Short Fiction By Matthew Bates – Runner-up of The Booker Prize at Birkbeck Creative Writing Competition
A year ago, on the eve of my twenty-sixth birthday, a past trauma crept from the snug crevice it had been hiding in, presented itself, and left me unable to speak. Overnight, language died.
I attended speech therapy sessions and was unsuccessfully treated with new techniques of ‘graded exposure’ and ‘stimulus fading’ in ‘safe environments’ designed to reinitiate speech into my everyday life. I was presented before counsellors and psychiatrists and when their efforts failed too, I was prescribed medications – Quetiapine, Aripiprazole, Lurasidone – each one an exquisite ripple of syllables that I longed to speak aloud but could only swallow.
I returned even tighter lipped from hypnosis, and a month-long acupuncture course gave me no relief. Smoking marijuana opened my mind but not my mouth. In exasperation, I took a fillet knife and channelled deep red tracks into the underside of my arms. It seemed as good a way as any to bring the issue to the surface. As months passed and silence persisted, my empty breaths became a spider’s web that wrapped itself around me until its invisible bonds seemed too strong to break.
Without a diagnosis, my trauma had no identity. It came so suddenly then vanished, ghosting itself into a symptom only. I presumed that physically I could still form words and speak them aloud, but fear prevented me – of what I could not determine. If harm was once done to me, or by me, then the act must have been extreme.
I had been teaching English to French students in Holborn when I stopped speaking. The failure of my treatments necessitated a job I could do from home without verbal communication. One of my colleagues at the language school put me in contact with a small French publisher, Éditions Tocsin, who commissioned modern renders of classic novels. I took the job gratefully. Whilst the translations are relatively faithful, the editorial emphasis is to explicitly draw out the novel’s darker, more sensational themes. Despite some purist detractors, Éditions Tocsin defend their Classiques Bruts series by claiming that even the best literature can grow tired if not kept fresh by language and injected with new interpretations. I complimented the work to my life – translating at night, and softening the room with candles to create the illusion of movement and company. In the mornings, when the city stirs and chatters again, I sleep.
I live in a studio flat on Newman Passage, in central London. A cobbled alley that connects Newman Street to Rathbone Street, it is a gloomy, nocturnal space – authentically Victorian, evocatively Ripper-esque. At the Newman Street entrance, one side of the wall has been sprayed with graffiti. The fluorescent, lurid swirls of green and fuchsia lend it a psychedelic, carousel feel. It is a thoroughfare, walked past or through, but rarely stopped at. It suits me well enough for the time being.
Over the past year, I have adjusted to living in a world that, because it cannot hear me, chooses also not to see me. The absence of community – ironic in such a wired, connected world – permits it. When my isolation feels too intense and I begin to fear that something else will close down or stop functioning, I go online, scrolling through hook-up profiles. I speak through the keyboard on my laptop – banalities mainly, but an exchange of words nonetheless, something my translation work can only half give me. I can take someone else’s words and retell them but, even allowing for nuance and edification, they are not my own. Online, I can speak another language altogether.
On some nights, I invite men to the flat and they hold me in the dark and press their mouths on mine. None are bothered by my silence; some enjoy it and are brutal. Others bring drugs, already too wasted to notice. In any case, everything that needs to be said has already been said online. Occasionally, the odd word will tremble on my lips but I always choke it back down until after they have left and then stand in front of the mirror and practice my name, Ch, Chri, Christophe. It is a release, a fragment of hope; an utterance of self. If speech is what my trauma has stolen from me then it will have to be either re-learnt or invoked somehow to allow me the courage to transform my source of fear and erupt it safely back into the world.
A few weeks ago, I started chatting to a profile online that caught my attention: ‘AdamXYZ’. I felt inexplicably drawn to it. It had a comforting arc to it: an easy, open introduction with a sense of reassuring closure. He had only one photograph attached to his profile – a smiling headshot, all blue eyes and shoe-black curls; handsome. He was a musician, he told me, originally from North Wales but now living in a village called Merivale. I explained my situation but he seemed neither bothered nor curious. In fact, his first response after I had explained it to him was I just can’t wait to meet you.
Tomorrow I will turn twenty-seven.
