A PAIN IN THE HEAD | A plane, writer’s block and an encounter with a stranger. Alys Key’s short fiction explores how inspiration hits.
by Alys Key
The headache is a filthy thing that packs her mouth and eyes with dirt. The kind of rigid pain that can’t be steamed out, though that won’t stop her trying.
Air hostesses go up and down the aisle, unruffled by the midair movement. She feels like dried blood trampled into the carpet.
To them, with her dead stare and fingers going white from gripping the armrests, Eliza looks like every other uncomfortable flyer. When they pass by, she manages to ask, though she is sure her teeth will fall out from the effort, for another green tea and lemon. The smell of it is brittle with microwave heat. The effort of bringing it to her mouth can only be compared to swimming through dark riverwater. It does not help.
What she wouldn’t give for the clean, cold migraines of her adolescence over the hot stink of this. Perverse, she knows, to wish for that pinpoint pain that once knocked her out in a French lesson. While her classmates went to the nurse with period cramps, she went to the toilet once every few weeks and vomited up mostly water and paracetamol and still the crystal pain would be there in the skull-frame of her eyebrow.
At university, she started taking Modafinil to get through the Latin vocab, watched the conjugations daisy-chaining in front of her: propero, properas, properat, properamus, properant. The headaches then became background noise, a sign she was working hard. She treated them with bacon rolls and Berocca, the same way her classmates did for hangovers.
There is no meal. But there are drinks, and because it is a flight full of mostly British people going to Greece, it being barely midday is not an issue. All around, there is the disappointing thunk of ice cubes into little plastic tumblers. The man next to her unscrews a tiny bottle of chardonnay, letting out its window-cleaner scent. To her surprise, it turns her tastebuds sour and wet. She is briefly able to think about what will happen when she lands, the dust and whitewall courtyard of her Airbnb, the fresh feta, olives, souvlaki still spitting from the grill. Tomorrow night: a meeting with her researcher/fixer/translator Christos over dinner, which will turn into ouzo at their favourite taverna, then back to her apartment – depending on how loyal he is feeling to Maria, his long-distance girlfriend, this week.
She realises she has to get to the toilet. Now. Inside, the bright light screams at her, but it is a relief to be alone with her pain. Shuddering through her now, it seems to gain power from the vibrating floor and comes in thick charges through her body towards her head. It all gathers there, every single new stroke of pain, in a hot coagulation right at the centre of her forehead. She tries leaning her face against the mirror, spits and gasps all over the cool surface. It does not help.
She goes to dab her face with a damp paper towel and sees something she cannot comprehend. A huge blob in the square of her brow, a glossy ball of skin that is – impossibly – growing. Boiling. Exactly where the locus of her headache now sits, something balloons in time with the crescendo of agony.
She reaches towards it, feels the whole plane pitch sideways, and blacks out.
You might not think there’s enough room to collapse in an aeroplane bathroom, let alone for a second person to stand in there with you. But when Eliza comes to, these are the facts she can make out:
- Her head is on the dappled blue floor. She can see the underside of the metal toilet bowl.
- There is someone else inside the cabin.
‘Oh dear. Let’s get you up,’ the person says. Hands on her wrists. In a moment she is upright, or she thinks she is. ‘Up’ is not a direction she could identify right now. She lists; the memory of stepping onto a punt for the first time, the unsteadiness of its light wood on the river, rushes up to greet her.
As she reacquaints herself with gravity, she notices that the stranger is holding her shoulders, keeping her steady.
‘Thanks,’ she gasps. The woman smiles. She is pretty, with dark curly hair in a loose bun and tanned skin.
Eliza wonders if she is Greek, but her accent is as English as hers when she replies: ‘No problem, Eliza.’
Then she is sliding the lock to VACANT, pushing the concertina door to one side, and is gone.
At passport control, the man asks Eliza the reason for her visit.
‘I’m writing a book,’ she begins. Always a struggle – how to pitch what she does for her audience? In academic company, she does it with a bent knee. ‘Just popular history,’ she will say, dismissing it before anyone else can. At parties, she can show off, but she must also listen to other people’s ideas for books they haven’t written and never will. In taxis, she can’t be bothered and says she’s a dental nurse, makes up foul stories about peeling gums and decaying teeth that look like blue cheese.
But the man doesn’t ask for further details, and he doesn’t stamp her passport – they don’t do that anymore.
The headache, gone, seems hardly real now. Pain like that usually leaves an echo, an ink-dark bruise on the mind, but she feels unblemished. The image of her swelling head in the mirror can now be written off as a hallucination.
None of this stops her from searching baggage claim and the taxi rank for the woman who knew her name. She is not there.
“She spends a day googling ‘writer’s block’ and ‘third book blues” and other imaginary states of being.”
