The Gate Clock
The town is mostly dead; the drizzle-splashed pavements beaten upon only by the faint orange light of street lamps, the occasional unsteady, slapping steps of a bare-footed girl carrying her stiletto shoes in one hand. The blunt faces of shuttered shop fronts shun the night - vintage clothes and retro records and gimmicky coffee bars want no part in its proceedings, and the only life exists in garish, bustling pockets.
The Gate Clock is one such pocket.
Although establishments that thrive on darkness and drink often have little regard for the affluence of an area, the pub, with its hastily scrawled chalk signs boasting '4 shots for £5', is still a shining beacon of coarseness amongst its more genteel neighbours; for, hanging like an after-thought beneath the rarely-lit neon title, is a sub-heading synonymous with cheap drink and late opening hours, with vomit-splattered toilets and over-dressed women, with easy sex and impending regrets - 'J.D. Wetherspoon'.
Its roomy decor of stained carpets and maple panels is unremarkable. But such widely appreciated attributes attract a loud, mismatching rabble of visitors; ghetto boys in obscenely white trainers, trendy students in Che-Guevara adorned T shirts, groups of old men with alcohol-pickled skin who grope and snicker at scantily-clad girls and groups of young men with acne-mottled skin who fumble them instead with awkward, stilted conversation.
The heavy glass doors are in permanent motion, exhaling icy breath on the bare backs of legs and opening onto a large courtyard of wooden tables and an overspill of nicotine gulping pub-goers, small rings of shivering, chattering people that protrude, mirage-like, from clouds of smoke. In a world punctuated only by the occasional whoosh of a passing car, the gathering is a sudden explosion of noise that seems to perforate the night itself, the purposefully exaggerated laughter of drunk young things a chorused obnoxiousness as they stagger to the bus stop a convenient few feet away.
Tonight a woman of indeterminable age is perched beneath its cracked glass, sobbing into her trembling palms with an arena of sagging Waitrose bags at her feet. She does not raise her head for the occasional half-hearted, off-kilter concern of a passing drunk.
Two doors up is a perennially lit McDonald's, the lurid yellow 'M' illuminating a seemingly unconscious homeless man with an eerily celestial glow. Beside his damp bed of blankets is a chipped dog's bowl, but no dog.
It was in this world of half-light and half-life that Silena found the still smoking butt of relapse, smoldering away enticingly on an empty table. She was on her way inside when it caught her eye - inexplicable really, so tiny a thing, emitting the most miniscule light from its fag-sized inferno - but she saw it nonetheless, and plucked it from the green Heineken ashtray. She huddled her treasure under her oversized leather jacket, avoiding the curious gaze of a solitary smoker as she shoved through the heavy doors. She didn't smoke herself.
Paul was a smoker, the very same one who watched the skinny Blonde snatch up the tail end of a Marlboro Light like it was a precious jewel. He felt he was three quarters of the way to pissed, though in reality he had surpassed that particular signpost hours ago, and in the drink-addled treacle of his brain the girl's strange act was so intensely perplexing that it distressed him. If he had been feeling sharper he might have drawn it to his friends' attention and quickly extinguished its curiosity with laughter and jokes gently crested with misogyny, but that night, interchangeable from multitudinous nights in the past few years, he was particularly drunk and particularly deadened, his enjoyment an auto-piloted exercise that operated on an epidermis-level. It was as if the sheer inscrutability of the deed raised such flurried questions in his mind that it was momentarily aroused from its stupor, the sudden passing beam of a torch that illuminated his intelligence long enough to have him realise that he felt like utter shit. It wasn't dissimilar to being operated on under local anesthetic, a brief spike of pain awakening the brain to the full horror of its situation. But he returned to the idle talk of his friends regardless, his own cigarette turning to ash between his shaking fingers and his labored thoughts scrabbling for foothold.
