Matthew lives in Oxford (UK) where he works as an editor for an academic publisher. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, including Penny Shorts, The Fiction Pool, Gold Dust, decomP, The Phoenix, The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, The Hungry Chimera, and The Big Jewel. He is working on his first novel.
The paramedics funnel this dude – one of my bro’s friends, I guess – into the back of the ambulance. The guy’s come dressed as one of the Bananas in Pyjamas – you remember that old kids’ show? – although he’s leaving as something out of a horror movie. His blue and white stripes are now caked with dark sticky blood like black cherry sauce on the most sinister looking sundae you’ve ever seen. His name’s Bill and, against all odds, he’s still kicking and screaming under the straps, a thrashing radioactive fruit salad. I guess the paramedics don’t want to sedate him without knowing what mixture they’re going to be adding to.
There’s a crowd forming on the pavement and, thanks to the veritable pharmacy of consciousness-bending substances currently coursing through their collective mashed-up hive mind, nobody’s quite sure how to react. The display of flashing blue lights isn’t helping, setting everybody on edge. For some those spinning blues must look as sinister as the rapid gnashing of a thousand angry teeth, for others they’re a harmless cacophony of line-dancing Smurfs; it really depends which way your evening’s gone.
I glance at my bro. He must know these aren’t the last flashing lights he’s going to be seeing today.
I should explain. Let’s rewind. Then I’ll go check on the cat. Whatever else you do, don’t let me forget to check on the cat!
You see, this ain’t my first rodeo. In fact, I was twelve the first time I smoked pot. Young, I know. Maybe that’s why we were in a kids’ playpark, used chunks of hash so big they made the spliff side-burn half the length of the paper. Must have managed about two plasticky tokes each before the whole thing unravelled. We tried to stick it back together on the arm of the park bench, but it was no go. My friends told me to ask my big bro to roll us a fresh joint since it was him that had scored the stuff in the first place. But I couldn’t do it; all I kept thinking about was how he’d laugh if he could see us for the rooks we were.
I was with him the first time I got properly baked; in a music studio with his band. I could skin-up by then no problem, even if I was still only fourteen. It was a cool place and the sound-proofed walls meant not a single wisp of THC-rich smoke had anywhere else to go but us. I whiteyed hard. Of course, back then I didn’t know how to handle it – air, water, food – I just lay there trying not to shit my pants.
I don’t regret it. Fact is, smokers have more fun. End of. But after a while it started to get boring, spending your weekends feeling lousy, feigning laughter at old Cheech & Chong movies, utterly incapacitated. It just seemed ... childish. That’s why I’m glad I got it out of my system when I was young, when I was a teenager and those poor abused synapses could still be replaced and you could dry-clean your lungs with a forty-eight-hour detox.
Nowadays shit’s got more complex. The other week the local newspaper ran a piece about the drug epidemic in our hometown. The front page gave a bird’s eye map with a bright red ring to indicate the source of the problem. And I’m telling you, if that ring was a dartboard then my bro’s house was the frickin’ bullseye, the beating heart of the whole town’s fucked up, blood-poisoned body. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t growing, and he was no chemist. He was just a middle man, a little guy, the check-out kid in a supermarket of class-B drugs, the Aldi of the narcotics world. That was my big bro.
Let’s fast-forward, then, back to the night of Bill the Banana in Pyjamas. And seriously, don’t let me forget the cat.
It’s Halloween. And this is my big bro’s place. A big old town house from some time after the Second World War, all exposed brickwork and thick-framed windows, three storeys of terraced suburban bliss. Then there’s inside. He’s sharing with six or seven others, officially, but everyone knows it’s pretty loosey-goosey. It’s not technically a squat because they’re paying rent, but in every other sense that’s basically the deal. I don’t want to do down squats – I hear plenty have electricity and water and WiFi, every room fully floored and walled – all I’m saying is that you can’t help but detect a prevailing air of people not giving a shit. And that includes the landlord. Picture cracked plasterwork on high ceilings, long hallways lined with semi-discarded clothes, an eau-de-ashtray fragrance that’s been liberally sprayed into every corner, bathrooms stuffed with bog-roll that’s been half-inched from the pub in great big armfuls at a time. I could go on, but let’s just say that whenever they do get kicked out, there’s going to have to be a scorched-earth type of thing happen before anybody else can inhabit the place.
