He wakes, throat clogged with her smell, then sits bolt upright, his heart pumping lead. He's disoriented, unsure of whether the deep terror he feels is real or imagined. Droplets of sweat form crosses on his skin.
“Are you alright?” The pillow-muffled voice of Clare beside him. “You’ve been muttering again. I’m knackered. Please go to sleep. I’m on earlies tomorrow.”
He shakes his head, then rakes sharp nails through his hair as perspiration turns icy. A dream, only a dream. Lies down, pulls the duvet towards his chattering teeth, then turns onto his chest, the welts below his shoulder blades still raw.
“You’re not wearing a ring.” She nods towards his left hand as he lifts the glass to his mouth.
He pauses for a moment, unusual for him, then smiles. “I could say I’m not married, but you wouldn’t buy that, would you?”
The woman drops her gaze, then circles a finger around the rim of her wine glass. Her fingers are long and slender, nails cracked and chewed to the quick. For a moment he listens to the whispered echo vibrating from the glass before opening his mouth, but she gets there first.
“That’s a shame. You should wear a ring. You really should.”
“There’s blood on the sheets again. You ought to see a doctor. You can’t just stay in bed...”
He feigns sleep. The conversation is stale. Life is on repeat. He knows he should get up, break free, but he doesn’t want to.
“Don’t pretend you can’t hear me. It’s gone on too long to be flu or exhaustion or whatever excuse you invent. I’m getting worried, even if you’re not.”
He keeps his eyes closed, reaches for the dream, tries to mould the memory into something tangible. He can’t remember it all, but he recalls the fear, the terror and the mind numbing pleasure of it all.
She doesn’t look like her photograph, but why should he care. And anyway, he couldn’t describe her if he tried because he’s not really looking at her. His eyes are stuck on her mouth, the movement of her lips as she sips from her glass, the white of her teeth as she smiles.
He drops his shoulders, tries to relax. His nerves are new, his lines feel dated. “So, do you live near here?” the words fly out unbidden. And it’s still only nine fifteen.
He gets up eventually because he needs a piss. Unsteady on his feet, he watches the urine splash around the bowl and fleetingly wonders whether it should be so yellow or smell so much, but doesn’t really care. Weeks of bathing the wounds have sapped his strength. Wounds that weep, and scab, then heal. Disappear for days and days until he knows with relief and emptiness that they’ve gone for good. Then they bleed again.
“Do you have any hobbies?” He laughs as soon as the words are out and so does she. He wants to say, I’m usually better than this, much better. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But she takes his hand, lifts it to her face, and then licks it slowly along the length of his upturned palm, shooting splinters direct to his groin.
“Collecting things,” she replies with a smile.
He clips his nails again, then leans over the sink, fighting off the urge to be sick. When he opens his eyes he sees Clare in the mirror and he turns, hiding his back to the wall.
He sees she looks pale, smudges under her eyes. “I came home early to see if you’re ok….” She shrugs and starts to turn away, before facing him again. “Surely you didn’t think I wouldn’t notice….”
He opens his mouth but he’s dumb.
“I thought it was one of your women at first,” she continues, her trembling fingers covering a sad small smile. “But you haven’t been out for weeks… I’m worried about you…”
She reaches out her hand to coax him around, then slips her arms about his waist, laying her cheek on his back. “So it must be you… You must be doing this to yourself.”
Clare pulls away from him, traces the half crusted scabs with soft fingers before putting her lips to the scars. “Let me help you,” she whispers. But he jerks involuntarily as the memory floods back.
That’s what she did, the one. Put her lips to the wounds and she sucked.
She leans towards him, her hair hides her face and time stops. He’s naked and hot, afraid and relaxed; he wants her again and again but he’s frozen with languor. Her lips move to his, brush by his cheek to his neck, then she bites.
“If you won’t talk to me, then talk to the doctor, or your sister, your mum. We can’t go on like this. Just look at yourself. You’re hardly recognisable any more.”
With trembling hands on his sunken cheeks, Clare turns his head towards the mirror, but he closes his eyes. He knows what he’ll see if he stares. Not the ghostly face he’s come to recognise as his own, but the one who’s like mercury, the one he can’t pin. He shakes his head and makes for the bed.
“You’re pushing me away, for God’s sake. I love you but I can’t take it anymore. If you won’t talk to me, it’ll be the end…”
“No!” the volume of his reply surprises them both. “No; never. Please don’t leave me. I’ll get better, I’ll sort it. Don’t go.”
“Losing your touch, eh?” The barman winks at him as he sits in the bar with an empty glass and a watch too big for his wrist. He has no idea where else to go. The effort he’s made to get there has exhausted him and he closes his eyes.
“Have you got something for me?” she asks, surprise pulling him back from the brink. He nods and holds out his fist. There’s something different about her tonight, the pupils of her eyes have effaced all colour but the scent confirms that it’s her. “Good boy,” she whispers as she takes his hand.
“Come with me.”
He sips the coffee, takes a bite of the toast Clare’s made for him, but he barely chews because he’s eager to talk. “You know when we got engaged...”
Clare nods, her face inscrutable, her hands still clasped in her lap.
“I said that when we got married...”
She finishes his sentence. “… you wouldn’t want to wear a wedding ring. I know. But that didn’t matter to me. I just wanted the wedding in church.”
“Yes.” His throat is dry, he’s unable to swallow. “I didn’t want to wear a ring because I’d worn one before. I never told you. I’m sorry…”
She’s gentle tonight, the one, anoints him with oil in soft lonely strokes from the palms of his hands to the soles of his feet. He trusts her now; there’ll be no more pain and yet he knows there will always be a part of him that yearns for it. He sleeps, long and restful.
“Its time to say goodbye,” she whispers eventually, then lifts his hand and draws off the ring. A golden reflection lights up her face as she opens the box and drops it down to a tune of rings.
“You’re forgiven,” she smiles, then closes her eyes and rests her head on folded palms. Only then does he recognise her face.
Blood Red Sentimental Blues - Cotton Jones
Not well known for her pyrotechnics, Caroline's had some stuff published in magazines - Transmission, Parameter, Pipeline, Chimera, Lamport Court, Peace and Freedom, nr1, Succour, Pen Pusher, Positive Words, Twisted Tongue, The Text, White Chimney and The Ugly Tree.
Street art by CAKE.
Photograph by Adam Lawrence.
Michael Nau dips further into the darkness of the crossroads of rock lore as he releases his first full-length album as Cotton Jones. Just released on Suicide Squeeze Records, Paranoid Cocoon is the dusty barroom in the one road town, and it will fill every corner of your mind.