Weekend Fiction: The End of the Story
Max liked to think of himself as a writer so he poured himself another drink.
In a constructed age, where everyone defined themselves to the nth degree by their job, their salary, the music they liked, the clothes they wore, the beard they did or did not grow, where even a trip to the supermarket could form the basis of a sociology tutorial, this was important. He had never liked the idea of being, nor felt the need to be, part of a tribe but identity was unavoidable.
At school, his friends had only distinguished themselves by not being part of any noticeable clique, whether it was the sports players or swots; their only commonality was alcohol and - outrageously they thought at the time - cannabis. Actually neither was at all extraordinary. At university, he maintained this detachment, avoiding those whose lives revolved around societies or clubs, loathing the rowers and rugby players who congregated weekly in the bar to sing bawdy songs and generally make idiots of themselves. He watched the activities of these castes in the refectory or JCR with bemusement. He was not envious. The friendships he formed, away from his halls, were intense and private affairs exclusive of others. That his lack of social definition was perhaps itself a definition was too post-modern for his mindset.
Being a writer, or describing himself as one, gave him something to say when talking to strangers. When they inevitably asked “What do you do then?” he had a ready answer. It was interesting and people were easily impressed. Yes, he had been published. People had read his words. But he did not want to impress strangers. He barely impressed himself. He genuinely - or was this disingenuous? - did not understand why and put it down to a sense of the written word’s immortality, as if he chiseled each word in a granite font. But, by custom anti-social, he very rarely met strangers.
In truth, he had not written anything of significance in ten years, a minor fringe play which had been well-received by the few desperate critics who had nothing better to do, followed by a week in Edinburgh. He had not known whether it was any good or not, but people had told him it was, and so he agreed with their judgement. What he thought mattered was the process of creation. He had created that near-perfect thing for himself which he had craved. Yet the applause counted for something. Truth plays a minor role in mythology.
Once the grease-paint had been washed away, he returned to London, where he took up a badly-paid job as a writer for an indy lit magazine, one of thousands which circulated around places such as Hoxton or Brixton, and he waited for success. As he did so he watched his contemporaries overtake him in status and success. Those who at college had held idealistic dreams put away their childish ambitions to become instead project managers and consultants; gradually, one by one, they married off, bought houses and had children. Lives that for a brief time converged branched off so there was nothing left but tawdry nostalgia. And it was not enough. Dinners and raucous nights out were replaced by Facebook updates.
Ten years. It was not just that he did not know what else he could do with his life. He found it impossible to reinvent himself. He did not have a new story. But as thirty approached there was the faint mocking whisper in his head: it is not what one would have predicted. His life was not what he would have predicted.
He turned over in bed to hide his face. Today was Monday 9th March.
* * *
It was nearly half past ten when he had got into his car. He drove away from an unsatisfactory dinner and found himself in need of another drink. It was a situation which he found himself in with increasing frequency. Eventually he found a public house, parked the car and went in. It was Saturday night and the bar was busy; he ordered two large whiskeys and sat down at a seat in the corner where he watched the other drinkers as they chatted amongst themselves, played pool and threw endless coins into the slot of the games machines. Trapped in thoughts that ran in and out of his head to die and be forgotten as soon as they saw the light, soon he had blocked out the noise and stared vacantly without sight in front of him.
He got up, tapped his pockets to feel for keys before walking out to find his car.
The cold and dark air blowing through the car he drove away without thinking, turning corners he knew well without noticing. He stopped at a set of traffics lights. With his eyes absently on the red light he fumbled in his pockets to get a cigarette and lighter. As he sparked the flame and pulled on the cigarette, that was when he thought it: “There is absolutely nothing in my life that is right. Absolutely nothing.”
As the light turned green he took his foot off the accelerator, and repeated deliberately to himself as if they were foreign words: absolutely nothing. Absolutely. Nothing. Red, then flashing amber, green. Green. Amber.
* * *
The year before there had been flowers on the breakfast table. There was nothing unusual in that in itself. Bright orange tiger lilies which exploded out into the otherwise staid, rather conservative room from a tall vase; they were like a burst of fire in deep winter. As he walked down the stairs into the breakfast room, Tommy looked up at him from his chair where he sat eating marmalade on toast.
“Morning,” he replied.
