The sight of Nudge was psychedelic. Nathaniel was instantly nauseous, over-stimulated, hypertensive and hallucinatory. There she was, half-naked and half-hanging out of the bed. The carpet beneath her head was soaked and she looked beyond unconscious. One arm embraced the pillow that she had dragged away from its partner which was cratered where another cranium had been. The vision was ecstatic in a very bad way. The bed rotated one way, the bedroom the other, the bedstead rattled a heartbeat, its finials danced, shimmied and smiled. “I’ve taken nothing,” he thought; and then: “why did I think that?” “You’ve taken nothing,” declared the bedstead finials in harmony, the end one doing a descant. His mind had not needed perception polluting substances. The sight he saw was sufficient to intoxicate him. Nudge, his childhood friend, who he had refused to see as pubescent, let alone adult, was there; younger than he but much more grown up. She’d had something that he had not. More than something, several things, and by the look of her, far too much too soon and at once. She was not his responsibility, nor was she his competitor, his comparison, his exemplar, his bad company, or his good friend. She was his forerunner, his pathfinder, his mind-altering scout, his bohemian better. How dare she? Why shouldn’t she? How could she? How cold she? She looked very cold. Very cold. Very cold indeed. The bedstead finials pirouetted, twisting their iron abdomens. “She’s very cold, she’s oh so cold,” they sang. “But how cold is she? Is she…? Is she…? Is she a little bit dead?” Nathaniel’s head swirled. Was he going to have to tell Mrs McBudge that her daughter was a little bit dead? So what? It wasn’t his fault. But it was his fault. He’d told Nudge about the attractions of 13A Bohemia Way. She gone there because of him. And now she’d gone a little bit too far; or all the way. Or both. The finials banged their iron tear-drop heads. “What shall we do?” they sang., then looking at him: “What shall he do?” Take her pulse, he thought. Find her pulse. He never found her pulse because his own plummeted and he dived headlong into a vortex of bedsteads and body parts. The back of his throat gagged on a glycerine pole of seaside candy rock which his jaw could not snap because it was iron and rusty. His nostrils flared, his sinuses were all aniseed and seaweed, his sweat glands shivered, his hairs did handstands, his diaphragm fog-horned, his stomach spasmed, his lungs aspired to be airships and began breaking his ribs from the inside. Then there could have been blackness, but his brain sheathed him in hippo skin instead. The hippo belched and popped him out though its naval then restrained him with its armchair arms, its leathery womb, its cracked hide outsides. He was compressed in Telescopic Titus’s seat. An unshaven person with a gold incisor and a grin with a gap was close by, proffering a cup. “Have a sip of tis,” he said. Nathaniel told his hand to move. It waited, then complied. The cup was warm. The liquid smelled of the churchyard. He sipped the warm water. It tasted of headstones. “What is it?” The stubbled person grinned wider, showing another gap. “Nettle tea.” “Nettle tea? It didn’t sting.” The prickly-faced smiley one trembled gleefully. “It didn’t sting!” From his throat came the echo of ten thousand twists of tobacco. “It didn’t sting!” He coughed and his lungs knocked out a punch line drum ripple. “Sip some more.” Nathaniel swallowed a cruet’s blessing of dearly beloved rain tears. He did not smell nettles. He smelled bereavement. He felt his forehead tighten and his eyes pull into longer focus. The curate had bristles that were grey and black, skin that was old and young, eyes that were closed and open, hair that was braided and free, teeth that were gold and gone. “What happened?” asked Nathaniel. The voice of Telescopic Titus started somewhere in the distance and extended towards him. “You swooned.” “And fell at her feet,” chortled the nettle-celebrant steadying the cup of intercession. His other hand appeared like a dubious angel bearing a gravel-topped candle which the curate kissed and then sucked. He ingested and expelled the seraphim spirit to make wings of smoke that smelled of the forbidden fruit tree. Nathaniel looked for Telescopic Titus but could not see him anywhere. He saw instead his mind’s eye memory of his grown-up childhood chum, hanging half-brazenly out of the bed next door. He felt faint once more. “Swooned?” “Sip tis,” said the semi-toothed minister, but he offered not the cup, but the burning bread of heaven, the twig of incense, the glowing Adam rib of hemp temptation. Nathaniel had never communed before, but now he sucked a vow and ascended. He felt sick and then slightly serene. “Better?” inquired the reefer acolyte. “Yeah man,” said Nathaniel, provoked not by cannabis but by the carnal knowledge that he’d finally ingested some. “Drink,” said Telescopic Titus, who suddenly came into focus by the door. Nathaniel took the cup. He did not like the flavour of the nettle brew, but thought he’d better do as the older, longer, lock-relocator instructed. He probably has the key to unlock me, he thought. He drank two stems worth. He nodded towards the spliff. The ringleted angel passed it to him. Hey! he thought. I’m holding a spliff. He sucked strongly and coughed like a seal. “Enough,” said Titus. Nathaniel took another swift drag and handed the epic torch back to its bearer, holding on tight to the cough that wanted to come, and to the sensation he imagined it gave him. The former forced itself out, the latter never arrived. He felt a little light-headed, but he’d felt light-headed for the last…how long? “What time is it?” he asked looking at his watch but not being able to decipher its semaphore. “Early days,” said the man with the smoky nettle stuff. Early daze, heard Nathaniel. Eventually they were downstairs, in the living room, draped on cigarette-burn pock-marked sofas, and on the floor, and the time it was no longer counted. No one had names, except Titus, and he wasn’t there; and Deborah, and she wasn’t there; and Nudge, who was there but not there and who didn’t have that name anyway. She was asleep – he hoped it was sleep – still naked, but wrapped completely in a dressing gown of cream and rose and which he hoped belonged to Deborah. Her head was half-submerged into a cushion embroidered with an Indian elephant (small ears, he noted) and a lush tree. Her feet lay across the lap of a man with a beard, a kaftan, small round spectacles and nipple-length hair. Nathaniel tried to count the others, but couldn’t be bothered. There were more than three and less than more than seven. That was fine. Everything was fine. He’d drunk something, eaten some cake, and shared a smoke. Candles burned. Something else burned. Incense. The room smelled of ecclesiastic pretence. The un-curtained windows were stained black, meaning, he part thought, that it might be night. He began to worry about getting home. About getting Nudge home. He said he ought to get Nudge home. A large woman smiled cherubically. The nettle tea man said there was no hurry. “I need to get her home,” protested Nathaniel. “No hurry.” An hour or more, or less, later Nathaniel said, “home.” His voice sounded like that of a seal pup. Not that he’d ever heard a seal pup speak. “I'd better go home,” he said. Then engaging full seal pup: “How?” Sweet nettle man said, “We got a barrow.” “I’ll use that,” said Nathaniel. An hour, or three, or more, or less, later a wheelbarrow squeaked along Bohemia Way. Inside lay Nathaniel. On his chest was a box with a key inside.
To be continued.
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First chapter: Mother Eartha