Three short stories by Elaine Tam
It was dark outside, somewhere between London and Los Angeles, when I met an organ courier. I had not realised there could be such a person or profession. At this, the young man was smug, for it was a role that flattered him with an existential assignment; yes, that was his aura, one of self-importance, the glow of which I could appreciate in a companion on a long-haul flight. Why all this bothered me so deeply, you may find impossible to accept.
It was not the fact of hundreds of bodies hurtling through the air, at rest and yet in motion, nor the disquiet of a significant force applied for distance across the astral plane. I fear not heights, especially not at this level of abstraction, to be exact, or rather, inexact. Simply put, it was to fathom that among these bodies there was one lonely, anonymous piece — the boy’s prized cargo — swilling, inexactly, overhead, having been stowed away in the hand-baggage compartment. It was all a little too much to bear. When else should there be a heart above the head? There is an extended metaphor somewhere in there, you know, a quip about following one’s heart, something to do with sense and the sensuous, and perhaps the Cartesian habit of mind. I will not dwell on it, and I should certainly not begin to speak of passion! The truth is this: that it called to me and, begging me to intercept it, its vicious love-throb filled my ears. It may have been the misattribution of desire, its co-mingled pounding synchronous with mine, but either way the effect was total. Of an irresistible and clandestine longing for an impossible closeness, the closing of an insurmountable gap; I knew then that I would devour it.
I sat more upright in my rigid seat, pricked like the ear of a hunting dog. This, I think — my arousal at the proximity to a stranger’s vital organ, one so integral to the machinations of the body — was really a little too much to bear. The thirsting like a devilish tickle was, what you might say, ‘bothered’ me! Inexactly. For what all these hundreds of people in attendance, in this public space we call a fully boarded flight, were completely oblivious to in their half-baked dream-states, was the heinous movements of my alerted eyes, my sharpened wits and activated saliva glands. Parts of my body were awakening to its beat, mercenaries rallied by the glimmer of a rhythm. It all came over me, a spell poised like an awning, shadowy and faintly pleasant, if not for the fact it was becoming a strain to conceal. In the handful of seconds, inexactly, that elapsed between this young courier’s peripatetic story and my corporeal pronouncement of these fevered impulses, I inadvertently curled my hands into fists, and gently drew them together so that they touched. Two halves united by one single pulse; a stolid type of forever.
The boy struggled to move away from me, constrained as he was by a seatbelt taut at the waist. The flight being full, there was nowhere to go. To my delight his heart stayed just where it was.
He made the sign of the cross, for what is a sign but a carrier of meaning. Through these invisible incisions hanging mid-air, his bored mind split his subjects into quadrants and arranged them prettily on a plate, the pastel-coloured petit four his diabetes disallowed him. It was the Feast Day of Saint Thomas “the doubter” who had — for the many that needed reminding — put his fingers to Jesus’ stigmata, a tender act of violence steeped in earnest disbelief. The priest described this instance of confounding faith and fact as an issue of epistemology: what licenses us to think of ourselves as knowers? We must consider how faith, like knowledge, comes to be produced. But he would not foray into his role as an intermediary between people and the heavens, nor that of hermeneutics.
The priest closed his sermon with cool hands upon his eyes as an artful caesura came to rest over his audience. A child squirmed, but quietly. While they murmured prayers, he wordlessly cursed modern rationalism and the notion of plausible deniability, which saw to his audience ever-dwindling. The vault of the chapel spiraled, full of badly sung psalms and the architect’s lofty wishes to inflect the transcendental with vertiginous heights. All the rooms in the building were magnanimous but rancid with cold. The priest proceeded to bless the consumables, a collective feeling of reverence gaining purchase.
Out there amidst a small sea of faces she had watched him, transfixed. The resonance of his words reached down into her being and she felt an adulation so deep it was cellular. She made sure to not just mentally incant but actually mouth the words of her wishes, and she was not wrong in thinking that enunciation has something to do with manifestation. She also calculated the exact sum of her donations to date. (The humble plea, after all, should never be attempted without portioning out something to the transaction, to invest the affair with spiritual gravity.) Getting to the more serious stuff, and careful not to mouth this bit, she confessed for the first time to the illicit affair with a work colleague which had helped to produce, among other things, a feminist novella’s worth of smutty text messaging and tens of affrontive, splayed nudes. She briefly imagined one of them as an author’s portrait above a biography on the gatefold of a softback book. It would be a deliciously sized book, ergonomically small and pocketable, but not so small that it would come off as diminutive.
