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.

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.

Extremely Dramatic Events

There’s a little frost on the highway this morning so they case along slowly, the older man setting the cruise control around thirty-five and leaning back into the seat. First light just about creeps over the ridge of the distant mountains. A gritting truck looms far ahead.

‘Late this morning.’

‘What’s that?’

Flannery juts his chin towards the truck. ‘Gritting truck. Late start don’t you think?’

The driver looks over his glasses. ‘Fairly.’

They put some more road hissing beneath them.

‘So, Chief. You er, you do anything at the weekend?’

A fox noses out from the edge of the fields, darts back when it sights them. The chief watches in the rearview as it crosses the highway behind them.

‘Saw my son Friday night. Had lasagne. Mostly worked other than that.’

‘Work eh? Downside to being Chief I guess.’

‘I guess.’ They can just about make out a dark figure in the cab of the gritting truck now. Looks to be the older Twain boy, back for the holidays.

‘We went to that new department store at Hoxton, me and Bren. It’s a big place, you been?’

‘Haven’t been yet. No.’

They draw level with the truck, driver waving from the cab. It’s the younger Twain, grown up some little bit though. The chief returns the greeting.

‘Oh you should go. They got just about everything I’ll say. Got myself a worlds sharpest knife.’

The chief glances over. ‘How’s that?’

‘How’s what Chief?’

‘You got yourself a knife?’

‘Oh right, yeah.’ Flannery nods. ‘Worlds sharpest knife, so they say. For the kitchen. TV set right there next to the display, showing what it’ll do. Had a woman cut up a pineapple no problem. Then a tin can.’

‘A tin can?’

‘Oh yeah. An empty one. Can’t say I’ll need to do that, but it underlines their point don’t you think?’

‘Well, I suppose it does.’

They pull off the Highway and enter the suburbs. Early risers scrape car windows or run their engines for a while before setting off. Here and there the streetlights blink and flicker out.

‘You got that address?’

‘Oh yeah.’ Flannery flips open his notebook. ‘It’s 225 Maple. Old couple, name of Harris.’

The chief nods. ‘I know the one.’

They drift past the building, pulling up further along where there’s a space and killing the engine.

‘It’ll go blunt though?’

‘What’s that Chief?’

‘I’m just saying, world’s sharpest or not, you cut up a tin can, your knife will go blunt.’

‘Well I suppose so Chief. I don’t intend to do any such thing though.’

‘No.’

‘No sir. Plain foolish that would be.’

‘Right. Shall we.’

The son answers the door, shows them through.

‘Mother went over to my aunt’s place after calling you folks,’ he explains. ‘Then she called me. In a bit of a state, you can imagine. He’s through here.’ They go through to the kitchen, where the old man lies stiff on the lino. Flannery kneels down, checks for a pulse just in case.

‘Got up for a glass of milk most likely,’ the son continues. ‘Mother said the fridge door was open when she found him.’

‘Was anything else moved?’

‘How do you mean?’

Flannery stands. ‘You say she closed the fridge door- was anything else on the scene disturbed?’

He shrugs. ‘Well I don’t suppose she stopped to make a casserole. But no point letting the fridge motor burn out right?’

The chief nods. ‘Fair enough. Flannery, impressions?’

‘It’s looking like natural causes Chief. Heart maybe, or a stroke.’ He looks to the son. ‘Real quick I would have thought.’

‘Oh yeah? Well, that’s something.’ They can hear the cooing of pigeons roosting in the chimney. ‘Well then, what’s next?’

‘The coroner will come by and take the body. Probably you’ll be his first stop when he gets in this morning.’ Flannery checks his watch. ‘That won’t be for another couple of hours though. Have you got somewhere else you can wait?’

‘Oh yeah. I’ll head on over to my aunt’s, let them know what’s going on.’

‘Well alright then.’

‘Ok.’

‘Well, we’re sorry for you loss. Be seeing you.’

They get back in the car, wait for an SUV to reverse slowly out of a driveway.

‘Not a good start to their week huh chief?’

‘Say again?’

‘I said, not a good start to the week, for Mrs Harris, or Mr Harris junior.’

‘Surely is not. Worse for the Harris senior though.’

‘Yep.’

‘Depending on your beliefs.’

‘Yep.’

They follow the SUV back to the highway. The sun’s full over the mountains now and starting to give a shape to the day. They cruise a little faster back over the fresh-gritted road making long-morning shadows in the tarmac.