Desiring Machines – Sarah Rushton

“Come on, we have something so good to show you!”
My neighbours, Chloe and Daniel, beckoned me upstairs. The way their brows were mischievously downturned was enough alone to convince me to follow. We scrambled wonkily up the stairs. Our limbs were not yet confident of the limits of their span, and were encased still in a protective layer of infant plumpness. We were mindful of the spikes in the crook of each step; grippers for a carpet not yet laid, or crocodile teeth lying in wait. For all the years they lived there, the house always managed to maintain a half-done feel; a house merely posing as a home. That they lost the house to bankruptcy made sense. Posturing as the perfect nuclear family would only take them so far. Slowly I had watched its foundations loosen, the entire structure collapse as it succumbed to belligerent, unshakable forces of extraction.

“Watch those stairs!,” their mother June yelled after us, back turned in some other room. Hardly able to contain their excitement, Chloe and Daniel invited me onwards into their parents’ room. It always conjures an odd feeling, as a kid, crossing the threshold in a parental bedroom, even more so if those parents aren’t your own. There comes the disconcerting sense of foreign world to which to remain inexplicably peripheral. One in which you bear no relevance, and in which everything is so much bigger, almost frighteningly so, extending far beyond the parameters of your still unfurling consciousness. Not enough so, though, to dispel a healthy childish curiosity. A curiosity which, by the look on Chloe and Daniel’s faces, was by no means unfounded.

They stood either side of the airing cupboard, ushering me forward, ringleaders to what seemed like the most magical of menageries. As I settled into position just at its entrance, Daniel bent down, and with ceremonious reverence lifted the lid to an otherwise inconspicuous wicker basket. Daniel reached first for the deck of cards, whilst Chloe tracked my reaction with feverish excitement. Both of their big, brown, owlish eyes bulged more prominently than usual, like spinning orbs, glistening with anticipation. Meanwhile, I took in the pictures sprawled before me – fanned out imagery of the same naked Chinese woman, contorted into a variety of configurations, eyes closed and head thrown back. Thick, black hair curled from between her thighs, wisteria-like in its profusion. Amidst it all, a dark-pink, shiny ellipse announced itself, blinking at me like an eye.

June had a grave look on her face when she took the dildo from me – that purple thing full of silver beads – and placed it on top of the fridge freezer. It wore a similar expression some decade later, as she was slumped drunkenly over a sticky table at the dreary social club down our road. I watched carefully as the rainbow lights would intermittently illuminate her haggard face. Her eyes were deep-set, like Chloe and Daniel’s, but somehow sloped down and out, like those of an aging donkey burdened with one to many beachside walks. She was tired of her life as a seaside attraction.
“My life, darlin’, no one knows…”
I could only nod mutely as she told me about how she and Mr. Clement had been escorts. “I’ve let men do all sorts of things to me,” she slurringly divulged. She detailed how she had waited at the door one day, as if waiting for the next bus. Mr. Clement and his brothers picked her up, loaded her into the back of their van and gagged her, did whatever it was that she had permitted them to do with copious supplies of condoms and cocaine. It seemed funny, then, to remember all the times I’d slept over there, to try and imagine where it was they had been and what it was that had gone on, between leaving us in the lounge with a Blockbuster video and returning long after we had fallen asleep, pitched out with our duvets on the dusty, hardwood floor.

Mr. Clement – Daniel senior – had been very different back when we were small. His hair was slick, and his charm was too. His features appeared baroque in design, gifting him with a look both handsome and effeminate. Maybe that’s why he had always gotten away with it. Escorting hadn’t been the only extra-marital activity he’d engaged in. I learnt this at fourteen, when June caught me slipping out for a cigarette, late one school night. We’d occasionally meet by our adjacent garden gates, just a knee-high brick wall to separate us where the fence had been taken down and neither household had bothered to restore it. Often we’d just be silent, in the dark, the cherries of our cigarettes flaring in unison. That night, she invited me into the camper van they’d had parked up in the driveway for years but had seen only one or two outings.

When we were littler, Daniel, Chloe and I would bring in our blankets and imagine apocalyptic situations where we had to get away for a long time, faraway and fast. We piled in our duvets, tinned goods and VHS collection. There was one particular item from it we had acquired entirely on our own, and which we guarded fiercely. One sleepover night, pitched on the hardwood floor, we spied a cassette lodged under the sofa. The label posed a titillating enigma: ‘Big Jugs Bonanza.’ I imagined some kind of circus: juggling acts, clowns, acrobatics. There were acrobats, but their organs were engorged, red and angry. Their private parts glared at me in a way that made me feel condemned – wrong – but good, too. We tacitly agreed to keep the cassette safe in Daniel’s Lion King case, on his bookcase in his room, and we revisited it together on occasion.

The night June called me in there, her eyes were blood-shot and roving around my face, manically, pleading me to give weight to the convictions that plagued her mind. I could tell she was white wine-drunk. She showed me the Facebook profile of a girl – a bisexual girl – she emphasised – not much older than me, who she suspected Daniel Senior had been having it off with. I’d told her before, smoking by the garden gate, that I used to swing by the gay scene on a Friday after school, having saved up a week’s worth of lunch money, get changed in the toilets at Central Station, and whilst ostensibly ‘at the cinema with my friends,’ set to scaling the dizzying gradients of the town’s ‘Pink Triangle’. I sunk double JD and cokes with my lunch money, made colourful and exciting new friends, the garish décors of the Scene making me feel like I was on a wacky, happy funfair ride. It took me a while, and string of teenage fumblings, to understand why I gravitated there so naturally. In any case, I didn’t know the girl.

While Daniel Senior, like me, took increasingly to drinking about the town, June loved to do it at home. Daniel had been gone about a week once when I was round Chloe’s. She was fourteen too, now, but couldn’t see the appeal in my queer, drunken odysseys. We were in her room and I’d been scanning down the spines of her literary classics – constituting a column nearly as tall as myself – all Austen, Dickens, Lawrence – shit that didn’t interest me, when she opened up her shoebox full of meds to let me see. Tablets to sleep, tablets to wake up. Tablets to make her feel more alive and tablets to make her feel as though she wasn’t living at all. We peered down through the window at June, in the driveway, drunkenly tending to camper van with a handheld hoover. Drunkenly we knew, because it was never any different. Her features were tellingly soft, too; her face slack, like a melting candle. As we watched her, Chloe shared with me, unusually, an anecdote from younger years. One night she and Daniel had woken up to loud music. They froze at the top of the staircase as they watched their parents snort long lines of coke from the coffee table in the lounge. I kissed her when she told me that. When I left that day, before opening the door, I turned and looked back up the stairs to see their slight little bodies at the top. They hovered silently; flickering holograms of innocence.

“No love, they won’t be coming” June told me. Neither Chloe nor Daniel had been at the club that night. Chloe, June explained, had defected to some southern shire of England to live the upper-middle class dream. Daniel and his fiancée were happily set up in China, language teachers by day, a blissful picture of domesticity by night, set up as they were in their luxury high-rise, or so as best as she could tell from the one brief, grainy Skype interaction they had shared since his getting there a year ago.

I watched her already off-set gaze – as if she’d been talking to another version of me, a couple of inches adjacent – drift over my shoulder and further behind me. It fixed on her now ex-husband, Daniel Senior, an alcohol-bloated blackness just perceptible through the smoke. Looming in the doorway, I felt him look past me and towards her. I felt the sad magnetism that existed between them. I took my cue, leaving them to surrender themselves to one another in their usual way.