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Introducing: HYPERCHONDRIAC [SICK] - Jon Stapley



Illustration by Alexandra Quick // https://alexquickart.portfoliobox.net/

You can get right into this one; there’s not a lot I need to tell you. All you need to know is that Jay and L live together, have done so for a while now, and that today is a pretty usual day for Jay because he’s been referred to his local A&E and is fully expecting them to tell him he is dying.

The plastic curtain crinkles with an autumnal sound.

Good news, the specialist says. Your ECG was normal, there’s nothing to worry about in your blood, your oxygen intake was within tolerances, your chest X-ray showed no abnormalities. There’s absolutely nothing medically wrong with you.

Jay considers this.

Can you check again? he asks.


Five minutes later, Jay stands in the hospital forecourt, facing the wind. At the bike rack, two paramedics lounge and chat while eating KFC. An old man in a wheelchair rests a newspaper on his throat-tube. A mother drags a bawling boy with enough force that his feet skitter against the ground; she casts a suspicious eye over Jay as she passes.

Now he’s away from the beeping machines, Jay is feeling distinctly guilty for every millisecond of time and every cubic millimetre of space he has taken up in this place. He unlocks his phone, meaning to check the time, but instead learns via a push notification from The Guardian that the Amazon rainforest has reached a critical tipping point beyond which it is unlikely to recover. He taps, reads. He googles the term feedback loop. He donates £69 to the Rainforest Trust, and puts a screenshot on Twitter with the caption, nice. It gets two likes. Later he will delete the app, and as far as I know he has never re-downloaded it.


*


L is home, of course.

Hey, L says, as Jay comes in the front door. They’re staring at the TV, but it isn’t on.

Did you get out today, Jay asks.

Not really. Did you come straight back?

Yeah, Jay says.

You’re not dying?

No. It might be anxiety.

L reactivates the PlayStation. Within seconds, they are back in control of Ellie, helping her skewer infected clickers with hand-made shivs. Ellie looks like Elliot Page – an obvious deliberate choice on the game company’s part, though their PRs later tried to deny this clearly undeniable likeness. It’s weird that you can just take someone’s face, Jay thinks.

Your tweet was funny, L says, over their shoulder. They hadn’t even liked the tweet.

I think I’m gonna delete my Twitter, Jay says.

L pauses the game.

Don’t you need it for work? they ask.

Yeah I guess, Jay says.

L unpauses the game. They mistime a button press, and Ellie is ripped apart.


*


Despite what they just said, L has actually been out once today, albeit only to meet their dealer, which Jay has previously made clear does not count.

I can pinpoint the timing precisely. Just as Jay is boarding the bus outside the hospital, L is loitering close to their flat. They’ve got their earbuds in, they’re listening to Lana Del Rey imbue the word chemtrails with an indeterminate level of irony, and they’re waiting. Their dealer has made it clear he’s going to be late, so L is staying somewhere public. It’s a March evening of unapparent warmth, and it’s going to get dark early. People are hurrying past L into the Sainsbury’s Local to get the exact ingredients required for one stir-fry. There’s a queue outside the vape shop.

L is standing by the memorial. Not as a statement, just as a place to stand. The memorial is an iron fence that has so many flowers and letters pinned to it you can barely see the bars. Grainy photos inkjet-printed onto A4 paper. Lists of names, some written in a detectably shaky hand. Promises never to forget the people of Artemis House.

I should explain this – a block of new-build flats collapsed a few months ago. Not far from Jay and L’s flat. The building was shoddily constructed from shit materials, and simply fell in on itself. Seventy-six people died.

People are still comparing it to Grenfell, even though the circumstances are pretty different. The government has been trying to haul the construction company in front of an inquiry, but they’re headquartered in Russia, and they don’t want to come. British ministers have been briefing to the newspapers that this is unacceptable, but Russian construction executives don’t care about Daily Mail headlines. So, no one really knows what to do. The pundits are saying the housing minister should resign. The housing minister feels that he should, actually, not resign. He’s arguing his case for staying pretty well, which makes sense. He used to be a columnist for The Times. (L knows all this from Twitter. Later, they'll idly wonder if Jay deleting the app will mean he simply won’t know things any more.)

