Paul wakes up with a heavy head. He doesn’t know what to do about it. You would think, as Vice-Chancellor, he’d have some solution. He doesn’t. Wow. It’s unnaturally heavy. Feels like twenty-tonne heavy. Hydrocephalus. Could be hydrocephalus.
Simon comes into the bedroom and shows him his new shirt. “Look, Paul,” he says. “I’ve got sauce all down the side. Red sauce, can you see?” Paul can barely lift his neck up, taking a half-look at the stain before he reverts to this sort of foetal position. Simon has an important lunch to go to. He’s setting up a new campaign, meeting with the clients’ thought-leaders to plan for radical consumer disruption (and of course he hates it, the people, the work, who wouldn’t, but nevertheless he must look good for it – like this somehow fends it all off). “So what do you think?” says Simon. “Red wine? Ketchup? Do I soak it in pinot grigio? Do we have any left?” Paul, saying nothing, just waves him away.
Simon heads to the sink. He runs the water until it is draped in thick sheets of steam, more like icing sugar, before plunging the shirt right in. “Too hot!” he yelps, leaping back against the fridge. “Sweet holy fuck!” He rubs his hands. Could a shirt actually melt at boiling point? He stirs it with a wooden spoon. He remembers he has to dry it. Hairdryer; tumble-dryer; iron? Didn’t think about that, did you – but it’s okay, there’s time, though not bags of it, so maybe soap will speed things along. Maybe stain remover.
While Simon prepares to spelunk for the Vanish, Paul props his head up with a couple of pillows and tries to settle on exactly what’s happening to him. The weight is greater every few minutes. Is it a fever? And what sort of virus could enflame his poor meningeal fibres so? Virus or no virus it’s come at a bad time (a really bad time, in fact, because not only is Paul stewed in panic but he suffers more generally from a profound existential exhaustion, the sort that arises from a long life pushing hard at basically nothing; for Paul has never found peace, not with Simon, who he once loved dearly, nor with his career, which is well-respected but officious, and dull, almost noxiously dull, not a drop of joy in sight. Yesterday he got the idea of taking an art class or two, having enjoyed life-drawing tremendously as a young man. But it is all too late, especially with the head – peace does not exist for him, a hypothesis the swelling somehow confirms).
Simon is content to delegate the lofty task of peace to those like Paul, or at least until he gets this fucking stain out. The cupboard is dark. It is also, Simon comes to understand, a geological study of their relationship. They are saving for a trip to Borneo, thus, the products at the front are all from Asda, and all economy (more like false economy, he thinks, half the thing it’s meant to be and half sawdust, cardboard, snake oil). Simon digs back a bit further. A few months before, like a seam of crystal, he finds a four-pack of unopened cleaning fluid from Waitrose. Yes, he remembers. He went doolally, high from a promotion, cantering down the supermarket’s wide, soft-lit aisles like a methamphetamine addict, buying up truffles and a pasta-maker and forcing Paul to eat batch after unguent batch of luxe, overstuffed ravioli. Behind the Waitrose tidemark, which he knows serves as a sort of high point for their coupledom, an emotional climax – sweet lord Jesus we’ve actually made it – Simon finds progressively cheaper products: the ladder up which they’ve clambered. Sink sponges from Sainsbury’s (pink middlebrow foam capped with the baize, in the half-light, of a pool table). An unused roll of Tesco binbags that split when loaded, no matter how gentle the filling. Robust pound-land rubber gloves, or the wrapper at least, a remnant from when they bought the house and had to eat pot noodles for six months straight. God, Simon flinches at the memory, fully wedged within the cupboard. How hard it was to take a shit. Finally, after bottles of toilet cleaner fused through time into flint-like outcrops he starts to find things from the previous occupant, or from his mother: ivory-handled brushes the purpose of which is no longer clear; a stethoscope; a crowbar swaddled in grease. And there. He knew he’d seen it. A tin of ancient, ancient scouring powder. Ingredients on an international blacklist. Ornate, Victorian embellishments on the lid. So powerful that even in its resting state dust has been repelled an inch away and given the tin a sort of halo. Cockroach carcasses, rearing up, surround it as if struck by a terrible revelation before the powder wiped them out. Mein gott, he thinks, when he picks up the tin. I have become death.
Paul’s head is really swelling now, and while he can tell the weight is increasing, because the pillows feel more compressed, it’s really the shape that’s on the move in a serious way. There’s a new something he can feel at the back. For Paul this has passed beyond the medical. It must be supernatural and/or metaphysical, only he can’t think why. If it is a joke on me just because I’m clever, then ha ha, very funny, and now can we get back to the norm? He wants to shout for Simon. But then what’s Simon going to do, really? With his skillset – advertise the swelling to death? Radicalise its market position? This isn’t his terrain; it’s more a question of ontology. Funny, he thinks. The feeling in his left ear, the one pinned to the bed, has gone. And is that – what is that? He taps his left cheekbone. A protuberance of some sort. Honestly? It feels like a set of steps…
Simon pours the powder into the sink. Take that, Beaujolais. As clouds of white acid eat through the water like oncoming nuclear fallout, the shirt, poor thing, visibly recoils. He hears a clunk from upstairs (Paul has moved his swollen head from the comfort of the mattress to the floor), and is about to shout to see if everything is okay when the water boils and the shirt begins to give off smoke. Not steam but actual smoke. At which point the doubt creeps in.
