Home Alone

It’s been four days. I’ve stayed in the flat on my own before, but now I think maybe the whole building is empty. I haven’t passed anyone on the stairs. Nobody smoking in the doorway. The couple of inches of snow that fell last week has been trodden to black slush in town but up here, around my building, I can still see my lonely footprints in the whiteness.

There have been a string of murders in the news, which I’ve enjoyed. They break up the cycle of civil unrest, economic woes and child molestation that usually fills the headlines. Things too big or complex or dark to really follow. A good old-fashioned serial killer is timeless. This one leaves a note written in each victim’s blood, always the same: No Regrets. Nice touch.

There’s a damp patch by the fireplace in my room. Not blood but musty smelling water carrying strings of rust down to the skirting boards. I called the maintenance number and the phone rang and rang and rang…

I’ve started talking to myself throughout the day. More than is normal perhaps, although I don’t know what the norm would be. I have the same kind of discussions mostly, in repeat. I explain things to myself, like the principle of convection, as if there was someone else in the room who didn’t understand it well. I debate atheism with a version of me who is Christian. I don’t always convert him, but I do have him try to explain the presence of marine fossils on mountains tops. I deliver famous pieces of stand-up comedy as if I wrote them, to a small audience that can’t get enough of me. Are these the kinds of things I want to be doing for real, with other real people? Sometimes, especially when I’m cooking, I speak nonsense, saying words and phrases just to be making noise. In the last few days one phrase keeps coming back to me, and I say it over and over: No Regrets.

…and rang and rang and rang…

If there’s a crime in your house you have to clean it up yourself. Even if there’s a murder, you have to get rid of the blood and gore on you own, or call a specialist cleaning company. Most people assume that the police take care of it. I did. But if you think about it, no, of course they don’t.

…and rang and rang and rang…

I don’t think blood would wash out of wallpaper very easily. I bet they just paper over it. You could have pints and pints of blood splashed all over your walls under a layer of paint and you wouldn’t know. You could have all kinds of messages written on the wall right behind you. You don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. One loose corner of wallpaper, one little flap that you grab and, leaning back, peel from the wall with that tearing suction sound; and beneath? No Regrets? I want to find out if there have ever been any violent crimes in my building but the library is closed for the holidays. So I don’t know.

…and rang and rang and rang…

When I was at University we found a door-sized panel in the wall of our shared kitchen. It wasn’t hidden exactly, but we’d never noticed it because it was behind the fridge. We thought the panel might let us get into the girl’s flat next door, without alerting the warden. It took an hour to get all the old screws out of the wall, using a butter knife because none of us owned a screwdriver. The panel led to a small compartment. There was some wiring in there and a crisp packet from the 1980’s. It was fascinating. We gave up on the idea of sneaking next door and decided to close the compartment back up. I think we were humbled by the crisp packet. It was older than we were. It had been present for twenty years of academic study. We left it were it was, and added a canned pie. I don’t really know why we did that. It felt necessary. And now some new students are in that flat, ignorant of the crisp packet and the canned pie that are just a few inches behind their fridge. I don’t know why that makes me uneasy.

…and rang and rang and rang…

He struck again this week, but the mainstream media are losing interest. He hasn’t killed anyone very noteworthy or especially innocent or vulnerable. If he’s after attention he’ll have to up his game.

…and rang and rang and rang…

Oyster shells are the most common unexpected thing you find in old houses, under the floorboards and in the walls. The shells were once used to make Tabby, a kind of cement. If there are any ghosts haunting your house, they’re the ghosts of oysters. The shells would be crushed and burnt to release lime, but any that weren’t used would be left on the premises. That’s the story anyway; maybe an ancient global flood deposited them there.

and rang.

