New Fears

Mark Morris, doyen of all things creepy, has edited a new anthology of horror fiction for Titan Books. New Fears will be published in September and contains my story Succulents. The book also contains stories by Alison Littlewood, Stephen Gallagher, Angela Slatter, Brady Golden, Nina Allan, Brian Keene, Chaz Brenchley, AK Benedict, Brian Lillie, Ramsey Campbell, Carole Johnstone, Sarah Lotz, Adam Nevill, Muriel Gray, Josh Malerman, Kathryn Ptacek, Christopher Golden and Stephen Laws.

Dead Letters is alive!

DeadLetters

It’s always a thrill to receive a box of books in the post. And it was especially satisfying to open this parcel, if only because it meant it hadn’t gone missing (which I was convinced was going to happen). The books are lovely; Titan have done a beautiful job. It seems like such a long time ago that I first came up with the concept, but all the hard work was done by others: eighteen ridiculously-talented writers (and each one a pleasure to deal with) contributed wonderful stories. I was thinking with some sadness that the project was over, but really, with the book’s publication, it’s only just started. Because now you lovely readers get involved. I hope you love this anthology as much as I do.

Advent Stories #23

WIRE

I send sweets to my mother at the weekend.

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

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

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

*

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

But not just them. No, not just them.

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

On the screen: NEWS FLASH.

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

‘What’s up?’

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

They called him The Breakfast Man.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

‘Safe,’ I said.

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

I still have those old sketch books with me now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Advent Stories #22

CITY IN ASPIC

aspic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A woman, they say.’

Massimo grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

‘I know pop. I know.’

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

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

‘So they say.’

‘Who are “they”?’

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

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

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

‘It’s nice to see you again, pop.’

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

‘I will. I will.’

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downstairs, the entry buzzer rasped.

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

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

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

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

‘I can’t. I’m not sure.’

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Can we see it?’

‘I don’t see why this is so —’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes. What of it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Non. Nobody here by that name.’

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

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

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

The glass company.

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

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

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

‘I’m sorry.’

‘She must —’

‘Very sorry, sir.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You know the cemetery is closed, Signor?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was paralysed with fear and doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent Stories #20

MANNERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

It’s a wolf.

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

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

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

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

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

Advent Stories #18

PERHAPS THE LAST

SEIKO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An incremental grinding of teeth. The bruxism of time.

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

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

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

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

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

‘You know what he did when he retired?’

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

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

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

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

‘Long time off.’

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

‘Go on.’

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

‘What was the film?’

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

‘Guillame Angiers?’

‘That’s it. Have you seen it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Can you hear that?’ he asked Della.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How long have you been here?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It isn’t what I’m looking for.

What was she looking for?

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

‘Who is it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stackables

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

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

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

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

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

Something had been added to the collection.

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

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

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

Advent Stories #16

SLITTEN GORGE

forest

Ellis dreamt that night of the forest. He was treading through it in darkness, subtly aware of the conifers and the heather. His feet knew this territory well and he moved quickly, ignoring the sounds of the wildlife: the nightjar, the siskins, the snipes. He was trying to find something, or someone, but no matter how close he felt he was to capturing his quarry, some caprice of the dream would send it far away again. It made a creaking sound, this subject he tracked. Like old leather being twisted against itself, or of floorboards under continual stress. Now and again he thought he caught a glimpse of part of it through the crenellations of the ferns, or the splintered bole of a tree felled by lightning. But before his mind could apply itself to finishing off the picture, the scenery had moved and he was as blind as before.

He woke up, hungry, frustrated and afraid. It was that soft, uncertain time of morning when night and day argue over their own borders. Pale light hung in the sky like something too damp to ignite properly. Although it was late June, summer had failed to establish itself. The days were often a wash out, the nights cold enough for woollens. He sat trembling on the edge of his bed, blankets curled around his shoulders. The shower awaited him like torture. There had been no hot water in his flat for six days. At least after a cold wash his clothes felt so much warmer on his body. The colder you got, the less you felt it. The dead don’t shiver.

