Advent Stories #24

THE PIKE

Artwork by Caniglia

Artwork by Caniglia

Carpers further down the canal were using fishmeal and pellets to try to tempt the doubles, but Lostock wasn’t interested in them. Carp might fight for longer, but they weren’t as aggressive as pike. He didn’t like the look of them, those bloated and gormless mouth-breathers. They turned his stomach. He’d talked to bailiffs and other fishermen about the water. Some were happy to chat with him, others hunched over their gear like poker players protecting a good hand as he approached. They’d tell him what he already knew. They suggested he find another place to fish, that this place was dead now after long years of pressure, of inexperienced anglers fouling the stock. Nothing much left. I only fish here because it’s close to home and I can’t get around as much as I used to. In their eyes: Piss off. This is my swim. Sling your bleeding hook, or rather, don’t.

It was a deep canal; five feet in the main, sinking to six in some places. The margins were shallower and this was where most of the snags were to be found. Weed-beds, shopping trolleys, knotted drifts of ancient polythene. Over the years Lostock had lost any number of rigs to rusted, sunken bicycles or reefs of fly-tipped refuse. It wasn’t ethical to lose a baited treble hook in the water – no matter that they were barbless these days – so now he tested extensively the stretches he fancied, clearing the water of obstacles, or making sure of the depth so he could cast accurately above the bed. He noticed that in some areas near the bank the depth was similar to that in the middle. Pike were known to lie up against the bank or within holes. They’d be attracted to this extra foot or so of water. He knew he might be on to something when he found one such spot near a factory. Outflow pipes flooded the canal with warm water. Fish bliss. He’d often been told by his grandad that if you ever found an area like this, you should give it some time. Tend it like a garden, you’ll reap rewards.

So he’d bought a clean, empty paint tin from B&Q and punctured it all over with a screwdriver. He’d begged the fishmonger for a bucket of his waste and filled the tin with chopped heads, fins and guts. He’d added oil from a carton of mackerel fillets and left it by the heater in his shed all afternoon. He took the stinking tin to the canal in the evening and tied a rope to the plastic handle. It had hurt to do so, but he managed to sling it out to the swim he had his eye on. That bit of the water that roiled and rolled with the warm current from the outflow. He pegged the rope down and beat it into the packed soil of the bank and went home, checking first that nobody had seen him at work.

He ate. He bathed. He coated his skin in Imiquimod cream. He slept.

There never seemed to be any great stretch between closing his eyes and opening them again. He couldn’t remember his dreams any more. It was his skin, rather than the alarm clock, that brought him back. Skin so tight and dry it must belong to another body. It itched constantly, no matter how much of the cream he applied, or how often. The doctor wanted him to go for surgery, but Lostock had a thing about scars. Scars changed the way you looked. You became someone else, and he was only just coming to terms with the person that he had been shaped into. But then, maybe, it would be for the best if he did change. To be physically altered, to be at some part removed from the cast of his ancestors. The slightly prominent forehead. The downward slope of the mouth. It would help him to forget that he was the sum of a number of parts that were at best defective.

Whynt y’get ’itched, Jimmeh? Whynt y’settle down?

He turned away from the voice. He became absorbed by the routine. The flask of tea, the sandwiches – one beef paste, one ham and cheese – wrapped in greaseproof paper and tucked into the lunch-box with an apple, a Ski yogurt and half a packet of Malted Milk. His little radio, permanently tuned to TalkSport. He never listened to a word, but he needed the mutter and grumble to help distract him from more persistent voices.

A check on the tackle he’d loaded, the foldaway chair, the bait. He put the car into neutral and let the handbrake off. He coasted down the rise to the main road and only switched on the engine when he was twenty feet clear of the last house. Five a.m., and a white skin on the world. Everything shivering: the trees, the engine, the fine net of frost hanging in the air. He drove past a bungalow with a red Fiat 127 in the drive and he almost cried out. His first car had been a 127, a hand-me-down from his dad who was half-blinded by glaucoma and unable to drive. He remembered many journeys prior to that, sitting in the back seat. No radio. No seat-belts in the back. Wind-up windows. The most basic model. His mother: Oh, it’s got a ruddy engine then? An episode leapt to the head of the queue, the one time Dad took him and his grandad fishing. Grandad hauling in breath to a pair of lungs turned to worn leather after a lifetime of heavy smoking.

He’d listened to his dad moaning about the Prime Minister, about his lack of a pay rise, about the quality, or lack of it, of the beer at The Imperial. He didn’t understand a word of it. He just watched his Grandad’s hawkish profile, his wet blue eyes, the dry, sucking slit of his mouth. Later, when the deck chairs had been set up, his Grandad sat and watched his rod. He didn’t speak. He never spoke, not to Lostock, anyway. He always wore a faraway look, as if he was remembering his youth, before asbestos, or smoking, or pneumonia took it away for good. He’d never been hugged by the man, though he’d opened his arms to him when it was time to say goodbye. His grandma hugged him plenty; enough for the both of them, he supposed. What remained of his white hair curled out from beneath his cap like the barbs of a feather. Dad showed him how to thread the line through the eyes of the rod and attach a float, the lead shot, the hook. They’d brought bait in labelled Tupperware tubs: breadcrumb, sweetcorn and maggot. His Dad told him there was a trick to making a maggot wake up quickly after a night in the fridge.

‘Pop one in your mouth for a few secs, warm ‘im up, then hook ‘im on.’

But Lostock wouldn’t do it. His mum had told him that a boy had done exactly that on a fishing trip, and something in or on the maggots had infected him, burned his tongue and his lips and his penis from the inside out. He was all blisters now and he would never have kids of his own.

‘Y’talkin’ nonsense, Barb. Don’t fill the lad’s ‘ead wi’ shite like that.’

‘I ruddy amn’t. You let him put maggots in his mouth and I’ll play holy hell, Bill Lostock. See if I ruddy don’t.’

His dad showed him how to keep a finger on the line while you were casting, right up until the last second. Grandad’s float was orange, Dad’s was yellow and his own was luminous green. He stared at it for hours. He stared for so long, that the float became superimposed on eyelids whenever he closed them.

Waterwolf. Slough shark. Old Jack.

‘Jack’ll take your fingers,’ his grandad told him, while his dad went off to take a piss. ‘If you don’t show him some respect. Almost killed my father.’

The mere lay before them like a trembling brown skin. Lostock was shocked into silence, by the suddenness of grandad’s utterance, and the way his voice sounded. it was really quite lovely: rich and liquid and touched by inflections that didn’t sound like anybody he knew in his home town.

Grandad had been on a boat as a child with his father, Tom, fishing for pike, when the pike rammed them. His father and he both fell into the water. Grandad almost drowned. The pike rammed Tom in the face, scarfing down an eye. Grandad managed to pull himself back into the boat and splashed at the water with the paddle until he was sure the fish was gone. He didn’t know who was screaming the most, him or Tom. Other fishermen on the bank had been roused by the commotion and waded out to them.

‘Is that the worst thing you ever saw?’ Lostock asked him, and his voice had been tiny in the oppressive room, under the cracked Lancashire slur of his grandad, leaning over him with his hawkish face, the grim, sharkbow mouth.

‘It were the worst I ever felt. Watchin me dad go into the water and see that monster try to drill itself into his head.’ He leaned closer. Lostock smelled tobacco and Uncle Joe’s. ‘We all of us have a chapter like that. A black chapter. Sometimes you write it yourself. Sometimes some bastard writes it for you.’

His dad came back then, face red from the sun. They stayed until dusk and packed up, empty-handed, his dad cursing the water and the idiots that were supposed to stock it. Kev Beddall had told him there were scores of perch in the mere. Big ones too, five pounders. He reckoned there might be a British record in that water. ‘Kev Beddall’s got shite fer brains,’ he remembered his dad saying. His grandad resembled a fish discarded on the bank, sucking uselessly at the air, waiting for the priest to batter the life from him. He had wondered if maybe his grandad was a pike in disguise, and might be better off in the water. Lostock had stared at his dad in horror, wondering if he had read his own black chapter yet. They stopped off at the pub on the way home but he couldn’t swallow his Coke for the fear that swelled in his throat.

 *

Lostock reached the swim, his head thick and itchy with unpleasant memories that had not encroached for many years. His grandad had died maybe two or three years after that fishing trip, the only one they’d shared, and he could barely remember a conversation between them. It was as if Lostock did not exist when they were in the room together. His grandad stared straight ahead, at the wrestling on TV if it was on, or if not, at a space above it.

‘Lived longer than I will, though,’ Lostock thought now as he set up his rig, fixing a wire leader to the line to foil the pike’s teeth, attaching a circle hook, digging through the tubs of deads for some suitably tasty lure. He cast nervous glances east, to the factory, and what lay beyond. His skin trembled, as if in recognition.

The sun was a bare thin line skimming the houses in an area that had once been known as Arpley Meadows, where Thames Board Paper Mill had stood. He used to cycle up Slutcher’s Lane to watch the cricket matches there in the summer, and root about in the grounds because sometimes you could find spare rolls of gaffer tape as large as a tyre. He might take some bin liners with him and fill them with the shreds and offcuts from the factory, caught in the guttering and ditches like wizards’ hair. He went round the lanes near his house, selling it as bedding for rabbits and guinea pigs, a bit of pin money to keep himself stocked up on hooks and fresh line.

He’d kept that green float, for luck, and he used it now. He cast into the swirl of warm water by the outflow pipe and settled into this chair. He put on his sunglasses and cricket hat. He angled his umbrella against the coming dawn. He waited.

Basal cell carcinoma. This skin cancer was, the doctor had related to him, a result of ‘solar damage’, as if he was no different to some kind of satellite. Plaques and lesions had formed and grown on his legs and arms, the skin becoming sore and red and even, in some places, scaly and crusted. The doctor wanted Lostock to go for surgery, had impressed upon him that this form of cancer was eminently survivable, but he didn’t want any knife near him. Which left him with dawn and dusk to hide his face, and a scarf when these uninhabited acres became dotted with loners like him.

Whynt y’get ’itched, Jimmeh? Whynt y’settle down?

He closed his eyes to his dead mother’s voice as if that might provide her with an answer that would satisfy her. She had, probably rightly, blamed his obsession with the fish for his inability to land what she called a proper catch, a keeper. His objections were down to his skin, but it wouldn’t wash with Mam, who had always made it sound as though he was to blame for his condition. No Lostock ever ’ad the skin cancer befowah. And we sunned ussel’s daft, got sunburned and everythin’. All I can say is you int made of the same gristle as the rest of us. You daft get.

He hadn’t the heart to mention all the holidays they’d taken to Rhyl and Prestatyn and Aberystwyth when he was a child. Every summer in a caravan, two weeks of traffic jams, his dad pissed every night, and a diet of burgers, chips and ice cream. Dawn till dusk out in the high 70s without sunblock sucking down warm, sugary lemonade, always thirsty because of it. And when he woke up in the middle of the night in agony, his skin the colour of boiled lobsters, blisters the size of footballs on his legs, his mother had sterilised a needle with the flame from a cigarette lighter and lanced them, then squealed at him to sleep on the sofa when the lymph from within drizzled on to his sheets. That had happened so many times he couldn’t count them. His GP had gone spare when he saw the scars. He ordered his mother to either keep him out of the noon day sun or slather him in factor 50.

What’s that pale nobend know about suntans an’ doctorin’? his mother had wanted to know. Ant got no ruddy clue and how dare he shout at me like that? The jumped up snot-nose bastid. What is he, twelve years old? An’ thinks ‘e’s God’s gift to ’ealin’?

Thanks, Mam. Thanks for everything.

His first memory of his Mam: reaching out to her from the pram, her oval face framed with prematurely grey hair, her brown eyes wrinkling under a brown smile. The filter between her brown fingertips. She used to dip his dummy in rum laced with honey to get him off to sleep. She forced it in his mouth like a plug that was slightly too small for the sinkhole. One time, she caught a ragged fingernail on his lips and he cried so hard his throat hurt and the breath snagged in his chest –

The green float disappeared beneath the surface of the water. He stared at it a moment, thinking of the fake emeralds around his mother’s throat as they dipped below the scalloped neckline of her dress. He wondered where she had bought that, or who had given it to her. Behind every trinket, a story. She would –

Christ.

Any other fish and he’d have lost it. But it was okay, with pike, to take your time. Most of them attacked fish acrossways, content to wait until they arrived back at their lair to turn their meal around and eat it head first.

‘Hi Jack,’ he said, without realising. He struck into the fish and the immediate resistance of it corded his forearms; it was a big bastard, maybe twenty-plus pounds. The far bank, the factory, the wedges of leaden cloud rising on the horizon, all of this receded until his focus took in only the tip of his rod and the boiling surface of the canal just beyond it. It was in such moments, when the world mostly went away and he was blindly connected to the animal on his hook, that he felt anything like alive. His mind stopped harking back to a time when he wished he might have been happier. It did not pick at the scab of his grandfather or mope over the decay that drove his parents apart. His skin was just a dull sack that contained him, rather than a complex structure that was degrading, conspiring to pull him apart. There was a single, pure thought. How to deliver something from one element into another.

The fish fought for a long time, longer than he was expecting. He wondered if maybe after all he’d struck into a carp, but then the fish rose and its duck-billed head became visible. An eye swivelled towards him from just under the surface, with its fixed black pupil like a hammered tack. He was granted a view of its pale belly as the fish rolled away from him, all bronze, gold, rust. It was endless, ageless. The fish sank and Lostock felt the tremor of its body as it flexed, finning for depth. The line had broken. Now Lostock felt a pang of guilt through the brief depression of his loss; fish hooked deep enough might starve to death because the hook and wire trace couldn’t be removed without damage to the delicate gut.

He put down his rod and cleaned his hands. The winter sun was finding a way through the mist, despite being unable to rise much higher than the factory roofs. Lostock got out of his chair and stretched his legs. Fighting the pike, and all that remembering had tired him but it was still too early to turn to his lunchbox. He poured out another beaker of tea and took it downstream to the hump-backed bridge. The road was cracked, studded with pot-holes. On the other side of the bridge it split into two. One branch curved left and cleaned up its act before it met the main roads on the outskirts of town. The other branch ended after a hundred yards at a steel fence locked into place with breeze-blocks. The factory beyond was out of bounds, awaiting the wrecker’s ball, presumably, or a slow decay into the foaming acres of autumn hawkbit and mind-your-own-business.

There was a security poster fixed to the diamond links with nylon ties, but in all the hours Lostock had spent on the canal bank he had seen no sign of a patrol. No white vans. No dogs. He placed a foot against the fence and it bowed inwards; someone had been here before. Further along, where the fence became lost within a tangle of branches and brambles, it was torn and buckled. Lostock pushed his way through, careful not to snag his sore skin on any of the metal claws, and approached the factory entrance. The door had been recently secured with what looked like old railway sleepers bolted across the frame. The ground floor windows were boarded up with fresh panels. He took a mouthful of tea and spat it out: cold. He’d been standing on the forecourt, staring up at the building, for fifteen minutes. Cramp laced the backs of his calves. He shook it out and walked around to the side. The hair on his back and shoulders was rising but the temperature, if anything, had improved since dawn. Ducts and pipes, corroded by time and rust into metal wafers, sprawled from the factory wall like something gutted. He placed his hand against one of the less ruined conduits and felt warmth. He remembered the outflow pipe at the canal, with its constant drizzle of warm water. What had they made here? Was the factory abandoned after all?

He remembered this place from his childhood. You could see its saw-tooth roof on the bus to and from school if you sat on the top deck. His grandad had worked here, but he had no idea what he did. Dad told him he did carpentry in his spare time, and had constructed the frames for the houses that backed on to the M6 through some of the villages dotted around south Cheshire. But this didn’t look like any kind of timber factory. He saw now, how, if he climbed on to the pipes that swarmed from the shattered housing, he’d be able to lever himself up to a window that was only partially obscured by chipboard. The lure of the fish was only so great now that he was in the shadow of the factory. He felt the delicious tremor of criminality, unknown for years, since minor indiscretions as an underage drunk, or shoplifting bars of chocolate from the corner shop. He placed his cup by the pipe and hoisted himself on to it, realising, too late, that if the metal gave out under his weight he would injure himself badly. His skin was in no mood for cuts or abrasions. It held, but it made plenty of distressing creaks and groans. Flakes of rust and paint fell psoriatically away. As he drew closer to the window, there was a smell of chemicals and mildew, reminding him of the bathroom at his grandad’s house, before he was moved to the home. He was fond of harsh-smelling products: Vosene, Listerine, Euthymol, TCP, Dettol. He would never have touched a jar of moisturiser. It was a wonder he had not dissolved in some of the things he slathered on his own skin.

