You Do Not Do

You walk alone. The street is lamp-lit and star-lit. Above is a mushroom cloud of orange nightclub-fast-food-bus-stop pollution. It is raining slightly, spitting orange nightclub-fast-food-bus-stop spatters onto the gathered shirts and skirts and denim. Girls in pink cowboy hats, high boots, wide belts; boys in white trainers, hair tweaked, collars rigid. The pub is just closing when you walk in and stagger, all casual, to the machine with the cigarettes. You think how different this pub would’ve looked this afternoon. Two men at the bar. The blinking fruit machine. You point at the cigarette choices, all casual, and make your selection. No way to rollies. You cannot roll, and you don’t want fag finger, that bright yellow stain — you pissed on your hand, mate? — the tattoo of the great unwashed. It has to be lights. Everyone smokes lights. Better for the health, like a run after doughnuts.

Move out, lighter out, orange glow, smoke blown. You stand for a while and watch a man run from a car as an alarm goes off. A couple of girls, holding hands, giggling, of course, come over and look you up and down, put their painted nails on your chest, feel the effects of the press ups, lean forward to give you an eyeful.

“Will yer give us a fag if we snog each other?” one of them says.

“Sure,” you say, and watch their fat tongues loll against each other noiselessly and soullessly until they stop abruptly. One of them wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, smearing a snail trail of lip gloss across a cheek.

“You like that?” one of them says.

“It was all right,” you say. You think you should have liked it, and you will like it when you tell the boys, but really it makes you hate those girls a little bit. “You earned it,” you say as you pass them a cigarette.

“You wanna come to a Halloween party?” one of them says.

“Bit early for Halloween,” you say. “What you going as?”

“Cowgirls. I was going to go as death by chocolate, and she was going to be a smurf, and then we were going to be ladybirds, but we already had the cowboy hats, so we just thought.”

“What’s scary about ladybirds?”

The girls look at you as if you are mad. They give you an unlabelled bottle and tell you to drink from it, to finish it, that it’ll make you feel good, then they take you by the hand and skip in synchronicity, dragging you down a side street and into a terraced house adorned with balloons and a pumpkin and someone vomiting into a bush. Inside are white trainers, wide belts, drum and bass, plastic cups, a smog of light cigarettes, high boots, fat tongues, stinking stains, cowboy hats in pink and purple.

“It’s pretty cool,” you say to the girls, but they are gone, they are dancing, they are kissing for cigarettes, writhing naked for weed, fucking for coke.

You look around and light up to show that you belong. You pick a plastic cup off the floor and drink from it. You rub yourself against a girl that maybe rubbed herself against you. You stand with your weight shifted on to one hip. You puff your chest out a little. You light another cigarette, but you don’t like the taste. You never have, but someone once said you looked good with one. You start to walk around the house, lifting drinks to your mouth and swilling. You see a coat on the floor and think about how you would steal it. You stop a man who’s wearing some pink felt on his back and ask him what he has come as. You laugh at his handlebar moustache made of makeup when he tells you he is a gay witch. You find your way into a cold room full of coats. You go through them for lighters and mobiles, tissues and tenners.

And then sit.

It is late. A red light in the darkness says three. The music is quieter, and the room has mostly been emptied of coats and bags. You feel your own pockets. They are bulging. For a moment, you worry that when people discover their losses, they will remember you, recall your tweaked hair, your rigid collar, your white trainers, but your head hurts so you forget. The landing is bright, so you light a cigarette and follow the whispers and soft laughter that seeps under the door. Opening it you see a sink and a shower curtain, a long mirror on the floor, two girls crouched over it. Both are wearing wide belts. One is wearing a cowboy hat. The gay witch is sitting on the toilet seat grinning at you.

“All right, man?” His moustache is smudged because his nose is running. “Not a policeman, are you?” he says in mock terror.

“Shit, no,” you say.

“You sure you’re all right, man?” he tries again. “Why don’t you give the girls a hand?” He points over to the cowgirl and her friend with a thumb.

So you sit down beside them and watch them watch themselves in the mirror. The white trail on the glass and its white trail reflection, the rolled note in the fingers, the sniff and the sniff, then the dib and the dab with the licked-upon finger. The cowgirl kisses you on the mouth, says her lips were tingling so she had to.