Having communed, everyone began spilling out into the Sunday sun, and she felt a shift seismic and planetary, as though she were a fragment re-assimilating to a massive whole. Through the miracle of transubstantiation, the real body and blood of Christ coursed through her, a drug-high to her limp grey veins. She walked out of church that day feeling an epiphanic weightlessness and that, maybe, she should more regularly attend.
On that particularly wan morning, all he could think about was his mother’s grave: its feckless grass, quadrangle outline, and that quiet headstone needing a wash with the scrubby side of the sponge. Embers and ash like sad fireworks dithered by his feet before finally going out on the wet concrete, to which he took a last drag, plumes like apologetic ghosts enshrouding him.
The transition from pavement to bleached marble was swift, and the door which appeared extremely heavy contradicted itself in its ease to push. He fell in, overcoming a flash of embarrassment with a gulp of Burmese sandalwood; it was a tree he would never be able to identify, but a smell he could immediately, and it hung about the place loyal like a piece of good furniture. This place, scented and softly lit, a foil from the harsh realities of an all-too-material world.
Her teeth, obdurate bone pearls, were set straight in her skull; her dark angular shoulders betrayed a child that was keen on ballet, and quite indefatigable. He could see the delineation of her bra strap through her form-fitting black sweater — his thoughts happily lingered there. For standing there, at the counter, was the kind of girl his younger self could have really obsessed about. And had he been younger, they would have likely reached the nether regions of friendship, stumbling into a sort of clumsy love only to one day never speak again, leaving him — full of innocent lament — years later to search out why. He really liked her but old as he was, he assured himself that he was too wise for the aforementioned, predetermined ill fate. The droll of other shoppers persisted behind him, her pearlescent teeth still the only thing in focus. The greatest works of art were not made overnight, he thought.
Her presence somehow alleviated his incessant need to retrofit meaning to his actions and behaviours, which were all quite in the absence of anything profound. It was, perhaps, on account of the fact she made his heart beat loudly in his ears, so that the critical voices in residence in his head were successfully drowned out. He permitted himself the sly bit of annoyance at the fact his daughter existed at all, though she was his reason for being there. A birthday gift, for his petulant princess. I have just the thing for you. Upon turning the young foal’s ponytail swung pendulously, highlighting flickering sections of her nape, arrhythmic clinking in the background. She came back and, leaning in, pressed the tiny bottle into his palm; he would buy anything from her, but try this, she said, in dulcet tones, well-moisturised. Her gestures were sensible but sweet with facility. He had heard about placenta serums before, but only through the grapevine — an incredulous, male grapevine — which inferred it was more a quack Chinese corpse medicine, less a scientifically mandated elixir for youth. But wait! The placenta… wasn’t it that abject thing… that contemptible mass… which spewed forth behind his baby daughter?
Drawn into the magnification of the mirror, he rubbed a colloidal globule into his sallow skin. Its contact was so wistful yet fresh, it demanded more application! He considered his reflection for a moment, besotted with what looked back. Oh, the return of that smile, radiant with boyish insouciance! A joy hung about him, yummy and spectral; he had transformed into a child, no wherewithal for common sense. Thanking her profusely and forgetting his frightful fancy along with the need to pay, he skipped towards the vault-like door. She watched the security personnel rise like a monolith from a dark corner — it was all so egregious, it left her bemused.
Elaine Tam’s Bio:
Elaine Tam is an itinerant researcher and writer from Hong Kong currently living and working in London. She collaborates with artists and thinkers to create new forms and forums for critical engagement. Her research interests include psychoanalytic theory, performance writing and feminist new materialisms. The Pool, a work of theory-fiction and her first novella, is forthcoming with Urbanomic in 2022.