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Corttia Newland

Courttia Newland

Courttia Newland was born in 1973 to parents of Caribbean heritage. In 1997 he published his first novel The Scholar. Further critically acclaimed work followed, including Society Within (1999), and Snakeskin (2002). He is the editor of the anthology IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000) and has short stories featured in many other anthologies including The Time Out Book of London Short Stories and England Calling. His latest books include a novella, The Dying Wish ,and a book of short stories, Music For the Off-Key (both 2006). In 2007 Courttia was shortlisted for the Dagger in the Library award, given for a body of work.

 Spider Man

It began with the spider. There we were, laid back on my bed, sweat drying on our bodies, breathing fast and noisily when I noticed it. Hanging upside down. Perched like a predatory bird. It could have been looking at us from its upturned position on the ceiling, but then, how could we tell? I watched it for a long time that night though to be honest I wasn’t entirely surprised. I had seen it before. Three nights ago I had gone to bed alone and laid eyes on the spider. I’d been tempted to get out my newly purchased Goblin vacuum cleaner, which was as green as the name suggested, suck the creature into dusty oblivion. I would’ve done it too, but it was late, around three in the morning. Besides, I’d thought, it would probably be gone by the time I got up for work. Now here I was, looking up at the same spider on the same spot of ceiling, wondering why it was still there. Surely it needed to eat. How long could an animal stay in one spot, rigid as a corpse, without some kind of food, however alien it might be?

‘Shit Darren, you know there’s a massive spider on your ceiling?’

You saw it and instantly freaked out, like usual.

‘Yeah, I know. It’s been there a few days. I’m gonna Hoover it up if it don’t move.’

You looked at me, frown lines running left to right on your forehead. I loved it when you frowned. By then, I’d pretty much realized that I loved everything you did. Every word and sigh, every groan as you bent to take off your boots when you came in at night; every step, every smile, every gesture.

‘You can’t! It’s not right, the poor thing’s frightened. It’s probably sitting there thinking we’re gonna kill it or something, scared out of its wits.’

‘I doubt it.’ We were both looking up at the dark brown creature, immobile on the stark white of my ceiling. ‘I think its dead.’

‘It can’t be. Wouldn’t it fall?’

‘Dunno. Don’t think so. It’s been there four nights and it hasn’t moved.’ I sat up a little, getting closer but not close enough. Visions of John Hurt from the Alien movie lurked in the back of my mind like a curb crawler. Ridiculous as the possibility seemed, I was still spooked. ‘D’you think a spider lose its ability to climb when it dies?’ You shrugged in reply and thought about it afterwards, as was your fashion. ‘I thought it was scared at first, but it must’ve just kicked the bucket standing up, or in this case standing upside down. One of those freaks of nature you hear about all the time, but never see.’

I looked back down at the bed, feeling clever about my summation, wondering what you would make of that. Laying back on the pillow, hair fanned out around you, arms framing your head as if in horror, you were already lost in the oceanic depths of your thoughts.

‘I suppose…’ Now you were looking up, dark eyes wide, mouth open. At that point I had one of my moments, an emotional rush of feeling that swept me without restraint. Right then I loved you more than ever and I leant over your face, blocking your view of the still, eight-legged body, kissing you full on the lips. Before long we were making love again, rocking back and forth to a rhythm that was all our own, the spider forgotten as fresh sweat began to course the contours of our bodies.

Temporarily banished from our thoughts, the image of the spider returned frequently during the our last few weeks together, still and silent, even as those final days rocketed towards us, appearing in my mind’s eye like a portent of some terrible thing, though I barely knew this at the time.

