Barry took the tab at breakfast with his coffee. He skimmed through the mail: now he was fifty he could have £100 off his next car insurance and might win a trip around the world. He didn’t drive. He had timed everything perfectly but the delivery – expected at 9 – was late. The drug was already kicking in and he was beginning to feel light and strange in his own room as the man with the large ears and little nose unpacked boxes and complained about yesterday’s customers.
‘Not a jot on the floor, naked kids running about and the latest wide screen and all the works.’ Barry tried to keep up with the man’s dark eyes, which shifted around too quickly in their sockets. ‘Have you got sweets in?’ Barry thought he heard and when he shrugged was told, ‘for the kids tonight. Little beggars won’t leave you alone.’
Barry said there was no need to set it up, he worked in an electrical shop and could manage but by then the man was on all fours laying cable and squatting to demonstrate the various sound options.
‘Hall. Live. Rock. You name it. Orchestral.’ He waved the remote like a baton. He talked as if he lived here and Barry was the visitor.
Wasn’t it good now though to hear Hendrix as he’d never heard him, from five speakers. The lazy guitar of Hey Joe. He lay back on the sofa and dropped through to other sofas and rooms he’d lain in and been at ease. Way back on the green settee with Nina, his girlfriend for two months, when her parents were out. Parties where everybody reclined on scatter cushions, conversation limited by the bass heavy reggae and not much dancing either, you had to be cool, only getting up to kneel over the huge bong when it came round. At weekends there was sometimes dancing, after acid or mescaline in pills or on blotting paper. He remembered tripping on the flare of his loons (which had to touch the floor) and making it into a dance move. Girls had whirled skirt and hair out in circles to Zep or Cream or Caravan; and later under stairs or in bathrooms he got handfuls of tit and tastes of them.
The re-grouping in pubs and cafes the following weekend, pubs closed at 2pm, to discuss what happened after, how they got home in such a state, breathless and dodging skinheads. How they had outwitted drunken lungers, and negotiated dangerous roads where cars were out to eat you. How this one spent the night in the brand new toilets of the motorway service station – ‘excellent facilities’, and that one was nearly fucked by a donkey when he slept in a barn; how all somehow had seen the sun rise from the side of a road or under a hedge, the fields and back lanes, the edge of town of his youth.
When Barry and Maxine moved in together, they tried to get more sophisticated: instead of getting out of their heads immediately they would have dinner parties with candles, meals of nut roast and sweet potatoes and play Dylan and Roxy Music until they finished the Viennetta and got out the big rizlas and put on Peter Tosh or Burning Spear.
He remembered Maxine’s fads, how she grew out of fringed leather jackets and boots quickly, on to the multicoloured waistcoats. When she only wore that. How she got into Greek food when the restaurant opened in town; the stray cats she fed out the back; her languor on Sundays lying the length of the sofa, like him now, bringing her chocolates and drinks and rewarded with sex.
He tried to read the free paper pushed through the door but the headlines merged: Queen Eats Ambassador’s Son; Freed Man Topples Bridge, and little wavering flames flared up from between the lines of print to print him with burns.
He lay on turf with dripping water nearby and a hidden but throbbing power station, the leaning tower of Nina helped him with his tea.
The doorbell rang a second time and it was Tom. ‘Howdy pardner.’ He was panting from the bike ride across town and pushed his vehicle in straight through to the kitchen.
‘Didn’t know if you’d be in.’
‘Coffee? Bong? Pills?’
‘”I’m from the National Blonde Service,” she said to me,’ Tom said to him leaning back on his chair and stretching out long legs. Barry could hear the faint pops and cracks of sinews and gristle and saw how they coloured the air around Tom. His friend’s head went back when he exhaled as if pushed back by the smoke, an elephant’s trunk of it, he still had hanks of hair hanging either side of his head, left from the days when it was abundant and flowing.
‘People on top of the world,’ said Tom, ‘how do they keep their balance?’ Then he stopped to lift and blow into an imaginary saxophone as Mirror in the Bathroom broke out; nodding in praise of the new system.
They tried to make packet soup but ended up eating rubble with gulps of warm water. Luckily there was a lot of chocolate.
‘You prepared well, captain,’ said Tom, eyeing bars in the fridge, and turned to salute him.
‘Danke-shun, mein heir.’ He didn’t know why he’d turned German.
They bumped into each other on the stairs. They talked as if they’d met in the countryside, on the stairs there, as if wind was ruffling their hair and they had ruddy complexions.
