A fat pigeon flapped between the towering tendrils of Zone One, cocking one shiny eye towards the ant-sized people scurrying below it as it wheeled down towards the city’s clogged artery. The Thames divided the North and South Zones, once delighting citizens with its bounding currents and diamond surface. Now, the brown water heaved itself along like passing excrement. The pigeon overshot its mark, flying over the river for a moment with a squawk before flapping its shiny wings to bank around and bomb back towards the imperious, gothic face of Westminster. Its path was heedless with excitement as its tiny brain filled with thoughts of discarded food. It landed on a stretch of grass outside the Houses of Parliament and waddled to a squaw of hundreds more pigeons scrabbling over the scraps of the day abandoned by tourists.
The pigeons wore matted, grey feathers beneath scaly pink feet, although most were missing at least one of their three toes, and many more an entire foot. The particularly thin birds with the scrawny necks and nervous ticks seemed to be cursed with haphazardly ruffled feathers as if to further distinguish them from their plump, cocky colleagues. In the right light, each pigeon’s wings glowed slightly at the tips with the same faint sheen of grease on hair. In the large numbers in which they could be seen now, the metallic glints of green and blue tips were what static might be imagined to look like, if it could take such a form. They claimed the ground, waxy in the dulling light of day, much like static will claim a broadcast signal, with just as little purpose or comfort.
The pigeon with the shiny eyes cocked its head again to watch, and two of the indigent birds with ruffs of misplaced feathers screeched at each other over an empty brown paper still stained with salt and vinegar. The pigeon blinked a few times and then suddenly took off back towards the river. Mid-air at the bank of the water it turned sharp right and flew along the length of the enormous building, its reflection flashing in and out of the windows it passed, similarly to those who worked there. Big Ben shook the air with its seven strikes but the bird arrogantly ignored the bells’ call outwith its slipstream. It dipped lower, reaching the end of parliament and slowed down for another sharp right back around to the building’s side. It braked its wings suddenly and dropped on top of the small and narrow wooden roof of a large hut that sat oddly next to the building’s shorter side.
The pigeon waddled across towards the giant stone wall of parliament that rose up opposite and dropped down into the thin passage between them. From there, it squeezed itself under the locked wooden door of the hut in the deep groove made by humans trotting in and out every day. Its claws scrabbled desperately in the earth to squeeze its fat body through the gap, tearing a feather from its pore in the process. But once inside, the stinging flesh was forgotten as it surveyed its secret grotto filled with bins and black plastic bags brimming with wasted food unwanted by those who sat inside the big stone building with its loud clock. It kept itself from cawing in delight, not wanting to alert the birds nearby to the feast. Frankly, it didn’t want to share. It hopped towards the nearest black plastic sack and tore at the womb lining with its razor beak.
The next morning she went to work feeling like a prisoner within the cell of her own skin, kept locked by the projections of who everyone else thought she was. In it, she was forced to watch that very image flicker across her face like a hologram. Her voice sat in her stomach looking up through the darkness at the shuttered windows and cowered in a pool of acid as the passing video of the world burst through the glass and choked her like an idle waterfall. Her shackles felt heavier than ever and the rest of her forever stretched out in front of her like a dusty desert, empty and violated, like the love of an adult who was once a forgotten child. And so she hid, using her clothes as camouflage, her earphones blocking out the pitiful twists in her belly, and prayed for a Father to come to her rescue.
The excitement of Bateman’s infidelity had dissipated entirely once she admitted to herself someone’s indiscretion did not qualify as another’s saving grace. Another night lost to cigarettes and splashes as she topped up her tumbler had locked her in the unabating stretch of fear that uncurled before her like an elastic band growing as tight as a tendon. So she lay very still and very quiet, waiting for a yellow blade that would cut the band from her belly button. Her stomach popped like seaweed.
The superimposition of her hologram self became stronger when she reached the Arena, striding through her colleagues with her chin held high even though she felt like she was walking across an overturned abacus. The whine of the workers reached her ears as if through a glass pressed to a door, but somehow she was logging in and loading up with steady hands, having only just registered Kathy ignoring her in the corridor outside minutes before. Again, her stomach clenched but the hologram was heedless and its hands danced across all three screens dutifully. The endless, barren sandpit of fear echoed silently, holding her in the gasp of its magnitude. But she powered through. Or, rather, ‘she’ did, and fetched a coffee and quipped to her colleagues and called her clients and flirted by the water cooler and emailed her parents and re-crossed her legs every ten minutes and reapplied her lipstick and cleared her throat and read the news and joined the arena and went to the bathroom and-
There was blood staining her knickers and smeared across her inner thighs. Her voice had hacked its way out. The hologram flickered, failing, as her stomach cramped again in an almost sigh when she smiled. She thumbed the cotton crotch marking red onto her prints and then looked down into the bowl to behold the red gleaming against the white porcelain. The scarlet water was a striking tide in the grey cubicle and the metallic smell assaulted the crowding bullshit causing the hologram to vanish as her womanhood bled out of her with enough force to mark all it touched. She marvelled at her body’s ability to cycle on with its readiness for life and unfaltering, hopeful renewal, no matter the extraneous drought that threatened her survival. She blessed its refusal to be parched in the sandstorm of their time. She remembered the birth of her voice.
