There is a man on the balcony opposite mine—a reassuringly distant figure in the tower block across Wyndham Park. I can see him clearly in the dawn light, dancing alone, body gyrating manically as he cavorts back and forth. The entire apartment complex is dark and silent, black cliffs limned with fire as the sun rises. The man looks like a pigeon strutting a ledge—unintentionally comical.
I consider waking Linda. This might be something she would find amusing, a tiny thing we could laugh at together. A small connection to spark something greater, some revelatory memory. I’d love that more than anything.
But no. Let her sleep. She needs her rest. And maybe I should retire to the sofa, try to take a nap myself before the day starts in earnest.
The man has climbed onto the balcony rail and stands, arms spread, balancing on his bare feet. In the stillness, I can hear his laughter, faint but tinged with mania.
And then he jumps—but no, it’s not a jump, it’s a dive. Like an Olympian, arms pointed towards the concrete, legs straight, as if he’s going to cut into deep blue water.
I close my eyes for the impact—the faint echo of which rolls around the tower blocks—then open them to view the outcome. It’s important to bear witness to the horrors of the world rather than pretend they don’t exist, no matter the cost. Linda would agree if she could.
The sight is underwhelming: a dark smear on the shadowed pavement like a slash of spilled ink. The man has landed beside the park border, right by the flowerbeds that the council set out last year and within touching distance of the many plants that I’d put in myself, if I’m judging the distance right.
It seems apt. Everything’s coming together now.
I consider calling the emergency services, but that would bring people to the flat. They might wake Linda. Besides, the man is beyond help now. Any action on my part would be superfluous.
I open the balcony door and quickly step through, shutting it firmly behind me. Only when I am on the other side do I remove my smoke mask and take a long swallow of gin and tonic before lying on the sofa. I won’t sleep, but I must try. The room is stifling when the windows are closed.
Even at dawn, it is clear that it’s going to be a scorching day in the city. The pollen count will be high.
Pollution inevitably exacerbates the impacts of allergens found in pollen. A pollen grain attached to a particle of soot, for example, will bleed its allergen into the pollutant, dramatically increasing the surface area over which the allergen is found, thereby delivering a greater dose to the recipient once the particle is inhaled. So, even in cities, people are not safe from the ever-increasing impacts of allergenic responses to pollen.
[Extract from ‘Urban air pollution and pollen allergens: new evidence of impacts’ by Spencer Oke, Journal of Urban Health and Environment.]
I’m still awake when Linda starts yelling. My head is heavy as I drag myself from the cushions, and I take a moment to sit—to breathe.
I fill a cup from the kitchen tap then quietly unlock the bedroom door. It’s dark inside, the curtains tightly drawn against the glare of the summer morning. Linda is sitting up in bed, eyes still half-closed, hair a wild thicket of dark gray strands plastered across her face. Her nightdress clings to her emaciated body, damp with sweat. As I enter, she lifts her hands and shakes the padded chains that secure her to the bed. I’ve made them as comfortable as I can, leaving plenty of give so she can sit up and change position in the night.
“You!” She leers at me and barks a laugh. “What time do you call this?”
“It’s still early, sweetheart.” I cross to the windowsill and pour a little of the water into the solitary plant pot. The bindweed is coming along nicely, tracing its way up the little cane I installed to support it. It should flower any time now, showing a lovely rose-pink trumpet.
I offer the rest of the water to Linda. She spits at me.
“Get me a whiskey and ginger, maggot.” It’s cruel: she can’t recall much but remembers that I hate that word. Even the first syllable makes me feel ill. Magg. It sounds like something to be vomited out, not spoken.
Of all the things to remember about me.
The bottles of Scotch and ginger ale are in the corner of the room, and I fill the tumbler on the bedside table with a healthy mixture. Linda grips it in both hands as she gulps the cocktail down.
I consider mentioning the balcony diver, but it doesn’t feel right. She’s not coherent enough right now. I can’t remember when she last was. Instead, I just offer up, “I love you, Linda.” It doesn’t sound at all sincere.