I’ve taken the matter into my own hands. The damp patch has been spreading outwards from its centre, swelling and darkening the surrounding plaster. The whole area bulges slightly as is something larval is gestating in there, oozing ruddy secretions down to the floor. The carpet came up easily enough, revealing broad fibreboard panels beneath. Every metre in every direction there’s the word ‘Masterson’. Not a message from a killer I don’t think- just the name of the manufacturer. I estimate that every day I’ve been walking over the word Masterson eighty times without realising. I don’t know why that makes me uneasy.

Under the fibreboard there were regular floor boards which I levered out with a crowbar and some sawing until half the room was a ribcage of running beams. No molluscs. It seems the damp hasn’t spread this far. I tried to look between the runners under the floorboards with a pocket torch, but my hands were slick with exertion and as I knelt down the torch slid from my hand and rolled beneath and away out of sight. I’ve decided to take up all the floor boards in order to retrieve it.

When I was about eleven years old something must have changed for my family and we started buying bigger things. There was a built-in cupboard in my new bedroom, still with the original wallpaper inside, 1960’s, broad petalled flowers in faded autumnal colours. The encroaching edges of wallpaper and paint from decades of redecoration were visible too, layers of it, a stratification. It was like an architectural archeology. My parents decorated the place in millennial shades of optimistic modernity, but I knew its true colours.

There’s been another killing but forensic experts are saying that neither the method nor the handwriting of the blood-scrawled note match. It seems there’s a copy-cat about, a producer of fan-fiction.

The torch had only rolled a few feet, but once immersed in the rhythm of the work I decided to persevere. Now all the boards are gone from this room and the first few feet of the hall, pitched from the kitchen window into the street, but I’ve stopped there so I can focus on the wall. Occasionally, when a glistening droplet squeezes from an unseen opening in the paper, the shimmering slide of its descent gives the impression of a pulse in the wall, or of something rolling in its sleep. I need to peel the wallpaper off to see the damage, but I’ve started at the opposite wall to have something to compare against. There were a few layers and I found messages almost immediately, pencil markings from a labourer writing measurements straight on to the plaster board.
The damp is probably from a leak in the flat above, a tap left running or a pipe burst in the cold. It’s hard to gauge what the upstairs flat will be like, maybe a few inches of water, maybe just a puddle. I imagine the flat to be flooded floor to ceiling, linen and kitchen ware floating free, rehydrated oyster shells eddying in a thin stream of bubbles issuing from the crack in the floor that leads down to here. Now that I’ve thought of it I can sense the weight of all that water above me. At night I imagine the ceiling collapsing in one crucial moment, a biblical deluge bursting in on me. I’ll have to tread carefully.
There was some light snow last night. My footsteps have been erased.
I took out all the floorboards everywhere and put them out the window. There was quite a bit of furniture that had to go first, my tv, bed, sofa, recliner, kitchen table, coffee table, shelving, book cases, night stand, desk, hamper, and wardrobe. That freed up some space and once I had them all out the window, the pile was nearly level with me. Under the bathroom floorboards I found a forty-year-old shred of newspaper. Forty years sitting there unknown. I shudder. To get at the bathroom boards I had to lever out the bath, shower, sink and toilet. All you really need to get by is one pipe for water and a bucket.
Two dead in Kilmersdon, No Regrets, one was the local mp. Back on the radar. Kilmersdon’s just down the road from here.
Bathroom tiles, kitchen tiles, wainscoting, skirting boards, fireplace (Benson and Benson moulded onto the dexter side of the fireplace mount), radiators, plug outlets, light fittings and switches. Unseen channels for wiring and pipes. Non-loading bearing walls that relinquish their status under force. Piles and piles of wallpaper. Plaster, plasterboard. The pile now towers over me and resembles some kind of Mayan pyramid. You just wouldn’t believe how much stuff is in the room with you. I’m going to keep looking.
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Teeth

The new thing is interdental brushes, brushes for getting in between the teeth.

‘But I already floss,’ I told my dentist, causing him to snort derisively.

‘Floss? Tell me friend, would you clean your car with waxed string?’

‘I don’t own…’

‘Your oven then, would you clean your oven with waxed string?’

