White Ink- Fiction- John Higgins

Yet another pretentious arsehole spouting off about aesthetic theories. What is he looking for? To see how long he can shitetalk before sand falls out from between my legs?
In some gaff. Four a.m. Fag ash falling all around. Burning into the carpet. Empty cans crushed. Stacked into teetering pyramids. Voices colliding. Fights starting. Techno blaring from the speakers in the kitchen. The beat ripples through the gaff. Waves carrying everyone up, up, up, then down, down, down, then up, up, up. Gesticulating hands. Someone’s racking up coke lines on the coffee table. Snorting through a fiver. Fingers crush snot between nostrils. Wild blinking. Curtains drawn. Pupils wide. Everyone talks a mileaminutelikethisysee? And amidst all this, I’m stuck. Stuck listening. Stuck watching. Stuck passive.
−nd I guess we just, I dunno, it’s a pure cliché but I feel a real connection with him, y’know? he’s saying. I’m nodding, all I can do really, having lost track of whatever the fuck it is he’s talking about. −Again, it’s so trite, but he was one of the greatest thinkers of our time, y’know, like, when it came to thinking about, uhh, less abstract, more concrete branches of philosophy. He’s showering me in spit. His wide-rimmed glasses bounce about on his flushed face. Sweat rolls down in rivers from between the shocks of brown hair that makes a fringe. −Like, sociological theories, about the nature of work, the nature of art. Fuck, the, the nature of, uhm, cats, y’know? As opposed to the more, uhm, the more unus− uhh, esoteric branches of philosophy. Like Descartes, Sartre, uhm, Nietzsche. We’re on a battered couch. He’s got me pressed against the arm. He’s jabbering so close to my ear. I wipe the spit off my glittered cheek. My fingers tingle as they touch my face. I sharpen my focus, look around. Everything is a little weird. The MD has kicked in. I swallow back the encroaching feeling of vomit and clench my teeth. Before long, my molars are grinding against each other. I wanna talk. I wanna get on this guy’s level now, talk shite, talk and talk and talk. Everything I have to say seems so important. And it is. Everything we all have to say is so, so important. I try to take an interest in what he’s saying.
−Yeah, and he was the, the, the, uhm, the last person to see his girlfriend before she drank herself to death, and I reckon he carried that guilt with him. Perhaps beating himself u− urr, flagellating himself, I guess.
I want to say something. I’ve read Bukowski too. Some of his poems are good. Some a bit meh. And his books aren’t the best. But now we have a connection. Now this guy, now he’s stopped talking about aesthetic theories, about how to live, now he’s just spouting pure facts, I reckon I can begin to relate, to join in. Facts are harmless. No one gets het-up over facts.
−He was a bit of a rapist though, weren’t he? I say. He stops. He leans back. The side of my face goes cold. No more hot breath and spit.
−That’s… a bold statement.
−No, no, he says it himself. In Post Office, I think? That he raped someone? And there was some interview I saw, where he said, what was it now? That he was raping some English teacher.
−Well, I think…. He goes quiet, looks away.
−I mean, how does one− one: the word feels cheap in my mouth− reconcile his personal life with his work?
−Well, he begins, −well.
−Like, uhm, William Burroughs. Or whatshisface? Roman Polanski?
−Well.
−Like, isn’t there a certain hypocrisy? Creating these, as you call ‘em, meganarratives? Metanarratives, I mean. And not adhering to any form of moral worldview yourself?
−Well.
−And then, I’m proud of myself now. I’m talking. Engaging. Not sitting dead-eyed and simpering. Feeling like I’d been in college. Before I’d had to leave. −And then, couldn’t you consider that kinda work, maybe, propaganda? In a sense. Like, Bukowski bullshitting about hating everyone, when everyone should hate h−
−Well, I think, he finally stammers, −I think it’s hard to get a grip on the work of Bukowski, or Burroughs, or even Roman Polanski, Kerouac, uhh, Ginsberg, Terry Southern, Hemingway, all these, uhm, controve− err, contentious artists, it’s hard to get a grip on what makes them tick when you’re a woman.
I shut up. Not because I agree, or because I’m busy formulating a response to this, but because. Just because.

