Is this what he’s come all the way to ends of the earth for?
You lean against the tent’s support. “What about Gibson? You two have a falling-out?” You’re waiting to hear a bawdy joke or a tale of woe. One thing one never wants for with Hickey is decorative language.
Hickey’s expression is somewhere between a look of embarrassment at being caught out and one of regret. “Best not to dwell on it,” he simply says.
“So, he’s out, and I’m in, is that how I’m to take it? Out of gratitude, on my part, I suppose.”
“No,” he says, looking almost sad. What an odd set his features have. It’s never exactly what you expect it to be, what it’s supposed to be. It’s like they’ve a mind of their own, a way of speaking independent of what the man wants to say. You feel daft, thinking that. “Though, if you did feel that way, it’d be understandable. We are alone out here. That loneliness will make a man grateful for anything he can get.”
It annoys you. When you broke free from Terror Camp, the relief mixed with the nauseous fear; the shock of the sudden reversal, as awful as it was joyful. After a time, you weren’t sure which it was anymore, gladness or sickness, or precisely what fate you were dreading or hoping for, or you started to lose the thread connecting the feeling back to something that had really happened. You were just feeling a thing, like you’d feel hunger or fatigue. It had made you giddy. It had driven you on, past the aching of your limbs and your guts. In your head, your throat, you’d felt every heartbeat, almost seemed to see them before you, like a lamp held in front of a window then taken away; the light winking out of sight, then back in. If he’d said something then, you might have succumbed. You mightn’t have thought anything of it. You might have fallen on him just to fall on something. Later, when your concerns returned to you, they seemed to rush forward all at once, like too many bodies trying to shove through too narrow a door. It’s made you heavy and crowded, on the inside. You don’t move very much unless it’s required, so you won’t dislodge one of your concerns. You don’t come to very many conclusions, because all conclusions have been placed before you, and you’re glad of it. You’re happy if you don’t feel very much in particular. You are resolute in this one thing, though.
“I’m not that lonely,” you say. Smiling, Hickey takes in a breath, pulls back a bit, as though wounded. “Why not turn to Mr. Goodsir? Or Mr. Des Voeux? Or Mr. Golding? They might even thank you.”
Hickey says: “I don’t want Goodsir, and I don’t want Des Voeux, and I don’t want Golding.” Now, he’s grave, looking as though the wound he faked turned out to be real, and it aches all the more for his having mocked it.
Is this how he convinced Billy? Maybe Billy hadn’t needed very much convincing. Some men just don’t. Some men don’t get the chance to learn what they’re missing before another form of relief presents itself. You know what you’re missing, though, and you know there’s no substitute. Anything less is worse than nothing. You get angry in a way, missing what you remember and know should be there, but isn’t. It’s better to push down the anger, along with everything else. If you push it down low enough, it’s like it’s not there at all. It’s like it never was. It’s like it couldn’t be. You’ve never had a longtime sweetheart, but you’ve had enough girls to know what the real thing is and what it could turn into. You’ve been within reach of it. You’ve had the semblance of it, for an hour or a night; a spell in a woman’s company, like cupping your hands around a candle’s flame when that’s all you can do to warm yourself. Even if that’s all you can do, you’re glad of it. If you let it, it’ll convince you that no other part of you is chilled.
Still, you don’t move. His smile fades a little, into something private, and he comes closer. You let him approach. You let him kiss you. He has to lean up a bit, and you have to lean down a bit, and your hands by reflex find his waist. It takes you a moment of idiot wondering before you realize that it feels strange because his form’s not as narrow as you’re used to. His hand on the back of your neck has the strength to pull you down to him, to hold you there, and you fret for a moment that you won’t be able to get away from him when you want to. Then, he lets you go, and he’s soft in that way he has, his expression too sweet, like somebody putting on a show. You want to tell him that it’s better if he doesn’t do that, but you don’t know why, not really. You’ve shown that you don’t object too heartily, and who else is there to see him? Who else will see the art for what it is, and think you all the more foolish for knowing it, too, and still allowing yourself to be taken in?
It’s not so very different from the women at the docks and in the public houses, though, is it? They go heavy on the paint, and all but the youngest ones stick to the shadows, calling out at you from the half-light or drawing you into a dark corner before they ask you to buy them a drink. If Hickey’s forgery is obvious, it’s only right. Even if you don’t have a coin on you. If you did, there’d be nowhere to spend it.
