Illustrations by Anna Betts | Photography by Oliver Holms

Tooth and Nail

SHORT STORY | 14 MINUTE READ

1

Their eyes meet across the length of the bus. Alex rounds the top of the stairs and pauses, holding the yellow pole with her left hand. Casey is sitting in the back row, raising a key to his nose. On the end of the key is a small bump of white powder. Her eyes run up the aisle looking for an empty seat and his eyes run up her black and white patterned leggings, her long hoodie, her knotted hair. There are only a few empty seats, at the back. She sees them at the same time as she sees him, sitting in the middle of the back row, in a grey parka, the key halfway raised to his nose, looking at her.­

2

 

Many people are cynical and idealistic about love at the same time. They dismiss the notion of love at first sight but then, three months into a relationship, they turn up to your house with a long face and say: I think I've fallen in love. What are they talking about? Do they think love is something you fall into like a swimming pool?

I do not think love is passive or binary like that. I think love is a lot of steps, like walking. Where are we walking to? To the other, of course, to the one that is being loved. We can never get there, we can never know the other person, but we walk as if we could. We walk as if we were not irredeemably alone and it is this stepping, this walking, this going on that is love.

The first love-steps are so effortless. Dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin are pushing you and the sexual promise of each other's bodies is pushing you and the undiscovered territory of each other's minds is pushing you. (Oh my god! You grew up in Poland! What was it like? Oh my god! You don't have milk in your tea! What else? Tell me everything!) It is like trying to walk down a steep slope and tumbling head over heels on the scree. Yes, it is like falling. Perhaps this is why people talk about love as if it is passive. It is only later, when the road levels out, that you realise you are walking.

 

But what is the very first love-step? When does love begin? I think that love does begin at first sight. Oh, I can hear the part-time cynics already, clicking away in disgust. Love must be beginning every five minutes, they snort. Exactly! The buses are littered with the traces of loves abandoned after the first step.

3

 

The 149 lurches into motion and Alex stumbles her way up the aisle. The rows of seats are full of men and women in heavy coats on their way to work or church. Casey watches them stare at her. The men want her and the women are jealous of her, he thinks, or perhaps they are all disdainful of her. She is drunk.

 

He looks back down to his key, cupping his hand under it to prevent any of the ketamine from falling on the floor. It is only after the bus changes gear that he raises it gingerly to his nose, presses one nostril closed and sniffs sharply.

 

Alex sits in the row in front of him, but facing almost completely sideways on the seat, her knees pointing out into the aisle. She looks at the little bag of white powder resting in his palm and figures it is probably ketamine. Anyone who takes ketamine on a bus at nine thirty in the morning has a lot going for them, she thinks. They know how to make their own fun. That, she decides, is the kind of person she wants to be around.

 

Casey sits back, resting his neck against the ridge of the seat, languid and content. He enjoys putting things up his nose. He is looking straight ahead, or he is trying to look straight ahead but he is intensely aware of her there, to his left. So he sees when she looks at him. She looks at him and then at the little bag in his palm and then up at him again and he is looking at her and then they look down at the bag at the same time and then back at each other and grin.

 

"All right," she says, "have a good night?"

 

"Yeah, it was okay."

 

This is not true. The night ended with him and his friends sitting in a kitchen in Seven Sisters saying nothing. He stayed because it took him a long time to summon the energy to go home and because he hoped something might happen. But there was no spark in anyone's eyes. Their jaws were fixed and they looked tired, combative and unimpressed. Nothing happened. And this is why Casey is now taking ketamine alone on the bus.

 

"We went out to Cave Club and -"

 

"What's that?"

 

"It's a psychedelia night. And then we went back to my friend's place and got a bit messy."

 

She grins.

 

He notices she is missing one of her upper molars. He imagines, now, that she is a girl who has grown up among boys and is fierce and sudden and violent and quick to forgive, like boys. But there is also something impish about her grin. It is the grin of a girl who is missing a piece in the head, he thinks, a girl who is a bit fucked up and wants to get fucked up. And this is what Casey wants, or thinks he wants: a girl who is more dangerous than him.

 

"What about you?" he says.

 

"Man!" she sighs loudly and laughs. "It was the bar manager's birthday, so we had a lock-in."

 

She grins her dangerous grin again.

 

This is the kind of conversation people have, even when they are love-stepping. It is about establishing social capital. It is a play for power. I have friends, it says. We have exciting lives. Of course, it is superficial.

