Thursday, December 20

Yjali’s Names

DOBRANSKI WALKED SLOWLY into the bar and sat at the end next to a young woman hanging over her drink. “Lager, please,” to the barman and he looked at the young woman then around at everyone else. There were two drunks arguing in the corner; a group of men shouting and laughing; a couple going out of their mind in silence.
The barman returned, laid his pint on the bar and Dobranski watched the suds slowly escape over the brim and drip down.
“Three quid, mate.”
Dobranski handed over the money and took a long slug.
The young woman still hung her head over her glass. It smelled and looked like a white Russian.
The bar was falling apart. The bar fell apart like a civilisation. First the people go mad then the buildings fall. The bar stood but the clients were raving. The drunks screamed louder and louder. The men hollered about deviant sexual acts with strippers. The couple, they sat there staring at floating strands of dust and queuing up songs on the jukebox – each one saying what the lover couldn’t. Dobranski, slightly saner than his cellmates, afforded a smile and emptied half the glass down his throat. It was sometime early afternoon. The sun outside had no mercy. The bar was cool.
The young woman necked her drink. Dobranski thought she might leave but then she said, with a thick German accent:
“Another, please, Terry.”
The barman – apparently happy being called by name – went to making her drink. He poured some vodka into the glass. . . then Kahlua. . . then pulled a handful of coffee creamers out of a tub and put them all in front of her along with the half-filled glass.
Dobranski quickly threw some money down and said, “On me.”
Terry eyed Dobranski, eyed the young woman, then took the money. The young woman didn’t look up.
“And another lager, please, Terry.” Another pint appeared before him. As he sipped, the young woman still without having said a word of gratitude, began opening each creamer and emptying them, one-by-one, into her half-filled cup.
Dobranski spoke to her thinking that with the drink he’d bought her it was only his right:
“Why do you come to this place? It’s full of fruits.”
She spoke carefully and measured. “Maybe I am a fruit as well. You ever think of that?”
“Are you a fruit?”
“Why, of course.” She smirked and took a big hit from her drink.
She had pale skin, dark eyebrows, curly brown hair and the bluest most haunting eyes Dobranski had ever seen. She looked at him, up and down, and her gaze slid a shot of pure adrenaline into his spine. A pale sound could be made out in the distance.
“Two days ago I set my lover – my ex-lover – on fire. I’ve been drinking ever since. It takes a lot of vodka to get that sort of thing out of the system but it goes, eventually.”
Dobranski gawped at her, realised his manners and shut his mouth. “You set your boyfriend on fire?”
“I said ‘lover’, do not mistake me.”
He straightened on his stool.
“Yes, I set him on fire. He accused me of being with someone else so when he slept I covered him in spirits and set him ablaze.”
Terry was polishing glasses from the potwash and stacking them under the bar. He looked at her, then at Dobranski. He shook his head.
Dobranski, unsure whether or not to flee, simply chuckled and sipped his beer. He could tell she was drunk. He didn’t want to believe her but for all the absurdity and the calm with which she spoke, he couldn’t help but take her at her word. He watched anxiously as she pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The smoke trickled out of her nose. He pictured her as a dragon. He chuckled again.
“What’s your name?”
“I cannot tell you my real name. The police are out for me. Big department on my case. They’re chasing me from town to town. Every time I set a lover on fire I have to leave town and change my name. Deciding on a new name is a bigger problem than moving town. I spent a lot of time deciding on my last one.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Yjali.”
“I like it.”
“As do I. I read the name in a book and changed it slightly.”
“My name’s Dobranski.”
“I like your name.”
“Thank you.”
He waved at Terry for another pair of drinks. Terry raised his eyebrows, put down his polishing rag and went to work solemnly. It must tire one to work in such a madhouse, thought Dobranski, but every job is tiring and each one is full of maniacs.
The pair sat in silence until the drinks arrived. Dobranski paid once more. Despite her insanity, he was very attracted to her. He was also sweating under the arms.
“So how many lovers have you torched?”
“Five. I’m running out of names. I’ve had Roxanne, Amelia, Neefala, Melody and now Yjali.”
“Each lover died?”
“Only three.”
“‘Only’?”
She split her mouth in a lightning smile, white underneath and precious. “I will miss this one. He was a painter. A brilliant painter. He painted me every evening. He’d drink absinthe, fuck me for a few hours and then paint me as I lay recovering.”
Dobranski lit a cigarette and slid his empty glass forward for Terry to refill. He had not planned to drink so much but he had a great desire to be inebriated, to calm himself and excite himself at once. Yjali’s German accent was lulling him senseless, he was soothed and lapping up her every word. She was a most intoxicating thing.
“One evening he couldn’t paint me. He had to attend a nearby gallery opening. When he returned he was more drunk than normal and he began accusing me of all sorts. He said I had gone elsewhere for sex. He said I had gone to his friend, Horace’s, for sex and to be painted. I’d done nothing of the sort. I had simply made myself a fruit salad and eaten it while listening to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D Major for violin and piano – have you heard it?”
“No.”
“It is wonderful. You must. It goes well with blueberries.”
Dobranski made a mental note.
“Anyway, he didn’t fuck me or paint me. He yelled his accusations and then fell asleep on the divan. I’d had enough of him. I took two bottles of his precious absinthe, covered him in them and then dropped a match. He burned for half a minute before he smothered himself in a duvet and collapsed. I left soon after.”
Dobranski was bewildered. She recalled the story as if it were a minor disagreement. She shrugged her shoulders, puffed on her incessant cigarettes and told it all, plain as day. Throughout her tale, the blue eyes of her skull remained electric.
“Do you paint?” she asked.
“O, no. I cannot. I write. I write terrible little stories. Nothing of interest. I wish I could paint.” He stared at her, blinked hard and asked: “Doesn’t it bother you; all the screaming and the burning and the occasional death?”