Finally Barry bundled him out, bike and all, both vowing they would grow up soon, glancing up and down a street that seemed to come out of fog and concertina in and out around him, for the next interruption. The second phase of the drug was settling in, one that went right to his extremities, and he wanted to wank, wank longly over Maxine and Nina both. Maxina. Mixed up together for him and with only his pleasure in mind. But he’d only got to the first imaginings, Maxine with Nina’s legs, when the doorbell rang again.
Maxine. She walked in as if out of a cubist painting both eyes on the same side of her angular face, which was wrong because if Maxine was known for anything it was the roundness of her face. He couldn’t be sure it was her who he’d been picturing so recently. A voice came from her that was the same, similar, but he couldn’t place the tone or manner, even the accent.
‘OK, OK,’ he heard himself say to himself and turned away from her dark maroon patterned clothes with yellow buttons like beams of light, torches into his room. First time he’d seen her she was in a yellow top, blouse with wide cuffs, some kind of matching hair band too, in the days when those things were worn.
He sat opposite her and momentarily his back slipped into place so that the pain he’d been experiencing, even through the drugs, seemed turned off. The room stopped tilting. Maxine’s presence seemed to tighten the paintings above her, colours began to brim, the carpet seemed to breathe too, beneath its crust of dust, as if someone had finally cleaned it properly now she ran her eyes over it and around the crowded, smoky room. Each object she looked at sprang to attention.
‘Good sound system.’
She had long curtains of hair then, everyone did, John Lennon style. He could see her coming through a crowd. Her large pink mouth, slight Elvis curl to it, her little blue eyes, magnified by glasses, too little she said but he liked them, cheekiness there and something else besides, held back in them. Now her hair is a bob, shortish but still thick, grey dyed out, curling at the ends. Her glasses almost invisible. Her mouth pursed, thinner of course, but not as thin as his, like lines drawn he’d been told.
The I’m fine thank yous put out into the room, the settling down of each, the drawing of herself upright as if drawing a line for him to look at, slumped, unshaven and drugged across from her.
Of course after awkwardness they got deep into everyone they mutually knew and how they were doing and who had died, heart attack, lung cancer, overdose, starting with their inner families and working outwards. When he talked back to her he kept tonguing the inside of his front teeth, the curve of the gum, that’s where the taste was. They laughed about his mother, still singing Shirley Bassey songs off key and scowling at the clatter of the letterbox, the ring of the doorbell. I do that, he said, did it when you called, must be hereditary. They went through friends, married and divorced, rich, relatively, and poor. Did she still see Stephen and Alice? She didn’t.
She’d cut herself off, self-employed, when her new husband and then her lover left. Craft job, did some teaching at an FE college. Teaches the poor darlings to bury treasure he thought he heard her say. He said he was doing the same as when she left which was almost true. Same job, slight promotion, different shop.
Next was books and films they’d watched and read and snapped fingers over the same things like Alice Sebold and Goodfellas, even Blade Runner – had you left by then? He asked incredulously. Aaa-ceed! Chemical Brothers – they both put their hands in the air. She didn’t get on with Britpop though, Oasis, turned her nose up.
To make her wrinkle it again he said he liked jazz but he only had one compilation, ‘Music For Pleasure’ at that, and he laughed at her reaction and confessed straight away that he didn’t, but got out Sufjan Stevens and Sparklehorse CDs to show he’d kept up. He played Chicago, but said he should play something from then, maybe the group Chicago (postcard of Chicago he’d had, Sears tower in his head), something you could think of as their song, something off After The Goldrush, but he couldn’t find it, and she said anyway their song had to be Slade, C’Mon Feel The Noize because that’s the first song they’d danced to.
‘At the Y.M. disco?’
‘At the Y.M. disco.’
She accepted a joint from him confessing it had been a while as their fingers touched, thumbs and indexes. She had come, she didn’t tell him, to hear him play music again, smell and see him across a room, to put a box around a past that was coming up from pavements and found around corners, how pictures were forming of him and them all the time.
There was a sweet oil in the room she must have brought with her. Perfume maybe. There were bright two-foot beings sat either side of her bathing the room in light from their smiles. He could see the shape of her silhouetted in the light. Her shin the same, the one visible, and her knees, just showing below her dress. The calves too looked familiar, behind the shin and the knee never changing.
He put on Setting Sun to ‘change her mind about Noel Gallagher’ and the room was full of the sweeping music. He had to blur his fingers and wave his arms and she laughed and got up to join him. They danced in slow motion/fast motion like the crazed cops on the video, falling into one another at the end.
