‘Liquid Loyalty’, Redfern Barrett

Illustrations © 2013 Martin Hanford

 [ Loyalty, © 2013 Martin Hanford ] “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“I don’t need anyone else but you.”

“I don’t need anyone else either.”

“I think about you all day.”

“I think about you too, Arthur.”

Anya flinched, her blood shocked cold. She hadn’t said that properly; she wasn’t emphatic enough; she hadn’t got the look right; she’d be discovered. Had he noticed? She examined him through her best gaze of adoration: his face betrayed no signs of suspicion, no betrayal, no anger. He hadn’t noticed. At least not yet.

“I hate going to work and leaving you,” Anya cooed for good measure. She said this every day, but this time she gave the words a little more sorrow, accompanying it with a slight frown—a demonstration of upset which would endear him to her. She knew what came next.

He leant forward and extended a small, soft kiss to her lips.

“Don’t forget,” he instructed, picking up his small bottle of pills from the breakfast table.

“I would never forget,” Anya replied, raising her small vial of liquid in return. As Arthur shook out a pill and swallowed it, Anya added three drops from the vial into her coffee.

He had no reason to suspect that it was just water, that its real contents had been emptied into the toilet—just like last month’s—just like last year’s. She kept her eyes on him as she sipped at her drink. She was glad there was the liquid option, it would be a lot harder to falsify the pills, with their distinctive crimson red colour and diamond shape. She had told him that she never could swallow pills.

“Don’t leave me,” he begged, playing out his day-to-day drama. What was in his head? Nothing but her. That was the point. That was the point of everything these days. No distractions. No need for friends or hobbies or political discussions. Just love—just the one person.

“I don’t want to leave you,” she replied. “I hate leaving you, I want us to be together all day. But when I’ve finished work we can see each other again.”

“We can listen to music together.”

“We can listen to music together, Arthur.”

“I love you, Anya.”

“I love you too. Goodbye.”

Another kiss.

The front door closed behind her. Anya let out a deep burst from her lungs, allowed herself to relax a little, then began her journey to work. She made it to the bus just as it pulled into the stop, a garish advert plastered along the side:

Liquid Loyalty. Giving Love a Helping Hand.

The sun had already slipped behind the lollipop trees by the office blocks, the sky quietly fading to a murky grey. Work had been exhausting. It was the boredom—there were no co-workers to talk to, or none which wanted to talk—they were thinking of their husbands, or wives, or soon-to-be-eithers.

The bus stop was littered with post-work commuters: some stricken-looking and sitting singly; others paired into couples. Anya found a space between the neatly divided bodies—not so near to any others so as to provoke discomfort—then placed her briefcase to the ground by her feet.

Loyalty. Love never came so easy.

By the advert were two men staring at one another, their eyes half-closed in devotion, both imposed over a blank-white background. One ran his hand over the other’s face. In front of the advert a man and a woman were doing exactly the same thing. They stared at one another as though they had never seen each other before, a look of fascination that Anya had mastered, but never felt. The man leant forward and kissed the woman on the lips, a playful, childish peck, before the men of the advert did the same. To their side another couple shared the same stare; so did the couple on the seats by them; two standing by them; those walking by; fifty filling the bus which just arrived.

It was important for Anya to watch the others—she had to remain observant, to record every twitch and motion in order to mimic it back home: the look of longing just right, a slight curve to the smile, the heady daze of the Loyalty pulsing through your mind. This was her daily research—if Arthur discovered her betrayal there would be nothing left. He would tell everyone of the scandal, and it would reach her job. Who could trust an employee capable of such deception to their loved one? Even single people weren’t trusted these days.

She thought of Tony.

Tony used to talk about leaving. In between lectures they would plan their escape—Venezuela, Cuba, even North Korea. Anywhere. Anya never knew if he was really serious, but eventually it was everywhere—wherever they banned it, it was simply smuggled in. Tony used to say that it was the natural consequence of a possessive society, but Anya could never bring herself to agree. She told him it would pass over, eventually. It was a stupid craze.