It was perfunctory but not rude, perhaps it was comfortable; as he resumed reading the stack of papers in front of him Max slipped around the room in his moccasins and pyjama trousers. He clicked down the button on the kettle and grabbed a bowl from the shelf. He poured the cereal box over the white bowl to shake out the flakes before spooning over two dollops of yoghurt. His mind was only half on the cereal.
The first time Tommy had called him, Max had dropped his phone and smashed it into its component parts. It took him five minutes to reconstruct it by which time Tommy was unavailable.
He was the only person who had ever made Max feel physically sick. A thirty minute conversation, and a kiss on the bridge beside the restaurant, and he had become a love sick puppy, a situation made worse by the fact that he had never expected to be in such a position. A week. A week of constantly checking his emails and telephone. A week of thinking about him so much that his stomach churned.
It was impossible. Tommy had his email, his Facebook details, and his phone number: why hadn’t he fucking called? Clearly he was unimportant to him. Indifferent. Not even thirty minutes and he was obsessed as he had never been by anyone else before. As he had never wanted to be. There were times that he hated Tommy that week.
And then he called. As Max fumbled to answer the call, he dropped the phone breaking it into its component parts. By the time he had put it back together, Tommy was unavailable. Like an idiot Max left a voicemail.
He shuffled back to the breakfast table with his bowl, spooning mouthfuls as he did so. As he put the bowl down he pulled old cardigan from the chair and draped it over his torso.
Year One. He thought.
“You forgot your tea.”
Max got up and walked across to pick up his mug.
“What are you doing today?”
Tommy looked up from his breakfast:
“Oh. Didn’t I say? I’m going to die. Sorry.” He calmly resumed eating his toast and took a sip of tea. Max sat back down and looked across at the figure opposite. “Happy birthday,” he continued, without looking up.
Max looked again. It hadn’t been like that. Tommy had not said that. If he had, he would have done something. He would have rung a doctor or taken him to the hospital. If only he had fucking said that, he would have saved him.
When the ambulance came four hours later, Max was standing in the front garden waiting for them. As the vehicle skidded into the driveway, a paramedic jumped out from the passenger seat and he shouted over to him, “Where is he?”
He did not reply immediately. He didn’t want to say the words as if it would make everything real.
“I think - I think he’s dead. He’s in the house.”
They ran straight past him into the house as he looked out, his eyes loaded with despair, into the garden. Slowly he turned around and walked back into the house. He stood by the front door. Tommy wasn’t dead though. Max was not a doctor - in his life he had never even been on a first aid course - and death was something which happened to other people. In a week, a month, maybe sitting in a hospital ward they would look back on this as a close experience.
The paramedic, who was leaning over Tommy’s body, inclined his head towards the door.
Max did not hear any more. He understood the expression. He could read the tone. He could no longer find comfort in denial. His body began to convulse as he struggled to draw breath, his eyes welled up with tears and eventually his body collapsed onto the table as he began sobbing. Not just sobbing but uncontrollable, hysterical crying. He banged his fist on the wooden surface each time harder than the last. His mind was almost consumed by that single thread as tears poured down his pale cheeks. The tip of his forehead, resting on the cold wood, felt the vibrations as he rocked himself up and down slamming his hand down as he did so. Eventually he hit the table with such force the vase of flowers toppled and water dribbled down onto the floor.
Later, he sat alone. He felt physically sick. He wished he had never put the phone back together. The flowers, strewn on the table, remained untouched.
* * *
His head down on the dashboard Max could see the reflection of the lights in the windscreen. The words came unexpectedly and he found himself shocked. They made what had been hidden seem obvious. It was as if a stranger had blurted out something obvious that had remained until that moment darkly unspoken. And it would always be there. He turned his eyes up at the lights turning red then green again as he examined each word - absolutely nothing in my life is right - and saw, in that moment, that it was correct. And as he gave it more thought he realised that it was not only right but it made sense. The past year he had lived like the living dead; he moved but he no longer felt anything. What had once given him pleasure was colouless. How could he be so stupid? Absolutely nothing - nothing - was right in his life. He felt his body deflate then ache with cruel pain. This time he did not cry out as tears trickled quietly down his face.
There were no words as he clicked the button to release his seatbelt. He saw the traffic lights flash amber before turning red, closed his eyes and put his foot down on the accelerator. The car clock clicked onto midnight.
