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FICTION / Limbo / Liv Francis-Pape

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“I need a day off.” 

“For what?”

“For drinking.”

Her cheeks try to smile but her lips prevent the smirk; maintaining eye contact she types something frantically into the sputtering computer.

“I’ll put you down as having the stomach bug that’s going around.” 

I grin thankfully and chuck my bag around my shoulder, nodding to her before exiting the stuffy office. The street is obscured by a humid, self-contained sunlight; not quite strong enough to break through the film of dirtied clouds. For a Tuesday the shops are relatively abandoned, the cafe holds a couple muttering in half-muted tones; boredom smeared across their grimaces like a poorly-kept window. My legs walk without me telling them to, scooping me along to the Irish bar across the street; whose opening hours please the midday drinkers and confuse the victims of the corporate tower blocks. The door chimes gleefully as I enter.

“The wanderer returns!” A deep bellow fills the empty space as I perch upon the bar stool. 

“Pint, please.” I brush the curls from my ear and stare at the glassy-eyed-girl, that resembles somebody I used to know, in the mirror behind the optics. 

“Rough morning?” 

“Do you even have to ask?” 

I take a long drink of the beer, forcing my lips to bypass the head of foam. 

“Your beard’s grown out.”

“In a week?”

I shrug dismissively and take another gulp, feeling the warmth trickle down my throat and land in the empty pit. I drank coffee instead of breakfast, the heat in my gullet thanks me.

“How’s Pete?” 

“Gone, kaput, no more, off the agenda.” 

“Sorry, love.” 

“No biggie.” 

Another sip. Another gulp. The tennis is playing on the screen behind him, a doubles match choreographed to ‘It Takes Two’. I laugh to myself, the bruise on my ribs contracting. 

“Oi, oi. What’s with the loot?” I smirk, grabbing Luke’s hand and stroking the silver band that adorns his finger.

“He finally asked. One knee, too much gin and badaboom i’m a Sadie.” 

“Nice to know romance still exists.” 

“If you class screwing in the garden of a shut pub then sure, romantic.” 

My smile curls into an unattractive expression, my teeth protruding in the opening between my lips. Luke tugs the ends of his tatty t-shirt and curtsies. The ring stirs a sickening anxiety in the back of my throat, itching away. I down the rest of my pint in one to quell the discomfort.

“Blimey - another?”

“Hmmmhmmm.” I begin to roll a cigarette, my nail catching on the edge of my Rizla - deepening the near-mechanic tremor that’s overwhelming my forearm, “For Christ’s sake…”

“Want a hand there?” 

“No.” It comes out more forcefully than intended, the final consonant spiking up in retaliation. 

Luke raises his arms up in submission and begins to refill my glass, foam bubbling up and spewing over into the tray. I wink at him apologetically and make my way out back. The garden seems darker than the street, the shelter providing an unsettling evening glow - out of place. A man sits upon the stool, tapping his ash into an empty flower pot. I sit on the adjacent bench, avoiding eye contact - unwittingly noticing the stupidly perfect structure of his face. The May mist hits me; sending the blonde hairs on the tops of my arms into action.

“Do you want my jacket?” His voice is rich, dense; annoyingly sensual.

“No, thank you.” I daren't look at him, my will power is already on the balance beam and threatening to fall. From behind the fence I can hear a faint murmur of Glenn Miller, humming across the billows of smoke between me and the stranger. The Stranger. I wonder if anyone has ever considered naming their child that, providing them with an instant void of identity. A blank slate never to be written upon. I’m tempted to google it but I resist, enjoying the idea more than the reality. Poor child. The Stranger picks up his lighter and bridges the space between us. His jeans are frayed at the hems on one leg and his shirt looks at least two sizes too big. He sits opposite me, green eyes under crooked eyebrows; peering out beneath a matted fringe and returns his jacket to his own arms.

“Hi.” 

“Hi.” 

I try to remain nonchalant, pawing the glass of my beer and taking another long, savoured swallow.

“What’s your midday poison, then?” 

“Oh, just Fosters.” An unsettling pause, “It’s cheap. You?”

“Oh this is just lime and tonic water.”

“Ah - well now I feel like a stellar example of humanity.” 

He snorts back a chuckle.

“Well, I was waiting to see if anyone worthy of my drunken Sean Connery impressions would wander in.” He takes a slow puff of his rather poorly rolled cigarette, “And here you are.” 

“Smooth.” 

The next silence that stirs isn’t uncomfortable, quite the opposite. A warming calm that feels as if everything you need to know about a situation is being transferred, atom by atom. 

