Once I cast the squashed shoe shit to one side and pull myself up three flights of stairs, I know this is paradise. Gregg knew this was paradise. A few newspapers line my room, what for, I don’t know; it’s not as if I read them, or even want to. There is only the rank-stench-stain of ink, which blots the air like an air freshener. I own a gun too. Occasionally, I stare out past the confines of my room and the rudimentary grass, only to find windows of windows of glass, staring back at me. The reflection hurts the most. I am in it, but alas, I make up a very small fraction of the picture. This short hair and stubble is overshadowed by cotton clipped clouds, along with tarmac and follicles of steam from Def-Com 5. Beyond that (or indeed within that) is a small screen of highways, cropping up like garden snakes in the distance. In the far right corner of the mirrored image is a group of children playing by the docks; cat nip lips, bad haircuts, their sister’s clothes – that’s them sorted. I don’t really like children. Then again, it’s only a reflection – nothing to be afraid of, I don’t think.
I have a shave occasionally to mix things up a bit (Oh yes, it is sheer excitement in my house). I clean the spit off and stretch the sacks under my eyes before I start; I don’t want to bleed to death. Picking up the razor, I gradually pull across my neck and my cheeks and whatever else needs a trimming. The whistle wind comes through my window and usually gives me a chill. I ignore it and continue ever so softly. Eventually the whiskers collect and sit like roadkill in the drain. I scrape it off and listen to the wasp nest outside my window.
The most terrifying prospect of this process is the physical journey, which amounts to zilch. I often wonder what I’m actually doing most of the time. I look at my gun and wonder. It’s all a blur, like when you walk home wangered: The breeze blows through your eclipsed ribs and leaves you breathless and unfeeling; the lights burn your brow but ultimately the booze is to blame – twisted breath broken in pieces, swearing and the kebab compulsion. Don’t eat kebabs by the way. You might die. I did and have many times over, until the grave was anything but unwelcoming. My colleagues say that I’m melodramatic, but at heart I am realistic and cold as I stare in to the mirror unshaven. I can peel off that grey facade like a concert poster because the concert is over. It never began, I don’t think. Maybe those kids on the dock know; Maybe that’s why they’re so carefree. Either that, or they’re just stupid.
Beyond the view, beyond everything awkward and untouched, I personally prefer to be untouchable. Physically and mentally. To touch as far as I’m concerned, is to be in contact and to be in contact is to be rejected. I’m not bothered by it, nor am I thrilled. It is a matter of living and conscious separation. There was a time when I could link with others even though I was above them. I could look down and see them smile, the tables were lit like the greatest bonfires, the barmen hustled and pulled escorts but above all else, I was there. We all like wearing masks. We nurture them, push them away and pull them back as often as we drink. I do. To drink is to touch your deepest agonies and put them on show for everyone to know or ignore. I laugh at mine, but only when I’m pissed, which is often these days. I say “these days”; I should say these minutes, these seconds, these moments wherein time passes like the slowest Northern Rail train. A few ice cubes, some whiskey, a bottle of wine if I have the money; nights of the living dead. That said, we are all knights when we have our liquid armour on show. We don’t care about anything, kebab compulsions or otherwise. The evening ends suitably always.
Def-Com 5 was where my evenings used to end. It was a mighty mercurial shit-stain of a building but that was the point. Inside it was warm – too warm. A circle of chairs embedded in sweat headlined the club. It was an arena of sorts, where wits and whimpers were shared; an exchanging of spit and occasionally stolid comments. I joined Def-Com 5 in early December, when laughter is needed to distract you from the cold winds. At first, it seemed as though it was a humorous hum-drum institution but then I realised I was among giants. Jack I was indeed, but no Giant-slayer. Matthew was bulbous and insane; he ate vitamin pills and rice because he disagreed with mass farming. Daryl was just there. Terry was a nice bloke who meant well but did badly in almost everything. Janet was short and thin and sad; her speciality was improvisation and sex. Remember her? She looked at me once, just for a second, and her hips didn’t lie. Then there was Gregg. Gregg. Our fearless leader who smoked indoors and supervised the strings. He was in control. We met on Wednesdays.
