Advent Stories #10

A DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES

As Muntin walked by the abandoned shop, its door opened. Nobody came out. He walked this road, Lyndon Lane, every day yet had only cursorily been aware of the building into which the door was set. Now he studied it afresh. The awning was a plastic affair, painted to look like canvas. It was sun-bleached and pocked with scars though a name, Boughey’s, was just legible; there was nothing else to suggest what goods the shop had once sold, or what services it might have provided. Boards of wood concealed the windows.

door

The oblong of black between the shutting stile and the architrave had a depthless quality; Muntin felt that if he went to check, the gap would be an illusion: paint on chipboard, like the false tunnels Bugs Bunny drew for Elmer Fudd in the cartoons. His stride didn’t falter and, whether it was because of his lack of imagination or the fact that he was ten minutes late, he hurried on, joining the stream of suits and overalls as they filed into the factory.

Muntin worked through lunch, overseeing the delivery of a new batch of kitchen unit separates to the warehouse and processing the subsequent paperwork. His desk was tidy to the point of being antiseptic. Indeed, a bottle of Dettox sat with other cleaning supplies in a cardboard box by his chair in case of spillages. His IN tray was used more to fresh air than paper; the OUT tray looked as though it contained a couple of Tom Clancy manuscripts.

As always, twenty minutes before clocking off, Muntin called his wife, Caroline — who worked at the town’s plastic recycling plant — to arrange their evening meeting at a pub nearby.

‘Can we make it half an hour later tonight, Car? We’ve got a late delivery from Bootle. The cabbie just rang to say he’s had a flat on the M62.’

‘Fine,’ Caroline said. ‘It’ll give me time to buy something for dinner. I forgot to take the chops out of the freezer.’

Muntin put the phone down and straightened his tie. He had never lied to his wife before — of course there had been the occasional pale deception, usually connected to something mundane: driving while slightly over the limit; buying groceries at Iceland instead of Waitrose so he could put a fiver on Autaler in the 3.20 at Haydock Park — and now this felt as though he were cheating on her. The compulsion to request an extra thirty minutes had seemingly come from nowhere, but at the moment of uttering he had, in a manner of speaking, been shown the door. It swung in his mind, creaking on its gritty hinges, dragging on the glass teeth that were scattered across the floor. Was his life really so dull that he craved an escape across the threshold of some decaying shop?

He snorted contemptuously, an act that brought a raised eyebrow from Tesla as she fed letters through a franking machine. Muntin scampered around the office and the adjoining warehouse, shooing people out. He locked up early and sank a steel-giving Absolut at The Minotaur. Back on the street at five minutes shy of the hour, he headed straight for Lyndon Lane.

The door was firmly closed.

Perhaps a policeman had secured it, to prevent children from entering and causing themselves injury. Perhaps children had found the door ajar and were now inside, playing among the ruins. Perhaps a gust had shut it.

However, once he came abreast of the door, and twelve feet away, it opened, with its wood-split shriek. Again, it jarred to a standstill after unhinging a few inches. The dark it created was a giant staple — its tines bent inward — fastening him to the moment. Muntin ached to see what lay beyond.

He checked the street, north and south, but apart from the cars that topped the thoroughfare, snarling in the rush hour traffic, there was nobody around. In five strides, before he could muster any of a million reasons why he should not finish the job that the door had begun, his hand was on the panelling of the door and had forced it into the shop.

A breath of mummified vegetation whispered over him, followed by the sour creep of piss as he swung the door back into place. The darkness was not so great that he couldn’t see details. Emerging from the grey he could pick out the floor, a miasma of fallen plaster, desiccated excrement and tiny pebbles of reinforced glass. A large rent gaped at him: the ground fell away with a sickening sheerness here. On the wall, a calendar from 1982 showed a semi-clad Patrick Nagel female, her face a riot of cherry and black. An ancient wrist-buster till sat on the counter, its empty tongue out as if to deride would-be thieves.

A greased rat with a dribbling tumour behind one ear listed across the linoleum as though the shop were a ship labouring at sea.

Still, despite the inevitable rot, the shop pulled at something within him. For a brief, sickening moment, Muntin feared that this was no mirage, that the only common ground he shared with this place was its deadness. But he banished the notion. Maybe the shop was calling for him to pack in his job and strike out in a fresh direction.

The seed germinated and bloomed. A second door, no doubt leading up to living quarters, beckoned, but so did the fracture in the floor. And ditto the second hand of his watch. Caroline’s patience was as flimsy as the plaster on the ceiling. He did not want to see any cracks appearing in it.

He made to reach out for the doorknob but tripped and fell heavily against it. Instead of breaking his fall, the door leapt away, tipping him into the street. Muntin recovered and brushed himself down. It felt as though, in skidding across the pavement, he had taken off a strip of skin from his back. Slow heat rippled up his body from heels to hackles. A glance at the shop (the door was firmly in place – had that scar in the ground shivered with a pale blue light as he stumbled out? Surely not…) and Muntin hobbled away, already padding out the lie he had given to his wife. She would be expecting details.

*

‘Ashley, you’re late. I had to buy my own drink. You should have seen the looks I got.’

‘Five minutes, Car. Only five minutes.’

‘A lot can happen in five minutes.’

‘And what is that supposed to mean?’

Caroline Muntin gave her husband an arched eyebrow moment, something she had learned from long hours of studying Ava Gardner. She liked to think she resembled Ava, right down to the sexy cleft chin. Muntin privately fancied she bore more of a likeness to Kirk Douglas. Circa now.

He bought himself a pint of bitter and they sat next to each other in silence, watching punters slowly drain their glasses and the young barman as he added smears of grime to the counter with a rag. He tried to remember how the door had opened. Surely he had pushed it to let him in. So how could it have swung outward when he left? It was a solid, old-fashioned door and it would have been hinged to prevent movement one way or the other. He wished now, with his head pounding, that his mind had been designed the same way.

‘What have you done to the back of your head, Ashley?’ Caroline asked, as he leaned forwards to select a peanut from the torn bag on the table.

He cupped the back of his head with his hand and winced when he felt how crisp his hair was, like a tangle of spiders’ legs. Some of it fell away into his palm. The skin beneath the hair was tender. His neck too was affected and now he could feel heat spill across his back muscles, his buttocks and calves.

