How Mars Has Shifted

A single leaf of pak choi in the sink, stainless steel and cold, all shades of good green, limping slowly and lines of white running through it. I stop and stare. The leaf was discarded after dinner, all the sauce washed off under a running tap and now it sits there, and I do not know why it catches my eye, but I stare at it, feel as though I should take a photograph, and yet I am too sad to do so. The wine has soured but must be drunk. Rain falls and with it a strong wind blows. An orange light in the sky that has troubled me for many nights now is finally identified: mars. I cannot understand why, but to recognise a planet in my own solar system instills in me so much more wonder than spotting the centre of another, flickering and probably dead. There is the orbit of mars, sluggishly slicing the firmament under which I marvel. Every time I go out for a rollie, I notice how mars has shifted. Walking down the Fulham Rd as a teenager on a Saturday at half-two, I felt like I were a part of something, and it coursed through to my bones; now I am overwhelmed by the same sensation underneath the night sky, when I look up and, through the cloudless dark, see the blinking red of a distant planet, the recognition of a face among countless other strangers.
    We must go back to the office on Monday. Somehow I got dragged into it by many of the younger members of staff, asking me to speak out. They often come to me for advice – and I have given it – but now I was expected to perform like a union representative. After we were informed that we should return, I made four phone calls over two hours and listened to their concerns, drafted an e-mail and my parents told me not to send it. I deleted it and told my colleagues – my friends! – what’s the point! ‘Someone must say something!’ they told me. They had copied me in all the correspondence they had sent to management; I could not let them down. I worry that the fight in me will one day die. I spoke to my therapist and told her that all my emotions have become dulled. She asked me what I thought that meant, how it made me feel. I told her that I worried I would become boring, that, for better or worse, all the extremes of emotion in me were something I quite liked about myself. The next day I rewrote the e-mail and sent it. I do not believe it will make any difference, and management will bully me more than they already do, but I could not disappoint my fellow workers, and I could not let myself down. So, we will return. Things are worse now than when we got sent home less than two weeks ago. I no longer care. What is the use? London awaits. There are long walks to be had during the lunchbreak, salted popcorn and the reminiscence of life that died. Maybe I will need new heels & soles on my shoes, new laces. I should become so sad if the fight leaves me.
    ‘So you’re not going out for a walk?’ I slept in an empty house. A groggy head and cloudy mind. When finding oneself finally alone, it is tempting to masturbate, but instead I put on a television programme about paedophiles and drifted in & out of sleep, then woke up laughing. Too discombobulated to do my chess lessons, I put on the football and drank coffee. There was something I could not shake. There was lots of coffee; I drank it all. There was a video of nipple & labia clamps; I watched it and came in the shower. There was so much greyness outside that one had to turn on the lights in every room. There was my favourite cereal in the cupboard; I ate it sprinkled in sugar and watched stand-up but none of it made me laugh. ‘So you’re not going out for a walk?’ There was nothing to do but go out for a walk. Everyone was wearing coats and I wore my best shirt. The mighty wind blew, so strong that it imbalanced me. On the backstreets, parallel to the sea and where the gusts died down, I pulled my phone from my pocket – took a deep breath – waited—

    ‘Hi R—s, how’s it going?’
    ‘All right, Khalid, not bad, man, how you doing?’
    ‘Yeah, all right.’
    I took a deep breath—‘Just a heads-up, I’m giving notice on my tenancy agreement.’
    He paused. Rents had just plummeted in London—‘Two months, yeah?’
    ‘Yeah, two months.’
    ‘You found somewhere else?’
    Had that tone of voice my French ex had when we broke up; I liked both of them, but it had to be done.
