Christopher Sand-Iversen was born in Wales and is bi-lingual in Danish and English. He lives in Copenhagen. Mad Season is the title of the first chapter of the novel-in-progress, with the working title Fragments of a Family History. The novel recounts the story of the protagonist and his family, their subjection to fateful events, both personal and historical. The first part of the novel takes place in a working-class, ex-mining community in South Wales. The second part will recount episodes from the family's history in relation to the World Wars and Post-War Britain, and the final part is to be set in London.
‘I’m gonna fuck every boy in the place,’ Aimee said.
‘Huh?’ My mind was moving slowly. My eyes felt tiny and they were red as fuck.
‘I’m ‘avin’ a party inni,’ she said, ‘up at the Ex-Railwayman’s Club, i’s my sixteenth birthday, like,’ nudged me, ‘Gonna come?’
‘Oh… yeah… Wha’ abou’ your boyfriend?’
‘Oh, fuck ‘im, don’ wanna be with ‘im no more any’ow, ‘e’s turned into a right proper wanker.’
The street outside was dark, the headlights of the cars were like two strobes, two searchlights that scoped out the street, strong and penetrating like the searchlights of the helicopter that circled over the hills one day that summer. Picking out miscreants on the run. Or more likely lost Labradors howling on the hillsides. I didn’t even know there were working men’s clubs, thought it was a northern thing. Must be an Ex-Miner’s Club too, that would be very fucking ex. No idea where it might be. It had probably been turned into a community centre frequented by middle aged women doing aerobics before I was even born. Most often when the helicopters flew over they didn’t have searchlights on. John said it was because they were using infrared equipment, looking for people growing hydroponic. Easy to get away with it though, he said, just line the roof of the shed with tin foil. It reflects the UV-light back so the helicopters can’t pick it up, makes the plants grow quicker as well. Another car turned the corner, its two beams of light swinging quickly through ninety degrees, racing across the front gardens all along the street. Do the drivers have time to look up at the window, my mind wondered, wandered, to clock what’s being smoked in the window seat, the bright lights picking out the three of us for the whole street to see. Like sitting ducks. Why was the light so bright. My eyes were small and squinty. It was only now I thought about that it I realised how much I was screwing my eyes up into little cracks. I went and turned off the ceiling light and the others exhaled a wave of relief. Only a dim yellow glow now, from the lamp on the bedside table.
‘Berrer ‘ope tha’ twat don’ show up,’ Kelly said.
‘Which one?’ Aimee asked.
I chuckled even though I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a joke. Aimee turned to me with a wry smile, passed on the joint. The Moroccan black — cheap, nasty, oily shit — was making me feel stupid and self-conscious. What a fucking surprise.
‘The guy from the Uni,’ Kelly said.
‘Oh yeah,’ Aimee lit a cigarette. I watched her do it, it was perfectly executed, a reflex. She formed an important facial expression and pointed with the fag, an elongated sixth finger perfectly designed for accusatory jabbing, ‘Gorra tell you abou’ tha’.’
I zoned out for a moment, soft focus… the day had been… it had been bright and chilly, the sun had shone cold and thin on the dry stone walls and the coldness and thinness had exposed how far from everything this town really was. Chilly, well into autumn, mendaciously warm in the sun with a bitter bite under it. September turning October. The day had been so different from this unfolding night, the night was secret and cosy and welcoming. I felt at home in the night, as though I could be a little more in touch with life, as though the walls and the hillsides receded in the darkness. In the night I found my pulse.
‘This guy, righ’,’ Kelly had started telling Aimee’s story for her, ‘we was at a party up at the Uni, we ‘ad to sneak Aimee in, like inni’, fuckin’ wicked party ‘ough, I tell you, we was so fuckin’ ‘ammered, and we didn’ ‘ave the keys to Lloydy’s ‘ouse so we ‘ad to go back to Aim’s, like, but we couldn’ cos we was so fuckin’ pissed an’ Aim’s step dad don’ like i’ when i’s obvious we’ve been on the lash, like… anyway, we was knackered an’ all, so we wen’ back to this guy’s ‘ouse, wha’ the fuck was ‘is name?’
‘Oh shit, yeah, carn – Brian, tha’s i’, fuckin’ Brian,’ Aimee said, ‘we wen’ back to ‘is shitty li’l ‘ouse and slept on ‘is disgustin’ floor, dunno when the last time he fuckin’ ‘oovered was, and we left early, like, soon as we woke up.’
‘You ‘ad to go to school, love.’
‘Did I? Shit yeah, I ‘ad a fuckin’ monumental ‘angover,’ she broke into a riotous laugh, ‘don’ think I learned shit all day… any’ow, next thing we ‘eard he was goin’ round the Uni tellin’ everyone ‘e’d fucked both of us an’ then thrown us out, like.’
I watched Aimee’s fag drawing shapes in the air, followed the glow of the cherry.
‘An’ we thought, We’re not ‘avin’ tha’, like.’
