THE STARING CONTEST - Trahearne Falvey
Normally when my brother slept he had to really will himself into it: sip hot milk, listen to one of those true crime podcasts read by mesmeric female voices, fuck Tatyana from down the road until the partition wall separating his room from mine shook – anything to counteract the seven or eight cans of energy drink he’d guzzled that day. So when Nuri fell asleep on his motorbike and crashed into a manti stall, breaking four of his bones and at least a dozen of the stall owner’s, it became clear that this strange air that crept under doors and out again, leaving a trail of snores and bruises, would not leave us alone. It would infiltrate the fibres of our scooter helmets and the glass of our shitty cars, it would come to the bars, the one club in town, maybe take us in the moment before we conceded to going home with the neighbour’s boy, again, because he was there. It would descend and snatch our movement – our driving, dancing, working, fucking, our constant attempts to get warm or convince ourselves we were heading towards something – it would kill it dead, and make us into the children we were always running away from, the old people we were always turning our backs to. When my brother fell asleep and I saw him lying in the hospital bed looking so small and still and stupid, I smiled and signed his casts with ‘Get well soon, prick’, but swore to myself that I would never let anyone see me like that. I would rather the sleep took me in the bath and people would have to stare at my naked blue corpse if they had to see me at all, not broken in hospital pyjamas.
When I first saw the sleep take someone it was a Thursday evening and I was sat in a room with nine other people listening to Mrs Aliyeva read Austen. I was learning English because I had once seen an advert for California in which a woman in a bikini passed a volleyball from her right hand to her left and said, ‘I just like no one else,’ and I thought if I could learn English I could go to California and become that woman, wearing a bikini, passing my volleyball from my right hand to my left hand and liking no one. And then I began learning English, watched the advert in English, and realised the Kazakh translation was all wrong. Still, the sunshine looked good. Mrs Aliyeva had never been to California, or any other state of America. She had not even been to England. She had watched a TV adaptation of a Jane Austen novel in which a man jumped into a lake, and learnt English in order to read the one Austen book she could find in the village, a battered copy of Sense and Sensibility, favourite passages of which she read aloud to us for forty-five minutes every week. We played cards and smoked, allowing her world of gardens and marriages and financial predicaments to float into the background.
That Thursday it was my job to keep one ear open for ten words we could use in the subsequent fifteen minutes allotted conversation time, so it was only me who noticed when Mrs Aliyeva’s droning had stopped. It couldn’t be time for conversation; I had only written down ‘consolation’, ‘exigence’ and ‘propriety’, and, besides, I was about to play something approaching a full house. When I looked up, Mrs Aliyeva’s right cheek was flat on the opened book, a thin line of drool falling from her mouth onto the pages. After everyone else had clocked on and left, I stayed and watched the shadows that fell on her face from a flood of fantasies: all those tiny wincing movements, the slight flickering in her eyelids, the play of a smile and then a grimace over that wet, slumped mouth, the residue of dreams in which men in dripping white shirts lifted her out of womb-like puddles. I pinched her arm until she stuttered awake, and then left.
Mrs Aliyeva might have been the first or she might not have been. An old woman falling asleep on an old book did not make news, not even here, and while there were concerned murmurs about someone’s father’s afternoon nap being an hour earlier and thirty minutes too long, or someone’s grandmother falling face first into her soup, no one thought it was anything at all until the bus driver. This was two weeks, maybe three, after Mrs Aliyeva. He slept through a red light at nine in the morning, killing the driver of the car he hit and five of his own passengers, including one baby. The bus driver survived; when questioned, he said all he could remember was a dream of cats in chef’s hats delivering his eggs.
A strange winter. On the way to the bakery you’d see men in black coats crumple to the floor, or old women falling over their trolleys in the supermarket. Twice when I was minding the shop Mrs Karimova fell asleep while counting out her coins, and I had to rifle through her purse myself, then drag her snoring body to the back. When my mother came downstairs, stepping over Mrs Karimova for the second time, she crossed herself and kissed her rosary, muttering, ‘That’ll show the old bitch.’ It wasn’t clear what my mother believed, something to do with the sinners and the blessed, but her immunity so far probably had more to do with her age than her moral purity; by this stage, no one under sixty had been afflicted. A permutation of the flu, people thought: some new strain from Russia. There were reports of vomiting, migraines, amnesia that lasted for days. The first time Mrs Karimova awoke on the floor of the shop she dusted herself down and walked out without saying a word; the second time, she took a seat, called me by her daughter’s name, and asked if I’d remembered to place a handful of dried cranberries in Geniévre’s cage.
