Read this outstanding fiction from one of Wales’ short story specialists. A vivid, conspicuously innovative piece of writing, which also exhibits all the measured technicality and psycho-emotive insight that all fans of John’s have come to recognise as signatures of his style. This piece is one The Gull wants nobody to miss and is vocally proud to have published it in our first issue. Enjoy.
State Anxiety Pill Blues
She got abused on Facebook and twitter with such frequency and with such determined cruelty that she finally packed as many things as she could into her sister’s gap year rucksack. Ready to leave. Ready to be homeless if that was what it took to get away. She argued with her mother and slapped her fiercely across the face before she knew what she was doing. She ran out into the streetlamp-lit night and was sick outside their neighbour’s front gate. Later, back in her bedroom, the contents of the rucksack poured all over the floor, she almost cut herself again. Underneath her breasts would be a good place, she thought. One of the few areas of her body that her mother would be unlikely to subject to a spot-check.
But she didn’t want to go back down that route, no matter how small the risk of being found out. Not after the ten-month-ordeal-by-counselling-and-anti-depressant that had been the story of her recent life.
The deeply autistic, middle-aged man that she had met while staying in the ‘crisis bed’ of a residential care home had constantly referred to the anti-depressant that she had been prescribed as the ‘state anxiety pill.’ The man had been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a child and while that misdiagnosis had been widely acknowledged on the quiet within the residential care home, it was also widely acknowledged that there wouldn’t ever be enough money available to take him off the anti-psychotics that he had been wrongly prescribed for over twenty years. Not enough money, either, to then rehabilitate him and start him off on what would be deemed the correct course of medication.
He had said some extremely inappropriate things to her. Things like, ‘Darling, my cock is rotting off in this place!’ and ‘You’re nice… Playboy Bunny nice.’ So much so that she had been genuinely worried/ borderline-frightened by him at first. But then she had slowly begun to realise that his choice of words and his frames of reference were not particularly his own but rather the words and frames of reference of others, picked up over the years of a life spent in and out of different institutions. He often referred to himself, for instance, as PJ Tips, after the monkeys in the TV commercials that had been popular when he was a teenager in the 1980s. This was surely something that he had been maliciously called in the past. She could vividly recall seeing him sitting in the chair next to the medication cupboard, waiting for a member of staff to hand him his cupful of largely, perhaps even entirely misdiagnosed drugs, while he chanted the words ‘PG Tips! PG Tips!’ over and over again.
And she had grown fond of him, she really had. Extremely fond because he really was a lovely misunderstood childlike man who had no one in the world except his fellow ‘service users’ and, understandably enough, they quite often grew exasperated with him because being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia also meant that he was in the wrong sort of care home for somebody with his requirements. There were the staff members too, of course, and while some of them clearly cared for him, it was also the case that the very nature of their job meant that they were not allowed to care for him too much, less the lines between staff member and ‘service user’ became blurred.
But no, she didn’t want to go down that route again and so she let a middle-aged regular in the pub that she worked at put his hand up her skirt one night when the landlord and landlady had left early, leaving her to lock up on her own. She realised later that the man reminded her a bit of the autistic man from the care home. Partly because he seemed lonely and sad but also because he looked a bit like him, with his short-ish, sideparted silver grey hair and his boyish face in its cloak of rumpled, shaving-cut-marked-skin. He was quite funny too, she thought at first, albeit in a misanthropic sort of way. He liked to tell self-depreciating stories about his lack of success with women. Maybe that was why she let him kiss her and put his hand up her top, and then – even though his Strongbow-and-Marlboro-Light-breath nearly made her gag – push his fingers inside her, breaking the fine mesh of her tights as he did so.
But mostly she let him do that last thing not because she felt sorry for him but because she knew that it wouldn’t feel nice. Because she knew that it would hurt.
And then when she asked him to stop, he had done. For a moment she had experienced a rare feeling of control over a situation. And a rare sense of control over another human being. Because she could tell that he really hadn’t wanted to stop – that he had badly wanted to take things further – but she had asked him to, and he had let go of her at once, even staying to help her tidy up the bar and asking her questions about her assignments at college.
She told herself that it was nothing to worry about, yet she knew deep down that that wasn’t true. She knew deep down that when you do something as stupid and as lonely as this thing that she had done… something as matter-of-factly selfloathing… that there were bound to be consequences. And sure enough the man was in the pub the next evening watching her from over his Strongbow, a look of presupposed intimacy in his eyes that alarmed her and made her worry that he would say something in front of the landlord and landlady. Or say something to the regulars that lined the bar partly to look at her body and partly for the chance to talk to a young woman who was more or less required, as part of her job, to laugh at their jokes. They were all of a type, these regulars: all male and all either divorced or separated. All of them made bitter by drink and a lack of self-awareness and a lack of comprehension of their ex-wives and ex-partners. They enjoyed talking to young women like her because they thought they were unspoilt and not yet turned into the hard-faced hysterical and hateful bitches that they would almost certainly one day be.