‘There’s gonna ‘ave to be ructions now, like. So we borrowed Lloydy’s air gun, inni’, ‘e’s got this gun, you’ve prob’ly seen i’, if you take the slidey thing off the side i’ looks more like a real gun, inni’, so we took i’ off an’ ‘en we wen’ roun’ Brian’s scrubbin’ li’l ‘ouse an’ ‘e looked a bit fuckin’ surprised to see us to be ‘onest, like, but kind of pleased as well, the sad fucker, so we started off bein’ all nice, flirtin’ with him an’ tha’ so ‘e’d let us in, an’ then once we was inside we told him ‘e’d berrer stop talkin’ all tha’ shit about us sayin’ ‘e’d fucked us, wasn’ no fuckin’ chance we’d shag ‘im anyway, and ‘e’s still bein’ all cocky sayin’ he wasn’ sayin’ anythin’ an’ course ‘e could’ve shagged us if ‘e’d wan’ed to, and tha’s when I pulled the fuckin’ gun out inni’, an’ I said if ‘e didn’ shut the fuck up I’d fuckin’, an’ then ‘e’s suddenly all sorry sorry I didn’ mean nothin’ by i’ an’ I’d ‘ad i’ up to yer with ‘im already so I jus’ kept on wavin’ the gun at ‘im and we ‘ad ‘im backed up in the corner by ‘is bed and we said if ‘e didn’ stop talkin’ all tha’ shit we’d fuckin’ get ‘im, and you should’ve seen ‘im the fuckin’ wuss ‘e was curled up in the fuckin’ corner sobbin’ an’ beggin’ us not to do nothin’ an’ ‘e’d only said i’ as a joke an’ all tha’ fuckin’ bullshit,’ Aimee took a long, hard drag on her fag, right down to the cork, and her eyes stared rigid and grey like steel at the red carpet. She looked up, reinvigorated, ‘You got an ashtray?’ she said, holding up the dog end.
‘Jus’ use this love,’ Kelly held up one of the empty beer cans. With her other hand she answered her phone.
‘’E mus’ be fuckin’ twp,’ Aimee said and crushed the cherry into hole of the ring pull.
I didn’t know if it was the Moroccan black or that they’d chosen to tell me that story or both. Christ, I thought, what a way to make small talk, and watched her drop the dog end into the can, listened to the little hiss as it the dregs. It was Baggsy on the phone. He had pre-rolled and some more of that nasty Moroccan black. He was up in my room almost before I realised anyone had knocked on the front door. Had various kinds of pills he fished up from his jeans pockets with a hard-bitten air. Kelly and Aimee haggled with him. I couldn’t even follow what they’d bought and how much.
‘You might wanna see ‘im out, luv,’ Kelly whispered in my ear as Baggsy was already heading for the stairs. It took me an age to get to my feet. ‘’E might nick somethin’ on ‘is way out.’ When I tottered back in, trying not to walk into anything, Kelly was sitting on my bed rolling another joint. Aimee had plonked herself in the middle of the settee and was fingering two white pills, her eyes running over the poster’s on my wall, as if judging them, working me out. Still studying the walls, she popped the pills without water. ‘I fuckin’ love droppin’ Vals and smokin’ a’ the same time,’ she said. Kelly looked at her and kept looking straight at her as she lit the joint, raising her naturally arched eyebrows to a pointy inverted v.
Aimee stroked her palms flat out along the material, spread her fingers wide, ‘Makes you feel really calm right down inside,’ she explained, ‘really peaceful as deep as you can feel.’ Her eyeballs swam around their sockets, big and damp like an expiring cod’s.
‘Wharever you need to do, love,’ Kelly said, and picked up a splayed paperback I’d left lying on the carpet. She scanned a few lines, her face suddenly thoughtful, pretty and full of expression, as if even in this unfocused, stoned grazing of the surface she could get under the skin of it, be grabbed by the narrative as though she were deep in the book’s action. She looked up and around the room and said sort of to me and sort of to no one in particular, ‘I need to be in this kind of…’ she considered, ‘environment. Would do me good…’ She turned to me, ‘Wan’ a blowback, love?’ and held the end of the joint up to me with a smile cracked halfway across her cheeks.
Sat in the window again, diagonally, knees touching, another car droned past in a blaze of light and she flicked the ash off the endie, turned it around, planted it expertly between her teeth, cupped her hands over her mouth and motioned for me to do the same. Aimee wandered over, drawn out of her infinite stillness. She gave Kelly a look, faded from presence again. Glazed she sat down to watch. I sucked the acrid grey smoke in as Kelly blew it out, my eyes met hers as I pulled back and there was that gleam in them. When she’d got the butt out of her gob her eyes closed to two little slits and her smile wrapped itself all around her face again.
We were bouncing down one of the steep hills, sliding forward in our shoes as they gripped the incline, Aimee in the middle of explaining something when her gesticulation changed into a wave. A faded red car was coming up the hill and the middle-aged woman who drove it smiled a friendly smile back at Aimee, who smiled brightly and waved again.
‘Who was that?’
‘One of my teachers… So any’ow, I was really knackered, as usual,’ she laughed, ‘an’ I wen’ to lean my elbow on the desk, an’ I must’ve been so tired I was seein’ things or summin’, ‘cos I missed the desk an’ landed in the lap of the kid next to me, and fuck me ‘e got a fuckin’ ‘ardon from i’, the sad fucker.’
She was perfectly charming. She was a right little charmer. I thought she was just like me. We’d make a pretty pair, any which way you cared to turn the phrase, sitting at the back of a classroom. In fact I could be that kid, getting a hardon. Sitting at the back of a classroom, messing around.
The route dipped into town, across the river, started up the hillside. We bumped into the others just after the common. Beyond the last houses the hill steepened, the road hugged the face of the valley side, a view across the valley opened up. Here the grass and undergrowth had a lime green colour, light, or perhaps just fading as the autumn cold had begun to take the life out of it. On the other side the greens were darker in the distance, a patchwork of fields and fences, dry stone walls meandering through the landscape. The motorway swished and hummed down on the valley floor, even this far up you could hear it. And as the hill steepened Aimee pretended to be tired, hanging back until I slowed my step, came level with her. ‘Not unfit are you?’
