Leo reached across the table to a paper cup full of wooden stirrers. His hand met long, slender fingers tipped with candy apple red.
‘Sorry,’ he blushed.
‘No problem,’ she said, her mouth widening into brilliant white. She patted his arm, running her hand down to his wrist, where her touch turned to electricity. ‘You’re new here. I spotted you when you walked in. You have a very sexy stride.’
She smiled again, placing her hand on her hip. ‘I’m Beatrice.’ There was an acute on the “a” in her name. This complemented the question-mark of her black cocktail dress.
‘Leo,’ he murmured, looking down at the floor. His trainers were scuffed and he could see the frayed hems of his jeans had been muddied by a hundred unnecessary journeys.m
They turned from the refreshments table and Leo looked around the room. Others were beginning to take their seats. None of them looked particularly friendly, but they all seemed wary of one another, as if one of them – nobody could tell who – was hiding a loaded pistol.
Leo followed Beatrice and sat perched on the edge of a blue plastic seat. These were the kind he remembered from his schooldays, although his had been green. It seemed an important detail for him to recall, but it came to him vividly. It was the big things which eluded him: names of parents; names of pets. Reason why he was here right now.
Beatrice placed her had on his thigh. Her fingers danced up and down his leg, making it difficult to concentrate on much. ‘Do you like that, Leo?’
‘Hmm,’ he replied.
‘Maybe later we could go to bed. I go all night. I’m the best lay you’ll ever have.’
Had he ever come across a woman like her before? Did any woman speak like that outside of magazines or films? Something about her was familiar, like he had seen her naked before he had heard her voice. Everything about her pushed his buttons. She was the flesh of some elaborate torture he had yet to tire of.
Opposite him sat a thickset man dressed head-to-toe in corduroy. His spectacles were jammed into a wedge of greasy, dandruff-decorated hair. His piggy eyes followed a pencil up and down an attendance list. Odd, but Leo was sure his name was Gant. He tilted his head. I bet you speak like you’re swallowing your tonsils, and he was right.
‘Everyone set? Are we set? Let’s get ourselves set, shall we?’ Gant said, tapping his clipboard. Giant. That’s what you’re known as. Behind your back. How do I know that?
‘I always hated Giant when we were in foundation maths,’ Beatrice said, stroking Leo’s back. ‘The smell of him! Do you remember?’
‘We were at school together?’
‘When we were teenagers. I used to fancy the arse off you, remember?’
‘Never mind. I’ll still have sex with you,’ she said. ‘After this.’
Soon, the circle was complete. This was an eclectic mix. To Leo’s right, a slender druidical figure with a beard down to his ankles and hair all over his face. Leo could just about see his sparkling, cartoon eyes as they hummed with possibility. Balanced on his legs was a rugged, misshapen staff tipped with a metal which seemed to want to drip but never did. He was between Leo and a sharp tuxedo filled not with a square-jawed hero but an athletic female. She wore orange lipstick and her shirt was open to midway down her cleavage. She kept casting glances at Beatrice.
On the left next to Beatrice was a peasant farmer who Leo guessed didn’t speak very good English. He gave off a hum they could all taste; a mix of bodily odour and decay. He looked capable of extreme violence without a moment’s reflection. A grandfather, a ringer for his own, sat clutching a small boy with a hideous facial deformity. And, next to Giant, a single man just like Leo. It scared Leo how alike they were. It was like looking in a slightly smudged mirror.
‘So, now we’re set, shall we continue?’ said Giant, in that strangulated way Leo used to mock in the playground.
Leo’s twin coughed, just as Leo himself did when he was about to force himself to interact with people he didn’t know. ‘I think last week I was saying I still have the thoughts.’
‘How about this week?’
‘I still believe I’m God.’
‘And why do you believe that, Leon?’
‘Because I can convince people to do whatever I want them to. I want them to do something, and they do it.’
‘Isn’t that just charisma?’
‘I can’t explain it. Sometimes, I don’t have to say anything. They just do it. It scares me.’
‘Bullshit,’ said the ice maiden in the suit. She was American: hard-bitten, like a cliché which had swapped genders. ‘I want someone to do something, I put a gun between their lips. It’s fall in line or do the time.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ Leo whispered to Beatrice. ‘That’s a catchphrase?’
