Allan writes fiction and non-fiction, and the odd poem. He teaches at Massey University, including courses in creative writing, academic writing, and creative non-fiction. He also works in communications, and once upon a time was employed in medical research and medical publishing. You can find more of his writing at www.allan-drew.com.
London in 1665 was, to anyone approaching, an abrupt city. From the south one would ride through St George’s Fields of Southwark and suddenly be upon cobbles, struck dumb by the sight and smell of the Thames: filthy, thick with boats, barges and ocean-going ships, sometimes so tight across the breadth of the river that you might believe you could walk from the south bank to the north, gunwale to gunwale or prow to prow, and not get your boots wet, or even see the water or the slime that scummed its surface.
Once on the northern bank you were in the viscera of the city, sliding through its entrails, pulsing along its alleyways like poison through blood. It would take a Londoner, then, to navigate through the centre, because each street looked like any other, black with soot, reverberating with life, and unfathomably, impossibly loud. A novice would be turned inside out, not knowing north from west or substrate and sky; the rooftops leaned together and met at the gables such that the sun, by which you might find your way, was nowhere and everywhere – dispersed, no longer a beacon of light and hope but the broadcaster of a general, inconstant blush.
If you kept true north you would strike, eventually, the city wall, an ancient structure and artefact of the city’s fortification, and now merely an inconvenience, or a seam that threatened to burst under the bloat of its inhabitants. Pass through one of the gates and nothing changed: houses, shops, taverns, brothels, until, suddenly, you turned a corner and there were open fields, and with each step the sounds and smells of the city diminished, and it seemed no more than a dream or nightmare whose pull – the promises of money, anonymity, fame, power, lechery, oblivion – called you back just as surely as it repulsed you in its presence.
Outside the wall, but within the city that clattered – rain-slick iron on wet brick – John Milton sat with his poem. His library was draughty, and the smell of horses and coal smoke came through cracks in the wall. The fume of burned oats seeped under the door, having travelled, seeking him out, from the belching kitchen.
John sat nursing the thick, unfinished pages of Paradise Lost. He repeated, silently, the new lines he’d composed behind his blind eyes the previous night. Cyriack would come soon to transcribe his verses.
The rain had fallen hard but stopped without taking time to ease, and there was now sunshine; he could smell the steam rising from stone.
Footsteps – many, thunderous – came into the passage outside his study. A door crashed open somewhere in the house. There was a cry, then a long wail. One of his daughters.
He waited for the noise to stop, yet on it went: crying, wet gasps, theatrical sniffing. Someone would come— – his wife, the maid, someone – and take the child away, surely? He was to write; they knew that. Everyone knew he must write.
No-one came. The noise persisted.
He stood, bringing on a sharp pain in his flank – kidney stones, no doubt; fresh torments. He unbolted his door and walked into the passage. The wailing stopped. Yes, one of his daughters – the smallest, he sensed – breathed wetly. Deborah. Four years old, was she?
“Why this noise?” he said. He listened for the sound of another soul; were they alone in the house, together? “Deborah?”
“Father,” she said, the solemn word affected by her childish voice.
They were perhaps ten feet apart. Should he approach? He took half a step. “Where is—?” He meant his new wife, but what to call her to this girl?
“Mama?” said Deborah.
Her mother was dead, and yet Deborah had taken to this new woman – called her mama. How did she attach so quickly?
“Mama’s gone for yarn,” she said.
He frowned. Could life be so mundane? “Where is—?” he said, but he’d forgotten the name of the housemaid – the porridge-burner. “Where are your sisters?”
“The rainbow,” she said and, reminded so sharply of her loss, she wailed again with renewed energy, wildly, thickly. “They’re running to the rainbow!”
He felt the pull of his library. That room, his books, were his comfort. No matter how disgusting, how loud, how unjust the world, he could always enter their cool pages – even if only with blind eyes – and take shade from the heat of mortal life, like sitting in a cross-breeze in a silent, marble atrium.