Lostock pulled at the chipboard; it broke apart under his fingers. He pushed it away and gazed through the open window-frame. The factory looked as though it had been abandoned in a hurry. There was a melamine table with a mint green surface covered in a film of grease and grime, peppered with plates and mugs. A padded jacket hung on a chair. Beyond that was a cavernous area swimming with motes. His fingers till sang with the tension from the fish and he didn’t feel the dull pebbles of glass that remained in the frame as he levered himself into the factory. His boots crunched on more of that glass and the dust and dead insects of God knew how many years. The air was cold and old. It smelled of feathers and spoors. There was a rich, mushroom odour underpinning the faint chemical ghosts. Empty paint tins stood glued the floor by rust and their own leakages. In a corner, a pair of vermin-chewed boots stood facing the wall. Layers of paint and plaster peeled from the walls, revealing the lathe beneath, like rudimentary ribs in a creature that had been ignored by evolution. A calendar clung to what was left. Much of December woman had leeched into the tiles above a bowl containing a boulder of solid sugar. Her face was smeared, her eyes accusatory. Leaflets explaining how to join a trade union were a gummed mass considering a leap from the corner of the work-top. Lostock moved through the room, hating the gritty echoes that his feet threw up. He opened a door into a corridor flanked by offices. All of them were empty, the furniture flogged, the fittings and fixtures stolen, or stripped out by renovators abruptly stymied by the plummeting economy. He found himself on the floor of what might have been the Human Resources base. There were yellowed dockets and invoices spilling from a file swollen with damp. They mentioned paper orders and quotas for recycled pulp. What he’d smelled all along was not the dank organic stench of mushrooms, but the ancient rot of paper. He meant to leave then, sick of the smell, and the way the air was somehow coalescing around him, the tiny fibres of cellulose tickling his nostrils and blanketing his lungs. But something about the smell was growing more familiar to him, the further along this corridor he progressed. Under the factory odours was something domestic, but not of these times. It was a mingling of notes that fled as soon as they arrived, like a word that would not sit still on the tip of the tongue. Napthalene, suet, the hot cotton scent of antimacassars scorching by direct sunlight. Bleached hardbacks on a shelf, barely touched in fifty years. Brasso. Wright’s coal tar soap. Camp coffee.

He was standing in an office without understanding how he’d reached it. Depressions in the floorboards showed where a desk and chairs had once stood. Gaps in the grille across the window allowed him to see his deck chair by the canal. What was he thinking? There was a couple of hundred pounds’ worth of gear lying there, waiting to be nicked. But he was rooted. Something in the air: this smell, this peculiar mixture of smells that he’d not known for thirty years. He stared at where the desk would have been, and tried to imagine the shape of the head of the man sitting behind it. He found it hard to believe that people might have come to him to ask his advice on an aspect of work, when he was so very recalcitrant in his private life. Lostock imagined him at Christmas parties, or outings, tie off, the neck buttons undone. Handing out pints, helping women into their coats. ‘Thanks, Jack. Bye, Jack.’

There was a large plastic rubbish bin in the opposite corner. Somebody had made a half-hearted attempt at clearing out the room but had either given in or stopped when it became clear the building was a hopeless case. He saw great clods of hoovered up dust and carpet fibres, whiteboard markers, broken in-trays. There was a manila file in there too, with Lostock’s initials on it: J.K.L. James Kenneth Lostock. Inside were pictures drawn by a child, yellowed by time around the edges, pitted here and there by thumbtacks. Pictures of the man who had owned them, all gigantic faces and arms akimbo. Here was a picture of Grandad holding a fish in his fist. Lostock did not remember drawing them, but there was his name at the bottom of each page, with the ‘e’ and the ‘s’ back to front.

He wished his grandad back for the first time, then. He thought he might be able to help him, in the way the doctors and his parents had not.

Whynt y’get itched, Jimmeh? Whynt y’settle down?

Is that the worst thing you ever saw?

Lostock was 12 when he went fishing for mirror carp with his best friend at the time, a boy from his class at school called Carl. They’d cycled to the gravel pit, mist-covered and grey this particular winter morning, with rods already set up and baited, pieces of corn infused with vanilla extract speared on their hooks. Lostock had told Carl vanilla extract was a bit gay, but Carl said the fish liked it, that they wouldn’t spit the corn out because of it.

They ditched their bikes next to the pit and pitched a tent. They made their casts and sat watching the tips of their rods. Soon Lostock dug into his rucksack and started divvying up their breakfast. Morning rolls spread with peanut butter and mashed bananas, cold crispy bacon wrapped in kitchen paper, a flask of hot chocolate. Lostock was bored after a couple of hours. He wasn’t the fishing nut; he’d agreed to come along with Carl, who had a passion for carp. It had sounded like an adventure. It was just cold and dull.

He told his friend he was going to do a round of the pit on his bike, maybe see if there was anywhere to do some jumps. Carl waved him off. Something made Lostock turn to look back at his friend, when he was on the opposite side of the pit. A figure, slight and pale, wearing a Lord Anthony covered in Star Trek badges and jeans so faded they were almost white.

Almost immediately he heard the sound of cows lowing. He turned toward the noise, nervous. He didn’t like cows. He didn’t like their thick pink tongues licking at too-wet nostrils. He didn’t like their swollen udders and the caking of shit around their tails. They stank. They attracted flies. He drove his mother berserk because she was worried he wasn’t getting enough calcium inside him.

There were no cows in the field. He could hear the groan of morning traffic rising from the main road, a couple of hundred metres away. And this lowing.

He scrambled through the sludge of rotten leaves and mud, splashing cold, dirty water all up the back of his cords — and his mother was going to clear his lugholes out over that when he got home — and found his way barred by a fence. Behind that was a couple of parked cars and an open door. The sound was coming from that.

He thought to go back to Carl and ask him about it; he knew his way around this place, but instead he dumped his bike and climbed over the fence. He went to the door and peeked inside. There were five men in white gowns and helmets, like a team of weird construction workers dressed up as ghosts. One of them turned around and Lostock was aghast to see an apron slicked with blood. He stepped back out into the cold air, glad of it in his chest, smacking him in the face. He thought about getting back on his bike and cycling to a phone booth, calling the police. There was murder going on here.

He had to make sure. He ran around the back of the building, where lorries were backed up against open bays. He heard the cows again. And other noises. Screams and squeals. This sounded nothing like the deaths that occurred on Kojak. Through a window he saw cows being led to pens. A man with what looked like a large black wand bent over them and pressed it to their heads. There was a hiss, a deep ka-chunk sound, and the animals dropped.

He didn’t know whether what he felt then was relief or sickness. It was just another kind of murder, after all.

He was thinking of bacon sandwiches, and whether he would miss them if he decided to become a vegetarian, when he heard another scream. This one was altogether different. It was high pitched. Somehow… wetter. It suggested a knowledge of what was happening to its author.

He ran back to the windows, thinking of intelligent animals, wondering crazily when the British public had developed a taste for dolphins or octopi, and saw a long steel trench with lots of metal teeth turning within it. Someone had been piling indeterminate cuts and wobbling, shiny bits of offal from a plastic chute into one end but had got his arm trapped. His mates were running towards him and the man was screaming shut it off, shut it off. Thankfully, Lostock couldn’t see his face. He didn’t say anything else after that, because the auger ground him into the trench and he was killed. He heard the scream cut out as if he’d flicked off his own power switch. He’d heard, even at this distance, through the glass, the pulverisation of thick bone. He’d seen the teeth of the machine impacted with flesh and torn clothes. His face had risen from the trench, scooped up by a blade, like a bad horror mask on a pound shop hook.

Lostock was sick where he stood, violent and without warning. It was as if someone had punched it out of him from within.

He didn’t remember climbing back over the fence, collecting his bike, or returning to Carl.

‘Where have you been, you bone-on?’ Carl demanded. ‘You nearly missed this.’

He stood back to allow Lostock a look at the mirror carp lying in grass. It was enormous. It seemed deformed. Its skin was olive-coloured, there were maybe four or five scales, dotted near the tail and the dorsal fin. Its eyes protruded, its huge mouth gawped, gasping in the air. Lostock felt suddenly detached from nature. He couldn’t understand how this thing could still be living, how it could have come into being in the first place. There was this sudden impact in his mind about the outrageousness of animals. He had sucked up science fiction films since the age of five and stared out at the night sky wondering if aliens truly existed without giving any thought whatsoever to the bizarre creatures that lived on his own planet. Elephants. Rhinoceroses. Squid. Mirror carp. Here was as weird as you could get. He saw Carl for what he really was, a network of organs, blood vessels, bones and nerves. A brain with ganglia. Meat. The boy in the snorkel parka was gone for ever. Everything had changed.

‘I have to go home,’ he might have said. He didn’t remember cycling back.

 *

He returned to the canal bank and loaded a hook with bait. The skin on the back of his hands was a mass of red striations. It felt loose on his face, like a latex mask he might be able to get his fingertips under and peel away. Despite the stink of the canal, and the constant breath of the exhaust coming down from the main roads, he could smell the sweet riot of decay pulsing off him. He pushed it all away and concentrated on the green float as he cast the rig into the water. Almost immediately he saw the pale underbelly of a pike as it rolled on the surface by the far bank. Something was wrong. Lostock picked up his landing net and ensured his disgorger and his pliers were in his pocket, then hurried over the bridge to the other side. It was the same pike he’d caught that morning. He slid the net beneath it, careful not to startle it away, but this fish was going nowhere. There were ulcers all over its body, he could see now. Maybe where the fish had been fouled by careless anglers in the past, or something more serious. Struggling with the weight, Lostock brought the fish ashore and got it on to its back. It must have been forty pounds. He placed his legs either side of the body. With his gloved hand he grasped the pike’s chin bone and tugged it upwards. The mouth yawned open, revealing a coral-coloured throat. Nylon line reached into the shadows. Lostock clamped the line between his pliers and wound it around the jaws; the gut rose into the mouth, revealing the embedded hook, awash with blood.

‘Christ, I’m sorry,’ Lostock said.

With his other hand he used the disgorger to remove the hook and pushed the gut back with the blunt end while holding the head as high as he could. His muscles burned and trembled under the weight of the fish. Its eye was fixed on Lostock the whole time. There was a cold, ancient wisdom there, and despite the circumstances, and the poor condition of its flesh, Lostock, as ever when he was in such close proximity to pike, felt an immense swell of wonder. He heard his dad’s voice, softened by beer, and a twelve-hour shift at the depot: They’re mean-looking buggers, and they fight hard, but they have a glass jaw, them pike. They die easy.

 *

He slipped into the water and drew the fish in alongside him. He tried to coax some movement from it, but it kept rolling on to its flanks. The majesty of it. The power. All potential was reduced in the end. Every spike of adrenaline was only a temporary thumbing of the flatline’s nose.

Because you have nothing else. Because you want to say goodbye.

The cold crept through him, despite his exertions with the fish. His skin no longer troubled him. The pain was like something viewed through thick fog.

This fish had been around for millions of years. He wondered if it was related to the one that had attacked his grandad as a child. He wondered if, in some freak of longevity, it was the same beast. And there was a jolt of alarm as he considered the fish might be faking its sickness, and only wanted to trap him. But that passed. And he kept on with his ministrations. He got down low to the surface, close enough to smell the mud in its flesh, and he whispered to old Jack until night concealed everything.

 

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.

 

Advent Stories #22

CITY IN ASPIC

aspic

It was a place that needed people in order for it to come alive. In winter, the streets whispered with uncollected litter and nervous pigeons. The air grew so thick with cold that it became hard to walk anywhere. When night came, the water that was slowly drowning the city turned the darkness into an uncertain quantity. There was astonishing beauty here too, though, even where there oughtn’t be any. The crumbling structures, the occasional bodies dragged from the waterways, the bleach of winter that pocketed the city’s colour for months on end: all of it had a poetry, a comeliness. Massimo understood this skewed charm. Where others saw moles, he saw beauty spots.

Many times Massimo had wished he could simply drift away like the tourists at the tail end of the season, or the leaves that blew from the trees. It would be nice to spend the coldest months of the year further south, perhaps with his cousins in Palermo. But now that was not possible. He and Venice were stuck with each other until March.

He stood on the balcony of the honeymoon suite, smoking his last cigarette and enjoying the garlicky smells of chicheti that wafted up from the osterie on the Riva degli Schiavoni. One of Venice’s interminable mists had risen from the Canale di San Marco and clung to the façades like great sheets hung out to dry. Behind him, from deep within the hotel, the sound of the vacuum cleaners on the stairs competed for a short while with the toots of the vaporetto and the bell of San Nicoló dei Mendicoli. The last of the guests had checked out that morning and in a little while, Maria, the cleaner, would be finished and he could lock the great doors of the Hotel Europa until next year.

He could have his dinner here, on this balcony, every evening if he so wished. The corridors would be his alone to patrol. A different bed to sleep in whenever he liked, though such a choice disturbed him perhaps more than it ought. Deaths had occurred in some of the Europa’s rooms; children and divorces had their origins on a number of those mattresses.

He flicked his cigarette end in the direction of the canal and returned to the room where he smoothed the bedspread before taking the stairs down to the ground floor. His father, Leopoldo, had told him this was a job of great responsibility; if he went about it with professionalism, then he would be considered for the post of reception clerk. He was under no illusions. He was a security guard, no more. In the seventies, his father had run the Europa with a touch of élan and much warmth. Tourists who stayed at the Europa came back the next year and the year after that. And then the hotel had been taken over by men in suits with large bellies and eyes that gleamed when they assessed his father’s profits. They paid a hefty sum to take over the hotel. Massimo’s father was tired. A stroke had robbed him of his personable nature. Though the hotel was Massimo’s birthright, he agreed with his father that they should take the money in order that it should fund his senescence. But his father, though crippled by the stroke, clung to life and the money was running out.

Maria, who had been a cleaner here for as long as he could remember, patted his arm before she left and told him that spring would be here before he was aware. ‘Take advantage of the rest,’ she advised him. ‘You’ll be busy again too soon.’ Perhaps seeing the bitterness in his eyes, she smiled at him. ‘Your father would be proud of you.’

And now, alone. The magazines had been read and the puzzle books completed. The evening stretched before him like the interminable carpets on the five floors above. He took a cursory stroll of the ground floor, checking the window catches in each room and the locks on the doors. The furniture was shrouded with dust sheets that reduced everything to the same, lumpen shape.

He was about to return to the lobby and rewatch an old football video when he saw the single glove draped across the newel post. The stairwell reached up into darkness, those risers beyond the sixth step lost to a night that had fallen on the city as stealthily as snow. It was a lady’s glove for the left hand, made from black leather and scuffed with age. The interior smelled of perfume. Maria must have come across it while she was preparing the rooms for the winter. He pocketed it and drew the curtains across the front entrance but not before noticing that the street was empty. He didn’t like the way that Venice was abandoned each year. It was as if sunshine and long days were the only things of interest to visitors. Newly married couples ran the gamut of clichés before returning to their homes; the way the tourists clung to St Mark’s square or were punted around in boats suggested that Venice had nothing else to offer.

Irritated by this train of thought, Massimo turned off the television and went out into his city, a place where he could still get lost in the dark, a place that thrilled and comforted him like no other. The somnolent lap of the water against the gondolas was the beat of a mother’s heart. It was not merely a comfort. It justified him. It fastened him like a bolt to the earth and gave him substance.

He stopped for coffee and grappa at the trattoria al canastrello and watched from the window the black water as it ribboned beneath the Ponte di Rialto. One of his favourite occupations was observing people, but at this time of the year the only people around were the old and infirm. They drifted through the streets as if the weight of their experience was shoring Venice up, as much a support for the ancient city as the countless larch poles that cradled it beneath the waves. Venice, during the winter, seemed to run down like an old clock. Its streets and façades could still play a backdrop for anybody from any time over the last fifteen hundred years without them seeming anachronistic. He would not have been surprised to see Marco Polo himself hurrying along the Fondamenta del Vin. The people fastened Venice to the here and now. But when there were no people, it was as if the city were immune to history. Venice had the quality of an eternal ghost.

A woman with one hand paused at the apex of the bridge to look into the water, but then he saw how the light was absorbed by the dark glove on the limb that he thought had been missing, which made it seem invisible. She was moving away from the bridge, in the direction of the San Polo district, when Massimo remembered the glove in his pocket. He cast a handful of lire on to the table and burst out of the trattoria into the cold. The air was damp and settled heavily in his lungs.

By the time he was under the grand arch at the top of the bridge the woman was nowhere to be seen; she could have taken any one of the half dozen exits away from the canal. Frustration bled through him. He glanced back to the warmth of the trattoria and saw that somebody had already taken his place at the window, was hunched over a newspaper. Angry, he stalked in the direction she had taken, rubbing at the glove in his pocket. It was an old thing. Tomorrow, no doubt, she would buy herself a new pair, thus rendering pointless this little chase of his.

Massimo walked for twenty minutes, until the fog had drawn an ugly, persistent cough from his chest. He tugged at the collars of his coat but the damp was in him and around him now, settling on the thick black twill like dew. He heard a brief snatch of music from one of the pensiones but it was stolen away before he had the chance to place it. The absence of people disarmed him. During the day, this area was a hive of activity filled with erberia and pescheria, along with jewellers’ shops and clothes stalls. Now it was lonely and its voice was any number of echoes. The lack of physicality, of motion, had taken away his confidence. The street names were made indistinct by the quickening mist. He had grown up in this city, and understood that part of its charm was its complication of alleyways, but never before had he felt so lost. His home had turned its back on him.

Shutters closed noisily on the night. Venice was sealing itself against the hour.

He stumbled gratefully upon the Campo San Polo where he was able to reorient himself. Eager to return to the hotel, he lingered as he heard the skitter of heels clatter through the arches towards him. She was still nearby, or somebody else was. He bit down on his compulsion to find her and hurried back to the Europa. Once there, he locked the glass doors and threw on the lobby lights.

He placed the glove behind the reception desk and checked the phone messages. There was just one, from his father, who felt well enough to take lunch with his son the following day, if the weather was fair.