‘I’ve no idea,’ he said. ‘Sunburn?’ He imagined his sudden nausea as a fat sac of sludge slowly splitting open in his gut. He pushed his pint away.

‘Don’t be so stupid. It’s October.’

‘But it feels like sunburn. The sun is more powerful than we think. I’ve heard of people putting on sun block as late as December.’

Her lips thinned as she gently prodded the raw area of his scalp. ‘In the Australian outback, maybe,’ she said.

‘Actually,’ he moaned, ‘I don’t feel too excellent.’

*

Later, in bed, an untouched bowl of onion soup balanced on his chest, he repeated the words.

‘Still?’ Caroline asked. ‘You look a bit better.’

‘I feel better. I do. But I wasn’t talking about the burn, or whatever it is.’

Once home, Caroline had shooed him into the bath and gently washed the affected areas of his body before applying antiseptic cream and cool dressings. She was all for calling out the doctor but Muntin had reassured her, blaming his condition on a reaction he might have had to the insect spray with which Tesla had doused his office. She had a pathological fear of creepy-crawlies, apparently. There. Another lie. Easy.

‘What are you talking about, then?’ asked Caroline, as she undressed.

Muntin tried to keep his eyes from the white shudder of her flesh as she unclasped and unbuttoned and unzipped. ‘I’m talking about my life. I want a fresh start. It hit me yesterday, as I was coming from the office.’

‘All a bit sudden, isn’t it, Ashley? Am I included in this spring clean?’ She said it with a little bit of tease in her voice, an Ava curl to her mouth.

‘God, no,’ his voice blurted, despite the desire of his lips to form something else. ‘I want… I want to open a shop. Strike out on my own. Opt in to this small business thing. Everyone’s doing it.’

During this outburst Caroline’s face warped from gentle humour to incredulousness to pallid indignation. ‘And where do you think we’re going to find the capital to fund this insanity?’

‘It’s not insanity. It’s what I want to do. I have never given in to a moment of spontaneity in my life. And if what I felt today is spontaneity knocking on my door, then I’m bloody well going to open that door and let it in!’

‘“Spontaneity is only a term for man’s ignorance of the gods”,’ Caroline said, loftily. ‘I read that in the Digest.’

‘Your point being?’ The onion soup was splashing on the duvet, discolouring the sunflowers that patterned it.

‘My point being that you can do what you like.’ Caroline had started putting her clothes back on. ‘But I don’t want to know. Once you’ve failed, you can call me at Dad’s and I’ll arrange a hospital appointment for you to get your tail extracted from between your legs.’

The spoon rattled in the bowl as Muntin forced himself upright. More soup slopped on to the mushroom carpet. ‘Thanks for your support,’ he snapped. Inside he was as placid as he had felt in years. Why hadn’t he done this sooner? ‘It’s thanks to people like you that our economy sucks up to everyone else’s.’

‘I’m grateful for the lesson, Chancellor of the Exchequer. That high school certificate in Woodwork will stand you in good stead, no doubt.’

With that she caromed out of the room and down the stairs. The slam of the door made the windows quake.

‘You’re all surface,’ he called out to her, quietly. ‘There’s no depth to you at all.’

*

The door. Muntin’s door. His way in. His way out.

Before him, in a dark powdered lightly by the streetlamp at the far end of Lyndon Lane, the door sagged in its frame. Blistered, colourless paint was a leprous skin revealing the ruin of the wood beneath. The lock rail was scarred with red spray paint: BERNERD’S A BASTID. The doorknob, a blatant jut of a come on, had been burnished with time and the salts deposited by a million palms. Muntin imagined the ceremony of turning a key in its lock, listening to the satisfying clunks and scrapes as the tongues and grooves of the mortise meshed. He imagined the spatter of post on the lino as it poured through the letterbox, like the sudden glut of fish freed from a net. He imagined himself at the till —

He clearly heard the ‘ding’ of its bell.

Muntin hunched himself deeper into his coat and slipped across the street, bowing before the skeins of drizzle slanting into him from the overpass. The sound might have been some freakish deception made by the weather and the occasional sweep of traffic, but Muntin doubted that. Someone was in his shop.

At the door, fearful it might spring open and expose him, he rested his hand on the doorknob and bent to gently push open the flap on the letterbox. He was in time to see the intruder’s shadowy head vanish through the gash in the floor. Now Muntin applied pressure to the door, but it was firmly locked. Furious, he hurried off in search of a phone box. He called the emergency services and asked the operator to patch him through to the police.

‘There’s a burglar. I watched him break into my… into a shop,’ he heard himself say, when a voice materialised.

‘Where did you see this happen, sir?’

‘Lyndon Lane. It’s the shop that’s closed down. Dilapidated building with boards on the windows. Boughey’s, it’s called. If you hurry you’ll catch him. He went upstairs.’

‘Are you in the shop, sir?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Then how do you know where the burglar is now?’

Muntin bit his lip, involuntarily. Through the sharp squirt of pain he said: ‘I live in the flats opposite. I saw a shape in the upstairs window.’

‘The number you are calling from indicates a public phone box, sir.’

‘Yes. Yes. Well? What of it? I don’t have a phone. Some of us don’t, you know? Look, why don’t you come around here and arrest me. I’ve never been treated with so much suspicion in my — ’

‘That’s quite all right, sir. A squad car has been dispatched. It’s just that we get so many bogus calls, you understand.’

‘Well I can assure you this isn’t bogus. But you’ve messed about so much he’ll be gone by the time you get here and you’ll think it was a bogus call.’

‘Name sir?’

‘How am I supposed to know what his — oh, I see. Umm, Bernard. Bernard Bastard.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Bastin. Bernard Bastin.’

‘Address?’

Muntin gave an address on Lyndon Lane and prayed that the receptionist couldn’t check up on it immediately.

‘One of the investigating officers will call in on you once they’ve checked the area, Mr Bastin, to give you peace of mind. Thank you very much for reporting it.’

‘Yes, well,’ said Muntin, and put the phone down.

He retraced his steps and found a little gulley from which he had an unspoilt view of the street. A couple of minutes later, a police Astra swung into the top end of Lyndon Lane and parked a short distance away from the shop. Two officers stepped out with torches. One of them moved around the back of the terrace in which Boughey’s stood while the other approached the front door.

