Illustrations by Anna Betts | Photography by Oliver Holms

The Heart of Sunday Morning

SHORT STORY | 18 MINUTE READ
Published in the Open Pen Anthology

1

 

'Jimmy,' Omar hisses.

Omar is perched on the edge of the bench. He is leaning forward, drumming his fingertips together.

 

But Jimmy does not respond. He is sitting cross-legged on the path, gazing listlessly at a couple playing on the tennis courts. I don't know if they are a couple but they look like one: a man and woman, both in their late twenties, both with good skin. There is something uplifting about them, Jimmy is thinking, about the way they have come out at ten in the morning on a Sunday with their rackets and tubes of balls. He imagines tennis is the solution to some problem. He imagines they read about the importance of quality time, of a shared hobby, in a self-help book about relationships. He watches the couple run backward and forward along the baselines. The grunts and thwacks of the rackets as each hits the ball are the only sounds in the park. A relationship teeters on the netting. Love, Jimmy thinks, is hard, unglamorous work. But brave and beautiful work, he thinks, a life's work. Jimmy is a romantic.

 

I hope you will like Jimmy. I hope you will like Omar too.

 

Omar is not interested in the tennis players. He simply wants to get Jimmy's attention.

'Jimmy,' Omar hisses again.

'Yeah. What?'

'It's winding down here.'

This is an understatement. George is lying on the grass in his greatcoat, asleep. Dominik is sitting on the bench, his beard dropped to his chest and Rosa is resting one rouged cheek against his shoulder. They are both asleep. Celia has walked off into the stretch of green to the south of the park to be alone, and is now picking up, breaking and discarding sticks.

This is what happens, Omar thinks, when people take ketamine. Jimmy suggested it. It will help us level out from the MDMA, he said, and Omar wrinkled his nose and entreated them not to take it but they took it. Omar is not a believer in introspection on the weekends, and ketamine is an introspective drug. It is a horse tranquilliser. Not for Omar the deep k-hole, the tunnelling down into his own mind, not for Omar the immobile navel gazing, the silence. Omar prefers the euphoric, tactile high of MDMA, which is why he, alone now, is wide-eyed and jittery with excess energy. Omar wants to be nestled at the heart of a party, and the party is not here.

 

He looks left and right, up and down the path, quickly. 'You wanna go to a party?'

 

Jimmy blinks.

 

'Wha? Now?'

 

'Yeah, now or like soon. I mean we might as well go now.'

 

Jimmy processes this. Slabs of white cloud slide across the rows of low rooftops.

 

'C'mon. You're still with me, right?' Omar says, 'S'dead here, but we wanna dance we want to be around people and there's this party we can go, just the two of us.'

 

Omar does not want to go to the party alone. If he goes alone, he thinks that somewhere between here and Shoreditch High Street station, he might lose his appetite for the party. This is what he is most afraid of.

 

'Where is it?' asks Jimmy.

 

'Shoreditch.'

 

Jimmy winces. This is further than he was expecting. It is maybe a thirty minute journey, but this is a long way for someone who is not convinced that, if they try to stand up, they will be able to.

 

Jimmy is the only one who might be persuaded, thinks Omar. 'C'mon,' he says. He boogies with the upper half of his body, making little circles in front of him with his fists, like a child pretending to be a train and snaking from side to side. Poor Omar, there is something thin about his energy now.

 

They have just been to a party. There were fifty or so people in some flat nearby, jostling in the corridors, in the galley kitchen, squashed into window sills. But now they were all gone and it was just the six of them on Hackney Downs, under the sun. Jimmy had not imagined there could be another party. He is suspicious.

 

'I dunno man,' he says.

 

Jimmy is at the crossover point between being high and tactile and the aching aloneness of the comedown's serotonin and dopamine drought. What he wants is a body to hold. Not any particular body, just some body. Preferably a woman's body, but no woman in particular. Ideally he wants to touch a woman's skin, the soft skin at the top of the arm or the breast or the stomach.

 

Of course, it is hard to orchestrate this situation without sex coming into it. In Jimmy's experience, by the time he is resting his cheek against the cool of a woman's areola, sex has either happened or there is some expectation that it is about to happen. Jimmy is not averse to this. Not at all. But his actions are not primarily sexual. No, he is not predatory in this way.

 

But on Wednesday, he will have recovered from his comedown and he would not want this woman around anymore. And next Saturday, it will all happen again. Oh, Jimmy knows he cannot expect this. Being with a woman is not a part time thing, a Sunday to Wednesday thing. He cannot expect this without putting in any of the hard work, and this is why the tennis players, who are working so hard at love, are now making romantic Jimmy feel especially alone.

