It began with flowers.
Aeron Harris could barely rouse himself to answer the summons from the front door. Black and purple smudges bruised the skin beneath his eyes, and a delicate web of red snared the whites. He hadn’t washed for days, and his pale, gaunt cheeks were covered in a coarse, black, itchy fur, the skin beneath smattered with angry red scratch marks. He had worn the same black tee shirt and grey jeans for over a week, but seemed oblivious to the smell coming from his own body.
The morning sun pierced his eyes like golden shrapnel, and he lifted a hand to shade them whilst the other hand gripped the battered white-wood door for support.
“Delivery,” was the greeting the stranger gave. Aeron grunted and took the bouquet of lilies from the blonde haired man and closed the door in his face, pulling the card from between sticky green stems as he trudged back up to his top floor flat. The message, much like it’s sender, his sister, was short and sweet.
His lips twitched briefly, but came nowhere near to smiling. After setting the flowers in water, he returned to the couch, rolled himself another cigarette and lay his head back on the arm to stare at the smoke drifting up to the ceiling. A traitorous tear escaped from the corner of his eye; his angular face slowly creased. He turned onto his side and held his torso tight, but could not suppress the sobs that violently shook his body. He threw himself off the stained settee, stumbling into the small coffee table, and staggered to the sink. As he lifted the bottle of whiskey to his lips, movement from the corner of his eye made him hesitate. He turned to stare at the vase with the lilies; as he did so, another dead petal fell to the counter. The flowers had withered and died.
“Come on; up.”
“Go ’way, Car.”
“Now. Christ, you stink! What, have you been saving it all up or something? Don’t tell me you’ve given up on hygiene now. Jesus. Come on. Shower. Now.” The world spins and my stomach lurches as my twin brother hauls me to an upright position. Drool has dried down the side of my face making the skin feel tight, and my mouth feels like I’ve gargled an ashtray and chewed on the butts.
“Wha’ time’s it?” My voice comes out more like a growl than human speech.
“Shower time.” Carwyn is slouched on the armchair opposite me, looking like a human cat, elegant and poised in his black jeans and long sleeved tee shirt, bright eyed and bushy… I hate him for a moment, for being so goddamned perfect, crisp cut and neat as a bloody whistle. We are almost identical, but, looking down at my stained tee shirt and rasping a hand over my cheek, I can’t help but feel his polar opposite.
Good. Who would want to be so fucking perfect anyway?
“Coffee?” I ask hoarsely.
“You shower, I’ll make the coffee.”
Grunting, I slowly unbend from the sofa, stiff with having slept awkwardly, and shuffle like an old man to the bathroom. Stripping is a lot of fun; it takes me four goes and a lot of swearing to get the belt on my jeans unclasped, and then another two tries to open the buttons. There is a spider in the bath.
“Sorry, buddy,” I murmur. “I’m in no mood to shower with anyone.” Reaching up, I unhook the showerhead from its holder and reach for the tap, pausing at an ache in my shoulder. My eyes flitter to the spider. It has already curled into a ball, playing dead as if it knows what’s coming. It doesn’t move even when the water hits it and washes it away.
The heat and water help to clear some of the cobwebs and soothe the aches, but they can’t reach deep enough to soothe the other agonies.
Carwyn is absent from the kitchen-living area when I stick my head through the door on my way to the bedroom, but I’m not worried; he often disappears and reappears unannounced. Hope he’s gone to get some bloody booze. Knowing him he’s gone for bottled water or something ridiculous. I dig through the clothes that litter every available surface in a futile attempt to find something clean to wear, becoming more angry with every filth-encrusted garment I unearth, throwing and kicking them around the room like a petulant child. At last I find some clean underwear in the drawer, and settle for a pair of jeans that have been worn once and a black tee shirt that smells less than the rest. Carwyn still isn’t back when I return to the living room.
“I’ll make my own coffee, then, shall I?”
It was New Year’s day, or rather New Year’s evening, and they were making their way home from drinks with Jin’s friends. Something that Debs had said played in Aeron’s mind; “It’s not going to last long. I just don’t feel any passion for him, you know?”
“Do you feel passion for me?” he asked Jin, his voice made small by the icy wind.
“What?” The word came out like a bullet.
“I was just thinking about what Debs said… Do you?”
“Not this again.” His stride became faster, feet stabbing at the pavement.
“What? You-” Jin stopped and whirled to face him.
“Do you realise you’ve been doing this all weekend? Fishing, asking how you look, if I fancy you, and now this! It’s got to stop.” He glared at an Indian couple walking past, then continued in a subdued voice. “What the fuck has gotten into you? You never used to be this clingy.”
