To this dying man whom the wolf already scents
And whom the crow watches.
Baudelaire, Flowers of Evil
1 The Midnight Bell
Ballard tossed the empty vodka bottle into the sea, of crushed cider cans and torn crisp packets, burst Co-codomal blisters and shards of glass showering cast-off copies of The Times. A swamp stagnant with soiled clothing, punctured by islands of broken bookcases. Flashes quickening the crash shadow play: a smashed lampstand here, a broken bedstead there. Rumours of the skeleton of a laptop, long buried.
The barman sensed no shame as he surveyed the remains of the room, that once was home. For he was drunk. Not bad, mad, or sad drunk. But drunk. Defeated. Defecated. Pride long crucified. Psychic energy throttled – night after day purgatorised – with stillborn dreams, with drugs, with burnt books and ambition, with waking nightmares of alcohol. And her.
“That’s time at the bar, ladies and gentlemen, time at the bar.”
‘American Pie’ rose through the floorboards.
For the fifth time.
“Get a room.”
One of those nights.
“No you can’t have another fucking drink.”
Peeling off the bedsheets, Ballard waded furiously through the rubbish.
“Get him in there.”
Settling for the dregs of the morning.
“Not the fucking urinal.”
Rolling onto his back, liverish weight a reminder for the NHS 40+ MOT …
“Oi, if that cunt misses, you’re clearing it up” …
he devoured the warm sickly sweet cider, wishing it was vodka, and skinned-up.
“Five minutes, come on, it’s time for sleep or sex.”
Adrenaline accelerating, salivating, sweating, anticipating …
Ballard shuffled towards the toilet. “I don’t care if it’s pissing it down.”
The staccato splutter of liquid a shade of Lucozade …
“I’ve told you, if your taxi isn’t here by half-twelve, you can fucking-well wait outside” … did little to alleviate the feeling of being kicked in the kidneys.
“Goodnight, time to go home, thank you very much.”
The journey back to the bedroom betrayed Ballard’s state.
“Right, that’s it. I’ve taken your money. Now fuck off.”
Piss and shit, Smirnoff and skunk, spunk and sweat lingered.
Friends bade their farewells, loudly, inconsiderately, sincerely. Eager couples hurried off hand-in-hand through the rain. Husbands went home to beat their wives. The staff supped-up and straightened-up. And as the keys grated in the locks and the lights went out, Ballard steeled himself for the silence and the ghost of a former lover, the emptiness of the air filled with whispers.
2 Locked In
A shot rattled across the room, inflaming Ballard’s blood blue eyes with gastric acid geysers. Cointreau-Tramadol bomb. Oesophageal outrage. Rennie’s sacrament dispensed too in communion with the poor man’s speedball. The seconds stretching into minutes, the minutes into hours, Ballard bent over the shot glass of terrors, filled with a ticking: the ticking of his watch, his heart, his conscience, a clock somewhere. How many shots since he ventured downstairs? In how many glasses, how many bottles had he hidden himself? Since morning alone?
Supine upon the saloon bar’s claret-clad benches, embracing the emptiness of the night, Ballard drained the spirit. And listened. To the rattle of rain. No chatter, no laughter, no music. No cuntstomers. Neither the embarrassed politeness of quietness nor peace, but an unsettling stillness.
Hungry clouds swag on the deep. The Victorian building creaked, a nineteenth century boozer channelling an intemperate line of force. If only the bricks could speak. A pub patronised by a loyal, yet dwindling, band of regulars: resident dipsos and courting couples, loquacious locals and insufferable snowflakes, stray students and tantalising teens. An endangered species.
Relic of the disconnected pre-unit days of nicotine cream ceilings and salt ‘n’ shake crisps, the liquid lunch and drink driving, weekly pay and cashing cheques over the counter, carpet bowls, the cockles, mussels and prawns man. Saturday night fights. Host still to old-school characters like Mick the Fish and Pete the Sign. Where sandwiches are served, where people get pissed. A home for those with no homes to go.