Through a window looking out on to the communal garden, he watched as a female blackbird chirped incessantly, playing a wild hopscotch upon the cracked flagstones of the porch, pausing a moment to shit what looked like the kind of electric white found only on artists’ palettes. He had never felt easy around birds since he read about how closely related they were to dinosaurs. He felt uncomfortable about their lack of weight, their thin, hollow bones. He disliked the way they moved so nervously, so spastically. How cold and alien their eyes. They seemed propelled by nothing more than instinct, and that vexed him, in a vague way that made him feel queasy.

His unease followed him to the kitchen where, despite his hunger, he was unable to eat one spoonful of the cereal he prepared for himself. Barely a sip of coffee made it past his lips without causing him to retch. He couldn’t remember the last meal he had consumed, yet he must have eaten within the last few days. Had he not, he wouldn’t have had the strength to turn the taps in the bathroom. He dressed without thinking, grateful for a job that didn’t demand a suit and tie. Then he went out, trying to avoid the bookcases lining the walls as he approached the door. But, as always, he had to look. The narrow space between them forced him to leave his flat sideways. The spines demanded his attention.

Birds of the Welsh Coast, The Red Kite in Wales, The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East, Birding in Snohomish County, Skuas and Jaegers, Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers.

There were so many books. He felt ill thinking how many he had, how much money he had spent on them. On the drive to work he wondered again if he might not be mad. That was the thing about insanity. You didn’t notice it yourself, only the people closest to you grew aware. But there was nobody who shared his life from day to day. What did being mad mean? Storing your own faeces? Posting letters to people long dead? Collecting books about birds when they scared you to the core? But you had to know about them, you had to have the knowledge. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.

At the gas works, he checked in with Reynolds, the site foreman, and Hinchcliff, the independent chemist who was to be attached to the demolition crew for as long as it took for the defunct purifying tanks to be dismantled. Ellis pulled on his overalls and checked the air line on his breathing apparatus. It was hot work, and while he was standing in the reinforced concrete tanks removing the spent iron oxide, he was grateful that summer was in abeyance. Hinchcliff had explained at the outset that six thousand tonnes of toxic waste had once filled these tanks – now transported to a secret, secure landfill site in north Wales – and the residue they were cleaning away might contain upwards of eight per cent cyanide.

At times within his mask, his breath amplified and alien to him, he imagined pulling off his protective headgear and sucking in a single, pure lungful of death.

*

—Death is painless, she said.

—Don’t talk wet, I said. —I seen them pictures of German tanks on fire, and the driver trying to get out, but his foot was stuck, or shot off or melted into the metal or whatever. He wasn’t whistling when he went, I can tell you.

—Well, I think it’s painless. The actual moment of it. Maybe not the lead up, but the moment you bow out? The body sheds all of its endorphins. Massive headrush. Absolute pleasure.

I laughed. She had this way of talking sometimes that was like poetry. Funny poetry. She had a killer line, Karen. It didn’t work with everyone, but she hit my spot and that was all I was bothered about.

She said —You never see birds dead, do you?

—Tell my mum that, next time she nips into the village for a chicken.

She rolled her eyes, thumped me. She was trying to get the ringpull off a can of cider but it was rusted or something, and wouldn’t budge. —I don’t mean like that. I mean you never see birds lying about on the road, dead.

—I suppose you’re right, I said. I was getting bored of this talk. I wanted some of that cider in me before I had to get back home for tea. The gorge rose up around us like a big green throat. I loved it down here. It was only just behind the row of shops on the main street in Lymm village, but it could have been some Amazonian ravine. It had everything, this place. Cool shadows. A heron that came to fish in the weir. Secrecy. You never had any grown-ups come down this way, either because it was quicker to take the village path, or they were scared of us yoofs, or they didn’t even know it was here, I don’t know. I snatched the can off her and used my penknife to ease the ringpull off. I had a big drink and passed it back, offering her a huge belch to accompany the ceremony. Karen drank too, tilting her head way back. Her shape changed. I found myself staring at her.

She said — Can you smell me? I’m bleeding.