Aeron’s face became a mask cast in stone. “Has anyone you loved ever told you they had to force themselves to have sex with you? Do you know how that feels?”
“You’re just inferring your own interpretations now, if you actually listened to what I was saying you’d know I didn’t mean it like that. Christ, this shit has got to stop! It’s shit like this that will break us up. Our problems aren’t that big a deal until they twist through your head and come out like this!”
“What, the fact that you can’t bring yourself to have sex with me but you can spend all night on the internet chatting up boys and getting your rocks off with them?”
A shopkeeper had come to stand in the doorway to watch them argue, and a man walking his dog had stopped on the opposite side of the street. With a glare at them both Jin snatched Aeron’s arm and started walking again. “I am not getting my rocks off with anyone. Yeah, I flirt, but I can think of nothing more boring than talking about sex for hours.” He sighed, a quick exhalation that held all the grief and anger he felt. “I’ve brought you here to see my friends, to see where I like to go, hoping to give you a good time and to let you into my world and you’ve thrown it back in my face again. Well thanks very much. I don’t know why I bother.”
“Look, I’m sorry. You can’t blame me though, the shit we’ve been going through.”
Jin whirled and almost spat in his face. “Where’s the boy I fell in love with? You used to challenge me; you used to be a man. Not this snivelling, whining thing…”
Delyth studied her brother with a scrutiny that only older sisters can achieve.
“You look ill,” she told him flatly.
She smiled, her heart shaped lips stretching into a cupid’s bow. “That’s what sisters are for.” Her delicate nose wrinkled. “And this place stinks.” She breezed past him, bringing in a whiff of clean air, cut grass and, faintly, Chanel No. 5. She turned at the top of the stairs; Aeron was only just mounting them. “Come on.” No brother of hers was going to live in a pigsty, and she said as much.
“It’s not a pigsty, Del. It’s just-”
“A bloody mess! Come on.” She turned on her sandaled heel and marched straight to the flat, expecting to be obeyed. To be fair, she was.
“Right then. Tell me you’ve got stuff to clean with?”
“Come on, Del-”
“Shush.” Under the sink; yes, there were some rags and cloths, cleaning products. “You start on the dishes then.” Without another word she set to; as a mother of three she was used to speed cleaning. There was rarely a moment’s worth of peace with the kids around, so she snatched the time she could with both hands and ran with it as quickly as her two small legs could go. Aeron grumbled, as was expected, but she ignored him. “Christ, Aer, look at the flies!”
“The flies! There’s dead flies everywhere! What have you been doing in here?”
She gave a delicate snort of laughter. “Exactly. Well, come on.” Within two hours they were both sweating, but the dishes had been cleaned and tidied away, the clothes had been sorted and some of them washed and the bathroom and kitchen were glistening. Delyth, Aeron thought, was like a fairy godmother.
“Go on, stick the kettle on,” Delyth demanded, retying her mahogany ponytail.
“Shit.” Aeron closed the fridge door. “No milk.”
“Is there a shop ‘round here?”
“Yeah, I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Baby, what’s wrong?” He’s barely been gone ten minutes. He should be in work. But even when he was here for his lunch break I knew something was up.
He won’t look me in the eye as he sets his bag on the armchair and drops to the opposite end of the couch.
“We need to talk.”
Of course we do. My gut feels like it is in freefall, dragging the rest of my body with it. My heart pounds in my ears, obscuring sound for a second. “Okay.”
He looks at me then, and tears prick at his eyes. I know what is coming.
“I’m not happy.” The tears fall.
“I haven’t been for a while now.”
He goes on to explain how working all these months to get this job has been his main focus, and how, now that it’s finally done, he’s finally got it, the mental block has gone, and he sees that it wasn’t just the stress of work, or family problems, or any other number of reasons he had thought our problems came from, but that it was us, our relationship, him. “I know it’s a cliché but I mean it, it’s not you, it’s me.” Strangely, my eyes are dry. Numb. I feel numb. “You knew, though, you had to have known.” Maybe on some level, I say, but not consciously. His face is a mask of misery, tears swelling his eyes, snot staining his lips with clear tracks. “You’ve been so great, you’re such a lovely guy” – apparently not great enough – “and I’ve tried, I’ve really tried, I’ve given you everything I could. You didn’t ask for much.” His face crumples again. “All I had to do was love you.” We talk for a while longer, and then I decide to have a nap. I’m exhausted, drained mentally, physically and emotionally. “Wait,” he says, “come here.” We hug, and now the tears come, threatening to overwhelm me. “No,” I slur. I push away and turn, almost running up the spiral staircase to the bedroom. I throw myself onto the bed, clutching at the pillow with pale claw-like hands, and let the grief have its way with my body. My stomach heaves as if I will throw up, jostling me around the bed with its force, my eyes and nose feel stuffed with wire-wool, way past maximum capacity, and my ears ring with the effort of trying to cry quietly.
