“It’s been a while since I wrote anything,” he told her. “I used to write stories, poems, little essays on philosophy. Never grew out of my teenage thing.”
“Me neither,” smiled Celia. “And now I get paid for it, can you believe that?”
“Nice work if you can get it.”
“Why’d you stop writing then? I mean, it sounds like you enjoyed it.”
He nodded and then shrugged, “I loved it, almost more than anything.”
“Guess real life took over. I wasn’t the happiest guy around.” He handed her the cigarette.
“So where’d you grow up?”
For a moment he was quiet, and then, “I was an orphan. My parents died when I was six years old. A house fire. Pretty tough time, you can imagine.” She was silent, not knowing what to say and thinking it better she said nothing. “Celia?”
“Your novel, Leaving Her, it was an attempt to lay her to rest wasn’t it? It had to be, you know…based on truth.” She nodded silently. “Did it work?”
“No, not really.”
He lit another cigarette. “I think when you experience death as a kid – it obviously screws you up, but…it’s like there’s an absence and you don’t know what’s truth anymore. Don’t really know how to feel. You know what I mean?”
“Oh yes,” said Celia, “I know. You hit the nail on the head.”
“I tell you, really…I think my pen…I think it bled to death.” He laughed with a kind of sweet shame, and she wanted him. She turned his head to meet her gaze. She kissed him with courage she didn’t feel. For some reason he kissed her back.
After some wine, after discussing movies they both loved, nearly two hours later in Celia’s bed – they fucked one another with a gentle fury. They lost themselves, briefly, in the heat and the sweat and the salt.
She clenched around him, pulling at his neck, trying to draw him deeper inside her. The first time he came he shuddered violently and trembled breathless like a boy. The second time he used his hands. She moaned low and breathless. Later, the third time, Celia pushed him to the mattress, mounting him, placing him inside her, looking down into his eyes. They moved together. He gripped her thighs. She forgot about Louise. He came before her and then a few more thrusts and she shuddered, pressing onto him as far as she could allow. She would have been angry otherwise. She let herself fall beside him in the bed. She was warm yet almost cold, almost quivering, wanting to feel it forever. But as she lay there it faded away. Louise crept back into her thoughts. There were no words from David. She fell into a deep sleep.
When Celia woke in the morning she found that David had left her side. It didn’t surprise her. She was glad of it. Briefly pulling yourself as close as you could to something real, even if on the outside it was a casual thing. Aching for something Other. And damned if she believed it would cost them their eternal souls. She’d rather let herself be seduced by pretty lies than unattractive ones.
She yawned in the warm bed and peered through the window at the sky, grey like her name. If she could take him in deep enough, whoever he was, maybe she could be changed inside – a transcendent moment of sexual alchemy. If she suffered enough, then maybe her insides could be turned from lead into gold. Celia spread her arms on the mattress and glanced up, imagining herself crucified against the white sheets. The wanting was never enough, never as exquisite as it needs to be to summon that alchemical fire.
A small voice in the back of her mind said, You can’t purify yourself in sin. She laughed at that schoolgirl voice.
Later in the day she worked with her laptop, doing some preparation for her class in the evening. She kept seeing an image of Louise in the hospital bed, an image she couldn’t shake. She thought about David again. He seemed like a good man, a little poisoned by life. There was passion in him, no doubt, roaring forest fires and swollen rivers, but also something colder, an almost crystalline sharpness to the way he’d been. He moved differently than anyone she could remember. When Tom had been inside her it was warmth and colour and delicious melodrama. But David had been full of surfaces, lines and edges that were almost painful; a kind of cerebral fierceness in his body. Vaguely literary, Celia felt. It was even in his eyes. She got it immediately. He was turning his sex into a code that only he could read – a code that would protect him.
As the evening drew closer Celia prayed for Louise, though she didn’t believe anymore in the power of prayer. She had a bath and dressed into her black trouser-suit with a creme Donna Karran shirt. She stared at herself in the long turning-mirror, trying to find the capable woman and trying to ignore the hunted girl.
“Aside from the obvious tech stuff, writing is, I think, about vision. Metaphorical vision.” She watched the faces watching her. “You have to see, inside, what the story is; how it moves, how it tastes, and how these things become the blood of your text.”
A blonde girl raised her pen. “You’re talking in an almost mystical sense, but for me writing has always been more like craft. Like beautiful carpentry.” Celia nodded, writing the word ‘Craft’ on the white-board.
“I agree,” she told the class, “Writing is design, definitely. What I mean by ‘vision’ is the subconscious of the story, that presence that exists behind the words. Each is unique. The greater the subconscious, the deeper the vision of it, the more powerful your design will be.”
The blonde girl smiled at her. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
Celia gestured widely, “It’s the soul of the story that we treasure, that thing that’s so specific and yet so open; in literature, painting, music…sex.” There were smiles and laughs from the class. “We all know it’s presence that’s truly sexy. It’s presence that never dies.”
If souls were storybooks then nobody was truly alone; then something somewhere was in love with you, no matter what your crimes, imagined or otherwise. If men and women were great novels, then you were eternal and beautiful and flawed. Celia wanted to believe that.
She wanted to be many things – a lover, a dreamer, an artist and a daughter. She wanted to be strong; edgy but feminine. She wanted to be brave; courageous yet vulnerable. She wanted all these things. But deep down she was none of them. In truth she was an ingenious but lonely actress. She’d played the disturbed little princess to perfection. Now she played the tortured writer; the woman who was dark and oh so full of meaning. Sometimes she feared she wasn’t even human anymore, that perhaps she’d never been. Life was the shadow cast by Death. There were so many masks. And they were all beautiful. Back at home she stripped, collapsed into her bed, and was soon asleep.
