Happy Halloween, everyone. This story was commissioned by Oxford Playhouse and performed at the Burton Taylor earlier this year as part of Bedtime Tales, a showcase of adult fairy stories. I will be performing it, surrounded by an amphitheatre of Stradivarii, as part of the Ashmolean’s Fright Friday. To download the pdf of this story, click here.
Every journey begins with an itch you just have to scratch, and it was no different for Taylor. Only for Taylor the itch wasn’t a metaphorical one.
Taylor couldn’t remember falling asleep. It was the same every night, sneaking back from the library at sunset, watching the windows of their own house from the street outside until the kitchen light was off and slipping silently inside, tiptoeing to their basement room, heart stopped in their mouth as they listened for the noise of housemates, every step calculating whether the quickest route to safety was back out of the front door, or forward to their room.
Once inside, the door to their tiny room closed behind them, kettle boiled and mug filled with steaming coffee, face splashed at the tiny sink in the corner and curtains checked tight against wandering eyes, Taylor booted up the computer and logged into the chatroom Huis Clos, No Exit, where the lonely and the lost of the internet gravitated in search of companionship and consolation.
They headed for the side room called Bitter Tears where Alix was already logged in. Alix claimed to also live in Oxford and as the two of them talked Taylor liked to think of Alix locked in a similar basement in a similar house, maybe close enough that the warmth of another body almost flowed across the cables between them. They knew it was probably a lie but sometimes lies don’t matter as much as it matters that you want them to be true.
Last night they were talking about art, like they did at least half of all the nights. They watched the Steve Roggenbuck video Make Something beautiful Before You Are Dead together and then talked about how hard it was to make art that was beautiful and how beauty was like a sharp sweet drop of acid in a corrosive alkaline world and how the moment you exposed it to the air it would fizz and die but how even, they guessed, the way those dying bubbles caught the light was beautiful in its way and how the fact that someone tried was the most beautiful thing of all, and they shared platitudes like “we are alive at the same time” which was a line from the Steve Roggenbuck video and “some of our stars are the same” which was Alix’s favourite line from The Silence of the Lambs, and Taylor typed
Maybe being beautiful is the easiest thing of all. Maybe just staying alive is the most beautiful thing of all.
And Alix typed
But isn’t that the hardest thing of all?
And they were both silent for a time after that. Alix had laid down two rules the first time they logged on together.
If we are going to be friends, there’s just two things. You never ask to meet, and when it’s time for me to leave, you never try to stop me.
Taylor had said, yeah, of course, and that was the last they said about it, but it was always there below the surface of their friendship and sometimes it bubbled to the top.
In the silence, Taylor touched the screen and imagined Alix doing the same, and after a while they got talking again, this time about Jean Michel Basquiat and how someone so young could do so much and so brilliantly, and at some point Taylor fell asleep.
Taylor had woken just before sunrise to a tiny but insistent throb between the shoulder blades, the kind you get when you’ve got a spot coming on. By breakfast they’d forgotten about it. Sitting in the Radcliffe Camera with their copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness after their third coffee the irritation was back. Until lunchtime as they rubbed against the back of their chair and fidgeted the book in their hands they were able to convince themself it was just the caffeine triggering the nerve cells under their skin. But as they hunkered against the wall of St Mary the Virgin chewing on a slab of bread pudding, they just couldn’t ignore it any more and sat there, rubbing insistently against the stone till the cloth of their t-shirt began to tear.
Sweat started beading on their palms. They couldn’t go home. Not in the day. Never in the day. What if someone was there? What if they saw them, spoke to them, told them how vile they were, told them they needed to go, needed to be dead? But the need to stop the incessant itching was even greater than the fear.
They headed away from the anonymous buzz of the city centre, pausing at Queens Lane, staring up the narrow street with its cobbled sides, the inviting turn that led you into the belly of one of the labyrinths in Oxford’s heart, over the plague pits of New College into the almost hidden entrance to the Turf. The lane was sided by high, imposing walls they’d often wished they could scale so they could sit in unseen safety and watch Oxford pass beneath them.
Invisibility. That was the thing they longed for most. The freedom to move without their presence being questioned. The freedom to occupy spaces other people seemed to fill as though it was their birthright. The freedom to explore, to live without the constant glances that sneered “What are you doing here? This is my space, loser.”
The freedom that being truly alone would give them from the loneliness they felt eating them from the marrow of their bones outward every time they were among people, a loneliness only barely more manageable than the fear they felt of being seen by someone they knew, by someone who wanted to hurt them, who wanted their life to be over.
