Hip-hop boomed through the room. The walls vibrated with every bass kick. The beats of urban mythology distilled through thick rhythms, running thin from a winding estuary that fell into the wide mouth of a musical sea, transforming into a combination of brash but flowing lyrics. The window pane rattled with every pound; ghost curtains flailed inward from the hiss of the raspy December wind, their protective phalanx of windows exposed as they lay despondent and ajar, groaning rhythmically as their rusty hinges sang with the song of winter. When the crescendo exploded, the male rapper’s verse mated with a female’s chorus; his clipped, breathless masculinity copulated with her sweet, composed tone and together they bred a chorus of synthetic glory.
The wallpaper was peeling. Above the orange mouth of the artificial fireplace, a layer of skin had turned itself into a scroll. Sarajevo’s gaze travelled from the scar on the wall to the dark stains in the cream carpet. She knew that their landlord, a tall, skinny and relentlessly stoic Irishman named Wayne, would discard their student deposits once the year was out. The wall and carpet were only the beginning of the end. By the time the summer beams shot through the windows, carrying little particles of dust floating serenely in the light, the average university student’s mark, like the great skeletal structure of a dinosaur, would have been preserved through the semi-detached house for future generations to observe, study and replicate.
Sarajevo’s eyes were drawn to a tall young man with a strong and chiselled frame. He bobbed his body to the beat while holding two bottles of Budweiser high above his head. His vanity amused her. His overdose of confidence embraced all like the mushroom cloud exploding from the core of a nuclear weapon. Being half Jamaican and half English, Lewis was a complex creature. It had almost been as though his genes had undergone a form of biological mutation and not reproductive progression. His mother’s egg, the speckle of his existence, an encoded hard drive of genomic data spawned from the rolling fields of Essex, had been infringed by a toxic invader, altered from within like poisonous fungus spearing channels through the brain and infecting all it touched. The end result was Lewis’ skin tone being a light shade of caramel, his hair a tuft of curly black. His dialect was dissected into fragments of inner city London, despite being a middle-class boy from the patchwork fields and snaking country lanes of affluent Hertfordshire. Lewis’ birth certificate declared he was of “mixed race” descent, while his demeanour prompted society to claim that he was otherwise.
Lewis wore a tight-fitting black vest, his bare arms wide with swollen muscles that had been tamed from breathless sessions at the local gym. A cap sat atop his head, the visor pointed at a slightly vertical angle; the raised visor was a new trend while the sagged, black jeans were an old sensation that had rippled through the ranks of young males for some time. He had square face, complimented by a strong, predator-like jaw that was speckled with blades of casual stubble. His coffee coloured eyes were shielded by black and thick rimmed designer glasses.
The glass coffee table rattled as the young man placed the two alcohol bottles on its face. His hands then encircled something less fleeting but just as intoxicating; his talons lustfully groped his girlfriend’s round rump.
Melissa giggled and coiled her arms around her boyfriend’s neck. She shifted her body weight onto her tip-toes. She kissed her lover passionately, lips meshed with lips, tongues gently touching and manoeuvring like the swords of two experienced warriors in a training sparring-fest. Lewis grappled Melissa by the rump, evoking a shrill scream as he pushed her frame upward and forced her to wrap her legs around his waist. Entwined, the couple cavorted around the living room, giggling and kissing.
“Is that what you’re wearin’, Sara?” Melissa asked Sarajevo in her crisp Kent accent after her boyfriend released her.
Sarajevo nodded, pinching the hem of her multi-coloured chequered shirt with both hands in emphasis.
Melissa shrugged, her forehead dominated by lines of disapproval. Sarajevo’s plain attire, consisting of a chequered shirt, navy coloured skinny jeans and black and white converse trainers, was deemed lacking in class and exuberance for a Thursday student night out, despite nights when the nightclubs of the City of Leeds amassed their cheapest drinks in preparation for young men and women whose social cultivation was yet to surpass primordial pleasures, being as regular as the rising sun.
Melissa wore a white tank top, a black, tight-fitting leather knee-skirt and some expensive designer heels. She was a girl with remarkably good looks. She had the kind of silky, honey blonde hair which perpetually flirted with her shoulders as though she were a princess. Her eyes were of a shade of chestnut; her nose was sharp and meticulously narrow, her cheeks were beautifully emaciated and her lips thin and inviting.
She picked up a tumbler that was mixed with Southern Comfort and Coca Cola. She played with the straw just like society thought she played with men, poking the disintegrating ice cubes; they clinked and clashed, floating and fighting for space in a restricted dome like gladiators. Sarajevo watched a corridor of black liquid defy gravity as it flooded the white channel of the straw, compelled by the drawing call of Melissa’s mouth.
