They say that you’re at least partly a product of your environment. Walthamstow, which marks the transition from East London into Essex, is the place I was born, spent a huge chunk of my most formative years, and made a home with TLC until we moved west in 2004. It’s a place that still fills me with mixed feelings, nostalgia mixed in with a sadness that the place has never really lived up to it’s potential. For a while, it was also the setting for some of my short stories. And Then I Woke Up is a Walthamstow tale, and so is the one below. They’re both pretty unpleasant. I’m not sure you can read anything into that.
The story I’m about to tell you features two of the ‘Stow’s most recognisable features – The High Street, one of the longest in Europe, and the old, grade 2 listed cinema. It’s now referred to as the EMD, but when I went it was called the ABC, and when my mum and dad used to go, it was the Granada. It’s been a fixture of the cultural life of my family for at least two generations then. The way it’s been treated over the past few years simply breaks my heart.
Now, please to enjoy your Tale For Monday: a nasty little vignette that I call
SINGLES NIGHT AT THE ENGRAMART
(Advisory. I wrote this. There are swears and gore.)
It was Thursday night, and Shel was feeling a little disconnected from his surroundings. No, more than that. Shel thought that he was peeling off from the surface of the world like an old scab. Soon he would come free and drift away, chaff in the breeze.
He knuckled his sore pink eyes with balled fists, then tried to refocus on the v-feed. Not good. The display was a Jackson Pollock of frozen colour. He gave the keyboard one final tentative poke, then reached out one skinny raw-knuckled hand and shut the box down.
The screen de—laminated to mirror-finish, and Shel was faced with himself. This was an unpleasant prospect at the best of times, and he had been working for forty-six hours flat out, only to be landed with a network backflash just before a registered save point. At least half of the thought, effort and invention tied up in that extended work period had just wrapped itself in a very long and utterly undecryptable prime number, twisted into a Moebius knot and disappeared up its own principal assumptions. Shel’s jowly, overboned face loomed in the perfect mirror of his completely useless display, a landscape of disappointment and exhaustion. It was Thursday night, and Shel was beginning to realise that he was wasting his life.
“Time for a break”, he told himself. “Fresh air. A change of scene. Stretch my legs.” As he spoke, he realised that he didn’t even sound convincing to himself. Still, he knew he had to get out. He couldn’t stand looking at that face for much longer. “I’ll go shopping,” he said, trying to jolly himself along. “Shopping. Yes. Thursday special at the Emgramart. I need a few things.”
Like a life, Shel thought. Like a fucking clue.
Cyan stood up slowly, and let the bloodied knife slip from her fingers. Chen stared back at her, lips grey, eyes wide and unseeing. Even in death, he looked beautiful. The vicious wounds in his neck and chest reminded Cyan of the tribulations of a saint. Only Chen could have exalted something as mundane and ugly as murder into something akin to a holy experience. “He would have enjoyed this”, she thought, as she reached down to touch his cooling cheek.
Cyan gingerly picked up the knife again by the point of the blade. Chen’s shiv. It gleamed blackly at her, the blood on the vicious serrations slowly darkening. A ceramic blade with a fractal edge. The centrepiece of Chen’s collection.
He used to delight in taking it out of the horribly expensive mylar and velvet case he had bought for it to live in, and let light smear down the blade, and tell her all the interesting things he was going to do to her with it once she had become boring. Often, towards the end, he would share this information with her during sex. Eventually, the shiv would come to bed with them, a bit of fun, just nicks really, on himself as well as her, just to show her how sharp the edge was. Just to dirty the bedclothes a little. Just to show her how little it would hurt when he finally butchered her. He used to call it “bloodplay”.
In the end, when things got really playful, Cyan simply had no choice but to show Chen how well she understood the game. Chen had been right about one thing, though. He hadn’t really felt a thing when the blade slid into him.
She rinsed the knife in the sink, and dangled it contemplatively for a moment over the waste disposal unit. Then, very gently, very carefully, she wiped it dry and replaced it in its horribly expensive case. She pulled her old ripstop daysack from the wardrobe and stashed the knife at the bottom.
Hastily covering it with the crumpled remnants of her clothing collection, Cyan mused that it seemed a pity to waste nearly two grand’s worth of fine Kyoto fractal ceramic when she could still have a use for it. Besides, it would be nice to keep something of Chen with her. He was a sadistic little shit, but at least he’d cared about how she felt. As long as she was miserable, he was happy.
