Memento

First published by Writers Billboard as Story of the Month, February 2013

Mal Roberts was an unmagnificent  man. You might have seen him once or twice, but if you had you probably wouldn’t remember him. Thin hair, specs? Looked like he weighed about nine stone? No, thought not. Guy whose grinning face was just like his sneezing face? No?

Mal had this thing he would do when he was a kid and wanted the day off school.  Just before his mum came in to get him up, he’d spend two minutes breathing into his pillow. Then he’d press his forehead into the warm space for just as long, hoping to feign a fever. The trick worked surprisingly often. Later in life Mal would realise this was because he’d usually been a dull and obedient child, so his old dear had no reason to think he was trying it on. But at the age of twelve, the duping felt like a triumph; proof, Mal believed, of some kind of minor genius that would one day make him famous. What he couldn’t know then was that minor genius guarantees nothing and often results in very little.

The pillow trick was handy on days when Mal really couldn’t face running into Joel Rickard, his bully. Rickard was only four about months older than Mal, and yet they were physically as different to each other as Mal was to a bull. So far puberty had taken to only a few boys in their class of thirty, selecting them early like the quality players bagged first by the captains of lunchtime football teams. Rickard was one of those boys. He’d shot from an already relatively tall five feet three to an intimidating five-nine in half a year. The hands he used to shove Mal off his seat in registration periods were already rough-skinned and manly, unlike the moist paws Mal kept until he started playing bass guitar at seventeen. Once, Mal heard Rickard peeing in the next cubicle and had been shocked by the deep waterfall sound it made. At this point Mal was in the majority group of classmates who hadn’t been selected for the team, who still looked like the blazered babies that they were. What this really meant was that Mal couldn’t claim any special victim status, because he was just one case in a wide portfolio of kids that Rickard casually brutalised. But Mal‘s problem was that he sat directly in front of Rickard in form class, so on a day-to-day basis he stood a higher than average chance of being terrorised. On a good day that might mean finding a piece of used gum slipped into his jacket pocket. On a bad day Mal looked back on the good days with wretched longing. On these occasions Mal would wish Rickard had just put something in his bag, rather than taking the holdall from him, melting off the plastic strap clips with a lighter and forcing Mal to tote the thing around like a dying dog for the rest of the day. Or that the gum had ended up in his pocket, and not been blotted into the crown of his dandelion hair. Or that Mal had just sat there and silently taken the punishment, rather than like that one time when he’d madly leapt at Rickard with tears in his eyes and got punched full in the face for his trouble, while their supply teacher, two inches shorter than Rickard and immeasurably ill-suited for this line of work, was too meek to do anything more than hand Mal a tissue for the blood. Mal used the pillow trick right up till sixth form, when he left school for college across town, while Rickard was forced by poor attendance and some stomach-droppingly low mock GCSE results to repeat year eleven at the school. Losing his virginity would put less of a jounce in Mal’s step than this development, and knowing that from here on in he was outside the radius of Rickard‘s leash. Sometimes during that next year, though, his heart still darkened with an abstract sympathy for the next kid to be bounced around the top deck of a bus by that ignorant and abusive giant.

Unmagnificent men do unheroic jobs, and so when Mal grew up, he eventually found work as a hospital messenger. By nine thirty AM he’d be three instant coffees to the good and sparking down bright corridors past medics in aspirin-white coats who’d never once acknowledged him. All except one: Jonathon Arrowsmith, an anaesthetist in Trauma. Jon was the only person in this place Mal would even pretend to call a friend, and he had his suspicions that Jon’s mateyness was due to his obvious class complex as much as it was due to actual fondness. Which is to say Jon was friends with Mal, a Little Guy, precisely because he was a Little Guy. Mal was aware of all this; Little Guys often are. But Jon was good company, so Mal was happy to leave the blurred lines of his superior friend’s motivations as they were.

Nine forty, a Tuesday, and Mal came back into the corridor from a Paediatrics office to find his messenger trolley had gone. He looked down to the corridor’s far end and saw Jon riding along on it, feet-on-rear-axles, like big kids do on supermarket carts. When he’d rolled to the end wall, Jon shoved the trolley through a fire exit, turned, and beckoned at Mal with a cigarette-lighting gesture. Smoky Time.

“That stuff‘s no good for you,” said Jon, leaning against the car park wall. He indicated Mal’s coffee – his fourth – while they lit their roll-ups. “It’ll make you grind your teeth down to nubbins. It’s not healthy.”

“Uh, okay, and what about smoking…?” said Mal, feeling like he’d landed a blow.

“Smoking is the most logical thing for a young man to do,” replied Jon instantly, “because smoking is cool and it may get you laid. So puff on, brother.”

Mal squirmed. He wasn’t good at sex-related banter.

Some consultant-level doctor pulled into one of the reserved parking bays in a very new-looking BMW. “Look at that bastard,” said Jon, exhaling a whistle of smoke. “You ask him, I bet he’d tell you he got into this game to help people.”

“I’d probably treat myself to a Beamer too if I was on his salary,” said Mal, and this time he did land a blow, because Jon didn’t seem to have any answer for that.

The consultant in his suit passed Jon and Mal on his way in, nodding a hello to Jon and ignoring Mal entirely. Jon nodded quickly back and stamped out his cigarette as his pager started to beep. “Listen,” he said, reading the number, “how long have you worked here?”

“Three years. Why?”

