by Frances Donnelly
Outwards goes the hand towards the smiling hot sun of another child’s mouth, or armpit, or other sticky membraned foldaround bucket for sticking the hand into, the perverted hand, unworried and white and limply curled like a classical painting, classically grasping – which is to grasp without tension because you will get what you want – but this child, this child’s hand, doesn’t yet know that most of the stickiest foldiest buckets already belong to someone else, to the sensibilities and portfolios and insurance of adults, and they are not for sticking your hands into willy-nilly.
Older, the hands and the owner know a little more, are less willy-nilly. Sobered by a planet breaking into nothing around her ears, by her schooling, by early adulthood because it’s always been sobering, by her failures of parents. The hands put themselves inside pockets, her own, and in drawers and jars and packets. Still seeking something sticky to stick onto.
She turned out to be stoic, even when she drank. Nothing visibly sticky about her, and nothing jagged either. And sober was the same as drunk. Like something had been sapped out of her. Even her parents noticed. Where does such a girl go, sober, unstuck and limp? Nowhere in particular, to not much in particular, eyeing nobody in particular, with that classical curled grasping of the hands now just hidden in the eyes. And I have to say, with all my love for her, she doesn’t have the intentional charm to get much with the application of those eyes alone.
And now I’ve brought myself into it, so there’s an obligation for introductions. You’re going to like me. I’m the open honey pot. I’ll tell you how she and I met.
I know she had those nights, and I don’t like to think of them, to think of how they felt for her, but she had those nights that so many of you who live on the surface do, too scared to even tremble, passive and plastic-wrapped in your skin, horrified at how your classical grasping hands, which can conjure and order this and that all day and night, in those crispy-dry digital honey pots scattered across spacelessness, can’t get the world to stop turning, or breaking, or burning down around you.
She had a lot of those nights, her hands wasted, her time wasted, her body and perversions wasted. She had officially left home ten years ago when she found me, but I could still see the string tied around her, a lifeless line back to her parent’s house only a few streets away. I didn’t cut it. You’re going to find me violent, yes, I am, but I’m likely more principled than you if you live on the surface. No offence, but you know what I mean.
My baby had to cut that line for herself, by her own hand. Luckily, with a bit of blood in them, her pale limp fingers picked up and got lively, and when the time came the ribbon cutting ceremony was a riot. A hot celebration.
But, sorry, how did she and I meet? Well. You know the sound coming from the wardrobe at night. The mouth of drains and certain kinds of tap. The crack in the floorboard. She figured it out. My girl had a particular strength in her stuckness – she was unashamedly bored, she really was very bored, and she kept it up for a long time without denial. She’s sensible like that. She realised through her lengthy companionship with it that, like with an itch, boredom is an expression of pain. And the pain spoke to her. Her hands and eyes became less expectant and more … experimental. But that’s later, the sticky parts, with me. Before that, her eyes and hands became curious.
We made delicious, solid contact when the curiosity drove her to lift up the drain cover to seek me out. Things got stickier from there. But no, sorry. Before before before comes first. I know that if you live on the surface you love to hear exactly what someone did on a given day, and how much someone can evolve, to feel it really real and close and cinematic and breathable and wearable and now, since you’re watching your world die and it’s very frightening and you don’t want to picture all those floating bodies. And I’m not a sadist unless it’s fun for everyone. No. So. OK, in my best voice:
She had been talking to me for about a week, in her murmuring but serious way, laid on her bed or pacing her room, not looking at anything in particular because she quickly understood she couldn’t yet see me and because our conversation was enough of an aphrodisiac for both of us. She’s got those filthy hands which were already sweating to get at me, but we’re both romantic types and you know how two women can be. We paid attention. The words got sticky. Her room got sticky. The pillow, the walls.
Lucky for you and me, her final day before she pulled up that drain cover like a glorious explorer was a day of rumination that makes for a tight scene. She drank bitter coffee in a small café that she walked across town to get to. She didn’t know exactly why she was there but the simplicity of the interior and the five-option menu helped her to process things without thinking her way out of it. The windows were greased up, but slippy rather than sticky. She could see the slippy rejection everywhere, the world’s shoulders shrugging off human life. Her poor weakened fingers around the coffee cup. My baby sat out the indignity of that aged cliché, I believe, out of love. Because it finished something off for her, and then she came to me.
That evening, under a purplish sickly sky, she pulled off the drain cover, and we collapsed into something, a one-off first timer soul and organ thing, all her delicate feelings caught up in it with mine. You might know the thing, if you’re a frisky romantic, even a secret one like her: a nice head-splitting embrace.
Maybe you want the steam and the filth now. Maybe you want to know what my body looks like. The mechanics of our sticky unions. What’s wrong with me, and her, and in what ways we might score an eight or more. I can see your soft grasping hands uncurling, your eyes open and switching back and forth, and I want to please you because I love you all, because I love her, and she’s one of you, despite my early efforts to change her around. See, yes – even though I’m free and easy, rolling and writhing and wet and thick and coiling like I am, hot unified and roaming flesh like I am, friends with violence like I am, I also hadn’t really faced that there’s a bit of you in me. The surface tics. In my own way, I was hovered over her, ready to alter and recondition, to drag her in my desired direction
We argued about it, her voice now very loud. When we argued somewhere cavernous, it was a symphony. I started out thinking the shouting was a great prelude to something delicious, that we were preparing to melt closer together in the sticky aftermath – but instead it always ended in floating cold space.
It’s not easy, it wasn’t easy, not even for me, to really love, and she was quite right to leave, taking her revived fingers with her. Her independently operating, highly adept and grasping, tickling pressing mending and breaking, shaking smoothing and lovemaking fingers. Each her very own.