After the first practice, I went to the men’s room. Gregg followed. After avoiding the hair on the urinal, I turned around to find Gregg looking at me.
‘Looks like we got Richard Pryor here’, he said with yellow teeth exhibited.
I thanked him; he seemed so nice. Trench-coat and all, he was a peculiar character, always in gibbous lighting.
‘So I was alright?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely’, he replied, ‘but if you mess up one of my sketches again, I’m gonna put your head through the fucking wall.’
Joking sentimentality had persisted, but now it stopped for a second. Just a second. For one second, I cast my eyes over the greyscale sinks, forests of dirty hand-towels. Gregg was still looking at me.
‘I just need to go over some things with you, that’s all’, he added with a smile. ‘Oh, alright’, I said, ‘Should we get a pint?’
‘Already had one. Let’s meet here tomorrow at eight pm.’
‘I actually have to—’
‘See you there.’
He walked out as swiftly as he spoke. Daryl came in for a piss.
Daryl’s piss aside, I came the next night. It was cold. Upon entering the building, I found black, darkness, yet warmth somehow. I smelt smoke. I passed through the hippy beads to find Gregg in the centre of the room with a stool and speakers. In contrast to the previous night, the room was crimson red, like the interior of a grapefruit, or a lung. Not Gregg’s lungs. On Gregg’s legs were the tightest skinny jeans; trainers, a white T-shirt, discoloured socks. His hair was wet.
‘You like Ray Charles?’ he asked.
‘Yea sure,’ I replied.
He plugged his Mp3 player in to the speakers.
‘Basically, I want to work on your improv skills tonight. I’m gonna’ shout instructions. When you do something wrong, I’ll tell you. Do you trust me?’
‘Do you trust me? I need you to trust me.’
‘Sure I do.’
“The Mess Around” came on and I proceeded to dance. He turned it off; ‘What are you doing?’
‘Did I tell you to dance?’
‘Well, no but—‘
‘Don’t fucking dance.’
We started again. Gregg slipped in to a trance; his body falling in to a pool of movement. His hips slid past mine for a second. I didn’t mind. ‘Right’, he said, ‘Gay priest’. Out of reverence and fear, I embodied the gay priest, within the context of the music of course. What followed was pandemonium: Horny tree, if Ray Charles could see, dish-soap, on the buses, Scotland, etc. Again. Again. Again; the song was on repeat. Occasionally, Gregg would take a break and slouch on his little stool. His eyes would grow sharper as he watched. I continued improvising; ‘More obscene’, he said at one point. ‘Less queer’, he said later. The red light became infuriating. Every corner of the room was soaked in scarlet but Gregg stuck out like a scab. Sweat was rolling down his forehead; sideburns like the wettest shag carpets, yet his eyes were dry and stone-like. ‘Prick’, he said, ‘Cunt’. He got up and rushed over to me. Slap. I just played along, thinking it was part of the act. Slap. ‘Sit down’, he said, ‘We’re finished’.
‘Can we do a different—’
I always found mornings painful: the knife of light, the sticky sheets, coffee. That morning was just confusing. I couldn’t recall what happened the previous night. It was a blur, a sweaty blur. I looked out towards the docks – no children. There were a few cars on the highway, but nothing substantial. After peeling the kebab wrapper off the floor, I received a call from Daryl. He wanted to talk.
A week later, I found myself in a pedestrian cafe facing Daryl. His hair was parted down the middle and the top button of his shirt was done up with a safety pin. There was nothing safe about it. There was certainly nothing sane about it. That said, he drank his coffee with eloquence. Exhaling, he looked around for a moment, as if to check that no one was watching – no one was. He looked at me as if a remark would be made, but then reverted back to watching. Funny guy.
‘You like Gregg?’ he asked finally.
‘Yea’, I replied, ‘Yea, we’ve been, uh, busy.’
Daryl grasped his cup of coffee.
‘Oh good,’ he replied.
A bit of silence followed with the now standard people-watching thrown in for good measure. I perked up;
‘I heard you’ve quit.’