The community is still grieving. Jay and L have been grieving too, on and off, even though it makes them feel like frauds. The thing is, the pair of them moved here two years ago, but they don’t really participate in the community. (L has been intending to participate in the community, but hasn’t got around to it yet.)

L still feels sad about the people who died, and the people who have to go on. But there’s a nagging sense of appropriating a community’s grief, of taking something away from real local people.

With the wrought iron of the memorial pressing against their back, L spends some time mentally articulating why it’s not problematic, actually, to feel sad when a building in your neighbourhood collapses and kills seventy-six people. They start wondering why they spend so much time mentally constructing pre-emptive defences against hypothetical people who are arguing with them from utterly unhinged positions, and wonder vaguely if it has something to do with Twitter. Maybe Jay is onto something.

There’s chanting from Paradise Park. Another protest. A local group formed in the aftermath, called themselves ‘Demanding Justice’ (Jay went to a meeting once; L didn’t). The group wants somebody to face responsibility for the disaster, but no one will. Ministers, councillors, executives, builders – no one. Probably because anyone doing so would be tacitly acknowledging that they could have done something to prevent it.

After their Auntie Lyds’ funeral, some time ago, L took an overnight coach back to London. At around 3AM, they’d been woken from unsatisfying sleep by the hammering of the rain. Blearily, they’d looked around, and had seen that the driver’s seat was empty.

L had choked on their own breath. Caught between the urge to leap up and seize the wheel, to shout at everyone to break open the windows and jump, to claw at their own throat just to have another hole to scream out of, L had simply convulsed in their seat while the twelve-tonne ironclad veered over the cat’s-eyes to rain-slick oblivion.

And then, the driver had reappeared. He’d been rooting around on the floor for a dropped fruit pastille. That was all. But years later, L vividly recalls that wild, paralysing panic. It is reminiscent of how it feels to live in a country where blocks of flats just collapse and no one can promise you that it won’t happen again.

L abruptly realises that someone is taking photos on the pavement in front of them. A photographer with an old-looking camera is aiming towards the memorial; L goes to move, but realises the photographer is including them in the shot deliberately. Unsure, they wait. The shutter fires with a metallic clunk like a steel trap executing a rat, and the photographer lowers the camera. His eyes meet L’s.

Sorry, do you mind?

Hardly matters now, L replies.

The photographer brushes lank blond hair from his eyes, unfazed.

You live around here?

Yep.

The photographer reaches into a Velcro pouch at his side, and with a ripping noise, extracts a toothpick, which he places between his teeth.

Oral fixation. Quitting smoking. How’s it going, man? I’m Aidan.

Aidan rolls the toothpick with his tongue.

Do you have five minutes for a chat? he asks.

L pauses Lana Del Rey before she can start another song.

Sure.

Great.

Aidan brushes away his hair again. It has been cut and styled to the exact length and shape where it will constantly fall in his eyes. He takes out an iPhone and starts a voice recording app.

How long have you lived around here, man?

Two—

Oh, hang on, could you state your name.

L Willow.

Aidan nods.

Elle as in E-double-L-E, is that? he asks, entirely unruffled despite the fact that he has referred to L as man twice in their short interaction. L, despite themselves, is impressed with the smoothness of this pivot. They guess they’re probably far from the first gender weirdo to have crossed Aidan’s path.

Sure, they say, trying E-double-L-E on for size, and not disliking it.

Thanks, Elle. Okay so, did you know anyone in Artemis House?

No, not personally.

Mm. Did you hear or see the building come down?

Uh, we’re a few streets away, but I heard a rumble, I think. It was early in the morning, wasn’t it? I was half-asleep.

It was two in the afternoon.

Right, yeah.

What did you think when you heard the news?

Well, it was, you know, awful. You don’t expect that sort of thing to happen. It was just awful.

