Short stories – Libations

Libations was first published in issue 12 of the beautiful Structo magazine, which you should consider subscribing to.

Libations

When people do terrible things, it’s only natural to dissect them, attempt to identify the signs that should have indicated their hidden depths.

He had something of a reputation at University. No, that makes it sound as though he was infamous, known to all, when the reverse was true. But on my floor of Lancaster House, he was considered to be rather strange.

I thought he was just wonderful. And he chose me. He decided we were friends.

His name was Anthony. He wanted it in full, no abbreviations. If someone addressed him as Tony or Ant he would look blank and patiently explain that his name was Anthony. My friend Matt christened him ‘The Anti-Tony’ as a result.

He was one of the cleverest people I’d ever met. Conversations with him were terrifying but exhilarating. I was always anxious of saying something stupid or dull, seeing that look of vague disappointment on his face.

At the funeral we sang Jerusalem. I wondered who on earth had felt this was appropriate. It didn’t seem to square with the Anthony I had known, having been neither Christian nor a patriot, as far as I knew. But then, maybe I hadn’t known him at all. The idea was something of a comfort; a reason to feel less complicit.

There weren’t many people present. They’d managed to keep it out of the press. I’d been surprised to receive the phone call informing me that I’d been on a list of those he wished to invite. It couldn’t have been a very long list.

I noticed Alice arrive just before the start, sitting surreptitiously at the back. Our eyes met briefly. I nodded, before turning my attention to the order of service.

The photograph on the front took me back to an autumnal day almost a decade earlier. We’d gone exploring on a whim, celebrating a cancelled lecture. He had a car. I’d felt giddy with the sense of escape. Sitting in the passenger seat beside him had felt intimate and confessional. I’d had the urge to gorge on confidences, but had restrained myself. I’d learned that he disliked overfamiliarity. Instead we talked about post-modernism, the definition of which I was failing to comprehend. He found my struggle endearing.

We’d stopped when we saw the signs.It was a long way from the road and we walked silently, in an odd sort of reverence. The surrounding landscape was broad and blank, cast a sombre tone by the darkening sky above. An atmosphere was building, promising heavy rain, possibly thunder. I’d brought my camera and took several blurred shots of deepening grey stretches.

Finally, the hitherto hidden reservoir revealed itself.

So massive, deep and unknowable, brimming with power and potential.

I turned to him and found him enthralled. His gaze was fixed unblinking on the water. He was lost in worship, bound in the presence of a deity. He was a believer. He had found god.

Somehow he was more alive than I had ever known him, suddenly and unexpectedly quite beautiful. His expression exultant. He saw me.

Everything went very still.

It occurred to me that no one knew where I was. I wondered briefly how it would feel to drown.

I lifted the camera, twisted the focus, pressed down.

Click.

Anthony smiled at me, suggested we try to find somewhere for lunch. As we walked back to the car it began to rain in big cold blobs.

Later, ensconced in a warm, bright pub, plates of hot food before us, I felt absurd for the thoughts that had briefly crossed my mind. As so often before, I had let my imagination run wild. The Anthony opposite me was dauntingly intellectual, but otherwise harmless, I told myself.

A few years ago I found the photo while clearing through boxes of accumulated life-detritus. I saw him, staring at the camera, so handsome and peculiar and young, and I yearned. He didn’t read his emails, so I’d written him a letter, enclosing a copy. I’d said how much I missed him. That I’d love to see him.

And here it was again. Someone had found it amongst his things. Recognised the image as the distillation of him. I wondered whether they’d found the letter too.

I told him how I felt about him on the afternoon we celebrated his last exam, drinking out on the grass outside the East Slope Bar. He was driving off the next day and I strongly suspected I would never see him again, so there was nothing to lose, though that didn’t stop my stomach turning uneasily as I summoned up the courage. Talking about feelings was taboo with Anthony.

He was unperturbed. He explained that I didn’t really know him, so it wasn’t really true. He was flattered, he told me, but honestly, he wasn’t anything for me to get worked up about. I could and should do much better. I laughed and told him that he’d missed the point. I had a boyfriend by then, it wasn’t a come on; I just wanted him to know how marvellous I thought he was. I tried to explain, but he looked evermore confused, so I changed the subject and bought another round.

The eulogy was given by a twitchy man – a cousin, I discovered later. He recited a list of Anthony’s academic achievements, talked about his burgeoning reputation, before hesitating, embarrassed, and starting on something about divine forgiveness.

I tuned out, wondering what I would have said if I have been the one chosen to enunciate the essence of Anthony. I would probably have made myself ridiculous by talking about his hair.

It was one of the first things I noticed about him, other than his tallness. He would let his hair grow into a shapeless mop until he couldn’t see; then he would get it cut very, very short. When I first encountered him in our shared kitchen he was at the mop stage, and our interaction was punctuated with flicking motions as he tried to usher it out of his eyes. A week later, I bumped into him in the corridor outside my room and fairly recoiled. He was shorn, naked, obscenely see-able.