His eyes flicked up but went straight back down to his coffee. He spoke:
‘Well, it wouldn’t really be Def-Com 5 if you joined. I might as well quit and let you guys keep the name. Def-Com 6 just sounds stupid.’
I smiled, but he didn’t.
He continued, ‘You know he’s making all of this up as he goes along, right?
‘You don’t see that?’
I can vaguely recall my confusion and the utter conviction on his face. ‘It’s all bullshit Jack. All of it. Do you even know him?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean do you know him. I know the characters he does, the voices he puts on, but no one else. He’s not real. I don’t even know what the hell we’re doing anymore.’
I started to laugh.
‘It’s not funny, Jack.’
‘He’s fine Daryl.’
‘I wouldn’t say that.’
‘How would you describe him?’
‘I’d say, he…doesn’t have a sense of humour.’
I had a sip of coffee and nibbled at my cake.
‘I think you’re out of your depth, Jack.’
‘Well, you’re certainly in depth with that slag Janet.’
Daryl twiddled at his hangnail which was marked by the frosted sugar from his pastry.
‘Don’t call her that. That’s all you are to Gregg anyway.’
I stopped listening for a moment, in an attempt to block him out. I looked at my reflection in the window; a few bruises here and there. I needed a shave. I looked back at Daryl and asked him if he’d leave.
‘Let me tell you what I’m gonna’ do. I’m gonna’ get a job.’
‘And give all of this up?’
‘Jack, there’s nothing to give up.’
Daryl got up and left. Pastry unfinished. No tip.
A few weeks passed and my sessions with Gregg had blossomed in to something bizarre. Fetishised performances populated my unlit hours. It was only Gregg and myself but we always performed as if an audience was present. We thrived on this false grasp of reality: the applause of air. However, I had become slightly perturbed by Daryl’s remarks. It was true; I didn’t know who Gregg actually was. Given that we were doing sketches, he would always be a different character from the night before. That was the act.
Evening set in. The Def-Com 5 building was its usual pulmonary red. I came early, early as could be, yet Gregg was already there. Although his back was towards me, he was already talking to himself. His voice was unsettled.
‘I’d like to thank you all for coming tonight, I think it’s gonna’ be a good show; maybe not. Maybe your minds are elsewhere. Maybe you’re on a train going home for the first time, or, perhaps you’re going to see that relative who you didn’t think was alive and well, maybe you’re on the toilet. I’m here right now, and I want you to hear me.’
He lifted his fist towards his ear for a moment, then turned around.
‘Do you trust me? I don’t trust myself so you’re gonna’ have to bear with me. I wish that I could fix a lot of things. That ex-wife, ex-girlfriend/boyfriend, obnoxious neighbour; I’m sorry, I can’t. I only have an hour. I wish I could solve the inflation, the dead pets, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, but I can’t. I only have an hour. I wish that I didn’t have to do this shit for a living. Believe it or not, I’m working right now, I’m working. I can levitate birds but no one cares. I can go a whole day without being married. See that? All the men smiled. I can go to McDonald’s and order a salad. Something is wrong here people. I cannot however, go a whole day without wanking.’
Whilst bending his right knee, he had a cough and a jog on the spot.
‘It all starts with the salad though. It is the salad’s fault. Without the greasy, homogenised, all-American provider of happiness and stability that is undeniably commercialised, corporate fast-food, the fragile fabric of this life, perhaps even the next, is bound to collapse. And this isn’t some half-baked ideology, I have proof. See this bottle of water? This is my bottle of water…and you can’t have none. Now, I wish I could fix that problem. I really do. Everything would be so nice. Isn’t that horrible? Nice. Yuck, hate that word.’
His voice was growing louder.
‘Hate that frame of mind. I live in Upper Loxhall! I don’t want to be nice! I’m only two hours away from London by train – why should I be nice? Some of you might say, “But why not?” to which I will reply, why not do nothing? Why be active when you can be inactive? Why be nice when I can be mean? I want to be the guy who assures you that everything you have accomplished in your small frame of mind, is worth shit. Really, I do. My colleagues say that I’m melodramatic, but at heart I am realistic and cold as I stare in to the mirror unshaven.’