“Why don’t you go?” he suggested; he raised his eyebrows both at his daughter and at the unfamiliar tone of his voice.
“I can’t buckle my boots!” She strained for words through her despair.
“I can’t go into the street without boots!”
“Just go with them loose.” He felt ridiculous, proposing solutions. Impatience rose like a fever.
“But mama said!”
“I give you permission,” he said.
She went silent for moment, but the quiet didn’t endure. Deborah sniffed, then returned to quiet sobs.
“Child,” he said, and again was surprised by his tone. This word, child: first a question, then a reprimand, and finally a comfort. He could hear it in the timbre, the intonation, the quantity of breath in the syllable: yes, he was comforting her. He approached her and knelt. She stopped her sounds – seemed to stop breathing – and he sensed her stiffen. He reached for her feet, found the boots, and tightened the buckles.
“Too tight!” she yelled. Did she yell everything? He slipped the buckles one notch. And then—
And then. It was enough to make him dizzy: her small, cool fingers were on his forehead. Exploring. A sensation so light. Such curiosity codified into touch. Gooseflesh prickled down his arms and he shivered, right through, from skin to marrow.
He closed his eyes. Her fingers moved to his eyelids.
She spoke, so softly: “Mama says your eyes are broken.”
“Not so broken,” he said. His throat was tight.
“Can you see?”
“Not like you.” Through the years the grey mist had descended over his eyes and thickened, slowly, and darkened. Blind, but he could still see a halo of brightness circling his vision. Blind, but not so blind that he didn’t know where the light came from. He took her wrists. She was so close her breath was on his cheek. “The rainbow,” he said to his daughter, searching for words. And then, desperately: “What is your favourite colour?”
She paused, taking time to consider. It was, it seemed, a serious matter. “I like all the colours.”
“All the colours?”
“Not brown, or grey. They are not colours,” she said.
“Not brown, or grey, or smoke,” she said.
“I do not like smoke. Things hide in smoke.”
“Things?” he asked, but she made no answer. “Smoke is a colour?” he asked, and he heard himself earnest, as if he might discover something. “Deborah?” No answer. “Why don’t you speak?”
“I want to see the rainbow,” she said.
“There will be other rainbows.”
She wailed again, quite suddenly, and all the world was noise.
He pressed his thumbs to his eyes. Colours burst under his lids, the way they do under pressure. A medley of colours, but disturbed, transient, muted. Slippery colours, like oil on water. Colours lit somehow, invisibly, neither from underneath nor above. He moved his thumbs to his temples. He rolled his eyes. Surely, surely if he squinted or pressed, he could squeeze out a moment of vision.
He’d never seen his daughter; gone blind before she was born. The last thing he saw with any clarity, perhaps five years before, had not been worthy of sight, but it came to him each time he implored God for vision.
During a visitation of the plague he’d been at the window, watching the city change as the curse took hold. He’d seen a man run into the street and abruptly stop, muttering, talking of some pestilent dog. The man had frantically brushed at his clothes as if removing the beast’s fur. He was blistering with contagion. John’s skin had prickled hot and he’d felt exposed, vulnerable, just in witnessing this disease. The man then removed all his clothes and attempted to set fire to them by dousing them with a clear, thin oil and applying the bright orange ash from a pipe he produced as if by magic. His clothes did not catch with flame, but merely smoked thickly. The pestilent man had stood, naked as Adam, before his garments as they seethed appallingly, his body bulging with buboes as black as fury, and then he’d fallen to the cobbles, dead, utterly dead. John recalled his urge to vomit at the sight, and also his suppression of the nausea; his sense had been that by holding it in he’d made things worse – he’d become self-contaminated, unpurged. As if he’d taken in and melded with part of the world’s evil. The naked corpse had remained on the road throughout the heat of the day and into the evening, left to lie until being picked up by the night-cart as it rumbled and creaked towards the plague pit sometime around midnight.