‘She’s well fit an’ you knows it,’ someone called back, unleashing a gaggle of sniggers.
‘Fuckin’ exhausted,’ she breathed, making her full, round tits rise and fall in a satisfied exhaling. I tucked in behind her, burrowed shoulder and face into her shoulder and back and pushed her along in front of me, forcing her legs to go like pistons until she broke down laughing and broke away from my maul, fell in beside me and took me by the arm, let herself hang back a little, breathing heavily, so that I tugged her gently along.
It was as though I had forgotten I had come this way years ago, many times. But now we passed the field in which I had passed childhood hours, lost in the intense meditation of crouching amongst little bushes and turning the dense web of leaves to reveal the little purplish-blue berries – picking winberries. Now it was as though I’d never forgotten. We had always picked more than we could carry, an overflowing of containers of all shapes and sizes. And picnicked on a big, flat stone. I looked for it now. There it was at the far end of the field where the abundance of bushes and berries came to an end, at a fence with threadbare pasture on the other side of it. I remember trying to lean over the fence when I was little, straining, wondering what was over the brow of the hill. As if there could be anything other than another valley. But growing up ruined everything, back then it was a whole world of possibilities. The winberries would stain everything, shoes and socks smattered with their pulped flesh, and wrists stained red-purple, slash marks of juice right across the ticklish surfacing of veins. It looks like we’ve slashed our wrists, I remembered mum saying.
‘Wha’ you lookin’ at?’ Aimee nudged me.
‘Oh… don’ know really.’
‘Bloody miles away, you are, you do daydream somethin’ awful, you do.’
Beyond the winberry field the road swung into a copse, hiding the valley and laying everything in cold shadow, like going into an arcade. I followed the others into the half-light, the verges sodden, the sunlight never licking them dry. Then emerged to see a long sloping field to the left, like it was the last patch of grass before a precipice. There was a wide wooden farmyard gate, in front of it a big dark puddle, mud churned through by tractor tyres. The gate was padlocked. Masey was already making the climb when Lloydy shooed him down again. He pointed up to a Range Rover crawling along the brow of the hill.
‘They don’ like us comin’ up yer, they know we come to pick magies, inni’.’
‘Wants ’em all for ‘imself,’ someone answered.
‘Bet ‘e don’ even know whar they are, like.’
‘Fuckin’ bet ‘e do, butt.’
The Range Rover disappeared and the climbing began again. I caught the edge of the puddle on my way to the gate. I didn’t noticed it had splashed up my trouser leg until I was straddling the beam.
‘Fuck. Fuckin’ ‘ell.’
‘Wha’s’i’ love?’ Aimee asked.
‘Fuckin’ oil inni’.’ I looked down at myself. In my mind’s eye I always saw myself with dark blue jeans on. It was my look, I liked to think it was my look, I’d wade through anything. ‘Why the fuck did I put white fuckin’ jeans on to come up yer?’
Aimee looked down at my black-splattered leg. I thought her eyes were full of concern, I managed to think it and then she let out a raucous laugh. I let myself down on the other side of the gate and walked over to the others, pulling the material of the trouser round to study the damage, to make myself believe it wasn’t as bad as I thought, to look at it again and assess it, to agree with myself that it wasn’t that bad. My usual trick. My usual fiddling with the irrevocable facts.
‘Fuck, mun. That’ll never come off. Fuckin’ ‘ell.’
‘They’re whitish, inni’, bell-shaped with this kind of li’l nipple on the top,’ Lloydy said to me, finding one and holding it up for me to see, ‘you can always tell i’s one ‘cos they’re blue down at the bottom, like, tha’s where all the acid is, so try to get the bottom as well, dig down with your nails, like, inni’.’
‘You find most of ‘em in the clumps of grass, like,’ Kelly put in.
‘Aye, in ‘round where all the sheep shit is, like, tha’s where they grow best.’
‘Tha’s where i’s most fertile,’ Masey added, rolling the word around his mouth like a flavoursome rarity.
The field wasn’t the edge of a precipice after all but went sloping down towards the valley floor, the view open again, the sun warming my back as I crouched down. Blackbirds and the sun of October summery on the hill’s shoulder. We all spread out in a line at regular intervals, I thought it looked like we were a police search team.
Methodically, the line advanced up the hill, filling baggies and Tupperware with an abundance of mushrooms. As we reached the top of the hill the afternoon sun began to set. I stood gawping at it until the last rays disappeared, leaving the grass the same deep green as on the other side of the valley. Felt the chill of the autumn air now that the sun was gone, and looking back over the town I could see dusk beginning to settle over it, its contours darkening, blurring in the failing light. How I hated it. I always had. Up there in the hills, the countryside, that was the only good thing about it. The others kept filling their containers, backs bent in industry. My harvest was paltry, I rattled the mushrooms around the container.
‘Always the way the first time you go pickin’, like,’ Lloydy said. ‘You’ll get used to it. Next time you’ll ‘ave fuckloads, like.’
Before we hurried back into town all the bags and containers were carefully stashed in inner pockets and made look as inconspicuous as possible. Wouldn’t want to be caught with it on you. Lloydy reckoned the police were wise to teenagers coming down off the hills this time of year. Masey reckoned he was just paranoid. Wet spots began to dapple my skin.