Despite the fear that rose with every step Taylor took closer, no one was home and soon they were locked in their room with coffee.
As soon as the drink was inside them, Taylor’s skin began to jump. The itching was far worse than before, and it was no longer confined to the spot between their shoulder blades. But all the spiders’ feet on their nerve-endings were dancing out from that one small place. This was more than a caffeine kick out of control.
Heat started to flush Taylor’s face. Sweat pooled in the small of their back. The epicentre of the itch had begun to move away from the tickling part of the spectrum, and was beginning to register firmly in the burn. They threw their back against the sharp metal corner of a bookshelf for relief and held it there, pressure cauterizing the nerves for a few moments of relief, but all the absence of pain achieved was to give their head space to panic hard.
In their mind, every documentary they’d ever seen played on fast forward, pausing only to zoom in on the most disgusting details and the words, “slow, lingering death” and “conscious till the last terrible moment when blood from every vital organ leaks uncontrollably from the body.”
The relief was only temporary. A steady, insistent itching had already started up again. Taylor’s arms shook as they lifted themself from the shelf, drew themself to the other side of the room where they stared at their reddened, sweating face, a battle between panic and pain punching their mind one way then the other.
They closed their eyes, took a deep breath, and peeled the t-shirt from their body. They allowed themself to exhale and began to turn, stopping themself, starting again, turning back, oscillating as fast as they could flex their shoulders.
They blinked, hard, took a last gulp of air, and turned their back to the mirror, craning their head over their shoulder, and opened their eyes to see…
Surely this was a trick of the light? Their back was on fire and the point of origin felt like it was melting their spine. They expected to see at least red raw skin, if not flesh peeling away under the pressure of pus.
But there was nothing.
They turned the lights off and moved closer, twisted and turned.
No, thought Taylor. That’s not right. For a moment they forgot the pain that had been between their shoulders all day, even the pain that had been throbbing in their head since they turned fifteen. They were determined to find out what the hell was happening to them. They tried to reach the spot with their hand. A life spent with books and computers had stripped the flexibility from their limbs. They tried the other hand, and tripped, backwards onto the bed, their elbow buckling beneath them.
But buckling into that last inch of space they hadn’t been able to reach. Sure enough, their skin was perfectly smooth, untouched. But there, beneath the pad of his finger. Something. Something raised, like a nodule of hard pus.
“What the fuck?” Taylor’s heart began to drum in their ears. They explored the contours of the lump with their finger as they had spent many hours exploring the myriad tiny temporary deformities in constant flux on the teenage body. As they felt their way around it they started to notice something very strange indeed. Whatever it was, it was symmetrical. More symmetrical than anything a body would throw up left to its own devices.
The itch was building again. Instinctively, Taylor scratched. They felt whatever it was, almost there, just below the skin. They scratched again. They felt it move against their touch.
They sat up and wheeled their arms, flexing their shoulder muscles. They pushed their left arm behind their lower back, and used their spine for resistance as their fingers crawled up inch by inch, muscles and ligaments turning in less and less natural angles until finally they came up against the hard edge under their skin. Now the right arm. They swung it to the back of their neck. This time their fingers crawled down until they reached the top edge.
“OK”, they said. “Here goes.” They ran their nail along the edge, scraping their skin, gently at first, failing to break the surface. Their finger was caught in that delicious tension between the moment of potential relief and the knowledge of the certain pain that would precede it, between the desire and the fear of falling gloriously over the edge of the abyss.
This time they dug, furiously, letting out a short, hideous scream as the skin broke and they felt what could only be described as a pop of something coming free. Blood drained from every extremity and they feinted back on the bed, their hand falling to the cloth beside them…holding onto a bloody object.
Taylor pushed themself groggily upright on their bloodstained sheets and stared down at the bloody mess in their hands. They could have sworn they knew what it was but it made no sense. It couldn’t be. They smeared some of the blood away with their finger. Surely it couldn’t be.
Taylor stared at the black square in the palm of their hand, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
They booted up their laptop and slid the card into the drive. The machine whirred and a pop-up asked what Taylor wanted to do with the video file.
They clicked play and mediaplayer opened on the screen.
Taylor was still trying to catch up with what was happening when the black background turned crimson. The crimson of a neon light. Music in the background, a heavy otherworldly industrial sound. A club, maybe. An empty club. No, not empty. A figure made its way from the corner of the screen, back to the camera, wearing a black hoodie, moving centre screen and turning. From the darkness of the hood a face so pale it glowed stared out, deep pools of dark green make-up around the eyes and on the lips.
Taylor felt cold, clammy, their world turned upside down. What came next almost stopped time in its tracks.
