"Oh thank goodness. I thought you were following me!" earring girl said with a sigh of relief, in a broad South Wales accent. Then she frowned at me through the crack afforded by the chain that was holding J's door half open. "Wait a minute. Maybe you are following me. Who are you anyway?"
"Never mind that," I said, "who are you? And what are you doing in my boyfriend's flat?"
"That's what I been trying to tell you. He doesn't live here anymore. This flat became available a couple of days ago. I been on the list ages, see? I came down and saw it yesterday and took it straight away. Well, you know how hard it is to find a good cheap one bedroom flat-"
"Please," I interrupted quietly, insistently, "let me in. I just need to see." She looked for a moment into my red rimmed eyes, then looked down, nodding. She pushed the door to and I heard the chain rattling as she unfastened it. The door swung open and she stepped aside to allow me through.
J had been a bit of a hoarder. The flat had been cluttered, bordering on the messy; piles of books, magazines, newspaper supplements, comic books, DVDs, CDs and LPs, clothes and shoes scattered about and of course, stacks of boxes of the ubiquitous mosque clocks which he sold from his website. I once complained that sleeping with him was an occupational hazard, prone as we were to being crushed under the piles of media and stock looming over us that might become dislodged by our urgent fucking. He'd laughed his small laugh then and said he'd sign any release or waiver that I'd put in front of him.
I was shocked at how empty the flat felt now in comparison. All the junk that marked J's existence had been spirited away, leaving only the drab yellow and green curtains, the three-seater sofa with the frayed cushions and the collapsed springs on one side, a dying spider plant that no one clearly had felt solicitous enough to remove or revive. The shelves, once groaning with information and stuff, were bare.
I stood in the middle of the empty room and started to cry.
"Here you are," said earring girl, whose name was Amy, handing me a polystyrene cup of black coffee with a gentle hand on my shoulder.
I nodded my thanks and took a sip through the hole in the lid. I was sat at the good end of J's sofa in the empty room. Amy had kindly gone out to the cafe opposite and got me a coffee when I'd broken down. She leant on the window sill and quietly watched me drink, her face in shadow. She was looking me up and down. I knew that look. Trying to work out what exactly I was. She still had her coat on.
After while, she gently said, "so he never told you anything about moving on?"
I shook my head, taking another sip.
She tutted. "I'm so sorry. According to the Trust who manage this property, he paid up the balance of two months' rent last week and had people in to clean up and move stuff out the day before yesterday. It was all very sudden apparently."
I sat quietly, not knowing what to say. I put the coffee down on the bare boards and looked at my hands. Outside, two police cars sped past, sirens blaring, casting a rippling blue light into the bare room where we sat quietly.
I took a breath and got up, picking up my coffee and shouldering my bag. "Thank you, and sorry for disturbing you like this so early." She smiled wanly and shrugged, as if to say it's OK.
I walked to the door with a briskness I didn't feel inside and turned. "Oh. I don't suppose he left a forwarding address or anything?"
She shook her head. "The people at the Peabody Trust might be able to help you though. Do you want me to get the number for you? They're ever so helpful." I nodded my thanks and she went into the kitchen. I heard her rummaging in her bag.
Another police car approached, siren wailing, and stopped momentarily outside, perhaps obstructed by traffic. Shimmering blue light once again suffused the room. I closed my eyes and yawned. I was so tired that I felt I could lie down and sleep forever, right here in J's... no... in Amy's front room.
The blue light flicked across my closed eyelids as the siren momentarily cut out then restarted.
Suddenly something registered with me. I opened my eyes, straining to catch sight again of something I'd glimpsed in the rippling blue before the great weariness had closed my eyes. The light faded as the police car sped away but I'd already spied the small, bright spot of colour.
I walked quickly to the crack in the wall by the badly sprung end of the sofa and scrabbled to reach the small, bright pink object nestled inside.
It was a folded up piece of card. The lurid pink cover of a matchbook from the club where Mocha and I worked, and where J and I had first met. I unfolded it with shaking hands.
