Short Stories – Icarus

Last Thursday I saw Lucifer working in the Pavilion Gardens café.

At first I thought he was just dressed up, having a laugh, but then he turned his back to me and I saw where his wings joined to the skin by his shoulder blades. His top half was naked apart from his striped apron.

He was very attractive. I ordered my breakfast from him and watched while he fried bacon and eggs in a huge spitting pan. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed him, but the other customers were all preoccupied with their morning papers.

He was a good size – well built but without the look some men get when they overdo it at the gym, ending up like deformed action man figures. His eyes sparkled brightly, a colour it was impossible to pin down; blue, green, purple – they seemed to change with his expression, which was never static. His hair was the same; it could have been golden, red, blonde, white. It rippled gently like a clutch of flames sprouting from his head.

He had a beautiful, dangerous, twisted smile.

As he cooked my breakfast he hummed a tune to himself, occasionally singing the odd phrase. I caught some of the words as he came over with my food.

“God kn-o-ows! God knows I want to break free,” he sang with a sarcastic smile, sliding the plate in front of me. I can’t say I’m much of a Queen fan.

“Hello Lucifer,” I said cautiously, wanting to make sure.

“Hey!” he returned brightly, as though he was an old friend. “How’s it going?”

“Alright,” I lied automatically. My hangover was getting worse by the moment.

He took my greeting as an invitation, pulling out a spare chair and sitting in it languorously with his legs spread wide apart and his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his apron. I don’t like people watching me eat, especially in the mornings, but I was hungry and the breakfast smelt good. Besides, I was intrigued to have the Morning Star sitting opposite me, however uncomfortable it might make me feel. His eyes were laughing at me.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in hell?” I asked.

“Technically, yes,” he said, smiling. “But I got bored.”

He shrugged slightly, which made the wings swell and unfold a little. Close to they couldn’t be mistaken for fakes. They were made of something impossibly beautiful, opaque and nacreous, with patterns like feathers.

“What, they just let you out?”

“Not exactly,” he laughed. “I kind of abdicated, I suppose. I wanted to get out more, meet new people. The social spectrum in hell was rather limited. It was all getting a bit tedious and dull.”

“Oh,” I said, taking a mouthful of bacon and egg. “This is delicious!”

“Thank you,” he said, beaming at me from across the table. “Like so many things, it’s all in the timing.”

“So, why come to Brighton?” I asked. “How long have you been here?”

How come no one knows, I wondered? How come the streets weren’t thronging with outraged crowds of religious zealots, waving placards and braying for blood, blaming it all on the Government?

“Brighton’s fun,” he said vaguely. “A couple of us were hanging out on the West Pier, but since it’s burnt down and all… Anyway, enough about me; what about you? What do you do?”

A good question. One I don’t like to answer. Saying ‘fuck all’ makes me sound dead lazy. On the other hand, calling myself an artist would just be pretentious, and stretching the truth.

“It’s not very interesting,” I said. “Let’s talk about you. You’re fascinating.”

He threw his head back in a burst of laughter, mocking and teasing, wonderfully sexy.

“I do believe that you’re flirting with me,” he said.

I instantly became aware of the state I must look, suddenly conscious of my sweaty hair, smoke infused clothes, blood-shot eyes. I felt a little dribble of egg yoke on my stubbly chin and hastily wiped it away with a hand that smelt of stale beer. My face flooded red, hot and shamed. He smiled sympathetically.

“I’m old enough to be the pond weed you eventually evolved from!” he said. “Don’t be embarrassed. It’s a bit of an age gap, you have to admit.”

I tried to cover my shame with philosophical discourse.

“But if you’re as old as evolution, doesn’t that disprove the existence of God as creator of the universe?”

I was genuinely interested. Lucifer laughed.

“Pah! That fat bastard?” he sputtered.

“But –” I said.

He was getting up to serve a puce-faced middle-aged man in a suit who was making loud huffing noises to attract attention. Lucifer grinned at me elusively.

“The devil makes work for idle hands,” he said.

