Sub ref, please

Watching my son play football yesterday (his team lost to a sickening last-gasp goal), I noticed straight away that the opposition coach had an extraordinarily loud voice. So what else could I do but write down everything he said over the course of the 80 minutes…

First Half
Keep it moving.
Make it stick.
Always awake.
Constant talking.
Ball to feet.
Leighton can hang.
Go with him.
Josh, talk to him.
Keep tight.
You can’t stand and watch.
He makes every ball look good.
Well in, Mario.
Round the outside.
Let’s get someone in the middle of the park.
Oli, quicker with your feet.
Joe, man behind.
No, no, no, no, no.
Take responsibility.
Don’t let them into the game, fellers.
And again.
Good head, son.
You know he’s not great at looking.
That’s a great ball.
Good football again.
Keep working.
Josh, beware.
Good lad, good tackle.
Are you having it? No?
Brilliant, mate.
Let’s play football, come on.
Get it on the deck.
Get it down and play.
Well in, Jacko.
Great football, that.
Finn, on your toes, mate.
Go with him.
Push forward.
Sub ref, please.
Right, get stretched out.
Keep it super tight.
Get out with him.
Chase him down.
You’ve got to work harder against him.
Jack, talk to Finn all the time, he’s not an experienced forward, is he?
Take him down, Finn.
Luke, if you think you’re in a good position, drop ten.
Jack, go hard.
Joe, you’ve lost a man behind.
You’ve got to drag him back in the middle.
Please don’t think for yourself.
Pressing, pressing.
That loose ball’s a one v one.
Run at them, Jack.
Run him, Mario, run him.
Fellers, when we get in their penalty area, pass the ball quicker.
Do not get too far forward.
Right Luke, talk to them all the time.
Move for each other.
Be incisive with your passing.

0-1

Lazy, that.
Come on, you’re better than that.
Tom, you’ve got to shield that back three.
Turn, give, have it.
Tom – centre, back of the circle… you can’t drift.
Simple.
You’re making it too easy.
Sub ref, please.
Right, let’s attack this ball.
Luke, stay positional.
Unlucky, Brands.
Come on Jack, play football.
Tom, drop in.
Back you come, Gav.
Oooooooh!
Right, face it up.
Brands, you’ve got to pass our way out of trouble.
You think you can beat eight players past the halfway line?

Half time

If you get the ball with your back to play you can’t turn. If you could you’d be on the telly yesterday.
Positional discipline.

Second half
Mario, hit the byline.
Kick start your run.
Come on, two-touch.
Loads of bodies round you there.
We did an hour on that in training.
Unlucky Leight.
Follow it in.
You’ve got to be moving now.
Well in, Brands.
Again, look after each other.
Go again, go again.
Jack, press forward.
Who’s in there?
Get your foot in.
You’ve got to get in front.
You’re making life too easy.
Corner ball that, surely?
Get on the end of this.
Mario, give me five hard minutes.
Few tackles from behind there.
Work hard, mate.
Unlucky.
Luke, if you think you’re in a good space, ten yards back.
Keep playing.
Sub ref, please.
Come on guys, that’s awful, no excuse.
Get ready.
Fellers, we’ve got twenty-five minutes, step it up.
Battle for it, fellers.
Sub ref, please.
Chasing the game now for the first time in six weeks.
It’s all about effort.
It’s got to go more diagonal.
Good head.
You’re left-footed – hit it.
Get on the keeper.
Luke, hold the centre, play it deep – everything else is brilliant.
Sub ref, please.
Tom, have a rest.
Keep it tight.
Twenty minutes, players, come on.
Come on, up we go.
Good lad, Luke.
Position now.
Luke, play deep.
Jacko, I know you know: let’s keep it tight, let’s make it stick.
Go with the line.
Twist your player.
Matty, you’ve got to be chasing everything.
Got to be doing that.
Go in, on the wing.
Don’t you dare turn away.
Fifteen minutes.
Man on.
Tackle.
Unlucky, Sammy.
Connor, you’re jogging.
Connor, you’ve got to work.
Help him.
Go again.
We’ve got to get it across the front of goal and in.
Joe get central, Luke get central.
Come on, be quick, be quick.
We’ve got guys in acres.
You’ve got to follow it in.
What are you waving your arms for?
Brands, if you moan again you’re coming off.
It’s all about how much you work.
Well in, Finn.
How long, ref, please?

1-1

Yes!
Sub ref, please.
Well done, fellers.
Right, let’s go for this, fellers. Let’s go for this.
Press forward, Mario.
Mario, lead the line.
Sammy, dictate.
Get forward, let’s go.
Luke: super tight, super deep.
Unlucky, Gav.
I just wanted you to roll it.
Leighton, make four in the middle.
Great ball,
And again, let’s go.
Brands, lead the line.
Sammy, there’s only you and Leighton in the middle.
Sammy, do you want it?
Do you want Brands to have it?
Good save, keeper.
Right, let’s go again.
Drop out.
Go for it Sam, have it off him.
You’ve got to win it in the middle.
Face him up, Connor.
Right, let’s go again.
Great supporting, Luke.
We have no time.
Right, come on, we’ve got to go.
Sammy, drop.
Go on the back post.
Think, will you?
Sub ref, please.
Brands, off.
For giving it the ref.
You’re out of order there.
All right, see you later.
If you barrack the ref and get a red, I agree.
Unlucky, fellers.
Walk it off, walk it off.

2-1

Yes!

Full time

Advent Stories #17

THE COLD

urb

December sleet, Shude Hill, Manchester. Six in the evening. Temperature dropping. Jesus wept. The things we do. The things we grow to be. No, Simmonds, I do not want another fucking coffee. Get on to Arley and find out when forensics are going to bring their tents and toothpicks over. And get that cordon sorted. We’ve had two scoops already from the Evening News, nosing around this offal. Do your fucking job.

Rachel Biddeford. Second this month. Obviously the same Joe. Dirty bastard. DNA not on our records. A newbie. Knows his way around a body, mind. Hospital worker? Medical student? Nylon ties around the wrists and ankles. Goes deep with his cutter. Deep vein. Cuts the jugular. Why does he do that? Why not the artery? Get it over with. But no. Slower death, see. He wants them conscious. He wants them to see him while he’s masturbating.

Vein man. Vain man.

After death, a professional Y-cut. Post-mortem spot-on. And what’s he taking? Nothing. Organs intact. Sewn back up with neat little sutures. What is this clown? Ex-morgue? Did he watch too much police procedural on the TV?

Talk to the residents. Talk to the vagrants. Talk to the brick wall. Nothing going on. Nobody knows. No. Nothing. I wasn’t. I didn’t. Victim killed elsewhere, then dumped, same as in Whalley Range, same as in Denton. No pattern to the locations. Faces laced with dried come. Pale as the time-whitened covers of the wank mags in the bookshops on Thomas Street. Girls from the university, no older than twenty. No obvious link so far, other than pretty, coltish. A blonde and two brunettes. An English student and two sciences. Merry fucking Christmas.

Forensics take pictures, take swabs. Midnight before the crime scene’s secure and the body’s on a trolley on its way to Path. Simmonds is pulling his coat on and I hoik him my way. Souness first, I tell him. I’m buying. I don’t care how fucking tired you are Simmonds. Sleep when you get to Hell. And believe me, son, that’s where you’re going. Anybody who makes tea as bad as you do…

*

Gravier fiddled with shreds of salad peeking from the lips of his bacon sandwich and put that morning’s newspaper to one side. He had failed to progress beyond the first few lines of the article for fifteen minutes and could feel a headache assembling a nest at the back of his skull. When had a Souness ever really meant a swift half and then off? Why did boozing hold hands so tightly with officers on the Force?

The girl on the bicycle across the street would not stop thumbing at the bell on her handlebars and the sound was growing to irritate him. It carried through the traffic, permeating the glass and the hubbub in the cafe. His appetite having failed pretty much the moment he’d bought his breakfast, Gravier sat in the window seat staring through a halo of mist at the figure straddling her pale blue three-speed. With a frustrated grunt, Gravier gave up on his meal and barked his leg in his eagerness to be out of the door. The girl on the bicycle was gone, but the sound of the bell remained like a stain in the air. He walked across the road to where she had been, feeling vague and purposeless, and stood there for a while, fighting the urge to reach out and stay fingers that were no longer busy at their mischief. Something was itching at his mind, something about the murderer, and his way with a needle and thread. Opening and closing bodies. Taking nothing away.