“Three years in a hospital, and I bet you haven’t seen one dead body, have you?”

“Uh, I… no. Do I need to?”

“Yes you bloody need to. You don’t know how to live till you’ve seen a corpse.”

“What’s wrong with how I’m living now?”

“Well, nothing. It’s just you’re…” Jon hesitated.  “Look mate, that’s not the point. Seeing a dead body is good for everyone, is what I’m saying. It’s like dental floss for your brain. So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to go and get a soldier ready to lose his nuts. You’re going to get down to the morgue. Give them their post and wait for me there. Then we’ll go on in and you can meet your fate. Who works on reception there these days?”

Mal snorted, poked up his specs. “That would be Elaine Reid,” he said, thinking that would be enough to put Jon off of this craziness. But no.

“Evil Elaine? Delightful.” Jon pocketed the pager and made for the corridor.  “Tell her I’m coming to say hi. No, give her a kiss. She won’t mind if you tell her it’s from me.”

Mal squirmed again. He looked like a worm having a dream about the hook. “Jon, I can’t. You might be allowed in there but I-”

“Malcolm Powder,” Jon interrupted, with a clap on Mal’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine, I promise. I won’t let you get in any trouble, all right?” Jon backed into the corridor, his voice breaking up into echo. “Trust me, I’m an anaesthetist.”

Mal waved at Jon in consent, but he looked like a man who’d just found a lump.

* * *

So many dead human hearts up behind that door at the back wall, yet the coldest one in the morgue belonged to the woman whose arm was shot out expectantly at Mal now as she waited for her post, her palm upraised and fingers beckoning in the manner of someone wanting a fight. Evil Elaine Reid.

“Sign this,” she squawked when Mal handed over the stuff. Elaine was a ferocious career administrator, legendary among the hospital staff as a pioneer of yet new ground in the already vast NHS bureaucracy. And now Mal was signing on to one of her newest innovations. She’d set up a kind of double-receipt mail system in Mortuary Services, so not only did she sign to acknowledge receipt of her post, like everyone did, but she’d now drawn up a new pro-forma of her own too, which Mal had to sign to acknowledge Elaine’s acknowledgement of the post she’d just received. Two months ago there’d been a scandal when a coroner’s report had gone missing following the town MP’s very public checking-out at the opening of a new RNLI boathouse; the keystone wasn’t exactly heavy, but the exertion of shoving it into place had been too much for the poor old MP, who’d lifted nothing heavier than a lobster pick for twenty years and whose heart was used to twitching like a sleeping kitten. The post-mortem documents had been signed for by a temp and then gone missing, which, once the local paper got wind of it, led to what was let’s just say a stressful period in Mortuary Services’ history. The report had shown up at the end of the week, but by then Elaine already had the whole place on administrative lockdown, with the new receipt-receipt system just one of several procedures set up in the wake of the whole farrago. It might well have been due to her deep sense of professionalism, but Mal suspected Elaine’s behaviour was really inspired by cowardice. Adding to the paper trail like this meant she personally would never be found at its end, could never be blamed for any future disaster. And Mal tried not to, he really did try not to, but in a strange way he found himself identifying with her because of it. It meant that despite the malaise she brought out in him, Mal couldn’t truly despise Evil Elaine. When the mob bears down, we all want to be able to wave them along to the next house and say Not I, my lords, not I.

But that didn’t mean he wanted to sit and chew grass with the woman. Mal raced his signature across the sheet and waited while Elaine went to make a copy of the receipt-receipt. As Elaine leaned over the photocopier, a junior doctor appeared jauntily in the doorway. Then, noticing Elaine, the doctor panicked, dived to the floor and crept silently away on her elbows, S-shaping down the corridor like a salamander. Mal watched the doctor’s feet slide horizontally out of view as Elaine returned with the papers.

With his official business here complete, Mal wasn’t sure what to do till Jon showed up. He pretended to notice something jamming up a wheel of his trolley, and bent down to mock-investigate. Elaine’s irritation was immediate and obvious.

“Can I ask you to do that somewhere else?” She was typing as she spoke, and she typed quickly, without pause or error. The room was silent except for Elaine’s flawless keyboard work and the soulless hum of many pieces of electrical equipment.

Mal groped for a lie. “Actually, is it all right if I hang around here for a bit? I’ve got a meeting.”

“You? Who with? You’re not booked in. And anyway, the answer’s no. I’ve got a couple coming in to ID a body.”

Mal flushed. He was a poor liar, and had chosen the worst kind of lie to use on Elaine. This was her territory, and she knew and ruled it absolutely. But to his own surprise, he improvised a path around her. “Well, I say ‘meeting’,” he said, “but really it’s just a chat. Jon Arrowsmith asked me to meet him here, is all. He should be along in a sec.”

If Elaine could flush, it would have been her turn to do so then. “Mr Arrowsmith?” she said, suddenly interested. “Okay. Okay.” So Jon wasn’t just being cocky, thought Mal. She actually does have a thing for him. Mal smirked internally, both at Elaine’s crush and his own ability to outwit her like that. But why be surprised?  Mal was a minor genius.

“You can wait in reception,” said Elaine. “But don’t talk to any of the visitors, and let me know when the doctor arrives.”

“Thank you, I’ll do that,” said Mal, with what he imagined was a winning smile. Elaine flattened her hair with a palm and returned to her keyboard, although she seemed to have trouble remembering what it was she’d been typing a moment earlier.

