Benjamin Wal: a story



Laura: an attempt


Laura had all but given up on comic books when she came upon the first volume of Cain's Opus 133 series in Close Encounters, the local geek bazaar. A trade paperback edition of the first volume caught her eye. It presented the protagonist, Luda, a not-quite-werewolf trapped forever in mid-transformation, with rough hairs up her neck and on her arms, legs that bowed slightly and yellow eyes. If someone had merely described it to her she might have groaned and changed the subject – but seeing it was something else. In a medium where women rarely looked like women, where bodily proportions made no sense and facial features were often blank or babyish, Luda was singular in her vitality. It was just her on the cover, against a white background. Inside, the art was all monochrome, simpler and more impressionistic than the cover drawing, but dynamic and fluid. The story was dystopian – cyberpunkish, Laura guessed, and shaded with folklore, though strict genre boundaries meant nothing to her – and no one was wholly good or bad, least of all Luda, a woman in pain, a marvel of self-willed agency, loveless, demoniacal, a victim of circumstance who dominated everyone around her – a cyclone of contradictions. Laura was fascinated. It was so much better than the shit everyone else was reading.

Luda was what she had been waiting for. Laura was Luda, or that's how it felt sometimes. Luda was Laura untamed. Laura minus the apologies and compromises. And who was Cain? Or CAIN – his name always rendered in capitals, right down to the signature that curled around Luda's feet on the cover of each volume. Laura was surprised when she discovered that Cain was English, and that actually he lived not all that far away, in Leicester. Why Leicester? What on earth was in Leicester? Interviews and publicity were scarce; he seemed to be somewhat of a recluse. Online, Laura learned that as far as aficionados were concerned Opus 133 was not even his best work. That was mainstream Cain, commercial Cain (a big screen adaptation was rumoured to be in production). His older stuff, independently published, was better. According to the know-it-alls on Reddit, Cain had lost his nerve with Opus 133. Some even said it was too obvious a bid for a "female audience". Laura wasn't fazed by this – every online community she had been a part of condescended to women. She dismissed the objections as yet another example of men missing the point. And it intensified her connection to Luda, who could not be dismissed or talked down to. Luda wasn't a "powerful woman" – she was a freak who spurned every cliché. She was scarred, gnarly, anti-sensual. She had seen things, been through things, and she bore their marks. Most brilliantly of all, in order to supercharge her moonstruck powers, she consumed men – including her own son, the misbegotten product of a rape, who died at the clawed hands of his mother in Volume 4. Cain spares nothing in his drawing: Luda tears and chews the offal of her only child across two pages, twelve wordless panels. And then, in the last panel, a stunning flash of colour: red blood on Luda's chin as she closes her eyes against the brightness of the moon.


Laura thought long and hard about the tattoo. On the phone with her mum she explained her thinking.


"As a first tattoo, I think it would be special."

"A first tattoo?"


"Maybe my only. We'll see. Anyway, so what? Everyone has tattoos."


"If it means something to you, then..."

"Exactly. It does mean something to me."


"These things can change, you know."

"You can see this is where I get my caution", said Laura, at the edge of impatience.

"Caution is good."


"Not always. Where's it got me?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

What did she mean? She worked at a non-chain café, a job she had once been proud of, or at least grateful for. Sixty-odd people had applied for the position. When she asked Colin, the manager, why he picked her, he said, "You make people feel good." This made Laura feel good. But that was three years ago. Now she had more duties – expanding the menu, organising music nights and yoga mornings – and her hourly wage had gone up by £1.25. She lived with her ex-girlfriend and her ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend in a house five minutes' walk from the café. Since graduating from university nothing exciting or memorable had happened to her – she looked back at the last three years and saw only a dim tunnel of time. When she wasn't in bed or at work she was in the kitchen at home having morose evening chats with friends who didn't know what to do with their lives, eating takeaways and drinking vodka. No reason to feel sorrow; no reason to feel anything. Meanwhile her university memories still pulsed with event and spectacle, upheavals of mind and body. And her body now? It bored her.