*

West Didsbury. South Manchester. February 1st. Burton Road shops closed and dusty from the credit crunch. Browning Christmas trees dumped in back alleys. Buses advertising horror films dragging sullen, featureless occupants to and from the desk. Condensation in every window, every heart. Everyone’s spunked money they don’t have on presents nobody wanted. Pay it off just in time for Santa to come calling at the arse-end of this year, wagging his ‘I Want’ list. Manchester winter. Everyone saddled with one sort of shit or another. Jenny Beaker most of all, at least today. And she’s the only one not complaining. What the fuck is this, Simmonds? Café au porridge? I don’t do froth, son. Take it back and get me a proper drink. I wanted a flask for Christmas. So I could whack a pint of honest UK tea inside it and flick the Vs at these wankhole coffee shops with their crappuccini and shatté and Ameriguano. What happened to the greasy spoon and the chipped mug of milk and two?

dids

Jenny B. Twenty-one. Born in Swansea. Studying for a Creative Writing MA at MMU. You’ve found yourself a hell of a story here, babe. Talk to her student pals at the student house in Withington. Student faces slack as an old man’s clothes rail. I don’t. I didn’t. Quiet as student mice. Kept herself to herself. Yeah, don’t we all. Except him. Our friend the surgeon. Talk to the neighbours. Boo to a goose. Mrs Vearncombe wouldn’t be surprised. Mrs Craven shudders to think. The only leads I have are the ones tying Jenny’s wrist to the lamp-post.

Jesus Christ, Simmonds. Milk again? I want my coffee black. Black as the eyes you’ll be wearing if you don’t pull your thumb out of your chute and do something right for a change.

*

He walked away and it wasn’t Simmonds behaving like a queynt that got his feet moving. It wasn’t the sight of Jenny Beaker gazing up at him with eyes that were large and wide, love-filled, almost. It was the paint on the wall by her body. Graffiti was everywhere these days, but not like this. It bothered him more than the grey, unresponsive flesh.

Thou art all ice. Thy kindness freezes.

What kind of spraycan fan came out with that stuff?

Later, at home, he discovered that the line was from Shakespeare. He snorted laughter as he closed his web browser and turned to the rank of bottles gleaming on the cabinet in his living room. He poured himself a glass of Scotch and sat by the window. Outside, he had a view of the main road than ran through Heaton Moor. Bars he didn’t patronise, shops he didn’t buy from. He didn’t know why he was here. He’d prefer a small flat in the centre of town, but this was where his wife had wanted to be. Gemma had left him two years previously. Nothing to do with his drinking, or the hours he put in at the office. She’d met another guy, that was all. He didn’t argue with her when she laid it all out before him. He reserved his bitterness for when the flat was empty of her things. He tried to purge her merry ghost with elegiac songs by Interpol and Editors. He ate the food she didn’t like, despite his not liking it either. One night he brought back one of the girls from the switchboard and fucked her standing up against the wall, a position his wife could not abide.

He downed the drink.

‘Thou art all ice,’ he said, and his own voice made him jump.

*

Gravier had been in love, once. And not with his wife. This was before he got married. It had been the breathlessness, the heart-stopping moment he’d heard about and scoffed at for so long. She was one of those glimpses-in-a-mirror women. A once seen, never forgotten type. The kind of girl you find rhapsodied over in the Personal columns of listings magazines. You were by the bus stop, wearing coffee-coloured eyeshadow. That kind of thing. He’d never swapped a word with her. No exchange of addresses or telephone numbers. Just a look. Less than that, really, but she had stayed in his thoughts with a kind of pain, like a piercing, like a branding. He’d been in his car. A winter afternoon. The sun little more than a trembling line, a careless scrape of orange crayon on a pale blue page. He’d seen a shadow fall across the bonnet. He’d been in a bad mood. Headache. It felt as though he was being gripped at the temples by some industrial tool. She had hurried by, raising a hand to move the black hair from her face. He caught a crystal peep of her eyes, the green of sour apples. Simple clothes. He’d opened the door without thinking, his heart fidgeting. He didn’t know what he meant to say, but his mouth was open and something was coming. She was gone though. He ran around the corner of the street, but she had vanished into the concrete, it seemed. He’d been shocked by the force of his disappointment. The sudden grief of wanting something that you couldn’t have. She flitted at the periphery of his dreams after that, maddeningly out of reach. He never was and when he wakened he was always cold, as if she were a ghost reducing the temperature of the room.

*

He walked winter streets, angling into the sleet, wishing for the chill to climb up through his bones and seize his mind. It wasn’t right, having her in his thoughts while the murders were piling up. She deserved a cleaner host, a better moment. Without any kind of predetermination, Gravier found himself moving through the black slush of Shude Hill where the body of Rachel Biddeford had been dumped. All cleaned away now. All nice and tidy and back in its nasty little box. Just a yellow police sign, a piss into the wind: WE ARE APPEALING FOR WITNESSES. CAN YOU HELP US? MURDER. IN STRICTEST CONFIDENCE PLEASE PHONE. The forensics tents gone. The body gone. No trace. No angelic shape in the snow; nothing to say that a young, beautiful girl lay here. Gravier stood with his hands in his pockets blowing steam at the cold, blue edges of the buildings. He didn’t know what he was waiting for, but he felt something was about to happen. He had been blessed with some kind of itchy trigger, a sense of things about to arrive, whether they be clarity of thought, or something more concrete. It had served him well in the police and he always paused to answer its call when it came. Other people called it copper’s instinct. Gravier wasn’t so sure. He didn’t want to dwell upon it for too long in case it went away. It was magic, of a sort.

Now he glanced around him. Sleet against the sodium-lit night like ash at the end of the world. Buses shifting through low gears, ploughing filthy slices of old snow on to pavements riddled with litter and grime. The muffled beat of a band playing the MEN arena. He used to love live music. He’d go to a couple of gigs a week in his twenties, if he could afford it. Gemma hated the sweat and the stink. The beer in plastic. She was a CD to his scratched vinyl. The glossy black windows of the Arndale centre. The electric cables for the trams stretching out like exposed veins. Low wattage bulbs burning in upper floor flats. Secret homes. What went on? Who dared to know?

Over to the right, in an alley adjacent to a fish and chip shop, a line of industrial bins disgorged their contents on to paving stones that had cracked in the cold. On the wall above them was a faint, silvery line, like the trail of a slug across a dewy lawn. More graffiti. He realised now why he had come here. He knew what he would find. A killer with a calling card. It was all the rage. He thought of Rachel Biddeford’s torn body and thought of the pain she must have endured. The silent screams on these victims’ faces seemed ingrained. They must have been so very violent to cause the corners of their mouths to split. No Hollywood shrieking here. No C sharp in plum lipstick. No handsome A-list star to come to their rescue. They lay in the shit and the sleet, their eyes cramming up with snow until some drunk or graveyard shifter stumbled over their solid bodies. And they remained frozen for ever more. In time, in the minds of the people they left behind. Iced hearts beyond thawing. Always associated with violence and loneliness and death.

‘I’ll warm you up, love,’ Gravier whispered. There were tears in his eyes and he couldn’t even begin to kid himself that it was the cold bringing them on. He thumbed the lock on his mobile phone and called Simmonds.

‘Hands off cocks, on socks,’ Gravier said, when Simmonds had eventually picked up. ‘I want you to take a ride out to the SoCs in Whalley Range and Denton. Check the walls for graffiti. Yes, Simmonds, graffiti. What do you think I fucking said? Tahiti? Look for silver paint. References to the cold or winter. Call me when you find it. I also want a list of all spray-paint manufacturers and suppliers in the Greater Manchester area. Automotive finishers, decorator centres, varnishing and coatings trades. The lot. And I want that about ten minutes before I called you. Check this out as well. Three feet of ice does not result from one day of cold weather. I found it at the Shude Hill scene. Very clever, isn’t it. Well find out where it comes from. Oh, and Simmonds? Next time you don’t pick up on the first ring, you’ll be wearing your phone for a butt plug. Got it?’

