Advent Stories #5

THE DIMINISHED

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There was something purple in the corner of his eye.

Ethan tried to blink it away but when it started to move he realised it was beyond his window, the glass of which was becoming spoilt by rain. He watched her leave the church and pull the collars of her coat round her ears before following the gravel path to the gate where she paused to look into a bag. Away she moved again, and this distorted glass, the swollen, dark shape of her made Ethan think of slow suns at dusk. The distortion seemed something more though, specifically belonging to her in the cruel warp of her features. In that instant he knew he must follow her.

He switched off his computer (the dying sigh of its fan bothering him as always) and snatched his greatcoat from the hook upon his study door. Outside he saw that the rain was not as bad as he’d anticipated. His face was wetted, but only by errant spits. Puddles and dripping trees showed him he’d missed the worst of the weather.

He glimpsed a meniscus of purple as she dipped out of sight down stone steps which led to the high street; he must hurry or she’d lose him in the throng – it was market day in the town and not satisfied with its rank of retail shops, out came the stalls and legged suitcases. The scrum for fresh cabbages, cigarette lighters and all things Minecraft did not last long but it would surely be at its most hectic now as lunchtime shoppers drifted into the streets. He followed at a discreet distance, fingering a display of fruits or eyeing a new range of wristwatch straps if she punctuated her journey. The seedy manner of his pursuit he pushed to the recesses of his mind; that she was something rich and rosy on such a discouraging day was reason enough to shadow her. It beat designing Boucher’s database into second place, that was for sure – but then, so would cleaning toilets with his tongue. When he thought about it, as he did now, ducking into the alleyway from which she was only just emerging at the other end, he was finding all manner of distractions to take him away from his VDU and its alien face of equations. He’d neglected to tell Boucher of his limitations when it came to programming. He’d scraped his Computer Studies GCSE at school thanks to reproducing a model written in Forth he’d cribbed from a late night Open University course on television. Boucher’s use for the database was modest; he only wanted a system that would add up statistics from records he was compiling for the local water board and present them in a tidy array of boxes. How hard could it be? Well, so far, about as hard as licking your own forehead. The only thing which kept him going was the promise of his three figure cheque on deadline day – if he met it, which was becoming ever more unlikely, especially as he now spent so much time watching re–runs of The Clangers and Paddington Bear or nipping out to buy bottles of Ribena to ensure he received his RDA of Vitamin C. Yesterday he’d spent ten minutes trying to trim his nostril hair with the kitchen scissors.

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He was burying himself so deeply in whys and wherefores that he strode past the cafe into which she’d stepped. He left it a moment, listening to the babble of vendors doing themselves a grievance by offering state–of–the–art water filters for a fiver, before strolling back to the entrance. Inside he was clouted by a wall of smoke. A cluster of students were leaning over an ashtray choked with butts, heads almost touching. Dishes of half–eaten lemon meringue pie congealed in front of them. Beneath the reek of nicotine he could just detect a smell of all day breakfasts and coffee. Music leapt from hidden speakers: warm crackling vinyl supported a tepid beat and guitars that sounded tight and spangly. It halted soon after, victim to a scratch which brought half–hearted boos from the students. Ethan sat by the door and looked into the fog, trying to spot the girl. She was sitting by herself at a table by the sweet trolley, purple coat curled over the back of her chair. He chanced glances at her when her attention was diverted by somebody entering or leaving, or by the pulse of noise from the large table. She pushed reddish hair from her brow and nodded to the waiter who presented her with a jug of water. From her bag she pulled a strip of paper and studied it, her fingers moving against the skin of her wrists, her neck and temples. She looked fragile and lovely in the light, which only just managed to penetrate this far from the street. He watched her through the slowly shifting bank of blue smoke till his order arrived. She seemed insubstantial, as though the cafe and all it contained were of a vitality alien to her, almost appearing of the smoke rather than beyond it.