And why should I? It had been love at first sight, as sure and undeniable as anything that could be found in sister girl novels and romantic movies. Me walking into All Bar One for a drink with Richard, Johnny, Mika and a few other friends from work, you already there, invited because you were cousins with Richard and you’d both grown up as close as index and second finger, and everybody who’d met you liked you, probably even fancied you but were scared to say anything because you were like a sister to Richard and he was built like a professional wrestler. I walked in, I remember like it happened 5 minutes ago, shouting and being generally rowdy as was my fashion, hugging Richard as hard as a footballer who’d scored a hat trick, clapping him hard on his back. Then I looked over his shoulder and saw you. As much as I tried to hide it, because I knew who you were through Mika and Johnny always going on about you, I couldn’t help staring into your eyes. Then all the shouting suddenly got caught in my throat. I remember you looking back at me, unabashed, a tiny smile at the corner of your lips and your wine glass half-raised so it caught the overhead lights, glinting like a distant star. The overall effect was like being pounded over the head with a plank of wood. You raised the glass higher, sipped and mouthed ‘Hello’, but by that time Richard, who was wondering what was going on, was shaking me and saying; ‘Good you could make it, it’s been ages man’, and Mika and Johnny were laughing because they’d seen the whole thing and you were just standing there smiling into your Chardonnay because you knew. You bloody well knew.

When it seemed appropriate and I had calmed myself enough to speak coherently, I made my way over to you armed with a pint of French Courage; Stella Artios. Our conversation began with a brief introduction and then moved on to mutual acquaintances, before eventually progressing to our appreciation of art in its many forms; literature, contemporary art, music, modern dance and of course, film. I had just watched The Sea Inside. You, the Korean art house flick, Oldboy. We discussed differences in taste and themes until the bar closed. Mika and Johnny had long gone home, much to your dismay – you told me that you were disappointed you hadn’t got to talk. I felt a pang of something, I wasn’t sure what, but held it down; after all, I hardly knew you. We swapped numbers. I felt better after that, forgot my earlier annoyance. Richard and I both walked you to the tube station. When you left, Richard told me that you made it a point never to give out your mobile, let alone your landline number. You liked me, he urged. I was probably the first guy you’d truly liked in ages.

I was happy, of course; this gave me the confidence to ring a few days later to discuss the terms of our first date. When we met, it was at that Thai restaurant above the pub in Farringdon, a compromise between your North and my West London home. You were wearing a classy burgundy dress and were even chattier than before I thought, full of smiles and compliments, which I easily matched. You seemed relaxed and free of hang ups, unlike most of the girls I’d dated. Our topics were wide ranging, covering everything from the latest Bashment artist to the recent Turner Prize winner. We even talked about sex (or the lack of it, in a conversation centred on Viagra). You were (and still are I might add) prettier than most of the women I’d dated too, the type of girl I’d long eyed from afar but never quite managed to talk to. I was grateful that Richard was right, I concluded, ordering for you and myself. For starters we had Dim Sum and Fishcakes, and for our main we shared the whole deep-fried Sea bass and steamed Sea bass, one for each of us, along with two plates of steamed rice. The food was excellent, the company better. Conversation flowed so well it was difficult to eat without talking with my mouth full. I found myself relaxing in my seat, able to say anything I liked and not worry about offending you, or at the very least being misunderstood. I tried not to get too comfortable, but both of us bloody well knew by that time, and we were both fine with the thought.

Was it this made me so scared of losing you, I wonder? This meeting of souls and minds? Was I so inexperienced at holding onto something special that I tried to grasp too tight? Did your spirit slip through my fingers like miniscule grains of sand? Was that it?

I invited you back to my house that very same night. I was feeling so good about us. Explained that I had no plans to try and get you into bed, that I’d order and pay for a cab whenever you wanted to leave. To my surprise, you said yes. We caught the train to Belsize Road, the food I’d eaten working on me like a narcotic – so I was in no position for any un-clothed gymnastics once the door was shut behind us and we were sitting on the sofa watching late night TV. We drank a little more and then I fell asleep on your shoulder, you rubbing my head like a baby. A couple of hours later, you woke me saying that you were ready to leave. I called the cab. In 20 minutes you were gone I was already missing you by the time the sound of the Taxi’s rattling engine died. Still, I knew that I’d done the right thing and scored irreplaceable brownie points.