(Aidan rolls the toothpick between his teeth and looks over the road at a pair of women who are holding boxes of beers and waiting to cross.)

Uh-huh, Aidan says, after a few seconds. Would you mind if I took another picture?

If you want.

Aidan cranks a lever on the camera, aims it at L. Fires off the headshot. Clunk.

Thanks, Elle, he says. I’m doing a project on this area. You can follow me on Insta if you want, @atoddphotography. I’m shooting natural-light analogue portraits of local people who’ve been affected by the Artemis House tragedy, and collecting their stories. It’s just Insta at the moment, but I’m hoping it’ll be a book.

(The women with the beers cross the road and pass behind Aidan, whose voice gets noticeably louder.)

Yeah, ahh, I just believe that creatives have a real responsibility to be present at moments like this. It isn’t about politics; it’s about shared humanity. We can give a voice to pain.

(The women disappear around a corner.)

Do you live around here, L asks.

No, Aidan replies. He fiddles with one of the dials on his camera.

But my aunt did, he adds. She lived alone on the fifth floor of Artemis House. She died.


*


Jay keeps replaying the conversation with the specialist in A&E, and thinking about what he should have said differently. No, I don’t just want you to check me again; I want you to douse me in radioactive paint and X-ray me until my skin sloughs off in chunks. I want every cell in my body irradiated. I want to be scrubbed with steel wool and splayed open on a table. I want a battery of tests so invasive they violate my human rights. I want to see a piece of my brain on a petri dish. If you do all that and still tell me there is no medical reason why I feel like this, then I will understand and deal with that, but every day I tell myself that surely, surely everyone in the world does not feel like this, they don’t, they can’t, we would all go insane, we have all gone insane, and it would really help me a whole lot if you could reach into my ear with a pair of tweezers and pull out the three-foot tapeworm that has coiled around my brain, and then we could take turns stepping on it, and—

You all right there? Rosie asks, and Jay jerks upwards, suddenly.

Yes, sorry. Can I have another.

He waves the empty glass that had contained real ale. (He’d wanted lager but the lagers were off due to a carbon dioxide shortage. You simply have to laugh.)

Are you sure you’re okay? Rosie asks.

Yes. Well, no. I was in the hospital just now.

(By the way, this interaction occurs in the space of unaccounted time between Jay leaving the hospital and his arriving back at the flat with L. So when he said to L that he’d come straight back, that was untrue.)

Hospital? Ah, no, Rosie says. That’s a shame.

(She has a lovely countryside accent. Is it Somerset?)

It’s fine. Just the ale please.

Are you sure you should, she asks. With the hospital and everything?

Oh yeah, it’s fine, Jay says. There’s nothing wrong with me. They said it’s stress, or anxiety.

Ahhhh. Rosie nods knowingly. Are you, like, a hyperchondriac?

Her accent means Jay hears the hard R, a mispronunciation that might otherwise have gone undetected.

No, he says, hy-po-chondriac. Like hypodermic or hypoallergenic.

She does not care.

Are you one?

Yeah, Jay says. Yeah, I think I am. I always picture myself dying from heart attacks. I smoked for a year when I was nineteen and I can’t stop thinking I have emphysema. I’m always thirsty and I always need to pee – these are symptoms of diabetes, which I don’t have. I keep prodding these lumps around my stomach, and my GP tells me they’re nothing, but I don’t believe her.

Rosie seems even less inclined to fetch him an ale.

I’m sorry. (Jay lowers his head towards the table.) I didn’t mean to dump that on you. I know that’s emotional labour, which is bad.

My granddad died of emphysemer, Rosie says.

Oh.

He smoked for one year, when he was nineteen, Rosie says.

For a moment, there is nothing but the hum of the air conditioner.

Then Rosie’s face splits into a grin.

Only joking, she says. He was a forty-a-day man. By the end, he was alternating between the respirator and the fag like this – she demonstrates – and barely anyone went to his funeral. People in the village said he’d brought it on himself.

