By Leo Li
Content Warning: Themes of suicide that may be distressing for some readers.
Their laughs kept signalling to Arthur that he should be enjoying the moment, which made him realise he’d got a headache and it was killing him.
It was another unbearably beautiful October afternoon. The caprices of autumn had mellowed into indulgent melancholy. The quartet, all except Arthur, was talking about the upcoming exposition on Munch at the Musée d’Orsay, and a Parisian Christmas. All the while, Arthur kept asking for more water, and each time he was hurt by the waitress’s exceedingly pleasant response. As the other three started extolling The Scream, and expressionism in general, Arthur gulped water down like a lost traveller gasping for life in the Sahara. All he wanted to do was cover his ears and feel the headache; how time made the insufferable pain drag on.
It felt like the hangover he had got from quaffing seven pints at Players the year before. But Players was now gone for good. So was Bill’s. So was Melanie, who’d graduated also the year before. Her absence felt almost as if the quartet had murdered and buried her and decided on collective amnesia.
They were then talking about Tennessee William’s play Orpheus Descending, and its film adaptation The Fugitive Kind. Then Wong Kar-wai’s Day of Being Wild, and the latest film about Elvis Presley. Arthur found it unsettling how passionate they were about the films, all of which nobody’s really supposed to have seen. It was as if his friends were really abducted and replaced by shadows, unsure who they were meant to be playing as.
A few other groups of people entered Riverview. They were talking about how their college children were cocky, how washed-up their lecturers were, how Information Theory was good-for-nothing malarkey, and how Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall were just pretentious bores. Their shrill screams and contempt drifted in the stiff, piercing winds that died instantly when the door shut.
Arthur said he was too fidgety and restless (and anxious) to stay. He paid his bill and darted straight to Boots. On the way, he couldn’t rid himself of the afterimage of his friends’ smiles. They were the sort of kind, innocent smiles that made him feel like he was a nuisance.
Clouds began to gather and the pigeons circling the soldier statues in Market Square darted violently. A stampede was pouring out of Tesco, and Arthur saw his crush among the crowd, sweaty and bewildered like a deer among a wolf pack. After taking paracetamol, he sat on the benches listening to Carla Bruni on his phone.
He forgot the meditation techniques his friend told him, so he just closed his eyes and dived into his inner abyss. Within that noiseless darkness, he could almost lay his fingers on all the oscillatory echoes of disquiets in the world around him, swallowing him whole. Reopening his eyes, he remembered he had to attend a formal later that night. He forgot to report his shellfish allergy to college.
Waterstones had a new book about room decluttering, and another book which was a pseudo-philosophical treatise on the mutability of experiences through linguistic traps. He read the first few pages of a book by Peter Handke, and remembered he was a supporter of Milošević of Serbia. He remembered that Hilary Mantel died a month ago and no one seemed to talk about it. He remembered that no literary prize on Earth was worth more than a catnap in a hammock on a lovely May Day. He remembered that his poetry piece was rejected by the magazine whose name he couldn’t care to remember.
His dinner was a sausage roll from Greggs (he didn’t go to the formal after all). It seemed to have done the job to fill his stomach and make him reflect on the impermanence of all relationships. It was shocking to him that he felt more homesick than the first year, and campus life more unbearable than seeing the soymilk being sold at double the price from last year. Something within him wasn’t only willing but begging to die. But he knew he had to hold himself together, because nobody, despite all the kindness that enveloped him, could do that for him.
In his corridor, his friend hugged him and asked whether he was feeling ok. He was drawing blank and said he just needed a shower. The friend said the shower had been making awfully loud noises the day before, and she had reported it to the porter. Arthur was glad there were noises that could drown out those he had tried to escape from the entire day. In the shower, he retained the warmth of the hug – it was warmer than 37ºC.
Later that evening, his headache subsided, his dread and anxiety in suit. He’d thought the day would feel infinitely long to him; but in retrospect, the uncompilable, extensive list of his experiences seemed like nothing but fond memories. This time around he covered his ears. He could hear nothing but his heartbeat, beating faster and faster, towards tomorrow.
Illustration by Rosie Bromiley