The Black Lotus
a short story by Simon Ings
We buried Rudy this morning. It was drizzling: the sky was uniformly leaden.
When the vicar invited Rudy's mother to look at the flowers, Tina Strossner edged forward to the lip of the grave and peered short-sightedly at the daffodils some children had thrown upon the coffin. Then, out the corner of her eye, she noticed the bouquets, ready to lay upon the grave, and she realised that these were the flowers she was supposed to be admiring.
She stepped towards them and her foot slipped on the edge of the grave. Soil fell with a hollow sound upon the coffin.
One cannot help but remember such moments. Long after the eulogies have faded, countless trivial incidents remain. We uncover them again by accident, and with a twinge of embarrassment, as one might remove a crumpled paper poppy from a winter overcoat.
After the service Tina came over to me, to thank me for being here.
"Sorry I was late," I said. "The train was cancelled."
"How are you getting back?"
"I've a return ticket."
"Drive back with me."
I looked at her. I could not read her expression.
"I think the weather's clearing," she said; she was trying to encourage me.
"I suppose," I replied. I didn't want to talk. I was feeling light-headed, confused. The fugues had started up again.
"Please." She took hold of my hands. "It would be good to have company."
Tina's sister had laid on a simple funeral meal for us. We ate outside, in the back garden. Above us, the clouds broke up and dissolved. She and I sat by the pool. It was covered in green plastic strawberry netting, "to keep the hedgehogs from drowning." The lawn was thin and brown. Tina's sister had sown expensive seed, but it had proved too delicate, and unsuited to the sandy soil. It was choked in moss, itself brown and dead. You could crumble it to dust with your fingers.
Tina took me by the arm as I was absently digging up a little pile of moss. "Maureen?"
I smiled at her. "It's all right," I said. "I'm awake."
Tina smiled back, embarrassed. "Sorry."
She was worried for me. She shared my medical condition, and so she knew what to look for in the onset of a fugue.
About a year ago -- it was the week before Tina was due to go to the Maudsley mental hospital in Camberwell -- I travelled to Kingston-upon-Thames to visit her. I smelt the bonfire long before I reached her house: above it, a bulb of black smoke hung motionless against heavy grey clouds.
Tina and I had tea in the garden. The neighbours came over to complain about the bonfire: "All times of day and night!" Mr Campbell shouted across the fence. "All times of day and night! I'm ringing the council! I am! Ring the council I shall!"
"Why do you say everything twice?" Tina retorted; and, louder, leaning on the arm of her deckchair so that it wobbled dangerously, "Why is everything said twice by you? Like Gertrude bloody Stein."
"For God's sake, Tina," I muttered.
"Come on," said Tina; she stood up and marched to the kitchen door. "Give me a hand with these boxes."
"Those black orchids -- Rudy reckons their pollen's dangerous," I explained to her, as we built up her bonfire. "It affects the limbic system."
She showed no interest.
When the bonfire was ready I stood, looking at it: folders full of old papers, broken furniture, split cushions, lace nets, string bags, tattered music hall programmes. All this junk was so much a part of life in Tina's house, I couldn't quite grasp that soon it would be gone.
Tina danced round the bonfire, shaking white spirit out of clear plastic bottle.
"Tina," I said to her finally, exasperated, "it'll burn anyway. It's all cloth and paper." Even as I spoke, I didn't quite believe what was happening. "Look, are you sure about this?"
I stared at her. "You just asked me to help you."
"Don't interfere." Tina reached into her apron pocket for her matchbox. The fire caught very quickly. Why did everything burn so fast? Why did it boil away so eagerly?
I knew I would be next.
You wake up and it is late: you have ten minutes to dress and get out the door to be in time for work. You are still half asleep. You only properly come to on the bus, roused by the scent of wet mackintoshes, perhaps, or a mother saying to her son, "I won't tell you again. I won't tell you again," and even then you're not properly awake, and you feel desperate for a second, because you think she must be talking to you.