 

Perhaps you think that a story which begins in this superficial way cannot be about anything as deep or as serious as love. But I do not think this is true. The two dimensional world is just the three dimensional world, flattened. Yes, the superficial is just a photo of the serious.

 

Of course we dress up, we pretend, we tell stories. We try to be larger and stronger than ourselves, more busy, more nonchalant, more free, more loved. But only we could have invented this persona. It is built from the unique constitution of our lack.

 

4

 

Alex moves to sit on the seat beside him, her hands pressed between her knees. A Turkish man to their right glances round, smirks, and turns back to rest his forehead against the windowpane. They can hear the tinny sound of music from his headphones. She leans forward over the bag of ketamine like a child over an insect and rocks back and forward.

 

"Ooh, can I have some?" she says.

 

Casey is disappointed. It reduces the conversation to a single transaction. It is like when a boy asks a girl for her number at the end of a chance meeting at the bar: oh, the girl thinks, that is why you were talking to me - you want to take me out and take me home and fuck me. No one wants to feel used like this. We want people to want the whole of us, not just one part of us.

 

But at the same time, he did not buy the drugs to take on his own.

 

"Sure," he says.

 

Alex watches closely as Casey dips the key into the bag for her. This is when she sees his nails, or rather, where his nails should be. Instead, there are only little semi-circular stumps of nails, and the frayed white of the quicks and the skin, bulbous, at the end of the fingers. They are quite ugly, she thinks, but she has a sudden urge to press them between her palms and make them grow back.

 

He holds the key out to her. She touches him for the first time. Yes, two hours later she will lower herself onto him and mutter his name into his neck, but now she steadies his wrist lightly with one hand and lowers her face to the key.

 

5

 

Alex talks and as she talks, she touches Casey on the arm. The gesture is like a punctuation mark. He is not talking much. The ketamine has made the world a series of shuttered frames that pass before his eyes. She tells him a story about a time she got drunk and stood her flatmate up at the cinema.

 

"I had like twenty missed calls," she says. "She didn't talk to me for days."

 

She finishes and laughs. He fixates on her missing tooth when she laughs.

 

It is a story she has told many times. She knows she always tells the same stories when she is drunk: therapy, thinly disguised as jokes.

 

He can see this. It is as if he is watching the story and he can see it on two levels: there, on the surface, is the joke about how drunk she was and there, underneath, is her anxiety about how she treated her flatmate.

 

"You still feel bad about it?" he says.

 

"I feel bad about so much stuff," she says, and then, "I'm quite anxious when I'm sober."

 

"About what?"

 

"Everything!"

 

The bus pulls sharply into Lynmouth Road stop and her leg is pressed into his, but he does not move away. He passes her the ketamine and the keys.

 

Later, when they wake up, he will ask her, tentatively, over eggs and coffee, if she wants to meet up again sometime. She will say yes and there will be more eggs - dozens - and still they will not understand the distance they are closing between them.

She takes a bump and breathes out.

 

"I did a lot of NLP for anxiety," she says, tilting her head back.

 

"What's NLP?"

 

"Neuro-linguistic programming. It's like retraining your brain to think different."

 

"How does that work?"

 

"Me and a therapist."

 

He waits for her to go on.

 

"I find crowds difficult," she says. "This is one of the things we talked about. So he would go: what kind of things would you enjoy doing if you weren't afraid of crowds? And one of the things I said was to go to Colombia Road flower market because I love flowers only I never go because there are so many people pressed close together. Anyway, he fixated on this and started asking questions like: how bad would it be if you were right in the middle of the crowd? Or at the edge? Or if you were across the road at a cafe? And so on."

 

He nods.

 

"And my homework for that week was to go to Colombia Road and have a coffee in one of the cafes right at the edge of the market and, if I wanted, to go in and buy some flowers."

 

"Did you?"

 

"No," she laughs. "Not that time. But I went again and I bought flowers the second time. Now I go every week. Sometimes I don't even have a coffee. I just walk around and buy flowers."

 

"That's great."

 

"It really changed me. There was a time when I stayed in the house most days. Never went out. And now, look –" she gestures around her "– I'm out."

 

"You talk to strange people on the bus," he says, smiling, touching her briefly on the leg, enjoying making himself a part of her story, enjoying the feel of her thigh through her leggings.

 

The bus turns into Northwold Road. There is less traffic and it is quieter.

