Just five miles north of Lancaster lies Morecambe, a seaside town belonging to Lancaster, the county town of Lancashire in the north-west of England. Riddled with poverty, ruined by widespread substance and alcohol addiction, the town has fallen into disrepair. Two piers lost and a mass exodus of tourism. And yet, the Midland Hotel remains. An outrageous piece of art deco architecture built in the streamline moderne style. It stands like a gigantic steamship as a monument to glamour from a time forgotten, a concrete sibyl frozen to death on the mudflats. She sings to men overdosing in their beds, falling in methadone dreams deeper than sleep, out across schoolyards of children weak with rickets. Starvation plays tricks on the mind and one might see a mirage rise out of the water. He saw the town drowned in mascara as black as crude oil.
It was this frisson of the miraculous that attracted Ezra each month. He had booked almost every single room in the place, forty-four in total. Tonight, he had room twenty-nine, the final one. Ezra drifted through the Midland in a daze. When he ordered a pint of Carlsberg at the hotel bar, he imagined he was being directed by Josef von Sternberg. He sprayed himself in clouds of Hermès 24 Faubourg and saw himself as Lola Lola in Der Blaue Engel. That Friday he completed the optimisation report earlier than requested so he could leave the Preston office at 3pm and beat traffic. Amongst other garments, he had packed a black Chloé baby-doll, Emille Pucci tulle briefs, garter belt and stockings. Many a young man has dreamed of the Midland, of corridors that led into other corridors. Ezra wanted to enter a room and not be aware that it led into another room; some unknown, adjacent space. In his dream, he flung open a door and found an Atelier Versace wedding dress with a single hole eaten through by a red-black cinnabar moth. Its wings shook and closed like speaking bloodshot.
“Debit or credit, sir?” asked the polite receptionist who recognised Ezra but respected the relative anonymity that the hotel afforded all clientele.
“Credit,” he replied, aware that his funds for the month wouldn’t cover the food and drinks.
“Very good,” she replied, her manner in keeping with the gigantic cylinder entrance, its ambient decadence.
Ezra had come into some money following the sudden death of his sister but that had pretty much all been used up now, what with the hotel trips and the evenings out with men, often to upmarket bistros in Manchester. He had taken to shoplifting at the weekends but only from the expensive boutiques where no one would suspect a man in his early sixties. He would sometimes wear the Emille Pucci briefs under his corduroy trousers as he quietly slipped the Charlotte Tilbury eyeshadow into his pocket. He sometimes wandered through the cheaper chemists (Superdrug, Boots) and glanced upon the younger girls as they picked eyelashes off each other’s faces like bonobos hunting for fleas. He wanted to snatch beauty back from them because they didn’t need it. At night, he studied the small veins in his wrists like emerald scars and prayed to find a single piece of ambergris on the beach one day. He looked at failed men in their 501s. His destiny went beyond denim.
Morecambe Bay is one of the largest estuaries in England and the beach itself consists of over five miles of pale peach sand. As on that late afternoon, the blue coast was dotted with trawlers and small boats returning from the bay. It was February and you could sometimes find cod in the water that time of year, which attracted fishermen from Liverpool, all the way down from Glasgow. Ezra watched them as they jumped from boats and moored them skilfully with thick ropes, afterwards pulling off their fluorescent, mud-caked overalls with fingers as large as sausages. Ezra felt a lump inside his throat and zoomed in with his iPhone on their attractive simple faces. His own face watched from a window of frosted glass like a silver piece of pewter crushed into broken shapes. Their innocent expressions were untainted by the irony that smothered and flooded every mannerism he carried. Their stupidity was sovereign and this was the paradox of his desire. He wanted everything he hated. As they left to return to their homes, the pub, their wives, Ezra thought about the smell of their fingers, jamming each obscene stub inside his mouth.
