Coelacanth Boy

‘Honk, what in the hell is that smell?’

He grins, all Spanish onion teeth; chunky-white, full of sunshine.

‘Fish curry.’

My nose wrinkles up. ‘What kind of fish?’

‘One I caught.’

Oh man, that could be anything. That could be Kraken curry or the White Whale or whatever. Could be the last prehistoric Coelacanth. Could be haddock. What happens to you if you eat Coelacanth, do you get underwater dinosaur DNA in your veins? What can you do with that? Coelacanth Boy! Abundant fins! Critically endangered!

We are lying out on the beach, flat-ironed by the sun. Way out on the long blue streak of sea are surrendered white flags of sailboats, lazily brushing the skyline. No one better to pirate it on the beach with than Honk, he was born to dwell between the shores; catching dinner, resting up in some wooden hut with nothing but big leaves for a roof, pegging out his washing on a string between bamboo.

The smell of boiling fish blows away, Honk is tipping out his little bag of cumin and coriander seeds and whole black peppercorns. He says no matter where he goes that little bag saves him a lot of unnecessary what the fuck am I eating.

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‘Hell, Honk, when are you gonna patch those jeans? You’re wearing a blue net.’

He splits out that home-grown grin again. ‘Keeps me fresh in the sun, man, keeps the air circulating in the playground.’

‘Lucky ladies.’

He tosses a clump of beach grass at me, dry green daggers, getting it all in my hair. The soles of my feet are scraped down by the little stones on their long Jurassic journey into microscopic history. We eat the fish curry, it ain’t half bad. Honk says it was a mackerel, really. Later, when we’ve burned the bones to nothing in the fire and scraped our pans clean, we take another dip in the ocean, letting the salt dry on our skin as the sun slips under her blue blanket. The stars prickle out; we’re lying back on the rug exhaling crumbly brown gentleness into the sky, feeling the waves wash out the fatigue in our bone marrow.

‘Where d’you wanna go tomorrow?’

‘Nowhere.’

We stay a week on that beach before getting hustled on. It is a taste of the sweet life full of honey sunshine and loose shirts flapping in the sea breeze. Watching the sailboats drift on to other shores of pebble and fine sand, or maybe drop right off the edge of that indigo haze stretching from edge to edge. A flock of sailboats with their sails flung out like wings, coasting through the solar system; navigating through comet dust towards new and galactic islands.

Once a Catholic

Hospital runway to Intensive. I remember the strip fluorescent bounced off the squeaky vinyl floor so bright and hard it was like walking in a fairground illusion tunnel of lamps and mirrors; wondered if all them stories about going into the light was just being wheeled along this long, long hall to the buzz-beep heartbeat monitor of a quieter room.

Jack was still outside ’cause he lit one cigarette from another the whole night, must’ve got bronc or something ’cause his lungs hacked up sweet thick yellow for a while after that. I slouched all grey-brained on their scratchy little brown chairs, watching the pale blue angels rushing up and down, needles and tubes in their hands, flying from room to room administering oblivion’s grace.

No news, no nothing for a while and Jack thought he should be in there to hold her hand but he weren’t her husband or anything and it was surgery and all so they said no. I reckoned it was for the best, why let him sink into a nightmare still awake. I just thanked God Boo was out cold under a plastic mask of drugged breath. Clock hands swimming round the hours.

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When it was done, this guy comes out in wipe-down martian green, gives Jack the up-and-down, taking in the vomit and stink of tobacco and I knew he was thinking we were both a fucking waste of space and oxygen and the bloody gloves he’d just shucked off. Said Boo was gonna be fine; no more and no less childlike half-brained than before, poor kid. Jacks says, ‘She told me last week it was the size of a grapefruit or something.’

Wipe-Down nods. ‘About that. I’m sorry.’

‘Said she thought it was a boy. Can you tell me that?’

‘He was, yeah.’

I watch Jack play yo-yo with his adam’s apple, wrap his arms around himself like he can lockdown into a solid cage of flesh, with demolition fists and razorwire nails that keep out everything. Sound like he’s speaking from underwater when he says, ‘What did you do with him? When can I see her?’

Wipe-Down’s face goes soft, like he just figured out there was a man under the crusted cotton who wanted to hold tiny hands. ‘We’ll come get you when she’s out and resting.’