“Hello, Taylor,” said a sure, high voice.
Silence, and the dark lips curled up. “OK, now you’ve recovered let’s start again. Hello, Taylor. My name is Stitch. You are watching this because you want something so desperately that you are prepared to mutilate yourself to get it. Something worth so much you would put yourself through that pain for even the possibility of attaining it.
“Now this is where you really need to listen.” Stitch leant forward. Taylor felt the dark red eyes drilling into him. “This is what you want.”
Taylor couldn’t even blink. What the hell was happening?
“You want to reach out to those who are absolutely alone, and you want to make their dreams come true. Listen to me. Do what I say, and I will give you the ability to do that. I know that sounds like nonsense. But remember this. You just pulled a memory card out of your skin and on that card is a video of someone you have never met telling you something about you that you may not even have figured out yourself.
“I have been watching you for two months. Every day. Every night. If you are watching this the day you felt the first itch then last night I came into your room, and I placed the card under your skin without leaving a mark.
“If you want your dream to come true, meet me at the underpass on the Thames Path between Iffley Lock and Sandford at 2am. I will be there every night until you come.”
The screen cut to black and a small message asked if Taylor wanted to replay the video.
Taylor logged in to Bitter Tears and found Alix and typed.
Help. I can’t explain but something unbelievable and extraordinary… And very frightening. Should I?
Eventually a few characters broke the silent screen:
Was all Alix typed.
Typed Tyler, closing down the computer as the message uploaded.
Heading south on the towpath out of Oxford after dark is like entering Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. Tarmac and asphalt and the bright lights of the Abingdon Road give way to compacted track and the occasional window of a boat house, then the distant whirring light of traffic which recedes as you drift past the Isis Tavern, unreachable by road, and the last civilized building of Iffley Lock and into darkness, woodland and mud.
By daylight the bridge that carries Oxford’s Eastern Bypass is an intimidating piece of crumbling Brutalism, scarred and full of corners into which you can’t quite see. By night, there were simply shadows and deeper shadows beyond them, spaces inhabited by anything the imagination could conjure.
Just a day ago, Taylor would have run terrified from the first steps beyond the safety of the college boathouses. Today they felt fear leaking from their body with every step. It was as though the dark unknown was pulling them over a velvet cliff. When the world cast you out, where the world saw fear was where safety lay.
Taylor stopped, just as the bridge engulfed them on all sides. The night was empty except for the occasional car rumbling overhead. Clouds hid the stars and left the river a gently rippling black. Taylor smiled. For the first time they could remember they were somewhere they felt at home.
“Hey, Taylor.” It was the same voice as the video.
They looked into the darkness in each direction.
Taylor looked over their head. A figure was sitting on a cross beam, masked by shadows. From the silhouette it looked like they wore a hood.
The figure dropped from view, appearing a moment later upside down, her smiling face just a few inches from Taylor’s.
“What the hell…” Taylor stepped back. “Are you a vampire or something?”
“Ha!” Stitch laughed and pivoted up from the waist, hands reaching to the beam where her feet were holding her up, and flipped to the ground. “Nope. Just parkour.”
“The art of always moving forward,” she said. “Finding interesting ways of getting past obstacles. Like this.” She ran straight at one of the columns holding up the bridge. Taylor was about to shout a warning when she seemed to launch upwards, planting first one then the next foot on the column, like she was running upwards, kicking off, twisting sideways in the air, planting a foot near the top of a second column and bouncing off again to land on the beam she’d been sitting on when Taylor arrived.
Taylor shook their head.
“It’s not magic,” said Stitch like she could read their mind. “Not the parkour, anyway. Just training.”
“Will you show me?” asked Taylor.
“Of course!” Stitch leaped down, feet first, landing as soft as a feather, easing into an effortless roll and surfacing on her feet. “But first you need to follow me.”
She led Taylor back up the Thames Path, turning just occasionally to make sure they were still keeping up, stopping for a moment when they fell too far behind. Taylor followed as fast as they could. It had been years since they ran but now they found themselves floating effortlessly over the ground, as though Stitch’s company had released something inside them. The night air on their skin as they cut through it was cooling and exhilarating and they imagined a dizzying future watching Oxford pass by beneath them as they skipped from spire to spire.
At Donnington Bridge Stitch peeled off the Path and led Taylor through the labyrinthine alleyways of south East Oxford until they were almost dizzy and utterly disoriented and stood in front of a rusty corrugated iron door which took them into one of a series of crumbling industrial units.
