Just wait for the party
‘Why not just burn everything?’ Sarah puts down her cup and reaches for the bottle. She pours herself more wine. On the table, all the glasses are full.
‘You know we can’t,’ I say.
‘Why not? Let’s just get rid of them, once and for all.’ She gestures at the plants making their way through our windows, through every crack in the walls. Around our kitchen and living room, short green stumps line the edges of the ceiling like sharp poking fingers, their flesh covered with a thin powder that looks like sand, like dust. Every so often, I wonder what it would be like to run my fingers along their flesh, to squeeze it till it oozes. But I never do. I know what would happen; I have seen the pictures.
Now and then, David’s foot kicks into one of the big green stems that sticks out from the floor, under the kitchen table. Whenever we chop it down, it grows back. Like it’s dead, but not quite. It’s like all the other plants; you can’t kill them with knives, and you can’t kill them with fire. Sarah knows this, but she just wants to burn things.
‘It’s boiling in here,’ David says, beads of sweat shining on his skin.
Sarah nods. She gathers her braids on top of her head to cool the back of her neck. Sophie is the only one who doesn’t seem bothered by the heat. As I reach for my glass of wine, she removes an invisible speck of dirt from her green satin jacket, the one embroidered at the back with a big coiling snake, always coiled always grinning. The green makes her red hair look even redder.
Across the table, a single ant makes its way towards a small patch of unidentified grease. Anton crushes it with his thumb and opens a beer. His hair is slicked back, sweat or water like he’s just put his head underneath the tap. Anton is the oldest member of the house, always fixing things and trying to ensure we don’t engulf the space in noise complaints.
‘You guys should get started,’ he says, looking at David then at me.
David and I are on window-duty. We walk to the corridor. It is full of broken wood, empty paint buckets and deflated tires. It used to be someone’s workshop, before they moved out. Now it’s just where we keep the bins, the giant sign saying ‘It’s 10 o’clock do you know where your Clitoris is’ someone stole from the V&A, and every single mattress ever left behind by past housemates. All this stuff makes the hallway look like a squat, except that we pay central London rent and aren’t allowed to smoke crack in the kitchen.
One by one, we drag the mattresses into the living room. We slot them into the windows as best we can. It’s not the best soundproofing but it dampens most of the noise and keeps the council at bay – prevents them from asking too many questions about the warehouse. Not that the space is illegal, we’re just not supposed to live here. On paper, it’s only artist studios so every so often the council comes round and we have to hide all the beds. Make the bedrooms look like not-bedrooms, the open space like a workshop space.
‘This place looks like a padded cell,’ Sarah says when the mattresses are in place.
‘You just wait.’ David hops to the wall. He flips a switch and everything turns green. ‘Atmospheric lighting. You like it?’
‘Like a greenhouse for the mad,’ Sophie muses.
‘And check out the toilet!’
When he turns on the bathroom light, the bulb glows red.
Once everything is ready, we go for a smoke. We climb the short ladder that connects my bedroom window to the roof. We often use this spot for midnight barbecues in the summer. It’s not that high up, but from here, if you step on a box, you can see a fair bit of Hackney, the road leading to the shops and all the warehouses still in use.
Anton sits down and stretches his legs. Sophie wraps her arm around his waist.
‘Apparently there’s going to be a storm,’ she says.
I shrug. ‘Yeah, maybe.’
Anton peers at the ground below us, his face dark from the night. ‘Look at those,’ he says. ‘They’re getting bigger.’
Underneath us, everything black. But the sickly sour smell of sap saturates the air. And then looking deeper, the dark shape of leaves, their bodies wide and flat like tropical plants. No wonder they enjoy the heat. No one knows where they came from, some people say Japan, some people say Hawaii. Some people even say nowhere, that they came from here. One day they just started spreading. Their roots are so strong they grow through concrete; no one knows how to get rid of them. All you can do is trim and trim, and avoid walking into them, because their flesh stings and cuts and every day on the news, someone ends up in hospital.
Down below on the street, the industrial area is deserted save for one woman, walking alone across the empty carpark. The woman makes for the road but slows down instead, puts a hand on the bollard, bends over. She vomits something. From here it looks pink, translucent. She does it so quickly, like checking the time on her watch.