* * *
Downstairs he could hear his phone alarm call. He would switch it off but there was no point. It would make no difference; after half an hour the phone would give up and turn off. It was half past eight. There was a stench of failure everywhere.
When Max was four his grandfather had had a stroke. The old man who was nearly eighty five, and towered over him. His somewhat harsh features were given a benign edge by a thick swathe of deep white hair which would flick over his old face as he leaned down towards his grandson. Max believed the old man to be invincible. Seeing his aged body beneath the crisp hospital sheets was his first intimation of mortality: that one day the man, who could find a penny behind any ear he wanted, would die. That night, sat in the middle of his bed, he screamed and howled in terror, his parents unable to settle him.
His grandfather did not die. He recuperated in hospital, eventually returned home. He smiled as he saw Max but at first he could not speak. The young boy looked at him in confusion, not understanding how something which once could be done could be unlearned. He looked at grandpa slowly getting to his feet with two sticks and take slow methodical steps, his nurse by his side; each step considered, even nervous as he heavily put one foot on the floor before slowly forcing the other in front. Each movement was an achievement, each sound a fragment closer to a word but the boy could only see frailty. When he cried that night, his parents did not hear him.
Max thought of his grandfather as he picked up the bottle of Famous Grouse, unscrewed the top and poured the whisky into a dirty mug: his grandfather who had, in an instance, lost so much but each day had taken steps to rediscover what was once taken for granted. He saw the look on his face with what he later interpreted as determination. Perhaps it wasn’t. He drank the liquor and poured himself another one. He did not drink excessively but he started each day with at least two drinks. At least three drinks. He was not a drunk. He just could not remember how to walk. What he had not been able to do for the last year was to remember how he had lived. It seemed a simple thing to do. But balance would not return. As he knocked back a drink, he liked the irony.
He put the cup down and ran his hand through his hair. All around him he saw mess. Empty bottles lay on every surface, mugs used as ashtrays, dirty linen pushed into empty corners. A layer of dust clung to the surfaces of the tables and dressers only broken by the stained ring of glasses. As much as he hated the chaos, the idea of doing anything about it was anathema.
Today was his birthday. At half past four his parents would come to pick him up and drive him to their house where they had arranged a small family party. As he thought of the day his body groaned at the prospect and was filled with an aching void that echoed through his body. If anything were to make him kill himself it was that thought.
But the knife beside his bed remained untouched. These days he kept it in his bedside table drawer. During more whimsical moments he liked to think of this as progress.
It was a thought that often consumed him. His death. His mind saw pictures. Then words. Someone would have to, of course, discover his body. Perhaps he would be splayed out, his body surrounded by dark and curdled blood. There would be police, maybe an inquest. People would be shocked and confused. Eventually they would give him a funeral. A crowd would gather in black outside the sand-coloured building, a church for a secular service. They would not talk that much. When they filed into the hall, the room would be not even half full. A thought, a fantasy he played into words. The vast, terrifying and cavernous vacuum of death was - and he loved this - just too frightening. It was too much. How could nothing be too much? It was though.
He got up, swaying slightly and walked across the room. He drained the cup, gasped in relief then threw it against the wall.
Grandpa. Tommy. The traffic lights. Everything needed an ending. His arm did a backhand across the top of the dresser throwing the bits and ornaments to the ground. It had a defined ending. It was neat. He picked up the small radio set and threw it towards the window. Even the piles of mess were a fucking story. He was not even sure if there had been flowers on the table. His parents were not coming to pick him up, he was catching a bus. His life he had constructed not as a life but as another story. And then story upon story. Everything assumed meaning and, if it did not have meaning, he gave it one. He opened the wardrobe doors and ripped the clothes from their hangers onto the floor. They contained endings. Nothing for him was true. The bedside table and cabinet were turned over; drawers pulled out and thrown against the wall, scattering the clothes across the floor. He picked up the knife and stabbed it into the duvet, pulling it down towards his body and watching the feather pour out like liquid. The one ending he could not tell was his own. He took the mirror off its hook and hurled it against the opposing wall. As it shattered he laughed a stuttered sharp and incoherent laugh.
It was the one story he could not tell himself. The one he most wanted to tell. He stood in the room, at the centre of the wreckage he had created, before falling to his knees and laughing.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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