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Conflux: 43rd Australian National Convention

The Art of Suffering

Martin Livings

“Alexia, please let me in.”
     The john’s voice sounded perfectly calm and reasonable, something that scared Alex even more than the other facet to his personality she’d seen just a few moments earlier. She backed away from the bathroom door, leaving bloodied footprints, ending up leaning against the sink opposite it, the cold wet porcelain touching her bare buttocks curiously like a dog’s nose. She felt naked in a way that went far beyond a mere absence of clothes.
     “Please, Alexia, let me explain.”
     She looked around quickly for a way out, seeing the toilet on the far wall, the bathtub with the pale blue shower curtain pulled all the way around it, but the only window was a frosted glass affair over the sink that was far too small even for her slight frame. She was shaking uncontrollably. Part of her mind was saying I told you so, that prudish little voice that she’d never quite managed to exorcise in the three years she’d been doing this. It was bound to happen sooner or later, it was saying, considering the kinds of sickos you work for. She tried to ignore it with her usual mantras of self-affirmation. It’s only a job... there are so many worse things...I never do anything I’m not comfortable with...
Well, not by choice. That thought reminded her of the pain that burned across her back. She could almost see it in her mind, blossoming from a point just in from her left armpit like a flower of discomfort, petals of pain unfurling in the sun, surrounding a centre that was red and raw and deep. She reached around with her right arm just under her small breasts and touched the spot, and the intensity of the pain shifted up a few gears, making her vision sparkle for a few moments afterwards. She whimpered a little.
     “Alexia? Are you alright?”
     Translation — are you still conscious? She shuddered, thinking about what he’d do if she weren’t. The bathroom door was sturdy, the lock less so, but neither could stop a fully-grown man if he really wanted to get in. The only thing stopping the john (who’d called himself Owen when making the booking) coming through the door like it was made of balsa was the thought that she might be awake. Awake and capable of defending herself. She took a couple of deep breaths, trying to ignore the pain with each inhalation, and then spoke.
     She was surprised by the lack of emotion in her voice. Not a tremor or a crack, no sign of the fact that she was feeling as traumatised as she ever had in her twenty-six years. The day as a child when she found her mother dead, wrists slit in a bathtub; the day some years later when her father finally finished his own twenty year alcohol-based suicide attempt; the night she was beaten and raped by boys she knew and trusted at her high school at an end-of-year dance; her first job in this line of work, the john a middle-aged pudgy accountant who got off on the thought of caning schoolgirls. None of it compared to what was happening right here, right now. If this was her present, she’d really like to take it back to the shop and exchange it.
     “I’m so sorry,” Owen was saying with a sincerity that made Alex shudder even harder. “I got a bit carried away.”
     This really wasn’t how she’d planned her life to turn out. Deep down, she’d always wanted to be a counselor or a psychotherapist, fascinated by the workings of the minds of human beings. But after completing a degree in psychology with a minor in sociology, she’d found that the only work available seemed to involve hairnets and asking people if they wanted fries with that. Alex had worked her way through high school and university with shit jobs like those already, and she had no intention of continuing the tradition after graduation. Unfortunately, in the current job market, it seemed her degree might as well have been printed on toilet paper.
     Then one weekend, while scouring the classifieds for a job that would pay enough for her to have a place to sleep and food to eat, she noticed the advertisements for escorts in the weekend papers, and had an idea.