He needed to get ready before his guest arrived, studying his naked body in the long mirror against the wall. His torso was thin and sallow so he moved the lamp to the far side of the room. In his profile photo, the boy was wearing a chain with a padlock. It reminded Ezra of the Cartier pendant in yellow gold that his sister left him in her will. Every single member of her Zumba fitness class had attended the funeral wake. They looked so healthy and vital, and were convinced she would have pulled through. His sister collected expensive, usually French, jewellery, which he managed to get his hands on. He wore the silver Chanel choker to meet a man at the Half Moon Bay Hotel in Heysham, a few miles south. The man spat on his back and said he was worthless, even though the choker cost just over three grand. He had held his iPhone high above Ezra’s head. The way the choker winked around his neck looked like a broken halo of light. Daddy’s little angel.
Hanging the Chloé baby-doll on the back of the en suite door, he was feeling more in the mood. He wished he had an en suite at home. En suite. It means more. His parents were always baffled by his use of French and found him pretentious. As a baby they had named him Wayne and he baptised himself Ezra fifteen years later in a sink full of cheap wine. He was always in a state of transformation. Ezra was never quite ready, never quite there. Even now, he would fuss and fuss because the dream of living always outweighed the pittance of experience. Foreplay has no equal. The first time he had intercourse, he felt he had been duped. A zig-zag of frustration. He was Maria Callas. He wanted to be crashed into. Bruises appeared on his sister’s arms when she had chemotherapy. They puffed up like small lilac clouds, timid and silvery at the edges, but soon they burst into bright blooms of purple blood. They heard her weeping from the ward corridor. She didn’t want to die in Blackpool Victoria Hospital. She wanted to die in Venice.
Ezra wasn’t ready when the boy arrived, or when he rang and left three messages from the lobby. Eventually Ezra went down to meet him in the entrance hall and pretended to the receptionist that it was an old dear friend.
“You are the universe in ecstatic motion,” the boy said, sat on the bed, flushing slightly as he read the Arabic script tattooed along his forearm.
The romanticism secretly appalled Ezra but he smiled, and excused himself as he poured a drink and carried it into the bathroom. He took out the Agent Provocateur bodice and suspenders from the tissue paper inside the new box. The boy continued to speak through the open door. He had come up from Lancaster University on the train, was studying Sufi poetry. His name was Ahmet. An awkward silence as the boy fumbled for conversation. He started to describe an abstract painting hanging in the lobby. A pair of white squares. A second square (paler, cold) floated weightlessly inside a second square (larger field of cream).
“Kazimir Malevich, been there for years,” Ezra replied automatically, emerging from the bathroom in the bodice and suspenders. “Shall we begin?”
Ezra managed to fasten the iPhone to the top of the four-poster bed. He saw his own face on the screen smeared in concealer, waxed and perfect. The wig, cheaper than he had hoped, was fastened on with strong tape. It was platinum blonde and still smelled of plastic. He sprayed himself with Tom Ford’s Fucking Fabulous and handed Ahmet the claw hammer. Ezra placed the glass lightbulb inside his own mouth.
“My name, let me think. It can be Cindy,” he said, before popping the bulb back in.
Ahmet put on the balaclava and raised the hammer high, as Cindy stared into the red light on the iPhone. She saw herself broken into glitter. She saw her teeth smashed out in sticky pools of Dior Lunar Rogue lipstick, the Charlotte Tilbury eyeshadow darkening beneath her tears. His body, the body of Ezra, or Cindy, or even Wayne, was simply a rental. The flesh would find new ways to repair, sew itself across the broken wrists into new and exquisite Chanel bracelets. The lips would swell out bigger and brighter than a trip to his cosmetologist in Salford Quays. Ezra wanted to become a collage of his own anger. He hated the fishermen. He hated his sister who shared herself only in death, her exquisite treasure. He hated his co-workers and their small lives. He even hated Ahmet and his insipid poetry. The night was beyond language. The smell of the Hermès 24 Faubourg perfume waltzing through the hotel like a wintertime ghost, a Delphine Seyrig migraine. When the hammer hit her face, Cindy wanted the blood to never stop. She wanted to cradle her own jaw like the Holy Grail. She was a carcass in a chiffon Valentino gown, an Egyptian vulture floundered in black onyx. Beauty screams inside a shatter of glass. Every necklace is a guillotine.
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