It’s fancy dress. Which, FYI, I loathe. I said to my bro: Isn’t it all a bit fresher’s week, fancy dress? He’s done himself up as a post-suicide Kurt Cobain; fishnets, heels, a pretty patterned dress, enough lippy and eye-liner to make Courtney Love blush. He’s already got the hair. He actually is a big Nirvana fan. It’s a homage.
“Where’s your costume?” he asks. I say to him I wasn’t sure he was serious about the whole dress-up thing. “That’s cool, we’ve got fuck loads of face paint. If in doubt, go clown. Creepy as shit. I’ll get Ali to do it for you.”
Ali’s my bro’s girlfriend. But tonight she’s come as one Donald J. Trump – someone had to, right? – the spray tan, the hair, the tiny hands, the trademark dark suit, that look that says Yeah I’m dumping in the pool, now smile and tell me it don’t stink. She’s only broken character for the T-shirt: Just try and grab this pussy, motherfucker! I suppose everyone has their limits. Is she afraid the metamorphosis might stick? The appearance become reality? The antithesis of the Friday-night-revolutionary in the V for Vendetta mask, smashing up the high street bank before Monday arrives and it’s back to the grindstone of insurance sales?
“Have a seat,” she tells me. The make-up sponge feels cold against my skin. “Trust me, you’re going to love it, it’s going to be so outstanding. I’ve got the reddest reds, the whitest whites, the bluest blues, all the best colours, the very best, it’s going to be so terrific, I can guarantee you, believe me, nobody paints faces better than I do, let me tell you that.”
You get the idea.
Ali – or The Donald as she’s going by tonight – and Kurt Cobain have been together too many years to remember; since she was at school and he was meant to be. I’m pretty sure they were each other’s firsts. Not that I like thinking of her and my bro together in a sex way; she’s like a sister to me. But I suppose there’s an exception for everything, and somehow tonight the idea of this tangerined POTUS getting ramraided by a post-mortem rock star rather tickles me.
Although. Is he meant to be Kurt Cobain? Now I think about it, all dolled up like that, he could be Melania, you know. A glimpse of her future? Her only way out, gunshot wound and all?
The place is filling up nicely, although everyone’s still sober. Or, at least, they’re only drinking. There are empties everywhere about the place, but it’s impossible to tell how long they date back.
Inside the music’s electro-swing and Princess Leia and Golom are Lindy-hopping around the living room each with a bottle of red in hand and a roll-up hanging out their mouths. Outside they’ve cranked up the punk music and the bonfire’s stacked with pallets; Winnie-the-Pooh and Professor Snape chew the fat over a couple of brewskis; Rosie & Jim are slumped into a deckchair creaming up a fat old bong; Borat’s swaddled in Cruella de Vil’s long-awaited fur coat to stave off mankini-induced hypothermia. Another guy’s dressed as I-don’t-know-what. Jim Morrison or Jesus? It’s hard to tell. I ask him and he just says, “I am the door.”
“Dude!” comes a voice from behind me.
And I say: Holy shit.
It’s Cara from school. She’s dressed as a carrot. Just a carrot. Cara-the-Carrot, is that what she’s going for? Full costume head-to-toe in puffed out orange, a little hole for her painted orange face, green dreadlocks sprouting out the top.
“How’ve you been?” she asks.
We hooked up at a party when we were about sixteen. The next morning we both pretended we’d been too drunk to remember. We didn’t speak for about two months after. I tell her I’m good. Just back from uni for the party.
“Oh yeah, science, right?”
I tell her yeah. I could correct her, tell her it’s a Master’s degree in applied physics, but I really don’t feel like trying to explain my dissertation to a giant root vegetable, least of all one that noshed me off in her parents’ en suite bathroom. Man, was it a disaster. I’d never been swallowed before and I got over-excited, blasted unannounced on the down-stroke. She choked so hard her nose started streaming thick white goobs of snotty spunk. She must’ve been smelling me for weeks.
“What’re you supposed to be?”
So I tell her: Just whatever really. I think I’m a clown.
At that moment my bro says he wants everyone to come inside, says he’s got something cool to show us.
