Mercutio since Last Week: Chapter Two: By John Miskelly

Jul 26, 2011

This is the second chapter of the unpublished novel Mercutio since Last Week by John Patrick Miskelly.
This chapter begins the morning after the night before. In order to continue work on their haphazard, meandering and essentially directionless epic novel, housemates Jules and Theo sought inspiration through alcohol. Not for the first time in their friendship it was the headstrong and reckless Jules who persuaded Theo on this course of action, despite Theo's plea that the next day should be spent taking some sort of responsibility, and sorting out their shambolic, agoraphobic lifestyles.

            Theo raised his head a couple inches from where it rested on the table. Tentatively, gently, he eased his eyelids half apart. He could make out white with dashes of black and squiggles of blue. He raised his head further and saw the edge of a picture, out of focus, a field somewhere barren and cold. This was already too much to take. His head throbbed and he capitulated, letting his brow plonk back down onto the magazine, a National Geographic open at a feature on Iceland recently used as a notepad. Iceland might as well have been nuked overnight for all Theo cared. A cloud of radioactive waste could be creeping its way towards Britain at this very moment and all Theo could think about was how he was going to survive a hangover that was already ruining the day and promised only to get worse.
            Quickly and mercilessly—that was the only way, like pulling off a plaster or jumping into a cold swimming pool, or an Icelandic lake perhaps?
            “No,” he thought. “No thinking, only doing.”
            He lurched backwards quickly. He widened his eyes and then immediately wished he hadn’t, having thus been confronted with a picture of domestic neglect partly of his own making. He gripped his eye sockets, digging his fingertips into the hollows to stop the swirling whirlpool of scrambled brain matter behind them. He gasped and checked his watch: eleven-thirty. On his hand, written as large as width would allow, was the word “Jobs.” It was the result of a moment of drunken practicality and verve no doubt. The word had two exclamation marks and was underlined three times. He hated superfluous exclamation marks. They were what teenage girls put in texts.
            “Ah, you’re awake. I expect you’re suffering too.”
            The voice was rough but amicable and coming from the toilet off the hallway. It was immediately followed by a retch and a splash. Footsteps, stumbling, the clang and scrape of a bike falling over and then Jules appeared in the kitchen. Somehow, within the space of a few hours, he had aged fifty years. His eyes were sunken and encircled with black. He was jaundiced and hunched over like he was in need of a walking stick. His whole body was trembling. Weakly, bravely, he smiled. He had to; complaints and self-pity were respites of the victim not the perpetrator. His gnarled, aged coat, covering only bare chest underneath, accentuated this image of the cadaverous old man. He looked at Theo, saw the contempt on his face, and averted his gaze towards the room in general.
            Oh yes, the sink. His smile vanished and he gulped, instinctively raising the back of his hand towards his mouth at the sight of the stagnant filth. Stagnant filth—that’s a band name. Slightly clichéd but he’d write it down later, he thought.
            “Well, I suppose some coffee’s in order,” he said as cheerfully as he could. Theo had maintained a stony, hostile silence and he hoped this gesture, this quite epic gesture considering his frail physical state, would clear the cool atmosphere in the room.
            It took several minutes to prepare the filter coffee machine, punctuated several times by pauses spent with a hand over his mouth and the other resting on his knee to support his fragile, aching bones. Finally, the coffee machine gurgling away, he sat down on his side of the table.
            “Don’t worry matey, it’ll pass. We’ll get through it.” He sounded like an old Battle of Britain flight commander reassuring his crew.
            Theo didn’t want to wait until it passed and he wouldn’t let Jules off the hook so easily this time.
            “It’s okay. I’ll get some on the way into town. I’m going to the temping agency, even though I feel like I’ve been assaulted by a fucking bear and it’s your fault.” He rubbed his face with both hands in a vain attempt to revive himself.
            “You’re actually going”, said Jules, looking sickened at the thought of even suggesting facing the outside world. The pretence of cheeriness could not handle this and fell away. “Insane,” he croaked and slumped forward onto the table, burying his face in the crook of his elbow.
            “See ya,” Theo mumbled, slowly putting on his parka. A badge pinged off and skittered across the linoleum, coming to rest in the unholy area under the fridge, unseen and uncleaned for three years, minimum.
            “Lost forever,” he murmured and then disappeared into the blackness of the unlit hall.
            Jules didn’t know how long he’d been lying with his cheek against the sticky patch of the table. He could feel the suck of it when he sat up, which he did quickly, like Theo earlier but through surprise and fright rather than grim determination. There was a rapping at the door; constant and unbroken like an artillery barrage bombarding the mushy insides of his skull.
            “Please. Please stop,” he whispered, stroking the sticky patch on his cheek.
            But only he could make it stop. He got up and dragged himself through the house towards the front door. He didn’t even bother dodging round the carnage, preferring to push, yank, and bulldoze his way through it ungracefully. Violently he pulled the door open, its momentum nearly dragging him over sideways.
