A Sam at every table

The first people I told about Sam’s death were a married couple sitting in the bar of the hotel where my girlfriend worked. I’d gone in to meet her but she was running late, and when Mr and Mrs Jones saw me sitting alone without a drink, they bought me one. Mr Jones was a gregarious Welshman with a profound love of the band ‘Joy Division’, as evidenced by his Unknown Pleasures shirt and a key fob. Mrs Jones was significantly younger than her husband and even more Welsh. She talked at length about their journey to Aberystwyth from Newport. I’d been to Newport once to get my passport renewed last-minute, so when she asked if I’d ever visited I said no, because I’m a firm believer in keeping silent when you’ve nothing nice to say.

We chatted for a while about their holiday, and my experience of being an Englishman living in Wales, but conversation dried up pretty quickly and, not wanting to seem aloof, I offered up an explanation for my reticence.

‘I just found out my oldest friend killed himself yesterday.’

Delivered without preface it probably seemed blunt, but the prevailing euphemism- ‘committed suicide’- just sounds too much like something you’d read from a scroll of parchment for me to take seriously. They gaped when I explained that I had received a call at work just a few hours before, and Mrs Jones welled up. I was unprepared for tears; I didn’t cry when I found out, and during the funeral I was too self-conscious, my doubt crippling me in the same way that erectile dysfunction compounds itself over time.

‘That,’ she said, dabbing at her eyes, ‘is absolutely bluddy traagic that is.’ I bit my lip to avoid laughing at her accent, an action that Mr Jones mistook for an internal struggle with churning emotion. He laid a powerful hand on my shoulder and asked me how it had happened. When I told him he nodded sagely and said, ‘Just like Ian Curtis’.

I’m not sure why people ask how it happened. It’s not that I don’t understand the curiosity- if Noah hadn’t told me over the phone I would have obsessed over it- it just surprises me that people are comfortable asking. As someone who doesn’t always have the keenest social instinct, it makes me wonder what the appropriate level of detail is when discussing death. If you were to tell me your Aunt died recently, I’m allowed to ask how. But if you told me she died in a car accident, can I ask you how fast she was driving?

This skein of morbid curiosity holds true for the note as well. As few as 25% of suicides leave a note, and although Sam apparently left three, I don’t know what any of them said. I think I expected to find out at some point but I’m not sure by what medium I was imagining his parents would distribute them. When a friend of mine first mentioned the probable existence of a note, I had a visceral reaction, like a cord tightening between my stomach and my temples. For some reason I panicked, thinking, ‘What if he mentioned me?’ A second later I felt it again as I thought, ‘He almost certainly didn’t.’

The funeral was a traditional affair held at the church where Sam’s parents volunteer. He had an eclectic taste in companions, and there were any number of dreadlocked, tie-dyed acid burnouts in the congregation along with the jobbing musicians, semi-professional jugglers and gypsies. Sam had been evasive about his own religious sympathies, but it’s likely that there were more pagans and wicca in the Church than Christians, so when the priest invited us to pray with him, there was a moment of nervous shuffling as we looked at one another as if to say, ‘Is this mandatory?’

Amens were thin on the ground.

When it finished, the family went to the crematorium while the assembly piled into a large hall with a bar. We disected the last times we had seen Sam and how he had behaved, if there was anything especially morose that should have given it away. We got drunk and made one another promise to say if we ever had suicidal thoughts. I received an undeserved share of attention and sympathy from people who remembered how close Sam and I had been at school. I counted the people who would be invited to my funeral if I died tomorrow and was disappointed by the number I came up with.

We told stories about Sam from his early teen years, and on the next table they told stories from his University years. His family reminisced about his childhood and we all recounted different plans we thought he’d had for his future. I had a vivid picture of Sam as I had last seen him, drinking from the bottle at a christmas party, sitting with us and listening in. Mid-teens Sam was across the room with some girls who remembered him as their first boyfriend while the musicians recalled a longer haired Sam patiently teaching them the chords for his latest eight minute metal ballad.

