# Z Keeping It Together

Editor’s Foreword

I’m not generally one to retitle works, but, were I to retitle this one, I might go with “Keeping Up Appearances.” As it stands, I’ll leave it alone, and Hyacinth can keep the title for herself.

I woke up to an empty wardrobe. It made no sense. The first thing I noticed when I got out of bed was the fact that I didn’t have on my paisley pattern pyjamas. I’ve always been a pyjama man. To sleep naked in a bed is utterly abhorrent to me–to sleep in a bed without sheets or quilts, well... I opened the wardrobe and it was empty. I didn’t have a lover or wife who’d cleared my wardrobe out. It wasn’t that. There was just an empty wardrobe. Hangers at odd angles. I was stood naked in my bedroom. It freaked me out that there was no fabric at all in my apartment, neither curtains nor towels–there wasn’t even any carpet on the floor. I was suddenly gripped by a total panic.

I looked out the bedroom window. I didn’t need to whip the curtains open, they were gone already. I have a ground floor flat. The street was empty. Then I noticed something so strange, I couldn’t at first believe it. An old woman with a cane. I knew the woman. I’d seen her in shops or on the arcade but never like this. She was stark naked, hunched over her cane. Her face was made up as usual, too much foundation and the rest of it. Her wrinkled flabby nakedness rattled and wobbled. Long flat pendulous breasts. A soft white trembling ring of fat round her midriff. Skinny behind trailing sack of dead grey dimpled flesh, sparrow legs. Swollen ankles and feet. You could see the lumbago in her big toes.

I realised my heart was thumping like mad in my chest. The phone rang and I shouted out loud. It was my boss reminding me about our meeting today. The Japanese representatives were on their way. It was a very important meeting. He didn’t threaten me with disciplinary action if I missed it, but he might as well. He made his point really clear. I wasn’t to miss this meeting for love nor money. I took a shower, a long shower. I just stood there taking the hot sting. I turned up the shower to as high as I could take it. Gritting my teeth. Then I turned it to icy cold.

Hoping that would wake me up from the obvious dream I was having.

My wardrobe was still empty once I’d dried myself. I was still naked. There was only one thing for it. I took out my last ever pack of cigarettes. It had been six years since I’d last had a smoke. I’d officially given up. In truth this wasn’t my last ever pack of cigarettes. In that last six years, I’d bought maybe twelve, thirteen packs of cigarettes and smoked the lot. It hurts to admit you’ve fallen off the cancer wagon but that’s what happens in real life. Nobody can be a good boy and just pack them in. You really love cigarettes. You really have not only a serious nicotine habit, you also have a serious suck habit. There were three left in this latest pack. I took one out and lit up. It tasted gorgeous. As usual.

I shaved my chin, combed my hair and brushed my teeth. I sprayed deodorant under my arms. I even decided to spray deodorant under my crotch. I stood there in the bathroom, looking at my podgy reflection. I looked at my hairy chest. I looked at my fat gut. I looked at my generally unfit body, my hairy legs naked at the top naked at the knees. That’s what people were gonna see when I finally left the house. How could I actually leave the house naked like this? My cell phone bleeped a CrazyFrog-like jingle (why did I download that ringtone?). The day was getting more and more ironic. It was my boss. I lied and told my boss I was on my way, told my boss I had my reports, told my boss I wouldn’t let him down today. Told my boss that he could trust me. Told my boss this would be our big day.

“The Japanese are gonna roast us alive if we get this wrong, Taylor!” that’s the speech I had in my head as I reached for the deadlock. That’s what my boss said before hanging up. I stood there with my hand on the deadlock, unable to turn it and exit the apartment. I looked at myself in the small mirror there by the front door. I looked okay from the throat up, very presentable. How could we fail to impress the financiers? I turned the door handle and the gust of cold air swept across my naked flesh causing my nipples and penis to tighten to sudden erection. I gasped and tried to control my breathing. But I hyperventilated for a full minute on the doorstep unable to cross the threshold.