Skagging in work. Veins have been replaced by icicles. Shooting right up my legs. Hands tremble. Writing food orders down, notebook looks like a drunk spider danced across it. Hateful faces staring up at me. Can feel them surveying me. The waitress is only visible when she looks out of place. Go back to the kitchen. Don’t talk to the chef, or anyone else. Just rip out the order and stick it to the order board. Like a conspiracy theorist’s wall, this board. No one takes down the old orders, so the same stuffed chicken breast, mash, no gravy, extra carrots instead of peas will get made four or five times throughout the course of the day.
No energy to talk. Just wanna…. what? All options are off the table when you skag. Can’t go to bed, ‘cause you’ll sweat through the sheets. Junk food and grease don’t cure it, not like they do with a hangover. A pure waiting game. Eyes sting. Cheap fluorescent strips above. Blinking is a chore.
Not free of drink’s revenge either. Every step makes my brain roll around in my skull. Stomach churns. Cider and vodka. And an undercooked chicken burger. Can still taste the garlic mayo and the freezing lettuce.
Every face pisses me off. I go up to the bar and fill two pints. Sight of the bubbling lager makes me retch. Heads turn to look. Don’t bother playing it off. Stephen, the barman, continues twisting a pint glass beneath the bleeding cider tap.
Load my pints up on trays. Take a hasty slug of a glass of warm water. Droplets drip from my chin onto the tray. Bang the tray down. They say thank-you, two friends, boyfriends, who knows, and start to whisper about me as I walk away. My own fault, I know. Hey, they got their pints. Minimum wage equals minimum effort. Craving a fag. Can see myself rolling. Licking the skin. Tucking the tobacco in. Lighting it. Fizzle of the skin burning. Exhale. I glance at the clock. Three hours left ‘til my break. Jesus Christ.
Walked home from that gaff. Cold night. Had no jacket. Could’ve brought yer man home, Chinaski Jr., just to get a coat off him. Even the thought of him. Jesus Christ. Yellow mouth and spotty chin.
−Late night, Leese? Mary asks. I’m pretending to be busy in the freezer, pulling at the bags of meat on the shelves, rearranging them. Love the feeling of the cold. Stops the sweats. I could fall asleep in here. Mary pokes her head into the freezer and asks this question.
I turn to her, holding a big packet of chicken fillets by a corner. −Not late, just busy.
−Hungover?
−Nuh, no, I reply. I swallow vomit eddying around my mouth.
−Third time this week. Why’d you do this to yourself?
−Seems like a good idea at the time.
−So does…. yeah. Are you just gonna hang out in the freezer all day?
−I’m doing something.
−Uh-huh. She leans against the freezer door. Wisps of smoke snake between her legs. She shakes globs of frost from her black pants.
−I am.
−OK.
−Just lay off me. I’m not feeling well.
−Se−
−Self-inflicted. I know. I raise a hand. The sleeves of my white shirt are stiffening. The skin beneath is probably red. My eyes are drooping. −Just let me do this job.
−Don’t break your back doing…. whatever it is. But be out in the restaurant in 10 minutes.
Mary leaves. I extend the middle finger at the ajar freezer door and grit my teeth. Such a patronising cunt. Only here six months before me. So eight months in total. And acts like she’s been given the fucking key to the city. You’re a fucking waitress, like, get off your fucking high horse.
I move the chicken fillets to three different shelves, stacking them beneath pork, beef, lamb, then replacing them in their proper place. Taking a deep breath, then, and exhaling puffs of white air, I go back to work.

