1. The young man is haunted by visions of his own death.
Pictures on every wall, torn from books and newspapers. A young Vietnamese girl, stripped of clothing and dignity, skin seared by napalm, runs in terror. A Buddhist monk, dignity intact, clothed in flame. Bodies in mass graves. Medical pictures of gunshot wounds, entry and exit. More and more, they cover every available space, overlapping each other as if vying for attention.
The young man sits naked amidst the carnage, more books and pictures littering the floor around him. He is eating beans mechanically from a can, his red-rimmed eyes focused sharply on the TV screen. The VCR is piping shaky replays of executions, a bullet to the base of the neck, a stoning, a hanging. He has an erection, but will not interrupt his meal to attend to it. He will do that later, one hand on his penis, the other on the freeze-frame.
2. Innocence is such a fragile thing.
Picture the young woman, not yet married, working hard at domesticity, preparing a tiny scrap of chicken breast in the tiny kitchen. A moment's distraction and the blade is drawn across the heel of her hand, drawing a perfectly etched line of blood. She watches as the line blurs, the blood flows, makes a trail down her wrist to her elbow and drip-drips into the sink.
She selects another knife from the rack and, with a look of concentration creasing her face, draws it across her palm, making another line parallel to the first. Drip, drip, drip.
With infinite care and patience she makes further incisions, each parallel to the last and as close as she can make them to a centimetre apart, along her forearm until she is wearing a long red glove and the chicken is spoiled. Finally the pain speaks to her and she wraps her arm in a towel before attempting to puke, heaving dryly into the sink. She will sleep for much of the rest of the day.
3. He lingers, not wanting to commit himself to any possible future.
He has not slept for two days, will not sleep until exhaustion takes the decision out of his hands.
An alarm clock sounds, alerting him to the need for movement. Still he lingers, not wanting to commit himself to any possible future. But duty calls. He dresses with whatever items of clothing are nearest amongst the junk on the floor, not taking his eyes from the screen long enough to realise that his socks are mismatched and his T-shirt is inside-out.
Slipping dirty, unlaced trainers onto his feet, he switches off the TV and VCR then lets himself out of the room. It is a ten-minute walk to the hospital and he makes it just in time to avoid another confrontation with his supervisor.
The locker room is almost empty as he slips his porter's jacket on.
4. It's hard to lose yourself when you live in one room.
Her arm hurt like hell, but it was a cool pain. It was past midnight and she was wide-awake, buzzing. Gingerly she peeled the towel from her arm. It stuck in places, glued to her skin with her drying blood. The sensation was painful but it excited her, making her breathe more heavily.
She turned on the TV but there was nothing playing that could hold her still. She paced from one end of the small room out to the other, where a curtain hid the kitchen. The knife was where she had left it, the dried blood mimicking rust, mocking the purity of the steel. There were drips and drops of blood across the work surfaces, and on the cracked linoleum of the floor. She set to work cleaning it up, disinfecting any surface that bore blood, as meticulous as a forensic scientist. She worked carefully, protecting her left arm to prevent further spillages.
It was fully two hours before she was happy with her efforts.
5. It is easier to observe life than to participate.
Busy, work, do, don't do, clean, empty, work work work.
Busy night at the emergency room. He watched as an old man in the waiting room died, sitting undiscovered by staff for maybe three hours. People bustled and bawled and bled around him, unaware of the depth of the dead man's sleep.
The young man clocked out for his coffee break and sat next to the corpse, holding its hand and talking quietly to it.
He cut short his break, the results of a road accident drawing him away from the old man's side.
6. You can never really wash the blood away.
It was getting light out, the sky streaking with grey. She was fretting, waiting for the time when the streets started to bustle with normal, everyday things, the anchors on reality. Pacing and cleaning alternately.
To kill time she went to the communal bathroom at the end of the hall and took a long, long bath. The water turned pink.
7. Photography is a negative hobby.
His shift ended at 6 a.m. He sat in a bus shelter for a little while, riffling through a handful of photographs he had stolen from the pathology lab. A step-by-step autopsy, start to finish. He was happy with his night's work. He put them carefully back into their folder and walked quickly home.
8. Sleep is a rehearsal for death.
The girl woke with a start and shivered. Somebody just walked over my grave, she thought.
The towel she had wrapped around her lacerated arm was stained red and had cemented itself to her skin once more. She tried to peel it back, but it clung and opened up a wound, making it bleed again. She felt nauseous.
Wrapping her bathrobe around her, she walked on jelly legs to the door, aiming for the bathroom.
9. God does not play dice.
He stumbled up the badly lit stairs, dog-tired but happy. On the second floor, the floor below his own, he walked into a young woman, nearly knocking her from her feet.
