This story isn’t easy to tell. It’s a bit like one of those obscure films where nothing happens for hours but then you realise that, somehow, everything has changed.
It started the day I met Jonah. He was coming out of the tunnel by the bridge and heading for the quay. I’d been cleaning in Gateshead and was walking down to the bars to hand out business cards before I went home. He was beautiful and almost invisible in the darkness. The street lamps made his face glow like living mahogany. He scowled at his phone and shoved it back in a pocket, hunkering down into his black duffel coat. A sharp cloud of breath rose over his head and hung there like a half-hearted halo. His coat didn’t seem to be giving him much protection from the December chill because he shivered violently as he stepped into the road.
I wanted to catch up, say something, break the ice, but he was moving too fast. Plus, I’m only small and my little legs were no match. Rush hour had morphed into a multi-headed metal monster, sucking the oxygen out of the air. I watched him slide between cars and buses with the grace of a bad-tempered panther.
At the top of the bank leading down to the quayside, he stopped, eyes on the bridge. I had been so intent on watching him, like a crazed stalker, I hadn’t noticed what was happening. The green steel of the Tyne Bridge rose ahead of us into the starless sky. A helicopter was buzzing overhead, the searchlight bouncing off the stone structure. Police swarmed the bridge, the traffic snaking into Gateshead.
A man was threatening to jump. He was on one of the ledges, clinging to the side, his back to the road below. Terrified.
I caught up with my quarry and stood beside him.
‘He’ll not jump,’ I said.
The beautiful dark face turned and I risked a look into his eyes. He was surprised by something.
‘It’s just attention-seeking,’ I continued.
The scowl returned and he looked like he was about to have a massive go at me, so I bolted and left him standing there with his mouth open. So much for breaking the ice. I marched down Bottle Bank towards the river, my backpack rebounding against the base of my spine, like I was flagellating myself for being such an idiot. It always went like this. I tried to fit in, be a good little cog, but I was incapable of being normal.
I crossed the Millennium Bridge, rainbow lights dancing over the arch high above my head, and made for the nearest bar. Normally I wouldn’t be seen dead in the Pitcher and Piano. It’s not for the likes of me: self-employed cleaner and professional freak, second-hand clothes and messed up hair. Bars like this are for people with aspirations, people with futures, people clambering over each other on every available ladder, people with money, people who would rather die than clean their own toilet.
I pulled off my purple beanie and slunk through the glass doors, scanning the patrons for potentials. Flames flickered in the artificial fire, the mantelpiece arrayed with candles destined never to burn. The swanky bar was filling with Friday-nighters determined to wipe every trace of the week out of their heads. In an hour it would be too busy to conduct business, so I got to work.
I made my way around the tables and was so intent on hustling I didn’t see Jonah come in. There was a group of rowdy execs in cheap suits hogging the sagging brown leather sofas. They were already drunk so I should’ve known better than to speak to them, but what the hell. They surrounded me in seconds and I had to do my best impression of my mother to get them to back down. The one with a pink face to match his tie took a card and squinted at it. He leered up at me. I knew what was coming.
‘You can clean me up, pet. S’long as you do it naked.’
His mates jeered and clapped. I had no intention of mopping up after this oaf. I could imagine the mess, and the smell. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed his hand reaching for my bum. I waited until he was precariously balanced on the edge of his seat, then stepped aside. For a fraction he appeared suspended, then gravity did its work and he hit the floor in a bewildered heap. I fixed him with my best withering look and plucked the business card from his sweaty fingers.
‘For that, you can clean up your own bloody mess.’ I turned away as the men hooted and pelted their hapless friend with nuts and pretzels.
That was when I saw him. Duffel coat slung over a stool, suit unbuttoned and tie crooked, he was sitting at one of the high tables, picking at the label on his Stella and watching me, a faint smile frozen on his lips. I started towards him and he looked away, swigging from his bottle.
‘Did he jump?’ I said, trying to look like I cared.
He looked surprised again. ‘I don’t know. You seemed pretty sure he wouldn’t.’
‘You don’t kill yourself in rush hour.’ I handed over my card. ‘I’m Zoe. I clean stuff.’
My business cards are pretty basic. They read ‘Get your house Green Clean. Zoe Popper’ and have my phone number along with a picture of the mops and buckets from Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You know, the one where Mickey Mouse gets in trouble for messing up his magic. All he wants is to clean up without having to do any work, but the spells go wrong and he ends up with hundreds of mops and hundreds of buckets all marching about the place causing mayhem.
‘So d’you use magic to clean stuff then?’ he said.