‘Do you think she’s ok?’ Sophie asks.
David buries his hands in his pocket.
‘I’m sure she’s fine.’
‘Someone told me that if the plants dig their way into your garden and you spend too much time there,’ Sarah says, ‘it can make you sick. Just the smell, apparently, that’s enough to make you sick.’
The great, big leaves, glow softly beneath us, with their green flesh and delicate pink rims. Their stems are pushed so tightly together the ground hasn’t been visible for months.
When people arrive, they turn up in small groups. The room fills with a mixture of friends and strangers, people who live in the area, and others who prowl the neighbourhood at the weekend in search of a party. I pour myself a glass of corner-shop wine. In the green light, the severed stems look even larger, their long, curly claws swirling their way inward in between the oven and the freezer, filling every gap, like the room is bursting at the seams.
‘Anton might be right,’ Sarah says. ‘These are getting pretty out of control.’
‘I guess so,’ I nod. ‘The stems aren’t poisonous, though, I actually find them quite pretty.’
Next to us, David takes out a tiny see-through bag and places it on the counter. He crushes crystals between Sarah’s bank card and a plate, sprinkles even portions onto half sheets of rolling paper. We swallow the wraps with sips of my beer.
‘I heard about a girl,’ I say, ‘she got so wasted she fell into her own garden and cut herself on the edge of every leaf. The toxin went straight into her blood and she died.’
‘What?’ I say. ‘It’s true.’
‘Just don’t go falling into any bush, then,’ David laughs.
Sarah leans back on the counter. She rests her head on a greasy cupboard.
‘Easy to say.’
‘No hanging out near gardens when you’re drunk, that’s all I’m saying.’
‘It wouldn’t happen if every inch of the ground wasn’t covered in fucking toxic grass, though, would it?’
‘Sure,’ David says, ‘but you can’t change it, so might be easier to just watch out where you put your feet. Some people even wear wellies.’
He wipes the corner of his mouth, opens another can. Around us, the kitchen crowds up.
‘People are just stupid,’ he adds. ‘They aren’t careful. Even this place. Give it one month and we’ll be overrun, it’s like we’re asking for it.’
Sarah licks the back of the NatWest debit card, slides it back in her wallet. She starts rolling a cigarette and David reaches for her rolling papers.
‘Hey,’ she snatches them away from him, ‘you could ask first!’
‘Sorry. Can I? Can I have a paper?
‘You can. Just one. But buy your own cigarettes.’
‘I can’t. I’ve stopped smoking.’
Sarah rolls her eyes, punches him in the arm.
‘I’m gonna go see who’s around,’ she says. ‘I’ll catch you later.’
We watch her back slide in between other backs. She vanishes into the crowd like an octopus through a tiny hole.
In the living room, one hundred entangled limbs shake in time to the electronic soundtrack. A projector spits out silent animal documentaries above the dance floor. It was David’s idea. Visuals of zebras drinking water around a pond, and deep down we all know, that we’re just waiting for the lion to turn up. Anton and Sophie suck on each other’s ears. David dances with semi-closed eyes. A man places a silver crown on Sarah’s head. She smiles. Next to her, a woman takes her hand. She pulls Sarah’s body against hers, bites into her lips. Sarah’s fingers bury themselves into the woman’s flesh, diving in and out of her clothes. Grainy black and white footage of birds in flight land on their skin.
I see people I know. I say hello to strangers. My tongue is numb and the joints of my hips feel elastic, a tangy current buzzing right underneath my skin. My eyes roll in their eye-water. I try to control myself but I find my lips stretching around my teeth. Time slows down, speeds up. Minutes turn to hours. I see drunk people breaking glasses. They are apologetic, they do their best to clear their mess but a woman who was dancing barefoot steps on a shard and screams, her voice drowned by the music, so only the shape of her mouth, hollow-extending.
‘Where is Sarah?’ Sophie shouts over the noise.
‘Do you know where she is? Haven’t seen her in a while.’
‘I don’t know,’ I shrug. ‘Upstairs?’