She could feel the numbness creeping in as she closed the door of the apartment. Things were going grey around the edges. For one awful moment, she couldn’t feel the tips of her fingers. She leant back against the door, closing her eyes. The colourless swirling behind her eyelids only made her queasy, so she opened them again.
She cursed in a sibilant whisper. Chen had always said that murder would be easy, and whaddya know, he was right. It was all the other shit that Cyan couldn’t process. If this was guilt, then she didn’t like it, and she wanted it out of her head. She had neither the time nor the patience for remorse. “Emgramart”, she said to the door. “Clear my head. Get centred.”
No-one spoke in proper sentences anymore. In a soundbite world, there wasn’t any point.
For one shining moment, maybe twenty years ago, the eastern edge of Zone 3 had been where it, whatever it was, was at. The stylemongers and netzines made their muezzin call and the smart money flooded through like pilgrims come to prayer. Through, of course, being the operative word. Trends were being chased that required a quest that pushed ever outwards, always eastwards. The search would never end. In a way, the hunt was the point.
For eastern Zone 3, seduced and abandoned by impatient fashion, the benefits had been few. OK, it was easier to buy antique Malay wall hangings these days. The cafes were smarter, and their net hookups one hell of a lot faster. But the money breezed through so fast as to have little impact on the guts of the zone. Rubbish collection was still slow to backwards. There were still more Kazakhstani supermarkets with empty shelves than actual proper shops.
And The High Street, winding through the zone like slow poison through a junk-crusted vein, that Road to Nowhere, that string of cankers that refuses to heal, that Methanol Alley, that vicious knife wound in the throat of the community, well, the smart money did nothing about scorch-bombing that trail of tears off the map.
Furthermore, Shel mused as he plodded along, kicking rotten fruit out of the way, why is it that I have to take my life in my raw-boned hands and trip merrily down the entire length of The High Street every time I need a jolt at the Emgramart?
“There’s got to be a better way”, he muttered to himself, as if subvocalising was going to make a taxi, and the money to pay for it, magically appear.
Shel kept his head down and his pace even. Dusk was distorting the sky, and the weapons-grade advertising protocols were coming on line. Pause too long, or even let your gaze rest on a hoarding for more than a couple of seconds, and they would deploy ad chaff. Swarms of stutterbugs, nano-sized smart projectors would surround you and tight-beam commercial input directly at your retinas. Shel had seen the unwary caught out too many times, running down The Street, screaming as they beat ineffectually at the cloud of glittering motes around their heads. Death by advertising was a horrible way to go.
Grimacing at the thought, Shel dug in a pocket and pulled out a pair of grimy headphones. Cramming the jacks into his ears as far as they would go, and plugging the connector into a port on his collar, he told his jacket to ramp up some hardline Sheffield techno. Modem noise filled his head. Shel had always liked classical music.
There was a queue at the Emgramart. Of course there was a queue at the Emgramart. There was always a fucking queue at the Emgramart. Thursday nights, Cyan remembered with a twist of annoyance, were always the worst. The line straggled round the block and back to The High Street.
A red mist rose behind her eyes. For a moment, Cyan considered the positive and negative aspects of pulling Chen’s shiv out of her daysack and simply slashing her way to the front of the queue. Then the mist faded, and she meekly took her place at the end of the line. This time, she promised herself, she was really going to have to do something about that temper. If she wasn’t careful, someone was going to get hurt. Someone else, she corrected herself, was going to get hurt.
And of course, for all her worrying, the queue was soon motoring along. Almost before she realised it, Cyan was inside, standing on the vast sweep of rococo staircase leading up to the ticket desk. The Emgramart was built in the shell of a 1930s cinema, a building that had seen itself dressed up as a bingo hall, a Bollywood theatre and for a single bright moment in the narco-tolerant Ought-Forties, an opium stadium. Now, of course, drugs were out. Too slow, too obviously chemical. There were other, more subtle mood enhancements to exploit.
There was a hushed silence in the Emgramart, an almost church-like stillness. The entrance hall (Chen had always pronounced it with the stress on the second syllable, which summed up the mood of quiet euphoria nicely) was freshly painted in glowing reds and golds, the high-domed ceiling adding a nicely sepulchral echo to the proceedings. The air was perfumed, something subtle, bergamot. Cyan felt as if she should be wearing harem pants and a veil.
