(Notes found in the journal of Steve Escalier, resident of Holloway, London.)
I lay on my bed, in my bedsit in the decaying basement, and listened to the late summer rain, its effluvient fingers as unceasing in their agitations upon the pavements of Holloway as a lover might be in their tapping at a coffin lid, unable to bear the separation from a departed loved one. But as for me? I was not like that. I was attached to no one. I knew no one as a lover, nor even as a friend, other than for Gemma, who kept me from drowning in my solitude in this vast, impersonal city.
I felt few emotions and had lived alone so long I remembered no other way. And I despised this ant colony of an accommodation structure, if accommodation was not too elevated a term for the mouldering catacomb in which I resided. And if I were to face the truth, which sometimes I could manage for brief interludes, my life felt less purposeful than that of an insect. At least insects lived together. I, on the other hand, pursued a solipsistic solitude through each one of my waking hours.
Reason dictated that I had to get my own place, find a new life, transform myself from drab caterpillar, inching round the roads of Holloway, to something much more colourful, more radiant. And then I’d flutter off to new and verdant lands.
I had to get a job. All else depended on this single thing. I knew a job would bring me rich rewards: Once I’d found my calling, and excelled therein, I’d come to have a residential property that was palatial in nature and the accolades of my peers. At last I’d be someone.
Work had always been my focus. Why was this so? Maybe there was an answer. Perhaps the DNA of worker bees, programmed to work a certain number of hours each day at specific tasks, as I’d read of in a journal of popular science, had been woven at some point back in time into my own DNA. Once my mind alighted on this thought, it seemed to be so obvious. This had to be the cause of my strange behaviour.
Lying in my bedsit, with a day off from my work, at Workhouse Promotions, a dismal sales company, my mind meandered where it wanted. I thought about my origins as a hybrid of a human and a worker bee, created in a lab, brought up in a compound. I’d never had a family, siblings, parents, friends or even schoolmates. I was reared by machines that briefed me on efficiency at work. At night I ran inside a wheel to fortify my strength. Later on, my series type of humanoid was discontinued. It was found out that a mutant, like myself, fixated just on working, was often unreliable, prone to breakdowns and insanity. Manufacture of my series stopped. Later models were programmed with more human characteristics such as empathy and compassion. I’d heard of both these things but their meanings were unclear to me. I had some human traits, but not an overabundance.
I cursed aloud, angry with myself for drifting into a reverie of quasi-truths and outright fictions. I had to face my problems in the here and now. What job could I get to solve my problems?
In the world of real things and events, my most rewarding job had been a library job but I’d left all that behind, a good few years ago. I’d worked at The Archive of Victorian Slang, in Islington Central Library, close to Highbury Fields. Although I’d toiled in a tiny office and was paid a pittance for my work, at least I’d been engaged in something that utilised my ceaseless mental functions. And even if I sometimes wondered if immersion in the culture of that older time in history might have influenced my views in a negative way, making me over-formal in my thinking and maybe inhibited, I would have liked to work there once again. I do admit that words and phrases that I’d studied in that job would drift into my thoughts. For example, lying in my bedsit on my bed, I felt I’d ‘got the morbs’. This was a phrase from nineteenth century London that meant to be possessed by temporary melancholy. Perhaps my morbid depression was caused by working in a job I couldn’t bear, at Workhouse Promotions.
The chances of getting any decent job were reduced by fluctuations in my mental health which had always been inconstant, moving up and down a spectrum. I’d been prone to breakdowns and moments of insanity. My instances of lunacy took the form of one recurrent dream. This dream harassed my nights with variations on a theme. The fantasy contained two unchanging elements. First there was an appendage moving with a whipping action. Second was a scream of pain. Once the dream contained a being, with human eyes and smirking mouth but snake-like in its form. It lashed out through the murk, striking at its target, provoking a horrendous shriek. That time I woke up whimpering, my perspiring palms showing the level of my fear. I thanked the fates the creature never ventured out of my dreams, that I’d never have to meet it on the streets of Holloway.
And how did I survive in economic terms? As I have already told you, I worked at Workhouse Promotions, a call centre selling self-help books and life coaching sessions to vulnerable members of society. I traded in the currency of despair. This fuelled my sense of unfulfillment. I was a spider eating flies, while fearing predators of greater strength.
