The girl is in hospital, and the doctor tells her a story about a man who died in his bed at home, an old man. At the moment of death, he appeared to his estranged daughter. He was suddenly in the cafe where she worked, stood by a table for a moment with his hand resting on a bottle of ketchup. Before she could ask what he was doing there, he flickered out, like someone had thrown a switch. 'The phenomena of bodies are extremely interesting', says the doctor as he finishes his story. She is recovering from a violent illness. What really constitutes the physical, after all? Do you believe in a soul? The questions are rhetorical. The girl does not believe in a soul, feels this is a deeply unprofessional question to ask. Her wrists are double-jointed, her skin still tanned from a summer outside. This is the physical, since you asked, she wants to tell him while pulling her fingers and thumb neat to her wrist, motioning to the cannula in her arm, graceful as a dart. When the doctor finally leaves, the girl crawls under the sheet.
All her life the girl has been dedicated to people who appear and disappear again. There is her mother, who drinks jewel-coloured cocktails in another country and does not come to visit in the hospital. She is too far away, she tells the girl on the phone. The girl can hear the clink of the ice, or the bracelets she wears. It feels a lot like there is water in her ears, but her ears have been examined and there is nothing there. There is dizziness, a hot ache in the ventricles of her heart that keeps pulling her back to her body.
There are her old friends, who have loosely fallen away. Yes, the girl understands that it is tiresome to spend time with a nervous person. Her friends are beautiful and vibrant and going places. It’s not like the girl isn’t, but she is getting to the places more slowly. The doctor acknowledges that she’s not un-vibrant. He tells her that soon she will be back to her old self.
The biggest disappear-reappear act is the bad-penny man, so named for his habit of turning up at parties or cities where the girl is, maybe once or twice a year. Though the detritus of her life is forever spilling around her, knocking everything else away, it will not dislodge him. In this season of illness, the fever pounding at her brow, she thinks of him often, and it is a terrible thing, really, to have his face there all the time.
Usually he comes to her in strange bursts. The summer she spent in a resort on a distant coast, she saw mirages of him on the beach. It turned out to be another swarthy, sturdy man who frequented the hotel bar. There are so many men who look like bad-penny man in the world, the girl reminded herself, because he is so unremarkable. It’s sickening, she hissed to herself after too many drinks, too many glimpses of the mirage. It really makes me sick, the low standards we apply to ourselves.
The girl was drinking sticky mango-based drinks all day, and going on ponderous, drunken walks, and crying. She thought the solo holiday would be empowering, but actually it just made her want to die. Her hotel room was a dirty white, and the air conditioning was broken so a large fan sat in the corner, setting the large vase of reeds she had gathered into motion. Sand loitered in the frayed sheets of her bed.
On the last evening but one, she invited the mirage up to her balcony, even though sitting on it felt precarious. Everything felt precarious. They drank two bottles of bad white wine that she had submerged in her bathtub to keep cold, ingesting it determinedly, joylessly. Before the first bottle had been drunk, the mirage started touching her on the knee and shoulder. The foundations had been established. The mirage smoked heavily, rolling cigarette after cigarette. As they walked back into her room, the balcony curtains billowed around them like a cloud. The muslin obscured his face and knocked over the vase, which she left lying on the floor until the day she checked out.
The girl had sex with the mirage twice, and in between times, he rested his hand proprietarily on her ribcage. He is feeling for my heart, she thought. He is dowsing for something. The whole procedure was like an exorcism. He really did look like the bad-penny man, especially out on the balcony in the falling dark. In the bedroom, to preserve the illusion, and because it drew in all the moths in a half-mile radius, she turned out the lamp. Quiet, she told the mirage. Afterwards, she asked him to leave. She fell asleep with a sort of peace. The power of the exorcism lasted until she awoke with a pulsing headache in the light of the morning and realised that she had cast nothing from her body, really.
The girl gets out of hospital and resumes her life. Being so close to dying should have changed her, but maybe she just doesn’t possess the spiritual depth to benefit, she tells herself, though whether berating or consoling, she is not sure. The only shift is the resurgence of the bad-penny man in her thoughts. She is afraid to see him and yet desperately wants to all at once.
It is useful, she thinks in her work bathroom, both hands gripping the sink as she stares at her reflection, to have an antagonist. All the best heroines have them. Don't you need something to spark off. Don’t you need someone to light the righteous anger in your stomach.