He grew aware of something tickling the back of his scalp like fear. He turned to face the main road and saw a figure watching him from the tram stop platform. He was bathed in the acid white of floodlights, a tall, thin man in a long, grey coat and a dark, woollen hat. The man stared at Gravier, unabashed. His hands were deep in his coat pockets, writhing, as if he were wrestling to keep something from exposing itself. Gravier stepped towards him. ‘Could I have a minute with you, sir?’ he called out.

The man did not move. The woollen hat was pulled down almost to the point where it blinded him. The closer Gravier got, the more he did not want to approach. It was as if he were being repulsed. When he was standing in front of the other man, whom he could now see was closer to six foot four, he noticed that the hat was not dark, it was a pale cement colour, but it was covered with stains.

‘Could I have a minute of your time, please?’ Gravier asked again, having to give more spine to his voice than he was used to.

‘You could. You could have more.’

Christ. A smell hit him, of all the things that made him want to puke. Wet dogs, tooth decay, weeks’ old piss in the doorways of dilapidated buildings. It was all he could do not to gag in front of the man, not that he’d notice. His eyes were shivering in their sockets.

‘Are you all right?’ Gravier asked.

‘All right,’ the man replied. His voice was accentless. It was like water.

Gravier found himself struggling to even remember what he’d said. He glanced back at the bins and their overscore of painted wit. ‘We’re currently investigating a murder, sir,’ he said, trying to summon some iron. ‘I wondered if you knew anything about what happened here, January 27th.’

‘Lonely man?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘The lonely can take extreme measures to, ah, stop being lonely any more.’

‘What have you got in your pockets?’

‘My hands.’

‘Come on, mate. Empty them. It’s too cold for this. You can smart mouth me all you like down the station if that’s what you’d prefer.’

The man took his hands from his pockets and opened them, a conciliatory gesture. They were huge. The nails were like scimitars on his fingers, backlit: ten pearlescent crescents, packed with filth. Gravier felt dread shift inside him, like something concrete. This man was dangerous. ‘I have nothing in my pockets.’

Gravier suddenly did not feel like frisking him for the truth. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

The man was sweating. It was maybe minus one or two degrees Celsius, yet here came tears of perspiration from the collar of his hat. More worried than he’s letting on, Gravier thought. The man bore the expression of someone digging lightly for a recently forgotten item of information, and then: ‘Henry Johns.’

‘Henry?’

‘Henry, yes.’

‘Do you have any ID on you, Mr Johns?’

‘I don’t.’

‘Address?’

‘I’m not from this place.’

‘Why are you in Manchester, then?’

‘Business.’

‘What kind of business?’

‘I represent a client in the entertainment industry.’

‘What, so you’re an agent?’

‘You could say that.’

‘And who is your client?’

Johns handed Gravier a card. Gravier took it. He couldn’t remember where it might have come from; he was sure Johns’ hands had been empty ever since he removed them from his pockets. The card was a translucent tablet with a claw-mark effect cut out of the top-right-hand corner. A name, in egg-shell white, was just legible if you tilted the card away from the plane of vision. Lady Ice. No phone number. No address.

‘Great card,’ Gravier said. ‘I bet she does a roaring trade.’

‘You’ll find her when you need her the most. They all do.’

Gravier was tired and cold. He wanted coffee. He gave Johns a card of his own. ‘Give me a call if you have anything interesting to say,’ he said. ‘A girl of 19 was killed and then dumped here. Not good. Not good.’ He was turning to go, feeling bad about the whole thing, warning signs going off all over his head. Nick him. Nick him now.

‘She’s sweet,’ Johns said. ‘She could be yours, if you want her. She wants you.’

Gravier stared at him. ‘What? What are you talking about?’

‘Girl of your dreams, Detective Inspector.’

Gravier ignored him and hurried away. He climbed into his car and turned up the heater, his hands shaking. The sweat drizzling out of the wool of Johns’ cap was what had been staining it. Sort of dark. Sort of bloody. He closed his eyes to the impossibility of it and released the handbrake. He drove up Shude Hill, retracing the steps he had taken, until he was level with the tram platform. He saw Johns moving away down Balloon Street towards Victoria train station. Gravier watched him remove his woollen hat. He took it off tenderly. He peeled it away from the exposed lobes of his brain.

*

Back at the nick in time for breakfast. Sausage sandwich and a tangerine. Hot, sweet tea. You get it down you, somehow. A head full of black ice and white bone. Soaking, cold trouser cuffs. You should have arrested him. On suspicion of… Anything you say… But too scared. Too old. It was in him, all of a sudden, this need to get out. You put the hours in, you became the job and happiness, fulfilment never came, and you ended up realising it was because you had hated the job all along. What he’d seen, he hadn’t seen. Put it down to a lack of blood sugar. Put it down to nervous exhaustion.

Gravier here. Ah, Simmonds. Nice of you to make the effort. Give us the griff, then. What’s that you say? I found a Chinese proverb, did I? Well, well. He is an educated boy, isn’t he? What about the others? Any luck? Yes? You found some? Excellent. We’ll make a policeman of you yet. Well yes, you have to follow your hunch, don’t you? As Quasimodo said while walking backwards one day. Email them over, soon as you can. And Simmonds? Thank you.

*

Whalley Range. Emma Tees. A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul. Denton. Gillian Jarvis. The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches. Simmonds had called him with the authors. Kafka he’d heard of. The beetle man, wasn’t he? But E. E. Cummings? He didn’t so much sound like a poet as a porn star with a stutter.

Patterns in frost. The bodies so cold the blood had frozen to black plaques on their flesh. A confectionery crackle as they were peeled clear of pavements and roads. Gravier lay in bed, feeling the temperature drop. His skin felt old and papery, hanging from his body as if unattached. Get up too quickly and it might simply flutter away from his bones. He thought of the girl on her bike, bent over the handlebars, thumbing at the spring-loaded clapper of the bell. He tried to remember what it had been like to be young. The absence of responsibility, the irrelevance of effect. You didn’t think ahead as a child. It was all seat-of-the-pants from one day to the next. He yearned for a little of that freedom now. He seemed to spend every waking minute inside his mind, the pulses of his thought processes pushing at the membranes that coated his brain. There was never any feeling of physical release. He was locked in; he was his own prison. And then he thought of the bars of a cell. He thought of ribs. A body opened and closed, like a police case, or a door to somewhere new. The killer had not taken a thing.

arc

He stabbed his finger at the keys of his mobile phone.

‘Simmonds. Get over to pathology. Get Mercer out of bed. Our friend, he might not be harvesting. But what if he’s leaving stuff behind instead?’

*

Dead end. Sometimes the thoughts you believe might just blow your options wide open are the ones that close us down for good. Gravier accepted the pint from Simmonds and for a moment didn’t know what he should do with it. Everything felt as though it should be kicked, punched, smashed; damaged in some way. It was not a good feeling. He was not having a good day. He swallowed half of the pint in three savage mouthfuls. Nobody behind the bar or sitting at it would meet his eye. Danger radiated from him.

What’s that, Simmonds? Sir, if you’d just take it easy? Don’t you dare try the arm around the shoulder with me, Simmonds, or I’ll punch you so hard you’ll find you’re suddenly rimming yourself off. Yes, I know the pathologist’s report said there was no internal damage, nothing to write home about in any of the post-mortems, but the pathologist isn’t fucking Superman. Brian Mercer? Man’s a sot. And half blind. If he wasn’t wearing those Coke bottle glasses of his, he’d take his scalpel to a turkey’s twat and think it was a pensioner’s mouth. Now fuck away off with you. Leave me alone.

*

Another night’s torture for the brogues. Slapping through the wet, wondering why he never put on a thicker pair of socks, or invested in some of those Goretex boots the younger generation clomp around in. Freezing wind wound itself around his neck and shoulders, reaching deep into his body. Some days he woke up with the core of his limbs giving him gyp, and could imagine his mouldering bones turned damp with the cold. He used to walk through miles of rain when he was courting and never felt the needling of it. He was happy then. The only thing pressing down on his shoulders were the five-inch firecheck doors he had to lug around the warehouse where he used to work summer holidays. Seventeen. Full of cum and muscle. Not a care. When did it all turn bad? When you got a job that held a mirror up to the world and showed it to be some foxed, blighted shithole, that’s when.