That’s just it, says Jay. I’m not afraid of dying in a bus crash, or a terrorist attack, or because a hole opens up in the Earth’s atmosphere and we all get sucked out into space – though I do think about all of those things, a lot. I’m afraid of dying and it being my fault. Because I smoked, or because I drink, or because I ignored something until it was too late. I’m afraid, more than anything, of a death that’s embarrassing.

Rosie isn’t listening, he realises. She’s looking behind his ear.

What’s your tattoo say? she asks.

Oh. Jay rubs his neck. It says, ‘make good art’. It’s something Neil Gaiman said in a speech once. About how you should respond to, like, adversity and that. By making good art. I guess I put it there to remind myself.

But you put it where you can’t see it.

I don’t need to see it. I know what it says.

So what kind of good art do you make?

(Jay is finding it hard to hold his head up.)

Do you want to get out of here, he asks. He’s never said a phrase like that out loud before. He’s only written it in unpublished scripts.

I have to work for another five hours, Rosie says.

Oh, right, yeah.


*


L’s mind has settled and the PlayStation is humming; they do not know where Jay is. It’s coming up to seven o’clock and they still haven’t called their mother. They pause the game, crush a joint in the ashtray, and prepare themselves.

This is the week I say something, this has gone on long enough.

(That’s absolutely not going to happen, but it’s important you understand that L does genuinely believe it, just as they did last week.)

Mum picks up on the third ring.

Darling, she says. Hold on, let me put you on speaker, I’m tenderising some Brazilian sirloin.

A pause, then a roomy echo fills the receiver, punctuated with a dull thump, thump, thump.

How are you guys, L says.

We’re fine. Your dad is very upset with Gary Lineker, and we don’t know what we’re going to do about your cousin.

L sees two pieces of bait there, and has to decide on the fly which will be least objectionable.

What’s up with Charlie, they ask, after only a second’s pause during which the phrase I’m uncomfortable in my body attempts to leap out of their throat.

(Three beefy thumps.)

A great expulsion of air vibrates between L’s mother’s lips.

Oh, you know, she says. He’s just being Charlie, but even more. He’s not been right since Lyds died. Rachel phoned last night and she’s very sweet, but you can tell he’s absolutely driving her loopy. She says he’s taking this sort of ‘passive-resistance’ approach to wedding planning. The other night, when she tried to talk about catering, he just said they should get everyone Burger King on Deliveroo, and she couldn’t even tell if he was joking.

(Thump, thump.)

I don’t think the right body for me exists, is something that L does not say. Another option would have been, The only thing I’m more afraid of than going outside is going one evening without getting stoned. They don’t say that either. They say: Charlie’s just like that though, isn’t he.

Yes, says L’s mum. It’s a problem. Do you know he told Rachel he doesn’t want to have kids?

(Thump.)

L sits up, and the phrase I’ve got something to tell you dies in their mouth, because this is genuinely interesting.

He said that?

Yes. Rachel says he told her that he can’t raise a child in this society because Thatcher made it too atomised. I don’t know what that’s all about, but when I told your father, he had to go and stand outside for a while.

Did they not discuss having kids before getting engaged?

L’s mother lets out another great expulsion of wet air.

Well, you know, she says. It was all a bit ad hoc, wasn’t it. They got overexcited on that Lord of the Rings tour in New Zealand, and now here we are. But come on, darling. How are you?

(Thump, thump-thump.)

I’ll save L some dignity here. I won’t document every failure, every choke, the towering unsaid things that dominate the rest of this conversation. When L’s mother announces that seasoning the beef with Jamie’s blend of Brazilian spices is a job that requires concentration and she’d best sign off, L knows they could probably keep her on the line if they tried, but they let her go, and just as they’re licking the skin of the joint to take them through the next hour or so, the power goes out.


*


Everyone says make art about your own feelings, your trauma, the stuff you’re going through. But no one wants art about having a bit of a headache all the time.

Jay likes that line enough that he stops outside the shop and types it into his Notes app. He’s not sure where in his screenplay he could find room for it, but he supposes it could be a kind of wry commentary on the fact that the script is so far removed from real life (it’s about a detective trying to catch an interdimensional assassin). It seems clever and self-aware, if you squint.