She still missed Tony: staying up all night, talking about men, getting high and eating pudding; or cycling to the reservoir to watch strangers cruise for sex. Over the years her loneliness had hardened, moulding to the contours of her body, stopping just beneath the skin. It wasn’t inside of her, it was her.

The bus passed a mural, painted on the side of an apartment building, one of the older adverts from the first days of Loyalty—back when it was associated with jealous girlfriends and stalker husbands. It didn’t feel real. The couple in the mural wore laughably old-fashioned clothing (you could see her neck and his bare arms), and the look in their eyes was different to the one common now—less intense. The slogan was one abandoned long ago.

Tired of him looking at other women? Loyalty. Expect no less.

Over the woman's face was another relic of the past, antique graffiti splaying the words:

Pills for psycho bitches

Whoever had written that would have started taking it long ago. Anya appreciated the long-dead rebellion even though it annoyed her; after all, it wasn't the fault of women, men had taken it too, men had pushed it into the girlfriend's mouths just the same—look at her and Arthur. Men and women.

Back then the couples in the adverts had all been men and women—it took a while for queers to take them on—Tony had said that they never would at all, that the queers had more sense. They did eventually though, everyone had.

She remembered the day she had met Tony in town, his eyes aglaze: no explanation needed. He was still single, but by that point not even the queers could meet a new lover without already taking Loyalty, ready to prove their ability to love. Social acceptability. And that was it—there was no room in his mind for her any more. They had been best friends for years, but of course he stopped calling, they all stopped calling.

She’d started faking it the day she’d lost Tony—in fact Tony was the first she had copied. Then she’d mimicked her mother, her sisters, co-workers, total strangers, and of course the never-ending advertisements. Then Arthur, whom she’d met at one of the Meet-n-Marry nights—one of the few occasions anyone went out after dark. She picked him because he was the first one to come along. He picked her for the same reason. The annual therapies had been easy to fake—without the pills or liquid it was just a matter of getting through the long and tedious procession of sounds and images. Each year he seemed to love her more intensely.

The bus rolled on. Anya didn’t want to go straight home—she wanted some time to herself before seeing him, with his dopey gazes, his endless declarations of affection, how she was enough for him, how he never needed to look at anyone else—and, worse, the fact that it was all true. She saw his passions like a squid, tentacles surrounding her, squeezing her, choking her. She would go home later—if she arrived with supermarket flowers he wouldn’t ask any questions.

The bus stopped outside the public library. Anya stepped into the silent street. The cafés and bars were long-closed, shuttered façades and boarded doors a testament to another world, an older world, the one that Anya kept hidden behind a thoughtless grin. Somehow the library had remained open, despite the cuts and lack of patrons, a mystery that only increased its appeal. She didn’t even enjoy reading, the building was enough. It proved her sanity.

Anya ordered herself a coffee from the library’s central counter. Coffee helped, or so she told herself: it gave her the energy she needed to pretend. The elderly woman serving was uninterested in her, her expression vacant behind thick glasses. She would be wallowing in a distant memory of her loved one—that had been another successful ad campaign.

Loyalty never forgets.

Happy elderly couples. It had been relentless: Death is not the end; Love outlasts the body; Loyalty Preserves; Loyalty Everlasting. The principle was the same—though Anya imagined the therapy sessions comprising of a widow and a photograph.

Anya took her coffee and wandered through to the stacks. Drinks weren’t allowed amongst the bookshelves, but these days who would stop her? She sipped noisily and stepped quietly through the dusty Ancient History section.

There were other footsteps. Anya stood still: it wasn’t the old woman, but she had never heard anyone else amongst the stacks. The footsteps continued, echoing away from her.

Anya followed.

Along the Early Modern and into the Enlightenment.

Around a corner to the Industrial era.

And there she was.

The woman stared at Anya. Anya gazed at the woman.

They saw one another clearly, each expression sharp; assertive. Anya’s blood thudded through her body. This woman wasn’t taking Loyalty, Anya could see that right away. It was the first person she had seen in years who wasn’t. They mirrored one another, Anya realised, the woman must be thinking the same.

Neither spoke.

