Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2020  Vol. 19 No. 1
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Of cabbages and kings

One by one the others notice her, lifting their fret-filled, milky faces as she drags over a chair to the circle so that she can sit with us. She is drunk already and it fills me with a tilting, vulgar pride.

Everyone else knows one another but she is unapologetic and it makes her magnificent. It makes her rare. Straight away she turns to the man who is talking, her expression rapt, a hand pressed to her throat. She crosses one leg over the other and rocks her raised foot gently, letting the sandal hang from her toes, about to fall. She tips her head, keen somehow to speak but not speaking yet and so filled with energy that her teeth might ring out like a glass if they were tapped. The man finally has to acknowledge her.

“Hello there,” he says, carefully, deliberately. “Are you . . . ?”

He frowns and then raises his eyebrows in expectation. This is the time for her to tell everyone who she is. She must explain herself and say why she has come among us. Some of the others appraise her quietly. Her earnestness. The easy way that her clothes hang. She might be some eternal, essential creature who could wear anything or, they of course also suspect, nothing.

She nods back at the man and raises a finger then points into the air and finally at me and smiles faintly, as if some throwaway joke might only now be returning to her mind. She hands responsibility for herself even to me.

“Helen?” he asks.

“I’m with Helen,” she says happily.

The man turns then too. He’s a manager even though he isn’t my manager.

“It’s true,” I say.

Her smile inheres. It lifts everyone with it.

“This is Carrie,” I say.

“Carrie,” she says, nodding.

“Ahm. So . . .” The man is giving himself over to irritation, maybe even to a sort of fear. Something so fundamental that it is beyond thinking, like the fear that some animals have for water. “Right.”

He points at me. His face has never looked so unworthy, so cumbrous.

“Are you . . . ?” he says and he turns back to point at Carrie. “So you’re friends with Helen?”

“She’s a germ thief,” I say and immediately I regret it, because no one else here is drunk enough.

Carrie tips her head toward all of the blinking eyes and then speaks in a single breath. Words moving about for who knows what reason in her alveolate mind until something deep inside compels her to spill them out again into the world.

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax. Of cabbages and kings.”

She frowns and nods and closes her mouth again and the others sitting around only stare at her. She is grave in this as in everything.

The man shakes his head. Perhaps he understands something in Carrie’s manner as a challenge even.

“I . . .” he says, with a fluttering of his brows and a plucking of his finger and thumb. Then more irritably. “What?”

I lean forward.

“She’s my flatmate,” I say quickly and it breaks the low and crooked spell. “Carrie.”

The heart and lungs of so much adventure. Sometimes the squire and sometimes the tattered knight-errant.

“Carrie,” she says joyously as if only now she has remembered.

She might have been in the pub all afternoon. On Fridays, she finishes work at lunchtime.

As more people finish up for the day and come down to the bar from the office next door, the circle breaks up so that in the end Carrie and I can slip away to an overlooked place at the bar, opposite the man I have brought here to appraise.

“There,” I say quietly, nodding toward him. “There.”

“That’s him?”

“Yes. Stefan.”

“Interesting,” she says and she even sits back in her chair to consider him better. “The one with the . . .”


But she is only pausing while she thinks of which word to choose.

“The bajingo.”

“No,” I say. “Well, yes.”

“He looks fresh and wiry,” she says nodding, and straight away she waves across at him where he stands by the door. He continues talking and then, without a smile, without any warning, he points at us with the forefingers of both his hands and pretends to shoot.

“Bang bang,” Carrie says and she turns her head deliberately to look away. “He’s not as tall as he looked in the thing.”

“He’s OK tall, though.”

“No, I get it,” she says. “He looks like a juggler.”

“A park juggler.”

“Oh,” she says and the idea delights her. “A funambulist.”

When he comes over to us, Stefan moves all the way in a slow, unselfconscious jog, arriving beside us breathing in and out deeply as if the effort has exhausted him. He comes wrapped in a play of coyness.

