By Lisa Fontaine

Phase six. I skipped phase five.

A letter was delivered to me today. Wrong address. Stranger things have happened. Yusuf Patel: that’s who it’s for. I know vaguely where the house is, somewhere near the big Tesco I think. The envelope is pastel blue, address handwritten. Birthday card perhaps. I hold it up to the light, and, yes, it is. Outlines of cartoon animals, a badge: the number 8. Some glitter sparkles in the palm of my hand. Phase six: I think. After that, phase seven. Then. Nothing. The card is heavy and it must be because of the badge, oversized, inside. The other post: a court order over some woman I may or may not have assaulted, Chinese takeaway menus and a yellow envelope with the hospital logo on it. Knowing what the letter says I just chuck it in the trash. What good will reminding myself do me? I ask. I’m still fingering the other envelope, pastel blue, the number 8. Eight – I wonder if he’s turned eight yet. Perhaps it’s his birthday today. I make a mental note to put it on my to-do list and then remember I don’t have one: I have nothing to do.

Phase six. The world is now liquid and a kind of sea sickness keeps taking hold of me. Vision in and out of focus – nauseating. But the envelope is solid. It is in my hands, solid: pastel blue, the number 8. It is the only thing with gravity. Near the big Tesco Yusuf Patel is turning eight. A fifteen minute walk away. He is real to me. I pass the bin men as I go out, the letter from the hospital tipping into half eaten processed mulch that men who sell The Big Issue will finish later. Young with smokers coughs, both bin men are stocky. Recycling first, then landfill stuff. Lining the wheelie bins back up, one tumbles, knocking over a small gnome. Junk someone gave me. It shatters. Pieces of it scatter, shiny in the light. I reach down to collect the pieces, I feel them solid in my hand. Broken and solid. I smile at the bin men as I do so. He bends, grabs the bin handle and I place my hand on his with gentle touch. He flinches, like my hand is red hot, wipes it on his overalls and looks to his friend. They both walk on. Still smiling I press my hand to my forehead, feeling the temperature of them both. I guess they are both feverish. They don’t look back, just carry on walking.

Kids’ toys are messy in the gardens and the plants are being watered because it’s spring again. I’m walking through the streets thinking how unnecessary and sober it all is. And how much I feel like those acts: unnecessary and sober. Phase 6. I’m frantic: the nausea coming. My body. Ughh. That knot in my stomach again. I think of the boy: he is solid. I concentrate on his face, or, at least how I envision it, and forget about how the world is liquid. The envelope. I walk down the street, turn left. Pass a post box, I could post it, I look down at the envelope. But then I remember it is pastel blue, the number 8. 8 today? Yesterday? Tomorrow? I recall the to-do list. I will deliver it personally. Pigeons. Rats with wings. I’m passing where the park merges with the pavement and there’s an overflowing bin at its exit and they’re eating chips and other fat in food form, the polystyrene containers pecked half-open. I wish I had some bread to give them. Adjacent to me, a kid runs over to the swarm, kicks at them. They flap and then are in the air. One shits on me. The kid laughs hysterically. Shit runs white and brown down my shoulder. Splats onto my shoe. I look at the child, his big moon-face red and real in front of me. I smile at it. It is real and I offer a smile, but it is a liquid smile. On seeing the smile, all liquid, he scampers off, darting into the bushes. Looking down at the pigeon shit on my shoulder I watch it run for an uncanny moment. The colours are running into each other: white and brown and yellow. I touch it with my fingers, rub my fingers together and feel it moist between them. I’m rolling it around on their tips, then lift them to my nose and inhale. Smell. It has a scent. The liquid world doesn’t have smells, just sickness. I look at the creatures. They have returned, pecking at the polystyrene containers, processed and artificial treasures inside. They ignore me. The pigeons and the polystyrene containers. Two real things. I watch them interact. I bend, slowly open the container for them. All of them gather around the same one. I take one of the chips inside, hold it out to them. They take it. I repeat the motion. And I do so until the leftovers are all but one. This last chip: I shall try it. I sniff it, hold it to my bottom lip. Feel its texture. It is cold, I can feel that much. Cold like metal, a solid metal. It brings with it balance. I roll it across the length of my lip. After that I take a bite, cold in my mouth, a metal-like cold and I chew it. I can’t taste it but I chew it anyway and then swallow. I give the rest of it to a pigeon by my foot. It takes it and leaves. I exit the scene, walk on. And in doing so that balance sinks under that liquidity, that seasickness. I look at the bin: the pigeons and polystyrene real around it. It is an island. My head spins again. I finger the envelope in my hand: pastel blue, the number 8. Solace comes like a chemical and I can walk on, forward. This is a one-way street.

Phase six. Eight. The number: 8, glittery and solid in the card. Eight years old. Ten or eleven minutes’ walk away now. Above, the sky is an unnatural blue. I think of it, all the water vapours and particles – unsolid. My stomach turns. Peering down at the letter in my hands I make sure it’s still there, tightening my grip. Badges and birthday candles. Eight. I remember when I was a boy. The choices I made, why do we make the choices we make – what makes us, chose them? I try to understand it for a while. High concept stuff, and I try to think of when I used to be a young boy. Can’t imagine him. Was I ever young? I can only remember being alone. Much is learnt in your own private loneliness. Much ages in your time of learning. I remember him, smile at him. All the years taste bitter in my mouth. I swallow them, the back of my throat burns. I concentrate on less nauseating ventures. That kid now: eight. A birthday card. Other people in the world sending cards. Less lonely.