Pouring another vodka, Ballard smiled at the stories of Bullshit Bill, Captain Steve and Desperate Dan; Elbows, Gary the Grab and Half Dead Fred; Miserable Kevin, One-Eyed Tony and Parallel Pete; Shakin’ Stevens, Wavey Dave and Weird Wayne. Lost in his recollections, Ballard almost forgot Doug. Deadly Doug. Heart of gold Doug. Barred for being boring Doug. Doug.
Stranger tales too handed down from landlord to landlord. Of gas taps turned-off, unaccountably. Doors unlocked, mysteriously. The jukebox playing, unplugged. Bollocks. There’s two types in this game: those who drink and those who no longer can. Ballard’s ears strained at the silence: the background burr of fridges, the tumble of twigs down disused chimneys, the intermittent growl of the cellar cooler, the cascade of freshly formed ice. His nose declined not to detect the cellar sump, cheap perfume and cooking fat, armpits and the gents. Short of breath, Ballard couldn’t fail to notice the lengthening pool of drool on his already sweat-sodden shirt.
Starburst, dazzling in its opalescence, greeted Ballard’s vision. A whine, not unlike the circling of a wet finger along the lip of a half-empty glass, crescendoed through his ears. He genuflected, hugging the rim of the bin behind the bar, focusing on the day’s detritus: bottle tops, sauce-smeared serviettes, straws, soggy lemons and limes. And the unmistakeable reek of cheap energy drink. He retched once more. The blood and bile rinsed from his mouth, Ballard composed himself on the floor behind the counter. Abdicating flesh. Yielding to the optics down-staring seductively. The storm now abroad in all its wrath.
3 Darkness Visible
Plumes of smoke unfurled across the scarlet night sky, clouds that shape themselves and go, as Ballard basked in the blush of the beer garden’s patio heaters. Consoled by the heavy roll of rain on the canopy. Soothed too by the warm wet paving slabs and scent of petrichor. Suffused with the sweet earthy analgesic of skunk. Subdued by the fake healer of time. Standing still. Laughing.
I listened to you turn infamy into glory, cruelty into charm. Ballard retreated deeper inside his own skull. Whenever you seemed depressed. The stars unbeholden. I would follow you into strange, complicated adventures. Distracted by an absence ever present, like a picture turned to face the wall. But I always knew I could never be part of your world. Since the first stirs from sleep. I lay hour after hour. Till the beckoning of bedtime. Night after night. Prefiguring his waking thought. Trying to imagine why you wanted to escape from reality. Metastasising his mind astray.
Forbidden memories of a timeless sunlight, memories of a time before. Before she looked only through him, and he only through drink. And now she says nothing, while saying it all. The sins manufactured in heaven, to create our own hell. A homeless home of knowledgeable shadows. Awake, asleep, unresting, unconscious, un …
You could have gone right to the top. He jumped right off. Why not just knock it on the head? Making a round trip to the bar. Or at least cut down? Topping up with cider and more. One for yourself? Vodka. You’ll get over it. The bottle as large as life, and twice as empty. Do you have to drink? For he was a drunk. So much? That’s all there is to it. Talk to us. With accomplices masquerading as friends. We’re all here for you. But he’d almost forgotten that they were alive.
The bell of St Jude’s tolled thrice, stalling Ballard’s flight from consciousness, the thunder pealing echoes of infinite lamentations. He glared at the empty glass – a life measured out in barrels and bottles – incubating mortal sin. Firmament rind. And with the shame of a suicide revisiting the scene of his crime, Ballard returned to the room that once was home. Awaiting the cold truth of morning.
4 The Morning After
Birdsong greeted the passing of the July storm. Dappled light piercing the broken bedroom window blind, glancing Ballard’s cancelled countenance. Contact lenses cemented, Wednesday’s clothes cleaving. A corpse for a cock. A picture postcard Saturday morning.