The woman gave a small half-smile, running her gaze the length of Anya’s body. Anya’s joints near-buckled: this was the first time someone had looked at her like that since she could remember. She desperately wanted to flirt back, but couldn’t move, she couldn’t respond.

The woman raised a finger to her lips and motioned through the bookcases. Anya peered through the shelves to see the old woman making her way through the stacks, out of site but within hearing distance. An arm. The woman’s arm was over her shoulder: Anya could feel her breath on her neck.

Tomorrow, the woman whispered. She moved away, resumed an artificial Loyalty-expression (Anya could tell it was fake—was her own act so transparent?) and left. Anya gave in to the weight of her own body and slumped to the floor, leaning against the bookshelves. She breathed slowly to steady her trembling, long and even, through the nostrils.

Tomorrow then.

The old woman stood over her, only a very slight confusion penetrating her widow’s gaze.

“Did you have a good day?”

“I did, Arthur. Did you have a good day, baby?”

“I did, Anya, though I wish you’d been there. Did you do anything interesting?”

“Not really, Arthur.”

“But you were late home. Why were you late home? Don’t you love me?”

“I do love you Arthur, more than anything. I went to the library.”

“I don’t know why you need books when we have each other.”

Arthur began a quiet sulk. It would last for about an hour. These were safe, they weren’t risky: going to the library after work was a minor betrayal. If he started asking as to whether she spoke to anyone—if any of the jealous questions arose—then she would do her best act to dispel them. Often she would allow such sulking to run its course, but she had to be careful today—today she had something to hide.

“Don’t be mad at me Arthur, I love you. It makes me so sad when you’re angry with me,” she pouted, doing her best to look upset. She willed tears to her eyes, thinking of Tony, thinking of all the friends she had lost, of abandoned museums and guestless parties, things which were gone now, leaving only a desperate desire to own every inch of someone, every inch—mind, body and soul. There was no escape, nowhere to go but her own mind. Her life, her elaborate pretence, one which took all her energy and left her with—what? Some idea of independence, of holding onto herself. But what was the point? What was the point when she was so unhappy? Tears welled in her eyes then raced down her face. The woman in the library was the first hope she had ever known.

Arthur put his arm around her, placated.

Save all your kisses for me.

That was a new one, referencing some old song from her great-grandparent’s day. There were two people silhouetted, dancing together, hand-in-hand, an empty ballroom behind them. It didn’t have the word Loyalty, it wasn’t needed—there was simply the logo, one heart encased within another.

It was there, then it was gone. The bus reached the library.

The stranger was at the door. They walked down to the stacks together. They said nothing. Once they were safely enveloped amongst the bookcases the stranger pushed her mouth to Anya’s, firm and eager, a desperation she had hidden, her tongue lunging against hers with a lust subdued for years. Anya was careful; at first unsure, her lips parting and tongue carefully mimicking that of the stranger’s, experimenting. The stranger pulled away, a deep sigh over Anya’s cheek, their foreheads pressed together, clammy with sweat.

Anya’s whole body tingled. She was alive. Now Anya was the eager one, she was kissing the stranger—it was her tongue which thrusted, her lips pressing, her hand on the stranger’s soft cheek. Her heart and lungs roared, blood pulsing through her, a thousand colours dancing behind closed eyelids.

The stranger pulled Anya’s body against hers, Anya’s lips fell to the stranger’s neck, and now they were equal, the two of them pulsing, coursing, surging together; the stranger’s fingers through her hair, Anya’s lips upon her collarbone. It was the most intense thing she had ever experienced. Her collarbone.

The stranger licked Anya’s neck, breasts and stomachs and thighs pressed together; clumsy and colliding; not as one, but two eager forces and—it rushed to Anya’s mind—if two, why not three, or four? Why not the whole world? Then the stranger’s mouth was on hers again, pushing her into the bookshelf, a clatter of books to the floor.

They plunged their hands into folds and layers of clothing, exploring, conquering, skin on skin. Soft and smooth and hairy and rough. They were a thousand hands, everywhere, over every dimple and nook, every plain and mountain. Their clothes stayed on: Anya saw nothing. But she knew every detail of the stranger’s body, she had learned her by touch alone. Sightless and breathless together.

