The Last Thing You Ever Gave Me

Fiction
Sarah Hills


Photo Credit: Sarah Ross/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After twelve months, your letter arrived, Henry, posted by your solicitor. She enclosed it, as per instructions, with a short one of her own that told me the directions of your will had been carried out, that members of your family had chosen not to contest, that the sending of this letter was the last instruction. She said I could contact her, if I wished.

Your letter was exactly as you had read it out to me that last day. Nothing I had said had changed your mind, obviously.

I had wondered if you might leave me at least a modicum of your money. A little recompense at least, but no. You always were a poor sugar daddy.

 

As soon as I had returned to my hometown (home still, despite my parents having moved south, heading for the sun) I looked for work. I was a college dropout, failed student. The only job available was at a bar and pizza restaurant, close to the harbour on the river. It fitted the bill: work that would fill the evenings, leave me exhausted, bringing only dreamless sleep in the early hours. In amongst the crowded noise and dim lighting, I was forced to shout, forced to talk to people, to shed my shy skin like a convulsing growing reptile. From the moment I left you I determined to shut out the words, all the fancy, fiery, sparkling, expanding words you encouraged me to play with. I kept only the functional ones, like normal people use. The ones without power. I visualised the abandoned vocabulary like the peeled off remains of sunburn, dead flakes, so much dust and ashes.

In my fresh damp skin, I met Dave there, one of the bartenders. One late night, Dave and I, having finished our shifts, betting we could be friends, took leftover pizzas to the benches by the river, and ate them there, hot and steaming in the still chill air of November. You would still have been alive then.

We talked about our recent pasts. His string of casual girlfriends and my sugar daddy. My words garnished lavishly with bitterness among the black olives and mozzarella.

He cocked an eyebrow over a triangle of pizza. “Your tutor tried to get his leg over and when you told him to piss off, he still hung around? He must have been after something. Jesus.”

I had taken his sympathy and raised the bet to casual sex, which he accepted because he had form that way, as he had explained. That was just the start and, with a bottle of wine from the late-night garage on the way home, we drank our way to bed. I was glad I had never slept with you; I had no trace of your skin on mine to erase, no memory of your body against mine to compare anyone too. Dave had a good body, dark against my light, lean against my soft, he had clever, gentle hands and lips made for eating and kissing, not language. He was not haunted by the need to articulate everything, not cursed by dancing words in the middle of the night.

 

I buried you so far down I thought you had gone with the words.

 

You were not a proper sugar daddy, Henry. Though I wanted you to be. Me, a grey shadow at the back of lectures, seminars. Words danced in my head but died against the backs of my gritted teeth, kamikaze, before exploding backwards across my tongue in all kinds of clever fireworks I never let off. I welcomed your advances after tutorials. You, the antique star of the Literature department, your books long ago published and too far dissected by generations of students. Your reputation of disgustingly randy lech ran before you like a rank smell. I was not choosy. I only wanted to touch greatness, even half-buried greatness. I wanted to trace its pattern with my fingertips and compare it to mine, find out if words cast spells in your head the same way.

My flattery did not gain your attention, nor the way I could quote your books at you. I was just one of a multitude of mimicking voices, you could not hear my hushed voice amongst the din. You only noticed the way short skirts slipped up my thigh as I turned in my chair, the way my blouse skidded across cleavage to give glimpses of creamy curves that made your fingers twitch and your mouth salivate. It was a physical thing that I was prepared to give. Like I offered treats to the elephant at the zoo just to be close to that sheer mountain of strength, to experience that moment of communication.

I lured you to my flat and you were, oh, so willing. I lit candles, warmed red wine and made the bed with clean fresh sheets. I left your books out, casually spilling their words from open pages, bookmarked, dog-eared, thinking to flatter you, but I realised later that they acted like gravel scattered across the carpet, piercing your flabby bare feet with sharp points, grazing your ego with the hard rebukes they had become.

When I went to get the wine, you reached among papers on my desk and picked up words of mine.

I came back to find the full light on, and you sat on the hard chair reading, pen in hand.

Henry, I had dreamed there would be a beautiful connection between us. But you made it ugly. You said you could not make love to me. You would not let me take the texture of you between my fingers to find out how the fabric was woven. You refused my advances, even though I managed to put my leg over yours and balance on your knee for a fractal second before your cold eyes blew me away across the room.