“I hate him,” Aeron spat again. His face carved in lines of abhorrence.
“You don’t know that he did anything.”
“I’m not saying that he actually did, Car, but still, the thought was there.” Bastard. “It’s convenient how he doesn’t mention to this guy that the person he’s living with was his boyfriend, and that he knows him!” His voice became more agitated, growing louder with each slingshot word.
“This is why you shouldn’t read people’s emails. I think he was just confused-”
“STOP STICKING UP FOR HIM!”
“I’m not, Aer, I’m just saying-”
“Carwyn,” he warned.
I stomp about the flat for a while, opening and slamming cupboard doors, turning the laptop on and then off again. I wish I were one of those people who could throw anything within arms reach at the wall and not give a damn about the consequences. How could he? How could he have arranged to meet up with someone behind my back? With Owen? Stick insect alien boy? Christ. He couldn’t fuck me but he could fuck him? What does that say about me? My pacing and prowling has brought me to the bedroom. With a wordless, rage-filled battle cry I leap on the bed and start attacking one of the pillows, first punching it, then biting, clawing, until my mind slips back into place and I come to, surrounded by feathers and cotton, sweat stinging my eyes. I need to get out of here. I grope in my back pocket to make sure my keys are there, snag my wallet and tobacco from the coffee table and pound down the stairs, slamming the door behind me. The sun is bright through the small window high on the front door. It just pisses me off even more. The door crashes into the wall as I yank it open.
And stop dead.
There, on the small concrete pathway to the main road, caught in the overgrown grass and weeds of the tiny front garden… The sight takes my breath. My scalp feels too small for my head. Icy fingers tickle the back of my neck. My heart pounds behind my eyes making the carnage before me jump in time with my pulse. There are birds, birds of every description, pigeons, seagulls, magpies, crows, sparrows, jackdaws, chaffinches, swallows, and even what I think is a nightingale, it’s wings splayed and mangled as if it tried to break its fall. All of them dead.
I’m sat here listening to Johnny Cash ‘Hurt’ over and over. I’m a sorry excuse for a human being. Did you ever really love me? I loved you. I still love you. I can’t pretend to understand some of the things that happened, some of the things that you did, but I can try. When things were bad, I was there for you, I stuck by you. When you were stressed with work, when half your family was sick or dying, or when you were fed up with life, I was there for you. Does that mean nothing to you? We had some good times, didn’t we? Paris, Devon, Italy, London… I can’t remember them now. My pain blinds me. I know you want us to be friends, I do too, but right now I can’t be much of a friend, all I can do is hurt. I hope we can be good friends one day, and that we can be happy for each other. But not yet. I need to grieve, and to heal.
I’m just coming back from lunch with my sister. We had a good time, she made me get my hair cut too, so my neck and shoulders are itchy, and I’m thinking about the shower I’m going to take when I get back in. I don’t notice the man standing in the stairway outside the door to my flat.
“All right, Aeron?” he says.
“Michael, hi.” My landlord looks odd. “What’s up?”
“Strangest thing. The guy in flat C died this morning.”
A sinking feeling starts in the pit of my stomach, and the air around me is suddenly arctic. “Christ, what happened?” But I already know.
“Don’t know. They think it might have been cancer.”
“He was only a kid though, wasn’t he?”
“Who knows? I’ve got those bookcases for you, I’ll drop them up later if that’s ok?”
“Yeah, sure. See you.”
I turn to my door, hoping that he doesn’t notice my hands shaking. By the time I get to the sofa I am shaking all over.
What is happening to me?
“Car, what are you doing here?”
“Are you ok? You look funny.”
“Yeah. No. The guy downstairs is dead. Cancer, they think.”
“Shit. He was only a kid, though, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah.” I can only stare at my clasped hands. “Car, I think…”
“What?” He sits next to me, and puts his hand on both of mine. I flinch away, and stand.
“Car, I think there’s something wrong with me.” Tears again. It seems I’m always crying. “Things keep dying. It’s my fault.” My voice is clogged with snot and emotion.
“What do you mean? How can it be your fault? Aer-”
“I don’t know, Car, but it is, I know it is. The flowers, insects, birds, and now I’m on to people. You should go.” I can’t look him in the eye. “You might be next.”
“No, Carwyn, I’m serious.”
