First he changed the sky. Blue blue. SAVE.
And then her face. Harley upped the res and stared into the screen, fingers paused above the keys. Christy21. The image blurred with tears he knew came from a thing called ‘grief’ that was different from the tears of cut onion. His fingers stabbed the cursor. SAVE.
You have to let go, carer Jen kept saying in the voice she used trying to bridge the void between his sense of the world and hers. She’d once jabbed DELETE to wipe Christy14. But he’d put her back – digital resurrection, 0101lovelossloveloss.
On their last trip to Brighton, Christy had hired a car to explore the whalebacks of the South Downs hills, and they’d gone after sunset to Ditchling Beacon, where the biggest view of Sussex looking down was allied to a miracle of stars looking up. Lying on their backs, Harley began to count them, west to east, only stopping when Christy quietly asked if he was counting the stars.
Harley had tried to deal with her apartment at first, ripping out the carpet, then turning his focus away, handed the place to pros, who ripped some more, laid wood and painted neutral.
I don’t want anything, he’d said – but her will gave him everything. Including a letter. People nodded, and Harley knew the executor would bury the money in the system to rack up slow interest.
The world spun on, 67,000 miles an hour in its circuit around the galaxy. He drifted, watching for the first leaf fall. Carer Sue took him to the coast on respite. Christy’s money paid for two rooms at the old 1920s hotel at Littlestone on the sea-edge of Romney Marsh. They had tea in a conservatory where Channel winds shivered the panes. Harley’s prized flotsam filled old plastic bags, ready to be sorted.
Walking on the vast shingle sea of Dungeness, Harley threw a sudden question at carer Sue.
Who bought Derek Jarman’s house?
They had passed the old lighthouse, a huge exclamation mark in the shingle’s prose.
I don’t know. The famous garden’s still there, though. Carer Sue pointed.
It’s not the same, Harley told her, staring intently a few seconds, then turning to scrunch towards the tideline, closer to the waves’ hiss.
Listen. Now they’ve stopped the power station you can’t hear the hum anymore.
You sound almost sad.
Harley looks at her a moment, then towards the horizon.
It was part of all this as much as anything else.
A wave beats, pulls back, white sputum on shingle. He bends to grab a heart-shaped stone.
‘You can’t tell who the nutters are anymore.’ Christy stared through the steam on the cafe window, rubbing a hole in the wetness, pausing an instant to watch rivulets run from its edges before pointing to where a tall dark man in a tall dark coat stood in winter twilight jabbering into the air, his breath fogging the November chill. She spoke to Mikey at the counter.
‘You tell me – is he a freak out talking to himself or just a guy on a hands-free?’
‘How the hell should I know?,’ he said good-humouredly, then grinned, gold crowns shining. The little circuit boards woven into his dreads glinted as he nodded in time to the bass warming the space along with the wall heater’s glowing bars. Above the counter, an ice blue bug zapper was flecked with insect dead, humming as it waited for further kills.
Christy turned back to the window, sweeping her eyes over the street. Phone guy had vanished, and her gaze stopped on an old red call box still standing near the Old Vic. Nowadays nothing more than a gallery for the carders, its interior a UN of sex. Brazilian, Japanese, Caribbean, English Rose, tits, arse, glossed lips, a pictorial litany of international relations, numbered for access.
Christy sighed, and stirred her drink. ‘They were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee.’
‘It’s Carly Simon, Mikey. It’s famous.’
Mikey shook his head. ‘More of your pre-history?’
‘Shit, not only was I not born, I don’t even think my mum was born!’
‘For fuck’s sake, Mikey, anything further back than yesterday and you haven’t a clue. You need some perspective.’
‘We each got the perspective we need, Christy.’
Christy snorted, then gave him a grin and a friendly farewell. Stepping out into Brixton, she walked along Electric Avenue, passing stalls of gnarled yam, swollen tomatoes green and red, arrays of chilli, blotched plantain. Giant African snails crawled in grimy tanks as she entered the arcade, traversing shops still hawking posters of Marley and Leaf, then through a couple more turns to the spirit store.