The rewards of my forward thinking became very much apparent over the next few months. We began meeting on a regular basis. Before long, a night wouldn’t go by without us being in each other’s company. You finally invited me to your house after an evening at your local cinema. Would you mind if I admitted now that I knew, from the moment the door slammed behind us, what you wanted? Probably had known from outside, when you first asked me in? We hadn’t kissed, or even touched (I had fallen asleep in the darkness, mouth open although silent, and you didn’t notice until the film was nearly over). Somehow, as quietly as the breath I had expelled, we had decided. What followed happened without words or questions. That was the thing I loved most about our relationship. Some things never needed discussion.

So it all fell into place as the night was reaching middle age. I thought I’d do the gallant thing and ask for a taxi number. You said you didn’t have one, smiling in that beguiling fashion you had, letting me know even though I’d already guessed, and that was when I leaned forward and kissed you, as lightly as I could. You turned your head upwards, tasting of peppermint tea and popcorn and at all once I knew that was how I must taste to you. I remember thinking how much of yourself you placed in that one kiss; how you surrendered, let go, allowed me inside with no restrictions. We took our time, savoured each other and the moment, not touching, or even breathing heavily, just enjoying that taste and feel of each other, appreciating the warmth, exploring each other like a lush foreign land, every nerve and sensory path wide open. I hadn’t been expecting the feeling of giving myself over, of being accepted totally. It took me to places I had never been. When we eventually fell asleep that morning, the sun was creeping upwards and orange light was flooding the room. I held you close. This time it was different, there was no denying. I had finally found someone good.

As the months passed my feelings grew deeper. And with them came a new emotion I had never experienced before. Jealousy sneaked up on me like a jewel thief during our first night together. It snatched my heart right out of my chest when I wasn’t looking and was miles away before I’d even realised it was gone. The first I knew of this was the night of our first real get together since All Bar One, the drink up at your flat. You often threw drinks parties, you’d told me two weeks before. They usually involved the same circle of friends and workmates coming over with a dish, or some booze, preferably both. They’d be music, a little dancing, but mostly good conversation, good food and lots of drinking. This particular night was homemade cocktail night. Each guest had been instructed to bring a mixer of some kind. You had got your long disused blender out, and Richard had promised to stay in the kitchen mixing drinks until the all the alcohol was gone. When I look back, given my state of mind at the time, it was a recipe for bad things to come.

At first everything had been fine. We’d got the flat ready together, made love just before the first guests arrived, done our own thing as the doorbell began to ring with increasing regularity. Neo-soul was on the stereo. I’d drunk two glasses of champagne and had some stimulating conversation with a Chinese student from the London College of Fashion, so I was feeling pretty damn good. Until I looked around for you. The sight of you talking close with Mika, your lips next to his ear and a hand on his bicep began to make something smoulder inside my belly, something I’d never even known was there, something that had me clutching my white plastic cup until it scrunched loudly in my hand, making the nearest people turn and look. I backed away and headed for the kitchen. Richard was there, chatting to the Chinese student, who seemed to be eating up his every word.

‘All right bruv,’ he said, snatching a glance at me while making sure the student (Wai, wasn’t that her name?) didn’t think he was losing interest. I was nodding, reaching for the large glass bowl of a brownish-looking liquid I hadn’t encountered yet.

‘I’d watch that if I were you mate; it’s got some kick. There’s about different 4 spirits in it.’

‘Yeah?’ I paused, the ladle dribbling alcohol back into the bowl. I could smell what he meant from the splashes dancing around me like fireflies. May raised her cup. She’d been drinking champagne when I’d been speaking to her, and her little white cup wasn’t even a third full.

‘Take your time,’ she advised. ‘Drink slow.’

Of course, macho as I was feeling right then, that left me no other option but to half fill my little white cup, ignore Wai’s shaking head and Richard’s questioning glance, leaving them to their own courting devices. When I got back into the living room you were dancing with Mika; not touching, or even close up - but even you have to admit that it was slow and sensual enough to make spectators clap, make Mika wipe his forehead when you wound down low in front of him, doing bum flicks like the girls in those videos. The embers of my fire caught, began to emit dark smoke. I stepped back a little, shielded by your friends, watching you dance and Mika feign resistance, sipping homemade cocktail in an attempt to douse the growing flames. When the next tune ended someone put on a Bashment CD. I waited to see what you’d do, feeling faint pleasure when you threw your hands in the air and shook your head, gave Mika a kiss on the cheek and left the room to come looking for me. With your back to him, you couldn’t see the look on his face. I did. As we both looked over your shoulder from opposite ends of the room, we caught each other’s eyes. Mika instantly looked away, running a hand through his hair, face reddening, realizing I knew what he was thinking. My fire became a blaze. By the time you got to me it was already way out of control, turning reason into black, smoldering skeletons, charred remains of rational thought. You were smiling until you saw me avert my gaze. I was looking at the floor. I still remember how my eyes, on their rapid journey downwards, couldn’t help but pass my empty plastic cup.



