The Dolorous Stroke: A Short Story

There are many things that remind me of Lucas. I think of him when I see a person laughing in a certain way, or when I walk down one of those dark, rain-slicked streets we used to wander down together. But worst of all is when I catch his fragrance on a person’s shoulder. I might be stepping onto a train or walking through the crowds at Oxford Street, and there it is again – that smell, his smell – and all at once, my head swims and I can’t breathe; I think I’m going to be sick.

The last time I saw him was in my bedroom. I had professed my love for him a few nights before, and the two of us were sitting awkwardly, trying to avoid making eye contact with each other. We talked politely for a while, but the silences were getting longer and heavier, and I knew I would eventually have to justify myself to him.

“Listen,” I managed. “About the other night.”

“It’s fine. You don’t need to explain.”

“No, I do. It’s just that…”

He gazed down at his feet, trying not to look at me. Though I had known Lucas for years, talking to him had always made me feel like I was walking through a series of interlocking rooms; vast, open spaces would give way suddenly to locked doors, to rooms I had never been able to access. There were less of these as our friendship developed, but I had always known that any wrong turn would close off more doors, and that he would then return to his default setting – blank and uncommunicative. In this way, having a conversation with him was like a maze, a game in which I had to see how long I could keep him talking before he inevitably withdrew.

As I stumbled for something to say, I looked around the room, feeling suddenly embarrassed. He didn’t know it, but I had spent the afternoon preparing it for him – hoovering the carpet, dusting surfaces, hiding the records he’d laugh at me for owning. Instead, I displayed a collection of soundtracks to obscure foreign films, an attempt to make me seem more cultured than I really was. Even the books on the nightstand – Dante’s Purgatory, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a hardback book on Hermeneutics – had all been deliberately chosen to impress him. I decided to change the subject.

“How are things at school at the moment? You never talk about it.”

“Because there isn’t much to tell,” he said

“Well, what are you teaching the kids? Are you still doing Shakespeare?”

He looked up at me forebodingly. His eyes, searching my face for a hidden motive, had always been the thing I had loved most about him. They were dark, almost black, and seemed to contain a mixture of sadness and hostility. Whenever he looked at me, I would suddenly feel self-conscious. I often forgot what I’d meant to say.

“I’m teaching them about King Arthur,” he said quietly. “We were supposed to do a course on fairy tales but they all thought that’d be boring. They’re at that age now, I think. They hate anything too girly.”

I smiled at him encouragingly, urging him to continue.

“We’re looking at how stories change over time, how different authors adapt them to suit their needs. It’s interesting – at least the kids seem to think so.”

As I listened, it occurred to me that this was exactly what I had done in our relationship. I had scrutinised his words and actions, giving each of them an approximate meaning. Sometimes I struggled to talk about our relationship because I always spent more time thinking about it than participating. I often found it hard to know which things had really happened and which of them I’d merely dreamed about.

I shook my head. I realised he was still talking.

“I mean, they love all the blood and guts and stuff, but there’s a lot of Christian subtext that must go over their heads – like the Grail Quest, or the story of the Fisher King. I don’t really know how much they understand.”

I looked at him blankly. “The Fisher King?”

“Oh, it’s just some story,” he said, brushing the hair out of his eyes. “There’s a king who gets impaled by this massive spear. It goes right through his heart, only this spear is magic because it once belonged to St Peter, so it doesn’t kill him.”

As he spoke, he picked up his glass, holding it with both hands as though it warmed him. There was something endearing in this movement – something innocent, child-like. I had to suppress the desire to kiss him.

“So, the king doesn’t die,” he said, “but his life is completely ruined. He stops sleeping and eating, and he even forgets to wash himself. His people start calling him the Maimed King, and the land around his castle starts to wither and die. The part with the spear is known as the Dolorous Stroke, because as soon as he’s wounded, his whole life starts to fall apart. All he can do is fish in the river.”

“I see,” I managed weakly, trying and failing to make intelligent conversation. All I knew about Arthurian mythology was what I had learned from a handful of children’s cartoons – lots of burly men, wizards with hoary beards, women dying of a broken heart. I never felt insecure that he was smarter than me, but that his sphere of knowledge was so different to mine. We rarely had much to talk about.

After falling back into silence, I excused myself and went to the toilet. Inside, the cold tiles against my feet conjured up a sudden memory – the moment I realised I was in love with him. It was an evening in the middle of summer, one of those short-lived but glorious days in London that possess the quality of a dream. We had been sitting on a patch of grass on the Southbank, looking out across the river. We had both taken our shoes off and he was telling me about how much he had always hated his feet. It was the first time I had ever seen him be so vulnerable around me. I had always thought of him as roguish and imposing. The admission had caught me off guard.