The mountainous woman at the counter nodded, then went back to her study of the latest celebrity goss. The shop was quiet as if the drape over its door had snuffed the outside world. Christy went automatically to the vodou candles at the back, lined up with inscribed glass turned out for inspection. Her breathing slowed as she tuned into the nuance of each.
Today, she considered the male line – Papa Ogou, Papa Gede, onto Papa Dambala, her eyes resting at last on Papa Legba, who returned her gaze calmly. Associations rolled into her in silent litany. His day – Monday. His number – 3. His colours – red and black. Her hand reached up towards him, the Loa of crossroads and decisions, but then glided on to La Sirene a split second further along the shelf. She frowned an instant, hesitated, then gripped the candle, noting a chip in the scarlet polish of her nails as slim fingers closed around the candle, obscuring its lettering and images.
‘You know what you want with this?’ The woman at the counter looked at her with a mix of thoughtfulness and scepticism, pausing before punching figures into the till.
Christy smiled sweetly and nodded a silent assent, then began opening her purse to pay. With a shrug, the woman rang up the sale. ‘OK. She’ll suit a pretty girl like you, if you do things proper.’
Christy took a copper change from a tenner while the woman wrapped the candle in plain white paper. ‘If you’re interested, I’m getting some new candles in a week.’
‘I’ll come back then.’
By the time Christy reached the door, celeb goss once again absorbed the woman’s attention, her teeth suddenly sucked at some new coupling or cruel twist, the sound loud in the shop’s down-at-heel but reverent hush.
Out in the arcade, the bustle enveloped Christy like a wave over a swimmer, pushing her along. She stopped at a stall near the second arch, and carefully picked out pleasing things – apples iris-textured in red and yellow, corn swaddled by frayed papery green, a purple-skinned aubergine.
Five minutes later the current brought her to the Tube, dodging beggars, chuggers and Issue sellers, lightly down dark steps, sidestepping a crazy in the ticket hall staring at God knew what, slapping her card down on the barrier then moving smoothly on towards the light blue of the Victoria Line.
Warm Underground fug enveloped her as she hurried through the northbound passages to the platform. One minute. Across the track, a poster chronicled the latest musings on the slow pace of life in Jack Daniels’ Lynchburg. “Lynch Town. Only in fucking America would they name a town for racist murder,” she muttered as the Tube wind marked a train’s coming.
Christy resurfaced at Vauxhall. She sidestepped a young guy rushing, muttering a Portuguese imprecation as he ran, yanking his rucksack through the barriers as they slammed shut like the flippers on a pinball.
Walking fast, Christy automatically sidestepped the shit and gum, as her cloud thoughts slowly took a clearer form – and she was watching flying fish. Fourteen years old, her last time at sea off the Haitian breakers. The fish rode the bow waves, taking effortlessly to an alien element as they darted in front of her uncle’s boat, rising and falling on the Caribbean swell. His nets made a web against distant green hills, their mesh becoming punctuated by fluttering silver shapes as he called her to get containers ready.
Her uncle chuckled as he threw the catch into different bright-coloured plastic buckets. “We’ll get good money for this with that new hotel just opened,” he said, before spitting over the side. “Pass me that knife.” She never knew when such memories would come. Maybe when light struck off glass or a flash of metal, and set her uncle’s knife glinting again in the distant sun of childhood. Or maybe it was just thoughts of the fate of fishes out of water.
At the Portuguese café, Christy stopped to buy half a dozen little coconut cakes. Ten minutes later, she set them down in the winter twilight of the apartment. Releasing a slow breath, she shifted her mind from street to home, before clicking on her old lamp.
Stripping for a shower, Christy gazed at her reflection in the mirror, trying to picture her hair in a new style or colour. Brows arched over eyes she thought were a little large for her face, though people made good comments, especially when she widened them at some shared intimacy.
Cooking her dinner, Christy sliced and salted aubergine. Then, as a dusting of salt drew out its bitter juices, she pulled the candle from her bag. ‘Maitresse. Mistress,’ she said quietly, the glass smooth against her hand as she weighed it up, before setting it on the carved wooden fireplace beside Harley’s heart-shaped stone.