‘I already did that,’ muttered Muntin as the officer tried the knob and peered through the letterbox. The officer rang the bell, waited a few seconds, then backed into the centre of the road and directed the beam of his torch on to the upstairs window. His partner reappeared from the other side of the alley and shook his head.

‘He’s still in there, you idiots,’ Muntin hissed. The two of them strolled across to the opposite side of the road and tried one of the buzzers. A woman in curlers poked her head out of the window and told them to bugger off.

‘Does a Bernard Bastin live with you?’ Muntin heard.

‘No he doesn’t. But a bloody big Alsatian does and I’ll have him on to your cods if you don’t bugger off. And sharpish.’

Muntin heard the officers chuckling on their way back to the patrol car. A minute later and the street was as empty as it had been when he had arrived.

‘Fools. Bloody fools,’ he cursed as he straightened. What now? He briefly considered, as he stealthily returned to the shop front, setting fire to the awning and drawing further attention to the street, but worried that the place might have burned down by the time the fire brigade arrived. They might not even bother trying to save it, as the terrace didn’t appear to have a single healthy building in it.

Tomorrow he would talk to the council and make inroads into his purchase of the property. He saw himself as the vanguard of Lyndon Lane’s redevelopment. His shop would be at the hub of a vibrant new drive of small-time entrepreneurs. Muntin’s Deli, he would call his shop. He would sell stuffed vine leaves, stuffed olives, stuffed peppers and stuff Caroline if she didn’t want a part of it. Guardian readers would sit outside in the sunshine and drink frapaccini and smoothies; nibble on halva or ciabatta loaded with summer vegetables roasted in olive oil.

Muntin smacked his chops. ‘You ought to know better,’ he gently called to the intruder. ‘What kind of a burglar breaks into a shop with nothing in it? And then crawls through the floor? Pah! You’re a bigger dunderhead than those policemen.’

A step away and a creak froze him. Turning, he saw that the door had opened.

Half-expecting the thief to come bursting into the road, Muntin gingerly returned to the entrance. The door opened wider: a lover’s mouth anticipating the press of another. Squeezing through the gap, taking care not to step on any of the explosive nuggets of glass, Muntin shifted towards the rent in the linoleum. He could not hear any sounds of movement above him. It was feasible that the burglar had scarpered through one of the upstairs windows and was now skimming across the rooftops to safety. Muntin, however, was beginning to doubt what he thought he had seen. Had he conjured the shape as a check on his ambition? Perhaps the figure was merely an internal thief, a flaw in his thoughts bent on spoiling his plans by stirring up some doubts. But he desperately didn’t want this freshness in his life to turn stale. The thought of returning to the warehouse for the rest of his working life bowed his shoulders.

Beyond the lips of the shaft, soil glistened. He called hello once, and, taking the silence that returned as a cue, eased himself down.

*

Time.

It was not something Caroline had thought of before with any great conviction, but alone, the bed seemingly spreading out around her in the cold room, it pressed into her mind like a budding tumour. Sixty seconds sounded longer to her than a minute; sixty minutes a far greater span than an hour. Why then, should fourteen days, a fortnight, two weeks all possess the same impact? She wondered if he might have changed at all in that time. It was an ample period in which to sprout a moustache or beard. He might have had his hair trimmed or even dyed; anything to ease his separation from her. The knowledge that they had never before spent that much time apart bit deep into her and she moaned in the darkness. Her mother was long dead, her father’s Parkinson’s so far advanced that he was barely aware of her. Loneliness was a word that sounded much softer, less damaging, than it did when being lived.

Her desperation had a head start on her consciousness. She was half-dressed before she realised what she meant to do. In the street, frost had collected on the pavements. Each roof was a whiteboard waiting for a terrible message to be loaded upon it. Streetlamps pegged back the dark only a little. The sky soaked up the light and turned it into something dense and stale. As she made her way up the street, Caroline had to struggle for a grip on her fear. She felt stifled. Buried alive. But didn’t that have as much to do with the way her husband was treating her? Hadn’t he always behaved this way? To observers, it might appear that she was the dynamic half; overbearing, even. But she knew better. Ashley’s violence was subtle, non-physical, but destructive all the same. Her hair was greying at the temples; the colour she had to rejuvenate with bottles and bleaches. Ashley layered his violence like coats of paint. He left her stewing over an argument for a while before coming back to reapply the pain. He didn’t leave an area of conflict alone but kept returning to it until she was exhausted. Nothing was resolved. No apologies were offered. Suddenly he would turn and be friendly, loveable even, when she had been worn down to the brink of tears, or worse.

She caught sight of herself in a dark window. The glass must be warped to make her face ripple like that. Nevertheless, she raised a hand to touch the stiff, cold flesh. Once this mouth had laughed often. Once this skin had been elastic with warmth and youth. Men had liked her. Then why am I going after him? she thought.

When she saw the old shop, she felt her resolve melt away. The matches in her pocket rattled, telling her how cold she was. She didn’t remember the shop, even though she had lived in this town all her life. Working her memory helped to distract her from her intention, which wavered like the rags of grey net in the windows. She kept the matches in her pocket and walked on. The building was in more parlous a state than she had expected. Fear had drawn her on to the streets tonight, but now she saw how misplaced it was. She had been scared that perhaps her husband would succeed in his impetuous dream, but the building was a write-off. It would be cheaper to build a new shop from scratch than renovate this dinosaur. She must keep faith in her belief that he would come back to her. She must allow him this distance. At least it was a manageable crisis that did not involve another woman. Another week, she estimated. Another week before he recognised his folly and worked this silliness out of his system.

She crossed the road and looked back as she did so, at the shop’s naked windows, webbed with cracks. The camber of the road drew her reflection downwards. For one panicky moment, she saw hundreds of Carolines and all of them were sinking.

*

‘Good morning, Mrs Dilks.’

‘Ashley, hello. You’re looking well.’

‘All the better for having you in the shop today.’

‘Oh now stop it, you botherer. I’ll have a quarter of Ardennes paté and a jar of those preserved artichoke hearts. The bagels. Are they fresh?’

‘Are they fresh? What is wrong with you woman? Have all the peas fallen out of your pod?’

‘I beg your – ’

‘Of course the fucking bagels are fucking fresh. Fresher than the whiff of rot that follows in the wake of your bigfatfucking arse, that’s for certain…’

‘No!’