‘I think it’s rather good. Sexy.’
‘There was a time,’ the druid said in a voice which cracked like burning paper, ‘that gods walked amongst men. A time of alchemy and secrets. Those were dangerous times.’
‘Hey, Pop,’ Tangerine Lips spat back, ‘no punk here’s interested in your mystical mumbo-jumbo. This is real life, capische?’
‘Please,’ Grandfather said, covering the child’s ears, ‘for the sake of grace, be calm.’
Leo looked around the group. Fancy-dress was in vogue, but these people seemed to take their alter-egos incredibly seriously. He wondered again why he was involved here when he seemed to be the only normal person among them. As he watched the peasant take out a long, evil blade and start digging bits out of his forearm, causing crimson blood to drip to the floor and over his ravaged boots, the wonder was replaced with worry.
He mentally tried to retrace his steps. The last thing he remembered, he was sitting in a bar. It was a gloomy Tuesday, the rain lashing the pane like a fevered animal. The pub reeked of cigarette smoke as the warmth of the bodies caused it to ooze from the walls. He recalled turning to the barman, drunkenly requesting another short. He was unhappy about something. He started to laugh, though nothing about his life was funny. Then it went black.
Here he was. In some kind of group of assorted fuck-ups.
‘Leo, how have you coped with it so far?’
‘Confused,’ he replied. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’
‘It’s difficult,’ Giant said, his mouth drooping in solidarity. ‘But the first day is always the worst. Then you realise you would never have made it to the end of the story. You just didn’t have enough.’
Giant heaved himself up from his chair. He pushed it away, giving himself the space to walk around the outside of the circle. He shuffled behind the pensioner and his grotesque grandson, and with what Leo considered a kind sadness, heaved his clipboard behind his head and bought it flashing down, like a textbook forehand slice.
It met the top of the child’s head and the boy flew across the room. His startled grandfather raised his hands to his face. There was a point – and Leo thought this could have been the low light in the room – which made the old man’s hands look flat and fused together.
Leo started to protest, but as soon as the words formed they popped on his tongue. On the other side of the room, the luckless boy began to slide his legs from the floor. They concertinaed, folding along well defined lines, and he looped his two dimensional arms around his knees like a paper frog.
‘What the hell?’
‘He can’t hear you. He isn’t drawn well enough to have any senses.’
‘Only his face stands out,’ the druid said.
‘I don’t get…’
‘You’re lucky, Leo. You and Andrew over there are closer to him than we are. You’re versions of him he can dip into. Unfortunately, he didn’t know where to go next with your story. And so you ended up here with us.’
Leo stood up. 'I exist!' he cried. 'Look; flesh and blood!' He slapped his torso and then his face.
'He must have been very excited about you. Your story must have meant an awful lot to him.'
'I was the main character in some goddamn screenplay,' snorted the ballbuster in the tux. 'He called me Glorious Raine.'
'A searing epic played out over the lands of Lyraxia,' said the druid. 'The four tales would have taken him his whole life.'
'It's not so bad,' said Beatrice. She stood in front of him and placed his hand on her stomach. It was cold to the touch. 'Sometimes he finds a use for us. Another tale he needs us for. Then the door opens and you get this feeling that it's time to leave.'
Leo looked into her eyes. 'I remember you now. You were at school with me. You were the one he always wanted to ask out. The one he tried to write into his first story. And you,' he pointed at the madman with the knife, 'you were a gangster. A comedy he was working on.'
Beatrice smiled her dazzling smile. 'That's right! You clever thing.'
Leo began to cry, his hands over his face. He could feel them. This had to be a joke.
Giant placed a hand on his shoulder. Leo could barely feel the force he applied. 'Leo, what's next for you? What can you see?'
Leo chewed his eyes up behind his lids. He couldn't imagine the next part of the story, not because he couldn't, but because there was nothing but dark. His story had ceased to be. 'I...I...'
'In time, you'll come to realise how good you had it. He gave you space to live, to talk, to breathe. You were a part of him once, a person he wanted to tell people about.
'Don't feel bad, Leo. It could have been worse. At least he thought enough of us not to leave us unwritten. There's a chance we could live again.'
'You got that right,' Raine said. 'And at least we're not all used up and useless like those poor bastards in his short stories. Those guys...' She shook her head and went for more coffee.