The stranger’s finger entered her, gentle but fierce, a kiss silencing her scream, her lower body exploding. She did the same, her finger delving warm and moist, a careful flick and a long caress, more books toppling, bodies sweat-soaked, trembling then shaking the shuddering, melting, melting, tongue-in-mouth. A separation, a gentle kiss and a withdrawal. Each was panting, balancing against the shelves to prevent total collapse.

Her name was Rachel. That’s what she told Anya. Her name was Rachel.

Then she was gone.

She met Rachel the next day; again they were wordless, their groping wild with hunger. Then two days later they met again, then once more the day after that. This time they had coffee together. They spoke in hushed whispers, beneath the audible range of the attendant’s hearing aid.

“I used to take it, actually,” Rachel confessed, her eyes lowered. Anya didn’t know what to say. Rachel continued. “One day I mixed it up, I wound up taking eyes drops instead. It didn’t let go of me straight away, but the difference from that one day was noticeable. It was like—this won’t make sense, but it was like a wall dissolving. Other thoughts started creeping in—old thoughts, ones I’d forgotten. And, well, I liked those thoughts, so I just carried on taking eye drops.”

Anya nodded. Rachel seemed surprised when she told her that she’d never taken it herself.

“Not once? But sweety, everybody takes it. How the hell did you avoid that? Were you in some cult?” She laughed, bowing her head slightly, the ringlets of her hair falling forward. “Well the cults are all taking it now. Believe me, I checked. There’s no-one.”

Anya knew that—she had searched herself, over an encrypted connection. All the results were from at least five years ago. But she didn’t want to waste her precious half-hour with Rachel by focusing on such a depressing topic. Instead she pulled her close, filling her nostrils with Rachel’s hair. The old woman behind the desk glanced over.

The Loyalty adverts bothered Anya less. Arthur bothered her less. Pretending became easy: easy because she had a reason to pretend. They met again and again, exploring one another, body and—slowly—mind too. Anya decided they should leave the fluorescent lighting of the stacks. She knew somewhere they wouldn’t be spotted.

She hadn’t been to the reservoir in years. She had last come with Tony. Anya and Rachel sat down together on the damp grass. The bushes where men—and some women—had once come to find lustful strangers had all been cut down, the only clue a few stumps scattered about the edge of the water. It was quiet.

“We could leave together,” Anya suggested, her voice crashing through the silence.

“Where would we go?” Rachel flatly stated. It was a rhetorical question; she had clearly thought about it herself.

“I don’t know,” Anya replied, pulling Rachel toward her. “We’d work it out.”

Rachel pressed her face into Anya’s neck before speaking.

“We can’t leave, not yet. But we can some day. We could go to another city, pretend that we’re married, pretend to be on the Loyalty. We could be ourselves when we’re alone together. We wouldn’t be able to get proper jobs—I mean, nothing that needed our marital records—but we could find something. It could work.”

It could, Anya realised. It really could.

A dozen gulls circled above the water.

The were to meet at the library again—there was less risk of being spotted there. Anya couldn’t wait to see Rachel, to tell her about her day, to hold her—and most importantly, to drop her act. Every time she saw her it was a relief to stop pretending, to not even think about her expression, how she’s holding herself. She’d almost forgotten how. She raced down the steps to the stacks, around the computer terminals and over to the Industrial History section.

What had happened?

The harsh strip lighting blazed above. Rachel stood before her—her expression cold.

Anya herself was frozen, ice clogging her veins. She was different—Rachel was different. Anya knew what had happened, but she hoped it wasn’t true. Please don’t let it be true.

The musty smell of unread books caught in her nose.

There was no warmth in Rachel’s eyes. No mystery, no mischief—just a blank, disinterested stare. Anya knew that look. It was the same look as those who rode on the bus with her, the same look as her co-workers. It was Tony’s look, the one given her by everyone—except Arthur. Total disinterest. Detachment. Boredom. It stabbed her right in the gut.

Rachel said nothing; Anya said nothing.