By now there’s a whole bunch of people arrived; alive, dead, cartoons, animals, aliens, vegetables. We’re a silo of existential diversity. The music’s been turned down low and my brother Melania Cobain’s standing on a chair to make his announcement. From this angle he could be alive. You can’t see the hole in the back of his head. The before shot.
“Alright, nice one for coming, you all know where everything is. Just a quick note if you’re gonna be taking any chemicals, Phoenix has kindly donated his room as a chill-out area, so if you really start trippin’ balls, just head for the end of the hall. There’s a sign on the door.”
Bill the Banana in Pyjamas jumps in here: “And I know it sounds fucking lame to say it, but let’s try and use responsibly yeah, and look after each other yeah. Let’s make this a safe space for everybody.”
“Aye, fair play.” This is my bro again. “So before we get started, we’ve got a special guest.”
In waddles Frankenstein – he’s not the special guest – and places a sort of dark Perspex box down on the table next to the vinyls and the bowl of Professor Snape’s pre-spiked punch. The plastic’s thick enough that you can’t see inside, but you can just about make out some very faint meowing.
“Awww, I love it! Eggle’s joining in with Halloween,” says The Donald.
Cara the Carrot leans over and whispers to me: “He’s a rescue. Sweet little thing. A tabby.”
“How many of you guys have heard of Schrödinger’s cat?” says my bro to the room. Yeah, people have heard of it, they say. “Basically there was this guy called Schrödinger, right, and he had this cat. And he wanted to prove you could make something both alive and dead at the same time, so he puts his cat in a box like this one and makes it so that after one hour there’s a fifty percent chance that the cat’s alive, and a fifty percent chance that it’s dead, but you have no way of knowing for sure, yeah? And so until you open the box to find out, Schrödinger says that the cat has got to be either alive or dead … or both! So basically yeah as long as you don’t open the box, you’ve got something that’s both alive and dead. How sick is that? Like an actual zombie.”
“Schrödinger’s zombie,” says Cruella de Vil, which seems to chime with everyone else.
“That’s friggin’ awesome,” Cara the Carrot says to me.
I ask her: What about the cat? There’s a fifty–fifty chance it’s going to die.
“I don’t think he was serious about that bit,” she says. “It’s just for fun.”
I tell her: Fine. But what my bro just said about Schrödinger, I mean, it wasn’t like the guy actually had a real cat and put it in a box. It was a thought experiment designed to disprove–
“Right, that’s it, you need to lighten the fuck up,” says Cara the Carrot and hands me a pint glass of luminous punch. She says, “Neck it.”
An hour or so later and back outside the party’s in full flow. You can feel the ground pulsing from the speakers and little baggies of pills and powders are getting passed around like pick ’n’ mix.
“Wiffly?” asks Borat. He’s holding out a bank card with a little pile of white on one corner. “It’s K.”
I tell him I saw a girl on TV the other day. She took loads of ketamine and now she can’t stop from pissing her pants. At home on the sofa, pisses her pants. Riding along on the bus, pisses her pants. Middle of a job interview, she’s holding hard as she can, then stinking little Miss pissy pants.
That’s when Bill the Banana in Pyjamas pulls up a deckchair next to me. “So you’re Kurt’s little brother,” he says.
This takes me a second, then I say: Yeah, for tonight I guess I am.
“He says you’re proper smart, like a pro-scientist. He’d never say it, but I reckon he’s kind of proud of it, of you, I mean.” He’s smoking some intense smelling skunk that has me holding my breath at strategic intervals to avoid inhaling. “What do you make of that whole cat-zombie thing?”
So I tell Bill: It’s interesting, Schrödinger’s point was never that the cat could be both alive and dead at the same time as long as we don’t peak in the box, nor that we even need to look in the box to learn whether it’s alive or dead. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I ask him if he’s ever heard of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Bill the Banana in Pyjamas takes a long draw on his joint and says, “Nah man, what’s the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics?”
I tell him only what he needs to know: It’s about the stability of atomic systems independent of their being measured. Without us observing them, the Copenhagen interpretation holds that such systems can exist simultaneously in different states, a particle and a wave, for example. Or alive and dead in the case of the cat. It’s only once we observe the system – or cat – that it settles on one or the other.