Neither awake nor asleep, neither a glass half full nor half empty, Ballard brooded through a glass darkly. Emotional savings stripped. Disappointment in his maturity, in himself, at its deepest. The vodka dying in him. Wet with an eye-burning sweat, starting to shake. Ever so slightly. Steadily. With increasing intensity. Nerves raw and peeled.
Ballard’s lungs, like torn fishing nets, trawled vainly for air. Molten bile held in vain. Scalding the throat, paring the enamel. Warming the skin on the cheek. He’d had it worse – no blackout, no more blood or shit on the sheets – but there was no escaping the sensation of spiders scurrying, lice like old lovers crawling and burying, across and under the skin.
With a terror and resignation Ballard snatched foetally at the blankets and stray shirts – a foil from the floorboards, from the hot and cold blasts of the swinging furnace gates – waves of terror washing over his body. All sense submerged in a stupor of impotence. Save an apprehension that drink, any drink, just one drink alone, was all that stalled breakdown. All the while former friends braved the Brighton beaches, planned garden parties, or played with their kids in the park. In this corner of England.
A redbrick ribboned, villa studded, melting chocolate box of gypsies on the Green and Chelsea tractors, community clean-ups and cheap cocaine; village hall, parish newsletter, cirrhotic livers. A middle England of privet hedges of manicured lawns, local college colonisation and low-flying aircraft; suicidal Russian expats, tee-time heart attacks, unaffordable housing. This corner of England.
Where independent butcher and off-licence cling-on to life support, Post Office and hardware store long departed. Where the baker no longer bakes and the deli lacks delight. Though a bookies and vape shop subsist, amidst an abundance of estate agents, hairdressers and minimarts. This corner of England. Almost stockbroker belt. All very English. All very dull. Perhaps not dull enough. Radio 4 sounded, as if mute.
Eyeing the glyptic cicatrix runs on the wrist Ballard faced up to his exhumation, his Monday: fourteen hours at forty. Just five more minutes. For sleep and not to dream, to dream and not to wake.
5 Eternal Return
The clock struck nine, Ballard waiting in supplication, as the cleaners departed. Reaching for the vodka optic in subjugation, one trembling hand steadying the other, alive to the ammoniacal rekindling of his sweat. Each measure transfiguring the opaque amber a translucent gold. Each sip emboldening the illusion that tomorrow would be a day without yesterday.
Shaded by the canopy from the cruel and yellow sun, the light the whiteness of the tomb, Ballard gazed glazed at a newspaper. He was sure he had read it before, but it seemed quite new. Reading. Without recognizing any of the words. All effort atrophied to emptiness. Blind to the beauty of the beer garden. Poisoned. Knotted and gnarled. The flowers thorns. Around him, only black.
Remembering. When the booze was served as an occasional breakfast treat. And the orange juice sparkled only with champagne. A family affair. Christmas and airports. But blind to the shadow of the drowned man watching him through the water. Leaving Ballard to bathe in a twilight reaching out to a point where it merged almost imperceptibly with the dark.
Grabbing the pint glass with both hands Ballard swallowed down his bitterness, as if he were drinking down the very dregs of human sympathy. Staring into the remains of his drink, mixed with cigarette ashes and sadness, almost forgetting he had a living to fail.
What remained of his discoloured teeth merited cleaning. After puking, refreshing. Showering, French. Unsafe to shave, the razor like a live fish jumping right out of his hands, as he readied for the ritual of the morning.
There was cash to be counted, casks racked and tapped, books cooked, and cold callers cursed. Followed by a constant checking. Of reservations and rotas, temperatures and toilets, and beer. With the brass polished bright, the ale pulled ready, the house wine uncorked, Ballard’s hands surgeon steady, he paused. To draw the bolts back. Mood at heel with the vodka in the bottle.
Image – Gustave Doré, The Inferno, Canto 13, etching – Wikicommons