She giggled. “At first but now it is nothing. It is like making a bed or fixing a shelf. I do not think about it much. That first time was hardest, though. I felt guilty for a long time. That night, I smelled burnt human flesh for the first time. It wasn’t so different from – ”
She paused and put down her empty glass. She could put the drink away.
“What time is it?” she asked, searching the bar for a clock.
“About two, I think.”
“Let’s go for a walk.”
“O.K.” Dobranski was now very drunk. He thought nothing of following this murderess. A tingle ran through him. It went from his eyes down to the base of his coccyx. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Terry stared at Dobranski.
Yjali took his hand and led him very quickly, past the quiet couple, past the shouting drunks, past the laughing men, and out into the bright apocalypse of the street.
Dobranski had a job keeping up with her. She expertly dodged pedestrians and knew very definitely where she was going. After half a mile she stopped in her tracks very quickly. Dobranski’s legs were tired; they felt thick and sluggish from the drink. He put his hands on his knees and bent over, puffing for breath. Yjali told him:
“Let’s get some wine.”
He followed her into a nearby shop where an Indian stood behind the till yelling at his son in Hindi. The Indian noticed the entering couple, picked up his burning cigarette and said:
“He spends all his money on the arcades! No focus!”
The couple walked over to the wine rack and Yjali pulled out a bottle of red.
“And some satsumas!”
She lifted a bag of bright orange satsumas from the shelf and paid at the till. They walked back outside. Yjali lit a cigarette and Dobranski followed suite. It was very hot. He could feel the sweat running down his back. His shirt was clinging to him.
“It is not much farther,” she said.
“You have a place in mind?”
“Why, of course. I am going to teach you what burnt flesh doesn’t smell so different from.”
“You promise not to set me on fire?”
“I do. Promise.”
She said something in German that Dobranski didn’t understand. He thought that she was certifiably mad but he was beginning to fall for her. It was an infatuation like a pinball bouncing around inside him, setting off lights and loud sounds and making a right noise.
They walked down the street, a little slower now, smoking their cigarettes. She had hold of the wine and satsumas in her slender left hand. They walked out of the town for a mile or so before they came to a large tower block of flats. There were children running around with mothers in summer dresses watching them.
“I must enter the code.” She typed on the keypad for entry to the block. It beeped, the door clicked and she opened it.
“Where are we going?”
“Just follow me.”
Sentences formed poetically in Dobranski’s mind. Over the walk he had written many a stanza about her, his girl, Yjali. She was his now like a kite belongs to the sky. It was momentary. It was fleeting. But she was in him, she was his. He was certain of it. Perhaps even she knew. Perhaps she knew that he was thinking up magnificent poems about her in his head. It was possible.
They climbed flight after flight of stairs. He lost count while she lead, full of energy and stable on her feet. Eventually they came to a locked door.
“Is that the roof out there?” he asked, out of breath once again.
“It is. You aren’t afraid of heights, are you?”
“No.”
“Good. We are high up.”
Yjali pulled on the handle. It was open. The door swung out and a beam shone into the stairwell as they left the dull fluorescent lights behind them.
Dobranski was struck by the smell and then the rooftops, which stretched for miles around. He hesitated while Yjali strode on out. The smell was strong, dusty and heavy. It was overwhelming. Some distance away on the roof, she turned around and smiled:
“The smell of burnt flesh is not so different to what you’re smelling right now.”
Dobranski stepped out. “What is it?”
“It’s the melted roofing tar.”
He looked around him. Underneath the pebbles layering the rooftop was thick black tar. Where the pebbles had worn away the tar melted in small black lakes. Black shiny tar giving off a pungent stench.
“What do you think?”
“It’s awful.”
“You soon get used to it.”
Yjali beckoned him and opened the wine. She took it straight from the bottle and handed it to him. He did the same. He wiped his mouth. She got down on her hands and knees and took a great big drag on the tar. She sighed. All those lost lovers burnt to a crisp! All those gallons of melted tar! She sat down on the edge of the roof, facing inward and patted next to her, indicating for him to join her.
“I need to piss,” he said and undid his fly.
His penis flopped out in front of her and he shot a stream into the pebbles, bubbling pebbles.
“You’ve made me want to go, now.” She hitched up her dress, pulled her underwear to the side and splattered clear urine into the millions of pebbles. Dobranski saw her dark pubic hair and his eyes glazed.
“Now! Wine!” She stood up, took another hit from the bottle and gave it back to him. He sat down beside her and took one for himself, offered her a cigarette and lit it.
“How did you find this place?” He could still smell the tar burning at the back of his throat. It stung but it wasn’t unpleasant. He was beginning to enjoy it.
“I grew up in a towerblock just like this one. Me and all the other tower kids would play hide-and-seek. One day I hid up on the roof. I was up there for over an hour before they found me. By that time I was drawing smiling faces in the wet tar with my finger. Then I’d go up there all the time to sunbathe and smoke without my mother seeing. It was my thinking place. I haven’t been up to a rooftop in some time. I would have surely forgotten it had it not been for our conversation.”
“It is a lovely place. You can see for miles.”
“You can. You can smell that tar! That wonderful tar!”
Dobranski smiled a long smile.
“This is what I smelt when I set my first lover on fire – that noxious smell of melted tar in the summertime.” She opened the bag of satsumas and began peeling them, tossing the peel a few feet away. The colourful peel stood out against the suffocating black. Dobranski took one and tried to throw his peel onto hers. It was hard. His drunken hands were a bad aim.
They sat there for a while as evening fell. The pile of peel grew. The bottle emptied. The sky darkened. The melted tar began to firm and its smell faded with the heat.

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