How long till the next one? And there would be a next one. There always was, even if the killer was one of those twisted individuals desperate to be stopped. He sensed himself walking faster, as if an increase in speed might hurry a conclusion his way. His fingers worried at the stylised business card in his coat pocket. If he stroked the surface, he could just feel the raised pimples of the typeface outlining her name: Lady Ice. No address. No phone number.

Why was he moving in this direction?

Here was a part of town he didn’t know so well. He remembered a few call-outs here, many years ago. But not a place he lingered. Somewhere he couldn’t give a name to now, no matter how hard he delved for one. He frowned and checked road names, but none impinged on his memory. He felt a weird slanting in perception, as if he’d had a dizzy spell and felt the world shift away for a second. He put out a hand to steady himself and he burned his fingers on the frozen door knocker of a large building, which reminded Gravier of the neoclassical buildings in the town centre – the libraries and banks – bought by brewery chains and transformed into spit-and sawdust-pubs selling alcopops and indigestible hunks of beef.

The door opened as he pushed to lever himself upright. He heard a female voice, strident, calling from further along a dark hallway. ‘Get in. Shut out that unwanted.’

He thought she meant the weather, but once the door was closed behind him, he felt sure she wanted the chill in, and him out. He couldn’t understand why he’d even crossed the threshold, but there was something in her voice that brooked no argument. ‘Hello?’ he called. ‘I’m a police officer. You should watch that door. I think the lock’s faulty.’

‘Come in. Take off your coat. And wipe your feet. I don’t want muddy prints all over my pile.’

Gravier’s heart was loud in the corridor. He took his hand off the latch and moved deeper into the house. Stairs vanished into a dark upper floor. A room to his left was a series of sagging browns: tired curtains, caved-in armchair, a rug and a sleeping caramel cat. A kitchen containing a dining table covered with a protective plastic sheet. Dripping tap. A view through a back window of nothing but night’s oily swirl of streetlamps and bad weather. He imagined himself closing the door on a filthy night like that and entering a kitchen filled with warm smells of good food and a woman who lit up to see him home.

A door under the stairs was open. He caught a whiff of patchouli oil and nubuck. Music was playing. Soft light curled against the bottom steps like smoke. Shadows swam languidly through it.

Gravier gritted his teeth and rapped on the door. ‘Could you come up here, madam. I need to have a word.’

A light chuckle that might have come in response to his demand. He heard a loud crack. He’d heard noises like that in shooting ranges. Small arms fire. He had his hand on his phone when a face swung into the stairwell and smiled up at him. Her hair was a painfully white pagoda frozen into position with lacquer that he could see glinting even in this poor light.

‘Come down,’ she said. Her voice had lost its edge. She laughed again and slipped back into the room.

Gravier descended. The smell of scented candles caught in his throat. He hesitated at the foot of the stairs when he saw the room and his first thought was, is there a crime being committed here?

‘Welcome to my dungeon,’ she said.

He couldn’t focus on anything, because there was too much to take in. To settle on any detail for any amount of time was to invite insanity. His attention fluttered from the operating table to the dentist’s chair to the cage and the things that writhed on and in them. There were glass shelves of glittering surgical instruments, wet from whatever task they had last been put to, ivory tables displaying monstrous dildoes sculpted from raw bone. Masks that weren’t masks at all hung from cord and turned in the hot, still air, drying, curling like strips of jerky.

‘You know me,’ she said. She ran a finger across his jawbone and it turned to a line of smoking powder. The pain didn’t come at once. It was only when he raised his hand to his face that he felt a rind of necrotic tissue snap away, an icicle in his fingers. He screamed as the burn took hold and she was at the door, locking it, placing the key between her breasts. He tore his gaze away from her red lips, her black eyes. He tried not to look at the flesh that cracked and splintered between the shiny black curves of rubber, the vermiculate patterns of ice, like hoar frost on a lawn at daybreak, or the leaves of ice that grow on the surface of a pond. Parts of her were studded with solid impact scars: white bruises. He heard the ding of the bell and turned, expecting to see the child on her bicycle, but there was only a woman on the operating table, her innards exposed, clamped back with pins like a dissected frog. Henry Johns was there, bent over as if in supplication, as if he was breathing in the aroma of her organs.

‘Jesus Christ,’ Gravier managed. ‘She’s still alive. You bastards.’

The woman was arching against her bonds; blood squelched beneath the suck of her back.

The dominatrix hobbled to a bookshelf, her form cracking and squealing against itself. She hefted a volume in her hands and began to turn pages. She turned the book so that he could see a picture of the woman from his dreams, a sliver of a face from long ago. Despite the horror rising around him, he felt the familiar pang of a missed connection, of a chance gone by.

‘Who is she?’ he asked.

‘Her name is Rebecca Tavistock. She is your soul mate. We all have one. The lucky ones find each other by a combination of detective work and good fortune.’

Gravier could hear the sound of the bell again, but everything was slowed down, deeper, more resonant. Now the tinkle of that bicycle toy was the great, monotonous din of a cathedral angelus. He felt each toll in the gaps between his vertebrae. The vibrations were so forceful that scraps of plaster were pulling away from the walls, showing the bones of the house beneath. Henry Johns’ exposed brain shook like a jelly against the collar of what remained of his skull. His feverish eyes were like those of a speed reader, sucking in as much detail as time was allowed.

‘Rebecca,’ Gravier breathed.

The pages shifted under the dominatrix’s fingers. The photographs moved of their own volition. ‘Are you finished?’ she asked Johns. She turned to Gravier. ‘You’ll have to excuse the Diploë. He has quite execrable table manners.’

Gravier watched the girl beneath Johns die. He saw something of her drift up from the centre of her body and vanish like inhaled smoke into Johns’ mouth and nostrils. Then she was still.

‘We’ve been looking for you since you were born. Hard to latch on to the cold, the ones that recognise the vacuum at their hearts but do precious little about it. The warm are easy. But now we have you we can get you two lost souls together. How romantic is that?’

‘She… she’s here?’ Gravier turned to the empty corners of the room but that delicate woman he’d seen just once before was absent. The thin, pale tilt of her chin as she turned to regard him. The achingly lovely green of her eyes.

‘Will you go to her, gladly?’ she asked him. Her mouth was open and she was showing her teeth. They were tablets of ice. He felt he might melt her away with the heat of his sudden need.

The sound of the bell raged through the walls, through the floor. It seemed to come at him from all angles, and it married precisely the beat of his heart. When he turned his head again it was to view the ragdoll of something long dead come jerking through a gap in the floorboards. Its mouth was opened, a cracked, decayed ring of black teeth and unspoken secrets. The Diploë closed its eyes and flaunted the wet, black shreds that dangled from his fingernails. The dominatrix was panting, her hands a restless knot at the molten centre of herself. There was a sense of sinking, of leaving what he knew for something almost too large to comprehend.

For the first time in his life, as he folded beneath her arthritic grip and her jaws found a way into the softest part of him, Gravier understood what it meant to give yourself to the person you had been intended for, even if you had been born a couple of hundred years too late.

 

Advent Stories #7

f/8

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Up ahead, the trees gave way to a field edging the final row of cottages before the Derbyshire hills and the brittle January night took over. The road was visible for a little way but there was no moon. Behind him, the lights from Manchester formed a thin meniscus of pale orange. Tommy felt the pressure of the clouds; they seemed close enough to grasp. Like matted strips of iron they’d be, warm to the touch, buzzing with unknowable energy. He struggled with his backpack over the mud and stones. The flashlight secured to his headband ranged wildly around that final barrier of trees. Once he breached it, the darkness ahead deepened, as if the field had become flooded with oil. The trees had acted as a windbreak; now he was almost felled by the hard gusts whipping across the flat. He righted himself and moved on, feeling the hair on the back of his neck tingle. He closed his eyes to it for a moment and breathed deeply through his nose. There was a smell, he felt, of something organic and flawed, like the metallic edge that was present in a cancer ward, or a delivery room. The ruins were maybe sixty feet away. Tommy had rehearsed this walk in good weather and daylight, counting steps, ticking off landmarks. The headlight was for hazards only, really, although it was powerful enough to pick out the gleaming, broken spire of the church. Now Tommy felt the first, fat spots of rain.