Shitty bitter coffee cup warmth creeps back in through the palms like a soft stigmata, and I remember hearing once the Church says that once a Catholic, always a Catholic; like he’s reading my mind about the big man from Nazareth Jack tells me that being a carpenter and all he could make it himself, real small, a size 5 sneakers shoe box coffin. And we’re sitting back out in the cold watching cars ferrying the fortunate away from this place.

‘You think she’ll remember?’ His eyes are streaked devil red, riverbeds stuck to his face.

‘She was out cold.’

‘No, I mean, you think she’ll remember anything? That we were gonna have a baby even?’

And I think about Boo, sunshine kid. So sweet and baby-new herself, snappin’ at Jack for leaving his laundry in the washer then forgetting how to tie her shoelaces. I think about her dancing in the field in the summer heat, all floating white cotton and a smile like an amnesiac angel.

The night eats up my cigarette smoke and I don’t know what to say, so I put a hand on his back like I could ease him back into the water of this stupid hospital garden fountain and watch him rise up with it all washed away by the Holy Spirit, but I can’t see the path out of the river for Jack, just wet footprints in the dust that don’t go anywhere but in a circle.

Love Lines in the palm of Milan

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At some point during the trip she knitted a whole sweater, the wool was deep seaweed green so’s the sweater was like a Christmas gift for mermaids. We drank table wine from a tonic water bottle, rattling backwards through Italy until the fat moon ghosted up over the hills veiled in violet clouds, ruined houses all over; vineyards and cattle rambling brown iron ground. I wondered who lived in all of these little postage stamp windows. The air was different. In Venice you could breathe, but here the oxygen was full of hot tin and rust flakes, criss-crossed with tram line veins sparking their electric blood. Industrial lungs, working double-time, exhaling love letters to a lagoon.

Biscuit Girl & the spiders of Africa

There’s this girl I know, not too well, but enough to exchange all the little pleasantries of the coffee counter. I’ll call her Biscuit Girl. She twists her bubblegum pink hair over and over; starting to wash out now into something pastel; gentle candyfloss fairy.

She’s got these brown eyes; melting cookie chip liquid brown like one of those old-time dancing desert women, Persian princess eyes. She shades them with green powder that shimmers like a dragonfly body, like they dragged their dust over her eyes while she was sleeping. I think about her bedroom being full of them; resting up on the sunny walls in the day, descending in a humming cloud when the sun goes down, skimming the long length of her pale flesh like the surface of a pond.

I love her face. Her face is rambling rose cream with cinnamon sprinkle freckles. Her face is near devoid of expression; a perfect death mask for a queen. Then those eyes leaping out at you like smoking coal in a pale fire, the melody in those eyes; the hidden mermaids in them, cooing their wrecking songs.

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Biscuit Girl hates this town, says she’s moving on out to the coast any time now. She plucks at the threads of her raggedy sleeve, festival cotton, one season. Says she’s gonna spend the summer on the beach, picking up shells, putting them down again. Sea-bathing, making love to the long weeds rippling around her. She tells me about this one time, in West Africa, when she saw rock crabs crawling around underground, squinting, putting her eye to the thick cracks in the clay. How she followed a green and purple fish way out, until the sand dropped away to a sheer abyss.

‘That would have given me a fucking heart attack.’ The sea, She and me, we got a history.

‘That wasn’t the worst.’ She sips black coffee, tips the ash of her cigarette into the top of an old beer bottle. ‘You should have seen the bird-eating spider.’

‘The motherfucking?’

‘No, the bird-eating.’ I splash a couple of drops of milk at her face.

‘We were walking back to the boat, and suddenly the guy next to me points upwards, grinning. So I look up and all I can see is this big black ball, like, hanging there ’cause it had strung a web between two trees. And he chucks a handful of dust towards it, and suddenly you can see the web, where the dust is clinging to it, and this fucking nightmare thing unfurls its legs.’

‘How big was it?’

‘Like, a small dinner plate.’

‘No way. I’m gonna Google this fucker.’

The death mask has cracked. Biscuit Girl, she’s got a tiny smile on, a violin string smile. She’s tossed half her stuff already, she says; left big bags for charity. Gonna buy a used car and go soon as the sun comes. I wonder what will happen to all those dragonflies. I guess she’ll open the window and let them go. Or maybe she won’t, maybe she’ll crush them all, grind up their glitter bodies and blow broken wings from the palm of her hand. When I think about this, I realise I don’t know Biscuit Girl so well.