Sophie nods. Pulls on the snake of her jacket.
‘I’ll go check on her.’
I feel very high, so I follow Sophie. We push and bump into drunken bodies, we make our way to the roof but Sarah isn’t here. We climb down the ladder and head for the first-floor bedrooms. A few people sit in the corridor. They move their legs as we walk past. Against Sophie’s door, a couple kiss. Then, further in, a man bumps into me. He stumbles: drunk, drunker than me.
‘Sorry,’ he says.
‘It’s ok,’ I mumble.
We knock on Sarah’s door. No reply. Sophie pushes it open, the lights are off. She flicks them on and there is Sarah, standing, leaning her back against the wall.
A hand pulls me back. David, standing in the corridor.
‘Hey, do you have a bandage? This woman who stepped on the glass, she’s bleeding quite a lot. It’s making a mess, do we have an emergency kit somewhere?’
‘Sure,’ I say, ‘I just––
‘Come on, it’ll just take a minute.’
Sophie walks into Sarah’s bedroom, closes the door behind her. As she does, I see Sarah’s body through the slit. Her face is pale, unsmiling.
David has only just moved in, he doesn’t know where things are, so I show him the small emergency kit near the downstairs workshop. He pulls out some cotton and a roll of bandage. In the bathroom, the screaming woman sits on the tub, her foot resting on the toilet lid. Everything is red.
‘This is… grim,’ I manage to say.
‘It doesn’t look that bad,’ David replies.
‘No, I meant the lighting.’
He kneels near the woman. I’ve never tended a wound and I feel drunk and sick, but David says he used to be a boy scout so he knows what to do. He pours some of his drink onto the woman’s foot. She screams louder.
‘Vodka soda,’ he says. ‘Better than nothing.’
Her two friends hold the woman’s hands as David stuffs cotton pads onto the wound. He wraps the bandage around it like I’ve seen him wrap sausages in cling-film. Behind her on the tiled wall, a small green leaf has managed to grow overnight. It looks like a tongue in the red light, almost brushes the tip of her hair, but I don’t mention it.
Back in the kitchen, I retrieve a can of cider from my cupboard, the little one near the oven. The metal is cold, I press it against my skin. I try and focus on a single point–– a cigarette filter on the counter–– to stop the room from spinning. When Sophie reappears, her face is scrunched-worried around her nose.
‘Where is Sarah?’ I ask, my eyes throbbing in their sockets.
‘She’s on the roof.’
‘Is she ok?’
‘I… don’t know.’
David joins in, we huddle next to the sink.
‘What’s happening?’ He asks.
Sophie pulls the cider from my hand, takes one long, inebriated swing.
‘I think we need to shut down the party,’ she says, her voice shaking.
‘I… Sarah said she went up to her room with this girl, the girl she was with earlier,’ Sophie says. ‘The one with the pretty earrings, you know?’
We say no, don’t remember, didn’t notice the earrings.
‘Well… she went upstairs with her and they hooked up and it was fine… But afterwards the girl went back downstairs, and Sarah stayed behind because she couldn’t find her tobacco.’ Sophie takes another gulp, swallows. ‘But then this guy walked into her room. She said it was like he’d been waiting outside.’ She puts down the cider, her red hair is damp with sweat around her forehead. ‘I think we should call the police.’
‘We can’t call the police,’ I articulate. ‘We’re not supposed to live here.’
She pulls on her red curls, her mouth shaped like insect wings.
‘I know, but… shit. You know what Sarah’s like. She doesn’t want to go into details, but something happened.’
David looks at her, his fingers scratching the grease on the hob.
‘What do you mean, something?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I don’t. What do you mean?’
‘Did he assault her?’ I ask.
Sophie nods, eyes on her can. ‘She says she doesn’t want to talk about it…’
‘Are you sure? David asks. ‘Here? In the middle of the party?’
‘Yes, I’m sure!’ Sophie says. ‘Why is it so hard to believe?’
‘It’s not, I just…’ David looks around. ‘Then we have to find him,’ his voice rises above the music. ‘We have to––
‘Does she know what he looks like?’ I ask.