 

I like this about Jimmy. I like that he is so clear about what he can expect.

 

Jimmy looks around at the group. Rosa is with Dominik and Celia is untouchable. She has said this to him before.

 

'How many people are at this party?' he asks.

 

'Fifteen or so,' Omar says.

 

'And people are dancing?'

 

'Probably. Yeah. It's my friend Sean's party.'

 

Jimmy thinks. At worst, he will dance for a bit and then curl up on a couch beside someone, even a guy, which is all there is for him here. And at best, there will be a girl.

 

'All right,' he says, 'Let's do it.'

 

Omar punches a fist in the air like a disco dancer.

 

'All right!' he says.

 

Omar is happy. He was hoping to end the night at Sean's. Sean is beautiful. All of Omar's other friends seem so straight beside Sean. Even the ones who aren't straight seem straight, too uptight or too crass.

 

2

 

They follow Omar's phone to a nondescript door set into a wall on a side street several minutes walk east of Shoreditch High Street station. The door is open. Jimmy follows Omar in. There is a short, dark corridor which opens out onto a warehouse floor.

 

They can hear the throb of bass from a door at the back. Omar leads Jimmy between the easels, the large wooden frames for canvases, the paints, a sewing machine, a cardboard box jumbled with cameras and camera bits and other bric-a-brac. Through the door is a smaller room. A man is standing in front of two turntables, between stacks of speakers. He turns and smiles briefly, but does not take off his headphones. Omar recognises him but can't remember his name. They have only ever crossed paths before at this nameless hour of the morning.

 

Omar looks up. There are feet protruding from the edge of a mezzanine. Sean must be up there, Omar thinks. He is beginning to feel that he might, perhaps, have oversold the party to Jimmy. He dismisses the thought. People make their own fun, and their own choices. Omar is strong like this. It is not easy. I know many people who want to be as strong as Omar.

 

He climbs the steps. The mezzanine is covered by two double mattresses, upon which are draped a dozen men. Sean is indeed sitting at the far corner. He has one arm round Kieran and one round some man Omar hasn't met before.

 

'Sean!' cries Omar.

 

Sean raises a finger and smiles wanly. Is that all I get, Omar thinks, a finger and a half smile? Yes, even strong Omar is a little hurt. So he does what only a certain kind of person would do to save face in this situation: he acts as if the only reason Sean was not more effusive was because he, Omar, was so far away, and he begins to clamber over the bodies towards him.

 

Jimmy has sat on the corner of the mattress closest to the step ladder, and is observing the group. They observe him. He has already made two conclusions: there are no girls and no one is dancing. This is not a party, Jimmy thinks, this is a gay after-party.

 

'Hey,' he says to a man with a tattoo of a dolphin on his forearm.

 

The man smiles but says nothing. The man beside him, whose arm is slung across the man with a dolphin tattoo's back and who is resting his forehead on the man's shoulder, looks up at Jimmy for a moment before slumping back. He does not smile. In fact, his eyes are ever so slightly unfocussed.

 

Jimmy is not aware that his face, too, looks somewhat slack and disorientated. This is partly because the ketamine has frozen his facial muscles but it is also because most of his attention is directed inwards.

 

He is trying to explain to himself why he does not feel comfortable. It is because he is straight, he thinks.

 

Jimmy turns the situation around, for this is how he was taught to be liberal. The inverse situation would be for Omar to turn up to a straight after-party: six straight girls and six straight guys, in each others' arms. And that, Jimmy realises, wasn't unusual at all. In fact, Jimmy is pretty sure that Omar had been the only gay person at the party they were at before and there were around fifty people at that party. He was one in fifty! This seems incredible to Jimmy now. There are so many straight people in the world, he thinks.

 

This is a satisfyingly liberal conclusion, but Jimmy still feels excluded. The problem is that most of the men are not talking, only touching. But why, Jimmy thinks, should he not touch someone? Why does touch have to be sexual? Can it not be, in this instance, simply fraternal? Yes, touch, Jimmy concludes, transcends sexuality.

 

So lonely, liberal Jimmy reaches out and puts his right hand on the nearest leg, just below the knee and his left hand on the thigh just above the knee. The leg belongs to the man with the dolphin tattoo. The man repositions himself, moving away from the wall and stretching his leg so Jimmy's left hand cannot help but slide further up, towards the man's crotch, and because this man has moved, the man with the slightly out-of-focus eyes is also forced to move, which causes a further ripple of limbs across the mattresses. Because it feels natural now, because he doesn't want to not do it, because the drugs have unlocked in him a desire to touch, Jimmy begins to stroke the man's leg.