She drops the glass and slumps back against the pillows, half-satisfied. “Fuck off.”
The movement stirs an unpleasant odor that tells me her TENA pads need changing, but I decide to wait. A few more whiskies, and she’ll be sound asleep again; I can do it then. She needs a bath too, though I’m not sure there’s much of a point. I turn on the two small electric fans that stand on either side of the bed and leave.
Back in the hallway, I lock the bedroom door and collect the post hanging from the letterbox. There’s a letter from the university amongst the usual batch of flyers. Inside the envelope is my P45 and final payslip. So that’s that. Twenty years of service and a summary dismissal with the bare minimum redundancy payment. I wonder what they’ve done with my greenhouse, my plants. Every specimen incinerated, I expect.
Not that it matters: I took the important ones before they confiscated my security card.
They overreacted, of course. Simon could’ve been on the greenhouse roof for any number of reasons. Easy enough to come crashing through the glass like that: a moment’s inattention, an unfortunate loss of balance, that’s all it would take. And even if it was suicide, then what? It’s not that uncommon. Graduate students do it all the time. Lamentable, nonetheless. I’d thought Simon was more aware of the risks that came with the experimental setup. I’d given him all the paperwork, after all.
The misconduct panel disagreed. All my fault. Lucky not to be in prison, indeed.
Except that I always have been. Always.
From the window the park looks busy now—carnivalesque. I take my binoculars from the bookshelf and spend a few moments getting the focus right. Children run to and fro across the freshly mowed lawn, shouting and grasping at each other. Men stand in huddles, laughing uproariously at what I imagine to be the usual crude jokes. Families picnic on colorful throws, plates of food spread out in the sun. An ordinary Saturday afternoon in July, unless one looks carefully. The children run too fast, the men laugh too hard, the picnickers cram too much food into their mouths.
I switch the ceiling fan on and watch them all, sweat creeping down my temples to tickle my cheeks.
Not long now.
Convolvulus convivialis is endemic to the eastern regions of Iceland and, as such, is non-native to the United Kingdom. Initial phytochemical analysis of the species indicates that anticholinergic compounds are present in the aboveground tissues of the plant (all parts), sometimes in very high concentration. Historical Icelandic documents (see translation of ‘Medicinal Herbaria of Iceland’ by Fiske) suggest that parts of C. convivialis, correctly prepared to limit potency, were used to create a feeling of wellbeing and sometimes mild hallucinations in consumers. Often consumption was combined with a depressant (e.g., alcohol) to limit negative side effects, as potency is extremely difficult to judge, and incorrect dosages can be highly dangerous—even fatal.
[Extract from ‘A hallucinogenic alien: Convolvulus convivialis comes South’ by Miles Middleton, International Journal of Applied Phytochemistry.]
The carnival of spontaneity is in full swing now, the late hour affording it a madness that the daylight had perhaps constrained. Groups are dancing to music that blares from an indiscernible source. Some are naked.
Through the binoculars, I see a couple rutting on the lawn while others cheer them on, howling like animals. A motorbike tears along the road by the park, then mounts the pavement and detours onto the grass, heading straight for the couple. One of the pair is struck head-on and is sent flopping across the lawn; the bike bucks, almost skids out of control, but the rider keeps it upright and accelerates across the park and away.
Everyone laughs. The victim doesn’t move.
I turn from the window and take a seat at my little reading desk in the corner. The photo album is open to a selection of pictures of Linda and me in our heyday. Here we are, side-by-side, enjoying a quiet meal at The Swan in Stablethorpe, back when we were newlyweds. Here are some from our trip to Iceland a few years ago, wrapped in sweaters and scarves outside the Harpa in Reykjavik. Linda looks small but radiant, dark hair shining in the lamplight.
It's almost always just the two of us in the photos. Or sometimes only me, or Linda: the photos taken of each other.
