The bells are issued to each new resident. Always an occasion. Ceremonials worn, wine drunk, venison eaten, bonds of fealty sworn, sacrifices made. The proprietor says we’re the only home in the country that still uses them. It’ll never be otherwise, not under his regime. He refuses to install an electronic system. He has a strictly analogue mindset and is always questioning the benefits of modernity. This makes him popular with the residents, who all share his hostility to existing reality. Mint Street is a bulwark, in that respect.
The bells are only ever rung for food. Never anything else, least of all company. All content to be alone at the end. Always the same questions. What’s in it? Where does it come from? Where grown? Where slaughtered? All except Blanker, who takes only a steaming bowl of jasmine rice every day, no questions asked. The only other questions concern their next wash. A much-resented event. Many resist. The proprietor says you can’t force them, not anymore, so their reek fills the corridors. Jones, Blanker’s boyfriend (they all take lovers), is especially resistant. He says it’s a violation of his sovereignty, that he’ll never surrender his musk.
There’s never much to do. I spend most days in the office. The office isn’t mine. It never will be. I won’t ascend to those heights, or any heights. I’ll only sink further. Down the hierarchy, that’s the way. The office is free most of the time. The proprietor is always on the shop floor, as he calls it. I only get up from the desk when I hear a tinkle, and it’s only the persistent ones that rouse me. It’s then that I’ll go to take them a tray of food, passing the defibrillator that hangs on the wall. Sometimes I’ll stop and take the defibrillator down and administer shocks to the desk or the filing cabinet. Resurrect this dead place. The proprietor didn’t want the defibrillator, considering it an unnecessary concession to modernity, but the health authority forced him. He always gives it a wide berth, steps right around it. We’ve never had to use it, not with our 100% DNR uptake rate.
I’m doodling in my notepad. That’s how I spend my time. There’s no computer in the office. The proprietor won’t allow it. I’m doodling v’s. The notebook contains thousands of v’s, all fitting around each other. Sometimes not v’s. Sometimes other shapes, although now that I look at them, they resemble only more ornate v’s. They stood for something once. I can’t remember what. Veronica. Violin. Vivisection. Voilà. Terrifying associations.
It’s quiet now. There’s been no ringing for hours. Perhaps he’s showing them reels of combat footage from the war again, reminding them of better times. I stand up from the desk, even though there’s no ringing. This is unprecedented, to stand without being summoned. An unknown flight of fancy forces me to do it. This same fancy sends me out of the office, through the back door and out into the street in one fluid movement, like a single giant step.
I set off in the direction of the river, towards Waterloo Bridge. I’m walking automatically, still without input. I’m thirsty. I realise I haven’t drunk anything today. I didn’t drink anything yesterday. Hard to keep up with the essentials. I also realise that I don’t want to drink anything. I just want to see the river flowing serenely. Nothing else will do. Just the sight of the water will be enough to quench my thirst.
I’m carrying my notebook and pen. I can’t put them in my pocket. I’m not wearing a coat and the pockets on my trousers are too small. I could put the pen in my pocket, but I don’t want to separate it from the notebook. Nothing would be more unnatural. But there’s something too enterprising about walking around carrying a notebook and pen. It implies purpose. I slow my pace to avoid giving this impression, walking a little more languidly, slouching, almost crawling on all fours.
Feeling weak by the time I reach Waterloo Road, I stop and lean against a bollard. I draw a few v’s in the notebook. Big ones. Then small ones. Then a border of v’s around the edge of a page, with the point of the v’s always touching the edge. All different sizes. Beautiful. These ones mean something different to the others. Vabres-l’Abbaye. Veal. Viviana. I stab myself with the pen. Right in the palm. Then I pass the pen to the wounded hand and stab the unwounded one, right in the palm again. The holiest wounds. I’ll cite chapter and verse from the notebook.
I pass the pen back to my writing hand and flick through the notebook until I find a page that’s not made up of v’s. Mr Block’s liver ailment, the times of attacks, as recorded from his recollections. 1:45 am, 2:37 am, 3:01 am. I cross out the word liver and replace it with a v. Viscera. Then I pull out the page and put it in my pocket. I check the notebook for other pages polluting the pure presence of the v’s, but I don’t find any. I only want v’s, in all shapes and forms.