‘It’s pickin’ to rain,’ someone said, ‘berrer move our arses, like.’
Passing the winberry field I was lost to Aimee. I was thinking of back then, I was thinking of a Dylan Thomas poem, lines kept running through my head. And I rose in rainy autumn and walked abroad in a shower of all my days. I couldn’t get them out, couldn’t concentrate on anything anyone was saying. It was like it was written about me. And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother.
‘Oi, daydreamer,’ she nudged me softly, ‘where’s you off to ‘en, lalaland?’
‘You know when you get a song stuck in your ‘ead an it won’t go away.’
‘Well, it’s like that.’
She kept on looking at me. I could see her eyes gleaming in the dim light. I kept on hearing the lines in my head. These were the woods… where a boy in the listening summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy to the trees and the stones…
At Lloydy’s the magies were spread out on a baking tray, sifted through, the ones that looked suspicious picked out, the ones that might be something else, something that could kill you. The word ‘Deathcaps’ circulated like a secret, holy cipher, an abstract entity venerated and feared in its unknown compass. The certified magies were thrown into a saucepan of boiling water, Lloydy stirred them, lovingly, reverently.
‘’Bout an hour,’ he said, ‘’en we’ll brew up a nice strong cup of PG Tips for all of us, so we carn taste tha’ shit, like.’
‘Aye, we’ll be a right bunch of fuckin’ monkeys by the time we’re finished an’ all.’
‘Wha’s it taste of?’ I asked, thinking that PG Tips tasted enough of shit in itself.
‘Used spud water.’
I had no idea what used spud water tasted like. At the same time I knew exactly how it would taste. It would be starchy, earthy, milky-silty, murky, and thoroughly disgusting. ‘D’you yer abou’ Ryan?’ Jonesy asked. ‘Bout ‘im shaggin’ tha’ Megan girl in ‘is car.’
‘Aye, tryin’ to, fuckin’ well funny i’ was.’
‘Come on, butt, tell us.’
‘’E’s got ‘imself a car now, inni’, an’ ‘e’s been drivin’ i’ ‘round like a proper fuckin’ player for weeks, like, thinkin’ ‘e’s gonna pull all these girls, inni’. So finally, like, he’s pulled tha’ Megan girl, inni’, an’ ‘e’s parked the car up yer like’
‘Up on the Drive by yer now, an’ ‘e’s got ‘er on the back seat inni’, an’ ‘e’s fuckin’ fuckin’ ‘er in broad fuckin’ daylight, like, broad fuckin’ daylight I tell you. Well, his fuckin’ skinny arse is goin’ up an’ down up an’ down, goin’ at it like the clappers they was, an’ Megan’s gran comes walkin’ down the street, like, can you imagine, walkin’ down the street an’ you think some wanker’s moonin’ you an’ then you notice them two fuckin’ moons is goin’ up an’ down... An’ as she’s walkin’ past she’s seen i’s Megan lyin’ there with Ryan’s skinny arse goin’ up an’ down between ‘er chubby li’l legs, an’ her gran she’s dropped ‘er carrier bags on the pavement right where she is an’ she goes to open the door an’ she’s grabbed ‘im by the ankles and pulled ‘im out all of a sudden like, an’ ‘e’s started shoutin’ Wha’ the fuck’s ‘app’nin’? an’ she pulls ‘im right out so ‘e whacks his chin on the door an’ she drops ‘im on the curb, can you imagine, his rock ‘ard cock whackin’ onto the pavement an’ all his weight on top of i’, an’ Megan’s started screamin’, Nan, wha’ the fuck’re you doin’? an’ I swear to God there’s a fuckin’ melon rolled out of one of ‘em carrier bags an’ i’s started rollin’ down the ‘ill, like. An’ Baggsy’s seen i’, ‘e’s comin’ up the ‘ill, inni’, and ‘e’s started playin’ fuckin’ football with i’, like. Bits of skin rippin’ off i’, splattin’ everywhere, and Megan’s screamin’ ‘er ‘ead off while ‘er gran’s standin’ there lookin’ straight up ‘er fuckin’ vag tellin’ ‘er she’s too young to be doin’ tha’ sort of thing an’ i’s dirty an’ tha’. An’ Ryan’s lyin’ there with grit on his fuckin’ bellend and his trousers round his ankles an’ as ‘e’s scrabblin’ to his feet Baggsy’s seen ‘im, inni’, an’ you know wha’ Baggsy’s like, inni’, ‘e’s booted the melon as ‘ard as ‘e can right up Ryan’s arse an’ sends ‘im flyin’, an’ Ryan’s shouted Fuck off out of my car you fuckin’ old cow! jus’ as this wet fuckin’ melon’s splatted all over his arse an’ ‘e’s gone flyin’ an’ scraped ‘is bellend along the ground again an’ ‘e shouts Aaarrgh! you fuckin’ cronky old bitch! an’ Baggsy come sprintin’ over to Danny’s before Ryan can see ‘im. Me and Danny we was fuckin’ pissin’ ourselves we was, we was sittin’ up in ‘is room waitin’ for Baggsy to bring us up some tabs, like, an’ when ‘e come up we was creased up for hours, butt. Fuckin’ ‘ilarious it was.’
I wandered away from the laughter into the front room, Kelly was sitting there chatting to Rhys, there was case of beers on the floor, the cardboard ripped open.
‘Come an’ ‘ave a drink, butt,’ Rhys had already fished a can out of the box.
‘How’s them magies comin’ along.’
‘Started brewin’ ‘em.’