My musings oh so moribund were interrupted by the softest vibration at the barred window of my tiny basement room. I glanced towards the cobweb-coated glass and saw a minute creature, faltering across the grease-streaked pane. I felt an immense sorrow for its vulnerability. Was this the sentiment called empathy? Was I becoming more human? Or was it in fact my apian DNA that made me sympathise?
It was a dying worker bee, coming to the end of its one and only summer. The animal was far from vigorous, as it essayed a sluggish sashay across its vitreous platform. I wondered if I could help the faltering beast then thought better of it. There were many of its companions in such a state as this. I could not help them all. This was merely nature’s way. If I was to help this one, where might the project end? And in practice, how could I assist this bee? Nourish it with sugared water? Take it to a park and place it in a flower?
Then I had an insight that appeared to solve my problems. My anxieties diluted as my plan materialised. Keeping bees would be my calling.
This occupation ticked all boxes. The work would be outdoors, it might provide me with a fruitful income, there was no hierarchy so no one could dismiss me, I could escape the strictures of the city and there’d be excitement and adventure, fresh chapters in my life. My plan was ‘bang up to the elephant’, to use an older phrase, by which I mean it seemed to be perfect and complete.
For the first time in a long time, I experienced enthuzimuzzy, an archaic term for enthusiasm.
But my priority was to source the requisite uniform.
I looked again towards the window and saw the bee had left and gone elsewhere. But it had brought me inspiration and I felt indebted to that humble arthropod. I thought about my brand new plan.
To finesse the details of this scheme, I thought I’d head down to The Lamb, a pub on Holloway Road. It was the traditional Irish music night, which meant the place would be busy and I could lose my self-obsessiveness, mingling in the crowd. In addition, I wanted to talk to Gemma, perhaps the only friend I’d ever had. Gemma was a dominatrix by trade. I’d made her acquaintance through long evenings at The Lamb. I held no prejudice against her work, in fact I found her stories fascinating. And she always listened to my plans and gave me useful feedback. Gemma was pragmatic, sussed, streetwise, in part, I supposed, due to the manifold nature of her job. And I knew her work required the use of uniforms and perhaps she’d help me source the garb I’d need for my apian activities.
On the way down to the pub, a mere few blocks’ stroll along Holloway Road, I recalled one particularly troubling version of the dream, that recurrent tenebrous enigma. On that occasion, the image had resembled some giant arthropod, the whiplash motion seeming like a sting. Unease gripped my chest and pedestrians gawped askance, doubtless seeing my countenance distort itself into a knot of doubt. Had the nightmare been a warning? Should I detour from my impending path to apian propagation? And I thought once more of the ailing insect, the one I hadn’t helped. I’d not availed it of my energies when I could have been a good Samaritan. To it, I must have seemed some kind of god, yet I didn’t bother to intervene. Was I strolling towards a showdown, a karmic audit of some form, some settling of scores by nature? I told myself that this could not be so and as I neared The Lamb, I anticipated meeting Gemma.
Music emanating from the pub interrupted my line of thought. On arriving at the doorway, hearing the droning of the Irish pipes, the quivering tones that they emitted sounding as a choir of bees might seem, if insects had the power to harmonize, I scanned the bar but realised to my disappointment that Gemma was not there. There were the usual gigglemumps, to use an older word for smiling faces, propped up at the bar. But Gemma was not in evidence. Her alabaster face and twisted smile gave me reassurance and I needed affirmation of my plan. I felt an onset of the morbs.
Her absence was unusual. Early evening she was usually there to unwind after work. In one corner, a duo were ‘doing the bear’, by which term I describe their romantic hugging. This made me feel more lonesome still. I became angry there was no one there to help me and discuss my plan. As I waited to be served, I ran my fingers down the sharp edge of the knife I carried in my pocket but I would not use it to express anger. That was not my temperament. I’d bought it for the purposes of whittling. This had been a previous scheme, one I had abandoned, to sell a range of ersatz seafarer’s artefacts at a stall in Camden market, but I found the actual whittling process more difficult than imagined. But I didn’t discard the knife. Who knew what the future held? Waiting at an autumn bus stop, I might find some whittling time.
