The Unblemished (Halloween 2006)
A novel by Conrad Williams


He comes out of that lost time, and the first thing he is aware of is the thrum of blood in his ears. The overriding thought he has is of birth but he cannot think why. The light in the room is poor, reflected from a thin, grinning moon, yet his eyes sting with it. A billowing of thin white curtains. There is a sour smell that he is unable to place. He is lying on bare floorboards in a room containing no furniture, pictures, or people. A cockroach sits six inches away from his face, turning this way and that on its oily carapace as it preens.

He closes his eyes and tries to remember the last image before his blackout. That he lost consciousness at all panics him, because he was not drinking, but best not to think about that yet. Best not to worry about the lack of feeling in his body, too. It will come back. It must. For now, try to remember….

A watering hole in central London. The Freedom Bar on Wardour Street. Aubergine light smeared across the ceiling. A stainless steel counter. Cow-print sofa. An empty magazine rack bolted to the wall. Spirits served in doubles unless stated otherwise. A flat £5 a glass. Was there a she? There is always a she. But despite the bar's details sticking to his mind, the woman slid away whenever he tried to bring her into focus. He breathed deeply, tried to move his foot. Nothing. He could bend his neck slightly, enough to see there were no restraints. Then what? He had had an accident, severed his spinal cord. This was some hospital room. But he knew hospitals. There was no life support system here. No aseptic smell. No starched nurse gazing down at him reproachfully. He tried to call out but his mouth was too dry. The effort brought a bitter taste to the back of his throat, the same sensation that comes from a hit of nasal spray.

She had approached him. They chatted. He remembered he had been impressed by her. She smelled good. He liked the way her right hand was draped over the left, like a pair of gloves placed carefully together.

What will you drink?

Nothing. I don't, generally. I'm happy to sit here and talk to you. Her voice calm, smooth, surprisingly deep.

The two of them, sitting, talking, not drinking. How had it moved from there to here? Fast cuts and slow dissolves: night sky, the wet fire of brake lights in the rain, white teeth and red lips, a dark alleyway and her hands on his shoulders. She was strong. Christ. She bent him into shape as if he was a piece of plasticine. He couldn't remember kissing her, or scooping her breasts from her bra. No recollection of her hand reaching for him, thumb pointing away from her so she could take his length in her palm. No memory of her hot centre as they pressed against each other in a doorway stinking of cold cigarettes and piss. Then what? Then why?

He tries to waggle his fingers but he is utterly numb. He feels tears slide from his eyes and trickle into his ears, where their build-up amplifies the throb of his heart.

The white curtains move more eagerly now. A breeze dances through them. There are curtains all over the room, not just across the window. It is just one more thing to wrestle with. He hears footsteps, a bizarre infill for the spastic thudding in his chest. He tries to ask whoever it is that is approaching why he can't move, but his chest won't expand enough for the air he needs to do so.

The figure is that of the woman he met in the bar. He recognises her, now that she is dipping out of the darkness to study him, like a lepidopterist peering at a butterfly on a leaf. Even in this reduced state, he finds her so beautiful he wants to laugh. She is naked. Her skin is like that of a newborn.

'You aren't dying,' she says, neutrally. The ambiguity of her words frightens him more than anything else.

She moves over him, clumsily, her knees clouting against him. He watches while a bauble of saliva hits him on the cheek, but he feels none of it.

She moves on top of him for a while, but in ways he does not recognise. He is too afraid of his condition to be able to tell her he can't make love, but she doesn't seem to want him in that way, although she derives some pleasure from the way she corrugates herself against him. Her eyes flatten and her mouth purses, growing pinker. Some crucial moment is attained: she utters a low growl and arches her back. She is sitting on his belly and he grows aware of a faint bouncing movement, as if she is grinding her tailbone against his soft centre. Then she climbs off him and retreats into the shadows of the room without another look.

The hours pass. She comes back, closes all the windows and adjusts the radiators. Again he tries to speak, but all he can manage is a breathless whimper.

She smiles at him. 'I'm just going out for a while. Try to relax.'

The heat increases, becomes sweltering. When he glances down at his body, he sees it tigered with paths forged by beads of sweat. He wants to know her name, anything about her, but he can't remember a shred she might have divulged the previous night. He has no idea where this building is, or how he might signal for help.

He pictures himself sliding his left hand backwards until it reaches a position where he can use it to lever himself upright. Everything that wants to come into his thoughts is expunged. He imagines it moving a millimetre at first. Then a centimetre. It gets easier. Soon he can feel fresh air sweeping under the arch of his arm. Now lean on it. Lean. He glances at his hand. It lies in the same position it has been in since he came here, useless, pale, like something made of wax.

He sleeps. He wakes. He does not feel hungry or thirsty and wonders if this is because the parts of his body that trigger such sensations have also been switched off. He wakes. He sleeps. Or maybe he doesn't. Everything swims into everything else. The curtains shift. Sometimes he sees faces trapped in them, or fingers reaching out, making desperate shapes in their soft, thin folds. Who does she bring here to watch him?

Sometimes the woman sits with him, the two of them naked, drenched with sweat. She snacks while she watches him. Sometimes, when she eats, her hands seem to contain too many fingers. Some of the nails are long and polished, some of them square and nude. He can't understand, and he can't move enough to ask, and by the time he's thought to try, he has forgotten.

He sleeps. He wakes. He sees some of those fingers on the floor, chewed and discarded. The curtains shift and the faces shift with them, eyeless, snagged, drying and trapped like things made from papier-mâché.

'Who. Are. You?' he breathes into an empty room. Laughter carries on a breeze, far away. Maybe outside. Children playing in the street? He can't remember who he was before this. Was he married? Did he have sons? Daughters? A job? He cries for who he might have been and for what he will become.

That night, the darkness recedes from his eyes enough for him to see her sitting by his side but she does not meet his gaze. Her eyes are fixed on his body, on his midriff. She is as still as sculpture.

Into the silence comes a minuscule sound. Paper tearing? He looks up at the woman, pleadingly, suddenly more scared than he has ever been. She is dead. He sees this now. Her job is done. Her purpose was filled days ago.

He follows her unseeing eyes to the last thing she must have observed. A dewdrop resting in the pit of his navel. Not the bead of sweat he thought it might be. It carries an nacreous sheen, like that of a pearl. It is trembling. For the first time since his childhood, when he attended Hope Hall Sunday School, he prays, in the hope that its movement is down to his own diminishing physicality, or even his fear. He could live with that. When the pearl splits and he sees what emerges, he does finally conjure a scream from somewhere.

It takes days for it to kill him.