by Richard Cabut

A photograph of two young people, Robert and Marlene, grinning hard into a bright new tomorrow, together forever.

Robert looks at the picture, taken so long ago, and thinks: images can lie in many ways, through manipulation and perspective, for instance. But sometimes, over the course of time, he muses, the truth simply seeps out of a photograph like fine-grained sand from between two cupped palms. The smiles on the faces of these two people – me and her, her and me – have long since turned to grimaces frozen in a rictus of despair. Get the picture?

He remembers, in their small flat, it had all started to go bad. The cat skittered hither and thither, seeking refuge. But Robert was merciless, dislodging the beast from under the bed, and poking it out from behind the sofa with a tennis racket. Terrified, the cat scratched and tore as he held it at arms length by the scruff of its neck and plunged it into the laundry basket. He closed the lid and watched as the poor animal frantically tried to escape the dark trap. Out of breath, his work done for the moment, Robert rested and pondered.

An age ago, Marlene had started the long, slow process of leaving Robert for another: Colin. Left to his own devices by her increasing absences Robert’s mood had turned blank and black and bad. Misery festered, and rather than take it out on her, him or, God forbid, himself, Robert tortured the cat, Big Brother, their baby, the living symbol of their eternal love. It was this, the meaning behind the cat and not the cat itself, Robert attacked, or so he told himself.

Sid Vicious had once boasted of killing a cat, a cowardly act for which Siouxsie Sioux had cursed him. Whether or not that jinx had led directly to doomed Sidney’s demise remains uncertain, but one thing is for sure: only twisted bastards pick on dumb animals. Robert’s father had once told him this, without using the words “twisted” or “bastard,” of course.

Chastened a little by the memory, Robert freed the cat, which shot down the stairs leading to the door, where it cowered in dread. Ashamed, Robert slowly followed to make amends, but cornered and wide eyed in terror at the approach of its tormentor, the cat noisily evacuated its bowels. The filth and miasma of its shit akin to Robert’s soul.

After that, despite Robert’s best efforts to be friends, the cat flinched in his presence. “Look, even the cat doesn’t like him anymore,” Marlene observed, laughing.

A Catholic boy, Robert believed in the power of magic. At church, during his confirmation, he was the only one of his group, dressed in special Sunday best, who mouthed along with the priest’s intonations, nodding at the relevant points, shaking his head at hellfire warnings. Having discarded the trappings of that religion in his teens, Robert retained faith in the ability of belief to effect change in the universe. So, every night in bed, he prayed, silently mouthing 100 times, “I wish he was dead. I wish Colin was dead. I wish he was dead.”

Breathing deeply, which always filled him with a sense of portent, Robert summoned supposed power from within, even though deep down, he knew that such dark thoughts would, rather than provide freedom from his malaise, bind him more tightly to the very pain he sought to escape. Yet, every day, he was mildly surprised that there was no announcement of Colin’s death in a car crash, which is how he pictured the demise of his love rival, an inveterate drunk driver. But the good news never came, and Robert eventually abandoned his nightly prayers as mere wishful thinking.

Dark truths about Marlene had slowly dawned. After a weekend away with his mum, he returned home looking, as ever, for signs of love crimes perpetrated by his soured sweetheart.

In the past, he had found a strange stray blonde hair on the pillowcase, but she had dismissed it, telling him that it was his imagination, even as he held the hair up in front of her. Magically, she had managed to convince him to disbelieve his very eyes.

After another weekend away, he had discovered two beer cans on the coffee table. Previously, Marlene had told him – yes, of course he’d questioned her intently on what she’d done while he was away – that after one beer she had gone to sleep. Where did the other can come from? She mocked his frantic questioning: “Actually, I had three cans, but must have thrown one away!”

One morning, Marlene went to the corner shop to buy a newspaper. She never read papers, but by the shop was a phone box. Quickly, Robert rang Colin’s number – of course, he knew his number – and, yes, of course it was engaged. She returned without a paper and said that she was going out to meet a girl friend.

Certainly, even without the litany of lies uncovered, Robert knew. He knew even without, one day, pulling back the covers to find their bed messed up with dried sperm. What a mess. The swirls and dabs. The curlicue of old semen on black sheets, shouting copious joy and potency. An abstract painting of passion made by a maestro. But not by Robert. Not him. Marlene quickly whipped the sheets off the bed and told Robert he was crazy to even think that anything untoward had happened. Crazy.