We drank steadily for as long as the bar was willing to stay open, and one by one the different groups left, taking their ideas of Sam with them. There was a book that people were signing, and I hung around waiting for inspiration until I was the only one left. Eventually his parents came back to clear up, and I scribbled the kind of nonsense you’d see in a highschool year book, before leaving and taking my last, fixed idea of Sam with me.

Waiting for the man

I used to buy my pot from an enterprising teenager called Ian. I suppose any self-employed teenager is enterprising really, but Ian was different to the other teenaged dope-slingers I patronised, in that he cleverly tried to franchise me. After a few months of meeting him in a parking lot between the nice side of town and his side of town he came to understand that, unless I was a particularly high-functioning drug addict, I must be supplying a small group of friends and acquaintances. I’m sure this is the norm everywhere; every group of pot smoking friends includes at least one person who knows what number to call, what password to use, which parking lot to wait in. For my group of friends that person was me, and so once or twice a week I’d receive a few of calls, I’d make a few of calls, and I’d head across town to meet some guy, usually Ian, and buy everyone’s pot. I would often arrive home after one of these jaunts to find my extended friendship group in my living room, waiting for me to distribute wrapped presents like an unseasonal Santa Claus.

‘Ho ho ho. For you Jasper, an effective sedative for your chronic back pain. For Nathan, a temporary escape from a life you didn’t choose. For Sarah, the only means by which you can sleep! Ho ho ho, merry Wednesday!’

Over three years of concentrated activity I estimate that I walked back and forth from that parking lot two hundred times- about one hundred and fifty miles- carrying a kilo and a half of Cannabis. When another dealer I used, a guy from school called Tom, ditched his moped for a used Fiat Punto, my flatmate and I did the maths and realised that between us we’d paid for the upgrade.

None of this made me any money of course. Aside from the occasional courtesy joint it scored me, my wanderings were strictly pro bono and it was this fact that Ian picked up on when he attempted to make me an outlet for his brand.

‘All you’d have to do is what you’re doing already,’ he’d tell me, seemingly reasonable, ‘only, you’d be making money out of it.’

When I asked him how this was possible I felt like the wide eyed patsy you see in infomercials on late night TV.

“Gee sir,” some hopeless schlub says to a pastel suited presenter with shockingly white teeth, “I’ve heard of people earning good money, working from home while they sleep, but I don’t know how it works”.

“Well,” says the presenter, adjusting his mask which slipped momentarily to reveal the poisonous lizard beneath, “all you need is a cellphone and a pragmatic attitude to your colon”.

I wasn’t earning great money in my legitimate job back then, so the idea of becoming a freelance drug dealer on the side held some appeal. I was working at a local supermarket, where I held the illustrious title of ‘Chief Dressing Agent’. This mostly involved putting toys and sweets at child-eye height so they’d bug their parents to buy them, or hiding the toilet paper at the back of the store so you have to walk past every other product before you can buy it. We put smaller tiles on the floor in the meat section so the clacking of the wheels of your trolley seems faster and you slow down. That fresh bread smell near the bakery? Are they baking bread all day or did some clever person bottle the smell so we could pump it out? I was sent on biannual training days where, after the name tags and the ice-breaker questions, we had to declare how often we completely changed the layout of our store.

‘Disorient them,’ we were told, ‘spin them round until the only thing they can remember is the word “buy”.’

 The deceptions were manifold.

All of which is to say, there was no moral component to my descision making process at the time. I figured that if it was permissable for me to double the price of selected items and then half them the following week in order to honestly advertise them as ‘half price’, then selling pot to those that wanted it was, at worst, morally grey.

I don’t know what Ian does these days. If this was a dramatic story, he’d have worked to the top of a cocaine empire by now, and if there was going to be a moral he’d be dead or in jail. Probably it’s neither. Probably he quit when the clientele in that small town got too much younger than him. At least one dealer I knew went to University, leaving the business in the hands of his younger brother. Another put her profits towards a little coffee place where you can get a free latte if you intimate darkly what you know about her past.

I didn’t start selling pot on Ian’s behalf, because I didn’t like the hours or the idea of having a quota. It was a hobby that I didn’t particularly want to monetise, and I’m glad I kept it that way. I was strictly pro bono.

