Waking from a dream is never as peaceful as it sounds like it should be. Lorelei started awake as the night’s images faded from her mind and shivered as the icy immediacy of her bedroom’s reality took over. She bundled the covers around herself and let the cold draught from the cracked window bring her to the day. Light began to percolate through the blinds and outline the forms around her: the pockmarked wooden desk in the corner, the fireplace opposite with its cast iron grate, the half a dozen books on the mantlepiece above, and the faded Delaunay print on the wall above the bed, unstuck and drooping in the top right corner. With the addition of a second-hand but well researched stereo system, these were all the furnishings of the small bedroom.
Lorelei blinked and rolled out of bed in one movement, grateful for the woolen socks that protected her feet from the chill of the hardwood floor. She made her way to the kitchen at the back of the two-storey terrace house whose lower floor she had, in the last couple of months, made her home. She took a matchbox from above the stove, struck the last match within, and snapped it. Lorelei hunted through the drawers for a new box, wondering half-heartedly if the fact that she had successfully struck the previous forty-nine had anything to do with breaking the last one. Unlikely that there be such a conspiracy. With the gas stove flickering into ignition, she filled the kettle and placed it on the hotplate. Whistling a tuneless melody, she measured out three spoons of tea then held her hands on the kettle until it got too hot to touch. A thump from directly above announced that Mrs Collier had found her walking stick. Why the old lady insisted on remaining on the upper floor and navigating the narrow stairs twice a day (but never more), Lorelei did not presume to understand. She poured the tea and carried it carefully to the table in the tiny backyard, kicking the door snake into position to ensure that she would not find herself locked out.
Lorelei acknowledged the briskness of the air on her face as she sat and sipped her tea. She tried to do just that, sit and sip, nothing more, making a conscious effort to note, if not quite appreciate, the impressions her senses brought her. This was a recent development, this purposeful intentionality of action and reaction. She rolled a cigarette beneath her finger, left on the table from yesterday when she had chosen, as she would today, to leave it unsmoked. Its thin paper was damp with overnight dew, letting Lorelei mould the leaves within with her touch. How did it get there? She had placed it there, of course, as a reminder of her choice to quit, as a temptation to be overcome, but where had it been before the packet, before her purse, before the shelf behind the counter in the corner store? Was the tobacco grown and imported from Southern Spain, or North Africa, or across the Atlantic from the Eastern United States as the most recent link in a chain of events stretching back to the colonisation of the New World by her compatriots coming up on four centuries ago? It is both liberating and crushingly oppressive to see oneself as a product of history. Lorelei dismissed the thought and returned to her tea, observing the richness of flavour beneath the initial bitter note and resisting the urge to inquire as to its origin. She finished her mug and went inside.
Lorelei grabbed a coat on her way out and shut the front door behind her, cringing as the wind caught it and slammed it shut. Mrs Collier would not have ignored that. The streets were beginning to fill with life as Lorelei made her way through town, watching her steps on the slick brick footpaths, wet from overnight drizzle. Passing a fenced-off construction site, two workers looked up from their steaming thermoses to watch the tall woman with the dark hair pass by. She met their gaze and one nodded at her. Lorelei passed the imposing Presbyterian church and turned onto High Street, catching her reflection amongst the posters of Brighton and the Costa del Sol in the window of the travel agent. Entering Callendar Square, she dug her hand into her pocket and took out her keyring and ran her fingers over the bottle opener, silver cross, and five centime piece that were affixed, before finding the well-worn brass key that would unlock Revolution Records, the small and not-so-well-stocked record store that was nevertheless popular, perhaps by virtue of its being the only one in town. Lorelei let herself into the shop and flicked the lights on, making a mental note to turn down the central heating before Jodie arrived.
Lorelei glanced at the calendar on the wall and noticed the big red circle around the day’s date. She hurried to the loading dock out back and crouched down to examine the package delivered overnight. Lorelei ran a fingernail along the packing tape and ripped the box open, smiling to herself at the sight of 60 copies of The Cure’s newest release Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. She heaved the box onto her hip and carried it inside, placing it on the counter. After arranging the cassettes and LPs prominently at the front of the store, she slipped one cassette into her coat pocket and placed two more on the counter by the cash register. She was just returning from hanging her coat in the back room when the bell above the door tinkled.
“Bit warm in here, innit?”
Jodie bustled over to give Lorelei a hello hug and an exaggerated kiss on the cheek. Her round face was rosy from the cold outside.
“That was a brisk walk alright.”
“Mark didn’t drop you off?”