She went to Frank's for the tattoo. Frank was a local character who seemed to be friends with everyone. He liked science fiction and extreme metal and, despite his great bearded bulk, he was very gentle. The thought of the buzzing needle in his soft paw neutralised her apprehension.

Frank looked at the panel – the blood, the moon – and laughed.

"Do you think it's good?" asked Laura.

"Really cool", he said.

They were in his shop, which had the mingled ambience of an artist's studio and a dental practice. Laura considered her shoulder but thought it might be too butch.

"Inner forearm?" she said to Frank.

"It'll sting more."

Adrenaline dulled the pain. The finality of it was what troubled her, as the thick black lines were scored hotly into her skin. From her angle the design didn't look right. She went through a fleeting moment of panic when she thought Frank had made some terrible error. But when it was finished a new giddiness came over her and she saw that it was perfect.


"Come out nicely, that one", said Frank.


"It's... magnificent. Thank you."


"Sore?"


"It burns! But it's fine."


Once the bandage was removed she couldn't stop looking at it, trying out new poses in the mirror and taking photos. She awoke the next morning refreshed, and in the café she was less fretful and more assertive, making easy eye contact with customers and completing her long shift with energy to spare. At night, before falling asleep, she thought about her next tattoo.


*****


It was only days later, when the swelling had gone down and the tattoo popped like fresh paint, that she saw a photo of Cain on The Guardian's online homepage. The abrupt recognition combined with the context made her dizzy. There weren't many photos of him around, but his look was so specific that she knew him instantly. Completely bald head. Sunglasses. A slight curl in his top lip – not an expression but a disfigurement; possibly an old wound. Unsightly yet compelling. The headline read: "'He ruined my life': Women accuse comics enigma Cain of exploitation and assault."

With a fixed expression of refusal Laura took in the story. Three women had come forward alleging that Cain had entered into correspondence with them after they sent fan letters. He gained their trust, met them in person, promised them jobs as artists and writers within the industry, cajoled them into bed, and then disappeared. One woman accused him of strangling her during sex. They all said they were victims of "gaslighting", and the youngest, who was twenty-three years old, said she had been "groomed".

Laura spent an entire evening with her laptop, combing through all the responses to the news on social media. She was looking for anything that would cast doubt on the story, a single counter-argument that might spare her the agony of self-interrogation. But she only found yet more testimonies, each of equal conviction and sincerity, cropping up almost by the hour. Not just the three women but women everywhere. It had been going on for years. False promises, a few intense meetings in nice hotels – and then the vanishing act. "I cry every morning in the shower", said a woman who had been questioned by police after Cain accused her of stalking him. "I still haven't fully returned to myself."

"Good riddance", said Laura's mum on the weekly phone call.


"But now I'm stuck with this tattoo."

"I did say so."


"Of all the men."


"Why should he be spared? Better late than never, I say."

"I'll have to get it covered up."

"Oh love. I'll buy you some jumpers for Christmas."

"I mean with another tattoo."

"I don't think a girl like you should have a tattoo. I said so."


"What's a girl like me?"

"Sensible."

"Who wants to be sensible!"

"Smart, then. Level-headed."

Cain was dropped by his publisher. The Opus 133 film was nixed. Up-and-coming female artists said they were glad the news had finally broken: "You hear things through the whisper network and you think: why doesn't someone do something?"’ Cain himself issued a public denial in the form of a written statement, and then plunged back into the shadows.


*****


One night, after service, Laura and Colin celebrated the café's new alcohol licence by getting drunk on sherry, which Colin said was the "next big trend in drinks". To Laura it tasted of brine and copper, but after the first one it didn't matter as much. She and Colin went up to his bedsit above the café. There was something sad about his cramped room, which was even smaller than her own, and it was somehow made sadder by his gaming rig, a sleek PC with green and purple lights and a very large ergonomic chair – he called it "the cockpit" – that would have been grandiose in any context.


"Cost me three grand or so, all told", said Colin, half embarrassed to be saying it out loud.


"I thought I was a nerd!" said Laura, kicking him softly with her ankle to show she was joking.