And then the age range of the afflicted began to fall. There was talk of prostitutes passed out and drooling over some john’s cock, schoolteachers asleep at their desks, their faces covered in thick, black illustrations of body parts and bodily functions, police officers struck down and then beaten halfway through an interrogation with some minor, now missing, drug dealer. No one under fifty, under forty, under thirty – then Nuri . When he got back from the hospital I was at the shop, stocking shelves with lentils, and he made me sit on a chair and listen. He said that when he was asleep he had felt a snail crawling from his chin to his crown, felt the cold, moist slither and the tiny rough tongue ripping away at the pores of his face. It had stopped just beyond the bridge of his nose and retracted into itself and then stayed there, balancing in the gap between his left and right eyebrow – a cold, hard, blind third eye – and he had felt it get heavier and heavier until it seemed as though the shell was made of obsidian, that it would drill down through his skin and skull and into soft grey matter where the snail would resume filing down fragments of his cells and absorbing them. It hadn’t been a dream, he said, or it had been more than a dream; he could still feel that tongue with all its minuscule teeth gripping and ripping, and the thought of falling under again filled him with dread. As soon as the casts were off, he would be leaving town.
I began to work at staying awake. In the daytime I sat behind the till and drank coffee, sometimes just melting spoonfuls of granules into mud on my tongue, and at night I sipped on vodka mixed with energy drink until every bar closed. Four hours, then three, then two, until the streets were mine, and nothing saw me crawl into bed or out again. I let the pulse of techno through earphones propel me through the movements of tasks, stacking shelves with tinned fruit and weighing bags of almonds like an automaton, and block out upstairs’ fights: Nuri’s roars that he could do as he liked, mother’s screams that the shop came first, that God would protect us, that his father could see him now and was opening his hand flat to give some sense. On a Sunday when mother was at church I felt the earphones plucked out and it was as if I was emerging from deep under water.
‘Aly,’ my brother said. The straps of his black rucksack were taut against his shoulders, a grey hat pulled tight over his head, covering the spot at his brow where the snail had crawled inside its own shell and become as dense as a collapsed star. ‘It’s time,’ he said, ‘come with me.’ I stared at him and blinked, lifted up a tin of black-eyed beans and put it back down again. I wanted so much to get on the bike but the thought of making any movement that was more than lifting the tin of beans seemed impossible. I thought of mother returning from Mass to find the shelf half-stacked and I started shaking my head from left to right. I couldn’t stop. When Nuri left I was still staring, blinking, shaking my head.
His departure was the start of a wave that gutted whole blocks of houses and pulled the shutters down on four grocers and two pharmacies (mother, of course, took this as a sign that true faith and better prices had enabled her to beat off the competition, choosing to ignore the dwindling number of customers through our door). Each evening that week I trudged through the streets, now muted and bleached by snow and ice, to a bar where I would meet a friend for their final drink before Almaty, or Moscow, or Istanbul, and then seek out the sallow-faced boys in the back of the club for their worst stuff, whatever would keep me going and cause me to feel as little as possible. It became Thursday, and the turn of the neighbour’s boy, Grygor. I expected to find a crowd of blurry-faced boys warming up the night, gathering volume and sweat, and thought I’d be able to smile and sip from a distance then retreat to somewhere with old drunks snoring next to empty vodka glasses, but when I got to the bar it was empty except for an elderly man nursing a pint in a booth and Grygor. When I asked if I was early he laughed.
‘I’ve heard from your brother,’ Grygor said, which I found difficult to believe; I hadn’t heard from Nuri. Had they been friends? I blinked; my mind was thick with fog. When I looked up from my drink and into the face in front of me, its identity slipped away and then emerged again, bringing with it the memory of warm hands soaking through to skin, clashing teeth in the back of someone’s car, falling into darkness while the face grunted and ghosted in the blue glimmer of streetlight through the window. Leaving before light. Not looking in his mother’s eyes when she came for milk and eggs.
‘I’m leaving for Astana. Come with me. Nuri says there’s a job for me, I could support you, we could…’
My laugh echoed around the bar, waking up the man in the booth. I had never fucked Grygor sober.
‘Aly,’ he said, a slow quiet in his voice, like something kicked and left to freeze in peace behind a pine in the woods. ‘What’s it going to take? Your mother to fall under and not wake up? A sleeping driver to smash you against your own shop front? Look around you. You and me, we’re the last ones.’ His arms scythed through the expanses of the bar, and his voice had caught something, strengthened, reared itself up. ‘Your brother asked me to stay and keep an eye on you, but I can’t… this town was always dying, we just needed something like this to wake us up.’