    Afterwards I did not feel the sense of relief I had expected, but down the quiet road I walked and my heart heavy with such uncertainty and hopelessness! I passed by the doctor’s surgery and the funeral parlour, both closed. Round the back of the dead school and through the estate with the play equipment and grass patch vacant, I traced the path I had taken in summer, but back then there were picnics and kites, ball games, vivid colours and the sweet smell of dry grass. At the seafront, the wind was stronger, causing me to trip and stutter. The rain hit the side of my head and against the taught skin of skull I felt every drop sting, rattling the coils and ballast of my bones. The sweat under my arms was cold. The skin underneath arms is one of my favourites on the human body. I like the skin underneath arms, the skin on knees, the skin at the bottom of the neck (over clavicle) and the skin that forms the labia. I lifted my arms up and let the sweat grow even colder. They are having trouble shifting the new flats off the promenade; spent years building them through financial shortcomings and delays, and now they are finished, pristine, and having a hard time getting sold. I look in through the windows. There is nothing there. Emptiness where lives should be. The rain stings and it does not end. Despite my complaints, I enjoy it. The rain in the distance is a mist. The dog-walkers pass me by. Crows gaze and with considerable thought regard me through black eyes. The feathery muscle above their thin legs and the tiny creatures they pick from the grass as I run my fingers through the twigs that spill from the verge onto the path. When I get back, I drink a can of diet coke, make myself a pot of coffee and play a game of chess against the computer. It beats me and I am furious at the errors I made. I take a needle to my skin and wheedle out a hair that has become trapped. Watery blood trickles and I lick it up. I sit before the board with a clear mind and one less hair growing into my throat. The computer plays the Sicilian defence; Scheveningen variation, and I am determined now, very angry, furious. When I eventually win – exacting revenge against something abstract – I do not feel good but still quite morose. The neighbourhood cat walks past with a large mouse – or a small rat, I could not tell – in her mouth. O, Peggy! I thought. She was such a sweet kitten and now she is going around killing everything!
    ‘Parasite just came on A—e P—e, let’s watch that.’ I had considered watching Parasite on the plane back from Helsinki in February but found it neither the right atmosphere nor myself in the right frame of mind. I had very much wanted to watch it, but the memory of that occasion stung my nostalgia like rain off the waves. We put it on and I was enjoying it until a certain scene that H—n had mentioned to me many months ago. I leapt up and went for a smoke, and, feeling quite nauseous, went through our conversations until I found her words from the twenty-fourth of February. It had been one week since I caught the plane away from her, when we spent Valentine’s together, and we both thought we would see each other again soon, by hook or by crook. I say it over & over; I type it over & over; a lifetime ago, it was a lifetime ago. She had just received her acceptance to a residency in the countryside and, through photographs of the cottage, was trying to entice me to join her there. I read her messages in the rain—
    ‘Very much trying to entice you,’ she said.
    I told her that she needn’t try to entice me.
    ‘But I want to.
    ‘Fair enough then, I won’t stop you.
    It had been that time at work when I make a pot of coffee, back when everyone sat near each other and did not wear masks.
    ‘There was this thing in Parasite that really fucked me up,’ she said—‘Because it summed up my entire twenties.’ It was the scene I had leapt up from. ‘Too close to home… More motivated than ever to try to do plans.’
    I loved the way she spoke, I loved all her neuroses, I was falling in love with everything about her. ‘Small plans or larger ones?
    ‘Any plans… Plans for what to eat, plans for life, plans for travel, plans for retirement age, plans for evening… I mean all of that was unthinkable before and still really really hard.’ She was so wonderful. Reading her words again reassured me that I was never a fool to fall for her. ‘Even applying for that residency was hard because it’s a two month commitment. And what else did I have going on? NOTHING! But always too scared to commit or even daydream.’ Our relationship had evolved to the point where she told me everything, and I her. That would soon end.
    ‘Huge plans then. This makes sense.
    ‘Haha yeah I’m not gonna think about that actually because currently I think the world’ll probably get so fucked up that one will have to die before retirement age… So I’ll not go overboard with the planning… But, y’know, nice to find some will to live on a bigger scale than “ok today is ok”
    I choked on myself, on nothing, on my own throat. Raindrops fell on my phone, on her words. When I felt as though I had overcome the episode, I went back in and watched the rest of the film.
    It might be good to go back to work. Now I sit here after four pints of beer and on my second bottle of wine, with not much else to do besides get drunk, write and listen to Spiegel Im Spiegel. The night has a thick belly of cloud and mars is not visible. With those train journeys I can get back to reading. The clocks go back tonight. ‘Spring forward, fall back,’ they say. I do not know what that means. The numbers are confusing. I will leave them be. I will end this here. Today feels like a day I will remember, and that is why I have used the evening to drink.