In bed, Massimo allowed the creaks and sighs of the old hotel to lull him. At least here, among these well-known and much-loved sounds he could feel at home, even if his city had shown him its inaccessible side tonight. He slept and dreamt of hands reaching out from the sacrament-black waters. They would not rest until they touched him. And where they touched him, a little part of his happiness, his warmth inside, was switched off for ever.

*

He wakened feeling hollow and feverish. He knew it was his blood sugar levels in need of a boost, but could not resist blaming the dream on his skittishness. He wished, as was so often the case with other dreams, that he had been unable to remember it.

He took breakfast in another of the suites, white dust sheets covering the furniture and brightening the room, while also making it cold through its lack of definition. The mist had disappeared. Feeble sunlight splashed across the roofs and turned the surface of the canal into the colour of watered-down milk. Feeling better, he set the timer on the central heating to ensure that each room would be warmed for a few hours, and switched on the television.

In the night, a murder had been committed in Venice, at the campanile near the church of San Polo. According to the reporter, who was standing by the Palazzo Soranzo in the square, his nose red from the cold, the woman had been found just after midnight by a man walking his dog. The camera switched angles to show the crime scene, which was dominated by a white tent erected by the carabinieri, a number of whom were standing around with machine guns hanging loose over their arms. Bystanders watched as a stretcher was shunted into an ambulance, a crimson blanket covering the body.

Shaken, Massimo switched off the bulletin and showered. He had picked up a sniffle after last night’s adventure and he felt too ropy to go out. He considered calling his father to cancel lunch, but the old man did not take the air much these days; he would be looking forward to spending a little time in the sunshine with his boy.

Massimo toured the hotel, desultorily checking windows and locks. He flapped ineffectually at the pigeons that had settled on the terraces and made a mental note to buy some disinfectant and talk to Franco, the handyman, about getting some netting to drape from the roof, to prevent them nesting. With a heavy heart, he locked the hotel doors behind him. It was not so much the emptiness of the old building that got to him, but its silences. Coming back to a quiet place, that over the years had known so much bluster and happiness, was saddening in the extreme. It was a different hotel to the one his father had run. It was as if, at the time of Leopoldo’s departing, its spirit had left too, perhaps clogged up with the gears of the old-fashioned fob watch he wore in his waistcoat, or bunched in a pocket like one of his maroon silk handkerchiefs.

Massimo spotted his father easily. His beard was a white strap for his chin and he wore the only tie he owned, a dark blue knot against a badly ironed white shirt.

‘Hi pop,’ he said, bending slightly to kiss the top of the old man’s head. The beard was not clipped as neatly as it once had been; his hair was haphazardly oiled. He smelled of burnt toast.

Buon giorno,’ Leopoldo said, formally. ‘Come sta?

Massimo ordered another glass of Prosecco for his father, despite his protestations, and a grappa for himself.

‘You heard of the killing?’ Leopoldo said, through the slewed mess of his mouth. He dabbed at the corner of it with a handkerchief every ten seconds or so. The left side of his face seemed to be sliding away from his head. It gave him a dismissive air that, Massimo suspected, pleased his father no end. He seemed distressed by the news, though.

‘This morning, yes,’ he replied. He could not help feeling guilty. His father’s stare still had the capacity to find some speck of fault in him, even when there was none.

‘A woman, they say.’

Massimo grunted.

‘They say her left hand was skinned, like a rabbit.’

‘I didn’t know that.’ Reaching for the glove in his pocket that, of course, was not there, Massimo betrayed more of his nervousness than even he expected of himself.

Leopoldo had noticed also. ‘Are you all right, son?’ He tried to reach out the withered nonsense of his own left hand but he could do no more than waggle it in Massimo’s direction.

‘I’m fine. It’s the hotel. Strange to be there with nobody else around.’

‘It is a good hotel. She will protect you.’

‘I know pop. I know.’

They were half way through lunch when Massimo thought of something.

‘How did you know about the hand?’ he asked. ‘You said it was skinned.’

‘So they say.’

‘Who are “they”?’

Leopoldo wiped his lips. His plate was littered with splinters of chicken bone. Much of the sauce patterned his shirt; he was having a good lunch.

‘I have my friends,’ he said. ‘Friends all over Venice. They stay in my hotel sometimes. Maybe when they need a little help. Polizia. I have friends there too. You don’t think your papa has his contacts?’

Sadly, Massimo understood that, like his father, the only friends he could lay claim to were friends of the hotel first. They were friends by extension.

‘It’s nice to see you again, pop.’

‘You too. We should do this more often. You should come visit me.’

‘I will. I will.’

Massimo walked his father to the vaporetto and waved him off before deciding to investigate the murder site for himself. The crowd had dispersed since the body had been taken away, but the white tent remained, as did the carabinieri. Police tape sealed off the area. By day, the campo did not seem capable of possessing the menace it had exuded the previous night. All of its shadows had been washed clean by the sunlight.

He wanted to ask one of the policemen, or perhaps one of the louche reporters leaning against the wall smoking cigarettes, if they knew anything more about the death and whether or not Leopoldo’s nugget of gossip bore any truth. Instead, he walked away. To say anything might be to incriminate himself. He could not help feeling in some small way responsible for the woman’s death. If he had caught up with her, he might have been able to give her her glove; his presence alone might have been enough to dissuade her pursuer from attacking.

On the Ponte di Rialto he saw a dark cat withdrawn into the shade. His father had loved cats and had kept many at the Europa over the years. Massimo beckoned it to him but it did not come. It was only as he drew nearer that he realised it was not a cat at all. It was another glove.

*

Massimo did not go out that evening. He ate his dinner in the hotel kitchen and played patience in the lobby while the television murmured. He paid it no attention, but its burble was of some comfort. He thought about calling some of his old friends, people he had not seen for many years, and asking them round for drinks but he did not possess the courage. It would be too much to find that they had moved away from Venice or worse, that they had remained but did not remember him. The hotel had nailed him to this city. He might be taking care of it at the moment, but he saw now how it had more than taken care of him. He stopped dealing cards and looked up at the paintings on the walls, the worn carpet leading from the door to the reception area, the sofas under their dustsheets, the ashtrays on the fake marble tables. He suddenly despised the hotel, and the way his father had shackled him to it. He envied the old man’s freedom. All of Massimo’s formative years had been poured into the hotel and while it had remained robust, fashionable even, he had found himself at the doorway to his forties, his promise, his potential dwindling like the hair at his temples. Venice was like an ill-matched spouse that one gets used to, that one learns to if not love, then abide. Its waters lapped slowly at one’s resolve; Massimo had been worn down by it. He had capitulated.

Evening had lost its ripe colours to the night. Faint drifts of cloud were scrapes at the bottom of a bowl of dark chocolate. A cold wind, a taste of winter, was coming in from the north, inspiring shapes among the twists of litter. Massimo sat back in his chair and reached for the bottle beneath the desk. His hand brushed against the gloves. He took two quick shots of grappa and picked up the telephone. His fingers remembered the number before he had fully mustered it in his thoughts. He was surprised by the readiness of this memory. She can’t still live there, he thought, as the line burred with the ringing tone. The lights in the hotel dimmed and then grew very bright. He was about to hang up, embarrassed by this asinine plot, he was startled into saying something when a voice leapt down the receiver at him: ‘Pronto!’

*

Adelina Gaggio remembered him. How could she not, she had argued? Though it had been thirty years since they had last spoken at length, when they were both at school, their conversation had been spiced and easy, as if they had never lost touch. Her voice had been a soft hand enclosing his, bringing him in from the cold.

Yes, she had eaten, but she was at a loose end tonight and would be thrilled to come and see him. She too lived in the Sestiere Castello, in Calle Dietro te Deum, and would be with him within the hour.

Massimo hurried around the lobby, stripping back the sheets to try to rouse some colour and warmth from the old building. He changed into clothes that were not so tired-looking and relieved the wine cellar of a few bottles of Bardolino. It was as he was wiping them clean and trying to remember which bunch contained the key for the dining room, where the glasses were stored, that he heard two very loud thumps above his head, as if somebody struggling to remove his shoes had managed to kick them across the room.

The spit vanished from his mouth. He had nothing in the way of a weapon, other than a broken snooker cue from the games room that had been waiting months for a repair that would never happen. He took the lower half of it, tight in his fist, and padded along the corridor to the stairs. Throwing the switches to illuminate the upper floors might scare the intruder off but the coward in Massimo could not bear to ascend in darkness. He was half way up the second flight, the suite of rooms where the sound had come from in view, when the lights went out again, staggered, as though a finger was deliberately flicking off each set. Massimo’s hand would not settle on the butt of the cue. He paused, his breath coming harder than this simple exertion ought to inspire, while his eyes accustomed to the fresh dark.

A pair of pigeons had flown into a window, confused by the reflections in the glass. The electrics, old and unreliable in such a building, had fused. Hadn’t they suggested their unpredictability to him downstairs just now? He clung to the possibilities like a child at the tit. But if the circuits had fused, shouldn’t the lights go out as one?

There were different sets of switches. The ones he had thrown at the foot of the stairs and separate consoles for each floor. If there was an intruder up here, then he was still up here. Where was the sense in breaking in, dashing downstairs and then killing the lights after the caretaker had gone to investigate? Massimo removed his attention from the inked out column behind him and forced his focus to gel on the shadows ahead. Nothing moved up there that he could see, but now he could hear the slam of a window in its frame as the wind increased.

He swept up the final flight and stood at the end of the corridor. The door to room 29 was ajar. Biting down on his fear, he approached it. He would swing first and ask questions later. The thought of violence encouraged his heart to beat faster. Six feet shy of the door a moan slipped out of him as the gap in the doorway shrank and the door snicked softly shut.

Downstairs, the entry buzzer rasped.

The torpor of fear fell away from him like a chrysalis. Refreshed by the promise of an ally, he hurried back down the stairs and unlocked the doors. Adelina was standing hunched against the wind, a smile fading. She had taken off one of her gloves to press the buzzer. Her eyes went from his own to the makeshift cosh he brandished.

‘Come in,’ he said, grabbing her arm roughly.

She stiffened under his fingers. He apologised quickly and told her what was wrong.

‘Call the police,’ she said, as if she were explaining something simple to a child.

‘I can’t. I’m not sure.’

She rolled her eyes, the first expression she had shown him that he remembered from their youth. Time had bracketed her face with a kind heaviness that nevertheless had fogged his recollections of her until now. She marched past him and took the stairs two at a time. He noticed that the lights had come back on.

‘Wait,’ he said, and hurried after her. Despite his anger at himself, he stopped in the same place as before and watched her open the door. He saw the shadows spring back as the light went on and then the counterpane on the bed diminishing, the narrowing of the watercolour on the far wall as the door swung slowly shut. He waited for her to cry out. A minute passed that felt the length of a season. If he went downstairs now, the frost would be gone from the car roofs and spring would have lent its freshness to the canals.

Adelina emerged, wiping her hands off against each other. She looked bored, as a person waiting for a bus in the rain might.

‘A window had come loose,’ she said simply, and brushed past him. ‘Do you have something to drink?’

*

His attention kept returning to those hands, even after the first bottle had been consumed, when his body had relaxed into itself and his earlier panic seemed distant and foolish. They were slimmer than the rest of her body, as if they had once belonged to another woman. She used them to help shape her words, which had loosened with the drink, and were accompanied with frequent laughter. It bothered him slightly that she refused to take off the left glove, but the wine was numbing him to his insecurities. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter at all.

It seemed absurd to Massimo that their paths had not crossed, even by accident, in the three decades since they shared classes at school. Since then, she had stayed in Venice for all but one of the following years, and had worked as a saleswoman for the Murano Glass Company since the mid 1990s. She had never married, but she had a teenage son, Bruno, who was currently travelling in England. ‘My life now, I want to devote to animals. And then find myself a good husband. Have some happiness before they put me in my pretty little plot on San Michele.’

Towards midnight, the two bottles drained, they suddenly became aware of the passage of time. The wind had become a constant howl but Adelina declined Massimo’s offer to take one of the rooms, gratis. She left with his telephone number, and promises that they would keep in touch now; that they had no excuses not to. Her kiss on his cheek stayed with him, like a line of poetry, or a new song that feels like an old favourite by the time it ends. He fell asleep in the chair.

When he wakened, he thought it was morning, but the light was the artificial spill coming from the brackets on the walls. His mouth was sticky with wine. He saw from his watch that he had been asleep a matter of two hours. It was cold, the heating having turned itself off, but that was not what had roused him.

Somebody had screamed. The wind was dead, so he couldn’t blame the sound on that. He rose from his seat and switched off the lights in order to see better when he pressed his face to the window. Two hours was more than enough time for Adelina to have arrived home safely; nevertheless, unease spread like indigestion through his chest.

On the ground six feet away from the doors, a suede glove the colour of the cement it rested on flapped at him, as if agitating for help. There were no blocks of light in any of the other buildings he could see, which suggested that he had imagined it after all, but another scream, this one deeper and somehow more liquid, stitched by frantic gasps, cut through his doubt. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cold glass, as if its chill might numb the distressed part of his mind. What could he do to help? The scream had been severed and originated from the maze of streets off the main drag. He could spend half an hour looking for its author, enough time for a body to be dumped in the canal and a killer to become a ghost. He might have opened the doors anyway, and tried his best, if it weren’t for the grate of heels on the pavement. He moved back from the window into the sanctity of shadow and watched as a shadow lengthened in the frame afforded by the Europa’s entrance. Something in its deportment rattled him. The shadow seemed too stiff, too jerky, as if the joints of the owner’s body had been fused together. It became, in the second or two when he realised the figure was going to pass into view, dreadfully important that he did not look at who it was, regardless of the fact that the other would not be able to see him in the gloom. He turned away, like a child from a bad dream, and sensed eyes burn into him, scorching him away layer by layer. He felt raped by their awful scrutiny.

An age later, he craned his neck and saw that the figure had gone. The glove, though, remained on the ground, fingers curled skyward, like a dead animal that had withdrawn and hardened. Was it the woman he had seen the day before? He could almost believe that her presence had given the glove that solidified, bereft appearance and was grateful that he had lost her on the bridge that night. Because for the first time, he suspected that she had been tracking him.

*

Signorina Sinistra. He heard the name a dozen times the next morning in the marketplace as he shopped for vegetables and fruit. ‘She takes the skin from the left hand’, a voice at his shoulder said as he was testing the ripeness of an avocado. Another, queueing behind him while he took coffee in a bar, confided: ‘They found another body this morning. Near the Arsenale. A man this time. His hand, oh my Lord, his hand!’

Another body. That made two. A little premature, he thought, to start giving the killer a moniker, providing a myth before its time. And how could they be certain it was a female murderer? But then he thought of the footsteps outside the hotel and he shuddered. He must hurry back and burn the gloves that he was keeping under the desk. God only knew why he had bothered to collect them in the first place. They had brought him nothing but trouble. He suspected his complicity in the murders had begun with the recovery of the first one, as if that simple act had been some kind of secret signal, a green light of sorts.

A police car was parked outside the hotel when he returned. A sombre-faced man with doughy jowls standing by the passenger door tried to smile at him but the curve of his lips only served to turn his mouth into a flat line. Massimo’s heart lurched when he saw that the entrance doors to the hotel were open. Two policemen were standing inside.

Massimo said, ‘I’m sure I locked that this morning.’

The sombre-faced man, who introduced himself as Inspector Scarpa, shrugged. ‘It was for the best we stay until you returned. You are Leopoldo’s son, yes?’

Massimo nodded. Inspector Scarpa aped him. ‘My first job,’ he said, ‘when I joined the police, was here, at the Europa.’

‘Oh?’ Massimo moved away from the other man, into the warmth of the lobby. The two policemen looked at him as if he were trespassing. He saw a third policeman now, standing behind the reception desk with his hands clasped behind his back, watching the television screen. A football match was playing.

‘Yes,’ said the inspector, following Massimo into the hotel. ‘A most terrible case. Your father must remember it. Some people staying here. Two men. They tortured a woman, a young girl in fact, in one of the rooms. But they escaped.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Massimo spat, horrified that his hotel could be guilty of such a secret. His father had never mentioned such a thing to him.

‘You must have been no more than a boy. It was in all the newspapers. Twenty-eight years ago. A big, big story. The girl died as I recall. A complication. She developed infections. Nasty business.’ He shrugged again, as if it was a game.

The policeman had grown bored of the football match and was picking through the coffee cups and notepads on the desk.

‘Do you have a search warrant?’ Massimo barked, and then smiled awkwardly at the inspector, hoping he would take the outburst as a joke. Inspector Scarpa’s eyebrows had raised.

Now the policeman had seen something; Massimo could tell from his expression what it was.

‘Well thank you, for looking after my hotel. I’m grateful to you. I’ll make sure I’m more careful in future.’

‘Careful in what way?’ Inspector Scarpa said as the officer lifted the gloves into view and all eyes turned on Massimo.

*

He asked for a glass of grappa and they brought him one. The inspector looked like an indulgent uncle who has caught his nephew watching a pornographic film. The face seemed born to police work. Tell me all about it, was its message. It was big enough and friendly enough to absorb lots of information. The inspector was a sponge.

Massimo told them everything, right up until the previous night when he had seen the woman in the street. The only details he changed concerned the checking of the second floor room: he could not admit to Adelina searching it for him. The inspector had made a barely imperceptible gesture with his hand when he mentioned Adelina’s name and thereafter his concentration was qualified with a slight frown, as if he couldn’t quite understand Massimo’s dialect.