A queue at the bus stop as I go by, the bus has pulled up, taking fare charges. Last on the bus: straining to lift the Zimmer frame from kerb to bus. I find myself reaching for her arm to stable the movement. The woman grabs her purse, shifts it to the other side of her body and continues to struggle. She is at the summit, pays – the bus door shuts. Drives away. I watch the wheels turn, they are circles, the same motion. They cannot move any other way, it is certain they will move as they do now. Even when they turn onto the next road, they shall move the same way. I always thought a circle less solid than a rectangle or a square but now I’m staring at the movement, round and round against the black and solid road and I begin to reconsider that conclusion.

I walk along the road now after seeing its black and solid. Above the sky is unnaturally blue. Traffics coming in the opposite direction, not much of it, narrow road: one-way street.

Phase six. I can feel that I am separated from the road, slick, like oil on water. My body. I feel disassociated with it yet I’m am very aware of it and this withdrawal from it. Blood from the street rolls over my foot and then back off as I step through the crimson streets and I am aware of the action as this solid thing washing over my foot with its solidity. The solidity of permanent jobs and mortgage plans and child trust funds. It’s all very stable and I take each step slowly, feeling the stability and letting it ground me. But it doesn’t. it makes me feel like I’m a great distance from it, more like those particles in the unnaturally blue sky, all liquid, instead of solid. Some cars are beeping. I drift in and out of the middle of the road. They come head on. The tide also against me, gentle as it is.

Six: I think. Phase six. Then seven. After that, well, after isn’t the right preposition. I am moving forward, towards my destination, a real person: eight. Numbers and calendar months and dates of birth, things that can be counted and put in records and on certificates – things that define solid things. Code and data in the computer, things that define what is real. Eight: a measure, definition – his face will add shape to it. I imagine it is big and round, like all children’s faces on their birthday. I’m walking downhill, deeper into the blood. Leaden against my foot, I bump into something submerged beneath the crimson. I fish for it, almost dropping the envelope in doing so. My heart races fierce. But it is still in my left hand, prints of pigeon muck on it. With my fingers I can feel its shape beneath the blood, I lift it partially out of the crimson, and it’s heavy. A burn barrel. Rusted and thin. With some effort I turn the cumbersome thing upside-down, pouring the crimson out. Sounds like a fountain. I study it, feel the dents, the rough edges, the formations of rust and charring. Digging my hand in there I’m fishing for something in the bottom but there is nothing – anything must have been washed away. I hold the burn barrel to my chest, the object calming my heart rate. Hoping it will help nullify the sickness. Dizziness persists, but in a manageable dose. Sticking out my tongue, now against rust of the burn barrel, I try to channel a sensation through my taste buds. Nothing. Then I’m trying to replicate a taste in my imagination, on the organ of my tongue – nothing. My tongue is red now, the red tasteless. Scentless too. The red tasteless, scentless substance red and real on my clothes, the stain the formation of what you could almost make out to be letters, and if you could take these patterns for letters then they could only spell: ERROR.

There are some people on the pavements, with sounds coming out of their mouths. My mouth, mute. The sickness has liquefied my tongue, the organ now soft inside me and melting into my throat. Obstructed. Air scarce. These people, people with voices, have watched the scene unfold. I try to signal to them and there are those voices again, from their mouths. Concentrate hard. I’m trying to make out what they’re saying, the formation of letters I can ascertain from studying their mouths. Nothing. But then I remember that I have never really heard a person speak, not ever really speak. Perhaps their tongues have dissolved too. I smile to them. One of them is holding a child in its arms. I think it’s a woman as through a dim and wobbling vision I can decipher a blurred apron, tight around her bosom. It is though I’m under water. I can feel the water inside of me, swelling and swishing, it keeps dipping above my throat and entering my mouth. The blurred woman shields the child, turns and disappears into her house. I am smiling and they vanish. Little splashes can be heard across the expanse of crimson.

Alone again. Phase six. A foam fills my mouth. Clinging onto the envelope tighter, pastel blue, 8, solid, a badge inside. The foam slides back down my throat and is gone. Almost there. A centre of gravity around the envelope, pastel blue. Soon I will be at source of all this solidity: 105, Richmond Road East.

I’m passing everything, looking at all the houses on the road, my steps zigzagged. Odd houses are on the left. Two minutes. A big round face of a child, his birthday today, yesterday, tomorrow: someday, any day. Regardless, the envelope is still pastel blue and solid in my hand, 8 inside. A child is eight, a fact a number: balance. I’m hauling my liquid self along and the street is barren. 103. The next house will be his. There is no effort in my steps now, the pull of the house strong. 105. Birthday. I’m going up some steps and am all a sudden at the door. I lift my fist and go to knock, bring it back again. The thing fidgets about in my pocket before repeating the process. It wipes itself on my jackets, it is damp, and it falls back to my side. Both hands: I’m holding the envelope with both hands now. Handwritten. I study the scrawls for some time and go to knock again. I clutch it tighter and feel it solid in my hands. What happens when it is no longer there, solid in my hands? Phase six I think. Shake my head. Eight I think, ‘eight’ muttering it aloud. That’s why I came here. Before I know it my hand is reaching for the letter-flap of its own accord. Push, the fingers push it in, I feel it go, the balance of it all. Seasickness cripples my body and I grab on to a garden gate, nauseated and my vision failed. Through the sound of it all, ten feet underwater, I hear a door open somewhere and the liquid of my body swells again, lapping father and father over my tongue and I open my mouth, the liquid of my body emptying onto the lawn as the boy steps out smiling, card in hand: cartoon animals, the badge: 8.

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Lisa Fontaine is a writer living in Greenwich, London. This story was first published in Open Pen Issue Eleven. Lisa’ flash fiction appears in The Open Pen Anthology, available to buy here.

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