Mama Bones

I got a palm full of broken glass. Thought maybe neigbourhood kids after the rowing that weekend, but really, the old thin stuff just fell right out of its wonky frame. This wasn’t the best place I lived, with holes in the wall we shoved the dresser in front of. St Anthony’s was a pit for the disenchanted, the plaster over cracked souls, the wanderers who damn well were lost.

She sees me taking out the old window glass, tipping it in the dumpster. Etta, her real name is – whatever a person’s real name is anyhow – but those of us who know her call her Mama. Those folks who really know about her call her Mama Bones, in whispers and wonder-gossip.

Mama Bones can talk to the dead, right? And did you know she can ask the Saints to intervene for you and they will? And that she takes dirt from the graveyard at night? And that if someone spits their evil thoughts onto you she will uncross you and bless you with Bible magic?

I did know, I met Mama myself in the graveyard, just smoking and watching the birds. She was sitting on the wooden bench by the garden of the ashes, had a hip flask with her, sipped a little now and then. I waved and she rose up and ambled over, slow but powerful, a god-fearing mountain. Offered me what turned out to be rum, bummed a little tobacco. We talked about town and God and whether or not everyone gets an angel and what about planning permission for sustainable housing huh?

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Anyhow. She comes over and watches me pour this shattered glass away, a sad little river of fake diamonds. She’s wearing this red top with giggling gold bells around the hem, puffs out a long line of cigarette smoke.

‘You got problems?’

‘Nothin’ like that, frame’s rotten.’

‘Hmm.’

I wait, the Hoodoo Woman is alligator-like; sometimes all you got is eyes above the water and silence. Don’t mistake that for inaction if you wanna get out of there alive; she’ll roll you under, flashing that prehistoric muscle.

‘I seen them dealing and all that around here.’

Yeah, so did we all, so did the council who let the old burned-out tinfoil blow away along with the feather lives of those kids full of smoke.

She comes up close, ‘Lefty, I’m gonna tell you something and you can do it or you don’t.’

I nod. Mama calls me Lefty sometimes because of the hand I write with and because my last name means that also. Says it makes me lucky and that I got a lion’s destiny. She calls me the double sinister.

‘Things are getting bad around here, dark souls, a shadow gathering, and you’re sweet enough and I don’t want to find out your building went up in flames with you in it, or someone smashed through that chipboard you call a front door or anything like that.’

I wait, Mama is poking at a tooth with her tongue. It’s loose, and always something she’s putting off fixing ’til later. I think about that alligator again, got plenty of other teeth.

‘What you gotta do is get up before dawn tomorrow, it’s a good day, and you gotta piss into a jar and grind up a red brick real good; and you get out onto your doorstep and wash it down with your fluids, and you stream that brick dust over the top in a line, and no good for nothing will cross it.’

‘Do I say anything?’

‘I’ll give you a prayer.’

So I do this thing, and not long after she gives me a sachet of powder to put around the door of someone else’s place, where the music drowns out the beating, all bass and black eyed women; and I wait and watch and not two months later they are packed up and blown away out of town. I put my hand on my heart when I see Mama, I always remember her in my prayers and light her a candle. I know she didn’t have to share the great magic of her people with me, it’s a goddamn honour.

And I think maybe I’ll travel up to the swamps someday, see that alligator with one loose tooth, pour a little rum into the river.

You Wanna Get Groovy, Baby?

Toast came to us a couple years after dropping out of college and taking some time out to travel around Eastern Europe. She was working as a waitress when Honk and I dropped in for a beer on our way to the beach, her hair scraped back in a little schoolmistress bun and worn-out black flats going at the heels; blue leather skirt and a Buddha’s head in silver bouncing around in the hollow of her neck.

‘Anything else?’ she says, flipping the greasy pages of the order book.

‘Nah, we’re cool.’ Honk relaxes back into the booth, stretching his shoulders after gripping the wheel three straight hours. I see him give her the quick one-up-one-down but real discreet. Still, she shoots him this little you ain’t fooling no one smile before snapping her long legs back behind the counter.

‘Whoo,’ he says, tipping his head back into the fingers laced behind his hair, mashed up around the back of his skull like a black halo. We spend the afternoon in there getting buzzed and watching the sun drooping like an orange eyelid over the hills. We buy the lady a couple of drinks because the place is dead and she sits with us a while, telling us about bullet holes in the walls of Prague churches and did you know they pulled down the statue of Lenin and replaced it with one of Michael Jackson? For some reason this makes us all laugh so hard we’re doubled up over the table crying. I remember the feel of little ketchup packets being squeezed between my fingers as I put my head between my knees trying to get some air.

