Some Strange Desire

You meet all kinds in the club scene. Eccentrics, fetishists, people into bondage or vinyl clothing. And even people who aren’t exactly human

by Ian McDonald

Illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer
Images by andersonrise / 123RF Stock Photo


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19 November, 10:30 P.M.

The hru-tesh is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Mother says he can remember Grandmother taking him, while still very small, to watch Josias Cunningham, Gunsmith by Appointment, of Fleet Street at work on it. In that small shop, in those small hours when the city slept, Josias Cunningham worked away while the spires and domes of Wren’s dream of London rose from the ashes of the Great Fire, chasing and filing and boring and inlaying. It was a work of love, I suppose. A masterpiece he could never disclose to another living soul, for it was the work of demons. On the bone-handled stock is a filigreed silver plate on a pivot-pin. Underneath, an inscription: Diabolus me Fecit. The Devil Made Me.

He was ul-goi of course, Josias Cunningham, Gunsmith by Appointment, of Fleet Street.

After three hundred years, the firing mechanism is still strong and precise. It gives a definite, elegant click as I draw back the bolt and lock it.

Lights are burning in the apartment across the street. The white BMW sits rain-spattered under its private cone of yellow light. Have you ever known anyone who drives a white BMW to do anything or be anyone of any significance? I cannot say that I have, either. I blow on my fingers. I cannot let them become chilled. I cannot let their grip on the hru-tesh slacken and weaken. Hurry up and go about your business, goi, so I can go about mine and get back into the dry and the warm. Cold rain finds me in my bolt-hole on the roof, penetrates my quilted jacket like needles. None so cold as the needle I have waiting for you, goi. I touch the thermos flask beside me, for luck, for reassurance, for the blessing of the hahndahvi.

Come on, goi, when are you going to finish what you are doing and go out to collect the day’s takings from your boys? Voices are raised in the lighted apartment across the yellow-lit cobbled street. Male voices. I cannot make out the words, only the voices.

Even on my rooftop across the street, the blow is almost palpable. And then the weeping. A door slams. I uncap the thermos, shake a tiny sliver of ice into the breech of the hru-tesh. The street door opens. He is dressed in expensive leather sports gear. In the dark I cannot read the labels. He turns to swear one last time at the youth at the top of the stairs.

I let a drop of saliva fall from my tongue onto the needle of ice resting in the chamber. Slide the breech shut. Move from my cover. Take aim, double-handed, over the fire-escape rail.

Coptic crosses and peace medallions catch the yellow street light as he bends to unlock the car door. The silver filigree-work of the hru-tesh crafted by the three-hundred-year-dead hand of Josias Cunningham, Gunsmith by Appointment, glitters in that same light. I squeeze the trigger.

There is only the faintest tok.

He starts, stands up, clasps hand to neck. Puzzlement on his meatlike face. Puzzlement under that so-cool baseball cap at that ideologically correct angle. And it hits him. He keels straight over against the car. His head rests at a quizzical angle on the rain-wet metal. Complete motor paralysis.

I am already halfway down the fire escape. Flat shoes. No heels. I have it all planned. As I had thought, bundling him into the passenger seat is the hardest part of the operation. I think I may have broken a finger wresting the keys from him. It will be academic, soon enough. As I drive up through Bethnal Green and Hackney to Epping Forest I pass at least twenty other white BMWs. I sample his CD selection, then scan across the AM wavebands until I find some anonymous Benelux station playing hits from the forties. Childhood tunes stay with you all your life. I chat to him as we drive along. It is a rather one-sided conversation. But I do not think he would have been much of a conversationalist anyway. It is really coming down, the wipers are on high speed by the time we arrive at the car park. I shall get very wet. Another crime against you, goi.

It is wonderful how much can be expressed by eyes alone. Anger, incomprehension, helplessness. And, as I pull the syringe out of my belt-pouch, terror. I tap the cylinder a couple of times. I can tell from his eyes he has never seen so much in one needle before. He may consider himself honored. We have our own discreet sources, but we, like you, pay a price. I squat over him. He will take the image of who I am into the dark with him. Such is my intention.

“Hear these words: you do not touch us, you do not harass us, you do not try to recruit us or bully us into your stable. We are tesh, we are older and more powerful than you could possibly imagine. We have been surviving for centuries. Centuries.”

He cannot even flinch from the needle.

