and it’s about bloody time after all we all voted for it every man woman and child every decent honest straight white Brit everyone with any sense that is not like the PC brigade who say we can’t even beat people up if they’re gay or black what’s wrong with them it’s bloody political correctness gone mad not like in my day in my day we could murder anyone we liked as long as they weren’t proper Brits you know what I mean proper Brits who eat bacon and eggs and watch Eastenders and wank over pictures of the Queen we could murder anyone who didn’t wank over pictures of the Queen back then that was a good time to be alive not like now with the PC brigade telling us we can’t even beat up immigrants or murder people who don’t wank over pictures of the Queen the PC brigade who haven’t got any common sense who haven’t got any old fashioned British decency not like us not like the rest of us not like the majority of true Brits who voted for it who voted for it because it will give us back our sovereignty our voice our way of life our curved cucumbers our right to deport anyone with a funny sounding name our right to post shit through letterboxes our right to bang the drum our right to wank over pictures of the Queen I am a true Brit I was born here just like my father before me and his father before him we ain’t never consorted with aliens we ain’t never diluted our blood with foreign muck you wouldn’t even catch me dipping my wick in any of them foreign birds though I’ve thought about it and it disgusts me it makes me sick to my bleeding stomach just thinking about it I’ve thought about it many times it disgusts me I could vomit I could spew I really could just thinking about it when every man woman and child every honest hard working man woman and child in Great Britain voted to stop that kind of thing voted to ban it stop it bin it throw it out throw them out with their funny names they don’t even eat bacon what’s wrong with them they don’t belong here none of them when was the last time they wanked over pictures of the Queen never that’s when they don’t know the meaning of the word patriotism so it’s about bloody time now we’ve voted for it it’s about time it happened it should have happened already should have happened when we voted for it what’s the delay bloody Eurocrats clogging up the works bloody foreigners still ordering us about we voted for it so it should happen now we all voted for it every man woman and child it’s our right we need to do it despite them moaners saying it’ll ruin the economy despite them moaners saying it’s economic suicide we should bloody do it anyway who needs the economy the economy was invented by bloody foreigners building flashy glass buildings in London well good riddance I say they can bugger off they can bugger off and take their economy with them who needs it anyway when was the last time you were hungry or ill and the economy made you better never that’s when because the economy is nothing it’s just a word it’s probably a foreign word French I should think or probably German we don’t need it I don’t need an economy thank you very much I can wank over pictures of the Queen without an economy thank you very much I can do whatever I like without the slightest need of an economy thank you very much
His house is mostly submerged. Moonlight makes a white reflection on the water, pretty as a skull. He paddles to the loft window and gets in that way.
The loft is a mess. Mum and Dad sit on a pile of poetry books in a corner. They can’t read, but they like the sensation of lofty words against their bums. Most of the floor space is covered with parts of dismantled mannequins. A little bird nests in a cavity in the wall. Life isn’t so bad.
There is a camp bed. He lies on it. He needs to sleep. Mum and Dad are muttering to each other, but he’s used to that. He closes his eyes.
At three a.m. the singing starts again, smashing through the window like a brick. Mum and Dad become agitated, start howling. He turns over and tries to stay asleep.
His house is mostly submerged. In the early morning light, the bit of it that isn’t in the water resembles a grey wasp. The mannequins amble around on the roof, building their laboratory from debris that floats by, catching at it with cracked hands: branches of trees, plastic bags, dead dogs. They haven’t been fed properly since the flooding began. They rely on human blood to keep them going. He provides it. Not his own, of course; he goes out on his makeshift raft, scouting for the injured, the diseased, the weak, the dead. It’s arduous work, but well worth it: the mannequins are always very grateful.
You fit into this story, though you’ve probably forgotten it. Pay attention.
His house is mostly submerged. It wasn’t always like this, of course. There was a time, months or years ago, when the house stood proud and dry on top of a hill. Mum and Dad would scamper out in the morning, rolling gleefully down the green slopes and then running to the local town, where they robbed, looted and murdered until their laughter paralysed them. Mr Vogel usually brought them home, in the back of his hearse. It could take hours to rouse them from their jovial stupor.