Melissa wiped her lips and smirked, allowing a masculine burp to escape her lungs. She sat next to her female flatmate, her back sinking in the thick leather bosom of the couch; it swallowed her spine like quicksand. She smirked as her boyfriend inhaled a marijuana spliff; Lewis’ cheeks imploded and he gasped, nonchalantly letting a veil of smoke emerge from his mouth and nose.
“You not drinkin’?”
Sarajevo smiled and shook her head.
“Yes, bruv!” Lewis exclaimed, taking another drag of the spliff before waving an arm at the diminutive figure sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Robert flinched as Lewis crawled next to him, coiling his arm around the young man’s shoulder and laughing. He took a few more drags, obliviously blowing smoke in Robert’s face. Unlike his flatmates, Robert was a Northerner; a native of Bolton, the birthplace of Reebok and the pioneer of Northern steel mills at the turn of the Eighteenth Century. Despite his relative innocuousness, Robert was ruthlessly deceptive; he suppressed the connotations of his thick, winding Lancashire accent with subterfuge, whether it was with his thirst for immeasurable knowledge buried within the ridge of a book’s wings, or whether he immersed himself in the distraction of his videogames.
Robert was a small young man with a skinny frame. His hair resembled something close to a mane; a bush of neglected brown curls. Freckles dotted a boyish face; tiny whiskers of chin hairs speckled the tip of his chin, their sporadic nature indicating he was yet to shave. Most mistook him for someone three or four years his junior.
Robert was an introverted creature. He spent most of his time quarantined in his room, finding solace in his own company. It was ironic, for reality, the very essence Robert had ploughed a knife through the heart after attaining top marks since secondary school and fiercely defying his working class background, was the same reality that Robert shied away from. It was ironic, for unlike the many university kids whose amplified rebelliousness spoke through sex and drugs, Robert was the real rebel; the definition of extreme intelligence amidst a bouquet of local conformity. Robert was the one who had escaped and thus he was the outcast, the one who refused to pillage of the spoils of his war; the one who remained trapped in the prison he had already escaped.
Sarajevo watched lines of discontent crease Robert’s cheeks as Lewis ruffled his frizzy hair with his free hand. He sat in front of the large, HD television Lewis had acquired on a whim the previous week. Both eyes and hands were preoccupied; the former thumbing the buttons of a PlayStation controller, the latter was fixated on the screen. The television swelled with digital pixels showcasing a knight fending off an ominous-looking ape-like creature in the midst of a forest. Sarajevo was momentarily absorbed by the precision graphics. Robert’s character was surrounded by a lush forest, where grass sporadically grew through the slits of eroding stone paths, where vines snaked over brick ruins, where tall blades of swishing grass obscured chattering grasshoppers, where the bare boughs of trees swung and creaked, their tentacles clasping into rib-like chains and smearing shimmering black, ink shadows on the surrounding land.
“Have a drag, mate,” Lewis goaded, holding up the blunt in Robert’s face.
“No,” Robert muttered, frowning as he swayed his head to the left, attempting to focus his attention on the digital beast he was fighting.
“C’mon, bruv, don’t be dizzy. Allow it.”
“No . . .” Robert whispered as his fingers frantically tapped the controller’s numerous buttons. “C’mon, c’mon . . . oh, bloody hell!” He hissed; his character was decimated by the beast. The words “You Died,” appeared on the screen in bold red; the ultimate mockery.
Lewis heeded the derisory proclamation and laughed as he stood up. “Game over. You need to learn to relax, bruv. Have a bud or get a girl or somethin’.” He then turned to Melissa. “Right, I’m gonna get ready, yeah? Ring a taxi for us in about ten minutes. I’m gonna get absolutely lashed tonight!” He chuckled, ruffling Robert’s hair, chucking his iPhone on his girlfriend’s lap and leaving the room.
“Don’t look so glum, Bobby,” Melissa said, studying the young man’s plain white shirt, the cheap sky blue jeans and the tubby black work shoes he had chosen to wear on this particular night out; a stark contrast to the hip, designer wear that drenched her boyfriend’s body. “You’ll have fun tonight. You never come out with us. You’re at uni – this is supposed to be the time of your life!” A patronising smile followed her patronising words; the gesture managed to squirm past Robert’s perception. He blushed and averted his eyes, playing with a loose string in his shirt as though he were a child.
