Advent Stories #23

WIRE

I send sweets to my mother at the weekend.

She’s fond of buttery caramels, or eclairs, or mint lumps that take for ever to tame with the teeth. In this way I think I prove my love for her, more so than what a letter or a phone call might achieve. I remember the flare of joy I felt in childhood when she came home from her shift at the hospital and planted a white paper bag in my hands, a kiss on my forehead. I spent so much time sitting on our peeling wooden gate waiting for her that my dad swore he could see grooves developing in my backside.

Mum was easy to spot. She’d round the corner in those late summer evenings – a tall, broad-shouldered woman with wheat-blonde hair and big eyes – and my jaws would squirt with the thought of aniseed and sherbet and toffee. Mum’s neck was soft, a heaven of smells. Sometimes, before I grew too big, she’d whisk me off the gate and ask me how I was; what I’d done that day. She listened to me even though her eyes ached for sleep.

Our ritual: I loosen the twists in the bag. I peek to see what she’s bought me. Always, I offer the first one to her.

*

These days I live by the sea. Nothing grand. Just a pleasant terraced house that takes a battering every once in a while by arctic winds channelling down through the North Sea. This town is a winding-down town. Old people come here to die. I’m maybe a third of the age of some of the characters who drift and stagger through these streets. Sometimes, on the beach, you’ll see them moving across the sand, mouths agape, limbs wheeling as they take in the sea view for what might be the last time. Seeing so many of the old struggling like this, it seems to congeal the air with pain. They’re like solid ghosts, infected by the grey of the ocean. Slowing down. Seizing up. I look at the horizon and see great swathes of black cloud closing in and it’s hard not to believe that the dying aren’t contributing to the confusion up there, even just a little bit. There’s a sense of waiting among them. It’s as though something is gravitating towards this town. Coming home.

But not just them. No, not just them.

*

When I was young, we lived in a police house that backed on to a school field full of bent and broken goal posts. Dad had been in the police force for fifteen years and bought the house when I was one year old. Back then, police houses could be acquired through the constabulary; Dad had applied and won the right to purchase it. Twelve Lodge Lane. It had a pleasant sound about it. Police houses are no different from ordinary houses, really. Apart from an extension at the front, which served as an office, in lieu of a proper station. Such offices were now defunct. There weren’t the resources.

It was nice to live so close to a school. When I was old enough to attend, I used to roll out of bed at ten to nine and be first in to the classroom for registration on the hour. But by then I was suffering from stomach aches. And I had a stammer. I could hardly speak sometimes. Drawing in a sketch book helped relax me, when I felt myself tying up in knots. I drew feverishly, layering bits of memory upon fragments of observed shapes, upon the form that I imagined my parents’ speech might take if it could be turned into a visual thing. All sorts of things, really. I never finished anything, it simply tailed off, or formed the basis for something else. I had pages that, to the untutored eye, showed little more than a frenzied scrawl. But to me, each page was like a series of cels from an animation, albeit compiled arbitrarily. It was similar to staring at the branches of a winter tree, or the shapes in a fire; before long, order would suggest itself. You might see faces in there. You might see anything you wanted, or dreaded, to see.

I loved drawing. It was a place for me to retreat to when my inarticulateness threatened to render me insubstantial; I felt as though I were shrinking from sight, as though my stammering was a bubble of invisibility being blown from my lips, encompassing me. I couldn’t understand how the things I wanted to say, that formed so clearly in my mind, were being translated to gibberish by my mouth. I kissed my mum and dad with that mouth; I smiled at them with it. How could it not allow me to tell them that I loved them?

When I didn’t have any paper, I drew on the walls. When my pencils or crayons ran out, I scratched patterns on the pavement with a piece of stone. The pictures in my head flew from me in this way. If they hadn’t, I think my head might well have burst apart.