Robert knew, but did not act, just like an archetypal hammy Prince Hamlet. There was kids stuff, tantrums and histrionics, some name calling, but if he had responded properly, confronted Marlene with the standard him-or-me ultimatum, his world would have been turned upside down. The future would have had to have been faced alone. Alone. A concept unthinkable and awful to Robert who, as a child, had told a school friend: “You can’t be lonely in this day and age – with TV, radio and music to keep you company.” Even as he spoke, Robert knew that reliance on impersonal communication could only affirm isolation. But, the fact he had voiced such an opinion revealed much about his fears. The world was one to fear, not to plunge into and explore and, though Robert was a person who advocated adventure, he secretly sought utter comfort and succour. Without Marlene, he was surely doomed to a ghostly place. In short, Robert was scared of his own shadow. Boo.

So, he did nothing. His life was one of compromise. Of fulfilment deferred. Of desire denied. In bed, the most he could hope for was a compromise fuck. Most, if not all, couples have their own version of this; when one partner does not really want sex, but obliges the other with a curtailed, perfunctory version of the act to keep the peace. For instance, one of Marlene’s friends – Robert didn’t really have any friends himself – refused to screw her boyfriend, but would, to maintain the status quo, give him blowjobs instead.

“That’s a compromise fuck!?” complained Robert, who could only dream of being sucked.

Fucking compromise and vice versa is relative, he later realised. Of course he knew the difference between being sucked with love, or at least ardour, and merely being sucked. In some relationships, the act raises questions of who, exactly, is the real sucker.

For a while, Marlene had withdrawn her sexual favours completely. Robert responded by sulking, lying next to her at night tormented by the distance between them. His filthy mood, palpable, was designed to cajole Marlene into spreading her legs; blackmail through bad feeling. She, however, seemed oblivious to the atmosphere although when, after some weeks, his fetid silence threatened to make day-to-day life unbearable, she gave in. On all fours, Marlene offered herself, and he didn’t refuse. There was no polite, “Really, no, I couldn’t,” rather, he quickly mounted up while she encouraged him to shoot quickly and get the fuck out of and off her with such tricks as reaching around to fondle his balls, or the utterance of porno clichés, which they later both laughed at. His orgasm was a small recompense for the tears he shed inside over his betrayal and humiliation. For his crushed soul. The sex, if it can be called that, would suffice for a week or two, until the pressure, both physical and emotional, built once more to a peak. Then, resigned to her fate, Marlene would get on all fours again, impersonal buttocks proffered. She, meanwhile, found relief elsewhere.

Colin. Or, as Robert named him: “Colin the Wanker.” Robert would not call him by his real and given name, would not dignify him, and would not admit the humanity of his enemy. To Robert, Colin was not a person, more a dismal entity sent by forces dark and dangerous to cause havoc and mayhem in the lives of real people such as himself. If, for the purposes of dehumanisation, Robert could have given him a number instead of a nickname he would have. But, “the Wanker” would suffice for the time being.

Marlene had first become close to Colin after he had confided in her about his own girlfriend’s wayward wanderings. In response to these, Colin had broken into his ex-lover’s flat, painted anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls (she was Jewish), before driving to their local club, where he stabbed his rival in the leg. Colin really was a wanker, but if Robert could have accepted him as a person, not simply a nasty smell, he could have asked him, “Hey, Colin, what name did you call your girlfriend’s lover by?”

Robert silently howled, the inside of his skull echoing with despair, like the sound of an amplified outburst of static. It was a terrible noise, but one which blissfully blocked out even more terrible thoughts, enabling him, the great inaction hero, to continue to exist while trying to slow down time; to decelerate the solid lurch of the fearful and unstoppable future.

Robert looks at the couple in the picture, a Kodak crack-up. Me and her, her and me. He wants to smash the photo to see what is inside; to discover how it works, how the camera’s gaze had alighted on this unholy moment of reality, now so very unreal. In his reverie, he dreams an epic dream of an old house hit by a tornado in slow motion. He looks on as millions of minute particles of debris – like fine-grained sand – enter the abode through the cracks in the windows and walls, sailing in, clouds of it, to cover every single thing with a cold black dust under which everything reverts to the namelessness from which it came.