nothing in it was fun really. And because it sounded better in conversation, mainly with Isabelle or friends. ‘I’m going to work’ vs. ‘I’m going to the fun place.’ Obviously the latter won. I’m not ashamed of having worked there, not too much at least. It paid my bills more than well. But I didn’t necessarily want the place associated with me, in essence. So a personal sort of baptism was required.

~

My first thought is to kick him in the chest. My second thought is to jump to the side and lock myself in the toilets.

I take a step backwards, very, very slowly.

~

‘How was your shift?’ Felix asks when I pass him the float. He sits on the floor, opens the safe, and starts counting.

‘A shift without the f.’

It takes him some time before he gets it. Felix doesn’t visualize the words, he hears them. Like most people, I think.

‘Why, what happened?!’

‘Girlfriend broke up with me. Thinks I cheated on her.’

‘What, you?!’ he intones morosely, as though my moral integrity is such that it renders even imagining such an act unbelievable. Ironically, I haven’t.

‘What happened?’ he asks.

I sort of break down and tell him.

‘Saw her with someone else. Trafalgar Square of all places, imagine.’

‘What? So?! That don’t mean they-’

‘Kissing and all that,’ I clarify.

‘Oh.’ He goes silent.

‘And she thinks you’re cheating? Why!’ The question mark on Felix’s features is almost visible.

‘I pretended I did,’ I grind. Not the whole truth. Basically, what I did was buy a piece of women’s underwear and place it among my bed sheets. There was shouting on Isabelle’s part, lots of it. Some crying, too, unbelievably. Then she gathered all her stuff and since then stopped crashing at my place.

‘But you didn’t?’ Felix asks. ‘Cheat?’

‘No.’

Felix looks at me as though I’m mad.

‘I wanted to let her keep her dignity,’ I’m forced to explain. ‘Didn’t want to be the one to send her to hell.’

‘What?!’ Felix looks like he might implode or something.

‘Some people, you know, to call them out, it just doesn’t bode well. Better let them go on their way.’

‘You serious?!’ he says. ‘What the fuck!’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘I just wanted out after that. This way I could make her feel justified too.’

‘You’re crazy,’ Felix shakes his head. ‘You been with her how long?

‘Year and a half?’

‘Fuck.’

Then Kim knocks on the office door. I leave Felix counting the float and go to check on the Korean’s machine. Some malfunction on the screen. Nothing I can’t fix.

~

Whatever this is, it’s not my fucking week. First a staged breakup and now this fucker’s pointing a very real gun at my back. Felix has left several hours ago and I’m alone at the fun place.

When I’m done putting stacks of notes into the plastic bag he throws at me –a Tesco one, how fancy– he gestures voicelessly to tell me to get up.

I do.

He looks around and then points to the toilets. He tilts his head to the side: get in there. Aw, fuck. What I’ve always wanted, to be shot in the head in a hastily cleaned toilet at the back of a second-rate casino. Awesome.

Once I’m inside, he shuts the door. I hear him gathering tall chairs behind it, blocking the handle with one of them. As if I’d try to get out while he’s there.

My komboloi, that I dropped when I let him in, rolls in through the gap under the door. ‘Your game,’ his voice says.

I think I hear him shuffling about and leaving.

~

The store looks strange from above. It takes me several minutes before I finally determine to jump.

I fall from the ceiling –nothing like an angel– and it hurts like hell the way I land. I double up for a moment, then jump to my feet. Who knew the ceiling tiles are fake, removable, and that you can crawl your way over the store via the half-metre-tall gap between scaffolding and cement.

I run to the office. The CCTV monitor – no one in sight. The back door, open, unbolted. I go out and through the alley to the front. My footsteps echo on the pavement. It’s all chilly around my cheeks.

Nobody. I run back inside. Pick up the phone.

When I’m done calling I go out again at the front and into the mist, my lungs, nerves, body screaming for a fag. Music is still coming from inside the doors.

I light up. Only then do I notice I’m bleeding.

I cut myself on the side of the ceiling tile.