When Mal breezed back into the office five minutes later, with Jon just a foot or two ahead of him, he could have sworn Elaine had put on some lipstick or something. There was definitely a different quality to her, something incongruous. Maybe it was just that she was smiling. Mal stood off to Jon’s left as he did his stuff. They were just going to have a coffee and talk about development opportunities, Jon told Elaine. Mal was thinking about applying to become a paramedic, he told her. But first Jon had to post some certificates, he said, but he was rubbish with that kind of thing, and he really hated to ask, but was there any way Elaine could help him out? Mr Arrowsmith was a typical useless man, Elaine told Jon, and rolled her eyes sarcastically, but she was sure she could do it for him this once. Elaine was a star, said Jon, an absolute star. He told her he’d have to take her for a coffee too next time to say thanks, and Elaine had to put a hand on the wall to keep steady as she walked out of the office.

“Will you really take her out?,” asked Mal, amazed, when Elaine had clacked out of earshot.

“Of course I will,” said Jon. “It’s unethical to lie, Malcolm Powder.” Then he dragged his security card through the lock to the morgue and waved Mal through ahead of himself. They were in.

The door was heavy, and subject to some kind of air-pressured hinge mechanism thing, so Jon had to push hard to get it to close swiftly behind him. As he pushed, it made a hushing sound, as if to remind them that they ought after all to show some respect; and when the door finally clicked, Jon and Mal did quieten down, despite themselves.

The room was far bigger than Mal had expected. Four aluminium autopsy tables were lined up in parallel down the centre of the room. Along three of the walls, which were painted in the plainest bureaucratic white, ran a set of low shelving, also aluminium. At intervals along the shelving were sinks used for draining away God knew what. The fourth wall, to Jon and Mal’s left as they entered, was taken up by the storage units, and these were what generated the only sound in the room: the quiet roar of large-scale refrigeration. Mal eyed the metal wall uneasily, imagining toe tags, bloated bodies.

“You all right?” said Jon. “It does get you, don’t it?”

Mal did not feel okay about this. He wished he hadn’t come in today. He still wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to be learning from all this. But he was here now, and Jon had told him to do it.

Jon leaned in. “I’ll go and keep an eye out while you pow-wow with one of the gang here. These things are pretty simple – just pull on a handle and it‘ll slide right out. I’ll be right outside, okay? But be quick. She won’t be long.”

“All right, all right,” said Mal. “Hang on – which one should I pick?”

“Any one you bloody like, mate. They’ll all tell you the same thing.” And the door hushed again, leaving Mal alone with the bodies.

The drawers ran three high and about ten along. It made sense to take one from the bottom row, since the top drawer was out of reach anyway, while the middle one was at chest height, and Mal was not about to have a corpse right up in his face, no matter how instructive Jon might think that would be. So he reached for the lower drawer nearest to him. In the artificially cool room, the handle was cold to the touch. That alone sickened him, for some reason.

Okay, Mal thought. It’s like pulling out a hair. Just grab it and yank it out.

Only he couldn’t just yank it out, because he was pulling on the full weight of a human body. As Mal dragged on the handle, the drawer slid out hideously slowly. Mal closed his eyes reflexively. When the shelf was fully extended he positioned himself alongside it, inching slowly around with his eyes open but with his gaze averted to the ceiling, careful to make absolutely no contact with the drawer and its awful contents. He took a deep breath. Slowly, slowly, he looked down…

..and the years folded like a paper plane and flew out the window. The dead person was Rickard, the school bully.

Horrified, Mal ran to the door like a victim in a horror movie, as if Rickard’s zombie would at any moment sit up and lurch at him. But the door was locked from the outside, and Jon, who was twirling orbits in Elaine’s office chair, couldn’t hear Mal’s open-palmed slapping. It took half a minute and some leaning-on-knees deep breathing for Mal to regain some workable level of calmness. When had, he returned queasily to the body. As he approached the table, he realised he was as actually as thrilled as he was appalled.

At first it was the simple, grim excitement of seeing a dead human body. The inert facial skin was as unlovely as a moulding apple, unnaturally firm yet streaked with folds. The eyes had been pinched closed by some well meaning morgue assistant, but the mouth, whether through the assistant’s negligence or the jaw’s rigor mortis, had been left to gape open in a terrible O. There was no sense that the person was just sleeping, as per the cliché; an absolute absence of sentience arose from the body, in pure counterpoint to the human aura it couldn’t help producing while it had lived.

Mal took good time to sink through this top layer of general intrigue, but once he did, he settled into the fuller understanding that this wasn’t just any old cadaver. It was someone he knew.

Rickard looked old. When they’d been kids and Rickard had been big enough to boot Mal around the playground with impunity, Mal had dimly thought there would come a day when he wouldn‘t be so obviously deficient, physically speaking. He’d assumed that with adulthood would come a kind of levelling-out, that there would be far more similarities than differences between his body and those of guys like Rickard. But it hadn’t panned out like that. He’d never had anything like a bulging bicep. His pee still rattled the water in an embarrassing treble. In more ways than he wanted, he felt he’d always be more boy than man. Rickard, though, looked like he’d never been a child at all. His shuttered eyes were ringed with tired lines that seemed to have been there since long before his death, and his hair was shaven down to a blond baize, apparently to mitigate the baldness Mal could see creeping over the crown of his resting head. Seeing him now, it was hard for Mal to remember how Rickard had appeared as a teenager.