On the reverse of the blue on pink print of a pair of fishnet clad legs that was the club's logo was a sequence of numbers scrawled in scratchy blue ballpoint, followed by a single letter:
The spidery writing was unmistakably his.
And the message was, to me at least, unmistakable too: One minute before midnight, tonight, the 15th of September. J.
My heart was thudding with excitement and pent up joy. I had to go. Try and rest and get myself ready and beautiful for him.
Amy emerged from the kitchenette shaking her head. "I'm really sorry, I thought I had the Peabody Trust card with me. You'll be able to find the details on the web tho-"
I was already making for the door. "Never mind," I said quickly, "and thanks for your help." I gave the surprised Amy an abrupt hug and left the flat, hurrying out into the bright and sunny morning that suddenly seemed a whole lot brighter and sunnier than it had been ten minutes earlier.
Big knickers are the key.
I have several pairs from M&S with a reinforced girdly panel at the front that are excellent at both holding your tummy in check and making sure that your willy and balls stay tucked away for that all important "flat front bottom" effect. Honestly, a 500 pound mountain gorilla couldn't break through these superpants. Unless I let him...
I squeezed myself into a pair of powdery blue high-waisted skinny stretch jeans and checked my front in the mirror. Not a bulge in sight. The final touch was a pair of electric blue kitten heeled pumps. With my side flipped blonde hair and off the shoulder batwingy top, I was 80s electro trash incarnate.
It all starts with the big knickers though. Without them everything else would fall apart. And that just wouldn't do. Not on a night like this. Everything was precariously poised as it was.
I checked myself in the mirror, made sure I had all I needed in my turquoise bag and left the flat. In the warm evening outside, Mocha was waiting for me in a minicab that would take us to the club where, later on my most fervent hope, the one I'd been guarding jealously against the odds these last five weeks, would surely some to pass.
The club was heavy with people, sweat and desire, and by 11pm I was getting thoroughly sick of the constant groping and leering but I put a brave face on things and let the action wash over me.
I nursed the drinks that were bought for me and watched Mocha, dressed like my photographic, pornographic negative, deteriorate in her all too predictable fashion. Mel wandered by occasionally, tutting and rolling her eyes as she took in Mocha's condition. I popped upstairs a couple of times to have a smoke and a flirt with big Pierre, the jovial Senegalese security man. Meanwhile the music pounded on and I was dragged now and then by faceless suitors of all gender configurations to grind and gyrate on the dancefloor.
But of course my mind was elsewhere, away from the pulse of lights and the thudding of the beat. Every now and then, I retrieved the precious matchbook cover from my purse and looked at the scrawl on the reverse. It had to be a message from him, somehow; perhaps left at the flat while the removers were in. I was dying to know what had been going on. I wondered why I wasn't angry at him, but really the possibility of seeing him again filled me with such relief and happiness that angry thoughts didn't even begin to contemplate crossing my mind. I guess there would be time for that later. After all the fucking and talking and everything...
Of course it was possible I'd completely misread that clue on the matchbook cover, but if J didn't show up tonight, there was always the Peabody Trust, not to mention the police to contact on Monday. After all, someone had made arrangements to have his stuff moved out. That was a lead, surely.
But first things first... I glanced anxiously at my phone. 11.35pm. Almost time. I brushed off the pawing attentions of an admirer with a flash of a smile and swayed to the ladies' to tidy myself up.
Three hours later, I think I'd finally given up hope. I no longer looked hopefully towards the stairs to the street every time the shadow of a figure appeared at the doorway. I no longer bothered to sneak upstairs for a cigarette to scan the road anxiously for his approaching car, or the familiar long-haired figure sauntering up the road from Aldgate. No more. I was sitting at the bar finishing a dark rum and coke as the dregs of the night were kicking out. Usually they'd have a bit of a lock-in after all the punters had left and sometimes Mocha and I would stay for a few whiskys, but I really didn't feel like it. I'd finish this drink and make a move. Mocha was slumped on the bar next to me, her elegant arms cradling her head in a puddle of something alcoholic.
