N is forced to reappraise everything he knows, searching for meaning and identity while he violently collides with the limits of intimacy and love.
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I'm leaning on the backdoor frame watching Farzaneh dig a hole in the centre of the lawn. The conifers along the fence are creaking while the smell of autumn decay drifts in around me. She has been fasting for two weeks, but her movements are effective and full of vigour.
"Nearly full moon," she says, finally noticing me, a white light of excitement in her eyes.
"I didn't realise it was today."
"Fourteen days, eighteen hours," she replies, striking the shovel back into the ground with a grin. "You knew it was today."
Farzaneh walks around the hole to check that all the angles are sharp enough. After kneeling down and chiselling at one of the corners, she stands up, takes a step back and raises her chest. I approach the hole and look down. It's about two feet deep. The corners are perfect right angles.
As arranged, Farzaneh puts the snorkel mask on, steps into the hole and lies down. She has bent the air pipe so that it points upwards. It rises just above ground level. I look up into the dark morning for a second, then grab the shovel, scoop up a mound of earth and scatter it over her legs. She pulls the pipe from her mouth and the mask from her face.
"Wait," she says, standing up, patting the mud from her trousers. "I was just checking. I have to be naked."
She takes off her top, folds it up, places it by the side of the hole and then does the same with her trousers and underwear. Her legs are thin, almost straight along the bone. Her pelvis looks as though it might puncture her skin. She straightens her spine and looks up at some parting black clouds, her ribs raked and stark.
"Okay," she says. "It's time."
She puts the snorkel mask back on and lies down in the hole again. I start by covering her feet, gently scattering the earth in case there are any stones in it.
"Six thirteen," she says, pulling the pipe from her mouth. "I need to be underground for six thirteen."
I nod and shovel quicker, filling the side of the hole where her legs are, up to her pelvis and then over the indented space that used to be her stomach. As I fling the mud and dirt, Farzaneh is collected and still, centred and in position. Her body is taut. Her eyes, behind the plastic of the snorkel mask, are focused on the sky above.
I turn my head and check the clock on the wall in the kitchen. Five past six. I carry on, heaving mud over her sunken chest and scrawny neck. As I get to her head it's hard to remain calm about the fact that this is happening, that this is what she wants. I tell myself that the burial is going to remove her desire to reach out into the beyond, that when I dig her up she'll really be here, back in this world. I kneel down and look into her eyes.
"Are you sure it has to be an hour?" I ask. "It seems too long."
Her eyes move up, to the side and then right back at me. She is contemptuously telling me to carry on, suggesting that the timing of all this is crucial and that the hour is nonnegotiable. I take one last look at her face and begin to cover her head. She's underground for just after ten past six.
Once she's buried and I'm alone in the garden something comes undone inside me. I imagine myself performing a manic, celebratory death dance around the filled-in hole. This is followed by an urge to smash the shovel down to the earth where her face and lungs are. I want to jump all over her, stamp on her and pour dirt down the snorkel pipe so that she really does disappear into the mud. Instead, I gently level out the ground with the tip of the shovel, equating a flatter surface with a more balanced outcome, and then sit cross-legged, occasionally lowering my ear to the inch of black snorkel pipe popping up, trying but failing to hear her breathe.
The full moon begins to pass through a break in the clouds, pristine and bright. It's in the portion of the sky that Farzaneh looked at before she lay down to be buried, about to reach the instant of its totality. I sense its fullness, the sheer clarity of its form, but also the consummation between her and it, the loss of her to it. There is a whisper in the white light around me, the vague suggestion of a place beyond what is shown.
As dawn approaches, the gleam of the full moon begins to dampen and the white edges of the broken clouds turn to bronze. The sky loses the depth of its blackness and begins to haze into dark blue. My thighs jig up and down. I want to know what's going on underground. Does she find the blackness soothing? Is the weight of the soil crushing her? Is it cold or warm? Are there creatures slithering around her? Crawling on her? Into her?
I twist my neck and check the clock in the kitchen. It's still before seven. There's over fifteen minutes left but I can't wait any longer. With a spasmodic lurch, I claw at the cold ground where her head and shoulders are, digging with my hands so that I don't hurt her with the shovel, frenetic but also careful not to knock any dirt into the pipe. I'm imagining limbs turning black, fingers and toes falling off, a gasp for air that has filled her mouth with mud. I want her to have the experience she needs but I don't want any harm to come to her. From what she has told me, neither does she.