He sipped hot, weak coffee till his lips grew sore. The students were talking about a demonstration in London they would support if only they could afford the fare. Another round of Marlboros, more cappuccinos. They resembled bedraggled crows – huddled, black, nested down for the afternoon. One of them, a young woman with dreads and a leather waistcoat, shared Ethan’s interest in the girl, turning round to look at her when the conversation broke for laughter. Something in the precious way she guarded her gloved hand with its naked counterpart told him the limb was false, and recently acquired. He wondered why that should bother him.

The girl with the purple coat finished her studying and bagged the paper. When she raised a sputtering match to her own cigarette he saw that her eyes were different colours: one green, one brown and that with a stubbornly dilated pupil. The light cast unusual patterns on to her skin and it was only later, when he lost her in the glut of people tip–toeing around severed heads littering the floor by the fish market, that he realised the patterns were caused not by the flame, but by the web of scar tissue that portioned her face.

*

That night as he bathed, he became acutely aware of his body and found himself grateful for its petty imperfections. The way his penis curved slightly to the left when hard; the naevus that stained the skin of his right armpit; the soft wart on his scalp. All were slight when compared with the disfigurement she sported. That she did so openly was laudable but he didn’t know whether grim acceptance or defiance was her spur. He guessed the latter; there was a steel in her posture which belied her scant frame.

Head immersed, he listened to the call of his heart and concentrated till he was rewarded with a sense of himself as something other than a brain with chunks of meat attached. He followed the rush of blood and the peculiar rhythm of his organs till his chest ached and his extremities tingled. This heightened self perception froze him seconds later when he told himself something he’d thought about many times but which carried little punch when touched upon, as was usually the case.

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I’m going to die one day, he thought. There’ll come a time when all this will stop and I’ll cease to be. He surfaced and the lurch in his chest, the roar of water in his ears made him think for a moment that he’d splintered into a million pieces.

*

He slept shallowly and rose with the birds, pulling the curtains open on a morning the colour of the girl’s coat. He gazed at the church for a while, willing her to appear but there was nothing to suggest life inside the building yet.

He switched on the computer but when he saw the soup of letters and numbers as he’d left them he killed the power and padded downstairs where he drank orange juice and listened to next door’s radio through the walls and the yapping of some dog in the park. An hour or so later, as he returned from the shop with milk for his breakfast, the church bells pealed. Ethan watched his neighbours dance to its tune, sucked into the blackness of the church doorway as smoothly as water to a drain. More people than he thought possible entered the building and a little while after its doors were shut he heard the organ spring to life. As if on cue, she stepped from behind a wall and came towards him from the top end of the cemetery, stopping half way to lean against a gravestone, her head cocked, listening to the music. What he’d guessed was sassiness in her stance now occurred to him as something unnatural: her legs seemed stiff; the arch of her spine was too pronounced and her head seemed too small for her body. Ethan blinked and pushed this growing attention to anatomy away, aware that it was beginning to rub off on him as an irrational need to preserve his own completeness. Hadn’t he just walked back from the shop facing oncoming traffic so he could anticipate and possibly dodge any cars skidding on to the pavement? And having looked right and left then right again, hadn’t he sneaked a look skyward? He remembered the footage of the Lockerbie and Amsterdam air disasters. Just because the chances of a jet falling from the sky on to a town were minuscule didn’t mean they couldn’t happen. Caution was a small price to pay in order to keep your flesh whole, to remain normal. He realised how self–important his definition of that word must seem: everybody was ‘normal’ in their own eyes but it was important to the majority of society that most people be more normal than others, despite the fact that such a desire for homogeneity spawned the bigoted and blinkered.

Daydreaming, he almost lost her again. This time she moved away from the high street, walking a path that led to the dingier parts of the town where the canal made a border between terraces and semi–detached life. She walked with purpose though her gait was leisurely or so Ethan thought as she turned into minor roads without hesitation. The cantilever bridge was a series of black strokes against the sky: it looked worthy of its stance as the town’s favourite suicide haunt. At the gates to Ethan’s old school, she stopped to watch the cranes and the JCBs tear at classrooms where once he’d sat, dreaming of such a demolition. Now, the sight saddened him, if only because it meant a part of his past, a part that contributed to his reality, was being taken away from him. Even in recognising an opportunity to talk to her, he felt some of his self being erased.