Unsteadily, I rose, tipping back my head to drain my drink, crunching ice in my mouth. So that was that then. Mocha stirred, glancing up at me through slitted eyes. Whether in sympathy or through some other fuddled impulse, she made a cartoon sorry face at me, lips downturned, and patted me on the arm with her booze-damp hand before slumping back onto the bar. She started snoring, gently.
I shook my head in wonder at the imperviousness of the species known as trannyus alcoholicus and wondered what it would be like to truly be able to lose myself like that. Mocha seemed to have a decidedly good time whatever she was doing. Me, I never seemed to be able to abandon myself like her; doubts, thoughts and ugly self-consciousness always got in the way. I looked down at her beautiful insensible face on the counter top. A small bubble of dribble was pooling at the corner of her mouth but somehow she still looked fabulous. I loved and admired Mocha still, I realised, despite her many flaws, her unstable temper, her boozing, her unpredictability. No, actually because of those flaws. Because despite her foibles, she was fiercely loyal, a true friend who'd stand by me till the end. It was like finding a diamond in the sewer. She was special. I slipped to the cloakroom and fetched her fake fur jacket and draped it over her slim shoulders, kissing her gently on the forehead. She muttered and stirred in her doze. I'd go to the ladies to freshen up then come back to take her home.
I emerged from the cubicle and looked at myself in the mirror as I washed my hands. In the flickering fluorescent lights that they never seemed to bother to replace, I looked quite ghastly. My jeans had slipped down off my hips and everything looked a little bit messy down there. No need to let standards slip. I made sure no punter was about to barge in and unzipped the jeans and rearranged my willy, tucking my balls back up inside me and pulling my big, tight knickers up to smooth everything out. Rezipping the jeans, I had another look.
Much better. I quickly began touching up my makeup, repairing my sweaty face with practised skill.
Outside, the music seemed to have stopped, and thankfully, the fluorescent light seemed to have recovered, no longer flickering spastically.
In fact, everything seemed to have stopped...
The club was silent. The extractor fan in the ladies where I was touching up my face no longer whined its whine. Even the distant rumble of traffic, the noises of the city slipping into the deepest cycle of its slumber as the clocks approached 3am, had dwindled to nothing. I was surrounded by an utter, subterranean hush.
I began to feel a sensation in my stomach that I remembered from the attacks of sleep paralysis I'd suffered of late. I screwed the top back onto my lipgloss and put it carefully away. In front of my incredulous eyes, I could see a small fly, suspended in mid air. Almost imperceptibly, the fluorescents above me and the pearlescent tungsten globes around the washroom mirrors began to dim. It wasn't like they were being somehow dimmed electrically. It was like a series of increasingly opaque filters were being slid slowly into position over my mental viewport into the world of people. The light in the washroom changed state, becoming thick, green and viscous like oil. A heavy dead weight began to overtake my limbs as the familiar dread began to press in on my head.
Something thumped softly in one of the cubicles behind me, and the soft noise was accompanied by the emission of four rapid, soundless flashes of blue light from behind the closed door of a cubicle like a row of old-fashioned flashbulbs going off. My muscles had died. All I could do was stand there and look into the mirror. The thumping sounded again and the blue light flashed repeatedly again, this time staying illuminated, a shimmering blue ripple that I remembered so well, The blue light began to pierce the wooden door behind me, spilling out across the ceiling and floor like a gravity-defying pool of mercury, inching towards me.
I was still mired in the green murk but the blue shimmer began to push through the oily green darkness. I remember thinking, this is how it sees. As I watched, the cubicle door behind me began to warp and flutter like the surface of a still pond under a light breeze as something started to push its way through, transforming the brittle wood into a substance akin to toffee as it did so.
The warped wooden surface began to resolve into a humanoid shape. A tallish, skinny male frame, naked, with big eyes, crooked nose and long hair. I couldn't believe my eyes. J was pushing himself through the toilet door towards me, in a halo of blueish, rippling light that seemed to frame him from behind. His arms were outstretched and his mouth open in a silent shout.
