By Nelson Stanley
She was cleaning out their flat when she found the box of tapes. She pulled it out of the back of a cupboard, tried to ascertain what was on the blank ones by popping each one into the camera—not yet packed; neither were their books—and wasted a few hours of the lonely morning fast-forwarding through random footage, most of it left over from her final year degree project. Three tapes of light dappling autumn leaves, scarlet and gold, two of test footage from the short film she had shot for her final show. She was about to give up and just add the whole lot to the pile of things to drop off at the charity shop. Then, what passed for their home movies, and the tears.
There was nothing particularly exciting on most of them; just the two of them fucking around with the video camera, usually whilst high:
-A short clip of their hamster, Gerald, whizzing around its cage. Stoned giggling, from out of shot.
-A long shot, black and white, of him sitting on the window-sill, smoking a cigarette, staring out the window at the street below. He looked up quickly, as if she had been filming him in secret and he had just noticed her presence. Zoom in. He said, “Is this why you won’t marry me?”
-Her face, covered in snot, from when she had contracted the world’s worst cold two or three winters before. On the screen, she sobbed and pawed at the mucus as it poured from her nose in great oozing waves; she appeared to be piteously whining for a tissue, which apparently he thought it funny to withhold. On the tape, she could hear him talking to her, but though she strained her ears, the signal noise or the soft whirr of the video camera’s motor meant his words were lost.
The last tape was different.
He sat cross-legged before the window, facing the camera. The curtains behind him were closed, but the window itself must have been open, for as she watched him lean into the screen to fiddle with the camera’s controls, they moved gently in a manner that suggested breath. A gap where they had never quite fitted let in a shaft of slanting diagonal light. As he leaned forward, he passed through it and it revealed the thinness of his hair at the front, though on the tape—as in their last year together—he had it cropped short to disguise this.
Having satisfied himself with whatever operation he was performing upon the camera’s controls, he sat back on the chair and sat stretched out in that almost unconscious, uncouth way men do, legs sprawled as if clamping a beach ball between his knees. Your dick wasn’t that big, honey, she thought, then cringed at her own unkindness. The light falling through the gap in the curtains fell on his faded tour T-shirt—the same one she now used as pyjamas, the one she had carefully avoided washing, the one she liked to imagine still smelled vaguely of him—and a pair of jeans she had a few days before folded and washed and sent to the charity shop along with the rest of his clothes. On the camera’s screen, his face was now too far back to be seen, obscured by the brightness of the sunshine through the window behind him, but the light picked out the hair on his forearms, turned each one to a filament of gold. Then, after a moment’s silence, he began to speak.
“I’m sorry,” he began, his voice gruffer and lower than she remembered, the Estuary squeakiness buried in gravel. “I’m sorry to do this, to try to contact you this way. I know I’m taking a risk. I thought you’d like to hear my voice, see my face. So. Here it is. But I need… I need to see you.” He paused, leaned forward toward the camera, his face passing through the light, features emerging out of the motes of dust flickering in the sunshine. He looked away, at something off-camera, tensed as if listening for something, then, having apparently satisfied himself, leaned back again so that she could not see his face. “I know I’m taking a risk, making this, I know she could find it, but… That’s what makes this worthwhile, right?”
He leaned forward again through the light, grew huge as he reached out toward the camera, face filling the frame, each groove in the skin, each open pore and burst capillary magnified and recorded for posterity, displacing the smoothed-off, edited version which she carried within her, which she realised then belonged to a much younger version of him, one that she had glimpsed in old photographs but had never known in life.
His face, huge, swam into focus, filling the screen.
“You’re all I need,” he said. “You. Not her. When you get this, come to me, like you normally do. Meet me where we met, by the mermaid.” He stopped again, and his face assumed a look she knew, one that he wore at what he liked to think of as times of great import, a grave, pious face he employed when, she knew, he was feeling especially benevolent.