How did you get out the house, asleep as you were? You have no memory of your actions. How did you get here?
There is a part of the brain called the hippocampal gyrus. It controls stereotyped action. Some stereotyped actions are built in -- smiling, crying, frowning. Others are learned. Tying shoelaces. Washing. Opening and closing doors. Simple domestic routines. Rudy, Tina's son, explained it all to me that first afternoon in the Lyceum.
I met Rudy early in 1988, by accident. He was walking out of McDonald's on the Strand when I sneezed, my ladder slipped, and I dropped a hanging basket on his head. It seemed churlish, when he came round, not to accept his offer of a drink.
Rudy was a biochemist. He had just been awarded a professorship for his thesis on the biochemical processes of pollen allergies. It amused him that my own mild hay fever had been responsible for his accident.
He was applying for money to investigate compulsive behaviour.
"You perform simple actions more or less unconsciously," he explained to me. "But sometimes the programme gets stuck. You can't stop yourself from performing some simple action, over and over. Think of Lady Macbeth."
"You mean her compulsive washing."
"My grandmother couldn't stop washing herself either," he said, proudly. "This was back in the fifties: no-one understood the condition then -- they lacked a label for it. The treatments were very primitive."
"She couldn't stop washing herself?"
Rudy shrugged. "It's one of the more common variants."
"What happened to her?"
"She died in 1967. Another drink?"
"Why are you working on this?" I asked, struggling to make small talk out of the unpromising material he'd fed me. "I mean, you're a biochemist. This sounds more like a psychological problem to me, rather than a biochemical one. After all, Lady Macbeth washes her hands repeatedly because of her guilt, not because of her glands -- or is it bad of me to quote that back at you?"
Rudy laughed. "No, you're right. There are usually good external reasons why people develop this kind of abnormality. But to develop any drug treatments for the condition, we've got to understand what changes occur in the brain."
I smiled ruefully. "Treating the symptoms again, doctor?"
"Professor," he smiled, then he looked at me oddly. "You're not one of these holistic types I hope."
I run an interior landscaping company. When I met Rudy I'd been in business for myself for about six months, hanging baskets in burger joints. The next few years were kind to me, and thanks to Thatcher and the late eighties boom, I and my employees now tend the bonsais throughout the Square Five Mile.
I started up business in Kingston. Some of the main streets here are pedestrianised. This wasn't good for us at all. Try delivering to a loading bay without giving at least a week's notice. The worst, according to Tracy, who drives the van, are the Corps of Commissionaires -- 'old geezers with gold braid' who've been invalided out the army. Tracy had had words with one of them, and I was in our office composing a letter of apology to the Corps of Commissionaires when Rudy came in, bearing a jar, and floating inside the jar, a black lotus.
"Nelimbo nucifera nigra," he announced, voluptuously. He set the jar carefully down on my desk. The scent made me sneeze. It was sweet and appetising, heavy, but with none of the cabbagy undertaste which plagues most rich scents. I wiped my nose and bent to stare at the dark, variegated purple leaves, the fleshy, pure black petals. "Is it real?"
"Or have I been playing with the food dye again?" Rudy teased me. "No, it's real enough. It's a bribe, you see: I want you to have dinner with me tonight."
Rudy had something to celebrate, and no significant other to celebrate it with. He had staggered away from the Lyceum the day before, reeling under a mixed cider-hanging-basket headache, to find a letter on his desk.
It was from a drug company, and they were offering him the funding he needed to undertake work on compulsive behaviour disorder.
He took me to a cheap Thai restaurant in Piccadilly and ordered for us both. I drank Tiger beer and he talked about his work, and because he was so obviously excited, I did my best not to show my ignorance or, later, my boredom.
"I've somehow to disturb the workings of the parahippocampal gyrus so as to trigger compulsive behaviour."
The peanut sauce on my vegetables in batter was thin and gritty. There was a sort of upside-down pudding of beef, steeped in cayenne, but by then I'd discovered that Rudy practised vivisection, and this rather dulled my appetite.