*

Ellis did not join the others for a drink after the shift was completed. He drove through the centre of Warrington, trying to avoid the construction crews that were tearing through the heart of the town, slotting new department stores into the gaps left by failed developments. It all seemed like an affront to the faces of the old shops that clung jealously to the main streets. There was always a new generation of town planner, no doubt living far away from the place being redesigned, eager to leave a mark in history. Ellis was happy to leave it behind, but even though he pushed the Jeep hard until the soulless urban spread became rural patchwork, he did not find himself relaxing. So much green was a shock to him, even though he made this journey every weekend. It was as pervasive, as smothering as the threat of poison gas. But he could not understand how staying at home in his cloying flat could be any better for him. He turned on some loud music, but nothing could reclaim him from the slow panic filling his chest. It became so bad he had to pull over shortly after he passed the Ruthin signpost on the A494. His breath seemed to fail in his chest; he could not expel it properly. He felt as though he were recycling something old and stale, that any hope he had for a fresh start was stillborn.

Crumpled in his pocket, the letter from Pippa postmarked a few days previously helped him to refocus. Cav reckons he saw a lynx coming down across the scarp near the caravan late last night. He’d had a few though. Ha ha. The only lynx he’s seen lately is in the can he sprays his armpits with.

There had been several lynx sightings reported in the Clocaenog forest over the years. It was also one of the last bastions of the red squirrel. There were other animals too that benefited from the area, forty square miles or so of natural, native woodland. Deer, black grouse, pine martins, Welsh mountain ponies, polecats. Others that he could not bring himself to think about. But having begun a list that he daren’t finish drew the fear from the shadows into the real meat of him. It lay against his skin like sweat. He put the letter back in his pocket and felt his hunger deepen. He scrutinised his eyes in the rear view mirror while his hands played against the corrugation of his ribs. His breathing steadied. The sky over Wales was bruising, as if siphoning the resentment from the earth and describing its colour. A flurry of birds blurred the edge of his vision and were gone before he’d had chance to identify them. He started the engine and got back on the road. His hunger was so keen it wouldn’t allow him to envisage any kind of meal that might assuage it.

*

The caravan was empty when he arrived, just under half an hour later. Pippa and Cavan must have gone to the local pub, a mile or so further along the main road. He felt slighted, as if his arrival was nothing for them to get worked up about. Maybe it wasn’t. But they were the nearest he had to friends and it pricked him that they hadn’t waited; they could all be sinking pints now. What did they want to talk about that was so important it couldn’t wait? He thought about catching them up, but he didn’t want to be seen behaving like an eager puppy. He could give as good as he got, they’d see.

Quickly, he unpacked – he hadn’t brought much, just a change of clothes and a couple of books, his old Nikon, a long lens and some fast film, a pair of binoculars – and checked the small cupboards, but every tin he picked up made his stomach roll. He drank some water and paused, bent over the sink, waiting for it to come back with interest, but this time it didn’t. He washed his face, and tried to swab the angry red nubs on his shoulder blades with cotton balls soaked in witch hazel; he would have to have a word with Reynolds about the ill-fitting protective gear they were issued with. He switched on the radio and settled down with one of the guide books from his holdall.

Ellis saw straight away, from the uneven blocking of its pages, that the book had been damaged. He turned to the section that had been torn out, a few pages between the Orioles and the Corvidae. It was not immediately clear from the contents list which birds had been removed; only a general heading – Family and Species Descriptions – was provided. He had to trawl through the weighty index before he spotted the relevant page numbers. And then he closed the book carefully, almost reverentially, and placed it back in his bag, deep enough so that he could not see its cover.

Someone was trying to tell him something. He thought about who might have had access to his bag, his books, but nobody ever visited him at his flat. He had ignored the opportunities to stop at service stations along the way; he shied away from hitchhikers. He stared at the bag as if it alone was responsible for the vandalism. He would mention it to Cavan and Pip when he saw them; they were the only ones who knew of his passion, and his fear. Yet even as he gave credence to his suspicion, he was questioning it. They respected his love of books, and shared it to some extent. He had seen them handling volumes in the secondhand bookshops they occasionally visited, and approved of the care they displayed. Cavan had even warmed up a brand new hardback by gently opening the book at various points to prevent the kind of immediate stresses that can damage the spine.