Even after she’d left, I didn’t immediately accept that I’d been trying to meddle, that, in her terms, in your surface person terms of relating, I was uncomfortable with aspects of her. That I wanted her to stop being afraid in her ponderous way, in her no longer trembling but woeful and unending way. It took a few drips of time, a few turns of solitude, a little giddy and unfamiliar reflection for me to accept it. And I missed her.
In the meantime, whilst I furled and unfurled and set old muscles to new work and fresh revelations, she ended up somewhere new. We tended, without noticing, to move about a lot with all our writhing and play and juice and dialogue. We’d displaced ourselves by many miles since she’d last resurfaced. She came up mainly knowing where she was not: not where she’d grown up, not where she’d lived strung to her parents by a husk of cord, not where she’d cheerfully mauled her sticky friends at primary school. Not the clearly already sinking side of town.
She was on the edge of a gleaming Wharf. I can’t say that what happened next holds many delights for me, but significance comes in forms other than my favourite, yes, as does satisfaction. And I know certain things matter to her and to you. I’ll unroll it neatly.
My sombre love stood staring at a half-built district of huge glass towers. Ahead of her there was a broad path that snaked very slightly and with charming intention as it passed between the buildings, and she walked along it, and it looked just like she was walking on water, but the water was a dry river of expensive stones for people who could afford to keep their chins up a bit longer than average. Hyper surface people you might say.
She walked around the freshly minted shell of the district, looking and processing and rolling things around as she passed through the maze of buildings and dusty dirt construction sites and the half-made towering skeletons. As she walked, she glimpsed and glimpsed and glimpsed again something at a distance in the walls of shimmering glass. It never emerged, never drew closer, just made its modest mess at a distance: a curled dark figure, woozy in the reflection as if under twenty feet of water, a fleeting little faux crack in the monstrous mirrors.
My love walked and glimpsed and walked, and eventually found herself in a clean white-stoned plaza. The empty plaza was ringed with immaculate empty shop units, left dry and waiting. It was what you might understand as, what my baby understood as, an undead plaza. At one end of the commercial void, there was a single shop that looked a little more lively. She went to the window and saw that it was filled with a model of the whole Wharf she was standing in, the knowingly snaky path, the plaza, and the buildings, including many that didn’t exist yet in the real Wharf, all illuminated under a huge yellow lamp.
My love peered at the tiny model trees and the tiny model cafes. She watched the tiny fake river flow. She looked at the tiny plastic sign for the tiny cultural quarter. Then the fake river’s waters began to rise, and tiny snow was blown across the model, and the river barriers around the tiny fake Wharf raised up, the tiny buildings themselves turned out shell-like protective covers to ward off the tiny flood. And the huge yellow lamp continued to shine down, hot and slippy, drawing on a suspiciously high wattage, and made by the whole setup to look very guilty or at least evil.
At around this point, amidst the witnessing of the miniature simulated disaster under an undead sun, I was fully unfurled hurrying to find my love, to breach the divide between us and promise to loosen my grip and then to get all wound up in one another and get whisked up in a froth and of course to lick any wounds that needed a lick. But I was roaming, hoping, with no guaranteed connection, because we were playing by natural laws.
And so, her omniscient floating observation of the model continued uninterrupted for quite some time, until some people in suits, stiff and crispy and tight, passed by her to her right and entered the shop. She stepped towards the door and picked up one of the brochures from the rack next to it, and realised that this morbid enterprise was an estate agents. And then she saw it again in the shop’s window: the creeping, curling shape, reflected dark behind her, closer than before. She turned, but there was nothing but the undead plaza and ghost shops.
Not one to be afraid of creeping fringe elements, she continued her wanderings and went to the waterfront, where she stood watching the river slop high up the side of the dock, thinking of those people in the plaza buying bunker-homes and – be in no doubt – hoping I had the humility and perspective to see why I was being unbearable, turning over in her heart the unbreakable fact of being irritably in love.
Then the curled shadow appeared in the water below, and was beside her too, crumpled and flesh and frowning in the bright sun, a young man in a dark coat and dirty trainers. He said hello and this went well and so he reached out a hand, as limp and soft and desperate for stickiness as you can imagine, and curled it around hers. Glancing down at her own dirty old shoes, he told her he was a freelance writer and asked if she knew anything about the area. He visibly grew in height a little when she said no, that she didn’t know anything about it.
“Loads of government money got sunk into it alongside private investment. Now the firm are running out of funds to finish the residential properties. They’re £5 billion short, and they were meant to finish the entire project two years ago.” The man shrugged, and leaned on the rail, that clever kind of silent shrug and lean that also speaks to say that the mouth is going to continue talking in a moment. But my baby isn’t into placeholders of any sort. She looked at the man’s dark-ringed eyes, his skin as delicate as her own, his clothes as cheap, then back towards the Wharf, its plaza as long as a row of terraced houses, its buildings refracting the sun in blinding panels that looked a mile high. She nodded, picked up her hands, and left.
And soon enough we found one another again. The wet, writhing, burrowing kind of snake won out, yes. Or, I’d like to say, we did. And that’s enough of that, and enough of me and her and us, since we all know where this is going, since she is as vulnerable as you in so many ways, still prone to what’s coming. We’re happy, now. You know what us women can be like together. Consensually breaking each other apart and putting each other back together again, because we know how to. Our own domestic bliss is flowing under you and over you for each of our lasting days: soft whips, hard palms, and wet faces open like the sun, which shines free from intention.
Frances is a writer and experimental musician who currently lives in Brighton, UK with five rescue rats and a human partner. She works in digital communications for left-wing activist organisations. She is neurodiverse af.
Image credit: Meg via Flickr, All Creative Commons. Image is of a hand with fingertips outstretched towards the camera, against the fabric of a red and orange dress.