An Established Guest
by Martin James Hunter
Machine observes like a predatory animal as I take a seat. The couch minute behind him, great legs outstretched with leisure. A character in this contemporary Alice and Wonderland where perception has warped to a concerning level. Over his shoulder Helena leers like our own Cheshire Cat. The flesh around her face creased and in knots. Body still smouldering. Behind us, thin blades of daylight protrude through shuttered blinds. Wooden slats barely withholding the horror of a new day.
I politely ask the man if it would be possible to write an article on his fighting. Starting with an interview then see how he fares in the ring. At first I am only answered by the ringing in my ears. His cigarette end glowing, receding. A roil of smoke blown into the air. Then as the last piece fits into place his eyebrows rise and I am properly acknowledged for the first time. A sudden handshake and introduction. Long fingers stripped of their nobility.
The man rambles on as though there were no tomorrow. A perpetual flow of personal information dancing through one ear and out the other. Fighting techniques, inspirations, diet. Still it is hard not to be smug after worming out of that one. The spray does another round so I send more of its sweet contents up my nostril and pass it on. Around the room, posters alive with activity as though property of Hogwarts.
Machine has risen from the laptop and adopted a rigid stance. Cutting the air with punches, rambling about his training regime. Seemingly convinced I am here to transcribe his biography. Cold drum and bass splinters from the speakers in uneasy bursts. With each blow my surroundings grow further into instability. A weak transmission buried in snow. Robot on the verge of unconsciousness.
More hysterics from Helena, still leaking black. Tiny columns of smoke ascending towards the roof. I take my eyes from her gnarled features and scan the room. There are six of us left. Uncertain faces pressed against cushions. A collective ache for the end of this epoch.
The big man drops his guard and declares his intent to urinate – and then he is gone. I glance around and see the others lost to delirium. A Frenchman gawking at the carpet in horror. Someone has to do something. With trembling arms I reach over and issue the laptop a command. The cold noise ceases and in its place comes empathy. Speakers warming like radiators and sending the dead to their graves. Around me, figures blink as though suddenly free from voodooism. They relax, unfurl and the room softens.
Upon his return we immediately relapse into drum and bass. Stripped and metallic and ominous. Brawls in car parks and money balled in vindicating fists. He tells a bad joke and out of fear we still laugh. He tries another but the first emptied our reserves so we remain there like lovers too awkward to kiss. As his eyebrows knit with frustration, energy around the room gathers in hostile clusters. A weak television signal flushing with snow. Cosmonaut’s hushed words. “You know that moment the trip goes bad…?”
Another harrowing song draws to a close and we are left in silence. Blindfolded soldiers awaiting the firing squad. Arduous breathing to my right. After a brief stint in the kitchen Machine drops heavily onto the couch beside me. In his hand a sports bottle as though having gone for a run. He takes a thorough chug then passes it over. Pinkish in hue and a consistency like mucus. I tip the protein shake between my lips as though washing down a cyanide pill. My surprise at its rich flavour. I swallow more.
Walls darkening as the weather shifts. He is talking about having someone in a choke hold. Great arms emulating the manner so that the pain can be accurately imagined. I nod earnestly as though discussing highbrow literature. Gently raise a finger as I bring in a point. But this is a charade that cannot go on. In an attempt to bring peace to the flat I adopt a new strategy – an enquiry into his girlfriend who has long opted for the safety of her room.
He answers smiling and in terms of endearment, catching me off-guard. A welcome contrast to our previous subject matter. As he continues on energy around us converges in delightful whorls, softening edges as it draws across them. Faces suddenly alive with vitality. Conversation given new life.
Slow cackling to my right. Our eyes go to Helena and she is watching. Whispering to a Frenchman, the air around them bruised. Machine is suddenly up again. Exchanging blows with the elements, declaring his love for combat. Our aura coming apart like an image in a disturbed puddle. The drum and bass goes on.