Mal’s eye scrolled along the sheet-covered body. Whatever had killed Rickard, it had done so by taking a big bite out of his left side. This was getting hard for Mal to look at. Where the left hip would be, the sheet angled sharply downwards, hiding a chunk of torso that was obviously no longer there. The lower part of the left arm was clearly missing, too, under that suspiciously shallow and taut part of cloth. A car crash, Mal thought, or maybe an industrial accident of some kind.

Somewhere in his chest, Mal sensed many different emotions jostling for space. He wasn’t thinking about Jon, or how he’d stopped twirling in the chair, wondering whether what he’d just heard was Elaine clacking back down the corridor.

Joel Rickard, dead. Jesus.

Mal closed his eyes. Of all those feelings grabbing at him, resentment had the longest reach. He resented everything about this. He resented Jon for making him do it, that was for damn sure. But now, crazily, he resented Rickard even more. Resented him for showing up even now and ruining this one fucking time when he’d tried to do something daring. Mal even resented Rickard for the resentment itself, because he knew that the decent thing at this time would be to feel compassion for another family’s tragedy. It must have been Rickard’s mother he’d sat across from in reception while he waited for Jon. Boy, that was awkward. She was a round little bird, perched silent and unsobbing on the fabric reception chair as she waited to identify the butchered body of her enormous son. A fist of car keys and a yellow hard hat, presumably belonging to the dad, lay on the chair next to her. But the man himself was nowhere to be seen. Mal tried to picture the father, the person Rickard would never now become, and drew a blank there too.

Mal had wanted to blame his life on having been bullied at school, but his heart had never been in it. He hadn’t seen or heard from Rickard in a decade. Had the bullying forced him to stay in this temp job until time had warped it into something permanent? No. Rickard hadn’t come between Mal and Deborah, had he? Had Rickard sat between them on the sofa that evening last winter and told them both in turn that the relationship had run its course, and wouldn’t they both be happier if they just called it a day? Of course not.

So why had Mal started crying?

He stood sniffing, eyes open again, and watched the corpse shatter and multiply through the tears. As he snorted back the flutes of snot, he didn’t hear Jon tapping on the other side of the door, whispering as loudly as he could that Elaine was coming back with some next of kin, so he’d better start wrapping things up in there sharpish.

And fucking hell, Rickard’s bullying hadn’t set his other victims back, had it? In fact plenty of them were thriving despite it. Lewis Sturridge had become a wealthy property guy for gay first-time buyers. Rhys Passfield was married. Dev Patel, who’d somehow paid for his own plastic surgery at the age of fourteen after being sent half mad by Rickard’s taunting of his sticky-out ears, was on tour in America. What had happened to them, freed them, that had never happened to Mal?

Mal rubbed his gluey nose. And then he had the best idea of his whole stupid life. It was so good it fascinated him, and its thrall he never wondered about what was happening outside. How, in the doorway, Jon was flirting for his life, trying to stop Elaine coming back into the office. How Elaine’s professionalism trumped everything, and how she’d brushed past him with Rickard’s parents and said this really was not an appropriate time, Mr Arrowsmith.

Mal tipped back his head and let a quid of tearful, self-pitying mucus collect at the back of his sinuses. When a good gobful had settled there, he hocked it up into his mouth. Behind him, the door clicked, but the sound didn’t register. With his cheeks full, Mal leaned forward over Rickard and parted his lips like a man about to whistle. He fed the gunk forward with his tongue until it lolled overboard, extending into a green rope that thinned and grew lighter as it dropped towards Rickard’s own open mouth. He watched the snot drooping towards the corpse’s face. The spit stopped and hung an inch above the dead man’s tongue. There was a sharp, breathy sound, like the hush of a door opening, or a woman gasping. The tongue looked like a dry root, and there it was, right there. Somebody said a name.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2013

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E justitsim

First published in ‘Story Book’, by Spilling Ink Review, 2012

..an’ no, we shouldna bin going nowhere near the car if we bin drinking, but that’s where Jay’d left his fags and we was fucked if we were gunna buy new ones just for the sake of it. The car was up in the multi-story place behind the Odeon. This is still early on, about seven o’clock, so the car park weren’t exactly empty but it was clearing out like. So. We come out the stairs and Jay puts is arm across my chest and tells me to shush. E’s looking over at is car. There’s this geezer standing there right by it: some cunt in a hoodie looking through the window. E’s obviously tryna nick the car innee. E’s got his back to us so e can’t see us; we’re just stood there watching im tryna jimmy the driver’s door open. E keeps looking side to side, this geezer, but never behind. If e did e would’ve seen us rightaway. Mug. So. Jay nods at me and starts walking over, all casual like, talking proper loud about some bollocks, I dunno, something to do with work. Point is, this bloke’s sposed to hear it – and e does. E just freezes mate. We walk up level with the car then carry on a bit further like we’re going somewhere else. Then Jay pretends e’s seen the bloke for the first time. All right pal, you locked out? he says. Nah nah, the bloke goes. I’m all right I’m all right. All the while e’s not looking at us; e’s trying to keep his face hidden. Old on, let’s ave a look, says Jay: I used to ave one of these. And e comes round the back of the car, Jay does. So now this geezer’s stood right between us; e’s got nowhere to go. Jay comes up to the driver’s window with is ands in is pockets and looks through. Then e stands up straight and says you sure this is yours? Course, that gets the geezer worried. E turns and looks at me – fucking ugly cunt e was an all – then e turns round to Jay. But before e can do anything Jay hits im; e justitsim. And mate, this bloke, is nose just goes pop. I mean there’s blood everywhere. Jay’s just opened the door and got is fags and we’ve gone straight back to the pub mate; we’ve  just left this wanker lying on the floor. Jay goes back the next day to pick the car up. Car’s fine; no one‘s touched it. E didn’t come back and ave another go then, I says to im. Did e fuck, says Jay. Fucking scumbag.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2012