Ellis tried to read about the grasshopper warbler but hunger worked on the words, sucking them back into the cream paper. Music was of some comfort now as he lay back on his bunk, but he found before too long that it distracted him as he strained for the sound of his friends returning. He turned the radio down to a level where there was really no point in leaving it on, but it meant the illusion of company remained. Wildlife inched around the caravan, its sound as natural as weather: the miniature crash of mammals in bushes, things taking flight, or coming home to roost. Something cried out, as he trembled at sleep’s door. He tried to identify it but it was beyond him. For a dreadful second before he sank, he thought its author must be human. The screams went with him, lifting out of the confusion to find a clarity in the night of his own mind. Fear puddled out of Ellis. He was weak. The caravan had melted away and he was in a clearing with trees rearing up before him as if startled. He felt light, weightless. The pain in his shoulder blades was gone, he felt free and easy there, somehow disburdened; his hunger had been sated. The screams were coming from his own throat, a dry, desperate sound that seemed to make the uppermost leaves shiver. Something lay ahead of him, beyond that line of trees. Something waited.

*

Ellis showered, wincing as he knocked his sore back against the walls of the tiny plastic cubicle. He wondered if his anger at not being woken by his friends when they had returned from the pub was misplaced. Was it fair that he should react to them for what, on their part, must have been an act of charity? God knew he needed his sleep. But he craved some company too. Already the weekend seemed chewed away. Tomorrow he would have to return to Warrington and the skeleton of the gas works. Nevertheless, pride would not allow him to go to them now. He crashed around the kitchen preparing a phantom breakfast, and noisily exited. He wondered if Pippa and Cavan were fucking, and why it didn’t bother him if they were. Hunger prevented him from remembering if he and Pip had ever been involved – he dimly recalled a long embrace, hair in his face, a heartbeat within her warm breast filling his hands – but it might have been several lifetimes ago. A different woman, even.

Good luck to them, he thought, glancing once at the curtained window of the bedroom. This weekend was about fauna, not fornication. He laughed bitterly, a blast of air through gritted teeth, and plunged into the forest.

*

The light changed down here. It became green. I couldn’t back that kind of claim up in the physics lab at school, but I swear that was how it looked to me. It was dappled light, and it lay around your feet like coins furred with verdigris. The air was different too. It stuck in your chest, but in a good way. It was as if it were heavier air, cleaner, and your lungs didn’t want to give it up. The spaces beneath the trees seemed to fizz with darkness; you could see it moving around, and I was sure that if the trees were to suddenly leap away, exposing it all to hard sunshine, it would remain, squat and earthy, like the ghost of a giant toad.

The red in the green, the red against the milky square of Karen’s exposed thigh, was some contrast.

— Fucking hell, I said. — Doesn’t it hurt?

— No, she replied. — Some people get period pains but I’ve had none of that.

— What does it feel like? Is it like having a nose bleed? Do you feel it trickling out of you?

— Don’t be a mentoid. There’s hardly any flow. Enough for a dessertspoon, my mum says.

— Mmm, yum. Raspberry Angel Delight. So there’s no danger you’ll bleed to death?

— The worst case scenario is that I’ll leave a tammy up there, forget it and die from TSS.

— TSS?

— Toxic Shock Syndrome. Not a nice way to go.

— Well no, but, as you said, death’s a top pastime.

— I didn’t say that. I don’t have a death wish.

— Me and you, suicide pact? What do you say?

— I say have some Angel Delight.

And so on. We spent all summer like this, every summer I can remember, ribbing and teasing and flirting, although we didn’t know it, couldn’t have put that word to it at the time. But that day was different. Suddenly I was aware of Karen as being someone with an inside as well as an outside. She was a girl-shaped blood bag, barely contained. Walking home for tea after that weird, green-red evening, I couldn’t pass anybody by without thinking of them as taut balloons, ready to explode. Something had turned, maybe just the world, maybe some switch in my mind that had never been touched before, but things were irrevocably new now, and I couldn’t understand why.