She whimpered. He stepped back, unsure how to deal with the situation. She wore a pink bathrobe, and cradled one arm in the other. There was a bloodstained rag around her arm. She was looking at him with deer eyes, startled. He looked again at her arm, easier than meeting her eyes.
"You've hurt yourself," he said.
10. Doors open.
She looked down at her arm.
"It's nothing," she said. "I cut myself, that's all."
They both focused on the towel, neither sure of what they should say, neither quite able to move on. Finally he broke the silence.
"I should go, I, um..."
She nodded. "Yes, I have to, ah..."
They stood there for another minute, the silence stifling.
Just at the point where she thought she might scream, he said, "You should have that seen to. It looks bad."
Cautiously raising his eyes, he ventured, "I could, um, look, if you like. I work at the hospital. I mean, if you want me to. It's up to you."
She nodded again. "It hurts."
She leaned back against her door, and it swung open, nearly making her fall. She stumbled inside, and without thinking he followed.
Slumping on the sofa, she offered her arm up to him. He was frightened by her helplessness.
11. Is there a doctor in the house?
He knelt at her bare feet, and with uncertain hands took her arm. With the gentleness of fear he examined the towel, then went to her kitchen, returning with a bowl of warm water. Again he knelt at her feet, placing the bowl beside her, and lowered her arm into the water.
"Um... my name's David." He looked at her, but her bathrobe had fallen open slightly, revealing one small breast. He looked at the floor. She said nothing.
David began to gently part cloth from flesh, as dry blood was replaced with fresh. The water turned crimson. She moaned slightly as the damage was exposed. He gave a low whistle. "You did this?"
With gentle fingers he probed the wounds, measuring, gauging, mapping.
"Sarah..." she breathed, "My name, it's Sarah."
He looked up, his eyes resting on her naked breast. Sarah followed his gaze, did nothing to cover herself.
"You should have stitches in those cuts... Sarah."
12. Searching for the Source of Denial.
David looked back at her arm.
"You did this on purpose." He ran the tip of his index finger along the cuts again, their edges now starting to pucker and whiten.
"That's so cool, so, like, for real. Did it hurt a lot?"
"Not at first." She shivered as the whorls of his fingerprint dragged softly against a loose flap of skin. "But it did after. It does now, David."
"You need stitches, Sarah."
They used each other's names self-consciously, as if they were trying to force a connection.
"No stitches. No hospital, really. I don't want that. Do you really think it's cool?"
The cuts were seeping and weeping, blood and clear stuff. He nodded.
"They'll get infected. Why no hospital?"
Sarah tapped her head with her forefinger. "They'd lock me up. That's what they do to girls who hurt themselves. So no hospital, I'll keep them clean."
David nodded. "I'll go to the drugstore, they open soon, I'll get you some things to sort it out. Have you done it before?"
Sarah shrugged. "Maybe."
"Will you do it again?"
She shrugged again. "Maybe. Don't know."
He spoke hesitantly. "If you do... can I... um... watch?"
13. Bedside Manners.
David rushed back from the drugstore, ran up the stairs. Her door was still ajar and she sat where he had left her ten minutes previously.
She looked around the room for a few seconds, confused, trying to fix the sound. David moved into her line of vision. "Oh, David. Where did you go? I think I fell asleep."
David bustled around trying to look efficient, laying out his purchases on the floor at her feet.
"I got antiseptic wipes to clean your arm, this spray, it's antiseptic too, they use it in the hospital. And these butterfly strips, they work like stitches, and some bandages, and a sling..."
He took her arm gently and examined her wounds, then ripped open one of the little silver foil sachets with his teeth. She watched as he shook out the white paper tissue and gently wiped it across the first cut.
"Shit!" Sarah snatched her arm back, wincing. "That fucking hurts!"
Patiently he took her arm back. "It's the antiseptic. It stings, but it'll stop your arm getting infected."
"I don't care, you're not using it on me."
"I'll try the spray then, it only stings a bit, but it makes your arm go yellow. Look." He popped the cap on the aerosol and held her arm while he covered it in the yellow mist.
"That stings more than a bit." Sarah was sulking now.
"The worst part's over, honest. Now the fiddly bit..."
Tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth, face contorted in concentration, he applied the sticky strips of film to the cuts, pulling the edges of the wounds together as best he could, then finished off with gauze and bandage as he had seen the hospital nurses do.
14. Solitude, not Loneliness.
Alone later in his room, he thought of Sarah, of her perfect, self-inflicted mutilation. Not bothering to switch on the TV, he slid into bed fully clothed and slept.
15. Solitude and Loneliness.
Sarah felt more alone now than before she had met David, although she wasn't sure she liked him. She resented him because she wasn't sure he wanted her, and that depressed and disturbed her. Reaching for the remote she switched on the TV, not bothering to take any notice of the screen. She needed him to want her. She wanted him to need her.