You spread my words out, marked in red, and tapped the pages. You said the words were good, but I had much to learn.

You asked what writing was and I told you it was witchcraft, spell-making, about the way the words came together in my head and created things. You said that was not how you saw it, that you saw writers more as reed beds filtering the streams of life through them, giving words to what was there so that life was clearer, cleaner. You quoted Wittgenstein, said language was the net humans threw across the world to make sense of it.

I argued that took the magic out of it, how would natural language come through if you thought it was all about control? I remember you laughed and were surprised, saying you could not remember the last time talking about words had made you laugh.

You asked what else I had and, in the end, pressed between my over and under confidences, I gave you my secret black book and you went away.

I was left to comfort myself and finally cry myself to sleep, naked under my many covers.

For months after that, Henry, you lent me book after book, led me through poet after poet, story after story. We talked for hours about old writers and new, the stories that vary and repeat, the new ways words push through. You shook the little walls in my mind, until I let the night winds blow through, let the words in whenever they wanted in, allowed them to ransack the place, letting the pieces fall where they wanted.

We laughed a lot, about nights when words woke us, tingling free-falling lines in our heads, about scribbling notes in the darkness to capture the music of them. The spangle and glitter of language infected us until we were like children getting ready for Christmas. My first year summer semester, all of my second year; you were my university.

 

I told Dave I had received the solicitor’s letter.

He raised his eyebrows. “He’s dead? Did he leave you something then? Was he rich?”

“No. Poets are not rich. He had a house and a pension. Things you and I can only dream about, Dave. But there is a wife, three children and grandchildren.”

“Not so much a sugar daddy then, only a lech.”

I flinched at that, and Dave opened his black eyes wide, as if he could suddenly see me and all my emotions pinned out like a dead butterfly.

“You loved him,” he declared.

 

The sensation of you saturates through me, as if waves from the sea of you crash onto the shore of me, saltwater stinging through the sore sand, but you no longer have a skeleton net to hold you in, so I lose you, time and time again.

Both with you and without I am lost. You were the glue that held me together and now all the pieces of me randomly spin, disconnected, a diaspora of one.

 

I cried a little then and Dave slid an arm round my shoulders.

Which was how a temporary job in my hometown became a year and then two years, and a fling with Dave became a casual thing and then dissolved into a relationship. His words, when they came, were sweeter than yours, of course, saccharine, fructose-corn syrup, compulsive, consumptive, complimentary. My ego became obese, my skin swollen with lust. Which is not love. As you would have pointed out.

But it stopped the words free-associating in my head. They no longer woke me in the night chattering. Instead, I suffered from nightmares about the house burning down and, when I woke in the mornings, the smell in my nostrils was acrid smoke, charred air. On rare evenings I was not at work and Dave was out, I would find myself flattened against the sofa in front of the TV, turning up the contrasts and volume, as if the over-bright colours were a blanket pressing down, wiping out, silencing, the loud sounds mothballing, putting me on ice.

I do not know how long this would have lasted if Dave had not thrown in the towel.

“You are not serious.” He said. “You do not want to be here. You are passing through.”

When I protested that I had been here nearly three years, he said. “Not this place. Me. For you, it’s like we are still in the first week. You never talk about the future. You never say you love me.”

I opened my eyes wide and looked at him then and for the first time saw the pink around his heart and the blue around his eyes. I realised I was standing on the edge of being cruel. I stepped back, bowed my head, said my apologies. Afterwards I heard in his voice, underneath his walking-away words, the crushed dried petals of hope that this conversation would wake my love for him out of sleep.

But it did not, because it was not sleeping. There was never any life there.

 

All that time I had sat and studied under your direction, Henry, rather, your misdirection. Hours and days in the library, blindfolded head down, while you took the poems from my black book and let them out into the world. You published them under Anonymous, with a foreword from you. Then, as we dined in an expensive restaurant, you gave me the first copy in a tissue-lined box, your only ever present to me, on the last evening we spent together.

Sugar daddy. There was nothing sweet in you. You were canker, sourness, the bitterness of bile that burns from the inside coming up. I thought to learn from you, but you robbed this cradle of its gifts and took my rightful bow.

The food I pushed away as it arrived, my bones glued to my skin, no room within for anything.

You said, “You’ll thank me in the end.”

You said, “I’m dying, by the way. I have about a year. I wanted to do this for you.”

I said, “What is it you have done, but steal my tongue?”