A young neighbour raced past me glancing at her feminine gold wristwatch, she also looked late for her commuter run. She had her car keys in one hand and a small attaché case in the other. I could see her body that had been pampered in many a gym in its twenty years. She was a delight to the eye, no doubting about it. I stuck my head out the door and watched her wiggle off down the walkway to the stairs down which she disappeared.

That first step. It was very weird. I was expecting the black tarmac of the walkway to feel really cold under my bare foot but it wasn’t. It was like I had on my shoes and socks but I didn’t physically have them on; I wasn’t physically dressed when I took that long walk to the car. There was just not one single thing about this crazy morning that was making sense. I had my car keys, reports and sheets of figures in a small brown leather satchel on my back.

Sat in the car, driving naked to work I nearly crashed three times. I couldn’t concentrate on the simple task of getting to work. Everyone was naked this morning. Mothers with their children. Fathers with their work colleagues. Grannies, granddads. Policemen. Doctors. Bus drivers. Lollipop ladies outside of school. The thought of that meeting filled me with such utter dread. I simply couldn’t drive to work. I couldn’t follow the route I knew like the back of my hand. I stopped into a petrol station and hesitantly got out of the car to make sure she was full of petrol. I needed something to drink. I couldn’t even think straight.

The car was nearly empty. I filled it up while other naked customers came and went. No one batted an eyelid. It was like the world had woken up naked and nobody cared one jot.

“Hi, there,” said the young girl on the till. I looked directly at her small pale nipples. The mole on her chest up there on the left near her clavicle. I noticed she had a navel piercing. She handed me my change and wished me a fond farewell. Maybe everybody looks at her breasts like that. I didn’t even exist, she was already serving the next naked person behind me as I exited the shop.

The meeting went well. The Japanese financiers were all sat there, naked. It was strange how the nakedness of everyone around the table made it easier to gauge reaction and alter the presentation accordingly. It’s like today there would be no hidden agendas. The Japanese were buoyant and the presentation was well received. My naked boss gripped hold of me like I’d never known him to.

“We have done a good job, today, Ted,” my boss used my forename for the first time since I came to work here later in the pub. We all got drunk, the Japanese and our company. But that was last night.

* * * * * * *

But eventually it was the next day. I woke up in a sheet-smear of blood. It was worse than the day before. Yesterday’s nakedness seemed like a luxury compared to today’s insanity. I lay in bed, the mattress brown and metal smelling. I had been stripped back another layer. But not just the skin. The bones too. Every nerve was still firing. I could see the electrical impulses flowing through the nervous system. I could see the blood pumping from my heart. The way the lungs glowed when the air went in, the blood warmed, and the cooling exhaust gases. My mind had split–I just knew it. My mind had been broken by the stress of the previous day and I had gone nuts.

I got out of bed. Stood in front of the bathroom mirror. I had no bones. My brain sat there behind my eyes. I had no hair; no eye lashes; no nose, just two holes; no lips or other cosmetic details. My tongue lolled about in the softness of my mouth. The muscles were all still there–I had never understood there were so many muscles in the human face. Why would a man wake up without his bones? It made no sense. Why was I still alive in such a deboned state? What magic was afoot?

My boss understood it when I called in sick. He mentioned his hangover, too. I just laughed when he laughed. It was easy as that. He thanked me before hanging up, said he respected me as a friend and a colleague. A tear ran down my face as I thanked him. The salt of the tear stung as it flowed down the slender muscles of my cheek, trickled down over my open, toothless mouth–the nerves sat patiently in the bloody gums. I returned the handset to its cradle with my gory ghost of a hand. I didn’t need to shave today. I drank tea. I ate toast. There was suddenly a knock at the door. My heart beat like a drum, not only could I feel it but I could see it. Just down there between my own inflating/deflating lungs. I could see the soft slow peristaltic mechanism of my intestines and the quiver of my testicles through the pelvic membrane.

