Fiction: Breath by Tim Bragg

He says he can’t breathe. Says she is stifling him. Says that she doesn’t
understand him as the whole world doesn’t understand him. And what does she do?
She listens to him.
That evening she drives the short distance to his flat. The telephone
conversation was unfulfilling. He says little – or says too much. The walk from
her home to the flat is too risky at night. If she walks she has to consider
what she wears. And what does he want? She thinks about his wishes – whether he
still wants her. And she wonders whether he will say too little or too much.
The last time she walked from his flat the night had been sticky with lager and
evaporated urine. Boys hung themselves on street corners. The heels of her shoes
had clacked down damp alleyways and under murky sodium light. Close to the
presence of the boys she could only turn from their stare.
Greg had been with them in the flat. There had been an argument. Sitting back in
one of the damp armchairs she had turned an empty mug neurotically into the
seat’s brown fur.
Greg said, ‘What d’you mean you can’t take it anymore? What d’you mean? Think
it’s only you man, that’s had to take any shit?’
‘Shit? What do you know about shit? I’m talking about being beaten down, you
understand? I’ve been through enough. Enough. Tell me, what’s the point of
banging a head against a nail eh? What’s the point of banging on when nobody
listens? You know…when nobody cares?’ Andy sat back.
Greg leant forward, ‘Come on, who cares if no one cares? It’s got nothing to
do with anyone but you. You. Understand? You’ve given up. You’ve given up and
that’s all there is to say.’
‘I haven’t given up,’ Andy spat.
‘Then what’s all this “no-one cares stuff”? You’ve got to fight.’
‘Fight? Fight you say?’ Andy rubbed his brow repeatedly. ‘You reckon I
haven’t fought Greg? Eh? Reckon I’ve been sitting here like shit all the time,
is that it? Is that what you think? That I’ve gone soft. Can you believe this
Kate? Can you believe this is my so-called friend saying this?’
And he brought her into the conversation like he would always bring her into
the conversation.
The last time she walked from his flat she was wearing a long skirt – to please
him. To please him because she felt his distress. And she also knew that he
needed her approval. That what he said or wrote had to be validated by her. But
she didn’t necessarily give him her approval or validation – he had to earn
that. Yes she believed in him. She believed he had greatness; but not that he
was great. That was the worst of it.
The clack of her shoes was an audible spoor to the boys pissing against the
wall. It was not far to her home but the lemon lights exposed her. The skirt she
had worn for him restricted her stride. Under the lemon lights she felt the
curves of her body.
Greg had been there the last time she visited. She listened. Greg said, ‘You
can’t be true, real, unless you struggle. That’s what life is – what d’you
expect? Art is formed through struggle…’
Andy said, ‘You struggle too much and everything is smothered. You create
something but the labour kills it. I’m struggling to breathe. I can hardly do
anything anymore because everything gets strangled at birth. I begin but I never
finish. You think I’m exaggerating? Ask Kate. Kate knows.’

The damp chair hissed before the fierce heat of the gas fire. Air was eaten
up as the flames grew a deep yellow. Greg turned his eyes to her. What did he
care? The joint crackled in the ashtray. A layer of smoky imagination brought
the ceiling within reach. What had happened to Andy? Where was the spark, the
fuse, the splinter in the ice?
Kate turned the mug clockwise and lowered her lashes.
‘You know it’s easy for you,’ Andy began, ‘it’s easy when you see things your
way. And it’s different. You see the results. You see by hearing…it’s
spontaneous – and it’s born. People listen to what you do. You don’t struggle.
Sure you don’t get much money, but it isn’t about money is it? You do your stuff
and people get off on it. It’s tangible, concrete, out of one brain and into
another. Right?’
Greg sat up. ‘And you? What you do – it’s also fucking tangible.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘It’s there. It’s on the page.’
‘Ah. There you go. You see Kate? You see? This is someone who knows, you
know? Who actually fucking knows. Like he understands. And he comes out with
this. Jesus. The world is smothering itself. There’s a whole world whose face is
being stuffed with page after page of so-called literature and you say “it’s
there on the fuckin’ page”. Jesus. We’re suffocating man. You, me, Kate, all of
us. Suff – o – cating.’
She understands him. That’s what he says. Only her. And he needs her more than
anyone or anything in the whole world. The world he despises. Tells her that he
is out of time. His pupils dilate. For him she wears long skirts and high heels
– cursing herself for choosing clacking shoes with tight skin-nipping leather
nibbling her flesh.