When he was finished, Inspector Scarpa said, ‘Can we see the room?’

Massimo swallowed the last drops of the grappa; his ‘Sorry?’ was strangled slightly by its fire.

‘The room you checked. Where you heard the intruder.’

‘There was no intruder. Just a window that wasn’t locked properly.’

‘Can we see it?’

‘I don’t see why this is so —’

Inspector Scarpa held up his hand. In a soporific voice, he said: ‘Per favore, Signore Poerio. Please. Indulge us. We shan’t take up too much more of your precious time.’

The first sting of sarcasm. It hit home more acutely, coming from Inspector Scarpa’s affable mouth. They suspected him of something. Well let them.

‘This way,’ he said, brusquely, and set off for the stairs without waiting for them to gather. On the second floor he slipped the bunch of keys from his waistband and hunted for the relevant master. As he did so, the inspector ran his fingers along the slender knuckles of his opposing hand, eliciting cracks from the joints with little tweaks and twists. The sounds were unbearably loud in the corridor. Massimo dropped his keys. Nobody seemed to mind.

‘Adelina, you say?’ muttered the inspector, in a far-away voice. ‘Adelina?’

‘Yes. What of it?’

Another shrug. ‘It’s familiar. It’s familiar to me.’

Massimo opened the door and stood back to let the other four men into the room. In the mirror, before he could enter, he saw them looking down at a body. The crimson rug that it lay on had once been white. He reacted more quickly than he believed himself possible, closing the door and locking it before the police had a chance to stop him. Fists pounded the door yet still there was no rage in Scarpa’s voice. He sounded saddened. Perhaps he and his father had been closer than he let on. What was it pop had said? You don’t think your papa has his contacts?

Massimo hurried downstairs and pulled on his coat. His mind would not stand still for long enough to be able to formulate a plan. He should pack a suitcase. He should contact Adelina. Perhaps he should steal the police car.

Instead, he locked the hotel doors behind him and scurried west along the canal. Once past the Piazza San Marco he paused on the Calle Vallaresso, listening for sirens. In Harry’s Bar, he pushed past the lunchtime gathering and found a telephone. He dialled and let it ring for a full three minutes but his father did not answer. Then he tried Adelina’s number. An Englishman answered.

‘Adelina,’ Massimo said. ‘I need to speak to Adelina.’

Non capisco, amico.’ His Italian was frustratingly poor.

‘Adelina Gaggio. She lives there. Can you get her for me?’

‘Non. Nobody here by that name.’

Massimo had punched in the correct number. There was no doubt. ‘Please. You have to —’

‘Hey? You deaf? I said nobody here called Adelina. Testa di cazzo.’

Massimo slammed the receiver down. He could go there, to the street Adelina had mentioned, but without an address it could take hours to find her and even then she might not be in. She might be at work.

The glass company.

Excitedly, he dialled 12 and obtained the number from directory services. When he got through to the receptionist at Murano her contact list did not contain any reference to Adelina Gaggio.

‘Has she been with us long?’ the receptionist tried. ‘She might not be on our list if she joined us recently.’

‘Five years,’ Massimo said. A white, abject face stared at him from behind the bar. He was about to order a bellini from it when he realised it was his own, reflected in a mirror. ‘At least five years.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘She must —’

‘Very sorry, sir.’

What now? He struggled to keep himself from crying out. He had nobody to go to, other than the police, and they would not be patient with a man who had locked some of their colleagues in a room with a woman he had ostensibly murdered. But surely they would see that his panic was inspired by innocence. If he had killed somebody in his own hotel, would he not take pains to dispose of the body, rather than blithely stroll around Venice having left the main entrance unlocked?

How could Adelina have lied to him? The coolness of the woman as she came out of the room. How could it be that he had called her after twenty years only to find that he had invited a deranged killer on to the premises? The police would not believe him if he told them this, but it was all he had to offer.

He dialled 112 and was patched through. He tried to explain but every time he finished a sentence, the police operator would ask him to expand on every iota of information or ask him to spell the names he mentioned. Then the operator would fudge the spelling and get him to repeat it.

‘Adelina,’ the voice buzzed. ‘What’s that? A-D-A…?’

It dawned on him then, and he gently replaced the receiver. He glanced out of the front windows but how could he chance it? Then again, they would have any rear exit covered too. They would not expect him to leave by the front door.

He saw a group of suits standing to return to the office and he hurried after them, catching up with them, and purposefully barging into a middle-aged woman. He put on a big smile and apologised profusely as they filtered on to the street. He put his hand on her arm. There was wine in her. She was happy and forgiving. She covered his hand with her own and said it was perfectly all right. He asked her what she had had for lunch. He asked her the name of the perfume she was wearing. In this manner he passed along the street with his new friends. He didn’t look back until he was in sight of a safe alleyway he could move down. Only now were the police cars drawing up outside Harry’s Bar. He ran.

*

This time his father did pick up the phone. But he heard a click, as soft as a pair of dentures nestling together, and he understood that what ought to have been the safest house of all was now the most dangerous.

‘I’m okay, pop,’ he said. ‘I’m all right.’

‘Massimo,’ his father said. ‘I’m sorry.’

Massimo killed the connection hoping that even those few seconds had not been enough to expose him to the authorities a second time. He had been running for days, it seemed, but it could only have been a matter of hours. The sunlight was failing now. The light on the canals was turning the colour of overripe peaches. From the east, a wedge of flat, grey sky was closing upon Venice like the metal lid to a box of secrets. Freezing air ran before it, as though the weather too was trying to escape the city’s confused sprawl.

His thoughts turned to the inspector, who had seemed so understanding, yet had contained an edge as hard as the coming cold snap. His past seemed as caught up in the Europa as his own. He wished he had had the time to ask his father about the incident that Scarpa had mentioned. He would have been a ten-year-old when the hotel had provided a torture chamber for some of its guests. He couldn’t remember a thing about it, but then he would have been shielded from such an appalling event. He thought of the way his father had said sorry and did not like what his mind came up with.

With no better task to turn to, Massimo caught a vaporetto to San Tomà and hurried the two hundred metres or so to the Campo dei Frari. The woman at the reception desk of the Archivio di Stato looked as impenetrable as a bad clam but she was sympathetic to his needs, even if the five hour window for requesting materials had lapsed.

It didn’t take long. Once he had been shown how to access the microfiches and blow them up on the viewer, it was simply a matter of trawling through the front pages of Il Gazzettino from 1973. A photograph of the Europa’s exterior halted him before any of the words. The headline took up much of the page but this had no impact on him once he had noticed the small photograph at the foot of the page, the victim of the torture who had died. He didn’t need to read the caption to know it was the woman he had entertained in his hotel the previous night.

*

It was there, in black and white, and his brain had sucked it in even though he had averted his eyes, fearful of an image decades old. Yet he wasn’t happy. They could have got it wrong. They could have mixed up her picture. They must have got it wrong. The alternatives were too outlandish to swallow.

Everywhere he looked, there were gloves lying companionless. In the canal, sitting on windowsills, hunched on the floor near lampposts and benches. His panic mounted as he counted them. Nothing looked quite so dismal as a discarded glove. Did each one signify a terrible death in the city? Just because two bodies… three bodies had been found didn’t mean that more were lying in wait, stretching back to a time when the killer had set out on her spree.

Snow had begun to fall on the city. Already the narrow streets and uneven roofs were dusted with white while the canal absorbed the flakes and remained black. In some areas, where the light was poor, the canals escaped from view completely. They became plumbless moats that one could look into without hope of ever finding an end.

At Fondamente Nuove he persuaded a vaporetto pilot preparing to go home to take him to San Michele. The promise of ten thousand lire if he waited to bring him back was enough of a lure. On the short journey, Massimo watched the waters creaming at the bow while Venice fell behind them. A series of lights came on around the Sacca della Misericordia, as though people had opened their windows to watch his journey.

The island loomed out of the dark. More and more, his father had made references to this place, with its pretty cypress trees. It would be expensive to find him a plot here, but it seemed, even through Leopoldo’s oblique language, that his heart was set upon it.

Even from here, in such unsociable weather, Massimo could smell the perfume of cut flowers on the graves. As the vaporetto drew up alongside, the white stone of the Convento di San Michele seemed lambent in the murk.

‘You know the cemetery is closed, Signor?’

‘Just wait for me,’ Massimo ordered, and then: ‘Do you have a torch?’

The pilot sat back and rummaged for cigarettes in his jacket pocket. ‘Yes. And I might allow you to hire it, if you ask me nice.’

It was not such a difficult cemetery to break into. Beyond the entry archway, the cloisters marked the beginning of the graveyard proper. But Massimo ignored it. Adelina might well have been buried here, but she was not here now. The island could not take bodies indefinitely. Having gorged on the dead for so long, it had reached bursting point. Now the bones of the resting were lifted every ten years or so for another final journey to an ossuary on the mainland, in order to make way for the next wave of cadavers. If Adelina’s name was to be found here, it would be on a plaque, not a headstone. Massimo trained the feeble torchlight on the neatly arranged plinths, readying himself for a long night’s hunt. At least they were easier to read than the weathered slabs.

The snow that had begun to fall on the heart of the city found its way out here after half an hour. Massimo blew on his hands to keep them warm and tried to ignore the impatient hoots from the vaporetto horn. The pilot was going nowhere; his pockets would remain empty if he did.

He covered the cemetery in a slow strafing movement, his hopes lifting with every plaque that did not bear her name. Perhaps, simply, he was going mad after all. When he did not find her here, he could return to the mainland and find it had returned to normal. All he needed was this restorative jaunt to pick clean the tired crevices of his mind.

But then, of course, of course: Adelina Gaggio, 1963-1973. The characters were chiselled in marble as cleanly as if they had been formed that very afternoon.

He found himself back at the water’s edge with no recollection of climbing over the monastery wall. The pilot had turned his back on him and was eyeing the wink of lights across the Venice coastline. It was a pale comfort to Massimo, but the longer he stared at his home, the more he wanted to be back there. He would turn himself in and try to help the police as best he could, even if it meant being charged for obstruction, or worse.

‘Start the engine, friend,’ he said, as he clambered on board. The pilot did not move. A white glove lay on one of the seats. Massimo struggled to piece together a sudden scattering of jigsaw pieces in his thoughts, but none of the pieces would fit, they seemed to be from different puzzles and he knew they could not match the complete picture he was striving for.

‘I don’t —’ he began, but his words were coated with too much breath, too much saliva to complete his sentence.

He touched the pilot and watched as he toppled back in his seat. Massimo recoiled as he saw the pilot grinning at him, but the grin was too low on his face, and too wide and wet.

The glove was nothing of the sort. Or rather, it could only have fitted the pilot’s hand. It had been skinned with a surgeon’s precision.

‘It doesn’t fit,’ she said. ‘None of them ever fit.’

She solidified at his side, as if structuring herself from the particles of dark that helped to make up what the night was. Almost immediately it was as if she had always been there.

‘Don’t worry, Mass,’ she whispered. ‘When you called me, why, it wasn’t you calling me at all. It was the hotel. It was the Europa, bringing me home. Our true resting place is never the final resting place, is it? It’s where we drop. That’s what takes our essence. The rug in the room you were so afraid of. That has the flavour of my final breath in its weave. It’s an always place. More real, I suppose, than our city, trapped in a yesterday none of us believe in anymore. More real than I ever was.’

He was paralysed with fear and doubt.

He saw her hand come free of the glove, which she dropped over the side of the boat. What he thought at first to be tattoos of some kind, a weird graffiti that sprawled across her flesh, revealed itself to him as the veins and sinews of a severely damaged hand. The fingernails were warped with the aftershock of septicaemia. They looked as thick and twisted as ram’s horn.

‘They sliced my fingers as though they were bits of meat, Mass. They stuck splinters under my fingernails and set fire to my palm. They skinned me. For fun. For fun. And your father took money for it. Hush-hush money. He pocketed his bundle of notes and at the centre of them was my pain, wrapped so very tightly.’

Massimo was weeping now. ‘I didn’t know,’ he said. ‘You were my friend. I didn’t know.’

She gently rubbed his neck with her grotesque claw. ‘You saw what was happening. But you forgot. I called to you. The men shouted at you to go away. And your father gave you money to forget. But you saw all right. Every cry for help since, haven’t you chosen to ignore it? Haven’t you always turned your back and thought, “well, what can I do?” You’re like this city, Mass. You close your eyes to ugliness. And the blood that runs through you is as cold as the water in those canals.’

He had slumped against her. So exhausted was he, and enchanted by the Venetian lights, that he failed to notice what her hand was doing until it was withdrawing.

She said, ‘Your hand, when you held mine, Mass, didn’t they fit together so perfectly?’

His flailing mind saw that her hand, with its five gnarled horns, was sheathed by a new glove. A really quite beautiful glove that waxed and waned in his eyes like the beat of water in the canals. It was a deep, glistening red. He was going to ask her what material produced such a fine colour, but he was too tired to speak. The last thing he saw before he became indivisible from the night was the flash of a cleaver as she pulled back the deep corners of her cloak. And even that was beautiful.

Advent Stories #21

THE MACHINE

mach

When he asked her, she said: ‘A car, wasn’t it? Or was it a bus?’ There was a little smear of mayonnaise on her mouth and her hair was scrunched like dead spiders’ legs at the back, where she had not been able to see it to comb in the mirror. Graham had parked the car by a pub, The Britannia, that overlooked the flat, greasy edge of sea. Inside he had bought them halves of bitter. The barmaid seemed preoccupied, unable to look them in the eye when he ordered. The only other couple were sitting at a table inspecting a camera.

‘Don’t you remember resting your hand on mine? On the gear lever?’

Julia looked at him as if he had asked her to perform an indecent act. Maybe, in asking her to remember, he had. He watched her as she moved her glass on the table, spreading rings of moisture across the cracked varnish. He could smell beef and onion crisps, smoke from the little train that travelled between Hythe and Dungeness, and an underlying tang; the faint whiff of seawater.

‘Can you – ’ he began, but stopped himself. Her answers didn’t matter anymore. He didn’t know how long they should stay here. He didn’t know how long it would take.

Three months ago, he didn’t need to mash her food for her or accompany her up and down the stairs. She wouldn’t slur his name or regard him with a lazy eye. ‘Where are we?’ she said, one Sunday morning as he re-entered the bedroom with a tray of tea and toast. ‘I don’t know where we are.’

He sipped his beer. It tasted sour, as if what had filled it previously had not been properly purged from the glass. The symptoms of brain cancer — or gioblastoma mutiforme as the specialist revealed to them (with an unwelcome flourish, as if he were introducing an unusual item on a menu) — are headaches and lethargy, seizures, weakness and motor dysfunction, behaviour changes and unorthodox thought processes. This form of cancer, the specialist said, was particularly aggressive. If it were a dog, it would be a toza inu.

‘I don’t want the rost of is,’ she said, pushing her drink to one side. ‘In bastes faddy.’

He rubbed her knuckles, white and papery, and tried to smile. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Come on.’

Outside they headed towards the sea, compelled by an unspoken mutual need. She was not to know that he had been here before, many years ago. She just wanted to see the ocean one more time before her sight deteriorated. He allowed her to lean on him and they went slowly over the uneven shingle; it didn’t matter. Time had lost its meaning. Time was nothing anymore other than now and the next thing. ‘Next week’ was as alien to his vocabulary as a phrase of Russian.

The tide was a long way out, visible only as a seam of pale grey that stitched the lead of the sky to the dun of the beach. Fishing boats trapped on the shingle faced the sea, their bows raised as if impatient to return. Explosions of static from their communication radios made her start. She moved into the collapsed light as though immersing herself. The air was thick here. It seemed to coat the beach. Her footsteps in the shingle beat at the friable crust of his mind and in the shape of her progress, the delicacy of her step, he saw how near the end was.

The sea was affecting the light in some subtle way that he had not recognised before. It erased an area above the horizon, a band of vague ochre that she would stare at during the moments when she stopped to rest, as if it might contain words, or the barest outline of them, some code to unpick. An explanation. Around them, the beach slowly buried its secrets. Great knots of steel cable, an anchor that had lost its shape through the accretion of oxidant, cogs so large they might well drive the Earth’s movement. All of it was slowly sinking into the endless shingle.

Us too, he thought, blithely. If we don’t keep moving.

‘He isn’t here,’ she said, panic creeping into her voice.

‘He’ll come,’ I insisted. ‘He’ll come. He always does.’

‘You saib he would be fere.’

She wasn’t going to be pacified. He was tiring, and sat back against one of the drifts of shingle, watched her move away from him, a gently wailing wraith in black clothes that were now too big for her. He lost her for moment, against the distant flutter of black flags on the boats, and when she re-emerged, it was to drop, exhausted, to the stones. He hoped she would be able to sleep, at least for a little while.

A wind was rising, drawing white flecks to the crest of the waves. It was getting rough out there. Small fishing boats tipped and waggled on the surf, bright and tiny against the huge expanses of cobalt pressing in all around them. Behind him, urgent bursts of white noise from the radios wrapped voices that nobody received. The deserted boats looked too blasted by salt and wind to be up to the task of setting sail for dab, pout and whiting.

machi

An elderly couple picked their way through the shingle, hunting for sponges perhaps, or other similarly useless booty. All he remembered seeing on these beaches were rotting fish-heads and surgical gloves, thin, mateless affairs flapping in the stones like milky, viscous sea-creatures that had been marooned by the quick tides. The couple reached Julia, then passed her by, giving her a wide berth.