*

I wish I could say that my unhappiness as a child was down to bullying, or night terrors or even an allergy to food. We weren’t well off financially, as I understand it now, but both my mum and dad worked and they were climbing out of debt; they were getting there. I loved my parents and I believe they loved me. I was unhappy. Maybe that’s all there is to it. Don’t you always need a reason to be happy too?

*

It’s November 12th, 1977. I’m not well, I’m never well. It’s Dad’s birthday. He’s out at the pub with his friends. Mum’s looking after me. We’re sitting on our PVC sofa in front of the TV. It’s dark outside. There are small explosions of rain on the window, like someone scattering shot against the glass. I’m eight years old. I want to be sick but it won’t come. I love sitting next to Mum. She has a comfortable way about her that is infectious. She sits with her legs tucked under her, one hand in her hair, twirling it through her fingers. I do this for her too. She smells like… well, like Mum, a secret scent that mums are no doubt provided with when they are young and being taught the intricacies of what it means to be a mother. It’s a smell to make you dizzy with love.

On the screen: NEWS FLASH.

A body has been found on the embankment under the train line that connects Liverpool to all points east. Mum leaps in her chair, knocking the bottle of juice out of my mouth. She swears and I laugh because I’ve never heard Mum bark like that. She swears again and now she’s crying. I pull her hair gently. Her big, hazel eyes are wet through.

‘What’s up?’

She hugs me for an age, until the television reverts to a game show. Questions and answers and audience applause. Everyone’s face looks rubberised. As though you could pick it away with your nails and there wouldn’t be anything underneath but rotten air.

I fell asleep, I remember. Then Mum’s renewed sobbing wakened me, what, a minute, an hour, a night-time later? Dad was back. I could smell him on the tails of the air that he pushed into the house ahead of him: alcohol, smoke, fried food. I heard his mackintosh crumpling as he embraced my mum.

I got out of bed and crept downstairs to the landing, making a cartoonish step over the riser that creaked when you trod on it. From here I sometimes watched television when Mum and Dad thought I was in bed. Late night films in black and white. Women with immaculate hair. Men who smoked and hunkered in the shadows wearing hats and raincoats.

Mum and Dad were in the kitchen. I saw their shadows on the wall as they talked in murmurs over cups of coffee. I heard words I didn’t understand but which sounded awful. Murder… ripped… stabbed… gutted…

‘In our town,’ my mum kept saying. ‘In our town.’

*

Johnny Roughsedge was my best friend. He lived at 63 Lodge Lane. He came round to play the next morning, a Saturday. Sitting in the garden, chewing bubble gum, flipping through our collections of football cards, we talked about what we had both learned since last night, which was probably more than my mum and dad knew by then. Apparently, a woman’s body had been found by a bunch of kids playing knick-knack. One of them was Johnny’s cousin. They had knocked on someone’s front door and legged it into the mound of vegetation that separated the main road from the steep mass of land leading up to the railway tracks. A lad bringing up the rear had tripped over something that felt too spongy to be bindweed or brambles.

‘All of her tits were scooped out,’ Johnny said, eyes as big as the jawbreakers with which we were ruining our teeth. ‘And she was so jammed up with little pieces of glass, she lit up when they put a torch on her, just like a Christmas tree. Every hole in her was filled with ash. Imagine that. Eye sockets, filled with ash. Her mouth. Her bloody mouth!’

Dad was coming home late from work. He was helping out with the enquiries, going door-to-door, asking people what and where and when. It was getting cold. Our town, a northern town, was nestled in a little bowl of land between the Irish Sea on one side and the Pennines on the other. We were visited by all kinds of weather, in any and every shade of bad. Dad’s face turned weird. It had this blustery redness about it, spanked alive by the chill winds, but shivering underneath the colour was a permanent mask, in pale cement. It was lean and hard. It was like he had two faces. I never knew which one of them he wore when he looked at me. But then, at that time, he rarely looked at me. He was either looking out of the window or staring into a small, chunky glass filled with whisky. Mum too.