 

"I did something similar in CBT," he says, "Cognitive behavioural therapy."

 

"Why were you doing that?"

 

She wonders if it is to do with his nails.

 

"I was just a bit low," he says. "Well, very low. Really. And I would think a lot about suicide."

 

She nods, passes him the ketamine, rubs her index finger under her nose.

 

When Casey talks now, there are no filters. This is not a play for power. He is just repeating the words coming up from inside of himself. He is no longer aware of anyone else on the bus - the Nigerians or Polish or the Turkish man smirking into the window pane to his right.

 

"And the idea was the same: to do things I didn't want to do. Or didn't think I wanted to do: to call a friend when I didn't want to talk or go out when I didn't want to leave my room."

 

"Did it help?"

 

"Yeah, it did."

 

"It was a really good thing for me," she says. "It made me realise you can choose who you want to be."

 

"You can steer it."

 

This is not the same thing, but they go on.

 

"So many people don't seem to get that," she says.

 

And for an instant it seems to them both as if they know something the rest of the world does not know. Something important. But then Alex says, "It is because they are weak."

 

Casey does not agree. It twinges inside him. It feels dishonest, as if she is pretending to be stronger than she is.

 

"Well," he says, uncertainly.

 

"It is!" she says, widening her eyes and she is so pretty, he thinks, even in the starched white light of the top deck of the bus, that he does not press the point.

6

Years later Alex will be told by a friend that Casey loves her more than she loves him. (This after they have been together four years, after they have just moved in together.) She will laugh it off. (How can they be sure?) But at the same time she will know with a deep, heavy, dull guilt, that it is true. And everyone will see it. Because wherever they go he will be looking for her, swivelling his head like a meerkat to see who she is talking to, what she is drinking, trying to predict what she is about to do. And on the way home she will shout at him and in the morning he will reproach her and she will give herself to him with renewed fervour to make up for all the small ways she thinks she has failed him.

 

The world warps us. It makes us hard to live with, hard to love. It drives us into ourselves, keeps us in our rooms, afraid of crowds.

 

Love is not all falling and tumbling. Sometimes love is hard work and you have to fight tooth and nail for the next step. If love is like walking, suffering is a steep hill on the road. You have to fight tooth and nail against what you have suffered and against what the one you love has suffered. It seems to me that those who suffer only a little need muster only a little, weak love. But those who suffer a lot must find in themselves a love whose strength is greater than the spaces between stars.

 

Will these two suffer? Yes, for their part.

 

Many years later, Casey will sit at the end of the bed where their daughter sleeps in the Great Ormond Street haematology and oncology ward, her bald head sideways on the pillow, twisting his wrists to get at the bits of nail he has not yet bitten, thinking of nothing. The girl will die and two weeks later Alex will hurl a plate at him but miss and try to punch him until he manages to get behind her and pin her arms to her sides. Still she will struggle, shouting: We didn't do enough! You never do anything! You just watch! Her shouts will turn to sobs and they will stand like this for some time in the jaundiced light of the kitchen: him standing behind her, spooning for people who can no longer sleep. Yes, for their part, they will suffer. Their love will not be enough and they will go their separate ways.

 

7

 

The bus pulls into Princess May Road. They are both quite high.

 

"This is my stop," Casey says. And then, "When's yours?"

 

"Just after."

 

"Well, look -"

  

But he does not look at her. Even with all the ketamine, he cannot look at her. How much does it take for us to be straight with one another? Is that what the night is all about? Is it all so that one person can unlock the courage to say to another person: I love you?

 

"Look -" he says again. She smiles, knowing what he is about to say. We all know.

 

"Do you want to maybe come back to mine and -"

 

He gestures at the small bag in his hand.

 

Alex nods.

 

"Sounds fun," she says.

 

They stand unsteadily, she holding his arm. He wavers, nearly falls into the Turkish man, but grips the headrest and steadies himself. The aisle seems an impossible distance. Both wonder, separately, whether they left it too late to get off the bus.

 

But the bus has stopped and the driver is watching them on the CCTV, waiting. In fact, everyone is watching and waiting. Two boys point and snigger. A woman sighs impatiently. She will not forgive them if they make her late for church.

 

The two of them are not aware of this. They are concentrating on walking. It is hard to walk because the ketamine has made the world two dimensional and they have no idea when their feet will hit the ground. It is hard to walk but they go on, slowly, step by step.

Published in Issue 2 of Shooter magazine