“Hello,” he greeted me. “You look troubled.”

“It’s your hair,” I admitted. “It’s gone.”

“I know. I had it cut.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Don’t you like?” He seemed to be finding the situation quite amusing.

“I’m sure I’ll get used to it,” I offered uncertainly.

“Ok. I supposed I’d better give you a chance to acclimatise. Drink?”

He was brandishing a bottle of wine. I was supposed to be going to the library to prepare for a rapidly-approaching essay deadline which had been panicking me, but I dismissed it instantly at the invitation to imbibe with him. I had accidentally broken through the barriers and procured an unexpected solicitation. I nodded enthusiastically, followed him into his room.

That was the start of it. Slumped on his stubbly carpet, admiring his piles of books, his expensive sound-system, as he played me proper vinyl records, explaining why this was a great album, or why I must read this book, all the while sloshing more wine into my mug. I was infatuated, gazing up at him, drinking in every word.

It was an exclusive club. The only other person I ever saw enter his room was Alice.

He didn’t answer the door to unscheduled knockings, but would respond to notes left in his mailbox. He turned down as many invitations as he accepted, with no reason ever offered for a decline, but he was more likely to be swayed by novelties. Fancy seeing Metropolis? met a better response than Drink at Park Village Bar? Thus I found myself concocting elaborate proposals.

Tequila sunrise, literally? was one of my unexpected successes from these excuses to bask in his presence. We sat on top of the hill, facing away from the Brutalist concrete sprawl of campus towards an area of officially outstanding natural beauty, watching the sun come up in a fantastic array of colour, swigging mescal. He even put his arm around me. It was heavenly.

Suddenly everyone was standing. I rose hastily and joined them in a ragged and surreal rendition of The Lord is My Shepherd.

I looked around for Alice as we filed outside, but somewhat to my relief she seemed to have vanished. We shuffled awkwardly through the side exit. Donations to a mental health charity had been requested in place of flowers, so there was only a single wreath to gawp at.

An elderly lady introduced herself to me as Anthony’s aunt. She asked how I had known him.

“Oh, then you must be Patrick,” she exclaimed at my explanation. “You were the only one from his time at University on the list.”

I opened my mouth to contradict her, but realised in time why Alice had slipped away. Instead I asked about the hymns, saying I didn’t remember Anthony being a church-goer. Well, no, I was told rather sharply. But funerals were for the grieving, not for the dead. They hadn’t felt a wake would be appropriate, I was informed.

She had awoken some distant memories of Anthony mentioning a religious branch of the family who disapproved of everyone and everything. The memory was elusive, even though I had found anything Anthony said fascinating, because if he was talking about family then he would undoubtedly have been very drunk indeed, as would I.

Alice was waiting at the main gates.

“There’s no wake,” I told her.

“Shall we have our own?”

I nodded, grimly. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to spend any time with Alice, but I did need to acknowledge Anthony’s existence with someone who had cared about him. The contortions imposed on his character by the newspapers, aided and abetted by this hollow charade of a funeral, made me crave the chance to reassert my own version.

There was a pub close to the station. It was dingy inside, but was warm enough in the vague sunshine to sit in the back garden.

“You look almost the same,” Alice said, with a hint of bitterness.

I shrugged uncomfortably. I couldn’t say the same for her. She had wilted. Her once thick, buttery hair seemed stringy, bleached too harshly, clashing with her colouring, and cut severely in a style that didn’t suit her features, which were drawn and shadowed. She’d veered from slim to scrawny. She looked slightly unhinged.

“The way they were talking about him…” I started, coming to a stop as my eyes welled up. I studied a plastic-coated menu avidly to distract myself.

“What was with the hymns?” Alice demanded. “I almost thought I’d gone to the wrong place.”

“You crashed,” I stated, watching her expression.

“I had to come,” she said simply.

In homage to Anthony, I bought us a bottle of red. We clinked glasses in a wary toast. Old adversaries at the negotiating table.

“You used to be a tea drinker,” Alice prompted, the ghost of a smile warming her face a little.

I couldn’t help but return it. She’d taken me back to the first evening we’d met, at a party in our corridor’s kitchen, everyone crowding round, every surface covered in empty cans and bottles. She’d attached herself to me, kept me up after everyone else had been defeated, drinking tea until it was practically daylight. She’d given me her whole life story. She told me she was bisexual, which as far as I could tell meant that she sometimes kissed her friend Melissa in front of boys they fancied at parties. I liked her, to begin with, despite her horsey air of privilege. She was gauche and funny and talked endlessly about boys. She also told me that she was a witch, which made me actually laugh in her face and decide that it was definitely time for bed.