He peers past the plastic trays of vegetables, into the familiarly fluorescent interior of his and L’s local shop. He left the flat again a while ago (L did not appear to notice) and came here to get two things – some beer, and something important. He’s forgotten what the important thing was, and he can see that the guy who always stares at him is working tonight, so he hovers, foot to foot. He tries to remember the important thing, but his brain is only interested in supplying him with a phrase he read earlier: important carbon sink. It bubbles up, again and again. Important carbon sink. About twelve miles away, L’s mother is shifting her grip on a Brazilian-beef tenderising mallet from Amazon dot com, and saying the word Deliveroo for the third and final time in her life. Deliveroo. Important carbon sink. It’s a little after seven o’clock.

Jay’s screenplay is an original idea, technically, even though all Hollywood ever makes these days are remakes and reboots. He used to resent the film industry for this, but these days he feels like he gets it. It’s the same reason that he spends so many nights thinking about the game of Spin the Bottle where he got to kiss Lisa Turner, or the time Lana Donovan clearly considered having sex with him, or the time he reached the final six in the Channel 4 young screenwriters contest and was described as ‘very promising’ by the guy who plays Keith Lemon. Because if you can’t imagine a future and you can’t bear the present, what is there to do except gorge on the past?

Is that a good line too? Is it wry or just bleak? Important carbon sink.

As Jay continues to dither, a white cat slinks around the corner. It has stumpy legs, a barrel-like body and a pugnacious face, and its silver eyes flash like five-penny coins in the light of the Lycamobile sign as it looks up at Jay.

He walks towards it.

Hello, little one.

The cat continues to watch him. Jay waits for it to run away, but it doesn’t. When he is close enough to touch, he squats on his haunches, reaching down with nervous fingers. The cat inclines its head. Jay cups his hand around the little skull, and a tiny electric charge is sent through his nerves to tell his brain that this is nice.

What are you doing out here, friend?

No answer. Jay’s hand smooths down the rich white fur; the cat moves its head to nuzzle into him. Its spine arches. Jay presses his pinkie finger against the cat’s left ear, just a little, and feels it yield slightly to the pressure. He scratches underneath, and the cat lets out a sigh. He runs his hand along its spine, and when it fills its little lungs, his hand rises with the contours of its body.

Jay realises, in the strange, detached way you realise something that’s been right in front of you for a while, that the cat is wearing a collar. His fingers must have brushed that collar dozens of times, and yet his brain did not register it.

The cat, seeming to intuit his intentions, raises its head to show off the metal disc on the collar. Jay reads. The cat’s name is Sir Cums-a-lot, and if found, it should be returned to Gazza. A number for Gazza is not provided.

I’m not going to call you that, Jay says, aloud. He stands up. The cat pads away.

Jay realises that the important thing he’d intended to get was sink unblocker. There’s a fzzt sound from inside the shop, and the lights above the Lycamobile sign go out.


*


When Jay re-enters the flat, L is lighting one of several thick-barrelled soy candles that they have placed around the flat. L is the sort of person who tends to receive a lot of candles for Christmases and birthdays, probably because the two main things most people know about them are that they’re home a lot and they’ve always got a lighter.

Hey, L says as the wick catches, you okay?

Yeah. There was a power cut at the shop.

Here too. Seems like a big one.

Jay dumps a bag of cans on the kitchen table. L sweeps in deftly to do the last bit of labour, crossing the lounge/kitchen partition to scoop out a beer for Jay and crack it. Excess foam drips on the linoleum. L hands it to Jay and their fingers touch his.

Come.

L leaps nimbly back onto the sofa and rescues a still-smouldering joint from the ashtray.

Sit.

Jay takes a sip of the foaming lager, still nice and cold.

What are we supposed to do in this situation, he asks.

L shrugs while coughing.

Nothing, unless you got a job with the National Grid in the last few hours and didn’t tell me. It’ll be back on in a few hours. Come on – this can be fun! (They bang the sofa cushion with their free hand.) Why don’t we tell stories? Know any good stories?