A forced snort of laughter at his own joke.
‘I’m leaving on Saturday. Think about it.’
Grygor left and I stayed, stretching out eyelids and knocking back vodka mixed with coffee powder from the jar I kept in the pocket of my long black coat, until the lights went down and I struck out in the snow to the club. Throughout the town were line upon line of dark windows, like gaping sockets scooped free of eyes, punctuated by the occasional flicker – the sign of a life hanging on because that is what it had done for forty, or fifty, or sixty years. Grygor had sneered about the likes of Mrs Karimova and Mrs Aliyeva, who had shrieked their protests when the authorities came to help with relocations, but I understood: a body needed a place to die just as it needed a place to live; it might as well be here. When I got to the club there was nothing except a boarded-up door, and a shiver crept through the layers of my coat and gripped my spine. I didn’t have any numbers for a dealer. Sleep would come for me when it chose and I would be sprawled out over the till, soft and open. When I blinked, the reflection of the streetlight off the banks of snow formed the shape of a snail crawling across my vision, appearing and disappearing as negative space, the ghost of something seen then wiped clean from memory, inching closer and closer.
‘Where are you, Nuri?’
‘Not far, only Astana.’
‘What are they saying it is? What do they know?’
‘No more than you or me, not really. There’s talk of radiation, gas, something toxic in the food supply. Some people are saying it’s engineered by the government, to quash dissent.’
‘Right. That Mrs Aliyeva corrupting the minds of the youth with her nineteenth century romances.'
His deep laughter rippled through the phone’s speaker, but when he spoke again there was a heaviness in his voice.
‘I don’t know, Aly, there might be something in it. This isn’t happening anywhere else. I mean, if you wanted to destroy a town… And it’s not like the government has ever known what to do with us. Look, just get on a coach, I’ll meet you whenever.’
‘And mother? You know she’ll never leave the shop.’
‘Has she fallen asleep?’
‘I don’t think so. Still calling this a plague on the guilty. I don’t know how she can, when babies have died – ’
‘And her own son fell asleep.’
‘You’re a sinner through and through, though. I think Tatyana can attest to that.’
That laugh again. I missed hearing it rattle through the walls, missed the ease with which I could summon it from his throat.
‘Come here, I mean it. I can provide for you.’
‘Why do men keep saying that to me? Did you tell Grygor to propose to me?’
‘Grygor? No, of course not. I just meant –’
‘Why have you been speaking to him? You don’t call your own sister, mother has no idea where you’ve been. She’s going mad. I can’t believe you left me with her.’
‘I asked you to come. I’m asking you now.’
‘I think we both know I was an afterthought. You’d been looking for an excuse to fuck off for years.’
‘I’ll let you know when I'm the last one, when the shop’s shut and mother’s dead. I'll be here, Nuri, with my eyes open, and I'll see it all. And I'll let you know.’
When people weren’t leaving they were dying: in cars, in beds, on streets which the ice had hardened and sharpened. Soon, ours was the only shop open for miles around, and we received visits at odd times from new faces: confused old men who had trekked through the snow, women who, upon reaching the shop, expressed disappointment at the limited range of dried fruit and chocolate. They stayed for longer than usual, reading aloud the ingredients lists on the back of dried sauce mixes, or trying to engage in conversations about the health properties of sage. Often, they fell asleep, and when I shook them awake they told me in tiny, soft voices that all they wanted was to sleep, it was all they could think about.
To keep out the encroaching white fog, I developed a strategy of focusing on the appearance of one thing – a crisp packet, a bar of chocolate, one of mother’s little painted statues of the Virgin – staring in turn at each of its edges and lines and colours. I was doing this, sitting behind the counter with a single almond in front of me, when the bell of the shop rang and someone entered. A voice called out, slow and muffled.
‘I want an orange.’
I looked up from the almond and stared at where the voice had come from: an old woman, wrapped in dark shawls. As she walked in tiny increments towards the till I saw that her feet were bare, the ends of her toes red and black with frostbite, and then, as she came closer, I was surprised to see that it was Mrs Karimova. I had assumed that she was dead.
‘An orange,’ she repeated, even slower, towards the floor.
I gestured at a basket of greying apples. They had been there for almost two weeks. Mrs Karimova did not see my hand, and as she crept back along the aisle of tinned vegetables, clicking her tongue, she whispered:
‘Mangoes. The smell of sunshine. Peaches. A pineapple! What a shop. A wonderful shop.’
