His fat-framed glasses were the first thing people saw. They were the type where the lenses turn muddy-coloured in the sun. Even on that day, in the brightest light, the lenses wouldn’t turn completely black. They went brown, the colour of a cold woodland pond, stagnating in its stillness, still except the miniscule ripples of tadpoles’ tails.
Those glasses dehumanised him. They mechanised him, so that in the everyone else’s eyes, he was not skin and synapse, just glass and plastic, held together with tiny screws. They gave off inorganic reflections, so perfect that they can only be mirrored in man-made objects.
The worst thing was that he knew how they saw him. He sensed so much more than they gave him credit for, although sometimes he wished he was blind to it all.
In truth, the glasses had taken over many years ago. He had never wanted them, nor his damned off-beat eyeballs. They pointed in different directions, not all the time, and not very much, but enough. His mother would say “They are a sign of your attentiveness as a child, Matthew. You want to keep one eye on Mummy and one on Daddy.” He knew more than she gave him credit for as well.
The glasses were embedded. Now, when he folded them away at night, phantom imprints remained at the sides of his nose. When he looked at himself, naked in the mirror, there was something wrong, in his eyes, in his reflection, in the reflection of his eyes.
The village was beginning to bustle again, in the way it did before the virus and its rules. His shyness tugged at his neck, as he scurried downwards, towards the sea, to the fishing village where a community had chosen to live and work. Down the steep hill, where the single day of flash floods had left ghost trails of stones and silt, splitting and fusing.
A shortcut into the park, through the only gap in the hedge, which grew wider and less controversial with every push through it. A track was worn into the mud, leading from the gap in the hedge to the official path. It was a line on a graph representing the average choices we make, the mean. He chose not to tread there, instead walking in parallel, past the cordoned playground where the empty swings taunted the village’s children.
He stopped for a second before reaching the shopping street, to push the frame up his face, with a deliberate middle finger. With his shield in place he continued, past the parched pubs and still-shuttered shops, with their fading rainbows drawn on dog-eared, drooping leaves.
The villagers, those now brave or bored enough to dare the outside air, were together again, wandering around each other on tactical, arcing paths, steering around suspects while at the same time twisting their torsos at the waist, like He-Man figures. If greetings were exchanged, they were offered without exhaling. They did not look into each other’s eyes because they feared, deep down, that any connection between humans, even a beam of light, could spread it.
Overhead, the sky was pure azure, with no coughs of cumulus at all. A single jet trail, a splatter across the sky. He was sweating now and it ran down the back of his calves and droplets gathered at the bridge of his nose, deciding which way to fall. He dipped his index finger behind the frames and into the murky depths.
Other villagers wandered blindly, the flash of the outside world stilling burning on their retinas. Their well-washed hands were held safely behind their backs and their identities were withheld behind BFE1 grade masks. Some of them looked longingly into windows, at candles and shoes and toys. In the florists, they saw the green plastic pots, still marked with hand-written price tags but holding no flowers, just dregs of fluid, green with nutrients and no cycle of life to fulfil.
He began to regret not wearing a mask. It would not have hidden his eyes, but behind the mask he didn’t wear, he could have walked unseen. It was not the virus he feared, just the villagers, their recognition, their judgements, their small talk.
With headphones plugging his ear canals, there was little of the world that could reach him. If their small words were to arrive in the way he feared, maybe he could deny them. Maybe the faceless music and its beautiful distraction would deliver the providence he prayed for, although, it deafened him to the slap of jogging shoes approaching from behind, and he started, his hackles yanked, his heart struck.
Though the village was brown, he knew its true colours. The butchered backdrop of Morris and Sons was draped blood-red and as he flashed his cleaver, Mr Morris’s veiny cheeks blushed to bursting. The fishmonger’s wellington boots were rubber-black as he sluiced the pavement free of fish scales. The cobbler’s brassy keys swung slightly in the wind of passing villagers, and the long-printed mugs that gathered dust in the window, were branded with birthday wishes in outdated fonts, and their once-bold hues were now bleached by time’s mushroom cloud.
The coffee shop had inverted itself. It was closed inside but its furniture was strewn in the street, literally on the road, corralled by yellow road works barriers. The villagers that sat there were biblically proud of their freedoms and they sipped drinks beneath masks that kept out the virus and the diesel fumes.
A waitress. Blue eyes, blue gloves, white mask. She came into his life through a hatch. In the shade of the coffee shop’s awning, the brown of his lenses began to retreat and he felt his cover melting away.
Flustered, and out of practice in speaking to other humans, his voice was intermittent. A radio losing touch. ‘Pardon?’ she said to him, clear despite her mask. ‘Americano,’ he said again. ‘Coffee. Please.’
Confirmation came with a nod and the thrust of a contactless payment unit. He had to reach inside the hatch to tap it, and as soon as it squealed, he recoiled and backed off, away from the virus, and from her judgements. His lenses were clearing now and his diverging eyeballs were beginning to excite themselves at their closeness to freedom. Not now. He stepped out of the shade and back into hiding.
He turned away from her and towards the sea. The sweep of the insular bay was so long that it turned in on itself. Things settle here, he thought, it is difficult for them to escape.
A muffled call. The reassuring plop of plastic cup on counter. He stepped back under the awning and felt his eyes fighting each other for a focal point. He thanked her and cursed himself. His bloody eyes, his bloody genes. This bloody village.
He let the promenade take him away. The steam from his coffee rose, chuffing, like the train that once rode here. The train and the industries it served are long gone, replaced by a civic pathway, split clean down the middle, half for walkers and half for bikes. He walked in the middle, after all, he was part-machine.
A shapeless peloton of teenagers rode past, on bikes with obese tyres, and with handlebars guiding themselves. He stepped aside and watched them glide, fearless and bouncing, their bodies shirtless and whippet-ribbed.
One of them spat. It landed on the prom where it bubbled with infection. He stepped around it. Further down the path a fallen ice cream was sinking into the ground, and further again, a splatter of dog sick was cooking on the asphalt. A swollen seagull picked at it. It was a bird of our time, so full and fat that it shone like the cosmetic cheek bones of middle-aged women bursting with botulinum.
He sat for a moment, on a bench offset from the promenade, out of its flow. He perched, determined not to give the virus any more of his body than necessary.
With his lenses fully brown, he was safe in their shadow and he could watch the villagers unchecked. He watched a paddle boarder in the waves, wobbling as he pulled his wet t-shirt away from his love handles. He saw a husband striding metres ahead of his wife, as if she were not worthy of waiting. A lonely woman, walking in desert boots with no laces, eating a tube of crisps.
The coffee burnt his lip. After that, it was tarnished so he threw it in a council-branded bin and took the long way home, not back the way he came, but past the cars that now queued to get into the village, their windows withdrawn and their passengers glaring. The engine heat rose wistfully like a million dead and distorted spirits.
He hurried away from them, turning upwards, through the cemetery, where the worn, toppling stones backed away from him and where only the cherubs stared and the angels pointed.
(c) Stephen Lisle