The Heart of the Labyrinth
By Gary Budgen
There’s this tape playing out, a scene that keeps repeating itself.
There’s this creature like a Minotaur rearing up and somewhere a baby is screaming.
“There’s this tape,” Helen said, “playing out in my head, a scene that keeps repeating itself.”
She said it was always the same scene. There’s this creature like a Minotaur rearing up and somewhere a baby screams.
A Minotaur. Or it’s a goat. Or it’s the devil.
The creature is only seen as darkness, a mass of darkness that could be a bushy mane or hair, perhaps part of the shadow is horns. The scream in the background might be a baby but could be something else.
“There’s this tape,”
she said, “playing out in my head, a scene that keeps repeating itself.”
It came to her perhaps twenty to thirty times a day by then; but she would not go and see a doctor.
“Remember what Rilke said: ‘Kill all my demons and my angels might die.’”
But I did not understand what her angels were. And I was sick of listening. Even before she started all the there’s this tape stuff she had begun to pale on me. Her endless discussions about art and her attempts to pry into what I was feeling. The next time she called I said I was busy. After that I screened her calls and didn’t answer. There was another girl that I liked, a girl at work called Elaine.
Elaine was a small brunette, slightly chubby but I liked that. Helen had been tall and thin, with stringy blonde hair; not my type at all. By the time I got Elaine to come out
with me Helen had stopped calling. Me and Elaine went to the cinema in Islington and I
walked back to Holloway Road with her, feeling her presence beside me, the tang of her CK One. We passed the window of the bondage shop with the dummies in rubber underwear, carrying whips, wearing masks.
“Kinky,” I offered.
“If you like that kind of thing.”
“Try anything once.”
“Well,” she said, “tonight you can have a coffee.”
I had tea in her little flat near the Arsenal ground. I didn’t try anything, we just talked about the film and I went home. I looked at the window display again, the poses of the dummy girl, bending over, pushing her arse out. For an instant a flicker of Elaine in the pose crossed my mind. Then my phone vibrated and I answered it without looking.
I listened to Helen’s voice. She spoke carefully, taking her time, trying to stay in control.
“I don’t think I can go on,” she said, “I’m getting it more and more. Even as I speak there’s this tape, playing out in my mind, a scene that keeps repeating itself…I have seen doctors, but the pills don’t work. There’s just the scene, like a tape.”
I went into Highbury Overground to go to her place, telling myself what a good bloke I was.
It was east and the train only took me so far. I had to get a bus, the only passenger, passing through grey streets beside canals and old factories. It was the sort of area where
artists could get cheap studio space in disused warehouses. Helen’s studio was high up in one of these places, up a steep stairwell.
When she opened the door she stared at me, squinting as though she had trouble recognizing me.
“Paul,” she said at last.
Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, grey like the eyes in potatoes.
Inside everything had changed. Usually she kept her paintings in the studio bit at the back but now the living area had been invaded. The room stank of paint, and what I thought was thinners. Almost every wall surface was covered with pictures: her own and
prints torn out of books or printed from the Internet. I recognized Picasso’s Minotaur, images of Satan. Her paintings—with her usual signature distorted—were like nothing of hers I had seen before. Usually she did abstracts in pastel colors but these all showed the same image in dozens of variations: layers of darkness with the shadow of some indistinguishable form rearing up in the foreground.
On the coffee table was a half-finished bottle of scotch. She grabbed it and waved it at me.
“Jesus, Helen,” I said. “You’ve got to stop all this.”
“Stop what?” she said pouring herself a large measure in a tumbler. “The excessive drinking? Or the descent into madness?”
From somewhere her face managed to form itself into a smirk and she slumped down into her armchair, her special armchair with the stuffing poking out of holes in the arms, the cushions.
I found a glass in the kitchenette and tipped some scotch in, just a nip really. I perched on the edge of the coffee table leant forward and placed my hand on her knee.
“You need help, Helen. I mean counseling, maybe a residential place.”