Greg had left before her. The room had grown hot, the walls pressed close.
In a haze of blue smoke Greg had offered to walk her home. She had witnessed the
bruised look in Andy’s eyes. She would stay. Play his game. Listen.
She said, ‘I’m tired.’
‘Don’t go. I need to talk. I need to know what you think.’
‘What I think?
‘Yes, exactly, what you think. Stay.’ Adding, ‘Tell me.’
Measuring her words she began, ‘Greg sees things differently from you,
that’s all. You know that. You’re different from each other. It doesn’t matter.
Greg knows what he wants.’
‘And I don’t?’
‘I’m not sure.’
Andy said, ‘I know what I don’t want. I know how I feel. It’s like I can’t
breathe anymore. I wake up coughing. You’ve heard me. It’s like there’s a gluey
thickness gobbing my throat. I’m sure I can sense something. It doesn’t feel
natural anymore – the way I breathe. In the mornings I try and force myself to
be sick. When you’re not here…’
‘You never get up in the morning,’ she laughed.
His eyes flooded black, ‘Don’t. Don’t trivialise this. I feel like I’m in
one of those fucking iron lungs. Like I really can’t breathe. I wake up and the
air is grey and thick. It’s been getting worse. I feel the air is solidifying
about me. I just can’t breathe enough. And anyone wonders that nothing gets
finished, nothing gets written beyond the opening,’ he struggled for the correct
word, ‘breaths.’
‘Maybe you should see a doctor. You might be ill, have an allergy.
Something…’
‘There you go. You just haven’t got a clue. Not a fucking clue. Like Greg.
He thinks that making music is like writing down words. He’s surrounded by
fucking machines and people who act like fucking machines and now you’re telling
me to see a fucking doctor. Jesus. Jesus Kate, sometimes…Don’t you see how the
world is, how I am? Why the writing never gets finished?’
‘Well, how is this world? What does all this stuff mean? Why do you feel
so…so damn cheated?’
‘Cheated. Yes, yes, that is it. Thank you. That’s the whole shitty thing
isn’t it? You’ve hit the nail Kate. Thank you. You’re fucking marvellous Kate. A
genius. I’ve been cheated. Cheated. Simple. Simply cheated.’
And Kate thought he had seemed so much happier, when his life was so
reasoned.
They sat in silence for a time before Andy continued, ‘I’ve been thinking about
fish.’
Resting back into the brown fur she let her eyes drift to the lacy ceiling.
Smoke had entered her lungs so that she could still hear the voice of Greg and
the after-notes of the music he had written and played. And she saw the lost,
innocent face of Andy as he also listened to the music. In the closeness of the
room she saw his mouth pop open and his body seemed to swim through the smoke.
In that atmosphere his breath seemed to come freshly.
‘I’ve been thinking about fish. Fish move through the water completely at one
with it, right? They breathe through the water. Immersed. Cold, warm, hot. Who
cares? The fish is at one with where it is and what it breathes. A fish has an
ocean to swim in.’
‘If it’s lucky…’
‘Well that’s the kind of fish I’m talking about. That’s the point. All fish
can swim. While there’s enough water to breathe. You see? While it can breathe
it can swim. Jesus this room…’ He began to fidget. Kate saw his eyes squint as
if in pain. ‘It’s small. Like a goldfish bowl.’ He took gulps of air. Kate
tensed. ‘You know, here we are fighting for air,’ he got up quickly and opened
the window, ‘and a fish swims its beautiful sensuous path without thought of
what it is to breathe. Flapping its gills it glides through the oceans. It could
swim forever.’ He sat hunched. ‘There’s nothing for a fish to prove, nothing to
stop it from being what it is. A fish. And no more. It needs only a bowl of
water and it can be what it truly is…’
And Kate didn’t see. She was glad. But she did remember how he would wake at
night fighting for air. And she felt guilty for spending less time with him. It
worried her to think of him waking and gasping for breath – shouting out into
the darkness.
‘I can’t breathe anymore Kate. I can’t take in enough air. I can’t take in
enough smoke,’ he stubbed out the joint. ‘Nothing’s working. It’s like, without
enough air, I can’t be what I am, can’t write what I want, you understand?’
And Kate was glad she didn’t understand.
‘I won’t stay tonight,’ she had said.