I had my hand on the front door handle. I could see someone stood through the little bubble-glass window in the door, a bag over their shoulder, a package of some sort in their hand. The person on the other side of the door. Stared right at me as he knocked again. He must have been wondering what the hell I was doing, standing there with my skin all stripped off and my bones missing. I must have looked like some bad horror story title Flayed But Living. He put the edge of his blood-stained hand to the door and used it to shadow his flesh-stripped face so he could look in.

I pulled open the door.

“Sorry, sir. I thought…” the facial muscles of the bloody abomination contracted into a tense smile. The postman handed over the blood-smeared package. He offered me his pad to sign. I signed. He thanked me curtly. He left. I closed the door. I took the package to the kitchen and sat there looking at it. My liver quivered softly. A bubble of gas crawled through my guts. It was about the size of a skull, this package. I knew it would contain a skull. I suspected it would be my skull. I picked up the package with my wispy threads of muscle and nerve fibre–I no longer had fingernails, there was nowhere to attach them. It was very strange to be able to pick up things like this without the support of finger bones, wrists and forearm bones, elbows. Where was the structure coming from? I put the box down and looked at it some more. I certainly wasn’t going to open that. No one wants to see their own skull.

I spent the day in front of the TV and it was the same all over. No matter which channel I selected, everyone was stripped back to the muscle, nerves and organs. I had fallen into some Twilight Zone of mental shearing, that much was obvious. I was sure I was still asleep. Maybe I didn’t even wake up yet, maybe I still had to go through that hideous trial by fire, that meeting with the Japanese financiers. That was an option.

I decided to just wait it out and started to drink. A few beers from a six-pack served me well. What was I to do? Just carry on as if nothing had happened? Pretend that everything was normal? Anatomical illustration aside, there was nothing wrong with me. Postmen still came to the door. Bosses still rang me up to congratulate me. I suddenly realised I hadn’t blinked since I’d been drinking. I tried to blink but nothing happened. This was a shocking development. I had pinned my hopes on the fact that I was just tired (hallucinating these crazy effects). I had hoped to get better if I rested my stupid head and returned to work tomorrow. Drinking the beers. Watching the ogres give the normal daily news. The skin-stripped stars of Friends, Neighbours and Emmerdale went through their tedious scripts.

Everything was fine. I totally, totally, got used to this situation. Such that, by eight o’clock, I was on my way down to my local pub. I didn’t recognise anybody though I was recognised by some who shouted out, “Taylor!” holding up a gory hand. I smiled to those who knew me. The barmaid greeted me as she usually did by asking, “The usual, Ted?” You could tell it was the barmaid because she still had her breasts but they were more like yellow globules of fat and muscle held together with a ruby red spider web topped with a glistening pink teat. If I’d have felt compelled, I could have reached forward as she hand-pulled the pint of real ale and thrust my fingers into her pelvic cavity. It would have been that easy. I could see how all her muscles worked, it was a fairly strenuous job, being a real-ale-pub barmaid. She was fairly well endowed in the bicep and forearm department it was my shame to notice.

I took my pint of real ale over to a secluded corner by the open fire and watched the football while I got deep into my drunken stupor. I couldn’t bear being with those pub buddies of mine, I gave them a wide berth and they seemed to understand I wanted to be alone. They were playing their usual game of cards anyway, so they wouldn’t miss me until they’d run out of people to fleece.

Tonight I needed to be alone with my thoughts and my real ale. A trip to the loo seemed to invite a stranger to my secluded corner. She was a woman all right, big pelvis. Heavy breasts. Thick calves. I stood there, my hands still dripping (I couldn’t bear to subject my raw nerves to the heat of the hand dryer). I girded my loins and decided to return to my table even though all my instincts were telling me to run, run, run straight out of this pub and never return. Get on a bus, coach, train and never come back to this crazy town. I didn’t even think about taking the short walk back to my apartment to pick up the car. I just wanted out of there.

“Did you get my package?” she asked as I stood there at my table, afraid to resume my seat opposite her. She knew I had received it. It had been signed for after all. “You didn’t open it?”

“Why would I open it?” I was like a frightened animal caught in the headlights.

“Weren’t you even curious?” she sipped her half of dry cider.