The cubicle walls seemed to blast apart and she felt the thrill of dopamine rise in her like the crescendo of a bow dancing across the lowest string of a cello. Her breath came fast in her chest as she cleaned herself up, smiling, before remembering she didn’t have any tampons which distracted her feverish anticipation with a small: Crap.’
She pulled her phone out of the inner pocket of her blazer and sent a text, tapping her heels on the ground as she returned it to wait patiently. Sure enough, a few minutes later the door to the ladies opened and a hand shot under her cubicle door holding a tampon.
‘You’re a babe, Kath,’ she said reaching forward.
‘Uhuh,’ the tampon wagged at her as Kathy spoke. ‘I’m still pissed off.’
‘Understandable,’ she conceded as she snatched at the stick. ‘I am really sorry about yesterday.’
‘You get that your reaction was weird, right?’ Kathy pointedly asked her through the closed door.
‘I get that it was weird,’ she said ripping open the plastic wrapper. ‘I’m feeling a bit weird in general.’ She pulled the plastic applicator out.
‘You’re telling me,’ Kathy snorted.
’I’m telling me.’ She cocked her hips and inserted the tampon, pushing the applicator so it slid further in. ‘Damn,’ she muttered as a small, dull pain echoed out from her cervix.
‘Wrong angle?’ Kathy had heard.
‘Shouldn’t I be getting it right by now?’ She removed the plastic tube and wrapped it in toilet paper before discarding it in the sanitary bin - a small act of goodwill for the cleaners.
‘Nah,’ yawned Kathy, ‘It’s unnatural to shove anything up there.’
‘Well….’ She blotted her knickers once more. ‘Got the pad?’
‘Here.’ Kathy’s hand reappeared under the door.
‘Cheers. Hey Kathy,’ she said ripping it open and sticking the pad to her bloodied pants, ‘where do you think babies come from if that’s so unnatural?’
She pulled up her tights and flushed. ‘Do you ever think you’re gay because the world is overpopulated?’
‘Do you ever think you’re straight because you’re the missing link?’ She laughed at that, and stepped out to see Kathy leaning against the white tiles in-between the two chrome hand dryers, arms crossed below her chest and right palm cupping her left elbow. They grinned at each other and she moved towards the sink.
‘Speaking of babies,’ Kathy asked, looking at her in the mirror as she washed her hands. ‘Do you want them?’
‘This afternoon? No.’
‘I’m serious,’ Kathy pushed, her left hand drumming its fingers on her opposite bicep. ‘I mean at some point.’
‘Honestly?’ She turned off the taps, shaking her wrists. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘No?’ Kathy moved out from between the dryers to give her space as she dried her hands and went to check her make-up in the mirror above the sink.
‘I find all of it kind of problematic?’ She raised her voice above the sound of the dryer.
‘All of what?’
’What’s ‘it’?’ asked Kathy, sucking her front teeth with her tongue.
‘Don’t be so dramatic.’
‘Sometimes the truth is.’ Hands dry, she turned to Kathy. ‘Why, do you?’
’What do you mean, ‘why’?’ Kathy’s reflection frowned.
‘You asked me why I don’t want them!’ She laughed, looking at Kathy’s profile.
‘That’s because it’s abnormal not to,’ came the quick response. Now it was her turn to frown.
‘Biology,’ Kathy said simply, turning to face her and crossing her arms again.
‘Coming from the lesbian! And if everyone’s supposed to automatically want them then why even bother asking if I do in the first place?’ Kathy’s jaw hinged to the right slightly as she chewed on her tongue, trying to formulate a response. ‘So,’ she persisted, turning to lean the small of her back against the sink top and placing her palms on the edge, ‘why do you want kids?’
‘Because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what you do,’ Kathy said slowly.
‘The right thing?’
‘For who?’ she asked, turning her face towards the cubicles.
‘Oh piss off, you bloody martyr,’ Kathy snapped. ‘Now for the love of god will you hurry up and die over my new snakeskin heels.’ She turned to place her palms on the sink top, curving her back to lift one stiletto off the floor for inspection.
‘Divine,’ she said, looking at the patterned grey shoe floating at Kathy’s arse.