~

Of course, I recognized him. His posture. His movements. Then, his voice. A foreigner myself, and a writer, it’s become my second nature to pick up pronunciations and accents. Even when changed and faked. Two words were enough. ‘Your game,’ he said, didn’t he.

Kris was the only one I’d spent enough time with and had ever explained the item’s use to. Everybody else still thinks it a vaguely religious article. I guess you could say I knew something was on, though I never expected my imagination to materialize. Thank fuck for my inherent paranoia and all these detective novels, I had my suspicions right from the start.

I wonder how long he’s been casing this joint, so to speak. Probably before he started playing, even. And I don’t doubt he’ll continue playing there, for another couple of weeks before giving them some imaginary excuse for vanishing. Probably that he’s going back to his country permanently or something. Hell, they might even throw a party for him.

I’m positive he doesn’t know I recognized him. That’s why I quit. Couldn’t risk him suspecting I made him. Likely, he never intended any harm, but who knows what he might do if he thinks I know. And even though the fact remains they hushed the robbery and never announced the exact amount that was stolen, it wouldn’t be any good for me either if he knew he took only approximately half of what our safe held that night.

As for the rest of it, which I shoved down my apron while bent over the safe with Kris pointing his gun at my back from the door, I re-claimed it the next day, after all the chaos that followed. You’d think the police or someone would check the toilets thoroughly after I was locked up in there, and they supposedly did. Either they didn’t notice the almost invisible matte paper, Fang’s own ingenious work, or I had pushed the notes too far down into the hole for them to discover the cash by fumbling around the opening.

So I’m unemployed once more. Whatever, I’ve got plenty of savings. I told everyone I was too scared of the job anymore. They even offered to raise my wage to keep me. But I declined. Fang was devastated. Lost her best employee, she kept telling me. Felix says he’s thinking of quitting too, that the stress in this job is too much, but I know he secretly believes I’m exaggerating. Frogger’s excited to see me go. Openly tells the customers how I’m in shock after the robbery and terrified to return. Always the idiot, she’s working unknowingly in my favour, enforcing my façade.

Do I worry what others think of me? Not really. Most people have no idea what you’re playing at, and sometimes it’s better to appear stupid, a coward, or simply a lot less than you are instead of giving yourself away.

It’s calling a bluff. You see, I might say I’m no risk-taker, that I don’t gamble. But life itself often makes you do so even when you don’t want to. The circumstances force you to. And then it all spins away beyond your reach. Sometimes you win, other times you don’t.

So you go ahead and place your wagers. No more bets.


 

no more bets

Kandinsky – Dark Freshness

For the Sake of Eustace Jones

The first time he really got me. I unlocked the door, unexpecting. And there he was, waiting, with the eyes of the devil. Next thing I knew a barrage of tiny fists flying at my face. He had small hands like that, but furious. I was taken aback. Retreated into the corridor. One of his fists connected with my jaw, I lost my balance and fell backwards. The world blacked out.

I guess I must have passed out because I woke up with my head on the third step of the stairs. It hurt like the dickens and the corridor was empty. No sign of Eustace Jones. What in the name of madness was that for?

When I got up and entered the apartment in search of ice for my head Eustace Jones wasn’t in his room. Nor did I see him for a couple of days afterwards. But following that first incident and for the next three months my life turned into a special kind of hell because of him.

Most afternoons after work I was prepared for battle even before reaching home. Sometimes he waited for me in the corridor of our shared apartment, other times he attacked the moment I stepped out of my room or when we were both in the kitchen. I always knew beforehand. He had that stare, that sick mad look which invariably precipitated a fight.

I admit I never understood his motive. It couldn’t have been because I’m black. I’d seen Eustace Jones hanging out with another black guy at the IT store where they both worked. Plus he didn’t strike me as the racist kind of guy at any rate. Nor had it anything to do with us renting in the same apartment. I kept to my room, used my own kitchen and bathroom utensils, cleaned regularly, didn’t make noise, never borrowed or messed with his stuff. So what had I done to deserve this frantic hatred that drove him to physically assault me every other day?