He hauled himself out of the shingle, noticing how the flinty chips had crept over the toes of his shoes; always the beach was in the process of sucking under, of burying. He tried to understand the motivation for building on something so unsubstantial: the sheds and houses dotting the beach were grim little affairs, colourless, uninviting, utilitarian in the extreme.

He caught up with Julia; she looked withdrawn to the point of translucence. Her skin was a taut, grey thing that shone where her bones emerged. Salt formed white brackets around her mouth. The shingle had shifted across her boots, completely concealing her feet. He gently drew her upright and picked the strands of hair away from her eyes. Her scalp gleamed palely through a scant matting that had once been thick, black and silky. When she opened her eyes though, everything else became superfluous. He felt scorched by her gaze, as he had for the past twenty years. Even with her flesh failing so quickly, she could not be anything other than beautiful if she had strength enough to open her eyes and look around her.

‘Are you hungry?’

She shook her head. ‘Where is he?’

He smiled. ‘You’ve always been impatient, haven’t you? I told you he doesn’t come till dark. We’ve got an hour yet. At least.’

‘I want to walk,’ she said, looking around her as if assessing the landscape for the first time.

‘You sure you aren’t too tired?’ he said. ‘Okay. Come on.’

They trudged up the beach, the strange, stunted vegetation like hunks of dried sponge or stained blotting paper trapped between the stones: sea campion, kale, Babington’s orache. Angling towards the row of weatherboard cottages that lined the Dungeness Road he looked back to the great hulk of the gas-cooled reactors of the power station. Maybe they were causing the sizzle in the air, or perhaps it was the taut lines of the fishermen, buzzing with tension as lugworm and razor clam were cast far beyond the creaming tides. He told Julia that special grilles had been constructed over the cold water intake pipes for the reactors because seals kept being drawn into them. She nodded and shook her head. One eye was squeezed shut, her lank hair swung about her lowered face. A vein in her temples reminded him of mould in strong blue cheese. The colour of decay. Nature consuming itself. He reached for her hand but she snatched it away as if burnt.

They toured the strange, attractive garden at Prospect Cottage where he took a picture of her standing by a circular pattern of stones that were adorned with pieces of coloured glass and a single, brilliant white crab’s claw. A rusting, battered trumpet had been nailed to the back door but it was so deteriorated, he couldn’t tell if it was the right way up. Though the day was overcast, it had a dry, scorched smell and the air was unpleasantly metalic in his mouth, as if he had pressed a spoon against his fillings.

The previous time he had been here — the only other time — had been with his school on a field trip as part of his geography course. The teacher who accompanied them, Mr Wilson, spoke with what Fudgey, his best mate, had said was an ‘X-rated lisp’. His sibilants weren’t so much softened as slurred. He always sounded drunk and though the boys had suspected he might be, they never smelled any booze on him; only the musty depth of the tweed that he wore or stale pipe smoke. Mint imperials.

‘It’s because he’s missing a few teeth on his top set,’ one of the more liberal teachers explained, when Fudgey had been overheard mimicking him. ‘You should see him trying to eat a banana. I have to leave the staff room.’

Mr Wilson was more interested in birdspotting than the shape and behaviour of the land. At lunch one day, he had taken some of the more interested boys with him — squeezed into his beige Rover — to the reservation and passed around binoculars that smelled of the clothes he wore. He pointed out garganey and greenshank and Balearic shearwater. On the way back, he allowed the boys half an hour on the beach while he went to post some letters and make a phone call. ‘You can take off your ties but leave your blazers on. This isn’t a holiday. You are still representing your school.’

You are shhhhtill represhhhhenting your shhhhhchool,’ Fudgey intoned, spot on. ‘Represhhenting my arshhe, more like.’

They kicked about in the shingle and threw stones at the half-submerged gears and cogs and bolts. They agreed that this is what the world would be like after America and the Soviets swapped H-bombs. Merce found a fish-head and forced it on to the end of a stick then chased Bebbo around — ‘Snog it! Snog it Bebbo! Snog the fish, you fishy-faced piss-pant!’ — until he was crying. Fudgey and Graham broke away from the other three boys and headed towards the water. A naturally formed ledge gave way to a steep slope of shingle. At the edge, they could see what had been concealed from them until two or three feet away from where the land sank towards the water.

The woman was on her knees, her jacket and blouse discarded. Her bra was lost for a moment against the shocking white of her flesh. She was weeping, trying to cut into the skin of her forearms with a piece of shingle. To her right, his back to her desperation, a man in a panama hat was sitting cross-legged in a deck chair, smoking a cigarette as he watched the horizon. All the boys could see of him was a fat, neatly barbered nape bulging over a collar; the merest edge of brow.

‘Lovely view,’ Fudgey said, a little queasily. ‘Let’s get back to the car.’

‘Wait,’ Graham said, but he couldn’t explain what it was he wanted them to wait for. After a while, Fudgey’s insistent tugging at his elbow broke through his fascination and he allowed himself to be led away.

The following day, the final day of their week in Dungeness, Mr Wilson gave them another period of free time. Fudgey wanted to play football, but Graham declined, explaining that he had a headache and just wanted to go for a walk on his own, to clear his mind. He made his way back to the spot on the beach where they had seen the woman. The deck chair was still there. Where she had been kneeling, he found a smooth, glistening curve of steel buried in the shingle. He dug at it a little, moving away the stones from each side until he had unearthed a disc as large as a train’s wheel. What looked like caterpillar tracks, clean and freshly oiled, snaked around the wheel and deep into the ground. As hard as he pulled, Graham couldn’t budge it. He saw too, once he rocked back on to his heels, breathing hard with the exertion, how some of the stones were spattered with black spots of blood.

He stopped at a hot dog stall on his way back to the Bed and Breakfast and ordered a Coke and a packet of ready salted crisps. It was only as he was handing over the money to the woman that he recognised her.

‘Hello,’ he said, and his voice cracked on the second syllable like a recording on perished tape. The woman regarded him as if he were a retard; rightly so, he realised. Hellos were gambits, usually, not something you said when you were about to be on your way.

‘Sorry,’ he explained. ‘I saw you on the beach yesterday. You were — ’

‘I know what I was doing,’ she hissed, her eyes flicking away from his to scan their immediate surroundings. She came down the few steps at the rear of the van and grabbed him by the collar. Her cuff slid away from her wrist a little as she dragged him inside and he saw a pinkish bandage pinned tightly around her forearm. She closed the door and bolted it, unclasped the latch that kept the serving hatch opened. It was very hot inside, and heavy with the smells of enthusiastically recycled cooking oil and raw onions. Graham fed crisps into his mouth, trying hard not to appear frightened.

‘Would you like some Coke?’ he asked, offering her the unopened tin. She slapped it from his hands. He stopped eating and neatly closed the bag with a few twists.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice gusting from her collapsed mouth like heat from an oven. She tousled his hair and sat on her stool, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers. ‘He said that I would have an answer before nightfall tonight. The wheels had been greased, he said. He said that the technology, though old, was of a perfection you would not find anywhere else. Ancient technology. He told me that it wasn’t certain if it had been made by man or not.’

She snorted, a sudden, bitter sound that was devoid of any laughter she might have meant for it. ‘Anyway, I don’t care about that. As long as it brings him back to me.’ She stared intently at Graham. ‘My husband,’ she said, spicily, as if it were obvious. ‘A sweet, sweet man. He would help anybody. Stupid, lovely man.’

Her left hand had moved to her forearm and worried at the bandage. The pinkness at its core deepened. Graham stared at the bolt on the door. He retrieved his can of Coke and pulled the ring opener. Beige froth fizzed out over his hand. The woman didn’t pay him any attention. It was as if the memory of what had happened to her husband numbed her to extraneous sensation.

‘There was a car on a dual carriageway. The A12 going north, towards Ipswich. A nasty bitch of a night. Wind. Rain. So hard it was coming at you side on. The car hit the central reservation and went out of control. End over end job. Came to a stop in the middle of the road. Eddie, my husband, and me, we were about a hundred yards behind. He pulled over and put his hazard lights on, ran over to help. I sat there because we were on our way to a party and I didn’t want to get my hair wet. I’d just had it done, especially.

‘Seconds later he was hit by a Ford Mondeo doing ninety miles an hour. Do you know… the force of the impact knocked him out of his shoes. Lace-ups. And they pinched him a little, those shoes. He was always going on about them, how he ought to get another pair.’

Graham rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. The saltiness of the crisps had made his lips sore. ‘What happened on the beach?’ he asked.

The woman closed her eyes and then clenched them even tighter, as if the darkness behind them was not deep enough. ‘You don’t need to know anything. I’m sorry you saw it. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘Who was that man?’

By degrees she relaxed. Her eyes reopening, she reached behind her to unbolt the door. ‘You can go,’ she said, and her voice was soft and likeable now.

‘Was he your boyfriend?’ Graham asked.

The trace of a smile. She shook her head and then she frowned. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I suppose he was, after a fashion.’

‘I don’t remember how I got back to the bed and breakfast.’

‘Sorry?’

They were sitting on a bench watching the colours in the sky warp as the sun ground itself out against the black mass of the power station. Julia’s skin was stippled from the cold; what colour it had enjoyed now thinned to that of cooked chicken, but she refused Graham’s jacket when he offered it to her.

‘I was just remembering,’ he said, turning his face away from hers, ‘the first time I came here. With the school.’

‘Where was I?’

‘I didn’t know you then. We didn’t meet for another fifteen years.’

‘Where you seeing someone else?’

Graham watched the edge of the sun slip behind the reactors. Parts of the sky were green. The sunsets here were always spectacular.

‘No, Jules. I was only fourteen.’

She giggled. ‘You were neber fourteej.’

The last three of the day-trippers that had come to Dungeness for a dose of stinging surreality got into their Ford Focus and backed out of the pub car park. They all turned to look out of their windows as they trundled past the bench, their faces partially eclipsed by the oily flash of weak streetlamps on the glass.

‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.

‘It could be workse,’ she said. ‘I mean, God, I could have a brain tuzour.’

He drew Julia gently upright and kissed the top of her head. Sometimes, when she slept, he would nuzzle her hair, enjoying the clean, warm smell of her scalp. He endured a second or two of real panic when he thought of her gone, her and her unique smell, and it seemed more unspeakable, for a moment, that he might not be able to recall her scent rather than the way she spoke or talked or touched him.

‘We should go now,’ he said. ‘He might be here.’

The strange buzzing noise persisted, though it was not so much in his ears anymore as deep within him, like the thrum one feels in the chest at a rock concert. It was as if the vibrations were rising from the stones themselves and, if he trained his view on the trembling shoreline, they appeared to writhe in the gloaming, pretending to be the leading edge of a tide long retreated.

He makes things perfect she had said, all those years ago. He had come across her one more time, on the morning of their departure. She was sitting in a bus shelter and the gin was coming off her in sharp waves, like the poisonous veils of a deep sea fish repelling unwanted attention. Well, not so much him as the beach he tends, and what lies beneath it. Even before him, before there was that stretch of Kent, before the stones and the sea, even, there was something that moved and rotated and ticked off the seconds, and all the while it was rusting and seizing up. Like an old person. Exactly like an old person.

Her eyes, when she looked up at him, were clownishly large, filmed with tears. But it won’t die. My husband came back to me last night. The tears in his body, they were all gone, like he had zipped them up, as easy as that. He’s… he’s perfect. But I’m scared of what perfection means.

He had gone back to the bus, his mind burning with her words. How, as a child, she had watched two girls playing in the surf. And one had been sucked out by a surge of water. And the other girl had been crying and somehow, minutes later, managed to grasp hold of her limp, outstretched arm and pull her from the water. They had lain together on the stones, one of them heaving and wailing, the other as still as the beached fishing boats that gathered shadows beneath their cracked, peeling bows.

She had stared at them for an age, while everything surrounding the girls, everything beyond her focus, seethed and blurred and warped. And she had blinked and the girls had risen and walked away up the beach, their hands linked, laughing, laughing, with wet hair and the white impressions of the stones on their legs and arms. She found a highly polished lever, brassy with oil, sticking out of the stones where they had lain. When she tried to move it, she felt a deep ratcheting under her toes and the lever sank out of sight.

There was a deckchair on the beach now, the alternating white stripes of its ballooned fabric like ghostly ribs floating above the ground. Graham smelled cigarette smoke and thought he could see a pulsing coal hovering a little way to the right of the chair.

‘I’m tired, Gray,’ Julia said. He removed his jacket and pressed her back into the pebbles, cushioning her head, which looked tiny and white and punched in with too many dark holes and shadows. There was a moon low in the sky, like an albino’s eyelash. What light there was came from the stars, or the ineffectual blocks of orange in the pub windows. A great arm of rusted steel reached out of the stones further up the beach, the hinges where its elbow might had long been gritted up with salt and time. Perhaps it was a crane, or a digger, a model of which he had enthusiastically played with as a boy. He had seen other heavy plant around the beach at Dungeness, silent, slowly being subsumed by the stones, like mammoths caught in tar. Nothing moved here, but change was constant.

Graham approched the figure. ‘Do you look after the beach?’ he asked. The man looked no different, despite the intervening years. When he turned around, Graham could not meet his eyes. The mouth wore a sweet smile and he inclined his head towards the chair. Graham went to sit down, but saw that the man intended for him to take what was lying there. He picked the stone up and moved away. Behind him, the creak of the deck chair and the rasp of a match.

‘Here?’ he called. ‘Is here okay?’ There was no reply. The sound of the sea was almost lost to distance now. There was the barest whisper, but that might well have been his own breath, hurrying on his lips as he bared his arm to a beach that suddenly seemed to whiten, as if the moisture on the pebbles had evaporated in an instant.

The stone in his fingers felt warm and familiar. It had been honed, and he pressed the edge against his skin. Beneath him ran a tremor, from the north end of the beach to the south. The pebbles chuckled as they realigned themselves. When the blood came, Graham looked up at the night sky and waited. Despite the wheeling areas of nothing at his shoulders, he had never felt so smothered. After a little while he was able to return his attention to the wound. Blood tigered his arm. It had drizzled the patch of stones by his foot. From somewhere, what looked like spark plugs and the teeth of a partially concealed cog had emerged. They gleamed in the subtle light, shop fresh, it seemed, oiled, primed for use. Infinitesimally, the cog turned. He heard Julia shift in the stones, a couple of metres away but he could not see any detail in the black shape she made.

machin

He thought of the woman, and her failed attempts to perfect her husband. Unlike the girl she had witnessed on the beach, he was too far removed from what it was to be human. All that had happened was that his injuries had been bettered, had reached a sublime point that could not be bested by the crude materials that had served him previously.

Perfection, he could see now, never had to mean something good.

The man in the deckchair had gone. The pebbles shifted again. Graham’s feet were buried in them. He felt something mesh with the leather of his shoes. A metallic taste filled his mouth. A chain had wound itself around his hand and was binding the muscles of his arm. Blood coursed along the links, oil-black in the night. Where was the difference here? He was soft and it was hard, but they were both machines, in the end. Machines needed other people in order to work properly. An hour, two hours later, his body hardened by fatigue and the attentions of the machine, Graham, by degrees, felt himself being released.

He remembered how he had thought the machinery was slowly being buried. How he had attributed its sounds to other things. He had been wrong in so many other aspects of his life that to be mistaken now was hardly unexpected. He trudged over to the shockingly small shape of his wife. He held her close to him, feeling her bones through the twill of his jacket. When he heard Julia’s breath leave her body, the tired echo of the surf collapsing on the stones, that too came as no surprise. He watched the sky at the horizon slowly flood with colour. The sun would rise before long but he didn’t need it to be able to see the shining grid of machinery pumping and gyrating across the beach. For a little while it seemed rejuvenated, super-real like an image manipulated by computers. He watched until spent, it grew still. The stones shifted and soon there were just the occasional glimpses of gears and pistons, as it was when he had arrived many years ago.

Like Julia, the beach was striving for perfection. Unlike her, it had yet to attain it. She was real to him and yes, even beautiful in the dawn. The smell of her was deep in him, of him. He would not forget. A part of her, at least, was perfect now.

Advent Stories #20

MANNERS

The rain sounds different out here. Deep countryside. Kingfishers and toads. Dad told me I woke up to green so often that my eyes changed colour from brown to reflect it. He shared his love of nature with me, his practical knowledge. He was in the Scouts when he was a boy. I never went; I was far too shy, but I knew the Scout Promise off by heart. It’s common sense, really. Thoughtfulness and consideration. On my honour, I promise that I will do my best… I could identify all the birds, trees and flowers by the time I was five. I knew my knots and could tie them blindfold. I used to catch small animals – newts and snakes and frogs – and keep them in jars with punctured lids overnight while I studied and sketched them. In the morning I’d let them go. Sometimes we’d take long walks and there’d be something dead in the road. Later, when I went walking on my own and I saw an animal that had collided with a car, I’d place it in a bag (I always took a couple out with me) and take it home to study what it looked like internally.

Mum died when she gave birth to me. Her name was Julia. There’s one photograph of her and Dad (Gordon) on their wedding day. She’s leaning in to kiss him. She looks mousey. He’s a bald eagle. He’s holding an umbrella – August wedding; it pissed down – and she’s got flowers in her hair. Confetti frozen around them. He always told me I was in that shot too. She was pregnant with me six months when they had the ceremony. I keep it, carefully folded, in my wallet. I don’t take it out that often any more. It’s been unfolded so often it’s beginning to separate along the pleats.