The Sellafield Cull

Matt was trying to sound polite, but the steady drumming of rain on the small hut’s tin roof meant he was having to shout down the phone to be heard. He rolled his eyes at Kevin, who smirked.

‘YES SIR, WE UNDERSTAND OF COURSE BUT… NO, YOU’RE RIGHT, BUT…’

He had been talking for at least a quarter of an hour and it was clear that managment weren’t going to change their minds. Outside the hut some lads down for work experience were huddled under the awning, smoking roll-ups and murmuring darkly about their lot in life.

‘BUT IT’S STILL THE CASE THAT WE’RE NOT TRAINED TO… WELL I’M NOT SAYING INCAPABLE, I’M SAYING UNTRAINED…’

Kevin filled their small electric kettle and stuck his head out the door.

‘Who’s for tea?’

The young lads nodded and handed back their polysteyrene cups for refills.

‘Won’t be long now.’

He put bags in their cups, and in the mugs he and Matt brought from home, ‘Worlds Best Step-Dad’ and ‘Windermere Half-Marathon 2004’. The kettle started it slow chug towards boiling.

‘WELL, IF IT’S DECIDED… NO, THERE’S NOT REALLY ANYTHING ELSE TO SAY ABOUT IT SIR. THANK YOU FOR HEARING ME OUT ANYWAY SIR. WILL DO. GOODBYE.’

Matt pocketed his phone. ‘You’ll never guess what.’

‘We’re going ahead?’

‘We’re bloody going ahead. We’re only bloody doing some other buggers work for the day to save the firm, what, four hundred quid?’ He hissed through his teeth and touched the side of the kettle. ‘Gets slower every bloody day,’ he muttered.

‘Will the lads help out? Are they allowed?’ asked Kevin, heaping sugars into the mugs.

‘Well, I didn’t ask,’ said Matt, ‘because if you don’t ask…’

‘They can’t say no,’ finished Kevin.

‘Right. We’ll take them with us and if management don’t like it, it’s knickers to them cos they didn’t say not to.’

Kevin nodded.

‘Not to mention,’ continued Matt, ‘that the five us can get it done a damn sight quicker than just you and me could.’

‘Alright,’ said Kevin, as the kettle began to rumble and shake, ‘but do we have enough guns?’

************

The van bumped along the track, rain pelleting the roof.

‘Are they up for this do you reckon?’ Kevin asked.

Matt looked in the rearview mirror at the three teenagers piled into the back.

‘Molsey’s got a decent head on his shoulders. He can shoot first. Weller’s alright, even if his old man’s a management ponce. McKullicker…’

They glanced surreptitiously at McKullicker, who was rolling another cigarette.

Matt pulled a face. ‘Do you want to be the one who hands that little psycho a rifle- even an air rifle?’

Twisting round in his seat, Kevin faced the young men.

‘Here’s the set-up. First, McKullicker, you can’t smoke in the van. Management have spies everywhere.’ They all looked at Weller, who blushed and picked at his thumbnail. ‘Second, it’s a bastard days work we’ve got ahead of us and there are only three rifles. That means three shooters and two baggers, gathering and bagging the bodies to be disposed of… elsewhere.’

The lads looked at one another, Molsey raising a hand.

‘Aren’t there professional’s who do this sort of thing?’

Kevin and Matt shared a dark look.

‘Course there are. Happens to be on this occasion that top brass don’t want to spend the money when they’ve got bright young things like yourselves at their disposal. Now, a word on safety…’

McKullicker hawked loudly. ‘Not another effing lecture. We’re in an effing nuclear power station; you really think we’re in any danger firing pellet guns?’

Kevin closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘I think we might all be in danger if you’re the one firing McKullicker. Luckily, you’ll be bagging first, so we’ll have a while before we find out.’ The others snickered and McKullicker slumped, sticking his cigarette behind his ear.

They pulled up at a small concrete building near the perimeter fence. Pulling their collars high, Kevin and Matt sprinted through the downpour to the door and fumbled the key, swinging the groaning door inwards. A short cord lit a single naked bulb.

‘Not going to let up today is it?’ said Matt, wringing out his fringe.