‘I don’t remember you,’ he said. ‘What year did you leave?’

Though he hadn’t meant to startle her, he was disappointed that she didn’t jump. ‘I wasn’t a pupil,’ she said, without looking up.

Of course, she meant she wasn’t a pupil here. Ethan leaned against the gate and introduced himself. Her scars revealed themselves as the ghosts of stitches that knitted her face together with thick bands of white. The one eye he could see from here was black and lifeless as a shark’s. The skin that curved away beneath her collar seemed a different colour and complexion. What had she suffered, for God’s sake? He wanted to ask if she’d had skin grafts; if her mutilation was by design or accident. She must have sensed his scrutiny.

‘I’m Emma. Stare if you must but your eyes will get tired.’

‘Sorry,’ he managed, turning his attention back to the crumbling school. ‘Can I buy you a drink?’

‘No. I don’t drink.’ Her voice was measured and low, the words spoken so carefully Ethan was led to think she’d once had a stammer. Or perhaps it was her facial injuries which caused her lips to squirm in so guarded a fashion.

‘Well come and sit with me while I have one.’ He smiled and she looked at him fully. He was pleased that his smile didn’t falter, even though she looked so intimidating with that grotesque glare of hers. She seemed to consider him for a while, till a smile warped her face even further. It was a disconcerting effort, as it couldn’t reach her eyes, halted as it was by the barrier scars lining her cheeks.

‘I’m busy.’

He sighed. The broken clock above the main hall (which had read 3:17 since he first noticed it, fourteen years ago) came down in a plume of red brick–dust. A heap of rotten timber and steel girders concealed the spot where he’d once kissed Caroline Hulce in the third year.

‘This is bothering you?’ she asked.

‘Of course. I was a senior prefect at that school.’ He laughed. ‘All those marvellous teachers. Mr Meikle. Mrs Dunabin. All gone. God, can you smell that? Is it chalk dust?’

She shrugged. ‘What’s wrong with a little surgery now and then? All they’re doing is cutting away something that doesn’t work anymore, something rotten. To make way for something pure and new.’

‘What? You call a housing estate pure?’

‘Why not? It’s giving something to the community. What’s that school given, apart from poor marks and vandalism?’

He felt compelled to defend his past but he could see she was right. The school had suffered from dwindling attendances and a terrible sequence of exam results over the years. It had been doomed for a long time.

‘It’s true isn’t it, that it’s better to give than to receive?’ She walked away. ‘I might see you again.’

‘Why do you visit the church so much?’ The question blurted from his lips before he had time to check himself. He felt he was prying but she treated him to another non–smile.

‘My parents are buried there.’

*

He walked home, noticing how bare the trees looked. Not only had they been stripped of their leaves but the bark was weak and crumbly, hanging like scabs from trunks which didn’t seem strong enough to bear their branches. The faces he saw in dimming windows or passing him in the street were ravaged and grey. Everybody seemed to have a defect or a limit: a stiffness in gait, a stoop. Spectacles, hearing aids and inhalers. He felt cancers trying to gain purchase on his delicate innards. By the time he reached his doorstep, he was inflated with panic, certain he could feel the cells of his brain collapsing at a rate of one hundred thousand deaths per second.

*

Monday crept over him like a stale, unwelcome lover. A shower and breakfast did nothing to refresh him; the thought of his body as a shell full of dead tissue made him feel ill and scared. The polio which lurked in every human bowel, the inability for cells in brain and heart to rejuvenate themselves distressed him as he knotted his tie and listened to the DJ talk first of multiple pile–ups on the M62 and then his love of Farley’s Rusks. The heel of Ethan’s hand rested on his chest as he smoothed the tie against him. He felt his heart’s tap: between each beat he was certain it had stopped. A leathery muscle trapped in his ribs, becoming more worn every day.

‘Jesus,’ he hissed, and went to catch the bus.