When she sat down he put on Curved Air’s Back Street Luv, which he’d found again recently and downloaded. ‘Wow!’ she said and when he put on Gregory Isaac’s Loving Pauper and the voice started up she said, ‘you bastard.’
When he got up to shuffle to the kitchen he moved as if Rebel Rebel was still playing even though the music had stopped and she followed to the room where little sunlight penetrated but which seemed sun-filled now. It had leaked in from the angels who were dissolving away in the other room. She tapped his shoulder and touched his side, was to the front of him, to the side of him, helping him with cups and kettle and turning on taps, tutting at his fridge, moving with jar and spoon as if she’d often done that here. As if he’d opened his eyes in a place where things persisted.
They ate toast in there and recalled their cat, not the strays, the one that stayed with its fat stripy tail like a racoon’s. At the door at night they’d call ‘here, child substitute, here subby, subby.’ He remembered it wasn’t long after its flattened death on the road that she left, some guy had been parked up around the corner for months, some guy she went to meet in a lounge bar of a near-empty pub on the newly built ring road.
The taste of it like soap and salt came back to him and he turned away, pretending to cough, particles of Marmite and crust spat into his hand. Then he started back and collapsed, shaking. The floor tiles where so many things had smashed cooled the length of him. He shuffled up, back against the wall and drew his knees up.
She leant to him. ‘You OK, Bas? Bas, speak to me.’
‘It’s OK, OK,’ he said, his body had shuddered at her touch but now calmed. ‘I’m OK. It’s the drugs. I’ll be there in a minute.’
When they got back in the front room and put down drinks and food, she sat on the sofa and asked if she could take off her shoes which he helped her do and felt again the slopes of her feet and the knobs of her toes and the curl under them.
The light had diminished, fog-rain at the window, the house swaddled in cloud. He felt for her leg then and she let him.
His fingertips were alive with this new Maxine, the same Maxine, the same stretch of moles and freckles along the inside of her thigh to the centre of her. She moved to let him try things, to move her back and undo and sit back to take her in, what was the same, what was different, nipples grown and spread the same pink as her lips, her skin generally darker though and the belly protruding, nicks and bumps acquired without him, marking her up but under it the same Maxine that he put his fully clothed arms around and felt contact with along the length of him, the same Maxine he clung to back in days more raw and fresh.
They moved upstairs, why had he taken her to the box room that smelt of damp and had crumbled or coming apart books on the windowsill and ledge, posters stacked in cracked frames in a corner, ash and dust laden, the bed cold and resisting as they tried to get in but lay on top of instead, shivery and laughing while she leant to undress him finally.
Would she keep from laughing when she saw his uncut toenails, his patch of grey pubic hair? Maybe his beer belly will hide it, that new fixture he’d built on himself since she’d been gone. He hadn’t flossed since 1992. Only now did he worry about the toilet she would use, the spider in the bath, the ring of dirt, the odour from the towel, the soap she would have to tug free of its recess.
He moved into her embrace, her breasts so much bigger now burgeoning under his ribs, he’d forgotten just how small she was. He looked down at her eyes clear as ever but with that depth, looking up at him through blackened lashes, the subtle pinkish eye shadow on the creases of her lids when she blinked.
He remembered fucking her how she joined in his conceits pretending to be his secretary – very bourgeois, they’d laughed – or strangers meeting in a pub, maybe that planted the seed, the boots and lingerie she wore for him, but now was nothing like that, it was her wrapped around him strongly, pulling him deep as she could. It was a feeling out beyond the drugs but taking those with it, pushing him deep and flat out, everything in him. Their bones bumped, their flesh stuck together; smells of him and her, seaweed and baked bread, sweet sweat, deodorant entered the sterile unadorned room and made it different. Every time he came into this room, he was thinking, as he felt her all over him, her grasp and thoughts and flesh around him, she would be there.
He didn’t want to collapse on her, but felt like it after climax like a flare gun going off in him, ripped him up, and he managed to fall back away from her. Everything in him was suddenly mute, gone, and he woke up to find his ex-wife and recent lover slapping him gently. ‘You blacked out,’ she said, and for the second time, ‘You OK?’
They lay back then side by side, eventually covering up their aged and pushed out, mottled and dented body and flesh, half covering up: he could still see and touch her grown, flopping breasts. How the bulb light curved around her face, that cheek-and-nose shape, the tiny point of the nose like an apple pip in sight again.
‘I remember when you got the heebie-jeebies,’ she said, ‘you wouldn’t let anyone talk to you, not even me.’ He nodded at it, but they didn’t pursue any obvious trails of mutual memory, meeting, special signals, parting, not past one or two sentences about a place and a time.