“So the cat can be a zombie as long as we don’t look directly at it?” he says through a thick cloud of hydroponic haze.
I tell him no, that’s the whole point. Schrödinger’s thought experiment was meant to show how ridiculous–
Suddenly I feel something working on me and before I can stop it I’ve got a totem pole sprouting in my boxers like a bamboo plant in a time-lapse film sequence.
“Hello sailor!” says Bill. “Looks like someone drank the cool-aid.”
I ask him what the fuck was in that punch.
“Chill out, dude, they’re just dick pills.” He tells me to go whack myself off and I’ll be good as gold. “But about the zombie–” he starts. But I’m already out of there.
One hefty batch of baby batter lighter and I’m still monolithically stiff. I do some push-ups on the bathroom floor, try to get the blood flowing elsewhere, but it’s easier said than done given the rager I’m sporting. Instead I tuck it up under my belt; pray to Jehovah to kill my boner; crack another beer. Downstairs I glance in on the chill-out area; Phoenix is in there blazing away with Rosie. Jim’s whiteying on the floor, flat on his back, skin grey like old chicken.
I say to this Phoenix guy: Turn him over or he could die. He’ll choke on his tongue.
He just stares at me all bleary-eyed. It occurs to me that although I’ve never met him before, although we’ve never said a single word to each other, I fucking hate him. Using my foot I roll Jim over like a rag doll. Under his weight the rubber mallard he’s got taped to his shoulder gives out a sad wheezing little quack.
Back in the sitting room, Frank Zappa’s wailing from the sound system. Knowing what that means I take the side door round to the garden. I don’t need to navigate a room full of K-holing cartoon characters right now.
Outside is a whole other mess. In no time at all the garden has been transmogrified into a chemical Bacchanal of skanking Draculas and poi-spinning She-wolves; every pupil dilated, every lip getting chewed raw. If the ancient Greeks had ever managed to synthesise MDMA you’d better believe this is what Dionysus would’ve wanted.
“Hello stranger, where did you get to?” It’s Cara the Carrot. “Come talk to me.” She thumps the seat next to her like it’s an invitation. She says she double-dropped about half an hour ago and now she’s coming up hard. She’s all moving parts, cogs and gears whirring with no place to go. “You want to dance? I want to dance.”
I tell her no and she disappears to expend some of that pharmaceutical energy with Bill the Banana in Pyjamas. The stereo’s booming with heavy Drum & Bass and the stars are out and shining their cosmic disco ball. Professor Snape distributes glow sticks like a second-rate Jedi. I drain my beer.
When me and my bro were younger – think teenage years – we used to hang out in my bedroom listening to punk music loud, shooting pool. My room was at the top of the house with big windows that swung open onto a sloping roof over our folks’ bedroom. That meant we could turn the music down low and smoke out the windows and still be able to hear intruders climbing the stairs. Sometimes it was a reefer, but mostly just roll-ups; Golden V and blue skins. Anyway, this one time we’re smoking this doob with one of my buddies and he swears he’s heard someone coming up the stairs and he panics and launches our bifter straight off the end of the roof and into the back garden. We all stand there waiting for the door to burst open, wait for my old man’s nose to wrinkle up with nostalgia, try to open our eyes unnaturally wide so he doesn’t figure. It’s a drawn-out moment of calm before the inevitable storm.
But that storm never arrives. Turns out my buddy’s hearing things and we’ve just lost a perfectly decent billis. Downstairs, my mum keeps the munchies stocked up high and we’re in the kitchen swigging on OJ to counteract the cotton-mouth when we hear this scratching at the backdoor. It’s our cat; black, white, and anti-social as shit. But she’s coughing up this hairball or something nasty and we’re all three of us watching like we’re about to witness something gross and we don’t want to miss it. And then she goes over to my bro and with one last wretch our half-smoked jay is vomited onto the kitchen lino. A little moist, but for sure intact. Looking back, was that the moment my big bro started believing in magic cats?