He quickly made his way to the location he had chosen earlier, a corner of the field sheltered by an overhanging hawthorn tree, where he hunkered down against the drystone wall to assemble the tripod. Once his Nikon was attached to its head, he switched off his flashlight and drew up his hood; the rain was sheeting down now. Fingers of it stroked and restroked the same channels in his skin, reaching for his eyes and mouth. It patted against his waterproofs like some insistent knuckle at the door, demanding entry. He heard the voice of the storm, far away, but coming on. He made a few test exposures and decided to dial in a shutter speed of thirty seconds at f/8. Now it was just a case of waiting for the moment.

He knew about waiting. During the past month he had sat by two beds, waiting for his father to die and his son to be born. Neither had happened. He was unsure how he ought to feel and as a result felt nothing. Louis had eventually been removed, dead, from Jessica’s womb; his father had slipped into a coma. Rain drummed his hood. He stared at the dark green grass of the meadow. He thought about the terminology, the way the doctor had presented it to him, as if his father had decided to go for a relaxing swim in some deep, warm pool.

Jessica, his wife, deciding to spend a week with her parents had spurred his journey out here. She had looked through him, her eyes unfocused, soft, as if she was something newly hatched. He asked her questions and she grunted in reply, sometimes minutes later. It only dawned on him after she had gone that he was reacting in the same way. They were ghosts in the same house, only aware of each other long after they had vacated the rooms they’d inhabited. He watched her being driven away by her cement-faced father – Tommy’s not and never will be good enough for my girl – and worked his way diligently through the onlytwo bottles of alcohol in the kitchen: port and gin. He came to in the living room, an empty pizza box he couldn’t remember ordering, much less eating, on his lap; an album of photographs; the keys to the Jeep.

He showered and shaved and drank three cups of black coffee. He slotted a recharged battery into his Nikon and pulled out some maps. Keep busy. Fill your mind with other things. Don’t give it any space.

He couldn’t remember driving out here, or where exactly here was. The Jeep he’d parked in a public layby near to a farmhouse with one amber light burning in an upstairs window. Cloud massed behind it like something steeling itself for attack. It seemed he might play those last few days over and over in his mind; it was as if nothing he did from now on would possess enough acceleration to escape the restrictive atmosphere he was breathing. He swung his head up towards the sky and the rain fussed into it like a swarm of cold steel wasps. He regarded the camera on its tripod as if it were some kind of exotic farm animal ruminating by his side. Then there was a flash of lightning that corkscrewed out of the leaden ceiling, close enough for him to feel its heat. He felt his flesh draw in, as if instinctively trying to make itself as small a target as possible. He knew the risks. He knew the myths. Lightning could strike twice in the same place. Stay away from the trees. Make yourself flat on the ground.

Suddenly he was within the thickness of the storm. The wind punched him. The rain seemed more substantial than it ought to be; seamless, almost. It billowed and swirled like a sheet on a washing line. Tommy’s fingers sought the shutter release button and depressed it. He felt, rather than heard, the click of the mechanism. A thirty-second exposure. Nothing but the dark and the rain and the howling of the wind. He closed his eyes. He could feel a fizz in the air, a crackle of energy. It was all around him. It was right on top of him. But no great spark. He released the shutter again. This time, fifteen seconds into the exposure, the lightning came. Thunder surrounded him almost at the same moment. He jumped, lost his footing. He put out a hand to steady himself, but wrenched over to one side when he realised the exposure was not yet completed; if he touched the tripod the shot would be ruined. His foot sank in mud; he felt water turn his sock heavy and cold. A fresh barrage of rain. It was getting through his supposedly waterproof clothing: determined weather. There was a flask of coffee back at the Jeep. One more shot and he was gone.

He checked the camera settings and waited, his finger on the shutter release. The storm was moving on anyway; he could sense the belly was full. The dense heart of cloud had softened, reared away. Pale light was sifting through. He depressed the button. Twenty seconds. Twenty-five. He’d missed it. He’d —

(Max)

One hundred million volts entered Tommy’s body at the V of flesh where his thumb met the rest of his hand. He received an exit burn from the sole of his left foot. The contact temperature, in the 1/1000th of a second in which the lightning bolt travelled through his body, touched thirty thousand degrees centigrade. He lost consciousness immediately. It was another nineteen hours before he was found.

*

The first words he heard after the strike were delivered to him by a doctor at his bedside in Intensive Care. The doctor wore a Stockport County lanyard around his neck and a well-trimmed goatee as white as his coat. He said: You’re lucky to be alive, Mr Clare. You cheated death by a whisker, somehow.

The nurse helped him upright in order to drink water. Tommy heard the creak and whisper of what at first he believed to be the sheets, but it was his cindered flesh. He tried to speak but nothing travelled on the sirocco of his breath.

‘Shush, Mr Clare,’ his nurse said. ‘You need to be patient. It will all come back to you, in time.’

He lay on his back staring at the saline solution as it drained from its plastic sac into his arm. He felt too hot inside. He couldn’t hear properly. He was still unsure as to what had happened.

You cheated death.

He had a vision of someone with eyes blacker than boiling tar tearing up a betting slip in a shadowed corner, it blazing to ashes before touching the ground. He remembered the burnished chaos of the sky, and the trees, aghast. The worn edges of the ruins clung to the skin of the Earth. He seemed the only unattached thing for miles around. Tommy and his camera. He felt a deep stab of concern; what had happened to his camera?

He dreamed of his dead son. His wife was on the bed in the delivery room, sweat wicking off her, teeth clenched, eyes rolled back to whites. The anaesthetist was standing next to her with a needle the size of a baguette.

You want the epidural now? he kept asking, wagging the needle in her face. How’s your pain? Now? You want me to go in now?

The midwives were sitting still in plastic chairs, facing the wall. They wore red gowns with hoods. The hoods were too collapsed to suggest that anything as substantial as a skull lay beneath.

His wife had been induced. They had been told what to expect. Tommy had not wanted to be there, but he felt, because Jessica had no choice, then neither should he. A plastic tub lined with blue polythene lay at the foot of the operating table. There was a saw in it. Whenever Tommy asked the midwife what the saw was for, she giggled and told him to stop being so cheeky. She was coughing like a consumptive. Her words became a red surge against the cotton of her mask. Her eyes were shark-dead. She leaned into him, conspiratorially, and said: ‘I know how to joint a chicken like you would not believe.’

*

He snapped awake. His eyelids felt like scraps stuck to a barbecue grill. Over the months that followed, he suffered countless operations to enable his drawn-in limbs to extend once more. Plastic surgery wrapped him in tissue that was discoloured and alien. ‘Function over fashion, hey?’ the consultant said, on a drearily regular basis. Tommy’s hearing improved a little, but he was warned that it would never come back to the way it had been before. Occasionally, when he was drifting into sleep, he might be shocked awake by the sudden smell of vinegar, or hot oil, but nobody was cooking on the ward, nobody had brought in any takeaway food during visiting time. His senses wee still dealing with the insult of the strike, he was told. He ought to be prepared for lots of little surprises like that. How else had the lightning changed him? he wondered. In moments of rest, between skin grafts and sutures, he would close his eyes and watch the cosmos of his thoughts tumble in soothing, mordant colours. Ochre. Maroon. Carnelian. Into them frequently stepped a figure. Steeped in shadow, yet surrounded by a thin corona of crackling white light, its back always to Tommy, it would pulse in and out of true, as if being hunted by the automatic focusing system on a DSLR. Sometimes the head was a shaggy halo of loose, unkempt hair; sometimes it was smoothly combed back into a ponytail. Tommy became fascinated by this elusive figure. He wondered if he had created it, or if it was a memory of someone he no longer recognised. He began to look forward to periods of rest, when he could forget about the physiotherapy exercises and return to his pursuit of it.