“I know. I believe you.” I look at him then and can feel the shock on my face.
“I’ve thought it too. I saw a dead mouse in the cupboard the other day. And the flies. And the birds.”
“You saw the birds? Why didn’t you say anything? What do you think it is?”
“You’re full of hate. Hate and anger. That’s not you, Aer. You’re poisoning yourself. Maybe it’s leaking out.”
“I think I’ve got every right to be angry, that bastard-”
“Aeron, we both know it’s not Jin you’re angry with.”
I begin to pace, hardly hearing what he’s saying. “Maybe if I can get over this, maybe if I can forgive him-”
“It’s not him you need to forgive, Aeron.”
I turn sharply to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“You need to forgive me.”
“What?” A chill of fury runs from my scalp to my gut. That bastard. Was he fucking him? My voice comes out as a low growl. “Car, what are you talking about?”
He laughs softly. “Aeron he didn’t cheat on you, not with me. You know.”
“Then what are you on about? Stop being so fucking cryptic and tell me! Why do I need to forgive you?”
“You know why.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Cut it out, Car, just fucking tell me-”
“What does my name mean?”
“What?” The change of subject is too sudden for me. “Car-”
“What does it mean?”
“Blessed love. White love.”
“And what does yours mean?”
“Carnage. Slaughter. Darkness.”
“What? I don’t-” What the fuck?
“You do. It’s time you absolved me now. Forgive yourself. Before someone else gets hurt.”
Jin picked at a nail, then raised his hand to cover a cough. Aeron noted the rose-madder bruising beneath his eyes, the way his skin looked like pages from an old book.
“I never lied to you, Aeron. I didn’t even lie to myself. I loved you, I really did, and I wanted us to work. I just grew. I grew apart from you. You grew too.”
He sighed, coughed again. Aeron stared at the grass at their feet. It was yellow, the colour of the paper in an old diary he’d found whilst unpacking.
“It’s hard,” Jin continued, “and it hurts, I know it hurts, it hurts me too. I still miss you.”
He paused for breath, noting how the park was strangely quiet.
“Christ, I went to the zoo last week and spent the entire time thinking how you’d have loved it there.”
Tears welled in Aeron’s eyes at this; he had never been to a zoo.
“And I don’t think you’re a fool for sticking by me. That’s a testament to your character; a lot of people wouldn’t have done it. I get that you’re angry, I get that you’re in pain. But before that, before any of the shit that went on, there was something beautiful and amazing; that’s what I’m trying to salvage from this. We helped each other, or at least I hope I helped you.”
The trees above their small wooden bench shed their leaves in a shower around them.
“Did I help you?” Aeron asked.
“Course you did.” Jin offered a smile, the smile that always made Aeron’s heart drop and now brought tears to his eyes. “I suppose in some part of me I’m a romantic and that I’d love to find the one to be with me for life, but I accepted a long time ago that people come and go; relationships don’t always last forever. It’s about cherishing the time you had together, appreciating it, and hopefully being able to salvage something out of it at the end. I don’t expect to be bosom buddies straight away, but I’d like to be friends. You mean so much to me.” His chest rattled, and he began to cough in earnest. Aeron’s hand shook as he patted him on the back.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.” He wiped at his mouth and turned those haunted brown eyes back to the boy he loved. “If you cling to each other after the developing is done, it can undo everything that you’ve achieved together. I know, it’s happened to me before. I didn’t want it to happen with us. I respect you too much to do that to you. I don’t want us to hate each other.”
“I don’t either.”
“So can we be friends?”
Aeron took the proffered hand, shook it. His voice was a gruff whisper. “Yes.” He drew Jin into his arms.
“Let’s go for a drink sometime?”
“I have to go, okay?” Jin rose slowly from the bench. “I’ll speak to you later.”
“Bye.” Aeron watched Jin walk away. “Love you,” he whispered.
His eyes burned, his stomach felt like a devil was gnawing on the inside, and his limbs shook with fatigue. The black skeletal limbs of the trees clutched at the sky above him like the hands of Hades. Aeron lay his head on the wood of the bench, picked up his legs and curled in on himself like a possum playing dead. He stayed that way until he was no longer playing.
The boy on the bench hadn’t moved for hours, his slender limbs clutched hard to his chest, his face hidden behind his knees. The people walking past, smiling in the spring sunshine shook their heads, assuming that he was drunk. It wasn’t until nightfall, when a tramp tried to get him to move from his regular sleeping spot, that anyone realised that he was dead.
“What have I become,
My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know,
Goes away in the end.
And you can have it all,
My empire of dirt.
I will let you down
I will make you hurt.”