‘Shit man, we’re supposed to be getting our asses to the sea.’ I say eventually, my face feels hot and spiced like it does when you’ve been drinking in the day. Toast scuffs her shoes against the linoleum, says, ‘Can I hang?’

‘Ain’t you working?’ I nod over at the bar where empty space is jostling to catch her eye.

‘Only took this job as, like, a stepping stone,’ she says. ‘I could do with a ride out.’

So we all get in the van and I get this weird feeling. I turn over to Honk with my eyebrows up and he leans in close and says ‘You ain’t smelled the spirits on her breath?’ And I think Aaaaw fuck is this trouble comin’ but he shrugs.

‘Look, I’m not about to get heavy on someone ‘cause of their life choices, but don’t you tell me that girl is just looking for a way out of town….She’s looking for a way out period.’

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We rattle down to the beach and make camp, cooking up fish right off the boat over a fire, mackerel wrapped in foil with some smoked paprika cheese and bottles of wine we bought on the way. We lie there by the sea watching the stars come out and the blue glow of the night fishermen setting up. Honk is the one to ask because I ain’t got much courage.

‘What’s the real deal with you then?’

Boy does red wine act on women like Sodium Pentothal.

When Toast was in college she went to one of those parties. You know the ones, fraternity, a house full of sports sweaters and beer kegs and tossed underwear. Her drink got spiked and she ended up flipped over on her belly as some asshole filmed the whole thing on a tinny smartphone. Everyone knew who they were, but no one said nothing. Couple of years later she was at a rave where she knew these jocks would be but now they were in Hamsa t-shirts and talking ‘bout charity work in Nepal, and everyone was raising the ceiling to trance and magic mushrooms. She didn’t dose ‘em all, but she found the main guy and her face is all covered up in glitter and festival paint remember? And she hands him this little dish of sky-high fungus that looks like all the rest and says ‘You wanna get groovy, baby?‘ 

They might have been the Death Cap. Destroying Angel. Whatever. He took a dive liver first, liquified from the inside out.

Honk and Toast and me stare at the waves curling over themselves. She’s crying and her face is a crab shell, pink and raw. She gets up and stumbles over the pebbles and we’re freaking out she’s gonna throw herself in the water so we follow her with our arms out like a pair of wicket keepers but she throws the empty bottle in instead, no message, and crumples up like the motion pulled the rest of her muscles out of her arm. We get her back up and she’s slurring, ‘Now you know and you can do what you like with me hey?’ so we bundle her into the tent and get her tucked up in the recovery position with a pie dish next to her head.

We’re pretty quiet after. Honk opens another bottle and we watch the fire, little dry driftwood limbs full of salt sparking away, fish oil swiped over the knees of our jeans.

‘You know we gotta protect that kid,’ he says eventually. I watch the flames flicker in the hollows of his cheeks.

‘From what?’ Sounds like she got Hecate down pat.’ And he gives me a look and I lean back like smoke is blowing my eyes. ‘Alright, alright I get it.’ And I do, home isn’t always the goddamn walls, it’s making a nest out of the faces who choose to stick around.

When Toast wakes up we already got breakfast going and I went up the hillside and picked some flowers. I’m looking at them like a guy caught on the hop at a service station on his anniversary like Are these okay? Shit.

I hand them over as Honk serves up eggs cooked over the new fire. ‘You wanna be in our gang?’

A Flock of Wild Girls

I’ve known a lot of girls with incredible names. Clarity, Toast, Aubine, Taru, Boo, Chaka; self baptised by their own heart’s blood on a whim or after years of examining themselves from all angles like an interesting stone they found on the beach, full of quartz veins and washing up a different colour every time the water touches them. Toast once told me self-invention is a woman’s art, that girls are a canvas stripped by turpentine every so often, and it stings, but you get to put a whole new portrait over the fire.