I find a sheltered spot among the bushes and crushed flat lager cans, away from the steamed-up hatchbacks, and go into tletchen. I strip. I dress in the denims and shell-suit top I brought in my backpack. I stuff the rainsoaked clothes in around the hru-tesh. I go to the cardphone half a mile down the road and call a minicab to pick me up at the pub nearby and take me back to Shantallow Mews. The driver is pleased at the generosity of the tip. It is easy to be generous with the money of people who have no further use for it.

The hru-tesh goes back to its place under the hall floorboards. Rest there for a long time, beautiful device. The unused needles go into the kitchen sink to melt and run and lose themselves in the sewers of London town. The soaked clothes go into the machine, the jacket will need dry cleaning. I make tea for my sister, bring it to him on the Harrods tray with the shelduck on it.

The only light in the room is from the portable television at the foot of the bed. The remote control has slipped from his hand. His fingers rest near the “mute” button. Late-night/ early morning horror. Vampires, werewolves, Freddies. A little saliva has leaked from his lips onto the pillow. So peaceful. On the pale blue screen, blood is drunk, limbs dismembered, bodies chain-sawn apart. I want that peace to last a little longer before I wake him. By the light of the screen I move around the room setting the watches and wards, the little shrines and votaries to the Five Lords of the tesh that keep spiritual watch around my sister. Père Teakbois the Balancer, Tulashwayo Who Discriminates, Filé Legbé Prince of the Changing Ways, Jean Tombibié with his bulging eyes and hands crossed over replete belly, Saint Semillia of the Mercies: the five hahndahvi. I trim wicks, tap ash from long curls of burned incense, pour small libations of beer and urine. I may not believe that hahndahvi are literal embodiments of the character of the universe, I have lived long enough among the goi to know the universe is characterless, faceless. But I do believe power resides in symbol and ritual.

He is awake. The brightness in his eyes is only the reflection of the television screen. Awake now, he seems a thing of horror himself. Shrunken, shriveled, transparent skin drawn taut over bird bones, fingers quivering spastically as they grip the edge of the duvet. Trapped in that final tletchen, too weak to complete the transformation. His breasts are slack and withered like the dugs of old bitches.

“I’ve made tea, but it’s probably cold now.” I pour a cup, milk and sugar it, hold it steady as he lifts it to his lips. The tea is cold, but he seems glad of it.

“You were out.” His voice is a grotesque whisper.

“Business.” He understands. Our clients, both ul-goi and goi, are never business.

“That pimp?”

“He won’t trouble you again. I can promise that.”

“This isn’t forty years ago. They’ve got computers, genetic fingerprinting.”

“The people in the carpark, if any of them even noticed, will tell them it was a woman got out of the car. The taxi driver will swear he drove a man.”

“Still . . .

I take his hand in mine, modulate my pheromone patterns to convey calm, assurance, necessity. It was more than just a pimp harassing us to join his stable, more than him breaking into this apartment, terrorizing my sick sister, overturning the furniture, desecrating the shrines of the hahndahvi. It was security, tesh security, which is more powerful and paranoid than any goi conception of the word, for it has its roots in ten thousand years of secrecy.

I offer him a Penguin biscuit. He shakes his head. Too weak. Too tired. I pull the stand from its position behind the headboard close by the side of the mattress. From the fridge in the kitchen I take the next-to-last bag of blood. As I run a line in, he says, “There was a call for you. I couldn’t get to it. Sorry. It’s on the answering machine.”

I am back in the kitchen, filling a basin with water. I test the temperature with my elbow.

“Vinyl Lionel?”

I fetch the natural sponge I bought from the almost-all-night chemist around the corner, whip the water to froth with Johnson’s baby-bath.

“A new one,” my sister Cassiopeia says.

I pull back the duvet. The smell of the sickroom, the terrible smell of prolonged, engrained sickness, is overpowering. As the blood, my blood that I pumped out of myself into plastic bags yesterday, runs into him, drip by drip, I wash my sister’s body. Gently. Lovingly. With the soft natural sponge and the gentle baby-bath; neck and arms and sagging, flat breasts, the small triangle of pubic hair and the tiny wrinkled penis and testicles, smaller even than a child’s, and the shriveled labia.

15-16 November

Only four days. It seems like a small forever, since the afternoon Cassiopeia came back from the pitch at Somerville Road with twenty pounds in his pocket.