It got so that Mum was scared to walk home. She worked all hours at the geriatric ward of the hospital. It was ten minutes away. But to get home, she had to walk under the railway bridge. Nettles and broad dock leaves grew wild up the sides of the bridge and threatened the gravel stretch of the railway. Four o’clock in the afternoon, it was already dark. The streetlamps had been bricked out by kids. Mist often hung about the roads here, ghosting in from the canal. There wasn’t enough money for her to take a taxi and she always turned down lifts from the other members of staff.

‘You just don’t know, do you?’ she said. ‘How can you tell?’

The body was that of a hairdresser called Elaine Dicker. She had gone to the secondary school for which my primary was a feeder; she had been one of the prefects. Elaine had cut Mum’s hair. Elaine had stopped some bullies from pushing in front of me at the queue for ice cream. She had gently impinged upon any number of lives in the neighbourhood. The ordinariness of her and the extraordinary manner of her death plunged the town into a torpor. There wasn’t so much panic in the streets, as a slow kind of awe that shifted through them.

Women gathered on the pavements to talk about the murder. I watched them from my parents’ bedroom. Some appeared to revel in the fact that a killer had come to our town. There was the hushed admiration of celebrity in it. They used his shadow as they might currency, handing over a few coins of gossip, snapping their lips shut on suspicions of his identity like the cruel clasps of an ancient purse. As the daylight slunk away, so did they, seeking the sanctity of a locked door, a roof.

I continued to sit on the gate, waiting for mum to come home. She took to taking the bus, which meant she couldn’t stop by at the sweet shop for a quarter of something for me. No kola kubes or midget gems. No peanut brittle. No raspberry laces. No fudge. Her face was drawn when I rushed to greet her, stepping from the bus with her uniform in a Co-op carrier bag. I saw in her features how death might one day settle in them. I was afraid for her and saddened by my disappointment in her fragility. When I hugged her she seemed thinner and she smelled of disinfectant. I did not know it then, but to be surrounded by the dying at work and to be shadowed too on her way home by death’s spectre took a lot out of her. Her little boy wasn’t enough to reset the balance.

Things didn’t get any better for her. She was assaulted by a drunk one night who tried to put his hand up her skirt while she waited at the bus stop. From then on, she resolutely marched home, willing to take her chances. Only later in my life did I realise how brave she was. And how foolhardy.

*

One night I thought I would help Mum. I left our house at four am while Dad was slumped against his desk, and walked Lodge Lane to the traffic lights at the top of the road. It wasn’t so cold tonight, but moisture hung in the air, teasing out the bulbs of the red, amber and green lights so that they resembled miniature explosions. In my front pocket I carried my penknife. I also had my catapult in my back pocket and a length of string, to tie the murderer up with. I had dressed in black clothes and rubbed black boot polish into my face to camouflage me against the night. I was a wraith. Nobody saw me as I drifted through the streets. I even moved like a commando. Johnny had told me that soldiers marched for twenty paces and jogged for twenty paces. In this way you could cover enormous distances quickly without ever becoming tired. Whenever I jogged, my voice kept time with this mantra: I will kill you mis-ter mur-der-er/I will chop your bloo-dy head off/I will kill you mis-ter mur-der-er/I will chop your bloo-dy head off…

On Lovely Lane, I tried not to falter as I approached the railway bridge over the road, but I had to stop. There was a figure standing underneath it, spoiling the geometric pattern of the bridge’s shadow with his hunched shoulders and bobbing head as he stalked around, the cleats on his heels skittering and scratching against the concrete.

I argued with myself. He couldn’t be the murderer. Murderers hid in the dark waiting for someone to walk past. This man was openly showing himself to the world. But what if he was the murderer and he was simply pretending to be normal? The police, I knew, were having difficulty trying to find any clues to make their job of narrowing their search easier. The killer was a clever man.