You peered at me. Through my haze of drunken thought I still had time to notice how pretty you were, to find sympathy for Mika, who had been single for so long even his mother was beginning to ask what the problem was.

‘It doesn’t look like nothing from here.’

‘Well it is, seriously. I’m just not feeling too good, probably had too much to drink. Maybe I should go home.’

You grabbed at my arm. Just like you grabbed at Mika’s, I thought to myself. The flames caught again, fanned by my own irrationality. I snatched my arm away, relishing the flash of shock on your face. It came from nowhere, fast as sheet lightening but just as bright, and before I knew it you had become a solid rock before me, eyes hard and jaw held rigid. You glared at me a moment, straining for neutrality. I watched, waiting to see what you had to say next.

‘Why are you being like this?’ Your whisper managed to scrape my ears and give me a moment of reproach. Unspoken accusation was alive in my body, writhing like a long, cold serpent. I leant towards you for better effect.

‘I saw you – with Mika…’

You were looking at me, blinking slow, not getting what I meant. When the penny finally dropped and your eyes lit up in recognition, I knew that I was wrong, even though I held the hurt close to my chest, unwilling to take back my manufactured falsehood, even though it was now shared by you.
‘Are you serious? Are you really gonna come to me with that kind of stupidness? You might as well go home for real if that’s what you think-’

‘Fine. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’

I left the flat with my fire burning bright, and no cause for the blaze. Mika stared, somewhat triumphantly as I passed his shoulder and the urge to strike him caused the flames to rage and roar. I forced it down as I grabbed my coat, not looking behind me in case I saw your face and the glare in your eyes, reinforcing the wrong that I knew I was doing, urging me to come back inside and stop immersing myself in the heat of my own self pity. Perhaps I should have. It probably would have stemmed what happened afterwards.

We made up quite quickly after that night. Following 12 hours of body-numbing silence, you turned up at my flat that Sunday evening with a down-cast face, eyes hazy from drink, your very physicality begging forgiveness. I let you inside, knowing you had done no wrong yet accepting your apology all the same. That night you told me you loved me for the first time. I felt triumph, though little belief.

For what I had realized in the Living Room, staring at you dance with Mika, was that you were too good for me. That while I shuffled about in complacency, immersed only in the simple joy of being with you, others would be watching and waiting for me to make some fatal mistake. Friendship would provide no protection. You told the best jokes, had the most interesting stories, danced harder, wore the tightest dresses, smiled and entranced the world. I, on the other hand, was nothing more than a sprig of moss growing at the foot of a mighty volcano. Brave, when looked at in isolation. Strong. Hearty even. Yet unnoticeable beneath the eternal shadow cast by my nearest neighbour.

I began to take closer note at the effect that you had on people. Seeing what I had first thought of as the thunderbolt, the visual epiphany that had been mine alone when I first laid eyes on you, replayed time and time again in the faces of various men, stung me like a nettle. And there was nowhere I could feel safe. Walking along the high street in Stoke Newington, seeing the way shopkeepers, butchers and newsagents alike would stand to attention, smile your way and wheeze a hello, their eyes focused on nothing else but you. The way we would walk into a restaurant and seated men would obviously forget what they had been saying, trailing off into nothing, only averting their eyes when I stared just as hard in return. The overzealous courtesy of waiters. The eager determination of guys at parties who would box you into a corner like a championship fighter forcing you around the ring, pummelling your defences, pushing you back against the ropes until you would shoot me a resigned look, imploring me to come over and throw in your blood-stained towel. And even then, I suppose, that hurt me the most. The resignation in your eyes, the pity you showed me as you walked home, bruised and tired, the awareness that your beauty and charm was a cross to bear in life, a burden now hefted by us both. I resented the fact that I was forced to carry such an unwieldy object, one that I’d had no knowledge of when we had met. I think that my arms grew weary. I suppose I became tired of the load.

