The heart sits before Laura on the workbench, wrapped in a white plastic bag in the centre of a plate. Her knee trembles against the table leg, which starts the juices moving inside the bag, dancing with all the potential of life now gone. She scrunches her feet inside her tights. That morning she’d walked to college through the slush along Holloway Road, heart in hand, thudding against her thigh through the plastic membrane.
The heat of the spotlight makes her feel sick. She only asked for them because that’s what all the other performance artists do. The room swims a little. Graham glances at his watch. Laura lifts the plastic bag from the bottom and lets the heart spill out. The juices pool to the edge of the plastic plate. She lifts her fork, then her knife. Graham shuffles his marking papers. A few of her fellow students cross their legs. Some lean backwards on their chairs, others lean forward. She slices through the heart with the serrated knife, careful not to knick the plastic plate, then pierces and slides a slice into her mouth.
The bedroom slowly flooded with peachy light, the effect of the cheap orange curtains against a backdrop of harsh winter sunshine. Eva’s bleached crop turned apricot, softening the angular features what were already slack with sleep.
Laura had been sure to leave quietly. She was too hungover to string words together, especially ones that would impress Eva. She walked to college the same route she always did, only in the aftermath of the night before, everything felt new and different somehow.
The college didn’t have any money which meant gentle anarchy was allowed within its crumbling walls. The Christmas party had been held in the lecture theatre, a mouldy windowless room painted with black vinyl paint. The only condition had been that the overhead projector remained in one piece. When she arrived, the college was empty. Laura went to check out the damage.
The stench of Christmas cake and sausage rolls hung around as she picked her way through toppled chairs, smashed wine bottles, torn Christmas crackers. She ran her hand along the wall searching for a light switch then flipped on a string of tiny fairy lights.
She sat the heart on top of the wallpaper table. It had been repurposed as a makeshift bar the night before. A dark red wine stain had ruined one side. She’d been called upon to help run it by her flatmate Emily. “Come on, don’t look so fucking grumpy,” she’d hissed to Laura during the party. “At least this will force you to talk to people for a change.”
Emily had worn a short red dress lined with white fur. She’d beamed as she handed over cans of Red Stripe and plastic cups. She’d been sloppy with her pouring, giving more to the third years and less to her peers, who’d had to make do with a look of disdain along with their half-measures.
Laura didn’t particularly like Emily but she’d been desperate to find a housemate. She replied to her message on a housing forum, not expecting a reply. Laura was sure Emily had only picked her because she was quiet and dumbly nodded along to all of her rules. Her dad had a flat but insisted on her having a housemate, to make his investment worthwhile, and also because he also worried about her living alone in the city.
Sometimes Emily called upon Laura for advice on her work, which Laura gave freely. She was always complimentary of the monochrome landscapes Emily took of the Surrey countryside where she grew up, taken on a Hasselblad her father had bought her for her eighteenth birthday. Laura was careful to correct Emily’s spelling of Bosch while proof-reading her essays about the sublime.
Laura can hear herself chewing through the gristly heart over the quiet that seems to have fallen across the room. Laura wonders if the quiet is from either horror or respect for her work, but then realises it’s probably nothing to do with her at all. It’s the end of the first term and everyone knows the correct etiquette for art crits by now; the silence, the intense squinting of the eyes which could portray hatred or rapture, the ambiguity.
They’d all learnt quickly after Danny left. He’d muttered something under this breath about Marge Simpson while Xanthe had been presenting a saffron-coloured sculpture of her vulva, and sweated through his football shirt while Graham berated him for his lack of appreciation. After that, he ate alone in the canteen, bought his own drinks in the pub. He was seen as too reckless to associate with and eventually dropped out.
Laura wonders what Danny might say if he were here now, whether he’d dry-wretch into his shoulder. She focusses on eating, tasting the metal tang of the blood, the tug of the tendons stretching down her throat.
She leant against the clean edge of the wallpaper table and tried to breathe deeply. The air was thick from the remnants of the dry-ice machine. A dozen mince pies clung to the ceiling, perfectly circling the still-suspended projector.
The Collective had hired the machine for their performance. They pulled up in a car outside college and dragged it through the corridor, leaving one long scratch from the reception to the lecture theatre. The machine had one setting, FULL, and the smoke soon grew out of control. Their performance was called Daddy’s Xmas Dinner, and The Collective were completely concealed while they writhed and crawled across the floor. They made piles of jam sandwiches with their mouths, hands tied behind their backs, pulling Christmas crackers between their thighs. They wore conical bras, white beards, blacked-out swimming goggles, golden strap ons. They looked like Satan/Santa hybrids.
Laura hadn’t realised the performance had started until someone tripped and went crashing through the wallpaper table, drenching Laura in warm beer and lemonade. Emily laughed and handed her a napkin that a pile of cold sausages had been nestled upon. Laura patted her trainers dry with the greasy tissue. In the corner of the room, a red strobe light burst through the smoke. The Collective’s twisted bodies swam across the floor. Someone grasped her hand and yanked her closer to the ground so she was on her knees.
Eva, with two flat pieces of bread between her mouth, was down on all fours, motioning for Laura to take a bite. She did, chewed and tasted the jam, then watched Eva crawl away, her leotard slick upon her body, catching the light like a coat of fur.
The Christmas tree was still standing but it seemed to have been decorated with empty cans, crushed and placed between its branches. Laura began prising the cans from the tree and placing them on the floor. Next, she started on the baubles, undressing the tree with care and placing them in a circle around her feet. She held a red bauble up and noticed her nose stretched across its curve, her mousy hair now crimson, her eyes black.