            “Ah, Poppy. Great to see you,” he managed in a voice that betrayed it was anything but.
            “Fuck’s sake Jules. I’ve been knocking for five minutes and it’s fucking freezing. I smell coffee. Is it just made? I really need it.”
            A whip of a dark brown ponytail thrashed his face as a petite figure in jeans and a baggy, patterned jumper, a good head-and-a-half shorter than him, flashed past at high speed. This was too much dynamism for Jules, who headed directly into the toilet to vomit again.
            When he returned to the kitchen a woman was sitting at the third chair. She was a familiar enough visitor to know the other two were permanently reserved unless in an emergency. She was wearing thin framed, round glasses and was flicking through the National Geographic with an intensity that suggested some kind of purpose, turning the pages so violently they snapped, close to ripping.
            “I thought you had a key, Poppy,” said Jules pouring his own mug of coffee. Poppy had already helped herself.
            “Yeah, I lost it. This place is despicable you know. You do know that don’t you?”
            The kitchen was indeed filthy. Nearly every inch of work surface was taken up with some kind of unwashed crockery containing remnants of food of various ages. There were stains and splash marks in a multitude of shades on every part of wall that peeked through the gaps their own handiwork hadn’t covered up. As for the sink, it looked like a misguided science experiment long since abandoned.
            “Where’s it lost? I mean it might need replacing.”
            “What might?”
            “The key.”
            “It’s here or at my house. I’m sure of it. No burglars’ going to get their hands on it. Not that they’d want anything from in here. This whole place is just notes, a house held together with notes like a fucking psychopath’s lair.”
            The rapidity with which this chastisement was delivered made Jules dizzy. It occurred to him for a moment to remind her she was a contributor to these notes, but instead looked away. He caught sight of the sink again, and resolved to simply look directly downwards at the space of floor between his beat-up tennis shoes. He looked like an overgrown child, an ashamed child with dark stubble and a brutal hangover.
            Polly lent in to smell him. “Fuck, Jules you smell like a tramp. Did you sleep in those clothes?”
            “Yes. But not on purpose.”
            For the first time Poppy looked up at Jules and gave him a look somewhere between pity and disgust, the ones normally given to mangy stray dogs but which Jules had received from Poppy an incalculable amount of times for an incalculable number of reasons. Jules avoided the flash of deep blue behind those glasses.
            “Where’s Theodore?”
            “He went out.”
            “Out? Well, if he’s in anything like the condition you’re in he might not make it back.” Poppy gripped her mug in both hands and observed Jules. “I know you were at the Spoon and Doughnut, so that figures. And that whiskey bottle explains a lot. You’ll be the death of him, you know,” she said scanning the room. “Whether it’s alcohol poisoning or hepatitis, it’ll be your fault.”
            Jules was in no state to defend himself but did the honorable thing and mounted a defense.
            “So you say that every month, Poppy. He enjoys it and we have fun. And we’re very prolific creatively.” This was about all he could manage.
            “Jules, most people have something in their head that tells them that there’s fun to be had but then there’s also stuff that needs getting done even if you don’t want to do it.” She was speaking to the empty whiskey bottle on the table. “You override that bit in Theo that says stuff needs to get done.”
            “Please speak slower. You’re confusing me. Honestly Poppy, you couldn’t have chosen a…”
            “Forget it then. You never listened before, why would you now?”
            “For your information Theodore was looking for a job as we speak.” Jules took a swig of coffee. “And I’ll get a job. Sometime. On my own terms.” Poppy lifted a finger, preparing a retort. Jules intercepted it. “And, anyway, when you say that, you mean better at getting on a ladder neither of us wants to be on anyway; getting constantly shafted for god knows how many years, hoping that one day you might have enough money to buy a house. And even then there’s the mortgage, another pain in the ass to drag round.” Jules shrugged and looked down into the dregs of his coffee, shaking his head with a look of disgust and bemusement. “Why do people aspire to have pains in their ass? That’s the measure of a fucked up society, you know Poppy, one where people’s ambition is to burden themselves to a bank or a company that’d rather see them penniless and pension-less than lose profit. How is that doing better? It’s just…” he bit his bottom lip and shook his head from side to side looking for the word “conventionalism,” “…it’s just because that’s what’s done, and that’s what their parents did and want them to do. Change this for that? No thanks. “I’d rather be happy and poor than have it all and…”
            “…still want more. Yeah, Jules we used to sing that, like, every week at the union. At the union Jules, four years ago.”
             Naively put and possibly pious, Jules wasn’t bothered. He believed it and hoped that would be enough. He didn’t want to have to justify himself right now. 
            “Your problem, Jules, is that you only know what you don’t want to do. You only know what you want to change. You always know better than everybody fucking else.”