“Hey, Helen,” he says and he puts a hand on my shoulder, because he touches people when he speaks to them. “And Helen’s friend.”

Carrie holds up her hand toward him and he takes it in his and leans forward to kiss the rings on her fingers. Three kisses, looking up along the outstretched arm into her dark, impulsive eyes.

“What are you guys doing later?” he asks and I shrug.

“We’re going to see the lights,” Carrie says.

“We don’t have a plan,” I say.

“No,” she says firmly. “The aurora borealis.”

“The lights?” Stefan says.

He puts his hand on my shoulder again, on my arm, and this might already be the longest conversation we have ever had outside of the office.

“But look,” he says, brushing aside Carrie’s plan. “We’re going to a party in town. In Soho. Danny knows where. It’ll be peng.”

“No.” Carrie tuts. She arches her eyebrows. “A place isn’t peng.”

Stefan looks at her. His eyes are inquisitive, searching something out, trying to discover what slippery treasures there might be. She tuts again.

“She’s peng.” Carrie points at me. “I’m peng. Soho isn’t peng.”

“No, I like you,” Stefan says, wagging a finger. “You guys should definitely come. It’s horrible here. I can’t believe we always come down.”

But already, his friend is beckoning from the other side of the room. The time is up and so he is off again, running slowly away, waving his hand at us behind his head. So much zeal, so much swagger.

“He likes you,” Carrie says, when he might still even be able to hear us.

I wait until the two men have gone out into the street.

“I think he liked you,” I say.

“Go on, show me the thing again,” she says.

“God. Not here.”

“Go on.”

“You’ve seen it.”

“It didn’t have a face on it before. It was only a bajingo.”

Her eyelids are heavy and she cannot quite bring her eyes to look into mine. Drunkenness is honing her already.

“You’re dirty.”

She draws back from the waist to look at me in a mockery of affrontment.

“There’s no time for men,” she says and she taps me in the chest, once, twice. “We’ll follow the sky.”

The idea makes her soften and laugh too. An unreachable sound, almost a snarl.

“These are the instructions,” she says, putting down on the bar a copy of the Evening Standard that she has folded up almost into a roll.

“There,” she says, stooping over the pages to read. “‘Watchers across the UK will be treated to a sparkling display of the northern lights.’”

I follow her finger on the line.

“It says Lancaster and Devon,” I say.

She tuts at me for my lack of belief.

“No, look. It says you can also see them in the darker parts of London,” she says.

I lean over to read the paragraph she is tapping.

“It says you might be able to. It says there’s a small possibility.”

“For one night only,” she says.

“Soho is full of dark places,” I say.

She slaps her hand on the paper on the bar then more calmly strokes her cheeks and her forehead.

“My face feels red.”

She looks at me, with her hand on her chin, and shakes her head.

“I mean,” I say. “Obviously, we should check.”

Because like a ladder reaching up into night, I understand that this is how I can please her. A chase off and out across the city and into the beginnings of the night, even if all of the nights are only one night really.

“Come on,” she says abruptly and pushes my elbow off the bar. “Sleazy’s right. It’s boring here.”

Into the sparkling streets. The unpredictable streets. We are children peeping out together at the filthy world. By the time we are traveling by bus through the middle of Islington and up into Camden, it is already quite dark and I am drunk too. Carrie sits beside me sullen with a can of cider in her lap and the featherings already of a hangover.

“What did you think of him, then?” I say.


“Him. Stefan. The IT boy.”

“The porn guy?”


“Well.” A pause. “He was quite hairy.”

She hands me the can of warm cider.

“A bit too much hair perhaps?” she tries.

“I think he’s fit,” I say, but I am watching her.

She screws up her face.

“I can’t really remember what he looks like,” she says.

I take out my phone to show her but then remember the other people sitting quietly around us.

“When we get off. We can’t look at it on the bus.”

She shrugs and yawns, losing interest, but not losing focus since we have a plan. The same plan we always have. We must stay keep going in case something else happens.

I unfold the newspaper.

“It says you have to go as far north as you can.”

