Jack grew up in Exeter, Devon, before moving to Southampton to study for his BA English and Music, later completing an MA under the tutelage of several acclaimed writers including Aamer Hussein. His first published work appeared in Our World 2000 when he was five years old, a sci-fi piece about aliens and floating eyeballs. He’s a fan of magical realism, music, and very short biographies.
Jane rang today. She woke me up on my friend’s couch, demanding to know what had happened. I tried to calm her down, but she sounded tearful, angry. I told her I was in Winchester with my friend and that everything was fine, that I’d be moving to a new place soon.
‘They’re bastards,’ she said. ‘Fucking bastards.’
It sounded strange, hearing my parents being called that. When we were in school, Jane would come round for tea, and Mum would cook something nice. I didn’t really know what to think about that.
‘I’m sorry. I know they’re family, but fucking hell. It’s the twenty-first fucking century. How does anyone still care about this?’
I couldn’t say.
‘You should take them to court. They should have to accept you back.’
I’m too old to be their problem anymore, legally. And I don’t want to go back.
‘You know anyone in Southampton?’ she said. I said no. ‘It’s temporary though, right? Well hang in there, bud. Things will go somewhere. You’ll see.’
On the way out, I spied my friend in his dressing gown making toast in the kitchen. I asked him if he’d miss me, and I kissed him on the cheek.
I moved my things into the new place yesterday. Everything I had taken fit snugly into two big trunks, which I could carry on the train.
It’s a small bedsit. Bare white walls, a little like a cell. A little kitchenette – cooker and microwave – a rectangle of cold wood floor where the carpet doesn’t reach. Easier to clean. A little desk at the foot of the bed, an office chair stuck in the space between the two. A bathroom across the hall, which is shared, and has grout around the sink.
Ambulances go by outside almost every hour. Last night, as I lay in bed, I watched their blue lights flickering across my ceiling.
This morning when I made breakfast I dropped an egg on the kitchenette floor. Like breaking a bottle against a ship’s bow as it sets sail for the first time.
Rained today. Stayed inside, trying to smoke out of the window. Rehearsed interviews for three separate jobs in front of the bathroom mirror. Sleeping a lot. I think I’m coming down with something.
Maybe tomorrow will be better.
Of all the things my parents said to me in the days after I came out to them, the line that stuck in my mind was something Mum called me. She used the phrase ‘self-destructive’. I’m still trying to figure out what she meant, how exactly her logic works. As if I’m a heroin addict or a daredevil stuntman. Sword swallower. As if the problem lay not with them, but with me, as if I was letting myself down, damaging myself. This, I think, is how they justified everything that followed. Like a kind of intervention.
It was sunny today, so I went exploring the town centre. The high street was wide and busy. There was some kind of market on, vendors in tiny wooden sheds, a street within a street. Some were cooking rich-smelling food; others were selling clothes and jewellery and other bits and pieces. There are two shopping centres in town, one like the sad little sibling of the other. I went into the bigger of the two, and sat in the highest part with all the cafes, watching people move up and down escalators and in and out of stores.
On the way back – looking for somewhere quiet to smoke – I stopped by the park to look at the Titanic memorial. It’s a scene frozen in metal; an angel spreads her wings and gazes placidly down at the doomed engineers working the machinery below, her arms spread in a gesture of benevolence. But she does nothing. She hovers. She, like the engineers, has turned green with time. Today, when I walked past, there was a streak of bird dropping over one eye, like a pale white tear.
Checked emails, rent things, job interviews. Gazed at my friends’ names on Messenger, and struggled to think of things to say. Most of them don’t know I’m not living at home any more. They’re off in other corners of the country, spiralled away after that big post-university divide. I think some of them are living like I am.
Getting the hang of timing the electric cooker, slowly.
I remember when I was little, we were on a walk somewhere in Kent, and my parents left me alone in the countryside. I’d sat down in the middle of the bridleway and had refused to go any further, so they shrugged and kept on walking, growing smaller and smaller until they rounded the distant hedge and I was suddenly on my own, panicking and crying and scared they wouldn’t come back. Perhaps this is the same, using that old bogeyman named ‘isolation’ to scare me back to sense.
I wrote an email to them earlier, and it said ‘fuck you, fuck you, you don’t understand, you never will, you are parents to an imaginary child that never existed. You are in love with the idea of a son.’ I wrote it, and then I deleted it, because there wasn’t enough bile in me to press ‘send’.
Things the corner shop sells:
-Pornographic magazines for heterosexual men
-Really nice umbrellas. I bought one, because it’s started to rain again.