"I reckon it's all to do with micelles."
"Micelles. Sorry. Tiny globules of soap. I reckon soap in the parahippocampal gyrus may cause compulsive behaviour disorder."
My memories from this point on are all jumbled up. I recall a rubbery vermicelli and a dish of jackfruit swamped in sugar syrup.
Thanks to later events, I remember Rudy's explanation of MIF -- the main ingredient in the experiments he was planning. "It's a long-chain molecule which ionises in a neutral solution to form micelles. It's job is to 'stick' macrophages to the site of an infection." Because Rudy suffered very mildly from hay fever, he would prick his skin with a needle dipped in pollen and then draw off fluid from the site of reaction with a hypodermic. By directly administering this fluid to the diencephala of his laboratory subjects, Rudy would be able to raise their micelle levels. "You see," he explained, "the swelling round the site of infection is caused by a long chain hormone called MIF--
"-- and MIF ionises in a neutral solution to form micelles!"
We left the restaurant and I started to say goodbye, but he shushed me. He had something to say.
It was an apology -- a very sincere and self-deprecating apology.
"I remembered it being better than that," he said, meaning the restaurant. "Forgive me. And I've been a pig, I've talked shop all night. This was a rotten evening."
It seemed churlish, after all that, not to let him kiss me goodnight. When he let me go I stumbled. I'd drunk too much beer, and I couldn't work out how. I didn't know whether to be angry that Rudy had got me drunk, or apologetic to have got so pissed at his expense.
He lived nearby, of course -- I should have been prepared for that -- in a flat off Malet Street. Would I like a coffee? I couldn't work out just how disingenuous Rudy was being. The only way I could satisfy my curiosity was go along with him and find out.
The front entrance to Rudy's flat gave onto a long narrow corridor. Beyond it, above and behind the shops which fronted the street, lay a vast complex of corridors and vertiginous stair wells.
Rudy led me up a spiral staircase. The wooden steps creaked. The rail shook. It was poorly varnished. I ran my hand along it and I caught my palm on a nail.
Rudy opened the door to his flat. There was a ladder blocking the hall, so I had to squeeze through after him. The hall was panelled in wood, very dark and dirty. I bumped into him. He just stood there, not moving or looking at me, waiting -- I don't know for what. After a minute or two of this he said, "Where would you like to go?"
I laughed. Already I was nervous. I said, "Well, where is there?"
After a moment he said, "There's my bedroom," and he took my hand and squeezed it, hard.
Rudy's experiments went well. As winter approached, he came to rely on his mother for sources of pollen. She gave him some black lotuses of his own, because lotuses produce pollen all the year round.
I liked Tina. She was mad. Her living room was cluttered to bursting with the strangest bric-a-brac: an ornamental china brandy cask with a brass tap, a tasselled table lamp with a bakelite stand; an elephant's foot, a rusted pump, countless jugs of no particular vintage or interest, a brass diving helmet with little grilled windows, a set of traffic lights, all of the filters illuminated -- the red filter had the word STOP stencilled on it in black paint -- a hand plane, wicker baskets, a hand-painted paper lantern, some crepe Christmas decorations, a stuffed fox in a glass cabinet, two workman's lamps, a straw hat, a Chinese dragon mask, some African musical instruments, a pair of polished bull horns, a paper model of an albatross, a policeman's helmet (Tina's great great grandmother was a particularly pugnacious suffragette and this was her trophy), and, screwed into the door of the room, a plaque which read 'The English and Foreign Governesses Institute'.
The wallpaper was plastered in play bills, mainly for reviews and comedies performed by a local am-dram company to which Tina had once belonged -- The Unvarnished Truth by Royce Ryton, Pass the Butler, Daisy Pulls it Off, Pack of Lies, And a Nightingale Sang, Close of Play -- the collection weaved its way drunkenly from wall to wall and disappeared down the hall to metastasise through every room of the house.