     Alex had always had an odd fondness for pain, at least for as long as she could remember. As a little girl, she’d walk home from school in her sandals, scraping her toes on the rough concrete of the footpath as she went, enjoying the sensation of heat that it generated. When she’d get home, her mother would scold her, dabbing at the stubbed tips of her toes with Mercurochrome. That part was even better. She’d experimented with masochism throughout puberty and even during her university studies, including some truly amazing experiences with a female classmate (somehow women were much better at inflicting the pleasurable kind of pain than men; they intuitively understood the sensitive areas, knowing just how much was enough and how much was too much). But she’d never really taken it seriously until that moment, paper on her lap, looking at the outrageous hourly rates that these women and men were charging. Thinking about how nice it would be to earn that kind of money.
     It took her over a month to work up the courage to place an advertisement herself. She offered her services as a submissive escort, specialising in erotic suffering. No rough stuff, despite how weird that may have sounded in her line of work. She refused to be humiliated or debased, that wasn’t her thing at all. No, she preferred the feeling of being in control, of allowing someone to do these things to her. It was all at her discretion; she had the power, despite ostensibly being the submissive. Whips and canes and razor blades, used correctly, could be as gentle and sensual as a full body massage for both parties. To sit astride someone and carefully score their back with a scalpel blade, tracing patterns in the soft skin, beads of blood revealing the path of the tip like a join-the-dots puzzle in flesh... that was the kind of experience that her clients paid her for, and paid well. There’d been a few instances where they’d threatened to get out of control, a bit of the old blood frenzy, but she’d always reined them in quickly, or ended the session there and then. Most of these people were quite passive at heart; otherwise they’d probably gone with a rougher — and cheaper — service instead. She didn’t even provide any sort of penetrational intercourse, although her clients often ejaculated onto her. It was simply a consensual and symbiotic form of sadomasochism, and one that Alex — or Alexia, as she called herself while working, to add a little exoticism to the proceedings — truly enjoyed. Until tonight, at least.
     “Please, Alexia, can I talk to you?”
     Alex looked again at the bathroom window, hoping it had somehow grown. It hadn’t. Her mobile phone was in her purse, which was in the bedroom, along with her clothes. Somehow grabbing it hadn’t seemed a high priority when she’d fled here, though now she was beginning to regret that.
     The session with Owen had started just like any other. He’d greeted her awkwardly at the door to his flat, led her into the bedroom. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt buttoned up to the collar, both sleeves fastened tightly around his wrist, which struck Alex as a little odd, as it was quite hot. She was just wearing a black tank top and jeans herself. No underwear, she’d found customers had an annoying tendency of keeping it afterwards and denying all knowledge of its whereabouts. The subject of payment hadn’t been discussed at this point, as Alex found that crass and distracting. She’d asked him what he wanted to do. He’d said he wanted to cut her back, as they’d discussed on the phone earlier. She nodded and disrobed, peeling the top and jeans off and folding them neatly at the end of the bed, then asked him if he wanted to use her implements, which she kept in a small carry case in her purse, a collection of scalpels and razorblades, all sterilised. He said yes, and she handed him the package, which jangled a little as it changed hands. He put it down on a side table and opened it. Alex noticed that there was a pile of paper and a pen there was well. Interesting, she thought, most guys don’t take notes. It’s usually photographs or videotape. But it takes all kinds. Then she lay face down on the bed, legs slightly apart, arms over her head, hands on the pillows. She knew this would make the muscles in her back stand out better, and also accentuate the subtle scars that were already there, crisscrossing her skin like delicate graph paper. She heard Owen gasp slightly as he saw this, wondered at the faint note of horror in the sound, but dismissed it as someone still coming to terms with a sexual predilection that was misunderstood at best, and reviled at worst. There was a long pause, a soft noise as if he was fumbling around for something, and then he’d begun.
     “Please let me explain?”
     “Go ahead,” she snapped, half-sitting on the sink. “Explain!”
     “Can I come in?”
     “I don’t think so.”
     He sighed. “It’s not my fault, Alexia, I swear to God. I don’t enjoy this.”
     She’d heard this dozens of times before in her work, but he actually sounded like he meant it. Alex was curious despite herself. “Then why?”
     There was a long silence. “You’ll think I’m nuts.”
     As opposed to now? “Go ahead, Owen.” She was using her counselor’s voice now, the one she’d cultivated in university during her studies, in preparation for her planned career. She’d found it useful a few times in her actual career as well, but never quite like this. “I won’t think you’re nuts.”
     “The knife, Alexia. The knife made me do it. It’s dangerous.”
     Okay, I think you’re nuts. Alex had no idea what to say out loud. Luckily, Owen kept talking.
     “You have to be careful with it Alexia, please.”