Once she has unpacked, everything is ready for her to write. But the words do not come. She spends a day googling ‘writer’s block’ and ‘third book blues” and other imaginary states of being. She tries the free-writing method, ends up with pages and pages of misremembered Iliad lines. She tries the (misattributed) Hemingway method and goes to a bar across the street to order cocktails, but when she comes back to do the ‘write drunk’ bit, she falls asleep on the sofa in the afternoon sun. She tries texting Christos, but before she can send anything she has a message from him, cancelling their dinner and saying he’ll see her in a few days. Perhaps he is with Maria. She does not text again.
She spends some time at the Parthenon. Her first time seeing the temple, as a student, had felt like a pilgrimage; now it’s more like visiting an elderly relative. All of its stories have been told before, but still she listens, nods, because without it she would not be here at all.
Christos texts a week later when she is staring at her laptop screen, imagining that the empty document is a virgin block of Pentelic marble, too perfect to shape. His message contains the address of a slick rooftop bar, which surprises her.
She gets there and has to wait in a queue outside the ‘secret’ entrance. The very existence of the queue suggests it is not secret at all, but this is the kind of thing the travel guides and magazines love, and the kind of thing Christos gets tasked with finding for them. He likes the work Eliza assigns him better, or so he always says.
The roof is carpeted with astroturf that creeps up the half-walls surrounding it, like moss on the sides of a canal. He is already sitting in one of the low plastic chairs, an absurdly slim glass of beer in one hand, and in the other –
Eliza stumbles, the instinct to turn around shivering through her ankles. Christos has brought a woman, and he is holding her hand.
Too late now. He turns and sees her, stands. A second later they are hugging, and she is deep in the familiar scent of that stupid Armani aftershave, ocean and paraffin and oranges. It muffles her alarm. But she is still afraid to face the woman, who she is sure must be Maria.
‘Eliza!’ he says ‘Wonderful to see you. Please.’ He gestures to his companion. ‘This is Clio.’
Clio takes both of Eliza’s hands in hers and purrs, in a crisp English accent, ‘Eliza, I’ve heard marvellous things’. Their eyes meet.
She is the woman from the plane.
Christos has written a book. He is handing sheets of the outline to her and she is trying not to get breadcrumbs on them.
‘It’s fresh,’ he is saying. ‘Only hit me a few days ago – which is why I kept you waiting, I’m sorry. But when I was ready I knew you were the first person I wanted to show. Other than Clio, of course.’
Clio has ordered for them, and the dishes keep arriving: stuffed vine leaves, aubergines in a spiced sauce, chickpeas with pastirma, fried squid, saganaki. Eliza’s glass is full of a lime-sharp white wine.
When the waiter returns with concertinaed meats and cheese wedges arranged on a platter the size of a gravestone, she uses the opportunity to lean close to Christos and ask, ‘what about Maria?’
He waves his hand, makes a pssshh sound. ‘I’m over all that.’
She doesn’t have time to ask if ‘all that’ includes her.
The book is bound to be a bestseller. Life as a fixer and translator, it transpires, makes for the perfect part-memoir, part-industry expose. She had forgotten he worked in Turkey for a while, and his encounters with hapless foreign correspondents, trying to cross the border into Syria, could be a book in itself. But the Athens stuff is just as funny, just as brutal. Academics ask him for help with both their translations and their fast-reddening scalps. Travel writers spend whole trips hungover in bed and pay him to write up notes on locations, which they lift wholesale for their own work.
It is brilliant. She doesn’t have space to be jealous, she is so pleased for him. Relieved, too, that he seems to have spared her from his sharp pen.
She tells him he has struck gold, and he admits that he thought she would like it.
‘I couldn’t have done it without Clio, though.’
‘Not at all,’ protests the other woman. She turns to Eliza. ‘We only met last week.’
‘But she told me I had to write it,’ insists Christos. ‘She practically moved into my apartment and refused to leave until I did.’
His heart-maddening smile and Clio’s laughter are enough to suggest that this conversation – and much of the subsequent writing process – took place in bed.
Now, perhaps, she is a little jealous.
Eliza promises to show the book to her agent. Clio orders more wine to celebrate.
They drink it and watch the sunset showing off in the distance, bright golds and pinks spilling out across the sky, like an oil slick.
The couple decide on an early night. There will be no taverna this time, no ouzo. Christos pleads various deadlines he has been ignoring while drafting his book, and she takes the cue to tell him not to worry about the work he owes her, for now. He won’t hear of her paying the bill.
They say goodbye, his arms and that smell both wrapped around her again, and agree to meet again before she goes back to England.
Clio hugs her too. She smells of almond oil and bay leaf, and Eliza finds herself suddenly unwilling to let go of the slim, warm body. She seems about to pull away, but then leans close and murmurs: ‘I’ll see you again very soon, Eliza.’
Lingering at the table as the waiter clears their scraps, she watches the two of them leave, and either feels or imagines a little twinge of pain, right in the centre of her forehead.
Alys Key | @alys_key
Alys is a writer and journalist living in London. In 2019, she was the winner of the Benjamin Franklin House Literary Prize. She has work forthcoming in Weird Horror magazine.