"My mother," Rudy explained to me, unnecessarily, "is a compulsive collector."
We visited Tina every week. This was a sop to me, because he knew how much I loved plants. But it was also a way of making me beholden to him -- and a way of emphasising the permanency of our relationship.
While Rudy sat picking over his food, muttering about his work, Tina and I ignored the food altogether and winked at one another over the top of whatever exotic plant she had placed that evening at the centre of the dining table.
She knew that I did not love her son, that I was a kind of impostor, but my love of unusual plants endeared me to her. Every meal had a different and ever more exotic centrepiece: Calathea makoyana with its leaves like raised peacock tails, Orchis glauca with petals like burnished steel, Platycerium alipes, its asymmetric leaves like ruffled feathers, the notoriously delicate Calathea lucifuga its shoots black and sticky as liquorice.
Rudy told me that his grandfather had brought the first black lotus back with him from Palestine after the second world war. But I never could discover the precise circumstances surrounding this unusual and, as far as I know, unique importation.
In speaking of her father's treasured plant, Tina would adopt the diction and manner of herbals and astrological gardening books. Ask her a direct question and she would say to you something like, "Today on Delta channels the blue lotus blooms as in the days when they laid the blossoms beside the dead." The first time I asked her where the black lotus came from she shook her head and said, "The nekheb, the true, sacred lotus, has vanished from Egypt."
For the first few months, my affair with Rudy went well. He was an attentive, if clumsy, lover. But in the end his clumsiness grew tough and unbreachable. Now when Rudy made love to me I felt as though I were being laid out on a slab, vivisected by his precise, hampered, hopelessly inhibited 'technique'.
Why, then, did I not leave him? Boredom and habit, I fear, are my only excuses. Anyway, whatever dissatisfaction I might otherwise have felt with him was more than made up for by the satisfactions of my working life.
New business developments in the Docklands fostered a new and lively market for 'interior landscapes'. This was something I was not slow to exploit. My company's success through the mid nineties attracted the attention of the more trivial business journalists, and you will find pictures of me, more or less embarrassed by all the attention I was getting, in most of the Christmas '97 gardening magazines.
Rudy's research, meanwhile, yielded some promising results. He came over to my new office in Bow one afternoon to tell me he had induced compulsive masturbation in a capuchin monkey.
"It's established," he announced, plonking a bottle of Lanson Brut down on the desk. "Benjamin tossed himself off for eighteen hours yesterday and this morning he was back on the job."
"Perhaps he's bored." I suggested.
Rudy smiled thinly and started picking the foil off the bottle. "The results are still wobbly," he went on, "but this is a significant step--"
He fell silent. I waited for him to go on. He just sat there on the corner of my desk, picking at the foil. When the foil was all gone he started picking at the shreds of glue stuck to the neck of the bottle.
"Are you going to open it, then?" I asked him. He glanced down at the bottle. He laughed and shook himself. "Sorry." He left off picking at it, and turned the wire spool to release the cork. I went and got us some glasses from the cabinet by the door.
"So," I said, -- he was still unscrewing the wire -- "what next? Where do you go from here?"
"First, it would be worth seeing if I can induce high micelle concentrations without having to cut my subjects' heads open first."
Rudy, oblivious, went on, "In theory, that shouldn't be difficult. MIF passes readily from the blood into the cerebrospinal fluid."
Rudy had wound the wire spool so far back the other way that it snapped at last. Rudy started and stared down at the neck of the bottle. He moved his face away just in time. The cork blew out and champagne foam went all over my desk.
"Oh shit," Rudy muttered, and he helped me mop up with his handkerchief.
As we drank I thought about what he had said. "You're saying, then, that compulsive behaviour can be induced as part of an allergic reaction?"
"Not in the real world. All I can say with any certainty is that high micelle concentrations induce compulsive behaviour."
