“Why are you reading this?” said Jim, pointing at Graham’s copy of William Tell by Friedrich Schiller. “Have you gone all German?”
Graham stared at him for a second but ignored the question and carried on reading. He was at the café inside the Student Union with Jim and Neil.
“It’s not even on the reading list!” Jim shook his head, hopelessly.
Neil and Jim started talking about the highlights of Shannon’s leaving do the night before. As a strict, non-drinker, Graham was a complete outsider at parties or other social gatherings. The only advantage the guys drew from Graham’s presence at parties was him driving them home.
“Anyway,” Jim began, “I tried to hit on Shan last night. She broke up with Furry Fred the other week.”
Neil chuckled. It was a common thing to laugh at Fred’s chest hair. He was still one of the best cricket players in Bristol. Girls like Shannon clearly liked prominent athletes. Graham licked his finger to turn the page.
“But she acts like a bitch when drunk,” Jim said.
“What do you mean?” Neil said.
“I was trying to kiss her, and she pushed me off the couch. What girl would do that after five shots of tequila? And hell knows how much she’d already drunk before we arrived!”
“Obviously not over The Fur,” Neil said.
“Bernard would have nailed her straight away…”
Graham twitched after that comment.
“Well,” Jim continued, “she was the one who dumped Fred. I just wanted a memorable shag!”
Graham closed the book and slammed it down on the table. The noise made the waitress spill the coffee while serving a student.
“Gee…” Neil muttered.
“Rubbish, isn’t it?” Jim grinned at Graham. “How far in are you?”
“He’s about to hit the apple,” Graham said.
“That’s the only exciting part!”
“I’m saving the best part for later.”
On his way home, Graham stopped at Tesco Express for some coffee and paracetamol. A couple in the queue was arguing about crinkle fries versus curly fries. To his right was a little girl crying uncontrollably because her mother wouldn’t buy her any Hello Kitty chocolate biscuits. Crowded places hold nothing but nasty human scents and noises. The person behind him had foul-smelling breath. And the cashier was making rustling noises while packing up crisp bags for a customer.
“Hi.” A voice came from out of nowhere.
To his left was Shannon, smiling. “Graham, right? You were at my party yesterday.” She was holding a bottle of skimmed milk, a pack of cereal and a pregnancy test.
She looked hungover; her dark curly hair was worn out and unwashed, and her blue eyes pale squinting.
“You didn’t have fun last night, did you?” she said.
“Of course, I did. What makes you think I didn’t?”
The queue was moving forward. Graham noticed that the person behind him looked disapproving of Shannon’s presence as if she was about to jump the queue.
“Come on,” she said, “you were staring at my Francis Bacon posters for hours!”
“I like disfigured faces.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“You’re weird,” she said.
“Oh, and you’re not? They are your posters, after all…”
Graham was next at the till, and Shannon handed him her shopping. “I’ll pay you back!”
When she disappeared behind the magazine stand, the bad breath of the person behind him got worse. Graham felt nauseated. The man at the till scrutinized him before scanning the pregnancy test. Graham stared back.
“Why are you staring at me?” the cashier said, taking Graham’s money.
Graham grabbed his shopping and quickly turned to leave. Before he reached the magazine stand, he heard the closing of the till and the crunching of bone followed by an agonizing groan. When he found Shannon, he pulled her out of the shop with him. Outside, she pushed him away to release herself.
“What’s wrong with you?”
The blue in her iris had come back to life.
“Nothing, just some precog…, oh, never mind!”
The sound of sirens on the main road almost sliced his brain in two. That reminded him of his unfinished coursework on Kafka. He started to walk away from Shannon.
“Precognition? I get that when a forgotten dream comes true.”
He stopped and looked at her. She was probably one of the few people who didn’t confuse precognition with déjà vu. The sirens had dropped.
“Do you want to come around my place?” he said.
“I don’t know. I was going to eat some breakfast.”
“I have bowls and spoons…”
“I actually have something important to do…”
“I have a toilet as well.”