In his bed – a single – they kissed and held each other and in the end there was nothing else to do but have sex. Colin said, "Are you sure you want to do this?" and Laura laughed. He said it with such grave concern, as if he was about to give her another regrettable tattoo. But really he was concealing his own reluctance, or anxiety, or whatever it was. After several goes at putting on a condom he gave up and blamed the sherry.

"Honestly, I'm relieved", she said.


"Relieved? Thanks."

"Not relieved, but... you know. Probably not a good idea."

They were squashed together on the bed and both of them were sweating. Her ear was sticky against his bare chest.


"I better go", she said.

"Yes. Sorry again."

"For what?"

She thought it would be awkward at work over the next few days – but it was worse than that. He could barely look at her. It wasn't hostility; he was humiliated, almost flinching when they passed each other behind the counter. He wouldn't even reach across her to get to a cup or the fridge, as he usually did. Instead he waited with exaggerated propriety for her to move out of the way, even if it slowed down service.

Cain was still on her mind, though she never went back to his comics. Instead she immersed herself in Alison Bechdel and Love and Rockets, Sally Rooney and Elena Ferrante. She looked for stories that related more closely to life, that seemed to breathe and move as reality breathes and moves, not the frozen narratives of mainstream comics and the tired evasions of genre. Suddenly her tattoo, aside from its primary association, started to bother her as a matter of taste. She hid it now because she was shamed by the design itself. Werewolves! She should have known. What kind of grown man writes and draws that stuff? (And what kind of woman gets it inked onto her arm?)

On aimless nights, zombified after a long day on her feet, she searched for Cain online, restricting results to the last week, or the last twenty-four hours. While she was ever more disgusted with him, she was dismally fascinated by just what would happen now. Would he retire? Would he repent? She learned from other newsworthy examples that it was possible for the famous and abusive male to go quiet for a month or two before re-appearing in a different guise: politician; comedian; talk radio host; online opinion-slinger – fields where basic standards of morality were looser, or non-existent. She dreaded seeing that blemished face in motion, giving its "side of the story" (she had never heard Cain's voice, but she guessed it would be shrill and affected).


Otherwise, things were improving. She felt a traction, a correction in her life. Colin was leaving the café to open another in a different town. He remained in his position as regional manager, but the day-to-day duties would now transfer to Laura. She hired two more staff members – a barista and a chef – and made plans to open up a garden area for evening events. Her pay increased by £2 an hour, so she was able to extricate herself from the shared house and rent a studio apartment outside town. She grew her hair and stopped wearing her nose stud.

Towards the end of winter, when the virus began to encroach, Colin reassured her that everything would be all right and her job was safe. "I would sooner die than close shop", he said. Within weeks the shop was closed – everywhere was closed – and Laura fell back into deep stasis, a pure nothingness, yet more empty time that she would struggle to recall a year later. When the summer heat got things moving again she returned to pedestrian life in a state of numb bewilderment and, short of other options, went back to work at the café. Smarting from his earlier misplaced confidence, Colin jacked up the prices and put two small tables on the narrow pavement out the front. His aim was to garner as much business as possible before "it all goes to shit again".

One baking hot August day a man came in with a wad of flyers. He was from Close Encounters and he wanted to promote some signing sessions in the shop on Saturday. "British comics legends" were due to make an appearance, he said. "Jamie Delano, Alan Grant..."

"I don't know them", said Laura.

"You'd have to be a fan of comics", he said, looking at the blackboard menu above her head with the kind of smirking dismissal she had seen many times before.

"I am. Was."


She turned her arm to show him the tattoo.

"Is that... Oh. Is it?"

"Yes. Well."


She screwed up her face and shrugged.


"I'd like to say I was young and stupid but it wasn't that long ago."

"But you know he's going to be there as well?"’

"No? No, he doesn't appear in public."

"He has been lately. Here and there. He's launching a new comic. Hey you should come along."

Laura could feel herself blushing. How pathetic: showing him her tattoo, as though she was keen to be part of his measly club. She started to put up her hair as a way of denying the uncomfortable tension between them.

"You'd be very much welcome", he said, looking at her face, she realised, for the first time.