That night, I thought of Karen, the way she had filled out as she stretched, her body dipping and curving. I thought too of that slick of blood on her thigh, her fingers smearing it to show me how dense it was, and the way her knickers were eased to one side, the material tight against her bottom. I ejaculated in my sleep – my first wet dream – and I woke to feel my own thighs sticky and warm, and things, I felt, were set now. My life had been propelled in one direction. One only. There was to be no divergence. No turning back.

*

He lost all sense of who he was after a while. He kept thinking about his name, Ryan Ellis, how ridiculous it sounded the more he repeated it to himself. The sun’s intensity was lost beneath the tightly meshed canopy. It might have started raining; it would be hours before any of the water broke through. He felt protected. He felt utterly at home. In this bubble he slowly became more than he believed he was, an incremental adding or improvement. Doing physical activity in such raw surroundings pumped you full of hormones. It created a sense of the self as immortal. He felt he could achieve anything. It was seductive to deem this euphoria a result of the fresh air, or the overload of natural green, or the plain, animal sounds concerned with territory or sex. He felt a part of it, his reptilian brain itching with lost or distant connections. He was a member of that natural order, one of billions of everyday miracles. The knowledge that his existence was a fluke, the odds stacked heavily against him, was an inspiring and exhilarating epiphany. He mattered, in his own small way, and what he brought to the proceedings was as relevant as that from anybody else. He was real, and his name was something like rya nellis.

The trees seemed to solidify ahead, yet whenever he reached a point where they must crowd him out, there was the same strange sense of space. A visual anomaly, he thought, but once he’d witnessed it, it was difficult to shake off quite so easily. The ground underfoot was becoming more spongy. He guessed there must be some kind of stream, or that the water table passed close to the surface here. Beyond that thick mesh of shrubs and branches, Ellis thought he saw movement. It was desperate, trapped movement, the spasm of something that knows death might be the only release it will see. He wondered if a deer had been caught in a poacher’s trap, perhaps, or a person, shocked to silence by the pain and the outrage. He fought through the weave but the clearing beyond it moved only with occasional ferns or tall grasses. Dizziness piled through his head, as if someone were bending his mind. He saw a spiral of patterns: the trees, the star-shaped tunnel of sky above them, the ground as it met him coming the other way. He tried to get up but the vertigo relocated itself each time. After three attempts he gave up and let himself be cradled by the earth. The cool, cushioning moss and the comfort of a deep blue sky fringed with cloud helped to right his thoughts. He thought of the hide at Foel Frech where he had observed birds in the past. He had seen an owl take a grasshopper warbler in mid-air there last December. He remembered the sudden release of the smaller bird’s cloaca as the talons raked through its body. Blood was a black rip in the silver sky. It had dropped like something solid, and he had exited the hide, convinced the blood had frozen as it fell to the ground. He had failed to find the blood, but had searched for it until the light diminished and the other birdwatchers had gone home. He found something else that night, though. He was about to give up, feeling foolish at his mad conviction, and had turned at just the moment that the moon eased out from behind a bank of high cloud.

Something had gleamed.

He closed his eyes now, and remembered the fragility, the lightness of the skull. It was like holding folded paper, like holding nothing at all. Every shred of flesh had been picked clean from the boss, the orbits, the maxilla: the bird grinned at him, the shadows of its ghost eyes so black it was if the memory of blood and the method of killing was still fresh within it. The beak, the sharpness of it, the colour of ash, emerging from the bone like a creeping stain. It was its own whetstone. The shredding of bodies, the atrocities it had committed. How many? So much blood had gushed through those calcium chambers that the bone itself was tinged mahogany.

He still had it, that skull, secreted away in a little wooden box at the back of a drawer. Sometimes at night, when loneliness curled itself around his shoulders, he took it out of its box and inhaled whatever breath lingered in the fossae of its nasal cavities. He had never believed that something so dead could smell so alive.