Christy’s absence filled London. Walking along Carter Lane, a memory spurt in Harley’s head then drains into the wet concrete as if earthed. He leans a few moments beneath the sign for the King’s Wardrobe, sucking in air, holding for 5, slowing his heart. High on a building, an unseen lens shifts silently, its iris contracting to pull his shadow in. 10 steps further and he’s beyond its vision into The Cockpit, embraced by its red-painted cocoon as a punchline drifts across from the old lags at the bar. 10 steps further, he reaches the bar, arrayed with ale pumps.
What are you having?
Something dark. I’ll try that porter. Is the jukebox on?
We never turn it off, mate.
Harley scanned the juke selection, punched in 437, scanned again, punched 275, rotated choices through the eras before settling on 144, then sat back to drink and wait for his only male friend. Harley knew that carers Jen or Sue didn’t approve, because Tourette’s made his friend say fuck and cunt a lot.
Out in the world, thunderheads rose near the Goodwin Sands, pressure brewing up dark clouds. Three hours later, rain advanced across Blackfriars Bridge and drummed on the window beside where Harley sat with his friend. They were speaking about history in a conversation Harley had begun.
Shakespeare drank here, you know.
Yeah, fuck, right.
No, this was a real cock pit, and old Will was a regular. Back then the red on these walls was chicken gore, not cheap paint.
Both birds used to die sometimes.
A burst of laughter from the bar at another joke. An oldie on the jukebox reaches its bridge.
That so? Shit. Cunt. How did they decide bets when that happened?
Maybe the one that died last won. If you follow me.
Not exactly a victory for the bird that died last. Cunt.
They get another round. Three tracks follow the flow of the beer, and still only one of his.
Where the fuck are my songs?
They nod, once in agreement, then in time to the beat.
People used to watch executions back then too. Like those sad fucks who watch beheadings now online.
Glass up, beer down.
They still have cockfights on Reunion. They call the pits gallodromes. Christy told me that.
Where’s fucking Reunion?
Far away. French and exotic…Let’s adjourn.
Tumbling into the night, cold air cuts the fug of beer. A camera picks them up, its tiny lens opening and closing far down in the spectrum of city noise, like the mouth of a gasping fish. Two cams track their advance towards another door that opens into another hubbub. Edging into the new bar, they peg faces, sex, hair, lips, teeth.
Go see if there’s anything on the juke, I’ll get the drinks. Fuck cunt. What do you want?
Just something dark.
Two months before leaving Haiti, Christy had gone with her uncle to Monsieur Henry Studio de Photo on the Autoroute de Delmas to get a passport picture. ‘It’s one of the best places in Port-au-Prince,’ he’d told her beforehand, though she thought there couldn’t be much difference in how one camera lens captured a face compared to another. When she raised that point, her uncle had smiled broadly, as if delighted at something the question told him about her, before reassuring her it was ‘an experience’ which Monsieur Henry did better than others. ‘And it’s so close to the airport you might see planes flying over, like the one that will take us to England.’
Christy had never been on a plane, but had watched the aircraft of foreign aid come in waves after the earthquake. Half her city levelled in twenty seconds of madness racking the fabric of the world. 220,000 people had died in the tremor and its aftermath, but the two that mattered were her mother and father. The foundations of her life shifted like the buildings, crumbled in twenty seconds of madness racking the fabric of her world.
The little airport had struggled with the sudden stream of aid flights, steel birds flocking to carnage and distress. But though she saw the planes arrive, no aid had come to her area. Bodies lay for days all around the hilly city, and as she and her uncle walked the streets in search of food and water they had to cover their mouths and noses with cloths to try and block the stench of death. Christy saw corpses piled on pickup trucks to be delivered to the hospital. Her uncle told her the news had spoken to its director, and that he said there were 1500 bodies piled outside the morgue.
And then the aid workers came and brought more torment with the cholera. One night she had listened to her uncle and a friend drinking rum and beer, and raging.