‘Pukka. ‘Ave a seat by yer now.’
I began knocking the beer back, I was soon onto my second, Rhys nodding approvingly. People came and went, in and out of the room, in and out of the front door. Lloydy’s house was a regular thoroughfare but I took no notice, I lazily followed the drift of Rhys and Kelly’s conversation. Time was marked off by swigs from the first can, then the second.
‘Reckon them magies must be ready by now,’ I heard Kelly say. I pricked up my ears a bit and looked over at her, seated in her throne of a comfy chair in front of Rhys. ‘Come on, le’s ‘ave a look, like.’
Rhys just motioned with his beer can and took another swig, but I got up to follow. Lloydy was stirring the magies calmly like he was in another world, as though he hadn’t moved from the stove at any point, hadn’t heard the story about Ryan at all and wasn’t listening to the hubbub of banter all around him in the kitchen. He was stirring and tending. He flicked the kettle on and it began making a horrific racket, shaking and shuddering like an ancient washing machine. His face was serene as the heat from the brewing magies curled and stroked over his cheeks in white wisps. A smile played at the corners of his mouth.
Jonesy looked over. ‘Them’s abou’ ready I’d say, butt.’
‘Aye,’ said Lloydy, giving the brew a few last, thorough stirs with the wooden spoon, ‘Teabags is over there, butt.’
Kelly had already started to talk to someone else and I just watched the tea-making, let a mug of hot water be thrust at me, then a teabag.
‘You’ll wanna make tha’ a bit stronger,’ Lloydy said. I was already letting the last drops drip from the teabag, ‘you’ll wanna cover the taste as much as you can.’ I balked at dunking the teabag in again, watched the water turn darker and browner, thick and unwholesome, while Lloydy poured the muddy broth into it. Then he shoved the milk carton into my hand. The concoction lightened a bit, and was cool enough to drink. Everyone drank as fast as the heat allowed – and it did taste of used spud water. That was exactly it.
‘Yeah, ‘bout twenny minutes,’ Lloydy said to someone, ‘’s’bout how long i’ takes to digest, inni’.’
In the front room Rhys had taken the weight of the world upon his shoulders and was sticking to beer. ‘You wanna keep watchin’ ‘em walls, butt, just keep watchin’ ‘em walls an’ see if they don’ star’ movin’,’ he said.
The first things that started moving were the curtains, I zoned in on them and studied them intently, trying to see if it was the breeze. My attention flitted to the big Bob Marley poster hanging on the wall above the fireplace opposite the comfy chair. ‘Yeah, you wanna ‘ave a good look at tha’, i’ll start doin’ funny things soon,’ Rhys’s voice reached me, and I looked down in the slow motion movement of half an ice age, just in time to catch the fleeting hand and smile of Rhys’s comment. I didn’t know if it was the breeze or the magies beginning to take hold or just my mind playing tricks on me in expectancy. Found myself sitting on the sofa. Was sure I’d been sitting in the chair. I had, when I thought about it. Had moved from the chair to the sofa and sunk deep into it, as if I were in a little padded tunnel of my own, from which, protected, I observed my vision unfurling unknown perspectives before me. Fascinated by an unimaginable phenomenon – the corners of the room had disappeared and the room was round, I turned my head round and round, scanning what had once been four walls and saw that I was now within an ellipse. When I studied the corner in front of me again it receded into darkness as the two walls grew closer and closer, never actually meeting until the space between them was too narrow, too fine for my eye, even in this state, to register. But my magic magie eye knew all the same that the walls did not meet, like the two rails of a railway track running to the horizon never meet.
‘Must’ve been hours,’ Masey said next to me.
‘Yeah, ages has passed.’
‘Look at your watch, butt,’ he smiled.
‘Fuckin’ ‘ell, i’s only ten minutes has gone. Feels like hours an’ hours. Wicked.’
‘Yeah they do tha’, the shrooms, i’s fuckin’ wicked, inni’?’
Now Kelly and Aimee were sitting on either side of me. Out of nowhere, a marble hand daintily placed a glass ashtray in my lap. I looked on, a helpless and amused observer of my own body, unable to form any idea of how I might ever remove the ashtray. At the same time, the hands reached over from each side and flicked ash into it. The double action was more than my mind could manage, the glowing red cherries commanded all my attention while the two girls competed for it. I focused and refocused on the two glowing dots in my lap, as if I were afraid their heat might shatter the glass and the whole bundle, shards and hot ashes, would fall onto my crotch. At some point I must have given up, zoned into my own trip again, found the ashtray was no longer there and that Kelly had turned Could This Be Love? up loud and was jiggling her round little arse around to it bang smack in front of me. She was glancing back over her shoulder at me singing along through long, languid drags on a fag. I followed her movements, unable to muster a coherent response from my muscles, had the idea that my jaw was slack and lolling like that of a particularly stupid dog. Everything was hilarious and it didn’t seem to matter that I was lost. I remained adrift in the images flowing out of my mind and in from the room, colourfully. Lost and adrift. The contents of my mind emptied out onto a highway in front of me, the highway of the mind. Thoughts took shape, moved along, making way for more, a whole procession of them. I wondered how I was ever going to move from my sofa tunnel again, and suddenly noticed that I was no longer seated in the middle of the sofa but somewhere far to the right.
Kelly came and sat down beside me, engaging me in a conversation that had gone on for what seemed like half an hour and amused us both immensely until Rhys leaned round from the other side of her and asked if we were making any sense to each other.