The time in hospital has taken something from her. Her skin seems grey, now. Or maybe it’s just the fluorescent light. Someone comes into the bathroom and she switches on the tap quickly, to cover up her thoughts. In the mirror, she grimaces with a strange and indefinable pain and hopes the colleague did not see it, but even if they did, she has a pass now. The eccentricity of the recently almost-dead. That is how she is allowed to spend so much time in here without a manager having a quiet word. Her body is fragile, only lightly glued together.
The girl often thinks that her dream job would be to move a small pile of rocks from one area to another. When the pile is completely moved, the work would be done. That sort of satisfaction is unattainable to most people now, she realises. The work is never going to be done.
A loyal friend – a straggler from the deserting hordes, which is how she now thinks of the people who have left her – invites her to somebody’s house. The girl goes to this gathering of new women, women she hopes will become her women. These women have all found spirituality. That’s what happens when the earth feels as though it is caving in, the atmosphere suddenly transformed. They drink kombucha and chew relentlessly on ginger pastilles.
One of the women talks about manifesting. She talks about how the universe is full of dark energy and this energy could be at our whims, if we would let it, if we knew how to manipulate it. She talks about manifesting a bunch of flowers. One day, she asked the universe for them before bed, and when she went to the window in the morning, there were lilies lying on the patio like pieces of wet paper. The girl thinks about how her mother is convinced that lilies are portents of death and refuses to have them near her, ever. The flower woman is radiant and sleek with revelation. The girl thinks, I do not want a bunch of flowers. Out loud she asks, Do you think you could manifest someone falling back in love with you? The women gape at her as though she has said something vulgar. This isn’t a witches circle, the flower woman tells her. If someone’s not in love with you any more, you have to respect that agency. Dark matter won’t help you there. So, it turns out the women will not be not her women after all.
The girl tries to manifest a sandwich at work, as practice. There is shame in this, because she is no better than the flower woman now. But also love is really a banal and base need, she justifies, so manifesting a sandwich is on the same continuum. She is ravenous, having skipped breakfast in the hope that the universe would pity her. But although she keeps an eye on the catered lunchtime meeting that is taking place down the hall, although she keeps her mind open and her heart grateful, no sandwich manifests for her.
In the end, the girl goes to the cafe on the corner and buys her own sandwich. She looks at it in her hand – thin Italian ham, coarse sourdough. Expressing a need, then doing what you’re able to meet that need yourself is a sort of manifesting, she decides. Perhaps articulating the need is the thing. Except having admitted to the need, the pain won’t leave her. It is like a stray dog she has brought home and named, and she has let it get too comfortable already. But she’s hardly going to kick it out; there’s nothing else to take its space.
She could reach out to the bad-penny man, then, under the aforementioned logic, but the idea makes her skin crawl. She will no longer debase herself, for him or anyone else. (Not visibly, anyway.) For a while, her manifesting centres on her email inbox. Only after nights when she dreams about him and wakes up sweating, shaking, does she allow it. The girl manifests the ping in the inbox as his proclaiming his love. Nothing more, nothing less.
Whenever a new email announces itself, her heart jumps into her mouth. She tastes it, her heart, and it’s like blood. But it is never him. In a fit of spite, she unsubscribes from every newsletter, and within days her inbox is too still. She never realised how much she relies on the ambient clatter of these missives to remind her that she exists.
Before the illness, her life had seemed less abstract. She had drunk more, a lot more. Once, a man who was not the bad-penny man had called her a sour little rind. It was true, she was small and shrunken and hard and not particularly likeable, and sometimes even her skin tasted bitter, as this person reminded her. Why are there so many unsavoury men in my life, the girl wonders sometimes, and where have they come from – what conveyor belt spits them out?
The girl tries to manifest a gift. Next door’s cat starts to leave dead mice just beyond her gate. She buys a scratch-card and wins ten pounds. From the train, she sees a pink helium balloon tied to a railing. One of the deserting horde asks her to lunch.
Her thoughts are a constant hum of: please, anything you could do, thank you. These small kindnesses the universe throws her way have a new gravity, now that she knows she has made them happen. She gets bolder, asking please don’t think I am ungrateful but it would be amazing if you could make something bigger happen.
Over the following weeks: a small tax rebate. Her cheeks gain pink, her hair no longer comes out in clumps. During physiotherapy sessions at the hospital, she is told that her progress is excellent. She joins a dating site and receives some ego-boosting messages as well as a few that are ego-disturbing. On the Sunday morning after joining, she opens her phone to discover a message from the bad-penny man. Fancy seeing you here! he says. He is using photos that she knows to be half a decade old, but she doesn’t mind.