Maybe you are lonely, after all. You’re not sure if he says it, or if you only think it, but the words are there, and you decide to leave them as they are. If you kiss him, you can let them rest, so that’s what you do. You feel his tongue in your mouth, probing softly like a creature trying to find its way in the dark. The image fills you with a thrill of revulsion. Unwillingly, you think of rats on a ship. Strange, but that brings a kind of homesickness, too; of waiting to feel something that isn’t there anymore. You’re far from ships, now. You’re far from rats, too. You started away from him, and now, you feel silly for having done it. He’s looking at you, with great interest. You kiss him again. You let him do as he wishes. You feel him breathing, you hear him breathing, and you pull him in against you. You feel the heat of his body beneath your hands. There’s very little between his skin and the air; his skin and your hands. Under that coat, he’s naked, more or less. When you see him at a distance, it’s sometimes a shock, his underclothes now so long without a wash that they’ve taken on the color of skin. Sometimes, it’s not his skin that he appears to be wearing. Under your hands, though, it feels like his skin, his warmth bleeding through to you. Your hands were cold, and now, they’re warm.
He pulls back, sheds his coat, careful not to let it touch the ground, then strips completely. The fallen clothes with their flesh color look like butcher’s scraps, and you feel for a moment a longing that curls into sickness and unfolds back into longing again. You feel hunger when you touch him on his bare skin, turning into a kind of jealousy, a kind of meanness. Maybe you are willing to take what you can get. You’re willing enough to hold onto it. He must feel a chill, then, because he puts the coat back on. Then, you’re just feeling around under it. With your eyes closed, you’re sometimes not sure what you’re touching. The lining’s worn so soft in places that it’s stopped feeling like cloth. He takes your hand, and before you’re aware of what he’s doing, he slips your hand into one of the coat’s pockets. Then, he’s moving you around, moving your hand, shifting you to his liking. Even with your eyes open, you’re not sure what it’s meant to accomplish. You step back a little, look down, pull aside the coat. There’s no mistaking that.
You think of Lieutenant Irving, the state his body was in. You’d decided that you didn’t believe it. No, that’s not true. You didn’t decide anything. You didn’t think about it. You’re not thinking about it, now. You’re not wondering if Hickey’s thinking about it, fucking himself in your hand, wrapped in the lining of Irving’s coat.
You never saw the body for yourself, anyway.
It doesn’t seem to excite Hickey so much as it does to tickle him, like he’s won some sort of game. He slips your braces down your shoulders. He’s easing you back onto his bedding, and what catches your attention is all the things you can feel under it. Shales, and maybe soil, even, the bits of the shales that got ground up. How can he sleep on this? It’s too thin. Your head sort of sinks down. It must be where he lays his head. It’s left an impression. So that you feel halfway underground, lying back, looking up at him. You think of that boy you buried. It seems like it happened a long time ago, but the memory is as close and clear as if it happened the other day. Was it you? Were you there? For its closeness and clearness, it takes on the character of a drawing you saw someplace. It was so good a rendering that you took it on, made it part of you.
He weighs nothing. Less than nothing. He’s half your size. He’d be easy to shake off. Yet, he makes a kind of impression. You think of a pin pricking a finger. The pin doesn’t have to be large to hurt. It only has to have a point. His hands are at your belt. Stupidly, you wonder what’s going to happen. You could end it all, right now. You’d go on as if nothing had happened. Hickey would make it up with Gibson. It’s a pointless grudge to carry when Gibson’s obviously not long for this world. When Gibson dies, Hickey will move on to somebody else. Hickey won’t feel hard-done-by. Whatever you don’t do now, he knows what you’ve done for him in the past. He’d be dead without you. The thought makes you angry, for a reason you can’t place. You could kill him. You could wrap your hands around his throat and strangle him. Strangely, the thought steals the anger from you. It leaves a hollow feeling. How hollow a feeling it makes, the idea of having come this far just to-
Just to what-
You think of Heather.
You make yourself not think.
You push Hickey’s hands away, undo your trousers, pull them down. He’s kissing you again, his hands on you. Then his mouth. You could pretend something. You know what the real thing is. This is also real, because it’s happening. It’s inescapable. Stiff with oil as it is, his hair feels soft beneath your hands. His mouth is soft. He knows how to avoid catching you with his teeth. He touches you, in an idle sort of way, gently, like he likes the feel of you. You’re filled with a heavy ache. You hear yourself make a soft sort of sound. He hasn’t been at it that long, but you begin to feel the end coming.