I shook my head.

‘Of course you wouldn’t. That would be crazy. You’d use a brush.’

I considered this. ‘Or a sponge.’

He leaned all the way forward, forcing me back in the reclining chair.

‘You wouldn’t clean your teeth with a sponge.’ He pressed two packets of the tiny brushes into my hand and smiled. ‘Pay at the desk. See you in six months.’

A google search of ‘Most Common Nightmares’ shows that teeth crumbling, popping or otherwise cascading from the mouth is a fear that haunts the sleep of many people globally. This must be a spectacular boon to the dental industry, and in the waiting room I kept a lookout for advertising that might be employing some kind of subliminal effect. I suppose I was hoping for posters with slogans like “dream of white teeth” or the kind of optical illusions that look innocuous enough at first glance but turn into hideous death masks in your peripheral vision. But, nothing doing. Mainly the advertising showed women, twenty-somethings smiling coquettishly, thirty-somethings minding children, older women drinking coffee without difficulty. One, two, three, the stages of woman; young, mother, elderly. It’s hard not to infer the supposed trajectory of the average woman’s life from these images, and I’m left wondering at what age the painless consumption of high temperature drinks will become one of my chief concerns.  

I paid for the appointment and my new interdental brushes at the desk. The receptionist tried to add some impulse purchases to my basket, but her pitch was less effective than the dentist’s. Partly it’s her lack of formal training that lets her down; she can’t replicate the impression the dentist gives, of having been burdened with terrible knowledge, but also it’s her teeth. They’re too white, too straight. They’re so artificial that they look inexpert, like the kind of spray-tan that leaves the skin melonoma-orange. Maybe in California, where citizens are blinded by overbright sunshine, maybe there she could get away with teeth like these, but here, in Britain, her teeth are whiter than anything else we have around. Teeth like these make Britons realise that what we’ve been calling white all this time was actually a pale grey, and it’s this woman’s fault; she’s showing us up. But what really gets me worked up is that she’s obscurely proud, acting like she’s achieved something. She has the bearing of those lost souls who get addicted to body building and parade their hideous disfigurements as if they were something you should want, as if they were sex-symbols. I see them at the gym sometimes, watching me doing mild cardio and laughing at my skinny arms, while they sweat and hydrate, looking like a foreskin full of marbles.

On my way out of the clinic I hold the door open for an older man who’s clearly in for the works. His head is in a wrap-around brace, lips held in a stiff snarl by foam padding and hooks. Each one of his teeth to the molars is visible, streaked with rust looking stains, but worse than the colour is the texture; they’re porous, clearly porous and seemingly unrooted, sitting on the surface of the gums as precipitately as a lilo floating on the surface of a swimming pool. I can’t imagine what combination of smoking, red wine and sugar is required to do this to a set of teeth, but I note that he’s reasonably well dressed. He doesn’t look unclean. No strong odours. Can a lax brushing habit really get that bad, I wonder? Or maybe he’s an alcoholic? I’m suddenly gripped by an urge to accompany this guy to the dentist’s office. I want to point at the suppurating hole, with its tooth stumps and what I imagine will be a rigid and flaking tongue and ask, how? Exactly how? Could this be me? Was this preventable, or did this guy just fall foul of the Gods? I brush before bed, and I quit smoking; I have my mouthwash, I have my interdentals, I’ve got, god help me, the toothbrush that could double as a sex toy- tell me that this couldn’t be me.

But obviously I don’t do any of those things. This guy has it bad enough, without strangers using him as a yardstick for decay, and if I go back up there the dentist will use his condition to sell me more chemicals and even tinier brushes. I content myself to believe that the man was a plant; he’s the subliminal message telling me to keep shining my pearly whites, and he’s the nightmare creature who coughs handfuls of chipped and bloody enamel into all our outstretched palms at night.