Sitting in the kitchen. Housemate talks as a gust of steam blows from the 69 cent pizza burning in the oven.
−So not the best night? he says, sliding the pizza off the barred shelf onto a chipped, purple plate.
−Same old shite, I sigh, rolling on the wooden table. Strands of tobacco shudder from my shaking fingers and cover the novels and copies flattened out on the table.
−Jesus, d’yeh wanna use me gran’s mass card as a coaster as well? Bernie tuts, sitting across from me, slicing his pizza with a butter knife, pulling his copies and the three novels, chunks underlined with black biro, away from me.
−Sorry, I just−
−Don’t matter. G’wan, what was shite about it? The crust crunching between his teeth fills the smoky room. I roll, finish rolling, go to the kitchen door, unlock it, stand out in the cold, light up, smoke.
−Ah just… same old faces, y’know? And then the new faces, I just− I just have no interest in getting to know them. It was fun the first few times, but after, I flick ash out amongst the weeds in ‘our’− the absentee landlord’s, really− garden. −but after a while, they just all become the same. The lads either wanna get into your head or into your pants; the girls are hot and cold all the time. Water drips from the gutter. Soaks the cotton? or whatever shells of my slippers. Feel my toes slime over.
−Thought you liked those girls? He dips quarters of pizza into mounds of taco sauce and mayonnaise. No wonder he’s so fat. I don’t even bother to catch myself.
−Ehh, they’re fine. But they’re just fine. Jesus Christ, all they want to talk about is drugs. Taking pills, snorting coke. Drugs and piercings. It’s fucking maddening. I flick the rollie away. I’m already craving another. I feel a film of scum over my teeth. −Last night, I continue, going to the sink. I let cold water gush into a plastic cup. I gulp it down. Washes away the scum temporarily. I know it’ll be back. I fill another and sit back down. Bernie licks cheese from the webbing between his fingers. −Last night some guy came up to me. He sees I’m off my chops and starts talking. He’s fucked too, like. And he’s bullshitting about Bukowski and lecturing me on whoever else, Kerouac, and aesthetics, and I’m fairly certain he told me about his fucking novel too, I laugh, −and normally, y’know, I’d be up for chatting, I’d engage, but last night, Jesus, it took real effort, real, real effort, just to talk. Just to open my mouth. And it wasn’t the MD before you say it. Then when I did talk, I− I made a fool of him. I was fairly nasty. I just didn’t wanna deal with him. And then I looked around, looked around at everyone, and I realised I didn’t wanna deal with them either.
Bernie washes his plate. His back jiggles beneath the cheap white T-shirt. Size of a handball alley, or something Flann O’ Brien said. He turns around, drying his hands on a dishtowel. Tits jiggle. Making the DETROIT MOTOWOKS slogan emblazoned across his chest shimmer like a curtain in a thunderstorm. I try to focus on his eyes. My eyes make a compromise and stare at the dab of cheese clinging to the side of his mouth.
−I dunno, ta be honest. Maybe give them all a break? he shrugs. –Maybe try going against whatshername? Beth? for that manager’s position at work?
−That cunt has that thing in the bag. Be pointless.
−Maybe going for a position of responsibility would do you good?
−But Mary has the job.
−And that’ll give you the kick you need. It’s either that or quit. Are yeh gonna live your full life without any desire to improve your position?
−I’ll improve it the minute I can afford it.
−Ah sure look, if you leave everything down to money yeh’ll never do anythin’. Yeh may as well jes’ kill yerself. He stops. He takes a jerking step forward. −I’m sorry, I, I didn’t mean it like that.
−Thanks for listening, Bernie. I’m gonna head to sleep.

It isn’t really his weight. Nor his unpleasant dietary habits. It’s not even the self-absorbed life advice he doles out. Really, it’s the textbooks, the scribbled-in copies, the novels, all laid out there on the kitchen table. Jesus, I did Arts too, but you never saw me reminding everyone all the time. Saw. Saw. Fuck. I turn to face the wall. The smell of the cooling radiator. The orange streetlamps burst through any crack they can find in the curtains. I sit up and reach for the rollies on my dresser. I roll. Take the ashtray off the stack of books. Some had been for college− Wuthering Heights, obviously; The Castle of Otranto; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight− and some were bought in an ill-judged hope to get back to reading− Revolutionary Road; American Pastoral; Zami. That all ended, of course. All over. Saw it all. Don’t even notice the books now. Now it’s just get up, work, have some kinda dinner, go out, and/or go to sleep. Routine, the death of ambition. Ah who’m I shitting? I had the choice in school. Took it, actually. Blazed through the Beats. Razed through the Romantics. Chewed on Classics. Messed with Modernism. Etc. Only the best for me, only the best. An evolution in terms of search history: best serial killers books, best psychological books, best crime books, best Russian books, best existentialist novels, best French novels, best French existentialist novels, best Postmodernist novels, best Modernist novels, best Classic books. Had my chance, and stopped. Why? To fit in. As if all the other students in St. Augustine’s Girls School had cameras in my room. Behaving with propriety at all times. Jesus fucking Christ.
Swing open the window. Cold air gushes in. Rain crackles off the pavement. Lights in windows. Some students, some parents, some kiddies. This time of night? More than likely students and insomniacs. Down the street, some aftersesh. The house hops with music. Can smell the cans from here. Not missing fuck all. But the students, all standing around, everyone so full of a promise, everyone infused completely with potential.

I wear trackies over. I know this gaff. Kinda. Been here once before. I head in. Just one look. To feel whole again.

Skagging. Pint glasses. Whispering customers. Mary. The freezer. Shakes. Sweats.

Bernie. Pizza. Cheese between his fingers. Copies. Novels. Lines drawn beneath ‘and thus I make my fool my purse’ and ‘old father, old artificer, hold me now and ever’.

Pills. Coke sometimes. Sweaty sheets. Premature ejaculation. Delayed ejaculation. Unfulfilled. Clubs. Pulsing music. Ateing fags. Greasy kebabs in polystyrene boxes. Afterseshes all over the city. Same techno tunes.