I nipped across the road and down a side street that would bring me on to the cobbled alleyway near Toucher’s bowling club, a drinking den that seemed to have been constructed for the sole use of fat men with mutton-chop whiskers and their wives, who sported tall nests of hair and left glossy, plum-red lip-prints on their cigarette ends.

The alleyway was jammed with Ford Cortinas and Austin Allegros in various shades of beige. A scabby sign above an archway read: Franks Motor-Fix. Through the archway, cairns of automobile parts gleamed. I hurried past, holding my nose against the soft breaths of burnt oil. Ahead, rising above a diamond link fence, lay the embankment. On the other side was the vast expanse of the hospital car park.

The fence was not as secure as it might be. I ripped and tore at a hole that had been begun by a dog or a rabbit and pushed my body through. I froze half way up the embankment as the killer whispered to me.

‘Shall I show you the shadows of the soul?’ he hissed.

But it wasn’t him. It was the tracks, spitting and sizzling with the promise of a train. I edged further up the embankment, thinking that I might beat the train and get to the other side before it chuntered past; it would be slowing by now anyway, the station was only a quarter of a mile further along. At the top, I could just see the soft lights on the platform stuttering in the mist. Behind me, however, the train was already upon me. I slunk back into the shadows as it clattered by, lifting the hair off my scalp and farting diesel fumes. I saw my face, a grey orb, in the dirtied steel of its flank, warped, streaming into a featureless smear by the speed of the engine and the tears filling my eyes.

The taste of the scorched diesel stuck in my throat, I palmed away the grit from my face and hurried over the sleepers, careful not to make too much noise in the gravel bed of the track, even though the thunder of the engine would no doubt be sufficient to mask any sound that I made. The car park was white with frost. Black rectangles hinted at recently departed vehicles. From here, they resembled freshly dug graves awaiting the coffin. I slithered down the other side of the embankment in time to see Mum striding across the road, her head down, a plastic bag shining under the lights of a florist’s. I started running towards her and glanced to my right, at the railway bridge. The man was gone.

I saw Mum falter as she approached the span across the road. At the last moment, she stopped and turned back, disappearing down a side street running parallel to the track. I called to her, but my voice was small in the whipping wind. I still had some grit in my eyes. I hoped that the shadow that bobbed and jerked after her was her own, but surely it must have been too long.

I ran after her, my legs failing to cover the ground as quickly as I would have liked, and plunged into the sidestreet after her. Terraced houses rose above me on either side, leeched of colour by the poor street lighting. I could hear the click of Mum’s heels and the clip of something sharper. The echo, I hoped, although my doubts were growing. I saw shadows leap and shudder on the wall of the end house of a lane adjoining this street. By the time I reached the same spot, I was breathing hard and little black spots were exploding behind my eyes. The cold had sealed my lips shut. An intense stitch had replaced my heart.

At the foot of the street, a car park stretched into darkness. Garages lolled like a row of rotten Hollywood façades. There was an industrial skip brimming with timber and rusted scaffolding, a tarpaulin cover failing to protect the contents from the inquisitive wind. It flapped and fluttered like the wings of some crippled prehistoric bird. To the right, another railway arch created a dreadful frame for the school field and the sky beyond. I saw how Mum was thinking. If she took the route that was too obviously a dangerous route, how could the murderer possibly be lying in wait for her? Nobody would be stupid enough to take this path with a killer at large.

I watched her move through the arch, her head still bowed as if in deference to the enormity of the silence, the almost religious blackness of the place. I tried to keep pace with her, but she was hurrying now and I was very tired, my arms and legs filling with cold. The wind was enjoying its directionless game and ripped at me from all sides. I staggered across the fields in the direction that I hoped was my home. The thought of my bed and the hot water bottle, Mum bringing me some warm milk and shutting the curtains made my stomach lurch.