"I'm busy and... I dunno, it's just not my thing anymore? But thanks. We can keep the flyers here."

"And meanwhile, I'll have my usual."

They looked at each other for a long moment.


"Usual?" she asked.

"Small flat white", he said, and with a sharp emphasis, "as always."

She could have sworn she'd never seen him before.


*****

Laura worked that Saturday and forgot about the signing until a relative lull in service. She came upon the flyers while clearing the counter of junk and loose paper. Cain's was the bottom name on the list, in smaller print than the others. At a glance, you wouldn't see it. This annoyed her slightly – he must have been the most famous person there, bastard or not – but then she thought it could be strategic. They might be afraid of protests, or negative news coverage. She wondered why more of a fuss hadn't been made about his uncharacteristic foray into public life, but then realised she had quit that particular nook of the internet and hadn't searched for Cain-related articles in weeks, if not months. It was possible that his appearances were being tracked and reported, while ever more accusations followed like a powder trail behind him.

He was going to be within a mile from where she was standing. If she took a lunch break and went over there – to do what? She didn't want his signature, much less a conversation. His comics had meant something to her for about a year, which would barely qualify as a long-term relationship. If it wasn't for the tattoo she would have no reason to think of him. She remembered an old school friend, the first of her group to get a tattoo: a thickly-stencilled O on her hip. O for Oliver, her boyfriend at the time. Sixteen-year-old Laura thought it was a hilarious mistake. Oliver was a gormless stoner who seemed disturbed by the tattoo. They broke up soon afterwards. But it was just an O on her friend's hip, an O that could easily be incorporated into something else, another word, a wheel, a world. Whereas Laura was marked unmistakably. She could explain to others that Luda was transcendent, just as film and TV franchises grew apart from their makers and settled into a kind of informal public ownership, but she couldn't lie to herself. Luda in someone else's hands would not be Luda. Cain was Luda.

The afternoon flew by once the lunchtime rush began. When she stopped or sat down a great tidal ache rose up her legs and back. The trick was to keep moving. She allowed herself a double espresso, which she rationed to three per day, and helped with washing the dishes while her deputy served customers. When she emerged from the kitchen the sun was no longer blazing through the front windows and the mellow light seemed to raise the volume of the background music. She started on the empty tables, wiping down the chairs and collecting crumbs.

She must have looked in his direction three or four times before she realised it was him. He was sitting on one of the soft chairs facing the window. His bald head was eerily pale and from where she was standing it wasn't clear that he was even awake. He was alone and seemed to have a book or magazine on his lap. What had made him come here? Did he want to see her? It was an incredible thought, crazy, impossible, and she dismissed it entirely when he stood up. Finished. He was off. She walked with her head down back behind the counter and looked again. No – he wasn't leaving. He was bringing over his tray. Even at a distance she was shocked by the whiteness around his eyes. It was the first time she had seen him without sunglasses. His mouth, too – the disfigurement was more severe than it seemed in photos. He must have demanded only the most flattering light on those occasions, or some heavy airbrushing afterwards. Despite the heat he was wearing a long dark coat and elaborate boots. She knew he was 53 years old, but he looked older, with a gentle stoop and knuckly hands.

"Thank you", she said, taking the tray and clearing her throat.

"And I'll have another please."

"Right. What was it, a...?"

"Black coffee please. And another one of the cookies, if you can manage it."

She cleared her throat again and tweezered a cookie from the display case.

"Sorry that was a black coffee?" she asked.

"Please", he said, with a broken smile. He sounded... well, he sounded like anyone. Soft spoken. Polite, with a strikingly local accent. He paid with his card and she saw that most of his fingers had rings on them.

"I'll bring it over", she said.

I still haven’t fully returned to myself. She remembered the line from a woman, one of his victims, quoted in the news. At the time it seemed like an abstraction. Now that she had seen him up close her confusion rose to indignation. When she took the tray over to him she knew that she wanted to say something, it was stuck like an air bubble in her upper chest, but she didn't know where to start. So she just stood there.

"Nice tattoo", he said.