When Dad died he left me the house. I say ‘house’. It’s more like a couple of connecting sheds at the edge of a long, thin field that ends at the motorway, which is like a thick, black underscore. Dad lived here rent-free, employed as a handiman by the farmer who owned the land. The farmer died about five years ago when the farm caught fire. There were rumours that it was a botched insurance scam, or that he’d committed suicide. Nobody came to demolish what was left of the building. You can still smell the smoke soaked into the walls of the place. Every so often, especially during nights when the storms come, you can hear bits of it collapsing. The main roof is gone now. Vandals have done for all the windows. Sometimes there are torchlights. Kids mucking about, scaring each other, drinking, taking drugs, having sex. I go in after them in the mornings to see if they left anything valuable behind: wallets, iPhones, but there’s never anything worth having.

You’ll not see me in town, much. I’m not a people person. I’m a book person. I read a lot, although I never enjoyed my school days and I left as soon as I was able, failing every exam they threw at me, if I was even around to take them. Like Dad I thought I’d end up labouring around the farm: what’s the point of knowing about isoscles triangles when you’re knee-deep in pig shit? The farmer was a decent guy to us, even if he did resemble a sad bloodhound, and I was sorry about what happened to him. I never thought about taking my own life. But I wonder about it. Everybody does, I reckon. People who commit suicide, is it on their minds from an early age, or is it something creeps up on you? You think about how it might go, how you’d decide to do it, and what would be the least horrible way. Could I take a bottle full of painkillers? Could I jump from a skyscraper? Could I step out in front of a lorry on the motorway? I’d be more scared of getting it wrong than right. And what if you changed your mind?

I spend a lot of time in the woods here. Food is a problem. I don’t have any money to buy stuff from the shops, and I’m a good lad. I promised I’d never thieve, so I’m our harvesting whenever I can. Nuts, berries, fruit, mushrooms. I lay traps and sometimes catch rabbits. By the pond I can sometimes collect a frog or two. I check the motorway every morning for fresh roadkill and it’s here that I find the bulk of my meals. I’ve bagged magpies, rats, pheasants, squirrels, badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, a swan and, one time, in winter, a deer. I had to borrow a book from the library on how to skin and gut it. I portioned it and kept it in plastic bags outside in the cold, in a tin bath covered with tarp. It kept me going till Spring. Sometimes I wish I’d been born in Canada, or Australia. I’ve never tried crocodile, or bear, or ostrich. Exotica, I think they call it.

I don’t eat anything if it looks as though it died from something other than a car’s bumper. If it’s fresh and not flat, it goes in the pan. The only downside is that you’ve got to cook it pretty well – no pink meat here – because of the likelihood of trichinosis. Fox is probably my favourite. It’s not very fatty, so you need to cook it quick on a barbecue. It’s dense meat, but pretty soft, with a salty, kind of earthy taste. Rat is a bit like pork in flavour, but I only tried it once because there’s the risk of Weil’s disease. Owl’s okay, badger’s bad and hedgehog’s horrid, but you can use their spines as toothpicks. I’ll try anything. I had dog once. A Golden Retriever. I think it was an unwanted pet dumped in the countryside that wandered on to the road. I had it in a stew with some beans and potatoes. It tasted like lamb.

I’m not sure how I made the leap to eating what I was studying, but it seemed the natural progression. Granted, it sounds a bit grim, but it’s the ultimate free-range, organic diet. It won’t be pumped full of hormones, or tense and knotty because it’s been trapped in a pen. My way, you can taste the surroundings in what’s on your plate. You can taste the good soil and the moist fields and the fresh air. You can detect the night on your palate. I’d rather have a toad stir-fry than a chicken injected with steroids to the point of deformity, crushed up against hundreds of others in a shit-spattered battery farm.

When it’s dark, because I don’t have any electricity, I sit and read with a candle while a failing wind-up radio plays old American songs from the wartime years; the only station I can find. I like listening to that stuff. I imagine my mother might have enjoyed it as well. She looks like someone who would sway to Johnny Mercer or The Ink Spots or Irving Berlin, her voice fading in and out as she sang a bar or two. Be Careful, it’s My Heart. The news comes on and I fade out. Never anything good. Never something I want to hear.

I continue to draw the animals I’ve eaten. I’m a decent drawer, somehow, despite Dad never having any talent in that area. Maybe Mum had a knack. Or maybe it skipped a generation. I often think about who my forebears were; I never knew my grandparents, but I know their names were Bert and Olive on my mum’s side and Norman and Iris on my dad’s side. There are four names you don’t hear much nowadays. Everybody dies and sometimes their names die with them. Could Norman ever be a popular name again? Was it ever?

*

I get down to the road around five in the morning and climb over the fence. I wait on my side of the crash barrier, listening for traffic. There are no motorway lights on this stretch. It’s usually quiet for another half hour bar the odd car, or an HGV. Now’s the time to go looking for roadkill; most of the animals I’ve found are nocturnal and it’s usually too early in the day, or too cold, for them to have been worried by rats or birds or for the flies to have filled their moistest parts with eggs. I find a jay, which is interesting; I’ve never had one of those before, and a pheasant with just its head crushed. That’s promising because sometimes, if they’ve been run over, you can taste the rubber off the tyres. I put what’s edible in a bag. About half a mile further south, I see something that gives me pause, something grey near the middle of the road, moving slightly. I hurry along the hard shoulder. Sometimes you can miss out on a decent dinner because the animal is merely stunned. One time about three years ago I saw a foal lying still at the side of the road with a broken jaw, its tongue hanging from between its teeth, fat and purple like a partially-inflated balloon. When I was about ten feet away, it jerked upright and escaped. It must have starved. Had I been a bit quicker I could have saved it some agony and made my belly a happy place for weeks.

It’s a wolf.

I stand over it. This one won’t be running away. It’s been hit so hard that the flesh has been substantially parted; most of its insides are now outside. I can’t quite understand how it can still be moving, but it is, and it is obviously in considerable pain. Its eyes bulge, its jaws stretched in either a scream that is silent or beyond the frequency human ears can detect. I can’t pick it up like this. There’s nothing to bludgeon it with so I pull my knife from my back pocket and kneel down alongside. Where the legs meets the body I sever an artery and wait for it to bleed out. It’s frustrating; usually I can get a decent boudin noir out of an animal, but I don’t want to risk distressing it further by carrying it home alive because the suffering can transfer to the meat, making it pale and sweaty. I sling it over my shoulder when the twitching has stopped and trudge back to the shed.

I put the jay and the pheasant in my makeshift pantry for later and get on with the wolf. I strip it and skin it and gut it – well, those that are left – and joint it. I get a big pot on the gas stove and add onions, wild garlic, carrots, rosemary and potatoes. I get the meat in the pot and brown it all over. I pour in plenty of water. My stomach is rumbling. Give it a stir. I wish I had some stock, or a drop of red wine.

I pick up my sketch book and begin to draw the wolf. I’m wondering about the skin, whether it could be put to good use – Dad always hated waste – and wondering what its name might have been, when there’s a knock on the door of the shed. Nobody ever comes down here, not even the farmer when he was alive and it’s his gaff, really. A voice, male, deep and purposeful – like Dad’s – asking to talk to me. I open the door and there are six or seven policemen standing behind a man in plain clothes. Big eyes. He’s an owl. I remember my manners. Dad brought me up to be polite. I invite them in.

The man in plain clothes gestures at the sketchbook. ‘It’s a good likeness,’ he says. ‘Just like on the posters.’

The pot has started to bubble on the stove and two of the policemen see what’s on the chopping board and leave without saying anything, the rude swines. I start to pick up the clothes from the floor, and I ask if anybody is hungry.

Advent Stories #19

 

STICKY EYE

eye

Conjunctivitis. Jesus. It sounded like some hellish offshoot of grammar. Welch had heard of it before, but hadn’t paid it much heed. He supposed that must be true of anybody who had never suffered from it. And suffer was the word. It felt as though some masochistic ghost was raking ragged nails across his sclera in the way an eczematic will worry irritated skin. Opening his eyes hurt, closing his eyes hurt. Light of any strength made his eyeballs feel as though they were being impaled slowly upon lances.

Welch blinked imploringly at the doctor as she shone her ophthalmoscope deep into his pupils. Tears from each eye had travelled the tense oval of his face and had almost met each other chinside. The doctor retreated to her desk and pulled a phial from a tray. She cracked off the top and shook a few drips into Welch’s eyes. The world turned acid orange.

‘Don’t worry about the old orangeade,’ the doctor said. ‘It’s a fluorescein dye. When that’s illuminated with a cobalt filter, any epithelial trauma will be revealed as, yes, here we are, bright green.’ She collapsed back into her chair and folded her hands behind her head. ‘Conjunctivitis it is, of course. No problemo, señor. A dab of chloramphenicol in each eye once a day for a week and you’ll be back to your winking best. Just keep in mind that what you’ve got is contagious, so no hot eyeball-on-eyeball action for you for a while.’

Welch nodded and thanked the doctor as the prescription was passed to him. ‘Any side effects?’ he asked.

‘No,’ the doctor said.

‘But I read somewhere that all drugs have a side effect.’

The doctor’s good humour seemed to have evaporated. ‘Aplastic anaemia, if you must. Bone marrow won’t function properly, won’t replenish red blood cells. But we’re looking at a one in forty thousand chance. Highly improbable. All right? If you have any concerns, don’t take the antibiotic.’

Welch wiped his eyes on a tissue as he left, alarmed to see the lurid orange – like some evil concoction of E-numbers disguised as a child’s drink – streaked across it. Its stain was in everything he peered at for hours after. He had never suffered with his eyes before yet had been surrounded by spectacles, contact lenses and cleaning lotion belonging to other people. His best friend throughout school had a squint that turned his left eye inwards; his mother had carried around (and continually lost) various pair of glasses -– readers and lookers, she called them -– all her life. There were colleagues at work who endured the insane daily routine of pressing cell-thick discs of plastic against their irises. Now that he thought of it, eyes were impinging more and more upon his conscious life. His father, a diabetic, was being treated for the double whammy of glaucoma and cataracts. One of his bosses had been involved in a motorbike accident that left him partially sighted.

How it often is: the things we need most in life get taken from us. The composer becomes deaf; the chef’s hands are mangled in a car crash.

Welch worked in magazines. He had always been comfortable with words, a spelling phenomenon in his school which had disgusted his dad, who wanted him to follow him into the welding trade. As soon as he was able, Welch had escaped the industrial town where he had grown up, and fled south to London, where he found plenty of words and people who were happy to pay him to fix them where they went wrong. He had worked his way up from a lowly temp to the position of chief sub-editor on one of the big monthly men’s glossies, a title pulling in a circulation of nearly 700,000 each month. He supposed it could be worse. He might have been a watchmaker, or a pilot, or a brain surgeon.

Now, having picked up the tube of ointment from the chemist, he discovered that after its application a film formed across his eye, rendering everything even more uncertain. It was like peering through fog, and it caused the edges of his eyelids to stick momentarily together whenever he blinked. The pain seemed to recede, however, and he was at least grateful for that. When he got to the office nobody paid any attention to his damp, baleful gaze; there was a big feature on ‘glunge’ fashion in the new issue and a beautiful Russian model was being interviewed, along with a prominent London designer, in the editor’s office. All the rubbernecking was in that direction today. He checked in too, but it was as if the glass walls of the boss’s den had been turned opaque by the heat coming off the girl from Donetsk. The Joker mouth and her freakish height distinguished her from the others in the room.

Sam swung by mid-morning and asked if he’d like some coffee. Sam was a sub, like him, and they had gravitated towards each other because of their age: she was a year younger. Everyone else in the department was at least ten years older. She was pretty; he liked her boyish hair and the square jaw and the thick, broad mouth, and he was drawn to her, but whenever their proximity threatened to push them towards a different sort of intimacy, he felt sickened. There was openness to her. Her body language was all go ahead, ask me. But then there was the drip-feed of terror, a rising in his throat. She was so slight, so slender, he worried he might bruise her, or break her, if he were to as much as hold her hand. Luckily, it had not become an issue. There were plenty of parties and events that the magazines hosted or received invitations to. There was never a need to spotlight his attraction to her by asking her out on a date; they were often out after work together anyway, albeit in a group.

Welch struggled with text – enhanced via the computer’s universal access options – until lunchtime, a notepad filled with crossed-out headline ideas for a shaving feature (Stubble Brewing? Shaven, Not Stirred? Cut to the Quick?) and then took his headache down to the park where he ate his sandwiches and owled at the passers-by behind a pair of sunglasses.

He tried to think how this might have come to him. He was fastidious where hygiene was concerned; he carried with him a packet of wipes at all times in case he could not wash his hands before meals. He didn’t rub his eyes, even when tired, preferring instead to use eye drops if he required a little freshen-up in front of a screen during a busy shift. He couldn’t remember poking himself in the eye with a stray pen or comb; nor could he recall a speck of grit trapped behind an eyelid. Perhaps it was the drops, out of date or fouled in some way. It might just be tiredness. He had one of those jobs that meant he was stuck in front of a monitor for eight, and sometimes ten, and on the eve of a deadline, twelve hours at a time. He often ate his lunch with his left hand while his right swept a mouse around his desk. He would come home and stare at the TV to relax, or spend another couple of hours on the laptop, replying to emails or sorting out domestic admin. He sat on the bench and thought about this. He was putting on weight and developing aches across his shoulders and around his wrists. Bad habits. Bad health. He was only 25 but he felt tired all the time. A phrase from his childhood came back to him, something his mother had said in that weary way of hers. Something about there being an outer person – the projection – but also an inner person too, and this was the real you, the you that mattered. If it’s bad, keep it hidden, his mum used to say. And if it’s good, let the outside know, ruddy quick.

He screwed his sandwich wrapper into a ball and tossed it at the bin. As he did so he caught sight of a figure… no two figures. No, actually, it was one figure, standing near the fence down by the pond. The misty effect of the ointment had fooled him into thinking there was a companion. From his physical aspect, Welch was certain that it was looking his way. He wished he’d brought a newspaper or a novel with him, but he knew he would not be able to focus on the words. The pain was reaching out, a greedy despot establishing an empire.

He pushed away from his bench and headed back to work, bothered by what he’d seen in the wake of what he’d been thinking of. He checked behind him at the outer perimeter, but there were no longer any figures by the pond. The water waxed, like oil, sunlight glancing off its surface causing pulses of pain deep inside his head. He felt queasy. It was like vertigo, a sense of the world not linking with him in any normal way. Everything was burnished, even matte surfaces made of brick or bark snagged on him, visual thorns. Nowhere was safe for his eyes to rest, least of all the faces of the people who bypassed him on the short walk back to the office. They all seemed to leak parts of themselves into their wake. One might turn and smear a layer of itself; another yawn and the black, liquid reaches in its head would tremble. He thought he was imagining it, remembering it in the moment it was over, but he felt sure, were he to reach out a hand, that these discarded membranes, sloughed skins, would wrap around his fingers. It was as if what his mother had warned him of all those years ago was unravelling in the people that jostled him on these streets.

He was hurrying by the time the magazine headquarters came into view. He rushed through the revolving doors, and it was all he could do to stop his hands from wiping at his jacket, or fretting through his hair in a bid to be rid of the shreds that he’d seen flying from the bodies he walked past.

Just the ointment, just the eye itself ejecting the junk of infection.

‘Are you all right?’ Sam asked, appearing, it seemed, out of the wall, causing him to flinch. Her bright, hazel eyes, usually so friendly, now seemed other-worldly. He didn’t like how their colour seemed to fill the sockets. She seemed alien, animal. There was something predatory in her, enhanced now as she smiled at him, and her red lips parted to reveal a massing of white teeth.

‘I’m fine.’ He thought he might choke on his fear. He forced himself to calm down. This was Sam. This was his friend, and more, if only he would allow it. Nobody else saw the menace in her; everyone was going about their business as if it were just another dull day in the working week, which, of course, it was. It was all the doing of his sick eyes.

Sam’s hand rested lightly on his forearm and he felt his muscle leap to stone; she withdrew. Concern shaded her features.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m just up against it today. Bad headache. Bad deadline. You know.’

She nodded. ‘Come and have a drink with me, later,’ she said. ‘Just you and me.’

He felt his gut clench and he wished she’d say more – and we’ll just hang out and talk about work and I’ll tell you all about my new man – but she left it there, and it was an invitation to intimacy, and he could not stand it. He couldn’t say no, though. He knew the pain of the piercing of rejection and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. He couldn’t cope with the logic that spoke of other people dealing better with such things.

He got back to his desk and scooted his chair up to it, head down so he would not be engaged in any further discussions with his colleagues. He worked until three, until the world had reduced to a heavy ball of shining plasma spinning in the centre of his brain. He told his boss he was leaving early and she didn’t say a word in protest. He couldn’t see her clearly enough to gauge her reaction, but hoped that the wide, plum gash across her face was a lipstick smile of sympathy. Maybe she could see the agony he was in; he was streaming tears and any sight he caught of himself, in a window, in a shop’s security mirror, was of something diminished, melting, coming apart.