“Did you stay in touch with him much after University?” Alice asked.

“A little – he was always elusive, as you know,” I said briskly. I didn’t want to admit to her quite how challenging it had been to maintain contact with Anthony, how much it had stung when invitations to visit went unanswered, voice mails were ignored. I’d persevered regardless and had been rewarded with sporadic successes; books sent in the post, occasional late-night phone-calls, the odd letter.

“You?” I asked, feeling it was expected.

“I saw him in London a few months ago.”

“Really?” I couldn’t help a little flair-up of the old jealousy; but I was hungry for information.

“Yeah. I bumped into him at Euston station. After all those years.”

“How did he seem?”

“Fine,” Alice said blandly. “He seemed ok. Actually, he was quite friendly. Genuinely pleased to see me. After everything he put me through. Just smiling, as though it had never happened. Making polite conversation. Small talk. He never did that before, did he?”

“No,” I agreed.

“I always thought he might be a bit autistic, you know.”

“I thought he was lovely,” I said firmly, taking a steadying gulp of wine. It had been a mistake to come here with Alice. She was as keen to tear Anthony to pieces as everyone else.

“Sorry,” Alice said quickly. “I know how much he meant to you. He meant a lot to me too, once. Too much. More than I really knew how to handle. And I’m sorry… for what I did.”

“I just want to be allowed to remember him the way I knew him.”

“Fair enough,” Alice poured more wine into our glasses. “I’m listening.”

I talked about the Anthony I had known. Alice pitched in, clearly making an effort to keep it light, censoring herself at times with a sudden sip of wine. We drank and we laughed, as it grew later and colder, the sun lowering in the sky, brashly jovial, a constructed-reality show.

Occasionally Alice would smile to herself at something secret. There was an unknown country, a side of Anthony that she had seen on those night-time visits to his room, which I had not and never could have. I would not ask her about it, of course, despite that shameful gnawing of curiosity.

“I cursed him,” Alice said seriously, interrupting my obscene pondering. “That day, when he tried to leave after finals without even saying goodbye. I put a curse on him.”

“He wasn’t good to you,” I admitted.

“No. But I shouldn’t have cursed him.” Her eyes were focussed on some faraway place, growing teary as she considered the powerful curse she had subjected the ill-fated Anthony to.

She really believed it, I realised. Alice was convinced in her own witchy powers, of which she had once boasted to me so proudly. It was obvious that she was mentally unwell. Had she always been?

I couldn’t think of a nice way to tell her that what she believed was bollocks, so I just took her hand and gave it a squeeze. She was painfully grateful for the small gesture, smiling eerily in the half-light.

“Do you think he did it?”

It was the question that had been playing in my mind since the news broke. It had been printed in black and white, reported as fact. But I still couldn’t believe it, somehow.

Alice looked startled, her face a conflict of emotions. Her expression settled into one of pity. Then it cleared suddenly, as a thought occurred to her.

“We could ask him, if you want?”

“What?”

“I could channel him for you. I can do that. I can call him to us, let him speak through me. You can ask him yourself, anything you want to know.”

“No,” I said quickly, “no, thanks.”

The thought of it was hideous. I shivered, suddenly very cold.

Alice wanted to go inside and buy another bottle of wine, but I called time on it. When people start suggesting séances, it’s time to go home.

At the station, we were waiting for different trains from either side of the same platform. I stared at the information board, willing the minutes to pass faster, aware that Alice was unnervingly focussed on me.

I had to ask her.

“Are you getting any help? Any treatment? Can I help?”

“You were always kind to me,” she said with drunk gravitas, smiling. I wanted to stop her, to contradict her, but she held up a hand, silencing me. “You were. So I’ll tell you what I told him when I saw him. Because I loved him, even though he didn’t love me; so, I warned him. Bad things are coming. Really bad. You should get away from London. There are going to be dark times ahead. I mean it.”

“I still live in Brighton,” I told her simply.

She deflated somewhat, her premonition faltering.

“Good,” she said determinedly. “Maybe you’ll be safe there.”

Her train arrived. She clasped me briefly in a bony embrace before lurching on-board. She watched me solemnly from the window, brightly illuminated in harsh light, before the train carried her away into the night, leaving me gratefully alone.

If I could have spoken to him, if it had really been possible… I wouldn’t have asked him about what he had or hadn’t done. I’d have asked him about our friendship; whether it had ever truly meant anything to him, or had he simply humoured my embarrassing attempts to get his attention, pausing occasionally in the street to offer a docile cat a fleeting moment of affection?

I thought of him stretched out on the grass, patiently explaining to me that you couldn’t ever know someone absolutely.

On the journey back, I clutched the order of service, staring at his picture, trying to know him by looking hard at the pixels.

I touched the image, stroking his face with my finger. But it was only paper. Just surface.

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