He sat in the office, drinking tea and watching the shiver of shirts and blouses as his colleagues typed and faxed and photocopied. The thought of all those fatty, squishing valves sickened him; he had to spend a while in the toilets till he calmed. But even as he rinsed his mouth and looked at his face in the mirror – bleached by an unflattering splash of light – an insistent voice urged that bodies were flukes of nature, not perfections of it. That the designs were haphazard and mutated, not convenient or practical. He was struck by how fragile this configuration of flesh and bone and offal really was. Suddenly, even his saliva tasted unfamiliar and offensive. Vomiting only compounded his misery.

His boss, Melanie, took one look at him when he returned to the office and sent him home before he’d had a chance to ask for the rest of the day off. He dithered outside the cemetery, looking up at the stained glass windows of the church, then entered the grounds, sure that he’d not bump into Emma today. Presumably she had a job of her own. He found it strangely comforting here in the clipped, unobtrusive graveyard – there were bunches of flowers leaning against some of the more recent marble tombstones; messages too, which he stopped himself from reading. Ethan tried to imagine which of the plots contained Emma’s parents but without her surname he’d never know. It hit him then, for some unfathomable reason, that she’d lied to him. He didn’t know why he should be so positive about this but he felt it had something to do with the lacklustre mention of her parents. Surely someone who visited the grave of loved ones so often would speak of the dead in a more sombre way? Was she really so comfortable – to the point of being blasé – about the circumstances in which she found herself? And when he cast his mind back he couldn’t remember seeing her there before despite his renting the flat for a good fourteen months. Then her mother and father had died recently? No, it didn’t ring true. But why should he care a damn? He entered his hallway split between thinking she was just giving him an answer to shut him up and suspecting she was more interested in him than she let on. The thought that she was dogging him chilled him as effectively as these recent wintry mornings.

He spent the rest of the day with comfort foods: Cadbury’s Caramel and Strawberry Nesquik, and tried to make sense of the mess which was Boucher’s database. A little before six, as the sky lost its colour and was smothered by night, he packed a canvas bag with clothes and strolled to the launderette, his head aching with the twin assault of numbers and eye strain.

His luck was in: only one other person was using the machines, tucked away into the corner like a pile of old clothes. Ethan fed the washer nearest the window and poured in a measure of detergent before ramming a couple of coins into slots eaten by rust. Parking himself in an orange plastic seat relatively free of cigarette burns or splits, he took out a paperback and tried to lose himself in its words.

The pile of old clothes shifted. Ethan swivelled his eyes so he could watch the man over the corner of his page. The man’s eyes were egg–large, too big for the face in which they nestled. They were fixed on a section of linoleum, but from his expression it was obvious he was seeing something else. His hands raised to his face and Ethan’s heart clattered – he was sure the man was going to sink his fingers into the skin of his temples and pull away the face, but they only settled lightly and rubbed. Flakes from his scalp drifted to the floor. His hair moved, clearly a wig, and Ethan tried to satisfy himself that the squirming he saw beneath was of the light’s making. It wasn’t, and now he was finding it hard to swallow. It was as though the man’s skull was so thin beneath the etiolated skin of his head that Ethan could see the brain, grey and swollen, fluttering slightly as a fresh supply of blood and oxygen sped through it. Then the man was still once more, his attention drawn to the journey of his clothes through the dryer’s window. Ethan looked at the man’s wrists for a long time, trying to work out why one was covered in thick hair and the other was bald.

Thankfully, footsteps outside provided him with a release. He watched as the girl he’d seen in the cafe walked by, wearing the same leather waistcoat and a large velvet cap from which her dreadlocks hung like tails. Ethan stuffed his paperback into a pocket and stepped into the street; maybe she could tell him more about Emma, if indeed she knew anything of her at all.