‘It was dark in her room, she only half-saw him.’ Sophie bites into a strand of her hair. ‘She says he was tall, short hair. She says he was wearing a leather jacket.’
‘Half the people here are wearing a leather jacket,’ I say.
‘So we should call the police.’
‘We can’t. Everyone’s too high right now.’ I say it and as I do, I hate myself. But I also know that we have a no-police rule, especially during parties. They both look at me.
‘Then we shut down the party,’ Sophie says. ‘We can’t stay here and do nothing!’
‘If we shut down the party,’ David replies, ‘the guy will just leave with everyone else.’
‘But we have to do something…’
I try and keep my face from stretching. David rubs his eyes, his mouth.
‘We have to find him.’
We search the living room, the roof, the bathrooms. We ask people, we scrutinise faces. We try and check everywhere but it’s dark and we don’t know what to look for. Some of the men are tall but don’t wear jackets. Some wear leather jackets but are short. One of them is tall and wears a jacket that reeks of leather, but his hair is long. Sophie says we have to turn on the light, but how would that help? We don’t know half the people here.
‘Fuck!’ she shouts. ‘What do we do?’
‘We keep an eye out,’ David says, ‘there’s nothing else we can do. And tomorrow we call the police. They can request access to all the CCTV in the area. They’ll look through all the footage and they will find him.’
Or maybe they won’t. I feel nauseous. I want everyone to go home, but it’s only 2am and new people are still coming.
‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ I say. And then I actually am.
In the bathroom, I kneel in front of the loo, but all that was to be puked has already been puked into the kitchen bin. I stand up. I wash my mouth. In the mirror, my eyes are round like squirrel eyes. Back in the corridor, I walk past a group of friends dressed as plants. They wear green clothes and their faces are wrapped in pink fairy lights. I feel the urge to touch one. I do. The plastic is warm. I stroke one of the men’s green hoods; he looks at me like I am mad.
‘Sorry,’ I say, mouthing carefully. ‘I am a texture tourist…’ I try and keep my teeth together as the man stares at me.
‘Ok,’ he says.
He smiles at me and I smile back. Then I think that maybe this is the man who attacked Sarah so I stop smiling. Then I think that she would have mentioned it if the man had been wearing fairy lights so I smile again. Then I think that Sarah will probably be fine so I smile harder. I think that Sophie probably misunderstood because this is a nice party with nice people and my blood rushing through my body feels soft and bouncy like there is nothing to worry about. Then I remember that I am still high as a kite and Sophie gets ahold of my hand, pulls me away from the bathroom.
At the edge of the living room, I try and dance, to stop thinking. A few meters ahead of me, the blue light of the projector casts a halo around Sarah’s face. She dances alone, eyes on herself. Her face is closed. Her body stiff, robotic. Footage of lions lands across her cheeks.
‘She shouldn’t be here,’ David says. ‘Why is she here? Why doesn’t she––
‘Leave her alone,’ Sophie replies. ‘She says she doesn’t want to talk about it. So leave it.’
David scans the room, grinding his teeth.
We dance and dance, and we still look at faces but time extends. Eventually, the party slows down. Only a few people left on the dance floor: those who took too much or have a real love for shit techno. I feel a gap in the fuzziness but that’s ok; I feel almost, practically sober.
We climb our way back onto the roof; that’s where everyone is. Up here, someone says there’s a storm coming. They say there’s a storm coming and we say yes, but they’ve been saying that since yesterday, so when is it really gonna come?
David pops a fresh can of cider. He shakes his head.
‘I can’t believe we didn’t find the guy.’
‘I know,’ Sophie says. ‘I’ve told Anton. He thinks we should have shut down the party. But I saw Sarah, she says she’s fine, she says––
‘Where is she now?’ I ask.
‘I have no idea.’
We make our way to the edge of the roof. Around us, people are standing, smoking, talking. I sit down. My eyes are still pushing inside my skull. It will pass, I know, so I look down at the ground. I see green leaves, hanging from underneath the roof. They really do get everywhere now. Sometimes, one of them even will pop its head in my bedroom. Whenever it does, Anton puts on the thickest rubber gloves and cuts stem to stop it from becoming poisonous.