Inside they were greeted by a giant, bald-headed man in a Pierrot suit who smiled and bowed and in one smooth motion reached behind his back, pulled out what looks like a large metal mace that glowed purple. He blew on it, towards Stitch, as if he was blowing her a kiss, and a two foot, bright pink flame flew at her.
“Hey, Pawel,” said Stitch, throwing her arm around him and nestling her head only just above his stomach.
They followed Pawel into a large, dark room with walls lit in red receding into corners Taylor cannot see, the slow, heavy thud of industrial music throbbing gently in the background. Taylor recognises the room at once from the film on the memory card.
“Where is this?” asked Taylor?
“The Alice Room,” said Pawel.
“Appropriate name,” Stitch corrected.
“Something to do with Alice in Wonderland?”
“Something,” she said and smiled. “This is the place where we discover the motor that makes you tick, your deepest desire. And this is where we make it come true.”
“But only if you want,” said Pawel. “Only if you say yes.”
“To what?” Taylor looked back and forward between them until Stitch finally spoke.
“Blood. Just a drop. If I take it from the fleshy part of your shoulder you won’t even notice. One sip of your dreams will draw them out of you and make them real.”
“Drink me,” said Pawel. “It’s why we call it The Alice Room.”
“Drink?” said Taylor. “You want to drink my blood? What the hell is this?”
“Not want,” said Stitch. “Need.”
Taylor looked into her eyes for a sign of doubt, for a reason to distrust her and run. They found none.
Gently, Stitch pulled the cloth of Taylor’s t-shirt aside, exposing a pool of pale flesh in the crimson light. “Drink me,” whispered Taylor and Stitch sunk her mouth to his skin, piercing it so gently it was barely more than a breeze brushing against them.
Stitch pulled back and Taylor watched as her eyes went the widest, deepest black like a pair of giant screens where the fil of his dreams played out inside her.
“You want,” she said quietly. “You want to reach out to those who are alone, and you want to make their dreams come true.”
Taylor thought about it, and then they nodded. It was so obviously true. “And now you’ve drunk my blood I can make it happen?”
Stitch bowed her head. For the first time she looked afraid. “Yes.”
“I know where I want to start.” Taylor felt their pulse quicken. Scenes flashed through their mind, every kind of sensation, but most of all warmth. Comfort. The happiness of making someone else know they were not alone.
Stitch looked up. Her smile had an air of resignation. “I will only ask this once,” she said, “But are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” said Taylor without giving it a second thought.
“I’ll take you to Alix,” she said.
Taylor opened their mouth, but whatever the question was it was gone before it reached their lips.
“But first you record a message.”
“Like the one you left for me?” asked Taylor.
“Like the one I left for you. And then I’ll take you, and we’ll leave it for Alix like I left it for you. And if Alix wants something badly enough to scratch the itch and comes to meet us and lets you drink then yes, you will make their dream come true.”
“I think I need to sit down,” said Taylor, and before they had hit the chair Pawel placed a drink in their hand that almost glowed electric green.
“It’s a lot to take in,” said Pawel matter-of-factly. “This will help. It’s a weeping angel. Absinthe, white rum, and lychee, with a sprinkling of dried miso.”
The burning liquid coated Taylor with warmth that spread from the inside and over their skin. “OK, let’s film.”
Stitch set the camera up on a tripod on the wooden bar and inserted a fresh memory card.
“Wait,” said Taylor as Stitch’s finger reached for the record button.
“It’s all right,” said Stitch. “I’ll record. You never ask to meet, right?”
“How long do you think I’ve been watching you?”
Taylor didn’t know what to say, but the glow of the weeping angel inside them made the questions seem somehow not to matter.
“Now, let’s record.”
Stitch popped the card from the camera and into a small plastic case the same as the tiny bloody box Taylor had been staring at only hours before.
Dawn was still hours from the edge of the sky as Stitch led Taylor through the maze of East Oxford. This time they found it easier to keep up, as though their muscles had been learning the moves for months instead of minutes, as though the thought of finally bringing Alix warmth, belonging, consolation was an engine driving them onward into the orange grey haze.
They came to a stop on a small street on the top slope of Headington Hill. On one side was the perpetual light of the John Radcliffe hospital, everywhere else the unkempt grass that lapped against functional student houses. No basements here, thought Taylor.
As if reading their mind, Stitch craned her head up. “Follow me,” she said, silently vaulting a wooden picket. Nearby a dog barked and Taylor froze but the dog fell silent, another took up the chorus a street further off, and another in the distance. This was simply part of the white noise. Taylor vaulted the fence as effortlessly as Stitch had done, and followed her up a black metal drainpipe. It was only when they found themselves squatting effortlessly on a narrow gutter looking at the street below they blinked and realised what they had done.