“Well. Ideally,” she says.

“Hang on. It says Coventry.”

She only frowns.

“I’m not going to the Midlands,” I say.

But I would. I might.

“I thought perhaps St. Albans counted as the Midlands,” she says. “We could get a black cab. It’s almost still in London.”

“Are you going to pay for it?”

She blows out through closed lips and screws up the newspaper.

“We could try Primrose Hill,” she says.

“With the druids?”

“And the rich people.”

The evening has become slack and slow. It is losing heat.

“What are we doing?” Carrie says as we walk along a main road from Camden.

“Following a star.”

“No, I mean always. What are we doing?”

She stops and looks about, as if she might have no idea how we have come to the place where we find ourselves. She has begun to pass into the gloom that is never far in her from excitement, as if any show of contentment must be obscene. She pricks at my complaisance, she taunts me.

“Why don’t we go to Soho? We don’t know people here,” I say.

But in answer she bursts out again with words from the same poem she has learned and is speaking from memory.

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.”

Her manner is wild and insistent now, mocking me in a way that I can’t follow. She is moving into another place. We might still be in the part of the night that she will remember, but the border cannot be far and I have to stay as close as possible. We have reached a critical point.

“We’re kings,” I shout out in toward blur of where our feet move so close together.

Carrie laughs at my submission and then she stumbles and I have to run almost to catch up with her and for a moment we have slipped and are flying together. We are corsairs. We are the ghosts of foxes, breathing the city in so that it lives through our skin and our eyes. The nights are so deep and powerful, spilling out and up into the hillside park to where the grass is damp and reassuring and everything is dark.

Carrie looks up into the creamy clouds of the sky and takes a deep breath.

“Where shall we go now?” she says, her voice flat.

“We could go anywhere.”

No one expects us, no one needs us. I hear the cracking sound of her opening another can and I drop down onto the grass beside her.

“Anywhere,” she says.

“We could go to Soho?”

“To see your friend?”

She leans back flat on the ground and brings her forearm up across her face, covering her eyes.

“To capture him,” I say.

“God,” she says. “He looked like a dick.”

“He’s beautiful.”

She sits up.

“Show us the pictures.”

She laboriously crosses her legs as I get out my phone to find the blog I have looked at so often. The website that the office speaks about in delighted whispers.

“They called it ‘Mongoose and Snake’?” Carrie reads the title on the screen of my phone, close enough for me to feel the warmth of her forehead. She doesn’t offer me any of her drink now. It is only for her.

“I know, right?”

“So what? Is he the snake or the mongoose?”

“Mongooses are hairy,” I say.

We scroll down from picture to picture and ignore the poems in between. Almost all of the photos have been taken in the same two or three rooms. A bedroom, a kitchen, a room with a sofa and a bookcase. I scroll through to one where some of Stefan’s face is visible. In it he has his long hair tied back into a ponytail and is wearing lipstick and eye shadow. He is stooping over a woman, who has turned her face away from the camera and seems to be laughing. In all of the pictures they are naked and in most of them they are having sex.

“It feels like you could work out where they live from these pictures,” Carrie says.

I move down and back up again.

“In some of them you can see a bus stop outside through the window. We worked it out. It’s near Brick Lane.”

In one picture they crouch together in a forest beside a fallen tree trunk. In another, the woman wears a mask and socks and Stefan stands with his arms by his sides and his erection pointing dolefully at the camera.

“They’ve got a cat,” Carrie says finally.

“Just look at him. He’s so pretty.”

“Do people talk about this at work?”

“I do.”

She laughs.

“Do you think she makes him do these things?” I ask.

Carrie reaches up to take the phone from me and starts to thumb down the pictures. The screen casts a faint light onto her eyes and nose and chin.

“She looks like she’s wrestling a pig there,” Carrie says. “She has strong arms.”

“There are some where he ties her up.”

“She should tie him up,” Carrie says. “Then you could touch him.”

“Let’s go to Soho.”

“Would you let him do that to you?” she asks, pointing.

“I like him in lipstick,” I say.

“He looks like he’s eaten soap.”

“I think it would be different if we did this stuff. More special, sort of. I wouldn’t make him kneel down.”

Carrie continues to scroll.

“Has she got her finger up his arse in that one?”

I take the phone back off her without looking and lock the screen.

“It’s degrading,” she says and laughs.

“I’ll steal him from her and then we can have our own blog.”

She nods and blows out and looks up. She doesn’t speak for so long I wonder if she has fallen asleep sitting slumped forward.

“They lied to us,” I say into the clouds. “There’s nothing going on up there at all. It’s rubbish.”

“We’re just pissing around,” Carrie says. “What are we doing?”


“We’re not doing anything,” she says. “I’ve got to move out.”

Then with more decision.

“I’m going to buy somewhere.”

“What are you going to buy?”

“There’s got to be something else. We’re stuck. I should go back to Spain.”

Desperate sounds, veined with anger and even wretchedness, since it should be clear that our arrangement is inadequate. The lifestyle that we share must only be a temporary one.

I stand up.

“I’m going to Soho.”

She looks up at me limply.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go and rescue the Mongoose.”

“He’s a grubby boy,” she says.

Her eyes are like pieces of smoky ice. She stares and stares and I know that she can’t see me properly anymore. She tries to get up too and falls back so I pull her up by the arm. I lean in close to her ear, coaxing her along with me, her head against my shoulder. She has almost no smell at all.

Buses again and we don’t talk much anymore. We keep going through lunges of effort. Colors splash onto our faces like sounds, jarring and then reassuring. Splashing on our eyes and our hands and our feet. I start to recognize some of the buildings around as we come into the center again through streets filled with people and cars. Halfway down Tottenham Court Road, Carrie opens her arms and looks about her in alarm then stands up and so I stand up too. This is the way of traveling in the night. Fitfully. Moving in and around people, following somehow the tiny lights of my phone like a twisting pathway marked out with pebbles up to a doorway of deep, tangible red, staked by bouncers, and stairs behind it into the ground. Black and grimy, through the earth into the closeness of the underneath. We might have gone home but we have earned ourselves more time. We have held our breath and swum between two pockets of air in the flooded cave and we are safe again.

In the bar downstairs, Stefan has changed from his work clothes to a yellow vest that shows how thin and wiry his arms are. They would have been surprisingly thin if I hadn’t already seen them. He shouts when he notices us, almost a howl, but higher pitched, and he pushes past the men he has been standing with.

“Ladies, ladies.”

He claps his hands together but gleefully and then opens his arms wide to pull us both into him. He coos to us, clicking his tongue. We are the only women in his corner of the drab, half-empty room and he touches at us excitedly, proprietorially. He might have promised us to his friends.

“Have a drink,” he shouts and without a pause he chooses between us and gives the smudged glass he has been holding to Carrie first, pointing his finger at her over the brim as she takes a sip.

“That’s it,” he says. “Drink up.”

“Don’t trust him,” I say so that both he and Carrie can hear, but she only blinks back up at him and I know she can survive whatever poisons he gives her. She will break herself before anyone else can get the chance.

I stare at him and when he looks up, almost as if he has heard my thoughts, he takes the glass from Carrie and lifts it to my mouth too. This is his world and he is scornfully assured.

Carrie takes the straw hat from his head and puts it on. She tips her head back and lifts her eyebrows and speaks to him defiantly.

“The time has come, the ladies say, to talk of many things.”

She turns both hands in the air and Stefan touches at the brim of his hat on her head.

“Of ships and shoes and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.”

He laughs with frightening exaggeration and I can see in the red lines at the edges of Carrie’s eyes that she might step in front of me to take something whether she needed it or not.

“So are you guys like best friends?” Stefan asks as another man hands him a new glass and rubs him across the stomach.

Carrie rolls her eyes.

“God,” she says. “And we live together. Imagine.”