Next to the photo album lies my copy of Une Saison en Enfer, the pages tattered, the cover dog-eared. Linda’s gift to me for our first wedding anniversary. I’ve been reading it a lot lately, over and over. I run my fingers down its spine, tracing the cracks.
Even Rimbaud had his party, all hearts open, wines flowing, before he entered Hell. He was a reveler at the banquet for a time. I never even had that. Always the stranger at the feast, the unwelcome watcher. Until I found Linda, that is. That changed everything. We could clasp hands and watch the raucous and nonsensical celebration of existence in mutual bafflement, each finding solace in the other.
Until she was taken away from me, slowly but irrevocably. Now I watch the revelry alone, and I have had enough.
I check my watch. After midnight. I should change her, make sure she’s comfortable.
When I push open the door, I see the bindweed flower is beginning to bloom. I quickly retreat and secure the smoke mask before venturing back in. Linda has her eyes closed on the bed, but her words seize my heart in a vice.
“Miles? Is that you?” A pause. “I don’t remember where I am.”
Then she groans, turns on her side, and begins to snore.
I stand for quite some time, tears running to pool against the unshaved whiskers that line my cheeks, tacky against the mask.
Once I’ve composed myself, I cross to the window and unfasten the security screen, silently sliding it across so that I can unlock the window itself and cast it open. The cool night air rushes in. If someone wished to escape, to fly into the moonlit evening, however briefly, there would be nothing to stop them now. I pour a little more water in the bindweed pot.
Slowly and carefully, I unlock the cuffs around Linda’s wrists.
I whisper, “This one is just for you.”
Back in the living room, the bedroom door locked once again, I take the time to consider our home: this little flat we moved into just over a year ago now, once Linda could no longer be left alone and my troubles started at work. It’s served us nicely enough. It’s a long way down from what we once had; more the kind of place a young couple might rent when they’re just starting out rather than a pair nearing the end of the line. Still, not such a bad place.
Bio-secure laboratory experiments show that Convolvulus convivialis hybridizes effectively with the native Convolvulus arvensis to create a hybrid bindweed that is both prolific and fast-growing (Convolvulus x nemesis; see Middleton, 2020). Initial results indicate that the hybrid contains remarkably high concentrations of anticholinergic compounds, particularly in the flowers and pollen; during crossbreeding, the inherent lethality of high-dose Convolvulus convivialis is neutralized. This should be of great public health concern, and it is advisable that any introduction of the non-native plant be met with swift quarantine and control measures to ensure eradication. Intentional introduction or planting for non-scientific (i.e. horticultural or commercial) purposes should be prohibited. Further experimentation would be required to determine the risks of human exposure to the hybrid outside a controlled lab environment.
[Extract from ‘Hybridization of Convolvulus convivialis and Convolvulus arvensis in a bio-secure laboratory environment: implications for public health and future bio-control’ by Miles Middleton, Journal of the Royal Botanical Society.]
I step onto the balcony.
Blue flashing lights now, reflecting from the apartment buildings all around. Wild laughter, shouts, and screams. Black-clothed police with dark helmets and body shields battle a mob, some of whom are naked and hysterical with laughter. Others are shrieking furiously, hitting the police with fists, bats, tree branches—with whatever they have, with whatever they can. A helicopter hovers above, a stream of light stabbing down from it into the park.
Gunshots ring out.
I take off the mask and breathe deep of the night air.
It carries the scent of petrol and smoke. And something underneath, something familiar. Pungent, even at this height so far above the park.
A fragrance that only I, of all the people here, might recognize.
It’s time to join the feast—to take my place as a reveler at the banquet. One final effort to participate in the celebration.
ROB FRANCIS is an academic and writer based in London. He writes short fantasy and horror, usually on the train to work and in the early hours of the morning. His stories have appeared in magazines such as The Arcanist, Metaphorosis and Apparition Lit. Rob has also contributed stories to several anthologies, including DeadSteam by Grimmer & Grimmer books, Under the Full Moon’s Light by Owl Hollow Press and Scare Me by Esskaye Books. He is an affiliate member of the HWA. Rob lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.