I don’t think I’d have got a straight answer from him anyway.

I finished my delicious breakfast alone. Lucifer became suspiciously busy, but as I left – realising that I really must sleep – he smiled and gave me a cheery wave.

*

I woke sometime later that evening, where I had passed out on the sofa. My housemate Sarah was looming over me dangerously, dripping tea on my face from the end of a biro. When she saw that I was awake she handed me the mug savagely.

“You snored all the way through Eastenders,” she informed me bitterly.

Simon grinned at me from the other sofa, the one that is less comfortable to sleep on.

“Surely that’s normal?” he said.

I was grateful to him. Sarah transferred her wrath to Simon, explaining, between beating him with a cushion, that Eastenders was a high art-form that demanded due reverence.

The tea was warm and reviving, though Sarah always puts too much sugar in and forgets to stir, so the last mouthful is an orange syrup that’s best avoided.

I live in a tall, thin house in Kemp Town with about seven other people. The number varies. My room is right at the top of the house and costs less to rent because it is effectively cut in half by the roof. It has a skylight that leaks when it rains heavily. I keep meaning to buy a bucket, because people have started to ask me pointedly if I’ve seen their saucepans, but I always seem to have better things to do with my money.

“So,” Sarah said accusingly, once Simon had submitted. “What did you get up to last night?” And why didn’t you invite me? her eyes added.

“Oh, nothing much,” I said casually.

“Picking up men, off your face?” Sarah surmised.

“No,” I said. “Well, only a bit. I was only a little bit fucked.”

“Only a little bit fucked!” she repeated slowly. “Come on, Alex, spot the oxymoron!”

“Spot the bitch with a dictionary stuck up her arse,” I snapped. She was making me uncomfortable.

She used a tactic she often does when we row; the anger swept from her face, replaced by hurt.

“You don’t need a vocabulary to do an English degree, believe me,” she said tragically, storming off to the kitchen, where she rattled pots and pans expressively. Sarah is an English student.

Simon was still grinning at me from the other sofa. He is always grinning. I began to find it unnerving and so left to wash the filth from my body and put on clean clothes, assuming I had any. I’ve been a bit slack with laundry of late.

I stood under the lukewarm trickle of the shower for a long time, liberally borrowing other people’s shower gel, rubbing it into my skin.

It felt good to be clean. Doused in deodorant and with newly brushed teeth, it felt like a fresh start, so I went down to the kitchen to make peace.

Sarah was boiling pasta in a large pan, stirring vigorously in a manner that sent tidal waves over the edge, spitting and steaming on the hob below. I always want to tell her to stir more gently, but I could see that in her present mood it would only have further riled her.

“Sorry,” I said.

“That’s ok,” she said sadly.

“I didn’t sleep with anyone,” I said, hoping to appease her.

“No, but you could have.”

“Maybe, but that says more about ‘the gays’ than it does about my attractiveness.”

“That’s not the point!” Sarah said loudly. “I want to pick up men!”

“So you can toss them over your shoulder like the caber in the highland games?” Simon suggested from the living room.

It’s easy to forget how much you can hear from there. Sarah went to the doorway to give him an evil look, but deflated once she was out of his view. I put my arm around her. She is always much smaller than I expect and more delicate. She nuzzled into my armpit for a moment, then rested her head on my shoulder.

“Sorry,” she said. “I just worry about you sometimes.”

“You don’t have to,” I said gruffly. “You’re not my mother.”

“I know,” she said quietly. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just care about you.”

“Look, Sarah,” I said with mock sincerity, “I’ve told you before; it’s just not going to happen. I’m strictly men only.”

“But I’m wild with lust for you!” she sighed dramatically. “Seriously, though, it is really annoying when you sleep on the sofa. Why can’t you sleep on your bed like any normal person?”

“I’m not any normal person,” I pointed out.

“That’s true,” she said.

The reason that I wasn’t sleeping in my room was that it was very full of painting, which kept staring at me, declaring by its very presence my lack of talent. It was supposed to be a self-portrait – a familiar art exercise to get me back into the swing of things. I’d worked on the background, but there was a big hole where I was supposed to be.