What needed to be said? It was a miracle that Rachel had arrived at all: it must have taken every inch of willpower left. She must have found that one last tiny part of herself, the un-Loyal part, and she had found the power to come see her. To say goodbye, though neither would be saying anything.

Anya knew Rachel’s partner must had found her faking the Loyalty—then they had either forced her to take it, or tricked her. Anya knew it was her fault: they must have discovered the secret meetings. They must have been angry. Anya realised she knew nothing about this partner—male, female, in between; old, young, in between—she couldn’t picture them, the person who had stolen this brief hope. They had stolen the feeling that she was not alone.

Anya wouldn’t cry. She wanted to, but it would be humiliating—crying to someone so bored of her. Someone who just wanted to leave and go home. Rachel was standing three paces from her, enough distance to avoid physical contact. Then she was going, turning away: she had done her part, she had shown Anya the situation.

She was gone.

Anya still wouldn’t cry. She trembled, she slumped to the floor, back against bookshelves, but she wouldn’t cry. She’d had enough. She didn’t want to fake it any more, day after day, totally alone, until the day she’d be discovered.

Just take it.

The thought flashed into her mind. It wasn’t the first time. Her life would be easier, she could join everyone else, there would be no more pretending. Days would slip easily into one another, her mind empty of everything except Arthur. The world would become grey and empty without him.


No. She would never do it. Rachel wouldn’t have done either: she had been tricked. She would never have taken it if she had the choice.

Anya would not be going home. No more pretending. She realised what she had to do.

She could see them there; through the dirty brown glass of their living room window. Rachel and the faceless spouse. Two fuzzy, indistinct shapes, ghosts of the people who had once written letters and joined book groups, gone to demonstrations and fancy dress parties, had affairs and intimate discussions with long-held friends.

Was she in there? Was that her? Doubt clouded Anya’s mind, holding her motionless. It wasn’t the illegality of breaking in—for all that she was beyond caring. It was the thought that it might not work. It simply might not work.

And so what if it didn’t? Anya watched the blurry figures on what looked like a sofa. Did it matter? Rachel was one person. Anya knew her plan. It had always been there, hidden away, waiting for her to discover it.

She would find others. Others were necessary. If it were simply her and Rachel then things would be no better. They would be alone in their very own cocoon, separated from the world; just like the other nine billion. With or without Loyalty, what difference would there really be? Her and Arthur; her and Rachel. It would be the same eventually. She needed others. Then they could truly start again—rebuild their messy, tangled networks—overlapping and intertwining in a hundred thousand different ways. An open future.

Anya closed her eyes.

It was a warm night. Anya’s hands were aged and withered, her back stiff and legs creaky. She knew her face was tangled in wrinkles.Naked bodies danced in and around one another, flashes of white and pink and brown and orange; breasts and chests and birthmarks consumed in one another. People. The heavy build of their erotic dance was broken now and again by laughter. One had broken away and was pounding on a drum, beating, beating, beating. They moved in and around one another, each lover temporary; respected and cared for by the mass. The evening air was crisp, the ground moaned with bare feet pounding green and brown. There was a grunt as a leg made its way beneath her back, a thigh gently against her face, red hair near her eye. She shuddered and rolled ecstatic, legs and arms and bellies and shoulders, beating, beating, beating against one another. So many people. Another grunt, lighter, a prayer to a god of shattered unions. A hand rested on her shoulder.

She opened her eyes and it was gone. Anya was young. She reached into her bag and clutched at the bottle of eye drops in her hand. This was the start. She quietly made her way to the back of Rachel’s house.

 [ Psycho, © 2013 Martin Hanford ] The bus headed toward the depot—its driver couldn’t wait to return home to his wife. Perhaps they would watch a film together, or just cuddle on the sofa. He turned off the ignition, locked the driver’s cubicle and stepped down from the vehicle. On its side was the new advert, one with a retro theme:

Loyalty. You’re the One that I want.

He was shocked to see that someone had defaced it, smearing words beneath in crimson red:

But perhaps I’ll take some others too

For a moment he laughed. Then he remembered himself and shook his head at the senseless act of vandalism. It was disgusting. He would have to tell his wife.

© 2013 Redfern Barrett

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