Kevin was hunting through the shelves of cleaning chemicals and traffic cones. The gun rack was improvised from an old trestle table, and they found it at the back of the room with a few tubs of roach poison and some rusted rat traps.

‘Looks like we have enough pellets,’ said Kevin, rattling a tin. ‘Old Dil left a couple of thousand here when he retired.’

‘How are the guns looking?’ asked Matt, squinting in the dark.

Kevin slung a rifle over his shoulder and turned quarter profile, half illuminated in the dusky shade.

‘Well need some plastic bags and a broom,’ he said.

************

There was a vague tarry smell in the van and Kevin eyed McKullicker suspiciously as he clambered out. Matt led them into the warehouse through the small service entrance, stepping deliberately through the gloom.

‘What do you reckon Kev? Three hundred?’

Kevin rubbed his neck, and waited for his eyes to adjust.

‘Five hundred easily.’ Both frowned and the younger men stared into the rafters where the pigeons shuffled and rucked for space in one seething avian body.

‘Blimey,’ whispered Weller reverentially. ‘And we’re supposed to…’

Matt nodded ‘The whole lot.’

‘Sometimes we get a dozen or so roosting in the eaves of the offices,’ said Kevin, ‘and we have to take care of them, hence the rifles. Never had to do this many though.’

They stared at the dozily cooing birds.

‘Thing is,’ continued Kevin, ‘some of them have also been roosting in the reprocessing plant, and now they’re about as radioactive as three mile island.’

The younger men looked to one another and shrugged.

‘They’re very radioactive is the point. It’s a danger to the community and such and such.’

Matt, who had been sighting down the rifle’s barrels now loaded the first and passed it to Kevin. ‘Who’s up first? Molsey?’

Molsey blanched. ‘I don’t think I’m the man for the job here. I’ve never killed anything before.’

Matt snorted and turned to Weller. ‘You game?’

Weller held his hands up. ‘Bloody hell, I mean… I’m a vegetarian. I’ve been on fox hunting protests. I don’t even wear leather.’

McKullicker reached out. ‘I’ll do it.’

When Matt hesitated, McKullicker snatched the rifle. ‘I’m not going to shoot anyone in the arse y’know.’ He cocked the weapon and felt the stock into his shoulder. ‘Quicker we start the quicker we’re done.’

He held out his hand and Kevin passed him a tin of shells. ‘You know what you’re doing with that I suppose?’

McKullicker cocked and loaded his weapon. ‘I think I’m saving the town from radioactive pigeons with an air-rifle. That about right?’

(Feedback is always very welcome. Today I’d especially like to know if this ending felt like it tailed off, and how well the dialogue was handled. Cheers, J Patrick Barton) 

Eryswyt, 1

Only the silhouetted manor house and a scattering of smaller buildings beyond are visible in the ruddy starlight and there is nothing, no tree or shrub, to mark the distance that the old traveller has covered. He drives his shovel into the soft turf, bracing against its handle and catching his breath as he gazes impassively at the yawning galaxy above. There are no familiar constellations and he cannot come to terms with a sky so ranged in colour, alien stars shining in seams tinted rust and ice across his field of vision. He shakes his head, refusing the uneasy image.

The grass is even in every direction for acres, the land flat and unremarkable. Here is as good as any place so he sets to work with the shovel, marking out a rectangle six feet long, three across. His muscles are long spent, reclaimed by the tidal forces of his wearied body, but his sinews remain, and the sinews remember the work. He sets the shovel aside and takes up his adz, removing neat squares of turf and piling them up like a mayan pyramid, exposing the temperate soil beneath. To dig, motion following motion, is pressed into him as totally as the folds that have pressed into his face over ages; as ancient nebulae surge and churn above in their vast, illimitable passages, so the old man works at the land.