Stitch pressed her finger to her lips. “Wait here,” she whispered. Taylor stooped over the lip of the gutter as Stitch prised the window open and slipped inside. It was dark in the room but Taylor could make out the plain white sheets of a bed where Alix slept, could make out the silhouette of Stitch as she crossed the room and bent for what couldn’t have been more than a minute over the sleeping figure.
The next night Taylor logged in to Huis Clos and found Alix in Bitter Tears. Conversation flowed as if nothing had happened. Taylor dropped hints and opened avenues, possibilities for Alix to mention anything strange that might have happened, anything they might, you know, want to talk about! But Alix only wanted to talk about poetry and music and the rhythm of speech and the rhythm of life and whether the two were the same and what it would mean for life to end on the uptick of a question and didn’t seem to think anything was strange when it came half past one and Taylor said goodnight.
That night Taylor barely felt the breath leaving their lungs as they flowed through the city. It was like they were rain washing over the buildings and down to the Thames. They caught Stitch by Iffley Lock and together they ran to the bridge, stopping to run up the trunks of trees they could only half see, to jump from branch to branch, from fencepost to fencepost.
Taylor was home before dawn. Without Alix.
The same routine played out night after night. Each time Taylor’s footing became surer, the city became more and more a playground, the daylight world and all its fears became more distant.
Even Alix was changing, subtly. Online chats seemed happier. Almost positive. Alix had started talking not just in the abstract but the concrete. Not just about art but about the art they might make. About the future.
Until a week after that first night when it was Alix who broke off the conversation:
You know, maybe there’s hope. Sleep tight, Taylor.
That night, Taylor’s heart beat faster. Stitch seemed to pick it up because she was different too. Anxious, fidgeting like she was channeling her adrenaline.
They both turned when there was a crack from the path. A figure came out of the gloom.
“Hey,” called Stitch.
The figure looked around.
“Up here!” called Stitch and the figure looked up.
“That’s me.” She swung round and landed on the floor in front of Alix.
Taylor swallowed hard and jumped. “Alix!”
Alix stepped back. “Who? Taylor?”
Taylor looked sheepishly at the floor. “I didn’t ask,” they said.
“I know.” Alix smiled. Their face lit up the dark under the bridge. “It’s OK. I guess I figured you might be behind this. So what happens now?”
Taylor kept stride with Stitch as they weaved their way back into the city, stopping every few hundred metres for Alix to catch up before turning and pulling away, the three of them making Oxford the canvas for their beautiful, flowing brushstrokes.
“Welcome to the Alice Room,” said Pawel, handing Alix a weeping angel.
“So this is where my dreams come true?” said Alix, their voice light and clear, free from any of the hesitation Taylor had imagined in the months they had spent online.
“Only if you really want,” said Taylor.
In the corner of their eye Taylor noticed Stitch still shifting agitatedly from foot to foot like she wanted to leave. Pawel slipped away and returned with a drink taller and more potent-looking than anything Taylor had seen before, which was gone in one long gulp.
“Yes,” said Alix. “Oh yes, I want.”
“Then this is how it works,” said Taylor. “One drop of blood. Your blood. It draws the dreams out of the centremost part of you, draws them into me. Makes them real.”
“Do you know what it is you want?” asked Taylor.
“I think so,” said Alix.
“Only the weird thing,” Taylor continued, “Is I really don’t think I did. I mean, before Stitch told me. I knew I wanted something but I had no idea what.”
“That makes sense,” said Alix. “Shall we start?” Alix was already pulling the fabric away from their shoulder.
Taylor was vaguely aware of Stitch and Pawel leaving the room as they lowered their head. As their lips touched Alix’s cold flesh they still had no idea what came next. It was like the skin gave way to Taylor’s mouth, like Alix’s blood was answering a call from somewhere deep, deep inside Taylor.
Taylor drew back as the thick liquid slid down their throat. Alix smiled and Taylor felt an overwhelming pressure behind their eyes. The room went black. No, not the room. It was Taylor’s eyes. Black like a computer screen about to play. As if on cue, a whirring noise like a film starting up, but the screen in Taylor’s head was still blank.
No, not blank. The film was playing. Only it wasn’t playing anything Taylor could make out. It was an absolute, complete, and overwhelming
And silence. Broken only by a slowly rising sound like fizzing.
Taylor pulled back in horror as the realisation crept up on them.
The film was still whirring in their head, but somewhere, out of reach beyond the screen, the warm weight of Alix’s body was already becoming heavier in their arms, and the blackness was still rolling as a final, distant “thank you” faded into the night.