Walking from his flat that last time with the boys roaming in packs, vomiting
into doorways, she had remembered her words. Had a faint shade of blue descended
on his face? Did he look at her then through a tightening mask? Certainly he had
taken quick, shallow breaths. But she had put it down to effect. It would have
been typical of him.
She needs him. He says she needs him.
Sodium lights had made ghosts of the boys emerging from the alleyways. She
should have stayed the night. She shouldn’t have walked back home under the
sombre light. It was only two nights ago. Two nights since the argument with
Greg.
Tonight she will drive. On her feet are high-heeled shoes giving her the height
he so loves. She will drive the short distance. The way to his flat is pressed
with the bodies of young men. The night is colder. They stare. She is aware of
her body and the tight breathing of her chest. Aware her breast stretches her
blouse. Tastes the lipstick she has worn for him. They kiss less these days.
These days he says he cannot afford the air.
Andy said, ‘It’s killing me; pressing down on me. Air is heavier than water.
That’s why I envy the fish. I can’t breathe Kate. I promise you, I can’t
breathe. Greg’s right, I should struggle. But it’s gone… The air that gives me
the right to struggle has gone. I need something lighter Kate. I need something
light to live. Being isn’t light – it needs heaviness to keep it on board. To
fight gravity that sucks you up and away.’
Kate said, ‘I’m not going to stay tonight.’
She saw the way he had breathed. Still she couldn’t trust him. She said, ‘I
just can’t.’

Getting out of the car she is determined to slap him back into life – like a new
born – to inspire him again. Breathe new life into them both. Ascending the
stairs to his flat she works out what she will say. Feels curiously out of
breath, like a climber on a mountainside. Yes he has infected her. His spores
have infected her. Her lungs are wet and tight.
The door to his flat is closed. She rings the bell. No answer. Taking a key from
her bag she lets herself in. Stepping into the small sitting room she
immediately notices the books scattered about; fishes swimming across their
covers. Outside she hears the Doppler effect of a passing police car. As the
sound fades she again hears a noise. It comes from the bathroom. Mechanically,
she calls out Andy’s name.
He needs her. Does she need him?
In the bathroom her eyes are concentrated on the enamel bath and the water
washing over its rim. Andy looks at her with childlike eyes. There are two deep
cuts running down the side of his neck. Around his upper torso the water has
turned crimson and beyond that pink. She cries out. But he is alive. He is
trying to say something – swishing about in the blooded water. His eyes are
staring, almost impassive, his mouth roundly popping out indecipherable speech.
Before she snaps too and dials 999 she bends towards his body and listens. What
is it?
There is an incomprehensible smell rising from the water. His eyes continue to
stare. Holding the rim of the bath she feels the bloody water. More water washes
to the carpet. What is it? Time has slowed – thankfully. Water and blood. The
cuts aren’t deep. She listens.
Andy says, ‘Breathe, breathe,’ (she thinks), ‘breathe, gills…let me,’ (she
leans further forwards touching his body which feels greasy-smooth),
‘breathe…’
He needs her and she will need him.

By the hospital bed she is able to hand him the mask that feeds the oxygen.
Taking quick gasps he smiles. Bandages extend either side of his neck so that
she has the curious conception of him there before her – mask covering his nose
and mouth; bulges to the sides; staring, impassive eyes – looking like a
drowning fish. A smile spreads over her face. A doctor walks past the door.

She becomes aware of the curves of her body as she bends over the patient.
Pulling away the mask she senses an odd aroma – is it the rubber of the mask or
another smell she can’t quite fathom? A trolley rolls past now with wheels
squeaking like gulls. Though she cannot identify the strange smell she is
certain at that point that he truly needs her. And she is certain also that she
will need him.
Holding the oxygen mask in her hand she thinks twice about applying it to her
face.

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1 Comment »

  1. This story appeared in an anthology of winners and short-listed – Biscuit Prize – a few years back; unfortunately there was a paragraph missing (one of the openers) – here is the complete version. I did reduce the original story in order to meet competition rules.

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