A woman screamed. I don’t know where the scream originated from but at once it seemed as though her voice was assailing me from all angles. I continued to run, sobbing now, certain that I would trip on the steaming shell of my mother’s remains. But it didn’t happen. I found the path alongside the school and followed it to the end where our house stood. In the upstairs window, I saw Dad with his hands resting on the sill, looking out at the night. I didn’t see much else until I got inside. I was crying hard. It had been the first time I had been outside and separated from my mother. Though she had not heard or seen me, it felt terribly as though she had abandoned me.

*

They called him The Breakfast Man.

Both Elaine Dicker and Hannah Childs, the second victim, were killed at around 5 am, a time, in our town, when the hardcore workers turned out of bed to scrape a wedge for the family and the roof that sheltered them. Wire was our key industry back then; the town was noted for it. If you were up early enough, you could watch scores of men in black donkey jackets warming their fingers on the nipped coals of roll-ups, or hunched over the handlebars of their sit-up-and-beg bicycles. They drifted towards the wire factory like fleshed out Lowry sketches. None of them had any straightness in them; they looked defeated, primitive. Yet they moved resolutely through the dawn mist as though sucked in by the opening of the factory gates.

The police believed The Breakfast Man was one of these workers. Someone with a grudge, someone whose frustrations and failure had manifested themselves in brutal violence.

Dad said: ‘Five’ll give you ten the killer was divorced in the last six months.’ He said: ‘The killer lives alone and he can’t cope. With anything.’

I didn’t know Hannah Childs, but plenty did. They pulled her broken body off the mangled wood and iron teeth of the skip I had scurried past that morning. I didn’t tell anyone where I had been. I didn’t tell anyone about the scream. I didn’t need to: they had found the body anyway.

Hannah worked at the hospital too. She was a clerical assistant. In a spare time she showed pedigree dogs at competitions across the north-west. She had a prize cocker spaniel. Its name was Skip.

*

A week later. Mum told her superiors at the hospital that she would no longer work the graveyard shift. If she can’t work afternoons, she told them, she won’t work at all. Goodbye, they told her. There were plenty of women who weren’t as knocked back by the deaths as much as Mum. Plenty of hungry women in our town.

Dad’s bottle was half-empty. He was snoring slightly in his chair, an envelope in his hands. He had taken to falling asleep in the office during the evenings and those days when he wasn’t required at the station. Photographs fanned from the envelope’s mouth but I couldn’t make out what they depicted. When I disturbed him, he opened a drawer and dropped the envelope into it. Then he lifted me on to his lap and hugged me. He smelled sour and sickly. He smelled of sleeplessness.

‘Danny,’ he said. ‘What are your five most favourite places in the whole world?’

‘Here,’ I said. ‘The field and the sandpit. Nana’s place. And in my head.’

‘In your head?’ Dad mulled this over, his eyebrows raised, before nodding slowly. ‘I know what you mean. Good answer. As good a place to be as any.’

‘Safe,’ I said.

*

Me and Johnny could no longer go out to play on the field at the back of our house. The weather was deteriorating rapidly. Five or six days out of the week, there’d be a caul of frost on the grass, or fog loitered among the goal posts, turning them into exposed bones on a fossil dig. But on the first day of December, a hole appeared in the sky and through it came a few weak, watery rays of late afternoon sunshine.

Coincidentally, my stomach aches retreated. I felt better than I had for a long time. I badgered my mother for an hour’s play on the field and although she did not relent, she agreed to let me go up there, as long as she could come too. We collected Johnny and set off through Tower’s Court, a little maze of houses that abutted the field.

The cricket pavilion was the first thing I saw, picked out by the sunlight. A fence had been erected around it because it was rotting and in need of demolition. That didn’t stop kids from climbing over and using it for a den. Walking by it now, we saw a boy and a girl kissing in the shadows, their faces moving in a way that reminded me of how a dog watches a washing machine work. Another boy was spray-painting his name in red on the boarded windows.