She looked slightly irritated and probably felt uncomfortable with his persistence but finally gave in.
He was watching her walk around in his apartment, which looked extraordinarily neat. The midsummer morning air had cleared the stuffiness. She looked comfortable in his place and somewhat investigative. She took a sneak peek down the corridor where she saw two bedrooms, one on each side. One of the doors was open.
“Is that your room?” she pointed at the one with the open door.
“Find out,” he said while pouring her skimmed milk into the cereal bowl. The midsummer smell had fused with Shannon’s water lily deodorant.
“Oh, my God! I can’t believe you live with Jim.” She must have seen Jim’s party pictures on his pin wall, showing him and Bernard dancing naked at the union. She could’ve simply smelt the terrible Jean-Paul cologne. “You could have warned me that you live with that bell-end!”
Suddenly he heard her opening the door to his room and spilled the milk.
He stormed into his room and saw her staring at his H. R. Giger posters showing biomechanoids, aliens, necronoms and Debbie Harry – all twisted works painted with dark acrylic colours in shades of metal. To Shannon, those were probably eel-like creatures with heads resembling men’s glans or women’s buttocks. Another poster showcased naked female reptilian humanoids intertwined and penetrating each other. His room still smelt of the black coffee he had in the morning.
“Speaking of dirty…iew,” she said.
She tilted her head when examining the Anima Mia poster in greater depth. Then the rigidity in her posture loosened up. She put both of her hands on her hips. Graham licked up the tasteless skimmed milk from his fingers before it dripped onto the carpet.
“You lost weight since the last term,” he said, assuming that she was comparing her bum to the eel’s head. She turned around, looked to her left where his bed was, and then looked to her right. Her curls seemed revitalized; they were dangling like tinsel.
“Are you religious?” She pointed at the cross above his bed.
“I guess. Why?”
She looked on her right again, scrutinizing his favourite piece of art by Giger Satan I, which portrayed Satan using Jesus as a bow. The background showed a vast wasteland of piled up, decayed human remains. Jesus’s pose was like on the cross, except that there was no cross in the picture, just a string threaded through the wounds of his hands to form a bow. Satan’s hand was tightly clasped around Jesus’s lower body. His gaze and the gaze of his demons were fixed firmly at the viewer. The most unnerving part of that picture came from the arrow–a nail aimed at the viewer.
Every time Graham looked at it, he saw Satan in his comfortable stance, drawing the arrow back to the anchor point and…
“How do you sleep at night?”
“How the hell do you sleep at night?” she said. “Every time you sit up in bed, you have the devil playing William Tell with you! In fact, it doesn’t even matter where you are in the room.”
He couldn’t help but grin. “Your breakfast is in the kitchen.”
“I’m not having breakfast at 1 p.m.!”
They were both sitting awkwardly on the sofa, staring at the empty TV screen. There was an ashtray on the table with a no-smoking symbol on it.
“So, who do you think might have impregnated you?”
She almost choked on the milk–there was milk coming out of her nose. After a round of coughing and wiping her lower face, she threw a nasty look at Graham.
“You are so rude!”
“As far as I’m concerned, I paid for the pregnancy test…”
She shook her head numerous times and carried on eating her cereal. His leg started shaking.
“Since you’re so straightforward and direct, let me ask you something.”
“I don’t think you believe in God.”
His leg stood still.
“You use Him as the apple on your head…”
His head had started to ache.
“I didn’t put it up there. My mother did,” he said.
“So, you don’t believe in God.”
She put the empty bowl on the table.
“I do,” he said and swallowed a pill of paracetamol. “It’s just–everything was so much easier when I didn’t…”
She moved closer to him.
“But nobody’s telling you what to believe in.”
“I have to.”
“Because of what I did.”
It was almost 5 o’clock. Shannon finally went into the bathroom to pee on that stick. She had told him that if the test was positive, she wouldn’t drop out of university and leave Bristol but would make Fred marry her after the final term.
They were sitting on the sofa again, close to each other like a nervous couple. The stick was in Jim’s mouthwash glass.