     She looked down at her left hand, which dangled fairly uselessly next to her body. In it, clutched tight enough to show the bones of the knuckles, was a rather ornate knife. The handle was carved of a very dark wood, almost black, in the shape of some kind of wild cat, perhaps a puma or a leopard. The cat clung to what looked like a twisted tree stump, claws deep in the rough bark, its head just clearing the ragged top. She turned it in her hand, and it glared up at her, its snout frozen in a sneer, one fang poking out from beneath a curled lip. Beneath the handle, the blade was an uneven shape, thin at the top, then widening and curving back, with what looked like three cresting waves along its length before narrowing again and tapering to a wickedly sharp point. It was very beautiful, in that dangerous and deadly way that Alex had always found so appealing.
     She’d wrested the knife off him when he’d plunged it into her back, after ten minutes or so of fairly stock-standard shallow cutting. When the intense pain had hit, she’d cried out and flipped over, and seen that he wasn’t using her blades at all, nicely sterilised and safe, but instead he had this huge ceremonial-looking thing that could have been anywhere. At first this had actually pissed her off more than the wound she’d just received, not fully aware of the seriousness of the situation. Then she’d seen the look in his eyes, seen him raise the knife over his head, and realised that she was in deep trouble. She’d whispered no, and for a moment he’d hesitated, giving her a chance to sit up and grab at the arm holding the knife. He’d dropped it; she’d instinctively grabbed it herself, and then scrambled from the bed. He was between her and the door to the bedroom, so she’d run away from him, into the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
     And here she was.
     She chose her words carefully. “How did the knife make you do it, Owen? Does it... does it talk to you?”
     He laughed bitterly from the other side of the door. “Don’t be ridiculous, Alexia. It’s a knife. How could it talk to me? That’s just crazy.”
     Oh Jesus... “Then how? Explain it to me.”
     “Please let me in and give me the knife first, Alexia,” he said, sounding far too sane. “Then I’ll explain everything to you, I promise.”
     “I can’t do that, Owen, you know that,” Alex said reasonably. She was fervently hoping that someone had heard the disturbance earlier and called the police. All she had to do was keep him talking, and keep him out. “Please explain it to me first, then we’ll see.”
     “Let me in, you bitch!“ The sudden change in tone made Alex jump, as did the sudden thumping on the door, rattling it on its hinges. “Let... me... in! Let... me... in!“ A blow on the door accompanied each word, as if struck with open hands. “Let... me... in! Let... me...in!
     “No!“ she screamed, taking the knife from her useless left hand and holding it over her head in her right. She charged the door. “Go away!
     The blade of the knife went straight through the door as if it was made of paper, like a door in a Japanese restaurant, the adrenaline rush giving Alex a strength she’d never known she possessed. It penetrated the wood at about head height. There was a scream from the other side, and the thumping stopped abruptly. She staggered back, still clutching the handle of the knife, slowly pulling it out of the door. The blade had fresh blood on it. She sat down suddenly on the cold tiles next to the bathtub and, for the first time in more years than she’d like to admit, she began to cry.
     Slowly, she became aware that she wasn’t the only one crying.
     “I’m sorry...” he was sobbing from the bedroom. “I’m sorry...”
     Alex took a few deep breaths, trying to get her emotions under control. She knew she had to get the upper hand here. “Owen? Are you alright?”
     “Yes,” he said finally. Then “No. My hand.”
     “I’m sorry,” she said, and almost meant it. She’d never hurt anyone in her life, not like that. She wondered how anyone could get pleasure from it.
     “I wish I’d never seen that fucking knife,” Owen said after another long silence.
     Again, Alex decided to try to get him talking. If he was talking, he wasn’t trying to break down the door. If he was talking, he was wasting time. If he was talking, the police might turn up before he finishes his story. “Tell me about the knife, Owen. Please.”
     She heard him breathing hard, perhaps trying to find the words. Then he began. “I bought it at one of those outdoor markets. It was really early in the morning, hardly anyone was there yet, but I hadn’t slept in days. I’m a writer, you see, though at that point I didn’t really have the right to call myself that, hadn’t written anything worthwhile in months. Years.” He laughed softly. “I was ready to call it quits. What sort of writer can’t write?”
     “Writer’s block isn’t unusual,” Alex said quietly, gently. “But the more you worry about it, the worse it gets.”
     “Yeah, kinda like impotence really, hey? Performance anxiety. Unable to get an inspirational erection.” He laughed again, without humour. “Then I saw the knife, and I knew I had to have it. I didn’t know why then, though I do now, I must have sensed it somehow. I bought it, despite the ridiculously high price tag, and took it home. I thought it might inspire me.”
     “And it did?”
     “No, not at first. It was just as bad as before, sitting in front of the computer, writing drips and drabs, all puerile, deleting it, trying again, getting nowhere. I got frustrated. I got angry. Angry at myself, for being so useless.”

