It started again when I was looking at the photograph in the library, my place of safety during cold days and rainstorms. I felt the need to go back, just for a minute, revisit a world before this one.
We were in the papers all the time back then. The people you wanted to be before it happened – they called us the New Bright Young Things –but the worst kind or horrors after: all murky looking shots, always caught badly lit, looking suspicious, or in unfortunate fancy dress. Anything that meant they could pass us off as crazy, spell-casting pagans, or black magic practitioners. And, of course, there’s John, frozen in time, sunlit and untroubled.
Wrenching myself back to the present, I stagger out of the silent room and onto the busy street, still shiny from the downpour. I am totally disorientated. The smell of rain evaporating from the warm, dusty, pavement overwhelming me, the noises are all too loud, chattering, car horns, a distant siren, people too there, but I need them around, they make me feel safe.
Certain things have always triggered the flashbacks: music, words, a particular smell in the air as autumn starts to creep up–photos–and all of a sudden I’ll be back there again. The drums, the standing stones, the feeling of utter belonging, until the realisation that it wasn’t right this time slowly seeped in under the drugs. The unease, which can’t be ignored, swelling to an absolutely soul-numbing horror. I always forget that bit, diving back in, then running for days to escape it. I can’t shake the feeling that this time it won’t let me go.
We’d all known each other since school, the closest of close friends, living together all term and in and out of each other’s houses as if they were our own during the holidays. The privilege of the place seeped into our bones. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that not everyone had that experience, some had to fight harder. Didn’t have the instant access to closed professions, friends of god-parents of friends knowing someone who could help. It still wasn’t enough for us.
I understand well enough now though, I’m almost unrecognisable. It took me a while to realise that my old friends walk past me, not because of what happened, but because they’re only seeing the beard and hair, the ragged clothes. They’ve moved on too, business owners and city types, smart in suits and ties, elegant trousers turned up slightly to show clean ankles and expensive shoes. I don’t know how they ended up there and me here. I watch them for signs that they’re haunted too, but so far nothing, not even a flicker. The good fortune that we danced for, the sacrifices we made in its name? Well it came to them, and all my luck was sucked away. Replaced with this.
I run my own business too of course, but it’s a very different one from theirs. Desperate for cash, and desperate to feel something, anything, I sell my skin as a canvas for passing idiots. They pay well, for the feeling of transgression, of being part of something outside of society, doing something wrong, naughty, as they set about marking me for life with their childish ideas. I wonder what will happen eventually, when there’s no space left. When the designs covering designs have got so deep and dark that there’s nothing left for them to do. Will I have to wait for it to fade? It doesn’t matter, that’s still a way off. One man tattooed over my scars, the self-inflicted as well as the ones from drunken men with something to prove–scars I’d superglued back together, or stitched carelessly, Frankenstein’s monster style. ‘Let me make it beautiful for you’ he said. But it’s rare someone will do something nice.
Back then every weekend, Friday to Monday morning, was a mini-festival, fields, music, that sense at 4am on a summer’s morning as the sun starts to rise that you’re feeling something more real than anyone else is, the air is fresher, cleaner. The dew on the slowly warming grass as clear and cool as crystal drops under your toes. Magic seems to be flickering, just out of the reach of your fingertips. You want to stay awake forever, the staleness and boredom that kicks in at midmorning seems an impossibly long way away. When I look back it always seemed to be summer, and–though it can’t have been of course–always sunny.
We’d go off, after work–running away from 15 hour days in the city–to go swimming by weirs, dancing beautiful patterns into the long grass. I remember those campsites as being somehow enchanted, glades that Thomas found, by a stream that Antonella knew. The woods by Lexi’s dad’s place. Flower crowns that we wove together and hung over our tent posts at night, like tiny Maypoles, our own rites of spring. It couldn’t go wrong, we were charmed, we knew that. Until all of a sudden we weren’t any more.
Looking back I can see the end coming, the signs were there I suppose. There was a darkness to some of the meet-ups that hadn’t been there before. The need for drugs wasn’t a choice for some people any more, arguments started to feel dangerous. At the time I missed it. I didn’t see that Lexi’s clothes weren’t as sharp as they had been, that John was twitchy when he arrived, scratchy and sharp until after the first line.