‘If only.’ I plonked myself on the stool opposite and gave him a long searching look. My blood was buzzing around my body and I wanted to work out whether it was the start of something special or just my ovaries acting up. This seemed to unnerve him and he took another long slug of beer.
‘What’s a guy like you doing in a bar full of wankers?’ I said.
He gagged but managed to swallow, then looked a bit lost, which made me smile. I should explain something about my smile, and I’m only going on what I’ve been told; never been on the receiving end. It’s a smile that can stop a man at twenty paces, make him forget his own name and give away all his worldly possessions.
It seemed to do the trick anyway, because he relaxed and smiled back.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ he said.
‘I thought you’d never ask,’ I beamed back.
He returned from the bar with another beer and a glass of red wine for me. I don’t normally drink, but this was a special occasion and it gave me the opportunity to watch him twinkle-toe to the bar and back. He moved as if his body were made of music and my heart sung at the sight of his neatly tied brogues dancing across the floor.
‘I’m Jonah.’ He set my glass down.
‘Like the whale. No, the whale wasn’t Jonah. No-one knows what the whale was called. No-one thought to ask, I expect.’ Stop rambling, Zoe.
I put my bag on the floor, then picked it up, put it down again. I couldn’t settle. Jonah went off into his own little world while I was trying to make myself comfortable, so I sipped my wine and watched him. He pulled out his phone and checked something, sighed then slammed it shut with more force than it merited. I guessed women trouble.
‘Was she mean?’
Jonah looked up sharply, surprise all over his face. I had to stop doing that to the poor guy.
‘You some kind of psychic?’
I scoffed into my wine. ‘Hardly.’
‘She dumped me by text. Can you believe that?’
‘There were three kisses.’ He held up the phone. The text read: ‘Snot wrkin ur doin head in. Sorry xxx’
I duly grimaced. ‘She thinks you’re too good for her. Hates herself, probably, but then a lot of women do. A lot of people. You’re better off without her.’
Jonah nodded. I think he’d already figured that one out for himself.
‘So Zoe, what do you do when you’re not cleaning?’
‘I clean a lot,’ I shrugged. ‘What do you do when you’re not hanging around bars moping about being egregiously dumped by a bitch?’
Jonah laughed. It was a beautiful laugh, deep and resonant, with the tiniest hint of a little boy delighted and excited just to be alive.
‘I’m a paper pusher in the barren corridors of toothless bureaucracy. Riding a desk until overtaken by pension or senility,’ he said.
‘You’re a poet.’
‘Singer-songwriter. My band’s called Dionysus Wept.’
‘Did he? Weep, I mean. I didn’t know that.’
‘Yeah, it’s all about divine craziness,’ he said, dark eyes flashing. ‘He’s a power of nature, a mad, furious inspirer, descended from fire. He was born with horns and a crown of serpents, torn to pieces and boiled.’
‘Ouch.’ My wine was finished. I clutched the glass in my hand and leaned forward, all mock concern. ‘What happened?’
‘Don’t worry,’ he continued with a smirk. ‘He was reborn and raised as a girl, but his stepparents were driven mad. Someone or other turned him into a ram and he was looked after by nymphs, which can’t be a bad thing, and then he invented wine.’
He tapped a fingernail against my empty glass, letting it ring out. As if set free by the sound, my mind relaxed and opened out, and I felt myself retreating down a long corridor, the bar becoming an echo chamber. I tried to hang on to something solid, something real: the sound of his voice, the glass stem in my fingers, but it was too late. I was going.
I can’t do this, not here, not with him watching. What will he think? What will he do?
My eyes left Jonah’s face and drifted up. His voice came to me as if underwater, each word sending out ripples into the space around us and tremors through my body.
‘Got a bad rep for driving people nuts if they didn’t honour him. A bunch of pirates jumped ship and became dolphins, which sounds more like fun to me. But to get to the point, when his friend and lover Ampelos died, Dionysus wept. Either his tears were wine, or they turned into wine, or a vine grew where they fell, depending on which story…’
He stopped talking. My mind unravelled into tendrils of vines wrapping themselves around the furniture and up the walls. Plump golden grapes hung, glistening from the vine. I wanted to reach out and pluck them, devour them, but I knew that was taboo. They must be offered, freely given to those who pass through the narrow gate.
I felt Jonah shake me. I couldn’t respond. It was the beginning of the end.
When I came to my mind was fuzzy with warmth, like I was wrapped in slowly baking pastry. It wasn’t unpleasant so I lay there until the flames reached my face. Someone was shining a light in my eyes. I squeezed them open. Above my head was a square patch of sky, the sun blasting me awake. Clouds ambled past, hiding the sun long enough for panic to hit me in the chest. Where the hell am I?