It had puzzled her this insistence on him she’d thought she’d left behind, but in the clinch she couldn’t kill it. She had shaken him because she couldn’t, he must have noticed the change in her, she thought, but she saw how he was oblivious, high and away from her. She hadn’t got what she’d come for, and couldn’t name it anyway and now felt content to have him coming down beside her, his speech and movement slowing down.
‘Thought of you on your 50th,’ she did tell him, ‘was out of the country but you know can’t forget the date.’
They moved together again, him stroking her, and promising to cook a curry later, a skill he hadn’t lost, when there were three rings on the bell downstairs. Maxine laughed when she realised it was trick-or-treaters and curled into him when he complained about Americanisation, and lay like grace had descended in a warmth remembered and different. Outside the fog thickened as groups of skeletons and monsters and vampires laid siege to the street. Barry and Maxine got closer, balled up in each other, intertwining rough old flesh as kids outside started egging the house, spraying it with paint and flour, and letting off early fireworks, jumping jacks and bangers.
The Boarded Window – Ambrose Bierce
In 1830, only a few miles away from what is now the great city of Cincinnati, lay an immense and almost unbroken forest. The whole region was sparsely settled by people of the frontier – restless souls who no sooner had hewn fairly habitable homes out of the wilderness and attained to that degree of prosperity which today we should call indigence, than, impelled by some mysterious impulse of their nature, they abandoned all and pushed farther westward, to encounter new perils and privations in the effort to regain the meagre comforts which they had voluntarily renounced. Many of them had already forsaken that region for the remoter settlements, but among those remaining was one who had been of those first arriving. He lived alone in a house of logs surrounded on all sides by the great forest, of whose gloom and silence he seemed a part, for no one had ever known him to smile nor speak a needless word. His simple wants were supplied by the sale or barter of skins of wild animals in the river town, for not a thing did he grow upon the land which, if needful, he might have claimed by right of undisturbed possession.
There were evidences of “improvement” – a few acres of ground immediately about the house had once been cleared of its trees, the decayed stumps of which were half concealed by the new growth that had been suffered to repair the ravage wrought by the axe. Apparently the man’s zeal for agriculture had burned with a failing flame, expiring in penitential ashes.
The little log house, with its chimney of sticks, its roof of warping clapboards weighted with traversing poles and its “chinking” of clay, had a single door and, directly opposite, a window. The latter, however, was boarded up – nobody could remember a time when it was not. And none knew why it was so closed; certainly not because of the occupant’s dislike of light and air, for on those rare occasions when a hunter had passed that lonely spot the recluse had commonly been seen sunning himself on his doorstep if heaven had provided sunshine for his need. I fancy there are few persons living today who ever knew the secret of that window, but I am one, as you shall see.
The man’s name was said to be Murlock. He was apparently seventy years old, actually about fifty. Something besides years had had a hand in his ageing. His hair and long, full beard were white, his grey, lustreless eyes sunken, his face singularly seamed with wrinkles which appeared to belong to two intersecting systems. In figure he was tall and spare, with a stoop of the shoulders – a burden bearer. I never saw him; these particulars I learned from my grandfather, from whom also I got the man’s story when I was a lad. He had known him when living near by in that early day.
One day Murlock was found in his cabin, dead. It was not a time and place for coroners and newspapers, and I suppose it was agreed that he had died from natural causes or I should have been told, and should remember. I know only that with what was probably a sense of the fitness of things the body was buried near the cabin, alongside the grave of his wife, who had preceded him by so many years that local tradition had retained hardly a hint of her existence. That closes the final chapter of this true story – excepting, indeed, the circumstance that many years afterward, in company with an equally intrepid spirit, I penetrated to the place and ventured near enough to the ruined cabin to throw a stone against it, and ran away to avoid the ghost which every well-informed boy thereabout knew haunted the spot. But there is an earlier chapter – that supplied by my grandfather.
When Murlock built his cabin and began laying sturdily about with his axe to hew out a farm – the rifle, meanwhile, his means of support – he was young, strong and full of hope. In that eastern country whence he came he had married, as was the fashion, a young woman in all ways worthy of his honest devotion, who shared the dangers and privations of his lot with a willing spirit and light heart. There is no known record of her name; of her charms of mind and person tradition is silent and the doubter is at liberty to entertain his doubt; but God forbid that I should share it! Of their affection and happiness there is abundant assurance in every added day of the man’s widowed life; for what but the magnetism of a blessed memory could have chained that venturesome spirit to a lot like that?