‘They call it opalescent turquoise,’ Kathy lowered her heel. ‘I had to go through about ten different shades of blue-green until I found the one I really loved.’
‘What about the fifty shades of grey?’ she said with a smirk, motioning towards the door.
‘Avoid at all costs,’ Kathy winked at her. ‘Anyway, there’s really only one.’
‘Two on a good day,’ she muttered to herself as Kathy pulled open the bathroom door.
Friday afternoon was almost too much excitement for the brokers to bear as the weekend palpably dangled before them like an erect nipple. Many couldn’t wait, and trips to the bathroom became more frequent as time rolled on too slowly for those with scorched nostrils and electric brains. The winter scene in the cubicles was laughable - not that senior management found it funny or interesting considering the dust that lined their own desks. The wolves became caged hyenas shrieking at Mary in her prism prison in their final hours before they were released into the city to perform their second job over the weekends. And weren’t they good little workers, recklessly flashing their thumbprint online and at cashiers and sales assistants and waiters and receptionists. By the time 7:30pm flashed before their impatient eyes the air was thick with anticipation and their pupils dilated with heady fantasies as they lunged towards the exit.
She joined the throng with Kathy that spilled out onto Brick Lane like oil. Kathy was chattering about the bar opening, trying to convince her to change her mind as they walked to the tube station, but nothing could keep her from her plans. Not tonight.
‘You know what’s weird?’ Kathy mused as they entered the station. ‘Why did that Zero even bother coming past Zone Four let alone into One? It’s not like we carry any money to give them.’ She tapped her thumb on the machines and slid through the barrier. ‘Maybe before the Inner Zones went completely PrintPay but now? I wonder what he was here for.’ Kathy swooped down to kiss her on both cheeks before turning towards the stairs for the Hammersmith and City line that would take her further into the City.
‘Call me if you change your mind,’ she yelled before being swallowed by the crowd moving down the stairs.
Changing at Whitechapel, she was again consumed with thoughts of the man who, as Kathy had perceptively pointed out, couldn’t have been in Zones One to Four for the money. So why had he been there? And why was he being chased?
By the time she fell through her flat door she was quivering like the taught string of an archer’s bow, brimming with theories and fantasies as she allowed the truth of her own reality to crash over her like a tsunami and destroy any comfort she felt in her home. Her lips curled angrily as she surveyed her living room. Instead of drowning in it, she surfed the wave of fear tearing through her body and caught its energy in her heart to be spewed out onto paper.
Running into her bedroom, she tore off her clothes and left them scattered on the ground. Breath coming quick and fast like a rabbit’s, she grabbed the packet of cigarettes from her handbag feeling like she could burst into flames at any moment as some-thing flooded her like a spirit. She bolted out of her room and towards her study, sliding the wooden panel across and punching in the code completely naked.
She slammed the door shut and threw the cigarettes into a corner before launching herself at the chest. Wrenching it open, she pulled out a huge sheet of paper, three paintbrushes, a bowl and armfuls of magazine paper. She turned and scattered the magazines in the centre of the room before moving the crucifix-like piece of equipment over them. Then she snatched at the paper and unfurled it against the easel, pinning it down with little tacks at the corners and two in the middle. Moving round it, she picked up the desk and put it on the right-hand side of the easel and placed the brushes and bowl on top. She gave another yelp as the energy inside her fizzed like heartburn in her chest and tears bloomed in her eyes as the some-thing spirit tried to escape.
Faster now, she lurched towards the fridge and pulled out a glass bottle, careful not to spill its contents as she picked her way back to the centre of the room and upturned it into the bowl, splashing herself with the red paint. Then she retraced her steps, leaving the bottle on top of the fridge and grabbing one of the small black buckets next to it, which she shoved down in front of the easel.
She slowed her choppy breathing and stood over the bucket with one foot on either side. She squatted down over it and fiddled about between her legs to find the tampon string. Gently, she pulled at it, straightening quickly when the tampon swung out of her to hold it over the bowl on the table. Holding it by the string with her right hand, she squeezed down its length, topping up the pool of red blood.
She keeps the wrung-out tampon on the table - she might use it later on the painting - and picks up a thick, bulbous paintbrush with a long wooden handle. She stares at the blank paper for a moment, letting the nausea rise just an inch further and the tightness in her chest pull harder so that her sternum might snap at any second and this Being crawl out of her chest. Almost unable to bear the silent screaming in her head, as if caught in the hollow of a violin watching the bow being lowered to the strings, she plunges the brush into the bowl and strikes out at the paper, lovingly streaking violence across its white expanse. The some-thing spirit rushes out to join her in the blood strokes and she slashes with the brush, escaping the violin’s belly to stand before the pit and shock the music from the instruments with each thrash of her wrists. Her eyes are wide and as naked as she, delivering the truth while the easel remains unseen, blinking only when spattered from the force with which she labours. And as she convulses in expulsion, the metronomic anchor of her blood drips into the bucket below her.
