Big Echo

Critical SF

Bacchae

by Erin Horáková

Bethan rested her hand on the gritty surface of the wall, and Angharad winced. It almost hurt to watch Bethan lay the lush plump heart of her palm on it. The processes involved in constructing the poured-concrete building had required no element of direct human touch, and it seemed as though the wall had never been intended for it.

“Bethan! Bethan, come away, I’m dying for a piss!”

Bethan just stood there, not sober but steady in her stilettos, with one hand flat against the wall—like she was standing in front of a bloody door and didn’t know how to knock.

“Bethan, it’s freezing!” And that was saying something, that Angharad could feel it through the Bacardi Breezers.

Even as Angharad realized something had changed, she heard her own voice, suddenly tighter, asking “What are you doing there?”

Without undue haste, Bethan was smacking at the wall. Then she was ripping at it, or trying to, because it was concrete and it wouldn’t come. Her fingers arched, stiff and crab-clawed, as she tried to work them down into the meat of the building.

Angharad ran forward, exasperated. She grew properly alarmed as her efforts to pull Bethan off and away failed. She could drag Bethan about a foot away before Bethan rolled out of her arms and went straight back, going at the wall once more. Angharad was shouting and grunting and then swearing and crying, begging Bethan-love-please-come-on. Bethan wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t even properly fighting her. She pushed forward as if she didn’t feel it and tried, again, to claw at the concrete with her nails. It amazed Angharad how quickly Bethan’s hands went bloody, bits of her palms shredding, her fingernails cracking, the tips of her fingers—there was a lot of blood, in hands, Angharad thought. Little nubs, Angharad thought, they’ll be—she forced down panic and the roil of the alcohol within her because this was hardly the time to fall apart or be sick.

“Stupid,” Angharad cursed herself when she realized she should have called for help ages ago. She still felt calling the police was somehow an overreaction and a mistake, even as she did it. She worried they’d hurt Bethan, because they did hurt mentally ill people sometimes, and she knew it would probably get them both in worse trouble. She just didn’t know what else to do.

Angharad dug some gloves out from the bottom of her bag, and was just forcing one onto Bethan’s right hand (the left was still working at the unyielding building, and the blood was running down the length of her arm, sliding beneath the sleeve of her glittery top) when a policeman showed up in answer to Angharad’s increasingly hoarse shouts for help. He’d beaten the one the 999 dispatcher had said he was sending over to her.

The officer jogged up to her but flinched back when Angharad managed to turn Bethan around towards him. Pure hatred in her eyes—hate beyond passion, beyond even contempt. No drunkard’s eyes were ever so clear. Still he felt the need to ask, and Angharad took her irritation (never far from the surface, with her) and her fear out on him.

“Does this look like bloody crack to you? She wasn’t on anything, she wasn’t even that drunk!”

They made another effort to dislodge Bethan and fell back, panting. To think this was Bethan, who’d needed Angharad’s help even to get that stupid dresser up the stairs and into her room!

Unprompted, Angharad continued. “Maybe someone slipped her something dodgy, all right? But she’s always careful with her drinks! We were at Ministry, out having a laugh, and then we walked back here to the river to catch the night bus, because we live North, see, up by Enfield.”

Angharad could feel herself shouting and babbling and couldn’t bring herself to care. Better out than in. There must have been a moment when it had started, properly. Some single movement. But whatever it had been, Angharad had missed it.

“Then she sees this building and just—wanders off the road. Been like this for twenty minutes. She’s lost a lot of—look, if this goes on, she’ll be lucky to have hands tomorrow. Shit, I’ll have to phone her mum. Shit.

The Thames buoyed up Angharad’s heart-felt ‘shit’ and the continual scrape of Bethan’s hand’s alike, distending the sounds and making them linger in the cold air.

When the dispatch officer arrived, the three of them together managed to get Bethan all the way to his car and to push her down into it. Angharad ducked around the other side and swiftly tucked herself into the back, before Bethan could use the opened door to bolt. Angharad got the other glove on her. She’d half expected Bethan to beat at the car door like she had at the wall, but Bethan seemed not to care about it. Not now, anyway. She just stared out at that damn building. Not even perturbed. Just—sure.

Angharad shivered.

They got Bethan to St. Thomas’s and the nurses used medical restraints in case she tried to go for a stroll in the night. Angharad stayed over, folding her tall body into an uncomfortable chair and sleeping a few hours. Bethan’s mother, who could ill-afford the luxury of worrying about her daughter, had called into work and received her manager’s grudging permission to come up to London. To think of that poor, pastel-coloured woman rattling up towards Victoria on a cheap, shite bus, her small mouth pinched with resolution. The thick, tight bandages on Bethan’s poor hands. Angharad felt sick at the idea that she was at all responsible for any of it. Even if she’d only just been there. She’d no idea how to make it right.

In the morning, Bethan didn’t talk—not to Angharad, not to her mother (who didn’t cry—though Angharad thought it might have been better if she had). She didn’t say anything at all. The hospital tested for brain damage and found nothing. What with the funding cuts, the psychiatrists didn’t have any free beds to keep her there for observation. They had to let her go.

Free of the restraints, Bethan began to walk. Without speaking, her mother and Angharad followed her out of the room, the ward, the hospital.

“I suppose we’re headed back there, then,” Bethan’s mother said, when they’d been walking some time. Angharad nodded. At least she’d had time, while the MRI ran, to get over to Lillywhites. Angharad hadn’t been able to shake that horrible look. She’d thought something would happen—and if nothing did, well, she’d kept the receipt. Bethan’s hands, protected by thick leather boxing gloves, hung heavy at her sides as she walked.

Angharad nodded with bleak irony to the officer from the previous night, who was now manning what looked like a riot barrier. A few women had gotten through, despite the obstacle, and were busy at their rending. They’d come in various states of dress. None of them looked particularly posh, but that was about all they seemed to have in common. Police were running interference, trying to round them up and drag them back. There were some gawkers, and in among them a few people taking videos. Angharad couldn’t blame them, really.

More women were pressed up against the barrier, waiting. Angharad suspected they’d get through, eventually. When there were more of them, which it looked as though there would be. Red smears streaked the building’s walls, hand-high. Fractures had begun to spider up the surface. A fine powder, littered with small chunks of rubble, was collecting at the base of the building and being tracked away by the scuffling women and police officers. With enough of them, they could have it down.

Walking off a ways, Angharad leaned against the embankment rail. She surveyed the river and the buildings that ran along it. The Brutalist banks and insurance firms and luxury flats—the anonymous office buildings. The sky pierced with cranes, like the skeletal fingers of an unseen hand, busily building structures no one could live in. 1 London Bridge with its cruelly smooth pre-fabricated granite and glass sides, and a great chunk of it missing by design, to make a point—how rich you’d have to be, to waste some of the most expensive land in the world to show that you could afford to do it. The epic scale of its hideousness—all of that money, more than Angharad could fathom, and not even to make a beautiful thing for everyone to look at. The way these hateful objects occupied spaces where other things had been, where people needed to be. Sure the past wasn’t any answer, but the present was impossible.

It wasn’t this building. Angharad knew that, even if the police didn’t yet. They weren’t going to stop, after. And the police could never cordon them all. Not without killing them, and enough of them were white that she didn’t think it’d come to that. If the crowd grew large enough, it could have all these places down.

They’d need a lot more of those boxing gloves, though. Maybe there were versions with cleats in. Or spikes. Maybe you could wrap them with wire. Angharad would set to work on that.