“I told you, Mark’s visiting his brother in Manchester. I told you that at least twice. And anyway, right now I don’t think he’d be too willing to drive me anywhere, even if he was here. I told you all about that, too.”
“You did. I remember now.”
“But anyway, I had a right good night, thanks for asking. I went over to Will’s, you know I’ve been seeing him a bit recently, we was just watching telly and all that, right, and before we knew it it was midnight and too late for me to go home, obviously, so he was a proper gentleman and invited me to stay over. Smells kind of funny in his bedroom, though, and there’s a stain on the ceiling that seems to be getting bigger.”
“Sounds to me like that kind of conclusion would require at least two separate observation, wouldn’t you say, Jodie? Or are my maths off.”
“Okay well maybe it wasn’t my first time staying over. Or even the second. But you’re the first person I’ve told! I was just waiting for the right time. Anyway, it’s not serious, me and Will. Just don’t tell Mark. It’d be serious to him, know what I mean? He takes everything so seriously.”
“Won’t say a word. I promise. Listen, I’ve got some paperwork to do before Gerard comes to look over the books on Thursday, so I’ll be out back if you need me, okay?”
“Gotcha. I’ll woman the fort out here.”
“Take a look on the counter when you get a chance. One’s for you. Stick the other one on rotation.”
Lorelei sat at the desk in the windowless office and began to sort the mass of stock reports, balance sheets, and supplier invoices into something more manageable. A sudden wave of fatigue dragged her eyelids closed and pushed her back in her chair. She took a deep, satisfying breath and felt an enjoyable tautness in her torso as her chest expanded. It felt good to be trim, to cut out all the superfluous. Like she was becoming more herself. Lorelei liked that thought, and she held onto it for a moment before letting it drift away. She couldn’t have closed her eyes for more than a minute when she realised Jodie was gently shaking her awake.
“Hey, sorry, but I’m about to go on my lunch break. I’m starving.”
Lorelei brushed a lock of hair from her eyes and nodded groggily.
“Sure, sure, go for it. I’ll take over out front.”
“Want me to get you anything? A pastie, some chips, whatever you like. It’s on me.”
“No, no, I’m alright, thank you. I’d better get to doing all of this.” Lorelei pointed at the heap of papers. Jodie pursed her lips.
“Hey, Lori…? It might not be any of my business, but have you been eating enough? You’re getting awfully thin.”
Lorelei smiled faintly.
“I’m still here, aren’t I?”
“You are now, but for how much longer is what I’m worried about.”
“I’m sorry. I’m fine, really, I am. I’m just going through a bit right now, working some things over in my head, and maybe I don’t always remember to eat as much as I should. It’s nothing serious, really.”
Really, it was serious. Not so much in terms of the physical effects – Lorelei had only experienced a few dizzy spells and some moments of weakness that came on as quickly as they went, in fact overall she felt better and more energetic than she had when beer, sausages and mashed potatoes formed the bulk of her diet – but in the importance she gave her thoughts. It had become a quiet obsession, a personal project she knew she must keep to herself and enjoyed all the more for it. After a few difficult initial weeks, Lorelei was now at the point where she felt better with an empty stomach than after having eaten. Waking up to a mug of tea and nothing more keened her mind, sharpened her senses. She felt an almost imperceptible but definitely real buzz of energy, as if a generator were humming along on the border of her consciousness. She took pride in her self-denial. It was a well of strength she could draw on throughout the day and it made the choice to skip lunch or turn down a pastry as unthinking as drawing a breath. Lorelei’s pride, however, turned to condescension when she applied her personal standards to others. Watching other people eat didn’t revolt so much as disappoint her. She was shocked to imagine the amount of food a single person consumed every day, every week, every year, and could only understand abstractly the scale at which this must occur over a town, a city, a nation. Every loaf of bread required hours and hours of planting, harvesting, milling, refining, mixing, kneading, baking, and trucking. All that work for Lorelei to absentmindedly spread some butter and marmalade on a couple of slices in the morning, pick at a watercress sandwich at lunchtime, spoon some baked beans onto toast in the evening, and after a few days throw out the forgotten stale remains of the loaf. Eat, shit, repeat. The weight of everything she would ever have to eat felt physical, it bore down on her. When she multiplied her own experience to include everyone else on the planet, acknowledging their personhood as she knew she must though could never quite bring herself to believe wholeheartedly, Lorelei felt overwhelmed at the sheer quantity. She had reduced her own consumption to the bare minimum, as little as possible to keep her going. Worse than the hunger, though, was the shame, real shame, she felt when thinking about the lives she had taken, needlessly, unthinkingly, to continue her own. It is all too easy to rack up debts that can never be paid. Behind every loaf of bread might have been dozens of man-hours, artisans doing what they each do best, but behind the pork sausages hanging in the butcher’s window or the roast beef sandwich Jodie ate for lunch every Monday lay a simple, grisly truth. Not quite an inversion of the natural order, but a corruption, a perversion on an institutional scale. Comparable not exactly to the senseless, sick sin of a serial killer, but rather the sanctioned slaughter of a nation’s army, with responsibility abstracted away through the chain of command. A crime committed in another’s name remains a crime, though judge and executioner blame each other. She didn’t have to look far to see the consequences of this official illness. As the Troubles ground interminably onward, Lorelei felt trapped, like she couldn’t escape the subjugation and murder being wrought in her name. News anchors and archbishops trumpetted it proudly: God granted us dominion over the animals and Parliament granted us dominion over the Irish.