His house is mostly submerged. It suits the mannequins. They sit on the roof, fishing for dreams. Some of the filth they find would make your hair curl. They laugh silently, giving nothing away. Their favourite titbit is the dream you had on Christmas Eve. Yes, that dream. You should be ashamed of yourself, you dirty bastard. Mind you, we all had a look. Some of us went back for seconds. We were a bit starved. The mannequins tolerated our grunting and giggling, but we could tell we weren’t welcome.
Dreams are water-borne diseases, like typhoid and cholera. If you want to stay healthy, avoid thinking about rain and dry your mouth before you go to bed. Above all, incinerate your brain and ensure there is no water in the room. Even a small glass on your bedside cabinet could be a carrier.
His house is mostly submerged. There are eels in the walls. They bulge and thrash when he touches them. The wallpaper is their skin, glistening malignly. Mum and Dad don’t seem to have noticed them, but sometimes one of them will make a comment like, “Funny old walls!” or “The wallpaper’s all lumpy, look.” The eels in the walls feed on the memories seeping slowly from Mum and Dad’s hands and feet, as they drain away a week every day. No wonder they’re so fat!
The eels in the walls are most active at night. During the day, they coil into knots, doing algebra in their sleep. Theirs is the mathematics of amnesia.
His house is mostly submerged. You probably already knew that. What else is there to say? You lead an uneventful life, curled in the belly of the loft, awaiting birth. The umbilical cord is an eel. The placenta is an octopus, a giant sack of blood and slushy meat.
He owns nothing except the skin on his back. His bones show through. But there’s no reasoning with him; if you try to give him money or a meal, he laughs and swims away.
It’s the same time it was before. Mum and Dad are still howling. You should go back to sleep. Try reading some poetry.
The Institution comprises a labyrinthine complex of concrete buildings. No one knows how many there are. Many of the blocks are over twenty storeys high, and all are connected by a network of walkways. The way into a building is never the way out: there are strict rules. Security personnel tut under their breaths.
The purpose of the Institution is widely debated. Some conjecture that it’s educational, while others argue it’s military. It may even be a correctional facility, or perhaps a religious foundation or a spam factory. The evidence points many ways. One thing is certain: the Institution is a place of fierce activity. Employees work long hours and remain connected to their workplace after hours through telecommunicative metal discs implanted just beneath the skin. Encrypted messages requiring urgent responses are transmitted from the Institution to its workforce at all hours, often manifesting in dreams. As a result, all employees with managerial responsibilities are prone to neurotic analysis of their own dreams, sifting through the imagery in case it contains some important memorandum or action point.
Most people who work at the Institution are middle managers. But they struggle to articulate their responsibilities and don’t know the names of those who manage them. There must be dozens, even hundreds of senior managers. But that echelon is a mystery.
At the Institution there are strict protocols governing use of the staff toilets. Employees wishing to urinate may do so only when it is raining. Defecation is even more problematic: a 20,000 word rationale must be submitted to a special committee at least a month in advance.
The Institution welcomes a constant stream of visitors: clients, customers, consultants, clowns, costermongers, chiropractors, cadavers. The visitors are ushered into meeting rooms, conference rooms, dining rooms, boardrooms, ballrooms, bedrooms, darkrooms, panic rooms, throne rooms, billiard rooms, bathrooms, cloakrooms, classrooms, lumber rooms, showrooms, laundry rooms. There is no record of what happens to the visitors after they have been shown to their rooms. And since no visitor is known to have left the Institution, we can only speculate about the nature of their experiences inside that slate grey labyrinth.
It’s raining. It’s always raining. They look through the window but don’t see the rain any more.
Their hands are knotted, like the roots of trees. Clutching a book, a tea cup, armrests. Or, in dreams, clutching lovers’ throats.
The room is airy and full of silent electricity. People come and go. But they don’t; they’re always here, in this place, in this moment. They breathe slowly, patiently.
Occasionally, their eyes flicker, reptilian, over the objects arranged around them.
Outside, unseen, a little boy is laughing at something.
