The shop was on the corner of Globe and Whitehall Road, and if he hadn’t been in such a rush, Kai might have wondered about that shop. It was the kind of micro-general store you saw all the time in LS6 and the east side – little metal pillboxes built into walls and street corners, with racks of off-brand goods and star-shaped cardboard signs tacked to the front desk and charity-tins in foreign languages and mysterious gaps in inventory. It was a shop that belonged on council estates and Hyde Park terraces, not on a prime riverfront site.
But tonight Kai wasn’t in a discriminating mood. Business Affairs had overrun by fifty minutes, the wine club had just sent a notification to the effect that they couldn’t deliver before tomorrow am, and Lynden would be over in moments. He needed top quality booze, and fast.The counterman took a bottle from a cardboard crate and handed it to Kai. ‘I’d recommend this. Just over from the Disputed Lands. Twenty pound to you.’
Kai held the bottle to what light there was. He didn’t care for the feel of it: the glass had an almost imperceptible give to it, made it feel more like something organic than a receptacle for holding water. ‘You’re joking. It looks like tap water, when you first run the faucet.’
‘That’s not cloud. That’s bubbles. An interesting chemical effect, sir, caused by a secret glass-blowing technique. Refined from the desert sands of Yi.’
The counterman had olive-yellow skin, and an accent Kai couldn’t place, even though he travelled widely around the Middle East, and his father had been from the Lebanon. He could see what the counterman meant nevertheless: the cloudy liquid drew him somehow, full of mote and detail, like he was gazing into a snowglobe – a very busy snowglobe that encompassed cities and valleys and thousands of tiny lives. His business instincts took over. ‘I’ll take it off your hands for a tenner.’
When Kai had left, the counterman pulled another bottle from the cardboard box. He checked the consumer information etched into the glass. The counterman cursed under his breath, and pressed something under the counter. No one saw the Globe and Whitehall corner shop again.
Kai lived in a Canal Basin development flat. He had a balcony and parquet flooring and a beautiful view over the Aire and the other prime developments that overlooked it. The mortgage was a bitch, though – the Porter Milnes didn’t mess around – and his Armley rents weren’t bringing in as much as he’d expected. One scratter family had trashed a Tong Road property and then abandoned it, costing him twelve grand in refurb costs.
And so Kai had to bring in a housemate. The housemate was a new account manager, just started at the firm, a beautiful heavyset woman with a combative feminist attitude and the prissy upper class voice Kai always went for. Lynden very much had her own life and so far hadn’t consented to sleep with him, but Kai thought she would soon. Maybe this very night.
He’d had to catch a quick shower in the executive bathroom and wouldn’t have time to go through his extensive sundown grooming rituals, but Kai felt refreshed when he entered the apartment. Lynden would walk in any second. He put on Jurassic 5’s ‘Thin Line’ and changed his jeans. He left the work shirt and jacket, believing it would give a fine rumpled look. Time for a drink. He unwrapped the bottle (the counterman had swaddled it in fine brown paper, true cornershop style) and held it to the sunset kaleidoscoping over the river through his mezzanine windows. Orange and reds of dying daytime did strange things to the bottle, which was clear and bore one word: LEODIS.
Kai tried to read the product information, but the tiny font seemed to wriggle into obscurity before his eyes. He must be more tired than he thought. He poured a shot and drank. Something happened to Kai Winters at this moment. A sensation he associated with strong MDMA or hallucinogenics – the feeling of heady dissolution as you climbed the peak, like your essence was burning out the physical body. Only this didn’t plateau off into a manageable high, and the visuals were something else: Kai saw his legs become translucent, he saw blood and muscle and bone, and he wanted to scream because although Kai loved his body (spent years of gym time making it ripped and buffed, paid forensic attention to its clothes and skin) he didn’t like to think that he was basically made of matter, and now even the cells and tissues of himself were dissolving, and although he could still scream he could feel his organs and nerves breaking down, because he was turning into fluid.
Kai could feel himself soaking into the chair padding. He found he could still move to an extent, although it was like trying to walk after eating a jar of magic mushrooms. With great care he poured himself onto the floor and remained there until Lynden got back, making squelching noises as he moved himself from side to side, paranoid that he might soak through
Lynden’s bootheels clocked across the floor. ‘Who put this terrible music on? Kai? Are you home?’
Lynden! he yelled. Down here!
‘Kai! What’s going on! Have you spilled something?’
Although he no longer had a mouth, tongue or larynx, Kai found he could still make himself heard. His voice echoed around the high ceilings. Lynden gazed down at him, a washcloth in one hand. She muttered a complaint under her breath, and called his name again.
Lynden! I’m the water! I drank something and it turned me into water! You need to put me in a glass!
His housemate’s look of exasperation gave way to curiosity. ‘Jesus, Kai. Is that you down there?’
Damn right! I don’t know how it happened, but you need to put me in a glass!
‘Okay, give me a second.’ She took a drink glass from the rack and scooped Kai into it. The motion made him anxious, like something of his essential self was being badly manhandled and might break. Lynden placed him on the coffee table, placing a coaster underneath the glass. Once in the container he began to feel a little more secure. He explained what had happened: the corner shop had obviously poisoned him with something, and he was going to sue them into the ground. He asked Lynden to go into his laptop, and dictated an email to his solicitor. Kai figured he’d sue the manufacturer as well – go for the deepest pockets, as they say. Soon he’d be able to own Canal Basin outright. And then Lynden would not be able to resist him.