He was a funny little man. Quite fat and round, and he had these small blinking eyes. I suspected he might be mentally challenged or otherwise suffering from some psychological condition seeing as I had never provoked his inexhaustible wrath. He had some strange aura about him. I don’t know how else to describe it. He wasn’t mute and yet he almost never talked. Apart from work he rarely went out, didn’t socialize often, didn’t even own a TV. I had no idea what he did all the hours he spent alone in his room when he wasn’t fighting me.

Of course after that first ambush he wasn’t a real threat to me in any way. You see, Eustace Jones was about five foot six and relatively slow compared to me, even during his rages. I on the other hand stand at six foot nine. And honestly, without wanting to show off, the first things that anyone looking at me observes are my biceps and my six pack. I’ve been hitting the gym since high school. My physical appearance is important to me.

And yet Eustace Jones and his paranoia transformed my daily routine into a struggle. True, he never caught me unaware again. But not one day during those three months went by when my mind was at peace. I was wary of him every single moment I spent in the apartment, and my comings and goings were without exception accompanied by the constant worry whether Eustace Jones would attack me the instant he saw me. Why?

The devil never said. Several times I resorted to calling the police or the neighbours did, though these interventions didn’t effect any visible change on Eustace Jones. Many times the officers sat him down and pressed him to answer what he held against me. They, too, were baffled at the absurdity of his persistence. Why would you consistently and with such fierce passion keep attacking someone that much bigger than you and get beaten up every time? Someone who furthermore had not given you any reason to do so, because as I said I never had anything against Eustace Jones. Of course when cornered he resorted to mumbling that I started these fights, avoiding my eyes when he lied. And then he typically failed to explain to the officers or to our landlord why it was I that always called for help and not him, or why he never accused me. The whole thing was irrational.

Police intervention was futile, apart from inconvenient for continuing to rent at the apartment. But this was the least of my troubles. Every afternoon I returned home I was forced to put Eustace Jones down. I didn’t have any other option. How would you deal with an insane person that’s determined to attack you? Stand there and take it? I tried not to hit him hard or cause him damage but it was impossible. He fought like a demon every time, scratching, clawing, biting, kicking, tearing up my shirts and headbutting me while I struggled to get on top of him. I roughed him up a couple of times, shouting at him all the while. My desperate pleas to make him stop mixed with his freaked-out screams in a delirium of madness. Inevitably the fight ended with me holding him by the neck until he was subdued enough to give up. And infallibly it was resumed the next day.

‘I will fuck your life! D’you get me? Do you?! You. Crazy. Fucking. Piece. Of. Shit? I will annihilate you if you don’t quit!’ I screamed in his ear, desperate one night.

It was the only time I lost control. I’d returned to a peaceful apartment after a late going out that involved too much alcohol with friends. Eustace Jones attacked me when I left my room for the bathroom. I’m not sure what happened exactly because of the haze in my mind. For sure I was tired of our living arrangement. Sick of having to physically fight someone I didn’t want to harm for half an hour or even longer every day. And in the madness of the moment I decided to beat it out of him. I gave him a thrashing that left him bloody on the kitchen floor.

‘Are you listening to me, you sick fuck?! I will take you to court or I will fucking kill you!’ I intoned the words striking his head on the floor at every pause. He passed out.

Three days later, the same story all over again. Eustace Jones waiting for me in the corridor, his bruises not yet fully healed and his eye gleaming for a fight. Jumping at me the moment I entered the apartment. I would flee and return hours later, silent in the dead of the night. I was known in the building as the crazy guy that ran back down the stairs a minute after he’d climbed them up to the fifth floor.

Eventually I moved out. I had asked my landlord on numerous occasions to send Eustace Jones away but she said he couldn’t afford to and that he had paid her six months in advance when he moved in. She wanted the money. So in the end I left even though I could barely afford it.