With a judder, he managed to push completely through and the blue light gathered around him, forming fine tendrils. Something was trying to follow him through the door. J was shouting noiselessly at me, while holding back the bulk of the creature behind him, back braced against the increasingly liquid doorway. He fixed me with a look from his eyes and inclined his head upwards urgently. Get upstairs, he seemed to be saying.
He concentrated again and began to push back through the door. The glow began to fade as J began to press the entity back where it was coming from. He started to disappear back through the door. Once again he made desperate eye contact. GET! UPSTAIRS!!!
With a wobble like a piece of sheet metal being shaken, the door reformed fully. J was gone. the blue light slowly faded and I began to be able to move through the green gloom that still surrounded me. My first impulse was to go to the cubicle, to try and retrieve J but then I remembered the pleading look in his eye and I turned on my heel and left the ladies' room.
Outside, an eerie hush still reigned. Figures were frozen where they stood. The bar staff cashing up, notes crisp and still in their immobile hands. Mel was caught in the act of sweeping up. Pierre's big frame was frozen half way down the stairs, his braided locks suspended in mid bounce, making towards a couple of guests in the corner who were obviously outstaying their welcome. Mocha was the only one who looked the same, slumped serenely at the bar.
I sidled quietly past the frozen tableau of the dregs of the night and made for the stairs, scrabbling for a cigarette.
Outside, the air was dead and still. The silence was utter. The same, eerie green fog seemed to be settling low on the streets of London. Cars were stopped in mid turn, a few stragglers frozen making their way to night bus stops. The orange streetlamps struggled to be seen through the murk. Nothing was moving. Time had stopped. Not a breath of air on my skin, not a flicker from the fluorescent lights, the neon, the streetlights, no honking of car horns or the subterranean rumble of tube trains returning beneath us to depot, no birdsong. None of the quiet signs of a living world.
Being an art student who pays attention in lectures, I had the sensation of having fallen into a photograph by Gregory Crewdson.
It's like this: it felt like my world was being eclipsed or perhaps, overlaid by another world, visually identical to ours but devoid of the joys and the pains of existence. Not dead, neither alive.
How dull would that be? I had to stop it. But how? I lit a cigarette with a shaky hand. At least my lighter afforded some welcome light and animation to my local environment. I waved the lighter around, trying to banish the green shadow that enveloped me, but it just closed in again when I turned it off.
I was cold. The green murk was cold. I ignited my lighter again and gathered some flyers that had fallen to the ground by the doorway. I started scrunching them up to make a fire. Perhaps I could keep the other world at bay for a while using a small bonfire made from the rubbish of my world.
The flyers went up easily but wouldn't stay alight. As soon as I removed my attention from lighting them, the green dusk would close in and the flame would gutter and die. Perhaps if I got some vodka from the bar to act as an accelerant.
I stepped into the club's stairwell and recoiled in shock. The greenish dark was now so thick in there that I could hardly see two feet in front of myself.
I instinctively felt that if I went down there again, I would never come back. I stepped back out into the relative relief of the street. I lit my lighter again. The flame seemed to struggle to stay alight now. I watched it chase itself back down into the gas nozzle. It sputtered and died. I flicked the mechanism again. The flint sparked fitfully in the gathering gloom but no flame came. Soon, all I could see was the burning coals at the end of my cigarette as I slowly smoked it down. I sat down on the street. It was over.
I felt hollow. I should be wondering whether I'd somehow fallen asleep and was dreaming. Or I'd had a brain haemorrhage and was lying unconscious in the toilet. Or that I'd been hit by a car and was dying in the street. But I didn't ask myself those questions. This was happening. There was no logic to any of this. That's why it had to be happening. Because the universe was a massive and senseless place where anything might happen. There was no meaning. No truth. Just observation and interpretation.
And when we stop observing and interpreting, and something of an entirely different order of intelligence starts to observe and interpret the material universe, the laws of physics might cease to be, or be changed irrevocably.