‘We had no cholera here for 100 years until those UN bastards came and poisoned us with their shit,’ said her uncle, the alcohol firing his anger. ‘First they denied it now they admit it. But only to say they will not compensate us because they have’ – he almost spat the next words – ‘diplomatic immunity.’
‘Fuck them. Fuck their immunity,’ replied his friend. ‘We have no immunity to their filthy disease. So we die in our streets while they hide in their compounds and hotels.’
As disease swept through Haiti’s houses and streets, thousands more of Christy’s people died. It was then Christy began to call the place of her childhood The Deadest Isle, and then too that her uncle had begun to plan an escape to Europe.
Christy’s birthplace was France, and her parents too, before work had brought the three of them to Haiti when she was still in her first year of life. So now she would return, with her uncle coming to help her adjust during what months a visa would allow. She longed to go to a place where the earth did not shake and destroy all you knew in an instant, a place where deadly disease did not stalk you silently as you walked and breathed. It would be strange in Europe – but they would be safe. And being 16, nearly 17, Christy was old enough that young confidence overlaid fear and nerves. To move continents was the adventure of a lifetime, the start of a new lifetime.
Dates were set, forms filled and Christy’s passport – her first – required just the pictures from Monsieur Henry Studio de Photo. With her uncle, a taxi brought them to the address on Autoroute de Delmas where a young man busied himself with setting up seat, background and lighting. When Christy asked if he was Monsieur Henry, he laughed pleasantly, and apologised that Monsieur Henry was away ‘on business’ that day – but that she had no need to worry as he took pictures as well as Monsieur Henry. And the pictures were, indeed, fine – though that did not prevent Christy feeling a puzzling sadness at not having her image captured by the shop’s eponymous creator.
After the photography, her uncle took her to a little cafe where she talked excitedly about what she might see and do in Europe. And not just France! No, she told her uncle, I will go to England too, to London because she had heard it was a melting pot of everything – culture, dreams, ideas. A place where, even if the skies might be European grey, they arced over a city where anything could be.
Coming out of the cafe, dusk had descended on Port-au-Prince. Once there would have been a hubbub of activity as people headed purposefully home from whatever their days had held, but in the shattered, tired city people loitered and fretted. Some looked for company to talk and pass some time in distraction, some looked for food – and some looked for trouble.
Approaching a corner, two young men appeared suddenly from the side street and walked towards Christy and her uncle. As they walked, they seemed in deep conversation. But as they drew level, their talk stopped, and they swivelled with a practised fluidity, as if in a street dance. Steel glinted suddenly in the hands of the taller one, followed by a quietly menacing demand for money.
Christy was surprised to feel anger more than fear. How dare they prey on people just like them?! Go prey on the outsiders who have brought disease and corruption, and made prostitutes of local women desperate for aid, not others like you! She was about to speak her anger but said just a single word – ‘No!’ – before her uncle laid his hand on her arm with an urgent insistent pressure.
‘We have little money, my friend,’ her uncle said quietly, and looked calmly into the eyes of both men with the telepathic stare of someone who wants no escalation into bloodshed. ‘But you can have what I have. It’s in my jacket. Shall I take it out?’
The man with the knife nodded assent with a jerk of his head, and her uncle slowly withdrew a slim wallet and proffered it to the other youngster – the one with two hands free, one of which took the wallet and slipped it into a pocket.
‘Is this your daughter?,’ asked the man with the knife.
‘My niece,’ said her uncle. ‘She lost both her parents in the quake’.
The last sentence seemed to weigh with the two men. After a long moment and a quick exchange of glances, the knifeman withdrew his blade to wherever it had hidden before, and gave another jerk nod of his head.
‘Many of us lost someone.’ Then to his companion. ‘Come on.’ Then they swivelled as effortlessly as before, and disappeared into the night as if after an exchange of evening pleasantries.
‘Come, Christy – let us go too,’ said her uncle in a voice that might have seemed calm had she not seen him trembling. And the night was not cold.