Melissa smiled with satisfaction. She then cupped her boyfriend’s phone with both hands, scrolling through the touchscreen menu. The smile was slowly replaced by a morph of tense facial muscles; her brows furrowed, her forehead creased with lines, her eyes wide and her jaw, slack, as though someone punched the breath from within her depths. One thing that was yet to morph was her line of sight; her head remained downward, her eyes absorbing the iPhone’s bright face. A tiny, silver splash of liquid kissed the phone’s screen; the first of an oncoming shower.
Lewis emerged into the living room shirtless, exposing the hard, armour-like frame of his upper body. Twin chest pecks swelled proudly, leading down to a sierra of hard abs. Lewis ceased his speech in mid-flight when he glanced at his girlfriend. He paused both in mind and body, instinctively snapping off the pounding hip-hop playing from the laptop. The abrupt cessation of music exposed the hammering blows of the clock ticking overhead, accentuating the pangs of conscious truths to hide, quenching the blushes of ingenious shame, a shrine of sex, luxury and pride with infidel incense, all kindled at a muse’s flame.
“Mel?” Lewis asked, stepping forward with the sort prudence one would expect from a hunter who suspected his downed quarry was still alive – and dangerous. “Baby, what’s up?”
Melissa’s gaze shifted – she raised her head and stared at Lewis. Streaming floods of despair crawled down her pale face, compelled by a miasma where no blissful hope in her bosom was beaming. When she stood to her feet, her demeanour following her physical position; her eyes glinted with uncharacteristic aggression, her spine straight and ready. She thrust the phone in her lover’s hands.
Lewis blinked; his stare met the phone’s face; his jaw sagged, his Adams apple swelling against his neck. He slowly raised his stare and met Melissa’s eyes; the woe of her soul had been replaced by sheer malevolence.
“Look . . .” Lewis whispered, lost for words; the mushroom cloud had transformed into a veil of dissipating smoke. “I can –”
“Explain?” Melissa sliced in. She chuckled with bitterness. “Of course you can explain – explain that you’re sleeping with someone else. Words don’t lie, and neither did that text message.”
“Fuck off,” Melissa hissed, retaining the little semblance of sanity she could summon among a miasma of deceit. “Just fuck off.” She forcefully repulsed Lewis’ attempt to console her; she stormed past him and down the hall. Moments later, the click of the opening front door preceded the explosion that followed. A quick procession of footsteps drummed on the concrete path outside for a few moments. Melissa had fled; a flower that was born to blush unseen, a waste of sweetness on desert air.
“Damn it!” Lewis yelled after a moment of silence, lobbing his phone the other side of the room; it exploded into fragments of whizzing plastic and metal, the remains settling on the floor next to the source of flaying wallpaper. The decay continued.
He became a beast of terse breaths, of heaving shoulders and gnashed teeth; only the semblance of vulnerability gleamed within the moisture of his eyes; a combination of emotional truth and masculine betrayal.
Lewis rushed out of the living room, a tune of pounding thuds following him like a great beacon as he ascended the stairs. A series of verbal blasts and pounding steps emanated upstairs for a several minutes. The young man then came pounding down the stairs, his exit testified by sound and not sight; the slamming front door preceded the sharp cough of an igniting vehicular engine. Twin funnels of light soon bounced off the double glazed windows, dancing erratically before both sound and sight became another chorus in the howl of the winter wind.
Robert remained silent, his eyes wide with shock and awe.
Sarajevo studied him for a short moment. She smiled without reason, reaching forward and grabbing one of Lewis’ remaining blunts. The hiss of a lighter was followed by the glow of the blunt’s rear end; a shroud of pungent smoke puffed upward, followed by little flakes of orange, fire-fly like particles drifting towards the ceiling. The tangent taste of marijuana evoked a familiar burning in her throat and stomach, coagulating her senses as though the plant’s toxins were as thick as syrup.
“I didn’t know you were into drugs,” Robert addressed his roommate, refusing to meet her gaze.
“Why would you?” Sarajevo exhaled a cloud of smoke. “By the way, you’re not a rabbit.” She took another drag.
Robert met her gaze, blinking and blushing. “What?”
Sarajevo tapped her forehead with the fingers of her free hand. “You have a brain. We have brains, which make us supremely superior to any other animal on the planet. Do you see the biggest bears with the greatest muscle mass shying away from conflict? No. Not that they relish it, but they know that if they are to reap the benefits that are up for grabs against rival bears, they have to fight for it. And they use their muscle mass to their advantage. The bigger, the better.” She tapped her forehead once more. “You’ve got a much higher IQ than your average idiot, but yet you don’t act like the biggest bear on the plains – you’re the rabbit who hides away in his room, afraid to emerge from his nest.” Sarajevo exhaled another mist. “Don’t fall into the eagle and vulture trap.”