She was hardly paying attention to me, staring into a space within. I thought of the words, there’s this tape, playing out in my head. I needed to get her attention.
She drank some more, looked at me. She must be pretty smashed with all that scotch but it was hard to tell. Then she noticed my hand on her knee, looking at it as though it were some strange object she didn’t recognize.
“Oh,” she said. “Paul.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled it forward, guiding my fingers to the inside of her thigh. I felt myself
grow hard but I pulled back my hand.
“Is this what this has all been about?” I said. “You’ve got me over here to get back together.”
“No,” she said. “It just helps. Drinking helps. Fucking helps. Not much else does.”
She stood, unsteady on her feet and came towards me. She thrust her crotch into my face and I could feel the shape of her beneath the skirt; I could smell her beyond all the paint, thinners, whisky. I ran my hands up the back of her legs and tugged her underwear. The glass of scotch fell from my hand spilling on the floor as I lifted her skirt to bury my head between her legs. She moaned, and all the while I continued with my tongue and mouth she was mumbling something, some sentence over and over.
Later we lay on the bed together and she reached out and held my hand. I let her hold it.
“It keeps it at bay,” she said. “It keeps it at bay.”
I recognized this as what she’d been saying.
“Helen,” I began. I was going to say that I had to go now. Even though it was the small hours and it would be hassle getting back I wanted to be away from her.
“No,” she said and I thought she had read my thoughts. But she slapped her own cheek with her free hand.
“I need to talk. To not talk about the tape. The tape in my head. The scene that keeps repeating itself…” She took a deep breath and squeezed my hand, her desperation cutting into my palm until at last she relaxed her grip.
“You remember what it was like in the beginning?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“When we first got together. I used to love being with you. Just standing in a gallery next to you I felt this sense of oneness, felt that everything was going to be all right.”
She went on talking about the things we had done together, meals we’d had, parks we’d picnicked in during the summer months. She made it sound as though we had been together for years. What she was saying was as strange and unrecognizable to me as her talk about the tape, playing out in her head, the tape repeating itself.
As I was leaving in the morning, Helen mercifully asleep, I bumped into Galliano on the stairwell. He had the studio opposite. He was carrying some sort of shop dummy or maybe an artist’s manikin.
“Long time, no see,” he said.
“Back with Helen then?”
But I just shrugged and said, “See you later.”
I missed work the next day. I knew that if I’d have gone in after the night with Helen, that Elaine would have recognized that I’d been up to something. And I really wanted Elaine. If the night with Helen had done anything it had confirmed that for me. I slept most of the day, switching off my mobile after I’d ignored the third call from Helen. The landline was already unplugged.
At work the day after, I watched Elaine through the glass partition that separated my office from hers. When she sat at her computer focusing on the screen her face took on a look of calm that was only occasionally disturbed by a slight furrowing of her brows. I would always study her carefully when she walked across to one of her colleagues, enjoying the way she carried her weight, the way she swayed. Once she saw me looking at her and smiled.
She didn’t like galleries like Helen. She preferred to go to the cinema or eat out. I found I was staying more and more at her flat. It was a new build, white walls and shining steel fittings on the kitchen cabinet. It was as though it was an extension of the new Arsenal stadium which you could see from her kitchen window.
It didn’t matter that I was staying there most of the time though in one respect. We still acted like we hardly knew each other at work. Or rather we acted as though we knew each other a little, as though we were just at the point of getting to know each other. The smile through the glass she gave. My studying her as she walked, as she swayed. These were acknowledgement of a distance between us that did not—I believe—really exist. If someone noticed her smile at me, coming through the glass barrier, they might think ah she’s soft on him, when, in fact, only a few hours earlier my cock had been in her mouth or my snout nestled between her legs.
It was only after about two months that I began to wonder about her.
“Why can’t we just let people know at work?”
We were never able to leave together, but would meet in some bar or cinema lobby or restaurant, usually near her flat. We rarely went to my flat because she said it was too near the office.
“I think it’s important to keep a distance between your work and your personal life,” she said.