“Sorry,” I said, giving her a charming smile, happily aware that this wasn’t the same as promising not to do it anymore.

To make up for my deception I did the washing up. Sarah is always terribly pleased when other people do any form of cleaning as she is the only person in the house who is truly bothered by the filth and so ends up doing a lot of it. The sink was full of tepid water with a greasy film. I reached into it and scooped a handful of scrum from the plughole.

Sarah had thoughtfully made enough pasta for both of us.

“I met Lucifer in a café this morning,” I remarked conversationally as she dished up.

“Oh right. Who’s he – one of your gentleman admirers?”

“No; Lucifer,” I said. “The fallen angel. He cooked my breakfast.”

Sarah looked at me anxiously.

“What?”

*

I’d been feeling grey, doomed and gloomy all day, lying on the sofa unmoving. My friend Max came round and gave me something to make me feel better and dragged me out of the house.

We went to the pub first and got a bit pissed.

On the way to the club we got chips and ate them by the seafront. We were served by a man in a white spandex jump suit, in dark glasses, with his hair piled up in a big greasy quiff. As we handed over our money he said “thank ya very much.”

“Are we really going to Avenge?” said Max, starting the debate we always have before going to Avenge, alternating roles occasionally.

“Yes.”

“But it’s horrible.”

“Where else is there? We’re both young, gay, single.”

“But everyone there will be old, gay and single. And deranged.”

“Yes,” I said, laughing. “But where else is there?”

I felt light and joyful and ready to dance to awful music. The coloured lights of the Palace Pier shone beautifully.

*

I started seeing them everywhere after that – walking along the street, in shops and restaurants, on buses and trains; a bizarre assortment of superheroes, mythical figures, anthropomorphic personification and dead people.

I saw Clark Kent in the library. He was looking through the Romance section with a very stern, serious expression. He seemed utterly humourless. I decided not to try talking to him.

Sarah was getting increasingly worried about me, insisting that I go for healthy afternoon walks and buying me fresh fruit and vegetables. After her reaction to Lucifer, I didn’t bother telling her about the others, even if they were walking past us in the park.

One afternoon we went for a stroll on the pier, the sun beating down on us, wind lashing our hair about. We took a ride on the Waltzer. A tall man in a long dark cloak that hid most of his skull-like face was on duty, spinning the carriages extra fast. He chuckled in a deep bass voice when he made people squeal particularly loudly. Sarah didn’t seem to notice him.

A new highly-coloured Fortune Teller’s tent had been erected next to a hotdog stand. Sarah wanted to go inside. I was more hesitant.

I used to believe in all that stuff. I broke my arm when I was seven by jumping out of a tree, trying to fly. I really thought that if I truly believed that I could then I would. I became horribly disillusioned at the age of eleven when I had my fortune told at a school summer fete. The fortune teller was one of the sixth-form girls dressed up with big dangly earrings and excessive eye make-up, in a two-man tent draped in pink muslin, pungent with burning incense. She told me that I was going to marry a girl with the initials MC.

It wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t to know – but that day something within me died. I knew that I wouldn’t be marrying MC, whoever she was. My way of seeing the world was changed forever.

This fortune teller was different. She was Cassandra of Troy, the prophecies of whom would always come true, though none would believe her. One look in her deep, dark, haunted eyes told me that she could tell me the future and it would be devastating.

I bemused Sarah by forbidding her to have her palm read.

“Perhaps you are right,” said Cassandra, shaking her head solemnly.

*

Max asked if I’d like to go out and of course I said yes, anything to get away from my painting. Sarah tutted and implored and I smiled and dismissed her like usual. I left her on the sofa watching something dreadful on ITV and eating dry cereal from the packet. I felt a surge of guilt as she looked at me with reproachful eyes, but I pushed it down somewhere hidden. How could she expect me to look after her when I was falling apart myself?

We went to Avenge.