“I knew what it was.”

“Your head?” she was mocking me.

“My skull.”

Why would I need to open a skull-sized box that felt like it weighed about the same as a skull, give or take some packing foam. I knew it was my skull. Of course she knew that, she’d sent it me.

“What are you?” it had come the time to ask.

“I’m getting old is what I am.”

I sat down opposite her finally. It was wrong to continue this intimate conversation like this.

“You sense the seriousness but you have no idea of the implications…” she was starting her spiel. And I knew it would be a tedious spiel. I knew I would end up falling asleep before she’d got to the punch line. I knew I had to do something to stop her boring me to tears.

“Have we met before?” was all I could manage. It worked, mind. Her spiel was cut short. She sat there looking at me, her facial muscles adopted the shape of a gawp. She looked away briefly, to her left, she licked where her lips used to be.

I took a drink of my real ale, awaiting her next move. We chatted about unimportant things. Well into the night. I wouldn’t say we were getting to know each other but I was definitely avoiding the issue quite professionally. In all truth, I didn’t wanna know what the link between us was. She’d been looking at the clock a lot as midnight approached. I thought, ‘Oh, holy lord, this is gonna be one of those corny reveal-the-truth-at-midnight-pieces-of-crap you can pick up and read in so many books and magazines of supposedly-haunted fiction.’

Midnight struck and she prepared herself to spiel. I could see the skin-stripped body language. The quickening of her heartbeat. The quivering of her lungs. I had never seen such physical reality as this. One could literally read her emotion state like a book.

“Am I dead?” I asked her on the third strike of midnight. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to know the truth.

She instantly relaxed then. She finally saw what had been causing me so much tension and trepidation. “You’re more alive than you’ve ever been,” she held out her hand. The nerves and muscles seemed to peel back and evaporate, leaving in their trembling wake vectors. That was the best way to put it. We understand vectors to be a mathematical construct, a direction in space. But this woman was folding back the foreskin of time and space to reveal a body made of vectors, windows to other parts of the connected universe. As I looked up and down the outstretched hand, I could see people and times and places from all periods of history. I knew she was offering me a trinket from a purely mind-blowing jewellery box.

“We are the guardians of the fabric of reality,” she said to her drink, “We control how the world, how the universe works. One of us per planet. I have been following your progress over the last few years and think the time has come for your initiation.” She looked up at me, drink in her hand. She gulped it back one, two, three draining the glass.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the landlord announced, in a jovial, husky voice, “It’s time to kick you all out. Finish your drinks and be on your way.” He turned off the TV. The jukebox, too.

Those present in the pub drained their glasses and moved to leave, bellowed their ‘Goodnight’s.

“I am getting old for this game, Ted. I need to pass on to higher realms. It’s become too hard for me to ‘keep it together,’” she thrust her hand out at me. It was so alluring to see into all those possible lives sparkling in her living vectors, shifting from past to future, able to literally pull on the strings of reality. What a burden. The people who depend on you. The pain and hunger and sorrow and joy. How could one human possibly be able to balance all that? Maybe there was no emotional duty. Maybe life was all about structure and physical laws. Maybe human feelings didn’t come in to it. Man was living in the ultimate dream of denial. That was it.

I chuckled to myself and reached out to her hand. Was I really ready to take on this enormous role? How do you come to terms with this sort of power? My hand hovered near hers, our fingertips nearly touching. I expected a brief spark of electricity to bridge the gap between our fingertips. The moment was so pregnant with potential. If I’d have had sweat glands, it would have been pouring down my face, sweat would have been pouring all down my body, soaking into my clothes, if I’d have been dressed. I knew that if I touched her there’d be no going back, I’d be like here, like them. How many other interconnected worlds could there be?

“Oh, for Pete’s sake…” she reached out and took my hand.


About the Author

Mike Philbin is the man behind the surrealist writing entity Hertzan Chimera. Mike is the editor of the Chimeraworld anthology (now in its fifth year). In 2008, Silverthought Press of New York will release his two new novels Bukkakeworld and Planet of the Owls.


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