With the soft turf removed there is a shadow doorway into the ground, a vacancy which he attends with pneumatic motions of the shovel. It’s yielding, keen even, and rather than tiring he grows more energized, throwing load after load over his narrow shoulder and falling into the intuitive rhythm adopted decades before. A mound forms behind him as he scrapes away, and soon he is in knee-deep. He beats the vertical edges of the pit with the flat of the shovel and they stay as straight and firm as if they were cut from clay, as if the grave was something he was discovering rather than making. No breeze stirs the air and there is no sound in the darkness other than the obediently crumbling soil and his sharp breaths. When the shovel strikes solid, the shock flares throughout his body and leaves him empty. He falls, suddenly kneeling in the pit, and cups his hands to scoop a little of the soil; sure enough there is metal beneath, stippled with small nozzles and teats to dripfeed nutrition into the artificial earth. He lays down  upon his back, the lip of the grave just deep enough to level with the tip of his nose, and waits.

(As always, detailed feedback would be great. Especially for tone with this one, and what you thought of the payoff.) 

We’re not done.

…………………b..t……can’t………………………..pro..is..e………………….to……………………………..tell………………..literally……..all..we..have…………………………………………………suspect..thrill…is…………….wh..t………to……..raging…round………….in..what..we..see…….drive..down..to……inghim..shi.the..weekend..once..you’re……………and..about..desire..next..year…..mouth……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Hel..o? He….o? ……lo?

I thought I saw you move for a moment there. Like your cheek twitched or something. Maybe. The doctor’s said not to rule it out. Well, one of them did, the nice one I told you about, the young lady doctor. That other one you had, the older gent, he said- well, he didn’t mind pissing on our parade let’s say.

Are you in there John? Did you twitch or not? Can you feel my hand on yours now? I so want you to. I so want you to feel it. I bet if you can hear me then you can feel my hand as well. I choose to believe that you can. But if you can feel my hand then you can feel the restraints too and I need to apologise for that; I wish they weren’t necessary John, but there might be some involuntary movement. It can be dangerous, according to my research. There are all kinds of online forums for coma carers, people looking after catatonics or persistent vegetative states. I’m learning all the lingo. It helps.  You’re not done John. We’re not done.

Who knows what you’ll think when you open your eyes one day, try to sit, and find yourself tied to a hospital bed in your own basement. Sorry about that too, but this is the only place I could fit your equipment. You’ve got all kinds of machines keeping you going John, pumping stuff in, pumping stuff out. Wouldn’t want to get those two the wrong way round. If you can hear my voice then you can hear the little whirrings and beeps they make. Delicate things they are, but bulky. I have your room now. I must say, from the way you spoke about the house I imagined it bigger than this. I hardly had space for all my things when your stuff was still here.

Let’s not sugarcoat the situation John; I’m having to do everything for you, stuff a person’s own mother would shrink from doing. I don’t mind it though John, I don’t mind it at all. I’ve learnt all about the machines and how to maintain them, how to repair them if I need to. What would help you, what would hurt. When I checked you out from the hospital I told them we were going private from now on- my little white lie. I just didn’t want them intruding John, didn’t want doctor’s crawling all about the place, telling me how to care for you, telling me what’s in your best interests. They weren’t sorry to see the back of you John; caring for someone in your situation isn’t glamorous work, but when they didn’t find any living relatives, I think they assumed you’d be there forever. When I went in to, to ‘claim’ you as it were, they were overjoyed. They asked how we were related of course. I decided to say cousins in the end, which made the documents less trouble to produce. Another little white lie John, but I couldn’t leave you languishing there could I? Because we’re not done, are we John? No. Not for you to see out your days in a hospital bed when we could just as easily be here together.

And after all you’ve been through, well. Left for dead, but here you are. I had to come and find you after that. They talked me through your injuries John, as kindly as they could. That ugly word, torture. They had their own guesses as to what was used on you John, soldering irons, needles, hammers, knotted rope. Knotted rope? They didn’t need to tell me of course, I don’t think they even wanted to. It just spilled out of them, excrementally. I think it was a bit overwhelming for them, poor sensitive little dears. They even told the interns that you’d been in a car accident, to spare them. Can you imagine it?

Knotted rope though, now, I can’t imagine where they got that idea. I suppose the bull whip leaves a similar mark, but the lines aren’t as clear with rope. Are you in there John? Can you feel my hand on yours? I so want you to. I so want you to feel it.

(I would love comments on whether this piece works as a short horror story, if you think it is original, or any thoughts you have on the form- J Patrick Barton)