Rather than a lament, her voice is despairing. That the life we are living must be a predicament from which we both surely long to escape, never something to be desired or to be relished. But I must speak too, or I will be left clinging to her ankles.

“We’re trapped in a curse,” I say.

Already, Carrie presses her shoulder against Stefan’s arm while she talks. Like this she makes herself a part of the group and Stefan hooks a finger into the rim of the bracelet she wears loose on her wrist. All of the things that I know and have shown her about this man and I wonder what she might whisper to him first. The tattoos that his girlfriend has along her fingers and up onto her arms. Their strange, coquettish nicknames for one another. Even the deathly, mottled cat. I watch her lips as she speaks and notice as if for the first time how dry and bitten at they seem. Dull, fleshy, ridiculous lips.

The other men have started to dance about us in a protective circle, crashing into one another and spilling their drinks, and maybe I dance too, although time has started to slip. From between everything else, Stefan is suddenly beside me again and it feels as though he has reached over and touched my shoulder with infinite, immense kindness, to wake me up.

“Come,” he says, blinking, beckoning. “Come and tell me who you really are.”

I turn to find Carrie, but she is nowhere to be seen, and still Stefan brings me to him. He seems to lift me with him into the corner of the room. I look down, at our feet and afterward at the floor to the side, so as to avoid his eyes. I can’t remember why we came here or what I expected by it. As he stretches his arm around my shoulder his shirt lifts for a moment and I can see the dark skin of his stomach. The hair there is stubbled. He leans close and hugs me in against him.

“So then,” I say to him. Dry, nonsense words to fill the space. “What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?”

The long lashes flutter about Stefan’s half-closed eyelids. The dark hairs in his nostrils and the faint lines around his mouth. He snorts and smiles through one side of his mouth only. A wet gleam of tooth.

“You two talk a lot of bollocks,” he says gluttonously.

And with no more discussion, as if this declaration must settle everything, he leans forward to touch his forehead against mine and girdle me with an arm. But it is an act almost of disavowal, not of abandonment, and with it a sigh, to show me perhaps how simple his choice has been. In the end, the kiss is surprisingly gentle. He only dabs at my mouth with closed lips and I lift my hand dutifully to touch at his neck and his arms. Everything could be happening to someone else. We are trespassers here, and our status is uncertain. Stefan pulls back and his face has become serious, almost frightened looking, and with a quick gasp he takes a handful of my shirt and twists it toward him, bringing my body up against his own. So close together now that I hold my breath even. But then I hear Carrie’s voice, lifting ripely above the music from where she stands facing one of Stefan’s friends with a finger raised. So small between them all and insolent.

“Madam,” she shouts at him, making each word stand out gloriously in her indignation. “You are a disgrace.”

And still I might burst into laughing or cry out in spite of the trap of this kiss. Tooth jarring against clumsy tooth. Huddled together in the shadows, whatever lights there may be unfurling brazenly above the dark, daring city.

Stefan’s breath on my tongue tastes hot and brawny stale, like wet earth. Like tar or blood.


As it all might have been. As it was once and so part of the making of this stark, cold moment now. This long, lonely walk of empty time and wasting sunlight.

I stopped at a flower stand and walked off again without buying anything, as if that way I might never have to arrive, step after step after step. But of course I did arrive. Inside the reception, I joined the back of the queue to the desk and then left it again almost straight away and went back over to by the main doors instead. Once or twice I pressed with my foot at the mat that made them open, until a man nearby turned to face me, and so I went outside again to sit on a bench by the main road, holding my phone. Then I rang her father to say I had been held up at work. He told me she was sleeping and in the quiet afterward I could hear him swallowing. He was the father of a grown-up child who had been returned to his care and was being carried along by an effort that he had never expected and that might use up whatever life he had left to him.

“She’s comfortable at the moment,” he said eventually in a quiet voice that seemed filled with wonder and I knew that somewhere near to where he stood, in the building above me, Carrie was lying under flimsy blankets and choked by machinery.