My life returned to normality once more. I avoided passing by the IT store where Eustace Jones worked and if I happened to spot him on the street, because my job at the time was still quite close to his, I turned around and ran or crossed the street in a frenzy, cars or not. I was afraid he might seek me out again, even though I was renting elsewhere. Shivers ran down my spine at the thought he could have waited for me with a knife any evening all these months. He was likely too thick to consider using a weapon or maybe his madness didn’t work like that. But what assured me when such an idea might occur to him? I had grown paranoid that now I was gone he might not hesitate to track me down and attack me even in a public place, in front of my friends, colleagues, my girlfriend.

A few months later I found a different job and moved away from that area altogether. The panic of having Eustace Jones around vanished. I got promoted at my new job, met the love of my life, moved in with her. Zyana and I travelled a bit, expanded our circle of friends, started saving up to buy a place of our own. I hadn’t heard of Eustace Jones for five years.

Until a week ago I drove by after work to the apartment in Bucks that Zyana had asked me to see. As I waited for the estate agent to buzz me in I read the names on the doorbells for the third floor. At one of them a wave like static sped through me. Eustace W. Jones. Surely, it couldn’t be him? Here, after all this time? The name was quite unique. At the buzz I opened the door like a butterfly.

Eustace Jones wasn’t anywhere to be seen when the lift let me out. The estate agent welcomed me in and showed me around the apartment and the terrace. From it, I looked over the decorative rattan fence at the windows of the adjacent apartment. I couldn’t see anyone. When the estate agent was done, I inquired vaguely about the neighbours living on the same floor. He didn’t know anything except that they were respectful, quiet professionals. He was responsible for selling only that one apartment.

The estate agent locked behind us and offered to see me out. I kept expecting to see Eustace Jones on any doorstep we went by, but he didn’t appear. Not when the lift opened for us, not when its doors smoothed us out into the ground floor, not at the main entrance to the building.

But fate’s doors aren’t always doors and I met with Eustace Jones outside, on the street. He had in fact just parked his car behind mine, and as the estate agent had followed me there he stopped in his tracks and regarded us with a curious expression. He recognized me, there was no doubt. Struck, his gaze travelled suspiciously from me to the estate agent, paperwork tucked under his arm, to the building he was holding keys to. And back to me again.

Noticing him the estate agent said ‘Hello’ but other than that the two of us just stood there looking at each other. He had changed, I thought, and he hadn’t. He was heavier and rounder but also the same as always with his small hands and blinking eyes. Still a funny little man. I saw his tiny fists clench and I wondered, was he going to attack me right then and there?

Then I saw him exchanging that look with the estate agent. And I don’t know how to explain this, but he had done something. When I looked at Kevin, the estate agent wasn’t himself any more. He eyed me in a way that was… It sounds ridiculous. But I swear to you, it felt as if Eustace Jones had inhabited the estate agent’s body and was looking at me through him. I had no time to think or comprehend what was happening. Kevin the estate agent was on top of me, directing blow after blow to my head, shouting incomprehensibly.

I have God to thank that I’m a big guy and all the years I’ve spent caring for my body. I don’t know what would have happened had I lost consciousness. I managed to throw Kevin off me and crawl away enough to stand up. By that point I must have moved through the space between the two cars because when Kevin attacked me again we were exchanging blows in the middle of the street.

Everything is blurry after that. There were shouts and I heard a car braking. I clearly remember shoving the estate agent away from me and turning around, though I could not tell where he landed or if he got up to pursue me. I got into my car and drove away like a madman.

When Zyana got back from work the same day I was in our kitchen. Still in shock I guess, but I’d had a couple of vodkas to steady me. She came in bringing the air of the city with her, tiptoed to kiss me, smelled what I was cooking and went to open the balcony door to let the cat out.

She lit a cigarette next to the rack of laundry I’d hung to dry.

‘So did you go by the apartment?’ her voice came back in. ‘Did you like it?’

I guess I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t reply. She thought I hadn’t heard her. After a while she came to the door and asked again. I sort of broke down and told her everything. About Eustace Jones and my living with him, about the viewing, the estate agent and the fight. I was mortified she was going to laugh at me.