“I just saw a butterfly. I can’t remember the last time I saw one. Odd colours, like an airborne tiger.” His eyebrows are remarkably expressive, leaving the impression that he’s talking to himself more than me. 

I’m unsure how to respond to this reflection. My stomach is clenching, acid bubbling up onto my tongue. I finish the remnants of my pint. It doesn’t help.

“So, Miss. Hardcore…”

“My name’s -” 

“No, don’t tell me. I’m going to guess your name. Lizzie? No, too prissy. Urm; Chantelle? Nah, you don’t look like the type to own a tracksuit. Danni? Yes - you look like a Danni.” The corner of his lip rises to meet with the base of his cheekbone; casting an alluring shadow below them.

“Not a fan of names? How very self-effacing.” 

My face contorts into a flat shape and my fingers inadvertently begin to fiddle with a loose splinter on the side of the bench. I retract my fingers when I remember Luke’s anecdote about his engagement ‘celebration’ in this garden.

“Well? What’s causing you to neck mock-Australian beer before midday?”

“Life.”

“A very broad term.”

“Life is one helluva thing to happen to a person, ya’know.” 

“Hmm, a writer?”

“Guess again.”

“Singer?”

“Wah-wah.”

“Careers are dull. Why are you really drinking away your Tuesday?”

“Persistent, aren’t we?”

“Ah - the age-old defense mechanism of the collective noun.” 

I begin tonguing the ulcer that greets the base of my gum, circling it repeatedly. I can’t tell if this man is vastly intriguing or insatiably irritating. 

“Would you like a real drink?” I stub out my cigarette, “I’m going in.”

“Vodka tonic, please.” 

I nod blankly and suppress the urge to comment on the stereotypical femininity of his order. I’m glad he’s ordered alcohol,the taboo of inebriation is somehow subdued when it’s performed with another. I catch myself in the mirror once again, this time it takes a second longer to recognise myself than before. It’s more of an inward concern than an actual lack of recognition, more of the fact that each inch of tissue and slippery organs inside of me feels like it belongs to an unknown subject. I fail to find the taste of my own skin familiar, the untamed nature of my hair, the little scabs alongside my cuticles - all utterly bewildering. If it were just momentary i’d find comfort in the Freaky Friday feel to it, ignore the mercurial emotion - but this is not a temporary lack of knowing. This is a permanent absence of understanding. As if I’ve been written into a story with no thorough blueprint mapped out, only a vague idea of a human splodged onto a napkin at McDonald’s. In the course of weeks - or, unwittingly, months - i’ve morphed into an immutable second thought, an aftertaste.

“Why is it you become more and more beautiful with each blink?” Luke curls his eyebrow.

“Call me when you magically change your sexuality, gorgeous.” 

I request the vodka and tonic and receive a concerned glance. He refills my pint in a wearied movement, muscle memory pulling the lever by itself, tapping an unheard metronome on the top of the keg. The foam overflows and trickles into the tray, splattering onto his jeans and arm. As he pushes it towards me like some beacon he is privileged to pass on, the foam is dragged along the counter in a slug-like trail. I hand over a few warmed coins and find myself back in the garden. The air seems to have dropped several degrees, taking remnants of daylight with it; as if somebody has turned the wattage down on the day. 

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like my jacket?” He’s started on another cigarette, the sweet edge to the odour making me nauseous.

“I’m fine, thanks.” The words come out unhinged. 

His face is youthful yet wearied, beaten by the cold one too many times and painting thin lines on his forehead; providing a concerned expression far beyond his years. His grey jacket is oversized, dirtied around the collar. He pushes his packet of Golden Virginia across the table, I nod in gratitude. 

“What picture is it today, then?”

I look down at the packet, “The post-lung surgery abyss.” 

“A classic.”

My hands tremble slightly as I roll the paper together. The Glenn Miller has stopped, giving way to the dulcet tones of B. J. Thomas. The Stranger begins to mouth along to Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.I’m suddenly struck by an image of him, overcast by sepia images, on horseback as he shouts back to the Sundance Kid. The sky is getting inkier and inkier, clouds begin to intertwine in a perverse shadow and somebody along the street gives life to a drill. I’m craving pillows. The beer is making my stomach curdle, acid and bubbles making love in the well.

“Are you allergic to anything?” 

I smirk, partly coughing on a half-inhaled drag, “Pineapple.”

He doesn’t respond, only purses his lips in understanding. I’ve smoked too much, my tongue has grown a fur of nicotine. 

“You’re bleeding.” 

I look down, my forefinger pulsing maroon out of it. Awkwardly, I wrap it in the sleeve of my cardigan and watch it seep through.

“Are you still going to say you’re not stressed?”