*

Welch forced himself to go out in the evening, grateful for the dark and the cold, which helped, a little. He arrived at the pub early, planning on having a little Dutch courage before Sam turned up. At the bar he was pierced with a needle of guilt, as he ordered his pint of Guinness, when he thought he heard his boss’s shrill laughter somewhere behind him. He shrugged away the childish feeling of being found out. He had no explanations he needed to make. He wasn’t infirm; he just had a headache. He was allowed a drink, wasn’t he? Anyway, he could use Sam’s presence as cover: they were having a meeting about work, to make up for his absence that afternoon. That might even impress the old bitch.

Nevertheless, he sidled towards the other end of the bar and slipped outside into the beer garden. He pushed through a knot of smokers to the rows of old, permadamp benches failing into darkness at the foot of the garden. He took his pint that far, and perched on a cold bench. He sipped the beer, realising as he did so that he didn’t actually want it. It was routine. It was the habit most of his colleagues fell into. I should have just gone to bed.

The pub was strung with fairy lights. Welch couldn’t tell if the mist that haloed them was down to his faulty vision or the moisture in the air. He wanted to rub his eyes so badly, but he knew that would drive barbs right through the meat of him. He heard movement behind him and turned to see the sway of willow branches. Their leaves glimmered with the beginnings of frost. He wondered if there was another table down there, deeper in to the shadows than he had realised, but he could just make out the shape and shade of the garden wall that marked the end of the pub’s environs. There was a grunt. A sigh. Now he thought he should return inside. An amorous couple, it must be, desperate for a secret location in which to consummate an urge that could not wait till closing time. When he reached the rear doors, he found them to have shut. Someone must have knocked the five kilogram weight that was being used as a stop. He bit his lip at that: five kilos couldn’t just be nudged out of the way by a trailing foot. A kid, messing around. A T-shirt affected by the cold.

He gazed back down the deserted garden. It was all oil. The lights were incapable of penetrating beyond the wall, managing only to turn the grass a lighter shade of grey. And now he saw clearly, the pain and the veil lifting for a few seconds: a figure moving out of those shrubs, blocky, broad: male, surely, his back – wreathed with cracked back leather – to Welch. He stopped when he was clear of the bushes and seemed to suddenly become aware of his surroundings. He snapped his gaze this way and that, and then took off over the wall and into the alleyways beyond.

Unbidden, a memory of a different pub, a different time. When you could be left in the car outside while Dad had a pint and picked the horses with his mate: 3 x 50p Doubles, 1 x 50p Treble, tax paid. A pint of bitter. A pint of mild. Welch in the car with his packet of cheese and onion, his bottle of Portello and a paper straw slowly turning to pulp. Dad coming out in the street, a boozy half-smile on. A good mood. Maybe a winner romped home by three lengths. A jerk of the head, a jerk of the thumb: come on. Welch gritted his teeth and it was as if every other part of him joined in, a gesture of solidarity.

Inside the pub for the first time ever. Had he expected this? He’d thought of a place like a shop, where people bought drinks in a queue and stood drinking them. You finished and went to the back of the queue for another. Like a go on the slide in the playground. But here men slouched against a long counter, seldom looking up unless it was to tip what was left in their glasses into their throats. Cheap wallpaper and a lino floor. Smoke thick enough that you might be able to grab handfuls of it. Thick enough to get into his sensitive eyes and have them streaming within seconds. This was before such allergies were recognised. If your eyes watered, you were crying. If you were a boy, this was not on.

‘Toughen up, Charlie,’ his dad said, clearly mortified by his own flesh and blood. ‘Fuck’s sake.’

‘This your daughter then, is it, Baz?’ someone cawed from the far end of the bar. Laughter, thick as the smoke. It twisted away: grey snakes from a dozen yellow mouths.

‘Fuck off, Jack. It’s me lad. Fair dos, like, he’s a bit soft, but it weren’t us fault. The missus pushed us off when I were spunking best part of the bastard.’

More laughter. Welch didn’t know where to look, what to do, whether he should be laughing as well.

‘Charlie, tek yer drink and go and sit in the beer garden. I’ll be out in a tick.’

Welch went off with his twisted foil bag of crisp crumbs, and the rest of his tepid pop. He meant to ask his dad what a beer garden was, but he knew he would think it weak of him to turn back now and profess his ignorance. He blundered through a brown door into a corridor that reeked of ancient piss. To his left was another brown door, to his right, a staircase leading up to a dark landing. He knew that gardens were outside. He wasn’t stupid. So he ignored the stairs and pushed through the door. Two more doors here, either side of a heavily barred fire escape. One of the doors was unmarked, but he could see screw holes where a sign had once been. The other door had a sign that said: HENS.

They had chickens here, then, in their beer garden? He pushed the door open and was met with another door. A light panic opened up inside him. He’d forgotten how many doors he’d come through. There were so many. He didn’t think he’d find his way back to his dad. What if there was a fire? He barged through the next door and it swung hard and fast behind him, clipping his knuckles and scraping them back to blood. He was in a toilet. Rows of cubicles, all closed. Two sinks with chipped mirrors above them. With dawning horror, he realised this was the ladies. Prison, for him, if he was found in here.

He was turning to go, feverish, not worrying now that he was lost, just needing to be away from this room, when the door of one of the cubicles swung open and he saw a man inside.

‘Aw, fuck,’ the man said. His widge was in his hand. It was big and hard and red.

Charlie was pushing at the door but it was too heavy. It wouldn’t open. Now the man was tucking himself in and zipping himself up. Sweat was like a layer of crumpled cellophane on his forehead.

‘Hey you, c’mere, you filfy cunt. Peepin’ Tommin’ me. Y’naughty lickul cunt.’

He smelled like the jug of batter Mum made up before she turned it into Yorkshires. He’d tried to stuff his widge away but the head of it was trapped in the waistband of his underpants. He wasn’t trying to pull up his trousers. He was shuffling towards Charlie, his fist dripping with spit. His eyes were red-rimmed and heavily-socketed, the eyebrows above them like black nonsense made by a child with a crayon.

‘C’mere, an’ I’ll show yer a trick. Come an try my special eyewash, y’filfy lickul cunt.’

Charlie felt his hair disappear into the man’s other fist, it tightening, dragging him on to his toes. He was marched into the cubicle and the door was closed. He cried out at the sound of the bolt and the man slapped him across the back of the head.

‘Not another fuckin’ peek. Now turn around and watch.’

Afterward, the man zipped himself up and left. Charlie heard the fire escape door crash open and then footsteps in the gravel and a shadow flash by the frosted toilet window. Charlie staggered to the basin and turned on the tap. He was blinded by something. Was it glue? It had happened so quickly. He’d watched the man moving his hand so swiftly on his widge it was as if he were trying to pull it off, or make it vanish. His face had become somehow centred, pulling in from the margins: his eyes narrowing, his mouth a flat, gritted bar. And then a gasp, a cry that the man tried to quell by stuffing his dirty, nicotine-stained fingers into his mouth, and this warm, wet spattering, as if he’d squeezed the shampoo bottle too hard. His eyes stung; he splashed water on his face until the unpleasant, slimy sensation was gone from him, and the smell was chased away by soap.

He negotiated the torrent of doors and found the beer garden – little more than a few chairs on a fire escape landing – upstairs. His dad was asleep. Charlie sat next to him and pressed his hand into the seldom-known depth of his father’s. It was sunny in the beer garden, and very warm. A different world. Within minutes he was asleep himself, and when his dad shook him awake much later, the pair of them uncomfortable and hot and striped with mild sunburn, his first thought was not of the man in the toilet, whom he would never see again, but of concern for his dad, who was swearing about being late home for tea.

*

Sam came up to him and kissed his cheek as if they were long-time lovers. He felt himself cower beneath that peck, and hated himself for it, at the same time made dizzy by her fresh smell, and the momentary press of her breast against his arm.

She made figure-of-eight shapes on the table with the base of her glass of cider. She was trying to give up smoking and was always edgy and distracted during the first twenty minutes of entering a pub and having a drink. Cider without that first cigarette was a tough ask, but she was butching it out. She was telling him about a photograph she’d had to caption that afternoon. A picture of a woman pretend kissing a pair of Y-fronts. The article was all about a woman from Melton Mowbray who was addicted to sex, or rather, the male generative organ. She had albums of pictures, and plaster casts all around the house. They’d been tossing around ideas for an hour, until most of them were creased up with laughter. It was this part of the job she loved most.

‘I was going to go with cock-a-hoop, but Will said penile dementia, which just slew me. Jenny came up with the best one, but it was too obscure, according to she-who-must-be-obeyed. Pork sigh. You know, pork pie? Melton Mowbray? What do you think?’

‘Very good,’ Welch said, but his voice was strained. He didn’t like this prurient side to the job, which was unavoidable, especially when working on what was basically a lad’s mag with aspirations. You could call be titled Gent, but it was still all about tits and bums and football.

‘What would you have come up with?’ she asked. ‘You left too soon. You missed all the fun.’

She was teasing him, and he knew that, but it didn’t prevent his cheeks from burning. ‘Nothing anywhere near as good.’

‘Go on,’ she said. ‘You’re up against a deadline. We go to press in one minute. What’s your best shot.’

‘I haven’t got one.’ He thought of the toilet door swinging open, and the man standing there, his finger and thumb encircling the meaty head of his penis. Everything is OK. OK. OK.

‘Time’s running out. Think dick.’

‘Sam, please – ‘ You filfy lickul cunt.

‘Ten seconds remaining.’

‘I can’t!’ Welch stood up and the chair he’d been sitting on toppled to the floor.

The pub chatter ceased. Into that pocket of silence, before it began again, he apologised, and stalked out, head down, grateful for the sunglasses. He was shaken by the way events kept chasing the tail of his thoughts and memories. It was as if he were somehow initiating them, summoning them, even.

He bashed his shoulder hard against the doorframe as he went out into the night. He could hear Sam coming after him, calling his name, but he no longer wanted company. He just wanted to get home and go to sleep and rid himself of this furious pain. He ignored her pleas to slow down, and her exasperated apologies. He was sure Sam didn’t know where he lived; he couldn’t deal with the knock at the door this evening. He was drunk, though not enough to wipe clean the dirt that had been revealed on the windows of his mind. He broke into a trot, and put distance, and streets, between them. He turned this way and that until he was lost in a little warren of back alleys and dead ends abutting a warehouse. A lover’s lane, though the broken glass and litter suggested it would be a better place to die.

He sat down on a discarded milk crate and blinked at the glistening asphalt, shaking at the memory that had opened up within him. You started feeling below par, you started feeling sorry for yourself, you became a conduit for all kinds of bad feeling. His mother had warned him. This is how cancer begins. This is where the necrosis in the heart originates. Sad faces equals early graves. Don’t allow that inner being to flex its muscles. Don’t let it grow, because it will fill you up, and it will need more space. It will want to get out.

He thought of how he had grown. He had been stunted, he believed, by a disinterested father, who spent his weekends away from the arc-welder immersed in The Racing Post and the Daily Mirror, and a mother who was so panicked about keeping him safe that he could not move for all the symbolic cotton wool with which she swaddled him. He was never allowed to play out; if he wanted to see his friends, they had to visit. Social interaction at a minimum, there was only ever going to be one way to develop. It was only when he made that decision to escape that he was able to put himself in a position to challenge the crushing shyness that had held him back for so long. But even so, he saw how others lived their lives and he found himself regretting choices he had made, or not made, people he had failed to make connections with who could have been friends or lovers; chances to travel that were spurned. Opportunities were missed, or never recognised as such. Now he was heading towards his 30s and there was little in his life that he could put a tick next to. He was drifting; freefalling.

Welch stared down this cobbled back alley, with its shining puddles of oil-infected rainwater, its beer cans and bulging bin sacks. It was all softened, made palatable, by the blur of his eyes. You could be witness to anything, blunted like this. Everything was sinister. There were no friendly shapes. The pain had become so known to him now, it was like the hum of a refrigerator, always there, but something he could filter out. He thought he could hear footsteps, still, but it might have been anything. It might have been the rain falling on the corrugated iron roof of the warehouse nearby, or the beat of his own pain, treading a furrow into the meat behind his eyes.

It was increasing, though, this pain, swelling beyond what he was used to. He drew himself upright and staggered, mewling, into the main street where the lights splintered in his eyes and they could not have been more agonising had they been real needles. All he could see when he closed them was a flicker show of horror: his father walking past him with an expression on his face that might have been do I know you?; the clenched man in the cubicle; Sam easing down his jeans to find only a sexless curve of skin.

The supermarket windows provided a wall of glass in which he could watch his own blurred, misshapen form stumble and trip. He came to a stop in front of it and held out his hands as if for help from his reflection. He called for his mother, though she was dead fifteen years. But here she came, a frantic, fraught shade in the blazing backstreets of his mind, trying to stitch shut the apertures of his body so that nobody bad could escape. There was panic creased into her features. He couldn’t speak. His mouth was a criss-cross of thin leather. He was deaf. He couldn’t smell the exhaust fumes in the road, or the rotting waste in the skip outside the supermarket. She was trying to say something, shouting at him, but he could not hear. Carmine lipstick bled into the creases around her fear-frozen mouth. Charlie! It’s bad! Keep it hidden! Close your eyes! Close your eyes!

He turned and through the gummy caul of his sight, everything was still hazy, yet he saw more than enough detail to last him what little lifetime he had left, as his agonies reached a point he could never return from, and the filth-rimmed fingertips within began to pick a way through.

Advent Stories #18

PERHAPS THE LAST

SEIKO

Garner spent his days clock-watching in a room filled with timepieces, none of which could tell him how long was left on his shift. Hours crawled by. Maybe one day he’d be given a more agreeable timetable and things would go better – telling kids to stop climbing on the display cases, giving direction to the toilets, watching girls in their summer blouses take a turn around the exhibits on the balcony below – but until then it was was graveyard hours for him; in a room filled with relics from the past, Garner had never felt more dead.

In mind of the lower floor, he leaned over the railing and tried to see Della, but she was ensconced in the gloom. He could just hear the faint flick of magazine pages, the hot smell of cinnamon from the gum she liked to chew during work. He could occasionally spot her shadow, or the pale oval of her face as she moved around the exhibits in her domain, but more often than not she was lost to the hard shadows that filled that space.

The museum, situated in South Kensington, was split into two floors and again, laterally, between east and west. Ostensibly, four security guards patrolled each quadrant, but because of the various ways the sections were separated none of them could meet. The museum suits wanted it like that. The internal closed circuit cameras were switched off at night, for economical reasons. The lighting was also reduced by fifty per cent, to save fifty per cent. Management didn’t want any malingering, and knew that barring access to the other floors was the only way to ensure this.

Which didn’t mean that Garner couldn’t communicate, at least with Della, as she monitored the floor beneath his. In the crepuscular silence he would sometimes hear the softly squeaking tread of her boots as they passed from carpet to lino. He liked her measured stride – there was no rush to get anywhere – and the occasional sound of her nightstick as it lightly knocked against the wall, or the display cabinets. He had yet to meet her face to face; the shifts of the four were staggered by a couple of hours, again to prevent excessive crossover with the replacement guards. He had not drummed up enough courage to ask if she’d like to meet him for coffee. At least he could fill the stretches between ten and four shaping a face around that voice.

Now, he whispered: ‘Busy tonight, isn’t it?’

Her laughter rose into the domed ceiling like some soft unfolding: a flower, origami. ‘Yes, I’m run off my feet.’

He took a turn around his own area. He knew it well; could have walked it in the dark if the museum bean counters ever decided to go the whole hog and turn the lights out completely. Early on in his job he had paced the zone like a prisoner coming to terms with his cell, and found he could walk its perimeter in two hundred and seventy leisurely steps. The interior of his quadrant was dotted – seemingly arbitrarily – with display cabinets, others were lined neatly along the perimeter. All of them were filled with objects from the past devoted to the task of dividing time into chunks and offering it in a variety of faces in every way from the ingeniously simple to the shatteringly complex. There were Chinese water clocks, a congreve clock powered by a stainless steel ball that zigzagged along brass grooves. Stopwatches, pendulums, gnomons and pallets. Pocket sundials in beautiful leather boxes. Great iron intersections incorporating cogs and springs and gears. Every kind of escapement, from dead-beat to detent to recoil to floating balance. Cylinder watches, verge watches, repeating watches. Velvet-lined wooden boxes. Beautiful table clocks. Oscillators, winding barrels, anchors and counterweights. The turning of circles. Touch pins that had allowed the pre-electricity population to read the time in darkness. Skeleton plates, repoussé cases: silver and enamel, chased or damascened. Burnished zones where the fingers of people long dead had probed.

An incremental grinding of teeth. The bruxism of time.

It was all instantly recognisable and utterly alien in the same moment. Knowable and beyond him. But that was okay. All he had to do was guard it. He wondered if Della was similarly influenced by the booty she had to protect, and speculated as to whether he would prefer to be striding around glass cabinets displaying old surgical instruments. Bone shears, amputation knives, hacksaws. He didn’t like to think how his life might be coloured by that gruesome arsenal.

The high walls would sometimes dance with reflected light from all that metal and glass. Occasionally it would dazzle him, and leave him blinded for a second or two, his shocked retina flashing with greens and purples. The source of light, Garner mused, was sometimes difficult to identify. He guessed it must be generated by traffic, although the road outside the museum wasn’t exactly nose-to-tail, even at rush hour. It might belong to Della’s torch, but if so, her beams were wildly off target, lifting into his quadrant, twenty feet above her own. Perhaps it was tripping around the strange angles of her display cases, glancing off the ancient metal of her patrol a dozen times before rising to him. Perhaps she was just monkeying around, flirting with him. He could dream.