Rahul and Sweetie

Longlisted in WordswithJAM’s 2014 First Page competition

The only person to see Rahul and Sweetie that night was an elderly lady who passed away before she could communicate what she’d witnessed. She saw them coming across the field at the back of her house on what looked like one of the old boy Farrell’s horses. Rahul was sitting on the horse’s back in the normal way, although, dressed as he was in office shoes, he didn’t look much like a horseman. And how many horsemen do you see with faces and arms covered in brick dust? But Rahul’s appearance would have struck the old lady as a lot stranger if it weren’t for the sight of Sweetie, whose appearance really was odd. The child was riding the horse, too, but upside down. Which is to say she was straddling the animal’s belly in the same way that Rahul was straddling its back. It did not seem to be any effort to hold herself in place like this, nor did the horse appear at all distressed or burdened by the small, rucksack-wearing girl hanging from its underside. The horse jogged across the scrub of Farrell’s field to the short picket fence at the back of the old lady’s house. There, it stopped and snorted in the sneezy way that horses do. Neither of the visitors attempted to dismount from the horse’s back-stroke-belly. The rain had been coming down all evening, but it’d let up for now. Walk straight ahead out the old lady’s front door and you’d reach London; the wide field at the back faced north-east, into the vast skies of Essex. A little strip of blue light still gave out at the base of that field-side horizon, as though there really were a god and It had lifted the carpet to peep at the scene unfolding.

The elderly lady’s name was Esther Brim. She’d been fussing at her kitchen sink when, through the window, she saw an Indian gentleman appear out of the gloaming on horseback, along with what she thought for the life of her looked like a little white child hanging off the horse’s stomach. This was obviously a shocking and fearful sight for Mrs Brim because, quite apart from the upside-down child, she’d only ever known two Indian people, the Prasads, and they’d moved out to Colchester years ago. Her first thought was to run to her bedroom, lock the door and call her son, Duncan. But something held her there at the window. The initial feeling of terror passed almost immediately, giving way to something that, if you could have asked her, she would have described as more like a terrible combination of pity and resignation. The feeling grew the longer she looked at the pair on the horse. Even from her kitchen window, Mrs Brim could see nothing threatening in the man’s face. Like the upside-down child, he just sat there dumbly on the horse, like they weren’t sure what to do now they were here. The horse seemed happy enough grazing at the fence stumps.

Still wary, but drawn by this nameless sympathy for the mysterious man and his little upside-down passenger, Mrs Brim opened the kitchen door and stood on the step. In her nervousness she clutched the collars of her blouse together with one hand. The rain was picking up again now, enough to darken the man’s dust-whitened arms with teardrop-sized spots. The horse snorted and stepped about impatiently under the worsening weather. As its legs shifted, Mrs Brim caught a better look at the little girl. On one of her cheeks was a bruise as dark as a wallet. Her left eye was a fat purple plum, and her wrist on the opposite side was twisted outwards at a horrible angle.

“Oh,” said Mrs Brim, horrified. “Oh, my dear.”

The little girl’s face changed as she suddenly laughed. “Her dear!” The girl spoke in a scratchy American voice that sounded like it belonged to a woman thirty years older than she was. “Seems like I ain’t been nobody’s dear for a while, don’t it?” The child was six or seven years old at most. “Hello, lady? Fucking raining out here?”

At any other time, what she was witnessing would have made Mrs Brim slam the door and scream till somebody came. But tonight she saw herself stepping back from the doorstep and beckoning them in. Whatever fear she still felt, whatever confusion, it couldn’t dam the terrible pity that flooded her when the foul-mouthed, battered little girl finished speaking and, with childishness restored to her face, she reached out with the unbroken hand to pat the horse’s belly.

Mrs Brim edged away into the furthest corners of the kitchen as the visitors dismounted and approached (the girl slid off the horse like a drop of water). The man, stumbling and apparently only half-conscious, got as far as the stoop before slumping down there to rest, rain be damned. Between horse and house he’d produced a whiskey bottle from somewhere, and now he swigged from it as he slouched in his misery. The girl was livelier. She threw down her little rucksack and started hopping from foot to foot near the Aga, as if trying to warm herself. Her useless broken arm wiggled obscenely at the wrist as she danced about.

Without taking her eyes from them, Mrs Brim scooped up her big old mobile and rang Duncan twice, three times. No answer. She scratched at the scabby cap of an insect bite on her elbow. Then she reached for her diabetes tablets and swallowed a couple. It was a pointless thing to do, but somehow the act of taking medicine was reassuring. She’d been doing it a lot lately.

This injured child, this sorrowful man – they’d turned up here broken and lost, but apparently neither of them wanted anything from her. They seemed to perform one action at a time, with no ambition for its consequence. The man sat on the stoop, sighing and swigging. The girl hopped at the cooker. Events only progressed as Mrs Brim thought of them. The child’s broken wrist made horrible juicy clicking noises whenever she lifted it.