She can sit for hours, staring at a landscape, a beach, a ruin. You’d think she was a realistic fibreglass sculpture, dressed in real clothes that ruffle in the wind, until she suddenly turns her head or shifts her weight.
She can sit for hours, painting the things she sees and the things she dreams, up to her elbows in the artist’s gore. The canvas is skin, stretched flesh, a bandage. Flowers and blood, knives and nectar. Images bloom in the darkening studio.
She can sit for hours, impassive, a picture, a point of stillness, a mannequin.
When he turns up at her studio, she sees the haunted look in his face and tells him to man up.
When they sleep, their heads melt. Creatures made of stone and darkness gather round and sip the slurry of their brains. A grandfather clock keeps watch and raises the alarm when dawn peeps over the horizon.
All the names are tattooed over their bodies. Their lovers try to read them, but the light is bad. The names are all equal, all one. The names are weighed down with themselves. There is more value in having no name, smiling in the cradle of the wind. To have a name is to be marked for death.
They wait in a back street. They have a name in their mouths. They suck it gently, roll it around.
It sleeps, curled tight as a fist, in his brain.
He gets up, goes to work, goes home, has dinner with her, goes to bed. And a million tiny variations along the way.
Tonight he’s fucking her. They’re fucking each other. The bed is their battlefield. As she’s coming, she screams and pushes his face away with the palm of her hand.
Everything becomes still. He rolls off her. She’s dead to the world.
It stirs in his brain, unfurls a little, stretches. It wakes up.
He doesn’t sleep. He can’t sleep, not now it’s awake.
When it’s awake he can see it, behind his eyes. It’s red, wet, larval. It pulsates slowly.
He can’t stop looking at it, wondering at it.
He stays awake until morning.
The clowns daub themselves with war paint and don dark suits with silver cuff links and tumble into the sulphurous day.
The clowns juggle appointments, ointments, disappointments. They grin when we insert coins in their wide dead mouths.
Catching a clown is easy. Wait until he’s on his second bottle and then set your crows on him. When you’ve got him, don’t listen to his pleading.
If allowed near a churchyard, the clowns will dig up the dead. They can’t help it! They may bring you a leg, a head, hoping for your approval.
Water burns the clowns. Consequently, they bathe in vodka and drink mercury.
The clowns enjoy a special diet of strawberries, lamb, azaleas and fear. They can’t abide anything pink. Mirrors and loudspeakers confuse them.
Tell me about yourselves, she says to the clowns. But they have nothing to say. The silence stretches and yawns. She sneezes and apologises.
The clowns ride unicycles around the rings of Saturn. Astronomers sulk in their beds. A pie in the face, a supernova. Whatever.
Time stutters, the lights blink. The clowns wear our faces, but we don’t wear theirs. We wear nothing. We’re naked, soft, almost zero.
The clowns visit a bombed-out hotel. The air tastes of ash. They insist on a room with no view. The pulverised concierge wears a stiff smirk.
It is evening. The clowns are ensconced in your cerebellum. The feasting begins soon. The wet grey tables are laden with larval images.
Sometimes, the clowns slip out of synch with the ticking world. Slapstick tricks crack their backs. Mums and dads are sent out of the room.
The show is over. The clowns sit in rows, dabbing at their grease painted faces. The masks dissolve and their skulls show through.
The clowns try crawling down the wall. They want to be Dracula. But they fail. Hours later, rats have conquered the mountain of corpses.
For the clowns, sleep is a rehearsal for death. They keep their eyes open and dream of nothing.
Originally published as a series of tweets.
1. The house, stamped white on slate sky. Behind the windows, all the rooms are filled with water. A drowned man in a dinner suit floats by.
2. The revolver lies on the pillow of an unmade bed. The revolver is not just an object. It is the man with the scar, his fear and impotence.
3. A hand on a door handle, hesitating, unmoving. The shot is a close-up; we can’t see if the door is open or closed.
4. An oblong mirror returns the gaze of an anxious woman. She hates the world. Her eyes are crystals.
5. A room on fire. A laughing man sits on a smouldering sofa.
6. A succession of corridors. We glide along them like ghosts.
7. Outside, there is a dark forest. The story will begin and end there. The beginning will mimic the end. The end has already happened.