*

No.

The dream moved stickily away from him as he surfaced from sleep, as though it were attached in some way and would come screaming back should he drift off again.

He shifted in the dark and felt the soil coming away from the sides of the wall, trickling across his mackintosh. He licked his lips; his saliva was gummy and stank of undigested alcohol. His flailing foot sent something glass spinning across the floor.

It was safer down here.

He had been up to the top of the house, where the living quarters must once have been, and had a bit of a fright on the stairs, which had partially collapsed under his weight. There were only two rooms at the top, plus a bathroom. He could see the attic through the ceiling, which was cratered like a battleground, great staves of wood peeking through the plaster. Something scuffled and skittered up there. Pigeons maybe. The place certainly stank of pigeon shit, which decorated the walls, and plenty of feathers were strewn about, falling gently from the exposed eaves like strange snow.

The rooms had been filled with junk. Tea-chests brimmed with folders containing receipts and hand-written invoices from long ago. Piles of newspapers with front pages devoted to jingoistic reportage of the Gulf War vied for space with shelving stacked against the walls. A broken table. A box of chipped crockery. An unfinished pack of tinder-dry cigarettes had been left on the windowsill, along with an empty bottle of pale ale. The carpets had been worn down to the underfelt. The floorboards creaked and splintered as he walked them.

Boughey’s was a dead space, a rotten tooth whose roots had withered. It would collapse by itself soon if it wasn’t helped along by the demolition ball and the JCBs.

Down here it was much more secure. Once the shop was purchased, he could set to work building a wine cellar that he would stock with outstanding wines from around the world. He would have tastings in the evening for his most valued customers. Perhaps he would start a special club. Discounts for bulk buying. Loyalty bonuses. That sort of thing.

He rubbed his hands in the dark.

‘I’ve got a bottle here,’ came the voice. ‘Something left behind from when I owned the shop. Want to try some?’

Muntin said, ‘I could manage a glass, I’m sure.’

He heard a cork being pulled, then the glug of liquid poured into two glasses. Out of the wedge of shade at the far end of the cave, a flute filled with wine was pushed along the floor. It gritted and squealed on the rubble. Muntin thought that it was one of the most beautiful sounds he had ever heard.

‘When I ran this shop,’ continued the voice, ‘there was a school nearby. We used to get dozens of shrieking kids come in here, buying biscuits and sweets and lemonade. Their noise filled the shop. It seemed to stick to the walls and exist long after they had gone back to their classrooms.’

‘I can almost hear them,’ Muntin said. ‘I should go home.’

‘This is your home.’

‘This was your home,’ Muntin countered.

‘Well, yes,’ the voice reasoned softly. ‘But we move on don’t we? We’re none of us around for ever.’

‘You died.’

‘We all die, son.’

Muntin rubbed at his face. It was dry with caked soil. The glass he was holding was broken and powdery with age. He twirled the stem between his fingers and breathed.

‘Are you still there?’

But of course, there was nobody there.

Dampness from the cellar seeped through his trousers. His left leg was beginning to feel sore. He sat and waited and breathed. There was little else to do.

*

Caroline tried to remember what she could about old Boughey. It must have been fifteen years since she last went into that shop of his. In her final year at school Mary Henderson and Tamara Craig accompanied her there during lunch times to buy cigarettes and, on a Friday, maybe a bottle of wine that they would drink down by the river instead of sitting through those interminable Mathematics classes with a teacher – Mr Sankey? Mr Sinderby? – whose face looked like a slipper that has been chewed by a dog.

It seemed incredible that she should not have been past that shop in the intervening years until tonight. Not once. But then, she supposed, that was what growing up sometimes did. It opened certain avenues to you and closed off others, often for good. Friends she had for so long fell by the wayside as she matured; people she supposed she would take into her old age suddenly became different, or veered off into new lives. Wasn’t that happening now, with Ashley? Thinking of him made her chest ache. She missed him, despite the unpleasantness that had soiled their last moment together. Might it be that that had been the flashpoint for a slow disaffection that had set in to their marriage over the years?

The arms of the chair she was sitting in felt cold and hard under her own. A comfortable room that you knew well became something completely different deep in the night, when there were no television noises or footsteps on the stairs. No minor clashes of crockery as somebody washed dishes in the kitchen. It might well have been the armchair and Caroline, nothing else: the dark interstices between the furniture felt as depthless as the unimaginable miles between stars. The absolute stillness of her body, of her surroundings, provoked in her a weird sense of rushing, as if the world outside her window were travelling by at the speed of light. Seeing the old shop again had been like smelling the after shave of the first man she had ever loved: it was the tap on the deep drain that sucked memory out of the core of her mind. She delved for things lost to time while her fingers clawed at the threadbare arms of the chair. She couldn’t remember anything about Boughey, other than the fact they had referred to him as ‘Moneybags’. Why was that? She could remember his wife, a wizened thing with a chinful of wiry whiskers and a voice that would have done well at the Dalek auditions. They had sold biscuits at the shop that, when you got them home, were soft and stale. The Bougheys would stamp the prices over the sell by dates. Nobody bothered going back to complain. As she recalled, she never went into that shop by herself. It was dark and smelled unpleasantly. She didn’t like the way she felt scrutinised whenever she went in the shop, as if the owners thought she might be about to steal something: she felt their eyes on her when she scanned the shelves for something to buy. Once a competitor came to the area and opened up a shop nearby, she chose to patronise them instead. Perhaps this was why she could not remember much.

She thought of her reflection in the shop window. That precise angle she was in at the moment she had chosen to look back over her shoulder, it plucked at her with the tenacity of a mantis trying to pry a grub from a leaf. But the reason for the memory sticking with her was unfathomable. She realised that if she were to unravel the knots that had tied themselves imperceptibly around the centre of her frustration, she must turn to old friends after all. And, in the dark, the tension of night fastening her to the chair like guy ropes on steadfast tent, she understood that a week would be too long to wait.

*

Sometimes he emerged from the pit to sweep up the dust or attempt to clean the windows, but no matter how hard he worked, the dust merely seemed to move from one side of the shop floor to the other and no amount of effort could shift the stains from the fractured glass. Still his vision could not be shaken. He saw glimpses of how the shop would be. An indoor rack of fresh organic fruit and vegetables would lend colour to the interior. He would employ an assistant or two; young, attractive things who knew about hard work and good manners.