The tape clicked into static. She sat for a while, alone, listening to the sound the rain made against the windows, picking at a loose thread coming off her jeans, drumming her fingers on her knee. She rewound the tape, watched it through two or three more times. Try as she might, no matter how she racked her brain, she couldn’t remember a mermaid, couldn’t remember a pub or a restaurant they’d gone to or a play or a film they’d seen together featuring a mythical sea-creature. They had met at a mutual friend’s house party under six thousand decibels of bad German techno and the influence of enough chemicals to stun a horse. No mermaids; no fish. It hadn’t even been fancy dress.
What could he have been referring to?
Then, with a noise that she assumed was her own sigh, there in the empty flat with the shadows lengthening toward afternoon, it came to her that the message wasn’t for her, couldn’t have been intended for her.
And then, following one after the other, came other questions: who was the other person to whom he referred, the one he didn’t need? What risk could he have been running? Why would he send a tape to someone, to arrange a meeting? After all, that was the sort of act one would perform for a lover, or an old and cherished friend that you had not seen in a long time. But I was his lover, she thought, and I saw him all the time, right up until the end.
You’re all I need.
All at once, the past, their shared past, the certainties of it, their life and his death, yawned open beneath her, as if the floor were on a hinge. She realised her bottom lip was trembling, and the acknowledgement of that tremor followed itself like a thread up inside her until she realised her heart fluttered desperately inside her ribs, her throat was stopped up with something she couldn’t swallow, her stomach leaden yet roiling. The flat suddenly seemed very cold, very empty. The shadows thickened in the corners. The empty smell of it—dust, that lack or cessation you notice when you have been happy in a place and never will be again, which indicates of course a life or two lives displaced—hit her stomach. She rushed to the toilet, fell down before it and stared into the bowl as if vomiting copiously, stayed there on her hands and knees while the tears wrenched their way out and she howled and sobbed, howled and sobbed, howled and sobbed, her voice coming back wreathed in ghostly echoes from the porcelain.
It took twenty or so minutes to get herself together; even then, she noticed she was still trembling slightly. Although she had given them up months before, she felt the insistent urge to smoke a cigarette, smoke anything, and she regretted keenly the great purge of smoking materials that she had led in the grip of her health-kick some months before. If only she didn’t know his hiding places, the places he stashed things, if only she hadn’t been so efficient at winnowing out his emergency baccy, the spare rolling papers, the box of matches with the tiny blim of hash gone stale inside…
The thought sent her stomach lurching again and she yowled at the world, felt the ropes of pain tighten about her heart until she thought it might stop altogether. She lashed out, blindly, a blow wrenched from inside her nervous system, from the base of her spine, from all the secret things she had thought that she had shared with no one but him. It was worth it, just to strike back at the world, at the empty air, at life for taking him away, and to strike at him, for whatever he’d done, wherever it was he’d gone, for leaving that tape, for distorting things, for contaminating the pure fuel upon which the engine of her grief ran.
You’re all I need.
The pain from her split knuckles did little to bring her back to the world, but wiping the smear of blood off the white gloss of the lintel gave her something to do other than fret, and panic, and wail.
Once she’d erased the hieratic mark on the paintwork and wrapped her bloody hand in a clean-ish duster, she looked around at the remaining detritus of their lives, severed now but still partly intertwined. The hollowness of this house. The boxes half-filled, the shelves half-denuded. The dizzying, sickening idea of touching anything else that he had ever placed a hand upon—and the lure of nicotine, the blissful cell-deep craving reignited within her—sent her hurrying from the flat, out into the street.
The rain had stopped. The sun came out and the pavements glowed gold, steamed in the sudden resumption of the heat. Early spring, you’re either sweating inside your coat or cursing the flimsiness of whatever you’re wearing in lieu of a coat as the rain lashes down. She blundered about, her feet shattering the golden surface of puddles, the hot tarmac treacherous underfoot. When she looked up, something about the look on people’s faces after the morning’s heavy rain, the way they squinted in the strong sunlight, the way they sighed and unzipped coats or shook off umbrellas, something about blessings unasked for and received soured her heart inside her, brimmed her eyes with tears. Blinking, she staggered on, gaze downcast, trusting the unevenness of the pavement, the savage working of her jaw, the sheer mechanical effort of placing one foot in front of the other, one in front of the other.