‘Have you ever touched one of them?’ my fur-lined tongue asks.
Sophie looks down. David bends over too.
‘Once,’ David says. ‘I went for a walk alongside the canal and I tripped. I fell into this massive bush. It wasn’t too bad in the end, but my ankles looked like minced beef for a week.’
‘That’s disgusting’ Sophie says. She plays with the zip on her jacket. On her back, the coiled snake opens its mouth even wider. Even at a party where everyone is slick with sweat, she carries herself like a priestess, a red-head medusa.
‘I always wonder what it feels like,’ I say. ‘I’ve never actually touched any of them, but I keep imagining what it would do. I’m never going to try, you know. But sometimes, I just wonder… you know?’
Around us, the space is crowded, bodies pushing against one another. David nods. He checks the time on his phone. Only a few minutes, he claims, and dawn will come. Only a few minutes and things will start to light up.
‘So there was no storm,’ I say. Across, at the far end, I can see Sarah, standing, drinking her drink, looking at something.
I get up and try to make my way to her. I push past one, two people, then I push a little too hard and the man next to me almost stumbles and falls. But he doesn’t fall. He is tall, he wears a grey t-shirt and a leather jacket. He looks familiar. He looks like the man I bumped into on my way to Sarah’s room. I look at Sarah, she looks at him. I’ve not seen that exact expression on her face before. A very blank look, absolutely still.
Next to me, David says dawn will come now, anytime now. And it’s true that we can see better already, the ground and the leaves and their pinky-green flesh. The man in the leather jacket stands in front of me. His head is bent, slightly over the edge. I take a step forward; he looks drunk, or high. I take another step. So many bodies pushed together on this roof. In my hands I hold two cans of cider. When I tilt my weight forward, they press against his back. Amongst the noise of the crowd and the receding dark of the night, I can smell the leather on him, feel the heat of his sweat. I can see dandruff on his shoulders and his hair, short, clinging to his neck. A few meters away, Sarah stares at me, ready to pounce or to run. And I know that if I were to push only a little bit, the man’s body might tip over.
I heard a story once, about a man who decided to go for a walk alone at night in a park and stepped into a hole. He snapped his ankle and fell into a giant bush of leaves that had never been trimmed. And because his ankle was broken, he couldn’t move all night. When some passer-by found him in the morning, his body was covered in miniature cuts and all his blood had been drained. His skin was pale like cream cheese. That’s the thing with those green cuts, sometimes, if they’re badly placed and you can’t move quickly enough, you just end up losing too much blood.
I inch a little closer; David sees me. He looks at me, then at the man. He stands still for a moment. He shakes his head. I won’t do it, of course I won’t. I would never – we don’t even know if this is the right guy. But I push further forward; the man’s body feels so malleable, so light.
In the story, come sunlight, the man’s hands looked like they’d been scraped white with sandpaper. I’m not sure if he survived. That’s why they have signs now, in parks, that say ‘Don’t walk alone at night’.
I push a little further. There is slight resistance but a stumbling one. What would the man look like, falling into the leaves, his body sprawled like a flower? I know that David is walking in my direction. That he is extending his arm like he wants to stop me; I push a little more. On one side David’s face says no, no, no, but in the folds of my ear I can almost hear Sarah’s voice. I look at her and the look in her eyes says yes, yes, yes.
All I want is to know what would happen. What it would do. Whether the man would remain on the surface, like landing on a bed. Or whether he would disappear entirely, his body swallowed by the plants, their cushiony flesh opening for him like giant, salty pink mouths.
That really, honestly, is all I want to know.
Laurane Marchive is a French writer and director living in London. Her stage work, a mixture of immersive theatre and contemporary circus, has won numerous awards, including an Off West End Award. Her writing is forthcoming or has appeared in 3am Magazine, The London Magazine, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Review 31 and the TLS. She was recently longlisted for the BBC Short Story Prize (2019), shortlisted for the Spread The Word Life Writing Prize (2019) and the London Short Story Prize (2020). She is now longlisted for the Spread The Word Life Writing Prize (2020).
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