Paul has discovered the steps are marble, well-cut, issuing forth from the left side of his face – and there are further additions, too: the steps are flanked on either side by a series of ionic columns, bookended by caryatidae; a tablature grows up from his right cheek filled with tiny cherubs and a crest of some sort, while his ear is dissolved in slanting white stone; across his distended forehead pops an acne of windows lined up neatly in rows. He can still hear, despite his new roof. He can hear Simon swearing.
The sink produces smoke at a crazy rate, so crazy that Simon runs out into the garden. As it billows up against the kitchen windows it behaves more like paint, blanking everything out, the cloud so thick it’s closer to the solid, metallic-state hydrogen you find at the heart of Saturn (Paul told him this enchanting fact when they were both much younger, and much thinner). Holes appear in the windows. The acrid gas is coming through. It is the ultimate cleaning agent: pale white smoke from beyond the grave. Simon coughs and coughs, retreating into the street. “Hi Alison, it’s me. Look, I’m going to be a little late. No, no, tell them to just hold on a moment, will you?” He hails a cab. He’ll pick a new shirt up in town. He looks forward to this experience, and also, perversely, to his meeting – not long after, all thoughts of smoke will fade from his mind.
Paul’s fate is different. He can feel a library forming in the back of his head – an academic one, with concentric rows of bookshelves stacked with leather-bound books and a team of tiny overqualified librarians who sprawl about the lending desks. An administrative wing flourishes above the library, tiny offices subdividing like little cubic bacteria. They better have a centralised HR department, Paul thinks. If not, the battles to set one up will be considerable, fought always in his experience against Faculty HR women with rows of icicles for teeth. Many a sleepless night ahead for the tiny chump who has to steer this ship. Lecture halls and seminar rooms sprout along the top of his cranium, behind the tablature. Further buildings blossom off to the side, not in white marble anymore but shoot after shoot of glass. A café, is it? A ‘knowledge zone’? He honestly hasn’t a clue. Eventually his doors open. Tens of tiny overpaid professors take up chairs in things like Orchid Botany and French Furniture (upon appointment, one or two immediately take a paid sabbatical and jet to the south of France, or at least try to jet – their tiny planes are swallowed by the white smoke building up in the hall). Next, thousands of tiny students approach. How young they seem to him. They complete enrolment. They sit in lectures and take inspiration from Quixote, or they sext each other on their tiny mobile phones. Tiny administrators pass miniscule paper forms from one office to the next, and back again, laughing at how the academics fill them out. The students rent the flats that have been built in Paul’s chest. He watches tiny men meet tiny women in tiny bars, get drunk on tiny amounts of cheap alcohol, stagger back to their tiny flats. He watches and watches.
What if, he thinks, there’s an art class somewhere in my head. What if there’s an art class, and a tiny me is about to meet a tiny Simon? He can sense a tiny version of himself unpack a set of 6B pencils, lending one to his handsome neighbour. And then, thinks Paul, tiny Paul will have the same raw feeling, the same mix of jealousy and admiration, when he sees tiny Simon use his proffered tiny 6B to sketch a perfect likeness of the model. He remembers now. The potential held by another is the heart’s first object of longing, the purest object of desire. On the basis of this precocious sketch, tiny Paul will ask tiny Simon out. Paul is suddenly happy and sad at the same time. Happy because he remembers the feelings. How excellent it was to find an artist, a kind, funny artist. How right that sort of destiny seems in the moment’s heat. Sad, because he knows the potential therein will actually unfold into a slow passionless fog, a pale corrosive smoke rising up the stairs, even though neither tiny Paul nor tiny Simon can see it coming. That’s the tragedy of it, he thinks. At the moment their hearts are simple, gambolling around a tiny bar somewhere in his left shoulder like a pair of deer in a tiny quiet wood. So young, and so oblivious to the impending chemical/psychological disaster that will consume them both in the future.
Paul watches the smoke reach the landing. Look how it peels the wallpaper, like it doesn’t know how to stop. There must be a solution to it or else what’s the point of anything? He’s a bloody Vice-Chancellor. It spreads to his bedroom, four or five fingers of white arcing up in grim, neutered rainbows, before it turns its attention to his university. On it comes, the carpet beneath rendered a plain of bubbling plastic. Just before it touches him he sucks in a lungful of clean air. One last punt, he thinks, summoning up the shreds of his mildewed courage. In the name of tiny Simon and tiny Paul he begins to huff and puff, hoping for god’s sake he has strength to blow the smoke away…
James Hodgson has short fiction published in Spoke anthology, the Cro Magnon, the JJ Outre review and Typehouse Literary Magazine. He is Fiction Editor at Avis Magazine. Find him at hodgsonson.wordpress.com or on Twitter.