Upstairs he caught sight of himself in a foxed mirror, half concealed by a large piece of worn blanket. The warp in the glass gave his eye a heavy-lidded look, that side of his face seemed to have collapsed, as if he had suffered a stroke. The pain in his hips he put down to sleeping in the cellar; the wet and the cold were getting to him.

He was finding it hard to think straight. Sometimes, especially as night’s colour began to seep into the pallid wintry streets, he would stand at the window and watch men and women drift home, their faces inscrutable, their clothes in differing shades of grey. He would wonder about himself, ask whether he too had once had a job like that, with many people who were vomited out into the evening at the same time. But then he would feel the shop around him, like the protective capsule that sustains an astronaut, and he would know that he had been here all the time. He had always been the shopkeeper.

A gang of children sauntered past the shop: two boys and a girl, early teens. The boys were competing casually for the girl’s attention. He moved to the edge of the window to watch, his breath tightening in his throat. He felt confused and excited; through the cracked glass he could hear their volleys of speech. It was hard to keep up with what they were talking about. It was as if they had developed a new language. He watched the girl slope off into the shadows, flanked by her prospective boyfriends. She wore a black skirt, very tight, and in the light from the streetlamps, he could see her cotton knickers underneath the material, a ghostly wedge of white. One of the boys aimed a kung-fu kick at the door of the shop. Its rattle made the floor under Muntin’s feet quake and he was able to withdraw from the pocket of intensity that had enclosed him. His breath would not relax until he had hurried down the stairs and slipped and slithered to the bottom of the crack in the floor. Down here, amid the dirt and the wooden crates, he was able to find himself again, and hold on to what he was, what he thought he was, or what he had once been.

*

It was more difficult than Caroline had expected, tracking down the people with whom she had shared those intractable hours behind desks in classrooms filled with mocking sunlight and chalk dust. None of the names she remembered from registration periods existed in the phone book but that might be because all of her friends were married now and had taken their husbands’ names. Her closest allies, Mary Henderson and Tamara Craig, had both been very attractive, and hellbent on starting families as soon as possible.

She was reluctant to check the listings for the boys in her class because she had been shy and had not got on well with them. What she couldn’t bring herself to admit was that she abhorred the thought of them seeing her now. If she wasn’t much to look at during the years she spent sitting alongside them while a teacher scratched facts on a blackboard, then now she might inspire retching fits. She had gone to seed, she felt. Her thighs wobbled with the shocking viscosity of setting custard and her face had developed more crinkles than a map of Norway.

She was about to swallow her pride and call a boy called Malcolm – somebody who had been as shy as she was – when she remembered another girl in her class, a girl who had been more stricken by self-doubt than she had. Wendy, her name was. Wendy — Caroline rubbed at her forehead, trying to massage the surname out of her brain. It had been a name for which they ragged her mercilessly. Wendy Dick. That was it.

There were plenty of Dicks in the phone book, but only three that she needed to bother ringing. She dialled from her kitchen, watching an early morning mist send quick tongues of uncertainty into the deepest cracks of the street. It folded towards her, blotting out what was real until it broke against the panes, ghost kisses, a nothing that trapped the world.

‘Hello? Is that Jerry? It had better be! I want this consignment delivered by four and if — ’

She hung up on the gruff voice and moved her fingernail a millimetre further down the page.

‘This is Will and Frances Dick. We can’t come to the phone at the moment, but if you — ’

She had not fully considered what she might ask of Wendy. There was the possibility that she would not remember who Caroline was. A phone at the other end of the line purred and crackled softly, three, four, five times. She was about to replace the receiver, thinking that she should maybe take a trip round to the address, when a brittle voice said hello.

It cast her back fifteen years. It was all she could do to stop herself from singing the old cruelty: ‘So, Miss Dick, do you really Miss Dick? Or is it more a case of never having had any dick in the first place?’

‘Wendy,’ she began, and burst into tears.

*

He didn’t know what day it was. But he could no longer get annoyed about that. What did it really matter, if it was Monday or Friday? He opened every day of the week, eight till late. That was a mark of his determination and professionalism. That was what had made him such an important fixture in the neighbourhood for so many years.

The stool would not stay still, the legs, unbalanced, rocking him this way and that as he waited behind the till, but he would not be distracted. Let the other shopkeepers be distracted by trivial things. Not him. If he took his eye off those little bastards for a second, they’d be away with a couple of pounds worth of produce.

It had been a good idea of his to get one of those convex mirrors installed in the corner of the shop. He could watch them without being too obvious about it as they sidled up to the packets of kettle chips and Maryland cookies. His hand tightened around the copper pipe.

One of them, the decoy no doubt, brought a bottle of juice to the counter and began shedding pennies with which to pay for it. Muntin didn’t blink, didn’t take his eyes off his partner, who was opening his coat and shoving packets of Jammie Dodgers into the lining.

Got you. You little bastard.

He swiped the coins off the counter and showed the first boy the length of piping. ‘Leave,’ Muntin said flatly. ‘Leave. Now.’

Muntin followed the boy to the door as his shoplifter friend attempted to join him. He stepped between the two boys and closed the door on the first. Muntin stared at the him in the middle of the pavement, as he waited nervously for his friend to emerge. Muntin smiled. The boy smiled back, uncertainly.

He turned the sign in the door so that the word CLOSED faced outward. Then he pulled down the shutters.

*

Wendy Dick lived in a small tenement on the eastern edge of the town. Cars in various shades of rust lined up along the street, not all of them possessing the requisite number of wheels. Dogs strutted pompously in the road and children stopped playing football to watch Caroline as she parked her Celica in front of the correct entry arch.

She made a show of locking the car and activating the alarm before popping the keys in her handbag. She made a point too of meeting the eyes of the youths slouched against the wall as she walked past. One of them spat in her path. She ignored it but once she was inside, she found she had not breathed since turning into the street. The stench and the silence of the stairwell rushed into her lungs. A door opened at the top of the first flight. An old woman’s face peered over the bannister. She beckoned quickly to her.

‘Wendy Dick,’ Caroline gasped. ‘Do you know where she lives?’

‘Inside,’ came the voice, one that Caroline recognised from across the years.