"Boltzmann brains," said a quiet voice behind me. I became aware that the familiar blue light was shimmering onto me from behind. I didn't dare turn my head, but could hear footsteps approaching. The blue light helped me to see. It pushed away the confines of the green darkness as it rippled to envelop me. I began to see my feet, then the kerb on which I sat, the double yellow lines on the tarmac, the other side of the street. How it sees. Well, it was now how I saw.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and J came to sit next to me. "What you're thinking of is an esoteric cosmological conundrum called the Boltzmann brain paradox." His voice sounded simultaneously like it was very close and a very long way away.
I looked at him. He was the source of the blue light. His skin was glowing, his eyes pale and luminous. Even his hair was fluorescing and sparking, rippling like the fur of the ball-headed creature I'd been visited by. He put his arms around me, surrounded me with his glow.
"I missed you so much," he whispered quietly into my ear, "I'm so sorry. Do you forgive me?"
I kissed him on the mouth, closing my eyes to stop the tears from coming too fast. "Stupid," I said. "Course I do."
As we kissed, the world slipped gradually back into focus. I felt the whisper of a breeze on my cheek and heard the wail of a police siren in the distance. Music started to drift up from the club's stairwell. I heard drunken shouting from a few blocks away.
I wanted to look, but we just carried on kissing anyway.
After a while he broke off. I opened my eyes. His big brown eyes were staring sadly into mine. His black hair ruffled by the warm breeze. "We have to stop them coming through for good," he said, taking my hand.
I held him back, with a sly smile on my face. "Maybe they can wait a few minutes," I said softly, getting up and pulling him into the alley by the side of the club. He smiled too as I pushed him against the brick wall and started to undo his trousers.
We left London behind in the orange lit hours before dawn, driving West past dormitory suburbs and into open country as the sun began to take over the duty of illuminating the fragile world of men and women.
We didn't talk much. There was little to say. He was a good driver and I just watched him drive on, one arm on the window sill, one relaxed on the wheel. Now and then he'd glance over with a faint smile and I felt fulfilled. It was a beautiful day.
Somewhere in Wiltshire, we left the motorway and main roads behind, heading deeper into a countryside of rolling fields, with corn yellowing under the blue sky. I was starting to doze off, when I noticed a great chalk horse inscribed on a hill in the distance. I pointed it out to J who nodded.
By degrees, sleep began to overwhelm me as we wound along country lanes. J knew where to go. I slept a dreamless sleep.
I was jolted awake by J taking a corner too fast. He was driving fast along a winding back-road next to a cornfield. There seemed to be no sign of habitation for miles.
He glanced in my direction, smiling.
Then, a dark shape detached itself from a hedge ahead of the car and scuttled onto the road. J spun the wheel and the car swerved.
The car turned over, punching its way through the verge, a hedge and into the field beyond. A group of crows clapped into the air in fright.
The car had come to a halt about twenty yards into the field. It was still on its roof.
I couldn't move. My hands seemed to be trapped and I couldn't reach to undo my seat belt. I became aware of a strong smell of petrol all around me. The blood had run to my head, upside down as I was, and I began to feel sick.
J stirred next to me. I tried to look over but I found it painful to move my head. Something wet and warm was dripping onto my chin from above.
I heard him scrabbling in the glove compartment for something, then I heard him undo his seatbelt.
He dropped onto the floor. I mean the roof. You know what I mean. I heard him crawling out of the open window.
After a while he came round to my side of the car. After a struggle, he managed to open my door. He seemed completely unhurt. I smiled. Thank God.
I was starting to hurt quite a lot now and I realised that I probably hadn't come out of the accident quite as well as J.
"I think one of your legs might be broken," he said quietly. "There's quite a lot of blood."
There was a slight pause. "Oh god."
He'd gone quite white.
"What's the matter?" I asked light-headedly. But it just came out like a gurgle.
And then I died.
to be concluded...
The novella, 'Transformer' is part of the Transformer series, a loose cycle of semi-autobiographical, semi-connected short stories.
'Transformer' was incomplete in the previous version of my site, with only the first two instalments of the novella completed. Having finished all five parts of the story now, I'm very happy to be able to publish it in its entirety. Enjoy.
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