The Writers' Hub has become MIROnline. The site remains for archival purposes but will no longer be updated. Head over to our new website to see weekly short stories, poems and creative non-fiction from Birkbeck and beyond.
writers' hub
Adrian Barnes
Adrian Barnes

Click image to buy from Foyles - 30% off list price.
NOD Excerpt

Adrian Barnes

DAY 18: Words

 

The object of words is to conceal thoughts

 

It’s getting harder and harder to tell the living from the dead.

        Most of the remaining Awakened lay sprawled on the asphalt of Birchin Lane, six storeys below my balcony. Down there, everything’s akimbo: heads flop, tongues loll, and mouths are corkscrewed holes. Some are still ambulatory and stagger around in unsprung circles, clawing air. Others sit mannequinstill among the rubble, staring up at me from their laps, eyes blazing.

        They sacrificed another Sleeper last night, some poor chump in Birkenstocks who’s now lashed to a lamp post across the street by bloodstained bungee cords. The head, as always, has been painted lollipop yellow.

        And speaking of colours, there’s no sign of the Admiral of the Blue this evening: his rickety stage, cobbled together from smashed-down doors and thrashed trash cans, is bare. For a while the Admiral and his people treated me like a prophet, but I always knew it wouldn’t last. It’s Prophets-R-Us down there: what’s in desperate short supply is disciples. It reminds me of poets, before all this—how the sensitive souls who submitted their work to literary journals outnumbered those who read  those same publications by a margin of about ten to one. Everyone wanting to be heard; no one interested in listening. Some things never change. Maybe nothing’s really changed.

        What else do I see? Packs of dogs, heads hovering low, roam the periphery of things. The long-standing human-canine alliance has been irretrievably severed, I’m sincerely sorry to report—the gnawed bones and matted chunks of hair scattered along the shores of Lost Lagoon testify to this. It’s sad, but then again those plump collies and German shepherds don’t seem too weighed down by nostalgia for bone-shaped vegan treats and belly rubs from the opposably-thumbed as they wander about, licking their chops. Anyway, it’s not their fault. We’re the ones who broke the deal.

 

The Awakened spot me, and the crowd’s insect noise ratchets up. Beetlemania! I raise my arms, just for old time’s sake, and the street falls silent. I hold the pose for a moment then let them drop—a cue for the haunted house screaming to begin.
        I’m sure this all sounds pretty terrible, dear hypothetical reader, but you might be surprised to learn that I’m of the opinion that while things are bad now, they really weren’t much better before. All that’s different here in Nod is that the molten planetary core of pain that used to roil away behind our placid smiles has now blurped out into open air. How we used to fetishize and differentiate our feelings. Rage! Hatred! Hunger!
Pride! Jealousy! Ambition! Lust! We had a name for everything. But that colourful cavalcade of emotions was just a sham. It was all pain—all of it—all along. Rage was pain, hate was pain, pride was pain, lust was pain. All that’s different now is that where
pain used to have the luxury of being a bit of a drama queen and playing dress up, now it stands out there on the corner of Birchin Lane, quivering and naked.
        And what about Love—our alpha and omega, our porn and our purity? In the past we’d held love in reserve as something special and untouchable, an element of our personal narratives that we felt would, in a pinch, absolve us of all our other petty sins. A Get Out Of Jail Free card, I suppose. But as it turns out, love doesn’t set us free—love keeps standing outside the jail on an endless candlelight vigil. So love? Yes, love was pain as well.

Especially love.
        And so logically then, the question arises: what isn’t pain?

        I stand there on my balcony as the question rises, coiling into the sky above Vancouver, and hangs still, with no breath of breeze to make it blow away. The orange sun, made hazy and huge by the million square kilometre dust cloud that used to be Seattle, is slowly sinking into English Bay. I can almost hear hissing as the day, maybe the last day, extinguishes itself.
        Directly across the street from my apartment, in Demon Park, a siege of great blue herons bobs on overburdened cedar boughs. The names we give gatherings of birds are telling: murders of crows, sieges of herons, unkindnesses of ravens. They must have made our ancestors nervous. Birds pick at bones and lap at eye juice. Maybe they reminded our forbears that they’d be bones themselves, soon enough. The sight of pigeons waddling along the pavement has always seemed eerie to me;
I’ve never been able to get over all that armlessness.

 

Behind me, the stairwells gag on fifty apartments’ worth of furniture: everything but the kitchen sinks. The building’s risen bile cost me a couple of days of heavy labour, but it also bought Zoe and me some time. Since yesterday morning, though, I’ve been hearing ripping and snapping sounds coming from the lower floors. I’m pretty sure that Blemmyes are burrowing up toward us. White moles, digging into ceilings, discovering
floors. Escheresque. Three floors below now? Two?
        And speaking of Escher, it’s worth recording this for posterity: the artists were right, literally right, all along. Beneath what we used to call ‘reality’ there was always an Escheresque, a Boschian, a Munchian fact—a scuttling Guernicopia of horrors just waiting to be discovered once the civilizational rock was finally overturned. Who’d have thought that the real high wire act of imagining was the old world, that seemingly bland assemblage of malls and media that came to a crashing end less than one month ago? Who’d have thought that the real fantasists were the Starbuckling baristas, the school teachers, and the pizza delivery boys? If we’d really stopped and thought, it would have been obvious. A cursory look at the latest appeal from sub-Saharan Africa should have told us that our privileged world was a pretty slapdash affair, always smouldering at the edges.
         But no one stopped, and no one thought.
         Christ, I’m tired in a million ways. We’ve been staring into the whites of each other’s eyes for weeks now, the Awakened and I—all of us coming up blank. But that’s okay. I really don’t mind. I’m just about ready to give it all up anyway.
        But what about poor, silent Zoë, already asleep in the spare bedroom, curled up with the stuffed grizzly that Tanya gave her? I may be about done with the whole sorry human comedy, but I still want her to survive. I want something that Tanya loved to live on. But tell that to those flayed faces down there, freshly-arrived for the night shift, insomniac suns thrust deep inside their pockets, scorching their thighs.
        What about Zoe? What about the child?


COMMENTS

RELATED PIECES

Independent Publisher Series 2: Bluemoose Books
Katherine Vik
25.02.13

POPULAR FICTION

The Life of W. S. Graham Reenacted by Fleas
Andrew Pidoux
07.08.15

Hush: Excerpt
Sara Marshall-Ball
29.06.15

Ghosting: Excerpt
Jonathan Kemp
16.02.15