All the usual crowd were there. Avenge is a plethora of gay caricatures; grown men who should know better, awash with fake tan, bleach and styling products. The clothes were tight, loud, showy, unfashionably fashionable, fetishistic. The music was bad. Coloured lights flashed and spun. Lips formed the words of the songs. Bodies writhed. Eyes followed, some keen and lustful, other deadened and sad.

I was drunk, but I needed to be.

Lucifer was dancing in a circle of men. In the disco lighting his body glowed brightly, but his hair and eyes appeared darker than before. He wore a pair of ripped jeans; a bulging prospect with a silken naked chest.

I watched him lustfully, my heart aching with yearning.

Suddenly he was looking at me, his eyes boring into me intensely. I began to sweat.

He started walking towards me, the densely packed crowd making way for him, and slowly his wings unfolded in an exquisite arch of whiteness and light.

He stood before me, smiling. My mouth opened, but my brain provided no words. All I could do was stare.

He placed one hand on my chest, over my heart. I could feel the heat through my t-shirt. My heart beat harder and faster, the blood rushing through my veins. He caressed my chest, then wrapped both arms around me. He pulled me towards him so that our bodies were locked together. His lips collided with mine and we kissed frantically, desperately, hot, passionate kisses.

I collapsed onto him in a state of bliss.

I didn’t notice the change, but when we broke apart we were somewhere different entirely.

It was the arcade on the Palace Pier. There were pinball machines, fruit-machines and computer games littered about all over the place. The surfaces of some of them had been used to support classical statuettes, silver trays of canapés and glasses of champagne. Two huge, gaudy chandeliers hung from the ceiling, casting bright light throughout the room. A string quartet was playing on a small stage in a corner.

Lucifer was now wearing a beautiful blue velvet suit. He laughed at my confusion.

He took my arm and lead me in a dance. My feet seemed to know the steps somehow, following after him eagerly.

They were all there. As we danced through the room to the jaunty music I spotted all the strange people I’d been seeing around Brighton, all decked out in fancy clothes, laughing and spinning. Clark Kent was dancing with Cassandra, both of them looking suitably grim about it. There were legendary folk heroes, dead rock singers and movie stars slugging back champagne; a glorious phantasmagoria.

My head spun with the music and the laughter and the alcohol. I swayed, and Lucifer took hold of me firmly, securing me.

“It’s alright, I’ve got you,” he said.

*

I woke up this morning face down on a hard wooden floor.

At first I thought that I was dead. It was very dark, and it took me a while to work out where I was. There was a fibreglass vampire looming over me in the dark, grooves and metals rails in the floor. I was inside the Ghost Train.

Outside the wind was up and the sun was beginning to rise. The pier was completely deserted.

I’ve been watching the sun come up. The sky has been awash with the most beautiful colours, contrasting starkly with the burnt out shell of the ghostly West Pier in the distance, now a charred insect skeleton.

I stood by the railing, leaning over slightly, gazing out to sea. The sun caught the crest of the waves, sparkling like a million winking eyes.

Below me the sea lapped gently against the wooden posts. Just under the surface of the water I could see people smiling and waving, beckoning to me. I thought that I recognised some of the faces, but a movement in the water obscured the view. I waved back at them and smiled. The water cleared and I could see them down there, among the albino mur-people I always knew existed; my parents and further down my grandparents, waving and smiling.

I felt warm and protected, like I was still wrapped in his wings, safe and secure.

Everything was so beautiful. It welled up and overwhelmed me.

I wanted to paint it. I wanted to join it, become one with it. I swept the sky with big arm movements, tracing the lines and the colours.

How could anyone stand it? Trying to capture such beauty in paint or words and failing again and again?

I climb carefully onto the railing, balancing precariously, arms stretched out.

The air was full of light and sounds, currents of warmth and cold, beautiful colours and patterns, music from the sea and echoing from somewhere far away, bird feathers, sadness and joy.

I look up to the sun and smile.

I know without a shadow of a doubt; this time if I jump, I will fly.

 

ãLuke Bowyer, 2004

 

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