Mrs Brim bent down near to the girl, but not too near. “What are your names?” she said.

“Our names?” the girl replied, in the woman’s voice. “This feller here’s Rahul. He’s experiencing some severe psychological complications due to a wife in a collapsed building situation. As for me – Freddie said her name’s Sweetie. Least, that’s the name he heard them call her by in the mall. Sweetie. I am that, right?”

What did that mean? Whose voice was this? Was she possessed?

“Oh,” said Mrs Brim. “Oh.” She was old and spooked, but she was no fool. She thought she knew what was happening here. She knew what this meant. It was time.

“Are you here to – take me?” she said. “Am I – am I passing on?”

The girl doubled up and endured a minute of smoker’s cough. “What?” she said, when it was over.

“Am I dead?”

The girl turned her head and spat, but nothing came out. “Doubt it. You’re here talking to me, ain’t you?”

“Are you dead?”

“Fuck should I know? I just stepped out of a horse’s ass in a place I don’t know.”

None of this convinced Mrs Brim that this wasn’t the moment of her passing. She looked at the child. When she wasn’t speaking, she was beautiful. The awfulness of her condition – her torn dress, her crushed wrist, her bruised face. It was unbearable.

“Listen, my dear,” said Mrs Brim, not caring now who or what she was speaking to. “Did someone take you?”

The girl, or maybe it was her demon, shrugged off the question.

“Who hurt you? Talk to me. Who hurt you?”

The child lifted its tender face. In this light the bruise looked more green than black. “You asking who hurt me?” she said. “Or the kid?”

Mrs Brim left a message after the fourth call. She didn’t want to worry Duncan, she said, but she was feeling a bit funny so she wondered if he could call in. There was nothing to worry about, she said, but if he could call in, if he had time, that might be nice. Then, without actually laying a finger on the man, she gently encouraged Rahul to the sofa, where he sat and stared at his dust-sleeved hands. He’d do that for a while, then bring his hands to his face, choke back a single sob, pick up the bottle, take a glug, and then go back to staring at his hands. There was a pattern to it. If Mrs Brim’s attention hadn’t been so consumed by the child, she might have noticed that it was one of absolute repetition, with the sob-and-swig occurring exactly once per minute, as if his behaviour were running on a loop. Sweetie sat dangling her feet girlishly on an armchair. Mrs Brim had given her a cup of juice, which she sipped but which never appeared to deplete for it. When the girl looked over at Mrs Brim she smiled as politely as a child in church; whatever jaded adult spirit had occupied her earlier lay dormant now. Cars passed the house at a suburban rate. Each time one approached, Mrs Brim got up and went to the porch. All she knew to do now was to hope Duncan was on his way. But he never did pull in. Eventually Mrs Brim got tired of the hoping, and the scuttling to and from the porch, so she settled on the armchair next to Sweetie. The fattened eye above the horrible bruise had been forced closed, so at first Mrs Brim, on Sweetie’s far side, couldn’t tell when the other eye closed too as the little girl fell asleep. When she did understand that she’d drifted off, Mrs Brim moved to look at the child from the front. Were these ghosts? What else could they be? Was any of this actually happening? She’d seen dementia do its awful work on Tom, but where the disease had picked apart her late husband’s consciousness, age had frozen her own mind into clear and depthless body of water. She did not believe she would hallucinate. So who were these people? The questions refreshed and repeated themselves in her mind again and again, until fatigue grew too large and the words lost their meaning. Sweetie’s snoring sounded like somebody blowing through a straw. Mrs Brim slowly, slowly went down on her knees before the child. That the girl had been abused was obvious. But what brought the old lady finally to tears wasn’t the evidence of evil done to her but the innocence that remained just as plain in the face despite that evil. This girl, whoever she was – she was marked by hurt, but hurt couldn’t define her.

Mrs Brim stared at Sweetie’s happy sleeping face; behind her came the clockwork sniff and sob of Rahul’s repetitive mourning. There was nothing for the old woman to do now but wait for whatever would come next. Her knees ached, but it didn’t matter. She doubted Duncan would come tonight. He could have turned out better. That didn’t matter much either. Still on her knees, Mrs Brim closed her eyes, and the world told her its sad and endless name. She’d be found in exactly that position the next afternoon, alone, an hour after Duncan finally checked his messages. The back door was still open. Rain spattered the kitchen floor. Farrell’s horse bucking around in the field out back.

(C) Martin Cornwell 2013

Everything was possible so nobody did anything at all

First published by Notes From The Underground in December 2012

The party was in a disused office block off Mare Street, sound tracked by a legendary Euro-DJ that Simon had never heard of. There had been no invitations and no explicit promotion of the event beforehand. Dunc had found out about it by ear-mail at seven, by ten he had convinced Simon to come and meet him here out East, and by midnight the pair of them had found the venue via a rolling bulletin of in-eye directions sent to Dunc by an unnamed party organiser that they did not know and would never knowingly meet. It was one of those kinds of parties. For ten minutes they had banged on a blood-red iron door at the back of the apparently empty building while chopping their hands against the cold and holding their jackets over their heads to keep dry. Simon became sceptical and told Dunc he’d been sold a dummy, but Dunc was insistent. Simon toe-poked the door one more time, his hands like snowballs in his jean pockets. Another two suspended minutes. And then at last a low grinding sound, like an old, 20th-century elevator descending, and the iron door opening out to what was indeed a works shaft. From inside the car a tall Afro-Caribbean man in a long leather coat gestured at them to enter, which they did. Evening, gentlemen, the guy said as he sloughed closed the grate. He had a BRKLYN accent. This was for some reason not surprising. Actually, it seemed appropriate.