*

He caught sight of his eyes in the mirror when he returned. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but it was late, it was dark all over the sky, no pallid edges to suggest that the evening had just left or that dawn was close. For a moment he believed his eyes contained some inner luminescence, as if the humours of his eye had ignited like paraffin. They reflected orange; he resembled something startled, something unnatural. An image came to him, of his body pushed into clothes and then into a metal box. Keys turning, an engine leaping into life. At the end of that routine was another called work. Another set of clothes. Another metal box. The sweat and steam and stink of decayed tanks. Chemical salt extruding through concrete. The heat of it through his protective suit. It all seemed a dream, an illusion. He looked down at his naked body, bathed in a diffuse glow from the moon. His life was so many layers of the same thing but at this moment, his blood up, he couldn’t recognise who he was or what he did. There didn’t seem to be any room for ritual. Instinct crowded him like a smell you couldn’t escape from. All he wanted to do was run through the tall grass and feel the cold mud suck at his feet. He sensed the warm bodies in the undergrowth frozen at his approach, watching him go by with perfectly round eyes, perfectly black. Heartbeats filled the air like rain.

He slept hard and deep and wakened to a light drizzle. He moved through it to the Jeep, feeling it misting his skin. He sat in the driver’s seat waiting for knowledge. Eventually it came to him and he turned the key, pushed the gearstick to D.

He didn’t remember the journey back. Too often his eyes strayed to the rearview mirror; the forest filled it all the way home.

*

In the gorge. She showed me how dark the blood was as she poured it from the warm body.

— Venal blood, she said. It’s almost the colour of chocolate.

The wood pigeon had been trapped in the crook of a tree, its mangled foot – injured in some previous accident – stuck fast in the fork of a branch. The harder the bird fought to get away, the more it twisted its leg into the crevice. By the time we got to it, following the sounds of flapping, the strangled sob that sounded almost human, it had broken the leg so badly that it was close to wrenching it off completely. A nictitating membrane was a momentary film of milk across the brilliant black bead of its eye. Nothing could be read in that speck. It looked the same alive as it would dead. Black, bleak code filing through the lens one way or the other.

Karen gently pulled the bird free and, holding it upside down, threaded its thin neck through her fingers, pulled and twisted it away from her body. The sound of bones powdering drew my skin into pimples. She coughed and spat, wiped her lips, the dead bird hanging limp from her fingers like a thin bag. Her eyes were bright, filled with a fluke light that had snaked its way through the green and sat fatly in her eyes.

I slept that night and the wood pigeon came back to life, spreading its wings. The pattern of Karen’s irises was woven into the soft grey span. The bird, stretching out against the sky, was more like Karen than its own species. It opened its beak to sing and blood drizzled from it, freezing in the air like a necklace of rubies that has been snapped.

I found myself back on New Road and I couldn’t remember how I had got there. Karen had kissed me. Her tongue had moved against my own, her eyes open, locked with mine. We didn’t hold each other. The bird hung between us, emptying itself on to my shoes. My hands were similarly useless, growing cold as she moved her face into me. I tasted blood in her mouth. I felt the dark at the very centre of her eyes seeping out to join with the shadows of the gorge.

I remember walking home, having to look back every few steps because I was sure the depths of the gorge were somehow rising, plateauing, sweeping into the streets to pursue me. When I got back I avoided the tea that had been laid out for me and went straight up to the bathroom. I vomited about a gallon of what looked like mulligatawny soup into the toilet. The smell and taste of copper was all over the place. She was in my mouth, she was in the crevices of my fingerprints though I couldn’t remember touching her. The flutter of her heart in her breast. The fragility of her bones. She unfolded like a flower, like a chick fighting against the membrane of an egg.

The colours around me were dull, despite the sunshine. Life existed in the shadows. Everything you needed was there. True meaning was in the word undergrowth. It was no coincidence.

Her finger in the bird’s crop. The elegance of something without life to prop it up.