As soon as you think it, he pulls away. You breathe out hard.
“Turn around,” he says.
It defies sense, but you do it anyway. Like this, he could cut your throat. He could do anything. Your breath hitches. Your heart beats in your throat. You’re too far in this to be anything but curious. Once, a girl bit you, on the shoulder. You hadn’t hurt her, so you couldn’t understand why she’d done it. You were too surprised to speak, to do anything. She laughed, and it was an old woman’s laugh. The cackle of a drunken old witch. She bit you again, and in a second, something in you resolved itself, almost without your noticing. If you knew her name, you can’t recall it, or even much of what she looked like, but you still think about her. You asked her to do it again. Her nails drove into your back as she moaned and called your name.
On your hands and knees, you feel your head fall forward, as from weariness. You think of the day you were nearly hanged. Fighting the outrage was the sense of satisfaction. For the first time in a long time, you felt like you were part of something. Like a piece in a machine, responsible only for what it could do, doing its part perfectly, making the thing run. Everything in perfect working order.
The pain, now, is different. It’s full and sharp. More than a bite, because it’s in your whole body. Perhaps it’s like something’s being bitten out of you, from the inside. You don’t think of the creature. You push back against Hickey. You hear yourself make a sound, more of effort than pain. Hickey laughs. He tells you to relax. “There’s nothing to ease the way,” he says, “so you’ll have to let yourself be opened.” In irritation, you look back, over your shoulder. You can’t see anything of Hickey, but a vague, dark shape. You can only feel him. More and more of him, entering you slowly, until you think you’ll split in two. But you remain whole. You must, because there’s something left to enjoy. You hear him.
He sounds as false as a common whore.
His hand is on you again, and the feeling creeps into you, like something you’d forgotten. You don’t know how it’s possible, so you simply feel it. It’s not like when she bit you at all. That was bright and hot, and you could move. This is bitter, and dark, and you’re all but bound, hemmed in by Hickey’s body behind you, his hand between your legs, fixed to him. You have nowhere to go but further into it. You let him push you, you let him take you there. You feel yourself shake. You let out a stupid sound, more like a gurgle than a moan. He moves you further, still, shaking the breath from you, the pain undiminished, but no longer alien, an imposition. Mixed with your pleasure, it’s part of you, now. It’s left in there even when he withdraws, leaves you feeling hollowed-out. He touches you on the shoulder, and you understand that he wants you to lie on your back. It’s a relief. You feel finished. He sweeps aside the coat, and lies atop you. He kisses you, and you kiss him, and you feel him bring himself off, rubbing against you, smearing your skin with God knows what.
Though, you know what it is, too.
You’re tired now, in a way you haven’t felt in a long time. It’s not the fatigue of on-coming collapse, not the heaviness of sickness, the wringing of hunger. Your body feels like it belongs to you. You recognize it again. You bring your arm up, reach under the coat, and lay your hand on Hickey’s bare back. He breathes out deeply, your hand falling with his body. His breath fans your neck, your cheek.
After a moment, he rises, finds a bit of cloth and cleans you both. He lights a cigarette, passes it to you. You take the smoke deep. You breathe it out. You pass the cigarette back to him.
“Anything to say, Mr. Tozer, to mark the occasion?”
You’re still uncovered. He’s looking at you, like he finds this amusing, but also, with hunger. Maybe that’s what’s amusing to him. Finally, a hunger he can feed, but it’s just as unyielding as the other kind. Give it what it demands, and it’ll come roaring back almost immediately.
“Not a damn thing. You, Mr. Hickey?”
He smiles, but doesn’t say anything. Just draws on his cigarette. Looks. Watches. Then, he’s had enough, puts out his cigarette, and lies back down next to you. You put your arm around him, half expecting him to push it away. He doesn’t. He moves closer, and you hold him closer, still. Sleep is coming for you. It’s the wrong time of day for it. Someone could come looking for Hickey, and find the two of you like this. You imagine it, see it happening. It stirs no reaction in particular. You’ve finally done it. For the first time, you don’t have to force it. You think of nothing. There is nothing.