He was fiddling with the neck of the champagne bottle again. I watched him in silence for a few moments.
He saw my expression, glanced down and, with a nervous scowl, put the bottle out of reach at the end of the desk. "Sorry."
I poured the champagne and he talked about his work, and eventually he decided it was time for him to go. "Maureen?" he said, when he was at the door, "would you like to come out for a meal tonight?"
I smiled as warmly as I could. "I'm sorry," I said. "I've something arranged."
"I'll call you."
"Ah. Right." He stood there by the door, waiting for me to say something, and when I didn't he just sighed and left, closing the door softly behind him.
We still visited Tina Strossner.
The food she made for us never varied: cauliflower cheese with pieces of bacon added to the sauce, served with spaghetti, warmed in the oven in a dish wetted with garlic oil. Dessert consisted of Tina's 'special' rice pudding crusted with nutmeg and currants. The entire meal was disgusting.
Tina and her plants were enough of an incentive. For all that my clients sometimes demand quite ostentatious displays, it is rare that my company deals in anything more exotic than hoya or weeping fig. Tina's plants were a continual delight to me.
One night after our meal we left Rudy in the house, smiling blankly at Newsnight, and Tina led me to her hothouse. An Aechea caudata held pride of place on a table by the door. The impress of older leaves had left dark lines in the pale blue bloom of the younger growth. Nested stars of thick serrated petals guarded magnolia-coloured stamens.
Sweat trickled down my neck. I loosened my blouse. The place smelt heady and delicious -- the air was full of the unmistakable scent of black lotuses.
Tina led me to two shallow tanks. There were eight black lotuses altogether -- descendants of her father's original plant. Tina said, "According to Iamblicus the lotus is a symbol of perfection. It makes the figure of a circle, you see -- leaves, flowers and fruit, a perfect circle. Like the sun's rays."
I bent my head to drink in the sweet, salivatory scent.
"The lotus represents the past, present and future."
"It bears buds, flowers and seeds at the same time."
I smiled. "Of course."
She reached past me into the tank and plucked a lotus and broke it apart.
I gasped, not understanding what she was doing.
She offered me a fleshy petal. "Eat it."
I don't know why I felt so uneasy.
"It's all right," she whispered, offering it to my mouth. "It's quite edible. You can flavour rice with lotus flowers. The Chinese candy the seeds for New Year."
Afterwards, as we left her hothouse, she took me by the arm and said, "I like your visits. If you wanted to, you could come here--"
"Yes?" I prompted.
She smiled nervously. "Without Rudy."
The first time I visited Tina on my own, she was working herself up for yet another assault on the box room. "I've all those plastic bags to sort out," she explained, "and decide what to keep, what to throw away, and it's been hanging over me for months and I need to find some things. By Wednesday--" she rubbed her hands together with glee, "-- we should have all we need for a nice big conflarigation!"
Tina Strossner's compulsive 'clear-outs' were focused upon the cupboards in the box room. This was full to bursting with odds and ends acquired from Tina's aunt, who had been bombed out during the war. Whenever Tina tackled the box room she found the oddest bits and pieces. "They never threw anything away!" It became a kind of litany. I soon realised that this menagerie of personal effects was in the same state of chaos as it had been when she acquired it. Her desire to tidy or order these things was, I soon learned, just another facet of a deeply compulsive personality.
Sometimes I stayed the night with her. I remember one morning she got up early 'to do some tidying'. She came upon a folder containing her great uncle's bank statements from 1932. "Maureen," she cried. She burst into the bedroom. "Look at these! Now, where's the sense in that?" She thrust the statements at me as if I were in some way responsible for them.
I burst out laughing.
The next day Tina sent me a lotus.
It was pure white.
There was a letter with it. "I bring thee the flower which was in the Beginning," she wrote; "the glorious lily of the Great Water."
I don't think Rudy suspected anything.