8. “I’m sorry. Please leave me alone,” whispers a mouth tight with pain. Blue light reveals a knife in a drawer, a torn photograph.
9. The walls are bleeding. Blood collects at the feet of a naked woman. She’s standing up, eyes open, but she looks dead.
10. The curtains are closed, but this looks like a study. A shaft of light shows us a letter-opener. This is an invitation and a threat.
11. The corridors again. They link up, double back, double cross us, never end. Doors are closed or ajar. Music is playing. No one is there.
12. A bath fills with hot water. We expect to see blood. Someone has written the word MANNEQUIN on the steamed-up mirror.
13. A stone through a window. Flying glass, a cry of surprise or horror or delight. The moon is full. A blade of cloud slices it in two.
Mum and Dad are dead, though I’m the only person who has noticed. They’re sipping their tea in the kitchen. Dad keeps coughing up maggots. Mum’s face looks like a cracked mirror: I see myself in it, broken, dark. My brothers carry on as normal. They huddle by the TV, whispering about the girls they don’t dare ask out, or play in the garden. Their favourite game is called Stink Dog, which requires running, exaggerated laughter and knives. The rules seem complicated or perhaps non-existent. I’ve long suspected they make it up as they go along.
Sometimes, Mum sews her hands together and sings. Her song would pierce your heart.
It’s autumn now, I think. Autumn is nothing. Summer burns us, winter freeze-dries us. Autumn is just a brown transition. Nothing happens. We get older, we die more deeply. Maybe that is something. Slowing down is still moving. But I can’t tell the time. The hands on the clock move too slowly.
Man and wife are one flesh. Their tangled sinews wrestle through the night. If you press your ear to the wall, you’ll hear the awful rasping of conjoined lungs. A brain in two halves declares: This is life! And you read the instructions tattooed on your arms, before munching on some toast and going to work. Outside, the birds are in charge. They direct traffic and the wandering days.
Mum and Dad could never afford to buy their own house, so they rented the Palace of Skulls. It was quite cosy, once upon a time. Stray stories crept in through the fissures, curled up at my feet. A man called Mr Vogel called round once a month, to collect the rent. The neighbours were boring but pleasant, and murders were rare. I remember little about those days. I was only five, perhaps fifteen. Memories don’t start forming properly until you’re in your sixties. Maybe that’s my problem. I’m too old for excitement, too young for reminiscence. Stuck between a life lived and a life remembered, in a time when the clock’s hands move imperceptibly and my brothers dice with death.
Dad keeps trying to tell me something. His jaws move convulsively. Whenever I suggest he write it down, he waves me away with a rotting hand. What am I supposed to do?
The hospital is a Hell of corridors. There are no wards, no patients. Just mannequins dressed as doctors, breezing through a polished antiseptic maze. I try to visit whenever I can. I still hope that one day I’ll find a real doctor who can look at the holes in my legs and tell me how to treat them. Maybe I’m over-complicating everything. Maybe my legs are made of cheese and the holes are nothing to worry about. Maybe my legs are made of volcanic rock. Maybe my legs are made of fallacious arguments. Whatever. As far as the hospital is concerned, it doesn’t matter. The registrar murders noise. Her phantom pregnancy is more real than me.
Mum and Dad are dead. Did I mention that? It needs to be pointed out. Mum thinks she’s a chair. She rocks in a corner, keeping time with the memory of her heartbeat. Dad distracts himself with Elvis Presley. My brothers gnaw on the mice collecting in my eyes. At times, this feels like happiness. At Christmas, our house is a symphony of belches and farts. We drink to each other, health, the Palace of Skulls. Santa Claus masturbates miserably in a back room. We feel as if we’re together. We’re not. But we feel as if we are or tell each other we feel as if we are, and that’s enough for us. Carol singers collect on our doorstep like dead leaves. Sometimes I find myself thinking about the hospital and wanting to go there, even though I know it’s probably pointless. Then I have another bottle of vodka and forget about it.
It’s autumn now. One day it will be winter. Man and wife are one flesh.