issue 36: may - june 2003 

 | author bio | Sugar

novel extract
Iain Bahlaj

The phone wakes me up and sunlight almost blinds me. I shield my eyes, and it's my father talking.
      'Would you like to come over, Scott?' he says in his polite voice, but trying his best to sound natural.
      'Nah, I'm busy, Dad,' I say. 'I mean, I told Dave that I would maybe see him today to help him work on his car.'
      'Well I'll come over then,' he says. 'I'll give you a hand.'
      'Nah, I'll be out,' I tell him. 'You'd better not.'
      This goes on for a few minutes, and he starts to get annoyed, which makes me nervous, and I imagine how his face looks. I keep imagining Louise standing next to him, encouraging him to try, maybe saying things like 'ih's yir son', since she talks to my father like she really talks. In the end I give in and tell him I'll be over.
      Then I realise that I don't know the day, so I ask him. This annoys him.
      'It's Sunday,' he tells me. 'Sunday.'
      I say 'Mass' and then 'bye' and I put the phone down and try to shut my eyes but when I do the dream becomes clear and precise and an energy seems to be growing in my arms but I can't fight it.
      So I light a Marlboro and the early morning nicotine makes me light headed.

The dream: I'm lying on the garage floor, the car behind me, engine running, exhaust fumes rising to the ceiling. Dad's curved knife is in my hand and the walls of the garage are black; next to me a small boy with blond hair gazes at the rafters above us.
      Without standing, I move until my body intersects his north-south to east-west, like I'm holding him down for a wrestling count. I support myself on my elbows, only lightly touching him.
      I look into his face, and he's still dreamily looking at the beams. I take the knife, which gleams from an unseen light, and place it on the boy's right cheek, which is white, soft and unspoiled.
      He starts to cry lightly, tears running from the outside corners of each eye, down his cheeks, darkening the grey floor. Slowly I press into the skin as the boy emits short, almost inaudible screams.
      I look at him and for a moment I try to remember something, a feeling of some sort.
      But I don't.

On the way downstairs I pass the woman. She smiles and asks if I have any washing to give her yet. I say no and pause, trying to remember her name, and she says 'Irene' bashfully, and I look at the acne scars on her cracked face and repeat 'Irene', and then she tells me that I always forget. Every time.
      I get into the car and sit for a few minutes trying to decide which music to listen to, while a man struggles to keep his dog under control. The dog growls and stares in my direction. I decide on 'This Magic Moment', and drive the car the short distance to the Asda car park. I walk through the automatic doors to the tobacconist, where I ask for eighty Marlboro and the girl smiles and tells me that they're bad for my health. She then asks how much my jacket cost– it’s like one Liam Gallagher wears, apparently – and I tell her.
      'Loads ih money, ih?' she says, her voice betraying some bitterness.
      I don't reply, and she hands me my cigarettes. On the way out, someone who went to school with me goes past, but luckily they don't see me. The automatic doors seem to stay shut for an abnormal amount of time as I approach them.
      Back in the car I put on 'Unfinished Sympathy' and head for Smeaton.

I'm sitting in Dave's house and since he's talked about girls from school who haven't seen me around anywhere at pubs and clubs, and laughed about it then told me all about one time he fucked Susan in the not-too-distant past, we move on to a different subject: a documentary which Dave caught by accident one day about the slaughter of the Kurds in Iraq. This is my cue to join the conversation, adding my own unique contribution to Dave's description of the Kurdish children lying gassed in the streets.
      'There was a video from the Middle East,' I tell him, 'a guy getting shot or something.'
      'Aye,' he says, excited, leaning forward. 'Ah 've seen sumhin like it before at ma pal's, Faces Of Death.'
      'I'll get you it if you like,' I tell him.
      'Where fae like?' Dave smiles again and sits back.
      'Just somebody I know, and that.'
      'Aye? Somebody thit pirates?'
      'Get mi it, then
      I say I will, then ask if it's okay to play the piano for a while. He tells me to keep it quiet and I do. I play 'Asleep'. Dave pretends he's interested, then changes the subject back to the videos.
      'Ah seen this wan wi a guy giein issel a blow-job.'
      I start laughing and he joins in.
      'Ih goat a rib removed or sumbin, yi should see it.'
      'I'd probably be able to get it.'
      'Ah've goat it,' he says. 'Yi want ti take it wi yi?'
      I tell him no and I look at him as he assures me that he's not a faggot, he only thinks it's funny. He says he's heard about a Red Hot & Dutch video featuring a girl fisting another, tying her to the bed and whipping her and stuff in that vein. But he doesn't suppose I'll be able to get that, and the answer is maybe not, but then again.
      As I'm leaving, stepping into the car, he smiles at me and says he never thought I'd know anybody like that. I say 'why not?' and he just smiles and shrugs then says 'ah dunno’.
      'Repeat Failure' starts. Dave nods at the CD player, grimaces, and asks me what is that shit I'm listening to. I tell him nothing, then drive away.