You’re all I need.
When, finally, she looked up, the city’s roar and bustle had faded to a background hum. She’d fumbled her way into a gap between two buildings, down by the deserted industrial estate past the bus station. Blinking away tears, she stared at the shabby factory units, which now appeared to be a small wildlife refuge for teenage graffiti artists, small-time drug dealers, illegal fly-tippers and intrepid skateboarders. Every window was covered with thick chipboard, every silent cladded wall gathered up the distant rumble from the main road and compressed it into a whisper. The narrow avenues between the buildings were choked with fern and brambles, the wet smell of them in her nostrils. The barbed-wire was turning to rust. A corrugated plastic notice advising trespassers that the security firm that patrolled this area used dogs—clinging on by a last defiant twist of wire—flapped madly in a sudden cold breeze, which brought with it a few scattered drops of water, though whether these fell from the hazy sky or were blown off the roof of one of the buildings, she could not tell.
Empty lager cans, the brands long worn-off, tinkled forlornly against concrete. She tried to imagine the place bustling, the car park crowded with lorries and vans, lights streaming out of the windows, the clash and roar of machinery. Nothing of that was left. Whatever original use the place had, whatever they had made here, was now gone. The sad little piles of discarded condoms and the remains of drug wraps where kids had huddled in doorways seemed as old and as forgotten as the place itself.
One of the buildings, the vacant units, was burnt-out. The smell of melted fibreglass, harsh and rotten, in the back of her throat. An empty fire extinguisher rusted in the scree of lichen-spattered asbestos roof tiles. An old television set, the top half of the screen of which someone had coated in some sort of thick red paint, the drips cascading down like a map of nerve endings, frozen tendrils that sought for but would never reach the floor. Skeletons of charred beams with sad remnants of molten lath clinging to them.
She kicked her way through an opening that had once been a wall, past the returning weeds pushing their way up through what remained of the floor, through the tangle of discarded car tyres, the broken bits of plumbing, torn black plastic rubbish bags spilling befouled rags, smashed video cassettes, faded and rain-bleached magazines.
Inside, the place was a shrine. Small alien skulls, bulbous, huge-eyed, tapering to a cruel point—sparrows? They must be sparrows—tied on posts driven into the corners of the building, marking a boundary within the hollowed-out space. Trails of ribbon dangling from the blackened joists, ribbon that had once, possibly, been white but now had taken on the colour of a fading bruise. Small hanks of human hair twisted and knotted in strange fashion hung seemingly at random over the rubbish and detritus; somehow—a trick of the light?—it was darker inside than outside, as if there was still a roof, something above her head to cast a shadow.
In a space cleared amidst the rubbish in the very centre of the building, she found the mermaid, but even as her disbelieving eyes widened, they caught a flicker of movement off to one side, at the edge of her vision. Someone was there with her, inside the building, all at once, perhaps emerged from the shadows clinging along what was left of one wall. Despite herself, she jumped—shoulder blades squirming together beneath her skin—let out a sudden, embarrassing squeak.
The rain started again, but softly, blown in on the wind gusting through the gaps in the roof, the walls. Above her head, the clouds swirled like boiling water. There was a taste in her mouth, part industrial, part medicinal, like the fillings dissolving out of her teeth.
The figure was tall, a filthy novelty baseball cap pulled down hard over the lowered face, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a creaking leather jacket that looked like its owner had once spent a lot of time falling off of motorbikes. The jeans were filthy, threadbare; they hung loose around the figure’s legs. Inside its makeshift tourniquet, the wound on her hand began to throb. The figure nodded without raising its head, a slight upward bobbing of the befouled brim of its cap.
“Should I be here?” she asked, surprised at how calm, how composed her voice sounded. “What I mean is, d’you mind?”
In lieu of an answer the figure shrugged, which she took as indicating assent.