Silena was skimming shoulders with a stream of short-skirted traffic as she two-stepped up the pub stairs and towards the ladies' lavatory. Once through the candy-pink door she dodged women deftly repairing the paint of their faces, posing in frozen-faced groups for mobile phone pictures, sisterly passing the last few treasured scraps of toilet paper under rickety doors, and slammed her way into an empty stall and onto a cracked, likely germ-ridden toilet seat. Inside, she withdrew the smoking cigarette butt in one fluttery, frantic hand, using her unoccupied fingers to peel back the black skin of her man’s jacket and expose a sparsely fleshed forearm that was checkered with a myriad of faint pink lines, a few raised and fat with collagen like some awful infestation of worms. For the briefest of seconds she merely teased her skin with the cigarette, choosing an unmarked spot between its many self-embellishments to stimulate the smallest surrendering of flesh and agitation of cells. And then she stubbed it violently, forcefully, in fear of losing her incentive, and it was done, or rather undone, since four years of recovery were rendered quite irrelevant in that instant.
Downstairs a thirty-something woman sat amongst her cackling work-mates, smiling thinly into her gin and tonic as men's names spilled messily around her from wet, smudged lips - a list of their dream mates, Danny from I.T., that bloke we met in Majorca, Brad Pitt and Vin Diesel and oh my god that guy at the bar, have you seen him? All the while a voice in her head murmured in increasing urgency and tempo the name of her own dream lover, unchanged but unuttered since childhood; it was, quite unequivocally, Judy Garland.
Behind the drink-splattered, bled and sobbed upon bar, a fresh faced, apron-wearing man dried glasses with a glazed, stupefied expression on his face. He was remembering the exact moment the life leeched from his mother’s eyes precisely two weeks before, turning them into two depthless marbles in the face of a human wax dummy, carefully arranged on a bed of sweat dampened sheets and useless, spiraling tubes.
At opposite ends of the bar, each equal in their irritable efforts to get the oblivious bartenders's attention, are a young girl and an old man. She is contemplating the nature of the drink she will order, for this solitary decision is a miniature pre-preemptive to a much more momentous one she will have to make later in the week, regarding the small body secretly forming inside her stomach. The old man is remembering how the face of a German soldier caved in under the butt of his gun, stalling his blundering retreat home with yet another drink for fear that that 70-year-old mess of blood and brain matter may materialize on one of his grandchildren's faces.
Silena again took to the stairs, this time with a slow, deliberate place, oblivious to a girl attempting to contain her own vomit as she shoved past to the ladies' lavatory. She did not feel the worn carpet under her shoes for she was levitating, a changed woman lit with an inner relief, with the serenity of the recently exorcised. As she reached the last step her eyes locked with a man forcing his way through the pub doors in an burst of icy air and nicotine odor; Paul.
For a second his brain was wracked with recognition and he approached her with the intention of saying something quite pivotal; but by the time they had reached one another this thread had slipped from between his fingers and fallen away into the intoxicated recesses of his mind. Now she was just a pretty girl with a peaceful, alluring smile on her lips.
That night they would hastily assemble a paltry, rickety bridge across their existences, across the vacuous gulf that is the human condition, and embark on a white-knuckled crawl to one another. The chit-chat, the exchanged nuggets of meaningless information and points of mutual interest, the coy side long glances and brushes of skin, these were the boards, the hammer and nails used to forge their bridge, to advance them past last-orders and into the chill night, to drive them through front doors and onto the bed of whoever's home. And although in the morning they would both race to precede the others rejection, her gathering her things to leave, he pretending to be asleep, in their fleeting merging of flesh and sensation, in the frantic clash of bones and the uncontrolled mingling of voices, they each found a moment's relief. They were the lucky ones.
Rae Gellel is a 23 year old Londoner with a Creative Writing degree and no idea what to do with it. She works with animals by day and writes by night, wondering if it's really possible to create a great work of fiction in cow-print pyjamas.