I had been single for nine years when I met Spider. The sky was overcast. I smelled fried onions, heard the sizzle of hot oil from the kebab van by the side of the road as I made my way to the park. My watch still sat on the bedside table; it could have been any time between five and seven. The last nine years could have passed between these hours; that halfway time after the evening but before nightfall, when clouds and shadow obscure the sky like muddied waters and the streetlights seem premature. As I approached the van, I found myself wondering if there was such a thing as any other time. It didn’t feel that way to me.
I visited the park often in the evenings, but rarely this van. It was the same park where I used to play with my friends as a small boy. I liked to watch for dragonflies in the spring, and pond skaters, and the fat worms that emerged from the soil when summer turned and it began to rain.
There was no rain that night. Three silhouettes huddled around the light from the counter. Stronger than the streetlights and nearer, the glow reminded me of a lamp, the people like fat moths in their vast overcoats. Two of them stood slightly apart, mouths close to their food, chewing slowly behind their collars. I can still remember the sound of their chewing, the gradual motion of their jaws, the grinding of pitta or grey doner meat between their teeth; a ceaseless mastication.
The third man stood by the serving hatch while the van’s occupants prepared his order. He didn’t turn, but stepped slightly to one side as I came up behind him. This close to the van, the aroma of vinegar, cheap aftershave, and hot Middle Eastern spices was almost overpowering. I ordered quickly, my mouth watering, eyes burning slightly from the onion and the cold.
I didn’t realise the man had spoken to me until I felt his hand on my shoulder. My flinch startled him, but his hand had startled me first. After nine years, the loneliness had become a part of me, and it wasn’t used to being touched.
“You dropped this.”
He wasn’t tall, but he had a couple of inches on me. He looked older, maybe mid-thirties to my twenty-nine. A thick crop of blonde hair gave him a youthful aspect, as did his smile, but his eyes were honest. I wondered if he was doing the same to me; reading my face, my mouth, my mother’s brown eyes. Still teary, cheeks flushed from the chill, I thought I must have looked one-hundred and nine.
He extended his hand again, and I realised he was holding a tenner. The note was crumpled between his finger and thumb. I took it quickly, careful not to brush his fingers with my own. Behind us, in one of the many tiny gardens squashed between the rows of terraced houses, a dog began howling.
We spoke while we waited for our food. Mostly it was he who spoke, but I replied when it was polite and, afterwards, when I wanted to. I learned he was Swedish, that he had moved here for work eight months ago and was missing his homeland dearly. The dog did not stop howling, but it was not unusual for dogs trapped in the small gardens here to sound off. I realised it was night. Even without my watch, we must have been speaking for hours. I had said very little, but the time had flown. I couldn’t have begun to imagine where it had gone.
We continued speaking at the park, and the week after in a coffee shop. One evening we visited the cinema where we caught a late showing of an indie film from his homeland. I didn’t – I don’t – understand the language. There were subtitles, but these paled in comparison to the sweeping panoramic shots of black lakes shining with starlight, and black cities lit up with little lights of their own; Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg, cities and the streets that made them up shivering like bright nests in the dark. I had not lived anywhere else than home, except for three brief years at university in Nottingham, and certainly not abroad. When the film was finished, he asked me whether I had enjoyed it. I told him I didn’t know what it had meant, but it was beautiful. He smiled.
I will never forget the day he met my parents. I think they had grown lonely in their own way from lack of any significant other in my life. It is a parent’s job to worry. Then they met him, and they seemed better. Though they had met him only briefly, that made me feel better, too.
It was summer when he asked me if I would visit Malmö with him. We were drinking red wine on the stained patio that amounted for my back garden. The paving slabs were cracked and hot. Weeds tickled the soles of my feet. He had not said how much he missed home, not since the first time we had met, but I caught him looking in the mirror sometimes. His was a pale face. I recognised guilt, and an emptiness that could have been my own. My Spider. Of course I said yes.