He lay in the dark and touched the raw scar – arborescent, sprawling – that covered his entire chest. It was as if somebody had laid a network of branches against his skin and pressed down until their pattern was transferred into him. He listened to the faltering suck of his breath and understood what it was to be an old man. It had reduced him, this incident. He wondered how many years it had sheared from his span. Whatever it was, he decided, he was grateful. If things didn’t improve, he didn’t relish the thought of as much as four more decades of pain.

*

‘You’ve changed.’

‘That’s one way of putting it.’ The words tumbled out over the sandpaper of his tongue. He was always thirsty now, he found.

‘I’ve changed too.’

He nodded. Jessica’s face was bowed, trembling, knitted. What followed was quick, and full of the phrases he’d heard in any number of Hollywood break-ups, or read in novelised splits. I just thought… we’ve grown apart… best for both of us… fresh start… remain friends… keep in touch…

He didn’t even notice she’d gone; he thought she was still talking, but the voice was different. It struggled to be heard, and it was deeper, gravelly. It seemed to be rediscovering itself, little more than a mumble as he struggled to understand its rhythms and intonations. Closing his eyes helped. When he closed his eyes he could no longer see the fork of scar tissue on his chest. The figure seemed to step through a seam in his inner darkness, as if it were an actor just off stage, waiting for his cue. It trembled there in its lambent cocoon, perhaps waiting for a sign, or for Tommy to act. A word broke through the human static: South.

*

Tommy was allowed home a few days before his birthday at the end of May. His flat was stale, stuffy. There were no traces of his wife. She had removed the photographs of them together from their frames and left them in an envelope by the door. She didn’t want them, but she didn’t want them on show either, was the implicit message. He hobbled through the rooms, reacquainting himself with the layout, but it was as alien as his own body. It no longer felt like home. He didn’t know if that was because Jessica was no longer around, or that he himself felt that he had become someone else, a kind of imposter. It took a few moments to establish that the kitchen was not where he felt it should be, nor was the bedroom. It wouldn’t come back to him, his old life. His heart stuttered as if echoing his panic. He sat down on a sofa he could not remember buying and wished for a drink. There was an old yellow Selfridges bag on his desk chair. Inside it were the remains of his camera, and a note. This was found nearby when the emergency services picked you up. It’s a write-off… but I thought you’d need it for insurance purposes. J.

Tommy cradled the blasted remnants of the Nikon. The lens was cracked. The body of the camera had warped and opened, the plastic buttons melted and fused with their housings. All of it beyond repair. He turned the camera on its side and thumbed open the memory card slot. The card inside seemed to be intact, although the images it had stored were surely fried. He tried loading them anyway. He did not feel any pleasure or relief to find that all of his exposures uploaded without any sign of corruption. He stared at the final shot: the lightning that had passed directly through him. There were no jags in it. It was really quite beautiful. A viciously straight beam of blue-white light, turned to a soft, powdered explosion in the bottom left corner where the lens had flared. And where he had received it. He was about to turn away, sweating with the terror of the event’s documentation, when he noticed the little blue bar at the side of the application’s viewing window. There was space beneath it, indicating that this was not the final shot. He stared at the small gap, trying to understand how that could have happened, and resisting the force drawing his fingers to the mouse to reveal what his camera had recorded after the strike. Would he see himself lying in the grass, a smoking body swollen and ruptured within his clothes?

Turn it off. Dump the files. Grind the card to dust.

He swept the mouse across the mat until the cursor filled the gap. Click.

A translucent human shape: black, glistening rags hanging from its shoulders, hurrying away from the viewfinder, long hair whipping about it in the wind. The fist of meat at the centre of its chest glowing like an ember disturbed at the heart of a dying fire.

*

Later, after whisky, Tommy opened up his email accounts and read messages wishing him well. Before he knew what he was doing he was punching the word ‘lightning’ into his web browser. He read about what had almost killed him. It was as if he were witness to a car crash; he couldn’t look away. He read about the path of least resistance – something he had been a part of (wouldn’t Jessica have found that a hoot) – and the return stroke, which taught him that the nearest point of lightning to the ground – the stepped leader – built up a charge in whatever it was going to hit and that, at the last moment, an upward discharge flew out from that object to meet it. I embraced the killer, he thought. I might as well have flung open my arms to Death.

After much self-admonishment and coaxing, and a light meal, he felt better, well enough to think about the figure and the voice and what ‘South’ might mean. He wondered if this person might be the embodiment of his own spirit, here to jolly him along the long path to recovery. ‘South’ couldn’t mean death, in this case, which had been worrying him a little. He felt better, he was on the mend. The doctors had told him he was out of the danger zone and that it was up to him now, and how much work he wanted to put in to getting himself fit again.

When night came, Tommy let it. He ignored the light switches and the curtains and allowed the moon to fill the rooms with its pallor. He found these to be the best conditions in which to entertain the figure, whom he realised he was beginning to rely upon, perhaps a little too much. There was no improvement in definition or sound, yet Tommy had come to prefer it this way. With clarity would come epiphany, he felt, and he liked the mystery. If the presence revealed itself as someone he knew, was even a younger version of himself, disappointment would follow. Now it shivered into view again, as if it had been waiting for the moment Tommy invoked it.

It moved a little easier this time, as if, like Tommy, it had been undergoing physiotherapy. There was less of a hunch in its posture. Less hesitation in the reconfiguring of limbs. It seemed looser, suppler, more at ease, with itself and Tommy too, perhaps. What’s your secret? Tommy willed at it. Show me how to improve.

It seemed to react to his imagined words. The glimmer of surrounding light broke into disconnected seeds as it turned its head, then rediscovered its uniformity. The struggle to hear what it mouthed at him; deafness had followed him into his daydreams, it seemed. A hiss and crackle of nonsense. Black clods fell from lips that seemed to have forgotten how to move properly. And then: Dead tree.

*

Headaches. The doctors had warned him about these, but nothing could prepare him for their severity. It was as if a little portion of lightning had become trapped inside him at the moment of the strike, and was jagging around his cranium, searching for a way out. Pills did not help. Tommy decided to go for a walk, hoping that the fresh air would scour the pain from his head. As he opened the main door to the block, though, his legs buckled and he felt sweat stripe his spine as if someone had painted it upon him. There was a bank of light cloud obscuring the sun, but no low pressure, no reason to fear the weather today. He realised, bar the struggle from the taxi to the front door on the day he returned from the hospital, he had not ventured outside. He wasn’t sure he could do it, but then the figure was there, behind his eyes, coaxing him, its arm outstretched, bathed in benign blue light. Tommy shuffled down the steps and across the gravel forecourt. He kept his head down, as far as the stiff, unresponsive meat of his body would allow. Sometimes he was convinced the strike had cooked him through, that he was a dense, overcooked joint of meat, moistureless and tough. Good for nothing but the bin.

He walked around the block, pausing often. He ached the following morning, but it was a recognisable pain, one he was used to. It almost, but not quite, took his mind away from the constant burn of his scars. He walked again that evening, the figure accompanying him once more. By the end of the week he was able to walk two miles. The soreness was inevitable, but he managed it with painkillers and by calling on the figure. Its presence dulled his discomfort. It was as if it took on the burden, so that Tommy could sleep.

He wakened in the middle of the night, after the longest walk yet, a three-mile hike that had taken him all afternoon to complete. He lay still, wondering what had roused him. It wasn’t the fallout from his exertions, and it wasn’t the figure. Well, not directly, he realised, as he sat up and swung his legs gingerly out of bed.

South, he thought. Dead tree.