The man was in amongst the opposite trees and their accompanying shadows when she left (the landlord and landlady staying behind for what always ended up being more than just one last vodka and tonic.)
‘Do you fancy going for a drink at Fahrenheit?’ he enquired. Fahrenheit being the small town’s only late night bar.
‘Ah thanks but I’ve got to be in college first thing tomorrow,’ she said, noticing at once that the man was more or less barring her path.
‘Oh well then, how about just a quick…’ he moved forward and put his arms around her waist. ‘Kiss again?’
He was smiling at her but how had she not noticed the emptiness in his eyes before? That empty-eyed look that seems to come into a lot of men’s eyes when they watch porn or go to a lap dancing club or when – especially when – they sleep with a prostitute. That vacant, glazed look, that suggests they are not looking at a woman but at an electronic product in a shopping centre. A look in some ways not unlike the look that they would have had playing with their new Christmas toys and computer games when they were children. Only without the innocence, obviously. Without the rapt wonder, clearly.
She edged backwards, thinking that she would go into the pub and say that she had decided on that nightcap after all. But his arms around her waist tightened the way that a seat-belt does when a car turns a corner, his fingers digging deeply into her skin. He pulled her with him into the trees, the degree of his physical strength in comparison to her own coming as a sudden shock.
It hurt more this time when he thrust his fingers inside her and this time she felt it for what it was. Something ungentle and unwanted. Something that was painful plain and simple rather than something that distracted her from her loneliness and her body weight and from the upside down way that her medication made her feel.
And from her problems at college. The social media abuse. The twitter witch hunt. The Facebook witch trial. It had all stemmed from college. It was because of her anti-depressant medication and her stay in the residential care home, of course. Obvs. And it was because, at root, some girls that she had gone to school with had never liked her vulnerability and disliked it all the more now that it was that much more pronounced. Quite what was so wrong with vulnerability she had never been able to fully ascertain. It was a quality that she personally found attractive in others but then, as one of the girls might have said, what would she know about being attractive? And in truth, the only men who seemed to find her attractive were the ones who frequented the pub where she worked. Men like the one that had his fingers inside her now. His tongue and his rank, sour-sweet breath filling her mouth, making it hard to breathe.
He took her hand and pressed it against his crotch, his penis feeling squat, pointy and grotesque through the coarse denim. Like a sharp, peculiarly flesh-like root that you find in the garden when weeding. That you might cut through with the sharp end of a spade. It was the first penis that she had ever touched.
She knew now by the way that he was holding her and covering her mouth first with his own mouth and now, frighteningly – dehumanisingly – with the flat palm of his hand, that asking him to stop wouldn’t work anymore. Her feeling of control over him on the previous night had simply been a naïve and stupid illusion. It had been just another delusional attempt, in fact, at making herself feel as though she had a semblance – no matter how warped – of self-worth.
She felt so full of stupidity and ugliness and meaninglessness and fucking fear just then that when he did undo his fly and make to force himself inside her, a little bit of vomit leaked out of her mouth. She hadn’t really eaten anything all day and so it was nothing much more than prawn cocktail crisps and stomach acid. Unperturbed, the man dragged her tights down, his fingers digging hard into her flesh once again, the way a bird of prey might use its talons to safely secure its victim on the journey nestwards. She wrenched his hand away and into her mouth, biting it with all of the strength that she could summon. The sound of their twin, intertwining screams carried strongly through the trees to the pub where the landlord and landlady were listening to Gregory Porter and topping up their vodka and tonics from the optic. They didn’t think anything much of it, the small town they lived in being prone to drunken shouts and screams. To petty violence that it was best to stay well clear of if at all possible.
photograph by Jo Mazelis
John Lavin has a doctorate from the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, as well as an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University. He is the Editor of the literary journal, The Lonely Crowd and also the Fiction Editor of Wales Arts Review. He edited the short story anthology, A Fiction Map of Wales (H’mm Foundation). His short fiction has appeared in The Incubator, Spork Press, Dead Ink, The Lampeter Review and in the recent anthology Secondary Character (Second Chapter). His criticism has appeared in The Irish Times, Wales Arts Review and The Welsh Agenda amongst other places.