We flew that autumn, before the trees bared their branches and cobwebs glittered with more than flies. I had never flown before, but I was not afraid. I slept most of the way; the flight passed in the blink of an eye. The last six months had been a blur. After nine years of struggling like one of those flies trapped in silk, my life was speeding around me, and I was happy.
I couldn’t wait to explore the city; from what I could see as we navigated the roads, it actually shone. The night was black, the streetlamps tall, the buildings of a different sort to any I had ever seen before. I have never given much thought to heaven, or imagined what it might look like, but after last night, I would imagine it looks like this.
It did not take long to explore his apartment. One of the rooms was locked. The other two I surveyed in minutes: a main room, and a bathroom that doubled up as a storage cupboard. The main room featured a stove and several bare shelves. Dust coated the solitary windowsill like a second layer of paint. Looking back, he had seemed anxious, although I couldn’t tell why. We shared a futon and a heavy duvet to keep the draught at bay. Spiders fought over dust balls by the skirting boards. I fell asleep in his arms.
In the morning – this morning – I woke up to find myself gagged. The pain at my wrists told me they were bound, although I couldn’t see them from where I lay. I felt for Spider; his weight, his aftershave, the tap of his boots on the floor, anything to let me know he was still here. The house made sounds of its own, but none I could attribute to him. When I realised he had gone, I thought I was going to be sick. The back of my neck prickled, and my chest closed around my lungs so that every breath was small and tight. I felt a crushing sense of hollowness, like someone had reached inside of me and scooped everything out.
Outside was still black, but brightening, growing lighter with every passing hour. I am still lying here now, my face in the futon, knees tucked under my chest. I am on my side. The door that had yesterday been locked swings slightly ajar. A mattress spring buries uncomfortably into my naked hip.
I can’t hear the tap of Spider’s boots, but I can hear other things, moving behind the unlocked door. I have been listening to them for what feels like hours, scratching in the darkness, testing the stairs. The first I see of them is a white hand, fingers curling around the doorframe. The digits are long, skeletal. I think that whoever the hand belongs to must be very Nordic, or very ill.
The figures slink cautiously into the light. From where I lie, I can count three of them; I don’t know if they are his family, but there is a likeness in their arms, their slender legs, the long curvature of their necks as they scuttle closer. They too are naked. I don’t recognise their bald heads, or their mouths, except maybe to liken them to the mouthparts of newly-hatched dragonflies.
They move cautiously but with an eagerness that bears them quickly across the floor. Behind them, on the other side of the room, I can see the apartment’s sole window. Outside, the sky is grey, muddied with swirls of darker cloud, like gutter water run through with grime. I don’t know what time it is, or where my watch is, but I know that it is sometime between five and seven. I wonder if time ever sped up, if I ever escaped the spider’s web, or if that was just another illusion; the distorted perception of a thing struggling its last, trapped for months, years, almost a decade in a life from which there is no escape.
I am not struggling now. Somewhere outside, a dog begins barking. Perhaps it senses my fear, but I don’t think so. More likely it hears the wet chewing sounds that are filling the room; sucking, crunching, the roaring of blood in my ears. I think of two men, huddled around a van, nuzzling strips of grey meat, then a city doing likewise, then the world; for one moment billions of men, women, and children bent prostrate, heads bowed, mouths quick as they devour their hands.
I am not struggling, and I am not afraid. The mattress sinks around me as they shift, biting harder, bringing me to tears. My vision blurs. I think about last night, about the city streaming past me, and my place in it, tiny and awestruck. I remember the magnitude of the blackness, and the lights below, like golden pinpricks. I think about that first conversation with Spider, and the ensuing six months; the first and only time when I have ever been happy. It seems a small price to pay. As I drift away, I remind myself I am in heaven, foodstuff for angels with black eyes and butterfly’s skin.
~ Thomas Brown
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