The most brilliant and intelligent woman that she is, Zyana quickly dispersed my metaphysical as she called them anxieties and suggested a rather more logical explanation over lunch.

‘What remains,’ she said, ‘is to find out how this guy, Eustace Jones, tracked you down and how he knew you were viewing the property.’

‘You don’t think they had a plan? And that he was late so Kevin was stalling me?’ I tried to keep my voice even not to scare her.

‘Let’s not jump to conclusions. Maybe he’s the owner of the apartment. Didn’t you say he lives next door? He could have seen your name on the visitors list and decided to get a friend of his to play the estate agent’s role. Pay you back for beating him up all these years ago. Don’t you know where he works?’

‘No,’ I said helplessly. ‘He used to work in IT but it’s been years. He might own the estate agency. Or maybe the apartment. Or Kevin is his friend that works at the-’

And then the phone rang from the living room. Zyana and I looked at each other and she got up to answer it. I didn’t dare move from the table and tried hard not to listen for any words. I felt sick and wanted to be far, far away.

The phone call lasted a long time. When Zyana returned to the kitchen she looked very worried.

‘Baby,’ she said and her eyes were big. ‘They say you attacked a man and pushed him into the street. Where a car hit him.’

‘I didn’t attack anyone!’

And then I noticed Zyana’s stare. It wasn’t the same as before and I don’t know how I made the connection but it was the phone, I knew it. Eustace Jones, somehow he had managed to take control of my fiancés mind. I jumped to my feet.

I wasn’t crazy. She clearly approached me with her hands raised in fists. Fists, fists, fists. My own fiancé, my love.

I was crying over her body when they finally broke the door and came in shouting. I didn’t care. I went quietly. All the fight in me was gone.

Ever since, I’ve been here.

͠

‘And that’s how my life went down the drain. For the sake of Eustace Jones. Now, doctor, can you please sign me out?’

‘Mr. Solomon, I would that you listened to me very attentively indeed. I require your understanding and cooperation in this matter. You have been, as of today, diagnosed with a variant of what is normally referred to in medical terms as Fregoli syndrome, an extremely rare misidentification disorder which manifests in various ways but most importantly in our case is responsible for influencing the way in which your perception works. It is a type of schizophrenia of a chronic and paranoid type, culpable of making an individual believe that a person can alter their physical appearance at will while their psychological identity remains the same or even that they are capable of transferring their psychological identity into another person’s body. Now, in your particular case the person you believe you are threatened by is perceived as someone who can assume a different physical appearance; specifically, the appearance of any person in the world other than you, including even me as I’m talking to you right this moment. This is under no circumstance a reality but the result of cerebral dysfunction in your brain. Brain lesions or injuries in the lobes of the brain have been associated with delusion-inciting disorders such as yours. This leads me to ask: have you ever experienced a serious…’

‘Hold on, wait. You’re telling me that I have this syndrome and it alters my perception! How are you so sure everyone doesn’t have it to one degree or another? How do you know you’re not the one whose perception is faulty?’


for the sake of eustace jones

Kandinsky – Succession

Three Love Poems & a Song of Limerence

Wassily Kandinsky - Movement I (1935)

Wassily Kandinsky – Movement I (1935)

Three Love Poems & a Song of Limerence

I

I always find myself talking about
love when I talk about
you.

hanging out with Stendhal
proved illuminating, but not as much
as an evening in with Dorothy Tennov
& the limerents

it turns out
I knew all along
what fuels the quotidian &

I am every love story in
the world

but yours

& the unimagined

II

Your love was a game
detrimental.

falling for you resembled

a science for mystics, Siberian tigers
& of

                 when Edison saw the light
                 for the first time
                 in his hands

post-delugional

I am this side of
powerful & the
poem arcs into
new eras of use

pirating my
imagination

I’m a
shape-shifter of
Time

& I see you historical;
turn to you with
the eyes of Orpheus,
looking back but
singing for no-one

III

It seldom rains in
Paradise.