It was – who? – Cyriack? Yes, Cyriack. John felt pain in his legs, tightness, and in the wake of his recent recollection he tasted what must be death on his tongue. He swallowed hard, then lifted his eyes – those fleshy, useless, wet orbs – to his friend.
“John?” Cyriack repeated. There was surprise in his voice. Amusement? John was still on his knees in front of Deborah.
“Come,” said Deborah. She gripped John’s hand, tight, pulling him from Cyriack’s voice.
He turned to his daughter: he laid his blind, blind gaze on her. “Come?” he said. “To where?”
“Come see the rainbow.”
But, he thought.
“I’ll show you,” she said. “I’ll tell you the colours.” She tugged on his sleeve.
But. “I want to see your face,” he said. And then he was lost. “I’m sorry.”
“John?” said Cyriack. “John. Your poem.”
“Yes,” said John. “My poem.” He stood, breaking Deborah’s hold on him. His daughter turned and bolted, careering out the door calling for her sisters.
“Cyriack,” said John, and in his own voice he heard pleading.
John went to the window, thinking he might hear Deborah’s feet on the cobbles. But, there were so many people.
John put his forehead to the pane of thin glass. He wished, if only for a second, that he might see the sky and take the measure of its blue, and within the blue attain some small respite, like a bird that takes to the air to relieve the earth-burden from its legs.
Ready to die
The things he noticed most, now, were spent pill packets, the sounds of breathing, the angles bodies take. Insect bites.
He approached the counter, askew, and side-eyed the coffee menu.
‘The usual?’ she asked. He nodded. It was the usual woman, the pale one, tall. Her lips were very red. Her black satin fringe sat level with her eyebrows. He tried to assemble her features into a face.
The grinder rattled, crunched and whizzed the beans. The milk steamer howled and spat. All this, just for coffee.
She said, smiling, ‘Time for a shave.’
He touched his beard and looked down, as if he might see his chin. He shaved once a week, on Saturday afternoons, which is when he got itchy. One razor blade would last three months. A can of foam would last a year. On Friday nights, if he got the angle just so and pulled his skin tight, he could pluck out one of the longer whiskers using the nails of his thumb and index finger. It would usually bleed a little — a thin, watery blood. It always hurt.
He slid his fingers up to his cheek and then to his ear, where little stiff hairs had begun to sprout, stubborn as thorns.
He looked up. He saw her eyes on him. Eyes aren’t just one colour. They’re streaked and variegated and ribboned. Like sunsets and autumn leaves and muscles. Why do people say things are simple when they’re complicated?
He almost never took risks anymore, but he asked, ‘Do you get bitten by bugs?’ His fingertips fizzed.
‘How do you mean?’ she said.
‘Do they like you? Your blood?’
She brought her foot up and put it on the counter. The material of her pants rode up and he saw the skin of her ankle dotted with faded scars, perfect pink circles. ‘Yes,’ she said, and put her leg back down. ‘Do they bite you?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘When I’m sleeping. And when I’m awake.’
She smiled again, then went back to making the coffee. One day he might ask her about spent pill packets.
She placed the coffee on the counter. A puff of milk froth periscoped up through the drinking slot. She balanced two pieces of biscotti on the lid. Everyone else got only one piece. He knew. He’d seen. She arranged the biscotti carefully, precisely, taking her time.
He watched her fingers, as white and clean as bone. Some people were so good and so nice, it made him want to die.
A new fairy tale
She met him as an image on her phone, as pixels. His pixels were pretty, and he looked like fun. In real life he said, ‘it’s too dark in this place to see the colour of your eyes what colour are they’
And she said, ‘they are blue they are both blue but murky’
Then, to romance her, he said, ‘colours are funny things aren’t they’
She immediately thought yes, then no, and then said, ‘what’
And he said, ‘there are no colours there are only wavelengths of light’
Wavelengths. The lengths of waves. Had he asked her the question about colours so he could say that about wavelengths? Was it a plan? She asked, ‘what colour is the wine’
He looked at the wine in its glass, and said, ‘red’
She could make a memory of the wine. A memory made of the light that shimmered off the polished rim of the glass. A memory of that colour and those shapes might be enough to keep her going.