In the dream Celia was standing in a church.
. She saw mum. Alice Gray was standing in the centre aisle. Candles lit spontaneously around them. A stone messiah looked down from his cross of sacrifice. Celia realised she was a little girl; short and slim with long dark hair. She was holding a kitchen knife in her small hand. Alice Gray was moving her lips but there were no words. Corpus Christi
Mum…stop, she told her, raising the knife. Stop hurting me. Leave me alone. Don’t tell me these things. She advanced on the older woman, the blade trembling in her hand. Never speak. Never speak again. I’m alone. Celia cried out and butchered her mother’s flesh until all that remained of Alice Gray was a ragged, bloody ruin at the centre of the empty church. Murder, the sin. She woke up wanting to die.
She had a long, cool soak in her cast-bronze tub to wash the images away, as morning light filled her green bathroom, making the stained-glass leaves in the windows glow. She dressed and then drove around for a while. Eventually she found herself driving down to
It was an old building near Archway with high windows and inner stonework that had been painted white for some destructive ‘reason’, marring all the effort the architects had gone to. At least there were only a few patrons at this early hour.
Celia found a corner with a computer terminal. She wanted to access the catalogue and tapped at the keyboard: The Clockhost. The screen retrieved a log-description.
There was a real book with that title somewhere in the library.
Celia scribbled the index number onto a notepad and began quickly searching the shelves. She found herself in the horror section. All the books were filed alphabetically. E, F, G – Gray, Celia; The Rising Rain. She frowned at her own work there in front of her. It was still kind of disconcerting to see it in print. She thumbed through to H.
She found what she was looking for. The Clockhost by Richard Hobbes. It had been sitting only three books away from her own work. She pulled the novel from the shelf with a flutter of anticipation. The paperback cover was an illustration of a clock with roman numerals inside the iris of a human eye. She hadn’t really expected to find anything, but the words in mum’s diary had spooked her. Celia turned the novel over and read the blurb on the back.
Robert Hawkes has discovered something frightening, evidence of a secret society within the global Intelligence network. The world is not as he believed. There are men who are not men walking the Earth. They are Clockhost. They have always been worshipped by the initiated. Now, the aging reporter must face an unholy secret so terrible that it may cost him his mind – and his life.
Celia shook her head, sighing gently. She’d never heard of this Richard Hobbes. She checked the book out from the library anyway, smiling at the clerk. Walking back to her Ford, she thought about last night’s dream. She was tired of them. In the car she opened a window and lit a cigarette, taking deep drags. She opened the novel. There was a single quote, stark on the white page.
‘There are none so enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.’
She drove back home thinking about the quote. She supposed it was true enough. In the house she fixed herself some cheese & crackers, uncorking a new bottle of red wine and pouring herself a glass. The kitchen knife lay beside her on the sofa.
She skimmed sections of the novel.
A young girl had been murdered as part of a satanic ritual-sacrifice. A BBC reporter, Robert Hawkes, stumbles upon a massive occult conspiracy headed by a tall bald stranger – a deadly black-magician. There were only scarce details that reminded Celia it had been written in 1969. The story was full of sex and violence, but the prose itself was clear, strangely poetic. There was an odd tone to the descriptions that she couldn’t quite place. It was familiar somehow. On one of the pages Celia found a rhyme, where a prostitute tells the hero: ‘Clockhost hand, Clockhost eye, we will be free when the Clockhost die.’
Celia closed the book, feeling genuinely chilled. She pressed her palms firmly against it, trying to weigh it with her intuition.
Was she really being drawn into something larger than herself – was it really Alice Gray in her dreams? If it was true then it meant that the world wasn’t hollow, that it was full of hidden meanings. She knew part of her ached for some kind of spiritual truth; a real vibrant dimension to the cold, hard, hurtful world. To know without doubt that there was purpose and intelligence in the universe.
A magic that could touch everyone, not just the writers, painters, musicians or psychics of the world. People suffered needlessly because they couldn’t believe in their own dreams. She knew that. She wanted it to be real.
Celia tossed the novel onto the coffee table. She picked up her wineglass and took a long swallow.
There was another part of her. It seemed to ache just as deep. It wanted to believe in nothing but suffering and loss. This darker part would deny all spirit, find comfort only in the glorious sins of the flesh. This part was filled with seething anger, hatred. This shadow inside wanted to breathe smoke forever, to burn the world.
She snagged her handbag from the coffee-table and retrieved her cigarettes. She lit one. She loved the dry, almost sour taste. God, how she missed it when it wasn’t there.
Which part was the real Celia; the face tilted up to the light, or the face that peered down into the formless dark? She suspected they were both real. If so, how the hell was she supposed to survive this contradiction?
She picked up the novel again and held it in her hands.
A man named Richard Hobbes had written it. His protagonist was a character named Robert Hawkes. R.H. Both men had the same initials. In Leaving Her, Celia had named the heroine Carrie Geller. C.G. Truth veiled as fiction and fiction veiled as truth.
She felt an austere sense of infinite possibility. It seemed to dwarf her. She looked at the cigarette in her fingers, the razor-blade scars on her wrists. She realised then that she didn’t know the world or herself.