“I can’t believe it took us two and a half years to become friends, Gray.”
He was paying attention to the stick.
“That’s what you get when no one makes a move. Or it’s simply fate,” she said.
“You made the first move today.”
“Yeah, that was because I had no money on me,” she said. “Other than that, I always thought you were a weirdo.”
“And that says a girl who likes Francis Bacon.”
“Come on; you’re much weirder,” she said.
A minute had passed, and there were still no coloured bands visible.
“I told you, I never used to be like that,” he said. “It’s my new perception of life. I feel no guilt about what I did. It’s only my mother who says I should. And yet, I pray to her God to go away.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It wasn’t your fault.”
Finally, one colour band appeared on the control region, but no band showed on the test region. Shannon had lost her flow of mind and looked mystified. Or maybe she was double-checking the test region.
During his archery lesson, Graham felt alone like never before. There were plenty of people around him carrying bows, but he no longer had a sense of fellowship. Their teacher always repeated the same instructions.
“Safety and responsibility always come first! Watch your companions–don’t ever shoot bent or broken arrows – I guess that’s self-explanatory…”
The bloke next to Graham was fidgeting with his arrow.
“Stop it,” Graham said, “or you’ll poke yourself in the eye,”
“An archer,” the teacher said, “who intends to hit the bull’s eye, must not directly aim at it, but slightly to the side…”
Graham shivered. There was no wind, which was a good sign.
“Ok, let’s get ready. Put on your finger and arm protection, then check your bow, the strings and your arrow!”
There was no wind, but the blinding sun was hurting Graham’s eyes. At least clouds were approaching.
“Next, get into your comfortable stance and don’t forget–you draw the arrow back to the same anchor point on your cheeks!”
The students had drawn their arrows and were aiming intensely at their targets. To Graham, it felt like his target was not 20 yards away, but a lot further. He closed his eyes for two seconds. When he opened them, he saw that his target had turned into a man–the target face painted on his body. It looked like Bernard. Graham’s hands started to shake; sweat was running down his head. He bent his right knee a little, drew the arrow back tightly and shot it slantwise up into the sky. It faded into a dot and was now lost amongst the sea of white clouds gathering overhead.
“Oh my God!” the teacher said.
Everyone was staring at the sky, hunching.
Graham broke out into laughter.
“Everybody off the field!” the teacher shouted. People were already running. He grabbed Graham tightly by the arm and dragged him off the lawn. A northern wind was approaching.
“What is this? Are you out of your mind?”
“Tell William,” Graham said, still laughing.
They all entered the sports facilities, where his teacher grabbed him by the collar.
“If anybody gets hurt, you’ll be held responsible!”
“Sir, do you think I’d have done that if I had known somebody would get hurt?”
He let go of Graham, who was still grinning from ear to ear.
“Listen to yourself when you speak. You’ve gone insane!”
The teacher turned around and walked towards the changing room.
“Watch your foot…” Graham said.
“What are you saying?”
Still walking forward, he turned his head to Graham and failed to see the janitor pushing the cleaning trolley out of the changing room. A painful groan followed, but Graham was out through the door. His grin had faded into indifference. He headed back to the empty field, ignoring the voice coming through the speakers telling people to steer clear of the field. The sun was behind the clouds.
Further down the field was a small millpond where Bernard’s accident had taken place. Nobody had gone anywhere near the old oak tree since. It used to be a lunch place for many students. The arrow had landed near the water – headfirst. When he tried to pull it out of the ground, a grass snake startled him.
He fell on his behind. “Joe-fucking-Strummer…”
He watched the snake crawl back into its hole. For a second, he thought of Shannon and biomechanoids. He remained seated and simply stared at the water. Ever since Shannon left the city, he’d been feeling more detached from the world than ever. Now and then, she would text him, but he hardly ever replied. She asked whether he knew that she’d be heartbroken, and she would also text him when she encountered people going through pain because they reminded her of him. She wanted him to be with her and foretell other people’s painful moments. They’d both have lots of fun together. He looked at his phone, and there was already a new message: “You should visit me in Devon! I miss our conversations. xxx”
He was thinking about the last time he was at the millpond–it was two summers ago.