“Have you ever wondered about the contrast of human perceptions in regards to eagles and vultures? Eagles are regarded as these noble, handsome and chivalrous creatures; they’ve been national symbols since the days Caesar decimated the Gauls in their homeland. Just look at how many national flags have them wearing their colours. And then we have vultures; ugly, untrustworthy and cowardly. They’re despised all over the world; personified as the devils of the skies, the carriers of disease.”
“They prey on carcasses.”
“And eagles don’t? Find me a bird that doesn’t scavenge and you’ll find me in bed with a man – something that’s pretty bloody impossible.”
“Eagles do scavenge, but they also hunt for their prey.”
“And a vulture doesn’t ‘hunt?’” Sarajevo chuckled. “Tell me something – would you eat your meat raw?”
“Of course not!”
“So why would one expect a vulture, a large, clumsy bird that’s not built for attaining the kind of speeds in flight an eagle is built for, to have the same offensive guile as the latter? Would you expect a bicycle to outrun a motorcycle? A vulture simply does what it can do to survive; it’s not built for high speed chases, just like our digestive systems aren’t built for consuming raw meat.”
“I . . .”
“Eagles and vultures,” Sarajevo muttered. “We’re all classed as eagles and vultures. In life, you’re either an eagle, or a vulture – there’s no grey line; there’s no in-between. People see Lewis, they see jock; they see Mel, they see slut; they see you, and they see virgin.” She smiled with charm. “ Lewis is like the rapper Drake or Barack Obama – people think he’s black, when in fact, his mother is white and therefore he is only partially of Sub-Saharan descent; people presume Mel is a stuck-up bitch because of her stunning looks; people take one look at your scrawny frame and your awkward demeanour and assume you’re a loser. Eagles and vultures – you’ve got to love ‘em.” She winked. “Of course, there’s irony in such philosophy, for when people look at my hair and my clothes, they presume I’m into breasts and not chiselled chests.” She shrugged. “And they’re right.”
Scars formed on Robert’s lips as a momentary frown overcame his boyish face. However, the person he was so accustomed to playing soon recovered and he reverted to the lad who deflected conflict. “You think they’re going to break up?” He asked after a moment.
“But . . . Lewis cheated on her.”
“They’ll kiss and make up. They’re a coalition.”
“You make it sound as though they’re soldiers.”
“In the wild, young male lions will often pair up. A male lion’s purpose in life is simple; protect and breed. They often form coalitions, usually consisting of male brothers or cousins and sometimes acquaintances. These coalitions are formed for one purpose; to wrestle control of a healthy harem of females off rival males and when in control, to fend off other ambitious males who attempt to steal their harem and to kill their young. These coalitions, sometimes consisting of up to four males, are not formed out of love, but like a royal marriage of the old, out of convenience. Those males may despise one another and they will often fight to win mating rights with a female in heat, but they know they need each other – they depend on one another if they are to survive. The same applies for Lewis and Mel – it’s not love; it’s convenience. Who they are and what they are demands their association.”
Robert brandished a rare smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look.”
Sarajevo returned the smile. She held up the blunt. “Eagle or Vulture . . .”
Robert cleared his throat. His gaze wandered from the trail of smoke floating upward from the glowing mouth of the blunt to the tranquillity of Sarajevo’s eyes. He stood up, marching a few steps and gathering the blunt between his thumb and index finger. He sat next to the watching Sarajevo. After a moment’s breath, he placed the blunt between his lips and inhaled; a series of raucous coughs shot from his lungs as his illegal substance virginity was taken. His face sank into a deep, crimson shade. His shoulders and chest heaved from the toxic intake. “Jesus Christ!” He breathed. “How can you smoke this stuff?”
“You get used to it.”
He handed the spliff back to her. Sarajevo took a deep, nonchalant drag and recycled a haze of smoke with a faint gasp. “Can I ask you a question?” Robert asked, his gaze, uncharacteristically enough, glued to her face; not even a blink dabbed at his eyelids. He drew in Sarajevo’s hair; it was cropped with the shortness and style of a boy’s, with tiny blades upright like grass. The lack of rich, long hair accentuated the shape of her face; it was angular, with her nose wide and long and her lips full, giving her a look of perpetual pouting. Robert thought she was beautiful.
“Ask me anything,” Sarajevo responded.
“Does your family lineage originate from Eastern Europe?”
“I’m from Southampton – English born and bred.” She shrugged. “Whatever that means.”
“Then why the name ‘Sarajevo?’ Why did your parents name you after the Bosnian capital, a place which holds the record for the longest running siege in modern military history?”
Sarajevo finished the last of the marijuana spliff with a misty haze. “Why, you ask?” She smiled beautifully. “Because they fucking hate birds.”