My shoulders the mountains
& the arms I don’t have anymore, for the price of winds

I exchanged

(the Exeter ‘Change was demolished
in 1829 but a menagerie of emotions
lives on)

body currency liquid

                               the sea simmering

                               in your palm
                               is a colour invincible

the zoo of
existence

makes its
final call

for me

the
pharmaceutical industry of
Eros prays         belligerent

            formicary on your skin
            palpitant with life

in wait of

            mornings white, mercurial

   

* * *  

A Song of Limerence

as my world turns, I’m
the prime

meridian, my very own
lineage

in the clouds, fantastic
a panoply

of all my words for you
ecstatic

the embassy of death
approaching

aboard a train heading
everywhere;

I’m another version of
the Pacific

& the day I become man
I’ll stop

thinking as an ocean &
dreaming

of Paradise and other
attractions;

I don’t look to windward
& belong no

where voice is the curse
of life

over my black bed birds
marry

but this body soldiers for
light

to coin on crevices of a
tongue; I

& was none the inferno for
poetic mileage

but a weather’s Macbeth
when

& the evening turned
like you

wearing that intrepid
smile

summoning Springs
in July

I am the limerent sky
& fevering

Age of Carnivores

recent
ly I chat with the sky mostly
I don’t want answers re love you see

and thank fuck atheists don’t find god
in corners like First & Amistad

our suicide rates are significantly higher only because statistics are unable to weigh subtler notions, such as quality of thought. Even though

falling for you
made me grasp the concept of religion

I’m Greek–
so I know nothing about depression

and my verse will not
genuflect

every age is an age of carnivores

the most dangerous
animal is me, when I write poetry

*

poets and prostitutes have a lot
in common if you think about it
what with both unable to rent in human hell
& neither can really be touched

which is to say am I whoring my time
writing poems on this double-decker
life

love is in hospitals construction sites
the horizon is a topical

wound the morning clinical London intimate
like a stethoscope a bride in the river or your
zombified eyes

the moment I clock off

*

this will be one of my conversational poems
and I tend to dislike my conversational poems
but 4chan writes better than anyone else
I read lately, and OP is a faggot
for saying this of course

I eat loves like yours
habitually

ritually, love
is just another profession

and London this ugly familiar

like a morning taken
with vermouth, tangerines & the heat
of a body’s absence

*

the perk of loving a writer
is you can never lose them

what other body
survives loss
of communication, the time of passing, and
death
if not a body of words

but you can’t take infinity out
for a coffee, date it or what with e-books
and screens put hands around it, so

in my long night shifts I hit
Forbidden Tigers on the speakers
the customers gamble their life
Marcin makes some joke
and I think of my temerity
to live

*

when my 12 hour shift is over
–everyone is a poet at 6am–
it is time to edit Time
so I return.
prodigal or prodigy
from outside my flat lit by lamps of Paradise
& my soul a liturgy of emotion for the sea
the new roommates are stoned; fucking in the corridor; she moans
like Taylor Swift
I can’t stop laughing god
the other guy is frying eggs! in the kitchen dawn aloof, I
spill coffee everywhere Ken breaks into
hysterics – we laugh, this human laugh
I’m walked into
my private trance, the sky
comes at me
poems write me, always
for you

*

euphoric

nothing much happens
other than life–

I love

and plan to buy a singing elephant
for you for your next birthday

nobody else will give you
such a universal kiss

*

the most magic anarchy stirs the city
after all the rain and the buses

jumping like fish into the
universe

every car
is a verse

the velocity of your kiss
ferocious, across

oceans

the moon metronomic,
taxing my days

your love a Shawshank
without redemption

and my body of words
a tattoo on the chest;

Death, a favorite pet
that nests in my lap

for lack of other monsters
I plunder myself

my blood
smiles

the horizon’s teeth
are smoking

like gigantic cigars for Titans

somewhere out there
a stone dreams of infinity

a bird screams
in matrimony

you married air, too,

I will always choose words
over you


age of carnivores

Kandinsky – Black Lines