When I can see the shadowy outline of the snorkel mask in the hole I have to take a moment to calm myself. I carefully wipe the plastic of the eye-piece clear with the back of my index finger. Her eyes are open, flicking this way and that as though she's halfway between awake and dreaming. I pause, unsure of how to proceed, but a cloud shifts, revealing the moon that had been briefly cloaked. Its light penetrates her pupils and strikes her retinas. They stop flitting about, her spine jerks and she sits up with a sharp, silent motion. Dark earth falls away from her hair and shoulders and her body begins to shake. I grab her jumper and wrap it around her. The skin on her back looks bruised – not her usual tea colour – but I can't see anything properly because of the twilight. She looks dark blue, green, purple; a different colour every second.
I dig mud away from around her pelvis while she fails to take the snorkel mask from her face three times. She starts gasping from around the mouth piece, gulping at the air as though her body has just remembered that it needs to breathe, looking at me through the mask as if to ask what I'm doing, who am I, what is this world? I pull the pipe from her mouth. With the flow of air to her lungs unimpeded, the pieces start coming back together. She pulls off the mask and looks straight ahead, regulating her breath with a look of disdain, as though respiration is a weakness that she had temporarily risen above.
Scooping the mud out from around her legs, the pitch of the light in the garden shifts and I feel the inclination to turn around. I look up at the first-floor window and see that the old woman from the flat upstairs is staring down from a light-filled triangle, pinching her curtain, grimacing and trying to decipher the confusing shadowy images in the garden. I turn back to Farzaneh and pull at the cold mud where her legs are, ignoring our voyeur. Getting her out of the ground is more important.
When I get down to her feet they are dark and slightly swollen. I look back up at the old woman's window. She's still there. I wave my arms around at her, agitated. She still doesn't move. I walk towards the house for a second and make the same gestures. The light from the kitchen must hit my body at this point because she snaps into herself and disappears behind her curtains. I go back to Farzaneh who is juddering in the hole. Things are crawling on her. Maybe it's just my eyes.
"Come on. Let's get you inside," I say, pulling her up. "I'll run you a bath."
Dirt falls from between her narrow legs. She is muddy, distant, shaking with dark knowledge. I guide her into the house with my shoulder beneath her armpit. She knocks her hip on the kitchen table, then on the fridge. In the doorway to the bathroom she stops, unsure of how to proceed. I lean her against the doorframe and start running a bath.
As the tub fills I wrap her in towels and start scouring at the mud on her body. I realise that I can only smear it around, and that the towel is getting filthy, so I focus more on creating friction to warm her. Once the bath is full I lead her to its side, holding her waist and wrist, but I can't find the words that will get her to climb in. She just stares down at it. I have to pick her up and lower her into the water. I'm worried about the temperature and ask her if it's too hot but she doesn't respond.
Ultraviolet pinks and purples gleam in through the frosted glass of the bathroom window. The sun is beginning to rise. I rub soap into her neck and shoulders. Her goose-bumps thicken as she passes from frozen to cold. My hand snags on her hair while I'm scrubbing mud from her neck and a clump pulls out, leaving a thinned, bald patch behind her ear. The pain sparks a flash of consciousness in her eyes.
"Clss-sss-sss," she says, her teeth chattering, bath mist rising around her.
"What's that, Far? What did you say?"
"Clss ... ss, ss, clse," she says, a faint smile appearing and disappearing as the light fades from her eyes.
I decide against shampooing her hair and rinse it gently instead. Each time I raise the plastic jug the bath water is darker. I'm hoping that she's going to reveal something about her time underground but she's silent. Her eyes look into an invisible distance. She hasn't come back.CHAPTER 2
I arrive in London with a backpack full of weed, a scratched-up skateboard and a worn copy of The Last Days of Socrates. The rest of my stuff is being sent down in a van. Finding the right Underground line is simple but satisfactory. A sign that I'm going to survive. The Tube air tastes stagnant and the passengers are all dead-eyed or gazing down at phone screens as the carriage rattles and sways. Mile End seems familiar enough: terraces, council blocks, families, students, tough-looking kids. No one bats an eyelid at the noise of my skateboard coming up behind them. The city has dulled their nerves.
I go to the campus office, sign a couple of things and pick up my keys. It turns out my room is in an old morgue. Across the way there's a much bigger building that used to be a hospital. There are squeals of excitement and trills of laughter coming from that building. The morgue is quiet. Maybe I got lucky, maybe I didn't.
Down my corridor there are twelve bedrooms, four toilets, four showers and two small kitchens. The walls are all institutional beige. In my room there's a single bed, a half-size wardrobe, a bookshelf, a small sink and mirror, and a desk. The paint is chipped where posters have been pulled off the walls. There's a laminated A4 printout on the bare mattress with ten rules and the first one, written in bold print, is: DO NOT PUT POSTERS ON THE WALLS. I smile. My window looks out onto a strip of weeping willows that hang down by a canal. Things could be worse.
My stuff arrives and the man in the van doesn't get a tip because he stands around idly while I schlep to and fro with my boxes. The first thing I do is set up my laptop and speakers, put some music on and smoke a joint out of my window. I try to imagine my future in London, my new friends, the things I'll learn on my course, but it's impossible.