He went to his filing cabinet and tugged open the top drawer. Inside were folders of contact sheets, indexed by location. He sighed and pulled out a handful. These photographs represented half a lifetime of endeavour, with little reward. He had won the odd competition, and seen a few of his shots from a trip to China used in a travel guide, but he had never made a living from his work. Perhaps that was down to his lack of direction. He wasn’t a specialist, in the way that, say, Joe Cornish focused on landscapes, or Steve Bloom worked in nature. He photographed what was there on the day, whether it be cars at an antique fair, portraits, macro work at a flower show or dawn seascapes during a spur-of-the moment weekend away at the coast. Here were thumbnails of ex-girlfriends in candid poses, long-dead pets, friends gurning for the camera, and shots he had taken at Manchester Airport’s aviation viewing park.747blur - 2007-04-24 at 11-36-16.jpgHe placed this last batch on a lightbox and gazed at each exposure through his loupe. The memories came flooding back; because they were of a time before his accident, they seemed somehow brighter, more colourful. They seemed close enough for him to reach in and become a part of again. He remembered he had a Nikon with him that day, but not the DSLR. He had been using a film camera, an old F-801s, so he hadn’t been able to check each shot after taking it. He clung to the old technology because it was getting cheaper now that that film –inconvenient, unforgivable film – was less desirable. It kept him sharp. You couldn’t just point and keep your finger depressed. You had to think carefully about composure and exposure, or risk wasting a frame. He had been confident in his shooting that day. There was some amazing light, low and bronze, which underscored swells of seemingly solid cloud. There were a lot of small intercontinental passenger jets coming in to land from the north on runway 2. After twenty minutes, Tommy had realised he would get a better shot if he positioned himself on land south of the runway when it was being used for take-offs, especially if one of the big jets that operated out of here – a Virgin Atlantic 747, an Emirates 777 or one of the China Airlines freight Jumbos – opened its throttles. From this vantage point he would only get a three-quarters profile of a take-off, and that from the rear. Not good.

He remembered getting on to the A538 and winging it. Head sticking out of the window, navigating by the sun and the trajectory of the jets and whichever road seemed to promise to take him closest to where he needed to be. He had abandoned the car on a lane by a small farm and clambered over a fence into a field. He saw the airport perimeter, and about sixty feet shy of it, a single, dead tree, utterly nude and pale and smooth, like polished stone. He got to the tree and it was perfect. Sunlight gave it the illusion of life; the colour of it might convince you there was blood in its roots. If he got down low enough, he could make the forbidding perimeter disappear. Then there was just that amazing welter of cloud, the tree, and whatever came roaring up off the tarmac. Tommy had attached a 24mm wide-angle lens to the camera body and waited.

He had used another two rolls until it became clear that there was a hiatus in the traffic. By then the sun was overhead and the clouds had assumed a flatter aspect, anathema to the photographer.

Now, in his study, the pain uncurling in his limbs like a frightened cat regaining its confidence, Tommy pored over those photographs again, surprised that he had not viewed them properly since getting the contact sheets developed. The lone tree was a cliché in photography. But there was something about its juxtaposition with those cuneiform monsters lifting from the runway that excited him. It was fate and hope in the same picture. Death was all over it. He studied the tree, trying to find some message in its branches that would open up the mystery of the figure to him, but there was nothing. He almost expected to see a human shadow thrown upon the field from behind the trunk. A face in the portholes of a fuselage. Pareidol in those rampant clouds.

He was about to file the pictures away when he did spot something. Off to the left of the tree, at the very edge of the frame. Something in the undergrowth that mirrored the exposed wood of the tree: sun-bleached, weather-sanded. A branch, perhaps, lopped off by strong winds. But there was something lacking the arbitrary in its shape. It possessed a form that suggested function, as opposed to the random reach of a tree’s limb.

Tommy went to the filing cabinet and extracted the corresponding negative. He scanned it into his computer and booted up the image manipulation software. He opened the file and magnified it to a point just before it would begin to pixellate. A little noise, a little fringing, but he could see more clearly now. A white hand.

*

The following morning Tommy went back to the field. Driving produced its own new set of agonies; the peculiar dipping of the clutch he felt all the way from his foot up the left side of his body. He was drenched in sweat by the end of that twenty-minute jaunt. The climb over the fence and the halting passage through briars and over the scuffs and dips of uneven ground translated every jarring inch through his body. A journey he had made without thought before, now it made him feel old, worn out.

He found the body almost immediately. He couldn’t understand how he had missed it previously; his brain had been no doubt addled by the fumes of aviation exhaust, and blinkered by the tunnel vision encouraged by that lens barrel. The body wore no clothes. Little soft tissue too. He wondered if scavengers, in digging for that, might be responsible for removing the other. Most of the flesh had been pilfered, or had disintegrated into the loam. Here was the fatal wound he had inflicted: a heavy blow with a blunt instrument

you know it was a cold chisel

just behind the left ear. Jets were still taking off, profanely, the hundreds of souls on board oblivious to what was being played out beneath them.

I did this, Tommy thought, and: I did not do this.

He went home, but did not remember the journey. He went to bed and slept for sixteen hours. The figure watched over him, baleful, intent, for every single minute.

*

The police were sympathetic, grateful even. They told Tommy that the girl, Molly Case, a 26-year-old waitress from Hyde, had been missing for two weeks and all their leads had dried up. Her boyfriend, Max Leinster (I knew that… I knew that… how did I know that?), 40, a Leeds musician, had vanished shortly after her disappearance and they had no idea where he was. South America, most likely. Either that or Molly’s hefty brothers had caught up with him and he was now slowly feeding the fish at the bottom of some lake. Perhaps they told Tommy that to assuage his fear that he’d be treated as a suspect. Clearly, as their barely concealed scrutiny of his ruined flesh suggested, there was no danger of that. They didn’t even want to know why he had been rooting around in the fields south of the airport. How dangerous could this shrivelled old man be?, he could read in their faces. He’d struggle to murder a salad.

But he had felt her squirm in the dirt under the weight of his hand pressing down. He’d held the chisel high, waiting for her to be still enough to enable him a clean impact. He just… hadn’t been there when it happened.

He took the bus home – the police’s goodwill had not extended to a lift – and wrangled with the contradiction. His heart beat slow, despite his agitation. It seemed to fill his chest. He had never really been aware of his heart before. He pressed his hand to his chest and felt its pulse beneath the new raised flesh of his scar. Sometimes he dreamed that the scar was real, a fire tree growing inside his body from a seed planted there by the lightning. The sense of something filling him up, something inhabiting him, or stripping him away from the inside out was a real and constant persuasion. The lightning seemed to have erased who he was, or thought himself to be, and magicked an intruder into the space he had once filled. He stared into the mirror and it was him, generally, in shape and height and physique, but there seemed to be nothing left in the face that spoke to his memory or his sense of recognition. ‘You could be anybody,’ he said.

He woke up and it was dark and his innocence screamed inside him, even as he felt the rough, dense weight of the chisel, and the meaty, repetitive smack of it at her head, vibrating through the marrow of his arm, causing his teeth to clack together and pinch the flesh of his inner cheek. He had dreamed of his own burial, an event he was sure ought to have happened. He had read about the victims of lightning strikes, how rare it was to survive them. And those that did live, well, ‘life’ wasn’t really a description for what they endured. Perhaps he was dead, and all of this he was experiencing now was the aftershock, the closing down of the brain, the random emission of data as synapses failed, as cells sparked out. But this was no normal graveyard service…

In the dream, he had been alive during the interment. No coffin. Just black bin bags. Nothing so grand as a coffin for something as worthless as him. He lay in the plastic listening to the skitter of grit across layers. No heartfelt platitudes of a vicar who had never met him. Just the grunt and toil of two men, matching the rhythm of their spadework with curses thrown his way. They’d stabbed him so many times there was little shape left to his body, but the fatal blow had not come till near the end of their assault. A knife that penetrated his sternum and tore a hole through the wall of his right ventricle. His pleural cavity had filled up with blood like a bladder. He had listened to his own wet breath in that cramped, pitch-black space, and felt the air turn warm from it. Panic gnawed, but he had withstood the urge to scrabble at the plastic, scream to be let out. He felt the pressure of tons of earth pushing in on his body, deforming it further. Cold descended. Time passed. Someone must come to find him. A man with a dog. An early morning jogger. It always happened.

Something else was coming, though. He could sense it, even here, locked underground. It signalled itself in the rise of individual hairs all over his body. It built up and built up, like the charge in a cell. Tremors of thunder. His senses so attuned that he heard the slither of earthworms as they moved against his wrapping, eager for depth. Here it came. Here it came.

He felt the lightning hit the earth as if in slow motion. Its heat reached through the cold soil like relentless, searching fingers. It entered the coffin and it entered him. It did not stop until it had penetrated his heart. He closed his eyes and the figure he had come to expect at such moments was no longer the hunched, long-haired spectre-within-a-halo he expected, but himself.