Spring came. Rudy's results went haywire. He rang me late at night to tell me about it. Once, shortly after midnight, the phone went and Tina, half asleep and not thinking straight, leaned out of my bed and picked up the handset. I reached over her and hit the rest in time. After that I made a habit of putting the phone down on him; I had no more trouble with late night calls.
Thinking about Rudy depressed me. I hadn't slept with him for some months, but he wouldn't let things drop. It was as though, deprived of my love, he felt he had a right to my pity. At first I had felt sorry for him. Now I was beginning to resent him, his mincing familiarity, the hang-dog look he gave me whenever I refused a date.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to remember him with any affection. The most disgusting things kept coming back: that box of tissues he kept by the side of his bed for instance. How he wiped himself dry almost as soon as he had ejaculated, and how he turned away from me while he did it as if he were ashamed, which I suppose he must have been. I remembered, too, how he would never give himself in a kiss. It was as though he was afraid I might taste foul. He would never suck my breasts; instead he took each nipple between his teeth and nibbled at it. When I finally persuaded him to go down on me he licked me fastidiously, like a cat, testing out some unfamiliar yoghurty treat.
Perhaps this unwelcome but persistent tape-loop of memories affected me, for I seemed unable to hold on to Tina's affection.
She no longer fed me lotus. "Have you had a nice week, dear?" she would say, burrowing deeper into the recesses of the hall cupboard; and, complacently, "I've been clearing out all sorts of things today!"
Her voice grew more distant as she snaked another few inches into the stygian gloom.
I stared at Tina's feet; these alone remained in the upper realm: pink slippered feet, curling and tapping.
What on earth did she find to do in there?
There was a thump, a crash, an hysterical scream.
"Tina?" I rushed forward to help.
"Leave me alone! Oh! Look what you made me do!" Tina shuffled on her hands and knees in the tight confines of the cupboard and poked her head out; the lines of her face were grey with dust, ageing her.
I knew that whatever we had shared had come to an end, not because Tina had chosen that it should, but simply because she had forgotten about it; she was now wholly obsessed with her hopeless, endless clear-out.
A letter from Rudy -- unexpected, distant, with an edge of urgency -- awaited me at home. He was, as usual, talking shop, and much of what he wrote was obscure, but I grasped enough of it to know that I would have to see him at least once more.
We drank coffee in his lounge. There were magazines everywhere. An ashtray by the corner of the sofa had been kicked over, and spent Gauloises butts lay strewn across the stained carpet.
Rudy wore an orange T shirt and old black jeans, holed at the right knee. He smelled of stale smoke. He had put on weight. His face was heavy, with pronounced jowls. His scalp above the right ear was bare, scratched and weeping, where he had been scratching.
He found it hard to express things clearly. He meandered and repeated himself. Sometimes he found it hard to remember that we were no longer lovers. At other times he hardly recognised me.
He drained his coffee almost the second he had poured it into the cup, then went to the window and eased the lace curtain aside. "It's summer," he said, pointlessly.
"Yes," I said.
"A lot of pollen. A lot of hay fever." He turned to me. "Do you get hay fever?"
"Me too." He let the curtain drop. "MIF. I didn't know as much about it as I thought I did. No-one did. It turns out there are different types."
"Rudy you've told me this."
"But I don't understand what that means."
"It means I'm wrong," he said, unhelpfully. He started scratching his head.
"Rudy, stop it."
He didn't hear me.
I stood up and went over to him and pulled at his arm, but he just kept on scratching.
For some reason I burst into tears. "Christ, Rudy."
"There are four different kinds of MIF."
I turned away from him, went to the window. It was very bright out. I wiped away my tears, hoping he wouldn't see.
"Different pollens trigger the release of different sorts of MIF. Black orchids trigger Type C. Of course, that's my own personal nomenclature -- it won't mean anything until the paper's published."
"Rudy, I don't know what you're talking about."