Her Mum always liked having a tree. She made sure to get the biggest one, so the top always scraped the living room ceiling. They decorated it with angel hair and spray snow. Last year Laura did most of the work, her Mum directing her from the sofa. She was quite bad by then.
The tree had stayed up until the end of January, by which time Christmas was only a memory and her Mum was in the ground. Laura had forgotten all about it until she’d gone back to sort through the mail, bag-up her Mum’s clothes. The bulk of it was slumped over in the corner, brown needles scattered across the floor. The shock of its form had made her jump. Grey clumps of dust fell from it like snow while Laura gripped the yellowing branches.
“Jesus Fucking Christ, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
A red welt had come up quickly on Laura’s thigh where Eva’s skull ring had dragged through the dark in their fumbling. Laura hadn’t felt any pain though, just urgency. Eva insisted on removing all her jewellery anyway and did so calmly, lining her spiked earrings and neck chains and ribbons and trinkets in a line along Laura’s window sill.
Graham scratches his pencil down the marking sheet. Laura cuts through for another piece. She can’t see which boxes he’s ticking but he seems to be working his way through them quickly.
Eva bit Laura’s lip, chin, tongue, breast. Laura found sticky traces of jam across Eva’s shoulder and licked it. She pulled Eva’s leotard down, skinning the creature she’d watched prowl in the wild, felt the slick material between her fingers, her trophy. Underneath, Eva’s skin was clammy. Laura never pulled away but kept her face and body close in case whatever thread had connected the two of them, connected Laura to what she wanted, snapped. Then they’d be lost to each other forever.
Laura reached down and touched the soft ridges of Eva’s ear where once they’d been ringed with metal. Laura thought of The Collective as she rolled her hips, the way they’d rippled across the floor so absorbed in themselves. Laura wanted to feel like that, she wanted to feel how Eva felt. Eva’s crop bristled along the inside of her thigh. They hadn’t seemed to care about anyone else.
Her veins felt coursed through with electricity. She became aware of the sharpness of her bones, her brittle hair, the tackiness of her skin. The familiar weight of terror and panic fell on her like soft snowfall, freezing but comforting in its envelopment. In the dark Laura squeezed her eyes shut and willed it away.
She’s nearly there. The gaps between her teeth are filled with muscle. It tickles kind of. She clicks her neck and touches a tender spot. She swallows then coughs up a splatter of blood. It sprays the plate, the workbench. Nobody says anything. They’re all too concerned with looking interested.
She lay against Eva while she slept, her body rising to meet her then falling away again with each breath. She smelt faintly of garlic, her perfume like the inside of charity shops in damp coastal towns. Laura was naked and started to feel cold. She pulled the duvet over herself, tracing the lines of her body until she heard voices in the corridor.
Eva sparked awake, pushing Laura away from her with such force Laura had to brace her foot on the floor to stop herself falling out of bed. The front door slammed. There were voices in the corridor.
“Shit,” Eva whispered rubbing a hand over her face then holding the back of Laura’s neck to steady herself. “Fuck, is that Franky?”
Most nights Emily conducted late-night Skype conversations with her long-distance boyfriend. Laura heard them through the wall. They’d been dating for four years, but presumably, it hadn’t taken Francisco, an arrogant MA student who painted images from pornography, long to charm Emily into forgetting about her other commitments.
Eva smirked. “You know he’s got a fiancé right? She lives in Sienna.”
“Emily has a boyfriend too.”
“Fucking pigs!” Eva said. They tried to silence their laughter while Emily and Franky groaned and tussled and knocked things over in the corridor. Eventually, they moved to Emily’s room where the bed beat rhythmically against the wall, quickened to a flurry then fell silent. Although Eva’s glee made Laura happy, there was something sad about hearing Emily’s self-possession being so quickly undone in the room next door.
When they laid backdown Laura said, “I liked your performance.” It was early morning, the sky was pale blue, the winter sun still dipped behind the houses.
“Yeah? Which bit?”
“The sandwich bit.” Laura knew she sounded like an idiot. She pretended to yawn, to show she had better thoughts when she wasn’t so sleepy.
“The sandwich bit?” Eva exhaled sharply and slammed a hand on the mattress. “That fucking Saskia, man!”
She’d said the wrong thing, now Eva was upset. She’d ruined it. Why had she thought she could keep this happiness contained inside her? It was bound to run free from her eventually.
“Sorry. It’s just, people, you know? I told Saskia that sandwich bit was fucking dumb.”
“I said I liked it.”
“Well,” Eva said hugging Laura closer, “you first years are too nice.” Eva ran a finger along Laura’s clavicle. It felt good but now the ease with which Eva wielded intimate gestures made Laura’s chest ache.
Her face is reflected in the dark liquid on the plate. She knows she’s paler than this crimson mirror is letting on. But it’s okay, it’s nearly over.
She wishes Eva could see this. It would prove how seriously she takes her work, how much of an inspiration Eva had been. But she’s still asleep, all wrapped up in Laura’s bed where she left her.
The heart is tough but Laura is calm. It makes its way down until it’s gone. She looks back across the group. None of them probably know her name, until now. In a final flourish, she picks up the plate, slurps the final strands, not wanting to waste a single thing, not when she’s come this far anyway.
Graham straightens up, flicks through his papers. “Okay Laura,” he says, glancing over his shoulder. “We’ll have to leave it there for now.”
Lauren Miller is a writer, artist and teacher living in East London. Her short fiction has been published in Mechanics Institute Review 13, Spread The Word’s City of Stories and online. She has a BA in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins and an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck. She performs at spoken word events regularly across London and is the current Features Editor for the online literary journal MIR Online.