*

The heat was so great that small puddles of sweat were forming at the base of his goggles. He had not eaten for so long he felt he was in danger of forgetting how to. His hands held the tools that scraped at the walls of the redundant gas chambers and he could almost believe that the work would never be done, that his hands would never be turned to any other task. His landscapes were filled with tars, nitrates, sludges and phenolics. He lived in toxicity. An hour later and he was pulled away from the face by Hinchcliff, who wanted to give him a spot check. He traipsed back through the rubble, the ceramic retort fragments, the clinker and scurf, broken bricks and ash. Hinchcliff tested his blood and his breathing. They talked about his diet and his exercise regime. Ellis lied steadily. At the end of the shift he bundled his clothes into the sealed laundry skip and took a hot shower. Hinchcliff waved a sensor over him in the changing rooms and he was given a green pass. The day was over. Ellis felt as though he were wearing contact lenses fashioned from lead. He drifted home and the colours of his work followed him down into sleep. Lampblack. The glitter of ash. Spent lime was known as blue billy. Cyanide trembled in the waste as Prussian blue.

The green of Slitten Gorge moved like scarves of weed caught in deep current. Sometimes its colour grew so concentrated that it was indivisible from black. You could survive a nuclear winter down here, she said. This is a place forgotten by time. The mapmakers keep missing it. Die here and your body would turn to dust before you were ever found.

Her thighs in his hands had shivered as he lowered his face to her cunt. She blooded him. Her hands fluttered at the apex of his shoulder blades, the bird turning in her fingers; he felt its dead weight flop against his back. He thought she was losing control, but she was performing magic.

Faces grew out of those forbidden colours. Hard-bitten profiles of his grandfather. He unbuttoned his shirt and swept it open; his skin came away with it. His lungs glowed in the pit of his chest, the pleural cavity thickened by plaques. His grandfather had contracted misothelioma, a rare, insidious cancer, the result of a decade of unprotected demolition. Ellis had seen photographs of him dismantling a factory during a blizzard, but the snow had been black asbestos.

Wanna bang on this? his grandfather had asked him, lying in his hospital bed, pulling off his oxygen mask and offering it to him. The mask had been stippled with bloody sputum. His breath came and went in staggered clouts, like an assault.

He had not seen her again after the end of that sultry, fractious day. He remembered a storm had climbed the sky that night as he lay in bed with his metallic flavours and erased the heat from the land. He didn’t know where she lived, but even if he had he wouldn’t have gone knocking. He understood that there were reasons, there were patterns. The storm might well have swept her away too. He had nothing tangible of hers to fasten her to reality. As the years went by, he started to question his reading of those events, and of the gorge itself.

An instinctive twitch of the steering wheel. He sent the Jeep on to Kingsway. At the swing bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal he turned left and followed the road into Thelwall. Memory scraped at the walls of his mind, trying to make itself known. He remembered these streets, although he hadn’t set foot on them for the best part of two decades. They had cadged drinks off the locals in Grappenhall village. They fished for perch in the Bridgewater canal. They sucked and blew on mouthfuls of hot, greasy chips from the fish bar by the Dog and Dart. Summer nights when the gorge waited for him and the sky contained a pale, soft grain that prevented complete darkness. The sodium lamps bleached the street of colour. Her lips were grey when he kissed her. It’s all right, because so are mine. She tasted of red and green. He dreamed of flight after she left his life.

He parked the Jeep outside the stationer’s at the point where the road sweeps left into Lymm village. Behind the rank of shops – the butcher’s, the greengrocer’s, a hair salon, an estate agent – the land forgot how to be level and plunged into black. People had been hurt here over the years. The sound of the weir was a subdued roar. Ellis gathered himself at the rails. He felt his hair move although there was no breeze. It felt as though the gorge was sucking his flavour into its depths, tasting him, remembering him after so long away.

He thought of Clocaenog, and the way its trees seemed compressed. Running through them, he had never tripped or jarred a shoulder against a trunk. He seemed to know their patterns, he understood the physicality of the forest. What he couldn’t work out was why he was running, or what he was running from. He felt the same paradox here; he knew Slitten Gorge as intimately as he knew himself yet he had not been as close as this in twenty years. He had loved this place, but associated it with decay, and an end to things.