The lift shaft rumbled through the dead storeys, the booming techno growing louder and more visceral as they ascended. The trench coat guy sat on a bar stool by the lift’s door and stared into the middle distance. Dunc looked at the man’s eyes, which had turned a blurred milk white, iris and all. Dunc made an open/closing gesture with his palms to demonstrate to Simon that the guy was reading a book. Dunc and Simon stood side by side in the lift, trying not to grin. This was the coolest thing either of them had ever done. The lift stopped at the sixteenth floor. There, the guy pulled open the gated doors onto pulsing white/blue lights and an arterial beat that made their teeth hum. Simon and Dunc gave the lift guy a manly nod, then ran into the room and onto the dance floor like schoolboys towards a swimming pool.

An hour later they were leaning on a windowsill with a beer in each hand, sweating thinly, meditating on the room. The dance floor was a welt of moving bodies, with the taller punters’ bobbing heads occasionally visible above it. The bar was an equally crowded mess, as rude and baying as the Hard Stock Exchange, full of thirsty males shouldering forward, waving their tenners at the bar people, not waiting their turn. And between the two, streams of young people wandered around, all of them Simon and Dunc’s age or thereabouts, and all of them cool as glass in their carefully careworn clothes and big spectacles.

Dunc turned to Simon. “Seen any New Eton birds in here?” he shouted over the music.

Simon laughed. “Mate, you are not going to pull a New Etonian, not here or anywhere else.”

Dunc half-shrugged, half-smiled. “What can I say? I promised my nan I’d marry up, rest her soul.”

“You’d know if there were any about. They’d have fifteen admirers each hanging off them – even the blokes. Anyway this place is probably a bit beneath them.” Simon drained off one of his beers and jiggled the empty at Dunc. “Shallow waters up ahead, captain.”

“Ahoy hoy.”

As Dunc muscled into the bar queue, Simon sucked on his spare beer and looked out the office window at the skyline over LDN. From this height, the lights of streetlamps and nightclubs looked dinky and festive, and made the city look romantic in a way that it hadn’t felt for the longest time. In contrast, the river was visible as a black absence of light, whose contours were marked by the position of the buildings along its flanks, by the big old bridge at this end of town, and then, further West, by Parliament and the Millennium Eyes. From this high up, Simon could even see the longtrains pulsing in and out of Waterloo from towns across the country, in from Brighton, out to Cambridge, in from LDS. But even at this height he couldn’t escape the sight of rain. It had been coming down for weeks now, not just over LDN but across the whole nation. It had been over a month, for instance, since the sky had been clear enough for advertisers to project onto. And didn’t the public just know about that. Every day for a fortnight the news had been full of dire warnings from business leaders about market collapse if the weather didn’t break – or rather, if the government didn’t do something to make the weather break. Which of course was countered by lame ministerial retorts that the government had no resources to address the ongoing issue in terms of the meteorological slump until business jumpstarted the economy again by doing its bit in terms of advertising. Meanwhile the public didn’t believe a word of it. LDN was the supposed to be the wealthiest city on earth – it was easily the most expensive, anyway. It was the hub of global finance, the home of the googolplectically rich. The flashes of white that could be seen through even this night-time cloud cover weren’t sheet lightning but the after burn of super-jets shuttling super-businessmen between the US and China for meetings, squash games; and the UK got a lick of cream every single time one of those flights passed over her airspace. Bullshit was there no money for decent weather. It was a fucking conspiracy, Simon told Dunc. Keep the little people wet and miserable, hike up rents so they’re too busy working to plan a revolution, and the elites, especially Dunc’s lovely fantasy New Eton dolly, will be quids in.

“You’re spilling beer on my shoes,” said Dunc, righting the bottle in Simon’s hand. “However I would also add: shut up about the fucking weather and let’s see about some of these hipster girls.”

“Ah, come on,” said Simon. “They’re not going to be interested in us either. I’m already drunk, and you, you’ve got a goatee beard.”

“Well we don’t have to talk to them, do we?” said Dunc. To his right on the windowsill was a girl in a very oversized Misfits vest, with blond hair cut into an asymmetric bob, as per. She was undeniably pretty. She was facing slightly away from Dunc, talking to a group of three friends. Dunc got out his phone and held it near the girl’s hip pocket, where a square-looking bulge indicated she kept her own device. Dunc’s phone flashed a dull green as he pointed it at the pocket. A moment later the girl, clearly having felt the thing buzzing with new notifications, pulled it out and read the profile. As she did so, Simon watched Dunc smooth down the fangs of his beard with his fingers, jerk loose his shoulders, put on a friendly smile. The Misfits girl looked at Dunc for less than a second before clapping closed the phone. Then she stood away from the windowsill and drew into her friendship circle, her back to both Dunc and Simon.

“Oh hush now, she don’t deserve you anyway,” said Simon in a mock-Southern US accent.

Dunc spoke to the back of the girl’s head. “Oop. Sorry about that. Wrong number.” Then, turning to Simon: “Right you bastard, watch this.”