She stopped and swivelled, her grotesque feet bunched like bony fists.
‘But not a single orange.’
She turned again so that she almost faced me, the line of her gaze just missing mine, and then she continued – a slow, strange pirouette – until her eyes faced mine directly and I saw that they stared straight through me without a flicker of recognition.
Mrs Karimova was asleep.
Her eyes jolted backwards in her head and she started shivering, arms crossed and hands gripping then slipping from her sharp shoulders, then working their way upwards to her face, clawing and scratching as her mouth hung open, showing yellowed teeth and dark gaps, the decaying abyss of her throat. A gasp, then a long, high wail that seemed to freeze in the air and become a fact of the room until mother came downstairs and began to beat Mrs Karimova with a broom. When I pulled it off her, she stopped muttering about the devil and sank to the floor, crying. She looked so small, and so tired. I gave mother the almond, which she gripped with two fingers from each hand and nibbled tiny fragments from, then heated some milk and honey for the two women to take upstairs. The first time I checked on them, mother was wrapping Mrs Karimova's feet in rags soaked in warm water; the second time, they were curled up together on mother’s bed.
The next day Mrs Karimova went back out into the snow, and mother didn’t come downstairs. I sat at the counter, sipping instant coffee, alone under the weight of the snores that mumbled through the floorboards. When I blinked, tiny worms of light clustered into shoals over my eyes, leaving black, wriggling absences in their wake. I tried to steady myself by staring at the hard horizon of the floor, but my head lurched towards it, my spine wanting to unfurl across its flatness. I pushed against the counter with one hand, picking up my phone with the other. The hand kept slipping, calling faceless names, until I swallowed air, held it and found Nuri., The phone rang.
A long beep; an exhale.
‘Hi.’ I whispered into the empty, buzzing space. ‘It's just me. Mother’s asleep, so I guess she's on her way to hell…’
There was nothing warm on the other side, nothing giving back. I had been full of words but they were drifting away as I held the phone, watching my breath freeze into cloud.
‘Do you remember when we were kids? You would look at me and point at your eyes and that’s all I’d need, locking onto you, hanging there. All the time, over breakfast and dinner, in the car, at church. Mother hated it, thought we were fighting. And I guess we were and we weren’t. We got so good, Nuri. We got so good. Nothing else mattered. Everything stopped. You stared and stared and I stared back.’
When father died, that month when mother dressed us in silence. When the TV was sold. Always, we had each other’s limitless pupils.
‘I learnt to control my breathing, to focus on the very centre of each pupil, and I started to win. Do you remember? I started to win every time.’
A surge of power, that moment of witnessing his eyelids flickering. And then his laugh: a high, twisting ribbon until adolescence, a deep, uncontrollable sprawl afterwards. Always filling space, reaching out.
‘I guess I won again, Nuri. Whatever this was, I won it. So come back. It’s over. Everyone’s gone. I won. Come back.’
I kept the phone next to my ear, hearing my breath amplified through the speakers, until it was time to make more coffee and wait through the darkness, the patches of light, the darkness again, the light, dragging dry eyelids with an index finger. As I waited, the milk soured, the apples softened, and patches of teal mould bloomed on the corners of sliced bread, moistening the plastic wrap, and though I sipped coffee and more coffee I felt my mind growing heavy, only capable of holding one clear thought. The memory of the vibrations of my brother’s motorbike. I waited to hear them through the walls of the shop, louder and stronger than mother’s snores, and as I held on to that thought I kept my eyes fixed on the handle of the front door which would turn when my brother’s hand would turn it. But mother’s snores became louder, and even as I tried to hold the sound of the motorbike in my mind and the image of the handle dead centre in my sight, I felt myself getting pulled under by the monstrous rhythm of mother’s snoring, the hush and crash of the waves of some dark, terrible ocean, felt everything getting heavier and heavier until it seemed so much easier to let go, to leave the shop behind and drift out into the cold night and leave that behind too, float out across Kazakhstan, Mongolia, across the Sea of Japan and over the deep waters of the Pacific to bikinis, and oranges, and the black spiral of a volleyball hovering then sinking into the space between my eyebrows.
Trahearne Falvey is currently travelling, writing and failing to learn Spanish in Mexico, but calls Brighton, England home. His short fiction has appeared in Algae and Mycelia, and he is on Instagram @trahearne.f and Twitter @TrahearneF.