“I know this is a long shot, but you don’t smoke at all, do you? I could fucking die for a—”
She caught herself, shivered like a wet dog.
“I’m desperate for a fag.”
The figure shook its head, but pulled a pale, long-fingered hand from the depths of its jacket, threw a battered packet to the ground at her feet. Carefully, carefully, she knelt down amongst the wet weeds, fished about until she found it; inside, one last filter-tip, a brand-new disposable lighter. She fumbled it out, lit up, coughed her soul up, nearly retching amidst a cloud of foul smoke. It made her heart hammer even faster, immediately seemed to replace all the oxygen in her blood with carbon monoxide. Vision swimming, temples throbbing, she tried to fix her gaze on the figure. Its hands had returned to its pockets. It stood head down in the gloom. She saw that from the back of the baseball cap flowed an immense mass of greasy, auburn hair, stuffed roughly into the raised collar of its jacket.
“I realise,” she said, once the coughing fit had subsided, “that this might sound quite strange, but I’d really like to have a look at your mermaid, if you don’t particularly mind?”
No answer. Did it cant its head slightly, almost imperceptibly, to one side, as if straining to listen? She couldn’t tell, but as it made no move to stop her, she turned away and picked her way across the detritus to where the mermaid sprawled in a space cleared at the centre of the room.
It was beautiful, in its way. Maybe eight feet long, perfectly white, perfectly, as if made from icing sugar, it sprawled languorously on its side, propping itself up on its elbow, the great fishy hindquarters tapering to meticulously carved flukes that flared to a good couple of feet across. The scales were fat and ridged, more like lamellar armour than those of a fish, decorously sprouting from the figure’s hips, down over its navel. The top half was naked, shapely, but smooth like a mannequin’s, complete but somehow indistinct, as if whoever had sculpted it—if it had been sculpted—refused to titillate with anatomical details. But the neck—the finely-wrought shoulders, the attention paid to the clavicle! The arms, slender yet sinuous, their muscles finely-wrought but not stringy or pumped: a gymnast, perhaps, or a swimmer, all her days.
The face disturbed her—underneath the expected great sweep of albino weeds that sprouted as its hair—cruelly, coldly beautiful, somehow unearthly yet almost undetectably so, a high forehead, epicanthic folds at the corners of huge almond eyes, but the nose sharp, up-turned, the lips pouted in permanent scorn, or a strange contentment that did not bode well for someone.
You’re all I need.
She was about to ask where it had come from, who had made it, how it had gotten to this place, when a growl behind her—savage, bestial, torn from no human throat—made her jump, the last kisses of her cigarette falling from her fingers to the ground. She yelped and spun about, expecting to see the figure at her side, but she was alone. The rain stopped and the sun came out, the air inside the building lightening at once, as if someone had thrown a switch. The ground, the rubbish, the bare, blackened beams began to steam. The air inside the shrine began to fill with a soft vapour, something like the smoke given off when rubber burns. By the time she heard the growl again, from somewhere inside the thickening smoke, she was already running.
When she stopped, desperate, breathless, drenched in her own sweat, she found herself back by her old front door, at the flat she had shared with the dead man. The rain came on again, soaking her further whilst she struggled with the lock.
Safe—as she thought—back inside, amongst the remnants of their things, of the life she had shared with a man she loved, she smashed the tape to pieces, pulled it off its reels, shoved it into the kitchen sink, and torched it with the bright, shiny cigarette lighter she found in her pocket.
She managed, eventually, to chip and peel most of the molten remains off of the stainless steel, but the acrid smell of the burning plastic it left behind wouldn’t leave the flat, and the letting agent decided—in light of the stink and the damaged sink—to withhold the deposit.
Nelson Stanley had a few short stories published last decade. His story, “Things My Mother Told Me,” is forthcoming in the winter issue of The Sockdolager. He lives in Bristol, UK, and is the sort of person who would like to own pets but realises that—as he is incapable of keeping a houseplant alive—this is probably not a good idea.