My flat is cold, the way I like it. It is also empty and quiet. The only noise comes from the road and, on weekdays, the school. Since I moved in the heater has been idle. My walls feature pictures of models from the pages of various magazines I used to buy, such as Loaded and FHM. Models like Cameron Diaz, Hope Sandoval, Fiona Apple, Edie Sedgwick. Helena Christiansen is prominent; I like her eyes. She stands in a weird dress in a sort of outlaw pose, the word 'Istante' printed underneath her.
      I'm lying on my bed, listening to screaming from a room somewhere in the building. My stomach aches with hunger but as I walk towards the kitchen layers of my own flesh push against my body, and I feel sick and disgusted. Songs of Praise flickers on the TV screen as I devour a Pot Noodle followed by three Mars bars and a vanilla milkshake bought from McDonald's a while back. As the food slides into my body I get the usual guilt, but I always need a reason to stick to a diet, and at the moment there is none.
      Mike phones.
      'Ir yi cummin doon?' he says, sounding impatient.
      I ask him why.
      'Fir the videos fir yir pal n that, thit yi told mi ih wantit.'
      I tell him that I'll leave immediately.
      I put my jacket on and walk down the stairs holding the remnants of my meal, which I plunge into one of the eight grey council bins standing in rows behind the laundry room.
      'Is that you?' a woman's voice asks as I drop the rubbish in, but I don't answer.

The car glides down Overton Road past my old school, where I take a right and head towards the hospital. Towards Chinatown the area changes visibly; graffiti everywhere, litter and broken glass scattered in the park. I stop in the hospital car park and walk over the grassy area, ignoring some shouts from a group of young girls.
      'Aboot fuckin time,' Mike says as I walk down his path. It's only been five minutes.
      'Ah've goat thum, they're up the stairs.'
      His head jerks to the side. I walk past him into the small corridor. 'Alright?' I say to Lee who runs and grabs my knees, but he just smiles at me innocently until Mike pulls him away by the arm and says he'll join me in a minute.
      I walk into Lee's room. The videos are stacked almost level with my chest, partially obscuring a Teletubbies poster. I count ten copies of The Executioner and ten of Faces Of Death and then Mike shouts 'what di yi think?' and I say 'I don't know'.
      'Keepin thum for Gerard,' he tells me. 'Yi seen thum?'
      'Heard of them. In the paper.'
      'What the fuck ir yi laughin it?'
      'Nothing.' I try to stop smiling. 'Who's laughing?'
      'There's some darkie guy,' he says, 'bungee-jumpin, jumps wi the cord or whatever n it's too long, fuckin bang.' He slams his hands together and smiles.
      'What else?'
      'An execution in America, gas.'
      'Yeah?' I pick up one of the tapes and turn it around. I scan down the pile, going down on one knee to pull out a Titanic pirate, its cover a photocopy of the front page of Empire magazine.
      'How many wis yir pal wantin?' Mike asks.
      I tell him I don't know for sure, maybe a couple of each.
      'Yi goat the money?' he asks.
      I say I'll get it to him once the videos are sold. He reluctantly accepts and I get ready to leave. Mike tells me that the next work we'll be doing is in a few days, or maybe tomorrow, and I tell him that everything is fine no matter what time it is.
      'It'll probably be the morn,' he tells me.
      Just before I leave I hear Shirley screaming obscenities, followed by Lee screaming, followed by Karen asking Shirley to calm down.
      'Fuckin Christ!' Mike rolls his eyes. 'Some fuckin life, ih?' His voice changes to a whisper. 'Still on fir the morn, though, ih?'
      I want to tell him he should look out for the kid a bit more, but instead I nod and then leave, feeling a little something I can't quite describe to myself. As I walk, the pain from the man in the park the other night forces me to alter the distance between my legs. I start to think of Mass.