*

f/8 and be there. It was what the old pro photographers said whenever talk turned to the latest accessories, the flashguns and carbon fibre tripods, the fast zooms and software. You could have as many expensive add-ons as you liked; if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, it counted for nothing.

The place where he had almost lost his life seemed too tame without the bad weather to enhance it. The hill and the ruins were as inoffensive as anything found on a greetings card. Tommy had grown accustomed to the pain in his back and legs, had learned, if not to master it, then to accept it. He wondered if it was in fact lessening, but more likely his threshold had broadened. The weight of the spade in his hand felt good. It emboldened him, despite his suspicion that he would not be physically up to the task.

The area where the lightning had struck was still black. He found one of his shoes poking from the grass, a molten twist. He knew he was standing at the point where he had been hit without acknowledging the frisson that ran up his spine, like some ghostly aftershock of the event. Ignoring the complaint in his muscles, he began to dig.

It was getting dark by the time the blade hit a density that was not simply more soil. He fished his headlamp from his pocket and strapped it on. He knew he had been getting closer; the earth, where the lightning had passed through it, had created fulgurites, delicate glass tubes that carried within them visual echoes of its searing assault. Petrified lightning. He wiped his face with a sodden coat sleeve and worked at the soil, digging it away from the ragged edges of the bin bag coffin. He didn’t need to clear a path all around it: much of it was torn away. Rats. Worms. Christ. The despairing teeth of whatever lay inside? Tommy scooped handfuls of dirt away from the interior. He flinched when his hand met something that did not yield. Gently he swept it away from the face, wincing when his fingers became entangled in the long, lank hair. He positioned his head so that the beam of light would not pick out a single shred of the corpse and kept digging, wishing he had thought to bring some heavy duty gloves.

He found the chest and peeled away the cheap edges of the jacket that contained it. The ribcage had been blasted open. He smelled the faintest aroma of roasted bone. Tommy shut his eyes and reached inside the hole. He felt a waft of sour air caress him as the thing sighed, but it could not have been that. Just some pocket of foul air released by his digging, that was all. There was something here. It was small and hard, like a pebble. What he had mistakenly believed to be his own heart cried out in recognition.

 

 

 

Next stop… Shudehill

photo-12

I have a July deadline. But due to various commitments, my writing time has been cut to two days a week. Luxury, I hear you cry, and you’re right. I’m not complaining. I’m not moaning. But it means I’m having to be a bit more proactive in terms of what I get done and when. The first two days of each week I spend in an office on the Oldham Road working on a Secret Project™. Initially I enjoyed the reading time I was getting – 40 minutes there and back on the Metrolink tram – but since the start of the year, and that summer deadline sharpening its claws on the strop of my paranoia, I’ve used that time to write instead. A subtle little Moleskine won’t cut it, however. Great for notes, not so great for full-on composition. So I’ve given in to my inner writing fetishist and now I take a leather document wallet around with me, filled with good quality paper and – why not, Goddammit? – a lovely fountain pen loaded with an exotically-coloured ink. Once I bested the self-consciousness that came with scribbling away on an A4 pad in a packed tram carriage, I was fine. I’m averaging a good three-to-four pages a day. It’s worth the occasional funny look. And if I mutter at the same time it means I get a seat all to myself…

Tram: 13.11.14.

That man on the tram. The one who catches your eye. There’s usually someone. Don’t you find that? An anomaly. A jarring presence. Or maybe not. Maybe just someone other. An against-the-flow type. A grit in the grease. This girl with the tattoo. A heart on her hand. For some reason. This guy with headphones. Smiling, tapping his foot. An older chap, all po-faced. Folded crossword puzzle. A glance, then tucked away. A photocopy. Him or it? Your guess is as good as.

You know. That music he’s listening to. You know. It isn’t music. Take the headphones off. Black oil pours from his ears. Or a swarm of flies. Or a nightmare made solid. That tattoo. Does it hide another? Was there an initial once? A previous life. Skin palimpsest. A tattoo always visible to her. A reminder. A threat. Would the replacement remind you too? Would it help you forget? Spare cuts of carpet on stains. A photograph concealing a crack. The razored remains of journal pages.

One across. One down. Cryptic or quick? Prize or just for fun? That face suggests the latter. Or maybe not. The tram stops. Some get off. Some get on. These three remain. Crossword, tattoo and grinning nightmare. You might follow one home. If you had the time. If you burned to know. An address. Some door. An inkling. The way they tend the garden. The colour of the curtains.

 

Shadows & Tall Trees

S&TT6

On October 7th I posted a blog about the Gothic Manchester Festival, and how I was hoping to write a new short story in time for a reading I was scheduled to perform at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation along with Ramsey Campbell and Stephen McGeagh. I intended to write something “brisk and baleful”, around 1500 words. Well, I didn’t. Not brisk, anyway. It ended up being around 6000 words, and I ditched my original title, Way Out Via 30 Steps (although I like that title too much to discard it completely). It is now called Shaddertown, and it will be appearing early next year in the excellent Shadows & Tall Trees (edited by Michael Kelly), alongside Alison Moore, Kaaron Warren, Myriam Frey, David Surface, CM Muller, Robert Levy, Charles Wilkinson, Tara Isabella Burton, VH Leslie, Brett Cox, Michael Wehunt, Ralph Robert Moore and Ray Cluley.

Hit me with your Twitter stick

Somewhere under Manchester...
Somewhere under Manchester…

As part of the Gothic Manchester Festival I’ll be reading (alongside Ramsey Campbell and Stephen McGeagh) at an event run by the excellent Twisted Tales people (27th October). The evening is an opportunity for us to talk about why we have chosen to set so many of our stories in Manchester. It was lovely to be invited along, but after confirming my attendance I began to have a bit of a panic. How many stories had I actually set in Manchester? I went through my files… plenty set in Warrington and London… a handful set abroad in the Charente-Maritime, in Venice, in the Northern Territories of Australia… but Manchester? Er… one. Which is fine, I suppose. I could read a bit from that (Late Returns, set in Didsbury, if you’re wondering), and try to relax this idea of boundaries to include Warrington while we discussed our reasons and motivations.

A Warrington skyline, 2006
A Warrington skyline, 2006

But I thought I’d use my Manchester shyness as a spur to write something new. And something audience-friendly. By which I mean short. Something brisk and baleful, under 1500 words if I could manage it.

I’d been on a tour of Manchester’s subterranean tunnels and long wanted to use that as a location in a story, but it was only while travelling back from Ormskirk last week, when I saw a sign at a railway station (WAY OUT IN 30 STEPS) that I made connections and felt the prickling of an idea. There was every chance it would simply end up on an index card under a pile of Urgent and Pending and Do this NOW you complete sac-head. So I started posting it on Twitter, deciding that I couldn’t cope with the shame of not finishing a project that I was releasing piecemeal to the public.

It’s first draft, warts-and-all, so please be gentle with me if you decide to tag along. You might hate it (you might even enjoy it), but remember first and foremost it’s there to act as a fire under my backside…

Day Thirty Nine… Hard Return

844 words.

It proved very hard to get back into this novel after a number of weeks away. The edits were completed quite quickly, but then I had to fly to Germany to participate in the Ruhr Lit Cup with the England Writers’ Team, a tournament in which, despite playing well, we finished 6th out of eight teams. At one point we were close to securing a semi-final berth, and were only narrowly beaten by Sweden, the holders. In keeping with England’s fine penalty shoot-out tradition, we lost against Hungary. Upon returning to the UK, it was straight off to Cropton Forest, in North Yorkshire, to spend five days in a log cabin. The boys enjoyed hunting for bats and building an emergency shelter in the woods. My strained, bruised muscles enjoyed the hot tub… and then it was back to Manchester, and Chapter Eleven.

It wasn’t just the effort of returning to writing fiction; rather, it was coming to terms with a story that was completely different in terms of pace, narrative voice, structure and point of view. Blonde on a Stick and Loss of Separation are poles apart, despite both of them being told from the viewpoint of a male in his mid- to late-thirties. I’m hoping to enter the last third of the novel with a good head of steam. It would be nice to finish the book a couple of months in advance so I can let it steep in its own juices for a while, allowing me to give it another pass before delivery in October.

Listened to: The Blackened Air by Nina Nastasia