It is raining heavily outside and although I try hard to concentrate on the book that I am translating, – Zola’s Therese Raquin – my thoughts crowd out the text, drawing me back to last year. I feel troubled that I can’t recall the last words I spoke or even how they connected me to the man I once was to the man I am now, so silent for love.
My laptop alerts me to a new message. It is AdamXYZ. He is in London and he wants to meet after his gig. He wants to get high with me, he writes, super-high. He wants to slam me.
I know what slamming is. It is the slang given to the zenith – or the nadir – of drug taking: injection. A mainline to sexual ecstasy, so I’ve heard, but a dangerous route. My mouth suddenly bursts with saliva and my hand quivers over the keyboard as I message him back.
I’ve never tried it, although I would like to…with someone I trust. I’ll need some help doing it though.
He replies within seconds.
Easy, I’m an expert! Shall we then? I wanna meet you badly Christophe.
Want to meet you too. Will it be OK though? Nervous!
Don’t be. I’ll look after you…well, I’ll be doing a lot more than looking after you!
A grinning purple emoji with horns flashes up.
This gig I’m doing will be over by 1am.
It is just past eleven.
Got it. Can’t wait. You’re gonna to love it Christophe. I’m gonna to make you fly.
Staring at my laptop screen, I process that I am now committed to this night. I suppress all warning thoughts, not allowing myself to consider what could go wrong when a needle punctures my vein. I hope instead that tonight I will finally be able to eject that fear writhing inside of me and give voice to the silence knotted in my throat. AdamXYZ is whom I have been waiting for.
I shower and purge myself for his arrival. I adjust the lighting, as low as is possible, and light more candles. This is routine for me when I have visitors. I fear what they may see, the closeness of me. It keeps me from noticing their imperfections too. I hide away the keys to the flat, my spare cash and credit cards, even my passport. This too is routine, and although instinct tells me that I can trust AdamXYZ, I gather all of the items into a tea cloth and lay them in the oven. A safe enough place, so long as I remember not to switch it on.
I sit down on the sofa and smoke a cigarette. My eyes sweep across the room and I start to process it through AdamXYZ’s eyes. I feel suddenly exposed. Wherever I look, there are things I want to hide. A porcelain vase, painted with white anemones, looks kitsch sitting on the bookshelf, and the brown/gold flock cushions on the sofa hideously camp. In the bathroom, I notice just how many colognes are on display, faux-antique bottles that look far too dainty. An eye-wrinkle cream, tweezers, talc, all of these things loom into view as though I am seeing them for the first time. I hide them away, but leave other things for him – casually, I hope it will seem: a masculine brand of shower gel, a bottle of mouthwash, clean towels, and, in the bedroom, chewing gum, water, lube, Kleenex.
I strip the bed and re-dress it, pulling a navy blue sheet taut over the mattress. Just above the chest of drawers in the bedroom are stuck three postcards that I have picked up from galleries. Gustave Moreau’s faceless Helen, her back turned on a burning Troy; Juana la loca, painted whilst still an Infanta in Spain, but already looking restless; and Katherine Howard, the Tudor teen-Queen crushed beneath velvet, silk, rubies and pearls. Three cautionary tales of lives made epic – shunned, silenced, and abused – now framed in miniature. I love these portraits, and their lives have always fascinated me but I feel self-conscious about them now and I wonder if AdamXYZ will find them all a bit too soft, too arty.
I am aware of why this preparatory re-landscaping is critical for me to complete before AdamXYZ arrives. I have been subconsciously enacting out this evening for weeks, working out exactly how it should be. Now, minute-by-minute and second-by-second, my time for being in control is inching away, and excitement edging out anxiety. Perhaps I should feel terrified, but AdamXYZ, whoever he is, or may turn out to be, has already slid beneath my skin.
The first thing I notice about AdamXYZ when he smiles at me at the front door is that he has a gap in his teeth where a molar should be. I am wary of people with missing teeth, though I am relieved that he is not missing a front one. Still, I wonder what the gap will feel like against my tongue if we kiss.
I hold out my arm and pull him out of the rain and into the flat. I can hear music chiming from his earplugs as he pulls them free and shakes the wet from his curls.
“Hey Christophe, good to meet you at last.”