I’m waiting at the airport when I meet the girl from one of those wild eastern lands where they take Our Lady seriously and barley and potatoes and all the different percentages you can wring out of potatoes. I’m on my way to Jack’s place, still sniffing like a lost kid into my sleeve because people I love have fallen away like cards thrown from a bad hand, and I miss them, and the winter stretches out ahead of me like some dead animal with a long spine, skin hanging down between the vertebrae. She sees my face set like a gargoyle, you know, when you try and hold the tears steady so they run down the inside of your face instead, turning your jaw to stone. Offers me a steel hip flask with something engraved on the metal but worn out now into hieroglyphs.

‘You are scared of flying?’ Her voice has this heavy music to it, hair cropped all urchin-ragged, streaked blue like a magpie, lip pierced with a tiny glinting ring. I swig whatever she’s offering and it turns out to be 100% pure fuck-you-up potato juice.

‘Nah,’ I jerk my head. I love the lethal getaway vibe of flying, the lift off into an upside-down world and everybody on the plane feels like a rockstar to me ‘cause here we all are, defying gravity together. ‘Just leaving good folks behind. You?’

She tilts her lips up, smeared in that kind of bleached pink you get from cheap fruity glosses. I’ll bet paper money her mouth tastes of cherries. ‘I’m meeting my boyfriend.’

‘Cool,’ I feel the potatoes drip lava into my belly. ‘He flying in?’

She shakes her head, she’s got a mole on her pointed little elf’s chin and smells of the big ol’ biker jacket wrapped around her. Too big, vintage or a piece of daddy’s history or something, swamps her like a pair of bat wings steeped in ancient cigarettes, sticky elbowed from years leaning on bars and coffee counters and cafe tables.

‘I’m going to meet him.’

‘Really? You look kinda nervous.’

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She tosses her head, takes the flask out of my hand and tips it back. Sparrow wrists, pulse like living lilies; she’s wearing a cotton choker with a little silver moon hanging off it. Earlobes bare, something touching about that, they’re so pale and soft-looking like little baby rabbit ears, holy shit what is in this flask. She coughs, wipes her lips, peeling blue polish on her nails.

’We’ve never met yet.’

‘Wow.’ She pushes the steel back into my fingers and I taste some lingering sugar fruit when I take another pull. Can’t make out if it’s cherries though. ‘That’s risky, known him long?’

‘Two years, we were friends before. Online.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Edward.’ Her mouth does something Slavic to the W, to that whole last syllable, and now I know two things about Edward: 1 – he has the sexiest name on the goddamn planet and 2 – he isn’t good enough for her. I think about scooping this vulnerable little jackdaw girl up in my hands and stowing her away in my hand luggage.

‘How come he isn’t flying to you?’ Someone’s little wheelie suitcase bangs into my ankle but I shrug it. She takes out her phone and flips through until she brings up a little square of light that makes those lips tilt upwards again. Edward has thin little plastic tubes hooked up to his nose but he’s smiling, crooked little smile like a guy caught hiding wildflowers behind his back. Chilli pepper red hair from a bottle and jade eyes flecked with bashful brown.

‘Lungs, huh?’

‘Cystic Fibrosis.’

I pass the flask back, apologising to whatever angels congregate at airports, and I think they’re some of their favourite places, for my error and my judgement.

‘What’s your name anyhow?’

She smiles. ‘Kasia, in your language is Kate.’ Kasia, I add it to my list of wild girls.

‘You two are gonna be happy, I can tell.’

‘Yes?’

‘Yeah,’ I feel the vodka stoke up my blood. ‘Good souls find each other, you know? Doesn’t matter how far away you are, souls with lights inside are like magnets. It’s one of God’s mysteries.’

‘Are you going somewhere happy?’

I let the breath roll out of my nose like a sad dragon. ‘It’s new, but happy? I don’t know yet.’

She gives me this look, this precognitive Cassandra glance from under her eyelashes that I can’t decipher. A disembodied voice crackles out across the lounge and she gets to her feet, hoists her canvas bag up over her shoulder. Her boots are like shiny black beetles as they turn towards her future and it feels like a new and tender root’s being torn out of me, the same way it does every time I meet someone who I feel could have been in mine, somehow.

‘Fly safe,’ she says, firm, like she’s gonna come give me a stern look if I die falling into the ocean. ‘Remember me and be happy.’

‘Kasia.’ I salute her, potato juice is all over my tongue and saltwater is threatening the dam again. She vanishes into the light thrown out by the wall-to-wall glass of the airport windows. I laugh at myself, Magpie Girl never needed saving from anyone, she was flying before she ever got on a plane.