Dunc went back to the mass of humans by the bar and Beeped at the backsides and purses of every woman standing there. Then he edged on to the dance floor, Beeping as he went, incorporating the profile-dissemination into his disco moves. He Travolta’d an arm diagonally in 2/4 time, Beeping at people all the while. He spun around on the toes of one foot, miming machine gun fire as he Beeped. By now he was declaring his availability to anyone in range, male or female. Simon watched as all around the room, people made urgent by new media dived into their pockets or bags. (The men were particularly alert to what they thought was incoming amorous info, Simon noticed. A lot of them had been dancing with their phones in their hands the whole time – but to be fair, he admitted internally, so had he and Dunc. The thought disgusted him mildly.) Simon gestured to Dunc that he was going for a piss. Dunc, who was straightening an imaginary bow-tie and smiling aristocratically to the general space around himself, waiting for responses to his Beeps, ignored him.

The urinals were retro to say the least. While he went, Simon’ drunken mind spun, but soon landed on the thought that he was not having much of a time up here, that he never did have much of a time at any party, really. Within a second, though, it had flown again and lit down, apparently randomly, on the memory of Julia, and the realisation that he hadn’t heard from her lately. Breaking up had been the right thing for Simon and her to do – he knew that. The relationship had been going nowhere for a long time. For months it had been hanging around up there, circling on a current of air, just waiting for someone to bring it down and allow its tired but euphoric passengers finally to step down into their new lives. In Julia’s case, that new life involved moving to Scotland and becoming engaged to a media-trained oceanographer. For Simon it had meant staying in the same job and coming home to an empty flat. Most of the time he was fine, but sometimes, sometimes, after a four-pack and a Friday night comedy torrent, Simon would creep into a hole with the old ache and hurt for Julia‘s absence. Pitching to and fro at the urinal, trying to dissolve the little yellow pill in the pan, Simon could feel the dull weight of that low mood leaning into him tonight.

He’d finishing pissing, he didn’t know when. When he looked up, he saw his neighbour at the trough was looking down at his inactive member.

“Almost as handsome as yours, ain’t it?” said Simon, zipping up. On the way out he clapped the guy on the back, kinda hardish to be honest. “You have a good night.”

You had to hand it to Dunc, because his tactic had worked. When Simon saw him again, he was talking to a very young-looking girl back over at the window. Simon guessed she must have been foreign, maybe over from the Continent for the night or something, since she and Dunc were evidently conversing through their phones’ translators. Dunc would say something into his phone then hold it to the girl’s ear; she’d giggle or frown or smile or whatever at what he’d said, then speak her response into her own phone and hold it out for Dunc. Simon knew that’d be the last he saw of Dunc for at least an hour, and that when he did finally return, the girl would have brought over some acquaintance that he – Simon – would have to make effortful translated small talk with for who knew how long. And he just did not have that in him. So Simon just jotted a brief in-eye to Dunc to say he was leaving, and made for the grinding old lift. He took a last look at Dunc on the way out, and saw him give a thumbs-up to the space above his head, acknowledging the text for Simon‘s benefit, wherever he was. Dunc didn’t actually look up from the girl’s face.

*

You can do anything, so why not do everything? The Tube ad blinked on and off above Simon’s head like a light bulb. It wasn’t even clear what the ad was promoting, consisting as it did of just that one statement, nothing else. Simon stared at the ad without thinking anything about it as such. Then, for a mad minute before the train pulled into KGX, he thought about getting off there, just splurging his wages on a longtrain ticket and surprising Julia up in Scotland. He knew she would like the surprise, especially since she’d done the same thing to him last year soon after the oceanographer had proposed. Simon had been genuinely touched that he was the first person she’d wanted to tell. But when KGX did scroll into view he’d faltered, stayed sat down. The whole thing had suddenly just seemed like too much effort. And let’s face it, he thought, he could hop on a longtrain any time he fancied. He could do that kind of thing any time at all. There was no need to do it right now. Simon bungeed in and out sleep as the old train rumbled through the five stops between here and his home station. In the streets above him, the rain water folded into the drains in muscular coils. Meanwhile, the lives he could have lead and could still lead multiplied like fractals and invisibly shot and arced through everything, everywhere, all at once.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2012

Shell

First published by Paragraph Planet on 15 November 2013

I walk to the boat across a low-tide carpet of mud. It’s nothing much, just a fifteen-foot fibreglass shell. But it belongs to me. I sit in it till the water comes in. The tide lifts us, balances us, centres us. We’re more than a quarter of a mile from land. When what’s there is found I can still hear the screams, but water and distance calm us, keep us from what they mean.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2013

Big day

First published on 2 July 2013 by Paragraph Planet

He had the box with the product and the wires. I had the box with the product and the patent for the product, but not the wires. He wanted to talk about it over coffee. I said here’s fine. He said he had an offer I might find  interesting. I said I doubt that very much. The big man showed up calling okay which one of you fellers wants to make me happy.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2013

Fable

Later we discovered that it was her own animal that had killed her. She’d had to keep it in a cage in her flat since she moved to the city. She felt bad about that, but what choice did she have? She had to work. At night she brought it treats and sang it to sleep – I’d heard her at the mic on office nights out; she had a decent voice on her – but it wasn’t enough. She used to live by the sea. The animal, recalling evenings running along the beach, had rose in rage and pulled her to itself through the bars.