Graham was taking care of the campfire while Jim, Neil and Bernard were drunk and stoned, laughing on the grass. If the fire went out, it would be entirely dark since it was a new moon.
“If I had a bow and an arrow now, I would shoot right up into the sky,” Bernard said.
Everyone was laughing, except for Graham.
“William Tell never misses anything. He could even shoot God down,” Bernard said.
No feeling of high had kicked in yet, but Graham smoked the rest of the joint anyway. The bitter taste of absinthe lingered on his tongue. Bernard had brought some real absinthe from Prague to test out the hallucinations myth combined with high THC marijuana. Graham was not a good drinker and was still sipping at his first glass. The others were already preparing their second.
“Come on, Gray, drink up!” Bernard said, and he did.
The fire’s crackling noise sounded like cracks in a brick wall. Graham’s head was spinning, his heart racing. He felt nauseated; every part of him had slowed down. Then his vision blurred, and all he could hear was under-water-talk. He sensed danger when he noticed Bernard’s body rising. He was mumbling something to Graham, but all Graham could hear was the crackling fire. The pressure in his eyes was messed up–causing him trouble to keep his eyes wide open. The outline of Bernard’s body was distorted.
“Wait,” Graham mumbled as Bernard walked away. “Wait…”
Bernard was walking towards the oak tree. Forcing his mind to focus, he could hear fractions of Neil’s and Jim’s laughter.
He didn’t know whether he’d said it or imagined it. Through his blurry vision, he saw Bernard climbing the oak tree. The only way to regain his senses was to puke, so he stuck his fingers down his throat and vomited into the fire. The only noises he could hear were cracking bones followed by a splash in the millpond. The laughter had died, and the fire had gone out.
The water was still peaceful; the grass snake hadn’t come. Graham remembered the day his mother started praying for him frantically, saying that he should never interfere with God’s will. Bernard’s death was God’s will. The guilt would go away if he trusted God. Ever since then, he’d been under surveillance by something he didn’t even believe in. His precognition went out of order too. However, his mother thought her son was a prophet of pain and was destined to suffer, but she was wrong. He looked at his mobile phone, uncertain about replying to Shannon. The area hadn’t changed except for a missing branch on the oak tree; it looked fragile now. The oak tree and he had something significant in common.
“Hey, mate, sorry I’m late,” someone said.
He got up and saw Bernard, who was wearing a t-shirt with a target face on it. The bull’s eye was not red but black. The colour of the sky had changed to magenta when they walked across the field.
“It’s been a while. How have you been?” Bernard said.
“Crap, what else?”
“Nothing new, then?”
Bernard’s presence was unsettling, and yet, it seemed so ordinary at the same time.
“There is someone, but…” Graham stuttered.
“What? Don’t be a coward.”
They walked past a beautiful female ballet dancer practicing in an alley of white spruces. Her curly hair dangled like tinsel. He didn’t realise that they’d entered the woods.
“Don’t you want this madness to stop, Gray?”
Next, they walked past a tree feller felling an oak tree with an axe. Each hit on the tree generated an explosive sound.
“You have to accept the past, mate.”
“Bernard, I tried…”
“I know,” he interrupted.
“I could’ve saved you.”
The magenta sky turned burgundy, and the trees began to lose more and more leaves. They were playing in the wind, filling the area with rustling noises.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Graham’s lower lip was trembling.
Blood was oozing out of the bull’s eye of Bernard’s t-shirt. He showed no pain or any sign of concern.
“I miss you, man.”
“Me too. Don’t live with a burden that was never yours,” Bernard said.
When Graham woke up in the middle of the night, he saw the moonlight shining through his window. He grabbed his mobile phone and texted Shannon: “How about next weekend?”
Then he rose from his bed and looked straight ahead. The devil’s hand was steadily drawing back the arrow. William Tell never misses anything.
P-chan (c) October-November 2010