There’s blood from my hands on the pages and the pavement. Impossible to divine anything from the patterns. No resemblance to v’s. I try to rearrange it on the pavement with my feet, but you can’t rearrange blood on a pavement unless there’s lots of it. I set off again towards the river, the redeemer walking amongst his people, the lunchtime crowd. I hold the bloodied book. They hold their tiny paper bags of sandwiches. I realise then that I’m hungry too, but I don’t want to eat. Never have. A piece of bread perhaps. Sometimes buttered. Even then with displeasure. If it was up to me, nothing would ever pass my lips, no food or drink. But the body dictates.
When I reach the river, I find that it’s not flowing serenely, at least not under Waterloo Bridge. It’s churning. No serenity at all. I carry on downriver. I still don’t want to drink anything, although I experience a moment of weakness when I pass a man selling mineral water. He has a bike with a box on the front containing a fridge. I stop, despite myself. I don’t buy one. He can’t assure me of the provenance of the water. It’s Swiss, he says, but he doesn’t know which canton it’s from. He checks the back of the bottle. He says it doesn’t say. I ask whether I can press a bottle to my head, to gauge its cooling potential. He looks at the blood on my hands and says no, apologetically.
Only so much life in a person. The old ones at Mint Street almost maxed out. I could be maxed out, for all I know. Or at least almost. I consult the book as I walk. It gives no indication. The blood on the pages hasn’t yet formed into any discernible message to allow me to divine one way or another. I close the book again. Wait. Give it time. Until the vernal equinox. Until the ventricles finally seal up.
A desert spreading up my throat. Will soon prevent even the most basic expression. This could be why I haven’t drunk anything yet, despite many opportunities. The chance to finally silence it. Put it beyond use. Cut off the dribble of words. It’s never done anything for me. Talked me into holes, never out of them. Turned the clearest statements into complete gibberish. But it’s not totally gone. I’m still able to say a few words. Just a few, at least for now. I issue a sermon under Blackfriars Bridge to exhaust what’s left, croaking every last word. I speak from the book, of course, proselytising on the virtue of silence, on the vastus lateralis, on Violetta (those legs), on the great vastness, on verbal stimming. Difficult to say how much they understand, but I tap the book often and say, in the clearest croak I can muster, that’s scripture. Some of them nod. A few drop coins at my feet.
It was the book that led me to the river. The v’s are thousands of dowsing rods, all carried on my person, pulling me towards the water that can’t quench. I decide now that I won’t quench this thirst, not with anything. I’ll let the desert spread. I won’t take up the obligation to speak again. I’ll decline. Permanently decline. I’ll use hand signals in the days or hours I have left. But even that’s a concession. Will I continue to turn up at Mint Street? The residents prefer not to be spoken to. The phone never rings. The proprietor rarely speaks. But even turning up implies communicative intent. No, I’ll stay in bed, wherever that is. Sometimes shuffle over to the chair by the window. To see the sky when it’s red. No, vermilion. Just how I like it.
I stop when I reach London Bridge. That’s the limit. No inclination to travel further east. I briefly consider crossing the bridge, but I never venture north of the river. Never east, never north, never west. Made a solemn vow to the residents, many years ago. Blood was drawn, taken in their presence. They’re all old south Londoners with a natural suspicion of what lies beyond.
The river looks serene now. I climb down a set of wooden steps to the shore and kneel on the stones by the water. I cup my hands and submerge them, drawing out a handful of water. It’s all greasy. I’m not going to drink it. I stick my tongue into it. A moment of weakness. That’s enough. I pour the rest back. Quiet from now on, starting here on the stones. That’s how it’ll be. Pure silence. The silence spreads from me and quietens everything. The sound of the traffic is muffled. Not even muffled but extinguished. The gulls are muted. I won’t be able to summon anyone, make any requests. Not even a small bell to ring. And who would come.
This decision leaves me with a desire to commemorate it. I’ll leave my mark. I’ll just do that. The final communication. The wound on my right hand is still bleeding. I squeeze it to draw more blood out. I leave my mark on the stones. Three of them. Three v’s. Verisimilitude. Violence. Vacillate. The meaning of these words is overwhelming. I throw two to either end of the shore and another into the water, for the ages. I open the notebook. I try to keep the fresh blood now dribbling from my hand away from the pages but it’s impossible. I record three v’s on the last page. Verbal, vocal, voice. I draw these ones with precision. I’ll remember what they mean.
Alex Aspden is a writer based in London. In 2022 he was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize. Find more of his work at alexaspden.com.