A man passing shouts at me. I’m not even present enough to hear the words but I can guess what they are. His type isn’t terribly imaginative, too busy feeling happily superior to realise that he’s not. He spits and it hits my clothes, clothes I can’t wash so it will dry in and crust, become part of me. Luckily it’s not over the latest tattoo scabs, which are hard to keep clean living like this. They’re itching terribly at the moment and the hot summer sun just means more pain, sunburn and dehydration. It used to mean freedom, endless days with endless plans. It’s only fun playing at living in the wild when you’re actually playing at it.
That last weekend I still can’t think about properly. My mind glitches and moves to other things, it’s really strange. I’ll be there, by the edge of the stone circle, then all of a sudden I’ll be thinking about that odd pair of shoes which Thomas had, the ones with the snakeskin, but only at the heel. Then at night the world will disappear around me, until there’s only me left, clinging on to the edges of myself as the void sucks everything in, buildings, cars, trees, people.
They never found John. Not him, not his clothes, not a single hair. He just wasn’t there anymore.
My latest tattoo starts to itch really badly, it was done by a regular, a man whose face tugs something at the back of my mind and who examined me sharply as he inked up the inside of my arm. He offered me so much money that I didn’t care, not even looking at his design, I willingly opened myself up. The pain on my skin not touching my insides, it never does.
‘You know don’t you?’ he asked. I glanced up at him uncomprehending as he taped the clingfilm around the finished job.
But he just looked at me with disgust and strode off. The haze I was in for days after that kept me from thinking more about it.
Lexi screamed for hours. I remember Antonella slapping her to calm her down, people sloping off, trying to pretend that they hadn’t been there. The rest of us hunting and hunting, as if we could bring him back. As if it really was the drugs which had made us see what we did.
I’ve never understood why slapping people is meant to help.
It was a game, that was all. A stupid game. Even the police gave up in the end, they told us that they knew that we’d had something to do with it, that they knew that one of us would crack eventually, that they’d find him in the end, but they couldn’t either. And everyone else went back to their lives, smartened up, got serious at work. Settled down. Lexi’s dad sent her to rehab, she emerged with shoes pointier than ever and promptly became CFO of her brothers’ start up–now a global company, of course.
We stopped meeting up not that long after the last weekend. Being with each other, but without John, made it too real. We couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, block it out. Even on the occasions that they walk past me I feel the tug of horror. The following days when we tried to figure it out, what we could say or do to bring him back, gradually realising that nothing would work. My skin prickles at the sight of them.
I decide to sleep by the river tonight, hidden, safe from the evening drinkers. Glancing at myself at the water’s edge. I’m camouflaged behind a mess of lines and patterns. A ‘Catch’N’Grill’ logo on my right cheek, no idea what that’s even for. A website up one leg. Around the edges are doodles, a dick on my forehead which was drawn by a drunk student with a bottle of ink and a needle–he’d heard it worked–and it did. On my left side is a stone circle. In the water it looks just like the one which John was in before it happened. On my arm, the newest tattoo is readable even through the fresh scabs–simply one word: MURDERER. In solid black. My skin twitches again, but nothing else. I wrap the clingfilm back over it.
Leaning back and watching as the sky turns slowly indigo, I pull a needle out of my rucksack. I know, as I set about numbing myself some more, that tonight the world will disappear again, the edges crumbling to nothing as I cling on, to avoid being sucked into it. Perhaps tonight I will fail, fall into the abyss and never come back. The way that John did. Will anyone see me go? Will they watch, as I did, unable to help? Will they move on to charmed lives, or sink as I have. I wonder if I’ll see John again when it catches me. Perhaps I’m already gone, perhaps this is what it feels like.
The world swirls around the edges and the still bleeding letters on my arm seem to grow larger, filling the air around me with suffocating black ink. I sink slowly downwards, finally letting the oily darkness, which has been stalking me for years, wrap itself around me.