“No problem, babes,” you say.

The girls squeal and cut some more white trails with a bankcard saying Miss Smith. It would be Miss Smith. They sniff and sniff and dib and dab. They cut you a trail. You take one of your acquired tenners from a pocket and roll it up clumsily. They laugh.

“Sorry, girls. I’m a little bit fucked,” you say with a swagger.

“Wish we were,” says the cowgirl, “if you know what I mean.”

You get on to your knees and crouch over the mirror, the rolled note in your fingers. You see your eyes. They look so blue they are almost white. Up close, you sniff and you sniff and wait for the bitter taste in your throat. You wet your finger looking at the cowgirl in the glass and mop the last grains up. It smears a little. The cowgirl says she is going next door for a bit, but she is looking at you. You follow her. She is now only wearing a cowboy hat. Her wide belt is on the floor. Her fat tongue is in your mouth. Your fingers are on her. You remember that most bank notes in Britain have traces of coke on them. Your fingers are in her. You think that perhaps most girls in Britain have traces of coke in them.

You fuck her.

You wake alone.

• • •

You sit alone at a desk covered in lists and bubble wrap and flyers for clubs (scraps of card you’ve felt forced into accepting from peddlers of fun in the city). Clean washing is balanced all over your room. Polo shirts on coat hangers swing from the curtain rail, and damp odd socks drip dry off the bookshelves. It looks as though a storm has blown through a wardrobe and deposited clothes at random. Movie hurricanes always leave clothes in trees. They can lift cows and tractors too. It is late morning, and the windows are open. A breeze is playing with the jumper that hangs from the doorframe. In the house opposite, a girl is sitting at her desk. She is wearing fingerless gloves that start at her knuckles and end at her elbows. They are striped orange and purple and blue and yellow. From here, her skin is pale, but it is nearly Halloween, so her summer tan may have faded. She is working at something, maybe painting or reading, and she flicks her hair when it falls in front of her.

She turns and looks out of her window straight at you. You look down at the blank page on the computer and pretend to write, tapping at the keys — okhfk jdfkgdl djhfjhd djfhwkd — staring at the nonsense on the screen, tapping at the keys — kjfds oihsdf oihsf jhio — wondering whether you would eventually create something coherent if you typed arbitrarily for long enough…an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters…You look up and she is still glancing across at you, but you cannot see her eyes, so perhaps she cannot see yours, perhaps you merely appear to be gawping at her. She turns back to her work, but you are conscious that she is now moving with the knowledge that someone is watching her. She gets up and leaves the room.

You try to roll a cigarette, but your fingers feel achy and cold, and the paper keeps ripping. You lick your fingers because sometimes it helps, but it just makes the paper damp, and it rips again and again. You waste twenty minutes trying to roll it. It is so badly made that you light it and it instantly burns three-quarters of the way up; the remainder is unsmokeable and you nearly burst a blood vessel in your temple trying to suck anything out of it. The screen is still blank. The room still smells of soap powder. Your desk is still covered in lists and bubble wrap and flyers for places you will never visit.

You scoop up the ripped papers, the wisps of tobacco, and drop them into the bin. You pop the bubble wrap. You leave the flyers. You pick at a fingernail. You look at your passport photo and wonder why you didn’t tweak your hair before you took it. You watch a girl arrive home with bags of shopping and struggle to fit her keys in the front door. You look up the meaning of palimpsest and still don’t understand it. You listen to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and marvel at the dramatic pause before William Zanzinger’s sentence is passed. You drink a cup of orange squash. You spot the word floccinaucinihilipilification in the dictionary and imagine how you could use it, despite being unable to say it. You write the start of a story about a party, but it is more fun than you want to have. You write a middle paragraph, but the characters are more vapid than you want to know. You write the ending, but it is more vulnerable than you want to be.

And then leave the house.

• • •

You walk down the stairs. You see that no one is around. Light from the window picks up dust and dances with it in the air. You walk back up the stairs. The gay witch is asleep on the landing. You try the toilet, but someone is in it; there is a broomstick propped outside. You listen at the door and hear panting and skin slaps on skin and scratching. That’ll be the witch’s fingernails, you imagine. In the coat room, a girl is drawing on the wall with a fat, multicoloured pencil crayon, silently sweeping strokes of colour across the nicotine walls. They are striped orange and purple and blue and yellow.