The school was little more than a series of black blocks; the cranes towered above like dinosaur skeletons. The smell of the canal stained the air round here, he could almost see its green vapours rising from the bushy dip into which the girl now tramped, the road narrowing, interrupted by sleeping policemen. A mist so thin Ethan thought he was imagining it moved sluggishly off the water beneath the bridge. Perhaps unseen figures walking the towpath were causing the edges of the mist to curl and shiver away from dry land. The water behind him, he plunged into darkness, wondering when the road had been subsumed by this cobblestone thoroughfare. Up ahead he could hear an acoustic guitar perform some brisk melody which was over almost before it had begun. Candlelight surprised him as he broke through a layer of trees bordering a field. The dim squares of terraced houses at the opposite end contained flashes of TV light. The burnt–sweet smell of barbecued meat swept down with a hot cloud of smoke and ashes from beyond the first of the caravans and now he heard voices; something about their rhythm, though he couldn’t detect specific speech, was wrong. He remembered the deliberate way in which Emma had spoken and felt the temperature drop.

He couldn’t progress too far past the bank of trees for fear of being noticed but from where he was standing, he was privy only to the dance of waxy flames and, now and again, the foot of someone stretching out on the floor. The girl with the waistcoat had stepped into the circle of light and was sitting cross–legged in the grass. The black glove on her hand trapped the light and made it seem molten. An arm snaked out from the caravan’s edge, palm upwards. Into it, the girl placed her hand. The glove was peeled away and Ethan saw not a synthetic replacement, as he had forecast, but a proper limb. It was pale though, and withered. The hidden party inspected the flesh with probing fingers, lingering at a black band at the wrist which Ethan had thought was a bracelet but which he now saw was a course of stitches. The girl with the waistcoat smiled. The hands made a gesture Ethan didn’t understand but it prompted the girl to stand and shrug off her clothes. He found his fingers pressing themselves into his mouth to stop him from gagging. One of her breasts was deflated, trapping shadow in a series of deep wrinkles around the nipple. The other was pink and firm. The sweep of her stomach was scored with scars and he could see that one of her arms was shorter than its mate. A tattoo in gold of a moth stretched across her left buttock but was interrupted by more scars and a sweep of virgin flesh. Again the hands reached out from behind the caravan and touched the slack breast. Its owner nodded. And again. And then said what sounded to Ethan like: ‘I can make do. Till something better turns up.’

As she turned her body to give her arm easier access to its sleeve, the candlelight made her translucent. He saw her entrails resting in the broth of her belly; the shivering bird of her heart in its bone cage. The arms behind the caravan grew a body: Emma moved to help the girl dress. She was bald, which delayed Ethan’s recognition of her; her head was blue with veins. Here and there they had broken, becoming craters of bright red. At the nape of her neck a series of rivets were punched through the skin, which looked shrivelled and ill–fitting. Clusters of black stitching beneath the ears glistened; Emma wadded a tissue into the crudely sutured wound to dam any further seepage.

Ethan closed his eyes and tried to regulate his breathing. He strove for some kind of explanation but his mind was barren, blown empty by shock. Had he stumbled across some kind of cult who found an aesthetic in the brutalising of their own bodies? Or were they sick, forced to create a ghetto in which their suffering could take place without fear of outsiders snooping?

A thick voice carried to him: ‘They’re ready.’

He watched Emma lead the girl, and a man on crutches, to the edge of the field where a gate opened out on a dirt track. Ethan might have left then and returned to his chewing gum whites in the warmth of the launderette but for the flux of shadow creeping through the trees behind him. He heard footsteps slumping and a strange sound, like the rasp of nails on an emery board: the man in the launderette? Ethan imagined him trekking all this way just to give him the clothes he’d left behind but it wasn’t a thought that amused him. He took off across the field, pausing at the gate to look back at the lifeless caravans glow in the halo of hot coals and candle flame. When the gloom beneath the trees began to adopt a shape, he hurried along the path, clenching himself against the threat of his quarry lunging from the banks of trees on either side. He couldn’t see them ahead. He slowed to walking pace and tried to hear their progress above the hassle in his chest. A square of orange flashed into life away to his left, hanging in the midst of trees like a new sun. He made for the window, recognising the shape of the house as he neared, looming from the sky’s camouflage like subtle detail in a painting. They’d left the front door open, presumably for those who had encouraged Ethan’s flight earlier. How could he spy on their business if others were due? Boots scuffing in the dirt confirmed his suspicions. He crept on to the veranda and peered into the hallway which was lit by gas lamps on the wall. Lengths of wire peeled back to expose their copper core were scattered like strange hair in a corner. Before the second party could spot him he slipped inside, already berating himself for his foolishness but filled with a confidence that, should he be undone, Emma would step in to defend him. Buoyed slightly with this optimism, he moved towards the murmur at the end of the hall. He was in luck. Rising above the kitchen, which spat shadows from its doorway, a staircase travelled. Just before the landing he ought to have a view of part of that room without new visitors stumbling across him.