When morning came, Lynden transferred him into a water bottle, the sturdy resuable kind that Kai used when he was hillwalking.
‘That’s a hell of a thing,’ said the managing director. ‘All this from a dodgy bottle of wine, you say?’
Yes, Kai said. It’s in the hands of my solicitors. It’s a temporary blip.
‘Well, I’ve got your back. You’ve done good work here and we can make reasonable adjustments. There’s voice-recognition software on your PC and your phone, and as for meeting clients off-site, well, one of us can carry you into town. Still, what a nightmare, eh? Reminds me of this story I read in college, it was about a guy who changes into a big beetle?’
‘Franz Kafka, ‘Metamorphosis’,’ said Lynden. ‘That’s a very famous work.’
This isn’t creepy like that, though, Kai said. It’s not disgusting. It’s just really weird.
‘I heard that the human body is sixty per cent water anyway,’ said the managing director.
Life without a physical body was always going to be a learning curve, but Kai got used to it as best he could. He could still see, and hear, although he saw everything in a baroque underwater aspect, and he heard everything like sonar in a network of underground caves. It became difficult to concentrate because he kept seeing the rushing blood and fluid beneath everybody’s skin, and he couldn’t help hearing the river as it pounded through valleys and sewers and plumbing. At night, because he no longer slept, he sat pooled in a pint glass and listened to the eternal pounding music of the river… and, beyond it, the ocean.
His solicitor told him that he hadn’t been able to locate either the company that made the Leodis drink or the shop that carried it. ‘That corner shop you went to, it never existed. The site is a disused garage. My guy at the council said no one’s rented that ground in years. I’ve been down there myself.’
Not possible! Kai thrashed against the sides of his desk glass. Get your P.I. onto it! Find them!
‘Yeah, sure, I will, but… you may want to consider other options.’
Other options? What other options are there? It’s been a month, I want my body back!
‘I hear you, I hear you.’ The lawyer’s voice crackled on speakerphone. ‘But look, you need a backup plan. There are ways to get another body.’
Another body? Fuck are you talking about?
‘Well…’ His voice dropped. ‘We should really be having this conversation in person, but there are options, like I said. People who’ve died in prison, homeless people who get drunk and freeze overnight, people in pauper graves, potter’s fields, suicides – funeral costs are sky high these days, you’d be amazed at the kind of shit that counts as a standard coffin. I mean, your essence is still there, you’re still you, it’s just a question of getting you into another vassal. I know a witch up in Swaledale, she knows about necromancy, voodoo magic. It’s quite interesting, on her tax returns, you’ll never believe –‘
I’m not paying you to put me in some dipshit convict’s body, Kai yelled, knowing people were looking at him, not caring. I’m paying you to get my body back!
‘I get that, I get that, it’s just interesting. The human body is sixty per cent water, did you know that?’
That day there was a business affairs meeting and Kai couldn’t find his water bottle. ‘What’s it matter?’ said Oran. ‘Just sit in a mug, man.’
It matters because mugs contain enamel particulates and contaminants! I need a specially filtered bottle, not a plastic one, and furthermore –
The others were already gathering in the conference room. ‘Oran, Kai, are you coming?’ the managing director called.
‘Coming,’ said Oran. He poured Kai into a plain white mug and carried him into the conference room. Kai swooshed himself from side to side and shouted obscenities.
‘Careful, Kai, don’t spill yourself,’ said Lynden. She drew a smiley face on the mug in order to orient him.
‘I can’t imagine what this guy’s like to live with,’ said Oran. ‘How do you stand it, Lynden?’
‘It’s a living nightmare,’ Lynden said. ‘You’d think living with a glass of water would be less hassle. I almost preferred it when he had a body and was trying to fuck me with it the whole time.’
Kai saw that she had brushed her hand against Lynden’s leg under the conference table, could see the electricity between them, and he yelled: Oh, so you think I’m not a man, just because I have a disability? I can still penetrate you, you know! I can pour myself up your leg and fuck –
‘Okay, I think that’s enough ‘bantz’ for one meeting,’ said the managing director. ‘Oran, can you bring us up to speed on the Goban contract? I believe you spent a weekend in the Prince’s marine hotel there?’
‘Water way to have a good time,’ Oran said, and the conference room echoed with laughter.
Time went on. He became less fussy about glasses and bottles. He’d had a fear that any dirt, any residue could alter his essential self, degrade it in some way. But as the weeks and months rolled by, the point of staying clear and true mattered less and less to him. He began to lose concentration at work, and listen more and more to the rush and the conversation and the dreams of the river.
The body is sixty per cent water.
You’re still you.
It was spring and the light began to dapple the water in the cobblestones when he told Lynden what he wanted. She seemed to get it. She said she could take care of the flat. She said she’d miss him.
Lynden took him outside in a glass and poured Kai into a runnel of water alongside the Candle Bar. He flowed downhill: Yorkshire is made of hills. How could he ever have imagined that this was contaminant, that this meant impurity? He felt more alive and real than he’d ever felt as a solid form. Kai rushed downward, embracing every atom and shard of the gutter, meeting other streams as they raced towards the fast-flowing river and the seas beyond it, his voice shouting in exuberation as it was swallowed up by a million other voices and by the song of the river.