Johnny had brought his ball and we kicked it about in the mud. Mum looked better in the sunlight. She laughed at us as we slid about in the dirt. I let the ball bounce on my head and shrieked when about half a ton of slime spattered my face. Mum had brought a few pieces of lardy cake with her. And some Tizer. We ate and drank. Johnny showed us how he could gargle the first verse of the National Anthem without stopping but it went wrong and he ended up snorting pop through his nose. Mum and me laughed till I wet myself. I think Mum wet herself too, just a little bit. It was a good day.

The next morning, the milkman found Mum nailed to a lamp-post with a cat’s head stuffed so hard into her mouth that the surgeons had to break the lower jaw to get it out. I couldn’t get through to Dad for days. Even with the light on, he seemed to attract darkness to his face. He didn’t reflect any light at all, he absorbed it. He was dark matter. He was a black hole.

*

One thing my dad said that I remember, when he wasn’t drunk or unconscious:

‘It’s as if she willed it upon herself. She was convinced she was on his unwritten list. She was a line and his arc bisected it.’

At least she survived. Dad thought it would have been better if she had not.

Mum came home from the hospital a few days before New Year. Christmas might as well have never happened at all in our house. There were no presents or cards, no decorations. A cake, awaiting its toppings of marzipan and icing, sat in the kitchen, the only signifier.

Early in the morning, Mum had been disturbed by the sound of a cat yowling in the street. She went outside and saw a thickset tabby with its back arched, its tail swollen to the size of a draught excluder. She had tried to comfort the cat and was looking into the street to see what had frightened it when The Breakfast Man attacked her from behind. Knocking her out, he pinned her to the lamp-post and did for the cat. He was readying to chisel Mum open when the chink of bottles and the whine of the little electric engine on the milk float sent him running for cover.

The police wanted to know what he looked like. Mum couldn’t remember. He wore one of those snorkel jackets, with the hood pulled up over his face. She said he was probably wearing a stocking over his head too; she just couldn’t see anything behind the oval of grainy darkness that contained his face. She remembered how he smelled of lead, like rusty pipes, she said. His breath was like rusty pipes.

How could we expect her to revert to her normal ways after that? She grew distant and yet, to me, she seemed closer than ever. Perhaps it was because she was inhabiting the same regions of isolation that I had been travelling for so long. We understood each other’s dislocation. Precious little connected with us; people seemed to operate on a different level, as though something fundamental had been omitted from our make-up, a vital element of the human blueprint that was out of stock at the moment we were rammed into being.

That said, Mum recoiled from me, whenever I came into the bedroom to be near her. Her eyes flitted around, seeing things that weren’t there, or that were there and she had been granted the privilege of witnessing them. It’s okay, Mum, I wanted to tell her. I see them too. You won’t be harmed. But I couldn’t say it and even if I could, she wouldn’t have heard me. In me, she had focused all of her fears and apprehensions. I hoped that it was coincidence. That it was as likely she zeroed in on a bunch of flowers or an old slipper to help pin down her neuroses, but I couldn’t help feeling that her resentment of me had long been there, buried within her, and now, as her health gradually declined and she became less linked with what was real, she could give it full rein without remorse or self-consciousness.

*

Dad too was diminishing, a kite whose guy had broken free. His drinking had increased; he was getting through a bottle and a half of whisky every day. I remember how he used to wince when he gulped it. Now he was swigging away as though it were water.

His superiors had allowed him unlimited compassionate leave but he spent most of his time in the study working anyway. He had built up a deep folder of newspaper cuttings. Whenever I went to see if he wanted to kick a ball around in the garden with me, he would stare at me with his bruised eyes as if I was a stranger who had wandered into his house. Then some ember of recognition would pulse deep within and he might try on a smile, or ruffle my hair. But it was to his dossiers that he then turned; never to the comics, or the Meccano, or The Three Stooges, stuff that we had huddled over together in the past.

