Vague Visages Short Stories: Don’t Smoke in Bed by D.M. Palmer

Editor’s Note: All of Vague Visages’ short stories are free-to-read.

The interlocutor asks the same questions:

How can you extricate yourself from this?

How can you salvage this?

Will you honour yourself when it matters?

The interlocutor demands an inventory of everything consumed:

I try to account  for my profligacy.

I wake up on the sofa in the living room of the house where I grew up. My back aches and my forehead pulsates and my teeth are on edge and my left arm is numb and there is an intermittent throbbing pain in the crook of my elbow. I’ve become accustomed to these complaints; the thickening of the stew, as some unattributed adult once described it. I end up here about three nights a week, usually weekends. I struggle to place the day and settle on Sunday. Sunlight is creeping through the gap in the curtains, hitting the frame of the picture on the wall of me and my brother; aged four and two, plump and ruddy cheeked, looking away from the lens, seemingly bewildered by what is happening to the left of frame. I dress quickly and quietly. I open the curtains and shield my eyes from a low, obnoxious February sun. I leave a note that I have to handle something and I’ll contact them later.

I walk the way I’d come the previous evening. It’s about seven miles from my parents’ house to the flat. Students stumble home from benders. I pass the gutted brewery building. These industrial shells are dotted throughout my walk: a printer’s works here, a steel plant there, now acting as a canvas for competing street artists. I remember falling asleep as a child to the repetitive thud of a drop forge; even now, loud noises comfort me, and I am listening to music which replicates this taut cacophony. I walk past the tool makers where my dad used to work on a grinder. He always had fragments of metal embedded in his hands and his sweat turned bright yellow, marking his t-shirts with acrid stains. He hadn’t been there long when the factory closed. That was twenty years ago and the building is still empty, still bearing the cracked logo of the company he worked for, a weathered “development opportunity” sign hanging half-off its rusty frame. We’re supposed to mourn these places, but as someone who seemed destined to end up in one, I can’t help but look at their skeletons with relief.

But what exactly am I doing now? How have I justified the raised aspirations of my lower-middle-class stock? Would I have been better served with a repetitive union job and a slowly debilitating lung condition? Would I have learned to be happy with that? I’ve found over the past few months just how adaptive people are, how soon you become inured to a situation. You make all the adjustments you need. I’ve been walking a lot of late, miles at a time, mostly without purpose. I have a compulsion to move, to present the impression of momentum. I watch a group of squatters walk across the roof of a scissor factory.

I reach the periphery of the city: a jumble of vacant lots, municipal housing, unoccupied office blocks and Brutalist car-parks. I stop walking and struggle to breathe for a moment. My body feels hollow and I lean against the doorway of an apartment complex as bile rises in my throat. Through the glass doors a receptionist watches me. I cross the road to a strip of wasteland which used to be a car showroom; empty placards and smashed tile mark its dimensions. I sit on a burnt, graffiti-daubed sofa that looks out on a series of jerry-rigged skate ramps. I see the spire of the derelict church over the treetops and feel compelled to walk towards it. I climb the hill and pass by teetering gravestones smothered in ivy. Blue tarps are draped over the roof of the nave and the bleached green stone of the tower is supported by scaffolding; weeds reach the window sills; the porch door opens with minimal pressure. The windows are bricked up; only the empty traceries admit light. The floor and back wall are scarred where the pews and alter have been ripped out. There is writing along the walls:

She came to that which was her own. I did not recognise her. But to all who received her…

The writing becomes illegible where damp has worn it away to a black smudge.

I am aware of every footstep, every breath. The approach to the flat feels new. Everything has been reconfigured: the streets rear up and the houses lean in and the billboard on the side of the flat is peeling and a dog backs away behind a fence and the people, the people all seem unaware of what is about to happen. But I am fully present in the worst of moments. I go into the shop over the road to renew my usual inattention. I recognise nothing on the shelves; the shapes are the same but the logos and lettering have been altered, translated into an alien tongue. The face behind the counter is a study in disinterest. I drift down the aisles and find I have wandered behind the counter. I apologise as I stumble back and hurry out.

The flat is the upper floor of the end house in a sloping row of terraces; it is accessible by crossing a rear yard and climbing a flight of metal steps. I duck to avoid flapping sheets left out overnight by the neighbour who operates a cottage industry in vice and narcotics; judging by the endless traffic of hunched, hollow-eyed wraiths and the noises through the paper-thin walls. The space under the steps is littered with fag packets, cans and small Ziploc bags bearing a grainy residue around their edges. The steps make a dull ringing sound.

I hear the washing machine as I open the door. I didn’t ring ahead to say I was on my way back. I walk down the hallway into the living room/kitchenette. The room smells of stale tobacco, intermingled spirits, vomit and a chemical tang I can’t place. Pink sheets churn and slap against the washing machine’s window. I can tell he hasn’t been to sleep; he’s still wearing his make-up, though it’s cracked and smeared, and his heavily lacquered hair still stands partially erect in its blue sweep. He is slumped on the sofa watching a martial arts film; shirtless and smoking, a stacked ashtray balanced on the arm by his side. The curtains are drawn; light creeps in from the edges and throws shapes onto the floor, where takeaway cartons lay open beside sleeping bodies curled around each other on the rug.

Sleeping by his side is a boy with long, lank hair and sunken cheeks. The boy’s head is resting in his lap. The boy is wearing one of my shirts and a pair of my jeans, both of which hang from his bony frame. One of my jackets hangs from the edge of the open door. I lean over to breathe in the reek of sweat overwhelming supermarket-brand deodorant.

How will I extricate myself from this?

How will I salvage this?

Will I honour myself when it matters?

I walk across the room. I reach down and shake the sleepers, informing them that fun time is over and it’s time to leave. The sleepers are slow to react, so I shake them again more firmly. They shudder and look up at me. I repeat the fact that fun time is over and it’s time to leave. They look at him. He says nothing, obscured by smoke. The sleepers get up. I hand them their takeaway cartons and tell them to take their shit with them. They exchange awkward goodbyes with him and shuffle out. I sit in the swivel chair on the opposite side of the room and hoist my right leg onto my left knee; rock left to right; pick specks of mud from my shoe as the washing machine goes into its spin cycle, overlaid with grunts and slaps from a fight scene in which the hero battles an onrushing horde of assailants single-handed.

The film ends with a blaring crescendo. He switches off the TV and turns on the CD player: the same Nina Simone box set that signals some ongoing internal crisis, the cases splayed across the cluttered coffee table. He skips to the usual song: “Don’t Smoke in Bed.”

He tells me that Nina is speaking to her lover. That she knows she’s going to lose everything by leaving him. That she doesn’t know where she’s going to go, but she has to leave for both of them. That she wants him to be happy, but she can’t share her life with him anymore.

The washing machine stops. The boy begins to stir.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.