I took my drinks and placed them on a table near the upright piano. I ran one hand along the piano keys, even though I couldn’t play. Discordant notes rang out across the bar. A fiddler sitting with the players, on the seating at the opposite wall, desisted from his tuning to frown in my direction. I didn’t let that bother me. I knew musicians were all egotists and that music didn’t mean that much. I’d learnt that in the compound. They’d told us music was a fruitless joy, producing no commodity. They explained that popular singers were false idols. I sipped at my tequila while I stared out through the window, fixated on my thoughts of keeping bees. Once I’d bought a hive of bees I would be the boss. I would be the emperor of my apian kingdom.
Before I left The Lamb I noticed a poster on the wall. It showed the photo of a scowling face topped off by a fly rink. A fly rink is an earlier phrase for a polished bald head. Beneath the photograph, there was an explanation:
‘Violent assault Friday evening, caught on CCTV camera, victim in a coma. If you have information, please telephone this number.’ I hated cruel and random acts of violence and hoped the police would find him soon.
I exited the pub close to being half-rats, a phrase that means intoxicated. If Gemma was not here, I’d get advice elsewhere. I set off down the road, heading on the way to Holloway Underground.
One night on a drinking bout in Holloway, early in a ragged morning, the sky a dilute, inky blur, Gemma pointed out her workplace, a bordello down Hornsey Road. We’d been walking hand in hand that night, but I accepted our friendship was platonic. Gemma was enamoured of a surfer, and before that with a gangster. Her ‘type’ did not include myself.
Now I felt impatient, awkward, restless. I had to speak to someone of my proposition. I arrived outside the brothel where Gemma usually worked, as if my legs had got me there of their own accord while I’d been lost in thought. I surveyed the threshold taciturn, the wedged-shut-looking doorway of the premises. Above the door, a fractured sign was strobing as if it were a beacon of distress. It said ‘Pleasure City. Sauna, jacuzzi, massage.’ The building looked skilamalink, a bygone word for secret, shady, doubtful. Gemma had told me of her colleague Melanie, another dominatrix. Now it was to Melanie that my thoughts were turning. I assumed she’d share the traits of Gemma: her pragmatism and her candour, her patrician sensibility. Surely she’d advise me?
I pressed the bell and saw a shadow at the spyhole before the door opened to reveal a shambling doorman. He had a fly rink. He’d also copped a mouse, an expression meaning to receive a black eye. The man looked irritable, but no more irritable than a Rottweiler might have done if chained up for an hour or two, salivating at a plate of chocolate biscuits. His face looked like the mugshot on the poster in The Lamb, but could he be that same cove? I was far from certain, in part because he’d copped that mouse. The man said, ‘Have you come here for some nanty narking?’
He used a bygone phrase, signifying fun. I’d prepared for this response. I knew that the man would not let me in to have an idle chat. I was going to have to play the role of customer. It was unfortunate that I had no other way of contacting Melanie. The doorman said, ‘Don’t be all poked up, my friend.’
By that I knew he was admonishing me for appearing too embarrassed. I said, ‘I’m just looking for a good time. I only want some nanty narking.’
The man looked me up and down. ‘You appreciate this is a massage parlour?’
I nodded my head and he tilted his head to indicate I should go in. I squeezed in past his bulk, as the bouncer surveyed the street beyond and then withdrew his mighty frame back into the premises and closed the door behind us both. I knew there was no going back.
A woman with blonde fringed hair sat behind the reception desk. She said, ‘That’ll be fifty pounds, okay? Have you been before? Which therapist would you like to see?’
‘Therapist’ had gravitas. I liked the term. But I guessed the woman didn’t like her job. She didn’t show enthuzimuzzy.
‘No, I’ve not been before but I’d like to book a session, with the therapist called Melanie.’
The receptionist nodded her assent. I paid the money upfront at the desk.
She said, ‘Go through there and take the first door on the right. Then take the steps down to the basement.’
I pushed through coloured streamers of polythene and went into the corridor, then took the first door on the right.