But even then it wasn’t about the drugs for me. And I don’t think that’s why we hung out, me and my bro. For us it was all about that music, all about that punk unity, all about that adolescent discontentment channelled into something so goddamn meaningful it made screaming those lyrics till your throat tore seem like the ultimate form of catharsis. It just plain old fucking rocked. Take a Dick Lucas or a Chris Hannah; these guys had more to say than any dubstepping fuckwad could produce with a monkey, a typewriter, and all of time and space. You think I got into science because of Hawking? Bohr? Dare I say Schrödinger? I’m a scientist thanks to Greg-fucking-Graffin.
I think that’s why I can’t stand watching Cara the Carrot’s and Bill the Pyjamaed Banana’s mindless raving; all heels and toes and single-finger-gun-toting, no brain cells required. It’s so goddamn toothless. A greengrocer’s worst nightmare, but that’s about all.
“Hey where do you think you’re going?” says Cara the Carrot when I’m moving back inside.
I tell her I need another beer and does she want one.
And out of nowhere she says to me, “You remember that night we hooked up?” She leans her wide-eyed carotene face into mine. “You wanna go again?”
And I’m thinking, Please no; but I’m throbbing down there like an animated explosive and next thing I know my backside’s glued to the warming porcelain of the upstairs toilet seat and I’m trachea-deep in Cara the Carrot. Problem is, now that she’s peeled off her costume it’s only her face that’s still orange, so it’s more like I’m being blown to bits by a pared back Oompa Loompa. Still, thanks to that punch my member’s been transformed into fellatio’s answer to the neverending gobstopper, and before too long Cara’s climbing up onto me, easing me inside a little more with each stroke of her hips until she’s settled into the sort of bucking rhythm they don’t teach you in Loompaland.
It’s about twenty minutes before I start having to work to keep my hard-on. That’s how I know the salami stiffeners are finally wearing off and I can soon look forward to greeting my old friend flaccidity, not to mention take a leak. I put a towel down on the monochrome tiled floor and she lies back glistening with dehydration. With no more messing around I can bring her to climax in no time at all. Her noises get all staccato and when I look at her she says, “Come with me.” After that all I can hear is Gene Wilder beckoning me on: Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure ejaculation! By the time I’m back in the room we’re a crumpled heap, less and less conjoined with each passing second.
She says to me, “Good kitty,” once we’re dressed again, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. A quick look in the mirror tells me. Turns out I’m not a clown at all. Instead, Ali’s done me up to look like the sort of pussycat you’d see a billion of at your kid’s school fair; all whiskers and muzzle, coloured black nose and philtrum, pointy little ears on my forehead over my eyebrows. Cara the Carrot pinches my backside where my tail should be, and, with that, we’re done.
The living room is a sea of spaced-out faces; Batman’s got a stream of drool pooling into his utility belt and Bill the Banana in Pyjamas is staring at the Perspex box, his eyes pressed up against its sides like a kid feeling that static fuzz off an old TV screen. He’s saying things like, “Dead and alive and both zombie cat zombie cat zombie cat stay in your box kit-kat-kit-kat zombie miaoooooow.” He never blinks not even once. And for a second I’m not thinking and I say to him: Dude, are you okay?
Which is a big mistake.
He’s staring at me. He says to me, “But how?”
And then I’m saying to him again: Dude?
He’s saying, “How did you get out?” And: “You’ve ... come for me?”
And that’s when Bill really locks those mad eyes on me. I should clock sooner what’s going on, realise it’s a bad day to be a kitty cat, but before I get the chance Bill’s hands are around my neck and he’s screaming “Zombie!” and there’s crashes and I’m saying Dude what the fuck? And all around us there’s cartoons and dead celebrities tripping balls thinking they’re watching a no-holds-barred feline–fruit grudge match so that they know that shit they took was good. Then he’s shouting “Die zombie die!” and he’s throwing punches at me and the spectators are chewing their faces like it’s popcorn. That’s when I remember that I’ve got a cat painted on my face and this crazy bastard thinks I’m Eggle, escaped from my box, dead but not dead and out to kill him. And I tell him I’m not a cat and he says, “Zombie! Schrödinger’s Zombie come for us all!” And he says, “I know what you are,” and he’s trying to gouge the eyes out of my head.