And skagging. Pouring pints. Warm water cutting my teeth. Seeing students swan in. Feel their pity. Poor girl used to see her around college. Couldn’t hack it.

And then the mass. Right slap-bang in the middle of all this. Don’t show up hungover or anything. Sit right through like a good girl. Less people here. Less than had been at the first anniversary. And substantially less than the month’s mind. And then substantially less than had been at the funeral. All those eyes, unblinking, watching my mother being lowered into a mound-bordered chasm in the ground. Very few of them here.
My brother goes up for communion, accepting the little wafer of tasteless paper in his splayed hands. I don’t. I sit and watch. Mam would have made me go up.
I press my knees together and point them at the stained-glass windows. Let everyone sidle by. Whispered sorries from the older women. The sound of footsteps on the marble.
−oday to remember a good woman, a loving mother, Father Fitzpatrick’s watery eyes search for me and Jamie, piercing us with a pitying gaze, −and a much-missed friend. Bridget Houlihan. A lot of people come and go in this parish, another look at me. I let him ramble. His reminiscence is of no comfort, not anymore. It wore thin after the third or fourth eulogy at the funeral, delivered by one of Mam’s colleagues from the shoe shop, or maybe it had been one of the town’s local characters? Anyway. All these half-baked memories. All this bullshit. And now this cunt. Blathering on about fond memories when they don’t really mean a shite to him, not really.

After. Standing outside the church. I light a rollie. I catch myself glancing over my shoulder. −At least you don’t haveta worry about Mam seeing ya.
−Every cloud, silver lining.
−Can I have one?
−No. Ash spills onto the ruptured tarmac. Cars pull out of the car park. Meet the steady stream of traffic on the road. A procession of the same makes and models, the same matte colours.
−C’mon. I’m 16.
−Don’t care. I turn my back, Jamie spins around with me. He keeps talking, on about how he buys his own in Mannion’s anyway. I’m not paying attention, on him or on the bushes being brushed by the wind ahead of me. I’m waiting for
−Lisa, I didn’t expect you to come this year, Father Fitzpatrick’s voice lisped behind us. I turn. Slowly.
−Wouldn’t miss it.
−Good to see you back. Even under the… circumstances.
−Mmm. I fidget with the rollie, caught between an adolescent need to hide it from sight, and a rebellious desire to suck down on it, to blow smoke rings in his face. I find myself caught, instead, in a purgatory, rolling the smouldering cylinder between my fingers. −It’s, uhm, nice to come home, I guess.
−And you, young Jamie. Fitzpatrick’s eyes alight upon him. He’s not a paedophile, we know that for sure− he’s much too personable, and interested in actual pursuits to be a nonce− but there’s still that stigma, that instinct to tell him to fuck off. −Your Granddad was saying you’re refusing to come to church?
−Yeah, Jamie grinned. Voice dripping with a bullshit desire to stir up controversy. Makes me cringe. Reminds me of myself.
−There’s always a seat and an ear here for you, for you both, anyway. I expect him to bless us. Instead he holds out his hand. We shake. He walks away.
−He’s definitely eyeing me up.
−Oh definitely, I reply. −Gonna make your hole look like that flag of Japan.

Leaving home. For the first time in ages. Left money for Jamie− schoolbooks, some chicken fillet rolls, the odd box of fags− in an envelope. Gonna leave me short for rent this month. Who cares. Handed it to Granddad. He invited me home again. Home to stay. Hard on him too, bringing up yet another kid, all on his own. Probably invited me to stay for less-than-altruistic reasons. But I can’t. I really can’t. The house isn’t a house anymore, it’s just a series of walls, a dusty bedroom with some old Beat poetry, a bathroom with a bloodstain, a couch missing a mould.
So I leave. I walk across the town, schoolbag on my back. It’s cold, but the schoolbag pressing against me makes my back sweat. Faces appear in shop windows. And disappear. It’s only that Houlihan wan. That’s all. Just that Houlihan wan.

Waiting at the bus stop. Unsheltered from the breeze. Smoking, waiting for Mam to turn the corner, to slap the rollie out of my hand and shriek in my smug face. An adult now, look I’m an adult, I can do what I like. Well I can. I realise this as I climb onto the bus. Everything has rushed towards me, everything has slotted into place. I’m an adult now. I find an empty seat and the bus starts. It rumbles away. My head is pressed to the window and I watch everything disappear, watch home turn to countryside, turn to ruin.

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