I imagined her as if I were showing her to someone for the first time. A pleading expression on her sleeping face, horribly not far from gratitude in my mind. Each hesitant breath, a desperate, total testament to the deepest idea of life. Her arm turned upward on top of the blanket showing the butterfly tattoo just inside her elbow and maybe the sleeping fingers of her other hand just touching at it.

“I’ll come by tomorrow,” I said into the phone.

“She’d like that,” he said after a pause.

“I’m really sorry about today. Things just got. You know.”

“Yes,” he said. Then filled with apprehension. “Yes, of course.”

I walked back past the Tube station and I kept going, since walking was the easiest thing to do. Strangers everywhere moved alarmingly against the cold calm of the city. Haphazard things that might loom only for a moment from the blur and then fall away again. When the way up ahead was blocked by a couple waiting at a crossing, I turned down a side road to get away from them.

For a long time, I waited by a main road, swollen with buses and cars, as if the reds and yellows of light marked something I must approach with caution. I changed direction and then I changed direction again. As evening settled, people would be sitting down together in front of their televisions or at their tables. All of them with lives that might be ruined or saved without the least fanfare.

Not far away still, someone who had been my friend lay with her eyes closed and her father as her only crouching witness. But how little the moments in another life can seem when they are shaded from us. I didn’t even know at first that she had gone back into hospital. When we didn’t see each other much and a whole year might have gone by in between, we would still always meet up for the fireworks at Blackheath. The last time, she wore a scarf that covered her neck and followed the line of her jaw up over her ears to tuck under her woolen hat so that I wondered if it was hiding something on her skin or if she had lost her hair. She said she was tired but we stayed until the end of the display. When they lit the bonfire, she held on to my sleeve, her knuckles white against my coat. For the first time we didn’t go to the pub afterward and as we hugged each other she held on tight and she was shivering. Perhaps her last unwitting gift might be to show me that I would never be brave in the ways I pretended.

In a street of old factory buildings where the walls had been covered in layers of graffiti and stuck about with flyers, I stopped in front of the open doorway to a gallery hung with black paintings. The room was empty, but through an opening in the far wall, I could make out a darker room filled with people holding drinks and talking. There was a familiar intensity to the low purposeful voices. The street outside might have been marked with spots of trodden-down gum and the waste of street animals but the cement floor inside was swept clean and the gallery seemed to shine as if under an enchantment. It brimmed with the assurance of the insider. How easy it might have been to slip through the doorway and stand about at the edges of the group. On and on it all went. There was no stopping the roll.

Across the room, a man in a purple shirt and a round, black hat was watching me now, even while he nodded to the other people around him. He tipped back his head to laugh and said something to the others so that they laughed too but when he went back to sipping his beer he was looking over at me again. After a moment, he raised an arm, almost pointing toward me, almost beckoning, and his movements were purposeful as he took his first brisk steps across the room toward me. The laughter here mocked me, but I knew a secret that this man could not yet even imagine. Everything that was daring would fade.

We met in the open doorway, across the threshold from one another, and stood without speaking. The man was slight up close, almost a boy, with the half-smile of a prude. But of course he was also a gatekeeper. He was the troll who had been set upon the crumbling bridge to guard it and I knew that if I moved at all it could change whatever happened next. The boy’s lips twitched and he reached out unconsciously to touch at the handle to the door beside us as if to steady himself. It was an innocent gesture, since he could have had no sense of the power he had taken on, and yet suddenly I understood what he was going to do and the notion came to me with something like love, as if he had placed a droplet of healing water onto my upturned face to spread out through my aching, pleading body. Whatever came next, I would learn the part I needed to eventually.

The boy’s cruel, elegant hand hung on the door handle between us. It almost trembled beneath my gaze and, from somewhere in the dark of the street behind me, Carrie slid up against my shoulder. So close that I might have been able to feel the spark of her breath on my cheek. So close that her laughter would shake through my body. Don’t worry, she whispered, at once bold and bored and playful. Wait till he’s gone, then try to get in round the side.

Dance with the beautiful clowns. Drink all of their wine.  

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