He didn’t tell me what to do anymore, or how to behave. He let me play out with Johnny pretty much when and where I liked. Most of the time we wandered down to the canal which ran along the end of our road. Its towpath led to a stile at the mouth of a dense wood. Not too far in was a mulchy clearing dominated by a tree trunk felled either by lightning or the rot that had consumed much of it. Mum and Dad used to come here, when I was a toddler. I’d play near the tree while they filled a wheelbarrow with leaf mould for our garden. In October, we’d visit with black refuse sacks stuffed into our coat pockets. There was a clutch of chestnut trees at the wood’s eastern edge. If you timed it right, you could arrive with the sound of chestnuts falling to earth like strange rain. The vibrations went through your wellington boots and you’d have to shield your head to make sure the spiny cases didn’t clout you. We’d eat as many as we picked, it seemed. Under the pith, the chestnuts were pale and creamy with a crunch and a sweet taste far more enticing than that to be found when they were roasted. I write that with a jolt of surprise; I have yet to eat a roasted chestnut. I trusted my dad when he told me they were inferior.

Johnny and me, ghosting through the silver birch, the copper beech. We didn’t have any jam jars with us to go sticklebacking. It was too late for chestnuts. We walked. Johnny apologised for the description of Elaine Dicker’s mutilated body, in the light of what had happened to Mum.

‘How d-d-did you know abuh-about her in-injuries?’ I asked. In my pocket, my fingers rubbed against one of the textured pages in my sketch-book. I had a brand new, freshly sharpened Lakeland by Cumberland 3B pencil behind my ear. I was aching to use it.

‘I made it up,’ Johnny said, sheepishly. ‘Well, I didn’t exactly. Not on my own. Dave Cathersides made most of it up. Him and Callum Fisher. It was just a laugh.’

I saw tangles in everything I looked at; in the pattern of the leaves against the sky, in the fruiting loam, in the collapsed cobwebs depending from the massed ranks of rhododendron. There were signs in the spiral wormcasts, messages in the glittering frogspit wadded in the exposed roots of the hawthorn bushes. Even on Johnny. I peered at him, the whorls of fair hair under his ears, the minuscule patchwork of diamonds that made up the skin on his face, the pores ranged across his chin, gleaming in the wintry sunshine. What was so different from him, from all of this, to the stuff I created in my drawing pads? Just a nudging towards convention, a fluke of geometry.

I didn’t say anything. We dug around in the humus and tossed pine cones at each other. Johnny spotted a fox. We watched it jogging through the undergrowth like magical fire, colouring in the uniform grey and black of its surroundings. The vortices it created in the mist dragged more through the boughs until it wreathed our legs. We couldn’t see our feet. We pretended that we were blinded by the mist, and ranged around in the undergrowth, arms outstretched, eyes closed. Every time we bumped into a tree, we apologised profusely. I was in tears, laughing.

When I opened my eyes, the mist had risen to my throat and I jerked my head up reflexively, as though if I didn’t, I might drown. I couldn’t see Johnny, but I could hear him, still excusing himself and laughing, mad as a satchel of badgers. Looking up at the canopy, I managed to pick a way through the trees towards Johnny’s laughter. Suddenly I saw him. The mist had somehow caused him to look elongated. It was like viewing someone from afar on a hot day, an instance of fata morgana; Johnny’s head appeared as two or three disconnected bands linked tenuously to an etiolated body. He moved ponderously. You might believe that the mist had infected him and the dampness in his bones was now grinding him to a halt.

I took out my sketch pad and translated the shocking sight into my comfortable scrawl. Then I remembered the way a teacher had lost her temper and screamed at somebody to be quiet and the sketch took off in a new direction. And again: the train on the tracks and my face staring back at me without any eyes. And again: Dad’s lips pressing together on another mouthful of pain relief. And. And. And…

Johnny found me a little later slumped on the ground, my head ricked back against a tree, spittle oozing from the corner of my mouth. My eyes had rolled back into their sockets and I had gone into spasm.