The kneeling throughout begins to hurt my knees but I smile and try to use it to mask the other pain. All the time I'm looking at Christ's feet, at the blood slowly dripping from the angry red wounds with the slight hint of metallic silver peering through.
      The priest cracks a joke and people laugh politely and I'm starting to feel tired though I shouldn't be. Three babies cry. I notice a man as he swallows the Eucharist. I don't take the host. When we kneel for the last time I cushion my head with my arms, shut my eyes and try to think, but I can only think about Lee and his Teletubbies, and the videos currently lying in my car.
      An altar boy rings a bell at the wrong time. His face turns red and the other altar boys stare and smirk. The priest looks sympathetic and continues with his sermon. Something about the Third World and how God is thinking of the starving. Something about how we should try to help.

'Right, head for Glenrothes,' Mike says as he gets in, huffing and puffing like a large walrus. I'm listening to Elvis Costello sing 'Good Year For The Roses', the slide guitar making me feel warm and calm.
      'Christ!' Mike says. 'Fuckin ah telt you, ah fuckin telt yi!'
      He's angry about the money.
      I don't want to tell him yet again that Dave was away at dinner with Susan last night, that it would have been uncouth of my dear self to waltz into his romantic rendezvous and dump a couple of 'snuff films' down in front of him. But the shouting is drowning out the slide guitars so I turn the music off and tell him for a third time.
      'You gie mi the fuckin money, then,' he says.
      I laugh before telling him no, then I ask him how Gerard gets the videos and he says he orders them or gets them for friends.
      'Thir no the video-shoap legal wans,' he tells me when I inquire, 'these wans ir pirates.'
      He then tells me about another rich faggot he heard about from Gerard, a lawyer or a magistrate, he's not sure which, but a textbook closet case whichever way.
      'Ih likes guid lookin wans,' he tells me with a smile on his face. 'So you're oot ya fat bastard!'
      As we're passing the huge sunflowers on the outskirts of the town Mike tells me he got another letter from the council.
      'What about?' I ask.
      'What di yi think?'
      He shakes his head. 'Thi complained aboot noise.'
      'What kind of noise?'
      'Music too loud, Shirley wis playin Whitney Houston. Lee tae though. The ither week.'
      'Social workers?'
      'What happened?'
      'Lee hit Shirley wi a golf club.'
      I start to laugh. After a few seconds Mike loosens up and joins in.
      'No hard like, bit she telt um no tae do it, shi'd just gave um a row, shi telt um "you dinnae fuckin dae that", n shi'd pointed it um, and the wee cunt went n done it, hit her oan the leg.'
      'Yeah?' I'm still laughing. 'What did Shirley do?'
      'Battired um.
      He lights a Lambert & Butlers and stares out the window.
      We drive around a private estate, while Mike tries to work out which house it is. He says it isn't Gerard's anyway, he's only renting it for now. Finally we pull up outside a detached bungalow.
      'Mind, be awright wi um,' Mike tells me. He taps the dashboard three or four times, surveying the area, not listening to my voice say 'it isn't as if he's Kubrick'.
      I get out and walk towards the door, and Mike complains about something but I ignore him and ring the bell.
      'Come in,' a miserable looking guy says.
      He leads us to a games room which has a pool table and a large TV. A girl with blond hair is being fucked in the arse by a hairy guy. The guy who let us in goes and stands behind the camera, which is still running. The director guy, who must be Gerard, sits on the floor, level with the girl. He looks at the carpet, a completely bored expression on his face. Once the guy has come on her face - which, even to me, looks disgusting - they stop shooting and Gerard gets up from his position on the floor. Mike introduces us.
      'Hello,' he says, very polite.
      'Nice to meet you,' I say.
      The hairy guy leaves, along with the girl. Mike starts talking to Gerard, and I take my top off. Gerard smiles at me, a smile which Mike catches, a smile which changes his expression to one of disappointment.
      'Jesus,' Mike says, half to Gerard, half to me, 'you've pit oan weight ya fat cunt.'
      I don't say anything. Gerard laughs politely.
      Two guys come shuffling in, one all calm and collected and the other looking like he's expecting to be tortured, or even executed. Gerard winks to both of them and Mike smiles, and I sit and smoke, trying to blow rings. Gerard introduces me to the two. Stevie is the nervous one, Mark the confident one. These won't be their real names. I ask Gerard for my lines, joking, of course, and Gerard says 'just do Shakespeare' and Stevie laughs nervously.
      I sit down on the footstool and Gerard leans over. He has some lights set up. Just lamps without the shades, but they'll do, he says.
      'They'll do alright,' I tell him he's like my boxing coach or something, and he smiles and pats my face before walking the short distance to Stevie and Mark and telling them what he wants.