The door shut, Wendy returned to the single electric hob which was heating a kettle. Two chipped mugs and a bowl of semi-solid sugar were on a sticky tray. Caroline saw none of these things. She was watching her old classmate as she moved – tried to move – around her flat. Wendy seemed twice the age she was. Her hair was brittle and grey, scraped viciously back from a face which had dwindled within sags of flesh that hung at its exterior. The centre of Wendy’s face seemed a plughole that was sucking its features into it. Caroline’s scrutiny did not go unnoticed.

‘I’ve got ME,’ she explained, as she poured boiling water into a brown teapot. ‘I haven’t worked for seven years and I need crutches to get around. I have a boy in the flat upstairs who does my shopping for me. I give him a few pounds, he steals my best silver, a piece at a time but I think I do well out of the deal. I mean, what on earth do I need my best silver for? How else am I going to get my weekly shop done?’

‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ Caroline said, hoping Wendy would know the sympathy was meant for her disease as opposed to her diminishing collection of silver.

‘I was glad to get your call,’ she said. ‘I’ve often wondered, over the years, what happened to you, and all the others. How you got on, whether or not you settled, that sort of thing.’

‘Me too,’ Caroline lied.

‘I heard some things,’ Wendy said. Caroline went to her as she was trying to lift the tray and took it from her gnarled fingers. ‘Thank you dear. As I was saying, well, Michelle Cragg has just had her fourth child, a boy. And poor Lorraine Bowden, well she died when she was seventeen. She had leukaemia but she killed herself with pills. Helen Paget is into her third marriage, but she was always playing around, teasing other men, even at school.’

Caroline cut in. ‘Do you remember the shop? The shopkeeper. The old man?’

Wendy’s face clouded over. She stumbled over the words she was saying. Something about Madeleine Kenyon becoming a teacher, after all the detentions she received.

‘It’s funny, isn’t it?’ Wendy continued, ‘how old school acquaintances will immediately turn to the past, as if they could never exist at any other point in time together. As if life somehow ended, or was put on hold. As if nothing else mattered.’

Caroline wondered if she should offer to make tea, or try to salve the breach between them in some other way, but all she could say was: ‘I need to talk to you about the shopkeeper.’

Wendy nodded, sadly.

‘I don’t… I can’t picture him,’ Caroline said. ‘And I used to go into his shop every day.’

Wendy, very clearly and in monotone, as if she was reading from an autocue, said: ‘Henry Boughey was shot dead in his shop by the father of one of the children he killed. Over a five-year stretch, Henry abducted seventeen girls. Eighteen if you count the last one, the one who survived. Once he had sexually abused them, he strangled them with razor wire. Then he buried them in the earth beneath his cellar.’

‘I don’t remember,’ Caroline said. ‘All I remember is the kids’ specials he used to put on offer. The bags of sweets that were cheaper than anywhere else. I just don’t remember.’ The words couched in a gale of shocked laughter.

Wendy looked up at her with sad eyes, perhaps knowing that in a short while she would be alone again, that these final words could not be synonymous with any kind of lasting friendship. ‘That’s because you were the eighteenth victim,’ she said.

*

He closed the shop early and took the path that would lead him alongside the overpass to the junction where the train station sat, a large canopy of curved, pale concrete spattered with pigeon shit. A tramp sitting on the entry gangway was trying to sell empty whisky bottles as novelty vases.

Boughey’s mind was filled with thoughts of seasons on the wane. There was still light in the sky but out of direct contact a chill could be detected Summer would not remain for much longer: He would need to start thinking about new stock. Perhaps he would concoct soups and casseroles, something earthy and unctuous for the darker nights. If he bought a fridge he could sell them in Tupperware. His thoughts of lamb and beans were so distracting, he did not register that he had dropped off the main thoroughfare and was now tramping down a litter-strewn path behind the railway car park. At a fence that was not worthy of the name, he pushed his way through to a narrow patch of wasteland that ran parallel to the railway and on to the rear of the industrial estate that stretched the length of Bewsey Street. Boughey sauntered along, picking his way through the rubbish that had been tipped here. The embankment was a riot of old cc-TV monitors, scarred mannequins and dead rolls of adhesive tape.

A dog chewing on a pallet in the great piles of dock and dandelion eyed him nervously as he walked by, its teeth never leaving the corner of the wood. At the end of the path, Boughey stopped and lifted his chin as though to better smell the evening’s perfume: the camomile and undiscovered blackberries growing fat on their brambles, the diesel on the tracks, the distant whiff of exhaust fumes and fried food.

But he wasn’t interested in smells. He could hear laughter, children’s laughter. It filled him with satisfaction, as immediately and completely as a cigarette. Across the fence, over which he now unsubtly clambered, the land was overtaken by paving and lamps: another car park which served the school. There was nobody on the adjacent field apart from a couple of magpies. Goalposts marked out a pitch. Corner flags wagged, ragged and limp, drained of any colour they might have once had.

An out-building abutted the school proper. From inside he heard the sound of children again. And music. An end of term disco, he surmised. As he poked his head around the entrance, he saw that his hunch was backed up by a piece of coloured paper tacked to the wall, laser-printed with those very words. Through the swing doors into what looked like a gymnasium, he saw flashes of light and children – no older than twelve – running across the dance floor. Boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the arena in pockets, sending glances at each other. Two teachers stood a little way off, arms folded. One of them looked Boughey’s way and began to move towards him; Boughey quickly retreated.

They didn’t follow him outside to make sure he had left the grounds. That would be their mistake. He knew how to wait. He waited now. Two hours later, the twilight having deepened, a boy and a girl came out through the swing doors and hurried, giggling, around the building to the narrow alleyway between it and the wall of the school canteen.

Boughey pushed away from the car he had been leaning against, brushed himself down, and followed them, checking in his pocket for what he needed most.

*

What mattered most, she thought, was to make herself as external as possible, to push the focus of her entire body to the surface so that she couldn’t for a moment dwell upon anything that needed urgent attention deep within her.

It almost worked.

As she pressed through the crowds of early evening drinkers already celebrating the weekend, she quelled the black curiosity that wanted to know why she had not been able to squeeze through the bars of her memories to that no-man’s land of a time with Boughey. And further, to staunch the perverse wish to study those actual recollections themselves, to know her own rotten centre, the nadir of experience. But considering the whys and wherefores surrounding her brain’s security system allowed the other stuff to dribble through. Her memory was mending itself, flashing her pictures of the past like a child showing off, oblivious to the pain that accompanied it.

