I had to get a train away from this place tomorrow.
Rain drummed the balcony outside my window, and the moon was a sharp knife cut through felt. The tattered card – with its small bird emblem – advertised it as a place of healing, of a sort. But my head still recycled her moist eyes, the bud of her lips as they drew together, the tip of her finger pressing into my eye socket as she tried to prise the last plastic packet from my hand.
In the far distance, yellow eyes floated amongst a sweep of black field, but the road was too far to walk. The commune was, in any case, secreted between a gathering of trees, and behind us the sprawl of ocean seemed to feed on my thoughts, lapping curiously.
Returning to the desk, I flattened out a cigarette paper. Shaking out the first little bag to hand, I dusted a tiny pea’s worth over it. I folded up the edges of the paper, twisted it into a little onion shape, and swallowed. I washed it down with three glasses of wine, then I repeated the trick. My nose stung too much to use today, and my gums ached.
The service offered companionship. I rang down after my fourth speed bomb. The rain beat heavier, grinding seconds away.
She stood in the centre of the room, wearing a giant cardboard bird mask. The short walk had left her dripping wet. The beak spilt a tremendous black shadow across the floor.
Afterwards I sat by the lamp and fiddled with more cigarette papers, glancing at the curve of her back. Her black hair, falling in tousles over her face, looked a little bit hurt, a little bit lost. She said she thought of herself as a type of geisha. Leaning over the bedside table, her chest wrapped in duvet, she arranged neat lines with my credit card. The room shifted in degrees of shade as she hoovered them up.
‘I have to leave tomorrow,’ I said, slugging back wine.
‘But you’re not well,’ she muttered, sniffing deeply. Her eyes were glassy and wide, set above a small, slim nose. She rose, padding over, and I placed my hands on the smooth skin of her lower back, pressing my lips against her belly button.
‘Do you feel like a bad person?’ She whispered, stooping to fold her warm lips around my ear.
In time she was spreadeagled on the bed, a stain of urine between her legs. Tugging the little bag apart, I fingered the plastic and rubbed remnants into my gums. Then, staggering onto the bed, I pulled her head into my chest and lay spinning.
The colours of morning sent dots across my vision. She was gone and I was shaking violently.
Two men in absurd cardboard bird masks flitted about the room, spraying, scrubbing and collecting. I stretched, rattling, for the gin bottle as I watched them. The thick scent as the lid cracked open washed back punctured, disparate images of my wife clawing at my eye, stroking my hair over the toilet bowl, holding her sweating cheek to my own.
The gin lit my throat and felt a part of nature.
‘What was her name?’ I croaked after several shots.
A white cardboard beak swung up. The second one lifted to join it.
‘The girl,’ I hacked, ‘the girl, last night.’
‘Sarah,’ said the first bird-face, in a muffled cluck.
‘I have to leave tomorrow,’ I slurred. The rain was battering at the window pane. Through it I could see past the fields and flailing tree tops to the sea, frothy and animated in the downpour. Everything washed together; every thought, every ripple gathered and fragmented within the confines of the room.
‘You don’t know how to be kind to yourself,’ she laughed, cutting out another line. Then suddenly, she said:
‘What does she do?’
I paused and rolled some wine around my mouth. ‘My wife? Academic publishing. But she’s – it’s been messy… it doesn’t matter now.’ Then I turned from the window and settled into the bed on my knees, folding my hands around her stomach. Her skin was soft and taut, like my fingers might break through its seal at any moment. ‘Do they care that you’re here two days in a row?’
‘I doubt it,’ she smiled.
Hours later I pressed my lips against the rise of her waist bone and struggled up to lick a lump of powder from her nipple. My hand flapped for the bottle on the bedside table and I lost my balance, slapping against her stomach. I could feel her tongue tracing my neck as I lay against the warmth; borne away into nothing, safe from the night.
‘You don’t have to leave tomorrow,’ she breathed.
‘I don’t… I’m not kind to… but you, you – ‘ I couldn’t make the words trim, and she cut me off by biting my lip with her own, her small chin wedged into her chest. My hands groped at her slender arms.
‘I have no problem with my life here. I like it, I like… not to exist like this. We are learning how to be peaceful. These other things… like birds in the air, they fly over our heads.’
‘But this,’ I said, prising a twist of hair away from her scalp as her stomach rose against my own.
‘It’s not the same for everyone,’ she sighed, reaching to take my head in her hands. ‘I think – I think I thought I knew you before. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s how it felt.’
The sharp sound of a bell filled the room. Peeling myself away, I swayed over to the window. In the garden beneath, two bird-masked men were playing a selection of bells. For a moment I was taken by the fancy that things were not passing through me, and that I was in control.
The third day I was awoken by a cardboard beak, hovering above my face. Thin light spilled around it and my head felt like clacking rubble. She was gripping my wrist; her eyes were wet, and her pupils looked like black marbles.
‘No,’ she said.
Four arms lifted me gently from the bed and carried me towards the door. Behind me she continued protesting. My feet dragged along the floor; the sound fused with her shouts and became one and the same thing, but at least she was alive. At least she was alive and thinking of me.
‘I’ll write,’ I said, twisting from the arm locks and tripping back to the bed. She looked frail in the leak of morning; pale and wide-eyed, and younger than I remembered.
‘I will,’ I pushed, and something clicked as if things were happening again. Dead moments were being reanimated and blessed with second chances. ‘I don’t know how to talk. I don’t know how to talk to people.’
‘Then write me everything,’ she muttered, as the beaks fell over my shoulder.
By the sea, some twenty bird-masked people were gathered. They sat mostly in chairs on the beach, as if waiting for some tumultuous event at the edge of the world.
‘Why birds?’ I asked, as I was ushered into a chair.
‘Birds as messengers,’ said the man to my right, in a swampy rasp.
I was instructed to look, and I did so. I looked from the folding crests of oilish water – layered in mottled sheets where the light broke – to the rows of cardboard beaks. I pushed my wife, and Sarah, and my rank core into the soft laps near my feet, and for the first time in a long time, I felt a little bit outside of myself. Then I realised I was crying. A ridiculous cardboard beak appeared by my face, peering in close.
‘What’s this?’ He asked.
‘I’m not capable of being anything other than selfish,’ I choked, scratching at my arm.
Several of the masked people had risen to approach the water. A swell of morning light sent a vast, sleek white panel over the skin of the waves, and for a minute it seemed as though the sun was intent on melding with the sea.
‘You absolutely mustn’t give up hope,’ said the bird-face, his beak close enough to brush my cheek.