Prahahaha

The city, oh the city lights are shining. The people-noise of life is through-the-looking-glass inverted here compared to home; in Britain we’re composed, moderate throughout the day, librarian hushed, people are trying to work. Then at night we uncork the bottles, release the spitting, spewing pressure valves and whistle shrilly like hobtop kettles boiling. We spill over the sides. But here they live during the day, morning’s unsticking of both their eyelids and their eyes, not buttoning anything down, touching cawing chewing their way through the sunlight hours. They flee before the moon, modest in the dark. In Prague all blackness is funeral solemn.

I followed the tram tracks for hours, hours, the routes spiralling, retracing sometimes, but moving away from the starting point. Which was a hostel, fourteen to a room, choices being cereal or toast in the morning, fruit tea or coffee in the afternoon, window open ice box or window closed skin breath sweat at night. Fourteen to a room.

You can’t follow tram routes, as it turns out. The lines diverge, converge, duck and weave. Anachronistic in the ankle-breaker cobbled roadways of the old city, a place of horse shoes and hay carts. More like tram roots, breaking through the ground, feeding an ancient iron tree somewhere in the middle, keep following and you’ll get there, you’ll get there eventually. But someone dropped breadcrumbs on your breadcrumbs.

prague foot

Should have ridden a tram, that’s the system, the system works. Get on at a, get off at b, people do it every day but now it’s too late; missed the opportunity, they’re all turned in for the night, all back in storage, turned into pumpkins to save space. Could have hopped on hours ago, hours, but the language, oh the language. Coming through Europe, Spain Italy France Germany Netherlands, a smooth transition, gradient speech, only ever slightly changed, the same friend in a lot of different pictures, always possible to pick up just enough, to recognise just enough words on a sign. Then, Welcome to the Czech Republic, or Vítejte v České republice and what is that? Not the Europe I know, practically a foreign country.

Will I ever get out? Is the maze fair or are the walls moving behind me? I crossed three bridges that all looked the same, same tarry river beneath, the slick fat slug that runs the city. Same beggar on either side, lying fully prostrate, face down, hands cupped before him. All you see are hands and coins, the rest is rags and fiction. He looked to be praying and now I’m praying too, a stranger in the house of god, a fairweather friend, let me out.

I’m looking everywhere for a word, letiste, meaning ‘freedom’, or ‘escape’ or ‘home’ or ‘airport’. It’s my way out but there are no people around to speak it, no light by which to see it written. I think I’ll die here, or no, I’ll rest, sit, stretch out, knees tucked in beneath me, face to the earth, hands out palms cupped skyward, and I’ll feel the tarmac grip me, clench, as I’m consumed, dissolved, claimed, until I’m just hands, a pair of hands overflowing with coins, a bundle of ragged clothes and an unused airline ticket.

hands

Save the Date!

Save the Date!

Announcing the Wedding of John Aspell Jr to Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg

Dear Friend,

You are cordially invited to attend the joyous union of my beautiful daughter Mary Therese Lansley-Hamptonburg and John Aspell Jr on April the 19th 2015 at 2.15 pm. Black tie only (of course!)

As you all know this day has been a long time coming, to say the least! John and Mary were first an item at University, for three wonderful weeks, and although fate led them in different directions then, it was only to bring them back together years later, in the luxurious retreat that John owns and where Mary has occasionally stayed. (and where celebrity residents have included such stars as Pete Doherty, Lindsey Lohn, and Amy Winehouse!)

I’ll have to be honest with you and say that, within the family, we weren’t entirely sure at first that John’s responsible asset management and Mary’s bohemian artist lifestyle would gel, but boy are we happy they did! John is truly the tether to my daughter’s balloon, keeping her firmly on the ground, no matter how hard she might try to float away!