He took his hand away from his head at last. He'd opened up all his scabs. "It means I was wrong and you were right: compulsive behaviour dysfunction can be brought on by an allergenic response. Type C MIF raises micelle levels in the diencephalon four hundred-fold." He made to scratch his head again, then lowered his hand. "That's why my results went haywire this summer. I quit using black lotus pollen, and I found I couldn't induce compulsive behaviour disorder in my animals any more. It's only type C MIF can induce it. Type C is released only when the body's exposed to black lotus pollen. It's the only plant I've found can generate it. That's why my grandmother went crazy, and my mother--"
He left the sentence unfinished.
He knew what had happened to him.
I got up and said I'd have to go.
The corridor swam around me like a muddy river. Rudy didn't want me to go, of course.
"Won't you stay?"
I got to the door of his apartment leaned up against it, catching my breath.
Getting through the door -- I felt like a pupa, prising my way out of a carcase. The textures of the stair well I had to go down tore at my eyes. I hurried down the steps, and they swirled around me.
I felt crawling things on my back and I knew he was at the door, looking at me. I told myself that I mustn't turn round -- if I turned round I'd see his fat, bleeding head poking out the gap between door and door frame -- a doll's head framed in darkness like a disembodied thing, a lump of meat waiting to rot. I wanted to throw up.
Rudy's discovery came too late for us.
Tina left the Maudsley two months ago. Her condition has undergone some measurable improvement since then. Aside from her fugues, she is quite lucid. She has a good lay person's understanding of Rudy's work, and this has helped her. Knowing that her problem is organic, a consequence of biochemistry, and not of psychology, has enabled her to come to terms with her condition. There is as yet no cure. Rudy's death will only serve to delay its final development. In the meantime, we can only receive what stop-gap treatments there are, and hope we do not deteriorate to Rudy's level.
After the explosion, there was of course talk of suicide. Eventually, however, a verdict of death by misadventure was given. I cannot shut out this dreadful vision -- I remember that champagne bottle, and his thumbnail, pick-picking at the foil, and I think about him, in his squalid little bedsit, at supper time. It's seven o'clock. The sun is setting. It's been a hot day. He has opened the kitchen window to let in a light evening breeze. He turns the gas ring on, lights it, then goes to turn on the kitchen light. He reaches for the switch, but his hand does not obey him, and he forgets what his hand is supposed to do. So he stands there, scratching his head, for ten minutes, twenty, maybe an hour. The evening breeze picks up. It blows out the flame on his gas ring. How many more hours does Rudy stand there, ripping his scalp off with broken fingernails? Five hours, six. It's not exceptional. It's impossible to say what finally triggers the explosion. Perhaps Rudy wakes up in the darkness, and, disoriented, maddened by the searing pain of his bleeding scalp, he turns on the light. One spark is enough.
Rudy has been buried for over three hours now. Tina drives us across the spoilt Surrey countryside, through villages with names like Hurtmore and Noning.
I notice the wing mirror's cracked. Tina must have pranged it again. She was never a careful driver, and her condition does nothing for her technique. Not that I can talk: the doctors grounded me more than a month ago. It seems as though whenever Tina responds to treatment, I have a relapse. And vice versa, of course. A door, opening and closing, repeatedly--
Tina was right: the sky is clear now. In front of us, a wide-bodied jet catches the sun, a droplet of flaming magnesium against the sky's ungraduated blue.
It's getting hot so I unwind the window. I reach out to adjust the broken wing mirror. I catch a glimpse of myself in the cracked glass. The scalp above my left ear is all bare, where I've been scratching my head. I snatch my hand back from the glass and press it to my lap, keep it there with my other hand.
Tina shoots me a worried look. "You want a drink?"
The next village we rattle through has a Beefeater in it. Tina swings the van recklessly up the steep drive and into the gravel car park. We go in and she parks me at a table in the corner.
Coming in here was a bad idea. I can't feel grief, the shock of Rudy's death is too recent; all the drink brings up in me is this tape-loop of memories I'd rather not possess.
Sick, uncharitable memories.