     There was a long pause. Alex considered saying something, but couldn’t think of anything constructive to say in the circumstances. It was hard enough trying to ignore the pain in her back. It was weird, narrow-minded individuals would call her a masochist, but she certainly wasn’t enjoying this level of pain. Perhaps she was fooling herself about her own sexual tastes. She took a breath to speak, still unsure of what she’d say, but Owen chose that moment to continue.
     “I picked up the knife. It had been on the desk, next to the computer, propped up against the monitor, the cat’s face looking at me. I held the handle up to my eyes, and for a while we just stared at each other. Then I pulled the wooden sheath off, and without hesitating, I jabbed the point of the knife into the back of my left hand. At first I felt nothing, then it was like someone was heating the blade up very quickly, until the burning was almost unbearable. But I persevered. I deserved the pain, for being so worthless. It felt like hours. Then I cried out and pulled the blade out, dropping the knife on the floor. I sat for a while bent over, holding my left hand in my right, cradled it like an injured bird. Then I straightened up, put both hands on the keyboard and began to type.
     “I must have typed for eight hours straight. Then I saved the document and went to bed, and slept for more than a day. It was... it was wonderful.”
     Alex could hear the joy in his voice, the elation, even at the memory of being able to write. She couldn’t begin to imagine what it must feel like, to have all these thoughts and feelings and words that needed expressing inside and be unable to let them out. She thought it must have felt like the knife had cut a Gordian knot that had bound him, leaving him free to finally be who he needed to be, do what he needed to do. It must have seemed a small price to pay.
     “I thought my writer’s block was gone. But when I awoke and sat down to continue writing, it was back again. I was crushed. The knife came out again, and again the pain. And again, the block disappeared like a sugar cube in hot water. And it was then that I realised what was happening.”
     “And what was that, Owen?” But Alex already knew the answer. It wouldn’t be that the self-mutilation somehow overcame a psychological block, oh no. That would be too simple, too... normal.
     “The knife, Alexia,” Owen breathed, half-reverent, half-afraid. “It takes the suffering, and it gives back creativity. Like an alchemist, transmuting one element into another. What’s the saying? Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration? Or should that be tormentation?”
     He laughed again, still without humour, but this time with a hint of hysteria. Alexia shivered, but tried to keep her fear out of her voice as she spoke. “Owen, how could that be?”
     “How the fuck should I know?” he laughed. Or perhaps cried. It was hard to tell, his voice cracked with intense emotion. “All I know is that, whenever I suffered, I wrote. But after a few days, it started to become harder and harder. I had to cut myself up more each time, and each time got a bit less inspiration. After a few weeks, it dried up altogether, no matter how much I hurt myself I still couldn’t write anything. Like getting blood out of stone.
     “So then I started hiring prostitutes.
     “The first time was incredible. The knife liked fresh blood, fresh pain. The women I hired knew what to expect, and charged accordingly. And afterwards I’d write, longhand on the pages next to the bed or sometimes I’d rush into the study and use the computer. It depended how I felt, both about the inspiration and the woman I’d hurt to achieve it. I never enjoyed the act, only the consequences. The guilt was only barely assuaged by the rush of creativity.
     “Of course, that didn’t last. Again, as the weeks went by, the amount I had to do to get the desired effect continued to grow. It was like a drug addiction, as if the knife was hooked on pain and needed an ever-increasing dosage to perform. It began to get... unpleasant.”
     The distaste in Owen’s voice was clear.
     “The last woman who came here was truly horrible. I thought hiring a hardcore sadomasochist would allow me to go further than I’d dared to previously, but no matter what I did, nothing happened. I think it was because she was so jaded, nothing really touched her, no matter how deeply I cut. She didn’t suffer, so I wasn’t inspired. So, after her, I decided to try something a little different.
     “That was you, Alexia. Someone willing to truly suffer, not just be mutilated. And it really felt like it was going to work, I swear it did. But then...”
     “Then you went too far,” Alex finished for him. She understood, albeit in a clinical psychological way. He needed help.
     “I’m so sorry,” Owen sobbed through the door. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I mean, I meant to hurt you, of course, and you meant to be hurt. But I didn’t mean to really hurt you.”
     “I know, Owen.” Alex wasn’t frightened anymore. It’s easy to overcome fear when you understand something. She started to get to her feet, putting her hand on the rim of the bathtub.

