Every party has a distinguishing characteristic and somebody had brought a telescope to this one. News of the telescope would float around the rooms of the party, as if it was a visiting celebrity and we were being updated with news of their latest whereabouts and movements. It was in an upstairs bedroom, being assembled. They were busy looking up tonight’s constellations on the internet. The moon would soon be passing this side of the house, and everybody should start to think about getting ready.
I doubt that anybody was remotely interested in the telescope or in all of the faraway worlds that could be seen through it. But we were somehow obliged to be courteous to this visitor, since it had chosen to bestow itself upon our party out of all of the parties in Edinburgh. We would each have to take turns in peering through the telescope, just as if a celebrity was really visiting this party, we would each have to shake his hand to affirm how splendid he was.
Almost everybody at this party was Spanish. Somebody had thoughtfully put me together with Tori, a solitary Englishwoman, as if we were two children who would flourish in each other’s company. Tori and I had the sort of very long and torturous conversation that people only have at house parties, when they have to seek refuge in a pragmatic conversation in order to avoid standing alone, cast in an unsparing pool of lonely light. In less than an hour, we were thoroughly tired of each other, our conversation was falling steadily more gloomy, and it was in peril of going out altogether like a depleted fire. When we caught sight of Marcin – who had appeared in a doorway to survey the room – he was immediately our prisoner.
I did not know him very well, back then. He beamed at us with an expression of complete fatuousness. He had always looked very pleased to see me, but in such a way as to suggest that he would have found anything, even the tiniest of insects, equally remarkable. He was crowned with a thick stack of brown dreadlocks, each one rank and itchy, but together a magnificent cornucopia, with every stray lock perfect. It is never cool for a white boy to have dreads, but somehow, in practice, it is kind of okay for a Polish kid to have an overflowing head of stinking, reeking, filthy brown dreads.
Tori smiled at me. “Isn’t he delicious?”
I nodded. “It’s like he’s fresh out of the oven.”
“You know,” Tori confided. “I just can’t help myself. I’m going to have to devour some of these gorgeous dreadlocks.”
Marcin was still smiling, but he seemed to be conscious that he was now the most sensible person in this conversation. His eyes darted back and forth between us, the fastest thing in the room.
“My mother always told me,” I reasoned with authority, “that you should take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints. Eating Marcin’s dreadlocks would be like pulling up a flowerbed, and leaving nothing for anybody else to enjoy.”
“My mother always told me,” Tori countered. “That if you see a beautiful flower, then you have to have it, take it, keep it, demolish it.”
Careful not to spill the glass of vodka that Marcin was holding, I took one of his wrists in each hand. I was looking around the room. “Where shall we take him?”
“The toilet won’t be free…”
“Into that cupboard. Quick – whilst nobody is looking at us.”
“There’s no light.”
Marcin found himself being bundled into a cupboard full of cleaning materials. Although plump, his body was feeble and childlike, and he retreated with helpless little steps from my power. Mindful of the vodka still wobbling in his hand, I forced his arms apart to make a human star. We were plunged into darkness. Tori groaned loudly as she buried her face in his dreadlocks, and then I too pushed my nose into its filthy coils. Would my face emerge caked in soot? Marcin yelped and he threw all of his ineffectual might against me. There was a crash like a bucket falling over. I opened my mouth wide and it was filled with grimy ticklish hair, my teeth slipping without moisture over the dreads. A tug on Marcin’s taut scalp told me that Tori was also wrenching the dreads in her teeth.
A million things were now rattling in the cupboard and there was finally a sharp little knock on the door. “Hey, what’s going on in there?” a voice demanded.
The cupboard was filled with agonising light and Marcin plunged through the door like a parachutist who is exiting the plane. Tori and I were both blinking at the partygoer who had discovered us. Marcin had escaped with his vodka and he was now watching us from across the room. We had not eaten much of his hair.
“We were eating Marcin’s dreadlocks,” I explained to the partygoer, who flinched, his nose turning up in disgust. He stalled for a second, clenching his fists to punch me, but not yet having determined the precise reason for doing so. Tori laughed, talking carefully to the man in a very light voice, and then something relaxed and he had faded back into the room.
Another partygoer had approached to tell us that it was now our opportunity to look through the telescope. Presumably, they were going through our names alphabetically. The telescope waited at the top of a flight of stairs – a squat lump of heavy piping, in a light blue casing. A Spanish kid named Jorge had assembled the telescope and he was acting as its chaperone.
“There’s a full moon,” Jorge reported. “We have ten minutes before it is gone.” From the Earth, the moon looks completely still, like a hole burned in a sofa with a cigarette. But under the lens, it moves steadily but imperceptibly, like the hand on a clock. Humming with eternal life, it will not stop for you and it stretches maddeningly away from your scrutiny
I gestured to Tori. “Would you like to look?” But she was tapping a message into her phone, possibly something to appease Marcin, and she shook her head.
I gingerly applied my eye to the spot where Jorge indicated. Perhaps I would be surprised by the sight of a bare breasted girl combing her hair. Yet there was only a piercing blur.
I settled back into my vision. My eye was suddenly rolling over an entire world. For a moment, this was exhilarating, utterly mesmerising, and I paused in my triumph over the moon and all of its details. But then my heart sank. This massive ball was as dead as a skull, as featureless and as empty as an ancient gravestone which has been blasted by a thousand winters. I realised that I was gazing at a desert. There was nothing to redeem or to excuse the gigantic waste, the total desolation. The moon was not beautiful – it shone without any glamour. It was barren. I was gazing into the heart of death, and my flesh seemed to wither on my bones before its dire majesty.
I tore my eyes from the telescope and stood stunned.
“What did you see?” Tori asked.
“Nothing,” I pushed past her or she jumped back. I was searching for air and freedom. My feet carried me around the rooms of the party until I found an unoccupied bathroom. Shivering with dread, I was violently sick in the bath and I passed out on the linoleum floor.
[Marcin previously featured in the short story “Heebie Jeebies.” Ed.]