“Welcome to the Emgramart.” Something in the scented air had evaporated the queue and wafted Cyan up the Hollywood sweep of stairs to the ticket booth. How long had she been waiting? Ages. No time at all. Was there something in the air apart from perfume? She felt woozy and focussed all at the same time. She tried a smile on for the girl behind the glass, but she wasn’t sure it fitted.
“Thursday night is Singles Night here at the Emgramart”, the girl said. She was very tall, pale to the point of albino. Her hair was a twist of chrome on the nape of her neck. Her eyes were the harsh green of a readout. “Buy two, get one free, and you get a piece of live interaction with a member of the opposite sex.”
“I’m gay”, Cyan said flatly.
The girl looked at her evenly. “Don’t be so elitist”, she said. “Monosexuality is so last century. Live a little.”
Cyan grimaced. “I don’t do conversation.”
“Then we’re not having this discussion, and you’re not whining at me. Now, three for two, and all you have to do is sit and chat to some Y-chromosome for five minutes of your valuable time while the Mixmaster preps your dose. What could be easier?”
“Rectal surgery. Alright!” Cyan yelped as the girl turned to the twitching drag queen in the queue behind her. “You win. OK. Three for two. Good deal. I’ll take it.”
“Thought you might.” The girl flexed one hand, a typist’s modification, seven fingers, over her rattleboard, and flexed. Her eyes flared a harsher green for a moment as she ducked insystem. “Thumb on the plate,” she said, her voice wistful and far away.
Cyan pressed her right thumb, the one with the graft Chen had arranged, onto the bronzed indentation in the front of the booth. The girl smiled as stolen credit ratings flooded her field of vision. “That’s fine, Mr. Onodabwe,” she trilled. “What do you need?”
“I need perspective,” Cyan said. “I don’t have any drive or motivation. I’m running low on self-esteem, and I’m real short on patience.”
The typist’s hand spidered over the board. “Confidence and empathy should sort all that. You’ve got one left.”
Cyan paused. She wasn’t expecting the long, painful multi-lane pile-up of her life to be solved quite so simply. At the very least, she had been steeling herself for an overage. One left? What the hell was she supposed to do with a spare emotional upgrade?
“Want to think about it?” The typist smiled beatifically at her, her eyes flickering, acid-sour green. “Give it some pause while you make a connection with that special someone? It’ll take a while to process the resequencing.”
“Sure”, Cyan shrugged. “Why not?”
Ping. A bronze slot next to the thumb-pad spat out a pink tongue. A good old-fashioned cinema ticket stub. “You’re on the balcony. Validate the ticket when your seat tells you. Your dream date is sat to your left. Have a rich and fulfilled life. Next.” The girl’s face closed up like a slammed door, and all her attention was on Jittery Judy Garland in the queue behind Cyan. The consultation was over.
The auditorium was cool and dim. The domed ceiling of the ticket hall was taken up and expanded upon here, a vast filigreed red-golden bowl, echoing with sussurant whispers. A smoky haze drifted at the apex, colourless, shot through with silver, twisting as if dancing with itself. She could barely see it, but Cyan was sure that it was reacting to changes in volume, the occasional flicker of light as someone sparked up, treating it all as music it could use to carve out it’s lazy tarantella.
Dominating it all, the screen, somehow deeper and wider that the curved wall it occupied, giving off smoke-curls of golden light that matched the moves of the hazy dancer up in the dome. The scent of bergamot she had noticed in the ticket hall was thicker here. She could taste it in her throat, floral, narcotic. Her seat was right at the front of the balcony.
Cyan stepped carefully down the aisle, and peered over the edge. A vertiginous plunge down to the gallery floor reared back at her. The balcony was perched perhaps thirty feet above the thick curve of poured concrete. This pit was where the Mixmasters worked. The seats of the stalls had been torn out to accommodate their machinery, throbbing in the darkness. Green telltales and readouts shimmered and blinked as hooded figures worked in a lazy dance that had Cyan looking up at the ceiling again. They’re tending giant cats, she thought. Listen to them purr.
There was only one other person in the front row. Slumped in his chair, he was too tall and too angular for the space he had shoehorned himself into. He glanced up disinterestedly as Cyan gingerly squeezed herself beside him.