‘Yeah,’ we both answered, puzzled.
‘’Cos all I can yer is bleurbleurbleur, I carn understand a fuckin’ word you’re sayin’.’
I thought I said something like ‘It makes sense to us’ or it could have been Kelly who said ‘We ain’t ‘avin’ no problems yer’, in any case it just entertained us even more, dissolving my momentary presence of mind into an idiotic giggle while Kelly held the back of her hand up to the tip of her nose and tittered.
Out in the hallway I was talking to Aimee, the front door was open and the cool night air blew in and over our skin in streams and currents, forming and brushing over and past us like the airflow diagram of a car in a wind tunnel. My attention was caught by the rose motif running along the wall at dado rail height, it began to curve, round and up, like a time-lapse film, growing, a rambling rose crawling up the wall. Aimee saw what had grabbed my attention. ‘Yeah, i’s fuckin’ mad wha’ tha’ rose does’, she looked at me and laughed, ‘you’s lovin’ i’, i’n’ you?’ My eyes were wide open and the rose snaked, budded and branched, taking over the wall as if it were a trellis, and rushed into my giant whirlpool pupils.
John was sitting next to me on the sofa with a spotty girl on his lap, Kelly was making frenetic hand signals and I overheard someone talking about John and the girl shagging upstairs. Thought that there hadn’t been time for them to disappear and shag and come back again, then I thought that time passed slowly, an hour to each ten minutes, but it was all going so quickly all the same, flying by, I had no idea what time it was. And then someone else was slagging her off, saying that Megan would fuck anything and she was diseased and I looked round but they were gone again and someone else was sitting there. And John was sitting in one of the chairs near me and the spotty girl, Megan, was nowhere to be seen, and I thought I heard someone saying that John was going to get diseased too ‘cos he’d shagged her without a condom and then someone else was saying that Lloydy had started bad trippin’ because of all the people in his house and the state of the place, and John had started bad trippin’ too. And John was gripping the armrest with his hand and there was a wild roving in his wide-open eyes. I found the stove lighter in my hand, or maybe someone had offered it to me and I had taken it, passively, held out my hand and limply curled my fingers around it. Maybe Rhys had lit it in front of my eyes and said, ‘Look a’ tha’, butt, fuckin’ amazin’ inni’?’ and I had been delighted and fascinated by the red sparks and the blue flame when Rhys sparked it and had wanted to have it, wanted to hold it like a child wants something it desires, like sweets, had sunk my vision into the play of the blue flame and been mesmerised and then, slack jawed, reached out for it, and Rhys had let me take it, because Rhys knew, Rhys knew how fucking mind-blowing it was, he knew what it was doing to my brain, and I had sat and stared into the deep space of the blue flame, click click, click click, the sparks and then the flame, then nothing, then the sparks and the flame, click click, just as fascinating each time, sucking my vision into it’s hypnotic warp. That must be how I came to have it in my hand, when I thought about it, and John was having a bad trip and I had the stove lighter in my hand and at the same time as I had followed the long train of thoughts back to how I had it in my hand I had instinctively begun entertaining John with it, click-clicking the blue flame on, ‘Look at that, butt,’ and John had focussed on it, tried to focus on it, then focussed on it again, slowly returning to my realm, our realm, and then he had reached out for it but I held on to it like a child hanging on to its bag of sweets. Someone had put on Scooter or something I had no idea what was but I heard now that new music had been put on, and my mind was flying through the electronic sounds, my brain was shooting out rays of pleasure into the electronic soundscape that sped like fast moving lights, and I coaxed John out of his bad trip with the blue flame until John was smiling sloppily at me, asking me for the lighter with pathetic puppy eyes, and my brain was flying in rays through the sound and it was beyond words. John was back and he was eerily calm and the wild reaches had gone from his eyes and he was happy, he looked at me with infinite friendship and said simply, ‘Thanks, butt,’ and I let the stove lighter slip into his hands.
Aimee was gone. Kelly was gone. John was still there, but the spotty girl had vanished, as if into thin air – I had no concept of the time, but I felt like I wasn’t as fucked as earlier. John seemed to be feeling the same way – at least he was to be contacted somewhere in the land of logic. ‘I might ‘ead off,’ he suggested.
I looked around. Aimee wasn’t there, Kelly wasn’t there. Lloydy seemed to have come out of his bad trip. ‘Yeah.’
Down the street the breeze was taking hold of some trees. I couldn’t even feel the air now but the shadows of the branches clawed across the wall of a driveway like hag’s hands, clawing out at me. Clawing at me, long, crooked, pointy fingers, slashing daggers, stretching to get me. Now I felt the breeze, the movement of the air across my face, could feel the airflow, as though every tiny downy hair on my cheeks had been made hypersensitive. And then they seemed to be waving, the hands, no they were whipping, the shadows whipping back and forth across the wall, threatening to slide off it and into the air, coming at me, at my skin in which each pore dilated to the fresh night air.
On the bridge the view of the stars wobbled in the reflection of the river below. And up in the sky the silver dots of the stars were like holes in a great black stage prop, a lamp shining brilliantly behind it. They appeared to be both racing in and floating with the leisurely turning of the heavens, racing in towards our eyes, into our very selves as we stood there gawping, faster and faster the closer they came.