He paced. He drank the two-and-a-half cups of coffee that filled his flask. He ate his ham and English mustard sandwiches, his banana, his piece of fruit cake. He read the previous day’s Independent. He read a damning article about his team from When Saturday Comes, photocopied and sent to him in the post by a gloating friend. He read a chapter from a Michael Marshall novel. He paced. And another hour was measured out by countless immobile hands.

‘You know Frank Whittle?’ It didn’t matter what she said. How left field, how mundane. The way she spoke could have enlivened her recitation of a library’s opening times.

‘Not personally,’ he said. ‘But yes. Jet engine man.’

‘You know what he did when he retired?’

‘Um, no. Went to live in a really quiet place, I expect.’

‘Wrong. He bought a house at the end of a runway and watched planes taking off all day long.’

This was something else about Della that he liked. She was always coming out with this strange information. Trivia that had no bearing on anything they had talked about recently. It didn’t really help to pass the time, and he was never sure if she was telling the truth or pulling his leg, but it was fun to guess.

‘Well you won’t find me moving across the road from a security firm,’ he said. ‘Attractive though that might be to the ordinary man. What about you? What will you do when you retire?’

‘Long time off.’

‘I should think so. You don’t exactly sound as though you’re entering the autumn of your senescense.’

‘I’d like to live by the sea. Somewhere clean. And cold. I have a health problem. Ideally I should have fresh air. I’d like to spend whatever time I have left looking at the stars.’

*

The darkness at four o’clock in November seems so satisfied with itself one could be forgiven for thinking that daylight might never force its way back. Garner trudged home along main roads that could have passed for back alleys, so deserted were they. The refuse and shadows that once conspired to upset him on his return home now interested him only peripherally. He knew the darkness well. He had hung around at the end of his shift, knowing that Della would not be out for at least another quarter of an hour, but he didn’t see her leave.

Unusually, because of the light pollution in the centre of the city, the sky was brim full of stars. He stopped for a while and stared at them. The longer he stared, the more it seemed he could see. Patches of ostensibly black sky opened up to show him dusty whorls of light. The illusion of the curved sky flew away. There was no shape to what he was seeing any more. No end of depth. He reeled away when it occurred to him that his mind was too puny for the wonders he was being shown. He thought he had seen a pattern there, for one unbearable second. Something that put him in mind of fingerprints, or the bizarre constellations of brilliant muscle fibres that go to make up an iris. He felt cowed by the vision, such as it was, and the nearer he got to him home, the more he found himself doubting that he had seen anything. Another glance at the sky seemed to confirm this: just stars, just darkness.

He tried to do what most people who work shifts do: create the illusion that his working span was like any other day. So he took a bath, watched television, cooked himself some dinner and opened a bottle of wine. By six, although it still wasn’t getting light, the night’s thickness was loosening somewhat. Garner headed off to bed, pausing on the way when a sudden jolt of sound – a known, frequent occurrence – drilled through his head. He tried to find its echo on the short wave radio by his bed but nothing remotely matched it. He fell asleep thinking of Della, and the nature of her disease.

*

The sound of roadworks wakened him, or rather, the sound of the men powering the tools that tore at the Tarmac. Mechanical things he had never found disruptive of his slumber, but raised voices, swearing, laughter, especially the kind of forced laughter from labourers – as if it was important it compete with the ambient sound – always roused him.

A low parallelogram of light on the wall suggested it was around midday. He lay in bed wondering about Della. He wished he had asked her to accompany him for a coffee after work. The way they had chatted made such an invitation seem natural. He knew a great little place run by a Cuban called Paco that was open all night. He sold Turquino coffee that was so good it almost gave his life meaning.

It felt wrong to fantasise about a woman he had never seen, so when he felt the first twitches of an erection he rose and showered. He grabbed the Marshall novel and his digital camera, and headed for the river.

He could not shake off the feeling he had experienced the previous night. Although the stars were invisible now, he still felt able to see them. Garner walked down to the National Film Theatre and browsed the second hand books beneath Waterloo bridge. He found a film guide by Leonard Maltin and flipped through it but could find no reference to Guillame Angiers. He collected a film schedule and a pint of lager, took a seat, tried to immerse himself in the book he was reading. The words couldn’t bring him out of himself, which was what he always asked of a novel. It wasn’t the author’s fault. Della, and something inexplicable, capered at the edge of his reason, fouling anything he tried to focus on. He wondered what the other might be. Something to do with the strange light, perhaps. Or the snatches of sound that fizzed through his thoughts from time to time. He felt anxious, but in an amorphous way. It was as if the anxiety existed only because he couldn’t pinpoint the reason for it.

An old man with a white candyfloss beard played a violin in front of the book tables with violent panache. The river seemed hardly to move beyond him, but suggested its strength in the subtle ribboning of its surface. He shuddered as he watched the pedestrians crossing the Hungerford bridge to his left. Garner had always feared the bridges spanning the Thames. He thought they were too exposed. Any madman could wrestle you over the side and then you’d be done for, no matter how strong a swimmer. The London currents were brutal. In considering this, he suddenly felt close to unlocking the basis for his misery, but it wouldn’t come. He surreptitiously took pictures of women who passed him by, wondering all the time if one of them might be Della. It was beginning to worry him that he’d be disappointed if he ever found out what she looked like. Her anonymity was a powerful attraction.

The violinist stopped playing. Nobody applauded. He didn’t seem affected. He collected the change thrown into his violin case and walked away.

*

‘Have you had any more transmissions lately? On Radio Garner?’

‘Yes,’ he said, gingerly touching the back of his head. He wished he had never told Della about his accident, and the metal plate, and the occasional rushes of static, or voices, or music, that fled through his brain like something half-remembered. ‘I had one last night, before I went to bed.’

‘Go on.’

‘A film review. Well, part of one. I still get a bit of a jolt from it. Have to go and check the radio isn’t on. Before I believe it’s coming from me. Or coming through me, I should say.’

‘What was the film?’

‘A new film called Gnawed Hearts. By some veteran European director. Guillaume something.’

‘Guillame Angiers?’

‘That’s it. Have you seen it?’

‘No. I hardly ever get out to do stuff. I spend a lot of time indoors. Just me, a glass of mineral water, a relaxing CD and a nebuliser.’

Garner winced, grateful that the dark prevented her from seeing his expression. Her health problems were clearly more acute than he had understood. Her voice seemed happy enough though. She sounded as if she were describing something desirable. Like a holiday, or an unattainable man.

‘Don’t waste your time,’ she said. ‘Take advantage of the fact that you’re mobile. That you’re intelligent. Healthy. Fill each minute, because I promise you if you don’t, you’ll regret it.’

In the dark he was aware of the minute movement of things. The slow slide of the moon’s light across the wall, the epically tiny repositioning of teeth and coils, the settling of age in his bones. He had always thought of time as this linear thing, a real thing, that measured out your span for you in handy chunks as you bumbled around from day to day. In the midst of its mechanical fashioning here in the museum, he got an idea of time that was more fluid and yet less recordable than that; something that reached out in many directions beyond forwards. Something instantaneous with the lifespan shorter than the smallest particle of its own, immense scale. He thought of something being born and dying almost instantaneously. He thought of a world 4.5 billion years old and yet never truly existing beyond the super-immediate moment.

It was strange to think of his city, his street, this museum, hosting people from different decades, different days. It must have happened – there was plenty of photographic evidence – but it still provided a mental block for him. It didn’t exist any more. It was dead time. When did one ever live purely in the moment? Weren’t we all just memory slaves?

At certain times during the night, usually in the two hours or so before his shift ended, Garner could hear the ministrations of time more clearly: the skittling of the ball bearing in the congreve clock, or the ticking of the newest additions to the cabinets, the Seiko Kinetic watches, design classics from just a few years previously. Garner could imagine future generations goggling at these in the same way visitors gazed at the ancient sundials while they took for granted whatever future technology allowed them to keep their appointments. Something behind the eyelid. Something implanted in the brain. Time moved on. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe time was static, and it was us that moved through it.

Garner closed his eyes against these difficult thoughts and became gradually aware of a new sound, another ticking, although this time irregular, muffled and, he could somehow tell, not from his quarter of the museum.

‘Can you hear that?’ he asked Della.

‘Yes,’ she said, equably. ‘What is it?’

‘I thought you might be able to tell me.’

‘It’s a clock, isn’t it? Of some sort?’

‘I don’t know. It sounds as if it is.’ Garner couldn’t put his finger on why the museum collected such a softness, a vagueness, at this time of night. More and more he suspected that it was him instead, relaxing, becoming more attenuated, more responsive to the sensory krill as it floated by.

He rose from his uncomfortable moulded plastic chair and strolled the usual figure 8, in case a different position within the room might reveal the source of the sound. It didn’t. It seemed to come from all angles, and none at all. For one strange moment he thought it was coming from his own body.

‘It must be heating, or water in the pipes. Something like that,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘It’s an old building. Sometimes you just aren’t aware of it, but in quiet moments it can surprise you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here. How well you think you know a place.’

‘How long have you been here?’

She sighed, and the sound flitted around the heights like a trapped bird. ‘Too long,’ she said.

‘It would be nice to talk to you face to face,’ he said, haltingly. ‘I could buy you a cup – ’

‘I don’t think so,’ she interrupted him. ‘It isn’t what I’m looking for.’

He was confused and hurt by her instant rebuttal. How had he misread their relationship? They conversed easily, she laughed at his jokes, he was interested in her. What harm could a cup of coffee bring?

He resumed his patrol, walking close to the rail and looking down into her quadrant. He thought he saw the twin gleam of eyes turned up towards him, and the sweep of a shadow as it too returned to its duties. She would be the one to build bridges between them after that, he decided.

Half an hour later he thought he heard her clearing her throat, but she had retreated to the furthest corner of the room, where she liked to eat her packed meal. He moved around too, until he was standing over the area she was occupying. It was gratifying to him, hearing a woman so obviously enjoying her food. The enthusiasm with which she chewed and slurped, and cracked what must be chicken legs, was so uncommon among women as to be attractive to him. But it served only to underline her snub.

Suddenly it seemed that the hours weren’t moving as fast as they once had. There was little for him to do. The newspaper had been read, the crosswords and Sudoku completed. There was nothing left to eat in his bag and his flask of coffee had finally become tepid. His frustration had no release; what could he do but pace the same old route in his cheap serge uniform? Through the large ceiling window he again marvelled at the talcum powder stars. He thought for a moment he might have unleashed their secret; something was threatening, like the storm behind a wall of black cloud, but then it was gone; maddeningly, because the patterns remained, as well as his belief in his capacity to read them. He almost asked Della if she could see what he was seeing, but he stubbornly stuck to his guns, no matter how much he needed some support about what was being played out far above him. And at that moment he heard her voice, moving through his mind like a memory. He recognised the rhythms and melody of it, but not the words. It was as if he was hearing her speak through a hot flannel. He almost asked her what was wrong, but he suspected at the last moment that her voice had come to him from a different source. His head burned with confusion; he wanted to shout out, ask what it was she wanted, but he couldn’t because of course she didn’t want anything.

It isn’t what I’m looking for.

What was she looking for?

He waited again when his shift was over, but she must have left before him; the soft noises occurring within her quadrant being produced by the wind, or the badly remembered weight of her on the floorboards and chairs. He tested the fire doors but they did not give. Suddenly it was imperative that he see where she worked. It was hard to comprehend that he had spent such a long time employed by the museum yet had never perused its stock. He returned to the front of the building and tried the main entrance. He rapped on the window but the replacement security guard for Della obviously couldn’t hear him. Angry, he stomped to Paco’s coffee shop, drank three cappuccini and scanned the previous day’s newspaper that he salvaged from a bin. Another hour. He felt older. He went back to the museum and the lights were on in one of the ground floor offices. He tapped on the glass and a shape squirmed into the elaborately textured square.

‘Who is it?’

Garner could tell by the voice that it was Joyce, the cleaner. He asked her to let him in.

He thanked her profusely, explaining that he had left his watch in the museum. ‘Funny, isn’t it?’ he said, ascending the stairs and looking back down at her in the reception hall. ‘I lose my watch. In a room full of watches.’

She didn’t find it amusing, and returned to her brushes and buckets shaking her head.

Garner retraced his steps quietly until he was standing by the main entrance again, checking that Joyce had shut herself in the kitchen. Now he moved quickly under the stairs to the entrance to Della’s quadrant of the museum. He pushed lightly at the door, but it was locked. Who replaced Della when she went home? He didn’t know. He tapped on the door, not wanted Joyce to come back and force more unlikely excuses out of him. Nobody came. He rubbed his face. There must be some way of getting in. He couldn’t understand the force of his need. It sat in the centre of his head as if a hot needle had been embedded there. And then he realised the only way he could do it, short of breaking the door down. He returned to the stairs and hurried up to his own domain. He knew the combination on the door lock that would give him entry here. He slipped inside, and saw the beam of Lievesley’s torch picking out one of the display cabinets. What was he doing? The beam did not waver. Garner wondered if he should come clean to his shift partner, or go ahead with his plan and hope he didn’t get spotted. When he came across Lievesley’s torch a few seconds later, his dilemma was increased. Why would a security guard leave his torch on the floor? Why would he leave it on? Had he dropped it? If so, then where was he? Garner felt the first tremors of fear, minuscule, but relevant, like the tiny, shivering chip of quartz in a wristwatch. Something had happened here, in the time it had taken for him to clock off, drink a few cups of coffee and break back in. He edged to the railing and peered into the darkness. Nobody walked down there. He wondered if the replacement security guards had actually turned up. But if they hadn’t, what about that torch? Perhaps a burglar. Garner again scanned his area, but there was nothing here to suggest that anything untoward had happened. He retrieved the torch and switched it off. The complete lack of sound was distressing to him, occurring as it did within an environment where he usually felt so comfortable. The museum was suddenly an alien place to him. A feeling that was intensified a few moments later, when he vaulted the railings and dropped into the centre of Della’s little universe. His unease was replaced for a short time with unalloyed excitement. It was the closest he had ever been to the woman that intrigued him so much, a bizarre feeling, considering her absence.

‘Some of those stars up there died a thousand years before you were born,’ she said. ‘The light you can see is ancient, of a thing that no longer exists. It might be a thousand years after you die that the light will wink out. Time comes into its own where concepts like that are concerned. It puts on its best frock and flirts with the camera. Minor elements, like you for instance, trouble time hardly at all.’

She was not there, but it was her voice. He felt it convulsing around his mind like a severed worm. He pressed his fingers against the metal plate in his head as if certain he would trace her features in it. A soft click: light flicked on upstairs, so faint it seemed to cling to the ceiling. He looked around him but down here it was still too gloomy to see anything that might open Della up to him. No books that she had left. No diary. No receipts or bus tickets. He didn’t know what he had expected to find. By this time he was half-crippled with fright anyway. He wanted to call up to whoever was in his quadrant, but to do that was to give himself away and he feared what consequences that might bring. He was drawn to one of the cabinets that was larger than any of the others. The lid had been pushed back, which surprised him as he had never seen any of his own cabinets opened for any reason. Inside it was a 19th century operating table, complete with a tray of sawdust beneath to absorb any spillages. He reached in and touched the worn wood with its collection of nicks from the amputation blades that had sawn into it over the years. His hand came away warm and wet. His eyes snagged on a placard referring to a failed operation that had been attempted on a female baby suffering from a terrible condition known as ectopia cordis, a congenital state in which the patient is born with the heart outside the body. Even now, the placard read, such a condition is likely to result in death.

Stackables

She said, ‘The cattle tic is capable of akinesis. It will sit on the tip of a branch waiting for the scent of animal sweat for as long as it takes. Decades sometimes. When the scent awakens it, it jumps towards the smell, drinks blood, gives birth to its eggs, and dies. Treading water for so long, waiting for one chance of life, of living.’

He shook his head and tentatively climbed on to one of the display cabinets. He had to leap to catch hold of the railing and pulled himself up as quickly as his unfit body would allow.

She said, ‘One man’s museum is another’s prison.’

Frantically, Garner stalked between the display cabinets, searching for something he didn’t have a name for. The clocks and watches all seemed different now the lights were on. Up ahead he saw shadows surge across the pale carpet, then recede into the relative murk against the wall, where the pendulum clocks were aligned. He heard the smash of broken glass. The torch had been switched on again. It was trained on the same cabinet he had seen when he entered the room.

Up ahead, the lid of one of the display cabinets had been shattered. At first he thought it must be due to something having fallen from the ceiling, but even as he approached he knew this was merely wishful. He tried to muffle his terror with the banal concern that the alarm had not been triggered.

Something had been added to the collection.

It was beautiful and awful in equal measure. A silver skull watch, blood-spattered and glistening. A latin phrase was inscribed into the metal. He could just make it out despite the splashes of red: ultima forsan. Next to it, another kind of timepiece had been crudely mashed into the broken display cabinet. Like the others, this one had also stopped ticking, but could never be fixed to do so again.

The hole in her chest roared wetly with air as she tried to fill her lungs. He could only glance at her, at the incisions in her body, at the twitching fist of meat that clung to her chest, beating so violently he thought it must tear itself away. His panic and fear were heavy, they dragged his gaze to the floor.

She said, ‘It’s later than you think.’