I must not think of this today -- today is Rudy's day -- but looking back on our brief, abortive affair, I can see now that we did no more than degrade each other.
I can identify precisely the moment when I realised I too had compulsive behaviour dysfunction. It was November of last year. I had been working hard all week, and on Friday afternoon I took myself off to London Zoo to cheer myself up.
When it was time to leave I couldn't leave the zoo. I just kept walking around and around -- one big long pointless circuit, over and over again. I knew what I was doing but I couldn't help but do it. It was as though I had suddenly become trapped behind the green lenses of my eyes, I felt utterly cut off from what was real or solid.
And I remember, as I walked, I kept passing and repassing a cage of green monkeys -- capuchins, the kind Rudy used for his experiments.
They found my predicament hysterical. When I came into view they all chittered at me and pointed in different directions.
The pint is done for and I must get to the ladies. I look at myself in the mirror. My scalp is all bloody -- I must have been scratching myself again. I bathe it as best I can--
I wake up perhaps a minute later to find I've been scratching again and all the scabs are open and weeping.
I still need to pee. I step into a cubicle and shut the door. I reach under my skirt and pull down my knickers and shut the door. I start to piss and I shut the door--
The next I know I'm in the car again. Tina keeps giving me anxious glances but won't meet my gaze. My legs are wet. I glance down. There are dark spots all down my stockings where I've pissed myself.
Tina must have gone in to the loo and got me.
I glance at my watch. How much time did I lose?
While we've been driving the sky has cleared. A wide-bodied jet catches the sun, a droplet of flaming magnesium against the sky's ungraduated blue.
It's getting hot so I unwind the window. I reach out to adjust the wing mirror. I catch a glimpse of myself in the cracked glass. The skin above my left ear is all bare, where I've been scratching my head. An eidetic memory hijacks my eyes. A door, opening and closing, repeatedly. I snatch my hand back from the glass and press it into my lap, keep it there with my other hand.
Tina shoots me a worried look. "You want a drink?"
The next village we rattle through has a Beefeater in it. Tina swings the van recklessly up the steep drive and into the gravel car park.
All the drink brings up in me this tape-loop of memories I'd rather not possess. Sick, uncharitable memories, about Rudy, who was, I suppose, my lover. I must not think this way today; today is Rudy's day. But the most disgusting things keep coming back. . .
I drain my pint and the next I know I'm in the car. How much time did I lose?
Before us, a wide-bodied jet catches the sun, a droplet of flaming magnesium.
Tina shoots me a worried look. "You want a drink?"
Eventually, as my preoccupied mind slides further into its allergenic trance, all grip on the real will fade. Perhaps Tina and I will go for a walk in her garden, and she will show me her hothouse. Sweat will trickle down my neck. I will loosen my blouse. She will feed me a petal of the black lotus.
At last the fugue will end. We shall drive through villages with names like Hurtmore and Noning and Tina will say, "do you want a drink?" and I will suddenly wake up.
Perhaps by then we will be home. Perhaps Tina will take me home with her and put me to bed.
But if she does, it will not mean anything. Tina is nothing more to me now than a concerned friend. I do not suppose we shall ever be as close as we once were. Rudy's death has destroyed all chance of it. I wish I did not hate Rudy so much, but how can I help it? I resent his death, but, worse, I resent his life. The night Tina fed me her lotus I fell in love with her. Simply by living, Rudy blighted that love: whenever I thought of him, what she and I did seemed somehow monstrous.
I must not think of this today. Today is Rudy's day.
The lotus is past, present and future. The door will open and the door will close and the door will open again. Tina's kiss can wait today. Tina's lotus will not arrive today. This is Rudy's day--
"Where do you want to go?" he says.
I laugh -- already I am nervous. "Well," I say, wanting him, "where is there?"
© Simon Ings 1993, 1998
This story first appeared in 1993, in Omni Best Science Fiction 3, edited by Ellen Datlow. This is its first appearance outside that anthology.
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