The images on TV were shocking. Lorelei couldn’t reconcile what she saw with the memories she had of her childhood trips out to her grandparents’ house in the country. There, she had looked into their eyes and seen something of herself. When she was little, she clung to her mother’s side the same way their little ones did, each cautiously eyeing each other as they approached. Lorelei would walk among them, running her hands over their smooth coats, unaware of their relation to the leather boots on her feet or the shepherd’s pie her grandmother called her inside to eat. The cows were her favourite part of trips out to the farm. On TV, they lowed compulsively, spun around frenziedly in the feed lots, charged the cameras, snorting, their eyes wide, terrified, as if they knew they were losing their minds. The news and tabloids called it mad cow disease, but the government officials and men in white coats made a point to call it bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Lorelei wondered how long it would take her to go mad if she were fed the remains of her own species. Born, quite literally, to die. And worse, it wasn’t enough for us to eat them, we had to make them eat themselves too. What was the effect on those who consumed this recycled death? Were we as far removed from our natural, possible selves as the deranged animals on TV were from the sweet creatures Lorelei remembered on her grandparents’ farm? Had we gone so far as to forget how things used to be? These questions tormented Lorelei’s mind as she walked the streets, passing the sick, frail, fat, and angry specimens of the modern experiment. She had hoped that the crisis would bring about the same reevaluation of habit she had arrived at a few months earlier, but with beef off the table, sales of pork and chicken caused a wholesale redrawing of the charts. Now she crossed the street when she passed the butcher, despite the fact that Mr Dunstan was the father of a friend from school and would wave to her from behind the counter. None of these little defiances were intended to form a statement, or serve any overtly political cause, but rather to constitute a small refusal to partake in a system she could not knowingly support. It brought her no joy, but the alternative would have killed her slowly from within. If Lorelei were to die, if that were one of the conditions we have no choice but to accept on our entry into the conscious world, then she was going to do it on her own terms.
* * *
Lorelei looked up as the doorbell chimed and Jodie strode into the shop. She brought both hands down onto the counter and looked at Lorelei expectantly.
“Guess who I bumped into on Callendar Square?”
“Oh, I don’t know, uh, Margaret Thatcher? Is it campaign time already?”
“Come on Jodie, don’t make me guess.”
“Oh… Great. How’s he doing?”
“Take a guess. He’s heartbroken, Lori. The boy’s not even close to getting over you.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not… I don’t… I can’t…”
“Can’t what? Can’t even talk to him? Look, I know everyone deals with this kind of thing differently, but I don’t know if you’ve dealt with it at all. Have you? You close yourself off, push everyone away. It’s hard to know what you’re thinking half the time, even for me. And besides, don’t you think you owe him just a chat? No-contact has got to be hard on anyone.”
“I’ll think about it. Okay? I will, I’ll think about it. I just need some time.”
That evening, Lorelei let Jodie head out early for a TV dinner date with Will. She accommodated the usual post-work rush, more of a trickle, really, then closed up the shop and headed out. The mornings were still cold as April turned into May, but the evenings retained the warmth of the day and each seemed to linger a little longer than the last. It was still light as she made her way through the town, walking nowhere in particular but not willing to go home just yet. She passed by the pub, where the lively hum occasionally erupted into shouts and cheers. Lorelei hadn’t had a single drink in the months since she broke up with Jeremy, and though she didn’t quite look back fondly at the hours they had spent together at the pub neither could she bring herself to feel quite as bitterly reproachful of the drunks who bumped into her, spilling their drinks and apologising slobberingly, as she had come to feel at the end of the relationship. Of course it wasn’t always like that, but Lorelei realised that something had changed when instead of bundling him off to bed with a glass of water, a mouthful of crisps, and a kiss on the forehead as they fell asleep listening to the well-worn Goats Head Soup LP spin softly on the turntable by the bed – a Saturday night ritual – Jeremey’s drunkenness made her feel like she could no longer respect him. The feeling would persist even the morning after. He didn’t drink any more than any of his mates did, he was never anything less than a lad from the village, but Lorelei began to see things in a new light. She stopped drinking, refused to go to the pub, wouldn’t even have a glass of wine with dinner at home – as if to prove a point – and though she denied it, Jeremy was right when he accused her of pulling away, of shutting him out.