“I just felt inspired,” she says when she sees you. She is the cowgirl’s friend. “I went to a reggae festival yesterday before the party, and just felt so fucking inspired.”

“Cool,” you say.

“Do you know who it is?”

“No,” you say, “but it’s cool. So cool.” You have no clue who it is. You didn’t even know it was a who. You thought it might be a what, but not a who. And you certainly have no idea why it is.

“It’s Linton Kwesi Johnson,” she says, triumphantly.

• • •

It starts to rain and the library is closed, so you find the nearest pub, buy a drink, and sit at a table in front of the fire. Two men sit at the bar. The only sound comes from a blinking fruit machine by the toilets. You think about how different it would have been here last night. The buzz and the laugh and the hubbub of voices. The last-minute queue for the cigarette machine. There is a poster on the wall advertising The World of Water, a water park with flumes and wave cannons and The Death Slide. At the bottom, in bubble letters: Keep your legs crossed. Or else they’ll snap off.

You think about the sort of person that would be tempted by a couplet like that. Probably someone unafraid to turn down the offer of a flyer in the street, someone with white trainers, someone who never wakes alone, never leaves the house alone, never visits pubs alone. You imagine the opening to a story with drugs and sex. Always write about what you know; you wince, feeling sorry for yourself.

The toilet is cold, and you shiver. Pineapple cubes lie in the urinals, a tap drips, and everywhere is blue with miserable, afternoon light. Stains pattern the floor like chromatograms. Two men from the bar piss in the urinal. There are more of you in here than the bar. You use the cubicle and listen to someone reading a paper in the stall next door.

“Look a’ that,” says one of the men, “ah’ve pissed on a metro ticket.”

“So you ‘ave,” says the other.

“Ah’ve pissed on a metro ticket,” the first says again.

“It’s all right.” His voice is soft, but croaky. Eighty fags a day.

“Ah’ll go home tonight, and me kids’ll ask me what ah’ve done, and ah’ll ‘ave to tell ‘em ah pissed on a metro ticket.”

You wonder why he wouldn’t just make something else up. “Tell them you helped a blind woman cross the road,” you want to scream. “Tell them you tipped a taxi driver, you went to an art gallery and doubled the suggested contribution, you bought The Big Issue, you didn’t stop to look at an accident despite the seductive lights, the police tape, the agony. Tell them you went to work, for Christ’s sake.”

“Would it make you feel any better if ah pissed on it an all?”

“Ah’ve pissed on a metro ticket,” he says again.

You hear a newspaper rustling, a chain flushing, a lock unlocking. You hear a new voice, a well-spoken one, clear and condescending. “Perhaps you should remember that right now in Africa someone is pissing on a corpse’s face.”

You leave the toilet and the pub and your change on the table, but you don’t give a shit. The cold is a garrotte. Black clouds are aneurisms. You pass people in groups laughing and oblivious to the rain. None of the solitary walkers are laughing. They’re not even smiling. Probably because it would make them look mad.

At home, you discover you have left your keys with the coins.

You return alone.

• • •

Tomorrow, you will start again with the tweak of the hair, the glug, and the swill, the all right, girls, the no problem, girls, the sniff and the sniff and the dib and the dab, your fingers upon her, your fingers inside her. And you won’t enjoy it at the time, but you will when you tell the boys. And you’ll laugh out loud about fucking, and the boys will laugh out loud too. And you’ll plan when you’ll meet, where you’ll meet, who you’ll meet.

 

Real soon,
Boys,
Real soon.

 

Last night, you dreamt that you were alone and you had a wobbly tooth. You played with the tooth until it came out in your fingers. You ran your tongue over the gap and instantly became obsessed with finding a glass of milk, something to save the sharp white square in your hand. You were searching through an unknown city, down unknown cobbled streets, over unknown humpbacked bridges, in unknown wailing darkness. You woke up thinking you had failed. But you hadn’t.


Sam Duda was born in 1982 in Norfolk, England. He has had short stories published in literary journals and anthologies both in the UK and the US. He currently lives in Newcastle.