For the first time since she was twelve, Sarah did not want to be left alone.
16. Menage a Deux.
David woke late, feeling uneasy. The girl, Sarah... He jumped out of bed and looked around the floor for whatever clothing was least dirty. There was no way he was going to work today, he was too late anyway. And he wanted to see Sarah.
Rummaging under the bed, he pulled out a Polaroid camera, the aborted result of a long-lapsed plan to photograph car wrecks and their victims. There was still a film in it. He put the camera into a nondescript bag and went down to Sarah's door. He tapped and, hearing no answer, swung the door open.
Sarah was sprawled on the couch, her robe spread open. David stared at her nakedness before it occurred to him that there might be something wrong. The bandage he had applied so carefully was stained red, but not badly so. He could tell from the rise and fall of her breasts that she was alive, but...
"Enjoying the view?"
David had been so intent on watching her breaths that he had not noticed her waking up.
"I, um... uh..."
"Well come on then, get it over with if that's what you want." She settled herself a little more comfortably on the couch and opened her legs. "Just mind you don't knock my arm, it hurts like shit."
17. Fear of Commitment.
David shook his head, backed towards the door. "No, I never... um, sorry, I, um..."
Sarah gave him a look of pure scorn. "Are you fucking gay or something? What's wrong with me? You're no fucking oil painting yourself you fucking bastard, you fucking shit, you... you fuck..." Her limited vocabulary of invective used up, Sarah fell back on the language of vulnerability and manipulation -- tears.
David halted his retreat, stepped forward and hesitantly stroked her hair.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'll f... do it if you want me to, I just never... done it before. Not for real. Sorry."
Sarah gathered her robe around herself, wincing as she used her damaged arm.
"Piss off," she spat. "Nobody gets two chances, I was doing you a favour anyway. Do something useful, make some coffee or something. I'm tired."
Not knowing what else to do, David did as he was told, clattering around the unfamiliar kitchen looking for familiar icons. It gave him strength to be carrying out a task so mundane, so within his capabilities.
Coffee made, David carried the two steaming mugs through to Sarah. She was still sulking, curled into a ball on the couch, cradling her arm. He put her coffee down within her reach, and sat down next to her. She drew her legs in closer, shying away from him.
After minutes of uncomfortable silence, she sat up and stared at him, as if looking at him afresh.
"I know what turns you on," she stated accusingly. "That's why you wouldn't do me... Yes... I knew it wasn't me. It bloody wasn't anything wrong with me, I knew that."
David stared, bewildered. Sarah floundered to her feet, robe flapping open and unchecked, and went into the kitchen, emerging a moment later with a carving knife. She put it down on the couch between them and sat, looking at him intently.
"That's it, isn't it?" she asked. "That's what gets you off."
David shrugged. His eyes were tracking down her bare breasts, belly and beyond. Sarah followed his eyes, grinned, took up the knife. David was transfixed. Knowing she had already won, Sarah slipped her arms from the robe and transferred the knife to her bandaged left hand.
"This is the sharpest knife I have, it's what I cut my arm with. Look..."
She drew the blade slowly across her good palm, pressing down harder than she need have done, eyes and hand moistening simultaneously. Blood formed a pool in the well of her palm before it dripped and splashed across her thighs and stained her pubic hair.
"You want me now, David, don't you?" Her voice shook slightly. David was breathing heavily now.
Sarah traced the blade up past her wrist and, with her eyes on David's face, sliced again, this time into her forearm. They both whimpered simultaneously, but for different reasons.
"Does that turn you on, David? Are you hard yet?" David whimpered again, and nodded. "Do you want me now, David?"
She sliced again, further up. David nodded and clutched at his groin.
Sarah struggled to her feet, blood now running freely from her arm and coating her belly and legs. For good measure she smeared a handful over her breasts.
"Yes, you fucking want me now, pervert. Well you can fuck right off, 'cause you're not having me. I'm going to take a bath. Let yourself out." She pulled her robe around herself as she spoke and crossed the hall to the communal bathroom. Bewildered, David slumped down onto the couch.
When David woke it took him a few moments to place where he was. Sarah's room... without Sarah...
He didn't know how long he'd been sleeping. It didn't seem long, but the splatters and drips of blood that Sarah had spread around the room had dried almost black. David rubbed his eyes and stood up. She'd gone to take a bath. Bathroom... across the hall. Picking up his bag, David went through the door, crossed the hall. The bathroom door was unlocked.
Sarah's eyes were open. Her skin, where it wasn't submersed, had that particular translucent, porcelain quality of the over-anaemic. The rest was viewed through a crimson filter. The water was cold, as was she.
David examined her, then took the Polaroid from the bag and photographed her from every angle, shivering all the while.
When the film was exhausted, he undressed.