Through the balustrade he watched the man lean his crutches against a chair before his trousers were taken from him. Ethan waited for the bodies that lifted him on to the dining table to move so he could see the man’s left leg was missing. Emma moved into view. She held a knife against the puckered stump and cut into the flesh till it was sheened with blood. The man’s face remained static though Ethan hadn’t seen anybody numb him with a needle or gas. Concentrating to keep himself from vocalising his distaste, he watched Emma make a gesture. Somebody tossed her a polythene bag. Out of it she pulled a leg mottled with blue patches; its thick end ragged, containing a nub of bone which Emma shaped with a chisel before marrying it to the man’s thigh.

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‘You ought to lose a little weight to improve the join,’ she said, and held the limb fast while the girl shot a few staples from a gun into the meat. Emma watched her stitch him up. When the job was complete she opened a cupboard and unwound about three feet of wiring, each length of which was tipped with a gold needle. These she slid into the leg, on both sides of the join. Ethan found his capacity for shock had deserted him, even as she threw a switch and the air was filled with the smell of charring. The man’s thigh darkened, bubbling at the seams. When his new toes began to twitch, Emma clapped her hands together.

Movement at the front door. Half a dozen figures slouched and staggered across its threshold but instead of moving to the kitchen they lingered in the hallway.

‘You know I said my parents were buried in that churchyard?’ Jesus, was she speaking to him? ‘Well, I was telling the truth. All my mothers and fathers are there.’ She wiped her hands off against a bloody apron hanging from a hook on the shelf. Now she looked directly at him and he felt the blood fall from his face so quickly that his cheeks smarted. For a while things looked grainy; he might have struggled against the hands that helped him downstairs if his muscles hadn’t betrayed him and turned to mush.

‘Leave me alone,’ he breathed. The sharp reek of Dettol slapped him out of his stupor. ‘Don’t you cut me.’

Emma raised her eyebrows as best her skin would allow. ‘Take heed of what I said to you Ethan. Better to give.’

Bodies hustled him to the kitchen. He was lowered on to the table, which gave slightly. His fear-fogged brain realised it was not due to any weakness in the wood rather than the syrupy movement of blood which sheened its surface. The mealy smell of a butcher’s shop rose around him: he couldn’t tell if it was from the spare limbs that were stacked like bleached firewood against the wall or the breath of these harlequin bodies crowding out the light as they struggled for a vantage point.

The pain was fresh and bright and endless but soon, it reached such a zenith that the only sensations that could ensue were gradations of dullness. Some time before morning, as a rind of light peeled away from the treetops, Emma snatched his eyes.

*

He walked back to the school, trying to gather a sense of himself from the torment in his head. Just now, he’d had the urge to piss but couldn’t remember how. Unzipping himself because the pain was so great there, he’d discovered a smooth, shiny portion of skin tattooed with tiny words: Catheter till Wed pm (fresh attachment). Further explorations had revealed the absence of his left nipple and loose skin, as of an elbow missing a bone, where his shoulder had once been uniform muscle. His entire was lined with stitches as though he’d been wrapped in webbing. From groin to throat, thick rope sutures prevented him spilling to the floor. He was so far removed from experience that he couldn’t even begin to acknowledge what pain or colour or smell was. It wasn’t the complex web of catgut that appalled him. Black, bloated thoughts swelled in his head, memories he couldn’t lay claim to: all of his real scars lay inside.

 

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