When the spring came I took her to one of my favorite places: Victoria Park. There was something entrancing about watching the model boats on the pond, kids and their dads, old men with their remote controls in their hands, frowns of concentration focused on their vessels.
It was around this time that I came home to find a message from Helen on my landline. I thought she’d understood that it was all over, that I didn’t want anything to do with her anymore. It was months since I’d seen her.
Paul, she said. Just want to say that I understand it now. It’s not what I thought. It’s not what anyone thought. Take care.
It didn’t really mean anything to me.
I’d never really thought much about mine and Elaine’s relative positions at work. But then something happened to make it pertinent. Elaine was a line-manager for a small team of software developers. I was just a developer and although not in her team she was technically superior to me.
Then my manager went off sick, some immune system breakdown that meant he would be away for the foreseeable. Elaine was put in temporary charge of my team. The announcement was made by one of the senior managers. Elaine had come out from behind the glass partition and into our office. She was stood in front of us all, her small yet slightly chubby body was dressed in a checked work suit with a short skirt. I thought of running my hands over her and of the scent of her CK One. She avoided my gaze throughout the whole meeting until, at the end, when we were required to clap, she grinned at me along with everyone else.
We didn’t meet that evening. She sent me a text to tell me she had to stay late to organize her increased workload. When we did meet, at the Greek Restaurant in Finsbury Park the next night, she talked a lot about work, asking me about members of my team.
I stayed at hers but we didn’t fuck. She was tired and agitated about work. Wanted to get a good night’s sleep.
The next evening I was at home alone when I absent-mindedly picked up the landline when it rang. I screened the call but didn’t know the number. It was a voice I didn’t recognize at first.
“Is that Paul?”
It was something about the way he said my name that made me realize. When I knew who it was I also knew what had happened.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I found your number on Helen’s mobile.”
She had jumped from the window of the studio. Apparently there was a letter for me.
“Give me your address and I’ll send it,” Galliano said.
“Yes,” I said, then added: “It’s terrible.”
“Yes,” he said, “yes it is.”
I rang Elaine. I wanted to go over, wanted to be with her, to be able to stop thinking about Helen. Helen lying on the rough courtyard outside the studio, her body broken. Helen taking the decision to open the window, to climb up on the windowsill.
“That’s awful,” Elaine said.
I took a cab over. I had to drink, to talk about Helen. Elaine listened, interjecting with awful, terrible, poor girl, in appropriate places. But I could tell she was tired. I slept on the sofa, confused about what I was feeling, not wanting to feel it anymore.
As always we went to work separately, me letting her go ahead so that I lingered in her flat, in the kitchen full of wipe-clean surfaces, of stainless steel door handles.
That evening Elaine was too busy to meet up. I went to the cinema on my own, hardly taking in the film. It was some action blockbuster, full of explosions and car chases. As much as I tried to concentrate, it seemed that the action was occurring in an order that made no sense, inserted in accordance with some algorithm for distributing such elements along the length of the movie reel.
The next morning the letter from Helen arrived.
Don’t worry, I think I understand it all now. Did you ever wonder why it was a tape? Why it was a tape playing? A tape playing out in my head, a scene that keeps repeating itself.
There were several lines scored out after this. I could see what they were, a repetition of the same phrases, about the tape, the tape that keeps repeating itself.
It couldn’t be a DVD, which is more random, able to be accessed at any point. This isn’t like that. It can only play in a set way. And I say this because even as I write this it is playing out, the same scene repeating…
Lines crossed out.
Did I paint Minotaurs? Devils? I read about these things as though the dark shadow in the foreground could be identified. The Minotaur symbolizes the monster inside of each of us, so perhaps I was not too far off. But the darkness in the scene is not a Minotaur, not a devil. The scream, as I’ve said, could be a baby but it could be anyone. It could be me or you.
For a time, when I had really lost it, I thought it might be the government sending out signals, doing something to my mind. I almost became one of those people who wraps silver foil around their head to keep out the voices. I had to drink a lot then; had to go bars to find strangers to fuck; to it keep it at bay. But the drink always wore off and the strangers went away; they all had to get away.