My silence freezes the air between us and for a second I panic. Without words to connect us, my head scrabbles for how to act. Just by looking at him, and despite that missing tooth, I already know I want him desperately to stay but I fret that he might not like me in the flesh, and that he’ll leave. He answers my worry by putting one hand on the back of my head and wrapping the other around my waist and pulls me to him. He smells of the rain, and earth and wood-smoke. He brings the outside world in. I close my eyes, and meet his mouth but I’m tense and I know he can feel me trembling.
“Don’t worry, Christophe.” He cups my face in his palms and locks my eyes, “You’re in safe hands tonight.”
“Actually,” he continues, grinning, “I think it’s kind of hot, this not-speaking thing of yours. But maybe we should have a little music in the background, eh?”
Relief that he will stay pours out of me with an audible sigh. I give him a thankful smile, take his hand, and lead him into the bedroom. I sit on the side of the bed and watch him sift a pair of sports shorts from his rucksack. He removes his T-shirt, hops out of his jeans and pulls them on. His legs are thatched with black hair, almost fur-like, startling against his relatively smooth arms and chest. As he squats in front of his rucksack, I watch the muscles of his calves flex beneath the skin. A bulging vein tracks up and across them to his thighs. My stare snaps when he tosses a tourniquet on the bed. He gives me a quick wink and continues to rummage in his rucksack. For a second, I think he is pulling out birthday-cake candles until I realize that, one by one, and six in all, he is counting out syringes. I can see the ladder of measurements clearly etched on the side of the barrels, each one already un-wrapped, but still sealed with a bright orange cap.
“How much of this stuff can you take?”
I shake my head. I have no idea.
“Well, I’ve pre-loaded the syringes for us anyway. There is a different measure in each. We’ll start at the mellow end.”
Adam sits on the edge of the bed beside me, two of the syringes in his hand. He gestures at me to turn the laptop on. As the music he selects starts to play, he puts the cap end of both syringes into his mouth, to about a third of their length, and rolls them gently around his tongue. After a minute, he removes them and explains how the heat of his breath will help ensure the drug is fully dissolved.
“Listen, Christophe, I know you’re scared of what we are about to do, and frightened of your own silence because you don’t understand what it means or why it’s happened. But I’m here to help you now. All this time I’ve been listening. I’ve been hearing every word you’ve written, and listening, really listening to you. And all I need you to do now is relax, and don’t panic. Just don’t panic.”
My legs are shaking. I can hear the rain outside. I think of the cobbles, the water trickling between the cracks.
“Are you ready?” he whispers.
I look into his eyes.
Take me there.
Adam gently lifts a pillow and places my arm on top of it. He kneels on the floor between my legs. He picks up the tourniquet, straps it just below my right bicep then smears the underside of my arm with an antiseptic wipe. The lid of the syringe gives a sudden pop as he pulls it off with his teeth.
“Keep as still as you can. Grit your teeth.”
There is a second of pressure, then a sharp sting. With his thumb still pushing down on the syringe, Adam lifts his mouth to mine and breathes into me.
“You’ll certainly feel that,” he says finally, pulling back with a satisfied curl on his lips. The tourniquet snaps as it releases and I feel a sharp, cold drag as the needle slides out. A wave of heat surges through my body, then a cold rush ricochets through my veins emitting in a sharp little cough, with a chemical, arctic taste to it like I’m hacking up a shard from a boiled sweet. My teeth chatter though my body is molten from the hit. The room pulses around me and my breath quickens into shallow pants.
“Keep them deep and calm,” he tells me. I watch him easily jab his own arm, not bothering with the tourniquet, and within seconds I can tell that the room has closed in around him too and that we are now both gloriously trapped together within its throb. His eyes shriek at me, the blue of the iris electrifies and floods out the white and his pupils dilate into solid black bars: a strange, central horizon across the blue.
The music slurs and the notes of the song seem to elongate as though played backwards. Yet, in a strong, familiar voice, I hear a voice singing. I turn to face Adam and see him mouth the words of the song to me and without a thought I roar them back at him, illogically legible, but crystal-clear for the world to hear.
I cannot locate any specific part of my body yet every limb of mine is twined to each of his. I am airless and exalted, and I wonder if we will dissolve into each other, but then I watch a bead of sweat trickle from his hairline to his eyebrow and drop onto my cheek, like a tear, and I know that I am changed, and once again whole.