I had difficulty taking off my clothes, was still high, much higher than I thought. Looked at myself in the mirror, I looked almost normal. I looked into my eyes and they were dilated and racing, as if what I saw was physically passing through them as they flew out into space. In the light behind and above the open door of the wardrobe my skin was yellow and cast with long shadows, hollow almost. I studied the form of my cranium and followed its shape down over my cheekbones and nose, over the pert little cleft of my upper lip and my lips full and rounded, bee stung lips, over the furrow in the middle of my chest and further along the belly, along my body’s seam. Down over my pubes and round over a bollock – I stopped, the shadows were moving, hollows and forms were shifting across me. I felt a chill. No idea how long I had been standing there. Lifted one foot from the floor and had trouble keeping balance. Much higher than I had thought.
With the sheets tucked up under my chin I looked at the posters on the wall, the ones Aimee had studied. They were alive and Kurt Cobain was talking to me. My mind was spinning into a vortex of colours, spinning me into the beginnings of a bad trip, a technicolour nightmare. But I hauled myself back from the edge of it, again and again, focussing on Kurt morphing out of the wall to speak to me, zoning out into the vortex again, pulling myself back out of it, trying to concentrate on what Kurt was saying to me, sweating, hyperventilating. But it wasn’t too bad, it wasn’t that intense, the magies were wearing off. I could control the trip. It wasn’t too bad. They were just playing their last few tricks on my brain. I was sweating the sheets sodden. But it wasn’t too bad, I pulled myself back from the brink, controlling the vortex of colours.
The vortex subsided. Kurt had withdrawn to the flat plane of the wall again. For the first time since I crawled into bed I dared to listen to myself breathing. It was alright. The last few wibblings of my hallucinations bent their waves through my brain. But they were friendly and I made myself comfortable under the sheets, got my head in place on the pillow for a good night’s sleep. I began to smile, felt the smile spread across my mouth, stretching my lips. The last strains of the trip were beautiful, it felt safe to go to sleep now, I let myself drift off.
Aimee called the next evening to ask if I was coming up Lloydy’s again. Random faces from the previous night were there, I smoked a couple of joints with them, putting a lid of slow dullness on the post-trip brain spasms. Rhys was giving everybody the lowdown on what they couldn’t remember.
Aimee sat with some exam revision, pretending to herself that she was achieving something. She wasn’t fooling anybody. She wasn’t even fooling herself. I took a joint from her proffering hand and moved in a little closer to peer at the A4 sheet lying in her lap. It was a line drawing, a cross-section of a dick, balls, bladder, and arse. Written across the top of the page: Organau cenhedlu gwrywaidd. Four arrows around the bollock: Vas deferens. Epididymis. Caill. Sgrotwm. More arrows pointing in to the bladder area: Pledren. Chwarren brostad. Chwarren Cowper. Three arrows around the bellend: Glans. Blaengroen. Agoriad yr wrethra. Two behind: Rectwm. Anws. My already distant gaze went cross-eyed, w’s swimming around everywhere. I decided it was better to suck on the joint and shut the fuck up.
‘Ah, fuckin’ ‘ell,’ Aimee said, ‘I know all this anyway, i’s all sex inni’,’ she laughed and threw the A4 sheets carelessly aside. Her eyes sought out the joint, they assertained it’s position on the opposite side of the loose circle and her hunger morphed to a scowl. When it came round again she dragged hard and long, then she was ready to go. I waved it on and made my excuses, picked up my jacket and fumbled with the zip while I waited for her.
We walked home across town together. About five minutes down the hill she whipped a packet of Jaffa Cakes out of her pocket and grinned.
‘Look. Nicked ‘em from the kitchen. Always gotta take somethin’ for the way ‘ome, like.’ She held the tray out in front of me, already scoffing one herself. Taking one, I began to eat it the way I did when I was a kid. First I gnawed off the biscuit.
‘No fuckin’ idea how you can eat ‘em so slow,’ she said, stuffing her second in, ‘fuck me I’ve got the munchies…. Wha’re you…? bitin’ i’ off bi’ by bi’?’
‘Didn’ you eat ‘em like this when you were a kid?’ and turning to her I began to lick the chocolate off the quivering sliver of orange jelly, savouring it, letting my tongue roll out full and curl back and under before it slapped up again.
She laughed, ‘You sexy mwnci fach.’
I licked it conscientiously clean of every last flake and smudge of chocolate, a single-minded operation. I hadn’t done anything so single-mindedly since I was a kid. The weed closed my brain down into a tunnel, an automated focus, a pleasure in pure process, once an action was put in motion it drove me on. I let the orange jelly wobble on two fingertips, held it aloft, letting the air tickle it as I walked, then bit into it, eyes wide in mock delight, dilating even more when the shock of the sugar content caused an itching sensation at the meeting of teeth and gums.
‘Fuck you’re eyes are almos’ as big as they was las’ night.’
‘Mmm,’ I was engaged in using a combination of the tip of my tongue and the inner side of my lips to suck on my teeth.
‘Wha’re you doin’?’
‘My teeth are givin’ me gyp… were my eyes really tha’ big?’
‘Feel like my fuckin’ brain’s been rewired.’
She looked at me sideways, like she thought I really had gone mental. All the same, the glimmer was still in her eye, the spark of fascination, and then she ripped into a raucous laugh, ‘Yes! I knew i’, I knew you was lovin’ i’. I knew you was gonna love i’ firs’ minute I saw you.’
As we reached the street corner she put her arm through mine, drew up closer. ‘Come back to mine, Kelly’s there too, we’ll smoke another joint,’ she nudged me.
‘… Kelly’s there too?’