 

3

 

This story is not about drugs. It is about love. If this story was about drugs, and you did not take drugs, perhaps you would feel uncomfortable. But that is not my intention at all. No, it is the reasons people take them or do not take them that are interesting. It is the reasons that are universal. Let me explain.

 

Some people reject drugs on ethical grounds. They say you should not buy them because they are illegal and no one is above the social contract or you should not buy them for the same reason you should not drink coffee that is not Fairtrade, because of the morally dubious nature of the supply chain.

 

Omar and Jimmy are not ethical people. They are not bad people. Sometimes they give change to homeless men. They do good deeds which fall in their way to do, but they do not go out of their way to be good. I think a lot of people are lazy like this. Perhaps you are like this. I do not mean to disparage Omar and Jimmy, but they believe in nothing. I understand this. It is hard to see how small decisions impact on larger issues. It is an act of the imagination and of empathy. It is a great act of love. But Omar and Jimmy are not capable of this kind of love.

 

Other people say it is risky to take drugs. They say Omar and Jimmy take them because they are young men, and like so many young men, they have a diminished sense of their own mortality. Omar's father would often say this to him. It's not that dangerous dad, Omar would reply, it's less dangerous than crossing the road. This, Omar's father would dismiss as facetious and self-serving. It is about minimising risk categories, he would say. Omar's father had worked as an accountant for over a decade and knew all about risk categories. Omar's father was right to respond to Omar in this way.

 

But I do not think Omar believes what he says to his father. I think Omar and Jimmy do understand the risks. Perhaps they are even more aware of their own mortality than these other people. Because why else are they still awake, desperate to scrape every last scrap of excitement from the barrel of the night? Why else are they refusing to give in to sleep, to the little death?

 

Some people have a more existential problem with drugs. Look at Amelia, for example, who took Jimmy aside at the party earlier.

 

Jimmy, she said, I liked you before tonight. I liked you when you were that honest, curly haired, Irish boy. But I saw you take drugs and now I think you're a coward. Taking drugs is an attempt to avoid one's freedom and responsibility. It is not only a falsifying rationalisation for one's existence, but also a form of futile hope: for there can be no ultimate fulfilment, no final [lasting] escape from the human condition in this direction besides death. Amelia was a large faced girl, the sort who baked her own cakes, regularly. What I'm asking you Jimmy, she said, clutching her white wine spritzer, is what are you escaping from?

 

Jimmy did not know that Amelia had taken a BA in Western Philosophy or that this was almost a direct quote from Being and Nothingness, an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre. He only knew that Amelia evidently had considerably more fire power in this arena than he did. He did not know what to say.

 

So he tried to touch her. Bewildered, boyish Jimmy reached out and put his hand on the side of her waist, just above her hip and gently, ever so gently, edged her towards him. He-ey, he said, imploringly. But Amelia smiled the way a mother smiles at her baby when it shits into a freshly changed nappy, patient and placating, and carefully removed Jimmy's hand while maintaining as little physical contact as possible.

 

I think this shows that even honest Amelia was escaping. She was escaping behind all the other stuff that sits between people, the little vanities, the silent, iterative negotiation of what is appropriate, the power plays, all the stuff that drugs clear out of the way. Maybe you would even say that Jimmy is being more honest than Amelia, because both are lonely, and only one is reaching out.

 

For Omar and Jimmy, for lazy, mortal, honest Omar and Jimmy, drugs bring to the surface an awareness of their aloneness, a hunger for touch, for love. I do not want you to dismiss this. No, I do not want you to be like Amelia and dismiss the lovelornness of Omar and Jimmy as false. It is not as developed as the sober love that brings a couple out to the tennis courts on a Sunday morning but it is just as real. And anyway, Omar and Jimmy do not even know how to play tennis. They are trading in all that they are able.

 

Maybe when you began this story you thought it was unnecessary or hackneyed or showy to write a story about drugs. Maybe you even thought it was immoral. But now you realise drugs are simply a prop, like tennis. Now you realise this story is actually about love.

 

4

 

'Hey.'

 

Jimmy opens his eyes. Two guys sitting in the middle of the mezzanine have turned to him.

 

'Hey,' he says.

 

'Do you like to give head or get head?'

 

'Wha?'