When the moment had refracted itself a thousand times and curved so far it turned itself inside out she released it from her in a final breath and stood back, legs collapsing beneath her as she knew they would. The city was lost in dreams when she left hers and blinked, exhausted, at the scattered sheets on the floor like sails of doomed ships dashed against the rocks. She tilted her head back, exhaling loudly through her mouth and, with her eyes closed, mentally checked her body over for pain. But she was quite numb.
She rolled onto her trembling knees and crawled towards the cigarettes abandoned in the corner by the door. She squatted next to them and picked one out of the pack with shaking fingers, lifting it to her mouth as if its weight was gold. Still squatting, she put it between her teeth and then put her hand on the wall above her head for support. With the other, she lit the fag, taking a deep drag as the lighter dropped to the floor, her head hanging under her raised arm. Cigarette clamped in her teeth, she used the wall to raise herself to standing with a grunt. When erect, she removed the cigarette and held it limply at her side, forehead pressed against the wall. Then she stepped backwards and turned to her paintings, taking another draw and relishing the jolt of energy supplied by the nicotine.
The last painting drying on the easel was a child wrapped in a big, red scarf. Pulling on the cigarette with a smile, the ash dropped from the end onto her chest burning her skin. She quickly brushed it away and, looking down, saw tracks of red running down her breasts. The streaks were dry and flaking. She followed one with the tip of her finger from her sternum up and over her collarbone and to her neck. She flicked the cigarette, taking another drag as she felt with the palm of her hand the thick ribbon painted around her neck and down over her left shoulder. Like a scarf. Fag in mouth, she smiled, interlacing her fingers and stretching them over her head towards the heavens. She imagined if someone walked in to find this scene.
‘But, darling, I’m an artist!’ she muttered to herself.
‘No you’re not,’ she replied, lowering her voice. ‘You’re a terrorist!’ She cackled, thinking of what would happen if she uploaded photos of her paintings to Instagram or Facebook.
‘You’d probably land me in jail,’ she addressed them. ‘But tell you what, it should be a bloody crime to upload photos of your bloody food.’ Her heart squirmed at the hypocrisy thinking of her own online double life she kept to support her DV. All of her information embedded in all of those profiles was binary gold; if people looked to someone online it made them valuable because of the adspace clogging up the spare inches on their page.
Her elbow was propped up by her right forearm placed across her stomach and the cigarette rested in her left fingers by her mouth. Her eyes narrowed thinking of the lies she lived outside of this room, evidenced by the online identity she, like everyone else, defaulted to. She finished the cigarette and walked forward to stub it out on the plastic desk. Rolling the end in her fingers, her tongue pushed against her bottom teeth as she looked at the other paintings and the scenes of violence; of handcuffs, a woman trapped inside a computer, drowning men with sacks of money tied around their ankles. The phantom of the lighter lying on the floor behind her weighed heavily in her palm.
‘Screw it,’ she said loudly. Throwing the cigarette to the side of the room she gathered up the now-dry paintings, stacking them over each other and pressing them to her torso.
She turns to the door, nudging the exit button with her knee and strides down the hallway to her front door. The television casts her raw, bloodied, naked reflection back at her from across the large room. She grins at the sight. Readying herself at her front door with two deep breaths, she unlocks it and then sharply pulls it open moving quickly into the corridor.
She pads down the hallway on the balls of her feet towards the fire exit, looking over her shoulder at the empty corridor. The adrenaline causes her smile to tremble slightly. Opening the fire exit gently, she squeezes through the gap, the edge of the door catching her nipples. With a small giggle she bounds down the stairs to the bottom floor before pushing through the final exit into the alley that hugs the side of building. She doesn’t feel the cold, but the breeze tickles her bare skin in encouragement and the rare eye of the moon gazes down on her softly, casting a silver hollow that makes the alley slightly less intimidating. London seems to hold its breath in shock, waiting, as she twitches with bare feet among the broken glass, her paintings plastered to her heart.
In front stand a row of bins saluting her in the pale transience. She sucks another breath in through gritted teeth and then runs to the end of the row closest to the street. She clamps all of the paintings in her teeth bar one, lifts up the heavy lid to the first bin and throws the painting in on top of the rubbish. Working her way down the line, she repeats, ensuring all are face up. None are put in paper recycling.
She rushes back through the fire exit and doesn’t stop running until she bursts through her front door shivering. The straight lines of her hall blur as exhaustion creeps forward, and she only just manages to drag herself through to bed, smiling.
Her cut feet drip warmth onto her sheets in the moment before she passes out.