Once I finish the joint, I sit on the bare mattress staring into space until an excitable girl with lots of bangles on her wrists knocks on my door and invites me to a fresher's party over at the old hospital. It's nothing special. She goes down the whole corridor inviting everybody.
At the party a large sound system pumps out old pop songs with dance beats forged over them. The biggest room is a communal space up on the second floor with vending machines and a pool table. I take one of my cans of lager out of my backpack and lean against a wall. Out of one of the windows, I can see the tips of the brightly lit skyscrapers in Canary Wharf popping up over a dark mass of buildings. I'm in London, I realise.
There must be close to two hundred people milling in and out of the room. Groups are forming in random, unbound clusters; eyes full of fear, laughter coming too easily, everybody's teeth showing. I see two chatty, preppy-looking guys break away from one gathering, glad to have found each other, egos boosted by the fact that they are leaving six others floundering in a silent, friendless chaos.
A bunch of the more confident suburban kids are trying out their bedroom dance moves on a makeshift dancefloor. There's a skinny lad with an expensive haircut sitting outside the entrance to the toilets with his drunken mind spinning between his knees. A plump girl is sitting on her haunches, trying to comfort him, masking her loneliness in his suffering. A small mass of black clothing in one corner is having a particularly powerful gravitational effect on the other items of black clothing scattered around the room. I can't tell if they're goths or fashion victims, or both. Right in front of me, an Asian girl in a purple-and-white cosplay outfit trips and falls to the floor and starts laughing hysterically. She won't let her friend pick her up. She's revelling in it.
I smell pot in the air so I light one of the joints I rolled up in my room. Once it's clear that I'm smoking weed a blonde girl in a shiny black top comes over to me. She asks what course I'm doing, where I'm from and what music I'm into: "Philosophy." "Manchester." "All sorts." She's hot but she's not listening. She's not even looking at me. She just wants me to pass her the joint. When she senses that it's not coming her way she glances back over at her group of equally hot, just-laid-eyes-on-each-other-but-friends -for-life girlfriends.
"So, me and my friends were wondering if we could steal a joint off you."
"I only brought enough for me."
"But it's weed. You have to share weed. It's, like, the rules."
She follows this statement with a look that says, You want to fuck me so you'll give me whatever I want. Her posture and facial expressions come from the internet, not real life. I imagine too many teenage masturbators have liked her posts and pictures. Their lust has made her stupid.
"A spliff," I say, attempting to channel Socrates, "isn't shared because it gets shared, it gets shared because it's being shared."
She frowns at me with a half-grimace, trying to let me know that intelligence is ugly.
"How about you just share the rest of that?"
"Sure. Stick around. You can bum twos."
She's disgusted by the idea of staying and talking to me, and the word 'bum' has exposed her misguided sense of entitlement and the fact that, in essence, she's begging. Her face contorts. She almost laughs but shakes her head instead. She turns away from me and walks back over to her friends swinging her hips and shrugging.
Before I can blink a sandy-skinned rich boy with a pounding, overconfident voice is trying his luck. He's been in Africa all summer, owns a kayak. My disinterest in his travelling seems to be worrying him on a deep but visible level. He's flicking his diagonal blonde fringe back again and again in a way that looks like a nervous tick. To get things on track, to get closer to procuring the joint, he asks what course I'm doing, where I'm from and what music I'm into: "Philosophy." "Manchester." "All sorts." He looks at the joint every time I answer. He does it so blatantly that I move it here and there just to watch his head bob about. When he finally notices that I'm making a fool of him he laughs at the transparency of his self-interest and taps me on the shoulder.
"Worth a try, eh?"
"Was it?" I ask.
Before he leaves his face straightens. He looks down at the joint for a moment, thinks about asking for it anyway, looks up into my eyes, decides against it and then goes on his way.
The girl who comes over next has no neck and walks like a stout middle-aged man. Her hair is all over the place in a manner contrived to make her look rushed, and too interesting to be vain, but it comes off as desperate and neurotic. When she asks me what course I'm doing I sigh and tell her that if she wants some of my joint she should just come out and ask for it.
"Life," she says, "is too short to stand around talking to wankers. Even if they do have weed."
She turns and waddles away.
I smile, suddenly liking her. I almost follow her to make amends but I can't muster the effort. I'm not sure I'm in the right mood for this party. I finish my can and my joint, coming round to the idea of going back to my room, but when I take my weight off the wall a moment of optimism urges me to stay. I don't want to give up on my first night in London so easily. I told myself I'd try to be less critical when I got here, more open to things. I lean back against the wall and take another beer out of my backpack.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Farzaneh and The Moon"
Copyright © 2019 Matt Wilven.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
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