‘Aye, she carn really be bothered to go ‘ome to ‘er mum’s. They’re always rowin’, she’s always got some new bloke over… So ‘alf the time she stays at mine, or over Lloydy’s. Come on, down the gully by yer.’
We turned into a lane running along the back of row of terraced houses, halfway down she led me down a steep, narrow stairway, a series of little steps made out of a rickety patchwork of odd stones. In through the kitchen and upstairs. Kelly was snoozing her way out of her hangover on the bed.
‘Alrigh’,’ she said lifting her head and squinting, ‘how’s you keepin’ after las’ night then? Are we gonna smoke a joint?’
Without waiting for an answer she got her tin out and went to work. Aimee picked up her guitar and fiddled with it a bit, strummed a few chords and tuned one of the strings, put it down again and went over to the stereo, put on Supersonic. While she was toking on the joint she stopped the song, sat down on the edge of her bed and began strumming the guitar. Passed the joint on and began playing the riff in earnest. Taking a thoughtful drag, I wondered if it was possible that communication between the two hemispheres of my brain could be rerouted. You need to find out, ‘cos no one’s gonna tell you what I’m on about… You need to find a way for what you wanna say. Like taking the wires out of an amplifier and plugging them in again differently, crosswise, criss-crossing each other, or hot-wired like a stolen car. You peered along the joint, cross-eyed to see how the cherry glowed as I sucked in, and over at her, impressed by her voice, her dextrous fingers. You need to be yourself, you can’t be no one else. I know a girl called Elsa, she’s into Alka Seltzer. I liked the idea of my brain being hot-wired, my brain being thrown around my cranium like a joy rider throwing a car around corners.
‘You’re pretty fuckin’ good,’ I squeezed out while holding the smoke down, then exhaled a big, dirty cloud.
Kelly answered, ‘She’s really good. Aren’ you love,’ she gave Aimee a friendly nudge.
‘I can play all ‘eir songs right through ‘cept this one,’ she said between lines.
‘Play one of yer own songs, love,’ Kelly said, turning to me again, ‘’er own songs are really good too.’ But Aimee was lost in getting Supersonic right at last, meditating over it in her stoned zone.
‘Come an’ ‘ave a look a’ this, love,’ Kelly motioned for me to follow her out into the corridor. In the next room there were a couple of paintings hung on the walls. More canvases stood against the walls, some facing out, some showing the raw reverse. They all seemed to be abstract works in tones of blue and turquoise, with the odd flourish of red. I looked at the largest one on the wall.
‘Aim’s mum painted ‘em,’ Kelly explained.
‘They’re not bad.’
‘Aye, you can kind of see something in ‘em, like, tha’ could be a bit of sea there,’ she gesticulated, ‘maybe tha’s a boat, or i’ could be a little shack far off on an island.’
She passed me the endie and I stared hollow-eyed into the abstraction. Disconnected from everything but the glowing, zinging sensation in my cerebral cortex, and a light year passed there before I said, ‘Does ‘er mum live yer? She always talks about her step dad.’
‘Nah, ‘er mam left. Just fucked off an’ left, like. This is ‘er step dad’s ‘ouse, so she stayed yer.’
‘Just fucked off, just like tha’?’ I studied the canvases again, as though they would offer some kind of clue.
‘More or less, like. Found a new bloke. … She is pretty nuts ‘ough. This one time…’ she trailed off and approached me, pretended to box me in the stomach with a four jab combination. Err err err, oof. I held her tiny soft fist inside my hand for a second. She frowned, briefly, the lines deep on her forehead.
‘Don’ know if I should say really,’ she stopped again and listened. Aimee was still strumming her guitar and singing, softly now, singing softly to herself.
‘This one time Aim’s dad come to visit, everythin’ was cool, ‘im and ‘er step dad was gerrin’ on fine, but then ‘er mam started kickin’ off, inni’, ‘avin’ a right row with ‘er dad abou’ some shit, inni’. And ‘e wasn’ takin’ the bait at first, like, ‘e didn’ wanna get into a row, and ‘er step dad was tryin’ to calm the situation down, but ‘er mam goes fuckin’ mental once she goes off on one, like, an’ ‘er an’ Aim’s dad start shoutin’ at each other, inni’, an’ Aim’s there too, like, this was down in the kitchen, like. I’ was supposed to be a nice family get together, like see, you know, nice food an’ tha’, and Aim’s askin’ them to stop an’ in the end ‘er step dad’s tryin’ to break i’ up but they is goin’ at each other ‘ammer an’ tongs, like. An’ Aim’s pleadin’ with ‘er mam to stop but they’re goin’ absolutely fuckin’ ape on each other, an’ then ‘er mam pulls out this fuckin’ big knife from one of the drawers an’ she’s got Aim’s dad up in a corner threat’nin’ ‘im with i’, saying all this stuff like if he don’ shut the fuck up an’ fuckin’ leave an’ tha’, an’ ‘er step dad’s tryin’ to get ‘er mam to put the knife down, inni’, an’ Aim’s trapped in the other corner sittin’ on the floor cryin’ ‘er eyes out begin’ ‘em to stop, inni’, just cwtched up in the corner cryin,’ complete bag of nerves after, like…’
My thoughts were spinning off into uncharted territory, I was listening but… inside my skull my brain crackled and burned, squirmed around in the gap between itself and the cranium looking for new space. A tightening of the scalp spread across my head. I was sailing in the vast blueness of the room, Kelly’s face zoned in and out, and somewhere in the tightening of my skull’s vice grip around my frontal lobes a stray thought came to me — we’d better to go back in to Aimee…