When I came back into my bedroom, I noticed that Lucas had put one of my records on. Joni Mitchell was singing about valentines and tapestries, about finding someone you could love. I thought it was a strange album for him to choose, but then again, I often questioned how conscious he was of these decisions. Was it a loaded action designed to tell me something he was unable to express, or had he simply picked an album at random from my collection? Wanting to seem casual and mysterious, I decided to say nothing, sitting back on the bed as if I hadn’t even noticed it.

Lucas – completely oblivious to these questions – gave a theatrical yawn, covering his mouth with both hands. I asked him if he was okay.

“I’m fine. It’s just that…I should probably go,” he said, sighing.

“So soon?”

“Yeah, it’s Marcus. I stayed at his last night.”

My stomach clenched involuntarily. I attempted to smile at him but I felt deeply aware of my expression, as though any change would reveal my true feelings.

“Marcus? Is that a friend of yours?”

He suddenly seemed to regret having told me so much, and he fell silent; I could practically hear one of those doors slamming shut on me again. I already knew intuitively what his feelings were, but I couldn’t decide if I wanted to hear it or not.

“Yeah,” he said shyly. “I told you about him, didn’t I?”

I shrugged, trying not to give myself away. He sighed again.

“Oh, he’s just some guy I met a few weeks ago. It’s not a big deal. I mean, he’s cute and funny, but we haven’t even slept together yet.”

The way he said ‘yet’ seemed to hang in the air between us, seemed to echo round the walls of my room. I could hear the harsh consonants for a good few minutes afterwards, even as he was putting on his shoes, plucking his coat from the back of the chair. Then, and I’ve never forgotten it, he turned back to me indifferently.

“I’m staying at his tonight. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, of course I don’t.”

“Good. We should do this again though,” he said.

“Yeah, definitely – if Marcus doesn’t mind.”

I regretted saying it almost instantly, not only because it made me look so childish but because it showed him how jealous a person I really was, how much I obviously still cared about him. But more than this, I knew – even then – that I was just trying to coax him into an argument, looking for any reason to make him stay. Fortunately, he didn’t take the bait, only smiling at me tenderly.

“Thanks for having me,” he said.

“No problem. Have fun tonight.”

“Oh, I will,” he said, and winked.

*

When I look back on my relationship with Lucas – if I can even really call it that – the emotion that I feel most keenly is regret, not for things I should or shouldn’t have said, but for the fact that I became someone else when I was with him, that I wilfully tried to change myself to make him like me. I did all the things I told myself I’d never do; I dyed my hair, quit smoking, tried to be more straight-acting when we were in public. I bought all the books and albums that I knew he liked and forced myself to like them too, even though I rarely did. It seems ridiculous to me now but I was certain of it at the time: that somehow I could coerce him into loving me.

The day after our final night together in my bedroom, I went out and bought a book of Arthurian legends. It was a children’s book with a padded, wipe-clean cover, but I chose it for the watercolour paintings inside, the colours bleeding out into sad, semi-transparent washes of blues, blacks and greys. I read the whole book in one sitting, stopping only to look at the illustrations more closely. I recognised some of the stories – the sword in the stone; the knights of the round table – but what surprised me most was how cynical they were about love, about how any kind of romantic attachment was always doomed to end in tragedy. There was Elaine of Astolat, who died of a broken heart; Merlin, whose lover imprisoned him under a hawthorn tree; and Guinevere and Lancelot, whose love killed all but a few of Arthur’s knights. I knew that my own feelings were making me notice this, but I was shocked that there were no happy couples in the entire book. I tried my best not to take it as a sign.

Once I’d finished, I found myself returning to the story of the Fisher King, reading it again, searching for some reason as to why Lucas had told it to me. Although it was a children’s book, the Dolorous Stroke was written in an unusually violent way, describing the trajectory of the spear, the tip piercing the flesh of his heart. The painting beside it was horrible too. It showed the king clutching his chest, blood oozing from between his fingers, his mouth a black and bottomless hole. But the part that Lucas hadn’t told me was that the king spent years trying to find himself again, looking for the things he had lost since being wounded. He had become a shell of his former self, and nothing at all like the man he had been before. If there was a connection between me and the king in this way, I was reluctant to admit to it.

A few days later, I finally heard from Lucas. I had been sitting on my bed, rereading the story of the Fisher King when my phone buzzed from the corner of the room. I got up and went over to the desk, but when I saw his name appear on the screen, I felt my breath catch in my throat. I fumbled with the buttons, expecting an invitation to a party or a note to say hello. I opened the text. It said –

“So, me and Marcus have decided to make it official! I’m very happy and I hope you’re happy for me too. Maybe the three of us can hang out together? I’d like that. Let me know when you’re free. Speak to you soon. xx”

It’s hard for me to remember how I felt in that moment. I had gone over to the window, looking out at the buildings that stood opposite my flat. Their doors – all black and dimensionless – reminded me of the king’s mouth in the picture-book, howling a pained but silent scream. I read his text again, my eyes lingering over the two kisses. I was trying to decipher how I felt but there was no discernible change. His words, clumsy and inexact, produced the effect of a spear through the heart.

 

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