And I’m struggling to get this psycho off me when at last some people with some working limbs and unjellified brains see what’s going on and they’re trying to haul Bill the Pyjamaed Banana off me, and they’re saying “Dude, chill,” but he’s so wired it’s like he’s got the potassium from a hundred Bananas in Pyjamas coursing through his veins making his muscles and lungs and eyes pop with energy. Now, somehow, he’s managed to grab an empty bottle and he’s smashed it until he’s just holding the bottle neck with a billion glass teeth on the end of it. And there are three guys trying to dislocate him from me and he’s still shouting “Die zombie cat cat cat,” while on the couch the Caped Crusader is giggling his tits off. Luckily the Boy Wonder grabs Bill’s arm just as he’s about to plunge the broken bottle into my jugular and with the help of Professor Snape and Kurt Cobain they manage to drag him off at last.
And now everyone’s surrounding Bill and is telling him to chill the fuck out and he’s just tripping. But he’s still got that bottle in his hand.
People are saying things to him like, “Just breathe, man,” and “Find your own head space, dude, it’s all good.”
And through all this noise I’m trying to explain that Schrödinger meant it as a reductio ad absurdum; he didn’t even believe in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics! So there’s no need to panic! And everyone’s trying to get him to put the bottle down and telling him everything will be fine. And I’m asking everyone to just be quiet so I can explain to him the wave–particle dilemma so he can know it’s all going to be alright. I’m shouting for him to think of Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum of action; that way he’ll have to know I’m not Eggle and I’m not a zombie. But for some reason it’s not working and this guy’s just getting more and more far gone. That’s when he puts the bottle to his neck.
You can see his chest heaving under his blue-and-white striped flannel pyjamas. And that’s making people edgy. They’re moving towards him and – guess what – that’s making him more edgy too. If they’d just let me finish explaining quantum superpositions we could all get back to the party. But just when I’m getting to the bit about the double-slit experiment, just when I’m about to bring all this craziness to an end, all of a sudden it’s too late.
Bill’s neck explodes like a firework, like a ruptured carotid artery, like the fountains at the Bellagio. Robin and Kurt Cobain and Jesus/Jim Morrison all jump on him at once, but not before there’s red on the ceiling, red on the walls, red on the couch that was here when they moved in, red in Phoenix’s dreadlocks, and red on the President’s suit, red in the boner punch, red on Eggle’s box, and red on Frankenstein, and Dracula’s freaking out because he doesn’t like blood, and red on everything and anything in Bill the Banana in Pyjamas’ splash zone, which in his defence is diminishing by the minute, sputtering with every heartbeat, juddering like a broken tap.
Then Cara the Carrot says to me, “He’s never dropped acid before. Shit times.”
I don’t know how you stem the blood flow from someone’s neck without choking them at the same time, but between a bunch of them they manage it. By the time the paramedics arrive Bill must have bloodied up every crusty old unwashed towel in the joint and the guys in their high-vis jackets are squelch squelch squelching in the saturated carpet. They ask what he’s taken and I want to say a broken bottle to the goddamn jugular. But I don’t, I just stand there, then follow the stretcher out into the flashing blue lights and loitering onlookers.
And as they’re loading Bill into the back of the ambulance I can’t help thinking back again to that time when my buddy flicked that spliff out my bedroom window, out over the edge so we thought we’d never get it back. We waited then for the oncoming storm to arrive with the opening of that bedroom door. We waited and it never arrived. But as I watch now a whole different set of doors close, and the engine thunders and the sirens blare, I’m realising that wasn’t it at all. Not only had the storm arrived, we were at the eye of it, in the silence that makes you think you’re safe when all around you disaster is closing in. And it’s only now, all these years later, with the sinister blue flashes of lightning, that we’re finally reaping the whirlwind.
Back inside looks like a murder scene, an abattoir. Everyone’s wandering about in a daze; it’s impossible to tell who’s in shock and who’s just loaded. And I remember the cat and I say to my bro: Dude, what about Eggle?
And he opens the box to release Schrödinger’s cat back into the world, his fingers struggling with the clasp now greasy with blood. Bill’s blood. Bill the Banana in Pyjamas now speeding along in his own metal box, alive or dead or both. And do I even want them to open the box? To know the answer?
The clasp clicks and the box pops open. And to my bro I say: Dude, didn’t you put air holes in it?