This week’s entry is more than a little over the word count and to be frank I’m not sure it’s any good. However, I hope you enjoy it and any feedback is – as always – appreciated.
By Neil Beynon
The city was small and ancient. It was also wet. The entire time I was there it was dry for maybe four hours in total, the insidious drizzle leaving the cobblestones slick and treacherous. Threatening to spill you out in front of a car or bicycle. A strange place, a city so small you could walk from one end to the other with ease but full of people so tall I felt like an ant crawling on its back.
I think I was more or less nocturnal during my stay. The days spent in a dry airless state of dreaming as meetings ran on around me and from which I would emerge – daylight spent – desperate for some sign of life. The city beckoned me with neon fingers.
The city carved from blocks of stone, shaped over a hundred years ago, then piled upon each other until they reached four or five stories in the air. There is something to be said for wandering around with your eyes at that level, the occasional gargoyle staring back at you, an odd embarrassing collision or two from not looking where you’re going. Yet that is not what the city is famous for.
And so your eyes travel down, your nose gets to the smoke first. It’s heavy, cloying, sickly sweet and temple squeezing; you pass the scattered sources of this fog with a dizzying regularity. At least you tell yourself it’s the regularity that’s dizzying.
Your eyes itch from the smoke. Your gaze travels down below the hashish haze to street level. Slave girls look back at you from their glass wrappers. Some try to attract your attention with taps or winks whilst others merely gaze blankly as they whisper into mobile phones. A menagerie of faces: bored, tired, excited, aggressive, dead, sad – all on display and all available for a reasonable price. Everything negotiable.
You never see anyone actually purchase or rent at the slave market and yet they must because some of the boxes are empty, some have curtains pulled over – a sure fire indication of a transaction. It’s a strange city.
On my last night, I walked down the high street, my friend by my side and the need to have a large cold glass of beer weighing on my wallet. We no longer turned to tapping glass or half heard platitudes but I still cast my eyes round in general disbelief at the naked nihilism on display.
Certain things draw the eye – as humans we can’t help it. We’re all hunter-gatherers that have risen to the top of the food chain by spotting patterns other species miss. Bare flesh is one of those things. My eyes were caught, by what I’m not sure. I suspect it was a thigh. I was always a fool for a good pair of thighs.
My gaze flicked from a shocked American tourist, camera dangling from his neck and his tongue flapping round his feet, to the glass box behind him. First I saw the legs – slim, lithe, toned – a pleasing curve up to hips that were slim but not unsightly, a simple shift of black silk draped the torso. Smooth elegant arms lay folded across the barest rise of a bust. As bodies go it was unremarkable – neither ugly nor gorgeous – but you couldn’t say that of all the girls.
Then I saw the face smiling at me.
The width of the jaw and consequently of the face was too wide for the neck on which it was located, the contours were angular as if the skull beneath had been carved from stone. The nose was small, barely more than a pointy nub of flesh dropped on top of the bone beneath – think Michael Jackson in fifteen years time – and eyes so dark they were void. The skin of her face was not smooth like the flesh she was waving – now in my direction – but rough, calloused like worn leather.
She…he…it leered at me – I won’t call it a smile – and I realised I was staring that there was a perception of interest, a cold flannel of realisation to the back of my neck. My head flipped round so quickly my eyes blurred and a flood of warm pain billowed across my neck to match the burning heat on my face.
The bar was fetid with the sweat of the customers. A dark underground place where the beer was cheap, the spirits strong and the conversation an increasing spiral of bullshit, ever higher as the evening – and beer – rolled on. Just the way I like it. I don’t remember how much I had, just that when I left I had no periphery vision and the cobblestones seemed to be rotating on some hidden axis.
The walk back was a long one, longer than the walk from the hotel to the bar. We got lost in the labyrinth of stone, glass and cobbles, eventually finding ourselves back in the market, now closed. Most of the slaves had already gone to their masters for the night. I kept my eyes on the cobbles lest they move when I wasn’t looking.
It was quiet. Our feet echoed as we walked, a small sound of tinkling glass or the occasional car exhaust backfiring the only accompaniment to our irregular footfall. Consequently when the man swore, his curses punctuated by a chain being yanked, it was not hard to hear. Actually, I don’t know if he swore for sure because he spoke in a different language but certain tones are universal, anger being one of them.
I glanced round because I am an idiot. The man was a little taller than I am wearing a three quarter length leather jacket, a neat beard trimmed round his plump chin, a belly heading south of his shirt. He had a chain in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Attached to the end of the chain was a slave who whimpered and gagged when the man tugged on it, the chain being the kind people used to use on larger dogs but don’t anymore for good reason.
I stopped, shocked. My feet locked, uncertain which way to go.
The smoking guy looked at me looking at him. I blinked, uncertain whether to say something or not and he smiled at me; pointed at the half naked slave who in turn looked at me.
“You like?” he said. “I give discount for rest of night?”
This close and without the glass I could see the girl’s eyes weren’t just dark they were obsidian, her face pulled tight over her too large skull not just aged but actually a different texture to the rest of her body – more like elephant skin. I span away quickly.
More swearing, a meaty whack, crying and the sound of a chain being snapped followed by the clip clop of heels on cobbles followed me into the night. My friend vomited on the corner dragging my attention back to more pragmatic issues like where the hotel had been moved.
In the morning, before we left for the airport, sitting alone in the restaurant awaiting poached eggs I didn’t feel like eating but felt I should, I couldn’t remember much of the night before. Just flashes really, glimpses of what sounded like a good night out but had left my head feeling like broken eggshell, and I wondered whether the slave had been made that way or if it was self-inflicted.
I figured there might be a story in it. She…he…it had definitely looked not human, maybe the slave wasn’t? Perhaps it was a demon? Perhaps that was a hook? Perhaps it was time I left for the airport.
The restaurant was one of those every business hotel in mainland Europe seems to insist on having – lots of neon, chrome and mirrored glass. A myriad of me gazed back from a hundred surfaces: Red-rimmed eyes dragging luggage across the hills of my cheeks and the stubbly forest of my chin; a face as familiar in its relief as it was a stranger wrapped in weariness.
But it wasn’t mine.