I jerked my head around. I was on a futon in the middle of a room directly beneath a large roof window, the eaves stretching away over my feet. The walls were soft violet, there were a couple of dark purple lamps and a generous wooden wardrobe. A gentle ticking came from a small clock perched on a chest of drawers, above which hung a mirror framed with photographs. No clutter. No mess.
I lifted the covers and peered down, relieved to find I was still fully dressed. Someone had removed my battered trainers. I went back to watching the clouds change shape and tried to remember what had happened. The usual sickening blankness rose up and my mind reeled away.
Focus Zoe. Think.
A guitar was being played somewhere, possibly downstairs, and it all came back: the bar, the wine, the sadness in his eyes. Jonah had taken care of me.
I smiled and threw back the covers. It was good to meet a man who knew how to tie his own shoelaces, and the trance hadn’t freaked him out. At least he hadn’t abandoned me to the bar, or worse, called the police, or worse still, the hospital. How long had I been gone? Had I made a fool of myself? Most people kept away from me once they knew what I was like. Jonah had brought me home.
The guitar stopped and footsteps approached, coming up the stairs. My heart started pounding so I took a couple of deep breaths, tucked my hands behind my head and tried to act normal, whatever that meant under these circumstances. There was a soft knock at the door, then it opened a crack.
‘Hey,’ I said, trying to sound casual.
Jonah came in carrying a steaming mug of something. In place of the natty suit he was wearing jeans and a black vest. He perched on the edge of the futon, looking nervous.
‘Hey.’ He put the mug on the floor behind my head. ‘Coffee.’
‘Thanks. Not for the coffee, for the… well, yes, thanks for the coffee too, but… y’know, for last night, for looking after me.’
He smiled and a warmth spread through my chest and down to my fingers. Heat flared in my cheeks so I sat up to distract myself. Jonah glanced away and scratched at his head like a confused puppy.
‘Does that happen a lot?’ he said.
I was startled for a second, then realised he meant the trances.
‘On and off since I was a kid. Doesn’t usually happen in public like that. It’s, um… well, I’m just bonkers.’ I laughed, hysteria bubbling too close to the surface for comfort.
I took another deep breath and willed myself to be calm. It was always like this on Re-entry, like coming down off a drug high. The trance itself felt great, like nothing could ever be wrong, like coming home. Then on Re-entry you crash, hurtling back to earth, your body weighs a ton and the world is too loud and in your face.
I never told anyone about my little trips away. Even when I was a kid I knew that was risky, I mean, look at what happened to Dad. And here I was going the same way. I tried to keep busy, keep thinking, but it wasn’t working. My mind was determined to betray me. I would be found, like my dad, standing in a field wearing nothing but boots and a poncho reading poetry to cows, and when they tried to take me away I would clobber the poor doctor over the head with Leaves of Grass.
Walt Whitman had a lot to answer for.
Jonah cleared his throat and shifted anxiously, bringing me back to the present. He probably wanted this crazy woman out of his flat so he could get on with his life. I opened my mouth to apologise and secure a hasty exit, but Jonah cut across me and we spluttered into confusion.
‘I’ll leave you to…’
I wanted to dive under the duvet and hide. When the silence had become unbearable, I tried again.
‘Um… can I ask? You’ve been so kind, and I was just wondering, I don’t know, maybe you’re as crazy as me underneath, or something, but, why did you bring me home?’
He gave a tiny shrug, like it was nothing, ‘I didn’t know where you lived and I didn’t want to call the police.’ A shadow fell across his face, then was gone. ‘And besides, I couldn’t leave you there. Not in a bar full of wankers.’
We laughed and the tension between us evaporated. He was about to stand when I noticed the tattoo on his arm. A vine, like the one in my trance, wound around his left biceps opening in a flower on his shoulder. Peeping from under his vest I could see a hummingbird in flight, its long beak poised to drink nectar from the flower. Without thinking, I reached out to touch.
‘This is beautiful. Can I?’
He smiled assent and I ran my fingers up the vine, following the contour of his arm. I slowed as I reached the flower and the edge of his vest, and wanted to sink my teeth into the smooth dark chocolate of his neck. I snapped my hand back and felt my face glow.
‘Grab a shower if you want.’ Jonah stood, flashed another brilliant white smile and left the room.
I clasped the coffee mug in my hands and inhaled. Steam curled across the opaque surface and I felt my mind loosen, as if I were the one twisting and folding over and around myself, turning to vapour, edges blurred, spreading out, fading…
Shit. Focus. This couldn’t keep happening. I didn’t even understand what was happening.
I glanced at the clock. I was going to be late.