A few weeks after the homemade cocktail party we attended a film screening as part of Black History Month. It was a cold, rainy Sunday. Attendance numbered at somewhere around 20 or so people, all sat in a theatre built to house hundreds. The film was a documentary about the cultural, social and literary activist that had been the late John La Rose. It had been your choice and, as the programme began at 12 pm, I had been reluctant to get out of bed. However, sitting in the dark of the Renoir in Russell Square, sipping on a lukewarm coffee, I began to relax and focus on the life and times of someone who had been a great, if not infamous, man. A silent, focused calm saturated the cinema. The feeling was pervasive, generated mostly I believe, by the image of the man himself, talking in a soft yet urgently passionate voice, his toughest comments sweetened with a smile. I felt you relax against my shoulder, place a hand on my bicep and rub. When the lights came up, you yawned, shook your head and began to curse the apathy of black people for their lack of attendance. A man seated behind you heard what you had to say and voiced well-natured disagreement. And that was it. The debate was set. The man, who had come to The Renoir on his own, spoke to you for 45 minutes, first in the cinema, then afterwards in the cafÈ area when we had been ejected to make way for the next film. I took a limited part in the conversation but was mostly ignored, owing to my lack of knowledge on the subject and the fact that the man, whoever he was, just didn’t see me. Whenever I looked at him it was clear that his eyes were only filled up with an image of you, leaving me to wander the area making silly small talk with people I didn’t know, or browse the selection of indie films with no idea of what director I was looking at, or even the style of filmmaking displayed. Yet again, I had proved my ineptitude. I knew nothing of John La Rose or New Beacon books, the publishing company he had run, although I knew most of the authors he had in print.

When I saw the man touch your shoulder and watched you back away, I immediately felt vindicated. When he got out his mobile and made you recite your number to him an arc of pain leaped through my body. I saw your mouth move, form silent digits, and imagined that you were my very own Judas, whispering subtle words of betrayal.

Then I turned my back on the subject, fingered the DVD’s that stood before me. You touched my arm moments later and we left. I know that you sensed my anger, because I said very little on the journey underground. And still, varied men rocked back and forth in the cocoon of the tube carriage encouraged by my silence, eyes travelling up and down your body while you read a Sunday paper discarded by some other passenger and I scanned them from the corners of my eye. Every page you turned made my jaw clench tighter. Every moment you ignored them made me angrier.

Walking up the steps to my front door, I felt like I was going to explode. You rested your head against my cheek as I fumbled with the keys because my hands were shaking so much. I had to try three times. You never even noticed. Instead you smiled to yourself, hummed Africa by Abram Wilson and didn’t say a word.

Inside the house I threw down my keys and stalked into the kitchen. I was thinking that maybe a drink of water would cool me down. I turned my cold tap roughly and blasted some in a glass, then listened to see what you were doing. Silence. Trying not to frown, I walked back out of the kitchen. My front door was at the bottom of thin set of stairs, wide enough for just one person to climb to the top, where they would find the living room and bedroom in front of them, the kitchen to the right, the bathroom to their immediate left, and the door to the study directly opposite the kitchen. You were bent over at the top of the stairs, one hand against the bathroom wall, attempting without success to take off your boots. They were calf-length leather, ending just beneath the knee, and along with your black stockings, short corduroy skirt, and fitted black jumper, only served to amplify your image as a sexy, yet entirely classy breed of female. Yet you always had trouble taking off those boots. Usually you would call and ask me to help you pull them free, but on that day you had sensed my mood acutely enough to struggle on your own, mute, red-faced. You were so intent on your task that you didn’t even notice me watching. As the thought made me smart, my ball of anger flared like a sunspot. Before I knew what I was doing I had crossed the few steps it took to reach you, raised my hand behind me as far as it would go, let it fly, bringing it crashing against your cheek.