I lean back in defeat, releasing my hold on the room. Ink spreading through water and overwriting the physical world. A vast expanse of black where all else had once existed. Gradually as I watch a distant memory sharpens and comes to light. Where I come from we normally thank the driver when dismounting from the bus. An element of community absent from this city. Here a dozen or so commuters shuffling off without sound. Dispatched amid the shops, their objective to spend. When it comes my turn I thank the driver and those behind do the same. Words of thanks in various hues. It doesn’t take much to influence a detached public.
My eyelids gradually part, again allowing in light. Everything at last becomes obvious. Machine’s mood is determining the well-being of the room and its occupants; Helena and I are wrestling for control of his switch. At some point in the night there began a drugged-up duel between love and insecurity.
The nutritionist has been asleep for a while. Wrapped in a duvet, her gentle expression resting between its layers. Earlier on between sips of wine she had been passionate about the importance of a good diet. Now as I scan the sunken eyeballs around me I find myself yearning for a bowl of grapes. Above me, Machine’s fists still decimate the air. Each blow further reducing the chances of a return to serenity.
Watching the girl from across the table I cannot help feel a little sad. An infant’s first night away from its family. A distant fireplace in a bitter room. She exists unaware of the surrounding chaos that we have brought here. Her place that of solace amid an unfavourable storm. It is then apparent that she is where I have been drawing energy from in order to calm Machine down. A never depleting source of good. The perfect natural resource. And then I am beholding a great ashen mountain, its horizon grey and birdless. Dirt swept up in dark coils by a malevolent wind. The world as we know it, or perhaps where it is headed. But there is something else almost unseen against such vast scale. With strained eyes, a vibrant leaf protruding through the grey. Its spine rigid with determination, spirit unfazed by darkness. All of a sudden I briefly fall in love for the first time. Flowers protruding through tarmac, undaunted as traffic roars by. A mother’s unconditional affection. The image of true good.
Cosmonaut desperately tears the joint from between my fingers. Relief as he takes a long draw. No idea how long I had it for – don’t even remember it being passed. Sorry man.
An inexplicable reserve of strength lifts me from my seat. Others shakily joining in with what is amounting to a sudden exodus. I offer a grim nod to those who remain but the pity ends there. As I draw the Big Jacket over my shoulders relief floods even the smallest channels of my body. But there is a problem – my shoes are nowhere to be seen.
Concerned at their absence I wildly scan the room. Helena’s head extruding from the doorway. A dark little factory producing smoke and negativity. Suddenly it becomes clear that she has taken them. Taken and planted them beside Machine’s girlfriend to make out that I have been up to no good. A final, unequivocal move in our unsaid game – and checkmate it is.
Initial enquiries into the location of my shoes are not acknowledged. Figures groping for their jackets in hurried silence. The dreadful spectre of individualism. As I scan the floor it crackles and skips as though playing from damaged videotape. Everything alive with the wrong kind of energy. Cars shattering against another and curling around lampposts. I cry out for my footwear and the others turn in alarm. Sobered faces properly taking in my ragged getup for the first time. Who is this wildman and what is he doing here?
What a turn out for the books; it seems at some point in the night I became the one harbouring negative energy. Machine carefully shuffles from the room. His voice from next door, timidly enquiring after my lost property. Helena in the background looking victorious at my assimilation. The rest wondering how and when I turned. I glance anxiously down the hallway, legs priming like springs not for the first time since coming to this city. And then there they are – my grubby trainers. By the front door where they had been the entire night.
The day cold but welcoming. A sensation of liberty like emerging from a cage match unscathed. Quickly however it becomes evident that a single knot remains tied – am I to sleep on the streets in this condition? My requests for asylum from those around me are politely declined. Squalid clothes reflecting this obscure tangent in my life.
As the group falls away one by one the gravity of the situation becomes apparent. My bedding is in a thicket at the other side of the city and upon reclaiming it I must slumber in the daylight. All of a sudden I regret that last hit of NBOMe. Cars going by in icy gradients like tracers in photographs. Blank faces passing as though sapped of personality. A medieval clocktower standing arrogantly against time. Ten o’clock in the morning. I blunder forward.