Turning his back, his shoulders grew tense; sad and angry.
‘Ever try that? Ever just sit there? Alone? I buy the newspaper everyday. I don’t read them. Why should I? Why should I be sober? In fact, why am I even up here? Why am I up here Janet? Can you tell me? You seem to know everything. I’m not interested Janet. Janet Goddamnit had a fight, but she planned it – she fucked dick-sick Daryl, then called me a damn faggot!’
He threw a stool off the stage and then folded his arms. I didn’t know if he could see me or not. An audible sigh was heard. I decided to make myself known to him:
‘It was alright’.
He turned around and wrinkled his brow; ‘Excuse me?’
‘I said that it was alright, no, better than that, really good actually!’
Gregg looked embarrassed. Jumping down from the mantelpiece, arms still folded, he swaggered over to me. ‘Janet’s gone’, he said, ‘Have you been talking to Daryl?’
‘Daryl. Daryl. Daryl. Have you been talking to Daryl? Janet’s been talking to Daryl and Terry and Matthew. More than that. Have you been talking to Daryl?’
‘Walk down the cemetery road; unbelievable. They quit together like some sexed-up Bonnie and Clyde.’
‘Are you conspiring against me pig-fuck?’
I looked around the room for a moment. He told me to cut that out, so I spoke right to his face.
‘You’re drunk. I can smell it for christ’s sakes.’
‘I am not, I’ve only had a few ales. They’re making you hate me—’
’No, no, no, you’re talking shit—’
’I know who I am damn it! I work all day—’
‘You’re making this shit up! You-are-making-this-shit-up! There are no sketches! No scripts! None of us have been paid, Gregg!’
He took out his wallet and threw a fiver at my face.
‘Have your fucking money. That’s all you’re worth anyway’.
I took the fiver and briskly walked out of the pulmonary light. Gregg followed. The kids on the dock stared at me, as did the highways in the distance. The windows of windows of glass allowed me to keep an eye on Gregg. At times, his footsteps grew distant in the dark, only to return in heavy fashion moments later. Ray Charles was in the air.
I reached the council estate, climbed the steps, entered my flat and locked the door. I could hear him coming up the stairs. He knocked repeatedly, again and again and again. His voice was muffled; breathing smothered by the IKEA blockade.
‘I know you’re in there’, he shouted, ‘Come out you bloody coward! Come out and talk to Gregg!’
I did not. The door crashed open and the only thing between us was a small revolver. For a moment our eyes locked and he subdued. Gregg’s body relaxed and his head became slightly cocked with a bemused expression.
‘Jack, what are you doing?’
‘Holding a gun. Isn’t it obvious?’
‘I reckon you don’t have any bullets.’
‘I have enough. Get out of my house.’
‘Well, it might as well be my house too.’
He looked out the window, flared his nostrils, then looked back and said:
‘If it helps at all, I have a knife on me.’
He pulled it out.
‘You brought a knife to a gunfight.’
He almost looked annoyed.
‘That’s not funny, Jack.’
I shot him in the mouth. Teeth came out the back of his head; the rest of him collapsing outside my doorway. I was sweating, but for a moment, I didn’t mind. I could hear the whistle wind piercing the window, the tap dripping on the clinging hair. The smells of ink and paper were still present. And everywhere I looked, I could see myself clawing at the dark. The absurdity. The laughter.
So, once I cast the squashed shoe shit to one side and pulled myself up three flights of stairs, I know this is paradise. Gregg knows this is paradise. Occasionally, I stare out past the confines of my room and the rudimentary grass, only to find windows of windows of glass, staring back at me. The reflection hurts the most. I am in it, but alas, I make up a very small fraction of the picture. Cotton clipped clouds are the main players, but an empty lot where the once mighty Def-Com 5 building stood steals my attention. Beyond that is a small screen of highways, cropping up like garden snakes in the distance. In the far right corner of the mirrored image is a group of children playing by the docks. I don’t really like children. Then again, it’s only a reflection – nothing to be afraid of, I don’t think.