“Musk” is the first chapter in Polis Loizou’s novel Disbanded Kingdom, published on 05 June 2018 by Cloud Lodge Books. Reproduced with the kind permission of permission of Cloud Lodge Books. Copyright ©Polis Loizou 2018. All Rights Reserved.
Maybe God is the man he needs.
Midnight’s been and gone, left him stranded in a part of the city his feet have never tramped before. An odour with a tang, like the remaining salt in a tub of popcorn, hangs between the blocks of flats. Then there’s the scent of the man himself, tossed back and laid out to guide him, a leather road through the dark. It’s a shaky need taking hold of Oscar, for the stranger to turn around and notice him. One look, then the guy can carry on walking.
The noise of boys ricochets around the streets. A droning rap and a dancehall rhythm, pumping from about the wheels. It comes back to him, that story glimpsed in strangers’ Metros on the tube. A man got stabbed to death in Croydon, waiting for a bus with his kid. Same could go for him tonight — could be scraped off the curb tomorrow with the dog turds and phonecards for Zimbabwe. The thought propels him along.
The stranger’s legs vanish down a side street. They blinked grey in the streetlight and then they were gone. It was those legs that spurred Oscar on in the first place. Caught his eye in Caffè Nero, when the man stood up in his sharp grey suit, tailored to fit, and dragged his eye further up it ‘til Oscar was in Heaven. All other noise in the place had ebbed. That loungy cover of Nobody’s Fault but Mine coming out of the speakers, sung by some chick far from Nina. Woman sang like she was hosting a suburban barbecue, not mourning her soul in a Baptist church. (Water and fire — faith is elemental, essential.) Back in the café, the man in the grey suit looked to his left, his lime eye trapping the sun. Cut Oscar’s breath in half. The guy was hunting, or angry, or horny. Man on a mission. And when he stepped out of the place, Oscar was three steps behind him.
But that was hours ago. The sun has set, the streets have emptied. The stranger’s gone from coffee alone to beer in a pub with friends, and somewhere along the way there was the Central line. Bodies pressed together in the rush-hour clash, a guy with sweat patches in Oscar’s face and a stout woman with fake nails clipping her iPad. A Nigerian voice in the platform speakers, Do not obstruct the doors. There was Charing Cross Road, people with placards decrying something, Tories or terrorists, then Chandos Place and then the Strand, and an old woman with a shawl playing Strauss on a violin as pedestrians passed by. A strand of her hair caught in the breeze, or maybe it was gelled, or so filthy it stood starched and erect in the night.
Now they’re in the post-midnight streets, a far cry from Kensington. Far from Charlotte.
She’ll be in bed already. She’ll’ve checked her watch and turned in. Straightened his duvet and patted it down in lieu of his thigh. The thought of Charlotte, of going back home to her, makes his stomach go cold. It’s not as if anything has happened, other than they forgot how to talk to each other. It used to be easy to play Mother and Son, now it’s an endurance test. The time has come to fly the nest.
Grey-suited man has turned a corner. He’s been prowling all night, an old-world lycanthrope. The Wolf-Man. Leather shoes on his feet, pointed at the ends and pricking the air. Sharp white teeth, flashed once when he answered his phone on the Strand (the noise of buses drowned his voice out). If only Oscar could touch, and be touched, by this body that won’t even glance behind it. There was a moment at the pub earlier, one of those joints made of polished wood and stained glass, where the man turned to his friends and looked in Oscar’s direction. The only time he looked at the boy, and didn’t even see him. Guys used to, before whatever lever was pulled and their dicks fell limp. Should’ve landed a daddy when he had his pick of them. Too late now. The sell-by date sailed by without his even noticing it.
Wolf-Man stood up from his table of buddies. He was going to come over, to flash a grin, punch him, have his way.
Instead, he took his grey-suited self over to the bar to buy another round. His jacket was off, a waistcoat hugged his back. Man was a moving statue, put him on the fourth plinth. Not like his Cityboy buddies back at the table, swigging beers as their shirts cradled man-boobs and bunched at the shoulders.
Wolf-Man’s the sort of man who’ll turn his back and walk away.
What time is it? What day? The Cityboy friends were wearing pink, so it must be a Friday. Or it was, in any case. Saturday’s crept up on them, wherever they are.
No text from Charlotte. She’ll imagine he’s out with friends, Chelsea girls, sipping bubbly in the backs of cars.