Afterwards I use tissues to wipe the semen off my back, but it stays sticky. I ask Gerard if I can take a shower, but he says 'you must be joking' and I'm not sure if he's serious or not.
      I get dressed and go through to the kitchen and drink some water straight from the tap, trying to get rid of the taste.
      As I'm gargling I notice a woman sitting down, staring at me.
      'Hi,' I say to her. 'You a pal of Gerard's?'
      She looks at me, her lip raised slightly like she's shocked. Then she smiles, amused. I gargle again, then spit. Mike comes through with Gerard, ending a private conversation by saying 'aye' two or three times in reply to Gerard's quiet, constant whisper.
      'Here,' Gerard says, handing me a brown envelope with my name in capitals, in blue ink.
      I open the envelope and count them, fifteen ten pound notes.
      'What about petrol money?' I say, ironically, but neither of them gets the irony.
      'Petrol money?' Mike says, looking at Gerard to see if he's laughing. 'The fat bastard wants petrol money! Jesus Christ! Whit's the world cummin ti?'

Mike talks about Gerard all the way back from his house: about Gerard's scams, his videos, the people he knows. 'Loads ay rich cunts! Fuckin millionaires... Yi dae guid wi him...'
      'If I just need him,' I tell Mike, laughing again, 'then why do I give you the money?’
      'Cause if yi dinnae,' Mike says seriously, trying to threaten me, 'then yi'lI no fuckin' work again, right?'
      I just look at his flabby, ageing face and laugh, which pisses him off. He starts on about the money again. I ignore him.
      'By the way,' I say, 'what were you talking about, with Gerard?'
      'When I was cleaning up. It sounded like you were agreeing with him about something.'
      My reflection in the windscreen smiles.
      'Fuck-all ti dae wi you. Jist wonderin the best wiy ti kill yi on camera. Oanly fuckin thing yi're guid fir.'
      'N aboot the money fir the videos, ah'll jist take it the noo n you kin see yir mate–'
      I tell him to get fucked. By that time we're in Chinatown. Lee is playing out front, a rash covering his chin. Karen sits on the steps, smoking a joint, and Shirley leans against the wall, a cigarette clasped between her middle and index fingers.
      'Awright, Scott?' Karen says as I get out of the car.
      'Fine,' I say nervously.
      She offers me the joint and I take it. I ask her about the drug situation and she tells me the area is dry as far as dope is concerned but that smack is plentiful, along with speed and ecstasy.
      'FUCKIN STOAP IT!' Shirley shouts at Lee.
      I ask Karen what the situation is with jellies and she tells me they're fine, so I ask her to buy me some and give her the money. She leaves. Mike asks where she's going, and I tell him.
      'Hard luck, the place is dry fir blaw noo.'
      'I wanted jellies, Mike.'
      'Ah nivir knew, fuckwit!'
      Lee picks up a piece of shit. Shirley grabs his arm tightly and attempts to pull him towards the steps, but Lee tries to break free and Shirley throws him against the fence. Lee hits the fence, bounces back in a You've Been Framed! moment and lands in the dirt, then he screams and Shirley runs and pulls him to his feet by his arm, before complaining about the dirt on his clothes and slapping his buttocks maybe four or five times. His screaming gets louder.
      Karen comes up and gives me the fluorescent jellies with a smile. I smile back. 'Shi cannae handle um,' Karen says sadly, 'ih's a wee bastard sometimes, n shi cannae handle um.'