I started to read about stuff on the Internet. I read about consciousness. You know there are scientists who think human subjectivity is an illusion, they call our feelings, and our discussion of our feelings, ‘folk psychology’. It made me wonder if I had had some great revelation, that I was now experiencing a direct unmediated reality, where my thoughts could be seen for what they were: a tape playing out, playing out and repeating itself.
I read about other stuff. I’d started to believe I was in the presence of something evil, so I read about evil. But for evil to be a force it requires one to believe in an opposing force; to become trapped in the cat’s cradle of faith. Then I read about humanity being alone in the universe, our insignificance. Of the universe not knowing, not caring about our existence. Of not noticing it. There was much talk of indifference. But it wasn’t the universe that was indifferent. How could the universe be indifferent? Indifference, to be something so positively malevolent, has to be human. It has to be what we do to ourselves.
I’ll finish now. It has been an effort to write while all the time there’s this tape playing out in my head. But sorry I’ve said that already haven’t I.
I told myself that I couldn’t have made it turn out any differently, that she was mentally ill, that it was something chemical that the doctors should have treated; that she should have been looked after. But there had been a point when I hadn’t really cared about her when I should have done. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.
When Elaine came out of her office the next day to talk about some work matter, I looked at her close hand, smelt her perfume as she leant over me. I told her that I needed to see her tonight.
“Shush,” she said, looking around.
But she replied to the text I sent her later. We’d meet in one of our usual bars.
I bought flowers and waited at a table, not minding the grins I got from some of the customers, eyeing the blooms as they rested across the dark mahogany. I needed her to know what I thought about her, the way the relationship could go. We should be open
at work, even if it meant me moving to another team or another office. It was
time to get on with our lives.
I drank two pints while waiting, then got her text. I rang back immediately.
“What do you mean you’re not coming?”
People in the bar heard me. I could see them smirking, looking at my bunch of flowers, at the scowl I was making into the phone.
But she was adamant. We would talk about it another time. Well maybe not tomorrow but soon.
I left the flowers on the table.
After Elaine told me it was all over between us a couple of days later, I promised myself that I wouldn’t behave badly. I rang her a few times in the evening telling her that I’d really like to see her, that I thought things could be resolved. After a while she stopped answering my calls.
I still saw her at work, of course. Every day she looked better. She had grown into the job, assuming a sort of swagger as she negotiated her way around the desks, her wonderful little body dressed in one or other of those professional suits with the short skirts she now wore every day.
When she spoke to me it was always about work. She used my name very precisely. Paul, she would say, I’d like you to have another look at this module. Or: Paul I think you need to re-do this. She grinned rather than smiled and she made sure her body never brushed against mine, or touched me in any way.
My evenings became a bit of a blur. I went to some of the bars that we used to go to; drank too much and thought about everything that had happened. I realized that I was waiting.
When it finally came I knew that it was not that I was being punished. Punishment would mean that something was paying attention to me when in fact I know that I had come to inhabit a vast indifference.
This morning I awoke hung over again. The curtains were closed and the light from outside was dulled by the heavy cloth so that I wallowed in shadow. I would not go to work today. I tried to think about what I should do but it was difficult. There is darkness in the foreground of my mind, a darkness that occludes thought. I see it form. See it move and somewhere something screams. Then it begins again. The scene playing itself out, over and over. Just like a tape.
Issue #2 Contents
The Heart of the Labyrinth
Where I Choose to Wake
They Don’t Move Like They Used To
The Dubious Apotheosis of Baskin Gough, Part Two
Patrick S. McGinnity
Lazarus Walks, Part Two
Gary Budgen grew up and lives in London. His stories have appeared in various magazines including Interzone and Dark Horizons and most recently in the ‘Where Are We Going?’ anthology from Eibonvale Press, edited by Allen Ashley. Visit him at http://garybudgen.wordpress.com.