The man’s strutting along, who knows where or to whom. Some wench with a beauty vlog, probably. A stylish young bitch in a scarf who’d take it standing up. It makes him cringe. Feminists would slap him, Bella would slap him. But it’s too late. The lust has taken hold, parted Oscar from his mind. A man has got into his head again, an untouchable, and he’s stepping out of his sharp grey suit.
He’s everything Terry wasn’t. Pecs like seat cushions, thick hairy arms. He’ll wear plain black shorts beneath the trousers, not those ironic-pop-art trunks from H&M. He could grow a full beard if he wanted to. His socks are a single colour and they match. His lips are full. He knows you want him. He doesn’t like Shoreditch and he’s never heard of Mumford & Sons. He’ll never write you a song and he’ll never kiss your cheek on the tube. He knows what he’s looking for.
When Oscar’s thoughts turn to Terry, the boy is always cool in a cloud of smoke, on a red leather sofa. He stares at Oscar, like that first time, and he smiles as he sips his G&T. Mother’s Ruin. Then they’re walking along South Bank, hand-in-hand, weaving their way through the crowds and marvelling at the German Christmas markets. The chocolate-covered fruit and coils of bratwurst. Beer in the air, grilled meat. Terry’s black-and-white scarf. His surprisingly deep voice, like a late-night DJ’s. That voice hardening as he stands with a taut back across the room, packing his bags and laying their romance to rest.
Unreal as it sometimes seems, it happened. It was, and then it wasn’t.
There’s nothing in Oscar’s room to remind him of Terry now. All that remained were the parting gifts of Bella, Maya and Lukas, former friends of Terry’s who switched allegiance in the split. But each of them holds a dozen memories, flashbacks to that old romance, spring-loaded to attack at any given moment. Filmstrips loop in Oscar’s head. They play and repeat, and cut, and pause.
Terry in a cloud of smoke on a red leather sofa, smiling as he sips his G&T.
Terry on a red leather sofa.
Terry and his G&T.
A dull ache grinds its way around Oscar’s sternum, feels like a spiral or an opening hand. This must be what a tapeworm is like, slithering through your body, munching you skinny as a cokehead model. Or maybe the hunger’s more basic. Maybe he should stop at a Subway.
Something in the air says the Thames is nearby, but surely they travelled North? Maybe they’ve ended up in Camden, Islington, Little Venice somewhere with canals. In any case, a territory untouched by Charlotte’s radar. Graffiti on the walls, FUCK THE SYSTEM and YES, as if in conversation. It would scare her.
Oscar’s thoughts must have stayed his pace, ‘cause Wolf-Man is far ahead now.
A voice is drifting through the maze of dim-lit blocks. His. The Wolf-Man’s.
He’s on the phone to someone. Oscar’s whole body tenses, his every hair stands to attention — the thousands, the millions…
‘Yeah, mate, just getting home.’
And with that, the old sadness descends. Wolf-Man’s voice is from a different being. It’s too high, too London for those teeth, and those arms, those legs. Throwing words like awesome and pissed around like an undergrad, when he should’ve had the gruff voice of a fairytale woodcutter. Bark and musk. Terry wins that round.
A car screeches in the distance, makes them both turn around. It’ll be a gang, jumpy-edgy boys with knives. Or Charlotte in a cab, come to take him home.
Neither. It’s gone. The quiet takes hold once more.
And the man is facing his way.
Everything goes still. Oscar’s been caught by those lime eyes. The stranger’s face is hidden in shadows, its expression unclear, but he’s undoubtedly looking in Oscar’s direction. Now’s a time to pray, for faith to do some good.
Oscar’s heart freezes. His body goes into autopilot, leans against a lamp-post, without his having planned it. A body made of fumes, pigeon shit and discount porn. The filth of the city. It’s lucky he looks so down-and-out, faded T-shirt and well-fucked Converse. Lucky that the dye-job has rusted to pastiche. The man will think him a tramp, or a really shit rent boy. He ponders Oscar. He knows. He’s going to come over and slap him, rent him, push him into a canal. Instead he turns his back.
Oscar can’t follow. It’s so much easier to lean against this wall in the dead of night, to feel like a whore rather than to be in love.
Polis Loizou is a co-founder of London’s Off-Off-Off Broadway Company, which primarily performs his plays, and has had a series of successes since their first hit at the Buxton Fringe in 2009. His short stories have been featured in The Stockholm Review of Literature and Liars’ League NYC, and he is a frequent contributor to Litro Magazine. Born and raised in Cyprus, Polis is currently based in South London. Disbanded Kingdom is his first published novel.