Aside from the till guy, I have not spoken to anyone in person for four days. My friends and I communicate through screens. Sometimes I think I can hear my neighbour moving about downstairs, though I still haven’t seen them, and it just could be I’m hearing the pipes shuddering at night and the room below is actually empty.
I had a secret boyfriend in school, for a week. His name was Owen, and I liked him because he was tall, and smoked rolled up cigarettes, and looked angular and gaunt, like he was this strange visitor from another planet. I liked him because he seemed lonely, and I was lonely, and so it made sense. He talked about poetry and how it was mankind’s innate nature to be sad. He was ill too, some genetic thing that had given him all his angles. I thought that made him sincere.
In the end it turned out he was straight. Experimenting. My boyfriend was a phantom, I’d known, but it was after that week I realised what kind. He was something I’d dreamed up, a ghost I’d created who floated over the body of the real Owen like a second layer of skin. Something I’d summoned out of longing. He told me he loved me, platonically, but I heard another love, mine, straining against his words. A dream, using a real boy’s mouth to speak.
I still keep in touch.
This morning I went to get a haircut. There’s a place nearby, slotted in between a nightclub and a vintage clothing store. I went in and sat on the bench, the only customer in there. The floor was clean, the space around the mirrors covered in old photographs of film-stars and models. A man came out from somewhere in the back, and told me to sit in a chair, the middle one, and I gave him a sort of vague idea of what I wanted, although what I wanted was most of my hair gone.
‘This kind of length on top?’ he asked. I told him yes.
He made little snippets of conversation as he worked. He asked me if I was studying here, and I said no. He asked what I did, and I couldn’t really say. At times, the cold metal of his scissors brushed my ear. I thought how strange it was that I put my trust in this stranger to move some very sharp things around near my face, very quickly, as I had with other strangers before. He looked nice. His hair was bleached blonde, and there was a thick line of stubble along his jaw, an almost-beard. His fingers moved my hair around. I tried to think of another context where that kind of contact made sense.
I wondered what would happen, suddenly, if I tilted my head to the side, and let him cut me. Whether it would bleed a lot, onto his fingers, maybe onto his shirt. Whether or not it would hurt. Whether he’d be horrified, and I’d have to tell him it was fine, it wasn’t his fault, I just had this sudden itch, and it wouldn’t go away, that had I shifted and just…
How we’d start talking, me with one bloody ear, which I’d laugh about, because things happen, and the world is strange. A real conversation, something more than these polite little questions with no-where to go. A phone number. A date. I thought about his hands moving in my hair. Self-destruction. I looked at him again, how focused he was. How it wouldn’t take much. Just one… small…
But I didn’t do it.
‘How’s that looking for you?’ he asked. I told him it looked great.
He made a few more adjustments and then I got up and we went to the till and I paid with a tenner. His hand didn’t touch mine when he took it. I gave him a smile, and left.
Outside, further up the street, an old man was dancing with his reflection in the nearby shop window. He was grinning to himself, repeatedly lifting his hat from his head in time to a beat only he could hear. As I passed, I slowed to watch his reflection do the same, as if they were two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time.
I remember my mother reading me a story as a kid, something about birds rejecting another bird from a flock (although it wasn’t the Ugly Duckling, I can’t remember what it was). After she’d finished the story, she read out the moral (which was outlined underneath in italics), and then she sort of stared off into the middle distance with this wise smile, as if the story’s message was a passing thought she’d just had, in her wisdom, and not something she’d found in a book mere seconds ago.
The interview went well, I think. The place was exactly as I’d pictured it, small cubicles, hard carpet, a ceiling made of white panels. They showed me into an office and got me a coffee, which I was worried I’d immediately spill. All smiles and handshakes. I remember someone had cracked a joke and we’d had a little laugh, although I can’t remember what the joke was or who said it. I felt a little like an imposter though, sitting in a seat someone else could have been in, someone more qualified. Every interview feels like that; putting up a sort of façade in order for a couple of strangers to like you enough. The advantage I have, I guess, is the fact that I’ve been wearing a façade for most of my life, and so I’m used to looking someone in the eyes and speaking with a kind of altered honesty.
Afterwards, I went and spent too much money on groceries I didn’t need, because I felt like I’d earned it.
Jane called this morning. I was already up, washing dishes in the sink. She called me on my mobile, because there’s no landline in the new place. She asked me how I was holding up.
‘You know what,’ I told her, ‘I think I might be starting to get my shit together.’ I told her about the interview, and she said it sounded like it went well.