It was only later that Christy realised why her uncle had spoken of her parents. Because he had seen in their eyes what they were intending to do to her. And he had gambled on a deflection to save her from what she heard described in England years later as ‘a fate worse than death’. She hated the phrase, though, because it wasn’t worse than death. There were other things that were that.
For the blade that has missed her uncle that day did not rest. It bided its time, moving its spirit across the ocean to another handle in another hand.
They had been in London for just two days, staying in a little room in East London. Christy had been excited to see a fish and chip shop nearby, and her uncle had said they would try some that night. Haddock. That’s what people said was the best English fish to order. But whether you put vinegar or salt on the chips was up to you. Though people said it could cause arguments. The whole thing seemed so new to Christy.
She never found out what caused the fight in the street outside the chip shop, as they walked along the street towards it. Probably not anything to do with vinegar or salt, because the teenage boys had knives. Not that her uncle had known when he saw three boys kicking one. A fair man, always a fair man, he had run to help the lone boy, to break it up, to tell them it was stupid to fight. ‘Fuck you, old man’ was all Christy heard as she saw a tangle of arms, pushing and thrusting, then saw him stagger, and his face suddenly change expression from concern to something like astonishment.
People stood around Christy as she hunched on her knees, curled in a ball to hug herself. She didn’t register it, but some of the onlookers filmed the scene on their phones. Instinct, too modern and sunk deep to resist. Someone spoke to her but English was still too new to really understand in the shock and the flash of blue lights from a police car that had appeared. And then her world went dark as she fell, sprawling across her uncle’s body on the cold stone, washed by the chip shop light.
Standing on the platform at East Croydon, Harley craned to watch jets no-one else seemed to even see. His eyes tracked the contrails reaching towards each other up there in the miles high. Glancing back down along the platform, still no-one seemed interested. Up again, Harley followed the icy brushstrokes on a blue ground, imagining the travellers in their steel hull, pressurised, oxygenated, readers, watchers, the bored, the scared, the up and the down.
The trails crossed, then continued, parting as hot metal pushed on towards the ocean and new continents. 30 seconds later they made a saltire, white lines feathered in a melancholy Croydon sky.
Harley looked back down again, his neck aching a little from the upward stare. Arching his shoulders, he rubbed at the spot, trying to pulse energy into his thoughts. He knew air was like liquid, and that planes surged on its currents. Harley knew, too, that he moved in the same current, his body flowing in a way smoke would show in whorls and parabolas.
Everything moved in it, swimming in the gases: oxygen, nitrogen, argon, the cursed carbon di. If he set himself alight he could film it, prove it. The announcer called his train, nearly a minute late as it slid in, nosing along the platform then past in a slowing blur, another minute as it disgorged old cargo and took on new, smiling as he gestured for a woman to get on first and she smiling back.
As the train swept south, he opened the envelope again and took out a sheaf of paper, his fingers stiffening into a grip too strong to let him unfold the thing. So he stretched his hands like cat claws and looked out at the old view, rattling above terraced Victorian bricks and choked traffic forever inching into London, the same yesterday, last week, last year. Harley looked down and unfolded the paper, taking in the familiar writing without focusing on a single word. Then:
If you’re reading this, I wonder how it happened, my death? I hope it was quick. I don’t know if you have seen me after but I wonder how I looked? Back in P-au-P the bodies often looked like the cliché: ‘just sleeping’. Until you found the knife gash or dark-rimmed hole and the dried red on a sweatless shirt. At least here, the flies would have come less quickly, crawling into a songless mouth or sat on an eye suddenly able to look with ease straight into the sun.
Don’t be sad – it changes nothing, cherie. Be happy you’re alive! Feel the world, Harley, feel it for me. Do not be ground down by your ways of difference. Think of our touches, and keep reaching out. Reach further!
The underlining jolted Harley, forcing an image of a pen in her hand. He stared out of the window, his heart racing. He took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds like she had taught him. His heart calmed. He returned his eyes to the paper.