She does not respond immediately. After an hour, she settles on Hello! How’s it going? Then drops the phone on the counter and crouches against the opposing wall like a toad. His reply is swift, the phone chirruping atop the laminate. She responds. Between each message she retreats to the toad position, closes her eyes. Eventually, as her thighs begin to burn, she picks up her phone and reads: Shall we catch up over a drink?
Previous dates with bad-penny man, every single one, had ended the same way, which was in their sleeping together and then a failure on his part to call or text the next day, or any of the days after, until the girl would drop a casual message that it had almost killed her to compose - Had a great time last week. If she was lucky, he would respond within 48 hours, but it was a game of diminishing returns. If 48 hours had elapsed, it meant he was not going to reply at all, generally, except for the one time that he had, which had undermined the entire order, and inspired unreasonable hope at all the other times.
Thursday comes, though, and she is ready. It is going to happen, she realises. She has made it happen, summoned him like a delightful plague cast down upon herself. The power of it straightens her shoulders. When she arrives at the bar she is early so she forces herself to walk the length of the street, concentrating on slowly expelling lungfuls of air. When she loops back, he is waiting for her outside. He is dressed in a blue shirt, greying black curls shorter than she remembers. He greets her with a bear hug. Hello, you, he says. He stoops to tie his shoelace and she witnesses a balding patch, a new thing. Her heart feels very tender, a chicken breast hit repeatedly with a rolling pin.
The date is unremarkable. Afterwards, the girl remembers little, perhaps because she was too nervous to eat beforehand, and necked a stiff drink and so is on the way to being drunk before she even downs the first glass of wine with him. Perhaps because bad-penny man really is as unremarkable as she had noted in the past. Perhaps also because they are saying the same things that have always been said, and despite the tricks that your mind and your heart can conspire to play on you – inventing novelty, forgiving everything – it is just boring. Still, before long they are walking to his flat, buying yet another bottle of wine along the way.
The sex is not like an exorcism. The sex is worse than she remembers. Was it always this bad? she asks herself, a question that could also be applied to her life so far. He is very nervous. Possibly he loves her. Possibly somebody has told her that she is unhinged. Possibly she told him herself. The girl’s mouth runs away with her. There is a lot to say, and she can’t stop saying it, but he shushes her. She thinks about previous times, when she tried so very hard to do everything he wanted in order to make him love her, and how it didn’t work. She also thinks about the long days with the cannula in her arm, and what it felt like for the physical world to be stacked against her – the day she was found lying there, in the hall of her flat, with the wiry grey carpet against the tender skin of her cheek, knowing she was going to die. You owe me, she thinks to the universe, putting her faith again in the unseen thing, you fucking owe me, and she manages not to cry until they are finished and she leaps into his bathroom and sits on the toilet, hyperventilating softly.
The girl pulls herself together and goes back into the bedroom, where bad-penny man is sleeping already. There is no change and there will be no change. No slip of rightness in the universe’s fabric. No redemptions. It doesn’t take her long to dress, to gather her belongings. She walks down into the kitchen and finds a bread knife, then returns, moving carefully in the dark. As she prises open his door, he shifts, opens his eyes to see her silhouetted in the hallway light. He is dazzled, does not see the knife. Are you going? he asks, already turning over. Bye, then.
She remains standing there, trembling, considering it. Instead, she turns, runs its serrated edge along the bannister as she descends once again, leaving a satisfying gouge, visible even in the dark. The girl slips the knife into her bag. She will keep it as some kind of memento. In the morning, the bad-penny man and his three female housemates will argue over the groove in the wood. He has slept with all the housemates at least once. They will cut their bread with butter knives.
Dark energy in everything, the static dust of night. She is out the door, closing it, walking down the street in the night air but then running, running because it has been a while since her body is capable of running, because she is still quite drunk and the cold wind at her face and her shoulders and her hair feels better than the touch of the bad-penny man. She is certain her activities have cast him out for good and that she will never see him again, and she is giddy with it, and as the lights rear up into the sky alongside her, she asks the universe for one more thing, for this: just to make absolutely sure.
'Manifestation' was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 4, which is available for purchase via AntenneBooks.
Sophie Mackintosh's haunting debut novel 'The Water Cure' was published to widespread acclaim in 2018. Her second 'Blue Ticket' will arrive this summer, further information and pre-order options can be found here for UK & here for USA.