Seductively, he continued, ‘the wine reflects only red light so if anything it’s every colour but red because it absorbs every colour of light but red’
‘but the red is so dark how can it be made of light’
A plate of five croquettes arrived, and he cut four in half and divided them evenly across the hemispheres of the plate. Fat-riced gloop flowed from inside the croquettes; it firmed like cooling lava and formed a skin. He hesitated with the fifth before sliding it intact to her side.
He said, ‘you look sad and sadness is only dopamine and it’s only serotonin and their absence across synapses’
She saw shapes move under his shirt each time he lifted a croquette. Thick ribbons of deltoid and biceps and trapezius. Later, while he was fucking her, and while he panted like a racehorse and was both full of breath and out of breath, he said, ‘my neurons are firing my neurons are firing and here they go again firing away’
And then, orgasmically, he said, ‘it’s bioelectrical impulses and sodium and potassium ions across synapses and oh my god’
He was sweaty both during and after, and he dripped his brine on her. He apologised, and that helped, but she still found his excretions foul.
She said, ‘I don’t mind really I needed that’
He fell asleep quickly and softly, and he was beautiful, and she watched him for a long time, and then she closed her eyes and kept watching him, reliving it all in her memory, across her synapses, while she clasped her hands together.
He woke up and said to her, ‘you don’t look sad anymore I guess good dick has a positive effect on dopamine and serotonin’
She killed him with a knife from the kitchen, freshly whetted, and bigger and sharper than it needed to be. These were the words that left his mouth on the last of the air from his collapsing lungs: ‘blood is a suspension of haemoglobin and proteins that absorbs every wavelength of light but red and it carries dioxygen to the body’s cells usually’
He bled and purged in a way she had not expected, in so many wavelengths of light, and his eyes went so very large with bioelectricity, and then so very still with its absence. She was sorry afterwards, for so many things she could not organise them, and she cried from lack of dopamine and serotonin, and from the clean-up job that lay ahead of her. She asked, ‘where are you dopamine where are you serotonin’
She dissolved his body using a 50-litre tub of lye she’d kept in the garage in case something like this happened. It took a while. He held his shape so long that she thought it wasn’t going to work, but then, suddenly, he collapsed, like poked dough. His deflating brain bubbled with the words, ‘every atom in the body I was born with has been replaced a thousand times over but I am still me’
In the end he became an oily slurry, like warmed lard, that absorbed every colour but grey. She looked at the slurry-of-him, and thought, ‘not-grey is the colour to which every bright hue returns’
She remembered the shape of his deltoids, and his apology about sweating, and his generosity with the fifth croquette, and she thought he was probably the best man she had ever met, and would ever meet, and she was sorry.
She diluted him with tap water, which is dihydrogen oxide and dissolved minerals, sometimes laced with fluoride. Slowly, slowly, because that is how time moves, she poured him into the storm-water system, and he flowed out to sea.
She ran to the edge of the ocean, not many days after she had emptied the last of him into the infrastructure. She said, ‘I’m sorry for so many things you were the last man I loved’
He washed over her in steady wavelengths of brine. He was water that was every colour but blue, but only because it was a reflection of the sky, which was every colour but blue. He was cold and salty, and he mingled with the sodium ions, the chloride ions, the potassium and magnesium, and up he splashed onto the beach and over her legs as if trying to clean her, and she felt him separated from himself in the most fundamental way. She imagined him, beautiful, bonding with the sparkling silicates on abandoned beaches in a million years, when we will all be free from the absence of dopamine and the absence of serotonin, and all the colours will have come home, returned to every colour but grey.