Even before Jodie had delivered her unexpected update earlier that day, recently Lorelei had found herself thinking more about Jeremy. She wondered if she would always want what she did not have, and if after acquiring it would move on to the next dissatisfaction of her life. She was not convinced that she would trade what she had now for what she had with Jeremy, maybe not an exact trade, but was it really too much to ask for to pick and choose? Her life was a project that required constant management, and rarely did she find a sense of peace that quieted her concerns. She found it, though, that evening. Walking without a destination in mind, Lorelei followed her footsteps up the hill that looked over the town. The sun was setting over the fields to the west, and in the valley below the colliery was a hive of activity. She sat on a bench, on the back of which was a new brass plaque from the Historical Society that related the history of the cairn to Lorelei’s left. A cloud of smoke from the coal mine wafted in front of the sun and softened its glare enough that Lorelei could take in the whole scene without squinting. A whistle blew and she watched as men filed out of the mouth of the mine. Lorelei must have cut an unusual figure, because at least one of the miners raised their arm and waved to her. She tried to imagine how different the miners’ lives were to her own. Though they grew up in the same town worked and within a mile or two of each other, Lorelei could only wonder how spending nine hours a day in the mine would change her. She was glad they no longer used the pit ponies. It broke her heart to see pictures of the wee soot-covered animals dutifully accepting their fate underground. As a child Lorelei had begged her mother to take her to the mine’s open day, where the ponies were taken out of the mine and led around a field. Their heads were permanently bowed and the sun seemed to blind them, and Lorelei couldn’t help but feel responsible for the world that had caused them to shy away from the light and prefer the darkness of their prison. She had walked home alone in tears. When a couple of years later strikes crippled the country and the schools closed, sending students home to unheated houses, Lorelei was thrilled at the thought of the mines shutting down as she shivered in bed. It was a private satisfaction that she knew she could not share with any of her friends, many of whose fathers were going without pay, or her staunchly pro-union family. She locked away the thought and kept it to herself, to be accessed later when she needed to be reminded of her own individuality, however limited it may be. The recollection of these childhood memories was like smelling perfume after a day’s wear: the initial intensity of the top notes is gone, but in its place lingers a subtler evocation of the same feeling.
The sun had set by the time Lorelei reached the terminus of her train of thought. A cool breeze picked up and she buried her hands in her coat pockets. She felt a small, plastic case, and took it out. It was the Cure tape she had stashed away that morning. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Lorelei had intended to listen to it at home, but a new idea came to mind. She stood up and started walking back down the hill. Turning left at the town hall, she followed a serpentine street flanked on both side by brown brick terrace houses. As she approached number 39, her stride did not falter with indecision, she had made up her mind. Lorelei was surprised to see the old wooden gate whose rotten palings had been falling off for years replaced by a brand new, whitewashed piece of joinery. She bent down and went to poke the cassette through the slot in the mailbox, then realised it wouldn’t be much of a message by itself. She reached over the fence and opened up the letterbox from the back to fish out an envelope, adding mail tampering to the modest but ever-increasing list of crimes her day-to-day life as a subject of the Kingdom incurred. She hunted through her pockets and was relieved to come up with a pen. Pausing for a second to choose her words, Lorelei folded the envelope in half and wrapped it around the cassette. On its reverse she wrote: Special delivery. Let’s listen together? L. She placed it back in the mailbox and walked away quickly, looking back over her shoulder to confirm that the light in the second-storey bedroom on the left had stayed off.
Lorelei closed the front door to her house quietly behind her. She kicked off her shoes and went straight to the kitchen. She was hungry – not quite ravenous but a notch or two above peckish. She settled for a late-night snack of saltine crackers with marmalade and was presently surprised to enjoy it as much as she did. Brushing her teeth in the bathroom, Lorelei held her own gaze in the mirror. She felt glad to have her own company on this journey with an unknowable destination. She felt strong, ready to take the next step. She knew that there was a part of herself that would always belong to her, that she could always draw on and return to, and that this would not be killed by choosing to share the parts of herself which could be shared. She looked forward to listening to The Cure’s new album.