            There was silence for a moment. The “everybody fucking else” had a hint of goading mockery to it, teasing for a response.
            “I won’t apologize for giving a shit. And don’t tell me you’ve finished,” Jules added looking up and smiling, humoring, to a degree, Poppy’s obvious desire for a sparring partner. Just humoring though. He couldn’t handle the intensity of one of their debates in the condition he was in now. He knew this was mainly why Poppy came to 88B in the first place. It was for coffee and a verbal play fight—the more trivial the better. Today he lacked the mental agility. He would be an unworthy opponent, an insult to the game they both enjoyed so much. He was happy to forfeit this one.
            “What?” Poppy replied sharply. “What does that mean?”
            Jules placed his cheek against the table again and closed his eyes. He spoke from the side of his mouth, sounding like a stroke victim.
            “I was expecting something else, some clichéd retort. Some Ché Guevara or Michael Moore reference or… I don’t know. Something lame.”
            An unconvincing gasp of indignation and a playful slap on his arm told him she appreciated the effort.
            “Fuck you for suggesting I’m that predictable!”
            There was a pause, and then, “I would at least use something subtle and esoteric where you’d need to be involved to get the reference.”
            “Right, something informed, yeah? Clearly we’re both off our game,” he said rubbing his temples. He had no idea why people did this. It didn’t help at all, but he used it as the very weakest of placebos.
            “And just to make absolutely clear, your tirade was quite Moore-esque, a bit lacking in detail, certainly not your best. Do you actually read those books in your room or do you use them to lure first years into bed?” said Poppy, still trying to ignite something in Jules. He was right, of course. This was indeed the kind of inanity Poppy came to 88B to enjoy, the sort of conversation and playful politics that was sacrilege inside an earnest philosophy masters seminar.
            She’d met the two of them in a crummy Student Union half a decade ago and she still paid them these visits. In life, they’d stalled right after university, graduating by their ability to write well and, Poppy suspected, confuse markers to the point where they believed such twisted, indecipherable essay arguments had to be right somewhere, or else deserved marks for audacity. Their course lent itself well to blaggers. Their two styles were remarkably similar and it came as no surprise when, having got to know them better, she learnt they liked to collaborate on all kinds of strange, albeit pointless, projects. Under the guise that she was proofreading them, she would sneak those essays away and devour them just for the absurd pleasure of it. They were brilliant works of imagination and odd logic, but only imagination. She’d never met two people less suited to modern life. Jules held it in too much angry contempt and Theo, she suspected, was just too clever for it, not to mention frightened. It would chew him up mercilessly. Sometimes she feared for them, outside of this kitchen, armed only with second-class degrees in humanity subjects that made middle-aged men in pubs scoff at their mention. Hence the little lecture earlier. She felt someone had to be the voice of reason once in a while and they weren’t going to be each other’s.
             “Also Ché Guevara; you’re doing him an injustice,” Jules said after a moment. “You don’t know how sharp he was. You’re judging him through the people you associate him with, first years in T-shirts from Camden Market. Not fair. The guy was a doctor. He fought two wars and died for it. It’s not his fault he’s been made into a joke.” He realised he was still massaging his temple, felt ridiculous, and promptly stopped.
            “You’re right, I’ve been harsh. I should have been clearer. Sorry señor—I mean comrade—Guevara, I meant no disrespect. Siempre hasta Victoria. Or whatever,” Poppy said looking upwards to the heavens. 
            “Come to think of it, it was me who juxtaposed him with Michael Moore. I should also apologize to his memory.” Jules waved an apologetic hand skyward. “Lo siento, hombre.”
            “You know as young adults, us just talking about him right now, is a massive cliché?” said Poppy.
            “Of course. First you idolize him when you’re young, then you get old and make fun of people who still do. It’s the same with bands. In fact, I think talking about him like we’re talking about him now is clichéd.”
            “Shit, we’ve wandered into another stereotype.”
            “They’re inescapable Pops, everyone occupies at least two. I, for instance, also enjoy loud, distorted guitar music mainly about things being shit. And I buy clothes from charity shops that make me look like an old woman, so we’ve both fulfilled our quotas,” Poppy said.
            She paused.
            “By the way, do you want an aspirin?” Poppy asked.
            “You mean you had them with you the whole time? And, by the way, don’t call me a young adult. It’s depressing.”
John’s Bio
John is twenty-five and currently lives in the southwest of England with his Mum because he is a failure. He took a few tentative steps into journalism, was disgusted, and subsequently bailed out. He was rubbish at it anyway. He is the co-Führer of BonusCupped fanzine and bassist and vocalist for a non-existent band called Dan Ashcroft. John divides his time between reading The Guardian online, tutting self righteously, writing stuff he never finishes, and sitting on trains to see friends. He wants to move to Canada but they won’t let him in.We encourage you to check out some of his other writings at: