‘Dazzling the Gods’ by Tom Vowler

Even the bluebottles have succumbed. Half a dozen, upended on the window sill, legs sculling the air in attempts to right themselves. The room a kiln, sun livid as it seethes onto the glass, braising him in a broth of wretchedness. People comparing it to a time before all this, when there were standpipes in the road and you could cook an egg on the kerb.

Sitting up in bed he eyes the net curtain for hints of a breeze, some portent today will be cooler. Their sheets reek again, despite his having washed them yesterday, and he unfurls them from the window where they hang in limp surrender. In the kitchen he fills a glass with ice and water.

Electra left the flat before he woke; hopefully the heat or a need for food drove her out so early, and not another capitulation. As far as he knows she’s been clean for a month; still some way short of his own effort, but a start all the same. He’d stuck with her each time she caved to the tyranny of cravings, every setback hardening his resolve. Strangely, he found withdrawal, if not easy, then manageable once those first hellish days were negotiated, although he knows such dependence reaches into the marrow and never entirely recedes.

Looking around he estimates a single car-load will do: clothes, scores of tools, a bureau that had been his grandfather’s. Where uncertainty exists over ownership, or they acquired something together, he will leave it behind, an act born of guilt or kindness, he is unsure. Her absence this morning has given him the option of cowardice, his farewell scrawled rather than spoken. The kind of letter you write when the mix becomes one part love, two parts loathing. Perhaps she already senses his departure and has chosen not to witness it, preferring a silent cleaving.

He downs the water, rolls the glass across his forehead. Already the floor pulses to the music below, incessant base that will reach deep into the weekend. He turns the radio on, a politician and scientist blaming each other, arguing about the figures, the tipping point. Outside the city groans and withers and looks skyward for relief.

She struck him last night. Something between a slap and a punch to the side of the head.

– It’s the heat, she said later, stroking the mark to his face. We need to get out of this place.

Even then, despite what the drug had taken from her, he thought her beautiful, hoped some essence of it might be salvaged, nightfall affording sufficient respite. But when sleep came it brought only images of the baby.

 

He thinks about washing up last night’s plates. It’s an exaggeration to term the flat squalid, but it has long ceased being homely, their upkeep sufficient only for a life of sorts. After getting clean he found work at a scrapyard, welding skips four days a week, cash in hand. The men there, perhaps mindful of a rapid turnover, keep to themselves, sharing nothing but muted cigarette breaks with him. The only ones to converse are the Romanians, eager to practise newly-learnt phrases on him or to discuss the politics of their country. From what he understands, more than anything they miss a food called sarmale, a type of stuffed cabbage best enjoyed with smoked meat and sour cream. That and țuică, a strong spirit made from plums and sold in markets or by the roadside in unmarked bottles. The youngest showed him a family photo once, wife and new-born, told him he was welcome to visit anytime he was in Eastern Europe. When your own country is underwater, he joked.

Since the latest heatwave, the owner of the yard allows them to start at 5am – it’s bad for business having workers die – and they finish around midday, when he comes home and collapses half-dead in a cold shower, his body brutalised yet purged some more. Electra would still be in bed, her logic that shorter days narrow temptation’s window. When she did get up, a frisson of energy flashed through her and she’d reel off extravagant plans for their escape, to live in the country, clean and healthy, to start over. They would keep hens, make ginger beer.

– Everyone should be able to see the horizon, she liked to say. Everyone should hear birdsong.

Such manic bouts burned themselves out by evening, replaced with uneasy silence, with sleepless nights where she’d wail and thrash and spit and blame him for their purgatory. It was true he introduced her to heroin, a week or so after they met, when smoking it had been enough.

– It’ll be OK, he’d whisper, trying to hold her, and she’d tell him to say something that wasn’t a lie.

In the beginning, when their bodies took hungrily from each other, her tongue hot in his mouth, his dreams laced with her, it never occurred to him to keep something back, to shore up that part of the self too brittle to expose.

 

He watches the cars below snarl and stammer nowhere, white light blazing off their roofs, dazzling the gods. Sirens start up to the south, like dogs prompting one another. Last week the young Romanian was sent home with suspected retina burn, a weld flash from someone’s gun as he removed his helmet prematurely. They knew not to go to the hospital, but to bathe the eyes in milk or use a saline solution until someone came round, a doctor of sorts. Two days off, they were allowed, unpaid, and if a fuss was made, someone else, not a doctor of sorts, came round. The pain, he knew from his days as an apprentice, would arrive in the night, like hot sand rubbed hard into the cornea. You might as well stare at the sun.

He makes a strong coffee and listens to the couple next door argue. The side of his face still smarts a little, a hotness overlying the ambient heat. He never retaliated, hadn’t even raised his voice when she continued using. It was the perfect reason to stop, of course, for only the most selfish and cruel junkie continued poisoning a body that encased another.

He rolls a cigarette, listens to the soft sizzle as he draws on it. There’ll be financial contrails to his leaving, some of which he hopes the envelope of cash will remedy. He’ll pay the rent for a month or two, until she sorts something.

He fills a couple of bin sacks with clothes, sweating with the exertion. At the back of a drawer he finds a toddler’s bodysuit, neatly folded with tags intact. A gift from a neighbour, it escaped Electra’s cull when, unable to give everything up, he’d hidden it there. He brings the fabric to his face, inhales its scent, but it’s just his own. He’ll visit the hospital later. There’s a memorial garden in its grounds, an entire plot devoted to the premature, where they’d taken flowers a couple of times soon after and again on the anniversary, until even this lapsed to neglect.

When you befriend heroin, you begin a slow and steady walk towards a rotating buzz-saw. Whether or not you can deviate from this trail long enough to escape its gravitational pull depends on several factors: your genes and personality; the number of dopamine receptors in your brain; the drug’s availability and your exposure to those who use it; the presence of a mental disorder; physical or sexual abuse suffered early in life. Addiction to opiates is rarely immediate; numerous tributaries offer themselves as exit routes but their number diminishes with each hit. Bizarrely, most people will experience heroin at some point in their lives, usually in the moments before death, when it’s administered as morphine to ease the passage. Frequent users are forced to search for novel routes to the bloodstream as veins collapse. Alternating sites can prevent this, moving from inside the elbow, down the forearm – avoiding arteries, making sure vessels don’t have a pulse – into the back of the hand or the palm if the pain can be tolerated, into the fingers. Stomach, groin, thigh, calf and feet are all feasible. Neck, breasts, face and genitalia all carry increased risk but offer a last resort when you’ve spent hours stabbing away at flesh. During his most prolific period as a junkie, he knew someone who once injected into her eye.

– Stay squeamish, was her advice.

 

He places his tools in a plastic crate taken from the yard, leaving spares of those duplicated, enough for her to carry out rudimentary tasks. The landlord works on the principle of not bothering you if you didn’t bother him, so tenants tended to make their own maintenance arrangements.

He will miss the flat, its allusion to a status of sorts. Thirty-five. Halfway along life’s path and almost nothing to show. What had been his lot before it was reduced to suspended animation? Memories surface when he allows: helping his brother build the landscaping business; being rubbish in goal and laughing in the pub afterwards. Of everything it laid claim to, perhaps friendship was the keenest loss.

 

From the kitchen he hears the flat door open and close. He calls out her name, but by the time he emerges to explain the bin sacks, she has shut herself in the bedroom. Perhaps the shoplifting has resumed, the impulse to take what was not hers gaining new purchase. It occurs to him just to leave, the words he will utter gratuitous, the worst cliché. Why wound each other further? Better to retain a semblance of respect.

Her crying sounds theatrical, strident bursts that are more felt than heard. He finds her crouched beside the bed, the noise – not hers, he now sees – settling to a steady whimper, as if the heat forbade such effort. The baby’s face radiates from a circled opening in the towel as Electra rocks it back and forth in an easy cadence. Small runnels form above its nose in a half-frown, its eyes blinking before fixing on nothing in particular. The thrum of music from below, coupled with the motion, appears to soothe the child, its bawling finally receding to nothing. Electra reconfigures the towel in order to place a finger in the baby’s hand, which after a second or two it grips.

So this is a mirage, he thinks – the sun orchestrating some divine revenge, a punishment befitting their crime. A glimpse at the unrealised. He says her name but she won’t look at him.

– What have you done?

She raises a hand to indicate the need for quiet, her febrile smile traversed by a single tear, her forearm blazed with the blistered track-marks that resemble one of the great constellations. He kneels down, careful not to get too close.

– Electra, where did you take it from?

She cradles the bundle, humming softly now, his presence incidental. Leaning back he draws the curtain to keep the sun from them, the baby threatening to cry at the noise, before attending again to Electra’s serenade. If that mockingbird won’t sing

He speaks more softly this time, placing a hand on her leg.

– We have to return it. I can take it back.

She ignores him so he tries a different approach.

– It’s too hot in here.

He holds his arms out and she shifts back like some wild and frightened thing, tightening her grip. If there is any separating the two of them, it will not, he realises, happen without violence.

He supposes the child is a day or two old, its eyes in awe of each new sensation, the beginnings of a smile forming, its new world settled enough now to be of comfort. It won’t always be this hot, he wants to announce, keen to apologise for the previous generation’s decadence. Watching this absurd version of motherhood play out he allows a fantasy to form, one where such unfathomable gifts go unquestioned. Perhaps the world is reordered now; perhaps things like this happen.

He stands and Electra shoots him a look, eyes aflame in maternal defiance.

– It needs something to drink, he says. Some milk or water.

His apparent collusion relaxes her a little.

– What shall we call her? Electra says.

 

In the kitchen he can hear more sirens and imagines the panic, the fretful scramble, wonders how someone can be so careless. This cigarette is harder to roll, his hands atremble, his body remembering a more potent remedy, one that begins in the poppy fields of Afghanistan and ends in such lavish misery. It was never really about the rush for him, the fabled fire that tore through his veins in euphoric rampage. More it was the sense of serenity, of being held, as if by a parent or lover, warm and cosseted, the day kept just enough at bay.

He looks out across the scorched city and thinks about the things people live for, the poison and love they depend on. He thinks about the young Romanian, how he’ll keep his helmet on those extra few seconds now if he wants to see his child again. And he thinks about the call he will soon make, that will lure the sirens to them, that will make her hate him even more, perhaps forever. He will give her a few more minutes, though; he owes her that.

6747202Tom Vowler’s first collection, The Method, won the inaugural Scott Prize in 2010, and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize in 2011. He followed this with two novels – What Lies Within and That Dark Remembered Day – and his work has been published in journals around the world. Tom is editor of the literary journal Short Fiction, and lectures in Creative Writing at Plymouth University, where he has just completed his PhD. Apart from being an occasional all-rounder for the Authors Cricket XI, he has no hobbies. His second collection of stories, Dazzling the Gods was published in January 2018.

 

‘Dazzling the Gods’ originally appeared in Issue One of The Lonely Crowd. There are still a few copies available from our online shop.

Copyright © Tom Vowler. Banner image © Jo Mazelis.