He knew he would slip through the gateway and descend those treacherous stone steps furred with moss and moisture, as if they were sweating at their proximity to the place. He gripped the rails more tightly, looking down into the area where he had once observed a heron frozen as it waited for something to swim past. And then he was sinking into the strata of greys and blues and greens, his hands still clenched as if in an attempt to fool himself into thinking he was still at street level.

Someone else had appropriated this sacred space. Beer bottles and polystyrene cartons littered the floor; graffiti referred to Helen smoking cocks, and doing anybody who happened to be here next Monday night. Ellis looked around for something that might bolt him to a sultry evening in 1987, but only the colours remained. He felt the cool air move in his chest and wondered if his grandfather might have benefited from some time down here.

There was a shock of movement in one of the trees. Ellis turned to see a hand snatched up, or snatch itself up, into the higher branches; the leaves in its wake glistened with a colour darker than the shadows within which they shivered. He watched the tree, his heart beating hard, unsure of what he had just witnessed. Kids larking about. Some bruised fibre of memory. He didn’t know. He called out, but nothing responded.

He walked deeper, until the shadow of the slitting mill rose out of the darkness. The sun struggled to illuminate it, the dark ivy and moss growing on its stone absorbing the light. Nails had been produced here, and then the cutting of steel bands for the cooperage in Thelwall during Victorian times. The windows were scarred with dust that no amount of polishing could now hope to remove.

Hunks of Wilmslow sandstone peeked out from the greenery. Ellis pressed himself back against some; it was cold against his palms. She had led him into that place and scratched the end of a nail, a six-inch piece of iron perhaps as old as the village itself, into the hard curves of his shoulder blades.

If you had wings, she said, this is where they’d be.

She withdrew his prick and he felt it both trying to shrivel in the cold and thicken in her tight grasp. He felt his own blood trace lines across his back.

I want to show you blood that isn’t dark. I want to show you blood so bright that it lights up a room.

She had leaned close to him, her thighs bracketing his own. The nail in her fist traced a line along his throat. Fear had him at the point of vomiting, but before he could protest, she slid his penis inside her. Her eyes seemed to reduce somehow, as if she had a contrast button that had been turned right down. She fucked him hard and fast, hard enough that he thought she was going to damage him if he slipped out. Her movements were so violent that he missed the winding up of his orgasm. He was climaxing almost without realising. He cried out and she yelled his name.

Spread your wings, she said, and buried the nail into the side of her own neck.

*

Time jagged around like vicious pieces of broken glass. It was too dangerous to stop and try to pick them up. Ellis was in the Jeep. He might or might not have tried to call Pip and Cavan on his mobile phone. He might or might not have charged the battery before leaving work. He might or might not even own one.

He said, ‘As Ralph Hoffmann suggested, in Birds of the Pacific States, from 1927, “One cannot have too many good bird books.”’ He said it once, maybe one hundred times. By the time the eastern shoulder of the forest was muscling up against his car, it was dark. Breathing was becoming difficult. He thought of himself tearing pages from his books, trying not to focus on the photographs of Lanius excubitor. Death was easy around him. People dropped as if they were born to it. He wished he had been able to help his grandfather to spread his wings.

He found Pip and Cavan an hour later, once the forest had settled coolly in his thoughts. His hunger was something animal in him, turning his pupils black, filling his mouth with juices. Other animals had visited this place, this shrike’s larder, but had been put off by the stink of their survival. He stood before them and flexed his shoulder muscles. Shadows leapt away from them, into the shocked heights of the trees. They were trying to reason with him, clinging on to hope. Ancient nails rammed through their wrists and ankles had become encrusted with blood and sap. Their lips were white and cracked. Ripe tongues swelled in their mouths.

I fly, he might have said. Karen’s blood was orange behind his eyes. He could smell her, like something forged in a foundry.

He reached out and tore off some wet strips of meat for his belly, even though the bodies providing it begged him, haltingly through welling throats, not to. The screaming was so close to that of his own voice, and so loud, that he was not aware until much later of what had arrived, and was amassing on the branches.