‘You met anyone yet?’ she asked.
‘How d’you mean?’
‘I dunno. New friends. Men. Anyone.’
‘I don’t really know how to at the moment.’
‘But I think I might when things get settled. It’s all a bit strange at the moment.’ I told her I’d been thinking of joining a club, like a sports thing. It was a lie, I hadn’t up until that point, but the more I mentioned it, the better it sounded. Badminton maybe. Squash.
‘But you’re feeling like things are good?’ she asked. ‘Things are getting better?’ I couldn’t say. ‘Come up and visit. Next week maybe?’ I didn’t know if I could, but I said yes anyway.
When I hung up, I saw there was a missed call from home. I stared at my phone for a while. The letters stood like tombstones on the screen. H-O-M-E. I almost deleted it, but something must have stopped me. The water in the sink rose frothily, almost overflowing, so I closed my phone and turned the taps off, and went to do something else.
I haven’t listened to it yet. I don’t know why they would want to get in touch, whether the reason is good or bad. Schrodinger’s voicemail. Like a closed box, which I don’t want to open or throw away.
I’ll probably phone back. Some day. Some day.
(Something I forgot to add: on the way downstairs yesterday I met a woman about to disappear through her door. She lives here, I think. She has a long, cautious face that sort of rises when she smiles. I don’t think I’ll see much of her, but it’s reassuring to know that she exists in the first place.)
Today, I followed the sunset down to the bay. I’d been flicking through vinyls in the second-hand place at the end of the high street. Coming out of the shop empty handed, I thought the light looked nice further down the road, and went for a walk.
Past the long line of pubs, hotels, and mini-supermarkets, the street opens out into an almost-promenade. It feels as if you’ve come to the ocean; piers, moored ferries, unobstructed sky. The sound of waves. I wandered down the quay, trying to catch a glimpse of the water, until the spiked railings and parked lorries gave way to the Royal Thai Pier, with its white plaster dome. Past that was a car park, and a real park by the water, so I went on until I found a bench where I could sit and look out over the bay.
It was like a painting. Pale orange over the domes of the power station across the bay, fading to blue above, jagged black rainclouds like holes torn in paper over the streets behind me. Posts jutted out from the water like wooden crosses. Gulls cackled in the mud below, a whole cohort picking through the litter that had washed up against the wall. I lit a cigarette. A car pulled into a nearby space, and a little girl in a green coat got out and ran to the edge of the drop, where a few gulls had perched.
Her father followed her and handed her a slice of bread, pointing out to the horizon. She crumbled it in her tiny hands, and started throwing fistfuls of it as far as she could, against the wind. Immediately, the gulls fluttered skywards, the whole flock lifting in an instant. They floated on the wind in front of her, dozens of them, hanging there as if suspended by wires. She threw a whole chunk of bread, and the gulls parted and drew together, moving as one. She waved her arms like a conductor of an orchestra.
And suddenly, in the midst of those wings I thought I could see something standing on the air in front of her.
It might have been a trick of the light. Some kind of natural phantasmagoria, giving a space the suggestion of form. And yet, for that brief instant, I was certain I could see something hovering there among the feathers, reaching with an invisible hand as if beckoning its audience to step from the promenade. The light of the setting sun seemed to filter through its body, illuminating the wings around it. Transfixed, it took me a moment to notice the girl, her arms in mid-swing, and for a second I was sure she could see it too, that she was about to move towards the edge of the walkway and be swept up in its embrace. Then her hands fell to her side, her bread gone, and as the birds glided apart the phantom dissolved into nothing.
Her father saw me and came over. He asked me, with a nervous smile and broken English, if I could take a picture of him and his daughter on his phone. I said yes. They both stood at the edge, and I raised the phone, and the man told me to wait. He said something to his daughter, and made a gesture so I’d understand. I nodded, and readied the camera. The wind rippled the sleeves of his coat. He counted to three and threw a handful of crumbs. The gulls flitted past behind him, and I snapped a few pictures, trying to get that formation, that presence, into the shot.
On the screen, a few birds floated in the sunset behind him, but it wasn’t what I’d seen before. Something corrupted, spoiled by the lack of motion in the photo. Still, I’d been sure I’d almost had it, that maybe the strange angel I’d seen was just a little camera shy. The man stepped forward, reaching his hand for the phone, and I held up a finger.
‘One more?’ I asked. He reassumed his pose, arm around his daughter. She counted this time, maybe because the magic had been hers alone. The crumbs sailed into the air in a dusty arc. I waited until the birds were at their closest, and then I took a picture.