The angle of the blow made you stumble. The awkwardness of your position meant that you fell back against the bathroom wall, arm crooked so that for one moment it looked as though you would fall down the stairs and crash against the front door. I hardly believe it myself, but my fires were raging so bright that I almost wished you would tumble down them and land there, curled up beneath my feet in an undignified heap. I watched and waited; but it did not happen. In a moment you righted yourself, clawed your way back to the top step, holding onto the wall with both hands. It was only then that you could look me in the eye, see me standing there with what must have looked like the fury of God in my eyes. And you’re such an intelligent, understanding, empathetic woman that you saw everything in that moment. Even though you had ignored it all until this point, your understanding was still crystal clear. That’s when I felt the glass of water I’d gulped down enter my stomach, slow and cold. That was when, too late, regret began to seep in.

You bent over again, getting to work on the boot. For a moment I thought that you were going to forget what I’d done, take off your shoes and banish yourself to some lonely corner of the flat. I would be ignored, denied once more. Before I could even contemplate the irrationality of that, I realized in fact, that you were putting the boot back on. When it was secured you stood to your full height, towering over me by at least two inches. You spat in my face. I can still feel the hotness, the thickness, the shock of it landing on my nose, cheeks and eyelids. I wiped it from my face. The door had already shut behind you. I knew at once that was the end. You were gone.

When my fires had been put out, partly by more water, mostly by a lack of flammable materials, I came to terms with what I had done. I phoned you, many times, but there was no answer. You had spare keys to my flat, so I wasn’t surprised when I came home from work one day to see that everything belonging to you was gone. Your cuddly toys, CD’s and DVD’s, your postcards from the Tate Modern and your many, many books. The keys were placed on top of the long dead fireplace, together with a note that said two words; You Bastard. That and that alone, was my final communication with you. It shouldn’t have to be that way. I only kept the note because you were right.

Not long afterwards, I heard my buzzer go at around 10 pm. I suppose I was a little complacent after being alone for a week or more. I was probably hoping it was you, though I can’t remember that now. When I opened my door it was Richard standing there, swaying in the cold like a reed on a river bank. I now know that he was drunk, but if I had then I probably would have been more cautious. His face contorted when he saw me. His fist connected with my nose. When I came to an old white woman was standing over me, almost in hysterics. I was laying half in and half out of my doorway, a huge bruise on the back of my head and blood all over my house T-Shirt. I shook off her concern, told her repeatedly that I was all right and there was no need for her to come inside. When I had brushed her off I retreated into the house holding my dripping nose. It was broken, I was sure of it. I had to call an ambulance.

I wandered in the kitchen and opened the freezer door, looking for a packet of ice. Grabbing a half-filled bag, I stumbled into the bedroom, still dizzy, collapsing onto my bed. Looking up, I made an attempt to stem the blood.

There it was. The spider. Hanging upside down staring at me with its double row of unseeing eyes. Dead but unable to move. Trapped with the thin coffin of a body, doing nothing more than drying up and rotting away on that very spot…

Then I realised my mistake. The spider was in a different place. When I had noticed it that first time it had been near my wardrobe. Now it had walked a miniscule two steps to the right. My spider had moved. Which meant that it wasn’t dead. Which meant that it had been fooling me all this time.

I jumped up from the bed, and wandered out into the passage. I grabbed my Hoover and came back brandishing the hosepipe and brush like a soldier’s carbine. Within seconds I was pointing, pulling the trigger. One minute the spider was there and then it was gone, leaving no trace on the ceiling. I stared at that blank, white spot. The patch of ceiling looked like the page of a book that had previously harboured some secret talisman, some etching of ancient symbolism that had now been wiped clean. I felt as though I had committed some terrible sin, an action of high treason or blasphemy. All of a sudden the noisy whooshing of the Hoover seemed too loud, too intrusive and I turned it off, sat on the bed. This time my guilt came instantly. My eyes and nose began to leak simultaneously but I couldn’t move to wipe them. I sat there and let them run like an eager child.

I honestly hope that my letter finds you well. Please forgive me.

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