Those of you who know this charming couple best will of course remember how supportive John was during a tough time in Mary’s life; over Christmas she was the victim of a terrible crime, her penthouse looted of every item of value and all her accounts plundered. Poor Mary was reduced to sleeping on a mattress, hardly eating, and all the while too proud to tell her mama and papa what had happened to her! I shudder to think what might have become of her if not for the sensible presence of John, who gladly put her up in his convalescence resort while he refurbished her home. It warms my heart to think of her so well cared for, especially as she has such terrible luck with this sort of thing. My husband sometimes reminds me of the number of times we’ve needed to replace our little girls television or laptop, although I do have to remind him of the number of valuable items that have gone missing from our humble abode over the years! What a world!

But now our Mary has a shining knight to guard over her, and she cries with anticipation for the Big Day! Almost around the clock! I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been a little emotional myself over the last week, the suddenness of it all being quite, quite overwhelming. But, ask John and Mary, and you’ll sense the urgency of the desire to marry; that’s their word urgent and I think it’s beautiful in these days of long engagements.

So, we’ll see you on April 19th, please RSVP. The couple have asked that instead of gifts, donations be made to the charity Action on Addiction.

Sincerely,

Mother of the Bride

Juggernaut

2:35 am

Hedge mazes don’t ever occur naturally- on this at least, we can agree. And a good thing too. What kind of creator god would be implied by a world featuring self-forming labyrinths? What sorts of religious worship would have developed around a Yaweh that made no efforts to hide his intention to mislead and waylay the human animal? And how would my own atheism have been challenged by such compelling evidence of intelligent design? Would atheism even be a legitimate stance in such a world? I briefly imagine Richard Dawkins indicating the looping course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve on a blackboard as clear evidence of evolution, and an archbishop shrugging in response. “But what about the mazes?”

Goddam, goddam, goddam, what was I just thinking? I’ve lost my thread, my… I’ve lost it. What about the mazes?

11 pm

‘…so we’ll head back to Jake’s cos he lives closest, that’s cool with you Jake right, I don’t want to like fffp assume, you know, I don’t want to just assume that we can, fffp that we can go back to yours but it’s just that your place is closest and fffp we’ve gotta get a bottle of water or something, we’ve just gotta, because this fffp is fffp giving me cotton mouth like a bitch fffp fffp and speaking of which I’m totally hogging it sorry, just fffp one more fffp there you go, shit I shouldn’t be smoking, I’m so dry, my mouth has that feeling like, like it’s so dry, and I don’t know I don’t think it’s even doing anything anyway, but anyway, plan, we were making a plan, we’ll head back to Jake’s place if that’s still cool Jake, and we’ll get some water and- is that a police car, guys hold up, seriously though, is it a… no, ha, it’s just a cab, shit I thought, well anyway, water, you know it’s annoying because when we were at Jake’s place earlier I thought “I’d better get some water if we’re gonna be smoking” and I grabbed, oh thanks, fffp, I grabbed an empty bottle and fffp  I went to the bathroom before we left cos I wasn’t sure how long we’d be out here and fffp and I took the bottle with me and fffp I was gonna fill it up from the tap, you know cos I almost always keep a bottle of water right here in my rucksack and… Oh shit. Ha ha, you guys won’t believe this.

9 pm

How are you doing?

Alright. Are your palms sweating?

Your palms are sweating?

Yours aren’t?

No.

Mine are a little bit actually. I hadn’t noticed.

I’m starting to feel a bit twitchy though.

Yeah.

Yeah, hella fucking twitchy.

You ok?

Yeah fine, just a bit like… I always get like this. Anxious.

But you have done it before?

Yeah, both us had some last summer.

It was about this time of year wasn’t it?

Pretty much yeah.

I don’t remember much about that night.

I’ve seen some photos.

Yeah. Fucking facebook.

We’re not going to get like that tonight though?

Have you not done it before?

Not exactly.

We’ll be fine if we don’t drink too much.

Best not to drink at all.

Ah.

You’ve already been drinking?

I had a few with dinner. Will that…

Shouldn’t make too much difference.

I’d stop now though.

Ok. I actually brought some beers with me though. You want one?

What do you reckon?

One won’t hurt.

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)