Now, did they take me apart, as requested? My stopped heart, breathless lungs? The kidney and liver, no longer needed to purify me? Corneas lifted free to look out from a new vantage point? Perhaps if there is an afterlife, I’ll find myself looking through my eyes in another face, looking in another mirror. How strange could that be, to dream even of seeing you.
I have given you a list of music I would like played if you do anything to mark me. And I want candles not flowers. I have added a list of those too. I take solace having written these words, even if I know you will only see them when I can no longer speak.
With love, always, now and after,
She had done the two kiss kiss crosses in red ink, one a fraction higher than the other. The slant made them look like two strange figures running up a hill.
The train had slipped London now. Harley stared past his reflection as fields shook off the houses and began pushing trees into the air.
At Brighton, he followed the flow down Queen’s Road to the seafront then turned right where the flow went left for the Pier. Walking along the promenade, his mind retraced his last visit with Christy, walking through a swirl of skateboarders and strollers. At The Meeting Place, he hunkered down behind the flapping green tarpaulins with hot tea and a bacon roll. Behind him, the statue of Victory held her steady gaze, looking away from the West Pier’s gorgeous burned out skeleton.
Christy watched the rising tide as Harley bit through butter-soaked bread and crisp rasher, picking a few crumbs off his jeans then returning his eyes with hers to the waves. She leaned forward suddenly and kissed him, and when she moved back they both noticed people looking at them. Christy gave Harley her loveliest smile. ‘Maybe they still aren’t used to seeing a black girl kiss a white boy. Eat up, let’s walk some more.’
And they had walked some more, buying stuff through the afternoon – rifling racks of vintage threads on Sydney Street, picking over décor fossils in Snooper’s Paradise, hunting green Penguin crime thrillers in places where books and music battled for space between chaos and order.
They drank later at the Prince Albert, immersed in the gig racket from upstairs, before falling into the night, the cold air sharpening the warmth of their held hands. As they walked down the quiet street, another band came on, their opening song fading into half-heard echo as they walked down Trafalgar Street. They stopped to embrace, unseen, then continued back to a little modern room at a white cubed hotel, facing the Library’s glass facade and its shadow of books.
Sat on the shingle, Harley hugged his knees closer and buried his head between the bone and ligaments. Beside him, in the rumpled shoulder bag, La Sirene lay in white cloth, waiting to be lit when the sun dipped its last rays into the sea’s far edge.
He remembered his mother’s words about detail – pay attention, but step back for the proper view. In and out, in and out – that was how you had to look at things, Harley. In and out, like litmus dipping in an unknown solution, the changing colour, the stain telling you what it was.
In her flat, Christy dumped the overnight bag she’d taken to Brighton, and lit a candle for La Sirene. Opening the fridge, she took out the half-carton of milk in the door and wrinkled her nose as a sniff revealed its gone state. Christy pulled her jacket on again and headed for the door to buy a pint from the corner shop. She paused before leaving to turn her head a moment back to La Sirene, burning quietly in a corner of the room, and said: ‘You’re in charge.’ Then she headed out.
CCTV captured her final sequence in black and white, each instant time-stamped by a whirling clock in a corner of the frame. It was 3 minutes 24 seconds from the time Christy entered the field of vision to the moment a knife pierced her heart. Bystanders later provided the scenario and dialogue to complete the short film. The angry young man abusing the shopkeeper when he was refused service for the booze he wanted, the progression from “I don’t have no ID – but I got the money” to the threats to “bust up your fucking shop”, when Christy had tried to calm him. “Keep out of it, bitch” were the last words Christy would have heard before his knife became the latest blade making its point.
Two miles away, Harley gazed at a bright screen and an image stolen on a summer afternoon in Brighton, the subject unaware as it caught her focus on the sea’s far reach. Harley considered the images in their sequence, then stroked the keys. Christy21.
Norman Miller is an award-winning UK-based journalist, writing for a wide range of leading outlets including The Times, The Guardian and BBC. He has had poems and short stories published in anthologies and online journals, while a production of his short plays was shortlisted for an award at the 2015 Brighton Festival (England’s biggest arts festival). He is trying, slowly, to write his first novel.