My hand moved independently of the body’s trauma, filling the page with graphite jags and curlicues and cross-hatchings.

The following morning, a woman was discovered face down in a water barrel. He had tried to peel her skin off in one piece, as one might do with an apple, but had given up on the task and split her in half, vertically, instead with a series of heavy blows with an axe they found wrapped in newspaper and dumped in a litter bin. Her name was Michelle Paget, a nineteen-year-old veterinarian’s assistant.

She was the last of The Breakfast Man’s victims.

*

I still have those old sketch books with me now.

This morning, I flicked through them, trying to pinpoint some madness in the method. I suppose I was hoping such a study would prevent me thinking about what came next. But of course, rather than distract me, the sketches, ostensibly vague, served only to crystallise that time in my thoughts.

I took the sketch books with me down to the beach. It’s a nice beach, if a little exposed. Raw winds tear into the coast during winter. There’s a good mix of pebbles and sand and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can find little nuggets of amber among the stones.

There was a shag on one of the outermost groynes, wings outstretched, bill agape. An old couple walking a dog far in the distance. And the waves, sprinting in to shore, their tops disintegrating to mist as they met the ferocious winds.

The sketches seem to have been imbued with fresh meaning. It was a bit like looking at one of those 3-D pictures that were popular a couple of years ago. The ones where you have to stare beyond the hectic patterns until something solid pops into view so forcefully, you wonder how you could not have seen it immediately.

I saw things I don’t want to talk about. I saw suggestions in the confusion. I saw faces that are no longer around.

Dad committed suicide. I found him slumped across his desk. He had a tumbler next to him, but it hadn’t seen any whisky at all. I guess he used it to trick himself into believing his drinking remained civilised; he was necking the Scotch straight from the bottle. There were pills. White dust clung to his lips.

I reached across him, my arm brushing against his cold forehead, and pulled open the top drawer. The envelope was still there, with its glossy, awful cargo.

And all I could think, as I shuffled through this unconscionable deck, was how alike The Breakfast Man and I were. Only, his canvases were flesh, his pencil a 15-inch boning knife.

*

The police closed the case. They believed my dad was the killer. Mum made half-hearted protests from her bed in the psychiatric ward at Winwick hospital. But the police were vindicated. There were no further deaths. I wonder… I half-wonder whether my mum suspected Dad. I quarter wonder.

I went to stay with Nana until she died and then for years I was volleyed around the care system. I lost my appetite for sketching. I lost my appetite for everything. In my teenage years I got into trouble with the police for fighting, shoplifting, drunk and disorderly. I didn’t see Mum in all that time. Then they told me she had had a stroke and would not live for much longer. That was ten years ago. I tried to end my life that night. I hanged myself with an old school tie from the lamp flex in my bedroom, but the light was frail and half the ceiling fell to the floor along with me.

‘Want one?’ A nurse who smelled of Daz and nutmeg offered me a bag of caramels. She couldn’t understand why I collapsed in tears.

I burned all of the sketches under the pier. I might have been kidding myself but the smoke smelled, I’m sure of it, of growing up. Of Johnny’s bubblegum and Mum’s warm neck and Dad’s cardigan when he pulled me in close for a hug or a wrestle. The last sketch in the batch I couldn’t fathom for a long time, but then I saw how the swirls parted and allowed me to see myself. A vague profile. I think I’m smiling. But not for much longer. I think after tonight, the police might re-open their files on The Breakfast Man.

A last wrap of sweets for my mother, then. I love the way the shopkeeper will lick his thumb and rub away a white paper bag from the sheaf hanging from a piece of string on the wall. How he flaps it open and pours in the quarter measure of boiled sugar from the deep metal dish on the scales. Taking the ends, he twists the bag shut with a few flurries of movement.

I wish I could do the same with my own thoughts. Twist them shut, seal them in. Offer them to no-one.

 

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