The light down in the basement was a rosy glow. Confronting me, fanned out on the wall, was an array of pitiless whips, in a range of sizes. The sight of the whips disturbed me, as did the tray of metal implements on the low table below. Someone walked out from a shadowed corner. And I realised this woman was not at all like Gemma, or nothing like the Gemma that I knew from meetings in the pub. Melanie was ice-eyed and scowling, her forehead an entanglement of lines, recording anger or distress. Each line on her forehead resembled a barb or fishhook. I felt my palms begin to sweat and became tongue-tied. She said, ‘Don’t look at me as if I am a dollymop. This is my profession. Now tell me what you want.’
‘I’ve come for a consultation if that would be alright?’
‘Get over there. Have a shower. Put that robe on, and clean yourself, you wretched little worm.’
‘This isn’t actually as it seems. I’ve just come here to pick your brains.’
‘What did you just say to me?’
I could not speak.
‘We haven’t got all day, I’ve got further customers, you wretched scrag end of a man.’
‘I’ve come here to get advice and…’
‘Don’t sell me a dog.’
By that I knew she meant don’t lie to her. She sneered and said, ‘I know your type. You’re carrying out research. Or someone dared you to come in here. Go and have a shower and then we’ll get it over with.’
‘But Gemma told me that she knew you.’
‘Damfino who this Gemma is.’
I gulped. If she didn’t know Gemma, this probably wasn’t Melanie. By damfino I presumed she meant damned if I know. Was I even in the correct house of correction? Suddenly, despite my attempt at silent levity, I felt profoundly out of my depth. I had to ask the question before it was too late. I said, ‘Where can I get a uniform, one for keeping bees?’
‘Get out now. I’m calling him upstairs.’
I stood my ground, a sailor going down with a sinking ship whilst whittling one last elegant piece of ivory. Or the hero in the last reel of a 1950s science fiction film: Attack of the Giant Killer Bees. And I didn’t want to seem a meater, meaning that I wouldn’t be a coward. The woman sneered and pressed a button on the wall beside the table of metallic implements. I heard a bell ring somewhere in the innards of the crumbling building.
The door opened. The huge doorman filled the doorway. The woman said, ‘Throw him out.’
I wasn’t going to let them get rid of me as if I were some piece of garbage, and I dropped down and grabbed onto the bouncer’s leg. He pulled me back up to my feet. My whittling knife fell out of my pocket and clattered on the floor. I swept up the knife and pointed it at the cove whose expression flashed from hatred to focused concentration.
My back faced the dominatrix, the one who was not Melanie. I heard a rustling movement from behind and there was a sudden cracking sound, a blur of motion passing over my left shoulder. I thought someone had shot me. I turned around to see the woman brandishing a whip. Her eyes were wide, her pupils were two voids, and she held one hand across her mouth. A scream of pain came from the man. I swivelled back to see him clawing with one hand against his face. His other hand was holding something. My psyche tried to slam a door against the truth. But still I retched then vomited as blood seeped out between his fingers, fingers spread across his vacant eye socket.
My nightmares had been more than mere obsession. They had been a premonition. The blurred motion of the whip followed by that awful scream of agony.
Turning round again, I saw the woman picking up a leather bag.
She raced towards the door that led upstairs and I ran out after her. There was no one at reception. She jumped out through the doorway and she screamed at me, ‘You fool, he’ll kill us both now.’
‘Can you not explain to him? You were trying to stop me, flick the knife from out of my hand. It’s only me he’ll punish.’
‘No, he saw your blade. Then the whip disfigured him. It looks too organised.’
As the woman turned, she said, ‘If I see you again, you’re dead, you understand me?’
In the murky hours of that dawn, I lay in my bedsit, in the labyrinthine insect colony of tenants, and listened to the rain, tapping on the basement window. I abhorred acts of violence, yet I had been responsible for the horror in the brothel. And there would be consequences. Guilt clawed at my mind. Looping thoughts of self-chastisement would never let me rest. I knew the guilt and fear would never go away. I got down on the threadbare carpet, on all fours, and thrashed my head in desperation against the wooden floorboards. Outside on the doorstep, up above my basement window, someone was knocking on the door.
Ruairi MacInnes lives in London. He is currently working on several short stories and also writes and plays the guitar.