I'm sitting in McDonald's in a seat right across from an ugly boy and an ugly girl, both around my age, both eating value meals, one Big Mac, the other McChicken, and I'm sad for them, sort of. I don't know why. Maybe it's the way they try to look lovingly into each other's eyes with faces almost frozen in acceptance, in defeat. As I watch them I think of the moment the realisation hit them, I don't know what I mean but something which hit them, making them realise. See everything how it is and how it will be.
      Or maybe it's the way the dark puddle next to the kerb reflects the McDonald's golden arches. The way the image shimmers with the soft wind. Or the way the stars look tonight and the way the faces behind the counter look, the way the young people in cars progress through the drive-in section with bright expectant faces, wasted on dope or smack for the night and now hungry, their expressions beaming like those of young children.
      Maybe the Temazepam taking its toll.
      Then the door opens and a girl with green incandescent eyes comes in. I am amazed at the grace with which she walks and the way her uniform only adds to her beauty. Her skin is dark tan like the women I dream of and the eyes, in conjunction with the cheekbones, the pretty mouth, the eyelashes and the golden brown hair, look sad and tragic and in a way timeless, like she'll be photographed one day and the photograph will set into stone a fleeting moment, a look, just a thing... I get so bad and so yearning I can't eat. I leave my half-finished Big Mac meal lying on the table and walk to the toilets where I swallow three more jellies with a little cold water.
      My heart beats fast and something inside of me wants to go back, to see the girl, to talk to her.
      But I go home with Tom Waits, a song that mentions wounded eyes and I think of her again, but wish I hadn't.

'Dreaming, dream dream dream,' a man's voice is saying gently, and I'm lying on the floor, still wet from the shower, watching the hilarious ceiling, listening to the rain fall outside. 'Dreaming, dream dream dream.'
      Before long I'm listening to sad melancholy soul music: 'Walk On By', the Ruby Curtis version. When the middle section arrives, that blissful easy feeling I used to have, when maybe my mother would tell me about Santa's reindeer is welcomed back into my skin and my bones. And I'm smiling like a clown and thinking of how the snow would fall softly outside my window at night, and how I would see it from my window before catching a flake in my hand and feeling it melt on my warm skin... the way I could never sleep until my body commanded me after that feeling... the way I would dream about the next day, about the sledge, the snowball fight, the knitted hats...
      The way we would run, aged around fourteen, on acid, at the North Sea, the white swell looking like horses.

Iain Bahlaj 2003
This novel extract of  Tilt (Pulp Books, London, 2003) appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher:    Book ordering available through  amazon.co.uk

See also the prequel Sugar
For a look at the author’s Literary Top Ten, visit PULP.NET

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Iain Bahlaj lives in Fife, Scotland. His short stories have appeared in Front & Centre, Fife Fringe, Chapman and The Macallan Shorts 3 and 5. His novel Tilt was published in 2003 (Pulp Books, London). The short story "Sugar" is a prequel to Tilt. Iain currently works as a night-shift shelf-stacker, while working on a football screenplay in his free time. e-mail: iainbahlaj@hotmail.com


 tbr 36           May - June 2003 

Short Fiction

  Iain Bahlaj

     Tilt (novel extract)
  Ron Butlin
   Vivaldi, The Jumping Cardinal, God, Clint and The Number Three

  Greg Chandler
     Bee’s Tree

  Abelardo Castillo
     Ernesto’s Mother

     Girl from Somewhere Else

    Picks from Back Issues

  Anne Donovan

  Steven Rinehart
     Burning Luv


  Gretchen McCullough May 2003: Letter from Cairo


   Answers to last issue’s quiz, All About Books

Book Reviews

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Tilt by Iain Bahlaj
Shoedog by George P. Pelecanos
Harry and Ida Swop Teeth by Stephen Jones

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TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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