You blinked at that. Pulled out the letter from your pocket then and read it to me: You wanted to set me free, from the beginning. To let my words out without the eyes of the world glaring at me, stopping me writing, blocking the creative process. You had set up a trust fund, and proceeds from the book, if any, would go in there and you could let me have them, as you saw fit. After your death, it would come to me, if anything. You did not think your wife would disagree, although you were not telling her, she was the jealous kind.

I pushed back my chair, screeches ripped across the floor, bats dive-bombing among the chandeliers. “Sugar daddies are supposed to give, not take.”

You smiled then. “My dear. This is the greatest gift that I could give.”

“To yourself maybe. But not to me. I would rather have sucked your cock than have you prostitute my words with your name stitched on.”

I had the satisfaction of slapping your old face and watching your mouth slam open and eyebrows ricochet up your brow. Then I left and left for good, heading straight back home before I even knew I should.

 

After I finished with him, all those sugar-frosted phrases of Dave’s rotted my teeth. I woke the morning after he left with terrible pain in my jaw. The emergency dentist, holding her head back from the swamp fetid air of my mouth, pointed out the rot in my back teeth, top and bottom. Warned if I did not sort things out my teeth would become black stumps.

I let her pull the worst out, drill remaining decay with silver-tipped points, the feel and the noise shivering down my bones like foil ripping between my teeth. I lay there with my eyes glued to the ceiling behind protective glasses against the glaring lights. Just because I am cursed with night witch wordsmiths, who hammer syllables into thin-lined spells, dropping them into my brain in the dark, does not make me immune to vicissitudes of viscous verbals.

I had imagined I was holding Dave as a shield against the world, against the words, but his own speech, denied its proper target of my heart, insidious, held itself in my mouth, pressed against my tongue, my teeth, until at least the protection of my enamel dissolved before it, at least it got to the root of something.

I lay on my back under the metal drill and let it drive home that all words have power and power must out or will corrupt.

And I think of you as I had first seen you, faded and, I realise now, mute. A writer with no more words. A person with no power. And how that must have hurt you, surrounded by books of your own words but unable to speak anymore.

That afternoon I nurse my numb swollen mouth and email the solicitor. Who emails back and transfers me the balance of the trust. The same as a year of working in the bar. Then for the first time I look to see how the book is doing out in the world and find people are reading it, quietly, steadily, and writing reviews that sparkle and distort my image of myself and I have to hold onto the table edge which is suddenly high off the ground, in case I fall. I put my hands in front of my face to stop people seeing me and then draw them back, for you have done that for me, you have put the mask of your name over my face.

 

That night words fall through the air towards me in my dreams, like burning fragments carried by smoke from enormous fires, raging just beyond the horizon. I can see the tips of flames licking into the air, clouds of sparks dancing, but although I walk towards it hard, I can never get any closer. I wake with tears on my face and the sweetness of wood smoke in my room.

The next night poems crash my dreams in chattering lines and will not let me sleep. When I put pen to paper under the bedside table’s dim light I can feel you in the room, just out of sight. Your smugness almost hamstrings my pen, but the lines are too good to waste. After all these years I am starving.

In the morning, I am afraid to read the words over. Words written at night are often puke spewed across the page in the daylight. But I hold my breath in against my heart and read them again and they still blaze along the plain lines like firecrackers.

At work I carry the knowledge of the page and your last letter like seedlings emerging out of the deep dark within me, wondering what they would grow into, where they might take me. I smile at students coming into the bar and while I still serve them ridiculous numbers of discounted shots, persuade them to at least eat the pizza slices alongside to line their stomach for their own good. I take my breaks outside on the waterfront of the river, smoking roll-ups and watching the dark water flow away under the bridge.

At the end of the night, hardly able to see my hands for the blur of spells buzzing in my head, I hand in my notice.

 

Now, after all my scorn and running halfway round the world, I find that I was always on my way back to you. The college have accepted me in to finish my degree; it turns out you left them a letter telling them your behaviour towards me was disreputable and deplorable—the last valorous act of a latterly honourable man.

I am standing by your graveside, Henry, mouth bruised, teeth lost, breath of a witch’s arse, words fresh and mad in my head, resurrected and holding the mask and lifeline you left me.

You can laugh the last laugh now.

pencil

Sarah Hills lives in Yorkshire in the North of England. She has recently started taking her writing more seriously. Email: sarah5064[at]live.com