     The shower curtains parted slightly, and Alexia saw what was in the tub. Her eyes widened, her breath catching in her throat. Her heart, which had until now finally begun to calm down, seemed to stop dead for a moment, before starting pounding wildly again.
     Unable to help herself, she screamed, and the bathroom door splintered inwards, slamming against the toilet behind it. Alex turned her head to look, wrenching her gaze from the tub. Owen was standing in the doorway, shirt removed now. Every inch of skin that Alexia could see was covered in cuts, both fresh and old, every angle and depth imaginable. He looked like he'd been rolling in razor wire for months. His left hand was bleeding profusely; the knife had gone all the way through his palm when she’d rammed it through the door earlier. He’d obviously been touching himself with it, as the blood was smeared all over him, especially his face, giving him the appearance of a demented Kabuki dancer. He wasn’t smiling.
     Alex realised how naïve she’d been, believing she didn’t need to fear him anymore, believing that she understood him. She understood nothing, though what was in the bathtub may have been a first step.
     “Please understand, Alexia,” he said, his voice still quiet and calm, belying his appearance. “She wasn’t suffering, she wasn’t giving me what I needed. I had to make her suffer. She made me do it.”
     She glanced at the tub again. The blonde woman’s body lay sprawled in the tub, legs bent unnaturally to the side to fit. She was naked, and her body was covered in long deep cuts, as well as a number of actual stab wounds. Her skin, or what of it was visible under the blood, was grey, and her eyes were open and stained milky-white, like cataracts. She’d obviously been dead for some time, and hadn’t died easily.
     Alex started to get to her feet as quickly as she could. As she did so, putting her hands on the tiled floor, she felt something hard against her palm, and instinctively closed her hand around it as she stood up, holding it out in front of her.
     Owen’s eyes lit up when he saw what she held. She glanced down, and saw the cat’s eyes looking up at her, saw the steel blade extending out toward her attacker.
     “Yes...” he breathed. “Yes...”
     She waved the knife in the air before her. “Stay back, Owen.”
     He smiled now, but it didn’t reach his eyes. No, his eyes told a different story, one that Alex didn’t really understand just yet. Then he charged.
     Alex’s reaction was pure reflex; she closed her eyes and held out her hands to ward him off. She felt something push against her right palm, a moment’s resistance, then it vanished and she heart Owen grunt. Then his full weight was against her, his hands on her shoulders. But he’d stopped.
     She opened her eyes and found herself looking directly into Owen’s, level with her own, his posture slightly slouched. There was pain in the eyes, but also relief. He glanced downwards, and so did she.
     The knife had entered Owen’s chest just in from his left nipple, cleanly between the ribs. It was buried up to the hilt; Alex’s fingers were only a centimetre or two from the flesh around the entry point. Blood bubbled from around the handle of the knife as he breathed raggedly, his lung clearly punctured. It was bright red, arterial blood, rich in oxygen.
     Alex looked up, again found herself meeting Owen’s gaze. He was smiling again, a genuine smile this time. His lips were red and glistening. He coughed once, spattering blood onto Alex’s chin and chest, then spoke.
     “Thank you.”
     With that, his eyes closed and he collapsed forwards, unconsciously embracing Alex. She panicked and pushed him back hard, again finding a strength she hadn’t known she had until now, and Owen’s body fell backwards and fell to the floor heavily, his head hitting the tiles with a horrible cracking sound. He lay there, a pool of blood growing around his body, another from the back of his head. He didn’t move.
     Alex stood there for the longest time, the knife still in her hand, watching his body carefully for any signs of life. There were none. Eventually, she started to become aware of other things. Like the pain in her back. Like the cold tiles under her bare feet.
     Like the distant noise of sirens.
     About fucking time, she thought tiredly. She knew she should get dressed before the police showed up, so she could at least have a little dignity, but for the moment she was content to just stand there and breathe, something she’d never have expected to appreciate so much. She resolved to change her life, to get a proper job, shit-paying legitimate employment, though in her heart she knew she probably wouldn’t. She’d made the same resolution dozens of times before, whenever the whole thing seemed to get too crazy, but she’d never stuck to it. Sure, this time was much crazier than before, but she was resilient, and in a few days or maybe even weeks she’d probably have put it behind her, like she’d put so many other things behind her, in her shadow, out of sight, out of mind. But for the moment she could indulge in her fantasies of a second chance, a new Alex, someone who could admit what she did for a living at parties.
     Hell, she thought, not feeling the carving of the jungle cat pressing against her palm any more, maybe I should become a writer myself.
     After all, this would make one hell of a book.

Since 1991, Perth writer Martin Livings has inexplicably had twenty-odd (and some very odd) stories accepted for publication, appearing in two Eidolons, an Aurealis, three Mitch? collections, one (now two) Ticonderoga Onlines, three Antipodean SFs, an AustrAlien Absurdities, two Borderlands convention books, two Fables and Reflections and a couple of Agogs. He's now working on his first novel.More information can be found at his web site:
He owns the knife in this story. Want to see it?

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Conflux: 43rd Australian National Convention