"Did you come here straight from the signing?" she said automatically, trying to find a carefree tone.

"Mm", he said, already drinking the molten coffee. He tipped the cup at too steep an angle, or his lips were too distant from it – coffee spilled over and ran down his chin and onto the saucer which he held with his other hand. Despite the mess and the scalding liquid he remained tranquil, staring at his book.

"Do you need an extra tissue?"

"Please", he said.

She had a pack of tissues in her pocket and she reached for it, but stalled at the intimacy of the gesture and turned to look elsewhere.

"That’ll be fine", he said. "From your pocket."

She ignored him and got three squares from the counter. He wiped his chin and looked up at her. Before he could speak she said, "Why did you do it?"

"Clumsy", he said.

"No, I mean. You're a... those women. You disappointed – I mean, you hurt and disappointed a lot of people."

"Oh, you mean, the, uh."


He bit into the cookie and didn't say anything else.

There were more customers to be served and her deputy was nowhere to be seen so Laura went back to the counter and in ten minutes made several mistakes: she misheard an order and had to drain a large cappuccino into the sink; she miscounted change after being handed some suddenly cryptic silver coins; she banged her head on the display case while leaning in to grab a scone, and, a minute later, on her way to the kitchen, she tripped over and fell into the fridge.

The café had mostly cleared out by closing time. A young couple, fascinated by each other's trivialities, spoke across empty cups. Cain was languid in his soft chair and Laura tried every ploy she could think of to send a message, short of ringing a bell, or triggering the fire alarm. Off went the music. The chef had gone and Laura made a racket putting away the plates and cutlery. Once the loved-up couple had shuffled out the door Laura went to Cain and cleared his table.


"Always good to spot a fan in an unfriendly place", he said, as if there had been no interval between this and their prior conversation.


"I'm not a fan."


He closed the book – a notebook, she now saw – and ran the butt of his pen along his lip. "So you were not among the disappointed?"


"What?"


"You were not let down by my behaviour?"


His eyes never seemed to leave her arm.


"I liked the design, so what. I'm not a fan."


"They said at the shop that you were."


"Well they shouldn't have."


That's why he was here. The Close Encounters creep must have told him where to find her. Town's most dedicated Cain fanatic. And a woman!


"We're closing", she said.


"I'll just finish this."


The remaining coffee would have been cold by now, but he drank it down without hesitation.


"Could you direct me to the men's room?" he asked.


She pointed and watched his slow progress as he pushed himself from the chair. He seemed to have trouble moving. Or this was part of his carefully curated persona. When he got to the bathroom – a tiny cell at the far end of the counter – she waited to hear the click of the lock, but it never came. She occupied herself by taking out one of the bins. The bag was wet and rancid, giving off a sweetly rotten stench. She tied it closed and took it to one of the larger bins in the garden. In the kitchen she washed her hands with pink soap and checked the time. It was after six. She was hungry and tired.


Cain's notebook was still on the table. The notch above the lock on the bathroom door was still green and no sound came from inside. She thought of him passed out on the toilet. Or some perverse accidental suicide, with a bag over his face, or a belt around his neck, dick in hand. She moved closer and put her ear to the door. A knock would have sufficed – "are you still in there?" – but she couldn't bring herself to do it. At the same time the stupidity of putting her ear against the door of what might be an empty room was becoming more apparent. She stepped back and clasped the handle.


"Everything okay in there?" she managed to say. Nothing. She opened the door. He was gone.


At his table she picked up the notebook. All the pages were blank except the first, which contained a drawing of Luda, sketched in blue biro. No, not Luda – her hair was up and her face was younger, more rounded. It was Laura, an attempt at Laura, a ragged portrait full of superfluous lines, eyes blurred, suggesting movement, elusiveness, mystery. Or poor draughtsmanship. It was an ugly drawing, hastily scrawled. She could see where his biro had dug into the page, scattered divots of frustration. CAIN was printed aslant her neck. She took a photo with her phone and then tore out the page. Carefully she ripped away the paper just above his signature, so that her head was free of his name.



Benjamin Wal is a writer and playwright from Bedford, England.