She remembered now how she had gone into the shop one Friday afternoon without Mary or Tamara. Mr Boughey had been sitting in his customary place, behind the counter on his stool, a tabloid newspaper spread out before him. She had taken a drink from the refrigerator and offered him her handful of pennies.

‘I might have only married once, if I’d met someone as pretty as you.’ He said that, didn’t he?

‘Where’s your wife?’ she had asked.

‘Dead. Long dead. I never bothered again. Who would want a man like me?’

‘How much for the drink?’

‘Let me show you a picture of her. She was very beautiful.’

‘How much?’

‘It’s free. If you’ll come and look.’

Behind a length of curtain leading deeper into the shop he had taken her hand gently and she had felt him shivering. His other hand disappeared into the off-white overalls he always wore, and came out holding something that shone dully. It kept her still when he leant in to kiss her throat. His jowls were rough as sandpaper and he had a smell on him that reminded her of a rat she and her father had cornered once, in their back garden: fear and aggression, a sour mix.

‘You smell of fruit,’ he said eagerly, as though such a thing must be impossible.

He kept her in the shop all that afternoon, and for most of the weekend. Even now, when she could remember the label of the drink she wanted to buy, and its price, even when she could remember the brand name etched on the grimy edge of the knife he held, she was unable to recall how he had used her, only that he had used her and that it was cold and he did not let her put her clothes back on at any time. It seemed insane now that she should want to get to Ashley to stop him from wanting to buy Boughey’s shop, but if she didn’t, how could she expect to salvage anything from their marriage? She couldn’t be with a man who owned the shop where she had so very nearly met her end.

Had he touched her? He might have done, she thought. Just a little; she wasn’t sure, it was too uncomfortable to allow the memories to settle even for a few seconds. Stroked her hair, placed his hand on her thigh. Leaned close so he could smell the fear coming off her skin. If she allowed any more through, she thought she might go mad.

Seeing the shop suddenly emerge out of the evening was a shock, like a dream that comes true. Her thoughts had solidified in front of her, and, but for the decay the shop had suffered, she might well have been strolling here from school, intent on ice pops or Coke or a carton of orange juice.

There was nobody there. Although she had had to steel herself to try the door and knock on the windows, she felt as if this would be the outcome anyway. Doing these things seemed more important to her than eliciting some kind of response for what might exist within.

She was considering trying to break into the shop, just to see if there was any evidence that Ashley was living here, when she heard the sirens. She turned to watch the blue flash of police cars surge into the road and roar past her. Opposite, two women hurried out of the shadows of the underpass. One of them was weeping while the other tried her best to pacify her friend and keep her mouth clamped shut on her emotions. Her face was red and puffed out like the chest of a frightened bird.

‘Dirty!’ she spat, suddenly. ‘Dirty, dirty bastard!’ She caught sight of Caroline and jerked a thumb in the opposite direction to which they were travelling. ‘He’s only gone and killed him. He was only a boy. We’re off home, love. It won’t do to be on the streets.’

Caroline felt her body slump like something freshly de-boned. She followed the clamour along Bewsey Street. At the crest of a small hill, a little school, painted brilliant white, was surrounded by police cars. Onlookers had been forced to stand on the other side of the street; two policemen, arms folded, made sure they got no closer. From here, a good hundred metres away from the scene, Caroline could see some armed officers in bulky body armour prowling the outside of one of the buildings.

He isn’t there any more, she thought. He’s old, he’s overweight, but he’s no fool.

As if in agreement with this theory, she heard a muffled cry from behind the printing offices on her right. A train followed almost immediately, belittling the sound. Caroline considered alerting the police for maybe half a second. But she didn’t want Boughey dead. Not just yet.

*

He had forgotten how much they wriggled and squirmed, like eels given arms and legs. Boughey didn’t have a free hand to raise to wipe away the sweat that was gathering on his face. He half carried, half dragged the girl through the brambles and nettles, glad now that the sky was bruising sufficiently for him not to be seen. This was the best time of the day, a murk that was not yet dark enough to deserve streetlamps, but light enough to navigate by.

Before he reached the fence by the train station, he shed his apron, which was slick with the boy’s blood. Boughey had forgotten just how easy it was to drain a teenager and had stepped back a little too late to avoid the first geyser as his neck parted under the expert swing of his knife. The girl, in the act of kissing him, was half-choked by the shock of blood, but that was good. It took her a few minutes to blink and cough the mess from her face, by which time he had her on the path by the embankment, too shell-shocked, for a little while, to do anything but allow herself to be led away.

He hit her twice, hard, at the fence, breaking a tooth but sending her into a controllable daze. An old man walking his dog on the other side of the street watched them as they danced their drunken dance along the road, but he moved away, unimpressed. The town had a reputation as being a drinker’s town. A father frog-marching his intoxicated daughter home from a party, or a bar, was not an unusual sight.

When the shop came into view, he paused. Such instinct had served him well in the past. Invariably, it is when the rabbit is close to its home that the fox strikes. He watched the streets from the shadows for a full minute before shambling across to the awning, the girl’s heels – one show had come off on the journey home – dragging on the Tarmac. Focused on the door, the potential of its hinges burning with promise, its latent motion nothing but a symbol of opportunity, he unlocked it and forced his way in.

*

What have you done?

He closed his eyes, shook his head. There. That was better. Well, a little better. His head had been filled with faint buzzing, like summer midges in a field, for, oh, the best part of a week now. Tinnitus, was it? He didn’t know, but it hadn’t been so bad as to distract him from the hard work that he knew he must undertake if he was to make a go of this.

He stood back for a moment and surveyed the shop. His shop. It was dark, but somehow, in the darkness, it became easier for him to see. The girl did not struggle. She blinked owlishly, her free hand rubbing at the blood on her blouse.

‘Your name,’ he said.

‘Pamela.’

He wanted to comfort her in some way, but the only way he knew made her recoil. Sirens criss-crossed in the street but none of the cars stopped outside his shop. It would be time to send her home soon. He needed to clean up for dinner; he couldn’t just leave her here in the shop to run amok or steal what she wanted. He gazed at her sitting on the stool, her mouth having vanished into a thin line, the same mouth that had been hungrily searching her boyfriend’s mouth, as if for food. She hadn’t yet offered any thanks for what he had saved her from, but perhaps that had something to do with the way in which he’s gone about it. He wasn’t sure, but using his knife like that and hanging the piece of flesh that included his mouth from the barbed wire might not have been what she expected. Still, she didn’t make a peep. He’d take that for gratitude, for the time being.