 

'I said,' and the guy leans in closer, 'Do you like to give head or get head?'

 

Jimmy thinks about this.

 

He had assumed they knew he was straight. He had assumed they had worked it out from the way he dressed, or walked, or the way he was sitting awkwardly on the corner of the mezzanine closest to the ladder. But then, on the other hand, they might legitimately have asked themselves why he was here, sitting beside them, at this hour of the morning, at this particular after-party, stroking the leg of the man with the dolphin tattoo if he was straight. Yes, they might legitimately have asked that.

 

The best thing, Jimmy decides, is to answer the letter and not the spirit of the question. To answer the spirit of the question would immediately exclude him. They would lose interest. They might, he worries, ask him to leave the party.

 

'I like to get head, I guess.'

 

'Huh,' the guy turns to his friend, 'And you?'

 

'I like to give head,' his friend drawls. He does not take his eyes off Jimmy.

 

The first guy pokes his friend in the chest with his index finger and pouts.

 

'I am so on your page.'

 

He turns back to Jimmy. They are both looking at him now. Below them, the man with the headphones changes a record on the far turntable.

 

Jimmy looks carefully at his hands. He concentrates on stroking the ridge of the shin and squeezing the small recesses just below the knee cap. He feels awkward. Poor Jimmy. His notion of fraternal love is perhaps too nuanced for this stretch of the morning.

 

Why do guys send out such mixed signals? This is what Omar is thinking. He has been out with Sean a few times now and each time they had got on. One time, at an after-party similar to this one, they had really got on.

 

So when Sean messaged him earlier saying he should come to Shoreditch, Omar had been hopeful. Yes, he would not have admitted it to Jimmy, he had not even articulated it fully to himself, but he had been hopeful.

 

But now Sean is disinterested. Omar has clambered over and they have not made room for him. He is sat awkwardly in the middle of the circle, facing them. There physically isn't enough room for Omar to curl up beside Sean, not with Kieran sleeping on his right and this other guy on his left, this other guy with the fucking nineteen eighties Doc Martins plus dirty white wife beater look. Who even is this guy, Omar wants to ask.

 

Omar watches Sean talk without hearing a word. He pictures Sean as a king holding court, a vain, preening king and they are all here for him and he will choose one of them. Omar wants nothing to do with it. He will not wait to be chosen. Yes, Omar is applying his critical faculties, his venom, to Sean. Omar is dismantling Sean to protect himself. But this is the beginning of a lie, because Omar is only here, on the mezzanine, because he wants to be chosen.

 

He clambers back to Jimmy. There are two men sitting in front of Jimmy, as if in conversation with him, but no one is saying anything. Jimmy looks up.

 

'Hey Omar. We were just saying' - he gestures to the two men - 'about head. Do you like to give it or get it?'

 

Omar is surprised. He thinks maybe Jimmy is taking the piss out of him. He does not understand that Jimmy is pretending the question is not sexual. Yes, little lies have crept into both of them now.

 

'Fuck off,' Omar says.

 

They sit in silence for a moment. Omar picks at the bobbles of cotton on the mattress.

 

'Omar,' Jimmy says, 'Do you want to go?'

 

'What? We only just got here,' Omar says, but his heart isn't in it.

 

They look around. There is nothing to hold them here.

 

5

 

They go home in silence. Omar is busy with his phone. Jimmy is sleeping. When they come out of Hackney Central station it feels colder than it was in Shoreditch. The drugs have washed through, leaving their bodies aching and shivering. They feel impossibly thin, as if they might crumple to the pavement at any moment.

 

They stop beside Hackney Downs.

 

'Great party,' Jimmy says.

 

'Whatever,' Omar flashes him the finger, and grins.

 

They hug for a long time and then each goes their separate ways, with Jimmy going east into Clapton, alone, and Omar going north towards Rectory Road, alone.

 

On the tennis court, a couple have paused play. It is not the same couple as the one that was playing earlier, but for the purpose of this story it may as well be. They are standing close to the net, one on each side. The man is gesticulating angrily with his racket. They are both shouting. I do not know what they are arguing about. Then the woman turns away and as she does so she hurls her racket to the floor. It bounces once, away from her, and lands. The man has his hands up in the air. He is still shouting, but his voice is goading now. She continues to walk, but there is nowhere to go. She is held in by the wire mesh fence. This is the toughest part of love. This is the part Omar and Jimmy do not have. They have nothing to hold them in. She reaches the baseline and stops, scuffs her foot, runs her hand through her hair, turns, and begins to walk back.