One day Murlock returned from gunning in a distant part of the forest to find his wife prostrate with fever, and delirious. There was no physician within miles, no neighbour; nor was she in a condition to be left, to summon help. So he set about the task of nursing her back to health, but at the end of the third day she fell into unconsciousness arid so passed away, apparently, with never a gleam of returning reason.
From what we know of a nature like his we may venture to sketch in some of the details of the outline picture drawn by my grandfather. When convinced that she was dead, Murlock had sense enough to remember that the dead must be prepared for burial. In performance of this sacred duty he blundered now and again, did certain things incorrectly, and others which he did correctly were done over and over. His occasional failures to accomplish some simple and ordinary act filled him with astonishment, like that of a drunken man who wonders at the suspension of familiar natural laws. He was surprised, too, that he did not weep – surprised and a little ashamed; surely it is unkind not to weep for the dead. “Tomorrow,” he said aloud, “I shall have to make the coffin arid dig the grave; and then I shall miss her, when she is no longer in sight; but now – she is dead, of course, but it is all right – it must be all right, somehow. Things cannot be so bad as they seem.”
He stood over the body in the fading light, adjusting the hair and putting the finishing touches to the simple toilet, doing all mechanically, with soulless care. And still through his consciousness ran an undersense of conviction that all was right – that he should have her again as before, and everything explained. He had had no experience in grief; his capacity had not been enlarged by use. His heart could not contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it. He did not know he was so hard struck; that knowledge would come later, and never go. Grief is an artist of powers as various as the instruments upon which he plays his dirges for the dead, evoking from some the sharpest, shrillest notes, from others the low, grave chords that throb recurrent like the slow beating of a distant drum. Some natures it startles; some it stupefies. To one it comes like the stroke of an arrow, stinging all the sensibilities to a keener life; to another as the blow of a bludgeon, which in crushing benumbs. We may conceive Murlock to have been that way affected, for (and here we are upon surer ground than that of conjecture) no sooner had he finished his pious work than, sinking into a chair by the side of the table upon which the body lay, and noting how white the profile showed in the deepening gloom, he laid his arms upon the table’s edge, and dropped his face into them, tearless yet and unutterably weary. At that moment came in through the open window a long, wailing sound like the cry of a lost child in the far deeps of the darkening woods! But the man did not move. Again, and nearer than before, sounded that unearthly cry upon his failing sense.
Perhaps it was a wild beast; perhaps it was a dream. For Murlock was asleep.
Some hours later, as it afterward appeared, this unfaithful watcher awoke and lifting his head from his arms intently listened – he knew not why. There in the black darkness by the side of the dead, recalling all without a shock, he strained his eyes to see – he knew not what. His senses were all alert, his breath was suspended, his blood had stilled its tides as if to assist the silence. Who – what had waked him, and where was it?
Suddenly the table shook beneath his arms, and at the same moment he heard, or fancied that he heard, a light, soft step – another – sounds as of bare feet upon the floor!
He was terrified beyond the power to cry out or move. Perforce he waited – waited there in the darkness through seeming centuries of such dread as one may know, yet live to tell. He tried vainly to speak the dead woman’s name, vainly to stretch forth his hand across the table to learn if she were there. His throat was powerless, his arms and hands were like lead. Then occurred something most frightful. Some heavy body seemed hurled against the table with an impetus that pushed it against his breast so sharply as nearly to overthrow him, and at the same instant he heard and felt the fall of something upon the floor with so violent a thump that the whole house was shaken by the impact. A scuffling ensued, and a confusion of sounds impossible to describe. Murlock had risen to his feet. Fear had by excess forfeited control of his faculties. He flung his hands upon the table. Nothing was there!
There is a point at which terror may turn to madness; and madness incites to action. With no definite intent, from no motive but the wayward impulse of a madman, Murlock sprang to the wall, with a little groping seized his loaded rifle, and without aim discharged it. By the flash which lit up the room with a vivid illumination, he saw an enormous panther dragging the dead woman toward the window, its teeth fixed in her throat! Then there were darkness blacker than before, and silence; and when he returned to consciousness the sun was high and the wood vocal with songs of birds.
The body lay near the window, where the beast had left it when frightened away by the flash and report of the rifle. The clothing was deranged, the long hair in disorder, the limbs lay anyhow. From the throat, dreadfully lacerated, had issued a pool of blood not yet entirely coagulated. The ribbon with which he had bound the wrists was broken; the hands were tightly clenched. Between the teeth was a fragment of the animal’s ear.
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