‘Where will you go?’ he asked her, unbuttoning his shirt. There were bloodstains on the cuffs and a little on the breast pocket. It wouldn’t do to be seen serving customers in such a shoddy fashion.

‘Go?’ she asked, her mouth surprised enough by the question to empty about an egg-cup full of drool across her chin.

‘Well, it’s getting late. And I can’t sit here looking after you all night.’

The girl started shaking her head. ‘I don’t understand. You… you forced me here – ’

Boughey held up his hand. ‘I won’t hear any of that. I rescued you from someone who was going to take your maidenhead.’

‘That was Roddy. My boyfriend. Did you kill him?’

All of the air went out of her when she reached the last few words, but Boughey wasn’t listening anyway. He had stripped off his shirt and moved away from the counter, gut jiggling under a tight white vest. ‘There’s nothing for it,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to give you a bed downstairs. Until tomorrow. Do you mind sharing?’

‘Who with?’

‘Come on, I’ll show you. They’d love to meet you.’

He led her down the wooden steps. He said: ‘Something I could do for you, to stop your pain for ever.’

She started whimpering when he switched on the naked bulb and she saw the rows of burial mounds. There were some that had been disturbed. One grave had been exhumed to reveal the ulna and radius of a girl: a pink plastic bracelet encircled what had once been her wrist. He gripped Pamela hard around the throat to shut her up. And that was when he heard the glass in the window upstairs shatter.

*

Caroline could walk no further. She wasn’t sure where she was walking, only that she had a sudden appetite for distance. Her surroundings seemed to solidify around her, giving her some idea of where she was, although she did not recognise the locale. Only her feet had been in focus until now as she marched head down away from everything that had conspired to shape her life thus far: the town, her job, Ashley. Mr Boughey. That she should still afford him the courtesy of his title told of the denial that remained in her marrow. Externally she bore no evidence of the episode in his shop. Only her mind carried the echoes, and those were being picked up weakly and piecemeal, as though originating from a stammering emphysema sufferer who had bleated his message in a canyon. She didn’t trust her mind. Her mind had told her that Ashley loved her, that he would come back to her and nothing of the kind had occurred. Her mind had told her that he had nothing to do with the three disappearances over the last fortnight: pubescent schoolgirls walking home alone. Her hands sought her pocket again, but she must not allow her fingers inside. To do that was to fail and she would not be able to walk another pace. The police would find her slumped here and they’d ask her questions that she could not answer. She turned her thoughts inward, knowing what she would see, but unable to stop herself. It was like the tired mansion in a cheap horror film watched by a child. It didn’t matter how bad the acting, how poor the sets: a horror film was an Oscar-winner in every child’s head. It came alive.

The shop seemed to have rallied in its rank terrace, like a tooth that has been polished while its neighbours have been allowed to die. However, there had been no obvious improvements made to the exterior. The name on the awning – BOUGHEY’S – boasted perhaps a little more lustre than usual. Ashley must have cleaned it.

At first it seemed that the shop was talking to her, through the clenched teeth of its cracked main window. A whispery voice summoned from the sour lungs of its cellar, suggestive and diseased, that made her guts writhe. But then she saw how the voice must belong to Ashley and she remembered the women staggering across the road. The dirty bastard. The sirens looped distantly through the air like the desperate call of bereaved lovebirds. She heard words, clearly: … to stop your pain for ever.

The door was locked, but there was plenty of rubble lying around: the skins sloughed off most of the dead bodies in this terrace. She didn’t have to hurl the housebrick too hard at the glass for it to shatter in its frame. Once inside, dust falling like strange rain, obscuring the view, she edged towards the hole in the ground and saw that Ashley had fitted some wooden steps that the dark severed beyond the third riser.

‘Ashley?’ she called, and her voice was the tweet of a bird in a cave. There was nothing but the sound of dirt shifting, like someone panning for gold. She went down three steps, watching her foot grow indistinct, and called again. A hand came out of the shadows and gripped her leg. It was so slow, so ineffectual, that she had time to dispel the breath she had snatched into her lungs for a scream. It sounded like disappointment. Kicking the hand away, she retreated from the mouth of the hole and Muntin followed her, his face shiny with sweat. Her first compulsion was to reach out to her husband; pale as white chocolate, his eyes sloped with fatigue, he must be sick. But then she saw the blood on his fingers and the desperate red prints, from someone much smaller than he, on his grimy apron.

‘Hello,’ she said. It was all she could say.

He seemed uncertain, for a moment, as if he did not recognise the name. He drew a shockingly long blade from his pocket and turned it in his palm, this way and that, but any light it might have played with was defeated by what was coagulating on the steel.

‘Where is she?’ she asked, softly. ‘Tell me you haven’t done anything.’

He turned away from her, clumsily looking back down the throat of the hole. He wore the expression of a dog who doesn’t know which master to run to. She moved to him and reached out a hand; he did not flinch when she took the knife from his fingers, pressed her cool forehead against his fevered brow.

She kissed him, a slight brushing of her lips against his cheek. She closed her eyes and inhaled a scent she thought had been lost to the decades. ‘You’ve done wonders with this place, darling. Now clean yourself up.’ Caroline descended, her shoes scuffing against the risers, sending empty wooden echoes into the deeps. Walking to the shop, the last of the little doors to her memory had opened and she realised something about Mr Boughey that his behaviour ought never to have elicited. She missed him. This shop was her favourite and its owner, all the years she had palmed change from his soft fingertips and looked into his ageing, puffy eyes, was like love made real. Ashley was in him and of him. And that was good.

‘Clean up, love,’ she said, but she wasn’t aware of the words anymore, they were just a reassuring noise – but for whom? For him, certainly, who needed her more than anything now. For herself perhaps, sinking into his gloom while the weight of all that had gone before dragged at her bones. But not for what waited for her in the cellar. She held out the knife and felt the heat, smelled the sick whiff of fear.

‘Clean up,’ she said, inaudibly. ‘While I clean up down here.’

 

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