“I thought they were joking about this singles night shit”, he grumbled. His voice came from way back in his throat. There was phlegm and disdain in it. “I hope you don’t think this constitutes a date or anything.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it”, Cyan muttered. She gazed up at the screen, tapping her ticket pensively against her teeth. “Although,” she continued after a moment’s consideration, “a little conversation might speed up the waiting process.”
“I don’t do conversation.” Cyan snorted out something that might have been a laugh. “Good point”, she said. “Me neither. Let’s just call it interaction then. Think of it like being in a chat room.”
He turned, and looked at her properly for the first time. “OK”, he said after a long, thoughtful pause. “Why not. Worth a try. You go first.”
“I knew you were going to do that”, Cyan thought. OK. Deep breath. It’s easy. You used to do this at school. Start small. Something simple.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh. Nice. I’m Cyan.”
“Right. Like the colour?”
Silence fell thickly between them. Shel twisted uncomfortably in his chair. He wrung his big, raw-boned hands together as if he was squeezing water out of them. Like the colour. Oh, very suave. His turn. She was looking expectantly at him. So, no pressure then.
“What are you in for?”
She let a smile go, just a small one. “The usual. Anger management, mostly. Sorting out my relationship issues.”
She looked at Shel steadily, didn’t let the faint smile slip, but she was suddenly aware of the potential, of the chance of a moment. Suddenly, telling the truth seemed to make an awful lot of sense.
“Like not killing anyone else today.”
Shel didn’t pause, didn’t even blink. “Is that some kind of threat?” With a smile on his face. This didn’t bother him at all.
“No, I mean it. My …ex-boyfriend is lying up in my flat right now. In pieces. It was him or me.”
“And I suppose the murder weapon’s in that funny little bag of yours?” Good grief, he wasn’t about to let this go, was he? Cyan swallowed back a sour bubble of anger. What did this funny-looking guy with the hands too big for his arms think he was doing?
“Actually, yes. Here. Check it out.” She rummaged in her daysack, throwing out airy curls of silk and chiffon. There, at the bottom, the sleek black seamless ovoid. She flourished it triumphantly.
“The Series 7 Chiguci! Can I see?” Shel was gone, replaced by a twelve-year-old lookalike. Cyan passed the case over. He did the same thing with his fingers that she had never been able to copy from Chen, that rippling clench, and the case popped open with a pornographic sigh. Light slid up the blade like silk.
“It’s beautiful.” Shel looked close to tears.
“I killed a man with it today.” Did she have to keep telling him? What would it take to get the simple fact that she was a murderer into his head?
“I don’t doubt it. You don’t have a shiv like this and not intend to use it. This is the fractal blade, isn’t it?”
Cyan nodded. She could almost see Chen now, sweeping the knife through the dusty air of the flat, chopping photons in half. “Fractal blade,” he’d say. “Each serration is serrated. Each one of those is serrated, too. Down and down, tooth on tooth, each one extending the length of the edge.”
“They call the series 7 “The Infinite Blade”, but it’s not really. Tests have measured it at around a mile long. Not bad for something you can keep in a shoulder rig.”
Cyan realised that now it was Shel speaking, not Chen. The love of the blade was there in his voice, but somehow… Somehow there was no malice. No scorn. He turned to look at her, and his eyes were filled with the light coming off the shiv. “I envy you”, he said. “I’d never have the nerve to use this.”
Cyan matched his gaze, kept her voice low and even. “It was him or me”, she said. “I didn’t enjoy it.”
“Really? Not at all?” The smile in his eyes showed some teeth. Cyan ducked her head, just for a moment, then brought the full sharpness of her violet eyes to bear. “It was the most positive thing I’ve ever done.”
Without taking his eyes from her, Shel closed the case, and gently placed it back in her hands. “Let’s get out of here”, he said. “Let’s do something real for a change. Let’s have some fun.”
There were two empty seats on the front row stalls of the Emgramart when Sash finally made it through the Friday morning crush. She picked up the pair of tickets that had been left there. They had phased from pink to blue. Ready to go.
“Someone left their reseeq behind”, she shrugged, and pocketed them. She’d swallow them later. No point in wasting good emgrammatic resequencing.
It was Friday morning. There was blood on a blade, and love in the filthy air.
© Rob Wickings 2011