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 #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 #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.

Doctor Wh-aaargh!

Здравствуйте!

So this is what my name looks like in Russian:

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Thanks to editor Stephen Jones, who recently gave me a copy of his 1997 anthology The Mammoth Book of Dracula (in which my story Bloodlines appears), I can now say I’ve been translated into Russian. The one thing he told me as he handed over the book was that the figure of Count Dracula on the cover was actually Doctor Who. Now I can’t get William Hartnell out of my head… пока!

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