Did you see the thing about the Amazon, Jay says as he sits down.

How about I go first, L says. I’ve got one. I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking about it all day.

(They launch straight into it without waiting for an answer.)

My aunt died too young. Cancer, bowel. This may sound fucked up, but I always think funerals are kind of nice. You get all dressed up, you get to see your grandparents, your little nieces and nephews. The service tends to be a brisk 45-minuter, then you spend the day drinking in the function room of a country pub. That’s nice.

(L is speaking in the present tense, as though this is something that regularly happens, but Jay knows for a fact that there have been three funerals in their family since the one they’re talking about, and L went to none of them. He doesn’t point this out.)

But that’s not the story, L is saying. The story is Auntie Lyds’. We’re at the crematorium, and they’re all set to lower her coffin into the, uh, thing that cremates it. But then the humanist guy – I don’t know the word for it – doing the ceremony, he says there’s a song that Auntie Lyds wants us all to hear, to remember her by. It’s not in the order of service; she wanted it to be a surprise. The guy asks us to rise.

(L stands.)

Then he asks if Jean in the back room can pop the song on please. We hear a nice-sounding old lady on a PA system say, ‘okay love,’ and then this click-whirr sound of a CD player. I know – a CD player! This wasn’t even that long ago! But then, a song starts to play.

(L sings.)


Some-BODY once told me the world is gonna roll me.

I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb,

In the shape of an ‘L’ on her forehead.

WELL, the years start comin’ and they don’t stop comin’—


It’s All Star, by Smash Mouth. The song from Shrek.

(L says this purely for emphasis, because Jay knows what the song is.)

That, L says, was the song that Auntie Lyds – who led the PTA, who ran for parish council as a Lib Dem even though parish councillors aren’t party political, who doted on her kid, who loved Downton Abbey – that was the song she wanted played as she got incinerated.

All Star is three and a half minutes long, and we’re standing up for all of it. The song plays and Auntie Lyds burns, and no-one knows what the fuck to do. No-one is laughing, but you can tell it’ll only take one person to go, and god help me I think it’s going to be me who goes. My cousin Charlie looks confused as fuck, like, maybe he didn’t know his mum as well as he thought, but even though I’m trying des-per-ate-ly­ not to laugh, I’m actually respecting it. Good on you, Auntie Lyds. Live normal, die weird. That’s a pretty sensible way to go about it.

The song is just about to end, then it cuts out. If it had been a record there would have been the record-scratch noise, but it’s a CD so it just stops. And then, after a few seconds of silence purer and whiter than uncut cocaine, we hear the first few notes of Rufus Wainwright’s cover of Hallelujah.

Oh, Jean. Jean read on the note that it was track one on the Shrek soundtrack CD that Lyds had provided. Jean did not realise until far, far too late that it was supposed to be track ten. By the time she corrected herself, Auntie Lyds had already burned up. What waste. What glorious waste.

Jay laughs. Not a lot, but a little. He reaches for L’s hand, but L is preoccupied re-lighting the roach between their fingers.

Did you talk to your mum today, he asks.

Yeah, L says. I didn’t mention it though. I will next week.

There’s a silence, and then L asks: How are you feeling?

There’s a silence again.

(I should tell you whether Jay answers L’s question honestly or not.)

(I should tell you whether the two of them are left in the dark all night, or the power people get their shit together. I should tell you whether the Brazilian beef L’s mother cooked was juicily delicious or dry and claggy – you have to let it rest before serving it. I should tell you how many followers Aidan has on Instagram these days, or whether L has passed the point where they could stop smoking if they wanted to, or if Jay will be back at the hospital before the year is out.)

(But I’m just going to tell you this:)

When the lights come back on, they’ve found each other’s hands again.


 

Jon Stapley is a writer from London, UK, who loves taking pictures and sometimes gets mild-to-moderate health anxiety. For his day job he writes interviews, articles and reviews on photography, technology, art, theatre and more, which you can see and read at jonstapley.com.


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