“He insisted on paying. One of the lace-G-string-and-stocking brigade. Took me back to his place. Why do they always have posters of racing cyclists on their walls?”

Though we do not do it for money — genetic material is the price we ask for our services — cash in hand is never refused. I had taken the twenty down to the off-license for a bottle of Californian Chardonnay and a sweet-and-sour pork while Cassiopeia changed for the evening client, an ul-goi who liked to tie our wrists to the ceiling hooks while he slipped rubber bands around our breasts, more and more and more of them, tighter and tighter and tighter. Thank God once every six weeks seemed to satisfy him. Vinyl Lionel had Word he was Something in the Foreign Office. Whatever, he had taste in tailoring. We made sure he paid for his game with the rubber bands.

When I returned Cassiopeia had tletched. He is very beautiful as a woman. When he tletches, it is like a flower blossoming. Yet there was a subtle change in the atmosphere, something in his personal aroma that smelled not right.

“It hurts,” he said. “Here. Here. Here. And here . . .” He touched breasts, loins, neck and on the final here, pressed fingers into belly in the way that says deep within, everywhere.

Of course, you never think it can be you. Your lover. Your partner. Your sibling. I gave him two paracetamol and a cup of corner-store Chardonnay to wash them down with.

He scratched all night. I could not sleep for his scratching, scratching, scratching. In the shower he was covered in yellow crusted spots. The sting of hot water made him wince. Even then I pretended not to know. I convinced myself he had picked up some venereal bug from one of the goi. Despite the fact that our immune systems make us almost invulnerable to goi infections. Such was my self-deception, I even bought some under-the-counter antibiotics from the Almost-All-Night Pharmacy.

You can imagine the smell of sickness. It is not hard, even for your limited senses. Imagine, then, a whole street, a whole town, terminally sick, dying at once. That is what I smelled when I came home after an afternoon with a first-timer who had passed furtive notes — what are you into . . . I’m into . . . I got a place . . . — under the partitions of the cubicles in the gents’ toilets.

I found him lying on the carpet, hands opening and closing spastically into tight, futile fists. He had failed halfway in tletchen, caught between like something half-melted and twisted by flame. I cleaned thin, sour, vomited-up coffee and slimmer’s soup from his clothes. Over and over and over and over and over and over, he whispered, Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God. I got him into bed and a fistful of Valium down him, then sat by his side in the room that was filling with the perfume of poisoned earth, looking at everything and seeing only the shadow my thoughts cast as they circled beneath my skull.

We have a word for it in our language. Jhash. There is no direct translation into your languages. But you know it. You know it very well. It haunts your pubs and clubs and Saturday-night scores. It is the unspoken sermon behind every mint-scented condom machine on the toilet wall. Like ours, yours is a little word too. When I was small and ran in gray flannel shorts wild and heedless over the bombsites of Hackney Marshes, my grandmother, who was keeper of the mysteries, taught me that jhash was the price Père Teakbois the Balancer with his plumb-bob in his hand demanded of the tesh in return for their talents. I think that was the point at which my long, slow slide from faith began: Grandmother had been a gifted spinner of tales and his graphic descriptions of the terrible, enduring agony of jhash left me nightmarish and seriously doubting the goodness of a god who would deliberately balance the good gifts he had given us with such dreadfulness.

The bomb sites have given way to the towerblocks of the post-war dream and those in turn to the dereliction and disillusionment of monetarist dogma and I no longer need faith for now I have biology. It is not the will of Père Teakbois, Père Teakbois himself is no more than the product of ten thousand years of institutionalized paranoia: Jhash is a catastrophic failure of the endocrinal, hormonal, and immune systems brought on by the biological mayhem of tletchen.

It can take you down into the dark in a single night. It can endure for weeks. None are immune.

Let me tell you the true test of caring. We may be different species, you and I, but we both understand the cold panic that overcomes us when we first realize that we are going to die. We understand that there is an end, an absolute end, when this selfness will stop and never be again. And it terrifies us. Horrifies us. Paralyzes us, in the warmth of our beds, in the dark of the night with our loved ones beside us. The end. No appeal, no repeal, no exceptions.

You are goi and I am tesh and both love and life are different things between us but this we both understand, that when we contemplate the death of the one we love and it strikes that same paralyzing, cold panic into us as if it were we ourselves, that is caring. That is love. Isn’t it?


This story copyright © 1993 by Ian McDonald. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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